Tuesday, September 30, 2008


This story originally appeared in Game Trade Magazine, obviously during my Tolkien period. It was written for the Sovereign Stone setting.

Crockery tinkled on the shelf above the hearth, where a fire of dried dung smoldered beneath a dented copper pot. Pyhram’s knobby hand trembled as he set the spoon beside his plate and tried to swallow the food that had suddenly turned to clods in his mouth. A low grumble shuddered through the stone floor and walls of his small abode, slowly mounting to a growling thunder, like an approaching avalanche. Dust sifted past the thick, sooty beams that held up the low roof, sifted down onto his upturned soot-stained face.

He looked into the low coals of the dung fire, watched the gray smoke rising from it, and began whispering a chant under his breath. The smoke coiled about the cooking pot and began to glow with some inner light, hanging in the air and no longer pulled by the draft of the chimney. An image appeared in its midst – a fierce dwarven face, beard blowing in the wind. Pyhram’s breath caught, the chant died on his lips, and the image vanished as the smoke boiled up the flue, free of his spell. He blinked and sighed before pushing himself wearily to his feet.

The heavy wooden door creaked as he pulled it open by its leather cord. Outside, a late autumn sun slanted its golden rays into the combe were his farm lay. His homestead was cut into the steep slope of the hillside above a small natural grotto that served as his barn. A rail-and-stone pen meandered around the edges of a brown wallow, where a lone motherless calf bawled in fear at the sound of the approaching thunder. In the valley below, a crisp wind rippled through acres of tawny grain.

A half dozen hideously naked chickens, half through their molt, scratched in the dirt near the door. Pyhram looked at them in weary disgust. The wind blew the stink of their middens into his face, even as it carried to his nostrils the scent of the open steppe beyond the valley, the wild grasslands that were his birthright.

Still, the thunder grew, though the sky was a clean washed blue and the air as clear and bracing as springwater. He felt the thunder through the thick soles of his boots, felt it thrilling in his joints and bones, even as his stomach knotted in fear. A rusted axe hung from a roof beam protruding from the cut earth above the door. Pyhram took it down and examined its pitted edge. Little good it would do him when they came, but he could not help but fight to protect what was his, even though he hated this place, this prison, as he considered it, to the depths of his dwarven soul. The stink of the chickens brought the bile into his throat, but they were his chickens; the bleating of the motherless calf filled him with revulsion of its domesticated weakness, but it was his calf, and dearly bought as well.

They were coming, he knew, to steal his grain and slaughter his calf, to burn and loot and kill what they had left the year before and the year before that. They didn’t come every year, but they came often enough. He tried to save, to plant extra, to horde and hide so that there would be enough to give to them and still have something left over to last him through the long winter.

But this time, they had come early. The grain was still in the field, and when they found it unharvested, they would burn it. He hadn’t yet hidden the calf in the cave only he knew about, the calf that would provide his meat and leather for the winter. The wolves of the steppe had come early and caught him unprepared. He would have to fight this time. He had fought before and lost. There was nothing else to do – fight and die, or surrender and starve.

The haft of the axe felt good in his hands as he walked down the hillside to meet them. They were in the combe now. Though hidden by the folds of the land, he knew where they were - now passing the old sheepfold where blood still stained the mossgrown and lichen encrusted stones. He followed them with his mind’s eye, trying to count their numbers by the thunder of their hooves. There were too many, he knew. No infantry tactic would serve him now. He stopped at the far corner of his fields, where three heaps of gray stone stood like gateposts to his land.

They came. He saw them passing like ghosts through the dappled light beneath the old orchard, where the charred bones of his first house still stood and the trees had grown ruinous and wild. Down through the trees they came, riding hell bent over their horses’ necks, their beards flying in the wind of their speed. Short bows of horn and hide slapped against their backs as they galloped splashing down into the stream and across it. Their horses surged and heaved up the nearer bank, water spraying from their thrashing legs and manes. They rode up to him and stopped, looking down at him with his rusted axe and his feet planted solidly across the path. Iron caps were on their round heads and spears gleamed in their fists. Their half-wild horses stamped and pranced impatiently, fighting the bit, their hooves pounding the earth like hammer blows.

One of the dwarf riders shouted fiercely, his teeth gleaming in his beard, “Who are you? What is your name and your clan?”

“I am Pyhram,” he answered. “As for my clan, I have none. I am unhorsed.”

The rider laughed and slipped from the saddle, tossing the reins of his unruly horse to one of his companions. He approached Pyhram, a pair of savage, stone-gray eyes staring out from beneath a crag-like brow. It was the face he had seen in the fire.

“What would you have of me?” Pyhram asked, impatient under the dwarf’s appraising stare. Pyhram returned his gaze, noting the youth of this dwarf by the silkiness of his beard, yet also appreciating that the other dwarves, a score at least and some of them a century older, treated the young dwarf with respect. There was something disconcerting about the young dwarf’s features, some familiarity or remembrance that troubled Pyhram even as he tried to present a bold front. They had not attacked on sight. They had asked his name. Perhaps they would leave him alone, or so he hoped.

Suddenly, the younger dwarf laughed. “It’s true! We’ve found him!” he shouted, turning to his horsed companions. “This dwarf is my brother.”

Pyhram grabbed the young dwarf by the wrist and spun him around. He looked hard into his eyes, studied his features, recognized them as like his own, and denied the evidence of his own eyes, all in the same moment. “Who are you?” he snarled.

“I am Neram, your brother,” the younger dwarf said. “Likely, you don’t recognize me. I was but a lad when you left.”

Eyeing the other dwarves fearfully, Pyhram dragged the young dwarf some distance away. He whispered harshly under his breath, “You must not say that. I am unhorsed. I have no clan, no family, no brother. If you acknowledge me, they will cast you out as well.”

Pyhram turned to the other dwarves still sitting their horses beside the stream. He said loudly and a little too jovially, “Yes, he is mistaken. I am not his brother. I have no brother. An honest mistake.” The dwarves glanced at each other with puzzled expressions. Pyhram turned back to his young brother. “Now go.”

“I have a brother!” Neram shouted joyously, throwing his arms around old Pyhram and lifting him into the air.

“No!” Pyhram cried, struggling against the unwelcome embrace.

“It is true,” Neram continued, setting Pyhram on his feet. He took his older brother by the shoulders and held him firmly, looking deeply into his eyes. “Once, I did not have a brother. I remembered him, but it was forbidden to speak of him. I was beaten for mentioning his name, for he betrayed our clan by marrying against our father’s wishes, for marrying an unhorsed woman. But as our father lay dying by the fire, he regretted the curse he had laid upon his eldest son and grieved that he must die without seeing him once more, without hearing his voice, without being forgiven by the son he had wronged.”

Neram turned to the other dwarves. “The curse against my brother is lifted,” he pronounced. “Pyhram of the Bloodtooth clan lives. Hail your chieftain!” In response, they loosed a ferocious cheer, thrusting their spears wildly into the air as their horses stamped and neighed.

“What is this?” Pyhram asked in the confusion of noise.

“You are the eldest brother,” Neram shouted. “Our father became chieftain during the last wars, when the old chief died childless, the last of his family. Now, you are chieftain.”

“I cannot be chieftain,” Pyhram protested, still refusing to believe. “I am unhorsed.”

“Have you heard nothing that I said. Our father lifted his curse. You are unhorsed no longer,” Neram said, shaking his brother by the shoulder. “In truth, our father’s horse goes to you, the chieftain’s horse.”

As he said this, one of the riders led a roan-colored mare before them. She was a fine horse, steady, clean of limb and bone, calm and fearless as the setting sun, whose color she mirrored. On her face she bore a white blaze, the sign of a chieftain’s horse. She eyed Pyhram steadily for a moment, and then dipping her head, she nuzzled his beard. Pyhram lowered his forehead to hers, and closing his eyes he breathed in the warm peaty smell of the horse. His hands caressed her finely tooled and silvered harness and the silky forelock of her mane.

“The chieftain’s horse has claimed him,” Neram said ceremoniously. “Let no one doubt that my brother has returned.”

Pyhram lifted his head, tears streaming into his beard. “I do not understand,” he said. “What would you have of me?”

“You are our chieftain!” Neram exclaimed. “We are your warriors. Lead us. The time of riding is upon us, the villages and steadings to the south are ripe, their barns full of grain and their sheep bleating to be sheered!”

Pyhram looked around at his farm prison, the fields and the grotto barn and the smoke rising from the chimney of his house. “I… I cannot leave now,” he stammered. “There is the harvest, and…”

Neram laughed in thunderous merriment, and the other dwarves joined him. “You speak like a farmer, brother. So this place of yours is Middenstead, I have heard it named.”

“I did not name it so,” Pyhram answered darkly.

“Dung-home. The wind in your eyes will wash the memory of it from your heart,” Neram said jovially. “Yes, and the smell of fire burning field and farm will cleanse the stink of this place from your nostrils. You are a dwarf, a chieftain of dwarves, brother. Let us slaughter your livestock and make a feast of celebration. In the morning, we shall raze this place to the ground so that it may never haunt your dreams. Then you shall lead us to war and slaughter to the south, where they say the cattle are fat this year and the humans grown lazy and content from our wars with the elves of the north.”

Almost Pyhram could hear the ringing of axe on shield and the twang of bowstrings, the thunder of horses’ hooves over the hard-packed earth, the battle cries of his raiders. But as he did so, he also heard the screams of the dying, the crackle and whoosh of fire as a burning home collapses upon itself. He heard in his thoughts the weeping of a woman and the shrill terror of a child swept up in the tides of reckless battle. And as he did so, his eyes settled upon the three stone mounds marking the edge of his field. In the fading light of the day, he read the small inscription he had carved and placed on each.

“I cannot do this,” he said. “I cannot leave this place. I buried my wife and two sons here, after they were murdered by raiding dwarves.”

“They were not slain by the Bloodtooth clan, this much I swear. Our father would not allow his people to raid here,” Neram said defensively.

