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The BLACK CHALICE
A Novel of Medieval Germany
Nothing drags the mind of a man down
from its elevation so much as the caresses of a woman.
-Saint Thomas Aquinas
On the twenty-fourth day of November, in the year of Our Lord 1103,
in the forests of Helmardin, there did my lord and master Karelian of Lys, knight
of the Reinmark, kinsman and vassal of Gottfried the Golden, fall thrall to
the powers of darkness. May God have mercy on his soul!
The monk paused, squinting as the candle guttered and almost went out. Past
fifty now, and lean with fasting, his face held a hardened serenity, his
eyes the ascetic brightness of a saint. In good light one might guess he
had been handsome in his youth; he had a broad, high forehead and fine
cheekbones; where his hair was not cropped short, it still twisted into grey
curls. He dipped his quill and, bending close, began to write again.
There, in that fell place where no Christian may walk without peril, he was
ensnared by sorcery and the foul embraces of a woman, and so destroyed
utterly his honor and his immortal soul. I, though I sinned grievously,
was by the grace of God permitted to escape.
It is the burden of my failing years to record now all which passed there,
and all which came of it: treason and war and the deaths of princes. . . .
He was aware, vaguely, of the sounds of night around him: the distant, soft
lowing of the monastery cattle; a cough in the cell next to his own; the
close, irritating scurry of mice; the curtain shifting at his window. None
of it mattered. The world of small and common things was barely real to him
I would not willingly undertake this task. I do so out of holy obedience,
and to lay bare for the world the dangers of carnal passion, and the
villainy and devouring corruption which so often lie beneath the surface of
a fair woman's skin. For it is in the flesh of women that the Evil One
weaves his snares; by their smiles and caresses uncounted good men are
brought to ruin-
He heard the flutter of a bird's wing, still unreal, still unregistered in
his conscious mind, then the whisper of something moving past his shoulder.
The candle tumbled, and burning wax spilled across the parchment. It flared
into a gulp of bright heat, collapsed, and the room went dark.
"So." A voice spoke from the void before him: a woman's voice, bitter,
mocking, utterly familiar." You haven't changed much, Paul of Ardiun.
You've been seventeen years in the house of your God, and you're still a
He rose to his feet, grasping the crucifix he wore about his neck and
crossing himself with his other hand. Both actions were as quick and
natural as the reflexes of combat. He was not a timid man. He had fought
the heathens of the east for eleven years, and he had encountered the
Otherworld before. But his body was icy now with sweat, and his heart
almost failed him as the darkness before him changed, and he saw her.
There was a kind of pale light about her, unsteady as firelight. Years had
passed, yet everything about her was familiar, even the scar on her wrist
and the gown which wrapped her body like running water, its colors never
the same. She was, of course, still beautiful. Black hair spilled over her
shoulders, and emeralds were lying like green berries along the curves of
her throat. Karelian's emeralds, heirlooms of his ancient house, lost and
soiled forever now, like pearls thrown to swine.
Hatred calmed his fear a little, and gave him breath.
"Begone from this place, creature of Satan!" he cried savagely. "I command
you in God's name! Begone!"
It was as though he hadn't said a word. She moved towards his small wooden
desk, brushed the fingertips of her graceful ringed hand through the ashes
of his evening's labor, and picked up his quill.
"Those who eat the world write its histories," she said. "Some lie
knowingly, and some in truth no longer remember what they did, for if they
remembered they could not bear to live."
Still holding the quill, she looked directly at the monk.
"You will begin again, Paul. And this time, you will tell the truth."
She touched the quill to her lips, murmuring words he could not understand.
It seemed to glow with the same pale fire surrounding her.
He tried to think, to find some way to shield himself, but his mind
floundered in confusion and his body could not move. Everything was
happening too quickly. He had come to feel safe, here in the monastery,
safe after so many years of quietly acquired peace. Now all his knowledge
as a man of God abandoned him, and his invocations of self-protection died
unspoken in his throat.
She spoke to the quill again, this time in his own tongue, and aloud.
"You are bound now, feather of Reinmark," she said. "He cannot unbind you;
he doesn't have the power. Write now what he truly remembers, and not what
his masters expect him to say."
She laid the quill down, looked at him once, and smiled. A cold smile,
pitiless, like the one she must have smiled long ago, thinking of Gottfried,
closing her hand upon the stone of his destiny. A look which spoke without
words: Do what you like now; it won't matter. I have defeated you.
She dissolved into darkness and a soft whir of wings, and the night was
He knelt then, one hand gripping the edge of the wooden desk because he
thought he might fall. He crossed himself. The words of prayers formed in
his mind, and scattered again and were gone. Karelian's voice took their
place, soft as it so often was, an astonishing soft voice in such a fierce
man of war:
Pauli, Pauli, there is so much you don't understand. . . .
He was wrong, of course. It was Karelian himself who never understood, and
never saw his danger; Karelian who was too proud, too sure of his good
sword-arm and his sophisticated mind and - yes, one had to say it, shameful
though it was - too little the master of his own base appetites. Too willing
to take a harlot's favors, and then, ensnared by his desires, to pay for
them with any coin she named.
Paul shuddered. How could she have come here, to this sacred place, inside
these hallowed Benedictine walls, where the footsteps of saints still
whispered across the stones? How was it possible?
