MY LORD AQUITH By Yves Barbero My Lord Aquith directs me to place these words on paper. He

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MY LORD AQUITH By Yves Barbero I My Lord Aquith directs me to place these words on paper. He insists that I identify myself as the scribe. Men call me Piplerian Q'Norcail Veni. My Lord Aquith laughs as he rolls my name about his tongue. "They gave you enough names to rule a country." I was found forty-four years ago in a field. I came into this world deformed so my parents abandoned me. This wasn't cruelty but a chance to give the gods an opportunity to correct their error. They chose to do so by having Lord Aquith, the elder, my Lord Aquith's father, pass judgement that I should live. He gave me to the women of the Keep to use according to their needs and my poor talents. Each of the eleven women offered the gods a name for me. Denir, the priest, accepted each name and gave them a form he called, "logical." Wise Denir saw my eyes and pronounced me fit for education as a scribe. Denir had a wisdom that spoke of the elder gods although he wore the cloth of the usurper from the East, the one Patrick brought, the God of Death, the one they call, Savior Christ. I fear this god. He has ambition. He states that other gods are false. I state no god is false who makes himself felt. Denir would have understood. With a grin, he adopted the cloth of the new god and let the water be splashed on his face. "Patrick," Denir once told me, "had men with heavy swords at my baptism. I didn't want to be called to the bosom of this new god on that day so I made do with his blessing instead." "But baptism is powerful," I protested. "And I am a good Christian, Pip. I didn't take his holy water with a closed heart. Still, an ocean could not wash from me the ways of my fathers. I still carry the verse of law and the stories of old. The old gods have not left me. Christ will simply have to share me with them. He laughed shamelessly. Denir was old when I was young. He said he would face this Christ and mediate his quarrel with the elder gods in the next world. Denir's had no success as yet, if I may judge from the humorless monks who replaced him. They have not the poetry or humor of the Druid, nor his learning of the law. They act without precedent, relying on unknown spirits rather than the law. Men no longer know how to behave. These monks have only scribbling, something, if I serve as an example, any idiot may learn. I bless my Lord Aquith that these pages will be secret and I can say my piece without fear of these dark monks. These men of small learning despise me as I know their craft without sharing their loyalties. I serve the elder gods in secret. When they splashed the holy water on me, I was in this world but a few days and so the baptism was less powerful and did not hold my soul. They know but cannot kill me. My Lord Aquith protects me. Still, the purpose of these pages is not served by my ramblings of the past. It is the events of recent days that must be set down. I place my first lines only because my Lord Aquith thinks they will help those who are to come to under- stand. He has faith that these pages will be found in an age when we are both dust. "Even the walls have their lifetimes. There'll be a time when these stones are removed and the iron chest will once again come before the eyes of men. "What sort of men will find it?" "You're curious for a scribe, Pip. I venture they'll be much like us." "Wiser?" "I fear not. Cleverer, perhaps, with better tools. But not wiser." I could see he was having private thoughts as he said it. He broods at times. I can't presume to understand the meanderings of my betters. He gives me much freedom in the strokes of this quill. He knows I understand the limits of his tolerance." My Lord Aquith was presiding over the festival of the fall. It has always been a time of joy. For the space of a few days, the drudgery of summer is replaced by mild weather and there is time for contemplation. The poets are at their best just before the first snows and will recite for long hours before the fires of cool eves. Children born in this season are strong. If they are boys and survive the winter at their weakest, they become the good right arm of my Lord Aquith. The common soldiers are always chosen from this stock. If they are girls, they will bear many children. It's a good time under the rule of the elder gods. I don't know what this Christ will bring. No comforting thoughts, I fear. The festival was lit by seven huge fires set in the ancient pattern. They lit the spirited dancing of the young. If the old gods looked on all this with mirth, the sexless monks from the East viewed the dancing with fierce and unforgiving glares. But for the will of my Lord Aquith, this ritual would be forbidden. I saw the future Lord Aquith standing among the monks, his hair unnaturally cut with continence as stony as theirs. May the gods preserve! The child, who has barely seen six summers, seemed so joyful at birth. Now he is Christ's. Does a dark generation cloud this Keep? They say Christ walked the Earth in the guise of man. Could he have been like his followers? I wonder if his judges were not correct in their judgement. My Lord Aquith once executed a man who was leading his followers in a pattern of worship my Lord Aquith thought too rigid. I asked him why. Did not this man honestly worship the old gods? Surely the complaints of worthless monks was not reason enough to execute a man? "You presume to judge my judgement?" He asked in a playful manner. He can be playful about his deepest feelings. "I...I did not mean to give offense. Truly, I sometimes forget my place." He laughed. "I don't take offense of your sincere question, Pip. Nor should I use my office to intimidate a loyal servant. Forgive me!" "Readily, Sire." He pondered for a long moment. "There is a type of man who traps himself in a few ideas. If he also carries the