Characters tend to be either for or against the quest. If they assist it, they are idealized as simply gallant or pure; if they obstruct it, they are characterized as simply villainous or cowardly. Hence every typical character . . . tends to have his moral opposite confronting him, like black and white pieces in a chess game.–Anatomy of Criticism,
Montglane Abbey, France
A FLOCK OF NUNS CROSSED THE ROAD, THEIR CRISP WIMPLES
fluttering about their heads like the wings of large sea birds.
As they floated through the large stone gates of the town,
chickens and geese scurried out of their path, flapping and
splashing through the mud puddles. The nuns moved through
the darkening mist that enveloped the valley each morning
and, in silent pairs, headed toward the sound of the deep bell
that rang out from the hills above them.
They called that spring le Printemps Sanglant,
Spring. The cherry trees had bloomed early that year, long
before the snows had melted from the high mountain peaks.
Their fragile branches bent down to earth with the weight
of the wet red blossoms. Some said it was a good omen that
they had bloomed so soon, a symbol of rebirth after the long
and brutal winter. But then the cold rains had come and
frozen the blossoms on the bough, leaving the valley buried
thick in red blossoms stained with brown streaks of frost.
Like a wound congealed with dried blood. And this was said
to be another kind of sign.
High above the valley, the Abbey of Montglane rose
like an enormous outcropping of rock from the crest of
the mountain. The fortresslike structure had remained un-
touched by the outside world for nearly a thousand years. It
was constructed of six or seven layers of wall built one on
top of the other. As the original stones eroded over the centuries,
new walls were laid outside of old ones, with flying
buttresses. The result was a brooding architectural melange
whose very appearance fed the rumors about the place. The
abbey was the oldest church structure standing intact in
France, and it bore an ancient curse that was soon to be
As the dark-throated bell rang out across the valley, the remaining
nuns looked up from their labors one by one, put
aside their rakes and hoes, and passed down through the
long, symmetrical rows of cherry trees to climb the precipitous
road to the abbey.
At the end of the long procession, the two young novices
Valentine and Mireille trailed arm in arm, picking their way
with muddy boots. They made an odd complement to the orderly
line of nuns. The tall red-haired Mireille with her long
legs and broad shoulders looked more like a healthy farm
girl than a nun. She wore a heavy butcher’s apron over her
habit, and red curls strayed from beneath her wimple. Beside
her Valentine seemed fragile, though she was nearly as tall.
Her pale skin seemed translucent, its fairness accentuated by
the cascade of white-blond hair that tumbled about her
shoulders. She had stuffed her wimple into the pocket of her
habit, and she walked reluctantly beside Mireille, kicking
her boots in the mud.
The two young women, the youngest nuns at the abbey,
were cousins on their mothers’ side, both orphaned at an
early age by a dreadful plague that had ravaged France. The
aging Count de Remy, Valentine’s grandfather, had commended
them into the hands of the Church, upon his death
leaving the sizable balance of his estate to ensure their care.
The circumstance of their upbringing had formed an inseparable
bond between the two, who were both bursting
with the unrestrained abundant gaiety of youth. The abbess
often heard the older nuns complain that this behavior was
unbecoming to the cloistered life, but she understood that it
was better to curb youthful spirits than to try to quench them.
Then, too, the abbess felt a certain partiality to the orphaned
cousins, a feeling unusual both to her personality and
her station. The older nuns would have been surprised to
learn that the abbess herself had sustained from early childhood
such a bosom friendship, with a woman who had been
separated from her by many years and many thousands of
Now, on the steep trail, Mireille was tucking some unruly
wisps of red hair back under her wimple and tugging her
cousin’s arm as she tried to lecture her on the sins of tardiness.
“If you keep on dawdling, the Reverend Mother will give
us a penance again,” she said.
Valentine broke loose and twirled around in a circle. “The
earth is drowning in spring,” she cried, swinging her arms
about and nearly toppling over the edge of the cliff. Mireille
hauled her up along the treacherous incline. “Why
be shut up in that stuffy abbey when everything out-of-doors
is bursting with life?”
“Because we are nuns,” said Mireille with pursed lips,
stepping up her pace, her hand firmly on Valentine’s arm.
“And it is our duty to pray for mankind.” But the warm mist
rising from the valley floor brought with it a fragrance so
heavy that it saturated everything with the aroma of cherry
blossoms. Mireille tried not to notice the stirrings this caused
in her own body.
