Marcus hurried up the eroding cobblestone steps. He felt the shifting gravel beneath him, slipping at the soles of his boots from time to time. Still of young spirit and body, Marcus navigated these obstacles with ease. He was not going to be late for his summoned arrangement.
Clouds hung over the sky this morning, though rain was not feared. The villagers carried on their morning business as Marcus sifted past the merchants and buyers, performing their duties from tents, as well as abodes made of wood topped with straw. These newer structures comprised the edges of the central district, and sat nestled within the ruins of much larger ancient buildings from eras long past, which now acted as fortification to protect the thriving, contemporary village.
Most paid him no heed, though some turned as the young man approached, as they would any potential customer or supplier on the main village path. Some knew him but most did not. But all recoiled as he passed, to varying degrees by each’s steadfastness. A few women gasped upon the site of Marcus and scurried away.
Marcus has come to expect such reactions and so did not acknowledge them, even the loud, audible wails. When he first made his decision, these inflictions from the townspeople distressed him greatly. But he quickly became resolute, bolstered by the soundness of his reasoning, despite what he viewed as the absurd, irrational fear all around him.
Continuing at his brisk pace, Marcus arrived at the village’s center and its great lodge, where the people’s most important affairs, and sometimes for the surrounding regions, were undertaken by the elders. One of the few masonry structures built within anyone’s lifetime, the lodge stood high enough to be seen even from the ancient surrounding ruins. Torches were always kept lit at the entrance, even throughout bright days.
The path into the lodge was clear, for only those with official business would ever dare approach. While catching his breath, Marcus slowed his pace as he had the path all to himself. Two guardsmen wearing thick animal hides covered by large, flowing yellow capes stood on either side of the entrance. Each held a black spear in hand with each resting at the foot of a guard.
Most were forbidden to enter, under any circumstance. Normally, a man of Marcus’s station would have been able to pass into the lodge, despite his age. But these were not normal times, as Marcus was well aware. Still, the guards were ordered special instructions to watch for this young man in particular, and to allow him through.
As Marcus approached, the guards looked at him, each fighting their disposition to recoil. He started to say something to the guards, but in unison each took a step away from the path and motioned for Marcus to proceed. While the young man was taken aback for an instant, he decided to continue walking, directly through the entrance. When Marcus had passed, the guards resumed their earlier positions as if the young man was never there.
Upon entering, Marcus immediately noticed that the only true direction for him was down. Being his first time in the village lodge, it was immediately obvious there was far more to the structure than the exterior hinted. He followed a winding stare, lit by torches evenly spaced.
As he reached the end of the stone staircase, narrowly encircled by stone walls, voices could be heard, random and many. Marcus followed the sounds and drew near what he surmised to be the main gathering hall. It was dark but bearable to see by the multiple wall torches. There was a spattering of guards but none paid him notice (likely due to the poor lighting), so Marcus entered the assembly hall.
Within, the light became more pronounced as the number of encircling fires dramatically increased. The voices had come from a few dozen men. Some were standing but most were sitting in rows of wooden benches, all facing towards an elevated stage with an elaborate table and nine chairs behind.
And behind the table and chairs hung a large portrait of the ruler of the land.
Most of the men in attendance had gray or thinning hair, and even grayer beards. Marcus immediately guessed himself to be the youngest in the room. Beyond their age, Marcus quickly took in their dress, and particularly the capes worn. All were yellow. Those sitting or near the first bench wore vibrant yellow capes, made of fine texture, with some ornamentals attached. Those of the middle benches had clean but otherwise ordinary yellow capes. Among the few men in the back of the hall were duller capes, almost brownish, made of coarse materials and exhibiting no decorations.
The young man continued to scan the room, still standing near the entrance. Though he did not know explicitly, his inclination was that it was not his place to take a seat among the rows. Marcus decided to slowly drift, away from the door and towards the back.
Some of the men began to notice him. As eyes found their ways to Marcus, each man in turn expressed a momentary bout of surprise which quickly turned to a scowl as they scanned the young man’s full attire.
