A mortally wounded magistrate faces his deadliest trial inside an ancient abbey where the monks are going mad and the gods themselves may be to blame!
Estevar Borros, one of the legendary sword-fighting magistrates known as the Greatcoats and the king's personal investigator of the supernatural, is no stranger to tales of ghosts and demons. When the fractious monks of the abbey rumoured to be the birthplace of the gods begin warring over claims of a new pantheon arising, the frantic abbot summons him to settle the dispute.
But Estevar has his own problems: a near-fatal sword wound from his last judicial duel, a sworn knight who claims he has proof the monks are consorting with demons, a diabolical inquisitor with no love for the Greatcoats, and a mysterious young woman claiming to be Estevar's ally but who may well be his deadliest enemy.
Armed only with his famed investigative talents, his faltering skill with a blade and Imperious, his ornery mule, Estevar must root out the source of the madness lurking inside the once-sacred walls of Isola Sombra before its chaos spreads to the country he's sworn to protect.
Investigate alongside Estevar and the most heroic mule ever to appear in print in this thrilling swashbuckling fantasy mystery by Sebastien de Castell, author of the Internationally acclaimed Greatcoats and Spellslinger series!
Release date: December 7, 2023
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Crucible of Chaos
Sebastien de Castell
THE WARRING MONKS
MOST EMINENT ARBITER of the King’s Laws, Duellist of Well-Deserved Renown and, Perhaps Boldly Stated, My Colleague in the Investigation of Matters Occult and Supernatural Pertaining to the Safety of Our Troubled Nation, I Greet You Thus, Estevar Valejan Duerisi Borros,
Rumours of theological disputes erupting between the monks of my abbey will have reached your notoriously vigilant ears by now. Though not subject to the King’s Laws, Isola Sombra nonetheless resides within your judicial circuit, and it is for this reason, as well as for your particular investigative expertise, that I seek out your assistance at this most troubling hour.
Given your often hostile attitude towards religion, you may have already deemed this a mundane ecclesiastical dispute beneath the notice of a Magistrate so highly regarded as to have been dubbed the King’s Crucible.
‘Bickering among religious zealots can neither be described as unusual or of any great importance,’ I imagine you declaring upon receiving the news, no doubt fiddling with the braids of that preposterous beard of yours (I must again remind you, Estevar, that the oiling of one’s hair is both a sign of vanity and, given those foreign scents you will insist on employing in this unwise aromatic endeavour, an offence against those downwind of you). ‘That silly old Venia,’ you will be muttering to yourself as you read this letter, ‘forever predicting hurricanes from every stray summer breeze.’
We have never been friends, you and I – indeed, our correspondences on the intersection between religion and the supernatural have often grown so heated as to make me wonder whether you are about to appear at my door with a rapier in one hand and a writ for a duella honoria in the other. Perhaps the disharmony between us is inevitable: I am a priest and you a magistrate; I serve the Gods and you serve a set of laws written by fallible kings and queens. But while I have tried many times to make you a man of faith, it is precisely that lack of faith on which I must now depend.
Something unnatural takes place within the walls of Isola Sombra. Since the murders of the gods two years ago, debates have raged as to which new divinities will take their place. What began as earnest theological enquiry has become a conflagration that will engulf us all. I fear what might ensue, should angry words turn to condemnation, and condemnation to open warfare within the abbey. My efforts to calm my brethren have failed, and my own status as Abbot of Isola Sombra diminished to an empty title and a tower from which I dare not venture.
Estevar, I have asked a trusted emissary to place copies of this letter in the hands of every travelling Bardatti troubadour passing through this duchy in hopes that one of them finds you in whichever courtroom or duelling circle your passion for justice and intemperate nature has brought you. I need a Magistrate, Estevar. I need the only Greatcoat in all of Tristia who understands both the laws of this land and the occult traditions that have both protected and plagued it in the past. My only hope is that the monks of my abbey will place their trust in the King’s Crucible to resolve the theological disputes over which my own counsel no longer holds sway.
Ride swiftly to Isola Sombra, Estevar, I beg you. It is from this holy place that religion first spread throughout Tristia. If we fail to purge the divisions between my brethren, something far more dangerous may be coming in its wake.
