Frederic Paschel, a wine merchant who lived in the town of Sylah in the valley of the river Dordogne, was left a widower when his two sons, Gilbert and Benedict, were in their infancy. The younger son, Benedict, was as dutiful as any father could ever have desired; he was amiable and pliable, ready and willing to be molded in the image of his sire as a respectable tradesman. Gilbert, on the other hand, was surly and rebellious; he swore that he would do anything in the world to spare himself the necessity of following in his father’s footsteps.
When asked what he intended to do instead of working in the family business, Gilbert declared his intention of becoming a knight of the realm in the entourage of the Duc de Romanin, whose domain included Sylah and three other small towns as well as thirty farms, a dozen vineyards, and a forest that provided some of the best hunting in southern Aquitania. Frederic laughed when he heard this, saying that the most Gilbert could ever hope for was to be taken into the Duc’s service as a common man-at-arms—and even that privilege would be withheld at Frederic’s request, because Lord de Romanin was one of the winery’s best customers.
Gilbert flew into a temper then. He said that if his prospects of following the best traditions of chivalry were to be thwarted by his father’s petty spite, he would become an adventurer, hunting for treasure in Arabia and the dark heart of Africa. That declaration made Frederic laugh even louder—with the result that Gilbert left home on his seventeenth birthday, swearing that he would not return until he acquired such immense wealth that Frederic Paschel would seem a pauper by comparison.
Ten years passed while nothing was heard in Sylah of Gilbert Paschel. Frederic’s business flourished, but not to the extent that he grew conspicuously richer. The number of barrels that his laborers filled increased year by year, but the price he obtained for each barrel did not increase at all. His wealth grew slowly, moderated by the increased wages he had to pay the laborers, but he was able to make some economies in the latter respect as Benedict grew older and stronger.
Unfortunately, Benedict became rather resentful of the fact that he was expected to work harder and harder as each year passed in order to allow his father to spend less on hired labor. While the vintage was brought in, he had to work from dawn till dusk in the winery, and he continued to work long hours while the grapes were trodden and the wine fermented. He had to take more turns than any of the hired men in guarding the vats until the wine was ready for casking, and when the barrels had all been filled, he had to load them on the carts that carried them to Frederic’s customers in the neighboring towns. He was sometimes allowed to accompany his father on the most important deliveries, including excursions to the Chateau de Romanin, but he always had to take longer turns than his father driving the cart, and he was the one who had to carry the barrels down to the cellars while Frederic enjoyed the fruits of his customers’ hospitality.
“You work me like a donkey so that you do not have to pay wages to hirelings,” Benedict complained, when they returned from one such trip, “but I see nothing of the money you save. By rights, the greater portion of it should be mine.”
“The money I save on wages goes to buy more grapes and better equipment,” his father explained. “It is reinvested in the business so that the business will continue to expand. One day, it will all be yours, so the money you do not receive now will benefit you in the future.”
“That is all very well,” Benedict said, “but in the meantime, I am dressed as poorly as any common laborer, and I work even harder for longer hours. I would prefer to have the money now, so that I might dress in the manner appropriate to an Aquitanian gentleman, and entertain myself as a gentleman does instead of rising at dawn every day and working long into the night.”
“That would be a foolish way to conduct yourself, my son,” Frederic told him, severely. “Money invested reaps greater rewards; money spent is gone forever. You are young, and you have a long life ahead of you. Don’t be envious of the young popinjays who parade themselves about the chateau and its gardens, or the wastrels who hang about in the taverns; the former will spend their inheritances soon enough, and the latter will end up bearing spears and longbows in the Lord’s troop. You will have a comfortable home and a life of ease.”
“It is because I am young that I want to make more of myself,” Benedict countered. “How shall I enjoy a life of ease when I am old and my appetites are blunted?”
“I am growing old myself,” Frederic pointed out.
“My point exactly,” Benedict murmured—but he waited until his father was out of earshot, because he was a dutiful son, long accustomed to yielding to the pressure of Frederic’s will.
Benedict’s duties grew more varied by degrees as well as more extensive. In addition to filling and loading the barrels, he was gradually entrusted with the delicate operations required to bring the wines to perfection in their vats and prepare them for casking—with the result that the long shifts he worked standing guard over the vats became even more demanding. He often had to work around the clock, sleeping for short periods in the loft above the winery rather than returning to the house where his father was now able to spend more and more of his own time.
“I am growing old,” Frederic told him, when Benedict complained again. “I need more rest than I did when I was young. You will be able to set your own hours soon enough, and hire men to do your work for you, if that is what you wish.”
“Sometimes,” Benedict replied, “I wish that I had gone with my brother to seek my fortune in foreign lands. I am certain that he has had a much more interesting life than mine.”
“Ha!” said Frederic. “The ingrate will likely be dead by now, and if he is not dead he will certainly be utterly wretched. There are no treasures to be found in Arabia and the lands beyond the Sahara, no matter what traveler’s tales may say. All travelers are liars.”
It turned out, however, that Gilbert was not dead—although he did seem conspicuously wretched when he suddenly reappeared, at the dead of night, in the winery where Benedict was working late, patiently overseeing a vat of rich red wine that was just approaching the condition in which it would require to be casked.
“Hello, little brother,” Gilbert said, as he laid down his meager pack. He sat down on a stool and took off his worn-out sandals so that he could inspect the sores on his feet, adding: “Still the dutiful son, I see, hard at work on our father’s behalf.”
“I am delighted to see you, brother,” Benedict replied—politely enough, although a bystander might have thought it odd that he did not rush to embrace a brother he had not seen for ten years. “I presume, judging by your rags, that you have not found the treasure that you sought.”
“As a matter of fact,” Gilbert said, “I did.”
“Then it must consist of diamonds and rubies,” Benedict said, sarcastically, “for I could tell by the way you laid your pack down that it is not full of gold.”
“What I have is more precious than diamonds and rubies,” Gilbert told him.
“In that case, perhaps you should have sold a little of it to buy stout shoes and a pair of trousers that had more cloth than thread in them,” Benedict observed.
“That would have been difficult,” Gilbert told him, “for what I have is divisible only once, into two portions. No lesser dose would be fully effective.”
“Dose?” Benedict echoed. “Have you brought back nothing but medicine? After ten years of wandering in the wilderness, have you found nothing worth bringing home but some quack cure for warts or baldness?”
“It is an elixir concocted with water from the fountain of youth,” Gilbert told him. He opened his pack and produced a small stone flask, which might have held a single gulp of brandy, although it seemed to Benedict more like the kind of vessel in which poison might be kept.
“The elixir of life?” Benedict scoffed. “Are you immortal, then?”
“I have not drunk it yet,” the older brother said, patiently. “Nor will it make me immortal. But what it can and will do is to restore my health to the finest pitch of perfection, and make me feel as well as any man can feel, for as long as I may live. It cannot give me eternal life, nor can it protect me against the danger of a sudden violent death, but it can double the usual allotment of a man’s potential years, and make the century I might yet live, if I am careful and fortunate, a hundred years entirely worth the living. Once I have drunk it, I shall no longer age, I shall be full of vigor, and my spirits will be permanently uplifted. The measure I possess is said to be adequate to do the same for one other person.”
