Prentice Dolphin Chapter 4

A Ditcher Sang… 

Among the dykes of Outer Soliloquy, where the goat  passes were chutes of tumbled stone and the road  wended among towering trees and soaring crags  crested with snow. As evil as the forest was, as much  as it had once harbored the spawn of Heathenry and  now lesser evils, the Elder Pikeman assured him,  “Save the trees the whole mess of mountain would  slurry into the road like a gutter o’ filth, Prentice.” 

He was thankful that the wisest of the footmen offered  understanding among these wonders so unlike those  of Vester or Sililoquy, as yet his only portals upon the  profane world in this yet freshly dug life among The  Suffering. 

The voice of the ditcher, strong in a gnawing way, echoed among the rocks above and waned among  the trees all around, muffled by the drooping  evergreen palms of the massive cedars and the  bristling green needles of the soaring fir. He was not a  big man, he who sang and swung the mattock of his  trade, his various shovels arrayed against the  wheelbarrow on the low side of the ditch. The squat,  wiry ditcher ignored the knights, even Justice Claret, and continued his digging and dirge, using no  doggerel that might offend, but making of his voice a  kind of trumpet to herald his every stroke. The entire  process seemed so wretched, and he was curious.

He glanced up at Justice Claret, who was listening to  his smallest knight, a man who rode a mountain horse  rather than a destrier. The Old Crusader, he seemed  to understand things at a glance that would take  others the reading of a book or a sermon, barked,  from the head of the column, “Ditcher, at ease.” 

The man ceased and stood leaning on his mattock,  sweating in the raw cold through his bare tunic, his  cloak and cowl draped on the handles of the  wheelbarrow, looking up stupidly at the Knight  Commander, who demanded, “The Prentice would  have a word.” 

The pikeman, another of this cabal of mysteriously  silent communicators, then exchanged gazes with his  Master and turned with two hand signals for the  footmen, and they scattered into a circle around the  ditcher, posting themselves and their weapons facing  the rocks and trees of the menacing Pass into Hither  Heathenry, one of four passes that radiated from  Sacred Soliloquy, this one upward and westward,  Saint Adder’s Pass littoral and southwest to Asper  Humarium, Choked Pass, littoral and northwest to the  abandoned Harper Humarium—lost in the grim  misfortune of the Last Northern Crusade—and the  Road to Vesper, southeast to the fair lands of his  birth, orphanage and assignment. 

‘My feet are somewhat sore, the boots unfamiliar. I so  miss the sandals I wore from Vesper in summer. Yet they would not do among this rubble of the Titanic  World.’ 

The boy would not leave his backside and was not  only hauling his heavy and outsized load, the chest  somehow perched upon his woolly red head, but was  holding up the flowing tail of his habit, tailored to  sweep a sandal-width above the floor, but hanging too  low to clear the mud and stone detritus of the ditcher’s  toil.  

The ditcher had a brutishly resigned look upon his  face and spied Prentice Dolphin with a kind of  disbelief. He then sought to put the brute at ease, to  make it clear that he was on no Inquisitorial Mission,  “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the  Holy Spirit. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and  the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit  be upon you.” 

The man then started, felt for the rosary which was  not there, and seeing Prentice Dolphin’s majestic  rosary hanging before the opaque cross on his habit,  reached out to grab it with one calloused hand, then  caught himself, wiped his dirty hands on his tunic, and  then took the image of Christ on the cross in that still  dirty hand and kissed it, and drawled, “Tank ye,  Fatha’.” 

What was he to do, spend an hour sketching the  church hierarchy so that this poor affrighted soul  might understand that he stood but one step lower than he who, in his abysmal ignorance the ditcher seemed to regard as a Papal Legate? 

“Ditcher, your work is impressive, conducted alone,  without soldiers to guard you, beneath this massive  threat. I to do my work against the Hinterbeast to  Music, in song…if often echoing only within my heart  to the Blessed Mother of Angels. How does your work  delay the ice?” 

The man bristled with enthusiasm, “Not da ice, not da  snow—what only God can hold. Da rain, what washed  Noah off in ‘is tub. If da rain not seduced down off da  rock, it ‘ill carve down trough da road a good soil fo’  trees, en fo’ knightly track, en fo’ botato an oniun. So  I’s cut a rode fo’ da rain run to spill o’er da cliffs. It fill  ebry winter wit stone drug down by da ice. When a  boy, I ditched up dare, up above on da next scarp.  Now I ditch down ‘ere cause da ice don’ leave up dare but fer da mont a Joo-ly.” 

‘The man knows his work. If I ask another such  question I may be delving into the intricacies of mud  removal.’ 

“Ditcher, a singer I am too, in my labors. Though I  sing nowhere so fair as your very organ of a voice.  Does such song, instrumentalism with your voice,  

eschewing the profanity of the lowly word, does this  sustain you.” 

‘I should transcribe this encounter and send it back to  Vesper. The discovery of this rural folk tradition of organist purity would elevate my memory as a student  of God and His works through men even among the  monks.’  

“Yezzir!” gabbled the ditcher. “Ole Davy only sangs da  holy tunes, whatz I hear ebry year in da cathedral o’  Soliloquy! Only da organ hymn pass deese lips ta be  sure, Fatha!” 

Did he hear a snicker from a crossbowman? He was not certain.  

But lo, the sound and sight of the fist of the Elder  Pikeman sinking into the jerkin-padded gut of a  crossbowman was unmistakable as the old pikeman  walked the circle of outward posted men, and smiled  gently as his scarred leathern face could to Prentice  Dolphin. 

