“Your mother was a whore!” The shout echoed from the mouth of the temple as if the stones themselves hurled insults at the small figure darting through the doorway.
Bartholomew’s tormentors also burst from the entry, pursuing him across the wide portico.
Leaping down the stairs and into the crowded street, Bartholomew struck the side of an oxcart, bounded off, and careened around a corner. But a hand snagged the nape of his tunic. His legs went out from under him, and he fell backward onto the rough cobblestones.
“Don’t hurt me!” he cried, holding his arms above his head.
The other boys gathered above him, panting. Bruno was the first to speak. “This time we take him to the ruins — and leave him for the captain.”
“Nooo,” Bartholomew whined.
A short time later they led him, firm hands on each arm, to the devastated castle and through a breach in the wall into the bailey cluttered with rotted wagons and rampant weeds. Perhaps having second thoughts about the fate to which they would leave him, they let him piss by the wall before dragging him to a spot between two small trees that had forced their way through the flagstones. They pushed him to the ground, and he cried as they tied each wrist to a tree.
“Don’t leave me. He’ll kill me.”
The boys glanced into the growing shadows. From their anxious looks, Bartholomew thought they might change their mind until Bruno said “Your mother was a whore. It’s what you deserve.” Their laughter trickled back to him as they threaded their way through the trees beyond the ruin.
Bartholomew hunkered down, straining at his bonds, trying to make himself smaller. “Maybe if I’m quiet he won’t know I’m here.”
A shaft of light beaming through the breach in the western wall gleamed on the remains of the east tower like a long finger pointing down at him.
“Yes, I’m milk-livered,” he said aloud to the accusatory finger. “If the captain comes I’ll die screaming like a baby.”
In the years since the castle was taken, stories were told of the captain who had fallen as he held the inner gate. He waited there still, bitter and vengeful, to take the soul of any mortal who fell into his grasp.
“If I’m gonna die, get it over with,” he heard his own voice say, and it gave him some small measure of courage.
The breeze died, and the pungent smell of mold wafted from the ruins which now he could barely see. A rustling came from a nearby pile of splintered wood. Bartholomew turned his head toward the gate. A tall figure stood watching him.
Cold seeped into his skin and yet he did not look away.
The figure moved, drifting toward him, starlight glimmering on his armor and silver helm.
Bartholomew pulled back, eyes wide, the leather ties cutting into his wrists, but he remained facing the apparition.
Unwavering, the specter’s long face and vacant eyes bore down on him. The mouth, framed in deep vertical lines, smiled a bitter smile, and a skeletal hand reached for him.
Bartholomew held his breath and grimaced.
The finger of bone touched his chest, and he felt a stab of ice.
But the apparition paused. The smile left its lips and then, leaning down until its face was directly before Bartholomew’s, it spoke.
“Yes. But before she was a whore — I loved her.”
“We made love the night before the castle fell. Nine months later you were born.”
“But why did she…”
“Become a prostitute? Times were bad and got worse. Soldiers occupied the village. You were a sickly child, and she would do anything to provide for you.”
“I barely remember her, just the big thick braids hanging down.”
“Yes, her hair was beautiful.”
“The miller took me in. They let me live in the back of the mill in exchange for work, but he doesn’t take up for me like a real father. That’s why everyone picks on me.”
“That’s not the reason, Bartholomew. They torment you because you let them.”
“I’m not brave like you.”
“But you are.”
“They’re bigger than me.”
“So you straighten your spine, you set your jaw, and you ask for no reward. Then, even in defeat, you’ll yield no honor to the victor.”
“Straighten your spine like I said. Set your jaw.”
“Do you feel it?”
Looking about in the darkness, Bartholomew nodded.
“The posture of courage is like an armor. It may not always give you victory, but you will find within it more power than you ever knew you had.” The visage moved closer. “And for your shield you have a father’s love.”
“Will you protect me, father?”
“With my love, you will protect yourself.”
Bartholomew took a deep breath. “I’ll come back, all the time, and see you.”
“But why? I’ve just found you.”
“Our meeting has weakened my bonds to this place. Perhaps I was only waiting for you, all these years.”
“No! Father, don’t go.”
Pain upon his face, the specter moved forward and reached out his arms, but Bartholomew felt only an icy chill pass through his body.
The specter moaned, and the hollow sound seemed to come from the earth.
“Father, I love you.”
The specter began to fade.
“And if you… if you see mother,” he cried.
“I know,” he said, fading. “I will tell her.”
Men arrived with the boys at dawn, Bruno amongst them, contrite at the hazardous prank they had played.
“Lad, you must’ve had a terrible night,” said the miller who cut his bonds.
“You saw the ghost?” said another.
Bartholomew rubbed his sore wrists and nodded.
Several men exclaimed.
“So what happened?” smirked Bruno.
Bartholomew stood and faced him squarely. “He’s gone, now. And he won’t come again.”
Bruno, his eyes wide, took a step back.
On their way to the village Bartholomew walked with the men. The boys trailed behind.
Gerald Warfield’s short story, “The Poly Islands,” won second prize in the first quarter of the 2011 Writers of the Future contest. The same year, his humorous story “The Origin of Third Person in Paleolithic Epic Poetry” took first place in the nationally syndicated Grammar Girl short story contest. “Spores of the Volcano” appeared in NewMyths and the Campbellian 2014 Anthology. “Return of the Mayflower” is scheduled to appear in Perihelion. Several of his flash pieces have previously appeared in Every Day Fiction. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010) and a member of SFWA.