The Test of Ostra, page 15part #3 of The Brotherhood of Merlin Series
“Pleased that I could increase your coin, Shariff. But I think you will be in mixed company and must compete with other bounty hunters. You know well that Malachai is on my track and may converge in the next day. Pent too is on my trail. But set watch- Pent and Malachai will not share bounties with each other. Hell, he may offer you five hundred gold pence just to rid yourself of me. If I were you, I would think on such an offer. You are well-skilled for a shariff in such a shithole town. But set watch and warrant, you don’t want to be around if Pent and Malachai should butt heads. If I were a betting man, I would put my money on Malachai. You don’t have to be a needless casualty, Shariff.”
Jebediah looks at Talgath with reprimanding condescension as if her were a small child. “I may be a shariff in this hickytown. But I am no shitemonger and can see through your veiled threat. Expect to get as much of the bounty as I am due, Talgath. I’m not tripe. And, would not expect to get to Cortez Municiary before one of those gangs relieved me of you.”
“You’ll be lucky to get five hundred gold pence.”
“Which I will gladly accept. Less stress and little work for me. For five hundred gold pence, I could buy myself a working ranch and leave the law enforcing world behind. So I could.”
“You are savvy, Shariff. My full bounty is but a pittance compared to how much I have hidden away. I could be very generous with those who would aid me. Think on it.”
Jebediah nods his head. “Already have. Too many variables. Too much risk. I will stick with my five hundred gold pence.”
“Fine then, Shariff. Get your five hundred gold pence then. If you can. Perhaps I will find more receptive ears from Malachai and Pence. You may find yourself on the outskirts of any deal and may have to forego any bounty. But, as you say, you have thought long and hard on such matters.”
Jebediah only smiles. “How’s the pain?”
“Brutal and relentless. Does it matter to you?”
“Hard rumor has it you may get to hang on a cross. I’d ken that the pain you are experiencing is nothing compared to a crucifixion. Perhaps, if you are a cooperating prisoner, I may find something for the pain. You ken?”
“Then I will be as docile as a lamb, so I will.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Talgath lies down on his cot and hopes the pain will diminish enough for him to fall asleep.
Chapter 22: Tough Love
Dante sits on Merlin’s apothecary table. Cammilia lays her head in his lap, trying to assuage him the best she can. His knuckles are raw and scabbed, painful to the touch. He opens them to survey the damage and winces the moment they open. The pain of a serious migraine works its way into his temples, causing his receptors to cry out for mercy. The pain will soon subside, but for now he must endure it.
As the pain levels increase with the oncoming migraine, Dante tries to avoid moving much so the painful rib injury doesn’t cause him anymore discomfort. Each breath feels as if tiny shards of glass are impaling him from the inside. The events of the last two days weigh heavy on his mind. He recounts it in his mind, glad it’s over.
Dante throws punch after punch on the boards all morning, smashing through three boards in his first fifteen minutes. As usual, his reward is yet another board. He looks at Savelle as the man places another board in front of him.
“Resume, runt,” commands Savelle.
Dante nods. “Ai, Sai Savelle.”
He fires out several more punches with fiery and waning rapidity until his shoulders ache. Knowing he will at least get a slight rest when Savelle changes the boards, he pushes himself harder. He fires out another punch and breaks through the board. Savelle replaces it, only this time with two more.
“Get through these, runt, and you can stop.”
“Thank God,” mutters Dante.
“What was that runt?” asks Savelle. “Speak up!”
“I was just saying Thank God. That’s all,” says Dante.
“Well, I was going to give you a chance to rest, but not now. No, as soon as you finish breaking those boards, sprint the compound at tempest halt. Atteus will run the drills. Atteus!” He calls.
“Ai,” says Atteus.
Atteus walks over to Savelle and Dante. “Seems this little runt is bored. Think he wants to run wind sprints after breaking these boards and before he begins his bouts.”
“That so, you little pissant runt!” says Atteus. With a lightning quick flick of his wrist, he connects with the back of Dante’s head.
“Meet me out back in ten minutes and we’ll fix that runt!” promises Atteus.
