The bells in the abbey tower fell silent. Brother Robierre had hurried off to the chapter house for the monks’ daily meeting, and Brother Anselm had retired to his herb garden, closing the infirmary door softly behind them so as not to wake me. I heaved a deep and pleasurable sigh.
On this second day of trying to sleep away my wounds in Gillarine’s infirmary, I had only three complaints of any substance. Firstly, the bells. Bells banged every hour day or night and set off a cacophony whenever the brothers were called to services, which seemed fifty times a day. Second, the shy lay brother Anselm devoutly believed that one window must always be left open in an infirmary to allow ill humors to escape the room, which caused a frigid draft whenever the outside door was opened. And third, endearing as I found Brother Badger, as I called the good infirmarian, a sick man should be exempt from excess praying. Feigning sleep was my only reprieve.
I tugged the blankets over my bare shoulder, luxuriated in the returning warmth from the hearth, and speculated about what delicacy the good brothers would bring from the abbey kitchens to fill my invalid’s stomach. I had always been a quick healer, but the brothers didn’t need to know that. Life was good.
“Comfortable, are you?”
My eyelids slammed open to reveal the abbot’s attendant sitting on the bedside stool. I’d heard not a step or a breath.
“Brother Gildas! How did you—?” Recalling my position as aspiring novice and the tedious duties that were like to involve the moment I was well enough, I checked my tongue and allowed my breath to quaver bravely. “Well, Brother, I’m as comfortable as a man can be with fever shakes and septic blood and holes in his flesh where there should be none. Bless you for asking.”
His dark brows lifted, and he pulled a wedge of cheese from under my pillow. “We’ll feed you even when you’re healed, Valen. And you needn’t fear I’ll tell the abbot that your devotions are perhaps more directed to his kitchen and his bed than his church at present. Every man here has his own reasons for piety.”
“The bounty of the good god is a fit occasion for thanksgiving,” I said a bit defensively, tucking the rest of my cache more securely under my head. “And surely he expects us to conserve that bounty for harder days.”
Perhaps it was their shaven heads that made this man and the abbot appear so intensely focused, their eyes dominant in their hairless skulls as if they might read a man’s very soul. Not that my soul was all that interesting—a man of seven-and-twenty summers who scrabbled from one job to another, doing as he needed to wrest a bit of enjoyment from a world that seemed worse off by the day. But at least this fellow was near enough my own age that he might remember something of a man’s needs.
“I do hear Iero’s call to the prayerful life quite clearly. But, in truth, Brother Gildas, I am yet a sinful man who enjoys the pleasures of bed and board overmuch. No matter how devoutly my soul yearns to reform, my body forever backslides.”
“And yet our abbot, whose eye is infinitely wise, judges you worthy of initiation. I’ve never known him so precipitate in judgment. He’d have you vowed before Saint Marcillus’s Day, scarcely a fortnight hence.” His head tilted as if to examine me from various angles, his deep-set eyes unwavering. “Well, neither you nor I may see the right of it, but the god scorns none with a good heart. We must have faith that he will illumine yours as he sees fit. Brother Sebastian has been charged with your guidance and instruction, but Father Prior has dispatched him to Pontia to investigate the rumor of two books brought in by traders. So I was asked to bring you these.”
He laid a worn book and a roll of parchment on the bed in front of me. “Your psalter, left by good Brother Horach, who passed to his next life not long ago. And a summary of Saint Ophir’s Rule, which you must commit to memory ere you take your novice vows. Brother Sebastian will discuss them with you upon his return.”
“A dead man’s book?” I said, drawing back from it as far as the heavy bolster allowed.
“He was not diseased, if that’s your worry.”
I had long abjured the soldiers’ maxim that wearing a dead man’s boots or cooking in his pot would see your own life forfeit within a year. Books, as it happened, raised other problems.
“It’s just that…a holy saint’s book…for my eyes that have looked on so much of the Adversary’s wickedness to rest upon such precious pages seems sacrilege. Until I have confessed and labored out the days…months…of expiation, I doubt I could look upon a holy work without it bursting into eternal flame. And such a waste of a precious book that would be!”
