Chapter 6
The City of Monks

Outside Rowan, Gladius

"When I went to Cruz, I saw reminders of the life I left behind in my search for truth. Yes, I did miss those ways, but I was also glad about the decision I had made. I would never had become the man I was meant to be had I clung to a lesser destiny."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Sonia and Jill proved to be a great boon to the group. As a scout, Jill helped them avoid the roving patrols of the Gladian Guard and as a hunter, she reduced their reliance on the provisions they had packed. Sonia had proven her worth in battle when she dueled with the Guardsmen at Rowan and given the trend Mark was observing, she would prove herself many times over before their journey came to an end. In the meantime, her bickering with Edward drew the fury of the hot-tempered Prince away from Mark, which very nearly meant more to him than her skill with a blade.
They kept to the road intermittently, zigzagging into fields and open plains to discourage any potential pursuers. As a consequence, the trip took much longer than it would have if they stuck to the road like normal travelers. Such was the price of those who ran afoul of local authorities. They passed around the city of Eagle along the way, primarily to avoid the attention they might draw in such a major population center, the one with the biggest garrison in the entire kingdom.
All in all, six days had passed since they left Rowan and it was on the morning of the seventh day that they arrived in Cruz. As they stood outside the gates, Mark remembered his experience at Stormtree. He peered into his coin pouch and sighed. Even with the addition of the money Sonia had given him from her spoils, he would be hard-pressed to pay such a steep toll as last time. Seeing Mark counting out his money, Edward made a dismissive wave of his hand.
"You don't need it," he said. "The monks pay the guards to keep them from charging travelers. Of course, they expect you to give them your money out of gratitude."
"Cynic," Mark sniffed. "Your gratitude isn't supposed to be for the monks."
Edward only rolled his eyes. Upon entering, Mark saw that the abbey occupied roughly half of the town, the other half closely resembling Stormtree as far as apparent prosperity was concerned. The abbey complex was walled off from the rest of the city, and the only way in was through the cathedral. Upon entering the narthex, two broad-shouldered doorkeepers clad in albs and armed with thick quarterstaffs barred the way.
"Leave your weapons here if you wish to enter," one of them said.
"Do you know who you're speaking to?" Edward asked indignantly.
Mark raised his hand. "Just do as they say or wait outside."
Edward was clearly not willing to leave himself unarmed anywhere, such was his paranoia and sense of self-importance, nor would he bow to the demands of the doorkeepers, who he deemed his inferiors. Though normally argumentative, he did not seem to have any inclination to start a fight either, so his only remaining option was to turn around and stalk out without another word. Unlike Edward, Mark and the rest of them complied, laying their weapons against the wall in the designated area.
As they walked past the doorkeepers, Sonia eyed one of them and warned him, "Don't touch my sword if you know what's good for you. It doesn't suffer anyone to lay a hand on it save its master."
The nave was divided into two columns of benches, men on the right and women on the left. The monks and nuns sat closest to the altar followed by nobles, gentry and lastly peasants. Since it was not the Sabbath, the cathedral was mostly empty with only a scattered few kneeling in prayer. A deacon hurried up to Mark's party and showed them to their seats.
"I wish to speak with the Father Abbot," Mark said to the deacon. He pulled out the letter of introduction and said, "I have been sent here by Siegfried Martel of Stormtree."
"I will ask, but I cannot guarantee His Grace will grant you an audience," the deacon replied. "By what name shall I make the request?"
"Mark, the son of Luther," the swordsman said. "And if that isn't enough..." Mark pulled out the emblem under his jerkin. "Also say it is a brother of the faith."
As the deacon scurried off, members of the choir filed into the chancel. Mark relaxed to the familiar sound of ecclesiastical chanting. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jasper's gaze dart about, his eyes glazed with an avaricious hunger. Although the cathedral was not as richly decorated as the ones Mark knew in Byrn or others he had heard about in the lands beyond the sea, the ornamentation was more than enough to enthrall Jasper to the point that he was practically watering at the mouth.
"Behave yourself, Jasper," Mark hissed, "or I'll turn you over to Edward."
"Oi! Doan' seh sech fin's, yun' mahstah. Oi'll beh guhd."
Jasper's impish grin hardly inspired any confidence. Mark sighed. Over the time they had traveled together, Mark had come to the conclusion that Jasper was fundamentally a good person, but he was quite plainly set in his ways. While his skills could be useful every now and then, he was more likely to cause trouble as the general rule. In the end, he could only hope that the risks that came with bringing him along would not outweigh the benefits.
Returning to the cathedral, the deacon from before disrupted his train of thought. Mark rose from his seat to meet him.
"The Father Abbot will see you," the deacon said. "Follow me."