“We are not nuns yet, thank God,” said Valentine. “We are
only novices until we have taken our vows. It’s not too late to
be saved. I’ve heard the older nuns whispering that there are
soldiers roaming about in France, looting all the monasteries
of their treasures, rounding up the priests and marching them
off to Paris. Perhaps some soldiers will come here and march
me off to Paris, too. And take me to the opera each night, and
drink champagne from my shoe!”
“Soldiers are not always so very charming as you seem to
think,” observed Mireille. “After all, their business is killing
people, not taking them to the opera.”
“That’s not all
they do,” said Valentine, her voice dropping
to a mysterious whisper. They had reached the top of the hill,
the where the road flattened out and widened considerably. Here
it was cobbled with flat paving stones and resembled the
broad thoroughfares one found in larger towns. On either
side of the road, huge cypresses had been planted. Rising
above the sea of cherry orchards, they looked formal and forbidding
and, like the abbey itself, strangely out of place.
“I have heard,” Valentine whispered in her cousin’s ear,
“that the soldiers do dreadful things to nuns! If a soldier
should come upon a nun, in the woods, for example, he immediately
takes a thing out of his pants and he puts it into the
nun and stirs it about. And then when he has finished, the nun
has a baby!”
“What blasphemy!” cried Mireille, pulling away from
Valentine and trying to suppress the smile hovering about
her lips. “You are entirely too saucy to be a nun, I think.”
“Exactly what I have been saying all along,” Valentine admitted.
“I would far rather be the bride of a soldier than a
bride of Christ.”
As the two cousins approached the abbey, they could see
the four double rows of cypresses planted at each entrance to
form the sign of the crucifix. The trees closed in about them
as they scurried along through the blackening mist. They
passed through the abbey gates and crossed the large courtyard.
As they approached the high wooden doors to the main
enclave, the bell continued to ring, like a death knell cutting
through the thick mist.
Each paused before the doors to scrape mud from her
boots, crossed herself quickly, and passed through the high
portal. Neither glanced up at the inscription carved in crude
Frankish letters in the stone arch over the portal, but each
knew what it said, as if the words were engraved upon her
Cursed be He who bring theseWalls to Earht
The King is checked by the Hand of God alone.
Beneath the inscription the name was carved in large
block letters, “Carolus Magnus.” He it was who was architect
both of the building and the curse placed upon those
who would destroy it. The greatest ruler of the Frankish Empire
over a thousand years earlier, he was known to all in
France as Charlemagne.
THE INTERIOR WALLS OF THE ABBEY WERE DARK, COLD, AND
wet with moss. From the inner sanctum one could hear the
whispered voices of the novitiates praying and the soft clicking
of their rosaries counting off theAyes, Glorias, and Pater
Nosters.Valentine and Mireille hurried through the chapel as
the last of the novices were genuflecting and followed the
trail of whispers to the small door behind the altar where the
reverend mother’s study was located. An older nun was
hastily shooing the last of the stragglers inside.Valentine and
Mireille glanced at each other and passed within.
It was strange to be called to the abbess’s study in this
manner. Few nuns had ever been there at all, and then usually
for disciplinary action.Valentine, who was always being disciplined,
had been there often enough. But the abbey bell
was used to convene all the nuns. Surely they could not all be
called at once to the reverend mother’s study?
As they entered the large, low-ceilinged room, Valentine
and Mireille saw that all the nuns in the abbey were indeed
there–more than fifty of them. Seated on rows of hard
wooden benches that had been set up facing the Abbess’s
writing desk, they whispered among themselves. Clearly
everyone thought it was a strange circumstance, and the
faces that looked up as the two young cousins entered
seemed frightened. The cousins took their places in the last
row of benches. Valentine clasped Mireille’s hand.
“What does it mean?” she whispered.
“It bodes ill, I think,” replied Mireille, also in a whisper.
“The reverend mother looks grave. And there are two women
here whom I have never seen.”
At the end of the long room, behind a massive desk of polished
cherry wood, stood the abbess, wrinkled and leathery
as an old parchment, but still exuding the power of her
tremendous office. There was a timeless quality in her bearing
that suggested she had long ago made peace with her
own soul, but today she looked more serious than the nuns
had ever seen her.
