Testing Meriwether Versions

Long time followers might know I experiment with different scenes to test characters. I will sometimes put them out of place — like putting a werewolf in a hair salon — or try different versions of the character.

Boundless is a new thing for me, with a whole new cast. The two main characters are Geneve, a Church Knight, and Meriwether, a fugitive from the Light’s justice. It’s okay, we love him anyway.

When constructing Meriwether, I wanted to find out whether he feels better as a strong hero, or a disempowered one. Behold, two versions of a what’s-next chapter*. The first is strong Meri, who can conjure illusions without breaking a sweat. The second is Meri the lesser, who has a … rougher time.

* These are first drafts, full of errors, inconsistencies, and other fuckery. Do not send me your errata. I know, okay?

Which one do you think I’m going with?

Strong Meriwether

As far as cages went, it wasn’t too bad. Meriwether sat on a bed, the mattress a little lumpy but free of lice. The room was clean, if a little damp, but that’s the downside of rooming in a basement. The walls were clean, clear of cobwebs, but also of other ornamentation like paintings. A painting would improve his outlook, not least of which because the various accoutrements for hanging could be used as tools for freedom.

He hadn’t known The Yellow Mug sported a cellar, complete with iron bars, but it made sense. Most places the long arm of the Church reached had similar setups. Meriwether’s plans hadn’t extended to checking out the Yellow Mug’s basement. He didn’t plan on being captured, and besides, the basement was said to be haunted.

That doesn’t seem likely, now, does it? Haunted basements were not the kind of thing that encouraged guests to extend their stay. All he’d seen on his way down here, hands bound in front, was a couple bottles of fine red going to waste. No ghouls, goblins, ghosts, spectres, or other such nonsense. The only thing less likely than seeing a ghost in an inn was being left alive after a Church Knight ran him to ground.

Meriwether’s plan was, shine her on, then run. It’d worked well, except she was canny, and didn’t shine well. He’d expected to meet the Three when she’d unslung that nasty-looking scattergun, but all she’d done was toss it at his feet, dropping him, and his pride, to the cobbles.

Convinced his light frame versus her armoured form would be an easy contest, he’d sprinted. Desperation his ally, he’d almost made it too. Then she’d run him down, like over the top like some kind of metal runaway cart, and hadn’t been convinced to let him go by his feeble attempts with a borrowed blade.

Which is why he was seated in a basement, awaiting extradition to locations unknown, to meet the Church’s justice. It was also why his face hurt, because she hit like a bull. What was as surprising as being in his basement alive was that punch. Rumour said the Church dragged you to justice, but if you gave ‘em enough lip, they’d drop you and worry about the divine retribution later.

Twice she’d had the option to drop him, and twice he remained breathing. He almost fancied she liked him, excepting the lack of introductions, swooning, and name exchanges.

Meriwethe heard a low, hollow sound, like someone blowing over a bottle’s mouth, if a bottle could be pained. “Hello?”

No response. He got to his feet, shuffling to the door of his cell. Navigation wasn’t too tricky, as they hadn’t shackled his feet. The chamber pot was obvious, the lighting as good as a single lantern with good oil could provide. Not smokey, and not flickering right up until this moment, where the caged flame inside the glass danced like a chained ember sprite. The cell door was heavy wood, barred — not locked, thrice curse it — from the outside. A small barred aperture sat at head height, above a slot food could be pushed through. Flat food, if he was a judge.

He saw nothing. No ghosts, spectres, goblins, sprites, or other tomfoolery. The lantern flame continued its crazed jig, but that was about it. What was that noise?

If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought it was the wail of a lost soul, but that was nonsense. He was the wizard here, and wizards knew there was no such thing as necromancy. If wizards couldn’t raise the dead, no one else could either.

Heavy boot steps drew his attention. He craned to see out the window. Steps led down to the cellar-slash-dungeon, and tramping down them was the massive form of the knight who’d put him in here. Might be the same one who’d chained his hands with unpleasant cold iron, but he’d been out for the duration. Could also be the one who’d dressed his injury, but again he’d been clocking Dreamtime for that.

