A Little Learning
by Mojave Dragonfly
Disclaimer: These characters and the Deryni universe are the creation of Katherine Kurtz, and all rights are hers.
This was written for the Yuletide Treasure New Year's Resolution challenge 2005 (an obscure fandom Secret Santa project), for Marien who wanted a Deryni Chronicles tale featuring Alaric Morgan. I should mention that Kurtz is writing The Childe Morgan trilogy, which I presume will make this story utterly non-canonical or AU.
fearfully and wonderfully made."
The priory roof had leaked in the night, and Duncan's neatly folded clothes at the foot of his bed were soaked. Still groggy with sleep and feeling a little sick, he considered the forlorn wet bundle. He glanced around the greyly-lit room at the other boys dressing for matins, but saw no one who was likely to have a spare seminary robe. Even a Duke's son was not entitled to an extra. Duncan shivered as he placed his bare feet on the frigid stone floor.
Around him the other acolytes dressed, for the most part in silence, each boy too sleepy and cold yet to be very sociable. Two beds down from Duncan, Timothy Coris slept unaware; even the Abbott's booming voice had proven insufficient to rouse him. Duncan saw Ian MacDhugal reach to shake him, so Duncan returned to contemplating his wet robe. Gingerly he slipped the wet muslin over his head, bracing himself as the garment fell around his goosepimple flesh. He opened his eyes to glare at the tiny crevice in the roof that even now dripped moisture on the other clothes beneath it. Duncan moved the garments to beneath the small table they were on, hastily donned his sandals and joined the other boys in line to leave for the cathedral. "Better hurry, Timothy," he thought.
He stepped out the door into a morning that was still grey and overcast. The grass was wet and spongy and moisture beaded on the stones of the priory walls. Fog covered the valley that would normally have provided an expansive view of the green forests and farmland beyond Rhemuth. The sun behind the clouds was not yet fully risen; the morning still looked eerily dreamlike.
As the boys ahead of him began to chant the morning prayers, Duncan wondered - not for the first time - how valid was his call to the religious life. A year ago it had seemed very clear to him, but on this grey morning, in a soaked robe and still bleary-eyed, Duncan thought enviously of his older brother, Kevin. Kevin's days were filled with learning the arts of war and governing: riding, fencing, hunting, courtly manners, and music. By contrast, the long elementary religious training at the priory looked bleak and boring. Even the danger no longer thrilled Duncan, though he made it a part of his daily prayers to ask that he never forget the peril he was in - that he never become complacent. For Duncan's mother was a full blood Deryni, one of that accursed race who were hated and feared for their supernatural powers.
The Church condemned every Deryni as a witch or worse, and for their evil nature they were restricted in their legal rights to land, position, and livelihood. No Deryni was permitted to join the clergy in any manner, and the audacity of his act sometimes awed Duncan. So far as he knew, he would be the first Deryni priest in centuries, if only he could keep his secret that long. That his mother had been Deryni was known only to a few, and they were all family. His cousin, Alaric Morgan, was open about his Deryni ancestry, because he enjoyed the King's protection as his royal squire. Duncan kept his relationship to Morgan a closely guarded secret, for their mothers had been sisters and the same powers which Morgan could admit to flowed through Duncan's blood. If Duncan's true nature were ever discovered, he could anticipate punishment for his transgression ranging from excommunication to torture and execution by fire. It was not likely that Duncan's noble birth or tender age would entitle him to any leniency from Church officials. The deception that Duncan must enter into was vast, and must last his entire life.
The procession of acolytes reached St. David's Cathedral and Duncan's spirits lifted. The ancient edifice had been erected by St. Bearand Haldane, distant ancestor to the Haldane Kings who held the throne of Gwynedd. It was one of the most impressive cathedrals in the capitol, and its close proximity to the Royal Palace made it the site of daily worship for most of the kingdom's Rhemuth based nobility. St. David's was a beautiful structure, lovingly crafted and modestly ornate, and the sight of it never failed to warm Duncan. Still chanting the morning prayers, Duncan straightened his sticky robe and entered the outer chancel, where the Abbott hastily blessed each boy and handed him a prayer book. St. David's Cathedral was a little warmer inside, and Duncan's morning grumpiness faded with his momentary doubts. He loved this.
The acolytes filed up a narrow staircase, their feet sounding overly loud on the wooden planks. At the top they emerged into a side balcony overlooking the spacious cathedral nave. Since most of the acolytes of the priory were younger sons of nobility or wealthy merchants, they were afforded a somewhat privileged location in the cathedral. Their arrival, all in their white robes and chanting, signaled the beginning of the mass. The worshippers quieted, composing themselves for the service. Duncan was briefly surprised to see so many people, for he had forgotten that the day was Sunday. "I'm not awake yet," he excused himself.