Venia, Abbot of Isola Sombra
THE ABBEY IN THE SEA
Out beyond the shore of the Western Sea, a great abbey towers above the waves. Tall as any castle, Isola Sombra’s treasures are the envy of princes. Its six colossal spires, armoured in stone walls impervious to the buffeting winds and pelting rains, rise up as if to taunt the gods to which they were once consecrated. The relentless fury of the storms which lately assail the abbey suggests such impertinence has not gone unnoticed. Given those same gods were murdered two years ago, an inquisitive traveller to this once holy site might wonder whose outrage now summons the tempest?
The tiny islet upon which the abbey was built centuries ago is tethered to the mainland by a half-mile-long causeway barely wide enough for two carts to pass each other without one being shoved off the slippery cobbles and into the sea. During the winter months, thick fogs often blanket the causeway, blinding travellers to the unpredictable currents. Anyone foolish enough to attempt the crossing during a squall is likely to find themselves swept away beneath the ocean swells, horses, wagons and all.
Estevar Borros had neither wagon nor horse. He slumped heavily in the saddle somewhat precariously strapped to the mule he’d purchased six months ago at the start of his judicial circuit. He’d named the beast Imperious, though the ostentatious sobriquet wasn’t due to any regal bearing evinced by the mule, but rather for the way its rain-drenched muzzle would turn every few plodding steps so it could glare at its rider and remind him precisely who was to blame for their soggy predicament.
‘The fault isn’t mine,’ Estevar grumbled, his words drowned out by the sleet and rain currently hampering their approach to the causeway. ‘Bring suit against the First Cantor if you’re so aggrieved. It was she who assigned us this gods-be-damned judicial circuit that never ends.’
Imperious offered his own grunt in reply, which Estevar took as agreement that the responsibility did indeed lie some two hundred miles to the northeast with a woman barely nineteen years of age whom fate – and the execrable former First Cantor of the Greatcoats – had placed in charge of the King’s Travelling Magistrates.
Estevar’s ice-cold fingers reached beneath the dripping black braids of his beard to pull up the collar of his muddy crimson greatcoat in a hopeless attempt to protect his neck from the beating rain. Even this small movement drew a groan from him. That damned wound . . . The seven-inch gash just above the bottom rib on his left side showed no sign of healing. This particular ache could not, alas, be blamed on the new First Cantor, but rather on Estevar’s own temper.
Staring into the thick fog ahead of them, he could almost picture that suave, conceited duellist standing there: long and lean, his blade swift as a devil’s tail, his spirit unburdened by conscience. His employer, a wealthy lord caravanner charged with the murder of his own wife, had demanded an appeal by combat after Estevar had rendered his verdict. There had been no necessity to accept the challenge; the evidence had been incontrovertible, and King’s magistrates aren’t bound to cross swords with every belligerent who disagrees with the outcome of a trial. And yet . . . there was that smirk on the too-handsome face of the merchant’s champion, as if no one so wide of girth as Estevar could possibly score a touch against him.
In fact, Estevar had won first blood. His use of an unusual Gitabrian sword bind – rather clever, he’d thought at the time – had sent his smug opponent hurtling to the courtroom floor. A single clean thrust to the forearm with the tip of Estevar’s rapier – hardly more than a scratch – had been precisely the sort of merciful and honourable declaration of victory expected of a Greatcoat. When the clerk of the court struck the bell to end the duel in Estevar’s favour, he had even extended a hand to assist the man back to his feet.
Arrogance. Sheer, wanton arrogance.
His enraged opponent had pushed himself off the floor with one hand and delivered a vicious rapier cut with the other. Worse, at the instant of full extension, he’d added injury to insult by turning his wrist to add a vicious puncture to an already deep laceration, the sort of wound that invariably leads to infection and rarely heals properly.
The King’s Third Law of Judicial Duelling was unequivocal on the matter: Estevar was the victor. Unfortunately, the local viscount, no admirer of the king’s meddling magistrates, had taken advantage of Estevar’s public humiliation to overrule his verdict. The lord caravanner had ridden away unpunished. His murdered wife was buried in an unmarked grave the next morning, denied both justice and priestly blessings.
Estevar pressed a hand over the nagging wound. There wasn’t so much as a scratch on the leather. The bone plates sewn into the lining would have protected him, had he not been so vain that he’d consented to the duellist’s demand that he fight without it.
‘Surely so redoubtable a physique, one so voluminous in vigour, needs no armour to protect the many, many layers of valorous flesh beneath?’ the tall, sleek fellow had shouted mockingly before the entire court. ‘What use those silly bone plates sewn into the lining of that preposterous garment you “Greatcoats”’ – he’d imbued the word with such irony! – ‘insist on wearing when compared to the blubber straining its seams?’
