It was nearing ten o'clock when Raven and her entourage came to the edge of the ridge that looked down on the town of Markford. Seated on the banks of the broad Southbourne River, the modest-sized town was the gateway between the villages of the Angle and the Kelewair-dominated fiefdoms to the east. From her vantage point here at the edge of the highlands Raven could see the old dirt road snaking down the hillside and through the town, ending at the wood-and-stone bridge that carried traffic across the river. Though still too far away to make out any details, she could already tell that the square in the center of town was full of people.
"How d'ya reckon we should handle this, Raven?" her Uncle Taden murmured, pulling his horse up alongside her own. The grey-haired man's bushy eyebrows were drawn low and close together in a thoughtful frown.
"Our first priority is to reach the mayor's office without being noticed," she said, after a moment's thought. "We have no authority to take Malkus on our own, but if we can convince the mayor to side with us..."
"Then maybe nobody else has to get killed," Taden finished grimly. "Come on, then. I've been to see the mayor once or twice, an' I can prob'ly get us there without too many folk seein' us."
"Lead on, then," Raven said, pulling up her riding cloak over her head. It wouldn't shield her face entirely from view, but it might keep a casual observer from noticing anything unusual about her. Between the cloak, which also concealed her tail, and her riding gloves, which disguised her clawed hands from view, she could pass for a normal human traveler, at least at first glance.
Taden gestured to the other men in the group and then headed down the hillside, Raven following close behind. They reached the edges of town in only a few minutes, and the deputy carefully chose a path through several alleys and little-used side streets, stopping to look and listen at each intersection before moving on. Raven saw no curious faces peek from the windows, no bystanders in the streets. Anyone who wasn't working was probably at the town square, she thought.
A few minutes later -- after Raven had come to the conclusion that Markford was a bit bigger than it had looked from a distance -- they came to a stop in front of a large wooden building with a thatched roof. The door had a sign overhead saying TOWN HALL, but was otherwise unadorned -- a subtle reminder that Markford was a far cry from Kelewair or Metamor.
Taden led the group up to the door, Raven hanging back so that she would not be immediately seen for what she was. The deputy knocked twice and waited. A few seconds later the door opened to reveal a young peasant woman with a sober, businesslike look on her face.
"Your name, sir?" she asked.
"Taden hin'Beldorn, sheriff's deputy for the village of Anthaly," Taden replied, showing her his badge of office.
"We're here t'see Mayor Hamon, Miss. There's a representative from the Lightbringers who'd like to have a few words with 'im." He hooked his thumb at Raven, who stood with her head turned away from the girl so that the hood blocked her view. Deliberately, she fingered the large twin cross around her neck that served as her badge of office.
The servant girl gave the hooded priestess a speculative look, then turned back to Taden. "Just a moment, sir," she said, disappearing behind the door again.
After half a minute or so she returned, opening the door wide. "The mayor will see you," she said. "Please be sure that all your weapons are peace-bonded before you enter."
Obligingly, Raven and the others tied shut the straps on their scabbards, then made their way into the house single-file. Raven heard the girl breathe in sharply when she passed, and suspected the servant had gotten a glimpse of what was hidden under that hood. To her credit the girl did not let out a panicked scream, but merely ran over and murmured something to two of the guards on the far side of the room. The soldiers fell silently into step behind Raven and her bodyguards as they made their way into the mayor's office.
The man inside was dressed after the fashion of the Kelewair merchant class, better than the average commoner but not as richly as one of the nobility. His coarse black hair was cut short, with a close-trimmed goatee to accompany it. The mayor sat behind a wide oaken desk, gazing thoughtfully at the five figures entering his office. Raven stayed back behind Taden, out of the mayor's direct line of sight.
"Good morrow, deputy," the mayor said, his tone genial.
"Good morrow, Mayor Hamon, sir," Taden replied respectfully.
"Dina tells me that you have a Lightbringer here to see me?" Hamon prompted. He leaned a little to one side in his seat, trying to peer around Taden to see the figure standing behind him. "Who is it, if I might ask?"
"Someone you have probably heard of, I imagine," Raven said, at last stepping into view and pulling back her hood. "Raven hin'Elric, Lothanasa of Metamor." She smiled thinly. "A pleasure, Mayor Hamon."
The mayor looked as though his eyes were about to push free of their sockets. Pressing back into his chair, clutching its armrests in both hands, it was several seconds before he managed to speak.
