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|They said it couldn’t be done! They said it was sheer madness to try! But here it is – *another* finished short story for my library! (If you’re here, and you haven’t read ‘Of Evangelism and Petunias’ yet … you might want to go do that first. But sense is optional with this story.) |
Anyway, here concludes the first great tale in the lofty saga of Caius and Morgant. Paladins! Piccolos! You name it, and it probably isn’t in here! But I’ll be happy if you get a laugh out of it (even a feeble one), and even happier if you give me a more satisfying ending than the one I’ve got here, because I dun like it much.
Oh, and a very special thank-you to all the lovely people who left lovely comments in part one, thereby encouraging me to finish this off!
Falmond Tobrinley reined in his horse on a hill overlooking the next town.
It was a simple action, but one that entailed a great deal of care and artifice. Falmond had been taught in one of the finest Paladinic Academies in the world, where the stylistic approach of ‘not what you do, but how you do it’ was taken in by the young lads each day along with their wholesome glass of milk and slice of multigrain wholemeal bread. As such, the arc of the reins and the curvature of Falmond’s back were both immaculate as he paused on the airy overlook, and he had judged the wind vector perfectly to stir his golden hair and pristine white cape without mussing them. Any viewers below (and there were always viewers, Falmond knew) would have been rendered speechless by the grand cast of his silhouette on the hill.
"Sir –" one of the common, garden-variety soldiers in his troupe began behind him.
“Not now. – Dramatic Pause, three, two, one ...- Yes, Captain Mantos, what is it?”
Captain Mantos sighed anew at the literary precariousness of his title, his failure to warrant a full descriptive paragraph, and all the narrative uncertainty that his future suggested, but pushed on doggedly in the face of ... well, Falmond’s marvellously chiselled face. “Well, me and the boys –“
“The boys and I.”
“Uhh ... the boys and I just wanted to be clear on the current conditions of the mission, sir.”
“Conditions?” Falmond’s delicate, right blond eyebrow (perfectly symmetrical with the left) arched over one of his clear blue eyes, which actually glinted a good deal more keenly than the average Paladin’s. Contrary to appearance, and the norm of his profession, Falmond was not a vapid or stupid man. He was, in fact, quite shrewd, something that the other initiates had teased him about unmercifully through boyhood. If he hadn’t made extra credit in Vanity and Grooming, he might never have graduated from the Paladin’s Academy at all.
“Uhh ... yes. See, sir, my boy’s graduating from military college soon –“ poor, poor, stupid kid, why couldn’t I convince him to try something safer, like lion-taming? – “and Torrie’s older girl is getting married next month, so we’re all really keen to stick to safe working conditions.”
“It’s previously been my understanding, Captain Mantos,” replied Falmond, speaking in a tone easily confused with pleasant observation, “that a career within an arms-bearing militia is not particularly conducive to ‘safe working conditions’.”
Captain Mantos shifted uncertainly. “Uh ... yeah,” he tried, cautiously guessing that his problem had been addressed somewhere in his superior’s reply. “Anyway, sir, we’d just like to make sure we won’t be expected to do anything too dangerous.”
“Not at all,” the Paladin said. “We’re only here to trim the village green, after all. Make sure you wear your gloves to deter the garden-spiders and you should be quite all right.”
“Really, sir? We’re not hunting those two unstable criminals through the wildlands any more?”
Falmond gave a soft, feathery sigh. It just wasn’t fair that such a scruffy little man was simple-minded enough to graduate summa cum laude from the best Paladin Academy in the country, whereas he was left to struggle with an intellect that could comprehend and formulate sarcasm. “Yes, Captain Mantos, we are, but I won’t tolerate a defeatist attitude as we go about it.”
“No, sir.” A bipolar mortician on his lowest swing couldn’t have sounded less optimistic.
“And only one of the criminals is unstable.”
“Yeah,” said Captain Mantos sadly. “The Acarthian one.”
The Paladin gave up. Not on his mission; his lamentable wit left him considerably less prone than his peers to being distracted by shiny objects, and actually made him quite an efficient lawman. But he left the problem of communicating with the proles far behind, for the time being, and simply turned his horse away from the town overlook with a practised 45-degree Cape Twirl to lead the way.
The town itself was small – more a village, in fact – but it did seem more civic-spirited than most: a pretty pair of flower-beds wound their way through the grass, two remarkably long, narrow tracks sweeping across the field in bright marigolds and smiling dahlias. Actually it was a trifle unconventional, particularly in the way it meandered all the way up to and into the village proper, but Falmond appreciated the mindless effort that had clearly gone into its creation and upkeep. It reminded him of Eyebrow Plucking class back at the Academy.
Following the loops, swoops and crisscrossings of the flowerbeds, Falmond came upon a very jolly collection of the natives hooting with noisy laughter outside a small bar. They were so distracted by their shared mirth that the well-trained Proud Skitter of Falmond’s horse went quite unnoticed at first.
“...'Shalt fertilise ...'”
