3LBE #8
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William’s Relic

by
Marc Hutcheson

 

“And he that digs it spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?”

— John Donne, “The Relic”

 

A new land, a new range for the hunt. That is what I need, thought the man in the dark cloak. And for him, such whims were an unalterable law, a course instantly decided. Such thoughts were divinely inspired, communiqués from Urizen himself to his prophet of pain.

The man began to gather his things from the room that he inhabited on the second floor of a tavern called Verdi’s Song, after the timeless, enduring beings that dwelt on Celaqui’s dream shores.

The name made his stomach clench slightly, suddenly, with nausea.

Mostly, his gear included the common items of the lone traveler — tinderbox, a couple changes of clothes, hard, dried biscuits, strips of salted meat, a waterskin, and a thick wool blanket. These he gathered from their various perches around the room and placed in a large, leaf-green knapsack. He then laid the knapsack on the bed, and knelt down beside the moth-eaten furniture in a repose fit for prayer, reverent and calm. Instead of sending some plea to the God, however, he reached down and removed a loose board in the floor, a board that had been secure as all the rest before he had taken up residence in the room. Within the space suddenly revealed was a folded leather scrip of jet-black hue and an ornate onyx box.

First, with holy fervor, the man unfolded the scrip and gazed at its contents. Within lay a diverse selection of small blades and knives, odd and exotic. They all gleamed with regular polish and sharpening. Satisfied — at their beauty, for he knew the collection by its weight — he rolled the scrip and placed it within the knapsack along with his otherworldly possessions. He then opened the onyx box, whose perfectly symmetrical and smooth surfaces were broken only by delicately traced silver etchings that seemed to move with elegant life and curve along the edges.

The box held a single, unique necklace, woven from hair of many different hues and textures, and so fine that they could only be human. The necklace was reinforced with silver bands, and the hair was wound tightly to form a thin, strong rope. Suspended from the necklace was a hollow gold coin, fashioned so that it appeared to be a circle within a circle.

The man placed the item carefully around his neck, arranging it so that it would rest lightly and perfectly in the space just below the hollow of his throat, and then returned to his feet. He buckled his sheathed longsword around his waist, deposited the onyx box in the knapsack, and then left the room — knowing that he would never return.

There was no sense of loss, of endings. There was nothing at all.

Below, in the common room, he paid the innkeeper’s wife the balance of what he owed, and was thanked with a pleasant smile from her open, generous face.

“What a beautiful necklace!” she exclaimed. “Wherever did you get it?”

“It was a gift. From my love,” the man answered in a quiet, unassuming voice.

He pulled his dark cloak around him and left the inn to her wistful sighs.

The village without was beneath his notice — just another backwater hamlet — other than a brief, but very bitter recrimination for the fact that no jewelsmith peddled his trade within its confines.

The thought was fleeting, however. The man turned his feet and his mind to the road, in the direction of the rising sun, determined to seek the land where legend claimed the race of man had walked his first steps under the stars. It was neither intellectual nor romantic curiosity that had decided this destination, however.

He had been called.

• • •

It was a journey of several days by foot to the sea. But he distrusted horses, and the sentiment had generally been reciprocated by any of the brutes that had crossed his path. Those few days were neither pleasant nor a hardship, but by the close of the journey, his heart had begun to quicken a bit, to signal its need — the rising tide of desire.

Soon, he would grow impatient.

He knew the name of the seaside town to which he had arrived, but didn’t care to summon it forward into his conscious thoughts. His mind was centered on the beating of his heart, the pounding of the blood at the temple, the artery at the throat.

A clouded picture began to move in his mind, a vision of a woman with golden hair. He couldn’t discern her face, not yet, nor any distinguishing feature besides her bright locks, but he knew that they would become clear with time. And this one was powerful, stronger than all the rest. He had no doubt that his time was short to reach the land across the sea.

Yet when his dark brown eyes fell on an old, wooden sign bearing the faded legend of a wide-eyed owl — like the night birds frequently seen on farms — the dark-cloaked man stepped inside the weathered walls of the shop without hesitation.

“Stay where you are,” a voice cautioned.

His eyes adjusted quickly to the shadows within the windowless, one-room building, and he saw a feeble old man sitting on the dirt floor. Undoubtedly the speaker, as there was no one else visible.

“You will not take my money?” the dark-cloaked man asked.

“Of course I will. But I’ll not have you stink up my shop with your thoughts that are like the excrement from worms.”

“Where would you like me to place your fee?” he asked, accepting the old man’s words with equanimity.

