It had been two years since the abbot died. Two years for the church in this village to lie empty. The heavy iron key to the door had difficulty turning, and if it wasn't for my careful and slow application of strength, I might have snapped it in the tumblers. It opened, reluctantly in the end, and I got my first look inside the small building.
It was stout; a stone base, wood walls, and a thatch roof made it rather more luxurious than many of the near homes. However, it was not a building of luxury. Decay filled my nostrils when I looked inside, and what sunlight existed on the gray Derbyshire day failed to penetrate the two filth-covered windows. I stepped inside, and immediately my first thoughts turned to how long it was going to take to make this house of God Godly again. A little laugh passed my lips; why should I care?
There was room inside for maybe fifty people, comfortably; no doubt double that. The donkey and cart I'd brought with me waited both outside as I stepped into the little church. A scurry answered the sound of nails on stone; I'd disturbed some number of rats or other rodents, without doubt. Yet another problem to worry about.
After a few moments of looking about, my eyes began to adjust to the lack of light inside. The back wall of the church had once had two tapestries hang down. I could still see the Cross inside of them each, but the bright colours were faded and holes gaped where moths had eaten away the cloth. The Cross nailed to the back wall of the church wasn't in bad shape, however; the floor was brown with rat shit.
My tongue touched the top of my mouth and clicked against it; a displeased noise I picked up from Brother Francois some years ago. He made that noise often; he was very usually displeased with the world, and especially the men he had to share his life with. But that is what made him an excellent teacher and Master of the Order – he demanded the best, and very often got it.
I am not so young as I was when I came to Derbyshire, and at the time I was not young either, and perhaps my hearing was vanishing even then, for when I turned around, I was surprised by the form shadowing the doorway. Lean, tall, with a faint hunch about the neck, someone was waiting to great the Friar come from London to see to the flock of Derbyshire. This fellow looked probably as unpleasant as I did about the smell attributable to two years of rats; his nose was wrinkled up and the corner of his lips twisted wryly. Unlike many of the men I'd met in the English countryside of late, this fellow was clean-shaven. Most wore facial hair of some form, but not this man.
“Might we talk outside, Friar?” he asked in English. At the time, my grip on the tongue wasn't strong enough to reply fluently, but I understood well enough. My head dipped into an acquiescent nod, and I stepped out of the building after his lead. Again, the day wasn't so bright, though the threatened rain had not fallen of yet, but it was well enough to let me see the man in better detail.
I'd thought he was lean at first, almost hungry looking, but the light brought things into better detail. He wore a brown tunic, almost black, and that had disguised some of his form. Yes, his torso was slim, or slim enough for his height, but both of his arm were densely muscled. His legs, too, looked strong. Not thick or fat, but more than serviceable to run for a goodly length of time. There was a wicked scar over his chin, from just below the left ear to two inches before his chin, and perhaps this went a long way towards explaining why he shaved.
Over his shoulders he wore a cloak, waxed against the rain ponderous in the air, but the sides were tucked back over his shoulders, and I could see that he went armed. Most did, and still do, I imagine (though I rarely see outsiders these days), but the usual means of arms were a long knife or a stout club. This fellow wore a sword and dagger on his left hip, and a thick quarterstaff rested on the wall outside of the church. He also had on a cuirass of hardened leather that had obviously seen hard use; a series of pits and gouges were evident to even the casual glimpse of the untrained eye, and my eyes are not untrained nor casual in such things.
He began to speak in English. Forgive me, as I am paraphrasing what he said, but it was something to the lines of, “It's good to see a man of God come back to His house, Friar. The Church's presence was missed. These are sad times, and the folk of Derby could use a prayer from one such as yourself, from time to time.”
“English,” I started, and then I held up a hand, taking a second to close my eyes and gather my thoughts, to put together the words I needed. “My English is new. Please to forgive,” I began, but then he smiled and switched over to French.
“Is this better, mon frère?” he asked. I nodded, and then he continued, as if I hadn't interrupted him at all, “I'm sorry if I startled you earlier, but I had heard you were coming and wanted to see you for myself. The last cleric here was someone who was poorly received by the locals.”
