The axe bit into the wood and jarred Gregory’s arm to his shoulder. He welcomed the impact. The bunch and release of his muscles soothed and kept him from the clattering noise between his ears.
A night of Faye haunting his dreams to the point where he swore he could smell the fresh scent of her on his skin left him irritable. And then his morning encounter with Brother Stephen.
He swung and hit the wood clean. It shattered with a dull thwack and the halves dropped to either side of the chopping block. Would he had a blade to cleave Faye from his very being. Gregory picked up the largest piece and set it. He raised the axe.
“My son?” The Abbot’s soft voice broke his solitude.
The Abbot and Brother Peter stood beside the neatly stacked wood. The height of the woodpile easily cleared their tonsures, the Abbot’s pink and glistening from his daily nap in the orchard.
Brother Peter must have woken him. The smaller priest shifted his feet and folded his hands before him.
Insufferable, little toad. He resembled one with his protuberant eyes and rotund belly. He needn’t stand there wearing his pious face. Gregory saw right through him. Father Peter delighted in spreading tales throughout the abbey. Not a toad, more of a ferret. The name fit the man perfectly, busy, nosy and always where he shouldn’t be.
“You may leave us,” the Abbot said to Father Peter.
Father Peter flushed, opened his mouth, and shut it under the abbot’s unwavering stare. He scuttled away. Probably lurking somewhere close enough to listen.
“What are you doing, Gregory?” The Abbot jammed his hands on his round hips.
“Chopping wood.” It was fairly obvious, was it not?
“I can see that.” Missing his nap made the Abbot peevish. “It was more a question of intent.
Gregory wasn’t about to admit the sedentary existence of the Abbey near drove him out of his mind at times. Or the fair phantom he attempted to exorcise by driving his body to exhaustion. “We need the wood.”
“Then it is good we have enough kindling to stoke the fires of hell.” The abbot raised his brow.
A snicker sounded from the other side of the mountain of wood.
“Thank you, Brother Peter,” the Abbot called. “I will see you at prayers. You might reflect on Ecclesiastes seven, twenty one whilst you pray.”
Brother Peter scurried back across the kitchen garden.
“Now, my son.” The Abbot turned back to him. “I take it you have spoken to Brother Stephen?”
“Aye, Father Abbot.” A raw burn rekindled in his gut and Gregory tightened his hold on the axe handle. He dropped his gaze to his feet. The Abbot would too quickly read the anger in his eyes.
Denied permission to take his orders, again. For six months he had been waiting. In that time countless other men were taken up as novice and still they refused him. It wasn’t right. His father had insisted he take up the sword and he had, but he had been biding his time for when he could obey his true calling.
“Did Father Stephen explain our reasoning?”
“Aye, Father Abbot. He said I was not ready.” Father Stephen had no idea of what he spoke. He’d been ready since before he attained adulthood. And yet, that miserable old priest stopped him this morning after prayers and smashed his hopes, again.
The Abbot studied his face keenly. “You disagree?”
“Aye, Father Abbot.” He barely managed a civil tone. How did a man keep a civil tone when discussing cantankerous old Father Stephen? If he let free with his real thoughts, they would have yet another reason to deny him permission to take Holy Orders. “I want nothing more than to join the Abbey.”
“Did you say as much to Father Stephen?”
“I did, Father Abbot.”
This part made him want to throw back his head and rage at the Heavens. “Father Stephen questioned my motives for committing my life to the service of our Lord.”
The Abbot nodded.
No immediate denial. Did this mean the Abbot considered overruling his spiritual advisor and admitting him to novice? Gregory sent a fervent prayer heavenwards.
He pointed to the axe in Gregory’s hand. “My son, would you?”
Gregory laid the axe against the chopping block.
“Let us walk.” The Abbot motioned with his plump, white hand. The nails of which always gleamed clear and meticulously clean.
Gregory stuffed his large, dirt encrusted meat-hooks into his belt as he shortened his stride to match the smaller man’s.
A handful of monks toiled amongst the vegetables, their dark habits somber mounds in a sea of greenery as they bent to their labors.
They left the kitchen gardens through a small gate in the honeyed stone wall, which Gregory held open for the Abbot before ducking to clear the lintel. He must practice patience. The Abbot would speak when he was ready.
The breeze stiffened this side of the wall. Gregory drew the briny tang of the ocean deep into his lungs. Today, the sea spread in a calm, deep indigo that stretched to meet the arch of the sky. On the green swathes atop the cliffs, the abbey sheep dotted the hillside like tiny white clouds.
“Gregory, you present a problem.” The Abbot tucked his hands into the sleeves of his habit. “And I cannot fault Brother Stephen’s reasoning.”
And there went his stupid hope. The wind cooled the sweat on his skin and he shivered. He should have picked up his tunic from the woodpile
“Here you are, a devout man and one with a pure and honest intention.” The Abbot’s habit flapped like a sail against his ankles. “We see that in you. You are a powerful man, Gregory and you would make a fine warrior for our Lord.”
