Disclaimer: I don't own the Coldfire Trilogy, and no profit is intended
Author's note: Another story of mine which has Andrys kicking the bucket because of a failing heart; the phrase 'hereditary heart condition' is still Shadowy Star's intellectual property, and therefore I changed it to 'heart attack'. I hope everybody is satisfied now… ;-)
„Wake up, sonny! You can't let the High and Mighty wait forever". The brittle voice finally cut through the fog of Damien's unconsciousness, and he cautiously opened his hazel eyes and blinked. Gradually his vision cleared, and his gaze focussed on the wrinkled face of old Larkin who was just about wringing a wet piece of flannel over an enamelled basin. Judging by the amount of moisture which was dripping off his face and onto the soft pillows supporting his aching head Damien didn't doubt that he'd been out cold for quite a while now, and never been prone to fits of fainting before he started to feel more than slightly worried.
„Finally", chortled the old man, „I'd just started thinking that you didn't want to return to the world of the living at all, son. Seems you've really caught a bad bug. You've been out for more than two hours now, you know."
Frowning Damien let his gaze wander through the unknown chamber where he apparently had been transferred to after the vulking fall off his mare. The golden afternoon sun shone on the dark, intricately carved wood of the heavy alteroak furniture and the matching parquet covered with overlapping layers of priceless silk rugs and glittered on evidently antique tapestries depicting peaceful bucolic scenes which were richly woven through with golden threads looking like the real thing. With a start the warrior knight realized that his hosts definitely weren't just common citizens of Jaggonath, and the old man at his side in his shabby grey not cotton trousers and faded shirt looked utterly misplaced in the lavish, luxurious surroundings.
That makes two of us, Damien thought grimly, and a slight feeling of uneasiness bloomed inside his stomach. Regarding the upcoming festivities in honour of Gerald's killer and the resulting onrush of visitors an unconscious stranger hardly seemed important enough to carry him to the mansion of one of Jaggonath's notables. Vryce had always done well to trust his gut feeling, and right now said feeling had acquired a rather insistent voice and was yelling loudly that something was very, very fishy about the whole business.
But if Gerald's wretched descendant had indeed spilled the beans that the unknown warrior knight and the former priest who had dared to ally with the Hunter were one and the same person, very likely he wouldn't rest in a bed with daintily embroidered linen sheets now but rot in a rat-infested dungeon, if, and that was an 'IF' written in capital letters, he had made it there in one piece at all, with regard to the fanatical masses crowding the streets in order to cheer for the returning crusaders.
Nonetheless Damien was very well aware that wild speculations wouldn't get him anywhere but on the well-trodden road to an especially bad headache. "But where the heck am I, Mer Larkin?" he enquired hoarsely. "That's not the Grand Hotel, I suppose?"
"The Grand Hotel?" Larkin echoed, chuckling with amusement. „Oh no, sonny. You're in the Lord Mayor's residence, by order of the young Neocount. You might not believe it, but the poor lad's right next door. He collapsed in our famous cathedral, and a lot of folks have been flocking in for quite a while now. Healers, I suppose. One grumpy fellow even stuck his nose in here and had a short look at you, but seemingly you weren't about biting the dust, and so he decided not to bother."
Damien stared at his companion, completely aghast, and his thoughts were racing. Already upon entering the city Andrys had looked the worse for wear, his feverish green eyes burning in a haggard face which could have belonged to a man twice his age, and the strange events which had taken place at the parade had doubtlessly done their stint to aggravate his condition. Evidently the warrior knight hadn't been the only one who had finally broken under the strain of the recent events, and for a fleeting moment Damien couldn't help but succumbing to a touch of pity for the young man who'd presented a mere tool in a ruthless struggle for power between forces which were far beyond his comprehension.
Vryce's reflections were abruptly stopped when the door opened and a stout, sandy-haired fellow in a red and blue livery, the colours of Jaggonath's coat of arms, entered the ornate chamber. "Reverend Vryce?"
Damien stifled a sigh. As usual his gut feeling hadn't betrayed him, and his incognito had been revealed at a rather inopportune moment, whether by Andrys himself or by somebody else who had remembered his face. Fortunately his sword with its flame patterned hilt was leaning to the nightstand, sparing him the utmost humiliation of getting caught defenseless, and for that small mercy Vryce sent a silent, but nonetheless grateful prayer to the One God of his faith.
With a groan the warrior knight laboriously pushed himself into a sitting position, wincing as if in pain and thereby deliberately exaggerating his weakness. If the situation escalated and things turned nasty being underestimated could signify a vital advantage over his opponents, and Damien was bloody well determined to exploit that ancient, tried and tested trick for his benefit.
