Chapter 31: Unstained Hands
Mariselle gazed around her tent. A simple cot, a table, a chair, a chest, and a crudely made vanity were now the only luxuries she enjoyed. Their retreat from the city had forced her men to take only the bare essentials. The mob would be rioting in the castle now, pawing at her furs, soiling her sheets. Her guards needed a little time to regroup, then the masters of the house would return.
An inquisition will be needed. She mused. Every piece of filth who’s trespassed will be found and made to watch as we draw and quarter their families. Her fists clenched. Every mark on me will be revisited tenfold. She moved to her chair and stared at a hag in the chipped vanity mirror. The scarred and emaciated face was one she no longer recognized. The dark stitches running from her lower lip across her mouth and to her cheek were hackneyed work at best. The surgeon’s handiwork had even left a permanent sneer. Mariselle wrapped her fingers around a dagger on the stand and stood to face the physicker who entered her tent.
He smiled as he bowed low. Rubbing his bloody hands on his apron. “It was an honor lady.”
“How could I thank you . . . for such fine work?”
The surgeon glanced up. “With what constraints I had, I hope you’ll find it agreeable, in time. I’m but a humble sculptor, of sorts.”
She smiled at him as he bowed, “Is this your opus?” she pointed to her face.
The physicker stood. “M’lady?”
“I hope so. It will be your last,” Mariselle spat and arced her dagger across his face. He screamed and fell backward to the ground, clutching his eyes. Mariselle pounced onto his chest and plunged the dagger deep into his heart, holding down his grasping hands until they fell lifeless to his sides. His face was a river of blood.
“Fool,” she said and stood. Her advisor, Ananias, coughed behind her. Mariselle spun around, dagger in hand, ready to strike again.
“Lady,” Ananias immediately cast his gaze away from her face. “The seers have read their bones. Lord Dagon wants an audience with you.”
Mariselle eased her grip on the blade and swallowed the lump in her throat. Her master only dictated these tete-a-tetes when he was angry. “Bring in the altar then. We have enough blood to summon the vision,” she said.
The advisor bowed low and pushed through the tent flap. Moments later two soldiers carried in a wrought iron stand, waist-high and adorned with animal bones and leather. Hieroglyphs were roughly hammered across its side. Her seers had made this one in haste, sacrificing a horse to finish the job. The smell of rancid meat purveyed the tent, as flies landed on some still sinewy cartilage decorating the front of it. Mariselle stared at it in disgust. The Amorites had mastered many skills, but craftsmanship was not one of them.
“Leave me,” she ordered without turning to her men. They scurried out, eager to be away from the stench. Mariselle approached the altar and held out her hand. In her other hand, she grasped her dagger and placed it across her palm, ready to draw blood. She paused as she stared at the lines in her palm. How many times had she wondered about her future when she was a girl? Gazing across her hand’s lifelines, she’d imagined living at court, married to a nobleman or even a prince. Her lily-white fingers would pick dandelions in the field and she’d form herself a crown. How many of those dreams had fallen by the wayside?
Dagon had promised her riches, a kingdom of her own, and a true love to sit by her side. She need only take his mark, a prick of blood, merely a gesture, he’d told her, of loyalty. But as the years went on, more marks were needed. More was always asked and the worst scars he left were the ones in her mind as he forced her to see and do things she’d never believed she could. Now even her face was gone. All that remained were her hands, still unblemished.
The vision altar always demanded one willing subject to spill his or her own blood. She’d been spared the deed until now. She held the dagger at her palm, ready to make the necessary cut then she looked down at the dead physician at her feet. Years of serving under Dagon’s foot had taught her there was always an easier way.
“I’ve paid enough this night.” She leaned down and ran her hand across his brutalized face, cupping his blood between her fingers as best she could. “Your blood will suffice.”
She hesitated before standing and letting the slow trickle of crimson drip onto the altar. Unsure if the dark magic would work.
The bone and metal framework of the shrine shook of its own accord. Mariselle knelt before the altar. The lamps in the tent dimmed and an intense heat washed over her. Mariselle glanced up at the large shimmering face that appeared before her.
“Master Dagon, I’m here as called. What is your bidding?”
Dagon stared at her, his serpentine eyes seared into her own. His face, what she once thought as fair, now was as pale as a corpse. His long dark locks partially obscured his grimace. Mariselle had learned to withstand his gaze, unlike his many other minions, but his pupils would always elongate, giving her a distinct feeling she was staring at a reptile.
“My ship still waits offshore. Why is there resistance at the gates? You were told to have the city open and waiting for my occupation. Now my men throw themselves on Gilead’s spears.”
“Master, forgive me, the city was wrapped around my finger, but over the last few days some . . . unforeseen issues arose.” Mariselle bowed her head.
“Unforeseen? Should I tell our Lord that you have uncovered some fault with his designs?” Dagon growled.
“No! I misspoke. You see . . .,” Mariselle’s mind raced. How much could she safely say? “There’s been an uprising, but I was able to quell it and kill Samuel, the last soothsayer. He’ll no longer be a problem.”
“How many troops bear arms behind the walls?”
“Well, Master, I’m . . . I’m not entirely sure. I was forced to leave the city from the east gate. I’m only a half league away at Korah’s Maw, and I’ll soon regroup with--”
“A half league away? You quell an uprising a half league away? Liar!” Dagon screamed, his eyes blazing.
Mariselle covered her face and looked away. “No, I all but crushed them. Their defenses are pitiful. Your men will have no issue pushing past their last gate!”
Dagon’s visage wavered over the altar.
“What of the king and the horn of Joshua?” Dagon asked.
“He’s on death’s door. We looked for the horn. It was . . . missing.” Mariselle said.
“He was to be dead by now and the horn in your possession! Have I placed my trust in a witless dog that she brings me these scraps?”
Dagon’s face again wavered and faded. His eyes searched around the room.
Mariselle clenched her fist as she caught his gaze again. “I will do whatever you ask of me. Name it and it will be yours.”
“Your vision fades. Did you draw fresh blood?”
Mariselle’s eyes turned away. “Of course, Master.”
“My seers say our victory is no longer absolute. What are you hiding from me?” Dagon glared at her.
“Nothing of any import. Before we fled the city, I captured a stranger, a boy.”
“He accompanied the soothsayer?” Dagon frowned.
“He was caught separately, but they knew each other it seemed. The boy’s speech seemed off, he’s not from Gilead, nor any country I’ve heard of. Though I did hear him whisper the Logos. He’s a zealot, nothing more. I’ll have him killed soon,” She replied.
Dagon’s eyes opened wide. “Listen to me, wench, our master knows the old prophecies. If you value your life you must not--”
Dagon’s face wavered and faded into nothingness. Mariselle looked around the altar. I’m not a fool. He can save the reprimand. Killing a boy is hardly a challenge.
She stood, dusting soil from her knees. The altar could not be used for another day, but no further instructions were needed. The Dark Lord would see her worth soon enough, and in time she may be raised above even Dagon’s station. She turned and walked to the tent opening. The zealots were playing their end game. They would be crushed. There would be no more mistakes. Gilead was almost within her grasp. Perhaps after the boy’s death, she would be rewarded. Perhaps this time Dagon’s promises would be kept.