Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Malum in Se

Once again, this is another Flash Fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig's most excellent website. This week's challenge was to take a word or phrase from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable that begins with 'M'. The title of this story comes from a Latin term meaning something wrong or evil in and of itself. The story takes place just at the onset of the Albigensian Crusade, although hopefully you don't have to be a history major to appreciate it, and if you are a history major please note that some historical details have been fudged for the sake of story. :P

Southern France, 1208 A.D.
    The dark stone walls of Chateaux d’Hiver towered over the countryside of Languedoc, its battlements and ramparts soaring upwards in a fashion that seem to defy the commandments of God against the hubris of man, as He did with the Tower of Babel. Brother Martin, however, was not interested in the prideful sins of the castle’s builders but rather in the transgressions of a far more sinister conspircay. As he approached the castle portcullis he watched as the dusk red rays of the setting sun formed an infernal halo around the place. He prayed it was not an omen.
    When he got to the gate he was stopped by the guard there.
    “What’s your business here?’ the guard called out.
    “I seek only shelter for the night good sir. I am journeying to Saintes Maries de la Mer to as part of a pilgrimage and I hope that your lord and lady would be gracious enough to give hospitality.”
    “What kind of monk are you of?”the guard asked with narrowed eyes.
    “I’ve had the humble privilege to have taken my vows and live my life according to the Rule of St. Benedictine, in whose glory I may ...”
    The guard put up his hand. “Alright, alright. You may enter.” He waved to a nearby guard and a moment later the portcullis began to rise, its ascent making a sound like a great groaning beast. The gate did not rise completely, but only just enough to allow the monk to duck through. Even still the metal spikes at the bottom made him nervous, and he imagined the gate suddenly crashing downwards and impaling him. He shuddered.
    “There’s a storage room we use for pilgrims in the north-west corner,” the guard said, pointing. “It’s not much, but it’ll keep warm if you make a fire in the middle of it. You’ll be expected to keep to there and not muck about. Understood?”
    The young monk nodded and made his way to the lodgings. The storage room was even worse than the guard said it was; dank and dark, it looked as if no pilgrim had stayed here for a some time. Besides that, there was no sign of worship here, no altar or crucifix at all. Even the poorest and most decrepit rest point on a pilgrimage had some sort of religious sign, however small. Here though there was nothing. Curiouser and curiouser, Martin thought. It was beginning to look as he and his superiors suspected; the lords of the castle were not devout in the same way as others were. But it would take more than an empty rest point to make a case for heresy.   
    He took off his cloak and bags and laid them near the door. Underneath the cloak was not the brown robes of the Benedictines, but the dark black robes of a Dominicans; the newly formed watch dogs of the Church. What their Order lacked in experience they made up for passionate exuberance for the truth. He would see the true face here of Chateaux D’Hiver. 
    He kneeled and prayed to God to forgive his most recent sins; he’d lied to the guard about many things but the most glaring was his claim to be on pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer. His true purpose was to discover the true culprit of the papal legate, Pierre de Catlenau, murder near here. The papal legate had been sent by Rome to convince Raymond, the Count of Toulouse to give up his tolerance of the Cathar heretics in his domain. Indulged by the local nobles of Languedoc, the Cathars had festered and grown until their influence rivaled that of Holy Mother Church herself, a situation of intolerable blasphemy. After failing to persuade Raymond to turn his back on the heretics, the legate had returned to Rome, only to be set upon and murdered. There were some who believed that Raymond’s hand was in this; Brother Martin and his Dominican brothers thought differently and he was here to investigate the matter. So far that investigation had brought him to the Chateaux D’Hiver. He would give penance later for the lie he told as he asked to be forgiven those sins he would no doubt soon commit in order to learn the truth.
    “... sed libera nos a malum in se. Amen,”he finished and rose to his feet.
    With that done he had work to do.
     The robes he wore had slits along the legs, allowing for a greater movement than a normal habit. He flipped his hood up, and checked the black robe to make certain there were no blemishes that would show when he blended into the night shadows. He prayed it all would be enough. He slipped out of the storage room and heard the sounds of a feast coming from inside the castle keeps. The keep’s entrance doors were guarded, but Brother Martin would bet an indulgence that the windows above it were not.
