KEEPER OF DAYS I: The Book of Day and Night – Chapter One

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ONE

PORTENTS AT MORNING PRAYER

On the morning of my ascension, the first light of dawn crept in through the window to fall upon my left eye.  I opened it, blearily, to find that the shutter had blown open during the night.  Throwing aside my coverlet, I slid my feet out into the chill air, which had invaded my chamber.  Our chamber, I should write, as my bunkmate, Brother Orly, snored in his bed just a few feet from me.  My bare toes objected strongly to the cold stone floor of the chamber, and it took some will to place them firmly there.

I stood, clutching my nightclothes more tightly about me, and stepped to the window.  There I held the open shutter and gazed out at the sun as it edged over the horizon, sending streaks of red and orange to trace across the sky.  My first inclination had been to close the shutter, though the damage had been done: my breath emerged as mist even while in my bed.  But as I looked out at the sun, I found I could not close out this gift from the Lord of Day.  And so I knelt there, at the windowsill, touching my fingertips to my forehead, and said a silent prayer to the morning light the god had sent, that it might bless our Order on this new day, and bring me the wisdom to lead them into a prosperous new Age.  The sun rose, and warmed the backs of my hands as I prayed.  Finally, I lowered them into the supplicating position, and allowed my face to be warmed by the sun, keeping my eyes closed, as I was taught long ago by the old Masters, when praying to the Lord of Day.  For he is, more than anything else, the bringer of truth, and truth, like sunlight, may blind the imprudent.

From the belfry above, I heard the morning bell sound, and though our bell is not of great size, the natural properties of the stone apertures carved in the tower allow the sound to echo off the canyon walls, bringing the sound in clear, cool tones to all those within our cloister.  Once it rang, and I again silently thanked the Lord of Day for bringing me his blessing on this, the day of my ascension to the rank of Master.  The youngest to be so elevated in the history of our order, some have said, though they cannot know this, as our order has existed for thousands of years and the most ancient records have now fallen unto dust in our catacombs.   I do not believe it so, cannot believe it.  Twice, the bell rang, and I stood, and at last opened my eyes, though not to look directly into the sunlight, of course, but to gaze down at the mountain path which emerges from the front of the monastery gate to crawl around the canyon wall and slowly make its way down to the foot of the Amitines, the range from which our mountain home was carved so very long ago.

Soon I must take that road, I thought, for the very first time.

Thrice the bell sounded, and I closed the shutter.  It was time to prepare for Morning Prayer, which I was to lead. I had nearly forgotten.

I reached down to shake the shoulder of Brother Orly, still snoring away in his bunk.  “Morning, Brother,” I said softly.

He made some guttural sound and turned to his other side.  Orly was some ten years my senior, still a Lay Brother in name, though I kept pushing him to seek elevation.  Our Order, I have found, keeps a very loose (some might say disorganized) structure, as compared to other monastic orders.  There is no set period to study and ascend to the next rank; one may seek elevation at any time, and if she passes the trials, she is granted it.  Thus, one can be a Journeyman, a Monk, such as I was, at only twenty-five summers, or, one could be Novice or Apprentice until far more advanced age.  Or indeed, like Orly, an initiate could choose to remain a Lay Brother or Sister, carrying out menial tasks for the monastery for her full time in our Order, rather than move on to become an Apprentice and learn the teachings of the gods.  Orly was fond of the messenger pigeons kept in our aerie, having been assigned to assist the Brother in charge of it some years past.  He had elected to remain there when the elder Brother had passed, and was now the Lay Brother in charge of that function, tending to the pigeons and the maintenance of their lofts.  There is nobility in the simplest of functions, so Master Timeon taught me, and I believe it so.  Brother Orly was a simple man, who wanted nothing more than to tend to his birds, eat when the dinner bell rang, and serve the will of the gods.  I cannot fault him for that.

