by David Wisehart
With a keen dagger and a steady hand, William shaved the knight’s scalp, adding wisps of long black hair, flock by flock, to a tangled heap on the dry riverbed.
A campfire crackled in the gloom. Marco lay supine and comatose, wrapped in a blanket made for a much shorter man. Blood wept from the scabby laceration in the knight’s skull as William shaved carefully around it. He was no surgeon but had spent a lifetime ministering to the sick and the poor, the damaged and the destitute.
Giovanni Boccaccio sat reading a book by firelight. He was a Tuscan poet in his middle thirties, and his fashion flouted every sumptuary law: his hose were crimson and buttoned to the tops of his calfskin shoes; his overgown, a black cioppa of silk brocade, was cloaked by a dark grey mantello that draped from his shoulders; his hat was a red cappuccio with the foggia falling to the left in the Neapolitan style—a rich display for a poor man. His clothes were vestiges of the courtier he once was, not of the vagabond he had since become.
Nadja collected deadfall at a distance, making noises in the dark. William heard her stepping on dry leaves, upsetting small rocks, dropping sticks, and picking them up again.
A streamlet trickled nearby, a sign that God had not abandoned them, that even in this drought some part of the mountains still felt the touch of rain. A chill threaded the evening air, carrying the lamentations of tawny owls and the incessant gossip of cicadas.
With Marco’s head now shaved and the injury revealed, William set the dagger on a flat stone next to the campfire so that the steel tip pierced the jittering flames. He retrieved the pot from the fire, dipped a rag in the steaming water, and cleaned the gash in Marco’s skull with short, gentle strokes. The cut was deep. William probed with his fingers and discovered a shard of skull bone that had broken loose and slipped beneath the skin. He inserted two fingers into the warm, moist cut. Feeling the jagged edge of the fragment, he gripped it between his fingers and eased the bone back into place.
He washed his hands in the pot. From the donkey cart he retrieved a leather costrel. He had filled it at a tavern in the mountain town of Corona Corvina, but only a little wine remained. Blessing the libation, he poured a dram over the cut. He put the wine to his own lips for a quick taste—strong vintage—then stoppered the costrel and set it aside.
The steel blade was now hot. As William drew the dagger from the flame, the haft felt warm in his hand. He pressed the flat of the blade to Marco’s cut. Skin hissed as he cauterized the wound. The air reeked of nidor, the smell of burning flesh. Marco tensed—neck, jaw, hands—but did not wake to the burning pain, which would have tortured a healthy man to a quick confession. Marco’s eyes remained closed. He did not cry out. When the metal cooled, William checked to see that the wound was sealed before he wiped and sheathed the blade.
Nadja returned from the shadows with an armload of sticks and branches. She wore an olive-colored kirtle over a white chemise, the colors dulled by the dust of the long road behind her: some part of her homeland still clung to her skirts. Circling for a better vantage to the fire, she fed the deadfall to the flames.
William felt her hand on his shoulder as she stood behind him, leaning close. “He’ll live,” she said.
“I have my doubts.”
“But he has your prayers.”
Nadja sat down next to Giovanni, her back to the fire, her knees tucked to her chest. She tugged her skirt down to cover her legs, clutched her hands together at her ankles, and placed her sharp chin on one knee, rocking slightly. Her blonde hair was wet from the stream, her skin lambent in the firelight.
She was a peasant girl just shy of twenty. Her head was uncoifed, for she had no husband. The falling sickness kept her unmarried, despite her beauty and a soul that could only be the work of a loving God. William had met her in Munich at the height of the pestilence, and had saved her from the torches of an angry mob. A rash decision, rescuing a woman accused of witchcraft, but he did not regret it. God moved his heart, and he obeyed.
Nadja reminded him of another girl, a chandler’s daughter in his home village of Ockham. Evette. The name still held power over him. Evette was his first love, his first loss. She was the promise of a different life, a better life, a life that had died to him more than forty years ago, before he took his vows.