The floor of the cathedral held rows of pews, the front rows labeled on the end of each pew with a coat of arms of a noble Gwyneddian family. Duncan looked to the fourth row, which bore the McLain coat of arms. There he saw his father, Duke Jared, and beside him, wearing a sash of McLain plaid, his brother Kevin, the Earl of Kierney. The rest of the row held more distant relatives and servants to the McLains. And on the end of the row - a golden blond head which could only belong to Alaric Morgan, royal quire and future Duke of Corwyn. It was not unusual for Morgan to be seated with the McLains; he and his sister Bronwyn were foster children of Duke Jared and his wife.
Duke Jared looked up, scanning the two rows of acolytes, and grinned when he met his younger son's gaze. Duncan smiled back, and then both looked forward as the priests entered.
Bishop Rosemont must have been ill, for Father Halfearne conducted the mass. As Duncan slid forward to kneel, he glanced around to see if Timothy had made it in time, simultaneously searching with his mind for the other boy. Chargrined to have used his powers without thinking, he halted the mental search, but he had already learned that Timothy was not yet there.
The mass proceeded, and Duncan was finally able to compose his wandering thoughts into prayer and devotion. Timothy Coris arrived, sliding into a rear position just as the Gloria began. It took no arcane effort on Duncan's part for him to feel the Abbott's fury, and he winced imagining Timothy's penance. The Gloria ended, and Duncan sat back in his damp robe to hear the homily.
Father Halfearne's homily dealt with the evil in the world and the powers of the Devil. The particular focus of the priest's ire was, of course, the evil Deryni. Duncan listened attentively, but with polite skepticism. He had known few Deryni besides himself, but one he had known had been his mother. There had been no evil in his mother's soul, he was certain. Surprisingly at ease with the heresy of his quiet assertion, Duncan knew that, in this, the teachings of the Church were wrong. Though Alaric occasionally teased him for a hypocrite, the Church's fallacy on the Deryni issue in no way deterred Duncan from wanting to be a priest. "And who's to say how wrong they are?" he had retorted to his cousin, "You're certainly no model of Deryni virtue, Alaric Morgan."
Duncan smiled to himself and glanced down at the royal squire. Then he looked again, his heart pounding with apprehension, for he recognized the expression on Alaric's face. Speculation, excitement, wonder. Alaric stared in rapt attention at the priest; he should have been bored and restless. Duncan turned his attention to the homily, fearing what he would hear. Lacking a Deryni teacher, Alaric had learned of many of his powers by what the Church taught that the Deryni could do. A priest had warned his congregation that the wicked Deryni could read men's minds, and an eight-year-old Morgan had cornered his cousin in order to try it. Since then Alaric had discovered many other powers, frequently learning of them in church. Just what had Father Halfearne been saying?
"These wicked, evil spawns of the Devil, will even make contact with their unholy parent. Secret obscene rituals held at the dark of the moon, in remotest forests, summon Satan into our world through magical doorways. We must always be wary, my flock, of what the Deryni may be conjuring under the cover of night. Demons, night hags, and all manner of creatures from hell these Satan spawn can call out upon God's earth."
Raising demons from Hell! Duncan scoffed. Then he checked his thoughts. Many of the sorceries Alaric had discovered, Duncan had thought impossible. He had promised himself to take nothing for granted. Still, raising demons . . . why, to even try such a thing was a heinous blasphemy, even if never accomplished. Surely Alaric wouldn't . . . A chill passed through Duncan which had nothing to do with his wet robe. He looked back at the excited expression on his cousin's face. Oh, Sweet Jesu, he prayed, no, no. He longed to leap from his seat and grab his foster brother by the shoulders and shake sense into him. The thought occurred to him that he might be able to reach the upper levels of Morgan's consciousness, even from here, but the strength expended would be tremendous, and Duncan must never work magic . . .
Duncan spent the remainder of the mass in an agony of impatience. The more he considered, the more convinced he became that Morgan would try this unthinkable deed. The attempt alone was a sin of tremendous magnitude, and Morgan could never be absolved since he couldn't very well confess it without betraying his Deryni heritage. Would mass never end? And could he slip away from the Abbott? How quickly would Alaric leave? Finally the mass came to an end and the novices rose to file down the narrow stairs. Duncan cast a last anxious glance for the golden beacon of his cousin's hair before leaving his place at the rail. Alaric was standing with Kevin, though the two did not appear to be talking.
At the bottom of the stairs, Duncan slid right, instead of filing out with the other boys. Turning to enter the cathedral sanctuary, he bumped right into . . . Father Abbott! Curse the luck!
"And just where do you think you're going, McLain?" The Abbott gripped Duncan's left bicep, painfully lifting him to his toes. The Abbott was not only a man of sever discipline and nasty temper, but also one of limited imagination. Duncan would get no help or parole from him.
"Oh, Father!" Duncan gasped. "I . . . I was just thinking to greet my family." Which wasn't really untrue, he reasoned.
"Disobedient pup! The Abbott gave Duncan a shake, but lowered his weight back to flat feet. Regardless of his subordinate position to this man, Duncan was still the son of the Duke of Cassan, and not obliged to take too much abuse. The Abbott had had complaints before. "You know you may have no contact with your family while you are under my tutelage. I'll see you in confession, young sir. Right now, you are shirking. It's your turn to collect the candles from Father Morris." He pushed Duncan in the general direction of the Bishop's chambers. That was true! It was his turn. Duncan had forgotten.
