GEROLD breathed with relief as he and his men descended the final slope of Mt. Cenis. With the Alps behind them, the worst of the journey was over. The Via Francigena stretched ahead, blessedly flat and well kept, for it still retained its ancient paving of stone, laid down by the Romans in a time before memory.
Gerold spurred his horse into a canter. Perhaps now they could make up for time lost. An unseasonably late snowfall had made the narrow Alpine pass extremely treacherous; two men had died when their mounts lost their footing on the slippery ground, plunging horses and riders to their deaths. Gerold had been forced to call a halt until conditions improved; the delay put them even farther behind the vanguard of the imperial army, which must now be drawing close to Rome.
No matter; Lothar would scarcely miss them. This rear division numbered only two hundred men—lordlings and small landholders who had arrived late to the spring muster at the Marchfeld. It was an insulting command for a man of Gerold’s stature.
In the three years since the Battle of Fontenoy, Gerold’s relationship with Emperor Lothar had gone from bad to worse. Lothar had gradually become more and more tyrannical, surrounding himself with toadying followers who flattered him at every turn. He had absolutely no tolerance for fideles like Gerold, who continued to voice his opinions honestly—as, for example, when he had advised against this current campaign against Rome.
“Our troops are needed on the Frisian coast,” Gerold argued, “to defend against the Norsemen. Their raids are becoming more and more frequent—and destructive.”
It was true. Last year the Norsemen had attacked St.-Wandrille and Utrecht; the previous spring they had sailed brazenly down the Seine and burned Paris! This had sent a shock wave of fear over the countryside. If so great a city as Paris, in the very heart of the Empire, was not safe from the barbarians, then no place was.
Lothar’s attention, however, was directed toward Rome, which had dared proceed with Pope Sergius’s consecration without first asking for his sovereign approval—an omission which Lothar took as a personal affront.
“Send to Sergius and make your royal displeasure known,” Ger old advised. “Punish the Romans by withholding payment of the Romefeoh. But let us keep our fighting men here, where they are needed.”
Lothar had been enraged at this challenge to his authority. In retaliation, he had assigned Gerold command of the rear division.
They made good progress on the paved road, covering almost forty miles before dusk, but they did not pass a single town or village. Gerold had all but resigned himself to another restless night bedded down by the side of the road when he caught sight of a spiral of smoke circling lazily above the treetops.
Deo gratias! There was a village ahead, or at least a settlement of some kind. Now Gerold and his men were assured of a comfortable night’s sleep. They had not yet crossed the border into papal lands; the Kingdom of Lombardy, through which they now rode, was imperial territory, and hospitality required that travelers be courteously welcomed—if not to beds in the house, then at least to soft berths of hay in a warm, dry stable.
They rounded a curve and saw that the smoke was not coming from a welcoming hearth fire but from the still-smoldering remains of houses burned to the ground. It must have been a thriving settlement; Gerold made out the blackened outlines of some fifteen buildings. The blaze had probably been started by a chance spark from a carelessly tended lamp or hearth fire; such calamities were not uncommon where houses were built of wood and thatch.
Riding past the blackened timbers, Gerold was reminded of Villaris. It had looked much the same on that long-ago day when he returned to find it burned by the Norsemen. He remembered digging through the rubble searching for Joan, seeking, yet afraid to find. Amazing—it had been fifteen years since he had last seen her, yet her image was imprinted on his mind as if it were yesterday: the crop of white-gold hair that curled beguilingly about her forehead, the full, throaty voice, the deep-set gray-green eyes so much wiser than their years.
He forced her image from his mind. Some things were too painful to dwell upon.
A mile beyond the ruined settlement, at the high cross marking the spot where two roads converged, a woman and five ragged children were begging alms. As Gerold and his men rode up, the little family drew back fearfully.
“Be at peace, good mother,” Gerold reassured her. “We mean you no harm.”
“Have you any food to spare, lord?” she asked. “For the children’s sake?”
Four of the children ran to Gerold, holding their hands out in mute appeal, their small faces tight and anxious with hunger. The fifth, a pretty, black-haired girl some thirteen years of age, hung back and clung to her mother.
