The Apocrypha

The Apocrypha

 

Chapter 1

 

Five Miles Outside of London

Miss Nicolette Giffard’s mind was full. She had no idea what to expect or how the exchange would occur. The old man was worrisome. He was well known in the villages north of London for his great wealth. He was also known for his temper and there were whispers that his mind was failing.

A mere nineteen years old, Nicolette had the courage and vigor of youth, which is one of the reasons the Vicar chose her. There were other reasons as well. She had charm and a manner beyond her years, and the faithfulness of his most devoted priests. A brittle old man, the Vicar surmised, would be no match for a very determined Nicolette Giffard.

Nicolette closed her eyes as she had so many times during her long journey. She folded her hands and recited the prayer one of the priests had penned specifically for her charge. Her fate and that of the Apocrypha was now in God’s hands she told herself. She tried to relax and enjoy the view from her carriage window.

She saw the opening ahead. The dirt road split the dense forest and gave passage to a lush green valley beyond. She let out a nervous smile. The scene was just as the Vicar had described. The carriage creaked and rocked as it began its ascent up the hill. She shifted and swayed with the carriage, hugging the satchel and its precious contents the entire time.

Once through the opening the old man’s home, Peyton Manor, which means fighting man’s estate, stood stoically on a hilltop in the distance. It was magnificent and nothing like Nicolette had ever seen. Almost a half a mile away, the gray stone, mammoth walls, and abundant chimneys rising up into sky were beyond her imaginings. The more she stared the more she wondered if the stories she’d heard about the treasures inside the great castle were true. That question, and many others, would be answered soon.

As her carriage approached Peyton Manor, Nicolette tried to control her breathing. It was a trick the Vicar had taught her during her training for this trip. He told her to use it in times of stress or corporal punishment, which she prayed she’d avoid.

She turned her attention to the grounds surrounding the estate in another failed attempt to escape the anxiety attacking her. The trees were aligned perfectly and the shrubs neatly trimmed. The hedges rose high, almost six meters, and were as dark a green as she’d seen in the dense forests she’d braved on her path to the castle.

The carriage stopped short, startling Nicolette. Her hands clamped down on her satchel in reflex. Her driver opened the carriage door and reached in to help Nicolette exit the carriage. She instinctively jerked the satchel to her side and away from his encroaching hand. She stepped out of the carriage with the satchel pressed firm against her bosom. With each step the pebbled walkway crackled below her feet. She walked up the dozen or so steps to the portico. As soon as she arrived at the top step a white haired man in formal attire opened the massive door, bowed his head and motioned for her to enter.

“James,” he said without looking.

“Nicolette Giffard,” she responded in a firm voice.

Her foot fell lightly onto the black and gray marble floor. Once inside the heavy door shut behind her and soon Nicolette and James were walking down a long hallway.

“My lord is very festive today and is quite excited to make your acquaintance,” James offered.

Nicolette did not believe him, not in the slightest. Nonetheless she looked at James and nodded.

James steps were slow. Nicolette had to restrain herself to keep proper pace. She used the time to gaze at the opulence inside the castle. Large paintings and colorful tapestries adorned the walls. Nicolette assumed each was worth hundreds of pounds sterling. She had never seen such wealth and beauty.

Seeing the young woman’s eyes grow wide James offered, “Peyton Manor was built by the late Sir Richard Grayson. The treasures you see,“ he continued with a broad wave of his hand, “were purchased by the current master of the manor.”

Nicolette smiled politely and still said nothing. She knew the story well. Sir Richard had raised the old man as his own after his parents died, like so many others, from the cold of that awful winter so long ago. He was thought to be about nine years old at the time. No one knew his exact age. He was a peasant, after all, and peasant lives were not recorded. Birth and death records were for the moneyed class.

The old man never blamed Sir Richard for not providing adequate heat for his parents and the other peasants. Peasants died young. It’s just the way it was and determining blame was not worthy of thought or discussion. They were disposable cogs in the landholder’s machinery and replacements were easily acquired. The going rate was a small portion of food each day and a roof over their heads a night. In exchange the peasants offered their backs and, occasionally, their women.

Sir Richard had noticed an unusual intellect in the boy, well beyond that of the other children, and most adults for that matter. The boy was well behaved and grateful for Sir Richard’s generosity, for his food. Sir Richard trained the youth well and when he passed, having no heir, he gave his landholdings, which was largely how wealth was measured at the time, to his faithful student.

When the old man was thought to be twenty-two years old, Sir Richard left this world and entered the next. Thus the peasant genius, as he was mockingly called by the other lords in the area, became the new Lord of Peyton Manor and a very wealthy gentleman. To them he was still a peasant, despite his great intellect and wealth. That suited the old man since he preferred his own company to that of the mindless upper class, as he, mocking back, referred to them.

Nicolette saw the archway into the sitting room ahead and the shadows from the fire dancing on the walls. Her pulse quickened with each step. She glanced at James. He was staring at her. Despite her months of training, non-stop prayers and dedication to the Church, the exchange and the old man’s mental state frightened her. She felt faint.

Just then another thought, a larger thought, filled her with dread. Only moments away from what she had been told was her destiny and with a mystery dating back to Christ stuffed deep inside the bag she clutched to her chest, one question filled her heart: How would the Lord God Almighty judge what she was about to do?

The hallway started to spin. Nicolette turned to run. An iron hand clamped down on her wrist.

 

 

 

 

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