Sunday, 2 November 2008

Chapter One

In a stone cell, in a humble monastery, an old man began to scream. He thrashed on his narrow bed, throwing his thin blanket off his emaciated body.

A novice monk hurried into the room carrying a mug of water. He removed a small bottle from a pouch around his neck and carefully measured three drops of a pungent, dark brown liquid into the water.

"Here, drink this, my lord. It will make you feel better"

The old man twisted his head to one side, resisting the ministrations of his would be benefactor. He tried to speak, but his mouth would not form the words that he wanted to say.

"Do - Donna - Do"

He shook his head again, tears of frustration in his eyes, and finally surrendered to the inevitable and accepted the mug of water, downing it in a few swallows. He knew well the consequences of refusing his regular medicine, and he had no wish to experience the horror of the funnel being forced into his mouth again. His tongue flicked involuntarily to the cracked stump of a tooth that he had lost the last time that he had tried to resist.

Within a matter of moments he felt the by now familiar wash of lethargy through his body as the potion took effect, and he surrendered with not a little gratitude to the sleep that quickly overtook him.

The novice took the mug from the old man's hands and covered him again with the blanket. He took a rough wooden comb from the table in the corner of the cell and began to untangle the old man's tangled and matted grey hair. He noted the pallor of the man's skin and heard the unmistakeable and characteristic rasp in his lungs. Looking around the room he felt the cold, damp, autumn air blowing through the open slit that served as a window and knew in his heart that the old man would not survive the coming winter.

The kindly words and gentle ministrations could not disguise the fact that this old man had been brought to their monastery against his will, he had been drugged to keep his tongue silent, and if he continued to be held in this cold, dank room he would soon be dead, and no doubt buried in an unmarked grave in the small cemetery outside the walls.

What they were doing here was murder, plain and simple.

Brother Alonso knew that he must act. His prayers and meditations had gone unanswered for far too long, and he took that as a sign that he must learn to think independently. If God would not provide guidance then he must trust to the logic that he had learned as a child. Those lessons seemed to belong to a different world, and in a way they did.

His decision to take his vows and enter the cloistered world of the monastery had not been taken lightly. His parents and his tutors had expected him to study at one of the great seats of learning before returning to a life as a merchant trader, a respectable marriage to a daughter of a similarly wealthy noble line and to eventually take the reins of their family business.

He still could not adequately express in words the sense of conviction that he had felt that had led him to shave his head into a tonsure and don the capuccio hood. All he knew was that having taken that step, he had felt an immeasurable sense of freedom and release.

The rules of the order were simple. Those called to the life were to live a life of asceticism, poverty and humility. They were to own no worldly goods, other than the simple hooded robes that they wore. They would be barefooted, even in the harshest cold of winter. They were to keep no supplies in the house, beyond a few days worth of food. They were to rely on the charity of others for their sustenance, and they were forbidden to even touch money.

It was difficult to imagine a greater contrast with his younger life.

They lodged with the Franciscans in the monastery, and he worked quietly and without complaint as he was directed by the Abbot. In addition to his duties tending the plants in the garden and cleaning the latrines to use the ordure produced as fertilizer, he had been summoned one day and told to care for the old man who had arrived in a shuttered carriage, his face bloodied and bruised. He had been instructed to care for his basic bodily needs and to administer three drops of a particular medicine should he ever become agitated or distressed. His final injunction was to ignore anything that old man might say, and to treat them as the ravings of a lunatic. It went without saying that he should not speak of this matter to anyone outside of the order.

It had been a warm day in late summer when the old man had arrived, and the cell had been a blessedly cool respite from the hot sun outside. Now, the chill of Autumn had arrived bringing the damp mists that rose up from the river that snaked past the hill on which the monastery had been built.

Alonso knew that to do nothing was to condemn the man to a lingering and painful death from an infection of the lungs, if the sedative action of the medicine did not cause him to stop breathing as he slept fitfully.

Alonso checked that the old man was comfortable one more time, and walked back to his own cell, his head bowed as was customary. It was almost time for the office of Nocturnes, which he would observe in silent contemplation on his own.

He knelt on the floor, and tried to clear his mind of worldly distractions, trying to hear the inner voice within, but he felt nothing. Very well, a different approach was called for.

He put back the hood of his robe and felt for the thin chain around his neck, and pulled it out and stared at the locket that was attached to it. This had been his first and only act of defiance to the rules of the order, and he wondered if this was the cause of his spiritual malaise. No, for if he was honest, he had not heard that voice for so long that he now wondered if he ever truly had, or if it had been a moment of self delusion.

He had found the locket on the day that the old man had arrived.

He had stripped him, cleaned the blood from his face, and then dressed him again in a simple robe. He had been instructed to take the pile of dirty and torn clothes and dispose of them in the fire, but something had made him hesitate. He had noticed a small object hidden within one of the man's leather shoes - a simple locket wrapped in a scrap of paper. Almost without thinking he had placed the locket around his neck and concealed it beneath his robe, and looked once at the single word on the paper before consigning it to the flames.

It said 'Serenissima'.

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