ability to lead others, he becomes dangerous. He'll challenge my rule, first, then that of the gods." I didn't completely understand and pressed my Lord Aquith. Had I let it go, he would have been truly angry with me. He demands honest opinion and will not tolerate agreement for the sake of ambition or fear of a beating. "Do you think I was unjust? Answer me honestly, Pip!" "Forgive me, Lord, but where is the precedent? All law is precedent and there is none for this." "I thought you despised Hetter," He said of the executed man. "I confess my hatred of Hetter. But I cannot see how he threatened you, my Lord Aquith. He was weak and too ill disposed to command soldiers. My hate is not sufficient reason for his execution. There must be precedent." He nodded. "For a crippled fool, Pip, you ask hard questions of me. The Christians have supplied the precedent. Consider the Christ! At best, he was a worker of wood, a cabinet maker, a carpenter. A good skill, highly valued and yet the priests sought his death for leading the people astray. But now, his followers have the ears of kings and the dear of the people." My Lord Aquith saw that I finally understood. In the quiet that followed, we shared the same thoughts. I watched the young dancers, especially the women, with envy and let my mind wonder back twenty-five years when I shared the hay with Minia. It was my only time. She was older by two summers and crippled of mind and, I think, she was given a coin by the elder Lord Aquith. I was his fool. He fed me and provided. She was of good disposition. My Lord Aquith's laughter behind me returned me to the present. "Thinking of Minia, Pip?" "Aye, Lord." "I think of her too. You were not the only one she introduced into the mysteries. She was cruelly dealt with." She was fond of throwing rocks at the soldiers, who were expected to accept them with good humor. Gentle, if playful, demons possessed her. One knight, who had changed his name to Sir Paul on accepting the Eastern God, chose to torment her for her graciousness towards men. Minia would not be tormented. Her kindly demons would not allow it. Instead, they showed her how to torment Sir Paul with smiles and loose garments and a grab at certain moments and at certain parts making others, including my Lord Aquith, laugh at the knight's redness of face. She was found along the road with her throat cut. The wound bore the mark of a man who knew his trade. Denir said, those years ago, that the killer had used her forcefully. Two nights later, I heard screams from the tower. A man was being whipped. His name is my Lord Aquith's secret though I know it to be Paul, Knight of Christ. My Lord Aquith will neither confirm or deny my certain knowledge, even now, ten years after Sir Paul's death and sixteen since Denir made his way to the Keep of Christ to mediate for the old gods. My certain knowledge came from the uncomfortable walk of Sir Paul the next day. I told Denir of it and he mumbled sadly, "Sir Paul took an oath to Christ. If it was he who could not control his lust and he who would kill to hide his weakness in violation of the Christian commandment, his punishment was soft indeed. "Why did he not give her a gift of copper? She was playful." "She also had a tongue and Lord Aquith cannot abide hypocrites. If Paul took an oath of chastity, as foolish as such an oath is, our Lord Aquith would expect him to keep it. He murdered her to keep the secret...if it was he. Oh, that all men were like you, Pip." My Lord Aquith gave me his cup. "Drink quickly, Pip! There will be another after that. Soon, we'll all walk as you do!" His four knights, Sir Cullier, Sir Michael, Sir Malyarn and Sir Asien all laughed. Only the sour monks kept their silence. The mead went down roughly and I was quickly drunk. "Look!" A monk shouted, pointing to the sky. "A sign from heaven!" We all looked up. The shout came from a truly frightened man. The stars seemed to be growing and disappearing in silence. The night was lighted up as if by lightning but the brief daylight was longer than lightning and there were no clouds or claps or rain. "The gods battle!" I shouted. "Aye, Pip!" Sir Malyarn answered nervously. A monk drew a cross from his belt and held it out. "There is no God but Christ, heathen!" Sir Malyarn made the sign as he staggered back, fearfully. I held my ground. Drink had made me brave. That was foolish. The monks would find an opportunity to flay me. "Silence, monk!" My Lord Aquith ordered. "Back to your place!" The monk retreated but did not replace the cross in his belt. "What is it, Lord!" Sir Cullier shouted. "Am I a seer to know the heavens?" We watched the silent battle. Only the roar of the seven fires could be heard. Everyone had fallen silent and looked upward. Soon, it was over. My Lord Aquith laughed. "Are we to be frightened by the manifestations of the heavens?" He shouted for all to hear. "The gods, too, have their quarrels!" The knights joined in the laughter. "Dance!" My Lord Aquith ordered. "Be joyful, least we displease the bountiful gods and they have cause to turn their terrible weapons on us!" The drum took up their rhythm and the dancing resumed. My eyes were misted from drink but I saw a silver spear, larger than the largest horse, pass in front of me, its shaft afire. A clap of thunder followed it an instant later. It was louder than any thunder I ever heard. A rough wind made the seven fires sway after the spear. Many fell to the ground from the force of this momentary storm. Or from fear. Drink and wind combined to cause of my falling. I felt my Lord Aquith's firm hand pull me up and with his other hand, he handed me my cripple's stick. "What..." "There's nothing to dread," My Lord Aquith said to my startled cry. There was a smaller clap of thunder in the distance. The ground shook, almost knocking me from my feet again but for the strong hand of my Lord Aquith. In the far, beyond the trees, was a light of unearthly glow. After