The party was soaked from the torrential rains coming down. Tugging their tunics closer did no good, for the cold was insidious; God had seen fit to test their mettle by blotting out the midday sun with dark gray clouds and sending down his tears from heaven.
Of the group, Senior Brother Gudman seemed the least bothered by the rain, and it is as it should be. He is by far the most pious of the lot, and his standing with the church reflects it. Though he has a strong, capable build, he seldom uses it, for diplomacy is his forte’... that, and sheer idealism. It was he who volunteered for this mission that the rest of the group now found themselves on.
The mission was to use the little town of Laa, on the frontier of Germanic Christianity, as a base of operations to push further into the Infidel hungarian region to the east, in order to establish another outpost for Christ past the current border. Senior Brother Gudman volunteered for the job, despite its lack of glory, wealth, or political value. This, despite frightening tales of the horrors Magyars visited upon good Christians in the area. This, despite stories of benighted monsters lurking in the forests. Truly, his aim is only to spread the word of Christ to the heathens in the east, and done bravely, by book or by sword.
But one man cannot establish an outpost alone. He pushed on through the rain with a retinue of warrior monks for protection and conversion, and a handful of irregulars for other necessary tasks for establishing the outpost.
At brother Gudman’s side was his bodyguard and personal friend, brother Drogo. Though less pious than his friend, he overshadowed them all in terms of fighting prowess. Broad-shouldered, with a thick mane of black hair, and a gaze as hard as iron, his eyes were alert, scanning the forest for possible danger. A veteran of many battles, brother Drogo is deadly on the battlefield. His job was to ensure that the new outpost did not suffer the same fate as the others which have ventured into the territories of the Magyar. Namely, ruin.
A complement of ten other warrior-monks followed along. Most of them were green, barely trained in the sword, and unaccustomed to such urgent travel. That were oblivious to the misted forest around them, staring just ahead of their horses. Coughs, sneezes, and sniffles broke the relative silence often.
Behind the warrior-monks came the three irregulars. Bjork (played by Kurt), a low-level noble from Norway, had been charged by her mother to attend the group, so that she may serve in a capacity of meting out tariff penances, allod, and holding the ban the outpost is secured. A risky endeavor, but should it succeed, the family would enjoy a considerable boost in power. Secretly, she had converted to Islam after listening to stories of far-flung Constantinople and Spain by Muslim merchants visiting Norway by way of England, but of course she was wise enough to conceal this fact. Brother Gudman was unhappy to bring a noblewoman along with him, but, perhaps not surprisingly, there were no other nobles willing to volunteer for the duty.
Behind Bjork came Gisla (played by Larissa), a daughter of a midwife, taken along for her knowledge of the healing arts. Senior Brother Gudman wisely decided that a healer would be needed in the inhospitable wilds of the Magyar, and he had been ministered to by Gisla’s mother after receiving a wound to the shoulder.
Rounding out the irregulars was Hugo, a stalwart guard from the city who had volunteered for the duty. Knowing Hugo to be a trustworthy and capable man, Senior Brother Gudman had agreed to have him along. Though there would be many warrior-monks with them, another sword arm is always welcome, and there would be plenty of work for a capable layman on the frontier.
The sound of horse hooves approaches from ahead. Brother Agathon came riding up to the group out of the mist. Another close friend of brother Gudman, brother Agathon was a smart, capable Greek who had befriended Brother Gudman in the Byzantine campaign. Though he largely kept to himself, he had demonstrated his sheer will time and again, serving as scout, advisor, and night guard more than his share, and spending his free time training the younger warrior-monks when he could have been resting.
The group clopped to a stop in the muddy road as brother Agathon conferred quietly with brother Gudman. Brother Gudman nodded, gesturing up the road, and brother Agathon galloped back off into the mist ahead. Brother Gudman turned and addressed the group.
“There is a vicus ahead, called Hanburg. Down the slope from the village is a ferry across the Morava river. But the rains are swelling the river, so we must get across quickly. Brother Agathon has ridden ahead to secure passage. If we hurry, we can reach Asparn by nightfall.” With that, he turned his horse, and urged it forward, and the other worthies followed suit.
Breaking out of the forest, they saw a large clearing that sloped down to the winding Morava river. The muddy trail, all that was left of the great Roman road slowly sliding into ruin, ran down the hill to a cluster of houses, the vicus of Hanburg. The warmth of firelight glowed from the doorways, and the smell of burning firewood made them yearn for a dry bed. Beyond the mass of homes, the road passed a small priory which appeared to be dark, then took a sharp right and followed the river a ways to a landing, where a rope was stretched across the river to another landing on the far side. Brother Agathon could be seen following an elderly peasant carrying a long stick towards the near landing, having apparently roused the man from his home.
Nearing the vicus, an older woman came rushing out of one of the homes without even a shawl on. “Stop! Please! Please help us!” she cried. Brother Drogo urged his horse forward, interposing himself between her and the group and spoke to her in gruff tones, making it clear he had little time to tarry. “Please,” she cried, “the devil has taken my daughter!”