Two strangers, both large-boned young women with big
hands, loomed at either side of her like avenging angels. One
had pale skin, dark hair, and luminous eyes, while the other
bore a strong resemblance to Mireille, with a creamy complexion
and chestnut hair only slightly darker than Mireille’s
auburn locks. Though both had the bearing of nuns, they
were not wearing habits, but plain gray traveling clothes of
The abbess waited until all the nuns were seated and the
door had been closed. When the room was completely silent
she began to speak in the voice that always reminded Valentine
of a dry leaf being crumbled.
“My daughters,” said the abbess, folding her hands before
her, “for nearly one thousand years the Order of Montglane
has stood upon this rock, doing our duty to mankind and
serving God. Though we are cloistered from the world, we
hear the rumblings of the world’s unrest. Here in our small
corner, we have received unfortunate tidings of late that may
change the security we’ve enjoyed so long. The two women
who stand beside me are bearers of those tidings. I introduce
Sister Alexandrine de Forbin”–she motioned to the darkhaired
woman–”and Marie-Charlotte de Corday, who together
direct the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Caen in the northern
provinces. They have traveled the length of France in disguise,
an arduous journey, to bring us a warning. I therefore
bid you hark unto what they have to say. It is of the gravest
importance to us all.”
The abbess took her seat, and the woman who had been introduced
as Alexandrine de Forbin cleared her throat and
spoke in a low voice so that the nuns had to strain to hear her.
But her words were clear.
“My sisters in God,” she began, “the tale we have to tell is
not for the faint-hearted. There are those among us who
came to Christ hoping to save mankind. There are those who
came hoping to escape from the world. And there are those
who came against their will, feeling no calling whatever.” At
this she turned her dark, luminous eyes directly upon Valentine,
who blushed to the very roots of her pale blond hair.
“Regardless what you thought your purpose was, it has
changed as of today. In our journey, Sister Charlotte and I
have passed the length of France, through Paris and each village
in between. We have seen not only hunger but starvation.
People are rioting in the streets for bread. There is
butchery; women carry severed heads on pikes through the
streets. There is rape, and worse. Small children are murdered,
people are tortured in public squares and torn to
pieces by angry mobs . . .” The nuns were no longer quiet.
Their voices rose in alarm as Alexandrine continued her
Mireille thought it odd that a woman of God could recount
such a tale without blanching. Indeed, the speaker had not
once altered her low, calm tone, nor had her voice quavered
in the telling. Mireille glanced atValentine, whose eyes were
large and round with fascination. Alexandrine de Forbin
waited until the room had quieted a bit, then continued.
“It is now April. Last October the king and queen were
kidnapped fromVersailles by an angry mob and forced to return
to the Tuilleries at Paris, where they were imprisoned.
The king was made to sign a document, the ‘Declaration of
the Rights of Man,’ proclaiming the equality of all men. The
National Assembly in effect now controls the government;
the king is powerless to intervene. Our country is beyond
revolution. We are in a state of anarchy. To make matters
worse, the assembly has discovered there is no gold in the
State Treasury; the king has bankrupted the State. In Paris it
is believed that he will not live out the year.”
A shock ran through the rows of seated nuns, and there
was agitated whispering throughout the room. Mireille
squeezed Valentine’s hand gently as they both stared at the
speaker. The women in this room had never heard such
thoughts expressed aloud, and they could not conceive such
things as real. Torture, anarchy, regicide. How was it possible?
The abbess rapped her hand flat upon the table to call for
order, and the nuns fell silent. Now Alexandrine took her
seat, and Sister Charlotte stood alone at the table. Her voice
was strong and forceful.
“In the assembly there is a man of great evil. He is hungry
for power, though he calls himself a member of the clergy.
This man is the Bishop of Autun.Within the Church at Rome
it is believed he is the Devil incarnate. It is claimed he was
born with a cloven hoof, the mark of the Devil, that
he drinks the blood of small children to appear young, that he
celebrates the Black Mass. In October this bishop proposed
to the assembly that the State confiscate all Church property.
On November second his Bill of Seizure was defended before
the Assembly by the great statesman Mirabeau, and it
passed. On February thirteenth the confiscation began. Any
clergy who resisted were arrested and jailed. And on February
sixteenth, the Bishop of Autun was elected president of
the Assembly. Nothing can stop him now.”