'I'm glad you've at least partially reacquired you wits, priest', a familiar voice dripping with its accustomed sarcasm cut into his musings, and Vryce froze with sheer panic. Not again! It couldn't be true, it just wasn't possible. Gerald was dead, beheaded by his last living descendant, and his pitiable remains were currently the laughing stock of the populace. But why the hell did he hear the adept's voice so clearly, as if the damn bastard was standing right by his side? Perhaps his assumption that the part of Tarrant's soul which had been transferred to him when they had completed their bond hadn't made it to the afterlife, but was still trapped inside him, finding no peace and exerting revenge for Damien's betrayal by haunting him with acerbic comments until his dying day had been correct after all.
That wasn't a very comforting thought, and cold sweat broke out on Damien's brow, but gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering he pulled himself together. Although the better part of his heart and soul had died with his companion he had no intention of finding himself chained up in a mental asylum or in one of the city's numerous prisons.
„I am Damien Kilcannon Vryce," Damien replied firmly, with as much dignity as he could muster. Denial wouldn't get him anywhere, but just serve to heighten the suspicions. "What can I do for you?"
No trace of hostility showed on the man's ruddy face, but only eager officiousness. "His Excellency, the Neocount of Merentha, will grant you an audience now. Do you feel strong enough, Reverend?"
Vryce felt sorely tempted to burst into a fit of hysterical laughter. Strong enough to face the man who had killed his companion, the very man whose beautiful visage so uncannily resembled Gerald's that just gazing at those delicate features wouldn't fail to raise an unbidden tide of black despair in his soul again, wave after wave crashing down on him and drowning him in their lethal embrace? For that ordeal he'd never feel strong enough, not until the cows came home, and for a second the former priest seriously contemplated pushing the town guard out of his way and fighting his way out of the Lord Mayor's mansion, if need be, but the voice of reason which had substituted Tarrant's light tenor for now convinced him otherwise.
Perhaps the guard would even let him pass without raising objections, but if he walked out of this place he would never know what was going on and why Andrys Tarrant of all people on Erna wanted to talk to him.
Over the last years he had endured the deaths of several members of their fellowship, Gerald feeding on his blood and terror for months on end and the separation from his church, not to mention the atrocious spectacle of the adept's severed head which had easily surpassed all the numerous horrors he'd already witnessed during their struggle to save mankind from Calesta's clutches. Unlike his unfortunate companions he had survived all vicissitudes of fate, and one devastatingly painful incident more or less on his agenda wasn't likely to kill him.
With effort Damien heaved his wobbly legs over the edge of his bed, pulled on his boots and got up. At first the room spun around him nauseatingly, but the dizziness and the tremble in his aching bones gradually subsided, and Vryce reached for his sword.
„I'm sorry, Reverend Vryce. I can either take it into custody, or you companion has an eye on it until you return from your audience, but you have to leave your sword behind."
Maybe the fellow was truly sorry, but Damien was quite sure that he wouldn't weep into his pillow at night because of his objection, and anyway the warrior knight had no intention of walking into the lion's den unarmed.
„The hell I will! " Vryce retorted rather bluntly, "I'm a Knight of the Order of the Golden Flame, and the sword will go where I go. Do I make myself clear?"
Taken aback by Damien's fierce refusal the man blinked and blanched a few shades. "Completely clear, Reverend. But I've got my orders, and as a Knight of the Flame you will certainly understand that order's have to be obeyed, won't you? But I will check if an exception can be made for you. Please wait until I come back."
Vryce hastily fastened the sword at his belt, and he had just finished his task when the guard reappeared. Apparently an exception had been made for him, and he was led the short way to Andrys' adjacent chamber without further delay.
Tarrant's sick room was twice as big as his own and even more pompously decorated with its stunning crystal chandelier and the priceless, centuries-old pictures in their ornate, gilded frames, and the emaciated young man half buried under silken quilts looked utterly lost in the enormous king-size bed which could have been a comfortable haven for a family of six.
The novebony nightstand was packed with potions and medical equipment, and a veritable gaggle of bickering elderly men garbed in the dark green robes of senior healers fluttered around the bed like vultures descending on their prey. At Andrys' side sat the beautiful pagan girl Damien still vaguely remembered from that accursed day at the Hunter's keep, although the capacity of his brain had been somewhat limited back then, stultified by the horrendous sight of Gerald's chopped off head thrown into a blazing fire by the same slender hand which was clinging to the dark-haired girl's fingers like a lifeline now.
