Isidore was no lost child in the wilderness. As a boy he was always running to the Blinkhorn Wood near Sage Hall where he was born. He went, not as a monk to pray or a lord to hunt or a peasant to feed his hogs, but as a supplicant in search of insight. And peace. In the Blinkhorn Wood the hazel and the oak were sound of limb, the willow was well made and the tall pine forever green.
In Gutmoor half the trees had died. The air was like a stinking tanner’s breath; the ground sucked and oozed around his feet. A scatter of swamps emitted gases that churned up into unctuous clouds and eclipsed the light of erstwhile gods: sun, moon or sky. In Gutmoor, stars and other heavenly bodies were forever indistinct.
“I commend myself into God’s keeping!”
Isidore wiggled the toes of his right foot to confirm that the lucky blades of yarrow were still inside his shoe. He rubbed the virgin’s bone.
“Heaven defend me against the bloody stab and the crushing blow and everything awful that comes into the land!”
It took him six nights to pass through Gutmoor. (“Jupiter Christus! If only I could fly!”) He traveled on foot, because a mounted man would have stood out, and he traveled only at night, which the local folk would never do. In Gutmoor, thieves were king. Isidore took pains to avoid the criminal classes, but he did not fear them. He could protect himself from physical hurt. If nothing else, he could run exceedingly fast. In fact, he preferred the prospect of dodging thieves to trading words with an honest John. It was the stooped peasant scouring the forest for honey, ash or bark that filled him with dread. He could not run from the nausea that turned his gut when confronted with joyless human beings.
He remembered hearing once, “From three people keep yourself: he who laughs at evil, he who mocks and he who has no joy.”
In Gutmoor, people could be no other way.
He had timed his journey with the increase of the moon. The noxious atmosphere diffused its power but did not obliterate it and for his very life he depended on the smear of light above.
He remembered hearing once, “The moon is a sovereign remedy for all things.”
He lived on berries and beechnuts and bark. As a child he had trained his body to thrive on a subsistence diet. When asked if he were preparing for the monastic life, he replied no, that he simply thought it wise to prepare for life’s eventualities. It now served him. He could live without meat – a good thing, considering the ropy bodies of the animals here – and, because he had dressed for a colder climate than this, he had no need of fires.
The waters of Gutmoor had turned foul from long standing. They invited neither man nor beast to drink. No matter. As a child Isidore had learned to endure thirst.
He remembered hearing once, “When you die, the first thing you will see is a cypress tree perched over a clear cool spring.”
It was that voice again, the voice that had told him about the sovereignty of the moon and what sort of people to avoid. But whose voice? Someone from his past, but who?
“You will want to drink from the spring. Your thirst will be terrible, the most terrible need you have ever known.”
It was not his father’s voice. And no priest would tell such tales to a boy.
“Drink not! They are the waters of oblivion placed at heaven’s gate to make you forget past lives!”
Apparently the solitude of his nocturnal walk had cleared his mind and left a small blank space for new thoughts to appear or for long-absent thoughts to return. Yes. He was remembering something. But what? Who had taught him to endure thirst? When? And where and why?
The Immortals would know. Isidore journeyed on.
He slept in the daytime. He climbed up into the branches of trees and made a nest of his belongings while bewildered squirrels and birds settled into the folds of his clothing and stared.
Isidore could not commune with animals, not yet. But as a child he had learned to sit peacefully among the wilder things. While his brother played at ring-catching and flag-piercing in preparation for knighthood, Isidore acquired a stillness of being that had a soothing effect on the creatures of the wood. He had no fear of beasts.
As for the human beasts of Gutmoor, he had not perfected the power to make himself invisible. Although he had managed to make parts of himself disappear, specifically an ear and several toes, it was not sufficient to his present need. And yet he knew how to move with such stealth that even the sensitive ears of a thief remained unaware of his approach. He could slip through the night undetected as though comprised of spirit alone.
He had no fear of the dark or the cold. He was not afraid of hunger and thirst or exhaustion or the solitary nature of his quest. Isidore lived in mortal fear of other things. One was mediocrity. The other was monotony.