“So brotherly love has brought you here, in order that I might share in your good fortune?” Benedict was hesitant now, no longer daring to be quite as sarcastic as he had been before.
“You are absolutely right, dear brother,” Gilbert said. “But I fear that I must ask a price for what I intend to give you.”
“A price?” Benedict said. “That seems a trifle unreasonable, given that we are brothers. What price do you want for your supposedly miraculous potion?”
“I want your inheritance,” Gilbert said, frankly. “I want all this: the winery, and everything accessory to it. The carts and the horses, the barrels and the tools, the suppliers and the customers.”
“You mean that you want your half,” Benedict said. “The half that you gave up when you went a-wandering.”
“No,” Gilbert said. “I want it all. I was the one who took the risk. I was the one who traveled far, who staked his life and future on the hazard of discovery. If I drink one dose of the elixir, I shall have every advantage of indefinitely protracted youth save one: an income that would allow me to make the most of it. If I can trade my second dose for the income, I shall have the full extent of my desire. Ergo, dear brother, I offer you the choice: You may have youth without wealth for as long as you may live, or wealth without youth. It is a fair offer.”
“A fair offer!” Benedict was astounded. “It is piracy! Can you imagine that I would trade my inheritance for a sip from a flask that might contain anything or nothing at all?”
“If you refuse, brother, I shall have to make my offer to someone else.”
For a moment or two, Benedict did not see what Gilbert was getting at—but then he realized that, if he would not sell his inheritance, there was another who might be persuaded to sell it before he was able to receive it: his father. “But our father is already old!” Benedict protested.
“Exactly so,” said Gilbert. “He will understand the true value of the elixir. Having already spent his youth, he will not obtain as much advantage from it as you might, but I dare say that he will settle for the protraction of his current state of being for another sixty or seventy years, and the sense of well-being the elixir will give him in the meantime. I am, in any case, his eldest son; he might take the view, as I do, that the inheritance is rightfully mine in any case.”
“Over my dead body!” Benedict said.
“That will not be necessary, brother,” Gilbert replied, calmly. “Quite the reverse, in fact. What I am offering you is the opposite of death: youth and good health, for as long as you might live. What do you have to lose? If you will not pay the price I ask, the winery will be taken from you anyway. You know as well as I do what kind of man our father is. I shall not demand that he deliver all his possessions to me. I only want the business—he can keep his secret savings, to spend in whatever way his newly rejuvenated whims may take him. But I remember how he treated me when I was a child, so I have come to you first, in order that you can have first refusal of my offer. Am I not generous, brother?”
“Very generous, brother,” said Benedict, his voice redolent with astonishment and a keen sense of injury. Nor was his tone a liar, for he picked up a paddle that he had been using to stir the wine in the vat, and struck out at his brother so forcefully that Gilbert would certainly have been killed had he not stepped sideways to avoid the blow.
If the older brother had had a weapon in his pack, he would surely have fetched it out, or had there been something close at hand that would serve as a cudgel, he would surely have improvised—but he had no weapon of his own, and there was nothing nearby that would serve such a purpose.
What Gilbert did instead, therefore, was to remove the stopper from the flask and put it to his lips, saying: “Strike at me again, brother, and I will down the lot—both doses in one. You will lose your opportunity!”
Alas, Gilbert had misread his younger brother’s resolve. Benedict had not been fully persuaded that the flask really held the elixir of youth, but he had been persuaded that his father might be gullible enough to think that it might, and to disinherit his younger son in order to obtain it. So Benedict did, indeed, strike out again—alarming Gilbert sufficiently to make him carry out his threat.
Gilbert tipped the flask, and took its entire contents into his mouth. He held the liquid there, as if he thought that Benedict might relent when he saw the threat about to be carried out—but Benedict only took the opportunity to measure his victim for a third blow.
This time, Gilbert was not quick enough to get out of the way. The paddle descended upon the crown of Gilbert’s head, with lethal force. The only action he had time to perform before he fell dead upon the winery floor was to swallow what he had in his mouth.
• • • •
Benedict immediately regretted what he had done, and became exceedingly anxious to hide the evidence of his crime. It had been dark for some hours and Sylah was not a well-lit town, so it seemed unlikely that anyone who had seen Gilbert approach could have recognized him, even if anyone had been abroad at such a late hour.
“I must be grateful to my brother after all,” Benedict muttered, as he wondered how to do away with the body. “If he had gone to my father first, I would certainly have been disinherited.”
Benedict picked up the dead body and weighed it in his arms. Although Gilbert had by no means grown fat while he was on his travels, the corpse was no lightweight. Benedict did not want to risk anyone seeing him with a dead man slung over his shoulder—the Duc de Romanin was well known as a severe judge, very intolerant of all kinds of homicide except those ordered by himself.
The most obvious hiding place that was readily available was the barrel waiting beside the vat to receive the matured wine, and Benedict wasted no further time before lowering his brother’s body into the empty vessel. He considered the possibility of putting the lid on the barrel and moving it directly to the storeroom, but he knew that anyone who so much as tapped its wooden flank would realize that it had no wine in it. For this reason, he filled it up to the brim with wine from the vat before sealing it.
When Benedict turned the barrel on its side to roll it into the store, he was glad to discover that it was only slightly heavier than it would have been had it contained nothing but wine. He placed the barrel in a dark corner, intending to leave it there until he could find an opportunity to dispose of it permanently. He rolled out another empty barrel to set beside the vat, so that he could continue his work as if nothing had happened.
Three days later, when the contents of the vat had been casked and another consignment of grapes brought in for treading, Frederic Paschel came to the winery in the early afternoon, in company with the Duc de Romanin’s steward, Corentin.
“Good news, my son!” said the wine merchant. “Duc Meldred’s eldest son, Sir Blaise—the finest knight in the entire province—is newly betrothed to Lady Ghislaine de Thyresse, and there is to be a great feast at the Chateau in three days’ time. There will be jousting and a circus, and a great deal of merry-making. My old friend Corentin wants to buy every barrel of this year’s vintage on Duc Meldred’s behalf, as well as the best we still have in store from last year and the one before.”
Benedict was thunderstruck. “But father!” he protested. “This year’s vintage is far too young to please an educated palate. Lord de Romanin would do far better to take everything else we have in store and leave this year’s deposits to mature.”
“Don’t be silly, Benedict,” Frederic said, impatiently. “All the Lord’s vassals, of every rank, will be party to the celebration. This year’s vintage is more than good enough for the lower ranks.”
“Even so,” Benedict objected, “We shall need to hold some barrels back for future years, when they will be much improved.”
