Sunday

Sample Sunday: "Devil's Lair" by David Wisehart — Chapter 1

A medieval knight leads a quest through Hell to recover the Holy Grail from the Devil...


by David Wisehart



in dimidio dierum meorum vadam ad portas inferi

In the middle of my life, I go to the gates of Hell.
— Isaiah 38:10





CHAPTER 1

Campania, Kingdom of Naples
Anno Domini 1349

William of Ockham walked barefoot through the carnage. Slaughtered knights and fallen horses festered on the battlefield. A thousand naked corpses lay broken upon the earth, and in that multitude a few unlucky men survived, weltering in their own blood, crying out for God. The fighting was over but the dying would go on for days.

Half the world is dead, thought William, and still they kill each other.

He searched for one man in a massacre of men, and carried a charcoal sketch to identify the face, though some of the men were so disfigured by violence, so brutalized by retribution, they would not be recognized by their own ghosts. The corpses had been stripped bare, their clothing and armor scavenged. A few of the bodies were sunburned. Most were not. William wondered how the sun could redden some men and leave others pale, but on closer examination he understood: only the living burned and blistered. Heartened by this discovery, William checked the sunburned bodies first, comparing his sketch to the faces of the lingerers. A thought murmured, like the whisper of an angel: There is still hope.

Carrion crows feasted on the dead and the nearly dead. Birds scattered as William approached, and gathered again like shadows in his wake. Pawk pawk, screamed the crows, pawk pawk. The conclamation was deafening. The malodor of gutted bowels and corrupting flesh pervaded the air as blowflies settled in open wounds. Long months of drought had parched the earth, which now drank the blood of the fallen. A few low places caught more spillage than the ground could take. Scarlet pools dried into black scabs that cracked and crunched beneath William’s bare feet.

A hand grabbed his ankle. William stumbled, recovered, and looked down at the soldier who would not let him go. The tip of a broken lance protruded from the man’s chest. Nervous eyes looked up, pleading. The piteous soldier was not long for this world. Another world awaited him.

“I have sinned,” the man said.

William knelt beside him. “Who is Marco da Roma? Is he here? Marco da Roma?”

“I want to confess.”

William showed him the sketch. “Do you know this man?”

The soldier coughed blood. He gripped William’s grey cowl with trembling fingers.
“Bless me, Father.”

“I’m not—”

“Please.”

I’m not a priest. Not anymore.

Excommunicated by a heretic pope and hunted by the Inquisition, William had fled the papal palace at Avignon for the safety of Bavaria. For twenty years he lived in exile. That pope was dead now, but the ban was unabated.

Devil be damned. A false pope might leave a dying man unconfessed. William could not.

A leather pouch dangled from the white rope belt that identified William as a Friar Minor. He had worn that belt for forty years. It bound him to his oath. He opened his pouch and withdrew an ampule of oleum infirmorum, consecrated olive oil. “I will hear your confession.”

“Bless me, Father.” The soldier said no more. Death rattled in his throat. His eyes lost focus. His hand relaxed its grip and fell to the earth.

With the oil, William traced the sign of the cross on the soldier’s forehead, saying, “Per istam sanctam unctionem et suam piissimam misericordiam, indulgeat tibi Dominus quidquid deliquisti. Amen.

He closed the soldier’s eyes and moved on.

William glanced about for his fellow pilgrims, Nadja and Giovanni, but the summer heat made things shimmer at a distance. His cohorts had wandered beyond his ken. Hours ago the group had separated to hasten their search. William regretted the decision now. Surrounded by so much death and decay, he longed again for the company of friends.

At nightfall a dozen wolves came down from the hills to feed on the slaughter and sing their praises to the moon. They gave William’s torch a wide berth, their yellow eyes candent in the firelight. The wolves growled when he came too close. The friar respected their wishes. His torch brightened the proximate field but blinded him to the horizon. He surveyed the darkness in all directions, hoping to see Nadja’s rushlight, but beyond the watchful lupine eyes and the penumbra of his own weak flame the black night enveloped him. The friar crossed himself, recalling how, with God’s grace, Saint Francis had tamed the wolf of Gubbio. The story calmed William’s fears as he continued delving in the dark.

It was well after compline before he found the body he was looking for. The soldier lay face-down on a shallow declivity at the south end of the killing field. The body appeared lifeless, but the skin was sunburned. William examined the man’s bloody scalp and saw a gash above the right ear. Someone had used this skull for a butcher block. The friar turned the body face-up, then wiped fresh blood from the man’s temple, which was warmer than the night air. The man appeared to be twenty, maybe twenty-five, too young to die for nothing on this blood-encrusted field. William compared the man’s visage to the charcoal sketch. The resemblance was unmistakable—angular face, strong jaw, heavy brow—like the statue of some pagan god.

“Marco da Roma.”

The man did not answer.

William put his ear to the man’s chest, but heard no heart; he cupped a hand over the cracked lips, but felt no breath; he checked the throat for a pulse—nothing.

All this way for nothing.

He gazed up at the stars. “Deus obsecro sana eum.”

And then he felt it. A faint thump of life, a marching rhythm beneath the skin.

Deo gratias.

Marco’s bare chest was caked with blood. If he bore the expected sign, the friar could not see it. William gathered the selvage of his greyfriar’s robe and used it to clean away the gore, revealing a red tattoo, emblem of the lost brotherhood. He felt a sudden rush of tears. For this he had walked barefoot across five hundred miles of blighted woods and plague-infested hamlets. Here, at last, was the sign of the prophecy: a crimson cross tattooed above the heart.

The secret mark of the Knights Templar.



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