Northern England, thirty miles inland from the shore of the North Sea
Fourteen-year-old Rebecca pushed the curtain aside, leaned out the black carriage’s glassless window, and reached to squeeze her mother's outstretched hand.
Standing by her husband in front of the chapel, with the church’s prior looking on, Anicia Gardyner struggled to maintain her composure. "It won't be for long, my darling. Your father and I will find a way to appease Lord Blackstone."
When the carriage lurched forward, Rebecca shouted, "You needn't worry, Mother. I'm not afraid. I'll be all right!"
Unwilling to let go, but unable to match the horses' quickening pace, Anicia stumbled on the cobblestones that paved the road in front of the priory. As the black spokes of the tall wheels spun an inch from her face, she felt her daughter's fingers slip from her grasp.
Out of breath after coming close to being run over, she watched her daughter wave goodbye. Had she been crushed beneath the carriage, the pain could not have been greater. Panting, she bent forward and placed her palms on her knees for support. Tears dribbled down her cheeks.
Her husband, Norman, wrapped a strong arm around her shoulders. "We'll see her again, love. Soon enough."
Soon enough? Anicia shook her head and groaned. Her only daughter would be held in servitude at the castle until they could pay the taxes levied by Lord Blackstone. They still had two boys at home to feed. When and by what miracle would they be able to come up with the money?
"What choice did we have?" Norman's shoulders sagged as the black carriage grew smaller in the distance. "Father Benedict was our last hope."
~ ~ ~
Three days later, tormented by the state of his poverty-stricken parish, Father Phinnius Benedict abandoned his futile attempt to sleep. This fall, the Gardyner's hadn’t been the only family in the village of Blackstone to beg for charity. In each case, ineffectual prayers for the safety of their children were all he could offer the distraught parents.
The morning after the Gardyner’s impassioned plea, shortly after cock's crow, their little girl had been taken in spite of being under the protection of the church. Each time his eyes closed, he saw the anguish on Norman and Anicia Gardyner's face. Their pain, combined with his own profound feelings of impotence, haunted him.
The weary priest rose from his lumpy, straw-filled mattress and massaged the back of his stiff neck. An hour earlier, distant thunder had murmured from somewhere over the North Sea. Now, it growled, promising a storm from the east.
As the rumble faded, Father Benedict cocked his head to the left and winced in reaction to a second noise. Horses pulling a wagon, or a carriage? He ran a trembling hand through his short, predominantly silver hair. “Not again, Lord."
The prior slilpped into his sandals and hurried toward the sanctuary. Jangling harnesses and clattering hooves on cobblestones heralded the approach and left little doubt as to the nocturnal visitor's identity.
Upon reaching the altar, he knelt. His thin hands came together, tightly clasped by his bony, intertwined fingers. “Oh, God," he prayed, "come to our aid. Lord, make haste to help us." Soft at first, his voice grew louder and more insistent. "We have no means to resist Lord Blackstone. We pray thee to remove this abomination from our midst.”
After rising to his feet, Father Benedict snatched the nearest burning torch from its wall mount. With pained resignation, he proceeded through the center of the nave, toward the chapel's doors.
Outside, he heard the carriage driver shout, "Whoa there, you two. That's enough!"
Rusted iron hinges groaned in protest as the priest pulled the chapel’s heavy wooden doors open. Ears at attention, the dark steeds that pulled the black carriage appeared restless, affected perhaps by the approaching storm. Their nostrils flared. Snorting dragon-like plumes of misty vapor into the chilled night air, they pawed at the stones beneath their hooves.
Illuminated in the flickering yellow torchlight, Father Benedict beheld what he most feared. Clad in knee-high boots with a dark cape about his shoulders, Lord Blackstone’s vassal, Albert Bigge appeared from behind the carriage. He climbed the steps and stood in the doorway holding Rebecca Gardyner's limp body in his muscular arms.
The tall young man stepped in, carrying the petite child as though she weighed no more than a small lamb. A few feet from the entrance, Albert gently laid her on the straw-covered, stone floor, the way a loving parent might place a sleeping infant in a crib. Rising, he brushed hair back from his face.
“There's been an accident," Albert spat out the bitter, rehearsed words for which he obviously had no taste. Avoiding the cleric's eyes, he said, "Lord Blackstone instructed me to deliver her body for a proper Christian burial,” and then turned to exit before the priest could sling arrows of condemnation.