The nuns were in a state of extreme agitation, their voices
raised in fearful exclamations and protests, but Charlotte’s
voice carried above all.
“Long before the Bill of Seizure, the Bishop of Autun had
made inquiries into the location of the Church’s wealth in
France. Though the bill specifies that priests are to fall first
and nuns to be spared, we know the bishop has cast his eye
upon Montglane Abbey. It is around Montglane that many of
his inquiries have centered. This, we have hastened here to
tell you. The treasure of Montglane must
not fall into his
The abbess stood and placed her hand upon the strong
shoulder of Charlotte Corday. She looked out over the rows
of black-clad nuns, their stiff starched hats moving like a sea
thick with wild seagulls beneath her, and she smiled. This
was her flock, which she had shepherded for so long and
which she might not see again in her lifetime once she had
revealed what she now must tell.
“Now you know as much of our situation as I,” said the
abbess. “Though I have known for many months of our
plight, I did not wish to alarm you until I had chosen a path.
In their journey responding to my call, our sisters from Caen
have confirmed my worst fears.” The nuns had now fallen
into a silence like the hush of death. Not a sound could be
heard but the voice of the abbess.
“I am an old woman who will perhaps be called to God
sooner than she imagines. The vows I took when I entered
the service of this convent were not only vows to Christ.
Nearly forty years ago upon becoming Abbess of Montglane,
I vowed to keep a secret, to preserve it with my life if
necessary. Now the time has come for me to keep that vow.
But in doing so, I must share some of the secret with each of
you and vow you to secrecy in return. My story is long, and
you must have patience if I am slow in telling. When I have
finished, you will know why each of us must do what must be
The abbess paused to take a sip of water from a silver
chalice that sat before her on the table. Then she resumed.
“Today is the fourth day of April, Anno Domini 1790.
My story begins on another fourth of April many years ago.
The tale was told me by my predecessor, as it was told by
each abbess to her successor on the event of her initiation,
for as many years as this abbey has stood. And now I tell it to
you. . . .”The Abbess’s Tale
On the fourth of April in the year 782, a wondrous festival
was held at the Oriental Palace at Aachen to honor the fortieth
birthday of the great King Charlemagne. He had called
forth all the nobles of his empire. The central court with its
mosaic dome and tiered circular staircases and balconies
was filled with imported palms and festooned with flower
garlands. Harps and lutes were played in the large halls amid
gold and silver lanterns. The courtiers, decked in purple,
crimson, and gold, moved through a fairyland of jugglers,
jesters, and puppet shows. Wild bears, lions, giraffes, and
cages of doves were brought into the courtyard. All was merriment
for weeks in anticipation of the king’s birthday.
The pinnacle of the festival was the day itself. On the
morning of this day the king arrived in the main courtyard
surrounded by his eighteen children, his queen, and his favorite
courtiers. Charlemagne was exceedingly tall, with the
lean grace of a horseman and swimmer. His skin was tanned,
his hair and mustache streaked blond with the sun. He
looked every inch the warrior and ruler of the largest kingdom
in the world. Dressed in a simple woolen tunic with a
close-fitting coat of marten skins and wearing his ever-present
sword, he passed through the court greeting each of his
subjects and bidding them partake of the lavish refreshments
that were placed on groaning boards about the hall.
The king had prepared a special treat for this day. A master
of battle strategy, he had a special fondness for one game.
Known as the game of war, the game of kings, it was the
game of chess. On this, his fortieth birthday, Charlemagne
proposed to play against the best chess player in his kingdom,
a soldier known as Garin the Frank.
Garin entered the courtyard with blaring trumpets. Acrobats
bounced before him, young women strewed palm fronds
and rose petals in his path. Garin was a slender, pale young
man with serious countenance and gray eyes, a soldier in the
western army. He knelt when the king rose to greet him.
The chess service was borne into the great hall on the
shoulders of eight black servants dressed in Moorish livery.
These men, and the chessboard they carried aloft, had been
sent as a gift of Ibn-al-Arabi, the Moslem governor of
Barcelona, in thanks for the king’s aid against the Pyrenees
Basques four years earlier. It was during retreat from this famous
battle, at the Roncesvalles Pass in Navarre, that the
king’s beloved soldier Hruoland had been killed, hero of the
“Chanson de Roland.” As a result of this unhappy association,
the king had never played upon the chess service, nor
brought it before his people.
