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· The 48th Ronin

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ISBN-10:  0035428627 Type:  Fiction


Copyright:  Jan 3, 2008 ISBN-13:  5800035428627

A story of love and loyalty and good and consumate evil in Briton during the Dark Ages.

Francis S. Bonner ( c Copyright. August 2000) 89,553 words; WEBSPINNER BY FRANCIS EADEN The Worm, The Prince of Darkness, a creature of many names, was sitting on a black basalt throne in a cavern deep under the ruins of what was once Tintagel Abbey. He was in human form, and it was extremely hot, too hot for a human being. He was surrounded by three other men and was speaking to his architect, Mulciber, who had been hard at work, attempting to build a magnificent palace for him. The work had been going well, and he was pleased. “A few months more is not too long to wait after living for thousands of years in this cave. Just keep in mind, I want it to be impressive. No, not only impressive . . . elegiac. I want His little favorites up above to know that I’ve arrived. Mulciber indicated that he understood and began backing out of the room. “Towers! That’s what I want, Mulciber. Towers that reach to the sky, like fingers stuck into His bloody eye.” He laughed loudly at his rhyme. After the architect left, one of the others spoke. “How long do you think it will take to unravel the web that binds you, my master?” “Not much longer, Beelzebub. I’ve been working at it for a long time. It’s a very complex problem, almost diabolical, if I may use that term when speaking of Him. It’s like something I would devise, but then we are related, you know.” Thammuz interjected. “I don’t understand, Lord, how something that none of us can see is able to hold you.” “Do you think I imagine this condition?” Satan asked in an irritated voice. Thammuz recognized the danger in pursuing this line of reasoning and retreated. “Certainly not, Lord. It’s just that I feel so bad about your situation . . . I wish it was I who was so confined instead of you.” “I also wish that was true,” Satan said cruelly then softened his tone. “But, taking into consideration your long service and loyalty, I think that it’s time to explain my curious situation. The web that was contrived for me is invisible and impossible to remove by physical strength. It’s fashioned from the force which holds planets to their suns and the atoms of matter together and was carefully woven about me strand by strand. Except for my arms and legs, I am wrapped in a cocoon. Then, with the same energy, a web was spun, a gossamer sack that encases us, hanging between the solid crust of this planet and this damnable boiling lake on which we’re supposed to spend eternity.” Beelzebub shuddered at the realization. “How is it, Lord, that we are sometimes able to rise to the surface of this world, and you are not?” Satan thought for a moment before answering. “Everything in this universe is composed of pure energy; all of the objects, all of the matter, are formed by this energy arranging itself in a predetermined order. This force is controlled by immutable laws put in place at the time of the Creation. As much as I hate to, I have to admit that it was a magnificent accomplishment.” He stopped for a minute to allow his envy to subside, then continued. “One of these laws is that all things must have one of three possible characteristics, or charges. We’ll call these positive, negative and neutral. The positive and negative charges are always attracted to each other, and the invisible web around us has a strong, positive charge. All of you have a neutral charge so you can pass safely through it, but the cocoon which packages me is negative. If I approach the web, I’ll be pulled into it and stuck there until the universe unravels.” “How do you know this, Master?” Beelzebub asked. “Because I was almost caught by it. After we were thrown into this place, we slept a long time. I was the first to awaken and tried to make my way to the surface to better understand our situation. I was violently pulled toward the web. Luckily, I reached out with my arms to cushion the impact, and only my hands came into contact with it. I pushed with all my strength and broke free, falling into the lake. The lesson was clear. If I ever try to get to the surface wearing this cocoon, I will be attached to the web for eternity. It would be a harsh penalty. I would lose the little freedom I have, being able to move about under this planet’s crust. This was the first time Satan had ever explained why he stayed underground when the others went above; they had wondered about that. Thammuz was eager to learn more. He thought that it might someday help him to escape. “Lord, are you able to see the threads that bind you?” “No. I can feel them around my body.” He ran his hand across his chest. Thammuz was going to ask to touch them but changed his mind when he saw the expression on Satan’s face. “That’s how I’ve been able to learn the paths of the windings. Over and over, for centuries, I traced the cords with my fingers until I had a picture of them in my mind. They were interwoven, one-by-one, into an intricate puzzle. I realized that they would have to be removed in the same order in which they were placed. If they weren’t, they would become tangled, making it impossible to ever trace them again. I have been unwinding this shroud for five hundred years and now, I’m almost free. When I’m able to pass through the web, I will lead you on a Wild Ride across this little world, and all those that don’t submit will die. Who needs Paradise? ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’” He laughed, mirthlessly. “What can we do, Lord?” Thammuz and Beelzebub asked in unison, caught up in the excitement. They weren’t convinced that they might eventually escape, but the idea of any diversion from the endless monotony would be welcome. “Spread the word to my minions: all of those who came with us in the beginning. Tell them to get ready and spread havoc across the Earth. I want them here by month’s end. We have some decisions to make.” As they were leaving, Satan took hold of Beelzebub’s arm and held him back. “You are second-in-command, my friend. Until I’m free, you must take charge on the surface. There are things to be done.” “Things,’ Master? Is there something that worries you?” “Yes, there is. While I’m confident that I can undo this wrapping if left alone; I have a foreboding that forces might already have been set in motion to block my escape.” “Who could possibly do that, Lord?” “The one who put us here.” Beelzebub stiffened. He had convinced himself that the Creator had forgotten them after executing his terrible punishment. At least that had been his hope. Satan sensed his fear. “Don’t worry, Prince. I don’t think He’s going to ride down on us again leading an army of archangels, but I find it difficult to believe that He would assume that I could never work my way loose. From the time I realized that I had a chance of untying the web, I started sending my mind out across the surface of this planet. I watched and I heard through the eyes and ears of the raven and the jackal. I scanned the world of men for anything that seemed unnatural, a portent that might mean danger for us. For years, there was nothing, and then I became aware of some things I hadn’t noticed. There were places into which I couldn’t see: a monastery in France and another world into which some humans and other creatures are able to pass. I heard rumors of strange mortals but, with all my power, I wasn’t able to find them. There was talk of a young man who never seemed to age, a druid having great power over the natural world, and a woman sleeping endlessly in that hidden world waiting for something to awaken her. I have a strong feeling that these things have important meanings for us.” “What do you want me to do, Lord?” Beelzebub asked, unnerved by Satan’s apprehension. “My spies have located the monastery; it’s in Moissac in southern France. Send some of our human slaves to kill the boy who never grows old. His name is Trystan.” CHAPTER 2 The year was 960 A.D.. It was warm, and the meadows around Moissac were lush with flowers. Trystan made his way carefully along the narrow footpath which was almost obscured by blossoms. The path led from the jumble of buildings that made up the monastery into a deep thicket about half a mile away. The dense patch of woods was one of his favorite places, and one of the few refuges from the oppressive heat of the French summer. He also liked it because it was situated on a gently sloping mound overlooking the main road. It was close enough so that he could recognize faces but far enough away so that travelers were not aware of the lone figure watching them. At this time of the year, the highway was usually busy with a splendid array of richly clothed merchants, barely-clothed peasants, and soldiers of various dress and ethnic origins. Lately, the increase in traffic and the moods of the travelers indicated to Trystan that important things were taking place in the big world outside of the abbey. Things like this, had never affected him before: He had always been content with his simple life within the monastery walls. Now, for some reason, he was becoming restless. As large as it was, the monastery was only a remote outpost compared to the great motherhouse at Cluny, but it was very busy because it was situated on the main pilgrimage route to Compostella. The monks of this order were called Cluniacs, even though they were actually Benedictines. They liked this, because the Benedictines had fallen to low status among the people due to their worldly ways. In general, the Cluniacs were a devout group who liked to claim that they were dedicated to the human spirit. True to this claim, they employed many artists, writers, philosophers, and scientists; quite a few of them lived in the monastery. The order had been founded in 910 A.D. by William the Pious of Aquitane. His avowed purpose had been to protect the teachings of the Roman Church from the evils of simony, clerical marriage, and promiscuity. It was a losing battle. This state of affairs reached new depths under the sensuous hand of Pope John XII who had been elected Pontiff in 955. He indulged in open love affairs, publicly drank toasts to the Devil, and enthusiastically castrated any man who opposed him. With the pope in the enemy camp, there wasn't