“Righteousness guards people of integrity,
but wickedness undermines the sinner.”
Proverbs 13:6, CSB
Verissimus gripped the thick rope that supported both his weight and the weight of the large, wooden chandelier upon which he stood. with his free hand, he used an iron wand with a small torch on the end to light the fresh candles he’d just set in place. he heard the key slip into the door below him, and the handle clunked as the thick door to the chapel treasury slowly creaked open.
it was Clarita, beautiful as ever. she peered around the door, first her face, then her shoulders. his gaze fell on her hard, from such a great height. from her linen headpiece to her brunette hair, descending her Roman nose between her cheeks, lightly freckled by the Italian sun. down across her violet lips to her collar bone, a proscenium for the recess of her bosom, only visible from his vantage point. Verissimus knew it was an unchaste thing to do, particularly in a church. but it was a rare glimpse of what was usually found only in fantasy.
“Verissimus?” she whispered into the room.
he didn’t answer right away, but admired her as she stepped fully into the room.
“Verissimus!” she said aloud.
“i’m here,” he said softly.
she was startled, even though it was the very response for which she sought, though perhaps from an unexpected place. she looked up, and he was smiling down on her. she fought a smile, and placed her clean, delicate hand over her heart, hiding the intimate view from the young mercenary.
“are you hungry?” she breathed.
“always,” he breathed back.
she fought a sparkle in her eye, and started for the door again. “father has brought food again for the clergy. and their guests.”
Verissimus was neither. he was no vicar, but he’d overstayed the welcome of a guest and become a hired hand. he had lived on the parish property for months, guarding the clergy during these tough times, but also hiding from a past that roamed Tuscany looking for him.
as the thick treasury door thunked closed under him, he scaled the chandelier rope back up into the hatch in the ceiling above. he pulled it closed behind him, slipped down the narrow, clandestine service stairwell, and headed to lunch.
Verissimus bit into the juicy dark meat of the roasted goose leg. it was tender and hot, and he savored it. he glanced past Father Boniface to Clarita, standing behind him. the old cook’s daughter was beautiful and slender, and he savored her as well. Clarita finally blushed.
Sister Matrona banged a spoon on the table, startling everyone. “eyes to yourself!” the round little nun bellowed in her Slavic accent.
Verissimus pulled the cloth napkin from where it lay across his armored legs and wiped the goose grease from his beard. “i’m not vowed to celibacy as you are, Sister.”
“hmph.” Sister Matrona shoveled another spoonful of roasted vegetables into her maw. Clarita smiled as she smoothed her apron. Verissimus enjoyed everything about her. Sister Primitiva glared at the young knight, but said nothing.
Clarita’s father Gavino entered carrying a basket of bread. behind him was Rolf, the annoying Frenchman that had been staying on the cathedral grounds for the last few days. he seemed to have gained the trust of the clergy and most in the village. even Clarita. but Verissimus didn’t care for him.
“everything is for sale,” Rolf said to Gavino. “name your price!”
“is not for sale!” Gavino grunted.
“5 dinars,” Rolf offered.
“heh!” Gavino shoved the small basket hard onto the table, sending rolls popping out of it as it bounced back into shape. Verissimus grabbed a roll and ran it through the grease on his plate. “i cannot sell my donkey, is how i bring the food to the places. and you! i would not sell you empty flour sack!” Gavino gestured, an insult apparently, though Rolf didn’t seem to understand its intent. Verissimo set a wooden box on the table and drew a chained key up from behind his breastplate and over his head. the key unlocked the box, and Verissimus pulled two coins, handing them to the old cook.
“grazie,” Gavino said, grinning broadly, taking the coins. he walked to his daughter, and they began gathering yesterday’s leftover dishes, baskets, bottles, and laundry. Verissimus watched her glide about her chores.
“are you a leg man?” Rolf asked.
Verissimus snapped his attention to him.
