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|The wheels turned with a squeak and a protest. The horses strained against the gluey mud, which refused, like a mother over her first-born son, to release its hold. The strength of the man's arm, as he continually struck the backs of the horses with the leather strap, seemed not enough persuasion for the horses or the mud. Finally, with a jolt, the carriage broke out of its taffy embankment and began again rolling, rattling, through the storm.||
|The black draped man swayed in his seat, the rain pounding out the outlines of his cloak against him. He could see the tower in the distance, the lone spire atop the arc of the last hilled clearing before the forest.
The man wiped his black hair from its plastered state against his face. He could feel the fire already waiting for him. All he wanted was to slip into it and feel it around him, teasing his every sense.
It had been three days since he'd left the capitol, and now returning to the place of his birth to reclaim his estate, he could put no thought towards his plans. All he needed was some food and the fire that used to warm him as a child around the great hearth.
The man looked at the great oak door before him, fifteen years already had passed since he'd last fell his eyes upon it. He could only hope that the residents inside would believe the tale of his journey accross the mainland, and the fate of his father. Surely then he would regain his lands and title.
|Would they believe that this land was rightfully his? Could they be persuaded that the circumstances of his father's death had made him a hero, not a villain? But he could not think of himself as a hero. Indeed, in his exhausted state, he thought of himself only as a man needing food and rest. As he calmed his horse and continued the ride up the hillside, the events of his journey replayed in his mind.||
|He had only been sixteen when he'd left home. He could still remember the blue of the sky and the sea as the boat sailed into the south east. He was finally going to see all of the romance of the continent. Just the memory of it gave him strength.
The freedom as he sailed away from the British Isles enveloped him. He felt as if he could be or do anything.
If only he were to know what laid before him all those years ago. If only he'd listened to his friends instead of being rash and full of naive confidence. He wouldn't have wanted to go with his father to Vienna. He wouldn't have wanted to go and see the far off eastern empire that only kings and merchants ever traveled.
But if he hadn't gone, he never would have met Catherine.
|Catherine was the most striking creature he had ever seen. She was beautiful and beguiling, seductive and sophisticated. He found himself enchanted by her grace, enraptured by her voice, and totally lost in her plans and dreams. Immediately she swept him away from the business for which he had traveled to Vienna with his father.
His father was looking to expand the Erhart family holdings with a tract of land just outside the city limits. His plans were to purchase the outlying orchards, hire workers, and put one of his entrusted stewards in charge of supervising the harvest. But the orchards were part of a plot of land with a dark history, and the mere idea of harvesting the fruit growing from the tainted soil stirred up great controversy within the city. His father waved off all protests as superstitious rubbish, and carried on with the transaction regardless of the fears of commoners. Kyle's mother had warned him of just such a backlash, and others had been more forceful in their attempts at restraint, but these words had simply buttressed his father's resolve. In fact, the hint of controversy was what made Kyle want to accompany his father on this otherwise tedious business trip.
The signing of the deed was three days hence when, walking through the marketplace, Kyle saw her. Or rather, she saw him, and the evenness of her gaze suggested that she had been watching him for some time. She locked onto his eyes, and he found himself at her side without realizing he had even been approaching her. As she spoke to him, her voice resonated inside his heart at frequencies he had not known he could feel. Thus the entanglement began.
|"Your father places himself in jeopardy," she whispered, her voice a memorable mixture of foreign accent and restrained intrigue. "I know he plans much more for that land than what he announces. His public disdain for the old legends is a thin veil over his real ambitions. Be warned. You will soon have very few friends in this place."
And she was gone.
Kyle strained against the crowd, full of questions, full of desire, looking in every direction at once, hoping for some glimpse of the girl. But she had vanished like a wraith.
|For the next month, Kyle spent his time surpervising the hirelings as they refurbished the land. Most were the poorest of peasant laborers, quiet and emotionless, but, nonetheless, hard workers. Many candidates turned away when they found out where the work would be. Sometimes Kyle worked alongside them; it felt good to keep his hands busy. It helped take his mind off Catherine.
His thoughts lingered on her constantly. Her eyes, her clothes, her voice. They all defied definition, were almost otherwordly. He needed to feel her once again in his presence. This desire engulfed him.
Reality and fatigue pushed the bittersweet memory of Catherine from Kyle's mind as he stood facing the time blackened door.
The cold rain that hindered Kyle's journey for the past three days had stopped. "Was this an omen?", he wondered as his hand reached for the bell rope beside the door. The clapper collided with the sides of the bell with such intensity Kyle momentarily recoiled from the sound as if struck by a club. The painful clanging ceased, replaced once again by the uneasy stillness.
