Erin and Michael hid beneath the canopy of the orchard and scurried from tree to tree on their way to the monastery. However, even though they blended in with the shadows of the underbrush, they had not gone undetected. As they neared the walls of the compound it became clear that the inhabitants had been watching them for some time and had come to intercept them.
Michael spoke first, “Refuge.”
The monks scanned Erin and Michael for signs of aggression but they never spoke, and simply turned and walked away, assuming that the exiles would follow or not. When they reached the monastery, a tiny side door opened in the stone wall that surrounded the abbey. Once inside, the men escorted Erin to a small building where a cloister of nuns had taken sanctuary, as their nunnery had been destroyed by bombs. Then they took Michael to a chapel where morning prayers were already under way. They offered him a small carafe of water to wash his hands, and a camel hair cloak like their own, so that he could conceal the tribal robes that he was wearing. The war had forced local tribes to take sides and many had become hostile to one another, and the monks did not want Michael’s attire to cause anxiety among the other guests.
Michael took a seat as the others chanted ancient rhythms that mingled with the glow of flickering candle light. He joined them in singing and made the sign of the cross over his heart as he used to back in Kinkerry. Oh, how he longed to go home! Had he really been fired? Was it all over? How he missed the sacraments, the hymns, and his own robes. He vowed that he would never again complain about the weight and rituals of his office. He slowly exhaled an enormous sigh, dropped his shoulders and whispered an anguished prayer.
Erin entered the main kitchen and at first they thought that she was pregnant, because she carried one of the pieces of the stone chair under her cloak. When she removed it they were noticeably relieved. They had just about run out of medical supplies and the infants they were already caring for were not thriving as they should. The abbey was under duress from the war and they had very little food left, even though every day families came to them for protection and relief. Some had begun to eat grass and to drink tea that was made from weeds, in order to settle their empty stomachs. Their own grove of pomegranates had been raided several times and there was barely any fruit left for themselves.
The nuns did not ask Erin any questions. There were too many spies and too many sides in the war, so they simply offered her a drink of water and an apron, which was both a peace offering and an invitation to help them with their work.
“Thank you,” said Erin as she observed the forlorn looking bevy of women and children. They were very thin and the water they gave her was an act of sacrifice. She donned the work-a-day clothes of the nuns and began to help by sweeping the floor. As she passed by the stove, there was an older nun who was trying to lift a heavy pot. Erin put her broom down and tried to help, but the old woman elbowed her out of the way and kicked the broom with her foot, so that it fell over with a bang on the floor. Erin got the message. This was not a place for pity. Erin picked up the broom and continued to sweep until a nun came bursting into the room.
“They’re here!” she announced breathlessly.
The women in the kitchen flew like bees in a hive. They closed every open cupboard, sealed every lid, and cleared the tables. They were nervous as they anxiously watched the door.
Sister Mary announced, “Say nothing!”
Michael was still in the chapel, and despite being far from home, he was very much in his element. The music echoed off the ancient stone walls, and the soft light danced along the mottled stone. He was sinking deeper into a daydream of his old life when suddenly a narrow wooden door opened and a sharp blade of light landed on his face. A little girl entered. She was head to toe the colour of the Syrian dunes and covered in its dust. She pranced across the stone floor and deposited “two pebbles” on the bare wooden surface of the communion table. Then she smiled to herself because she had done her job well, and skipped her way back across the room, where she closed the door very carefully, and quietly, behind her.
One pebble meant that lunch was being served, and two pebbles meant that “guests” were approaching. In an instant, the monks disappeared from the chapel like scurrying mice, except for an old man with snow white hair who beckoned Michael to follow. Michael took his knapsack and a wrap that contained one of the stones from the Irish blue chair, which he noted, seemed even lighter than before, and together they hurried into an adjacent library. Then without warning, the old monk took the knapsack and without a hint of hesitation, shook it upside-down dumping all of its contents onto the floor. Michael was shocked and tried to scoop up his possessions, some of which had rolled away.
The old monk was unapologetic and began to fill the knapsack with priceless scrolls, some written during the time of Abraham and Moses. The scripts were beloved and it burdened the man to give them away, but he did it for their protection. He wasn’t sure how much longer the monastery would be standing. Then, as if sprinkling confetti, the monk filled the top of the knapsack with handfuls of tourist souvenirs, plastic framed pictures of the Madonna, and crosses made by the children from twigs and twine. Finally, he reached inside a locker and took out a small glass case that contained a finger, pointy, shrivelled, blackened and gnarled, and with a mischievous grin, he placed it on top of the eclectic treasure.
