Bishop’s Curse Part I
By: J. C. Eickelberg
Emerald Valley was a fertile valley valued by many groups. Three roadways lead into the mountains to major cities. Skirmishes had been fought over the fertile land for decades. No single power was ever able to lay claim to any portion of the valley.
As the Great Pestilence swept through cities and towns, armies stopped fighting in the vicinity of the valley. People fled cities to settle away from diseased and decaying neighborhoods. Farmers took advantage of the lush landscape and settled there, ignoring rumors from soldiers about winged creatures. These creatures were ready to bother any and all travelers moving through the valley. As groups settled, small towns grew. Populations sang praises of their good fortunes in finding fertile farmlands and plentiful wildlife.
Rumors of flying creatures became widespread as these communities merged and supplies from cities arrived. Travelers new to the area reported most of the sightings of the winged creatures following them. Residents had grown accustomed to the flying creatures. Groups not from the area were stopped by cloaked figures and searched. Wagons of goods were stopped and any vermin found were dispatched and wagons sent back empty. Drivers reported these imposing men wearing dark cloaks as harsh and persistent in keeping pests out. Fear of them drove the wagon drivers away from their scattered loads.
Shopkeepers sent hunters and scouts to search the roads for overdue shipments. When supplies were found, figures emerged from the landscape to confront the scouts. Questions were raised when they found the abandoned supplies. These ‘cloaked’ people became known and trusted to the scouts after persistent questioning. With trust came knowledge of the ‘Cloaked Ones’ true identity. Scouts found their identity at first disturbing, but were quickly soothed by their purpose; protecting all living things in the valley from plague and invasion. They were a local clan of gargoyles. Appearances varied greatly with the gargoyles, each chosen for a specific job. More animal appearing gargoyles scared away unwanted groups. The more human appearing gargoyles interacted with residents of the valley. The humans showed appreciation for what the gargoyles did by singing.
Songs related their thanks for keeping sickness and war away. All armies and bandits avoided entering the valley fearing for their wellbeing. Gargoyles were the saving angels of the valley, keeping danger out. The human population held their faith and pursued their lives in peace. Songs to keep the human spirit in check and uplifted were appreciated by the gargoyles. They, in turn, helped hunting parties and shepherding duties. Outsiders and invaders never learned about the cohabitation and coordination of the gargoyles and humans. News from outside the valley came readily, but news of the gargoyles true identity never left the valley. Residents and their trusted allies made sure of this.
When the population grew large enough a vast cathedral was built. Artisans worked on the interior with images equal in grandeur to the exterior architecture. Appreciation of music was shown by countless aerial sorties and acrobatics by the gargoyles. People enjoyed their protection and awed at their aerial feats. Musicians joined in with the wandering singers. In quick succession, the cathedral soon added its own voice. The largest pipe organ ever built was installed. With doors and windows open, the cathedral exuded the sound of organ music across the landscape.
As the organ played, it drew more gargoyles from farther out. The more organ music, the more they flew around town like bees around flowers. Their displayed love of music was highest when the churches and cathedral were full and everyone sang. In markets, wandering minstrels performed for market-goers, keeping minds off the wrath of the Great Pestilence in distant cities and wars. Watching from rooftops and balconies, gargoyles were equally entertained. Organ music regularly brought more clans in enjoy the organ’s voice. Visitors were rare any time in the best of weather. Royalty and church elders almost never ventured so far from home.
Bishop Cornelius was the rare church cleric to make the trip. He had heard about the prosperity of the Emerald Valley population and wanted to experience the music first hand. His arrival was announced first by the gargoyles, then by two squads of lightly armored soldiers traveling with him. Most of the mounted soldiers were kept at the edge of the valley. Their leaders did not want to endanger any more soldiers than necessary.
As the Bishop’s entourage entered town musicians stopped performing. Gargoyles disappeared from view as the music faded. The most curious gargoyles remained statue still to watch the procession. Moving through town, Bishop Cornelius witnessed more peace than seen anywhere else. At the cathedral, he was amazed by its size and grandeur. Elaborate stained-glass windows and ornate statues decorated the facade. Hearing the Bishop was making his way through town, the local clergy gathered at the doors of the church. Bishop Cornelius dismounted and approached Monsignor Marcus.
“Bishop Cornelius. What a surprise! Welcome to Castile Rosa.”
“Thank you, Monsignor Marcus. I’ve heard so much about your church and town I couldn’t resist seeing it for myself,” Bishop Cornelius replied.
“You’re most welcome. You’ve had a long journey. Please join me for a meal.”
“Your hospitality is most welcome.”
“There are stables nearby for your escort,” Monsignor said, pointing toward the armed contingent. “These soldiers aren’t needed here. You won’t find a safer town anywhere.”
“The soldiers will follow me wherever I go. They will protect us and find the stable later,” Bishop Cornelius said. A few groans came from the escort.
Cornelius followed him to the doors of the cathedral. They stopped at the top to look around the vicinity. Birds circled around the buildings, singing along with the organ inside. Larger birds could be seen farther out, circling fields, looking for food. These went unnoticed by the Bishop. He watched a dog meander down the street looking for scraps. Another dog walked near his entourage, not caring how close it was to horses, or surly soldiers. Some soldiers shooed it away with a hand. A lancer swung his weapon at it. A growl drifted toward the Bishop and Monsignor as the dog gave the group a wide berth.
