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IN THE SHADOW OF LIONS
By Ginger Garrett
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Ginger Garrett
All rights reserved.
Tomorrow, someone else will die in my bed.
Someone died in it last month, which is how it came to be called mine.
The infernal clock moved confidently toward 1 a.m., and I turned my head to look at the window. The window of this room is a miserly gesture from the contractors, producing more fog than visage. I watched the gold orbs—the lamps on the lawn of the hospice sputtering off and on in the darkness—that dotted the fogged glass.
That was the last moment I lived as an iver, one whose eyes are veiled.
One orb did not sputter but moved, gliding between the others, moving closer to the window, growing larger and brighter until the light consumed the entire view. I winced from the searing glare and tried to shield my eyes, but the IV line pulled taut. Wrestling with the line to get some slack, I saw the next movement out of the corner of my eye. I bit down hard on my tongue, my body jerking in reflex, and felt the warm blood run back to my throat.
Outside, a hand wiped the fog away from the glass, and I watched the water beads running down the inside of my window. There was no searing light, only this mammoth hand with deep creases in the palms wiping down the window until we both could see each other. A man's face was against the glass, but no breath fogged his vision. He was a giant, grim man, with an ring in one ear and dark glasses, and he was staring in at me. Even through the morphine, fear snaked along my arms, biting into my stomach, constricting around my throat. I tried to scream, but I could only gulp air and heave little gasps. His expression did not change as he lifted his hands, curling them into fists. I flinched at the last moment, thinking him to be Death, expecting to receive the blow and die.
Then I grew suddenly warm, like the feeling you get stepping from an old, dark city library into the busy street and a warm spring sun.
Death didn't even hurt, I rejoiced. I could slip into it like I slipped onto that street, eyes down, my thoughts my own, and simply turn a corner and be gone. I lifted my fingers to beckon him. Yes, I thought. I saw the beautiful Rolex on my birdlike wrist and saw that it had stopped. It is time.
When I looked back up, he was beside me, staring down, not speaking. I wasn't dead. His frame was monstrously large, hitting what must be seven feet tall, with a width of muscle strapped across him that was inhuman. As he watched me, his chest didn't move, and his nostrils didn't flare, but heat and warm breath radiated from him. When he laid his hands across my eyes, I was too scared to move my head away. His palms covered most of my face, and a sharp buzzing drilled into every pore. He began to move his hands elsewhere, touching and bringing to life every splintered inch of my body. When he got to the cancer, with one swollen lymph node visible even through my stained blue gown, he rested his hands there until the swelling sighed, and he swept it away with his hand.
"Wait!" I screamed.
I didn't want to live. I hadn't known that was going to be an option. I deserved to be damned. To return to my life was too much to ask of me. I was finished.
"You'll still be dead by morning," he reassured me. His voice was deep and clean, no telltale dialect or inflection. Taking off his glasses, I saw he had enormous gold eyes, with a black pinhole in the center that stayed round and cold. There was no white in them at all, and they were rimmed all the way around the outside with black. I stared at them, trying to remember where I had seen eyes like this. It had been years ago, this much I remembered.
I had to shake myself back to the present moment. Clearly, morphine was not setting well with me tonight. I wanted to die in peace. That's what I paid these extravagant sums for. My hand moved to the nurses' call button. Mariskka was just down the hall, waiting for her moment to steal my watch. I knew she'd come running.
He grabbed my hand, and the shock seared like a hot iron. Crying out, I shook him off and clutched my hand between my breasts, doing my best to sit up with my atrophied stomach muscles and tangled IV.
He leaned in. "I have something for you."
He leaned in closer. "A second chance."
Second chances were not my forte. As the most celebrated editor in New York City, I had made a killing. I loved the words that trembling writers slid across my desk, those little black flecks that could destroy their life's dream or launch a career. I bled red ink over every page, slashing words, cutting lines. No one understood how beautiful words were to me, why I tormented the best writers, always pushing them to bring me more. The crueler I was to the best of them, the more they loved me, like flagellants worshipping me as the master of their order. Only at the end, lying here facing my own death, did I understand why. They embraced the pain, thinking it birthed something greater than themselves. I saw how pitifully wrong they were. There was only pain. This is why I was ready to die. When you finish the last chapter and close the book, there is nothing but pain. It would have been better never to have written. Words betrayed me. And for that, I betrayed the best writer of them all.
"Burn any manuscripts that arrive for me," I had ordered my nurse, Marisska. "Tell them I'm already dead. Tell them anything."
"I'll let you write the truth," the man whispered. I focused on him again.