“It does not matter, my brother,” Pyhram sighed. “Can’t you see? I have lived too long unhorsed. I am the farmer who fears the time of the riding, the farmer whose family, whose sons were murdered by such raiders as you would have me now lead. How can I sweep down upon the sleeping village when I know I shall see in the faces of the dead the faces of my own sons? I have suffered too much from this to take part in it now.”

“Revenge, then!” Neram said fiercely. “Lead us against the clan who destroyed your family. Kill their sons and their wives to pay for the loss of your own. We will follow you, and gladly.” The other dwarves growled in agreement, their fists tightening around their spears.

“I don’t know who they were,” Pyhram said. “They come every year, and each year it is a different band. One blends into another. It was all so long ago.”

“Then lead us against them all. The Bloodtooth is the strongest clan on the steppes. Lead us against the other clans and we shall bring them under our dominion. This is our destiny, and you shall be our king. You shall have a dozen sons to replace the two you lost,” Neram pleaded.

Pyhram shook his head and pushed away the roan’s muzzle. “Brother, your words stir my blood like the wind in autumn, but my feet have been too long in this place. Beneath those stone mounds lies the better part of me. I am bereft, hollow and alone, waiting for death so that I may join with what I lost. I left the clan for love of the one who lies there. I cannot leave her now.”

Neram stepped back from his brother, his gray eyes pooled with unshed tears. “You truly are unhorsed,” he said in a voice thick with emotion. “But my father’s curse remains lifted. You are still my brother.” Saying this, he strode to his own horse and leaped into the saddle. He sawed angrily at the reins, the horse stamped the earth and tossed its head.

“This place, this Middenstead of my brother, lies under my protection now,” he said. “No riders will come here again, unless it is to trade or visit.”

“I thank you,” Pyhram answered.

“One other thing, brother. We need grain. Last year’s raids were unsuccessful, for the elves had fled before we came. That is why we raid south this year.”

Pyhram looked at his fields, still tall with tawny wheat. “I have no food fit for you,” he said. “No meat or bread, only roots and dried berries that I find in the wild fields.”

The other dwarves wrinkled their noses in disgust. To them, he was unhorsed once more.

“Very well. Good bye, farmer,” Neram snarled as he lashed his horse and dug his heels into its flanks. The riders dashed away, splashing across the stream. The chieftain’s horse stamped the ground and snorted, but she did not follow them, and they did not seem to notice or care that she remained with an unhorsed dwarf.

But as they mounted the bank into the ruined orchard, Neram paused and turned his mount. The others rode away, vanishing with thunder into the gathering darkness beneath the trees. When they had gone, Neram shouted across the babbling stream, “You may keep the horse, brother. She chose you and you are her chieftain now. But do not bow her noble neck beneath a plow or I will return and kill you.”

Pyhram lifted his hand in thanks. “Return with the next moon, if you have not already ridden south,” he said. “We shall slaughter the calf together.”Neram nodded once and turned his steed back toward the wooded slopes. As he rode into the orchard, the sun dropped behind the hill. In the chill evening darkness, Pyhram walked back to his house, followed closely by the stamping, shuffling tread of the mare. When he reached the grotto that served as his barn, he realized that he would need to enlarge it before winter, now that he had a horse to stable. But the prospect of this labor suddenly seemed pleasant to him, as nothing else had for a long, long time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Long Pilgrimage Home Pt. 2

(continued from Part 1)

Our journey across France was an adventure the likes of which I had only heard in stories. We lived as knights errant, begging for our bread whenever we came to a town, or going to the church for distribution of alms. Several times as we traveled through lonely places, we were accosted by robbers, but as we had no money, they let us go. Somehow, they never found Pete's sword wrapped in its blanket. Pete said God was protecting us, for they surely would have taken the sword if they had found it.

Pete had a most uncanny talent for picking out safe houses along the road. He could tell at a glance whether or not the people would be friendly to us. It was possible that he had learned a secret list of such places in the past, but how he knew which ones were still safe and which had been discovered, I never found out, and he wouldn't tell me. I suspected some kind of mark on the door, but I couldn't see it. The people we met in these houses seemed always to know that we were renegade Templars, for they called us 'Brother' when they spoke to us. In the poorer houses, we slept with the families all in one room, even with their goats and animals; it made me homesick for my old home in Albi. Other times, we slept in stables or barns, and one night we passed in an orchard.

Wherever we went, wherever we stayed, we learned what had been passing in the outside world after our arrests. We learned of the Hospitallers' taking of the isle of Rhodes as base from which to fight the Turks. Since their loss of Krak des Chevaliers, they had not had a home. In many places, we heard troubadours singing of the deeds of William Wallace, for his tale had grown quite popular. We gathered news of the Templars. It was said that some had escaped, and that when the king's men took the Temple in Paris, they found the treasury gone; some said it had been smuggled out a few days before the arrests. The entire Templar fleet at La Rochelle, the ships with which we had transported pilgrims to and from the Holy Land, had vanished without a trace! We learned that in Spain and England, Germany and Cyprus, the Order had been found innocent of the charge of heresy. Only in France, and in some of the papal provinces in Italy, were our brothers still being persecuted.

In one of the house where we stayed, we learned that a large group of knights was gathering in the forests around Lyons, but for what reason no one knew. Pete decided that we had better go there, for he suspected they were planning an attack of some sort on Vienne, as it was only twenty miles ­south of Lyons. He speculated that they might even be planning to kidnap the Pope. Pete knew that such a rash act must be stopped, and as we lay one night in a cave, he told me of his plan to go to Lyons to stop them. “If we attack the Holy Father,” he said with great passion, “our cause is lost forever. We must trust in the rule of Law.”

On the roof of the cave, someone had painted pictures of animals: bulls, horses, and strange beasts with long noses, which looked like elephants. "Who do you suppose painted these?" I asked Pete. "Romans?"

"Possibly. Hannibal had elephants in his army when he crossed the Alps," Pete answered. "Perhaps these were painted in remembrance of that event by people who witnessed it."

"The elephants had mighty tusks in those days," I commented, noticing the great sweeping curves of their ivory. "Have you ever seen an elephant?"

"There were many in Rome when I was there, but none so large as these, nor so shaggy."


A light dust hung above the road as we traveled, and wood smoke from the cooking fires curled among the treetops in the evening. Willy, the gray ass we had borrowed from our brother Templars, was as fine a mount as a poor crippled man could want; he was so patient and kind and had so sweet a disposition that I suspected him of being descended of that famous ass that had carried Our Lord in Jerusalem so long ago. However, Pete insisted on naming the poor beast Willy, after William de Nogaret, the king's counsellor and architect of our arrests. It was an insult to the ass, to be sure.

The summer was growing old. The leaves of the trees were turning to yellow and scarlet, and the slanting rays of the afternoon sun turned the white walls of the houses to gold. Out in the countryside, with the ripe fields and the long sinuous lines of the vineyards crawling across the hills, and the laughter and songs of the peasants in the evenings and the dirty faces of the children, I was reminded of home in Albi. It was years since I had seen my old village, and a great longing came into my heart to return there when this was done.

We found Lyons nervous and agitated, like a town on the frontier of war. Everyone, simply everyone, knew of the knights in the forests around town, and they knew that some bold action was being prepared. Wagonloads of supplies went out to the forests every day. But it was some time before we could get any information from anyone, not until they were absolutely convinced we were truly who we said we were. The people seemed to have developed a great affection for 'their knights', as they called them, and they didn't want anything bad to happen to them; they were protecting them from the spies of King Philip the Fair, the monarch they openly despised. At last, the elders of the town accepted us, and we were led out to the place where the leaders of the knights met. A small Italian boy was given to us as a guide, and as he rode on Willy with me, I noticed him continually looking at the ground to either side of us, as though he were following a track. So I asked him, "What are you doing?"

"I am looking for where you have hidden your feet, sir," he answered in his own language. I had some difficulty understanding him, for I had not spoken Italian since my youth.

"I have no feet," I said.

"Where you come from, does God not give the people feet?" he asked.

"God gave me feet," I told him, "but the king of France burned them off."

"The king of France is not a Christian," he said. Such was that people's hatred of Philip the Fair. He had annexed Lyons not very many years before.

After an hour or so, we entered a large tract of forest south of the city, not too far from the Rhone River. Just before we entered the forest, we could see a great bend of the river sweeping into the trees. The woods were most thick and darksome, for they were very old, a remnant of that same old forest where the Gauls fought the Romans, where Celt howled and werewolf prowled as they used to say, and which used to cover the whole of France and most of Europe. The boles of the trees were black and huge, and the branches overhead were woven into such a thick mat of leaves that little light reached the brown leafy mould below. The boy knew the path well, else we surely would have become lost. Willy grew nervous and switched his tail; his ears turned this way and that. Endless rows of dark trunks stretched down and away as we descended toward the river, and the path meandered between them. Soft furtive noises arose to either side of the path as we passed, and black squirrels scampered about in the canopy above us, shaking the leaves and dropping acorns onto the trail. One dropped into my lap, frightening me more than if it had been a snake. The forest was old, old, older than France, older than Christianity; it was as old as Noah and sprang up in the strange and mysterious time when few men knew God. I was terrified, but Pete only laughed at me. The boy seemed at home.

"Why are you afraid?" he asked me. "God's own knights live here, but nothing evil."

At last, the path began to rise as it climbed onto a last knoll or ridge before the land made its last descent to the river. The trees began to thin, sunlight peeked through the roof in spots, and the place became less dark and lonesome. We heard birds singing ahead as we climbed up toward the sun. Soon, we came upon an encampment of knights. Pete cried out and ran ahead, and the knights rose and turned to look. They wore red crosses.

"See," the boy said, pointing. "There are the Knights of God."


