Tuesday, February 27, 2024

DARK HOURS, a Fantasy Romance by Linda Mooney - Chapter 2

Posted by: Linda Mooney

Chapter 2

The dungeon was hushed, even more than usual for this hour of the night. In the dead of winter no one who wasn’t a prisoner spent any more time in these frigid rooms than was necessary. Which made the old priest’s penance very solitary.

The frost permeated the stones until it melded to the skin of his cheek. Matthias moved his legs slightly to keep his knees from sticking to the rock, but the simple gesture seemed as futile as his reason for kneeling before the makeshift altar he’d created.

It was bitterly cold, yet the priest felt he was due the discomfort. And more. The agony seeping through his old muscles and bones could not begin to match the guilt which filled him like poison.

“Forgive me, Lord, for the damage I have brought upon that man and woman. Forgive me.”

How long had he been praying there? An hour? Two hours? Matthias groaned as a sharp pain knifed through his back. He could kneel here a hundred hours and it wouldn’t be enough. He could castigate himself again and again in penance and it would never suffice. All feeling in his outer extremities had been lost.

“Have pity on this foolish man,” he continued, eyes tightly shut. “Receive my sins and cast them away. Guide me, help me, Heavenly Father, for I have committed a most regrettable act.”

He should have known better. Matthias was all too aware of his mistake now. But even with such clarity of hindsight, there’s no way he could have foreseen what events would take place, or what results would have occurred. He had done what he was allowed to do—bring two people together in holy matrimony.

And for that, he’d been cursed with lifelong torment.

“Oh, God. My loving God.” The old priest shifted his knees against the stone floor, shifting off his toes and lowering his legs in order to seat his buttocks along his calves. There was a wetness along his face, and he realized it was from his own tears. The tears quickly cooled into stiff scabs of ice.

To everything there was a reason. For every sin committed, there was the consequence. God had chosen Matthias for a special purpose, although the priest prayed it would soon be over.

But how could something as diabolical as what the witch had done ever be “over”? How could it ever be made “right” again? Two people had been condemned for life by the blackest power ever revealed, and Matthias…Matthias was the direct cause of it.

“I am at thy mercy, Heavenly Father.”

He had never meant for this horror to occur. He had never intended for such misery to be inflicted. Yes, Matthias knew Gola had been found guilty of practicing witchcraft by the church. What no one expected was the sheer power the woman possessed because she worshiped the black arts as fervently and as devoutly as Matthias worshipped the Trinity. No one anticipated the demons she summoned from the earth to defeat the king and his soldiers. No one expected the devastation she wrought in her need for vengeance.

Matthias clenched his fists. His skin was so numb he couldn’t feel his nails pressing into the flesh. “Have pity on this foolish man. I have created an ultimate sin. If taking my life is what will atone for my mistakes, then take it, Father. Take it. Take…it.”

Shoulders shook as the old man silently wept against the frigid stones. The warm tears momentarily released the ice crystals adhered to his face.

He had been privy to Emers’s confessions. She had made him her council and sought him out at all hours to tell him about the man who had captured her heart.

“He is like thunder, Father,” she’d said with the sun shining from her eyes. “You should see him at practice with his blade.”

“Like thunder, eh, child?”

“His arm is stronger than his courage. All his men respect him.”

That was the truth. Under Kayge d’Bayar’s command, his men were considered to be the prime defensive force of the castle. The king’s right arm. Hence their positions were elevated to become part of the king’s own private guards.

Kayge’s obedience and dedication to his liege was unparalleled, which was why, after Gola had destroyed Estephan and his whole family, when she’d tried to bring the centurion into her fold, he’d shunned her. Fought her. And thusly, was cursed by her.

What followed was shocking.

No, not shocking. Unconscionable.

If only he’d been forewarned. If only he’d known what would result from his carelessness.

“If horses had wings and if trees could talk,” Matthias muttered with a little half-sob choking him as he remembered

* * * 

There was no way of knowing when the witch had first seen Kayge. But everyone in the town and in the surrounding kingdom knew of him. Knew how bravely the man fought and defended his king and country with a phalanx of swords at his command. It wasn’t until the evil woman had been caught and sentenced that she realized she was in trouble.

