The Child in the Forest
~ The Chivalry of a Thief in the Time of Charlemagne ~
Sep 21, 2009
The thief was a gnarly little creature. When the dust from the old Roman road swirled around him he seemed to merge into the stones, until he resembled nothing more than debris dropped from a passing cart. Only his eyes moved, as he watched travelers exit through the gates of the town. He had arrived that morning and had been watching the gate for hours. Since he had not tried to enter the town, the men-at-arms had decided to ignore him.
When a small caravan rode out in the afternoon, the thief’s eyes glinted with pleasure. The merchant riding in the middle of the group was huge, with rolls of fat straining against his velvet tunic, only partially hiding a large purse tied to his belt. His face was stained with sweat and layers of grime, and his eyes were small, engulfed by a face swollen by a life of overeating. The thief watched in fascination as the merchant picked strings of food from broken teeth with fingers that were heavy with rings of gold and rubies. The contradiction of jewels embedded in filth was a common sight among the gentry of ninth century France. Fortunately, from the thief’s point of view, precious stones and metals were unharmed by dirt and bits of chicken fat.
The merchant was surrounded by a man servant and four men-at-arms. The soldiers were glancing at the forest uneasily, clutching the hilts of their swords. Northmen had been attacking travelers more frequently, roaming far from their long boats, killing men, and taking women as slaves. Four badly trained swordsmen were little defense against the fury of the Vikings. The two women accompanying the merchant seemed unconscious of their danger. They were glaring at him and complaining loudly about the summer heat. From their ages, the thief assumed that one was his wife, and the other his daughter. The wife was thin and haughty and very unattractive. The daughter might have been pretty, but her petulant demeanor was of the type that drove suitors away in distaste. The two women were followed by a maid, who looked equally miserable and sour. The group passed the thief without noticing him, and soon was out of sight.
After a short wait, the thief slowly stood up and walked into the woods as if to relieve himself. One of the men-at-arms glanced at him, shrugged and turned back to his companion. The thief smiled as he disappeared into the trees. His opinion of guards was very low, not entirely without reason. Guard duty was frequently a boring and lazy occupation. He found them easy to avoid and easy to fool.
He moved silently through the forest, running swiftly across country in a direction that would bring him out on the road a few miles from the town. He had scouted the road the day before and had decided to move against his quarry as they approached a ford across a river. As he ran, he calculated the value of the rings he had seen. Why was it that so many merchants were fat and stupid? Did they not know that they would be better served if they traveled in rags and took their rings off their hands? In these days, with Northmen crossing the ocean, looking poor was a much safer way to stay alive.
The thief had seen Northmen from a distance once. As he had watched from the top of a hill, they had attacked and murdered the inhabitants of a small village. The thief had found it difficult to watch. He abhorred bloodshed, and was sickened by the viciousness of the Northmen. He had heard that they sometimes impaled babies on the ends of their spears. A warrior who refused to do so was called a “child lover”. The thief’s face darkened as he ran. To the thief, any warrior that killed a child was beneath contempt.
His ruminations came to an end as he approached the ford. Positioning himself behind a large tree, he waited patiently, paying no heed to the insects that quickly began feasting on his sweat covered body. The thief had been toughened in many prisons, and had endured far worse discomforts than bugs. His body was covered with so many scars from torture and whippings that his skin resembled leather chewed by dogs. His bones had become crooked, but his strength was still remarkable for one so small. Miraculously, or so his mother might have told him, he had escaped execution. He had not seen the inside of a prison for three years, and he had sworn that he would never be caught again. He had grown cautious, and preferred to confront his victims in lonely corners, away from guards and other law-abiding citizens.
A merchant traveling with frightened servants and women was a perfect target for the thief. His method of theft was not force, or murder, but a ploy based on cunning and speed. Much to his credit, he had never killed anyone, even when opportunities for more riches had beckoned to him. His infrequent companions had laughed at him for his weakness, but he had stubbornly rejected violence. He never explained his reasons to his fellow brigands, contenting himself with silently honoring the only good memory he had in a life of wandering.
His mother had been an uneducated woman with no family and a standard of morality beset by hardship. Her only assets were a beautiful singing voice and a buxom body that she flaunted with a wicked sense of humor. She had raised him in a small village a few miles from a large town that to his young eyes was the most fascinating place on earth. The villagers were endlessly appreciative of her sly wit and her songs, but could only offer her gifts of food. Needing money, she began to travel to the town, to sing on the streets and in the taverns. Out of necessity, she took her son with her, not suspecting that the town would be his downfall.
When he was eleven, he handed her a purse as they walked back through the forest to their home. She had had a difficult time in the town, and had spent days struggling against the wiles of a woman who was younger and more beautiful and, most depressingly, a better singer. She took the purse from him, and weighed it in her hand.
“What is this?” she asked.
He smiled proudly, and said, “It is for you, mother.”
To his chagrin, the remainder of the walk home was very unpleasant. After hearing how he had removed the purse from the waist of a traveler deep in slumber, she cried, and shouted at him, and said a prayer for his soul, and then, much to his surprise, she placed the pouch in her bosom and told him to tell no one.
When he looked at her in wonder, she scolded him angrily, saying, “We cannot return it! I cannot lose you to a prison, or worse.”
She made him swear an oath that day that he would never steal again. He cried, and nodded in agreement, but the town with its drunken revelers was too easy for his natural talent. He watched his mother grow weary as she made her rounds, and soon abandoned his pledge. When he handed her stolen purses on their trips back to the village, she accepted them with resignation and a plea to be careful and not get caught. He nodded, and agreed to restrict his activities to departing groups of travelers who would not realize their losses until they had left the town. He learned early on that stealing infrequently, without a discernable pattern, was far safer than the witless greed of less fortunate thieves. His mother’s prayers may have also helped, or perhaps it was the blessing of luck, but somehow he managed to avoid detection throughout his youth.
He became proud of his skill over the next year, but was shocked one afternoon as they rested on a mossy bank outside their village. He had just turned twelve, and he had begun to think that he was a man. She took his hands in hers, and looked at him fiercely, with tears in her eyes, and made him swear that he would never use violence of any kind. He was never to hit anyone, or wound or kill a person. He asked her why he couldn’t, wondering why stealing a person’s money was acceptable to her. Was it not violence of another kind? She scowled, frustrated with her inability to explain. “I do not like stealing, especially from those in need. If you must steal, you must steal only from the rich. They do not miss it that much. But violence is another matter. It is a dreadful sin to kill or maim another. Think of your friend, Pépin.”
At her words, his facade crumbled, and he stared at the ground, unable to speak. Pépin had been his best friend since they were old enough to bang sticks in the mud. They were the same age, but Pépin had been a handsome youth, with a grin that was so wide it seemed to split his face in two. One day, when they were ten, they had gone into the forest to play. He had tried to keep up with Pépin, but his friend’s legs were longer than his, and soon all he could hear was Pépin’s voice in the distance, teasing him to run faster.