Rolf gestured to the remaining turkey leg. “i am betting you are. i see a bone already upon your plate.” he glanced at Clarita himself, then pulled a small sword from his belt. “i fancy a breast, myself,” he said, thrusting the blade into the goose. reaching in, he removed a large handful of white meat. he quickly dropped it onto his plate as the grease burnt his filthy fingers. “bonjour, Sisters. Father.” Sister Primitiva rose to serve him vegetables, but Rolf held out his hand. “no, please, Sister. eat, eat. i can serve myself. but thank you, merci.” Sister Primitiva smiled as she handed him the large spoon. Rolf heaped roasted vegetables onto his plate as Verissimus watched. Rolf looked at him. “some more, Verissimus?”
“i’m full.” the knight locked his box and slipped the key back over his head.
“very well, then,” Rolf said, and gave himself another heaping spoonful, leaving only a few bean skins and squash rinds in the bowl.
in the courtyard, a commotion. Verissimus shot up, his sword drawn in an instant. Tilen, a blonde little muscle of a boy burst through the foyer into the common room. “marauders!”
Verissimus approached. “where? how many?”
“coming through the village now, not far behind me. they’ve robbed four homes already — robbed and set fire! but they headed here when they saw the spire. i slipped through the Greywood to beat them here. they have a large cart, so they go by road.”
“everyone, into the treasury.”
“but Verissimus--“ Father Boniface protested.
“it’s the only room with no windows. everyone, go!”
everyone leapt from the table and raced out of the common room. Verissimus sheathed his sword and began barring doors. he pointed to Tilen.
“bar the windows!”
Tilen sprang from portal to portal, slapping shut the narrow shutters and throwing the iron bar across them. everything secure, the knight and young lad joined the others, running through the open nave of the church.
Father Boniface fumbled with his keys, finally unlocking the heavy door of the counting room near the altar. Rolf ran into the apse, grabbing golden candlesticks.
“Sisters!” he shouted. “we must protect anything valuable!”
“yes! please!” Father Boniface shouted.
Clarita and Gavino nodded and ran to grab any gold or silver implements. Father Boniface carefully removed the holy codex from the dais. the Sisters rolled up the altar tapestry and delicately hurried it into the counting room.
Verissimus slowly backed through the southern aisle of the nave, his sword extended back toward to the foyer in one hand, shoving little Tilen toward the counting room with the other.
“three on foot, one on the cart.”
“no, but the cart carried some type of animal. i could hear it scratching. and there was another on foot, but not with them.”
“not with them?”
“he was before them. he would call the leader, and they would come. then he would slip off to the next place.”
“it appears so!”
Verissimus lifted a lit torch from the ambulatory wall and pushed Tilen into the counting room with the heel of his sword. everyone pressed their backs against the far wall, afraid. Verissimus pulled the heavy door shut behind him, closing them all in together.
“does this door lock from the inside?”
Father Boniface stumbled forward with the key. “yes, yes.” the priest locked it. Verissimus stepped back, thinking.
“we can’t stay here!” Rolf said.
“it’s the safest room on the property. the outside wall is solid stone.”
“but the inside is timber. they’re setting homes on fire. they will burn down the whole church to get at its coffers. we are not safe here!”
“there is an escape! it is not easy, but...”
“where, Father?” the knight put a hand on the frightened pastor.
“here.” he pointed to a metal ring of the floor near the corner, barely visible in the dark, even with the torch. he pulled the ring and the floor opened, revealing a small crawlspace, full of sand. “the sand keeps water out. there is a loose stone in the foundation. scrape away the sand, push the stone out, and we can flee!”
it looked awfully small. Gavino and Sister Matrona may not fit. and Verissimus thought he may not, either. Rolf peered down into the hole.
“we’ll need a distraction at the front of the church if we’re to escape here.”
“the front is secure, we are safe here.”
“they will burn us to the ground!” Rolf cried. “and if we escape here, they will kill us outside. they want nothing at the front of the church. they will seek out the counting room, here, east, off the apse. they know what they’re after. they will burn us out!”
Verissimus thought about it. he had a point. “what do you suggest, Frenchman?”
“the foundation has other such loose stones. in the foyer on the north side, there is a stone you could pass through, though it may take help to remove it. then you can see when it is clear, and everyone can escape.”
“all right, i will inspect it. Tilen, with me.”
“yes, my lord!”
Father Boniface unlocked the door and the duo slipped through.
