THE WHEELS WERE SOLID disks as high as Hob himself, and the wood was warped a little and wet with the snow now coming down hard and clinging in patchy lumps to the rims. The main wagon had the aft right wheel fast in a drift, and as Hob added his slight frame to the stamping, cursing struggle to free it, his foot plunged to the ankle in a depression filled with a freezing gruel of snow and mud.
It felt like stepping into fire. Gasping with the shock, he threw himself against the tailboard. A smell of sweat and woodsmoke and rosemary came to him from his left: Molly, her ample well-turned arms, white as mare’s milk, glimmering at the edge of his sight. Before his face loomed the weathered plank he forced his breast against. Nemain stood behind them and skimmed handfuls of ashes beneath their feet. At his right Jack Brown suddenly found purchase underfoot, his toes in the green leather boots stuffed with straw digging in, scrabbling in ash and ice and pebbles, and Jack’s grunting heave freed the wheel’s lip just enough. The ox trod forward again, steaming like a dragon, and Hob staggered as the wagon sailed away from him.
Hob stumped ahead, limping with the pain in his foot. Molly threw her cloak again around her shoulders, over the léine, that shift-like garment from her native Ireland, that she favored on the road. The cloak, and then a shawl, and she was ready to take the reins again: did she never feel the cold? The half-grown boy went forward by the ox and walked with a hand to the draw bar; the heat coming from the vast body was perceptible. He wished he could ride in the wagon.
The snow diminished, but in its stead came a malicious little wind that drew claws across the back of his neck. It found its way up the sleeves of his woolen shirt and between the flaps of his sheepskin coat.
The road wound through winter woods, upslope and down, the land rumpled and complex, with frequent outcrops of naked rock. The view was open enough near at hand, but within a few yards the overlapping trunks foiled the eye. Yews, pale slim birch, massive oaks formed a close horizon; the wagons moved between wooden walls.
Hob began to feel an unease of spirit, an oppression. The sensation grew swiftly till his bodily woes shrank beside it. He looked left at the slowly passing forest, rightward across the rippling, smoking haunches to the trackside brush and more trees, climbing away to the west. He felt breathless and ill. He felt like a coney in a snare, and he could not tell why.
THE CARAVAN HAD COME from Ireby, away by the river Ellen. There had been little enough for them there, despite the town’s sheep market, and Molly had planned to take them south and east through the mountain passes before the snows clamped down in earnest: this year, and the year before, had seen such cold and storm as not even the eldest village grandmam could remember. She hoped to make St. Germaine’s, the hill monastery, before nightfall. It was where all travelers who used the Thonarberg Pass had to stay: one could not get over in a day, and night amid the eerie gorges and overleaning crags was unthinkable. There were stories of bandits who lived in cave and ravine, savage as stoats; there were stories of trolls who slept amid piles of bones and knew neither fire nor clothing.
“Gesu!” He made a frantic sideways leap to escape a great cloven hoof: the ox had performed a peculiar sidestep. It gave a flat dismayed bleat and stood trembling in place, rolling its large lovely eye. Behind him a sort of ripple passed down the tiny procession as first the ass and then the mare started and veered toward the trees to the east.
Through the volley of curses and the snap of reins coming from behind, Hob was aware of a thin, sour cry that drifted to him from ahead and to the west. His heart seemed to freeze. He was aware that he had seized the rope of the ox’s bridle and was holding the big head, or perhaps just clinging to it. His eye was locked to the curtain of trees, and now he saw a flicker, a glint, of russet color: red as a fox, but tall, tall, high as a big man perhaps, but hard to judge, hard to tell from here, then gone as though it never was. A faint coughing snarl came down the wind, and the ox shoved hard against his chest, breathing moist heat through the folds of his sheepskin coat, its blunted horns to either side of his body. The huge beast was hiding its face against him.
He looked back along the road. Nemain, bent like a bow, labored to drag the ass back to the trail. Her thin wrists shone white as her grandmother’s where they emerged from the too-big sleeves; her hands, lost in their woolen gloves, hauled desperately at the rope. Farther back he could see Jack Brown holding the mare’s bridle and stroking her neck. But Molly, up on the main wagon’s seat, sat leaning sideways with a taut searching scrutiny, her handsome head flung up, her nostrils flared.