When he heard Pépin scream, he ran without thinking, crashing through the underbrush, shouting that he was coming. Hearing nothing in reply, he panicked, and almost blinded himself on a bramble that swung across his face as he plunged forward. He finally found his friend in a clearing, slumped on the ground next to a pathway. He sobbed loudly and hysterically when he saw Pépin. The side of his head had been crushed; so deeply that there was no doubt that Pépin was dead.
Except for Pépin’s body, the only signs that anyone had been there were some fresh horse droppings on the path. He ran down the path, furiously trying to catch the man who had killed his friend, but as fast as his short legs could carry him, he was unable to catch up with the murderer. He never discovered Pépin’s killer, and never found out why the man had so senselessly murdered his friend. The men of the village examined the wound and declared that it was caused by a spiked club; a vicious weapon to use against a defenseless boy. They had shaken their heads sadly, muttering at the evil of such a random deed.
His mother had tried to console him, but nothing could take away his feelings of guilt that he had not been there to help his friend when he was attacked. Now, as he thought about Pépin again, he began to sob, until his mother squeezed him against her body and held him close. She kissed his cheek, and murmured, “This is why you must never use violence, except to defend yourself or others. Someone will grieve if you do.”
He rubbed the tears from his eyes, and swore to her that he would obey.
He began to understand her more, as he grew older, and watched as she sheltered people in need of sustenance. She was a warm and earthy woman, willing to embrace anyone in need. Their hovel was cramped and dark, but she would often bring children home and care for them when they were hungry or had been beaten unjustly. He had watched his mother with respect and love, and had been heartbroken when she had died from illness when he was sixteen.
That seemed like a long time ago, and his life had been cruel and much harsher than he had expected. Now in his thirties, he had grown tired and cynical over the years, and had strayed quite far from his mother’s admonition to only steal from the rich. To him, anyone richer than he was rich enough. His one remaining vestige of pride was that he still had not wounded or murdered any of his victims. He focused his trade on deception and speed. A quick cutting of the purse strings and he was gone. More often than not, it had worked quite well. He had not yet devised a way to quickly remove finger rings, much to his profound disappointment, especially when the rings were as large as those born by today’s victim.
As the clop, clop of horses sounded in the distance, he prepared himself. Taking a pouch from beneath his coat, he opened it and plunged one hand into the bag. His nose wrinkled in disgust as he pulled bits of a brown substance out of the bag and smeared it across his coat. He had filled the pouch with fresh dog droppings that morning, as he approached the town. He had found that his victims were so repulsed by the odor of excrement that they would thus pay less attention to him. Distraction was his favorite weapon.
As the merchant and his retinue rounded a bend in the road and approached the ford, the thief limped out into the road and began to sing. His voice was cracked and off-key, but he sang loudly; a song from church that he had heard in his travels. The men-at-arms partially unsheathed their swords, and glanced at the merchant for guidance. He was bemused and stared at the thief in astonishment.
“What do you here, my man?” he asked. “Why do you stop us?”
He shook his head at the soldiers as the thief drew near. “Put away your swords. He is unarmed. Can you not hear his song, and see his balding pate? Perhaps he is a monk, in penance.”
His wife and daughter looked askance at the thief, and drew their horses aside as he walked between them and placed his hand on the bridle of the merchant’s horse. The daughter wrinkled her nose, and uttered, “His smell is horrible!”
The merchant coughed, and looked down at the thief. “You are offending us with your stench! What is it that you want?”
The thief looked at the merchant and then at the two women. He needed a few moments to decide which items he could steal; which purses he could cut, and still make it to the safety of the woods. He bowed to the merchant and touched his forehead. “I am just a poor mendicant, your Holiness, in penance for my sins. I have been ordered by the friars to sleep with the dogs.”
The merchant looked triumphantly at the men-at-arms, who were scowling at the thief. “You see! He is in penance!”
The thief crossed himself. “Yes, sire.” Straightening, he reached a decision. “My Lord, I see that you are on the road to the court at Aachen. Are you one of the Emperor’s great ministers? Perhaps you could offer one denier to help me on my journey?”
The merchant’s great weakness was that he possessed the inaccurate pride of a buffoon. Immediately responding to the thief’s sly compliment, he tried hard to lift his weight and sit straighter in the saddle. Ignoring his wife’s snicker, he replied, “Minister? Bah! I am of far greater importance to His Highness, Charles le Magne. I am not just a simple minister!”
His wife and daughter guffawed in a very unladylike manner. One could tell that they were not at all respectful of the merchant’s vanity. He scowled, and opened the purse at his belt. Taking a silver coin from the purse, he handed it to the thief and said, “Here is your denier, my good man. You may know that I am one of the few men who can finance the Emperor’s campaigns!” He glared at his wife and daughter, who both lowered their heads, hiding their smiles.
He turned to address the thief once more and was shocked to see him fleeing toward the forest. He looked at the men-at-arms in bewilderment, and then at his wife and daughter. His daughter stared at the thief, who was almost at the forest’s edge, and then back at her father. Her mouth opened in surprise, and she pointed at his belt. The merchant looked down and saw that his fat purse was no longer at his waist. The thief had sliced it from his belt and had run, in the single moment that the merchant had looked angrily at his wife and daughter.
His face was dangerously purple as he shouted at his men-at-arms. They were fumbling with their reins and their swords and their crossbows when the daughter cried out in terror. She was pointing toward the ford, her face pale with fear. Just entering the shallow water were three Northmen, walking casually, with their axes slung over their shoulders. When they saw the merchant and his party, they let out a harsh battle cry and started pushing their way through the water toward the road.
The thief had entered the forest when he heard their cries. He crept back to the edge of the woods and carefully looked out from under a bush. One of the men-at-arms had grabbed the reins of the daughter’s horse and had already reached the edge of the woods on the other side of the road. As he and the daughter disappeared into the forest, the thief looked back toward the rest of the group. A man-at-arms was trying to guide the wife into the woods as well, but the wife pushed him away and went to her husband, who was circling his horse in terror and confusion. The remaining two men-at-arms had managed to load their crossbows, and as the Northmen came up to them, they let the bolts fly. Two of the Northmen were felled by the bolts and at first it seemed that the merchant’s men would win the day. It was not to be, however, for the third Northman was in a rage at the death of his fellows, and swung his ax with such ruthlessness that soon the road was strewn with the bodies of the merchant and his men. Only the maid and the wife were left alive, gazing in horror at the Northman as he approached them. He was a large man, with a terribly scarred face and only one eye. A grey and wrinkled hollow lay where his eye should have been.
The thief inched his way back into the forest as the Northman hauled the two women off their horses and proceeded to beat them and kick them, cursing at them loudly. He was covered in blood and was very angry. The thief shook his head sadly as he crept deeper into the woods and finally broke into a run. The fate of the women would not be pleasant, although it was likely that they would live.
The thief lived in mortal dread of the Northmen. The raiders were so effective, and so brutal, that being seen by them was very close to a death sentence. Few escaped their rapid and merciless assaults. It was thus that the thief ran that day without a plan and without reason. He didn’t think that he had been sighted, but where there was one Northman, there were usually more. Their boats had a shallow three-foot draft that allowed the invaders to push deep into the mainland, traveling up rivers where none expected them to come.