Mark walked over to Sonia and whispered, "Wait for me. I won't be long." He looked back at Jasper. "Keep an eye on him. I don't know how long he can resist the temptation of all these ornaments."
Sonia nodded in agreement and Mark followed the deacon to a door at the far end of the transept. A wall running from the back of the cathedral to the city wall split the abbey in half. Although the architectural style was different, Mark could still recognize the refectory, the library, the lecture hall, and the monks' quarters. Interspersed were various orchards and gardens, all of good quality and fastidiously maintained. Seeing the monks going about their various duties, Mark could not help but feel a twinge of nostalgia.
The deacon led him into the library, modest when compared to the Archives of Saint Arita but impressive nevertheless. He followed the deacon to a private study room on the second floor. In the study sat the Abbot, a plump, balding man poring over an ancient text.
"Here is the man who wishes to see you, Father Abbot," the deacon said in a low voice.
The Abbot looked up at them and said, "Thank you, Brother Theodotus. You may return to your duties now."
The deacon bowed and hastily left. The Abbot looked at Mark.
"Show me what you showed Brother Theodotus," he said.
Mark handed the Abbot the letter of introduction. The Abbot broke the seal and looked over the briefly before looking back up to Mark.
"There was something else you showed Brother Theodotus," he said. "I would like to see it."
Mark pulled out the emblem. The Abbot rose from his chair and approached Mark. He held the emblem and looked at it appreciatively.
"Ah, the Cross of Saint Arita..." he said. "It has been many years since I last laid eyes on it." The Abbot slowly looked up and down the length of Mark's body. "I have heard our Aritan brethren are not quite as stringent as our own order. But even so, you are oddly dressed for a monk."
"I, I left the order, Father Abbot " Mark replied hesitantly, "to find my past."
"When a man takes the holy vows, he severs the ties to his past and becomes God's own. Why could you not do this?"
"There is much I do not know... too much for me remain in my cloister."
"It is the state of Man," the Abbot said. "We are not meant know everything. In fact, we are happier knowing little. Is it not written, 'He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow'? Greed for knowledge is no less a sin than greed for gold."
Mark was usually a man of remarkable patience, but that virtue was weakened by his eagerness to learn whatever he could from the Abbot. Nevertheless, he succeeded in keeping a cool head lest he say anything rash that he would regret.
"'Rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee.' So it is written, but it is not what I came here for. If you can tell me nothing, I apologize for disturbing you, Father Abbot. I will leave you and the brethren in peace."
The Abbot laughed. "Well met, young one. Please, sit and stay a while. I will make it worth your time." He returned to his own seat, chuckling softly to himself. "The rebuke is more for me than for you. You hold on to a past you do not know. I know mine all too well, yet I cling to it all the same. Tell me, are you truly the son of the great Luther the Guardian?"
"I am."
The Abbot introduced himself at last, saying, "I am called Octavius. As you can see, I preside over this abbey. I was not always a monk, though, unlike most of the brothers and sisters here. I was once a common soldier in the army of King Edgar. My unit was on the front line and we suffered the full force of the barbarian horde. I was grievously wounded and on the brink of death when friars from this abbey found me while interring the dead. They nursed me back to health and I joined the order out of gratitude to them and to God for saving my life.
"It is written that we are to love God with all our hearts, all our minds and all our souls, but I could not abandon the love for my native land or the earthly sovereign I served. When I became Abbot, I started using my power and influence to aid rebel factions seeking Randwulf's overthrow. An unassuming friar can easily convey messages in all corners of the kingdom, for instance. Sadly, none of the efforts to upset the usurper's power have been successful, but the abbey's connection remains undiscovered."
"How can you be so certain?" Mark asked.
"If Randwulf knew, he would have destroyed us already. I have no doubt of that. He fears neither God nor man for fear itself is his own weapon against us and I am grieved to say that it is a mighty weapon indeed."
"What do you know about my father?"
"He was the finest warrior in all the kingdom," the Abbot boasted. "There was not a man, woman or child in the land who did know his fame. Knowing that the Guardian and the Defender were with us, we thought nothing could defeat us. When rumors of their deaths spread through the ranks, our spirits fell and we became easy prey for the enemy. As I said before, I was nothing more than a common soldier then and I cannot speak of your father in any great detail."
While it was nice to meet another person who regarded his father so highly, there was not much new information in the Abbot's story. More than a little disappointed, Mark sighed.
"I see," he said. "Thank you for your time, Father Abbot."
"Wait," Octavius said as Mark rose to leave. "I want to help you and I have just the idea. Come with me."
Beckoning for Mark to follow, Octavius led the swordsman outside to the wall dividing the abbey. He approached a barred door near the refectory. A sturdily built man armed with a quarterstaff, the monk guarding the door removed the bar and rang a small bell tied to his cincture. Mark heard the sound of movement on the other side of the door. A stocky nun armed with a quarterstaff like her male counterpart opened the door and bowed to the Abbot.
