“Aye, my lord Abbot, the pulse is weak but there is still the spark of life in him.”
“More than a spark, I think,” the Abbot said. He looked down at the man upon the narrow cot, at the slim yet muscular frame, the dark hair and hawkish features. The chest and arms were marked with numerous wounds – most of them recent, but not all, the older injuries revealing themselves as puckered scar tissue.
A strong man, without doubt, strong enough to survive his wounds and resolute enough to defy the ocean itself.
The brothers had found him that morning, floating in the water just beyond Skull Point, as they checked their traps for crab and lobster. Corpses were not uncommon at this time of year - raiders from the Lochlan Isles would harry the coast until the first snows came - and at first they had thought him a drowned corsair. But his dark hair and the weapon he carried, an axe of ironwood and steel on a harness at his back, marked him otherwise.
A decent burial then, rather than a shallow pit and a hasty prayer, but his eyes had opened for a moment as they dragged him onto the skiff and so they had brought him to the monastery and the care of Brother Edric.
“He will live then?” the Abbot asked.
“If Erattis sees fit, yes.”
The Abbot nodded. “The will of Erattis and the skill of Edric - a powerful combination.”
“I am merely a vessel,” the monk said. “The goddess guides my hand.”
“Your humility becomes you, Brother,” the Abbot said. He turned from the cot and its sleeping occupant. “Inform me when he wakes.”
“Of course, my lord.”
He dreamed of darkness and of blood, of things that would have cracked the mind of an ordinary man – of a great monolith risen from the ocean depths and the women he had tried – and failed – to save from the clutches of its insidious deity.
And in his dreams he saw himself hacking though a legion of enemies – soft, weak things that tore apart easily under the blows of his axe – felt their swords and spears slice his flesh. Saw, too, the dark tower slide back beneath the waves as he rowed away, covered in the gore and offal of those he had slain.
It had almost taken him under with it, down into the starless depths, but he had matched the last of his strength against it and won. But the sea, stronger even than the gods it concealed, showed him no pity.
Storm-wracked and directionless, he remained at the mercy of the waves for days until the fragile little boat struck a submerged barrier of rock. The ocean rose up, gleefully, to meet him. And then –
He awoke to the tolling of a bell.
Weak sunlight entered the room through a small window high on the bare stone wall.
Pain tugged at him as he rose, although his wounds had been expertly stitched and any risk of infection washed out of them by salt water.
The sea can be generous in her own way.
How long had he slept?
Days, at the very least, for he felt vigour returning to his limbs and clarity to his mind.
No sign of clothing, other than a rough brown robe at the foot of the bed, but his axe, still in its harness, hung from a peg on the wall and a bowl of oat porridge had been placed on a small stool.
He checked the weapon first; the steel unmarked, its edge keen, the spikes on its head and rear clean and deadly. He dressed, then ate the cold, unsalted porridge, licking the bowl clean.
Eat when you can eat, sleep when you can sleep, for you never know when you'll eat or sleep again. A warrior's maxim, and one that had served him well.
Was there danger here? Unlikely, or at least unlikely for now, enemies rarely allow captives to keep their weapons, and the room, rude though it was, was not a prison cell, the door opening smoothly on leather hinges.
He stepped outside, into a cool stone corridor.
A young man with a besom swept the floor, he wore a rough brown robe and his hair had been tonsured. He looked up as the door opened, startlement on his face.
“Brother Edric!” he called. “Brother Edric! He is awake!”
“Do you have a name, friend?” the Abbot asked.
The Abbot nodded. “It will do for now.” He pursed his lips together, ruminating on the words. “I will not ask where you have been or where your destination might lie,” he said. “Such information is yours to offer as and when you wish.”
“Thank you,” Tomas said.
“You are, of course, welcome to stay until your strength is fully recovered.”
“Thank you,” Tomas said again. “But I cannot repay your kindness – at least not at the moment. The sea took what few coins I had.”