“Two silvers at your feet. I’ll collect them after you’ve left, William of Storn.”

The man named William nodded slightly to himself.

“I had wondered whether you were genuine or not. Most Mystics don’t live in such filth.”

“I know your doubts. Your opinion of me or my home means little to me. You’ve come to learn how your journey will fare.”

“Yes,” William replied, even though he knew that it had not been a question.

“I don’t need my power to divine your future, should you continue on this path. I felt you as soon as you set foot in the city. Your mind cries out in a cacophony of pain and dark purpose. I feel as though I have sunk beneath a murky bog just by being this close to you. Do you think that those across the sea, with a power far greater than my own, will not know you for what you are a world away?”

“The Quel'ra?” William asked, scoffing.

“Of course. They are not merely trader’s tales and legends. And they will not tolerate one such as you. But I am wasting my time. You will not turn aside.”

“I have been called. The path is set,” William answered. “But I'm not paying you for your advice. I came for a Vision.”

“Visions are dangerous, chancy things — delvings into Time and Creation that risk losing one in the immensity and intense wonder — “ The old man scoffed himself. “You do not care. And I’ll not risk that for one such as you. Particularly not when your future is assured. Any common sense appraisal will tell you the same truth. Go, and keep your money.”

William knelt and laid two silver coins on the floor anyway, and then turned to go.

“Since you paid, I’ll grant you one final insight, William of Storn. The Quel'ra will find you, without a doubt. However, there is a truth that you possess, yet refuse to know.” In pause, the old man seemed to marvel at this a moment, or pity, but then spat out the rest. “You wish for them to come to you.”

William walked away without a reply.

He sailed the Yane Sea that very afternoon. He stayed in the bowels of the ship, in the passenger’s cabin, and refused to look on the golden waters that had been the subject of many a poet’s fevered fancy, and many an ignoble man’s unarticulated memories.

He returned the necklace to its box. It would never do to travel with it on. The necklace was for endings, and beginnings.

The voyage took three days, and ended when the ship put into port in Car Celaqui — the largest trade city in Stegaria, and certainly the most diverse and busy place that William had ever laid eyes on. Travelers from as far south as Daganor, east from beneath the Quel Tor mountain range, and even a group of three Verdi (undoubtedly arrived to discuss trade deputations) walked the city’s streets.

None of this interested William in the slightest.

His impatience had grown into a roaring need during the voyage, and the image of the blond woman seemed just beyond his grasp. He had not eaten nor consumed any water during the voyage — not as a ritual of purification but simply because he had lost any thought of them in the pale locks of his newest mistress.

He had to find her, and soon.

But first there was another task whose need superceded even this, and was forced on him now by the stinking hamlet that he had come from, and specifically by the fact that it had no competent jewelsmith.

William made his way by asking directions to the Craftsmen’s District, and quickly located a jeweler’s shop. Within, ornaments of diverse metal, shape, and cultural origin adorned expensive, rare glass cases. William knew that sometimes men made a great show of wealth and taste to deflect truth, but he believed that any jeweler that could afford such cases had to be clever at his trade.

The jewelsmith, a fat man with long, nimble fingers, was busy discussing rumors of war between two of the Dukes of the Realm. He solicitously brought the conversation up short, however, at the sight of a potential customer. He made his apologies to his conversational partner, promising to pick up the discussion later, and then turned his attention to William.

“May I help you, sir?”

“Yes,” William answered, removing the onyx box from within his knapsack. He opened it and removed his treasured necklace, offering it up for the jeweler’s inspection. William then pulled out a lock of fine red hair from within a pocket beneath his cloak. He placed the lock of hair on one of the glass cases.

The jeweler inspected the necklace for the moment.

“Finely woven, the silver thread with the hair. And this,” he said as he fingered the gold double-circle, “a cunningly wrought symbol of Our Lord.”

The jeweler gave a curious glance to the lock of red hair on the case.

“You want me to add this to the necklace?”

“Yes.”

“Might I ask the significance of such a strange relic?”

Normally, William would not have answered this question. But the use of the word ‘relic’ pleased him, it had a significant ring to it — a holy meaning. And so he answered.

“Each lock is a gift from one of my loves.”

“You seem to have loved many women.” The businessman took another chance with him. “I assume they are all women?”

Surprised at his own patience, William smiled.

“Yes, all women. I have been a very blessed man.”

The jeweler nodded. “It will cost you a gold piece.”

William flicked one onto the case. The jeweler snatched it up with surprising speed and dexterity for his size. He then went on to explain that it would be ready in three days, as he already had an important item to work on for Lord such-and-such — William didn’t really pay attention to the name.

