Burning Lies – a historical flash story

Detail from A Bishop Saint and St. Lawrence (1404-1407) by Starnina, photo by Karen via Flickr Creative Commons
Detail from A Bishop Saint and St. Lawrence (1404-1407) by Starnina, photo by Karen via Flickr Creative Commons

The monastic robes weren’t mine any more than the book they concealed. Their owner had set them aside while he hoed the monastery’s garden in the summer heat, and it was from there that I had borrowed them.

That’s right, borrowed. I never intended to keep the robes – why would I?

Of course, I never intended to keep the book either, but that was still a theft. It was beautifully bound and illuminated, and I knew men who would pay well for it.

As I left the walled grounds, hood pulled up to hide my face, I grinned at my good fortune. Above, crows circled and cawed.

A mile down the road I stopped at a stream, the perfect spot to disrobe and cool off. I took a long drink, then sat with my feet in the water, washing away the dust and aches.

I had been apprenticed to a lawyer for several years before the incident with his daughter, and so I knew my letters. I opened up the book, leafed through to see the beautiful illuminations, and then turned to the inscription in the front. I laughed to find the usual sort of curse, written to deter thieves:

“May he who steals this book be haunted by the birds of the air, trampled by the beasts of the earth, and burnt in the flames of his own sin.”

I slammed the book shut and wrapped it up in the robes. The curse was nothing I hadn’t seen before, but with crows circling overhead, the first line made me uncomfortable.

A waggon rumbled down the road towards me. Not wanting to be seen with my spoils in hand, I set off across the fields, straight toward Leicester.

As I rounded a copse of trees, a bull raised its head. It was a vast brute with a face like a gargoyle. Snorting, it pawed the ground.

“I’ll be going.” I gestured back the way I had come, just in case the dumb animal could understand me. Better to take an unlikely chance than no chance at all.

The bull lowered its head and charged.

To my credit, I neither screamed nor dropped the book. Instead, I dashed toward the trees, hoping to find shelter. Just before I reached them the bull hit me, knocking me flying. It trampled on my hand, bones snapping agonisingly beneath its weight, and raced on after some other target.I waited on the sun-hardened ground until I was sure the bull was gone, then forced myself to my feet. Picking up the book with my good hand, I could not help but think of the curse. First haunted by birds, now trampled by a beast. Surely I wasn’t really cursed?

I waited on the sun-hardened ground until I was sure the bull was gone, then forced myself to my feet. Picking up the book with my good hand, I could not help but think of the curse. First haunted by birds, now trampled by a beast. Surely I wasn’t really cursed?

I weighed the value of the book against the risk of further mishaps. I was already in pain and it would cost me to have my hand set. But the price of the book would keep me comfortable for a month…

Sighing, I put the book down and struggled back into the robes. Better not to take an unlikely chance when it was a chance of being burned by my own lies.

I had told a lot of lies.

The journey back to the monastery was uneventful, and I tried to enjoy the sunshine despite my suffering. I was through the gates, across the grounds and into a corridor leading to the library before a voice halted me.

“Can I help you, brother?”

I turned to see an elderly man with thin white hair and an armful of parchments. He squinted at me in the lamp light coming from an alcove by my elbow.

“I don’t know you,” he said. “Are you a visitor?”

“Absolutely.” I smiled reassuringly. “I am Brother Harold, come from Salisbury to-”

I sniffed the air. Something was burning, but I couldn’t let that distract me.

“To visit your library,” I continued. “You see-”

This time I did scream, as I saw fire envelope my arm. The sleeve of the robe had somehow knocked the lamp, soaked up oil and burst into flames.

The flames of my lies!

Fire seared my flesh as I dropped the book and tore off the robe, flinging it down on the cold stone floor. In the flickering light, the old monk peered at what I had dropped. I snatched up the book and thrust it onto his heap of parchments.

“I’m so sorry,” I whimpered. “I sinned against your holy house, but I will repent.”

With my skin red raw and my hand broken, I truly meant it. But I could hardly wait around to face earthly justice as well as the divine. I turned and ran away from him, through a door and into a small chapel.

The altar caught my eye, with the figure of Jesus above it, ready to forgive my sins.

A pair of fine golden candlesticks sat beneath the cross. They could keep me in comfort for more than a month.

* * *

 

Book theft was a real issue in the Middle Ages, when books were rare and each one valuable. Many had curses inscribed in the front to deter theft, and to punish it if the curse worked. I leave it to you to imagine how effective they were.

If you enjoyed this story you might also like my collection of short historical stories, From a Foreign Shore, available now on Amazon Kindle.


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