Thank you for reading this story! I have prepared an album of screenshots to help you visualize the setting of the post, if you would like. Although these pictures come from creative mode, I am currently working on copying the monastery to survival and hope to have that completed in the not-too-distant future. You can view the album here: https://imgur.com/a/pGdUWGu.
He sees her now and again in the corridors, moving from room to hidden room of the monastery along with the fifteen other trainee nuns in her year. From what he hears, the two of them are the same age — born during the same harvest nearly sixteen autumns ago that gave the monastery his generation of young, pious monks. Fresh blood for the ever-grinding machine of the Church.
Alexandre’s uncle had been a monk long ago, but he is dead now. He became ill, explained the letter sent home, after returning from a pilgrimage across the mountains, and he never recovered. Alexandre had not cared. But his father had forced him to join the monks to honor his uncle’s legacy, and that had been that. He had begun his training at age eleven. He still resents his father.
But despite his hatred, Alexandre has grown to enjoy his life here. Studies take up most of his time. History, foreign languages, astronomy, mathematics. They are fascinating, new. They take his mind off the pain of abandonment; the knowledge that he will never see his family again. But they cannot take his mind off her. The girl with the dark hair and piercing eyes, who stands with the poise of an empress.
Some days, Alexandre wanders outside the fortress-like monastery to study, pouring over tomes by LeBlanc and Peller and Ambois in the multicolored shadow of the chapel’s emerald-and-gold stained glass windows. It is peaceful there. The mountains loom to the north, a jagged horizon of snow-capped peaks that seems to be at war with the sprawling flat fields of green and lavender to the south. The wind blows briskly past the lonely outcrop on which the ancient building stands. But even here he is haunted by the voices of the choir that must include her; the sweet sounds of the vocalists rising like smoke into the crisp air. Intangible, just out of his grasp. A spectre at the end of the corridor. A presence in the back of his mind.
Until one evening, while he sits on a stone bench at the inner terrace, she approaches him. A star chart lies on his lap, a parchment he has copied from a book in the library that details the movements of the stars during the summer. He stares at it intently when he sees her coming.
“Bonsoir,” she says. Her voice is soft and melodious, like the note of a flute, and her accent is impeccable.
“Hello,” says Alexandre, looking up. Her face seems to glow in the flickering torchlight.
“Emilié told me you were staring,” she says. Alexandre casts a glance towards the other side of the terrace where the outline of another girl disappears quickly into the monastery.
He blinks. “Je m’appelle Alexandre.”
“Je m’appelle Arielle.”She smiles, and her eyes wander over his scroll. “What are you studying?”
He turns the paper to face her so that she can read it more easily. “Astronomy. The movements of summer constellations.”
It is summer now, and the very stars he speaks of are visible in the deep navy sky; the dots of black ink on the page mirrored in the pinpricks of brilliant light in the heavens.
He aims his index finger upward. “Cromeuille, you see?” Nine distant diamonds arranged in the shape of a man, marching across the vault of the world in an eternal voyage to nowhere.
“I see.” There is a pause, and for a moment, the only sounds in the courtyard are the gentle breath of the wind, the rustle of leaves, and the whispering crackle of torches. “Have you ever gone stargazing?” asks Arielle.
“Well, yes, Père Durec has taken us to see-“
“No,” she interrupts, “I mean real stargazing, not with academics and Père Durec and all that. Only you, beneath the sky, and your mind. Have you done that?”
Alexandre frowns. “No. I don’t think so.”
“When I was little, my father used to wake me up in the middle of the night. The darkest hour, after everybody else was asleep. We would go outside, over the hill so that not even the faintest glow from torches and fires could reach us, and lie on our backs looking up at the stars. Star charts can only teach you so much, you know.”
“Star charts can teach you to read a prophecy,” he replies. “And that is the important part.”
An unreadable expression crosses over her face for an instant, then vanishes. “Okay then, Alexandre. You teach me to read your maps and charts, and which constellations are which. And then, we will try my way — and you tell me which is better.”
“What, right here in the courtyard? We are probably past curfew already.”
“No, silly. Outside.” Arielle laughs and it is the sound of a thousand wind chimes singing their secret melody to the air.
“But…we are not allowed to go outside,” says Alexandre. He immediately regrets it.
“No,” she agrees. “We are not.” Then, turning on her heel, she heads back the way she came, her dark-robed form growing fainter as she crosses through the garden. “Allons-y.”
He stands, stuffing his papers into his satchel, and hurries after her.