"How... how do I know you're not a werewolf?" he asked, his voice unnaturally high with barely restrained terror.
Raven let out a deep sigh. "Good gods," she muttered, rolling her eyes. "If I may be permitted to withdraw my sword from its sheath, so as to verify my identity?"
The mayor looked at her a moment longer, then gestured to one of the guards still standing in the doorway. The tall, armored man came up right behind her, and Raven felt the tip of his pike brush lightly against the small of her back.
"Take it out slowly," he ordered.
Carefully, deliberately, Raven reached down and untied the peace-bond on her scabbard. Then, slowly, she drew Elemacil from the sheath, holding it in both her hands with the tip pointed down. Awkwardly, she lay the kryss-bladed sword atop the mayor's desk.
"Elemacil, the Holy Sword of Metamor," she said, gesturing down at the weapon. "There is no blade like it in all the West." Placing one hand lightly atop the handle and the other atop the end of the blade, Raven spoke a quiet command: "Kala."
Immediately the sword lit up with a bright yellow glow, the Elvish script along its length shining with brilliant red fire. Raven let it remain thus for a few seconds, then banished the light with a gesture.
Removing her hands, she allowed Hamon to lean forward and examine the blade more closely. He reached out a tentative hand toward the blade, brushed his fingers against the hilt --
Then jerked back reflexively at the mild shock the sword channeled into him. Once again the script on the blade glowed an angry red, as if in warning.
"Ashes!" he cursed, shaking his singed hand.
"Elemacil dislikes being handled by strangers," Raven said. "In the present age, it may only be wielded by the Lightbringers of Metamor."
"You might have warned me," the mayor said, glowering up at her.
Raven gave him another thin smile. "I thought it better to let you see for yourself, that your own hand might aid in persuading you," she said dryly. "I take it that you are convinced?"
Massaging his hand, the mayor nodded irritably. "Quite. Now, Lothanasa, if you would be so kind as to remove that thing from my desk..."
Still smiling, Raven returned Elemacil to its sheath. The guard behind her backed away to resume his place at the door.
Seeming to have regained his composure, Hamon leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands before him. "My apologies for the cold reception, Mistress Lightbringer," he said. "Surely you understand our need for caution. After all, it isn't often that one of your stature travels to Markford, particularly outside your own area of jurisdiction."
"Quite true, Mayor," Raven said, all amusement gone from her face and voice. "And I would not be here now, were it not for my personal stake in what is transpiring here in the Angle. You may not be aware of it, but my mother was born in Anthaly -- and thus, the Lightbringers of this region hold a special place in my heart."
"Understandable, Mistress," Hamon said, nodding once. His eyes indicated that he already didn't like where the conversation was heading.
"I hoped as much," the wolf-woman replied smoothly. "And in light of your understanding, I ask you to support me in stopping this mad priest, Malkus."
Wincing, Mayor Hamon lowered his head and sighed. "I wish I could, Mistress," he said, sounding frustrated. "I hate the fact that he and his lackeys have come to my city. But that murdering whoreson has half the townsfolk on his side. My men would be slaughtered by the mob. Unless you've brought an army with you..." He shook his head wearily.
Raven placed her hands on the desk and leaned forward. "The crowds that follow men such as he are no indication of his true support," she said quietly. "By and large, people are sheep, and they will follow any strong shepherd who shows himself to them. They go along with him and his message because they are afraid -- partly afraid of him, but mostly afraid of each other." She quirked her lip in a rueful expression. "Every man in that crowd fears that the others will turn on him if he speaks out against what is happening. That is the power of a demagogue: to craft a position of his own devising and persuade those around him that it is the majority view. Most people are so afraid to think for themselves that they never question it -- unless another shepherd presents a more persuasive message."
The mayor looked up at that, eyes questioning. Raven nodded once. "I know a number of Followers, Mayor, including an Ecclesia priest. This brand of hatred is no more widely accepted among their people than it is among ours; in truth, it goes against the entire spirit of their faith. If you take a firm stand for justice, most of Malkus' crowd will desert him. I am certain of it."
Hamon's eyes went distant, deep in thought.
"Will you help me stop Malkus from killing my people?" Raven asked quietly.
There was a long pause. Then, at last, Hamon turned his gaze back upon the priestess.
"I'll summon the guard," he said.