Brother Gildas laughed—a pleasant, resonant sound—and shifted the book and scroll to the bedside table. “We must certainly get you up and working hard to soothe this burdensome conscience of yours. Do you not know that those who cross our threshold for sanctuary are cleansed of past offenses? You are a new man, Valen, whether you like it or not, as pure as a new-dipped babe. The only marks upon your soul will be those you scribe there from this day forward.”
The Karish hierarchs pronounced many tenets to admire, but this one—that an unwatered babe could be marked with evil, whereas a failed man of the world who had no intention of repenting his iniquities could be somehow purified by crossing a brick threshold—had always struck me as untenable.
I sighed deeply. “Oh. Well then, when my fever allows my blurred sight to clear, I’ll study both book and scroll.”
“If Brother Sebastian fails to return by tomorrow, I’ll come myself to quiz you on the Rule,” he said, rising from his stool. “And, of course, Father Abbot will require the details of your birth. We care naught for high or low, pureblood, noble, or common at Gillarine. But neither bonded men nor natural sons nor purebloods lacking dispensation from their family are permitted to join our order.”
“Of course.” I had the disconcerting sense that the monk felt my mind racing. “Tell me, Brother Gildas, where is my own book, the book of maps?” After the odd chance of happening onto such a rarity, I’d be a fool to lose track of it.
He smiled in a knowing fashion that I found somewhat annoying. “Safely locked into the abbot’s own book press. Father Abbot would not see such a treasure splattered with blood or possets. If you choose to leave before you take vows, of course it will be returned to you.”
He offered me a sip of the spicy caudle Brother Badger had left on the stool. I downed it gratefully. My awkward drinking posture left drips enough on my bed linens to make Brother Gildas’s point.
I would need to find the book. If this Elanus was a good-sized town, perhaps it had a knowledgeable pawner. A few weeks and I would suffer for my lack of silver. Of a sudden the beery sweetness of the caudle tasted of brine and bitter. Some of life’s unpleasantness could not be so easily evaded as Registry investigators or my family’s bloodhounds.
“Thank you, Brother. Iero grant you like mercy.” I licked a stray drop from my lips and let my eyelids sag, hoping the soft-spoken Gildas might forgo the prayers sure to accompany his departure. Like flies about raw fish, prayers seemed to cluster about every monkish activity.
But when his soft whisper came in my ear, it bore no pious sentiment. Holy words, nonetheless. “Mutton broth today.”
My laughter disrupted all my feigning. He smiled and vanished through the door as quietly as he’d come. I would have to watch my step with Brother Gildas.
With the skill of long experience I banished all thought of the future. Perhaps these good monks would solve all my ills—body and soul together.
My head had scarcely touched the pillow again when a clank of the latch and a damp, chilly whoosh of the draft signaled another arrival. A warm body hovered a handbreadth from my face like a restrained pup awaiting my word to begin licking. This one smelled of rain and mud, onions and innocence…and boy.
“Could this be the Archangel Jullian?” I said without opening my eyes. “He of the exquisite hearing and golden tongue, who shall have whatever service he needs of me from this day forward as thanks for preserving my feckless life?”
“Aye, it’s Jullian,” he said softly. “Are you asleep, then? I shan’t stay if you’re asleep. But I’m off sanctuary watch and on to kitchen duty as of this day’s chapter, so I’ve more time to see to you. Brother Robierre told me you’re healing astonishingly fast and are ready for visitors.”
I lifted my heavy eyelids and grinned. “Not asleep. Indeed I’m pleased for cheerful company. As long as you don’t make me pay for it by draining my wounds or poking my bruises.” Besides, the sooner I knew the ins and outs of Gillarine, the better, whether I chose to stay a season or not.
“I’ve brought you something to aid your healing. Water from Saint Gillare’s holy spring.” The boy held out a flask of amber-colored glass as reverently as if it held the saintly woman’s tears.
