Nonne's perilous quest for the truth about the unicorn that has dogged him since birth
| Please note that this is a work in progress. I know it is very long and eventually I intend to split it up into chapters. All author's notes should be in grey italics - just ignore them, and remember, reviews are always welcome!
I would like to use this opportunity also to point out that the faith of Brother Nonne and the other monks is not supposed to be an exact representation of modern-day Christianity and is open to valid criticism. I hope it does not cause offence to anyone.
159Kb so far/ 17,865 words
Psalms 22:21: “Save me from the Lion’s Mouth; for Thou hast heard me from the Horns of the Unicorn.”
Until a short time ago, my experience of unicorns was limited to a few encounters with the legend rather than the noble beast itself; like a person watching the shadow of a candle rather than the flame surmounting the column of wax I had touched only the pale shadow of the unicorn and never before the animated magic of the creature itself. A short time ago, that changed. I am consequently bidden by my Abbott to here record for prosperity my enlightening tale. I do as directed, but had he not requested a transcription I believe my conscience would even so have compelled me to relate it, for reasons that will soon become apparent. My writing hand being incapacitated at present, Brother Jakob sets down this story in faithful reproduction of my own words. At a convenient juncture, he will be replaced by another scribe; there will be a rotation of scribes in shifts at suitable intervals throughout, their names as follows: Brothers Jakob, Isaak and Timothy and Sister Honey.
There exist countless legends pertaining to the mythical beast who is known as the unicorn in modern English, unicornis and monokeios in Latin and Greek respectively and reiem in the language of the Holy Land of the Father. In direct contrast to the normal derivative of the animal's name from the particular terms ‘one’ and ‘horn,’ descriptions of its appearance are less than consistent and indeed, far from conclusive. Some describe it as being much like a small goat, suitable as a lady's pet, while others believe it to be a fish-like creature inhabiting the cold seas of the North; compare this to the Orient's pitiless equivalent, a shaggy-maned and bull-tailed beast and visitor of the Lord's justice upon guilty criminals. More locally, the unicorn is portrayed as a white horse, majestic and proud. How then, does one know for certain that one has met one of these legendary animals? Fortunately for us, there are other distinctive features of the unicorn beside the physical – for one, its association with what is noble, pure and good, an affiliation that befits its awe-inspiring and majestic appearance, whatever that may be. Yet the easy abundance of information concerning the unicorn remains just that - fact and no more; we contemplate but do not credit the legend of the unicorn. All too few people believe in unicorn's nowadays - and small wonder, for sightings of the beautiful animal have become as rare as blazing solar eclipses and simultaneously as precious as a diamond buried deep in a coal mine. In today's world there is little place for the poor beast, now unwanted, unappreciated and, worst of all, unexpected.
The whiteness of the unicorn’s coat has long been linked with purity and holiness, its spiralling, rigid horn a sign of justice and honesty over corruption. A universally recognised symbol of purity and virtue, it even now appears from time to time in the event of a truly noble occurrence, to mark it and sanction it as of holy significance: the birth of a particularly innocent child, the marriage of a steadfastly chaste virgin, the marvellous sacrifice of a man for his cause, religious or otherwise, and in so doing the unicorn is generally agreed to be fulfilling the role of messenger of God, erecting an invisible flagpole at each such occasion in time to demonstrate its importance to Him, thus ensuring His apprehension and divine approval. The first of all animals named by Adam in the oasis that was Eden, the unicorn was even then elevated above other beasts - even dragons, griffin and such-like - and has acted as the messenger-creature of God since. St. Hildegaard suggested that it got its virtue from an annual pilgrimage to the Garden. By drinking of the waters of the four ancient rivers therein it so refilled its cup to over-running, for no man nor creature can quench the thirst of others if his own well is empty. To encounter a unicorn, an emissary of God, is by association to brush the personage of God, however briefly and removed that contact may be. In short, it is a religious experience – even a miracle. Such was my reason for meeting a unicorn in flesh and blood, and in the happening, the beast for me transgressed the borders of the realm of imagination and strayed into the pain of the everyday world of reality, of suffering, misery and mud. Let me recount my tale, for I stand here as testimony to the grace of our Lord and the mercy and fidelity of that most supreme creature, the unicorn.
