June 10, 2011

Enter Valerian Son of Domnic

Posted in Homecoming tagged , , , , , at 12:01 am by E.V. Svetova

An excerpt from Longing. 7th century. After getting in serious trouble back in Northumbria, young Yaret Fairfax is whisked by his uncle, Prior Alric, on a pilgrimage to Rome. Despite the privileges the Angles were granted by their hosts, he hates everything about Rome and expresses his resentment by heavy drinking, befriending whores and participating in underground fist-fights. After a particularly nasty incident involving drunken blasphemy and resisting arrest, he is called to answer for his behavior. The punishment turns out to be more of a reward.

Sweet Valerian bathed in the golden light

Yaret woke up from cold water being poured on his face. With difficulty, he unglued his swollen eyelids, only to see the face of his uncle Alric. Pale, his blue eyes blood-shot, the shaven top of his head and his cheeks showing a day-old stubble, Alric looked like someone who’d been carrying a heavy cross for quite some time.

“Am I at the cloister?” Yaret sat up, rubbing his wet face.

“You are at the Saxon Quarters, boy,” Alric replied in a monotone, which, as Yaret well knew, was the sound of a lull before the storm.

“But aren’t you at the cloister?” he asked weakly.

“You see, I returned to the city last night to sit down for a birthday feast with my sister’s son, which happens to coincide with the first day of the Great Lent.” Alric nodded at the table with some untouched food on it. “Except, I couldn’t find him, because he didn’t spend last night in his cell, or any of the last nights for that matter. So, I placed a request for a special prayer in his name at the evening service, and waited for him. A weak wretch that I am, I allowed fatigue to overtake me, and dozed off, only to be awakened by the nightwatch guards, dragging some Angle’s unconscious body into the courtyard. Lo and behold, it turned out to be my sister’s son I was eagerly awaiting!”

“I apologize for making you wait,” muttered Yaret. Alric’d been steadily raising his voice, and it echoed in Yaret’s ears, making his head ring. “How late was it?”

“Oh, it was quite early, right before dawn. So, the good people who brought my sister’s son to me informed me that he’s been spending his time and money on whores and gambling, making quite a name for himself in – what do they call this place – Subura?”

“I was on a mission.”

“You dare tell me you were preaching to those people? You, who yawns through liturgy, who…”

“A mission to find the essence of humanity!”

For a moment, Alric’s eyes flashed, then as if ash covered his gaze; he looked away with a heavy sigh.

“I chased my mother across the flax fields, ripping you out of her arms before she could drown you in the retting pond, like a pup,” he spoke bitterly. “I denied my own spiritual progress so that you would have the proper Christian learning. I defended you when, after you murdered innocent people, our own men wanted to bury you alive. All this time, I prayed that your human soul would win over your demonic essence. To the holy city I took you, and what was the first thing you did? Found the deepest pit, jumped in it, and rolled in the filth, like a swine! The essence of humanity you sought, but the demonic essence you found: loveless, ungrateful, selfish, like all the demon-kind…”

“Selfish?!” Yaret jumped to his feet, indignation overpowering dizziness. “Since I was but a boy, all I’ve done was unselfish service! I’ve healed men and women, I’ve delivered their children, I’ve tended their animals. I’ve prophesied when to go to war, when to plant and when to harvest…”

“If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew everything but didn’t love others, what good would I be?” interrupted Alric. “If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it but if I didn’t love others, I would be…”

“…of no value whatsoever,” finished Yaret in a whisper.

Each word of the Scripture was like the lash of a wet whip, cutting him deep. His long-suffering uncle was right: love was the key to the mysteries of the Universe, as well as to the other’s soul; most importantly, to his own soul. The key he’d considered his granted birthright, and so carelessly lost. And now, without it, he had to humbly scratch at the gate, begging to be let in by the night watchman.

“Make yourself presentable,” muttered Alric, tossing Yaret his mantle. “You are called to the Patriarchate for the Pope’s judgment.”

“I cannot believe you repay my kindness by disgracing me in front of our hosts!” Alric kept grumbling as they walked south on Via Flamina towards Palatine Hill. They cleared the crowded Campus Martius that since the decline of the city had become the main residential district. As they passed the overgrown Forum Romanum, with the ubiquitous goats grazing between the once glorious structures, long in disrepair, Yaret noted that the tinkling of their bells sounded oddly familiar.

