I came to myself with a throbbing headache not unlike the time that Rom had convinced me to try a mug of his family’s punch that he had snuck away when I had not been invited to one of their frequent banquets for the influential in the area. I did not enjoy the feeling then. I was even less inclined to appreciate the hammer inside my brain this time. Then it had been Nat castigating me as to my foolishness. This time it was myself instituting a flagellation of enormous proportions.
But even so, though my head may have ached, I felt much more in control of my faculties than I had been feeling and realized that the last of whatever drug that had been used upon me had finally faded from my system. For some reason however, my survival instincts had tripled in their insistence at being listened to.
Taking stock I realized that I was tied upon the roan horse I rode. Astoundingly I also still had my fang though my hands were positioned in such a way as to make using it a temporary impossibility. Contrary to my initial reaction, it was not a blindfold that kept my sight from much use. Night had fallen like a dark curtain and that combined with the fact that my hair was falling from its pins shielded my face so that I could search my surroundings. I dared to peek to see who was leading the horse. To my great chagrin I recognized the uniformed back of Ronald Nealy.
Unable to gain any other knowledge due to the darkness of our surroundings I sat up and said, “I really dislike being taken for a fool.”
The man jumped and spun in the saddle so quickly he startled the horses and nearly unseated us both.
“Damn you. You should not be conscious.”
“No. Damn you. And may all manner of curses find you and deal you the same favor that you have done to the family.”
“No! Shut your mouth woman! I’ll not be cursed by the likes of you.”
“Idiot,” I muttered. I had only been guessing, trying to get a feel for the depth of the corruption in the man in front of me, but if I had planted a seed of fear and unease then so much the better. I asked him, “What part in this ridiculous farce do you play?”
“Yes. Farce.” I said with a snort. “The fact that you fly up into the boughs tells me that you are very invested in some part of this. But answer me a few things if you will since we seem to have the time. Why should anyone believe that I hold some design to become the mother of begats that end the world? That is pure idiocy. From the sound of things the Borderlanders are well on their way to ending their own world with their corruption and infertility. And after my experience at the hands of not one Guardian but two, to believe that I’d place politics above my own sanity is absolute stupidity.”
Angrily he grumbled, “You do not understand. You cannot understand. You are a Harper and a Linder on top of it.”
I let that go as it was a fact I could not and would not deny. However I did disabuse him of the notion that somehow my understanding was inferior to his. “Oh I understand well enough. Bottled at its most basic, those in power wish to stay in power and they will manipulate whoever they need to to do so. The Darkfriars manipulate the weak minded of their people, preying on their corruptions and addictions and need to feel empowered above their status … so long as that empowerment does not extend to being able to stand up to their own leaders, both political and religious. The same might be said of any other group, including Tentuckia and even up to the Great Council itself. Status is far too easily used and abused by some with no understanding of the consequence. So again I ask, what is your place in this drama troupe?”
Ronald Nealy turned around and then jerked my horse’s reins irritating it, and with the way I felt the animal’s muscles work beneath my legs, not for the first time. A small smile tried to escape my control as I realized that I had an advantage that my kidnapper had not meant me to have. I was riding a Linderhall horse … and all Linderhall horses were trained to fight in case they were needed by the Guard.
A plan quickly formed in my mind. I called, “Ronald Nealy?”
“Do not seek to beguile me Widow. I have my duty and it is a high calling indeed.”
“Beguile you?” I laughed. “The idea nauseates me.” I wanted to add that compared to the Sheriff he was no better than muck upon the bottom of my boots but could not let my mind take flight in that direction. I already worried how much he had told me while we were still at the Hall was truthful and how much was a fiction invented to get me moving with as little effort on his part as possible.
“No. You want me. I saw it.”
“Only in a drug induced dream. Have you been corrupted as so many others have been by the narcotic being used to control and mold so many I have come into conflict with recently?”
“No. I have only been blessed to have imbibed a less potent version of the Nectar of Enlightenment. And that only upon rare moments when I have gained favor for a job well done.”
“Nectar of …?!” I stopped myself from expressing my true incredulity. “And who did you say blessed you?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
“You mean you’ve allowed yourself to be corrupted by the one claiming the reputation of the Darkfriars? How pathetic.”
“No. You simply do not understand as of yet, but you will. And they are not the Darkfriars. That is a child’s fairytale to control the weak.”
I nodded though he could not see. “Well at least you have some of that correct. The Darkfriars were destroyed by a military force back during the Chaos. Then a group calling themselves Priests of the Damned absorbed what few remained as well as absorbed some corrupted descendants of Solomon Harper. They turned that troupe of suicidal monkeys into a force in the Borderlands though their power is waning due to their inability to begat with any regularity. Ceena and Tonya did quite an extensive investigation of …”
“Silence! I will not listen to your lies!”
“Prove they are lies. Because I can assure you that I can prove they are facts. Ceena and Tonya kept extensive family histories of not just Tentuckian families, but families in other regions as well, and they speak of deep seated corruptions and not all of them caused by genetically intermingling with Borderlanders. The Days of Destruction left their mark on all of us.”
“Make me,” I told him with glee, attempting to push him far enough so that he would come as close as I needed him to.
He snarled and turned to strike out at me but my opportunity to play my hand and escape was taken away when an arrow came out of the night and hit him in the shoulder so that he fell from the saddle. At the same time several … people … swarmed from the trail on either side of us, grabbing the horses and tackling Ronald Nealy and subduing him.
Once he had taken control of his pain enough to recognize those around us Ronald Nealy snarled, “What is the meaning of this? I have orders to deliver the Widow directly into the hands of Himself.”
A man cloaked and bent, held upright by the use of a cane upon which he leaned heavily, came into the small clearing surrounding the trail and in a wheezing voice said, “And you have.”
Ronald Nealy, despite his injuries, fell to one knee and I was nearly ill with the look of worshipfulness that he had on his face. “You promised me that if I completed this task I would be one of your Chosen.”
The wheezing voice, dripping with an inappropriate humor, stated, “And you shall have that which has been promised you.”
And then it came to me. I yelled, “No! No! Ronald you don’t understand! You can’t!”
Mad eyes turned to me and he said, “It is you who do not understand Widow. But you will.” He snickered as if a good joke was soon to be revealed. My stomach rolled as I realized the joke would be upon the Sheriff’s cousin … only he would not be laughing for long if at all.
The cloaked man raised a shaking hand and I could tell, even though they were hidden by gloves, that the hand encased within was deformed. “Now, now Widow. Don’t ruin the surprise. After all he has waited so long for this. Striven his whole life for it.” His wheezing laughter was a signal to the other corrupted players to laugh as well. And suddenly a look of confusion and concern began to enter Ronald Nealy’s eyes.