The layout of pieces on a chessboard will serve as an analogy in explicating the relationship between crown and church in Einigland, my home country. Look at how closely they sit to one another; the king is the more important piece and yet it is the bishop who has the greater ability to move swiftly across this chequerboard of ivory and black, chiefly doing the king’s will but now and then pursuing its own interests, usually in order to survive. Such is the link between König and Kirche in this land, and it has always been so. The church is religious, yes, but it is also intensely political, for if the church does not please the king then the king has the power to obliterate it – or at least to impel it to resort to more subversive means of spreading His message. No, it is better to stay public and for this, of course, the king must officially endorse the church, from the faceless Orders and towering church-buildings to the more human facet of religion: the priests, and then from the stern, corpulent bishops right down to the lean, fervent sword-monks themselves. As we have found out in times when reigned a king less well disposed towards the religious, the consequences of being a secret-monk are not good, to say the least. The brunt of clandestine and illegal activity is seldom borne by those in charge but more normally comes down on those charged with executing their commands. Hence the popular folk saying: “Like a monk without an abbey,” which gets its sense from the way a priest’s superiors seem to disappear the second he is in trouble, leaving him completely alone in times of hardship, and has come to mean simply a desperate man bereft of allies or friends. In any case, the position of the church has always been clear: even though its allegiance first and foremost should be - and nominally is - to God our Father, its first active loyalty is to the crown. The church is not hypocritical, merely pragmatic, and of enough good common sense to realise that its own survival is dependant on the king’s favour. Logically, since all virtues present in man are a reflection in some way of the features of God, it follows that God too is possessed of enough common sense and pragmatism to comprehend that the king’s goodwill is necessary for the His church’s survival and the dissemination of His Word, and it is by this oft-quoted reasonable argument that the church seeks to preserve its integrity and code of morality and ethics, for if the church is not seen to be sacrosanct then its authority and power and safety is precisely nil.
If I have made the church sound in this covenant like a pathetic leech parasitically living off its royal host, then I have not explained myself well enough, for the church does offer something to the king in return: sanctity and security. Only the church can confer upon the head of a king the approval of our heavenly monarch and ratify his holy kingliness. It is a reciprocal relationship that is beneficial to both parties, and needed if both are to endure. No man dares challenge the monarch for fear of divine retribution, and no-one risks the descent of the king’s wrath on him and his for defying the church. And indeed, that is how it used to be – when there was but one holy church and a single king on the throne of Einigland.
In foreign countries the kingdom is still today commonly called by the nickname Rissland, meaning rift land, split land, broken land. A sad and sorry fate for a kingdom once famed for its outwards unity and inward stability. The recent century-long civil war had principal causes one and secondary causes two. The event that propelled us on a course towards civil unrest was the untimely death of the old monarch King Hailey, an occurrence so thoroughly unexpected that some immediately detected foul play, but in the game of royal politics, accusations are devilishly hard to substantiate for the rash few who try. The huge stakes – government of an entire country - mean massive danger to those who pry too often and know too much, either because of desperate duty or just plain stupidity, and they are liable to receive more than the nasty bite on the nose that the foolish pup gets when he sniffs with his nose down a rabbit-hole. Old Hailey had been a firm and competent, level-headed monarch in a land of brutish warrior clans whose pride and reputation meant that they still to fight rather than to negotiate for the sake of a quiet, long life. The old king was like the knot that held the weaving together, and once it became undone the whole thing began to unravel. We started the descent into eventual civil war.
The achingly slow yet inevitable disintegration of the One Church into sub-Orders, and the mistrustful, procrastinating division of the royal family into rival factions all claiming Einigland’s throne as theirs, succeeded the immediate crisis. All at once, the previously unified harmony of the land was sundered into a discordant cacophony of songs, each jealous tune as loud and noisy as the next, and all demanding their right to conduct the overall scheme to their designs. Suddenly, things complicated: nobody in all the church knew which political party was the right one to serve and support – I mean which party championed the rightful heir and not merely which one had the most money. Concordantly, none of the royal factions knew which church Order was the right one – again, I mean which one was the true God-backed church and not simply which one drew the largest congregation among the nobility. What a quandary indeed; each church Order and each royal party was utterly convinced of its own authenticity and the righteousness of its cause and none would compromise in the slightest. Just as each royal faction asserted that it owned the prince or princess with the truest bloodline and lineage, so each rival Order contended that it was the only denomination of the church meriting God’s blessing and the only church that could offer real salvation and forgiveness. My own Order was no different, and by the time of my birth several decades later, a large number of the Orders and royal houses still existed, some much stronger than others due to their having forged church-king alliances. Others had disappeared, decimated through the furtive use of intrigue as much as by open fighting.
As a young novice residing in the tranquillity of the White Abbey, I grew up largely unaware of the turmoil in the outside world. This was due to the military nature of the Orders which developed for a number of reasons, reasons into which I shall not delve right now, for it is a history that is both long and complicated, and which reaches back to the foundation of the Orders by penitent soldiers repenting their slaughter of innocents for a cause they afterwards acknowledged false. Even now, one of our mottoes is that Bible verse of the disciple Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He hath sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” Although many monks and nuns are content to interpret this verse in a purely altruistic and spiritual manner, in keeping with, for example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, others feel it deserves a more literal translation and understand it to condone violent intervention on behalf of the oppressed. They will only be satisfied once they have physically supported them – and therein is the motivation for the creation of the fabled sword-monk Orders.
