Friday, December 25, 2015

Fiction Friday: A Time of Greater Darkness

For the earlier Robart of Hazelby tales, head to the Fiction Friday Index.

"The falling of Saint Gaudulf's dome heralds destruction," Archprelate Corricus whispered to the night. The chapter had yet to meet, but he knew it was coming. "We are moving from a time of shadows into a time of greater darkness, when there will be no light for men. His majesty's war against the Mascoliri ended in tragedy. Now his majesty, King Carliman, is gone. Thus, we have reached the very terminus of the Confession in the West. We are a doomed people, suffering our last throws of misery. Soon, very soon now, the Dunlanders and Timbarmen will regroup and come south to conquer. Soon, the daimoni will have their victory."

News of the dome's fall, and Provost Lanbert's death beneath its weight, raced ahead of the travelers. Before they ever left Oldcastel or even the close of Saint Gaudulf's temple, half the Southold seemed to know of the freakish accident. No damage by fire or leak could be found amongst the piers that held the dome in place. "It was the Divinity's will," Archprelate Corricus pronounced with grave authority. Who would gainsay him? Not Robart of Hazelby.

The troupe was, in whole, Robart of Hazelby, Amalric of Thornwood and his companions—Rye, Millon, and Bertar—the Archprelate Corricus of Oldcastel, a host of canon clerics and prelates in his train, and Felex along with a handful of men-at-arms. They were all subordinated to the Archprelate, of course, who gave the orders. They purchased a number of ox-drawn wagons from the people of Oldcastel, spending the Temple's silver. "The plague is foremost on my mind," the archprelate told them. As though the handful of dragma used to buy the ox and wagons might have been enough to repair the dome, Robart heard the canon clerics howling at their prelate at the chapter meeting.

It was a prophetsday when they were scheduled to leave for Kingsbrook. Eiday, prophetsday, was also the time of chapter meetings amongst the lay-clerics of the temple chapter. Even from where he stood outside the chapterhouse that morning, Robart could hear their cries. "You cannot mean to depart, archprelate, when the temple more than ever needs your support!" screamed one of the teachers. Robart could not make out the prelate's slow and measured reply: the walls of double-course stone forbade it.

Saint Gaudulf's was in a turmoil after the collapse. The mason who built the dome was long dead, and could not be questioned. Highlord Marten was away fighting, and could not be called upon to grant the province's good silver to repair it. Knight-Commander Orawn was unwilling to broach the royal chests and coffers that remained in Oldcastel. "I am under strict orders to allow no one access," he told the archprelate.

The canon priests were out of their minds with worry. Chapter erupted again and again. "Archprelate! There is a hole in the sacred fabric of Saint Gaudulf's! The altar has been smashed to dust. The people cannot come in to pray. The saint's reliquary has been buried beneath the stone!"

That was something Robart had learned in the day's after the collapse: Saint Gaudulf's was not merely named for the ancient saintly king of the South, but also contained his withered right arm hidden in a secret cache of the altar. It was that reliquary that the lay brothers bemoaned. "This was the very arm with which Saint Gaudulf smote the unbelieving pagan lord Wyred!" someone called, "And now it has been claimed by the very daimoni who strove against him." This was the most common thread—the canons were convinced that the fall of Gaudulf's dome was due to no inbuilt flaw nor outside buffet, but rather had been caused by a daimon, a spirit of malice that resided in the land.

The archprelate silenced the canons with reminders of where the true troubles lay. He scolded them for their selfishness. His voice raised to such a pitch that even Robart, standing without, could hear it through the half-open door. "...your selfishness and shortsightedness astounds me, and I'm certain it astounds the Divinity above! You, divine men, who fear the evils of this world and are meant to be enlightened with the Light to Come—you are the men weeping and wailing and gnashing your teeth over a pile of stone and a long-dead arm! There are men and women dying in Kingsbrook. Dying! Do you hear? And you weep because the fabric of your temple has been rent. Provost Lanbert is dead. You will elect a new provost for me to approve when I return. The Divinity willed it. I will hear no more! NO, brother! I will hear no more!"