Appearing, he hoped, penitent and dutiful, Duncan trotted down the corridor, supposedly in search of Father Morris, Bishop Rosemont's assistant. The cathedral burned only tall, virgin candles for each mass, but the candles were only half used by the end. The unburned portions were handed down to the Abbey, where no one cared what they looked like, so long as they gave light. The instant the Abbott was out of sight, Duncan cut left and entered the cathedral sanctuary.
For some reason the cathedral was not emptying. Duncan could not see the fourth pew through the crowd. He eased his way between the worshipers, muttering occasional apologies and trying to avoid anyone who knew him. A spattering against the stained glass windows explained why few people were leaving. The fog must have given way to a downpour. At least it might delay Alaric.
No such luck. When Duncan finally reached the edge of the press of bodies he saw Kevin alone, crouched to re-lace one of his boots. Morgan was not in sight. Duncan approached his brother anyway, though he knew, almost as certainly as if his powers had told him, that Alaric was no longer in the cathedral.
"Kevin!" was his only greeting. The Earl of Kierney, the Duke of Cassan's eldest son, looked up, surprised to hear his brother's voice, and, Duncan noted distantly, he actually looked pleased to see him. They had not spoken in two months.
"Duncan!" Kevin responded, and glanced around, probably for their father. "What are you . . . aren't you truant?"
Duncan didn't have time for explanations, and he wouldn't discuss his fears about Alaric's extra-curricular studies in public, anyway. "Where is Alaric?"
Kevin looked astonished. "Alaric? Why, I don't know. I suppose he's around. Why?" He sounded genuinely bewildered, but a slight narrowing of his eyes as he spoke the last word betrayed his own awareness of the main thing Duncan had in common with Morgan. Kevin had a different mother than Duncan, and he was not Deryni. But he was suspicious.
"I have to find him," was all Duncan gave him as he looked around, trying to decide what to do. One of the great doors at the front of the building was cracked open as people peered resignedly at the cascade beyond. Gentlemen and their ladies clustered genially near the doors, their gowns and livery a splash of color against the grey beyond them. Somehow Duncan doubted his elusive cousin had escaped that way. He was also fairly certain he hadn't used the same side door the acolytes used, so that left . . . well, the door from the bishop's vestry and . . . there might be a mirror image side door on the west side of the cathedral, similar to the acolytes' door. Duncan scanned the interior of the west wall and he spotted Duke Jared and the Countess of Trurill coming toward him. He winced and headed toward the crowd and the bishop's vestry, taking no leave of his brother. He was unable to explain the peculiar urgency within him which seemed to justify not only shirking his duties being actually rude to his family - he only knew that he didn't have time to try to explain to his father.
In a moment he was in the vestry. Happily neither the bishop nor any of his assistants were. The back door was unlatched, which didn't mean anything, but as Duncan rested his hand upon the latch he knew Alaric had come this way. He had not consciously used his powers, but he did not question his certainty. Alaric had been here.
The door swung out, into the rain. Duncan paused, somewhat daunted. Behind the cathedral was miles of woods. Could Alaric really be out in this? And which way did he go? Where does one go to raise a demon, anyway?
Duncan considered. Well, one might go into the woods to raise a demon, and it might not have been raining when Alaric left. This was clearly one of those sudden torrents.
Cautiously, Duncan unleashed a questing tendril of thought into the silver wall of rain. "Alaric, where are you?" his probe whispered. His breathing slowed as his awareness grew. Gently he slipped into another mode of perception. He noted gratefully that no one was approaching the vestry, but of his cousin . . . he sensed nothing. Alaric was either shielding against him, or was involved in some arcane ceremony which shielded him by its very nature. Or else, habit of discipline forced Duncan to review the other, if less likely, possibilities, Alaric could be unconscious, drugged, dead, or out of range.
A sudden surge of energy to his right solved Duncan's dilemma, but renewed his fear. He perceived it as if he had seen a bright flash of light, a mile or so distant, and it could only mean Alaric really was up to something. "Cousin, I have you now," Duncan murmured, and he dashed into the rain.
With his first step he regretted leaving shelter. The rain hit him so hard it hurt, and he was soaked within seconds. His sandaled feet plopped into the mud, which covered his toes and sucked at him like a bog. He squelched along anyway, his concentration broken, but dread giving him determination. The rain was so heavy he sometimes didn't see the branches which caught at his face and arms. Duncan pressed on. The scent of power led him finally to the base of a hillock, and as he looked up the slope the rain began to relent.
He was very close. Wishing he could see over the hill, Duncan climbed, using hands and knees for security on the uncertain ground. Within the seconds it took him to reach the top, the rain reduced to a sprinkle, so Duncan had a clear view of the sight on top of the hill.
