The Writers' Block #41: Theme - Superstition
Even though there was a roaring fire in the hearth behind him and with the summer sunshine slicing into the hall through the arrow-slit windows, Sir William de Hawkes shivered. The cathedral bell had tolled once a while ago and now he waited.
He sat at his trestle table, resting on his elbows touching the tips of his fingers together, forming a steeple. He peered between them at the doorway in the distance.
‘My Lord Sheriff - you have not touched your food. Are you unwell?’
William glanced at his scribe, a shrewish monk who had just managed to catch up with the previous case on the day’s scroll. With blackened fingers, the monk laid his quill down and he frowned at his master. ‘Should I call the physic?’
William shook his head, his long lank hair stroking his shoulders. ‘No. I have simply lost my app -’
There! A noise outside. There was a scuffle of some kind happening by the entrance to the hall. The guards in each corner of the room sought instruction, flicking their focus from him, to the door, to each other.
The monk rose from his stool. ‘Sir, shall I see what is-?’
He was stopped by William’s outstretched arm. ‘Is this why we have four guards on duty today, rather than two? Were you expecting something to occur?’
But William had no chance to answer. The door to the hall opened, quite casually, squeaking on its heavy hinges. In the distance, in clear view, were the prostrate bodies of the duty guards, lying in a heap and seeping streams of blood onto the floor. The man that entered was dressed head to foot in grey: his cap, cloak, hauberk, breeches, riding boots were all dull and unnoticeable to all except the keenest of eyes. He could walk unseen by most, yet, even across the length of the hall, William knew the material was of the finest quality; the way it fitted the muscular body, the sheen it had. The man’s spurs scraped the flagstones as he walked forwards, his right arm replacing his bloodied sword into its sheath.
‘Stop there!’ ordered William, from his chair on the dais.
The soldiers tensed, hands gripping their own swords, awaiting the command.
The man paused and made eye contact with William. He had a severe face, holding William’s gaze with emotionless eyes, his thin lips colourless and battle-scarred.
‘State your business,’ ordered William, ‘before I have you arrested for slaying my guards.’
The man responded, with a voice so devoid of warmth that William shivered once more. ‘They are not slain, merely injured. I suggest there can only be one death today - yours.’
William swallowed, his throat dry. ‘I disagree. If your suggestion is true, then let the death be yours.’
‘William de Hawkes - it is the thirteenth hour on the thirteenth day of the thirteenth month since your agreement with my mistress. Payment is due.’
Banging his fists onto the table, William tried to hide his fear and he stood tall. ‘I will not be spoken to like this!’ he barked. ‘Let alone be bullied by a mere messenger!’
The visitor allowed the echoes of the shout to diminish. ‘I am more than a messenger. Pay - or die.’
In the pause that followed, William tried to remain calm. He stroked his beard. With a smile he asked the stranger, ‘How much do you receive as payment? I will more than match it. Name your price.’
‘Pay or die.’
‘I am not afraid of your mistress and all the superstitions that have gathered about her. I am trying to be civilised about this, man. Strike a bargain with me.’
The spurs scratched the stones as the stranger took a step forward. ‘You struck a bargain thirteen months hence - are you willing to settle the payment?’
‘She did nothing! The witch cannot claim anything of me. I achieved all this success myself. It has nothing to do with her supposed witchcraft. So, leave in peace - I will not be coerced with tactics of fear.’
Another pause. William even began to suspect he had won, by argument alone, by standing up to her messenger. Throughout, though, the man’s gaze never left William’s. He didn’t blink. He hardly breathed. ‘The agreement was for both of your hands and, if you resist, your tongue. If you refuse, your life.’
‘Yet more threats!’ William heard his voice shaking with rage. ‘She can claim the payment herself, rather than use a servant! Go back to the Hell from which you came! - Guards!’
They swarmed the man from all four directions, weapons raised. The first to reach him swiped the air in front of the man’s face as he dodged but then the grey cloak wrapped around the sword and pulled it free from the assailant. The guard’s arm was grabbed and he was flung onto the oncoming sword of the second guard, sending them both toppling to the ground. The third was running swinging a mace above his head, but the man in grey already had a knife aimed and he threw it with enough accuracy that it embedded into the guard’s shoulder, causing him to drop the mace and fall to his knees in agony. As the grey man unsheathed his sword, the fourth guard’s shield clattered into his side, sending them both careering across the hall, skidding over the flagstones and hitting the wall at the far side with a force that nearly broke the shield. They wrestled, a blur of struggling arms and legs, but the guard was no match and quickly found himself underneath the man, with the man’s hands squeezing his life away.
The man looked up, just for a moment, to notice William had gone. He let the guard go, scooped up his sword and threatened the second guard with a gesture that he remain on the ground. As he walked to the monk, he removed his knife from the third guard, causing him to wail then faint.
The monk swallowed hard. He kept whispering as he had throughout the fight, ‘Only one death today - only one death today…’
‘Which door did he leave by?’
The monk silently pointed the way, deciding honesty was perhaps the best course at this juncture.
The man dropped bags of gold onto the table. ‘This is gold, enough for all the injured soldiers. Plus one for you, to use as you wish, to avoid temptation.’
The monk stared at the money, then at the groaning, bleeding soldiers scattered about the hall. By the time he could call coherently for further assistance, the man had disappeared in pursuit of Sir William.