When the archprelate emerged from the chapterhouse, his face was streaked with tears. Nothing about the chapter meeting had been easy for the archprelate. Robart lowered his eyes so as not to offend the weeping prince of the church. Corricus said, in a husky voice, "Let us go, Master Amalric. The people of Kingsbrook await our aid."

So they went, four wagons laden with salve, unguent, bandages of linen, barrels of tempered ypocras, flour for bread, and tuns of salt-beef, all jolting and jarring behind them. To Robart's surprise, he saw Sister Soera among the canons and canonnesses journeying with them. He thought at once to make excuses to this nobly-born boy that would let him fall back amidst the traveling companions so he might speak to her, but his heart stilled his limbs and he walked from the temple close not with Sister Soera, but with Amalric Thornwood.

They passed through the city like the last specters of the Dominion leaving the city. Robart knew their road, in theory, though he himself had never made the Kingsbrook pilgrimage. Westward and north they must go, skirting the great Skraeling army. West of the River Warking, they went, and east of the Flooding.

The signs of Highlord Marten's army were everywhere. Villagers clustered along the rutted trails to watch them pass. It was clear that the Highlord had already scavenged food from the countryside. It was Archprelate Corricus who ordered some of their stores be distributed at each stop along the way. "It is our duty," he told the clerics. Amalric scowled at him, angry that the Highlord's orders were being countermanded, that precious resources were being wasted, but Robart approved. The stricken faces of children lit up when he passed down handfuls of salt-beef or bread. The smile on a little girl's lips was reward enough, and damn the Highlord.

During the entire journey, Robart was aware of Sister Soera. She didn't approach him or even so much as glance in his direction. He felt as though he might not exist. Still, even when he didn't watch her from a distance (which he did more than he cared to admit, even to himself), he always knew just where she was standing and what she was doing. She's a cannonness, he reminded himself. That was but one of the many reasons why he should leave her be. Still, his mind wouldn't allow him the pleasure.

Eventually, he approached Archprelate Corricus. It was late one evening when they were drawing very night to Kingsbrook. The caravan had camped beneath swaying shield pines and leafless hornbeams. At first Robart thought he might trouble one of the lesser prelates. There was no need to seek advice from someone as powerful as Corricus himself. After all, Robart was not nobly born or endowed with any of the traits of nobility. Corricus should hear the doubts and tribulations of the mighty, not poor Robart of Hazelby.

The Archprelate was standing outside the circle of campfire. He was clad only in the simple frock of a lowly prelate and the white linen coif of the humble, worn by women and priests. Robart thought him one of the few prelates on their journey when he began to talk. It wasn't until the Archprelate turned, a slow and sad smile in his eyes, that Robart realized his mistake.

"I am troubled, Divine, and I do not know how to stop up my doubts."

"Each of us, my child, bears the same doubts. They grow and fester in this World of Sorrows. It is only through meditation and careful thought that we can surmount them."

Robart hesitated. "My lord archprelate," he begged, "I didn't mean to disturb you. I thought—"

"Go on, child," the old man urged.

Robart found himself bowing his head and knotting his fingers together like rope. "That's just the problem, Divine. It's not something from the world. It's something in my own head. How can I solve it if it comes from within?" Corricus said nothing. For a moment Robart thought he hadn't heard, but when he looked up it was clear that the old Archprelate was waiting for Robart to go on. "Well... it's my thoughts, archprelate. They wander again and again to sinful things. To... Sister Soera."

"Is that all?" Corricus chuckled. "Our flesh is home to many infirmities, my child. Now, truly, it is normally the place of woman to feel the keen bite of lust. Even the pagans knew that, it may surprise you to hear. But man, too, may be troubled by it. The flesh is heir to this sin—it desires nothing more than to make more of itself. But come, should you not be wed and find yourself a wife to satisfy the urges of your flesh?"