It was a sight he would never forget. A ring of white stones defined the edge of the mystic circle, and golden energy pulsed upward from the stones, walls of light. Visible through the barrier was his foster brother, half-lying on the ground, propped on one elbow with the other hand held up as if to ward off a blow or shield his eyes from a dazzling light. Poised above him, reminiscent of a giant hooded cobra, was ... evil. Its appearance was actually only that of a dark formless cloud, but its impact was so much more than merely visual. Duncan imagined he saw eyes, hungry eyes, or was it teeth. Dark fears from his own soul or the souls of countless others rolled and rutted in that shape. Flame and flesh and all manner of agony was there. In a moment Alaric would be, too.
It was not terror that froze Duncan where he stood, but something more akin to revelation. The Church had taught him his whole life that demons and Hell existed, and he believed it, but here, before his eyes, was proof. Reality melted around him and resolidified on the hungry cloud inside the circle. This was real and it was loathsome; the existence of all else was debatable. And where absolute evil stood and hungered, was not absolute good waiting to be served? That too, was reality. Doubts Duncan had never been aware of evaporated, leaving him numb with awe but faintly pleased, like a forgetful man who had selected a book at random only to find it contained the passage he wanted after all. Later events in his life might appear to Duncan more miraculous than this sight, but he would always remember this instant as his own road to Damascus.
Duncan moved forward, intending to somehow rescue his cousin, but his movements were slow as fear began to pierce his armor of revelation. The mystical barrier yielded to his touch, as he had long familiarity with Alaric's usual patterning. Just as he reached the circle the poised darkness struck.
Alaric gave a weak, strangled cry as the cloud engulfed him. Hardly thinking for the terror that filled him, Duncan dived forward to cover his cousin, as if he were protecting him from rain or striving to defend him from a sword blow. His action was in vain. Entering the cloud was a horror, as if all of Duncan's nightmares met in his soul in one instant. But the instant stretched on, becoming eternity. Duncan lost vision, hearing, and most of his orientation.
For a moment he was falling, or thought he was, and he flailed in the darkness, sheer panic dominating him. With a tremendous effort he forced himself to at least recall where he should be in relation to the world of reality around him. He groped for Alaric and found a handful of tunic. With the physical contact, Duncan's mind merged, almost against his will, with his cousin's. Long familiarity eased the rapport, making it almost automatic. Alaric's own terror flooded Duncan, intensifying his own until the two of them escalated their fears nigh unto madness. In that instant they were lost. The evil howled with joy, a wild rushing sound, and suddenly Duncan was alone. Alaric's shields had slammed against the darkness flooding his being, and, intentionally or not, he had thrown Duncan out of rapport. For that moment the demon was ignoring him in order to devour his cousin.
"No!" Duncan screamed, flaring every magical defense he could summon. His voice was all but lost beneath the roaring in his mind and soul, but power surged through him, more, he thought later, than his own arcane resources could command, and abruptly his sight returned. He found he was gripping his cousin by the arm and shoulder and had apparently dragged him the few feet to the edge of the circle. Across from him the cloud of darkness was coiled against the far side of the circle. For the moment it seemed to have released them.
Duncan gasped for breath as if he had been underwater and yanked desperately on Alaric's arm. His cousin's mind was still closed to Duncan, but Morgan was conscious enough to scramble to his feet.
"Alaric, come on," Duncan cried. The blond head came up and Alaric's usually handsome face was contorted with pain. At least he seemed to hear him, Duncan thought. "Run! Run!"
They ran. Heedless of branches and brambles that tore cloth and skin, they rushed and tumbled headlong and half-blind, down the slope. Later Duncan remembered nothing of their flight; his first sensible thought was not until they had collapsed, panting and sobbing behind a boulder. That thought was to marvel that, somehow, despite their panic, Alaric had actually restored the barrier behind them that had parted to allow their escape. The demon might now remain trapped for a time.
But all admiration for his foster brother's powers faded as fury at his incredible folly rose in Duncan. He seized his gasping cousin by the shoulders, crying "Alaric, what have you done?" Alaric gave a sobbing breath, his entire body heaving with exertion, and collapsed on his side, moaning. Duncan felt no curiosity for his cousin's pain. His outrage was not spent, and his recent terror only fueled his anger.
"I can't believe you tried to raise a demon! Tried? Dear Lord, you did it! What were you thinking? An infernal demon! What would it have done to you? What would it do to all of us? His tone changed slightly, adding a note of worry. "What did it do to you? Alaric, what's wrong?" Morgan had borne his tongue-lashing in silence, his eyes screwed tightly shut and his arms crossed over his chest. A wet leaf was plastered to his cheek and his body still shook with some kind of reaction. His face was grey. He didn't answer and Duncan wondered if he had even heard.
Duncan scanned his friend quickly, looking for a wound. He found nothing but bruises and scratches, and nothing specific in Morgan's movements indicated the site of his pain. He seemed to be vaguely nursing his chest, and he was gasping like a fish.
