Fiction,  Issue 10

A Medieval Tale by Regina Clarke

In a late spring rain, the monk made his way along the covered stone path. Glancing out toward the garden where lay brothers were setting out new plants, undeterred by the weather, he gave a sigh and sat down on a bench to rest.

By all accounts, his journey was over. He had surely done all he set out to do and was free to let the days be as they were. In the cloister all was in order. His life lay within the passage of the hours, the calls to prayer, the time to sit and meditate, to breathe in the scent of wild roses close by. It was enough.

And yet…

“You have never been content here, Brother Edmund.” The voice of his friend Rafe came to mind. A good man, gone now too soon.

“Not so,” he had answered. “I am where I want to be, as well as where I need to be. This is my vocation.”

“Of course it is. I have no doubt of that,” Rafe said, with a touch of impatience. “But you want more. I’ve known you a long time. You want a vision like our saints have known. You want the ecstasy of moving out from where you are at least once in your life.”

How those words had upset him! He had denied them. He had repeated the seventh Rule of St. Benedict on humility. That was what he lived by!

“In part,” Rafe had conceded, “yet I say again you seek more. And why not? If everything is Divine, and we know this is so, desire is also acceptable, is it not? Given the chance, you would explore the very heavens, if you could. Whatever is unknown to you becomes the very thing you want most. You cannot gainsay this. I see it in you.”

Could his words be true, the monk wondered? He listened to the rain falling and shook his head. No. Impossible. If they were, it would mean he did not belong in the abbey, and it was unthinkable to imagine being anywhere else.

He had never told Rafe about the dreams. So strange and unwanted. What would his friend have said then? In one that used to come often, he saw the earth from a great distance, as but a speck in the great vastness of the night. On waking he had always felt some deep loss at the memory of it. And what of the other dream, the one he hardly dared recount even to himself? A massive explosion of light, out of which emerged silver coils, and at the end of each, a demon in white, an empty face staring at him, and all of them calling to him, but not by his rightful name. He could see their arms reaching toward him. “Jaras!” they cried out. There was no question it was he, Edmund, they sought. Hovering above them were glittering green disks covered with spirals. Each time from this dream he woke in a cold sweat, which shamed him, for it meant he had given in to fear, and the dream was a betrayal of his innermost devotion. 

Thankfully, it had been months since the dreams stopped. Longer. Perhaps he was safe from them at last.

Coming out of his reverie, he observed the lay brothers had left the garden and gone inside. He was alone. It was, had always been, what he preferred most. 

Soft steps approached. A young Benedictine stood near, looking at him anxiously.

“Brother Edmund, we have a guest.” 

Not wanting to move from where he was, he merely nodded his head. “Our Abbot will want to greet this person.”

The young monk held his hands clasped together, the knuckles white. “Father Abbot did not return this morning from his pilgrimage to Whitby Abbey. A messenger brought news an hour ago, telling us Father Abbot has been delayed and is still in Ravenscar. You should have been informed.” He hesitated a moment. “I have not seen the like of this stranger.”

Edmund repressed a sigh. Whoever it was, whatever business the visitor had in mind, it was of no interest to him. But the rituals of hospitality were essential. An unexpected guest required special attention, for was it not said it could be the Holy One in disguise? He stood up and lifted the hood of his black robe over his head and followed the brother, retracing his steps through the cloister to reach the other side and enter the west range, where the porter stood guarding the doors.

“Ah, Brother Anselm, what is this about a stranger?” Edmund asked the old man, who was wringing his hands and muttering to himself. Anselm saw his role as gatekeeper to be a special joy, given that age had rendered him unfit for other occupations. Till now, guarding the door had been uneventful.

“He is still out there, if it is a he,” Anselm said.

“Surely you would know!” Edmund spoke sharply, feeling irritation at having to leave his peace and quiet. Aware of this, he spoke again in a gentle voice. “Show me.”

“I called out ‘Thanks be to God’ but it said nothing. True it is we must welcome all, but alas, see for yourself.” The old monk stepped forward with some difficulty and opened the front doors to the arched passageway. Forty feet away, someone stood in the outer courtyard behind the locked iron gate.

“If they were a threat in any way, I doubt they would be waiting so at ease. That gate is not hard to climb, nor are our walls a barrier to an ambitious man.”

“The clothing…what of that?” Anselm asked, wringing his hands again.

Unwilling to encounter the downpour, Edmund studied from a distance what the old one meant. It was true, the clothing worn by the visitor was unusual. But who knew what anyone was required to wear beyond the borders of the abbey anymore? He himself had traveled to Iona and Scotland and often seen people dressed in strange ways, according to their status. Ever curious, he had observed them closely and at length. His actual purpose had been to seek out healing plants, ones that would improve upon what the abbey was growing, a necessity, unfortunately, given their current herbalist had little interest in his vocation. It was a wonder how they all continued to survive the monk’s distillations and potions and assorted remedies. The man couldn’t tell the difference between wild carrots and hemlock, a fact Edmund had caught just in time before the food was served in the refectory.