He purged the memories from his mind to focus on the task at hand: bandaging the knight’s head wound with a clean linen cloth.
Giovanni paid no attention to Nadja, but kept his eyes on the leaves of his open book.
“Are you reading it?” she asked.
The poet grunted an affirmation.
“Your lips aren’t moving.” She watched his lips intently.
“Not everyone mumbles when they read,” he said.
“William does.” She glanced over at the friar.
“Some people read without talking,” said William. “Saint Ambrose was famous for it.”
“Giovanni is not a saint.”
The poet glared at her.
Undaunted, Nadja tilted her head to inspect the cover. She reached over and tapped the title. “What does it mean?”
Giovanni sighed, then translated the title from ink to air: “Inferno of Dante Alighieri.”
He closed the book and offered it to her. Nadja stared at the Inferno one moment, at Giovanni the next.
“Have a look,” he said.
William watched her pluck it like forbidden fruit from Giovanni’s hand. Nadja held the book with reverence, as if it were a relic. She passed her fingertips over the cracked leather cover, which was scuffed and scored by years of reading and the abuses of hard travel. She opened the book to peek inside, parting the foxed pages, turning them delicately and without comprehension. The markings were a mystery.
The friar envied her innocence, as he had once envied learning. Books had captivated William as a young boy in Ockham: his parish priest had let him touch a Holy Bible, let him turn the lambskin pages, let him study the pictures and the bright colored letters. The tome, resting on a stand, had been too big and heavy for him to lift. The priest picked him up so he could see the words. He was then six or seven—a dozen years younger than Nadja was now. Had his eyes glowed like hers when he touched his first book? Did her heart race now like his did then?
William possessed no books of his own, save for the few he had committed memory—the Gospels, the psalters, the works of the Philosopher—and time had begun to divest him of those. Giovanni, untrammeled by vows of poverty or any hint of moderation, traveled with seventeen books in his donkey cart. Most were familiar but a few, like the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, were new to William. He felt blessed to share the road with such a formidable library.
Giovanni said to the girl, “I’ll read it to you, if you’d like,” meaning the Inferno, and he answered her smile with one of his own.
There was a hint of seduction in that smile, William noted, and Nadja seemed to feel the force of it. She brightened, then glanced away, as if dodging a sin. Giovanni had a reputation as something of a rakehell. William was beginning to see why.
“Is it a romance?” Nadja asked.
“A poem,” Giovanni said.
“I like poems.”
“This one will give you nightmares. It’s a guide to the underworld.”
“Then yes,” she said, “I think you should read it to us.” She returned the book to him. “We need a guide.”
Giovanni glanced at the friar. “You’ve read the Inferno?”
The questioned surprised William. They had discussed this once already. Hadn’t they argued over Dante’s Commedia in that Roman tavern, the night they first met? William was sure of it. He remembered Giovanni claiming that, despite what the simple folk believed, Dante had never journeyed to the netherworld, that his Hell was an artifice, his katabasis a fiction, like the descents of Orpheus, Ulysses, and Aeneas. Now Giovanni seemed not to remember the debate. Perhaps the poet had been too deep in his cups.
“I attended a reading at Oxford,” William reminded him.
“I studied at Naples,” Giovanni boasted. “This copy was a gift from Master Cino da Pistoia.”
William smiled at the name. “Cino was a great poet.”
Giovanni opened the book again. “He knew Dante personally.” His tone was envious. “Can you imagine?”
“I met him myself, you know.”
Skepticism flickered across Giovanni’s face, distorting it, giving him the twisted features of a gargoyle.
“Where?” Giovanni asked. “In Italy?”
“That’s not possible.”
“Dante never went to Oxford.”
“I assure you he did.”
Giovanni snapped the book shut. “I don’t believe you.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
William rinsed the rag in hot water, dipping and squeezing. Steam spiraled off his hands in pale flames that infused the air with the smell of blood. He took his time, letting Giovanni stew in his doubts.