a spell, it disappeared. "Dance!" Came the cheerful command of my Lord Aquith. The drums resumed their beat and the pipes took up the drone. We watched the young people dance into the night and disappear into the mounds of hay. Drowsiness was creeping up on me. In fact, I soon fell asleep in the bliss of mead. Sir Cullier told me that it was my Lord Aquith, himself, who carried me to my straw below the kitchen. I remember the look on my Lord Aquith's face before the slumber of mead took me into the shadows. It was turned to the spot of the distant glow. The smile disappeared, a frown formed and the eyes narrowed. II The days of September soon ended. Little happened except that I was beaten one night by two monks as I stepped from relieving myself. I had taken my cup of mead as was permitted me on Sundays but I wasn't drunk. Still, I am old and my body seems in a hurry to relieve itself. The monk's cowls hid their faces but I knew them to be John and Mark. Of the five my Lord Aquith is forced to tolerate, it could only be them. I didn't complain to my Lord Aquith over this trifling incident. It is the place of cripples to be beaten from time to time. It's only because Sir Cullier happened upon the scene that my Lord Aquith learned of the act. Sir Cullier approached the monks and with the back of his gloved hand, boxed their ears. Naturally, they fled. "Cowards!" He shouted after them. He looked down on me. "Who were those monks?" "I did not see their faces, Sire!" A grin appeared on his face. "But you know who they are, little cripple." I said nothing. "You fear their retribution? Very well, have it your way!" He kicked my stick to me and left. It's not that Sir Cullier wanted to show me kindness. He, himself, has booted my behind when I was slow to react to his commands. Although he is more playful about it then cruel. Sir Cullier has a sense of the law and the law leaves punishment as the sole prerogative of the Lord of the Keep or fathers punishing children. "How long have these beatings been inflicted on you?" My Lord Aquith demanded of me the next morning. "All my life, Sire." I was trembling as I stood before him. Not from fear of retribution from the monks but because I held back from my Lord Aquith. He had always looked to me for the Keep's whispers. Sir Cullier is the shrewdest of my Lord Aquith's four gentlemen at arms. "He knows who they are, Sire. I offered Pip my protection. I am offended that he still fears them." My Lord Aquith's eyes narrowed. "Do you accept Sir Cullier's protection?" "Yes, Sire." I was trapped. "Then name the monks!" He boomed. "John and Mark, my Lord Aquith!" I had little choice in naming them. I didn't understand why my Lord Aquith made such a display of the incident. He knew that I was beaten from time to time by the cooks or some soldier. He never made a fuss over those incidents. But he ordered John and Mark back to their bishop after giving them twenty lashes each. In private, I later asked him why. "I am not so important that you would anger the bishop?" "You see only the surface, Pip. If you saw more fully, you'd be a better instrument to me. I am the law, here! If you committed some offense, I, and only I, must be the instrument of your punishment. The Church presumes to take my place in ordinary matters. It needs to be taught its place." "But my Lord Aquith, John and Mark didn't beat me for some offense of the law but because they despise my learning and my teacher, Denir." "Aye, that's true. I chose to see it another way since it's of use to my policy." He grinned. "Think of the benefit it does us both. The bishop will be more thoughtful because I dared punish his agents and you, little cripple, are not likely to be beaten again. Twenty lashes to important monks is something the cooks will remember." With that, I shared his grin. It was the third day of October when the woman came before my Lord Aquith. She came dragging her daughter behind her by the hair. It took two guards to restrain the daughter, I was later told. I was sent for after a few questions by my Lord Aquith. "Pip, take pen and paper and mark down our words!" A monk, Jeromy, protested. "We may do the task, Sire!" Jeromy and Martin were left to us after the banishment of Mark and John. Old Albert, the fifth monk, was in ill health and did not share the confidence of his younger brothers. They suspected him of being a secret Druid. He did nothing to contradict their suspicions. He didn't care what they thought, knowing full well that he'd be in Christ's Keep before many weeks would pass. "Silence, monks!" Sir Cullier shouted, placing a hand on his scabbard. Jeromy knelt before my Lord Aquith. "Sire! This woman speaks of demons and outworldly fires. Surely, this is the province of the Church?" "I acknowledge your interest in this matter, monk." My Lord Aquith told him. "But I want a hand free of bias to write down her words. You are free to copy Pip's lines later." Jeromy nodded and resumed his place. "Speak, women! Tell Pip your name and that of your daughter!" The old woman spoke. "I've always been called Boutha and my daughter is Mary. After the Virgin. I tell you, great Lord, that she is the first child to be named after the Virgin in these parts. I was first in my village to acknow- ledge the Christ as my Lord and Savior. It was eighteen years ago when I was heavy with Mary..." "Yes, yes! Go on, Boutha!" My Lord Aquith gestured impatiently. "I know you are a woman of true virtue." Boutha's eyes grew large. I picked up pen and ink. "It was the night the gods battled. I shared my bed with my husband, Tull. And Mary slept by the door." "Why wasn't Mary here with the other young people?" "She was wed last year." "Why was she not with her husband?" "Jos is gone." "Yes." My Lord Aquith reflected. "I remember now. Was he ever found?" "No, Sire!" Sir Cullier supplied. "We think he was taken by the bog." "Or thieving on some southern road!" My Lord Aquith added to general