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Authors: Matthew Colville

Priest (Ratcatchers Book 1)

BOOK: Priest (Ratcatchers Book 1)
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Priest
Ratcatchers, Book 1

 

by

 

Matthew Colville

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

This is a work of fiction. Any relation to actual living persons, alive or dead, is entirely coincidental

 

Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Colville

Cover design copyright 2011 by Tim Denee

Editing by Tom McGrenery

First edition self-published by Matthew Colville in 2010

This edition self-published by Matthew Colville in 2011

All rights reserved. No rights to distribute or retransmit are granted.

Contact the author, or follow the series via
Facebook
.

 

Extra Credits

Find a typo, let me know, come back and see your name below!

Mike McMullen, Raymond Lukes, Heike Langdon, Dan Youhon, Jerry Bennet

 

 

 

 
Special Thanks

The inestimable Tim Denee for the brilliant cover.

The tireless Tom McGrenery for editing.

Natalie, for everything.

Priest

 

 

 

Chapter One

Heden stared at the iron-reinforced door. His heart hammered in his chest and he considered turning around and going back to the inn.

He could do it. He could turn around now while it was still early morning, no one on the street, and come back later. He wanted to do it. He told himself there was no reason not to do it. When he heard the noise inside, the riot of people arguing and struggling, the whole reason for coming here early evaporated.

He looked up and saw the Dawn Moon still spinning in the pale blue sky. Most people’s day didn’t start until the tiny moon winked out. He had another two or three turns of the moon, but he wasn’t going to stand out here for another hour. The noise inside the jail surged.

He’d left early to avoid this. But instead of a mostly empty jail and a handful people he knew, it was full inside. He could hear it. Full of prisoners, and as soon as he put his foot on the stone step and heard them through the door his heart started to race.

The desire to turn around, avoid the issue, avoid the unknown and the conflict was almost overwhelming. He felt ashamed that something so simple, so stupid, could unman him. That helped. The shame gave him a little perspective. And part of him knew that he’d not come back later today. Not after the streets filled up. It was now or tomorrow morning and tomorrow morning meant facing Gwiddon. Lying to him. That pushed Heden over the edge.

Once his heart stopped threatening to burst out of his chest, once the tingling in his fingertips went away, he felt better. He wiped sweat from his forehead. Looking back, he knew that just sitting and thinking, bearing it, caused the unreasoning feeling of terror to pass. It always did. All he had to do was wait. Endure it. He was not going to die from a burst heart, the abbot had assured him. But in the midst of it those thoughts were impossible.

He straightened his cloak, took a long breath to steady himself, and grabbed the thick ring on the door, pulling it open.

A riot of noise and heat and the smells of sweat and blood and oil spilled out. There were maybe twenty or thirty men policed by a small handful of guards inside the jail. It was dark and the ceiling low; the prisoners’ bodies blocked the candlelight inside. The nearest cultists stopped their protest and turned to look at him and the open door.

They were men of different ages and sizes, all wore dirty black robes, and each had an eye patch over his left eye.

Heden stared at them for a moment as he realized he knew what cult these men belonged to. A thin, pale young man, his hands tied in front of him, saw Heden pause in thought and tried to make a break for it. Tried to run through the open doorway and past Heden.

Heden’s instincts took over. The door was heavy and Heden was not a big man. But his compact body was almost all muscle and so he was able, without thinking about it, to yank the door closed again, slamming it into the boy who ran into it at speed.

The boy made a sound like a shout and a grunt, and Heden heard his body hit the floor of the jail.

He opened the door again. The young man writhed on the wooden floor, his nose and mouth bleeding. Heden stepped into the jail and extended his hand to the boy, offering to help him up. The other cultists moved away from him.

“It’s alright,” Heden said, not without sympathy. “I don’t blame you.” The young cultist wasn’t listening; he was crying and holding his bloody face in his bound hands. “It was worth a try.”

“Hey!” a voice called out. Heden looked up and across the jail and saw a guard he didn’t know. Tall and strong with short blond hair and a small piggish nose. He seemed to take pride in the way he looked. How fit he was, how clean his outfit. The watchman stood only a few yards from Heden but the prisoners were packed in so tight that he had to fight to move. He pointed at Heden. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

Heden made a show of looking around, then looked down at the bleeding prisoner and said, “I think he’s talking to you.”