“I am washing my hands of you!” Alric was saying as they left the Coliseum behind.”If you cannot appreciate compassion, perhaps punishment will do you good.” He turned away from his nephew, and didn’t say another word. In silence, they crossed the square before the sprawling three storied building, and ascended the wide stairs.

The Lateran Palace, known as the Patriarchate, had served as the official residence for the Bishop of Rome for the last three hundreds years, and was appropriately impressive. Apart from it stood the Lateran Baptistery with its porphyry columns; adjacent to the Palace was the Basilica of the Savior, the ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome. Built at the time of Constantine, the centuries-old basilica had been restored two hundred years before, showing no signs of the disrepair that scarred the beautiful faces of most buildings on the Eternal City.

The visitors were greeted in the vestibule by an attendant who guided them though the palace corridors and staircases to the Pope’s private apartment on the third floor. ‘Like Celia’s,’ noted Yaret, trying to suppress a rise of frantic glee which he’d come to associate with desperation.

Yaret had seen the Bishop of Rome when the English had their first formal audience upon arrival. It took place after the service in the Basilica of the Savior, the main cathedral of Rome. Pope Vitalian sat upon a high throne, cathedra, in the apse of the state feast hall, its walls lined with gilded mosaics casting light throughout. He was clad in stiff gold-embroidered vestments, Byzantine style, his face hardly visible between the high neckline of the phelonion and the low brim of the camelaucum. This audience however, was meant to be as informal as the high office permitted.

Today the Pope wore a simple white garment, only the gold rings on his fingers, and the purple silk cloak around his shoulders bespoke princely authority. Next to him stood a secretary and a small retinue of attendants. By his right hand, on a low stool sat an elderly monk dressed in a rough sackcloth – cilice – an indication of extreme piety and corporal mortification. Somehow, Yaret knew right away: this humble old man wielded a kind of power which defied outwardly symbols.

Pope Vitalian was not a large man, but solid; his head was big for his stature, and the features of his wide face were rather crude; he squinted his eyes like a peasant used to bright sun. The hand Yaret kissed was wide and veiny too, peasant-like. The Pope nodded to the secretary, who addressed Yaret, looking above his head:

“It came to our attention that on February the Eleventh you were seen in a sordid neighborhood, in a drinking establishment, surrounded by an unsavory crowd, standing upon a table, pronouncing a speech in which the advent of the Antichrist was mentioned. How do you respond to this account?”

“That it is accurate,” Yaret answered politely.

“Out of our sincerest love for our English brethren, especially the venerable Alric here, we are willing to permit you to explain yourself. What were you doing?”

“I was preaching Gospel, the Revelation of the Apostle John, to be exact.”

A whisper fluttered through the chambers, incredulity and indignation.

“And you expect us to believe you?” spoke the Pope, discarding the formalities.

A hand lay on Yaret’s shoulder. “Most Holy Father,” said Alric firmly, “My sister’s son may be many things, but a liar he is not. In fact, he’s a bit simple that way, always speaks his mind. If he says so, it must be the truth. For that I vouch.”
This sudden show of support went straight into Yaret’s head, making him enfeebled and emboldened at once, like after drinking wine on the empty stomach. He wanted to turn around, and smother his uncle in an embrace.

“Even if so, it is unlikely for a man, especially not under monastic vows, to remain free from tenets of concupiscence in the nest of corruption,” spoke Pope Vitalian.

“Your Holiness, if by corruption you mean sexual congress, then I did not partake in any I’ve paid for. Ask any whore I’ve had a time with,” replied Yaret, meeting the Pope’s gaze with his shameless clear eyes. “And I’ve had a time with most of them, not unlike your namesake in Alexandria.”

The Pope leaned over to the cilice-clad monk, and they exchanged a quiet consultation.

“It is true that Saint Vitalis of Gaza inspired many fallen women in Alexandria to abandon their profession and became good wives and mothers,” spoke the Pope. “It’s been four decades since the holy man was martyred. Glory be to God for making his story known to our brethren in the far reaches. Indeed, good news spreads.”

“Like a bad disease,” muttered Yaret.

“Can you keep your mouth shut for once?” Alric hissed, giving him a quick shove.

“Although emulating such holiness is commendable, it is ill-advised for a young soul to descend so deeply among sinners. An old pious hermit, perhaps… but you, my son, are far too impressionable at your tender age. How old are you, exactly?”

