Sanctuary of the Gods: Sample
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Flame: How Giovanni Found Sanctuary
Under Parnassos: The Tale of Aias and the Womb of the World
The Guardians: Twilight In The Sanctuary
A House Divided: The Tale of Altas and Apollo's Wheel
Far Shooter: The Final Purification
The Hiding: The Tale of Marcus and the Foundation of Sanctuary
The Gift: A Sowing of Seeds
THE FLAME: HOW GIOVANNI FOUND SANCTUARY
(Lombardy and The Taro River Valley 1308 AD)
n a brilliant patch of sunlight beside an ancient oak, a young man lay on a spread-out cloak, head up, leaning on one arm. Beside him lay a crossbow, its wood weathered but well oiled, cocked and bearing a dart. The young man blew into the loosely clenched fist of his free hand, shook it several times, and let fall a pair of dice onto the roughly-woven wool. Frowning a little against the dazzle of the sunlight, he leaned forward to see how the little carved cubes had come to rest: a three and four. Straightening, his lips tightening in a wan smile, he picked up the dice and touched them briefly to the dart’s iron head. “Good luck,” he said under his breath. Then he awkwardly loosed the drawstrings of the coin purse on his belt with one hand and let the dice fall inside. Taking hold of the purse, he yanked it to tighten the strings around its neck and let his head fall until it rested against the crook of his arm, releasing a pent up sigh as he did so.
Though he seemed relaxed where he lay he did
not close his eyes: they remained fixed on a short stretch of the road where it
passed sixty or seventy paces away. A fly flew up erratically, buzzed noisily
around his head several times and landed on the crossbow. It rested there a
moment to wipe its antennae before flying off.
The young man’s dark hair was uncombed and
greasy, and cut short in the soldier’s style to fit comfortably in a helmet
that was nowhere to be seen. He was clean-shaven with a pale but handsome face;
his chin dimpled, his blue eyes bright under a prominent brow. He was about
twenty, or seemed so from a distance, but from close up the lines between his
brows and around his eyes suggested too much time spent in the sun.
His soldier’s tunic was tired-looking and
unremarkable. His stockings were of brightly dyed wool, red, but they too
carried the marks and stains of long use. They had been crudely patched many
times along their length, particularly near the bottoms where they disappeared
into rough-stitched leather shoes, the latter still carrying a little fresh mud
from beside the brook and wet across their uppers from the dew.
Some minutes went by. From time to time a
bird called out, its voice pure above the bubbling waters of the brook, or a
squirrel passed, darting up the trunk of a nearby tree, leaping from branch to
branch before scurrying higher up, out of sight behind the new leaves. The
young man gave no sign that he noticed.
Away to the North where the road disappeared
from sight a horse whinnied. Startled, the young man craned towards the sound,
reaching for his bow as he did so. He stood up intently, stiffly, the weapon
cradled on one arm while he listened.
There was a moment of silence. Then in the
distance a man shouted something, his voice coming hollow through the trees. The
young man hurriedly stooped and picked up his cloak with one hand, pushing his
head through the neck-hole, and threw the bulky material back out of the way
behind his shoulders. Two spare bolts were lying where they had been partially
covered by the cloak, and he picked these up and tucked one of them into his
belt. The sounds of many horses and men were clearly distinguishable now, just
out of sight behind the trees. He hurried towards a low bush that stood between
him and the road, crouching down on one knee behind it. He barely paused to jam
the spare bolt into the ground beside him before setting the bow’s stock up
against his shoulder ready to fire.
The first to come were eleven mounted
soldiers of the guard, reining in their horses to maintain a measured pace.
Behind them were foot soldiers. Finally came a little group of dignitaries,
among them a silver haired old man speaking quietly to the man who rode beside
him, their two heads leaned close to catch one another’s words.
At the sight of the gray head
the young man stiffened, adjusted his aim, and after taking a deep breath
and beginning its slow and measured release, loosed the first shaft.
With a shock the bolt left the bow, dipping
and rising a little as it passed through the intervening air pockets before
passing just in front of the startled face of the old man.
The instant he knew the shot would miss, the
young man jumped up cursing, dropped the front of the bow to the ground between
his feet, stepped on the braces, and heaved up the cord to set it in place
before feverishly placing the spare bolt in place. He raised the bow to his
shoulder and dropped back down to steady his aim, only to discover that his
target had already dismounted and hidden himself from sight. Chaos was breaking
out among the bodyguard, and several horses reared violently back, threatening
to unseat their riders.