Nadja gave the poet a disappointed look. “When a priest tells you something, you should believe it.”
“I’m not a priest,” William said.
“Of course you are,” said Nadja. “Don’t be silly.”
William considered refuting her logic, but then thought better of it.
Giovanni’s doubts erupted in an question. “Oxford? How is that possible? I know everything about Dante. I’ve read everything he wrote. I’ve been everywhere he went. I even know his daughter, Sister Beatrice. She serves in the monastery of San Stefano. We talked about her father. If Dante went to the islands, I would have heard about it.”
“Now you have.”
The poet brandished the book like a mummers prop. “He traveled, yes: Rome, Padua, Forlì, Verona, Lucca, Ravenna—possibly even Paris. But Oxford?”
William shrugged. “You don’t have to believe me.”
“You’re sure it was Dante?”
“I saw no reason to doubt the man.”
“What did he look like?”
“He had a nose like a flying buttress.”
Nadja laughed, but Giovanni nodded.
“We had lots of visitors in those days,” the friar said. “John of Reading came to Merton to read the Sententiarum. William of Alnwick gave a lecture. Later, I taught with Walter Chatton and Adam Wodeham and, well, anyway, at one point we had a rather famous visitor from Italy. Dante Alighieri by name; an exile by law; a genius by reputation. His Vita Nuova preceded him to England, and the reading was well-attended.”
“He read from the Commedia?” Giovanni asked.
“I believe so, yes. In those days I knew very little of Dante’s vernacular, so his poems were something of a mystery, though the sounds were quite lovely in the ear.”
“You didn’t understand a word?”
“A word here and there. Afterwards we conversed in Latin.”
“You talked to him?”
William grinned. “For several days, in fact. My friends and I gave him a tour of the library.”
“What did he say?”
“Well, let me think now. I believe I asked him something about Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. Did he know the story?”
“By Marie de France.”
“We discussed some other journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tundale’s Vision, Saint Brendan’s Voyage. He knew them all, of course. A very learned man.”
The poet leaned forward. “What book was he searching for, when you showed him the library?”
“Stories of King Arthur.”
“You mean romances?” Nadja asked.
William nodded. “The knights of the round table, the quest for the Holy Grail, and all of that.”
Giovanni flipped through the Inferno. “Dante mentions Lancelot in the encounter with Paolo and Francesca. And then, where is it?” He searched near the end of the book. “Yes, and Mordred. Dante saw Mordred in the pit of Hell.”
William said, “He asked me for the works of Walter Map.”
“Who’s that?” Giovanni asked.
“Archdeacon of Oxford. Before my time. Walter Map wrote one of the Grail romances. You may know it in the French.”
“I’ve read Robert de Borron and Chrétien de Troyes,” Giovanni said.
“They borrow extensively from Map. He spent a lifetime researching the history of the Grail, and he discovered some curious things.”
“Like what?” Nadja asked.
“The Holy Grail, the cup that caught the blood of Christ, was carved from a precious stone.”
“Lucifer’s crown jewel,” Giovanni said.
Nadja seemed surprised, and a little dismayed. “The Grail belongs to Lucifer?”
“It did,” said William. “It was bestowed on him in Heaven.”
“By sixty thousand angels,” Giovanni said.
“Do you want to tell it, or shall I?” he asked.
The poet held his tongue, so William continued, “God granted Lucifer power over the Earth. Much of Lucifer’s power passed into the stone. It was with this power that the Devil tempted Christ, though by that time he had already lost the Grail.”
“How?” Nadja asked.
“Lucifer rebelled against God. He refused to bow down to man. In the final battle of the War in Heaven, Michael the Archangel struck the crown from Lucifer’s head—”
“The stone broke free and fell to the earth,” Giovanni said. “It’s only a legend, Father. A tale from the pen of Wolfram von Eschenbach.”
“Borrowing, again, from Map. Dante sought the original.”
“But why?” Nadja asked.
“Perhaps he knew the Devil had found the Grail. Perhaps he saw the Grail itself in the Devil’s lair.”