That night, a general chapter was held. They led us to the top of the hill where we found a clearing, a grassy knoll surrounded like a tonsured pate by a ring of huge ancient oaks. In the center of this high place there was a flat slab of blue stone as big as a bed; there they placed me and told Pete to sit beside me. At the head of the stone there was a narrow, diamond-shaped hole surrounded by crystals. One of the knights showed it to me, and he said that according to the local people, this was the stone where Arthur drew Excalibur. He told me that the place was called Arthur's Crown. Frankly, I thought the place looked more like an old druid's temple, and I shuddered to think of the pagan rituals that had been practiced there. Then Pete pointed out how similar in design the place was to the Temples in Paris and London. "Stand a cross on this slab," he said, "and you have almost exactly the standard Temple design."

Pete would have been the ranking member at the chapter had he been a true knight, and he was by far the oldest person there other than me. All the knights who had gathered were young, not one older than thirty. As they slowly filed past, each greeting me with a grave reverence which made me feel most uncomfortable, it occurred to me that, almost by design, the youth and vitality of the order had somehow avoided the arrests and tortures we were forced to endure. It seemed only those with the greatest experience and wisdom were chosen to undergo the trial, while the young men who would be the future of the order were set aside, protected, so that they could carry on.

And carry on they did. That night, three young men from Lyons begged to join the order and were accepted. When this was done, Pete stood and told of the papal inquiries and his plans to defend the Order before them. Each point of the accusations was discussed in full, and all in attendance were asked to tell whether they had seen or heard of any acts similar to the charges leveled against us: namely -- worshipping an idol in the shape of a head, revering Satan in the form of a black cat, lewd kissing of the grandmaster or preceptor - particularly on the anus or in virga virili - at any reception of new members, had anyone been required to deny Christ or God or the Virgin, spit on or trample the Cross, or been enjoined to commit sodomy by any member of the order. Everyone roundly denied all these charges. Then Pete told of deaths of brother Knights both by torture and by fire. He told of the burning of the fifty-four near the Porte de Saint Antoine, and at this there was much angry shouting, while others wept openly. I was then called to tell what had happened to me. I had little enough to say. My feet were burned off in a slow fire, and I was condemned to life imprisonment because I had not confessed. They cheered me so vigorously that I blushed; I thought my heart would burst with love for those good brave men.

Then we heard more of what had been passing in the world. We learned of the escapes of brothers from France and of the trials in other countries. In Germany, a trial was held at which the preceptor of Metz, Hugo von Grumbach, appeared suddenly in full armor, backed by twenty knights, and demanded the right to trial by combat to defend the Order. As neither the archbishop nor anyone else was prepared to accept the challenge, the Order was absolved of all charges. We also learned of places where Templars were not only accepted, they were welcomed and even eagerly sought: in Aragon, Castille, and Portugal knights were needed to fight the Moors; in Germany some had joined the Teutonic Knights, others joined the Hospitallers at Rhodes and in other countries; but the most promising place seemed to be Scotland, where Robert Bruce was seeking knights to help him in his fight against England. Robert was excommunicate, so his lands were considered the safest place for other excommunicates, such as ourselves.

Some of the men were in favor of leaving France entire, and most of these seemed eager to sail for Scotland right away. But the vast majority were all for a repeat of Hugo von Grumbach's success at Metz; they wanted to march into Vienne in force and demand justice from the Pope, and if his holiness refused, they would take him captive. The knights' representatives at the chapter reckoned there to be between fifteen hundred and two thousand knights scattered around Lyons, more than enough to take the city of Vienne and all its dignitaries and hold them until the charges against the Order were dropped, our brothers still in prison released, our leaders returned, and our lands and treasures restored. According to our spies, twenty cardinals, four patriarches, and over a hundred bishops and archbishops were already in Vienne, awaiting the beginning of the Council on the morrow. For fighting men trained in a long tradition of capture and ransom, this seemed too rich a prize to pass up.

Only by drawing upon the deepest reserves of his persuasive powers did Pete manage to forestall their designs. For two days and nights, the general chapter dragged on and on in endless argument, until word reached us that the representatives of the Council in Vienne had called for defenders of the order to appear, with full guarantees of protection. This finally swayed them to pursue the cautious course advocated by Pete. In the end, it was decided that seven should go to Vienne, but they should be fully armed. Pete, of course, wanted to be one of the seven, but this only started them arguing again. In the meanwhile, I was to be sent ahead, and there they would call me as a witness if they needed me, once they arrived.

I truly did not wish to be separated from Pete. We had been through so much together, but they rushed me away, and I never got to say good-bye to him. I saw him briefly through the trees across the camp as I was leaving; he held up his hand in token of farewell, and though he did not call out to me, our eyes touched and there was a cord passed between us that all the leagues and all the years would never cut. Then the trees closed round me and I thought I would never see him again.


They gave to me a mute from Macon named Reynauld to guide me to Vienne. Once again, I rode upon Willy, while Reynauld walked beside me. Reynauld was a big strapping fellow with a shock of black hair as thick as a horse brush. He liked for me to tell him stories from the Bible, so I told him the tale of Samson because I thought he might like it. It took us a day and a half to travel to Vienne, and the closer we got the more people we met on the road. Knights, pilgrims, and peasants, lords and ladies and their entourages, troubadours, jugglers and their trained animals, merchants, traders, thieves, and highwaymen, all crowded the way, jostling for a place in the tiny city by the Rhone.

Vienne was too small for the Council. The people were packed in like birds in a pie, and the people of Vienne were starving. Pope Clement V could not have chosen a worse place. Demand sent prices soaring. By the time I arrived, there was not a bed to be had in the entire city. A loaf of bread coast three day's wages for some. But inside the palaces, they ate lark's tongues and Flemish toast with cotignac of Orleans.

Each morning, Reynauld set me near the gates of the city. While I begged for alms and displayed my poor legs to the public, he scoured the city for news, and each night he returned and wrote for me what he had discovered. Someone had taught Reynauld to read and write Latin, and he did it very well, but he had little enough to tell. There was no news from Lyons. No one knew when the knights would arrive. Luckily, news of the gathering of the Templars in Lyons had not reached the church officials in Vienne. In the meanwhile, in those two days my begging only earned us one silver denier, and we were forced to sell poor Willy just to buy bread.

Finally, on the morning of the third day, not long after he left me by the gate, Reynauld returned with a letter. It read:

The knights will arrive this afternoon. Be ready. Reynauld has a letter of passage which will get you into the Council chambers.

And it was signed only with a cross.

The guards at the doors were reluctant to allow us inside, despite the letter of passage which Reynauld showed them. In the end, they did let us go; I suppose they thought I might be some sort of holy man, a hermit from Italy perhaps, like venerable old Celestine who was made Pope against his will (I prayed I would not share his fate). Inside, there was a sea of red such as I had never before witnessed. Cardinals, bishops, archbishops, and abbots thronged the floor thick as fleas on a dead bear. At the far end of the chamber, another table was set up on a dais, and sitting in a golden throne at this board was none other than Pope Clement, a small balding man with a weak chin and narrow lips, a long Norman nose and an angry wrinkled brow. He waved off nearly everyone who approached him. He looked to be in pain, for he habitually rubbed his stomach beneath his vestments.

A meal was just beginning as we entered. Long tables were set up along either wall, with a great open space between, where servants bustled about with laden trays and goblets of gold and silver brimming with wine. In the center of this space was a great table piled high with food of every sort imaginable; it seemed ready to break at any moment. In the center of the table was a great white swan, with two peacocks in full feather to either side, all in a great nest of green herbs. At either end of this banquet table were two great huge pies, each with gradually smaller pies piled atop it, all wrapped in red cloth, forming a sort of miter. The largest of these pies each contained a whole roe-deer, a whole goose, a capon, seven chickens, ten young pigeons, fourteen starlings, and three rabbits, flavored with two pounds of bacon, two dozen hard-boiled eggs, saffron, cloves, and cinnamon. Large tranchoirs of bread were passed round to all and sundry, even myself. We had no seat at table, but Reynauld and I found a place near wall. And although we received none of the main course from the table, we were given slices of roast boar and plenty of salt, and a rich gravy was poured over our bread.

When the repast was complete, the Council began where it had left off, first with another call for defenders of the Temple to come forward, and then with discussions about arranging a new Crusade. Other than the Pope, no one seemed very enthusiastic about the prospects of retaking the Holy Land. While Clement harangued them in his high thin voice, most of those gathered ignored him completely. They carried on with their own petty conversations, complaining about their accommodations, arguing about matters of rank and hierarchy, discussing the possibility of various hunts in neighboring provinces, but no one seemed to hear a word the Pope said.

This continued for more than an hour. Gradually, conversations tapered off to an uneasy silence, and people began to watch the door, but the Pope continued unabated. Finally, even he stammered to a stop, and he stood up. "Guards, what is going on out there?" he asked.

Outside in the courtyard, there seemed to be some sort of a fight. I heard a lot of violent shouting, and the clatter of hooves and angry snorting of horses. One of the guards approached the doors, but as he laid his hand on the bar to open them, the doors burst wide. In clattered seven Knights Templar upon their horses fully armored, resplendent snowy white mantles glorious as the sun, radiant crosses of scarlet glowing upon their shoulders. Tears welled up in my eyes at their beauty. With hands upon hilts and visors lowered, they rode in standard wedge formation into the center of the chamber. Pope Clement called for his guards and cowered behind his throne, and armed men with pikes and halberds rushed between the knights and the pontiff, blocking the way with a wall of sharp steel. The knights cantered to a stop.

"We have come to defend the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon," one of the knights shouted to the silent assembly. Because they all wore their bascinets with visors lowered, it was impossible to tell which knight spoke, but to my ears he sounded much like Peter de Boulogne. The second knight from the back on the right seemed smaller than the others, and he rode his horse more awkwardly than the rest.

"We represent a force of two thousand knights encamped in the forests around Lyons," the knight continued. This news set up ripples of astonished murmuring which circled the chamber. Pope Clement paled.

"We have come to prove the innocence of the Knights of the Temple and to free our leaders and brothers held in the prisons of the king of France and elsewhere. May we speak?" the knight asked.

"Arrest them!" was the pope's answer.

This caused a tremendous uproar. The knights drew their swords. The papal council had guaranteed the safety of any who wished to defend the order. "They must be allowed to speak!" one of the cardinals shouted. But at a gesture from the pope, guards rushed in behind the knights and barred the doors.