Fool of a fool of a fool, Estevar’s mother would have chided him – which was nothing compared to the lashing he could expect to receive from the preposterously young First Cantor when this last stop on his judicial circuit was dealt with and he returned to Castle Aramor.
Voluminous, he thought bitterly, pressing even harder against the wound, but failing to ease the sting. Six days and a hundred miles since he’d cleaned and sewn up the cut, but the pain hadn’t abated one jot. Worse, it now felt hot to the touch, suggesting infection. Perhaps if I survive the fever I’ll name the scar ‘Voluminous’ as a reminder to have a thicker skin in future.
‘And now what shall we do, Imperious?’ he asked the mule. ‘We’re under no obligation to heed the abbot’s request for judicial arbitration between his unruly monks. As Venia so reliably reminded us in his letter, Isola Sombra does not consider itself subject to the King’s Laws. Why should we tarry here when we could already be on our way home?’
Despite his optimistic words, Estevar had no illusions about the welcome awaiting him at Aramor once the First Cantor learned that one of her magistrates had lost a judicial appeal he’d been under no obligation to grant in the first place, only to then take a grievous injury due entirely to his inexcusable pride rather than any skill of his opponent. He would be lucky if she didn’t immediately demand he relinquish his coat of office.
Imperious swivelled his sorrel head once again, this time in an attempt to bite his rider’s hand as punishment for bringing him to this hellish place. Evidently, it wasn’t only the First Cantor to whom Estevar owed profuse apologies.
‘Let us away home then,’ he declared, tugging gently on the reins to circle his mount back towards the mainland road. ‘We’ll leave the monks to their quarrels.’
He was about to give the mule’s flanks an encouraging nudge when a voice shouted out from the mists, ‘Hold where you are!’
Man and mule both turned. The grey haze between the mainland and the causeway had thickened, distorting the voice and making it difficult to locate its source. A less experienced traveller might have heard the command of an angry ghost come to exact revenge for some long-forgotten crime. Estevar, however, had investigated many supposed supernatural apparitions during his tenure as a Greatcoat, and quickly decided this one sounded more man than spectre. He patted Imperious’ neck to calm him, but the mule lowered his head and hunched his shoulders, as if determined to leap into battle against their unknown assailant.
‘Who approaches the cursed Abbey of Isola Sombra?’ the hidden figure demanded.
Estevar closed his eyes a moment, allowing the eerie echoes to surround him. The voice was deep, confident, but that gravitas was trained rather than natural. The accent – most notably the rising inflection on the last vowel of the abbey’s name, almost as if he were saying ‘Som–brae’ – suggested a commoner raised in this duchy, not highborn himself, but accustomed to being in the presence of nobles.
He reached back for the oilcloth bag strapped behind the cantle. He’d wanted to protect his rapier from the rain and hadn’t anticipated having to fight his way into an abbey famed almost as much for its hospitality as its wealth. With his fingers chilled to the bone, the knots were proving perniciously difficult to untie. His mind, however, was moving more nimbly, envisioning the unfolding scene from the perspective of the fellow who now sought to block his passage.
He sees only a fat man in a leather greatcoat slouched wearily upon a mule, Estevar thought, someone too slow to present a genuine threat. Someone he can bully as he pleases.
This was, regrettably, a common enough conclusion on meeting Estevar Borros. A magistrate’s first duty being to the truth, he decided it was incumbent upon him to cure this new acquaintance of a potentially fatal ignorance. He coughed briefly before allowing his own deep baritone to rumble across the sandy shore.
‘To you, stranger, is the privilege of greeting Estevar Valejan Duerisi Borros, often called the King’s Crucible. As one of His Majesty’s Travelling Magistrates, the duty of hearing appeals to the King’s Justice throughout the Seventh Circuit of Tristia falls to me. Any fool who stands in the way of that endeavour will soon find himself flat on his back, gazing up at the sky and asking the gods why they cursed him with such poor judgement as to challenge me.’
Not bad, Estevar mused, all thoughts of abandoning the monks to their own devices banished as he drew his rapier. The cadence was a little off, but melodious eloquence is surely too much to ask of a fellow in my feverish state.
At last, a tall figure emerged from the mists. First came the glint of steel, the position and angle suggesting a longsword held in a high guard. Next came the shimmer of a chainmail surcoat partly covered by a hooded cloak of pure white trimmed in silver and emblazoned with three azure eyes across the front.
A Knight of the March of Someil, Estevar reasoned, which explained both the accent and commanding tone.