The town square of Markford was packed with people, standing with rapt attention around a broad wooden platform. Atop that platform were five knights wearing surcoats emblazoned with red crosses, their polished mail gleaming in the midday sun. They stood rigidly at attention, one at each corner of the platform and the fifth at the back, their expressions grim and determined. In the middle of the stage, strutting back and forth like a cock searching for a challenger, was the priest Malkus.
He was dressed in the traditional white robes of his office, with a large red cross embroidered over the left breast and a large gold crucifix hanging from his neck. He wielded an ornamented scepter like a club, gesturing fiercely at the crowd as he spoke out in a loud, clear voice.
"Brethren, listen to me!" he shouted. "The very soul of this city is in mortal jeopardy. All around you, like wolves among the flock, there are enemies of Eli lying in wait to destroy you! They claim to be servants of light, but do not be deceived, for they have made a compact with demons! They seek to trip you with friendly lies, draw you into their nets with seeming miracles, so that they can drag your souls down to the blackest depths of hell. Do not believe them! Even the Adversary himself dresses as an angel of light! Be aware, for you are in grave danger!"
There were some murmurs of assent from the crowd. A few rabble-rousers scattered here and there shouted loud words of agreement.
"I have traveled across this land for weeks, brethren," Malkus continued. "In every town I have visited, these foul vipers have shown themselves! We must act swiftly to crush the serpent's head, or he will surely destroy all we hold dear. We must remove the witches, the warlocks and the demon-worshippers from among us! It is the only way we can save our towns, our children, e'en our very souls!"
Another ripple of agreement ran through the crowd. Turning, Malkus gestured to the knight standing behind him. The man swiftly disappeared into a nearby house.
"I do not mean to drive you to unnecessary panic, my brethren," Malkus said, "but even here in Markford my paladins and I have already found one of the vile servants of the Adversary among you. Behold the wolf in your own fold!"
The knight came back out of the house, dragging an old woman along with him. She was a peasant, and poorer than most -- dressed in little more than rags and dirty, tattered garments. Her hands were bound, and a gag was tied firmly in her mouth. Two young men walked behind her, dressed in peasants' clothes that were little better than her own.
"You, my brothers!" Malkus said, beckoning to the men. "Come forward, and tell your brethren what this foul agent of darkness has done to you!"
The two men stepped forward to the edge of the platform, their eyes dark with anger. "We had a sister who fell ill under a pox," the taller of them declared. "This crone claimed to be a healer, saying she would cure our sister! But no sooner had the witch begun to 'treat' her, than our sister suddenly worsened and died! Not two days had passed under that woman's hands before our sister was carried off to an early grave!"
There were angry and indignant shouts from the crowd. Malkus stormed over to the woman and tore off her gag.
"What do you have to say for yourself, woman?! How will you answer your accusers?"
The woman coughed and sputtered as the gag was removed. "It -- it was nae my fault!" she gasped, tears running down her face. "Poor lass reacted bad to one o' the herbs in her medicine! I -- I could nae a'known..."
"Liar!" Malkus thundered. "Perhaps you would care to explain why this was found in your home!" He held aloft an iron pendant shaped like a pentagram, eliciting a gasp of horror from the crowd.
"No!" she sobbed. "That ain't mine! I've nae seen it before in me life! By all the gods, I swear it!"
" 'By all the gods', eh, witch?!" Malkus shouted, gripping her chin harshly in one hand. "You have shown your true face, servant of demons! There is no god but Eli! No true healer would swear an oath on the false gods of the earth!"
There was a roar of agreement from some parts of the crowd. Many were now crying, "Burn her! Burn the witch!"
Malkus strode back to the front and center, raising his hands before the audience. "You have seen the truth for yourselves!" he declared. "The Adversary's agents walk among you! There is only one solution, my brethren. The evil must be purged, in cleansing fire!"
A quiet murmur ran through the crowd as people turned and saw where the shout had come from. At the edge of the square, opposite the priest's platform, a troop of two score mounted guards had appeared, accompanied by Mayor Hamon on a white stallion.
"Make way!" the captain of the guard shouted. "Make way for the king's man!"
The peasants and townsfolk stepped aside as the horses pushed their way through the crowd, eyes wide as they beheld the riders advancing with their pikes held high. The guards made a corridor through the sea of people, and the mayor rode down the center of it, stopping directly in front of the priest.