The thief had run east into the forest, and after an hour, he realized that he was quite lost. The woods were very thick, with trees that were huge and dark and menacing. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and the thief began to panic. He had heard of men getting lost in the dark forests and never returning. His thoughts grew turbulent, and he began to sweat and breathe heavily. Climbing up a small hill, he cursed as he got tangled in a wall of vines. He began beating against the vines and tried to cut them with his dirk, crying out in frustration and anger.
He was chopping furiously at a vine when the earth crumbled beneath him, and he started to slide down a cliff on the other side of the hill. He tried to catch himself, but the ground was covered with moss and dead leaves, and he couldn’t find a footing. He slipped and fell and cursed as he bruised himself against rocks, until finally he landed with a splash next to a large jagged rock. He had landed in a stream, and was now sitting in very cold mountain water, looking at the rock that might have split his brains in half.
He sat there, dazed, in shock from the day’s events, ignoring the water splashing over his knees. When he heard the voice, he thought that perhaps it was a wood sprite. He had heard about them, and their mischievous ways.
“You are a strange little man,” said the voice.
He stared around, suddenly very afraid. “Who said that?” he cried.
The voice laughed. “I did, little man.” The voice was small and tinkly, like a child’s voice. Perhaps wood sprites sounded like children. Evil children, to be sure.
“Show yourself!” he demanded. He struggled to his feet and slipped and fell down again with a splash.
The voice laughed again, loudly this time. Suddenly, small hands covered his eyes. The hands were attached to small arms that encircled his head. He was sure that at the very next moment, he would be tied up and carried off by this evil sprite. He wrenched himself free from the hands, and stumbled forward and turned around to face his attacker.
There, standing in the stream, was a child. He was dressed in a linen shirt and breeches, and seemed like an ordinary boy except for his tunic that was fringed with silk, and a small sword with a jeweled hilt that he carried at his belt. He had long fair hair and lively eyes. He was laughing at the thief’s expression of surprise.
“You are very wet,” he said.
The thief looked down at his clothes. He was indeed very wet, and very cold. He started to shiver, and the boy turned toward the far bank of the stream and said, “Come with me. We have a fire for you to warm yourself.”
The thief hesitated. The boy didn’t look like a Northman, but one couldn’t be sure who were friends in times like these. The boy turned and beckoned him forward. “Come,” he said. “We will not hurt you.”
It was the chill of his clothes and the hunger in his belly that convinced the thief to trust the boy. He scrambled after him, up the bank to a small clearing that was surrounded by huge and ancient trees. The sun barely made its way through the heavy branches and he found it difficult to see through the gloom at first. As his vision adjusted, he started in surprise, and considered turning to run. Sitting against the base of a tree was a knight. He was holding a knife in his hand, and staring fiercely at the thief. A tall horse was quietly nibbling on the sparse grass at the foot of the tree.
The boy ran to him and exclaimed, “No, no you cannot sit up. Do not worry. The little man will not hurt us.” He took the knight’s shoulders and helped him lie down. The knight’s eyes stayed fastened on the thief, even while the knife dropped to the ground. The thief could see that he was terribly wounded, with a deep gash in his side. His armor and shield and weapons lay next to him. The knight whispered something, and the child leaned closer to hear. Turning to the thief, the boy said, “He wants to know who you are.”
The thief looked at the fire burning in the middle of the clearing, and asked, “May I warm myself at your fire?”
The boy nodded, and the thief removed his leather coat and shirt and placed them on sticks next to the fire. He had a number of pouches tied to a rope around his waist, and after a long look at the knight and the boy, he untied the rope and placed the rope and pouches on the ground next to his tunic. He was shivering, and rubbed his hands over the fire in relief.
He didn’t answer the boy for a few moments, until the boy grew impatient, and demanded, “You must answer the knight’s question!”
It was a dilemma for the thief. He had hidden himself from authority for years, and had decided to keep his name a secret. Not knowing who the knight was, he decided not to reveal himself, even though it seemed that he was in no real danger from the knight or the boy.
Looking up from the fire, he said, “I cannot say. My name is only for those I trust. And I trust no one.”
The boy looked exasperated, and bent down again to listen to the knight. Looking at the thief, he said, “The knight asks you to come closer, so he can see your face.”
The thief shrugged and walked over to the knight. Squatting on his haunches, he stared at the knight. “Well?” he asked.
The knight was a young man, with a hawk nose and a strong jaw. His eyes were blue, and very steady as he stared at the thief. He stared for a long moment, until the thief began to fidget. Suddenly, the knight relaxed, and looked at the child and nodded. The boy said, “You can stand up now.”
The thief went back to the fire and warmed himself again, staring at the knight, trying to understand what had happened. The boy came over to the fire and handed the thief a piece of dried meat and a cup of ale. “Eat,” he said. The thief obliged him, with a grateful smile.
The boy suddenly took out his sword and held it to the thief’s naked chest, almost causing the thief to drop the cup of ale. “Will you betray us?” the boy asked.
The thief thought for a moment, and then shook his head. “No.”
“Swear to me that you will not,” the boy demanded. “Swear on what is precious to you.”
The thief paused again, and then replied, “I swear on the memory of my mother. But is there a reason to betray you?”
At that, the boy drew himself up as tall as he could, and declared, “Only to the Northmen. But you are not a Northman, are you?”
“No,” said the thief. He shuddered. “Certainly not.”
The boy sheathed his sword, satisfied. He pointed at the knight, who had been watching the exchange. “This is Bero. He is my faithful servant and a noble knight in my grandfather’s court.”
“Your grandfather?” asked the thief.
The boy smiled and thrust his chest out in pride. “My grandfather is King Charles, the Emperor of the Romans,” he said. “My name is Nithard. My father is Angilbert, the Abbot of Saint-Riquier and my mother is Bertha, the daughter of the Emperor.” He looked at the thief and said even more grandly, “I was born in December of the year of our Lord, 800, the same month my grandfather became Emperor.”
The thief chewed on a bit of meat while he thought about this information. “So, you are ten,” he said. “I was ten once.” Draining his cup, he burped, and waved his hand toward the knight. “What happened to him?” he asked.
Nithard gazed sadly at the knight. “Bero and his men were bringing me back from Saint-Riquier to my mother’s home in Aachen. We were attacked by Northmen. They killed his men and almost killed Bero and me. But we escaped into the forest on Bero’s steed. Bero knows this forest well, from hunting trips.”
Bero had been watching Nithard with a faint smile on his lips as the boy had strutted in front of the thief. It was clear however, that his strength was failing him. He started to cough, and gasped for air. Nithard went to him and took his hand. Looking at the thief, he cried, “Is there nothing you can do?”
The thief shook his head. There was nothing anyone could do. He had seen death too many times. The knight would never leave the forest. As it was, he felt pity for the boy, so he went to the knight’s side and looked at the wound. The boy had tried to dress the wound, but it was very deep, and Bero had lost a great deal of blood. It was a wonder that the knight was still alive. He was examining the wound when the knight clutched his arm and whispered hoarsely. The thief bent forward, straining to hear.
“You must help the boy,” Bero whispered.
The thief stared at the knight, perplexed. Bero stared at him, with a pleading look. “I have sworn a sacred oath to keep Nithard safe, but I will die here. He cannot make it to Aachen by himself. The Northmen are roaming everywhere.”
