by Judith Tarr
The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness,and let us put on the armor of light.
— ROMANS 13:12
Aurillac, A.D. 965
The monks’ chanting had long since faded into silence. There was only wind keening about the stones of the tower, and the mighty stillness of the stars. But in that stillness, if one had ears to hear, was a thin high singing.
Gerbert shivered without noticing that he did it. That was only his body. His mind was afire. “But don’t you see? It rises in the east. It travels up the sky. Then it turns and retraces its steps. Then it turns again and goes on as before.”
“Wherefore,” intoned his companion, “planetes, as the Greeks would say: ‘wanderer’.”
“Of course it wanders!” Gerbert stopped short. Brother Raymond was laughing at him, and not trying to hide it. “You are hardly dignified,” he said severely, “magister.”
His teacher grinned and stretched. “Dignity is for overaweing farmers’ sons when they fidget over their grammar. Not for perching on towers at high midnight, when God and the abbot know we should be sensibly asleep.”
“What’s more sensible than astronomy?” Gerbert dropped back on the tiles and filled his eyes with stars. “If I could just show people how it works … if they could feel with their own hands, see how it all moves, how it sings…”
“That’s heretical,” said Raymond.
This time Gerbert did not fall into the the trap. Not quite. “Theory is excellent in its place. But it’s practice that one remembers. You taught me that.”
“It was born in you. I merely let it grow.”
There was a silence, with music in it. No one else admitted to hearing it; and yet it was there. Gerbert knew that, as he knew that he was Gerbert. Brother Gerbert of the abbey of St.-Géraud in Aurillac, in the county of the Auvergne, in the duchy of Aquitaine, in the kingdom of the Franks, in the faded and crumbling Empire of the West, in this world that God had made.
He lay on his back atop Saint Gerald’s tower and opened his arms to the sky. “I want …” he said. “I want to know. There is so much–so much–”
“I’ve taught you all I know,” said Raymond.
Gerbert sat up so quickly that his head spun. “Brother! I didn’t mean–”
“You didn’t,” Raymond agreed,serene “You’ll fly higher than I. I’m but a master of grammar. You’ll be …who knows what? Anything you want to be.”
“I want to matter.” Gerbert paused. Suddenly he laughed. “Listen to me! Abbot Gerald’s charity, Richard the farmer’s youngest cub, the one who was born asking questions. There’s wool in my head and earth between my toes, and never a drop of noble blood to excuse my arrogance.”
“There’s this,” said Raymond, rapping Gerbert’s tonsured crown. “This sets you level with kings: this, and what is under it. Never forget that. Nor ever forget that it also sets you level with slaves. There is only one nobility where we are, and that is twofold: of God and of the mind.”
“Therefore you are my master, because you stand before me on all my paths.”
Gerbert drew breath to argue. He could see Brother Raymond’s face in the bright starlight, round and comfortable, much less apt for dignity than for sudden laughter. The laughter was winning now.
“Look!” said Raymond suddenly, his mirth melting into wonder. “A shooting star. And out of the eye of the Eagle. That’s an omen.”
This time Gerbert knew that he shivered. For me, he thought, but did not say. Another star fell as he stared, and another, and another: a shower of stars. The great music quivered with the power of it.
In that quivering came a new note, a thrill as of laughter, a thrumming that was not quite discord. It was alien, inhuman, yet perfectly a part of night and sky and stars.
They came out of the north, riding up the arch of the sky, singing in high sweet voices, laughing, gathering and scattering and gathering again in a whirling, skyborne dance. Some rode mounts of air and darkness. Some flew on wings of light. Their beauty smote Gerbert’s heart.
Raymond murmured beside him, words of shock and of sanctity. The shock came late to Gerbert, and then unwillingly. That wild beauty, that music that was all of earth and nothing of Christian man, was the child of old night: the witches in their Sabbat, worshiping their black Master in starlight and in wickedness.
They were all naked. They had no shame. The women–not all of them were young, not all were good to look at, and yet they were splendid in their magic. They swooped laughing over the huddled darkness that was Saint Gerald’s abbey; they circled the tower–Gerbert shuddered deep, and told himself that it was horror–thrice, widdershins, chanting in no tongue he knew. Their power hummed in his bones.
Brother Raymond lay flat on the tiles, cowl pulled over his head, gasping out fragments of psalms.
Gerbert could have. He could have done anything he willed to do. He crossed himself, to prove it. The witches swept in closer. Their eyes were burning bright. They called to him. “Come, brother. Come! Cast off your chains and fly with us!”
He was on his feet, with no memory of movement. His habit was like iron, binding him to the earth. His body in it was air and fire.
One of the witches came down close enough to touch. She was young; her body was full and sweet; her hair was bronze, her wings were gold. She did not speak. She beckoned; she smiled.
Gerbert’s hands were on his habit. The magic was wild in him. His shoulders itched wondrously where wings strained to swell and bloom.
“I want,” his tongue said, clumsy now, with his mind all fixed on that lovely, laughing face. “I want to know.
“To know.” His hands dropped to his sides. The itch in his shoulders turned to pain. “Not simply to be, and to be wild. To know.” He met the witch’s eyes. They burned. He did not flinch. He spoke quite calmly, though his heart thudded under the coarse black habit. “Your way is never mine.”
Her hand stretched. Almost, almost, she touched him. Almost he swayed into that touch.
“No,” he said. It was the hardest thing he had ever done.
Be with us, the witches sang. Be.
“No,” he said again. Again he signed himself with the cross. Not for any power it might wield against them. For its power over himself. He could all but see the chains it wrought, that bound him more tightly than ever to robe and vows and cloister. They were too strong for any witch to break. Even for the one who lingered though the rest had abandoned him to his idiocy; who yearned still, who dared to hope that he would yield.
He turned his back on her. He knelt; he clasped his cold and shaking hands. He began, painfully, to pray.
He would not, dared not look back. And yet he knew when she surrendered, when she turned from him and fled to the company of her kind. Once he had seen an arrow torn out of a man’s side. It was like that: a rending from the heart of him.
He should have been glad of his victory. But all that was in him was pain.
by Judith Tarr
$3.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-137-5