I drew back a little. “Water? Uh…I don’t…not usually…” I didn’t want to offend the boy, but I’d been leery of that ruinous beverage since my mother’s divination when I turned seven. Certainly many a soldier came to grief from it. “So kind. Thank you. But we’d best wait for Brother Bad—Robierre. I’m sure I heard him say my stomach was too weak for water as yet.”
He set the flask on the stool, then hiked up his coarse brown tunic and plopped down on the tile floor, leaving his face on a comfortable level with mine. Though the damp, matted hair cut bowl-shaped to his ears could have been any color, the fluff on the boy’s full lip and bony chin was red-gold in the lamplight and his skin ruddy. I judged him wholly Ardran. Most Navrons, especially the Moriangi of the riverlands to the north, bore some trace of either the black-haired Aurellian invaders of past centuries—my own ancestors—or the flaxen-haired Hansker who plagued our coast.
“I just wanted—Is there any further service I can offer? Something else I could bring you? A prayer I could offer? Whatever you need.” His voice belied his coarsening features and piped clear and boyish, putting him nearer twelve than fourteen to my mind. The ripe stench of less than diligent washing assured me he was entirely human male and no angel in disguise.
I propped my elbow on the bed and supported my head with my fist. “Mmm, I’ve a wagonload of curiosity. As you may have heard, a penitential pilgrimage led me here, but I was in such a state of sin and remorse that I’ve no idea what roads I walked or where I ended up.”
The battle had begun at Wroling Wood in southwestern Navronne—a damnable, confusing, twisted region of forested gullies more akin to god-cursed Evanore than the fertile hills and vineyards of gentle, golden Ardra. And between my delirium, the impenetrable trees, the wretched weather, and the eerie lack of human habitation along the way, naught had illumined our location since. The desolation was almost enough to make one believe the Harrowers had succeeded in their mad quest to erase all trace of human works from the land. In truth, that our flight had ended near any sanctuary but a bandit’s hut, much less by a house so prosperous as to have sheep bones to boil, was enough to make a man a devotee of Serena Fortuna.
Closing my eyes, I offered a quick apology to the divine sister of Sky Lord Kemen for my doubts during those wretched days, promising a libation next time I was blessed with a cup of wine. I thought it prudent to honor all gods and goddesses until someone wiser than me sorted out the contention between Navronne’s elder gods and the Karish upstart Iero.
“Gillarine lies eighteen quellae north of Caedmon’s Bridge and three quellae south of Elanus, which itself lies one hundred and seventy-four quellae southwest of Palinur. We sit ninety-three quellae east of Wroling.” The boy recited his numbers as if they were an alchemist’s formula.
I gave his information little credence. Boreas and I might have traveled ninety-three quellae in two days afoot when well rested, with full stomachs and the wrath of the gods scorching our heels. But we’d never come so far after months of poor rations and the soldier’s flux, and with my leg threatening to collapse the entire way.
At least it seemed I’d managed to keep us in Ardra. Even ravaged by war and fiendish weather, my birth province was yet the fairest of Navronne’s three. Morian was flat and ugly, its sprawling ports and trade cities infested with plague, mosquitoes, woolen mills, and rapacious trade guilds. And our proximity to Evanore, that land of devils’ mountains, yet left me queasy. Evanore’s duc, Prince Osriel, forbade purebloods entry into his lands. I’d been taught that his border wards would boil a pureblood’s brains until they leaked out his ears.
I grimaced and rubbed my shaggy head.
Jullian hunched his thin shoulders and dropped his voice. “I’ve heard a battle was fought at Wroling a sevenday since, Prince Perryn’s army routed by Prince Bayard and the Harrower legions. Gerard, another aspirant who took up the sanctuary watch after me, was told to watch for survivors, though Brother Porter said he’d heard they were all captive or dead, every one.”
Disgust at the waste raised my bile. As far as I was concerned, they could give the cursed throne to the Harrower priestess, Sila Diaglou—or to this Ardran child Pretender whom no one sober had ever seen. “Does your abbot favor Prince Perryn, then, to be willing to take in what’s left of his men?”
