Chapter 15: Audiences
Chapter 15 of the City of Gargoyles: Book 2 of the Light-Father Trilogy
Chapter 15: Audiences
Schimrian gazed at the two trembling Brothers standing before his desk. “Forgive the lateness of the hour,” he smiled thinly. “But I noted both of you were absent from Compline where I thought the Gloria in Excelsis Deo was especially poignant.”
The Brothers bowed their heads but remained silent apart from a jointly whispered: “In manus tuas, Domine.”
Schimrian drummed his fingers on his desk for a few moments. “Be that as it may, I know you labour hard at restoring our Great Abbey and such lapses are forgiveable but you also missed Vespers; we have to maintain our devotions, my sons, or we may as well be Ferals. But, because of these creatures and their Master, only two Abbots, nine Fathers, four hundred and six Brothers and one thousand, one hundred Tally-men remain in all Britannia.”
“Yes, we know this, Y-your E-eminence,” the shorter of the two Brothers, Theo, stuttered, his work-robes becoming increasingly patched with nervous sweat. “Our l-losses have been great thanks to his accursed Wiccans corrupting the Great Computer.”
“Indeed. Yet three weeks and one day have passed since these Harlots of Satan desecrated our Great Cathedral and brought down our Christ in Majesty! After all this time, however, we remain in a mediaeval stupor, reading our Scriptures by candle-light. The Great Cathedral, by divine contrast, was indeed magnificent lit by candle-light but, alas, our stores of the larger candles are sore depleted. Therefore, before we worship in the dark, what of your repairs in the generator rooms? Have you made any progress at all on repairing the very machines that you failed to guard, hmmm?”
“We have already begged your forgiveness, Eminence,” the second Brother, Edward, explained desperately while wringing his hands. “We were overcome with concern for our fellow Brothers and joined the battle to chase these desecrators out of our Great Abbey. As for the repairs: Abbot Camus has tried his utmost these past three weeks, Eminence, but we Brothers and Fathers-Technician tally but twenty and both generator engines were thoroughly destroyed. Only we and four others here have the engineering skills to restore electric generation…”
He paused as Schimrian’s eyes had narrowed dangerously at the praise being directed at Camus. Schimrian finally sighed and gestured impatiently for him to continue:
“Um, we have just finished dismantling them and clearing the foundations of debris. The fire-damage has been addressed but, as you know, the control panels and communication relays were all smashed and needed repair most urgently. There is some good news: Father Aten has found and retrieved three portable generators from Beorminghas. We can restore electrics to the Great Manse and the Great Cathedral but not to the rest of the Great Abbey. We were servicing them which is why we missed our devotions.”
“Ah, yes. Bless Father Aten! I am glad he survived our travails as he was ever one of our more efficient Inquisitors. Now you have these generating machines, when will we have our electrics?”
“Tomorrow,” Theo said quickly. “Before Compline.”
“I am delighted to hear this, my son. Some of the Order may regard candle-light as divine ambience but I regard the shadows cast as portals of Hell. I would see all at all times thus my patience is taxed of late. I concede that I was… unwell from the explosion in the Great Annexe but I had expected some progress.”
Theo glanced at Edward, who nodded nervously for him to continue. Only two weeks prior to this day, Schimrian had been screaming in tongues at them before being restrained and led away by Pious but they found this new compus mentis incarnation of the Great-Abbot infinitely more unnerving. “The portable… generators run on scyfol and as it is a light fuel, there is little now left in Britannia. We lost most of our supplies here during the attack and in the many fires since that destroyed the smaller stores such as the one in the Library. We calculate we can only run the portable generators for a month at most unless we get fresh supplies.”
“Ah, yes, the fires,” Schimrian nodded thoughtfully. A spasm of venomous rage crossed his face that made the Brothers struggle to restrain their bowels from loosening. “We lacked the foresight to keep such machines at the Great Abbey and there were far too many incidents to be happenstance while I was… indisposed. I was mortified to learn that all of you, including Abbot Pious, thought they were mere acts of God! You can imagine how disappointed I was on regaining my senses; but we are where we are. With Abbot Michael confined, Pious could not identify who may have been responsible but he does now have a suspect: someone we have overlooked for far too long.”
