“Why, thou owest heaven a death.”
— SHAKESPEARE, Henry IV
The blow that I had suffered at my Adversary’s hand as well as the gentle rocking of my horse all lulled me into a state half of sleep, half of swooning. Curiously, for the first time in many months, I did not dream – I slept deeply, undisturbed, in the evening summer air. For what had I to left to hope for now? I was in his hands again and no power could or would rescue me. My escape had been a dream; my present state was and ever had been the only true reality. A strange awful relief seemed to envelop me with this knowledge and, as I gradually awakened from my slumber, a stray tear crossed my cheek as I realized that with my capture, I had no longer the apprehension of capture left to fear. Gone as well were all the illusions of safety and truth that I had relied on earlier and built my hopes upon. The ropes that harnessed me to my horse’s back – these were true.
The air was suddenly rich with the scent of roses and I saw that we were approaching a manor house, its dark form rising against the yellowing evening sky. It was fashioned in the style of a classic lord’s manorhouse from the time of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, save for the peculiarly rounded turrets that ended with a flourishing point at their crown, like the towers of a medieval fortress or Turkish temple. A valley lake spread its dark face before the mansion, reflecting the towers and sky that stood before it, while a thick growth of roses leaned over the water, crimsoning its western bank.
It was close to this bank that my captors drew to a halt. The halter of my horse’s reins were left in Baillie’s hand while Gottfried rode to the Judge’s side to learn something, I suppose, respecting my fate. Though we had left the forest and were, I supposed, on Complin’s own lands, he still had not yet removed his veil. As a result, whether he looked on me or not while he conferred with the Hessian, I could not discern, no more than could I speak or lift my head from the horse’s neck. The larks had begun their evening hymning, darkening the sky above Complin’s chimneys and turrets; never had I envied the state of a dumb beast more than I did then. I had a man’s intellect and a man’s soul; they had their brute instincts and thoughtless joys – what use, now, were my gifts over theirs?
At last, both Gottfried and the Judge approached me. I expected the Hessian to speak, but it was Complin himself who told me of my fate.
“Alan,” he said softly. “You defied me and in your defiance, you betrayed my will and my pleasure. Before your escape, you were an innocent, or so I thought. But what you committed was an act of such willful perversity that I can no longer presume that I have read your heart correctly.
“You once flattered my soul by claiming that you thought me all-powerful. Either you were a fool or a liar and either, in being reclaimed by me, you have learned your lesson or your heart is still hardened against me. If it is the former, then you are still an innocent – a foolish innocent, yes, but still altogether mine. If it is the latter, then we are forever at enmity and one or the other of us will – and must – extinguish the other from existence.
“I could loosen your gag and let you speak, but in your terror, you would do all that you could to assure me of your innocence. I want more from you tonight, Alan, than words. I want to put you to the question – not just your lips, but your entire being. We shall let Fate determine your innocence. You have heard, perhaps, of the old medieval ordeals of innocence. Yours shall be the same and by it, you shall give me satisfaction. Gottfried, Baillie – you know what you must do.”
Baillie dismounted his horse and loosened the ropes that held me, slipping me from the beast’s back and lowering me to the soft earth. He then began deftly to tether me so that my wrists were securely bound together and my feet as well, testing the bonds to see that they would not shift or unravel. The Judge remained mounted, silently observant, while Gottfried watched, his expression one of remote sympathy.
“What should we do with him afterwards?” Gottfried murmured.
“We caught him as an escaped convict,” Baillie replied, ruffling my hair as he brutally tightened my bonds. “It will surprise no one to find that the dogs have had their way with him. Or perhaps his remains could give added color to your roses, my lord?”
Complin remained silent, either unhearing or uncaring. Baillie took another rope and knotted one end of it to the ropes that bound my wrist and the other to my horse Titus’s saddle. Then, at last, I knew how the judge intended to try my innocence.
Complin gestured to the field of thickets and trees that extended past the lake along the western wing of his manor. “Send him there. There are thorns enough to try him. But look to our prisoner – I believe,” and for the first time since our reunion, I heard a hint of that cruel, familiar humor, “I believe that his soul wishes to quit us.”
