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The Great Stag

It burst through the bushes, snorting and champing, trailing brambles and ivy. Broad antlers spread above red eyes burning like embers and pitch-black fur; they spread above it, a crown of sharp, dark shadows.

A twisted smile hung behind its bared teeth as it lowered its head and charged. The great stag hung before him, antlers curved like knives, crimson eyes glowing like the fire’s of hell, trailing thorned vines like demon’s wings.

It hammered into his chest like a tourney lance.

Henri jolted awake into cold, sweat-soaked blankets, gasping, heart-pounding. The stag’s red eyes lurked in every dark corner of the small stone room, prickling upon his spine, burning at the nape of his neck.

A fist banged upon the door. 

He started, ice flashing through his veins. ‘Who is it?’

‘It’s me.’ Roland’s muffled voice echoed through the thick wood door and down the corridor beyond. ‘The only other person here.’

‘I’m awake.’ Henri dragged himself up the bed, wincing at the twinge and throb in his right leg.

‘Same dream?’ Roland heaved the door open and stomped in, tugging open the shutters and letting a flood of cold air into the small stone room.

Pale, dawn light spilt in over the grey stone walls and rough, wooden furniture. The silver cross gleamed upon Roland’s roughspun, brown wool and the buckle straining beneath his belly.

‘Same dream.’ Henri grabbed his shirt and pulled it over his head. ‘A couple of times every week since it happened.’

Roland grunted, rubbing at his thick, dark beard with his calloused thumb. ‘God speaks to us in mysterious ways.’

‘God decided to ruin my life.’

‘When God closes one door, he opens another. Perhaps this is what He intends for you. You are a smart boy, these months you’ve spent here you’ve learnt much from the books stored here.’

‘I read because I couldn’t get out of this bed.’ Henri threw back the blanket and grabbed the red scar running half the length of his shin. ‘Unless I learn how to fix… this, it doesn’t matter how smart I am.’

Roland studied the mark with a serious gleam in his dark brown eyes. ‘It still gives you pain?’

‘Pain?’ He clenched his jaw. ‘I can barely walk. How will I get home to Aldbridge? I certainly can’t ride.’

‘Your Lord Father has decided you ought to remain here.’ Roland held out a letter marked with a split, red wax stag. ‘The physician informed him of how serious your injury was and I have kept him apprised of your recovery.’

‘Tell him I will get better.’

A sadness hovered in Roland’s eyes and he slumped into the lopsided wooden chair by the window. ‘We both know that would be a lie.’

‘So lie,’ Henri spat, slapping the letter to the floor. ‘I will not stay here.’

‘A man of God does not lie.’ Roland touched a hand to the silver cross dangling over his heart. ‘And a wise man doesn’t lie to a lord like your father.’

Henri balled his fists. ‘What has my father decided?’

‘You know well that you will not inherit—’

‘I have never been going to inherit, I’ve three older brothers.’ He glowered at the twisted red scar upon his shin. ‘I’m going to become a knight. I’ll join the Free Companies and make my own fortune in the North.’

‘Your Lord Father has commanded you remain with me until the winter flooding subsides and you will be able to travel south by litter to Whitefields Abbey.’ Roland sighed and picked the letter up from the floor. ‘There, you will join the clergy.’

‘And become like you?’ Henri eyed the sagging belly and the simple silver cross. ‘Rotting away in this dusty old church?’

‘The work of God is greater purpose than any knight’s glory.’ Roland placed the letter down on the small table, tucking it beneath the bronze candle-holder. ‘I will give you some time to read your father’s letter.’

‘I want to get out of here, not read that,’ Henri snapped. ‘I’m sick of this bed and this tiny cell.’

‘You are not imprisoned. If you can leave this room, you are welcome to do so.’ Roland’s eyes dropped to Henri’s marred leg. ‘It would be wise to start walking upon it, if you can bear the pain. Men who spend too long abed lose the strength of their limbs.’

