“Tuck, please –”
“We do not need their assistance, Father! Surely, with all your medical knowledge, you must know of some way to get rid of this — this –”
Tuck stopped, not suffering from a loss of words, but rather from too many words found. Demon, illness, madman’s fantasy — which to choose?
Father Hugh rubbed the back of his neck, and all the found words scuttled away. No matter how unholy the thing that had taken hold of him, it would not do to upset the good Father. He was, after all, in …
Tuck couldn’t even bring himself to think, let alone say, the words “a delicate condition.” Ladies got themselves into delicate conditions. Worthy wives got themselves into delicate conditions. Whores got themselves into delicate conditions! But not men. And certainly not monks, good servants of the Lord Wright!
He would think of it instead as an illness — for truly the good Father was somehow infected. He was not in good health, and should not be stressed. He had been the victim of a horrible crime, and should not be blamed for the predicament in which he now found himself.
Though why he had to go gathering herbs after dark … But Tuck could not expect Father Hugh to have thought of the fae when he needed a bit more wormwood or rue for his concoctions. Everyone knew that the fae were made-up, stories for children — or if they weren’t, they were demons, and surely a man as holy as Father Hugh would be proof against their blandishments. There should have been no danger beside the normal dangers of getting lost in the woods after dark.
Except, of course, when there was.
“This illness!” Tuck finally decided, exploding. “You are the best doctor in the kingdom! Surely –”
“Son,” Father Hugh replied with just a sigh, not even a rueful smile, “I am the only doctor in the kingdom. That hardly makes me the best.”
“That doesn’t matter! The fact remains, we don’t — we shouldn’t — need them!”
“Lady Morgan graciously offered to help, Tuck.”
“I’m sure she did! What I don’t understand is –” He heard his voice start to rise and checked it. “Father, please, hear me,” he began again. “Is it really that wise to ask a witch’s help in exorcising demons?”
“Think about it, Father. Is she not the last person whose help we should be seeking in this? Even that — affectation of a surname she has taken on –”
“And her husband! By St. Pascal and St. Vidcund, Father! No Wrightian woman could respectably allow herself to be married to that! And worse, she insists on including him in this, when the last thing we need is another person involved!”
“I will agree that secrecy would be best, however, I don’t –”
“Father, you have a problem with demons, and to help you get rid of it, you are asking — a demon-worshipper and a demon’s abomination!”
Click — a swift rush of air — and a voice that had no right to sound that cheerful, even sarcastically cheerful, calling out, “Oh, look, honey, they were talking about us! I told you that my ears were burning!”
“And I told you that if you were to insist on cutting your hair so short, you should put my sunscreen oil on your ears, but did you listen to me? No,” replied a woman’s contralto as the woman entered, shaking her head. “Never blame gossip for what idiocy can explain.” The Lady Morgan patted her husband’s shoulder, and then — Tuck’s stomach turned — she kissed that gray cheek.
She then had the audacity to turn those defiled lips to him and the good Father in a brilliant smile. “So, Father, Brother Tuck. Greetings.”
Luckily Father Hugh answered her; Tuck could not have. “Lady Morgan, Accolon. Thank you so much for coming to — to help.”
“No trouble, Father,” Accolon replied in a way that almost managed to be light and carefree. Indeed, if the situation were not so grave, it would have been light and carefree in Tuck’s ears. As it was, Tuck had to wonder where the zombie got off being so damn happy.
His demon masters are probably doing a jig down in Hell; doubtless this is all playing out according to their plans!
“Please, have a seat, both of you,” Father Hugh said. The zombie proceeded to stomp on Tuck’s last nerve by making certain that one of the desk chairs was turned around for Lady Morgan, and she seated in it, before he sat down himself. He acted with her as any living husband would act with his lady! It was insupportable!
And Father Hugh was giving Tuck his best imitation of a glare, so Tuck hied himself to the empty place on the bench.
Then they all had ample time to stare at each other before someone was brave enough to begin the conversation.
The brave one was Lady Morgan. “So, Father, how are you feeling today?”
Father Hugh did not answer in words, but his face turned the faintly greenish tinge that Tuck now knew was his signal to run for a bucket. Before he could do more than place his hands on his thighs for rising, the Lady Morgan pointed to Father Hugh and whispered a few words Tuck couldn’t catch. A blue light flew from her to him. Father Hugh took a deep breath and relaxed against the bench.