Baillie revived me from my swoon, wettening his hands with water from the lake and chafing my hands and brow until color and life returned to me.
“Do not delay, gentlemen,” the Judge said. “Prove him, now.”
Baillie gave Titus’s flanks a savage blow and, with a start, the beast began to gallop towards the thickets – and I, its feeling, suffering burden, was dragged along at its heavy, relentless heels. As the ropes were bound so tightly about my wrists that they could not loosen, the jolting speed of the horse strained them to their utmost, beyond what they could possibly endure, until, with a sickening twist, I felt the bone of my left wrist snap and a fiery, sickening pain course through me. It did not relent, but continued to torture me as I felt the broken bone move and tear at my wrist from beneath my flesh, the blood spurting thickly down my arm and leaving a crimson trail in my wake. With this overpowering agony, every knot of wood and rough stone that scratched and bruised my body as I was dragged unceasingly forward seemed an added insult that my senses could barely measure and add to the agonizing sum.
And yet ahead, I saw them: the thickets that the Judge had gestured toward and promised as the goal of my ordeal. They were crowned with thorns, large enough to tear at my eyes, to open my throat, to bleed me slowly to death. Oh, what a death my Adversary had reserved for me! I nearly laughed at my old fear of hanging – this harrowing of mine – leaving me broken and blinded – was infinitely more refined. On the breath of my own mad humor, I closed my eyes, shutting out the view of those dark murderous thickets, and committed my soul to Heaven, praying for a swift death – I could not test Heaven’s patience and presume to pray for a painless one.
I thought at first that I had gone utterly mad, for I closed my eyes and waited – and felt nothing. Oh, I felt a few sharp stings, the wet trickle of blood, and the moving, bruising earth beneath me – but I did not feel the whiplash of thorns that would undo my flesh. Half faint with exhaustion, the broken bone of my wrist now exposed like bloodied ivory, I opened my eyes. My horse was still galloping – but in spite of the thorns tearing at his sides, I saw that he was carefully pulling me along through the narrow openings that led like accidental paths through the thickets, thereby preserving me from the worst of their thorns. Was this his gratitude for my rescuing him from his bullet wound? Did horses have such long memories? I did not know, but the heaving, bloodied flanks of the beast above me were now as welcome as the brush of angel wings.
At last, clear of the thickets, Titus brought me to rest by a shallow little brook that passed through a bank of moss: my cheek cooled against its current, my broken wrists still raised by the bloody rope that held me. The kindly horse leaned down, nosing at my face and wickering its sympathy. I heard the approach of Gottfried and Baillie, the sudden intake of breath from the Hessian as he saw me. Baillie gave an ugly oath as though cheated: “What madness is this? There’s barely a scratch on the boy.”
The Judge, looking down upon me from his mount, lifting the dark veil that had concealed his face from me. His eyes were shining; his lips white and drawn; his gaze fixed upon me as though he longed to read and comprehend the truth of my soul through the flesh that he had tortured so mercilessly and that yet miraculously lived. There was something baffled in his look – I could not fully measure how much of what he felt was relief, how much mere amazement. It was when his gaze set at last again upon my face that I felt the beginnings of a smile; gagged as I was, the muscles of my cheeks twitched joyously and I felt my eyes glisten with an irrepressible ecstasy. My Adversary observed my convulsion with a steady eye, though what he made of me I could not tell.
Gottfried dismounted and knelt beside me, dampening his kerchief in the brook and wiping the blood from my face. He then loosened the gag at my mouth, watching me breathe in the fresh air.
“Water, please,” I whispered laughingly.
He dipped his kerchief into the brook again and held it to my lips, letting me suck in the cooling liquid.
“What shall we do with him now, my lord?” he asked, turning again to Complin.
“Bring him home,” the Judge replied, turning his mount towards the manor again.
“Home, my lord?”
“Here. Whither else?”
I did not hear the rest of their conference, for as I leaned back, exhausted with drinking, I felt myself slip again into the swoon that my spent flesh demanded as its suffering due.