The Red Bishop By Steve Donoghue
Chapter 2: Ghouls at First Light
He reached Beggar’s Gate at early mid-morning and joined a meager stream of merchants and farmers making its way past two visibly sleepy guards in mismatched helmets. The Gate itself was open in such a way that it could not be closed again quickly, and the guards were barely nodding in the direction of the people passing directly between them.
They didn’t stop and examine the animals. They didn’t conduct random searches of carts or military-age men. They didn’t force the traffic to keep any kind of distance from them as people made their way into the city. Any one of those people could easily pass close enough to ram a meat cleaver right up under the ribs of one of those guards.
The Saint ran his tongue around the inside of his clenched teeth and kept his gaze indirect. Many times in many different camps, he had seen to the disposition of key entry-ways like Beggar’s Gate; the reflex to order and reprimand was deeply ingrained, but it had no place here. He was saddened to think he would never use that reflex again.
He kept his gaze away from the guards, but the precaution was unnecessary; they didn’t even glance at him, even though he was taller than either of them and carrying riding tackle slung over one shoulder.
All morning, he’d been thinking over the bits he’d gleaned from the men he’d killed on the road, but it was minimal and maddening. One of the brigands had said they’d been sent by a “Red” bishop to take alive a Syrian in Roman gear. This made no sense. The bishop of Edessa was a saintly old man named Lectius, and it shouldn’t have mattered in any case; no one in this part of the world should know anything about a Syrian in Roman gear.
The ‘Roman gear’ was by this point a feat of imagination. The roads he had taken from the Straits of his old life had been filled with violence and horror; his lean, tough body bore new and strange scars. He had lost his red centurion’s cloak to a horse-sized hawk outside in Raetia. His padded and plumed helmet had been dented to scrap by a stone golem in a Dalmatian crypt. His sculpted greaves had been ripped from his legs by a many-tentacled bog monster on the fringe of the Black Sea. An arm band had gone as ransom for a kidnapped princess. Even his breastplate had been scoured and almost perforated by the dark creatures he had faced only a day before up in the cold hills over the road to Edessa, and it was hidden by his canvas jerkin.
He still had his classic Roman hobnailed boots. And his sword. Not enough to identify a man, he thought.
Now, Edessa seemed to be watching him. He could not have paid a call on the city’s bishop in any case, but this complicated things.
He walked until he found a narrow side-street and stopped at the first inn that registered to his long-practiced eye as most defensible. A portly innkeeper sidled around a wooden counter and approached him as he was slapping dust off his legs in the place’s small outer courtyard. The Saint said a quick, silent prayer: ** Lord, help me to see the snares in the hearts of others **
At once, the innkeeper became clearer to him, his rheumatism, his trivial hunger in preparation for lunch, the racing of his thoughts as they weighed greedy opportunism against the whetted, formidable appearance of this stranger. There is no harm in the man, the Saint knew.
“Effendi, you honor my house,” the innkeeper said, spreading his hands. “May I offer you hospitality?”
“A room,” the Saint said. Remembering a fugitive duty to be courtesy, he said, “I would like a room, good man, if you have one. On this floor, backed off the alley, with no windows and a private exit.”
The innkeeper blinked at this, courtesies suddenly warring with the alarm of a guest requesting a way to leave without paying.
“We have an excellent room upstairs, effendi, well removed from the filth of the street …”
The Saint leveled a hard look at the man, then remembered to soften it a bit. “A ground-floor room, backed away from the street, with a rear exit. It need not be large. You can clear out a storeroom, if you have nothing else.”
“A storeroom! Effendi, I couldn’t possibly -”
“I have no horse, and I shall be leaving tomorrow,” he said, reaching across his chest to unclasp his travel cloak. “And obviously, I would like a bath and a meal before I retire.”
Sweat had begun to bead on the innkeeper’s bald head. “My lord, the room upstairs …”
“Innkeeper,” the Saint quietly barked, letting his hand fall and rest lightly on the pommel of his sword. “A bath, a meal, and a room in the back. See to it,” he finished, deciding to take a chance in order to learn a bit more, “and tomorrow I may mention your cooperation to the Bishop.”
The innkeeper’s fleshy face suddenly slacked in alarm. “I have no such room, effendi, but as you so wisely note, there is a storeroom that precisely fits your requirements. I shall have it cleared and swept while your bath is drawn and your meal prepared. I apologize for my stupidity; you are as wise as you are patient.”
Not a figure of contempt or prohibitive fear, then, the Saint thought later as his body was soaking and he could feel his muscles relaxing. And later still, after a quick prayer of grace revealed no impurities in his food, he watched the comings and goings of his innkeeper’s nervous staff and wondered who this Red Bishop could be and how he could have established such a long reach in such a short time.
He resisted thinking of one obvious answer, the only obvious answer. No one under the sun had a longer reach than the Emperor, even here on the edge of the world.
Laying stretched out a fairly comfortable cot in his hastily-cleaned room much later that night, after all the sounds of the house and the street had died away to silence, he was still weighing what little he knew. The Emperor, his old friend and now the hound chasing his life, was set at odds with the New Faith; Lectius cannot have enjoyed his job, and now it seemed he was gone. But the job itself was not – a new man held it, a man who was seeking him, and a man known deep in the quailing heart of a back-alley innkeeper.
He looked through the tiny window up by the ceiling and knew that he should make his claim to the innkeeper true: he should quit Edessa once daylight returned.
Sleep crept upon him, seeping up from his relaxed muscles and heat-soothed shoulders and full belly. The first faint brush of dawn was already visible through the little window when he suddenly came fully awake in the darkness of the room. His hand was on his sword before his eyes were open. His mind scrambled for whatever sound had roused him.
There it was again: a soft, wet panting, coming from the bolted hallway door. No sound at all from the bolted back alley door.
He instinctively said a prayer: ** Lord, show me these thieves that come in the night **
Alone there in the deep shadows, he blinked in surprise when there was no response to the prayer. Only soft panting slightly more insistent now, and a shuffling that had stopped directly outside his door.
He stood silently, grateful as always for his old precaution of sleeping camp-style when in enemy territory, fully clothed and packed. The precaution never left him now that all the world was enemy territory.
As quietly as he could, he began lifting the heavy wooden bar that bolted the alley doorway. Whatever was coming for him was better avoided than fought.
The bar made a scraping sound against the door frame. He froze. The panting abruptly stopped.
Suddenly a fierce blow struck the hallway door. Beams jumped in their frame, and the bolt cracked along its length. A great war-elephant might do such a thing in one strike, or a battering ram, but not a man.
The next blow came immediately and broke the door open like a tent flap. In one motion, the Saint unbarred his alley exit and flung the door open as figures shuffled into his room. Weak light from the rising dawn fell into the room.
The three men before him stood stiff and slanted like drunkards. Their clothing was mottled with brittle brown patches, and their unblinking whitened eyes were canted up toward the ceiling. One held a rope of his own entrails in his hand. All three were softly panting as they shuffled into the room.
The Saint hissed softly to himself. They were the three brigands he had killed in the ruins outside of town.