The familiar sight of the plateau ahead added wings to Brother Finn’s weary feet. He’d had to leave his mule behind long ago. Looming suddenly out of the night was Debre Damo, the only home he’d ever known. He loved it down to the very stones; its rich history, its isolation and its soaring proximity to the heavens. That love, though, once pure and untouched by any other concerns, was colored now by the knowledge he’d gained of the wider world. He had traveled now, across distances unheard of, to places he couldn’t possibly describe to the cloistered brethren within. He’d seen the Rock of Gibraltar with his own eyes. He’d been to Marrakech and back. It made him a little sad to think that he had grown so much while home remained the same. But that was a thought for prayer and meditation.
For now, his mandate was to rest here at home, briefly, and report to the abbot before delivering the work that had been entrusted to him. He was proud of this task and his success in completing it. His scholarship and facility with languages had been praised by the abbot, to a degree that Finn found embarrassing, when news that the Hatse was seeking a messenger had reached them here. The priest-king of their land, heir to Presbyter Johannes himself, needed a trustworthy soul, and he had been chosen! It was nearly unheard of for a monk to leave this place. He still wasn’t certain how he had been selected or how permission had been granted, but the trip had been a gift from God and the most amazing experience of his life.
A few owls serenaded him as he approached the bottom of the cliff. Someone would be there to man the rope. The brothers had promised him that one of them would keep vigil there until he was back safe among the brethren. He was not ashamed of having shed tears over that kindness.
He stopped at the foot of the cliff below the spot where he knew the rope lay. “Selam!” he called, voice clear in the still darkness.
A few beats, and he heard a well-loved voice call “Selam, wenidime! Hello, my brother!” It was Brother Novenario; so named as the last of nine children, an oblate just like himself. They’d shared a room in the dormitory for years, the closest of friends. A hissing noise announced the deployment of a braided leather rope; checking to make sure his precious burden was safe in his satchel, he began the ascent.
What seemed like ages later, muscles burning, he reached the top. He was greeted with much back-thumping and cheerful examination, then held out at arms’ length. “Let me look at you. Well, you don’t seem to have taken any harm out there in the world, brother. You must tell me of all the wondrous sights you have seen. But first; food, drink, rest and prayer. Was your mission successful?” Novenario’s eyes searched his face. The sounds of chanting, accompanied by drums and sistra, drifted across the plateau along with the scent of frankincense, pure and evocative.
“It’s so good to see and hear you again, brother! Yes, it was. I’ve brought a gift from the King of England himself. I’ll have to go again tomorrow to send it on its way to the Hatse, long may he reign for the glory of God. Look, my friend!”
He couldn’t contain his pride. He drew the gorgeously bound and jeweled volume out of his satchel, heavier than he would have thought for its size, and unwrapped the fine cloth that protected it. He opened it so Novenario could drink in the beautiful illuminations and the unusual marginalia, both of which he hadn’t been able to resist studying during the journey back from Marrakech. It was a copy of the Gospels of St. Augustine, the Englishman had told him when he received the book in Marrakech; wondrous in the precision and artistry of its lettering, with angels and demons and creatures of all kinds bordering its pages. He'd opened it to the Gospel of Luke.
The Evangelist was depicted as a wise and diligent scribe, haloed as he did God’s work. He was accompanied by his customary symbol of a winged bull. But here the artist had allowed himself some creative leeway; this bull resembled an older man, who seemed displeased with the world. There was a suggestion of greying hair and a beard. The eyes were searching, as though you’d got yourself in trouble, and the wings were tiny and ineffectual. He thought he might like the scribe who’d created this book.
He was prepared for an intense response; Novenario was as interested in all things scholarly as he was, but not for the reaction that followed. His friend’s eyes leapt from picture to picture as he turned the pages, then suddenly narrowed. He’d reached the depiction of a demon that appeared in the margins throughout the book; a threatening creature always surrounded by flames and smoke.
