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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

Appendix



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 Giovanni!”

          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 foot.

          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 aside.

 

 

hen 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 clear waters.

          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.

 

 

he 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 imagined them.

          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 made him.

          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 further.

          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.

 

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