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The Icon

Summer, 1944

Epiros, Greece

From the summit of the high hill called Adelphos, above the wind-bent cedars which shrouded the caves, he could see the Pindos Mountains rise like a gray cloud to the east, could see brown ridges march north toward Konitza and the Albanian border, could almost imagine he saw the sun glint off of the Ionian Sea to the west. And below, steep green valleys and rocky villages, marked out by tall stone church towers. The hill was a place Captain Elias went often as a child, when he would conjure a life beyond these mountain walls: in Athens, to the south, or across the sea in America, where his uncle had gone. He might be a soldier, doctor, traveling musician or spy, the role did not greatly matter; every dream was a dream of escape. In none of those dreams did he ever imagine returning to these hills, a hunted man in his own country.

It was after midnight when Father Mikalis arrived at the Cave of Constantine. Though his visits to the guerrillas had been rare of late, he knew where to find them. Elias, who seldom slept anymore, summoned the young priest to his lantern-lit circle in the back; the Captain had warned Mikalis weeks before that the Germans were watching him more closely, so all of the men understood that his present visit must be of great urgency.

"Bless us, Father."

Dirty hands grasped gently at the flowing black cassock as it passed, beseeching pardon for things they had done and would continue to do, to the Germans and their countrymen alike, in the days to come. Like children, thought Elias, watching his men. Crude and murderous until the stern father was before them, then meek, repentant. It was not the young cleric they saw now but God Himself, the first touch of the mighty one in months for some, and the cave's darkness only heightened the effect. Whispered blessings were returned them, but the words did not reach Elias, and he was content with that. He alone was not surprised to see the priest.

"Welcome, Father," the Captain offered as Mikalis' long, handsome face appeared out of the shadows. "Come for a sermon, or a drink?"

"Don't be foolish. With news."

Elias noted once more how much age, bred of three years' hard experience, had settled in the lines of the priest's face. In truth, there had always been something old about Mikalis, something unconnected to earthly experience, an ancient spirit which showed itself at odd moments in the center of those dark eyes. Elias had seen it when they were both children. There was still a young man's eagerness, a young man's sense of mission. Mikalis had witnessed atrocities, given absolution for those same atrocities, had never lost hope. That required a certain kind of strength, the Captain conceded, a kind he himself did not possess. And yet, the priest had never committed a violent act, had never driven the life out of a fellow man with his own hands. Surely that had to make all the difference. Priests should be murderers. How else could they understand?

"Tell me your news," Elias said at last.

"The Germans will burn the village tomorrow."

In the shadows, Spiro cursed, but the others were silent.

The Captain considered, not for the first time, how to respond. It was important that he seem to take the threat seriously, yet he must be circumspect, keep Mikalis talking. Above all, keep him here.

"Who told you?"

"What does it matter, who? What's to be done?"

"It matters a great deal. Certain names would convince me that it's true, others that it is not."

"Four trucks full of soldiers arrived a few hours ago. You must have seen them."

"We did."

"Forty or fifty men. They're here for some purpose."

"Looking for us, maybe," someone wondered.

"No," Elias said. "Too few of them for that. They don't come into the hills with less than a battalion now."

"Since we blew up the fuel depot," added Spiro

"You're proud of that raid?" asked the priest. "They shot forty-three men in the square of Prasinohorion the next day."

"I know it," the Captain answered.

"Forty Greeks for one German. You think that's a good trade?"

"One German and a fuel depot. The fuel was the point, I wouldn't have killed anyone if I could have avoided it. Worse is coming. In the Peloponnissos they're attacking armed convoys, in daylight, killing dozens of Germans."

Elias was aware of the envy in his tone. If he only had the communist guerillas numbers and resources, he wouldn't have to play the dirty games his superiors dreamed up.

"I'm sure that makes your English friends happy," the priest said scornfully, "but it's just getting a lot of simple people killed."

"It's a war Mikalis, more will die."

"Many will die tomorrow if you don't help. The old men will try to defend their houses."

"That would be stupid," snapped Elias, "but look, you have it wrong. They will burn the village, they'll burn all the villages, whether we fight them or lie down, but they won't do it until they withdraw from the region. And that time is not yet come."

"The English tell you this?"

"It's how they do things. Meantime, we've conducted no operations near here. They have no reason to burn the place. Otherwise, they would already be at it."

