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.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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