He was tied to the stake and the faggots piled around him so that he was almost hidden from view. When a torch was held to the wood, there was an almighty crackling and the kindling caught light immediately and burned with a fierce glow. My father had nodded in approval; sometimes, he explained, if the authorities feel merciful, they allow green wood to be used for the pyre, so that the prisoner will often suffocate from the smoke before he truly suffers the sting of the flames. But for the worst kind of heretics witches, sorcerers, blasphemers, Lutherans, the Benandanti they would be sure the wood was as dry as the slopes of Monte Cicala in summer, so that the heat of the flames would tear at the offender until he screamed out to God with his last breath in true repentance.
I wanted to look away as the flames rushed to devour the mans face, but my father was planted solidly beside me, his gaze unflinching, as if watching the poor wretchs agonies were an essential part of his own duty to God, and I did not want to appear less manly or less devout than he. I heard the mangled shrieks that escaped the condemned mans torn mouth as his eyeballs popped, I heard the hiss and crackle as his skin shrivelled and peeled away and the bloody pulp beneath melted into the flames, I smelled the charred flesh that reminded me horribly of the boar that was always roasted over a pit at street festivals in Nola. Indeed, the cheering and exultation of the crowd when the heretic finally expired was like nothing so much as a saints day or public holiday. On the way home I asked my father why the man had had to die so horribly. Had he killed someone, I wondered? My father told me that he had been a heretic. When I pressed him to explain what a heretic was, he said the man had defied the authority of the pope by denying the existence of Purgatory. So I learned that, in Italy, words and ideas are considered as dangerous as swords and arrows, and that a philosopher or a scientist needs as much courage as a soldier to speak his mind.
Somewhere in the dormitory building I heard a door slam violently.
They are coming, I whispered frantically to Paolo. Where the devil is my cloak?
Here. He handed me his own, pausing a moment to tuck it around my shoulders. And take this. He pressed into my hand a small bone- handled dagger in a leather sheath. I looked at him in surprise. It was a gift from my father, he whispered. You will have more need of it than I, where you are going. And now, sbrigati. Hurry.
The narrow window of our cell was just large enough for me to squeeze myself onto the ledge, one leg at a time. We were on the first floor of the building, but about six feet below the window the sloping roof of the lay brothers reredorter jutted out enough for me to land on it if I judged the fall carefully; from there I could edge my way down a buttress and, assuming I could make it across the garden without being seen, climb the outside wall of the monastery and disappear into the streets of Naples under cover of darkness.
I tucked the dagger inside my habit, slung my oilskin pack over one shoulder, and climbed to the ledge, pausing astride the windowsill to look out. A gibbous moon hung, pale and swollen, over the city, smoky trails of cloud drifting across its face. Outside there was only silence. For a moment I felt suspended between two lives. I had been a monk for thirteen years; when I lifted my left leg through the window and dropped to the roof below, I would be turning my back on that life for good. Paolo was right; I would be excommunicated for leaving my order, whatever other charges were levelled at me. He looked up at me, his face full of wordless grief, and reached for my hand. I leaned down to kiss his knuckles when I heard again the emphatic stride of many feet thundering down the passageway outside.
Excerpted from Heresy by S J Parris. Copyright © 2010 by S J Parris. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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