The nuns' half of the abbey was a mirror image of the monks' half, except there was a large herb garden in place of a library. The nuns were clad much the same as their male counterparts in habits of coarse brown fabric girded with white cinctures, the only difference being the blue shawls tied about their shoulders. Upon seeing the Abbot and the strange visitor accompanying him, they were moved by modesty and the rules of the order to pull their shawls over their hair. Apparently they were allowed to have their heads uncovered in the exclusive company of other women, a rule Mark found rather curious.
Some of the nuns, the younger ones in particular, seemed to be distracted from their labors by the two men. Unlike Mark's own order, where both sexes were integrated everywhere except their sleeping chambers and lavatories, the Order of Saint Niccolo only brought males and females together in the cathedral and even there they were kept at a distance. Since many of the inhabitants of the abbey had been there since birth or early childhood, it was entirely probable that a man in such close proximity was a rare sight. Though their staring made Mark terribly ill at ease, Octavius paid no heed to the sisters and guided him to the herb garden, where an elderly nun was instructing a group of novices. She nodded to the Abbot, prompting her pupils to cover their hair.
"What can I do for you, Father Abbot?" she asked.
"Sister Kleantha," Octavius asked, "who is your best pupil?"
"That would be Sister Teresa, without a doubt," Kleantha replied confidently.
"Rise, Sister Teresa," the Abbot said.
One of the novices, a gentle-looking but timid young woman, rose uncertainly. There was nothing about her dress to distinguish her or any other novice from the full-fledged members of the order, another custom of the Niccolans Mark found to be rather curious. She had flowing brown hair that her shawl could not completely hide and green eyes with just the slightest hint of blue. For different reasons, commentators both sacred and profane would probably insist that it was a tragedy for a nun in training to be such a pretty girl.
"Yes, Father Abbot?" the novice asked in a soft voice.
Octavius gestured to Mark. "Sister Teresa, this is Mark, son of the great hero Luther the Guardian. You will go with him wherever he goes and the skills of yours your teacher boasts of will be at his service. Serve him well."
"B-but, Father Abbot!" Teresa stammered. "I, I couldn't possibly leave! I still have so much more to learn and the outside, the outside is dangerous, terrible place, full of all manner of, of wickedness and abominations."
"Are you saying you would disobey me?" the Abbot asked sharply.
While Teresa was faltering for a reply, Kleantha interrupted, "Teresa, I have never seen one with as much promise as you. You could easily surpass me, but you cannot do so if you remain within these walls. Think of this as training. On your travels, observe the plants you come across and bring back samples for study. This way you serve us doubly. I know you can do it. Have faith in yourself and what you have learned." She looked at Mark. "Take good care of her, sir. She has never been on the outside. She knows nothing of the ways of the laity."
"I will protect her on my honor," Mark said. "You have my word."
Content that he had the novice's obedience, Octavius smiled at Teresa and softened his demeanor. "Master Mark here is one of our brethren," he said. "The blood of heroes flows in his veins. If any man would be a sword and shield for you, it will be him and you must be a help to him in return. I will let you prepare now, Sister Teresa, but do not tarry."
"Yes, Father Abbot," Teresa said with a bow.
While Teresa shuffled off to gather supplies, Kleantha resumed her lesson and Octavius walked Mark back to the door to the transept.
Making the sign of the cross, Octavius blessed him, saying, "Godspeed to you, Mark, son of Luther. May God lead you to what you seek."
Mark gave a slight bow. "May God bless you and the brethren for your generosity," he said. "I will protect Sister Teresa with my life."
Mark entered the cathedral and walked down the nave to where the others were sitting. Sonia's eyes were fixed on Jasper, who was keenly aware of the extra attention paid to him. At least it kept the thief out of trouble while he was gone. Mark went to Sonia.
"We're going to be accompanied by one of the nuns here," he said. "Her name is Teresa."
"Why?" Sonia asked. "She'd only get in the way."
"She's an herbalist trained in the arts of healing," Mark explained. "Her skills are bound to prove useful and I couldn't refuse the Abbot's offer. Look for a young woman geared for travel coming in from the left end of the transept."
"The what?"
Realizing his cousin had probably never seen the inside of a church before, Mark pointed to the place where she could expect to find their newest companion.
"One more thing," Mark added. "She's never set foot outside the abbey in her whole life, so be patient with her, be gentle. It's going to be hard on her being on the outside with people she doesn't know." He turned to walk away. "I'm counting on you."
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I'm going to look for Edward. I don't want all of us to waste time going out after him. Wait for me outside the cathedral once you've met up with Teresa."
"Check the tavern first," she said. There was no small amount of disdain in her voice.