They travel through dark and winding passages but remain unaccosted by monks and nuns. The monastery is quiet at this hour; the very stone around them seems to rest as it absorbs their muffled footfalls. Arielle leads him down a staircase he has never seen before, through a narrow and mossy passage which he thinks must be somewhere within the east side of the fortress walls, and through a wide open space filled with nothing but cobwebs and debris. He wonders how she came upon this route.
Finally, they emerge from a hole in the foundations of the monastery that must have once been a drainage channel but now, forgotten, lies abandoned and dry behind a tuft of bushes and ferns. Alexandre pushes his way through the leaves. They scratch his face, but his robe protects the rest of his body and he emerges, brushing twigs out of his hair, beside Arielle.
They are by the lake. A sheer cliff behind them hides the lights of the monastery, whose dark towers are perched atop the outcrop, reaching into the sky like pitch-black fingers. But Alexandre does not think about the monastery. He has eyes only for the heavens, in which hundreds of thousands of stars sparkle like an ocean of crystals, some so faint that he might only be imagining them. A ribbon of misty light snakes its way from one edge of the horizon to the other. “It is beautiful,” he whispers.
“The moon is behind the cliff,” says Arielle. “That is why we can see so many. Come, sit.”
They dangle their feet into the cool, still lake and stare up. It is so clear and so dark that when Alexandre looks over at her he can see the brightest stars reflected in her eyes.
“I used to try to count them,” she says quietly. “I would lie there on Papa’s arm and reach the highest number I knew, but I could never get past even a corner of the sky. Papa said I would count until I fell asleep.” There is something slightly different about her voice. Alexandre thinks she might be crying, but it is impossible to see in the darkness.
“Innumerable,” he says. “Like fireflies.”
They sit in silence. Alexandre sees fifteen constellations, and fifty more that are not labeled in his books but could be, if they were given names. He wonders how they know which stars are part of constellations, and which are not. He wonders what the stars are made of.
“This is better than my astronomy charts,” he says.
They remain by the lake for an unknowable length of time before returning to the monastery, entering through the same forgotten drain they used to leave and taking the same winding route back to the courtyard. The structure is still silent; they have not seen nor heard a single soul. Somewhere, a bird sings a haunting tune.
“Thank you for showing me the stars,” Alexandre says to her.
She smiles. “Thank you for coming with me. Bonne nuit, Alexandre.”
“Bonne nuit, Arielle.”
Her slender figure retreats down the corridor and Alexandre is left wondering whether or not he has imagined the last hour. The stars seem to wink at him through the windows.
They meet again two days later. This time, the sky is covered with ominous clouds, so Arielle shows him an unused room deep in the bowels of the monastery and they sit. Nuns do not learn all the disciplines and subjects that monks do, so she asks Alexandre to teach her something from one of his books. He obliges.
They talk about history for hours: about the Cataclysm and the Crusades and the Iron Rebellion, and she is surprisingly knowledgeable about it all. “My father taught me,” she says, and does not elaborate.
The next night, they discuss the great writers of olden days. Again, Arielle knows a surprising amount about Galeu’s epics and Van-Corbette’s sonnets — and of course, she is well versed in religious literature. But Alexandre knows more, and she seems keen to learn. He enjoys it because she is sharp. She argues. The lessons are not like the ones in everyday classes. It makes him think. She is everything a woman should not be. And she is beautiful.
Summer fades to autumn and the green fields to the south change to gold. They turn sixteen, him one week before her. They meet in secret almost every day.
One particularly memorable night, Alexandre risks being caught past curfew to show her that objects fall at the same speed regardless of their weight. He holds two stones of different sizes at the top of the cliff and drops them at the same time so that they land just in front of Arielle, who stands by the lake and exclaims, “Putain de merde!” far too loudly when they hit the ground, sending them both into fits of silent laughter.
“This is ridiculous,” she says when they reunite in the tunnels. “Ántou must have been drunk when He created physics.”
Alexandre has never heard a person talk about Ántou so carelessly — and yet she remains perfectly pious in her studies and everyday life. He decides she has a certain talent, an ability to buck authority while still following the rules and doing what is expected of her. It is refreshing in this world of harsh discipline and strict protocol.
When winter arrives, they wrap themselves in blankets to protect from the biting cold that seems to permeate every room of the monastery. He smuggles texts out of the library for her and they sit, reading by candlelight ancient verses and old maps and Kirran translations. Arielle hates Velut’s philosophy. She loves Threuné’s tapestries — just like he does. In hushed tones they debate whether or not Passel Tréville should have attacked Bastienne, and whether the Cloud Story in the Book of Òreseur is parable or fact.