The chainmail was going to be a problem. Estevar’s rapier was a duelling weapon meant for courtroom trials and back-alley ambushes, not squaring off on the battlefield against armoured knights. Tristian steel came in varying qualities, however, and a Greatcoat’s rapier was as fine a weapon as was ever forged in this benighted little country. Wielded with force and precision, the point could shatter the links of a mail surcoat to find the fragile flesh beneath. That was, of course, assuming its wielder was not already wounded and exhausted.
The wise move would be to fight from atop the mule. The added height afforded a superior position, and Imperious was no shy pony to cower in the face of danger. Should the need arise to flee, being already in the saddle would increase the odds of escape.
But my opponent is a man of war, Estevar reminded himself, trained to slash the throat of his enemy’s mount first to counter his advantage.
He dismounted, hiding his unsteadiness beneath a show of nonchalance. He patted his mule’s reddish-brown mane and whispered into one long, twitching ear, ‘No heroics, my friend. When the first blow is struck, turn tail and run. Find yourself a mare and – well, as I don’t suppose mules can reproduce, just enjoy yourself and think fondly of your old friend Estevar.’
Imperious ignored him, instead issuing a braying warning to the approaching knight. Running away clearly wasn’t the beast’s style.
‘Damned good mule,’ Estevar murmured, bringing his rapier up to a centreline guard suitable for initiating a deceptive flick at the eyes followed by a more powerful – and desperate – thrust to the narrow gap between helm and gorget, which would be his best hope of evading the mail surcoat.
‘Borros?’ the knight called out, coming into full view at last. A handsome devil, you had to give him that. The very portrait of a young chevalier: broad in the shoulder, narrow in the hips, square-jawed and golden-haired beneath a steel half-helm. Even the broken nose lent his otherwise smooth features a determined dignity. No doubt many a lad and lass had swooned over this one. At his side dangled a curved ivory horn. Estevar had known the blare of such instruments to carry for miles across flat terrain. ‘You are truly Estevar Borros, the King’s Crucible?’ the knight asked.
‘The storm is not so deafening that you failed to hear me the first time,’ he replied, widening his stance and raising the blade of his rapier. ‘Now, stop where you are. Inclement weather and poor soil make for arduous grave-digging, and I have more pressing business at the abbey.’
Without warning, the knight rushed Estevar. The fool might well have impaled himself, had not the combination of a magistrate’s quick judgement and a duellist’s quick instincts enabled Estevar to tilt his rapier blade off-line in time to stop the point sliding over the steel gorget and into the knight’s exposed throat.
‘My name is Sir Daven Colraig,’ the young knight declared, hugging Estevar with frantic relief. ‘I am Sheriff Outrider to His Lordship, Margrave Someil. It was he who commanded me to await you here these past seven days.’
‘Seven days?’ Estevar had to suppress a groan when the young man’s exuberant squeezing aggravated his wound. He shoved the fellow away, not quite as gently as he’d intended. ‘You expect me to believe you’ve been out in this storm for an entire week?’
Sir Daven nodded, water dripping from his helm onto the golden locks plastered to his forehead. ‘Indeed, Eminence. The margrave had hoped you would arrive sooner.’
‘My pace was perhaps more leisurely than anticipated,’ Estevar admitted.
Yet why would the Margrave of Someil be keeping abreast of a magistrate’s travels? And why would he make one of his knights camp out in the cold and wet until my arrival?
‘The Abbey of Isola Sombra is less than half a mile across the causeway,’ Estevar observed. ‘The monks are known for their gracious hospitality to all who arrive at their gates. Why await me here? Unless it was to prevent me from reaching them myself?’
Sir Daven slid a gauntleted hand into his cloak and withdrew a cylinder of black leather roughly eight inches long and barely an inch in diameter. The message sheath was banded in azure and bore a silver wax seal of a wasp shattering a shield: the hereditary insignia of the Margraves of Someil. ‘I know the Greatcoats have oft been at odds with the nobles of this duchy, Eminence, but my lord is no enemy to the new king, nor to his magistrates.’
Estevar eyed the black leather tube warily. Bribing magistrates was a common tactic for those with a vested interest in the outcome of a case. The lord caravanner had offered him a small fortune to avoid a trial. Was this some attempt by the Margrave of Someil to secure a ruling against the Abbey of Isola Sombra, whose legendary obstinance in refusing to pay taxes – either to the king or to the local nobility – rested upon the dubious claim that their tiny island was by tradition a sovereign nation unto itself?
