Sunday

Sample Sunday: "Devil's Lair" by David Wisehart — Chapter 6

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

by David Wisehart

CHAPTER 6

Giovanni took his ledger with him. His quill and inkpot he carried in a holder on his belt, in the fashion of a Florentine merchant. He climbed to a rise above the road and settled in a hassock of dry grass on the brink of the canyon, where he could sit and watch the play of sunset in the clouds: clusters of lemons and oranges that ripened with color before decaying into darkness. Shadows poured like honey into the ravine. The gorge was narrow, less than a bowshot at the widest. A fierce wind skirled below, in fits and starts, though Giovanni, above the howl, felt only a slight breeze that tickled the hairs on his arms. As the wind lulled in the canyon, he heard the purl of a river sounding in the deep.

From somewhere distant a church bell rang vespers, calling all good Christians to their evening prayers. The somber knell echoed through the hills. Giovanni did not know from which town or village the bell chimed, nor how many Christians yet lived to hear it, but the ringing reassured him that someone survived out there in the dark, if only a lone bellringer in a desolate village, one last soul pealing a lament for the world that was.

As the angelus rang out, the poet took his rosary from the relic pouch on his belt and raised himself to his knees, his head bowed. The ten ave beads were small, round, and made of horn. The paternoster bead was square and made of ivory: it had once been a gambler’s die, which had devoured much of Giovanni’s youth. The gaud was a cameo: Saint David of Wales, patron saint of poetry. Giovanni fingered the beads, recited Saint Julian’s paternoster, and prayed for the safety of his children. When the angelus died with the light of day, Giovanni returned to sitting with the ledger in his lap.

William approached. The old friar huffed and wheezed as he climbed barefoot. His walking stick dislodged a stream of rocks which tumbled down behind him. His cowl was pulled back, exposing his tonsure. His mottled scalp reflected moonlight.

The friar looked up and gave a smile. “Writing?”

“Thinking.”

Giovanni set his ledger aside, unused.

When William reached the shelf where Giovanni sat, he leaned heavily against his staff. He examined his right foot and plucked a thorn from his unshod heel.

Giovanni said, “If we’d gotten there sooner, I might have found you some boots.”

“I would not have worn them. But I thank you for the thought.”

“In Florence, even the Franciscans wear sandals.”

“They abandon Saint Francis for Saint Crispin.”

“You still consider yourself a Franciscan?”

“A Spiritual.”

Giovanni had guessed as much. The Franciscan order was at war with itself: the Spirituals held fast to the ways of Saint Francis and the imitation of Christ; the Conventuals allowed the ownership of property and the accumulation of wealth. One of the Spiritual groups, the Fraticelli, castigated the Conventuals as agents of the Devil. The Conventuals, with the aid of the pope and the Inquisition, had purged them from the order. In Marseille four Fraticelli were burned at the stake. William had fled Avignon to avoid a similar fate.

“Saint Francis earned a pontifical blessing,” Giovanni said. “You were excommunicated.”

“By a false and lying pope.”

Giovanni stretched out his legs. “No love lost for Avignon?”

“I took my vows in England.”

“And forgot them in Italy.”

“Have I?”

“Jesus said, ‘nihil tuleritis in via neque virgam neque peram’—and yet you carry a walking stick.”

William tossed his staff into the canyon. It struck an outcrop and bounced into oblivion. “Please forgive me.”

Giovanni felt a nattering of guilt for depriving an old man of his appendage, but answered with a shrug. “A waste of a fine stick. You could have given it to me.”

“I give it to you now. Shall I send you after it?”

“You might enjoy that.”

“I’ve been tempted to worse.”

“And resisted?”

“So far.”

Giovanni laughed and leaned back on his arms. “There was a Fraticello in Naples. Brother Matteo of Amalfi. He went barefoot, like Saint Francis, preaching the poverty of Christ. He once quoted something you wrote.”

“What was that?”

“On the law of parsimony.”

“‘Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora,’” William guessed.

Giovanni nodded. “‘It is pointless to do with more what can be done with less.’”

William sat down and rubbed his heel. “A rule I endeavor to live by.”

“Brother Matteo was burned as a heretic.”

The old man let that pass without comment.

Giovanni said, “He was a good man.”

