by Graham B.
A knight returns from the Crusades to find his father has lost his mind.
| The trumpets blasted from overhead making Arnaud jerk in his saddle, as they always did.
"Sir Arnaud de Saint Jacques!" screamed the herald, making Arnaud further wince.
The knight continued through the gate into the courtyard leading his baggage train. His heart carried the weight of two years of fighting in the Holy Land, ending in failure. After the disaster that was the Edessa campaign, all ceremony seemed especially hollow.
A patter of feet and the throngs of servants parted to reveal a golden-headed girl, Arnaud's only sister, Gabrielle, still recognizable at sixteen years. Her eyes were bright with gladness, but her face was anxious.
"My brother returns!" she said. "And not a whit too soon!"
Arnaud nodded to Pepin, and the squire hopped from his horse and helped Arnaud down from his destrier.
"Is this the welcome I get?" he asked. "Why has my father not come out to greet me?"
Gabi's face clouded and she looked away.
"Come on, sister, out with it!" snapped Arnaud. "I haven't come back from years of war to be snubbed by my own father!"
"Father is... not well," said Gabi. "The doctor has been here ministering to him."
Then she turned and clapped her hands, and the servants hurried to the horses and began unpacking the train. Arnaud began walking toward the castle keep with Gabi trotting beside him.
"Reynard is here?," said Arnaud. "What's wrong with father?"
"You will see."
No further words were spoken as Arnaud hurried to the banquet hall. At first he saw nothing as his eyes adjusted to the dim light within, but his nostrils told him he was in the stables.
"God has granted you audience with His messenger!" boomed a familiar voice.
Arnaud blinked as the room came into focus. At the head of the table stood a horse with rider in full battle regalia. The rider's colors were of Arnaud's house, but looked filthy and faded. Arnaud could barely stifle a gasp as he recognized the rider.
"Father!" he cried, running forward. "What is the meaning of this?"
Lord Hugh smiled tenderly, but his blue eyes were unfocused, and seemed to watch a space above Arnaud's head.
"My son returns from his questionable endeavor," he said. "We will sing paeans to those who died eating manna from the devil's arse!"
As Hugh spoke, the horse lifted its tail and evacuated its bowels onto an already sizeable pile which steamed in place of where the lord's chair normally stood. Arnaud reached his father's side and tried to take the reins, only to have his hand slapped away by a steel gauntlet.
"I ride my own path!" cried Hugh. "I chart my own course! No man may turn God's messenger aside from his porpoise! None may tempt me to betrayal of my liver!"
Hugh had a goblet in his right hand, and he took that opportunity to drain it, the liquid contained within streaming down his front. Arnaud looked helplessly back at Gabi, but she only shook her head.
"Now that we have toasted your return, let us feast!"
Lord Hugh leaned toward Arnaud until he overbalanced, his feet slipping from the stirrups, and the entire weight of a lord in full armor came crashing down in a heap onto his son.
The old man looked down at Arnaud with something briefly resembling clarity before Hugh said, "So far is our house fallen, my gentle son."
Bruised but not seriously hurt, Arnaud gently pushed his father off and then helped roll his father onto his seat, where he sat looking bemusedly into space. The knight looked around the banquet hall and saw stacks of filthy crockery. Flies buzzed among piles of rotting meet and moldy bread.
"Where are the servants?" he shouted. "Why the filth?"
"They won't come in here," said Gabi. "They fear whatever evil troubles father. It has been so for the past six months. I clean up as best I can, but well..."
Arnaud led his father to a chair and bade him sit down.
"Where is the doctor?"
"Reynaud left for Boussanne to deal with a little-plague there," said Gabi. "He could not determine what ails father other than the obvious and treated him with herbs and bloodletting."
Arnaud knelt and looked into his father's eyes but saw no more recognition.
"Father? Do you not know your own son?"
The old man slowly turned his head and the fog lifted slightly from his eyes.
"The fires of hell burn in Rome," he said. "The pope fans the flames!"
Arnaud was aghast.
"Father, what is this blasphemy? Gabi, send for the bishop! Mayhap he could cast out this evil spirit!"
"I sent for him yesterday, brother," said Gabi. "He is on his way."
"Shall I roast the bishop over the flames?" said Hugh. "He shall feed many of the poor!"
"Please say nothing further," said Arnaud. "Father..."
"You have been on a fool's errand, boy! You have spent your life in pursuit of a mirage!"
"Father, I but do God's will!"
"And it's my fault!"
Hugh buried his head in his hands.
"You have eaten the bitter fruit of my soiled garden. Oh, how it makes my spleen reek with sour dreck!"
"What are you talking about?"
Hugh was weeping into his palms, his shoulders shaking beneath his filthy cloak.
"What is the meaning of this?"
The voice boomed from the door, startling Arnaud. The bishop stood there, a tall, thin man still in his travelling clothes, surveying the wreckage of the banquet hall.
"Your excellency!" cried Gabi. "We need the help of a holy man."
The bishop strode forward, his eyes fixed on Hugh.
"What is happening here?" he said.
