Rolf looked up from the blade to the stranger holding it. The man didn’t look nearly so imposing as his shiny, but notched blade. Gaunt and wiry, like a hunting hound who’d run wild. Though his posture and size suggested someone not forty years old, he looked closer to fifty. Dressed in rags. His eyes glared from deep sockets.
“You’re just a boy!” the stranger exclaimed.
“And you’re on my land.” Rolf countered. He would have opened his hands to show submission, but he held two ointment pots in one and his satchel in the other.
Both Rolf and the armed man turned to look at Columba.
“How?” the stranger asked. His voice a baritone, ragged from exposure. He stepped back and lowered the tip of his sword. “And who are you?”
“You were supposed to rescue me from those villains, not this boy.” Columba wiggled the stopper from the third small pot, sniffed and reinserted it.
Rolf stared at the monk. The knot on Columba’s forehead had shrunk, though it was still showed red.
“Impossible. What villains?” asked the stranger. “I’m just passing through. I myself did not know I would be here or when.”
“Of course not.” Columba returned the pot to Rolf and put his hands on his knees to rise.
“Hold,” the stranger pointed his sword toward the old man. “Since you seem to know so much about my business, pray satisfy me that you are not about some treachery. I am but recently released from confinement and am of little mind to trust my fellow man.”
“A shame, but understandable,” said Columba. “I know who you are and approximately where you’d be because I was sent to help you.”
“You? Help me?” The man lowered the blade again. “How? And who are you?”
“You may call me Columba.” His pale eyes almost looked white, a trait some people thought evil. A great prow of a nose dominated his round face. His skin was fair, reddened by recent exposure to the sun and wind. “Think of me as a holy brother, though I usually act alone. I was sent to help you return home.”
“You speak riddles, Brother Dove. How can you know who I am or where my home is?”
“I know a great many things, most of them of no use to you. But this I know—that is, I surmise that you are Jordanes of Altz, late of service to John the Blind in the war against the late Wladyslaw of Poland. You were captured five years past and should have been released two years ago when Casimir III bought out John’s claim to the Polish throne.
“Instead you remained forgotten in confinement until the general amnesty celebrating the birth of the Christ five weeks ago. Impatient to return to your home, you declined the wiser choice of returning to your liege lord but set off with but a horse and a sword and your pardon. And here you are.” Columba made a show of looking behind Jordanes. “Sadly, bereft of said horse. I hope you didn’t kill the poor beast in your haste. I assume your release documents rest next to your heart wrapped in oiled-parchment.”
Rolf could tell by the man’s growing expression of astonishment that everything Columba said was true.
Jordanes dropped his sword in the snow, knelt and buried his face in his hands. “Father, forgive me for I am a sinful man. My crimes are ever before me.”
“Do not do it!” Columba fairly leaped to his feet and pulled Jordanes up as well. “I am but a fellow servant. Do not bow to me.”
“But you can only be a holy messenger from God. My corrupt eyes are not worthy to look on your splendor.”
“Splendor?” Columba laughed. “Your eyes are fallible indeed if this looks like splendor.” He held out the cuff of his ragged robe of home-spun wool.
Jordanes remained on his knees, looking up at the old man, who didn’t look particularly heavenly to Rolf either. Angels were supposed to be gigantic warriors with great wings and swords. This fellow looked more like an old brown bear fattened for his winter’s rest.
Columba extended his hand. “Up, man. We have work to do. I’m here to guide you, not to fight your battles for you.”
“Those thieves just about killed you, Brother Columba,” Rolf said. “You don’t look like you can take care of yourself, let alone conquer Lord Jordanes’s enemies.” Both Jordanes and Columba looked at Rolf as if only becoming aware of his presence.
“Thank you for rescuing me, young man, though I assure you I was in no danger,” said Columba. “It shows your heart is stout and good. Best to be both, but if you must choose, keep your heart pure. Now you may be on your way as Baron Jordanes and I have business.” He waggled his fingers in dismissal.
“But I’m going to Burg Altz, too.” Rolf reasoned that if this scarecrow was the rightful baron of Burg Altz, getting the family sword back would be much easier with him reinstated. Provided he won, which from the look of him, seemed doubtful. Attaching himself to the rightful baron should at least assure that he found the castle with minimal fuss.
“You are?” Columba asked. “For what reason?”
“To recover our family sword. My brother, who was supposed to be the next Willard, stole it and went to join the Dragon. I have—” Rolf stopped when he saw the shocked expression on Baron Jordanes’s face.
“Dragon? There’s a dragon at Burg Altz? What happened? How fare my family?”
Rolf looked at Columba, hoping he would explain. Instead the old monk’s pale eyes stared through Rolf, as if in some private reverie.
“I—I don’t know,” Rolf stammered. “I mean, he’s not a real dragon. Only a man who calls himself the Dragon. He moved in some years ago and set himself up as baron. Now he’s gathering an army for something. My brother wanted to join him. The Willard, our father, refused to let him go. Will—that is, my brother took the sword and went away last month. I’m supposed to get the sword and bring it home.”