The doors to the library burst open and soldiers waved guns in the air. “Vite! Vite! Depeche-toi!” they yelled. They had been dispatched during a tenuous amnesty in the fighting to force an evacuation of the monastery. There was a brief and fragile window of time in which women, children and religious zealots were allowed to leave the country. “Out! Out! Get out now!” yelled another guard, as he herded Michael and the old man into the courtyard of the abbey.
Erin and most of the other civilians in the kitchen had already been goaded outside and formed into lines. They were told that they were being evacuated to Jordan, but many of the nuns and monks had refused to comply and had kept on working as if the guards did not exist. They simply straightened their shoulders and continued to work.
“Staying here is dangerous!” the captain explained impatiently as he raised his voice.
“Are you evacuating the hospital?” asked Sister Mary.
“No!” he answered indignantly.
“Then we’ll be staying right here.”
“Que vous voulez,” he hissed as he turned towards the door.
Erin felt that moving on was the right thing to do, but before leaving she gave the nuns her medical supplies and whatever food she had. Then she got back in line and shuffled along with the others as they boarded the bus.
“Now!” yelled the captain in exasperation as he tried to make them hurry. He had a limited window of time to cross the desert beyond which they would be sitting ducks for anyone who wanted to use them for target practice.
When Michael was about to board, a soldier snapped at him, “One bag only!”
Michael said nothing and clung to both the knapsack and the piece of the stone chair in protest. The captain became suspicious and demanded to inspect the items. However when he opened the knapsack and saw the black finger and the junk religious icons he swore at Michael for wasting his time.
“Disgusting!” scolded the captain. “Worthless nonsense!” He shoved the packages back into Michael’s arms and yelled at him and the others to hurry up and board. He desperately wanted to get out of the city and put some distance behind them before nightfall.
The caravan of refugees consisted of a chain of military trucks and two buses, that set out across the desert at an even pace. The first part of their journey took them south of Damascus, where there had been recent fighting among the rebels. Occasionally, they were passed by a cluster of vehicles intent on speeding by as quickly as possible, which made the captain even more nervous. He wasn’t sure how he could protect the migrants if he could barely protect himself. Many ambushes had taken place on this road, and even though his country was neutral in the war, he felt that they were a very attractive target. The civilians could be kidnapped and held for ransom, and their weapons and ammunitions were in high demand.
The desert in this part of the country was a series of ironies. It was both beautiful and deadly, alluring and rough. Above ground, the land was a parchment of rolling dunes and rocky barrens, where by day the sun scorched the earth with brutal heat, and by night it froze in a bone chilling frost. Another paradox lay beneath the dunes, where underneath the arid surface, the desert was awash in the waters from Mount Hermon. Crystal springs from the snow capped mountain ran in subterranean tributaries, carrying the dews of heaven into deep chasms beneath the earth.
The convoy travelled on a thin line of hot black asphalt that meandered through the desert and intermittently they had to plough through mounds of sand that had blown across the road. They did not slow down as the captain knew that they were being watched from afar, by people who travelled inland behind the backbones of the surrounding cliffs, following ancient routes to secret watering holes. No one felt safe on the highway and when a group of women begged him to let them out of the bus for a break, he was particularly loathed to stop.
The captain’s least favourite cargo was women, children and especially zealots. They required constant rests which made the entire team more vulnerable to attack. After scanning the sides of the highway, the caravan pulled over to allow the passengers to leave the buses.
“Five minutes!” the soldiers yelled.
They were cautioned about roadside bombs and told to be ready to return at a moment’s notice. However, despite the warning, several family groups insisted on stepping away from the trucks so that they could find just the right spot in the barren desert to perform their prayers. Some of them even tried to start small fires to brew coffee and tea, but the soldiers protested. The people were battle worn from years of war and they were numb to being yelled at. The guards grew nervous by the minute and paced the highway watching the skies and the horizon for signs of trouble.
Erin and Michael found a clear patch of sand and sat down to share the rations that the soldiers had given them to eat, but just when they settled, they heard a shout from one of the soldiers.
“Alors!” yelled a soldier as he pointed to the sky.
