The Tolling of the Iron Bell

By John Kaniecki

The iron bell rang penetrating every nook and cranny of the village. Roosters roused from their sleep and ‘cockadoodled’ in a bold chorus. Soon the sheep, goats, and cattle were merrily joining in. To the peasants of the Duchy of the Gentle Hills, the resulting impromptu performance was one of dark despair, for with their intelligent human minds, they knew the significance of the tolling of the iron bell. It was the harbinger of death and the worst kind of death, at that.

Mourac, like all the other serfs in the village, was roused from his sleep. His wife, Karen, slept there at his side, comfortable and untouched by the tolling of the iron bell. She must be awakened. There was no choice in the matter. All of the peasants were required to be present for the ritual. There would be no exceptions. Failure to comply meant death and a demise, not by any pleasant means, for the clergy were not only skilled in the oratory preaching of the word of God, but also in the implicating of His terrible wrath.

“Come, Karen, come,” spoke Mourac firmly as he shook his wife’s shoulder. “You must arise.”

The beautiful young woman stirred in her bed. She clutched at her blanket, repositioning it over herself to capture more warmth. Then she turned to her side, still adrift in the pleasant seas of sleep. Mourac felt sorry that he must disturb his beloved, especially for such a dreaded event. But sometimes life leaves you with no choice.

“COME KAREN, COME,” Mourac cried out in agony, “you must awaken. Don’t you hear the tolling of the iron bell?” The strong words were accompanied by the shaking of his slender wife. She flopped like a rag doll upon the bed.

“Good Lord, Mourac,” cried Karen, suddenly at her full senses. “Has there been another death?”

“Truly, my dear, do you not hear the tolling of the iron bell for yourself?”
“May God deliver us, it would be the third to perish this week.” Karen was full of sorrow.

“And the week is not over yet,” her husband grimly added.

“I wonder who has perished during this night?” she asked.

“We shall find out soon enough, shall we not?” Mourac spoke these words as he arose from of his makeshift bed. It was no more than a cloth laid over several bales of hay. Still, it served its purpose.

Karen stretched out her limbs and let out a grand yawn, like a lion roaring. Inwardly, she prepared to deal with the misery of the day. Every day they heard the tolling of the iron bell it was a miserable one. There had been no exceptions. Amassing all her courage, she rose to approach the upcoming ritual. Bad enough their kinfolk were dropping like flowers come winter, but to have to endure the ceremony, well, that was a matter on a scale of misery on its own.

Soon the sounds of the villagers from various other huts were merging in an ever increasing noise. One by one they poured out of their doors. Some would greet others with a wave or a faint ‘hello’, but none of the serfs dared raise their voices too loud. It was frowned upon by the Lord Keison, though this rule was frequently ignored and wavered by any in authority. When it came to the ritual, it was enforced strictly, but there can be no stopping facial expression, and certainly the despair sunk deep in the eyes of the peasants told volumes of stories.

So they began their dark pilgrimage to the church building. There they walked with a slow pace, enduring the noise of the tolling of the iron bell. The serfs’ heads turned in every direction, twisting to great lengths. Mentally, they were making a list of their comrades. All this in an attempt to ascertain which of the colleagues had perished in the night. Truly, the plague did its devilish work at a most rapid speed, for as evening fell upon the village, none of the poor were even ill. So today was a double agony. In addition to the sorrow, there was shock.

“Klang, klang, klang,” the tolling of the iron bell taunted the peasants, for it was a mocking that none could respond to. It was the announcer of death and none in humanity had an answer or cure for that malady. All the peasants could do was follow the routine as instructed, and so they walk in the misery of the morning.

Mourac labored forward with his wife hand in hand. They had very little in this world, except each other. Their possessions were scant, consisting literally of the clothes on their backs. Their humble hut, its straw bed, and modest cooking equipment belonged to Lord Keison. In fact, the serfs themselves were considered property. Truly, it was a life of savage servitude. Still, the peasants had one another, but there was little they could do to help each other. The wages for their ceaseless toil was just enough food to live upon. Many a night they would go to bed with a gnawing hunger in their bellies. In another world, nestled behind stone walls, protected by knights in armor and bearing swords, lived the nobility. Though none of the peasants had ever ventured there, it was common knowledge that those of nobility were never hungry. In fact, they had more food than they could eat, or even desire. Surely they wore the finest of clothing; that was witnessed by all the villagers. Never had they the rags of the serfs.

Across the horizon, behind the stone church building, the sky was a rosy red. Already, the chill in the air was on a prompt retreat. While at dawn, the sun was a happy fellow to see he wore out his welcome at noon. At around that time, the day star in its fury, inflicted the workers of the field with its savage heat. Cultivating the fields was a trudging labor. It would have been acceptable, if only the Lord did not take the bounty of the harvest. Still, no matter what ill will was harbored in their hearts, the peasant must bow before their Earthly master.

From a distance, Mourac could see the fat abbot dressed in his brown robes. The sight of the man discouraged Mourac almost as much as the tolling of the iron bell. At least the words of the cleric would be varied. They would tell them of God and his rich mercy. He would speak of sin. Any who perished by the plague was relegated to the worst of the worst. Reason being that God was ripe in justice. He would dare not rob the Earth of some righteous man prematurely. Then, he would urge the peasants to maintain their faith and persevere. With the deaths of the servants, they had to work all the more diligently in the fields. The good of all depended upon it. That was the word of God and God, of course, could not be questioned.

