The translation team is working hard and I am uploading the first chapter for a change from the Greek articles.
BOOK I: BIRTH
By Chris A. Kaskavelis
CHAPTER I. JAR OF HONEY
«I am here … to redeem the lives of my wife and daughter … I brought the offering.»
Those were the man’s first words as he knelt and offered me a small earthenware jar. His eyes pierced my robe like two bloodstained blades. Only moments before, he had crashed through the main cedar gate of our monastery, hurling his massive body against it
A war-clad man from a faraway land stood in front of me. The long loose hair, the hide-sewn coat and the mud-colored hair boots betrayed his origin. His dark-skinned face was of a tone I had never seen before, but have envisioned from the tales of the barbarians of the steppe up in the northeast corners of the world. No one like him had ever set foot before on our remote island of Hieros in the middle of the sky-blue sea.
Many a disheartened soul had often enough climbed the thirty-eight and thousand more steps that led to the Castlemonastery. Each of them had jumped from some sea-bearing vessel, from swift-moving triremes with three rows of two-colored oars, from wave-ravaged and sea-humbled fishing boats.
They all moored in the well-hidden eastern harbor and ascended to seek mercy or plead for a miracle. Almost all descended the same steps one or two days later, some swiftly and effortlessly with wings of hope lifting their feet, others slow and unhurried, with the look of a fate foretold in their eyes. Some, those were very few indeed, stayed at the monastery for a long time. They had found all the strength to climb up, but had lost even the little needed to climb down again.
That afternoon, as the youngest novice monk, I was airing the First Elder’s chamber, cleansing the mold and stench left behind by the linseed oil-burning lamps. I looked out of the window and the ship appeared through the spider’s web clinging to the limestone wall and blowing like a veil over the wooden shutters. A penteconter, a fifty-oared galley never before seen in our parts, was steadily approaching the entrance of the harbor, like a giant serpent slicing in two the calm blue waters. It was too small and slow to be a pirate ship. I recognized the carved wooden swan perched on its stern, a common sign of a merchant vessel.
A half beast of a man jumped with his boots into the sea, before the ship was even moored, and I clutched the wooden cross hanging around my neck The man came ashore holding a clay jar in both hands above water, inching his way across the razor-edged rocks on the small shore.
I waited to see how many of his crewmates would follow, my teeth biting into my lower lip. But there was not a second. He was already straddling two by two the salt-eaten stones without ever looking back.
I had counted several times, in the middle of a quiet day, how quickly someone could climb the thousand and thirty-eight narrow steps that lead to our monastery. I had always wanted to be the fastest but had yet to succeed. Nor had I ever confessed this habit to anyone, not even to the First Elder, for fear of exposing my boredom. I was too consumed with shame at the sin of stealing time from my prayers for such foolish pursuits. The First Elder had given me the sanctified name of Eusebius, the devout one, when I was first brought here as a small child, but my actions and thoughts had proved unworthy of my holy name.
The young fisherman who brought us fresh mackerel every Saturday morning had managed once to climb the slippery steps barefoot by the time I had counted five times a hundred. The man, who had only moments before moored in the harbor, was at the southwest bend above the halfway mark of the climb and I hadn’t even counted to twice a hundred yet.
The cross-shaped hilt of his sword, tied to his back, extended from behind his neck. He was undoubtedly a man of the blade. One barbarian alone was enough to annihilate the few ageing monks of our commune, just as the searing wind, for days now, had been ravaging the yellow delicate flowers of spring.
This flavorful season, the onset of summer, is often misleading. For it is a season of annihilation, the one that pirates favor to rip through seas and virgins. Only one thing about this barbarian gave me the slightest bit of hope: the small dark jar which he carried as gently as an infant in his left hand.
I descended the coiled stone staircase from the second floor of the Monastery with my long robe hindering my speed, until I reached the courtyard shouting loudly:
“The gate, shut the gate.”