    In his youth Martin had developed a knack for climbing the apple trees near the monastery where he grew up, and by the age of eleven he was able to scramble up nearly any surface. His prior and fellow monks had tried to discourage this practice once he’d become a monk for they said it was wasteful foolery but now it was of prime importance. He started slowly, scaling the keep walls with a patience only the cloistered life could bring. He slipped his fingers into the cracks between the castle bricks and pulled himself up with the scant leverage it provided. He had to stop when one of the guards looked his way, but fortunately his black robes made him look like a shadow amidst the dark and the guard turned away.
    At last he made it to the top window of the keep.. There was laughter there and jests, but all seemed to be tinged with a hint of cruelty and malice. Martin got onto the wooden rafters of the keep to get a better view, though his eyes strained through the smoke coming from below. What appeared to be the lord and lady were seated with a few others around a high table. A great bonfire raged in the middle of the hall. Nearby to the bonfire was a man in rags struggling against the firm grasp of two guards who were dragging him closer to the conflagration.
    “I beg of you, I am but a Good Christian,” he screamed at the lord and lady. “I have done nothing to do you harm.”
    ”Your sick devotion to your blasphemy is harm enough,”the lady replied. “Like a carrier of the plague your dogma spreads by your very existence and rots the soul the same way disease scars the body. Renounce your apostasy and your life may be spared!”
    It was then that Martin noticed the other things in the fire; black shapes that looked almost like...
    He suppressed a gasp when the revelation hit him. The shapes in the fire were burnt bones no doubt of former victims. The empty sockets of a skull seemed to stare up at him, the only earthly legacy of the countless many who had been burnt alive this evening.
    “The truth cannot be renounced even if the speaker lies,”the man in rags said. “I shall meet my fate as my brothers have already.”
    “So be it then,”the lord said, and motioned to the guards. They heaved the man towards the flames and threw him into the fire. The man’s screams echoed in the keep, and joined the horrific laughter of those seated. Their vile merriment and the scene of the charnel house below was so much that Martin was overcome and he tried to flee. His vision though was offset by the thick smoke, and just as he neared the window his lost his footing and fell. His drop was broken by one of the tables and he was winded rather than killed. His head spun and he heard the sounds of laughter stop abruptly.  He felt himself hauled up by the guards and made to kneel before the hosts of the castle.
    “It seems that a pretty black bird has fallen down among us,”the lady laughed.
    “Explain yourself. Why are you here?”the lord demanded.
    Martin spit on the floor. “I don’t answer to murderous Cathar heretics.”
    There was a wave of laughter amongst those seated.
    “I’m afraid you have mistaken us,”the lord said. “There are no more living Cathars here. Rather we can claim to be the only true pious amongst the nest of sinners of Languedoc. We do what we can to weed out the chafe from the wheat.” He waved his hand to indicate the bonfire.
    “No, it can’t be,” Martin stammered. “But everything about the legate’s murder has pointed here.”
    “On that count at least, little bird you are correct,”the lady said. “For too long Christendom has sat idle while the Cathars prospered and spread. Our fair cousin Raymond has been much too lenient of the Cathar dogs in his domain. Actions were necessary to force the hand of Mother Church to purge this mouldering heresy.”
    “You killed him knowing that suspicion would fall on the Catharists or the Count of Toulouse,”Martin said, dumbfounded. He could not believe his senses. Before him were not the beliefs and logic of the heretic but of those who thought themselves the most truly devoted. Their methods though ...
    “And now you know too much,”the lord said motioning to the guards. “We cannot let you live knowing what you do. Though it pains us to kill a true Christian, we cannot let your discovery reach the ears of pope. Too many pious lives have been sacrificed to goad the world to action. What is one more if the ends justify the means?”
    Martin kicked and struggled futiley as the guards dragged him towards the fire.
    “No,”Martin screamed. “You’ll never get away with this.”
    “But my dear little bird news of a crusade has already been spread. Soon all of Languedoc will be shown the light of the True Faith whether through the grace of God,”the lady smiled. “Or the fires of the righteous.”
    And then Martin was thrown into the flames, thrust into a darkness that had nothing to do with the absence of light.


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