"Your holiness," shouted the Bishop of Bayeux, who had been part of the council ordered to conduct the investigation in France and whose work was thwarted by the Archbishop of Sens when he ordered the burning of the fifty-four. "You Holiness, how can we expect to discover the truth in this matter if those who would defend the Templars are too afraid to step forward and speak? We have granted them safe passage, and now you would revoke it?"

"The question of their guilt has been answered," the Pope said. "Arrest them. We will recess until tomorrow." He then fled the room, shouting as he went, "Double the guard, and post watches on the road to Lyons!"


Two hundred years of glorious Templar history ended with the flight of the pope from the chamber. Our brothers did not fight, of course; even then, they could not bring themselves to raise their weapons against their fellow Christians, for at Peter’s urging, they still hoped to save the Order from oblivion. But it was too late. I realized the Pope had never meant to allow us defend ourselves. The Order had died on 13 October, 1307, but it had taken this long for the blood to stop flowing. They took my brothers away, including Pete, but they dared not try to take their arms from them; this much, at least, we gained. The room eventually cleared, and Reynauld and I were left alone with the scraps of food and the silence. A hollow place opened inside me, a cold place in my belly; I felt like I had drunk a bottle of vinegar. "Hold my hand, Reynauld," I said. "I feel like I might come apart." But he grabbed me and held me close in his arms, and his body shook with sobs, though he made no sound.

We slept the night in Vienne, finding accommodations in a loft. Below us, a merchant spent most of the hours of darkness cavorting with a half dozen lewd women that his filthy silver had purchased. God’s will was worked though, for when we woke that morning, we found him murdered and his women disappeared.

Reynauld carried me out of Vienne on his back like a cross, and though I begged him not to, he would not set me down until he had transported me across the mountains and all the way to Albi. I found my home much as I had left it, and after shaving my beard, I took a job with the bishop who lived nearby. Reynauld remained as my servant until the end of his days. And the king’s soldiers never found me, as I had the bishop’s protection.

But a few days after I arrived in Albi, I had a visitor. I found him at my window as I was preparing for bed. By my bones, I was glad to see him alive!

Pete told me that Clement had recessed the Council until April of the next year. He and the other knights were never allowed to speak in defense of the Order, but they did manage to escape one night. The king sent an army to Lyons, but they found the forests empty and the residents apparently ignorant of the supposed Templars in the forest.

Bernard would not tell me where he was going. “It is best you remain ignorant, Brother,” he said, taking my hand for the last time. “They’ve already burned up the better part of you. I’d like to leave knowing the rest was safe.”

©1998-2008 Jeff Crook

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Long Pilgrimage Home Pt. 1

Here is the first part of a long story originally published in Paradox. It was first written as an assignment for a historical fiction class at the University of Memphis. The main characters, Peter de Boulogne and Bernard de Vaho, were historical figures of the period, though their adventure perhaps was not.

I heard Pete rise beside me in the darkness. "Pray with me Bernie," he said. At first I didn’t know why. We always said our prayers as best we could, guessing the times, but there was no way either of us could know if it was matins, prime, terce, meridiem, or any other hour of prayer, and it seemed to me we had just finished saying our paternosters; I could still taste the moldy bread we'd had for dinner. No sunlight reached our dismal subterranean chamber, buried as it was deep beneath a crossroads in Paris, with a roof so low there was not even enough room to stand up, provided one had strength to stand at all. But perhaps Pete’s ears were keener than mine, for he heard them coming long before I. "Pray with me Bernie," he said familiarly. I suppose he expected to be taken away and burned like the others, and he wanted to prepare his soul.

A door somewhere wailed on its hinges, a brazen trumpet blast, a single note rising, quavering, like the call of last judgment. Golden spears of light groped through the grate in the door, awakening a sighing groan from the bodies lying around us and revealing them in all their naked angular shadows, their acute limbs, their bulbous stubbled heads nodding atop their necks and their gaunt bearded faces blinking in the new light. "Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having failed you..." Pete began. He prayed with eyes wide and head unbowed, his fists at his sides, trembling.

The light stopped outside the door, illuminating the dungeon like the sun through a rent in dark clouds. A key rattled in the lock. The bodies animated around us and crawled away from the door as best they could and as far as their irons would allow. The bolt shot with a bang; the door opened. Torchlight filled the hall outside.

Our gaoler lurched through the door as though pushed from behind. He fell at Pete's feet. In the hall two men stood, swords drawn. They wore white surcoats, white as the snow on Plomb de Cantal on Christmas Eve, with scarlet crosses stitched at the right shoulder, and beautiful unkempt beards, one copper-red and one graying-black, poking angrily from their mail coifs.

"Peter de Boulogne and Bernard de Vaho!" Graybeard shouted. "Are they here?"

"I am Bernard de Vaho," I said, crawling forward into the circle of their torchlight.

Both men staggered back at the sight of me. Redbeard crossed himself. They took a moment to steel themselves. Finally, Graybeard said, "We're here to rescue you. Where is Brother Peter?"

Pete still crouched in his chains, staring down at the gaoler who had not moved. But he looked up at the mention of his name. "That's him," I said. Redbeard ducked into the cell and grabbed Pete by the arm. "Come along, Brother. We must make haste," Redbeard said. He stooped and took the keys from the gaoler's belt and unlocked our chains. Graybeard stooped through the door and helped Pete into the hall, while Redbeard easily lifted me in his arms. The other men in our dungeon began to cry out, realizing that they were going to be left behind. Pete looked back at them, and I thought he was about to say something, but instead he turned and followed Graybeard. I thought my own heart would break, seeing our poor emaciated brothers straining at their chains, their beards wagging, their hands stretching out for us. I couldn't bear to look any longer. I hid my face behind Redbeard's shoulder.

They hurried us down the hall and up a flight of stairs past an open door. A guard lay on the floor beside the door, not dead but not sleeping, dazed perhaps, as though under a witch’s spell. Another lay in the chamber beyond. Pete stared at them in puzzlement as we hurried by. Redbeard cradled me like a child in his arms. I looked back over his shoulder at the guards. "What happened to those men?" I asked.

"No time to explain," he answered.

We ducked under a low arch and turned, entering another hall. At the end of the hall we could see another chamber, this one full of guards milling about, drinking and dicing and making a general friendly uproar. Our rescuers stopped about halfway down this hall. Graybeard searched the left-hand wall until he found a loose brick. He pried it loose with his dagger and pulled it out, then handed the brick to Pete. Brother Pete stared at it stupidly; he still had not got his wits about him. Graybeard then reached into the hole left by the brick, we heard a small click, and a low irregular section of the wall swung inward, revealing a secret passageway. Graybeard took the brick from Pete and replaced it in the wall. "Come on," he growled, dragging Pete into the tunnel. Redbeard followed, taking care not to knock my head as he pushed the secret door back into place with his shoulder.

The interior of the tunnel was black as an Egyptian night. I thought they would light a torch, but instead they hurried us along. Finally, Pete said something after his long unnatural silence. "Can you men see in here?" he asked.

"No," Graybeard answered. His voice was deep and growly, like that of a man long-used to shouting orders over the din of battle. "Hurry along and don't lose me. Put your hand on my shoulder, Brother," he said.

My back began to ache from being carried lack a sack. How those men found their way in the dark, I'll never know. At length, they stopped, and Redbeard set me on the ground. "Wait here," he said.

"Where are you going?" Pete asked in the darkness, for we still couldn't see. The air, which had been damp in the dungeon of the Temple, was much drier here, and the floor was clean and dry. Pete's voice echoed uncannily. There was no other sound. I hadn't heard the knights leave us, but they could not have been there any longer or we would have heard them breathing. It was as though they had vanished.

After a time, I asked Pete, "Do you think they were ghosts?"

He didn't answer.

"Mine seemed solid enough," I said. "Strong as an ox, he was."

Pete remained silent.

"Did you notice their antique armor?" I asked. Pete grunted, so I continued, "No one wears those mail coifs anymore, not with the new aventail bascinets."

Pete responded with continued silence.

"Perhaps they were from an outlying province, or even another country," I suggested. "Didn't their idiom seem odd to you?"

"Perhaps they were from Scotland," I concluded when Pete didn't answer. I couldn't just sit there in the dark and wait for God-knows-what.

"Why do you think they rescued us?" I asked.

"Please be quiet, Brother Bernard," Pete said, dropping his old familiarity now that we had apparently escaped the dungeon in which we had become fast friends, despite the vast differences between us. Pete had been the procurator of the Temple at the Roman Court, whereas I was but a simple priest of the Knights Templar. But who could tell the difference between us now in the gloom, except perhaps by the variances in our speech? "I am trying to think," he said.

"Sorry Pete," I said.

After a while, I said, "Do you suppose they killed those guards? Those were Christian men, after all, even if they were our jailers." I whispered a paternoster for their souls, just in case. While I prayed, I noticed a gray light beginning to filter down from somewhere high above. The light touched here and there a form in the darkness around us. One figure in particular took shape in the light, that of a woman standing with arms outstretched, palms toward heaven.

"Mary!" Pete whispered in awe and reverence as he looked up and saw her before him. Music floated down from above, the sweet resonance of a boy's choir. Tears sprang up in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. Pete fell to his knees and I rose to mine, while the light grew, illuminating the other figures. Two knights stood to either side of the figure of Mary, while all around us lay other knights, some with legs crossed to signify service in the Holy Land. And I realized quite suddenly, and not without a touch of regret, that this was not a miracle, but a tomb.

Looking up, I saw a small grate in the ceiling high above, through which the light filtered, flickering intermittently now. Robed figures passed at regular intervals above, the singers whose voices resounded hollowly in our chamber, passing in procession, their sandled feet stepping on the iron grate, their robes whispering over it. No one looked down, nor could they have seen anything, I imagine, if they had.

I crawled over to Pete and touched his arm. He looked up, blinking back tears. "Now I know why," he said.

"Why what?" I asked.