“Do you see?” Anselm asked, pulling Edmund out of his thoughts. 

He studied the figure. The gatekeeper was right. It was completely hidden by a glittering green-cast cape that seemed to repel the rain, the cloth covered by a wild tracery of spirals and chevrons in silver threads. At the sight of it a sudden remnant of one of his dreams rushed in, making him feel disoriented. He closed his mind to it instantly. 

“A pagan!” Anselm whispered.

“The eyes. What of the eyes?” William said, his hands still clasped tightly. 

Even from forty feet Edmund could detect the dark intensity of the figure’s stare. Sudden flashes of light streamed from the eyes in all colors, making him think of a stained glass window, and as quickly, the colors vanished.

“A spell-caster. Sorcery!” William said, cowering back.

“Call out again,” Edmund told Anselm. “If this were a true creature of magic, it would already have done its evil work upon us.”

The old monk was unwilling, but gave a slight bow to Edmund and called out a second time, though his voice caught in his throat.

There was still no answer.

Edmund waited another  moment and then raised his own voice to be heard above the rain. “We welcome you. Tell us who you are and why you are here.” He turned to William. “Take the keys and go and unlock the gate.”

“And if it’s a demon?” Anselm said in anguish.

Edmund held back a smile. “I think not. The devil’s acolytes would not wait for us to invite them in, anymore than a spell-caster would. There is a common answer for what we see. Brother William, go and do what I have told you.” 

Color draining from his face, the young monk took several halting steps before reaching the gate and opening it. 

Immediately, the stranger stepped into the inner court and stood only a few feet away from them.

“I ask for all of us,” Edmund said, his voice reverberating in the arched passageway. “How may we be of service?”

In answer, the figure pushed back her hood, for woman it was, with dark red hair, long and straight. 

“Succubus!” Anselm cried out in terror. “Temptation of evil!”

“Women are not allowed here,” Edmund said calmly, stepping in front of the gatekeeper.

“I’m well aware of that. I was briefed.” She spoke in a strong voice. Her eyes were a dark blue and showed amusement. The flashes of light had ceased, but Edmund noted a peculiar fragmentation in each iris, like cracked glass. Perhaps she had an affliction, he thought.

“Be gone!” Anselm shouted, waving his arms wildly.

“Brother Anselm, no more. For heaven’s sake. Where are you from?” Edmund asked the woman.

“Does it matter to you?”

“No!” William said behind her, finding his own brave strength. “By the Rule of our founder, St. Benedict, you do not belong among us!” He swung the gate open wider, backing away as he did so, pressing himself against the iron bars.

Edmund held up his hand, silencing him.

“It matters, yes. But only for our enlightenment. Your presence agitates the brothers. You are female, and cannot enter our abbey.”

She laughed lightly. “Not so, dear Edmund. That is your name, I know. Noblewomen are allowed, for they serve as benefactors. I could be here to offer patronage for the benefit of your order. Why, maybe I’ve the coinage to put your Severn Abbey on the map at last.” She glanced at the crumbling stone walls and worn tiles at their feet. “It looks as though it could do with some help. However, right now I need to talk to you, and you alone. Send them away.”

Whoever she was, Edmund sensed her purpose would not be easily deflected. It was better to comply and adjust his actions accordingly. She could have military reinforcements waiting in the nearby copse or further down the road. His own primary motivation was to protect the brothers, but also, almost as important, he had to admit, to satisfy his increasing curiosity about the stranger, whose presence matched no other guest who had ever come to the abbey.

“Brother William, Brother Anselm, go back inside. Close the doors behind you. Wait until I call for you.”

Something in his voice halted the protests on their lips. William scurried past the guest and joined Anselm and they both entered the front hall and shut the heavy door. “The barrier, too,” Edmund called out. The sound of the inside bolt being set in place followed.

“Now tell me what it is you want with us,” he said to the woman. “What name do you give? Your way of speaking is unlike ours.” 

The woman swept her hands across the fabric of the cape, leaving shimmering, multicolored trails.

“You already know my name, though you’ve obviously lost track of it and much more besides, it would seem. Too much, I’m sorry to say. We’ve spent so many hours together. Say you haven’t forgotten me, Marijal, of all people!”

A shudder went through Edmund as out of the corner of his eye he saw a beam of light coming at him out of an abyss, climbing toward him like the fires in a pit. 

“It’s time to come home, Jaras.”

It was a jolt as swift as lightning. How could the stranger know of the name from his dream? “That is not my name,” he said, feeling bound to say so, to make it clear.

“We almost lost you once before,” she went on, ignoring his words. “We can’t let that happen again. We’re connected to one another, remember? Listen!”

