Appearing out of the curtain of heavy rain, a desperate Valguard hurries across a muddy churchyard. Stumbling between uneven tombstones until, with grateful relief, he slumps against the imposing oak door that jutted out from underneath the steeple of the modest church. He bangs twice on the large, patinated brass knocker, its wet handle cold to the touch against the solid wood door.
After only a moment the door creaks open slightly and a young priest peers out, wondering who can be seeking shelter at this time of night.
"Good evening. Yes?" his candlelight illuminates little more than a silhouette of a bedraggled man in the doorway.
"Sanctuary," he pleads desperately in reply.
The novice looks pitifully at the nervous man, yet another unkempt in need of help.
What a night to be caught outside he thought, disliking the cold rain dripping off the parapets, hitting the top of his head and trickling down the neck of his simple robes.
True to his faith, he allowed the man in without question.
"Come this way," he said, swinging the door open fully.
The visitor rushed into the nave and out the terrible weather, although it made little difference as he couldn't possibly get any wetter. With the door closed behind him, the howl of the gale ceased and the air became still. He shook his unruly dark hair that grew past his collar, wiping his face with a soaked scarf from under his long coat that looked to have given up keeping the rain out hours ago. Wet boot prints were left on the square stones of the church floor where he stood dripping.
A more senior member of the parish church walked towards him, holding up a swinging lantern with a fat candle inside.
"My name is Lindum, I am the Curate of this parish church," he said expecting the stranger to introduce himself in return.
"Valguard," was his short reply.
Lindum expected a bit more than that but hid his disappointment and continued, "Well, whatever your circumstances, you are most welcome here, Mr Valguard. How may I be of service on this awful night?"
"He has requested Sanctuary, your eminence." said the novice for him.
"I see. Well, we turn no-one away. Let me take your coat for you. You must be soaked?"
Valguard gripped his collars together tightly and pulled away from the is kind offer.
"I'll hold on to it," he shivered.
Again, Lindum was disappointed and he withdrew his hand.
"Can I ask if you are carrying any weapons."
"I have nothing."
The Curate looked at Valguard who matched his gaze, not looking away.
"Very well, but please let me at least get you some towels to dry yourself. Barnaby, fetch some dry towels for our guest," he delegated to the novice who had opened the main door who scuttled off behind the thick pillars of the chamber.
"May I at least carry your pack for you."
This was acceptable and Valguard handed him his bag.
"What brings you to our church?"
Valguard didn't answer, sharing might not be a good idea.
"It's alright, we won't judge you," he smiled his most reassuring smile. "But if we know each other better, perhaps we can help."
Valguard looked at him for an age before he looked down and whispered the truth, "Thievery."
The Curate tried to not look disappointed but put his arm around him and squeezed his shoulder in support.
"Here is the only place for me now," Valguard explained.
Lindum was not daunted by his visitor's admission, he had encountered far worse. "I find that after a good nights sleep, things never seem as bad in the morning."
Barnaby returned with some towels which Valguard roughly dried his hair and face with. He had not expected such warmth from a stranger, especially one who had no reason in the world to trust him. "I think you're right."
"Come. Let me show you to your room for the night."
As they walk down the darkened cloister the Lindum's voice drops to a whisper.
"We tend to rise very early, I suggest you get straight to sleep," he apologised. "In the morning, you will eat with us and have an audience with our Deacon, I suggest you don't disappoint him. If you receive his blessing, then you are welcome to stay as long as you want, but we will ask you to help us with some of our chores in return." They both stop at an unremarkable door set into the stone wall. "We will talk more in the morning."
Valguard stops him before he opens the door, "Thank you," he says gratefully and he means it.
The priest's lantern casts its soft yellow light into the room as they enter. Several beds are scattered around the interior, most of them already filled with sleeping bodies who cough or roll away as the duo enter. Valguard is shown to an empty bunk and not even waiting to take off his wet coat, flops face down on the straw mattress with an exhausted sigh, the wet coat covering him like a blanket. The priest considers removing his boots or coat but then remembers their earlier conversation. He leaves his backpack at the foot of the bed, wonders about what could have happened to him to leave him in this state for a moment before leaving softly and closing the door.
