BY GARRY McDOUGALL
This is an excerpt from the second volume of a novel series called The Viviers Chronicles, set in the period between 1492-1504 in southern France. Copyright is held by the author.
“Oui,” I said. “Lucien’s Papa is still captive, and I am his dear friend. Both of us know this gorge. I have an idea.”
“He has an idea. Like father, like son,” said Robert.
The village laughter embarrassed me once again.
“Go ahead,” said Papa, “and address everyone.”
“Lucien, Madelaine and I know this gorge well.” There were gasps at the thought of three of us alone in this gorge. “See that mountain behind us,” I said, pointing up. “It overlooks Aiguèze. If we climb it, we will see over the monk’s abbey and beyond. We could see everything from there, even soldiers in our village.”
“You know the way?”
“I have been here before,” I said, as I did not want to admit I had not climbed the slope. “Many times.” Papa looked at his stray son, so I added, “Where do you think our best logs came from? He shook his head but his battered state told me that he’d not reproach me.
“If Lucien and I leave soon, we will return before dusk. We will see the state of the abbey, see whether the soldiers have left St Martin, and perhaps return with food. Even if others see us first, we will be so high that they’ll never catch us. And —”
“Louis, if Jean were here to permit his son such a dangerous task,” said Papa, “but he is not. This is no adventure. You risk your lives, which is bad enough, but we would be risking our village carpenter and a blacksmith’s apprentice. And that no village can afford.”
“But everyone here wants to return home as soon as possible. And Robert to his leather. So many are weak and hungry, but we two are strong. Let us go and we might return with food.”
“No one has climbed those cliffs,” said a villager.
“I want to go,” said Lucien. “After all, I am of age.”
“And me too, soon,” I said.
Villagers nodded their heads. They knew that Aiguèze had a wealth of fare. The prospect of food and news of our village sustained them. I’d not deny their dreams of again tasting Madelaine’s sourdough.
Lucien and I put on our satchels, and looked up the massive slope that would take us out of the gorge, “Compose yourselves,” said Papa. “Be canny. And take no risks.”
I nodded, put one hand to his shoulder, and looked to Lucien. Madelaine kissed him. Yet never had I seen her so weary.
We climbed the shoulder, bustling past thick bushes that grew around larger rocks and scrambling up every incline thereafter. As up was up, up we’d go at every opportunity, the thickets soon thinning to twisted trunks and stunted shrubs on the exposed ridges. Early deep shadows gave way to full sunlight that speared our eyes. We focused on our feet, pounding the earth and rock to reach higher ground. A dry and gritty haze formed about us, my hands shrivelled and greyed while my back dripped with sweat. Cliffs everywhere. We clambered through steep gaps in the rocks and meeting more, we were confronted by a fearsome serpent.
When it appeared from under a rock, Lucien and I fell back. I grabbed a stick and beat about until the viper retreated into a crevice. Once it was out of sight, my eyes and ears became most alert for fear of meeting any other. Though we scampered up more of the slope, no other asp did we see or wish to. For the remainder of our climb, insects harried us, and I imagined more creatures with fangs lurked under every rock.
Afterwards, I held the thick branch of a stunted tree, sensing that we had neared the top. All about no brittle bushes could we hold. And oui, the mighty sky reared up at us just as the morning’s last mist evaporated below. I embraced Lucien and rubbed grit from my face.
In just a little time, we saw Aiguèze below, close enough to see its broken gate and ravaged passageways. Its far square was in disarray though its majestic steeple appeared undamaged. We were far enough away that no one below would see us. Nor would anyone be likely to look our way.
Lucien peered down, his tongue against his lip. He had better eyesight than me as he had proved in our forest rambles.
“It’s a mess.”
“I see smoke along the great road.”
But . . . Aiguèze? Are there soldiers?”
“Who can tell? I don’t think so.”
“Then let’s get closer. Imagine. If we can return with cake and oranges.”
“Wait on,” said Lucien. “Should we approach it by meeting and following the road? Pretend we are travellers. Or sneak through the bush and arrive from behind.”
“Bah. Look at us. No one would believe us to be travellers. Let’s go direct and take our chances. If there are soldiers, we retreat. If not, we search for food.”
Lucien looked me over, confirming we could not pretend to be anything but thieves and ruffians.
“I’m hoping to wash in their fountain,” I said. “There is a well in the square.”
Before long, we approached Aiguèze’s back gate, at the farthest distance from its church and square. Fear crept into my soul as I had seen this place when Robert was punished, but this other end was unknown to me. Its gate had been shattered by a cannonball or ramrod, and one side lay on the ground, the other part hanging from its hinge.
We crossed the threshold of broken brick and fractured ceramic tiles that covered the winding laneway. Its walls and doors were smashed and exposed to daylight and wind. As we could be in danger, I stopped myself from examining the decorative tiles that I had never seen before. I kept alert for any movement.
Food. Search for food.
Inside a deserted home, I found scattered grain on the benches and floor. And though we put what little we found in our satchel, it amounted to no more than a bowlful. We found no hint of life, only scattered and broken possessions.
Though monks and residents had made their escape, I anticipated that some had not survived. And so it was. Down the lane, the dead and slaughtered formed a wall of stench. A sticky air, foul and putrid, inhabited by insects and worms. I stepped back, unbalanced, and fell onto brick and ash. And without lingering on any corpse or seeking knowledge of them, I retreated to the lane on all four limbs.
As someone drawn to the new and daring, still this ravaged monk’s fort filled me with dread. I have seen birds and animals in rot, but I am no anatomist, and could not hold back my revulsion. But I promise you, Semla, to ask how you cope with such.