much they could do except try to set a good example by being true to their vows and praying for better days. At Moissac, their power and influence had been steadily growing, not only because of their piety and honesty but because of the great personal charm of their Abbot, Father Bernarde Geraldus. Father Geraldus was a complex and learned man who had been a surrogate father to Trystan as far back as the young man could remember. He was a rare combination of warrior and scholar, but he never spoke of his rumored accomplishments in either endeavor. The rumors were carried by many of the pilgrims who stopped for an audience with him on their way to Compostella. Another incentive for them to visit was that the monastery provided one of the best tables in France and the best wine cellar. In recent years, the Abbot had become Trystan's private tutor. He taught him much about the classical Greek and Roman societies as well as about the political and societal forces at work in their own time. He taught him to read and write and entertained him with hundreds of stories based on Celtic and Norse myths. As Trystan sat cross-legged in his vantage point in the woods thinking about these things, he suddenly got the feeling that he wasn't alone. The premonition began with a chill, a crawling sensation that wrapped around his body. This was interrupted by a sudden, cold wind that seemed to come from all directions at once, and he had to cling to a thick shrub to keep from being blown over. It ended as abruptly as it had begun. Trystan experienced a cascade of unfamiliar images in his mind, almost like the shuffling of a deck of cards, and then they were gone. He looked around, trying to remember something---- just out of reach. Finally, he pulled himself to his feet and made his way back down the path to the monastery. That evening at supper, he told his experience to Father Bernarde who looked at him without expression during the narrative. When he finished, the priest downed his glass of wine in one swallow and said. "Trystan, my son, we'll be leaving this place at the end of summer. We have much to do and less time than I thought. For the next two months, Father Bernarde was with him constantly. He woke Trystan in the morning and accompanied him back to his room in the evening. The time spent on his lessons was increased, but now his tutor seemed to be focusing more on practical skills rather than on classical literature and art. Trystan learned how to read maps and how to make them. He learned how to find directions by reading the stars, and they went on field trips deep into the forest to practice these skills. Here, the boy learned which fungi, roots, and berries could be safely eaten and how to make a comfortable shelter from the things around him. In some ways, Trystan found this new curriculum more exciting than his previous schooling, and he learned his lessons quickly. It was like a game: Each day brought a new puzzle to solve. Then, one day, Father Bernarde told him his lessons were over. This gave Trystan more time to wander in his beloved forest. In the evenings, he would sit with the priest and tell him about the details of his days. Bernarde was a good audience. He listened to Trystan's stories and rarely interrupted. Once in a while, he would comment on something that happened, and, sometimes, he would laugh at a particularly funny incident. One night, Trystan decided to bring up a subject which had been on his mind ever since the priest told him that he had to leave the monastery, the only home he had ever known. The fact of leaving didn’t surprise him. A singular instinct deep inside made him understand that his destiny awaited him in the larger world outside, but he wanted to somehow let Bernarde know his gratitude for all he had received. He also wanted to know where he came from and how he had ended up at Moissac. Father Bernarde was pleased that he acknowledged the care given by the monks but hesitated when Trystan asked about his origin. Finally he said, “Trystan, when I arrived here thirty years ago, you were here. You had been here longer than the oldest priest in residence, and you don’t look any older now than you did then. We don’t know where you came from but, in an act of faith that goes back before the founding of our order, we swore before God to care for you and protect you with our own lives if need be. We were never allowed to ask why. That’s our only function and even this monastery was constructed to house you and keep you safe.” The summer passed quickly into September, and the weather began to grow colder. Trystan still went out each day, but now, instead of wandering in the forest, he walked along the main road and talked to the pilgrims. From conversations with his fellow travelers, he learned much about the world outside the precincts of the monastery. He repeatedly heard references to a general terror that was spreading across the western world like an amaranthine weed choking out all other life. The terror sometimes came in the form of humans: brutal raids by men from the far north that some called Vikings. Then there were stories of other things, creatures too unnatural to be called human. One evening, Trystan traveled