by Janine Ashbless
Publisher: Tempted Romance
What happens when the daughter of the village priest falls in love with an archangel banished from heaven? Milja’s heart is struck when she catches a glimpse of the preternaturally beautiful prisoner her father keeps captive beneath his church’s altar. Torn between tradition, loyalty and her growing obsession with the fallen angel, will Milja risk losing her family, and her eternal soul, for the love of this divine being? Janine Ashbless will transport you to a world where good and evil battle for true love.
I was seven years old. My father led me by the hand down the steps behind the church altar, through a passage hewn into the mountainside. I’d never been permitted through that door before, though I knew that the key was kept under a loose floor tile beneath the icon of St. Michael. In those days that picture made me nervous: the archangel’s painted eyes always seemed to watch me, even though the rest of him was busy throwing down the Devil and trampling him underfoot.
All along the narrow tunnel beyond the door there were niches cut into the rock walls, and near our church these were filled with painted and gilded icons of the saints and of Our Lord, but farther back those gave way to statuettes of blank-eyed pagan gods, growing cruder in execution and less human in appearance as we walked on. I clung to Father’s hand and cringed from the darkness closing in behind me, as his kerosene lamp picked out the rock-cut steps at our feet and our breathing sounded loud in our ears. The journey seemed to take forever, to my child’s mind. I couldn’t help imagining the carved and painted eyes in the tunnel behind me: glowing pinpoints of light that watched my retreating back—and I kept looking over my shoulder to see.
Finally we came out into a roofless chamber, where the walls leaned inward a hundred feet over our heads and the floor was nothing but a mass of loosely tumbled boulders. I looked up, blinking at the light that seemed blinding, though in fact this was a dim and shadowed place. I could see a wisp of cloud against the seam of blue sky overhead, and the black speck of a mountain eagle soaring across the gap.
There he lay, upon a great tilted slab of pale limestone, his wrists and ankles spread and bound by twisted leather ropes whose farther ends seemed to be set into the rock itself. It was hard to say whether the slab had always been underground or had fallen long ago from the mountain above; our little country is, after all, prone to earthquakes. Dirt washed down with the rain had stained him gray, but I could make out the muscled lines of his bare arms and legs and the bars of his ribs. There was an old altar cloth draped across his lower torso—and only much later did I realize that Father had done that, to spare his small daughter the man’s nakedness.
“Here, Milja,” said my father, pushing me forward. “It is time you knew. This is the charge of our family. This is what we guard day and night. It is our holy duty never to let him be found or escape.”
I was only little: he looked huge to me, huge and filthy and all but naked. I stared at the ropes, as thick as my skinny wrists, knotted cruelly tight about his broader ones. They stretched his arms above his head so that one hand could not touch the other, and matching tethers held his ankles apart. I felt a terrible ache gather in my chest. I pressed backward, into Father’s black robes.
“Who is he?” I whispered.
“He is a very bad man.”
That was when the prisoner moved for the first time. He rolled his head and turned his face toward us. I saw the whites of his eyes gleam in his gray face. Even at seven, I could read the suffering and the despair burning there. I squirmed in Father’s grip.
“I think he’s hurt,” I whimpered. “The ropes are hurting him.”
“Milja,” said Father, dropping to his knee and putting his arm around me. “Don’t be fooled—this is not a human being. It just looks like one. Our family has guarded him here since the first people came to these mountains. Before the Communists. Before the Turks. Before the Romans, even. He has always been here. He is a prisoner of God.”
“What did he do?”
“I don’t know, little chick.”
That was when I began to cry.
“What did he do?” became a question I repeated many times as I grew up, along with, “Who is he?” My father didn’t lie, but neither could he answer my question truthfully. He was an educated man, though he had taken up the vocation of priest of an isolated village in one of the most barren, mountainous corners of our rugged country. He had studied engineering at university in Belgrade, but he admitted that the answers to my queries were unclear to him. “The gods have condemned him,” he would say, with a sigh. That sounded so strange coming from an Orthodox priest that I didn’t know what to think.
Every Sunday, after going down into the village to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with the congregation in the church there—nobody ever climbed up the two hundred steps to our dingy little chapel carved into the sheerrock—he would descend into the prisoner’s cave. He would take the manwater and bread, and wash his face. My father was not without compassion,even for a prisoner, and he felt the responsibility of his position.
“Is he…Prometheus?” I asked when I was ten, and had been reading the Greek myths in one of the dog-eared books Father had brought from the capital. “The gods chained up Prometheus forever. Is it him?”
