Image ‘Tomas Babington Macaulay’© Peter K. Levy. Source: CC License
Author: Ricardo Paterek Ferreira
The rain had poured all day, surrounding the country in permanent greyness. Nature rejoiced as the weather announced a fortunate spring after a long and dry winter. The trees shed their ephemeral vanity of flowers and petals, while the grass took on a joyful shade of emerald, one may have even mistaken it for the garden of Eden. The rivers and streams roared in a triumphant torrent as the rain came to their aid in their crusade to the seas.
Roland plunged his bucket in one of these streams, almost losing his grip on it as the water insisted on taking it on its journey. He pulled the wooden bucket out soon after as he carried it to his father. He was a heavyset man, unlike his scrawny disappointment of a son.
“I am not taking your bucket Roland, carry the burden you have put upon yourself,” his father said matter-of-factly. “We have to hurry, night will be upon us soon.”
The pair set out through the forest, trudging through the wet humus as the rain tapered off. They left the entangled mess of forest just as the sun was setting.
“Ah! Praise the Lord, he has allowed us a reprieve of this rainfall!” praised the father as he continued on his way through the fields towards the reassuring figure of Lord Dominic’s castle. Roland gazed dreamily at the faraway strip of sky that was sandwiched between the land and the darkening clouds.
The young peasant boy was suddenly pulled by his arm, spilling some of the water he had collected.
“Come on boy!” urged his father, the word “boy” so full of disdain in his mouth.
The father and son soon reached the castle’s moat, the reason for their expeditions to and from the river throughout the day. Roland’s father dumped the contents of his buckets into the moat and then looked at his son expectantly. The boy emptied his bucket, a short-lived splash followed compared to the torrent his father had thrown in.
“What happened to the rest of the water you were carrying?” asked Laurand, his father.
“I dropped some when you pulled me.”
At this, Laurand’s eyes bulged with rage. “Weakling! Disgrace! I swear you are still latched on to your mother’s teat after all these years!” he bellowed. He paced back and forth along the moat, continuing his list of insults before he suddenly slipped in a small landslide of mud weakened by the rain, and into the moat. Roland burst out laughing as his father sputtered and cursed. The guards overhead along the castle walls who had come to watch the commotion chuckled at the scene below. Roland’s mother, Annette, came before long, with her newborn swaddled in cloth.
“Roland! Enough of this. Pull your father out immediately!” she ordered.
Roland looked down at the moat to see his father struggling to climb up the mud. Roland lay down near the moat and offered his arm to his father. Laurand dismissed his aid and eventually climbed back up, drenched and shivering. The plump mother scolded her son for his behaviour, promising that he’d be sent to Father Brennant for “divine punishment”.
The sun had dipped out of sight as the parents and Roland arrived at their home, a sizeable shack at the foot of a hill near the castle. Roland followed, half-asleep, as he looked out towards the forest and then towards the plains around him. The hanging tree caught his eye, the corpse of a criminal was swinging in the breeze. Finally, he thought, I was itching for some good practice.
The heat from inside the abode caught Roland off guard, only easing him more quickly into sleep. His siblings were around the fire, they were seven in total, the eldest, Francis, having seen 17 winters yet having found no damsel to marry yet. It would possibly stay that way due to his abhorrent looks, sporting the fiery hair of his mother alongside her innumerable freckles. Many of the children in the household took after their mother. As the second youngest, Roland was next to nothing, he was seven years of age and was unlucky enough not to have inherited his father’s constitution.
His family had close ties with Lord Dominic and his ancestors. Roland’s grandsires had assisted in building the very castle Dominic and his family resided in now. Laurand’s children were considered locally as the generation of “moat fillers” having no special role now aside from farming, and if need be, war.
Roland was disdainfully offered a bowl of broth. He finished it quickly as he passed the bowl back to his mother to serve it to the babe. Roland went to one of the three empty beds and curled up in one of the corners, welcoming with open arms the comfort of the cherubs of sleep.
The young boy was startled from his sleep later in the night. His family was still awake as they exchanged stories of today’s activities and played boisterously, however it wasn’t that that had lifted him out of his slumber. He noticed a knocking at the door just as his father got up to open it.
A young servant of the Lord stood proudly behind the door. “Lord Dominic requests that you and your family be present for today’s feasts in celebration of the completion of his lordship’s castle.”
Laurand suddenly grovelled in a mess of “thank yous” and “certainlys” as he ordered his family to quickly dress in their best wears. “Our dear Lord Dominic has requested our presence!” repeated Laurand in a haze of excitement and haughtiness.
Roland, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than a good rest. He was eventually forced out of bed by his mother who would be sure to send him to Father Brennant tonight. Roland had to hold back his mocking laughter. Father Brennant was a compassionate and soft-spoken priest, he never laid a hand on Roland or any other troublesome child unlike his counterparts. The clergyman was always open to a peaceful discussion and resolution, arguing that “pain must be felt only by the wicked in Hell, but luckily enough, it is my duty that no one falls in the hands of the Devil.”
Now that Roland thought about it, he considered the gentle priest more as a father than he did Laurand.
The castle’s drawbridge was lowered and bathed in a welcoming glow of flame. The guards and knights entering and leaving the grounds were particularly well-dressed, however some were already under the influence of drink and roared salacious songs in unison:
Merriment be here,
Merriment be had,
O behold the wanton mistress.
How glad she be here, duchess!
For the lights are low,
And men are in tow
The night glows,
The mistress goads,
In heat she is,
And water we must bring.
For merriment be here,
And merriment be had!
Roland hummed to the notes as his family reached the inner walls. The boy looked towards the training grounds and then to the stables. Roland was already familiar with the inner workings of the castle, having spent quite some time with Lord Dominic’s son, his cousins, companions and retainers. Roland was even invited to become Samuel’s squire. Samuel was the eldest and only heir to the Lord’s high seat. Roland’s parents refused, and instead offered Francis to be Samuel’s squire, Samuel politely declined but kept Roland by his side despite Laurand and Annette’s objections. Roland was excited to see his friends once more.
Before entering the grand hall, Roland was pulled aside by Annette. She directed him towards the chapel.
“To Father Brennant, now!” she said, shoving him as she followed close behind.
The priest opened to Annette’s furious knocking. He almost rolled his eyes when he saw her accompanied by her son.
Father Brennant and the mother exchanged the common formalities, he blessed Annette and Roland and promised to give a stern punishment to the little rascal.
Once Annette left for the feast, the clergyman closed the door and sighed. “Roland, I cannot protect you like this all the time. Your mother may consult my spiritual brothers and they will surely make you fear the wrath of God.”
“But Father, my parents…” Young Roland couldn’t find any good argument.
The priest kneeled down and gently squeezed the boy’s shoulder, “I know… They are not easy to deal with.” Father Brennant examined Roland. “I believe you have great potential Roland. God has gifted you with cunning and handsomeness far surpassing that of the rest of your family. I think you’d make a suitable advisor for Lord Dominic’s heir.”
