The Abbey of the crag was the chosen abode, when he could escape the city, of the Archbishop, who had been abbot there before being called to higher service. It was also a good place for quiet, uninterrupted meetings. The monks were loyal to the man who had once been their abbot first and foremost; and the new abbot was included in that. And any who were so foolish as to try to extract information from any of the monks about what might have been said or done, or even who had been present to speak to the Archbishop, were met with carefully studied stupidity and indifference.
Such a meeting on a wild and windy January night took place between the Archbishop and four guests; Hawk the Slayer and his brother, Voltan the Warlord being the principle invited guests. The archbishop had too perforce, since they would not be left out, Annis, Voltan's tiny pale lady; and Jehanne, half sister to Annis' half sister and accounted step sister by that strong minded young lady. Jehanne acted as Hawk's page while she learned enough to be called his squire. She had cut her hair short to pretend to be a boy to better protect her sister Sylvia ere Voltan had taken them into his care; and kept for the nonce her dark golden curls short and still, for reason of her slender build, passed as a boy.
Voltan scowled at the Archbishop as Hawk introduced them; their reconciliation was still of recent date and the warlord was edgy around those who had recently been his enemies.
"I'm not over fond of churchmen" he said.
"I should say rather, my son, that you're not fond of the dishonest kind of churchmen that one so often meets – especially amongst the upper echelons of the ecclesiasty" said the archbishop gently.
"Nine times out of ten it comes to the same thing."
"Alas; you are quite possibly right" sighed the archbishop. "And such is our great shame. But you are in an unique position to help clean out some of the corruption."
"What, with fire and the sword, or just by hanging all the cardinals?" suggested Voltan with black humour.
"Not quite…..but to root out the corruption of one cardinal – or seeming cardinal."
"Don't you have enough real ones without impostors as well?" asked Voltan, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, it is a moot point" said the archbishop "This one may have been ordained by one of the more spurious popes; or he may be an impostor through and through that use the respect given to the church to get all he wants. And he travels with a genuine cardinal whose existence I know of, but not his name; that travels at the blessing of the pope I acknowledge to be chancellor to the king; and who the pope writes is a good and holy man. Unfortunately the journey to the pope's court is fraught with much danger at this time of year that make sending for a confirmation a little difficult, not to say close on impossible."
"You want us to cross the high Alps and travel to see him, Father Archbishop?" asked Hawk.
"No! That were a foolish waste of your skills; and were like to take longer than it take that they reach the King's court anyway. The messenger reached me with the pope's letter shortly before one of mine own spies told me that there were two cardinals travelling; and that as they seemed to think that each is but a candidate for the chancellorship that one have convinced the honest man of the same. Other messages I have received convince me that the bogus cardinal has intent to seem a better candidate to the king and supplant the genuine one; or possibly – even worse – to cause him some accident on the road that only one reach the king. Which whence cometh my suggestion to find out which is which" he smiled at Voltan. "It is not generally known, my son, that you have turned aside from the destructive path you were pursuing; so I ask you to do as 'The Dark One' as you were known would have perchance done. For an you kidnap both, ostensibly for ransom, you will between you, I feel sure, soon find out which is the fraud."
Voltan laughed his harsh laugh.
"An interesting challenge, My Lord Archbishop. Aye, that I can do, methinks; art up for the game, my dear?" he asked Annis.
"Oh yes" said Annis "We will play word games and set traps and tests until one betrays himself. It should be quite fun."
"Though probably NOT for the cardinals" said Hawk.
"The honest one may look upon it as a test of his faith and so a trial that is meritorious; and the dishonest one should be made miserable on general principles" she said sunnily.
"Ah well, back to my distinctive helmet I suppose" said Voltan. "A little discomfort on behalf of God should not be irksome; He have gone out of his way to have me back so it be only fair. How about you, Hawk? Will you grow stubble and try to look villainous enough to be some captain of The Dark One?"
"Some idiot will call him Hawk; it is inevitable" said Annis "And most people, an you ask me, would think it more likely, of the two brothers, that Hawk should renounce virtue and throw in his lot with his brother, wicked Voltan making of him a sinner, rather than that Voltan should…."
"Careful how you phrase that" said Voltan.
She beamed at him.
