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Authors: Judith Tarr

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Isle of Glass

BOOK: Isle of Glass
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The Isle of Glass

Volume I
The Hound and the Falcon

Judith Tarr

Book View Café Edition
May 1, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-61138-167-2
Copyright © 1985, 2012 Judith Tarr
www.bookviewcafe.com

 

For Meredith

 

“Quis est homo?”
“Mancipium mortis, transiens viator,
loci hospes.”
—Alcuin of York

“What is a man?”
“The slave of death, the guest of an inn,
a wayfarer passing.”
—Helen Waddell

1

“Brother Alf! Brother Alfred!”

It was meant to be a whisper, but it echoed through the
library. Brother Alfred looked up from his book, smiling a little as the novice
halted panting within an inch of the table. “What is it now, Jehan?” he asked.
“A rescue? The King himself come to drag you off to the wars?”

Jehan groaned. “Heaven help us! I just spent an hour
explaining to Dom Morwin why I want to stay here and take vows. Father wrote to
him, you see, and said that if I had to be a monk, I’d join the Knights Templar
and not disgrace him completely.” Brother Alfred’s smile widened. “And what
said our good Abbot?”

“That I’m a waste of good muscle.” Jehan sighed and hunched
his shoulders. It did little good; they were still as broad as the front gate.
“Brother Alf, can’t anybody but you see what’s under it all?”

“Brother Osric says that you will make a tolerable
theologian.”

“Did he? Well. He told me today that I was a blockhead, and
that I’d got to the point where he’d have to turn me over to you.”

“In the same breath?”

“Almost. But I’m forgetting. Dom Morwin wants to see you.”

Brother Alfred closed his book. “And we’ve kept him waiting.
Someday, Jehan, we must both take vows of silence.”

“I could use it. But you? Never. How could you teach?”

“There are ways.” Just as Brother Alfred turned to go, he
paused. “Tomorrow, don’t go to the schoolroom. Meet me here.”

Jehan’s whoop made no pretense of restraint.

o0o

There was a fire in the Abbot’s study, and the Abbot stood
in front of it, warming his hands. He did not turn when Brother Alfred entered,
but said, “The weather’s wild today.”

The other sat in a chair nearby. “Fitting,” he remarked.
“You know what the hill-folk say: On the Day of the Dead, demons ride.”

The Abbot crossed himself quickly, with a wry smile. “Oh, it
will be a night to conjure in.” He sat stiffly and sighed. “My bones feel it.
You know, Alf—suddenly I’m old.”

There was a silence. Brother Alfred gazed into the fire,
seeing a pair of young novices, one small and slight and red as a fox, the other
tall and slender and very pale with hair like silver-gilt. They were very
industriously stealing apples from the orchard. His lips twitched.

“What are you thinking of?” asked the Abbot.

“Apple-stealing.”

“Is that all? I was thinking of the time we changed the
labels on every bottle, jar, and box of medicine in the infirmary. We almost
killed old Brother Anselm when he took one of Brother Herbal’s clandestine
aphrodisiacs instead of the medicine he needed for his indigestion.”

Brother Alfred laughed. "I remember that very well
indeed; after Dom Edwin’s caning, I couldn’t sit for a fortnight. And we had to
change the labels back again. In the end we knew Brother Herbal’s stores better
than he did himself.”

“I can still remember. First shelf: dittany, fennel, tansy,
rue.... Was it really almost sixty years ago?”

“Really.”


Tempus fugit
, with a vengeance.” Morwin ran his
hands through his hair. A little red still remained; the rest was rusty white.
“I’ve had my threescore years and ten, with three more for good measure. Time
to think of what I should have thought of all along if I’d been as good a monk
as I liked to think I was.”

“Good enough, Morwin. Good enough.”

“I could have been much better. I could have refused to let
them make me Abbot. You did.”

“You know why.”

“Foolishness. You could have been a Cardinal if you’d cared
to try.”

“How could I have? You know what I am.”

“I know what you think you are. You’ve had the story of your
advent drummed into your head so often, you’ve come to believe it.”

“It’s the truth. How it was the winter solstice, and a very
storm out of Hell. And in the middle of it, at midnight indeed, a novice,
keeping vigil in the chapel, heard a baby’s cry. He had the courage to go out,
even into that storm, which should have out-howled anything living, and he
found a prodigy. A babe of about a season’s growth, lying naked in the snow.
And yet he was not cold; even as the novice opened the postern, what had been
warming him took flight. Three white owls. Our brave lad took a long look, snatched
up the child, and bolted for the chapel. When holy water seemed to make no
impression, except what one would expect from a baby plunged headlong into an ice-cold
bath, he baptized his discovery, named him Alf—Alfred for the Church’s sake—and
proceeded to make a monk of him. But the novice always swore that the brat had
come out of the hollow hills.”

“Had he?”

“I don’t know. I seem to remember, faint and far, like
another’s memory: fire and shouting, and a girl running with a baby in her
arms. Then the girl, cold and dead, and a storm, and three white owls. No one
ever found her.” Brother Alfred breathed deep. “Maybe that’s only a dream, and
someone actually exposed me as a changeling. What better place for one? Here on
Ynys Witrin, with all its legends and its old magic.”

“Or else,” said Morwin, “the Fair Folk have turned
Christian. Though I’ve never heard that any of them could bear either holy
water or cold iron.”

“This one can.” Brother Alfred flexed his long fingers and
folded them tightly in his lap. “But to take a high place in the Church or in
the world...no. Anywhere but here, I would have gone to the stake long ago.
Even here, not all the Brothers are sure that I’m not some sort of superior
devil.”

Morwin bristled. “Who dares to think that?”