Though dressed quite normally for a youthful man of his station and order, Marcus wore no cape.
By an unseen cue, the men began to quiet and the several still standing took their seats at the bench rows. A stillness inflicted the hall, broken only by the crackling of torches. Random men at this secluded gathering turned their heads back towards Marcus, always showing a near-identical expression of mild disgust, which seemed tame to the young man, compared to the malevolent stares and aggressive ejaculations he got used to receiving in the open village.
After several minutes, a new group of men entered the hall, opposite from where Marcus approached. Each was fully covered, from head to foot, in the brightest yellow over-capes possible. All were embedded with jewels and some were decorated with painting that looked to tell stories, the specifics Marcus could not ascertain from his vantage.
One by one, these fully covered men entered, each standing behind one of the eight chairs that surrounded the stage’s ninth center chair. When eight had settled, all in the hall stood up, and the ninth entered. Though covered as the others in a gaudy over-cape, he was of noticeably greater weight and girth than anyone in the lodge.
The ninth man immediately sat himself in the center chair, and everyone followed his lead.
Everyone, except Marcus and the guards.
“I call this standard meeting to order, for the province of Sturtutton, in the name of our gracious and all-knowing guardian servant, Lord Dectaevius,” said the ninth man while pulling back his hood.
“All hail Lord Dectaevius!” the crowd of men recited.
The other eight kept their hoods in place. The now-exposed ninth was devoid of hair, plump in face, with multiple chins. He remained silent while reading a parchment left at his position before the meeting had started.
In a calm, unemotional tone, the ninth man said, “There are many matters for review at this session of the elder council. Our first is the situation concerning…Brother Marcus. Is Brother Marcus here, as requested?”
The ninth looked up from the parchment but not fully, keeping his head angled in front of him while his sagging eyes scanned level. The head did not move as the eyes roamed from side to side.
“I am here, Grand Elder Cornelid, as summoned,” Marcus said loudly from the back of the hall, so all could hear.
Cornelid raised his right hand and motioned to Marcus.
Marcus strode steadily to the front of the hall, and positioned himself evenly between the nine elders on stage and the first row. The men in the first row started to fidget and sit back as far as they reasonable could, to put as much distance between themselves and the subject of inquiry as possible. The men on stage made no reactionary movement.
As Cornelid took his time reading over the parchment, Marcus looked to the other eight hoods. They were still but not motionless, obviously alive and attentive. The young man could hear whispers immediately behind him but could not focus on them. He was nervous, of course, but he consciously tried to stand as tall as possible and breath evenly.
Standing so close to the stage, it was impossible for Marcus to ignore the painting of Lord Dectaevius behind Cornelid. Imposing and larger-than-life, the man was portrayed with dark wavy hair, flowing embroided clothes, and a stern expression that eerily focused directly upon the spot Marcus was standing.
The young man reminded himself to stay calm and focused. He turned from the painting to look below at Cornelid, landing his gaze directly in front of him, as he waited for the Grand Elder’s next words.
Finally, after some time, Cornelid, stopped reading and looked up at Marcus.
“We are all aware that the condition you present yourself to this council puts us at great peril to the Blue Plague. If not for the wisdom granting protection by our Lord Dectaevius, we would not even bear this hearing.”
Cornelid grasped a fold of his cape near his chest.
Marcus answered, “Your excellency, if I may be obliged, I wish to explain to you and other elders my reasoning, and why I have come to my conclusion that our capes, yellow or not, offer no protection against the Blue Plague.”
“Reasoning? Your conclusion? Are you denying the truth pronounced by Lord Dectaevius?” retorted Cornelid.
“It is not a matter of denying a truth, or to go against the wishes of our lord. If you will allow me, I say we must look at all options to combat this very real threat that afflicts not only our province, but the entire kingdom. The Blue Plague is a most serious matter, and I wish to help, not harm, the efforts to contain its spread. And to this point, we should also ask what methods work, and what methods do not work.”