“We require no payment,” the Abbot said. “Only your assistance, if you are willing to give it. There are chores to be done... wood to be chopped, for instance, if you feel up to the task.”
“It has been a while since I last chopped wood.”
“Yet you carry a fine axe.”
You are a clever one, my lord Abbot, for all your grey hair and gentle smile.
“I was a soldier,” Tomas said.
“I fought in the North.”
For the first time the Abbot's smile faltered. “You are a follower of Vaulth?” he said.
Tomas shook his head.
“No longer, I am done with such things.”
“There are those gods in whose name terrible deeds are done,” the Abbot said. “But Erattis is not one of them.”
“Erattis,” he did not know the name. But then the world is full of gods, great and small, one man cannot hope to know all their names.
“You owe your life to her,” the Abbot said, but the way he said it did not make it sound like a debt. “And to the healing hands of Brother Edric.”
“I am grateful to them both.”
“The goddess you can thank at any time,” the Abbot said. “Brother Edric you may thank after supper.”
Edric did not look much like a healer. He stood a good six feet or more in his sandalled feet and had the build of a prize-fighter. A prize-fighter's crooked nose, too, broken and badly set some time ago. An old man, though he carried his years lightly.
“You were lucky, friend Tomas,” he said. “Usually we throw the ugly fish back into the ocean.”
“I doubt the sea gods would have thanked you for that.”
“You may be right.”
They sat in the fragrant surrounding of Edric's herb garden and watched the sun set over distant cliffs. The monk had produced a flagon of wine after supper – more oat porridge, this time mixed with a little honey – and had encouraged Tomas to drink claiming that it was 'good for the blood'.
“Good for yours and good for mine, too,” Edric said, pouring himself another bowlful. “Is it to your taste?”
“I've had worse.”
“Better too, I suppose.”
The monk laughed, a big hearty guffaw that seemed strange coming from a holy man, yet it suited him. “Damn me, but you're a tight-lipped one. What, does it cost you a silver wheel every time you speak?”
“I thanked you for you help, what more do you want?”
“Gratitude is more than just words, my friend. Still, I suppose you have your secrets – we all do.”
“I am – I was – a wicked man, Edric, perhaps you should have thrown me back into the sea.”
“Oh, I'll admit that you look wicked – you looked downright demonic when Brother Armin and Brother Derand brought you to me – but a truly evil man would never admit it, even in jest.”
“I rarely jest, Edric.”
“No,” Edric said, taking a gulp from his bowl. “I don't believe you do.”
They sat in silence for a while, drinking the dark, sour wine and allowing the night to creep over them.
Then Tomas said:
“What are you doing here, Edric? You're no more a man of prayer than I am.”
“Never judge a man by what you think you know,” Edric said. “But, aye, you're right – up to a point. I was a soldier, many years ago. I served with the Corps Vermilion.”
The Vermilion – Vaulth's tits, I'm in the presence of history.
“And if I can know peace,” Edric continued, “so can you.”
Tomas turned sharply to look at him.
“Don't get your harness twisted, boy, you're not the only one who can make a judgement. I saw it in you from the first, so did my lord Abbot. What are you.... a baresark?”
Tomas shook his head.
“I took the Black Vow.”
Edric swore, an obscene soldier's oath, made all the worse by the tranquillity of their surroundings.
“Still think I can find peace, brother?”
The monk did not reply for a long time.
“Anything is possible,” he said at last.
But the words had more hope than truth in them.
And for a while he did know peace, or at least something akin to it.
No mention was made of the Black Vow, although Edric must have told his brethren about it, nor did their kindly attitude towards him change in any way.
In the mornings and evenings he joined the Brothers in their devotions, although he never prayed to their goddess – hypocrisy had never been one of his failings – instead using the chants and beatitudes as a form of meditation.
