Biographies & Memoirs


THE Roman summer arrived with a vengeance. The sun beat down relentlessly; by midday, the cobblestones were hot enough to blister a man’s feet. The stench of rotting garbage and manure, intensified by the heat, rose into the still air and hung over the city like a suffocating pall. Pestilential fevers raged among the poor who lived in the damp and decaying tenements lining the low-lying banks of the Tiber.

Fearful of contagion, Lothar and his army quit the city. The Romans rejoiced at their departure, for the burden of maintaining so large a host had strained the city’s resources to the limit.

Sergius was hailed as a hero. The adulation of the people helped soften his grief over Benedict’s death. Buoyed by newfound health and energy—gained in large measure from the spartan diet Joan had imposed in penance—Sergius was a man transformed. True to his promise, he began rebuilding the Orphanotrophium. The crumbling walls were reinforced, a new roof added. Tiles of fine travertine marble were stripped from the pagan Temple of Minerva and used to line the floor of the great hall. A new chapel was constructed and dedicated to St. Stephen.

Where previously Sergius had frequently been too tired or ill to say Mass, he now celebrated the holy service every morning. In addition, he was often to be found praying in his private chapel. He threw himself into his faith with the same fervor with which he had once pursued the pleasures of the table—for he was not a man to do things by halves.

Two years of mild winters and plentiful harvests resulted in a time of general prosperity. Even the legions of poor who crowded the streets of the city seemed a little less wretched, as the pockets of their more prosperous brethren loosened and almsgiving increased. The Romans offered prayers of thanksgiving at the altars of their churches, well content with their city and their Lord Pope.

They did not suspect—how could they?—the catastrophe that was about to descend upon them.

JOAN was with Sergius during one of his regular meetings with the princes of the city when a messenger burst in upon them.

“What’s this?” Sergius inquired sternly.

“Holiness.” The messenger knelt in obeisance. “I bring a message of utmost importance from Siena. A large fleet of Saracen ships has set sail from Africa. They are on a direct course toward Rome.”

“Toward Rome?” one of the princes echoed thinly. “Surely the report is mistaken.”

“There is no mistake,” the messenger said. “The Saracens will be here within a fortnight.”

There was a moment of silence while everyone took in this astonishing news.

Another of the princes spoke. “Perhaps it would be wise to remove the holy relics to a place of greater safety?” He was referring to the bones of the apostle Peter, the most sacred relics in all of Christendom, which lay housed in their namesake basilica outside the protection of the city walls.

Romuald, the greatest of the assembled princes, threw back his head and laughed. “You don’t think the infidels would attack St. Peter’s!”

“What’s to prevent them?” Joan asked.

“They may be barbarians, but they’re not fools,” Romuald replied. “They know the hand of God would smite them flat the moment they set foot inside the sacred tomb!”

“They have their own worship,” Joan pointed out. “They do not fear the hand of our Christian God.”

Romuald’s smile died. “What heathen blasphemy is this?”

Joan stood her ground. “The basilica is an obvious target for plunder, if only for the treasure that lies within. For safety’s sake, we should bring these sacred objects and the saint’s sarcophagus within the city walls.”

Sergius was doubtful. “We’ve had other such warnings before, and nothing came of them.”

“Indeed,” Romuald said mockingly, “if we took fright at every sighting of a Saracen ship, the sacred bones would have been moving back and forth like a pair of shuttles on a loom!”

A burst of appreciative laughter was instantly cut off by the Pontiff’s disapproving frown.

Sergius said, “God will defend His own. The Blessed Apostle will remain where he is.”

“At least,” Joan urged, “let us send to the outlying settlements, asking for men to help defend the city.”

“It’s pruning time,” Sergius said. “The settlements need every able-bodied man to work in the vineyards. I see no need to risk the harvest, upon which all depend, when there is no immediate danger.”

“But, Holiness—”

Sergius cut her off. “Trust in God, John Anglicus. There is no stronger armor than that of Christian faith and prayer.”

Joan bowed her head in submission. But inside she thought rebelliously: When the Saracens are at the gates, all the prayer in the world will not help half so much as a single division of good fighting men.

GEROLD and his company were encamped just outside the town of Benevento. Within their tents the men were sleeping soundly after a long night of ribaldry—a boon Gerold had granted in reward for their resounding victory the day before.