“Why not now?” asks Dante. In reaction, he smashes through both boards with one fierce punch.
Atteus stands only inches from Dante. “Get your ass outside. Now!” says Atteus through clenched teeth.
Dante runs outside and into a torrential downpour of rain. Atteus grabs his whip and runs out after him. As soon as Dante turns around, Atteus comes up to him and swings at him. Dante deflects the blow at the last second.
Atteus smiles. “Well done, runt. Now, the obstacle course! You get behind me and you get a lash. You ken?” He brings up the whip to show him.
Dante nods and smiles. “Give me your worst!” He takes off, not giving Atteus a chance to give him the signal. Atteus yells at him and runs after him. Dante runs around the track, barefooted and jumps up over each of the hurdles. Atteus tries in vain to catch him. “You little fucker!” He yells. “I’ll catch you!”
As soon as Dante clears the hurdles, he runs for the wall in an all-out sprint. When he is a few feet away, he reaches for the top and glides himself over. Dante heads for the swing bars, throwing himself into the first one with reckless abandonment.
He catches it and uses his momentum to swing himself on to the other. He can barely make out Atteus’ ill-tempered threats behind him.
As Dante clears the last swing, he jumps off and heads for the final track lap. Atteus cuts across the field, hoping to cut him off. Dante sees him coming and steps up the pace. Atteus realizes he will miss Dante.
So instead of tackling him, he throws out his bulla whip and catches Dante on the ankle, yanking him to the ground in a splattering of wet mud.
Dante gasps and gags, having the wind knocked out of him. Atteus looks at him with a contentious snarl. He rears up for a heavy-handed punch, but he stops short. A piercing whistle breaks through the pounding rain.
Dante looks up and sees Merlin there at the door to the rectory. He motions Dante inside. “Saved for the time being, runt,” says Atteus.
“Run!” commands Merlin. Dante kicks it in high gear, sprinting towards Merlin as soon as he is inside.
“Sparring drills, Dante. You against Luke and Jericho.”
“Ai,” says Dante.
Still out of breath, Dante walks over to the mat. “Now!” Says Merlin. “Sprint! I didn’t say you could let up any. Did I?”
“Cry pardon, Merlin.” Dante sprints over to Luke and Jericho until he is in the ring with them. He turns towards Merlin to begin. As he does, Luke flies in with a crippling back kick towards his back. It connects violently, and Dante falls face forward into Jericho, who launches with a jab towards his chin.
It connects and Dante goes down, unconscious. Dante is awakened with a noxious odor. As he gets up, he becomes so woozy he vomits.
“And that is why you never keep your back to your opponents, boys! See what happened to Dante? What he did wrong?” Merlin asks.
Great. I’m a cautionary tale. Unfortunately, the day before was even worse.
Dante and his group of dwindling recruits stand on a small precipice that leads to a cave entrance into the active volcano of Maldoon. The smell of rotten eggs is ubiquitous. Every boy has a wet rag around their face to protect themselves from the poisonous fumes. Dotore, Merlin, Atteus and Domithicus have fitted cloth pieces that fit secure over their nose and mouths.
Their companion wolves stand well off to the side. Cammilia whines. Dante shushes her with an admonish
“The fumes will kill you within five minutes,” says Germanicus. “But we won’t let you get that far. This is a maze and an easy one. But like in the test of manna, if you panic, you’ll lose your bearings. If this were a battle, and you did that, you would put everyone at risk. Failure to come out of there in two minutes or fewer and you’re expelled from the program. It’s that simple. You ken?”
“Ai, Dotore,” yell the recruits.
As if to mock him, one of Dante’s excruciating headaches pound through his head with the vicious ruthlessness of a steel wedge. The smell of rotten eggs turns his insides up into a painful, throbbing knot.
One by one, each recruit goes into the cave and comes out the other side, coughing, wheezing, and rubbing at their watering eyes from the sickening fumes. Several recruits vomit the moment they rush out.
And, as expected, Dante is last.
