Falls Like Rain
6. Wild Regrets
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.
--O. Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, pt I, st 37
He had cut it too close. Smoke curled upwards from his hair and rose in white plumes from his hands, as he pulled into the haven of the garage. The sun left his fingers and cheeks red and blistered, though the burning pain was nothing compared to the hurt of Natalie’s rejection. Nick closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the steering wheel. A dull ache gripped his temples and pulsed along with the steady thrum of the engine. He cut it off, though the throbbing in his head continued on. The passage of time lost meaning. He knew he’d soon need to move, as the sun would shortly angle dangerously through the high garage windows, but for the next few minutes he could think of nothing but her stricken face and the lines of doubt etched there.
she shied away, eyes wide with terror, heart pounding against her ribs
He had allowed few mortals inside his defenses. He had permitted even fewer close enough to become friends. Natalie was the closest by far, and so her fear caused the most acute pain. How could he continue on without her support? Did he even want it? his darker side countered. The taste of human blood, hot and spiced with base emotions, had unearthed a centuries buried hunger, had awakened a lust long suppressed by an ill-fated quest for redemption. This pursuit was as doomed as the Crusades, another cause he had come to doubt and then abandon.
The day the defenders landed was perversely bright. The sun reflected off every whitewashed surface, the foamy caps of the blue sea and the sparkling silicate grains of desert sand. As they left the cobbled jetty, hooves ringing sharply on the stones, the odor rose on the waves of heat to assault their senses. The horses turned skittish and hard to control. The scent of blood and death hung thickly in the air, just as the flies which clung to bodies heaped in piles like dung. Dust rose in amorphous clouds from the hooves of the Crusaders’ mounts, coated their equipage and weapons in soft brown, obscured the worst of the merciless pogrom from slitted eyes.
Their papal legate and spiritual leader, Cardinal Pelagius, conducted them on in silence, to a camp already held by defenders who had preceded them by nearly half a year. Upon reaching the tents of their brethren, the knights dismounted and presented themselves to John of Brienne. Sir John held up his hands for attention. His knights, as well as those from the newly arrived phalanxes, turned to him expectantly and respectfully.
“My brothers, I have thought long and hard on the proper words to guide you through God’s conflict. Alas, I am a soldier like you, not an orator. My skills in this arena are poor at best. I do not presume to have the ear of our Lord. Listen well to one who may.” He swept his hand toward the papal legate, and nodded his head reverently.
Pelagius returned his greeting just as gravely. “My own words are but shadows of Holy Scripture,” the legate boomed out in a stentorian voice. “What better words, then, to guide you than those of the Lord’s own prophet Jeremiah.” The Cardinal climbed atop a makeshift pulpit, and began his speech. “‘Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people; because the children and the sucklings swoon in the streets of the city. Arise,’” Pelagius enjoined the knights with the Prophet’s words, “‘Cry out in the night: in the beginning of the watches pour out thine heart like water before the place of the Lord: lift up thy hands toward Him for the life of thy young children...’” The Cardinal looked out over the phalanxes of knights, and spoke the words as if they were his own. “‘The young and the old lie on the ground in the streets; my virgins and my young men have fallen by the sword; thou hast slain them in the day of thine anger; thou hast killed, and not pitied.’ Go, my brethren, go and avenge our fallen ones,” he exhorted the Crusaders. “You are their only protectors now. May the Lord, our God, grant you strength and purpose.” The Cardinal sketched the Sign of the Cross in the air. The Crusaders followed suit, heads bowed in a moment of prayer; hands gripped hilts of fine steel, as if transferring the benediction to the sword.
“Where are you bound, Sir Knight?” John of Brienne called in a strong baritone.
Sir Nicholas turned in his tracks to face his leader. “I go to hear the Franciscan. He speaks tonight to all who would listen to his words.”
Before Sir John could voice his assent, Cardinal Pelagius stepped from the deep shadows cast by the shrouded tents to interrupt. “If your soul is plagued by doubt, Sir Nicholas, I would lend an ear. There is no need to seek comfort beyond the camp.”
Nicholas’ frown was lost in the dark expanse between the holy man and where the knight stood. A breeze stirred the hem of his deep blue mantle, lifting it in waves like the sea, and blew the dun sands over his black kid boots. “I beg pardon, Your Eminence, but I would hear news of the Empire as well as the Franciscan’s views.”
