Mary screamed. The count and barons pulled their swords and looked upward. Rolf raised his staff and crouched facing the tower door. They froze waiting for whatever would follow. More men ran into the courtyard.
“What happened?” Godfrey finally asked. “Where’s Columba?”
“Up there,” Mary said. Had the Dragon attacked him? Had he tripped some trap set in the Dragon’s rooms? As her eyes recovered from the flash, she saw that the tower had neither burned nor exploded. In fact, it looked much as before. “He went up to …” She trailed off as Columba appeared at the tower doors. He appeared quite satisfied about something.
“Whoever inhabits Burg Altz will be bothered no further,” he said. “But remember not to give evil an opening.”
“I’ll feel better about staying here knowing that the Dragon, whatever he was, won’t return,” she said. “Should I put out crosses to ward off other demons?”
“The best ward is a guarded heart.” Columba’s pale eyes gazed from under his bushy eyebrows.
“How do I guard my heart? I know nothing of religion. All I learned here was fear and hiding.”
“You are wise to see how little you know. And fear—the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Columba smiled. “The good count can provide you with spiritual advisers. And that one—” He nodded toward Rolf “—has not yet plumbed the depths of his own faith. Look to him as well.”
Walking on her heels, she shuffled to Rolf. She extended her hand. He seemed reluctant to take it. “Thank you.”
“Why thank me?” He pressed his lips together. “I pretty much failed. My brother’s dead. Your father’s dead. The count would have dealt with Konrad anyway.”
“You faced down whatever horror possessed the Dra—Konrad, when everyone else was cowed by it. How did you do that?”
“I don’t know. That is, it wasn’t me but God.”
“How did you know He would defend you? My father and Godfrey had just as much claim to divine protection, didn’t they?”
“I didn’t know,” Rolf said. “That is, I did trust God to defend me, but I don’t know why He did. That’s a question better asked of Columba.”
Hagen commanded a crew to erect a scaffold. Konrad, awake again and angry, was tethered to four men by ropes encircling his arms and chest. Godfrey was telling one of his barons to clean the dark sword. She saw Rolf watching that sword. He looked troubled when it was taken away.
“You’re a fool, you know,” she said, trying to disarm her accusation with a smile.
“Me?” Rolf blinked. “In what way now?”
“You attacked an armed warrior with a stick.”
“Hardly a stick.” He hefted the pole which was longer than he was tall. The thinner end of the staff flexed slightly.
“Had he attacked you, he could have swept you away without a thought. He was so intent on killing me that he ignored you. Not that I wanted to die, but it was a foolish act. And a brave one. Thank you.”
“I just reacted.” Rolf shrugged. “Sometimes in the fields a wild animal attacks a sheep. You have to defend quickly, or … well, it turned out well for both of us.”
“Why would he want to kill me?”
“I don’t know,” Rolf said. “Maybe revenge. Maybe because you ruined his plans. Maybe you seemed the bigger threat than me or the count.”
“Me? A threat? I hardly think so.” Mary couldn’t imagine herself as a threat to anyone. Then she remembered how the ladies looked at her when Count Godfrey threatened their husbands. People depended on her now.
“His mind was dark; yours is not,” Columba said. “Don’t expect to understand how he judged right and wrong.”
“No.” She glanced at Rolf, then examined her bandaged hands. “But I don’t know much about what’s right and wrong either. Not like you.”
“Learned it at my mother’s knee.” Rolf studied her hands too. “She was reciting the Bible all—oh, I’m sorry. I forgot that you’ve lost your mother. And now your father.”
Mary blinked to stop the tears. And failed. Head bowed, she let her eyes flush the pain and fear. Until now she’d only thought about surviving each day. The enormity of her changed life, and her inadequacy for it, suddenly pressed upon her. “I never knew them. There is so much I could have learned, but more than that I would have belonged to a family. I would have been loved.”
“You were loved, even as you are loved now,” Columba said.
“By God, you mean?” Mary asked.
“Of course, but also the people here. People you will now lead out of the shadow of the Dragon and his evil.”
Mary looked at Rolf. “You’ve been taught from childhood. I’m just an ignorant kitchen girl.”
“You figured the Dragon out,” Rolf said. “You saved me, and you tried to save my brother.”
Mary’s cheeks and nose warmed. Rolf was not as handsome as his brother, but she could see he’d soon be as tall and broad as Will. “You have a future, too. You’ll become a baron, it seems. Men will teach you war, and Columba will teach you about God.”
“As for that, Rolf must depend on his family and these nobles.” Columba drew in and released a great breath of air. “I go where I’m directed.”
Rolf looked again at Mary. “You have good people here, and Count Godfrey seems like a good man. He will guard and guide you. Me? I just wanted to save my brother and go back to my sheep. I failed at the one and doubt if I will be allowed the other.”
“There is a time for learning peace and a time for learning war,” Columba said. “And, for you both, a time to follow and a time to lead.”
“You saved your family sword,” Mary said.
“I never cared much about that old sword.” Rolf shrugged. “It sounds like a wondrous thing now, but it was my excuse to come get Will.”
“That may be,” she said, “but your future seems as much out of your hands as mine.”
Columba laid his hand gently on Mary’s head. “May the Lord bless you and keep you, young lady. Seek Him while he may be found. The times are evil, and you are now drawn out of the kitchen to rule. Like Esther, all you have suffered has prepared you for such a day as this. Peace be with you.”
While Mary wondered who Esther was and how to respond, Columba patted Rolf’s shoulder and joined the clerics who had gathered to cleanse and re-consecrate the castle’s chapel.
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.