The delay irritated him. He might well have another lock to add by the time this slow pig was finished.

It couldn’t be helped, though, and so he walked out without a word — his ‘relic’ and the jeweler already forgotten, until the appointed time. All was lost in the vision of the blond-haired woman, the one for whom he had been called with the voice of love.

He could almost see her!

Outside, in the press of the streets, hundreds flowed around him, brushed against him, and moved through his life in brevity. He found his thoughts moving outward… away from her… toward those in the crowd. He yanked them back, snarling into the hood of his cloak.

Suddenly, loud-voiced heralds called out for the streets to be cleared, and the crowd surged back on either side of the street to form a path for a nobleman and his entourage.

William pressed back as far from the procession as possible, wincing at the smell from the horses. Then, in a glance, he caught the glint of gold from the corner of his eye.

Burning clear the mental image in his mind. As he beheld a beautiful, aquiline-featured woman with blond hair ride down the street in the procession.

Her eyes were green!

Mesmerizing, throwing the light from the sun out in kaleidoscopic wonder, just as they did from the image in his mind.

William pressed forward suddenly, determined to follow her, but it proved impossible to break through the press of the crowd. Trapped, the chasm widening between them, he grew frantic. He cursed and kicked and shoved, all to no avail. Finally, he regained most of his composure and turned with wild eyes to one of his neighbors and asked him the name of the nobleman that had just passed.

The man, fearful of William’s fevered eyes, answered promptly.

“That was Lord Stephen Herbert and his daughter Theresa.”

“Where are they going? Where are they going?!” William pressed him anxiously.

“I don’t know.” The man took a step back. “I don’t know!” the man yelled, suddenly putting his arm up in defense. “Stop staring at me like that!”

“I imagine he’s headed to Duke Hallard’s Castle,” another man offered with some urgency, stepping in to help the other who was stumbling back.

William nodded, and thought briefly to apologize. But his desire was distraction, and took him away from there quickly.

As he searched for a tavern near Castle Hallard — the residence of the Grand Duke of Car Celaqui — he thought that he felt eyes on him. William scanned the crowd, but saw nothing untoward.

He had learned, over the years, to trust his instincts. And they told him now to abandon Lord Herbert’s daughter. But the heart's-blood pounding in his ears drove the cautionary voice away, and the image of Theresa Herbert burned him behind his eyes.

William secured a room, and then prepared himself for the evening.

He learned in the common room that Duke Hallard was throwing a costume ball to celebrate the arrival of Lord Herbert.

It was easy enough for William to procure a mask, one that frowned darkly and had wide, circular, shocked eyes. He thought it very becoming.

He secured only what he needed beneath his black cloak, and donned the mask. He left his longsword behind, hiding only a single dagger in his left boot for protection.

The gate to Castle Hallard was not heavily guarded, only two silent, hooded men in grey robes flanked the entrance. They stood utterly motionless, and allowed everyone entry to the celebration.

The legendary Quel'ra, William thought, somewhat astounded that he was pleased to finally see those of whom so many tales were told. The Grey Paladins.

William knew that they were the enforcers of Stegarian law, and the elite soldiers of the kingdom. They were powerful Mystics, according to legend, far stronger than the roadside oddity he had encountered before, peddling fortunes to the ignorant country bumpkins.

The Quel'ra were always spoken of in whispers even over the sea, always with great respect — and fear. Their deeds during the Blood Wars were remembered and honored wherever the race of man walked.

The fully radiant image of Lord Herbert’s daughter burned in his mind. The mask helped to hide his anxiety from the commoners and noblemen in attendance, but he was concerned the grey-robed guards might see deeper.

He made his way quickly through the main ballroom, taking just enough time to appear as though he appreciated the bright candles and elegant art, imagining himself a dark spirit, a silent revenant.

And — behold! — he found her.

There among them. Spinning with terrible, heart-stopping grace in the ritual steps that the wealthy and powerful had designed to pass the time, or perhaps as yet another indication of their status, raising the barrier even higher between themselves and the lower ranks. William didn’t know the steps, and didn’t much care. He thought the dancers looked ridiculous, like dogs that have had a hat placed over their head.

All but her. She was the archetype for beauty and grace, despite the dance, not because of it.

William’s heart was roaring now, instantly speeding up from its utter stillness of a moment before.

He had to have her.