The man was a monster, head grazing the low ceiling. His honey brown skin told of sunlands origin. His lack of smile told of his Church training. Meriwhether backed away from the door. These are not the people with whom you want to fuck. Church Knights were singular in purpose, and impossible to negotiate with. His chance at “justice” lay at journey’s end, or in escape, but the cell wasn’t providing the latter.

The scrape of wood marked the removal of the door bar, and it eased open on well-oiled, well-maintained hinges. The giant stepped inside, carrying a tray with food. It wasn’t flat; Meriwhether’s nose detected soup, something meaty in it, with butter and fresh bread. He wanted to laugh, or clap his hands, but both would be a bad idea under the circumstances. Best try for a polite greeting. “Hello.”

“No.” The giant shook his head, then put the tray on the bed. His eyes never left Meriwhether. He moves like a dancer. A big, really unhappy dancer. “Today’s not your day.”

“I was just—”

“You were,” the giant waved his hand at the open door, tantalisingly behind him, “going to get friendly. Try and earn my trust. Get me to loosen your cold iron chains, so you can get in my head.”

“I was going to introduce myself. I’m Meriwhether.”

The giant blinked. “Israel. Anyway, doesn’t matter. You’re not getting out of here,  except to get in the Judgment Cage, and then we head back to see the Justicar.”

Meriwhether nodded. Getting his name was surprisingly easy. “The Justicar’s said to be a real asshole.”

Israel nodded, refusing the offered laugh. “I’ll confirm that. No sense of humour, zero tolerance for the vile tricks of mages, and very thorough in his interrogation tricks. I don’t want you to get any mistaken hopes.”

“Very kind of you,” Meriwhether tasted the sourness of the words. He held up his chained arms. “Loosen these?”

The giant sighed. “Won’t do you any good. The Church,” he tapped the side of his head, “let us guard our thoughts. You won’t get inside my head.”

“Ah.” Meriwhether nodded, like that was his plan all along. “Did you know the cellar’s haunted?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Enjoy your dinner.” Israel backed away.

“Wait.” Meriwhether looks at his feet. “Why am I alive?”

That earned a silence long enough for his gaze to find its nervous way back up to Israel’s face. Still no humour, but a little pity, unless Meriwhether missed his guess. “Because she’s young. New at this. Believes in the cause, more than most. The Justicar said bring you back, and back you’ll go.” He backed from the room, pulling the door behind him.

“Hold up.” Meriwether stepped to the door, hands on the bars. He looked Israel in the eye. “What’s her name?”

“Two hers. The one who didn’t kill you was Geneve. The one who would have is Vertiline. Best remember the difference.” Then he was gone, the vaguest hint of sandalwood in his passing.

Meriwhether stared at his dinner, then sat on the bed to eat. No sense dying on an empty stomach. The food was good, hearty fare. Better than he’d had in a long time. As he chewed, tasting rich, salty butter on bread, he thought, Geneve is the woman you owe your life to.

* * *

Dinner wasn’t too bad.

Or was it lunch? It was hard to keep track of time, what with being knocked out, tied up, and taken to a windowless cellar. His stomach thought it more likely to be lunch, but infrequent meals made it a liar more often than not.

Only one thing for it. Time to get out of here.

The Church tied him up with cold iron. It was smart thinking, because it made wizarding harder. He could see their rationale. He didn’t manage to escape the lord’s dungeons until much time passed. Can’t be a powerful wizard. Tie him up, leave him downstairs, and if he tries to run, we’ll knock his teeth out. They didn’t even have to explain it to him. He knew the dance.

They weren’t complete imbeciles either, because even if he could unlock his manacles, there was a stout wooden door, barred from the outside, between him and freedom.

A rumble from the back wall made Meriwether turn. The cell’s wall slide back on groaning stone runners, a black maw waiting for him. He looked at the barred door, then the opening into Three-knows-where.

Well, at least it’s not another cell. Probably. “Hello?” A low moan came from the darkness. “I know there’s no ghosts in here. That’s crazy. So, whatever’s making that noise, I know you have a logical explanation.”

The moan settled to silence. He didn’t know if that was better or worse, but the path into darkness would provide him choices. He could choose to die at the hands of the Church, or eaten by the undead.

Maybe they’ve got a better sense of humour. Undead it is.