The court marveled at the magnificent chess service as it
was set upon a table in the courtyard. Though made by Arabic
master craftsmen, the pieces bore traces of their Indian
and Persian ancestry. For some believed this game existed in
India over four hundred years before the birth of Christ and
came into Arabia through Persia during the Arabic conquest
of that country in 640 A.D.
The board, wrought entirely of silver and gold, measured a
full meter on each side. The pieces of filigreed precious metals
were studded with rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and
emeralds, uncut but smoothly polished, some the size of
quails’ eggs. Flashing and sparkling in the lamplight of the
courtyard, they seemed to glow with an inner light that hypnotized
The piece called Shah, or King, was fifteen centimeters
high and depicted a crowned man riding upon the back of an
elephant. The Queen, or Ferz, was seated within a covered
sedan chair embroidered with jewels. The Bishops were elephants
with saddles encrusted in rare gems; the Knights were
wild Arabian steeds. The Rooks, or Castles, were called
Rukhkh, the Arabic word for “chariot”; these were large
camels with towerlike chairs upon their backs. The pawns, or
peons, as we call them now, were humble foot soldiers seven
centimeters high with small jewels for eyes and gems flecking
the hilts of their swords.
Charlemagne and Garin approached the board from either
side. Then the king, raising his hand aloft, spoke words that
astounded those of the court who knew him well.
“I propose a wager,” he said in a strange voice. Charles
was not a man for wagers. The courtiers glanced at one another
“Should my soldier Garin win a game of me, I bestow
upon him that portion of my kingdom from Aachen to the
Basque Pyrenees and the hand of my eldest daughter in marriage.
Should he lose, he will be beheaded in this same courtyard
The court was in commotion. It was known that the king
so loved his daughters that he had begged them never to
marry during his lifetime.
The king’s dearest friend, the Duke of Burgundy, seized
him by the arm and drew him aside. “What manner of wager
is this?” he whispered. “You have proposed a wager befitting
a sottish barbarian!”
Charles seated himself at the table. He appeared to be in a
trancelike state. The duke was mystified. Garin was himself
confused. He looked into the duke’s eyes, then without a
word took his place at the board, accepting the wager. The
pieces were selected, and as luck would have it, Garin chose
white, giving him the advantage of the first move. The game
Perhaps it was the tension of the situation, but it appeared
as the game progressed that the two players moved their
pieces with a force and precision that transcended a mere
game, as if another, an invisible hand, hovered above the
board. At times it even seemed as if the very pieces carried
out the moves of their own accord. The players themselves
were silent and pale, and the courtiers hovered about them
After nearly one hour of play the Duke of Burgundy observed
that the king was acting strangely. His brow was furrowed,
and he seemed inattentive and distracted. Garin too
was possessed by an unusual restlessness, his movements
quick and jerking, his forehead beaded in cold sweat. The
eyes of the two men were fixed upon the board as if they
could not look away.
Suddenly Charles leaped to his feet with a cry, upsetting
the board and knocking all the pieces to the floor. The
courtiers pushed back to open the circle. The king had flown
into a black and horrible rage, tearing at his hair and beating
his chest like a wild beast. Garin and the Duke of Burgundy
rushed to his side, but he knocked them away. It required six
nobles to restrain the king. When at last he was subdued, he
looked about in bewilderment, as if he had just awakened
from a long sleep.
“My lord,” said Garin softly, picking up one of the pieces
from the floor and handing it to the king, “perhaps we should
withdraw from this game. The pieces are all in disarray, and
I cannot recall a single move that was made. Sire, I fear this
Moorish chess service. I believe it is possessed by an evil
force that compelled you to make a wager upon my life.”
Charlemagne, resting upon a chair, put one hand wearily
to his forehead but did not speak.
“Garin,” said the Duke of Burgundy cautiously, “you
know that the king does not believe in superstitions of this
sort, thinking them pagan and barbaric. He has forbidden
necromancy and divination at the court–”
Charlemagne interrupted, but his voice was weak as if
from strenuous exhaustion. “How can I bring the Christian
enlightenment to Europe when soldiers in my own army believe
“This magic has been practiced in Arabia and throughout
the East from the beginning of time,” Garin replied. “I do not
believe in it, nor do I understand it. But”–Garin bent over
the king and looked into his eyes–“you felt it,
“I was consumed by the rage of fire,” Charlemagne admitted.