William moved stealthily through the crowd, like the spirit that he had imagined himself, the mask in place the entire time. Within mere moments, he stood within a few feet of her. The mask hid the nervousness on his face, and the cloak concealed the shaking in his limbs. When the dance ended at the break of the musicians, William stepped forward.

“Lady Herbert, I am honored beyond knowing to meet you.”

“Likewise, Sir Ghost,” she answered with a light-hearted giggle.

“The moon is lovely tonight, Milady.” He could not believe the silk-like flow of his own words. “Would you like to slip away and catch a glimpse of it?”

Was it his impertinence? The mysterious contradiction of his mask? Or was it simply a desire to slip from a room of politics and the dull preening of her father’s noble friends into a romantic moonlit encounter, fraught with imagined peril? No matter which, the result was the same.

“Yes,” she whispered, quick, almost harsh. “Oh yes.” In exasperation or mischief?

So why not say what his heart wanted? “Is there somewhere private where we can go? A place that opens up unto the night sky?”

“There are gardens within the castle walls.”

“Yes, oh yes,” he said. And she smiled at him perfectly.

They slipped out quietly and she led him through the open, wide passages in what he assumed was the direction of the gardens. Under the mask, William tasted the salt on his lip. At any other time he would have felt nothing but contempt for the weakness of this place. The castle was a building for show, a seat of legislative power, not a fortress to stand against armies. But he was overrun now with a pounding love in his chest, to be in the company of such radiance.

They left the halls through a large, open arch and stepped into an ordered, small garden open to the night sky. William’s attention was riveted on Lady Herbert as he reached within his cloak, and so he failed to notice the dark roses, or the water fountain that bore mermaids — one a naked, beautiful nymph chased in gold, the other a frightful hag made up partially of black marble.

“There’s no moon tonight,” Lady Herbert said half in surprise, half in a coquettish tone that belied her pleasure that he would invent an excuse to be alone with her.

As she spun to look on him again, she suddenly felt a wire tighten around her throat!

She gagged, trying and rip his hands away from their vice-like grip on the wire.

“Quit struggling, or I’ll strangle you,” William whispered in a deadly voice.

She went limp, unable to answer through her choked sobs.

“Excellent. Here.”

William kicked leather restraints, that he had silently dropped to the ground a moment before he attacked her, and he directed Theresa to place them around her hands and ankles.

She complied, and within moments William had dragged her over to a marble bench in a remote corner of the garden and had tied her to it on her back. He quickly gagged her as well, but did not blindfold her.

That would dampen the results.

William removed the leather scrip and opened it on the stone block floor.

He could hear her choking into the gag with her sobs.

His heart had slowed, and the pounding had mercifully fled his head.

There was only coldness, and terrible purpose.

He selected a small sickle-shaped tool from the stood over her. He brushed her hair from out of her eyes with it, and made certain that she could see the cruel instrument.

“I'm sorry, shining one. You were chosen. This is your destiny. You will sing of terror and pain to the world, and bring a paean of praise to God for all the evils that he allows. I'm going to slowly torture you now, and exact every ounce of hurt and horror from you that can possibly be managed before you die.”

Theresa silently screamed, choked slightly into the gag, and then she continued her cry through her eyes, and it was wrenching to William — and exquisite.

“Your family, friends, potential suitors — they are all very close, my love. Isn’t this every person’s nightmare, in the dark, to be close to loved ones and yet unable to scream as a monster rips her limb from limb? And you are soft, my sweet, so soft. You’ve lived your life sheltered and loved, and without pain. That will make this all the better — for you are an open book and weak, and will give me all I want, and more.”

William brought the torture instrument toward her.

And there was no sound, no stirring of the air, nothing at all before he was lying flat on his back, with the implement hurled far away into the bushes.

William leaped to his feet with cat-like grace, and removed the dagger from his boot.

There were three of them, all dressed in robes of an indistinguishable color in the moonless night, but that William did not doubt for a moment were grey.

The Quel'ra!

His suspicion was turned into certainty a moment later when all three drew curved, graceful blades with the speed of magic.

Runeswords, the traditional weapons of the Quel'ra. Each of them moved the weapons fluidly into combat position as they slowly circled him.

“Put the dagger down, William,” one of them commanded.

William did nothing, and a motionless stalemate held for several moments while they presumably waited for him to drop his weapon. Then, suddenly, William noticed that there were only two grey-robed figures in his sight…

A terrible pain erupted through William, originating somewhere in his lower body.

As he drank deep the darkness, he put a thought to the pain and its location.

My God. They’ve hamstrung me.

• • •

William awoke standing in a shadowed, circular room.

He was standing.