The captain’s face went ashen. Above the trucks circled two trained falcons, floating effortlessly in the sky. It was a sign of imminent danger.
“Back!” yelled the captain. “Vit! Vit!”
The families hurriedly tried to gather their things, but as they did, a small whirl-wind crossed the highway and blew their possessions up into a swirl. There was chaos for a few minutes as blankets, cups and food went straight up into the air and were carried away. For Erin and Michael it was particularly troubling, because the two pieces of the Irish blue stone chair had also been taken by the wind.
Mothers screamed for their children and soldiers screamed for the passengers to get back onto the buses, but Erin and Michael headed in the opposite direction, chasing the feather-light stone that was being held aloft on the wind. The captain saw Erin and Michael disappear over a nearby dune but he could not risk the lives of an entire fleet to save two people. He bid them “Adieu,” and ordered the drivers to leave immediately.
The falcons abandoned the convoy and headed for the Irish Blue stones.
“Hey!” yelled Erin, as she waved her hands and tried to scare the birds away, but the trained avians, true to their pedigree, swooped down and captured the two pieces of the stone chair that floated on a wisp of air above her head. Erin and Michael could hardly believe what had happened as they watched the raptors disappear into the distance with their treasure.
Without a word spoken, they instinctively chased after the falcons even though it was a desperate attempt. They ran wildly across a rocky barren, dodging the larger boulders, and then climbed over several low lying dunes. However as they neared the surrounding hills, the dunes became enormous walls of sand. They climbed with what strength they had left, furiously digging with their hands and feet, and as they neared the crest of a ridge they were exhausted. It was just before dusk and they were distracted, cold and thirsty, and as a result hadn’t noticed that they had stumbled into a Bedouin camp. They tried to backtrack and hide but it was too late, they had been spotted, or more correctly, they had been expected.
The patriarch of the camp had watched them via the cameras that were on the necks of the falcons. He wondered why they had left the safety of the convoy to chase the bounty, especially since he had already unwrapped the packages and found nothing but pumice-like stone of no obvious value. Michael and Erin were brought to him and encouraged to sit around the small fire, by men who brandished sabres and guns. The patriarch offered them coffee and treated them well even though it was understood that they were his prisoners. He made it clear that they could barter for their lives but not for the return of the stones.
The two pieces of the Irish Blue chair lay next to the fire, and as the patriarch talked, the stones began to change colour. They morphed from a matt gray-brown to a shiny gold. Everyone noticed it. The patriarch picked up one of the pieces, tossed it in the air and pretended to drop it into the hot coals, just to gauge Michael’s reaction. Little did the man know that the icon had been forged by God and could NOT be undone by mortal fire. Michael showed his uneasiness, not because the stone could be harmed, but because he feared what the stone could do to them. He had almost been killed by it once before and squirmed at the thought of triggering its wrath.
The leader grew impatient and reached for Michael’s knapsack. He opened the top flap and saw the little glass case, and as he turned to get a closer look against the glow from the fire, the gnarly, black finger, fell out onto the sand. Immediately, the patriarch jumped back and yelled, and every one of his soldiers yelled in horror.
“What have you done?” demanded the leader to Michael. “Why have you brought this curse to my home?”
Michael wanted to explain that it wasn’t his, but he said nothing.
“Where did you get this?” he demanded.
“From the abbey.”
“You cursed monk!” hissed the patriarch. “That thing is the finger of death. You have brought great wrongs and shame to my family!”
“No! No!” Michael tried to explain. “It’s just useless rubbish.”
The leader became enraged and drew his sword. It was a beautifully patterned Damascus blade that he raised to the stars. There was practically nothing that it could not cut in half. He fumed with anger and raised it above Michael’s head, but instead of striking Michael, he swung it down as hard as he could onto one of the pieces of the stone chair.
What happened next can only be described as a nuclear explosion, without all the damage and death. They could see the explosion, but it was as if it had taken place in another dimension. As soon as the sword struck the stone, the blade disappeared into nothingness. It simply dissolved from the man’s hand, and vanished into the blaze of blue-green light that shot out of the stone as a beam, straight up into the night sky, lighting it up in a spectacular aurora of radiant light. It went so high into the atmosphere, that the sight of it could be seen as far away as Greece to the west and India to the east.