Giovanni snorted and shook his head.
Nadja asked him, “Are you going to read it to me? The Inferno? You promised you would.”
“Yes,” William agreed, “please do. Perhaps I’ll understand it better this time.”
Giovanni cleared his throat and read aloud the first canto of Dante’s Inferno. He had a strong Tuscan voice, and knew the poem like no one else alive.
Midway along the journey of our lifeWilliam watched Nadja, who stared into the campfire, listening to the poet’s incantation. During their long trek down from Munich, William had taught Nadja all the Italian he knew. Enough for the marketplace, perhaps, but insufficient for the subtle inventions of Dante Alighieri. Giovanni was raised on Dante; the Tuscan dialect was both his mother tongue and his art. In the two weeks since Giovanni had joined their pilgrimage, Nadja’s Italian had improved considerably.
I came to myself in a darkling wood.
I’d lost the straight and narrow. I was rife
With terror. I would name it if I could,
That savage sylvan wilderness. To dwell
On it renews the fear, for there I stood
Alone, lost in a bitter dell more fell
Than death itself. Before I can relate
The good, I have some other things to tell.
I cannot say how I came to that fate,
For sleep entangled me when I misled
Myself, abandoning the true and straight.
The poet read of the meeting between Dante and the shade of Virgil, who was saying:
Therefore I think it best, and recommend,We’re close to the gate, thought William. A few more days to darkness.
That you should follow me. I’ll be your guide
And lead you through eternal dark, to wend
Where you will hear despairing shrieks: inside,
Where all the ancient and tormented souls
Bewail the second death, the burning tide.
If they could find the gate. If it existed at all. The friar had his doubts. His only guides to the abyss were Dante’s Inferno and Nadja’s visions: the testimony of a dead man and the dreams of an epileptic. These did little to bolster William’s confidence. True, Nadja had led them to the wounded Templar, but the knight was already on the bourne of death. Perhaps they had arrived too late. Perhaps they should not have come at all.
Perhaps I should stop worrying so much.
William had spent a lifetime trying to reconcile faith to reason, but he understood now that reason and faith were not on speaking terms. This pilgrimage was an act of faith which reason could not warrant. For all his days of learning and discussion, for all his nights of quiet contemplation, he had become at last a superannuated fool, guided by a dead poet’s pen and a young girl’s delirium.
I will know the truth of it soon enough. The gate would be there, or it would not. Hell would open, or it would not.
Giovanni continued reciting the dialog between Dante and his spirit guide:
I said to him, “Poet, I beg of you,Giovanni closed the book. With his thumb he traced a cross on the cover and kissed it, then glanced at the wounded knight. “He may get there before you do.”
By God, of whom you pagans do not know:
So I may flee this wood of darkest rue,
Please guide me down into the world below,
That I may come to see Saint Peter’s gate
And those who wallow in the fields of woe.”
He went. I followed him to meet my fate.
“He will live,” Nadja said. “God has plans for him.”
William saw blood seep through Marco’s bandage, a scarlet bloom that darkened as it dried. “He is a living miracle. That blow should have killed him.”
“And the man standing next to him,” Giovanni said, stuffing the book into his satchel. He withdrew a blanket from another bag and asked the question William had not dared to speak aloud. “What if your champion does not survive?”
“He will,” Nadja insisted.
The poet shrugged and wrapped the blanket around himself. “You see farther than I do.”
William heard the wailing of the wolves on the battlefield, half a mile behind them. The pack had acquired a taste for human flesh. They were sated now but by tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, the corpses would be too far gone and the wolves would hunt again.
“We’ll keep moving south,” William said. “If Marco has not returned to himself by the time we reach the gate...well, I suppose we can make a final decision then.”
“We cannot descend without him,” Nadja said, in a voice devoid of doubt.
William crossed himself. “Then let us pray he makes it to the morning.”
LAST WEEK — Chapter 1 of Devil's Lair by David Wisehart
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