“Preposterous! What else is needed, when we have the guidance of our sagacious lord? Is not his command sufficient?”
In unison, the crowd chanted,
“There is one truth. Receive the truth from Lord Dectaevius.”
Marcus faltered a bit from the reverberation behind him, but answered, “I have studied the reports from throughout the lands. I have visited the inflicted areas, both in ours and the surrounding villages. Yes, many outbreak areas recovered coinciding with populace’s adoption of yellow capes, as the decree of Lord Dectaevius arrived to them. But other areas recovered without assumption of yellow capes, or their peoples could not dispose because capes were not in supply by local merchants.
“The yellow capes were granted benefit from what I believe are related motivations for the subsiding of the plague, in certain areas.
“So it is my assertion, that the yellow cape is not the reason the outbreaks lessoned, but only happened to be leveraged at the right aligning times. We would do well, for all our people, to support my work, to help find the true remedy, and bring a final end to this all-too-well known terribleness across the lands.”
“Brother Marcus,” Cornelid asked, “Do you assert that donning a yellow cape brings harm?”
“I do not assert that notion, Grand Elder.”
“Then why not simply don a cape, and relieve yourself of the burden you now carry and bring to our council?”
“I do not wear a yellow cape because it will not protect me from the Blue Plague, of this I have grown certain, through all I have learned. With respect to our lord, the yellow cape may make townsfolk feel safe, but it is a false sense of safety that may lead to undisciplined practices which may further spread the plague.”
Commotion erupted behind Marcus throughout the bench rows.
Cornelid said in a raised voice, “There will be order! By the authority granted unto me by our Lord Dectaevius! Order!”
The murmurings subsided.
Continuing in a higher pitch and spitting out his words, Cornelid said, “We have the remedy! It is the yellow cape! To deny this is to deny the truth from our lord!”
The assembly again said in unison,
“There is one truth. Receive the truth from Lord Dectaevius.”
Returning to his unemotional tone, the Grand Elder said, “My dear Marcus, you are a learned member of the Brotherhood. And you have been in the favor of our Lord Dectaevius recently by your explanations of the movements of that peculiar star…”
“Venus. Its name from ancient times is Venus, and it is not a star…” interjected Marcus.
Cornelid ignored Marcus’s correction and continued, “…but that favor wears thin, as decreed by this council, for your refusal to cover yourself in a yellow cape.
“Did it occur to you, Brother Marcus, that our Lord Dectaevius has already done what you have suggested, and learned himself the wisdom for which we all now benefit?”
All the assembled men in the rows looked down at their yellow capes fondly. The nine elders made no movement.
“…And does not our lord have access to the same ancient writings as you Brother Marcus, and more?”
Marcus stroked his short, brown beard for a moment, and then said, “I have no doubt in the wisdom professed by our lord, that he has proclaimed actions in what he believes are the best recourse for all of his people.
“My pursuit is not to deny our ruler’s wisdom, but to…petition for the consideration of other activities, based on wisdom that may not have been available to Lord Dectaevius at the time of his yellow cape decree.”
The assembly murmured again.
Cornelid spat with eyes widened and said, “Petition? Consideration? You use the scholarly words of your ancient texts. But this is not a scholarly debate. Lives are at risk.”
“But it is to those ancient works kept by the Brotherhood where wisdom can be found, I do believe, in this matter and others. Combined with my observations of the Blue Plague’s rise and fall in infected neighborhoods, these ancient teachings could be a powerful method for finding the true cure, or at least to find a means to lessen the Blue Plague’s deadly impact.
“As demonstration of my conviction, I strongly believe that ensuring our neighborhoods receive clean water for drinking and bathing would greatly prevent the plague’s spread.”
Mild laughter rolled through the ranks of men behind Marcus.
Cornelid responded, “Ah yes, the stories of the magic arches that brought fresh water to the large towns of ancient Rome. Fine for you scholars, but they are at best fables that have no practical value today in the modern era.”
