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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 10 "Mortals" (part 5)

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nordmann
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20120619
PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 10 "Mortals" (part 5)

A large flock of small birds, a swarm of black against the grey, circled high overhead and escorted the rider as he plied the lanes back to Dublin. After a while the surroundings grew vaguely familiar and Titus realised that he had joined the route that Malachy’s carriage had taken coming back from his visit to Jervis two days before. When gaps in the hedgerow afforded it he could soon see ahead of him the wooded hill of Raheny and the grey gable of its ancient church at its summit. The memory of the fine meal he had eaten in Shiels’s inn on that occasion prompted his stomach, despite having been sated only recently, to grumble. He decided he would take the opportunity to pay another visit to the innkeeper, not only to pacify his stomach but to inform him that his fellow practitioner in Dublin had indeed confirmed that we would be more than pleased to purchase a sample of his wife’s ale. Besides, the news might help assuage the suspicion that Titus was sure Shiels felt towards him after all his questioning from before. The innkeeper, despite himself, had proven to be a valuable source of information and Titus instinctively felt that this was a man who he should try to keep as such, however unwilling, should he need it in the future. Should amends of sorts be needed it would be best to make them now.

If Shiels harboured any lingering doubts about the mapmaker however they were not obvious. He remembered and welcomed Titus heartily, and when he heard of the new purchaser for his wife’s beer he even insisted affably that the fare he set out before Titus be considered a token of gratitude and that Titus should put his money back into his pocket. Titus responded by helping Shiels write out a contract of sale for his first despatch of ale to Collier which he promised he would deliver on his behalf. When they spoke afterwards he was careful to avoid interrogative questioning. Their short discussion centred instead on the imminent Easter holiday and the disruption to trade it posed for small businesses such as Shiels’s own. In Ireland, unlike in England, Easter still meant almost an entire week of suspended commercial activity in which at first remorse at the imminent death of the Saviour and then exultation on His resurrection provided Irishmen with reason enough to absent themselves from their more earth-bound concerns and immerse themselves in indulging the emotions contingent to celebrating their ultimate salvation by simultaneously satiating their senses and their guts. “A week when one collects more false bills of credit from bankers as from their customers,” was how Shiels summed it up, “and the divil of a chance of settling up afterwards. I sometimes think our Good Lord would have made just as good a point if he’d stayed dead! At least the holiday would have been shorter.” This remark was followed by a hasty sign of the cross, though if Shiels suspected he was talking blasphemy his concern for unpaid bills obviously outweighed that concern. Titus, with true London sentiments, could only agree that the disruption was excessive in both length and cost to honest traders such as themselves, and said as much to Shiels. Nor was this pretence on his part – in truth he was only glad that he and Flitch had organised the withdrawal of cash on their first day. The chance of brokered transactions when it came to money would not occur again for over a week. Shiels, delighted to be talking to a kindred spirit, had then insisted that their shared sentiments and his new business venture be toasted and it had eventually taken all of Titus’s powers of convincing to get the man to limit the toast to three whiskeys each.

It was a contentedly full mapmaker who therefore remounted his horse to make his way in no particular hurry down the gentle incline of the Old Howth Road running from Raheny to the small stone bridge over the Tolka River, the ancient boundary between countryside and city in its northern climes. A strong wind had whipped up while he had been inside and it blew ever more chilly as he proceeded along the exposed North Strand. The chatter of the birds above could still be heard nevertheless above its murmur. Had they waited for him? He could see despite their height in the skies above him that they were martins, and at a glance thousands of these harbingers of summer, in the countryside a happy time of toil and bounty but in the city a cruel and trying time with its own peculiar hazards when dry weather increased the number of fires and hot and damp weather presaged plague. Titus regarded the grim steeples before him in the distance and they served to reaffirm his earlier thought. He had had enough of cities for now. Tomorrow, whatever news might await him, he would be pleased to quit this town at last.