“I could not control myself. I felt as one feels upon the
morn of battle just as the troops are charging into the fray. I
cannot explain it.”
But all things of heaven and of earth have a reason,” said
a voice from behind the shoulder of Garin. He turned, and
there stood a black Moor, one of the eight who had borne the
chess service into the room. The king nodded for the Moor to
“From our Watar, or birthplace, come an ancient people
called the Badawi, the ‘dwellers in the desert.’Among these
peoples, the blood wager is considered the most honorable.
It is said that only the blood wager will remove the Habb, the
black drop in the human heart which the archangel Gabriel
removed from the breast of Muhammed. Your Highness has
made a blood wager over the board, a wager upon a man’s
life, the highest form of justice. Muhammed says, ‘Kingdom
endureth with Kufr, infidelity to al-Islam, but Kingdom endurethnot
with Zulm, which is injustice.”
“A wager of blood is always a wager of evil,” replied
Charlemagne. Garin and the Duke of Burgundy looked at the
king in surprise, for had he not himself proposed such a
wager only an hour before?
“No!” said the Moor stubbornly. “Through the blood
wager one can attain Ghutah, the earthly oasis which is Paradise.
If one makes such a wager over the board of Shatranj,
it is the Shatranj itself that carries out the Sar!”
“Shatranj is the name that the Moors give to the game of
chess, my lord,” said Garin.
“And what is ‘Sar’?” asked Charlemagne, rising slowly to
his feet. He towered over everyone around him.
“It is revenge,” replied the Moor without expression. He
bowed and stepped back from the king.
“We will play again,” the king announced. “This time,
there will be no wagers. We play for love of a simple game.
There is nothing to these foolish superstitions invented by
barbarians and children.” The courtiers began to set up the
board again. There were murmurs of relief coursing through
the room. Charles turned to the Duke of Burgundy and took
“Did I really make such a wager?” he said softly.
The duke looked at him in surprise. “Why, yes, my lord,”
he said. “Do you not remember it?”
“No,” the king replied sadly.
Charlemagne and Garin sat down to play again.After a remarkable
battle, Garin emerged victorious. The king awarded
him the property of Montglane in the Bas-Pyrenees and the
title of Garin de Montglane. So pleased was the king with
Garin’s masterful command of chess that he offered to build
him a fortress to protect the territory he had won.After many
years, the king sent Garin the special gift of the marvelous
chess service upon which they had played their famous game.
It was called ever after “the Montglane Service.”
“THAT IS THE STORY OF MONGTLANEABBEY,” THE ABBESS SAID,
concluding her tale. She looked across the sea of silent nuns.
“For after many years, when Garin de Montglane lay ill and
dying, he bequeathed to the Church his territory of Montglane,
the fortress which was to become our abbey, and also
the famous chess set called the Montglane Service.”
The abbess paused a moment, as if uncertain whether to
proceed. At last she spoke again.
“But Garin had always believed that there was a terrible
curse connected with the Montglane Service. Long before it
passed into his hands he had heard rumors of evils associated
with it. It was said that Charlot, Charlemagne’s own nephew,
had been murdered during a game played upon this very
board. There were strange stories of bloodshed and violence,
even of wars, in which this service had played a part.
“The eight black Moors who had first conveyed the service
from Barcelona into Charlemagne’s keeping had begged
to accompany the pieces when they passed over to Montglane.
And so the king had permitted. Soon Garin learned
that mysterious night ceremonies were being conducted
within the fortress, rituals in which he felt certain the Moors
had been involved. Garin grew to fear his prize as if it were
a tool of the Devil. He had the service buried within the
fortress, and asked Charlemagne to place a curse upon the
wall to guard against its ever being removed. The king behaved
as though it were a jest, but he complied with Garin’s
wish in his own fashion, and thus we find the inscription over
our doors today.”
The abbess stopped and, looking weak and pale, reached
for the chair behind her. Alexandrine stood and helped the
abbess to her seat.
“And what became of the Montglane Service, Reverend
Mother?” asked one of the older nuns who was seated in the
The abbess smiled. “I have told you already that our lives
are in great danger if we remain in this abbey. I have told you
that the soldiers of France seek to confiscate the treasures of
the Church and are, in fact, abroad in that mission even now.
