In the Golden Age of Caesar, all roads in Gaul led to Rome. By the year of the New Lord 500 A.D., the Roman build highways that kept the various cultures of the Empire connected led only to other roads that were more wild grass than road. Three centuries later, trees came in to fill in the spots between the wild grasses, and the remains of human bones of those slain by barbarians, roving bandits and the most merciless invaders of them all, disease and starvation. By 999 AD, the roads were all but gone, dense forests which forbade most forms of human travel taking their place, thankfully. The Viking demons from the North would have to find other ways into the thatched hut hobbles where emaciated Christians struggled to survive and, on a good day, celebrated what blessings they could negotiate from Nature’s cruel hand in ways that were part Pagan and part Christian.
The woods provided you with wood to build your house, fuel for your fires and a barrier to keep vicious raiders, Christian and Pagan alike, at a distance. Norsemen from distant lands who sought to loot, pillage and leave the survivors of the raid to scratch out a living from what was left. And French speaking Christian villages whose leaders sought to enslave you and take your lands for no other reason than that they could. From your side of the thick brush and forested slopes you watched but never journeyed into, you could hear wild animals. Some you knew, as you killed them for meat. Others you drew pictures in your mind about, as no one ever saw them. After all, the forest and the world beyond were a terrible place, and if it belonged to anyone, it belonged to the devil. God owned the village and the Church, which owned the people. Men, and women, were caught in the middle of these perceptions, perhaps realities. Cold, hunger and diseases were always in more abundance than warmth, food or health. Life was harsh, brutish, and short, but, for better or worse, it was still life. Children did still have some opportunities to experience happiness before becoming adults, and adults did love their children in ways they could never love themselves, or each other.
But all this would change, as it was December, 999 AD. The days were getting shorter, the nights longer, and the end of the world as men, woman and even the clergy knew it would be a matter of only days at hand. According to what the Priests read from books no one could really understand, it was the Second Coming of Christ, a welcomed event for Christians whose lives were more misery than merriment, and who nobly did God’s work on earth. These were people who endured hardship after hardship, loss of one child after another, loss of each of their senses and perhaps limbs as they grew past the ‘ripe’ old age of 40, without taking their own lives. People who hated and feared the Priests who kept ‘time’ with a calendar that no one could read. A Calendar that now said that at the year 1000 AD was at hand, their time was up, very, very soon.
Brother Thomas gazed down the narrow window of his cell in the Monetary of St. Pierre, noting another wagonload of goods being carted in to the gates of the ancient three-man-high-walled Roman stone fortress that still towered over any structures built during the Christian Era. “More animal skins and furs, Guinevere,” he said to the only companion he allowed inside his cell other than his own inner demons, his stare caught by the fear-infused eyes on the slain animal heads. This time it was three does, and a wild boar and at least a dozen rabbits barely old enough to have their own babies to lose. “Animal sacrifices for Souls who are less than animals, God help them, my good friend,” the old Monk, 30 years of age, at least a hundred in life-experience, lamented to his still silent friend, who opened her mouth in a sorrowful sigh then turned around on her back, and went to sleep again. There was nothing she could do about what was going on outside the cell walls and fortress gates anyway. Indeed Thomas felt like taking that big sleep himself. He had, despite his inner wishes, survived to see the dawn of another winter. As Thomas saw, and felt it, death was the final and ultimate mercy life afforded those who endured it, but this law seemed to apply only to man, and woman. These slain animals did nothing to deserve becoming offerings the village dwellers and serfs were giving to the Church so that their Souls would be unburdened of wealth, and therefore be admissible to Heaven. But, to be fair, or at least understanding of the situation at hand, Heaven, and Hell, would engulf the world after 999 AD came to a close in preparation for the New Millennium.
There were other offerings as well. Some of the more well off villagers unburdened themselves of gold and silver, and newly re-discovered form of wealth, money. The most valuable cargo was made of the most terrifying kind of flesh. Mothers fearing for the Salvation of their children would bring in the weakest, or sometimes the strongest, of their offspring, donating them to the Church for whatever use “God had of them”. Few children came willingly, and of the two dozen delivered over Christmas week, half were already being prepared for exportation to undisclosed locations in the Spring. But such was nothing new. The Nunneries all over what used to be the Roman Empire were filled with girls offered to the Church by families seeking salvation, along with worldly favor from grateful and sexually-gratified clergy in the meantime. No, nothing was new. Just old crap, amplified.