Roland was taken aback. “F-Father… I truly do not believe to be worthy enough for such a place of honour. I do not know anything except how to listen to my parents.”
“How to listen, yes, but not only. You learn quickly, and that is far more valuable than any other skill.”
“What do we do then?” asked Roland, feeling hopeful.
“I will teach you in the ways of letters and arithmetic, my son. I shall show you the wonders of lyrics and music, you will learn so much more than anyone in your family could hope to attain in a lifetime…” Father Brennant’s deep blue eyes were ablaze with passion and excitement.
And so, a deal was struck between the two.
Roland entered the hall practically unnoticed. Everyone was either focused on gorging themselves with food or watching the troop of performers juggling and jesting.
Out of the corner of his eye, Samuel noticed Roland and quickly gestured to him to sit beside him. The peasant boy in his ragged clothes excitedly joined him. He noticed a fair and young girl beside Samuel.
“Roland, it is so good to see you, friend. I must introduce you to my betrothed, Helena.” Samuel gently held her hand and looked into her eyes dreamily. A look that Roland had never seen before. The peasant simply stared at this young lady, confused. She smiled softly, the blush on her cheeks was irresistible to any boy. She was comely beyond any measure.
Roland leaned towards Samuel’s ear and whispered naively, “Is she your new servant?”
Samuel gave a hearty chuckle. “Oh you poor soul. No, dear Roland, she is my wife-to-be for when I reach my 14th Winter, the day I become a man!” He puffed his chest proudly like a swan, Helena swooned at that and found comfort against his arm.
“Did you save her from a dragon so you could marry her?” Roland inquired excitedly, leaning close towards the couple as he began eating some bread from the feast.
The young couple looked at each other and giggled. “I suppose you could say that,” replied Samuel.
“I see that your cherished companion has finally arrived,” said a deep voice from behind Roland, a large hand firmly placed on his shoulder.
Roland quickly jumped out of his seat and clumsily knelt down before Lord Dominic.
“Oh please child, no need for formalities. If anything,” he lifted Roland back up to his feet and knelt down before him, “I should be the one kneeling. I cannot thank you enough for the aid you have offered in completing my castle.”
Roland stammered in embarrassment and modesty. “I simply filled the moat milord…”
Lord Dominic looked up in his eyes and gave a warm, paternal smile. “Boy, you must learn that one’s deeds do not stop at the individual, but flows through their family’s legacy.” Dominic stood up and ruffled Roland’s hair before returning to the high seat of the feast.
The rest of the night, Roland chewed on his bread, chicken and thoughts. So much had happened tonight and he was slowly losing touch with the world around him. Samuel and Helena had retired from the feast earlier on, complaining about the noise. Lord Dominic and the few companions who had not succumbed to the mead watched the troop’s final performance: a mellow recitation of Tristan and Iseult. Outside, Laurand wrestled with the men he had helped build Dominic’s castle. The feast was truly at an end, but for Roland, it felt as if he was on the cusp of a new beginning. Of what, he had no clue yet, but he was anxious and impatient to see it unfold.
Soon after his family left the hall, Roland got out of his seat. He was feeling particularly restless now.
Outside, the castle grounds were completely silent aside from the occasional puff or neigh from the stables or the marching boots of guards patrolling overhead. Roland looked carefully around him, the only sources of light coming from the hall or the tower of residence. The peasant quickly and deftly snuck to the training circle towards the weapon rack. The rack only held wooden swords. Any other weapon, be it blunt or sharp, was stowed away at the smithy or was in the sheaths of guards and knights.
Roland snagged one of the wooden sticks. He made off into the night like a thief. This was a regular occupation for Roland, for he would often borrow one of the wooden swords and return it by dawn, if the drawbridge was still down of course. The guards who noticed the missing sword often ignored it, even more so when they realized the child always returned it.
He had begun this regular “training” two years ago when he was first introduced to Samuel. Roland was not allowed to participate in any of the fighting or exercises. He was unfit to wield the training sticks and his blood was considered too “muddy” to allow him to become a knight. He had started off simply by using tree branches more suitable to his size. He replicated as best he could the drills and stances that he observed. He often created situations and developed “new techniques”; and when the opportunity allowed it, he would practice against the rotting corpses of hung criminals or nearby bushes and trees.
Roland ran across the fields, whacking the tall grass along his way as he dashed towards the hanging tree, the rain falling once more in the moonlight, streaks of molten silver refreshing the adventurous boy’s face.
“En garde!” he said under his breath as he began beating the dead man. He was up against a giant; no, a titan! This would be his great deed for his Lord’s favour and for God above. In his excitement he combined all the movements, attacks and counters, he had learnt by heart.
Thunder stroke suddenly and God’s wrath seemed to course through Roland’s hand and arm.
Another wooden stick had connected with Roland’s.
In the scarce moonlight and rain, the child was unable to make out who this living giant was. The silhouette struck fast and hard. Roland simply let his instincts go and did his best to block out and deflect this ambush in the rain.
Roland was unable to find a window of opportunity.
In despair he feinted and twirled in retreat, reaching for some mud and hurling it at his adversary.
The mud splattered on the shadow’s face, causing him to cry out in surprise. He reeled back as Roland regained hope and advanced, sword poised to attack.
Roland roared fiercely as he swung.
The thunderclap of wood on wood and the subsequent shock to Roland’s arms shattered all his hopes. The titan’s eyes – or eye for that matter, because his other eye seemed covered or non-existent – flared white with rage, he had blocked Roland’s attempt with ease.
Both stared at each other, Roland panted, his shoulders heaving and his joints aflame in pain.
“Sloppy. Weak. Undisciplined,” said the cyclops.
Roland immediately recognized that voice and trembled, mouth agape in awe.
“But… Extremely passionate. So much potential, so much talent. Tell me, Roland, how long have you been practicing?”
“T-two years master-at-arms…”
“Please, call me Stone tonight. You have earned it. None of your noble companions has offered me such an enjoyable challenge, and you’re half their age for Christ’s sake!” The master-at-arms knelt down chuckling, wiping his muddy face. A bandage concealed his left eye damaged from his exploits during the Crusades. “Excellent counter with the mud, but that pansy twirl would’ve gotten you killed.”
“Are you going to punish me, sir?” Roland asked timidly.
“Punish you? Pah!” Stone spat on the grass. “I wish to invite you to some private training sessions.”
Roland remained mute.
“Say… Over here at the hanging tree, every two nights?” proposed master-at-arms Stone.
The boy nodded exuberantly.
“Very well. I will have to ask you though to return the sword to me now…” He offered his empty hand. Roland handed the sword, glad to return the blessed burden.
Stone stood back up and walked nonchalantly back to the castle. Tapping the swaying corpse on the way. “You’ve instructed him well, but now it’s my turn!” he cackled heartily.
