*This story will be available to read until Feb 18th.
a savor of clove
tom r. mcconnell
The Saracen appeared from out of the darkness, moonlight glinting off his polished helmet, eyes narrowed maliciously under its rim. His mouth twisted to the side in a sardonic grin.
“I shall have your head, Christian! And receive twenty dinar!”
“Surely it is worth one-hundred!” the knight replied.
“Alas, there are so many of you, it is worth only twenty.”
Weapon held high in front of him, the Muslim circled the knight. The two men stared at each other, the crusader turning to follow the desert fighter as he maneuvered around him. He must watch the Saracen’s face. He will signal his attack. The Saracen spat with contempt at the knight’s feet, whose face remained impassive, persistent as he gazed intently into the face of his enemy. The knight flexed his fingers, gripping the hilt of his weapon. The throbbing of his heart thundered in his head, the sound like music to his ears. Then he saw it, a subtle tic in the Saracen’s eye, the widening of his nostrils as he drew in a breath. He was about to strike. The knight smiled on the inside, his face still without expression. Both hands tightening their grasp on the hilt of his sword, the Crusader planted his feet firmly in the sand and waited. He was ready when the blow came. Using the whole of his body in a wide arcing movement, he deflected the curved, razor-sharp blade down and out of the way, continuing to spin himself around in a complete revolution. As he spun, the tension in the muscles of the knight’s arms grew as the blade of his sword gained momentum. The knight swung again, using all his strength and fury.
His sword sliced through emptiness, rent raindrops the only moisture dripping from his blade. The knight staggered, thrown off balance.
“Christ!” he hissed.
The Saracen had vanished as vapor from a steaming pot. The knight blinked, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. He looked around him, suddenly filled with caution. Gone too, was the moonlit desert sky, the oppressive heat, the dry wind, the shifting sands. The knight stood ankle deep in thick mud, soaked to the skin by a relentless rain, the world around him incomplete darkness, battling an enemy seen only in his mind. Voices came from all sides, yet when he turned to confront them, he faced only emptiness.
“Leave me be, damn you,” he cried and swung his steel again. His body shook violently. He staggered. He lowered his weapon, still turning. Exhausted, the tip of his sword sank slowly to the ground.
“Leave me be,” he whispered.
Looking to the left then the right, he searched the darkness. His mail coif thrown back, water ran down his hair and into his eyes. His mind was filled with images of disconnected and confusing events, each vying for recognition, begging for primacy. Each flowing to the surface, then quickly receding into the shadows, he could not separate them long enough to dwell on any, or know which ones were real.
A chestnut war horse and sumpter pony waited nearby, materializing suddenly and disappearing as quickly, like specters in the night when cast in the eerie, silver-gray light of another flash of lightning. Caught between the cacophony of the elements their master fought a battle they could not see, hear, or smell, the sumpter shied while the stallion snorted its disapproval. The sounds of the storm snapped him back from the battlefield of his waking nightmare. Was he really in Wales or was this another mind trick?
Thunder rumbled. He walked toward the frightened creatures, the tip of his sword still slicing through the mud. “Easy, boy,” the rider reassured the stallion as it stamped around at the raging sights and sounds, pulling on its tether. In a voice that only the animals could have heard over the din, he said, “It's all right.”
He fumbled a few times to find the opening in his sheath with the point of his sword before finally sliding the weapon home. Water flew from his hair as the knight shook his head to clear it. Reaching for a wineskin tied to the saddle, he pulled the stopper, put it to his lips, and threw his head back. Only a few drops rolled into his mouth.
“Satan’s cock!” he growled, flinging the skin into the darkness. “More wine.”
The knight closed his eyes. The face of his liege, Lord Robert, loomed large behind the lids.
“My Lord,” said his lips, his voice refusing to sound.
“Continue like this, and you shall find yourself a prisoner,” the Earl’s voice pleaded. “Drink is an alluring seductress, a demanding mistress who will seek to occupy your every waking moment; cruel as a wily strumpet in Gropecunt Lane, with her coquettish ways, who would steal away in the small hours with your purse after leading you to the very gates of heaven. Before you even realize, your life will become filled with the ghosts from too many wasted yesterdays, wraiths that will drag at your heel like a tenacious cur clamped to a boot heel in a tug-of-war that refuses to release its prey.” Then the voice softened. “Tristan, this is no game.” He opened his eyes, about to beg forgiveness, the specter gone.
