I got progressively more and more frightened of ocean sailing until I just couldn't deal with the stress any more. I got a bigger boat hoping it will give me enough confidence to take to the seas again, as I knew I must. Master Alberic shook his head when he saw The Wanderer and its fresh coat of gleaming white paint, but I was expecting he would not be pleased to see me going. Or, at least, trying to. Part of me, the cowardly part, wanted him to use harsh words and bang his wizened old staff against the boat’s sturdy hull. I wanted him to tell me I was a fool to be leaving again when I had already found what I was looking for. Him, that is. The one who knew me for what I was and the only one who could mend my broken soul. I would have gladly believed him and stayed by his side as I was terrified to be on my own again, sailing to an unknown fate, which I knew would not be a happy one.
I’d always known Master Alberic was lying. From the first day I knocked on the door of his humble dwelling smelling of burnt candles and cabbage soup. He knew my kind and he welcomed me into the dark cottage, he put his hand on my forehead to assuage the torment he presumed I was carrying inside, but I could tell something was not right.
There are all sorts of wisemen and wizards, each with his own bag of spells and tricks, but so few of them have the real power in them. The gift of looking into somebody’s soul cannot be learned from books, be they ancient or written in exotic alphabets of dead tongues. You either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t how could you possible mend wounds you cannot see? But I never told Master Alberic that, I was tired of searching, there wasn’t any hope left in me or maybe I didn’t care anymore.
The first thing he told me was I had come to the right place. He could tell I’m in pain, he said, but then any old fortune-teller can tell you as much if you slip a copper coin in her hand. What sort of man travels the world without rest if it isn’t to outrun the thing that is eating him inside. There’s no wisdom and no special power in guessing as much, it’s just common sense and having your eyes open.
As we left the docks behind, there was no more talk of my leaving. Master Alberic shifted back to a conversation we’d started the day before, simply ignoring my complete lack of enthusiasm for the intricacies of translating the manuscripts of Gotfried the Great. He was biding his time, waiting for me to burst in exasperation and plead my case. I did not need his permission to go, but he knew I wanted it nevertheless. I just couldn’t see myself raising anchor without the old man waving from the quay. Maybe not waving, I guess that would be undignified for a wiseman like him. I just needed the illusion that someone would be thinking about me all alone on my boat,that someone would be waiting for me to return, that someone cared whether I lived or died, as I didn’t.
‘Before you even look at that man, you want to learn about his history. ’They knew I wasn’t deaf, but they didn’t care that I’ll hear their cryptic warnings or the disgust in their greasy voices, that promised to spill outrageous tales to any ears that would listen to them. I was invisible and yet I was not. Nobody would ever bump into me, nobody would sit at my table, even in church they took great care to avoid standing near me and more than once I caught them casting meaningful, imperative glances to the hapless priest, demanding to know why was I allowed in their midst. The simple fact I had not been convicted or even charged with anything meant nothing, I was guilty in the eyes of the public tribunal that is never in recess and rarely shows any mercy to the ones begging for it and even less to one who won’t shed a tear when the innocent victim of his callous behavior is laid to rest.
The thing they buried that day was not Isabel, the mangled body the mortician had painfully reconstructed from shattered bones and torn skin, the tons of powder that caked the emaciated skull of the girl who had cried herself to death. It was all the cryin’ that fried her brains, they said, all that insane suffering that made her jump from the water tower in the dead of night. Everybody knew the poor thing went mad the day he left and they all knew why he left. The coward, the scumbag who would not assume responsibility for the child she was bearing. Not that anyone spoke of the baby, not since they saw the devastated Lady Rose, standing stiffly by her daughter’s coffin, the odd tear furtively wiped in the folds of her silk handkerchief. She held her head up high, Lady Rose, and no one had the heart to mention the girl’s terrible sin, not to her face anyway. Her Isabel might have been foolish enough to fall for a nobody, a travelling tradesman of no consequence, but don’t let anyone say anything about her honor. Isabel was buried in a delicate white dress, befitting her pure soul and equally pure body. Except of course for all the broken bones hidden under the white lace. And the blood, the undertaker took care of that too. But they’d seen it all, the pool of blood the girl had died in, the horrible stain stood there unwashed on the cold pavement till the storm that broke after the funeral. He still carried in his pocket a small piece of cloth smeared with clotted blood. They didn’t know he was the one to find her, writhing in pain and barely able to speak as trickles of blood spluttered from her mouth when she tried to say something.