“Oh, don’t, don’t, you’ll make me water the bloody flowers right now …”
“A fine day to you, Goodmen!” Falmond declaimed. Falmond’s declamations were also unique amongst his fellow Paladins – whereas the classic ‘fine day to you’ cried ‘Look at me!’ in a listener’s mind, his own version never failed to create the mental addendum ‘... Or else’.
The locals stopped their delighted crying on friends’ shoulders and dutifully turned to look at him, though titters and snorting snickers continued to ripple through the crowd. “Can we (snrt) help you (snrftt), my lord?” one teary-eyed man in professional turnip farmer uniform offered.
“I hope so,” replied Falmond, and there was that unique tone of his again, leading several of the brighter villagers to wonder For whose sake? “I’m hunting two very dangero–“ he noticed Captain Mantos sharing glances with other guardsmen – “two manageably perilous criminals through your locale: a tall Lestite man and an insane Acarthian elf.”
Overlooking Falmond’s redundant adjectives, the same villager spoke up again, his voice growing more and more strangled by the syllable. “What (snnrrrrrrt) were they wearing (SNRRFFT)?”
Falmond leaned back in the saddle, his face subconsciously creasing into textbook Genteel Disapproval. Snickers were not something that a Paladin usually had to deal with. “Wearing? Travelling clothes, I should think, as one might expect of a traveller.”
“Oh. Haven’t seen them,” said the turnip farmer, suppressing another SNRRRT by virtue of the less-than-temperate glint in Falmond’s eyes.
“Thank you,” replied Falmond coldly. “I shall take your leave. My compliments on your very innovative town garden –“
The noise that greeted his careful Parting Pleasantry could hardly have been outdone by a six-foot echidna with hayfever. Mystified and not a little vexed by the townfolk’s chronic sinus troubles, Falmond executed another 45-degree Cape Twirl and led Captain Mantos’s fatalistic corps on to the road beyond.
“Come on, Mor! Just breathe! I know it’s hard with the corset, but –“
“’Go play with my dollies’? ‘Play with my DOLLIES’? Let’s see who’s giggling when I’m playing with his kidneys, hah?!”
“No, let’s not, because that’s not likely to convert anyone and get this ‘blessing’ of ours reversed. Put your hackles down and just keep walking. We’re already out of town, so there’s absolutely no point in going back.”
“Then I’ll go put some points back there! Lots of sharp, knifey ones!“
Flurrying pink and mauve taffeta rustled angrily as Caius wrestled Morgant on down the road, shedding ribbons and fake blossoms with big, floppy petals like Great-Aunt Zelda’s favourite table setting. The real flowers pursued the two Floral Avatars doggedly as they zigged and zagged, blooming with the same spring vigour no matter how far they chased Airiel’s chosen.
“Give it a rest before I tell Airiel you’ve changed your mind about the daisy high-heels!” snapped Caius at last, giving the incandescently furious (or was that just all the rouge?) elf a punch in the shoulder. Morgant wasn’t likely to have felt it through the uniform’s impressively bouffant sleeves, but the emphasis was made. “Come on. You aren’t helping. The only thing you did in the village was wait in the background and grind your teeth.”
“I asked you if I could do more than just ‘wait in the background’, but you wouldn’t let me!”
“Asking for permission to start dismembering villagers is not constructive assistance! Do you want to get rid of these damn flowers, or are you getting to like them?”
“All right! Fine! What’s your bright idea?” Morgant stopped trying to twist under (or off) Caius’s arm, shoving him somewhere around the scalloped neckline instead. “And stop stepping on my damn petticoat, all right?”
“Actually I think that part’s the train –“
“Don’t make me hurt you yet, Caius! I’m saving it all up!”
Caius covered his face with a lacy-gloved hand, weary and stumped for a concrete solution to present Morgant. His brain was not responding with its usual acuity, too crammed full of distressing memories – Airiel standing on tippy-toes on the temple steps to wave happily as they first set out like debutante grandmothers on foot (they’d refused to ride side-saddle) ... scruffy villagers with more hair on their backs than their heads laughing at the Gentleman of Colchar ...
Marching in and hopefully reciting Airiel’s horticultural Holy Words had been a predictable failure, of course, but what else was there to try? As far as charismatic ambassadors for a change of life and religion went, a six-foot man and a skinny elf in puffy, trailing floral dresses were not ideal. Caius had attempted to say as much to Airiel, but she’d been most adamant – didn’t everyone love spring? Didn’t everyone love the smell of flowers?
“Well?” prompted Morgant as the silence stretched on. “Are you going to present one of your great plans, or are we just going to stand here in these private gardens all day? I bloody hate the smell of flowers.”
“You know, Morgant, I do like you better on your downward swings.” Caius removed the hand from his face and cracked his knuckles. “All right. All we need is a positive spin on some of the more persuasive arguments. Let’s think. What’s conceivably attractive about flower-worship? ... I suppose there’s ... well, there’s always ... uhh ... aha! Got one! No virgins required.”
“Be plenty of them amongst the worshippers anyway, I’m willing to bet.”
