Mary Dante needs a miracle fast, but she’s sick of asking God for it. Peter Anglis wants desperately to be Mary’s hero, to ride to her rescue, but he’s afraid she’s probably right. This is the twenty-first century. There aren’t any miracles—or knights in shining armor—anymore.
But their whispered argument in the balcony of a modern monastery church is interrupted by a dark, hooded figure attacking a lone monk in the shadows below. Racing after this mysterious cloaked figure, Mary and Peter are carried out of our world into a haunted paradise between Heaven and Hell, the Valley of the Earthly Paradise, a landscape of beauty and loneliness and danger, where the souls of the dead look up to the cold, distant heights of the star-lit hills of Heaven and down into the smoldering, swirling mists of the burning ruins of Hell, where both of them call out to you, and both demand you choose and come.
But Mary isn’t ready to choose. She and Peter follow the monk back into the world of thirteenth-century England, and here she learns from the sinister, dark monk that there is in fact a way to get whatever she wants. She can change lead to gold—she can heal the sick—she can conjure up an angel—she can have it all. Maybe it’s magic, and maybe it’s religion—Mary just knows it works and the dark monk promises to teach her everything she wants to know, although power like this exacts a terrible price, a price she will have to pay—or someone, some hero, will have to pay for her—when she returns at last to the Valley of the Earthly Paradise. . . .
But Mary will learn nothing if the Inquisition finds her first. . . .
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See an extended sample of the novel below.
Chapter 1. Compline
Peter Anglis couldn’t see her, but he could hear her, and that made him all the more glad it was dark. Judging by the sound of her whispers in the darkened monastery church, she wouldn’t be a very pretty sight just now.
He hesitated at the foot of the smooth, worn, red-brick stairs that led up to the balcony, and he wished the traffic on the street outside were a little louder. This would be a handy time for a fire truck or an ambulance or something to come tearing by on its way to some car crash or house fire. That would at least cloak the sound of her voice for a few moments.
All he needed was a little disaster outside to solve the problem in here.
He felt a flush of guilt over that thought, and tried to put it away.
Her soft voice spilled down the brick stairway and out into the nave in a cascade of hot whisper, mostly the ‘s’ sounds chattering over the low, waist-high brick wall at the front of the balcony and then down into the nave like a pressure cooker getting hot. Occasionally he caught a burst of full-throated bitterness when her anger got the better of her whisper and she said what she said as if she wanted somebody to hear her. Somebody other than God, anyway.
That was the sound of her voice, and he wondered that it always had such an effect on the pit of his stomach, no matter what she was doing with it.
Halfway up the stairs into the balcony, he halted and looked back down into the nave and followed the shadowy open area between the monks’ empty stalls, then beyond the transept, and finally up into the choir, dimly lit by two candles on either side of the curtained arch beyond the altar. A wisp of smoke from the censor still drifted like a specter over the altar, and he could smell a faint trace of the resinous myrrh and frankincense still lingering in the cooling air. The black floor up in the transept glittered with droplets of holy water from the abbot’s hyssop branch. Even in the dim light of the candles and the electric footlights, he could see the church was empty. He looked to the sides of the nave, but the aisles were empty as well. Compline was over. The monks were in bed. Everybody else was home watching television.
But she was here, and he could hear her, and now he could hear what she said.
“Thank you, Lord, for the wind. Breath is wind, and voice is breath, so prayer is wind. And if it blow a little too much now and then, a tornado to crush a home, a hurricane to flatten a city? Well, then you get more prayer, and more wind. Round it goes. Amen.
“And water! Thank you for blessing us with water, holy water, baptisms, drinking, and showers in April for flowers in May. What if it be a little too much here, too little there? Well, drownings and drought.” She laughed wickedly, freely. “Drownings and drought,” she repeated, again and again, and Peter felt the hairs on the back of his neck prick. “Much wind comes from drownings and doubt.” She stumbled in her mantra and she started to laugh at her bitter slip of the tongue, a low, threatening sound. “Drowning in doubt,” she finished, with a bitter laugh.