"Why we were rescued. In nine months time in the city of Vienne, the pope will hold a council to decide the fate of the Temple. That is why I was imprisoned, to keep me from the council. But now, I will go there to defend the order before the Holy Father, and you will go with me," he said.

"Me? Go before the Holy Father and all! I wouldn't know what to say!"

"You don't have to say anything, brother. Just show him the stumps where your feet were burned off by the torturers. Show him the little bag they gave you to put your blackened bones in. You are greater testimony of our innocence than any poor words of mine, for despite your agony, you never confessed. Not like so many others," he said. His lip trembled. "Not like me."

I stroked the leather bag that hung around my neck, fingering the bones contained within it. It always seemed strange to take them out and look at them and to think they had once been inside my body, that I had once stood on them to say paternosters and walked on them from Albi to Rome on pilgrimage. In a way, they were like my children, those little bones that fell out of my flesh. And it comforted me to touch them, for they reminded me of what I had endured, and remembering it, I knew I could endure anything.

"God gives to each man a certain talent," I said to comfort Pete. "To me, He gave the strength to endure. To you, He gave the talent of oratory, to argue Law both secular and ecclesiastical, and to persuade people with your arguments. My talent might have saved my life, but your talent might save us all."

"We will go to Vienne, you and I," he said, smiling. He looked around. "If we can ever get out of here," he sighed.

Indeed, other than the grate high above, there didn't appear to be any exits from the tomb. We both wondered where our two knights had gone. Pete searched all around the walls for any sign of a secret entrance, while I crawled along the floor testing for trap doors. Near the base of the statue of Mary, I did find a loose stone with a plain, unadorned sword carved into it, but it proved to be a crypt containing the moldering remains of some poor knight long dead.

Pete, however, seemed very excited by the find, and he took the opportunity to cross the knight's leg bones beneath his skull, which the original builders of the tomb had neglected to do. Then he replaced the slab, only realizing afterwards that he had forgotten to return the knight's sword, but when he tried to move the slab again, it wouldn't budge. Pete awkwardly lifted the sword and turned to me as though to ask a question, but then his eyes froze in amazement and horror upon a point above my head. I turned to look, but I saw only the statue of one of the knights.

"Look Bernard," Pete whispered. "It's the red-bearded knight who rescued us."

There was a resemblance, to be sure, but from my angle on the floor, I couldn't see how Pete could be so sure.

"And here's the gray bearded knight," he continued, pointing to the other statue.

He stooped down to peer at the carving on the statue's base. "Saint Michael," he announced. I looked at the other one and found the words 'Saint George' chiseled into it. "Our rescuers men were St. Michael and St. George!" Pete exclaimed. "Don't you see it? How else could they have got past those guards, and how else could they have brought us here? They brought us here for a reason, so I could find this sword. I am to be the defender of the order. I have been chosen!"

"But Pete, you can't wield a sword. You're a priest," I said.

"Not anymore," he announced. "Don't you see? I've been knighted by St. George himself." He fell to his knees before the statue of the Blessed Virgin and crossed himself.

"But Pete," I said, "it's not proper. What about the Rule? You haven't been through any of the training. You're supposed to spend a night in fasting and prayer, and then be absolved by a priest. Then there's no grandmaster here to accept you, not even a preceptor, and certainly no witnesses."

"Forget the Rule!" he said excitedly. "What higher power do you want? You can absolve me, and as for witnesses, look around you. Here are dozens of witnesses, dozens of men more worthy than you or I to defend the order." He hefted the sword and swung it clumsily above his head. He looked like a overgrown boy playing at being a knight.


That first day in the tomb passed quickly. We were both so emotionally exhausted after our unexpected rescue that we fell asleep not long after Pete's finding of the sword. Pete dozed off first, lying by the feet of the Blessed Virgin and clutching the sword to his chest, while I succumbed not long after. When I awoke, they were saying the evening mass in the chapel above us. Pete paced the perimeter of the tomb.

Sometime after midnight mass, when everything had grown quiet and dark, a flickering yellow light appeared above us and stopped at the grate. Pete crouched behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin, while I crawled into the shadow cast by Saint George. We saw a dark figure kneel by the grate and open it. The figure then dropped several objects into the tomb, one of which bounced over and landed between my legs. I held my breath. Then the figure replaced the grate without saying a word and walked away, taking the light with him.

Pete and I searched the floor until we found the stranger's offering; they were two loaves of Gonesse bread, two skins of water and one of wine, and half a round Auvergne cheese. With much rejoicing, we devoured the heaven-sent meal. The bread was fresh and fragrant, the cheese mild, good solid food the likes of which I had not tasted in months. We saved some of the bread and wine and had our own little thanksgiving mass down there in the dark. It was pleasant and comforting to know we had a benefactor looking out for us up above, but after the mass Pete began to wonder aloud when they would get us out of the tomb. I enjoined him to whisper, as someone might hear us. He did, but not without much grumbling.

Every night it was the same. As regular as manna from heaven, our silent benefactor dropped to us food which could survive the fall, mainly breads and cheeses of varying sorts, and fresh skins of wine and water. Sometimes, a basket was lowered in which there was some sort of cooked meat (for which we were especially grateful) and some fruit or nuts as were in season. Into the basket we piled the empty wineskins and the rinds of the cheeses. On several occasions, Pete tried to speak to our midnight grocer, but only once did the man respond. "Soon," he said when asked when we would get out. "Be patient." We never saw his face, only the silhouette of his round head against the candlelight.

Our greatest problem, it seemed, would be the disposal of our bodily fluids. If we were to remain long in our crypt, it seemed the inevitable accumulation of nightsoil must surely draw attention to us by the very smell. This problem was solved, however, when Pete found a small hole in the floor near a wall which must have let into a sewer or ancient latrine, because as long as we used it (and we were down there for some time), it never filled. It was so efficient, in fact, that Pete suspected it to be of Roman origin.

Otherwise, it was not unpleasant living in the tomb. We listened to the masses and prayers and cantatas. It was mighty comforting and pleasant and regular, the very thing which first drew me to the church. There was something altogether peaceful about it, despite our being confined in a tomb. The activities of the church went on in perfect regularity above us, oblivious to us, yet benefiting us at the same time, for without that noise and bustle and life passing just overhead, we must surely have gone mad. I knew then what it must be like to die an excommunicate, buried in unhallowed ground, and I wanted more than ever to be interred within a church. In fact, I wanted that more than anything else. "How pleasant it must be to be buried here," I said one day to Pete. He gave me a horrified look.

If it were not for Brother Peter, I could easily have remained in that place. Poor Pete, he frothed at the bit. He wanted to be moving and doing, he wanted out, and he was miserable. For the first few weeks, he occupied himself with organizing the defense he would present on behalf of the Temple. He mentally rehearsed each point, then played his own devil's advocate and attacked each point to find its weaknesses, until he was sure each was solid and foolproof. But the difficulty of this task soon overwhelmed him. There were too many charges to defend against for him to mentally prepare himself without the assistance of notes, memoranda, and books of law. Each night, he begged our benefactor for pen, ink, and paper, candles, books, and news of the outside world, but none was ever delivered.

Inactivity galled him mightily. He was not used to waiting. His whole life he had been in the thick of things. Pete had gone to Outremer soon after joining the Order of Poor Knights. He was soon promoted to secretary to the treasurer Tibald de Gaudin and was with him at the fall of Acre. Together with some others, they fled with the Temple's treasure to the Castle of the Sea. There, Tibald de Gaudin learned of his being elected the new grandmaster, and he sailed to Cyprus with the treasure. Pete stayed behind. When it seemed certain that the Castle of the Sea must fall to Emir Shujai's forces, he fled to Tortosa, and then again to Castle Pilgrim when Tortosa was abandoned. Finally, he sailed to Cyprus with the last shipload of Christians to leave the Holy Land.

Brother Peter de Boulogne won renown for his bravery despite his only being a priest, and high praise for his talent for organization during the four evacuations of which he took part. He was sent to Rome to be the procurator for the Temple, to defend it and represent it in matters of law before the Holy See, and to press in all quarters for the declaration of a new crusade.

Diverting Pete was a Herculean task. My mind was no match for his, so I couldn't occupy him with discussions of law or theology. I was but an ignorant parish clerk before the arrests. Sometimes, I got him to tell me of his adventures in Outremer, and this entertained us both for a while. I was thankful we could hear the prayers and could join in with them, so we spent quite a bit of our time performing the rites required of us as men of the cloth. Pete admitted he had never been a very strict observer of the hours of prayer. He had joined the Temple for the excitement it offered, while I had joined because I was too stupid and slow to become a Dominican.

One afternoon, while playing a game of aspik with my ankle bones (we were wagering paternosters to be said by the loser), I asked Pete if he had ever thought it would last this long.

"No," he answered. "And I cannot understand it. Why would God rescue us, then leave us down here in this miserable tomb to rot? It would almost be better if He had left us in the dungeon. At least there we could have kept up with what is going on outside, and I might have a chance to persuade them to let me speak to the Archbishop."

"You complain like the Israelites at the shore of the Red Sea," I said. "God will not let Pharaoh catch us again, not after delivering us from Egypt. But I was not talking about being in this place. I was talking about the suppression of the Order. Did you ever think it would last this long?" It had been over four years since the arrests on 13 October, 1307, a Black Friday if ever there was one.

"Never," Pete said. "Never could I have imagined it possible. I am only glad. . ." his voice trailed off as he looked at me.

"Glad of what?" I asked.

"Nothing. I am forbidden to say."

There it was, the abominable Temple secrecy which had got us into so much trouble in the first place. Pete immediately changed the subject by asking me, "How did you survive the first few days?"

"The torture, you mean? I don't know. I suppose I remembered the words of my grandfather. He was a Cathar."

Pete gasped in astonishment, but I continued. "He said that a man can endure any pain if his faith is strong. That was just before they burned him. My parents, of course, did not believe as strongly as he, for they admitted to heresy at the merest threat of torture and were absolved after penance. Grandpa was sorely ashamed of them before he died. That's when he told me to be strong.

