Between Two Fires
“Buehlman…slips effortlessly into a different kind of literary sensibility, one that doesn’t scrimp on earthy humor and lyrical writing in the face of unspeakable horrors.”*
The year is 1348. Thomas, a disgraced knight, has found an orphan of the Black Death in a Norman village. An almost unnerving picture of innocence, she tells Thomas that the plague is only part of a larger cataclysm—that the fallen angels under Lucifer are rising in a second war on Heaven. But is it delirium or is it faith?
She believes she has seen the angels of God. She believes the dead speak to her in dreams. And now she has convinced the faithless Thomas to shepherd her across an apocalyptic landscape to Avignon. There, she tells Thomas, she will fulfill her mission. There her true nature will be revealed. And there Thomas will confront an evil wrestling for the throne of Heaven, and which has poisoned his own soul.
Now in these days the Lord God had turned His face from the business of men; and the angels who had remained loyal to Him said to one another, we must look after the children of Adam. And they did so, as best they could.
Now also the third part of the angels who had rebelled looked upon the earth, and saw the hand of God withdrawn from it; and the air was cold in the valleys of men, and the sea was also cold.
And one of the fallen angels, whose name was Uzziel, said, it was for man’s sake that we were cast down, for we would not bend our knee to him; let us test the Lord and see what He will do if we afflict their mightiest kingdoms with hunger. And this angel rose from the waters of the sea and made rain; and the spikes of wheat and the ears of barley were heavy with that rain, and they fell into the mud, or withered, or went to rot; and the livestock were made sick, and they died in great numbers; and in their turn, the children of Adam knew hunger; and men devoured all there was, and there was no more. And many died. And some would go into the deadyard and eat of the newly buried. And the babes born during those years who lived to be children had only twentytwo teeth.
And the Lord made no answer.
Now another of the fallen, whose name was Beliel, said, it was for man’s sake that the war began in Heaven; so let us try them with wars in their greatest kingdoms; and he rose through the wells of a king who ruled a mighty island, and blew pride into his mouth; and when this king spoke, he swore that he would have the crown of an even greater kingdom, which he would take with the sword. And so he came upon his neighbor’s shore under arms and with banners. Now the greater king, seeing that his land was in peril, sent out a mighty host in armor of iron and silver; and they rode against the men of the island, who shot them with arrows, even through their armor, and they died. And so the long war began.
And the Lord made no answer.
So it came that the first among the fallen, whose name was Lucifer, said, our old enemy sleeps; if we do not seize this hour, we will come to the End of Days as He has written them, and He will grind us under His heel, and destroy us forever; let us rise against Him now in all our numbers, and pull the walls of Heaven down, and shake out the souls of the just; and let us seize our brother angels by the throat, and cast them down into Hell; and let us live as once we did, upon the Great Height.
But some were fearful of the power of the angels of God, whose numbers were greater, and whose generals were Uriel, and Gabriel, and Michael, who had broken the back of Lucifer and sent him into the hot coals in the belly of the earth to blacken his face with soot and know he was lower than the Lord.
And some were fearful that God would wake from His drowsiness and rack them with pains and fires even they had not learned to endure, or destroy them utterly.
And the first among the fallen spoke to them, saying, then let us test Him one more time; it is for man’s sake that we were insulted, for his sake that we were driven out, and for his peace that we are mortared under; let us break the roof of Hell with our fists and murder the seed of Adam; for if God will not rouse Himself to save His favorite creature, His sleep is deep, and we may catch Him by the hair, and cast Him down.
And one of the fallen, whose name was Azzazel, said, shall we kill them with fire or with cold?
And Lucifer spoke to him, saying, neither of these.
What then, said the wicked angel.
With a Great Plague, answered Lucifer.
And so it was.
And the years that had passed since the Lord had come to be born among men were one thousand, three hundred and forty eight.
Of the Donkey
The soldiers found the donkey on Friday. It was lame and its ribs were easy to count; it was too weak to run from them or even to bray at them, but it didn’t seem to have the disease. It was just old.