Verissimus and Tilen crept quickly through the darkness of the southern aisle of the nave, golden daylight beaming across their head as the sun gifted its last salutation. sword drawn, Verissimus cracked open the sanctuary doors. the foyer was quiet. he motioned for Tilen to be quiet, then to follow him, and they stepped out of the dark, quiet sanctuary.
the scraping of stone against stone rumbled about the hard surfaces of the foyer. Verissimus pushed Tilen behind the alms chest in the center of the small room. Tilen crouched behind the box as Verissimus put a finger to his lips. Tilen nodded.
Verissimus tip-toed to the stone, it pushed and slipped further into the darkened foyer. the knight quietly reached up and grabbed the ledge of one of the windows that lined the foyer. he slowly pulled himself up by his fingers, his biceps straining, and lightly planted his leather boots on small uneven protrusions in the stone wall. fingers white, he hanged there, frozen.
the stone pushed its way through and a man emerged from behind it, wrapped in rags to keep warm, and perhaps to keep his face hidden. he pulled the threadbare scarf from his nose to his chin, revealing his scraggly, scarred face. he looked around the foyer.
“Rolf?” the spy whispered. seeing and hearing nothing, he slowly rose, dusted himself off, and stepped quietly toward the alms box.
Verissimus slowly straightened his biceps, lowering silently to the foundation stone that now lay free below him. his leather boots made no sound as he crept up behind the spy. the filthy man slipped off his knit gloves, eyeing the lock on the alms chest. Verissimus’s sword slipped silently from its sheath, and the knight carefully placed the blade across the spy’s neck.
“make a sound, and it will be your last.”
the spy froze.
the knight turned him around by his shoulder and put a hand on his chest, the short sword now pointed right at his Adam’s apple. walking, he sent the spy shuffling back until his head hit the wooden door of the church. the tip of the sword touched his skin. he was wide-eyed, terrified.
“Tilen, come search him,” the knight whispered. the spy was surprised when the young boy leapt from behind the alms box and ran at him, immediately patting him down. feeling something in his belt, he thrust his hand inside the man’s cloak, startling him. the spy grunted a moan, and Verissimus gave him a stabbing glare, raising the hilt of the sword, ready to plunge it through the man and into the cedar behind him. Tilen’s hand reappeared with a dirty knife and a leather pouch. Verissimus glanced at them, then looked back to the intruder.
“now, quietly. what is your business with Rolf?”
the spy began speaking quietly in French. Verissimus put a hand over his mouth. Tilen opened the leather pouch and pulled out a small stone jar with a cork stopper. he grabbed the stopper and started to pull.
“careful,” the knight warned.
Tilen nodded and carefully twisted the cork from the lip of the jar, releasing an awful stench.
“it smells of blood, milord.”
“reseal it.” Verissimus stared down the spy. “name.”
“qu’est-ce que c'est?” Verissimus said, nodding to the jar as Tilen held it before him.
the spy hesitated.
Verissimus drew his sword back and stabbed it into the wooden door with a thunk. he immediately yanked it back out and returned it to Jehan’s neck. Jehan trembled and stuttered.
“qu’est-ce que c’est!” Verissimus asked again, for the last time.
“pour les loups,” Jehan said, reluctantly.
Tilen looked at the knight, confused.
“ ‘for the wolves’, he says.”
Verissimus thought, then looked back at Jehan. “what do you need wolves for?”
Jehan stares at him, but says nothing. Tilen slipped the resealed jar back into the leather pouch.
“they’re for me,” Verissimus said, realizing. “a distraction. Rolf’s told you about me?”
“but, why the blood?” Tilen asked.
Verissimus took the pouch from him. “a marker. they don’t intend to keep me busy. they hope to see me eaten.”
a sick grin escaped Jehan’s face, yet he continued to tremble.
Verissimus looked to the opening at the base of the stone wall. “we’ve found ourselves in a trap.”
taking advantage of the momentary distraction, Jehan knocks the sword away with his forearm. he lunges at Tilen, reclaiming his knife. he swipes the knife at the boy, cutting his arm, but gasps when he’s run through from behind. Verissimus, his sword through the spy’s back, twists the blade, torquing and tearing the marauder’s lung, killing him. he slowly lowered his body to the ground, then quickly grabbed at the spy’s cloak.
