Authors: Richard Murphy
Children of the Fountain
Richard P. Murphy
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All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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For Yvonne. I wish you could have read it.
The shadow slipped silently through the halls of the abbey. Occasionally, the white of an eye or tooth caught the flickering torchlight. As the figure continued down the main hall, past the kitchens and storerooms it came to a large wooden iron studded door at the end. Slowly, it crept inside, the huge slab of oak seeming to make little protest as it was eased open.
Suddenly the figure froze, and every inch of its body at once became part of the wall; seemingly flatter, almost lifeless. Indeed, the two friars who went past conversing about morning prayers didn’t even notice it.
Eventually, the dark shadow peeled itself away from the cloister wall and continued on its course. Never pausing to get its bearings it clearly knew where it was headed.
Turning a final corner it came into a small stone room and the light from a single candle revealed the figure to be that of a man. A bed, desk and some book laden shelves were the only objects present. Sat at the desk a monk scribed away with a quill and parchment, oblivious to the watcher at the doorway. Or so he thought.
“I knew you’d come here eventually. It’s been over a year now,” said the monk, his eyes barely looking up from the parchment he was decorating.
“Very good, James,” came the reply. “You would have made a fine member of the Guard.”
“Except I chose another path, father.”
Hernan stepped into the candlelight and his lean face was lit instantly. He had been blessed with looks once, but the old features held a darkness also. Pain perhaps? Some past suffering, definitely.
He stepped forward and said, “Whereas my path chose me.”
James gave a scoff and stood up; he was younger but his body not as athletic due to his service to God, and wine. Their features were similar but the face of the monk carried no pain or darkness. The eyes glistened even in the candlelight and his smile seemingly warmed the cold the abbey room.
“If you say so, father.” James gestured to the seat but the other man remained standing. “You always thought I, rather than Michael, was best suited to your particular line of - ”
“I don’t have much time. I need you to do something.”
“Come with me, I have a carriage outside. I need you to take care of some things.”
James followed to the corridor and was nearly too slow to see his father dart through a back door. Emerging in the twilight he almost didn’t notice the black carriage discreetly parked beside the copse. Hernan was already there and opening the door when James finally caught him.
“Where are we going?”
“Nowhere,” he said, turning with two bundles. “I need you to take care of Michael’s children.”
“Children! What children?”
Hernan handed over two heaps of rags, which turned out to contain two babies. The monk struggled with them awkwardly, “My God!”
“Margaret gave birth to twins four weeks ago. This is Matthias.” Hernan tenderly brushed back the boy’s hair as he spoke before continuing, “This here, is Rebecca.”
“Where are Michael and Margaret?”
“Margaret is dead, Michael is in hiding.”
James stared in shock first at his father and then at the small bundles presented to him. He looked at the boy and saw the small, delicate face was asleep. A sprout of golden hair poked out from a linen cap and the soft delicate lips were unmistakeably his father’s. Immediately he imagined the boy’s mother staring into those eyes too and spotting the similarities. James clutched the child to his chest and tears fell freely from his cheeks as he thought of Margaret.
“What has happened? Why are they doing this?”
“Michael was right all along. They suspected he knew and tried to kill him. They got Margaret instead, the details of which I’ll spare you. I have mourned for her in these brief few hours and I will do so again. But for now, I must see the children are safe. Let’s go inside.”
They returned to the monk’s study and laid the two babies down on a pew.
“James, Michael wants you to look after the children, here, at the orphanage. He wants them to have a different life. I’m sure you of all people can understand this.”
James looked at his father and a painful realisation glazed in his eyes.
“I don’t want to put him them in danger. If the Legion ever found out who these children were they may try to complete the circle by killing them.”
Hernan walked over to the shelf of books and manuscripts. He idly picked up a small wooden figure of a fox. It was clumsily made, clearly by no craftsman, and the face and features could have been carved by a child. The wood felt rough and chipped in places, sharp edges sat alongside smoothed curves.
“You made this for me?”
“Yes, when I was a boy,” whispered James. “Where will you go?”
“Back to the castle, initially. I must check on our latest recruits.”
Hernan’s head hung low as he held the wooden fox in his hands, his fingers going over every nook and cranny as if he had just finished turning the wood and was inspecting it for mistakes. There were mistakes; too many. “I have to leave,” he said.
“After the castle, then what? An attack?”
“No, not yet. I’m leaving for France. England has too many eyes and ears.”
“This man, Bonaparte?”
“Nothing to do with us, but we’ll keep an eye on him.” He turned, placed the wooden carving back on the shelf.
“Goodbye James. One day I hope to return. But for now, bring them up as well as you can. Let them know their father was a good man, a simple man. A farmer, perhaps?”
Hernan turned and went to walk out of the room, his cloak already making him almost invisible in the candlelight. “See to it James. I know you will do what is right. Farewell.”
“Tell Michael I will not fail him.”
James blinked back tears and when his vision was no longer blurred his father was simply not there. He walked over to the two babies. More tears fell onto the children’s cheeks and James wiped them back.