However, he was indeed a challenge to wake up of a morning.  Further, he had an unfortunate disposition to being untidy, leaving a mess of his robes, papers, even bits of hay and feathers, about our chambers.  I had to repeatedly abjure him to keep the room clean, and it would revert to its prior state quickly were I to be lax in reminding him.  I once spoke to Matron Sebelle about him, and asked if perhaps I could be assigned a new bunkmate.

“Your fellows seem to think quite highly of you, Daniel,” she said.

I thanked her.

“But you’ll have quite a challenge leading the entire order of Keepers if you can’t get one Lay Brother out of bed and into his chores.”

That settled the matter.  I did not ask again.

“It is time to wake, Brother,” I said, a bit louder, and shook him again.

“Five more minutes,” he said, into his pillow.  I had heard this ruse before.

“ORLY!” I shouted.  “NOW!”

“Sake of the gods, Daniel!” He turned, lifting up on his elbows.  “I’m awake.  No need for shouting.”

“We must prepare for morning prayer, Brother,” I said.

“Oh,” he said knowingly, crossing his arms behind his head and resting on his hands, “I see.  Big day, is it?  No wonder you’re all in a state.”

I couldn’t help but smile.  “Get up, and get dressed.”

Once dressed, we made our way to the main chapel.  We hold most services in an outdoor chapel, just inside the main monastery gate.  There is a smaller chapel, and many smaller naves as well, within the stone walls of the cloister, but according to tradition our order has held services outdoors when possible, to allow the seven Lords to look down upon us and observe our fealty.  This is not truly necessary, of course.  From a very young age, I was taught that the Lords could see us wherever we may be, see into our very hearts, and hear our prayers even when said silently.  Tradition aside, however, it is more comfortable to deliver service in the open air than surrounded by the orange rock of the mountain.

I placed at the lectern the few sheaves of paper upon which I had scrawled my notes, and looked around the chapel.  Some few brothers and sisters had already taken seats upon the stone benches, nodding off to sleep where they sat, and more filed in from behind me as I stood gathering my thoughts.  The seats in front were reserved for the youngest, though we had not had a new class of initiates in some time. Our youngest now were approaching ten years of age, and it seemed strange to have no younger.

“Good morning, Brother Daniel,” said a warm voice.  Matron Sebelle, her gray hair tucked inside her hood, stepped around the lectern, placing one hand on it.  “Gods be with you on this day.”

“And with you, Matron,” I responded.  Our order has, as you might expect by now, a very loose formal usage of title.  Master, Father, Pater, Mistress, Mother, or Matron, all are acceptable, but Sebelle had preferred the use of Matron for as long as I can remember.  Indeed, she is the closest thing to a mother as I have ever known, since I have no memory of my own mother.

Master Timeon was behind her, but did not speak, only stopped to nod in my direction.  I nodded back, and he walked to the back of the chapel to sit near the posts which frame the door in the inner wall of the courtyard.

“I look forward to hearing your words this morning,” said Matron Sebelle.

“Thank you,” I said.

She walked around the chapel, gazing sternly at some of the younger Brothers, warmly greeting a few of the elders, stopping here and there to look over the wall and out at the courtyard.  Finally, she took a place next to Master Timeon.  I keenly felt the absence of Masters Hubrick and Paz, sadly no longer with us, who would have sat in the places beside the other post.  Their passing is, I believe, one reason why I was allowed to take the rites of ascension at such a young age.

Orly placed a pitcher of freshly drawn water and a cup on the small table beside the lectern.  “To help with the throat,” he said, unnecessarily.

“My thanks, Brother,” I said.

He leaned close to whisper, “Don’t muck it up!” Then he laughed and clapped me on the back.  This, to Brother Orly, was the height of humor, and I must admit that, though I did not laugh that day, I cannot help but smile now to think of it.  Orly took his place in the midst of the congregation.

All of the brothers present, and the Masters in their places, it was time to begin.