Within any abbey of a nominal sword-Order there may be as few as a dozen warriors and as many as a score; in our humble abbey there were about sixty or seventy warrior-monks and usually around thirty warrior nuns. Forty religious men and women were not fighters at all and perhaps about ten of those were dedicated pacifists. In addition to the large number of religious, there were usually a couple of dozen visitors – tradesmen and the like – besides the refugees who claimed asylum in the Lord’s name for wrongs they had not committed. That made more than a score and a half of people to look after, and the person on charge of that formidable task was Abbott Yale, together with a team of experienced and sagacious senior Fathers and tutors – my own Fathers Loring and Horst among them. Father Horst was head tutor of combat. Religious who volunteered their service to the Lord had the choice of whether to be a fighter or not. Orphan monks such as myself did not. And so it was that I was instructed in the efficient and deadly use of the noble weapons - sword, pike and bow included – as well as the less honourable weapons at my disposal such as poison and booby traps. Father Horst called it ‘the art of a quiet death,’ and I learnt it without fuss or preamble, as did my fellow parentless peers. There was no question of ethics here, no moral debate or outrage. It was simple: I was a servant of God and thus had the power to mete out God’s justice. The fact that God’s justice was determined in midnight meetings between the senior tutors did not elude me, but there again the argument worked, for they also were men and instruments of God.
I studied under Father Loring how best to spy and gather useful information for my Abbott and my Fathers so that they might sit down to decide God’s will rather better informed than otherwise. I studied ancient texts, learnt a couple of foreign tongues that I had never yet had cause to use, and memorized lines of abbots and kings for history. Under Father Loring’s tutelage I gained a working knowledge of the world – economics, politics and history - but it was the more secret teaching that was what he specialized in. The killing methods I learnt were generations old, many developed from the techniques employed by the old founding fathers of the sword-Orders. These men had not, at first, been religious and even once they were, there had still been a ruthlessness to their methods that some discerned ungodly. But their efficacy was too good to lose, and so quick theological argument had been formulated in order to reconcile them with religion. Our task was meant to be sacred, not sinful, and so it had to be justifiable to all. The church attracted many top thinkers of the day as an influential and well-respected profession, and with these brilliant minds to devise our excuses it was soon done. Internal critics were thus mollified and smart atheists also appeased. So it was that I knew the use of a broad range of different poisons and toxins, ways to kill a man quickly and silently and how to employ the psychology of others and exploit it to achieve my aim.
I had a quick and agile mind, and although I was by no means the best among my peers, I was a genuinely good all-rounder. I was average, and that suited me just fine. In addition, my intelligence was not of sufficiently high a level to be able to challenge the logic behind the masters’ justification of their subjects and due to my trusting and loyal nature I probably would not have done so had any doubts festered in my soul as to the morality of my art. This temperament was ideal – just what the masters looked for. Students who were too clever would always wrestle with the problem of ethics; practically gifted students often became arrogant and, if not possessed of fidelity to the Order, they tended to prefer to pursue their own ends. I would do neither, for I was neither incredibly gifted, nor astoundingly clever. I was just average – and that is partly because that is how I chose to be. Clever students who publicly voiced their doubts were swiftly silenced, one would see them the day after a private consultation with Abbot Yale about the abbey and marvel at their puzzled eyes and pinched lips. Students who absconded from the life they were dedicated to were reclaimed by hook or by crook – bribed back, I mused, or else their true identity as monk or nun unveiled, a devastating action since it was a cardinal sin. No self-righteous church attending peasant would stand by and let that happen, and peasant justice is both instant and unstoppable. But for the distinctly average student there were many more opportunities and far fewer dangers, at least from one’s own side.
In earlier days, the one church had used to provide for the reigning monarch as a token of loyalty and goodwill a sword-monk guard formerly called the King’s Watch. Other than that, that was all the public, both peasant and nobility, knew. It was widely assumed to be a council of sorts for the king, offering guidance on religious matters so the king could be certain that as the Lord’s primary earthly representative he was doing God’s Will, this in accordance with Das Vaterunser: “Thy will be done, on earth as above in heaven.” I suppose the general assumption was not totally wrong, but neither was it at all correct. The Watch did proffer to the King advice, but it was not such a benign council as to leave it there; the Watch also helped ensure that’s, once God’s will was understood, it was duly carried out. And since God’s chief desire is, of course, that his son-on-earth stay alive and enthroned in order to properly represent him, that meant that the Watch’s greatest function was to protect the king from harm, whatever that meant and however they chose to do it. Sometimes this involved political manoeuvres, bribes and so forth. Other-times, this assignment was not always savoury but as it was most definitely necessary, it was done. Monks displaying the three virtues of loyalty, competence and tenacity were hand-picked to serve in the Watch. I was a suitable monk, selected by my beloved Father Loring and seconded by Father Horst.
