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EXCERPT: Camber of Culdi, by Katherine Kurtz

After tireless searching, Camber MacRorie and Healer Rhys Thuryn track down the alleged heir of the endangered Haldane dynasty—and the key to their kingdom's salvation.





Camber of Culdi

By Katherine Kurtz

“Brother Benedict?” Rhys murmured.

The rustling ceased. Rhys could sense the newcomer’s face behind the grille and caught a whiff of his breath, clean and fresh. It was impossible to see anything.

“Brother Benedict?” Rhys repeated softly.

There was a slight sound from the other side—not quite a cough.

“I am Brother Benedict,” a low voice said. “How may I serve you?”

Healer and pseudo-monk exchanged tense glances, each abundantly aware of the anxiety in the other. Camber leaned closer to the grille.

“We beg your pardon for this intrusion, Brother Benedict, but we hope you may be the man we seek. My name is Brother Kyriell. The man with me is Lord Rhys Thuryn, a Healer. We believe he may have attended your grandfather in his last hours.”

A gasp of surprise. “My grandfather? Dear Jesus and all the Saints, I thought him dead these ten or fifteen years!”

“Dead?” Camber said. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. What was your grandfather’s name?”

“His name? Why, it was Daniel. I tried to reach him some ten years ago, before I took my solemn vows. When I did not hear, I assumed—But you said—forgive me, you said that Lord Rhys attended him in his last hours. Then, he is dead—now.”

“I fear that he is,” Camber answered lamely. “He—” His voice failed him momentarily, so overcome was he by the growing knowledge of the man’s true identity, and Rhys’s grip on his arm was like a vise as he leaned closer to the grille.

“Brother Benedict, this is Lord Rhys. You said your grandfather’s name was Daniel. What was his last name? If you are the man I seek, I have a message for you from him, but I must be sure. Tell me what you remember of your grandfather.”

A pause. Total silence from the other side. Then, quietly: “His full name was Daniel Draper, and he was a merchant in woolen cloth when I left him to join the order. My father, Royston, had died in the plague the year before …”

At the mention of the name, Rhys had a flash of the same picture he had seen in Daniel’s mind: of the father, Royston, laid out for burial, old Daniel and the boy Cinhil looking on fearfully. He suddenly knew what the man on the other side of the grille would look like, grown to middle age: the glossy black hair, silvered at the temples with the passing years; the clear, gray Haldane eyes, sage and serene in the lean, handsome face; the slender hands, smooth through years of prayer, but strong, capable of whatever the man should will …

He shared the image with Camber and felt the older man wince with the intensity. But in that instant he was aware of another impression coming from Camber himself: the knowledge that Cinhil—no, Benedict, for now, for it was safer that way—was not alone!

No malice was inherent in that realization; Benedict himself had probably requested a witness. In fact, it was the abbot who stood so quietly beside the door on the other side. But now they would have to be very careful what they said to their quarry. And how were they to find out more about him, without arousing suspicion?

“… but I prattle on in a most unseemly fashion,” Benedict was saying. “You must pardon me, my lords, but my heart is so overjoyed at learning that my dear grandsire lived these many years, that I find myself quite addled. Pray, tell me, did his later years go well with him? Did he die a good death?”

“He was a good man,” Rhys said gently, raising an eyebrow to Camber as though to ask what next. “I was privileged to attend him from the time I first began to practice my healing craft. He asked on his deathbed that I find you and entreat you to pray for his soul.”

“Oh, that poor, gentle soul,” the other breathed. “Your pardon, my lord, but I must pray a moment.”

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There was a rustle of movement on the other side, and Rhys looked at Camber.

What now? He spoke mind to mind.

I’m not certain. We must find out more, but we dare not arouse the abbot’s suspicion.

That won’t be easy. He—

I have an idea, Camber’s thought broke in. Rhys, could you make him ill?


No, listen to me. Use your healing powers to simulate illness. Make him pass out or something. That may enable us to get inside and see him face-to-face. I doubt they have a Healer of their own.

But, to—to use my powers to harm instead of heal …

Not to harm. To help, in the long run. There would be no lasting effect unless you make it so. Rhys, we must get closer to him. We must find out whether it’s worth the risk to get him out of here!

“I beg your pardon, my lords,” the Haldane’s voice broke in. “I was momentarily overcome, and …”

Do it! Camber urged. He’s disoriented, confused. You can easily bring on a fainting spell. Do it!