"Than that Voltan should be merely an ordinary sinner rather than a blackly wicked one" she said innocently "That do you, my lord?"
"Aye, that will do me, my vixen."
"Excuse me, why is it likely that I should turn to any kind of wickedness?" asked Hawk "Just so I know what has wrought this."
"Because, brother" said Annis "You have seen corruption eat at the heart of the church you have always loved and it has sickened you to the extent that it be impossible to militate against the depth of such depravity; that you despaired and listened to the temptations of the spawn of the devil that your brother has been called and decided that as all men were villains you had rather be a villain alongside the brother that is at least an honest villain and tied to you by blood."
"I almost followed that" grinned Hawk.
"I'd say it have the ring of possibility" ventured Jehanne "That a man in despair cares not what he does."
"Aye, I suppose so" said Hawk "And I AM sickened by the gross venality of much of the church. But that spurs me on to fight it harder; not to quit."
"Yes; but then not everyone know how pigheadedly stubborn both you brothers be" said Annis.
Voltan gave a sardonic chuckle.
"My wife the tactful" he said "What then, virago, be we Falconsburg boys more alike than we know?"
"Indeed" said Annis "Oft times you could almost be speaking one for the other. Is that then our family name?"
"For what it's worth" said Voltan sourly "Our borders were menaced by barbarians anyway before we started our feud; and when I withdrew the troops in my fury, they overran the place. The common soldiery would not, for the most part, choose one brother or the other, preferring to take their families and fleeing. Foregrim is my closest man because he was my father's man first; and taught me much."
"Ah; I thought he got away with much" said Annis "In the days when your temper was a little uncertain."
"She means my temper was filthy" said Voltan.
"One day, Voltan, we'll take our lands back – together" said Hawk quietly.
"Aye brother; we will" agreed Voltan. "You and I will start to attract worthy warriors to our joint banner; let us unfurl the Falconsburg banner again and drive back the barbarians once and for all. When we've finished playing with the archbishop's cardinals. Annis, do you play sweet meekness at them? A treaty bride? And see then what each recommends at me treating you roughly?"
"That sounds amusing. It made Hawk froth with fervent indignation when we played that game before" she said.
"I was fixated on the idea that Voltan could not be douce with anyone" he said "He was right; you're not in the least like Eliane. Such would have terrified her."
"Why then, Lord Hawk" said Jehanne "You may be glad that she is in Heaven and not sobbing out her life in a nunnery whence she have retired, puzzled over why she be abandoned by you; as so tedious a female must have driven you to such distraction that an you had not left her you would fear that you would strike her."
"Art a pert creature to speak of one you know not" said Hawk with an edge to his voice.
"I know that Foregrim warned Lord Voltan not to heed the betrothal his father and yours made for him and Eliane" she said "Foregrim says that Lady Annis makes his master a far better wife than the retarded butterfly."
Voltan gave a brief bark of laughter.
"Foregrim do not mince words!" he said.
Hawk flushed in displeasure.
He was guiltily aware that Jehanne had a point; now he had seen the true partnership Voltan and Annis shared, and realising that he would never have had such a relationship with Eliane; for it would never have occurred to him to even ask her to share the hardships of campaign as Annis expected as a matter of course.
"Tell us more of these cardinals, Father Archbishop" he said hastily.
"I know little but the names reported to me that they were using" said the archbishop "And that they have excellent credentials that my spy said had to be either genuine or forged by an excellent forger. One is called Rollo de Clairvallet; the other is Alessandro Cordo."
"What an the false cardinal turns out to be the better man withal?" asked Annis "That he seek power as a means to an end – peace and prosperity in the land that he cannot get by other means, being too honest to become a genuine cardinal?"
The archbishop shrugged and spread his hands.
"Passing over your cynicism about all cardinals – which is not wholly true – then I suggest only that you find for the king a strong chancellor who will do well by the people" he said "For I take your point, daughter. The genuine one may be a good and holy man and still be an utter fool. I am sure that you will, between you, make a good decision and choose wisely for the right reasons."
"What should we do with the false one?" asked Hawk.
"An he be a truly venal villain, we might let him off with crucifixion" he said. "Oh Hawk, your FACE! Wouldst truly object for some cruel and nasty piece of work that use the church purely to get his own way – and, say, some perverse vice?"
