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by James Rollins
William Morrow, 2009
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The ravens were the first sign.
As the horse-drawn wagon traveled down the rutted track between rolling fields of barley, a flock of ravens rose up in a black wash. They hurled themselves into the blue of the morning and swept high in a panicked rout, but this was more than the usual startled flight. The ravens wheeled and swooped, tumbled and flapped. Over the road, they crashed into each other and rained down out of the skies. Small bodies struck the road, breaking wing and beak. They twitched in the ruts. Wings fluttered weakly.
But most disturbing was the silence of it all.
No caws, no screams.
Just the frantic beat of wing-then the soft impact of feathered bodies on the hard dirt and broken stone.
The wagon's driver crossed himself and slowed the cart. His heavy-lidded eyes watched the skies. The horse tossed its head and huffed into the chill of the morning.
"Keep going,said the traveler sharing the wagon. Martin Borr, was the youngest of the royal coroners, ordered here upon a secret edict from King William himself.
As Martin huddled deeper into his heavy cloak, he remembered the note secured by wax and imprinted by the great royal seal. Burdened by the cost of war, King William had sent scores of royal commissioners out into the countryside to amass a great accounting of the lands and properties of his kingdom. The immense tally was being recorded in a mammoth volume called the Domesday Book, collected together by a single scholar and written in a cryptic form of Latin. The accounting was all done as a means of measuring the proper tax owed to the crown.
Or so it was said.
Some grew to suspect there was another reason for such a grand survey of all the lands. They compared the book to the Bible's description of the Last Judgment, where God kept an accounting of all mankind's deeds in the Book of Life. Whispers and rumors began calling the result of this great survey the Doomsday Book.
These last were closer to the truth than anyone suspected.
Martin had read the wax-sealed letter. He'd observed that lone scribe painstakingly recording the results of the royal commissioners into the great book, and at the end, he'd watched the scholar scratch a single word in Latin, written in red ink.
Many regions were marked with this word, indicating lands that had been laid to waste by war or pillage. But two entries had been inscribed entirely in crimson ink. One described a desolate island that lay between the coast of Ireland and the English shore. Martin approached the other place now, ordered here to investigate at the behest of the king. He had been sworn to secrecy and given three men to assist him. They trailed behind the wagon on their own horses.
At Martin's side, the driver twitched the reins and encouraged the draft horse, a monstrously huge chestnut, to a faster clop. As they continued forward, the wheels of the wagon drove over the twitching bodies of the ravens, crushing bones and splattering blood.
Finally, the cart topped a rise and revealed the breadth of the rich valley beyond. A small village lay nestled below, flanked by a stone manor house at one end and a steepled church on the other. A score of thatched cottages and longhouses made up the rest of the hamlet, along with a smattering of wooden sheepfolds and small dovecotes.
"'Tis a cursed place, milord," the driver said. "Mark my words. It were no pox that has blasted this place."
"That is what we've come to discern."
A league behind them, the steep road had been closed off by the king's army. None were allowed forward, but that did not stop rumors of the strange deaths from spreading to the neighboring villages and farmsteads.
"Cursed," the man mumbled again as he set his cart down the road toward the village. "I heard tell that these lands once belonged to the heathen Celts. Said to be sacred to their pagan ways. Their stones can still be found in the forests off in the highlands up yonder."
His withered arm pointed toward the woods fringing the high hills that climbed heavenward. Mists clung to those forests, turning the green wood into murky shades of gray and black.
"They've cursed this place, I tell you straight. Bringing doom upon those who bear the cross."
Martin Borr dismissed such superstitions. At thirty-two years of age, he had studied with master scholars from Rome to Britannia. He had come with experts to discover the truth here.
Shifting around, Martin waved the others ahead toward the small hamlet, and the trio set off at a canter. Each knew his duty. Martin followed more slowly, studying and assessing all he passed. Isolated in this small upland valley, the village went by the name Highglen and was known locally for its pottery, forged from mud and clay gathered out of the hot springs that contributed to the mists cloaking the higher forests. It was said that the town's method of kilning and the composition of the potter's clay were tightly guarded secrets, known only to the guild here.
And now they were lost forever.