“I would give my Soul, if it is still worth anything, for one thing to come in on one of those carts,” Brother Thomas smiled sadly as his beloved Guinevere opened up her eyes. “Books,” he continued to his closest, and perhaps only real friend over his three year tenure at the Monastery as Guinevere nuzzled next to knee. “Books based in HUMAN speculation and imagination, based in reason rather than fear,” he lamented to his very female companion, as she rubbed her soft neck against his clammy, cold shoulder. It would mean certain death if she was discovered with him as she was, according to the new Abbot, a messenger of Satan, black as night, eyes that shined brightly in the dark, and possessing the ability to move anywhere in the village and monastery that pleased her without being noticed. But the feline who chose to come ashore three years ago had found Thomas, somehow. She not only kept out the rats that lived to eat his manuscripts, but the demons who wanted to stop him from writing new ones.
Thomas stroked Guinevere’s belly, then his still-red hair, noting once again the shaven crown which was regulation for Brothers of his order. How he longed to have hair growing there as it had in the golden days before he joined the Order, the only choice available given a short career in the military or even more deadly options his family had chosen for him. How he missed the secular days before he was ‘saved’ when he could roam the streets and choose abstinence of one thing or another rather than have it be inflicted upon him. And how he yearned to be surrounded by his most favorite friends. “Books.” he said again to the independent black cat he trusted more than anyone around him, or even himself.
Guinevere was hungry and the monastery was well provisioned with food from villagers who had little enough for themselves. “Here,” Thomas said, throwing his friend two cherry-sized pieces of chicken which he hoped was not meat of more human origin. “Eat hearty,” he smiled at the feline friend who purred back something which Thomas allowed himself to think was conversation, and which sounded like a human baby already grown ‘life experienced’. He smelled the meat again. It was a gift, something the donator insisted on giving to Thomas. Duke Lancelotierre was the richest man in St. Pierre, no matter what currency was in use, who, legend said, was descended from Knights who served with Charlemagne. Legend also held that the Duke in his younger days fought bravely against Islamic Moors, Druid Saxons and, according to the legend, Jewish Vikings, single-handedly saving St. Pierre from invasion time and time again. To be sure that the Duke kept the legend going the way he wanted it remembered, Lancelotierre needed someone who could read, and write. Thomas fit the bill, as he could also ‘compose’ new books, a distinction which separated Thomas from his fellow monks. As for who Thomas really was, that was a secret which he kept from everyone, even Guinevere. It was as well kept a secret as the fact that Duke Lancelotierre, the champion funder of a Monastery whose job it was to collect books, and a collector of books himself, couldn’t read a word himself.
Secrets were as plentiful as hunger and death-promoting dysentery in the dwindling days of the world in 999 AD. As was the fact that what Thomas wrote about what really happened in those dwindling dark days, and the very real demonic creature in woods, was put to paper with mirror writing. An inverted script upon which the date 999 was 666.
Though far from biologically dead, Thomas knew he was dying, at least in the ways that mattered most to him. With no one to read the books he wrote, and no one to share the ideas that came to his ever-active mind, the process of death was already on its way. No matter how colorfully he told the facts about the way the world in fact was through fictionalized account with ‘marks on paper’, the world was running out of readers, and ideas. After all, more was dying in 999 AD than people. Ideas were dying, because no one wanted to hear them, build on them, or come up with their own. And those who had new ideas were crucified for them, or worse. And even to mount a play, the most popular ways to relate to people about the world accessible through ‘marks on paper’, was a slow process. Thomas could write a new book in two months. Most were just ‘stories’, based in how he wished the world would be, but real fact always inspired the fiction, and what the characters did was based in scientific fact. As was the logical possibility that the various ‘magical’ devises the half-fictionalized players in the ‘myths’ used would be built in the ‘real’ world in better times. Instructions for their construction were clearly written down, the designs for these ‘wonder machines’ awaiting a workman with the money, hands and courage to put them together, the ‘miracle medicines’ thus far only tested on a few rats Thomas could trap or the even fewer human patients he had the opportunity to cure.