“It may be.”
“But…Prometheus was good, Papa. He taught us how to be civilized. He stole fire from the gods to bring it to men. He was on our side!”
“What did man do with fire, Milja?”
“He smelted iron, little chick, and with iron he made swords. He made all the weapons of war, and men have slaughtered men in countless millions ever since. Are you sure Prometheus had our best interests at heart? Would we not have been happier if we’d stayed in the innocence of the Stone Age?”
I was too young to answer that. Father sighed and fetched a black-bound book, laying it on the table by the window where the light could fall upon it. He opened the pages to somewhere near the beginning.
“My grandfather told me that it is Azazel we hold in our keeping. Have you heard of him?”
“No,” said I in a small voice.
“Neither man nor pagan titan, little chick, but a fallen angel. A leader of the Watchers: those Sons of God who lusted after mortal women. The Israelites dedicated their scapegoat sin-offering to Azazel every year when they drove it out into the wilderness. And just like the Greeks’ Prometheus, he is credited with teaching men metalworking and war-craft—and women the arts of seduction and sorcery. Here in the Book of Enoch, see; the angel Raphael is commanded by God: ‘bind Azazel hand and foot and cast him into the darkness. And lay upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there forever.’”
“Which is right, then?” I asked. “Is he a demon or is he Prometheus?”
“Maybe he is both, and it’s the same story. Or maybe he is something else altogether. All I know is that he’s been here since the beginning, and that it is our duty to keep him bound. It’s what our family forefathers dedicated their lives to. And you must carry on when I am gone, Milja. You must marry and teach your husband and your sons, so that it is never forgotten. And you must never tell anyone else, all your life. It must not go beyond the family. Promise me!”
“What if someone, someone who did not understand, felt sorry for him and set him free? What if he is one of the great demons, Milja? What would happen to this world?”
Still, I went at midday, when the light was strongest and the cavern least frightening. I brought him bread crusts and cheese. I picked berries from the mountain bushes and fed them between his cracked lips.
I remember the first time I did it, the first time I went alone. I climbed up on that big rock slab and knelt over his dirt-streaked body, and he opened his eyes and looked up into mine. His irises were so dark that they couldn’t be distinguished from the pupils, and in this half-light they looked like holes.
“What’s your name?” I whispered.
I don’t know if he heard me. He certainly didn’t reply. He just looked at me, from the depths of his private torment.
“I brought you some milk.” I tipped the teat of the little skin of goats’ milk to his lips and let it trickle into the side of his mouth, carefully: I was scared of choking him. His throat worked and his lips twitched, bleeding. He drank it all and I sat back. That was when, with obvious and painful effort, the lines of his face pulled into a brief smile—a smile so fragile a butterfly might have trampled it underfoot.
That was when I was lost.
I was fourteen when I first heard him speak.
“Milja,” he murmured, greeting me. His voice was hoarse from disuse, but its depths made the hair stir on my neck. I nearly fled.
“What’s your name?” I asked once again, but he didn’t answer, withdrawing instead, it seemed, into his anguish once more. He only twisted from one hip to the other to ease the strain on his back, and hissed with pain. The power of his corded body, terrible even under constraint, made me tremble.
He spoke only rarely in the years that followed, and what he said made little sense to me—often it wasn’t even in any language I knew, and when I could make out the words they seemed to be nothing but fragments. “Leaves on the brown-bright water…” he might mutter to himself. I think he was remembering things he had seen before he was imprisoned. As I grew to realize how the uncountable years had stolen even his mind, I felt dizzy with horror.
About the author:
Janine Ashbless is a writer of fantasy erotica and steamy romantic adventure – and that’s “fantasy” in the sense of swords ‘n’ sandals, contemporary paranormal, fairytale, and stories based on mythology and folklore. She likes to write about magic and mystery, dangerous power dynamics, borderline terror, and the not-quite-human.
Janine has been seeing her books in print ever since 2000, and her novels and single-author collections now run into double figures. She’s also had numerous short stories published by Black Lace, Nexus, Cleis Press, Ravenous Romance, Harlequin Spice, Storm Moon, Xcite, Mischief Books, and Ellora’s Cave among others. She is co-editor of the nerd erotica anthology Geek Love.
Her work has been described as: "hardcore and literate" (Madeline Moore) and "vivid and tempestuous and dangerous, and bursting with sacrifice, death and love." (Portia Da Costa)