Caius snatched off his daisy-chain crown and flung it on the ground in a fit of ungentlemanly exasperation. “All right! We’ll do this the usual way, then, whereby I think of a constructive solution and you do your best to get in the way throughout!”
Morgant hurried in Caius’s train (near-literally) as the Lestite swept haughtily away in a whispering of gauzy skirts towards the next potential village. “I don’t want to hear anything else about ‘dollies’, Caius.”
“Nor do I, Morgant, and particularly not from you after the last half-hour. So shut up.”
It’s all in the attitude, Caius told himself as he strode on, trying to cultivate a proper, lordly air. Paladins can do it. They dress like choirboys and wear enough makeup for an anaemic mime, but no-one ever laughs to their face. It’s all in the bearing ...
As it turned out, that was either completely untrue, or there was more to ‘Paladinic mincing’ than popular belief maintained.
Collecting a crowd and drawing their attention, at least, certainly proved no difficulty. Eyes from every doorway and window fixed upon Airiel’s blessed disciples as they strode with their floral attendants into the next village – a cluster of squat, thatched buildings too structurally unsound for the dimmest fairytale pig. Caius immediately took advantage of the all-too-short stunned silence to launch into his recruiting speech.
“Gather ‘round and hear ye, O people –”
“Hey! Back there! He said hear ye, you bastards!”
“(I’m warning you, Morgant.) Hear ye, gentle rustics, the Divine Words of the Flower Maiden, Airiel, in whom the glory of spring and light of dewy morn is –“
“Here, now!” a villager exclaimed after a moment’s careful scrutiny. “You’re wearing a dress!”
“A most astute observation, sirrah,” acknowledged Caius, “and one that surely marks you worthy of service to the munificent goddess of –“
“But you’re a man! How come you’re wearing a dress liken your girl there?”
Caius had already precognitively hobbled Morgant with a vicious kick to the knee. “This is a kirtle – a sign of the exalted favour of –“
“That’s as I said! A skirt! Why’re you wearing it, boy?”
“I should very much like to finish one sentence,” the Lestite said testily. “This kirtle is a sign of the exalted favour of Divine Airiel, setting me above the commons. ‘O my Chosen,’ she did say unto me and my male companion, ‘truly thou art no mere men, but rather –‘”
The first villager blanched. “Not men?”
“No, definitely men, but not mere men –“
The villagers began to shift uneasily. Perhaps this was acceptable conversation amongst the toffy cityfolk, but out here in the country, folks was still decent, after all. “Look,” said the Rustic Spokesman, “how about you and your man-friend takes yourselves out of here, you and your posies?”
“No, you’re not listening, I’m trying to tell you –“
“Just him, Caius. Just give me that one.”
“-That you’re (Morgant) being offered (Morgant!) a blessing unlikely to (STOP IF YOU WANT ANY FUNCTION LEFT IN THAT KNEE!) come again upon this ... yes, what is it?”
Caius broke off in an instant as a little old lady, having shuffled slowly forward through the crowd, began to tap him on the taffeta’d elbow. She didn’t precisely fit Airiel’s demarcation of a Glamorous Worshipper, but straits were definitely becoming dire. “Would you care to receive the blessings of the incomparable Flower Maiden, old mother?”
“Oh, no,” she replied, her gaze fixed on the thriving carpet at their feet. “Bunch of wussy girlies, sounds like. I was just wondering if you and your friend could come and stand in my garden for a while? Summer was very dry this year.”
Things did not improve as the days, and towns, and side-splitting local witticisms went by.
“Ooh, aren’t they cute? Show us your dolls, darlings! Hahahaha!”
“Here come the brides! Hahaha!”
“Where are your dollies, girls? Hahaha!”
“Hahaha! Who ordered wedding cake? Hahaha!”
“Hahaha – hey, hey, wait for this, boys, wait for this … ‘Forget your dolls somewhere, little girlies?’ Hahaha!”
Caius’ (voluminous) pride was becoming very stiff and sore by the second or third week, as were his arm muscles – Morgant was not as strong, but nor was he as sane, which generally counts for more in all life’s exertions. Wrestling the Acarthian away from the seventh hamlet put Caius into a serious overdraft with the Bank of Last Straws. “Enough! Give it a rest, you halfwit! They’ve been repeating the same pathetic damn lines for days!”
“No! Those last ones were using the bloody F-word, Caius! You don’t say the F-word in company!”
“Hey! Watch your mouth!”
The Lestite heaved a long, windy, eloquent sigh. “We’ve heard worse in the last week, Morgant.”
“Damn well haven’t. I hate fairies.”
“Don’t be so intolerant.”
“Intolerance has nothing to do with it. It’s plain unnatural, and that’s that!”
“Not this again ...”
“All those high giggles and frilly, sparkly dresses!”
“Oh, Gods and Goddesses ...”
“And the bloody stupid stick with a star on it! What’s it for?”
“One day, Morgant, the elves and the fairies will finally reconcile their differences and come together again as one happy people, accepting of each other’s special uniqueness. Until that day comes, shut up. I’ve got a headache.”