I have told you further that a treasure of great value and perhaps
great evil was once buried within the walls of this
abbey. So it should come as no surprise to you if I reveal that
the secret I was sworn to hold in my bosom when first I took
this office was the secret of the Montglane Service. It is still
buried within the walls and floor of this room, and I alone
know the precise location of each piece. It is our mission, my
daughters, to remove this tool of evil, to scatter it as far and
wide as possible, that it may never again be assembled into
the hands of one seeking power. For it contains a force that
transcends the law of nature and the understanding of man.
“But even had we time to destroy these pieces or to deface
them beyond recognition, I would not choose that path.
Something with so great a power may also be used as an inthe
strument of good. That is why I am sworn not only to keep
the Montglane Service hidden, but to protect it. Perhaps one
day, when history permits it, we shall reassemble the pieces
and reveal their dark mystery.”
ALTHOUGH THE ABBESS KNEW THE PRECISE LOCATION OF EACH
piece, it required the effort of every nun in the abbey for
nearly two weeks before the Montglane Service was exhumed
and the pieces cleaned and polished. It required four
nuns to lift the board loose from the stone floor. When it had
been cleaned, it was found to contain strange symbols that
had been cut or embossed into each square. Similar symbols
had been carved into the bottom of each chess piece. Also
there was a cloth that had been kept in a large metal box. The
corners of the box had been sealed with a waxy substance,
no doubt to prevent mildew. The cloth was of midnight blue
velvet and heavily embroidered with gold thread and jewels
in signs that resembled the zodiac. In the center of the cloth
were two swirled, snakelike figures twined together to form
the number 8. The abbess believed that this cloth had been
used to cover the Montglane Service so that it would not be
damaged when transported.
Near the end of the second week the abbess told the nuns
to prepare themselves for travel. She would instruct each, in
private, regarding where she would be sent so that none of
the nuns would know the location of the others. This would
reduce the risk to each. As the Montglane Service contained
fewer pieces than the number of nuns at the abbey, no one
but the abbess would know which of the sisters had carried
away a portion of the service and which had not.
When Valentine and Mireille were called into the study,
the abbess was seated behind her massive writing desk and
bade them take a seat opposite her. There on the desk lay the
gleaming Montglane Service, partly draped with its embroidered
cloth of midnight blue.
The abbess laid aside her pen and looked up. Mireille and
Valentine sat hand in hand, waiting nervously.
“Reverend Mother,” Valentine blurted out, “I want you to
know that I shall miss you very much now that I am to go
away, and I realize that I have been a grievous burden to you.
I wish I could have been a better nun and caused you less
“Valentine,” said the abbess, smiling as Mireille poked
Valentine in the ribs to silence her. “What is it you wish to
say? You fear you will be separated from your cousin
Mireille–is that what is causing these belated apologies?”
Valentine stared in amazement, wondering how the abbess
had read her thoughts.
“I shouldn’t be concerned,” continued the abbess. She
handed Mireille a sheet of paper across the cherry wood
desk. “This is the name and address of the guardian who will
be responsible for your care, and beneath it I’ve printed the
traveling instructions I have arranged for you both.”
“Both!” cried Valentine, barely able to remain in her seat.
“Oh, Reverend Mother, you have fulfilled my fondest wish!”
The abbess laughed. “If I did not send you together,Valentine,
I feel certain you would single-handedly find a way to
destroy all the plans I’ve carefully arranged, only to remain
at your cousin’s side. Besides, I have good reason to send
you off together. Listen closely. Each nun at this abbey has
been provided for. Those whose families accept them back
will be sent to their homes. In some cases I’ve found friends
or remote relatives to provide them shelter. If they came to
the abbey with dowries, I return these monies to them for
their care and safekeeping. If no funds are available, I send
the young woman to an abbey of good faith in another country.
In all cases, travel and living expenses will be provided
to ensure the well-being of my daughters.” The abbess folded
her hands and proceeded. “But you are fortunate in several
respects, Valentine,” she said. “Your grandfather has left you
a generous income, which I earmark for both you and your
cousin Mireille. In addition, though you have no family, you
have a godfather who has accepted responsibility for you
both. I have received written assurance of his willingness to
act in your behalf. This brings me to my second point, an
issue of grave concern.”