"I – well, maybe not" said Hawk.
"Well, I should think much will depend what he be like" said Annis. "An he be not too bad we might just send him home; or we might make him a bonded serf; or we might execute him. But until we know the extent of his perfidy we may not make such decision."
A lone man awaited in an antechamber as they left the archbishop; but he was large enough for several.
"Gort!" Hawk greeted the giant cheerfully.
"Hawk! I hear rumours that you have joined forces with Voltan – and come to see what witchcraft he have used to deceive you; and to strike his wicked head from his shoulders to free you from it!"
"Oh no you will NOT!" Gort found himself facing a furious girl like a pale flame whose eyes flashed blue fire. She came no higher than his waist. "So, you have made up your mind without finding out the true facts I see – and proving the old adage that the bigger they come, the stupider they be! Though, Hawk if DO prove my point" Annis added as an aside before resuming her tirade to Gort. "An you wish to attack mine husband, Voltan, you pugnacious fellow, shalt have to come through me!"
Gort stared, helpless.
"Little lady, stand aside from such a stance, I beg you!" he said "I could not hurt you!"
"Maybe not; but I've no compunction about hurting YOU an you attack my Voltan out of hand!" said Annis.
"She would too" said Voltan, a laugh in his voice "A veritable virago, my wife, I assure you! I have killed friends of yours Gort; we were at war. An you will not accept the new peace between Hawk and myself and will not hold neutral then an you insist I will fight you; as I had rather not do that it will hurt my brother. For you would die."
Gort was staring at Voltan's unmasked face. With the healing of the scar he troubled not with the concealing helm and but wore an ordinary helmet with a nasal to fight.
"That cannot be Voltan!" he exclaimed "Where is the scar?"
"Gort, can you listen to the tale ere you lose your temper?" begged Hawk "For the sake of the friendship that lies between us?"
"I want to know what has happened to his face!" said Gort "And what new witchcraft is this!"
Voltan smiled grimly.
"Such is all a part of the tale" he said. "Hawk; tell your friend all that hath occurred. I will await his pleasure one way or another without. I have a kidnapping to plan."
"You see?" said Gort to Hawk.
"Voltan, you don't make it easy" he said. Voltan gave a sardonic grin.
"What, was I supposed to?" he said "I'm the wicked war lord and you, by the account of your friend, the weak-kneed lily-livered fool to be fooled by me that you complained within that seemed unrealistic. The only thing I like about your loud mouthed friend is his neat way with slavers. That I like a great deal" and he strode out with Annis in his wake. Jehanne hesitated and stayed with Hawk.
Hawk told the story of how Annis had come to Voltan as hostage and stayed as his bride, love for her reaching through his shell of self loathing and hatred of all the world. And how her healing – and her love – had cured utterly the cursed wound.
"Have you ever had a painful burn, Master Gort?" asked Jehanne.
"Aye, little one; I have" said Gort.
"Then think on this from point of view of my sister's husband; and imagine it being open and unhealed for ten years; and think how kindly you would feel" said Jehanne.
Gort looked thoughtful.
"It were not a thing to make a man well tempered" he admitted "But this talk of kidnapping?"
Hawk rolled his eyes.
"My brother must ever play for effect" he said "It is a task laid on both of us by the archbishop that you knew as the abbot; to determine which of two cardinals be real and which counterfeit. And you must surely see, Gort, that had my brother not changed he would not be here in the Abbey at all – and taking a task from the archbishop."
"That, I grant you" he said cautiously "What says Ranulf?"
"Ranulf is here, below; ask him yourself" said Hawk "An you might prize him from his courtship of the Lady Annis' bodyguard, who is one of Voltan's captains."
"This Lady Annis be tiny and exquisite!" said Gort "What did she see in one like Voltan?"
"More than I was capable of seeing, obviously. Her father is a cruel swine who would have wed her to one whose sexual tastes ran to children as felt her to be small enough that he get a son without being put off by a full grown woman as he thought. I had him hanged" added Hawk meditatively "The church knights I sent set the local reeve to do it. The man's peasants kept reviving him to see an he be dead yet; I gather it took about four hours for him to die. Which tells you how much he was hated. As to Annis' father, the girl saw him murder her mother. Voltan's care for the safety of a hostage was as kindness by comparison to such treatment; and became kindness in sooth as his face healed from her ministrations."
