—– Chapter VI —–
The summer was winding down, but Helena hardly noticed its passing. The leaves were changing, the temperature dropping, but she remained warm and consistent, buried in a dreamy state of unbridled joy. Sebastian was gone, and he had been so for nearly the entirety of the season. But unlike in the past, where she had glumly wandered the halls of the manor house or tried to forget herself in various texts, she no longer felt preoccupied with her own inertia. Instead, she was enjoying a life that had been suddenly made less ordinary, an experience that imbued the future with color and definition.
As much as she hated to admit it, a large portion of her happiness could be attributed to Spiess. Since the party, they had seen each other almost every week – mostly in clandestine meetings at the knight’s mansion out in the country. During these forays, they would ride across his estate and swim in the more temperate stretches of the Axamer Bach. Each evening, they dined in the estate’s cavernous hall, enjoying partridge and waterfowl garnished with sweet onion and fennel. She knew that she was lucky that Spiess’s staff was courteous and kind – willing to treat her with respect despite the clear scandal transpiring under their noses. The same could have never been said for Madam Magpie, who was surly and irascible by default, and whose penchant for heavy sighing or shrewish gossip was truly without peer.
But despite their relative good fortune, it was impossible to keep the affair fully secret. Slowly, Helena began noticing the neighbors giving her second glances, following her movements as if she was Pope Innocent himself. Someone had become wise to her association with Spiess, and it was only a matter of time before the rumors found their way back to Sebastian.
But Helena didn’t want to stop, didn’t know if she could stop. With Spiess, the world had opened up. Previously, something had always stopped her, prohibiting her from seeing a way out or a way through. She could most easily compare it to the time when she had fallen into a crevice while playing in the hills that encircled her childhood home. Her world had plunged into darkness as she slide underneath the earth, a blackness so impenetrable that she was unable to see her hand even when she waved it in front of her face. So it had been for much of her life with Sebastian. She had existed – that much was sure. But her senses were deprived, her perception muted, and she was unable to fully discern just who or where she was.
Additionally, there was just something compelling about Spiess. Not only was he well-traveled, having spent a great deal of time in Turkish lands, he also knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. Even more importantly, though, he seemed to find her knowledgeable, or that the knowledge she had was valuable, worthy of respect and consideration. When she spoke, he truly seemed to listen.
Of course, he wasn’t perfect. He could, at times, be didactic. He could also stray into grandiloquence when passionate about something. But for what he occasionally lacked in self-awareness, he made up for humility – a startling willingness to recognize when he had gone awry.
“Have you read this one?” she said to him after they had been seeing each other for a few weeks.
They were in the library of the estate, a beautiful, circular room with bookshelves that ran the length of the walls and extended fully from floor to ceiling. Before them lay the remnants of an intense card game, of which Helena had just given Spiess a good thrashing.
She got up from the table, mentioning something about how she needed to take a victory lap after the game. It was the perfect excuse to explore the library, which until this point she had seen only in the most cursory of ways. Wandering the room, she was drawn to a massive book bound together with richly-dyed leather. Pulling it from the shelf, she saw that it was the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas.
“Have you read this I said?”
“Ah-ha! The Theologica. A masterful text. It’s comprehensive approach to theology…”
Spiess suddenly stopped, noticing the bemused look on Helena’s face.
“I did it again, didn’t I?”
“No, no. My mouth sometimes runs ahead of my mind. Poor habit. Would you like to take it? It’s a fine introduction to Thomism. In fact…”
“Spiess trailed off, again noticing the change in Helena’s face.”
“Ah. You’ve read it haven’t you?”
“Just a bit.”
In actuality, Helena was exceptionally well-versed in the Summa Theologica, having been taught it directly by Master Wheeler many years ago.
“No, no. I am now your student. Attentive and silent.”
Helena smiled and turned back to the massive text, slipping through a section with her thumb, pointer and ring fingers. The pages whizzed by in a blur with a pleasant rustling sound, until they came to a stop at Question 114.
“Something caught your eye?”
“Aquinas’s discourse on demons.”
“It makes me sad.”
“Tis a pessimistic view of humankind is it not? That our failings can be attributed to our choices but all good must be credited to the angels?”
“Do you doubt God’s power?”
“I want to believe that man can choose to be good, that we can be more than what the world wants us to be.”
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“Do you think I’m a heretic?”
“No. I think you’re exciting.”
“And yourself, Sir Spiess? Do you see yourself as standing above the devils of our age? Are thee a mere culvert of divine or demonic power?”
“I can’t presume to know God’s plan or what is in men’s’ hearts. But I believe that everything eventually finds its place – either on its own or through the force of God’s will.”