laughter. "He was a wild one, I recall. Continue, Boutha!" A horrible shriek came from Mary. It was so sudden that the guards were taken by surprise and let her go. She ran for mother, striking her cruelly about the head and shoulders. Surely, she would have slain her mother if Sir Cullier had not acted swiftly and pulled the girl away. Mary turned her rage on my Lord Aquith's retainer and bit him on the hand. Sir Cullier made short work of her. One blow from his free hand and she fell unconscious. Jeromy approached my Lord Aquith. "The girl is possessed! It is a Church matter!" "Perhaps, monk!" But so far, I am convinced only of a quarrel within her family. Let the evidence unfold itself! If it reveals concerns belonging to the Church, I will allow you voice. Until then, you will remain silent!" Boutha was on her feet. Two marks were on her face and blood came from her lips. "Let Boutha be attended to!" My Lord Aquith ordered. Take Mary and lock her firmly! Pip, attend me!" I followed My Lord Aquith and Sir Cullier to the chapel behind the great hall of the Keep. Jeromy and Martin followed us but Sir Cullier closed the heavy door of the chapel before they could enter, saying something I could not hear but which sent the monks angrily away. My Lord Aquith approached the altar and bowed slightly to the iron cross with the figure of the Eastern Savior nailed firmly to it. "Forgive me, my Lord Christ, but these matters concern you not!" He turned the heavy cross to the wall. I sensed sarcasm in his words and action. My Lord Aquith turned to Sir Cullier. "I would have your counsel, my most honest of retainers!" My Lord Aquith used the words blunt and honest interchangeably. "Twenty strokes for the girl, Sire! Ten for striking her mother and ten for striking me!" "A fair punishment, Sir Cullier. It will be executed." He rubbed his bearded chin. "But there is something else I want your thoughts on. Something of more pressing moment. Do you think demons are involved?" "I know not, Sire. I know only that when a family is in the midst of quarrel, large and regrettable claims are made." My Lord Aquith nodded in agreement. "The curse of such claims is that they divide villages and, unless wisdom is applied quickly, the wildest of imaginings come forth and deaths quickly follow. I don't wish to see my people killing each other." He turned to me. "Your eyes are full of questions, Pip?" I shifted nervously. "Before you arrived at the hall, Pip, wild charges of fire coming from Mary's finger were spoken. Jeromy and Martin immediately concluded possession. I look for a more mundane explanation." With those words, my Lord Aquith produced a metal object from his tunic and placed it in my hand. "What make you of this?" I've never seen its like, My Lord!" It was of polished metal, such as a fine silver but without the weight of the precious metal. One end was hollow and the other had a grip angled from the tube and very comfortable to the hand. In the angle between the grip and the tube was a framed space with a small piece of metal inviting a finger. I dared not touch it for fear of the magic. "Boutha called it a wand. Her husband took it from the girl." Sir Cullier approached me and took the wand. I was pleased to be rid of it. "It has the feel of a weapon, Sire. Perhaps a small arrow thrown from the tube but I see no mechanism for winding it and it looks too small to cause harm unless it involves a poison." Without another thought, sir Cullier gripped the thing, his finger touching the small metal piece. Fire, in a long straight path, issued noiselessly from the tube and touched the metal cross on the altar. The cross glowed briefly, crackling as it turned a color a smithy sees and fell melted to the stone altar. Sir Cullier eyes widened. It was the first time I saw surprise on his face. He examined the thing and carefully avoided pointing it at any body. My Lord Aquith rubbed the bald spot on his brow thought- fully. "We shall take care with that." He took the proffered wand from his retainer and regarded it carefully. "Your guess is correct, Sir Cullier. It is a weapon. I wonder how it contains the fire?" "There is a demon within it, Sire!" Sir Cullier offered with heavy breath. "It's a mindless demon, if he be there." My Lord Aquith observed, inclined more to curiosity than fear. "It serves whoever pulls the triggering rod. Perhaps it the same demon which resides in any good bow." He replaced the wand in his tunic. "It attacked a symbol of Christ!" I said. "A sensible choice." My Lord Aquith ventured sarcastically. "But I think that if it had been pointed at you, it would have attacked you. Are you afraid, Pip?" "Aye, my Lord Aquith!" "You were always sensible with your fears, Pip. Let's go find this demon of Mary's and see if he is sensible." We left the next morning. III The party was equipped for war. My Lord Aquith and Sir Cullier led on their chargers, followed by the other retainers. Those of us on foot, eight soldiers, myself, the woman Boutha, and her daughter with Jeromy and Martin behind them and four more soldiers to guard our rear, slowed the procession to a slow walk. It would take us most of the morning to get to Boutha's village. The roads were little more than wagon tracks in the country north of the Keep. Because of the shortness of the journey, we took only what supplies we could carry and left the carts behind. I wish we had left the monks behind and even ventured to suggest it to my Lord Aquith. He gave me only a knowing grin and said nothing to my suggestion as he checked the straps of his saddle and mounted the war horse. It was a quiet journey. Mary's hands were tied behind her back with a stout rope. Another rope at her feet was long enough to allow her to walk but not so long that she might run away. The monks mumbled their prayers for her soul as they took unhurried strides behind her. The morning fog had lifted and it was getting warm. My bones didn't ache