Hob stared at her. He had never seen her so alarmed, not even that terrible night when the false pilgrims had rolled out from their cloaks by the fire, cudgels in their fists, robbery and worse in their hearts. The shawl had slipped back to her shoulders and her heavy mass of hair, water-gray with gleams of ice-silver in it, streamed back from her ruddy face, stiff in the slight breeze as though in the moments before a lightning storm.
The breeze spoke in the creaking trees, but nothing else. The snow was all but stopped. Molly turned forward. Her blue eyes, wide set and a little prominent, skimmed over Hob. She made a brushing motion with a gloved hand to set Hob moving, and turned back in the seat. “Away on, away on,” she called over her shoulder in a low thrumming voice. It was one of her signals: that tone, and the twice-spoken command, meant everyone was to go quickly but make the least noise. Had she said it three times Hob would have left the ox and pelted off into the woods like a deer, snarl or no. Oh, she had them trained.
The wagons started up, the beasts weaving like drunkards from side to side as they tried to slew off into the woods where they sought concealment and safety, and the drivers pushed and pulled them back onto the middle of the track. There followed a lurching hustle through a gray-white nightmare.
Hob was later unsure of their passage through the forest valley. Blur, was what he thought, Blur, cold, afraid, near to pissed my braies, in after days, when he tried to remember. There was a sense of pressure on them all the time, like mice at the foot of the owl’s tree, as they hurried along the road that sank to the ford, then through the shallow ice-rimmed stream, Hob splashing shin-deep in the bitter current but too frightened to curse, and up the farther slope.
After what seemed a very long time the road gained the low swells of the foothills, and here came one of the few moments Hob could recall clearly afterward. A spur of black basalt ran down to the road and forced it to curve around the base. The rock loomed beside the track, twice as high as the wagons. As the ox came up to the bend, Hob hauled back on the lead rope. The corner he must turn seemed to radiate a silent malevolence.
Molly set the brake, reached back into the wagon, and produced a sturdy hazel staff. She climbed swiftly down. She strode forward past the shivering ox, and Hob took a pace back, expecting to be chastised; but she passed him by and strode up to the very lip of the shadow cast by the outcrop, and now here came Jack Brown, the long hammer used on tent pegs in his knotty fist. He had seized in haste what was nearest the wagon door. The lump of iron at the tip of the three-foot shaft was half the size of Hob’s head, and Jack’s forearm was bunched with the effort. With his ungainly rolling walk, his back broad as a hall door, he seemed a kind of troll himself, but Hob was glad to see him between the wagons and that sinister rock.
Molly’s palm showed pale in the gloom: she had flung her arm out sideways to halt Jack’s approach. She stood as though breathing in the forest mist, her heavy body up on tiptoe, the hazel staff thrust in the ground before her. All at once she rocked back on her heels and shouldered the staff. She motioned Jack forward.
The dark man shambled forward past the rock, making Hob think bear for some reason. Molly called Jack artan sometimes; Nemain had told Hob it meant “little bear” in the tongue she and her grandmother spoke to each other. The hammer looked hungry or thirsty, weaving from side to side like a snake over a dish of milk. Just past the bend, just within sight, Jack stopped still.
Hob felt the hair on his neck prickling. He held to the bridle rope and stood in the middle of the road, waiting for his life to show him the shape it would take.
But Jack darted forward with the hammer, and came back raising on its tip only a bloody rag, coarse gray cloth torn away at one edge, clotted and caked a reddish black in the center and stained in streaks to the edges. He brought it back to Molly and they stood in the road and considered it like two farmers consulting over a stricken sheep. Molly put a finger to the clabbered mess, raised it to her tongue with a curious delicacy for such an act. Hob turned away and rubbed behind the ox’s ear, a favorite spot with the beast.