"I'm not a writer," I replied. My fear tumbled down into the dark place of my secrets.
"No, you're not," he answered. "But you coveted those best sellers, didn't you? You knew you could do better. This is your second chance."
It caught my attention. "How?"
"I will dictate my story to you," he said. "Then you'll die."
Taking dictation? My mouth fell open. "I'm in hell, aren't I?"
He tilted his head. "Not yet."
I pushed away from the pillows and grabbed him. Blisters sprang up on my palms and in between my fingers, but I gritted my teeth and spat out my words. "Who are you?"
"The first writer, the Scribe. My books lie open before the Throne and someday will be the only witness of your people and their time in this world. The stories are forgotten here, and the Day draws close. I will tell you one of my stories. You will record it."
"I like your work."
I started laughing, the first time I had laughed since I had been brought to this wing of the hospice, where the dying are readied for death, their papers ordered and discreet pamphlets on "end-of-life options" left by quiet-soled salesmen. I laughed until I was winded. He rested his hand on my chest, and I caught my breath as he spoke.
"Let's go find Marisska."CHAPTER 2
I grabbed the IV pole and stood, careful to conceal that awful opening in the back of my gown. I expected to find my leg muscles as sturdy as pudding, but his life had found its way into them, too.
He saw my undignified writhing to get the gown's gaps in order but made no move to assist. "A desk job hasn't been kind to you, has it?"
I followed him down the hall, glaring at his back, the size of a billboard, and shaking my wrist. The Rolex still stayed frozen at a few minutes before 1 a.m.
A nurse pushing a half-awake Crazy Betty wheeled past us. I flattened myself to the wall, bracing for the screams when the two women saw this man.
The nurse didn't see us.
Crazy Betty did. She began yelling at him, shaking her fingers in fury. "Go back where you belong and leave us alone! Always sneaking around, in and out of rooms whenever you like, always scribbling in your little book!"
The Scribe kept walking, pressing a finger to his lips to urge her to be quiet.
The nurse rolled her eyes and shushed Betty. "We'll get you some tea and get you back in bed," she comforted her.
Betty was hearing none of it. As she was wheeled away, she turned and screamed at him, "What are you writing, anyway?"
The Scribe kept walking.
"What was all that?" I asked.
He shrugged and kept walking. "Not everyone is happy to see us."
"She could see you? She's not crazy?"
"She's crazy. But she can see us."
He arrived at the nurses' station.
Mariskka was there, her tone sharp as she argued with someone on the phone. "I said no. It's against our policy here, David. I refuse to give her hope when we both know she's going to die."
Mariskka didn't miss anything, especially when wealthy patients were nearing death but still lucid enough to update their wills. When she finally whirled around in her chair, she would faint from shock to see me up and walking, never mind with a Jolly Black Giant.
He leaned down behind Marisska. I covered my mouth with my hands and held my breath.
Resting his hands on her shoulders, he whispered into her ear, "You need chocolate. Right now. There's some in the kitchen."
"If you show up here, I'll call the cops," Mariskka spat as she slammed down the phone. "I think there's some chocolate calling me." She kicked back her chair and stomped off, in the direction of the kitchen.
"What are you doing?" I hissed at him, watching him remove her Mac and tuck it under his beefy arm. It was barely visibly in between folds of bicep and elbow.
"Borrowing her laptop. You need it."
There were so many reasons this night was all wrong. I could only come up with one to say. "That's a Mac. I don't use Macs."
"Macs don't need as many miracles," he said. "I'm an angel, not a genie."
I stood there, my mouth opening and closing again, trying to say something cruel or anything at all. The jolly freakish giant took off, with strides that outreached mine three to one, heading back to my room.
I should have been out of breath by the time we reached my room, but I was feeling stronger. I was stronger when he was near. When he exhaled it entered my body as a second wind. I edged closer and inhaled as we crossed through the threshold to my room. He turned and smiled, the first smile I had seen. I had almost rather he not do it again. His face was so big that even a smile made me edgy. I'd prefer for a man of this size to have as few emotions as possible.
He went to work plugging the Mac in, moving my bed to find the closest outlet. When it was plugged in, he set it on the edge of the bed and turned to me. My body went bloodless, like fish diving to the deepest refuge, all of my extremities going pale and limp, abandoned. He walked toward me, and my mouth stayed open, with not even the strength to close it. He reached out and took my arm. His warming touch did not hurt, though if I had tried to resist him he could have snapped my arm like a twig. He ran his finger down my arm, resting it on the IV line. Closing his eyes, he opened his hand and gently wiped my arm. The IV line fell to the floor, my arm whole and without a mark.