The wagon trundled down the road, passing more fields: rye, oats, beans, and rows of vegetables. Some of the fields showed signs of recent harvesting, while others showed evidence of being set to torch.
Had the villagers grown to suspect the truth?
As the wagon continued down into the valley, lines of sheep pens appeared, fringed by tall hedges that half hid the horror within. Wooly mounds, the bloated bodies of hundreds of sheep, dotted the overgrown meadows. Closer to the village, pigs and goats also appeared, sprawled and sunken-eyed, dead where they'd dropped. Off in a field, a large-boned ox had collapsed, still tethered to its plow.
As the wagon reached the village green, the town remained silent. No bark of dog greeted them, no crow of rooster, no bray of donkey. The church bell didn't ring, and no one called out to the strangers entering the village.
A heavy silence pressed down over the place.
As they would discover, most of the dead still lay within their houses, too weak at the end to venture out. But one body sprawled facedown on the green, not far from the manor house's stone steps. He lay like he might have just fallen, perhaps tripped down the steps and broken his neck. But even from the height of the wagon, Martin noted the gaunt stretch of skin over bone, the hollow eyes sunken into the skull, the thinness of limbs.
It was the same wasting as in the beasts of the field. It was as if the entire village had been under siege and had been starved out.
The clatter of hooves approached. Reginald pulled beside the wagon. "Granaries are all full," he said, dusting off his palms on his pants. The tall, scarred man had overseen campaigns by King William in the north of France. "Found rats and mice in the bins, too."
Martin glanced over to him.
"As dead as everything else. Just like that cursed island."
"But now the wasting has reached our shores," Martin muttered. "Entered our lands."
It was the reason they'd all been sent here, why the village road was under guard, and why their group had been sworn to secrecy with binding oaths.
"Girard found you a good body," Reginald said. "Fresher than most. A boy. He's set 'im up in the smithy." His heavy arm pointed to a wooden barn with a stacked-stone chimney.
Martin nodded and climbed out of the wagon. He had to know for sure, and there was only one way to find out. As royal coroner, this was his duty, to discern the truth from the dead. Though at the moment, he'd leave the bloodiest work to the French butcher.
Martin crossed to the smithy's open door. Girard stood inside, hunched before the cold forge. The Frenchman had labored in King William's army, where he'd sawed off limbs and did his best to keep the soldiers alive.
Girard had cleared a table in the center of the smithy and already had the boy stripped and tied to the table. Martin stared at the pale, emaciated figure. His own son was about the same age, but the manner of this death had aged the poor lad here, made him seem wizened well beyond his eight or nine years.
As Girard prepared his knives, Martin examined the boy more closely. He pinched the skin and noted the lack of fat beneath. He examined the cracked lips, the flaky patches of hair loss, the swollen ankles and feet; but mostly he ran his hands over the protuberant bones, as if trying to read a map with his fingers: ribs, jaw, eye socket, pelvis.
What had happened?
Martin knew any real answers lay much deeper.
Girard crossed to the table with a long silver blade in his hand. "Shall we get to work, monsieur?"
A quarter hour later, the boy's corpse lay on the board like a gutted pig. The skin, splayed from groin to gullet, had been pulled and tacked to the wooden table. Intestines lay nestled and curled tight in the bloodied cavity, bloated and pink. From under the ribs, a brownish-yellow liver swelled outward, too large for one so small, for one so wasted to bone and gristle.
Girard reached into the belly of the boy. His hands vanished into the gelid depths.
On the far side, Martin touched his forehead and mouthed a silent prayer of forgiveness for this trespass. But it was too late for absolution from the boy. All the lad's body could do was confirm their worst fears.
Girard hauled forth the boy's stomach, rubbery and white, from which hung a swollen purple spleen. With a few slices of his knife, the Frenchman freed the section of gut and dropped it on the table. Another whispery slip of blade and the stomach was laid open. A rich green mix of undigested bread and grain spilled over the board, like some foul horn of plenty.
A fetid smell rolled out, ripe and potent. Martin covered his mouth and nose-not against the stench, but against the horrible certainty.
"Starved to death, that is plain," Girard said. "But the boy starved with a full belly."
Martin stepped back, his limbs going cold. Here was his proof. They would have to examine others to be certain. But the deaths here seemed to be the same as those on the island, a place marked in red ink as wasted in the Domesday Book.
