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St patricks gargoyle, p.11
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       St. Patrick's Gargoyle, p.11

           Katherine Kurtz
 
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  What caused the occasional blip in that Plan was free will. The angels were possessed of it, of course. Himself numbered with all the other angels among the first of God's creation, Paddy well knew what a particular mark of Divine favor it was for God to have granted free will to His later human creations - but free will did have its complications and perils.

  That was why Paddy's original assignment had been as an avenging angel; for free will meant that humans could and often did insist on making the most appalling choices, and someone had to deal with the consequences and clean up the mess. (The Boss was very big on delegating authority - and small wonder, given the size of the universe He had to oversee.) At times, humanity seemed alarmingly prone to screwing up in a big way. Paddy liked to think that the New Testament really had made a difference in the way humans treated one another - and he chose not to waste his time worrying whether any other holy books had been any more successful in getting God's point across - but sometimes he wondered whether quite so many avenging angels should have been reassigned.

  In that regard, Paddy sometimes missed his former duties as an avenging angel - though circumstances did change on earth, even if God Himself was changeless, being All Perfection and, therefore, having no need of change. His Master Plan had been laid down at the moment of Creation, but only God had a broad enough perspective to see and understand it all.

  Trouble came when humans misunderstood that plan, or understood only a part of it - or discarded it altogether. Mistakes and, worse, flagrant disregard, always had their consequences, either from the action itself or from Higher Upwhich was where avenging angels came in. Paddy had to admit that smiting evildoers and acting as the implacable scourge of God's Righteous Anger could be extremely satisfying, in its place - and he had smitten and scourged with the best of them, in his avenging angel days. But gargoyle duty did have its own rewards. Gargoyles were, after all, still angels.

  In general, a gargoyle had more broadly discretionary authority than an avenging angel, given leave to deal semiautonomously with a wider range of lesser infractions and just downright mistakes than those attracting specific heavenly wrath. Being earthbound, gargoyles were even permitted to engage the occasional assistance of earth's creatures, many of whom were quite capable of discerning a gargoyle's true nature-like the little cat at St. Michan's. Cats and dogs were particularly good at seeing into the invisible world.

  Humans were in a different category, being at once the most perfected and most worrisome of God's creations. Having been made in God's image, and imbued with a spark of the Divine, they had the capacity for many Godlike qualities - but they could also come near to rivaling Satan himself, when it came to making really big mistakes.

  Free will again. Sometimes Paddy wasn't sure whether that was any better an idea than reassigning so many avenging angels. Fortunately, free will also meant that most humans did get it right eventually, for in the Beginning, God had looked upon His creation and seen that it was good.

  It was when the goodness wore a little thin and individual humans got off on the wrong track that Paddy and others of his kind were called into the fray. Fortunately, other individual humans could sometimes be enlisted to assist; unfortunately, they were also subject to certain rules that even an angel could not countervene.

  The case of Francis Templeton particularly bothered Paddy. The visit to the vaults at St. Michan's had reminded him again of human mortality, at least on the physical plane, and he very much regretted that his own carelessness was going to be the cause of Templeton's premature passing. Without the old man's assistance, it might have been necessary to take far more extreme measures against the two thieves they eventually cornered - and Corporate Policy was to use minimal force whenever possible.

  Unfortunately, assistance like Templeton's, however well-intentioned, was not without its possibly adverse consequences, at least in the short term. It was one of the Unwritten Rules that humans were not supposed to find out about the true nature of supernatural entities like angels and gargoyles while still inhabiting physical bodies. The only exceptions were saints. Guessing was one thing; actually seeing physical evidence was quite another matter. It had to do with not making things too easy in the faith department. There was also the danger that they would tell others about their experiences - though Paddy didn't think that Templeton would spill the beans.

  That was why, if they did find out prematurely - especially if they saw a gargoyle's true form - death must shortly follow. Like Paddy, Death's Deputies had a certain amount of discretion regarding when they took someone, but extended reprieves could only be granted by Executive Decree from Upstairs. That was not likely to happen just because Paddy had overlooked the fact that the polished door of Templeton's old Rolls Royce was as good as a black mirror.

  Rank carelessness! The sort of mistake that even a very green gargoyle should not have made - and Paddy was supposed to be about as seasoned as they came. Maybe he'd been at this assignment too long.

  It was all far more dismal than he wished to contemplate. He was not looking forward to telling his friend, but he also didn't want anyone else to do it. Certainly, he didn't want Death to just show up unannounced and take the old man.

  Maybe he could work something out, find some way to get Templeton a longer reprieve. It wasn't that being dead was such a terrible thing, especially for someone who had led a reasonably righteous life. After all, it meant that Templeton would be going Home. But Paddy had rather enjoyed the old man's company. He'd had a number of human friends, over the centuries, and had even watched over some of them as they crossed to the Other Side.