Between times he helped Edric in his garden, toiled with the Brothers as they planted crops and – as the Abbot had first suggested – chopped firewood and trees in the nearby groves, feeling his strength return with each day that passed. He even became accustomed to the rough monk's vestments, his own clothing having been reduced to tatters and rags by the sea.
But the absence of war is not the same thing as peace.
His nights were troubled; with memories and dreams, with fragments of a past that refused to release its grip upon him...
A spear in his chest. Blood in his mouth and throat. The harsh whistle of air from a pierced lung.
Berick, the Battle-Mage, was by his side, grinning down at him.
“Hurts, doesn't it, boy?”
He tried to speak through the blood and the pain and the suffocation, but only a bloody bubble emerged from his lips.
“It doesn't have to be this way,” Berick said. He spoke the words conversationally, as though they sat by a fireside rather than in the middle of a maelstrom of steel and death. “The Black Vow can save you, if you take it.”
He shook his head, the small movement sending waves of pain and nausea through him.
“Don't be a fool, boy,” Berick said. “You're a good fighter – just unlucky today, is all – and Prince Albrect needs good fighters. The Vow will heal you, make you faster and stronger. Just say yes.”
He could feel ice in his bones, see the steam of his own blood as it pumped from his chest and into the frigid air as the life drained out of him.
And he was afraid – afraid of death, afraid of the Vow and what acceptance might mean...
But dying hurt so much....
“Will you take the Vow, Tomas? Will you?”
“Yes,” he said, the word a scarlet whisper. “Yes.”
The steady, rhythmic whack of steel against wood, the feel of an axe in his hands, a cool breeze from the sea against his skin.
It's good to be alive. And the fact that he could even think that shocked him a little, brought an unaccustomed smile to his lips.
He had been in the grove since dawn, hacking and splitting, hauling logs down to the monastery gate, only stopping at noon to eat some bread and cheese and drink a little wine.
Another hour, maybe two, and I'll go to Edric, see if the old warhorse needs me today.
The sound of hoofbeats stopped the axe in mid-swing. He turned to the source and his smile faded.
Two men on small horses, coming up the narrow path towards him. Both wore dull cloaks and leather armour. He could see the pommels of their swords, jutting from beneath the cloaks.
Not Lochlanites. Too dark-haired for that, and they rode easily, unhurried, like two men out for a pleasant canter.
Or two men with nothing to fear, confident to the point of arrogance.
“Good day to you,” the first said.
“Good day.” He let the axe fall to his side, but kept his hand upon its haft.
The rider saw his robes folded on a tree stump and said. “Are you from the monastery?” He nodded to the grey stone walls, half a mile distant, just visible through the trees.
“Aye. Have you business there?”
“Business with the Abbot, not with you,” the second rider said.
“Manners, Dar. I'm sure our new friend here can deliver a message for us.” He leaned forward in his saddle. “Do you have a name, brother?” The tone both mocking and threatening at the same time.
“Now, brother Tomas, tell your Lord Abbot that Duke Uzlin wants the book – the Tenebris – he won't ask twice and he'll kill any bastard that stands in his way. Do you think you can remember that?”
“Yes,” Tomas said. He shifted his grip slightly on the axe. The wood felt warm beneath his hand, he was aware of dappled light as it played over the sap-stained blade.
“He's a clever one, Elias.” Dar said.
“That he is, Dar, but perhaps we'd better carve it on his arse in case he forgets.”
“Just to let my lord Abbot know that the Duke means what he says.”
They swung down from their saddles. Tomas let them.
Elias drew a dagger and took two steps forward....
...Tomas split his head open, the blade of the axe cutting down as far as the bridge of the man's nose, the cracking of his skull loud in the small grove.
Dar had time enough to curse while Tomas wrenched the axe free. Time enough to turn and run when he saw the killing look in Tomas' eyes.
“Do you have a name, friend?” the Abbot had asked.
No, not only that. Never only that.
He killed the second man as easily as the first, half-severing his head with a savage sweep of the axe.