“The abbot holds Gillarine as a neutral field,” said the boy. His wide blue eyes shone, declaring his faith that a sainted man could make even such a ridiculous thing be true. “King Eodward built the abbey years and years ago. On holy ground, the story says. He gave the Hierarchs of Ardra dominion over it, but only as long as they fulfill the terms of his grant—to preserve and protect all knowledge and all supplicants—even those who know naught of Iero or his holy writs. He said the angels themselves, sent forth to journey among men, would know of this place, and might find their way here in their need.”
I couldn’t imagine the warring princes honoring so magnanimous a legend. But it sounded very nice. Far better than any number of places Boreas could have abandoned me.
“Holy ground this might be,” I said, “but alas, no one will ever mistake me for an angel. Your wise abbot can tell you.” Which left open the question Gildas had brought to the fore. Why would a perceptive holy man admit a stranger to his household so readily? Were his stores so plentiful he could afford to take on any vagabond who happened by? Serena Fortuna had ever been kind, but sensible caution had kept me free.
A blast of wind rattled the horn windows, ruffling the parchment and plants on Robierre’s worktable and setting his hanging herb bundles swaying. The spring auguries taken by Prince Perryn’s pureblood diviners predicted the coming winter would be the worst in living memory. Of course, a blind birdwit could predict that did he but bare his skin to the wind these past days. And the Reaper’s Moon had not yet shone.
I scooted a little deeper in the bed. The more I considered a house full of kindly fellows given to charity and good cooking, the better it sounded as a winter haven, prayers and bells notwithstanding. If I’d imagined it so easy to join up with a Karish brotherhood, I might have done so years ago. Best keep the path smooth.
“So, Jullian, clearly you are not some villein boy sent here to be a mere kitchen drudge forever…but schooled. An aspirant…preparing to take vows yourself when you’re old enough. Perchance…being a scholarly boy…of course, you can read?”
He sat up proudly. “Both Navron and Aurellian, though my Aurellian is not so fine. I read it as well as any in the abbey, but to think out the words to write a new text and set them together with proper variants is very hard. Not that my writing hand is ill. Abbot Luviar says I could scribe for the saint at heaven’s gate. He’s even allowed me to help in the scriptorium. Not to write, of course, not yet, but to clean the pens and brushes, help mix the inks, and even to rule and prick the pages. With so many books to copy, and new ones coming every month, everyone must help. And I try to read them all. The learning is a wonder.” The boy’s expression shifted as easily as light in an aspen glade.
“Well then, there is one boon you could grant me.”
“My illness clouds my eyes, so that reading makes my head ache and all the letters swim together. Yet I must commit this scroll of your Rule to memory before Brother Gildas tests me, else I’ll be thrown out of Gillarine ten days hence to languish again among wolves and sinners to the peril of my soul. So if you could aid me…”
One might have thought I had asked Jullian to polish my heavenly crown. He carefully untied the ribbon that bound the scroll and proceeded to recount the fifteen laws of Saint Ophir’s Rule. Among the expected admonitions to abjure fornication, gambling, excessive drink, and the lures of worldly wealth, to forgo the practices and use of magic and other earthbound power, to pray the holy Hours and give absolute obedience to the commands of prior, abbot, and hierarch, lay the small requirements that declared a novice must be a free man of sound body and legitimate birth and be schooled so far as to read and do simple sums.
“Am I reading too fast, sir?”
“No, no,” I said, swallowing a curse. “I’m just fixing the holy words in my head.”
Of necessity, my memory had developed exceedingly keen. The balance of the world had never seemed fair to me—that reading was placed so high in the scheme of virtue while the skill to remember what others read or to make some use of it languished far below.
When he had finished the scroll, he picked up the psalter. “I could read you a psalm, to soothe your tormented humors.”
“Truly my head is so weighted down with words, it will not lift from my pillow. My tormented humors must get along as best they can.”
He thumbed through the book, paused for a moment, then slapped it down on the stool and snatched his hand away as if it had scorched his fingers. “This is Horach’s book.”