  Any friendship with humans came with the knowledge that their mortal span was limited, but it was frustrating when a friendship got nipped in the bud before it even got off the ground. Paddy loved being a gargoyle, and accepted the solitude of his lofty guard post as a given, but occasional interaction with others was also a welcome diversion. He always looked forward to the monthly gargoyle conclaves. Extra ones, like the one called for tonight, could be a mixed blessing, but he wasn't now expecting that to yield much out of the ordinary. After all, he and C.C. and Audie had already determined that the head of the crusader mummy had not been stolen - which, presumably, was the whole reason for calling an extra conclave in the first place.

  That made him wonder what was going on - or, what would have been going on, if the head had been stolen. He spent most of the rest of the day speculating about that mystery, in between watching Sunday morning services from the clerestory galleries and patrolling from the bell tower in between.

  By late afternoon, as the cathedral prepared for the carol service and Paddy himself prepared for the arrival of other gargoyles and their inevitable barrage of questions about the situation at St. Michan's, he still had reached no satisfactory conclusion. On Sundays and feast days, and especially the eves of the three great feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, gargoyles had leave to wander the city at will, just as they did when the moon was dark - additional gargoyle vigilance, lest any evil disrupt these important celebrations - but over the centuries, it had become the custom for the gargoyles stationed in sacred buildings to play host to those of their kind assigned to secular buildings, or whose churches no longer served a sacred purpose. (Gargoyles, of course, being a species of angel, had no need to make communal affirmations regarding their Creator and His Goodness, since they possessed firsthand and intimate experience of the Divine Presence; but it gave them pleasure to attend as their human charges sought closer understanding of and communion with the One Who had created all of them, and to bask in the glow of faith that powered human prayer.)

  The gargoyles' favored venues were St. Patrick's and Christ Church Cathedrals, because both churches contained vast warrens of shadowed galleries from which to watch unobserved. While Paddy's cathedral had the better vantage points, most of his colleagues preferred Christ Church, especially for daytime services, since it could be accessed directly via the network of undergr
ound tunnels, with little risk that a gargoyle might be seen coming or going. In winter, however, at least for the vigils of feasts and for services held in the late afternoon or evening, the shortened daylight hours permitted safe enough access to St. Patrick's, for that final dash from Patrick's Well to the shelter of the cathedral tower. This close to the winter solstice, the dusk normally started to close in by four o'clock - and was descending even earlier today, as a glowering sky threatened snow in the next hours.

  Nonetheless, only three other gargoyles made their way to Paddy's bell tower as the bells pealed forth their call to worship and people filtered into the cathedral far below. Paddy decided that the others must be going to Christ Church instead, because of the conclave scheduled later in the evening. The gargoyle from St. Andrew's, Anders by name, whose church was now a tourist information center almost always came to St. Patrick's for high state and festival occasions, as did Phoenix, the solitary gargoyle charged with guarding Phoenix Park. (The latter was a very important secular assignment, because the President made her home in the park, at Áras an Uachtaráin, the former Viceregal Lodge.) The other regular attendee was Gandon the eager and relatively new gargoyle assigned to guard the Custom House, who regarded Paddy as something of mentor, and enjoyed hanging out with him when duties permitted.

  The three of them arrived only minutes before the service was to begin. They had been coming for years, so they knew the best vantage points; but in light of his recent blunder concerning Templeton, Paddy took care to remind each new arrival that some sections of the clerestory galleries were temporarily off limits. Though only electricians - and gargoyles - normally had access to the narrow passages, the choir master was fond of stationing his soloists at various points all over the galleries for these special services attendant upon the Christmas season, so that their voices came from various parts of the cathedral; and the younger boys, especially, were sharp-eyed and mightily curious, and could not be counted upon to stay strictly where they were meant to be. Nonetheless, Paddy had sussed out their locations, and was able to alert his colleagues.

  The bells had been ringing some simple changes as four o'clock approached, but now dropped out, one by one, leaving the tenor to toll solo a few times before it, too, fell silent. Inside, an expectant hush slowly settled over the large congregation seated in the nearly darkened nave, the gathering gloom illuminated by candlelight in choir and chancel and a few holly-bedecked candelabra set at strategic locations along the long nave aisle.

  The clock in the bell tower began to strike four-somewhat muffled inside the cathedral. The choir and clergy had moved into position at the rear of the nave and back along the north choir aisle, ready to process in, the choristers in white surplices over their cassocks of Patrick's blue, white frills at their throats and music clasped to their breasts, youngsters preceding the adult choristers. The clergy wore the varied hoods of their academic achievements over surplices and more sober robes.

  A crucifer and a pair of acolytes with tall brass torches waited to lead the procession in, with several purple-gowned vergers spaced amid choir and clergy to shepherd with their wands of office. Bringing up the rear, the very last in the column, was the dean, a cope of shimmering gold and blue brocade upon his shoulders, the golden seal of the cathedral pendant from a ribbon of Patrick's blue at his throat. As the fourth stroke of the hour faded into stillness, the voice of the dean's vicar read out the words of a traditional call to worship, from far in the rear of the nave.

