Thomas Farinelli ran his wrinkled fingertips over the lyre strings. After fifty years, they were as smooth and tight as when he first touched them. He wrapped his calloused palm around the gold-trimmed arm, then raised his head and shifted his eyes to the priest standing in front of him. The acolyte, no older than twenty years, stood shoulder-high beside the priest.
“We’ve tried to destroy it, but we cannot,” the priest said, his voice saturated in disdain. “It is certainly cursed.”
Thomas rose from his chair. He didn’t look, but he heard the soldier at his door shift his hands to the hilt of his sword. Thomas’ knees ached as he walked toward the window. There were swordsmen posted in the courtyard. “You’ve come from Rome?”
Thomas calculated. Five in the courtyard and one stood behind the priest. That leaves five others behind the closed door. “How did you find me?”
“A man changes his name, but the soul remains unchanged,” the priest murmured. His eyes shifted from Thomas to a distant corner, then to Thomas again. He moved cautiously, like a man expecting something to leap at him from nowhere. Curiosity compelled him to pause at the bookshelf, and he reached for a book. “The infamous Thomas Antonious Devini from Tuscany had an affinity for donating large quantities of gold to scientific research.” He held the book for his acolyte to read the title, Decretum Glasianum.
The acolyte 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 did not react.
The priest growled. “Did you finance it from the fortunes you stole from knights of the crusades?”
Thomas eviscerated the priest with tawny eyes. “What do you want from me?”
“Tell us how to destroy the lyre.”
Thomas returned to his chair. He rotated the gold memento on his finger. It reminded him of the older days when he could easily spot an overzealous and ambitious soldier in his ranks. The priest was no different from them—they were often the first to die.
“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 remembered more.
“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 hovel ahead of two of my best men. Inside, three other subordinates pillaged and terrorized. They had already killed 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 cornered, his back was against a wooden chest as if he was its defender.
“They chastened when I threatened them with charges. Humbled, they left, and I pulled the mute away from the chest. He kicked and bit at my men’s hands while I opened the chest. Inside, I found the 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 leveraged my heart. I kept him in my tent; maybe as a pet or servant, I don’t know. When I gave him the lyre, something in my soul gave way. 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. Tranquility blanketed me. It often numbed me into a stupor somewhere between sleep and imagination. Victimized by the music, I had visions and revelations. I saw a mass exodus of armed Christian men leaving Jerusalem. The sarcin victory shamed them as they went. That’s how I knew Saladin would conquer it. I also knew then, as I do now, that a thousand years later, Christian kingdoms will fight for the Saracen lands. Battle after battle, they will resist us with an infallible resolve 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 mere pawns for the papacy.” He peered deeply into the priest’s eyes. “I admit, my doubts have not yet dissipated.”
He shifted in his seat, and his eyes moved to the young boy. He stared intensely at him. Something wasn’t right about the way the boy’s eyes widened with interest. “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 gauntly 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 nineteenth. That is when I saw the most heinous futuristic 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 swords from Englishmen slaughtering Muslim prisoners. Every man, woman, and child—indiscriminately killed; their lifeless bodies stretched over the dusty horizon. A man’s arm here, a woman’s head there; I saw children in trees, their dead bodies swaying in the wind.
“That morning, the Sultan agreed to our terms to swap prisoners. But hours after Saladin released the Christians, Richard ordered, to my dismay, the execution of every Muslim prisoner—man, woman, and child prisoner. I saw the vision of the night before, fulfilled.
“In protest, I refused to follow the lionheart 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 in a feeble attempt to suppress the memories. But nothing stopped the cold hands of regret that squeezed his heart. Pointing to the jar of wine on a mantel across the room, he ordered the acolyte to fill a cup.
“When did you know the instrument was cursed?” asked the youth delivering the wine.
Thomas sipped. “I never knew for certain. When my bride of just two years fell ill, 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 me. She often read to him. The book of Genesis was his favorite.”
Thomas eyed the acolyte again and sinisterly chuckled. Placing the empty glass on the tabletop, he mumbled. “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 hypnotically into mine. The music was a perfect transport into 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 gray ash smoke into the air. She possessed the lyre, the same as the mute played.
“Magically, the strings moved without a finger to move them. The most melodious sounds suffused my ears. The smoke from the candles thickened into a haze that filled the room. It was alive. I don’t mean that in a poetic sense. It was alive. I saw the smoke take shape upon the woman’s call. She sang her evocation, and the smoke transformed 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 devils’ hands and stepped outside the circle. Her caramel body, smooth as the Arabian sands, prostrated before the spirits, and they copulated. Their bodies merged, not like a man and a woman, but the spirits passed through her opened legs.”