The peasant stood in the rain a moment, letting this new event soak in.
Roland wished his luck had not thrust him into the heart of chivalry. He was happier as a peasant. Dead miserable, yes, but at least he didn’t have as many responsibilities as an aspiring knight.
Five years had passed since he took up Father Brennant and Stone’s offers of education in the arts of the mind and war. Five years of excitement and doubt, ecstasy and hopelessness. Roland was particularly brilliant during Father Brennant’s lessons, showing an affinity for the Bible and music. However, the combat training was another story entirely. That first fight in the rain against the master-at-arms was only a fraction of what Stone could inflict. Once the lessons began, Stone didn’t hold back. Cuts and bruises became an integral part of Roland’s body. His body ached all the time and sleep was welcome more than ever when it came. The boy had attempted to skip some nocturnal lessons by sleeping through the intended meeting, only to be doubly punished and drilled the next lesson. Roland was often reminded that if he didn’t comply, his lessons would end and he would return to his deplorable peasant life. That was perhaps one of the only things that got him out of bed in the middle of the night to get hurt.
He wouldn’t return to that state at all costs.
Throughout the years, Roland learnt many a useful skill. He learnt the ways of gallantry and chivalry; of love and hate, healing and hurting.
Eventually all this secrecy around his unlawful instruction had been torn away. Uproar had ensued. Lord Dominic’s conservative and traditional advisors argued that knights were meant to be pure bloods. Others, mainly Stone and Brennant, maintained that any talented individual should be given an equal opportunity if that talent is of use to the ruling Lord. Dominic pondered and deliberated, the lessons continued, although now frowned upon.
That is, until Roland appeared before the Lord with an offer.
“Milord. Rulers come and got and lords of great land and power such as you must be preserved in order to continue thy legacy. One such way to preserve your bloodline are your trusted swords, knights ever loyal and prepared to perish for you. My cherished friend and your heir, Samuel, will take up your place as Lord eventually, and though he is more than worthy and able, he will need guardians.”
Roland spoke with such eloquence and reason for a peasant, Lord Dominic’s court and advisors gawked at him. The young lad noticed Samuel slowly nodding in assent and the hint of a smile on Dominic’s face, but whether it was of contempt or respect, Roland was unsure.
Vaurier, one of the advisors and guardians of Lord Dominic spoke up. “Samuel has no need of more protectors, he already has us!”
The other advisors acquiesced.
“He will have need of new champions when your lot will be either dead or too senile to defend milord’s only son,” retorted Roland, some of his old commoner mannerisms and accent returning.
The court exploded in upheaval against Roland, demanding that he be sent away immediately. The peasant stood his ground as guards approached cautiously, looking towards Dominic for his approval. Roland maintained dignified eye contact with the lord.
Lord Dominic waved them away.
“Enough!” boomed Samuel, his voice cascading in the hall. Everyone turned towards him, even Helena was shocked. “What do you propose instead dear Roland?” he inquired.
A mischievous grin grew on Roland’s face. “A tournament.”
“Are you mad Roland?” Stone asked furiously. “Going to Lord Dominic on your own without me or that priest to aid you?” He puffed and paced in his quarters. “And to think you’ve proposed a tournament. You better put on a good show, make this bloody investment in you worth it…”
“I believe I handled it quite well Stone.” Roland stood proudly. “If anything, I could win the heart of the people.”
“You don’t even know how to ride a horse! How do you expect to survive the jousts?”
“I won’t, that is why I shall redeem myself during the duels.”
Stone groaned in despair, holding his head in his hands. A moment passed before he got up quickly. “So be it. Grab your things, I’ll teach you at least how to stay on your damned mount.”
The stable boys jumped and got out of Stone’s way when he came thumping in, followed by an eager Roland.
“Charlemagne and Dustfang, now!” ordered Stone.
Soon, two horses were lead, saddled and ready. One was a proud and blonde stallion, tall and majestic; the other was quite the opposite, an aging and pale mare with a cataract on one eye.
“Take your pick, boy,” said Stone.
Roland immediately approached the white horse, Charlemagne.
Roland received a blunt blow to the back of his head.
“Looks do not tell you everything about a horse,” growled Stone. “Charlemagne is quite a sight but he is just as undisciplined as you are. The moment you try to mount him, he will bolt whether you are ready or not.”
Stone gently turned Roland to Dustfang, “This horse however… Old she may be, but she still gallops like the devil…!” said Stone in wonder.
“She’s blind! How will she be of use to me?” demanded Roland, bewildered.
The master-at-arms looked down and held Roland by both his shoulders. “Even blind men can run straight ahead if they so wished, boy.”
The following days, in preparation of the tourney, Roland studied the basics of horse riding. He had quickly grown fond of Dustfang and her shortcomings.
“Who named her that?” Roland asked Stone at some point.
“I did. She was my mount during one of our raids against the Saracens. I had found her a year before and had nursed her as best I could. She was already blind in one eye, so I never mounted her. In preparation for a raid we needed as much cavalry as possible and I was stuck with the blind mare.”
“Well, why did you call her that?”
“She fell behind during the assault and we spent the rest of the battle chewing on sand and dust, but when we finally reached the enemy, I felt as if I had become Death incarnate, horseman of the Apocalypse!”
During those few days of intense training, Roland had joined the daily combat training among the noblemen and aspiring knights, making friends and enemies alike. He had resorted to sleeping in Father Brennant’s quarters and avoiding his family as much as possible. The gentle priest had explained the situation, to his parents’ dismay. They had once again tried to bargain in order to have their elder and preferred sons replace Roland in a failed attempt at social ascension. Strangely enough, they had declared that they would disown Roland if he somehow won the tourney, stating that “He is Satan, bending everyone to his will with his silver tongue.”
On the day of the tourney, great festivities were held, almost as important as that of Samuel and Helena’s marital union. The idea of forming a future corps of protectors for the heir was already being taken into consideration as a viable option for generations to come.
Roland, restless the entire night, decided to pray with Father Brennant. They had even spent some time reading old riddles the priest had copied during his scholarship in various monasteries in the regions of the langue d’oïl. The pair had even climbed up the castle’s walls to watch the sunrise, Father Brennant blessed Roland with the protection of God and his angels.
A great feast had been held at noon, during which Roland scarcely ate due to anxiety and adrenaline. Roland was soon asked by Stone to get prepared in his tourney gear.
He was fitted with slightly oversized jousting armour in which he was hardly able to move. He hated this feeling. He felt trapped and helpless. He was always used to fighting on the ground where the only metal he wore was a chainmail and an open helm. The two slits for this helmet’s eyes caused Roland to panic quietly before getting a hold of himself.
Dustfang was ready, docilely taking on the new burden of Roland in his metal coffin.
As the Lord’s family and retainers left the hall, the tournament’s parade began. A clamour of lutes, flutes and singing voices. Horses neighed and walked all carrying their proud iron chess pieces.