And so it was with Spiess. He acknowledged her mind to such a degree that Helena felt that he must be nearly unmoored in time. Whenever she thought of other men, Helena could barely keep herself from shaking her head in disgust. Spiess was so far ahead of them all, so much further down the line.
She was enjoying herself so much that she didn’t pay attention to the fact that Spiess kept her largely out of sight, tucked away like a petty dalliance. She also gradually stopped caring that nearly the entirety of her free time was now consumed by their daily activities. She even overlooked his drinking and general excess, a habitual part of their time together – noting that such annoyances were well worth the price of admission. Unlike Sebastian, richly ensconced in the static mores of his mercantilism, Spiess belonged to a new world, a better world fated to inexorably arise.
“What do you think of this?” Spiess said.
They were in the estate’s library, having just come in from a ride after becoming ensnared in a surprise storm that had barreled in from the mountains. Dripping and thoroughly soaked, they found that the hearth was bare and that the weekly delivery of wood had not yet arrived.
Noticing that she was shivering, the knight had immediately plucked the bust off the mantle, and Helena could see now that it was a carved sculpture of Frederick III’s face when he could have been no older than 40 or so. She had only ever seen the emperor as an old man, his jowly countenance following her throughout her younger years in the form of etchings and engravings. The bust in Spiess’s hands was a staggering testament to the scope of Frederick’s long life, not to mention his fixed position as the Roman head of state for more than 30 years.
“I’d say a serviceable paperweight,” Helena said through chattering teeth, knowing that Spiess would get some amusement out of her dry iconoclasm.
Spiess chuckled, turning the bust in his hands to look directly at the emperor’s wooden features once more. His hands rose, bringing the bust up above his head. Then they flew forward, blurring with velocity, and smashed the bust to pieces on the ground.
“More like serviceable kindling.”
Helena stood back, astonished by what she had just witnessed as Spiess took a long sip from his chalice. But then Helena caught Spiess’s eye, noting his sense of impending laughter while simultaneously feeling the oncoming of her own. He began chuckling, hugging her tightly to him, and so too did she. Their peals merging as he broke up what appeared to be additional heirlooms with a devil-may-care spirit, forming them into a pile of wood that was soon animated by a crackling flame.
“We’ve made a mess haven’t we?” Helena said after a time, looking worryingly at the fragments of wood and plaster that littered the floor around the fireplace.
“They’ll clean it up,” Spiess said in response, gesturing to two tired-looking valets hovering near the entrance of the library. “That’s what they’re there for.”
Then he quickly pivoted in his seat to face the valets. As he turned, Helena caught a pungent whiff of alcohol, which aggressively tickled her nose.
“Right!?” Spiess yelled to the valets. Helena couldn’t be entirely sure, but she could almost swear that both men visibly flinched at the knight’s words.
“Back again me lady?” said Konrad Gemant, Spiess’s gardener, two weeks later as Helena walked down from the estate’s main residence toward a coach that was awaiting her in the gathering dark. “Yer becoming quite the presence here – always pleasant to be sure.”
Helena stopped, a slight flush spreading across her cheeks. Her initial impulse was to continue on, deferring to what was, at best, a deeply awkward comment. She shut her eyes and then opening them again. She knew that wasn’t her.
“What did you say?” she said, turned quickly to the old codger and meeting his eye line.
“Nothing me lady.”
“Please just say it.”
“Just that ye shall want to be cautious.”
“Pray tell what do I need to be cautious of?”
Konrad didn’t say anything for a moment, instead pawing at the ground with his booted toe. He appeared uncertain, as if he had waded into a body of water and suddenly realized he was over his head. Steadying himself, he spoke.
“Ye see this garden? Beautiful tis. Every element works together. None taking more than they’re owed. But ye see that hole in the soil? Ficaria grew there. Beautiful yellow flowers brighter than ye could believe. The master loved them. But they began to grow, take over everything. They threw the garden into chaos ye see? Unbalancing the plot. Whatever pleasures they had were forgotten. I pulled and burned em a fortnight later.”
Helena stood in stupefied silence, genuinely shocked by the old greenskeeper’s veiled threat. Konrad had hardly been a warm or inviting presence during her weeks of knowing Spiess and visiting his estate. But she was still floored by his words. She felt hot. The skin between her shoulder blades was sweaty and slick. Perhaps there was truth to what he said.
“Konrad!” came Spiess’s voice from behind a retaining wall.
Helena smelled the knight before she saw him. The faint, fruity odor of wine permeated the air as he rounded the corner, face nearly purple with rage. The muscles at the sides of the gardener’s wizened countenance twitched, as if he had just heard something particularly painful.