“None so bold that he voices his doubts, or even thinks
them, often.”

“He had better not!”

Alf smiled and shook his head. “You were always too fierce
in my defense.”

“And a good thing too. I’ve pulled you out of many a broil,
from the first time I saw the other novices make a butt of you.”

“So much trouble for a few harmless words.”

“Harmless! It was getting down to sticks and stones when I
came by.”

“They were only trying to frighten me,” Alf said. “But
that’s years past. We must truly be old if we can care so much for what
happened so long ago.”

“Don’t be so kind. It’s me, and you know it. I’ve always
been one to bear a grudge—the worse for my soul.” Morwin rose and stood with
his hands clasped behind his back. “Alf. Someday sooner or later, I’m going to
face my Maker. And when I do that, I want to be sure I’ve left St. Ruan’s in
good hands.” Alf would have spoken, but he shook his head. “I know, Alf. You’ve
refused every office anyone has tried to give you and turned o down the abbacy
three times. The more fool you; each time, the second choice has been far
inferior. I don’t want that to happen again.”

“Morwin. You know it must.”

“Why?” Brother Alfred stood, paler even than usual, and
spread his arms. “Look at me!”

Morwin’s jaw set. “I’m looking,” he said grimly. "I’ve
looked nearly every day for sixty years.”

“What do you see?”

“The one man I’d trust to take the abbacy and to keep it as
it should be kept.”

“Man, Morwin? Do you think I am a man? Come. You alone can
see me as I truly am. If you will.”

The Abbot found that he could not look away. His friend
stood in front of him, very tall and very pale, his eyes wide with something
close to despair. Strange eyes, palest gold like his hair and pupiled like a
cat’s.

“You see,” said Alf. “Remember what else had the novices
calling me devil and witch’s get. My way with beasts and with men. My little
conjuring tricks.” He gathered a handful of fire and shadow, plaited it into a
long strange-gleaming strand, and tossed it to Morwin. The other caught it
reflexively, and it was solid, a length of cord at once shadow-cool and
fire-hot. “And finally, Morwin, old friend, how old am I?”

“Two or three years younger than I.”

“And how old do I look?”

Morwin scowled and twisted the cord in his hands, and said
nothing.

“How old did Earl Rogier think I was when he brought Jehan to
St. Ruan’s? How old did Bishop Aylmer think I was, he who read my
Gloria Dei
thirty years ago and looked in vain for me all the while he guested here,
only last year? How old did he think me, Morwin? And what was it he said to
you? ‘That lad has a great future, Dom Morwin. Send him along to me when he
grows a little older, and I promise you’ll not regret it.’ He thought I was not
eighteen!”

Still Morwin was silent, although the pain in his friend’s
face and voice had turned his scowl to an expression of old and bitter sorrow.

Alf dropped back into his seat and covered his face with his
hands. “And you would make me swear to accept the election if it came to me
again. Morwin, will you never understand that I cannot let myself take any
title?”

The other’s voice was rough. “There’s a limit to humility,
Alf. Even in a monk.”

“It’s not humility. Dear God, no! I have more pride than
Lucifer. When I was as young as my body, I exulted in what I thought I was.
There were Bishop Aylmers then, too, all too eager to flatter a young monk with
a talent for both politics and theology. They told me I was brilliant, and I
believed them. I knew I was an enchanter; I thought I might have been the son
of an elven prince, or a lord at least, and I told myself tales of his love for
my mortal mother and of her determination that I should be a Christian. And of
three white owls.” His head lifted. “I was even vain, God help me; the more so
when I knew the world, and saw myself reflected in women’s eyes. Not a one but
sighed to see me a monk.”

“And not a one managed to move you.”

“Is that to my credit? I was proud that I never fell, nor
ever even slipped. No, Morwin. What I have is not humility. It’s fear. It was
in me even when I was young, beneath the pride, fear that I was truly inhuman.
It grew as the years passed. When I was thirty and was still mistaken for a
boy, I turned my mind from it. At forty I began to recognize the fear. At fifty
I knew it fully. At sixty it was open terror. And now, I can hardly bear it.
Morwin—Morwin—what if I shall never die?”

Very gently Morwin said, “All things die, Alf.”

“Then why do I not grow old? Why am I still exactly as I was
the day I took my vows? And—what is immortal—what is elvish—is soulless. To be
what I am and to lack a soul...it torments me even to think of it.”

Morwin laid a light hand on his shoulder. “Alf. Whatever you
are, whatever you become, I cannot believe that God would be so cruel, so
unjust, so utterly vindictive, as to let you live without a soul and die with
your body. Not after you’ve loved Him so long and so well.”

“Have I? Or is all my worship a mockery? I’ve even dared to
serve at His altar, to say His Mass—I, a shadow, a thing of air and darkness.
And you would make me Abbot. Oh, sweet Jesu!”

“Stop it, Alf!” Morwin rapped. “That’s the trouble with you.
You bottle yourself up so well you get a name for serenity. And when you
shatter, the whole world shakes. Spare us for once, will you?”

But Alf was beyond even that strong medicine. With a
wordless cry he whirled and fled. Morwin stared after him, paused, shook his
head. Slowly, painfully, he lowered himself into his chair. The cord was still
in his hand, fire and darkness, heat and cold. For a long while he sat staring
at it, stroking it with trembling fingers. “Poor boy,” he whispered. “Poor
boy.”

2

Jehan could not sleep. He lay on his hard pallet, listening
to the night sounds of the novices’ dormitory, snores and snuffles and an
occasional dreamy murmur. It was cold under his thin blanket; wind worked its
way through the shutters of the high narrow windows, and rain lashed against
them, rattling them on their iron hinges.

BOOK: Isle of Glass
11.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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