that day. It was a good sign. I thanked the sprites of the forest softly so Jeromy could not hear. After our talk in the chapel, my Lord Aquith, Sir Cullier and myself had gone to speak to Mary without telling the monks. But for my Lord Aquith's orders, I would not write the words which followed. This is Mary's tale. "The demon is without hair and is covered with bruises. His complexion is fair, whiter than any man I have ever seen. And he doesn't smell! He has no hair on his chest or legs..." "How know you this?" Sir Cullier demanded. She shrieked, "He is my lover! And such a lover, no woman has ever had! He is larger than any man I have ever seen!" She laughed madly and astounded us with descriptions I had never before heard issue from a woman's mouth. Even the common soldiers, with their ribald tales, would never speak as she did. My Lord Aquith listened calmly. He kept his thoughts private. As he often tells me, silence is an ally. People assume you agree with them if you pay close heed and say naught. Finally, my Lord Aquith took out the wand and asked. "How did you get this?" "The demon slept and I took it. I saw him chase the men away with it, using it so the fire burned the ground before them, or the trees around their heads. I saw him kill a wolf that came into his camp." "But he let you in his camp?" "Aye! I am a woman and often consort with the wood sprites. I walk into the woods with my breasts bared and my tongue licking my lips. Sprites and men know what that means." She opened her dress and revealed herself. "I could take all three of you at once and would..." "Restore your clothes, girl!" My Lord Aquith said coldly. "We are not demons or sprites and you hold no appeal for us!" She laughed and closed her dress. "I know a great secret!" She seemed to chant it and repeated it three times while doing a dance. "What is this secret?" My Lord Aquith asked, speaking calmly as a friend might speak. "Before the men were the women! Once, we ruled! The old gods speak of it. We controlled men with our passions! But then came iron. It was given men by jealous male gods. Men subdued the Great Mother with iron. Iron stays stiff when men cannot!" I trembled but took comfort in the wisdom of my Lord Aquith in keeping the monks from this interrogation. Surely, even my Lord Aquith could not prevent her burning if the severe monks heard of this. "Did the demon tell you this?" She gave a sinister smile. "The demon speaks a tongue only I understand. He speaks to his iron and the iron comes alive." "What does he say to his iron?" My Lord Aquith examined his ring of office, showing no concern, as he spoke. I have seen him do this when he wished to make as if indifferent. "That's my secret! It will be my secret! My secret! My Secret!" She chanted and resumed her dance. "I think you lie, Mary. You don't speak the demon's tongue. You want only to increase your importance in our eyes." She pointed a finger at My Lord Aquith. "I am not a man and care naught for importance!" She chanted, circling about us in her suggestive dance. "I am the Earth! Without me, there is no ground for the importance of men to stand! I've seen the other world! I've seen the other world!" "Heaven?" Sir Cullier asked. "Hell!" She shrieked. "It's a far better place! The Great Mother rules there!" Calm as ever, my Lord Aquith asked, "Where is this hell?" "The gate is with my lover. He guards it with his living iron!" "Why would the Great Mother tolerate a gate of iron to her paradise and use a male demon, larger than men, as a guard?" My Lord Aquith was fond of using logic to befuddle. The girl, Mary, ignored the thrust. "You need only see the camp to see that it is the gate to Hell! He has cleared the forest with his magic and fire, dug a trench the length of a hundred men. In the middle, he has planted a tree of iron. It gleams in the moonlight and small steady fires issue from its heart. They light and go out without the agency of men. Demons whisper from the tree. The fires are cold to the touch but light the tree with more brightness than the moon." "Tell me more!" "I don't wish to. Go and ask the demon, yourself, if you dare!" "Perhaps it is time that I do!" My Lord Aquith decided that nothing useful could be unearthed from this evil child and had her locked away for the night. He placed a guard at her door with instructions that no one should enter save me with her meal. If Jeromy or Martin came down this passage, they were to be chased away, preferably with a good swift kick. The guard my Lord Aquith picked had no trouble understanding. I returned shortly after with bread and cheese and some mead and entered the cell to find Mary in the shadows, hiding from me but issuing a cruel laugh. I placed the bowl and cup on the floor and began walking backwards so she could not jump out and surprise me. Not that I could do much. She was a young woman, if frenzied, in good health and could most certainly tear me apart before the guard could come to aide me. She suddenly came out of the shadows, naked to the air. She leered at me, moving her tongue back and forth. I was more than willing to believe she was possessed by some Christian demon. First, she tempts you and then requires feelings of guilt because you listened to the temptation. I was frozen in place for a moment but gathered my senses and ran out of the cell. To this day, I can still feel a trace of pain in my abused legs. I closed the door swiftly and dropped the wood in place. I heard mocking laughter. I had dropped my stick when I ran and knew I would not see it till the morrow. The guard, Flanor, looked at me in amazement. He'd never seen me move so quickly nor my face so drained of color. He'd never been a friend to me but he had always granted me my peace. He did not mock me and I could not fault him. "Did you see the demon?" I nodded. "Don't open the door for your life's sake!" He took out some mistletoe and kissed it. IV We arrived at the village as