"I had a wife, Archprelate," said Robart. The cool night air smelled of the campfire and dry wood. Something tickled his eyes—whether it was shame or soot, Robart did not know. "She died. But is it not unholy for a man to have the same feelings for other women? Before I came to Oldcastel, I dreamed of a lady named Aethelwyn... Can such love be anything but twisted?"

Corricus studied Robart's face. The old man's eyes were serious, his mouth grave, and his countenance severe. "My boy," he said sadly, "There is no true love to be had in this world. Now, it may go against the teachings to speak of such deep theological arguments as this with a layman like yourself, but Highlord Marten sees something in you. I confess, I have not gathered it myself, but Marten is a shrewd man, and it is his word that you are clever, and loyal besides. So let me tell you this. The only true love in this world is the love of one soul to another, and it is a sexless thing. That is but a shadow of the yearning of the soul for the Divinity; when you truly love another, you sense in them the shard of themselves that is itself divine and strives for reunification. These 'loves' you feel for your Aethelwyn or Sister Soera or your wife... they are but phantoms."

He placed a kindly hand on Robart's shoulder, but Robart felt no kindness in those words. Rather, they seemed to rob him of his very joys. The prelate's reassurances sapped his spirit. "Then I should tell my heart I do not care?"

"It does not matter what you know in your heart," said Corricus softly. "It matters what you know in your mind, and in your soul. 'Woman is a drink more bitter than poison. Her heart is a chain that winds. She takes possession of the very soul of man.' And that is from the Life of Calomanis, my son. You can take those words as truth."

It didn't matter to Robart if the words were spoken by the Prophet himself. They were cold comfort. They were wrong. Yet, who was he to question the word of an archprelate of the Faith? So he said nothing. Corricus blessed him and returned to the dark, to muse at shadows. Robart slept fitfully, dreaming of Sister Soera.

They arrived at Kingsbrook a scant few days later. It was worse than Robart dreamed in his darkest nightmares. Hundreds of the sick and dying choked the steps of the mighty temple. Rivers of bile, piss, shit, and thick, clotted blood flowed across the flagstone courtyard. The town was empty, or nearly so. The camp of the sick, which had been confined beyond the Algol Bridge when the outbreak began, now stretched all the way to the temple gate. Hundreds of priests in white and canon-teachers in black tended the crowd.

"By the Divinity," Robart whispered.

It was Amalric who gave orders when they arrived. He sounded like a true knight, rattling off instructions to the caravan. Archprelate Corricus pressed his prelates to obey, and soon they were setting up blocks behind the wagon wheels and unloading their supplies. It seemed useless to Robart. The tiny wagons were soon overwhelmed by clerics from the great temple. The need was simply too deep and urgent. He closed his eyes to those stricken with the flux and tried his best not to breathe the miasmatic air. "Let me not catch the plague, Divinity," he murmured.

The temple was impressive, even draped as it was in the stricken. Its walls were lined with marble, its domes plated with brass. Columns and pilasters marched along its edges. There were herb gardens and places for quiet reflection visible through open archways. Huge braziers burned incense and whole logs, puffing clouds of sparkling scent into the iron-gray heavens.

For a time, Robart was too busy to remember his troubles. Archprelate Corricus gave him work to busy his hands, and as he placed liniment upon winding-bandages, he could think of nothing but the labor. His eyes did not wander to Sister Soera while he heard the groanings of townsmen lost in the throes of the flux. He washed often, for Corricus would not allow him to wander about the wounded with black bile on his tunic. He held his hands steady and was taught how to use his dagger to lance festering boils, and how to strip dead meat from living.

He lost track of the days, though each night his weariness returned to him and, in the shadowy alcoves of the great temple his mind returned again to Sister Soera. Why doesn't she see me? he wondered.