"Father Malkus, your stay in Markford is over," Hamon said sternly, speaking loudly enough so that all the crowd could hear. "Time for you to take your hatred somewhere else. We don't want it here."
For a long moment the priest remained motionless. Then, his face contorted into a mask of unvarnished rage.
"Heathen!" he spat. "You would condemn this entire town to the depths of hell! You --"
"Enough!" Hamon shouted. To everyone's surprise, including his own, the priest fell silent.
"Listen to me, people of Markford!" the mayor cried, turning to look at his subjects. "This man has come to you with a mountain of angry words and a molehill of evidence. These accusations against your fellow townspeople are as thin and without substance as the fog that rolls in off the Southbourne each morning! These are your neighbors he is trying to throw you into arms against -- men and women with whom you have grown up and worked and made merry, whose children play in the fields with your own. Would you throw away that friendship, that brotherhood, on the word of a stranger?
"We have no idea where this man comes from!" Hamon shouted, gesturing at the priest. "He rides into town one day with his soldiers and claims to be on a holy crusade! If his cause is just, where are his papers that would prove that Yesulam supports it? Why does he have only a handful of knights to fight an evil he claims is so widespread? Think on it, my friends!"
The villagers were murmuring amongst themselves, confused and indecisive. They hadn't been expecting this. Yet as Hamon spoke, the assent to his words gradually began to grow.
"The law is clear," the mayor said. "If anyone has been wronged, let him take his case to a proper court. Anyone proven a criminal in a fair trial shall be duly punished. But let us put aside talk of burning at the stake! There is no room in Markford for that sort of vigilante justice!"
"'E's right!" someone shouted. "Th' priest 'ere played us for fools!" There was a loud, and angry, clamor of agreement.
Malkus was beginning to panic. "Do not listen to these fork-tongued serpents, my brothers!" he cried, his voice desperate. "Rise up now! Be strong! To my side, those who would stand for righteousness!"
The priest's paladins closed ranks around him, but the townsfolk shrank back from the platform. There were some who looked as though they might rush to join him, but when they saw the mood of their neighbors they thought better of it. The few who did try to break for the platform were grabbed by those around them and dragged to the ground.
"Get outta here, ya stupid git!" someone shouted, as a small rock flew out of the crowd in the direction of the priest. "Take yer burnings elsewhere!"
With a loud cry, many of the other people in the crowd followed that example, picking up stones from the square and pelting the stage.
"Captain!" Mayor Hamon called. "Please escort Father Malkus and his men to the town limits."
Malkus didn't give the captain a chance. "Fly!" he cried, turning and running into the alley behind the platform. His five knights ran ahead and alongside of him, forming a wedge formation intended to keep anyone from assaulting the priest.
In the alley they swiftly mounted their horses, which had been tied outside the house where they had kept the old woman before her 'trial'. As the captain and his men tried to maneuver their horses through the crowd of people, Malkus and his knights quickly took off running for the edge of town.
As they raced through the empty streets, Malkus looked back. The guards were only just coming into view. He and his men would easily outrun them and make their escape. The mayor had spoken of escorting him to the border, but he knew the end result would have been far more serious had he let himself be taken. With his actions in the preceding towns of the region, he would soon have found himself on his way to Ellcaran or Kelewair for trial and execution.
As it was, with this admittedly undignified dash out of town, he faced a minor setback at worst. People were always looking for someone to blame their problems on, a scapegoat whose presence would excuse them from taking responsibility for their own failures. There would be plenty of other opportunities to rid the land of pagans.
Malkus and his men turned down one last side street, the one that would take them west to freedom. As they raced around the corner, he looked up --
And cried out as a blinding flash of light filled his vision.
The men covered their eyes, crying in pain. Their horses bucked and neighed in panic, throwing their riders to the ground as blindness struck them. The men were tossed to the paving stones like rag dolls, but they could do nothing but clutch at their eyes and moan.
"Now!" Raven ordered.
Swiftly the four men of her entourage raced forward, slapping irons around the hands of the helpless men. Raven herself strode up and bound Malkus, pressing her knee firmly into the small of his back as she clamped the chains shut around his wrists.
"Father Malkus," she growled, "you are under arrest for the murder of the king's subjects..."