The road home was the fire that currently fueled his demons, a blaze that burned out of control.
A place he had not been for more than a score and ten summers. An idea he tried drive from his mind, but one he knew was real because of the ghosts residing there. The only home he had cared to know, the only one that was real, was the sand of the desert, sheltered under star studded skies in the army camps of the King, his fellow soldiers his family of choice.
Now, disillusioned after too many years of war and the loss of too many comrades by senseless killing for a God who did not seem to care, Amjhad’s sacrifice so that Tristan would live, the ghosts had summoned his return. They called him back to southern Wales, to the banks of the Gwendraeth, meandering on its leisurely journey to the sea, as it cut through the rolling hills, past the mines of the uplands and over verdant fields of sheep in the lowlands. Back to a mother and brother he no longer knew, if they even still lived, and to familial additions he had yet to meet. Further delay would only postpone the inevitable and serve no other useful purpose. Too many summers had already passed.
Tristan struggled to mount the stallion, and once up, sat uneasy in the saddle, prodding him forward. The courser and rouncy sank to their hocks as they carefully picked their way along the deserted road, struggling to make headway through the sucking mud. Man and beasts inched forward, heads down against the wind, one carefully chosen step at a time. Soaked to the skin, numb from the cold, none could see more than a few inches ahead.
The knight slumped forward, nearly losing his seat, his shifting weight making the stallion stop. He sat for a while, motionless, struggling to awareness. Reaching down, he gently patted the horse's neck and mumbled reassuringly, then pulled his cloak tighter and positioned himself more securely atop his mount. Once the man was safely seated, the stallion pressed on through the night.
The rain pelting his face while the wind screamed in his ears, he was again pulled in among the demons that inhabited the landscape of his mind. The images continued to come and would not let him go. Impressions of love, then disillusionment and betrayal: smiling sea-green eyes, agony as the lash flicked its angry tail, parting the skin of his back, beatings without reason and the taste of blood in his mouth after, seething hatred at being ridiculed and savagely violated, and the sea-green eyes again. The eyes had saved him. They were why he wished he were dead, and why he was still alive.
He pleaded with the night, “Specters, you bid me. I come. Now, leave me be. I can bear you no longer.” His pleas were swallowed by the blackness and disappeared.
Experience told him there was no escape, hence he suffered and he endured. He could not pray. There was no loving God. Long ago he learned The Almighty was vengeful and terrifying, truly maleficent, and One who, when it suited Him, would turn His back on the innocents who loved Him.
“Where were you?” he bellowed at God and at no one.
Not there when the lash caused him to cry out for mercy. Not there when he had begged for redemption, for none came. No Divine intervention when he faced the wrath of the one who had sired and loved him, and then so quickly despised him.
How could something so precious be so damned?
Passion had filled him, consumed him, made him believe that all things were possible. In a moment, it all was gone.
The betrayal had rotted his heart and rendered his soul dead. The knight lifted his face, his voice a whisper, “Where were You?”
Again, the heavens rumbled and fire filled the sky.
Tristan’s chin sank into his chest, his head bobbing back and forth with the movement of the stallion, his rages reduced to mere mumblings, the cur, once again, snapping at his boot heel.
“More bloody wine.”
✞ ✞ ✞
Offering up his empty heart to a distant God, Brother Rhonwellt rhythmically mumbled the evening prayers of Compline. Written indelibly on his memory from continued repetition, the orisons were pulled up obediently and automatically eight times each day. Had he not been forced to seek shelter from the storm, he would be standing in the chancel at Saint Cattwg’s, lifting his voice in unison with his brothers. Instead he knelt, hunkered down under an outcrop of rock at the base of a towering wall of blue stone a furlong and a half off the side of the road. Dressed in the rough-spun cloth of the church, he responded to an inner clock, honed by years of strict routine and discipline. It regulated the day-to-day rhythms which seldom varied or welcomed anything out of the stifling ordinariness of prayer and work — ora et labora.
Light bounced off the ceiling, the flames from his small fire reflecting heat back to him. He huddled against the chill. The monk knelt with his slender frame tucked safely beneath his heavy woolen robes, the hood of his thread-worn cowl thrown back. Sea-green eyes gazed intently at the flames dancing in front of him, as he mouthed the words of the recitation. His hand, stained with ink from many hours at his desk in the scriptorium, made the sign of the cross. He breathed an amen.