The tourney was to be held outside the castle walls, where the colourful scaffolding and jousting barrier stood proudly on this hot summer day.
Roland had seen his fair share of tourney’s already, but to think he would participate in one…! He crossed himself as the trumpets signalled the beginning of the competition.
Horses galloped, lances splintered and men screamed in victory or defeat.
Roland was soon called to the post for his first joust. He kicked Dustfang’s sides gently, urging her to move.
Roland was face to face with a tall and handsome nobleman who had just received the favour of a young damsel, a strip of cloth tied to his bicep. Being the youngest participant of the tournament, Roland knew he couldn’t rely on his strength to win.
A squire approached Roland with his blue and white lance and unadorned shield.
Roland had some trouble holding the lance in a stable position. He held the shield close to him.
The master-at-arms approached him quickly “Just don’t get yourself killed kid.”
Great, thought Roland, some uplifting words of encouragement.
The trumpets sounded and Dustfang bolted, almost throwing her rider off. Roland’s lance was all over the place, and only a few seconds separated him and his opponent.
The boy came to amidst the sounds of cheers and music. Stone was over him, pulling Roland’s helmet off. The child winced when Father Brennant tried cleaning the wound on his forehead. Roland was still dazed, he was on his horse a few moments ago, and now he was on the ground, paralyzed.
“He really did a number on you, fellow,” said Stone. “Listen, you can drop this tourney now, I’ll continue to train you.”
Roland suddenly roared getting up. He snarled, not wanting to give up. He heard some men and children guffawing up on the stands. He spit out a blob of blood from his mouth as he looked around for Dustfang, putting his helm back on.
He mounted her, his body burning in a white heat of pain and rage. The trumpets sounded, Roland tossed the lance away and replaced it with his shield. Dustfang galloped in a war frenzy. This time, Roland was focused only on his adversary. As the two horses approached, Roland swiftly deflected the enemy’s lance and smashed his shield against his opponent’s helmet. His adversary went limp, his body flopping on the horse.
There followed a great gasp from the crowd. Stable boys and squires approached the limp horseman who soon awoke. The crowd cheered in admiration for Roland with some booing from Lord Dominic’s advisors and personal guards. The young boy raised his fist in triumph.
The tournament continued in earnest. Roland lost many matches of the joust but he managed to redeem himself brilliantly during the melees, showing the true skills of a leader in teamplay and exceptional abilities in the battlefield. He had gained the admiration from the other boys who were participating in the tournament.
As the sun began to set and the braziers were set up and lighted for the evening feast, Samuel gave a lively pat against Roland’s back.
“Not bad for the son of a farmer!” Samuel praised, leaning into Roland’s ear. “I’ll be sure to put in a good word for when they will choose my guardians.”
“‘They’? I thought this choice was up to you.” Roland was getting nervous, Lord Dominic’s advisors weren’t exactly thrilled with his outstanding performance.
Trumpets sounded and everyone fell silent. Lord Dominic rose from his seat.
“It is with great joy that I witness your sons prove their worth in an effort to protect my cherished boy, Samuel. The time has come to feast, but first and foremost, we have come to a decision regarding five men in this tourney who will become my son’s protectors!” Lord Dominic raised his arms as the people cheered and whistled.
Dominic called the names of the boys who had best performed in the tournament, Roland was not among them.
“These men will be knighted for their valour!” cried out Dominic, followed by cheers. Roland sulked and listened quietly. “However! As a young man reminded me a few days ago, the people of a land need a ruler in order to protect them and to continue one’s bloodline. So it is with an immense honour that I name Roland as champion and head of Samuel’s personal guard!”
More cheers boomed as people around Roland congratulated him. The festivities began and Roland crossed himself in gratitude.
“STOP!” A violent and enraged yell caused everyone to pause, looking towards one of Lord Dominic’s advisors. “I will not allow a peasant to head my son or protect my fair Lord’s son!” He brandished his sword. “Roland! I challenge you to a duel. Accept if you cling on to any semblance of honour you’ve only attained today!”
Roland gulped and swallowed his apprehension as he approached the man who was two heads taller than him. “I accept.”
Lord Dominic tried to interpose himself between Roland and his advisor. “Nathaniel, I demand that you use a blunt training sword if you are to duel with the child. You are not to kill him! I will not abide by infanticide!”
“Pah! If he believes he is so prepared for war, let us test him then!”
Space was given for the duellists.
“I require a weapon,” ordered Roland. A squire approached him with a blunt metal sword.
Nathaniel’s squire soon arrived with full battle armour. Roland kept to his supple leather armour and chainmail.
From out of the crowd, Helena ran to Roland. “Dear Roland, I offer you this favour in a show of support and gratitude. I pray that you win this duel and that the Lord above offers you a prosperous life. It would be an honour to have you protect my husband and I.” She tied a ribbon on Roland’s left arm. The young knight acquiesced solemnly.
Once Nathaniel was equipped, he smacked his sharpened and deadly sword against his shield, taunting Roland.
The two circled each other, assessing their opponent.
Nathaniel was the first to strike, he was quick for a man in armour, but not as quick as the brave Roland.
Roland could see Nathaniel’s attacks coming from a mile away. He began to tease the knight, gaining confidence as he swung his sword against the armour. He knew he needed to find an alternative to hurt Nathaniel, for the blunt sword was useless.
Nathaniel suddenly rushed towards Roland like a bull, charging and slamming his shield against Roland’s chest, downing him to the floor. Roland wheezed as all the air in his lungs escaped upon impact.
Roland’s opponent roared, preparing a downward swing with his sword. The boy knew he had to act now. He rolled, a flash of pain reaching his left forearm. He looked at his injured arm, blood was seeping through the cut in his leather gear. Helena’s favour was cut. He dropped his shield.
The young peasant dodged and deflected the monster’s attacks as best he could, before he paused to look at his blunt sword’s hilt.
Roland flipped the sword, holding it with both hands by the blade. He grinned mischievously as he swung the sword like a club, slamming the hard and mace-like hilt against Nathaniel’s sword arm.
Lord Dominic’s hot-blooded advisor yelped in pain. The knight was suddenly hit with an onslaught from the metal hilt, his armour beginning to dent as Roland let out all his rage. In a coup de grâce, Roland slammed the hilt against the inside of his opponent’s knee, forcing him on his knees before the boy.
Roland tore off the knight’s helmet and eyed the bloody and bruised man furiously, “Let it be known that today was the day you lost to a child. Now get out of my sight, you’re not worth the kill.”
That night, Roland was offered the seat of honour beside Lord Dominic himself. The young boy had truly taken his fate into his own hands, setting an example for everyone else.
While he ate more than he ever would with his family in a whole week, Samuel brought his attention to the many women that had begun to take Roland into consideration as a potential suitor. Roland averted his eyes, saying, “Women are not part of the code of chivalry.”