"...there. That should do it," Evin said, nodding in satisfaction. He gave a tug on the chain that linked the prisoners together, grinning as the hands of all five moved in unison. Two of the men tried to curse at the boy around the gags in their mouths, but the words came out as little more than inarticulate mumbling. "I don't think they'll be givin' us any trouble on the way, Raven," Evin added.
"Good to hear, coz," Raven said, patting her cousin on the shoulder. Walking past him, she turned to face Mayor Hamon, who stood with some of the members of his guard at the edge of the town commons.
"We shall make sure that they are delivered to Ellcaran for trial," she said. "I need at least two witnesses who will testify against him for the murders."
"Based on what I've heard, you won't have any shortage of volunteers," Hamon said grimly. "He just finished his business in Brocktree before he came here, and I'd reckon that there are plenty of people there who would like to see him pay for his crimes."
"I'll head out to Brocktree an' find ye a few folks t' testify, coz," Joss offered.
"Go on," she said, nodding. "And bring them as swiftly as you may to Ellcaran!"
"Don't worry, I shall," the young man assured her. He gazed at her for a moment longer, then broke into a lopsided grin.
"What is it?" Raven asked.
"Nothin'. I was just thinkin' how well that form suits you, is all. After all, coz, you always were a bit of a --"
"Get on, you brigand!" Raven laughed, giving him a playful slap upside the head.
"Aye, Mistress! By your command!" With that Joss ran and mounted his horse and swiftly rode off to the south, grinning like a fool all the way.
Raven shook her head and sighed. "It doesn't matter what your title says," she muttered to herself. "To your kin, you're still just family."
Taden caught her gaze and winked. "I wonder if the Patriarch had this problem."
The priestess smirked. "I wonder."
Bensin rode up and nodded to them. "We're ready," he said.
"Very well." Raven turned back and bowed to Mayor Hamon. "Thank you again, mayor, for your help."
Hamon smirked, bowing in return. "Thank you for giving me the courage to do it. I don't think we'll be seeing his kind around here again."
"One can hope. Farewell, Mayor."
"And you, Mistress Lightbringer."
Mounting their horses, Raven and her three remaining escorts rode off into the west, a line of five prisoners shuffling in their wake.
The journey back to Anthaly proved to be rather slower than the trip to Markford had been, due in no small part to the chain of reluctant guests Evin was dragging behind him. Malkus was proving particularly slow, and Evin soon grew tired of jerking the chain in a fruitless effort to make him go faster. It was three o'clock before they had even gone two-thirds of the way.
"At this rate, we'll be lucky t'get them back in time for supper," Evin grumbled. "Ol' Lardgut back there is takin' his dear sweet time. Y' don't suppose ya could cast a hasten spell on 'em, eh, Raven?"
Raven smiled ruefully. "I fear that would be a waste of Dokorath's magic, coz," she said. "Besides, I can only c-"
She broke off suddenly, the fur on the back of her neck bristling. Was she imagining things, or..?
"What's the matter, coz?" Evin asked, frowning.
Raven held up one finger in a staying gesture, calling for silence. Lifting her nose, she scented the wind, carefully. There, coming out of the northwest...
"Smoke," she murmured.
"Smoke? Where?" Taden asked, his bushy eyebrows furrowed.
Raven nodded in the direction of the road ahead. "That way," she said. "Evin, you think you can handle these ruffians alone?"
Evin gave a tug on the chain, causing the shackled men to trip over each other. "I think I've got it handled," he quipped. The mirth, however, did not reach his eyes.
"Good. Taden, Bensin, follow me!" With that Raven spurred her horse into a quick trot, following her nose down the path ahead. The two men followed close behind.
At their quicker pace, it was only a few minutes before the long ridge that marked the edge of the highlands loomed in their vision. Beyond that ridge in the river valley was the village of Bethany, and there above the ridge...
"Look!" Bensin cried, pointing at the column of smoke rising into the sky.
"I see it," Raven said, her voice tense. "On now, quickly!"
They sped their horses from a trot into a gallop, racing down the road toward the ridge. As they grew closer and the road began to curve off to the west, seeking the gentle slope where one of its branches would flow down into the valley near Anthaly, a pack of mounted horses broke through the treeline and dashed off down the road to the west. It only took an instant for Raven to recognize the black, hooded forms of the riders.
"After them!" she shouted, racing around the bend in the road. There, about thirty yards ahead, the group of seven horses was headed straight down the road in front of her. They were strung out a fair bit along the road, but still...