The Cardinal stood bathed by the light of the full moon. His frown was fleeting, but the two knights caught the annoyance tinged with jealousy written briefly on his countenance. “With my blessing, my son,” he replied brittlely. Sir Nicholas bowed his head to the very fraction required by propriety, as the Cardinal bestowed a brusque and grudging blessing from between stiff lips.
“If you will excuse me then, Your Eminence, Sir John.”
The Cardinal bowed his head rigidly in return and stalked off, raising a cloud of fine sand to cling to his crimson robes, like dust motes in the russet light of sunset.
The two knights watched in companionable silence until the Cardinal rounded the large central command tent and was once again swallowed by the shadows. John of Brienne sidled even closer to Nicholas de Brabant and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. Sound traveled freely in the desert, and his words were meant for the young knight’s ears alone.
“He is a dangerous man, young knight, who jealously guards his power. Do not anger him.”
“I shall do my utmost best to keep myself at a safe distance, monseigneur,” Sir Nicholas promised in a low voice. “Would you join me tonight?”
“I trow my tolerance for holy men is at a low ebb this evening, Sir Nicholas,” Sir John replied with a slight grin. “Take yourself there with my blessing, and bring back news of the Continent if it pleases you.”
“It would please me greatly to be back in France living the news, but I will bring word of what I hear,” Sir Nicholas agreed. “Good night, monseigneur.”
“Fare well, young knight.”
Nicholas bowed respectfully, gathered his mantle in his gloved fist, whipped it from between his legs, then turned towards the picket line where his horse awaited. The distance to the Franciscan city-state was short but, of a necessity, the route was circuitous to avoid the bands of roving infidels. He risked much to ride to the Franciscan province, but he would be safe once he reached the neutral territory set aside by the Sultan al-Kamil for the monks.
The journey was uneventful, but the trip took longer than anticipated. Already many horses ringed the outer gates of the enclave, quite a few identified as Crusader’s mounts by their distinctive equipage. Low fires in stone pits burned against the darkling dunes; the full moon lent a pale green light to the sands. Sir Nicholas wound his way through the milling throng of animals to a clear patch of ground where he could dismount with greater ease. He pulled up amongst other horses draped in blankets of blue and gold, with embroidered sigils akin to his own; it appeared a few other of his compatriots had braved the Cardinal’s displeasure to hear the Franciscan. Extracting a length of leather from his saddle, he hobbled his mount, then dropped the lead to the ground. The beast was well-trained as a war-horse, and would not roam far regardless.
A friar, dressed in the brown cowled robes of his order, waist cinched with rough hemp, waited at the door to greet and guide late-comers to the Mass-cum-lecture. The friar spoke not a word, but bowed his head in salutation and gestured Sir Nicholas inside the enclave. The murmurs of low conversations echoed in the stone chamber. Torches guttered in the breeze blowing through the open arches of the adobe structure. The sweet scent of Lilies of the Valley permeated the gathering place; several birds chirped and cooed from their perches in small fig trees that had been planted, and whose branches were trained to form a living canopy over the otherwise unadorned altar. Rushes were strewn about the floor beneath their feet to keep down the sand. Sir Nicholas spied companions from his own company and made his way through the crowd, passing Knights Templar, Knights Hospitallers and minor orders alike, from many countries of origin. As he found his seat on a low wooden bench, hand-hewn to smoothness by the Sultan’s skilled artisans, a hush fell on the assemblage.
A man, small in stature, sickly in appearance and thin nearly to the point of emaciation, with brown hair cut in a tonsure, took the simple altar before the rows of pews. The monk appeared too frail to stand, his skin too pale against the brown of his robes, yet his voice was filled with power and assurance: faith. His words rang with God’s message, his face brightened thereby. The audience listened with rapt attention, and many found a newborn inner peace and tranquillity; doubts were erased, fears expunged. Although Nicholas’ heart had hardened to a consistency close unto stone, the words rang true; they reached the last remaining spark of light within his soul, though the glow was deeply hidden and barely discernible to any but the trained eye.
