1:11: “Valley of the Shadows”, by Stephen Dedman

1:11: “Valley of the Shadows”, by Stephen Dedman

The hermit was dozing, but he woke as soon as he heard hoofbeats on the path through the ravine. Two riders, by the sound of them, and he had no doubt they were coming his way; the ravine didn’t lead to anywhere else that anyone would want to go. He looked around his cave, and grabbed his crossbow and his battered Bible. He nocked the bow and hid it under a thin blanket beside him, then let the Bible fall open to the psalms. It was too dark to read in the cave, but the hermit understood the value of appearances.

The cave was located high on a cliff face, and the only path that reached it was too narrow for horses, or even for faint-hearted goats. Any sound made in the valley echoed from the cliff opposite into the cave’s small entrance; the hermit listened to the men’s voices, only slightly distorted, and to their breathing. They sounded weary, and not angry, except maybe with the terrain. The hermit waited until a shadow fell across the entrance of the cave before calling out in Latin, “Who’s there?”

It was the younger man who replied, also in Latin. “I am Forese, squire to Sir Charles. We seek the hermit Anselmo. Are you he?”

“I am,” the hermit replied, blandly. “Why do you seek to disturb an old man who desires only solitude?”

“Do you speak French?” called the knight.

“Not well,” the hermit lied; he spoke it well enough, but tended to lapse into langue d’oc when he did, and that could prove fatal. In Latin, he continued, “But I understand it, if it’s all you speak. Come in, before the perytons see you.”

The first one to enter was a broad-shouldered stocky man whose mail coif and grizzled beard didn’t entirely hide the scars on his face. The hermit judged him to be somewhere between forty and fifty, and though his helm and hauberk appeared new and expensive, he wore them as though they weighed — and signified — nothing. His squire was younger, probably no more than sixteen; his armour and surcoat were of the same quality as the older man’s, but because he wore them with obvious pride, they appeared newer. Probably a younger son of one of the Florentine merchant families, the hermit realised: well-born, well-educated, well-trained, and naive. Good. “You’ve seen the perytons?” the squire asked, before Sir Charles could speak.

“Not often,” replied the hermit, diffidently. “I rarely leave this cave while the sun shines, and they never fly at night. They don’t trouble me here, and I take care not to trouble them.” Sir Charles stared into the gloom, watching the hermit carefully. “I’m afraid I can’t offer you much hospitality,” said the hermit. “The stream barely provides enough fish for my own needs, but few people come this way. Where are you bound?”

“It’s the perytons we seek,” said Forese, his eyes shining. “Where may we find them?”

“If you keep going out by day, they’ll find you, but that’s likely to be the end of the matter. Why do you seek them?”

“This is my land,” said Sir Charles, curtly. “It was given me by the Count. We’ve been riding through it for days, and haven’t seen another living soul in all that time. We’ve passed through villages, or places where villages have been, but they’ve been deserted.”

The hermit shrugged. The soldier’s words and Navarrese accent confirmed his suspicions that the man had been but recently elevated to knighthood after a long career as a mercenary. “Perytons never kill but one man each in their lives, or so the sages say; if your estate is empty, it’s because it’s poor farmland, and far from the pilgrim trail, so it’s has never been an easy place to make a living. Most of the men from the villages nearby went to war when called upon, and few returned. Many of the women left, too; those who stayed were slaughtered when the armies came through, or by bandits after the wars had ended.” It was a fine distinction, but one he suspected the knight would appreciate. “Only after the bandits left did I see the perytons.”

“What do you know about them?” demanded the knight.

“Only what I’ve seen, and what the sages have written. They look like deer with the wings of birds, and gather in flocks or herds. They fly well, but only by day. They prefer large rocky islands or dry, mountainous lands like these, with few people. They eat grass and plants from ledges and cracks that are beyond the reach of goats; that much I’ve seen.”

“And do they cast the shadows of men, as the tales say?” asked Forese, eagerly.