Once Mark had gone, Sonia beckoned Jasper to follow her up to the transept. The thief obediently stayed in eyeshot while Jill followed closely behind. It did not take long for Teresa to emerge from the small portal with a walking stick in hand and a fully loaded satchel of medical supplies slung on her shoulder. Somewhat anxiously, she looked around the cathedral for Mark as she passed the chancel.
Sonia waved to catch the novice's attention. "Over here," she said. "You're the one that's coming with us, right? Teresa, isn't it?"
Teresa looked at her suspiciously. "Where is the man the Father Abbot showed me? Where is Master Mark?"
"He's out hunting down the drunkard," Sonia replied. "Come on, let's go."
Teresa did not like the sound of that. It made her worry about the sort of people she was getting involved with. A part of her wanted to flee back to the safety of her longtime sanctuary, but she was more afraid of the shame she would bring to her mentor if she shirked her responsibility and disobeyed the Abbot's order. In spite of her reservations, she meekly obeyed and followed Sonia. They had barely started moving when the novice took notice of the peculiar demeanor of the strange man with a cloak of all colors and a lute on his back.
The moment Jasper first laid eyes on Teresa, his face brightened a hundredfold compared to the time he spent leering at the jewel-encrusted reliquaries. He glided to her side so smoothly that he did not even make a sound. Like most of her sisters, Teresa was sorely unaccustomed to company of men and blushed noticeably at the nearness of the thief.
"Yer a roi' feyah li'l gel, Oi seh," Jasper said. "Oi noo ye li'l nunnies ar' stahv'd fah luv. Oi jes' won' ye tah noo Oi'm owlweys redy tah sa'isfoi yer needs, if'n ye ketch moi meenin'."
Teresa face turned bright red. "W-w-what did you say!?" she stuttered in embarrassed shock.
"Leave her alone, Tricky," Sonia growled.
"Plees stowp cowllin' meh thah'!" the thief whined. "Oi'm troyin' tah chahm a feyah ledy 'eyah, no' sum punchy li'l shroo loik yersel'!"
Sonia whirled around and grabbed Jasper's throat. "You were saying?"
"P-please, stop it!" Teresa exclaimed as she tried to separate the two. As unused to violence as she was to men, she did not realize that there was no real danger.
Sonia released her grip and pointed a threatening finger at the thief. "You watch your mouth," she growled.
Before anything more words passed between them, a great ruckus could be heard from outside. Sonia turned to the exit, confused by the unexpected disruption in the peaceful town.
"What the hell...?"

* * *

As soon as Mark had left the cathedral, he saw six mounted Guardsmen riding in circles, hooting and jeering wildly. They had encircled Edward and were savagely jabbing him with the butts of their halberds. Edward's sword was drawn, but he was obviously drunk and had spent much of his energy fruitlessly swinging about without landing any blows.
Mark drew his sword and rushed at the riders. With a deft slash, he split the girth of a saddle and caused the rider to fall to the ground. A clumsy chop from Edward barely missed the rider as he rolled out of the way. Seeing Mark, the rider turned his attention to him and charged forward. Mark sidestepped the opening lunge, swiping off the head of the rider's halberd. He followed through, delivering a fierce blow with the pommel of his sword that dropped the rider to the ground.
When the other riders saw what had happened, they all focused on Mark, but it was a mistake to totally ignore Edward. The Prince gave a forceful upswing at one of the riders passing by him. His blade cut through the forelegs and ribcage of the horse and continued through the abdomen of the rider. The man was dead before he could even scream.
As the pieces fell to the ground and gore washed over the formerly unspoiled earth, Mark could not help staring helplessly at what was left of the Guardsman and his mount. He had fought so hard to avoid any killing in his journey, but now the fatal line had been crossed. He knew that once the killing began, it would be almost impossible to stop it. The nightmare he had tried to avoid was being realized in a single gruesome moment.
While Mark was distracted, the other riders took advantage of the opening and cast nets on him. Snapping out of his daze, he cut down one in mid-air, but was unable to stop the other three. The nets were drawn taut as the Guardsmen rode past and Mark was yanked off his feet, roughly dragged along the ground behind them. Unable to keep a grip on his sword, it slid through the mesh of the nets and was lost in the cloud of dust the riders raised behind them.
As the riders raced to the gates, Sonia and the others burst out of the cathedral. Jill quickly notched and loosed an arrow that went through the neck of the rearmost rider. Before the body fell to the ground, she had already notched another arrow and drawn back the bowstring. The arrow flew to its target, sticking in the back of another rider, but this one did not fall.
The gates began to close before the riders had even gone through and slammed shut by the time Sonia and the others reached them. She punched the timbers of the gate in frustration. A crossbow bolt sank into the gate mere inches from where she stood. Her eye shot to the gatehouse and the Guardsmen inside. She would not let them get away so easily.