‘What a frightful brute of a man. I must show favor to  this fellow less he be punched as well.’ 

He turned, elated that he had met with some  concordant soul, who sang sacredly to his work  against the very beast he, 671st of his pious rank and  4th of his hopeful name, confronted on a metaphysic  plane. So he requested easily, for it was a new duty,  “Boy, please, the light-hued leather pouch upon the  lama, hanging not from the censor but from the wine cask, bring it here.” 

The boy laid down his worn and weathered chest.  Draped the tail of Prentice Dolphin’s habit upon it, and darted like some monkey out of fable to the lama,  retrieved the pouch, and Prentice Dolphin soon had  his Indulgences for Laymen in his palm. He retrieved  a plain wood bead rosary hung with an abstract cross,  centered with a pendent of Jesus carrying the cross  up Calvary, and hung it from the neck of the joyfully  grinning ditcher. 

“Tank ye, Padre—er Fatha!” beamed the pious  ditcher.” 

‘I do wonder what happened to his rosary. The  soldiers wear none either. All except the Elder  Pikeman have no rosary. Life is hard up here and he  is sparred the worst duty as the sub-commander of  foot. I will replace them one by one as badges of  service in this undertaking—I have enough.’ 

Wishing to leave on a concordant note and somewhat  trepid concerning the fact that he was so kept in the  dark by the fighting men of this Procession to the  Hinterbeast, he asked, “Ditcher David, knowing you  the country above, where do you think we should find  shelter this falling night? Are there more habitations  above?” 

The man was eager to direct him, glancing first at the  Elder Pikeman before continuing, “Yez fatha, dare da  ole Baily up dare on da next scarp, da wee ‘ut a my  yute collapsed unda da snow dat don’ melt summa time. Da sout side gotz a entrance—solgias use it all  da time. Ole Sally da shepherd-dame live up above wit ‘er hounds, lass folks of decency on da road ta  Barbary…” 

The man winced under the gaze of the Elder Pikeman  such that the Prentice from Soliloquy feared for the  fellow to ask after this “Barbary,” when he had been  certain that he was headed into Hither Heathenry. For  no such place as Barbary was marked on the maps of  Christendom, not at Vespers and not at Soliloquy. 

With a tinge of guilt, he blessed the ditcher. The Elder  Pikeman was already gathering the men for marching, the horsemen lost up ahead in the wood. The Ditcher  

was back to his organ song, no words crossing his  lips as he aped Organist Jared’s Christmas Hymn  with his squat barrel chest and thick stubble-grown  lips. 

… 

They wended east, then north, then west up the pass  of wooded crags, and an hour before high noon came  to a clearing, above the lower pass even as the old  Baily came into sight to the northwest above a snow choked wood and the horsemen could be seen riding  that way in the distance. Their way had brought them  through tortured twists and turns, dips and rises, back  down above Outer Soliloquy. The Cathedral could be  seen tiny in the distance, its brass-crowned  battlements glimmering just above the dark of the  distant forest they had traversed that morning. 

To his joy he could hear the strong voice of the  ditcher, many bowshots below, wafting up—but not in  hymn. 

He looked at the Elder Pikeman, and the dour brute  nodded his assent and directed his youthful  crossbowman, “Make certain prentice don’ slip en  fall.”  

The column of footmen halted, loaded under their  massive packs and bearing their frightful weapons,  none of which they set aside, standing as they were in  double column of march. How blessed he was to walk  at the head of such a column, which he had seen  decorating the margins of the books of crusading  hagiography he had so thrilled to read as a fosterling  and then acolyte at Holy Vespers. The Elder Pikeman  and the Boy and his lama stood at their head, waiting  as he was walked over to the clifftop, the voice of the  working man below carrying ever stronger.  

‘I am truly on a blessed quest.’ 

His belt pulled taught as he almost slipped to his  doom and the crossbowmen saved him easily and the  updraft carried a clarion call of enthusiastic lyrics—not  hymnal tones—up for all of the men to hear: 

“En dare ole Davy goes, 

Up were da Devil knows, 

In da shadow o’ da ole Baily,

Fuckin’ fat ole Sally!”  

His heart sank and his face froze as the column of  men broke into a roar of laughter, a tide of hearty  mirth not stayed by the red blush glowering from his  astonished face, not stayed by the harsh fist of the  one man there too blight-bitten to laugh.  

As the crossbowman walked him back to the column,  and the faces of the men lit with sardonic mirth, the  narrow, stern, and in some barely detectable way  almost kindly, gaze of the Elder Pikeman, let Prentice  Dolphin know that he now trod a road not lit by  candelabra, nor scented with the censor, nor ringing  with hymn, but ruled by torch and sword in the hands  of the grim. 

Humor, crude and profane, was beyond him. Yet he  sensed that it somehow knitted these brutes in  concord, that his astonishment had been like a  tankard of beer for their spirits, and he felt, happy,  and then smiled. To this a strong hand clapped his  back, that of the youthful crossbowman, his  bodyguard, his very own living gargoyle it seemed,  and the boy laughed as well, the men taking time to  address the little fellow as they passed he and his  lama and Prentice Dolphin, who now trailed the  column under the protection of the youthful  crossbowman, with such advice as: 

“Don’ suffer da Prentice ta slip, Boy.” 

“Mind da rocks, Kid, dey bite.”

“Don work da lama too ‘ard, Boy. We wanz ‘im tenda fo’ feastnight.”  

“Don’ pee unda no trees, oh da Rendel ‘ill getz ya,  Son.” 

‘So this is a Crusade?’

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