“They cast shadows, I can tell you that, and smaller shadows than they should, but whether they are the shadows of men, I don’t know.” He shrugged again. “Some say they are the ghosts of evil men, of men who died far from home, or of men who died violently or by drowning and who never received a proper funeral…but Latin has but one word, umbra, for ‘shadow’ and ‘ghost’,” he said slowly, in hesitant French, then switched back to Latin, “and maybe someone misunderstood. It’s also said by some that they came from Atlantis; that, being ghosts, they cannot be harmed by swords or other weapons; and that they attack men on sight and eat their hearts so that they can regain men’s bodies. How much of this is true, I do not know; I can only swear to what I’ve seen.”

The squire seemed disappointed. “But they’ve left you alone?” asked the knight, suspiciously.

“I’ve become good at hiding,” replied the hermit, dryly. “As I told you, I rarely leave this cave by day, and while they’ve trapped me in here many times by waiting outside, they’ve never come in. The entrance may be too narrow for their antlers, and while I’m sure they can run, they seem to avoid places where they cannot spread their wings.”

The knight nodded, as though he’d made a decision. “We’ll camp here for tonight,” he said. “We have some food you can share. Tomorrow, you can take us to where you’ve seen these creatures. Forese, go and get the saddlebags.” The hermit watched the squire leave, and sighed.

Forese returned a few minutes later, with hard bread, hard cheese, dried meat, dried figs, skins of wine and water, and a small lamp which made a faint puddle of light in the centre of the cave. The hermit chewed on a piece of bread as well as his few teeth allowed. “Do you know the tale of the labours of Hercules?” he asked the squire. Forese nodded. “Does Sir Charles?”

“I’ve heard of Hercules,” said the knight, when the question had been translated. “Some old Greek, strong enough to carry the sky. What of him?”

“Hercules slew many monsters,” said the hermit, quietly. “After he killed his own children in a fit of madness, he was advised by the Pythoness, an oracle, to perform twelve labours for King Eurystheus, after which he would be granted immortality. But Eurystheus feared Hercules, knowing that he wanted his kingdom, and sent him to slay monsters such as the Nemean Lion, whose skin was impervious to any weapon, and the Hydra, a great venomous serpent with many heads. No doubt he did this hoping that Hercules would be slain; he even sent him to Hell to claim the demon Cerberus.”

“You think the Count wants me dead?” asked the knight, quietly.

“I don’t know the Count,” replied the hermit, “and I mean him no disrespect, but no doubt he asked something of you in return for this land; some form of tribute, perhaps?”

“I’m to bring the body of one of the perytons back to him,” replied the knight, a faint growl in his voice, “and to keep the land safe for my tenants.”

The hermit popped a dried fig into his mouth in an attempt to hide a smile. “He wants the peryton for your coat of arms?” The knight glared at him, then nodded sullenly. It was easy for the hermit to guess the rest; the old soldier had been useful to the Count during one or more of the battles that had ravaged Tuscany in recent years, too useful to discard entirely during a period of tenuous peace, but also something of an embarrassment. He suspected the knight had guessed this much, too. He wondered idly whether the knight had a pretty wife or daughter that the Count would have liked to know better. “It seems a great risk for very little gain.” He noticed that Forese seemed reluctant to translate this, but Sir Charles didn’t erupt as he’d half-expected; he merely bit down on a piece of dried meat, chewed for a moment, then washed the mouthful down with wine.

“I’ve been a soldier for most of my life,” he told the hermit. “A soldier with land is a knight; a soldier without land is merely another mercenary. I’ve fought for less.” He cut a bite-sized piece off the chunk of dried meat with his dagger. “You say Hercules fought monsters for his immortality? I’ll do the same for mine — to leave something for my sons apart from my arms and my horses.” He stabbed at the meat, then offered it to the hermit, who shook his head. “You don’t like meat?” asked the knight.

The hermit attempted a smile, showing what remained of his teeth. “I haven’t had any in many years,” he replied. “I doubt I could chew it.” He paused, then said, “If you’re determined to fight the perytons, you’ll never be able to do it with swords. Even if weapons can harm them, and many tales say they can’t, the creatures are fast and strong, and there are many of them. But there may be a way.”