"So I couldn't admit to heresy, not when I knew of no heresy within the temple. To falsely admit heresy is as grave a danger to one's soul as to falsely deny it. And so, when the torture began, I put my faith in God that He wouldn't let me die with sin staining my soul, and He didn't."

"I wish I had your faith, brother," Pete said. "I put my faith in a man, the Pope, and so far he has failed us. I never believed the Holy Father could let this happen to us. I will tell you a thing now brother that very few know, and I know because of what you've been through that you will never tell anyone. We knew of the arrests beforehand. The grandmaster knew of the plans of the king of France, but he believed the Pope would vindicate us. But that is where we failed, for we underestimated the power of Philip the Fair, and we trusted too greatly in the benevolence of Clement V."

"I suspected as much," I said. "Word came to us a few days before to tighten security and let no secrets slip. And the night before, our preceptor ordered several brothers to take a store of weapons and armor and hide them in the forest."

Pete nodded. "So it was in many places," he said. "Jacques de Molay told us that the Holy Father would have us released within a month at most. How foolish we were! If only we had pooled our strength instead of dispersing it, they never would have taken us. France would have been ours, once the authority of the king had been successfully challenged. The people would have risen behind us. We could have thrown off the oppressive regime of Philip the Fair and set up a truly Christian kingdom, ruled by Christian men. Other countries would have flocked to our standard, other kings would have paid tribute and become our vassals or been overthrown. A new and true Holy Roman Empire would have arisen under the Templar cross, first in Europe, then across the world."

Pete looked at me then and smiled. "Pipe dreams," he said and shrugged.

I rolled the bones and scored a point. "That's another paternoster for you, brother," I said. I passed them to him and he took them, but he didn't roll. He held my bones in his hand and looked long at them. His eyes glistened with moisture. "There wasn't supposed to be any torture," he whispered.

He set my bones on the floor and turned away.


It was easy to count the days as they passed. I could tell the progress of the year by the services performed in the cathedral above us. The year crept by, and each day Pete grew more and more anxious. The date for the Council of Vienne was fast approaching and still no one came for us or even sent word. One grows weary even of peace after a while.

Finally, the night came when a basket was lowered to us, but in it there was only a swath of heavy cloth. Pete wrapped the cloth around my waist and tied it to the rope, and then I was lifted into the air. I ascended in surges, rising, stopping, rising again, without a sound. Below me, Pete watched with upturned face, and I waved to him until I could no longer see him. At the top, strong arms lifted me into a long dark cathedral and laid me on the stone flags. Four men, all robed in black and with hoods drawn up to hide their faces, greeted me with silence. They lowered the rope again and soon Pete stood beside me. He had brought his sword with him. "What is going on? Why haven't we ..." Pete began, but one of the men placed a long thin finger over Pete's lips, enjoining him to silence. Then he lifted me in his arms and motioned that Pete follow.

They took us into the street where, just outside the door, a cart waited. They laid me in the back of the cart and covered me with a blanket. Three of the men vanished into the night as silent as ghosts, while the fourth mounted to the seat of the cart and motioned that Pete should join him. He gave Pete a black robe to cover himself. "If we are stopped," he said, "keep your head covered and say nothing. The king's men have descriptions of you both. That is why we couldn't get you out until now." He turned and spoke over his shoulder to me. "If anyone comes near the back of the cart, keep hidden and say that you are a leper. That is our plan to get out of the city." With that, he whipped up the horses and we set out.

I did as I was told and hid beneath my blanket. It smelled of sweaty horses, an old familiar smell that I thought I had forgotten. It was comforting and warm and not altogether unpleasant. But the cart bounced most violently, and the ride was truly frightful, for I was ever in a terror that we would be stopped and discovered. I heard Pete try to ask questions of our rescuer, but the cart shook the words out of him so that he couldn't even speak.

After what seemed a very long time, long enough to cross France I thought, the cart rolled to a stop, and I heard men speaking. I crawled deeper into my blanket, if that were possible, and called out in weak voice, "Leper! Leper! Stand away!"

But a man tore the blanket from me. He wore a war helm with a long Norman nasal, and I thought we were caught. Instead, he smiled and greeted me, "Well met, Brother Bernard," and he lifted me in his arms and carried me through a gate and across a garden and into a small cottage. As I looked back, I saw the cart turning in the road and heading back toward Paris.

I found Pete already inside the cottage, sitting at a table and slurping at a bowl of stew and sopping up the juices with big hunks of brown bread. In the center of the table stood a large stone bowl of wine, and there were cups of turned wood to drink from, and a huge wedge of white cheese on a wooden plate from which another man was cutting slices and passing them around the table for the other men. In all, there were six men around the table, and there was a fine unwashed soldierly smell of leather and sweat.

"We leave at dawn," one of the men said to Pete.

Pete looked up from his bowl, his cheeks stuffed with bread. He swallowed. "To where?" he asked.

"South, through Aragon, to Portugal, then sail to Scotland."

Pete shook his head. "I have to get to Vienne," he said. He pointed at me with a crust of bread. "Brother Bernard and I have to see the Pope." While he said this, I was placed in a chair at the end of the table and a bowl of stew was slid before me. I looked around for the bread.

The men at the table began to mumble to one another. Several shook their heads. An argument commenced between Pete and the others, beards wagged, and there was much pointing and shaking of hunks of bread and sloshing of cups of wine; they used whatever was handy to emphasize their words. Gesticulating hands fluttered over the table like a gathering of butterflies over a field of clover. The stew was a galimafre, fragrant with cinnamon and ginger, and most invigorating, and the wine was Beaune from Burgundy. The bread, however, left something to be desired, for it was simple knight's bread and rather coarse. Still, one should not complain.

I was just settling back and enjoying a few sweet cakes which had just been brought to the table by a most delightful young serving girl, when the discussion finally reached its climax. Pete was determined to go to Vienne, and nothing they could say or do would change his mind. Finally, he stood and shook his spoon at them. "Our rescue from the dungeon was a miracle, brothers," he said.

"How can you say that?" one man asked. "Didn't we send the men to rescue you, as we've said before."

"Where are these brothers, then?" Pete asked. "Where is this Michael de Macon and this George of Kent, these brothers you sent to rescue me?"

"We do not know," the man mumbled. "They have disappeared."

"And why did they rescue Brother Bernard here? By your own admission, you told them to rescue me. You said nothing of Brother Bernard."

No one answered him.

"Have I not held the thorns of Christ's crown in my own hands and seen them flower? Am I not qualified to proclaim a miracle? I say to you, our deliverance from the dungeon was divinely ordained. Saint Michael and Saint George rescued us, and it was God's might that struck down the guards and opened the way."

"Why then did He not sweep you from Paris entire?" asked one of the men, a German by his speech. He had not spoken before. He was the youngest of the bunch, and somewhat shy among his elders.

Old Pete glowered at him until the poor fellow was forced to look away.

The leader of these knights, a brazen Scot if ever there was one, stood. "Don't you browbeat the lad, Brother Peter," he said. "Just you up and answer his question."

"All right, then. God took us to the tomb to make me a knight and to teach me patience," Pete said.

"A knight!" Several men laughed.

"That's right. I was knighted by Saint George himself, by his own hand, with this sword." He drew out the ancient blade from beneath the black robe he wore.

I opened my mouth to protest, but Pete shot me such a look as what froze the words in my throat. However, the Scot turned to me and asked, "Is this true, Brother? Did you witness this thing?" I shrugged, unable to speak, for Pete was staring at me.

"Brother Bernard was not allowed to see my transfiguration before Saint George," Pete explained, coming to my rescue. "He only saw the saint as a stone statue, and he did not hear St. George direct me to present our case before the Pope. But I know in my heart that I am a knight."

"But you are a priest. You have taken a vow to shed no blood," the Scot said.

"I have renounced my vow. I am now a knight, the same as you, better than you, for I have been to Outremer. Who else here can say the same?"

When no one answered, Pete crossed his arms. "Very well then, it is decided. We are going to Vienne. You men can go where you like. We thank you for rescuing us from Paris and for the hospitality of your table, but you cannot keep us from our quest."

"But we have orders to take you to Scotland," the Scot grumbled as he sat down. "What Robert the Bruce will say, I just don't know."

As the table was cleared and the candles extinguished, the knights dispersed to their beds in the loft. Pete and I were invited to sleep by the fire, as they had no other beds, and so blankets were brought. I rolled up in mine as close to the fire as I could, but Pete lay well back in the shadows, and I could see his eyes glittering in the red light. Soon, rattling snores shook the floor of the loft above. Pete rose and crept over to the fire. "Come, Brother Bernard," he whispered as he lifted me in my blanket.

"We are not staying?" I asked.

"No. They intend to kidnap us and take us to Scotland, despite what I told them. They think I can't read their hand signals, but it was plain enough to see if you know what to look for."

He eased open the door and, lifting me in his arms, we slipped outside. Dew lay heavy on the grass, and the trees were silver in the moonlight. Across the way, a low stable was built into the hillside. Thither we crept like a strange pair of assassins. Pete took a gray ass and set me on it. He then wrapped his sword in an old blanket and tied it behind me, and he took a stick to walk with. Then we set out, following the road toward the rising sun.

Part 2

©1998-2008 Jeff Crook

Hocus Potus

A drabble, never before published. Be sure and read the Kafka story, too. It's one you've probably never read before.

…they have dug their teeth in deep and must first let their jaws open gradually.
- “Jackals and Arabs” by Franz Kafka

The President of the United States was not a well-traveled man before his ascension to throne of the White House. But as a young man still in his cups, he undertook a journey as a guest of the Bin Laden family; this was many years before their infamous falling out. While pirating around the Arabian desert with his friends, the future president paused to relieve himself at a well. And there he chanced to meet a curious old jackal, who told him a curious old tale, and from whom he accepted as a gift a rusty pair of sewing scissors.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Like I Said

Ixnay on the Agonlancedray. The man has spoken. Or in this case, the woman.

