The Heretic – Snippet 33
“Brother, what has happened to you? Why are you here?”
“My retreat,” he said. “Prelate ordered me to take one. A long one. So I did.”
“He surely didn’t mean this.”
“Very specific,” Friedman replied. “‘Get your ass where the sun doesn’t shine, you meddlesome bastard,’ he said.” Friedman shook his head sadly. “True, too, the bastard part. Mother couldn’t help it. Father ran a shipping house, she told me once, and had his own family to look after.”
Golitsin reached out, touched Friedman’s knee, but the other flinched back.
“We came to see about Treville’s powder shipment,” Golitsin said gently.
Another snorting laugh from the hermit. “Ah,” he said. “Good luck with that.”
“You don’t think we’ll find it.”
“Isn’t lost,” Friedman said. “Never was.”
“What do you mean?” Abel spoke for the first time, which caused the hermit to jerk his head in Abel’s direction. He stared hard, but his gaze did not seem unkind to Abel.
“Soldier,” he said.
“Yes,” Abel replied. “What do you mean, it isn’t lost? Where is it?”
“The Redlands,” said Friedman. “Traded for. . .peace, I guess you could call it. Being let alone.”
“Traded to the Blaskoye? Or to the eastern barbarians?” Abel asked.
“East, west — it’s all Blaskoye now,” replied Friedman.
“They’ve established ties across the Valley?” Abel asked incredulously.
“Cascade,” said the hermit.
“And what do they. . .pay in return for passage, for the powder?”
“Protection. Women. Some male slaves, though all are sure not to call them that, lest Zentrum smite them down.” The snort again. “Lest Zentrum smite them down.” He nodded, as if he were in on a joke only he understood.
“Have you reported this to Lindron, Brother?” Golitsin gently inquired. “Sure this will bring down the wrath of the Tabernacle upon these people?”
“Verdrick tried,” the hermit said with a sad shake of his head.
“Damion Verdrick, the Temple Chief of Staff?”
“Left one day for Lindron. Found him the next day outside the Cascade temple gate. Thought he was sleeping. Then I turned him over and saw he couldn’t be with his dick cut off and stuffed in his mouth, and his eyes gouged out like that.”
“Ah,” said Golitsin.
The three of them sat in silence for a while. Oddly, it was the hermit who broke the quiet.
“Show you another way up,” he said. “Not so dangerous. Better.”
“But we want to take you with us,” Golitsin said. “They aren’t going to kill us. We’d be missed in Treville. You can come with us. Escape.”
Friedman firmly shook his head. “No,” he said.
“But, Brother Friedman –”
“Not afraid,” he said. “Not anymore. All part of Zentrum’s plan. I know that now.” He turned back toward the darkness, the sound of the River below. “That’s the thrice-damned thing. I know.”
“Surely not,” said Golitsin.
“Oh yes,” said Friedman. “Seen it. Took the disk from the priest’s mouth while he was in his cups. Put it in mine.”
“The. . .what are you talking about?”
“You don’t know about it. Only the prelates know. When he’s raised up. The disk for his mouth, the one that speaks the Presence to his mind.
Can this be? Abel thought. Is he telling the truth?
Working, said Center. And then a moment later: confirmed. A wafer-like communication device fitted to the palate. Matches known parameters for period-appropriate quantum communication device.
The hermit turned back toward them, and there was wildness in his eyes. “I saw the mind of Zentrum. The Blood Winds. The death. The horror that is coming. I saw it all. I saw that it doesn’t matter what I do, what anyone does. I saw the Plan. The bright and shining Plan. And I knew all I could do was hide. Hide here. And wait for the Plan to become the Act. For Zentrum does not lie. Zentrum is all that is true. And now I know. Now I know. He hates us for our unbalance, for His own holy requirement always to maintain the scales of Law and Stasis. We are despised of Zentrum, and we deserve it. I deserve it.” Friedman began to rock back and forth in his muddy spot between the lamps. “I deserve it, I deserve it,” he chanted.
“By the Law and the Land, brother,” muttered Golitsin. He reached to touch the shoulder of the hermit, but Friedman flung his hand away. He continued his rocking and moaning.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to Abel. Before he could question it, turn over his decision, he acted. Rising up, he stepped past Golitsin and launched himself at the hermit priest. He landed on top of Friedman and with a quick shove, threw the hermit on his back. The man was stronger than he looked, and he began to struggle. Abel found his musket still in his hand, and he brought it down horizontally across the hermit’s neck, pinning him down against the mud, crushing his windpipe, choking the priest.
“Help me,” Abel called to Golitsin.
“Help you what?”
“Hold him,” Abel replied. “Get one side of my gun. Let me free a hand.”
Golitsin moved as if in a trance to obey him. “Abel, don’t kill him,” he whispered.
“I’m not trying to kill him,” Abel gasped, still struggling to hold the hermit down.
Then Golitsin was beside him, and together they held either end of the musket across the hermit’s throat. Abel took his free hand from the musket and thrust it to Friedman’s mouth. With his fist, he dug at the lips until he had the mouth open, and felt the teeth trying to bite down on the meat of his palm. No use. The hermit’s biting days were over, and what he had remaining was mostly gum now, and disease-softened gum at that. Abel freed a finger within the mouth. Two. Dug. Dug beyond the squirming tongue. Found the roof the mouth. The bump that should not be there. Dug harder, pushed in his nails.