After nearly two hours, Francis ended the service with a call for the congregation to pray. He lifted his hands to Heaven and his sleeves fell back to reveal feeble, nearly skeletal arms, but again his voice rang with the strength of his convictions. A young monk, Tomaso da Celano, tonsure barely trained into a circle, sat at the side of Francis; his hand was poised over a sheaf of careworn vellum, a quill clutched between ink-stained fingers. Brother Tomaso had been still throughout much of the service, but sensed the imminence of words of some greater import from his spiritual leader. As Francis began to speak, the young scribe quickly scratched his words onto the papers before him.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your Peace,” intoned Francis of Assisi. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” The monk lifted his arms even higher and raised his eyes to the stars just visible through the arched supports of the domed roof. The prayer continued to flow from so deeply within the Franciscan’s soul that even Nicholas was moved. “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Francis stretched his hands over the assemblage, making eye contact with as many of the men as possible, and bestowed a heartfelt benediction for the knights to carry back to their camps. He bowed his head, enervated by the heat of the torches and the late hour; his recent illness had drained away much of his youthful vitality. The young scribe helped him from the makeshift altar and out into the cool desert breeze, away from the smoke rising from the fish-oil lanterns.
Life in the years that followed was grim, brightened only by that one visit of Francis of Assisi. His Franciscan province had provided a haven of calm and peace, an oasis of sanity in a sea of madness, where each Crusader could salve his wounds, be they physical or spiritual. While Francis stood with John of Brienne and pushed for the cessation of hostilities, Pelagius, who fancied himself a military strategist, turned aside each attempt at capitulation in favor of new attacks. Many Crusaders died needlessly. Yet for every Christian life cut short prematurely, a group of heathens fell to a Crusader’s sword. Blood spilled freely, staining the dun sands with a red deeper than the Egyptian sunset. Though the Nile floods cleansed the landscape, no amount of water could purify the hearts and souls of the defenders.
Killing in God’s name was still killing, and soon Sir Nicholas sickened of murder. His soul withered and withdrew from the light. He wished never to use a sword again in the Church’s name. He desired to place himself beyond death, where cruel fate could never pursue. Most of all, he grew to hate blood and wanted no part of its scent, its heat or its lost life.
An ironic smile twisted his lips. Oh yes, he had kept his promises to himself - all that is but one. He laid down his arms and sundered his relationship with the Holy Father the very night he arrived in Paris; the palm fronds he carried back as a symbol of his completed vow and a release signed most reluctantly by Cardinal Pelagius were burned in effigy, consuming plant, paper and soul in equal measures. He saw to it that death would never again hold dominion over him. Yet, at what price?
Nick swallowed the last taste of human blood from the back of his throat. He could never escape the blood. It followed like a childhood tormentor, clung like a leech to his tainted soul. The smile transformed into a grimace of pain. No, he had not been able to keep the third of his promises. The blood pursued him even yet.
the hot liquid filled him; the murderer’s life possessed his soul; a killing desire overtook him
Nick shook his head, shaking off the memories as well. He felt the searing heat from the rising sun and decided to save himself from more physical pain. He climbed from the Caddy, then rolled open the door to the old freight elevator; he listened to its every creak and rattle, like the clang of armor and the jangle of mail, as it carried him up to the loft.
He flew to the second level, landing lightly right outside his bedroom. Strength flowed through his veins and made flight easier than it had been in decades. Nick disrobed, then stepped into the shower. He turned the knobs; cold water hit him like icy knives until the hot water rose in the ancient pipes. The water was as frigid as that of the stream where he had cleansed his face and hands; the blood had sluiced away in red rivulets, had stained the grassy bank with the remnants of a spent life.
the blood poured into his mouth, thick and acrid, carrying black memories and emotions, as dark and twisted as those of any vampire
Nick leaned against the tiled wall, allowed the water to roll over his head, under his lids and into his mouth, until he blinked and choked the unwelcome substance from eyes and throat. He tightened the faucets, but remained propped against the cold ceramic, his skin quickly cooling to match. Any pretense at life was drained away as rapidly as the killer’s had been. So swift, so simple, so newly desired.
The knights gathered in groups, exchanging information and news of their homelands. Nicholas sought out the pockets where French was spoken, and made inquiries about home and family. Close to another hour of sands had sifted through the glass before the enclave was emptied of the knights. Some would remain for further healing, but most would return to their camps. Sir Nicholas knew he should return in their company, for there was safety traveling in numbers, yet he desperately wished to speak to the Franciscan leader before departing.
Stopping only in his search for the frail monk to leave word that he may be delayed in his arrival at camp, Nicholas wound his way past departing knights and stone fire pits, until he found a modest tent some distance beyond the low stone building. The young scribe still knelt by his leader’s side, offering comfort and keeping a watchful eye in the night. He stood to keep Nicholas from accosting the tired monk, who sat tailor fashion on a grassy hillock, but Francis gestured Brother Tomaso aside and beckoned the knight closer with a kind hand.