The route along the riverbank had become almost familiar to him now. Beyond the Strand the road skirted Lord Drogheda’s great Dublin estate and wound its way down through the Lots into the old St Mary’s Abbey grounds. When he reached the river he paused for a moment in reflection by the warehouse, site of Sarah’s father’s murder, and then hastened onwards towards the butchers’ market which, like so much in this part of the town, had been built by and named after Ormonde. Then, on a whim, instead of crossing the river at Essex Bridge he continued on up its northern bank along the route that Robinson told him had been set aside for the construction of the grand avenue that now alas was never going to happen.

Eventually the city petered out where the wide river suddenly narrowed into a series of rapids that cascaded down through the large tract of land which Ormonde had set aside as the Phoenix Park, his own private hunting grounds. It was the water here that had given the park its name. ‘Fionn Uisce’ or ‘Bright Water’ was the term from which the corruption ‘Phoenix’ had been derived, or so Cormac had told him as they had sat watching the sun going down over the park that first evening they had met.

It was to Cormac that he was making now – to say goodbye to the old man and to thank him for his help. Work was in progress building a bridge just beyond the rapids, and in the meantime a ferry equipped to carry a horse and rider was in operation at the site. Titus used it to cross to the south bank where he alighted at a small wharf. The boy who helped him lead his horse from the raft smiled broadly when Titus tipped him a ha’pence but his words of gratitude were alien to Titus. Probably Gaelic, but for all he knew the boy might have spoken Danish – nothing surprised him much anymore about this town.

The land here was heavily wooded and grew steeper as it followed the bends of the river upstream. Indeed the journey west through the valley at this point was deemed a major attraction of this city and was lauded in pamphlets and travellers’ missals devoted to the subject of Dublin. Cormac had told him that there were many who claimed that this in fact was the first real Viking Dublin, the original settlement of its founders, on the higher ground upriver from where they moored their longboats, a district which in their pagan way they had declared to be hallowed, a place of dark ritual, burial and most likely their original fort. In fact legend had it that the Knights Templar, on whose land the Royal Hospital had been built, had found the grave of a giant warrior when they were building their monastery there in the time of Strongbow, the Norman knight whose arrival had set in motion the English claim to own this land and all the woes that this claim had brought with it. The ancient warrior had been buried with all his armour, his weapons and much gold ornamentation, showing him to be a great Norse King. But others said that he was much older, probably even predating the Gael, from a time indeed when Ireland was governed by mythical giants and sorceresses.

However Cormac’s story hadn’t ended there. The knights, no strangers to battle themselves, had reverentially re-buried the giant within their chapel with all his goods but had taken his great gold shield as their own and hung it over their altar. When, in time, the order of the Templars itself was crushed during the reign of Edward their priory was given over to the Hospitaller Knights of St John of Jerusalem, a powerful, wealthy and avaricious lot. The shield alone that they inherited would have excited their curiosity as to what else lay within the Templars’ vaults and it was taken as said by locals that they had most likely revisited the warrior’s remains, this time with less reverence than their predecessors. In any case, when the workers building Robinson’s Hospital demolished the remains of their priory and unearthed the crypt some years ago in the chapel ruins it was common knowledge that Ormonde himself had closed and sealed the construction while he and others privately opened the vault to see for themselves what it contained. Of what was found none but that select few knew. A few days later Ormonde had ordered resumption of the demolition and the workers found the crypt empty, though whether it had been emptied by Ormonde or by the Hospitallers was anybody’s guess, most favouring the theory that it had long since been emptied of its valuables and that Ormonde had been disappointed. If so, then the Knights of St John’s own demise during Henry’s closure of the monasteries had simply added fuel to the rumour of a curse befalling any who disturbed the ancient chieftain’s bones, a doom now attributed by many who believed that treasure had indeed been found in 1670 to Ormonde and his ‘excavators’. If such was the case it had certainly not deterred the Ormonde from riding his luck in the intervening years, though Titus had reckoned wryly upon hearing Cormac’s story that it seemed the old duke’s good fortune had indeed at last run its course, whether it was due to supernatural malignancy or one more rooted in less divine and far more modern sorcery – politics being, as Titus suspected, the last refuge of the breed.

