Two days later
Patrolmen lined the path before the abbey’s gate. They waited.
Their spears rattled in the still air. Rain gushed along chainmail, sliced into a thousand thousands of minuscule streams.
Straining his voice against the rush of rain and the cutting gale, the commandant called, “In the name of the Kaiser, open this door.”
The gates were shut. Hooded shapes loomed in shadowed clusters behind the rusted iron bars.
A voice insinuated itself into the commandant’s ear, though he could not determine whence it came. It was a man’s voice, and it asked him, “Seek you sanctuary, my child?”
The faceless shades murmured to one another in the background. The commandant’s patience wore thin. And the rain pattered on the clay shingles of the roof of this ancient, Roman church.
“Do you know who we are? If you do, it should be you, perhaps,” he said, leaning until his cheeks pressed against the bars of the gate, “who ought request sanctuary.”
There was a pause before the monk answered with, “Your powers are impressive, my son, but not, I think, supreme. Even your Kaiser answers to God.”
“I don’t see God here, monk.” The commandant turned to his men. “Unless I stand on clouds and do not know it, this land remains the Kaiser Heinrich’s earthly domain.”
The commandant shivered from the cold, the chill beads of water running down his lower back. “You are audacious when behind heavy iron bars. Open and we’ll see how long your cheek persists.”
From the blacker shadows beyond stepped a man, one visibly different from these monks. He was a priest, and bore himself almost as a nobleman, it seemed. He’d been watching from a nook. Now he said, “It is indeed a wretched and forsaken era we live in, when simple men of the cloth may be chastised, intimidated and even threatened without cause.”
Though the priest was a man of humble stature, though he spoke plainly, his words were cloaked in a strange and off-putting cadence. Almost as if he were amused, rather than frightened. The commandant ignored his misgivings, but withdrew his face from the bars all the same. “Bring forth your master.”
“While I am not the master, I’m certainly the closest to Him of those present in this House of the Lord. Speak quickly. It is late and we rise with the sun.”
Yes, this was he, and he looked the part. “Father Jürgen, then,” said the commandant, his voice dropping most of the indignation it had been imbued with only moments ago, “you are charged with harboring fugitives and murderers. I have questions for you. I will not demand this but once more: let us in.”
“More threats.” Jürgen laughed. “Unnecessary, I assure you. We are humble, chaste men. We have taken vows of poverty—many of us are sworn to silence—and you treat us as the basest vermin and robbers. Heavenly Father, forgive this man; he knows not what he does.”
Jürgen crossed himself.
The commandant grew angry again. “God won’t keep us from breaking this barrier down.”
The priest sighed before flicking his wrist, giving some cue. One of the silent monks unlatched the bolt. The gate swung wide. The soldiers shuffled back quickly. The commandant had nearly lost his nose.
Jürgen held his palms facing up, at his waist-level. Then he turned and retreated into the monastery courtyard.
The iron bars creaked. The entrance was clear, but the soldiers did not move straightaway.
One of them inched forward, eyes darting around, searching for traps. When he stood in the gateway without the wrath of the Lord descending upon him, the others followed, one tentative step at a time. After another moment they grew more confident and spread out in the courtyard. The commandant knew his men well enough to feel their resistance of the urge to poke at the shadows with their spear-tips.
An open square bordered by columns that held aloft a low, tiled roof, funneled the rain-marred moonlight onto cracked, ancient tiles. Between the tiles grew bold weeds. Beyond the small, rectangular courtyard there was nothing but blackness.
“Father Jürgen,” called one of the soldiers.
“Show yourself at once.”
“I am here,” said the priest as he materialized, seemingly being given form by the darkness itself. “Now, tell me of your troubles.”
The commandant grumbled at the other’s condescension, saying, “Some men passed through here. It could not have been more than a few days ago.”
“We provide shelter to weary travelers on occasions, it’s true,” said Jürgen.
“Those I speak of are killers masked as soldiers of the Reich.”
“They must have taken an important life, for you to chase them so far.”
“There have been many murders these last weeks. The latest are a woman and one of my comrades.”
“Justice,” one of the soldiers said with a scowl.
“How can you be so sure they came this way, or that they stayed with us even for a moment?”
The commandant scoffed. “We picked up their trail in Asti. In this part of the world, they would find it most difficult to roam unnoticed, sneak-thief band that they are.”
“How so? What would give them away?”
