Today’s sample is part of Chapter 21 in the second book of the series: Assassin Chronicles ~ The King of Terrors. Meredith Sinclair has been stabbed and is dying. Sir Ramsay’s beloved Brother and worst enemy, Lucio Dambretti, is determined to make him use part of his Divine Mystery to save her life. Mark does not want to do it, but he has been grievously wounded in body and mind and is unable to think clearly.
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Chapter Twenty-One of Twenty-Five
Then Job answered and said: How long will ye vex my soul, and break me in pieces with words?
Lucio Dambretti’s voice sounded hysterical. Why? Where was his horse? What had happened to the rain? But that had been a dream…
“Brother!” Dambretti shook him again.
Mark Andrew opened one eye and saw the canopy of his bed above him. “Brother, caro mio, Merry is dying.”
He closed his eyes again. He knew this much already. Caro mio?
“Brother, please. Surely you cannot be so cold-blooded. It was not her fault,” this statement was accompanied by a sharp slap to his left cheek.
He opened both eyes. Lucio’s blood-smeared face was above him. His dark eyes were wide with fear. Simon’s face appeared from the other side to look down at him frowning. His face was also smeared with blood and he wore an equally fearful and worried expression. Mark Andrew had seen them like this before… on several, more such pleasant occasions in the past. He felt disconnected from the world as if only his eyes existed and nothing else. There was no sense of body. He realized that he was not quite, not yet completely reconnected with his…. Lucio slapped him again. That did it.
“How do you feel?” Simon asked him.
“I don’t,” Mark answered him truthfully.
“Brother, Brother, listen to me. You know the answer to the riddle of Hermes. I know you do!” Lucio was talking again. He hated it when Lucio was panicky. It made him nervous. He hated being nervous.
“Hermes is your specialty, Brother,” he heard himself say abstractedly. He only wished to return to the oblivion of the healing sleep.
“No! The riddle of Hermes. The one concerning the Philosopher’s Stone and the making of it,” Lucio’s face was changing color now and he was crying… again. Mark watched the change in fascination. It started at his neck and went up and up and all the way to his curly black locks on his forehead. Only the thin line of the scar on his face did not change to match the deep flush.
“What of it? I have told you time and again: Never, ever ask about my work,” Mark told him and tried to turn on his side. Both his unwanted visitors pushed him on his back again. He noticed that his voice had changed like Lucio’s complexion. He wondered if his voice would be red as well if he could see it. Red. Red. Blood was red. The Riddle of Hermes was red.
“You must help me!” Lucio shouted at him and now his voice was also red. “If not me, then Merry. You must help her.”
“Lucio, he is not well,” Simon looked at Lucio and then Simon’s face disappeared though his voice remained. “He is not himself yet.”
“Merry is dying!” Lucio’s face disappeared and he, too, left behind his angry voice. “He knows the answer to the riddle. He could heal her!”
“That is my specialty and I can do nothing for her,” Simon’s voice was sad. Mark could hear the sadness. It was sad about Merry. Merry was dying. Argonne had killed her. Argonne had killed Christopher. Argonne had killed Hunter and Granger and Volpi and… Argonne was not a good man. Not a good Knight. Good night. This was not a good night.
“Good night,” Mark muttered and reached for the pillow next to him. He pulled it under his cheek and curled on his side.
“Brother! Wake up!” Lucio’s face was back and suddenly it was very near his own as the Italian lifted him up by his collar. Where did the collar come from? He hadn’t been wearing a shirt when he had been crucified. Nobody wore shirts during crucifixions. They had cast lots for the Nazorean’s robe. Why had they done that? Had they liked the color? Red? Purple? The color of death. Red. Red. The color of life is in the blood. Red.
“Red,” he said into the angry face. “Red!”
“Red what?!” Lucio slammed him back down on the bed. Oh, there was his body again. He did have one and that hurt! Oh, now he was sitting up. Lucio was making him sit up. He didn’t want to sit up. Oh, now Lucio was being very nasty to him, slapping him again. Hadn’t he slapped him enough already? Hadn’t he spit in his face already? Hadn’t he totally disrespected him by taking Victoria from him? Why? Why did she like the company of the Neapolitan over him? It didn’t make sense. He had seen her first. Victoria. Lovely Victoria in her satin and lace….
“I am crowned, and decked with a precious crown and adorned with princely garments, for that I cause joy to enter into bodies,” Lucio was bending in front of him speaking into his face. “Is that a reference to sex, Brother? Or is it more than a perverse rhyme?”