Duncan set his anger aside as desperation filled him. Now fear for Alaric bit sharp. He and Kevin and Alaric enjoyed relationships of youthful competition and rivalry with each other, so it was with a start of surprise that Duncan remembered how very dear his impetuous cousin was to him. "Alaric, what is it?" he begged, tears moistening his eyes. He though to pray, but it was a rather formless plea for mercy and aid that he directed heavenward. He gave it up and centered all his thoughts on Morgan. He no longer cared what Morgan's crime was; he only wanted him back, well and whole.
Love and concern penetrated Alaric's hazy mind where anger had not. His grey eyes opened for an instant.
"Don't . . . know," Alaric managed, "I feel . . . like it ate a piece of me."
"What? What do you mean?" Duncan reached to help Alaric sit up. The young squire crouched against the boulder and unsteadily brushed the leaf from his face. He gripped the wet rock and peered back in the direction of his infernal gateway. The circle of stones was not visible from where they were, though the hill itself was still in sight. Worried, Duncan still watched his foster brother, so it was Morgan who first saw the next development.
"Duncan," he cried, his voice still tight with some unknown pain, "look!"
Duncan looked, and he too saw the man, dressed in monk's garb, walking calmly toward the circle. His white hair was thick and unruly, and the equally white beard marked him as some kind of hermit, for all the regular orders required that their brothers be clean-shaven. Besides, there were no monasteries in Rhemuth.
His path would take him straight to the trapped demon. In fact, Duncan thought, he should already have a clear view of the thing. Could it have returned to wherever it came from once its prey had escaped? He doubted it, yet the monk strode calmly on, his hands in his sleeves in the traditional monastic attitude of devotion. A good sized wooden cross swung from his belt by a leather cord.
"Brother Nathan," Duncan said. Both boys peered over the boulder, watching the old man with growing alarm. Fear for the unsuspecting hermit rekindled Duncan's anger, and he scrambled to his feet.
"Alaric Morgan," he cried, "if anything happens to that harmless, senile old man because of you . . . " He couldn't think how to end the threat so he vaulted the rock and hurried off to intercept the man. Behind him he heard an anguished "noooo" from Alaric, and he heard his cousin follow. Though Duncan scrambled and rushed, the monk reached the circle before him. He had just passed out of sight as Duncan crested the hill to view the mystic circle a second time.
Again Duncan froze in awe. Brother Nathan stood facing the circle with his wooden crucifix held high above his head. Sunlight, which was just beginning to warm the rain soaked forest, glinted through the trees and reflected on the man's shock of white hair, almost giving him a halo. Brother Nathan's woolen robe was equally white and also seemed lit with otherworldly splendor. He looked like a prophet of antiquity returned to earth.
The monk spoke, his voice deep and solemn, like the lowest-toned of the cathedral bells, and the command in his tone would have put fear into even the angry Abbott. The language Duncan recognized as Latin, but whatever ritual or invocation the man intoned, it was not familiar to Duncan. Was this the same mild hermit Duncan had seen rambling through the streets because he had lost his way in the woods and blundered into the city? Duncan had a sudden painful memory of a gang of street urchins taunting the man and pitching stones and fruit at him. Who was he, anyway?
Forcing his fascinated gaze away from Brother Nathan, Duncan turned to behold the darkness in the circle. It had grown to fill the entire circle, rolling up to fill an arch twice as high as Brother Nathan. Duncan hadn't realized Alaric's barriers were dome-shaped over the circle of stones, but something was clearly confining the demon like a roof. Around the edges and on the top the cloud seethed and bubbled like a boiling cauldron, and Duncan knew, with hopeless certainty, that the mystic barriers of an untrained thirteen year old half-Deryni would not hold against such a force of evil.
Brother Nathan's words continued to roll calmly, and the monk seemed, if anything, to glow more brightly. Above the trees the clouds were breaking up, and the evil cloud below seemed also affected. It boiled and twisted fiercely, but its color turned a shade lighter. Brother Nathan spoke on, turning the cloud lighter and lighter grey, and then white. Duncan wasn't imagining it; even the wooden cross the man held aloft glowed until sunlight and its reflected glory suddenly filled the small clearing and the incarnation of evil was gone.
Either the light or the demon must have been roaring, for abruptly Duncan's ears rang with the silence in the clearing. Dizzy, Duncan realized he had been holding his breath. He took deep breaths, watching as Brother Nathan lowered the cross and returned it to his belt. Alaric's barriers had vanished with the demon, so Brother Nathan stepped easily over the circle of stones to stand in the very center of the ring. There he stood, deep in thought or prayer, frowning at the ground.
Duncan moved forward, mesmerized. Not entirely conscious of what his feet were doing, he walked to stand beside and just behind the monk. Brother Nathan did not seem to notice him. Gingerly, almost reverently, Duncan reached to touch his sleeve. Brother Nathan started and turned to face him.
"Well, hello there," he said amiably, his expression dissolving into the gentle face Duncan was accustomed to. "Young . . . MacArdry, is it?"
Duncan looked away from the monk's face, back at the now-innocuous white stones. He couldn't believe the man could fall so casually back into his former manner, as if nothing of moment had happened. Like the movement of his feet, Duncan spoke without meaning to. "McLain," he said, faintly.