While Damien was still busy both getting an overview of the situation and a resemblance of emotional control from the corners of his eyes a stealthy movement caught his attention, and the warrior knight gasped, completely nonplussed, while his right hand unconsciously convulsed around the hilt of his sword in a death grip. The guard at his side stiffened with apprehension, evidently expecting an attack by the irascible stranger, but he shouldn't have worried, because Vryce's capability for action had deserted him completely by now, and the former priest stood rooted to the spot, his mouth hanging agape.
An inconspicuous side door had been shut without so much as a faint click, but Damien could have sworn that he had caught a fleeting glimpse of a red silk shirt and a long, black braid, two attributes which were slowly but surely getting a bit familiar. What the heck…?
"Please leave us for a moment. I wish to speak with the priest. Alone!" a strained, barely audible whisper somehow managed to interrupt the heated discussion, and he tried to focus his attention on more urgent matters than the damned youth from Black Ridge Pass. Andrys' eyes were glassy and his voice slurred, and the former priest suspected that the young man had been administered a strong analgesic to relieve his pain.
Rather astounded looks were exchanged between the members of the healing profession, but to Damien's amazement they complied with Tarrant's request and stalked off in a huff, followed by the young woman who kissed Andrys' forehead and squeezed his hand reassuringly before she left the room with a mournful, anxious glance in Damien's direction. Then the door closed, and when the eyes of the two men met at long last Vryce was flabbergasted at the doleful expression in the young man's tired gaze.
„For what I have to tell you I don't need any witnesses, Reverend",
Damien's barking laughter didn't contain a single trace of mirth but sounded like a strangled sob instead. "Don't you, Andrys? And what else is there to say, I wonder? You shot a helpless man, a human being whom God in his wisdom had granted a precious second chance, hacked off his head and fed it to the flames. Isn't that enough? Do you want to torture me with a vivid description of Gerald's last minutes? Relish in rendering his last words? Or do have the nerve to dish out the vulking lie that he begged for his life on his knees like a bloody coward? Spare your breath; I'd never believe you, anyway." Shaking the warrior knight buried his face into his hands in a desperate effort to hide his tears of helpless wrath.
"I'm sorry, Reverend. I know how you feel."
"You know how I feel?" Damien didn't even realize that he stepped closer in three long strides, looming over Tarrant like a hawk over a mouse, and his voice was quiet, but deadly. "You still live because the more civilized part of my personality has to acknowledge that in a way your ancestor died for his crimes, that the killing was justice long overdue, but the snarling beast laying in wait inside me would rejoice at ramming my sword through your wretched heart. What I feel when I have to look at your damned beautiful visage, that vile mockery of Gerald's features, is beyond your comprehension, Your Excellency. If you truly knew my emotions you wouldn't dare to face me all on your own in your pretty big bed but surround yourself with an impenetrable ring of armour and swords."
From some hidden reserves inside him Andrys dredged up the strength to push himself into a sitting position until his face was a mere few inches away from Vryce's nose, and his face flushed a blotchy red. „I bloody well know how you feel when you see my visage, Reverend", the young man spat venomously, "the very visage I have to face each and every time I come across a mirror, a nice remembrance of the accursed hour I returned home from my misguided revelries just to find the gory remains of my family, hacked to pieces by an undead look-alike of mine. Do you really think I'm happy about that damned inheritance? That I value my beauty? Dear God, there was a time when I would have paid any price for another face, for different genes. Just face it, priest. You don't have a monopoly on suffering. "
Andrys paused and tried to catch his breath. „Don't try to fool me, Reverend. When we first met I considered you the most god-forsaken, corrupted human being I'd ever met, but you are no assassin who attacks a helpless man in his sickbed. But maybe you can spare yourself the trouble of killing me, anyway", the young man gasped. „I just had a heart attack, and I can't help noticing some glum faces around me. A bitter irony, isn't it?"
Speechless Vryce stared at the adept's executioner, and an icy shiver ran down his back. So even in death Gerald Tarrant was extracting vengeance on his murderer, and considering Andrys' pale, haggard face and his desperate struggling for air which reminded him so much of his ancestor's heart failure at the knees of Mount Shaitan the former priest came to the conclusion that the young man very likely wasn't for this world much longer. If the Neocountess of Merentha wasn't already pregnant with his child the bloodline Gerald had founded so many centuries ago would possibly perish with his last living descendant.
