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St patricks gargoyle, p.18
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       St. Patrick's Gargoyle, p.18

           Katherine Kurtz
 
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  They cruised along the length of the car park to gauge the size of it, noting a modern accommodation wing grafted onto the back, then made a second, closer pass as they headed back out. The Gothic front was pretty much as Templeton remembered it, but the main tower and most of the right-hand side had been encased in a modern facade that tried to keep the feel of a proper castle hall while still answering the needs of a forester hotel.

  "Even the most stalwart of my brethren," said Brother Richard "would be hard-pressed to defend such a place." As they glided past the entrance porch, he gestured toward the expanse of wide leaded windows at ground level and gave a contemptuous snort. "This is no proper fortification! What has happened to the goodly castle that used to guard this strand?"

  "Some of the foundations may be left," Templeton said, as Paddy lifted his head seemingly to sniff the air. "Can I take us out of here now? If someone comes to check us out, I can hardly claim to be a lost wedding car at this hour."

  "Go ahead," Paddy said. "Brother Richard, have you found your bearings yet?"

  "Let us see if we can circle the castle," Brother Richard said. "The church that served it may well be long gone- everything else is - but I sense that we are near what we seek."

  They followed the road's curve around to the left as they cruised back past the gate lodge. The stone wall delineating the former bounds of the castle grounds gave way to another cluster of modern terrace houses, with the castle's silhouette behind. Off to the right, down a junction road, Templeton pointed out a largish church, but Brother Richard shook his head.

  "It wasn't that far from the castle," he said, returning his gaze to the glimpses of castle that were still their reference point. "It was just outside the bawn wall - there! What's that?"

  Just beyond the houses they had been skirting, behind a lay-by to accommodate local buses, a lone streetlight illuminated an ornate stone gateway piercing a formidable stone wall. Through the iron bars of the arched gate, they could just make out the irregular shapes of tombstones.

  "Gripes, that's right!" Templeton murmured, pulling to the curb. "There's an old cemetery back in here. Look! The castle's right behind the back wall. And I seem to remember the ruins of an old church."

  "Park the car!" said Paddy.

  "You mean, right here? Leave it in the bus bay?"

  "The buses don't start running for hours - and by then, we'll be long gone. Don't waste time!"

  "Okay," Templeton said doubtfully. "But it's right under a streetlight. If the guards drive past, they'll see it."

  "They'll figure you had a breakdown, or ran out of petrol," Paddy said. "They won't expect you to be in the vicinity. You'll have gone for help. Besides, Junior will guard the car."

  "But-"

  "Are you going to argue with me every time I tell you to do something? Bring your sword and come on - both of you!"

  Panic seized the old man for just an instant - for suddenly, abruptly, the moment was upon them to actually do whatever it was that needed to be done, something that could well expose him to the forces of hell - but he found himself pulling the door handle nonetheless. Instantly Paddy was through the widening door-opening, circling to the rear to open the boot for the other gargoyles to emerge. The little cat bounded after.

  By the time Templeton could get out and release Brother Richard from the back seat, the gargoyles had streaked into the old cemetery in a shifting of shadows-hapes. As Templeton retrieved his sword from under the seat, fumbling it from its soft leather case and unwinding its belt, Brother Richard, too, headed for the arched gate, his white mantle flaring behind him as he strode across the snow-covered pavement - leaving footprints, unlike the gargoyles. Glancing after him as he belted the sword under his overcoat, Templeton found himself flashing on images of Darth Vader stalking the corridors of the Death Star, in the film Star Wars-Vader, who had served the Dark Side of the Force, personifying one of the most potent symbols Templeton could imagine for the embodiment of evil and menace. He prayed that he had not misjudged the Templar or their gargoyle companions; that all of them were, indeed, on the side of the angels - as they must be, if Paddy was, indeed, what he said he was. Because if he wasn't...

  "Francis!" came the Templar's urgent whisper, as he beckoned for Templeton to hurry up.