“And your brother?” Columba asked as he squinted his eyes looking at Rolf.
“Father’s disowned him, but I thought …” Rolf paused. Why was he exposing family secrets to these strangers?
“You thought?” prompted Columba.
“I hope I can persuade my brother to return home. I’m just the younger son. I’m happy to herd sheep. He can be the Willard when our father dies. Besides it would please Mother.”
Columba smiled indulgently.
“You’re a fool,” Jordanes said. “If your father has disowned him, then you should bend to his will. What sort of son disobeys his father?”
“I am obeying my father,” Rolf turned to face Jordanes. “But I love my brother, too. He’s more important than some silly old sword.”
“If it’s your family sword, it may be of great value.”
“Not that I know of. Some Willard brought it back from a Crusade. A real one to the Holy Lands, not these phony crusades of the Teutonic Knights.”
“You have me there.” Jordanes nodded. “I barely escaped with my life from being a pawn in their chess game. What of you, O wise one? What do you think of this young man’s ambition?”
“I think his heart is right. ‘To obey is better than sacrifice,’ but ‘whoever loves God must also love his brother.’ I’d say my young rescuer has chosen wisely.”
Rolf felt his heart warmed by such affirmation.
“Nevertheless,” Columba said, “I have business with Baron Jordanes. My mandate does not extend to would-be knights-errant. So, Rolf, you may go about your quest with our blessing.” He raised his right hand with three fingers extended. “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”
“But I don’t know the way,” Rolf protested.
“You don’t?” Jordanes said.
“How did you expect to recover your sword from Burg Altz if you don’t know the way?” asked Columba, his lips again curled into the beatific smile that Rolf was already beginning to dislike.
“I know these lands because they abut ours. I know Burg Altz is that way.” Rolf pointed southward. “I planned to climb to the highlands then follow them south, figuring I’d find some sign along the way.”
Jordanes chuckled. “Well, in that you were not mistaken. I most certainly know the way to Burg Altz, but as Brother Columba has indicated my business does not include you. And you seem to be in a hurry. You may leave us.”
“I’m in no hurry to get killed,” Rolf said. “If you can regain your home, you’d be a much more reasonable person to deal with than this supposed Dragon.”
“I should hope so,” Jordanes said.
“Nevertheless, your plight is outside my mandate,” Columba pronounced. “On your way, child. God be with you.”
“But couldn’t I come along to help? Hold your horse or something?”
“Sadly, I lost my horse,” Jordanes said. “My undertaking may imperil all those near me. Why don’t you return home and wait word that I have restored proper order at Burg Altz? When all is as it should be, you can come retrieve your sword and perhaps your brother.”
“My father said not to come home without the sword. I can’t just camp here for a month.”
“Decidedly not.” Jordanes sniffed as he surveyed around the lambing pens. “If Brother Columba approves, I could take you on as a temporary retainer.”
“Gladly,” Rolf said.
“Wait, hear me out before committing yourself. I will require your oath to me and my cause, which means your obedience to my orders, even if they put you at risk and do not seem to advance your cause. I will not tolerate underlings questing or seeking their own ends. My ends shall be your ends until I release you from your oath.”
Rolf thought for a moment. “I don’t have to abandon my mission or return home?”
“I would not have you forsworn of your father. A man who disobeys his father cannot be trusted to obey me. Brother Columba, is that agreeable to your purpose?”
“I’m here to help expel the Dragon. I have no objection to the boy. He seems worthy, but I caution we not confuse our goals.”
“Agreed,” Jordanes said. “What say you, Rolf? Will you serve me?”
“My lord, I’ll happily swear to your service. Wait. My family are vassals of Baron Augustus. Does this oath conflict? I don’t know about oaths and things, other than that they are holy, and we must fulfill them even if it means discomfort or death.”
“Does that drunken lout still hold Uberbache?” Jordanes chuckled silently. “No, your temporary service to me should not conflict with your father’s service to him.”
“Unless Konrad has allied Augustus to himself,” Columba said.
“Who’s Konrad?” Jordanes asked.
“The Dragon,” Rolf said. “That is, the man who calls himself the Dragon.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” Columba corrected. “But the boy’s explanation is close enough for his purposes. There’s more to the Dragon than the man named Konrad.”
“That said, you see no impediment to my retaining the lad?” Jordanes asked.
“None.” Columba smiled again. “In fact, he might start serving you by sharing the food in that pouch so thoughtfully and lovingly packed by his mother.”
“Yes, of course.” Rolf offered the pouch to Jordanes.
“First your oath.” Jordanes raised his palms in a warding gesture. He held them there as he looked toward the old man.
“He’s swearing to you, not to me,” Columba said.
“Right you are,” Jordanes said. “I just assumed you would officiate in the oath taking.”
“That would not be … expedient in this circumstance. His promise to you should suffice. Let his ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and his ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Anything more comes from the Tempter.”
“So be it,” Jordanes said. “Rolf, son of Willard of Uberbache, do—”
“Of Willardhof, if you please, my lord,” Rolf said.
