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The Father went to a small cubby-hole in the wall a few yards from the bottom of the stairs, from which he brought a bottle of spirits and two glasses. Zeffer didn’t remark on the liquor’s proximity; nor could he blame the brothers for needing a glass of brandy to fortify them when they came down here. Though the lower level was supplied with electricity (there were lengths of electric lamps looped along the walls of the corridor) the light did nothing to warm the air nor comfort the spirit.
Father Sandru handed Zeffer a glass, and took the cork out of the bottle. The pop echoed off the naked stone of walls and floor. He poured Zeffer a healthy measure of the liquor, and then an even healthier measure for himself, which he had downed before Zeffer had got his own glass to his lips.
‘When I first came here,’ the Father said, ‘we used to brew our own brandy, from plums we grew on our own trees.’
‘But not now?’
‘No,’ the Father said, plainly saddened at the fact that they were no longer producers of liquor. ‘The earth is not good any longer, so the plums never ripen properly. They remain small and sour. The brandy made from such fruit is bitter, and nobody wants to drink it. Even I will not drink it, so you can judge for yourself how bad it must be!’ He laughed at his self-deprecation, and used the laughter as a cue to fill his glass up again. ‘Drink,’ he said to Zeffer, tapping his glass against Zeffer’s glass as though this was the first he’d had.
Zeffer drank. The brandy was stronger than the stuff he’d had at the hotel in Brascov. It went down smoothly, warming his belly when it arrived.
‘Good, yes?’ the Father said, having downed his second glass.
‘You should have another before we go on.’ And he filled Zeffer’s glass without waiting for a reply. ‘We’re a long way below ground here, and it gets hellishly cold …’ Glasses were filled, and emptied. The Father’s mood was noticeably better now, and his tone chattier. He put the glasses and the bottle back in the hole in the wall, and then led the way down the narrow corridor, talking as he went. ‘When the Order first came to the Fortress, there were plans to found a hospital here. You see, there are no hospitals within a hundred and twenty miles of here. It would be very practical. But this is not a place for the sick. And certainly not the dying.’
‘So: no hospital?’
‘Well, we made preparations. You saw yesterday one of the wards –’
Zeffer remembered. He’d glanced through an open door and there’d been two rows of iron beds, with bare mattresses.
‘I thought it was a dormitory for the brothers.’
‘No. We each have our own cells. There are only eleven of us, so we can each have a place in which to meditate and pray …’ He offered Zeffer a glance, accompanied by a small smile. ‘And drink.’
‘I can’t imagine it’s a very satisfying life,’ Zeffer said.
‘Satisfying?’ The idea was obviously a little confounding to Sandru. ‘Meaning what?’
‘Oh, just that you don’t get to work in the community. You can’t help people.’
They had come to the end of the passageway, and Sandru sorted through his collection of keys in order to open the third and final door.
‘Who can truly be helped?’ he said, his face turned down to the labour of sorting. ‘I suppose perhaps children can be comforted, sometimes, if it’s dark and they’re afraid. You can tell them you’re with them; and that will sometimes stop them crying. But for the rest of us? Are there really any words that help? I don’t know of any.’ He had found the right key, and now slipped it noisily into the antiquated lock. As he did so, he glanced up at Zeffer. ‘I think there’s more comfort to be had from seeing beautiful women on the cinema screen than in any prayer I know. Well, perhaps not comfort. Distraction.’ He turned the key in the lock.
‘And if that sounds like heresy, well so be it.’ Sandru pushed the door open. The room was in darkness, but despite that fact there was a warmth in the air; at least in contrast to the chilly air of the passageway. Perhaps the difference was no more than two or three degrees, but it felt significant.
‘Will you wait here a moment?’ Sandru said. ‘I’ll just bring a light.’
Zeffer stayed where he was, staring into the darkness, enjoying the slight rise in temperature. There was enough illumination spilling from the passageway behind him to light the threshold. There, carved into stone beneath his feet, was a curious inscription:
Quamquam in fundis inferiorum sumus, oculos angelorum tenebimus.
He didn’t linger to puzzle over this for more than a few seconds, but instead let his eyes drift up and into the room itself. The chamber before him was large, it seemed; and unlike the rest of the rooms and corridors, which were simply constructed, far more elaborate. Could he make out pillars, supporting several small vaults? He thought so. There were chairs and tables within a few yards of where he stood, and what appeared to be lamps or the like heaped on top of them.
The confusion inside was explained a moment later, when the Father returned with a bare bulb, attached to a length of electric cord.
‘We use this as a storeroom,’ he said. ‘Many of the items we found in the Fortress when we arrived we put down here, just to get them out of the way.’ He lifted the light to give Zeffer a better view.