It would took as many years for any of Thomas’ books, be they about scientific fact or human fiction, to go through the process of having it be read or copied. As he had no army of Monks to transcribe his writings, and no Army of Soldiers to force people to at least listen to the words. That all too painful soul vs. mind argument with its inevitable conclusion came to Thomas once again, as he saw the winter sun slowly sneak its way over the horizon of a world he loved, hated, and was doomed to serve.
“Ideas cause us and others to suffer, so to prevent suffering, which is good, one should not produce or perpetuate any new ideas,” his weary mind shouted at his Soul in Aristotle ‘logic’. The rest of the argument continued as he held his painful and overworked wrists, his ink-stained fingers aching as the winter air become colder and wetter. “And since to serve others is to alleviate suffering, since new ideas cause suffering, it is my duty to not provide the world with new ideas.”
It made sense. And since the world was coming to an end anyway, at least according to the Abbot, what difference would it make anyway? He stared at the books he wrote for…someone. Someone other than the people in St. Pierre. As he had no known heir of his own, at least that he knew about, perhaps someone else’s sons or daughters. Maybe some of the shivering sons and daughters in the courtyard who were being lined up for a head shearing, as they were donated as ‘lambs of God’. Yes, for those children, or someone else’s, or perhaps Sebastian’s literate rodent relatives, Thomas had to keep writing. At least till ‘the world’ would end at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 999 AD., otherwise read as…666 DA.
Thomas gave voice to the ominous numerical coincidence, and recalled everything else about the last year, and decade, which had gone ‘in reverse’ to the plan of Life. The Life Promoting Salvation of Christianity seemed if anything to be the kiss of death for any people who embraced it. From his own travels, which he dared not tell anyone about, and the stories he heard from Jews who wandered into St. Pierre, whose language Thomas knew all too well from his own ‘forbidden’ childhood, he surmised that as soon as a people became absorbed into the Catholic Church, they were invaded by Pagans. And Pagans who remained Pagan were always the fiercest conquerors. The blessings of Christianity even made the Viking’s weak. But maybe it wasn’t Christ who was at fault, but the ‘anti-Christ’s’ who seemed to pop up everywhere, professing His Name from books they never allowed their ‘flock’ to read. And which Thomas, thankfully, remembered, as best as he could at least, from those golden times in Moorish Spain when he learned to read, write and that most feared of tasks—think.
Thinking led to speculation, then activation of the senses. Thomas imagined what it would be like to hear the ‘final trumpet’ as the world came to an end, as Abbott Philip kept proclaiming to the hungering villagers. To smell the fire of burning flesh of Souls damned to hell, perhaps including that of the corpulent Abbott, or perhaps Thomas’ own sufficiently-fed body. To feel on his clammy and cold skin the warm, bright Light of the Messiah who was coming for loyal Christians, as well as, according to his innermost non-spoken wishes, deserving Jews.
The trumpets did blast on that cold December morning. Three ‘hawk’ bursts from the North Tower. By the commotion outside his door, and the rush of people of all walks of life running to the safety of the Monastery, it meant only one thing. “Vikings!”
It was dangerous work, manning the towers. Given to the most alert, and the most expendable. By the sound of the hawk this time, it was Roland, the Miller, whose eyes could see further than any bird, and Village Idiot Peter, whose nose could smell more keenly than any dog, wild or domesticated, and who, if asked could see even further than Roland. Both, in their way, were ‘good lads’, according to words spoken about them in public. By the sound of the last dwindling humanly-evoked ‘hawk’ cry, perhaps dead ones. This was not another one of the drills which the Abbott and the Duke enforced upon the village of St. Pierre to remind them of the constant need for their protection.
“To the cellar! Now!” Brother ‘Blind’ William yelled in to Thomas before he could send Guinevere on her way. “And if you don’t want that witches’ rat to get eaten, be sure that she finds her way to someplace else.”
Thomas gave a silent prayer to God for William’s understanding. Maybe in the urgency of the moment and the coming of the end of the world, William had acquired enough humanity to care about ‘Soul-less’ animals. Under his arm were three books, painfully transcribed by his own hand while his eyes could still see the print, but never officially read, as the Abbott valued a Monk’s ability to copy the letters of scripture rather than to read the words. William blurted out something in Latin which he thought meant “Now, Brother! For the end is near”, as Thomas gathered the books which bore the cover of approved scripture but whose interior pages were the writings of man, rather than the ranting of men who thought they were God. The penalty for such an offense was death, but Jesus, if He was not already killed by the Vikings in the North woods, would understand.
