Part One: Nothing is what it seems
Recounted by Gaius of Tamrac
Upon the instructions I had received from my former lord, I presented myself at Crauntel Abbey, having been told I was to join certain others whom the Church is sending on pilgrimage for the sake of our immortal souls. In these latter days, when many say the Day of Judgement approaches, we must think of the souls of our loved ones and make provision for them in the afterlife, where we may hope to be dealt with less cruelly than in this world where monsters dwell.
I approached the Abbey in the mid-afternoon, when the sun had driven most of the peasants into the shade of hayricks for a nap. This being late summer, the fields were filled with hard golden stubble, of the kind that it delights faeries and young lovers to make circles in. Coming from the south up the long curve of the hill, I saw a man coming towards me whom I recognized. It was one Arandor, who proudly advertises his many soubriquets: “the Reaper”, “the Cruel”, “the Throat Slitter”. He appears to be originally of the mercantile class, but his own line of business is, let us say, the selling of shrouds. By which I mean that, when I was still a knight and served my liege in honourable ways, this Arandor was one of those Montombre called upon to do certain other deeds.
Arandor appeared to recognize me, but our conversation took only as long as the time required to pass each other in the field. Arandor: “You have no horse.” I: “Nor do you.” Arandor: “I never did.” And so he headed on south towards Hallpike, leaving me only to muse on what the world was coming to, that monks would have had employment for his special services. For I was sure he had not been to the Abbey to give confession.
A brief conversation with Abbot Hugo soon brought my mind from spiritual matters. They need something. Of course, is that not always the case? He told me of a ruinous Cathedral, long abandoned somewhere in Helfax Wood. The Church desires to reconsecrate this Cathedral. To do so, we will need a key which is in the possession of a blind man who lives in the house of the Lady of Baptismarl. It’s said that the blind man travelled to the far western edge of the world. Will he give us the key? If he refuses, the Abbot suggested that force should be used to persuade him. I never cease to marvel at how readily the craven and weak of spirit are always the most ready to sanction use of force.
I have said “we”, implying I am not alone in this quest – or pilgrimage, if we are to indulge the Abbot in his choice of words. My fellow pilgrims are:
Denarth, a redoubtable mercenary who served my lord Montombre in former days. He has a temper and bridles at any reference to his short stature. But in a fight he is worth two men of regular height. As for his sins: I know that he slew an unarmed man in anger, but it is hard to blame a man for actions he undertakes in the heat of strong feeling. It is not as grave as a sin committed in cold blood. Regardless of that, I believe he has an honest wish to atone.
Luchan of Grasmere, called by some a doctor, who has some learning. He is slimly built, old enough for his hair to have turned full grey. And yet he owns a fine warhorse called Gabriel, and shows the proper devotion to it that one would expect of a warrior. I am not familiar with the hamlet of Grasmere, but from his bearing I take Luchan to be of good freeman stock. He keeps silent as to the sins that put him in our company.
Father Cullon, a man appointed by the Abbot to reconsecrate the Cathedral on the first holy day after we have reopened it. At that moment, all our sins are absolved. Cullon is not a normal man. There are moments when the eye seems to catch him forcing himself to pause and speak and breathe at the snail’s pace of the mundane world. I have my own suspicions.
Lastly, Arandor is also to join us – though I am unsure he does so as a fellow pilgrim, for reasons I shall explain shortly.
The Abbot gave us hospitality in the form of a meal of bread and mushrooms, accompanied by a quite extraordinary peach brandy, possibly intended for those rare occasions when ladies stay as the Abbot’s guests, and a very fine claret that I was able to induce one of the brothers to bring up from the cellar.
During the night, we were surprised by drum-beats from far off across the trees. A spell of slumber, or perhaps a hand of glory, had been used to keep the monks asleep. I looked out and, seeing a crouched figure of obviously sinister intent, put an arrow in its thigh. It was a crow-like goblin, one of a small party that attacked the Abbey under cover of darkness.
On the wall, Luchan and Denarth found Arandor entangled in a tree, apparently trying to climb from two pursuing goblins. The creatures fled and we realized the drum beats had stopped. I later collected my arrow, covered in dried grey goblin blood, and a crooked spear that had landed in the Abbey grounds when one of Arandor’s pursuers tried to skewer him. I kept the blood and the spear-head.
As we returned to our beds, Luchan and I met a monk who claimed to have a secret item to give us on our quest. He said he could not give the item to me or Arandor, for our sins are too grave. This did little to create any bond of trust; I know my sins well enough, but prefer not to be judged by monks. Luchan was quietly pleased to be spoken of favourably, which gave me further reason to mistrust the monk’s intent – it seemed the classic technique used by tricksters since the Serpent first uncoiled itself along the apple branch. But Luchan is a wise man; I must assume he is on guard against mere flattery.