He needed to get rid of his shackles. The problem with Church thinking was assuming he was just like every other wizard. He spared a longing glance for his empty bowl, then stood. The shackles on his wrists weighed like stolen gold, reminding him of his sins under the Three. Closing his eyes, he looked inside the metal, finding the complex mechanism within. He touched it with his mind, tickling the lock. It giggled, popping open, and his manacles clattered to the stone floor.

Meriwhether gave a happy sigh, rubbed his wrists, and ‘borrowed’ the lantern. He stepped into the dark, which obligingly retreated from the flickering flame. He examined the doorway from the other side. It had no obvious mechanism. No levers showed how he might open it. The floor was lined with the delicate bones of mice, a lot of dust, and an unhealthy volume of cobwebs. He raised his lantern, heading away from his cell.

The passage led in a straight-enough line under the town of Calterburry. He couldn’t hear a thing from above. He imagined streets and houses sitting pretty right over his head, but not a sound made it down here. He picked up his pace, avoiding as many cobwebs as he could, but was sure he’d look like a horror candy floss when he found daylight again.

If. If you find daylight.

He heard noise from ahead, not the low moan of before, but a chanting. Slowing, he placed his tired feet with care. Meriwhether put his lantern on the ground, because he was certain there was a ruddy light coming from ahead. Chanting, red light — want to bet it’s a demon altar?

Slowing his pace, he exited the passage into a small chamber. The opposite wall of the chamber held a passage entrance — or exit — like the one he’d used. He could imagine, travelling down that way, he might eventually hit Calterburry Keep, and beyond that, freedom. The left and right walls held other openings into the dark, but he wasn’t concerned about them.

What worried him where the ten hooded figures within the chamber. They wore black robes with white masks, gaping eye and mouth holes giving nothing away. It’s as if they held darkness itself. It was a clever trick, and Meriwhether appreciated the gesture. He knew illusions, and this was a pretty one. Ten hidden people. The chanting stopped, and all ten turned their bone-pale masks toward him. They were clustered around a stained block of stone he tried not to think of as an altar, because just once, he didn’t want to be right about something like this. A brazier blazed at the head of the altar, a collection of cutting and stabbing implements buried in the flames, some glowing a cheery red.  Think fast.

“Hello,” he offered. “I was looking for the privy. I seem to have taken a wrong turn.”

Two figures close to him swished their robes back, revealing a hint of chain armor as they drew steel. Broadswords, of a type Meriwhether’d seen before. They are Keep guards. They strode toward him. Meriwether thought of his nice, quiet cell back in the Yellow Mug, wishing he’d chosen differently, then dug deep for a seeming.

Getting free last time cost him dearly. He didn’t have much left, but all he needed was a tiny scrap of illusion. He found the recipe he was after, the gibbering visage of a ghoul he’d run from, screaming in terror, three weeks past. It looked like everyone’s worst nightmare of their future mother-in-law, with long, stringy hair, a gap-toothed snarl, and ropes of drool coming from its maw. Long, thin arms with ropey muscle, ending in fingers tipped with necrotic-looking claws completed the look.

Whipping it out to stand in front of them wouldn’t work. He cast the seeming behind, making the illusion lurch from the passage as if in pursuit of him. He gave a faux scream, making to run from it.

One of the Keep guards strong armed him to the cavern floor. They ignored the seeming, and as Meriwhether’s head hit stone, the ghoul flickered and vanished like dawn mist. The guard loomed over him, their black-eyed mask unforgiving. “It looks like we got the right one.” The voice was male, but not gruff. Almost apologetic, like he’d knocked Meriwether down by accident. The guard offered Meriwhether a mailed hand. He took it, coming to his feet.

“Perfect,” purred another figure. Also male, but with a voice like the best parts of sin. “Bring him here.”

I know that voice. Meriwther’s whole shtick was seeming. What things looked and sounded like. He’d studied voices and the people that carried them his whole, albeit short, life. That’s Lord Symonet, ruler of Calterburry, and I’m deeply, deeply fucked.

The guards dragged Meriwether to the altar. It didn’t matter how much he struggled. His captors were big, well-fed, and used to strong-arming the little people. He was desperate, ragged, and malnourished. They forced him onto the stone surface, lashing him down with bonds of thick leather.