A high-pitched tone sounded, a vibration moving through him, and with it a sudden, massive acceleration pulled him forward. Burning spheres surrounded him and the feeling came to him that they were the very stars he saw in the night sky. His body was drifting, weightless. , Beyond the light of the spheres was only a black emptiness. He could not see his hands. The scream rose in his throat from a place deep within.

All motion stopped. The vision disappeared. Edmund staggered and put his hand against the wall to steady himself. The woman Marijal watched him intently.

“Witchcraft,” he hissed, and to his dismay heard Anselm’s terror in his voice. 

“What? That’s ridiculous. You know better! Or, you did. We’re the furthest thing from magic and divination. Way past that, Jaras.” The woman shook her head in wonderment. “Although,” she conceded after a moment of silence, “if you’d truly lived in this time, were born into it, I suppose you would accept such things as real. Yes, of course. So I see you have assimilated far more than you were meant to. You were frightened just now by what you used to love, all your solitary journeys into galaxies beyond our own! It’s what you have always craved most! I thought if I showed you, it would help you remember.”

“The devil works in many forms and we must be vigilant,” Edmund said, his breathing ragged.

Faint splinters of color showed in her eyes for a moment, like cascades of light. Marijal didn’t answer. He had the strange sense she was no longer there with him, yet with the very thought, he felt her presence again.

“So you believe I am some representation of evil? I’m told I must clear that up for you right away. There’s no such thing, though so often you argued there must be in our conversations. You were always playing devil’s advocate, Jaras. In jest, wonderful, creative jest! This Brother Edmund is a probability, no more. But it seems you have taken it to heart! We can’t have that. I’ve consulted with everyone. It’s better for you to come home with me, before any further damage is done by this unwelcome deterioration of your sense and sensibility. Though I have to confess many of us thought what you did in coming to this ancient place was wonderfully creative. Why, you’ve inspired dozens of discussions and conferences on whether there is ever a right end to what we create. We wanted to test that through you, which I’m sorry to say delayed my retrieval of you. We wanted to see how far you could go with it. Still, when you’re back with us, I look forward to hearing you argue both sides again. We all do. You know so much more about this world now, firsthand, after all.”

“Go!” Edmund shouted. “No more!” Yet his words seemed muffled to his own ears, as if he were speaking through a piece of cloth…or perhaps a shroud, he thought, startled, as the sight of one came into his mind.

Marijal had loosened her cape and he saw her clothing underneath it was made of small spirals of scintillating metal that reflected a brilliant fiery color, though the rain still fell. In the corner of his eye he saw movement and turned his head quickly, but there was nothing there.

A memory came unbidden from years before. He had been consumed by an overwhelming feeling of doom as massive waves crashed over the old sailing vessel he had boarded for a night’s pilgrimage to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. The journey had almost cost him his life. He had vowed never to explore the seas again.

“You’ve been to the ends of the universe, Jaras! Have you really forgotten even that, you who always wanted more, who was never satisfied, who could never settle for what so many called enough? Remember this? Feel it!”

Before he could call for help, it was too late. Edmund was moving at great speed once again, weightless among the masses of stars scattered across an impenetrable and endless dark. He was utterly alone. Why had such a great scourge come upon him now? In a flash in the depths of his fear, out of a loneliness he had never felt before, the answer came to him—this was his temptation, sent by the Holy One to test him! He was meant to resist! The conviction settled on him as the strange world spun around him. Wherever he was, some deceit had been visited upon him, a false imagining. None of it was real. All of it was the work of the devil and his familiars, of which Marijal was surely one, all of it a brew of the dark arts sent to test his devotion. However real it seemed, he was meant to recognize it as untrue! He was meant defy it even as his fear threatened to overwhelm him. 

His soul eased.

A pervasive hum broke through, different from the tone he had heard before. A voice sounded—from where? The words came in a rush, calling out to him, telling him of “the flood of light shining down from above, more brilliant than the sun. With it every trace of darkness was banished…the whole world was gathered up before his eyes in what appeared to be a single ray of light.” A light rising out of the darkness. 

Before his eyes there came a shift, as if something had blurred the stars and then restored them, but now as perfect crystalline forms. A sudden awareness entered him that he, Edmund, was meant to welcome a new presence, and trust it, knowing it was intended above all to provide him with illumination. In the absolute stillness he sensed something more. What it was, he didn’t know. It was just…more. A feeling akin to ecstasy washed through him. A serenity unlike anything he had ever known filled him. It went on and on, as if for eons of time. 

The humming stopped, jarring him. He was standing again in the stone passageway, the presence of Marijal seeming closer than before. 

“You heard well enough? And saw? Did that please you?” she asked, her red hair shining like a beacon under the gray sky, her clothes scintillating with their fire. 