The ride to the Hospital from here was short - a winding lane through the old Templar estate climbed the hill to the summit on which it stood. Therefore when one turned the final bend and emerged from the larch, beech and willow trees that lined the path, one was rewarded with a sudden view of Robinson’s masterpiece in its most splendid aspect. The private gardens which so galled Cormac led the eye forward up to the great clock tower and spire of the Hospital, perched like a temple of antiquity on an Etruscan hilltop. Given the nature of the two previous owners of the site - the Templars, who had suffered annihilation amidst charges of pagan idolatry and heathen sorcery, and the Hospitallers, whose reputation for lavish opulence and secular power in their heyday had earned them universal odium - Titus appreciated Robinson’s irony in putting such a structure where it was. The symmetrical lines and elegant simplicity of Robinson’s building, a temple in its own right, but dedicated to the rational order of the universe as elucidated by Locke, Hobbes and Spinoza stood in marked ironic contrast to what it had replaced, a repository of superstitions and a palatial folly of those who claimed to serve their creator but served best their own thirst for power and wealth. Of the fact that this was intended irony he now had no doubt, having met its creator.

While waiting for Cormac, who was being fetched by one of his gardeners, Titus stood with his horse at the main door. From here he could look down to the east gate and to the bushes from which Sarah had been plucked like a rabbit by his friend, then beyond through the rising smokestacks of the breweries to the spires and rooftops of the teeming city. At this distance the city looked asleep, a benign giant curled in repose along the river’s banks, shrouded in its own smoke and the Liffey mist that lent it an air of sanctity and peace belied by closer inspection. Yes, he would be glad indeed to quit this city. Dangerous and all as his mission might be, at least in the country the pace was slower.

A door opening behind him alerted him to the arrival of his old companion. Cormac admired Titus’s horse for a few minutes and then led him to the bench on which they’d sat together when first they’d met. The Hospital was very much deserted this day. Most of its denizens had left to attend services in and around the city celebrating Holy Thursday, the more senior inmates and officials being honoured guests of Lord Arran at the grandest service of all, the devotions at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Titus brought Cormac up to date on his news and just as before, Cormac sat and listened with hardly an utterance as he spoke. Like Imelda O’Carolan however, he also expressed an interest in O’Neill and his troupe, and twice interrupted Titus for more detail of the exchange. At the mention of O’Donnell Cormac closed his eyes and shook his head, muttering something in Irish to himself that sounded none too pleasant and not at all in accordance with Imelda’s view of the man. When Titus had finished the old man asked could he see the ring that Lady O’Carolan had given him. Titus held out his hand and Cormac took it gently, gazing at the faded motif. His eyes betrayed no emotion and the tremble in his hands could be put down to age, but Titus reckoned that what his friend saw was more than just a small signet ring. He released his hold and sank back on the bench, his back against the granite wall and his gaze averted to the heavens.

“Oh Titus, mo buachaillín bocht,” he sighed, “it’s a strange road that brought you here and a stranger one yet that you’re on.”
“I couldn’t agree more with you my old friend.”
“But there’s good already coming from it boy. That little duckling we bagged has proven to be a falcon has she not?”
Titus smiled at the thought. “She has, Cormac. Am I doing right in letting her come with me though?”
“You’d be doing quare wrong in stopping her is my opinion Titus.” He winked at Titus, but then grew serious. “And this neatly brings me to something I’ve been struggling to phrase. What I’m going to ask you now will seem strange, so think before you answer.”
Titus looked at the old man. “What is it, friend?”
“You must let me come too.”
Titus had not been expecting this and his gasp betrayed this. Cormac raised his hand.
“No, listen to me. I’m rotting here in this place, Titus my friend. I came back to this country with vain hopes of pleasure and diversion in my old age but found I have nothing to my name but a promise of refuge in this … this … glorified charnel house! Old bones and minds, rotting away in bodies not yet dead. I expected to find contentment here, reliving old times with others who trod the same weary path as myself, but look! I’m consigned to the kitchens for believing our good Lord had a mother deserving of devotion, and nice though my quarters are, I find I’ve more in common with the scullery boys than I have with the decrepits installed here. Nothing but bloody invalids and wastrels hiding from the storm that is gathering, using their advanced years and this shelter to disguise the fact that in their maturity they have grown cowardly. I have never run from a fight in my life, and I’m damned if I’ll doing so now. But let me at least meet you in Armagh, Titus. There’s a delegate of the Hospital heading up there next week on an errand to the bishop and I can offer to accompany him. It’s a town I have a wish to see again and I believe I could be of use to you there.”
Titus’s protests were met with stronger from Cormac. He assured Titus that he could, and would, pay his own way in the venture. He would not be a burden and would be of as much help as he could. His final statement clinched it though. “And sure if I’m to die, and the day can’t be far off, what better place to die but in the spot where Patrick himself is laid to rest? Please God he’ll grant me some usefulness to others between now and then too.”
In the end Titus found himself acquiescing to the old man’s request, and in truth the prospect of Cormac’s company in Ulster did not displease him at all.