  Templeton hurried as best he could, finally getting the clasp on his swordbelt to catch. Then he exchanged his sheepskin hat for the plain black beret he had stuffed into the pocket of his black coverall, pulling it down low on his brow as the Special Forces wore them - which certainly seemed appropriate to his brevetment for tonight. He started to lock up the car, but then decided that if any of this was true, it all must be true - and merely tossed a salute to the little gargoyle on the hood, before heading after Brother Richard. As he went, he also put on his neck insignia as a Knight of Malta, fastening it up under his scarf, so that the cross hung against the black of sweater and boiler suit and overcoat.

  The Templar was waiting under the arch into the graveyard, peering through the tall barred gate, his white robes giving him the appearance of the ghost that, in a sense, he was. Stern and tense as he drew Templeton closer into the shadows of the arch, his visage softened as he noticed the old man's neck-cross, and he blessed himself and then touched the first two fingers of his right hand to his lips and to the white enamel at Templeton's throat.

  "I thank you for this, Brother Francis," he whispered. "Now we are, indeed, brothers under the Cross. Come!"

  The gesture set the old man's mind at ease, that Brother Richard was, indeed, both who and what he said he was: no Satanic impostor, but a true knight in the service of the same Lord. Hand braced on the hilt of his sword, Templeton banished any lingering uncertainty and leaned down to inspect the padlock on the barred gate.

  "You would've thought they'd leave this unlocked," he said under his breath, lifting the lock in one gloved hand and peering beyond for some sign of the gargoyles.

  "They did," Brother Richard replied, "but they are the caretakers of this place, not our gargoyle allies. Look." For as he pushed at the gate, it swung easily and silently, demonstrating what had not been evident before: that the chain was merely looped several times through two of the bars and kept there by the lock snapped through, not serving any useful function at all, save to appear locked.

  "Come," he said eagerly, pressing through the opening and into the shadows behind the wall, where they could not be seen from the road. "This will be where it was."

  Off to the right, the dark bulk of a roofless building blotted out a portion of the frosty, star-speckled sky, framed by the brighter snow at ground level. Immediately the Templar strode out in that direction, threading his way unerringly among the gravestones and monuments. In the dark, Templeton could see no trace of Paddy or the other gargoyles, and had to follow close behind the white-robed specter of Brother Richard - who, unlike Paddy, left no helpful glowing footprints. They rounded the end of the ruined structure to be brought up short by a barred screen of fretted ironwork that completely filled the broad arch that otherwise would have given access to the interior of the derelict church.

  The gargoyles were already inside, but Paddy came up to the bars and offered a taloned, faintly glowing claw to Brother Richard, who clasped it and simply walked through the bars. The gargoyle turned then to Templeton, whose jaw had dropped in astonishment.

  "He - walked right through those bars," he whispered.

  Paddy inclined his great gargoyle head. "Yeah, come on. We haven't got all night."

  "But-"

  "Just gimme me your hand," Paddy said, clicking his claws impatiently, as he had at their first meeting.

  Templeton felt a little lightheaded, but then he screwed up his courage and thrust his hand between the iron bars, at the same time closing his eyes. A part of him reasoned that Paddy had already taken him through several solid walls and steel doors tonight, so passing through mere metal bars was not likely to feel appreciably different; but somehow, the prospect had s
eemed less daunting when it happened while enfolded in the gargoyle's angel wings.

  In fact, he could discern no real difference. He felt the cool, strong clasp of the gargoyle's talons around his hand and wrist, moved forward in answer to the powerful tug against his apprehension - and opened his eyes as he was released, to find himself on the other side. The other gargoyles were hunkered around a bit of gently glowing stone curbing shaped like an upside-down U, the white-robed Brother Richard crouched in their midst, with his hands laid flat against the ground that the U enclosed and the cat perched on his shoulder.

  "Is this where it's buried?" Templeton asked, coming to crouch warily among them.

  "Not buried; hidden," Brother Richard said. "There is a vault below, and I think it likely that no one has passed this portal since my brethren closed it, many centuries ago." He glanced at the gargoyles. "Brother Francis and I will require your assistance to gain access, my friends. Can you do it?"