a long way with a particularly interesting group that stopped for the night at an inn about eight miles from the abbey. He sat with them in the common room until they retired. When he finally started for home, there wasn't a paring of the moon to light the dark sky. All around him he could hear the flutter of wings and strange mutterings in tongues that he couldn't understand. The darkness was so complete that it obscured the trees and the few houses along the roadside. He had the sensation of running in place even though he was trotting at a good pace. It took a little over an hour to reach the monastery, and the great wooden gates were closed and barred. Rather than arouse the guard, he circled the walls until he came to the place he was seeking. Outside the wall there was a large tree blown halfway down by a recent storm. The tree, reclining at a 45-degree angle next to the wall, was free of branches to about half the barrier's height. Still jogging, he ran up the trunk as far as he could then leaped over the wall. He landed on his feet and rolled to cushion the impact. He knew it was very late and that Father Bernarde must have been worried when he hadn't shown up for their evening chat. He made his way through the gloom to his building. His room was on the second floor so he quietly climbed the ivy blanket on the stonewall and entered through the open window. He made his way toward the bed, scuffing off his slippers as he moved. Suddenly, he heard a voice whisper his name. It was a dry voice that could hardly be heard. "Trystan!” Unerringly, he turned in the direction of the sound. He could just make out the dark outline of a form. He had no sense of danger, and his eyes were beginning to adjust to the flickering light from the fireplace. "Father Bernarde!" Trystan said in a choked voice. Trystan retrieved a taper from a mug by the fire. He lit it and transferred the light to one of the heavy candles on the table. The light, for a moment, seemed brilliant compared to the darkness it dispelled. The priest sat slumped in a chair, his cassock drenched with blood. "I'll get help," Trystan said. "No!" Bernarde said in a surprisingly strong voice. "I am a dead man. I stayed alive to tell you what you must do." Trystan knelt by his friend and took his blood-soaked hand in his own. Bernarde pulled away. "No! There is no time for this. There is no time for anything. They came to kill you! I told them that I was you." He reached inside his robes and pulled out a leather packet tied with a piece of stout cord. "There are instructions in here. Read them. They will tell you where you must go; they will tell you what you must do. After you read them, you must remember." He stopped for a second and took a deep breath, then repeated insistently: "You will be alone. You must remember if you are to live.” Trystan was about to ask what it was that he must remember when Bernarde suddenly lurched to his feet. He reached under his robes, drew a sword from a hidden scabbard, and raised it above his head. Trystan fell backwards. He thought the priest had gone mad and was trying to kill him. Before he could move, Bernarde brought the blade down on the table beside him. Almost soundlessly, it cut it cleanly in two. "You will need this weapon. Take it. It belongs to you." These were the last words of Father Bernarde Geraldus. He dropped slowly to the floor like a broken marionette. The blade fell beside him with a crystalline ring. Trystan was stunned. He had lost the person closest to him, and he wasn't even able to cry. He crawled to Bernarde's crumpled body and bowed until his head rested on the dead man's back. He stayed in that position for hours. Outside, false dawn was tentatively lighting the eastern sky. Trystan suddenly sat upright. His eyes were clear, and his face had no expression. He unbuckled the scabbard from Bernarde's waist and belted it on then he retrieved the sword. It was a wondrous weapon: black as carbon and fashioned from some unearthly element that looked like glass but was harder than any metal. The blade was engraved with runes from some long-dead language. Trystan turned it slowly. It seemed to glow in the morning light. It fit his grip as though it had been made for him. He fed it into the scabbard. Next, he picked up the leather pouch and untied the string. Inside there were maps, a fair amount of gold, and an explanation of what he had to do. He didn't question the directions: He instinctively knew that he must follow them. He changed into heavy winter clothes and donned a thick, wool cloak then he made his way to the armory where he chose a shirt of chain mail and two daggers. Next, he went to the stables and harnessed one of the abbey's best mares. A few monks, on their way to matins, saw him and bowed. They made no attempt to stop him. He led the horse to the main gate and shouted, "Open!" to the drowsy gatekeeper. The man quickly complied. A solitary monk stood by the side of the gate as if awaiting directions. Trystan knew him. They had played together as boys, but that seemed like a different lifetime. "Father Bernarde is dead," Trystan said simply. "We know," The monk said. "We'll take care of him." Trystan nodded his thanks as he led