“Fool!” was Frederic’s reply to that. “Lord de Romanin is very willing to compensate us for any loss we might sustain by selling the wine before it is fully mature. This is a great opportunity, you dunderhead. Bring out a score of spigots immediately, and start setting them in the casks so that Corentin and I can test their contents and agree a fair price for each one.”
Benedict had no alternative but to do as he was told. He volunteered to help with the tasting, but Frederic told him yet again what a fool he was to think that his naive palate could possibly compare with the practiced expertise of a successful wine merchant and an experienced steward. Benedict knew only too well what a connoisseur his father was, and Corentin also had a great reputation as a wine-taster, so he had to give way on that—but he took what comfort he could from the fact that the two wise men were content to leave the business of rolling out the barrels and hammering in the spigots entirely to him.
One by one, Benedict brought out eight of the barrels laid down in previous years to give their contents every chance to mature, and tapped them all. Every cup brought forth cries of delight from his father, but the Duc’s steward professed himself disappointed with all of them, so the haggling process by which the prices were agreed to was long and arduous. Nor would the steward agree to let the current crop go untasted, so Benedict had to roll out another seven casks and tap them all. Again Frederic Paschel professed himself very satisfied with his crop, but Corentin was a hard man to convince, and they managed to quaff more than enough wine to keep thirst at bay as the long hot afternoon wore on.
When the fifteenth barrel had been tested, Benedict told the steward that there were no more to be tested, but Frederic Paschel had not done as well as he had hoped in the haggling, and protested loudly that he had seen with his own eyes that there was one more barrel of the current vintage left, even though some fool had misplaced it by shoving it into a shadowy corner.
“I believe that one is spoiled,” Benedict said.
“Nonsense!” his father said. “It has not even been tapped. Bring it out, boy, bring it out!”
Benedict had no alternative but to roll out the barrel and drive a spigot into its side. He filled the steward’s wooden cup for the sixteenth time, and passed it to him with a trembling hand.
Corentin had already begun to frown before he set the cup to his lips, in preparation for the customary battle over price, but as soon as he took a sip from the cup his expression changed. He had earlier been very scrupulous about spitting out at least half of the wine he had tasted, lest the expertise of his palate be confused by intoxication, but he swallowed this mouthful entire, and followed it with another that was considerably more generous. Then he looked down with evident disappointment into his empty cup.
“Now that,” he said, forgetting his prepared script, “is a truly excellent wine.”
“Is it?” said Frederic, thrown off his own stride by this unexpected development. The merchant handed his own cup to Benedict, who took it to the spigot—but before it could be filled the steward’s bony hand clamped down hard on Benedict’s wrist.
“No, no,” he said, regretfully. “That’s too fine a vintage to waste on the likes of us, I fear. That’s the sort of wine that must go to my master’s table, for the benefit of his most intimate guests.” And he offered a price for the barrel that was half as much again as the highest price he had ever previously offered for a barrel of Frederic Paschel’s wine.
Frederic was a trifle disappointed, obviously regretting the loss of an opportunity to taste such a wonder, but he was a man of business, and he accepted the offer gracefully.
“You can deliver the other fifteen barrels at your leisure, Master Paschel,” the steward said. “Have your boy put this one into my carriage; I shall take it to Romanin today.”
Benedict opened his mouth to protest, but realized that he had no possible grounds for so doing. Corentin’s carriage was designed to carry passengers rather than cargo, but there was certainly room in it for a single barrel, provided that the steward was prepared to sit beside his driver. Benedict had no alternative but to rope the barrel and lift it with the aid of the windlass, and it was only with the utmost difficulty—even though Gilbert’s corpse weighed only a little more than the volume of wine it had displaced—that he managed to inch the load on to the floor of the carriage. He recovered his breath while the steward drove away, having promised to settle Frederic Paschel’s account as soon as the other barrels were delivered.
“This is a great day, my son,” the wine merchant said. “Your inheritance has had a great boost—and to judge by the way you were sweating as you lifted that barrel, Lord de Romanin will have a very ample measure of wine therefrom. I do hope that you have not been making a habit of over-filling the barrels.”
“No, father,” Benedict said, sadly. “If that cask contains more than it should, you can be assured that it is one of a kind.”
• • • •
That night, Benedict went to his father and said: “I have had enough of the wine trade, father, and have decided to follow my brother’s example in going abroad to seek my fortune. I would be very grateful, though, if you would pay me the wages due to me for laboring these last ten years in the winery.”
Frederic Paschel was obviously astonished by this request, because he became quite purple as his temper rose. “You ungrateful swine!” He cried. “How dare you! Every farthing that the winery has earned these last ten years has been reinvested in the business for the benefit of your inheritance. Everything I have done in my entire life I have done for you.”
“Well,” said Benedict, “I suppose you might see things that way, but I cannot. It seems to me that everything I have done in my entire life I have done for you. While I have toiled by day, you have been idle. While I have labored by night, you have slept in your comfortable bed. And as for all your talk of reinvestment . . . well, I count every bunch of grapes that goes into the vats, and every barrel and spigot we buy, and simple arithmetic assures me that you must have considerable savings in gold and silver stored away as part of my so-called inheritance. I do not ask for all of it, but I do want my fair share.”
Had Benedict not grown so wiry while manhandling barrels, Frederic Paschel might have been tempted to turn his son over his knee and give him a good thrashing—but when his father’s furious gaze had measured him from top to toe, Benedict watched that resolution falter and shrivel.
“Don’t be stupid, my son,” the wine merchant said, in a more conciliatory manner. “You’ve invested far too much yourself to throw away your inheritance now. Yes, I could give you a little coin—but if you take it away, it’ll soon be spent, and the winery will go to wrack and ruin in the meantime, for I can’t be expected to continue running it when my heart is broken. If you will not keep it going, it will have to be sold, and what a pity that would be, when we’ve just been producing the finest wine we’ve ever made . . . did I say we? I meant you, of course. It’s obvious to me that you’ve always had the wine-maker’s gift, and only needed practice to bring it out. I’ve stood back to let you obtain that practice, my son, and my discretion has paid off. You don’t need to go away to make your fortune—you can make it right here.”
Benedict was slightly taken aback by this change of attitude, but he knew that he could not give in. He dared not wait in Sylah for one more day. Indeed, he had already waited longer than he should, for he was spared the necessity of answering his father by a loud hammering on the door. When he answered it, he found a contingent of Lord de Romanin’s spearmen outside, who had been sent to arrest them both on a charge of selling wine in short measure.
“Short measure!” Frederic Paschel reported, when he received this information. “Impossible! I saw the barrel loaded myself, and was only now admonishing my son for overfilling it. If it was short when it arrived at the castle, that rascal of a steward must have piped half of it away for his own use.”
The soldiers were, however, merely following orders; their sergeant assured the merchant that he could lay his counter-accusations before Lord de Romanin. So Benedict and his father were put in irons and taken to the Chateau.
When they arrived, the merchant and his son were immediately taken to Duc Meldred, who was in his banqueting hall with his son, Sir Blaise, and his steward Corentin. The barrel was set beside the head of the table. The prisoners were thrust down on to their knees.
