“It’s a trap,” Rolf whispered to Columba. They stood among the clerics by the baggage wagons. The mounted count and his nobles formed a rough line in front of the siege machine. The heralds returned from the castle and stopped facing Godfrey. Though Rolf couldn’t make out the words, a lively discussion transpired among the nobles.
“Of course, it’s a trap,” Columba said. “Nothing baits a soldier like an open door. You’ve been inside, how large is the inner court?”
“Not much larger than a sheep pen. I doubt if you could get a hundred people in it, and the Dragon has fifty or more soldiers.”
“Come. Your part is not finished.” Columba directed Rolf forward with a sweep of his hand.
“Me?” Rolf stumbled after him.
“You. Under further consideration—and much prayer—I believe I misinterpreted my instructions: you were the focus of my mission to expel the Dragon. Everything that has happened during the last week and probably everything that will happen today keys on you.”
“Why me? This is about Jordanes. And the Dragon. Not me. And how can you know what will happen today?” Rolf asked.
“Supposition. I do not see the future. Only One can do that, because it isn’t the future to Him.” Columba stepped out from among the clerics and pulled Rolf with him. “I am under orders: I obey. My failure of wit will certainly be the subject of much mirth among my fellows.”
“What are you talking about?”
Columba smiled. “You don’t need to know. Have faith. All will be as it should be.”
“Won’t the great men handle Konrad?”
“They have no idea what they’re dealing with. It may all depend on you.”
Rolf hoped Columba was wrong. He didn’t want anything depending on him. He just wanted to get the family sword and his brother and go home—as far from the Dragon as possible.
Columba led Rolf up the left side of the mounted nobles just as Count Godfrey announced his intention to enter in force. Baron Jordanes reminded Godfrey that twenty mounted men wouldn’t fit into the courtyard. They’d certainly be outnumbered.
“Then we’ll enter on foot,” said Godfrey. “Hagen.”
“My lord.” Hagen sat mounted near the far end of the mounted nobles.
“Command my heavy infantry to advance in a double column. We’ll dismount short of the bridge and follow them in. Under no circumstances is anyone to initiate combat. I don’t want a blood bath; not if I can negotiate a resolution. I hope Konrad has reconsidered his position, but I suspect deception. Only on my order, do you understand?”
“Yes, my Lord Count.” Hagen pulled his horse’s head around and trotted off.
“You barons remain here with your forces,” Godfrey said. “If Konrad betrays his safe conduct, invest the castle and reduce it to ashes. Those who advance with me, leave your great helms and horses behind with your squires. Arm yourselves for combat on foot. Come.”
Rolf and Columba walked, unbidden and overlooked, behind the count’s group. Hagen led two files of infantry toward the gate. As the knights dismounted, Rolf and Columba worked their way forward until they stood behind Count Godfrey and Baron Jordanes. Rolf had neither his staff nor knife. For fighting, he would prefer standing to one side with his sling, but his sling was lost somewhere in the castle.
“Forward,” the count ordered.
The infantry marched across the bridge first. Beyond the gatehouse, Hagen split the two files to form lines in front of the castle defenders. The defenders pressed to the sides. When Godfrey’s infantry reached the far end of the courtyard, they stopped and turned to face the defenders. Rolf marveled at how Hagen directed so many men with so few words. The way the defenders huddled back against the walls indicated they were impressed too.
“Now we beard the supposed dragon in his cave.” Godfrey walked straight across the bridge. The stench inside made Rolf’s eyes run, but he remembered to look left as they exited the gate house. His ash staff stood among the stacked pole arms. He slipped away from Columba to retrieve it.
“Don’t go beyond my reach again.” Columba rested his hand on Rolf’s shoulder after he returned to the monk’s side. “The crisis is upon us. Remember that He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
“Me?” Rolf looked up at Columba.
“You. All who believe.”
A horn fanfare drew all their eyes to the tower. When Rolf started to ask another question, Columba momentarily tightened his grip on Rolf’s shoulder. They all stopped short of the raised platform upon which Konrad sat, one long leg extended. He looked every bit a lord—golden hair framing his handsome face; broad shoulders surmounting a trim body.