Brother Nathan may not have heard him. "Are you the one responsible for this day's bit of mischief?" he asked, a conspiratorial gleam in his eye, as if he had caught Duncan stealing apples.
Alaric! He had forgotten about Alaric. Duncan looked quickly around and saw his cousin curled in a ball, slightly down the slope, but where he would have had a plain view of everything, were his eyes open at the time. At the present, they weren't.
"Ah, I see. There's the culprit," said Brother Nathan, "and already suffering for his sins, too."
Scores of questions gyrated in Duncan's mind, and he couldn't seem to pin one down to ask it.
"Brother . . ." Duncan began, but faltered on the title. Some Orders required their members to be priests, and Brother Nathan seemed to have just performed something like an exorcism. Perhaps he was a Father.
"Yes?" Brother Nathan focused on Duncan. "Look, Son, this doorway should be left here like this, and I certainly don't have the skill to dismantle it. Can you?" Duncan gasped. He had just been asked, point-blank, by a holy man who might be a priest, if he was Deryni. He opened his mouth, but froze with it gaping. "Ah, good, I see you can. You take care of this and I'll see what can be done for your ambitious friend, there." Brother Nathan strode toward Alaric, leaving a bemused Duncan behind.
Duncan took another deep breath, cast a fearful look at the monk, and knelt down by the edge of the ring. With another glance at the man, now crouched beside his cousin, Duncan exhaled and reached to sense the structure of the portal.
It was slow work, and difficult. How had Alaric built this so quickly? Perhaps he already had it built, and just hadn't known what to do with it. Duncan knew he hadn't his foster-brother's experience and practice in matters arcane, but the dismantling still seemed overly hard. When he finally finished he was again dizzy, and shaking slightly. He ran a hand across his eyes in a fatigue-banishing spell, and looked for Alaric and Brother Nathan.
The pair had not moved from where Alaric lay, on the side of the hill. Alaric lay on his back, his breathing ragged and weak. The monk knelt beside him, regarding him with a faintly puzzled expression. Duncan joined them and looked anxiously at Brother Nathan.
"What's wrong with him?" he asked.
"You mean besides a dangerous fondness for experimenting?" The monk's tone was light, but his expression dark. What was it about this man that his every word turned Duncan cold? "He has given up his soul - or a part of it - as tribute to evil. See how even now the jaws of darkness seek to swallow him up? As the great fish swallowed Jonah at Our Lord's bidding, so shall the abyss consume all who embrace the darkness and allow it into their hearts!" Brother Nathan's tone was no longer light. His voice was once again the mournful tolling of funeral bells. His countenance was angry and his whole body tensed with the power of his words. "Behold how he struggles! See the pitiful struggle of mortals against evil when they stand alone, bereft of God's Grace!" Abruptly the shadow fell away from Brother Nathan's face and it was an amiable, if disinterested, old man who peered closer at Alaric's face. "He's doing quite well, actually. Your young friend must have a rather impressive strength of will."
"I daresay," Duncan choked out.
"But what can it avail him? He cannot win." Now the monk only sounded sad. "I'm surprised he's lasted this long."
"Then help him," Duncan cried, grasping his cousin's shoulders as he prepared to enter his mind. "Can't you help him?"
"I can, but I won't." Again the monk was cold - cold and utterly unyielding. "And neither will you." He wrenched Duncan's hands away and gripped his wrists with surprising strength.
"Why not?" Duncan demanded. "Let me go!"
"He has to choose the Light, you see." The man spoke softly now, gazing at Alaric as he still held Duncan's wrists. His light eyes held a feral gleam, and Duncan feared he and his cousin were in the hands of a madman. "Else he has no right to salvation. What do you say, little sorcerer?" He addressed Alaric. "Make your choice and make it now, while you yet live. Will you walk in darkness and serve the Fallen, or join us and rejoice in the Light? What is it to be? You must choose."
Duncan struggled to free himself, furious. Surely Alaric couldn't even hear the monk's low hissing words, let alone deal with the madman. And Duncan truly feared for Alaric's life - yes, and for his soul. How was this old man so strong?
Alaric spoke. Astonished, Duncan ceased his struggling. "I choose . . ." His voice was a whisper. " . . . the Light. The Light! Please . . ." Alaric writhed in agony, soiling the Haldane Lion on his surcoat in the mud.
"You heard him!" Duncan yelled, wrenching his bare legs to where he could lever himself to his feet. He was not untrained in the rudiments of combat and he knew he could free his hands if he could only get some leverage. "He chose the Light. Now help him! Let me help him!"
"No. He must cast out the darkness."
"He can't do that alone! You said so yourself! Where is the mercy in that? He's only mortal. Let me help him!"
Duncan started at the import of his own words. In the shadowy realm of allegory he hand just cast himself in the role of the Giver of Grace. For the first time he, and he alone, had all Brother Nathan's attention. The colorless eyes seemed to pierce Duncan's own soul, though he would have sworn the man was not Deryni, and he trembled. Again he thought to pray and could find no words. He wasn't sure there was any apology he could make for such temerity, so he merely met Brother Nathan's gaze with defiance. They were standing, now, and Duncan easily wrenched the monk off balance and freed his hands. Or else Brother Nathan had released him: it hardly mattered.