“Not him you dog-faced…hey!” The guard was pressing his way through the prisoners toward Heden when he caught a cultist trying to grab his key ring. The guard recoiled as though the cultist were infected. “You keep the fuck away from me!” He shoved the cultist back into the pack. The little man retreated, frightened, and the guard, seeing his fear, followed up by bashing the man across the face with the back of his gloved hand. The cultist tried to cover his head with his arms. “Don’t you touch me again, you slimy piece of piss!” The guard hit the prisoner again, hard in the gut and the man doubled over.

The guard pulled back to punch the man again, and found his arm restrained by Heden.

“Come on,” Heden said, grabbing the watchman’s raised arm at the elbow. “He’s not going to put up a fight.”

The guard, fully a head taller than Heden, wasn’t listening. He was looking down, wide-eyed at the smaller man who dared restrain him. He snarled and swung at Heden with his free hand.

Heden ducked out of the way and backed up, putting up his hands.

“I’m not your problem,” he said, trying to be pleasant. He didn’t want to hurt the guard. Dom would be mad at him. “You should be watching these folks,” he nodded at the cultists. “Some of them are dangerous.”

“Don’t tell me my job, you little pigfucker!” the guard said, advancing on Heden.

“Wil!” This was a voice Heden recognized. He and the guard Wil both turned and looked at the big man looming toward them.

Sergeant Mathe was of the generation between Heden and the young guard. Heden knew him from his first week on the job ten years ago and even then he was fat. With enough muscle and experience to hold his own in a street fight. He had a mop of red hair and the boyish face some large men kept through their lives.

As he moved toward them, the cultists got out of the way.

“Wil, don’t be messing around with him,” Mathe said frowning and shooing Wil away from Heden. “He’s a priest, for fuck’s sake. You’ll bring bad luck and we need all the help we can get.”

Wil straightened and looked at Heden anew. Usually people looked at the old breastplate over leather armor, the heavy cloak on his back and assumed he was either a soldier or a ratcatcher. Wil looked at the scabbard at Heden’s side.

“Didn’t know he was no priest, Sarge,” Wil said, his face screwed up. “He should’ve said something, coming in here like that with a sword and all, roughing up the prisoners. He should’ve said something!”

“All I saw was him stopping you from doing the roughing up when you should know better.” Mathe stood between the two men. The guards were all taller than their prisoners, Heden noticed. He didn’t know why. Most of the cultists were his size. Whereas before they seemed furtive and eager to act, now the prisoners were careful to ignore the three men standing together.

“Wil, this is Heden,” Mathe said. “He’s a friend. He works for the church.” They all knew which church he meant. “Hey!” Mathe said, remembering something. He slapped Wil on the shoulder. “You remember the Hammer and Tongs?” Wil gave no indication that he did or he didn’t. He seemed interested only in getting away before Mathe yelled at him again. “That’s Heden’s. He bought it. He owns it.”

Wil didn’t seem to know how to react to that and so touched his forefinger and thumb to where his forelock would be, if his hair wasn’t so short, and bowed, making only fleeting eye contact with Heden. “I’ll go help Teagan, will I?” he said to Mathe.

Mathe turned Wil around and pushed him through the prisoners. “He don’t need no help as you well know. Now go and see these little fuckers aren’t getting each other out of their bindings.”

Wil headed off into the crowd, careful not to manhandle any of the cultists in sight of the Sergeant. Mathe watched him as he went.

“Ahh, he’s young,” Mathe said, waving him away. “He don’t remember the Hammer, you keep the place all locked up.” Mathe turned and looked at Heden.

“Wil’s a good man,” Mathe assured him. “Works double shifts. Got a young boy and another on the way.” Heden knew that Mathe would call every guard in the jail a good man, even if the guard in question was an evil-minded thug, as some of them were. But Heden saw no point in pressing the issue. He knew Mathe followed Adun. In Adun’s eyes, hard work was the greatest virtue.

Mathe looked around at the scene before them. “The boys all get nervous with these evil chanting buggers around. Nice to have a priest here for a change,” he said smiling.

“He called me ‘dog-faced,’” Heden said running his hand over his cheek and jaw. “I’m not dog-faced, am I Mathe?”

Mathe smiled and looked down at Heden. “We’re none of us the men we once were.”

“Mmm,” Heden said. “I’m here for your boss.” He looked around the room. He didn’t see Domnal, but he noticed most of the cultists hands were tied with rope. Some were in manacles. None were gagged. “I thought the place would be empty.”