Godfrey took an additional step forward. “Konrad, as you hope for mercy instead of justice, get off the ridiculous Roman chair and come show proper fealty to me.”
The Dragon looked around the yard as if bored. “Now that we are all assembled, I agree it is time to establish proper relations.” He turned his head to look directly at Count Godfrey. “It is you, Godfrey, who will bow to me.”
Count Godfrey jerked as if struck. Mutterings of confusion swept through the count’s men. Uncertainty turned to dismay as Godfrey staggered forward, climbed the steps, and knelt on the carpet.
“Better.” The Dragon remained sitting but spread his arms. “All you present see that Godfrey, Count of Hohen Elster, has of his own free will abased himself before me. Before you depart, each of you will do likewise.” He swept the assembled men with his gaze. Rolf felt the powerful aura of the Dragon’s presence pass over him.
“Never,” shouted Jordanes. “I will see you dead, first. This is my castle. These are my lands. I demand satisfaction of their usurpation and for the murder of my family.”
“There you are. Murder of your family, Jordanes? Hardly.” The Dragon turned his head and shouted. “Ladies, come forward and be seen.”
Rolf looked up as several finely dressed women appeared at a double window of the tower in front of them. The center lady grew taller as she approached the window or stepped up on a platform. Rolf did not recognize any of them.
Apparently Jordanes did. “Maritilde,” he whispered.
“Yes, your daughter and my espoused wife.” Shock and disbelief again swept through those assembled. “How could you possibly think of slaying the protector and devoted husband of your daughter?”
“You animal. I’ll see you in hell before I allow her to wed you.”
“That can be arranged, Jordanes. Your life—and hers—depends on your being reasonable. Look, the great Count Godfrey huddles face down before me. You can do no better. Surrender, Jordan.”
“I … I do.” Struggling as if unable to control of his own body, Jordanes fell on his face next to Godfrey.
“See?” The Dragon lifted his empty hands. “We are all friends and reasonable people here. Now for the rest of you.”
This was all wrong, but Rolf knew he could not resist the presence of the Dragon. He had failed before. Men all around him began to kneel. What had Columba just counseled? Oh, the whole armor. Girded with truth. The truth is that the Dragon is evil. Plated with righteousness. I have no righteousness of my own, only what I gain from God. Shod in peace. Rolf looked at his rag-wrapped feet and smiled. Helmed with salvation. With Jesus as my savior. And armed—armed with the sword of the Spirit. As he wondered how he was to wield the Word of God as a weapon, he heard the Dragon speak.
Rolf looked up, fearing the Dragon had singled him out for attention. Rolf thought only he had remained standing. Even though he felt no special power he had not knelt. But Konrad looked over Rolf’s shoulder at Columba, who also stood.
“You have no place or power here. This is mine. These people have submitted to me. They are mine.” The Dragon stood and stepped closer. “You have no authority.”
“They are not irrevocably yours. Any person, any community, any nation, the whole world can be redeemed. You will fail because you rule through hate and fear, increasing the flaws of your subjects. God redeems through sacrificial love. Increasing himself in his children. I am here to aid and advise, not to deal with you myself. If I was, you know who would prevail.”
The Dragon leaned forward as Columba spoke. When he finished Konrad sat straight and smiled. “So, I am unopposed.”
Columba looked toward Rolf and spoke quietly, “Open the eyes of your servant.”
Rolf wanted to hit him. Don’t point me out. What can I do? I’m just one man—at that, hardly a man. An inner voice told him he was not alone but surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And he felt it. He felt—he knew he was not alone. Rolf looked at the man standing on the platform and saw again that terrible reptile he’d glimpsed in the throne room. The snake-like being appeared magnificent, wise, and powerful. Huge, hypnotic yellow eyes with slit pupils focused on him. Rolf felt small, dirty, and sinful. Rolf did want to go to his knees like the others, but he stayed standing, gripping his vertical staff to brace him.