“Who made this?!”, he demanded. “This is forbidden. No outsider is to know the form of the Infiltrator, he that is wreathed in flames and cloaked in soot, the hidden adversary. He is to live only in the minds and spirits of those lucky enough to hear his voice from the depths. Who gave this to you? Traitor!” He snatched the book from Brother Finn’s hands, and to his further horror, drew a blade from within his robes. He began muttering. Finn didn’t think the words were meant for him. “Yes, of course. He must be eliminated. And the illicit images burned. Our work cannot be done if you are revealed to the world. We must work secretly from within. Fire is cleansing. I understand, my Lord.”
The knife was waving between them, glinting dangerously in the torchlight. TORCHLIGHT. Finn couldn’t let Novenario destroy the book, this gift meant for the Hatse himself, this divinely inspired work. He reached to take the book back from his friend. Novenario must be ill. He would have be restrained until prayer and medicine could heal him.
Finn felt a sharp pain stitch its way across his belly as they struggled for the book. He stood stock-still for a moment, frozen as he watched a line of red appear at the front of his robes. He put his hand to the wound and found it painted with blood. His brother, his best friend, had just tried to take his life. Their positions reversed as they fought, Finn receiving a few shallow cuts as he tried to hold the knife away from himself and take back the book that seemed to have turned his friend’s mind.
With a wrench and a grunt of effort, he made one last attempt to wrest the volume from Novenario’s grasp and lost his grip. The frenzied monk seemed to hang in the air for a few seconds, knife in one hand, book in the other, no hand left to try for the rope. Brother Finn reached to save his friend and was left holding nothing as Brother Novenario disappeared into the darkness in eerie silence. He didn’t even scream.
Finn knew it was useless. It was a fall of 20 pics or more. Still, gut stinging with the wound he hadn’t had time to properly feel, let alone examine; mind reeling with the events of the past few minutes, he slid as quickly as he dared down the braided cord. What he found at the foot of the cliff broke him. He could do nothing for a time but sit, arms wrapped around his knees, keening as he rocked back on his heels and stared at the ruin of his friend and brother.
Reason asserted itself before too long. He had to at least get the book. Then see if he could explain what had happened here. That would be hard. Who was going to believe that a book had driven Novenario mad? He wouldn’t believe what he’d just seen himself if it hadn’t happened to him. The truth. Truth was the best course.
He found the book a few feet away, mercifully intact aside from a few loose pages and a stray gem or two, which he carefully collected. The wooden boards of its binding, covered in leather, had cracked but had faithfully protected the contents. He reached for it without thinking, leaving a red imprint of his own hand on the leather of the cover. And as he touched it, images began to invade his mind.
He saw a great, looming figure which seemed to be formed of smoke and ash. He saw a young man, pale of face and dark of hair, saturnine, haunted. He saw a slender figure, like a ray of light, something like a sword in its fist, step between the young man and the...demon. There was no other word. The young man, now faltering under a rush of dark wings, the radiant being unfurling great pinions of its own; they were doomed without his help.
He saw oceans between them; he could smell the salt air, as he had on his great journey. It didn’t matter. He didn’t know what he was meant to do or the reason for their fight, but he knew he must be beside them when it happened. He knew, without any idea how, that he must find the one who had penned this book and that this would lead him to the confrontation for which he was destined. And he knew that they would fail without him.
He spared a moment to mourn. He mourned his brother and friend. He mourned the peace of the simple life he’d led. He mourned this place, the life’s work of Abuna Aregawi, called Za’Mikael, guided there by the Archangel Michael himself, the jewel of the church and his heart’s home. He doubted he would ever return. Then he shook himself out of his remaining fugue, bound his wound with strips from the edge of Novenario’s ruined robe, and packed the book back in his satchel. He spared a last glance for the complex atop the outcropping, and loped off toward Aksum. He had work to do.
Rey was scrubbing the floor on hands and knees, edging ever closer to the door so she could hear the master talking business. They were talking and haggling late into the night, and she was bone-tired, but she got her education where she could find it. The master certainly wasn’t going to pay for it. She knew his motto by heart, what the other merchants called him when he wasn’t listening: Nunca plata, siempre oro. Never silver, always gold. Silver just wasn’t good enough for him. So she lurked in doorways and listened to the talk. She was beginning to pick up some Latin as he spoke with foreign merchants from the four corners of the world; not much, but something was always more than nothing. Maybe that could be her motto. She was tired of living on scraps.