The thief shook his head vehemently. “I cannot go to Aachen,” he said.
The knight squeezed his wrist fiercely. “You must go! The boy is precious to the King. You cannot let him die.”
“I cannot go to Aachen,” said the thief. He shook his head and pulled his arm from Bero’s grasp.
Nithard had been watching their interchange, and looked at the thief in wonder. “Why is it that you cannot go to Aachen?” he asked. “Everyone wants to visit the court at Aachen. The whole world wants to see my grandfather.”
The thief stood up and nervously paced to the fire. He was shivering again, and put more wood onto the fire until it was roaring loudly. The light from the flames bounced crazily against the canopy of trees. Night had fallen, and the forest seemed very grim to the thief. Bero and Nithard watched him as pulled on his shirt. He was a sad figure of a man; only four feet in height, and very bony, and quite ugly. His head was large and his nose was broken and squashed. His thinning grey hair was long and stringy, and hadn’t been washed in a very long time. His lips were very puffy and his mouth seemed warped. His chest was covered with scars, but his torso was very muscular and his arms were wiry and strong.
When he realized that the knight and the boy were watching him, he paused as he tied the rope and pouches around his waist. He stared back at them for a moment, and then continued to adjust the rope. His eyes were large and brown and seemed very sad, underneath a veneer of hardness. He was fumbling self-consciously with the rope and cursed as he struggled with a knot. The rope was uncooperative, and suddenly slipped from his grasp. He tried to catch it, but was unable to stop the rope and pouches from falling to the ground. When the largest pouch hit the ground, its tie loosened, and silver coins spilled from its mouth onto the earth.
The knight was too weak to move, but Nithard stared in fascination at the coins. The thief looked at Nithard and Bero, and then looked at the coins at his feet. With a sigh, he bent down and picked up the coins and the fine leather pouch, and said, “This is why I cannot go to Aachen.”
Nithard looked puzzled, and then bent down to hear the knight’s whisper. He straightened, and put one hand on his sword. “You are a thief?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the thief. “I cannot go to Aachen because I escaped from its dungeons. If I go back, they will torture and kill me. I cannot go back.”
Bero motioned to the boy, who bent close to his chest and listened attentively. He nodded, and then looked at the thief. “Bero believes that you came to us under the grace of God. He knows how vast this forest is, and knows that chance would not have brought you to us. Chance would have led you past us and we would have no help at all. I was only in the stream for a few moments, to get water for Bero. But you came, just at that moment. Bero believes the Virgin brought you to us. He said that therefore you must take me to Aachen.”
Nithard stared down at Bero, and suddenly stomped the ground angrily. “And he must take you, also, Bero! I will not leave you here!”
Bero smiled weakly, and whispered something as he squeezed the boy’s knee. The thief couldn’t hear what he said, but it didn’t satisfy Nithard, who looked up at the thief and cried, “You must help us!”
The thief shrugged sadly, and said, “I cannot go to Aachen.”
Nithard banged his fist against the ground, and said, “You have told us that!” He glared at the thief angrily, and ground out his words, “What shall I call you then? Thief? Shall I just call you thief? Is that all you are?”
The thief’s face flushed, and he looked away. “You may call me thief if you like.”
“Then thief it is!” spat Nithard. “Thief, can you bring Bero water? He is growing faint.”
The thief silently picked up a cup and dipped it into a large bowl of water on the ground. He walked slowly to Nithard, and handed it to him without a word. Returning to the fire, he sat down with his back against a stump, and pulled his coat around him and closed his eyes. He was suddenly very tired, weary in both body and soul.
Nithard gently gave the water to Bero, who struggled to drink. Most of the water ran down the corners of his mouth. He was pale and in a great deal of pain. He very slowly lifted his hand and touched Nithard’s cheek, and gazed at him affectionately. It was too much for the boy. He sobbed, and started to throw himself across Bero’s chest but then realized that it would hurt the knight’s wound. In frustration, he took Bero’s hands and kissed them over and over again. The thief opened one eye when he heard the boy crying, and watched him for a moment. With a painful twist of his mouth, he turned his head away, and tried once more to sleep.
The fire slowly died down and the boy fell asleep next to Bero, holding his hand. The thief was less fortunate, and woke frequently, listening to Bero’s labored breathing and inadvertent moans of pain. As the first glimmer of morning sun struggled through the dense tree tops, Bero cried out, saying something in Latin, which the thief couldn’t understand. His breath came in huge rattling gasps, and while Nithard and the thief watched, the knight looked straight up at the trees and died.
Nithard was exhausted, and couldn’t cry. Instead, he rocked back and forth, saying, “No, no, no, no”, over and over again. The thief took him a cup of water, but Nithard ignored him. The thief set the cup next to the boy and went back to the fire and built it up again. He checked the saddle bags next to the horse and discovered a very small amount of smoked beef, and one remaining leather flask of ale. It was very little food for an arduous journey through the forest to Aachen.
The thief went down to the stream, and proceeded to haul dozens of boulders and small rocks up to the clearing. Finally, satisfied, he went to Nithard and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Nithard looked up with an expression of grief that the thief remembered well.
“We have to bury him now,” said the thief. He angrily brushed his hand across his eyes. He didn’t want to think about Pépin, or his feelings as he and his mother had prayed over his grave.
Nithard stood up without a word, and he and the thief straightened Bero’s body at the foot of the tree. Nithard removed a ring from Bero’s hand, and then the pouches from his belt. He took Bero’s sword and scabbard and knives, and placed them next to the horse with Bero’s other belongings. Finally, he went to the edge of the stream and picked some wildflowers and laid them over Bero’s wound. Still not speaking, he began piling the stones on top of Bero’s body. They worked together until Bero’s entire body was covered except his face. It was then that Nithard broke down again.
Crouching down, he looked at Bero, and then sidelong at the thief, trying manfully to hide the tears rolling down his cheeks. “He was assigned to me when I was born,” he said. “He was my best and truest friend.”
The thief stood quietly, until Nithard rose, and went to the remaining rocks and picked up a large stone. He moved to help Nithard, but the boy waved him away. He gently placed the stone over Bero’s face, and then laid the rest of the stones around it. When he was done, he knelt and prayed and made the sign of the cross, and finally kissed the very top stone.
Rising, he looked at the thief, who had remained standing all the while, and said, “Where do you go now?”
“Aachen,” said the thief.
The boy looked surprised, but simply nodded. They put out the fire, and broke camp, and watered the horse at the stream. The thief handed the small piece of beef to the boy, who refused it. Placing it back in the saddle bag, he looked at Nithard, and said, “I know that Aachen is to the north, but I am not certain which path to take to find our way out of this forest.”
Nithard pointed up stream. “We fled east when the Northmen attacked us. Bero told me that if we follow this stream toward the north for a day, we’ll come to a valley that goes west. If we follow that, we’ll connect again to the road to Aachen, that comes from Saint-Riquier. He said that it would take us less than two days by horseback to reach my grandfather’s court.”
“Let us follow the stream, then,” said the thief.