“What troubles you so, my son?” the monk asked softly.
“Had you not heard: the eyes are the windows of the soul. They speak volumes.”
“And what do they say to you, Father?” Nicholas challenged.
Francis remained silent. It was not in his nature to force his views on his acolytes, nor especially those fighting for the Light’s victory. He believed that one’s heart must open to Love of its own accord, or it meant little. Yet it was apparent to the friar that the young knight was weighed down by doubt; his faith faltered, withered in the heat like the fragile lotus blooms placed daily before the altar.
Nicholas shifted uncomfortably. The Franciscan regarded him with such love and compassion, that he longed again for his family, for Gwyneth, all of whom were taken too soon. The knight opened his mouth to voice his uncertainties, but the encroaching darkness choked the words as they were forming. “Perhaps I have made a mistake, Father. I will leave you to your rest.”
Nicholas made to stand, but Francis placed a gentling hand on his shoulder to stay him. “If you are plagued by doubt, Sir Knight, I would be an ear.” His words nearly matched the Cardinal’s, but the offer was warm and sincere, levels above what comforts Pelagius sought to give, with no secret agenda. Francis gazed calmly at Nicholas, waiting for a sign that the knight might accept his help and guidance.
>After a moment of agonized indecision, Nicholas settled back down. “I am Nicholas de Brabant.” Francis nodded a greeting, a smile on his lips. “Your words moved me tonight, Father, as none recently have.” He studied the distant stars, finding it easier to speak without direct eye contact, not unlike the anonymity of the confessional.
Francis joined the young knight in gazing at the bright heavenly bodies in a sky unmarred by clouds. “Laudato si, mi segnore per sora luna e le stelle; in celu l’hai formate clarite et pretiose et belle,” Francis commented softly in his own language.
Nicholas turned to gaze at the monk, a brow raised in question. He recognized the language as Italian, and though some of the words echoed Church Latin and French, he could not reach through to the meaning.
“I have praised our Lord for sister moon and the stars,” Francis translated. “They have formed clearly, preciously, beautifully in the sky.” The young knight nodded in agreement. “Our Lord is in all things, Nicholas, in the grass, the sky, each animal - in fact, in everything the Sun touches with its blessed Light.”
The knight’s lips parted in surprise. “A woman I once…knew believed very much the same things, Father, though she was branded a pagan.” He remembered Gwyneth telling him that her gods had invested the land with an undying spirit.
“You loved this woman,” Francis stated with a sharp understanding.
“I loved her, yes,” he replied bitterly.
“And she was taken from you,” the monk surmised with great compassion.
Nicholas returned his gaze to the sky, but his inner sight was all for the woman he had lost. The stars in the dark heaven sparkled like her eyes, small pools catching the glinting rays of a late afternoon sun; the high clouds drifted softly about the moon as did her hair about her face, golden tinted dross spun from summer wheat. Nicholas brought his awareness back to the monk with difficulty and not a small bit of pain. “Too soon, Father, and in spite of the Light and her circle of magic. To me it seems the Light does naught to protect.” He swallowed the tears that threatened to rise. “In truth, the Light has destroyed everything of mine I hold dear." He turned bleak eyes to Francis. “She was killed for her beliefs. We are killing for ours.”
“My words may have touched you, but still have not brought understanding.” Nicholas raised a hand in confusion. “Stay with us, Sir Nicholas. See this place in the light of day given us by Brother Sun. Here is a haven of peace, where you may meditate on your role, without anxiety or doubts to plague you.”
“With all due respect, Father, it will take more than meditation.”
“Think you so?”
“My thoughts are dark.”
“Let the Light banish them, my son.”
“The light, for all its apparent strength has allowed murder to reign.”
“Man allows murder, Sir Nicholas,” Francis corrected. “The Light takes the slain to its bosom.”
“To my thinking, Father, ‘twould be better to prevent the slaying before time.”
“We cannot understand the Light or its way; we must embrace it, let it suffuse our souls. In this way alone, may we reach a state of grace like unto the Sun.”
“I fear such a state is beyond my weak grasp, Father. My path diverges from yours.”
“I will pray for your guidance, Sir Nicholas,” Francis persisted.