Midway through the month of Amilaus, Alexandre is nearly caught as he takes a book on prophetic verse from its spot on a high shelf. He hides from the monk who has just entered by crawling beneath tables, finally stuffing the thick and dusty volume under his robes and walking as nonchalantly as he can away from the library, trying his best to hide the awkward gait and significant pain that is caused as hard vellum corners dig into his stomach. When he relays the adventure to Arielle, she laughs and tells him, “I think my recklessness is finally getting to you.”
But when he takes out the book and opens it to its ornately decorated first page, she seems to lose all interest in joking around and appears engrossed in the fine text written upon the parchment. Alexandre realizes that this is the first book about prophecy that he has shared with her.
“Père Vatisse says that prophecy is like music,” he says. “The notes, the undertones and harmonies, the rhythm…all combined, all creating the meaning of the full song.”
Arielle tilts her head, silent for a few moments. The flickering flame casts strange shadows on the walls and her face. “Have you heard any prophecies?”
“No,” he replies. “The books have some examples, but they say reading the verses is not the same as listening to the real thing.”
“Like reading music is not the same as hearing it.”
Arielle turns a page and the rustling echoes around the stone chamber. There is a steady drip, drip, drip as, somewhere close by, the ancient stones leak groundwater into the undercroft.
“Alexandre?” He looks up; her head remains facing the book but he can feel her eyes, obscured by locks of dark hair, fixed on him. “Could you translate a prophecy?”
Too quickly, she shakes her head. “Of course not. Theoretically.”
There is something she is hiding. It is the same uncharacteristic hesitance which she uses to hide the fact that her last name is Challant — a fact he learned a month and a half ago but does not bring up for fear of destroying her trust in him.
“I…I suppose so. I know what to look for; it is only a matter of finding the relevant materials. The historical references, the foreign vocabulary. It might take a long time.”
Arielle nods and stares into the orange and yellow sheath of the flame. Alexandre does not ask what is bothering her.
The months wheel past. In the late spring, Alexandre is finally allowed into the deepest section of the monastery: the Catacombs, a labyrinth of storage tunnels filled with countless artifacts, books, and tidbits of knowledge filed away for use a thousand years from now. They are dark to the point of being foggy, and seem to endlessly twist upon themselves, forming loops and paths so illogical that two members of his class become lost and are relocated only after six hours and a search party of twelve full-fledged monks. He is too frightened to venture there alone to smuggle out items, but he tells Arielle all about his guided travels and the treasures within.
When the weather is warm enough, they return outside. The world has a hum that Alexandre has not noticed before. It is the sound of blades of grass swaying in the wind, the creaking bark of trees coming back to life after a long hibernation, the breath of songbirds. The heartbeat of the earth itself. A beat that is echoed deep within his own heart.
It is summer. But here, nestled at the foot of the Déchirét Mountains, the weather never becomes too hot. Alexandre guesses that it has been almost a year since that first time he and Arielle snuck out of the monastery at night to sit outside and look up at the stars. He and the girl with the dark hair and piercing eyes, who stands with the poise of an empress.
Today, Arielle does not meet him at their usual spot by the hidden staircase. Fifteen minutes pass, then thirty. It is not like her to be late.
After nearly an hour, Alexandre finds her by the lake. It is overcast, but still she stares toward the heavens as if willing the sky to clear, as if focusing hard enough might enable her to see straight through the billowing clouds. He sits beside her and sees that she has been crying.
“Tu vas bien?” he asks gently. Are you okay? She responds by leaning on his shoulder. They sit in silence for a while. Somewhere in the distance, the wind wails across the mountaintops.
“Today,” Arielle finally says, “They took us to the interrogation.”
“The crazy man from the village?”
“Oui. Well…no. I do not think he was crazy.”
“Oh?” he says.
“Alex…they tortured him. They beat him, first with whips, then canes, then with their bare fists. They cut his hands and arms and feet with tiny knives. I did not know blood could be so red.” He can feel her body shiver against him, though the night is not cold. “And when they had finished,” she continues softly, “they left him there, chained to the wall with no tears left to cry with, no voice left to scream with. Broken. Powerless.”
“The monks know what they are doing, Arielle,” Alexandre says. “I am sure they had good reason to-”
“This is what they do!” she yells, making him start. “They take you and lock you in a cell and slowly, before you realize what is going on, they take away everything that makes you human. You cannot go outside, Arielle. You cannot read these books, Arielle. You cannot be my heir, Arielle!”
Her breathing is hoarse and ragged and she shakes, though whether with rage or grief Alexandre does not know. Perhaps both.
“Your father is the Comte,” he says after a moment. It is not a question.
“He told me I would have a life here. But he was wrong. It is as much a cage as anywhere else.”
“I know.” A whispering wind makes its way across the lake, sending reflections of diffuse moonlight spreading across its mirrored surface in infinite ripples. The two of them look across the water at the mountains, which rise up like snow-capped giants from the lush earth.