Nithard was an accomplished rider, and mounted the horse easily, even though he had to stand on a rock to reach the stirrups. Once in the saddle, he reached an arm down to help the thief, who was having a difficult time of it. The thief was not a rider, and didn’t like horses. His favorite animals were of the cooked variety. Riding behind Nithard without the benefit of the saddle was even more nerve racking. As Nithard guided the horse along the edge of the stream, he clutched the boy’s tunic, until Nithard protested that he held it too tight.
They traveled slowly, for there was no path, except the stream, and they frequently had to dismount and walk the steed through dense undergrowth. Fortunately, the water was not deep, so for the most part they kept to the center of the stream. They traveled for many hours, drinking sparingly, and finally sharing the last morsel of dried beef in the late afternoon. They were very hungry, and decided that they must stop to find food before nightfall. Their weapons were limited to swords and knives. They had no bow, or lance or trap of any kind. As they rode, Nithard talked of Bero’s skill as a hunter, and for a brief moment seemed to forget that his friend was dead. Nithard laughed boastfully when he said that Bero had taught him how to throw his knife with such skill that Nithard had managed to pierce the heart of a buck. The thief raised his eyebrows at this wondrous fable, and objected that a knife was far too short to penetrate so deeply.
“Not this one,” replied Nithard, and unsheathed a long and unusual knife. Its blade was ten inches in length, and it had a beautiful and intricate design of silver wire on a wide flat handle. He handed it to the thief, saying, “Be very careful. The edges of the blade are sharp enough to slice through flesh like water.”
The thief took the knife in his hand and held it gingerly. It was surprisingly heavy, with a thick steel blade that ended in a wicked looking point. For all its weight, it had a marvelous balance.
“It is much heavier than I would expect,” said the thief.
Nithard nodded, and replied, “Because it is so long and thick. The weight gives it the power to shock an animal and slow its flight, and it helps the blade pierce more easily.”
He took the knife from the thief and carefully placed it in its sheath. “Bero purchased a score of these in Italy,” he said. “I know not where, or from whom he bought them, but he practiced for many long hours to throw them far and straight, and then made me do the same.” He laughed ruefully. “After I could throw with enough skill, Bero made me practice for months to hunt with the knives. I had to learn to stand motionless while stalking prey, and then to bring my arm forward with tremendous speed as I threw the knife, in order to sink the blade in an animal before it was aware.”
He patted his belt. “I carry four at my belt at all times. Bero seemed to think that one day I might need them. He carried them as well. He was always making me practice, even showing me how to throw them while galloping on my horse.”
The thief was fascinated by the knife, and asked if he might see it again. Nithard smiled, and said, “At least for this journey, you may carry his sword and all four of his knives. Can you use a sword and knife?”
The thief shook his head. “Not a sword, and his sword is over large for me. A knife, yes, but I have never thrown one.”
“Then I shall teach you,” said Nithard.
They decided to stop by a wide area of the stream, in a clearing under a willow tree. They tied the horse to a stump, where it munched contentedly on the grass growing from the bank of the stream. Nithard showed the thief how to balance the handle on his palm, and throw the knife overhand. He set the thief to practicing, and then left him, walking upstream a short distance to hunt for food.
The sun was fading behind the trees when Nithard returned, carrying a rabbit and a small wild pig. He was grinning broadly, and immediately started to build a fire. He looked at the thief and asked, “Well? Can you hit anything?”
The thief had worked very hard in Nithard’s absence, and responded by throwing all four of Bero’s knives into the trunk of a tree. He wasn’t very far from the tree, and the knives turned over only once, but it was still an accomplishment. Nithard applauded him, and they soon were eating hungrily by the fire. They made short work of the rabbit, and ate a tremendous amount of the pig before they talked again.
Finally, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, Nithard looked at the thief with a very serious gaze, and said, “I have trusted you, and now you are helping me. Is it not time that you told me your name?”
The thief sat for a long moment, looking into the fire. He had not told anyone his real name for many years, even under torture. When one is tortured by someone who doesn’t know your name, any name will do to stop the pain. He had adopted a different name when his mother had died, out of respect for her memory. His real name was precious to her, and thus to him. He had wanted to preserve it as a part of himself that belonged to her and to a better life, long ago. Since then, he had either used a false name, or no name at all, preferring anonymity.
Now, staring into the beauty of the flames, he realized that no one had asked him for help for a very long time. He had been shunned and kicked and spat upon. He had been chased and tortured and had lived alone, unwanted and unnoticed by the world. To have a knight and the grandson of an emperor trust him and look to him for help was beyond his imagination. It felt strange to him, but good.
Turning to the boy, he said, “My mother was Chlotilde, a village woman. She named me Theodoric. She said it was my father’s name. She told me about him many times. He was a wandering storyteller, and could make a whole village laugh or cry. My mother and he were fascinated with each other, and finally married. I think she was very wild. She often coaxed him to the river where they would secretly swim in the moonlight. He didn’t want to take off his clothes, but she told me that she teased him to disrobe. He was ashamed, because he was very small and thin and weak, and from all accounts extremely ugly.”
He flushed and stared at the fire. “Rather like me, actually, except that I am very strong.”
After a moment, he continued. “My mother said that on the night that I was conceived, a terrible thing happened. They swam in the river, and were very happy, lying on the riverbank, watching the clouds move across the sky. Then, on the way back to the village, running across the fields, he tripped and fell, cutting his leg very badly on a piece of metal. She carried him back to her hut, and tried to nurse him, but after a number of days his leg became swollen and dark in color. Soon his whole body was hot to the touch, and he stiffened in pain and shouted mad things. And then he died. She was very, very sad, for a long time. She gave me his name, because she loved him. But I have not used that name since she died, when I was sixteen. She was not happy that I was a thief and I did not want to dishonor her.”
Nithard was moved by the thief’s confidence in him. Taking a sip of water, he said, “I am sorry about your father.”
The thief looked at him gratefully. “Thank you.”
Nithard brightened and said, “My father told me many tales of the past. There was a great king named Theodoric, but I cannot remember more than that.”
They sat for a while in silence. The thief felt very strange. To reveal his name after so many years was emotionally confusing. To hear that it was a king’s name made him feel faintly dizzy. Although he considered the idea that his dizziness was from eating a surfeit of roast pig. His reverie was interrupted by Nithard.
“Shall I call you Theodoric?”
The thief nodded. “If you wish,” he replied. “But please do not tell my name to others.”
Nithard agreed, and drew his coat closer around him. He watched thankfully as the thief placed more logs on the fire.
Theodoric looked at Nithard inquiringly. “Do we need to keep watch?” he asked.
Nithard shook his head. “Bero said that the Northmen do not venture this deep into the forest. They travel quickly along the roads, seeking easy plunder. They will not see our fire here.”
Theodoric sat down next to him, and replied, “For that I am very glad.” He yawned deeply, and grinned at Nithard. “Too much pig”, he said.
Soon, both the boy and the thief were sound asleep, stretched out in front of the fire.
* * *
They woke with the dawn. Theodoric rose first, and prepared the horse, while Nithard dampened the fire. After eating quickly, they mounted their steed and turned up river once again.