“I’ll give you a bigger headache if you keep using the F-word.” The elf gathered up his skirts to vengefully kick the tops off a few daisies, perhaps given their long-time association with the F-people. “I’ve had it. One more incident like that, and I’m going to town on the next ... town.”
Caius heaved another sigh in preference to merely giving it. The religious life clearly was a testing and difficult one.
The crease in Falmond’s brow was really becoming quite profound, threatening an outright wrinkle, as he stood and surveyed yet another group of botanically obsessed rustics struck by hysterical sinus troubles. Captain Mantos stood to one side swallowing nervously and repeatedly with the rest of his troupe, partially on account of the Paladin’s mood, partially because the narrative of their journey was drawing ever closer to the Final Encounter – never an enjoyable time for nondescripts like his lads.
“I think it’s a kind of hayfever, sir,” ventured Captain Mantos in a small voice, his eyes fixed on that stark crease in Falmond’s otherwise unmarred forehead. “All these flowers about and so on.”
Falmond ignored him. “Gentle folk of the country!” he snapped, a phrase untranslatable from Paladinic Courtesy in polite company. “A Paladin has just hailed you and bid you a good morn! Now would someone kindly spare me the time to answer my declamation?”
“Through your mouth, not your nose, if you please!”
“Er ... yes, lord?” one of the clearer-thinking villagers quickly provided (as Captain Mantos and his fellows gasped at Falmond’s uncalled-for ‘if you please’). “How may we be of service?”
At least the man could speak a little of the language. “As I mentioned,” Falmond said crisply, “and as you would have heard if you had not been collectively clearing your nostrils, I and my worthy companions are currently pursuing manageably perilous criminals through your locale. Knowledge as to their whereabouts would be greatly appreciated.”
The Paladin’s face almost slipped into Righteous Wrath. “Have you seen a tall Lestite man and an insane Acarthian elf?”
“I think those are tautologies, sir –“ an even brighter individual piped up at the back.
“Have – you – seen – them?”
There was a brief silence, a few shared glances, and absolutely no SNRRTing. Someone coughed. “Umm ... what were they w-?”
“Clothes! Clothes! They were wearing clothes! I am not pursuing a pair of nudist felons through the wilderness! Have you seen them or have you not?”
The village collectively shrank back from Falmond’s steely blue glare, which was technically prohibited in use against any but True Minions of Evil. “I guess not, sir,” offered one weakly.
“All right! My compliments on your quaint surrounds! Farewell!”
Falmond’s Cape Twirl was decidedly savage, and Captain Mantos was not unwise in choosing to follow it from a diplomatic distance. Only after a careful count to fifty did he cautiously call out, “Uh ... sir? Where now?”
“I see little alternative to continuing down this road,” snapped Falmond. “The criminals may have cut across country to bypass these last towns.” I certainly would, the Paladin thought.
As Captain Mantos went judiciously quiet again, and Falmond ran out of unpleasant thoughts about countryfolk, his mind unconsciously strayed to the criminals themselves. Yes, those two. Caius Chetienne and Morgant Salluth. How long had he been hunting them now, off and on? Was it four years, or five? The Acarthian was more of an irritation than anything else, like a recurring rash – albeit a highly specified rash that liked to leap tables screaming ‘Yah!’ – but Caius was ... a different kind of criminal.
He was classically educated (ie. he’d been taught by a red-faced man with a big stick).
He possessed flawless diction and manners.
He took excruciating pains over his appearance.
He had an acerbic wit and a penchant for sarcasm.
In fine, Falmond had quite cordially despised him from the very beginning, and was firmly dedicated to Bringing Him To Proper Justice ... which would mean getting him out of comparison’s way. There had been snide remarks in the past, naturally, but Falmond knew there were fundamental differences between his irreproachable self and that wandering criminal.
He just wasn’t entirely sure what they were.
“Where is this absurd excuse for a garden going to end, do you suppose?” the Paladin asked aloud, his tone only halfway modulated back to
Placid Contemplation.“It’s been meandering along for miles, now. And why under the Pantheon did they plant it in two lines?”
“Don’t know, sir,” replied Captain Mantos cautiously. “It’s quite pretty, don’t you think?”
Falmond glanced away to the road ahead. “I can’t say that I care much for flowers.”
Caius could feel the daggers Morgant was staring into his back, which worried him. It was never a very large jump for the Acarthian to go from figurative to physical. Nevertheless, he strode into the next town with his shoulders squared, confident that his corset would offer some protection if Morgant finally cracked.
“Look, Morgant,” he muttered encouragingly out of the corner of his mouth as they both swept towards the town square, ruining quite a large, cobbled street by the determined and surprisingly powerful efforts of their blossom-trails. “This is a big town. That makes for a big audience. We’re bound to get at least one convert here.”
Morgant, chewing viciously on one lacy sleeve, failed to respond. Caius sighed and prepared himself for another solitary effort, climbing up onto a nearby set of stone steps as the usual nonplussed hush descended on the town crowds. “Gather ‘round and hear ye, O people! We bring you the Holy Words of the beauteous Flower Maiden, sweet Airiel, and offer you the eternal blessedness of service to her glory!”