Jordanes looked cross at the interruptions but brightened as apparently the meaning struck him. “Have your own holding, do you? Good, almost a man of honor. Rolf, son of Willard of Willardhof, do you swear allegiance to me and my cause until you are released by me or by my death, to love and obey orders of myself, my family, or my lieutenants, so help you God?”
Rolf glanced at Columba, who stared back with lowered brows. “Yes, I do.”
“It is done. I’d have you kiss my signet ring except that, along with my seal, my armor and my clothes, it was taken years ago. Instead I’ll happily receive whatever victuals your mother prepared in token and partial fulfillment of your oath.” Jordanes reached for the pouch.
Rolf let Jordanes and Columba divide his provisions. To cover his disappointment at seeing only a two-way division of the food, he cleared the stone fire pit in front of the shelter.
“What are you doing?” Jordanes asked.
“Building a fire.”
“It’s not late.” Jordanes looked at the clouds. “Surely we can make several miles before camping for the night.”
“Perhaps, but the sun rises late and sets early this time of year,” Rolf said. “We wouldn’t get far, and rustic as this awning looks, it’s the last shelter I know of in this direction. We can’t count on better, and it may snow tonight.”
“It’s snowing now,” Columba said. Indeed, large, fluffy flakes started drifting down like goose down.
“I bow to your knowledge of the locale.” Jordanes nodded. “Though the stench here is overwhelming.
“You’ll get used to it,” Rolf said. “The shepherds built it close to the lambing pens, so they could guard and help the ewes. This is all the area that I know. Beyond here, I’m guessing.”
“So tonight we’ll rest in comfort,” Jordanes said, “though we shall need to keep watch against Brother Columba’s erstwhile assailants.”
“You can rest easy on their account,” said Columba. “They are no longer a threat.”
Rolf wondered how Columba could be so confident. Masterless men often used this shelter though few were brave enough to contest it if shepherds were present. Since Jordanes seemed content, Rolf decided to say nothing but suspected he and Blackie would need to sleep lightly as both older men obviously needed rest. Snow already whitened the ground.
Blackie. Now that Rolf had two traveling companions—or rather, they had him—he could release Blackie to go back and help with the sheep. But he’d wait until morning.
With kindling and seasoned wood stockpiled nearby, Rolf built a cone of progressively larger sticks. Setting his flint to his iron fire striker, he shot sparks onto a scrap of cloth charred at one corner. As soon as the tinder flared, he set it against the kindling and blew gently. Once the kindling flamed, he blew out the tinder, pinched it to assure it didn’t smolder and rewrapped his tools. Shortly the warmth of the fire built enough that all the men loosened their wrappings.
Rolf used a broken branch to sweep the snow out from under the awning, then rejoined the men by the fire. Jordanes ate with the intensity of one deprived adequate food for some time. Columba had not touched his food.
“Here, boy. Eat,” Columba said, pointing to the second pile of food.
“Isn’t that yours?”
“You need it.”
“But what will you eat?”
“I can live off the fat of the land.” The older man chuckled as his patted his ample paunch. The well-fed comfort of his cherubic face contrasted with his worn garments. He appeared to be just the sort of cloistered monastic Rolf’s father often ridiculed, but Columba had surrendered his entire dinner.
“Thank you,” Rolf said.
“The Lord loves a cheerful giver.”
The old baron, who looked near exhaustion, finished his meal, wrapped himself in his cloak and fell asleep.
“So, what do you do out here, Rolf?” Columba asked.
“Watch the sheep mostly.”
“That would hardly take all your time and attention.”
“Oh, I talk to Blackie.” Rolf scratched his dog behind the ears. “And to God.”
“No, not the way the priest prays. Mostly I just talk to him.”
“About what?” The heavy man settled facing the fire.
“Oh, why things are as they are. And thanking him for Blackie and that I’m out here away from the smelly home.”
“Your home smells worse than this?” Columba gestured toward the lambing pens.
“Pretty much. Besides, away from here it’s pretty nice.
“And does he answer?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes I just look around and figure things out. Sometimes I seem to hear words in my head. Like answers. Things I didn’t know.”
“And that’s God?”
“I suppose. You can—I can tell that he loves me and protects me.”
“Protects you against what?”
“Oh, wolves and bears mostly. And men like those ruffians.”
“You’ve fought bears?”
“Only one. Last spring. He was old and feeble. Tried to snatch a lamb. Blackie and I chased him off with a few well-placed stones.” Rolf patted the pouch in which his sling lay. “Mostly we try to avoid bears. Freeze, you know. Unless they bother the sheep. Wolves are a bigger problem. They run in packs.”
“And you face them, too?”
“Got to. Otherwise they’d kill our sheep.”
“And God was with you in all that?”
“Sure. I mean, I guess so.”
“Be assured He is. Rolf, I may have misjudged. I now suspect it was to you that I came.”
“Me? How is that possible?”
“With God all things are possible.”
“Why does God care about our old sword?”
“It is you and your brother he cares about.”
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.