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CHAPTER 17

"Your Eminence, pardon my interruption, but there is a most urgent matter I must bring to your attention."

Kroelich, High Patriarch of Brennor, knelt before the altar in his private chapel, garbed in the opulent robes of his position, the jewels in his rings flashing on his clasped hands. He was deep in prayer, his eyes closed tightly, his brow furrowed in concentration.

"Your Eminence..."

The voice penetrated his devotions.

"It is most urgent."

He opened his eyes to look upon the holy symbol of the gods hanging above the altar. "What is it, my son?"

Father Tomas, his aide, limped to his side. "Forgive me, Your Eminence, but we have just received an urgent dispatch from Linborn Abbey."

Kroelich turned to the frail priest. "Is it not our westernmost monastery?"

Tomas' head bobbed up and down. "Yes, Your Eminence, and the most remote." His odd eyes, one blue, one green, seemed to dart in different directions. "Abbot Bregar sends his most profound and humble respect, of course, and prays that the gods will shower their blessings on the ruler of Brennor..."

"Yes, yes, my son," sighed Kroelich. "What of this urgent matter?"

Tomas extended the parchment he held. "Sacrilege!"

Kroelich raised his heavy body from the floor and waved away the skinny hand that held the parchment. "Tell me, my son." He lay his hand on the slight man's shoulder.

Tomas took a deep breath, and Kroelich smiled as he saw the innate dignity, the supreme confidence, the business-like purpose take charge. "Your Eminence, Linborn Abbey was forcibly entered and vandalized. Several sacred objects were stolen." He drew in another breath. "Abbot Bregar has taken measures to secure the abbey from intruders, but he thought it wise to inform you."

"Indeed," said Kroelich, nodding. He turned to the window and cupped his chin in his hand. "This is indeed a serious matter, Tomas. I have never heard of such a crime being committed in Brennor." But he had. He had read of many such crimes.

"I must burden you further, Your Eminence," said Tomas. "The sheriff of that region has reported many instances of sacrilege, mostly in village churches." There was a pause. "He has also reported a rash of other crimes."

Kroelich felt a chill run down his spine. "Go on, my son."

"Forgive me for speaking of such things in your esteemed presence, Your Eminence, but there has been a great increase in the number of rapes..."

Kroelich stiffened and reached for the tiny key he wore around his neck. He fingered it as he said, "Go on."

"And murders, Your Eminence. Violence is erupting throughout the West. The sheriff requests that we provide him with additional law enforcement officials."

"See to it, Father Tomas," said Kroelich, without turning, "immediately."

"As the gods will, Your Eminence." Tomas replied formally, in the holy tongue. "It shall be done."

Kroelich did not hear the familiar sound of Tomas dragging his crippled leg. "Is there something more, my son?" He gripped the key tightly as he turned.

The odd eyes fixed on his. "Your Eminence, a priest has been accused..."

"Of what, my son," asked Kroelich, his voice, his face, mild, though he knew what was to come.

"Of sacrilege, Your Eminence."

"He desecrated his own church?"

"No, Your Eminence..."

"He stole the sacred objects for his own gain?"

"No, he..."

"Of what crime has he been accused of, my son," Kroelich asked, though he didn't need to.

"He broke his vow, Your Eminence..."

"Which vow, my son?"

Tomas swallowed and drew a deep breath. "Of chastity, Your Eminence." He straightened his slight shoulders. "He raped a village girl."

Kroelich did not reply. He looked beyond Tomas to the small carved chest which sat at his bedside. His eyes dropped to the golden key at his breast.

"As you know, Your Eminence, rape, under the usual circumstances, is a civil crime, a matter for the Council of Lords. But the Sheriff was hesitant to apprehend the priest and take him into custody." Tomas paused and licked his lips. "His understanding is that clerical crimes must be handled by the Tribunal."

Kroelich nodded. Ah yes, the Inquisitors. It had been long since Brennor had need to convene the Tribunal. The priest, poor and probably illiterate, would face its terrible justice. And it was not his fault. This Kroelich knew. With certainty. "The sheriff is to apprehend this priest immediately and take him into custody until the Inquisitors arrive."

"As the gods will, Your Eminence," said Tomas, bowing low. "It shall be done."

"And, Tomas." Kroelich sighed heavily. "Summon the Defender of the Faithful."