the sun was almost directly overhead. It was deserted. Signs of burned huts were all about. "It's Mary's work!" Boutha shouted. "She did it with the wand. She burned her father's hand. It no longer serves him!" My Lord Aquith rode back to where Boutha stood. "Go and tell the villagers to come out of hiding. They are under my protection!" Boutha ran. In the space of an hour, she had gathered most of the villagers, including her husband who hid his hand in a crude bandage. My Lord Aquith looked at Tull and remembered him. Tull was speaker for this village and met with the Lord of the Keep at least twice a year. But Tull was a common name for men in these parts and I think that my Lord Aquith did not know he was this Tull until his eyes rested on him. Since these pages must be honest on my Lord Aquith's instruction, I must add that he now often forgets the faces of those he does not see every day. In others, this is a fault but my Lord Aquith occupies himself with weighty matters and will not behave as a common man. Although, I hasten to add, he was not always so grave a man. It is only in the four years since my Lady Aquith fell from her favorite mount to the next world that he moves into forgetful moods. It took the strength of Sir Cullier and four soldiers to stay my Lord Aquith's sword from the neck of the white mare. "How fare you, Tull?" My Lord Aquith boomed to the peasant speaker. "My hand is useless and my daughter is the one who did it." Tull said this in the same tone as he would argue for his village's share of the harvest. The sense of righteousness was there but his speech lacked passion. "I will punish her, Tull. Unless you, as her sire, claim that right for yourself." "I will leave the punishment to you, my Lord Aquith. I can't raise a hand against my own child." Sir Cullier rode foreword. "Perhaps if you had exercised your paternal duties, she would not have consorted with demons. She deserves death for striking her sire!" Tull lowered his head. "I plead you not to strike her dead, sir knight!" Sir Cullier looked at my Lord Aquith for judgement. "Thirty lashes added to the twenty, Sir Cullier!" "Aye, my Lord!" If Sir Cullier seemed unhappy with this mild sentence, it was because my Lord Aquith's own law prevented this sentence from being carried out at once. It would have to be divided over the space of three days. No more than twenty lashes a day were allowed. "I want to break the act, not the spirit!" My Lord Aquith had explained in changing the policy of his father. My Lord Aquith dismounted. He placed his arm around the speaker. "We will talk, Tull. Come, Pip!" He looked at Sir Cullier, indicating with his eyes that his lieutenant should stay outside. The good knight knew his Lord's tactic. To loosen Tull's tongue, he would leave most displays of power outside. I followed them into the mean hut. "Tell me what occurred here, honest Tull!" My Lord Aquith said as he sat on a basket of grain. I placed myself on the dirt floor and took out my inks to write. "It was the night of the harvest festival. We were satiated as it is your policy not to count what is eaten that night in your share." "I know my policies." My Lord Aquith said with mock gravity. "Continue!" "We had just gone to sleep when we heard a loud noise. It was as daylight outside. I stepped from the hut, followed by Boutha and Mary. In the forest was a fire so I gathered the men to go and put out the fire. It was dry, as you may remember, and we were fearful of its spread. "We ran to the fire with buckets, hoping against hope that the spring nearby was not dry. In my heart, I knew it to be dry. But by the time we arrived, there was no fire. The woods were full of noises, like voices speaking from invisible places. We were all fearful but I and some brave lads advanced anyway. "We came to a place, a clearing that wasn't there before but seemed to be scooped out by the hand of a giant god. It was black and there were still small fires about. I ordered the men to put them out. "As we entered the clearing, we saw a metal tree, smooth and twisted like no tree should be. It had been uprooted and was lying on its side. Out of a hole in the tree emerged the demon. "Fire came from his finger! "We fled!" My Lord Aquith nodded. "Very wise. Why didn't you come to me at once?" "We were fearful that you'd lash us and accuse us of taking sprite herbs for their powerful dreams." "As I did four harvests ago?" "Yes, my Lord. The harvest festivals bring on many strange manifestations." "What did this demon look like?" "He has the form of a man. I could see that well in the moonlight. His coloring was a strange hue like metal and he was naked. Some of the lads thought he was dressed but that his clothing was tight on his frame. He had no hair!" "Continue, Tull!" "There's little more to tell, my Lord Aquith. It's been the habit of this village not to inquire too deeply into the affairs of the gods." "A virtuous habit. Tell me about Mary!" "She disappeared from the village that night." A silence followed. My Lord Aquith let the silence fill the hut. He is skilled at questioning. After a time, he said. "Tull, I am not seeking to punish. I only punish deceit and you have offered none as yet. I reward truth, even unpleasant truth. You know that. Your village has my protection." "And the priests?" "I will keep them from you and yours. Did you search for Mary?" Tull dropped to his knees and blubbered. "You didn't search for her. Why not? I know you have affection for your unworthy child." "The forest controls her. She belongs to the old gods. I'm but a simple man." "Perhaps not so simple. Were you not worried that she might be hurt and need attending?" "No, my Lord! Food would disappear. We knew it was her." "Has she done this before?" He nodded, trembling. "We thought Jos would control her. He was strong. She drove him away or..." "...Or killed him." My Lord Aquith supplied. "And since then, no one has taken a firm hand to