Kyle brushed the hair away from his face, tried to compose himself, and waited. Had the thickness of the door not prevented it, he would have put his ear to it, hoping to hear the iron bolt being released. The silence was broken only by the wind now coming from the coast, some two miles away.
He remembered from his childhood that rain and wind were constant companions here in Cornwall. There never seemed to be one without the other. Not wishing to have his ears assaulted again, Kyle hammered on the door, first with fists, then with the brass butt of his pistol. "Mother of saints", he screamed, "are ye all deaf?"
True, the estate house was very large and well constructed, still there should have been some acknowledgment, some sign of life behind it's thick stone walls.
Originally the entire estate had been church property, the house, once the abby, had been converted to a near royal residence by Kyle's grandfather. Cromwell rewarded his best captains generously. None had been more loyal and few as cruel as Kyle's own grandfather. "Roundheads", led by their ambitious captain, only partially destroyed the property. Enough destruction to drive out the monks and just enough to satisfy Cromwell. Kyle's grandfather had planned it all, even before the attack.
Kyle cursed the dead monks for their too solid walls. "Best we try the back my friend," he said, returning to the cart.
"They seem to want none of us here." Even though the sky was beginning to darken, Kyle could see no light coming from the high windows of the upper floors as he walked. The lower floor remained in perpetual darkness save for narrow defensive slits. Grandfather remained a soldier first and gentry secondly.
He worked his way to the servants' entrance, searching for a sign of life, somewhere. "I'm hopin' I'll not be spendin' this night with ye in the stables," Kyle told his horse.
"Halloo! Halloo in there", he called. Again the only sound was that of the wind driven rain. "Damn you all to hell, a man can die out here!" Angrily kicking the door Kyle was surprised as it swung open, banging loudly against the inside wall.
With only the dim light coming through the open door he saw, as memories rushed back, the familiar kitchen. Tables, pots, pans, cutlery. Not a person, not a fire where a fire was never allowed to die. Stepping inside he called again, "Halloo! halloo!"
His call echoed from somewhere deep in the house. Halloo..halloo..
|Darkness and lack of even a single candle prevented any further exploration of the house. Back in the stalls he found a modicum of comfort in a straw covered corner. Had anyone watched through the long night they would have sworn at first sun their vigil had been for a dead
Kyle still lay motionless as some far off roosters welcomed themorning. In one instance, as if in a single movement his nose twitched,nostrils flared, his eyes opened wide. "Smoke?", he questioned aloud.
Sitting up now, he could identify the pungent sweet smell of burning charcoal.
|Kyle felt a chill as he walked around the cold, empty kitchen. Only the vastness of the room reminded him of its previous splendor.
A rat scurried in and out shadows, startling him. He bumped into the large kettle hanging near the fireplace, then he heard footsteps, heavy plodding footsteps.
He turned to the doorway, then turned again. He felt a large, strong hand grip his shoulder.
|"The day's half over, darlin', and your meals half cold."
Malvina. Dear, sweet Malvina. She smiled at his fear and chagrin with the warm acceptance of a mother. In fact, she had been his nurse, the main confidant and mentor of his childhood.
"The day's half over, darling, and your meals half cold",
she joked as Kyle swallowed and stared. She winked and nodded, then set again to tending her pots and countertops. Old Malvina, teasing the boy with wise, silent eyes.
She apologized for the meager meal and explained it was all she had in her house. That was as close as she got to admitting that anything had changed.
"The caretakers, the servants, the gardeners?", Kyle asked, "where are they?".
Malvina explained that those not already living in the village had moved there after Kyle and his father had not returned from Vienna in a timely fashion.. after the trusted estate keeper had drunk himself to death on the funds interested to him. "Old Bael and his son, John, did the best they could to maintain the place. They felt they owed it to your family. But they could hold out only so long. They still bring me mutton now and again... and check up on me."
Bael and his son farmed a small plot on the estate and grazed a few sheep. Their efforts had done little to curb the decay of the place.
"And what of your father?" Malvina asked. "And your dear Mother? Are they on their way, close behind?"
Kyle shock his head solemnly but words failed him.
"Good Lord, sweet child, tell me of it.", the old woman pleaded.
Kyle sat on a small barrel, eyes scanning the floor. He told only as much of the circumstances of his fathers death as his own pain, and shame, would allow. Of his own part in the tragedy he said nothing.
He picked at the slivers of rotting wood splayed out from the barrel head. "Captain Erhart and Cromwell might well have been right in their treatment of clergy," Kyle mumbled, thinking: Was it not absinth, first distilled by monks, that helped bring about my fathers demise? Worm wood that ate away the final vestiges of his
already sodden brain?
"What's that you say, lad?" Malvina asked, stopping her work to study his overwrought expression.