Gisla urged her horse forward, however, and intervened, offering to help the woman, but Drogo pointed out that the river was swelling fast, and they had to get over it before it became impassable. Bjork interjected that the light of God must shine in all places, even the gloomiest, or else it shall shine nowhere, which seemed to cow Drogo a bit. “Very well then, if it is God’s will that you should help, then help. Catch up to us in Asparn, then,” he said, and urged his horse back onto the road towards the ferry. He ordered Hugo to stay with the women as a bodyguard.
The heavy wooden door squealed on its hinges, revealing a squalid interior. The cold dirt floor was bare, save for a single mud-tracked straw mat inside the doorway. A table and chairs next to a wooden pantry-cabinet stood to one side, and a curtain rope divided the room where the wood frame beds stood on the other side of the house. The curtain had been pulled back, and one of the frame beds had been dragged over near the fire. Lying on the bed, under all of the blankets in the house, was the frail form of a little girl, staring straight up at the ceiling. Her chest rose and fell quickly, the rapid sounds of her panting breath lending weight to the gloom of the place.
“Her name is Gisla,” murmured the mother. “She was found wandering the forest yesterday, and has gotten worse ever since. The devil must have accosted her there! Please, can you help her?”
Gisla tenderly moved forward and inspected the child. “She appears to be in shock,” she said, dismissing the old woman’s diagnosis, and raised the child’s feet under a blanket. Bjork, on the other hand, was more suspicious, and inspected the child for strange markings, but found none. Hugo watched from afar, standing in the doorway. After questioning the woman, they learned that the child had been speaking in “the language the monks use” – presumably Latin – and that there was no one in town who could perform an exorcism, because the prior had died several days before of a fever. (Which is why the priory was now dark.)
The three retreated a bit to confer, and Gisla resolved to set towards administering her healing care to the child. While she began her ministrations, Bjork and Hugo asked the mother to show them where the child had been found. Clearly agitated by being so close to the forest, the mother was reluctant to show them, but swallowed her fear long enough to walk them into the woods. There, they found the place where the child had been found, and the footprints in the mud told the tale: the child had wandered into the woods, collapsed, and was found and taken back to the village by another person – the ferryman, according to the old woman.
Back in the village, the girl suddenly sat up in bed, glaring at Gisla! The labored breathing had stopped, and she began speaking in a strong, male voice, in Latin! Gisla rushed to get out her quill and parchment to take down the bits she could remember. In the end, she caught only the emphatic syllables at the end: “Calx! Calx!” After this, the child laid back down and began panting again. Gisla, shaken by the strange behavior of the child, redoubled her efforts at healing her.
When Hugo and Bjork returned to the hut, Gisla recounted what had happened, and Bjork recalled hearing about an occult item called the “Calx oscura,” but had no idea what it meant – perhaps a tome. She then asked the old woman if she could show them the priory. Clearly uncomfortable with the idea, the woman assented for the sake of her child, and showed them in.
The stone structure was dark and mostly empty. A series of wooden benches stood by the walls, and a curtain was drawn partway over the sleeping quarters at the back of the room, just beyond a lectern. Against one wall was a large wooden cabinet with a lock. The pair noticed that the room was considerably colder than outside, and their breath billowed.
After some snooping, Bjork found the key to the cabinet under the prior’s mattress, and unlocked it. Inside was a well-worn, but well cared-for, copy of the Vulgate, a relatively new translation of the Bible into German.
Suddenly, there was a gust of wind that seemed to gust from the left side of the priory to the right, well away from the door! Hugo and Bjork examined the walls for possible explanations, but all they could come up with was Bjork’s observation that just beyond the left wall was the graveyard.
They decided to close the cupboard and leave, but Bjork decided to hold on to the key, slipping it into her pocket. Suddenly, the door slammed shut! Hugo worried that there might be a ghost among them, and as if to answer, the cabinet crashed to the ground as if pushed over! The wooden cabinet shattered, sending the Vulgate skidding across the floor.
Bjork snatched up the book and flipped to a passage about protection from evil, and began reciting from the book. Slowly, the wind died down, and the door creaked partway open again. Whatever was trying to trap them had vanished.
Leaving the priory, they returned to the hut to discover that the girl had recovered almost instantly. The mother was ecstatic, but the three travellers were not so happy. They questioned the girl and discovered that the last thing she remembered was being out in the woods, and seeing brother Otto, the prior who had died several days ago!
The mystery still unsolved, the three decided that they needed to catch up to the rest of their group. Advising the woman to steer clear of the graveyard and priory until a new prior arrives, they went to speak to the ferryman.
The ferryman took them across the river, and while doing so, confirmed the story the girl had told. He had found her in the woods and carried her back to town. He didn’t seem to have anything interesting to say…until the three travellers mentioned Asparn..
“Wait a moment, you’re not going to Asparn, are you?” asked the ferryman.
“Yes, why?” asked Hugo.
“That town has been taken by the devil. Do not go there!”