the horse through the gates. "God be with you," the man said quietly and made the sign of the cross. Trystan never looked back but raised his hand as he walked down the path to the road leading west to the sea. CHAPTER 3 The wind blew steadily toward Land's End pushing the small boat erratically before it, a tiny dark chip in a darker sea. The approaching winter had turned the spray to ice as it drifted across the deck and hung white and heavy on the rails. The oarsmen were not much help as their numb hands kept slipping from the ice-glazed oars. Two burly seamen tried to hold the craft steady before the wind by their combined efforts on the massive tiller, but the stern fishtailed with a purpose of its own as it perversely turned broadside to the force of the gale. "Steady, boys! Steady!" shouted the larger of the two, but he was barely heard over the din of wind and crashing sea. "Keep a sharp eye for the rocks: We're over land now, lads!" The sailors nearest the rails peered blindly into the dark water in terror. Their fear was not only of the rocks and the sea but of the unknown things they sensed lurking below the surface: the restless dead of Lyonesse who waited for fools to sail over their watery graves. Lyonesse had been a rich and fertile country stretching westward from Land's End. One day, the sea came roaring in and drowned all but one man. He had been on horseback and, seeing the wave, had driven his mount wildly before the tide to the higher ground of what was now the coast of Cornwall. His name was Trevelyan and, since that time, the family's coat of arms has included the image of a horse and rider partially submerged in the sea. The only thing left of Lyonesse were the rocks of Seven Stones Reef, the church of St. Michael's Mount, and the drowned forests at the bottom of Mount's Bay. The captain's reference to being "over the land" was not lost on his men. The seamen believed that the people of Lyonesse, snatched so untimely from life, waited eternally to lure others to their somber fellowship. The thought spurred the rowers onto greater effort. They now pulled with fierce purpose to propel themselves beyond the horrors of their own imaginations, and the boat's speed increased perceptively. The captain laughed, harshly. "That made them lay on their oars. I hope they don't row us up onto the beach." Trystan smiled and wrapped his cloak tighter about him. He had never been on a boat before and his body did not take kindly to this introduction. He peered out into the night trying to see the outlines of the cliffs that would mean the end of this tortuous journey. The packet that Bernarde had given him had instructed him to cross the channel to Britain where he would be met by the first in a series of contacts who would guide him in his mission. He still had no clear idea of what this was, but Bernarde had thought it important enough to die for. Besides, Trystan had a feeling that he didn't have any choice in the matter. The first part of the job had been harder than he expected. It took a month for him to find a captain crazy enough to make this crossing at that time of the year. The longer it took, the more difficult it became; the weather was getting progressively worse by the day. It was peculiar. It was only late November, but the temperature had already fallen to a level that it usually reached in midwinter. It was almost as if nature itself was against this trip. This captain had only agreed to make the voyage because Trystan had offered him enough gold to buy two new boats. Within the hour, Trystan saw the cliffs of Cornwall rising from the sea. "Land Ho!" the captain rasped. "Head her into Mount's Bay, and hug the coast like a whore's body. Empty the sails so we don't get pushed onto the rocks." The sails were secured, and the oars pulled them silently across the relative calm of the bay. About a half mile offshore they turned eastward and pulled close to a small cove called "The Mousehole”: The sailors called it the "muzzle." "Keep a sharp eye for the signal, now," the captain said. Trystan searched the darkness up in the cliffs, then he saw a light. He touched the captain's arm and pointed."I think that's it," he said. From the water, it was a faint glow, like a firefly on a summer night. The captain grunted that he saw it and directed the oarsmen. The boat slowly approached the shore. "I'm afraid you're going to get your feet wet," the captain said. Trystan shivered at the thought of dropping into the icy water, but even that seemed preferable to continuing that intolerable voyage. About 25 feet from the land, the boat crunched to a stop as its hull grated heavily on the stony shore. Suddenly, the captain took both of Trystan's hands into his own. "May God go with you," he said, then quickly blessed himself. "And also with you," Trystan replied surprised, wishing he had more time to talk to the man. From the time he had spent with him, he hadn't gotten the impression that the captain was a religious man. Trystan turned and threw his leg over the rail. His cloak opened, for just a moment, exposing a knee-length coat of mail and a dark-hilted sword hanging at his side. He looked toward the shore. The light, obviously a lantern, hung