Throughout the castle of Crequy, all seemed quite still - save for the sound of a young maid hurrying through its dark but familiar passageways. Her swift strides echoed somberly in the stillness as the girl made her way to her ladyship’s chamber.
“Please be alright…” she whispered aloud as she took hold of the large door and firmly pushed it open.
With a mixture of both sorrow and relief the maiden saw that her mistress, though still asleep, was evidently in the midst of a fitful dream. Tossing restlessly in her blankets, the lady’s pitiful moans suddenly broke into another piercing cry.
The poor maid stumbled back, “... My Lady?”
But Mahtilde, still captive in her nightmare, only groaned wordless fears. The girl was hesitant whether or not to awaken her; then, without warning, her ladyship cried out Raoul’s name and lurched forward, sitting bolt upright in bed. A silent moment passed.
“Raoul...” Mahtilde softly called again, staring listlessly into the midnight darkness. Tears streamed down her pale cheeks as she slowly realized that she was awake. Only this nightmare was no dream.
With a shiver, the Lady pulled her disheveled blankets towards her. Spotting the maid standing off to the side, Mahtilde involuntarily gasped.
“Oh, you startled me! What are you doing?” she asked quickly.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said meekly, “I thought I heard you call for me.”
Mahtilde shook her head. “No, not for you...” she said to herself. Then turning back to the faithful young servant, she sighed wearily. “So I woke you again?”
“Oh, think nothing of it. It’s not my welfare that I am concerned about, my Lady.”
Mahtilde only smiled. “Nevertheless, you should rest.” The maiden watched her reach for a wayward pillow. “Tomorrow night, we will move you to a chamber further down the hall.”
With that, Mahtilde gave her a dismissing nod, and settled beneath her covers. The girl, however, did not leave.
“My rest...” said the servant wearily. “And that will help you sleep?”
Mahtilde sensed a tone in the question; a tone that at once struck deeply into the heart of the lady. Slowly, Mahtilde sat up, the smile gone from her face. If they were speaking their minds...
“What would you have me do?” Mahtilde asked firmly, but not angrily.
“Let it go.” came the unhesitating reply. “With all due respect, my Lady, it has been eight years.”
Mahtilde opened her mouth as if to speak, but in the dim light all the maiden heard was her quiet breath, followed by a sad silence. At length, the gentle command ‘Get some sleep’ issued forth from the darkness; but the girl still perceived no change in her ladyship’s distracted voice. She was still clinging to a fanciful dream.
Obediently bowing, the servant stepped away and turned for the door. Opening it slightly, she quickly glanced back towards her mistress.
“What’s done is done, Lady Mahtilde.” the maid whispered somberly, “He’s never coming back.”
The door thudded shut before any reply could be made, and the maidservant’s nimble feet carried her swiftly back down the hall.
But the girl needn’t have worried. There was no answer coming. For the lovely lady remained very still, as if she was frozen, staring into nothingness. Exhausted, she wanted neither to move nor to sleep - her mind was fixed on the numbing reality that she was alone. For years, she had battled the depression... the despair. But in that lonely hour, the darkness was closing in around her.
Slowly, without thinking, Mahtilde lied down again. Her eyes focused thoughtlessly on her bed curtains, as the fire from her hearth cast dancing shadows upon them. Watching the shapeless figures, her mind could not help but envision them… yes, a host of Crusaders riding closer, galloping through the fields of Crequy. And at the head of them all rode her love and lord. Sir Raoul. As her imagination turned towards her husband, however, she pictured him with his face concealed – hidden behind his helmet. With tears in her eyes, she remembered how he had turned towards her as he left, with his visor raised and his noble face shining with a confident yet compassionate smile.
Mahtilde closed her eyes. Her imagination strained to raise the helmet from her lord’s face… but it couldn’t. Eight years… and slowly it was happening. Mahtilde was forgetting the clear features of her husband’s face.
“No!” she cried, sitting up suddenly. “I will never forget!” Remembering her maid, Mahtilde placed a trembling hand over her lips, as she began to weep.
“Oh Raoul,” she fell back upon her bed, “Raoul, where are you? Oh my lord, come home! I cannot wait any longer.”
Her hands were now clutching at her blankets as she pressed them to her face. “Raoul! Raoul!”
Her muffled cries echoed dimly through the stone room. Lowering the blankets, the lady gasped for breath amidst her sobs. “Dear God... Blessed Mother...” Her words choking as she spoke, “Where is he?” Then, as if her husband was standing within her grasp, Mahtilde looked out, staring again at the muted glow of the fire.