Henri swung his legs over the edge of the bed and rested his heels upon the cold stone, a jolt of pain shooting up his right leg. ‘I can walk.’

Roland nodded and stood. ‘I must attend to my duties. You are welcome to go anywhere within the church and its lodge, but I would warn against the belltower.’

Henri snorted. ‘I’d never make it up the ladder.’

‘It would be unwise to attempt it.’

Henri watched him go, straining his ears until the sound of footsteps faded. ‘Fuck him. And fuck the Lord DeColmar. Simon would be dead if I hadn’t shoved him aside.’ He pushed himself to his feet on the table, leaning his weight on his left leg. ‘And he doesn’t even thank me for saving the life of his heir.’

The limb trembled and shook beneath his weight, aching as if he’d been riding the half-wild horses with his brothers. Henri sucked in a deep breath and eased his weight across onto his right.

A sore throb settled into the centre of his shin, twinging in time with the thudding of his heart.

‘And fuck that stag. And fuck Simon for freezing up.’ He grit his teeth and shoved his full weight on the leg.

Pain flared through his shin, ripping the air from his lungs. Henri clung to the wall and clenched his jaw until it ached.

‘I’m not staying in this room,’ he muttered, stealing a gasped breath through the cold sharpness beneath the agony. ‘And I’m not going to that stupid abbey. God did this. He can undo it.’ 

The pain eased a little. 

Henri took a small step, wincing at the stab of pain from his shin. ‘Not so bad.’ He managed another, stumbling toward the door and out into the corridor on stiff, leaden limbs.

The slim, stone passage led past a handful of dust-veiled, dark rooms. He stuck his nose into them one after the other, leaning on the doorframes as his legs stung and ached. Rough shelves lined the walls, piled high with tomes and scrolls and stacks of leather-tied parchment. 

‘More books.’ Henri huffed dust off the first and peered at the faded scrawl. ‘Something to do with St Paul.’ He staggered along the shelf, inspecting the weathered tomes one after the other.

Roland’s heavy steps echoed down the corridor. ‘Henri?’

‘In here,’ he called.

‘You’re walking!’ Roland grinned. ‘How is the pain? The physician said it would never leave you, but you might grow used to it.’

‘It still hurts.’ Henri tested his leg, wincing at the little lances of pain stabbing at his shin. ‘But I can at least get out of that room.’

Roland nodded. ‘This is just a storeroom. When they redid the roof of Whitefields Abbey a decade or so back a lot of the less important books were moved down here.’ He picked up the book Henri had blown the dust off. ‘Most never went back.’

‘I wasn’t sure what that one was about,’ Henri said. ‘Couldn’t read the title.’

‘It’s about the miracles of St Paul.’ Roland touched his fingers to the silver cross at his neck. ‘Most are after his death. They come from the sick or injured touching his shadow.’

‘Miracles?’ Henri stared at the book, a little ray of hope burst through him like light through the slim nave windows. ‘Healing?’

‘Sometimes. Not always.’

He stumbled another couple of shelves, catching his toe on the corner of a dust-blanketed chest and hissing with pain. ‘Sweet Jesus.’

‘Henri,’ Roland snapped. ‘Do not take His name in vain.’

Henri glowered at the chest, grimacing as the throbbing in his leg swelled. ‘He took my leg in vain, He can hardly complain all that much.’

Roland’s thick eyebrows drew together into a fierce frown. ‘You must trust in God, Henri. With your noble birth and keen mind, you may rise to Abbot one day. The good you will do as Abbot will far outweigh anything achieved by a sword.’

‘You mean feasting on lamprey and drinking enough wine to fill a small lake?’ He snorted. ‘I’d rather die on my feet than in a bed of sickness.’

Roland’s brown eyes softened. ‘You are a boy of ten and seven years, Henri, a man by the laws of King and Church. You were on the verge of being knighted. I am sure your injury feels cruel and unfair to you.’