  "Can we do it?" the Christ Church gargoyle muttered indignantly. "Of course we can do it!"

  Motioning the two humans back from the U-shaped curbing, he and Gandon, the Custom House gargoyle, took up positions to either side of the U, mantling their great wings up and over them like a dark canopy. At once, a faint rumbling stirred underfoot, causing Templeton to catch at Brother Richard's sleeve for balance and in some alarm as the earth within the curbing belched upward, spattering damp earth on the snow all around and opening a stone - lined stairway into darkness.

  The silence in the aftermath was profound, relieved only as the gargoyles cautiously surged forward to peer downward, hesitating but a moment before plunging down the stairwell like oily water eddying down a partly clogged drain.

  A faintly phosphorescent glow remained where they had passed, like the glimmer of fireflies. Only Paddy hung back for Brother Richard and Templeton, craning after his fellows. The cat crept to the edge of the curbing and peered down with cat aplomb, back and tail faintly bristled and whiskers all aquiver, before bounding in to follow the other gargoyles.

  "Come on," Paddy said. "Everything's quiet for now, but it might not stay that way for long. Something still doesn't feel right..."

  Chapter 20

  Boldly Brother Richard led the way downward - he knew the place, after all - and the cat jumped down to scamper on ahead. Templeton followed with somewhat less confidence, keeping well back from the Templar's trailing white mantle - which, if he trod upon it, could trip up both of them. He could feel grit underfoot as he tried each uneven step before putting his weight on it, one gloved hand keeping balance against the side of the stairwell, for a misstep could also send both of them tumbling.

  With the other hand he managed the sword at his side- always awkward on stairs - pivoting the sheathed blade forward, so that the tip preceded him and that didn't end up nipping him. Quite incongruously - for he was mostly worried about what might lie ahead - it occurred to him that not many people knew how to wear a sword, these days. Notwithstanding the experience of his friend Brendan, who had closed the end of his in the door of a taxi, Knights of Malta were among the few who did know how.

  Of course, wearing a sword and actually using one were not necessarily the same thing. He hoped Paddy wasn't expecting him to go whacking away at anything....

  The stairway made several turns as they descended, the greenish glow growing steadily brighter, until Brother Richard and then Templeton himself at last emerged into a level, almost cavernous space, Paddy bringing up the rear. Giving it a hurried glance, Templeton thought it looked more like the undercroft at Christ Church than the crypts at St. Michan's, with thick, heavy pillars supporting a barrel-vaulted ceiling.

  But like St. Michan's, it appeared to have mummies- maybe half a dozen or so - not coffined, but laid out on low stone biers set along the bricklined walls. Brother Richard paid them no mind as he continued on through the chamber, toward the source of brighter light spilling from an arched doorway ahead, but Templeton found himself pausing beside the nearest, hand on the hilt of his sword as he leaned down for a closer look.

  The form was more skeletal than Brother Richard's had been, held together by little more than the cere, disintegrating rags of what once might have been a white habit and mantle like the ones that Brother Richard now wore. Splayed across the chest, Templeton could just make out the faint suggestion of an eight-pointed cross - what color was impossible to say. The hilt of a broadsword lay beneath the skeletal hands still crossed piously on the breast, its blade shrouded along the length of the corpse's legs by more rotting cerements and a veiling of ancient and dust-laden spider webs.

  "A brother Templar," Paddy said close beside him.

  "Jayzus, don't do that!" Templeton blurted, even as he recoiled and recovered.

  "Sorry."

  Impelled back into motion, and muttering under his breath, the old man hurried on after Brother Richard, who was just disappearing through the green-glowing archway. As he, too, came abreast of it, he stopped dead, causing Paddy to nearly tread on his heels and mutter his own muffled expletive.