They had only traveled a few miles when they came to a very high waterfall. They were at first disheartened, wondering how they would guide the horse around it, but then they saw that Bero’s directions had been correct. To their left lay a broad valley, sloping down out of the forest to a road. Nithard looked at Theodoric with an excited smile.
“It is the road to Aachen!” he exclaimed.
Theodoric stared at the distant road with a feeling of dismay. Now that he was so close to Aachen, he began to have doubts about his course of action. As he and Nithard guided the horse down a steep path toward the valley, he considered turning back. The boy was walking in front of him, holding the reins in one hand, while in the other he held a walking stick that he had cut. The way was difficult, with loose rocks and pebbles making the footing treacherous.
As Theodoric gazed at the boy, his feelings grew confused. For many years he had looked at the wealthy and powerful as targets, and had treated them with a remoteness of heart that allowed him to steal from them without guilt. He had never stolen from a child, but many times children had been present when he stole from their parents. He had looked at them without seeing them, unable to open his senses to their reality. To be walking behind the grandson of an Emperor was something he had never expected.
He had been impressed with the boy’s bravery, both before and after Bero’s death. Nithard’s spirit was valiant, and reminded the thief of his own experience after his mother died. He was surprised that he genuinely liked the boy. As if he felt Theodoric’s thoughts, Nithard looked back at him and smiled. Theodoric wasn’t used to smiling, but did his best to grin back.
Nithard pointed his walking stick in front of him, and said, “Look! We have a clear path from here. We can ride.”
They had come up to an outcrop of rock. Below them was a broad path that must have been used by many hunting parties. It stretched down to the floor of the valley, and then on through fields and woods to the Roman road beyond. They stood for a few moments, gazing at the forest and the fields, searching for any signs of Northmen. All seemed peaceful, so they mounted the horse and slowly picked their way down the path. Theodoric’s nervousness increased, and he clutched Nithard’s tunic until his hand ached. With his other hand, he fingered the knives at his belt, and wondered if he would have to use them. He had never felt very brave, even though he had managed to withstand torture. Usually, when he saw knights or men-at-arms he would creep away as quietly as possible. His small size and ugliness of countenance had been a great help to him, since very few ever considered him to be a threat.
When they reached the bottom of the valley, and the path became flat, Nithard urged the horse into a trot. Nithard spoke over his shoulder, saying, “The road is not far now, and Aachen should be only three hour’s ride from there. We are almost home!”
Theodoric didn’t respond, and clutched Nithard’s tunic even tighter. He was very close to jumping off the horse and fleeing into the forest. With Aachen so close he saw very little reason why he should continue with the boy, and condemn himself to prison and death.
They rode without speaking, trotting down a broad path under magnificent old oak trees. It was a glorious morning, with a light breeze moving across the fields on either side of the path. They splashed through a stream, and then saw the road in front of them. Nithard slowed the horse to a walk, and they quietly moved up to the edge of the road. They looked at each other nervously and then stared to their left and right, searching for signs of danger.
To their great relief, the road was empty. They saw no signs that anyone had passed recently; no hoofprints and no horse droppings. To the south, and their left, the road led back to the area where Bero and Nithard had been attacked. A few miles farther down the road was the ford where the merchant and his men had met their death, and beyond that was the small town where the merchant had eaten his last meal. Nithard shuddered as he gazed down the road to the south. He shook his head sadly and swung the horse to the right, north toward Aachen.
Theodoric felt dazed as they rode north. It seemed to him that he had been with Nithard for a long time. It was hard to grasp that he had met the boy only two days before. His inner turmoil increased as they rode, and his general feeling of uneasiness grew intense. As they rode, the forest gradually gave way to fields with thatched cottages. They were surprised that they saw no one about. The windows of the small hovels were shuttered, and even the animals were absent.
Nithard looked at Theodoric with a worried expression. “I have come this way many times with Bero and with my father. I have never seen it like this.”
They continued riding, growing more worried with every mile. As they rode to the top of a small hill, a short distance from Aachen, they stopped in shock, and quickly moved the horse to the side of the road, behind a tree. Ahead of them, cottages on both sides of the road were in flames. Northmen were running among the cottages, swinging their axes and swords at the peasants with horrifying results. Nithard and Theodoric slowly moved the horse farther into the trees, watching the road all the while. To their great relief, they had not been seen.
Nithard’s face was pale as he watched the slaughter in front of them. Theodoric looked at him, and suddenly realized that all of this was new to Nithard. He had forgotten that Nithard was only ten, and had probably never seen battle before. He touched the boy’s shoulder sympathetically, and said, “We should go into the forest. We must go around them.”
Nithard nodded silently, and was turning the horse toward the woods when he stopped and pointed. Far up the road to the north they could see the glint of armor, and the movement of horses. Nithard stared for a long moment, and looked at Theodoric with excitement. “It must be a company of knights from my grandfather’s court!”
Theodoric strained to make out the details in the cloud of dust coming down the road toward the Northmen. His eyes were not as good as the boy’s, but he could see what looked like a large company of knights. He couldn’t see how many there were, but it seemed that there were many more knights than there were Northmen. He nodded at Nithard and said, “Let us leave them to the fight. We cannot help from where we are.”
Nithard hesitated. “We must join them,” he said. “And fight. It is what a knight would do.”
Theodoric shook his head vehemently. “No! We cannot. We will be killed if we fight them from this side. We must go around the Northmen, through the woods, and come out behind the knights. If you want to fight with them after that, you can.”
He looked at the boy for a long moment, and then at the beckoning forest. He felt trapped, and wanted very badly to run into the forest and disappear. He turned back to the boy, sitting in front of him on the horse. Nithard was tense, biting his lip and spasmodically clutching at his sword hilt. He seemed frightened, but also angry, and ready for a fight.
After a moment, Nithard nodded, and reluctantly turned the horse toward the forest. They rode slowly, carefully, anxious to avoid the noise of branches breaking under the hooves of their horse. They went straight into the forest and then turned north. As they rode, Theodoric’s soul grew heavier and more tortured. He had lived entirely for himself since his mother died. After her death, he had never seen any reason to sacrifice for anyone. His life had become a moral vacuum, without direction and without a higher purpose of any kind. Now, as they got closer and closer to the group of knights that would undoubtedly welcome Nithard with open arms, he felt angry that his life might be over. He would be condemned, tortured and put to death as a thief, and that was all.
Yet, when he looked at the boy sitting in front of him, he couldn’t stomach the idea of abandoning him. He vividly imagined the Northmen making short work of the boy, cutting off his head with one blow of an ax, as he had seen them do before. He had heard that they had created a sword stroke called the butterfly cut, where they sliced open a victim’s back in such a way that his lungs fell out, fluttering to the ground like a butterfly. He shuddered as he stared at Nithard’s back and imagined that happening to the child. It was an horrific thought.
Yet, it was his memory of Nithard’s tears at the death of Bero that created Theodoric’s resolve. He could not let the boy die, as Pépin had died, even if it cost him his life. He gazed at the trees overhead, with the sunshine sparkling down through the leaves, and wondered if he was crazed. He knew that he wasn’t, so he simply sighed, and turned his attention to the path in front of them.