“help me undress him,” the knight said, moving quickly to disrobe the body which now oozed blood from the open wound in his back.
“my arm!” Tilen said, trying to help.
the knight looked at it, but kept undressing the Frenchman. “it’s not bad. we’ll wrap it. you’re fine.”
the two stripped the intruder to his loincloth and pushed him aside.
“what do we do now?” the boy whispered.
“i’m thinking,” he said. he tore a sleeve from the spy’s blouse and wrapped it around Tilen’s cut, tying it tightly. as Tilen inspected the wrapping, Verissimus looked at the opening in the foyer wall. “let’s hide him in the dining room.”
Tilen nodded, and they drug the spy’s body into the next room.
the knight took off all of his belt and cloak and replaced them with the clothes of the spy, wrapping the scarf around his neck and face in a similar fashion. he put on the dead man’s belt and examined the leather pouch. he looked across the dining table, and seeing his coffer, he grabbed it and the basket of rolls.
“what happens next?”
Verissimus pulled the coffer key from around his neck and opened the small chest. he took out the few coins that remained. he slipped the stone jar from its leather pouch. he pushed the bread basket into the coffer, cramming it into the corners and crevices. holding it with one hand, he held the small jar toward Tilen.
“open this. carefully.”
the young lad did as he was asked, and Verissimus set the open jar of blood in the center of the coffer, holding the basket in place with it. he slipped his sword from his hip and placed the blade flat atop it, keeping it pressed down. slowly he shut the lid of the coffer until it lay against his blade. slowly, he wiggled his blade until he heard a thunk, the stone jar popping up against the purse lid. he slipped his sword out and sheathed it, and the box clicked locked. he picked the box straight up and handed it delicately to Tilen.
“take this back to the counting room. don’t tip it,” he said, handing him the coffer key as well. “work your crafty deceit; swap this key with the priest’s. tell them, Rolf is right, we shall escape by his suggestion, and that i await your return here. Rolf will say he intends to guard the wealth. let him. lock him in, but leave him this key. hide everyone here in the dining room, then slip through the opening in the foyer wall and find me around back of the church, but don’t let yourself be seen. got it all?”
“swap the keys, bring everyone here. leave Rolf behind with the coffer and the coffer key. meet you in back.”
“good boy,” Verissimus said, and mussed his hair. he pulled the scarf over his nose and slipped into the dark foyer as Tilen tiptoed back into the sanctuary with the small box.
Verissimus crossed the stone foyer and peered through the opening. the marauders waited silently. one of them spotted Verissimus in the opening and gestured, a question, what is taking so long? Verissimus stayed him with a hand and squeezed back through the the opening.
“où est le chevalier?” one of them said as he crept up. he strained to remain crouched, fearing his height may give him away.
“ici,” Verissimus whispered, hoping the whisper might mask his Italian accent. he waved them to follow and crept around the church toward the back. the sun was gone and a dark blue portent bathed the church, blackening the greenery around it. the marauders whispered amongst themselves. this wasn’t their plan, but the seemed to be going with it for now.
at the back of the church, Verissimus put a finger to his scarved lips. no one inside would be able to hear them, but it would provide a plausible reason for him to use hand gestures rather than trying to speak the very little broken French he knew. as they gathered closer, they crouched and quietened. from the large cart, under the tarp, he could hear the breathing of the wolves.
Verissimus counted the foundation stones, remembering what Father Boniface had said. when he got to the loose stone, it was clear. there was no mortar, no landscaping, loose sand underneath it. he felt silly for never noticing it before. he knelt beside it and tapped it, gesturing to remove it. he back away, and the marauders dug out the stone.
one of them, who appeared as if he may be in charge, stepped to where Verissimus squatted and whispered to him, “est-il seul?”
Verissimus wasn’t sure what that meant, but nodded anyway. this made the man chortle, and he patted Verissimus on the shoulder. the man handed him a rusty key and pointed at the cage waving him toward the cart. the man grabbed the edge of tarp as Verissimus climbed up the back of the wooden cart and onto the cage.