motionless halfway up the face of the cliff, lighting a trail that led to the top about 50 feet higher. He gave a final wave to the captain, took a deep breath, then slipped over the side into the knee-deep water. When his feet were firmly on the submerged rocks, he pushed the boat free and watched the oarsmen back it into deep water. Within a few minutes, it was out of sight, enveloped by the unrelenting darkness. He turned and started toward the shore. He was on a beach of sand and stones about 50 yards wide. It was deserted, and he couldn't even see the lantern from that angle. He sensed rather than saw the wall of rock rising out of the beach. Searching for a handhold to begin his climb, he ran his hand over the cliff's face. Abruptly, he stopped. Something was wrong. He drew back his cloak and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. His contact should have met him on the beach. Trystan gave a low whistle; there was no answer. He moved back to the protection of the cliff and cautiously continued his exploration. He found a footpath that led upward and slowly began picking his way along its stony rise. It was impossible to be quiet: Each step dislodged pieces of rock and shale that clattered noisily down the trail. The whole of Cornwall will know I've arrived, he thought with frustration. As he climbed higher, he again sighted the lantern. There was no one there to greet him. It was wedged into a crevice in the rocks. He avoided looking directly at the light, because it blinded him to the surrounding darkness. He whistled again; again, there was no answer. Now, he was certain something was wrong. He drew his blade and picked up the light with his free hand. Holding it before him, he began to climb. At the top, he dimmed the lantern and stopped for a moment to allow his eyes to again become accustomed to the dark. There was still no sound except the wind. He pulled himself onto the flat ground on the cliff's edge. The wind was much stronger there as it blew in from the sea across the barren Cornish coast. His contact was to have met him with horses and then guide him to the Abbey of St. Sampson at Golant. Father Bernarde's directions said there was always a contact there on Monday nights. It was a major connection for Cluny to the network of Benedictine monasteries in Britain. It was well established and considered as safe as any road could possibly be in those turbulent times. Trystan wondered if his guide had decided that no one would need his services on such a night and had retired to some cozy public house, leaving the lantern just in case he was wrong. He walked inland from the edge of the cliff to escape the shearing wind. From his maps, he knew there was only one road to the abbey; he resolved to find it and to make his way on foot if necessary. In truth, he wasn't even sure he could manage that. His wet legs and feet were so numb he couldn't feel them. He didn't seem to have any other choice, so he began a tedious search for any indication of a road. He kept the light very dim. Suddenly, he tripped and went sprawling onto the ground dropping both his sword and lantern, which immediately went out. As soon as he hit the ground, he rolled onto his back and drew his dagger. There wasn't a sound except the tireless wind. He had tripped over something much softer than the Cornish rocks, that was certain. He turned over and inched his way back to where he had stumbled, feeling his way before him as he moved. His hand first touched a wooden stake. He ran his hand down it, then pulled back. It had been driven through the eye of the body on which he had tripped. Even without a light, he was close enough to make out the details. From the clothing, it was, or had been, a monk, but it was mutilated beyond recognition. It was face up and spread out in the form of a cross. Wooden stakes had been driven into its eyes, its heart, and its palms like some parody of a crucifixion. "Requiescat in pace," he whispered. There was the sound of a breaking twig. Someone, or something, was making its way in his direction. Trystan scrambled for his sword and jumped to his feet, weapon in hand. All was quiet again. He crouched down, listening and peering futilely into the darkness. At first, he could only hear his own rapid breathing, then, something else. He located the road; a shadow was moving in the woods. He cautiously crossed over into the trees and almost ran head-on into a horse. The nervous beast watched him. Trystan spoke softly as he walked toward the animal. He moved closer until he could lay his hand on its muzzle. It threw back its head and snorted feebly. After a few minutes, it became calm enough to examine. It was a chestnut mare, and it was saddled. Its blanket bore the Gothic cross and shield of the order of Cluny. Trystan traced the outline of the cross with his finger. It gave him some reassurance. His first contact was to be Father Bedwyr, the Abbot at St. Sampson's. This saddle blanket would have been his way of assuring Trystan that the guide meeting him was authentic. This was the horse of that poor creature nailed to the ground with wooden stakes. Trystan knew Bedwyr. He was a friend of Father Bernarde's and had visited the