Frithstool, Frithing Stool - A seat in churches near the altar, to which offenders formerly fled for sanctuary. [Written variously fridstool, freedstool, etc.] [Obs.]
I seek sanctuary.
Cold, damp air permeates the church where we wait. Gusty winds beat against the churches' shuttered windows and night falls across the land.
My head swims with exhaustion and my muscles burn with cramp.
I will not give up.
He waits with me, for me, his ebon cloak blending into the shadows at the back of the church. He waits for me to give up, to fail.
I will not fail.
Muscles aching, lips cracked and bleeding, tongue swollen from lack of drink, I wait, secure in the knowledge that as long as I bide on the Frithing stool he cannot touch me. I have almost finished my penance, almost secured my freedom. He does not acknowledge me, nor do I expect him to. After all, there is nothing he can say or do as long as I remain on the stool.
I am safe.
We stare at each other, my pursuer and I. I fled from him for years, though always I knew he would someday find me. I waited - oh, how long I waited for his arrival.
Six days ago he came.
He rode out of the forest, his steed pacing silently through the autumn fog. His horse seemed no more substantial than the unusual midday mist swirling around its legs.
The moment I saw him I began to run. I sped into town, my heels pounding against the cobblestones with a rhythm no less frantic than that of my heart. I had to be swift or my plan would not succeed.
Through the marketplace I ran. Past the innkeeper trading gossip with the bowyer, past the tavern's cook dickering loudly with the fishmonger, past the tanner and butcher and cooper setting up their stalls for the day's business. Heads turned and eyes popped as I raced past. My neighbors called to me, asking why I ran, but I heeded them not.
I could not stop, would not stop, for he was near.
I knew, none better, how quickly he moved. I heard his horse behind me, hooves clattering lightly over the cobblestones. He was close, so close that I imagined I could feel his breath on the back of my neck.
And so in terror I ran faster, faster, using every ounce of strength I possessed to reach my goal.
Gasping for breath, I bounded up the steps to the church and through the door. He was behind me, I could hear him, feel him.
Only a few steps away, so near, so near.
One last burst of speed as I raced up the aisle. Wind whirled with me through the doorway, accompanied me to the altar. There was my goal, only a few feet away.
The Frithing stool.
I sank gratefully onto the stool, one hand pressed against the stitch in my side.
I was safe. I looked up in time to see my pursuer hesitate at the door. Finally, he sat down in the very last pew. We stared at each other until the priest hurried from the back, startled by the noise in his normally quiet church.
"What are you doing?" he asked me.
"I seek sanctuary," I told the priest, repeating the words my grandfather had taught me so long ago. "I invoke the sanctuary of the Frithing stool."
"What did you say?" the priest asked, staring at me as if I had grown two heads.
"I invoke the sanctuary of the Frithing stool," I said. When still the priest goggled at me like a witless goose, I grew short with him.
"No one, no matter his crimes, may be denied sanctuary while he sits on the Frithing stool," I told the faith-ridden fool impatiently. "If the pursued passes seven days and seven nights without food or sleep there, he is free. Is this not so?"
The priest nodded reluctantly. "It is so," he agreed. "You must bide for seven days and seven nights to secure freedom."
The priest frowned. "Who pursues you? And why?"
"There is my pursuer." I pointed to the back of the church. The priest's eyes widened. "And you know why."
"So be it," the priest finally said. "You are granted sanctuary." The priest looked one more time at the dark figure sitting at the back of the church. "God be with you as you do your penance," the priest said slowly, "for you will need him."
I watched the priest scurry away like the frightened mouse that he was. I didn't need his god or his useless blessing. I didn't care that I was alone with my pursuer.
According to the law, so long as I remained on the Frithing stool I was safe. In seven days I would be free. I had no doubt that I could complete the penance. Indeed, I had been preparing for this day for a long time.
Time passed slowly as I waited. The villagers came to gawk at me but I ignored them. Eventually their visits stopped, partly because I refused to speak to them and partly from the stench from my voided bowels. Finally, the priest sent his acolyte to slosh water around the stool so as to clean up my waste.