It looked at them hopefully from beneath a willow tree, swishing its tail against the flies. The fat one, and nobody knew how he stayed fat, took his war hammer up, meaning to brain it, but Thomas stopped him. He pointed at the barn. It would be smarter to walk it to the barn first, where they could shelter against the coming rain. Godefroy nodded his agreement.
The four men had been on the road in their rags and rusty armor without a good meal for many weeks, living on spoiled food from houses, watercress and cattail tops from ditches, worms, bugs, acorns, and even a rotten cat. They had all eaten so much grass that they had green piss. The disease was ruthless here; it had killed so many farmers that there was no bread even in this fertile valley. There were not enough hands to swing scythes, nor enough women willing to gather for the threshing, nor any miller to grind, nor bakers to stoke the ovens. The sickness, which they called the Great Death, passed mysteriously but surely from one to the other as easily as men might clasp hands, or a child might call a friend’s name, or two women might share a glance. Now none looked at their neighbors, nor spoke to them. It had fallen so heavily upon this part of Normandy that the dead could not be buried; they were piled outside in their dirty long shirts and they stank in the August sun and the flies swarmed around them. They lay in weedchoked fields of rye and oats where they had fled in delirium. They lay pitifully in the shadow of the town church where they had crawled hoping that last gesture would lessen their time in purgatory, stuck like glued birds to the limestone where they had tried to cool their fevered heads. Some fouled in houses because they were the last and there was no one to put them out. Those with means had fled, but many times it dogged them even into the hills and swamps and manors and killed them there.
The sun was setting orange beneath a break in pewter clouds that had just begun to spit rain when the girl poked her head in the barn door.
“Hello,” she said.
All of the men stopped chewing except Thomas.
She was a bad age to meet these men; just too old to be safe and just too young to know why. Her flaxen hair, which might have been pretty if it were not greasy and wet, hung damply on her neck, and her feet were growing before the rest of her, looking too big for her sticklike legs.
“Hello,” she said again.
“Hello, yourself,” Godefroy said, leaning his lanky body toward her like a cat sighting on a bird.
“You’re eating Parsnip,” she said matteroffactly.
“It’s donkey. Would you like some?”
This last would have sounded friendly except that Godefroy patted the rotten beam he was sitting on. She should sit near him if she wanted food.
“No. She was tied up in the woods to hide her, but she must have gotten loose. Her name is Parsnip,” she said.
“Well,” Thomas said, “that’s lucky for us. We’re not supposed to eat meat on Friday, but parsnip is perfectly permissible.”
The others laughed.
“The mouth on you, Thomas,” Godefroy said, lingering on the final s, which Thomas’s halfSpanish mother had insisted on pronouncing. “To the whoring manor born.”
“Is it Friday?” the fat one said. Both Thomas and Jacquot, the one with the drooping eye, nodded.
Only Thomas kept eating. The rest watched the girl. The girl stood there.
“Come sit near me,” Godefroy said, patting the beam again. With his other hand he brushed back a wick of his stringy, black hair. He wore jewelry that didn’t seem to belong on such a dirty man. Her eye fixed on a cross of jasper on a gold necklace; something the seigneur’s wife might wear.
“I need help,” she said.
“Come sit here and tell me about it.”
Nobody wanted strangers close these days; she began to realize there was something dark in this man’s mind.
the word is rape he’ll rape me
She thought about turning and running to her tree, but an angel had shown her these men, and pointed to the barn. She knew it was an angel because his (her?) pretty, auburn hair didn’t seem to get wet in the rain, and because he (she?) looked like something between a man and a woman, but more beautiful than either; it just pointed and said, Go and see. When angels spoke to her, and she had seen perhaps three, they spoke the same Norman French she spoke, and she found that odd. Shouldn’t they sound like foreigners?
She put her faith in the angel even though it was gone now. It was that angel whom she saw most often, and she liked to think it was hers.
She didn’t run.
“I need help putting Papa in a grave.”
“Silly bitch, there aren’t any graves any more. We’re in a grave already, all of us. Just stack his bones outside. Someone will get him.”