Lord Symonet, face hidden behind his bone mask, leaned in close. “Now. Let’s see if we can release that delicious power of yours, shall we?”

Meriwether the Lesser

That’s the first and last time you’ll underestimate a Knight. Consciousness returned to Meriwether like a forbidden tryst in the night — quickly, and with a lot of sweating and groaning. Light harsh as the forge of dawn itself blazed. He squinted, holding a hand out to shade his eyes, then cried out at the pain in his side.

The gift from Symonet’s lackies. Meriwether took a calming breath, then another as nausea leered at him. His fingers found his shirt, and tentatively made for the sword gash they’d gifted him with. Trembling and slow, he expected the harsh brand of rent flesh, but instead he found the brush of cotton.

You’re not going to learn anything mewling like a babe in a bassinet. Strength, man. He lay on a bed, firm but not unkind. Another opening of his eyes showed the brilliant flare of earlier was the meager glow of a lantern. Meriwether was in a small room with stone-lined walls. The lantern, now his friend, sat atop a small wooden table. The table wouldn’t fetch a high price at market, lacking adornment or varnish, but was well-made. Check the door.

He swung his feet over the side of the bed, and let out a small whimper. His side injury felt worse than he remembered. He’d danced aside from the thrust of a blade, catching the edge in passing. A clean cut, nothing vital severed, but he felt like Khiton’s own sword was lodged under his ribs.

Khiton’s a long way off, but his Knights are here. Check the damn door. Meriwether grunted himself upright, staggering to the room’s only exit. Sturdy, and without an obvious keyhole. He tested the handle, fingers resting on cool brass. It turned easy enough, but the door didn’t budge. Barred from the outside, no doubt; Knights weren’t known for being idiots or taking chances.

Now his face was close to the timber, he caught the sound of footsteps. The tread was measured and even. Creaking wood belied the weight of the man coming toward him. Meriwether stepped away from the door, hurrying to lay back on the bed, and closed his eyes.

He heard a rattle and clunk of wood, then the door creaked open. Heavy Footsteps entered. “If you’re thinking to try something clever, don’t.” The voice was heavy, like a sack of gravel, but not unkind.

Meriwether risked winking an eye open. Before him stood a titan of a man. Tawny skin. Pale blue eyes, hard as winter’s ice. He wore faded clothes, but well cared for. A loose shirt did nothing to hide the musculature of his chest and arms. Mercy. His biceps are larger than my neck. And he moves like a dancer. A big, really unhappy dancer. No armor, but Meriwether knew the stink of Church Knights whatever they wore. No sash either, so impossible to tell this one’s rank. The titan held a bowl, steam rising from the top. Meriwether’s stomach gave a traitorous growl. “Is that for me?”

“Depends. You going to start something you can’t finish?”

“Do I get the food if I do, or—”

“She should have killed you. I wouldn’t have said a word.” The titan put the bowl on the small table. The man didn’t turn his back, always keeping Meriwether in sight.

He remembered a young woman, hair red like the blaze of a furnace, chasing him through streets of uncaring people. She was young. Should have been easy enough to fool, but she had your number. “Maybe. Do I deserve it?”

The titan pursed his lips. “That’s a problem for a Justiciar.”

“So, you don’t know?”

“I don’t care.” The titan leaned on the word. “Before you start, there are three things you need to know.”

“Start what?” Meriwether eyed the bowl. Steam continued its lazy rise, and with it the smell of stewed mutton assailed him. He hadn’t eaten a meal in three days, and even then it was stolen bread hard as brick, and cheese the mice wouldn’t take.

“Your escape plan. I’m Israel, Knight Valiant of the Church.”

“That’s the first thing?”

“It is.” Israel seemed to consider Meriwether, the grim facade of his face easing a hair’s breadth to allow a smile. “You can’t plead your case with me. There’s no gold that’ll buy me, and no cause that will bend my will.”

Meriwether rubbed his face. “And that’s—”

“Number two, right.” A stern nod. “You catch on fast. Third thing is, no harm will come to you while you’re in our care. Until we bring you to the Justiciar, you’re our guest. Unless.”

Meriwether thought about waiting him out, but he wanted the bowl of food more. “Unless what?”

“Unless you try to run. Then,” Israel backed from the room, “we’ll hit you until you stop moving, and try again.”