Duncan sank down to kneel by Alaric, seizing his shoulder and forearm. Alaric was heavily shielded, and at first Duncan wasn't sure he could find any access to his friend's mind. Frustrated, Duncan shifted his focus to search for any trace of the cloud of evil, and suddenly he was within it again, disoriented and frightened. Only this time the experience was not so horrible. The stench of corruption seemed weaker, and Duncan knew now something of what to expect. Somewhere, he knew, he was still holding on to Alaric's arm, and somewhere Alaric was locked in a psychic struggle against this Thing. All he had to do was find him.
Duncan concentrated. He summoned any memory of Alaric which occurred to him: Alaric in the Palace courtyard, standing attentively near the king; as a child rolling on the ground as he wrestled with Kevin; delighting his sister by magically summoning the sparrows which nested in the eaves of the castle at Culdi; Alaric riding, Alaric laughing, Alaric with his first hangover, Alaric last Christmas - the gift of a bow . . . a flood of images rolled through Duncan's mind, but it wasn't good enough. He needed more; he needed something that tied the two of them together. There wasn't much. Kneeling beside Alaric to receive Communion; Confirmation together and with four other boys; restless hours at lessons on a steamy August day; hiding in the stables from . . . whom? Duncan couldn't remember. Alaric with a broken arm, fighting the pain. Now there was a strong image! Then Duncan remembered. Alaric had wanted to try to read minds, and after a few false starts, he had! Duncan remembered his cousin's essence melding into his own young, unshielded mind, a bright and warm feeling. That was what he needed, Alaric's mind and aura, not images of him. Duncan transitioned with an image, though, a very personal image. Duncan in his father's study, desperately trying to convince Duke Jared to let him pursue a religious vocation, despite the danger. And Alaric waiting outside the door, a warm tide of support and encouragement flowing from him. Bright and warm, that was his cousin. Golden and shimmering, sometimes hard and powerful, deeply passionate, all this was the Alaric Morgan that Duncan knew.
And there he was. Alaric was weak and terrified, but still he fought blindly to rid himself of the smothering force of darkness, like a child in a nightmare who can't wake up but still struggles to kick his covers away. Duncan's presence, strengthening and encouraging, gave him direction and courage. The sleeping child awoke. With one strong psychic kick, Alaric banished the cloud of evil and the faded into another darkness; the darkness of exhaustion.
Weary himself, Duncan drifted but slowly out of his trance. He opened his eyes as he began to feel his body around him again, and his vision was grey. That happened sometimes when his breathing was improper, so he took two deep breaths. His cheeks were wet and he wondered idly when he had cried. His legs and thigh were cold and wet from the mulch of wet leaves and pine needles he was sitting in. His robe itched furiously. Duncan hated being dirty.
But his vision was still grey. No, it wasn't that. Duncan gasped as he realized he was viewing Alaric through a grey cloud, like a film of smoke that covered most of his friend's body. The cloud was rising toward him! Duncan ducked away, cursing inwardly that he wasn't in a position where he could easily gain his feet and run. As he scrabbled in the leaves, the cloud floated up past his shoulder, and dissipated in the sunlight. Duncan looked from where it had been to Brother Nathan, who was gazing at Duncan as if he had not seen the grey cloud. Duncan had almost forgotten the monk, and now he looked away. For some reason, Brother Nathan was the last person he wanted to see right then. Lord, he prayed, don't let him say something profound. I don't think I can take it. Instantly he regretted the thought, and he worked to recall the awe he had felt for the man as he stood so calmly against the Servant of Darkness. Blaming his reaction on his recent rapport with Alaric, who was of a more cynical nature than Duncan was, he forced himself to look at the monk.
Brother Nathan still looked grim, but he did not look angry, which was a relief. The man looked away from Duncan, up at the now bright sky. "It's gone," Brother Nathan said. "It could not exist in the Light. When he can walk," a nod indicated Alaric, "bring him to my hut." His seamed face split with a smile. "We'll have biscuits. I have some decadently delicious biscuits. My mother used to make good biscuits, but even hers weren't this good." The hermit stood and walked away, still speaking. "And apple wine. I'm sure I have some apple wine left . . ." His voice faded as he vanished over the hill, and, though he should have reappeared in Duncan's view, farther on, he did not.
Duncan stared after him, unmoving. Around him the forest returned to life. A squirrel chattered angrily somewhere above him, and the birds sang again. Duncan looked back at Alaric and found his cousin staring after the hermit. Then the two of them looked at each other, needing no forbidden powers to communicate numb shock.
Duncan blinked and shook his head to clear it. "Can you stand?" he asked. "We should follow him."
Alaric stared. "Follow him?" His voice was hoarse. "Why?"
"He told us to. Besides, you need to be shriven."