Peter eased around the top of the brick staircase, under the low arch, and stood standing in the balcony. He faced the sound of her voice, his hand resting on the smooth, worn brick. She knelt just before the low wall at the front of the balcony, leaning out over the nave. The light was not enough to illuminate her face, but he knew well what she looked like already, great, bright, liquid eyes and tear-wet cheeks and mouth turned down as she bit out her words. He could see her face, the bright green of her eyes, her dark lips. He couldn’t imagine them twisted, burning, not in pain like this, anyway. That’s not the way he saw her lips.
Then he stopped, ashamed of the thought. Timing was everything.
“And thank you for sickness. What will we talk about, you and I, once she’s . . . dead?” Her voice caught in anger. “No more wind between you and me . . . anymore.”
Then she turned to face Peter.
“Oh! And look who’s here. My little shadow. Following me again tonight, Peter? Maybe I should ask God to keep you at a safe distance. Do you think He’d do it? Or maybe . . . I should just do it my—self.”
She pushed away from the low wall, stood and faced him, her silhouette, the curve of her hips, her narrow waist, dark against the pale, candlelit columns behind her. She raised her arms over her head and turned about three times. “ ‘By charms I’ll make the calm seas rough and make the rough seas calm, and cover all the sky with clouds and chase them away again. . . . By charms I raise and still the winds, and break the viper’s jaw. . . .’ ”
Then she let her arms fall to her side. “Medea always gets what she wants. She just has to do extra work to get it. So, did you hear my text tonight? Drownings and drought, Peter Anglis. Drowning in doubt.”
“That sounds stupid,” he said.
“Oh, yeah? And what kind of results do you get when you pray? I’ll bet my record is better than yours, Sir Peter.”
“Don’t say that, Mary.”
“And why not?” She turned towards the distant altar and leaned on the low wall. She did not seem a bit embarrassed that she had an audience, and that disturbed him. “I have to ask God—I have to beg him to let my mother remain sick. Because if the only choice I have is her sickness or her death, then. . . .” And she said no more, but turned her face to the floor.
Peter put his hand out, but she felt it rather than saw it coming close and she drew her shoulder away. He stepped back from her, his cheeks hot, and the blood pulsing in his throat. He wanted to say something, do something, come up with some wise word, but he got nothing.
He was stupidly angry with her mother, and the guilt came right back to him again. He remembered when his own mother died. He remembered all that anger, too.
Mary Dante had been this way for days, ever since she got the news: her mother had a month, maybe less. Mary had missed every class for a week. She wouldn’t talk with him. She wouldn’t eat anything. She just stayed at home, and every night, once the disease exhausted her mother so badly that the drugs pushed her into a fitful rest, Mary came here, to the church at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, and this is where she spent the nights.
Peter followed her every night. He slept in his car after she wouldn’t let him in the house anymore. He followed her from home to church and then back every night.
He wasn’t sure why she came here. She never went to church. Didn’t like it. Had no use for it. But once her mother became sick, she started in with this monastery, every night, without fail, up in this balcony, where it was dark and anonymous, just before Compline, and sometimes, for many hours afterwards.
He begged her to come and have some food somewhere, but she wouldn’t do it, because she wasn’t paying any attention to anything anymore, and she walked through the dark streets between home and church alone, party people whistling at her as they drove past, and Peter had missed every class for a week as he followed along behind her. He didn’t know what else to do. Sooner or later, it would be over. He just wanted Mary to know that he had been there for the right reasons.
“Come on, Mary. This isn’t doing any good. You should rest. For her.”
“Don’t tell me what I should do for her! I already know what she needs. So I pray for her.” She smiled bitterly. “And like Medea, from now on, I’m going to get what I pray for. Because I only ask for what I’m going to get anyway. Hallelujah.”
She was too loud, and she was getting louder, and that made him nervous, because she always got louder when she knew she was in the right, as if she wanted witnesses or something—she could never be right without making sure it went on the record—loudly—and that meant the worst of her anger was still to come. Peter plucked at her sleeve, trying to draw her towards the door. This would be so much easier outside. The monastery was close to the university campus, and outside, it wasn’t so strange to hear people shrieking and yelling in the middle of the night. But not in here. He felt his lip sweating.
