Preparing the Way

I didn’t know what to write this week (again!) and since I was editing The King in Darkness I got a bit energized about those characters again.  So I wrote this thing.  It’s kind of a prologue-y bit for the main story of the book, and although it really doesn’t give very much away, it should give you an idea of what the book will be like, and maybe it will whet your appetite a little.

It is also fairly rough, and has not had the attention of my wonderful editors, so forgive me for that, and do let me know what you think.

I hope you enjoy it.

———

The man and the woman met at her apartment, late in the evening. The man was slim, sturdy, and smiled rarely. The woman had, as always, carefully prepared both the setting and her person to receive him. Despite the artifice, and the hour, and the intimacy of the setting, the encounter was not romantic. They planned to talk, not of love, but of a book, an old man, and of death.

They exchanged no pleasantries. Neither had much time for them, in this context. They had preparations to make, and strictly limited time in which to complete their tasks. The woman drank a deep red wine during their conversation, but did not offer any to her visitor. The man would have said that this showed that she thought of him as a servant. If pressed, she probably would have described him as a useful ally, though not a friend, and as she spent so much of her public life being dishonest, she indulged in abandoning pretense at home, at least.

The man made his report, although it rankled him to think of it that way. Her questions, offered with languorous authority, bothered him even more. “Yes, it’s still in the house, goddamnit,” he insisted. There were things he was an expert at, that she was not. Observation was one of them.

“You’re sure? You saw it?”, She demanded. The woman had long practice in the trade of deception and tended to assume its presence. Besides, the old man’s options were decreasing, his vulnerability was growing, and moving the book might have seemed a sensible ploy.

“Yeah, I did. On the shelf like always.”, he replied. The house was filled with bookshelves in a jumble of styles, materials, and ages. Their eclectic nature was of a piece with the rest of the house’s contents. It was full of art and artifacts from what appeared to be every corner of the globe. Still, the man had persisted until he was certain the book was there.

“And the old man is dying.” It was not a question. Nor did the woman sound sad, or concerned. There was, perhaps, a tiny bit of amusement in her voice, if there was any feeling at all.

“Yeah, that’s what his neighbour said,” the man replied. The neighbour had given him extensive information about the book, the old man, and the house. The man was good at getting people to tell him things; it was another of his skills. “But I still couldn’t get in. The wards are still there.” The man said this with annoyance. He was tired of delays.

“Yes, they would be,” she said. “He created them when he was very strong. They’ll outlive him by a good deal.” She had learned respect for the old man over the years. His resources had always been limited, but he used them adeptly, like a chess player who had lost his queen and both rooks but does not concede the game.

“Great.” The man did not care much about the future of the house. He knew the woman liked to show off the breadth of her knowledge, but it was getting late and he was in no mood to feign interest, or admiration. There were things to do. Anything that didn’t directly affect them was irrelevant. He believed in prioritizing.

“Wait,” she said. “How do you know the sigils are still in place?” She suspected he had done something stupid. The woman liked people who did what they were told, and disapproved of most people acting on their own initiative. In her experience, in most cases their impulses were some combination of foolish, selfish, and disastrous.

“I told you,” he replied patiently, “that I couldn’t get in.” He flexed and relaxed the fingers of his right hand as he answered, as though it were numb, or painful. The man would have described himself as decisive. He felt he had come too far to be thwarted now by the house and its defences, or by caution.

“I didn’t tell you to try,” she shot back, the curtain of her languor falling for the first time.”What if you had been seen?” Their goal was close, almost within reach. It was idiotic to risk upsetting the course of events now.

“If I had been seen?” He chuckled. “Don’t you think I could have handled that? Come on, that’s nothing..” After all this time, she still didn’t really understand and respect the skills of others.

“I suppose,” she agreed reluctantly. “Still, it was unnecessary. And you might have been detected by other means.” The woman’s voice slid back into apparent boredom.