“Let him be, Brother,” Simon’s voice drifted into his ears. He looked down at his arms. Black. A black shirt. Long sleeves. Unbuttoned. He pulled back a sleeve. The gash in his right wrist was horrid. Red and white and oozing. Red. Red. Red tincture! The Romans had called the deep red garments of the Kings purple, but it was really red, wasn’t it? The color of blood.
Lucio slapped him again. He frowned up at him. Why was the man slapping him? He felt his face warming with anger.
“I’m sorry, Mark Andrew,” Lucio looked into his face. Lucio, Lucio. Merry is dying. “You have to get up.”
“Why?” Mark asked him in a dreamy voice.
“Merry! You have to help Merry,” Lucio drew back his hand to strike him again and Simon caught his hand.
“Hold, Brother!” Simon pulled him away and Mark sat on the edge of the bed looking down at his feet. There were red marks on his skin near the ankles. “There is nothing he can do for Merry.”
“That’s not true!” Lucio’s voice lost the anger and reverted to desperate pleading. “The key is the answer to the Riddle of Hermes. I am but a poor Knight of the Temple!”
Mark looked up at him and tried to focus on his face. As if in a dream, he heard himself say “Then Job answered and said: How long will ye vex my soul, and break me in pieces with words?”
“Mark Andrew can do nothing for the woman!” It was Simon’s turn to be angry. “You vex his soul, sir! First you take his woman and then you demand his very soul. What do you expect of him, Brother? You have made your bed. I suggest you lie in it and leave him be or else I will be forced…”
“Wait, Simon, stop. I can help her,” Mark said simply and Lucio reappeared in front of him. “But I am not supposed to.”
“Why?” It was Lucio’s turn to ask.
“Because,” Mark shook his head and the movement set off a series of strange sensations behind his eyes as if his brain were loose inside his skull.
“Damn you, you sorry bastard!” Lucio shouted at him. “Why won’t you help her?”
“She is your lover, Lucio,” Mark told him blandly. “You help her.”
Lucio picked him up off the bed and threw him on the floor. Simon tried to stop him, but Simon was still recovering from the injuries Argonne had inflicted on him. Dambretti threw him off easily and picked Mark up again. “I am trying to help her and you are the help I intend to bring.”
He dragged Mark bodily across the room and out the door. Something that he could have never done if Mark had been well. Simon trailed behind them holding first his ribs and then his leg, pleading with Lucio to stop and have mercy. They went down the stairs, stumbling, falling, stumbling, changing positions. Mark was like a rubber doll. He seemed capable of walking, but not quite. Argonne’s apprentice, Armand de Bleu, appeared in the foyer and helped Lucio carry him along, ready to do anything that the Italian instructed him to do, all the while asking question after question, some about what they were doing with Sir Ramsay, some about his own Master, Argonne, and even more about the fate of the beautiful mademoiselle, none of which were answered. They dragged the Knight through the kitchen where he tried to stop for a glass of water. Simon grabbed a glass and filled it with water for his Brother, but Lucio was ruthless in his attempt to get where they were going. Before Mark could taste the water, he was snatched away again and picked up bodily by the frantic Italian and the near hysterical apprentice. Mark watched in fascination as the water glass slipped away and tumbled through the air. Then his expression changed as he watched it shatter on the stone floor in the midst of a sizable puddle of drying blood. Armand gasped out another curse as his frantic attempt to catch the glass failed. Simon resumed his pleading chase after the two men as they bumped down the cellar stairs with their unwieldy burden.
Mark could not get a grasp on reality. He recognized the stones that made up the foundation of his house and the rough wooden railing and stairs leading down to the cellar. The cellar! Not the cellar. Not the cellar! There were rats in the cellar!
Mark Andrew caught his foot against the railing and yanked himself free of them. He stood swaying on the steps, frowning down at Lucio as he struggled to keep Armand from falling the rest of the way.
“I will not go down there with you, Lucio. Nor any other.”
“Yes you will,” Dambretti reached for him and he backed up a step. He bumped against the step behind him and fell sitting on the riser. Dambretti caught him by both arms and dragged him to his feet. Mark swung at him and he ducked. Mark lunged at him and they rolled down the steps together. Every step was a terror in its own right. They struck the stone floor together and Lucio was up first.
“Come on!” He dragged Mark Andrew across the dusty floor toward the other door. The door to his laboratory.