“Go away, Peter. I want to be alone.” She sighed lightly, at last. “I’ll give my confession when Father Alberic shows up in the morning. You don’t want to hear my confession, Peter, my dear. You might just figure in it, you know. It’s going to be rather saucy, I think. I wonder what the monks think of a saucy confession? Do I ever show up in your confessions, Peter? That’s a sure sign of true love.”
He could hear the threat of a smile in her voice.
She was right. He wasn’t any use to her here. “You can’t walk home alone,” he said at last, looking down into the darkened nave.
“Why not? Think something bad might happen to me?” Her eyes narrowed. “Wouldn’t that be a change, now? Who will bear me up, lest I strike my foot against a stone, hm?”
He could smell the anger coming back, like the lightning before a storm.
But the wind was coming from a different direction now. Now, now she was mad at him.
He didn’t mind so much being just an irritating reminder that life was cruel. It even had a kind of solitary dignity to it, like suffering for a noble cause.
But he didn’t like being the problem himself. He was pretty sure nobody would come to his rescue when she got angry with him. And then, for the third time, he felt guilty all over again.
This was hopeless. He might as well leave, go sit in the car, watch for her to go home, and at least not be here to give her something more to be angry with. If he stayed in here, sooner or later one of the monks was going to hear her, and then. . . .
And then they were heard. Peter was sure of it.
Chapter 2. The Black Benedictine
Down in the south aisle, beyond the pews to the right, a dark shadow slipped along in the gloom beyond the columns. The shadow stayed close to the wall near the stained glass windows and away from the feeble glow of the footlights and paraffin candles up near the altar, but Peter saw the dark cowl turn briefly towards the stairs up into the balcony. “Hush. . . .” Peter urged, and tried to ease back into the dark. But Mary made no effort to duck out of sight, and she just stared absently at the figure, like she’d never seen a monk before.
“What’s he sneaking about for?” she asked. Her voice was a little quieter.
Peter let go of her sleeve and stared after her. Mary was right. This fellow was moving very oddly, slipping along from shadow to shadow behind the columns that separated the aisle from the nave. His head was covered in the black Benedictine hooded cowl, but he didn’t pace in that slow, measured step common to monks doing their prayers between the liturgical offices. His face was not bent to the floor, his arms not clasped in the sleeves of his heavy robe. He slipped from the shadows behind the columns, one after the next, his pale hands on the smooth sides of the columns, and he looked towards the altar and then towards the doors down near the transept that led out of the church and into the cloister, where the exit sign over the door spilled a tiny pool of red light onto the floor.
Mary’s lips relaxed back into contempt, her anger at Peter forgotten. “He’d better watch it, skulking about here like this instead of going to bed like he’s supposed to.” Then she put her hand in front of her mouth and stifled a theatrical gasp. “Do you suppose he’s here to meet someone? Like an assignation? Do you suppose he has a lover? And he meets her here in the dark, after Compline. . . . He meets her, and he has a stolen rose from the cloister garden. . . . Courtly love, Sir Peter! Oh, my. Well, I suppose it’s a girl . . . maybe not. . . .”
“Come on!” Peter whispered, tugging her back by the elbow.
“What for?” She twisted out of his grip.
Mary hushed at the sound of a door opening below, up towards the choir. Another monk came through the door, stepped briskly out into the dark church, stood still in a narrowing rectangle of light as the door slowly closed behind him with a metallic click of the latch and left him in the dark.
“That must be Brother Malachy,” Peter said. “He always locks up after Compline. They’re going to close the gate. We need to go now.”
Brother Malachy stood for a minute in the dark, perhaps letting his eyes grow accustomed to the gloom. He would never see Peter and Mary up in the balcony. He did not see the shadow moving along the aisle below as it slipped behind a column. At last, Brother Malachy started coming down the aisle toward the great wooden doors at the west end of the church, a bunch of keys jingling in his hand.
Brother Malachy made it halfway down the aisle when the shadow stepped out from behind the column and stood in front of him. The shadowy figure spoke, his voice low.
Peter couldn’t make it out, but there was something not quite right about the way Brother Malachy replied, something not quite end-of-the-night in the other monk’s voice.
“What’s that he said?” Mary whispered. The voices in the aisle were raised now, and Peter recognized the voice of Brother Malachy, mixing in fits and starts around the words of the dark monk. He did not sound very happy, his voice confused and growing in pitch and volume, and he stepped back from the dark, hooded figure.
