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THE PAIN WAS too great to ignore, and nausea threatened to swamp him as he rode, but the Preacher clung to the saddle and steered the stallion up toward the Gap. The full moon was high in the clear sky, the distant mountain peaks sharp and glistening white against the skyline. The sleeve of the rider’s black coat was still smoldering, and a gust of wind brought a tongue of flame. Fresh pain seared him, and he beat at the cloth with a smoke-blackened hand.
Where are they now? he thought, pale eyes scanning the moonlit mountains and the lower passes. His mouth was dry, and he reined in the stallion. A canteen hung from the pommel, and the Preacher hefted it, unscrewing the brass cap. Lifting it to his lips, he found that it was filled not with water but with a fiery spirit. He spit it out and hurled the canteen away.
Cowards! They needed the dark inspiration of alcohol to aid them on their road to murder. His anger flared, momentarily masking the pain. Far down the mountain, emerging from the timberline, he saw a group of riders. His eyes narrowed. Five men. In the clear air of the mountains he heard the distant sound of laughter.
The rider groaned and swayed in the saddle, the pounding in his temple increasing. He touched the wound on the right side of his head. The blood was congealing, but there was a groove in the skull where the bullet had struck, and the flesh around it was hot and swollen.
He felt consciousness slipping from him but fought back, using the power of his rage.
Tugging the reins, he guided the stallion up through the Gap, then angled it to the right, down the long wooded slope toward the road. The slope was treacherous, and the stallion slipped twice, dropping to its haunches. But the rider kept the animal’s head up, and it righted itself, coming at last to level ground and the hard-packed earth of the trade road.
The Preacher halted his mount, then looped the reins around the pommel and drew his pistols. Both were long-barreled, the cylinders engraved with swirls of silver. He shivered and saw that his hands were trembling. How long had it been since those weapons of death had last been in use? Fifteen years? Twenty? I swore never to use them again. Never to take another life,
And you were a fool!
Love your enemy. Do good to him that hates you.
And see your loved ones slain.
If he strikes you upon the right cheek, offer him the left.
And see your loved ones burn.
He saw again the roaring flames, heard the screams of the terrified and the dying … Nasha running for the blazing door as the roof timbers cracked and fell on her, Dova kneeling beside the body of her husband, Nolis, her fur ablaze, pulling open the burning door, only to be shot to ribbons by the jeering, drunken men outside …
The riders came into sight and saw the lone figure waiting for them. It was clear that they recognized him, but there was no fear in them. This he found strange, but then he realized they could not see the pistols, which were hidden by the high pommel of the saddle. Nor could they know the hidden secret of the man who faced them. The riders urged their horses forward, and he waited silently as they approached. All trembling was gone now, and he felt a great calm descend on him.
“Well, well,” said one of the riders, a huge man wearing a double-shouldered canvas coat. “The Devil looks after his own, eh? You made a bad mistake following us, Preacher. It would have been easier for you to die back there.” The man produced a double-edged knife. “Now I’m going to skin you alive!”
For a moment he did not reply; then he looked the man in the eyes. “Were they ashamed when they had committed the abomination?” he quoted. “No, they were not ashamed, and could not blush.” The pistol in his right hand came up, the movement smooth, unhurried. For a fraction of a second the huge raider froze, then he scrabbled for his own pistol. It was too late. He did not hear the thunderous roar, for the large-caliber bullet smashed into his skull ahead of the sound and catapulted him from the saddle. The explosion terrified the horses, and all was suddenly chaos. The Preacher’s stallion reared, but he readjusted his position and fired twice, the first bullet ripping through the throat of a lean, bearded man, and the second punching into the back of a rider who had swung his horse in a vain bid to escape the sudden battle. A fourth man took a bullet in the chest and fell screaming to the ground, where he began to crawl toward the low undergrowth at the side of the road. The last raider, managing to control his panicked mount, drew a long pistol and fired; the bullet came close, tugging at the collar of the Preacher’s coat. Twisting in the saddle, he fired his left-hand pistol twice, and his assailant’s face disappeared as the bullets hammered into his head. Riderless horses galloped away into the night, and he surveyed the bodies. Four men were dead; the fifth, wounded in the chest, was still trying to crawl away and was leaving a trail of blood behind him. Nudging the stallion forward, the rider came alongside the crawling man. “I will surely consume them, saith the Lord.” The crawling man rolled over.
“Jesus Christ, don’t kill me! I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t kill any of them, I swear it!”
“By their works shall ye judge them,” said the rider.
The pistol leveled. The man on the ground threw up his hands, crossing them over his face. The bullet tore through his fingers and into his brain.