"And when he met and rescued my little sister and me he was nothing but kindness to us" put in Jehanne "My brother Voltan is a good man and I will fight you too an you want to hurt him!"
"The boy is partisan!" he said.
"Girl" said Hawk "She is my page; I train her. Voltan knows he have limitations with patience and he already have one page that he felt Jehanne and I would work well together. I'm still getting used to the idea of having a page" he added dryly.
"But I do so make myself useful to you, my lord" said Jehanne "And you have said so!"
"Aye, that you do" agreed Hawk "Come, Gort – will you not join us and make up you own mind?"
Gort pondered; then nodded.
"An Voltan have a babe in arms like your little page call him good that be enough for me" he said, blissfully unaware that Jehanne made horrible faces at him for so calling her "For I cannot think he would trouble to bewitch a child. And children be shrewd creatures not easily fooled."
Hawk heaved a sigh of relief.
He did not want to lose Gort's friendship.
Nor did he want to lose the friendship of his brother now they had reaffirmed it; and it was still a tenuous thing with brittle moments.
"Gort is joining us" said Hawk as he led the big man down to the stables.
"There goes my food store then" said Voltan with a wolfish grin.
"An his appetite become a risk to our peasants we shall have to eat him instead" said Annis.
"She's joking" said Hawk hastily, hoping she was.
"Probably" added Voltan.
Gort could not take his eyes off Annis; she was so tiny and exquisite and fragile looking; and yet so strong willed! And another so partisan to Voltan; it were hard to take in for the big man!
The weather had improved somewhat as they rode out; for the wind at least had abated and the rain, that had been at least sleet mixed with hail, was but light. After a mild start the winter had been cold but substantially dry, being in many cases too cold to snow as much as sometimes in those parts, though the peasants grumbled for that. Snow brought down dust with it that was as good as extra manure to plough in and cold did no man good. They gave thanks, however, that they resided still within the castle, the village not yet having been rebuilt after the siege; and Voltan glanced at the sky as the rode.
"Hawk, think you this is a break to the weather? That we shall have wet snow and then the spring?"
"I have but little weather lore, brother. We have lost no man to the cold yet though; and an it stay cold and clear in the main it were like to make this task on us easier."
Voltan nodded; muddy roads were almost impassable.
"My peasants grumble" he said "They find the ground hard to harrow. Please God we have it dry to take these wretched cardinals then a nice bout of snow to bring the cold down out of the sky."
They returned to the castle to collect a body of men for the mission; and too to make detailed plans. Gort stared yet more as Voltan was greeted by a small boy and a miniature edition of Annis, clamouring to relieve him of his armour and sword and cloak.
Voltan laughed and called them brats; and sent them off staggering under the weight of his equipment; but Lukat would cede his lord's sword to no man however awkward he may look struggling with it. As Gort found when he lifted it easily and Lukat clamoured in distress and ran against Gort hammering him with his small fists.
"Gort, the boy takes my sword; give it to him" said Voltan "It is his honour that he claim; do not demean him."
Meekly Gort returned the sword to Lukat; who struggled proudly off with it.
"It have not yet occurred to them" said Annis dryly "That they might more conveniently divest you an they but waited to do so in your chamber; rather than carrying heavy armour hence."
"I'm not about to enlighten them; it use up their boundless energy that they be tired enough not to need too much entertaining; and be ready to sit and listen to Father Michael's lessons."
"Devious creature, thou; hast already the instincts of a father that know how to save thyself too much trouble!"
"Well I suppose I need to practise" said Voltan laconically, smiling at her and glancing at her belly. Annis smiled back, flushing slightly.
As Sylvia was fascinated by the size of Gort, and must needs run back down to stare at him, Annis muttered that at least HE was taken care of; that her tiny sister should keep him out of trouble.
And by the evening meal, Sylvia was riding on Gort's shoulder and calling him 'Uncle Gort'; and prattling happily about how nice her biggest brother Voltan was.
Gort might be amazed; but he had a straightforward man's acceptance of a child's view.
And he stopped worrying about Hawk.