“They wear the livery of the Kaiser: yellow and black. Same as ours. And, everywhere we went, we were greeted by curious, even appraising stares from the peasant-folk. The countryside has eyes, the same as cities, and these men do not fear being seen so much that they keep to seldom-traveled woodland roads. Thusly, we have managed to dog their trail, aided, unhappily, by the regular murders they commit.”
Jürgen had been nodding along politely. “And all of the crimes you’ve identified, they are centered mostly on the town of Asti?”
“No. We have not yet found their base of operations, though we are sure it lies somewhere near the very land we stand on.”
“My goodness,” said Jürgen, clapping a hand to his mouth.
The commandant clutched his spear so tight his knuckles whitened. “We have been pursuing them for nigh two weeks, but it was a mere two nights ago that they slew most viciously one of our own. Perhaps they hoped to shake us, to weaken our resolve.”
Jürgen smiled. “It is apparent that they did not succeed.”
“Yes. And our course has led us here, at long last. Here the trail has brought us, and therefore the question almost asks itself: what do you know about these men, Father? I do not accuse you of being in league with them—not yet—but it is clear that the very blackguards we pursue enjoyed your hospitality, and quite recently.”
“Well, my son, perhaps your witness has made a mistake.”
The commandant narrowed his eyes. “How do you know we have a witness?”
“That much is obvious. There are many routes a gang of thieves and murderers could take through these lands. To know they came here, out of all of them, you must have an account straight from the lips of someone who saw them here and can attest to that fact with confidence. Or, at the very least, you spoke with someone who wished you to believe that he was telling you the truth. If I had to guess, I’d say it was young Rudolf, from the village yonder.”
The commandant said nothing. To himself, he thought, Blast. Got it in one.
Jürgen continued, “The lad makes bread, milk and egg deliveries a few times per month. We live humbly, and have not the means to support ourselves. Therefore, we must barter communion with God for the bare necessities. This act humbles us.” Jürgen smiled, his gaze drifting upward. “Rudolf is a rare talent. Thanks to him, we can perform our good works in peace.”
Well, thought the commandant, there’s no reason to play it cloak-and-dagger any longer. He asked, “This Rudolf, he supplies you with your daily bread, then? He, and no one else?”
Shrugging, Jürgen said, “Sometimes he brings us… other essentials, too.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
A distinct twinge of discomfort shot through the commandant. “Will you swear that you are not hiding nor harboring, neither here nor anywhere else, the heartless murderers we seek?”
“I do. I and anyone else here present would swear it on the Good Book, if you so desired.”
“My final question then,” said the commandant, feeling a sudden and powerful urge to put between himself and the abbey many, many leagues. “Do you know in which direction they went?”
Jürgen tugged at his collar. “I have no knowledge of these men or where they might be hidden away. Were I them, I would certainly avoid contact with anyone. Even men of the cloth.”
“You do not know where they were headed?”
“I was not present the day they must have come, for I do not remember these men you speak of.”
One of the soldiers blurted, “The lad, Rudolf, had a different tale to tell.”
“Did he?” Jürgen chortled. “He must be fooling with you, or his memory lacks the vigor of youth.”
In that moment, the commandant’s frustrations overcame his fears and laid them low. He said, “You’re lying, Father. I can tell because I have much experience with liars. You’re no good at it. Tell me what I want to know now, or after a sojourn in the dungeon cell, it makes little difference to me. All it is is time, and I have more of it than you.”
“Well.” Jürgen pursed his lips. “I’m saddened by your mistrust. After all, if you can’t believe the word of a priest, I must wonder what the world is coming to.” He turned away and moved toward the door behind him. “I’ll speak with Brother Marzell. He’s not yet so old as I.” The priest coughed. “He might remember your vagabonds.”
“You won’t mind my company,” said the commandant. He gestured at his men. “You three, with me.”
Setting their spears against the wall, they filed behind Jürgen into the room whose door he’d opened. Lit only by one stump of a candle, a hunched man sat along, mumbling to himself. His back to them, he was naked from the waist up, rolls of excess skin flowing outward. He looked like a blob of cream.
“Marzell,” said Jürgen quietly. “A moment.”
His mumblings ceased. He said something.
One of the soldiers huffed. “Latin. Tell him to speak so we can all understand.”
“Marzell,” said Jürgen, resting his palm on the half-nude monk’s shoulder, “do you know anything of travelers passing through here in the past two days?”
Marzell pushed off the stone floor, shifting himself in a semicircle until he faced the soldiers.
“What is your name, my son?” he asked the commandant.
“No concern of yours.”