Germanicus peers at Dante. For a few seconds, Dante envisions Dotore with his fleeting image, long enough to observe the conspiratorial wink he gives Domithicus and Atteus. Domithicus swings his fist viciously into Dante’s backside, pushing him forward into Atteus. Atteus then swings hard into Dante’s midsection, eliciting a surprised grunt from him. He finishes with a jab in the face, emitting a spray of blood from his split lip.
Then, they both pick him up and throw him headfirst into the cave. Dante cries out and is disoriented the moment he lands on the ground. The smell of noxious fumes makes him gag and discovers he forgot to put his rag over his face. Although he considers running back and ending this humiliation, something forces him to go on.
As Cammilia barks at him, he heads deeper in the cave, trying to hold his breath as much as possible. He must take small breaths but the blow to his back has winded him. He takes one last breath, inhaling small amounts of the disgusting air and moves forward, still holding his breath.
The maze empties into two paths, one small and one large. He is tempted to take the larger one but hesitates. Instead, he gets on the ground and feels the air. Listening intently, he hears the faint whine of dogs. He walks a few feet into the small tunnel and can feel the clean air push the hairs on the back of his hand up. He goes through there quickly, still holding his breath and follows it until the tunnel becomes almost unbearably cramped.
Defying his natural instincts, he goes through a small opening into which he is forced to contort his body. He passes through it and then finds himself in a much larger tunnel. Fresh air is more apparent. He runs out the tunnel and breathes his first breath in almost two minutes. Cammilia runs up to him. He hugs her fiercely and then vomits afterwards.
“Way to go, runt,” says Germanicus. “Cutting it pretty close. One minute forty-five, but you did it. You’ll live to fight another day.”
Domithicus approaches and tousles his hair affectionately. Merlin gives him an admonishing glance for it.
“Give me your hand,” orders Merlin. Dante can’t help but to observe the tenderness with which Merlin used to administer to him is absent. He grabs his hand roughly and applies the astringent and then the salve. With the rough treatment, the pain seems to abate almost immediately.
Merlin returns to his herbs and potions, grounds a few roots, places them in a filter, and adds boiling water over the filter press. He adds cold water to the cup and presents it to Dante. “Drink this. It will help with the pain in your temples. The pain will abate but I have no doubt it will return. After you drink it, disrobe, and get in the mudbath for twenty minutes.” As usual, Merlin seems distant and standoffish, no longer the sensitive and empathetic figure of times past.
“Merlin, how much longer will this pain continue?”
“I don’t know. If you wish, I will give you something for the pain and I can keep it at bay indefinitely. But you must leave this place. If you wish to be one of us, then deal with the pain. This life is hard. Did you not think it so?”
Dante shakes his head vehemently. “No, Merlin. I don’t want that.”
Merlin nods. “That is well, Dante. Pray. Persevere. Take comfort in your success here. You are now one of the elite. Hold Cammilia close to your heart. But do not expect encouragement reserved for pubes. You are no longer among them. Put away childish expectations and take up your cross. We all have ours to bear.”
“Ai, Merlin. Set watch and warrant, this is my place.”
Merlin nods. He is tempted to put a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder, but signs of affection and contact are forbidden during the Test of Ostra. So it was for Merlin and so it will be for Dante. It will make or break him. Only time will tell.
Chapter 23: Mettlesome Sorceress
Tennyson and two of Herod’s bodyguards, Philippe and Graeder, escort Morgana to the market outside of Ruth. They wait patiently for one of the market’s regulars, Lonnie. She shops there every Friday at precisely 9:00 am.
Although Morgana has no need to purchase anything, she inspects a variety of produce. Fresh strawberries, razzle berries, halenuts, wellen, poppyseed melons, hinther root, ginger and kale. To allay any suspicions, she fills her basket with much of the fruit. The money is of little consequence.
She looks over at Phillipe and Tennyson in a reproachful glare. “You said she is a creature of habit, Phillipe?” asks Morgana.
He nods. “Ai, my lady. Every Friday at nine am. Just like clockwork. Set watch and warrant it so.”
