A swift, sweeping glance over the arena told Alce that none of the other spectators had seen it. The arena was drenched in murmurs, quiet conversations heavy with confusion and wonder. She thought that she might have imagined it – she was more prone to daydreaming than she ought to be. However, none of the condemned Christians had been affected, and the panther only paced on the other side of the showground, its sleek black fur glistening in the midday sun. Alce had not been to many of these executions, but she knew that the animal was supposed to attack the people within the ring. The mere fact that it was now lying on its side as though to sleep inclined her to believe that her private vision was real.
Armed, uniformed men emerged from openings below. Some cautiously approached the panther, leading it easily from the arena. Others strained under the weight of a large cage. Inside, an enormous bear growled and lashed out with its claws. One guard remained behind to unhinge the cage, and then quickly joined the others beyond the exit. Alce could not resent this; she would not want to face a feral bear, either.
She sat up straighter and leaned slightly forward. Rapt attention was the only option if she wanted to verify what she had seen. If it happened again, she would know that her mind was not playing tricks.
The bear thrashed in its cage until one side collapsed. Free of its restraints, it charged toward the people in the ring as soon as it spotted them. Alce ripped her focus away from the beast to stare at its intended victims. They were too far for any sound to reach her, but she saw their lips moving. It was not uncommon to see such a thing. The Christians were sending a prayer to their god before their death – so it seemed.
Just as before, the air surrounding them shimmered and bent. Looking closely at this hurt her eyes, but she refused to miss this strange event. It would be worth the reward of knowledge. So she continued to stare, and watched as a flash of white light repelled the bear’s teeth and claws from the Christians’ skin. She saw the air bend around the bear, and when it retreated to the opposite end of the arena, the shimmer followed it. Alce recalled that it had continued faintly around the panther as long as it had been in view.
Again the guards emerged, this time taking the Christians away along with the bear. The execution had failed. They would kill them later on using more conventional means, but the show was over. The Christians were ruining the reputation of the government by preventing their own public deaths.
The spectators began to leave the arena in a slow trickle, the same buzz of conversation streaming from their mouths. Some were still exclaiming over the curiosity they had just witnessed, while others disappointedly muttered that they had been deprived of the entertainment they came for. Alce’s thoughts hovered far beyond such simple concepts. As the crowd conveyed her out into the street, she attempted to reason out what had really happened.
Hours of debating inwardly prevented any productivity during the day. Alce made a little money by her skill as a weaver, and she had planned to finish the blanket a young man had ordered. It sat half-made on the loom. She lay in bed and gazed at the brown fabric as she tried to fall asleep.
She had organized a conclusion by the time the gray light of early dawn crept across the city. The Christians were not saved by the work of god, at least not in the way they would define it. It was not a miracle that occurred because those who were condemned were “worthy”. Not a miracle; a magic spell. All magic came from the gods, and so it was through a god that the Christians had survived their public execution. Since they had to invoke the power themselves, it was not divine intervention – a miracle – but their own skill that had saved them. They had found a kind of magic that did not seem to require obscure ingredients or preparation, one they could call upon at their convenience or necessity. She had heard them claim that magic was evil and should be purged from their lives, but that was nothing more than misdirection. In fact, they were reluctant to share the secret of their power.
Alce considered this for the rest of the day. She splashed some cold water on her face to wake herself up a bit, ate some bread for her breakfast, and stationed herself at the loom. Her fingers moved automatically, adding more fabric to the flawless weave of the blanket. The task left her mind free to contemplate the Christians’ magic.
The more she thought of it, the more sense it made. How else would they be able to banish demons no one else had managed to eradicate? How else could the man they worshipped, Jesus Christ, and certain ones of his followers, have healed all those people? How could he have turned water to wine, if not by a spell? How else could he have fed thousands of people with only a few loaves of bread and several fish?
She had once seen a man who tried to rob a church run frantically from two priests, who drove him away by holding their hands out in front of them and chanting. She had never known what they had said, but now she realized that they were performing a spell.
Why she had been unable to see the essence of the magic until the previous day, she had no idea. Alce knew that she had no talent in that area – and if she had, it would have manifested long ago. She decided that it was not important, especially if she could never arrive at a solution. She was tired of thinking about this, and she had not slept for more than a day.
A persistent knock drew Alce out of her slumber. She pushed herself out of bed and rubbed her eyes as she stumbled across her modest hovel. Opening the door, she was greeted with the statement, “Have you finished the blanket?”
“Come in while I take it off the loom,” she answered groggily. To judge how long she had been asleep, she asked the man, “How many days until market day?”
“Three,” the Customer responded, looking around her home. She had slept through the night. She thought she would feel more rested, having fallen asleep before sunset. As she took down the blanket, she did not attempt further conversation. The Customer must not have been accustomed to silences. “Did you attend the arena two days ago?”
“I did,” Alce said.
“I talked with my brothers about it for hours. We were completely stumped.”
“The Christians used a magic spell,” she told him calmly.
The Customer said nothing at first. Then, “What?”