“What?” Tuck shouted. “Magic! Within the very walls of the abbey! Father, you cannot –”
“Hush, my son.” Father Hugh rested his hand on Tuck’s arm. “It has been proven time and time again that all that is good comes from the Lord Wright. Naught that is good can come from a demon. If magic has the power to do good — and I think we in this kingdom, and within this Order, can agree that magic has the power to do good — it cannot come from demons, and must come from the Lord Wright.” He smiled at Morgan. “Thank you, daughter.”
“No trouble, Father. So, now that we’ve taken care of that difficulty, how are you feeling?”
“I … I do not know how to answer, Lady Morgan. I cannot tell what is — what is usual and to be expected, and what is cause for alarm, and what is … what may not be due to my, er, condition, but to something else entirely …”
“The stress you’re under probably isn’t helping things, either,” Lady Morgan murmured. “Have you had a chance to rest since the wedding?”
“There is still so much that needs doing, so much that was pushed off because of the wedding, and then there are the needs of the sick …”
“Father, you cannot overstrain yourself, not at this time. You need to rest. If you feel tired, lie down. If you’re hungry, eat. Listen to what your body is telling you. I’m sure Brother Tuck would be more than willing to pick up any slack you leave behind.”
Before Tuck could do more than glare at the woman in her presumption, Father Hugh patted his knee. “Brother Tuck is as good as a son to me. I do not know how I would have gotten this far without him. He’s been attending to so many good Sims’ spiritual needs when I’ve been flat on my back — or on my knees, and not in prayer.” Father Hugh grinned at him with enough warmth to coax an answering smile from Tuck. “Unfortunately, however, Brother Tuck cannot do much to help the sick, other than pray with them.”
“Hmm. Well, Father, you could try sending some of your patients my way. I can at least do some of the harder legwork and take some of the burden off you, especially as time goes on and the baby starts to take more out of –”
“The baby? The baby?” Tuck finally exploded. “You’re calling — calling it a baby?”
“Tuck –” Father Hugh began, laying a restraining hand on Tuck’s arm.
“And what would you call it?” the zombie demanded.
“Tuck!” Father Hugh gasped.
“It is not a child, it is not a blessing, it is an –” Abomination, he wanted to say, but though his tongue moved and his lips curled in an ending sneer, the word did not come out. He gasped and grasped his throat.
“Brother Tuck,” Lady Morgan hissed through clenched teeth, “watch your tongue. You never know who might be listening.”
“I don’t think anyone could hear us,” Father Hugh replied, looking around. “The walls are very thick.”
“The listeners whom I … fear do not need to worry about the thickness of walls. Father …” Lady Morgan sighed. “I don’t think you fully understand … you are carrying a child of the Fair Ones. They have ways of watching you. And they will be watching.”
“Watch-ing?” Father Hugh gasped, and it was Brother Tuck’s turn to lay a hand on the good Father’s arm. He could not speak, but he could offer this much comfort. He could also glare at the Lady Morgan.
“They won’t hurt you,” Accolon was saying, ignoring Tuck entirely. “They’d be daft to. Wouldn’t they, Morgan?”
“Quite daft. You were chosen for a reason, Father. But …”
“But if they think you or the baby is in any danger, they won’t hesitate to bring you — um — honey, what are we supposed to call it?”
“To their Home,” Lady Morgan replied. She cast a glance at Brother Tuck that was uncomfortably schoolmarmish. “Now, Brother, can I trust you to keep any opinions that might lead to Father Hugh spending some time away from all of us to yourself?”
She didn’t actually say “young man,” but Brother Tuck would be damned if he was the only one in the room who heard it.
Still, though, he nodded — it was either that or be enforced into silence for the whole conversation, and if he could not speak, then who would protect Father Hugh from whatever mad, unholy scheme these two came up with?
Lady Morgan waved her hand. “You can speak now.”
“Then perhaps, my lady,” Tuck spat, “you might care to inform me what I can and cannot say, so we do not have to go through this again.”
“You can avoid saying anything that might invoke the wrath of the Fair Ones. Such as referring to the child of one of their number as an ‘infestation’ or similarly insulting term,” Morgan began. Tuck watched her husband make the sign against fae interference. “You might also wish to avoid calling them out directly, since –”
“Children’s stories!” Tuck snapped. “Old wives’ tales! Pagan nonsense!” He shook his head. “This is a holy abbey, a millennium from the time St. Robert walked the earth! We have our faith to shield us from evil!”