“I was not aware my arrival was announced,” I said in return. Years and years of training to keep my face impassive may have worked, for the stranger quirked an eyebrow and laughed to me.
“It wasn't, but I hear things many people do not. I'm a funny fellow that way.” His eyes were bright blue, like a Saxon's might have been when Hengist came to the island, but they were juxtaposed by hair that was half red, half blond. They twinkled with restrained glee – the fellow had me at a disadvantage, and I knew, all of a sudden, that he knew rather more than he was letting on. “But you can hear a lot from this person or that person about a man, and not know a thing about him, if you understand my meaning.”
Yes, he was a little infuriating, but he was also completely right. I'd found that out more than once in my life. My head tilted forward in a single nod before lifting. “You are, of course, correct, monsieur. I hope that the words you've heard about me were ones describing a kind and humble man, and that I have so far lived up to them.”
“Mon frère, I can assure you, I heard that you are a humble and kind man. But that is not all I heard, and I will admit, I had to wonder why a simple monk come to serve God in peaceful England brought with him two heavy chests locked with Arabian locks. So I think, my dear Friar, that the words I heard on you were mostly true. That you have some skeletons locked in that trunk. Or perhaps bits of steel that you can't forget and don't necessarily want to remember.”
The man with reddish-blond hair and bright blue eyes had caught me unawares. Yes, I had more luggage, but knowing the locks were Arabian? Guessing that my mail was secreted inside? And knowing enough to know that I have come here for reasons other than the usual reasons a monk is sent to a small church – that piety isn't why I've come across the known world? This fellow obviously had friends in high places, or ones who know how to listen amongst them.
It must be that my incredulity showed, because the fellow laughed and clapped a hand on my shoulder. He wore a half-glove that covered his palm, and it was of thick leather, like the armour he wore. His fingertips were massively calloused, and I could all but feel their coarseness through my travelling cloak. Again, his hand was strong, his arm powerful. He was still smiling, as he said, “Don't worry, Friar. Your secret is safe with me, and I promise what I've heard was complimentary. As for your reasons for being here, they are truly your own, and I judge no man on what he's done in his past, but for the future he tries to make. It has been good to see you.”
“I,” I began, but the fellow shook his head.
“No time, Friar! When next we meet, I promise you shall join me in my home, and we shall break bread and share honey and ale, but for now I have things to which I must attend. Keep those trunks safe, but don't bury them too deep. Even in peaceful England, it seems, there are times when men must make ready for war. Even men of God,” he said, as he turned, gathering his quarterstaff and sliding his cloak back over his form. The hood raised and the twinkling eyes were shadowed from my sight.
“But, you have me at a disadvantage, sir. How will I know where to go? You didn't even tell me your name!” The rain finally began to fall, in a soft, fine mist that filled the sky. His lips twisted into what I knew was a smile, and he laughed as he turned to head back along the path through the trees. As I had suspected, he walked quick, faster than I could, even in my youth, a score of years ago.
When he spoke he was almost gone into the mist, though I hadn't tried to pursue him, it still took an uncommonly short time for the lean fellow to be gone. His voice carried over the rainy mist that was starting to thicken. “Don't worry about such things. And as for my name? You'll hear what they call me soon enough. Au revoir, mon ami!” he cried, and then he stepped off the path suddenly, into the forest, and was gone.
I didn't do as I had originally intended and bury my chests deep, to be forgotten. Instead I hid them in the small room behind the church I was given, digging them into the earthen floor beneath my cot, and covering them with rushes, so that I could haul them out if needed quick enough, but that it would take a dedicated eye to locate the two inches of protruding wood. I began to clean the Church, and over the next days, people came to visit me. Some stayed and helped, others introduced themselves and then left. It wasn't until I met the blacksmith that I mentioned the mysterious stranger. The fellow guffawed and then looked at me.
“A strange man you must be, dear Friar, if Robin Hood chanced a meeting with you in Derbyshire by daylight,” he said, before going back to driving nails into broken boards as his contribution to the Church.