“… you will forgive me. What was it you wished to tell me about my grandfather?”

Camber cleared his throat, nodding to Rhys: “I wonder if there might be anything of which you know that could account for your grandfather’s fear of the afterlife, Brother Benedict? Daniel felt that he had sinned terribly. I spoke with his confessor, and the good father assured me that he had made a proper contrition, but …”

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Rhys steeled himself and calmed his mind, letting Camber’s words run over his head unheard, willing himself to the state of tranquillity which was necessary to reach out and tamper with another’s body. Closing his eyes, he blocked out all input from the external world, mentally articulating the words which would bring him into his full healing trance.

He felt the tingle of heightened awareness in his fingertips, in his lips, behind his eyes; he sensed the nearness of the man Benedict on the other side of the grille, listening carefully to what Camber was saying, though Rhys himself heard not a word. Gently, he brought his right hand up to the brass of the grillework, rested his fingertips against the metal, warm to the touch.

Slitting his eyes open, bringing them close to the grille, he could see the outline of Benedict’s head against it, see the skin of his face pressed against the metal as he leaned close to hear the words which Camber spoke but Rhys did not hear. He marshalled his strength for a leap across the short space separating him from the man on the other side, letting his hand go flat against the grille, only millimeters of brass separating hand from other’s head.

Then he was extending himself across the greater void of mind to mind, slipping undetected through the other’s consciousness, which was so intent on words, mere words, while the real meaning wrapped itself around his mind. Then Rhys was in the other’s mind, questing gently for the proper spots to touch, probing relentlessly, but undetected, for the contact which would bring temporary oblivion.

He found it. He steadied his healing hold around the cause of consciousness, exerted pressure, and felt the other’s growing dizziness, the buzz of blurred responsiveness as Camber’s words ceased to make sense. Then the other was slumping against the wall, sliding to the floor unconscious, and another was rushing to his side, amazement and fear radiating from him.

Rhys gave a final touch to the other’s mind, to be certain that consciousness would be gone a sufficient length of time, then withdrew abruptly. He found that he was drenched with sweat, his left hand gripped tightly on Camber’s arm, the older man staring at him with respect and a little discomfort. He let go of Camber’s arm, reverting to spoken speech with a tremulous voice.

“What’s happened?”

Then he was extending himself across the greater void of mind to mind, slipping undetected through the other’s consciousness...

“He’s fainted,” Camber murmured, a faint smile playing across his lips. “Brother Benedict!” he called. “Brother Benedict, are you all right?”

“He’s passed out. I think he’s ill,” came the voice of the abbot from the other side. “Brother Paul, Brother Phineas, attend us!”

A sound of running feet.

“Benedict, speak to us! Phineas, send for the infirmarian. He’s had a shock and passed out. Benedict, are you all right?”

Rhys tried to peer through the grille, but Camber merely continued to kneel, his head cocked slightly as he listened.

Offer to help, he mouthed silently.

Rhys pressed closer to the grille.

“Father Abbot, is there anything I can do to help? It’s Lord Rhys.”

Again they were ignored. There was the sound of more running feet, a low murmur of voices, and then a new voice saying, “I don’t understand why he doesn’t come around, Father Abbot. If he’s just fainted, he should have come around by now.”

“He’s been bled too much, if you ask me,” another voice said. “I told him that twice in the same month was too much.”

“Perhaps it isn’t just a fainting spell,” said a third. “Maybe it’s the plague!”

“The plague?” someone whispered. “Heaven preserve us!”

“Nonsense. Do you want to start a panic?” It was the voice of the abbot. “Lord Rhys, are you still there?”

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“Yes, Father Abbot. I heard what happened. Is there anything I can do to help?”

He looked at Camber, and Camber nodded in hopeful anticipation.

“I’m not certain, my lord. Brother Benedict seems to have fainted, and our infirmarian is unable to revive him. Would you be willing to see him?”

“Please, Father Abbot, I would be most honored to lend whatever assistance I can. I feel somewhat responsible.” Camber rolled his eyes, smothering a chuckle, and Rhys flashed him a nervous glance. “I had no idea he would become so overwrought at the news of his grandfather’s death,” he added hastily.

“You are not to blame, my lord. Brother Phineas, please bring Lord Rhys inside. The rest of you, help me to take Brother Benedict to his cell.”

As sounds faded from the adjoining room, Camber stood stiffly and gave a great sigh.