“I thought we had to have the book, no matter what?” The man demanded. He suspected he wasn’t told everything, and this was another matter that, quietly, annoyed him.

“Oh, we do,” she agreed, “but there’s time, yet. And we also know our opposition. He’ll have told no-one of the book’s importance because he’ll have been certain that he wouldn’t be believed, and he’s been a more than adequate guardian all this time. Now though, he has no choice. He won’t die and leave the book unprotected.”

“It’s protected in the house,” the man said. Could they really be denied all their goals so easily?

“Yes,” the woman agreed, “But he won’t depend on it staying there. Estates are broken up, houses are sold. He’ll want to see the book in safe hands. But he’s left it too late, and there’s only one person available for his purpose.” She looked over at her visitor and, for the first time, smiled.

***

Edmund Wicklow cursed quietly to himself as he wrestled the unfamiliar rental car around another curve in the driving rain. He had seen it rather late, but then he had only a general idea where he was headed and no-one with him to help navigate. Wicklow had been in Montreal, delivering an early version of a conference paper on Norse burial monuments to a dinner group at McGill University when he had received the phone call that sent him out onto the road to Ottawa in the middle of the night.

A friend was dying, and Edmund would have wanted to be at his bedside for that reason alone, but there was apparently something else. Some urgent matter that needed to be dealt with, or placed in his hands. Something that couldn’t be discussed over the telephone. So, Edmund had assured his friend that of course he would come, and right away. The helpful lady at the front desk of his Montreal hotel had assured him that the drive to Ottawa was perfectly straightforward, and it had been, more or less, until the storm clouds had abruptly boiled up over the horizon, lashing the road with rain and shadows.

***

“I have him in my mind, now,” the woman said, her voice even more distant than usual. She had turned off the apartment lights and the two sat at a table lit only by a single fat candle.

“You’re sure?” There was curiosity, and skepticism, in the man’s voice. He had seen a lot of surprising things, things he never would have imagined, but he wasn’t sure he believed, or wanted to believe, that the woman’s powers had grown to this extent. He had tried to learn something along those lines, had failed, and comforted himself in the belief that a bullet would always be a great leveller of playing fields.

“Oh yes,” she replied, with a little smile in the shadows. “It’s very clear.” She dipped her finger into her wine and licked it. The woman spoke often of the goals she worked for, but she had at last found work she loved as well.

“And you can do this without the others to help you?” The man asked, hoping to sound merely curious. In fact, he thought this was information he, and some of the others, should have. He started assembling a line of seemingly innocuous questions he might use to probe the woman’s limits. He knew he was good at it.

“Well,” she replied again. “Let’s see, shall we?” She laid both hands flat on the table, looked sharply at the man, in the dim light, and then closed her eyes to concentrate. The candle flame guttered once, then died.

***

Wicklow climbed out of the car and surveyed the damage. He thought he had drifted off the road slightly, onto the gravel shoulder, and then skidded into the ditch. Whatever had, precisely, gone wrong, it had done so very quickly, before he could really attempt to correct things. It had also left the car nose down in a reed-choked ditch in which the water level was rapidly rising. One headlight was immersed in the muddy flood, the other illuminated the far side of the ditch, a wire fence, and what looked like a corn field. One of the rear wheels was off the ground and Edmund was fairly sure of two things – one was that the car wasn’t going any further without significant assistance, and the other was that he would probably have substantial deductible to pay to the insurance company.

He stood and stared at the disaster his night had turned into for a few moments. There was not supposed to have been a storm, or any rain at all, tonight. He had watched the weather report with his continental breakfast that morning, and the skies had been clear when he left Montreal. Then, suddenly, the weather had been foul enough that he had considered finding a safe place to get off the road. But his errand was, evidently, very important, and it was, after all, only wind and rain. Finally, the the rain began to soak through his clothes, interrupted his thoughts, and spurred him back into action. He didn’t know specifically what it was that had his friend so concerned, but Edmund knew that there was only one category of problem that would get him so upset.