“How the devil should I know? This is your sad little village. Maybe some nuns or monks or something. Anyway, everyone else is just putting them outside.”
“I can’t lift him.”
“Well, I won’t lift him. I didn’t live this long to catch it by hauling around dead serfs.”
“He’s not a serf.”
“I really don’t give a shit.”
“Forget it, girl,” Thomas said. “Go back in the house now.”
This man was different; he didn’t frighten her, even though he was the biggest of them. He was handsome with his longish dark hair; handsome despite a nose that had been broken more than once and a round, pitted scar on his cheek. He wore more armor than the others, some on his legs and shoulders, as well as a longer coat of mail. But over his chain mail hood he wore a peasant’s big straw hat with a horn spoon through a hole in it; he was clearly dangerous, but also just a little ridiculous. He had spoken gruffly, but in the way that a man barks at a child to make the child act swiftly when there’s trouble.
She liked him.
“Wait a minute,” Godefroy said, dismissing Thomas, and now addressing the girl. “How much is it worth to you?”
Brigands. That was the word for what these men were; men who were soldiers before the war with the English, but who now traveled the roads, or hid in the woods and robbed people. Even before the plague had come, her papa had spoken with their neighbors about what to do if brigands came.
Now they were here and no one could help her.
Why had the angel left? Why had he pushed her toward these thieves?
“We only have a little silver,” she said, “and some books.”
“I don’t want silver.”
“The books are very good, most of them are new ones from the university in Paris.”
“Books are for wiping my ass with. I want gold.”
“I don’t have any.”
“Of course you do.”
Godefroy got up now, and Thomas stopped eating. Godefroy went over to her and pointed two fingers at where her pubis would be beneath her dirty gown.
“Right there,” he said. “Haven’t you? Haven’t you got just a little gold there already?”
The fat one was the only one who laughed, but it was hollow. None of them liked this about their leader, his taste for the very green fruit. She had the fine bones and small build of a child, but her gaze was more than a girl’s; she was probably just on the eve of her first bleeding. If she lived, she would be tall next summer.
“Christ crucified, Godefroy, let her alone,” Thomas said.
“That’s only for my husband.”
“Ha!” Godefroy barked, pleased at this touch of worldliness. “And where is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“He shouldn’t leave you alone.”
“I mean I don’t know who he is. I am not yet promised.”
“Then I’ll be your husband.”
“I should go now.”
“We’ll all be your husbands. We’re good husbands.”
“She could have it,” the fat one warned, eating again now.
“I’d rather get it from her than her papa.”
“Leave her alone,” Thomas said, and this time it wasn’t a request. He put his straw hat beside him. He tried to do it casually, but the fat one saw it and, also trying to be circumspect, spat out the overlarge piece of donkey he had just taken and set the rest on his leather bag.
Godefroy turned to face Thomas.
The girl slipped out the door.
“What if I don’t want to leave her alone?” Godefroy said.
“She’s just a scared little girl in a deadhouse. Either she’s full of it and you’ll breathe it in from her, or she’s shielded by God’s hand. Which would be even worse for us. Save your ’husbanding’ for whores.”
“The whores are all dead,” said Jacquot.
“Surely not all of them,” said Thomas, trying one last time. “And if one whore in France still has a warm chatte, Godefroy will smell it out.”
“You make me laugh, Thomas,” Godefroy said, not laughing. “But I need to fuck something. Go get that girl.”
Thomas stood up. Godefroy backed up a little in spite of his nominal leadership; Thomas had white coming into his beard and lines on his face; he was the oldest of the four, but the muscles in his arms and on either side of his neck made him look like a bullock. His thighs were hard as roof beams and he had a ready bend in his knees. They had all fought in the war against the English, but he alone among them had been trained as a knight.
Godefroy noted where his sword was, and Thomas noted that.
Thomas breathed in like a bellows, and blew out through clenched teeth. He did this twice. They had all seen him do this before, but never while facing them.
A drop of sweat rolled down Godefroy’s nose.
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