He tapped Nithard on the shoulder, and whispered, “Do you think that we have gone far enough?”
The boy nodded, and reined the horse in. They sat for a moment, staring through the trees to their left. They couldn’t see the road, but knew that it was less than half a mile away. Nithard looked at Theodoric nervously, and asked, “How shall we proceed?”
Theodoric smiled reassuringly and patted the boy’s arm. “Just follow me, Nithard. I am very good at creeping through woods without being seen. But we must leave the horse behind. It is too big, and we may have to crawl through the bushes on our bellies.”
They dismounted, and tied the horse to a tree. They didn’t want to leave the animal trapped like that, but could not risk him following them. Nithard kissed the horse, and whispered, “We will try to come back for you.”
Theodoric doubted that they would ever see the poor animal again, but busied himself with checking the knives that Nithard had given him. Nithard offered him Bero’s sword, but he looked at it doubtfully. It was over three feet long, and he was worried that he might trip over it as he walked. Nithard put the hilt in Theodoric’s hand and said, “It is not heavy, and you may need it.”
Theodoric balanced it in his hand. It was a fine sword indeed. He nodded, and said, “Yes, I will take it, then.”
After a few moments, they were ready, each with a sword and four knives. As they stood there, it seemed to Theodoric that their weapons were almost futile. If the Northmen saw them before they could reach the Emperor’s knights, they stood little chance of surviving. He tried one last time to dissuade the boy. He pointed north, and said, “We do not have to do this. We can travel north and come out on the road far behind the knights, and travel on to your grandfather’s court. I am sure that he would prefer that you not die needlessly.”
Nithard flushed, with a mixture of embarrassment and anger. “My grandfather values courage, and would be ashamed of me if I did not assist his knights in battle!” Theodoric opened his mouth to speak, but the boy raised a hand. “No! Bero died saving me. I will not run away. If you do not wish to come, then you may leave by any route you choose.”
Theodoric didn’t respond or look at the boy. He took a long drink of water from a pouch they had refilled in the stream, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Handing the pouch to Nithard, he said, “Drink then, and follow me.”
The boy drank silently and handed the pouch back to Theodoric. Without speaking, they turned toward the road and began walking very quietly from tree to tree. After a short distance, the trees started to thin, and they could see fields ahead, and smell the smoke of burning cottages. The cries of fighting were faint at first, but as they crept closer, they grew louder, until they could hear screams, and the thud of axes, and the sharp crack of swords against metal and bone.
Falling to their bellies, they moved closer very slowly, until they were at the edge of a clearing. The road was just two hundred yards away, but in between their hiding place and the road was a melee of knights and Northmen hurling themselves at each other in furious combat. The Northmen’s axes were brutally effective, and it seemed to Nithard and Theodoric that the knights were close to defeat. Many knights had died, and many knights were terribly wounded, falling to the ground with legs and arms severed by the fierceness of their enemy’s blows.
It was difficult to see the field, for the smoke from the cottages was thick. Theodoric bent his head close to Nithard’s ear, and whispered, “Look! The Northmen are also weakened! There are very few left alive.”
In fact, there were less than ten still standing, but they were among the most ferocious warriors that Theodoric had ever seen. They seemed possessed by the devil as they swirled in circles around the embattled knights. Theodoric’s breath grew sharper as he watched the Northmen. He recognized one of them. It was the same man that had killed the merchant. His scarred face and vacant eye socket were covered in blood, but Theodoric was sure it was the same man. He was screaming at the knights as he struck at them, and cursing them in his native tongue.
The knights were more in number than the Northmen, but they were losing, dispirited in heart, and in danger of being completely routed. They seemed to be leaderless and confused. As Theodoric watched them, he was startled by Nithard’s abrupt movement next to him. The boy stood up, with his sword over his head, and screamed, “For King Charles! For my grandfather!” Before Theodoric could stop him, he started to run toward the battle, yelling over and over, “For King Charles! For my grandfather!”
The Northmen paused for the briefest of moments, and saw that it was only a boy running at them, a boy with a toy sword. One of them laughed and barked an order. The man with one eye laughed also, and started walking toward Nithard, swinging his ax. Theodoric looked at the Northman in horror, and then, without realizing what he was doing, he sprang forward, running to overtake Nithard before the Northman reached him.
Theodoric had spent a life time running away from danger, and in so doing, he had developed very strong leg muscles. His legs were short, but they carried him amazingly quickly. Now, with the image of the Northman filling his vision, he ran faster than he had ever run before. Soon, he had passed Nithard, screaming over his shoulder at the boy, “Go back! Go back!” He didn’t wait to see if he had been obeyed, but instead ran directly at the Northman. As he ran, he loosened the knives from his belt, and as he approached the man, he threw them with all his strength, one after the other.
The Northman laughed at the strange little man running toward him, and batted the first and second knife away from him with his ax. The third narrowly missed him, and he cursed as it flew by his head. Distracted, he failed to counter the fourth knife, and staggered slightly as it lodged in his side. Then, Theodoric was striking at him, awkwardly swinging Bero’s sword against the Northman’s body.
The knights had not ignored Nithard’s battle cries. As he had emerged from the forest, one of them had recognized him, and had shouted to the others, “It is Nithard, the grandson of the King!”
They watched the boy, as he ran toward the Northmen, his sword held high, and his long blond hair streaming behind him. It is at such moments that warriors transcend the agony of their wounds and the fear in their hearts and become magnificent spiritual beings. It is at such moments that the size and strength of the enemy become irrelevant. The knights could not explain what happened to them when they saw the boy. All they knew was that they would not let Nithard die that day. Instinctively, they divided into two groups, with one group holding the line against the Northmen, and the second group running toward the single Northman with his ax.
As they ran, they saw Theodoric attack the Northman, and they watched as his sword struck the Northman’s ribs. They shouted at Nithard to go back, but the boy ignored them, and ran to join Theodoric in his attack, passing Theodoric, and lifting his sword to strike. The Northman had regained his footing, and swung his ax viciously at Nithard. His ax knocked Nithard’s sword from his grasp, and pushed the boy around from the blow. Nithard was reaching for a knife as the Northman swung his ax again, this time at Nithard’s head.
If the ax had reached Nithard, it would have separated the boy’s head from his body. It crashed instead against Theodoric’s upraised left arm, severing it completely, just below the elbow. Theodoric had rushed between the Northman and Nithard, but had not had time to do more than push Nithard out of the way and raise his arm to shield the boy. Theodoric screamed in agony at the blow, and sank to the ground, with blood streaming from the stump of his forearm. He looked up at the Northman, who was preparing to strike again, and resigned himself to finally meeting death.
As Theodoric’s vision blurred, he saw the head of the Northman fly from his shoulders, followed by the gleam of a knight’s sword. As the thief collapsed into what he thought was death, his mouth twisted upward in a small, but very satisfied smile.
Theodoric did not wake as the knights killed the remaining Northmen on the field. He was unaware of the care they took as they wound a tourniquet around his arm and gently lifted him onto a makeshift litter. Nithard rode next to him as the knights bore their wounded and their dead back to the Emperor’s court. It wasn’t until Charlemagne stood over Theodoric’s body that he finally regained consciousness.