“The boy?” the Dragon asked, the tones of his voices almost a chuckle. “The shepherd? He is nothing.”
Rolf heard two voices in harmony: one from the man Konrad and a deeper growl from the being whom Rolf knew must be the real Dragon.
“Your kind underestimated shepherds before,” Columba said. “That one was overlooked by everyone also, even his own family. But he was chosen. And he conquered.”
“This one won’t,” said the Dragon. “Rolf, look me in the eyes.”
Rolf feared looking up. He glanced at Columba and saw that the monk was looking at him, not at Konrad. His pale eyes overflowed with love and compassion, like so many tears. Rolf drew a deep breath and faced the Dragon. “I am Rolf of Willardhof, by my father’s word and will. I am a child of Jesus, by His father’s word and will. I am not subject to you.” Rolf said the words, but inside he just wanted to look away, so the Dragon would gaze at someone else. He knew that would not do. Clutching his staff in front of him, Rolf looked straight into the reptile’s eyes. He raised his staff vertically and continued, “It is written that I shall worship and serve only God. Demon, be gone!”
He brought the base of his staff down on the first step of the platform. A loud thud resounded through the courtyard.
The Dragon roared.
Rolf staggered back as if a great, hot wind pushed against him. For an instant he feared more than he had ever feared in his life. He knew he could not stand against the power of the Dragon. He stumbled into a body behind him—a body which did not yield.
“Oh please, God, make him stop. Send him away.”
Suddenly a bright light suffused the courtyard. It emanated behind Rolf. He looked at Columba. Instead of the portly monk, Rolf perceived another creature just as wondrous as the reptile. This being looked like a lean, muscular man, except that he stood at least ten feet tall. No wings, no sword, no halo—though illuminated by an inner glow. The outline of a dove blazed on the being’s chest. Rolf felt sure he should fall down and worship this being. And the being—Columba—still looked at Rolf, not the Dragon. His face was filled with compassion. The being smiled and nodded.
Rolf turned back to the reptile. This thing threatened him, threatened his family, threatened everything he held true and good. This thing was filth. Rolf raised his staff again and shouted, “Be gone!” and stamped it onto the platform step again. The crack was even louder.
A light flashed so intensely that Rolf thought he heard it. He blinked. Men staggered; some collapsed.
The reptilian creature was gone. The man Konrad staggered as if he was as off balance and surprised as everyone else in the courtyard. He looked smaller than before. He blinked at Rolf and at the sword still in his hand.
“How did you do that?” Rolf asked as he looked around. The supernatural being behind him was Brother Columba again. Had they all seen it? Men staggered all over the yard. Rolf noticed that Konrad’s men seemed especially dazed—shaking their heads as if just waking. They must realize that the real Dragon—the reptilian creature was gone.
“I didn’t,” Columba whispered. “You did.”
“But it was so easy. When the priests—”
“No, it wasn’t easy,” Columba said, with that satisfied smile tightening his lips. “This kind only goes with much prayer. Your faith shone like the morning sun. And many prayed on your behalf.”
“Many?” Rolf looked around. No one seemed to be praying, though the crowd of men looked around as if they heard or saw or smelled that something had changed. Several of Konrad’s men dropped their weapons; others followed suit.
“Your mother prays for you every day. The prayer of the righteous avails much,” Columba said. “Also, your village priest. The brothers at the monastery who possessed your book. A host of witnesses on your behalf.”
“Is he defeated?”
“Evil was defeated thirteen hundred years ago; they just aren’t giving up.”
“But I saw—”
“You saw a visible manifestation of the invisible. In the spiritual he doesn’t look at all like that, but you wouldn’t understand if you saw him as he really is. In fact, there’s a danger you would worship him as an angel of light.”
“You know better than to worship me, no matter how I may appear.” Columba tilted his head forward to hood his light eyes with his shaggy eyebrows. “I am but a servant like you. That one was particularly dangerous because he wasn’t a servant. Not even of his supposed master. He disdained what little authority his kind recognizes. He’d gone rogue. That’s why no others of his ilk interfered. We’re not done. Stay vigilant.”