‘Please,’ Sir Daven said, jabbing the message sheath at Estevar’s chest, ‘read my lord’s words and heed them, I beg you.’
Imperious attempted to bite off the knight’s hand. When that failed, he snatched the leather cylinder away from him.
‘Cease, you avaricious beast,’ Estevar growled, yanking the crushed tube from between the mule’s teeth. ‘Save your appetite for the abbey, where we shall shortly be feasted as befits visiting dignitaries.’
He undid the azure ties, unfurled the parchment and read quickly, before the rain smudged the ink, rendering the missive illegible. He checked the half-seal at the bottom of the parchment, comparing it with its mate on the other side, a security device. The rich purple-black ink he recognised as a rare mixture made of the iron-gall from an oak tree and the crushed seeds of a berry found only in this duchy: a concoction so carefully guarded by the margraves that even the finest forgers found it near-impossible to reproduce. All of which suggested the document was authentic, which made the five lines scrawled upon it all the more troubling.
From his Lordship Alaire, Margrave of Someil,
Warden of the March, Defender of the Faith,
To you, my friend, in earnest warning,
As you love life and value your soul,
you will not set foot on Isola Sombra.
A blaze ignited in Estevar’s belly, chasing away the cold and wet, even the ache of his wound. When bribery was deemed unlikely to succeed, the nobility all too often resorted to blackmail and bullying.
‘A threat?’ he demanded, crushing the parchment in his fist as the rain poured down even harder, the thunder in the sky above punctuating his outburst. ‘Your precious margrave would seek to intimidate a Greatcoat into abandoning his lawful mission? Does he so fear what the Abbot of Isola Sombra might reveal to me of his activities that he’d stoop to—?’
‘Abbot Venia no longer rules Isola Sombra,’ the knight said icily, his countenance darkening. ‘He who once defied kings now cowers beneath the covers inside his tower while madness and devilry reigns over that holiest of islands!’
Estevar could barely restrain his laughter. ‘Has the cold and damp frozen that helmet to your head, Sir Knight? You speak of two hundred pampered, petulant monks as if they were an army of invading soldiers!’
Sir Daven shook his head, sending splatters of rain onto Estevar’s face and beard. ‘Not soldiers, sir, but warlocks – heretics who dabble in curses and necromancy, perverting their bodies in unholy orgies—’
Estevar cut him off. ‘Enough. I am a Greatcoat, not some backwoods constable to be frightened off with childish tales of witchcraft. As the King’s Crucible, it falls to me to investigate cases suspected of supernatural intervention. I have witnessed hundreds of occult rituals all across this country – some genuine, most elaborate trickery, but none the preposterous pantomime you’re ascribing to the brethren of Isola Sombra.’ He handed the black leather cylinder to Sir Daven. ‘You call yourself a sheriff outrider? If the Margrave of Someil truly believes some nefarious demon worship to have taken hold of the abbey, surely he would have sent a contingent of his finest knights to investigate, rather than have you wait out here in the rain like an unwanted pup?’
The knight refused to take back the sheath, saying instead, ‘Look inside the cylinder, Eminence; a second document awaits your perusal.’
Estevar cursed himself for failing to notice the smaller piece of parchment tight against the inside of the case. He had to dig it out with his fingernail before unfolding what turned out to be an elaborate sketch of a naked man such as one might find in a medical text. What made it unusual were the strange markings covering the body: esoteric sigils in designs unrecognisable to Estevar despite his years of research into the esoteric traditions of Tristia.
‘My Lord did send a dozen of my fellow knights to investigate,’ Sir Daven said defiantly. ‘When they emerged the next morning . . .’ He paused, visibly shaken by whatever memories plagued him. ‘Twelve braver, steadier men and women I have never known, yet not one of them has uttered a word since their return. They sit in separate chambers within the margrave’s fortress, attended to by his personal physicians – not clerics, mind you, trained physicians – who claim their souls have fled their bodies.’
‘There has to be a logical explanation,’ Estevar murmured, returning the picture and the margrave’s message to the cylinder before placing it in a pocket of his greatcoat. ‘There is always an explanation.’
Steel returned to the younger man’s eyes as they locked on Estevar’s. ‘Theories and conjectures do not fall within my purview, Eminence, nor was I sent here merely to await your displeasure.’ He lifted the ivory horn strapped to his side and jabbed his other hand towards the six stone towers rising from the dense greyness. ‘Should anyone or anything come back across that causeway, my orders are to first raise the alarm, then fend off whatever chaos has been spawned in the cloisters of Isola Sombra until help arrives or death takes me!’