My brothers were breaking their fast in the dining hall after the Morning Prayer and only a deaf elder named Marcus was in the courtyard, weeding the vegetable garden. I reached the gate just in time to secure the rusty latch. I could just see the top of the intruder’s head as he was close to reaching me. Only a few steps separated the man from the gate when I managed to lock it. I grabbed the heavy wooden beam with my hands, unaided, to further block the incursion, just as the man fell on the door with great strength. Again and again and again came the thundering blows, as if the earth was splitting in half to release the demon, until the latch came loose, releasing the door inwards, half shattered, and knocking me down with it. I lifted my eyes to look upon him, formed half the sign of the cross across my chest and fell, begging, on my knees.
“Have mercy, in the name of God.”
He had the stature and the tawny long wavy hair of the Archangel but he was dressed in the skins and furs of the infidel invaders. The sharp lines of his face were forged with a sweet terror as if the Devil himself had stretched a sheet of wheat-colored skin over bones of steel.
It was the face of those bloodthirsty dogs sent by Satan but stopped by God just above the Great River that, for centuries now, designated the natural boundaries of the Holy Eastern Empire. But not everyone found his face as sinister as I did that first day. In the settlement where the inhabitants of the island lived, beyond the Castlemonastery, every woman would whisper for years to come how handsome he was.
The man, too, fell on his knees in front of me and still surpassed my height by half a head as we faced each other. He raised the jar and extended it towards me and with eyes and mouth wide open I heard him utter, one by one, the words in my own tongue and that of All Mighty God and his servants the Emperors:
“Mercy…in the name…God. I am here…to redeem the life of my wife and daughter…”
His speech was heavy and every “r” rolled off his tongue like a boulder on a steep hill. His vowels spewed from his mouth like scared twitching fish out of water. His right hand let go of the jar and gripped mine. A spray of warm sweat awakened my face.
“Young man. Magus of the Cross. Save us.”
His fingers locked around my hand and my mind went blank from the sheer pain of it. My gaze flew towards the sound of shouts coming from the rest of the monks who had arrived at last behind me. The man did not let go of my hand, only lessened the strength of his grip.
Despite the strength of his hands and legs he was one of those few men who had lost all strength to climb down again and would stay with us for quite some time. “Forever” is a word that I will not use, because I am a man of God and it means other things to me. I dare not even utter the word for that would mean that he failed on his mission.
This man of the blade was the last to remain on Hieros Island, so many years later. It was that last summer morn when I and the rest of my fellow monks and villagers abandoned the island to save our lives and the silver and gold heirlooms from the pirates.
I waved my last goodbye from our rescue ship that was rapidly moving away from the island. He had barricaded himself alone behind the stone walls of the Castlemonastery with his only comrades, the sick and the crippled. The torches he had lit all along the wall and the flashing sun on his two unsheathed swords were the last flickers of light that I was ever to see from that windswept holy place. It was, I know now, the only true and Holy light.
That same evening after the Compline Prayer I opened the jar of his offering in my dark attic room. Over the low heat of the candle I burned the rope and the sailcloth that had crudely sealed the wide mouth of the greenish-black unpainted vessel. As timid as a caterpillar sliding into its metamorphosis, I placed my finger into its mixture, slightly, before curiosity became sin. I gagged at the sweet but oddly sour taste on my tongue.
It was honey.
Sweet nectar of the immortal Demons from the dawn of time.
At the touch of the tongue, my fully roused gaze flew up and caught dark shadows moving around me. The night birds, the demongirls. They were gone quickly as a sudden flash of lightning in the scant moonlight pouring in from my window. I held the jar closer to me and heard the long inconsolable wails of mourning emanating like fumes. It could have been just an aberration from my fiveandtenmore day fast. A sudden breeze rose from my chest, not from the window, and wrapped itself around my spine. I placed the jar as far away from me as I could but not a moment of sleep came over me until dawn when they took it out of my cell forever.
The barbarian man’s name was…is, Da-Ren. This is his story as I transcribed it with my reed pen dipped in the ink, the black and the red. I buried it in a trunk in the dungeon of the closest monastery, on Foleron Island, where I had escaped to.
I never saw the jar again.
Though I dreamt of it. Just the night before last.