The night carried on with no other disturbance, aside from the usual drunken brawl among a handful of knights or commoners.
Roland returned to his family shack, only to be greeted by a nervous Francis.
Roland approached him cautiously. “Brother! It is so good to-”
“A-la-la-la-la!” shrieked Francis, covering his ears.
“The Devil speaks through you,” said Francis, still shielding his ears. “I won’t let you in. Mother and Father don’t want you in!”
The 13-year-old paced around angrily. He could not believe the backwardness of his superstitious family. He reasoned with himself and returned to the castle.
“I have lost my family. At least I have gained a life of my own.”
On his 14th birthday, Roland was summoned to Lord Dominic’s hall. There, a retinue of knights were lined up on either side and saluted as Roland passed. Samuel, accompanied by the master-at-arms, awaited Roland.
“As promised during that great tourney of champions, I summon you here as you become a man to also take on the responsibilities of a knight. Kneel down dear Roland,” said Samuel solemnly.
Roland promptly obeyed and bowed his head.
A holy silence surrounded them as Samuel unsheathed his sword and knighted Roland.
“From now on, you shall be known as Sir Roland. Rise, Sir Roland,” said Samuel, placing his hand on Roland’s shoulder. “You knelt a man. You rise as a knight, but more importantly, you rise as my brother.”
Father Brennant entered the hall with a rather unceremonious bucket of holy water. He blessed each knight with a splash of water.
Once he reached Roland, everyone knelt down in respect, so did the newly dubbed knight.
Brennant flicked water on Roland and began his prayer. “We thank thee Lord for having bestowed upon us a man of great worth among us. We dub him a worldly knight, but with thy grace I dub him a spiritual warrior who shall henceforth strictly follow his brethren’s code of chivalry. May he protect the young, the sick and the women, those who cannot defend themselves. May he show example through piety and chastity. And may he crush his lord’s enemies for the protection of his lord’s land and for God’s ideals.”
“Amen,” concluded everyone.
Father Brennant walked out of the hall as quietly as he came. Stone kept a close eye on him until he was out of sight.
“Example through piety and chastity… Ha!” Stone smirked. “Don’t listen to that old man. The only thing that matters is that you protect your honour.”
“But doesn’t that mean being a model of chastity and of our love for God?” asked Roland, perplexed.
Roland was met with a round of good-hearted laughter.
“Ah, kid… Once you find the love between a woman’s legs, God will never be able to compete,” said Stone, his new cynical and crude tone confusing Roland a little. Roland began to blush a bright red.
His fellow knights snickered. “Don’t be such a prude Roland,” said Stone. “If it makes you feel any better, we’ll all go whoring tonight, isn’t that right men?”
Everyone cheered in agreement while Roland stormed out, horrified by the brotherhood he had been welcomed into.
The next morning, Roland woke up in bed to find a pristine surcoat on the floor and a note.
Leave the whoring to the senile veterans, find yourself a young lass to settle down with, if you can. I knew you could make it.
Your mentor and friend,
Roland picked up the surcoat excitedly and examined the heraldry of the house of Tolin, a diagonal division from the top left to the bottom right. The right side showed a black leopard, on the bottom left a wonderful golden fleur-de-lis.
Roland could only hear the heavy rain hammering against his helm and the wails of women. His eyes were closed as he pronounced a silent prayer. He quickly opened his eyes as they darted around the crowd and then to his friend and now Lord of the land, Samuel.
Samuel laid his hand on his late father’s ashen face. He maintained his composure, but Roland could see the grief behind his eyes.
Lord Dominic Tolin had died of a flux of the lungs. He had suffered for the past few weeks, battling with his own body. In his last hours, he had valiantly got up from his deathbed in order to duel against the Grim Reaper. His delirium was in vain, for after the first swing of his sword, he fell into a fit of hacking coughs.
Samuel had spent most of his days avoiding his duties as stand-in for Lord Dominic. He stayed close to his father, demanding that Roland alone should guard the room.
Father Brennant, still alive and well at the age of 76, began the funeral prayer.
Roland glanced at Helena and her three children: Michael, Estelle and Dominic. She had fulfilled her role as wife and more. In these dark times, she had taken over on behalf of her husband and had showed impeccable strength and resilience. Although, personally, Roland was hoping that Samuel would take back the reins before his wife ran their people to the ground.
It was spring and the grass regained its emerald hue in the rain. The procession began as squires and fellow knights carried the body of their late lord back to the castle to place him in the family crypt under the chapel.
Samuel watched as the crowd followed, Roland stood by his side, concerned. “Sam… I’m sorry for your loss.” Roland adjusted his armour and winter cloak. “I understand your pain, but-”
“Understand? You? You never lost anyone!” retaliated Samuel.
Roland looked him in the eye, keeping his sangfroid. “Don’t forget, I lost my family the day I won that tournament.”
Samuel’s nostrils flared before his shoulders relaxed and slumped. He looked at Roland sheepishly, the sad wisdom in his eyes completing his quasiregal composure. He wore a plain brown doublet, completed with his surcoat carrying his family’s arms.
“I apologise. I had completely forgotten about them. I always thought of you as a brother, I never would’ve thought you still carried feelings for them, what with their peculiar hatred for you.” Samuel embraced Roland for a moment. “Come brother, I have duties to fulfil and a land to protect and lead.”
They mounted their horses, Helena carried Estelle and Dominic on her horse while Michael was old enough to ride a pony.
Back in the hall, Samuel convened his council to get right into matters, perhaps in an attempt to forget the events of the past few weeks.
Like a shadow, Roland watched over the council as he kept an eye on Samuel.
The hours passed and most of the affairs, ranging from heritage issues to finance and judicial cases were completed. A break for dinner was called for.
A dagger was unsheathed quietly, but Roland’s trained ear could hear the treachery approaching. He placed his hand on his hilt and quickly took a protective stance in front of Samuel.
“I suggest that whoever is cowardly preparing to attempt on someone’s life, sheathe your knife,” Roland growled like a guard dog.
Everyone’s eyes widened. Suddenly, Basel, one of Samuel’s cousins and his tax advisor quickly stood up, bumbling with his dagger held high up.
“It is I! It is I!” he repeated incessantly.
“Silence! Were you planning to kill your lord?” Roland inquired.
“N-no sir… I was simply preparing for dinner…”
“I’m hungry, sir.” Basel was on the verge of tears.
“Please leave him alone Roland. He didn’t mean any harm.” Samuel calmly pulled Roland away. “It’s been a long day for us all…”
Once they had dined on a roast piglet, accompanied by some rice from Camargue, the council got back into business, namely war and defence.
The war advisor stood up to give his report. “With the last campaign in Jerusalem there has been a decrease in hostilities among French lords, crimes have also seemingly lowered with the initiative from the Vatican to send criminals on military exile. However, now that troops are returning, I am afraid we may see animosity amongst the nobles once more…”
“Pray tell, have you any proof to sustain these claims?” Samuel leaned forward, taking a concerned and worried approach.
