The soft knock at the door surprised Elisabetha. A light sleeper, it took little to jolt her awake.
"Who is it?"
"Father Karel, Lady Cronqvist."
"Oh, yes, Father. Just a moment, please."
She rose from the bed and lit a candle, then quickly donned a concealing robe over her nightdress. By the color of the sky it could not be more than an hour past sunset; the velvet blackness was still lightly tinged with midnight blue.
"Is anything wrong, Father?" Elisabetha asked as she opened the door.
"Yes, there is," he said, his eyes sad.
"Not Mathias!" she gasped, her hand going to her mouth. "They could not have joined in battle already!"
The priest shook his head, the wild growth of white beard making him look like a woodland hermit or anchorite.
"No, we have had no word of him. It is for you that I am concerned."
Karel advanced into the room, not so much forcing Elisabetha out of the way as exuding a kind of aura, a strength of purpose that made her step aside. It was the kind of determination that would brook no refusal, that let a man survive for weeks in the desert with scant food and drink. He needed only a hair-shirt and a staff in that moment to be Elisabetha's precise image of a Biblical prophet.
"I believe you know of what I speak."
Her eyes flicked guiltily to the bed. She'd always been horrid at lies and deception. It was one of the things, ironically, that Mathias said he loved about her.
"Yes, I can see that you do. Show me."
She made a game try at it.
"Father Karel, I don't know--"
"My lady, I do not say this lightly. You put your soul in peril with your lies!"
She hung her head.
Elisabetha went to the bed and took the phial from beneath her pillow, then gave it to the priest.
"What is this potion?" he asked.
"It...it is..." Elisabetha's mind cast about frantically, trying to find an explanation that would shield Mathias, but it was too late.
"Lord Cronqvist gave this to you, did he not? No, my lady, do not answer. I can see the truth in your eyes, and I would spare you the telling of another lie. It is for your illness, is it not?"
"He said that it would help me regain my strength, so that I would be sure to recover by the time he returned."
Karel nodded sagely.
"I thought so. He loves you a great deal, does Lord Cronqvist, as is fitting between man and wife. But, the strength of that feeling affects his judgment. It makes him tamper with forces that are not man's to wield. Life and death lie within God's purview alone, Lady Cronqvist. It is His plan which guides the world, His will when we are gathered to Him."
He held up the potion.
"Things such as this are the devil's trap. They are man's attempt to defy God, to say unto Him, 'I, not you, shall dictate this.' Such matters alchemic are heretical, and with good reason. They imperil the soul for the sake of mastering the body--a pure defiance of God's order of things!"
Elisabetha shrank away from the fury in his voice, and at once Karel was all contrition.
"Forgive me, my lady. I did not mean that Lord Cronqvist's soul is lost. He has done this only out of love for you. When he comes to his senses, God's forgiveness would not be withheld. But you must not abet his sin. Put your faith in Christ, not in the arts of man, and let me destroy this devil's brew."
Elisabetha shuddered as she thought of the awful consequences that yawned before her. Were Mathias there, she did not think she could find the courage to refuse his offering, but so long as she did not have to say it to his face, she had the strength.
"Yes, Father, take it--for his sake as well as mine. And thank you. Thank you for coming when you did."
-X X X-
It had not been a glorious victory. No great songs would be sung of a campaign of ambush, of warfare from the shadows, of lures that left Sir Ferenc and his rebels surrounded by a ring of remorseless attackers that ground away at them as if they were an apple being peeled down to the core. There had not even been a climactic final battle between Lord Belmont and the heretic; a hurled axe from some nameless footsoldier's hand had struck Ferenc down before the slaughter was half over.
No, there was no glory in that kind of war. The King and Church would not care; their enemies had been destroyed. As for Mathias, he preferred it that way. Glorious battles usually meant glorious deaths, the deaths of friends and loved ones. Sacrifice was not a word that inspired pleasant thoughts. To him, if a battle was worth fighting, it was worth winning.
Perhaps that was why he was such a good tactician.
No herald announced his triumphant return to Castle Cronqvist. The stablehand who took the reins of his travel-worn horse--he had pushed hard to get back to his home as soon as possible--would not meet his eyes. Nor would the servants who opened the door to the keep or accepted his outer garments.
Magda, as always, was the exception.
"Welcome home, my lord," she said throatily. "Would you care for refreshment after the rigors of your journey? It must be pleasant to return to the...comforts...of civilization after the privations of the battlefield."
She wasn't even bothering to disguise her double-entendres; her meaning was as plain as a camp-following strumpet's.
"I haven't time for this prattle," Mathias snapped. "I wish to see my wife."