For the past two years Gerold had commanded Prince Siconulf’s armies, fighting to secure Siconulf’s throne against the ambitious pretender Radelchis. A skilled commander who pushed his men hard while they were learning discipline and proficiency at arms, then trusted them to give good account of themselves on the field, Gerold had inflicted defeat after defeat on Radelchis’s forces. Yesterday’s victory was so resounding it had probably put an end to Radelchis’s claim to the Beneventan throne forever.

Although armed sentries were posted all around the camp, Gerold and his men slept with swords and shields at their sides, where they were always ready at hand. Gerold took no chances, for an enemy could be dangerous even after defeat. The heat of revenge often drove men to rash and desperate action. Gerold knew of many encampments taken by surprise, their inhabitants slaughtered before they even had time to wake.

At the moment, however, such thoughts were far from Gerold’s mind. He lay supine, arms behind his head, legs splayed carelessly. Beside him a woman covered in his cloak breathed soddenly, a rhythmic sound broken by occasional bursts of snoring.

In the light of dawn Gerold regretted the brief gust of passion that had brought her into his bed. There had been other such transient encounters over the years, each less satisfying and more forgettable than the one before. For Gerold still cherished in his heart the memory of a love that could never be forgotten.

He shook his head impatiently. It was idle to dwell upon the past. Joan had not shared his feelings, or she would not have sent him away.

The woman rolled onto her side. Gerold touched her shoulder and she woke, opening pretty brown eyes that stared back at him without depth or meaning.

“It’s morning,” Gerold said. He took a few coins from his scrip and handed them to her.

She jingled them and smiled happily. “Shall I come again tonight, my lord?”

“No, that won’t be necessary.”

She looked disappointed. “Didn’t I please you?”

“Yes, yes, of course. But we’re breaking camp tonight.”

A short while later he watched her cross the field, her sandals slapping dully against the dry grass. Overhead the cloudy sky was lightening into a flat and pallid gray.

Soon it would again be day.

SICONULF and his chief fideles were already gathered in the great hall when Gerold entered. Dispensing with the usual courtesies, Siconulf announced abruptly, “I have just received word from Corsica. Seventy-three Saracen ships have set sail from the African coast. They are carrying some five thousand men and two hundred horse.”

An astonished silence followed. So large a fleet was scarcely imaginable.

Eburis, one of Siconulf’s fideles, gave a low whistle. “Whatever they intend, it’s more than just another piratical raid upon our coast.”

“They have set course for Rome,” Siconulf said.

“Rome! Surely not!” said another of the fideles.

“Preposterous!” scoffed a third. “They’d never dare!”

Gerold scarcely heard them. His thoughts were racing ahead. “Pope Sergius will need our help,” he said tautly.

But it was not Sergius he was thinking of. With a single stroke, the news of the approach of the Saracen fleet had erased all the bitter hurt and misunderstanding of the past two years. Only one thing mattered—to reach Joan and do everything within his power to protect her.

“What do you suggest, Gerold?” Siconulf asked.

“My prince, let me lead our troops to Rome’s defense.”

Siconulf frowned. “Surely the Holy City has defenders of her own.”

“Only the familia Sancti Petri—a small and undisciplined group of papal militia. They will fall like summer wheat before the Saracens’ blades.”

“What about the Aurelian Wall? Surely the Saracens cannot breach it?”

“The wall seems strong enough,” Gerold admitted. “But several of its gates are poorly reinforced. They won’t withstand a sustained assault. And the tomb of St. Peter is entirely unprotected, for it lies outside the wall.”

Siconulf considered this. He was reluctant to commit his troops to a cause other than his own. But he was a Christian prince, with a proper reverence for the Holy City and its sacred places. The idea of barbarian infidels defiling the Apostle’s tomb was appalling. Besides, it occurred to him now that there might be some personal benefit in sending men to Rome’s defense. Afterward, a grateful Pope Sergius might reward him with one of the rich papal patrimonies that bordered Siconulf’s territory.

He said to Gerold, “You may have three divisions of troops. How long will you need to prepare to march?”

“The troops are battle hardened and ready. We can leave at once. If the weather holds, we’ll be in Rome in ten days’ time.”

“Let us pray that will be sufficient. God go with you, Gerold.”