It was rumored she had tried to sway Kayge to be more lenient with her. To allow his men to give her water when she thirsted. A bite of bread when she hungered. Kayge ordered his men to ignore her, making her more angry with him. It was while she wasted away inside the dungeon, awaiting her final sentencing, that she began making plans to escape. What no one suspected was that, although she’d take her anger out on the king, her vengeance would come down on the centurion.

As she planned, plotted, and began drawing forth the demons from the farthest depths of Hell, Gola kept her attention on Kayge. On the man who showed her no mercy. The king she’d already written off. Estephan and his family were doomed. They would be quickly exterminated. However, she wanted to take a great, perverse joy in making Kayge suffer in the worst way possible. Make him suffer the way he’d let her suffer. All she needed was to find that way. That reason. That target.

It came in the form of Emers Ammin.

It was no secret when the centurion first spied Emers. It was on a bright and impossibly warm spring Sunday when the lithe, young woman entered the chapel. She was an orphan, raised by the Sisters of Perpetual Sorrow until she reached her eighteenth year. At that time she’d left the convent, not wanting to take the vows, and came to Noranye to live with her only remaining relative, her father’s brother’s son, and his family. It was with the family that she attended her first mass in her new home, and it was then Kayge saw her for the first time.

At that moment the man’s heart was set. At that moment, with the pre-Lenten sun pouring over her and turning her gold hair into a halo of bright fire, the soldier, considered strong and unyielding, yielded.

It was fortuitous that the d’Valani family lived in Matthias’ parish. He saw Emers regularly when the family came to worship. It was to him Emers made her confessions to. Thus, it was Matthias who suddenly and curiously became Gola’s primary source of information. He had no knowledge that the witch had discovered a possible weakness in the centurion and needed the priest to corroborate what she’d learned.

Matthias never questioned why the witch had become infatuated with the members of his parish when he went on his visits to try to convert her. Nor why he was prodded with increasing regularity about the comings and goings and dealings with the girl cousin. Despite the rumors he’d heard about the witch, Matthias tried to perform his duties as best he could. He was there to save her soul. He was only doing what the king had ordered him to do. Which was why he felt he’d be able to accomplish that by attempting to befriend her. Answer her questions. Be open and frank with the woman.

The days became a week, then a month. Spring melted under the summer sky. Matthias continued his daily excursions to convince Gola to denounce her sinful ways as she was kept captive. Despite her stubbornness, he refused to admit defeat.

In the meantime, it was inevitable that Kayge d’Bayar would see, would meet, and would speak to Emers Ammin. How could he not fall in love with her as well as nearly every other man had? Matthias knew. He was also confessor to every soldier within his parish. As such, it did not surprise him when the centurion finally knelt inside the confessional and opened his heart to the priest.

“I caused a great evil,” Matthias whispered. He couldn’t stop the memories pounding in his head. It was as if the Lord was personally resurrecting each one to show the old man the error of his ways.

Once Emers had confided to Matthias how saddened she was that the centurion never took notice of her, at how he deliberately seemed to avoid her, Matthias knew he had to do something. He couldn’t stand to watch the young couple grow more distant when their hearts were trying to forge a bond, so he played matchmaker. He had Emers come to the church to help him with a task regarding mending a tapestry.

“I asked a couple of the sisters if they could fix it, but they all recommended you. They said your fingers were the most nimble, the most agile,” he informed her. Emers had blushed, reluctant to admit she excelled in that particular skill taught to her back at the convent. She was eager to do what she could.

It had taken her several hours to make the repairs. By the time she finished, night had fallen. Thus Matthias called for Kayge to escort the young woman to her home to ensure her safety.

As he watched from an upper window, at the young woman riding in front of the centurion atop the same stallion, Matthias knew his interference had worked. Pleased with himself, the priest went to say his evening prayers, and added one more to insure the couple a long and loving relationship.

He had no foreshadowing of the misery he would cause to befall the two, nor of the horrendous curse they’d be subjected to.


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