On the street, the horses stamped and whinnied as the tempest drew near. Mounting the carriage, Albert yelled over his shoulder, above the rising wind and the fat raindrops that pelted the stone steps. “Tell Norman Gardyner his debt is paid!”
A frosty draft invaded the sanctuary. The gust swatted at the priest's torch, provoking a flurry of sparks that fell about his shoulders. Beneath the light, Father Benedict's watery blue eyes, normally kind and accommodating, narrowed and burned with flinty resolve.
He shook his fist and screamed over the thunder rolling across the sky. "Inform Lord Blackstone that he, too, must pay a debt! He'll pay for his transgressions, he will — either in this life or the next!"
The snap of a whip served as his reply. Galloping hooves raced away, swallowed by the wind, rain, and thunder.
Father Benedict jammed his torch into a nearby receptacle. Bending down in the dim light, he saw Rebecca's brown dress bore a dark stain between her thighs.
Invited by the opened doors, windblown rain peppered the clergyman's face, causing him to blink as he knelt. Seeking even the faintest flutter of life, the church's prior pressed down on the young girl's chest. He felt the cold stillness of death.
Lightning highlighted Rebecca's vacant, lifeless eyes. They stared upward, frozen in a final plea for help that never came. Father Benedict closed her eyelids with his fingertips and used the dangling sleeve of his robe to wipe away tears and rain dripping from his face. He recited her last rites, hoping the child’s immortal soul might still be within her so that it might be cleansed by the ritual and allowed to enter purgatory.
Weighted down by despair, the priest grunted with the effort to rise. He recalled the day he baptized Rebecca. Memories of her cherubic smile brought still more tears, born of bitter frustration.
Father Benedict closed the doors and made his way to where the monks and an occasional traveler slept. In the dim candlelight, he summoned Brothers Michael and Stephen.
Seeing the child's body sprawled upon the floor, Brother Stephen's hand flew to cover his mouth. No words could he find, none that a monk should be heard to utter.
Behind Stephen, Brother Michael lamented, "Dear God, this makes four, and we can't do anything to stop him."
As the three men stood over her body, the priest reached out and grasped each monk by the shoulder. "Brothers, I need you to prepare Rebecca's body for burial. Mend her torn garment and try to remove the blood stain. In the morning, we shall take her home."
Rain and hail pounded like a hundred marching drummers on the roof. As the monks removed the girl’s body, the beleaguered priest approached the altar. Blinding flashes lit the arched windows along either side of the sanctuary. He sagged to his knees and again begged God for divine intervention.
When he raised his head, a large book lay on the altar. Where did this come from? Who brought it? Decorating the rich, leather-bound cover were intricate swirls and loops of inlaid gold that glimmered like unearthly flickers of flame as his fingers brushed across them. At the same time, a rush of hot wind extinguished all of the sanctuary’s torches. Father Benedict gasped and stepped back.
What manner of book is this? He considered recalling one of the monks, but thought better of it. Rough, knobby fingers rubbed his eyes, which stung from the combination of shed tears and insufficient sleep. Could the strange glow have been a reflection from lightning, or a product of imagination? Possibly, he decided. But what produced the wind that snuffed the torches?
"Open it," a voice commanded, so deep in timbre that it blended with the thunder that shook the rafters.
"Who speaks?" Wide-eyed, he scanned his immediate surroundings. Outside, the wind howled and moaned, swirling about the chapel like a pack of possessed beasts seeking entry. Goose flesh rose on his arms and the back of his neck.
Again, the priest heard the deep, powerful voice. "He to whom you pray, Phinnius Benedict."
Father Benedict squinted, searching each corner of the sanctuary. Where are Brothers Michael and Stephen? Surely they hear this. But they did not appear.
"Open The Book, Phinnius. This is the instrument of dispatch for which you have prayed."
Finally, he realized the disembodied voice resonated within his own head. The priest's gaze returned to the mysterious book, then shifted to the carved wooden figure of Christ upon the cross. Behind the altar, between the statues of Mary, on the left, and St. John, on the right, a strange orange and red light emanated from the cross as if it were on fire. Thoughts of Moses and the burning bush flashed across the priest's mind.
Falling to his knees the priest buried his face in his hands. Have I lost my ability to reason? Through spread fingers he peered at The Book. "Am I to understand that I converse with the Creator?"