“Ah, we…” Theo spluttered. “…are glad there has been some progress. We did indeed think that the fires were accidental as there were so many burning candles left untended. We see know that saboteurs were afoot but the sabotage was so subtle as if they knew exactly where to strike yet hide their tampering…”
“Exactly,” Schimrian agreed, raising a forefinger in emphasis. “The Light-Father is evil but even sore wounded as he was; he did not leave any of his minions behind. I see his dark mind now: full of malign intelligence and strategy! That’s why Pious concluded that one of us, a traitor to the Order, was responsible…”
“Ah, I pray that he does not think it was us,” Theo said, the fear evident in his voice as he suppressed an almost suicidal urge to point out that leaving saboteurs behind was a common historical strategy of retreating armies. “We toiled night and day to repair the damage to the radios and relays and we…”
“Be at peace, my son,” Schimrian said sharply, holding up a hand to forestall the blustering. “If I had found any fault in you other than a desire to help your fellow Brethren, you would both have been left, naked and bound on the shores of Erdethric as sport for the Ferals that now infest that island. I am told that they have recently developed a taste for human flesh…”
“Yes, b-bless you, Eminence,” Theo stammered and fell silent, despite the overwhelming sense of relief, the nervous sweat kept trickling down his back. He could see why Schimrian found the deep and writhing shadows in his chambers threatening especially from the corner of the eye as both Brothers expected Pious to step forth into the candlelight at any moment and slay them.
“Well then, proceed, my sons,” Pious prompted impatiently. “What of the larger generators and our fuel situation? I hear that Bede has enough athidol to supply our needs. Yes?”
Edward nodded quickly. “Enough for two years while Father Ursaf has arranged for tankers to be made ready and the roads checked. As for the generator engines, we have yet to find a suitable heavy transporter that is still operable and a safe route to get them here but we will find a way, Eminence.”
“I am sure you will, my son. Now to the main reason I have called you both here. I worry so for Abbot Camus as I have over-burdened such a worthy soul. He, Abbot Pious and I are set to gather all the remaining Order in Britannia at the Great Abbey, at Bede and at our Abbey at Wyehold. We have determined that this Light-Father has taken refuge in Milverburg and we shall Inquire of him and all his ungodly entourage.”
Theo brightened up at the news: “This is most encouraging, Eminence. So we will now recall the Angels and aircraft searching Britannia and focus on this accursed city?”
Schimrian nodded then glanced over his shoulder at the candle-shadows in the recesses. The two Brothers saw the smashed terminals against one of the walls and looked at each other in trepidation as the Great-Abbot had been raving for two weeks and they both doubted that he was sane now. “Since most of our communications were restored, I have determined that less than twenty-four Thousands of our Order remain and thrice that number of Tally-men yet they are now distrusted by many of our Brethren overseas. I have ordered them to continue with their Inquisitions and to eradicate the Ferals but they claim that they are no longer equal to the task. They clamour and bleat, no more than that coward, Abbot Amherus,” he paused to stare at Theo meaningfully. “He was your mentor once, was he not?”
Edward’s eyes widened in concern for his friend but Theo recognised the danger he was in immediately: “He was, Eminence, but I soon determined under his tutelage that his pearls of wisdom were rarely supported by fact nor were his interpretations of the Scriptures sound. I did pay respects as befitting his rank but no more than that, Eminence, I assure you.”
The was an agonising pause as the Great-Abbot’s eyes bored into the inwardly-quaking Brother but then the moment passed and Schimrian indicated that they seat themselves before his desk in the chairs they had been ordered to stand beside. He poured them all some brandy from an exquisite glass decanter into cut-glass tumblers and bade them drink their fill. “I am promoting the two of you to the rank and privileges of Father-Technician,” he explained benevolently. “I am fully satisfied as to your loyalty.”
Both Brothers relaxed visibly and enjoyed the warmth of the fiery spirit now radiating out from their innards. “This is excellent, Eminence,” Theo approved, staring at the decanter. “I have not tasted such as this for decades. Thank you.”
The smile faded from Schimrian’s face and his eyes hardened. “It was well-earned, my son, but there is subterfuge still afoot and I have need of your services. I want you to watch Abbot Camus and all of your colleagues closely for me. I doubt not their veracity but these are trying times thus I cannot brook doubters or challenges to my authority during the holy tasks laid out before us.”
“What would you wish of us when those now abroad from these shores return?” Edward ventured.
“I have told them that I wish them not to return with their Inquisitions unfinished yet I fear that many may choose to ignore me and set sail. The remaining Conclave and their acolytes have voiced a particularly strong desire to return to these hallowed isles and seemed most unconvinced of my arguments though they continue to pay me lip-service. Many Tally-men have already been slain out of their deep mistrust as to their reliability.”
Theo looked aghast: “Can they not understand that it was a malfunction in the Great Computer created by the Wiccans which could not affect those Tally-men who were resting?”
“They are not as technically enlightened as you, my son. They point out that all but two of our Brothers-Surgeon have been taken from us and few in the Order are skilled at the electrics of the Guides. They question me the need for Tally-men and thus I conclude they may soon abandon their holy quests.”
“What shall we do if they return?” Edward asked.
Schimrian’s brow darkened as he steepled his fingers. “I shall cross that foul Styx should it flow before my feet,” he said. “They will come to learn that I disdain the faint of heart and those who would so lightly discard the tenets of our faith.”