Gods, the torture of watching even that fetid water slide past my feet. The temptation to wet my lips was great but I persevered. I knew the law, none better. It was just as well that after the third day without food or water there was nothing left to pass through my weary body.
On the fifth day it began to rain. A leak in the roof and a persistent drip on my head nearly drove me insane.
My pursuer whispered, "Open your mouth. Ease your thirst."
I ignored him. Not yet. Only when I had won, when I was free, would I yield. I bore the maddening distraction, intent upon my goal.
Lack of food and sleep took its toll. I imagined demons strolling about the nave, angels flying through the stained glass windows and back out again.
Choirs singing heavenly hosannas caroled from the rafters, damned souls screaming for mercy echoed from the crypts. I ignored them and waited, waited, waited on my small cramped seat.
Now seven days and seven nights have almost passed. I am only hours away from freedom. I am in agony, yet I will not give up.
Stormclouds keep the interior of the church so dark that I cannot tell day from night. Only the ringing of the church bells and my foresight in plucking a strand of hair from my head each time the bell tolls twelve allows me to track the time I have spent on this damnable stool. Noon it was when I entered the church and laid the first hair on the altar behind me. Twelve hairs lie behind me now.
I am going to win.
I dwell on my impending freedom, imagining my exultant exit from the church. Oh, the things I will do when I am free. Never again to worry about my foe, never again to wake in the middle of the night listening for his step. Never again, never again...
My head nods and I nearly tumble from the stool. My pursuer leans forward. I glare at him even as I resettle myself. I will stop these idle thoughts, for I must not fall asleep. I will not give in, I will not fail -- not when I am so close to success.
Success. Success is sweet, sweeter than summer peaches, sweeter than autumn wine, sweet, sweet . . .so sweet to have wine moisten my lips and fill my empty belly…soon, very soon. . .
What? What was that?
Demons take me, but I must've dozed again. I count the fading echoes of bells. Eight, nine, ten. Ten? Surely I remember ten bells from the previous ringing? I count on my fingers. Yes, yes, I'm right, I'm sure I'm right - ten strokes told the hour before. What is most important though, is though I obviously drowsed, I stayed on the Frithing stool.
What? Bells again?
With a weary sigh I pluck one last strand of hair from my head and lay it on the floor. Thirteen strands of hair, of life, of freedom lie in front of me. My seven days of torment are nearly complete.
All that is left is for dawn to peep through the shuttered windows and I will be free.
The seventh day will soon arrive. I know it. Despite fatigue and my body's cramped misery, I watch the windows eagerly.
Is that a glow? The windows blur as I strain to see. Suddenly I shout with triumph. Yes! There is light and it is growing stronger, tumbling through the slats of the shutters, creeping across the floor as the sun rises outside.
I have done it! I have survived my penance. He cannot touch me now. I am free.
My pursuer rises as I stumble painfully towards the door. I don't care that pain is stabbing through my legs and feet, I am laughing, chortling with glee. I have done it,
I have won.
Blood streams down my chin as a jubilant grin splits my dry and cracked lips.
My pursuer is gracious in his defeat, bowing low as I walk through the door. I lift my face to greet the newborn day and . . .
It cannot be.
A full moon hangs over the village. I can see the last vestiges of storm clouds scudding away to the west and the glow of bonfires all through the village and in the oak grove.
It is All Hallows Eve.
The moon's golden light spills over me, bright as day. The church bell begins to ring.
One, two, three.
I shake my head in confusion.
Four, five, six.
This cannot be.
Seven, eight, nine.
I won, I know I won.
Ten, eleven, twelve.
I turn to run back to the Frithing stool, to safety, to sanctuary.
I am too late.
My enemy's hand closes on my shoulder. I have time for one last despairing wail as his black cloak envelops me.
I seek sanctuary.
His voice murmurs in my ear as he bears me away on his pale horse.
There is no sanctuary from Death.
© Teri Smith 1999-2006