Chapter 1 of The Holy Lance, a fantasy thriller

As I take The Holy Lance from a screenplay to a novel, I thought I'd post the draft chapters as I complete them. With that in mind, Chapter 1 is below. Comments are welcome.

CHAPTER 1

By the year 1099 A.D. the cathedral is already ancient. Few of its worshipers can, if they care to, accurately name the year its construction began, or the year, nearly a century later, the cathedral was deemed complete. The names of the carpenters, stonemasons, and glaziers who labored on the massive project for generations have been long forgotten by the end of the second millennium’s first century.  Even the repairs undertaken after the earthquake of 893 A.D. have, two centuries later, blended in with the original structure so thoroughly that only the most discerning eye can detect them. It is the fair to say that in the 11th century few who live in that region of the plain of Ararat drained by the Kasagh River are able to tell a curious visitor much about the cathedral’s already lengthy history. What nearly all who live in the region are able to tell that same visitor is that the cathedral is more than a place of worship; that it serves as a massive vault standing guard over one of Christianity’s most powerful relics; that hidden deep within the cathedral’s bowels, accessible via a complex system of narrow tunnels, is a small chapel with a stone altar adorned by a plain wooden cross and an iron box, long and rectangular with three leather hinges and three gold clasps; that in the iron box, on a bed of the purest white silk, lies the lance of the Roman soldier who, while standing on the skull-shaped hill of Golgotha, plunged that murderous lance into the side of the Son of God.

Four horsemen approach the cathedral at a gallop. They ride west from Yerevan where rumors have been swirling for weeks of a band of thieves plundering those living between the Caspian and Black Seas of their earthly and religious treasures. The rumors were dismissed at first as the typical idle chatter of the too easily aroused. But the rumors kept coming, and soon, as the thieves made their way west, the rumors became detailed accounts, each confirming a fresh outrage from a day or two before. And now, the presence of these four men halting their exhausted mounts in front of the iron-reinforced oak door of the cathedral confirms what many had begun to fear. The next target of the band of seemingly invincible raiders is the holy lance.

The eldest rider dismounts and hands the reins of his horse to his son and heir. He strides to the cathedral, and with a fist encased in a rough leather glove, he pounds on the door.

“Open at once!” he demands.

As he readies to strike the door again, a monk in a black cassock swings the heavy door open to admit the horseman.

“We’ve not much time. They’ll surely be here before dawn,” the rider declares.

The monk’s right hand holds a lighted torch flickering in the late evening’s dying light. With his left hand he grabs the rider’s forearm.

“Come with me.”

“Water the horses,” the rider commands over his shoulder.

“Quickly, quickly!” the monk entreats.

As monk and rider disappear into the cathedral the other riders dismount to lead the four exhausted steeds to a well and wooden trough on the other side of the ancient, dusty road.

The monk and the horseman walk through a narrow, stone-reinforced, arched corridor tucked behind the sanctuary’s altar and lighted at intervals by torches in iron grates attached to the stone walls. After no more than twenty paces they come to a small, rectangular wooden door. The monk grabs the door’s latch and throws it open. The two men continue down an unlighted, steep, narrow, stone stairway of thirteen steps to another dank corridor. Once in the corridor they pass a door on the right, and then a second, before entering a third with the aid of two keys on the monk’s belt. The third door is the entrance to a musty, low-slung, unlighted shaft, just barely as wide as the soldier. The shaft’s arched stone walls are damp to the touch. The monk’s flickering torch provides the only light.

As they approach the end of the corridor the torch reveals a stone altar set in a small arched recess twice as wide as the corridor itself. The rider cannot help but gasp as the iron box on the altar comes into clear focus. Its fame is wide, but so few have actually seen it that the reality of its existence is almost a shock to the horseman.

The monk hands the torch to the agitated horseman and notices his companion’s gaze transfixed by the iron box.

“You are right to stand in awe. The lance’s origin makes it painful to behold, and its unimaginable power is more than you or I or any mortal can comprehend.”

The monk motions for the horseman to come closer. He unlocks the three gold clasps and slowly opens the lid of the box. The lance, a relic of inestimable power and value, lies before them.

“The Holy Lance, delivered from Antioch by the crusader Peter Bartholomew, the lance that brought the miracle of victory to the crusaders,” the monk recites as if in prayer.

He closes the box, snaps shut the three gold clasps, and takes the torch from the awestruck horseman.

“Take it to the catacombs north of the city,” he commands the horseman in a barely audible whisper.

The rider lifts the box with as much care as he can muster in his nearly dumbfounded state.

“I’ll return with the lance once the danger has passed,” he pledges as he gathers himself.

            The flickering torch signals to the monk that the small chamber’s limited supply of oxygen is being quickly depleted by the flame and their presence.

“We must go at once!”

←↔↔↔↔↔→

The monk and the horseman, the box cradled in his rigid arms, approach the three riders watering the four horses. The horses, sensing as perhaps only a beast can the raw power of the ancient relic, suddenly draw away from the trough, agitated, wide-eyed, snorting repeatedly, and nearly colliding with each other as they step sideways and backwards awkwardly desperate to put some distance between themselves and the lance. The riders struggle to secure and calm their mounts. The faces of all, men and beasts alike, reveal a profound, atavistic fear of being in such close proximity to an object so holy.

The horseman hands the iron box to the monk. Once astride his distraught horse, he leans over to receive the lance from the monk. The horseman’s son struggles with the reins of his father’s unnerved mount.

“Keep her still, damn you!”

The monk reaches into the right pocket of his cassock, pulls out a large iron key, and hands it to one of the horsemen.

“For the gate at the catacombs. Place the lance as deep into the hillside as you can. Leave no guard. A guard will only give away the location.”

“And what of you when they come for the lance?” the son asks.

“I shall have to trust in Providence.”

The horseman nods to his son who, with the utmost care, turns his horse to the north, the reins of his father’s horse taut in his hands. The small cadre, charged with a mission more sacred than any they have previously known, moves cautiously up the road, disappearing into the pervasive darkness of the age.

←↔↔↔↔↔→

The stillness of dawn’s first light is shattered by the thundering approach of more than a dozen men on horseback, their destination the iron gate silently standing guard over the private catacombs north of the holy city Echmiadzin. The monk, his face bruised and bloodied from the merciless beating administered to him with sickening glee by the cruelest of the bandits, sits astride a horse at the rear of the rapacious column, barely conscious, his hands lashed to the pommel of his saddle.

The men bring their mounts to a halt in front of the narrow entrance to the catacombs built into a small rocky hillside. The first in the column dismounts.

“Bring him forward!” he commands.

The monk’s horse is led by one of the bandits. Before the horse is half way to the front of the column all of the horses begin to rear nearly throwing their riders. The men struggle in vain to calm the horses. Two of the horses begin to buck, and the others soon join in. The men, simply trying to avoid being tossed to the road below, do not at first notice the slow, rolling tremors the horses sensed moments before they began. Soon, however, the earth is shaking wildly, pitching men and beasts, now in full terror of their impending doom, into each other. The iron gate snaps as the hillside begins to collapse. A fissure, hissing hot, toxic steam, opens at the catacombs’ entrance. The screaming of horses and men is barely audible above the violent roar of the earth as it rocks, shifts, and rips apart. Men desperately dive from their horses as the fissure widens. There is no escape. The great yawning split in the earth is swallowing men, horses, and hillside in a great, frenzied rush. In less than a minute, the hillside disappears into the thundering abyss burying forever marauders, mounts, monk, and the final object of the brigands’ ill-fated spree, the holy lance.