monastery at Moissac. He looked forward to seeing this friendly face again. He climbed gingerly onto the horse's back. The animal shuddered nervously and reared slightly as if to throw him off. He spoke softly to it. Trystan knew horses. Taking care of them had always been one of his favorite jobs in Moissac. It finally settled down enough to ride. For the first half hour, Trystan allowed it to walk to become used to its new rider. Then, as he gained control, he urged it into a slow trot. He didn't dare go any faster along this dark and unfamiliar road. As he rode, he observed his surroundings. Even in the darkness, he could sense its barrenness. It was a stark contrast to the green fields and mild climate of southern France. Luckily, the horse seemed to know the way and was anxious to get there. They were moving along a path close to the sea. Trystan could hear it crashing wildly against the rocks. Suddenly, the horse began to gallop. He accidently dropped the reins and clung tightly to the edge of the saddle. Three feet to his right, a cliff dropped almost perpendicularly to the water far below. He tried to slow the animal, but the horse had its fill of this night and didn't respond. Trystan held on to the saddle with all his might. Shadows seemed to move behind every tree and rock. The air was thick with the smell of decay, not only of rotting vegetation and dead sea animals: It was like the stench of a battlefield after the killing. In his mouth, he had a metallic taste that was alien to him. The ride seemed endless. Abruptly, the clouds pulled back from the moon, and the bone-white glare hurt his eyes. His horse slowed to a walk. Before him was the outline of the Abbey of St. Sampson just as Bedwyr had described it. It was surrounded by earthworks to help protect it against the periodic Viking incursions in this part of the world. It was all in darkness except for two giant torches framing the great entrance doors and a single light in a lone tower room. The abbey, like the land around it, had fallen into decay, and the worn stones of the walls were covered by a patina of an alien moss. "Stop where ya are, ya bleedin' son of a whore!" Trystan almost fell from the horse as it came to a sudden stop. His eyes searched the shadows for the origin of the challenge. Two misshapen hulks in monk's robes stepped out from behind a guard station. "At least he's obedient, Sneep," said the larger man. "That'll go well for 'im." "Oh, indeed it will, Garn. He 'as the look of a reasonable man, 'e does." He ended his sentence with a wheezing cackle. Both stared at Trystan in anticipation. They were waiting for a look of fear on his face. They grinned at him with open mouths. To them, this was the best part: the fright on their victim's faces. Trystan didn't feel any fear. In fact, he didn't feel anything even though he had never faced a confrontation like this before. He sensed rapid changes taking place within him. He casually touched the sword at his waist and felt the weight of the chain tunic he wore. They felt natural to him even though he couldn't remember wearing armor before Father Bernarde had introduced it to him just a few months before. The men were large and muscular, but their frames were bent and asymmetrical as though broken upon a rack. They were filthy, and each carried an oaken staff fully four inches thick at its business end. Trystan decided to try and reason with them. After all, they were in the service of the abbey, and good breeding and beauty were not prerequisites for the priesthood. "Rest easy, Fathers! I am Trystan and am expected by your master, Bedwyr. I am cold and hungry. Pray let me pass." This struck the larger as a grand joke. He began a laugh which ended in a fit of coughing producing a mass of phlegm. He spat it at Trystan's feet. "Bedwyr, our master. Did ya get that, Sneep?" He began laughing again with the same disgusting result as before. "Oh, I caught it, Garn. I'm listenin' to this one. He's a talker, 'e is." Sneep laughed, then added with a wink: "I bet he's a screamer too, like the old man." This reference made Trystan wonder about the safety of Father Bedwyr. Both men began to edge closer. Trystan threw back his cloak, exposing the length of his sword. Sneep and Garn broke off their laughing and glanced warily at each other. "Am I to understand that you are not in the service of Father Bedwyr even though you prevent his friends from visiting him?" Trystan said. "And this raises another question: Are you really monks?" The two looked at each other blankly. This was not the way things usually went. This was becoming much more complicated than terrorizing a frightened and unarmed traveler. Sneep said, "Well, ya see, sir. There's a development of which ya probably ain't aware. First, we is monks as we appear, and that's the bare truth. But dear Father Bedwyr's up and died; left us in the lurch so ta speak. Rest 'is soul!" Sneep smiled gruesomely at Garn, pleased with his performance. He looked back to Trystan again and added: "So ya see, there's no need for ya ta go on." Trystan looked at him without expression. "Now, what would you have me do, Father? Are you suggesting that I turn this good mount around on this ugly night