The voice he had heard in the new vision lingered in his mind, a voice that had spoken of the light. And he knew the source of the words as well as he knew his own name, for they had all come from the vision of St. Benedict, had they not? As if the saint himself had spoken the words aloud. Light, the light had brought such peace within it. He had never experienced such a feeling of his right to be, of his reason to exist. Exactly what Rafe had told him he sought to know, that he had denied. Yes.

Marijal shook her head in perplexity. “Still believing in what you call your saint? I watched you study that man Benedict for hours a day. You were obsessed with the time he spent in the solitude of his mountains! It’s why we said yes to your entering this lifetime. To get it out of your system as much as anything else. We’ve always given you entrance into the mysteries and revelations you sought, the same ones you hold as sacred even in your current state. What more could you ask for? Why, you can enter the portals at any time, or better to say, at any point you choose. Even return here to this primitive house if you desire, but within reason. Not to stay.” There was a warning in Marijal’s voice.

“Portal.” A shudder went through Edmund again as he said the word and again in the corner of his eye he saw a beam of light and a deep darkness and a cauldron of fire, and once again felt the weight of a shroud on his face.

“You lived for the portals when you were with us, always finding another gateway to enter.” Marijal paused. “Like this one I just showed you—of your own creation!”

The deception screamed itself into Edmund’s mind. The slyness of the evil one took his breath away, each word a new temptation, each strange image meant to confuse him. It was a struggle for his soul! 

“You have visited other galaxies,” Marijal said. “You’ve gone through so many lives even on this small planet. The probabilities are endless. Why choose—” she sweeps her arm around—“this one, here, now? The world is a violent place outside these walls. Or perhaps you’re afraid I will take away the wealth that is here?”

He took a deep breath. What wealth was she talking about? They had no relics, and no gold, either, except for the candlesticks in the nave, and those were made of brass with a mere thin layer of gold applied over them. Being one of the lesser monasteries, they had no ornamented reliquaries nor even a chalice embedded with gemstones. They were religious devotees living in the solitude of the contemplative life. That was their promise, and their reward!

“Oh, Jaras. I mean a different wealth, don’t you know?” Marijal said, yet again, demon that she was, frightening him with her knowledge of his thoughts. “I refer to those here with you, whose lives you value. But plenty more are alive and flourish elsewhere, just as worthy of your attention. Besides, these ones near you now themselves will move on, be covered with a shroud and then find they are free to walk through gateways of their own choosing. You could easily—I would say probably—meet some of them again. Nothing is lost. You told me that yourself. Nothing is ever lost. Come, now. Come home with me.” 

Grief came into him as sharp as a sword. Could he believe her and sacrifice his vocation? Would he give up his vision? A cry escaped him and he raised his arms in supplication.

There came the loud sound of the barrier being pulled back behind him and the thick oak doors opened. William and Anselm appeared. 

“Brother Edmund! You are safe! We heard the—we thought you were—”

“Yes, I am safe. I must walk in the garden. Go back in. Keep everyone from the garden for an hour.” Edmund gave a quick nod and the two monks backed away and closed the doors as ordered, though looking fearfully at him the whole time.

“This place gives me the stillness I seek,” Edmund said. “I want for nothing. This is where I stay. Here is all I need to know.”

Marijal sighed and drew the glittering cape around her. She gazed intently at him. He saw the flashes of color swirling now behind the facets of each iris.

“We waited too long, I see,” she said. “Very well. But know all of us will welcome you when you do show up, the essence of you we love, Jaras. Whatever you have gained here, and there appears to be something you have, it tells me you have exceeded the bounds of your creation, and brought this probability into a new fullness. When you die in this place…and you will…we’ll be waiting for you. And I for one will be extremely interested in learning more about your revelations.” 

She was gone.

#

With the rain ended, a pale mist lay above the garden. The silence was absolute, not even the call of a bird. Edmund made his way up the cloister walk and when he reached the bench he sat down again. On the other side of the garden was a cherry tree only recently come into bloom. Before him were beds of sweet violet, the sign of humility, a reminder of what he was meant to attend to. 

There was only one answer for the stranger, for their strange guest. He, Edmund, had given it. He had met and refuted the ultimate temptation. He didn’t need more, after all. Perhaps he did when Rafe had spoken. But not now. He didn’t need anything but to be where he was, as he was, in patience and in service.

The sun was setting. Soon the bell would ring, calling him to Vespers.

So be it, he thought. This is what is right and true. Forever. This.

____________________________________________________________

Regina Clarke lives in the Hudson River Valley of upstate New York. Her stories have been published online and in print. The fantasy novel MARI was a finalist in the ListenUp Audiobooks competition and two stories have been featured on The Strange Recital podcast. Her story “A Matter of Time” won the Reedsy writing contest. You can see her books and story page at her website: www.regina-clarke.com.

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