Tomas felt blood on his cheek, in his beard, running across his bare chest, and he wiped it away with something akin to disgust, but at the same time relishing the warmth of it, the coppery smell that filled his nostrils and senses.
Black Tomas they had called him in the North. Black for the colour of his hair. For the colour of eyes when the rage was upon him. Black for the colour of his soul. And for the Vow he had made.
He shook the blood from his axe, the rage in him already beginning to fade, sated for the moment.
A sound in the trees, the sharp note of a bowstring, and a crossbow bolt lodged itself in the ground near his feet.
More of them!
He ran forward, crouching low, and broke into a small clearing in time to see a third rider galloping away. An oath escaped from his lips – there was no hope of catching the fleeing man, not on foot. He turned and jogged back to the monastery.
“Duke Uzlin's men?” the Abbot asked.
“So they said.”
“I thought we were protected from them,” Edric said.
“As did I,” the Abbot said. “But the wards must have failed, or been breeched.”
“I understand nothing of this,” Tomas said. “Who were those men? What does their master want from you?”
It took a moment for the Abbot to answer. He glanced across at Brother Edric, who nodded, just once.
“In our possession we have certain books from the Elder Days,” the Abbot said. “Harmless and beautiful things for the most part. Our order is dedicated to their preservation and translation, to bringing what little light we can into dark times.”
“'For the most part'?” Tomas said, “What do you mean by that?” They sat in the cool of the Abbot's chambers, talking in low tones despite their privacy.
Another glance across at Edric. Another tacit agreement.
The Abbot rose from his chair.
“Come with me,” he said.
They moved through quiet corridors and down narrow steps into the vaults beneath the monastery. Here, a score or more of the brothers sat with parchment, ink and quill, lovingly copying and illuminating from old books and manuscripts. The lights here were dim, pale yellow, the only sound the scritch, scritch, scritch of nib on vellum.
At their approach, the senior copyist – an elderly stoop-back with watery grey eyes – rose and came to meet them.
“My Lord Abbot,” he said. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“I wish to see the Liber Tenebris, brother Ansel,” the Abbot said.
The old man, already sallow from lack of sunlight, paled visibly.
“Are you sure, my lord?”
“Quite sure, brother,” the Abbot's tone brooked no argument.
Ansel reached into his robe and produced an iron key from around his neck, he motioned them to follow and went to a small but stout door close to one of the copyists' alcoves.
What nature of a book needs to be kept under lock and key?And the name – the Liber Tenebris – it speaks of ominous things.
They entered the room, Brother Ansel handed Edric a tallow candle and then stepped outside again, locking the door behind them.
Other than a single lectern with a large leather-bound volume upon it, the room was empty. The candle-flame guttered even in the stale silence.
“The Liber Tenebris,” the Abbot said. “Sometimes called the Book of Dark Days – a history of the Elder Times, before mankind rose from the mire.”
“Aye,” Edric said. “That and more than that. A grimoire of terrible power if a man could read the words it contains.”
“A man such as Duke Uzlin?” Tomas said. He took a step towards the lectern and placed his hand upon the cover of the book. It crackled beneath his palm and the binding seemed to shift, like a cat unwilling to be stroked.
“A dabbler in the black arts,” the Abbot said, “but a danger for all that. He would slaughter us all without a second thought to possess the Tenebris.”
Tomas made to open the book, flicking the silver clasps that held it closed.
“Please,” Edric said. “I do not think that is wise.”
“Can a mere book hold so much peril?”
“To the wrong eyes, and in the wrong hands, yes – men have been driven to madness by the things that the Tenebris contains, so long as they can read its passages.”
Tomas took his hand away, his skin felt contaminated even after such a brief contact.
“Then why keep it?” he said. “Surely a fire is the best place for such a thing.”
“The flames would refuse it,” the Abbot said. “And for all its evil the Liber Tenebris is a thing of great value – an insight into the greatness and terror of the Elder Times.”