Feeling his way down to the Roman-built tunnels with his walking stick, and the senses in his fingers that opened up soon after his eyes started to shut down, William led a Guinevere-less Thomas, the other Monks, and the Nuns who the Abbott kept around for reasons no one spoke about, to the cellar. Villagers came in from the gates and set up the dirt and sod planks over their new dwellings. The Duke and Duchess’ quarters were made ready under the Roman stones which looked more like floors to the earth rather than walls hiding another castle. Quiet and swift was the transition to the underground city build by Ceaser’s legions to protect themselves against the Gauls. Now the descendents of the Gauls hoped that the Vikings, the new Barbarians, would not know that human life can exist under the ground. It had protected life while the invading Nordic hordes destroyed property before.
Prince and Pauper, Saint and Sinner, alike followed Blind William down the tunnels which were barely visible through the labyrinth of tunnels leading to the ‘Last Cathedral’, as it had been named. Rodents walking on their legs or flying with wings lined the way, even though Guinevere and her more elusive ‘witch dog’ feline friends did their best to keep them free of them. The peasants from the village walked behind the Duke, the Duchess and their personal soldiers, men a foot taller than anyone else whose origins were unknown, who spoke little and whose eyes remained deep inside their shadowy sockets. The Abbott proclaimed the end of the world again, and Salvation to those who abandoned all of their worldly possessions to Divinely Chosen Dukes and the Church, and who confessed all of their Sins to His Priests. The older the peasant, the deeper they reached into their hold-ridden pockets to surrender the last of their earthly belongings to the Soldiers of the Duke, and the Soldiers of God.
The latter now including Thomas, who tried to hide his most personal books from the Duke, the illiterate scoundrel who felt important collecting them and who sat on his throne ‘reading’ stories to the children of the village that had nothing to do with what was on the page. The Duke was dressed in most ‘holy’ robes, burlap which was tailor made to make his underdeveloped chest appear strong, his stomach small, his shoulders Herclean, adorned with a cross around his neck that contained almost as much gold as that around the Abbott’s gout-enlarged neck . His wife, the Duchess, chose a completely different attire. Her gown seemed Pagan, open enough to any man who dared or wanted to see through the thin fabric which the Duke boasted was ‘silk’ from the lands East of Italy. When the Duke wasn’t looking, she begged any man who wished it a look through it, and even tempted Sister Bernadette to brave a longing stare. Even the Abbott felt tempted by her alluring body which reeked of something everyone remembered, or perhaps imagined, from the Dark Pagan times—Life and Happiness.
“We must move forward!” Blind William said to the congregation, hearing a commotion above them which was getting very close. “The Devil is approaching!”
“Hello! I know you are in there!” a voice rang out from above, trembling the earth above them.
“Roland!” Thomas said.
“Possessed by the Devil!” Abbott Philip proclaimed. “We must move on.”
“NO!!!” Sister Bernadette insisted. “Even the devil has a Soul worth saving,” she observed coming out of her mouth. Thomas recognized it as something he had said to her once, and which found its way into the ‘marks on paper’, that particular volume under his arm. He hoped that the clenching of the burlap bag containing it would not give it away, or him away, or the details about that night when he and Sister Bernadette started to discourse about love, then got tempted by lust. That night she said he fell asleep, ‘before anything happened’, and said things in her sleep in a tongue she didn’t recognize but that she remembered somehow from her own childhood from parents who died before she was rescued by Abbott Phillip.
“The devil is worth saving?!!!” the Abbott fumed, staring down at Bernadette in the manner that abusive fathers in the village looked at their own ‘defective’ offspring. “Is this what you are saying?”
“No,” the Duchess offered, taking Bernadette’s hand in ways which, to the eye of those who knew of such things, was very loving in ways not possible between men, as they were, and a women, as they were trained by men. “The devil has a Soul and since all Souls are created by God, the devil’s Soul is worth saving as well,” the ultimate power behind the Pulpit and the Throne smiled.
“And that Soul will be saved, as part of God’s plan, if we save this demon’s Soul above us,” Thomas offered as Roland’s voice from above the trap door to the world above became more hoarse, echoing and desperate.