“You have a very well-kept town. Much cleaner than everywhere else I’ve been to.”
“When our forefathers built this town, cleanliness, and order were paramount. Evils of the body and lifestyles aren’t allowed here. We protect ourselves against the Pestilence as best we as can.”
They went inside. Coolness welcomed them as the two clerics walked through the sanctuary. Organ music played as people cleaned and moved throughout the building. Cornelius admired the decor inside as much as he had the exterior adornments. Light filtered through the windows in a kaleidoscope of color; the craftsmanship of the church rivaled that of any found in a larger city. A small contingent of his entourage followed the Bishop. Wherever they went, music from the organ could be heard. Every person they passed hummed or sang, happy to hear the organ. Every opening let the music escape to all parts of Castile Rosa. Grumbling from the weary soldiers faded as they moved deeper into the building. Smells of cooking food intensified.
“Monsignor, how many are we expecting for lunch?”
“Audrey, we’ll be needing places for six more,” Monsignor announced.
“Very well, Monsignor. I’ll see his men outside will get something, as well.” She walked to an assistant and rattled off a list of goods for man and horse.
“You’re too kind, Monsignor,” Bishop Cornelius stated. “My men will find accommodations later.”
“You’re our guests. We take care of all of our visitors.”
They walked out to a well-maintained courtyard. In the center was a stable, holding an assortment of animals. Horse, mules, goats, and chickens moved in penned areas. At the far side of the courtyard, a sturdy staircase went up to the mezzanine level. At the top, a door opened to a large room with a table laid out for a meal. Windows stood ajar to allow a refreshing breeze to pass through. Music echoed everywhere mixing with birdsong.
Bishop Cornelius stopped to look over the courtyard. Animals were tended to as affectionately as the garden. Cleanliness and health glowed everywhere he looked. Frescoes and murals on the walls were minimal but no less impressive. A hawk rested on the railing twenty feet from the Bishop. A young man approached him holding the end of a taut cord. A medium sized mountain lion led the young man. It favored a leg, obviously recovering from an injury. Monsignor Marcus signaled the start of lunch. Bishop Cornelius turned to find food laid out on the table. He glanced over his shoulder at the predatory animal on its leash, uneasily reflecting on the relationship of the animal and the man tending to it. Sitting at the head of the table he calmed himself with the meal. Hunger overrode his desire to ask about the assortment of animals. Platters of wonderful smelling food were set out. The travelers dug in with ravenous focus. Marcus took the opportunity to check on attendants as they passed. His guests remained quiet as they ate.
With his appetite satiated, Bishop Cornelius focused on the room. At the hearth was a wicker basket tended to by a youth of about ten years. Soft noises emitted from it sounded feline like to him. The intensity of her ministrations touched his heart. He rose from the table and approached the hearth. Inside the basket was a litter of lynx cubs. A mother cat investigated the girl and her charges as it passed through the room. The cat sniffed at the furry charges, checking for herself on the welfare of the cubs before embarking on a distant mission. He followed the cat to the balcony. Outside he looked over the railing to watch the activity of the courtyard. Cornelius noticed a variety of noises in the courtyard. Dogs barking inside the main building, other animal sounds drifted to his position at the railing. The stable loft door opened to reveal an assortment of animals. Inside he focused on another mountain lion with a bandaged leg and wrapped midsection attempting to move around.
“Monsignor, I’ve seen many unusual things in my travels, but your church is unique,” Cornelius said. “All around me is beauty and peace. It seems those who’ve taken refuge here are animals.” He pointed to the lynx cubs on the hearth and a young man waiting at the door with an injured bird.
“Bishop, we are all God’s creatures. Man, and beast alike,” Monsignor said. “Our town founders have obliged future generations to share with the animals we’ve run off to build our town,” Monsignor replied firmly. “I will not turn away the injured animals brought here.”
In the silence, he heard only the sounds of the courtyard. The organ was no longer being played. Members of his staff stopped to listen. Murmurs arose at the lack of sound. There were times no music played. This was not a time of rest for man or instrument.
“In seeing all the animals you care for here, I’d like to know where the human flock is tended to,” Cornelius said. “I’ve seen doors to many rooms, but very few townsfolk.”
“Our town takes care of anyone in need. Neighbors help neighbors. When man can’t get help, they come here.” He saw an elderly man approach, an urgent expression on his face. Marcus watched him approach. He signaled the man to come closer. “Yes, Walter.”
“Monsignor, there’s an incident in the sanctuary.” He looked to the Bishop. “One of the soldiers is involved.” Walter led the way.
Everyone made room for Marcus and Cornelius as they went back to the church proper. Birdsong and women whispering were the only sounds along the way back to the sanctuary. All present watched a soldier hover over a prone figure. Marcus went to the organist laying across the aisle.
“This man is dead. Why?” Monsignor stared at the soldier. In the choir loft, and on every available ledge, Marcus saw a mass of fidgeting figures watching the scene. Shadows fluttered across the windows.
“I asked him to stop playing. The music hurt my ears.” The soldier’s expression was grave. “He wouldn’t stop.”
“It’s not your place to ask him to stop playing,” Bishop Cornelius stated. “Your actions are inexcusable.”
J.C. works and lives in Wisconsin. He has a beautiful wife and two active boys. He enjoys spending time with family, reading, and, time permitting, writing. Haunted and spooky places have always intrigued him.