“Heh, yeah,” Mathe said. “A bunch of ratcatchers brought this lot in about a turn ago.”

“For a bounty,” Heden said.

“Yeah, the Castellan put a price on their head back in Bleaker. We forgot all about it.”

“They dropped off thirty cultists, went off to the Castellan to collect the bounty and left you to clean it up?” Heden asked. To his eye, the prisoners arrayed before him were thin, pale shadows of the kinds of zealots he used to deal with. He wanted to believe things were easier for the younger generation, but treacherously suspected he was just getting old.

“Yeah. It’s shit, but it was a slow night anyway.” Mathe smiled as he grabbed a cultist by the neck.

“It
is
shit,” Heden said. “Those ratcatchers are shit, and you should get half that bounty.”

“That’s funny coming from you,” Mathe said with a wide grin as he kicked the legs out from under the fanatic who looked to be Heden’s age, forcing the man onto a bench. “Sit down, you streak of shit!” Mathe hollered, and more than one cultist involuntarily sat on whatever was nearby.

“Yeah,” Heden said. “Where’s Domnal?”

“He’s downstairs with Alaric, getting all the manacles he can find. Said we couldn’t leave this lot tied up with rope.”

Heden raised his eyebrows, impressed.
Good man Domnal,
he thought.

As Mathe and the other guards forced more prisoners onto benches, Heden noticed one guard on the other side of the room. He was tall and lean and seemed disinterested in everything happening around him. He leaned against one of the big wooden pillars holding up the stone ceiling. To Heden’s practiced eye, this guard seemed to take everything in, missing nothing. He wasn’t shouting at the cultists like the other guards. None of the prisoners around him seemed to be putting up any fight. He had a handsome face, and short curly brown hair. He wore a slight smile, like he was observing a secret joke. There was an attitude Heden recognized.

“Who’s the new guy?” Heden asked.

Mathe looked around and realized who he meant. “Teagan!” Mathe shouted the name over the chanting and raving. The man heard his name and looked over. Mathe pointed to Heden and gave the thumb pointing upward gesture.
He’s one of us
, Mathe was saying. Teagan looked at Heden and nodded once, the slight smile not leaving his face. Heden nodded back.

“He ain’t new; been here a year,” Mathe said. As far as Heden was concerned, that was new. “He’s good. Keeps to himself. Seems happy to have a job. Good man in a fight,” Mathe said with obvious respect. “You’d know him if you ever came out of that hole you got yourself locked up in all year ‘round,” he said reproachfully to Heden.

“Yeah,” Heden said without inflection, “Listen, Mathe,” he said, “you need to gag these people.”

“We what?” Mathe said, turning his big round face to look down at Heden. “Gag them?”

“These men are Eseldics,” Heden said. “They serve Saint Eseld of the Eye.” Heden reached out to the cultist Mathe had just pushed down and deftly tore his eye patch off.

The unshaven, undernourished man’s good right eye began to search around wildly, not seeing. He was in an apoplectic ecstasy and no danger to anyone. His left eye, the one the eye patch covered, was missing its upper and lower eyelids. They’d been carved off and the eye underneath had grown putrid and decayed. There was a smell. It was terrible to look at, the flesh around it wincing and writhing with no lid to blink. This is what those who worshiped She of the Maddening Eye, the Eye of Hate, did to themselves. They thought it gave them power. They were right.

Mathe gasped Saint Llewellyn’s name and warded himself by making his right hand into a fist and then covering it, grasping it with his left hand.

“These men are dangerous,” Heden said. He looked down at the acolyte whose patch he’d torn off. “Well, not this one. He’s an idiot. But the ones who haven’t lost their minds will know some potent….”

One of the Eseldics, and Heden now knew this man was no acolyte, brought his hands around from behind his back where they’d been tied. Somehow he’d untied them, or cut the ropes, or someone else had cut them for him.

Heden wasn’t ready. He realized that it was his arrival, Mathe being distracted and talking to him, that gave the enemy priest the opportunity. Mathe had no idea what an Eseldic was, or that some of them could be truly dangerous. Heden should have seen that. Should have seen that since Domnal was elsewhere, he had to take responsibility. He’d regret not doing so for a week afterwards.

BOOK: Priest (Ratcatchers Book 1)
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