“Come home, Raoul…” she whispered. “What are you waiting for? Oh please,” she pleaded at the flickering shadows. “Come back to me, Raoul! Oh Raoul!” Her arms shot out helplessly into the darkness. “Raoul!”
But as she reached, the darkness changed, and her cries vanished like echoes in the night. The outstretched arms were all at once weighed down by so many chains… and in that instant, Raoul suddenly awoke.
“Mahtilde..?” the knight breathed sharply, glancing about him. It was dark. Dawn was barely breaking.
With a sigh, he looked down at his fettered arms, which, in reaching out for the vision of his wife, had yanked against his chains, jolting him from his nightmare. And as the dream vanished, the luxurious bed transformed into a hard wooden board; the curtains faded into the prison walls; and the burning fire was lost in the dim glow of the rising sun.
But the memory of the dream would not vanish easily . Anguish suddenly gave way to anger as the captive Crusader struggled desperately against his chains.
“I’m here, Mahtilde!” he cried. “Oh what would I not give to be with you. Mahtilde! Mahtilde, I am here!”
The strong knight heaved against his bonds until his swollen wrists bled. But the unyielding chains absorbed his futile strength, holding him bound in place. Raoul expected nothing less. He was no fool, and seldom did he fight against his insurmountable captivity. But this time his heart would not surrender to reason. The thought of his dear wife’s grief caused him more agony than all his years of slavery combined.
“Oh, my Mahtilde.” The French Lord thrust himself forward again. “Oh my love… I’m here…” Nothing in the whole world mattered as much to him as his family.
And yet, here he remained – chained, and completely powerless to protect her.
Not completely powerless... His thoughts were abruptly but quietly turned to the Muslim’s offer for freedom, if he would deny his Faith. But of course! the same interior voice was quick to add, that is out of the question.
Raoul’s face grew hard at the thought of his cruel master.
“Death first!” the knight said fiercely, thrusting himself back upon the rough bed. He shut his eyes, and at once the Muslim’s gloating face seemed to hover right before him. Fighting the emotions that justly swelled within him, Raoul turned towards the horizon, his eyes still closed.
“I will not do it…” he muttered, shaking his head. “I will not betray God.” His eyes squinted open. “Even if it costs me my freedom.”
The thought of Mahtilde’s tears came back to him and he sadly lowered his head.
“God, You know I can do nothing. Please help her. Unless,” he looked up at the cloudless sky, “You want to let me go home.”
Silently the moments passed - as the forlorn prisoner stared searchingly into the dark morning sky, a few remnant stars studding its infinite expanse.
“Why won’t they come for me?” Raoul found himself asking aloud. “What have I done that I should stay banished here?”
A sullen answer came echoing through his mind. They have deserted you. She does not want you back.
“That is not true,” said the knight quickly. “I know it’s not.”
Then why are you still here? the voice insisted. Where is your ransom?
“It will come… It will come,” Raoul nodded confidently. “One beautiful day.” He shut his eyes again and leaned his sunburned head against the wall. “I know she still loves me.” There were no further arguments in his mind. Instead, the vivid image of his Mahtilde, trembling with grief, suddenly flashed before him. And with it surged an intense desire to grasp her in his arms, shielding her from every pain and sorrow. His swollen arms reached out through the air, as far as his shackles would permit.
“Mahtilde,” he whispered, “Come to me”.
In answer, the image of his master returned. In his mind, Raoul envisioned the cruel figure of the Arab scoffing disdainfully at the weeping lady. Assaulting her with so many insults and jeers, the Muslim seemed to turn towards the captive lord with a taunting smile.
“Save her if you can.” He challenged. “Or have you not the courage?”
Raoul’s heart raced as he watched the torment continue. It was as if Mahtilde, blind to her own pain, was consumed with a burning desire to save Raoul from the Arab’s malice. And the Muslim, keenly aware of his control, delighted in tormenting the one spouse - so as to torture the other.
“What are you waiting for, Frenchman?” The Arab seemed to sneer. “Deny your Faith. Or watch her die with grief.”
With a cry, the knight’s outstretched arms once more jolted against the chains, this time just short of his master’s mirage.
Raoul’s eyes opened with a start. Immediately though, he shut them again. Breathing hard, he made a supreme effort to suppress the anger seething within him.
“I cannot go down that road,” he said firmly. Eight years in captivity had taught him the warning signs that must always be heeded. “That road has no return.”
A heavy silence hung in the air, as the first rays of the sun broke through the prison walls. The knight sat motionless, leaning against the cold, hard stones. Within him, the tempest subsided and the demons quietly retreated, stealthily eyeing the weary prisoner.