“These nights. Our little adventures. It is the first time I have felt free in a long while. And it is as if seeing that broken man pulled me back to reality. We cannot escape his fate.”
“Then let us live while we can.” Alexandre puts his arm around her and they sit, still and silent, feeling one another’s heartbeats while the clouds and stars march through the heavens above them.
Autumn. They make use of the warm weather while it lasts, taking walks around the lake to the orchards on its far side, and to the west of the monastery where enormous red rocks stick out of the ground where the plains meet the mountains. Alexandre turns seventeen. Arielle turns seventeen as well. The monastic tradition goes on, gears churning as a new crop of trainees arrives from all over the realm.
On their last day together — though Alexandre does not know it is such — they walk partway up the nearest mountain and sit on a boulder. From here, the dark spires of the monastery are easily visible against the moonlit fields as they reach for the sky, strong and immovable. The distance makes the fortress seem small.
“I wish prophecies did not exist,” says Arielle suddenly. He is surprised — not at the statement itself so much as its lack of context.
“Why?” he asks.
“If something will happen,” she replies, “then the future is predetermined. And if the future is predetermined, then what I do makes no difference. Fate will happen all the same.”
Alexandre shrugs. “I would rather that then be blind to the future. And having no agency at least means that I am not at fault for the dumb things that I do.”
They laugh, and since they are far away from the monastery they can do so loudly and without fear. Laughter is sometimes hard to come by nowadays.
“Well,” he says after a minute, “if nothing else, I suppose prophecy gives me some purpose. Knowing that I have a part in deciphering the future. Understanding the mind of Ántou. It is important.”
“Purpose,” repeats Arielle.
The air is cool and crisp, but not chilly. In the extreme distance, he can make out tiny lights weaving through the night: farmers’ torches, illuminating the fields as they harvest the last of this year’s crop. The end of the cycle. Rinse and repeat.
Even if Arielle is right, even if they are trapped in this life, at least he has his own volition, his own trail to pioneer. Unlike the wheat, born to die. Unlike the farmers, who relive their springs and summers and harvests year after year after year. His life has meaning. He can forge his own fate.
Alexandre has been a trainee monk for six years now. He wonders what his life would have been like if he had never come here; if his uncle had never passed and his father had kept him on their farmstead. Different, certainly. Better? No. Not without her.
It has been over a year since the time they first met, but Alexandre still remembers the moment she approached him in the courtyard terrace as if it were yesterday. The breath caught in his throat. The fluttering of his heart. The smell of summer mountain air. He looks at her in the dark and realizes with a pang that he feels the same way now.
“I have to leave,” says Arielle suddenly. He feels as though he has been struck by a bolt of lightning.
The next morning she is gone, along with fifty other women from the monastery. They seem to have vanished into thin air, and in their absence the complex feels silent and empty. A search party sent to find them returns without success.
Alexandre returns to the underground room that night, that stone-hewn chamber in which he and Arielle have spent countless hours throughout the past year, reading and talking and laughing. He sits on the floor, alone, and runs his hands aimlessly over the rough flagstones, feeling the network of microscopic cracks and ridges beneath his fingertips. He hopes, wherever Arielle is now, she is free.
There is a texture beneath his fingers that does not feel like stone. Looking down, Alexandre sees a slip of parchment which has been stuffed into a crack in the rock. His heart races. On the front is written a single word.
With trembling hands he unfolds the paper and reads the verses that are written within in precise, thin handwriting.
Où le soleil se couche
Et les branches pendent
Et les étoiles tombent dans la mer
Regarde au fond de toi,
Mon ami aux beaux yeux —
Le cœur de pierre chante:
Callert, Callert, rentre chez moi.
Un monticule d’étincelles d’amande étincelle la couronne
Sans fin comme les nuages.
Nous dansons jusqu’à ce que la lune se lève
Mais caché au plus profond de la joie
Une obscurité est sous les pieds.
Attention, jeune. Attention encore.
Quelque chose se cache dans les bois.
Where the sun sets
And the branches hang
And the stars fall into the sea
Look deep within,
My fair-eyed friend —
The heart of stone sings:
Callert, Callert, come home to me.
A mound of tinder sparks the crown
Endless like the clouds.
We dance until the moon shall rise
But hidden deep beneath the joy
Lies a darkness underfoot.
Careful, young one. Careful still.
Something is hiding in the woods.
A pause. Then, a smile makes its way across Alexandre’s lips. He knows he is ready. He will forge his own fate, find the answer to this prophecy. He will do it for her. He will do it for the girl with the dark hair and piercing eyes, who stands with the poise of an empress.