Gerold withdrew from his saddlebag the square of oiled sheepskin that held his ration of food for the next few days. There remained a good-sized loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and some dried salt venison. He started to break the loaf in half, then saw the children watching. Ah, well, he thought, handing over the whole parcel. It’s only a few more days to Rome; I can get by on the biscuits in the supply wagon.
With a glad cry, the children fell upon the food like a swarm of starveling birds.
“Are you from the village?” Gerold asked the woman, pointing to the blackened ruin behind them.
The woman nodded. “My husband is the miller.”
Gerold hid his surprise. The ragged figure before him appeared to be anything but a prosperous miller’s wife. “What happened?”
“Three days ago, after the spring planting, soldiers came. The Emperor’s men. They said we had to swear allegiance to Lothar or die immediately by their swords. So of course we swore.”
Gerold nodded. Lothar’s doubts about this part of Lombardy were not entirely unjustified, for it was a relatively new addition to the Empire, acquired by Lothar’s grandfather, the great Emperor Karolus.
“If you took the oath of loyalty,” he asked, “how did your village come to be destroyed?”
“They didn’t believe us. Liars, they called us, and threw torches onto our roofs. When we tried to put the fires out, they held us back with their swords. Our stores of grain they torched as well, though we begged them not to, for the children’s sake. They laughed and called them traitors’ spawn, who deserved to starve.”
“Villains!” Gerold exclaimed angrily. He had tried many times to convince Lothar that he could not win his subjects’ loyalty with the use of force but only through just dealing and the rule of law. As usual, his words had fallen on deaf ears.
“They took all our men,” the woman continued, “except the very young and the very old. The Emperor was marching to Rome, they said, and needed men to swell the foot ranks.” She started to weep. “They took my husband and two of my sons—the younger is only eleven!”
Gerold scowled. Things had come to a sorry pass when Lothar needed children to fight his battles.
“My lord, what does it mean?” the woman asked anxiously. “Is the Emperor going to make war against the Holy City?”
“I don’t know.” Until this moment, Gerold had thought Lothar meant only to intimidate Pope Sergius and the Romans with a show of force. But the destruction of this village was an ominous sign; in so vengeful a mood, Lothar was capable of anything.
“Come, good mother,” Gerold said. “We will take you with us to the next town. This is no safe place for you and the children.”
She shook her head fiercely. “I’ll not budge from this spot. How will my husband and sons find us when they return?”
If they return, Gerold thought grimly. To the black-haired girl he said, “Tell your mother to come with us, for the sake of the little ones.”
The girl stared mutely at Gerold.
“She means no discourtesy, lord,” her mother apologized. “She would answer if she could, but she cannot speak.”
“Cannot speak?” Gerold said, surprised. The girl looked sound and showed no sign of being simple.
“Her tongue’s cut out.”
“Great God!” The loss of a tongue was a common punishment for thieves and other miscreants not quick enough to dodge the law’s harsh justice. But surely this innocent young girl was guiltless of any crime. “Who did this? Surely it was not—”
The woman nodded grimly. “Lothar’s men used her unlawfully, then cut out her tongue so she could not accuse them of the shameful deed.”
Gerold was stunned. Such atrocities were to be expected of heathen Norsemen or Saracens—not of the Emperor’s soldiers, defenders of Christian law and justice.
Brusquely Gerold gave orders. His men went to the wagons and took out a sack of biscuits and a small barrel of wine, which they placed on the ground before the little family.
“God bless you,” the miller’s wife said feelingly.
“And you, good mother,” Gerold said.
They rode on, passing other plundered and deserted settlements along the way. Lothar had left ruin behind him wherever he passed.
Fidelis adjutor. As sworn fidelis to the imperial crown, Gerold was bound in honor to serve the Emperor faithfully. But what honor was there in serving a brute like Lothar? The disregard with which the Emperor cast aside the law and all other standards of human decency surely wiped clean the slate of obligation.
Gerold would lead this rearguard of the imperial army into Rome as he had promised. But afterward, he resolved firmly, he would quit the service of the tyrant Lothar forever.