“These are evil days,” said William, “when sinners burn saints and call it righteousness.”

“In that case, Father, I recommend you put on some shoes. Walking barefoot for Christ may set you on the road to martyrdom.”

“I know the road I’ve chosen.”

“A dead end.”

William stared at him. “Is that a joke?”

“Apparently not.”

“You don’t believe in Nadja’s visions.”

“No, Father.”

“But she found the Knight Templar.”

“Did she?”

“You saw her drawing of the demon. Geryon, you said. Nadja sees things others cannot.”

“It’s not Geryon in the picture.”

“You said it was.”

“I was thinking of Dante, and made the wrong connection.”

“Then who is this demon?”

Giovanni quoted scripture: “‘et habebant caudus similes scorpionum, et aculei erant in caudis earum: et potestas earum nocere hominibus.’”

“John’s Apocalypse.”

“She must have heard it from a preacher.”

“You have the faith of Saint Thomas.”

“I’ve been to Lake Avernus,” Giovanni said. “I’ve explored the Cave of the Sibyl. There is no gateway to the realm of Orcas.”

“I suspect you may be wrong.”

“If I’m right, what will you do then?”

“I make no plans for the future.”

“How is that possible?”

“I follow God. Today, He calls me to the cave. Tomorrow, we will see what we will see.”

Giovanni knew what tomorrow would bring.

The end of all flesh.

To William he said, “If you don’t find what you’re looking for, will you come with me to Naples?”

“If I do find what I’m looking for, will you come with me to Hell?”

“I’d rather not.”

“We need a guide.”

“You may copy my Dante.”

“No time,” said William. “Apocalypse approaches. The Fourth Horseman rides the Earth. The end is coming.”

“The end is always coming.”

William gazed into the canyon, studying the darkness. “Christ said to Peter, ‘super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et portae inferi non praevalebunt.’ But now, with a false pope in Avignon and no bishop in Rome, the gates of Hell may yet prevail.”

“It might be wise,” Giovanni said, “not to knock upon those gates.”

“That is our burden.”

“Yours, Father.”

William nodded. “I’ve battled evil all my life. I’ve wrestled with darkness and demons and monsters beyond measure, in the black forests of Germany and in the troubled hearts of men, for it is there, in the human heart, that evil festers and grows. But evil has a source, and we must find that source: at the bottom of the abyss. We must descend into the Devil’s lair, and penetrate the heart of all evil.”

“Good luck with that.”

William smiled. “In Munich, before we set out, Nadja saw you in her falling dreams. Did she tell you?”

No, Giovanni thought, but did not care to say it. The idea troubled him. He glanced back down the hill at Nadja, who sat praying over the wounded knight.

“God has a plan for us,” William said.

“That may be true, Father, but He hasn’t told me.”

“He speaks through her.”

Giovanni fleered. “I wish I had your faith.”

“It is yours by right. A gift from God. Take it.”

“How?”

The friar hesitated, as if about to share a confidence. “There are two paths,” he said. “A path of knowledge, and a path of love.”

“I have studied the scriptures.”

“But have you loved?”

“Yes.” He was thinking again of the Lady Fiammetta.

“It is through love that one acquires faith.”

“I loved a woman,” Giovanni said. “In Naples.”

William considered this, then said, “All true love is the love of God. To love a woman, yes. That is good. That is divine: ‘fecistis uni de his fratribus meis minimis mihi fecistis.’ But also love yourself. And why not? God loves you. Align your love with God’s. Let His love fill your heart until it becomes your own.”

“I have lost the things I love.”

“You miss these things. That is natural. But nothing truly loved is ever lost. When the flesh falls away, the love remains.”

“Did you ever love a woman, Father?”

“Yes.”

“Did you lose her?”

The answer was long in coming.

“Yes.”

“Then by your own logic, you did not truly love her.”

The friar sighed, then nodded. “It may be as you say. If I had loved this woman truly, I may not have lost her.”

“Tell me, Father. When you lost her, how did it not end your faith in God?”

“It was my faith’s beginning.”

A thin cloud, torn in tatters by the wind, raced across the moon. They let it pass in silence.

“Forget Naples,” said William. “It is not what you remember.”

“Nothing ever is.”