“My lord, I have received news from our friends in Aquitaine. There are reports that the southern regions are amassing an army,” stated the advisor.
“Is it possible that they have simply mistaken the returning crusaders for this army ?” asked Samuel.
“My lord, they are hiring mercenaries from the Tuscans.”
Everyone fell silent. The Tuscans were formidable, to have them in one’s army would almost surely mean a guaranteed victory, provided one could pay enough for them.
“We need to do something about this,” the lord said.
“I suggest we prepare defences as soon as possible, and request our vassals and allies to prepare as well,” said the war councillor.
“What if we informed the king?” Samuel’s face was creased with concern.
“I would advise you not to, my lord. We do not know if the southerners have any sort of blessing from the king. Alternatively, we could send a spy.”
“What are the risks?”
“There will be no risks if he doesn’t talk or betray us…” the councillor glanced at Roland.
Samuel noticed. “No, he is the captain of my guards. I will choose a knight myself to journey to Aquitaine, observe and report the happenings of the South.”
With that, the council ended.
The knight that was sent to the South never returned.
Months had passed, the knight sent regular reports of his journey and progress until the letters stopped coming.
Winter was in full swing when an emergency war council was convened.
“We cannot afford to let our guard down. In all likelihood their armies have been prepared and they are all waiting for the thawing of the snow to begin their campaign,” announced Samuel.
Roland stepped forward. “My lord, I believe it is time I take this responsibility.”
Samuel was about to object but Roland continued, “This idleness will not help me in the long term as captain of your guards, and we both agree I am most suited for this affair.”
Samuel couldn’t help but agree. He grabbed Roland’s arm and looked him right in the eye. “Promise me you’ll return.”
Roland bowed. “Only the Lord above shall decide, but I’ll be sure to choose a trusted replacement as captain.”
The following day, plans were established and a cover story was set up.
“You are to be an erring knight on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, accompanied by a Franciscan friar,” declared Samuel.
“When shall I meet this friar?”
“He should arrive within a few days, he comes from a vassal within the Burgundy region. In order to deceive any passers-by you will receive a surcoat with the arms of the king, this will hold up with your story as a pilgrim and most people will not question your authority.”
A week passed. The snow was piling high within the castle, most of the squires spent their morning and afternoon clearing the grounds of snow. The stone walls were freezing in their grey-blue hue. They almost had to cut off the tip of Michael’s tongue after he was challenged to place his tongue on the wall, freezing his tongue in place.
Roland was given his blue surcoat, and was immediately disappointed when he saw the crooked and broken fleurs-de-lis all over his clothing. The Franciscan, who referred to himself as Brother Anthony, was a portly fellow in a brown robe and with a shaved head. He was extremely polite and became even more flustered once he met Roland.
There was no ceremony. This was a military expedition that was to be kept secret. Roland did however visit Father Brennant in his chapel.
“Ah Roland, it is nice to see you. Do you wish to speak with God?” Brennant asked politely.
Roland knelt down in his heavy cloak, leather armour and blue surcoat. “Yes, but I have something to tell you as well.”
“Stand up, my son, tell me what troubles you.”
Roland did his best to hide the tears that were building up inside him, numbing his limbs. “Father… I will be leaving today for the South, and perhaps even Jerusalem if it is demanded of me.”
The priest looked at him carefully. “Jerusalem, eh? Is this purely a religious objective or are you to commit atrocities like those criminals who proclaim their efforts ‘in the name of God’?”
“I do not know yet Father. All I know is that the path before me will be long and arduous.”
“And I suppose I won’t be seeing you within the year?”
“Or maybe never again…” Roland croaked as tears ran down his cheeks.
Gentle hands lifted him up, Brennant’s warm eyes soothing Roland’s troubled soul. “You needn’t worry. Our Lord and Saviour does not abandon those he loves, neither does he separate those he cherishes. We will meet again. Now go, dear Roland. It is high time you see the world and all the wonders God has bestowed on his land.”
With a final embrace, Roland said goodbye to his spiritual father and left the chapel heading straight to the stables. Brother Anthony followed close behind, muttering prayers and blessings.
“Save those holy words for when we will truly have need of them,” said Roland. He ordered the stable boys to grab his destrier, Jesus, a grey and imposing warhorse.
“You’ve named your horse after the saviour?” asked the friar with a sour look on his face.
“Roland turned back angrily on the friar. “Is that a problem? Why may I not bestow such a holy name to such an innocent being…?”
The friar turned red in embarrassment, he backed away a little. “I-It’s blasphemy.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s a usurpation of the Lord’s name.”
“Then we are all usurpers,” claimed Roland honestly.
Brother Anthony gaped. “How?”
“Take you for instance, usurping the name of Saint Anthony, and me, given the name of one of Charlemagne’s most trusted paladins.” Roland grinned as he revealed this to the young and fat monk.
That should shut him up for the day… the knight thought.
Once the grey destrier was prepared with extra saddlebags and layers of fur to keep him warm, the friar and knight mounted their respective horses and set out to the front gate.
There, Samuel waited dutifully. “I wish you the best of luck brother. Take discretion over bravery and report as often as you can,” the lord informed.
“And you, take care of your family and your subjects. Keep a watchful eye on everyone. I am sure my chosen replacement shall protect you just as well as I have. Farewell my lord!” Roland ordered his horse into a light trot, followed by the friar.
The pair rode down to the cosy village covered in snow that was juxtaposed to the castle. The land around them was silent, aside from the occasional gust of wind and the regular plodding of hooves on snow. The ground was white and twinkled as if the clouds had mixed the snow with diamonds. The mounds of snow reminded Roland of the sand dunes that Stone had so oft described.
The knight sighed, crossing himself at the thought of the master-at-arms. He had perished soon after Roland was knighted. He was feverish to such an extent that his companions judged it necessary to bathe him in a cold river. He simply convulsed and his heart stopped from the shock. A bitter ending for a cynical man, but Roland was grateful to him, knowing he would never have been in this position had it not been for him.
Roland and Brother Anthony entered the village, some peasants were out either collecting snow for water or simply heading to the tavern to warm themselves. A child in one of the homes began to cheer, recognizing Roland. Roland often escorted Samuel when he travelled to neighbouring fiefs, there were often great parades prepared to welcome the lord as he visited the village.
Passing the tavern, they saw all manners of debauchery inside. Drunken singing, whores of all shapes and sizes, a brawl in one corner.
“Are you not going to do something about all this?” asked Anthony nervously.
“That is not part of my mission. Besides, these minor sins keep the lord’s subjects docile,” said Roland coolly.
“I beg your pardon? No sin is minor in the eyes of God. I must preach the good word to these poor souls!” Brother Anthony got off his horse and entered the tavern despite Roland’s objections.