They stared at each other across the lamplight, two young men, neither yet twenty-five, forced into parts intended for more experienced souls. Mikalis had returned from the seminary three years earlier, days before the Germans arrived, to assist the ailing Father Pantelis. Six months later he was burying the old priest and assuming his duties. Disruptions from the war kept the local Bishop from assigning a new priest, and Mikalis, who had grown up in the village of Katarini, became its spiritual shepherd at the age of twenty-one. Elias had been at the military academy when war broke out. He was an artillery observer when the army routed the Italians, but back in Athens when the Germans launched 'Marita,' a whirlwind assault which enveloped and shattered the Greek army within days. As the government packed up and sailed to Crete, he rode a horse north to help organize the resistance in these hills. 'The old men are weak,' his grandmother told him before he left Athens, 'all of the good men are dead.'

"People are starving down there," the priest insisted.

"I know that, too."

"Of course you know, your men have taken everything. These people have given their food, their sons, their lives for you. What are you prepared to do for them?"

"Not waste their sacrifice."

"Nothing, then."

"I have only twenty men here."

"Where are the rest? Every boy for in the four villages has gone to join you, if only to get something to eat. You should have twice that many."

"They're on an operation."

"Without you?"

"Who told you the Germans would burn the village?"

The priest shook his head in disgust.

"All you want is that name. If he's wrong, shoot him as an agitator. If he's right, shoot him as a collaborator. Either way you'll do nothing."

The fact that the truth was more damning then the priest's insinuations did not prevent the words from stinging. Before Elias had taken over this group of andartes --- a motley assortment of republican and royalist-minded farmers and ex-soldiers --- they had spent more time fighting the local communist guerrilla band than either faction had spent fighting the Germans. It had taken the British commandoes to halfway reconcile the feuding parties and direct their actions in any meaningful way. Despite a deep suspicion of the foreigners, and his shame at the necessity of being instructed by them, Elias had to concede that he had learned much from the Englishmen. How to plant explosives. How to kill silently. How to work side by side with men who might, on another day, be your enemies. Perhaps he had learned some lessons too well. He had seen how much stronger and better organized the communists were; now the Italians had surrendered, and it was only a matter of time before the Germans withdrew. He could no longer ignore the warnings of his superiors regarding where the long-term threat to the country lay. Thus the present, hateful subterfuge.

"Captain." Kosta's voice reached them from the mouth of the cave, in a tone demanding attention. Elias, Mikalis, and a few others shuffled through the darkness, gathering their old, battered rifles as they went. "Above, Leftheris has seen something."

The cave entrance was screened by a short stand of cedar, but the ledge above commanded a view of the entire valley. Leftheris grabbed the Captain's sleeve as he came up, and pointed toward a low hilltop a kilometer or so away. Elias recognized the black silhouette of the church tower against the indigo sky, then saw the odd, multi-hued flickering of light below. Flames, seen through the rose window. Something had gone wrong.

"Looks like they got started early," said Kosta, "and with your church, Father."

"Quiet, you ass," said Spiro.

Elias grabbed Mikalis' shoulder, even as the priest began to struggle down the slope.

"There's no point. The whole thing will be on fire before you get there."

"The Holy Mother," whispered Mikalis, and several of the men crossed themselves in the darkness. Most had not known until that moment that their protectress was still in the church, hidden behind a false wall. In his mind's eye, Elias saw candle light on gold leaf, saw the sad black eyes burning out of the wood as the object was brought forth, saw a church full of strong, cynical men fall to their knees in reverent silence. Saw even the Snake hypnotized by its' beauty. Love of the icon could undo all of his plans.

"Where is it?" Leftheris asked. "Will someone down there retrieve it?"

"No, no one else knows where it is."

"What do we do?"

"Leave it," the Captain pronounced, but they were all speaking at once now. The fire had not been part of the plan, but it would hide the icon's disappearance, assuming the Prince had been quick enough to get it out first.

"Listen to me," Mikalis broke in. "If we can't put out the flames at least I can save the Holy Mother. Let me go."

"We all go," said Spiro.

"No," Elias commanded, but he could feel the men balking at his resistance. They seldom disobeyed orders, and never contradicted him to his face, but he was fighting a higher power here and risked losing control. Besides, something had gone wrong, and he should see what could be salvaged. He took the priest by the shoulders and pushed him in the direction of Leftheris.

"Keep hold of this one," he told the sentry. "Kosta, Spiro, come with me."

"But how will we find the Mother without him?"

"I know where it is."

The priest's objections pursued them briefly down the rugged hillside, then all was silence. Trees loomed and disappeared in the dark, they crossed a low stone wall. There was no clear path from the cave to the church, but each man knew the way easily, even on a moonless night. Elias could hear old Spiro's labored footfalls behind him, but Kosta was impossible to pinpoint, though the boy was just yards away. Everyone had said he was mad to take Kosta under his tutelage, but he had known better. Few men could be trained to move silently, convey complicated messages in code, kill without hesitation. It had been strange for Elias to be teaching these skills so soon after learning them himself, but Kosta had proven an apt pupil. It was always the outcasts who were the best at the game.