At length, Raoul’s head fell. “My God… what am I doing here?” he looked wearily at his chains. The iron bonds had long since burned blistered sores around his wrists, which were now bleeding.
“I am so ready to go home. But instead, I languish here, feeding a hope that dies every dawn I awake in this prison.” He peered out at the desert sun which was just barely clearing the horizon.
“I have waited so long…” Raoul licked his parched lips. He reached down for the water jug. One glance said enough though, and he quietly set it back. The jar was empty.
“What is it that You want from me?”
A stifling wind swept through the prison and a heavy feeling came over him.
God wants nothing more than what you have already given Him.
The knight’s brow furrowed thoughtfully. Silent and attentive, he did not interrupt the thoughts running through his mind. They seemed to be his own… But He has put your freedom in your own hands. He is waiting for you to act.
Puzzled at this ambiguous answer, Raoul questioned aloud, “What can I do?”
Yield your will, was the immediate reply.
“To my master?” the Crusader was at once suspicious. “Deny my Faith?”
No, of course not! the demons were quick to defend themselves. God would never want that! But the Muslim will give you your freedom if you simply appear to embrace his religion.
Raoul’s shock was replaced by a curious expression.
“Meaning if I lie...” It was as if the concept had never occurred to him. The dreadful sin of apostasy suddenly and stealthily took on the innocent face of a harmless fib. Though the lie in and of itself was instinctively repulsive, the reality that it could easily and immediately bring him back home…
Once you are safely away from this prison, and have been given the land and a new wife - the voice continued – then you will be free to escape and return home. And for whatever trifling falsehood is required, you can ease your scrupulous conscience by going to Confession back in Crequy.
Without even thinking, the mere concept of an escape so long dreamt of, and of that freedom so ardently desired, sent a thrilling sensation through Raoul. The demons sensed this and carefully pressed their advantage.
You’ve earned it. God is more than pleased with your sacrifices. And if you remain Catholic in your heart, God cannot hold you accountable for a necessary deception. Think about it… home at last.
The poor Crusader quietly took hold of the little bag around his neck. “I wouldn’t even need to take another wife. I would have my freedom long before that. Besides,” he clasped the fragment of his wife’s ring, “I could not endure even pretending to betray Mahtilde’s love.”
As he spoke, a sad look stole into his eyes and he silently raised them.
Anxiously yet cautiously seeking the knight’s full consent, the demons flooded him with intense yearnings for home. But it was too late. For in that moment of decision, grace had broken through the mist of lies and touched the Crusader’s faithful heart.
“Are you even listening to yourself, Raoul?” the knight upbraided himself fiercely. “You would not play the part of an unfaithful husband to Mahtilde, for that would betray her love. But what do you care for God’s love? Is the betrayal any less? No,” Raoul shook his head, ashamed of the cowardice which he presumed was responsible for the treacherous thought. “You will not lie, Raoul. You will not add sin upon sin.”
What sin? the wicked spirits whispered feverishly. Your master is just looking for words. Say what you want, and you will remain Catholic.
“If I deny Christ before men, He will deny me before His Father. It would be a denial.”
God knows your heart.
“And He will take me at my word.” the knight argued. “No. I will not do it.”
Incensed at his fortitude, the demons spat back vehemently: It is just because you hate your master! Isn’t it? You would rather die than yield your will to him!
Raoul did not answer at once. His honest heart could not deny the feelings that dwelt there... but was it hatred? His conscience had never rebuked him with that.
Disheartened at his hesitation, Raoul shook his head and quickly answered, “That is not why.”
Ah! Then you admit your hate! the voice was stronger now. How do you know it has not been your pride all of this time? You think it has been faith. I tell you it has been folly.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Raoul heaved a sigh. His eyes were thoughtful, with a touch of agitation. The accusation disturbed and humbled the Crusader. Deeply.
“I have served my master willingly as his slave.” The knight’s mind wandered back to before his imprisonment. “And for seven years before, I endured the yoke of slavery. No, it is not my pride.”
Very well then... the voice prodded, Prove it.
The sun’s rising ascent had raised it above the walls, evaporating every shadow in the bare prison. It silently pelted the quiet prisoner with its piercing rays.
For a while Raoul said nothing, the challenge still echoing through his mind. By the grace of God, His Faith was firm. And his will was strong. This he knew. And he did not doubt the reason for his perseverance. It was not pride.
But for the first time, the enslaved Crusader found himself powerfully confronted with the accusation of hating his master. Did he? Before he could even answer, to his dismay, feelings of anger swelled up within him against his Muslim lord. If anyone was ever worthy of hatred...