Holding her own mount steady with her left hand, Raven stretched out her right toward the fleeing assassins.
"Artela, forgive me," she murmured. Then, in a loud commanding voice, "Yajiit! A nasa curte anarallo!"
For a few seconds a ball of light coalesced around Raven's outstretched hand. Then the light burst into brilliant fire, an angry ball of flame at the wolf-woman's fingertips. Judging the distance carefully, she 'threw' the fireball forward, then quickly brought her own horse to a halt. The shimmering globe arced through the air, landed in the midst of the fleeing horses --
And exploded with a sound like thunder.
Raven covered her eyes with one hand while keeping a firm grip on her horse with the other, as the mount beneath her bucked and started at the brilliant flash. An expanding sphere of fire roared out from the point of impact, eliciting torturous screams from the creatures unfortunate enough to be caught in its path. After the initial flash, Raven urged her mount forward and surveyed the damage. Two of the riders, those furthest in the lead, had escaped, apparently unharmed. Three had been incinerated along with their mounts, leaving behind a horrible stench of burned flesh and hair in the process. One was alive but so badly burned that he was unlikely to last long; he and his horse lay on the ground, helpless and unmoving. Raven would have to put the horse out of its misery quickly. One rider, however, the one in the rear, seemed largely unharmed; he had been thrown from his horse and, as it happened, injured his leg in the fall. His horse ran off into the woods, neighing frantically.
By now Taden and Bensin were right behind her, and Raven gestured toward the man who was feebly trying to limp away from the scene. "Get him!" she shouted.
While the two men ran down the surviving assassin and bound him, Raven drew Elemacil and decapitated the dying horse. Turning her attention to the burned man, she quickly verified that there was nothing she could do for him -- he was already unconscious, and death would soon follow. Sheathing her sword, she turned her attentions back to their newly acquired prisoner.
Taden forced the man to his knees before Raven, his arms securely tied behind his back. Raven felt a snarl growing on her lips as she approached.
"All rather different when you're the prey, isn't it?" she growled, unleashing a stinging backhand across the man's masked face. The assassin's eyes narrowed with malice but he remained silent.
"I don't know who hired you to come after me, Southlander, but you were a fool to agree to the task," Raven said coldly. Reaching down, she contemptuously tore off the man's mask --
And dropped it in shock as she saw his face.
"You?!" she hissed. "What in the Ninth Hell do you think you're doing?!"
The baleful face of the Inquisitor glared up at her with venom in his eyes. "Ridding this land of a pox," he spat viciously. "This will teach the pagans a lesson! They'll see their kind aren't welcome in our lands!"
Raven turned and raced toward the ridge, desperately looking for a vantage point. A gnawing, sickening fear crept through her gut as she ran. She barely noticed Taden and Bensin dragging the disguised Inquisitor along, just yards behind her. Crashing through the underbrush, she fought her way through the trees and out onto the flat, open space at the top of the rocky ridge, gazing down at the village below.
Bethany was in flames. Every house had been torn to pieces, the thatch from the dozens of roofs now serving as tinder for the fire. And there, rising up amidst the rubble, built from the beams of the destroyed houses...
Crosses. Dozens and dozens of crosses.
"They wanted so much to be like their god," the Inquisitor sneered. "It only seemed fair to let them die as he did!"
But Raven said nothing. Eyes wide, she sank to her knees and wept.
The mood in Anthaly was one of bitter sadness that night, as the mourning cast a pall over the victory Raven had thought she'd won in capturing Malkus. Someone had cast a spell -- or something -- over the whole village that day, leaving them blind to the massacre going on just two miles away in their sister town. They had awakened from their daze to find Raenadan and his Inquisitors gone, and Bethany ablaze in the distance.
The next day Raven and her escort set out for Ellcaran, traveling by barge down the Marchbourne to Giftum with their prisoners in tow. Upon arriving in the port city it was only three days' ride to Ellcaran, and this time they made sure that they had a wagon with them to carry Malkus and his men. The Inquisitor was turned over to the Lightbringer temple in Giftum, whose priest assured Raven that he would be extradited to Kelewair for judgment.
