by David Wisehart
William woke before sunrise to find Nadja already risen. She sat on a stone by the ashes of the evening fire, a brown blanket wrapped around her legs, her hair tousled by sleep. In her lap was a piece of paper on a small wooden board. She held a charcoal stick, worn to a nub, and scratched it against the paper.
The friar sat up slowly and mumbled his morning prayers—twenty-four paternosters, by the Rule of Saint Francis. The air was cool on his face. The breeze coaxed him to his senses, and then to his feet. He stretched his limbs and took several deep breaths. His back was stiff from lying on the ground; his knees crackled like burning wood; his right leg tingled. Pacing about, he worked some life into the old joints. They had served him well for three score years and five. He hoped they still had a few good years in them. His exercises failed to arouse Nadja’s attention, so he said in a low voice, “Good morning.”
“Almost done,” she answered, eyes fixed on the drawing.
Marco da Roma was alive but unresponsive. His breathing was slow, shallow, regular. His pulse seemed weak but no worse than the night before. William checked the bandage, sniffing the wound for a hint of corruption, and left the dressing in place. Last night he had given up his only blanket for the wounded man and slept in nothing but his own tatterdemalion robe. Saint Francis would have given up the robe as well, but William was no saint and the evenings were chilly.
Giovanni, on the other hand, bundled himself in more clothes than the friar had ever owned. The poet continued wheezing softly, chanting the refrain of sleep.
After shuffling over to the little stream, William scooped cold water into his hands. He drank his fill before splashing some on his face and on the top of his tonsured head.
Returning to camp, he looked down at Nadja’s sketch. She limned a manticore in thick black lines: a man’s face, but the body of a lizard; lion’s paws, but the tail of a scorpion. It looked malignant, like something out of Dante, like some hideous creature born of the dark. Giovanni might recognize this demon from the cantos, but the friar did not wish to wake him yet.
“I saw this in a falling dream,” Nadja said.
William crouched down next to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I did not see you fall.”
There was little he could do for her dormition, except to be there when she came back to herself. Nadja’s epilepsy was beyond his powers to heal. For this he commended her to Christ, who had once healed an epileptic boy, a lunatic child who fell into fire. William told her the story often, explaining that if she had the faith of a mustard seed, she too would be healed. But William, who had contemplated scripture since before he could read, knew the true meaning of the text: Christ had chastised his disciples. They could not cast out the devils from the epileptic boy because they had so little faith. It was the disciples who needed faith, not the boy. It was William who needed faith, not the girl. He did not tell Nadja these things. He prayed for her and taught her to hope.
She waved his concern aside. “You were asleep,” she said, “and I was lying down already. No bruises this time.”
William smiled, waking his cheeks. “I’m glad to hear it.”
He rubbed the blur from his eyes and studied Nadja’s drawing with renewed interest, trying to make sense of it. In Munich, before Nadja’s trial, William had taught the girl to record her visions on paper. Those drawings had nearly gotten her killed. He blamed himself, but found consolation in the knowledge that her art might yet save them. Nadja had been sent by God to William. He needed to know why. If her visions came from God, as he believed, then William must see these visions for himself and divine their meaning. Her dreams were vivid, but the messages were seldom clear. “You saw this thing, this demon?”
She set aside her charcoal stick and blew the fine black dust from the page. “You will see him, too. In the dark place.”
The dark place. Nadja could scarcely bring herself to say it. William had urged her not to shrink from what she saw, not to hide difficult things behind easy words. He needed to know the truth of it. He needed her to acknowledge the dangers of their descent. The Inferno might prove a useful guide, but their path through Hell might not be Dante’s path. Nadja was gentle by nature, reluctant to trouble others, but kind words could get them killed. William needed to know the road ahead.
“What will happen when I meet this demon?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
The easy answer. He studied her face. The furrows in her brow said more than her voice. She stared down at the sketch, avoiding the friar’s gaze.
“Nadja? There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“I don’t know.”
“What is it?”
She shook her head.
“Say the thing you will not say.”
A wolf howled in the distance. Clouds scudded across the sun, throwing darkness upon the world.
“A message,” she whispered, soft as the wind.
“From this demon?”
“What did he tell you?”
“He gave you his name?”
“No,” she said. “He gave me yours.”
William felt a chill. He crossed his arms against the morning air. “Why?”
Nadja looked up at him with sadness in her eyes. “He is waiting for you.”
LAST WEEK — Chapter 2 of Devil's Lair by David Wisehart
Join us each week for #SampleSunday.