IN ROME, an eerie sense of calm prevailed. Since the initial warning from Siena two weeks before, there had been no further word of the Saracen fleet. The Romans gradually began to relax their vigilance, convincing themselves that the reports of an enemy fleet had been false, after all.

The morning of August 23 dawned bright with promise. The stational mass was held at the Cathedral of Sancta Maria ad Martyres, known in pagan days as the Pantheon, one of the loveliest of Rome’s churches. It was an especially beautiful service, with the sun filtering through the circular opening in the basilica’s great domed roof, casting a golden glow over the entire congregation. Returning to the Patriarchium, the choir joyously chanted, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”

The song died on their lips as they entered the sun-dazzled piazza of the Lateran and saw a crowd of citizens milling anxiously round a weary and mud-stained messenger.

“The infidels have landed,” the messenger announced grimly. “The town of Porto is taken, its people slaughtered and its churches defiled.”

“Christ aid!” someone cried.

“What will become of us?” wailed another.

“They will kill us all!” a third shouted hysterically.

The crowd threatened to break into a dangerous disorder.

“Silence!” Sergius’s voice rang above the uproar. “Cease this unworthy display!” The voice of authority cut commandingly through the din, compelling obedience.

“What,” he said, “are we sheep, to cower so? Are we babes, to think ourselves defenseless!” He paused dramatically. “No! We are Romans! And this is Rome, protectorate of St. Peter, key bearer of the Kingdom of Heaven! ‘Thou art Peter,’ Christ has said, ‘and upon this rock shall I build my church.’ Why should you fear? Will God suffer His sacred altar to be defiled?”

The crowd stirred. Scattered voices cried out in response: “Yes! Listen to the Lord Pope! Sergius is right!”

“Have we not our guards and our militia?” With a sweep of his arm, Sergius indicated the papal guards, who obliged by raising their lances and shaking them fiercely. “The blood of our ancestors runs in their veins; they are armed with the strength of Omnipotent God! Who shall prevail against them?”

The crowd let out a ragged cheer. Rome’s heroic past was still a source of pride, the military triumphs of Caesar and Pompey and Augustus the common knowledge of every citizen.

Joan watched Sergius in wonderment. Could this heroic figure be the same ailing, ill-tempered, disheartened old man she had encountered two years ago?

“Let the infidels come!” Sergius cried. “Let them hurl their weapons against this sacred fortress! They will crack their hearts against our God-protected walls!”

Joan felt the excitement, the swelling crest that rose thrillingly and broke upon the crowd in a roiling tumult of emotion. Her own feet were too firmly planted in reality to be so easily swept away. The world is not as we would have it, she thought, no matter how skillfully we may conjure it.

The crowd were on their feet, heads lifted, faces aglow. All around Joan excited voices reverberated in unison: “Sergius! Sergius! Sergius! Sergius!”

AT SERGIUS’S command, the people spent the next two days fasting and praying. The altars of all the churches shone brightly, lit with a profusion of votive candles. Miracles were everywhere reported. The golden statue of the Madonna at the Oratory of St. Cosmas was said to have moved her eyes and sung a litany. The crucifix above the altar of St. Hadrian had shed tears of blood. These miracles were interpreted as signs of divine blessing and favor. Day and night the sound of Hosanna rang out from churches and monasteries, as the clergy of the city rose to the Lord Pope’s challenge and prepared to meet the enemy with the invincible strength of their Christian faith.

Shortly after dawn on August 26, the cry came down from the walls. “They’re coming! They’re coming!”

The terrified shrieks of the people penetrated even the thick stone walls of the Patriarchium.

“I must go to the parapets,” Sergius announced. “When the people see me, they will know they have nothing to fear.”

Arighis and the other optimates protested, arguing that it was far too dangerous, but Sergius was adamant. In the end they reluctantly led him to the wall, careful to choose a place where the stones rose somewhat higher, affording better protection.

There was a great cheer as Sergius ascended the steps. Then all eyes turned toward the west. A great cloud of dust rose shimmering in the air. The Saracens emerged from it at a rapid gallop, their loose garments flapping behind them like the wings of giant birds of prey. A terrible war cry rang out, a long, high ululation that rose and hung shuddering in the air, sending a chill of terror down the spines of all who stood listening.

