“Mercy! Mercy, good knight!”
“Don’t call me good! And hold still you knave, or I’ll miss my stroke!”
The White Hermit quickened his stride; this was no common quarrel, this was murder. He rounded the bend in the forest path, and beheld the struggle he had been hearing these last few minutes.
It was a scene to make God’s angels cry.
There was scruffy looking man sprawled on the muddy track. Face pale, eyes bulging, blood dripping from a broken lip, he already look half the corpse he was very soon about to be. Towering above him was tall, square-shouldered youth with sword in his hands and murder in his eyes. Both men were splattered in mud. A broken basket had spilled an avalanche of wrinkled apples over the track. The steeds of the two heroes, a butter yellow charger and a bay mule, was grazing with philosophical calm twenty paces down the path. The quarrels of men meant nothing to them.
But it did to the old hermit.
This was his calling.
Apart from piety to spare, the Lord had given him the heart of a lion and the presence of a king. He also had a voice full of brimstone and hellfire: “Pax Vobiscum!” he roared.
“Krah! Krah!” A murder of crows, who was taking in the tableau with expectant eyes, rose to the sky, krah-krah-ing reproachfully before they disappeared behind the bare branches of the trees.
The two men on the path startled and looked up at their interloper, panting and trembling. The victim had an autumn leaf glued to his forehead. He wore the simple garb of a lay brother. His assailant was a knight by the look of it, and a very young one at that, all soft features crowned with a shock of red hair. His eyes met the those of the old wanderer. His cheeks suddenly colored and he took a tentative step back from the man on the ground. Tears started running down his face.
In-between two heartbeats the White Hermit formed his plan.
“‘Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place’.” He used his softest voice, the one that had made many-an evil man proclaim his regrets to the world under the gallows, and approached the knight with soft steps, as if he was a wild animal that could be scared into flight. “Put away your sword, boy. It will give you only dishonor here today.”
The boy threw his sword to the ground and sank down to make it company. The lay brother scrambled to his feet, and scurried away, taking cover behind the White Hermit. The hermit smiled and gave him a nod, while he crouched down beside the crying knight. “What ails thee, my childe?”
The childe looked up and then it gushed out: “It’s that wicked bishop, father. Bishop Birnius of Venta. He’s killing my kinsmen. Not mine, really, those of my ward. He’s had two of them done in, all for the sake of some stupid woman or other. My aunt and my cousin are nagging me constantly, that I must protect the family. I do not want any bloodshed, I just want weregild and peace, but he refuses to come the hundred court.”
The White Hermit was too good a confessor to stop the flood or words. They made sense enough for him, for he knew of the bishop and felt that there were truth in the words of the young knight, whom by now had stopped sobbing. He stood up, and pointing at the poor lay brother said: “If the King is dead, men must make their own justice, musn’t they, Father?”
“No. The King was nothing but a servant of God, and God is the Judge of us all. He will also judge the good bishop of Venta one day, but more importantly, before that, so will his peers. I know of this bishop of yours, and I know just what it will take to scare him to your hundred court to settle matters. It is but a trifling matter.”
The young knight just stood there, looking at the White Hermit with open mouth. The lay brother had very carefully started to collect his apples from the ground, while keeping an eye on the knight, lest he relapse into old habits.
“But how can such a thing be done, Father?”, said the knight at last.
The White Hermit smiled. “I will talk to the Archbishop. He will not tolerate this from the good bishop of Venta. What is a bishop that has been excommunicated?”
By the look of his face, the boy was trying to solve the most vexing of all philosophical problems that had ever plagued the greatest minds of mankind. Eventually, he said: “Oh!” and hung his head.
“Yes, ‘Oh!’, indeed. Now, let us turn to more important things, but first: will you let this poor brother go, with his mules and his apples?”
“Yes, father, yes … You!” He pointed at the scruffy man, who cowered behind his mule. “I give you my mercy! Be you gone!” The man, bowing and scraping, took his leave and disappeared down the path as fast as his mule could carry him.
“What are these important things, father” said the knight slowly, while picking up and sheathing his sword.
The White Hermit was silent a few heartbeats. Then he made the Speech.
“Young Sir, there are hard time a-coming, murder and rapine, treachery and greed. The rich will suffer, and poor will suffer more. This is not a time for heroes. But this is a time in dire need of good men. And I can tell that you have a good heart, young knight. You must make up your mind. Will you follow what is in your heart or let these dark times drag you down into murder and worse? Will you listen to the wanton tongues of women or to the goodness that God has placed within your soul? When you take you leave of this world to go to thy Judgement, shall men and angels say of you, that you left this place better off than you found it – or worse?”
The boy but frowned and went to fetch his horse in silence.
“What strange words you speak, old man. First, I thought you would give me one of those boring speeches my confessor gives me.”
He looked up at the hermit. “I do not know what to make of them, right now. But I must take my leave.”
He climbed into his saddle. The White Hermit looked him in the eyes, and Reading his heart, seeing what he had hoped for, smiled.
“Pax Vobiscum, Sir!”
“Pax Vobiscum, Father.”
The boy was several hundred yards down the path when he realized he had forgotten to thank the hermit for his pledged help. Swearing like a mighty warrior in war camp, he turned back to find the old man. He never did, but no long thereafter the Bishop of Venta came to the hundred court, humble as saint, and paid his wergild without a grumble or so much as a sour look.