“Red,” Mark clutched his stomach, moaned in pain at the bumpy ride and repeated the word that kept coming to his head. The pain had returned in the stab wound caused by the sword and he could feel fresh blood on his wrists soaking his sleeves. The blow he had taken on his head against the stone steps and the floor produced a galaxy of stars that still circled round in front of his face.
“Yes, Brother, red, keep thinking about it. The elixir of the alchemist. The Great Work,” Lucio told him as he pulled back the bolt on the door of the laboratory. He pushed the door open one-handed as he hung onto Mark’s shirt with the other.
The lab was dark. Simon followed them inside, still muttering prayers and curses in French while he found the means to light the candles on the wooden table in the middle of the cluttered room. Armand lit the oil lamp suspended over the slab of solid oak that had served the Order’s alchemist for several hundred years. Its cracked, pitted and scarred surface told of the hours that Ramsay had spent there working on things that only he understood. As the small blazes chased away some of the encroaching darkness, the room was transformed into something from a medieval nightmare. There were jars and barrels and jugs and crocks and all manner of glass, ceramic, pottery, wooden and metal containers. Tripods and tools of every description, books and braziers, papers and pipes, burners and boxes, casks and cloth, netting and nettles, dried herbs and spices, potions and powders, measuring devices of all make and manner from ancient to a modern battery operated digital scale, silver spoons and golden straws. Everything and anything you might never need was scattered haphazardly everywhere. A blacksmith’s furnace and bellows was set against the far wall in the corner next to a coal bin. A rack above the open furnace held an impressive array of tools for metal working. More stuff indescribable, unknowable, almost impossible was disarranged on shelves along the walls. All sorts of things hung from hooks in between spaces and the spiders obviously felt right at home in their webs. The place was a wreck.
“They ransacked your laboratory!” Simon gasped and looked around in disbelief at the mess. “I had no idea.”
“No! It is just as I left it. No one comes here but me,” Mark frowned at him. Everything was in its proper place.
“Now, where is this red tincture,” Lucio turned on him.
“I don’t know the third Treatise of Hermes by heart, Brother,” Mark looked at him in consternation. “I know I have it here somewhere…” his voice trailed off as he threw back the lid on large, black leather and iron coffer. He stared into the chest for several long moments and his head drooped slightly, his eyes closed. Lucio placed one hand on his shoulder and he snapped his head up again. The box was full of ancient books, scrolls and loose papers along with volumes of dust, mold and mildew. He began to rifle through the books on top and held up one piece of paper, looking quite pleased with himself. He smiled crookedly.
“Well, I’m damned,” he nodded to himself as if he were alone. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Lucio took the paper from his hand and squinted at the scrolling, handwritten calligraphy on the yellowed document. It was a Doctoral Degree from Oxford bestowed upon one Chevalier M. Andrea Ramsay for studies in the Healing Arts of Medicine and Chemistry. The date was unbelievable. Lucio laid it aside carefully enough and then took Mark by the arm before closing the chest.
“I know the tractates by heart; you have only to interpret alchemically. I am versed in allegory and philosophy, not physical science,” Lucio told him.
“Did ye learn nothing from me in oll those years as my apprentice, laddie?” Mark’s eyes almost crossed and he blinked in the dim light.
“Here!” Simon poured him a glass of wine from one of the numerous bottles on the table. “This will help you.”
Mark turned up the glass and then held it out for more. Merry was dying, but she was dead to him already, was she not? And Lucio should follow her. Both of them. His Brother. His Meredith. Gone. Both of them. The wine made his stomach warm and his face flush, but he felt hollow. There was very little blood flowing in his veins. It was too soon. Too soon. Jesus turned water into wine. He needed to turn wine into blood. But Jesus did that, too, didn’t he? The blood of the lamb… no, the blood of the dragon. Dragon’s Blood!
“I am crowned, and decked with a precious crown and adorned with princely garments, for that I cause joy to enter into bodies,” Lucio began to repeat the Treatise.
“Wait! Wait!” Mark Andrew said and held up one hand. He finished off the wine and handed the glass back to Simon. “Keep those comin’, little Brother,” he winked at the priest and limped across the room to a cabinet where he removed a heavy crystal decanter with a solid gold stopper fashioned in the shape of a crown. Small beaded spangles covered with dust clinked against the sides of the decanter. Inside the jug was a dark red liquid. “What next?”