The Lestite paused. “I should also point out, just to save certain preliminaries, that my holy brother and I are wearing religious garb known as ‘kirtles’ rather than ‘dresses’ or ‘skirts’, that we are both definitively of the male gender, and that neither of us entertain any notions of playing with children’s toys now or in the future. At any rate –“
“Excuse me,” a deep, resonant voice said at Caius’s back.
Caius broke off and turned with a martyr’s patience. As he did so, he looked up – and up, and up – into the broad, bushy-bearded face of a man dressed entirely in black leather armour, unobtrusively fingering a spiky mace on his belt. Behind him, six similarly dressed gentlemen toyed with six similarly spiky weapons, though all smiled quite benevolently.
“Bless you, my son,” said the man, “but you appear to be preaching on the steps of the Thunder Lord’s temple, and it is written: ‘He who standeth before the Thunderer’s Gates to dispense the Word of another God is verily a Right Lunatic, and shalt surely be smitten.’”
Belatedly Caius noted the grim, perfectly square stone monument at the head of the stone steps, and the seven-foot statues of the Thunder Lord flanking its doors. Their scowling, beetle-browed expressions clearly did not allow for the warm-and-fuzzy gospel-singing facets of religion.
“Oh, I see,” said Caius, edging down the steps again and dragging Morgant with him as he did so. “We do beg your pardon. No offence intended.”
“None taken,” the Thunder Priest replied in a genial tone. He did, however, move down the steps to join the crowd with his six followers, all of whom listened attentively as Caius hurriedly ascended the next available stairs and tried to find his place in his demagoguery again.
“So ... ah, yes. Hearken carefully, O ye people, for today a chance comes to you that –“
Caius turned again, took in the frowning face and resplendent, shining robes of one of the Silver Songstress’s holy Silversingers, and sighed. The slim spires of a marble temple soared gracefully skyward in the background. “All right, I’m sorry, but it’s damned hard to find a vacant stair in this town. We’re leaving already.”
“Good,” replied the Silversinger, brushing back his blond hair and folding his arms in his silver sleeves as a dozen more of the Songstress’s holies emerged menacingly from the temple doorway. “Our mistress is a gentle lover of peace, but if you tried to turn others away from Her sweet voice on Her very doorstep, we would surely have to beat you to death with Her divine instruments.”
Once again Caius descended the steps, hauling Morgant along, to avoid a nasty piccolo-related demise. There, it finally dawned on him that there were rather a lot of stairs in the town square, and all of them were connected to some gaudy building of worship or another – temples, churches, shrines, chapels, mosques ...
Priests, priestesses, monks – pious servants of numerous denominations began to appear in the different doorways, drawn by the disturbance outside to see what was going on. When Caius finally set up shop again on the inoffensive and very appropriate front doorstep of a florist, he found himself looking out on a truly astonishing sea of religious costume (though he was not about to cast stones in his position).
“Citizens of the town ... and revered servants of the Pantheon,” he began loudly over the curiously murmuring crowd, struck anew by how overpopulated the Pantheon was, “as I said, I come before you to speak of the wondrous Flower Maiden, the grace that is Airiel ...”
“Hey ... why are you wearing a dress?” someone called.
The sound that came from Morgant’s throat would have frightened a panther up a tree. Caius, on the other hand, pushed on with glacial patience. “... All can share in all her bounty this day, for such is her generosity! Freely will she give you –“
“A potplant?” provided another wit – a brightly coloured Holy Harlequin of Tricksy Luth in the front row – and grinned as Caius fixed him with a flat stare.
“-Her divine favour, and freely will she grant you –“
“A floral skirt?”
“-Her everlasting care, and with an open heart she bids you enter her service ...”
All necks were craning forward now, all faces wearing smirks of anticipation. Caius finally felt the short, sharp snapping of his patience somewhere down in his stomach as the snickers began and his pride, already staggering away wounded, found itself backed into a corner with no recourse but to turn.
“What better alternatives do you have? You could follow the Silver Songstress, certainly! Why, who wouldn’t want to wear a silver bathrobe all day and join in the excitement of all-day devotional piano recitals? Or you could join the Holy Harlequins in worshipping Tricksy Luth, I suppose; I’m sure there’s a great deal of cosmic wisdom to be gleaned from a god who thinks salting someone’s tea is the height of wit! What about Barracan of the Vine? There’s an inspirational divinity – and a marvellous authority on retching, should the need arise!”
A few disgruntled glances passed through the crowd, particularly between the toga-wearing gentlemen towards the back. Other townfolk, on the other hand, sensed that this was going to be the most interesting religious sermon they’d had for quite a while, and began to push closer for a better view.