Luchan went to the stables to check on his horse, and as well that he did, as he found the poor beast strung up by faerie ropes. He freed it and slept the night beside it. Such devotion is admirable, especially as one of his age is the more in need of a soft bed and warm blankets.
In the morning we went to the pottery workshop of the monk we had been accosted by. He then told us that he was Brother Gresham, the Abbey’s potter, and the item he would give us was a clay crucifix – but that Cullon and the Abbot must not know of it. Now, I have no great abiding love for the Abbot, but to be caught as pawn between two factions is rarely satisfying for the pawn. However, when I went to tell Cullon of the crucifix, I found myself under a spell that turned my speech into bestial noises.
At breakfast, Arandor told us that he had first intended to spend the night in Hallpike but, on realizing that the journey back to the Abbey would take half a morning, he had turned on the road, arriving back in the fields after sunset. There he had seen a band of goblins, walking on their bird-like legs with pates shining bald and black in the moonlight. Arandor had evaded them, but when he knocked at the Abbey gate, a huge bird like a white raven with crimson eyes had fluttered up out of the porch, startling him and drawing the attention of two of the goblins. He had run for the tree, barely escaping with his life.
The potter had given me a clay icon of St Christopher. Not wanting to be indebted to him, I gave this to Denarth, who thus gets the benefit of its protection, if any, without any encumbrance on him from one of the players in this game. I now know that we are pawns in someone else’s game – and a pawn can do little, but it is at least good not to be misled that one is directing the game, nor into any false allegiance to the players who move you.
Speaking of the players of the game, we must assume the Abbot is the other. As we set out he beckoned Arandor and pressed upon him a silver piece worth 200 farthings, saying that on completion of his mission he will get twenty-nine more. This is what caused me to doubt that Arandor is also on pilgrimage to redress his sins, but instead for some other purpose of the Abbot’s.
As to sins, my own are well-known around the county, or at least are much gossiped about by those who believe they know them. They caused my fall from mortal grace as well as divine. Though perhaps, in the former case, other considerations were at work, which I say because, if sin alone were enough to strip a man of rank and wealth, there would be scarce a noble in the land with two farthings to rub together.
No, it is bitterness that lies behind those words. Ignore them, reader. Though other men have sinned, I know of none whose deeds are so dreadful as mine, not even Arandor, who even as we set out was attempting to corrupt a monk into some act of impiety – and all merely for boredom’s sake. Thus it has become in the last days.
We were provided with mules. Our journey to Baptismarl took us towards Jewelspider Wood by way of the village of Hallpike, and thence on to Murton. In the tavern there, Arandor sought to practice mischief with Luchan’s help. They distracted a traveller while Arandor picked his pocket. Another man saw this, but Arandor thought quickly and palmed the purse off on another man standing nearby. A large Cornumbrian was accused of the theft. He took a swing at Arandor, who blocked the punch and laid the man out with a purse of silver in the face.
The man was thrown out into the lane. But later we found he had been dragged away into Jewelspider. Luchan assessed the lay of the land and told us there were many faerie signs. Nonetheless, I would not have an innocent man taken by faeries in this way, for if our quest becomes wound about with acts of petty unworthiness, it is like a sapling that falls prey to weeds.
We pressed on into Jewelspider there and then, and soon came across the Corumbrian’s dead body strung up from a tree. As we stepped forward, the corpse raised its hands to touch Luchan accusingly, but the doctor held up his shield, whereupon the cadaver fell upon him and we saw it was only moving because of briars and strings worked under the skin, puppet-like.
It kicked off then – a swarm of tiny faerie folk with little pick-axes and hammers, pouring out of the darkness and covering us. We fought a short while against mounting odds, until Luchan noticed a brook and led the others to safety across running water. I would not leave the Cornumbrian’s body, however, as I knew the faeries would drag it off and the poor man would never receive Christian burial. Therefore I set the body across my shoulders and began slogging back down the lane to Murton.
The faerie folk fought furiously to preserve their prize. Their sheer weight of numbers forced me to my knees. I might have died, but Denarth led the others in a charge across the brook and we drove the little fiends back into the darkness.
Under other circumstances, peril shared in this way could forge the first bonds of comradeship. I see little hope for that with our party. We are too obviously a group picked, not because of an earnest desire for redemption, but because we have between us the unsavoury skills of murder, violence, witchcraft and deceit, and have shown plenty of willingness in our lives to use those skills. Just as the Abbot has his games played with words, I cannot call us pilgrims but merely grims. It is not redemption that lies at the end of our road, I fear.