“Sixteen, a man of age according to my people’s custom.”

“But of course.” The Pope’s wide face broke into an indulgent smile. “Why don’t we find some way to expose you to more appropriate impressions? Bring Valerian,” he said to his scribe. He immediately left the room, and soon returned in the company of a tall youth, who, despite his striking physique, seemed not much older than Yaret. The Pope beckoned the young man, who bent his knee in a genuflexion.

“Valerian, we have a task for you,” he said, making a sign of blessing over the young man’s curly head. “We want you to show hospitality to this young man for as long as he stays in Rome. Look after him and love him as you would your brother.”

The young man venerated the Pope, bowed before the little old monk in the hirsute garb, sprang back to his feet, then turned to Yaret and beamed. Yaret had never seen a smile so bright. ‘I wish I could know him,’ he thought, and it seemed for a moment that time slowed down, as if by magic.

With a couple of wide steps the youth covered the distance between them.

“Peace be with you!” He reached out, got a hold of Yaret’s arms, pulled him gently by the elbows, and placed a kiss on his right cheek.

The touch of lips to skin was like a cold burn; the last time Yaret had felt this strongly was when he kissed Caireann in the sun-drenched meadow a lifetime ago. It was as if the last three senseless months, which he’d spent being fondled and punched by strangers, never happened. Struck by this assault of sensation, Yaret involuntarily bit his tongue. He realized he was expected to reply, “And with your spirit,” and return the Kiss of Peace, but his suddenly swollen tongue was making any effort at communication painfully awkward. With a little growl of unease, he squirmed out of Valerian’s arms.

“Please forgive my nephew,” started Alric with habitual remorse.

“No, I am the one to ask for forgiveness.” Valerian bowed. “Not being familiar with the customs of your people, I apologize if I have offended you in any way. I presumed, since we’ve met before…” Answering Yaret’s quizzical look, the young man explained, “We met at the guest house several months ago, you were sitting by the fountain, and I was watering shrubs. We conversed friendly, I misspoke, calling you an angel, and we laughed, remember?”

Yaret’s innate Alvan gifts included a perfect memory. He clearly remembered his first morning in Rome, his foul mood. He remembered a stranger calling him an angel, but he was certain there had been no friendly conversation, and most certainly, no laughter exchanged. It seemed, this boy’s recalled reality was much nicer than his. ‘What a peculiar human gift, selective memory,’ he thought with a feeling close to envy.

“Honored, my lord,” he heard himself mumble with a barbarically thick accent.

“Oh, I am undeserving of such honors. I am no lord. Please, just call me Valerian.”

He was, of course, practicing humility. Valerianus son of Domnicus came from the ancient senatorial gens Valeria – one of the most illustrious patrician families of Rome which had produced numerous men and women of distinction. Many scholars and poets, as well as consuls and emperors, had carried the name over the centuries of the Empire. His forefathers had been Christian since before the times of the Emperor Constantine. Several centuries after the destruction of the Empire, this rich history lived only as an echo of family spirit. Nevertheless, just as his ancestors served Rome in a military and civil capacity, as well as through patronage of the poor, young Valerian was brought up to see his natural duty in service. Since the Empire collapsed, the Church remained the only uniting force of administration, as well as the only venue for civil service and spiritual advancement.

A firstborn son, from an early age Valerian was called to dedicate his life to Christ and His Church. Befriending a young English catechumen with the hopes of bringing him into the fold was yet another mission he accepted joyfully. From running errands at the guest house donated by his family to accommodate the foreign pilgrims, to performing tasks at the Lateran Palace, to taking vows and eventually joining the high ranks of the Church, Valerian’s path was clear before him. It might have been narrow, requiring sacrifices such as celibacy, but it certainly was straight. That was more than Yaret could claim for himself.

Yaret didn’t need his true sight to know that his new acquaintance was nothing like him. To everyone on the room, the two young men couldn’t have looked more different.

Despite his alleged debauchery, Yaret appeared reserved. The economy of his face was severe: slick fair hair; pale skin taut over the sharp cheek and jaw bones; fine, slightly pointed nose; straight arrows of eyebrows over the wide-set grey eyes, which were as transparent as they were impenetrable. When he deigned to curve his mouth, it was more often a grin of mischief rather than cheer. His narrow body seemed fragile on the surface, its strength concealed like a stream beneath a shield of winter ice.