It was spring and all over Europe men were returning home. A war had been won and slowly the survivors trickled back. From Quatre Bras, Wavre and Waterloo they returned. But here, all those events had passed by like leaves in a stream.
Matthias looked up from the whispering canopy of the orchard. Saint Gregory’s Abbey was a run down but happy place to live. True, life was hard in the orphanage. Chores ranged from chopping and collecting wood in the forest for the boys, to hours spent seaming and darning all manner of garments for the girls. But they were happy times for the children who, often, had left behind them great sadness. In each set of eyes there was a different tale of loss; each face covered a miserable truth with smiles and laughter.
A brisk breeze had arrived swiftly that day. Leaves swirled around the courtyard of the great building, a slight layer of dust coming off the walls as the wind invisibly ground down the yellow sandstone.
“Matthias!” a voice shouted from the courtyard. “Where are you?”
Matthias stepped behind one of the apple trees. Like many fifteen year olds his body hadn’t quite finished growing but he had a lean and athletic poise. His dark hair swept around his face framing blue eyes and a wide full mouth.
He watched a young boy sit down on a low stone wall and breath a deep sigh, before shouting, “I give up!” to the skies. The youngster rested his head on his hands and his brown fringe dangled over his eyes. Matthias watched as he blew out from his mouth and for a moment the lock of hair hung in the air before dropping back.
Albert was thirteen years old but he looked younger. He was new to the abbey, small and sometimes got picked on, but usually the bigger boys left him alone. That was because he had made friends with Matthias and people tended to not get on the wrong side of Matthias.
Albert looked around again, his freckled cheeks gathered around his nose as he peered over at the tree. Matthias stepped out from behind the gnarled trunk.
“Prepare to be boarded!” yelled Matthias.
Albert leapt to his feet. “Stand fast men!” he bellowed. A bystander may have noticed a not very convincing French accent.
There was s shimmer of light from behind the tree and then the blur of colour.
“Surrender Captain Albert!”
“It’s Alberrr...you don’t pronounce the ‘T.’”
Another flash of something. A coat? A head? Then suddenly Matthias was stood in front of Albert and the two boys presented their wooden swords.
“Whatever, surrender your vessel!”
Albert leapt toward Matthias dancing sideways until they were within each other’s reach. The ‘clonk’ of sabres clashing was unmistakeable and the duel lasted sometime before Captain Alberrr, mortally wounded, plunged all of two feet to his death.
Albert rolled onto his knees and scowled at Matthias. “How do you do that?”
“What?” said Matthias, offering a hand.
“That thing, you know, when you move so quickly. I can hardly even see you.”
Matthias regarded him with a quizzical look, his eyes narrowed and they gave his face a mischievous appearance. “I don’t know what you mean.”
The two started to make their way back to the Abbey. It was morning service soon and they had to be in the chapel. But Albert wasn’t going to let the point go.
“Yes you do,” he said, as they made their way through the giant stone archway and into the courtyard. “The way you move, it’s not natural.”
“I suppose I’m just very quick,” said Matthias, slightly less assuredly. “I’ve always been quick. As long as I can remember.”
Nudging him, Albert caught Matthias’s eye and nodded to his left. It was Rebecca and Albert smiled awkwardly as she approached. Matthias’s twin sister had eyes like pieces of sky breaking through dark clouds. Her light brown hair fell about her head and never really seemed to settle even when she was still. To Matthias though, all this was background to the look of worry she had on her face.
“What is it?”
“It happened again,” she said.
Rebecca was visibly shaking and tears swelled in her eyes. “The store room. Please come quickly.”
“Cover for me,” said Matthias, before darting away with Rebecca. The two made their way around the back of the abbey to a large wooden shack at the side. As they approached Matthias could see smoke rising from underneath the door.
Rebecca started to break down and sob. “It was an accident. I don’t know why it happens.”
Matthias put his arm around her. “It’s alright. Go and sit back in your room. I’ll deal with this before Sister Helena finds out.”
“Don’t worry. It’s not your fault.”
Rebecca hugged her brother and dashed off into the abbey. Matthias turned, breathed in and heaved open the door. Smoke surged outward briefly blinding him before subsiding to reveal the chaos within.
The storeroom was about twelve foot long and six foot wide filled with bags of grain, barrels and various boxes of food. The bags were singed black and glowing orange along the edges, the barrels were smouldering and in places there were small flames.
why does this happen?
He pounded at the flames licking the boxes as best he could with his coat. Slowly but surely he suffocated the fires but the smoke seemed to become more intense. Stepping back to the doorway he stopped to get his breath and cover his stinging eyes. They were only just beginning to stop streaming when he was jolted by the slap of a hand on his shoulder and a shrill voice screamed in his ear. “Matthias!”
“Wh-what? Sister Helena?”
“What have you done?”
“It wasn’t me. I – ”
“You’ll pay for this! Come with me,” Sister Helena hissed, and Matthias felt a twitch run down his throat.