“The Justiciar’s said to be a real asshole.”

“Which one?” Israel frowned at his own question, refusing the offered laugh. “No, you’re right. They all are.”

“Ah.” Meriwether nodded, like they were old friends comparing notes. “Did you know the cellar’s haunted?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Enjoy your dinner.” Israel backed away.

“Wait.” Meriwether looked at his feet. “Why am I alive?”

That earned a silence long enough for his gaze to find its nervous way back up to Israel’s face. Still no humor, but a little pity, unless Meriwether missed his guess. “Because she’s young. New at this. Believes in the cause, more than most. The Justiciar said bring you back, and back you’ll go.” He backed from the room, pulling the door behind him.

“Hold up.” Meriwether stepped to the door, risking a glare and all that might follow. He looked Israel in the eye. “What’s her name?”

“The one who didn’t kill you was Geneve. The one who would have is Vertiline. Best remember the difference.” The door slammed closed, the rumble of the bar dropping to lock Meriwether inside. Israel left the vaguest hint of sandalwood, insufficient to overpower the mutton stew.

Make the best of it. Meriwether descended like a ravenous army on dinner. If it wasn’t the inevitable death at the end of his journey, he could get attached to being a prisoner of the Church.

* * *

It felt like one, maybe two minutes passed since Meriwether dimmed the lantern and put his head on the pillow to sleep. By all measures it was a good pillow, because he woke with a start to a pitch-black room and a hand over his mouth.

“Quiet,” hissed the hand’s owner. Meriwether couldn’t make out anything but the smell of leather — gloved hand — and the urgency of the request. He tried for a nod, and found the motion easy enough. The hand eased up. “We’re here to get you out. Stay silent, and you might live to see tomorrow.”

That sounds like an excellent deal. Meriwether sat up. There was the scratch and scrape of metal, followed by the red bloom of flame. A figure by the door held a hooded lantern, allowing a tiny aperture of ruddy light to escape into the room. The dim illumination showed Meriwether’s lantern, now out, and the person who woke him. Where the figure by the door was bulky, this one was slender. They wore leather armor, and covered their heads with hoods. Both had cloth masks covering the lower parts of their faces, lending them a sinister appearance.

If you were busting a man from the Church’s “justice” you’d want to look sinister, too. Meriwether got to his feet, biting back a cry at his still-healing injury. The bulky figure at the door left, leading the way, the small puddle of light vanishing with him.

He wondered how he was supposed to follow until the slender one grabbed his arm, hauling him along. This wasn’t the gentle, easy pull of a lover leading Meriwether to a tumble in the hay. The gloved hand on his arm felt like it was made of iron, urgency in every movement. He followed, mostly because he had no choice, but also because being put in the Church’s cage and taken to some asshole Justiciar wasn’t on his things-to-do list. His shoulder banged on the doorframe on the way out, wrenching his injury, and he stifled a cry.

The dim lantern light led the way up wooden stairs. There wasn’t enough light to make out many details, but he smelled the faint hint of old wine, onions, and burlap. The walls here were stone like his cell. Am I in a cellar? Did they imprison me in a haunted basement? It didn’t feel like a good place to be, and he picked up the pace.

A creak from ahead, followed by a sliver of light. A doorway, leading to a dimly-lit room. The bulky figure doused their lantern, then opened the door wider. Meriwether and his guard followed. They entered the common room of a bar. He’d never been here, but all inns shared the same folksy charm. A collection of drunks littered the space. A fire slumbered on its bed of coals above a wide hearth. No one stirred.

The three shuffled through the space, toward a side door. Cool wind nipped at Meriwether’s face. The door was held ajar by a small sliver of wood. The bulky figure paused at the doorway, head cocked as if listening, then eased the door open into the quiet night beyond.

Outside, stillness gathered like the world held its breath. The sky was lit with a thousand tiny stars. The twin Sisters beamed their pale faces on the courtyard. The moons held vigil, as if the heavens wanted Meriwether’s freedom.

The thin figure held a hand up, fist closed. Meriwether got the idea — don’t move. He held still, breathing as quietly as possible despite the hammering of his heart. A nod from the bulky figure, and they set off, hugging the courtyard’s tall stone walls. The gate at the end lay open, as if a careless stablehand forgot to shut it.