“It is easy, sometimes, to forget,” I began, “gazing out at the morning sun, or up into the clear blue sky, that we live in the Age of Storm.  The Lord of Storm, most violent and chaotic of all the seven, holds dominion over our world, and has since before any here were born, but that chaos is not always on the outside, nor is it easily seen.  Sometimes, the storm lies within.”  Several heads nodded at this.  “We question ourselves, question our duty, our place, even question the gods.  We feel anger, for a perceived slight, or jealousy, because we think another has received more than us, or we have been treated unfairly.”

I did not notice the first pair of crows to land, landing as they did on opposite sides of the chapel, to perch on the short inner wall.  When the third landed, however, I did take note, as this one landed on the rear wall, directly above where Matron Sebelle sat watching me.

“We feel fear,” I continued.  “We fear to act at times, even when we know the right thing to do.  We fear to act, and fear even more to stand…”

A fourth crow, and then a fifth, had landed on the wall.

“Fear…we fear even more to stand still.  The challenge, within all of us just as it is without, is to weather the storm, to brave the chaos…”

Yet another crow flapped down to land, this time on the bench directly behind one of the young girls on the front row, Sister Patrice.  She and the others on the front row spun about to gaze in wonder at the bird, which tucked its wings back and scraped at the bench with its sharp beak.  A murmur grew in the congregation.

“We must…stay true to ourselves,” I said, faltering.  “Remain calm.”

From the sky above me the seventh crow fell, to land on the lectern before me.

A thunderstruck silence descended upon me.  I caught Matron Sebelle’s eye, and she appeared as startled as I am certain I did myself.  The congregation continued to murmur, unsure what to do.  I did not continue speaking, nor did I attempt to shoo the bird away.  I have said that I do not feel fear, and this is true, but I came very close to it in that moment.

Into that silence came the sound of our bell, ringing from above, and the murder took flight.  Startled, the crows flapped their wings and flew off around the corners of the mountain from whence they had come.  Twice, the bell rang, then a third time.

“Who rings the bell?” I asked, incredulous.  Presence at Morning Prayer was mandatory, and all were believed accounted.

“Brother Wendol,” said one of the Apprentices.

“I’m here,” said Brother Wendol from the back of the congregation, raising his hand.

The bell rang, a fourth time, then a fifth.

I quite lost myself then, and sprang for the door.  I ran as fast as I could through the cramped hallways of the cloister, until I arrived at the steps to the belfry.  I climbed the steps by leaps and bounds, two of the brothers behind me climbing just as fast.  Up we ran, around and around the spiral of stone.  I heard the bell ring a sixth time, then a seventh.  After seven chimes, silence fell.

I burst through the door to the belfry to find the rope still swaying gently, as if the hands that pulled it had just released it to swing in the air, but there was no one present.  The belfry is small, a mere circle of stone, with the ropes in the center hanging from the bell mounted in the dome, hewn from inside a tiny spire in the mountain.  There was no place for anyone to hide.  Brother Wendol came behind me through the door, followed soon after by Orly, gasping and resting his hands on his knees.  I looked back at them, and Wendol was wide-eyed, his lips working soundlessly.

I stepped around, peering out of each of the shutterless windows that looked out from the belfry.  Those windows, or portals, are hewn into a shape that curves out from a tiny opening on the inside of the belfry to a wide exterior arch, allowing the sound to carry forth and echo off the stone.  This would be no easy place to enter or exit the belfry for anyone of even moderate size, leaving aside the challenge of reaching the window up the outside spire of the mountain.  Looking out, I saw only jutting crags.

“No chance,” said Orly.  “There’s none could make that climb.”

I gauged the holds and crevices in the rock, and judged him wrong:  I could have made the climb, but only with difficulty, and only with a great deal of time and preparation.  There was no one to be seen within, or scaling the rocks without, only the swaying rope, and, echoing around the mountain, the calling of the crows.

NEXT: COUNT AND COUNSEL

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(c)opyright 2013 by J. David Clarke

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