101. The Heretic
Steadily, the cart rumbled on northwards towards the capital of Ealond. The journey passed quietly for the most part. Clarisse had gone through various stages of anger, pleading, and finally sullen resentment towards her brother, who had endured it all calmly. Ghislain had restricted himself to barking for silence on occasion until at length this had been granted, albeit not through any of his efforts. The only creature making noise was the dog, expressing its opinion of the various woodland creatures watching the cart drive by.
On the fourth day of their journey, Michel finally broke the silence again. “Today is Laugday. We could all use a bath.”
“No amount of water will clean your soul, heretic,” Ghislain shot back.
“Even condemned people are allowed to wash,” Clarisse claimed.
“What gave you that idea? Condemned people are allowed nothing but a noose,” the justiciar stated.
“It’ll be a long road to Fontaine if we can’t bathe on occasion,” Michel pointed out, stroking his black beard. “Or change the hay in this wagon.”
“I let you out of the chains to see to your needs on occasion,” Ghislain retorted. “Be content with that.”
“Master Justice,” Michel continued unabashed, “if memory serves me, there’s a village up ahead with a lovely little brook of water. It would be a short stop to let the horse and your dog drink, and we might wash and change clothes. Surely you would enjoy that yourself.”
Ghislain looked at the dog by his side, who stared back with a begging look and whined quietly. “Fine. Same rules apply as always. You go one at a time, and if you try to run, I set the hound on you.”
“Of course, Master Justice,” Michel smiled.
“You’re very pleased with yourself,” Clarisse muttered. “Don’t think this absolves you in my eyes.”
“I would never dare,” Michel swore. “But my dreams have been strange of late, and nothing clears the head like a good swim in cool water on a warm day.”
“You can’t even swim, dimwit,” his sister reminded him.
“True.” The big man frowned. “Master Ghislain,” he called out, “can you swim?”
“What possible reason do you have for asking? Planning to drown me in that lovely little brook of yours?”
“Never,” Michel protested. “But the stream is deceptively deep and has a current. If you can’t swim, you should take care.”
“Sadly for you, I am an excellent swimmer,” Ghislain informed him.
“Good,” Michel replied with a satisfied expression.
About an hour later, the wagon crossed a small bridge and rolled into a village. The justiciar halted his cart and looked back at the brook they had just passed. “Very well,” he assented. “One at a time. You first,” he nodded at Michel, unlocking the cage and the big man’s chains afterwards. “Here, boy,” he called to the dog afterwards. “If he tries to run,” Ghislain told the hound, “you sink your teeth in him.” The dog barked happily in response.
“You need not worry, Master Justice,” Michel told him, getting out of the wagon. Walking down to the stream of water, he stripped to the waist, removing his boots and socks as well, and entered the brook.
The justiciar sat on the bank, watching his prisoner enjoy the cool water in the sunshine. They were not alone; several children of the village had been sent by their mothers for the same purpose. They eyed the strangers warily for a while until playing and swimming in the stream diverted their attention. “Ah, to Hel with it,” Ghislain finally expressed, watching the others amuse themselves. He removed most of his clothing, laying it in a pile. “Watch my things,” he told his dog, who whined back at him. “You’ll get your turn,” he promised and entered the water. The justiciar was lean and in good shape, taking powerful strokes to cross the stream from one bank to the other and back.
Keeping to the edge, Michel watched him with a grin. “Not such a bad idea, was it, Master Justice?”
“Even heretics can have the right thought on occasion,” Ghislain granted.
Michel only smiled, staying where he could reach the bottom and washing his shirt before laying it to dry on the bank. That accomplished, he stood and watched the children of the village. Suddenly he called out the justiciar. “Master Ghislain, I think that child is in trouble.”
“What do you mean?” The justiciar ceased swimming, treading waters while gazing in the same direction as Michel.
“Out there,” the large man urged, pointing.
“If this is some ploy –”
“I swear by the Seven and Eighth, I think she is struggling with the current.”
“Him and Hel,” Ghislain cursed. “Stay here!” he commanded Michel, swimming to land with a few strong strokes. Moving out of the water, he ran along the bank downstream. Approaching the children, he saw that Michel was right; they were visibly upset, shouting and calling for attention, but none of them old or strong enough to intervene. With a fluid movement, Ghislain dove into the water. The current, dangerous to a child, was little match for him. Within moments, he reached the girl, scarce more than seven or eight, and wrapped one arm around her, keeping her afloat. The child gasped for air, struggling and almost hitting her rescuer. Unaffected, Ghislain used his legs and free arm to get to the edge of the stream until he could find footing. Breathing heavily, he pushed the girl onto the bank.
By now, several adults in the village had been alerted and arrived on the scene. There was some initial confusion, but the testimony of the children quickly explained matters. “Thank you, traveller!” a man exclaimed, holding the rescued child tightly. “I told my girl to stay by the bank until I came, but she never listens, do you?” He ruffled her hair affectionately while she hid her face against his chest.
“Any man would have done the same,” Ghislain spoke dismissively, still catching his breath. An expression ran across his face. “My prisoners,” he burst out, getting out of the water and hurrying back from where he came.
“He’s a justiciar,” someone whispered.