The moment of shocked immobility passed. Men stood up, blinking and looking around. Konrad squared his shoulders, though his eyes showed less confidence. “Nothing has changed. I am still baron.”
“You never were. I am the rightful baron.” Jordanes stood and called to the girl in the window. “Mary, have you been mistreated?
A young voice warbled over the courtyard. “If I am your daughter, my Lord, I only learned of it this day. I was a slave in what you say is my own house, afraid for my life at the hands of that awful man. Ignored sometimes, harassed others. Hungry, cold, and afraid always. Others suffered and died at his hand.”
Jordanes drew his sword. “Konrad, only your blood can pay this debt.”
“Jordanes, this is not wise,” Columba said.
“My family was murdered and enslaved,” Jordanes argued.
“Avenge not yourself. It is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.’” Columba said.
“He must not live.” Jordanes never took his eyes off Konrad.
“With whatever measure you use; it shall be measured to you.” Columba stepped back.
Rolf saw that Jordanes was unbent. He followed Columba off the platform, which he didn’t remember having climbed onto.
Jordanes rushed at Konrad, swinging his sword over his head, but Konrad blocked the blow with the dark Willard sword.
“Anger clouds Jordanes’ judgment,” Columba muttered to Rolf. “The heat of his emotion betrays him. And he has not fully recovered from his time in the dungeons.”
Jordanes attacked Konrad with ringing blows, forehand and back. The former Dragon stumbled backward. The platform gave little room for maneuver, but Konrad kept giving ground. The soldiers and lords stood back from the wood, leaving justice to their combat.
To trap his opponent in a corner, Jordanes reversed his attack. Konrad stepped down from the raised platform. Jordanes drew great breathes, waiting for Konrad’s next move.
“I will gladly continue the contest,” Konrad said, sweeping his free hand over the crowd. “But there is no room here. I’m not so foolish as to fight you up these steps.”
Jordanes nodded and stepped back.
“Thank you,” Konrad said.
Konrad looked confident for one who had just lost his supernatural power. Big and strong, but Rolf guessed something more. He turned to Columba to ask, but the cleric frowned and shook his head.
Konrad faced Jordanes and gave a curt bow. Jordanes stepped forward to attack again. Konrad met him blow for blow. Jordanes had used all his energy and anger in his initial attack. Now Konrad dominated. As Jordanes’ parries slowed, Konrad delayed his attacks. Suddenly he stepped forward, knocking Jordanes blade to the side and thrusting his sword—Rolf’s family sword—straight into Jordanes’ stomach. He twisted and withdrew the blade as Jordanes doubled and struck him with the pommel of the sword. The blow knocked the older man down.
Jordanes tried to draw breath, then sighed and fell forward.
The only sound in the courtyard was a gasp from the girl at the tower window. Konrad stood over Jordanes watching until satisfied that he would not rise. A pool of blood spread from beneath the body. Jordanes jerked twice and was still. Konrad stepped back and raised both arms.
“I have prevailed by combat,” he declared. “By your law and custom, my innocence is proved.” He faced Columba and smirked. “God has chosen.”
“You prevailed against a tired, old man, not because God favored you,” Count Godfrey said. “That does not absolve you from my charges of usurpation and treason. Would you care to cross swords with me?”
Godfrey looked as old as Jordanes, but more fit. Still, Konrad had tricked Jordanes into exhausting himself before he killed him. Rolf knew little of such tactics.
Konrad’s lips curled in a wily smile.
“I thought not,” said Godfrey. “Disarm him.” Several knights rushed to take Konrad’s weapon. “Does anyone else have a grievance against this man? Speak now.”
Several men looked up at the girl in the window, but she said nothing. She appeared shocked speechless.
Rolf asked, “Where is my brother?”
“What brother?” Godfrey asked.
“My brother, Will. Who came here to serve Konrad.”
Konrad looked away. “I know nothing of any Will.”
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.