Immediately, the captors shouted at one another and hurriedly began taking their camp apart. Michael didn’t know what to do. He knew as they did that within the hour, the place would be flooded with military people and their guns and war machines.
“Will you help me?” Michael pleaded. He had to repeat it several times, because they thought that he had created the explosion and they did not understand why someone so powerful needed their help. “We have to leave here now!” he insisted.
“Where do you want to go?” asked the leader.
“Jerusalem,” answered Michael. He laid a cloth over the blazing piece of the Irish Blue stone and it gave up its light and became cold and still. He re-wrapped both pieces and gave one of them to Erin.
The patriarch wanted nothing to do with them or their “magic” but he did not want to leave any evidence behind, especially the kind that can talk. Fortunately, the tribe was used to packing in a hurry and in just a few minutes they had loaded the camels and horses, and were ready to leave.
"Hurry!" offered the leader.
“Thank you,” offered Michael but his sincerity was not welcome.
“I can take you to the border but no further.”
“Agreed,” answered Michael sympathetically. There was a time when he hated the stones too. He had become caught up in their power and tried to use them for his own vengeance, and if it hadn’t been for Erin, he would have died on the spot.
The Bedouin caravan set out into the desert under the blue-green aurora that still lingered overhead. They headed south-west towards Jerusalem and tried to cover their tracks by dragging boughs of palm branches behind them. No one spoke and within the hour, they could hear helicopters in the distance, converging on the spot where they had just been.
Generals, soldiers, scientists and engineers, stood dumbfounded around the still smouldering site. The sand had congealed into glass as if there had been a lightening strike, but there was no sign of an explosion.
When the sun rose behind them the next morning, the leader of the Bedouins sent out his falcons to scout ahead and what he saw made him even more perplexed than the night before. On the small hand-held monitor he could see that people were fleeing Jerusalem. They were running away in all directions, carrying children and what belongings they could carry with them into the desert. The light from the Irish Blue stone had spiked rumours that large weapons were being used, and it had scared the people who lived in the city. The news of imminent attacks were growing and people had become concerned.
“That way!” pointed the patriarch as he left Erin and Michael alone on the edge of a large dune. He gave them a parcel of food and water and didn’t look back as he hurriedly guided his family away to find a recluse of safety amidst the war.
Michael and Erin headed towards the border, walking against the tide of the exodus. As they neared the boundary, they were warned to turn back. They were told that there had already been one explosion in the desert the night before, which had lit up the sky for everyone to see, and that another one was coming soon. They were urged to find a safe refuge away from the attacks.
There were so many people trying to leave, that the normal bureaucracy of crossing the border had become overwhelmed. They simply pushed their way through the crowds and entered the streets of Jerusalem, some of which were in chaos and some completely abandoned.
The threat of an explosion had shaken the social infrastructure of the city, like wars had in past generations. The evacuation of large groups of people had left open the question of who was in charge. Riots and arguments broke out in the streets and some saw the exodus as the perfect opportunity to take over the governance of Jerusalem. People of every faith jostled for international allegiances to come to their aid, and each claimed that God was on their side.
The stone chair however, had no allegiances, except to the truth. It loved and respected everyone, wanted peace for everyone, and would not let good be used for evil.
“Gotcha!” exclaimed the monitor at the satellite station half way around the world, where he had been tracking Erin and Michael ever since they left Iran. He confirmed their identity from security cameras as they entered the city, and quickly made calls to all the people who had promised him bonuses for information about their whereabouts. On his list were Mrs. Mancinni, Erin’s uncle Ewin, Erin’s father Patrick, and other relic hunters who paid him for his information and discretion. Each had promised a lucrative fee if he could find the treasure and keep it a secret. He had found them by linking the flare in the desert with the flare that he had seen near the Tigris river a few days earlier, and he began to get excited about who else would pay for the information.
Mrs. Mancinni watched the “Breaking News” headlines that shot around the globe like lightening. The headlines read, “Chaos In Jerusalem.” However, her sources had told her that the Irish Blue stones might have something to do with it, because Michael and Erin had just crossed the border into the city. When she saw the pictures of the aurora in the sky over the desert, she had more than a hunch that it was because of “her” chair, and she wanted it back. She made plans immediately to fly to Jerusalem. Her pilot protested and said it would be near impossible to land amidst the chaos, and he offered his resignation, but Mrs. Mancinni promised to triple his wages permanently, if he could get her there in the next 24 hours.