FATHER ATHELSTAN had grown old; Father Athelstan could no longer keep a young orphan at the priest house. When Molly’s caravan had come through a year and a half ago, the bent and shuffling priest had seen a chance to clear himself of his last obligation to the world. From Maeve, come traveling out of Ireland across the Irish Sea, Maeve whom everyone but Jack called Molly, from her he had felt, as the young and the old and the unclever often did, the blunt tide of animal goodness that moved along her bones. The wagons left a few days later with Hob looking back past the high wheels at the tiny chapel, the miserable rutted mud street that ran past the handful of cottages, until that day the whole of Hob’s known universe.
Hob, who remembered no parents, who was too old to be mothered and too young for a lover, considered Molly with a confused awe that veered between love and fear. When he fell ill she wrapped him in skins and brought him heated mare’s milk and herbs. When, as on this evening, she grew fey and terrible, he could not bring himself to look on her. He stroked the curve of the ox’s coarse-haired neck and thought hard of warm stalls, clean straw, stout monastery walls, safety.
THE TWO CAME BACK, Molly plainly upset. With Jack it was hard to tell. Hob’s eyes slid to them, then away. He determinedly observed the ox’s wide neck; he kept his mind still and muttered Aves. Behind him passed snow-crunching footsteps, Molly’s bell-deep tones, Jack’s harsh gargle. On the road to Jerusalem, far away in the Holy Land, Jack Brown had taken a terrible wound in the throat and another to his ankle: a confused oval of smooth silver scar at the side of his neck as big as a big man’s palm, a ruined voice, a limp, were all the relics he brought back from that hot and haunted country.
“. . . oh there’s craft in it, it’s as bad as I’ve seen, I want us on as quick as quick.” Hob heard Molly’s footsteps returning swiftly. He looked up. She stood over him with a curious strained expression. “Stór mo chroí, you must lead on as fast as you may, and mind the road ahead. I’ll watch the forest, nor must you trouble yourself about it.” He nodded stiffly, and she turned away quick and crisp and hurried back to her seat, waving to Nemain to mount the second wagon.
She had spoken to him with an elaborate gentleness and kindness, as one spoke to a spooked horse. It was this that frightened him more than anything so far.
He caught the ox’s bridle rope; as soon as Molly was settled he pulled. Insignificant as Hob’s strength was, the giant stepped forward, obedient but with an unconvincingly furtive air, as it skirted the rock and followed Hob down the track. It had a kind of trust of Hob, after a year and a half in which he had mostly been the one to feed and groom it, and it followed him as one might follow a parent, a sight at once comical and piteous.
They hurried on, slipping on the iron-hard ruts and steel-colored patches of ice, the wagons swaying dangerously; in their tearing eyes the chill nasty wind, in their ears the creak and groan of flexing wood, the thud and clop of hooves on the hard ground, the harsh whistle of breath in the bitter air.
Now, adding to their troubles, the road began to rise steeply. The beasts began to labor, the brakes were set and released constantly, and the muscles of Hob’s calves and those along the front of his thighs began to burn and grow numb.
A pressure came to Hob. It rested behind his right shoulder blade. He could feel a hard cruel eye fixed on his thin boy’s body, clear as clear, crisp as the clamping grip the shire-reeve used on poachers, just above the elbow: that old painful grip, all lawmen know it, they probably used it on Jesus at Gethsemane. A gaze like a bailiff’s grasp had hold of Hob’s innards. Nor must you trouble yourself about it. He looked fiercely at the wretched path ahead; he took another step, the tension on the bridle rope increasing and easing as the ox fell behind, caught up.
In forcing himself on, Hob felt the lock on his soul ease a bit, but his thoughts were all awhirl, too scattered even for a coherent Ave. He could manage but a mumbled Holy Mary, Mother of God, in time with his steps. Soon the difficulty of the grade and the lull of the chant snared him enough to let him forget the amber eye behind him. How did he know it was amber? His flesh knew it.
Up and up the road wound: oak and yew gave way to fir and claw-needled pine; long ribs of frost-broken stone stood forth here and there; the grade steepened. The land dropped away on the west. They were climbing the western flank of Monastery Mount, that the peasants still called Thonarberg, and the road was narrowing and hugging the rocky slope.
