Katherine Neville The Eight: A Novel

ISBN 13 : 9780345366238

The Eight: A Novel

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9780345366238: The Eight: A Novel

Book by Neville Katherine

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THE DEFENSE

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, Northrop Frye


Montglane Abbey, France
Spring 1790

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, the Bloody
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
reawakened.

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
miles.

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 must we
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
heart:

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
nondescript nature.

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
bloody account.

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

Revue de presse :

“Readers thrilled by The Da Vinci Code will relish the multi-layered secrets of The Eight.”
—MATTHEW PEARL, author of The Dante Club

“A BIG, RICH, TWO-TIERED CONFECTION OF A NOVEL . . .
A ROUSING, AMUSING GAME.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“A fascinating piece of entertainment that manages to be both vibrant and cerebral . . . Few will find it resistible.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“With alchemical skill, Neville blends modern romance, historical fiction, and medieval mystery . . . and comes up with gold.”
People


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