“You think you can escape the darkness, but the darkness is everywhere.”

“Then what hope is there?”

“We must confront the darkness. Together. Trust in God, and come with us.”

“I trust in myself.”

“It’s a start.” The wind picked up. William pulled the cowl over his head, whispering, “‘regnum Dei intra vos est.’”

They were the words of Christ to the Pharisees: The kingdom of God is within you.

“Have you become a mystic, Father? I would not have thought it from your writings.”

“God opened my heart. Let Him open yours.”

Giovanni felt annoyed. This conversation was not going the way he planned. He had lost his advantage. “Six years of canon law, and the world makes less sense to me now than when I was a child.”

“You studied the canon?”

“Six years of business, six years of law. The one thing I learned is I despise them both.”

“You did not feel the calling?”

“I wasn’t called. I was pushed.”

“Your father?”

He nodded.

“And how does your father feel about you being a poet?”

Giovanni shrugged. “He’s dead. I don’t suppose it matters to him now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That makes one of us.”

Giovanni picked up a handful of dirt and sifted it through his fingers, leaving a small white stone in his palm. He tossed the stone over the verge and watched it drop into darkness. If it made a sound, Giovanni did not hear it.

“Marco needs clothes,” William said.

“We’ll be in Cumae soon enough.”

“For the journey, I mean.”

“He has your blanket.”

“You understand what I’m saying?”

“Of course, Father. You want me to give him my clothes.” He tossed another rock into the canyon.

“It would be the Christian thing to do.”

“We’re all Christians here.”

“Nadja and I have only the clothes we wear. Marco has none. You, on the other hand—”

“He’s twice my size.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“I’m a poet.”

“Your clothes may be tight on him, but Nadja could make the altera—”

“No.” Giovanni’s voice trembled with indignation. “No one cuts my clothes. Absolutely not.”

The friar waited.

Giovanni said, “They were a gift from King Robert.”

“Impressive.”

“For my poetry.”

“Of course.”

“The king loved my work. He honored my work. Can you understand what that means?”

“It means King Robert was a great judge of talent.”

“I wouldn’t be on this road if Robert were alive. What am I doing here?”

“Saving the world.”

The poet laughed. “Saving my skin. Running away, like everyone else.”

“We all have our reasons.”

“We’ve all lost our reason. Our reason, and everything else.”

“Not our hope.”

Giovanni rose to his feet. “I’m a poor man, Father.”

“You’re speaking to a mendicant.”

“Don’t ask me to give my clothes to a stranger.”

“Then give them to a friend.”

Giovanni stepped onto the road, pacing. Hadn’t he lost enough already? His friends, his family, his position in the world. His muse was dead, his art diminished. Even his father’s estate, which had passed to Giovanni, was denied him by the pestilence. Like Dante he was exiled. He could not go back. Everywhere it was the same. Patrons became beggars. Bailiffs became outlaws. Farmers became gravediggers. In every town the streets were filled with corpses. How could he give up his clothes when all the cloth merchants were dead? How could he share his bread when every farm lay fallow? He had spent his last fiorino in Capua buying wine, cheese, and wormy apples. He still had a few denari sewn into his shoes, but they would not last long. One false step and he would tumble into the pit of penury. If he could not find a patron in the Angevin capital, he might be forced to sell his cart, his donkey, even his books.

William said, “We should think about what’s best for Nadja.”

The poet stopped. “What do you mean?”

“She’s a virtuous girl, but I fear for her soul.”

“Now you’ve lost me.”

“She has a strong will and a Christian heart, but do you think it wise to tempt her with the flesh of a naked man? Especially one as strong and handsome as our heroic knight?”

Giovanni glanced back at the circle of firelight. He saw Nadja kneeling beside the reputed Templar, holding his hand. The man’s waist was covered with William’s blanket, but his chest and arms were bare. Nadja bowed her head over him. Her eyes were no doubt closed in benediction, but from this vantage point she appeared to be admiring his battle-forged physique.

Jealousy flared in Giovanni’s heart. “He can have my clothes.”

“God will bless you for it.”

“He can have all my clothes,” Giovanni said. “I’ll go naked if I have to.”

William smiled. “That will not be necessary.”

LAST WEEK — Chapter 5 of Devil's Lair by David Wisehart



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