Beside the gate, a stableboy lay beside a dead lantern. He was stretched face-first on the cold stone cobbles, a small pool of something dark seeping from beneath him. Did the heavens want your freedom enough that this boy had to die? Meriwether wanted to stop, to pull away, but behind him lay Church Knights, and their gross parody of justice.

They passed through the gate, Meriwether turning his face from the still form of the stableboy. Outside, the street was quiet and empty. A hanging sign out the front of the inn proclaimed it the Yellow Mug. A stylized mug was painted on it for the inbreds too dense to read. It was probably yellow, but it was too dark to say.

Two horses waited in the street. Meriwether figured them for their getaway, except for the small detail of Israel. The Valiant stood by the horses, feet wide, with one of the Knight’s glass blades in his hand. The sword was massive, the tip resting against the ground. The weapon was almost invisible in the night, glinting its resentment at Meriwether. “Hold. By Church law, hold!”

The two hooded figures shared a quick glance. They can’t mean to fight a Knight. That’s suicide. The grip on Meriwether’s arm tightened, and his rescuer broke into a run. He stumbled to follow.

Behind him, the night turned brighter than the day. The hiss of a bottled dragon broke the air, incandescent fury blazing behind them. Meriwether was blinded by the brilliance, but followed as best he could. He tripped, knocked into something hard, and was pulled along by his savior, the hand on his arm tighter than ever. He thought he felt resentment in that grip. They know the man behind us will die. He’s tossed his life against the glass blade of the Knight, and there’s only one end to that.

He was yanked off-balance, their direction changing. Meriwether’s sight was coming back, but he was night-blind. Vague shapes rose from the dark, resolving into walls, wagons, or barrels as they ran.

Shoring up in a narrow doorway, they caught their breath. His rescuer looked behind for chase. “Minkin’s good. He’ll be all right.” A woman’s voice, easy to make out now she wasn’t whispering. From behind them came a high-pitched chime.

“I’m Meriwether.”

“I don’t care. Not paid to swap names.”

“I just … thank you.” Meriwether put his hand on hers, where it clenched his arm. “I was a dead man.”

Her eyes softened a degree. “Ritva.” The night behind them still burned with the fierceness of the sun. Ritva squinted. “Minkin knows to get clear. The dragon’s bottle doesn’t last long.”

Dragon’s bottle’s the blinding tool of assassins and thieves. Who’s interest have I attracted? Who’d be fool enough to challenge the Church?

The flare from the dragon’s bottle dimmed, the night returning like it knew the way. Another chime from behind them, then a scream, dulled by distance. Ritva’s eyes hardened. “Come on.”

Meriwether fell in behind her. They both knew Minkin was gone. Dead, cut down by Israel. He’d tested his blade against a Church Knight, and that was the kind of thing only the criminally insane did.

They found an alley, heading down between two old, tall buildings. The sky above was a sliver of stars. The Sisters were hidden from view, darkness shrouding all. Rounding a corner, Meriwether spied lamplight ahead. Ritva led him to a street, a lone street lamp holding vigil until the dawn.

Beneath the lantern stood a woman. Lean and hard, skin pale like the dead. Her long hair hung in a braid down her back, and she carried a glass blade. The lamp flickered, the glass blade capturing the yellow light, tossing it back to lay at Meriwether’s feet. It was a shorter blade than Israel’s, a broadsword, light and nimble. The woman wore full armor. The black sash and five gold bars of a Chevalier marked her breastplate. A shield hung on her left arm, the golden sun of the Church hard and unforgiving in the night.

What had Israel said? The one who didn’t kill you was Geneve. The one who would have is Vertiline. Best remember the difference. Ritva stiffened, her body rigid like lightning hit her. She produced twin blades, plain steel. No good against Church glass, but the woman crouched like she was born for this fight. “Run.”

“I … sure, no problem.” Meriwether caught a hint of surprise, as if Ritva expected him to say, no, I’ll stay and die with you. But he had no weapon, and if he did, he’d no idea how to use one other than, put the sharp bit toward the enemy.

Meriwether broke and ran. His boots slapped against the cobbles. His heart felt like it might break free. He wanted to stop, and the pain in his side dragged his steps, slowing him. He spared a glance behind him, and wished he hadn’t.