The hollow under the outcrop was nearly four paces deep, ran for ten paces across the base of the cliff. About twice the height of a normal man at the front, it sloped downward to the height of a child at the back. Old dried pine cones littered the floor and a small pile of oak and alder branches lay nearby. He built up the fire one last time before preparing to retire. Sitting on one of a couple of rocks someone had brought in, he spread his hands out in front of him to warm over the flames. In one corner, a small mat of fir branches had been assembled as a bed to ease tired bones. The needles having fallen off long ago, he would make do with the hard-packed earth. The fierce wind, blowing from the direction of the hill, away from the sheltered place, had recently quieted, but the misty drizzle continued.
Rhonwellt was grateful for these last few hours of time to himself. Given to solitude, he found living in close-quarters with over two dozen other contemplatives a challenge, and cherished his times away. He was not diffident or aloof around the other monks. Rather, he enjoyed their company — for the most part. But, his gathering trips collecting herbs for Brother Anselm, the priory’s aged infirmarian, and galls to make ink for the scriptorium, allowed him brief respites where he could retreat to that place deep within himself that offered reflection and a sense of safety, away from prying eyes looking to uncover his many sins. His transgressions were between himself and God, a status often difficult to maintain among so many others concerned with trespass, more often that of others and not their own.
Rhonwellt’s moments of greatest contentment were realized at his desk in the scriptorium, copying and illuminating manuscripts that provided lucrative income for the priory. On the one hand, he appreciated the level of precision required in producing each letter, meticulously keeping the text even and of an equal size to effect an attractive, easily read document. It was order and discipline. However, what made his heart soar was the freedom offered in illumination, imagining the colorful images that appeared at the top and along the sides of the pages, illustrating the themes and stories contained in the text. That he was accomplished at this art, all too often gave rise to feelings of pride, a sin which he chafed against constantly, with only varied degrees of success. Where is the evil in being satisfied with a job well done?
Pulling the last of the bread from his pack, he broke it into halves, saving one to break his fast after morning prayers. He chewed on a mouthful. The other bright star in Rhonwellt’s firmament was one of the Priory’s novices, Brother Ciaran. Ciaran had done no small amount of lamenting that he was not allowed to accompany Rhonwellt on this trip. Arriving at Saint Cattwg’s five summers ago at the tender age of nine, the lad had attached himself to Brother Rhonwellt as a boy to an uncle. A few brothers jealously gossiped among themselves, speculating as to the true nature of the relationship. Rhonwellt dismissed their twitterings. He would never allow things to stray from the filial. Such was his love for the lad.
Ciaran would be ready to take the tonsure and assume his place in full standing among the brothers in a little over a year when he would attain his sixteenth summer, an occasion that would be met with mixed emotions for Rhonwellt. He would miss the unruly mass of chestnut curls, sacrificed at tonsure, surrounding the lad’s fine-featured face, cascading down his forehead and obscuring wide eyes, the brown black color of oak gall ink. On the verge of manhood, yet still very much a boy, Ciaran engaged in a race to achieve his maturity. How often had he declared himself to be fifteen only to have Rhonwellt remind him he was yet fourteen?
The monk stuffed his few belongings into his pack along, with his collections and laydown, using his pack as a pillow. He would forego Matins, prayers said in the middle of the night, and beg forgiveness for that sin while praying Lauds at dawn. Wrapped tightly in his cloak, watching the sparse flames from a fire that no longer gave off any real heat dance low to the embers, Rhonwellt lay listening to the crack of the coals, his consciousness balanced on the razor edge between wakefulness and sleep. The sounds of the storm no longer reached his ears. Had it stopped? His heart leapt with hope. If the weather cooperated, he would be home before Prime on the morrow in time to attend market day.
His eyelids heavy, about to drift off into dreams, Rhonwellt heard the faint, soft plop and squish of horses hooves passing by on the road. The traveler apparently did not know the existence of this place, for he did not stop. The corners of Rhonwellt’s mouth turned up. Happily, he would not have to share his refuge or forfeit any of his remaining time alone. He must surelypay for this sin of greed and selfishness, but at the moment he did not care. Since salvation guaranteed absolution, he found in the case of small sins it was often far easier to commit them first and ask forgiveness after. He sighed. He would add that to his never ending list of transgressions and offer up extra prayers at Lauds.
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