BEYOND Nepi, the road deteriorated. The solid, hard-surfaced high way gave way to a narrow and decaying track, pitted with treacherous crevices and gulleys. The Roman paving was gone, the ancient stones removed and carted off for use in other construction—for such strong building materials were scarce in these dark times. Gerold read the marks of Lothar’s passing in the dark earth, deeply rutted with the multiple tracks of wagons and horses. They had to take extra care with the horses, lest they lame themselves with an unlucky step.
During the night, a heavy rainfall turned the road into an impassable sea of mud. Rather than call another halt, Gerold decided to strike out through the open countryside and come round to the Via Palestrina, which would bring them into Rome through the eastern gate of St. John.
They rode swiftly through budding, sweet-scented meadows of gentian and woods sprouting with the gold-green leaves of spring. Emerging from a patch of dense scrub, they suddenly came upon a group of mounted men riding escort around a heavy wagon pulled by four strong cart horses.
“Greetings.” Gerold addressed the man who appeared to be their leader, a dark-avised fellow with narrow, puffy eyes. “Can you tell us if we are headed toward the Via Palestrina?”
“You are,” the man responded curtly. He turned to ride past.
“If you’re bound for the Via Flaminia,” Gerold said, “better think again. The road’s washed out; your cart will be mired to its axles before you’ve gone ten yards.”
The man said, “We’re not headed there.”
That was curious. Other than the road, there was nothing in the direction they were headed but deserted countryside. “Where are you going?” Gerold asked.
“I’ve told you all you need to know,” the man snapped. “Ride on and leave an honest merchant to his business.”
No ordinary merchant would address a lord so pridefully. Gerold’s suspicions were aroused.
“What is your trade?” Gerold rode to the cart. “Perhaps you’ve something I’d be interested in buying.”
“Leave that alone!” the man shouted.
Gerold wrenched the covers back, revealing the contents of the cart: a dozen bronze coffers secured with heavy iron locks, each marked unmistakably with the papal insignia.
The Pope’s men, Gerold thought. They must have been sent from the city to transport the papal treasure out of reach of Lothar’s clutches.
He toyed with the idea of commandeering the treasure and bringing it back to Lothar. Then he thought, No. Let the Romans salvage what they may. Pope Sergius would no doubt find a better purpose for the money than Lothar, who would only use it to finance more brutal and bloody military campaigns.
He was about to ride on when one of the Romans leapt from his horse and prostrated himself on the ground. “Mercy, lord!” he cried. “Spare us! We must not die unshriven with the weight of this great crime upon our souls!”
“Crime?” Gerold echoed.
“Hold your tongue, fool!” Their leader spurred his horse and would have trampled the other in the dirt, but Gerold intercepted him with drawn sword. Immediately Gerold’s men drew their swords and surrounded the Romans, who, observing how greatly they were outnumbered, wisely kept their own blades scabbarded.
“Benedict’s the one to blame!” the man on the ground sputtered in a burst of retaliatory anger. “It was his idea to steal the money, not ours!”
Steal the money?
The man called Benedict spoke placatingly. “I have no quarrel with you, lord, nor need our petty quarrels concern you. Let us pass in peace, and in token of our gratitude you may have one of these coffers.” He smiled at Gerold conspiratorially. “There’s gold enough inside to make you a wealthy man.”
The offer and the manner of his making it resolved all doubt. “Bind him,” Gerold commanded. “And the others. We’ll take them and these coffers to Rome with us.”
THE triclinium was ablaze with the light of a hundred torches. A phalanx of servants stood behind the high table at which Pope Sergius sat, flanked by the high dignitaries of the city: the priests of each of the seven regions of Rome to his left; their temporal counterparts, the seven defensores, to his right. Perpendicular to this table, and just as grand, was another, at which Lothar and his retinue were placed at seats of honor. The rest of the company, some two hundred men altogether, sat on hard wooden benches drawn up before long tables in the middle of the room. Plates, ewers, goblets, and platters crowded together on the tables, whose cloths already carried the marks of innumerable spills and stains.
