A Michaelmas Mystery
Deryni Summer Challenge 2002 Entry
By: Melissa Houle
Allah, I am forty
different kinds of a fool,
Ibrahim thought. Taking on the appearance of the Duke of Cassan had seemed
like a good idea at dawn this morning. But after the miserable day he’d
passed and in his present dangerous situation, he had to admit it had
been stupidity of the first order. Especially as far as keeping a low
profile was concerned, and that was the cornerstone of his mission. He
had entirely failed to account for how noticeable he’d be while
looking like a tall red-haired duke in sky-blue. Virtually impossible to
melt into a crowd while looking like that. And every time he’d
tried to make himself inconspicuous preparing to make his move, someone
would appear at his elbow at precisely the wrong moment and start
chattering away. Dukes were evidently supposed to stay quite close to
their king-another factor that had made it difficult to make his break
for freedom. To avoid betraying himself through some unaccustomed
behavior, he’d stayed as far away from the King of Gwynedd as he
possibly could today, but that was not terribly far. And here he still
was, pilloried at the High Table, decorated with red table cloths and
bouquets of white lilies.
He’d also left the Duke of Cassan’s accursed personal popularity entirely out of his reckoning. Having had to ride all the way back to the Castle, his knees aching after that interminable Mass, he was then obliged to join some of the younger knights of the court in the castle gardens for a pint of that disgusting, bitter northern ale.
Filthy stuff! Ibrahim thought in irritation. Worse than drinking horse piss. No wonder it’s forbidden to us by the Prophet!
It had also had an unforeseen effect on him- a feeling of not quite being able to rely on his feet and legs or upon his depth perception. All his life, Ibrahim had been nimble, strong and well-coordinated in his movements. Tripping over his own feet and bumping his shoulders into stone pillars was wholly humiliating, and not even centering himself had helped much. His concentration was also evidently off balance.
It did not help his state of mind to know that the real Duke of Cassan would be waking up in the stable loft about now. He’d be too groggy from the drugs Ibrahim had forced down him to be much trouble for the next hour, of course. Ibrahim had gagged him too, and trussed him well hogtying him with leather reins, pinched from various bridles stored in the stable tack room. Naked and defenseless, McLain couldn’t betray Ibrahim, but someone was bound to discover the duke eventually. And if he wasn’t careful, Ibrahim might give himself away long before that happened. A pretty, splendidly dressed girl at one of the lower tables was giving him furious looks-evidently, she was another of the real duke’s favorites and felt ignored. If her eyes had been scimitars, Ibrahim would be sliced thinner than book pages, by now.
Ibrahim took a drink from his goblet, concluding that wine was merely objectionable in a different way from ale. He longed for the concoction his mother had often made for him when he was very small. She had squeezed lemons from her own lemon trees, thinned the mixture with water and had added honey to make a sweet/sour and very cooling drink for her first born son.
And these fools drink this abominable ‘wine’ for pleasure? He had been dizzy, but now he was nauseous as well. Of course, it might have been because of his day long fast required on account of the month of Ramadan. Solid food might help counteract his dizziness. The question was moot however, since he couldn’t picture ever wanting to eat again. He was developing a fine, throbbing headache on top of his other miseries as well. And this lack of appetite was underlined when the servants brought in the main course - an enormous sucking pig roasted whole, and with an apple in its open mouth.
Allah, the things these infidels eat! First the ale and wine, and now they serve an entire pig at their feast! The very smell of the thing made him feel faint.
Ibrahim struggled-fortunately successfully-to hold his gorge as servants began slicing up the pork, and he accepted as little of the meat as was decently possible when his turn came to be served. The pale slice lay there on his trencher, the edge brown and crisp, still sizzling hot from the fire. He prolonged the act of cutting it into bite sized pieces for as long as he could, and managed to surreptitiously drop several morsels on the floor, to the delight of a brindled greyhound puppy near his place. The dog actually had the gall to jump up into Ibrahim’s lap and snatch a sliver of meat right off his trencher.
Oh these people! They eat unclean animals and then keep others around them for company and allow them unspeakable liberties! He didn’t grudge the meat at all, but still shoved the puppy down with more force than he’d intended. The creature yelped sharply as it landed, and Ibrahim could swear every head in the hall turned to look right at him.
So much for being inconspicuous and unmemorable!
“You’re eating light tonight, brother,” said a deep, cultured voice to Ibrahim’s left. “I was beginning to think you were going to let Swift eat all your meat. Nonetheless, it’s well not to allow him liberties, or he’ll get fat and spoiled.”