“If the barrel is light, my lord . . .” Frederic Paschel began, bowing until his forehead was almost touching the floor.
“The barrel is not light, Master Paschel,” the Lord said. “Indeed, that is the mystery. When my loyal steward told me what a wonder he had found, I could not wait until the feast; I had to test it for myself. Having found it every bit as delightful as he promised, I offered a cup to my son, and then invited the Comte de Thyresse, the father of my future daughter-in-law to sample it. We had a second round, and then a third . . . and our enjoyment increased so dramatically with every draught that we were extremely disappointed when it ceased to flow from the spigot, even though the barrel still had so much weight that the level could not possibly have sunk below the tap.”
“Perhaps, my Lord,” the wine merchant said, “you might tilt the barrel . . .”
“Of course we tilted the barrel,” Lord Romanin said, “fully expecting more wine to flow—but no wine flowed. Plainly, there is something else in this barrel as well as wine: something solid, which has shifted to block the spigot. Now, what do you suppose that might be?”
Frederic Paschel looked at his son then, with accusing eyes. “Benedict?” he said, unsteadily. “You were the one who filled that barrel, were you not?”
“I fill all the barrels,” Benedict replied, bitterly. “Whatever is in this one is to my credit—that I admit, since I cannot possibly deny it. Remove the lid, by all means. Take a look for yourself, my Lord . . . then do with me what you please. At least I have filled my last barrel for this old skinflint.” He did not attempt to rise to his feet, but he held his head high as he met his liege lord’s eyes.
Lord de Romanin looked at Benedict curiously, and then instructed his steward to hand over the claw hammer he had thoughtfully brought to the meeting. Benedict shrugged his shoulders and accepted the instrument. It only took him a minute to pull out the staples securing the lid. When he thrust the lid aside, the Duc de Romanin and Sir Blaise both peered in, very curiously.
“Why,” said Sir Blaise, “it’s a dead man. It seems that we’ve been drinking blood with our wine.”
“So it is,” said Lord de Romanin, thoughtfully. “And so we have.”
Benedict had expected them to grow pale, perhaps even to vomit, but the aristocracy of Aquitania was obviously cut from finer cloth than the nation’s common men.
“But it is an extremely fine wine,” Sir Blaise added, “and it might not be a good idea to let my future father-in-law know what we have been feeding him, even if we were innocent of any knowledge of it.”
“I am proud to have such a wise son,” Lord de Romanin said. “A keen sense of the diplomatic niceties is the most valuable gift a future Lord of Aquitania can possess—and it is, as you say, an extremely fine wine. There will be a good measure still to be drunk, once we have moved the dead man’s back away from the tap. Perhaps you can explain, Master Paschel, how the vintage turned out so well, given that the pickling of a corpse would normally be expected to spoil it?”
Frederic Paschel could only look back at his lord and master in frank amazement—but Benedict was quick to take his opportunity. “My lord,” he said, “my father has not the slightest idea how the vintage turned out so well—but I know the secret.”
Lord de Romanin raised his eyebrows in a delicately aristocratic fashion. “Which is?” he said.
“Mine to keep,” Benedict said, boldly. “But I can assure you that the wine has a preservative effect as well as a wondrous taste. It will be of great benefit to you if you keep on drinking it, provided that you do not share it too generously—but only I have the secret of making it, so you will need to look after me well.”
The Duc de Romanin looked long and hard at Benedict then, but in the end he only said: “Will you need more dead men?” he asked, politely.
“No, my lord,” Benedict said. “That one was unique. But the body has virtue enough to improve several more barrelfuls of wine—perhaps many more, if it is supervised with the proper skill.” This was, of course, a guess—but Benedict had reasoned that the elixir of youth must be seeping from the body that now contained it at a relatively modest rate, and might yet add a piquant bouquet to a luxurious harvest of wine.
Lord de Romanin made no immediate reply to this, but Sir Blaise said; “If it is only a matter of pouring in more wine, we could do as much ourselves.”
“Wine-making is a skilled trade,” Benedict pointed out, “and the best wines require the most artful makers. You might try, I suppose, to stretch the crop yourself . . . but if you were to fail, there would be no further opportunity. You would do better to put your trust in me.”
Sir Blaise seemed a trifle offended by this slur against his competence, but Lord de Romanin was quick to intervene. “What about you, Master Paschel?” he said to Frederic. “Are you not a very artful wine-maker?”
“I am no murderer,” the kneeling wine merchant was quick to say, “and no sorcerer either. No dead man was ever been found inside any barrel loaded by me.”
“Your father has a point,” Lord de Romanin said to Benedict. “The presence of the dead body in the barrel does suggest foul play, of more than one kind. Justice insists that murderers are hanged, and sorcerers burned. I’d be reckoned a poor lord of the realm if I did not put the demands of justice before those of my palate, would I not? Wine is only wine, but crime demands reparation.”
“It is true, my lord,” Benedict said, calculating that he had nothing to lose by being bold, “that if wine were only wine, it would be a poor thing to weigh against righteousness in the scales of justice. But you have drunk from that barrel, have you not? Is it only wine, do you think, or the veritable elixir of youth?”
Duc Meldred de Romanin nodded his noble head thoughtfully. “You told my steward that the barrel was spoiled,” he observed. “You did not want your father to sell it—but he had no idea what it contained . . .”
He was interrupted by Frederic Paschel’s cry of anguish. While attention had been diverted from him the curious merchant had climbed discreetly to his feet and tiptoed to the barrel, then leaned over to see what was inside it for himself. “Gilbert!” he moaned. “My beloved Gilbert!”
Lord de Romanin did not spare the merchant a glance. “Who is Gilbert?” he asked of Benedict.
“My brother,” Benedict answered.
“You killed your brother?” Lord de Romanin said, raising his eyebrow again. “May I ask why, Master Alchemist?”
Benedict had been thinking furiously, and took his opportunity without delay. “Because that is what the recipe called for, my lord,” he said. “That is why no other corpse would do—and even then, it required ten years of careful preparation.”
“Sorcery, my lord!” cried the steward, who now seemed to repent having drunk from the barrel. “He must be burned!”
“Be quiet, Corentin,” said Lord de Romanin, before addressing himself to Benedict again. “Are we in danger of damnation, then, Master Paschel, for having drunk your concoction?”
“Not at all, my Lord,” Benedict said, without hesitation. “I suppose I might be in some slight danger, but you and your son—and the Comte de Thyresse, too—are knights of Aquitania, perfect models of virtue and chivalry. How could you possibly be in any danger, given that your hearts are absolutely pure? Men of your kind, I feel perfectly sure, could drink barrel after barrel of the elixir without incurring the slightest stain on your souls. But if you would rather not . . .” He left the sentence dangling provocatively.
“I have long been of the opinion that we ought to have our own winery here at the castle,” Lord de Romanin said, after a moment’s thought. “We would need a good man to run it, of course. Your father is obviously too old, but he seems to have taught you everything he knows, and you have evidently done a little studying on your own account. Would you be prepared to accept such a position, if it were offered?”