As it was neither a Wednesday nor a Friday, nor any other fast day, the meal was not confined to bread and fish but included flesh meat and other rich viands. Even for a Pope’s table, it was an extraordinary repast: there were platters of capons smothered with white sauce and ornamented with pomegranate and crimson sweetmeats; bowls of soup, filled with tender morsels of rabbit and woodcock swimming in a thick cream, giving off an aromatic steam; jellies of crayfish and loach; whole pigs larded with grease; and huge plates of roasted roe deer, kid, pigeon, and goose. In the center of Lothar’s table, a whole cooked swan was displayed as if alive, its gilded beak and silvered body resting upon a mass of greens artfully arranged to appear like waves of the sea.
Seated at one of the tables in the center of the room, Joan cast a worried eye over the extravagant display. Such rich delights might well tempt Sergius into dangerous overindulgence.
“A toast!” The Count of Mâcon rose from his place beside Lothar and raised his cup. “To peace and friendship between our two Christian peoples!”
“Peace and friendship!” everyone chorused, and drained their cups. Servants hurried along the tables, pouring more wine.
There followed a multitude of toasts. When at last they ran out of subjects for liquid tribute, the feasting began.
Joan watched with alarm as Sergius ate and drank with reckless abandon. His eyes began to swell, his speech to slur, his skin to darken ominously. She would have to give him a strong dose of colchicum tonight to prevent a return attack of gout.
The doors to the triclinium opened, and a group of guards marched in. Sidestepping to avoid the innumerable serving boys who scurried nimbly about the room fetching and clearing dishes, the guards made their way briskly to the front of the room. A sudden quiet fell as the guests broke off talking, craning their necks to make out the cause of this extraordinary intrusion. This hush was followed by a murmur of surprise as they caught a glimpse of the man who walked in the midst of the guards with bound hands and lowered eyes: Benedict.
The cheerful circles of Sergius’s face collapsed like punctured bladders. “You!” he cried.
Tarasius, the leader of the guards, said, “A troop of Franks found him in the campagna. He had the treasure with him.”
Benedict had had a good deal of time on the trip back to Rome to consider his predicament. He could not deny taking the treasure, having been caught in the act. Nor could he think of a plausible excuse for what he had done, though he had racked his brain trying. He finally decided that the best course was to throw himself upon his brother’s mercy. Sergius was tenderhearted to the core—a weakness Benedict despised, though now he hoped to use it to his gain.
He dropped to his knees, lifting his bound arms toward his brother. “Forgive me, Sergius. I have sinned, and I repent most humbly and sincerely.”
But Benedict had not counted on the effects of the wine on his brother’s temper. Sergius’s face crimsoned as he swung unexpectedly into rage. “Traitor!” he shouted. “Villain! Thief!” He punctuated each word with a violent thump of his fist on the table, setting the plates clattering.
Benedict paled. “Brother, I beseech you—”
“Take him away!” Sergius ordered.
“Where should we take him, Holiness?” Tarasius asked.
Sergius’s head was spinning; it was difficult to think. All he knew was that he had been betrayed, and he wanted to strike back, to wound as he himself had been wounded. “He’s a thief!” he said bitterly. “Let him be punished as a thief!”
“No!” Benedict shouted as the guards took hold of him. “Sergius! Brother!” The last word was left echoing as he was dragged from the hall.
The color drained from Sergius’s face, and he dropped into his chair. His head fell back, his eyes rolled, his arms and legs began to shake uncontrollably.
“It’s the evil eye!” someone shouted. “Benedict’s put a spell on him!” The guests cried out in consternation, crossing themselves against the workings of the Devil.
Joan raced through the crowded tables to Sergius’s side. His face was turning blue. She took hold of his head and pried his clenched jaws open. His tongue was folded back upon itself, blocking the airway. Grabbing a knife from the table, Joan inserted the blunt end into Sergius’s mouth, slipping it into the folded loop of tongue. Then she pulled. There was a sucking sound as the tongue flipped forward. Sergius gasped and began to breathe again. Joan pressed down gently with the knife, keeping the airway open. After a moment, the paroxysm subsided. With a muted groan, Sergius went limp.
“Take him to his bed,” she ordered. Several serving boys lifted Sergius from his chair and carried him toward the door as the crowd pressed round curiously. “Make way! Make way!” Joan shouted as they bore the unconscious Pope out of the hall.
