West Virginia County Courthouse
September 20, 1634

James Rothrock interrupted his pacing behind the defense table and turned to the rail dividing the room when his old tutor William Oughtred came up to it and leaned across to be heard above the spectators' murmuring.

"Be of good heart, James. 'Tis not a capital charge, after all. But while we wait shall we speak of how it went so wrong?"

James answered sotto voce, "Speak of it? I'm heartily sorry for it all, but what good can come of hashing it all over yet again?"

"You ask that, my young friend? What greater folly than to waste the learning when life presents a lesson at such cost?" He flicked the newspaper in his hand. "The Times captured it in three words. Insufficiently good intentions. You rappelled down the Ringwall to aid Olivia Villareal, yet you failed her in her greatest need."

"William, what should I have done? I brought her the harness to climb up from that cave, as soon as she should recover from the opium Bennet poured into her. Not to mention food, water, and clothing. I thought—

"Think is precisely what you didn't do, James. You let your head be clouded by your own fears. You saw the injury to her arm, you cleaned and bound it. You saw the blood she lost on the cave's floor. Why would you have thought she could climb by herself, mountaineering instructor though she is? You merely hoped—and left open the way for things to go even more wrong than they already were." He glanced meaningfully toward the back of the room. Mrs. Villareal herself wasn't there, but her husband Carlos was, looking like a thundercloud. "And so the rescue fell to me, and to him, and to the firemen, a far harder rescue low on the Wall, where her attempt to descend ended. And all after two lost days searching, while she weakened. Well, the hospital saved her."

"Yes. Yes. For that I thank God."

"As I do. But an even worse failure to think is that you relied on a man who could not be relied on. George Bennet. Though Lord Thomas chose him to accompany you on the journey from Padua to discover why my letters were no longer arriving, you saw with your own eyes his descent into ever greater vice. Into raving madness, at the end. Yet, when you came to speak privately with me, it was Bennet you trusted to keep chance visitors away." He shook his head. "Well, I'll grant that he kept Olivia away when she came to return my notebook. Stole her away, tore her flesh in the doing, shredded her clothing, raped her, dosed her with a pox. Learn this: if ever again you find yourself at the head of some enterprise, be very sure of who you can trust. And with what."

James sighed. "Yes, William, I take your point."

"Good. And finally, the reason we find ourselves standing here. You panicked and fled, leaving behind no word where Olivia was, while hundreds searched. What do you suppose my friend Carlos thought of that? Still thinks?" William brought his fist down softly on the railing. "James, you saw every letter I sent the earl since I came. The letters in which I laid out the laws, the customs, the political philosophy of these people, and the society they have built together. Why did you think Bennet's crimes would fall on your head? Can you deny that you have been treated with scrupulous fairness in this court?"

James cast his eyes down. "No. No, I cannot deny it."

A court official poked his head in, and made a hand signal to the judge and the stenographer.

Oughtred straightened up. "Indeed. And now, I see that we must all take our seats."

The side door opened, and the jurors began filing in. As soon as the last one sat down, Judge Klingermann banged his gavel once, and the place went silent.

"Meine Herren und Damen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"

"Yes, Your Honor. We find the defendant, James Rothrock, guilty as charged. Accessory after the fact of kidnapping and rape. With extenuating circumstances."

James' left hand gripped the back of his lawyer's chair so hard, his knuckles went white.

The judge was speaking again. "James Henry Thomas Rothrock, stand and receive sentence."

And here it came.

"The sentence of this court is that you shall serve the community for one year without pay in lieu of imprisonment. You are remanded to the custody of the West Virginia County Fire Department, which has need of the aptitude you have shown for rope-climbing at great heights. Until your time is served, you shall not leave the fire station's grounds except upon your assigned duties. Do I have your word as an English gentleman that you will abide by this order?"

James swallowed. "Yes, Your Honor. Thank you."

The judge fixed him with a humorless stare. "Good. Because this court has other options." He swung his gaze toward a rugged-looking fireman on a front bench, wearing lieutenant's bars and a small cross on his uniform. "Brother Girard, he's yours."

The following afternoon

The station's kitchen was utterly without adornment and spotlessly clean. It was quiet as the hour came for Nones. One of the rescue team knelt on a small cushion and made his prayers silently, since he was on watch in the station and not in the abbey house next door. When he finished and stood up to stretch, James looked up from the chapter on rescue knots he'd been studying. "If it's not a private matter, Brother Mario, I've been wondering how it is that you and your fellow Benedictine brothers came to join the fire department."

Mario walked over to the stove, where a pot of broth was slowly simmering and dipped out a cup. He stood for a moment, blowing on it. "No, it's not private. In our order we serve God not only through prayer, but also through works in His world for the good of humanity. We took up this service after a terrible fire took more than twenty souls from this world, on the New Year's Eve after He set down Grantville here. Our Brother Johann had just come, on a mission for the order. While comforting the grieving, he came upon a pamphlet telling of another tragic fire in 1963, at a place called St. Vincent's College. Afterward that school's Benedictines took on themselves the service of fire protection for their college and community. Upon reflection, we agreed among ourselves that it would be fitting for us in our time to do likewise. Of course, we serve beside those of other faiths."

"I see. A true Christian work, then. And the reason you've become the greater part of the rope rescue team?"

"There was need. And that's enough about us for the moment. You have your first examination in the morning." He pointed his finger at the textbook.

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- The Grantville Gazette Staff