Lady Morgan’s eyebrow rose, then fell. “Please, someday, do tell me how well you faith works to shield you from evil. The Fair Ones, however, are not evil. They are ancient, they are wise, and they are powerful. They are older than the Wrightian faith –”
“Nothing is older than the Lord Wright! He –”
“But there is much that is older than the Wrightian faith, Brother,” she interrupted. “The Empire of Reme comes to mind. So does the country of Glasonland. And the Fair Ones were ancient when Remus founded the City on the banks of the Siber River, and middle-aged at the least when the first Sims came into the Caernavon River valley.”
Tuck snorted. “Old or not, they cannot strike against those whom the Lord Wright has placed under his especial protection — like monks!”
“Oh, can they?” Accolon snorted. “I think Father Hugh might beg to disagree.”
Father Hugh flushed and stared at his lap.
“More than that, I think certain … puckish members of the Fair Ones seem to take a certain delight in impregnating members of the Church — particularly monks, since any impregnated nun would be considered to have been unchaste and not blessed by the Fair Ones. I believe that has happened within the Order of St. Pascal?” Lady Morgan asked.
“Slanders and lies! The father of St. Pascal never consorted with de– with the Fair Ones, if that’s what you want to call them! Those stories were made up by the enemies of the Church to cast aspersions onto the Order!” Tuck snapped.
Lady Morgan never took her gaze away from Father Hugh. “I am not referring to St. Pascal’s father.”
Why did that make Father Hugh flush and stare at his lap? “That, Lady Morgan, is not something I was aware that the laity knew.”
“What is?” Tuck asked.
“Or even many members of your own Order,” Lady Morgan agreed, nodding her head in Tuck’s direction.
Father Hugh took a deep breath and turned to Tuck. “There are … rumors that St. Pascal himself did carry and give birth to a child of the Fair Ones.”
“What?” Tuck gasped.
“As did St. Vidcund,” Lady Morgan added. “Did he not?”
“That’s not so certain …”
“Wait — and it is certain that St. Pascal did?” Tuck gasped, again.
“… It is. Usually only abbots and priors of daughter houses are told this, so, Tuck, I must ask for your discretion. And I cannot understand how you came to know of it, Lady Morgan.”
“Children, even those who are gifts of the Fair Ones, grow up, Father Hugh. Neither St. Pascal’s nor St. Vidcund’s children followed in their fathers’ footsteps and joined the Church. They instead joined the magical community, who preserved their stories, much in the way your Order preserved the stories of St. Pascal and St. Vidcund.”
“If the magical community knew of St. Pascal’s — something, I find it hard to believe that they would not blab it all and sundry! Do you not live to discredit the Church?” Tuck spat.
“No,” Lady Morgan replied with the kind of literalism that set his teeth on edge. “And even if we did, we would not start with the Order of St. Pascal, who has always been one of our greatest allies. And it is because of that ancient alliance that I offered to help you, Father.”
Oh, help, aye, help! Probably so she can have the Church in Albion play into her hands, just as the so-called “magical community” has apparently blackmailed the Order of St. Pascal since its founding! His mouth opened to say these words —
But it closed, for other than acceding to blackmail, what choice did they have? If this got out, their Order in Albion would be finished. If what she said about St. Pascal was true, and that got out — the whole Order of St. Pascal would be finished. No, it was better, in this instance, to listen to the witch. And pray that her demands would not be too steep.
“I am so grateful for your offer,” Father Hugh replied. “But … what did you have in mind, exactly?”
“Well, for starters,” Accolon said, “we’d like to invite you to stay with us until your little one is born.”
That explains why her husband had to know.
“With — with you?” Father Hugh asked.
“Apple Keep is quite remote,” Lady Morgan continued. “And well-warded. No one would be able to see you who either Accolon or I did not permit onto the premises. And if you stayed with us, I could watch over your pregnancy, every step of the way.”
“I … I suppose …”
“And if you decided, after the baby was born, that you didn’t want to –” Accolon stopped, but was stayed with his wife laid her hand on his thigh.
“Later, Accolon,” she murmured, and Tuck wondered what, exactly, was supposed to happen “later.”
“But — but how would we explain that to the people?” Father Hugh asked.
“Pilgrimage,” Lady Morgan answered without a moment’s hesitation. “Perhaps to the original chapter house of the Order of St. Pascal?”
“It’d cover a very long absence,” Accolon pointed out.
“Perhaps …” It would take a blind man not to see Father Hugh’s discomfort. And it would take a blind and deaf man not to sense his hesitation.
“You could go on a true pilgrimage afterward, Father,” Lady Morgan pointed out. “If you feel uncomfortable about lying to the people.”