As the room returns to its quiet rhythm of breathing and snoring, one person lay silent amongst the other sleepers in the gloom. His eyes were wide awake as he watched everything: the new guest enter and fall asleep, Lindum leave and the movements of the other sleeping inhabitants. He waited and watched and when he was sure all was safe, he made his move. Almost snake-like, he slid from his bunk and crossed the floor without a sound. He made a last check that the newcomer was asleep then he bent low and undid the top of the man's pack. Slipping his fingers inside he rummaged around for something worth having but all he felt was a large blanket and what seemed to be a few rocks. Surely there must be something valuable inside if this was all the man owned in the world? He felt something else, a slip of parchment -- a legal deed perhaps? He pulled it out and stared at it in the semi-darkness, turning it the right way round. In large clear lettering, it simply said 'THIEF'.
And with that surprise, the thief's throat was suddenly grabbed by the sleeping owner of the pack as he leant in and snarled in his ear.
"Eh?" the thief gasps in shocked disbelief.
"Cal Henderson?" he becomes more specific.
Reluctantly he nods back as best he can.
"Nice to finally meet you."
Valguard swings to his feet, still holding the thief's neck and carries him to the door leaving his decoy bag of rubbish behind as the others started to stir in their bunks.
Henderson had a dozen questions but the little man could make no sound. He grabbed the hand at his neck to try and loosen the grip without success. Leaving the dormitory, the two proceed down the corridor, Valguard silent and Henderson merely coughing and gasping for breath. Henderson's frantic feet lash out and knock an iron candle stand against the wall, making a crashing noise in the silence.
Retracing the steps from where Lindum had escorted him to his bed he turns the corridor away from where the priest's quarters were and opens the door into the Nave of the church. Although Valguard's boots were soft and didn't make much noise, Henderson's fading sniffs and kicks still echoed in the larger room. Henderson -- desperate for freedom -- scratches at Valguard's arm digging his nails into the tendons, then produces a knife from a pocket and stabs the underside of Valguard's forearm, the blade of the knife is jabbed between the radius and ulna bones and its tip sticks out the top of his sleeve. The mercenary gives a shout, winces with pain and throws the thief into the air towards the exit.
Henderson slides across the flagstones made wet by Valguard when he came in, before spreading out and finally coming to a stop with a feeble groan. Valguard instinctively grabbed at the injury on his forearm where red streaked from his wound.
"You cannot do this here!" screamed Lindum appearing at the doorway and furious at the betrayal. "This is a house of god!"
Valguard was in pain and looked at the Curate with such a stern face, the priest didn't recognise it as belonging to the same pathetic stranger who'd asked for shelter earlier that night. In fact, all he had seen was what Valguard had wanted him to see - he wasn't on the run at all, but a determined hunter tracking his quarry to this very church. Valguard was in no mood to be bothered and he thrust the palm of his good hand out in their direction and using his telekinetic power, the door between them twenty feet away slammed shut, and a second swiping gesture slid the bolt across, holding them in the vestry -- for a while at least.
Staggering against the font, he reached inside his coat and produced a hessian parcel, placing it on the rim of the marble plinth next to him before getting a strip of cloth ready. He pulled the short blade back out of his forearm and let it clatter into the bowl, the water turning red. He quickly wrapped a makeshift bandage tightly around his arm to stem the bleeding. Ignoring the shouts and bangs from the priests trapped in the other room he walked to the thief, who by now was now peeling himself off the ground, still dazed. Henderson looked utterly terrified at this intruder who had abducted him, finally, he spoke.
"What... do you want?"
Valguard produced some rope from his coat and let it dangle from his bloodied hand as he neared him.
"You," he said.
Cal Henderson was a lifelong thief and a full-time shit.
His small stature and thin frame helped him get in and out of places most people couldn't and always for illegal gain. His once light hair was dark with dirt and grease and his normal expression boasted a curled lip of distaste he faced the world with.
He had spent his wasteful life stealing from both strangers and friends alike, initially to survive and then continuing because it was the only thing he could do and he never got caught. He was addicted to stealing and would pocket literally anything that came his way, whether he wanted it or not. He had been known to steal cheap pendants, worth nothing other than sentimental value on impulse, only to dislike it on closer inspection and toss it into the river, leaving a distraught owner mourning its loss. He left whole families in tears wherever he went and had been a wanted man for years, but had always got away with his crimes because he moved quickly from town to town. He never stayed long enough to have a 'patch' like most thieves do, just long enough to turn a quick score and flee, preferring to keep one step ahead of anyone who might be in pursuit.
Until recently, that is.
One of the more noteworthy items that Henderson had stolen was a large, bejewelled gold cross from a church a few weeks back as he was passing through the region. Being desperate for money he stupidly tried to pawn this cross in the town it was stolen from. At the Brimfield pawnbrokers, the savvy owner, Mr Aligarth Gattishead, who had seen it all before recognised the ornamental crucifix straight away and levelled a very expensive sword at him before shouting for his assistants. Henderson panicked and ran from the shop with his life, but not the cross and fled the town.
