There is a marketplace, standing empty before a low cluster of mongrel buildings – a mix of earth, timber and thatch, with stone and slate peppered between. A village with pretensions to being called a town, perhaps, since rudimentary fortified walls surround it. But the gates stand wide. No-one is in sight but a lone horseman thundering towards the breach in the defences, raising the dust of winter desiccation from the barren surrounds.
Life is grim in this land.
And, it seems that its Lord is not a man of scruples, for a precious batch of bread has been waylaid from a neighbouring territory whose own Lord is now fast approaching the Grim Place to demand its return.
The Lord Without-Scruples has intelligence of his coming and orders a small loaf to be baked with sweepings of flour from the mill, black with mice droppings and grey with a dust of many decades.
The Lord Seeking-Justice, meanwhile, crosses this settlement’s threshold in bloodthirsty rage; so sudden and violent was his reaction to the news of this treachery that his men at arms are far behind him, unaware of his ire and his decision to act. He loathes his serpentile neighbour, knows of his underhand deeds and he cannot attribute the bread theft to any other.
Galloping into the marketplace unchecked, Lord Seeking-Justice dismounts and storms into a dingy great hall. Low and mighty doors are opened for him by a hooded servant, hefting his shoulder to a spot on the oak polished by years of use. There are no lights, and if there are windows, small and high as they must be, they do not let in the brightness. Indeed, perception of height is totally lost in the mass gloom of the ceiling. The air is musty with the scent of the straw-strewn floor, upon which stand the most basic of furnishings: a long table, benches, and several unadorned wooden chests.
Lord Without and his priest rise from the table as Lord Seeking enters.
The accusation begins.
“You have taken it,” says Lord Seeking with his hand upon the pommel of his sword, “and even if you have not consumed the entirety of my treasure, I will have my revenge.”
Lord Without stands short although stocky, against the bearded bulk of his neighbour. He professes to know nothing and, with angelic concern, begs the accusation be rethought. “Send for some bread,” he instructs the servant hovering by the door, then turns back to his assailant, “You will see, my friend, this is the only bread I have in the poverty we call now.”
At length, a small, newly-baked loaf is brought and the servant is dismissed. Lord Without breaks it open. Encased by the singed crust is grey-speckled bread; he looks up to Lord Seeking, “This is not your bread? If it was I doubt you would want it back.” He points to the black streaks and the chips of millstone, “I am reduced to this, but, my friend, I have never thought of stealing from such as you.”
There is bluster, suspicion, further questioning, and further reasoning, until Lord Seeking is convinced, awkward, then honourably polite.
All the while the priest sits watching silently.
“I must clear my name with you,” continues Lord Without, “make reparation for your journey here.”
A side of beef is sent for, and is at length thumped upon the table.
“I could not,” says Lord Seeking, horrified by this profligate generosity, “it is I who should be offering gifts for giving offence.”
Lord Without strolls to the door, “No, no,” he says, “you must take it – and one more thing which I have for you.” He pushes the door open and into the air of anticipation flies a crossbow bolt, fired from the dark of the corridor, striking into the heart of Lord Seeking-Justice.
A fatal shot.
He collapses onto the table, sprawled on his back, grotesquely mimicking the side of beef.
“You have killed him,” gasps the priest, stumbling to his feet.
“I hope so,” retorts Lord Without-Scruples, pulling the door closed.
The priest crosses to the body – the eyes open briefly but do not seem to take him in, the hand hanging off the table twitches once, then all is still.
Before those open eyes have begun to dry, the bulky corpse has been crammed unceremoniously into a chest.
“You must stay here and watch that no-one opens this,” instructs Lord Without, before he leaves.
The priest is left to sit upon a bench in the gathering gloom, reading the book of faith upon his lap as the hours accumulate. When someone passes the open hall door, the priest looks up sharply, terrified that the soul of the dead body is at large. He sees the dying man again in his mind and sweat pricks his forehead.
“Priest,” says Lord Without, entering with candles, and causing the holy man to start up from his bench, “what castle have I which is never visited, one where this chest can lay unknown before it is disposed of?”
Galvanised to his secretarial duties, the priest joins his Lord and together they retrieve, then consult, documents from another of the hall’s wooden chests, and the planning begins.
Was the body moved, accompanied by the priest tortured by his superstitions? Whatever followed, now, in a forgotten future, children are to be found walking around a marble sculpture: a bust with an angry face, an open mouth, and broad shoulders whose one arm extends a pointing finger. People who come to gaze at the statue take their turn to crouch down beneath it so that the extended hand is against the sun.
They all endeavour to make out another finger within the finger of almost translucent marble. One that legend claims was cut from a murdered Baron by a guilt-ridden priest, to be encased in a hand accusingly turned on the murderer’s castle, so that the deed, and the guilt of its perpetrator, should be remembered for infinity.
© F. Fidelio