Magda pressed herself against him.
"You needn't play the faithful husband any longer, my lord. She's been called to God at last. But if there is anything I can do--"
He truly did not remember thrusting her from him, or rushing pell-mell through the castle, or bursting into Elisabetha's tower room to find her wan and wasted form stretched out on the bed. The atmosphere was choked with sickly-sweet incense, and Father Karel's deep voice chanted prayers as if they were played on some strange instrument.
Mathias flung himself beside the bed, seizing the corpse's limp hand between his.
"How can this be?"
He had not meant it as a question--or, at least not the kind of question that receives an answer--but the next thing he heard was the priest's voice.
"It is God's will."
Mathias raised his head. Father Karel was looking down at him with a deep sorrow in his eyes.
"It should not have happened."
No, not sorrow, Mathias realized as the priest nodded solemnly.
"I understand what you truly mean, my lord. You wanted to save her."
Mathias's eyes widened.
"Her time had come, but you would have denied that with your alchemy," Karel continued. "You should not have acted so. You stood in defiance of God. Fortunately, your Elisabetha was a dutiful daughter of the Church, and she now rests with the angels in the bosom of the Lord."
"A...dutiful daughter?" Mathias asked, trying to make sense of it. A terrible suspicion was welling up within him, though, that he already knew the truth of it.
"She understood that life and death are mysteries which lie solely within God's purview. When the price she must pay for defying this sacred truth was explained to her, she set aside her willful ways and put her faith in God alone."
He spoke gently but firmly, the way a loving father would to a child. Somehow, this served to anger Mathias all the more. He was not a child. Grief burned in him like a cold flame, but now that flame had a target. Mathias rose to his feet, carefully setting his wife's dead hand on her breast.
"The mysteries of life and death are God's, Karel? Is that what you say?" he snapped out bitterly.
"That is what God says!"
"I have spent these past weeks with a sword in hand, dealing death at my whim, and you encouraged, demanded that I do that. Where were your high principles then?"
"It was the will of God that you fight against the heretics! That is why you are to do battle only in God's name!"
"How convenient," Mathias sneered. "The death of the heretical, the death of the good and just--all God seems to ask for is death!"
"My lord, you are overwrought, but this is blasphemy. Sacrilege! God's plan is not for mortals to know!"
"There is no plan, Karel. Can't you see it? Your God is nothing but a butcher, delighting in pain and suffering. That is why He orders us to kill, but forbids us to save."
"Stop it, Lord Cronqvist!" Karel roared back at him. He was no longer the kindly father, but an angry man. But that was good. Mathias needed that, on some level. "Would you damn your immortal soul. God will curse you to eternal hellfire for your blasphemy!"
"God will curse me? No, rather will I curse God! He is no more than a jealous miser, hoarding his power. But I will be the master of Death. I will live forever, and I shall visit death, and life, upon those I so choose!" Master of Death. The Crimson Stone. "I defy your God, Karel! He has betrayed me for the last time."
"These are the devil's words--"
Mathias sneered again.
"I am devil enough on my own, Karel, and I damn you and your God, who have murdered my Elisabetha."
A dagger dropped from a hidden wrist-sheath into his palm.
"It may have been God who did this, but He used your hands, Karel, your voice to speak His will."
The priest had no time to react. The blade found his heart with practiced ease. Even as the body slumped to the floor, Mathias was already turning to summon Magda. She entered the room with a wanton smile on her face, sure that Mathias had reconsidered. Was she so confident in her own charms, he wondered? Or was it only that her need for him, her craving that the world be as she wanted it, outweighed all reason in her own mind?
It did not matter.
The smile vanished at once as she saw the fallen body of the priest. Magda opened her mouth to scream in horror, but Mathias clapped one hand over her mouth to stifle it, seizing her slim wrists with the other.
"So you wanted to take Elisabetha's place, did you? Rejoice then, Magda, for I shall grant your wish. I shall make you her equal."
Did she realize what he meant, Mathias wondered, before he snapped her neck in a single quick movement?
It was the work of a moment to press the dagger into her hands and bloody them for effect. The story he would tell took more thought. Was she an assassin of the heretics, seeking revenge for their destruction? Better, perhaps, as a woman scorned unable to cope with being rejected. Heroically the priest had pushed Mathias aside, saving the lord's life at the cost of his own.
It would suffice. And the thought of making Karel a posthumous hero had an irony to it that appealed.
Besides that, he had work to do.
The Crimson Stone.
It was he, Mathias, who would be the master of Death, the bringer of chaos.
"And let God and all His works tremble."