Gattishead called in the town militia but knew only too well how lazy and corrupt they were, he told them of the thief but did not mention the cross he still had in his possession. He knew that it would never make it back to the rightful owner if he handed it over. After a couple of days unmotivated searching for the thief, the militia returned empty-handed to say he had escaped without a trace and then went back to doing bugger all.
Gattishead wasn't in the slightest bit surprised but being a decent enough man he had already made his own plans. Not only was keen to see the golden artefact returned, but he also wanted the miscreant punished. He had used private mercenaries before to recover stolen items and posted a warrant for the thief to be found and brought in alive. He asked around to see who was in town and could take the job -- Valguard's name came up several times.
They met up in the Black Bell tavern, the broker explained the situation and Valguard nodded that this was exactly the sort of thing he did. He left town that night and it didn't take long for him to find out the thief had not made it to any neighbouring towns and then a witness who had seen someone matching his description seek refuge in the church. This could explain why the militia had turned up nothing -- if they did look in the first place -- as there was a long-standing truce between the civic leaders and the church. If you were on the run and you reached the church door, you could request asylum from that point on, you were immune from the reach of the authorities As long as you stayed within their walls. This served the church well as it boosted their numbers and if a criminal was never to set foot outside again, it was no different to them being in one of their own jails but without the cost.
This polite convention, was one that a mercenary like Valguard did not observe.
Back in the church, Valguard looked down at his prisoner.
"You came here weeks ago and stole a priceless cross when no one was looking. You even tried to sell it in the same town."
Guilt kept Henderson silent.
"How could you have the neck to be looked after and protected by the very people you stole from? Pretty shitty -- even for you."
Valguard knocked him out cold with a single punch. "They can't protect you from me," he said before tying his hands together with the rope and hoisting the limp thief over his shoulder. He opened the big door into the horrible wind and rain and stepped out from this sanctuary. But before he could leave, he heard Lindum and a handful of sleepy priests running into the nave from another door.
"Stop! This is an outrage! All who come here receive equal protection regardless of past crimes." Lindum protested.
"And that's where you go wrong, priest."
"He can be saved."
Valguard liked the Curate, he was a good man who would help anyone regardless of whether they deserved it or not. He knew he could never be that magnanimous.
"I'll take care of this one. You take care of everyone else."
"I'm begging you, do not take--"
But with a wink and his best 'tough shit' smile, Valguard slammed the door behind him.
The shocked priests stood motionless for a moment before looking at each other in disbelief. One ran to the door and the others followed, peering out into the night, they saw nothing past the first few rows of tombstones other than the deluge of rain that rippled across the sky. Realising pursuit on a night like this was futile, and that outside the door was beyond their protection, Lindum slammed the heavy door closed and felt anger for the first time in years. Then he thought of what the Deacon would say to him in the morning and his heart sank even lower.
"What do we do now?" asked Barnaby.
"Nothing," admitted Lindum. "There's nothing we can do."
Lindum was a peaceful man and had never experienced such intensity since his youth. Moving back inside the normality of the church he steadying himself against the blood splashed stone font. This was not the sort of thing that happened in his church, ever. Their centuries-old sacred promise of sanctuary had never been-- Hang on, what was this? Something didn't look right. In the bowl was an untidily wrapped bundle. Lindum would often notice gaps where things had been pilfered from the church -- recently more and more expensive things -- so he was used to things disappearing not appearing. It definitely wasn't here when they turned in for the night and didn't look like anything that the priests would own.
Lindum opened the mystery item and his pounding heart stopped for a moment - he could not believe what it was. Behind him, Barnaby gasped and tears welled in his eyes. Light bounced off the glorious golden jewelled surface of a huge cross as the last twist of rag fell away. A unique cross of unimaginable value was once more held in the grip of its rightful owner.
He looked back to the Sanctuary door, in the direction of where the bloody mercenary had last stood with watery eyes that dripped tear down his cheek. All anger was changed to joy at the strangers deception and he cursed thanks under his breath.
Wasting no time, Lindum turned to the Chancel and approached altar where the returned cross had sat for centuries until several weeks ago when a lowly thief, whose identity had now been revealed, stole it. Now he placed it back in its rightful position and along with all the other priests, bowed his head and gave thanks to his God and the kindness of strangers.
© David N Humphrey 2017. All Rights Reserved. v1.31
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