Caius was oblivious, as was often the case when he finally reached full declamatory voice. “I shouldn’t smirk if I were you, my good Lunar Hags! It’s common knowledge that you all signed on just for the chance to strip down every full moon! And you, noble Priestesses of Fidelity? Are you perhaps laughing with the rest of us at the irony of your goddess, Queen Halmahira of Marriage and Devotion, being married to a serial adulterer? Not that the Thunder Lord isn’t worth a little pity on that score – I mean, honestly, he’s the King of the Pantheon, and yet somehow he can’t pick up without disguising himself as birds and cattle? Exactly what kind of girl does he generally look for, one has to wonder? ...”
“How about one like you?” growled one of the black Thunder Priests in the front row. “I think it’s about time to start some smiting, little flower-fairies.”
There was only a second or two for Caius to notice the man’s use of Morgant’s ‘F-word’ before a furious, floral explosion of whipping skirts hurtled down past him, howling in murderous fury.
“I think so, too!”
Another village loomed before Falmond and Captain Mantos’s lads, though without especial promise; they all were getting used to the same, snickering disappointment from the local villagers after their lengthy pursuit. Their only consolation, Captain Mantos thought dolefully, was that a) they weren’t being forced into unsafe working conditions yet and b) the next town beyond this village was quite a large one, and might involve some kind of quest or shiny thing to distract Falmond from his criminal-hunting.
After a pause, Captain Mantos shook his head. He’d only been Falmond’s Designated Lackey for a couple of months, but it was already obvious that the man was no typical Paladin.
Paladins shouldn’t seethe like that.
“I can hear it already,” Falmond said, staring flintily ahead at the village. “These bumpkins are laughing, like all the rest. What is wrong with this place?”
“Couldn’t say, sir,” answered Captain Mantos, thinking about his young lad’s graduation.
Falmond waved an irritable hand. “Well ... I suppose we’d best go and have it over with.” Cape Twirl, Lordly Glance, Authoritative Canter.
Captain Mantos sighed and followed.
As expected, they found the villagers scattered around the village in loose huddles of hilarity, familiarly incapable of clear responses to any questions except ‘What does a breathless howler-monkey sound like?’ Falmond pressed on regardless. He’s very good at pressing, Captain Mantos reflected warily. Considering his profession.
“Good day to you, humble village-folk,” greeted the Paladin flatly. “I come to you on urgent business, seeking a Lestite man and an Acarthian elf fleeing Proper Justice. I require information as to their whereabouts. And if you do not answer me in timely fashion, I shall most likely forget the exact location of your hamlet the next time you call for Specialised Draconic Assistance.”
Several townsfolk blinked. “Er ...” one ventured at last. “What were they wearing?”
Captain Mantos and his men all cringed collectively, but somehow, Falmond managed to retain his Dignified Calm expression. “Clothes. That’s all. Just clothes.”
The Paladin surveyed the negative head-shakings, visibly suppressed a less-than-genteel urge to grit his teeth as one jaw-muscle twitched, and sharply waved his attendant guardsmen to follow after him.
Then he paused, reined in for a moment, and turned in the saddle.
“Why,” he queried slowly, “does everyone ask that?”
“Who’s your goddess? Who’s your goddess?”
“Wrong! Way too many syllables! Right, let’s try this again –”
“Morgant,” Caius offered, watching with guilty pleasure – but not without human compassion – as the Acarthian thumped a burly, leather-clad warrior-priest repeatedly against the ground, “you may need to take your boot out of his mouth before he can pronounce it properly.”
“Oh. Right.” Morgant gaily hopped back one pace from his whimpering Thunder Priest to let him speak, well and truly back on his happy ‘upward swing’, and absently backhanded a charging Silversinger trying to thump him with a lute. “Okay, without the boot. Who’s your goddess?”
“Airiel! Airiel! Airiel!”
“Good man! Congratulations on becoming the Flower Maiden’s twenty-third convert! – How’s it going your end, Caius?”
“Don’t get smug,” sighed Caius, as Morgant whirled in a graceful flutter of pink-and-mauve taffeta and grabbed the screaming Silversinger by the ankle in mid-retreat. “I still don’t know if ‘forceful conversion’ is a viable tactic.”
“You always – Who’s – fret over – Your – these things – Goddess? – Caius.” Morgant stopped his vigorous shaking to let the shrieks of “Nononooairielairielairiel” die down, released the ankles of Convert No. 24, and turned back to grin brilliantly at his fellow Floral Avatar. “Are we getting converts? Is Airiel’s profile being adequately raised? Aha. Thank you. ... Now help me out here. Those three Knights of the Dawnlord just picked up a table.”
One hour and thirty new converts later, Caius had to concede that Morgant’s methods were efficacious. The odds weren’t great that they could actually survive the entire assorted onslaught of furious holies, acolytes and chosen ones, but Caius was fairly sure he could hike his skirts up high enough to flee with some speed when the time came. And Morgant was Acarthian, so no problems there (bar the obvious).
“I could get used to the religious life, you know,” Morgant called cheerfully to Caius, barely visible as an agile flutter of lace and ribbons here and there in the religious scrum. “If it weren’t for the dress code, anyway. What’s your score now?”