“Deo, juva nos,” one of the priests said tremblingly.

Sergius raised a small, gem-encrusted crucifix and cried, “Christ is our Savior and our Shield.”

The city gates opened, and the papal militia marched out bravely to meet the enemy. “Death to the infidel!” they shouted, waving their swords and spears.

The opposing armies collided with a great noise of clashing steel, louder than the din of a thousand smiths. In minutes, it became evident the battle was hopelessly unequal; the Saracen cavalry rode straight over the front ranks of the Roman foot soldiers, cutting and slashing with their curved scimitars.

The militia in the rear could not see the slaughter up front. Still convinced of victory, they thronged forward, pushing against the backs of those before them. Line after line of men were driven relentlessly onto the Saracens’ swords and fell, their bodies creating a treacherous stumbling ground for those who came after.

It was a massacre. Broken and terrified, the militia retreated in desperate disorder. “Run!” they screamed as they scattered across the field like seeds of grain before a wind. “Run for your lives!”

The Saracens did not trouble to pursue them, for their victory had gained them a much greater prize: the unprotected basilica of St. Peter. They surrounded it in a dark swarm. They did not dismount but rode their horses straight up the steps and through the doors in a great flying wedge.

Behind the walls, the Romans waited breathlessly. A minute passed. Then another. No thunderclap split the sky, no sea of flame poured from the heavens. Instead, the unmistakable noise of rending wood and metal issued from the basilica. The Saracens were pillaging the sacred altar.

“It cannot be,” Sergius whispered. “Dear God, it cannot be.”

A band of Saracens emerged from the basilica, waving the golden cross of Constantine. Men had died, it was said, simply for daring to touch it. Yet now the Saracens tossed it about mockingly, laughing as they pumped it up and down between their legs in obscene and beastly parody.

With a muted groan, Sergius dropped the crucifix and sank to his knees.

“Holiness!” Joan rushed to him.

He grimaced in pain, pressing one hand to his chest.

A seizure of the heart, Joan thought in alarm. “Take him up,” she commanded. Arighis and several of the guards lifted the stricken Pope, cradling him in their arms, and carried him into a nearby house, where they laid him down on a thick straw mattress.

Sergius’s breath was coming in labored gasps. Joan prepared an infusion of willow bark and hawthorn berries and gave it to him. It seemed to ease him, for his color improved and he began to breathe more easily.

“They’re at the gates!” People were screaming outside. “Christ aid! They’re at the gates!”

Sergius tried to raise himself from the bed, but Joan eased him back. “You must not move.”

The effort had cost him; he pressed his lips together tightly. “Speak for me,” he pleaded. “Turn their minds toward God…. Help them … Prepare them …” His mouth worked agitatedly, but no words came.

“Yes, Holiness, yes,” Joan agreed. Clearly nothing else would pacify him. “I will do as you say. But now you must rest.”

He nodded and lay back. His eyelids fluttered and closed as the medicine began to take effect. There was nothing to do now but let him sleep and hope the medicine would do its work.

Joan left him under the solicitous eye of Arighis and went out onto the street.

A rending noise, loud as a thunderclap, sounded close by. Joan started in fear.

“What’s happening?” she called to a passing group of guards.

“The idolatrous swine are battering at the gate!” a guard called back as they marched past.

She returned to the piazza. Terror had driven the crowd into a frenzy. Men yanked the hairs violently from their beards; women shrieked and tore their cheeks with their nails till the blood ran. The monks of the Abbey of St. John knelt together in a solid clump, black cowls fallen from their heads, arms uplifted to Heaven. Several of their number tore off their robes and began to scourge themselves with split canes of wood in a frenzied attempt to propitiate the evident wrath of God. Frightened at this alarming display, children began to wail, their high-pitched voices threading reedily through the mad, discordant chorus.

Help them, Sergius had pleaded. Prepare them.

But how?

Joan climbed the steps to the wall. Picking up the crucifix Sergius had dropped, she thrust it aloft for all to see. The sun caught its gems, sparking a golden rainbow of light.

“Hosanna in excelsis,” she began loudly. The high, clear notes of the holy canticle rang out over the crowd, strong and sweet and sure. The people nearest the wall raised tear-streaked faces toward the familiar sound. Priests and monks joined their voices in the song, kneeling on the cobbled stones beside masons and seamstresses. “Christus qui venit nomine Domini …”

There was another great crash, followed by the sound of splintering wood. The gates gave an inward heave. Light filtered through where a narrow crack had been opened.

