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 threeno, fourand 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.
Excerpted from Something Red by Douglas Nicholas. Copyright © 2012 by Douglas Nicholas. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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