“Go on.”

“There are cracks in the rocks, and crevices, where you can hide and they cannot reach you,” the hermit continued. “From there, you could hurl javelins at them. If it doesn’t harm them, you’ll still be safe, and you can escape when night falls.”

Sir Charles smiled. “I have a crossbow; would that work?”

“If any weapon would,” replied the hermit, with a slight shrug.

Forese turned white. “Crossbows? The Pope issued an anathema against crossbows—”

“Only when used against Christian souls,” growled Sir Charles. “They’re still used for hunting, and against heathens. What do you think, old man? Do these perytons have Christian souls?”

The hermit was silent for a moment. “If you can judge them by their shadows, they may have men’s souls, but even the most evil and unChristian men may have men’s shadows.”

Sir Charles smiled, and cut a piece of cheese, which he offered to the hermit, who shook his head. The knight bit a piece off the cheese, and said, “Not that you’d care a fig for what the Pope says, eh?” The old man didn’t answer, and Forese looked curiously from one to the other. “I thought your accent was familiar — Provencal, right? — but I wasn’t sure until I saw you eat. No meat, no cheese… nothing that comes from a living body.” No reply. “You’re a Cathar, aren’t you?”

“There are no Cathars now,” replied the hermit, thickly, in his accented French. “There’s only me, and I’ve lived here since before your squire was born. You can hardly accuse me of speaking heresy if nobody listens.”

Sir Charles looked at Forese, who seemed shocked into immobility. “I wonder if the Inquisition would see it that way,” he mused.

The hermit shrugged. “I’ve told you how you may slay the perytons,” he said, bitterly, but without any sign of fear. “If I knew where they roosted, I’d tell you, but I’ve never seen it; it’s probably somewhere too high for men to climb. You may have this land, and much good may it do you; what more do you want from me?”

The knight looked at him for a long time. “I fought in the crusade against the Cathars,” he said. “It was, as you say, a score of years ago, and the money I was paid is well and truly spent, but I won’t return to the Count empty-handed,” he warned. “If I can’t take back one of these creatures as a trophy, I can take back the lying heretic who’s been frightening people away from my land with ghost stories, and maybe killing a villager every now and then so that the stories will be more convincing.”

“I’ll show you a place among the rocks where the perytons will never enter,” said the hermit. “I’ll take you there before sunrise. I can do no more.”

Sir Charles nodded, sat with his back against the wall of the cave, and drew his dagger. “You take the first watch,” he told Forese. “If he moves from that spot, kill him.” And he closed his eyes.

The squire looked at his knight in horror, then stood and drew his sword. The hermit shook his head sadly. “It’s not what you expected, is it?” he asked, quietly.

“What?”

“Being a knight. It’s not like the ballads. Shall I tell you about the crusade he fought in? When they captured Beziers, a knight asked the Abbot commanding the army how they could recognise the Cathars. ‘Slay them all,’ he said, ‘God will recognise his own.’ Thousands of people ran to the church for sanctuary, only to have it burned down around them. They slaughtered everyone in that town, including women and children, and many other towns after that. Many who surrendered were mutilated or blinded or used for target practice.” He stared at the squire’s pale face. “You don’t even know why, do you?”

Forese took a step forwards, and pointed his sword at the hermit’s chest. “I don’t need to hear your heresies—”

The hermit didn’t flinch. “I won’t try to convert you. My faith isn’t very strong any more, anyway. The credentes, the believers, embraced the fire; they believed that all worldly things, including their bodies, belonged to the Prince of Darkness, while only their souls belonged to God. Death destroyed their bodies and freed their souls, if they’d led perfect lives. But my faith failed me, and I fled to save my body.” He looked down at his legs. “Such as it is. What do you believe in, boy?”

“If you speak again,” said Forese, coldly, “I’ll cut your head off.”