Valerian was all abundance, gilded from head to toe by the generous southern sun. Tall, broad in the shoulders, he stepped wide, and filled any room he entered. Lush chestnut curls crowned his forehead like a pagan wreath. His eyes, brown with speckles of gold, were vivid against his olive skin. Wide eyebrows and thick lashes threatened to give him a somnolent expression, but thoughtful kindness shone through, making his whole face radiant. An inviting smile often parted his full, dark lips; in fact, hardly left his face. Add the aquiline nose, prominent chin, dimpled cheeks framed with a soft fuzz which promised to grow into a luxurious beard in a couple of years, and there he was – the fruit of the rich Italian soil, a boy with the body of a marble idol and the countenance of an angel from Byzantine icons.

Next to Yaret’s stark, yet elusive, aspect, Valerian’s face, rich in detail and lively in expression, was like an open book. Now, it radiated – unmistakably – love. There were no silver threads stitching together rainbow clouds, the sights Yaret used to behold with his true sight. No, his powers had not returned. But he believed what he saw.

“I’m grateful for your trust, Most Holy Father, and know exactly where to start. Come, beloved brother,” said Valerian. Under the Pope’s approving gaze, he took Yaret by the arm and led him out of the room.

‘What am I seeing in this boy? How is this possible?’ Yaret wondered, as he followed Valerian. What he perceived wasn’t the flow of hælu, but no less definite. It was the same atmosphere of practiced goodness he felt around Biscop Baducing, except with Biscop, a neophyte, there was a charge in the air, like the smell of lightning after a thunderstorm. As much as he respected Biscop, Yaret found himself constantly compelled to challenge him. Valerian had something unassailable about him, something absolute. Biscop was on an adventure. Valerian was home.
‘Whatever he has, I want it,’ Yaret said to himself, furtively rubbing his burning face.

“We must start at Saint Peter’s basilica, erected over the holy place where Apostle Peter was inhumed,” Valerian spoke excitedly. “But, what am I saying, you must have been to Saint Peter’s already.”

Yaret kept silent, trying to keep up with Valerian’s brisk pace as they maneuvered through the labyrinthine corridors of the palace.

“No? You’ve been in Rome through the whole winter, and haven’t been to Saint Peter’s?”

Yaret blinked.

“Saint Peter? As in Apostle Peter? The rock upon which the Church is built?” Valerian raised his voice.

Yaret pursed his lips.

“Perhaps, I speak too fast… Your understanding of my language must be limited… A-p-o-s-t-l-e P-e-t-e-r!” Valerian shouted, doing his best to annunciate.

Abruptly, Yaret stopped, and said with dignity:

“There is no need to strain your throat. I am not a white dog, born deaf.” With a graceful gesture, he flicked a strand of hair behind his pointed ear. “As you see, I have large ears, so I can hear fine; moreover, I understand your language quite well, certainly better than you understand mine.”

Valerian blushed, his tanned cheeks turning purple; suddenly, he burst into laughter. His laughter was so sincere and catching, that Yaret couldn’t help himself and laughed too, awkwardly at first, then louder, throwing back his head, like when he was a boy. As soon as their spasms subsided, they glanced at each other, and burst into laughter again, until both were tearing up.

“What a fool I am,” moaned Valerian, wiping his eyes. “White dog… ha!” He flung his arm around Yaret’s shoulders, and pulled him along. “You know, brother, your ears are quite large!”

Yaret exhaled and leaned against him, weak from laughing. As they walked out of the cool twilight of the Lateran Place into the sunlit square, Valerian kept babbling about all the basilicas to visit, all the relics to venerate, all the preachers to hear, and all Yaret could think about was the cold burn on his cheek.

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5 Comments »

  1. Auxtessa said,

    Оууу…какой интересный тип! *ушла мучительно читать текст, с моим-то инвалидным английским…*

    • Katyok said,

      Хехе.. особо не мучайся, там немного архаичный язык, стилизованый. Но сценка их знакомства трогательная.

  2. ashbet said,

    Fascinating!! The more I read of this story, the more I want to read . . .

    • Katyok said,

      Thank you! I plan to finish the historic novel this year. The modern day part will be done by summer.

      • ashbet said,

        I am looking forward to it! Best wishes and good luck! ❤


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