DEATHSTROKE

Medieval England, the tumultuous period of King Stephen, when anarchy reigned and secrets ruled...

In the performance of secret missions for King Stephen, Lord Farrow of Croftmoor had little use for broadswords. The same went for battles axes and maces and falchions. Gadzooks! All that bludgeoning and hacking and chopping. Not for him. Though fine for sortie, heavy weaponry lacked artistry and therefore made for a slaying far too harsh for his elegant killer's tastes.

As for poisoning the sovereign's adversaries - where was the skill there? Flavoring someone's meal with a pinch of mandrake or a sprinkle of belladonna struck Farrow as vaguely... well... unchivalrous, even for a dark knight such as himself. Whether an enemy of the king or not, a man should die like a man, not like a dog retching in the street.

Now his beloved miseriecorde was a different matter entirely. Honed to a sharp and narrow point, the dagger slipped with ease and precision through a chink in an enemy's armor awarding his victim the divine mercy of a swift end. Minimizing pain was the best an assassin like himself could hope to accomplish when delivering the deathstroke.

If caught, he would receive no corresponding kindness from Empress Matilda's camp. Having already learned the creative applications of torture during a twelvemonth stay in a moldy dungeon outside Oxford, Farrow had vowed long ago never to let himself be captured again - at least, not whilst he was mostly alive.

Grim of countenance, Farrow slashed the air with the sleek beauty in his hand, delivering unto another imagined adversary of the king a killing jab to the heart with his miseriecorde.

Footsteps on gravel...

Someone was coming. The small stones overlaying the well-worn path made for a better warning than any barking mastiff hound would have done. Upon hearing the telltale crunch, Farrow concealed his beloved miseriecorde within the tight inner sleeve of his tunic, then swiftly fell to his knees in a pretense of worship before a statue of the Virgin. Aiming for believability, he reverently moved his lips in a mumbled, if carefully audible, prayer:

"Our Father, who art in..."

An instant later, the sentry posted outside the private open-air courtyard appeared. "Forgive the intrusion, my lord. Father Benedict is here to see you."

"Escort the good priest him in," Farrow replied.

Every morn without fail, Farrow retreated to his keep's walled garden to pray as piously as any monk in a cloistered garth. The inner sanctum, resplendent with aromatic herbs, provided him a backdrop of contemplative serenity in which to meditate... on how best to advance his stealthy killing technique.

Under the watchful eye of the sentry, the stout cleric waddled to the spot where Farrow continued to kneel and collapsed onto a nearby stone bench. After much huffing and puffing, the priest marked the air with a sign of the cross. "My son."

"Father," Farrow whispered in return, adding for the sake of the departing guard: "Thank you for journeying here today to hear my monthly confession."

A ruse.

Farrow had made no confession, not in years. Christ's thorn! He was a killer. A merciful one, but still an assassin. What more was there to say to either God or holy man? And little good the confession have done Farrow's blackened soul anyway. A complete waste of breath:

Father Benedict was many things, but a travelling cleric he was decidedly not - despite the authentic-looking hooded cap and ankle-length tunic. The man huffing and puffing on the stone bench liked the wenches and ale and mounded trenchers of wild boar too much to forsake those earthly vices for the priesthood, even as a means to avoid paying tithes to the throne.

"Benedict" - real name, unknown - was an actor. At least, he must be, of a sort, in Passion Plays, perchance, assuming the same role he so comfortably portrayed here, minus the vulgarities of speech and lax attitude. The pretense of kindly confessor and repentant sinner seeking absolution was a system of communication Farrow had devised years before as a safeguard against discovery. Using a messenger eliminated the need of quill, ink, and parchment to relay information back and forth between himself and the king, whom, by the way, they made sure never to mention by name during the course of their conversations.

The fraudulent cleric said on a hush, "A growing problem concerns our mutual acquaintance."

Farrow nodded. "Go on."

"Mileth the Harbinger."

"Odd name. Female?"

"Indeed. A peevish, puckish, beanstalk of a female from what I have been led to believe. No teats whatsoever."