“That’s what Sir Charles would do,” replied the hermit, almost approvingly, “but it’s not as easy as it sounds, not with a sword. You might do it if you had an axe; I’ve seen it done.” Forese didn’t reply. “You want to be a hero like Hercules or Saint George, don’t you, slaying the monsters who ravage the land…but that’s not so easy either. You can’t always tell a monster by looking at it—”

Shut up!

“—especially when they have human shadows,” said the hermit, and closed his eyes.

———•———

The sky was still dark when the hermit led the way down the path and through the twisting valleys to a crack at the face of a steep cliff, a natural trench four feet wide and seven deep; it looked as though someone had hit the rocky soil with a gigantic axe, then removed it. “The grass down here is good,” said the hermit. “I can’t swear that they’ll come here today, but you shouldn’t have to wait too long — and now, if you please, I’d like to return to my cave before the sun rises.”

Sir Charles looked at him suspiciously, then nodded, and they watched him hurry away, sticking close to the cliffs. “I don’t trust him,” muttered Forese. “He lies.”

The knight grunted in amusement. “Everybody lies, boy. What did he say — no, don’t tell me. I’ve heard it before, and much of it’s likely true; the best lies are always mostly true. What matters is that you obey your orders, whether they come directly from God or from your sergeant, and your orders come from me.”

Forese was silent for several minutes, and sunlight began edging down the cliff face opposite. “I should have asked him more about the perytons.”

“Even though you know he lies?”

“I was wondering what happened to the perytons once they fed on human hearts — do they get their old bodies back, or those of their victims? And if they have men’s shadows, doesn’t it follow that they have souls, and might be saved?” The knight shrugged. “They might be the ghosts of the villagers who were slain here and never buried, or even of knights….”

“They might,” agreed Sir Charles. “Or they might be heathen Atlanteans, or Cathars, or other heretics. God will know his—” He froze as three human shadows appeared at the top of the shadow of the cliff, and looked up and back. Three perytons stood above them, then one leapt from the cliff, wings spread, and circled down to the grass, barely five yards away. The knight raised his head and shoulders above the edge of the crack, raised the crossbow, and aimed at the peryton’s ribs. The creature ignored him, and Forese stared in wonder at its magnificent antlers and huge black and gold wings before remembering to look at its shadow.

A hint of movement made him look back, and he shouted a warning. The perytons on the crest of the cliff had kicked rocks free. He grabbed the knight’s arm, spoiling his aim, and pointed upwards at the boulders that were rolling towards them. He tried scrambling out of the crack, and the peryton on the grass sprang towards him. The points of its antlers tore through his surcoat, his mail and the padding beneath as though they were gossamer, then dragged him onto the grass. Forese reached for his sword and hacked at the creature’s neck, but the peryton’s hide was impervious to the steel. Forese looked across at Sir Charles; a rock had dented his helm, and blood was coursing down his face, but he was also trying to climb out of the trench. More rocks tumbled into the crack, hitting his back and legs, but he struggled out onto the grass. He stood there for a moment, and another peryton swooped down and slammed into him, tossing him into the air. Forese watched in horror as the knight was repeatedly smashed into the ground and the cliff until he was reduced to a bloody scarecrow.

Forese blinked, as he saw the hermit running across the grass towards Sir Charles’s body. The peryton twisted, its skin splitting, and a human shape emerged from its hide — a peasant woman, weather-beaten and scarred but scarcely older than Forese. The hermit helped her out of the gory mess, then looked over at the squire. Forese stared through glazed eyes as they walked towards him.

“Do you want us to bury you?” asked the old man, almost gently, as the woman glared down at him.

“What…”

“If we don’t bury you before the sun rises again, your ghost will become another peryton,” said the hermit. “If we do, it’ll be a Cathar ceremony, but I think God might forgive you.” The woman snorted. “Better decide quickly,” advised the hermit.

“Sir Charles…”

The hermit shook his head. “He wanted this land; I think he should stay here until someone else comes, whose body he can steal. I’m sure your Count will send another inconvenient knight to claim this land, one day, when there isn’t another crusade to send him on.” He smiled thinly. “After all, that’s what all of his predecessors have done.”



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