Stamatis Mavroudas was the Katarini's leading merchant, a black-marketeer and suspected collaborator with the Germans, and so his son Kosta, while tolerated for his good humor, was trusted by no one. That meant nothing to Elias; insurgency work was full of compromises. And the boy had taken to him quickly, all the more so since the father had virtually disowned him: what idiocy, to join the guerrillas when there was money to be made from this war. Now it was rare to see Kosta and the Captain apart. Elias wondered at the cost to the young man. Cut off from his family, with no real friends, Kosta seemed unmoved by the occasional deaths of comrades, and a little too eager for the kill when the time came. Yet he was completely dependable, able to execute the most difficult tasks with speed and creativity. Elias could have used ten more men like him.

In a short time they ascended the slope below the church, and crawled on hands and knees until they could crouch behind the north wall of the front courtyard. The old stone edifice was lit from within, wild, jumping flames playing against the sooty stained-glass. The crack of burning timber was audible, and the cool air stank of smoke. Across the courtyard a dozen German soldiers milled about, some still strapping on helmets and checking rifles, seemingly arrived only minutes before the guerrillas, and so far unaware of them. An officer was backing out of the church entry, from which black smoke billowed. Probably Müller, the SS man, thought Elias, but it was hard to tell in the strange light. There was nothing in the officer's hands, no treasure taken from within. Had he arrived too late?

The Captain swore silently. The plan was turning to shit. It had been a miserable scheme from the start; damn the Snake for talking him into it.

"Spiro, go and see if the crypt entry is clear."

The old andarte slipped away silently.

Now the German officer --- definitely Müller, the Prince as they called him --- was moving off, around the south side of the Church, and most of the soldiers followed. A glance passed between Kosta and the Captain, and the younger man looked away quickly. Was he ashamed of his commander, ashamed of his own knowledge? Kosta was the only other person besides the Snake and Müller to know the Captain's plan, had run messages between various parties when Elias needed to be elsewhere. Was the secret proving too great for him?

There was a commotion of snapping branches from the base of the hill behind them, and the two guerrillas swung their rifles up to fire.

"Hold," said the Captain.

Mikalis emerged from the trees and came recklessly up the slope, Leftheris on his heels. Kosta slid down the incline and yanked the priest to the ground.

"I'm sorry," whispered Leftheris, unable to look the Captain in the eye. "He said I would be damned if I didn't let him go."

Elias did not waste time berating his man, but looked hard at the priest.

"Threatening damnation to get your way. You surprise me, Father."

"Brother, let me get into that church."

"See those soldiers?"

"They won't shoot me."

"The fire is in the front, you can't get in."

"Then let us try the back. Or the crypt."

As if in answer, Spiro reappeared at the Captain's shoulder.

"The crypt is no good. Too many Germans that way."

"Then we try the back," Mikalis insisted. "There are trees, they won't see us."

Again, the men were eager, and the Captain could not justify inaction. Nor could he trust the errant priest to anyone else.

"Stay by me. On my left, and just behind me, understand?"


They skirted the tree line to the north and came up on the rear of the old stone structure, where the cleric's private entry lay in shadow. The fire had indeed started in front, but they could chart its progress through the tall, murky windows, and it seemed that the better part of the interior was now in flames.

"It's too late," Leftheris said mournfully.

"No." The priest began to force his way past the Captain, who seized him.

"Leftheris is right."

"Let me at least try. The icon..."

"Is wood and paint, Mikalis. Let it go."

The long face thrust itself at Elias, forehead to forehead, whispering.

"You're wrong, there is more to it than you see."


"But even if you were right, faith may invest objects with power. The Mother has cured the ill here for centuries, it means everything to these people."

The Captain could not respond at once. The cult of the icon had always seemed an old woman's obsession to him, something his father had scorned, as he scorned all religion, something the young people of the local villages would surely grow up to reject, or ignore. Elias was no communist, but he was a man with his eye on the wider world, where science trumped superstition, where worship of the Mother of God did not guide men's actions. Athens had given him a taste of that world, but perhaps he had been there too long. Or perhaps he'd done wrong to return here. His young fighters trusted priests even less then he did, yet in moments of fear they turned not to each other, like their brothers with the communists, but to God, and to Panayía, the forgiving Mother. How had it happened? If the priests and old women had no hold over them, from where had this belief emerged? Where had Mikalis, whose own father was utterly godless, found his faith? And how could Elias look such faith in the eye after setting such mischief in motion?

"Listen to me."