He began to back quickly away, towards the
thick brambles that lay at the top of the incline, but not before one of the
armed escort saw him and let out the alarm: “Over there! ...Jesus—it’s
Cover broken, the young man turned and fled
up the rise, disappearing through a crawl hole in a wall of brambles even as
several bowmen loosed shots hurriedly after him. The fresh-cut hole ran through
the thorn bushes, ending abruptly at a clearing. Bleeding a little from
countless scratches where the thorns had ripped at him, he emerged and ran
across the grass, through the trees on the far side to where a horse stood
saddled and ready.
Freeing the tether with a jerk, he jumped
into the saddle with such force that he almost continued over it and had to
fight for a moment to regain his balance. With one hand on the reins the other
on his bow he dug hard with his heels even before his feet had found the
stirrups. With a sudden rush, the horse set off among the trees heading south
and it was all the young man could do to find the stirrups and hang on as
low-lying branches whipped at him and the horse plunged and surged, traversing
the rough terrain.
ithin ten minutes, Giovanni slowed the horse’s pace a little and curved back to rejoin the road, relieved to find it empty. Free of the trees and brush, he pressed his horse forward at a steady canter, resisting the temptation to surrender to haste: he knew they would already be after him, but there was no sense in tiring his horse prematurely.
Mentally preparing himself for a long
struggle, he rode on, feeling his mind near the breaking point. It was too late
for regrets, but even so he found himself wondering what had made him think this
mad scheme would succeed. Images came to him in a feverish flood as he rode, and
time lost its measure so that the world moved past barely noticed.
Once, perhaps an hour into his escape, when
he was looking back over his shoulder for signs of pursuit, a motion in the
corner of his eye caught his attention. It was a breeze gently swaying the
sunlit leaves by the roadway. It seemed so peaceful, so unrelated to recent
events, that he almost surrendered to the temptation to stop and dismount. For a
moment he was persuaded that he could, even now, call off the whole thing. Peace
was all around him, and all he had to do was dismount and rest for it to dispel
his anguish. But then his fear suddenly swelled and the reality of the situation
grew clear again in his mind: he would be lucky to survive. Most terrible of all
was the knowledge that he had failed, that nothing had been achieved. When, from
time to time, that thought would come to him, its reality fresh and blunt, he
fought hard to prevent himself from sobbing. Months of preparation and the
bastard was still alive...
As the sun reached higher in the sky and
then began its slow decline Giovanni
rode on. Several times he took turnings in the road to throw off his pursuers
until he found himself heading southwards among the foothills, into the
mountains. As the hours passed his horse became exhausted from the relentless
pace and he began to wonder if it would fall or go lame. He thought of slowing
and almost did until, passing along the side of a steep hill, he looked back and
saw his pursuers: five men on sturdy horses moving fast. Even at this distance,
he could recognize a few of them from their riding styles. He realized with a
shock they were barely twenty minutes behind him, and it was all he could do to
prevent himself from breaking into a full gallop.
In mid-afternoon he came across a well
rested, strong looking mare tethered by the road and took it, leaving his own in
its place. To his relief there was no sign of the owner. Indeed, he saw few
people after leaving the main road, and thankfully those were always at a
distance. He rode on.
Night found him in a gently sloped mountain
valley, climbing steadily, no sign of his pursuers, though for all he knew they
might be close. He was hungry and tired, but fear prickled in him at the mere
thought of stopping to rest. If he could put enough ground behind him before
sunup, there would be little chance they would ever track him. He could hide in
the mountains and plan his next move.
Well after dark, as he was crossing a
knee-deep, swift-moving mountain stream, the mare stumbled and lost her footing.
Somehow in the fall Giovanni’s bow went missing and he spent several minutes
thrashing about in the dimness of the stars’ light in an unsuccessful attempt
to locate it. When he realized it was hopeless, he turned his attention to the
horse. As he approached her, he sensed something was wrong. He felt along her
flanks, talking softly to her as he did so, and discovered she was favoring one
leg. He had ridden as far as he could. From now on he would have to carry on by
Cursing, Giovanni half led, half pulled the
horse at a stumbling run towards a low ridge in the East, fighting through the
blackness of the undergrowth and up the gentle incline. When he got there, he
slapped the animal hard and listened as it crashed through the bushes,
disappearing down the other side. With luck they wouldn’t find it until well
into the following day and by then his trail would be cold.
Giovanni made his way Westward, navigating
by the stars and later by the moon when it rose. Few people lived in these parts
and he saw no one. Throughout the long night he moved swiftly, never resting. A
hundred times he heard low voices, the clink of armor, the sounds of horses
moving fast behind him. He knew these things were only in his mind, but each
time he heard them he shrank against a nearby bush or tree, unable to breath,
straining to hear. It occurred to him that by the morning half the world might
be looking for him: that really there was nowhere to hide. He put the thought
Giovanni first entered the sleeping valley, no one saw him coming as he crossed
the mountain from the south. A shadow in the twilight, he slipped past an
abandoned farmhouse on the mountain’s ridge at dawn, skirting the trees beside
a woodsman’s hut so silently that the owner’s dog never woke from its fitful
sleep, never tried with its barking to raise the alarm. As he climbed higher,
clouds began to pile up on the mountain’s top concealing the fading stars and
the moon, hiding his advance from watchful eyes. Like a mist himself, he crept
through the cold forest without a sound.