“I would be very disappointed to leave my beloved father,” Benedict said, “but if my liege lord needs me, it is my duty to respond. I will gladly take the job.”
“I am delighted to hear it,” the Duc de Romanin said. He turned to his steward. “See to it that Master Paschel and his father receive suitable accommodation.”
• • • •
Benedict was elated when he heard the Duc’s instruction, but his delight was short-lived. Instead of being taken to one of the workshops clustered in the chateau’s capacious courtyard, he was taken into the cellars beneath one of the towers, to a chilly subterranean chamber with a single barred window and a door with a heavy iron lock. It had no furniture, although it did have a hole in one corner whose connection to the chateau’s main sewer was a little more immediate than any occupant of the room could have desired.
“This is a dungeon!” he objected.
“Oh no,” said Corentin. “Our dungeons are much narrower, and have no windows at all. Your father’s new apartment is a dungeon. This is a winery. At least, it will be a winery when the Duc’s men have brought barrels and vats from your former establishment.”
The room had not seemed very large when Benedict first measured it with his eye; when his imagination imported a vat and a dozen barrels—which was less than half of the apparatus presently contained in Frederic Paschel’s winery—he realized that he would hardly have space enough to stretch himself out to sleep.
“The conditions are hardly conducive to good wine-making,” he complained. “I need light, and air, and . . .”
“Then you will have to earn them,” the steward said, “by the quality of your labor.” And with that, he went out, locking the door behind him.
Benedict’s imagination proved perfectly reliable. Even though the Duc de Romanin’s men only set up a single vat and stacked up ten barrels of wine—in addition to the one containing Gilbert’s body—there was hardly enough floor-space left in the underground room for a man of Benedict’s size to lie himself down.
It only required a few minutes to refill the barrel containing Gilbert’s corpse from one of the others, so Benedict had plenty of time thereafter to consider his situation. He had no idea how long the supply of elixir contained in his brother’s body would continue to invigorate the wine, nor how long it would take for the elixir to seep out of the dead flesh. There was no guarantee that the next cupful drawn from the spigot would be as good as the last, and no way to calculate how many more cupfuls would follow in its train if it were. He would have to rely on trial and error to discover the optimum rate of improvement, and the one thing of which he could be certain was that the effect would not last forever.
Eventually, the elixir would run out and the wine would cease to derive any further benefit from the body. By that time, Meldred de Romanin and his son might have supped enough to preserve themselves indefinitely—although the fact that Corentin and the Comte de Thyresse had each taken a little, and given that Benedict would have to taste future barrels to judge their readiness, might ensure that none of them would gain the full benefit of the elixir. Benedict was not certain what difference, if any, that would make to his own situation.
Given that Gilbert had only had the evidence of hearsay to advise him as to the properties of his treasure, Benedict could not be absolutely certain that there had been exactly enough elixir in the flask to preserve two men against the effects of aging for an indefinite period. There might have been less, or more. On the other hand, Benedict thought, given that he had not the slightest idea how the elixir had been manufactured in the first place, it was at least conceivable that he might have stumbled upon a process by which it could be indefinitely renewed. If that turned out to be the case, there had to be a possibility that he could continue in the Duc de Romanin’s service for months, or years . . . and perhaps, if he cared to sample his own wares, a century and more.
Alas, none of these prospects could be reckoned pleasant while he was lodged in his present accommodation.
Once the sun had set, Benedict discovered that his situation was even worse than he thought, because the hole that led down to the sewer was a two-way thoroughfare. It would undoubtedly be very convenient for him to be able to expel his bodily wastes from the chamber, but the cost of that convenience was that inquisitive rats were able to intrude upon his privacy. Mercifully, the few that emerged during his first night of captivity found nothing to encourage them to linger, and fled readily enough when he lashed out at them. Even so, he placed three barrels in a line so that their tops formed a platform of sorts, on which he could sleep without fear of rats running over his body or nibbling the leather soles of his shoes.
Benedict was grateful for the fact that the breakfast sent to him on the following morning was appetizing as well as plentiful, although he knew that any crumbs he spilt would encourage the rats. He was grateful, too, when the Duc de Romanin, who seemed to be in a reasonably benevolent mood, came to see him.
“When will the new wine be ready for tasting, Master Paschel?” Lord de Romanin asked.
“Ten days, perhaps,” Benedict guessed.
“Oh no,” his master replied. “That will not do. I shall come to test it the day after tomorrow, on the morning of the great feast. I must admit, though, that I have been thinking very carefully about what you told me yesterday. I take your point about your brother’s body having some particular virtue, and requiring long preparation for its current function, but I cannot help wondering whether it might be worth our while to try a experiment or two, in a spirit of open-minded enquiry.”
“What do you mean, my lord?” Benedict asked, although he knew perfectly well what the Duc must mean.
“It so happens, Master Wine-maker, that my faithful steward Corentin had an accident last night. He fell down a flight of stone stairs and broke his neck. It was most unfortunate—the poor man had been in my service for many years, and my father’s service before that. Now, I understand perfectly that you could not work your magic with any run-of-the-mill dead man, but I cannot help wondering whether the steward—who had, after all, drunk a measure of the wine while he was testing its quality—might be able, so to speak, to export its effect. What do you think?”
Benedict’s first thought was that if he did not agree to collaborate in the experiment, Lord de Romanin would certainly try it himself—and that if it happened to work, he would immediately become redundant. He therefore made haste to say: “I cannot be certain that my artistry, though considerable, will be able to accomplish much with a body so ill-prepared—but I am willing to try, my lord, if that is your wish.”
“Excellent,” said the Duc. “I shall have the body brought down to you.”
It was not until the steward’s body had been set in a barrel, and the barrel filled with wine, that Benedict began to wonder what the consequence might be if Lord de Romanin’s experiment did work. The steward had undoubtedly supped more of the wine than was strictly necessary while he had been tasting it, and might have stolen a few further sips while he as transporting it back to the chateau, but he could not have drunk very much of it. Any elixir his body contained would be very dilute indeed by the time it had dissolved in wine—but it might, even so, make the wine more palatable. Benedict had not yet sampled the wine himself, but he knew that he would have to test his vintages while he was bringing them to their optimal condition; the health and pleasure thus gained would undoubtedly make his imprisonment more bearable, but his ingestion of the elixir would, over time, increase his value to the Duc in an altogether undesirable way—thus making the problem of finding a way out of his present predicament much more difficult and considerably more urgent.
With such weighty matters on his mind, Benedict might not have found it easy to sleep even if the rats had not been so active, but the news that something new and interesting was happening in the world above had obviously spread through the underworld during the day, and he was convinced that the number of furry visitors scampering about the floor on the second night of his captivity was considerably more than on the first. On the third night, if his ears could be trusted, there were hundreds swarming below him while he stretched himself out across the flat tops of his three broad barrels.
