Authors: Sara Poole
Tags: #Thrillers, #Historical, #Fiction
Also by Sara Poole
About the Author
“Hélène! Where are you?” The woman’s voice carried over the rough stone walls and across the barren ground at the center of the fortress high atop the rocky crag. Several people turned to look at her, but she ignored them and hurried on. “Hélène!”
“Here, Maman!” The child emerging from the low entrance to one of the many caves that dotted the crag was weighed down by a bucket of water drawn from the cistern hidden within. Small and thin for her seven years, she wore layers of ragged wool that failed to keep out the chill wind. Even so, she smiled at sight of her mother.
“Look,” the child said, drawing from beneath her cloak the heel of a small loaf of bread. “Perfecta Jeanine gave it to me for helping to pull up the water.”
“We will find a little broth for you to dip it in,” her mother said. “But first we must get inside.”
As she spoke, shouts echoed from the slope below the fortress. The mother seized her child’s hand and ran. Several others within sight did the same, but a few men and women remained where they were out in the open, not moving. Their faces serene, they prayed quietly.
A large round boulder flew through the air and struck an outer wall of the fortress. Almost at once, several more followed. One broke apart as it hit the ground. A large fragment struck a praying woman. Her head whipped back as blood flew from the gash in her skull. She fell and did not get up.
The child, Hélène, tried to hold on to the bucket as she ran, but her mother wrenched it from her and threw it to the side. Together they dove into the shelter of a basement just as another boulder landed nearby. The bombardment continued without surcease for more than an hour. Peering outside, the child saw several more people who had not sought shelter being struck and killed. The sight terrified her.
Her mother gathered her close, holding her daughter’s head against her breast and stroking her hair gently.
“Do not be afraid,
. You know they are among the Perfect Ones. Death carries no sting for them. They embrace it, assured that they will be free forever from the cycle of rebirth into this world of evil. Instead, they will follow the path of light into the eternal realm of the true God of Goodness.”
She drew back a little, smiling down at the child. “We must be happy for them.”
“What about Father? Is he going to die?” The thought of her father being crushed by the flying stones made her want to cry, but she knew that she must not. He was among the
destined for the light. He and the others like him had brought them all to the fortress on the top of the crag months before when the bad men sent by the Pope of Satan had come to their homes in the village below. Ever since, the evil ones had been advancing up the slope of the mountain, coming closer each day with their siege engines and their deadly bombardment. In recent days, the boulders had begun to fall into the fortress itself. Soon the last of the stone walls would be shattered, and then there would be nothing left to protect them except their faith.
“Why doesn’t the God of Goodness stop them?” the child asked. “If we pray harder, maybe He will—”
“Hush, Hélène. You know that only the God of Evil rules in this world. He has trapped the light of our souls in these bodies, but we can still free ourselves from Him. Your father and all the Perfect Ones show us the way.”
The child nodded, for she trusted her father and loved her mother; but even so, she remained afraid. Long after she should have been asleep that night, she lay awake listening to the low murmur of their voices. Much that they said she did not understand. But she was aware when her mother cried out and began to weep.
In the morning, her mother woke her with a smile that did not reach her eyes. “I have wonderful news,” she said. “Your father told me last night that I have been found worthy. Later today, he will perform the rite of
and I will be raised among the Perfect Ones.”
Terror flared in the child. Her mother would be like the people crushed beneath the stones. She would go into the light. “Do not leave me behind!”
Just then, her father appeared at the door of the small room they shared. He frowned at his daughter. “You are old enough to know better. Live your life in accordance with our ways and you, too, will be redeemed from this world of evil; if not in this lifetime, then in another.”
The thought of being born again and again into the world of evil without the comfort of her mother was more than Hélène could bear. Wrenching sobs broke from her. When her mother would have gone to her, her father pulled her mother away and took her from the room. The child was left alone with her terror.
Hours passed without either of her parents’ returning. When her tears were exhausted, Hélène climbed out of the basement and stood for a moment looking out over the valley far below. Dimly she remembered coming to it when she was very small, finding delight in the sparkling streams and lush forests that were filled with birds and flowers in season. For a while, life had been good. But now the shadows cast by the crag and the steep cliffs below made it impossible for her to see the village where they had lived. Perhaps that was just as well. The evil ones were there now; in the thousands, it was said. Soon they would be in the fortress itself.
Her stomach, even shrunken as it was since rations had been cut yet again, rumbled. She thought of trying to find food, but the bombardment could start again at any moment and she was afraid to be caught in the open. As she hesitated, she saw the Perfect Ones, numbering in the several hundred, all going together into the underground chamber where they often met. Left behind were the simple
—believers—followers of the faith yet not true members of it until they could attain perfection. Gathering her courage, Hélène darted forward and crossed the open space. She pressed herself tightly against a wall and remained still until her heartbeat returned to normal. Only then did she creep forward, listening intently.
Curiosity drove her; that and the hope that she would see her mother at the moment of her transformation into a
. It was the greatest wish of all those who belonged to the one true faith to be raised to the state in which escape from this world could be attained. But she was too late. Her mother was in the chamber, but she already wore the dark blue robe of a Perfect One. Her hands were clasped at her waist and her face appeared blank, yet her eyes were red-rimmed.
A man, also enrobed, was passing among the assembly. He held a small, plain bowl covered by a length of linen. Each person he stopped before reached beneath the linen to select a smooth rounded pebble. Most of the stones were white, but a few were black. Hélène’s mother reached her hand into the bowl. When she withdrew it, she was holding a white stone. Her father was among the last to draw a stone. His was black.