her for fear of her magical powers?" Tull's silence had the look of agreement. "Tell me about the night she returned with the wand of fire!" Tull looked around to me. "Pip is my creature, good Tull. He is sworn to silence and bears no love for the priests of the Eastern God. Tell me! Hold nothing back!" "I was asleep. The smell of fire woke me. Then there shouts and strange sounds. I left my bed to find confusion. In the middle of the confusion, Mary was shrieking with demonic laughter. At first, I thought the fire came from a finger. Then I saw the wand. I walked up from behind her and took hold of the wand. My hand was in pain but I had it and threw it from her." "That was courageous, Tull! It was the proper thing to do!" "I struck my daughter in fury!" "A fury you didn't know you possessed?" He nodded. "You know my heart, my Lord. We strapped her to a post. The next morning, we tied her hands firmly and made knots on her legs so she could not run away. Boutha brought her to you. Boutha thought it best." My Lord Aquith rose. "I am glad you are speaker of this village. You have great wisdom and Boutha is blessing to your house." "Thank you, my Lord." "Remove the bandage, Tull. I would examine the wound." Tull did as he was told. Two fingers were missing and he could not move the others. "I've seen such injuries before, Tull! I have applied fires to seal wounds in battle. You will live to a fine old age. I'll have my smith make you a hook so you may do honorable labor." The speaker nodded in gratitude. Such services are beyond his means. "Lead me to this demon!" But my Lord, he is a manifestation of the harvest time!" "Then lead me to the place! He may choose to manifest himself to the Lord of the Keep." V As companions, my Lord Aquith took Sir Cullier, Sir Michael and the bowman, O'Dounille. He left the rest to guard the village. I went as his chronicler to the consternation of Jeromy and Martin, who insisted on coming to protect the interest of the Church. I thought my Lord Aquith too eager to have them along. He was plotting so I kept my own counsel. It was dusk when we arrived at the demon camp. I could sense the fear amongst us. We heard whispers, voices in a language known only to the gods. Only my Lord Aquith and Sir Cullier seemed fearless. They had faced foes from the North, horned men with the faces of bears. I know that the horns and faces are masks to strike fear into their enemies but it's also true that the men of the North took on the spirits of the monsters they killed for their coloring. "Do you think the demon has another wand?" I asked in a whisper. "I own more than one sword. He has more than one wand!" The horses were left behind and we approached with stealth. There was a bright glow coming from the demon's camp. It didn't come from a campfire. There was an unnatural air about it. I saw the unearthly camp, I admit, on my belly with bushes for cover. I've never been known for my bravery. The scene was as the Christians describe the world of the damned. Even the shrubbery at the border of the camp was wilted in poisoned death. What sort of god kills growing things? The land did seem plowed by some giant fiery hand. The metal tree was twisted only as an evil entity might express malice. The glow was coming from two globes on metal posts. Then, we saw the demon. In the eerie light, he seemed naked. But I soon saw that he had clothing. It fit tightly about his body and he carried a long wand, half the length of a spear. I heard voices from behind me. They were whispers. "Return to the village, Tull! You've served me well." "Yes, my Lord!" He seemed gladdened by the order. The whisper of Jeromy next filled my ears. "He is a demon, Lord!" "Do you propose to fight him, Brother Jeromy, or will you leave that to me? The choice is yours." There was silence for a spell. "Well, Jeromy? Can your Christ conquer this demon?" He was baiting the monk. I saw his purpose. "I will cast it out!" Jeromy whispered firmly. "Well and good, Jeromy. I will bide while you do your work." I understood the scheme from his tone. My Lord Aquith saw the demon as a warrior, not a spirit. He was using the demon to rid himself of these troublesome monks. My Lord Aquith sensed this demon as a Viking spirit come to threaten the people of the Keep. Not an evil manifestation at all. My heart fluttered as I saw Jeromy and Martin leave the cover of the trees and advance, cross in hand. "Ready yourself, O'Dounille!" My Lord Aquith whispered. "If the Christ fails us, I would trust the spirit that guides your sure hand!" He was employing sarcasm again. O'Dounille said a small prayer to the tree from which his shaft sprang. The demon saw Jeromy and Martin approach. In a loud voice, they muttered their Latin, striking more fear in me, I fear, than in the demon. How many times has my Lord Aquith told me that Latin moves men, not mountains, and I still tremble at its pronouncement. How foolish of me. Denir said it was merely another tongue and taught it to me. I scribble it but fear to speak it. It belongs to the dreaded Savior in its spoken form. "Stand ready but hold your place, bowman!" My Lord Aquith whispered conspiratorially. "We must give Brother Jeromy his chance." The demon turned swiftly at the approach of the dark monks. Perhaps he mistook them for wild animals, dressed as they were in their brown habits. Perhaps he knew what they represented. Perhaps he thought the iron cross a weapon. I cannot tell. He raised his wand and pointed it toward Jeromy. If Jeromy had stopped, I believe, the creature would not have loosed the fury of the weapon upon him. He had only chased men away before. Jeromy's chest burst into flame and the monk was thrown violently back and clearly killed, his face frozen in astonished death. Martin dropped his cross and ran. The demon made no effort to chase him. "Now, bowman!" O'Dounille loosed his arrow. It found its mark in the demon's shoulder. The demon let out a cry