Lord de Romanin was as good as his word, reappearing in Benedict’s gloomy chamber almost as soon as he had breakfasted.
“What a great day this is!” the Lord declared, merrily. “A marriage-contract to be signed and countersigned, a solemn mass in the chapel and a nuptial ceremony conducted by the Archbishop of Bordelais, a huge feast to be enjoyed, and a fine tournament to be watched. Who could ask for anything more? I am only sorry, my dear Master Paschel, that you will be too busy to join in the festivities—but I know that an artist like yourself cares nothing for the joys of ordinary men, and would far rather devote your time entirely to your vocation. Have you sampled the refilled barrel, or the one in which my old steward was interred?”
“Not yet, my lord,” Benedict said, truthfully. “I am sure they are not yet ready . . .”
“You are probably right,” the Duc agreed, “but I am so enthusiastic to keep track of our experiment that I cannot wait to take a sip from each of them.”
Benedict had not hammered a spigot into the barrel containing the steward’s body, but he had to do it now. First, however, Lord de Romanin took a cupful from Gilbert’s barrel.
“It is good!” he exclaimed. “Very good indeed! Perhaps it will improve even further, given time, but I think you underestimate your talents, Master Paschel. As an artist, of course, you think only of quality . . . but now that you are in my service, I must try to be the best master I can, and it is my duty to think of quantity. Let me try the other.”
Benedict let out a cupful of wine from the steward’s cask and handed it over, hoping that it would be foul—or, at the very least, unready as yet to be drunk.
“Not as good,” was Lord de Romanin’s verdict. “Not nearly as good . . . but on the other hand, not as bad as one might expect from a polluted barrel. I cannot reckon the experiment a total success, but it is not a total failure either. Would you care to give me your opinion of the two vintages, Master Wine-maker?”
Benedict recognized the polite request as a firm command, and took a sip himself. He took a sip of Gilbert’s vintage first, and immediately understood why the Duc and Sir Blaise had taken the view that there were more important issues stake in this affair than punishing murder. The taste was divine, and the exhilarating effect it had on his consciousness was nothing short of miraculous—and yet he was as certain as he could be that this solution was considerably more dilute than the one that the Duc and his son had tasted on the previous evening.
“It needs more time,” he said, trying not to let his sudden lack of sobriety show. Then he took a sip of Corentin’s vintage.
The wine in which the steward’s body had been soaked was not nearly as bad as Benedict could have hoped, but it was by no means as good as he had feared. He was glad of the opportunity to say: “This is not nearly ready, my Lord. Perhaps I was over-cautious to think that it would require ten years to mature, but it will certainly require one, or even two . . .”
“Perhaps you are right,” Lord de Romanin said, judiciously. “You are the expert, after all, and it would not do to be too hasty . . . especially as we have the other, which will be ready far more quickly, and might be eked out for months or years . . . but I must go now. I have a million things to do—but you may be certain that I shall return.”
“There is no hurry, my Lord,” Benedict assured him.
“None at all,” the Duc agreed—but he came again much sooner than Benedict had anticipated, before the sun had set.
“There has been a terrible accident, Master Paschel,” Lord de Romanin said.
“Not my father!” Benedict protested.
“Oh no,” his master said. “Your father is perfectly safe in his cozy dungeon. The accident occurred during the jousting at my son’s betrothal feast . . .”
“Not your son!” Benedict exclaimed, in frank astonishment.
“I wish you would not keep interrupting,” Lord de Romanin said. “My son is perfectly well. It is the Comte de Thyresse, the father of his contracted bride, who has suffered a terrible misfortune. His daughter begged him not to enter the lists, and I advised him myself that it was an unwise thing to do, given his age, but he said that he felt ten years younger than he had three days ago, and insisted on strapping on his armor for, as he put it, one last fling. How right he was! He toppled two of my best knights, and then insisted that I send my champion against him. Somehow, in all the confusion, the weakened lance that my champion should have been carrying was set aside, and a sound one handed up to him instead—and the blow he struck was so well-judged that it went clean through my new brother’s breastplate, and his heart, too. What a tragedy!”
“A tragedy indeed,” Benedict agreed, although his own heart was all a-flutter. “I suppose the Comte’s men will carry him home to Thyresse for burial.”
“So custom demands,” Lord de Romanin agreed. “Clad in full armor, mounted on a shield drawn by his favorite horse. But the weather has been rather hot of late, and he came from such a distance, that I have agreed with his widow and daughter that the armor should be taken back empty for ceremonial burial, while the body is discreetly disposed of here. We must, of course, be very discreet. A matter of diplomatic nicety, you see.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Benedict said. “I see exactly what you mean.” He recalled that the Duc de Romanin and his son had shared their wonderful wine, though not its secret, with their honored guest.
By the time that Benedict stretched himself out that night, precariously perched upon his three barrels, the contents of another three were slowly leaching whatever virtue they could from the corpses of men who had tasted the elixir of youth. By rights, he supposed, the most recent vintage should turn out to be the noblest of them all—but he suspected that rights had little or nothing to do with the matter, and that the elixir had not the slightest respect for the unsubtle gradations of Aquitanian society.
After that, Lord de Romanin came down to his new winery twice a week, in order to sample all three of his experimental vintages and obtain Benedict’s expert opinion as to their progress. Neither the Duc nor Benedict made any further mention of Frederic Paschel, but they did spend a certain amount of time discussing one another’s health. The Lord declared freely that he had never felt better, and was improving all the time, but he expressed some concern for his faithful servant.
“You are too pale, Master Paschel. I certainly would not want you to become addicted to your produce, but I do think you might be exercising a little too much abstinence. I was rather hoping that you and I might enjoy a very long partnership, if our experiments should happen to work out as well as I dare to hope. I have considered the matter carefully, and it seems to me that if the virtue of your brother’s corpse can only be preserved, careful husbandry might allow us to exploit it for a long time . . . and if the virtue imparted to the other bodies can increase our stock . . . well, suffice it to say that I shall value your art more highly than I can say.”
“It is not lack of wine that is paling my complexion, my Lord,” Benedict told his master, “but lack of light. I could be a far better servant to you, for far longer, if I had better quarters. These are cold, dark, and damp, and very uncomfortable.”
“Are they?” said Lord de Romanin, as if the thought had never occurred to him—and Benedict had to concede that, having never visited them by night, his master might well have no idea how bad conditions then became. The Duc’s own quarters were undoubtedly placed so high in a tower that he never saw a single rat, and had no idea how abundantly they swarmed in his cellars and his sewers.
After a few moments consideration, Duc Meldred went on: “Well, then, I suppose I must consider the possibility of moving you to more comfortable lodgings—always provided of course, that our work goes well. All three of the barrels are improving slowly, are they not? Indeed, your brother’s vintage has almost recovered the full flower of its original bouquet—do you not think so?”
