The wind howled as the rain swept over the travelers who beat their horses in order to get through the storm. It was not the type of night which Father Harold would ever have chosen to travel but when Countess Cunningham called, one would be a short lived fool not to answer. The animal under him pulsed with muscle and breath, pouring its power into the road as they sped forward along the dreary path. In his younger years, he would have gained pleasure from such a splendid beast of vigorous flesh. But age caused this animal's intensity to chafe a steady rhythm of agony through his body with every falling hoof.
The road carried the horsemen through the dark woods to a gate with guards on each side. Briefly they were challenged and a dutiful exchange allowed the travelers to pass the threshold and finally find shelter from the rain. One of the men-at-arms took the horses and the travelers found their way into the main hall.
It had been almost two decades since Father Harold had been here, and though the decorations were different and the furniture had been moved, he still felt her presence. Tragedy and hardship had served only to make her more resolute, and that made him aware of the danger he was in.
It took only a moment for a pretty blond servant girl to enter with warm mead and an offering of mutton. The men accepted both, but their eyes said yes to more. The girl saw this and blushed slightly as she left the room with a brisk pace.
"Countess?" called the younger of the two men, to a shadow which lingered in the hallway. The meek gasp of a startled girl answered and the older man slapped the younger upon the shoulder.
"Never make that mistake, Will," Father Harold warned the young man. "The countess does not linger in the shadows." He turned toward the shadow. "Please come out, girl."
There was a pause as the girl considered and then she stepped barely into the light. The priest's lusty eye quickly sized her up, and determined her meals to be frequent and her walks to be short. He was about to dismiss her, but something else caught his eye; a spot of familiarity which he had grown to recognize over the years. Though he could not be certain, he knew better than to share such thoughts with anyone lest he be called out on the one great failing which had led him into a series of debts which he cared not to share.
"Good evening, Father," came the voice of command which snapped the old priest's attention to the front of the room.
"Countess Cunningham, good evening," the priest said with a bow that took only a heartbeat for the younger man to imitate, "this is quite an honor."
"Not in the way you might think," their hostess said as she moved to the most elegant chair in the room. The priest stole a glance to the hall, but the girl was gone, and then he moved to a proper location and stood tall, with his hands folded behind his back. "Sit, Father, I need your consol."
"Before I do," the priest said as he made a motion to his young companion, "this is Friar William ..."
"Countess," the friar said with another bow.
"... should he be present for this lesson?" The countess gave a dismissive gesture and so Father Harold motioned the younger man toward the hallways where the girl had once stood. Once they were alone, the old priest sat across from the countess and began counting in his head in order to steady his breath. "How may I serve you?"
"You have heard of my husband?" the countess asked.
"My condolences," the priest said automatically, and then he added, "I hear he died of a broken heart from the passing of your son."
"The murder of my son," the countess corrected him, her pale features unflinching ... her blue eyes as dry as a summer's day. "He left me without any men to finish the work of continuing this family line."
"Are you to remarry?" the priest asked politely, but he knew the answer before she shook her head.
"I have a plan," the countess said with that scheming look which always granted him both fear and excitement, "and for that, I require your expertise."
A cold bead of sweat formed on Father Harold's forehead and made its way down the side of his cheek. There were other priests who were closer and without their past, but only a small handful of specialties had what he was certain she desired. "Which?"
"Your book," she told him plainly.
"The book?" he asked as a lump caught in his throat.
"Are things so grave?"
"I fear for the future," the countess told him. "The order crumbles, the maiden's virtue wanes, and our darling Lana gathers no bees."
"Indeed, are there blossoms at all?" he asked, using their old code.
"I have seen the nectar," she answered, "but they lack the vibrant colors of noble standards."
"Oh dear," the priest said as he absently rubbed his chin with concern. "So you wish to use the book?"
"I do," the countess told him with a familiar twinkle in her eyes. "I have already prepared payment."
"Times have changed," the priest told her, "the gardeners have become more embittered in their feuds."
"That is uncivilized," the countess told him, and he knew what that horrid phrase meant.
"The asking price will be high," he told her. "I would advise against it all together ... but if you wish to proceed, you should take stock of your coffers and prepare a counter strategy. An escape clause would be wise as well, for unwanted side-effects will always be sown if left unattended. Also, I would recommend-"
"I know what I'm doing, Harold," the countess snapped harshly, her tone and the use of his name without a title saying more than a mountain of books. "I have already prepared one for your blessing and our bait for the lustful swine."
