Duncan stood transfixed at what he saw. Standing outside the monastery door, at the very edge of the firelight, were numerous dark forms. At first he took them as human, but then he saw the eyes. Their visages were little more than silhouettes against the darkness except for two points of crimson red light. Duncan felt his hand shaking as he looked out at them. The shadowy creatures stared straight back.
And then they were gone. Before Duncan knew it, the creatures had vanished back into the night. He peeked his head out a bit but caught no sight of them. Outside the monastery, the forest lay still. He breathed a sigh of relief and wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. There had been something not quite right, almost otherworldly, about the creatures. Duncan didn’t know what to make of them.
It took a moment before he remembered the wounded stranger that had fallen in. Duncan had been quite startled to hear someone knocking at such an hour. He had been even more startled when the visitor tumbled in, apparently dead. Duncan knelt down and turned the man over.
He was a tall, handsome man dressed in commoners clothing. His black hair was caked with blood from a severe head wound. The man’s shirt and breeches were also covered with an inordinate amount of blood. A grievous wound shone clearly on his upper left arm. The man’s clothes were torn and dirtied in many spots. For a moment, Duncan wasn’t sure of what to do.
“What’s happened here?” came a voice from behind Duncan. He glanced over his shoulder to see another monk had been roused by the commotion.
“Fetch Sister Abigail,” Duncan ordered in an imperative tone. The monk hurried off. Duncan checked the man for breath. “God be praised,” he muttered. “He’s still alive.”
By now half of the monastery was awake. Other monks rushed over to help. The man was rushed to a small vacant room and laid down while the more adept nuns went to work on him. “My heavens, what a mess!” exclaimed Sister Abigail, one of the more aged nuns.
Duncan looked in at them working and furrowed his brow. Who is this strange man? he wondered. Not having any skill in the healing arts, Duncan retired to his own chambers.
As he lay in bed, a more pressing question crossed his mind. Who… or what, was chasing him? Duncan drifted back into a sleep plagued with frightful recollections of the encounter.
The sound of church bells roused Duncan from his sleep. He rubbed his eyes wearily and glanced out the window. The sun peaked over the horizon, shedding its warm rays on the fresh dew. The awakening world glistened in the morning light.
Thoughtlessly, Duncan donned his robe and readied himself. Years of monastery life had become little more than routine. He tied his cord and quickly groomed his hair. It simply would not do to be late for morning prayer.
It was not for several moments that he remembered the events of the night before. He paused in his preparation, trying to recall the whole incident. It seemed like one long nightmare.
Duncan quickly finished readying his appearance and hurried down the hall. He slowed as he approached the door to the strangerâ€™s quarters. Perhaps now, he thought, Iâ€™ll get some answers.
He stopped and peered inside. The stranger lay there, cleaned and bandaged. A young nun sat by his bedside, repeatedly soaking a cloth in water and applying it to the strangerâ€™s forehead. Duncan ventured in.
“Good morrow, Sister. How is he?” he said softly so as not to wake the man. The nun looked up.
“Oh, Brother Duncan. I didnâ€™t hear you come in. Heâ€™s certainly doing much better than last night,” she replied, wringing out the cloth and returning to her task. “Heâ€™s still in bad condition, though. Come closer,” she said, and Duncan knelt by the strangerâ€™s bed.
“What is it, Sister? Whatâ€™s wrong with him?” he asked, growing ever more curious. She lifted the cover partially, revealing the wound on the manâ€™s arm. Duncan looked on with mixed intrigue and shock.
“It is as if he had been attacked by some wild animal,” she said, pointing to the bandage. Duncan, however, needed no prompting to see what she meant. The bandage had partially bled through in the pattern of five parallel lacerations. “Did you notice anything following him last night?” she inquired, wondering at his gaunt expression.
“Yes,” he said, still staring at the wound, “but I canâ€™t be sure of what I saw.” He rose, shaking off his alarm. “Iâ€™ll be back in later to check on him. Please call on me the moment he awakens,” he said, walking out of the room.
What sort of creature, he wondered to himself, leaves five claw marks? The implications were disturbing, but Duncan refused to give in to pointless speculation. Iâ€™ll just wait until he wakes up, he thought. No need to let my imagination play tricks on me. Placing the matter at the back of his mind, Duncan hurried to morning prayer.
It was late afternoon, nearing dusk later that day. Nuns and monks alike stood around the old Abbotâ€™s bed with dire expressions. The last rays of the setting sun shone clearly through his window, providing light for Sister Abigail to do her work.
The aged nun sat on a stool at the Abbotâ€™s bedside, holding a wet cloth to his head. Several tears trickled down her cheeks and all present knew that the great healer could do no more.