“You’d better, you ruffian. If you’re wasting my time, I’ll have you strung up-“
“She’s here,” says Tennyson.
Morgana gives Phillipe a sort of apologetic shrug. “Cry pardon I doubted you, Philippe.”
“No need Mais,” says the dutiful Phillipe.
Lonnie browses through the fruits and smiles at all who meet her gaze. Several men tip their hats and smile at her, trying to decide if she is without a husband. Her long, curled and upturned locks frame the perfect oval face. Lonnie’s sapphire and violet eyes radiate warmth and sensuality. Her cheekbones are high and aristocratic, her nose small and delicate and her lips, full and sensuous.
She is the consummate beauty. Morgana feels intimidated by her looks. She casually moves closer to her and tries to pick up on her thoughts as well. As she does, a smile crosses her lips. When she is within talking distance, she speaks.
“Good day. You are Lonnie, are you not? Daughter-in-law to Pontius Selenius.”
Lonnie nods. “Ai, Mais. Indeed I am. And who might you be?”
“My name is Chastity, wife of Herod Antipaz, councilman.”
At the mention of Herod, Lonnie stiffens. Morgana puts a hand to her shoulder. “It is well, Mais. I know well that Herod and Pontius are not allied with one another. I try to stay out of politics myself.”
Lonnie immediately warms. “Ai. Me as well. My father-in-law does not speak well of Herod Antipaz, but such does not concern me either. Perhaps he takes to heart vicious and pervasive rumor that makes circles around those with such power.”
Morgana smiles coyly. “Ai. Tis true. No reason why we can’t make friendly acquaintance.”
Lonnie smiles back. “Ai.” Morgana extends her hand and they shake warmly.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance. You are beautiful beyond measure. I suppose you could say I was naturally drawn here.” She says as she laughs.
“Ai. You are too kind. And likewise.”
Morgana subtly breaches her mind. Lonnie doesn’t notice it. The pervasive sense of loneliness is unmistakable. “My husband’s business takes him far away, to be absent from me much of the time. I find myself lonely at times. I wonder; do you find it the same with you?”
Lonnie nods. “Ai. Find it very lonely at times. I don’t know if you’ve heard the rumors, but-“
Morgana cuts her off. “As you say, the rumors are pervasive.”
“So, you have heard of my husband, Talgath?”
“Ai. I cry pardon for circumstances beyond your control. It is much to bear.” She hugs her and Lonnie receives the warm embrace. Tears begin to gl
“It is not often we meet someone who can relate to our circumstances. Is it not so?” asks Morgana with feigned sympathy.
Lonnie nods. “Ai.” She pauses. “As is the custom, if my husband is not heard from in the next six months, I am allowed to dissolve our marital union and find another mate.”
“And what if your husband should make an unexpected appearance?” asks Morgana. “What then? Would you consider reconciliation?”
“Wouldn’t consider that much of a possibility, Mais. My husband is a wanted criminal. If they apprehend him, he will be summarily executed. It amounts to the same. In six months, I’ll be a free woman regardless, either through abandonment or death. Talgath has always had a restless spirt, so he has.”
“Yes, but what if extraordinary circumstances allowed your husband to return to you?”
“They would have to be quite extraordinary. If, by some slim chance, that occurred, I would meet with my estranged husband as I am bound to him through union and matters of the heart.”
“That is well.”
Lonnie looks at Morgana curiously. “Mais, tell me do you not know of some impending circumstances that concern my husband?”
“Rumors. Hard rumors but unsubstantiated. It is possible they may yet bear merit. My husband has ears etched in the grindstone and he is most privy to all matters, far and wide. Perhaps it is fate that has brought us together. If there is further news, would you allow me to call on you? I would consider it my duty-as a hopeless romantic and good neighbor to bring it to you.”
Lonnie nods her head enthusiastically as the tears run down her cheeks. “Ai, Mais. I would consider it a great favor to keep me privy, so I would.”
Morgana embraces her and kisses her cheek. “Then I pray that I have news for you at tempest halt.”
“Gratitude, Mais,” replies Lonnie.