“If we must, we must,” the Abbott grumbled, motioning to Thomas and his fellow monks to open the door to the ‘demon’ above, allowing him access to the tunnel and, ultimately, the Last Cathedral. Father Phillip said some more prayers, in Latin which he both mispronounced and most probably didn’t understand. The followers not involved with the rescue of the rescuable demon above knelt, said ‘Amen’s’ and ‘Heavenly Father Forgive Me’s”. Then, from above, lifted down, with eyes closed by the body bearers, at the orders of the Abbot which were not negotiable, not only one demon but two.
The first was Roland, his eyes ripped out, the sockets blackened with tar. His still-breathing chest penetrated with a Pagan spear bearing the likeness of gods no one, even Thomas or the Duchess, recognized. “If your eyes see evil, pluck them out”, from the second eyeless ‘demon’ body, a Viking with a wooden cross around his neck. Still holding onto his sword and the last breaths of life himself. “Is this the gateway to Heaven?” He asked in a voice that sounded more boyish than that of a man, or demon beast.
“It is the tunnel to Valhalla,” the Churches assured him, taking hold of his blood-soaked arms with her warm, slender fingers, only to have them pulled away by the Abbott.
The blind Nordic invader wielded his sword against an enemy he couldn’t see, then lost grip on it, reaching out with his blood soaked hand with every once of desperation left in him for that extension of himself and connection to his Ancient Soul. To Thomas’ eyes, the Viking’s face seemed very human, but his helmet had horns on it, strangely.
“The Devil’s horns!” Abbott Phillip proclaimed. “Around a demon’s face!” he continued, putting a rag over the eyes of the dying man, demon or, more practically, Nordic visitor who came from a people who brought nothing but terror to St. Pierre for two, terrorized generations.
“I frrrounddd tthheeemmm innn the theee…woods?” stuttered exhausted hunchbacked messenger Peter, who somehow had managed to carry both of the almost dead corpses in.
Bernadette tore off a portion of her robes to dress the open wounds on Roland’s chest, most particularly the five stared Pentangle carvings on their chests. “You will be alright.”
“As will you,” the Duchess assured the Viking, placing the sword back into the hand of the dying Viking who seemed more human than invader.
“As soon as you tell me about where your ships are! And how many men you have!” Duke Lancelloteire insisted, stepping on the hand of dying Viking.
“And as soon as you tell me where you got this!” Abbott Phillip sneered, grabbing hold of the cross around the ‘pagan demons’ neck. “Where did you get this!!!?” he demanded.
The Viking pointed to the sky above the spider-covered stone ceiling.
‘II….IIII thhiinkkkk heee…said…he…stole it?” Peter offered, in the way of a question. Everything he said was indeed a question, as he felt that he was always asking permission to speak.
“There are Vikings who have converted to Christianity,” Thomas said, noting the tools on the Viking which seemed more in keeping with a lone exploring pioneer than a marauder or scout. “And who have become farmers rather than raiders.”
“A Viking becoming a Christian is as believable as a Jew pledging allegiance to Christ,” Abbott Phillip barked back at Thomas. “And as for this animal begging for Christ’s mercy! Beg now for mercy!”
Phillip rammed the blind Viking’s crucifix into his neck, chocking the life out of him. It wasn’t unjustified. The Abbott had lost much wealth to the Vikings, and a few Sisters who had become more than just fellow clergy-persons. Even Thomas felt some kind of rage which must be avenged, Guinevere’s own kittens lost to marauders who could have been of this Viking’s tribe. But it was the half-Pagan Duchess who represented Christ’s mercy most.
She stepped in, a whisper into her husband’s ear convincing him to back off. A discrete stroke of Abbott Philip’s cheek converting his anger for the Viking into very human grief. She placed the Norseman’s very European crucifix and his Sword in his now cold, white and shaking hand. He smiled, said a prayer to Odin and Jesus, then expired, his Soul going…somewhere else, the legacy of his life clearly evident in the handle of the sword…a likeness of a mother and two children on it, very human.
Meanwhile, life left Roland’s body, leaving a portrait of terror in his pale, white face. Over it, a childlike, apologetic Peter. “I’mmmm sorry?” he ‘asked’ again.
Blind William could see that the end was near, or that safety had to be obtained. He motioned with his stick to move the others into the inner Cathedral. Everyone followed. But hopefully not the demon, or demonic invaders, whoever they were, that seemed to be heralding the end of EVERYONE’S world in St. Pierre.