Dear God, Joan thought. What if they break through? Until this moment such a possibility had seemed unthinkable.

Memory flooded her. She saw the Norsemen bursting through the doors of the cathedral at Dorstadt, swinging their axes. She heard the awful screams of the dying … saw John lying with his head crushed in … and Gisla … Gisla …

Her voice trembled into stillness. The people looked up in alarm. Go on, she told herself, go on, but her mind seemed frozen; she could not remember the words.

“Hosanna in excelsis.” A deep baritone sounded beside her. It was Leo, Cardinal Priest of the Church of the Sancti Quattro Coronati. He had climbed up beside her on the wall. The sound of his voice jolted her from her fear, and together they went on with the canticle.

“God and St. Peter!” A loud cry resounded from the east.

The guards on the walls were jumping up and down, cheering, shouting, “God be praised! We are saved!”

She looked over the wall. A great army was galloping toward the city, its fluttering banners emblazoned with the emblems of St. Peter and the cross.

The Saracens dropped their battering rams and ran for their mounts.

Joan squinted into the sun. As the troops drew nearer, she gave a sudden, sharp cry.

At the head of the vanguard, his lance already poised for the throw, tall and fierce and heroic as one of her mother’s ancient gods, rode Gerold.

THE ensuing battle was sharp and savage. The attack of the Beneventans had caught the Saracens off guard; they were driven back from the city walls and forced to retreat through the campagna all the way to the sea. At the coast, the infidels hauled their stolen treasure aboard their ships and set sail. In their haste to depart, they left great numbers of their brethren behind. For weeks Gerold and his men rode up and down the coast, hunting down scattered bands of the marauders.

Rome was saved. The Romans were torn between joy and despair—joy at their deliverance, despair at the destruction of St. Peter’s. For the sacred basilica had been plundered beyond recognition. The ancient gold cross on the tomb of the Apostle was gone, as was the great silver table with the relief of Byzantium, given by Emperor Karolus the Great. The infidels had torn silver entablatures from the doors and gold plates from the floor. They had even—God darken their eyes!—carried away the high altar itself. Unable to remove the bronze coffin containing the body of the Prince of the Apostles, they had broken it open, scattering and defiling the sacred ashes.

All Christendom was plunged into grief. The footprints of the ages were preserved within this sanctum sanctorum of the Christian faith. Generations of pilgrims, including kings and emperors, had prostrated themselves before its sacred doors. Venerated popes rested within its walls. Yet this oldest and greatest of Christian churches, which neither Goths nor Vandals had dared to defile, had fallen before a band of African pirates.

Sergius blamed himself for the catastrophe. He withdrew to his rooms, refusing admittance to anyone save Joan and his closest advisers. And he took to drink again, downing cup after cup of Tuscan wine until at last he slipped into merciful oblivion.

The drinking had a predictable effect: his gout returned with a vengeance; to ease the pain, he drank even more. He slept badly. Night after night he woke screaming, tormented by nightmarish dreams in which he was visited by the vengeful specter of Benedict. Joan feared the strain this was putting on his already weakened heart.

“Remember the penance to which you agreed,” she reminded him.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Sergius replied despondently. “I have no hope of Heaven. God has abandoned me.”

“You must not blame yourself for what happened. Some things are beyond all mortal power to remedy or prevent.”

Sergius shook his head. “The soul of my murdered brother cries out against me! I have sinned, and this is my punishment.”

“If you will not think of yourself,” Joan argued, “think of the people! Now, more than ever, they look to you for consolation and guidance.”

She said it to hearten him, but the truth was otherwise. The people had turned against Sergius. There had been sufficient warning of the Saracens’ approach, they said, plenty of time for the Lord Pope to have transported the holy sarcophagus inside the walls. Sergius’s faith in God’s deliverance, which at the time had been universally praised, was now universally condemned as the result of a sinful and disastrously mistaken pride.

“Mea culpa,” Sergius responded, weeping. “Mea maxima culpa.”

Joan reasoned and scolded and cajoled, to no avail. Sergius’s health deteriorated rapidly. Joan did everything she could for him, but it was no use. Sergius had set his mind on death.