A Vow of Celibacy

Here's an old story for you. First composed around 1997, it went through numerous revisions and readings before finally being published in the Tales of Fantasy anthology. It is one of my original tales of Korr stories, along with I Dreamed of Griffons in Flight (Black Dragon, White Dragon), In the Shadow of the Dragon's Wing (Mallorn), and Escape from the Heart of Djar (Kings of the Night II). At first glance it is a romantic fantasy, written before romantic fantasy became all the rage, but it's not. Oh, definitely not.

"A Vow of Celibacy"

Sometimes Amia liked to pretend she was in a play, standing by the darkened window sighing for her lover. If any of the servants were to awaken and see her standing by the open window, she hoped they would think she was only pining for her lover – Bonn, a ranger for the Papas family, the breeders of horses whose estate bordered that of her master, Jan Capera. She had kept her affair with the handsome ranger so secret that everyone in the household knew.

A crunch on the gravel footpath outside her window startled her. She ducked behind the curtain, fearing her master might be out on one his prowls. Then a voice softly whispered her name, "Amia! Amia!" and she knew it was Bonn. Even so, she hesitated a moment and listened to his moment of fear. "Amia, please!"

As she picked up her bag and stepped from behind the curtain, she heard his breath catch, and then he sighed as he stepped from the rose bushes. Amia buried herself in his arms and smothered his unshaved cheeks with urgent and noisy kisses. He quieted her lips with his own, and then whispered, his breath on her eyelids, "Be quiet. You’ll wake the entire house."

"I don’t care," she whispered. "Let them hear. I love you and I don’t care who knows."

"Don't be silly," he said. "Have you got your bag? Good, let’s go then." He took her bag and her hand and led her away from the house, through the low trees casting their moonlight shadows across the lawn, and down through a well-ordered garden with its gravel paths and stone benches and pale white naked statues gesturing in the night, and through another ring of trees beyond which a low stone fence ran beside the path from the house up to the main road to Tarrasq. Bonn lifted Amia over the fence and then passed her bag over before following her.

The silver-blond hills rose to either side of the path as they walked, and the air grew chill as the dew settled on the grass. The sides of the hills were darkly speckled with wild olive trees, but the summits were rocky and barren except for a few straggling pines and clumps of thorny vines, lit by the broad starry night sky and a silvery moon one night past full. Soon, they came to a whitewashed bridge arching over a stony creek. They stopped for a moment to rest and then to kiss breathlessly, fiercely for a few moments, hearts hammering together.

"Where did you hide your horse?" Amia asked between kisses.

"I don’t own a horse," he answered as he sought her lips again.

"But the Papas' have hundreds of horses," she said.

"That’s stealing," Bonn answered, stepping back from her. "I’ll not steal from them. They’re good people."

"But they’re rich," she said. "And we have nothing. And we have a long way to go. It would have been easier to ride."

"It’s not so far," Bonn said. "My mother's house is just beyond the Papas' estate." He took her hand and they started up the path toward the road.

After a while, Amia asked, "How do you expect to become a knight if you have no horse?"

Bonn sighed. "Why do you want me to steal a horse? The Papas are good people. If I stole one of their horses, I couldn’t go back to work for them, and then how would I support you? I still plan to work for them, you know. Just because I’ve stolen you away from the Caperas doesn’t mean I can’t continue working for the Papas."

"I just thought you needed a horse to become a knight," she said.

"A knight doesn't use his own horse," he answered. "The horses are provided by Temple contractors, breeders like the Papas."

"Couldn't you have borrowed a horse and brought it back in the morning?”

Bonn stopped. “What’s wrong with you, Amia?” he asked.

“My feet hurt," she said.

"Where are your shoes?"

"I didn't wear them. I hate wearing shoes. The Old Woman makes us wear shoes even in the summer, even inside the house," she said.

"You should’ve worn your shoes tonight, at least," Bonn said. "Where we’re going, you’ll need them."

Soon, the path bent to the south, and there it met the road that ran down to Tarrasq. Amia hid in the bushes beside the path while Bonn walked out onto the road to make certain no one was about.

Amia watched him, anxiously wondering what would happen if he were seen. What would people think of this handsome young ranger appearing from the drive of the Capera estate so late at night? Perhaps they would assume he had been visiting some young servant girl, and that he was returning home to crawl into bed before sunrise, before his master caught him. Maybe they would think he did this sort of thing all the time, that he knew girls on all the estates in the area, and that he visited each girl regularly and in turn. Handsome young men like Bonn had many girls, and quite often the girls knew nothing of each other, each believing that she alone possessed the love of her man. Such men must think their lovers little better than cheap whores whose pleasures could be bought for a bottle of wine or a cheap, flashy trinket from the bazaars in Tarrasq. She wondered if Bonn thought of her in such a way. When she saw him motion for her to cross the road, she shook her head.

"The road’s clear," he hissed.

"No!" she said.

"What are you doing?"

"Do you truly love me, Bonn?" she asked.

"Of course I love you!" he answered. "Would I be here if I didn't?"

But Amia believed she could almost hear him saying that to every girl. "I don’t believe you!" she hissed. He was luring her away to have his way with her, and when he was done, he would take her back to her master’s house.

"Amia, please!" Bonn cried. He crossed the road and crawled into the bushes with her, but she drew away from him.

"What’s wrong with you? I love you. You must believe me."

"Yes, but do you love me truly?" she asked.

"What can I do to prove my love to you? Why must you do this?" he pleaded. Suddenly, he turned, shushing her when she tried to answer. "A carriage! Someone’s coming from the house!" he cried as he grabbed her by the arm and tried to drag her from beneath the bush.
Amia struggled against him. "No, no, I won't go with you," she said. "Not unless you truly love me."

"If they catch us, they’ll take you back to the house and we can never be married," Bonn said. Now they could hear the jingle of harness and the rumbling of the carriage's wheels on the road.
"Married?" Amia asked.

"Yes, of course! Why did you think I would steal you away, if not to marry you?"

Amia wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his face furiously.

"There's no time now, and I can't carry you. Run for those trees," he directed, pointing to a dark clump in the meadow across the road. He pushed Amia ahead. The carriage was almost upon them.

Amia dashed across the road, ignoring the injury the stones inflicted upon her naked feet. She clambered over the opposite fence and sprinted across the meadow. Bonn quickly overtook her, grabbing her hand in passing to drag her along. They dove into the safety of the trees just as the carriage rounded the bend and swung onto the road.

Bonn peered out through the trees at the carriage. "It’s Jan Capera," he said. "He’s heading toward the Papas' estate." He looked out through the trees at the road, and then he turned and looked across the rolling hills of the Papas’ estate, which he had planned to cross but could no longer risk trying. They would search for Amia there first. He knew of but two other ways to reach his destination. The first was the road to Tarrasq, but the morning would catch them still on the road before they reached the safety of his mother’s house. The only other option was to cross the Capera estate. This distance was considerably shorter, but it involved crossing the hills where bull dragonettes were pastured. This time of year, dragonettes were spread out all over the range, and they were a danger he did not wish to face, not with Amia in tow. He was not afraid of them, but he was afraid for her. But he realized that he had no other choice, considering his prospects of escaping with the girl he loved. Were they caught, Amia would be returned to the Capera's house, while he would be flogged if he were lucky, or possibly even imprisoned for theft. The Caperas were a powerful family who provided dragonettes for the ritual battles at the religious festivals in Tarrasq. They had the ear of the church, and the law of the church was the law of the land. Jan Capera was a deacon of the Temple at Tarrasq, a trainer of the monks who battle the dragonettes to gain the gods’ favor for the year. He was only a ranger, not a monk, though he hoped to fight dragonettes in the temple someday as a knight-servant of a monk.

At last, Bonn made up his mind. Since it would be the least likely place to search for Amia, he would risk crossing the Capera estate. He took her by the hand and kissed it gently, and then he helped her to rise and led her from beneath the copse. The moon was low and the night grew dark. He turned west and steered by the setting moon, paralleling the road for a time before it bent away northward to climb the hills surrounding the Bay of Tarrasq. At the point where the road turned north, they came to a wooden fence, which they climbed, reentering the Capera estate. Bonn turned south then, and following the line of the fence uphill, they soon reached a stable where dragonettes were housed during the winter.

The stable was long and narrow, with a wide door at either end and large sturdy cages along both sides of the passage. At the far end, the passage opened into a small training ring with a stout wooden fence and a raised platform behind it so that people could see over. Inside the ring, young monks, called dragonnes, were trained to fight dragonettes – a type of dragon that were wingless until full adulthood. The monks trained first on hatchlings, then on immature bull dragonettes, and finally on fully grown bulls just beginning their wing molt. Only the most perfect bulls were sent to the Temple in Tarrasq, those of perfect eye and horn and muscle and scale, and only those of absolutely pure courage and nobility – those who, when winged, would become true terrors if left to themselves.

Bonn led Amia into the stable. They cautiously walked its length, checking all the cages, finding them empty. The cages still smelled of the dragonettes, a pithy odor like crushed heather and hay. Near the entrance, they found a small tack room where harnesses were hung from the ceiling and saddles sat on racks along the walls. Here, Bonn found a short lance and fighting cape which must have belonged to one of the fighting monks trained by Jan Capera. Bonn draped the cape over his arm and hefted the lance. Amia stood in the doorway of the stable, looking away toward the Papas’ manor across the valley. The portico glowed with torchlight, and in it they could see two men sitting in chairs beside a table. "There’s my master," Amia said. "And yours. Do you think they can see us?"

"I don’t think so. The moon is behind the hill," Bonn answered.

Amia turned and saw Bonn with the fighting cape draped dramatically over his arm. "You would make a beautiful dragonne," she sighed, marveling at his lithe muscular body and the trim aesthetic line he cut with the cape and the short-lance.

"Ah, but the monks are sworn to celibacy," Bonn said. He grasped her around the waist and pulled her body against his. "We knights take no such vow."

The moon set behind the hills. Bonn and Amia rested in the stable until the first light of the sun grayed the eastern sky. The sky was the same color as the fog-wreathed ground, and it seemed as though there was no horizon, no separation between the heavens and the land. Westward, the hills remained shrouded in darkness, so they waited a little longer until the misty valleys were visible between themselves and the hill where Bonn's mother lived. Bonn had hoped to see her house, but the air above the valley was too thick to see so far.