It was a category that contained the parts of old myths and tales most people didn’t tell, bits and pieces from the recesses and alcoves of the imagination most people chose not to visit. Even Edmund and his friend spoke of them rarely, and always quietly. It was a slimy, slithery underside of creation most people never saw, and would never know how grateful they should be for that. It was filled with knowledge best forgotten and things best left unfamiliar. And yet, once you had allowed your gaze to stray onto them, you could never look away again. So it was with Edmund Wicklow, and his friend, and so it was that Edmund knew the importance of the phone call, and his unexpected trip to Canada’s capital. Well, he had never yet been.

Edmund fished in his coat pocket for his cell phone, which hopefully would get reception out here, and in this weather. He also opened the driver’s door to turn off the engine. Again, he wasn’t going anywhere. If the car could be put back on the road he would need the gas, and he had a vague idea that he might cause damage by letting it run in this position. He would get some flares from the emergency kit in the trunk to mark the accident site for the tow truck and, probably, the police. Edmund reflected that he was going to be very late arriving in Ottawa and hoped that he might yet be in time. Edmund turned the key in the ignition, the engine juddered into silence and the lights went out.

At once there was a rustling, skittering noise from behind him, like small stones falling, he thought. Edmund didn’t have time to turn to investigate the sound, or consider how it came so clearly through the drumming of the rain, before his legs and lower back erupted in tendrils of agony. Whatever it was seared like being burned, and Edmund was down on the ground before he realized he was falling. The phone clattered from his hand, his last call never having been made. Edmund tried to grab onto the car, to haul himself upright, but his legs were held fast. He could feel his shoes and trousers and flesh being flensed away by whatever held him. He had one final impression, of being crawled over by the darkness, before the pain explored more of his body, and Edmund Wicklow knew nothing more in this life.

***

“Is it done?”, the man asked. He suspected it must be, having seen her shoulders give a little shiver and her lazy smile in the moon light through the window.

“Yes, my dear, it’s done,” the woman replied. She flexed her fingers against the polished wood of the table top, then reached for the bottle and topped up her wine glass.

“You enjoy it now, don’t you?” The man said it sharply, his usual ploy of showing her nothing but bland willingness forgotten.

“Oh, what if I do?” The woman asked, “What’s the good of all this if we can’t take satisfaction in what we achieve?”

“Sure, sometimes,” he allowed. ” But that’s not what this is about. You promised.” It had been clear. They had important goals. The man would never have done all that he did merely to fluff up the importance and ego of this woman, or anyone else. He was sure of it.

“Oh, dear, I keep all my promises. Haven’t I convinced you of that, yet?” The woman turned on the lights again so she could favour him with a calculated smile. They were effective on most people.

“Just don’t forget why we’re all doing this,” the man said flatly.

“I haven’t, and I won’t. Now then, it’s been a late night of solving your problems, so if you don’t mind?” The woman fluttered the fingers of one hand towards the door.

“It’s not exactly solved. The book is still in the house, where we can’t get it.” The man wasn’t sure what they had accomplished, aside from giving her a chance to play.

“Yes, and the old man will be dead by dawn and there will be no-one left but us who knows its importance.” the woman explained. “He has no reason to expect his friend won’t arrive, and no-one else to call on even if he did. He will die disappointed, and the book will be perfectly vulnerable. There will be ample opportunity to get what we need when it’s all being cleared out, don’t you think?”

“You’re probably right. I’ll keep an eye on things.” The man was getting tired, and tired of fencing with her. It was indeed likely that there would be a number of ways to get the book out of the house, if they were patient, and observant. Time should now be on their side.

“Yes, do,” she agreed, “and I’ll take care of our other preparations. The time grows close. The King awaits. We must be ready.”

“Some of us have been ready for a very long time,” the man said, as he left the apartment.

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