Father Michael looked around the room, turning his head weakly. “Where is Brother Duncan?” he asked in a raspy voice, followed by a violent fit of coughing. Sister Abigail held a handkerchief up to his mouth as he did so. When she drew it back again, the cloth was sprayed with blood. She quickly dipped it in the water, which was already dyed light red.
Several monks rushed out of the room to fetch their Brother, only to find that he was already outside the door. “Come, Brother,” one insisted, “Father Michael has asked for you.”
Duncan leaned with his back against the wall and his head tilted. He opened his eyes and looked at them. The expression on his face was grave. Without a word, he righted himself and walked past, into the Abbotâ€™s chambers. The small crowd parted to allow him passage.
“You called for me, Father,” he asked, kneeling opposite Sister Abigail. The look in her eyes was enough to tell Duncan that the Abbotâ€™s hour was at hand.
“My child,” he began weakly, “I have but one question to ask of you.”
“Yes, Father,” Duncan replied solemnly.
“Why must you be so,” he began, breaking into another fit of coughing, “faithless?” All present knew of what the Abbot spoke. Duncanâ€™s expression worsened.
“I donâ€™t know what you mean, Father,” Duncan responded, a hint of indignation in his voice.
“Why must you question our doctrine so?” the Abbot continued, gasping for breath. “Tell me, why must you question everything?” All eyes were now on Duncan, some accusing, some consoling.
Duncan paid no heed to them, instead looking directly at the old Abbot. “Is it wrong to seek the truth?” Duncan retorted, staring.
Father Michael sat up, his arms quaking under the strain. Sister Abigail implored him to lay back down, but he brushed her aside. The Abbotâ€™s glare was almost menacing. “It is wrong when it conflicts with our most cherished beliefs,” he said, staving off the urge to cough.
“And what if those beliefs are wrong?” Duncan asked back. A hush fell over the room. The tension between Duncan and Father Michael was evident.
“You would question our doctrine?” he asked, coughing into his sleeve. A small trail of blood trickled from the side of his mouth. “Your doctrine?”
“I would seek the truth,” Duncan said, rising. He turned his back on the Abbot and walked to the door. Looking back over his shoulder, he stopped. “At any cost,” he stated flatly, and left. The eyes of the entire room lingered in the doorway for many long moments afterward.
Father Michael lay back down, his exhaustion evident. The sun set soon after. Several monks lit candles, but their light was wasted. The vigil would soon be over.
The mournful voices of the choir echoed throughout the monastery. Their melancholy song lingered with the darkening clouds overhead. Throughout the churchyard, monks and nuns alike wept for their departed Father.
Duncan stood amidst their company, looking on gravely as they set the Abbot in the earth. He could not bring himself to shed tears for the old man, nor could he forget their harsh words. Many times before had they quarreled. He wished their last words had been kinder. Perhaps I am faithless, Duncan wondered to himself as one of the monks began a sermon.
The monkâ€™s words extolled all of the Abbotâ€™s virtues, but Duncan paid them little heed. He was lost in a crisis of conscience that he could no more deny than he could justify. Around him, many of the monks wept uncontrollably. He was as good a man as they come, he admitted to himself at length. Why did I always question him?
Then the rain came, cold and gloomy. Few present made any attempt to shield themselves. Duncan looked up briefly, listening to the thunder roll in the distance. Could God be trying to tell me something?
The sermon continued for more than an hour, though many would have said that no mortal being could do full virtue to the departed Abbot. “We called him Father,” said the monk, “and so he was. He was as true and kind a father as any here knew.”
Duncan listened absently as the rain fell even harder. No pleasant ray of sunlight intruded on the funeral. The cloud cover only darkened as the afternoon drew on. At length, Duncan noticed a figure in a second-story window of the monastery.
At first he failed to make it out, and even doubted his eyes. The figure appeared as little more than a shadow against the glass. Then, as a flash of lightning tore through the clouds above, the observerâ€™s identity became clear. The stranger looked down on the ceremony, a grim look on his face.
The two of them exchanged a long stare. Duncan could not always see the manâ€™s face, but somehow he knew that he was still watching. It occurred to Duncan that he felt some sort of kinship with the stranger, as if they had something deeply in common. He couldnâ€™t put his finger on it. Something drew his gaze, though. Some inexplicable force drew him in.
It seemed an eternity before Duncan averted his gaze back to the funeral. In his mind, he puzzled over what the stranger was trying to say. Suddenly, he was snapped back to reality as the choir began their final melody. All present solemnly bowed their heads in prayer as several monks began filling the grave. Crashing thunder interrupted the chorus at several points.
As the procession retired into the monastery, Duncan glanced up at the window. But the stranger was already gone. What did he want? Duncan kept wondering. Questions whirled in his mind, demanding explanation. Tomorrow, he resolved, I shall have my answers.