Martin stared at the gutted boy. Here was the secret reason the survey had been undertaken to begin with. To search for this blight on their homeland, to stamp it out before it spread. The deaths were the same as on that lonely island. The deceased appeared to eat and eat, yet they still starved to death, finding no nourishment, only a continual wasting.
Needing air, Martin turned from the table and stepped out of shadows and into sunshine. He stared across at the rolling hills, green and fertile. A wind swept down and combed through the fields of barley and oats, wheat and rye. He pictured a man adrift in the ocean, dying of thirst with water all around him but unable to drink.
This was no different.
Martin shivered in the wan sunlight, wanting to be as far away from this valley as possible, but a shout drew his attention to the right, toward the other end of the village green. A figure dressed all in black stood before an open door. For a moment, Martin feared it was Death himself, but then the figure waved, shattering the illusion. It was Abbot Orren, the final member of their group, the head of the Abbey of Kells in Ireland. He stood at the entrance to the village church.
"Come see this!" the abbot shouted.
Martin stumbled toward him. It was more a reflex than a conscious effort. He did not want to return to the smithy. He would leave the boy to the care of the French butcher. Martin crossed the village green, climbed the steps, and joined the Catholic monk.
"What is it, Abbot Orren?"
The man turned and headed into the church. "Tis blasphemy," the Irish abbot spat out, "to defile the place in such a manner. No wonder they were all slain."
Martin hurried after the abbot. The man was skeletally thin and ghostly in his oversized traveling cloak. Of them all, he was the only one to have visited the island off the coast of Ireland, to have seen the wasting there, too.
"Did you find what you were seeking?" Martin asked.
The abbot did not answer and stepped back into the crude church. Martin had no choice but to follow. The interior was gloomy, a cheerless place with an earthen floor covered in rushes. There were no benches, and the roof was low and heavily raftered. The only light came from a pair of high thin windows at the back of the church. They cast dusty streaks of light upon the altar, which was a single slab of stone. An altar cloth must have once covered the raw stone, but it had been torn away and cast to the floor, most likely by the abbot in his search.
Abbot Orren crossed to the altar and pointed to the bare stone with a trembling arm. His shoulders shook with his anger. "Blasphemy," he repeated. "To carve these heathen symbols upon our Lord's house."
Martin closed the distance and leaned closer to the altar. The stone had been inscribed with sunbursts and spirals, with circles and strange knotted shapes, all clearly pagan.
"Why would these pious people commit such a sin?"
"I don't think it was the villagers of Highglen," Martin said.
He ran his hand over the altar. Under his fingertips, he sensed the age of the markings, the worn nature of the inscribed shapes. These were clearly old. Martin remembered his driver's assertion that this place was cursed, that it was hallowed ground to the ancient Celtic people, and that their giant stones could be found hidden in the misty highland forests.
Martin straightened. One of those stones must have been hauled to Highglen and used to form the altar of the village church.
"If it's not the people here who did it, then how do you explain this?" the abbot asked. He moved to the wall behind the altar and waved an arm to encompass the large marking there. It had been painted recently, and from the brownish-red color, possibly with blood. It depicted a circle with a cross cutting through it.
Martin had seen such markings on burial stones and ancient ruins. It was a sacred symbol of the Celtic priesthood.
"A pagan cross," Martin said.
"We found the same on the island, marked on all the doors."
"But what does it mean?"
The abbot fingered the silver cross at his own neck. "It is as the king feared. The snakes who plagued Ireland, who were driven off our island by Saint Patrick, have come to these shores."
Martin knew the abbot was not referring to true serpents of the field but to the pagan priests who carried staffs curled like snakes, to the Druid leaders of the ancient Celtic people. Saint Patrick had converted or driven off the pagans from Ireland's shores.
But that had been six centuries ago.
Martin turned to stare out of the church toward the dead village. Girard's words echoed in his head. The boy starved with a full belly.
None of it made any sense.
The abbot mumbled behind him. "It must all be burned. The soil sowed with salt."
Martin nodded, but a worry grew in his breast. Could any flame truly destroy what was wrought here? He did not know for sure, but he was certain about one thing.
This was not over.