  "Beloved in Christ, at this Christmastide let it be our care and delight to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger...."

  It was one of Paddy's favorite bidding prayers, because it declared part of the role of God's angelic messengers in the story of the Incarnation. Other angelic participation would be declared in the course of the lessons read as the service progressed.

  Paddy also liked the choir's solemn entry, heralded by a carol whose tradition went back for centuries, the firs verse sung a capella from high in the rear of the cathedra by a solo boy soprano:

  Once, in royal David's city, in a lowly cattle shed,

  Where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed.

  Mary was that mother mild,

  Jesus Christ, her little child....

  Organ and choristers joined their voices for subsequent verses and the candlelit entrance procession which mad‹its way slowly eastward, light from the torches accompanying the processional cross. Candlelight brightened the music desks in the choir stalls as well, and shone from the ledge behind the altar, gilding the white linens on the altar burnishing the faces of the choristers and then the readers who came forth, escorted by vergers, to proclaim the nine lessons prophesying the miraculous event commemorated yearly in the Church's calendar. The youngest boy chorister read the first lesson, from behind the great brass eagle whose wings formed the lectern on the Epistle side, just inside the choir, with successively senior lay readers and clergy reading in turn. The dean would read the final lesson. Interspersed with the lessons were the carols and anthems of Christmas, underlining the story being told.

  The melding of readings, music, and candlelight wove it's special magic, as it always did, repeatedly recounting the role of angels. Particularly pleasing to the gargoyles was a reading about seraphim, from the sixth book of the prophet Isaiah:

  I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory....

  In such manner did the service unfold. Outside, snow began to fall and winter reigned, but inside, the anticipation of that first Christmas was revealed and recreated through word and song. The boys from the cathedral's choir school sang like angels, as they always did, but what Paddy liked most was afterward, when choir and clergy had retired and people began streaming out of the cathedral, past the crèche: the looks of wonder and anticipation on the faces of the children, from the wobbliest toddlers, who were barely able to walk, right up to the ones who fancied themselves far too grownup to get too excited by Christmas.

  True it was that most of this excitement came of wishful optimism regarding the presents the children hoped to receive from Father Christmas; but in the case of these little ones, Paddy thought that this did not much detract from the reason behind the custom of gift-giving. While few of the young ones would comprehend, just yet, the true significance of the gifts brought by the Wise Men from the East, who had followed a star to find the Child foretold, most of them knew what the Three Kings had brought, if only from the Christmas carol named for them, gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A few of the older ones might even be able to tell how these gifts foreshadowed the Child's future role as King, God, and Sacrifice.

  But that story was mostly for the future. Children, most of whom had baby brothers and sisters of their own, could identify fairly easily with the Christmas story, and the Baby Jesus, whose adoring mother had held her precious infant in her arms the way their own mothers held their babies. The miraculous birth was far more comprehensible to these little ones than the darker Mystery of Easter's Death and Resurrection.

  When the choristers in the galleries had come down, and while the congregation dispersed and the bells rang a special touch in celebration of the season, Paddy and his guests made their way back up to his watch post behind the parapet. Until now, the three had refrained from indulging their curiosity about Paddy's mission of the night before, but all of them knew that he, C.C., and Audie had been sent to investigate the state of the crusader mummy at St. Michan's.

  "If you're hoping I can tell you about tonight's meeting, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you," Paddy said, as they gazed out over the city. "I don't
suppose any of you have heard what this is all about?"

  It was snowing rather heavily, a biting wind gusting and eddying around the spire of the old bell tower, and they could all smell the reek of power that had summoned a heavy snowfall when only flurries had been forecast. On a Sunday night, with the snow encouraging most humans to stay indoors, even gargoyles would be able to move with relative ease. It made Paddy wonder whether there might be more to the night's coming meeting than any of them were expecting.

  Anders snorted, his gargoyle breath puffing a new gust of snow up the cathedral spire. "We were hoping you could tell us what's going on."

  "That's right," Phoenix agreed. "Out in the Park, I never hear any of the good stuff. What do you suppose is so important that they'd call a special conclave? Why should it matter whether a mummy's head was taken? He doesn't need it anymore."

  "I couldn't begin to guess," Paddy replied. "It looked like an ordinary head to me."

  "It just doesn't make sense," Anders said.

  They continued to speculate for the next several hours, until it was time to make their way to the conclave. The clock was striking eleven as they streaked down the shadowed sides of the bell tower and into St. Patrick's Well, then down through the series of underground passages that led to the chamber underneath Dublin Castle. In the next little while, every gargoyle in Dublin arrived, all of them milling and grumbling, but amid an air of growing anticipation, for no one knew who might be sent from Upstairs.

  After a few minutes, C.C. called them to order, gesturing with a taloned claw for all of them to take their places on the tiered ledges. A certain amount of muttering continued until, very shortly, a rippling flare of rainbow radiance momentarily blinded even gargoyle vision, heralding a new arrival.

 
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