Alce explained to him what she had seen, and how she had come to realize that it was magic. She gave him all the details she could drag up. He listened without interrupting, an expression of awe painted onto his face. When she finished, she handed him the blanket and took her small charge. In a daze, the Customer headed out, clutching his purchase.
She had not seen the last of him that day, despite her worries that he would walk off the edge of a mountain in his amazement. An hour had barely passed when the Customer returned, this time with four other men who said they were his brothers. They implored her to relate the tale of the Christians’ magical spell again. Their eyes never left her. All five of them, though one had already heard her explanation, were like four-year-olds, and her story was a basket full of sweets.
Within a few days, the story had spread throughout the city. The Customer’s brothers gathered her loom and other meager belongings and moved them to their house. They owned a small cottage-like home and a barn, for which they had no livestock. Alce was given a private bedroom, though the brothers did not have the luxury to spare it. Each of them was involved in some trade or other, and they provided her with food and other items with seeming ease. They bought her colorful material of varying softness for her loom and trinkets to weave onto them. People Alce had never seen came to beseech her to give them the knowledge that she had accidentally obtained. She would weave as she spoke, creating pieces at which her small audiences could not help staring as they listened. Scarcely aware of the momentum of her discovery, she found herself at times standing on street corners, or near temples, saying the same things she always said when someone came to her at the Customer’s brothers’ house.
There were those who waved off her story, thinking that she was lying or mad, but many were all too willing to believe her. Alce gained an impressive following in no time. They brought her gifts, which she nearly always gave away again. If she went on an outing, she was constantly surrounded by an excessive escort. Some of them, she noticed, became far more invested in her ideas than she. Zealots concerned her; she had seen too many examples of prejudice and persecution based on zealotry. She learned that she was right to worry. Soon enough, things spiraled out of her control.
She was asleep in her bedroom one afternoon, nestled under a self-made green blanket, when the sound of screaming awoke her. A few years before, she had seen a man tortured. The screams sounded exactly the same. Alce sprang up and followed the pained cries out to the barn. When she entered, she found that several of her followers (who had begun to call themselves Alcenians) had a man tied with ropes to the rafters. He was stripped to the waist, and blood stained his skin in numerous places, mixing with sweat. His legs barely seemed to hold him.
“What are you doing?” Alce asked the men and one woman scattered throughout the barn. They all turned to her at once, ignoring the man they had been torturing a moment ago.
“We apologize for disturbing you, Alce,” the woman said.
“Never mind that. What are you doing?”
One man pointed with a long dagger at the captive. “He is a Christian. We got one on his own and brought him back here. We were trying to get out of him the method for performing the spells of the Christians. He says that he does not know, but I think we are convincing him that it is in everyone’s best interest if he tells us.”
Alce held her hand out for the blade. The man handed it to her eagerly, excited that she wanted to participate in this task. She was their leader; she would undoubtedly succeed. Alce advanced on the Christian, holding the knife before her. He watched her approach, no fear but a strange blankness in his eyes. She halted a few inches from him, lifted the weapon, and cut the ropes that bound him. “Go,” she told him.
He needed no urging. He staggered across the barn, fell out the door, and disappeared. The Alcenians did not attempt to question her, or to stop him. Every single eye in the room followed the Christian out, and when he was gone they all rounded on Alce.
“You thought you were doing good,” she began, her voice quietly reprimanding. “I can forgive you because you were not trying to do evil. However, know that I will not welcome you again if anything else of this sort occurs. What kind of message do we want to send? That we will extract their knowledge by any means? No. We want them to share their power: we do not want to take it from them.”
Alce dropped the knife and stalked from the silent barn. She was hurt that her followers would resort to such measures. Did they really listen to her at all when she spoke, or did they take her basic ideas and twist them to suit their own needs? Her mind in turmoil, Alce curled up under her green blanket, but she could not manage to sleep.
It did not take long for the consequences of her beneficence to reach her. That same week, she was out telling her story on the street again, several Alcenians in tow. She had barely begun the third retelling of the day when a crowd of men with a dangerous appearance approached. The air started to shimmer around a few of them, warning her that these were Christians. The Tortured Christian, whom she had set free, led them. He showed no signs of magic – perhaps he had been truthful when he said that he did not know how to cast spells – but he shared the angrily calm expression that the rest of them bore. He pointed at her and said, “She’s the one, the leader. She’s the one you’re looking for.”
She felt a pressure around her. A glance told her that the Christians had used their magic to separate her from those who would defend her. She had counted them when she noticed their advance, and knew that she had no chance to resist them on her own. Two of them took her by the arms and marched her along with them. She did not bother to struggle.
People on the streets stopped to gawk as the Christians compelled her through the city. Some of them she recognized. Some were her followers. Some came forward purposefully, apparently intending to free her from the Christians’ clutches, but they were repelled with bending, glittering air.
Alce was not exactly afraid, but she wished she knew what was going to happen. The uncertainty of her fate at their hands made her uneasy. She felt her heart beating wildly as they took her to their largest church, a small distance from the outskirts of the city. An extraordinary number of Christians were gathered outside the church door, but they merely watched her as she was propelled inside. The heavy wooden doors closed of their own accord after Alce and the Christians had entered, blocking the spectators from view.