His cart stood where he left it with Clarisse up against the bars, trying to watch the events that had just unfolded. “What happened?” she asked.
Ignoring her, Ghislain moved past the cart and towards the stream. By the edge with his feet in the water sat Michel, scratching the dog behind the ears. “Not much of a watch dog, are you,” Ghislain growled at the hound, who had the decency to look ashamed.
“Well done, Master Ghislain,” Michel told him. “You saved a child.”
“Someone else would have done it,” the justiciar claimed. “I was merely a bit faster to arrive.”
“I can’t say,” Michel admitted, speaking as much to the dog or himself as to Ghislain. “All I saw was a girl struggling, never what came after.” His warden frowned at hearing those words, but before he could speak, Michel stood up. “I am done. I am sure Clarisse is anxious to be allowed her turn to wash.”
“Get going, then,” Ghislain told him, eyeing the tall man with a scrutinising gaze.
They left the village and continued their journey for the rest of the day. As it grew dark, they were far from any signs of habitation, and Ghislain decided to make camp by the roadside.
“Perhaps, Master Justice, we could make some different arrangements,” Clarisse suggested. “If we build a fire, the night will be more pleasant. And maybe you’d let my brother and me sleep on the ground instead of inside this thing fit only for beasts.” She glanced at the cage surrounding her.
“I should have gotten rid of you in Monteau,” the justiciar complained. “Your comfort means little to me,” he added, addressing Clarisse. “You have food and a place to sleep that’s dry.”
“I contest that last point,” Michel objected. “If you’d let me raise our tent, we’d have a nicer sleep with no trouble to you.”
“Imagine if we get sick before the trial, in your custody,” Clarisse considered.
Ghislain sighed. “You’re keeping the chains on.”
Soon after, a campfire burned and a tent was raised close by. The siblings shared bread and fruit while Ghislain helped himself to some smoked ham, courtesy of the grateful parents whose daughter he had pulled from the brook. The dog placed its head in his lap with a telling look until he relented and threw a piece of meat to it.
A while passed in silence with Ghislain sending Michel a discerning look. Finally, the large man returned the gaze. “Does something trouble you, Master Ghislain?”
“All the years I’ve been swimming,” the justiciar began to say, “and I’ve never had to help anyone in need. But today you want to wash, and you choose the spot, and you ask if I can swim…”
“It’s Laugday,” Michel pointed out. “Nothing strange about it.”
“Who told you about Hraban? To profess his teachings, you must have been taught,” Ghislain continued, changing topic.
“Don’t answer,” Clarisse interjected. “He’s trying to trick you into confessing.”
“I make no secrets of my beliefs,” Michel smiled. “I’ll be glad to answer.”
His sister sighed. “You’re a really hard man to help.”
“I want to know who spread this heresy,” Ghislain demanded.
“An old whiterobe in the village where we grew up. He died twenty years ago during a skirmish between the local lords. There’s not any trail to follow there, justiciar.” Michel’s smile might have seemed mocking in spite of his gentle nature.
“Do you even know the full story? Hraban spent the last decades of his life imprisoned in Fontaine, growing madder by the day. He was nothing but ravings and ramblings at the end, they say,” Ghislain told them.
“Being imprisoned for decades will do that to a man,” Michel countered. “Ask yourself this. If the Council of Three truly considered Hraban a blasphemer, that his revelations were inspired by madness rather than the divine, why keep him alive instead of having him executed?”
Ghislain chewed on the meat in his mouth. “If he really was mad, he couldn’t be held responsible for his blasphemous talk, I imagine.”
“I have another question for you, then,” Michel continued. “The Fates weave the life strand of every person at birth, right?”
“Gods, here we go again,” Clarisse mumbled.
“Of course,” Ghislain nodded. “Idisea knows the hour of every birth and death. Austre sees all deeds under the sun, and Disfara knows the hidden depths of the human heart.” He spoke as if reciting verse.
“Does this mean we are fated to do every action we take?” asked Michel. “Are we responsible for anything we do if those acts were woven by the Fates into our destiny?”
“Every man is responsible for his own actions,” Ghislain stated. “The Fates simply observe and record what will happen. They don’t decide.”
“But still it means that everything has already been decided,” Michel argued. “You may think it was your choice to take us to Fontaine instead of Monteau. I may think it was my choice to convince you to do so. But the three of us were always going to end up in Fontaine. It was woven in our fate long ago.”
“You’re giving me a headache, Brother.”
Ghislain scratched his head. “But it’s still my decision. I could open those shackles right now and let you run. I choose to do my duty and haul you both before the tribunal.”
“Then perhaps our fate is not written in stone,” Michel smiled, “or woven in unbreakable thread.”
“How else might fate work?” The question came from his sister, who seemed reluctantly curious.
“I think the Fates weave a path for us,” the gentle giant contemplated. “A destiny we may fulfil if we have the courage to walk that path. Every choice of significance either helps us stay on the path or makes us stray from it.”
The justiciar stared into the fire. “How do we know if a choice does one or the other?”
“That,” Michel admitted, “is a question without answer.”
“Damn heretic,” Ghislain muttered. “I liked you better when you were a pair of charlatans. Get some sleep.”
“I wish you a dreamless sleep, Master Justice.”