“You are right, my Lord,” Benedict said, “as one would expect of a true connoisseur. I believe that particular harvest might be ready in a week or so to supply another evening’s bountiful carousal . . . although it might be wise to exercise a little more caution. I am sure that the other two barrels will produce something drinkable eventually, although I fear that they will never match the quality of the original.”
“Good enough,” said Lord de Romanin, nodding his head sagely. “One more week, then . . . and if the evening in question lives up to my expectations, you’ll have the kind of winery of which you’ve always dreamed, for as long as you can keep your elixir flowing. We shall become a legend in our own lifetime, Master Paschel—and if you are the artist I think you are, it will be a long lifetime.”
• • • •
Benedict went to his improvised bed that night thinking One more week . . . just one more week, confident that it was a thought that could sustain him at least that long. He still had no idea how long his produce might sustain him thereafter, but he had to admit that the drops of wine he had taken from the barrels containing the Duc’s steward and Sir Blaise’s father-in-law had shown a steady improvement in quality over the past few weeks. Although they were, as he had told Duc Meldred, highly unlikely ever to emulate Gilbert’s vintage for taste or quality of invigoration, they did seem to have acquired a certain modest virtue—and who could say how much more they might yet acquire?
Benedict permitted himself to wonder, again, whether he might have had the extraordinary good luck to happen upon the secret of manufacturing the elixir of youth. Perhaps, he thought, Gilbert’s return had been engineered by some higher power. It was surely conceivable that Gilbert had actually been the instrument of some generous spirit, commissioned by that spirit to bring the elixir to a place where it might not only renew itself but increase itself vastly—in which case, what had happened in the winery on that terrible night had not been his fault at all, but merely the working out of some divine plan. Rather than feeling guilty about his crime, in fact, he ought to reckon himself an instrument of destiny, chosen to bring a new fount of miracles into the land of Aquitania—a fount whose effects would surely spread beyond Romanin as the Duc became more ambitious.
Once his own supply was absolutely secure, Benedict mused, Lord de Romanin would undoubtedly begin thinking in terms of trade, but as an aristocrat he would not think of trade in the same vulgar terms as Frederic Paschel. No—the Duc de Romanin would think in terms of advancement at court, and the favor of the king . . . and when he went to the king’s court in distant Aix-la-Chapelle, the Duc would doubtless take his faithful artisan with him, and raise him up from the station of wine-maker to that of Alchemist, or Master Magician . . .
While he indulged these flights of fancy, even Benedict contrived to forget the rats that swarmed below, scavenging every last crumb that he had dropped from his plate at breakfast and supper, and lapping up the spillage from his cups and ladles.
The next morning, he received a different visitor: the scion of the de Romanin family.
“You do not seem pleased to see me, Master Paschel,” the visitor observed.
“Not at all, sire,” Benedict said. “I was taken by surprise—I was expecting the Duc.”
“Alas,” said the former Sir Blaise, “I am the Duc. There has been a terrible accident. Last evening, while my father and I were out hunting boar in the forest, his horse stumbled and he was thrown. Mercifully, he broke his neck—otherwise, he would have died a lingering death, gored by his quarry’s tusks and savaged by the beast’s teeth. He was so badly mutilated that I dared not allow my mother or my wife to see the body, but had it safely stowed away for discreet disposal. There will have to be a funeral, of course, but a suit of armor will suffice for all ceremonial purposes. It is a frightful thing to happen, of course; he had seemed so well of late, younger than ever. A good son cannot help but think of his beloved parents as if they were invulnerable, of course, but in my father’s case there really did seem to be a possibility that he might go on forever. I had not thought of coming into my inheritance for years yet—decades, even—but when fate intervenes, priorities must change . . .
“At any rate, Master Wine-maker, you have a new liege lord now. Fear not; I have every intention of looking after you just as well as my father did, if your produce is as good as he had begun to hope. My father seemed very well pleased with the results of his experiments, but I should like to try a few sips of each of the vintages myself—it would mean a great deal to me to know that he did not die without making a worthy contribution to the sum of human knowledge.”
“Yes, sire—I mean, my Lord,” was Benedict’s inevitable response. He drew a small measure from each of the three laden casks, one by one, and gave the three cups to his new master.
“Now that is excellent,” the new Duc said, of Gilbert’s vintage. “That is the vintage in which I shall toast my late father’s memory—privately, of course; it does not do for an aristocrat to exhibit his grief in public. The other two will never match it, and are clearly unready even by their own low standards, but they are not entirely without virtue, are they? Please taste them, and give me your expert opinion.”
“You are right, my Lord,” said Benedict, when he had obeyed the command. “The other two will never match the first, but they are not utterly insipid.”
“Given that the steward and my late father-in-law supped so little of the wine,” the new Duc said, thoughtfully, “we cannot expect too much from them, but my father must have quaffed a great deal more during these last few weeks. Even he might not produce a harvest to compare with your own dear brother, but I think we should make the most of him—don’t you? It’s what he would have wanted, after all.”
“I am sure that it is,” Benedict agreed. “Am I to understand that I may still move into the new quarters the old Duc was making ready for me? I am certain that I could work far more profitably there than I can here, and the necessity of tending yet another special cask will make my work even more difficult than it was before.”
“I will, of course, honor all my father’s promises,” Duc Blaise said, “but preparations for the funeral will take up a great deal of everyone’s time in the next few days. We cannot possibly hold the memorial mass until Thursday, given that we shall have to bring the Archbishop all the way back from Bordelais so that he may officiate. We shall, of course, require a suitable interval thereafter for mourning, so you must be a little more patient. Your new quarters should be ready in fifteen days—twenty at the most—and you need not fear that you will be neglected in the meantime. I shall visit you again, as often as my father did, to keep track of all our experiments. You do have an empty cask to spare, I hope, and some wine with which to fill it up.”
“My supplies have run very low,” Benedict said, hesitantly. “They would have stretched for seven more days, had I not had any extra work to do, but now that I must prepare another cask and my relocation is to be delayed . . . well, my Lord, the vat is empty, save for the lees, which need to be cleared out. I need more grapes to tread, and new supplies of all the compounds necessary to aid their fermentation. If you would allow me to take a carriage down to the old winery, and then to the vineyards which supply our grapes . . .”
“Oh no,” said Lord de Romanin. “You have more than enough to do here. Give instructions to my men, and they will fetch everything you need.”
“It is not as simple as that, my Lord,” Benedict said. “The grapes must be selected by an expert eye, and the compounds need to be assembled by someone who knows exactly what is what. I fear that I was never as careful in labeling as I ought to have been—even my former laborers would be all at sea if they tried to follow a list.”
“I understand your reservations,” said the young Duc de Romanin. “I am a great believer in having jobs done properly. Fortunately, there is a compromise available. I shall send your father to buy more grapes and gather all the necessary apparatus. That is doubtless why my father decided to keep him close at hand.”
Benedict was by no means convinced that this strategy would solve his problems, but he could not think of an adequate objection, so he nodded his head meekly.
