“Untitled” (for DRAGONS, editors Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann)
Copyright 2008 Sam Watkins and Diana Gabaldon
“We…I…am not a man without mercy.” He regarded the man before him evenly. “Am I?”
Nitz’s first thought was that the glittering spiked mace hanging from the man’s sash would beg to differ. Whatever other terrifying features the priest might have, his scarred scalp, his clenched jaw, his huge, brutish arms, ceased to have any effect in the presence of the ominous weapon. Its crimson was far deeper than that wrought by the sunlight; it had seen many heathen skulls caved, countless barbarian bones broken, untold numbers of false priest’s faces smashed.
The blood would never fully wash off of it.
“N-no, Father,” Nitz replied, straining to hide the quaver in his voice.
To have even a foot touched by the shadow of Father Scheitzen, the shadow of a Crusader so famed and noble, would make a fully-grown man quiver. When half of the priest’s long shadow was enough to engulf a man such as Nitz, it took all he had to keep his legs from twisting together in an unconscious attempt to control his bladder.
“I am not,” Father Scheitzen nodded in reply, his neck creaking. “Nor are you.” He cast a glance over the smaller man’s head, toward the towering figure behind him. “Nor, I suspect, is she.”
Nitz followed the priest’s gaze to his companion. Father Scheitzen’s shadow did not yet extend so far as to engulf Madeline. Nitz doubted there was a man yet who had grown tall enough to do that. She did not cast a shadow, but rose as one, towering and swaddled in the ominous blackness of her nun’s habit, her head so high as to scrape against the torch ensconced in the pillar she stood alongside.
“Maddy,” Nitz caught himself, “Sister Madeline…is not without mercy, no, Father.” He flashed a smile, painfully aware of the stark whiteness of his teeth in the church’s gloom. “After all, she owes her life to the mercy of others. Who else would have a…creature such as her?”
Nitz took private pleasure in the shudder Father Scheitzen spared for her as Madeline stepped forward.
The torchlight was decidedly unsympathetic. All her face was bared, from the manly square curve of her jaw, to the jagged scar running down her cheek, to the milky discolored eye set in the right of her skull and the grim darkness of her left. The jagged yellow of her smile-bared teeth was nothing more than a sigh, a comma at the end of the cruel joke that was a woman’s visage.
“I suspect you may have inadvertently stumbled upon a solution to a problem that has long plagued the order,” Father Scheitzen murmured, bringing his lips close to Nitz. “There are rumors, complaints of lesser men accompanied by lesser women thinking themselves and each other worthy servants of God. Their mutual weakness feeds off of each other, men raise illegitimate children by tainted nuns.” He spared a glancing shudder for the woman behind them. “I trust you and your companion have no such temptations.”
Nitz hesitated a moment to answer, allowing the image of temptation to fill his mind. He had seen what lay beneath the layers of black cloth: the rolling musculature, the scarred, pale flesh, the biceps that could break ribs with an embrace. The thought of succumbing to “temptation” had not, until this moment, crossed his mind; the foreplay alone could shatter his pelvis.