‘But what of the priest?’ raged Mourac’s angry mind. That was a man who had the sweetest of lives. On usual weeks he only worked on Sundays. True, he would also preside over weddings and funerals. However, for his services, his greedy hand was extended for some extra padding. This was extremely harsh, as the man of plenty was making demands of those possessing nothing. Yet, the price had to be paid, did it not? Nothing worked in the world for free, except the peasants.

Of course, as of late, the monk was laboring quite profusely. With each and every death, the holy man had to perform the ritual. It was rumored that it was necessary to keep the malevolence of the plague in check. Still, week after week, with all consistency somebody had perished. If anything, the tolling of the iron bell had increased in its occurrence. Mourac believed that the priest, and all his religion, was a crock of cow manure. He had expressed these words to his beloved wife, Karen. Upon hearing this she giggled and said boldly, “I’m surprised you gave the priest so much credit, even cow manure is useful for fertilizer.” The pair then shared a grand private laugh. To express those thoughts publically would earn the couple two one-way trips in pine boxes to the land of no return.

Finally, after the long, solemn journey, the entire population of peasants was assembled. The number was around five hundred. Each and every serf knew the name of their brethren. They were baptized into one body in the murky waters of destitute poverty. Amongst them were no superiors, only fellows of suffering. The abbot peered down from his height upon the stone stairs of the church. From this vantage point, he could view the entire crowd. The priest, along with the nobility, scarcely knew the names of any serf. Instead, they were addressed with a cry of “you there”.

Whenever the upper class beckoned, the serfs had to respond. It mattered not what the circumstance was. The peasants had to drop whatever they were doing and heed to the command. Any disobedience was met with severe punishment. Perhaps the chastisement would be a brutal whipping. For more severe transgressions, a horrid death awaited as a reward. The dogs in the Lord’s castle lived a far better life. They ate better and for punishment, they were simply scolded.

Mourac scowled silently at the whole ordeal. Inside the open church doors, he viewed the ornate decorations. The fancy statues and stain glass windows spoke volumes about position and place. God, who was unseen, had this marvelous house. The peasants, who provided the realm with sustenance, had nothing. The walls of the church were lined with gold, while the peasants’ clothes did not even have pockets to hold a scant copper coin.

The priest carefully observed the crowd. Finally, he must have been satisfied that all the peasants were, indeed, in attendance. On some performances of the rituals, some of the knights searched the village to ensure that the whole population was in attendance. Gork, a very elderly man, was ill at one gathering. As such, he was physically incapable of even making the journey to the church, let alone to stand for the priest’s extensive cackling. When the good soldiers found him, they sent him away from this world with the slice of a sword. The peasants dared not raise a voice. Any such infraction of declaring cruel injustice would have resulted in a penalty equal, or worse, to Gork’s.

The priest, as so many times before, raised his arms in the air. The peasants, already still and quiet, grew into an absolute silence. The only sound in the early morning were the hushed breaths and beating hearts of the masses. The tolling of the iron bell had ceased for a moment. It would be quiet until the cleric’s sermon had finished. All the peasants prepared to suffer. More curious was the question of the identity of the fellow who had perished.

“Dearly beloved we are, indeed, full of sorrow on this morn,” the priest cried out in a pitiful wail. The crowd was in shock. The words of the ritual were exact. There was no deviation of even a single syllable from the norm. What was stunning, was that when the priest pronounced his words on this occasion, they were drenched with remorse. On usual recitals of the ritual, the words were hollow and empty.

Mourac nudged his wife Karen and looked into her eyes. The couple had been married for almost six years. In that time they had grown very close. They spent every waking moment together mostly laboring in the fields, and slept upon the same lumpy, makeshift bed.  As a result, they could speak without words. ‘Here’s something new,’ signaled Mourac. ‘Indeed it is,’ replied Karen. They shared a smile.

“I am so sad to say that Lord Keison’s son, Koctor, has left the land of the living and has been carried by the angels into the bosom of Abraham.” With those words, a murmur arose from the gathered congregation. Foremost, the whole slant of the death of a slanderous sinner had been recreated as a righteous man headed to glory. To Mourac, Karen, and many others in the crowd, it just showed the hypocrisy at the core of the church. To the rest of the peasants, there is no helping some people.

The priest continued and began a tale of lament for the dearly departed child of the Lord of the land. He shed tears, real tears! Something the peasants had never experienced from the plump pastor. In fact, when he gave a eulogy for serfs, it seemed as if he had a countenance corrupted with a mocking grin of joy. As if the priest was delighted that one of the peasants was gone. Now, when it touched home, the remorse was as evident as the massive stone church building before them.

In deep respect, the peasants stood silently. Their dark faces showed little emotion as the priest espoused upon the righteousness of the departed Koctor. A smile did not emerge on the peasants’ faces, as all the wonderful things of heaven were portrayed. To the peasants, heaven sounded much like Earth, from the experience of the nobility. Finally, after a long, laborious sermon, the final ‘amen’ of the last prayer was uttered. The assembly was dismissed to go into the fields and earn their living.

As one body, the peasants turned back to whence they came. Once more came the tolling of the iron bell. For once, Mourac, Karen, and many others heard a song of joy.

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