Ibrahim managed a sickly grin at the King. He had a healthy summer tan, and his hair under his glittering crown was deeply, and densely black. But for the pale gray eyes in that brown face, Ibrahim might almost think he was looking at one of his own people. The young queen to the King’s left was hopeless in her pallor, though. Let her spend one season under the blazing sun of Djellarda or Um Al-Zakar, and she’d become a dried-up husk of a woman. She did wear a veil, but in the Western manner, leaving her face entirely uncovered, robbing her own pale eyes of almost all their expressive power, in Ibrahim’s view. She was not smiling at him, and one of her slim hands was caressing the puppy. The wretched pup belonged to her, then.
The King was smiling, but not with his eyes. They were thoughtful as they rested on Ibrahim’s face.
“It’s not like you to turn down roast pork however, Dhugal” the King went on lightly. “I thought it was one of your favorites?”
There was a command in that question, and Ibrahim knew there was nothing for it except to eat some of the terrible, Prophet-forbidden meat. He picked up McLain’s dagger, speared a scrap of pork and ate it, swallowing it quickly after one or two chews, before smiling back at the King. The King’s smile faded and his eyes were harder, now, as he gazed at the border dirk in Ibrahim’s right hand.
Ibrahim had no idea what was the matter with holding his dagger in the right hand - had he broken some obscure Western custom of the table? These people were so uncivilized, what could they know about how to properly conduct themselves?
“Azim, Alaric-“ the King said, lifting his own right hand
Enlightenment rapidly followed by panic made Ibrahim rise, shove his chair back hard and vault over the table before him all in one continuous movement. He sent dishes clattering to the floor as one toe caught the tablecloth and brought it part of the way with him. He did a shoulder roll on the hard floor as he landed, and was back on his feet, bolting for the door at the far end of the hall. People were shouting, screaming, behind them, but Ibrahim just kept running.
He was about three quarters of the way down the hall before a sheet of scarlet fire reared up directly in front of him, twice his own height and stretching clear to the side walls of the hall - causing more screams of panic behind him. It might not burn him as an ordinary fire would, but he’d not plough through that without some sort of damage. Ibrahim whirled, expecting a hail of arrows, but he’d not keep his back turned toward his enemies in the circumstances. They were running toward him now, and thus Ibrahim didn’t see the brilliant blue lightning shaft fork down from the vaulted ceiling. All he knew was that something sharp and hot touched the very crown of his head. His entire body tingled for an excruciating moment, followed by an intense chill. Ibrahim slumped unconscious to the floor.
Azim reached the still form first, flipped Ibrahim onto his back and roughly turned the unconscious man’s face to the light. Both the crimson fire and the blue lightning had disappeared.
“Ah, Ibrahim, it is the better for you that I found you alive,” Azim whispered. “Although you might not feel the same way.”
“He’s alive for the moment,” Duncan said grimly. “But Azim, if he’s killed Dhugal, he shall pay for that with his own life.”
“Indeed he shall,” Kelson agreed, scowling down at the unconscious man.
Azim looked up briefly and then nodded. “He was taken in your hall and Duke Dhugal is a Duke of your realm as well as Bishop Duncan’s son and your close personal friend. But let me Read Ibrahim and see what I can find out first.”
Nigel and Morgan took it upon themselves to herd the Court away back to the tables at the far end of the Hall. Kelson did not stir, flanked to either side by Araxie and Duncan, who gripped the King’s forearm tightly, the other hand clasped hard around his pectoral cross. None of them noticed Prince Payne lingering nearby as well.
Azim closed his eyes, his hands holding Ibrahim’s head. The man’s hair and skin both darkened, the mustache receded, but did not disappear, and a thin dark beard appeared as well. Azim bent over the man, probing deeply for several more minutes. Then he brought himself back to normal consciousness.
“We’ll find young Dhugal in the stable loft, my Lord Bishop,” Azim told Duncan at once. “Fortunately alive, although he has been heavily drugged.”
Duncan closed his eyes, breathed a prayer of thanks, and crossed himself with a shaking hand.
“Amen,” Kelson whispered. “Lord Azim, what are you giving him?”
Azim had produced a tiny glass vessel filled with deep yellow liquid from somewhere inside his clothing, and was now carefully pulling the stopper out of the neck.
“It’s a highly potent variety of merasha, My Prince,” Azim said. “They make it in the Southern deserts, and the substance is boiled longer and is twice as pure as that which you’ve encountered yourself.” Azim smiled grimly. “Now it will suffice to keep Ibrahim from causing anyone more trouble for several hours. He gave some of the same stuff to the Duke, I believe. Even so, while we go find Dhugal, I would advise a close guard on him in a locked room.”
Kelson turned and beckoned to a guard, giving him the appropriate orders, then realized that Duncan was no longer beside him.
“Gone to find young Dhugal I expect,” Azim nodded. “We’d best hurry after him, Sire. He’s going to need our help.”
