As they rode toward Adalgray, Sebastian felt a rush of excitement and apprehension. The king had just given him leave to do the thing he had been burning to do for the last seven years—to kill Konrad. If Konrad resisted, Sebastian was empowered to take him, alive or dead, and if Konrad’s character ran true to form, it might very well have to be the latter.
“The sand in the ointment, Archambald, is that we only have two hundred men—good men, to be sure, some of Charlemagne’s own personal entourage of warriors and the bulk of our own best trained warriors. Still, if we can’t get in through the gate, we will have no hope of taking the fortress by storm. Konrad is an experienced and formidable fortress commander. Adalgray is as good a stronghold as any, and we have no siege equipment whatsoever.”
“You have a plan, don’t you, Sebastian?” said Archambald, with a note of alarm. “I can see it in your eyes. You’re going to challenge him, aren’t you?”
“Well, what else will work, Archambald? Confound it. I can’t go back without having tried.”
“Yes, you can,” Archambald exclaimed emphatically. “You know what kind of a killer Konrad is, and he’d certainly relish killing you. The king knows you don’t have siege machinery. I don’t know what he was thinking when he sent you.”
“The king was distraught and angry. All he could think of was punishing those responsible for the Suntel massacre. Good God, we lost Adalgis and Gailo! Both of them were the king’s friends and close advisors, and five other counts died as well. When was the last time a disaster like that occurred? No wonder he’s angry. It won’t do at all if I go back empty-handed and the king has to come here and deal with Konrad himself. I don’t want to fail him. Besides, it’s high time Konrad was brought down.
“Aye, Sebastian—but not by you, and not by any two hundred men without siege equipment. It’s insane. Just ride up to the gate and tell him what the king wants. Offer to escort him. Don’t make it sound too bad and, for God’s sake, don’t make him mad. You won’t get anywhere, except maybe dead, if you do that.”
“What do you think, Liudolf? What should I do?”
As usual, Liudolf’s answer was short, to the point, and decisive. “You must do what you have to do, Sebastian. The king sent you to bring Konrad back.” If Konrad would not open the gates, Sebastian’s only recourse would be to challenge him to single combat.
It was a long ride to Adalgray from Paderborn, made longer by Sebastian’s growing conviction that death awaited him at the end of the road. No matter how he tried to distract his thoughts from that awareness, his mind kept returning to the finality that this journey represented. Hour after hour, with nothing to do except think of the coming confrontation, Sebastian’s initial excitement turned to foreboding and then to fear.
The final day of the trip was warm, his armor uncomfortable. He began to sweat, not only from the heat of the day and the weight of the chain mail but from thoughts of the coming confrontation. He felt sick to his stomach.
Konrad was formidable—more than formidable. He had never been beaten in a fight, and he delighted in killing. Sebastian saw himself going down before Konrad’s blows, heard his curses, and felt his hatred as he was being hammered into the ground. As the horses cantered or trotted along, sweat dripped into his eyes, and the dread in his bowels filled him with self-doubt and depression.
In mid afternoon, the troop dismounted and walked to give the horses a rest. Eventually, the heat, the sameness of the road, and the rhythm of trudging along in the relative stillness of the surrounding forest lulled Sebastian into a strange waking dream—a vision, actually. He never lost consciousness or felt that he was having an "out-of-body" experience, but it was as if everything else faded away as he plodded along, putting one foot in front of the other. He was not even sure how long it lasted, but the vision was uncannily real. It became for him one of the most profound spiritual experiences of his life.
As on the pilgrimage when he had became so ill, the important characters in his life appeared in his vision, one by one.
Heimdal was the first. “The fault of violence,” the blind man expounded, “is that it only begets more violence. Where does it end?”
The king then appeared, sitting on his throne. Sebastian spoke to him passionately, “Sire, I’m tormented about continuing to fight for you against the Saxons. To what purpose? Just so you can crush yet another tribe of people and force them on pain of death to bow in deceit before the cross? What would be the price of that in terms of blood and death for so many?” The king continued to sit silently with no expression.
Father Louis appeared. “Your sin, my son, is that you are trying to run away from your disappointment. Your life has not worked out the way you wanted, so you presume to blame God for that, assuming that you know better than God. That is a sin of pride. There is no joy in you in spite of all that God has given you. That is a sin against God’s goodness.”
“What joy can there be for me, Father? I have lost Adela and all my family. All I do is work and fight. I have nothing to look forward to.”
The priest faded away and Ermengard took his place. “Sebastian, my beloved son, don’t be afraid, don’t grieve. Look at all the good you have already done with your life. Look at Fernshanz. You care about your people, and they are no longer starving. In fact, they even prosper now. You have so much promise; even the king listens to you. You are a window to those around you, and your vision changes the way others look at things. It can change the way things are.”
“What if Konrad kills me, mother?” Sebastian asked. “All that is lost, isn’t it?”
The face of his mother changed smoothly into that of Adela. “Sebastian. I will be with you, no matter what you do. It doesn’t matter to me whether you win or lose. If you love me, you will do what is right. That is enough. I will always love you.”
The image of Adela was replaced by the slight figure of Father Pippin. “Most of us, Sebastian, are simply echoes of those who went before us. We repeat their sins, we ape their mistakes, and we embrace their flawed way of life. The hardest thing in the world is to be different from those around us. But nothing changes unless one chooses a different path. You know that because you are different. Do you suppose God put you here for nothing? Have faith that you have a purpose, and God will not let you fail. Have faith!”
Upon coming to his senses, Sebastian was astonished at how real the dream had seemed and how clearly he could still recall it. He began to feel better. The fear he had felt before fell away from him, and he found that he could submerge his foreboding into thanksgiving and the routine of the march. His usual confidence began to return and he became almost light-hearted. At the end of the road, he would simply do his duty, whatever it turned out to be, and that would be enough, whatever the outcome.