and ride back over the dangerous miles I just traveled?" "It might be less dangerous than proceedin' the way yer goin', if ya take my meanin', snarled Garn, losing patience with the way this conversation was going. Trystan looked up at the light in the tower. He knew that Bedwyr was waiting for him there. He decided to terminate this conversation. He looked at the two men with a strange detachment which they interpreted as indecision. Curiously, to Trystan, all motion seemed to slow down. Leaves blew by at a quarter of their normal speed, and the pitch of the wind dropped from a wail to a low moan. Garn started for him but in that same slow-motion mode. He raised his staff to knock Trystan from his horse. Without thought, Trystan drew his sword and swung it in a sweeping backhanded arc which carried it under the monk's staff and struck him at the elbow. The blade passed through the arm as though it was soft cheese. The forearm, still clutching the staff, fell at Trystan's feet. Garn let out a howl of pain, and Trystan's sense of real time returned. Garn leaped about screaming and waving the stump of his arm. Its brachial artery spouted a torrent of blood that splashed onto the ground all around him as he spun in frenzy. The faster he danced, the faster the blood pumped. Trystan watched this danse macabre, his stained sword hanging loosely in his hand. He didn't notice Sneep until he was beside him. He was clutching and unclutching his hands in a caricature of anguish. Tears streamed down his filthy face. "Please 'elp 'im, sir. Please! Please! I begs ya," he blubbered. He fell onto his knees: "I loves 'em! He's all I got." Trystan looked at him for a moment, then turned away. He nudged his horse gently, and the animal moved toward the abbey gate. "Yer an 'orrible person, ya are," Sneep screamed after him. "Ya cares about nobody, and nobody cares about you. Ya might as well be dead like poor, dear Garn there." He put his knuckles into his mouth to stop from saying more and looked at Garn. His screaming had stopped, and he had dropped to his knees. He was swaying slightly, and the amount of blood squirting from his stump had lessened considerably. Even through the dirt and the beard, the pinched whiteness of his face could be seen. He didn't seem to be breathing anymore. As Sneep watched, Garn fell forward. He was dead before his nose smashed into the ground. Sneep ran to him and shook his body, then he put his forehead on the dead man's back. "Oh, Master! I ain't ever asked for nothin', but give me Garn back and I'll do anything ya wants. I begs ya!" His voice trailed off to a soft cry. At first, Trystan thought he was speaking to him, then realized that Sneep was asking a favor that only a God could grant. Sneep was praying. But to whom? Trystan stopped: "Who is your master? What does he call himself?" Sneep stopped crying, but stayed for a moment hunched over Garn's body. Then he turned, his face was a mask of rage. "He has a lot of names! You'll find out! Oh, yes! You'll find out and, when ya do, the master and me will do such terrible things to ya, you'll wish ya were Garn there." He lost his train of thought when he mentioned Garn's name. "Oh! Poor, dear Garn's in Hell already." He glared at Trystan. "We'll make ya hurt like Garn only in worse places than yer arm. Yes indeed! We'll cut tender things off of ya, and you'll beg us to kill ya." Trystan turned away and moved through the abbey gate. Sneep's screaming voice trailed off and blended with the howl of the wind. Inside the courtyard, Trystan dismounted, removed the saddle, and slapped the horse gently on the rump. The animal seemed to know where to go. It headed down one of the passages leading from the court and soon was out of sight. Trystan looked around. Even the stones under his feet were covered with the strange mucus-like moss he had seen on the outside walls. Some dry leaves blew across the courtyard startling him. Obviously, the place had not been cleaned for months. There was trash everywhere and dried manure left by the horses of visitors long since gone. There wasn't a sign of life except for the solitary light in the tower. By the entrance to the tower stairway was a watering trough. It had been placed there to service the horses of the many guests who had visited the monastery in better times. Now, it was filled with stagnant water and rotting leaves. Trystan dipped his blade into the water to cleanse it of the fast-drying blood. He wiped it with a handful of leaves and returned it to his sheath, then he started up the stairs. In the empty courtyard, a sudden gust of wind picked up some leaves and whirled them around in a miniature tornado. Suddenly, it stopped, and the leaves drifted to the ground.      

The abbey, like the land around it, had fallen into decay and the warm stones of the walls were covered by a patina of alien moss.
"Stop where ya are, ya bleedin son of a whore!"
Trystan almost fell from his horse as it came to a sudden stop.
Two misshapen hulks in monks robes stepped into the road.
"He's obedient, Sneep,"one said. that'll go well for 'im."

Reader Reviews for "WEBSPINNER"

Reviewed by Francis Eaden 1/24/2009

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