A nearby lightning strike turned the chapel's interior pure white as thunder shook the earth. Fearing the entire structure might collapse, Father Benedict pressed his forehead against the cold, stone floor. He squeezed his eyes shut and covered the back of his head with his arms and hands.
When the roar subsided, a second voice responded. "Yes, Phinnius, you speak to the Creator... and a collaborator. Fear not. No harm is to befall you this evening." The second spirit spoke softly, in a tender, entrancing manner.
Calmed and encouraged by the soothing voice, Father Benedict lifted his head and opened his eyes like a frightened child peeking from beneath bedcovers. Before him, the cross remained ablaze. "An angel, you must be." He gasped in awe and pressed his palms against the sides of his face. Waves of heat emanated from the carved image, warming his cheeks and forehead.
"Nay, no angel am I," the second spirit professed. "Think of me as a keenly interested party."
"An interested party?" Father Benedict’s brow furrowed, his face twisting as he struggled to understand.
"Yes," the spirit said. "Interested in the removal of a certain abomination from your midst."
"Phinnius," the first spirit rumbled, "behold The Book of Judgment. Within this book, the names and deeds of the damned are revealed."
The tranquil, second voice added, "Lord Blackstone celebrates the date of his birth this weekend. You must attend his festival. Present this book to him as a gift."
The priest raised a trembling hand. "I've not been invited." Fearing his willful display of outrage to Albert Bigge may have spoiled the opportunity to serve God's will, his heart raced. "After the decree of condemnation I sent with his vassal —"
"Leave that to me," the gentle spirit said.
Through the church's arched windows, the diminished frequency and intensity of the lightning and thunder indicated the storm's passage.
"Lord, why have you responded to me?” Father Benedict spread his arms in a humble, pleading gesture. “In a world filled with pain and misery, so many cry out. I am but a poor, parish priest. What makes me worthy of your attention?"
In his head, the cavernous voice replied. “Your heart is pure. Your prayers, justified. The time is at hand.”
The serene voice of the second entity added, “On Sunday, through this book, we shall deal with Henry Blackstone. Open The Book, Phinnius.”
With the folds of his robe, the priest wiped the moisture from his perspiring palms. His arms trembled as he lifted the heavy codex from the altar. As before, his hands brought the swirling, golden loops of inlaid scrolling to life. The writing flared, but not with the same intensity as before.
Reverently, he stared at the opulent leather cover. Not knowing what to expect, he opened The Book, wondering what names and stories of treachery and deceit might be revealed.
Not so much as a word appeared on the first, second, or third page. Driven by rising curiosity, yet fearful of what he might find, he riffled through the rest of the delicate, thin leaves. Finding nothing, he sighed, feeling disappointed, confused—and strangely—relieved.
Gingerly, with both hands, he placed God’s mysterious instrument back on the altar. "Holy Father, the leaves within the case are made neither of vellum nor parchment. They are milled in a way as to be exceedingly fine. Even the page edges are gilded." After pausing to gather his thoughts, the priest stared upward, past the wooden beams overhead. "Lord, you call this The Book of Judgment, yet I find no mention of lost souls or their transgressions. Truth be told, I find no script, anywhere within this mysterious codex." Phinnius shook his head. "Never have I seen its like."
“Nor shall you,” the voice replied. “This book is unlike any that ever has, or will exist." The fiery aura of the cross faded. Thunder trailed off in the distance, far to the west.
Stunned and humbled, alone in the stillness of the sanctuary, Father Benedict struggled to his feet. He trembled, certain of the first spirit's identity, but curious regarding the second. Still doubting his sanity, he wiped his face and eyes and stared at The Book, afraid to touch it.
"Go on . . ."
The priest flinched, surprised by the reemergence of the second spirit's soft voice.
"Pick it up," the spirit said. "It will only harm those guilty of mortal sins to which they've not confessed."
"Where should it be kept?" the priest asked.
"Why not in your room?" came the reply, followed by a whisper. "Next to your Bible."
Am I to be struck by lightning if I pick it up? Father Benedict inhaled as if he might be taking his last breath. Again, the cover's loops and swirls glowed upon contact with human flesh.
Detecting an odor that seemed out of place, the priest tilted his nose upward. After several experimental sniffs, he identified the faint, yet unmistakable smell of sulphur and brimstone.
I am delighted to announce that World Castle Publishing has published my novel, The Falcon and His Desert Rose as a paperback and as an eBook. I invite you to visit the World Castle website at the following link: https://www.createspace.com/3702210
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