"Nothing." Old Malvina should only know of Father's
drink and fits of madness, that is enough, thought Kyle. "The journey, begun with such enthusiasm, now tastes as bitter as rotten dregs," he said softly, standing, sliding the barrel into a corner. He straightened himself, try to shrug off the journey like so much lint and rust. "But I'm home now. Home. And I have more family here than I had ever hoped to find."
Malvina blushed as the young man hugged her long and hard. From over his shoulder she ask, "Your mother, then, what of that dear woman?"
Kyle withdrew his embrace and could not look the old woman in the eye.
"Dead as well," Kyle whispered, "Dead at my father's hand."
Tobin James Mueller
|"What a fool," she thought. "What a naive fool." He was handsome, no question of that. She liked handsome men. It was fools and idlers she detested.
The man, Kyle Erhart, was a little too much of all those qualities. Too handsome, almost. Too much playing the idle rich, though surely his father had been. And too much the fool. Turned by a smile, twisted by cunningly sweet words, and ridiculously giddy at the calculated exposure of a bit of flesh.
No, Catherine enjoyed the challenge of mind against mind. A baffoon was as easy to pluck as a grape from a vine. Too easy. Had she not brought greater men to leash and parted them from a bit of gold, a jewel or two? No kings, no important royalty had been her prey. Gentry of England, burghers of Austria, and a few foppish "Counts" of France. Still, most were keen of mind. Ready to suspect, but too willing to be deceived by word and body.
"How quickly men betray themselves," she said, absentmindedly, turning another page without having actually read it. "The sap rises in the tree and reason escapes them. Not like a woman. The woman holds close. The vessel in God's Eden. The repository of man's dreams, waiting, waiting for his being, welcoming the capture."
The sun had set. "No doubt," she breathed, "Kyle assumed the cottage I led him to was home, fool that he was." The path to the door was dark. The house lay well back from the road.
"Did anyone see you enter the house?" the man asked.
She shut the book impatiently. "Of course not, Father."
Still seated in the frayed wing back chair, he leaned forward and made an idle poke at the fire. That done, he placed a mirror face down on the narrow table before him, turning. A quick flame blossomed, casting it's light partially over the man's face. The shadow hid one side of his face while the light shamelessly exposed the second.
Two halves on the same expanse of facial flesh could not have been more different. The emanating darkness of the room hid the neatly trimmed goatee beard, the hairline mustache, the black, straight hair reaching to his shoulders, and the bushy eyebrows. Beneath the brow an azure colored eye, the slightly falling lid. A kindly eye it could be said. Consoling, comforting. Even wistful perhaps, like a faithful dog waiting for a pat from his master. Only the woman he had just addressed had seen the cruel sparks that sometimes flew from an otherwise kindly eye. She, and those unfortunates who had seen it as their last window on God's earth.
No greater contrast nor contradiction could be made. The compassion, perhaps, and softness hidden by shadow, while the light of the flames exposed a long garish scar, loose flaps of flesh, and the hollow socket that had once been an eye.
The woman answered, "Of course not. Why must you always ask that, Father? And why the horrid makeup?"
"Practice, my dear, practice." The man smiled, as if merely practicing that, as well.
"You have two good eyes. The theater is gone, Father. At least gone for you."
"I'm not your father, you know. Ours is not a tale of lost family, charmed princes, and other rubbish. Tell me of Paris, show me what you have brought."
"Then may I go to my bed?" the woman asked. "It's been tiring for me. The whole thing I mean."
"Problems?", he asked, suddenly alert.
"Only one," she replied, passing a leather tube. "Not a great problem. I'd call it a misunderstanding. I thought Madame de Morais wanted me to take her place with her lover. She obviously has been growing tired with him. In truth, she wanted me as her lover." She sighed wearily, sadly running her fingers over the stains on her dress. "Either way, it worked out well. The papers were there, her lover was not. The cut was easy. The slut kissed me, she pressed her face to mine and it was over. I will need money. New clothes are not easy to come by."
"We must keep the new lad impressed," he agreed.
Catherine looked up at him like a child, then lowered her eyes. "That is not what I meant."
There was an awkward silence as the old man unrolled the papers, nodding.
Finally, the woman asked, quietly, "Why him, Father? ...Why this...?"
He answered her by raising his bushy eyebrows in feigned confusion. He seemed to imply that the answer was obvious.
"Some exercise in revenge? What is it with this one? They seem bent on destroying themselves well enough on there own. I don't think..."
The man cut short her words. "Because he knows the truth. God damn his Erhart eyes." He looked back at the young woman, trying not to appear too anxious. "There is no problem, is there, my dear?"
She shook her head, opening her book again.
"You are my perfect child, you know?" the man offered.
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All text edited by Tobin James Mueller.
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