“Lucien. Lucien,” said I. “Don’t let this happen to us.”
He held me by the shoulder and eased me away from that slaughter field. “Let’s leave this place.”
“No,” I said, gaining some courage. “Food. We are here to find food. For our families, our villagers. We can’t return empty-handed.”
“But they didn’t ask for food.”
“Yes, they did. In their eyes.”
While we continued our search, we kept an eye for any sign of threat. We would run from soldiers, but even if we met a survivor, they would not want any other hungry mouths. And whatever question we might ask of them, their answers would not be worthy of a pinch of salt. Everyone would be looking after themselves. In our circumstance, only the dead are honest.
I wrote too quickly then, as there were others honest thereabouts: the carrion ravens and crows, and the vultures that fed on bodies. Wherever Aiguèze’s dead lay you would hear the honest chatter of the carrion birds. They beat their wings to gain purchase of their catch or else their squawks argued ownership of corpses. Every one of the dead was sustenance for them, the same thing that we sought, and whenever there is little of it, there is argument and flames.
With Lucien so alert and sharp-eyed, I felt safe enough to continue. If we won food, we would return to the forbidden gorge with bounty.
“Let’s go as far as the square,” I said.
Lucien nodded. “Keep your eyes open for any tools of trade. Whatever we find, we’ll bury and return later.” He moved into the square’s open space while I stood about and surveyed the grounds.
Then, it happened. Just before I entered there, I spied a black habit by a door. It lay there like a formless, discarded flag, so black that it suggested anything but a person. The top-hood that once enclosed a face had no eyes or mouth or nose, just a jawbone, eye socket and pestilent matter. At the other end, I expected sandals, but there was nothing except bone and gristle. Someone had taken the sandals and the exposed feet had become a feast for birds and rats. As the hands too had been debased, what remained of this monk lay inside his thick robes.
For some reason, the stench of death was absent, this monk somehow protected from that fate. We the living, standing by him, smelt worse. To be dead and odourless was to be given grace. He must have been honest I thought, as honesty has no smell of roses nor chaff nor rotting grain. To be this way was a gift for those of us who lived. His spirit-owl abided him, dispassionate on high limb, guardian to the honest, surveying our disordered days.
And there it was. This monk wore an owl pendant attached to the sleeve inside his robe. Where once a hand extended, it hung from an indigo ribbon, and there I could see some other object at its edge, some surface unknown to me. And just as the owl sights its prey from her high limb, she calculates and opens her wings. I swooped then and reached for whatever lay there. A blessed state, as there I found another black beneath black robes. Something not of ruin. Without others about, blessed to be there, I pulled from the sleeve this thing.
When I removed the wrapped and sealed scroll, its reed-paper curled and opened in my fingers. A tingle ran up my arm and it possessed me. It must be a story I thought, as I hungered for them. A story. An honest monk provided this relic when I could not read. The multitudes of knowledge that it could contain eluded me. I knew only stories.
What had I to lose as the world sat in my hand. To be in a fort and monastery without interrogation or revile. To have no other’s command over me, to be in this place of learning when learning had long ceased, yet — and I did not know it — it held a wealth of books and manuscripts.
This monk had attempted escape from those soldiers. In his last hour, he had sought to save that scroll rather than pieces of silver, jewels or food. I shook my head. Here was a monk who ate food grown in St Martin and spent the taxes that we paid, so wasn’t this scroll mine as much as his? When the dead pass from life, they leave an inheritance.
I had forgotten Lucien. Looking up, I saw him distant. He turned and spied me examining the remains. “What? Is there food?” he said.
“Go to the halles. Look for the grain stores,” I replied.
No doubt the soldiers had already taken all they considered valuable, leaving us crumbs and written treasures. So much of booty had been lost or damaged in retreating battles.
I did not know it then but they attacked these monks in spite and anger. They remembered the abbey’s offences on their journey south, so they had determined revenge and recompense. Everyone suspected that the monks had wealth within their walls.
Left alone I searched his body further, feeling inside the robes. So bold then. Hungry for more, I rolled that carcass over, finding other scrolls and books secreted on his body. Demons of delight. The She-owl blessed me that day as I thought of all the stories that they held. That’s right. Every scroll a story. And all of it had come to me from honest hands.
Oh, Semla, my love. Understand. I had not your familiarity with the dead. Just a young man. This fellow had been pierced by arrows, broken in his fall. Yet I pulled out a book, and then another and another, all of them leather-bound. They had been tied to his body, and by bad luck, they had not protected him from the archer’s deadly fire.
These books and manuscripts were a treasure, but I could not return to our villagers with books in hand. They were hungry. So I set about hiding them in a metal box with a broken lock found at the cottage door. Closing it, I placed it inside a recess and covered it with rubble. Finally, I filled the gap with a heavy flooring stone.
Hearing Lucien call me, I emerged to see him.
“Pears,” he cried. “There’s fruit growing outside the wall. Here. Come help.”
“An orchard? Here?”
“Outside,” said he. “Never a better sight.”
“Soldiers. Did you see any?”
“None. Except for a straggler on the road.”
“Then let’s collect the fruit, look over St Martin, then hurry back.”
I did not know it but discovering and possessing these books and scrolls sealed my fate. I was an illiterate not made yet a murderer. An act of theft some might say deserves no reward, yet this was an act of rescue and preservation. When I recall this to you, my Semla, I realize my village’s fate had less effect on me than this treasure; an act so bound to curiosity and a desire to learn, that it led to murder, and murders of all kinds.