“Hush! It’s . . . Latin? I heard . . . ‘codex’ and ‘liber’ or something like that. . . .”
Then there was no more conversation to overhear. Brother Malachy gasped a sort of stifled shriek and stepped back, flinging the bunch of keys away to clatter into a pew and fall to the floor, but the shadow reached out quickly and grabbed his arm. Malachy thrashed, broke away, running fast for the cloister door. The black Benedictine followed at once, hard on his heels. Peter saw a glint of candlelight reflecting off something metallic and sharp in the pursuer’s hand. He stared as they reached the end of the aisle, the echo of their feet loud in the empty church.
“Do something, Peter!” Mary said, her voice a hot whisper. She pushed past him and started down the stairs. Peter sprang down beside Mary, passed her, and was at the foot of the steps in a flash and started down the aisle, Mary’s light step right behind him. They brushed past the columns just in time to hear the door into the cloister smash back against the wall with a loud crack that rang through the church as Malachy hurled himself through it, the shadow right behind him.
Peter ran down the aisle and got to the cloister door before it had a chance to close, and he pushed through. The sound of running footsteps echoed down the hall to the left. He started after them, not looking back.
Mary followed close, vaguely aware that she was in the forbidden cloister for the first time, the bright fluorescent lights in the hallway dazzling her eyes. Down a hall to the left, a quick right, then past two doors, following the sound of Brother Malachy’s cry all the while, and then they were through a heavy door and in the monastery library. She nearly ran into Peter, who had stopped and was staring before her.
Brother Malachy was backed against the far wall under a stained glass window. Before him, the dark hooded figure that had chased him down the aisle had him cornered, but he did not advance on the cowering monk—he looked to the right and the left, to the bookshelves stacked there, and he hesitated, turning from the terrified monk to the books and then back again. He held a dull-looking dagger in his right hand, the weapon out to the side, ready to slash. At least that’s the way it looked to Peter.
The dark figure, alarmed at the sound of footsteps behind him as the heavy door smashed back against the wall, crouched and turned to face the newcomers.
His face was hidden in the folds of the hooded cowl, invisible even under the harsh fluorescent lights of the library. Under the library lights, Peter could see this monk’s robe was not quite like that of the abbey’s Benedictine monks—they wore a light white tunic covered with a black, hooded cowl—his was black throughout, tunic and cowl both, the material was heavier, coarser, thicker, tied round at the waste with a length of thick, frayed cord instead of the common leather belts the brothers here wore. The tan rope at his waist, tied into four knots, was the only feature he could see against the dark man’s figure.
Mary drew her breath in with a hiss, and Peter felt his knees weaken as the dark, faceless shape turned towards them, as the light glinted on the dull, uneven, and notched edge of the dagger. Peter had a ghastly vision of the kind of wound that thing could make. He crouched and opened his arms out to the sides and wondered what the best way to parry a knife thrust was, and he felt the warmth of Mary’s body right behind him.
And then the light found its way into the hooded robe, and he saw the face.
The man was pale, his large eyes grey. His cheeks were thin, hollow, deeply etched, his chin prominent, cleft. A trace of black hair curled over his brow, and his jaw was darkened with a stubble of beard.
The monk shoved the hood off his head, the thick, black hair broken only by a pale, poorly shaved tonsure.
“Stop! What are you doing?” Peter asked, foolishly.
The dark monk looked at him, and his lips moved silently. Peter stared, baffled. The man was repeating—or trying to repeat—what Peter had just said, ‘What are you doing. . . .’ He had the look of a man trying to remember the taste of something he halfway recognized.
The dark monk backed to the left into a corner, putting as much distance as he could between himself and the three of them. He stopped only when he ran back against a corner between the window and a bookshelf.
Peter tried to ignore the man’s face, those shining eyes, and he tried to keep his attention focused on that knife. He tried to remember what his taekwondo instructor had taught him. Watch the knife. Figure out what he’s going to do with it. Nobody ever hurt you with their eyes.