The old Duc’s body was brought down to the cellar within the hour, by which time Benedict had figured out how to rearrange the casks in such a way as to have adequate access to the four experimental vessels. One unfortunate side-effect of the rearrangement, however, was that the row of three casks that he had been using as a bed had to be broken up, and the only way that he could contrive a similar surface was to place three empty casks on top of three full ones, lined up behind the four experimental barrels. This would force him to sleep no more than a few inches from the ceiling, but he judged that it would be far better to be too close to the ceiling than too close to the floor.
He had just enough wine to spare to cover the old Duc’s body—a necessary precaution, given the tendency of bad odors to rise even in a cool cellar.
On the next day, the young Duc came to see Benedict again, in a very bad temper. “Your father is a damnable rogue,” he said, “and he obviously has not an ounce of paternal affection in him. As an honorable man, I had naturally imagined that he would not do anything to annoy me while you were safe in my care, but I had forgotten that the high standards of duty observed by the aristocracy are not reflected in the lower orders of our society. It appears that the old man had considerable savings in silver and gold hidden in his house—enough, at any rate, to afford the extortionate bribes that he required to make his escape from my domain. He will have to run all the way to Castile or Normandy to find security, but he obviously believes that he can do that. I pity you, Master Paschel—it must be a terrible thing to have labored so long for such an ungrateful man, and to know that the fruits of your long labor have been the means of your own betrayal.”
This was probably the truest thing that the young Duc had ever said—as Benedict freely acknowledged with a long cry of anguish.
“But you need not worry about your own future,” Blaise de Romanin went on, “for I shall do everything in my power to protect you and keep you safe. I shall have every single item brought from your old storehouse to the castle, and I shall order my new steward to buy up every grape within a day’s ride, so that you may have your pick of them. Next year, we shall do the same. Worry not, my faithful servant—I shall not hold your father’s treason against you, and will look after you even more carefully because of it. Now, shall we see how my father’s vintage is coming along? I must admit that I am keen to find out how much life there is in it, even though it will not be truly mature for a very long time.”
This final judgment was, of course, correct—but Benedict only required a single sip of his new vintage to know that there was indeed life in it. The elixir of youth was obviously a very hardy liquor, which did not easily decay even if its host fell prey to dire misfortune. Even if the amount retained indefinitely within the four corpses reduced the reclaimable stock to a dose that was not quite sufficient to preserve two men indefinitely, Benedict guessed, there would be quite enough within the four casks to keep one man young for an exceedingly long time.
Well, Benedict thought, I suppose my fate is decided now, and at least I shall get my new winery, in fifteen or twenty days. It will doubtless have a stout lock on the door, but I shall be free of the rats.
Although he did not know himself whether his intention was to celebrate his own preservation or to drown his potentially-eternal sorrows, Benedict decided that he might as well console himself with a drink, and that if he were going to have a drink he might as well be drinking fine wine, and that, whether he were cursing his father or congratulating him, he ought to let his brother partake of his toast—so he took a generous cupful of wine from Gilbert’s cask, and drank it down; and then he took another, and another. He did not even bother to top up the cask before climbing up to his new bed.
At least, he thought, I shall be safe from the rats.
Alas, this judgment turned out to be a trifle optimistic. He would, indeed, have been safe from the rats had he slept as soundly as he intended and expected to, but the ceiling of his cell was infested with spiders, which scurried about by night, and it happened that one of them lost its grip and fell into his open mouth while he was snoring.
Benedict sat up abruptly, smashing his head on the stone ceiling, and as he recoiled he rolled off his improvised bed, falling several feet on to the four barrels neatly arrayed below. No harm would have come to them had they all been properly maintained and topped-up, but Benedict had been working without a full set of cooper’s tools for some time, and he had not topped up the barrel containing his brother’s body. That barrel splintered, and two of its hoops broke—with the result that its liquid contents burst out, flooding the floor.
Half a dozen of the rats that were swarming over the floor at that moment were drowned, but half a thousand more set about lapping up the spilled wine.
Rats are not renowned as connoisseurs of wine, but they would probably have enjoyed what they supped even if there had been nothing in it but the essence of the grape or mere dead flesh. As things were, they were so greatly invigorated by their consumption that it only took them a further half-hour to clean Gilbert’s bones of every last vestige of flesh.
Further invigorated, the rats set to work on the unconscious Benedict—who woke up just in time to feel the worst of the agonies thus inflicted, but not quite soon enough to be able to cry out in alarm. Connoisseurs of wine or not, the rats were certainly connoisseurs of flesh, pickled or fresh, and they held a tongue to be an even greater delicacy than a meaty heart or a juicy liver.
By the time that Benedict’s skeleton had been stripped, there were more than five thousand rats competing over the privilege. Under normal circumstances, they would have stopped at that, but many of these were rats that had now supped their fill of the elixir of youth, not to mention the essence of the grape, and they immediately set themselves to the task of gnawing through the wood of the three full casks that still remained to be emptied.
The eager rats broke their teeth and bloodied their mouths, but the stoutest heartwood of the Romanin forest could not have withstood that collective assault. Long before dawn the rats had cleaned three more corpses of every last morsel of flesh, and lapped up every drop of the wine in which the bodies had been doused.
By the time the young Duc’s servants brought Benedict’s breakfast down on the following morning, there was not a rat to be seen, although the scattered bones of the six that had drowned gave some evidence of what had happened. That day was, however, the last day on which life in the Chateau de Romanin maintained some semblance of normality. On the next night, the rats returned, and this time they were not content to stay in the cellars. They ran riot through the entire castle, consuming everything that could not move fast enough to run away—not excluding humans, dogs and horses. Lady Ghislaine and the young Duc’s mother were among those who failed to make their escape.
Duc Blaise de Romanin came back the next day with a company of men-at-arms and three full packs of hunting-dogs. They set traps everywhere, and waited in full armor for night to fall. When the rats came out again the battle was long and bloody—but it was the men who eventually retreated, and never returned.
• • • •
Within a year, the Domain of Romanin was no more. King Charles had revoked the title—necessarily, it was said, because the family was extinct, consumed by agents of the Devil. The Archbishop of Bordelais had informed the king that he had pronounced an anathema against the rats of Romanin, and had sprinkled holy water all around the desolate chateau, but to no avail—which was, of course, absolute proof that unholy forces were at work there.
The towns, farms, vineyards, and forests that had formerly belonged to the Romanins were redistributed among the neighboring domains—all except for the chateau itself, and the surrounding estate, which were put under proscription and left to return to wilderness.
No one was supposed to live in the chateau or its grounds, and it is possible that no one actually did—but long afterwards, on stormy nights, for a hundred years and more, the tale was told around the hearths of all the chateaux of the neighboring domains that the ruins of Romanin were haunted by a gaunt and wild-eyed human creature.
This madman, the storytellers said, called himself Blaise the Undying, and claimed to be a Duc—but he was evidently the lowest of the low, in the reckoning of Aquitanian society, for he dressed in rags in spite of his rude health, and never ate or drank anything but the flesh and blood of rats.