“My lord,” said Konrad, shrinking at Spiess’s approach.
“Your tongue is once again too loose for its own good,” the knight snapped, grabbing a hold of Helena’s arm and pulling her away from the old man. “You forget yourself.”
“But me lord, I only want to protec…”
Before the gardener was able to finish, Spiess’s fist swung forward, catching Konrad squarely on the jaw with a sickening crunch. The old man crumpled immediately, collapsing to the ground like a marionette without strings. Helena instinctively let out a scream, pulling wildly against the knight’s vice-like grip. She then began battering at his arm in a vain attempt to free herself. The look on Speiss’s face was terrifying: all vestiges of warm joviality had drained away, replaced by icy fury. Dragging her away, the knight spat at several other servants who had appeared, yelling for them to take the old man away and clean him up.
It wasn’t until he had dragged Helena inside the foyer, through the hallway and into the library that Speiss seemed to come back to himself, loosening his grip and letting her pull away at last.
For a moment, Spiess said nothing. The light gradually returned to his eyes, and he turned to face Helena.
“What’s the matter?” Speiss said, looking genuinely baffled at Helena’s look of pronounced horror.
“What’s the matter with you?” she cried. She was on the verge of tears, heart hammering in her chest.
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh that; he never learns.”
“You might have crippled him. Perchance killed him!”
To her dawning horror, Helena could see that her appeals and exclamations were falling on deaf ears. She spun on her heel and walked toward the exit, fully resolved to never see Spiess again.
But then he was on her, his glove-like hand enveloping her wrist and biting into her skin.
“Wait a minute,” Speiss hissed, his eyes strangely clouded over.
“Let me go!”
“Let me go!”
“Listen to me you doxy tart.”
Red cut across her eyes, and her palm whistled through the air, striking Speiss square across his upper right cheek. But this was no mere symbolic strike, no empty expression of righteous indignation. Helena had put everything she could into her slap, pivoting on her back foot, shifting the entirety of her body mass and placing it at her palm’s disposal.
At the moment of impact, she felt herself snap back to a long-buried memory. Her years fell away as she rocketed into the past, emerging once more as a fresh-faced pupil under Master Wheeler’s tutelage.
“You’ve got to strike hard missy,” the old man had said one evening as they were finishing up a self-defense class that was conducted strictly in secret. Her parents had always believed in the importance of physical soundness as well as mental acuity. With the times being what they were, they also viewed such activity as having a real-world utility.
“The power comes from the back of the foot. You’ve got to drive and twist. Drive and twist.”
They had been at this all day, with Helena struggling to learn some of the basics. Despite her youth and agility, Master Wheeler had proven to be a formidable opponent in their sparring sessions. Part of this had to do with Helena’s lack of enthusiasm. Since Sebastian’s proposal, her whole life had become a morass of enervating sadness.
“Let’s go again.”
Helena moved forward, practicing in just the way he had taught her. But her heart still wasn’t there, and they both knew it.
“Hitch up your skirts. Come on!”
Master Wheeler had always known just what buttons to push to make her lose her cool. Helena swung at him wildly, advancing with newfound ferocity. For a moment, the intensity of the girl’s attack seemed to catch the old man off guard, and Helena sought to press this slight advantage, raining blow after blow upon Wheeler’s outstretched hands. In the last minute, however, her teacher spun away from her line of attack, dancing out of range with the grace and fluidity of a man with only half his years. Then it was Helena’s turn to be on the defensive.
After their session was over, Helena was breathing heavily, her face and body drenched in sweat. She dabbed herself off with a strip of cloth, looking with a mixture of awe and annoyance at her strangely unwinded teacher.
“How is it then?” Master Wheeler said with a mixture of concern and some irritation.
“Spare me the coy act.”
Helena knew he was pressing her to speak about her imminent marriage. But she couldn’t go there. Whenever she thought about it for too long, her sadness turned sharply into a gnawing despair, an all-encompassing hopelessness that was pure and visceral.
Pushing those thoughts aside, she continued packing up her bag. Each item weighed heavily in her hands. There was her journal, volume eight in the catalog of her late-adolescent life; her prized quills; not to mention her copy of the travelogue of Benjamin of Tudela – interests she assumed would soon be gone by the wayside, replaced by banal domesticity and perhaps even the shattering pain of child-birth.
“I do not wish to speak of it.”