Please, Heavenly Father, anything but that. No more war or bloodshed or ceaseless violence. Let him live in peace and love, a man of God and not the sword. His final vow to his mother had been to fulfill her dream of him entered into mild and obedient service to his God. All his life, his size and strength cursed him and stood between him and his heart’s desire.
“And yet, you would turn your back on your strength.” The Abbot glanced at him.
“I would, Father Abbot.”
“This life.” The Abbot spread his arms wide and encompassed the Abbey roosting atop her cliff and nestled by her lands. “This life is not for everyone.”
“It is the life for me.” Gregory winced at the heat in his tone. He must master his anger or they would toss him out.
“Brother Stephen disagrees.”
Brother Stephen. Bah! A miserable old woman who wouldn’t know his sainted ass from his elbow. Best not to share his opinion and Gregory clenched his jaw shut.
The Abbot held up his hand. “And I agree with Father Stephen.”
“But you cannot.” The words burst out of him. Gregory drew in a long breath as he battled his temper into submission. “I feel the call to serve God.”
“We are all on this earth to serve God.” The Abbot stopped and gestured to the Abbey. “Yet, we are not all called to serve God in this manner.”
The Abbot stopped walking and forced Gregory to stand still. He towered above the man by over a foot and he bent his knees slightly to lessen the height difference. “But I am.”
He would be chopping until Judgment Day. Tension crept down from his shoulders until he bunched his fists by his sides. Yet another test for his patience faced him. Had he not practiced it all his life as a fighting man?
And his life at Calder, a testament to his patience. Seven years living side by side with Faye and not touching her. He had won his constant battle with the rage every time he saw the marks on her flesh her husband put there. God sanctified the bond between man and wife and he could not interfere, however sorely tested. All this he had done to earn his place amongst the holy brothers. And now to be denied when he was so close. It writhed inside him like a live beast.
“We believe your heart is not fully here, my son.”
The words hit him like a slap in the face. All of it for naught?
“Brother Stephen and I believe there is a part of you that remains in the world of men.”
Eyes bluer than the sky above him, a full, red mouth curved in a smile. “How solemn you are, Gregory. Do you never smile?”
Gregory’s heart raced. They couldn’t know the demons tormenting him. He prayed hours upon hours, purging his flesh of his lustful thoughts and cleansing his soul of the impotent fury. Here at the Abbey, he never spoke of it. Faye was a test, her husband a torment and he had mastered both.
The Abbot studied him. The breeze tugged his tonsure fringe into horns on either side of his head. “This life is a difficult one, my son. You cannot enter into it with any reservations in your heart.”
He didn’t have any reservations. None.
His one huge reservation lived less than a day’s ride away. His mind whirled sickeningly. The Abbot and Father Stephen saw into his soul and discovered the truth. “What should I do?”
“You must pray.” The Abbot nodded. “You must pray for God to show you your true path.”
“I have prayed.” And prayed and prayed. And God had shown him his true path. This life, the life of a monk was the one chosen for him by God. He needed to lance the doubt from his soul. He must rid himself of the temptation. It was a trial.
Of course, it became so clear to him. If God had tested his Son in the desert, would not test a man about to enter His service. “I believe you are right, Father Abbot.”
The Abbot blinked at him and his mouth dropped open in surprise. “I am?”
“Aye.” The certainty lit him within like a hearth blaze. “I believe I have held some part of myself back from the Lord. I shall pray for the strength to overcome this, so I may enter the service of the Lord with a free and willing heart.”
“You are a stubborn man, Gregory.” The Abbot shook his head. “While you are on your knees, you might ask God to deal with that for you, as well.”
“But, Father Abbot, it has become clear to me whilst you spoke. God is testing me.”
“I do not know about you.” The Abbot sniffed. “But God is certainly testing my patience. Open your heart, Gregory.” The Abbot tapped his chest. “Open your heart and receive the word of God.”
He rapped his knuckles against Gregory’s forehead, firmly. “Do not decide with this hard head of yours what you want to hear and twist the word of God to suit your desires.”
The intense need to toss the Abbot on his plump ass staggered him. He knew what God wanted for him. God wanted him to be a monk.
Gregory dropped his gaze to his boots in case the man could read minds.
“Obedience, my son.” The Abbot sighed. “First, begin with obedience.”
He turned and trotted back toward the kitchen gardens.
Gregory followed behind. The Abbot was wrong. His hand itched for the heft of the axe. In former days, he would have grabbed up his sword and spent his anger in the practice yards. Here, he could only chop wood.
The Abbot left him at the woodpile.
The axe sat heavy and welcome in his hand. Gregory swung. It hit the wood with a jarring crunch.
He was obedient.
He was fated to serve God in mild and humble service.
He would pray harder.
And there you have it. Let the slaughter continue with Jo Richardson. Wondering how the book starts now? Well, it releases on September 1st...