“It is over,” said the Preacher. Dropping the pistols into the scabbards at his hips, he turned the stallion and headed for home. Weariness and pain overtook him, and he slumped forward over the horse’s neck.
The stallion, with no guidance from the man, halted. The rider had pointed him toward the south, but that was not the home the stallion knew. For a while it stood motionless, then it started to walk, heading east and out into the plains.
It plodded on for more than an hour, then caught the scent of wolves. Shapes moved to the right. The stallion whinnied and reared. The weight fell from its back … and then it galloped away.
Jeremiah knelt by the sleeping man, examining the wound in the temple. He did not believe the skull was cracked, but there was no way to be sure. The bleeding had stopped, but massive bruising extended up into the hairline and down across the cheekbone almost all the way to the jaw. Jeremiah gazed down at the man’s face. It was lean and angular, the eyes deep-set. The mouth was thin-lipped yet not, Jeremiah considered, cruel.
There was much to learn about a man by studying his face, Jeremiah knew, as if the experiences of life were mirrored there in code. Perhaps, he thought, every act of weakness or spite, bravery or kindness, made a tiny mark, added a line here and there that could be read like script. Maybe this was God’s way of allowing the holy to perceive wickedness in the handsome. It was a good thought. The sick man’s face was strong, but there was little kindness there, Jeremiah decided, though equally there was no evil. Gently he bathed the head wound, then drew back the blanket. The burns on the man’s arm and shoulder were healing well, though several blisters were still seeping pus.
Jeremiah turned his attention to the man’s weapons: revolvers made by the Hellborn, single-action pistols. Hefting the first, he drew back the hammer into the half-cocked position, then flipped the release, exposing the cylinder. Two shells had been fired. Jeremiah removed an empty cartridge case and examined it. The weapon was not new. In the years before the Second Satan Wars the Hellborn had produced double-action versions of the revolver with slightly shorter barrels and squat rectangular automatic pistols and rifles that were far more accurate than these pieces. Such weapons had not saved them from annihilation. Jeremiah had seen the destruction of Babylon. The Deacon had ordered it razed, stone by stone, until nothing remained save a flat, barren plain. The old man shivered at the memory.
The injured man groaned and opened his eyes. Jeremiah felt the coldness of fear as he gazed into them. The eyes were the misty gray-blue of a winter sky, piercing and sharp, as if they could read his soul. “How are you feeling?” he asked, as his heart hammered. The man blinked and tried to sit. “Lie still, my friend. You have been badly wounded.”
“How did I get here?” The voice was low, the words softly spoken.
“My people found you on the plains. You fell from your horse. But before that you were in a fire and were shot.”
The man took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I don’t remember,” he said at last.
“It happens,” said Jeremiah. “The trauma from the pain of your wounds. Who are you?”
“I don’t remem …” the man hesitated. “Shannow. I am Jon Shannow.”
“An infamous name, my friend. Rest now and I will come back this evening with some food for you.”
The injured man opened his eyes and reached out, taking Jeremiah’s arm. “Who are you, friend?”
“I am Jeremiah. A Wanderer.”
The wounded man sank back to the bed. “Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, Jeremiah,” he whispered, then fell once more into a deep sleep.
Jeremiah climbed from the back of the wagon, pushing closed the wooden door. Isis had prepared a fire, and he could see her gathering herbs by the riverside, her short, blond hair shining like new gold in the sunlight. He scratched at his white beard and wished he were twenty years younger. The other ten wagons had been drawn up in a half circle around the riverbank, and three other cookfires had been lit. He saw Meredith kneeling by the first, slicing carrots into the pot that hung above it.
Jeremiah strolled across the grass and hunkered down opposite the lean young academic. “A life under the sun and stars agrees with you, Doctor,” he said amiably.
Meredith gave a shy smile and pushed back a lock of sandy hair that had fallen into his eyes. “Indeed it does, Meneer Jeremiah. I feel myself growing stronger with each passing day. If more people from the city could see this land, there would be less savagery, I am sure.”
Jeremiah said nothing and transferred his gaze to the fire. In his experience savagery always dwelled in the shadows of man, and where man walked evil was never far behind. But Meredith was a gentle soul, and it did a young man no harm to nurse gentle dreams.
“How is the wounded man?” Meredith asked.
“Recovering, I think, though he claims to remember nothing of the fight that caused his injuries. He says his name is Jon Shannow.”
Anger shone briefly in Meredith’s eyes. “A curse on that name!” he said.
Jeremiah shrugged. “It is only a name.”