And then it hit her. Her soul was filled with light. She rose up to her knees alone, as though held aloft by the vision pinning her in place. Strange figures and fantastic beasts danced across her inner eye. A dark figure, somehow sad, struggled with a bigger, more dangerous foe that whispered in its ear. She wanted cry out not to listen, to fight, to call on the warrior who stood nearby waiting. She saw water, vast, immeasurable distances of churning water that lay between her and the one who needed saving. She’d heard talk of ocean voyages, but she herself had never seen the sea. She felt as though she wanted to fly, to join the fight, as though she could grow wings, like the falcon she’d once seen on the arm of a fine lady. But how could she help? She was no one.
And she saw words. She knew they were words. She couldn’t read, but she’d seen the master’s business papers often enough. She had no idea what language it was; she didn’t even know the shapes of letters. Despite this, the pages continue to compile themselves in her mind, beasts and men and other, stranger shapes cavorting across the phantom text until they settled themselves into their places in the margins. It was an entire book. She could see it, touch it, smell it in her mind, turn the pages in her inner vision. She had no idea what it was or why it had come to her.
The *splat* of the soapy brush hitting the floor brought her back to her senses. She was still kneeling, arms outstretched to either side like wings. The master and the merchants he’d been meeting were standing in the doorway staring at her.
“What are you doing? Stupid thing.” He casually backhanded her. “Always lazing about and daydreaming. One of these esteemed gentleman could have slipped in the water and the soap.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I was... stretching my back, sir. Sorry, sir.” She mustn’t let anyone know what she’d seen. They’d think her mad, or fiend-ridden, or worse...she’d be accused of witchcraft. She would be quiet, and obedient, and still, and go unnoticed. She’d gotten very good at that in the years since her mother and father had given up and sold her to this disgusting bastard.
“No one cares about what you’re doing or your back, you useless creature! Make sure the floors are safe for these important visitors and then scuttle off to busy yourself where we don’t have to look at you, else you’ll not eat tonight.” She hated him so much. But his business was her only means to learn.
She would keep learning, and watching, and someday she would have her chance. She’d seen some women who were on their own, merchants who ran their own shops. She’d learned a lot about leather goods over her years of servitude and she rather thought being a glover would suit her. She pushed her fear and the images still spinning in the back of her mind aside and went to work with a will. If she made herself indispensable, he would have to take her with him on his next buying trip. He was far too lazy to do for himself and far too cheap to hire another servant.
Brother Ben woke with a start, thrashing and fighting the empty air. He was safe, here in his dormitorium in the Abbey of St. Augustine, in Canterbury where he belonged. The dream had been different this time. Why?
He’d had these dreams for as long as he’d had conscious memory. Always the same figure; a towering, looming creature of smoke and fire, bending to pin him with its gaze. Always he knelt, caught between apprehension and loathing, but somehow drawn to the creature and the secrets he thought it could teach him. Always he was masked and cloaked, his own face and form hidden even from himself. And always, always alone.
But not tonight. It had started the same way. He knelt, awaiting whatever the creature might have to say, awaiting the images that would pour into his mind, crawl behind his eyes and leak out from his pens and brushes no matter how he tried to resist them. If he so much as thought of trying to break free, to flee or wake, his soul would fill with fire and pain.
But then a figure ran out onto the stark, black stage where it inevitably began. Willow-slim, androgynous, and filled with a light that hurt his eyes but filled him with such longing that he couldn’t look away. The figure interposed itself, standing between him and his tormentor, and he feared that its light would be dimmed, smothered by smoke and ash and darkness. And all those things came, swirling about the...angel, it had to be, with sword of light in its hand. A guardian angel...he didn’t deserve that kind of attention.
He feared for the angel, but it was joined by what could only be a warrior-monk; sturdy, robed and hooded, a faintly glowing quarterstaff deployed to deadly effect against the lesser threats, leaving his angel guarded and free to concentrate its efforts, its light holding back the darkness that threatened to consume him. The angel stood, looking small and frail. And then it opened its wings, like a glorious feathered cloak of light, like the pinions of an immense falcon. As the angel shook its wings into place, his mask was hit with a mist of droplets. Seawater? When he woke, his face was wet and tasted of salt. It was his first glimmer of hope.