“What is your name, boy?”
The young slave looked up into the enigma of the man sitting upon the carved wooden chair. His face was hidden in the shadow of his hooded cloak, his form shrouded under the shadow of a canopy. Only his hands were visible, huge, callused, scarred and gnarled, clasped in absolute stillness before his face.
“My name is Daniel, My Lord.”
His Master remained silent and motionless. The boy went about his task, carefully pouring wine into the crystal goblet on the rough wooden tray. The Master had never spoken to him before. He did not know why he had spoken to him now. He arranged the towel upon the table and poured water from a bucket into the hand washing basin.
He stopped, half-frightened, unsure how or if to respond.
“How old are you, Daniel?”
“I do not know, My Lord.”
The Master spoke, “How long have you been my slave?”
“All my life, My Lord.” Daniel’s hands shook.
“Who gave you your name?”
“I do not know, My Lord.”
The Master snorted contemptuously. “What do you know, boy?”
Daniel had finished arranging the food, the drink, and the water for washing. It was time for him to leave now. He always left after arranging the food, the drink and the water for washing. The Master did not speak. The Master never spoke. In Daniel’s small world this was a breach of the laws of nature.
“Forget that question, Daniel,” The Master’s voice was quick and peremptory. “Sit.”
“My Lord?” Daniel struggled to keep his face blank, but his whole body was trembling.
He had no alternative but to sit upon the floor. The Master brooded in silence, while Daniel sat and tried to stare at the wall, not let his mind wander, not let his face betray any emotion. Minutes trickled by uncounted.
“Do you know what happens today, Daniel?”
“Th- there will be a battle, My Lord?” the little slave boy wished he was safely in his cubby above the rafters in the scullery. He was never supposed to speak in front of the Master. He was not supposed to be seen by the Master at all.
“Have you ever seen a battle, Daniel?”
“No, My Lord.”
The huge, bony knuckles flexed and stretched like a cat arising from sleep. “I was your age when I saw my first battle.” He was silent for a long ten breaths. “Horsemen rode into my village with the morning sun. They slew every person they found there before the sun was halfway up the sky. Do you know what I did, Daniel?”
“N-No, My Lord.”
“I hid in the woods. I hid like a rat in a hole and I watched as they carved up my father, my mother, my brothers, and my sisters. Then they rode away. Do you know what I did then?”
“No, My Lord.”
“I found my father’s corn knife. I walked after the horsemen until I found where they made camp. I hid again in the forest until they fell asleep. Then I crept into their camp. Do you know what I did then?”
“N-No. No My Lord.”
The Master barked a single, coughing, mirthless laugh. “I slew one of them. Ha! I was trembling more piteously than you are now, and I felt as if my hands would slip upon the handle of that knife. As I stabbed him they did slip and I cut my own hand on the blade of that same knife. But I did not give up.” One fist pounded his knee. “I stabbed. I stabbed. I stabbed. Over and over again, until he stopped gurgling and squirming like a chicken.”
Daniel shivered. He was very afraid, but he did not know what he was afraid of. Why did the Master want to talk to him? Why?
“Have you ever seen a man killed, Daniel?” The Master asked after another silence.
“No, My Lord.”
“You have lived in this castle your whole life have you not?”
“I have, My Lord.”
“I fought in many battles after that. I fell in with outlaws and with them I wreaked vengeance on the riders who had slain my family. In time, I became the leader of those outlaws. What do you think of that, eh?”
He leaned forward as if inspecting Daniel’s face for an answer, and his head came out from the shadow of the canopy, but his face remained hidden under the overhanging hood. Daniel could see just the barest hint of the grizzled gray beard.
His tongue felt as if it were dry as cook’s dried fish, staked out on the fence in July. Fortunately he was spared replying, for he Master sat back into the shadow and spoke again.
“My band swelled from twenty, to thirty, to fifty. We defeated a small chieftain and put his village to the torch, and took his women and children as our own. I banded with other outlaws, and then I slew them and took their armies as my own. Village after village, town after town. I burned them all.
“I will never forget killing my first king. He came out to put a stop to my plunder, but I slew him. He was old and fat, and he died like a pig.” The Master laughed another short, barking syllable.
“I married his daughter. Did you know that? Of course you didn’t. You were not even born. You cannot be more than ten winters old. You know nothing of power, or wealth, or the governance of provinces. That witch tried to poison me but she bore me a son. Ha! A son. A mewling, puking, milksop of a brat. I loathe the sight of him.” A long exhalation of breath came from the depths of the shadow.
There was a silence again, so long that Daniel finally worked up the courage to say, “Sh- sh…”
“Speak up!” snapped the Master.
“Shall I go, My Lord?”
A sound not unlike a growl rumbled through the room. “You are afraid of me too? Have I ever struck you, boy? Have I ever done the least thing to you?”
Daniel shook his head, too terrified to answer.
The hands clenched, unclenched, softly pounded the knees, thick and knobbly as old oaks above the rough leather arming boots. “I have killed many men, Daniel.”
“Y- yes… My Lord?” Daniel shook.
“By the time this night falls I will have killed many more.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“I have killed women, and I have killed children. But I will kill no more of those.” The Master stood upright with a speed and suddenness all the more terrifying because of his vast, mountainous size. He towered over boy, and retrieved something from his belt. “Follow me,” he ordered.
Shivering, Daniel followed him around to the wall behind the dais. The Master swept aside a wall hanging and stood in front of a section of wooden paneling. Daniel could see nothing because of the man’s enormous bulk, but he heard the key turn in the lock. “Go through this doorway,” the Master ordered. “Follow the passage until it comes out on the river bank. Follow the river to the right until you reach a bridge. Get out onto the bridge and walk to your left until you reach the first town. After that your wits and luck will have to serve you. Starve, or freeze, or work, or beg. Live or die. It is all one to me.”
Daniel could not move. He dared not run away, but he could not obey because the Master was still standing in the doorway. The old man sighed and with a sound like the rushing wind swept off his cloak into a bundle of rich velvet, which he thrust hurriedly into Daniel’s arms. “Take this. Sell it for copper.”
Daniel looked up at the thighs, as round as kegs of mead, the powerful waist as high above the ground as his own head, circled with a massive leather belt. From there the man rose up even higher, a mountain of broad chest, square shoulders, and a jaw like the wall of the castle, solid, implacable, criss-crossed with scars and lines. A stern gray beard melded into a tangled hairline, which thinned to a few scatter, straggling wisps as it reached the top of his head. Great bushy eyebrows lowered at the boy. One hand picked Daniel up by the shoulder and tossed him savagely through the doorway with a strangled snarl, “Begone, I say! Live, damn you!” The door slammed behind him so hard that the oaken panels cracked.
There was no more sound from the other side. Daniel gathered up the velvet cloak and, wrapping it around his tiny frail body as best he could so that it would not trip him up, he began to follow the passage.
By nightfall, flames and smoke could be seen as far away as England, across the water, rising from the Master’s castle. Everyone who saw that smoke blessed God and cursed the tyrant’s name. Within a couple of years his memory was gone, and weeds and vines covered the ruins of his castle. To those who had hated him so implacably and so justly, it was as if he had never been.
But in the monastery on the riverbank, every day for sixty years, Brother Daniel, alone out of all the monks, humbly whispered the Master’s name in his Father’s ear.