On the eve of my twenty-first birthday I was summoned in Abbot Yale’s chambers. Trembling with nerves, I went, although I already half suspected what it was about. I had been roused from my bed by the Abbot’s junior, our Prior Yolandta, known for her severity and aloofness. She was frequently seen about the abbey, always hurrying along on some errand, narrow flinty eyes daring anyone to approach her. The flicker of her candle, an undulating tongue of yellow in the dead of night, awoke me. She probably had been standing there waiting for no more than half a minute. Yolandta knew better than to try to wake me by touch, for I might have hurt in reflex – I slept out of ingrained habit and training with a sharp knife under my pillow. The horror and fury of my privacy being invaded was replaced by wariness and a heavy sense of inevitability as I realised who she was. Yolandta beckoned to me with one long finger and immediately turned to go, leaving me to scuttle after her without the time to assume either clothes or dignity. I clutched a brown homespun robe to myself and hastily tied the thick belt around my waist in no recognisable knot. The mystery of how Yolandta had passed through a locked door was solved as she walked off down the corridor, pocketing a complicated-looking tool: a skeleton key. It jangled as she moved.
Feeling as if in a dream, I padded in my slippers through the empty halls of the abbey, following the abbot’s favourite secretary. She never paused nor slowed down for me. I got the impression she was a very lonely woman; it seemed as if she was running from even my brief, inconsequential companionship. Smouldering torches burned in their iron holders, yellow flames wiggling and crackling. Nobody else was about. On and on we went, and at last we reached the door of the Abbot’s study-cum-office. No-one knew where he actually slept, not if he even indulged in such a pass-time. The Abbot had, over the years and much like the unicorn, acquired some mythology of his own. I do not think I had ever met him before but I knew from secondary sources what he would be like. Yolandta rapped once on the door, softly, and then opened it slightly and gestured me go in. All at once, I tingled all over. I was gripped by a sudden apprehension and could not move. Something told me this was an important occasion – momentous even. Yolandta did not wait for me to regain my sensibilities, but threw me a weary, impatient look and made off down the corridor, away from human company, her solitary candle bobbing along with her and its brass holder gleaming maliciously. Gradually my composure came back to me. I shook my head and squared my shoulders and as I do so, I happened to catch sight of a splendid carving above the door. Of course, it was my relentless unicorn image, but this one was unusual. The Einhorn Abbey unicorn is normally portrayed rearing in a threatening manner, to visually announce our military reputation, but this one was depicted lying down. Even odder, the tiny figure of a man had been carved inside its curled legs, as if the creature was embracing him, as a mother to her child. For once, the unicorn’s eyes were gentle and not coldly disappointed. Perhaps for once I was doing what it wanted.
“Are you coming in?” I heard a masculine voice, deepened with age and thick with a combination of wisdom and tiredness, call out to me: the abbot.
Startled and embarrassed, I hastened inside, a jittery young lad in his dressing gown. I exited it a man; composed and with much to consider before I again lay down to sleep. Truly, I had entered that room a boy, expectant and quivering with excitement, and left it a man, with a grim face and the burden of responsibility upon my shoulders. Once twenty-one, a youth becomes an adult in law and in liberty at least theoretically, for that is how the saying is. On the stroke on midnight, which sounded as I dawdled back to my room, I may have become an adult in law, but not in liberty. I never had been free, not since I had been deposited at the abbey by my anonymous mother. I was the Order’s humble servant and I owed it everything – life, skills and care. That was a simple fact of life and I accepted it as I accepted that if I were to drop an apple it would fall to the floor and not rocket off into the night sky. But I wasn’t enamoured of my first mission as a member of the King’s Watch, and the reason for that lay in my clenched hand. The parchment scroll in my hand, which had lain sealed in the Abbot’s keeping for twenty-one long years until I attained my majority, contained the history of my birth, up until now an enigma I had not devoted much time or thought to. The Abbot had confided in me, leaning over his oak desk, that he had desired to talk to me in person upon the double occasion of my first mission and my reception of my birth papers, because the two had mirrored one another, to a certain extent. I trusted the old Abbot completely, that he had not forged my birth papers. That was unthinkable. And I knew that it had not been by human design that these two, a revelation and a task, come to the same boy. A sword-monk’s first project was not chosen carefully but selected at random, like drawing lots. It was pure fate and chance that it had been this mission that had been picked for me. I deduced uneasily that from the outset my first test would measure my capabilities and my loyalties. As I shut the door to Yale’s fire lit study behind me the unicorn carving smirked at me, or perhaps it only pitied me, and I only wanted to believe that it hated my very soul.