For a second time that week they watched the daylight disappear as the sun sank behind the park woodland beyond. But this time, Titus thought, things could not be more different. That evening he had been like a frightened deer facing the archer’s taut bow, watching startled as his fate conspired to approach and annihilate him. Now he felt he had at least taken the reins of some of that destiny into his own hands. Things were still happening in ways that surprised and confused him, even distressed him, but now they all seemed part of a plot that he at least half understood, even if he was yet to properly influence. Cormac was simply asking for the same right to control his destiny, and who was he of all people to deny the man? He agreed to meet his friend in Armagh, hopefully a week from then, and the old man had embarked on reminiscing about the times he had visited Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital in his youth. Then, he said, it had been in the heartland of a resurgent Gaelic overlordship, a beacon of liberty in the darkness of an English dominance that threatened to extinguish that light forever. Cromwell and his aftermath had carried out that threat and had extinguished the beacon with a cruel finality. The city now represented yet another example of England’s hegemony – its Gaelic inhabitants long since suppressed and its last Catholic Archbishop, Oliver Plunkett, hung drawn and quartered after a sham trial in London only a few years ago at the height of the Popish Plot. Any traveller heading there these days, of whatever faith, did so with some trepidation if they were wise. Memories were long in that part of the land and what was remembered with most bitterness and clarity was a century or more of butchery by both sides locked in a seesaw struggle over who ruled this ancient and noble corner of Ireland. Yet Cormac’s animation at the prospect of going to Armagh seemed unaffected by such worries, and Titus was left hoping that his agreement to the old man’s wishes was not another mistake on his part after all.

He parted from Cormac as the last light faded, and headed down the Old Kilmainham Road back towards St James’ Gate. Since his ‘abduction’ by O’Neill and his men last night he had opted to carry the pistol that Flitch had borrowed from Quinn on or near his person at all times. It had been in his saddlebag all day but now he removed it and placed it inside his coat. It was his turn, he reckoned, to inflict a nasty surprise on anyone who would try the same with him. He needn’t have bothered. Thanks to the holy day that was in it, the evening streets were devoid of their usual small population of humanity’s flotsam and jetsam. Religion was a funny thing, Titus thought. It stood at the root of much of its practitioners’ woes by pitting one pious soul against another in a divisive struggle to prove one right at the other’s expense. Yet at other times it acted as one of society’s great levellers, drawing prince and pauper together into places of worship – admittedly into separate parts of the church, and even separate churches – but giving both of them the notion that somehow a higher power assured them that life’s woes were but a stepping stone to salvation in another world. There were times when Titus thought that if as much effort was placed in acquiring salvation through constructing bridges between minds while still on this earth as was currently put into constructing temples of worship to plead for it after death, the world would be a far better place. The bells of Christchurch and St Patrick’s rang out in mocking defiance of his opinion as he rode alone through the deserted market of St Thomas Street and into the city.