Marcus felt he could say all he could without appearing insane to Cornelid, the other elders, and all stately men in attendance. The young man was now resigned to not being able to convince them to support his cause, to see the impotence of the yellow cape decree.
A weight seemed to fall on Marcus’s shoulders. He could only stand there, clasping his hands in from him, and wait for the inevitable instructions from Cornelid.
“Dear Marcus, I ask again, why don’t you simply assume the yellow cape? You could roam the village, without incident, without distain for your very presence. And this council will look into the matter no more.”
“Grand Elder Cornelid, my answer is still no. I have what I call a proof that yellow capes do not help contain the plague, as I alluded before. I wish to present my evidence, to seek the petition…”
“There shall be no petition. Lord Dectaevius has spoken on the matter, and his wisdom is our truth.”
“There is one truth. Receive the truth from Lord Dectaevius.”
“Given your station and past approvals from our lord, the council grants you three days to don the cape. Failure to comply with the council’s law will mandate a referral of the situation to Lord Dectaevius himself, that his gracious judgement may fall upon you.
“This matter is concluded. Brother Marcus, you are dismissed.”
Cornelid looked down and started reading his parchment again. The assembly hall fell silent. Marcus understood he must now leave, as council rulings were final. He walked out of the assembly and headed to the stairs for the village surface.
As Marcus left the assembly hall, a short, older man caught his attention, standing at a side passage.
“Brother Roberto?” Marcus said.
The older man motioned for Marcus to follow him. There were several guards, but none paid either Roberto or Marcus notice, beyond stepping away slightly from Marcus as he drew near. Roberto was an elder Brother of the Sacred Order, clothed in the Order’s traditional brown robes, and wore a very modest yellow cape. His presence at the town assembly hall level was not unusual.
As Marcus approached, Roberto turned into the side passage, a clear cue for Marcus to follow.
The two started walking together down the winding tunnel, with the younger slowing his pace to match his elder’s.
Roberto did not appear at all to be revolted by Marcus’s presence.
The young Brother asked, “Brother Roberto, why are you here?”
In a whispered tone, Roberto said, “You put on quite a performance back there. Rare is it for someone to show such audacity in front of the Grand Elder. It is my business to be here, and to talk to you, before it’s too late – for you.”
Trying to mimic Roberto’s whisper but still talking louder, Marcus said, “Too late? What could you possibly mean? You know as well as me that the yellow capes are not helping. Is not this the time to stand up for what is truly right?”
Roberto slightly raised his left hand and pushed a calming motion towards the young man.
“My dear boy, your methods are powerful and provide you with great wisdom. But as you just saw, that wisdom can be difficult for the men of Sturtutton to accept. Today, they laughed at you. Tomorrow is difficult to tell.”
“But I know if I could just be granted an audience with Lord Dectaevius, I could persuade him!”
Roberto stopped walking for a moment and Marcus followed his lead. The elder Brother looked down in contemplation. When he starting walking again slowly, he said, “When I was your age, my brother thought as you. Had the same spirit, but for different matters of the time. Gerald was resolute, and a bit stubborn, just like you. He too challenged the elder council of his day.”
“And what happened? Did your brother succeed?” Marcus asked in a hopeful tone.
“Ended up with his head on a pike at the village gate,” Roberto answered, unemotionally.
“Goodness! Would they still do such a thing? Are we not living in a more civilized time?”
“It is rare, but it does happen. Do not take the appearance of peace and prosperity, despite a lingering plague, as society’s tolerance for righteous causes, especially when the people are afraid. And do not underestimate the powers that would be wielded against those who challenge the way the world is…decreed.”
This assertation visibly shook Marcus. He wanted to respond to Brother Roberto, but could not find any retort. Despite the confidence the young man felt in front of the village elders, now hearing the words of his friend and mentor, Marcus felt collapsed.