‘You’re damn right it does.’ He lowered himself down onto the chest and let out a long sigh as the pain eased. ‘I’m not sure I’ll even be able to travel to the abbey.’

‘It’s a couple of weeks until the flooding eases.’ Roland crouched on the steps, resting his arms on his knees. ‘You’ve time to build your strength back up. Things will not be so hard. Abbey life is not so harsh.’

A hot lump welled up in Henri’s throat. ‘I wanted to be a knight. I wanted to see the world. Find a home. A beautiful wife. Maybe have some sons and daughters of my own.’

‘You will find a home, Henri.’ Roland sighed. ‘You’ve got through the books I found you with ease. Your Lord Father was impressed, I think. He never took you for a scholar.’

Henri held up his hand. ‘Sword callouses, not soft book hands. I hated all that when I was a page.’ His eyes dropped to the book in Roland’s hands. ‘The abbey, does it have a reliquary?’

Roland’s lips twisted and his brow furrowed. ‘Miracles are a rare thing.’

‘I want to try.’ He shifted his weight and chest creaked and trembled. ‘If God heals me, I can be a knight. I get everything back.

‘And if he does not?’ Roland ran his fat fingers through his beard. ‘The abbey has no reliquary, the cathedral further to the South took the relic of Saint Mary when I was just an altar boy. There was some upset over it among the monks, I remember.’

‘I can go there.’ Henri balled his fists. ‘Don’t I deserve it?’

‘Your Lord Father has commanded you to go to Whitefields Abbey.’ Roland heaved himself up and replaced the tome. ‘Perhaps afterward you might make the journey. Perhaps God knows you will do more good as you are. I cannot say, Henri. I can only tell you that we do not suffer for no reason.’ He patted the book. ‘There are plenty of old books in here. I’ve never read any of them, so let me know if you think there are any worthy of being returned to the abbey.’

Henri bit his tongue and scowled after Roland as he stomped away down the passage. ‘I deserve it,’ he murmured, tugging himself up on the bookshelf and leaning his weight onto his left foot. ‘That stag was a demon, cloven-footed and full of rage, and I killed it. I saved Simon’s life. It’s only fair He heals me.’

Henri eased his weight onto his right.

Pain flashed through his leg and he flinched, crashing back into the wooden chest and sprawling into a heap of wood and books. A dull throb tore through his shin, pulsing hard as a hammer blow.

‘Damn,’ he hissed, clutching at his right knee and squeezing his eyes shut. 

The agony faded and he sucked in a deep breath through the dust, cracking open one eye. Pieces of wood scattered the floor beneath the settling dust and a dark, leather-bound tome rested beneath his cheek. Rusted iron horseshoes heaped beneath his legs.

Henri sat up, leaning back against the shelf and surveying the ruined chest. ‘Shit.’ He pulled the trio of black-bound books from the wreckage and stacked them on his lap. ‘Just three in that whole chest?’

He picked up a chunk of wood and poked through the splinters and horseshoes. A thick, iron lock lay beneath half the lid, stamped with a pair of crossed keys. 

‘Must be important books.’ He turned the first over and frowned at the blank, dark leather. ‘Without titles.’

Faint curiosity gnawed at him. Strange. 

Henri opened the cover. 

Slim, cramped dark brown letters covered thin, fragile pages. Faint, faded veins stretched across the pale spread beneath the letters. 

‘This isn’t parchment—’ he ran his fingers over it ‘—or vellum.’

Henri turned his attention to the words. ‘What does the son owe to his distant father?’ He snorted. 

Nothing.

‘Does the one who begot you rightly command all aspects of your life just because he is your sire? Does the Lord of a land not deserve scorn for forcing suffering upon his people?’ He tugged a few horseshoes out from under him, shoving the heap away, and angled the book into the light. ‘With my own life I write these words. On my own skin, I leave them.’

The book slipped through his fingers and thudded into the heap of horseshoes. A sick feeling settled in the pit of Henri’s stomach, thrashing like an eel in a pot.