"My father speaks blasphemies and nonsense," said Arnaud. "I have just returned from the holy land. I fear thoughts of me falling in battle might have driven him to take leave of his senses. He is a pious man, never one to utter blasphemy!"
The bishop shouldered Arnaud aside and looked deep into Hugh's eyes.
"Do you recognize me, old friend?" he said.
Hugh looked back at the bishop, then his face cracked into a rictus smile.
"God walked with me to the holy land, my son. Did you hear his footsteps?"
The bishop's brows furrowed.
"I fear I cannot exorcise this demon from your father, but I will go to the abbey and ask the ascetics to pray. I suggest that you do so as well. In the meantime, Sir Arnaud, the church shall recognize you as Lord of Saint-Jacques until such time as your father recovers."
"Will my father recover his senses?" asked Arnaud.
"Only God knows," said the bishop. "You should get him to his bedchambers and see that he is cared for."
"The holy lands are shrouded in secret waters!" cried Hugh, no longer lord. "His footsteps are swallowed up!"
The bishop gave Hugh a pitying look and left. Arnaud signaled to the servants to pick up his ailing father. When they hesitated, Arnaud rose to his full height and shouted at them.
"I am lord of Saint-Jacques and you will obey, or your families shall be ejected from the manor!"
Not wanting to further incur the young lord's wrath, the servants hurried forward, hoisted the old man onto their shoulders and bore him off to his bedchambers, Arnaud and Gabi close behind. After being stripped of his armor and his filthy cloak, Hugh lay in his bed breathing softly and looking up at his children. Gabi dismissed the servants, who seemed relieved to leave their presence, and sat by Hugh's side dapping his forehead with a damp cloth. Above his head on the headboard, the grim visage of the messiah looked on from a crucifix.
"Is it blasphemy you accuse me of?" said Hugh. "God speaks through me, and he is irritable these dark days."
"Father, please do not speak any more," said Gabi.
"My lovely daughter tries to soak the demons away. Tell me, my son. Where did your path take you?"
"To Jerusalem, and to Edessa. We fought to liberate the holy land from the heathens."
"And yet you failed," said Hugh. "So, God fails to take his home back from the squatters, even with the help of mighty warriors like yourself! Shall he reward the rabbit who fails to leap over the brush?"
"Father, you are troubled and you are not seeing clearly," said Arnaud gently. "Please rest."
"I see the stars very clearly," said Hugh. "They speak of missteps, of stumbles, of errors. You have erred."
"I do God's will," repeated Arnaud.
"But what is his will?"
"The pope called upon us all to-"
"A blathering idiot in Rome!" growled Hugh, trying to sit up. Gabi gently pressed him back down and dipped her cloth back into the water bowl. "What does he know about God's will? What does he know about forests and fields, lords and farmers, horses and swine?"
"He is the vicar of Christ, father!"
"Does the Christ call upon us to ride forth into oblivion, dragging his sheep to slaughter?"
For the first time, Arnaud noticed Hugh's eyes were clear and penetrating. They stared into his own like shafts of sunlight.
"Rome does not know what happens here, or in some faraway place like Jerusalem. You fight the wrong battles, my son! But fear not. I fight them for you! I fight them..."
Hugh's eyes closed and he seemed to lapse into sleep.
"The past three months have been the worst," said Gabi. "He comes and goes. Always, he speaks of you."
Arnaud was troubled. For all his madness, some of Hugh's words stung him, and it hurt. The stings would not go away. Why would the words of a madman trouble him?
Hugh's lips were moving, and Arnaud and Gabi leaned closer to hear.
"I watched my father return from the First Crusade'," whispered Hugh. "'He returned, triumphant. But I saw the emptiness in his eyes, as if the sun had set, never to rise again. Many young warriors never returned from the holy land. Many..."
The pale lips stopped moving.
"Father?" said Arnaud, but he received no answer.
Hugh's chest rose and fell in ragged breaths.
"He often spoke of you," said Gabi. "When you first left, he desired the glory for you that he never had. But as time went on, he became bitter, angry at the church. Even before his madness."
She gazed upon the pale face and a single tear escaped her eye.
"I fear he will not survive the night," she said. "Will you stay with us?"
"I must go," said Arnaud. "I have things to attend to."
The young lord of Saint-Jacques left the bedchamber and entered the courtyard. Servants busied themselves with their tasks around him, leaving him alone with his troubled thoughts. Fearing for his own sanity, Arnaud began walking toward the abbey, intending to offer a prayer but stopped. What would he pray for? What were the answers he sought? He did not even know the questions.
Overhead, the sky was darkening, and the setting sun splashed reddish hues across the bellies of the clouds. The failing light played across the standards waving limply above the castle gates, the colors faded and dull. It would soon be dark, and the abbey was at least half an hour away. Instead, Arnaud returned to the castle and rejoined his sister in their father's bedchamber. The chamber was warm, and Gabi had removed the crucifix and replaced it with an engraving of their mother, who had died years ago, when Gabi had been a small child.
Together they held their father's hands, and outside the window, the sun extinguished itself behind the distant hills.
word count: 1952