The monk’s free hand slipped into a leather scrip hanging at his side, and he fumbled out a small clay jar. He began to say something that Peter couldn’t understand, but knew he’d be able to translate it if only he saw it written down and maybe if he had his copy of Wheelock’s Latin Grammar handy, but there was no time for all that, because somebody shouted behind them far down the hallway, footsteps clattering down the passage. The monk turned the clay jar upside down and dumped a red powder on the floor before him. It spread out in a loose arc.
Then he stepped forward with the knife held out.
Peter felt Mary behind him, the warmth of her body, her sweet breath.
The monk stepped forward, his foot now on the loose arc of dull, reddish powder.
Peter figured the monk had to be going for the door. He’d backed himself into a corner. There was only one way out now, and the man knew it. And to get to that door, he’d have to go right past them. Right past Mary.
She needed help. She needed him.
Peter extended his arms, trying to guess how the man would attack. Would he stab? Or would he slash? How strong were this man’s arms? Peter’s hands were clammy.
Then the library door burst open and somebody flew into the room. The monk froze, looked past Peter to the open door. Then he spun about and began to empty the last of the red powder onto the floor behind him, completing a rough, rusty red circle. For the briefest instant, his back was turned as he completed the circle.
And Peter knew this was the only chance he was going to get.
At least he could save her from this.
He lunged for the monk, hoping to grapple him from behind, but the man spun about faster than he expected. He grabbed for the hand with the knife and the empty clay jar fell and shattered on the floor. He felt the monk’s forearm in his grasp, but it was hard to hold him, the woolen sleeve gave the man plenty of room to move in Peter’s grip—and something was suddenly wrong. Peter pushed the monk’s arm away and the monk wasn’t fighting him—he didn’t stab or slash—he pulled the knife towards his own body, away from Peter—and too late Peter realized he had misjudged the blow. In an instant, he lost his balance and fell heavily forward into the arms of the monk and they both stepped into the red circle.
Peter felt a flash of stabbing pain in his stomach, his knees felt weak and thin, and then he heard Mary shout behind him and he could smell her hair, and the warmth of her hands, and he smelled the damp wool of the monk’s habit which smelled like snow on a cold night and blood on a hot night, and he felt somebody pull his hair, and then there was a great flash of light, and he felt wet and cold all at once, like he’d been thrown into the river on a cold spring morning, and then the library burst like a soap bubble in the sunlight and was gone.
Chapter 3. Clean
The first thing Mary knew was that she was clean.
She remembered grabbing for Peter as he lunged for the knife—trying to be a hero! Why did he always have to be a hero?
She remembered stumbling forward as he fell forward, pulling her right along with him, and she remembered the feel of Peter’s back as she tried to pull him away from the monk, his muscles knotted under his shirt as he fell forward. She remembered a moment when Peter seemed to tense suddenly as he fell weirdly into the monk’s arms. She remembered hearing him gasp, like he’d been hit in the stomach. She remembered the feeling as his skin under his shirt went cold and damp in an instant, like a man with a feverish, delirious sweat.
Then she felt the bright light. She didn’t see it. It was too much for her eyes. The light went through her like the light of a heat lamp, right through her skin. Then she felt the wet and the cold all over her, and her breath was gone, but she didn’t need any breath, even though she was under the water. The water somehow wet her right through everything, through her dress, her hair, her skin, not taking any time at all to soak into her clothes and skin—not like the way water does, beading up on you and soaking in slowly, creeping around on your dry skin until it seeps over you, but this water soaked her right through at once, right through the clothes, the hair, right through the skin, the blood, the bones, and then right out the other side of her again, taking everything with it, everything, as she felt it flow right through her heart.
Then she knew she was clean, and she knew she had never been clean before in her life, not until she had been bathed in this water like wet light. But she was clean now.
She was out of the water now, and slowly realized that she was lying on a some soft but firm surface. She breathed, and she was surprised she hadn’t missed the air before. The cold spirit of the air filled her breast like the vapor of that water in the stream, still soaking through her. And the light—there was still the light.
She could see nothing but a bright wall of faintly golden, warm light before her, and after a moment she realized she was lying flat and looking straight up into a featureless, warm sky. She reached up from where she lay, and the tips of her fingers grew indistinct as she straightened her arm. There was a mist all around her, luminous, a kind of thick, bright, golden grey mist.