Crossing the ridge he came by sunrise to a
small stream on the gentle incline north of the peak. After looking about for a
moment, he walked back a little, the way he had come, and with the splashing
brook out of earshot, listened carefully for the sounds of stealthy feet
following his own out of the fog. This time he heard nothing but the songs of
the waking birds. The minutes passed him where he waited, leaning against a
tree, scarcely breathing. He knew it was unlikely his pursuers could be close,
but he could not bring himself to trust in chance.
When at last he was satisfied Giovanni
walked back to the stream, crossing it without stopping and moved on to explore
the ground on the far side. The trees were old, and not a whisper of a breeze
disturbed their leaves as the young man walked warily among them, stopping here
and there to watch and listen. Beneath his feet the leaf-mold was thick and
dark, the leaves of the previous fall already disintegrating into the cool damp
soil. It was only after several minutes of careful investigation that he
returned to the brook and lowering himself on his belly drank thirstily from its
He did not remain there long: as soon as his
thirst was slaked he moved away a little from the noise of the water, and
unslinging his cloak from across his shoulder, wrapped it around himself.
Stooping, he backed into the partial shelter of a small bush and settled himself
there, pinching both ends of the woolen cloth together under his chin for
warmth. Though spring was well advanced, up on the mountain tops the nights were
still cold. For a time his eyes were watchful, moving in the direction of every
sound, but at last they fell shut. A few minutes later he stirred briefly to
settle himself more comfortably, and curling up under the bush, he slept.
sun rose above the mountain tops, at first brightening the mist to a blinding
white, and then burning it off by mid-morning, but the warm light never reached
Giovanni under his bush, beneath the giant trees of that place. In time, the day
grew hot and flies began to buzz about him, and in his sleep he responded,
closing the cloak more about his face to keep them off. Throughout the long day
there was no sign of men, not his pursuers, not people from those parts. He
dreamed he saw his enemies giving up the chase and hurrying back to rejoin their
column far away, to the northeast.
It was late afternoon by the time Giovanni
at last awoke, stiffly rising and relieving himself against a tree. The events
of the day before were already dim in his mind, softened in the warmth and
silence that surrounded him now. Though still exhausted he resolved to go on,
hoping to be off the mountain before nightfall, promising himself a full
night’s sleep once he was down. On unsteady feet he pushed back his cloak and
set out northward again.
For a time he followed the stream, but when
the ground grew too steep and tumbled, he veered to his left and began to follow
a secondary ridge line downwards. Beneath his feet the stones were crumbled into
angular pebbles: the whole mountain seemed to be made of crumbling rock and it
was treacherous to walk on. At one point where the ridge became steeper, the
trees fell away and the view opened up to reveal a small valley below him, here
and there a farmer’s field nestled along its base. To the Northwest the valley
emptied into a larger basin, and he could see the mountains on the far side of
that great span, perhaps a day’s walk in the distance, pale blue in the
afternoon haze. Here was a place that knew little of the world. Despite his
predicament, ridiculously, he felt like singing.
He moved down the ridge cautiously until it
grew less steep and the trees again covered him. Barely forty paces farther on
Giovanni froze and then dropped to the ground, fear prickling the skin of his
face and hands.
Not far off a thin file of men was making
its way up towards him. Ready to run, he peered over a low jumble of stone and
shrubs he had slid behind and studied the climbers. They did not seem to know he
was there, since their energies were entirely devoted to picking their way up
the ridge-line. That was the first thing he noticed. The second was very odd:
every one of the figures carried a burning torch despite the warm sunshine that
fell about them.
It occurred to him that perhaps he ought not
to be afraid of them, that they would be no threat: surely no-one in this God
forsaken place could have heard news of the assassination attempt yet. But he
held back, reluctant to trust when his life was at stake, restrained by the
recently acquired habit of fear. It looked as if the matter would be out of his
hands soon since the men were nearly upon him.
He was just preparing to stand up and show
himself, not wanting to be caught cowering when they first encountered him, but
the leader of the group turned sharply and disappeared from sight, apparently
following an unseen trail. Each of those behind followed in turn, until at last
the ridge was empty before him. The only sound was a soft breeze stirring the
leaves in the sunlight above his head.
Though he could not see it from his
position, there must be some sort of a path cutting into the steep terrain of
the gully that lay beside the ridge below where he hid. What were they doing? He
wondered if this was some sort of local ritual of the church: he knew of no
festival on this day, but then local festivals and rituals were ubiquitous
throughout the towns and settlements of Europe.