“It is done, then,” he said. “Let us rejoice for those who go on ahead, in the certain knowledge that we will all meet again in the light.”
The assembly murmured in agreement. Many began to pray. More than a few appeared to the child’s eyes as though they had been transported, their spirits no longer fully attached to this world. She looked to her mother but could not catch sight of her, swallowed up as she was by all the others.
But later, when the Perfect Ones had emerged from the chamber, it was announced that all,
together, would share a special meal. Food was brought out such as the child had not seen in months. Although dairy and meat were strictly forbidden, there were dried fruits and fish, nuts, vegetables, and wonderful bread. The child ate until her stomach could hold no more. In the aftermath of the feast, she could hardly keep her eyes open; but she was determined to do so. Though her mother had remained with the Perfect Ones, the child could see her from time to time. She still looked as if she had been crying.
It was dark when the meal ended and families withdrew to their own quarters. Hélène went at once to her pallet on the floor, but her father called her back. He had kept his cloak on and he was holding a small cloth bundle.
“Embrace your mother,” he said. “When you meet again, you will both be in the light.”
The child stiffened and held back, afraid of the meaning behind his words. But her mother came forward and, taking her gently by the shoulders, looked deeply into her eyes.
“Do not be afraid,” she said. “The choice has been made and I rejoice in it. Live your life well, and we will be reunited again soon.” Her gaze shifted to the man waiting with some impatience near the door. “Be kind to your father and obey him. He has agreed to remain here while almost all the rest of us go into the light.”
“Let me go, too, Maman!” the child cried. “I am not afraid! Even if I have to come back into this world again, let me go with you now. Please!”
A low murmur of anguish came from her mother. She pressed her lips together, but it was too late. The father had heard.
“Enough,” he said as he stepped forward. “The others are waiting. We must go.” Looking to his wife, he directed, “Fulfill the teachings of our faith. Show the followers of Satan that we are beyond all fear and dread. Strike at their souls with the strength of our conviction.”
Mutely, the woman nodded, but Hélène wondered if she had heard. Her eyes were focused on her daughter even as the father took the child’s hand and led her out of the small room. She looked back frantically, clinging to her mother’s gaze all the way across the fortress to the far side above the cliffs.
Only a few people were gathered there; the other Perfect Ones whom Hélène had seen choose black stones and several
who appeared anxious and fearful. Almost half were children like her.
“Come, then,” her father said and led the way down into a chamber that gave way to one of the caves that honeycombed the crag. From there, they went on through a narrow passage where the air was so chill and damp that Hélène began to shiver uncontrollably. When they came out at last, they were at the foot of the crag on the far side opposite the village.
“We shelter in the forest tonight,” her father said as he led them toward it. “Tomorrow, we bear witness.”
Hélène slept for a few hours on a bed of pine needles, but what rest she found was fractured by images of her mother alone on the crag. No, not alone; she was among the Perfect Ones, and soon she would go into the light. Perhaps the God of Goodness Himself would descend to claim His faithful. Choirs of angels would sing, and the evil ones below would fall to their knees in terror. The thought of witnessing such a miracle eased the pain in the child’s heart a little but still, she missed her mother.
Before mid-morning, her father gathered them all together and led the way through the forest to a small rocky terrace that overlooked the village. There they hid themselves, able to see without being seen.
“Do not make a sound,” he cautioned. “Remember, we are here to bear witness.”
For an hour or more, nothing seemed to happen. Hélène tried to distract herself from the cold and from her own fear by looking out over the armed encampment that had replaced the village. The banner of the Pope of Satan flew, surrounded by the emblems of those who did his bidding. She had never seen so many people in one place. There had to be thousands. The ground beneath them was churned to frozen mud, devoid of a single blade of grass. Almost all the trees had been cut down to build the immense siege engines on the slope leading up toward the fortress. Tents sprouted everywhere, but in the center of the village a space had been cleared of everything save for an immense wooden cage, the purpose of which she could not imagine.
The sun was high in the winter sky when a sudden silence fell over the encampment. All eyes turned toward the top of the crag. Hélène’s breath caught when she saw the lines of Perfect Ones, all garbed in blue, descending toward the army of Satan. Distantly, she could hear that they were singing. One by one, as they reached the center of the village, each stepped unhesitantly into the wooden cage.
When they were all inside, the doors were closed and bound with iron chains. A man high up on a noble steed shouted an order. Other men ran forward, piling kindling around the cage. Hélène heard a low mewing sound and realized that it was coming from her. Her father placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Do not look away,” he said. “It is your duty to see all and remember.”
She obeyed not because she wished to but because she could not move. Her eyes, searching frantically, found her mother pressed against the back of the cage, looking out in their direction. Hidden as they were, Hélène did not think her mother could see her. Hot tears poured down her cheeks. She opened her mouth to cry out, but no sound emerged.
Men came forward with torches, which they set to the base of the cage. A priest of the evil ones made the sign of the cross. A great roar of approval went up from the assembled army. Black smoke spiraled into the sky. The fire caught quickly. Soon red fingers of flame were running up the front of the cage and over the top. The robe of one of the
caught fire, followed quickly by another and another. And still they sang.
Hélène closed her eyes, only to open them a moment later in response to the pressure of her father’s hands on her shoulders.
In a thick, gruff voice, he said, “As you love your mother, bear witness.”