This puzzled him deeply for a moment as he wondered if the evening had been nothing but a dream.

No. It was real. He refused to question this any further, in his focused, relentless manner.

Had the Quel'ra finished him? Had he passed over into the afterlife? This seemed a more credible answer — for a moment.

“This is not your eternal reward,” a voice uttered into the stillness.

A single Quel'ra appeared before William. The shadows clung thickly to the Grey Paladin, and held him within their soft embrace.

“Where am I?” William asked without fear.

“Now that is a rather interesting answer. Physically, you are resting, unconscious, within a dungeon deep beneath our chapterhouse in Car Celaqui. But currently, we are both conversing within the confines of your mind.”

William did not like this.

Not one bit.

“I want you out of my mind!” he shrieked through globs of imagined saliva and snarling teeth.

“Now William,” the Quel'ra said gently. “You seem to be losing your charming composure already, and we’ve just begun. I am a touch disappointed. We do not enter the minds of others — it’s against our creeds. But you are a convicted criminal, William, and hence have forfeited your rights.”

“Convicted of what? I recall no trial.”

William could feel the Quel'ra’s smile even if he couldn’t see it beneath the concealing hood.

“Yes there was, William. A trial by ordeal. And you failed. We knew you and your history the moment you walked into the city. Your diseased mind cried out to us, begged us to seek you, to put an end to the pain, to stop you before you hurt anyone else.”

“So why didn’t you arrest me then?”

“Because we had the cursed choice of God, my friend. We knew that you would commit evil, but had to wait until you did, or else we were condemning you for something you had not yet done. We hoped that you would choose another path.”

“I could not. God chose my path. He made me as I am! Who are you to gainsay that? To restrain my nature?”

The Quel'ra shrugged.

“Perhaps your ways could not be helped. Your nature might be unalterable, but so then is ours. It changes nothing.”

“Then what is to be my fate?” he tried to retain some composure.

“You have stolen that which you don’t understand, William. That is what makes your crimes so terrible. You have taken innocence and you have slaughtered potential. You do not feel and you do not understand the implications of what you have done.

“You must be made to understand.”

Again he drank the dark.

• • •

When William opened his eyes, he felt very strange. As he gradually became aware of his surroundings, he realized that he was tied, spread-eagle, to a stone slab. But this was not all that was wrong. With the situation. With him.

Something made him look down. At his loins.

And he knew all at once what was wrong.

Because he saw nothing there. And two breasts impeded his view.

His breasts.

And he screamed against the gag of oblivion, unheard.

But that was not to be the worst of it. For he saw a familiar, sickle-shaped instrument coming toward him through the eyes were not his own.

And a familiar face peering at him, wielding it teasingly.

Take pity on me! William begged. Do you not know what was done to me? The horrors that I have seen, that were inflicted upon me since childhood?

Yes, we know. How could we not? It pervades every minute part of you, has sickened your very soul. We pity you deeply, and cry for the child who was ruined long ago…

It changes nothing.

• • •

The horror went on and on and on, for hours that bled into pain-filled days as he jumped from body to body, reliving all of his victims through their eyes.

And at last, mercifully, his eyes opened on a new scene. His body was his again, and now it lay exhausted on a piece of black marble, his head held in a bowl-deep depression, and his neck exposed to the raised Runesword that William could feel poised above him.

William raised his eyes to meet a grey hood. He could see nothing within the shadowed area that held the Quel'ra’s face, yet William instinctively knew that this was the one that had spoken to him within his own mind.

“I'm profoundly sorry,” William whispered without cynicism, without any emotion beyond heartfelt, absolute sincerity.

The grey hood nodded gravely in approval.

“It is a terrible responsibility that you hold,” William added.

“Yes,” the Quel'ra answered with a sadness that could not be contained by that single, inadequate word.

And the blade of the Runesword, sharper than any razor, fell unerringly.

• • •

A grey-robed figure moved with swift grace into the jeweler’s shop.

“Yes, milord?” the jeweler asked with instant deference.

The Quel'ra explained his need, and it was complied with immediately, without any of the questions that the jeweler was dying to ask.

• • •

When the Grey Paladins laid William to rest, in respect and sorrow, it was so with his treasured necklace adorning his breast beneath his shortened neck.

 

 

Marc Hutcheson is twenty-five years old, and currently resides in Orlando, Florida. Marc is a recent graduate from the Master’s of Business Administration program at Rollins College. He is very near to the completion of a novel entitled The Climbing Wave — a work of literary speculative fiction.


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ISSUE #8

March 2001

FICTION

ART