Setting out, they crossed through the fenced lots where the bull dragonettes were herded and divided before being sent off to Tarrasq. The fences were tall but they were easy to climb, so Bonn didn’t need to help Amia. She was a peasant girl, and although she had served in the Capera house for three years now, she hadn’t forgotten the ways of the farm nor how to carry herself over rugged country. Still, she began to regret having not worn any shoes, especially since Bonn hadn’t found a spare pair of boots in the stable.

As Amia clambered over one of the taller fences, Bonn sat atop the fence post and looked back toward the Papas’ manor house. For some time now, he thought he had been hearing the barking of dogs, but he had said nothing yet because he didn't want to frighten Amia. But now his fears were confirmed. As Amia topped the fence, she looked at Bonn and saw the concern in his eyes, and then she heard the dogs.

"Do you think..." she began to ask, but at that moment the distant hills across the valley rang with the strident blasts of hunting horns. "They’re coming!" she cried.

"We can still escape, Amia," Bonn said. "It’s very dangerous, but I think we can make it. We will cross the pastures. I don’t think they will bring their dogs and horses there. So many people and animals would surely attract the attention of a bull. But two people alone, moving quickly and silently, might get across." Amia clutched his arm in terror, but whether it was fear of the dragonettes or fear of capture, he couldn't tell.

After a moment, she nodded and bit her lip. Bonn dropped to the ground on the other side of the fence, and Amia climbed down after him. Together, they moved off into the pasture. Bonn wore the fighting cape draped over his left arm while in his right hand he carried the short lance held at the ready. Although the lance was heavy, its foot-long head of polished steel was marvelously balanced by a flanged bronze weight at the butt.

Soon, they came to another fence. It ran southwest and for a while they followed it. On the other side of the fence, the grass grew waist-high in places, but it couldn’t hide the fresh piles of droppings lying here and there, still smoking in the morning air. The ground was hilly, and in many places outcroppings of granite boulders broke the scenery, surrounded by copses of evergreens in which a bull dragonette might have its lair.

They came to a place where the fence made a Y, forcing them either to cross over or turn back north, toward the dogs. Bonn climbed the fence, and Amia followed him. The terrain here was just as hilly, but there were fewer boulders and trees, while broad stretches of a kind of tall green weed, called peacock feathers, wavered in the morning breeze.

As they followed the line of the fence between two hills, Bonn noticed that the barking of the dogs had grown fainter. The sun climbed higher and began to burn away the mist. But between these two hills little of the morning breeze could reach them, and they felt the sun hot upon their cheeks. Their passage stirred up clouds of tiny biting flies, and in the bottom of the dell where a veritable forest of the tall wispy green peacock feathers grew, the ground was boggy and the flies more numerous and voracious.

When at last they reached the other side and began to ascend the next hill, they found that they had strayed somewhat from the line of the fence. As he turned back toward it, Bonn stopped. A large black dragonette stood on the opposite side of the fence, watching them intently. Lost in daydreams, Amia bumped into him. The sight of the dragonette stole the warmth from her body and the strength from her limbs.

The dragonette was enormous, its scales the color of iron. Its chest was like a great iron forge and its long serpentine neck was as thick as the beam of a temple roof. Twin ivory horns curved smoothly out from its narrow reptilian head, ending in honed points that glimmered white as snow. Filmy gray patches of smooth skin covered two humps rising from its back just behind either shoulder blade – these were its wing sacks, nearly ready to erupt. As it watched them, the great crest of crimson spines on the back of its neck slowly rose.

After what seemed hours to her, during which time it seemed neither they nor the bull moved even so much as to take a breath, Amia at last found her voice. "Bonn?" she whispered.

"A dragonette – nearly mature. He’s on the other side of the fence," he whispered. "As long as we stay on this side, we’re safe."

"I didn’t think they were so big," she said.

"Move very slowly," Bonn told her. "We will continue the way we were going. Don’t make any sudden movements."

They began to walk slowly, Amia behind Bonn. The dragonette followed them step for step, turning to parallel the fence while keeping them in sight. It seemed almost more curious about them than dangerous. But Bonn knew by the angry clatter of its erect spines that the dragonette meant to kill them if it found itself on the same side of the fence as they. It was a creature bred from dragon stock to fight and die in the temple. Because it was immature, its teeth were underdeveloped, and its fiery breath had not yet begun to burn, but it could still use its claws to kill. But by far, a dragonette bred for the sacrificial battles in the Temple preferred to kill with its horns – twin scimitars of ivory each as long as a man is tall.

Suddenly, the dragonette darted away, loping sinuously along the line of the fence. Amia collapsed against Bonn’s back. "He’s leaving," she sighed in relief. But Bonn stiffened. He didn’t believe for a moment that the dragonette would let them pass. He waited to see where the monster would go, and to his dismay he saw an open gate in the fence at the top of the hill.
He spun and grabbed Amia by the wrist. "Run!" he shouted. "Go!" He shoved her toward the fence. She stumbled away from him, confused.

Bonn looked up the hill and then back at Amia. He slapped at her with the cape. "Go, you stupid girl! Run!" He stepped toward her, swinging the cape again. She turned and fled.

As the dragonette reached the open gate, it spotted Amia fleeing toward the fence. Its neck spines flattened as it swept down the hill. She glanced over her shoulder and saw it coming fast, and she screamed as she realized that she could never reach the fence before the dragonette overtook her.

Bonn dashed between her and the creature, flapping the cape and crying, "Ha! Hey! Hey!" The bull caught the movement of the cape and turned. Bonn spread the broad cloth-of-gold cape over the shaft of the lance and skipped backwards, away from the fence and into the pasture to draw the bull away from Amia. He circled to his left, while the dragonette followed him, closing rapidly, following the lure of the cloth until it was close enough to stab at the trailing edge of the cape with its horns. It swiped repeatedly with the right horn, gouging crescents in the dust, until Bonn closed the final arc of the circle and whipped the cape from beneath the dragonette's nose. It froze in place, its claws planted in the ground, facing away from Amia. Bonn looked beyond the long snaking black body of the monster and saw Amia standing at the fence with one foot on the lowest wooden rail, staring at him in saucer-eyed horror.

Bonn took a step to his left and the dragonette swiveled its head, rattled its neck spines. He took another step to the side, and then one step back. The dragonette lowered its head and sniffed the ground, its two horns like the trunks of small trees nodding in the wind. "I must wear him out," Bonn thought numbly. "I must make him wear out the muscles of his neck so that I can go in past his horns and put the lance into his heart." He took another step back.

"I have attended eleven ceremonies since I came of age. I have seen sixty six bull dragonettes killed in the Temple. Sixty six is a holy number. The gods are with me. I know how to do it. It is only a matter of doing."

He took another step back and the dragonette lifted its head, narrow black nostril’s flaring, spines flattening along its back. "To tire him, I must pass him with the cape. I must wear him out with the cape, force him to charge it rather than me. To make him charge, I should incite him with the cape." He flipped the cape and stomped his foot.

The dragonette's eyes narrowed and its head dipped and it came more quickly than Bonn imagined anything could possibly move, its speed concealed by its fluid grace, like dark water pouring over a dam. He tried to pass the dragonette beneath the cape by swinging it wide with the whole length of the lance, stretching out on his toes, bending over the horn that swept beneath his outstretched arm.

But the dragonette ignored the cape and lifted its head, and the right horn entered as smoothly as an oiled sword into the soft flesh below the lowest rib on the left side of Bonn's chest. It slid past his spine and out his shoulder until the mass of the dragonette's head slammed into his chest, lifting him and tossing him over its back. He seemed to float slowly through the air, slowly enough for him to relax before he landed behind the creature’s snaking tail. It wound upon itself and turned, hissing, head lowered again. Bonn lay still and watched the bull, in its eagerness to kill him, stab blindly at his body, flinging gouts of dust and only hitting him once in the palm of the right hand. Then he heard Amia scream, and the dragonette was gone from him, its long body passed over him like a swift black cloud. He heard her scream again, and he felt the earth tremble beneath his body, and at the same time he heard horns blowing and dogs barking wildly.
The dragonette met Amia as she ran to Bonn. She bowed over its lowered horn and embraced its scaly head, and it lifted her and carried her for several yards before tossing her aside. She fell on her stomach, her mouth full of dust. Then it gored her through the back again and again until the hounds arrived to drive it away from her body. Neck spines rattling angrily, it lashed out with its horns and claws and tail at the boiling mass of dogs, but they dodged and leaped, yapping noisily and biting.

The servants of Eldron Papas drove the dragonette out of the pasture before killing it with their boar lances. Jan Capera and Eldron Papas sat their horses near Bonn’s body, his eyes open and hazy with dust, flies already landing around his open mouth. Amia lay nearby, face down, her hair trampled into the dust, and four wet dusty holes on the back of her nightdress. Their morning boar hunt had been interrupted when from a distance they saw the young ranger and the servant girl climb the fence into a pasture that Jan Capera knew contained a bull dragonette on the verge of wing molt. They rode as swiftly as their horses could carry them, but the numerous fences slowed them and they arrived too late to do anything but sit their horses near the bodies and watch their servants slaughter the dragonette in the field.

"He would have made a fine dragonne," Jan commented as he looked at the body of the young man. "Did you see the way he brought the bull away from the girl and fixed it in place?"

"I’ve heard that he wanted to become a knight-servant," Eldron said. "But he was a poor horseman. I wouldn’t let him ruin my horses with his careless riding."

"He would have made a fine dragonne, I think," Jan repeated. "Look at his body. He has the body of a dragonne. He had grace and courage, but without proper training he couldn’t have anticipated the speed of the bull. He might have done well. But he let a girl ruin him. That's why the Temple requires the monks to take a vow of celibacy, to keep them from being killed so often in the ring. Many young men cannot understand this."

©2007-2008 Jeff Crook