Quite a large party accompanied the King and Azim to the stable loft in the end, although Kelson only let a few people accompany them up the ladder.
Duncan already knelt there bent over the naked Dhugal who was rolled into a twitching fetal ball. Several lengths of leather lay in the hay on the loft floor beside Duncan and the red marks around Dhugal’s wrists and ankles indicated how they’d been used.
Duncan’s face was a mixture of fury and worry, compounded with relief when he saw who had climbed the loft ladder.
“He’s a little better, but he was hog-tied and convulsing when I got here,” Duncan said, in a clipped voice. “I had to knock him out again to be able to untie him.”
Azim had headed for the corner of the loft and returned with a worn black leather satchel. He rummaged in it for a moment, then pulled out a another glass vial that was twin to the one he’d had moments before. But this one was filled with colorless liquid.
“Give him this,” Azim told Duncan briefly. “And rejoice that he’s still alive.”
Duncan obeyed, and once Dhugal had swallowed, he was quieter. Although he did groan and threw his arm over his eyes when Kelson moved his scarlet handfire nearer.
“Dim it a bit, Sire.” Azim advised. “His eyes are very sensitive to light, right now. And I’m afraid young Dhugal is in for some unpleasant hours, my Lord Bishop. He’ll not really be feeling himself until about this time tomorrow.”
“As long as he is alive,” Duncan whispered. “What may I give him?”
“Water,” Azim replied. “Just keep pouring it down his throat, and when you think he’s had enough, give him more. That’s the fastest way to flush it out of his system.”
“Payne, run and fetch some water,” Kelson ordered, worried eyes on Dhugal. “We’d best get started with rinsing him out. And find Ciard O’ Ruane and have him bring some pillows and blankets and a change of clothes up here. Dhugal might as well remain here until he’s fit to negotiate the ladder, again.”
Azim, nodded his agreement, then upended Ibrahim’s satchel on the loft floor, spreading out the meager belongings it had contained. A few more stoppered bottles and vials, a soft leather pouch containing a set of wards, and a very old and limp straw hat with a wide brim to provide shade against the sun. It unrolled itself on the floor, and Azim tossed it to Duncan who at once placed it over Dhugal’s face.
Azim lifted an eyebrow in question and picked up a boy’s sleeveless woolen singlet. The initials L.L.F. had been embroidered at the neckline at the back of the garment. “Curious,” Azim muttered, fingering the soft, fine-spun wool. “Could this be what Ibrahim came for?”
“That belonged to Liam,” Kelson said, also studying the singlet. “He must have outgrown it, or perhaps it was just forgotten when he returned to Torenth.”
“And that answers my question regarding what Ibrahim came to Rhemuth to achieve,” Azim answered. “A thing belonging to Liam, and even better, one that was worn next to his skin. Teymuraz would have had a strong psychic link with which to do his nephew harm had Ibrahim delivered it to him.”
Slowly Kelson and turned to look at Dhugal, now being given a drink of water by Duncan. The King’s face was hard with anger.
“My Lord Azim, if Ibrahim were solely my prisoner, he would die for what he has done to my close friend and for what he meant to do,” Kelson said quietly. “But Dhugal is still alive, and I realize that Ibrahim is of more value to us alive, especially if he can give us information concerning Teymuraz. Furthermore, he was an Anviller, and you are his superior in the Order. I am willing to allow you to take custody of him, and take him back to Djellarda with you if you wish it.”
“The quality of mercy is mighty in the mightiest, Sire,” Azim nodded, and smiled. “Also, Ibrahim could as easily have killed your friend while he was under his power, but he did not. Refraining from killing is a sign of hope, however small, that Ibrahim may yet redeem himself. And as you say, he is more valuable alive than dead.”
“It’s curious that Ibrahim should have come to Rhemuth looking for something belonging to Liam,” Kelson said. “Why not Beldour instead?”
“Liam did spend four years in Rhemuth,” Azim answered. “It’s not so strange to assume that something belonging to him might still be here, as indeed it was, and the danger for Teymuraz’s agent would have been far greater in Beldour or Torenthaly.
“As for the singlet, I’d advise burning it. Liam has no further need of it, and this way, it can’t be used against him in the future, if Teymuraz makes another attempt.”
“It shall be done tonight.” Kelson agreed and smiled dryly. “Let Michael, the Archangel of fire, protect Liam.”
Azim chuckled. “We Anvillers have more than a passing respect for St. Michael ourselves, what with our Michaeline origins. No doubt the Saint knew quite well that Ibrahim joined us under false pretenses all along, and is now getting some of his own back at an intruder.”
When you think about it, it’s highly appropriate to let Michael finish the job. Representing the Archangel at the killijalay was not precisely a stroke of luck for Teymuraz this summer. Nor for his agent tonight on Michaelmas itself.”