“When and if they return, Eminence, you may count on us,” Edward pledged, hand on heart.
“And I, Eminence,” Theo added.
“Good, good,” Schimrian beamed and the Brothers felt like two huge millstones were being lifted from their necks. Schimrian waved a hand in dismissal and presented the Ring of the Order for them to kiss. “Do not take long in moving your belongings into your new residences,” he warned them as they reached the door. “I expect you to fulfil your pledges to restore our electrics. Now go forth, my sons, and remember this during your toil: what the Lord bestows, the Lord can so easily take away.”
It was only when they reached the sanctum of the generator room that they fully relaxed. Rain and hail smashed into the high windows and more so than amongst the massive masonry of the Great Manse they could feel the thunder reverberating deep within their bones. They lit as many candles as they could find until the large room was ablaze and swept clean of shadow though each flame guttered in the draughts created by the immense storm raging above the Great Abbey. Wind howled and moaned through gaps in the window frames and through the air vents.
There was a small table and two chairs by one of the portable generators. Theo extracted a bottle of whisky and two small silver cups from his locker and set them upon the table. “I have no idea why I put this bottle in here but I am glad I did now. It has been a tumultuous time, Edward. Let there…”
Edward raised a hand. “Let me stop you there. If you quote Thomas Tythe at me then I will punch you in the face. I have no stomach for that arcane scribbler at the moment.”
“A scribbler? The greatest playwright Britannia has ever known? Thou Philistine!” Theo snorted as he poured the whisky and sat down. There was still bread and cheese on the table and he made them both a sandwich in silence until Edward had ceased his pacing and had seated himself.
“Fine, Tythe then,” Edward conceded. “I am Lord Althayne in ‘The Seven Cardinal Sins’ before Cardinal Bancheron trying to weave excuses for Bishop Manswick at the end of Act Four when being forced to help entrap his old friend. Satisfied?”
Theo smiled and fetched a battered book from his locker and found the page. “Ah here it is: how thou hast blinded thyself with loyalty, my dear Althayne, when thine own weakness, thine own cowardice, thine own debauchery hast delivered you into my hands. For thou art mine, naïve soul, and I shall save thee from a devil who presents to thee a mask of friendship; a deceit to thine eyes; a fair voice to your fey vanities. Ah, if Tythe could see us now as we sit in the Hall of the King wondering whether Bancheron and Manswick are both the Devil playing flawed men who trick and coerce poor Althayne into betraying his friends and brethren.”
“So do you take Camus to be devil or a fool?”
Theo emptied his cup and shook his head. “No, he is a lost soul like Brother Ignatius, the wisest fool of all,” he said cynically. “Six years in his little tower free from Matins and Vespers and any thought of regret as he drowns in his wine and his books.”
“At least, like Althayne’s tragic Fool, he tried to warn the world about the Conclave,” Edward said, raising his cup in a toast and draining it. It is too late for us to play the Fool, my friend: the curtain has fallen and the Scythes of Time sweep the theatre clean of watchful souls but for those that linger, bound to this weeping earth, unaware their corporeal forms have cruelly ceased.”
“Bancheron,” Theo nodded sagely, adding more whisky to the cups. “He had the Fool blinded for that impertinence in front of his master yet here we sit in the Hall of the King wondering whether we be Fool, Althayne or a spectre in the gallery.”
“Pfft, I am solid enough,” Edward said, resting his chin on a hand. “Like Ignatius, we have buried our consciences in work and prayer and cared naught of the outside world unlike Camus…”
“Unlike Camus,” Theo agreed. “He has told me often enough of his sleepless horror; of the nightly shades that tormented both he and Abbot Michael before he became the Naked One…”
Edward shuddered. “It made Camus vomit. What think you of that creature they say spawned in the Great Annexe?”
“There was strange flesh aplenty but none alive witnessed it but for what Michael described when they released him and Schimrian from the infernal device some now call the ‘immortality machine.’ I would like to study it as the circuitry is far, far beyond my current comprehension of electrics but Camus forbids it.”
Edward sighed and gazed about the vast room and its sea of candles. “As would I but I can no longer deny the fact that we were a part of a false apocalypse for all the theological justification dripping from Conclave tongues. We…”
“We experience doubt and guilt? Fear that we will stand before God and be sent to Hell Eternal? Yes, at last we are. I feel a change in the air and not just because of this accursed storm but we must play Althayne for now and not the Fool otherwise we will but be naught but food and sport for the Erdethric Ferals.”