Father Hugh sighed. “I daresay I will need to take a true pilgrimage when this is over, for the sake of my soul if for nothing else …” He patted his stomach and shook his head. “But what about the child?”
Lady Morgan and Accolon were silent.
“We — we must make sure what we are to do about the child,” Father Hugh continued. “Especially if something were to … happen to me …”
“That’s practically impossible, Father,” Lady Morgan soothed. “The Fair Ones will not allow it.”
“Aye, they’ll take you around the hill or whatever they call it if they think you’re in any danger,” Accolon added with all the breezy carelessness of a man discussing where it might rain tomorrow.
“But — but even if I am well … I cannot care for this child. My vows … would not allow it,” Father Hugh sighed. “And I cannot ask the nuns to care for it. I know not where the Sisters of St. Coral stand on the question of magic, and the Fair Ones, but …”
Lady Morgan and Accolon did not answer. Instead, they looked at each other.
“Well …” Accolon finally said, “we could take care of the baby.”
And Tuck finally saw.
He finally saw what it was they were after. A baby! It was just like the witches in the old stories. Like the one with the girl with the long, golden hair. Oh, the witch was so kind to her mother, fed her all the rampion she wanted — and her price! The woman’s firstborn! And there was the other story, the one about the miller’s daughter ordered to spin straw into gold, the price for that eventually escalated into her firstborn child!
They wanted the baby, to take, and corrupt, and no doubt use to hold over the head of the Order of St. Pascal for as long as it should live, or the Order remain in Albion! How much power could they gain with the child of an Abbot? They could turn the whole Church in Albion upside-down, have it dancing to their demonic —
The child was a demon-child. How steep of a price — other than the blackmail potential, which existed any case — was it, really?
Tuck glanced at Father Hugh, to see what he could see about the older monk’s thoughts.
Father Hugh’s face was carefully blank.
“That … that is a most generous offer,” he said finally. “I do not know how to thank you for even suggesting it.”
“It would be our pleasure,” Lady Morgan whispered. Her fingers moved to play with her belt.
“And you could see the baby, whenever you wanted,” Accolon added. “If — if you were willing to give it to us, that is. We’d take good care of her. Or him.”
“We’d raise the child as our own,” Lady Morgan murmured.
“And Ravenna always wanted a little brother or sister.”
If they had been a good, upright, Wright-fearing couple, Tuck would have been touched. He may have even remembered that they only had one child, and doubtless would want more. But a witch and a zombie …
He could not even watch them, for fear his disgust would show.
“I — I cannot say anything, just now,” Father Hugh replied. “As to — as to the fate of the child. I shall need to pray a great deal on it.”
“Oh,” Accolon murmured.
“Take all the time you — you need,” Lady Morgan answered, her voice thick with — something.
“But — but if the offer of your hospitality is still open …?”
“It is,” Accolon replied, sounding hopeful again.
“I should be — be most pleased to take it.”
“Well!” Accolon said, jumping to his feet with far more speed than Tuck thought a corpse should be able to manage, “then we’d be happy to have you, Father! And happy to help you make your decision!”
“Accolon!” Lady Morgan hissed.
It didn’t matter — Father Hugh was already up, and the men were already shaking on it.
When they took their seats, there was little enough — and far too much — to discuss. Logistics, and that sort of thing. Eventually they decided that a fortnight should be ample time to make public preparations for a pilgrimage such as Father Hugh’s, and so in a fortnight he would leave the monastery, and eventually come to Apple Keep. He should not be showing by that point, so all would (hopefully) remain secret.
All the same, Tuck could not wait to escort the two of them from the abbey, and it was with a bitter taste in his mouth that he returned to Father Hugh’s office, intending to — he did not even know what. Caution the good Father, probably. Not all Sims were as open-hearted and helpful as he. Still less could one expect that of a zombie and a witch.
But when he entered the office, he found the good Father slumped over, his head in his hands.
He looked up. “Tuck.” He even tried to smile.
Tuck forgot all his scoldings and warnings.
Father Hugh manfully continued to give that false smile. “Well! We have a lot of preparations, don’t we, lad? I suppose we had best get on them …”
“No. No, Father. For now, you rest. I’ll take care of things.”
Tuck pulled the good Father to his feet and held him. “Don’t you worry about a thing, Father. We’ll get you through this. Somehow or other.” Even if I have to work with a zombie and a witch!
“Thank you, son,” was all Father Hugh could whisper. “Thank you.”