The castle, as Cecil had warned him yesterday, was equally deserted. The only lights indicating someone in residence were in some servants’ quarters, the constabulary house and Arran’s rooms. Titus passed the few sentries on duty and approached his own quarters with not a little weariness. Before he could reach them however he heard the voice he’d been hoping to avoid again in this town. Peering into the tallow-lit darkness he could just about make out the shape of a tall soldier with close cropped hair. It was Captain Briar. He was standing in the entrance to the Long Gallery. The smell of smoke indicated that both he and his pipe had been there a while. “Good evening, Mr Perry.”
“Good night, Captain. You catch me on the way to my bed.”
“A small word first. Here, have a smoke.” He handed Titus a clay pipe from his pocket. It had already been filled with tobacco.
“No thanks Captain. It’s not a practise I’ve ever engaged in.”
“They say it helps crystallize the lungs, guards against infection. Maybe you should consider it?”
“I’ve noted your concern. Thank you, but no.”
Briar blew a plume of exhaled smoke in Titus’s direction. “Why are you still here? Have your plans changed?”
“I told you, my plans are flexible.”
“Well, no matter. You are here now which is what matters to me. There are things I wish to know and I’d advise you to answer me.”
“Can’t they wait until morning?”
Briar seemed suddenly uneasy. “No they cannot. For a start, where is your secretary?”
“He’s gone at my behest to the county boundary. I didn’t give him a set itinerary, he could be anywhere at the moment.” Titus hoped his voice didn’t betray his lie. If it did, Briar gave no indication of it.
“We found something that might belong to you today, or some one I should say. It seems you had more than one secretary and neglected to tell me.”
Titus felt his stomach clench. He tried to keep some composure but he was sure that Briar had noticed. “I wasn’t aware that I had lost anyone captain.”
“A young buck by the name of Master Quinn. He says he works for you. He was found trespassing on private property and arrested. Surveying for you, was he?” Another puff of smoke blew towards Titus.
The tension in Titus’s stomach was palpable. With great effort he kept his tone even. “I like to employ enthusiastic assistants. Where was he arrested and where is he now?”
“Not far from here, on land owned by the Earl of Drogheda. It’s a private estate and clearly marked as such. Yet we found him in the grounds of the rector’s house there with a crowbar, lantern and a rather decorative but sharp dagger on his person. Hardly just taking the evening air I’m sure you’ll agree and if he was surveying he chose strange tools and an even stranger time of the day to engage in his profession. He’s in Newgate now.”
“Newgate? For trespass? He’s only a youth for god’s sake. Isn’t that a bit harsh?”
“Let’s just say he offered a little too much resistance and too little explanation for his activities. We decided he might be more amenable to telling us the truth after a night in our local gaol.”
“We? Wasn’t that a bit far out of town for a routine patrol captain? You really do excel yourself in your efforts to safeguard us I feel. I’ll talk to Lord Arran tomorrow and get this straightened out. I’m sure he’ll wish to commend you and your men for your zeal in applying yourself to your duties.”
Briar shot him a dark look. “You can do what the hell you like, Mr Perry, and where I go in pursuit of my duties is none of your business. But if you must know, there are authorities in this city other than what you presume. The Earl of Drogheda pays well to have his lands patrolled, and I and my men oblige him in that regard. Good job too, as I discovered tonight.”

Titus shivered at the thought of poor Jack incarcerated in Newgate’s cells. The functionaries of that place had a reputation for cruelty that surpassed even their notorious namesakes in London. It was said that on a quiet summer night the wails of the hapless souls incarcerated within it could be heard clear across the city. The gaol was built against the wall near the city’s New Gate, hence its name, but was approached via a network of lanes from St Thomas Street and St Nicholas Street. The names of some of these lanes - Hangman’s Alley, and Gallows Walk, not to mention the innocuously titled Schoolhouse Lane that locals had cruelly re-christened “Dead Man’s View” as it was visible from the windows of the cells in which condemned men were doomed to spend their last hours on this earth - bore testament to the fate that awaited many at their end. Trinity students and the more exalted transgressors of Dublin were normally spared its tyranny. Their incarceration, if ever it was meted out, was invariably in the more salubrious confines of the debtors’ prison or the castle until their release could be paid for. Newgate was a horror reserved for the lowest stratum of society, or those deemed traitorous or treasonous. The likes of Jack Quinn could safely assume that their youthful excesses would never result in them sharing that horror.

