Instead, I find myself seated on a low wooden bench at a large table. It’s quiet, surprisingly so considering there are about thirty other people in the room. They are all men, although some have mere fluff on their cheeks, and cannot be more than fourteen or fifteen years old. They are all dressed in long woollen tunics, dyed a patchy brown, and all of the older men have tonsures. The only person speaking is one man standing at the end of the room, reading from a book on a lectern. I would have recognized the Latin, even if the shell in my head hadn’t translated it—it’s from the Gospel of St. Mark.
“Et erat in deserto quadraginta diebus et quadraginta noctibus et temptabatur a Satana eratque cum bestiis et angeli ministrabant illi.”
“And he was in the desert forty days and forty nights, and was tempted by Satan. And he was with beasts: and the angels ministered to him.”
I know monasticism owes its origins to Christ’s followers wishing to replicate His time alone in the desert. Clearly, the monk is reminding them why they have dedicated their lives to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
“Beatrix?” The voice sounds, startling me. Nobody else looks up, however, and I realize he spoke in my head.
“Yes?” I think the word rather than say it.
“Good. The shell’s working. You okay?”
“I think so. Hard to tell at the moment.”
“The disorientation will pass. It was a good first transition.”
The body around me inhales, exhales, picks at a chunk of bread and puts a piece in his mouth, chews and swallows. Gradually, my senses expand, and I slot into his limbs, his head, and then I am looking through my eyes, and not his. The nausea subsides.
“That’s better.” I open my mouth as the cup rises to my lips, tipping in what tastes like liquid breakfast cereal, weak and watery—ale, I am presuming.
“We’ll sign out now,” the voice says. “The less contact the better—it aids with synchronicity. The camera’s rolling. Enjoy it, Beatrix. You’re blazing a trail!”
There’s a slight hiss of static, and then I’m alone.
I finish the food in my bowl. Some kind of stew, mostly vegetables, carrots, onions, and cabbage, with a tiny bit of meat, soaked up with the bread. It’s not bad, oddly peppery. What is strange is not having any control over my actions. I am merely observing, following the will of the monk whose body I reside in.
The monk at the lectern closes his book, and as one everyone rises and makes their way outside, leaving our empty bowls on the tables. I stay behind, though, along with three of the younger men, boys really, who begin to collect the bowls. I move along behind them, clearing away any crumbs and scraps of food, and follow them outside.
It’s daylight, the sun high and warm, which would fit with it being the eighth of June. It’s around midday, I think, and that would have been the Sext service. The building I have just exited is wooden, part of a large complex of similar buildings, flanking a church distinguished by the wooden cross on the top. An early monastery, pre-dating the stone one that would follow a few hundred years later.
The scene before me is idyllic—some of the monks potter in the courtyard, seeing to the chickens, while others head for the cloister I can see through the doorway, presumably to work on copying the Scripture with their elaborate hand. The Lindisfarne Gospels are here, somewhere, having been completed over a hundred years ago. Miraculously, they survived what is to come.
I’d like to see them, but my feet take me with the boys out of the complex of buildings and down the bank to a stream that tumbles over rocks toward the sea. I crouch with the boys by the water, and together we rinse the bowls and lay them out on the grass to dry amongst the daisies and buttercups.
So far, we have worked in complete silence, but as I scrub at a fleck of food stuck to a bowl, one of the boys looks over his shoulder, then back at me, mischievously. “Go on,” he urges. “Tell us more, Brother Deorwine.”
I chuckle and rinse the bowl again. “So bloodthirsty, Aelfric? The Abbot would not approve.”
“Please,” he begs. “You were going to tell us about the king and his armour.”
I sigh and sit back. The lads move closer, eyes alight. Boys have always been this way, I think, thirsting for blood and violence, even here, in a place devoted to peace and piety. I think fondly of my own two boys, probably playing knights in the garden at this moment. Only... they're about twelve hundred years in the future. It makes my head hurt to think about it.
“His helmet was made of thinly beaten metal, laid over leather, with long pieces that came over the ears and down here.” I hold my hand over my face to illustrate. “The pieces were hinged and could be buckled beneath the chin, so the helmet could not be knocked off the head whilst in battle. Not that he would have worn it in battle, though. It would have been a sin for it to have been damaged. The workmanship was like nothing I have seen before. It bore illustrations of warriors and intricate knot work, and the nosepiece, eyebrows, and moustache were of gold, inlaid with garnet. It was magnificent.”
“How many men have you killed?” one of the other boys whispers.
I look down and start gathering up the bowls. “Too many.” I speak sternly. I feel a cloud pass over Deorwine’s mood, although in the sky the sun continues to shine.
“He does not like to talk of them,” Aelfric scolds the other boy. “He is a man of God now.”
I push myself to my feet. “Take the bowls back, and thence to the cloister. I will join you shortly.”
The boys nod and walk back to the refectory, murmuring amongst themselves.
I turn and walk up the hill, striding on strong legs. Deorwine feels fit and strong, although I detect an ache in his right knee—a battle wound, perhaps? This man must have been a warrior before he came to the monastery. What prompted him to retire from his first calling?
I crest the hill, turning to the south, and inside the monk I inhale sharply at the familiar sight of the line of tall poles marking the causeway leading from Holy Island across to the mainland. The tide is high, and the route is currently impassable, but I recognize it nevertheless. I have walked it many times, and although the poles cannot be the same ones I know so well, still the Pilgrims’ Way that is traversable when the tide is low is still visible.
Then I turn and look to the east. I shade my eyes. The sea glitters, the way the garnet stones would have done in the helmet Deorwine had described, which I have seen in the British Museum.
On the horizon, there is a dark shape.
For a long while, he does not move. I watch with him as the shape lengthens and becomes clearer. Soon I can see the sail, and the white water at the sides that marks the oars dipping and emerging. It is a longboat, and it is heading for the island.
Read Part Two here.