and fell backwards from the force, dropping the long wand. I have never seen O'Dounille err by so much as an inch. And yet, he only wounded the demon. Before I could think, my Lord Aquith and Sir Cullier ran to the fallen creature and prevented him from recovering his wand by placing the blades of their broadswords to the throat. If the demon moved, he would be dead. Sir Michael watched where his master couldn't in the event another demon lurked in the dark. "Pip!" My Lord Aquith shouted. "Come here!" I ran to him. "Look at his eyes, Pip! Is this a demon?" I stuttered and cleared my throat as I looked at the darting, fearful eyes. "No, my Lord Aquith! He is a man, misshapen as I am, but a man!" Indeed, his ears were too small for his head and of an odd shape. His skin was unnaturally white but the eyes told all. Aside from their red color, they belonged to a man. Martin came up. "A demon, Lord Aquith! It is a demon! Strike it dead!" My Lord Aquith struck Martin with the back of his mailed hand. "You left your brother and dropped the sign of your god! You feared that the promised paradise was an empty claim. You have no faith! Among us, you no longer have a voice! Go back to your bishop and report what happened! Take care that you report honestly or you will fear my wrath! I promise you, Martin, that your kind will no longer trouble me. Martin fled. "My Lord Aquith," I said. I could no longer restrain myself. "Why did you not use his own wand against him. You bare it in your tunic?" He laughed. "Politics, Pip! If I had used the demon's weapon in the sight of the monks, the Church would charge me and I would burn. Could I resist the combined force of my enemies if they were given the blessing of the Church to steal my lands?" I blinked. He stooped and looked me directly in the face. "All is politics, my friend. Even the capture of demons!" I regarded the now helpless creature. O'Dounille was applying herbs and bandages to the demon's wound. "You didn't kill by choice?" Firmly, O'Dounille said, "I never miss!" Overhearing my query, my Lord Aquith supplied. "If fear of the unknown were a crime deserving of death, I would have to kill not only this creature but all of us. This poor individual is only guilty of being in a strange country where even the elements seem hostile. The bowman obeys my will." "And his corruption of Mary?" I stammered. "I think it was the reverse, Pip! For her crimes, Mary will be lashed and sent to a nunnery to serve her namesake." "And Jeromy's death?" "I engineered that! The sin is on my soul, not this poor demon's. I shall excuse it as political necessity for my conscience's sake. Jeromy and his brothers were ready to put people to the torch. I want none of that in my lands. Undoubtedly, it will cause me some financial pain since the bishop is a greedy man. He is not like his patron, Patrick, thank the gods, who was a fanatic. Greed is a useful political tool for curing disputes which could otherwise become violent." "At last, we will be free of these troublesome monks!" Sir Cullier added, still guarding the creature with his exposed blade. My Lord Aquith placed his hand on the shoulder of his comrade-at-arms. "I wish that were so, old friend. I venture to guess that these Christians will plague us again in a few years time." "Do you judge this creature as faultless, then?" I ventured. "Merely luckless, Pip! Not faultless! Look at him! He is a wounded soldier left to die by his retreating fellows. His one crime, in my eyes, is that he was careless with his weapon and caused my people harm. Had any died at Mary's hand, he would have died with her on the gallows. But none did so their lives are saved. The arrow has made his arm useless and is punishment enough for a warrior." My Lord Aquith turned to Sir Michael. "Gather a party of villagers and cover the metal vessel with earth! Until the trees grow back, this place is forbidden!" "Aye, Lord!" "Vessel?" I repeated. "He was a sailor of the skies using the stars as harbors. Now, he is as earthbound as we. His people have great knowledge and can create great works. Still, I don't think they are gods or demons. They have too many of the same qualities we have. Fear, lust, war and ...despair." VI Even as I write these final lines, I look from the window to see the demon sitting in the courtyard. He is morose and searching the heavens in false hope. For the last several days, his bonds have been removed and the guards ignore him. There's no place for him to go. He eats little and shows no interest in those around him. He makes no effort to learn our speech and says little in his. If the women hadn't thrown a blanket over his shoulders, he would have no protection against the lightly falling snow. When he does speak, the speech is directed at himself. He is pitiful and I fear he will soon die. "He knows he is abandoned." My Lord Aquith says as he looks over my shoulder. "A man who cannot adjust himself to the situation at hand has naught but my contempt, Pip. He is less than a man. You, dear Pip, are a true man. Fate gave you poor legs and a deformed back and you're burdened with the contempt of the unthinking. Yet, you go on. You serve a useful life." He places his hand on my shoulder and walks to the wall to prepare the mortar which will seal these words and the two demon weapons firmly in the Keep. (C) Copyright 1987 by Yves Barbero 415-285-4358 1073 Dolores Street San Francisco, CA 94110 Yes, you are welcome to download this story for your private and non-commercial use. Yes, please upload this story to other non-commercial bulletin boards. Yes, if you enjoyed MY LORD AQUITH and you don't have ten kids to feed, encourage me to upload other stories by sending me a few bucks to buy groceries and keep the wolf from the door. Yes, if you want to make other uses of the story, please contact me for permission and to make arrangements. It does belong to me.


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