Rains came. Rumor followed. Highlord Marten, beaten at Seatower, in full retreat to Oldcastel. Prince Edwerd, arrived safe in Swornstone. The Queens vacillations: to send her Eastern phalanxes south, or to keep them guarding the recently won northern borders? But autumn rains had turned the trails to cloying mud and there would be no more great armies crossing the land.

Perhaps a week passed, perhaps two. But in that time the work grew dull and repetitive and Robart found himself thinking more and more often of Sister Soera. They worked in close confines to one another, he realized. Often, when he was tending the wounds of some poor benighted soul, she was only a few hundred feet away across the courtyard. Each night he would work up the courage to approach her on the following day... and each day, the resolve evaporated like the first frost at dawn.

One afternoon he found himself trailing her almost instinctively. He knew he looked mad, and he felt the eyes of a few teachers on his back. He made pretense to be where he was, asking after the comfort of the dying penitents or pretending to inspect their flux-borne wounds. She must see me, soon, he told himself. He would simply follow behind her until she had no choice, then proclaim his surprise at the coincidence.

He knew this ruse could never work. His heart warned him of the sin. His soul balked at his determination. But he did not abandon the plan: he had already committed himself, and now she was only a handspan away. He could smell the sweat on her brow and her arms. Her hair was unkempt, spilling from beneath her wimple in corn-blonde waves. It had grown since last he saw it; still short, far shorter than Aethelwyn's, but long enough now to touch her jaw. The sweat, the grime, it only made his heart race faster.

You are a fool, Robart of Hazelby, he said. He turned away. He clutched his blood-stained knife in one hand, a relic of his excuses. There was still time to hurry off and pretend he wasn't following her. There was still time to retreat to the safety of the temple. Maybe he would go and pray before Ogust's Stone, or ask the Divinity to return Gaudulf's arm unharmed to the temple at Oldcastel. Anything but standing here, doing nothing, playing the fool so that this cannoness might lay eyes upon him. Since when was his whole life twisted and contorted around women? He had not thought of a woman since the death of his wife. Surely, this was a kind of treason.

"Robart?" her voice came to him from behind.

He didn't turn. "Eh?" he asked. Yes, fool, pretend you don't know who it is. Pretend that you weren't shadowing her like a base beast. Divinity, you'd serve the world better if you had hanged yourself... or let justice run its course when they found you with the gold.

"I'm sorry, Robart, I didn't want to disturb you. I've been trying not to. I don't want you to feel beholden to me. I mean, as some are, when they've been treated."

Now, he turned. Sister Soera smiled. "Oh, sister!" he said. "I didn't see you there." That's right. Dissemble to her. Nothing is quite as charming as a lying man. This was not his nature. It had all begun with the gold, finding the hoard in the field. Before that he had never sought to hide who he was to anyone else. He had been a straightforward, stolid man. Loyal. Reliable. That was what Highlord Marten had seen in him. He'd stood up for Lady Sorrel. Who was he now? "I didn't... I thought it would be somehow improper to bother you, sister." Well, at least that was true as far as it went. His confusion as to Soera's coldness had given him that impression.

"Not at all! But you were always in conversation with Squire Amalric or Lord Corricus... You've a great mantle of importance upon you now, one that I daren't disturb." She looked down between her feet. Embarrassed, herself? But of what? "I've thought of seeking you out these past days, but you were so peaceful..."

And she disturbed that promise of peace. "I much the same, sister," he said. His voice was running away with him, speaking things better left unsaid. "But I'm glad you changed your mind. This work shouldn't be borne by anyone alone."

Just like that, standing in the great morass of suffering before the Kingsbrook Temple, things were easy again. They were somehow safe and solved. Robart knew that he couldn't pursue Sister Soera. She was a sworn canonness. Still, he could be near her. That made him... well, not calm, but at least... happy.

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