The Red Bishop Chapter 1 Brigands in the Ruins by Steve Donoghue

Chapter 1: Brigands in the Ruins
    The sinking sun cast the thin, hard line of the Saint’s shadow on the road in front of him. His horse was restive as night slowly approached.
   Sun-scorched fields stretched away on either side of the dirt road. The far horizon was ringed with low blue hills where darkness was already gathering. The Saint had come down from those hills only that morning, and the memories of their trials were still fresh in him.
    There were no farmhouses, no barns as far as he could see. After the last two days, the horse deserved shelter and fresh bedding, but these flatlands in the approach to Edessa seemed empty.
He knew they were not. The hills had seemed empty too, and he had learned otherwise. But these fields didn’t even sport hay stacks. Gently, he encouraged the horse onward. They were both tired; an inn, even a shed, would be a welcome sight.
    Around a long, slow curve in the road, a little clump of ruins appeared not far off the road. They were Roman, perhaps at one point some nobleman’s winter retreat from the stench and noise of Old Rome or Byzantium. As he drew nearer, the broken walls came into focus, curling with vines. Brambles cluttered the broken paving stones leading from the road.
     The horse stiffened, and the Saint became alert. The setting sun shrouded half the ruins in deep shadow. Evening birdsong had gone quiet.
    Prayer sprang to the man’s mind. Lord, let Thy servant see that he may serve . The shadows suddenly leaped to life in his vision: sagging walls, branch-brushed alcoves, house temples turned into middens, vermin-tracks across a dirt-silted impluvium. And there, there, and there: men, armed and waiting.
   Casually, unobtrusively, the Saint unlimbered the battered scabbard along his left leg. In a gesture as though he were stroking his horse’s neck, he brushed back his thick riding cloak to free his shoulders for motion. They were almost even with the broken road gate.
    “Traveling to Edessa, stranger?” a voice called from the ruins. The Saint was surprised to see one of the three men leave the safety of the shadows and step into the sunset. When the man held up one hand to shield his eyes, the Saint saw the edge of his leather jerkin, noted the hitch of weight that indicated the weight of a hidden sword. Thirty. No fat. A professional at bad work.
     “I am bound for Edessa, yes, on my way south. I want no trouble.”
     “Who spoke of trouble, stranger? Is courtesy on the road now counted as trouble?” “Three men hiding in a ruined house. That is the very meaning of trouble.”
     The brigand was visibly startled at this; he was absolutely certain his companions had not been seen, and yet this stranger knew their number. The Saint caught a quick hand-signal made into the shadows.
     “Perhaps we could escort you, stranger. These country roads can be treacherous.”
    The Saint was about to speak of his Lord’s protecting hand when a low metallic twang sounded from the south wall of the ruins. The horse gave out a loud grating wail and jerked toward the sedge on the far side of the road. Glancing, the Saint saw a crossbow quarrel buried deep in the horse’s flank. He pulled hard on the reins and jumped down to the road just as another loud twang came from the dark.
      The horse’s second groan was deeper than the first and cut off abruptly in mid-note. The Saint stepped away as his traveling companion slumped to the road.
     Anger swept over him like a cloud obscuring the sun. He sprang straight at the man on the path, ignoring the quarrel that struck the road where he’d been standing.
        “Hold, stranger! This was an error! We -”
In one motion, the Saint’s gladius was out of its old scabbard and deep into the man’s lower abdomen, cutting through leather jerkin and flesh. The look of bland menace on the man’s face turned briefly to astonishment before his eyes emptied.
   The Saint was already moving. His prayer showed him clearly where the two remaining brigands were: the one with the crossbow was still by the south wall; the other, much closer, was just inside had once been the house’s atrium. Stepping over a fallen chunk of masonry, the Saint plunged into the hallway and was on this man in an instant.
     The brigand was big and fat, no doubt a local bully. The Saint sprang upon him in silence, dodged his wide swing of self-protection, broke his face with the pommel of the old gladius , and then rammed the sword into the man’s chest until the tip poked out between his shoulder blades. The Saint left the wet gasping sound behind him as he closed on the bowman who had killed his traveling companion.
      At the last instant, he remembered control and the sin of wrath. This attack was coordinated; it if was something more than mere opportunism, he could only learn about it from this last man.
    A quarrel bolt swocked off the wall beside his head. The bowman was crouched in a doorway, reloading his weapon, glancing up nervously. There was no time, and he knew it, but his fear locked him into the attempt when a clear mind would have screamed for flight instead.
    The Saint knocked the weapon away, brought one of his iron-soled sandals down on the man’s left knee, and as his enemy doubled forward in agony, ran his sword through the man’s shoulder, pinning him to the plaster lathe of the wall. He cut the man’s screams off with a hand vised around his throat.
    “Listen. You are injured, but you may yet live. I will help you if you tell me about this trap. Were you waiting for me?”
    Through his agony, the last brigand nodded. The Saint released his throat and nodded for him to speak.
    “We – we were told to take you alive,” the man croaked. “The Bishop told us to look for a Syrian in Roman gear -”
    “The Bishop? I have no quarrel with the old man in Samosata, that he should -”
  “The Red Bishop,” even in his pain, the man sounded suddenly a bit more frightened. “He told us to look for a man he called -”
     The man had been easing a knife from his belt, and he suddenly made a swipe in the Saint’s direction. It was hopeless, pinned that mangled shoulder was, but the Saint backed up a step out of instinct just the same. He caught the man’s wrist, twisted the knife from his grasp, and buried it up to its hilt in the man’s left eye. There was a brief death-scream, and then the old ruined house was silent again.
     The Saint pulled his sword out of the wall, and wiped it down with the cloak of his third victim. He collected the knife, two rings, and the big man’s arm band, in reflexive hope that the items could be used to identify his assailants once he reached Edessa.
   He went back outside, where full night was crowding the last of light from the sky. He stepped over his first victim and walked to the now-still body of his horse. He knelt by the head with its wide-open eyes frozen in shock and pain.
     He laid his hand on the thick mane. They had come through peril together; he had hoped they would rest together.
   May the Lord accept your spirit, my faithful friend.
      He stood and retrieved his bedroll and gear. He carved two thick steaks from the horse’s flank and cooked them over a fire in the shelter of the ruins, with the firelight flickering off the dead eyes of the brigands in the room.
     Just before sunrise, he rested for a bit. Then as daylight flooded the world again he resumed the road to Edessa on foot.

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