BY THE time they reached his bedroom, Sergius was conscious. Joan gave him black mustard mixed with gentian to make him vomit. Afterward he was dramatically improved. She gave him a strong dose of colchicum, just to be safe, mixing in some poppy juice to help him rest soundly.
“He’ll sleep till morning,” she told Arighis.
Arighis nodded. “You look exhausted.”
“I am rather tired,” Joan admitted. It had been a long day, and she had not yet recovered fully from her weeks of confinement in the dungeon.
“Ennodius and others from the physicians’ society are waiting outside. They mean to interrogate you about His Holiness’s relapse.”
Joan sighed. She did not feel up to fending off a barrage of hostile questions, but apparently there was no help for it. Wearily she started for the door.
“Just a moment.” Arighis beckoned her to follow him. At the far side of the room, he moved aside one of the tapestries and pushed on the wall beneath. The wall slid sideways, leaving an opening some two and a half feet wide.
“What on earth?” Joan was astonished.
“A secret passage,” Arighis explained. “Built in the days of the pagan Emperors—in case they needed to make a quick escape from their enemies. Now it connects the papal bedroom to the private chapel, so the Apostolic One can enter and pray undisturbed any time of day or night. Come.” He took a candle and entered the passage. “This way you can avoid that pack of jackals, at least for tonight.”
Joan was touched that Arighis would share his knowledge of the secret passageway; it was a sign of the growing trust and respect between them. They descended a steep circular flight of stairs that leveled out before a wall into which was set a wooden lever. Arighis pulled it, and the wall moved aside, opening a passage. Joan slipped through, and the vicedominus pulled the lever again. The opening disappeared, leaving no trace of its existence.
She was behind one of the marble pillars in the rear of the Pope’s private chapel, the Sanctum Sanctorum. Voices sounded near the altar. This was unexpected; no one should be here at this hour of night.
“It’s been a long time, Anastasius,” one voice said in gruff, heavily accented tones she recognized as Lothar’s. He had called the other one Anastasius; that must be the Bishop of Castellum. The two men had obviously withdrawn to the chapel to speak privately. They would not look kindly upon an intruder.
What should I do? Joan wondered. If she tried to slip quietly through the door of the chapel, they might see her. Nor could she retrace her steps to the papal chamber; the lever that controlled the secret passage was on the other side of the wall. She would have to stay hidden until the meeting concluded and both men left. Then she could slip out of the chapel unnoticed.
“Most distressing, His Holiness’s attack this evening,” Lothar said.
Anastasius replied, “The Apostolic One is very ill. He may not live out the year.”
“A great tragedy for the Church.”
“Very great,” Anastasius agreed smoothly.
“His successor must be a man of strength and vision,” Lothar said, “a man who can better appreciate the historic … understanding between our two peoples.”
“You must use all your influence, my liege, to ensure that the next Pontiff is such a man.”
“Don’t you mean—a man like you?”
“Have you reason to doubt me, Sire? Surely the service I did you at Colmar proved my loyalty beyond all question.”
“Perhaps.” Lothar was noncommittal. “But times change, and so do men. Now, my lord Bishop, your loyalty is to be put to the test again. Will you support the oath taking, or no?”
“The people will be reluctant to swear loyalty to you, my liege, after the damage your army has visited upon the countryside.”
“Your family has the power to change that,” Lothar responded. “If you and your father, Arsenius, take the oath, others will follow.”
“What you ask is very great. It would require something great in return.”
“I know that.”
“An oath is only words. The people need a Pope who can lead them back to the old ways—to the Frankish Empire, and to you, my liege.”
“I can think of no one better able to do that than you, Anastasius. I shall do everything in my power to see that you are the next Pope.”
There was a pause. Then Anastasius said, “The people will take the oath, Sire. I will make certain of it.”
Joan felt a surge of anger. Lothar and Anastasius had just bartered for the papacy like a pair of merchants at a bazaar. In return for the privileges of power, Anastasius had agreed to hand the Romans over to the Frankish Emperor’s control.
There was a knock on the door, and Lothar’s servant entered.
“The count has arrived, my liege.”
“Show him in. The bishop and I have concluded our business.”
A man entered, dressed in a soldier’s brunia. He was tall and striking, with long, red hair and indigo eyes.