By William Peak
Secant Publishing, 2014
SILVER WINNER – Best New Voice – Fiction at the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Awards
The Dark Ages, England: a warrior gives his son to a monastery that rides the border between two rival Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Growing up in a land wracked by war and plague, the child learns of the oath that binds him to the church and forces a cruel choice upon him. To love one father, he must betray another. The decision he makes shatters his world and haunts him forever. This quietly exotic novel places us compellingly in another time, another place, where chieftains fear holy men, holy men fear the world, and prayer has the primal force of fire. While entirely a work of fiction, the novel’s background is historically accurate. In the midst of a tale that touches the human in all of us, readers will find themselves treated to a history of the Dark Ages unlike anything available today outside of textbooks and original source material.
Read an Excerpt from The Oblate’s Confession
It was overcast that day and hot. The air was full of smoke from the fires and the smell of green wood burning mixed with that of the reredorter. I had just found a piece of fish bone and was about to show it to Waldhere when I noticed how quiet everything had gotten. I looked up.
It was a man on a horse. He had already passed through the village and was now nearly even with the first of the ponds. As I watched, a second man became visible behind the horse. He was on foot and hurrying to keep up. The man on the horse seemed unconcerned about the man on the ground, but he did ride slowly. At one point he reached down and scratched a knee. The man behind him was carrying two spears. As he hurried along behind the horse, the shafts of the spears bent up and down in rhythm with his movements.
The creaking of leather and the clicking of the spears became audible as the two men drew near. I couldn’t see the horseman’s sword because it hung down on the other side of his horse, but I could see his shield. It had been painted green and red in a design I had not seen before. There was something wrong with the man’s face. One side of it was swollen.
When the horseman drew even with the place where Waldhere and I stood, I could see that I had been wrong about his face. A scar ran down the side of the man’s forehead, crossed his cheekbone, and then buried itself in his beard. Whatever had caused the wound (I imagined a war-axe), had clipped off the end of the man’s eyebrow and a significant portion of the right side of his beard. Neither had grown back and, as a result, the right side of the man’s face looked somehow wider, fatter, than the left.
The man didn’t look at us as he passed, nor really did he look at anyone. He glanced up at the abbey once or twice but not like most visitors. You could tell he had seen such places before.
It was Father Prior who broke the spell. He clapped his hands once and everyone jumped. I looked around and someone laughed. Father looked at the brother who had laughed and then, fairly quickly, the sound of shovel and scythe started up again.
I began pulling weeds but I also glanced over at Waldhere. He looked back and the two of us raised our eyebrows at each other to show how pleased we were with what we had seen. Then Waldhere’s eyes grew larger still and a sudden shadow passed over the ground between us. I bent to my work, pulling weeds with a vengeance now, but it made no difference. Whoever was standing behind me, kicked me. I stood up, turned around.
It was Brother Baldwin. He was standing at the edge of the ditch, glaring down at me, his forehead and cheeks flecked with mud. When he was sure he had my attention, he pointed up at the rider and his companion who had just reached the abbey rise, their figures wavering now in the heat and smoke from the fires. I looked that way and then I looked back at Brother Baldwin. The old monk smiled in a way that scared me. Never taking his eyes off me, he moved his hand through the air before him like a snake.
The smile on Brother’s face evaporated. He pointed at me.
I must have looked surprised because I remember Brother smiling again at that. Then, as if pronouncing judgment, he caused the fingers of his right hand to rain upon the back of his left.
The message could not have been clearer. That snake, Brother had signed, is your father.