At her words, Wheeler’s brow furrowed, worry lines deepening like tectonic rifts in the earth. He walked toward Helena, who was angrily trying to cram her remaining papers into the rapidly-receding space inside her bag. Catching her around her thin wrist, he wrested the papers from her, smoothed them out calmly and then tucked them elegantly within the folds of her journal. Helena looked up, frustration temporarily quelled.
“You know why you can never win in these sessions?”
“I don’t care.”
“Exactly. That’s the only explanation for why a girl in the prime of life can’t lay a finger on a helpless old man.”
“I have to go.”
“Helena. Don’t give up on hope.”
“One cannot escape their times. Isn’t that what you’ve always said?”
“One cannot. That’s true. That on which we stand was laid long ago. But we can start laying a different foundation now. Can you be more than what the world wants you to be?”
“I want to.”
“Well then start now.”
Master Wheeler walked back onto the sparring floor. Sighing loudly to herself, Helena paused for a moment before slowly following him. The pair faced each other and then once again began sparring, crisscrossing the floor. For a moment, Helena again felt that she may be, once again, outmatched. Like so many subjects where he had served as her teacher, Master Wheeler’s command of the practice was total, his grasp of the technique, flawless. Sweat began pouring from her anew, and a deep ache soon sprang to life from deep within her muscles.
But then she saw it: Master Wheeler was beginning to drop his guard, moving a bit too slowly for his own good. Focusing, hoping, believing for the first time, Helena moved at just the right moment. Master Wheeler charged toward her, and she dropped to the ground. Catching hold of one of his forearms, she used Wheeler’s weight and momentum against him. Pulling forward with all her strength, she swung her teacher head-over-heels, crashing him into the floor with a jarring thump.
“Are you alright?” she asked him, breathlessly climbing to her feet and urgently rushing to his side.
For a moment, Master Wheeler said nothing, merely groaning while holding onto his side.
“Oh my god.” muttered Helena, walking in a small circle around him.
But then the old man slowly rose to his elbows, looking her in the eye and flashing a large grin.
“I’ve never been more proud of you girl.”
The memory faded away, replaced by Spiess’s handsome face, which was now somewhat marred by a bright splotch of redness emanating out from where Helena’s hand had connected with his cheek. He reached up, touching the area and noticeably wincing. His eyes narrowed, eyebrows arcing downward. His jaw clenched, and his body went rigid. Advancing toward her, his arms unfurled in front of him, augmenting the impact of his already considerable form.
“Where do you think you are?!” he snarled, flecks of foam flying from his mouth.
“Leave me alone,” Helena whispered, fear mixing with heartbroken disgust.
What she had thought of as her future, not to mention what she had thought of as her past, was now falling down around her. The man approaching her was not someone she could respect or know, depend upon or one day love. It had all been a lie. Despite some posturing to the contrary, Speiss was like all the rest: an emblem of his time, a conduit of its power. What’s worse is that she had bought into it, become complicit in its structures for a flicker of fleeting pleasure.
Spiess’s hands snatched toward her. She ducked out of the way, spinning to the side and leaving the knight clutching at nothing but air. Then they met, merging into a sea of flailing arms. He was bigger and far stronger, but also blind by rage. Grappling, they fell against the library’s table, its glass breaking apart into what seemed like a million shards.
Strength ebbing, Helena could feel his weight pressing down upon her body. Her limbs felt static and cumbersome, as if mired in sand. The room, the estate itself, was now muted and colorless, fading before her like some half-remembered dream. Across the way, the large, arched window looked out on a sea of endless foliage, the thick, coarse brush that surrounded the knight’s manor and covered a vicious array of cracked gorges and seething streams the thrashed with boundless passion toward the Ehnbach far away. The knight twisted above her, pain exploded in her body, but her eyes remained fixed on the window, penetrating through the glass, grappling with the horror and splendor of what lay beyond.
Outside, the leaves moved, branches pulled apart. A figure stepped out of the trees, the newly-emerged moonlight bathing its pallid, hairless skin. The figure was highly androgynous in form, with there only being the most subtle indicators of the female gender. Helena scanned her eyes up the body of a Pale Woman, locking upon the spot where her facial features should be, sending a rush of blood to her head and making her cry out in terror. Engulfed in hysterics, Helena collapsed inward, seeking that spot beyond sanity, apart from reality.
Across the estate, life moved in accordance to its mores. Badgers bedded down in their setts, burrowing deeply into the high grounds, the mouths of their dens covered by groves of ash and maple. Grass snakes moved sluggishly across the loam, the warmth of their bodies dissipating in accordance with the final rays of sunlight. Spiess’s staff milled about throughout the estate’s halls, adhering to the long-upheld tradition of deference to their lord. So the night passed, one day became the next, and everything found its place.