The smell of smoke woke him up, and Va realized he should never have been asleep in the first place. He got back onto his knees in the forest clearing, wiped the cold fragments of pine needles from his face and blew out a breath that condensed into a white cloud. Above him, snow-laden branches creaked and swayed against a pale southern sky.
He shut his eyes and tried to empty his mind of the concerns of the world. His fingers tightened around the cross in his hands. He ignored the coarseness of his habit, the steady drip of ice water from the firs that patted his bowed head. His lips might be blue, but they could still move in the trembling mouthing of rote prayers.
The drift of the wind brought the smoke back to him. As it entered his nose, it touched that part of his memory which he had thought locked away for ever.
Va stood. He turned slowly, letting his senses tell him which way to go. Then, with a feeling bordering on sickness, he started to run. The tears that streamed down his face never dared to blind him.
The closer he got, the stronger the stench of fire and oil and meat became. He knew what it meant even though he couldn’t see through the forest. He hesitated only once, when he burst through the tree line and found that his world was on fire. Then he plunged through the swinging, smouldering gates of the monastery of Saint Samuil of Arkady. There were so many dead that Va couldn’t find anyone who could tell him what had happened.
The five-domed basilica glowed brightly from the inside. It didn’t stop him from going in, again and again, calling out, listening above the roar of the flames and the cracking of timbers for any kind of answer. He only retreated when overwhelmed by the smoke and the heat. He reeled out, his black habit steaming, his lungs choked with soot and harsh vapours. He rolled in the last of the spring snows to extinguish any embers that might have fallen on him, coughed until he vomited, then raised himself up for another attempt.
The doors to the church had been barred from the inside, burst by force from outside. Most of his brothers had died there, by sword and spear and club, even as they knelt in prayer. The floor was thick with boiling blood. Va pressed himself to the wall, trying to get round to the north aisle.
‘Brothers! Father! Can anyone hear me?’
The roof trusses started to snap, one by one, failing like falling dominoes. Va jumped for a window recess. Tiles rattled down in a shower, and the smoke whistled up through the hole. The sudden rush of air turned the blazing church into an inferno. The glass shattered, and he was alight. He fell backwards, outwards, through the window and into the mud.
Blessed mud: he twisted and turned, wallowing like a pig until all the flames were out. Then he crawled away on his hands and knees as the great central copper dome creaked and groaned, and plummeted into the nave. He was far enough away that the explosion of red-hot masonry only pattered the ground around him with smoking missiles.
He kept crawling until he was safe. Every building was burning. The dormitory, the workshops, the storehouses; even the trees in the orchard were smoking, their new green leaves brown and curled.
A pair of brown leather boots walked across his line of sight. They stopped, and when he moved his hand, they moved closer.
He tried to turn over. He was starting to feel the pain, and not just the pain but the loss. His world had just been torn in two.
She bent down and looked at him. ‘Are you going to die?’
His hands were blistered and cut. His face felt stiff and wet, and he couldn’t tell whether he was caked in dried mud or melted flesh. His throat was burning and his chest felt crushed. If it hurt this much, it must mean he was going to live.
‘Die? Not today.’
‘Oh.’ She walked away again but not so far that she couldn’t watch him gasp and twitch like a stranded fish. After a while she sat down on a low wall.
Va lay there, listening to the life he knew consumed by fire. He had been almost happy here. The rituals, the order, the brotherhood, the closeness of his community; they all served to quieten the voices inside. Now it was all gone. If he concentrated, he could hear their whispering beginning.
He levered himself to his knees and shuffled like a penitent over to where Elenya sat.
‘You look like shit,’ she said. ‘Are you sure you’re not going to die?’
‘Shut up, woman. No, don’t. Tell me what happened.’
‘There were – I don’t know – thirty or so men, maybe more. I was gathering firewood when I heard them coming, and I was certain I didn’t want to meet them. So I hid.’
‘I waited until they’d all gone past. Every one of them was on horseback; it didn’t take long. They just stormed in, killing as they found them. Some of the monks barricaded themselves in the church but that didn’t hold much hope, really.’ She shrugged. ‘It was over very quickly. They came, slaughtered everyone and left. Not quite. There were two big thunderclaps. I don’t know what they were. They didn’t come from the sky.’
Va got to his feet, staggered, almost put out his hand to steady himself on Elenya’s shoulder, but at the last moment managed to grab a gatepost instead. ‘The scriptorium.’
‘I don’t think there’ll be anything left of that.’
‘No, you don’t understand. The books.’
‘Va, they’ll be ash by now.’
‘No they won’t.’ He started walking painfully towards the burning annexe to the dormitory. ‘Don’t think that we haven’t tried.’From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Lost Art by Simon Morden. Copyright © 2008 by Simon Morden. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.