August Cranswell was now on his third large scotch of the evening, and at the comfortable remove of that much twelve-year-old Macallan he was able to observe matters with rather more equanimity.
They were in Ruthven’s kitchen, the two books he had brought with him carefully laid open on the table. Ruthven’s peculiar friend—who was grey, actually faintly grey in complexion, and who apparently was into cosplaying Edward R. Murrow, 1950s pinstripe suit and all—had turned out to be much better at Latin than Cranswell himself was, and he’d gladly yielded up the duty of translation.
“This is all rather formulaic,” Vasse was saying. “It’s talking about the equivalent of mystery cults, secret societies, that sort of thing, and then it goes into discussing warrior monks, much more to the point.”
“When you said that on the phone earlier, Ruthven, I kind of remembered seeing this a year or two back,” Cranswell said. “Took me a while to find it. The other book has the pictures of daggers I was talking about, but this one talks about orders of various Swords.”
“‘The Livonian Brothers of the Sword,’” Vasse said, his fingertip not quite touching the ancient paper of the page. “Yes. Early thirteenth century, during the Northern Crusades. It says they got sort of subsumed into the Teutonic Knights, but they weren’t the only set of monks at the time who were going around armed to the teeth. The description gets quite lurid in places,” he added.
“Right,” said Cranswell, who had managed to read most of the page in the uncertain light of the basement but was fully aware he hadn’t grasped the nuances. “Several other orders came into being around that time. One of them called itself the Order of the Holy Sword, which looks way cooler in Latin, like a lot of things.”
“Gladius Sancti,” said Ruthven, peering over Vasse’s shoulder. “The sword is to be taken literally, I presume, although what got Varney wasn’t a sword so much as a dagger. Or a spike. It left an X-shaped hole in him, which is not something I’ve seen before.”
“‘Holy sword’ sounds a bit more impressive than ‘holy spike,’” said Vasse, “vallus sanctus, but in point of fact gladius sancti means ‘sword of holiness.’ Which is a bit different.”
“The general idea gets itself across, details of grammar notwithstanding,” said Ruthven, drily. “Presumably they were running around with holy edged weapons of some description back in the thirteenth century. I still can’t really picture this thing. I’ve never seen a wound like that before, and I have seen a great many wounds in my time.”
“It’s—look, it’s easier to just show you,” Cranswell said, and turned a few pages in the other book he had brought. Part of him, behind the pleasant insulation of whiskey, was still more than a little astonished that he’d done this deed at all, brought irreplaceable artifacts out of climate-controlled storage without any kind of authorization—taken them off museum premises, what had he been thinking—but he had been having the kind of day where really, really stupid decisions looked remarkably inviting. His first exhibit, the first one he had ever been assigned to research and put together on his own, the first opportunity he had had as a junior curator to demonstrate that he actually knew what he was doing, wouldn’t go up until the new year, but today had been an unremitting hell of logistical pitfalls regarding tiny details of the exhibit, and all in all Cranswell had needed the break. And the distraction. And now he wasn’t entirely sure he could get the damn things back safely and keep his job. The sour adrenaline from the chase through the dark was still sloshing around in his bloodstream, which didn’t help matters.
He was using a clean butter knife to turn the pages, rather than touching them with his fingertips, and it took a few moments for him to find the section he wanted: a double woodcut. On the left-hand page was depicted what appeared to be a somewhat standard flaming sword, of the sort wielded by angels at the gates of Eden, and on the right…
“It is a spike,” Ruthven said. “No. It’s a stake.”
Cranswell looked sharply at him. Ruthven’s eyes were wide and dark, the pupils swallowing up all but a fine ring of silver. After a moment he blinked hard, and they shrank smoothly back to normal. “Tell me,” he said conversationally, turning to Vasse, “what else does the book have to say about these individuals?”
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