She grabbed his arm and started to half lead him, half drag him into the abbey. They made their way toward the refectory down a dim passageway lit by oil lamps. It seemed to Matthias as if the very flames themselves protested and shied away as Sister Helena stormed towards the office of Father James.
“What have I done, Sister?” But Matthias was not yet going to get an answer. The towering nun remained completely silent as she pulled him along the stone floors. From underneath the approaching door Matthias could see light. Father James was probably scribing again. The old jovial monk spent most of his time these days writing up sermons and holy works on parchment.
Sister Helena knocked three times but then proceeded to enter without waiting for a reply. She slammed the door behind her, nearly catching Matthias in the act. The old monk sat hunched over his desk, the top of his quill wobbling across the paper in front of him. Then the feather fell still and was gently lowered.
“Come in,” said Father James, with more than a little hint of mockery.
“I’ve just been to the storerooms,” said Sister Helena, “There’s been another fire!”
Father James sighed and the noise seemed to drag on for several seconds. He was still looking at his piece of parchment, although now his head was tilted at a more thoughtful angle than the normal craning he did over his beloved scriptures. Once, Matthias had been gifted a glimpse of the man’s work and was astonished at the beauty and intricacy of colour the monk attended to each page. To him, it was holy work indeed.
“I’m guessing you have Matthias with you?” As he spoke Father James turned around on his stool wearily and his eyes caught Matthias’s. He looked as if he wished that Matthias was not standing there before him, but unfortunately he was.
The monk was old but clearly still had his wits about him. White hair, save a bald patch on top, fell to his neck and his eyes were bright blue. His brown tunic was simple but dignified. Matthias had always thought of him as firm but fair and indeed had the sneaking suspicion that the old man actually held a soft spot for him. “Tell me boy.”
“I don’t know what Sister Helena is talking about.”
“Liar!” shrieked the nun.
Father James sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Sister Helena,” he began, “I’m sure you haven’t bought Matthias here without some proof of his wrongdoings?”
“Indeed not,” came the prompt reply, “I caught him red handed. It’s still smoking in there. We’ve lost most of our grain and the fruit barrels.”
“What were you doing by the store rooms?” asked the old monk.
“Looking for Albert.”
“May I enquire as to why?” replied Father James, “If it is not too much trouble.” He smiled and looked at Matthias, but all the while had one eyebrow raised. Whether it was mirth or his temper Matthias couldn’t tell.
“We were playing a game,” said Matthias, with ill-hid sarcasm.
Just for a second a smile seemed to crease at the edge of the monk’s mouth. He continued, “And did you find Albert, Matthias?”
“No, but I found the fire and I put it out.”
Sister Helena exploded. “How much of this nonsense must we hear?”
“Please, Sister,” Father James said, “does Matthias not have a right to speak?”
Her body seemed to subside, but her eyes still looked like they might burst. Taking advantage of the silence Matthias continued. Slowly, and calculated as ever, he told them how he had gone to the stores to look for Albert as part of their elaborate war game; Albert was going to be defending the fort. He saw the smoke and decided to investigate himself rather than raising the alarm. He made sure they noted that he did so out of the interests of the rest of the children, in case the fire spread. He knew it was the right thing to do and he was only trying to be a ‘good Samaritan.’ This last part Matthias was secretly very smug about, as it had come from Father James’s sermon on Wednesday.
Would Father James see through his tale? The answer became apparent as soon as the monk opened his mouth. He looked drily at Matthias and started clapping. “A fine yarn, Matthias. Worthy of one of the travelling bards I dare say.”
A cold sweat suddenly crept over Matthias’s skin. “But I know you and you know me,” Father James continued. This was true; the two had often found themselves at loggerheads over the years discussing Matthias’s discipline…or lack of it.
“I’m frankly rather insulted. This was not one of your better tales.”
Sister Helena smiled; it wasn’t pleasant to look at. Her eyes narrowed in triumph and she spoke swiftly, “What should I do with him Father? A thrashing?”
“Good Lord, no. Send him to the cellar without supper.”
Sister Helena seemed mildly deflated, but grabbed Matthias and began to lead him out of the room nonetheless. They were halfway out of the door, Matthias scrambling in her grip as she pulled his collar, when Father James spoke. His face was already back in his parchments but the voice was loud and clear and this time sounded sharp as a blade.
“Matthias, was Rebecca anywhere near the stores?”
The monk appeared to ponder this answer for a moment. “Next time Matthias, try to be more creative. Despite being old I still remember sermons I gave less than a week ago.” And with that, the door was shut and he was back outside in the torch lit corridor.
“Unbelievable,” muttered Sister Helena under her breath. “Still, I’m sure sleeping in the cold with no food will help you see the error of your ways.”
She dragged him down the corridor, past the classroom and towards the cellar. Opening the door she hurled him inside and slammed it shut. The last sound Matthias heard, was the turning of the old rusty key in the door and Sister Helena’s snorting as she walked away into the darkness.