“I hardly think ‘score’ is the word for –“
Suddenly Caius broke off, feeling something settling on his scalp, and glanced upward. A shower of petals had begun to fall from the sky, distracting everyone but Morgant from the fray.
A flash of lavender-coloured light tinted the square for an instant, blindingly purple. When it cleared, Airiel herself was floating overhead in all her floral finery, her pixie-child face peering down at the chaos curiously while she chewed on a lock of hair.
“Quite a lot of people shouting my name,” she ventured shyly, looking down at the assembly with a faintly pink blush. “I’m not really used to it. What’s going on here, Gentle Avatar Caius? And why is Gentle Avatar Morgant trying to wrap that man around that lantern-post?”
“All part of the conversion, O worshipful Airiel,” Caius replied. “What you see here is the infidel, resisting your Divine Word. We first attempted reason, but have now moved to sterner measures in our quest to communicate your glory.”
Airiel’s amethyst eyes abruptly brimmed over with tears. “This is ... a religious war?”
“Ah ... yes.”
“You’re waging a crusade in my name?”
“Well ... I suppose you could put it that way, but you must understand that –“
The Lestite was interrupted by a shrill, supersonic squeal of joy, and before he could react further, a comet of brilliant purple streaked down from the sky and simultaneously began showering him with roses and kisses. “A crusade! A crusade! Oooh, I loveyouloveyouloveyou! Even darling Artamaya has never had a crusade! –Come here, you!”
The latter was directed at Morgant, who was the next to disappear under a multicoloured hurricane of whirling flowers. Once the excited squeaking (and muffled cursing) had died down a little, Airiel emerged from the flurry with a brilliant beam illuminating her face, still cuddling Morgant around the middle like some antisocial elf-dolly. “So how many have I got?”
“Thirty-nine from me,” replied Morgant promptly, nose wrinkled against her ‘smell’. “Caius has been dragging the chain a bit. I doubt he’s reached the thirties.”
“Oooh!” The diminutive goddess let out another painful squeal of delight and released the Acarthian’s waist, turning to face the crowds. “So which of you are mine? Raise your hands, please! Ooooh, this is so exciting!”
A sheepish scattering of hands went up amongst the prone or reclining bodies scattered around the town square, all taking great pains to avoid making eye-contact. Airiel hopped from foot to foot as she started to count them in a gleeful, singing voice, momentarily giving Caius the urge to wrap them in shiny paper and drag them under a big tree back in Oywood.
Then a thought occurred to him. “Divine Airiel ...”
“... Four Goldenbyrds, three Lunar Hags, two Thunder Priests ... and a Harlequin in that old tree! ...”
“Divine Airiel ... it pains me to raise this topic ... but it appears to me that your Words may be fully transmitted and your great name well and truly remembered by the populace now ..?”
Airiel stopped singing, her face creasing in instant panic. “You can’t retire, my darling Caius! You and Morgant are my posterboys! Everyone will forget about me if I don’t have properly charismatic champions!”
“But surely you could ...” Caius broke off. “Wait a minute. Morgant is here for his charisma?”
“Of course! He clearly has a natural talent for finding common ground with the locals, just like you do.”
"Yes, but the difference is that he goes on to paste them out on it." Caius shook himself and let it go. “In any case, O incomparable Airiel, as I was saying, no-one is likely to forget you! Just look at the havoc that’s been wreaked in your name!”
“It is a fine bit of havoc, isn’t it?” Morgant agreed with misty pride. After a brief pause to survey the surrounds, he reached down and lifted a quivering Thunder Priest’s face for Airiel to inspect. “And I agree with Caius. You shouldn’t worry about a lack of champions. Look at this guy! He’s got charisma leaking out of every pore! ... No, hang on, that’s sweat ...”
“It’s out of the question,” insisted Airiel, stamping a tiny foot. “You two are simply glorious and I’m not letting you go until I have someone else suitable for –“
“In the name of Proper Justice, stand and be held accountable for your crimes!”
The voice that pealed out across the square was like an instrument, singing with the summons of angels and the wrath of whichever Heaven each listener ascribed to. All heads turned irresistibly towards its source, facing Falmond Tobrinley as he proudly cantered in on his destrier with Stern Authority radiating from his flawlessly chiselled features (and also, incidentally, with the unremarkable shapes of Captain Mantos and his lads following along, whom no-one paid any mind).
“(Three ... two ... one.) Caius Chetienne and Morgant Salluth, I hereby place you under full arrest, and am fully prepared to use force in the event of resistance ...”
“You mean reasonable force, sir,” Captain Mantos reminded him from the back.
“I believe I said exactly what I meant, Captain.” Falmond paused for a moment (non-dramatically this time) to survey the semi-riot in the square, the two criminals in frocks, and the two tracks of flowers that recounted the course of the fighting across the square in mad loops and crisscrossings.
“I should have known from the very first hint of disorder,” he said witheringly. “All this way, and I had only to follow those ridiculous flowers. Well, whatever the subject of this month’s antics, you may both consider them at an end. I’m sure you’ll be extremely popular wearing that lovely attire in prison, which is where you and – why are you smiling like that, Chetienne?”