Zeffer’s estimation of the size of the place, and of the complexity of its construction, had been conservative, it now turned out. The chamber was fully thirty-five feet long; and almost as broad, the ceiling (which was indeed divided into eight elaborately-vaulted sections, divided by pillars) higher than the passageway by six feet or more. The floor was littered with furniture and crates; the place plainly filled by hands that had little or no respect for the objects they were moving; wishing only to put them quickly out of sight. It occurred to Zeffer that if indeed there were treasures here the chances of finding them – or indeed of their being in reasonable condition when discovered – were remote. Still, the Father had brought him this far at no little inconvenience to himself; it would be discourteous to now show no interest in what the chamber contained.
‘Did you have a part in moving all of this?’ he asked Sandru, more out of a need to fill the silence between them than because he was genuinely curious.
‘Yes, I did,’ the Father replied. ‘Thirty-two years ago. I was a much younger man. But it was still a back-breaking labour. They built things big here. I remember thinking that maybe the stories were right …’
‘Stories about –’
‘Oh … nonsenses. About this furniture having been built for the retinue of the Devil’s wife.’
‘The Devil’s wife.’
‘Lilith, or Lilitu. Sometimes called Queen of Zemargad. Don’t ask me why.’
‘This is the same woman Katya spoke about?’
Sandru nodded. ‘That’s why the locals don’t have much hope for the sick if they stay here. They think Lilith’s curse is on the place. As I say: nonsenses.’
Whether it was nonsense or not, the story lent some flavour to this banal adventure. ‘May I look more closely?’ Zeffer asked.
‘That’s what we’re here for,’ Father Sandru replied. ‘I hope there’s something that catches your eye, for your sake. All these stairs and doors. I’d forgotten how far down it was …’
‘I’m sorry to have made this so burdensome,’ Zeffer said, quite sincerely. ‘If I’d known you were going to go to so much trouble I wouldn’t have –’
‘No, no,’ Sandru said. ‘It’s not a trouble to me. I only thought there might be an item here that pleased you. But now I’m down here I doubt it. To be truthful I believe we should have taken all this trash up the mountain and thrown it in the deepest gorge we could find.’
‘Why didn’t you do just that?’
‘It wasn’t my choice. I was just a young priest at the time. I did as I was told. I moved tables and chairs and tapestries, and I kept my counsel. Our leader then was Father Nicholas, who was very clear on the best thing to be done – the safest thing for our souls – and would not be moved on the subject. So we did as we were told. Father Nicholas, by the way, had the foulest temper of any man I ever knew. We all lived in fear of him.’
Zeffer moved into the room, talking as he went: ‘May I say something that I hope won’t offend you?’
‘I’m not easily offended, don’t worry.’
‘Well … it’s just that the more I hear about your Order, the less like priests you seem to be. Father Nicholas’s temper and the brothers all familiar with Theda Bara. And then the brandy.’
‘Ah, the sins of the flesh,’ Father Sandru said. ‘We do seem to have more than our share, don’t we?’
‘I have offended you.’
‘No. You’ve simply seen the truth. And how can a man of God be justly offended by that? What you’ve observed is no coincidence. We are all … how shall I put this? … men who have more than our share of flaws. Some of us were never trusted with a flock. Others, like Father Nicholas, were. But the arrangement was never deemed satisfactory.’
‘I believe he threw a Bible at one of the parishioners who was sleeping through the good Father’s sermon.’ Zeffer chuckled; but his laughter was silenced a moment later. ‘It killed the man.’
‘An accident, but still …’
‘– with a Bible. Surely not.’
‘Well, that’s how the rumour went. Father Nicholas has been dead twenty years, so there’s no way to prove it or disprove it. Let’s hope it isn’t true, and if it is, hope he’s at peace with it now. The fact is, I’m glad I was never trusted with a parish. With a flock to tend. I couldn’t have done much for them.’
‘Why not?’ Zeffer asked, a little impatient with Sandru’s melancholy now. ‘Do you have difficulty finding God in a place like this?’
‘To be honest Mr Zeffer, with every week that passes – I almost want to say with every hour – I find it harder to see a sign of God anywhere. It would not be unreasonable, I think, to ask Him to show himself in beauty. In the face of your lady-companion, perhaps … ?’
Katya’s face as proof of God’s presence? It was an unlikely piece of metaphysics, Zeffer thought.
‘I apologize,’ Sandru said. ‘You didn’t come here to hear me talk about my lack of faith.’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘Well I do. The brandy makes me maudlin.’
‘Shall I take a look then?’ Zeffer suggested. ‘At what-ever’s in here?’
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