His outburst had evidently robbed Andrys of the better part of his remaining strength, and after gulping down a glass of water he sagged back with a moan, his face as white as the embroidered silken pillows. Nonetheless he staunchly met Damien's questioning gaze, one of his eyebrows raised sardonically in a fashion that acutely reminded Vryce of his late companion, and once again the striking similarity between the two men shook him to the core. Then he remembered the adept's skull exhibited for public amusement, and struck by a wave of naked repugnance his features hardened again.
„I might be willing to forgive you your act of revenge influenced by Calesta's manipulations" the warrior knight rasped after swallowing a mouthful of bile, "but there's no vulking excuse for allowing the exhibition of your ancestor's mortal remains for public amusement like a wild beast in a menagerie. That's barbaric, Andrys, and not befitting a servant of the church, something you claim to be. Seems to be a family trait, by the way."
"Are you talking about the skull those foolish idiots nailed to the city gate?" Tarrant snorted full of disdain, and Vryce couldn't help but noticing that evidently the young man had truly inherited more than just his ancestor's pleasant looks. "I didn't call you here to vie for your pity, but to lighten your burden, Reverend Vryce. Rest assured. I don't know the name of the skull's unfortunate owner, but it's definitely not goddamn Gerald Tarrant's head. Do you understand the… implications of that statement?"
Damien's knees buckled, and he sat down rather abruptly on the next available chair. His head was swimming, and he was quite sure that his face had just assumed the same unhealthy hue as the young lad's whose green gaze contained more than a faint trace of amusement by now. Wild, crazy hope stirred inside the warrior knight for the first time since his companion's supposed death, and it took him a while until he found his voice again.
„In God's holy name, man", Vryce croaked, at the end of his tether, „stop beating around the bush and tell me what happened after I …when Gerald…". Damien faltered, and try as he might he wasn't able to force another word through his constricted throat.
„You're very fond of him, aren't you?" The eyes of the two men met again, and Vryce was amazed at the compassion in Andrys' gaze. Then realization hit him with the force of a brick. ‚You ARE fond of him', the young man had just said, not 'you WERE'. Presence, not past, and Damien's racing heart skipped a beat, but as much as he wanted to shake the answers out of Tarrant all he could manage in his current state was a faint nod.
"I thought so." Andrys' exhaustion was almost palpable, but he smiled. "Shall I tell you why it's not the Hunter's head at the city gate? He bewitched you, used that link of yours to make you leave because he didn't want you to die. A strange display of affection for evil incarnate, isn't it? But that's all I can tell you, Reverend."
"Not much", Damien grumbled. "And how comes the strange youth into play, I wonder? You know whom I mean: black braid, red silk shirt, leather pants. Saw him disappearing into the wings the second I entered the room. He tried to chat me up on Black Ridge Pass a week ago, but I wasn't in the mood for talking.
"The youth?" Let's say he's a distant cousin of mine who will inherit my title if I die without siring an heir. Maybe you should have listened when he approached you, Mer Vryce. He might have told you a very enlightening story" Andrys replied with an amused twitch of his mouth, but all at once his barely recognizable smirk faded, and he gripped Vryce's hand with a fierce strength belying the decline of his ailing body.
"Listen, Reverend! It's not very likely that we will talk to each other again, and I would like to ask you a favour. My life's not exactly been a role model with my drinking and whoring and lying, and the Lord and I might have a lot to settle when we meet soon. Will you pray for me?"
The hoarse voice trailed off, strangled by Andrys' ragged breathing, and a trickle of sweat was running down the young man's temples. Taking in the anguish in those intriguing emerald depths Damien picked up a cloth on the nightstand and gently wiped the moisture off Andrys' face without a second thought. "I strongly doubt that God and I are currently on good terms, Your Excellency", the warrior knight muttered, "but I promise I will do my best."
Tarrant sighed and relaxed visibly, although his breath was still coming in heavy gasps. "Thank you, Reverend", the Neocount murmured with a faint ghost of a smile on his pale lips. "And now hurry after my cousin. He's the key…the key…"
The last words were but an almost inaudible whisper, and Damien bent over the young man, fearing the worst. Thank goodness Andrys was still breathing, albeit only faintly, but the strain of their conversation had finally gotten the better of him, and he had dozed off into the realms of sleep.
Damien rang for the healers, squeezed Tarrant's limp, damp hand again in a last good-bye and left the room without looking back. The hunt for his pretty, elusive prey had begun, and as sure as day follows night the vulking black-haired stranger would have to answer a lot of questions at their next meeting.