“you must come with us,” Tilen said, convincingly.
“someone should stay behind to guard to treasury,” Rolf said, pulling his small sword from his belt. “after all of the hospitality you have shown me, it is my sacred duty.”
“you are a blessed man,” Father Boniface said, grasping his hands.
Rolf gave him a warm smile. “go, father.”
Tilen pushed the women and the priest through the door. “i’ll lock the door behind us and slip the key under the door.”
“thank you, my son,”said Rolf.
the heavy door landed into place, and the metal tumblers clunked as Tilen locked the door from the outside. Rolf looked as a key and chain appeared between his feet under the door. he used his sword to snatch them up from the floor. putting his ear to the door, he listened for them to scurry away.
satisfied that they were headed to meet their surprise demise, Rolf slipped the key into the door to unlock it, but the key was too small. puzzled he looked at the key. and the chain. then recalled where he’d seen it. it was the knight’s. but why had he been given this key? was it a mistake? the knight had some considerable gold in his coffer. enough he could probably pocket before the rest of his crew arrived and began splitting up the larger items.
he walked to the coffer and lay his sword down beside it. he slipped in the key, and it fit perfectly. fools! as he opened the lid, the bread basket sprang up, tossing the stone jar, slinging blood onto Rolf’s hands and cloak. the stench was rancid, and Rolf wiped his hands clean on his trousers. his hands stained and reaking, he paused... why was there open blood in the coffer? he pulled the soaked dripping basket from it, confounded to find it empty.
a commotion below the floor startled him. were the clergy trying to re-enter? had his crew slain the knight already? why weren’t they just coming through the door? the trap door in the floor bumped, someone struggling to open it. Rolf went to open it, unsure if his ruse would finally be over, or if he would have to improvise a new plan on the spot.
he opened the door, and two starved wolves leapt through the opening, attacking his bloodstained hands and legs. Rolf cried out in terror and pain. he reached toward the table above for his sword, but one of the wolves bit him in the throat, silencing him forever.
Verissimus watched as the last of the marauders, each gripping a canvas sack, slipped through the opening. the last one through, he hopped down from the cart and pushed the great stone with all his might. suddenly Tilen appeared beside him and began pushing as well. the strength of the two men was enough, and the stone slipped back into place.
the knight removed the scarf obscuring his face and breathed in the cool night air. with a boot, he turned the cart onto its side. he drew his sword and broke the axels free. he quickly chopped the tips to a crude point and tossed one to Tilen. Verissimus pushed the wooden dowel into the sand, locking the stone in place, and Tilen followed suit. then quickly they were off toward the front of the church.
they slipped through the hole. Tilen unbarred the front door as the knight stepped into the dining room.
“we are safe. the marauders are trapped in the treasury.”
“the Frenchman is trapped there!”
“the Frenchman is one of them. you should go into the village. Tilen will take you. care for those who have lost their homes. we will lose nothing here.”
Tilen helped Father Boniface stand, and the nuns huddled behind him as everyone trotted out of the dining room.
“are you coming with us?” a sweet voice behind him intoned, Clarita’s.
“i have one task left,” he said, pulling a bow and quiver from the small armory in the foyer.
“i’m sore afraid,” she said.
“you needn’t be. care for the others in the village. i will come find you. either in the village, or in your villa.” he stared at her, lost in her cavernous brown eyes.
“i hope you join us soon,” she said, the breathiness returning to her voice.
their gazes lingered, then he was off.
three men and two wolves now dead, the remaining two men filled their sacks with candlesticks, gold coins, and fine silver implements. the first man, the apparent leader, paused as hot wax dripped onto the back of his hand. he looked up to see Verissimus in the chandelier, an arrow drawn and aimed. he breathed in, but the arrow beat his breath, and the marauder fell to the floor.
the other turned to see him fallen. “Vauquelin??” quickly he looked around for the source of the arrow.
Verissimus spoke his simple French, “Dieu regarde.” God watches.
the man looked up, and the metal bodkin erupted from the back of his skull, the rattan shaft extending from the bridge of his nose.
as moonlight overtook the dusk, Verissimus ventured into the Greywood, gnawing on a roasted leg of turkey.