"Jesus, savior of the world, protect me. . . !"
It was so hard to pray. Memories kept intruding, sharp as spears of light,
as though thirty-one years had not passed, and he were a youth again, in
love with a dream. So splendid a dream it was, and so quick to fade. A
kingdom of heaven upon earth. A ruler who was more than a king, more than a
conqueror, more than a man. A lord who would pass on to his sons and his
grandsons, through all the centuries of time, a sacred heritage.
A royal house of God. . .
Much later, in the icy darkness before lauds, he carried the quill in a pair
of tongs to the refectory fireplace and flung it in, piling chunks of wood
and kindling on it and watching until the hearth was roaring with flame. He
went to chapel then, and afterwards to breakfast. When he returned to his
cell, the quill was lying on his desk as before. He went rigid with shock,
and yet he was not surprised.
For a week he did not touch it. He asked for a new one from the abbot. It
promptly disappeared, and he did not ask for another. Finally, knowing how
dangerous it was, and knowing also that in the end he would have no choice,
he sat down with a fresh piece of parchment, and began to write again.
On the twenty-fourth day of November, in the year of Our Lord 1103, in the
forests of Helmardin, there did my lord and master Karelian of Lys, knight
of the Reinmark, kinsman and vassal of Gottfried the Golden, come with his
He stared at the paper. He had written the same words as before: fall
thrall to the powers of darkness. He had framed them in his mind, and
formed them with his hand.
Dear Jesus. . . !
It was not a spoken prayer. He could not speak. He was sick with fear, and
not the least part of his fear was a terrible fascination, a hunger to know
what the next words would be. He watched his hand moving. He watched but
did not believe as the words spilled across the page like uncaged birds,
like bloodstains, like tears:
. . . There did Karelian of Lys come with his companions to the castle of
the Lady of the Mountain, a castle which no one finds except those whom she
will welcome there. He was the greatest knight in the Reinmark, saving only
for the duke himself, and he had covered himself with glory in the great
victory of Christendom, when we took back Jerusalem from the dark hands of
the infidel. For this and many other services the duke lavished my lord
Karelian with honors, and named him count of Lys.
I was his squire then, and with us traveled some twenty knights, an escort
of mounted soldiers, a baggage train, and many servants. We were five days
north from the crossroads at Saint Antoninus when we met a caravan of
traders, ill-tempered as hungry dogs. They told us the bridge at Karlsbruck
had been swept away in a storm, and they foolishly blamed it all upon the
duke, our lord Gottfried. He had been seven years in the Holy Land,
valiantly serving Our Lord and the Holy Cross, but they still expected him
to be tending bridges in the backwoods of the Reinmark.
The merchants, with heavy wagons and valuable cargo, had no choice except to
retrace their steps, and go east again to cross the river at the great
bridge of Karn. We urged the count to do the same.
God, on what tiny hinges turn the lives of men! For we lingered there, he
and I, on that wild grey autumn day, and he looked to the southeast, where
the wagons of the traders were winding sullenly into the valley; and he
looked to the north, where the high forests of Helmardin waited dark and
"It will cost us a fortnight to go back," he said. "More, perhaps, if the
weather turns. If we took the forest road, we would scarcely lose two days."
There was a stir among the men, and quick, uncertain looks. They were good
men, all of them. Two of the knights, Reinhard and Otto, had been to
Palestine with Karelian. Several of the soldiers, enlisted at Gottfried's
court in Stavoren, had been imperial guards, and served the emperor
Reinhard held the rank of seneschal, and commanded the count's escort. He
was a man who always spoke bluntly, without flowery words or flattery, yet
under his gruff manner he was totally devoted to his master.
"Helmardin has an evil name, my lord," he said. He was a native of the
north country; he knew Helmardin's reputation very well. And he was not a
youth like myself, or a foolish churl like the ones we met later at the inn.
He was a brave knight and a good Christian, and when I saw Karelian was not
inclined to take his arguments seriously, I swallowed my own fears, and said
So many times, in the days and the weeks which followed, I made the same
decision, for which I now bear an eternal burden of guilt. I chose to say
nothing. Who was I, a mere squire, to question the judgment of a lord like
Karelian of Lys? He was twice my age. He had fought in the service of a
dozen great kings, and in Jerusalem, too. He was afraid of nothing. More
than anything in the world, I wanted him to think well of me. Even when my
own heart faltered at the thought of riding into Helmardin, I admired him
for it. I knew the world was full of heathen creatures and their evil, but
I wanted to deny my knowledge. I wanted to believe, as my father had, that
there was nothing to fear in the dark except the follies of our own minds,
and nothing to fear in the woods except the wolves.
So to my shame I said nothing. But Reinhard argued with him, and some
others did as well. And in the end, when he saw they were serious, he
smiled - he was a beautiful man when he smiled - and took a royal coin from his
pouch, and tossed it playfully in the palm of his hand.
"I will leave it to God," he said. "The crown, we go by Helmardin. The
cross, we go by Karn."
The coin flew and fell. We looked down and saw the silver helm of
Ehrenfried shimmering on the road.
"So be it," he laughed, and wheeled his horse into the wind. He was happy
with his fate, and none of us could say anything afterwards to change his mind.
He was riding to his bride.