“How long?” he whispered.

“Perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes.” Rhys hauled himself to his feet while trying to peer again through the brass grille. “I had a devil of a time putting him out, though. I should try to read him properly before I bring him around. It may be our only chance.”

“At least we’ll get a look at the inside of the compound,” Camber agreed. “If we—”

He broke off and coughed just before the door opened, and was straightening his robe as Brother Phineas peered into the chamber.

“Lord Rhys?”

“May I bring Brother Kyriell with me? We’ve worked together before.”


“Please, Brother. I am a monk,” Camber reminded him. “Come, there isn’t time to waste.”

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That night, in their room at a distant inn, Camber and Rhys sat on either side of a small table, a lighted candle between them, their hands linked loosely to either side. On arriving, they had eaten a hasty meal in the common room downstairs, again thawing out from their wintry ride, then had hied themselves to their chamber. The past half-hour had been spent in deep trance, as Rhys imparted to Camber the little he had learned in his brief exploration of Cinhil’s mind; the impressions were more easily conveyed from mind to mind than in spoken words.

Cinhil. Now they were free to voice the name.

Camber was the first to stir, and he sat back in his chair with a sigh as he broke off contact, shaking his fingertips to restore the circulation. Rhys’s eyelids fluttered, and then he too was taking one deep breath, two, three, clearing away the residual effects of the trance from his mind. Camber suppressed a yawn as he poured mulled ale for the two of them.

“Your reading was only superficial, of course—and had to be, under the circumstances. But offhand, I will have to say that I’m impressed.”

Rhys rubbed his eyes and forced them to focus on the older man. “Aye. He’s brilliant, if undeveloped. But—” He sighed, a weary, frustrated sound. “Damn it, why does the man have to have a true vocation for the priesthood? That’s going to complicate things.”

“The man must be true to himself, else he would not be a true Haldane,” Camber smiled. “Cinhil is a priest, he feels that he was called to be that, and he is a good one. He could be no other, given his present circumstances.”

“Joram would understand that; I don’t,” Rhys said testily. “The question is, will he forsake that vocation for a crown? I think it’s clear that, with proper training, he has the ability to rule. But will he? Which will come first for him? The duty of his birth, or the duty of his vows? He’s going to have to make one hell of a choice. For that matter, can we even afford to let him make that choice?”

“To forsake his vows and wear the Crown.” Camber sighed. “To take a wife, produce heirs, re-establish a dynasty—things which, for most men, would be a joyous task. But it will never be so for Cinhil. He is a priest forever, I fear. And though we may force him to put aside his monkish robes, and walk the world again, and take a wife, and wear the crown of his ancestors—and we must do that, I know that now—I suspect he will nevermore be a truly happy man. We dare not even let him make the decision for himself, if there is any chance he will refuse us. Cinhil Haldane must be King.”

“Aye …”

Rhys rested his elbows on the table and let his hands support his head, strangely melancholy.

Camber was silent for a long time. Then: “You’re not certain, are you?”

Rhys shook his head wearily. “We know so little about him, Camber. What if we’re wrong?”

“That’s supposed to be my line.” Camber chuckled. “You and Joram are the ones who were going to be the crusaders against tyranny, and oust the evil king, and restore the true heir.”

Rhys smiled despite his fatigue, but his expression was solemn as he looked again at Camber. “I know. And you’re right, of course. Cinhil has too much potential for us not to attempt a Restoration. But the price …”

“It will be high for all of us,” Camber nodded. “The peasants’ deaths will not be the last we shall have to pay. And Cinhil—Even if we bring him out of Saint Foillan’s, there’s still the matter of convincing him that he and only he can make the coup successful. I hesitate even to contemplate what that will cost the inner man.”

Rhys could only nod agreement as he readied himself for bed. But sleep did not come easily that night, for all his bone-weariness and mental fog from the day’s exertions. Long after Camber’s deep breathing told him that the other slept, Rhys lay staring at the dark ceiling of the chamber, listening to the night sounds of the inn, the winter wind whistling outside the shutters.

He kept thinking of the parts of Cinhil which he had not been able to read, which lay behind close-guarded shields that he had not expected to find in a human, and which he had not dared to probe, for fear of discovery.

He wondered how much Cinhil really knew of his true identity. And he wondered if the thought had ever crossed Cinhil’s mind that he might one day be called upon to assume his Haldane heritage and the Crown of Gwynedd.

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