Nicholas stood and brushed the sand from his mantle. “Thank you for your time, Father.” He put a foot forward and bowed respectfully to the monk, then took his leave.
Although Nicholas stayed the night, not willing to tempt faith twice by traveling alone in the dark, he left prior to morning matins. His heart was even more burdened by doubt than before his arrival at the enclave. The monk’s sincerity, his sanctity, touched the one remaining spark of Light still burning within the Crusader’s soul. Like a flame beneath a stone, the light would soon starve from neglect and fade from all but the keenest vision. Yet, even a candle beneath the bed pushes back the dark, and nothing once manifest can be kept forever hidden, nor any secret abide unrevealed.
By the time he stirred, his flesh held the chill of the grave. Nick crossed the floor from bathroom to bedroom in the blink of an eye, and settled under the satin sheets with a sigh. As he closed his eyes, his mind slipped into the dream state, one of the few mental afflictions vampires shared with mortals.
The hall was dark, black smoke from a few widely spaced torches obscured the furthest corners of the room. The flickering light played tricks so that it seemed She appeared from nowhere. Her raven hair was held back in a peaked circlet of bronze; her lips were stained an unnatural red; her skin was as pale as the wing of a dove. A gown of fine bone silk draped artlessly from her shoulders, and was swept up close to her breasts by golden braid. Her small feet were shod in slippers of matching brocade, but made no sound as she glided to his side.
He could still hear the lute of a troubadour in another chamber of the great hall, and snatches of a new song by Guillaume de Marchaut drifted to his ears. The lovers joined hands and pulled each other close. Their feet moved seemingly of their own accord in the pattern of the latest court dance. Nicholas had his wish: he had cheated death, he would be eternally young, and he had Janette, an ethereal beauty made real and solid, in his arms.
They came to a rest against a marble column, their bodies molded together as one. Eyes turned golden in the glow of torchlight, burned with a deep passion. Fangs lengthened and sharpened to knife points. With one mind, they plunged their canines into each others’ throats, the circle of love and life complete. The hot bouquet of blood set his brain afire like a heady wine and, reeling, he placed spread fingers against the column to steady himself, for his legs no longer lent support. Carried to him in the blood were the thousands of nights she had lived and the thousands of victims who had not. Each death had enriched her and thereby enriched the newly made vampire. The link they shared played a crimson tune. Blood was the life.
Abruptly, the scene changed. He sat astride his destrier and surveyed the carnage on the battlefield beneath its hooves. Youthful knights and their pages littered the ground for as far as the eye could see. Pikes were adorned with their heads, mouths frozen in rictus screams of terror. Red pools drew flies; the stench of death overwhelmed the senses. Waste, such waste, the dream knight thought as he shook his head in sorrow and disgust.
The vision shifted violently once more. He split in twain: one part predator, one part prey. He reveled in the blood of one who reveled in the blood of others. He felt his fangs tear into his own throat, and draw the life into and out of himself. Filled, yet drained; his life swelled, yet slipped away. He tossed the prey to the ground as he felt himself cast down. He stood triumphantly as he lay broken at his own feet. The halves fused together as one, the rich, red liquid combining predator and prey into a single being, with a single desire. He wiped the blood from his face; drops of red lay everywhere like discarded rubies.
A light shone on a face, a bit of the sun captured by night. He reached down a hand to offer his help. A shrill cry pierced the still night air and rang in his head. Hands clasped over his ears, he turned and turned, finally rising from the ground in a futile attempt to escape the keening sound. Like the blood, it pursued him. It had to end; he would make it end.
Nick sat bolt upright in bed, his ears still ringing with the scream of terror. The sun sank below the horizon releasing him from his daily prison, just as the nightmare had thrust him from his restless repose. Each day down the centuries had died with such a sleep; in that false death he had been born to eternal life, though not quite as Francis of Assisi had predicted. It was a tragic irony that his dark path was chosen on the very day the papacy bestowed sainthood on Francis; two men whose paths had crossed briefly, but proceeded in exact opposite directions. One man opened the door to everlasting light, partaking of heaven’s sweet nectar; the other stepped into the dark to forever drink down Hell’s bitter poison. Nick wiped the blood sweat from his forehead with a trembling hand, and stared at it in fascination. Waste, such waste, he thought as he licked the crimson liquid from his long fingers. It had once been written that “more things move than blood in the heart,” but Nick’s heart had gathered a thick frost and nothing could move there but blood.