Thomas Faranelli ran his wrinkled fingertips over the tight lyre strings. After fifty years, they still felt as smooth as they did when he first touched them. He wrapped his calloused palm around the golden trimmed arm then raised his head and shifted his eyes to the priest standing in front of him. Standing shoulder high beside the priest was the apprentice who was no older than twenty years of age.
“We’ve tried to destroy it, but we cannot.” The priest said. His voice saturated in disdain. “It is certainly cursed.”
Thomas stood from his chair. His knees ached as he walked toward the window. Beneath it, were posted swordsmen. “You’ve come all the way from Rome?”
“How did you find me?”
“A man changes his name, but the soul remains unchanged,” the priest murmured as he moved observingly across the dimly lit room. He stopped at the bookshelf and reached for a book. “The infamous Thomas Antonious Devini from Tuscany had an affinity for donating large sums of gold to scientific research.” He held the book for his apprentice to read the title, Decretum Glasianum.
The apprentice lifted an eyebrow.
“A lust for things forbidden by the church.” He returned the book and walked toward Thomas. “And like all of Tuscany, a love for vineyards.” The priest stood beside Thomas and gazed through the glass. “I must say that your vineyard is divine.” His voice became a whisper. “It would be such a travesty if it suddenly burst into flames.”
Thomas made no reaction to the threat.
The priest growled. “Did you finance it from the fortunes you stole from Knights of the Crusades?”
Thomas turned to stab the priest with tawny eyes. “What do you want from me?”
“Tell us how to destroy the lyre.”
Thomas returned to his chair.
“If you cannot, then tell me what you know about it. And spare me no detail.”
Thomas sighed. His shoulders slumped in defeat. He ran his fingers through his gray beard and reached for the lyre. “Very well,” he surrendered. Holding the lyre, he gazed at it and remembered.
“It was near the end of my campaign with the English. We had a successful push against the Sultan Saladin. Tall al-‘Ayadiyya was ours. The soldiers, hungry and rife with lust, took to raid the Saracen homes, much to my disgust. I rushed into a most humble home where three men pillaged. They swung their swords against the father and ravaged the mother. I arrived too late for the parents, but in enough time to save the mute. He was no older than ten. When I saw him, he was cornered, his back against a wooden chest as if he was its defender.
“I threatened to discipline the three and try them as rapists. Such threats humbled them. Now settled, I turned my attention to the mute and pulled him away. He kicked and gave my three soldiers all they could handle to keep him still while I opened the chest and found in it this lyre.
“With villagers and Muslim troops, we contained some three thousand men, women and children. Such a massive number gave us great negotiating leverage against the Sultan. But the mute had somehow great leverage against my heart. I kept him in my tent. I don’t know if he was my pet or servant, but when I gave the lyre to him, his fingers danced over the strings with a grace seen only in French ballrooms.
“What the mute could not say in words, he spoke through the notes of his lyre. A cool tranquility blanketed me. I was dazed and taken somewhere between sleep and imagination. I saw visions and revelations. I saw Christian men and women leaving Jerusalem in droves. I knew then that Saladin would conquer it. I also knew then, as I do now, that a thousand years from now Christian kingdoms will continue to fight for the Saracen lands. Battle after battle, they will resist us with an infallible desire that shan’t break.
“Such made me ask if we, the followers of the cross, were indeed sent by the one true God to conquer them, or if we are all the papacy’s pawns.” He peered deeply into the priest’s eyes. “I admit, my doubts have not yet dissipated.
“Now you may not believe me, but I saw this home. I saw the vineyards and orchards. I saw the heavenly serenity of the golden sun setting behind it. I saw visions of my lovely wife and her deathly face when the bloody cough took her away.
“I was so captivated by the music of the lyre that I selfishly kept the mute as my enslaved entertainer. Each night he played for me and I saw visions. At the time, I was no more than entertained by them, until the night of August 19th. That is when I saw the most heinous vision. It sickened me and my stomach poured into my mouth. It was so real; I could smell the sweat and blood of a thousand English swords from men slaughtering Muslim prisoners. Every man, woman and child – coldheartedly killed; their lifeless bodies stretched as far as I could see. A man’s arm here, a woman’s head there; a child hanging from a tree.
“Before the end of the next day, Richard – despite the Sultan’s compliance with our demands and the release of Christian prisoners- ordered the execution of every Muslim in our containment.
“In protest, I refused to follow him to Ascalon. I left their camp before the Sultan’s rage fell upon it like a vengeful fist of God. I took the mute and his lyre with me.”
Thomas was quiet for a while. His eyelids closed to hold his tears. The rising memories reached through him. His heart squeezed in the cold hands of regret. He needed a drink. Pointing to the jar of wine on a mantel across the room, he ordered the apprentice to fill a cup.
“When did you know the instrument was cursed?” asked the apprentice as he delivered the wine.
Thomas sipped. “I never knew for certain. When my bride of just two years was struck with sickness, I petitioned your Holiness and he blessed us with his prayers. Both priest and Cardinal arrived to chase away evil spirits, but it was not until the mute sat at the foot of her bed and played his lyre that she healed.” Thomas smiled. “He loved her as much as I. She often read to him. The book of Genesis was his favorite.”
