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Jul 26
Scene and Heard
More “Hot Summer Reads”

GOG-CoverRetired Shastri Rebecca Hazell is already well known for her award winning books for children. If you love sweeping adult epics with a spiritual element, try her historical trilogy, set in the thirteenth century. In The Grip of God, set during the Mongol invasions (the Sakyong is a student of Mongol history), Sofia of Kyiv is captured, enslaved, encounters Buddhism — she learns to meditate — and escapes into Iran. In Solomon’s Bride, set among Assassins’ castles and Crusaders’ domains, amidst the conflict between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, she falls in love. The powerful conclusion, Consolamentum (August release date), takes her from Constantinople to Occitaine, the center of the Inquisition. The books have received 4-5 star ratings. Available in paperback and e-book through Amazon.com, .ca, and .co.uk.

Here are some excerpts for your enjoyment:

The Grip of God
The world grew ever more alien. Sometimes we passed burial mounds or rings of stones surrounding worn, stiffly shaped statues — often of women, for they had breasts — that emerged from the horizon, glided by us, and vanished behind us. Once I’d have gaped in awe, but now I felt only fear.

One night I startled awake to wolves howling in the distance — they can snap a man’s neck in one bite — and all my childhood fears attacked me. Since I was small, Liubyna had terrorized me with tales of wolf packs carrying off children. Worse, the men on guard began howling, too! Now all of our captors awoke and joined in, including Smerd. When he saw me cringing in fright, he laughed and bayed even louder. Some of the women prisoners raised their voices in terrified prayer, but I was struck dumb. Sorcerers take wolf shape and travel hundreds of versts in one night — were these nameless marauders werewolves, too? Probably some had already changed shape and were loping off to visit their wild cousins on the steppes. After the howling faded away, I fell into nightmares about demon wolf warriors.

The bitter weather finally relented, and I awoke to an empty predawn sky as hard and luminous as marble. While our captors performed their morning rituals, I clutched my one remaining ikon on its cord. If only I could feel God’s love again … but I could not remember what love felt like, to give or receive.

Then the rising sun thrust her rays through a stand of frosty grass, outlining each blade in brilliance and casting long purple shadows across the snow. The moment’s immovable beauty pierced my soul, and joy briefly lit my heart. In that moment I felt an answer: this world is alive and speaking to me always.

Solomon’s Bride:
solomon's brideAs the steppes swelled into rolling, well-wooded hills, both my body and spirit slowly revived and I sometimes forgot to be afraid. For an entire day I could pretend we were merely on some wondrous journey of discovery: we might be edging along narrow cliffs where waves boiled into creamy foam below us or come upon a wide river rushing into the sea. If we were then forced to ride inland, sheltered under shady trees and serenaded by the river’s song, to find a decaying bridge or shallow ford where we could cross, that was only part of a delightful adventure, nothing more.

I ignored the grim watch Da’ud kept as we traveled, how he guarded my every move.

However, he also relented and allowed more speech among us. Ali always found an apt verse for the wonders we passed, which lightened any sense of possible trouble. He was also given to reciting parts of a wonderful epic poem, the Shanameh, which tells about great shahs and heroes of Persia’s past. And Nasr often added some silly twist to Ali’s elegant words that added to my delight.

Although this land was fertile and well-watered, there were surprisingly few settlements to avoid, especially inland. Sometimes I would glimpse a tiny walled village perched on a steep hill above us, but we never approached it. A necessary precaution, Da’ud said when I asked why we never stopped at any of them. “Once we would have had to take far greater care. Half the towns were bandit lairs — those and the caves hereabout. But few people live here now.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“The Mongols, years ago. They wanted no one at their backs when they attacked the infidel Georgians, so scouts destroyed every village they found and killed all the people.”

One late afternoon soon after, we passed the remnants of a ravaged fishing village. Da’ud considered sheltering overnight inside its ruined walls, but even the rain clouting our faces could not drive him to camp in that haunted place. A spirit of evil still clung to the charred remains, littered with skulls and bits of bone.

Consolamentum-front coverLady Heloise added, “It is said that Saint Denis rose up after his execution, picked up his head, and walked a thousand feet before falling again. That is where a pilgrimage shrine was later founded, but the abbey that bears his name lies farther to the north. You will soon see that it is quite beautiful and also very special, for it is where all the kings of Francia have been buried since it was built. The king, I hear, intends to commission effigies to lie over each tomb, even of the earliest kings of Francia, like Clovis and Pepin. I find it very moving, and you must as well; it is good politics.

“Oh, look, they are already setting up for the October fair; one farmer always sells the richest cream you ever tasted. Not that I use it for eating: it also works wonders on the skin.”

As we passed, I saw many men and a few women setting up booths and stalls and even a few solid buildings. The aroma of roasting meat drifted across our path.

The fair was not yet open, but she and several other ladies did fall back to buy trinkets and, yes, cream, which the vendors were glad to sell them. I made the mistake of following behind. They were already returning, and I should have gone with them then, but I was drawn by a tent surrounded by colorful banners depicting odd-looking symbols. I thought just to look at them quickly and then to return to ask Heloise what they meant, but a woman dressed in motley came out when I rode up and began urging me inside her tent to have my fortune told. When I refused, a gang of hard-looking men suddenly surrounded me.

They probably had never heard a lady scream, but scream I did, and several knights in our company were soon bearing down on the ruffians, laying about and quickly rescuing me. This was shaming enough, but the king and queen heard the noise and were staring at me as I rode back, red-faced, to join their train. Lord Joscelin rode back to see me, looking stern. At least he began with, “Are you all right?” I nodded, looking down, unable to meet his eye. But then he added, “Don’t do anything foolish like that again. King Louis marked it, and you especially offended him by seeking out a fortune teller!”

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