The Meddiss raised his arms and silenced the crowd. “I accuse this woman of impersonating the Goddess Pele. She and her followers are false gods. They have angered the true gods. Only by casting them into Monte Caldo’s flames can we appease the mountain’s spirit!”
The crowd answered with shaking fists and shouts of rage.
Nick shook his head. “Aw, man!”
* * * * *
Neil slipped away from the mob and broke into a stable. Pungent equine odors reminded him of Glensheelin’s gentle horses. It seemed years had passed since he’d been there, leaning on the paddock fence and stroking the brown mare’s head. Sadly doubting he’d ever see Glensheelin or Ireland again, he backed into the shadows and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
A dozen empty wooden stalls lined the walls on either side of a watering trough. The building also housed gardening tools, sacks of grain, and bales of hay. An array of harnesses and other leather rigging hung on nearby metal pegs.
He meant to create a diversion by somehow setting fire to the hay, somehow getting Talty and the others away, and somehow killing the Meddiss. Right now, the only weapon he had was Kavie’s bow and quiver. While good for sniping, arrows were useless at close quarters. Neil was considering leaving them behind when the sound of someone running toward the stable had him scrambling for cover.
He ducked into a stall and set the bow and quiver on the hay-strewn floor. Certain that he could rely on his fists if trouble arose, he peeked out.
Pazzia rushed into the stable. Gasping for breath, he leaned on his walking stick and pushed his red hat from his eyes. “A horse! I must find a horse!”
Thucer entered the stable behind Pazzia and cornered him. “What are you doing in here, old man?”
Whether the tutor sensed a threat or not, he held his ground. “I must return to the Castagna and alert Anza to this disaster. Please, good sir. Help me find a horse.”
“And just what do you think that coward Anza would do?”
Thucer shoved Pazzia’s chest. His red hat and walking stick went flying. He stumbled backward into the harnesses and crashed to the floor in a jingle of reins and bridles.
“You’re a traitor, old man.” With the same smile he’d worn when he’d murdered Hulch, Thucer drew his sword from its scabbard.
Neil rolled from the stall and sprang to his feet gripping Pazzia’s walking stick. He gauged the stick’s weight and decided he had an acceptable bata. Hefting the wood with Fian confidence, he sidestepped until he stood between Thucer and the bewildered Pazzia.
Thucer’s bug-eyed gaze followed him. If he tried to shout for help, Neil would strike to kill, though he guessed the swaggering egotist wouldn’t do so.
He was right.
“So you came back, friend. Ruggero said you would.” Thucer lowered his sword and
laughed. “Pele’s pet threatens me with a stick!”
“You’re good at killing boys and old men. Try me.” Neil’s voice sounded icy and distant. His Fian soul pulsed with radar-like vigilance. He knew when Thucer would move before Thucer did.
Growling like a rabid dog, Thucer swung his sword in a slashing arc.
Neil whirled his makeshift bata and whacked Thucer’s sword arm. Thucer cried out and dropped the blade.
Neil kicked the weapon out of reach and settled into a neutral stance. The bata rested horizontally in his hands, waiting to do his bidding.
Thucer grabbed the stick with both hands and barged into Neil’s space. Neil approved. It’s what he would have done.
Thucer pulled. Neil let him. The forward momentum allowed him to sidekick Thucer’s knee and stomp his foot. Thucer howled and released the stick.
Neil would have enjoyed toying with Thucer, but he had little time. Still, he couldn’t resist tossing at least one provocative barb. “Promeddiss, is it? You look more like a pro-jackass to me.” He pulled one end of the bata back and snapped it in a spring action blow that slammed Thucer’s thigh.
Thucer roared. Wild-eyed, he sought and found another weapon: a two-pronged hayfork he snatched from the rack of tools behind him.
He charged. The lethal tines ripped Neil’s shirt before he could dodge.
So much for name calling. Taking care to keep well out of the hayfork’s range, he spun the bata again. He gripped it like a billiard stick, aimed it at Thucer’s ribs, and pummeled him with a battery of rapid strikes.
Shifting the stick again, Neil feinted at Thucer’s face. Thucer pulled back. The bata slammed his shoulder, but he held onto the hayfork and whipped it at Neil’s head.
Neil twisted and raised the bata, blocking the strike. He reversed his twist and smashed the staff across Thucer’s throat. Another twist and he slammed Thucer’s wrists. Bone cracked. The hayfork fell to the floor.
Neil danced back. He held the bata at chest level, ready for the next assault. He needn’t have bothered. Thucer’s mouth opened, though he couldn’t speak. Only a gasp and a gurgling sound escaped from his shattered throat. The skin around his eyes darkened to a liverish hue. He fell twitching to the ground.
Breathing hard, Neil set the bata against the wall and helped Pazzia up.
The shaking old man stared fearfully at him. “A ghost has returned to save me?”
“A ghost?” Neil frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You’re dead, friend Neil. You died in the fire.”
They all thought he was dead. Talty thought he was dead! He had to find her, and fast.
“Listen to me, Pazzia. There are horses outside in the paddock. Take one. Get back to the docks and tell Anza we’re coming. Ask him to wait, if he can.”
“No.” Pazzia spat into his fists and shook them. “You’ll need help saving your friends.”
Neil plucked the bow and quiver from the stall. “No, Pazzia. Give these to Kavie for me. If we don’t return before the Castagna sails, tell him…tell him they came in handy. Tell him I’ll never forget him.”
For as long as he lives, a Fian warrior will neither for gold nor for any other reward in the world abandon one he is pledged to protect.
A vision of Talty tumbling into the depths of the volcano galvanized Neil. He unbuckled the scabbard from Thucer’s corpse and fastened it to his own belt. He knew exactly where the sword was.
He picked it up and slid it into the sheath. “Let’s get out of here before the flies show up.”