The two Brothers walked unspoken a while. The torches disappeared as the winding tunnel started to be lit by the outside through wall slits. They were steadily climbing up and now far from the great lodge.
Roberto broke the silence.
“I’ve seen it before. You believe you have the ability to make choices for yourself, to you make your own decisions, based on your own findings, and not be forced into the dictates of others. And even to challenge the ruler’s decrees. It is quite a radical and dangerous concept, though not new.”
“The ancients had a word for it that was declared obscene long ago. Few know it today, and to utter this word out loud will be still to invoke the wrath of the elder council.
“Even in these civilized times.”
Marcus did not respond, but appeared lost in reflection. Roberto later continued.
“The notion has manifested before, in past ages. It flourished, at times, but it has never truly lasted. Still, for those of us that believe, we must remain steadfast. We are the very last to carry this flame, now flicker, of knowledge on the true nature of Man’s spirit. We yearn for it, not to be controlled by a king, or a lord, or even a council.”
“Can you not tell me what this word is, Brother Roberto?”
“In time, you will learn of it, if you so choose the path as I did.”
“Then you believe in this…concept that shall not be named?”
“I believe in it just as much as Gerald did, but I took the longer view whereas he sought…more immediate results.
“By dear boy, do you think I enjoy assuming this cape? It is only so I can blend in, nothing more. So I can continue my work, to continue the cause, from the ever-watching eyes of the elders.
“If I had followed my brother’s path, I would not be here either, to beg you now to stay your hand.”
Marcus asked, “But if comply, as you suggest, will not that be admitting my assertions are wrong?”
“The elders and general populace would take no notice of you after this. Yes, you would have to live with the burden of the compromise, in hopes of helping to carry on what has become a forbidden wisdom, to a time when the lands will be ready to accept it.
“Though I must warn you, that time may be well past both of our lives. It is a patient business we must undertake.”
The men continued their walk, and could now see the end of the tunnel. The faint sounds of villagers could be heard far off.
Marcus said, “You have given me much to think about, Brother Roberto. But still, I feel I must be resolute in forsaking the yellow cape. Even if that means…accepting the consequences.
“Surely, there are others besides you?”
“Yes, there are, but we are spread far and wide. There is safety in dispersal. There is also much you do not know, which was erased from the ancient texts, but knowledge that still lives…underground.”
The elder Brother smiled and waved his hands at the walls.
Roberto continued, “There is much you could learn, and perhaps you will use that wisdom to bring light to truth.”
“Like what? What is there else to learn?”
“In many ways, the ability to choose by one’s own will has a great weakness when applied to public rule. It has an innate antithesis for controlling governmental authority. Greek democracies and the Roman Republic all made their own attempts to manifest this will for society at large, but in the end, they all failed.
“There was one experiment, in the distant past now that, incredibly, attempted to leverage that very controlling government apparatus for the securing of Man’s…ability to choose his own destiny.”
Marcus stopped walking.
“Brother Roberto, why is this experiment not known to me?”
“You have never heard of it, because it was erased from history.”
“Did this experiment have a name?” asked Marcus.
“Of course, but it also must never be said outside of these walls, at least in any of our lifetimes while this dark age of ignorance and hysteria persist.”
“Please, Brother Roberto, I must know, what did they called this fabled experiment, to aid the individual in pursing his own will?”
“The name is now only passed by word of mouth, as it is too dangerous to write. We refer to the experiment as Amreca.”
“And what happened to it? Who tried Amreca?”
Roberto answered, “Amreca wasn’t so much a trial as it was a place, likely a kingdom, or at least a gathering of many villages. Some of us believe we are within its ancient borders right now.
“It prospered greatly, at least for a time, and was said to be a model for all other kingdoms.”
“So why was it so dangerous that it had to be erased from all knowledge?”
“A tale for another time, my dear boy. One step must happen first. See, the village awaits. And more importantly, right now, Brother Marcus, you have a choice.”
“And the choice is indeed mine. The will is mine. I see that now.”