by Maureen Bowden
Robert Fitzroy, descendant, via the haystack side of the blanket, from England’s first King Henry, was on the trail of a craven idol. He sat beside his servant, Francis, who steered their horse-drawn cart towards the crest of a low Mooreland hill. “Another half-mile, Master,” Francis said, “and we reach the crossroads where it stands.”
Robert sighed. “Why do the peasants cling to their superstitions, Francis? Can they not trust the judgement of Good King Hal?”
“They’ve not trusted Hal the Eighth’s judgement since Nan Boleyn raised her skirts for him. Begging your pardon, Master.”
“I’ll forget I heard, but curb your tongue in the presence of others. A harsh death is dealt to traitors and heretics.”
They reached the crossroads. The idol was a shoulder-height fragment of stone. Observed through the eyes of faith it bore the discernable shape of a cowled figure. It was blacker than any boulder or cliff-face Robert had encountered, but veins of red and green pitted its surface and glistened in the sunlight. Posies of wild flowers lay at its feet.
“The villagers say it’s a shard of a great rock that fell from the sky and shattered in this valley when the earth was young,” Francis said. “They honour it as their own saint, descended from Heaven to guide them.”
“Well, they must learn to be guided by their king and his Church, instead. Help me lift it into the cart, Francis, and we’ll be gone from this accursed place.” Although the shard was heavier than it looked, he could have lifted it unaided, but for a reason he could not explain to himself he was glad of his servant’s presence.
The woodland clearing behind Robert’s house was littered with the remains of painted Madonnas, and crude-carved Thomas Beckets, that he had reduced to rubble at the king’s behest. He brought his hammer down on his latest prey but it made not a dent.
He heard his wife’s footsteps, as he straightened, and rubbed his aching shoulders. “Francis tells me the villagers claim that each time their saint is stolen it returns to them undamaged,” she said.
“I didn’t steal it, Margaret. I have my orders, and they were risking their lives by praying to it. The king’s patience should not be tested.”
“Some risks must be taken.” She laid her hands on her swollen belly. “I am old for child bearing, Robert. I crave the goodwill of the saints above that of the king.”
He pulled her into his arms. He knew she kept her grandmother’s prayer beads close. They gave her comfort, so he pretended not to see. “It seems I cannot damage it,” he said, “but I must not return it to them. I’ll keep it safe until the king has a change of heart. Will that content you?” She nodded and smiled. He carried the saint to the back of the stable and tried to forget it.
That night, he lay awake as Margaret slept beside him. Each time he closed his eyes he saw a cowled figure imprinted on his eyelids.
He rose before dawn, wrapped his cloak around his shoulders and crept into the stable. The horses neighed and snuffled. He patted and soothed them as he approached the saint. “What use are you? Why do the people need you?”
The idol’s voice was chilling as the night wind’s whistle. “Look back into your history, Robert Fitzroy. Was there ever a time that people had no need of an idol?”
“Those were dark days,” Robert said. “This is the year of Our Lord, 1534. The king has banished idolatry from this land.”
“What do kings know of such things? Their demands are dictated by the temptations of the flesh.”
Robert felt his blood grow hot and his temples throb. “I am descended from a wise and noble monarch,” he said.
Perhaps it was a trick of the shadows but the crack that formed the saint’s mouth appeared to widen into a sneer. “Henry, the first of that name, an adulterer who sired enough bastards to fill a multitude of small towns: are you proud of your lineage, Robert?”
“Such things are the privilege of royalty. A woman is honoured to bear a king’s child.”
“Even if that king is a murderer? Your ancestor slew his brother to take the crown.”
Sweat trickled down Robert’s face. “William Rufus was unfit to rule. He was a lover of catamites.”
“As were other monarchs that followed him, and they were no worse than the ones who defiled peasant lasses.”
Robert sank to his knees on the straw. This black rock from the sky had caused him to question his pride in his ancestry. What else should he question? “Do you truly have the power to help those who pray to you?”
“I give them hope. It leads them to find the strength to help themselves. Without hope they have nothing.”
He thought of the ordeal that awaited Margaret. He prayed that hope would give her power to prevail and he knew what he must do to help her.
Dawn was breaking as he drove the cart to the crossroads. He felt at one with the land and its people, struggling, finding strength, and surviving, far from the conspiracies and hypocrisy of the Tudor Court. His mind was at peace. He caught glimpses of silent watchers skulking in the hedgerows and copses, awaiting the homecoming of their saint. He placed the idol where it belonged, and arranged the wild flowers at its feet.
On his return journey he passed the villagers on the road, and he saluted them in their pilgrimage towards the wayside shrine.
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had eighty poems and stories accepted for publication by paying markets, and Silver Pen nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She loves her family and friends, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare, and cats.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
The attraction of the fantasy genre is that while it provides an opportunity to explore and address real life experiences, it also provides an escape from those experiences when we need to step away from harsh reality.