Holding the knight’s gaze, Estevar sifted through what clues he could discern in the younger man’s determined expression. Were the clenched jaw and stiff posture signs of the unyielding devotion to duty so often espoused by Tristian knights, or mere melodrama meant to frighten away one of the King’s Magistrates before he could interfere in whatever schemes were unfolding on Isola Sombra?
Estevar’s fever-addled brain rebelled against him, alerting him instead to the flush in his cheeks and the burning ache in his side. What business did he have setting foot upon the ill-fated isle at the end of that storm-drenched causeway armed with nothing but a rapier, his arrogance and a cantankerous mule?
‘Heed my liege’s warning, Eminence, I beg you,’ Sir Daven said, no doubt sensing Estevar’s wavering intentions.
How strange that only moments before, he’d been ready to abandon this place and ignore Abbot Venia’s plea for him to arbitrate the dispute between his contentious monks. Now that this same dispute had exploded into something far more unsettling, Estevar found himself unable to walk away.
He knew himself to be a ludicrous figure in the eyes of many: a foreigner to these shores who dared demand a place among the legendary Greatcoats; a fat, pompous buffoon who insisted on fighting his own duels when younger and fitter men would have refused; an eccentric who alone among the King’s Travelling Magistrates investigated crimes attributed to witches, demons and sundry other supernatural forces. In short, Estevar Borros was a silly fool, driven by his innate stubbornness as much as his affinity for the law. But there was yet one more failing to which he was ever subservient – the one that, even more than his arrogance, had led him to accept the most recent duel: the persistent, impossible-to-quiet voice that had brought him from his homeland across the sea to this strange, troubled nation. The addiction was more potent than any drug, a nagging need that could overpower even the pain of a festering wound in his side.
Looking towards the abbey in the sea, contemplating what chaos awaited, he murmured, ‘I am curious.’
‘What?’ asked Sir Daven, grabbing his arm.
Gently, he loosened the younger man’s fingers. ‘I thank you, Sir Knight. You have delivered your message, fulfilling this part of your mission. No one could fault your courage or your loyalty to your liege.’ He slid his rapier into the sheath ingeniously designed into the leather panel on the left side of his greatcoat, wincing at the sudden sting that was surely his stitches coming apart.
Sir Daven gaped at him as he if were mad. ‘Look at yourself,’ he cried, his frantic voice bubbling over with scorn and unease. ‘You can barely stand – yes, I see you, attempting to hide whatever injury ails you. But even after what I’ve told you, still you insist on crossing the most perilous causeway in the country during a raging storm while the tide rises? I have told you that death and worse await you on the other side – do you presume the rest of us to be gullible dolts deluded by some petty parlour trick?’
‘I think nothing of the kind,’ Estevar replied, taking the reins and tugging his reluctant mule towards the narrow cobblestone road ahead. ‘You claim the monks of Isola Sombra commit unspeakable crimes, dabbling in forbidden occult rituals and desecrating the oldest holy site in the country. Surely that calls for the intervention of a King’s Magistrate, no?’
‘You’re a fool,’ Sir Daven spat, no longer pretending at admiration, or even sympathy. ‘A mad fool! What will be left of you once the monsters prowling that cursed abbey have peeled away the last layers of your arrogance from your flesh?’
Estevar placed a hand on the mule’s neck to steady himself as the two of them began their crossing. Shouting over the wind and rain he replied, ‘According to my sainted mother? Only more arrogance.’
THE DRUNKEN PLAGUE
Estevar’s boots slid on the slick cobblestones, each step offering the pelting rains and rising currents another chance to sweep him off the causeway and into the sea. Even the sure-footed Imperious struggled to keep his hooves from slipping on the seaweed-coated path to Isola Sombra. Years ago, when last he had come this way, the tides had seemed lower and the road better maintained. Now, it felt as if nature itself was determined to keep them from the abbey. Though unsteady and feverish, Estevar walked alongside Imperious, unwilling to risk the poor beast stumbling and breaking a leg by riding him through the onslaught.
‘The last thing either of us desires,’ he told the mule, ‘is an injured, out-of-shape magistrate, soaked to the bone, carrying you on his back.’
Imperious gave no reply, just narrowed big brown eyes against the chill wind, undaunted by the oncoming rain. Estevar felt ignoble by comparison.
A deafening boom of thunder filled his ears, and a second later, a crack of lightning split the grey s
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