* * *
“Is this the man?”
Theodoric struggled to open his eyes. He couldn’t move his body, which frightened him greatly.
The voice asked again, “Is this the man?”
With a tremendous effort, he opened his eyes, and looked up at a crowd of people gazing down at him. A very large man towered over him. The man asked again, “I said, is this the man!”
“Yes, Sire,” someone answered. “This is the man that saved Nithard.”
Theodoric looked up at the man that they called Sire. He had never seen King Charles, even though he had spent an unfortunate span of time in one of his dungeons. To be stared at by the Emperor of the Romans was intimidating indeed. He tried to get up and realized again that he couldn’t move. He was able to turn his head, and thus he could see that he was surrounded by a crowd of knights and women of the court, all looking at him with a high degree of interest. He was flat on his back, and bound to a litter that had been placed on the stone floor of what must have been an anteroom of the Emperor’s court. He pushed against his restraints once more, and felt a stabbing pain in his left elbow. With the pain, his memory of the battle came rushing in, and he strained to see where his forearm should have been.
A woman bent over him and placed her hand on his forehead. She smiled at him, and said, “Do not move. We have bound you to your pallet because your movement was making your arm bleed. Our good knights tied your arm tightly, to stop the bleeding, and brought you and Nithard here to court.”
She smiled again warmly, and said, “Yes, he is here. Look! My son is standing to your right.”
Theodoric turned his head and saw Nithard grinning down at him. The boy crouched down next to him, and said, “We have won! The knights killed all of the Northmen after you saved me, and now we are finally home. And they got Bero’s horse, too!”
Theodoric smiled wanly at Nithard, and looked at the woman again. “Am I going to die from my wound?” he asked.
The Emperor answered him, in a loud and commanding voice. “You are not!” He looked at the woman and said, “Bertha, you must heal this man.” He turned and stared at the crowd of knights and ladies and pointed down at Theodoric. “Mark this man well! This small, puny little man challenged a Northman almost twice his size, and lost his arm to save my grandson. Mark him well, and think of his courage! This man can ask anything of me!”
A knight pushed forward to look at Theodoric. “What is his name, Sire?”
Charles le Magne stared at Theodoric, and laughed. “Yes, we must know your name.”
The court became very silent as they all waited for Theodoric’s answer. He was seized with fear, and tried to speak, but could not. As he opened and closed his mouth, a woman came to the edge of his pallet and stared down at him, and then screamed in rage. She began to sob hysterically, and had to be supported by another woman. She pointed at him again, and said, “He is a thief! Because of him, my father is dead! He stole my father’s purse and thus our men were caught off guard when the Northmen came to kill them. Look! Look for my father’s purse at his belt!”
Theodoric gazed at the woman in shock. It was the merchant’s daughter. She and the man-at-arms must have escaped through the woods to the Emperor’s court. He wanted to cover his ears against her screams, but could not. One of the women took her to a corner of the room and helped her to sit down, where she gradually grew quieter.
A very thin man came up to Theodoric, and bent down to look at him more closely. He was not a pleasant man, and with despair, Theodoric recognized him. He was the same man that had ordered Theodoric to the dungeons five years before. The man moved Theodoric’s coat aside, and lifted up the merchant’s fat purse with a satisfied smile. Standing, he handed it to the King. “It is indeed true, Your Highness. This is the same man that I placed in Your Majesty’s dungeon years ago. He escaped, but now I have found him again.”
Theodoric stared at the ceiling, unable to look at anyone. The thickening, uneasy silence was broken by Nithard.
King Charles looked down at the boy, who was tugging at his sleeve. “Yes, Nithard?”
Nithard looked around at the court, at the knights and ladies with their expressions of curiosity and faint hostility, and took a deep breath. “He was running from the Northmen, and came upon our camp in the forest, the day before Bero died. He admitted that he was a thief, but Bero trusted him, and asked him to bring me through the forest to the court. At first he said no, because he was afraid of coming here. But then, when Bero died, he told me that he would help me.
“He stayed with me, and when we came upon the Northmen he did not run away. He encouraged me to avoid the battle and come directly to the court, because he said that you would not want me killed. But when I insisted, he led me forward through the trees to the battle, and then he saved me.
“His name is Theodoric. His father was Theodoric the storyteller, and his mother was a village woman named Chlotilde.”
Nithard paused and looked at Theodoric. “I owe him my life, grandfather.”
King Charles was a fair man, and a forward thinking man. In battle, he had sometimes been brutal, but no more brutal than the standard of his times. It was a brutal and barbaric age, and as a Christian, he had devoted himself to increasing the knowledge of his people. He loved his sons and daughters, and kept his daughters close to him, so close in fact that he would not allow them to marry. Instead, he allowed his daughters to take lovers, and then recognized their illegitimate offspring and raised them at court. Nithard was such a child. It was a contradiction of ethics, but his treatment of his daughters and grandchildren could have been far worse. It was thus that he listened to Nithard with more than the cursory attention normally given to children.
It was also perhaps that he was almost seventy years of age, and had grown weary of killing. No one ever knew what went through his mind that day, except for his very simple statement as he gazed down at the thief lying on the pallet.
“This man saved my grandson, and I am in his debt. He will be an honored servant to Nithard from this day hence.”
* * *
Many weeks later, Nithard came upon Theodoric sitting on a stone wall in the gardens outside his mother’s house. It was a beautiful morning, and a mockingbird was warbling and singing in the shrubbery. Theodoric’s shoulder had healed, although he still felt unused to the empty sleeve below his elbow. He kept trying to use his left hand and kept rediscovering that it was no longer part of his body. It was very disconcerting, especially since he had made use of both of his hands with so much speed and agility since he had been a child. But his thieving days were now over. He consoled himself with the fact that at least it wasn’t his right arm that had been cut off by the Northman.
Nithard looked at his empty sleeve with a sympathetic eye, and carefully sat down on Theodoric’s right side. He handed Theodoric a plum, and they proceeded to sit on the wall and spill plum juice down their chins onto their tunics. They were very large and juicy plums, grown in his grandfather’s gardens. Nithard and Theodoric didn’t speak, but just sat, and watched the dragonflies buzz across the sunflowers.
They sat, and swung their short legs off the stone wall, and basked in the morning sunlight. Nithard smiled at Theodoric and then belched, quite loudly.
Theodoric, in his new position as a loyal servant, decided that he must help his brave and noble master. His belch was much louder, and his grin was much larger. He had not told Nithard that long ago, he had been a champion belcher in his village. Nithard, being the grandson of Charlemagne, never backed down from a challenge, even from a man who had saved his life.
Very soon, the garden was filled with the sounds of belching, forever corrupting the Emperor’s favorite mockingbird.
Later, when the mockingbird’s belching sounds were brought to Charles’ attention, he laughed with a very loud, “Hah!”, and belched himself.
No one ever beat the Emperor at anything.
Peter Falkenberg Brown is passionate about writing, publishing, public speaking and film. He hopes that someday he can live up to his favorite motto: “Expressing God’s kind and compassionate love in all directions, every second of every day, creates an infinitely expanding sphere of heart.”