“Come ye Sons of Wisdom and now we will rejoice and be merry together, because death is conquered and our Son now reigneth and is clothed with a red ornament and with flesh. Now our Son being born a King, takes the tincture from the fire, but death the Sea and darkness fly from him, and the Dragon flies the beams…”
“Be Merry… together. Be Merry together,” Mark repeated his words.
“…we will rejoice and be merry together, Brother, not Merry, not Meredith,” Lucio urged him on.
“Wait! Wait!” Mark frowned and blinked. “…tincture from the fire.” He opened the bottle and poured some of it in a small crockery dish. “Light that,” he instructed the Healer and pointed to an alcohol burner under a bronze tripod.
Simon struck a match and lit the wick. Mark Andrew put the bowl on top of the ring. He raised the wick and made the flame burn higher. He took another small jar from the table and tossed a dash of white crystalline sea salt into the bowl. He picked up a strange glass bulb with a inner curved lip and a long spout on one side and inverted it over the dish with another empty bowl under the spout. The liquid soon began to steam and then boil. The miasma collected inside the inverted glass bowl, ran down to the lip and flowed around the rim to the spout where it dripped in the lower container. The mixture was no longer dark but light red when it condensed into the second bowl. They watched as the liquid rapidly boiled away leaving a layer of dark brown crystals in the bowl suspended on the tripod. Mark turned down the wick and the burner flickered out.
“What else?” He asked looked up at Lucio and grimaced in pain.
Lucio ran back through the treatise quickly whispering until “and the Dragon flies the beams of the Sun which kept the holes, and our…”
“Wait! Wait!” Mark stopped him again. “And the Dragon flies the beam of the Sun which kept the holes… What else?”
“And our Son being dead doth live,…” Lucio began again.
“Wait!” Mark went to the wall on the far side of the room and took hold of a crank set on the wall, but he could not turn it. His hands were too weak from the wounds in his wrists. “What time is it?” he asked as Simon came to help him. The Healer turned the crank and a portion of the ceiling rolled back, exposing a sort of green glass skylight over a portion of the lab.
“It’s… it’s…” Lucio looked for his watch but it was gone. Lost in the fray with Argonne and Champagne. Sunlight poured into the room from the glass panes above casting a surreal character on the nightmarish scene.
“Never mind,” Mark told him and went to get a metal punch from the table. He walked back into the light, taking the punch and a glass bowl with him. Dambretti left the table to join them. “Here,” he gave the bowl to Simon “hold it under my arm when I tell you to.”
“What are you doing?” Simon asked in alarm as he perceived something very unhealthy was about to happen. “Tell me what you are doing!” He demanded and then pressed one hand over his mouth as nausea threatened to overwhelm him.
Mark grabbed his arm and shot a dark glance at Lucio. The Italian took his place and held the Healers arm steady.
“Please, caro mio,” Lucio whispered to the distraught Frenchman. “Hold on just a little longer.”
“Just do what I say, Brother,” Mark told him gruffly and then held out his left arm. He pulled back the shirt sleeve, exposing the ghastly wound in his arm where the spike had passed between the ulna and radius bones just above the wrist. The spike had only just missed the arteries and veins, but one of the pulsating blue arteries could be seen in the jagged opening. He put the punch in the center of the barely healing wound and then shoved it through, gritting his teeth against the pain and pulled it out the other side making an open hole all the way through his arm. Simon gasped and Dambretti actually shrieked his favorite epithet “Santa Maria, Holy Mother!”
“Quiet! There is no time to waste,” he told them. His voice was a rough whisper as he fought the black spots that assailed his eyes. Only the wine and Simon’s potion had made this terrible self-mutilation possible. He held his arm in the sunbeams filtering in from the skylight so that one of the dusty beams of light passed right through his arm and formed a tiny circular spot of light on the floor. “Now put the bowl under it. Catch the light and the blood in the bowl. …the Dragon flies the beam,” Mark finished and actually managed a small smile.
Simon did not move. Lucio grabbed the dish from him and held it under the bleeding wound to catch the drops in the bowl as they fell, glittering and surreal in the errant beam of light. When the bleeding slowed, Mark took the bowl and walked slowly back to the table. He touched his finger to the light red condensate and then poured the blood into the crockery bowl with it. He picked up a glass straw and stirred the mixture together.
“What else?” Mark asked and turned too quickly. He had to grip the edge of the table to steady himself.
Dambretti closed his eyes and concentrated. “And a King comes from the fire and shall rejoice in wedlock and secret things shall appear, and our Son…”
“Wait!” Mark motioned to Simon and he lit the burner again. Mark set the bowl back on the tripod over the fire. He stirred the mixture as it heated and soon dark strands began to appear in the liquid. “What else! Quick!”