Marzell wheezed as he spoke. “Hmm. I don’t recall anything of the sort. Not many come through here.” He brought the nearly-spent candle, cradled in both sets of fingers like an egg, up to his nose. “Excepting the local villagers and the good little boy, Gustaf, who brings us our water.” He moved the flame back and forth and followed it with his pupils. “Gustaf was such a sweet lad. Young, strong, kind… it is a shame what happened to him. So recently, too… I doubt that even his mother knows he’s gone. She might think him off visiting that pretty girl in the woods again. He does that sometimes. Not anymore, though. No, not any more.”
The commandant fixated on Marzell’s slowly weaving bald head.
The monk’s words were barely a whisper now. “Yes, a terrible thing. He came to us one day, asking for something. We couldn’t give it to him, no, because he still owed us the price, the costly, costly price… well, it is of no consequence.”
The commandant said nothing, but he clutched the hilt of his sword.
“Did you enjoy your meal, Marzell?” asked Jürgen.
The commandant looked from the priest’s pleasant expression to that of the seated monk. He finally noticed the bowl set beside the man.
“Yes, and I’ve even still a little bit left. Just a little morsel, saved for later. Oh, but it’s not enough.” Marzell kept the candle in one hand and scooped up the bowl with his free one. “It’s never enough.”
Rudolf snatched the vessel from him. Besides a film of grease, the terracotta contained another item. It was small, soft and bore a slightly weathered purple hue.
“My God! It’s a tongue!” one of the men shouted.
Another of the soldiers back away and was met with Jürgen’s frame, blocking the doorway. The commandant next heard screams coming from outside along with the clatter and scrape of steel.
“Where are these men you came seeking?” said Marzell, waving the candle before his plump, reddened lips. Drops of molten wax plopped onto the stone at his feet. “There are times when it is best to leave a little mystery to life.” He puffed, quenching the flame.
In total blackness, the commandant unsheathed his sword. A scream erupted from directly beside him, followed by gurgling and a guttural whine. A shower of hot fluid drenched his face, chest and hands.
Flailing like a madman, he groped for the door as he heard the death rattles of the two remaining soldiers in that room.
At last, his fingers looped around the door handle and pulled it open. Howling, he ducked into the courtyard. There, he found nothing but vacant stone.
Where are my men?
They had to be nearby. He had to find them, had to escape.
“Where are you?” he shouted. “To me! To me!”
In the dim light, the only evidence he saw of their ever having existed were the streaks of blood slashed across stone columns, and the pools seeping into the cracks between the tiles, drunk up by the roots of the weeds.
Spinning in place, crying out, suddenly, he froze.
A line of figures in hooded robes, the folds of which rustled with the wind, stood before him, cloth soaked through with rain. The moonlight only deepened the shadows about them.
“Bastards,” the commandant roared.
The monks said nothing. They were like statues. Their rope belts whipped their sides with the rising gale.
From behind the commandant, the door to the room where Marzell and Jürgen were opened with a rusty creak. From it tumbled one of the soldiers, who lurched past the commandant and toward the gates to the outside world, which were now sealed. The soldier, spilling a trail of blood, slammed into the iron bars. He pounded his fists against them, he wrenched at them, but they stood unyielding.
The monks’ hooded heads shifted to the right and they darted for him. He wailed as he saw them approach and, with his last ounce of strength, leapt up as if to climb the gate itself. The monks grabbed his legs and arms and bore him to the ground. Then they were upon him, his form obscured by theirs.
As he heard the crackling tear of flesh and ligament and beheld the spray of blood from across the yard, the commandant ran away, searching for any other survivors or another way out.
Dashing around a corner, he came to a stop. A churning pain ripped through his stomach and ground along his ribcage. He stared straight ahead, but could make no sense of what he saw. Then, he looked down to see his blood pouring from him. A fist had bored through the metal rings and into his gut. The ruptured chainmail dug into his flesh and stomach just as did the moist human arm. He clasped the foreign limb half-buried within his innards, swallowing the hot froth that poured from his lips.
The last things he witnessed in life were these: Father Jürgen’s wide-set, abysmal eyes, another of his mercenary comrades howling “Demons!” as he was torn apart, and the monks perched atop the roof of the monastery like crows. The monks whose eyes he could not see, whose faces he could not make out from beneath their hoods.
They stood, then, and leapt. These crows would not be satisfied with picking over drying corpses. They wanted their meat fresh.
As the commandant’s world faded, he thought he saw them gliding on currents of air. Like crows.