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VIII. A FEAST OF FOOLS


Sunday, 12 June 1356

In the darkness filling the stairway to the crypt behind the great altar, a man in black velvet waits, fidgeting. Nearby in the shadows another man leans against the wall. “How much longer, Master?” the first one says.

From the nearby transept comes a sonorous chanting of a litany. Each response in Latin is punctuated by the wet slap of leather straps on naked flesh.

The other peers over the edge of the floor, and strokes his long beard as he calculates. “Judging by the moonlight spilling under the altar screen, it should not be long. But do keep your voice soft, Baron. We can’t allow any of them to discover us. That’s why we wait.”

“Sorry,” Gilles whispers, “but what again do we linger for?”

Heronimo le Mage smiles, his eyes glittering in the darkness, white beard ghostly in the gloom. “A sign from Heaven,” he whispers with mock piety, “one which will surely bend all eyes towards it – and safely away from us.”

From the South Transept, suddenly the litany and lashing halts. A great gasp can be heard. “Behold,” a startled, quavering voice says. “It comes!”

“Ah here it is,” the philosopher sighs happily. “Good; I was beginning to think I'd miscalculated. Be quiet now.”

Footsteps race past above in the darkness towards the South Transept.

“That should keep Martin and his back-beaters busy for a while. Come – and for God’s sake, don’t drop it.” Gilles lifts the heavy basket with both hands and follows the old man. In darkness they descend the rest of the narrow marble stairway into the cathedral’s crypt. The door opens without a sound. Once shut, the philosopher quickly lights a lantern, and begins looking around the chamber.

“Now, where’s my sepulcher?” Heronimo mutters. Locating an open tomb, he fiddles with a hidden latch. The rear panel swings down, revealing more darkness beyond. “Help me, lad. It’s not easy getting through one’s own grave.”

Grunting, the old man clambers through the slot, and after passing the basket the Baron easily follows. He finds himself in a rough cave curving toward a low, small door cut in the rock. Heronimo opens it, and stooping, they enter.

They find themselves in a long, arched chamber, an ancient, dusty, brick-lined vault. Next to thin hanging fingers of stone, sand trickles from cracks in the ceiling. A few break and fall. The noise is drowned in unholy tumult from directly above their heads.

“What in God’s Name is going on in the South Transept, Master Heronimo?” the Baron asks. “It sounds like all Hell’s loose up there!”

“Merely the long-awaited Vision of the Holy Tub,” the philosopher says. He looks at Gilles with a mocking pout. “Oh, how inconsiderate of me – again you’re missing that marvelous sight. Do not be disappointed; for it is but a mere trick of moonlight, an illusion conjured by my arts from the subtleties of nature.”

“Whatever do you mean, old man?”

“The Vision’s not real, Baron,” the mage says testily, “no more or less miraculous than an eclipse. The image of the Holy Tub is actually held in a special mirror –but I can see by your look I might as well be talking to myself.

“This is what you need to know: The solid reality behind your precious apparition lies here.” He raises the lantern and chuckles as mischievously as a schoolboy. “This should compensate a little for missing the show.” He throws dusty tarps off a large mass in the darkness.

Around them the lantern reveals empty boxes, lumpy sacks, and scattered debris. A few open caskets glitter with gold and silver. In the midst of them sits the wooden church-shaped Ark of the Maundy Grail, brass hooks at the corners still dully gleaming.

“This is where the Sacred Basin’s been?” Baron Gilles marvels, crossing himself. “All this time? Sweet Mother of God!”

“Yes,” the old man snickers. “If they only knew what’s below them.”

“Why show me?” Gilles sits heavily upon a crate. “Why now?”

“I’m old,” Heronimo says. “Once the Danse Macabre is completed, my work will be done – below the entrance disguised as my tomb, there’s a box which is really meant for me. But someone worthy must know where this is just in case, and you’re one of the very few I trust. I surely can’t depend on those two dwarves of mine whom you so detest, and not unwisely, I fear. I see that now.”

“Why the Vision? What’s the point of the whole charade, Master?”

“To keep the Maundy Grail safe but not forgotten, of course. As long as they think it’s bound in Heaven, the less they’ll look for it under the Earth.”

“And this is the storied treasure? According to the songs the minstrels sing, this cave should be packed high with chests full of gold.”

“That will teach you to trust troubadours, Baron,” Heronimo huffs, embarrassed. “There really wasn’t that much to begin with, and there’ve been, er, sizeable expenses. The arts required to make those displays don’t come cheap.

“Listen closely,” he continues. “Most of the remaining wealth was moved to Haute Maureven during the mass burials. We’ll take more tonight. Come by the Transept tomorrow before noon; a map which will appear upon the floor shows their hiding spots. I will teach you how to read it. Hiding the fortune out there will keep it close at hand, yet lure seekers far away from here. But this is where the Maundy Grail must remain – along with the basket you brought. Please fetch it.”

Gilles rises and returns, lugging the heavy container. “I’m almost afraid to ask what is in here that makes you so anxious,” he says. Heronimo looks grim, all traces of levity vanished from his ancient lined face.

“As well you might,” he gravely says, throwing off the cover. Two thick glass flasks in a sturdy iron rack are nestled in soft hay. One is mounted in an elegant silver frame, with a scallop marked “VITA,” the other, in a spiky black iron cage with a silver skull, bears the sinister inscription, “EGO SUM MORS.”

“Life and Death itself, my old friend, their potent essences,” the sage says. “During the Pestilence, I alchemically extracted the fundamental nature of the Black Death. Here the world’s doom shall rest, for where would it be safer?

“Yet with it, old Agatha and I concocted the Pestilence’s sovereign cure.” He pats the silver flask. “Used successfully on many, but alas, too late to save dear Madeleine. But it’s yours now, my friend. I pass the burden onto you though not to you alone; certain others know of this place. But the imps and their followers must never find it.” His smile is fatalistic. “Entrust no one with all your secrets. I learned it early from Friar Lorenzo, and it has served me well.”

A few years later, the mage dies and is buried in his hidden chamber. For decades, Gilles faithfully keeps the secret even after he takes holy orders and ultimately becomes a wealthy cardinal cynical with power. A miraculous escape from death persuades him to try to save the Church from a terrible crisis by finally revealing the truth. Yet it will cause the ruin of the very town he loves.


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“That very night,
with praise and thanksgiving
we flogged and bathed each other in the full assurance of Heaven’s grace.
No embrace was spared among us,
I admit,
for it was revealed to us that we had passed the test.”

– Fr. Martin the Sanguine
Miracles of the
Scolding Virgin
,

c. 1357

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