Mireille had glanced at Valentine when the abbess spoke
of a godfather, and now she looked down at the paper in her
hand, where the abbess had printed in bold letters, “M.
Jacques-Louis David, Painter,” with an address beneath it, in
Paris. She had not known Valentine had a godfather.
“I realize,” the abbess went on, “when it is learned I’ve
closed the abbey, there will be those in France who will be
highly displeased. Many of us will be in danger, specifically
from men such as the Bishop of Autun, who will wish to
know what we have pried from the walls and carried away
with us. You see, the traces of our activities cannot completely
be covered. There may be women who are sought out
and found. It may be necessary for them to flee. Because of
this, I have selected eight of us, each of whom will have a
piece of the service but who also will serve as collection
points where the others may leave behind a piece if they
must flee. Or leave directions how to find it. Valentine, you
will be one of the eight.”
“I!” saidValentine. She swallowed hard, for her throat had
suddenly become very dry. “But Reverend Mother, I am
not . . . I do not . . .”
“What you try to say is that you are scarcely a pillar of responsibility,” said the abbess, smiling despite herself. “I am
aware of this, and I rely upon your sober cousin to assist me
with that problem.” She looked at Mireille, and the latter
nodded her assent.
“I have selected the eight not only with regard for their capabilities,”
the abbess continued, “but for their strategic
placement.Your godfather, M. David, lives in Paris, the heart
of the chessboard which is France. As a famous artist, he
commands the respect and friendship of the nobility, but he
is also a member of the Assembly and is considered by some
to be a fervent revolutionary. I believe him to be in a position
to protect you both in case of need. And I have paid him
amply for your care to provide him a motive to do so.”
The abbess peered across the table at the two young
women. “This is not a request, Valentine,” she said sternly.
“Your sisters may be in trouble, and you will be in a position
to serve them. I have given your name and address to some
who have already departed for their homes. You will go to
Paris and do as I say.You have fifteen years, enough to know
that there are things in life more crucial than the gratification
of your immediate wishes.” The abbess spoke harshly, but
then her face softened as it always did when she looked at
Valentine. “Besides, Paris is not so bad a place of sentence,”
Valentine smiled back at the abbess. “No, Reverend
Mother,” she agreed. “There is the opera, for one thing, and
perhaps there will be parties, and the ladies, they say, wear
such beautiful gowns–” Mireille punched Valentine in the
ribs again. “I mean, I humbly thank the Reverend Mother for
placing such faith in her devout servant.” At this, the abbess
burst into a merry peal of laughter that belied her years.
“Very well,Valentine.You may both go and pack.You will
leave tomorrow at dawn. Don’t be tardy.” Rising, the abbess
lifted two heavy pieces from the board and handed them to
Valentine and Mireille in turn kissed the abbess’s ring and
with great care conveyed their rare possessions to the door of
the study. As they were about to depart, Mireille turned and
spoke for the first time since they had entered the room.
“If I may ask, Reverend Mother,” she said, “where will
you be going?We should like to think of you and send good
wishes to you wherever you may be.”
“I am departing on a journey that I have longed to take for
over forty years,” the abbess replied. “I have a friend whom
I’ve not visited since childhood. In those days–you know, at
times Valentine reminds me very much of this childhood
friend of mine. I remember her as being so vibrant, so full of
life. . . .” The abbess paused, and Mireille thought that if such
a thing could be said of so stately a person, the abbess looked
“Does your friend live in France, Reverend Mother?” she
asked. “No,” replied the abbess. “She lives in Russia.”
THE FOLLOWING MORNING, IN THE DIM GRAY LIGHT, TWO WOMEN dressed in traveling clothes left the Abbey of Montglane and
climbed into a wagon filled with hay. The wagon passed
through the massive gates and started across the back bowls
of the mountains. A light mist rose, obscuring them from
view as they passed down into the far valley.
They were frightened and, drawing their capes about
themselves, felt thankful that they were on a mission of God
as they reentered the world from which they had so long
But it was not God who watched them silently from the
mountaintop as the wagon slowly descended into the darkness
of the valley floor below. High on a snow-capped peak
above the abbey sat a solitary rider astride a pale horse. He
watched until the wagon had vanished into the dark mist.
Then he turned his horse without a sound and rode away.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Eight by Katherine Neville. Copyright © 1990 by Katherine Neville. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.