Farrow pulled a face. "Never heard of her."

"And why would you? As I say, flat, flat, dismally flat teats. And do not get me started on her red hair." The thespian grimaced theatrically. "Regardless of her lack of womanly wiles, though, the existence of this woman threatens us all."

Farrow frowned. "And what exactly is this Mileth a harbinger of?"

"Death. Doom. The great void. The sadly never after."

"Pardon?" Farrow shook his head. "Is she a prophet? Or a scrawny bird, mayhap, flying through an arrow loop and predicting a person's imminent demise, as oft I have heard of in folklore?"

"Nay. No prophet is she. No bird either."

"Is she viewed as a witch?"

"Obviously not by you," the king's messenger replied with a wink almost lost in the corpulent folds of his face.

"And to think your high regard nearly passed me by. My thanks."

Father Benedict chuckled. "Though her appearance is purported to be as unsavory as a witch, this Mileth the Harbinger professes no magical powers. Nor do those who seek her out do so for sacrilegious counsel. More is the pity. Then, our mutual acquaintance could set the Church on her irritating arse and be done with the sodding nuisance. Fire up the faggots, anyway, I say, and watch her burn at the stake. Makes for merry entertainment. But does our acquaintance hearken to me? Nay, nay, a thousand times nay. Now, you are a different story. He respects your opinion almost as much as I respect your sins of the flesh. Tell me... have you any new ones to confess, my son?"

That last, Farrow ignored in favor of asking, "What precisely does Mileth the Harbinger do that our mutual acquaintance fears?"

"She listens to the woes of the dying."

Farrow tilted his ruined jaw. "A benign enough happenstance. Perchance she aspires to enter a nunnery, eh?"

"If only she did and there took a vow of silence."

"Who exactly requests her presence at their deathbeds?" Farrow inquired next.

"Those of pomp and circumstance and lawlessness. In other words - the great unwashed nobility"

"But dead, what harm can they do our mutual acquaintance?"

"My son - the crux of the problem is this: women flap their lips." The pretend priest coughed a great green wad of bile into a bed of thyme. After wiping the flecks of spittle from his chin, he began again: "Have you any new flapping lips in your life of late, my son? If so, I should like to hear of them. No detail is too small, although I do so like buxom ones. Have pity! I have so few sources of amusement these days, what with my belly rot and limp cock. And ask not over the state of my bowels, I pray you. I cannot say the last time they moved..."

Farrow interrupted. "I wager these dying nobility to whom the Harbinger listens, those of pomp and circumstance and lawlessness, implicate those of a similar persuasion before they die."

"Right, you fucking are, my son," Father Benedict said fondly. "Mileth the Harbinger deals with an unsavory selection of murderers, thieves, and all-around scoundrels, titled royals, all of them. In their final moments, they do indeed accuse one another of heinous crimes. Considering the company you keep, I am sure you rub elbows with most of them, as does our mutual acquaintance. Now, not to change the subject and paying strict attention to any juicy bed sport in which you might recently have engaged, would you care to confess your sins, my son? For example - have you tongued any buxom damsels you-know-where since your last confession? Tell me and not only is all forgiven but..."

Farrow interrupted once more. "And I wager some of these guilty parties have a direct and traceable affiliation to our mutual acquaintance."

"Such a quick-witted knight you are, my son. Little wonder our mutual acquaintance relies on you so for all his dirty deeds."

"His confidence gladdens me."

"There you have it, my son. Go forth and sin some more. Of the mortal variety. Veniality will not work here. Oh, and make the first contact through an intermediary. For obvious reasons, the fewer people who see you and the Harbinger together, the better."

The man who was not a priest must have seen the chagrin register on Farrow's face, for he blessed him again, this sanctification no less fraudulent than the last.

"I know, I know. No need to speak, my son. You being a courtly romantic knight and all, you usually protect and honor females, that whole lady in distress quandary. But we all have our crosses to bear. Consider this one yours. You will bear up under it. Before she does our mutual acquaintance irreparable political damage, Mileth the Harbinger must die."

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