"Peace, Countess," Father Harold said with a nervous smile, "I am not as young as I once was."
"Certainly ... you are not completely without spirit," the countess said and the priest knew it was not a question.
"If the girl is capable-" he started to say.
"Marion," the countess interrupted once more.
"My lady?" the answer came from a place too close for their conversation to have remained a private one.
"Attend to Father Harold and be blessed by his holiness," the countess commanded, and the pretty blond serving girl entered and gave a spirited curtsy. "Grant him a place within noble chambers and do not make a mess of things."
A furious blush colored to girl's pale cheeks and she curtsied once more, her eyes glued to her lady's feet so she would not offend. Both of them bowed to the lady of the house and then Father Harold gave a great sigh as he studied the girl. She was a good kind, not too old, not too young, with the look of a hard worker which made him smile. Nothing was useless about this one; she would perform her tasks well.
"A blessing requires cleanliness," he told the girl in a gentle voice. "I will travel to the privy while you draw my bath. Then you will join me so that we may both be cleansed properly." The girl gave an obedient curtsy and then moved quickly from the room. Oh yes, she will do nicely.
The smell of rose petals caused the old man's nose to twitch before he entered the bathing area. Finishing in the privy had taken longer than he would have liked, but it was not something which he could control as well as he used to. The curse of the aged was their knowledge of how wonderful things used to be and how they were no longer readily so. Youth really is wasted on the young, he lamented once more, though without the power of our youth, we would all die before we learned what not to do with our lives.
The sound of water pouring into a large tub caused his neithers to stir in anticipation of the pretty little flower who was laboring for his benefit. It had been too long. A gust of humid fragrance filled Father Harold's nose when he entered the room, and the girl inside started and dropped her bucket upon the floor. She was blond, barefoot, and wearing a simple woolen garment which was now clinging to her body because of the hot water she had been handling. Such a pretty little thing.
"It's alright," he told her, and he circled around to other side of the room where there were stools buckets and brushes already laid out for him. The pegs along the wall held his tunic and he let forth an utterance of guttural relief when he removed his shoes. "Have you done this before?" he asked her as he tried to guess at what her age might be.
"Yes, Father," she told him with her eyes upon the floor. Her long blond hair was pulled back and tied with a head scarf, and the dirt on her body marked her without mercy. This was perfection in the making ... her senses were sharp, her muscles lean, and there was just enough meekness in her demeanor to bring the wolf out of the woods.
"These need to be washed," the priest said as he began removing his breeches and let them fall to the floor. "They're so foul I expect them to run off if not attended to." He had meant it as a joke, but the girl did not respond. The trembling of her heart was apparent in the hardness in her eyes, she was bracing for the undertaking of her duty and could not allow herself to be weakened by humor or feeling.
With a sigh, the old priest crossed over to the scrubbing area with a slight limp in his movements, the product of his years plus the recent hours on horseback. Gently he settled himself down on a stool, took up the brushes and the hard soaps, and began working the filth off of his body. The girl worked around him as he scrubbed, moving his clothing to the next room and bringing another bucket of steaming water for the tub. Sweat and steam coated the surface of her skin, giving her youthful glow a shiny look of soft slickness, the type of thing he would have sullied as a younger man.
The bristles scrapped across his skin leaving him pink and vulnerable. Eventually he poured warm water over himself and then looked back toward the girl. "Young lady?"
"Please, wash my back," he told her, feeling older now than he had in years.
In moments she was behind him, lathering up a scrub brush and then working the bristles across his back. The exertion caused her to breathe hard and he could feel her sweet air on his skin. The strength in her arms channeled through him and he could feel the slight tremble in her limbs. I could order her to do whatever I wish, he told himself as he enjoyed the feeling. Notions of old desire swam through his veins but settled limply at his feet. There would have been no question in his youth, but now he was old. The cries of his wishes fell upon the deaf ears of his tired self and he cursed the weight of his age. I'd meet merry with the small death then fall flat to the final black, he told himself.
"Enough," he told her, and she obeyed. Pouring the water onto his back, he rinsed himself properly and then climbed over the ledge and lowered himself into the tub. "You should bathe yourself," he told her with his gaze set firmly upon her.
"Yes, Father," she said dutifully. And though he could only violate her with eyes, he was determined to use them as she disrobed and began using the same brushes on herself that he had just finished with.
So ... I'm getting my stink on her after all, he thought as he watched her sunder the dirt from her nubile flesh. I always said I wanted to be a dirty old man, he joked to himself. It is a shame that a dirty old man is all that I have become.