His anxiety surprised me. Karish held no squeamish notions about unquiet ghosts. “I’ve heard the fellow has no further need of it. You don’t think his spirit minds me using it?”
“It’s just…whenever I fetch water from the font, I can’t help but see…” He averted his face.
“See what?” I dragged his chin around again. “Come on, lad. Get it out. It’s not healthy to bottle up a story that turns your face the color of sour milk. And you’ve set up a keening curiosity that needs relieving, else my humors will be more tormented yet.”
“He was murdered,” said the boy in a solemn whisper. “Not a twelveday since, I found him in Saint Gillare’s shrine…in the font. Someone slashed his skin to threads and left him bound in the water until he bled out every drop in his veins. Brother Robierre said they had pricked his throat so he couldn’t scream.”
Spiders’ feet tickled my spine, and I felt an uncommon urge to ward my soul against Magrog’s incursions. I touched the book gingerly—not that I could have said what I was expecting. “Who did such a thing? Not a monk…surely!”
“Certainly not!” the boy sputtered indignantly. “Father Abbot questioned every one of us under pain of hell’s fire. He even sent to Pontia, and the magistrate brought his pureblood investigator. After three days here, examining us and the abbey grounds and questioning every villager within ten quellae, the sorcerer could say only that a nonbeliever had walked the cloisters. The magistrate said the killer must have borne some tormented grievance against Karish folk and sneaked into the abbey in the night to act it out.”
“Such a killing seems more than random grievance. Likely this Horach had made some enemy in his life—before taking vows, of course.”
Jullian shook his head vigorously. “Brother Horach was but sixteen, newly vowed, and had lived here since he was five—an aspirant like Gerard and me. Gerard hasn’t slept properly since, and he’ll not go into the shrine except in company.” The boy sat up proudly and straightened the water flask he’d brought me, as if to demonstrate he’d conquered such fears himself.
I nodded in sympathy, but could not shake my disturbance. Common disputes among those who lived in close quarters rarely caused such savagery. And a boy of sixteen…Ugly.
To make sure murder was no disease festering in these halls—like mold or pox that clings to old stone—I asked the boy to tell me more of the abbey and its works, and he was soon chattering cheerfully about the scriptorium and library, sheep and barley, and thirty-three holy monks and twenty lay brothers who were all that were left to occupy an abbey built for five times that number.
Before very long Brother Robierre blustered through the infirmary door with a mournful monk named Brother Cadeus, who needed a decoction of rose bark to bathe his filmy eyes. Cadeus, as it happened, was the abbey porter, who sat at the gatehouse in the daylight hours, dispensing alms and regulating entry to the inner and outer courts of the abbey. While Cadeus shared news brought by a starving mason in search of work—of a Harrower riot that left half the city of Montesard in ashes and of a new outbreak of murrain in a sheepfold near Avenus—piebald Brother Anselm arrived with a vat of mutton broth. They propped me up on pillows so I could feed myself.
“This world’s in a proper hellish season,” I said when Cadeus finished his news. I regaled them with tales I’d heard the previous winter—of Ardrans frozen in their beds, of ice rivers consuming Evanori villages in a day, of Moriangi chopping frozen fish from the rivers and eating them raw as the wood was too cold to burn. “…and then in spring I dragged myself half starved down to the Cumbran vale, hoping to hire on for planting, only to wonder at the evil-smelling cloud hung down in the vale. Turns out the crofters had found their seed stock rotted in the bins, and their lord had burned every one of their women as Magrog’s whores…begging your forgiveness, good brothers, for the unseemly language.”
While Jullian drank in every word, eyes as wide as if my reports were hero tales of Grossartius the Revenant, Brother Robierre repeatedly made the sign of Iero’s sunburst on forehead and breast as if the Adversary himself sat on my shoulder. Brother Cadeus nodded as if he had expected nothing else. “The roads are fraught with sorrow. Iero punishes humankind’s sinful ways.”