“And this petty sorcerer – this Duke Uzlin – he would have the book for his own?”
“He has tried before, until we hid ourselves from him with bright little magics. But those have failed us, or so it would seem.”
“Then conjure more.”
The Abbot passed a shaking hand across his forehead, sweating despite the coldness of the room. “Such things take time,” he said. “Time which I fear we may not have.”
“True,” Edric said. “The Duke will come with others, and take what he wants by force.”
Tomas ran his hand across his face, feeling the dried blood that still clung to his beard.
“How long would you need to hide yourselves again?”
“A few days to complete the incantations, but...”
“I'll buy you the time.”
“No,” the Abbot said. “I cannot allow this.”
“What other choice do we have?” Edric asked.
“None,” said Black Tomas.
So this is how I repay kindness. With bloodshed.
But then, what other way do I know?
He crouched in the lee of a gnarled oak, a sword sheathed by his side, axe held across his knees, a dead man's armour and cloak on his back, waiting.
A day and a half had passed since he had slain the Duke's messengers, time enough for Uzlin to gather his forces.
The Order of Erattis had begun their preparations, marking out a series of arcane lines in the monastery's courtyard, singing low incantations in a strange, almost inhuman tongue, the melodies by turns sweet, then harsh and atonal. Tomas knew little of magic, and, in truth, like most fighting men, such things left him unsettled and anxious. Yet he trusted the monks – they had saved his life, helped him heal without expectation of reward, sheltered him even when they became aware of his true nature. Still, he was glad to leave the environs of the monastery and move into the woodlands to keep a vigil for Uzlin and his men.
Perhaps, after all, there are still good men in the world.
And you, Black Tomas, could you be a good man?
He had no answer to that question.
The sound of cracking twigs brought him out of his reverie.
There, off to his left, men were moving through the trees. A widely-spaced advance by the sounds they were making.
At least half a dozen. Cautious but hardly stealthy.
He rose and made his way towards them, clinging to the shadows and natural cover that the trees afforded – his time in the North had taught him well, and he scarcely made a sound as he stalked his prey.
Prey? Aye, think of them as that – as quarry rather than men.
A flash of blue cloth glimpsed through branches and he manoeuvred himself forward a little, squatting down in the cover of a small shrub. When the man drew level, Tomas stood and struck, the axe powering itself into the blue-clad warrior's chest through the quilted armour he wore.
The man died with little more than a grunt. Tomas left him where he fell and moved on to the next.
He killed the next in the same way, looming out from ambush and taking his head from his shoulders before he had time to understand what was happening.
The third was quicker, bringing up his sword to block the strike and screaming a warning to his comrades. Tomas stepped in close, smashing his forehead into the man's nose, crushing it like a rotten fruit and, as the man staggered back, put the spike of his axe into an exposed throat.
But they had seen him now, quarrels flashed through the humid air and Tomas threw himself to one side, the missiles passing over him.
Close, though, too close.
Then he was on his feet and running, shortening the distance, using the trees as cover. He could hear cursing, barked orders:
“Nail the bastard!”
“He killed Xaxlas!”
“Where is he?”
“Feric! Barnas! Where are you?”
They had clustered together, the way that frightened men will, no more than a few feet between them – swords in their hands now, crossbows thrown at their feet.
Three of them. Only three? Surely the Duke would have sent more?
And then he was in the middle of them, axe flashing to the left and the right. An arm, the sword still clutched in nerveless fingers, flew away into the undergrowth; a torso split, spilling foul-smelling intestines. He was through and on the other side, whirling like a dancer, smiling like a demon.
A single man faced him, his comrades on the ground, pumping their lives out with every heartbeat.
“Please,” he said. “I don't – “
Black Tomas threw the axe. It smashed into the man's face and made a red ruin of it.
He laughed then. For the joy of it. For the strength and power coursing through his limbs. For the knowledge that he was one of Vaulth's chosen....