Briar was taking obvious delight from Titus’s equally obvious discomfort. “Thanks for confirming he’s one of yours though. We weren’t quite sure when we found him, though when we asked him the same question his look betrayed that he might be all right. Well, you can have him when we’re finished with him tomorrow. You see, we’re aware that your secretary Mr Flitch has gone missing, and that you choose to disguise this fact with lies. Your young Mr Quinn was searching for him, wasn’t he? And why, I wonder, was he doing so there? Another question, what was your business with Lady O’Carolan today?”
“I congratulate you on you and your officers’ enthusiasm Captain Briar, though I feel your zest for enquiry is steered more by your imagination than deductive logic. It is true that Mr Flitch has failed to report back to me as we arranged, though I dare say the solution to that may be found in a whiskey bottle and not in any matter that concerns you or your colleagues. My ‘lie’ in that respect was designed only to protect the man’s reputation, not to mislead you. And I did indeed ask the lad Quinn to scout around for sight of him. If his zeal in approaching that task matched your own in pursuing yours then I suggest you might either reappraise your treatment of him or leastways see fit to examine your own methods! As for Lady O’Carolan, I’m interested in all the landowners in that part of the country at present. As I’m sure in your zeal your enquiries must have also revealed to you …”
Briar’s patience snapped. “Don’t take me for a fool, Perry! We know you’ve been there twice in as many days. You were seen leaving both times.”
“Then you’ll know I left in the company of Sir John DeLacey on the first occasion. It was he who introduced me to the good lady. Today’s visit was for more professional reasons. Now Briar, I’ve really had enough …”
Briar’s pretence at composure was diminishing with every word. He was fast becoming enraged. Titus subtly moved a hand over the comforting feel of the loaded pistol under his jacket. “I couldn’t give a flying fart for how much you’ve had, Perry! You’ll have more than you bargained for before long in any case!” His face was twisted with fury and his arms visibly twitched in readiness to land a blow. Suddenly he seemed to check himself. He reached out slowly and grabbed Titus fiercely by the shoulder, drawing the mapmaker’s face right over to his own so that their noses almost touched. Staring fiercely into Titus’s eyes, his reeking breath nauseously overpowering his prey, he literally spat his words into Titus’s face. “You’re a blasted meddler, Perry, and you’ve meddled in affairs way beyond what you could ever understand. We know you are not acting alone, but don’t worry, we’ll find out what we need to know from your accomplices.” He let Titus go with a push of disgust. “Go to bed now, Mr Perry! Sleep well!” The latter remark bore as little resemblance to a cheery ‘goodnight’ as was humanly possible. Then, with only the briefest of pauses to aim a spittle at Titus’s feet and pointedly straighten his tunic, he strode off into the darkness. His footsteps echoed across the cobbles of the empty courtyard and a distant snapped command to the sentries to open the gate indicated that he had left the castle grounds.

In his room, and shaken by this ominous encounter, Titus poured a glass of brandy from the decanter that had been left by his bed, a thoughtful gesture on behalf of Cecil he reckoned. His mind struggled to understand what Briar had said. What the hell had Jack Quinn been doing prowling around a rector’s house in Drogheda’s estate that evening? Was Flitch there? Had it anything to do with Flitch at all? He tried not to think of Jack’s incarceration in Newgate and consoled himself with Briar’s admission that he would be freed in the morning. But what did it all mean? He had heard that the prison governor was open for pleas two hours after dawn and resolved to head straight there upon rising. In the meantime, he tried to tell himself, it would be better to get some rest. He sipped the brandy he had poured. It was surprisingly sweet – a French import he assumed, that stung the throat at the first sip but thereafter slipped down quite nicely, so he poured himself a second, all the better to calm his nerves and usher in some much needed sleep. As he lay on his bed and welcomed the prospect of benign unconsciousness he found himself musing over the more general implications of this latest brush with Captain Briar. Each encounter with this vile man seemed to precede a dramatic and detrimental twist in affairs that was never welcome. What catastrophe awaited him now, he wondered?
He hadn’t got long to find out, as sleep surprisingly quickly – and completely – overtook him.