There was nothing to say, his words would have hung unfinished in any case, but at that moment the Captain noticed shadows on the far side of the church, moving among the graves. Müller and six or eight soldiers, looking for the rear entrance. They had gone the long way around but would be upon the andartes in moments. Distracted, Elias loosened his grip fractionally. It was enough, the priest was gone from his beneath his hands, leaping the broken wall and racing up the remaining slope for the dark portal. The Captain froze, unable to call out. The Germans apparently recognized the black cassock and did not shoot, but one soldier darted forward to intercept the cleric.

"Halt, halt."

A rifle boomed to the Captain's left --- Spiro's old Mnnlicher --- and the soldier sat heavily, listed sideways to the ground. A moment later shots came from the other side, springing hot chips from the stone wall, and the guerrillas ducked their heads as the Germans sought cover. Mikalis stumbled over the fallen soldier, but righted himself and disappeared into the entry.

Elias, calmed by the eruption of fighting, found his voice and commanded his men to spread out along the wall and shoot as fast as they could reload. Accuracy was not important. The crosses and narrow tablets gave the Germans no refuge; their only real cover was the corner of the church and since only one or two men at a time could fire from that position, the guerrillas might keep them pinned briefly, while disguising their own paltry numbers. It would be four against fifty once the rest of the Germans arrived, presumably in minutes, but perhaps the priest would emerge before that.

Then a second figure was leaping the wall and making for the door. Black shirt and kerchief, running low and swift. Kosta. What the hell was the boy up to? He had no love for priests or icons, but so be it, the action was undertaken. Reloading the Enfield was too slow, the Captain tossed the rifle aside, drew his pistol and fired blindly at the shadows, wasting precious ammunition. Spiro and Leftheris picked up their fire as well, and Kosta raced in the doorway.

Captain Elias bent to reload his hot pistol and consider his position. A bad business, no helping that now. Spiro should not have shot, but must have thought Mikalis was in danger. The dead German would cost the village dearly unless Elias could put it right with Müller. Müller, with whom he was now exchanging hostile fire, never a good place from which to negotiate. To hell with it all. If he had the men the Snake had taken to retrieve the weapons, he would scrap the whole dirty plan and kill as many Germans as he could. If. No, this was a foolish action, thoughtlessly undertaken, his own fault.

Never mind. From the woods to the north, almost behind them, he could just discern the sound of creaking rifles straps. From the lane behind the church, clattering boot heels. They would be encircled in minutes.


He scrambled along the wall to Leftheris and Spiro, and when they would not listen he knocked their rifle barrels up and forcibly pushed them toward the wood line.

"Withdraw, damn you. Not the cave, the old monastery." An eight kilometer trek, hard on old Spiro, but the Germans would not pursue them so far in the dark, and they must by no means expose the cave.

Slowly, the men obeyed, disappearing into the trees, leaving the Captain alone. He rushed back along the broken wall and slipped over it at a point closer to the front of the church, out of sight, he hoped. A heavy machine-gun suddenly opened up from the graveyard, spraying the position were Elias and his men had been half a minute before. On his belly, he arrived at the church wall and slid upright against it. The tall stained-glass window above him had already shattered from the heat. Kerchief against his face, Elias peered in. The fire was nearly out in the front --- having consumed everything there --- but still in full fury near the back. The altar and ancient iconostasis were lost in smoke. Venerable wooden pews were skeletal beneath fiery cowls, roof timbers exploded above. The church was old, much of it contents centuries older, and even the godless Captain felt the loss. He could not see the place where the icon was hidden, and there was no sign of any man.

He ducked down again. There were voices and rushing feet in the woods below, a lantern swung wildly. They would be up the slope any moment, finding only their fellow Germans in the graveyard beyond. With any luck the bastards would shoot each other. Elias dropped to his stomach and crawled back toward the front of the church.

The few soldiers who had been left in the courtyard had abandoned it, to join the encircling troops, presumably. That left the front entrance clear, if the men inside had been able to fight through the flames to get to it. The crypt passage still seemed the most likely route, though. The Captain reentered the woods at a safe distance from the enemy, where he quickly stashed his rifle and bandoleer inside a split tree-trunk. Then he tucked the pistol under his loose vest. Anyone with a good eye and a little bit of light to work with could spot him as an andarte, but it would have to do. He must make his way into the village. Already the wheels of his mind were turning with the night's terrible possibilities. He had three places to search, four men to find, and some hard questions to answer. Then he had to make things right with The Prince.

By morning everything would be clearer, though certain questions would persist for a lifetime. Six weeks later, upon their retreat from the region, the Germans would burn the village of Katarini to the ground.

Excerpted from THE ICON © Copyright 2005 by Neil Olson. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

The Icon
by by Neil Olson

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060748389
  • ISBN-13: 9780060748388