He walked bent forward against the grade. He walked this way for a long time, his right arm stretched out behind him, pulling on the lead rope. Suddenly he woke to his surroundings, as though he had been pacing in his sleep.
Ahead the road passed between two high outcrops of rock. On the east a spur of naked granite, veined with frost, ran to within a yard of the road. On Hob’s right hand, where the slope plunged down into the rift between Monastery Mount and the broken crags and frozen rivers of Old Catherine to the southwest and the Little Sisters to the northwest, now mostly behind them, a spine of rock climbed out of the gulf and bent toward the road. In the portal framed by these two bourne stones stood a small knot of hooded men.
There were three—no, four—and Hob had a moment when he felt bathed in ice water, before he recognized the rough gray mantles, the closed sandals stuffed with dried mountain grasses, that marked St. Germaine’s Companions, the brothers of the Monastery of St. Germaine de la Roche, with their iron-shod staves, their reddened faces, their bodies hardened from plain fare and the highland winters. Their arms were scarred, their knuckles swollen, badges of their service to their oath: to maintain the safety of the road, from the crude gate the caravan now approached to the Thonarberg Bite, a point just over the crest of the pass that ran, threading through the mountains, along the western shoulder of Monastery Mount.
GERMAINE DE LA ROCHE, a gentle soul, born into wealth, in love with God and His works, had it in his mind to build a refuge high in the mountain passes, to gather some like-minded companions, away from distraction, where he could glorify God by prayer, by meditation, and by studying the precarious but tenacious existence of flower and moss in the desolate uplands. It took six years and a substantial part of his family’s wealth to fashion a strong-walled compound off the Thonarberg Pass road, to establish a Rule and obtain the bishop’s approval, and to gather his first set of comrades.
Wells were dug; a flock of mountain goats furnished milk, meat, cheese, and clothing; forays into the lower forests provided fuel and wood for carpentry. Four months of peace followed.
The monks’ tranquillity was shattered in the dead heart of the night by a handful of pilgrims, bleeding and hysterical, battering at the gates. Close on their heels: banditti from the lower ravines, swinging their weighty saxes, knives that were as long as a tall man’s arm from elbow to fingertip. The monks snatched whatever was to hand, and in the melee that followed, six of the wolf’s-heads were stretched out lifeless in the freezing mud at the gate.
Next morning the pilgrims left generous offerings beneath the icon of St. Luke the Physician, Germaine’s patron, and Germaine gathered his monks. His thin face, beneath the disordered wreath of brown hair tinged with gray, was suffused with a kind of rueful joy. “Comrades, God has held up a mirror to my vanities: He has shown me that in seeking retreat from this sorry world, I have been blind; I have scanted my calling. The apostle John said, ‘Who says he loves unseen God, but who loves not his neighbor standing plain before him, is a liar.’ Brethren, I have been indulgent with myself: love of God is not exercised without travail and danger.” Some of the faces turned toward him were swathed in linen bandages. He beamed at them. “We will forgo our books; we will keep safe the pass.”
THAT WAS eighty-five years ago, and the Monastery of St. Luke was now renamed the Monastery of St. Germaine de la Roche, long gone to his rest. Now as then the travelers were met at the double outcrop by a knot of vigorous monks, armed with their iron-tipped staves, many of them retired soldiers. They were, these days, largely illiterate, but skilled men of their hands, said to have developed a high degree of artistry in the use of their simple weapons.
Hob halted about a foot before the portal. The monk in charge came forward, an older man, perhaps forty-five. Below his robe were the knotty calves and thick ankles of a mountaineer who never takes a level step in a day, and clenched on his staff the knobby knuckles of one who has pounded sheaves of reeds to toughen his fists. Beneath the whitening brows, surprisingly mild brown eyes regarded Hob kindly; on the monk’s left cheek was a complicated pattern of scar tissue.
“God save all here,” said the monk.
“Amen,” said Hob.