“Of course, sorrowful roads can lead to interesting places,” I said, swallowing another savory bite. “When the late blizzard hit Cumbra, a shepherd took me in. The snow buried his hut until only a spelled candle he’d got from a witch gave us light. We ate naught but milk and cheese for seven days and taught his favorite goat to walk on her hind legs and play ball games with us. And he taught me twelve new stanzas of ‘Caedmon’s Lay’…”
My tales were not even the worst I’d seen or heard. For eight or ten years now, self-named prophets had roved the length and breadth of Navronne crying out that our spate of cold stormy summers and savage winters foreshadowed the end of the world. Magistrates flogged the doomsayers, which succeeded only in making more folk who spent their days in a frenzy trying to placate the gods. I’d seen a man walking the length of the kingdom naked. I’d seen a cadre of women throwing burnt sheep in the sea. Villeins dangled so many charms and amulets from their wives and children, the whole countryside jingled like a tinker’s wagon, and painted their lintels or their foreheads with mule droppings to stave off ill luck.
A man could say what he would of such activities—and I had scoffed at the general foolishness as much as any—but two years had gone since I’d tasted wine from Ardran grapes, though war had never touched the precious vineyards. The vines had now frozen three winters in a row, and folks said they would never recover. Perhaps the bowl of the sky had slipped askew as Sinduri astrologers claimed.
One thing was certain. With grain fields burnt by soldiers or afflicted with smut from the cold damp, with plants unable to thrive in the changing weather, and herds dead or sickly, famine would surely strike again before the new year. And I’d been perilously close to starving three winters running—which unhappy counterpoint with the delectable soup reminded me that I could likely tolerate a few monkish restrictions.
I’d certainly no wealth or earthbound power to give up. Gambling held no allure but for the coin it could provide. And so long a time had passed since I’d experienced the pleasures of excessive drink or fornication that they were easy to bargain away when tucked in a warm bed with a full stomach. Magic was another matter.
I lopped off that consideration faster than a farm wife could wring a chicken’s neck. Did I allow thoughts of my worst troubles to take hold, my life would shrink to a hard black knot exactly the shape of a nivat seed.
Once Cadeus had gone, Brother Badger held his hands under his black scapular and peered into my rapidly emptying bowl. “When you’ve sopped up the remainder of your supper—not long it would appear—it will be time to take a walk. A man with such an appetite as yours must, of necessity, be getting stronger.”
“But it’s only been—”
“—four days since I took out the fiendish bit of iron. I know. But you’ve wallowed in your blankets long enough. Damaged sinews need using or they’ll knot or wither. You’ll thank me.”
The infirmarian snatched away my empty bowl and dropped a short brown tunic on my lap. He watched as I eased it over my head and bandaged shoulder and relinquished my lovely blankets. The air felt dreadfully cold on my bare legs. Indeed, as he eased me to my feet, my excessive height left the skimpy tunic excessively short, exposing half my rump and privy parts to Brother Anselm’s open window. “You are the Adversary’s lackey, Robierre,” I mumbled, shivering.
Brother Robierre was a mere half head shorter than I, and built with the sturdy bulk of a smith. Even so he called on Brother Anselm to help propel me up and down the long infirmary. I clutched at their shoulders, scarcely touched my right foot to the ground, and moaned and gasped, only muting my groans when young Jullian looked ready to pound the infirmarian for his cruelty.
“To feel the wound is only to be expected,” said the good brother, inspecting my bandages when he at last allowed me to sit again. “See? No fresh blood or drainage.” Adding insult to insult, he then insisted I drain Jullian’s flask of water from the abbey’s spring, swearing that the holy font had been resanctified since Brother Horach’s gruesome death.
“You’re a proper villain, Brother,” I said, wincing as I rolled over and let them prop my leg up again. “I’m not thanking you as yet. This activity has surely stirred up the poisons in my blood. And this drink fit only for dogs and horses, tainted by ill-let blood, will compound them. I could die from it.”
“You’ll not die today, Valen.” Chuckling, Brother Badger tucked me in more gently than my mother had ever done. This was indeed a fine and friendly place.