Samuel adjusted his hood and leaned closer to the abbot. "Are you sure you don't want me to wait for you?"
The abbot shook his head. "No, Samuel. I have one last chore before I can leave. I'll be along shortly, before the town road becomes impassable. You go on ahead before they've run out of room at the inn."
Samuel frowned and peered across the courtyard at the monastery's church, its windows lit with a wavering glow. "A pity it's come to this, after all our years of service."
The abbot laid a hand on Samuel's chest. "Though the abbeys are being dissolved and we're being evicted, you can always hold to your faith and continue that service here, in your heart." He turned to the doors, slid aside a wooden bar, and—with Samuel's help—tugged the doors open.
Samuel adjusted his robe. "You're sure you won't come with me?”
The abbot nodded. "Go."
Samuel went through the doorway, hesitated for a moment, then continued on, his dark form melting into the storm. A moment later, drifting snow covered his footprints and it was as if he'd never been there.
The abbot shook his head. The king's decree had arrived a week ago: The Order was dissolved, its members to renounce their ways and leave the monastery no later than Christmas Eve. Tonight. The monastery, its grounds, and its treasures would revert to the people. Even now, two of the king's men were in the counting room, reviewing the monastery's records.
One by one, the monasteries of the land were being dissolved, taken over by local governments, monies and lands distributed to those in power. Monks had been expelled, left to fend for themselves, which meant hardship and death more often than not. Friendship toward fellow man seemed to have dissolved in the face of hard times and the king's decree.
As abbot, he would be the last to leave. How had the others fared? Emanuel, the infirmarian? Ethan, the sacrist? What of the troubled brothers, especially James, gifted with a lyre, but unable to form a single sentence?
Where would he himself go? He had no family, no friends outside the monastery. Would he simply starve, sharing the same fate as the others? After all this time surrounded by these walls, he did not look forward to leaving. The king's decree guaranteed a lonely, destitute, and painful end beyond the monastery.
He shut and barred the doors, then turned and looked at the church, at the rise of its steeple. Was its symbolic gesture toward heaven still meaningful in these times? Across the length of the roof sat the silent bell tower, oddly enough even taller than the steeple. He knew it spoke of a long-ago time when the monastery—sitting atop a two-hundred foot cliff overlooking a great road—had served as a lookout against enemy hordes sweeping in from the north.
He stared at the bell tower until his eyes stung.
So lonely . . .
So high . . .
So . . .
Painful? Perhaps not.
The tower stared down at him.
Will you follow the path the king has set down for you? Or is there another?
He blinked, rubbed his eyes with icy fingers, and looked back at the barred doors.
The king's path lay beyond.
He stared at the doors for a long moment. Then, his mind made up, he crossed himself, turned away, and trudged off through the snow toward the church.
Snow had piled against the great door leading into the church, and the door complained as the abbot struggled to open it. He stepped into the front nave, escaping the storm, but not the bone-wearying cold.
With the door shut behind him, he made his way toward the choir at the back of the church, eyes adjusting to the thin light of candles burning in side chapels. A statue of the Saviour seemed to shift slightly in the flickering light as he neared. He crossed himself and started off toward the dark door near the east transept; the door that led to the bell tower.
He reached for the door's latch, but a coughing sound stopped him. He turned and found a robed figure sitting in the choir pews. Why had he not noticed? Wasn't everyone supposed to be gone by now? This was certainly not one of the king's tallymen, with their fine purple tunics.
"Can I help you?" the abbot asked.
The figure stood and tossed back his hood. A thin young man, dark hair, bearded, but not someone the abbot recognized.
"Are you Abbot Timothy?" the man asked.
"Yes. And you are . . . ?"
"Forgive me, abbot. I'm Sebastian. Innkeeper Thomas sent me with a sack of food for your journey." He held up a dark bag. "Some mutton, cheese, a small flask of wine."
The abbot looked at the bag. "That's quite kind of Thomas. And kind of you, of course, for bringing it here in this storm. Tell me, how did you get in? We keep the main gate locked."
"I slipped in when one of the brothers was leaving."
"I see." The abbot gestured toward the bag. "Well, thank Thomas for me."
He put a hand on the latch beside him. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to extinguish the chapel candles before I leave. You'd better let yourself out and return to the inn before you become stranded."
"The snow is blowing very hard. You've no fear of being stranded yourself?"
The abbot glanced at the latch in his hand, then back at Sebastion. "I won't be long. You'd best not wait."
"That door leads to the bell tower?"
"Are there many candles in the tower?"
The abbot frowned. He opened his mouth to reply, but Sebastian waved a hand. "Forgive my impertinence, abbot."
He looked around at the statuary and tapestries. "It's a pity the church is being stripped of its treasures. But isn't it a greater travesty that the countryside is being stripped of its faith?"
The abbot sighed. Would this young man not leave? "Yes, it's true, what you say about the country. But when I step outside these walls, the king says I'm no longer a man of God. So my days of worrying about the country's faith are over."
"That may be, but what about your vow of service to Our Lord? True faith is difficult to drive from a man's heart, even in the face of kingly decrees."
Sebastian nodded at the tower door. "Are you like the countryside, abbot? Have you been stripped of your faith?"
The abbot blinked. Had he?
Sebastian laid a hand above his heart. "In spite of what the king says, you can always hold to your faith and continue that service in your heart."
The abbot stared at Sebastian. How did he . . . ?
Sebastian set the bag on a pew and looked up at the window. "It seems the snow has finally stopped. That should make your journey easier."
He looked back at the abbot. "One last word of advice, though." He smiled and nodded at the tower door. "Be careful putting the candles out up in the belfry. It's sure to be slippery up there, and I hear it's a long drop to the road below."
With that, Sebastian turned and walked up the nave, pausing only to cross himself at the statue of the Saviour. A moment later the shadows of the front nave swallowed him. In the snow-encased quiet of the church, the great door was particularly loud when it closed.
The abbot's gaze returned to the statue.
A thin bearded face, arms outstretched, a crown of thorns. From this angle, the candlelight made it look as if the statue stared back at him.
What was the hour? Was it Christmas yet?
He lifted the bag. Mutton, cheese, wine. A Christmas gift, perhaps?
He stared out at the night, and thought of the young man's words.
All of them.
And decided those had been the real gift this night.
Then, with a last glance back across the nave at the distant bell tower door, he shouldered the bag and walked out of the church. Heading toward the gate, the abbot was secure in the feeling that wherever the young man had gone, he was following.
Rand Phares's first foray into writing was at an early age, on a neighborhood "newspaper" he published with his brother. After a successful career in software engineering, he now focuses on psychological thrillers, and is within nanoseconds of completing his first novel, The Feast. Rand lives in NC with his family.