Thomas saw the boy wet his lips. Delighted, he continued. “She turned and gyrated. Her moans entwined with the music.”
“Enough!” yelled the priest. He frowned and firmly slapped the boy across the face. “You will not fancy the abomination this relic of a man paints.”
Thomas watched the acolyte reach for his lip. Blood covered his fingertips. Thomas leaned back in his chair and noted a flicker of contempt in the lad’s dark eyes. He apologized and continued.
“It was then that I understood the lyre was the djinn’s gift to her, like a dowry. The Nephilim she bore? His name is on the lyre, inscribed with 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,” the acolyte spoke apologetically to the priest.
Thomas nodded. “Yes, there is.” He smiled as if the acolyte understood a secret anecdote.
The priest stood over the boy and scowled at him again. “I brought you with me at the behest of the cardinal. I would assume to leave you in the forest for barbarians and wolves. You are to learn and not speak.”
The boy nodded, and his eyes lowered to the floor.
There was a story between the boy and the priest. Thomas was curious about why the cardinal insisted the priest bring the boy with him. Was the acolyte forced into service, or was he the victim of church violence that made him an orphan? “I’d like to know from where this boy comes. I see Macedonian hints in his face.”
“That is not your concern.” The priest exploded. “I grow impatient with your lingering. Get to the point. We already know the lyre is evil.”
Thomas smirked. He sensed something gloomy in the boy. Instead of pushing the issue, he continued. “The cardinal sent an army for the mute. 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 battering rams. My gates crashed to the ground, and they trampled them. Their archers, with flaming arrows, attacked my east wing. The wind accelerated the inferno.
“My last memory was the mute sitting 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 were enchanted. They gathered around him and more entered—the room 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.”
“You pained us with your recollections only to say the lyre is cursed.” The priest turned and, with a wave, ordered the soldier behind him to draw his sword.
Thomas shook his head and held the lyre in his arms. He cuddled it like a child. “Father, you misunderstood me. The point is that this lyre does what its master created it to do.” His eyes moved past the priest to the acolyte. “No different from all creation. It submits to the will of its wielder.” His voice was soft and slower; eyes focused on the acolyte. “No different than a sword, or even the universe.”
“Your old age and forbidden books have driven you mad,” the priest grimaced. “We intended to drag you back to Rome, but I see now there is no need for that. You should wallow in your misery. But with one missing hand as a penalty for your insolence, I will increase your misery.”
Neither the approaching soldier nor the priest’s words moved Thomas. “Would you like to know how to wield it?”
The soldier hesitated.
“I’d rather not.” The priest waved again, and the swordsman stood firm.
“First, you touch it with something from your body; blood, perspiration, even saliva will do.” His hand moved over the strings, and a bar of notes came from it.
“I only wish to destroy it,” the grimace smeared into an impatient scowl.
“Then, you place your focus on what you’d like it to do.” His eyes moved to the priest. Then to the boy. “If you want it to destroy itself, I’m certain that it will oblige.”
The priest’s eyes widened. He stepped closer to Thomas. “Then play it and cause it to do so.”
Thomas shook his head. “It would not be wise. You’ve entered my home unannounced and made irrecoverable insults. You’ve threatened to maim me. I would rather play this lyre and kill you all.” He placed the instrument on the tabletop. “No, someone with purer thoughts than mine must do it.”
The priest turned to the soldier and then to the boy. With nothing more than a nod, he ordered the boy to take the lyre.
Thomas smirked as he instructed the boy. “Yes, hold it like this. Place your fingers here. No, not the thumb, the two that you put to your lips. Yes. Now concentrate. When you’ve formed in your mind the image you want, stroke the strings.”
The acolyte closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, his blank stare fixed on the priest. Thomas did not know what to make of the stare, but when the boy stroked the strings, the priest’s legs buckled, and his lifeless body flopped to the floor.
A second stroke and the soldier’s sword slipped from his hand. His body flopped to the floor. Then there were two thuds behind the door. The steel from the soldier’s armor dropped with a dull clang. They were all dead.
The acolyte’s face was pale, and his mouth gaped when he turned to Thomas. 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.
“Take it,” Thomas ordered. “It is neither gift nor curse, but a thing to be ruled; no different from the desires and the wills of men. Take it and go away. The power you have will bring you no peace. Such is the curse of power.”