Edward drank some more and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Six years of sweet oblivion in prayer and electrics!” he laughed. “And only now we hear the faint cries of those slain by the Order. What bitter irony, Lord Althayne, said the Fool, for all that my orbs have been wrenched from my poor skull, I still see thee clearly: a pragmatist; a fine synonym for a coward; one who would still save his friend for all his cruelty and folly but whose soul drowns in fear and his resolve in copious wine; a shallow pantin hoisted this way and that by cardinal sins and strings...”
“So we betray all and bury our consciences for another day of sweet life upon this storm-tossed ship of death? We do Schimrian’s bidding even when the Conclave arrives?”
“We do, Edward. The world is dead. This is an existence where we accept the wisdom of Ignatius and seek oblivion not salvation for, like the Bishop at the end of Tythe’s tragedy; we cast aside the mantles of justification and bare our chests for the swords of redemption and damnation.”
“Enough classical literature, Theo,” Edward begged him. “My heart beats, there is whisky and food enough on this table to stave off such thoughts for now and for now it is enough.”
Theo raised his cup again. “Here’s to enough,” he slurred happily. “Here’s to the wisest fool in the Order: Ignatius!”
Edward clinked his cup against Theo’s. “Ignatius!” he grinned.
Even in the oppressive and lightning-rent darkness stifling the Great Abbey and the fields and orchards round about, wafts of smoke could be seen being torn from the chimney of the tower. In the topmost lantern-lit room was the study with curving plastered walls all painted white, great mahogany bookcases stuffed with all manner of publications, tables bearing rare porcelains and treasures looted by ardent postulants and novices for the only Brother in the Great Abbey to ever show them any kindness or respect.
A roaring wood fire burnt in the large hearth that hissed occasionally when the largest of the hailstones gained entrance to the flue beneath the battered metal chimney hood. A large bottle of Alsace vintage and a half-filled glass sat upon an Indian coffee table which was inlaid with extraordinary marquetry using exotic woods. An old wind-up gramophone was playing the Third Sonata by the renowned Austrian composer, Valdus.
An incense candle smouldered on another table and a plate of bread and cheese lay on the floor by Brother Ignatius who sat in an ancient wooden chair carved with Celtic motifs of Cernunnos and running stags interlaced with brightly painted knot-work. He was reading a translation of Cicero and making notes in the margins. He gazed up at the needlework banner above the fireplace that repeated on of his favourite sayings attributed to Cicero: a room without books is like a body without a soul.
There were three floors to the station tower each with high ceilings and each accessed via an exterior stair case attached to the western side of the tower. The ground floor was the kitchen, toilets and office and could also be accessed from the small enclosed courtyard. Ignatius could not be sure, due to the tumult of the storm, but he thought he heard someone enter the ground floor and begin ransacking the place. His heart pounding, he crept to the door and locked it wishing that there was another escape route as the faint and muffled sounds of destruction continued.
The Third Sonata drew to a crescendo and fell silent but for the click of the gramophone needle on the innermost groove. Ignatius strained his ears but all was quiet. “It must have been the wind or some novice venting his despair,” he reasoned aloud to himself but nevertheless he retrieved a heavy fire-iron from the hearth.
Suddenly beneath his feet, he heard his bed being hurled across the bedroom and his wardrobes tossed against the walls to be reduced to splinters. It lasted four minutes but seemed like an eternity to Ignatius who began trembling. “Ah,” he breathed aloud. “Dear Lord protect me from the Devil within and without!”
He heard the door wood creak ominously until the lock failed from the superhuman pressure applied to it and flew across the room. The figure emerged from the darkness of the stairwell and drew back the cowl to reveal a predatory grin that froze the very marrow in his bones. With all his might, he struck the intruder with the fire-iron which bent on impact but tore a large flap of flesh from the scalp revealing the white bone beneath.
The intruder rocked slightly and reached up to press the flap of flesh back into place while he glared at the shuddering cleric. He held it there for thirty seconds then took his hand away.
Ignatius trembled violently and the fire-iron clattered to the floor for he could see neither blood nor a sign of any wound. He thought he would faint as dead lungs wheezed in air not for oxygen but for the act of conversation:
“Ask me how I did that?” Pious said in a voice as dry as the Vatican catacombs. Ignatius could only shake his head in abject terror. “Ah, I am afraid I have no explanation either, Brother Ignatius. Let us say that I am blessed by Our Lord God and let us not question His beneficence like some pagan or perhaps the Unworthy creature that carved your seat, shall we?”
Pious advanced upon the quaking Brother who flopped back down into the chair and made the sign of the Cross. “Forgive my poor welcome, Eminence, but I thought I was b-being attacked by the Light-Father. What do you want?”
“Ah, Brother Ignatius, it is but a minor errand for the Great-Abbot: he wishes me to Inquire of you.”
(c) 2019 Paul D E Mitchell PRS and other copyrights protected.
Reproduction and retransmission strictly forbidden without written consent.