A fabulous, bejeweled chess set that belonged to Charlemagne has been buried in a Pyrenees abbey for a thousand years. As the bloody French Revolution rages in Paris, the nuns dig it up and scatter its pieces across the globe because, when united, the set contains a secret power that could topple civilizations. To keep the set from falling into the wrong hands, two novices, Valentine and Mireille, embark on an adventure that begins in the streets of Paris and leads to Russia, Egypt, Corsica, and into the heart of the Algerian Sahara.
Two hundred years later, while on assignment in Algeria, computer expert Catherine Velis finds herself drawn unwillingly into the deadly “Game” still swirling around the legendary chess set—a game that will require her to risk her life and match wits with diabolical forces.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Katherine Neville including rare images from her life and travels.
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About the Author
Neville’s novels, which have been published in more than eighty countries, have been enriched by her twenty-year career as an international computer executive and consultant, which took her to live in six countries on three continents and twenty-six of the United States. She has also worked as a portrait painter, a commercial photographer, and a model. To learn more, visit her at www.katherineneville.com.
Read an Excerpt
By Katherine Neville
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Katherine Neville
All rights reserved.
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
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 froze 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 fortress-like structure had remained untouched 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, 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 these Walls to Earth
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 the Aves, 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 dark-haired woman — "and Marie-Charlotte de Corday, who together direct the Abbayeaux-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 fainthearted. 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 at Valentine, 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 from Versailles 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 was agitated whispering throughout the room. Mireille squeezed Valentine's hand gently as they both stared at the speaker. The women in this room had never heard such thoughts expressed aloud, and they could not conceive such things as real. Torture, anarchy, regicide. How was it possible?
The abbess rapped her hand flat upon the table to call for order, and the nuns fell silent. Now Alexandrine took her seat, and Sister Charlotte stood alone at the table. Her voice was strong and forceful.
"In the assembly there is a man of great evil. He is hungry for power, though he calls himself a member of the clergy. This man is the Bishop of Autun. Within the Church at Rome it is believed he is the Devil incarnate. It is claimed he was born with a cloven hoof, the mark of the Devil, that he drinks the blood of small children to appear young, that he celebrates the Black Mass. In October this bishop proposed to the assembly that the State confiscate all Church property. On November second his Bill of Seizure was defended before the Assembly by the great statesman Mirabeau, and it passed. On February thirteenth the confiscation began. Any clergy who resisted were arrested and jailed. And on February sixteenth, the Bishop of Autun was elected president of the Assembly. Nothing can stop him now."
The nuns were in a state of extreme agitation, their voices raised in fearful exclamations and protests, but Charlotte's voice carried above all.
"Long before the Bill of Seizure, the Bishop of Autun had made inquiries into the location of the Church's wealth in France. Though the bill specifies that priests are to fall first and nuns to be spared, we know the bishop has cast his eye upon Montglane Abbey. It is around Montglane that many of his inquiries have centered. This, we have hastened here to tell you. The treasure of Montglane must not fall into his hands."
The abbess stood and placed her hand upon the strong shoulder of Charlotte Corday. She looked out over the rows of black-clad nuns, their stiff starched hats moving like a sea thick with wild seagulls beneath her, and she smiled. This was her flock, which she had shepherded for so long, and which she might not see again in her lifetime once she had revealed what she now must tell.
Excerpted from The Eight by Katherine Neville. Copyright © 1988 Katherine Neville. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
This is a Quest with something for everyone: ancient curses from the Fertile Crescent; Russian chess masters; sexy, savvy, American computer whizzes, Napolean and Robespierre; grave nuns; valiant Jewish diamond merchants; magic numbers; secret hiding places; the music of the spheres. In other words, Katherine Neville's big adventure novel is great fun!