"It will be easier to work without that," he said.
Blood began to flow back into my arms and legs, and I made my way to the bed as he propped up a few pillows for me. I climbed in, and he handed me the laptop. I began to type, just to feel the keys under my fingertips. It was like coming home.
I'm dying in the middle of the wildest dream! I typed.
He crossed his arms. I could see his jaw shift and set.
Another voice growled. "You wanted the heir."
"She's difficult," the Scribe replied. He didn't turn his head to any direction, and I couldn't tell where the voice came from. "Writing her story for years was easier than living with her for a few minutes."
"She is the heir," the voice replied.
"I'm the heir of what?" I asked. There was a sound like wind, but nothing moved in the room. The Scribe shook his head and looked for a place to sit. The steel-armed chair wasn't large enough. He ran his hands along its frame and it groaned, stretching in all directions until he could comfortably sit. He opened his palms and a book appeared in them, a book bound in black frayed leather, with gold dust along the edges and thick iron locks keeping the pages sealed tight.
"The Tablets of Destiny," he said. "It was last seen in the days of ancient Mesopotamia. It is referenced in the Bible, though never by its name."
My fingers were raised above the keypad but didn't move.
"Names have power," he said. "The past has power. The two meet in this book. No one among you will be allowed to know its full contents until the Day."
My fingers were still immobile.
"Two thousand years ago, on an island infested with fleas and thieves and the condemned," he said, "a dying man was allowed to see the invisible world. He recorded this vision in the book that came to be called The Revelation. He saw that every church has an angel, every nation has an angel, and every child has an angel."
My fingers had begun to move.
"But there was one class of angels he could not see. There are archangels, the strangest and fiercest of us who remain always near the women. Every bloodline of women has been followed by the same archangel since the beginning of the line. The angel of your line has watched you grow from a child into a woman, and he knows your past far beyond what is told to you by your mother and aunts. He knows who your women were, and who you can become."
He stroked the book lovingly and its hinges sprang open, the pages fluttering and turning, settling at last on a dark page. It looked brown from age or heat, its edges crumbling and flaking onto his leg. The ink was faded, almost to the color of the page, and I couldn't make out the words or language, though it was ornately drawn.
He sighed and touched the page. "These words die. They have not been spoken for so long."
"Long ago, in the kingdom you call England, under the reign of King Henry VIII, there lived two women. One loved God, one hated Him, and neither knew Him. Both women, however, heard tell of a book, a dangerous book. When it touched the world around them, it burned all to the ground. When it touched the women, it consumed everything they had built their lives around, until all that is left of them today is rumor and innuendo. For this reason you are brought to this story, for the women of your past have seen this book and its great power. They bought it for you with their lives and know that it is watching you, listening, waiting...."
The ink of the words grew darker, and the page began to turn brighter. He smiled and stroked the words.
I continued to type as he closed his eyes and began. His voice moved all around me and multiplied, changing. I began to see as he saw, the people and voices coming together as my fingers stayed on the keyboard, flying to keep up with the vision as it unfolded....CHAPTER 3
The rain made the April air cold. Water ran in ripples down the path that led to the church with a crucifix hoisted above the door, Christ's bleeding arms outstretched as thunder punctuated the voices of men digging with shovels. The despised Grimbald stood to their right, his candlebox giving them a palsied light as they worked. The rain had let up enough that the flame was in no danger.
She saw they had kicked over the headstone, dragging it away and throwing the dirt over it as they worked. She heard the shovel strike wood and the men growl with pleasure. They dropped ropes to a boy, who shimmied through the mud to the coffin and worked to secure the ropes around each end.
She crept closer to watch, careful to let the trees shield her in her shame. Blood had clotted on the underside of her dress, soaking through to the final outer layer of the skirt. The rain had dispensed with it well enough, but he would get no further remembrance of her body. She cursed her body, and the rain, for soiling the last thing on earth she had. The dress was blue silk, an illicit treasure she had found in an untended parcel outside a gentleman's house. Silk was forbidden for her class to wear, so she found the courage to wear it only on her worst days. Some woman had a beautiful life; this dress was its proof. As she slid into a stranger's dress, she willed that woman's good fortune to befall her.
One man wore the robes of a statesman: golden damask and linen, with an ermine collar around his cloak that she could smell from where she was. The rain was unkind to the rich and poor alike, for it made the poor cold and the rich stink.
Excerpted from IN THE SHADOW OF LIONS by Ginger Garrett. Copyright © 2008 Ginger Garrett. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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