The gang that had come to collect her brought her into a menacing, high-ceilinged room. Against every wall there was tiered seating, and every available space was filled. Deacons, archdeacons, subdeacons, priests, and other Christian authorities of all kinds gazed sternly down upon her. Alce was lead to a simple wooden stool in the center of the chamber. As soon as she was in place, the room emptied but for her and those seated above.
“Are you Alce?” one of them began.
“You have been spreading a tale that Christians use magic and that we call it miracles when we do so. Is that correct?” another asked. She could not tell where the voice originated, but it hardly mattered. None of them gave their names or allowed her to identify them in any way.
“What we are most interested in at the moment is finding out who told you this.”
“No one told me,” she said.
“Come now, Alce. We know how these things work. We know far better than you do. You see, in order to learn this magic, one has to be initiated into the Mysteries of Christ. Not all Christians are initiates. Those who remain outside the Mysteries have no knowledge that this magic exists. The only way you could have learned this is by the mouth of an initiate.”
“You see, woman, revealing any of Christ’s Mysteries is punishable by death. We must know who told you. We are more interested in finding the traitor out than in removing you.”
Removing me? thought Alce. What does that mean?
“Who told you?”
“That is not a name, woman. We are not playing games here. Either you tell us, or we will have to get it out of you some other way.”
“I already told you.”
“The person who revealed this secret to you must be dealt with.” This Voice was different from the others. It was deep but quiet and wispy. Alce thought that this man must be much older than any of the other priests. “You are the only one who can aid us in meting out justice.”
Another Voice answered. It seemed the Old Voice had taxed itself. “By telling us the name of the person who revealed our magic to you.”
“No one revealed it to me,” Alce repeated. “I found out on my own.”
Silence saturated the chamber. Alce shifted on the stool, more from the itch between her shoulders than from any discomfort in the seat. She could feel each eye boring into her, and it seemed that there were hundreds.
“You discovered this without any outside influence?”
“Yes. I saw the magic, when I was at an execution of several Christians. They cast a spell to keep the beasts from them.” She did not know why it surprised her that she was able to recall that day in the arena with perfect, vivid clarity.
“Can you describe to us what this magic looked like?”
Alce took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Their questioning was beginning to put her nerves on edge. “There was a shimmering around them, and the air bent in a way that air should not bend. Then, when the animals tried to attack them, the shimmer transferred to the animal. It happened first with the panther and then the bear, two different times.”
“How is it that a misguided Pagan is able to see the divine magic of Christ?”
Alce shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. That was the first time it ever happened. I could not explain it if I tried.”
“This is quite a story, Alce. However, we are no country simpletons. Tell us now, who disclosed this sacred magic to you?”
The Old Voice spoke again. “We are no longer asking the right questions. She is not lying; she did discover the magic by use of her eyes. We must turn to our other most imperative responsibility in regards to this breach of the Mysteries.”
“Of course.” This Voice was the same that had called her a “misguided Pagan.” He spoke with a rough, cold tone. It very nearly made her shiver. “Have any others of your little cult, dubbed Alcenians, witnessed the magic?”
Alce shook her head. “No, not directly. None of them know anything of it but what I have told them. They do not have any physical proof.” She probably would have said the same even if it had not been true. She could not purposefully endanger her followers.
“Good, good. You are their only firm link to this knowledge.”
There was a murmuring and a rustling from above. The light had been arranged to let them see her, but did not illuminate them. Though the light obscured her vision more than assisted it, she knew that they had risen in unison. Her blood chilled. Whatever came next, it would certainly do her no good.
“This little story of yours diminishes us in the eyes of all infidels. You realize that we cannot allow the continuation of the Alcenian belief.”
I suppose they are going to remove me now.
The priests, deacons, archdeacons, subdeacons, and other Christian authorities struck up a frightening chant. Alce stood because she did not want to feel so small, but did not try to leave the room. She knew that the attempt would be futile. The chanting continued for a while, her sweat growing colder every minute, until blackness closed in.
Eventually, it reached them all that the woman they all looked to had been fabricating tales in order to gain power. It had not seemed so at the time, but retrospectively every Alcenian saw the sense in it. People had followed her blindly after they decided to trust her. She was given countless gifts; others provided the necessities of life for her, leaving her free to spin yarn, either on the loom or from her mouth. She could have used the force of the numbers she had gained to begin some sort of mock-invasion.
As this circulated, those who had once named themselves Alcenians with pride returned to the lives they had led before meeting her and denied their contact with her. They knew now that her account had been false, and the miracles of the Christians deserved that label. It took years, but they all managed to forget her name. In too short a time, a few colorful garments and a creaking, dusty loom were all that remained of Alce.
Notes: This was my creative-option final paper for a history class I took my first term at Bennington. I did not reread before posting it. The title and content makes slightly more sense if you know about the mystery cults of ancient times. They did things like summoning gods and used something like magic. Here’s a wikipedia article about it…