Titus had spoken often to soldiers who had faced death in battle. Not the prospect of death, but death itself. Its morbid hand had brushed them, but miraculously spared them. Saved by a lucky ricochet, or the intervention of a colleague who took the bullet himself, the men who had faced such seemingly unavoidable and imminent extinction all said one thing – it was as if time itself had been suspended almost to a standstill. Once, over an ale, a soldier had told Titus how he had marched into gunfire with two colleagues, one on either side. He swore that the bullets which felled both of his companions were seen by all three as they approached, looking as benign as butterflies lazily wending their way in their direction. The sound of the battle had all but disappeared and the only sound to be heard was the rushing wind of the pellets as they advanced through an air rendered almost to liquid in its consistency. All three felt that they could have easily dodged the oncoming bullets if they wished, but they simply chose not to do so. It was as if God himself had intervened to tell them that they could not prevent their own destinies but they at least had a few moments to make their peace with Him before they were dispatched. The man had said how ineffably good he felt at that moment, as if such generosity on the part of his maker was final proof that we lived in a world designed to His will after all. There was compassion and understanding in this universe that the worst ravages of inhumanity held no power over. When the bullets hit his colleagues and he was left standing unscathed it was then as if time had suddenly resumed its normal course. The feeling of blissful peace that had just overwhelmed him was rapidly replaced by terror again and he had dived to the ground in absolute fear for his life. Though the man spoke with shame of his cowardice he spoke in awe of the moment before it. Titus had reckoned the man had drunk too much ale, or had glorified and exaggerated the experience through the constant recounting of it. He was to learn this night however that what the man had described to him was an experience that was common for all to whom it happened.

He was not aware even that he was waking up. One moment he was dreaming of something intangible, just out of reach of logic or substance. The next moment he was watching in a detached way as the night sky outside turned to daylight in an instant. That was odd enough but what happened next was even odder. A blindingly white frost appeared on the window and grew at an alarming rate across its panes in a beautiful roseate pattern. Long slivers of rime branched out in an instant across the expanse of glass. And then it snowed. Or so it seemed. The window itself it appeared had turned to snow and its flakes were falling. But not vertically as snowflakes are normally wont to do – rather they flew horizontally across the room and in Titus’s direction. He watched the crystals ply their crazy haphazard way through the air and it seemed to take an eternity for them to approach. So engrossed was he in their progress that he almost left it too late to take shelter beneath the heavy counterpane before the first deadly slivers of glass tore the skin from the fingers that clenched hard on the quilt stretched over his face.

The sound that came next was tremendous. It was less a noise and more a living thing. It gripped his insides and twisted them grotesquely. It held his ears and thumped them mercilessly. It pushed his eyeballs so far back into their sockets that he would have screamed in pain. But he couldn’t, as it had gripped his lungs in a vice and squeezed every last ounce of breath out of them. There was no escaping it. It grabbed his ankles where he lay and defied his legs to move from its grasp. It sucked all the movement from his elbows, wrists and shoulders so that his arms were immobilised and his shoulders were pinned to the bed on which he lay - or what was left of the bed. The heavy counterpane was already rapidly disintegrating into a cloud of tattered rags and feathers, bursting into countless shreds like firework squibs in a beautiful but terrifyingly painful pattern of chaotic destruction. Even the mattress beneath him had assumed supernatural qualities. It writhed and heaved with a life of its own like a demented beast and eventually threw him from its back like a child from a frightened pony. And as he landed heavily on something mercifully solid which he assumed to be the floor he instinctively held his hands over his head as the whole mess came down in a deadly hail of glass, splinters and metal shards.

After yet another eternity he noticed that the hail had grown more benign, composed as it was now by the detritus of the bedding, which descended in a large cloud about him, beautifully illuminated by the moonlight that filtered through the hole that had once been his window and which had mercifully won back the night from the artificial daylight that had usurped its place before. Before the terror could take hold there was a flood of relief.

He had survived. But what?

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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 10 "Mortals" (part 5)

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