“I was simply observing the wonderful serendipity of the universe, Falmond,” replied Caius with a blissful, beatific smile. “Ask, and ye shall receive, indeed.”
“At this point, Chetienne, the only thing ye are about to receive is a set of heavy chains.” Falmond turned to look over his shoulder and sharply waved the paling guardsmen on. “This is your hour, Captain Mantos! We take them both, now!”
No, thought Captain Mantos bitterly, -you- emerge unscathed from an heroic struggle, and -we- die messily in the backdrop. I know a Final Climax when I see it.
“But they’re holy men, sir,” he said aloud. “Look. Those kirtles and all.”
“I want to convert,” another soldier said in a small voice.
This time, a definitive expression of Righteous Wrath did flash across Falmond’s face. “Holy? These two are holy? You’ve ridden in the company of a Paladin for three weeks and decided that these two are holy? I’ll give you a ‘conversion’, you miserable –”
“We are Floral Avatars, my son,” said Caius. “It’s true. We’re part of the priesthood and you can’t touch us.”
“Sign me up,” Captain Mantos instructed in a steady voice. “And the lads here, too.”
“Certainly, my man. Step this way and meet our beauteous goddess, Airiel the Flower Maiden.”
Falmond watched for a moment through slitted eyes (not a prescribed Paladinic expression, if he’d paused to consider it). The chances of Morgant Salluth alone finding religion and not trying to scrape it off his boot were absurd. But Airiel’s brilliant purple shade did suggest a divine kind of dementia ...
“Take it up with the Pantheon if you have some dispute,” finished Caius mildly, giving the Paladin a wink.
That was too much to bear, particularly coming as it did from a man wearing petticoats. “I rather think I shall,” Falmond replied in a cool voice. “Don’t get too comfortable in those clothes, Master Chetienne.”
Permitting himself the indulgence of a small, chill smile, the Paladin turned to Airiel. “Madam goddess, I regret to inform you that your ... followers ... are guilty of numerous transgressions under law prior to this date, and I shall have to insist that you release them from service in the name of Proper Justice – to which even the divinities of the Pantheon must defer.”
“Goodness,” Airiel murmured, her wide, purple eyes fixed on Falmond in a peculiar, ‘check-the-label’ sort of way. “Do I really have to?”
“Yes, madam goddess,” responded Falmond, “you really do.”
One coy finger began to curl up a lock of amethyst hair. “But ... I’ve no-one to replace them ...”
“Naturally you may select a replacement as you see fit, mistress divinity.” The Paladin broke off for a moment as Morgant stuffed a lacy-gloved fist in his mouth, SNRRTing madly, but quickly put it down to Acarthianism and continued. “My only concern is that Caius Chetienne and Morgant Salluth be ejected from divine service forthw-”
“Oh! Guess that’s it! What a pity! Going to miss them!” Airiel waved her hands sharply, and with another dazzling flash of brilliant lavender, the blessed flower-trails at Caius and Morgant’s heels dissolved into the ethers along with their taffeta-of-office.
“Hey! Now how about giving us our other clothes?”
“Oh. Sorry. Goodness.”
Falmond permitted himself a second, chill smile as he surveyed Caius and Morgant, clad once again in their scruffy travelling tunics. “You may keep the other ragged deserters in service if you wish, madam goddess,” he tossed off disinterestedly with only a fleeting Lordly Glare for Captain Mantos and his cohort. “But these two, now, will be accompanying me to ...”
“Just a minute,” said Airiel shyly, blushing rosy pink. “Don’t you want to know who my chosen replacement is?”
At ground level, something gave a gentle ‘pop’ and released the soft scent of boronia.
Falmond looked down ...
“Why’d you drag me off? I wanted to see the uniforms go on.”
“Sadly, Morgant, I don’t share in the Acarthian sense of humour – however loosely I use that term. It may even surprise you to learn that men in drag are not considered the pinnacle of hilarity in some cultures.”
“I wasn’t talking about a laugh. I wanted to see if they looked hotter than us.”
Clank. Clatter. Clunk. (Tinkle.) Clatter. Clank.
“Yeah. Nice of Airiel to remember to give it back with the horses.”
And that was how Caius and Morgant rode out of the story. But in a further town, Falmond preached the horticultural Word of the Flower Maiden in his glossy, flowing skirts, calling the masses to serve and worship. It didn’t matter that he was supernaturally good at it, that no-one really laughed to his face as he preached, and that new followers signed up with every speech (what less could you expect from a Paladin?); he was angry.
Very, very angry.
You’ve won the battle, he thought, but not the war. I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I do!
Then he thought: Wait! That’s Villainous Overlord talk!
“Sir,” said Floral Avatar Mantos, tapping him on one puffy shoulder and recalling him from his distressingly villainous reverie, “we need you. What comes after the aphids part?”
Of Evangelism and Petunias
|Dragonmakers: Newspaper||Fire-Heart: Fire|
Of Vampires and Steaks
|War of Words|