  Templeton's jaw dropped. The other gargoyles had ranged themselves around the outer edge of a stone-girt room that was at once too small to contain them and too large to sense its boundaries, webbed wings spread to enclose the space. Here, however, their varied and fantastical gargoyle shapes were overshadowed by a hint of their true angelic forms, so that each seemed veiled by a semitransparent image of the princely armored warriors they truly were, worn like a cloak of glory.

  But the gargoyles themselves were not what at once drew Templeton's closer regard, magnificent though they were. It was what lay in their midst: an object of dreadful beauty that fairly took Templeton's breath away.

  Catching sight of it, he had no doubt why the Templars had been accused of worshipping a head - and it was an exquisite piece of workmanship, so lifelike that he almost expected the golden lips to part in speech. Encrusted with gems both precious and semiprecious, and set upon a plinth of banded chalcedony, its sightless eyes gazed out in a blaze of jasper and peridot from atop a chunk of stone shaped like two cubes set side by side, as high as a man's waist. Its crafting appeared to be Persian or Mesopotamian - or perhaps Egyptian - conjuring images of ancient Babylon, and Luxor, and Ur of the Chaldees.

  Guarding either end of the stone were golden pairs of child-sized kneeling cherubim, also with an Oriental look to them, their upraised arms and angular wings overarching the jeweled head like a protective canopy - or a restraining dome for whatever was within. To Templeton's awestruck gaze, the overall effect resembled nothing so much as biblical accounts he had read describing the Ark of the Covenant - though the head was wrong, all wrong, and did not belong on this mortal plane.

  "Thank God, we are in time," Brother Richard said, shouldering between the gargoyles to approach the thing. "The binding has, indeed, grown weak, but it still holds." He circled the double cube, closely inspecting what it held, then beckoned to Templeton.

  "Come. I must prepare you. We should waste no time. Give me your sword, and then kneel."

  Not inclined to question, Templeton did as he was told, drawing his sword and then dropping to his knees with the sword across his gloved hands. All around him, the gargoyle/angels had also drawn their blades, which shone like sunbeams lancing through cloud.

  Brother Richard took the sword from him, smiling faintly as he hefted it experimentally.

  "It is not the blade I would have chosen for slaying Saracens," he said, "but it is a goodly weapon in the service of the Light, and I sense it has served your purpose well." He reversed it to extend the cross-hilt before the old man, his big hand holding it under the quillons.

  "Lay your hands upon this cross and swear that you are God's, unto death and beyond," Brother Richard commanded, locking eyes with Templeton. "Swear that you will stand against whatever may come in the next hour, all for His sake. For He is that Lord before Whom every knee should bend and every head bow down."

  Hurrie
dly baring his head, the blood singing in his ears, Templeton stuffed the black beret into the front of his coat, then used his teeth to help pull off his gloves, shoving them into the coat pockets. Only then did he place his trembling hands on the quillons of the sword. Brother Richard's words had not been specific to any particular order of chivalry, so far as he could tell, but they seemed to embody the very essence of Christian knighthood, resonating with the oath he had sworn at his dubbing as a Knight of Malta. He need have no reservations about swearing as Brother Richard asked.

  "I swear by almighty God that I am His man, unto death and beyond," he said steadily. "Before God and this company, I offer my sword and my strength in His service, and will stand as I must against whatever may come. Amen."

  "Selah, so be it," Brother Richard said, withdrawing the sword and reversing it, the hilt now in his hand. "And accordingly, I do confirm your service as a brother knight, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."

  As Templeton bowed his head, the blade descended on his right shoulder, then left - and at the same time, he sensed the swords of all the surrounding gargoyle/angels briefly extending to touch his head. Their touch was like a benison, washing peace and new strength through his weary bones. In that instant he became certain that he would know what he must do, when the time came. It was Brother Richard's hand that clasped his and helped him to his feet.

  "Well done, my brother," the Templar said, letting him put his beret back on before handing back his sword. "Now, we have work to do." He drew his own weapon, a heavy broadsword, and moved around to the other side of the jeweled head. "Thrust your sword into the ground as I do, about an arm's length from the edge of the platform. This will be your anchor point. Do not abandon it."

 
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