She heard the sound of water flowing near at hand, and under that, a faint, soft ringing, like the leftover sound of a large wind chime, long after the strike. The palm of her hand rested on something cool and soft and growing.
She sat up. The grass under her hands was a dun sort of green, alive and growing, a little iridescent in the golden mist. She ran her hands through the long grass, like the fur on a cat’s back, and it didn’t tangle, but swarmed clean and cool through her fingers, leaving a moist dew on her hand that left it feeling electric and clean again, not a trace of the soil caught on her skin. And the color—she smoothed the grass with her hand—the blades were a flat color, pale green, but soft and clean. She lay back down on the grass, on her side, and she reached around the side of her head, took a long curl of her hair, and lay it in front of her face, turning her head to see the way her golden hair twined through the grass, making a tapestry of olive and coppery gold, and it hurt, it was so beautiful to see.
She wished Peter could see this. She knew what he thought when he looked at her. There was a time once when she’d been able to like knowing what he thought when he looked at her, a while ago, when she could spare a part of her mind for things like that. She never really supposed she was so terribly beautiful as he always said she was—that was just his schoolboy’s noble and courtly exaggeration, and it irritated her sometimes—but now she wanted him to see this sort of beauty in her so that he would know he was really right about that all along.
Then, quite suddenly and completely, with that thought, she knew she was not clean again.
She sat up. She tried to feel what had just gone. Whatever it was, it was lost. She couldn’t feel the clean again. It was simply gone.
The grass looked the same. She lay back down, stretching in the grass, and remembered that she never dared do this before. You never knew what was hidden in the grass. You might lie down on an ant bed. Spiders. You might lie down on some dead animal. You might lie down where somebody had walked their dog.
Now she was quite certain that the dirtiest thing on this grass was her.
She stood, unhappy, but trying not to think what she was angry at.
“Peter!” she called into the heavy mist.
She heard no response. She wondered if he was even here, wherever here was. A place with nothing but grass and golden fog and the sound of water close by.
Maybe this was some sort of punishment for all those prayers. She didn’t really mean to blaspheme—she didn’t really mean it at all.
She could barely make out the grass at her feet, so thick was the bright, golden mist. The only hint of a world outside right where she stood was the sound of the water gurgling merrily somewhere nearby. She turned her head from side to side to try to catch the direction to the water, and satisfied after a minute that she had it, she stepped tentatively towards what she hoped was the shore.
The water’s edge was farther than she thought, but after a minute’s careful easing along, she stood at the edge of the stream. She could not see across the channel to the bank on the other side—the mist was too thick for that. But somehow, she knew she had not come from the other side. She had come right out of the water.
She stooped to look down into the current. The bottom was clearly visible through the flawless water. The stream bed was sandy and pebbly, and the water made a cheering sound as it rushed along. The sandy bottom was carpeted with long strands of beautiful green reeds, not very wide, but many of them a foot or more long, all anchored in the sand, their ends trailing down with the current. The long, slender leaves waved to and fro, brushing against one another, swaying this way and then that in the current. Often a strand was tangled fast against another strand, the two wrapped about one another in a tight knot. Sometimes the two strands seemed to grow together past that knot, a very few so closely tied together that they seemed to have become a single blade. Often tiny golden flowers emerged where they tangled fast or further down, towards their ends. At the flowers, new shoots dropped roots into the sand and sent out a green shoot of their own, though they usually remained attached to the parent strand.
Many others had tangled with other leaves in more than one spot, though these seemed ever about to lose their connection and to drift apart again.
She dipped her finger into the flow and felt again that bright clarity seep through her hand. She felt the tug of the water, some kind of urge to lean over and just fall forward into the flow. This had to be the water that had left her so—clean—only a few minutes ago. She must have come out of this flow and then lay down on the bank. She didn’t remember anything between the monastery and burst of wet brightness and the feel of the grass at her back, but this had to be it.
She cupped her hands in the water and drew a handful to her mouth, she drank it, and it filled her with light and air and cool.
She turned away from the water and started back up the bank and into the fog, and then it hit her, where she was, or at least where she thought she was. . . .
It wasn’t fair. She never prayed for this. No one would ever pray for madness.
Copyright 2011 by Keith Azariah-Kribbs