They were supposed to talk things over, that’s why she’d written him to come to the water tower at night, when no one could see them. He had no answer, for she had not asked anything of him.
People pretended to know, there were stories of how he’d pushed her away when he heard about the baby, how she begged, how he didn’t care. But those were all lies, she’d never asked anything of him, for there was nothing to ask. And that night, the night she died there was no time to talk. She had not called him there to talk. Isabel waited at the top of the tower, waited for him to get nearer, but not too near before she threw herself to the ground. Almost at his feet.
Winter will be here soon and ‘The Wanderer’ is still moored by the dock, the white paint now dull with all the rains and the murky water lapping at the hull for months. Master Alberic is no longer afraid to mention him leaving any day now. ‘Be sure to sort out the herbs before you leave’, he says. ‘And don’t forget to put back all the books you have in your room, I don’t want to go searching every time I need something’.
It’s not really a room, just a small alcove, by the door, with a partition of yellowed cardboard for privacy, not much bigger than a coffin. But it’s safe and there’s the old man’s snores to keep him company at night, which is much more than he had in the village where no one would speak to him, nor the cold nights at sea, where all you hear is the wind and the distant cry of a bird, a call for a mate waiting somewhere. There was no one waiting for him anywhere, people ran from him even in foreign ports where nobody knew him. Perhaps they could tell of the terrible sins he carried with him.
Master Alberic knows about Isabel, he’s told him about the girl who died at his feet and his guilt.
He didn’t hear the old man coming in, he might have been standing there for a while, looking at him lost in thought.
He knows there’s more to the story, things he never told anyone for he did not want understanding or forgiveness. He did not deserve any.
Master Alberic sits down in front of him, hands neatly folded on his lap, like a priest waiting for confession.
‘The baby was not mine, you see. There was another boy she liked even before she met me, someone from the village. And she fooled around with him while I was away on some business. She told me the truth, although she could have lied. How was I to know anyway?’
‘And that’s why you left? Why didn’t you say anything? Most men would have done the same in your position.’
‘Most men… but she didn’t love most men, she loved me and I was no better than the rest of them. I should have stood by her. It was just a stupid mistake. She shouldn’t have paid so dearly for it.’
Master Alberic sits slurping at his cold tea, waiting. He’s smart, he knows there’s more.
‘She died with tears in her eyes, Master. Because of me. She tried so hard to speak, but her words where drowned in blood. I kept mumbling I couldn’t understand, but I did. I heard her when she begged my forgiveness and I didn’t grant her dying wish. One word would have been enough and I couldn’t say it. She was almost gone, but that much she understood, she died unforgiven. I stood there for a while, over her dead body and all I could see was the sadness in her eyes. ’
Loud sobs break the dams he’d been building for all those years and he’s now free to cry all the tears he never cried. He feels no shame to be crying in front of the old master, who now knows him for what he is.
‘It was never about me, my boy, or any other wiseman. You could have gone searching to the end of the world, but only you can forgive yourself.’
He slept late next morning and when he got up Master Alebric was at his desk with the tome of Godfried the Great in front of him. He sat down by the old man, took out a pen and started to write. Come spring, they’ll see about selling ‘The Wanderer’.
Story written for @mariannewest's freewrite challenge. The three prompt for the weekend challenge are marked in bold. Check out her blog and join our freewrite community.
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