Alaric sat up, coughed, and leaned forward to rest his head and arms on his knees. "I can't confess this, Duncan. 'Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I raised an infernal demon?'"
Duncan stood. "I'm not going to argue with you, Alaric. Now, come on." He seized Morgan's wrist and pulled the other boy to his feet. Morgan stood, but the color drained abruptly from his face and he was forced to put his head down for a moment. Duncan did not relent. "You're not going to accept Communion with something like this on your soul. You can confess it to that man. I think he's a priest and the confession won't surprise him." Duncan started after the hermit.
Alaric followed, still complaining. "Really Duncan, my confessors don't like it when I tell them these things. It upsets them." Duncan did not reply. He was trying to determine where Brother Nathan had gone. He selected a direction that was neither toward the cathedral nor toward the bulk of the city, and set out.
The footing through the hilly woods was uncertain, rain-slicked pine needles and fallen leaves giving way beneath Duncan's sandals, and causing him a ridiculous number of falls. Gradually the shock of the morning's events wore off and Duncan began to worry about the Abbott. Truancy of this magnitude could be grounds for expulsion from the priory. Where was that monk? Would they never find him? Had he ever existed? Sick at heart, Duncan stopped.
Alaric came up beside him. Good leather boots gave him confident footing on the soft ground. He stood slightly taller than Duncan, his normally neat golden hair drying in the speckled sunlight and turning an unnaturally brilliant color. He was pale and solemn, but he looked well enough.
"Maybe we should go back," Duncan said.
Alaric frowned and scanned the woods. "This way," he replied, and changed their course a bit to the left. Duncan didn't need to ask how he knew. He just followed. In the near but unseen city, church bells rang, announcing noon.
Brother Nathan's hut was well protected from weather and prying eyes. It was solidly built with logs and stones, and nestled against an exposed stone wall. Erosion had worn the earth out from under the roots of a large oak, which provided cover from above, since it had once stood atop the hill which was now worn to its stone face.
Inside, it was dry and warm, and larger than Duncan had expected. A large niche in the stone wall, about shoulder height, held a small fire. It seemed to be drawing well, so Duncan suspected some kind of natural chimney in the rock. The cell, for such it could easily be called, held boughs and blankets for a bed, an ancient and ignoble chest that served as a table, one good-sized stone for a seat, and a pile of books covered with tightly woven cloth to protect against the damp.
Brother Nathan welcomed them warmly and produced the promised biscuits and wine from inside the chest. He sat on his bed, so Alaric and Duncan arranged themselves around the chest, Alaric perching uncomfortably on the stone, Duncan cross-legged on the floor. The monk prattled inanely about anything except what his guests really wanted to know, oblivious to Duncan's attempts to question him. The hour grew later and Duncan began to wonder if the man even remembered anything about the morning.
Finally, prompted by Duncan's silent urging, Alaric awkwardly asked the man to hear his confession. Brother Nathan assented cheerfully, so Duncan rose to leave. "You're going back?" Alaric asked, anxiously.
"I'll be around," Duncan replied, unsure of whether his cousin wanted reassurance or privacy. Alaric's distinct look of relief answered the question. "Call." Duncan left the hut and sat for a while on a hill with a view. He drew his legs up to his chest and considered evil.
I want to fight that, he thought. I want to fight that the way Brother Nathan did. I want to stand against it; to fight it wherever I find it. His thoughts turned easily to prayer, and he prayed, earnest and committed. He wasn't certain for how long he prayed, but when Alaric's brief mindcall summoned him, the sun had shifted position enough to be noticeable. Must have been a long confession, he thought. I hope he gets a wicked penance.
The atmosphere in the hut was charged with emotion when Duncan returned. Alaric's expression, which had grown weary and restless with the wine and biscuits, was once again stunned. Brother Nathan was not prattling. He held a Bible, Duncan saw, which he closed and put down as Duncan entered. Abruptly, inexplicably, the monk left the hut, and Alaric took a deep breath. Duncan smiled at him. "Where is he going?"
"I don't know." Alaric stood and stretched the kinks from his legs. "Maybe he went to relieve himself." A reasonable supposition, yet Alaric managed to make it sound vaguely obscene. Alaric looked intently at Duncan. "What are you going to tell your Abbott?"
"I don't know." Duncan sighed, and sat on the chest. "I don't want to think about it yet. What I want to do is pester this man with questions."
"Well, good luck," Alaric replied. He gathered up his cloak and tried vainly to shake some of the filth from it. There seemed to be a lot of things to say, and yet, Duncan didn't feel like saying any of them.
Alaric had reached the door of the hut when he paused. "Duncan," he said, his back still to the interior.
Alaric turned only his head, looking at his cousin over the shoulder of the arm holding up the hanging blanket Brother Nathan used for a door. He was tense, and his voice was forced.
"Thank you." He waited, though he could have easily made an escape out the door.
Half a dozen sarcastic responses occurred to Duncan as he recalled just whose fault today was. But he dropped them all and answered his friend levelly. "You're welcome."
Alaric waited a few seconds more, and then was gone. Duncan added some fuel to the fire, and smiled.