Molly had dismounted; now she came trudging up, the voluminous shawl cast about her shoulders, hooding the heap of silver hair, rendering her modest as a nun.
“Jesus and Mary with you, Wulfstan,” she said cordially enough, although she wore a dire look.
An expression of genuine pleasure replaced the professional courteous suspicion of the warrior monk. “Mistress Molly,” he said.
Whenever she stayed at the hostel the monks maintained, the first few days were employed in easing a host of small and great miseries with her herbs, her salves, the cunning grip of her big pale hands. Brother Wulfstan himself remembered lying on his pallet, a pain like Brother Cook’s cleaver through his left eye, sick shivers, the rushlight in his cell assuming such haloes as the angels are said to wear.
Brother Abbot and the ancient Father Thomas, chaplain to the Order, had come in, and remained to guard against impropriety. To Brother Wulfstan they seemed, through his pain, ghosts or shadows. Next he remembered the wooden cup with a broth tasting like charcoal and thyme, with a vile bitter undertinge. Back, back a long way to the husk-filled burlap pillow; a hand, rough-skinned but not hard in the way that Brother Wulfstan’s own hand was hard, was placed firmly on his forehead, preventing, it seemed, his head from bursting.
In ten or fifteen breaths he had sat up again, the tears of respite in his eyes, as the pain ran out from his body like whey through a sieve. He had peered into the lake-blue wide-set eyes, the round ruddy comely face, the queenly mane of steel hair peeping from beneath the shawl, and begun an earnest Ave. After some time old Father Thomas had managed, not without a certain mounting irritation, to convince Brother Wulfstan that the Queen of Heaven had not left her Son’s side merely to heal his dolors.
“A word with you, little brother,” Molly now said; she herself was perhaps seven or eight years older than Wulfstan.
They paced off the road a bit, leaving Hob facing the little group of monks, their staves grounded in the ice-slick soil, their eyes flat as they studied him. Impossible to stare back at them: for something to do, Hob glanced behind. Jack stood at the side of the road, patient as one of the draft animals. Nemain looked past him at the gate, thin-limbed, her skin blotchy as her blood ignited with her new estate as a woman, her eyes green as spring grass; from beneath her shawl escaped a lock of hair red as apples. His only family, now, in all God’s wide cold world.
Molly was speaking earnestly. Brother Wulfstan looked appalled. Presently they returned to the road. Brother Wulfstan signaled to the trio by the great stones, and each swung up his staff to his shoulder with a smooth practiced motion. They trotted forth from the gateway, spreading to this side and that to encircle the tiny caravan, sheepdogs taking station around a flock.
Molly clambered up to her seat and kicked loose the brake. Brother Wulfstan loped up to the head of the caravan; as he passed Hob, he gave him an encouraging double slap on the shoulder blades, as though to say, Let’s go, let’s go. It was like being struck lightly with a blackthorn root. Hob surged forward, dragging the lead rope. In a moment he had passed between the tall sentinel stones, and they were away on the climbing approach to the monastery.
He looked around as he stumbled upward: the harsh vigilant shapes at avant-garde, flank, and rearguard, Jack Brown’s shambling strength, Molly turning her keen watchful face to either side of the trail, abruptly relieved him of a burden or constriction. His thin chest expanded, he drew a deep sweet breath, and his steps pattered almost blithely on the frost-hardened soil of the upward way.
From this point on, the road was flanked by a parapet of fitted stones, waist-high, on the downslope side. After a short time walking uphill, Hob’s legs beginning to ache again, the caravan was passed by a squad of monks jogging down to the gate, the men leaning back against the decline. Hob realized that they must have these small groups going back and forth constantly, to monitor the roads between, and to relieve those who had left the portals at either end to escort parties of travelers.
At their left hand the flank of the mountain climbed sheer to Heaven. Presently the wall of rock receded somewhat from the trail, and soon afterward, they came to a cleft in the stone. The road ran on past this point, but a spur curved into the notch, and it was here that Brother Wulfstan turned in. They had come to sanctuary, near the end of the day, in the Monastery of St. Germaine de la Roche.