It was the tediousness of his walk that began to wear him down. And so to relieve his boredom he actually went looking for thieves, stealing so close to their fires that he felt the glare of red ash and heat on his brow. He crouched inside bushes and studied evildoers, so-called, while they ate bran bread fit for dogs, sang vulgar songs and drank themselves silly, belligerent or blind.
As a child Isidore had dedicated himself to the proposition that whatever the circumstance, he should find the good of it.
“But this is wonderful!” he exclaimed as he spied upon the forest fiends. It was wonderful that within a fortnight he should be privy to the opposite ends of human expression, from the exalted reasoning of a king to the noise of unbooked and benighted souls.
He discovered that not all thieves were alike. There were brethren who moved in large packs and conducted themselves like a guild. There were puckish thieves who made more merry than mischief. There were hunters with bows of yew and a genuine love for the outlaw life outdoors. They all lived on the edge of sin and yet Isidore found that he could not despise them. In town he would have joined the hue and cry at the very sight of just one. But here in the wood, which was their home, he behaved with the deference of a guest.
And then one night his inclination to find the good in all things collided with walking death, a man who lived at the center of sin, a perspiring heap of humanity: Babiana the Sweat.
Isidore had just awakened and stripped a bitter plant down to its pulp for food when he heard a kind of singing in the air. More thieves! He leapt to his feet and followed the song to its source, a chaotic and hastily assembled encampment, where he concealed himself behind a bush on the fringe.
Peering through the leaves, he found himself staring into the lunatic eye of a goat. It was so unexpected that he fell backwards. The creature bleated once but showed no interest in raising the alarm. Isidore righted himself and took stock of the figures stationed directly in front of the bush. He counted nine goats and one sad-looking boy.
The goatboy had the wasted look of a prematurely aged youth whose life would not be long. He watched the proceedings around the campfire, the roasting and eating of one of his charges, with an apathetic stare. He did not join in on the song of his masters.
“Hey! I met a lass in tattered gown,
She had no legs or arms!
I plugged her anyway ‘til I found
She was not without her charms!”
Although they were singing the praise of every woman born – the point of each verse being that no matter what her defects, she still possessed something worth singing about – the white wizard turned green. There were five of them. Five of the ugliest, hairiest, sweatiest men he had ever seen, they had gathered into a scanty coven around their butchered goat. The fireglow picked up squirts of fresh blood on their faces and coarse tunics. The skill of a proper huntsman, who took pride in his ability to break up and skin an animal without spattering his clothes, or even rolling up his sleeves, had completely eluded them.
They climaxed their verse with a caterwaul to the boy. “More drink!”
The boy’s body, skewed by rape and random beatings, tottered stiffly toward the fire to fill their cups with an undoubtedly grainy, bitter-as-gall ale. Isidore wondered how long he had been in their service. Where had they snatched him from? Where was his mother, did she still have hopes for her child?
He would grow up to be one of them, if he managed to survive.
“Boy? We christen thee Goat Boy!” The man speaking appeared to be in command. “And monk’s meat is what we call the goats. Booty from the house of God!”
The hell-demons laughed. Apparently depriving monks of their livestock and probable chief source of income was a hilarious business.
“Goats, they are grand. Goats, they are fine. From behind they look like—the Other.”
They all grinned knowingly, to show their intimacy with the Devil. His penis was made of iron, they said, his semen as cold as ice.
There was nothing wonderful about these thieves, nothing to be gained from the night-horrors of men who had turned bad beyond the reach of grace. Isidore prepared to leave. But the following words stopped him in mid-turn.
“I’ve got the fingers here! Ten!”
Isidore had to look. The leader was holding up a plain wooden box, the contents of which sparked another gleeful verse.
“Hey! A wench of nine has got a mound,
Though it has not opened yet.
I worked so hard, she damn near drowned
In all my pretty sweat!”
After some dementedly hearty laughter and another call for more drink, one of them asked, “Does the child still live? Or is it dead, my lord?”
His lord snuffled and snorted like a hog. “Do I know? Do I care? I am Babiana! Babiana the Sweat!”
Everyone shouted. They all seemed to be of the opinion that there was no one or nothing better than that.
“The child did serve me. Alive or dead, it is a saint. Our Lady of the Chopped-Off Hands!”
