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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Lent

Jo Walton

Tor Books

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CHAPTER 1

Thy kingdom come.


APRIL 3RD, 1492

Have the Gates of Hell been opened? Shrieking demons are swarming all over the outside walls of the convent of Santa Lucia, everywhere the light of their lanterns reaches. It’s unusual to find so many demons gathered in one place. They are grotesque and misshapen, like all the demons Brother Girolamo has ever seen. Stories abound about demons that can take beautiful human forms for the purposes of seduction and deceit, but if there is truth in them, God has never revealed it to him. He sees only the monstrous and misshapen. Some are almost human, others seem twisted out of animal forms. One, swinging from an unlit sconce beside the doorway, has an eagle’s head in place of a phallus—both mouth and beak are open, emitting howls of mocking laughter. Others flaunt all-too-human genitals, of both genders. One, perched above the door, is pulling open the lips of its vagina with both hands. Hands, head, and vagina, are huge, while the legs, arms, and body are tiny. Taken together, the demons remind Girolamo of the gargoyles serving as waterspouts on Milan cathedral, except that those are the colour of innocent stone, while these are the colours of all-too-guilty flesh.

He glances at the two monks flanking him. There is an old pun on the word Dominicani where, instead of its true meaning, “follower of the rule of St Dominic,” the word is split into two in Latin, “Domini cani,” the hounds of God. Brother Silvestro, short and swarthy, the greying hair around his tonsure tightly curled, is like an old grizzled guard dog, and Brother Domenico, tall, broad shouldered, with the pink cheeks of youth, is like an overenthusiastic puppy. Brother Girolamo sometimes sees himself, with his long nose and his ability to sniff out demons, as a Pointer in God’s service. “Anything?” he asks.

Brother Domenico frowns, holding his own lantern high. The swinging light and shadows ripple over demon wings, scales, and fur. “I think I can hear something—it sounds like distant laughter. It’s very unsettling. I can see why the nuns might be disturbed.” A demon with stub-wings and a snake’s tail hanging from the eaves pulls open its beak with both hands and roars close by Domenico’s head. His peaceful countenance remains unchanged. Another, scaled all over, nips at him with its dog’s head. Girolamo makes an irritated gesture towards them, and they shrink away. Good, they still fear him.

Brother Silvestro is gazing intently down at one that is fondling itself with one hand as it tweaks at the edge of Silvestro’s black robe with the other. “I don’t see or hear anything, but I feel an evil presence here,” he says.

The convent echoes with the demonic laughter. Girolamo is more inclined to cry. Domenico and Silvestro are the best of his brothers, the most sensitive to such things. The fiends are all around them, visibly, audibly, palpably present, and Domenico could perhaps hear something, while Silvestro could almost feel a presence. No wonder the forces of Hell gain ground so rapidly in the world when they can do so unobserved. He himself had dismissed the rumours from Santa Lucia at first. Hysteria among nuns is much more common in the world than demonic incursions. He is only here now because the First Sister was so persistent. Why are the forces of Hell unleashed here? Why is this little Dominican convent on the south bank of the Arno of such interest to demons at this time? It’s true that the little commonwealth of Florence is home to many sinners, but he has never seen so many demons gathered anywhere. If he banishes them immediately, he will never know. Better to let them rampage just a little longer while he investigates.

“Is there something here?” Silvestro asks.

“Yes. Just as the First Sister told me, it’s full of demons,” Girolamo says. He rings the bell, which cuts clearly through the renewed demonic bellowing. “God is truly guiding your senses.” If feebly, he does not add. Few people seem aware of the presence of demons at all. Silvestro and Domenico at least feel something. He looks at them as encouragingly as he can, his good honest brothers, each with a lantern in one hand and a flask of holy water clutched tight in the other. They look back at Girolamo with identical expressions of expectant trust.

With a grating sound that rises above the clamour of the demons, a nun draws back bars inside and opens the door a crack. “Thanks be to God. Who’s there so late?” she asks, and then recognizes him. “Oh, Brother Girolamo!” She opens the door wide. “Please come in, Brothers.”

He strides in, passing under the demon over the door, who leers down at him. Inside is a cloister, stone arches supporting a covered walkway running around a central garden square. It must be pleasant enough ordinarily, but right now it is as demon-infested as the rest of the place. He takes a step to the right, stops, and takes a step to the left. The wardress stares.

“What are you doing?” Domenico asks, his voice full of trust in Girolamo. Domenico is intelligent, if young and overenthusiastic. He is also deeply devout. And he has seen enough to make him believe utterly in Girolamo’s powers. Domenico’s unswerving faith in him can at times exceed his own faith in himself. He looks into that deep reservoir of faith and trust in his brother’s eyes and doubts for a moment—is it right for a man to trust anything human that much? Well, he would with God’s aid endeavour to be worthy of Domenico’s trust.

“I’m hoping they’ll try to prevent me going in one direction, so I’ll know where they don’t want me to go,” he explains. “But they don’t seem eager to cooperate. We’ll just have to search the place.” He turns to the wardress. “Can you take us to the First Sister? I don’t want to cause a panic among the nuns by going among the cells unheralded.”

“Wait here, I’ll wake her,” the wardress says, bustling off. He can barely hear her answer over the racket the demons are making. There is clearly something here they don’t want him to find. Interesting.

Girolamo sits on the wall of the cloister and folds his hands in his sleeves. The clean green scent of medicinal and culinary herbs rises up around him from the garden behind. His brother monks sit down beside him. The sobbing laughs of the demons rise all around, but they keep away now, scuttling from shadow to shadow catching the lantern-light along the edges of his vision. He ignores them as best he can and waits with what patience he can muster. Patience is not one of the gifts God has granted him. Rather the opposite. He has always burned, as long as he can remember. He burned as a child in Ferrara, wanting answers to questions his father and mother could not answer, and his grandfather only sometimes. Then he burned for education, for a girl once, which he does not like to remember, and then for God and the life of dedication and worship his parents refused him. He fled towards God. But even after he became a Dominican he burned, not so much the hard battle with lust, but with ambition. Pride. The everyday reality of the monastery was a disappointment. He burned then for more purity, more severity, more preaching, more rigor. He burned always with a desire to be closer to God.

He breathes deeply, and tries to identify the scents. Rosemary, comfrey, melissa, something sharp—a little bat-eared demon interrupts him by bellowing in his ear, and he banishes it impatiently with a gesture, drawing it through his fingers back into Hell where it belongs.

The wardress comes scurrying back, the First Sister following behind. He stands up. “It is very late, what brings you now?” the First Sister asks grumpily. Her headgear is a little askew. They keep the divine office properly here. She would have gone to bed after the Night Office at midnight, to sleep until Dawn Praise at three.

“You asked me to come across the river to exorcise your demons,” he says, trying to make his voice soft and gentle. He knows his Ferrarese accent sounds always harsh to the Florentines, so sometimes they hear his most ordinary speech as roughly intended. “You told me they plagued you after dark. I am here to rid you of them.”

“Brother Girolamo can see demons,” Silvestro puts in.


Copyright © 2019 by Jo Walton