Thomas laughed a sinister chuckle as he sat the empty glass on the tabletop. “It was a miracle,” so the priest said. “But when men and women brought their sick children to hear the mute play and stopped patronizing the church’s offering plate, the mute and the lyre were curiously defamed.
“I wanted to know how it worked, from where the power came. One day, the mute showed me. He sat on the floor, not ten feet away from me. His brown eyes gleamed into mine. They were hypnotic. The music was a perfect aid into the trance. I saw a lady naked sitting inside a painted circle on a white floor. Around her were black and red candles burning with gentle flames. They gave the only light and cast thin lines of ash gray smoke into the air. Before her was the lyre, the same as the mute played.
“Without a finger against the strings, they moved, and music rose into the air. The smoke danced with the notes as if it was alive. And it was. I saw the smoke take shape upon the woman’s call. She sang her evocation and the smoke shaped into two, winged figures. ‘Iblis, I give my womb to you.’ She stood and watched the smoky figures approach the circle. From the smoke emerged a face more handsome than a man’s face should be. His eyes were alive like flames on a candle. He reached a hand still covered in smoke to her. Not taking it, she turned to the second figure. ‘Kasdeja, I offer you my blood.’
“She then reached for the devil’s hand and stepped outside the circle. Her caramel body, smooth as the Arabian sands prostrated before the spirits and they took her. It was then that I understood the lyre was the djinn’s gift to her; like a dowry. Before her, many women bore progeny to spirits. Thank God, she was the last. The Nephilim she bore? His name is inscribed on the lyre in the djinn letters. It reads Yaron- Orpheus in Greek.”
Thomas turned the lyre to the priest and after wetting two fingers with his tongue, scrubbed the crossbar until the inscription, smeared with soot became visible. The priest gasped as he studied the letters.
“There is an Orpheus written about in Greek myths,” said the apprentice curiously.
Thomas nodded. “Yes, there is.” He smiled as if the apprentice understood a secret anecdote.
“The Cardinal came for the mute. He sent an army of a thousand men. They burned my vineyards and my storage houses. They destroyed my distillery. Yet I did not surrender the mute. Then they breached my defenses with battery rams. My gates crashed to the ground and they trampled them. Their archers, with flamed arrows, attacked my east wing. It was a strategic move. The east was my best escape route and the wind from it would certainly accelerate the fire.
“The last I remember was the mute sitting, centered in the lobby as the Cardinal’s men broke down the door. He bore no fear of them. He simply played the lyre and the men entered the room. All who heard the music was enchanted. They gathered around him and more entered. The room was filled with men and steel. Shoulder to shoulder and toe to heel, they all stood entranced by the mute. When the lot of them were enchanted, the mute suddenly stopped playing. I saw him stand and lift his hand and the lyre above their heads. Then the mute spoke. ‘Let there be.’
My home trembled and the floor collapsed. Wood, stone, brick and mortar gave way as if the almighty’s hand cast them all into an endless pit. I saw them plummet to their deaths deep into my dungeons. I escaped with my wife and a few servants.”
“So, you admit,” the priest’s voice rose accusingly. “it is cursed.”
Thomas shook his head and held the lyre in his arms. He cuddled it like a child. “I do not admit as such.”
“but you just said –“
“I admit it was created to do as it does.” His eyes moved past the priest to the apprentice. “No different from all creation. It submits to the will of its wilder.” His voice was soft and slower; eyes focused on the apprentice. “No different than a sword, or even the universe.”
“Your old age and forbidden books have driven you man.” the priest yelled. “We intended to drag you back to Rome, but I see now there is no need for that. It is fitting that you waddle in your misery; alone in a home for twenty; servicing one.”
Thomas was not moved by the priest’s words. “Would you like to know how to wield it?”
“I’d rather not.”
“First you touch it with something from your body; blood, perspiration even saliva will do.”
“I only wish to destroy it.”
“Then you place your focus on what you’d like it to do.” He sifted his eyes to the priest. “If you want it to destroy itself, I’m certain that it will oblige.”
The priest’s eyes widened. He had his answer.
Thomas’ fingers moved over the strings and he turned his head from the priest. Again, he watched the apprentice’s young naive face. Thomas plucked the strings and the music leapt from them like an angelic harp. Over the sound of it, he heard a dull lifeless flop. Without turning his head to verify he knew the priest was dead.
The apprentice’s face was pale. His mouth gaped. There was another thud against the floor. This one came from behind the door. They heard metal clashing as if swords and shields dropped from lifeless hands. The exhilarating emptiness that swept the corridors and into Thomas’ chest was all too familiar to him. By now, he had grown too comfortable with death. He yearned to escape it but knew that he could not. He once saved a life, and now he dared try again. His fingers became still, and he held out the lyre to the youth.
“Take it,” he ordered. “It is neither gift nor curse, but a thing to be ruled; no different from the desires and the wills of men.”