Isidore jammed his thumb inside his mouth to keep from crying out. He knew the purpose for what lay inside the box. Certain men saw magic in a child’s hand. They lit its severed fingers like candles and left them burning at the door of the house they intended to sack. This charmed the occupants into sleeping on, unable to “raise a finger” against the thieves. Even better than the fingers of a child were those of a newborn babe. But fingers carved straight from the womb worked best.
“We are the Plain-Faced Knights of Gutmoor. Eat! Eat of the monks and their livelihood! Eat, my little Galahads, eat while they starve!”
To a man they farted and then plunged into a feeding that lacked all the niceties of salt cellar, manners or sauce. Isidore parted the leaves of his bush to improve his view of Babiana the Sweat, so that he might look without flinching upon a creature so depraved as to abduct, rape and hack off the hands of a child.
He was a monument to body hair and malodorous sweat. Even his fingernails glistened, and his teeth and the tip of his bulbous nose. Slugs of perspiration cut gullies across his temples and trickled down into his ears. He sat kettle-bellied on the ground, a repulsive, blubbering crock of bristling brow, bewhiskered eyes and dripping nose hairs.
The fastidious wizard shrank from the sight.
Babiana’s eyes were small and beady but not stupid. He said, “There is resurrection in our fire.”
A true malefic.
“Think! These bones once burned for a lady. Now they burn for me.”
The man who looked downward. Saturn, the maker of death.
Somebody asked, “And the woman, my lord?”
Babiana lapped fat from a joint with his purple tongue. “Oh yes,” he said, his speech flecking the air with spittle and grease. “The woman. There was a time when she had thoughts. But she never thought her ribs would one day feed my fire.”
Infamous! Like witches, they desecrated graves and kindled their fire with human remains.
“Lord, was she fair?’
“Why not? We can make of her as we please. A beauty. And then a wife. With a ring on her finger, a brooch on her breast. See!” He held out his hand. The corpse’s wedding band and brooch looked lost inside the hairs bristling up from his bloated palm.
Worse than witches! They plundered graves for gold.
“Old mother! I never knew her until this night. She is that sizzle in the air.”
Isidore wanted to move on. He wanted to restore his faith, even in thieves, move on and find those healthy cocks who preferred their women whole, leaving the dead, the maimed and the very young in peace.
“We are the better cut of thief. Why?” Babiana touched a warty finger to his brow. “Brains.”
They stared moronically at the fire, a tableau of damnation and doom. Even the flames, which should have lent them color, left them cold and sullen gray.
“I had a dream! A dream so grand that I waked the fair Richilda at my side.”
Isidore felt certain that Richilda was anything but fair.
“She applied a meaning to my dream. As you know, she has the sight.”
A common witch, no doubt.
“In my dream I saw candles all lit up and placed outside a church. Hundreds of candles, posted around the church like a rosy ring of fire. Richilda said nay, not candles. But fingers. Fingers from a hundred hands, tiny hands, the wee hands of tiny tots. Hands as good as gold to men in our profession. What luck that I should dream this dream. Our load will be lighter from now on. No more stealing through the night with the loot of worthy men to slow us down. We do not want their goods.”
The man beside him gasped. “Lord! Are we saved?”
“No, twit. We want their daughters and their sons. Take the children. I ought to say, take pieces of their daughters and their sons.”
The eyes of the Plain-Faced Knights of Gutmoor remained dim and undiscerning.
“Make more candles, see. And light the world.”
One of them finally understood. “Ah! We sell these fingers! To the lesser cut of thief!”
“Right. Brains.” Babiana tapped his brow again and winked. “Find a silly child along the road. Seize it. Or tease it from the yard with something sweet. A child comes out the door to play at Piggy in the Ring? It never does return. Or if it does, mother dear will ask – my dear! Where did you leave your hands? Snatch it from the mother’s teat and snatch it from the womb. Yes, my little Galahads. Fingers from the womb will work the best.”
Isidore closed his soulful eyes.
“All we want is hands, you see.”
Grinning, they picked at their teeth with twigs.
“I see it thus. We save that child from labor’s curse. If it live, it lives a cripple, upon charity and prayer. Brains, you see.” Once more he tapped his brow. “And heart.” He lowered his hand to his hollow chest. “Amen.”
Longing for the more natural dark, Isidore crept back into the night.
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