The distressed friar entered the dingy tavern. He was taken aback by the acidic smell of cider and mead. He quickly walked to the tavern keeper.
“You must let me speak to your patrons. They do not see the way of God!” Brother Anthony implored desperately.
The tavern keeper, a grizzled old man who often groped his younger cousins who were tavern wenches, burst into laughter when he heard the Franciscan. “Give it your best, they only listen to God on Sundays, and even then they don’t understand that damned magic language those priests speak.”
Brother Anthony went first to the buxom wantons. “Please hear me out fair women. You need not lead such a life. God may forgive you if you change your ways just as Mary Magdalene did. The convents nearby are always open even for the most abysmal of souls,” he said in a zealous frenzy.
The women began to ridicule him. “I’ve heard that the nuns there are trapped in those hellholes,” said one of the prostitutes.
“I hear they participate in some quite lascivious activities…” interjected another one lustfully. “I wouldn’t mind joining them actually. What do you think ladies?”
They all acquiesced. “How about you give us a sermon on lust Father?” they began to cling on to him, touching his crotch.
He jumped and squealed like a pig as he bolted out of the tavern. He was met by Roland’s laughter as he watched the Franciscan.
“This is no laughing matter Sir Roland! They are all heathens, they could surpass their worldly and carnal state but they wallow in their cesspit of sex and drink.” The friar got on his horse, his face completely red as he rode off without Roland.
Once the knight caught up with him he tried to reason with the pious monk. “Brother Anthony, you must realize that they are of the race of Cain and that their church belongs in a tavern. The priest is a tavern keeper. Their stained glass, the colourful dresses of courtesans. Their communion is one of mead and bread. Their god, Lucifer himself.”
Brother Anthony wept at his sudden realization of the human condition. “Dear Lord, I have underestimated the power of the Devil.”
From Roland’s hometown of Palteau, the pair rode South, following the river Yonne to Joigny, another village belonging to Samuel’s domain. There they would rest and take a river boat down the Yonnne, as far as it could take them.
The tavern here was less raucous than that of Palteau, but there was just as much sinning. The friar hopelessly crossed himself, constantly bobbing and bowing his head in an obscure religious dance.
Roland approached the alewife, a young and comely blonde lady. However when she smiled, she revealed the black rot in her teeth. “I will require a room with two beds,” Roland asked politely, now trying to position himself away from her mouth as she spoke.
“That’ll make uh… How much you’ve gotch on ya?” She eyed him curiously, taking note of his attire.
“Enough to pay but definitely not daft enough to be milked by you,” he growled.
She too knew the friar’s dance as she began to bow and bob her head, muttering apologies. She showed them their room and Roland paid for the night and dinner.
After changing into more suitable indoor clothing, the pair ate their frugal onion and mushroom soup in silence, aside from their prayer before eating of course.
Roland dipped some stale bread inside the broth, a lone mushroom floating sadly among the equally sparse amount of onion.
“I am not one to complain, but this is quite the change from Lord Samuel’s court,” said Roland matter-of-factly.
“This in fact is quite a diverse meal for me, compared to the monastery I was in,” replied the monk. “Well, aside from the water and bread, which was usually the only thing I ate there,” he dug in hungrily.
The knight watched him closely, amused.
“What?” asked the friar once he finished his soup.
“Oh nothing. I just find it quite droll that an abdominous fellow such as you could be that large on simple rations of bread and water. Not to mention all that walking you do with your brothers from house to house to ask for alms for the church.” He smirked and lay down, turning away from the crimson and flustered friar who tried to defend his ways.
Roland woke up the following morning to find the friar frantically splashing holy water from his skin of water and babbling prayers.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” Roland snapped.
Brother Anthony jumped, spilling the rest of the contents in his skin almost everywhere. “J-just purifying this inn.”
Roland groaned, regretting taking on this mission with a zealous Franciscan. He got up and changed in his light knight attire.
“I will be outside to breakfast on something a little more edible than yesterday’s meal,” Roland walked to the door before a desperate hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Y-you’re not telling me you’re leaving me with those harlots and drunkards?” asked the timorous Franciscan.
“An old friend told me you might find God’s love in between a woman’s legs. I’m starting to believe you need that comfort more than me.” Roland left the conversation at that.
The knight approached the innkeeper who was already preparing some meals.
“Good morning sir! Was the room to your liking?” she asked, giving her black and pestilent grin.
Roland tossed her a few silver coins. “I’m afraid my travelling companion has had quite the incident during the night and has not ceased to shed piss from his holy bladder all over the room.”
“Oh dear Lord, and I’d thought them monks would show more self-control,” she complained as she went upstairs.
Roland waited until he heard the tavernkeeper and Brother Anthony arguing. He chuckled and went outside.
He asked around for the local market and marched through the sludgy snow to find only a few fishmongers and a travelling merchant who was calling out to villagers to come look at his wares, “From Jerusalem and back!”
The knight greeted one of the fishmongers. “Greetings, has the Lord given you any luck in your catches recently?”
The fishmonger, a stout and short fellow with a bloody apron looked up to the knight unflinchingly. “Fish?” he asked, seeming to only have one tooth left in his mouth.
“Uh, yes. Do you have any large catches?” Roland began to speak slower and mimed his words, worried that he couldn’t make himself understood by the old man. Roland eyed the stand, noticing a large trout. “How about this one?” he said pointing at it.
The fishmonger grunted and opened his palm waiting for the coins to fall. “Fish,” the simple fisherman uttered.
Roland estimated the price and handed him a silver coin. The fishmonger gestured for more and Roland shot a fiery look at him.
“This is more than you get in a month, so take it or leave it,” stated Roland.
The fishmonger bit into the silver with his only tooth, upon making an indent he was satisfied. His jaw opened up but the tooth left the fishmonger’s mouth as it was nestled in the silver coin. The fisherman gasped in shock. He cried in a mix of joy and sadness.
Roland took the trout and walked away quickly as he approached the travelling merchant.
“Ah! A fellow crusader I see,” said the salesman once he saw Roland. “Do you miss the flavours and spices of the Holy Land already?”
Roland smiled politely and showed his trout. “I was wondering if there was anything you had that could enhance the flavour of this.”
“Well you’ve come to the right place. I am the merchant of the sands, I possess so much more than those three wise kings that gifted our Lord and Saviour. I can sweeten your life or bring the most delicious fire to your tongue…”
“Do you, or do you not have something?” asked Roland bluntly, losing his patience.
“Of course!” The merchant began to rummage through his cart. He pulled out a little pouch and some bright yellow fruit. Roland stared in amazement, reminded of Stone’s stories of the Orient and the magic tricks of court jesters. The travelling merchant opened the pouch, showing a bright red and fragrant powder. “This is a wonderful mix of different peppers. Not too hot to the tongue but it can raise anything to empyreal heights of taste.”