“And our Son now vivified is made a warrior in the fire and super eminent in tinctures.”
Mark turned down the wick and picked up the bowl with a pair of tongs. He poured the hot liquid back into the bowl that had held his blood and blew on the liquid to cool it. “Where is the woman?” He asked.
“In the library,” Lucio answered and the desperation had returned to his voice. Mark’s tone was no longer dreamy or drug-affected. There was chilling touch to it that made Lucio’s heart lurch.
Simon helped Mark up the stairs and through the kitchen, down the hall and into the library.
Lucio had laid Merry out on the rug in front of the fireplace as if she were dead already. He had carefully removed her shoes, crossed her feet and placed her hands over her heart. The only thing missing was her chain mail and sword. Mark stopped when he saw her, frowned and shook his head. She was not a damned Templar! She was a beautiful woman, unspoiled by the woes of the world. Lucio had lost his mind. Luke and Matthew lay on either side of her as if guarding her and the odd formation struck Mark as a suitable subject for a sculptor or perhaps a painter of bizarre funereal scenes. Her face was ashen, the color of Egyptian alabaster and there was a horrible red stain on her light blue dress. A thin line of bright red trickled from the corner from her mouth and the rise and fall of her breathing was barely discernible. Mark Andrew stood looking down at her with a peculiar look on his face as Lucio knelt beside her and wiped away the blood on her face with his finger. He placed his hands on hers and leaned close to her ear.
“It’s OK, Meredith,” Lucio whispered to her in Italian. “Just wait. It will be all right. Sir Ramsay is here and he has something that will make everything all right.”
Sir Ramsay? Mark made a strange little noise in his throat and then he raised the bowl over her body. His hands were shaking as he looked down at the top of the Italian’s head. There was no doubt now what was going on here. The first thing that came to mind was the overwhelming urge to crash the bowl of precious tincture on Lucio’s head. He was unabashedly cooing and whispering to the unconscious woman in a manner that clearly bespoke his love for her. Instead of killing the Italian on the spot, he raised his face to the ceiling and began to speak in a wavering voice that sounded almost as if he were about to cry and it may well have been so.
“Hear me, Master and Father, Creator of the Universe, bless this effort of Thy humble servant, Mark Andrew Ramsay, Prince of the Grave, King of Terrors, have mercy upon the heads of Thy people in their time of need. Put forth Thine Holy Hand and quicken this liquor for it rejoices the Soul, it renews virtue, it cleanseth the soul, it strengthens youth and removes old age, for it suffers not the blood to be putrefied, nor choler to be found, nor melancholiness to be abundant, yea rather it multiplies the blood beyond measure and restores and renews all corporeal members efficaciously and preserves them from hurt, and does most perfectly heal all infirmities, as well hot as cold, dry as moist, before all other medicines of Physicians, and to conclude it expels all evil humors and brings in those that are good, love, honor, security, boldness and victory in battle to those that possess it and in this is the greatest secret of nature accomplished which is, a secret not to be valued at any price a most precious and incomparable treasure which God grant to be hidden in their minds that possess it lest it be made known to the foolish and ignorant. Amen let every living man say: Finis.”
Simon, Lucio and Armand, who had edged into the library behind the Healer, repeated the word ‘finis’ in unison.
Mark knelt beside Merry and placed two fingers in the liquid in the bowl and then pressed his fingers between her lips, forcing her mouth open far enough to place the liquid on her tongue. Touching her was similar to experiencing a strong electrical shock and then a sudden drain on what little energy he had left. It was very nearly what he experienced each time he removed the mysteries from the heads of his fallen Brothers. The sensation shocked him mentally as well and he stared at her pale face for several moments before raising one hand for assistance without looking up. Simon and Armand took his arm and helped him to his feet. At first he was unable to tear his eyes away from her. He truly loved her and at the same time, he hated her. He would never touch her again. He never wanted to see her again.
He turned slowly and locked eyes with the Italian for one brief moment before limping from the library and back up the stairs to his room, refusing all of Simon and Armand’s pleas to stay and have supper with them. Armand gave up at the foot of the stairs. Simon stood near the library door with Lucio behind him. The Knight of the Golden Eagle jumped and muttered something in Italian when they heard the door slam with a reverberating boom.
“Stay here with her,” Simon told Lucio. “Your sins are grievous, Brother. I will attend him.”