Giovanni watched for a minute, and then
began to pick his way cautiously downwards. He hurried, wanting to get past them
lest they return and block his decent, for now that he had the opportunity to
pass without being seen, he did not want to waste it. Why risk showing himself
when there was no need?
When he reached the point where the men had
disappeared he saw the narrow trail they had followed, sloping slightly upwards
through the trees that clung to the steep terrain. He passed it and was going to
continue down the mountain, but then he stopped and looked back, listening.
There was no sound. It seemed as though the men had disappeared altogether.
Standing there in the silent afternoon sun, he even toyed with the idea he had
After a few moments standing quietly, he
retraced his steps and entered the trail, his curiosity taking control. What
were they doing? And what were the torches for? He would try to avoid being
seen, but if they saw him it would not matter. After all, they would likely have
food and water to offer, or directions down into the valley for a needy
stranger. It seemed very unlikely they would have heard of him yet. Anyway, the
truth of it was that he longed for human company even if it meant a slight
element of risk. Never had he felt so lonely as the events of the past day had
The trail passed through the trees and
across a steep section where no plants could gain a foothold. Ten or twenty
steps farther, it rounded a line of shrubs and he picked his way along it,
attention focused on the cliffs he could barely make out through the foliage
below. A rock he dislodged tumbled for a moment and then, out of sight, suddenly
fell in silence for several seconds before he heard its impact far beneath.
When Giovanni arrived at the mouth of the
cave he almost fell into it, stumbling onto the first step leading down into the
darkness below. There was no one in sight as he came to a stop in astonishment,
resting a hand against a low tree to steady himself. He hadn’t seen the cave
because the opening was small and lay around a sharp turn in the line of the
cliff it lay beneath. It opened downwards, rather than straight into the rock.
He could see at once that it was manmade or at least modified by the hands of
men: heavy, well shaped stones framed its entrance and had been laid down to
provide steps that disappeared from sight into the darkness below. The cave
explained the torches, but what was a cave doing here? It might be some shrine
to a saint, a hermit, perhaps, who had spent his life here in solitary
contemplation of God. Now and then a faint wisp of torch-smoke curled out of the
doorway, but no sound came from within.
Quietly Giovanni stepped down the steep
flight of stairs, his shoulders brushing the stones of the narrow passage as he
descended. Near the entrance, in a small alcove in the rock, there was a burning
lamp surrounded by other unlit lamps. He considered taking one, but decided
against it since he didn’t really intend to stay and he wasn’t sure he ought
to impose on their hospitality by doing so. He was acutely conscious that he did
not belong there, so aside from a brief glimpse he did not intend to investigate
Eight or nine steps down, the stairs ended
on a flat expanse of flagstones. He stood a moment waiting for his eyes to
adjust, and almost at once he made out a dim human-like shape to his left. He
flinched away in surprise, but it was not moving, so it did not bring him more
than a momentary flicker of anxiety. He realized it was a life sized statue. He
stepped towards it, aware that the walls on either side had moved outwards
somewhat from the entranceway: he was in a chamber some eight paces wide and
twice again as long, with walls and vaulted ceilings lined with stone, a
necessity, probably, given the unstable rock of the mountain.
The statue was cold to the touch, metallic,
perhaps bronze. It was a male in the ancient style, with a cloth thrown over one
shoulder and draped about the figure. Something in the way it stood with head
slightly bowed in the quiet chamber made it seem unnaturally serene. When his
sight grew stronger he realized the eyes had been inlaid with some lighter
material and the entire piece had been painted to make it more life-like.
As he stood back and looked around, Giovanni
saw there were at least a dozen statues in the chamber, presumably saints, most
set back in small alcoves lining the walls. All were astonishingly lifelike, and
all seemed to share in the striking serenity of the first. There were a number
of females among them. Opposite the entrance stood another doorway and from the
steep decline of the ceiling beyond, he realized that it must lead to another
flight of stairs going farther down into the heart of the mountain. It was too
dark to venture deeper without a lamp.
Giovanni considered calling down the
stairway to bring attention to himself but decided against it, since to do so
might disturb the prayers undoubtedly being made somewhere below. Not wishing to
start with a bad impression, he decided to wait quietly outside for the
worshippers to finish: he would join them as they made their way back down the
mountain. He returned to the entrance and climbed the stairway, squinting
against the bright light outside.
When he had climbed high enough for his
shoulders to clear ground level, something on the right caught his eye. He
turned to look and in a blur saw a man moving swiftly up to him, even as a stout
walking stick crashed down across the top of his head. It happened so quickly he
had no time to do anything more than gasp. There was an explosion of light and
he winced, legs buckling. The world vanished.