The Frenchman suppressed the feelings immediately... almost vehemently. His anxious mind was racing.
“Dear God,” Raoul prayed. “Please tell me this is not hatred. I know it’s not... It is merely righteous anger. I have never desired any evil for my master... not even vengeance.”
Yet even as he spoke, doubt was silently gnawing at him. However, the demons were careful to say nothing. It was important that Raoul believed these convictions were his own.
“Very well,” Raoul nodded firmly. “I will prove it. And henceforth I will pray not only for my deliverance - but until then, for a full dominion over my emotions, that I may truly pray, ‘Father, forgive him, for he knows not what he does.’ ”
The heavy air suddenly grew thin, as a gentle breeze swept through the open prison. But the heavy-hearted knight noticed nothing. His challenge had been silently and confidently accepted.
And it was no accident that very soon thereafter the tower was visited once again by its Muslim master. Had the Arab been more keenly observant, he would have noticed an unusual darkness weighing upon his weary captive.
He must have sensed a weakness, though, for the torture this time seemed unusually brutal. Or perhaps Raoul had suddenly become more sensitive to his master’s cruelty. For the relentless commands, constant jeers and incessant beatings were now seething with a burning and vehement hatred for the French knight. And Raoul found himself exerting all of his strength - not just to sustain his torments, but to battle the hatred that was raging within him to retaliate.
But in the end, the Arab was once more the one who suffered the defeat. For, in answer to all the threats and promises, the knight had not only refused them, but had remained insolently silent. Loathe, however, to betray his wounded pride, the irate master simply punished his slave by taking hold of his daily rations.
“Until you find your tongue…” the Muslim said, spilling out Raoul’s water onto the hot stone floor, “I see no need to wet it.”
Raoul looked up to see his master strewing the food just out of his reach. Then, with a laugh, the Arab tossed the emptied plate towards him.
“Don’t forget to thank your God before eating,” he sneered as he turned to leave. Had he remained, though, he would’ve seen a look on his slave’s face that might have caused his confidence to falter.
When the Muslim had finally gone, the French lord painfully crawled back to his wooden bench, his heavy chains dragging behind him. With a chorus of dire threats still ringing in his ears, Raoul slowly lowered his head upon the rough board. For a good while, he said nothing, even though he was alone… or so he thought.
“I will not do it…,” he whispered at last, as if answering the hollow, urgent commands echoing in his head. “I will not deny my Faith.”
And now you know why you supposedly ‘defend’ your religion…
Raoul bit his parched lips. “That is not true.” There was little conviction in his voice though. For, try as he might, the knight could neither dispel nor deny the struggles within him.
You see… what did I tell you? the voice was triumphant, but not arrogant. At last you see the truth. Your unbridled passions have betrayed your rebellious pride. You have no choice now but to admit it and yield!
Wincing at his fresh stripes, Raoul buried his face beneath his arm, shielding it more from his thoughts than from the glaring sun.
“Yield to what?” he said aloud.
You want your freedom? the demons asked. Harness your hatred… and kill your master.
Despite his burning pains, both within and without, the Crusader smiled. “Oh Raoul, what have you descended to?”
Do not lie! You know you want it.
Raoul faced the passions clamoring within him. “As an animal would devour a beast,” he said calmly. “But God made me a Man.”
And a strong one! When next your master comes, simply cast these chains about the brute’s neck and strangle him.
“And how would that help me?” Raoul confronted the temptation with logic. “I will not escape with him dead.”
You will not be free if he lives!
“Either way… it leaves me here.” The prisoner reasoned.
But at least you will have avenged yourself! The demons insisted.
“I don’t want revenge!” Raoul sighed wearily. “I want to go home.”
You never will, not with him alive. And you will spend decades in this wretched prison.
“Please God! Please!” Raoul cried, breaking free from the dispute, “Now is a good time for the ransom to come!”
The voices, forcibly silenced, had momentarily retreated.
Though victorious, Raoul was disheartened at these struggles. They came from so deep within him. His humility did not doubt that his heart was the coward - never suspecting that the real cowards were invisible to him. The fears felt so real.
Could there really be decades left in this prison? His nature shuddered at the foreboding thought.
“Oh Blessed Virgin,” he prayed, “You hear me. I know you do.” With a confident nod, he gently closed his eyes. “And I know that my freedom will come.”
But even as he spoke, something within the Crusader cringed. He was beginning to grow weary of the yearnings. His hope had been crushed too many times.
Deep within, he knew the truth... He could not endure this much longer.