Cursed and beloved.
And with the knowledge came a fierce soul-sickness, that same revulsion that had, in the end, driven him away from the north, from the crusades and, ultimately, from Vaulth herself.
It took a long while for the nausea and the rage to pass, and when they had he crossed to where the dead men lay and retrieved his axe.
The weapon felt comforting and repellent at the same time.
If I were a stronger man I would never hold it again.
As he walked out of the treeline, the faint smell of smoke came drifting towards him.
He looked down to the monastery and saw grey tendrils drifting over the walls, saw a group of horses tethered just outside the gate.
It took him a moment to realize what had happened.
A feint! The men in the trees had been nothing more than a diversion – or a sacrifice.
He ran, covering the distance in what seemed no more than a few heartbeats.
A startled warrior, left to attend the horses, looked up as he approached, fumbling with the lock of his crossbow.
Tomas killed him before he had a chance to aim....
Inside the gate, the courtyard had become a charnel house.
Brown-robed figures lay on the grass, slumped in the cloisters, staring with sightless eyes. Brother Edric sat against one of the ornate pillars and, at first glance, might have appeared to be asleep but for the quarrel that jutted from his throat.
The sound of harsh laughter, of fragile things being smashed and broken underfoot – warriors looting in the wake of their slaughter. He knew the sound only too well.
Take me now, Mother Vaulth.
Black Tomas waited for the power of the dark goddess to worm its way into his soul... when it did he fought against it, denying the fury that welled up in him.
Fought against it... and for the first time won the battle.
So it was with utter clarity and icy hate that he stalked the Duke's men through the rooms and halls of the monastery, killing them one by one.
When it was done, he went down into the vaults.
The copyists lay dead around their lecterns, spilled ink mingling with spilled blood. My Lord Abbot was there too, his throat slit from ear to ear, and the door of the room which held the Liber Tenebris had been wrenched from its hinges, the trace of dark magic still lingering on the twisted metal and shattered wood.
He stepped inside, the axe held ready.
The Duke Uzlin – the portly man in yellow doublet and hose could be none other – stared at him with blank eyes, an idiot's terrified grin upon his face and thick drool dripping from his carmine lips.
In one hand he held the Liber Tenebris, opened to the second or third page – he had read no further before its infernal contents had wiped away his mind.
Tomas reached down and gently took the book from him. The drooling idiot mewed, the sound less than human. Tomas put the spike of the axe against his throat... and then withdrew it.
No. Killing you would be a mercy, Your Grace, and I do not feel merciful today.
As he closed the book he saw the words written there – arcane gibberish in a language he could not read – and even the sight of them sent a wave of revulsion through him.
He returned to the courtyard. Flames had already begun to belch from the rooms, in a few hours the place would be nothing more than a shell.
“I am sorry,” he said to Brother Edric. “I could not save you.”
Only avenge you. And what good is vengeance?
He chose a horse from those tethered outside – a piebald mare who looked gentle enough – and cut the rest free. Then he rode down to the little bay where Brother Armin and Brother Derand had found him all those weeks ago.
Weeks? Has it only been weeks?
At the top of the cliff they called Skull Point he wrapped the Tenebris in a square of cloth cut from his cloak and weighed it down with rocks. Then he threw it into the sea as far and hard as he could. The waves rose up, as though even the sea sought to reject this awful thing.
It vanished beneath the water and he watched it sink.
Stay there, he thought, where no man can find you.
By sunset he was miles away, heading south.
©October, 2016 James Lecky
James Lecky is a writer, actor and (occasional) stand-up comedian from Derry, Northern Ireland where he lives with his wife and cat. His short fiction has appeared in a number of publications both online and in print including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Arcane, the anthology Chilling Horror Short Stories and the upcoming Sword and Sorcery anthology from Robot Cowgirl Press, as well as previously in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. You can find his musings on various topics at https://jameslecky.wordpress.com.