Ritva circled Vertiline. The Knight followed the motion, her shield up, glass blade low. Ritva lunged, her twin blades going high and low. An impossible attack to block. Vertiline moved like flowing water, armor be damned. Ritva’s attach, for all it was fast, precise, the lunge of a killer, looked like the clumsy lurching of a newborn babe compared to the Knight. Meriwether’s rescuer cut nothing but air.

Vertiline swung her blade horizontally. The cut looked perfect enough to cut air. Her glass sword glinted, warm yellow light walking the length of the blade. A trick of the light? Reflection from the street lamp? Whatever it was, Ritva took two more steps, then her head toppled free of her shoulders to bounce on the cobbles.

The Knight pointed her blade at Meriwether. “Hold, sinner.”

Fuck all that shit. Meriwether forgot the pain in his side, running as if his life depended on it. He prayed that a fully-armored Knight would be slower than him. Then he cursed himself for praying, because the Three wouldn’t listen to the likes of him.

Ahead he caught the sound of hooves on stone. Horses came toward him at pace. He kept running, because he’d rather face a legion of horses than the Knight behind him. He rounded a bend, spying Calterburry’s keep hulking in the dark. It sat above the river, a massive bridge at its feet. Crossing the bridge were men bearing the Queen’s pennant.

Decisions like this shape a man. Run toward Symonet’s lacks, or face the glass blade? It wasn’t a contest. He kept running, arms pumping, feet slipping a little on the cold stone. As he approached the mounted troops, he wondered if he could escape to their left, near the water’s edge. A leap, and he’d be in freezing water. It sounded heavenly, because Knights in armor didn’t float. He might catch his death in the river, but he liked those odds better than what waited behind him.

He jinked, and almost tasted freedom before the butt of a pole arm collected him in the gut. Meriwether crumbled to the ground, fingers outstretched toward the low brick wall beside the river. Rough hands found his shoulders, hauling him upright.

The mounted officer who’d been too free with his pole arm spared a glance from where Meriwether came from. What he saw made him pale some. To the soldier holding Meriwether, he said, “Go. Take him to the Keep. Be quick about it.”

Meriwether found his hands yanked behind him, rough cord binding his wrists as he was frogmarched along. Wait, what? Take me to the Keep? Isn’t Symonet supposed to give me to the Church?

Vertiline’s voice broke over his confusion. “By Church law, stand down!”

The whack-thrum of crossbows followed. Meriwether tried for a glance behind him. The confusion of horses and soldiers obscured his view, but from Vertiline’s position, golden light gleamed.

What are these Knights? How can they take a fusillade of crossbow bolts?

His guards hustled him over the bridge. The yawning maw of the keep’s main gate awaited. Tall and strong, it was made from massive wooden slabs, reinforced with good steel. The scream of a dying man caught up with him as his escort dragged him into the keep’s courtyard. Fires burned in sconces. Guards hurried to shut the door behind them. Troops hurried about, their chain armor jingling. He counted fifty before giving up.

I’m not sure fifty’s enough for three Church Knights. Vertiline’s out there threshing men and women like wheat. She’s on foot, against mounted soldiers.

His escort dragged him toward the Keep’s entrance. These doors were smooth and polished wood, open wide. Waiting inside was a man, not particularly thin, or particularly handsome. He wore a smile like laborers wore body odor, rank and sour. Bald, with green eyes that missed nothing. “Excellent.”

“Hi,” Meriwether said. “I—”

He sagged as a soldier gut-punched him, in about the same spot as the pole arm’s butt hit him earlier. He whimpered, sagging. The green-eyed man kept up his putrescent smile. “Meriwether, I’ve waited so very long for someone like you.”

“Handsome?” Meriwether wheezed.

“Gifted,” the man corrected. “I’m Lord Symonet. We have so much to discuss.” Symonet gestured to the guards. “Bring him.”

As Meriwether was dragged into the keep, he remembered something else Israel said to him. Not the words about Vertiline or Geneve. A curious turn of phrase. No harm will come to you while you’re in our care.

Meriwether struggled as he was dragged away. He knew what they wanted from him now, and the Church’s justice seemed the easier death by far.

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