Roland breathed in the wonderful and novel smell, his body forgetting the bitter cold of the winter surrounding him. He stared at the fruit. “And what might that be?”
The merchant grabbed a knife and cut into one of the golden fruits. “This is a lemon! I traded with some Sicilians for these. They’re not quite good by themselves but on a fish like yours…” He almost began to drool at the thought of it.
Roland took a slice, sniffing the citric aromas before giving it a bite. His mouth filled with acid and his face puckered up as he coughed heartily. He tossed the slice to the ground and took a moment to recover from his culinary experience.
“Quite the punch to the palate.” He smacked his lips. “But an exquisite aftertaste. How much for both the pepper and lemons?”
After hearing the initial price, Roland scoffed. “I am certainly not paying that much for a few ounces of powder and a fruit I could pick up in the South.”
“Well,” began the merchant, “since you are a knight I could lower the price by a few silvers.”
They began to haggle fiercely.
“A few silvers? You better lower it by a full gold coin at least.”
“Do you have any clue of the risks I put myself through to bring these produces here?”
The haggling was fierce and a growing group of villagers began to crowd around the opponents.
“Best ‘aggle I’ve seen in years,” said one of the inhabitants in admiration.
“’Ow much was the first price?” asked another villager to his neighbour, however no one knew – even the two hagglers had forgotten the original price – but the spectators were willing to watch until the end.
Soon enough, bets were being placed. Cheers and cries of disappointment grew when the haggle seemed to slow down to a conclusion, before it started off once more. This happened thrice!
“To be frank, this is far better than any execution I’ve been forced to watch,” commented a peasant, to the others’ agreement.
After what seemed like an hour, Roland and the oriental merchant shook hands in mutual resentment and the village shook with the whoops of the winners and the cries of the defeated.
Roland walked away to join Brother Anthony who was angrily waiting for him.
The crowd behind them began chanting for a new entertainment they had devised: “’Agglin’ Tourney! ‘Agglin’ Tourney!”
“Got ourselves some breakfast!” said Roland cheerfully. “It better be worth it,” he muttered under his breath.
“Breakfast does not take one hour to get,” the friar said with his arms crossed.
“It does when fish is involved,” he lifted the trout, “and when I go to the Holy Land and back to bring these wonders.” He showed the pouch of pepper and some of his lemons.
“I’ve already eaten during your price debate…” the friar seethed. “And thank you for setting that alewife upon me with your talk of my ‘incontinent bladder’.”
“You’re right… I apologize, let me make it up to you,” offered Roland.
“How?” asked the friar hopefully.
“Sharing some of my trout.”
The friar exploded once more. “We’re losing daylight! We should already be on a boat heading down to the South!”
Roland waited patiently for him to end, before speaking once more. “You’re not telling me you enjoyed the tavernkeeper’s watery broth, are you? I know a hungry man when I see one…”
“Is this another jab at my largeness?” asked the monk, disgusted.
“I speak from many years of experience watching over my men,” Roland said matter-of-factly. He began to walk with his fish towards a smithy.
The large monk followed the knight and harrumphed. Roland asked the smith if he could borrow his fire in order to cook the knight’s fish. The blacksmith was happy to oblige and provided a poker to spear the fish with. Roland pulled a dagger out and scored the trout and sprinkled some of the pepper mix over both sides.
The crackling of the fire and the mumbling of the bearded smith filled the silence between Brother Anthony and Sir Roland for a while.
“Sir Roland?” peeped the Franciscan.
The knight turned to him, his wonderful trout was a golden brown and nearly ready.
“Might I ask you to leave some of your trout for me?” asked the friar innocently.
“I thought you did not want to commit the sin of gluttony,” said the knight, grinning triumphantly.
“If anything, I’m saving your life by tasting this fish and –” the friar gave a dubious whiff of the pepper “– whatever that is, in order to absorb any potential poisons!” He smiled in turn.
Roland chuckled and slapped Brother Anthony good-naturedly on the back. “Very well, you shall take half.” The knight asked the smith for a tray or plate and soon the knight and monk were happily eating the trout.
With full bellies and warm hearts, the pair set out with their mounts to the riverside looking for boats or fishermen. The river was slow-moving in the dead of winter, and most of the river boats or rafts were moored or beached along the bank.
Roland stopped and watched the still scene, surveying the length of the river before it curved away out of his sight. He breathed in the chilly air and pulled his cloak tighter around him as snow began to gently float down once more.
“What are we to do now?” asked Brother Anthony.
“We wait. We wait until someone floats down the river or comes to unmoor one of their craft here,” said the knight stoutly.
“Couldn’t we just ask one of the fishermen?”
Roland shrugged, his horse shuddered from the cold. “I’d much rather bother someone who is willingly taking their boat upstream.”
“I’d much rather get on with the day. So, if it please you, I shall look around for someone willing to ferry us South for a price. Then maybe we could sell our horses.”
Roland took hold of his senses once more and turned to face the friar furiously. “Are you suggesting that I sell Jesus? Who do you take me for? Judas?” he yelled.
Terrified by the young knight’s outburst, Anthony quickly rectified himself. “Selling? What? My tongue must have slipped, I meant ‘sail our horses’,” the friar chuckled nervously. “But if the boat topples over because of them it isn’t my responsibility anymore…”
The friar left, saying that he would be back soon with a skipper. So the Franciscan used his old habits as he went from door to door to beg for assistance in the name of God. However, instead of being met with generous donations, he was either ignored, denied or even spat on once.
The poor friar returned to the riverbank in tears. Roland was nowhere to be seen, and this only helped to fuel the poor monk’s distress.
He looked up into the grey clouds, welcoming the cold drops of snow on his tear ridden face. “O’ Lord! Why hath you abandoned me so unjustly?” He sniffled. “I am alone and cold among these atheists, I cannot help but envy their ignorance and–”
“Fish,” a gruff monotone voice said.
“Is that truly you my Lord? Hath you come to comfort my poor soul?” the friar asked, his eyes sparkling as he searched the heavens for a sign.
“Ah… Doest thou speak of one of our Saviour’s miracles? I shall recite that episode then…” the friar bowed his head down in prayer.
“Fish!” Someone began to violently tug on the Franciscan’s robe.
Brother Anthony looked down, shocked, as he stared at one of the fish merchants. The friar was about to cry out in despair once more when he was greeted by a topless Roland.
“Are you done weeping? I’m building us a raft,” said the muscular knight who was holding an axe in his hand and some twine. During the friar’s fruitless begging, Roland had paid the simple-minded, and now toothless, fisherman to help him modify the merchant’s raft into a suitable size for Roland, Anthony and their horses, arguing that “the bigger your boat, the more fish you’ll carry in it.”
After a much needed meal in the afternoon, the pair bid farewell to the small town of Joigny and took advantage of the slow river to pole themselves upstream.
To be continued…