His own skin? A shudder rippled through him as he stared at the red-brown ink. His own blood?

He picked up the nearest iron horseshoe and weighed it on his palm. ‘This is not a book of God, is it?’ 

A soft breeze fluttered the thin pages, lines of cramped script whispering past his fingertips. 

Henri’s eyes fell to the bottom of the page. ‘All manner of unnatural possibilities are granted to those with the will to step out from beneath the lash of his absent sire.’ He slammed the book shut. ‘Horror and madness.’

The twisted red line of his scar throbbed. A desperate wish clawed its way up onto his tongue from somewhere inside, hot and heartfelt as tears.

‘And hope.’

He picked the book back up with shaking hands, his heart pounding and breath trembling. ‘My words will not be erased by self-righteous and fearful narrow minds. I have struck a pact with those that would defy our absent sire. My words are my life. They are my soul. I will spend them on these pages and in return nothing will destroy them, not fire, not water, not iron or steel.’

Henri’s skin prickled, the hairs rose on the nape of his neck and along his arms as if soft, cold fingers traced his skin. A pact with a demon. 

He raised the horseshoe, driving one end into the pages and tearing them free, ripping shreds of pale skin from within the dark leather until he held just the leather binding and a heap of pieces piled in his lap. 

Henri held his breath.

The breeze sent the torn pages fluttering from his lap across the floor.

No pact. He released a long sigh, letting relief wash through him. No evil.

Bitter disappointment curdled the taste.

‘It’s unfair,’ he whispered. ‘It’s so unfair. Born last. Given nothing. Crippled for saving my brother. God turns his back on me.’ He dropped the ruined book and the horseshoe to the floor. ‘Even the Devil will not help me.’

A pale tattered fragment crept across the stone, tumbling over the knuckles of his hand. 

Henri’s breath caught. 

The others followed, sliding across the floor as if pulled on invisible threads, flowing back together into whole pages like drops of water trickling into one another on a window and slipping into the dark leather binding.

The tome thumped open. The red-brown letters swarmed on the page like a cloud of flies and the veins in the pale skin writhed like maggots. Words stained the page, burning like the red eyes of the stag in his dreams.

‘All the things I did, I have done. And all the things I will do, will not be undone. For by our pact these deeds are one and the same.’ Henri shivered. ‘What I wish will be. My words, truth born from my heart. Their price, sin birthed from my flesh.’

Roland’s heavy steps thundered in the passage. 

He clawed himself to his feet, ignoring the flash of pain, and dragged the first three tomes off the far side of the shelf, sliding the dark ones into their place. Henri tossed the three books into the wreckage of the chest and kicked the wood over them.

Roland heaved himself through the door with a grunt, his brow furrowing. ‘Henri, what have you done to that box?’

‘I fell on it,’ he said. ‘My leg…’

The priest stomped across and swept the pieces aside, pulling the books from the floor and turning them over in his hands. ‘Records of the failed harvest from ninety years ago.’ He leant past and stacked them onto the shelf beside the dark tomes. ‘Must’ve fallen off when you fell.’

‘I didn’t see.’ Henri eased a little weight onto his right leg and winced. ‘It hurt.’

Roland sighed. ‘Come, Henri. A lad your age needs to eat. Let’s break our fast. I have some of the honey your father’s bees produce somewhere. A gift from many years back when I first came here.’

His stomach rumbled. ‘I could eat.’

Roland grinned through his beard. ‘When I was your age I ate everything I could get my hands on.’ He offered an arm. ‘If you want it.’

Henri shook his head. ‘I can walk. My leg will get better.’

‘I will pray for it,’ Roland said. ‘I promise you that. If God answers our prayers I cannot promise. I feel you will do more good in this world as a priest than as a knight, Henri, but I will not say your injury is deserved nor feel aggrieved should the affliction vanish.’

‘It will vanish. It’s only fair.’

If God will not help me. I will help myself.

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Published inOriginal StoriesThe Last Rose

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