Malkus was turned over to Father Lothar quietly and without ceremony, so as not to attract the attention of Lothanas Dagnir. The last thing Raven needed was for the High Priest of Ellcaran to come demanding explanations for why she had been operating in his territory. Lothar promised that Malkus and the 'paladins' with him would face a fair trial and be judged accordingly, as soon as the promised witnesses arrived from Brocktree. Raven had little doubt that the maverick priest would be executed for his deeds -- or, at the very least, be locked away in a dungeon for the rest of his days.
Before leaving, Raven told Lothar of the fate that had befallen Bethany, a tale that left both of them weeping.
"It sounds as though Malkus got his final vengeance, of a sort," Lothar said bitterly, when at last they had dried their tears.
Raven frowned. "What do you mean?"
The Ecclesia priest sighed heavily. "This is not the first time Malkus has promoted the cause of hatred," he explained. "Over the past few decades several factions have broken away from the Ecclesia, citing what they saw as error and corruption in the church. They called themselves the Rebuilders."
"Aye, so I've heard," Raven said. "I know a few Rebuilders. Bethany itself was an entire town of them. But what does that have to do with Malkus?"
"Lightbringers aren't the only ones Malkus has railed against," Lothar said sadly. "His first attacks were against the Rebuilders, especially the group to which the people of Bethany belonged. I think it's safe to say he hated them even more than he hated the Lightbringers."
"I seem to remember Aaron saying something along those lines," Raven said thoughtfully. "Were such feelings widespread in the Ecclesia?"
Lothar shrugged. " 'Tis difficult for me to say," he said. "Somehow, though, I doubt that there will be much clamor in the church for vengeance for Bethany."
Raven narrowed her eyes. "Which raises the question: who was truly behind the attack?"
Again, the Ecclesia priest shrugged. "That, we may never know."
"...in short, Malkus is detained. From what I hear, he won't live to see the coming of the new year."
"Excellent work." The tall figure crossed his arms in satisfaction. "You've saved the lives of countless Lightbringers in the Angle, Raven. Thank you for your assistance."
"Do not expect it regularly, Alarun," Raven said sharply. She turned her eyes on Herelath, who stood skulking on the edges of the circle of light. "And I would like a full explanation of what in all the hells happened with Raenadan and those Inquisitors."
"I'm afraid there's been some mistake, my child," the elderly high priest said, pulling back his hood to reveal a concerned face. "Raenadan was waylaid by bandits on the way to meet you. He never got further than two miles from Kelewair. And as for Inquisitors, well... I don't know who those men were, or who they were working for, but I didn't send them."
"If they were Inquisitors, rest assured that they will be punished severely for taking part in an unauthorized operation," Alarun said. "Assuming they are found and caught, of course."
"Of course," Raven agreed, narrowing her eyes. "What of the one I sent to you?"
Herelath looked regretful. "Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen off the boat on his trip back up the Marchbourne," he said. "With his hands and feet tied, he drowned before anyone could fish him out."
"I see," Raven said.
"If we discover anything else, you will be the first to know," Alarun offered.
"Aye," Raven said, as she turned and disappeared into the darkness. "Aye, I'm sure I will."
The lamps in the temple hall were lit, casting the room in a warm yellow glow. Two priestesses sat on the hard stone floor, watching as the incense from the evening sacrifice rose and floated through the room.
"Not save Bensin, no."
"One thing I don't understand," Merai said at last. "If the Rebuilders were so anointed -- if they were so close to their god -- why did He let them all die so easily?"
Raven watched the curls of smoke rise up from the altar. "'In the absence of martyrs, there's a presence of thieves'," she murmured.
"Something Benjamin said to me, the last time I saw him."
Merai wrapped her tail around in front of her, clasping it gently in both hands. "Do you know what it means?"
Raven nodded. "I think so," she said slowly. "I think it means that when there is no price to be paid for one's faith -- when there are no martyrs -- it is easy for that faith to be corrupted by those with darker agendas. When you don't understand how much your faith is worth, guarding its purity seems less important." She looked up at the ceiling, watching the patterns of shadow dancing over its surface. "Perhaps Eli allowed those children of His to die in order to spur other Followers on to greater faithfulness."
Merai looked at her thoughtfully. "You think that the Rebuilders knew they would die for their faith?"
"So why tell you? I mean, you're not Patildor."
The wolf-woman shrugged. "Maybe to take the burden off my conscience," she said. "But somehow, I think he meant it as something more than that." She looked over at Merai, eyes haunted. "I think that it was a warning."