Nevertheless, the dying took some time. Long after reason had departed and he had lapsed into unconsciousness, Sergius lingered, his body reluctant to relinquish the final spark of life. On a dark and sunless morning he finally died, his spirit slipping away so quietly that at first no one noticed the passing.

Joan genuinely mourned him. He had not been as good a man or a Pope as he might have been. But she had known, better than anyone else, what demons he had faced, had known how hard he had fought to free himself from them. That he had lost the fight in the end made the struggle no less honorable.

He was buried in the damaged basilica beside his predecessors, with a minimum of ceremony that bordered on the scandalous. The required days of mourning were barely observed, for the Romans had already turned their minds impatiently toward the future—and the election of a new Pope.

ANASTASIUS stepped out of the blustering January winds into the welcoming warmth of his family’s ancestral palace. It was the grandest residence in all of Rome, save of course the Patriarchium, and Anastasius was justly proud of it. The vaulted ceiling of the reception hall rose over two stories and was constructed of pure white marble from Ravenna. Its walls were painted with brightly colored frescoes of scenes from the lives of the family ancestors. One depicted a consul making a speech before the Senate; another a general seated on a black charger, rallying the troops; still another a cardinal receiving the pallium from Pope Hadrian. A panel of the front wall had been left blank in anticipation of the long-awaited day when the family would finally achieve its greatest honor: the coronation of one of its sons as Pope.

Usually the hall was the scene of bustling activity. Today, but for the presence of the family steward, it stood empty. Scorning to acknowledge the steward’s effusive greeting—for Anastasius never wasted time on underlings—he went directly to his father’s room. Arsenius would normally have been in the great hall at this hour, engaged with the city’s notables in the devious and gratifying politics of power. But last month he had been stricken by a wasting fever that had drained his formidable energies, confining him to his room.

“My son.” Arsenius rose from his couch at Anastasius’s entrance. He looked gray and frail. Anastasius felt a curious, exhilarating surge of strength, his own youth and energy somehow enhanced by contrast with his father’s diminishing powers.

“Father.” Anastasius went to him with arms stretched wide, and they embraced warmly.

“What news?” Arsenius asked.

“The election is set for tomorrow.”

“God be praised!” Arsenius exclaimed. It was just an expression. Though he held the exalted title of Bishop of Orte, Arsenius had not taken priest’s orders and was not a religious man. His appointment to the bishopric had been a politic acknowledgment of the enormous power he wielded in the city. “The day cannot come too soon when a son of mine will sit upon the Throne of St. Peter.”

“That outcome may no longer be as certain as we once thought, Father.”

“What do you mean?” Arsenius asked sharply.

“Lothar’s support of my candidacy may not be enough. His failure to defend Rome against the Saracens has turned many against him. The people question why they should pay homage to an Emperor who does not protect us. There’s a growing sentiment that Rome should assert her independence from the Frankish throne.”

Arsenius considered this carefully. Then he said, “You must denounce Lothar.”

Anastasius was aghast. His father’s mind, always so sharp and discerning, was obviously slipping.

“If I did that,” he responded, “I’d lose the support of the imperial party, upon which our hopes depend.”

“No. You will go to them and explain that you are acting strictly out of political necessity. Reassure them that no matter what you may be compelled to say, you are indeed the Emperor’s man, and will prove it after your election with the award of valuable benefices and preferments.”

“Lothar will be furious.”

“By that time, it won’t matter. We’ll move directly to the ceremony of consecration after the election, without waiting for the imperial jussio. Under these circumstances no one will protest, for Rome obviously cannot remain leaderless one day longer than necessary under the continuing threat of the Saracens. By the time Lothar receives word of what has transpired, you’ll be Lord Pope, Bishop of Rome—and there’ll be nothing the Emperor can do to change it.”

Anastasius shook his head admiringly. His father had taken measure of the situation at once. The old fox might be graying, but he had not lost any of his subtlety.

Arsenius held out a long iron key. “Go to the vaults and take what gold you need to win their minds to you. Damn!” he swore. “But for this God-cursed fever, I’d do it myself.”

The key lay cool and hard in Anastasius’s hand, imparting a gratifying sense of power. “Rest yourself, Father. I will take care of it.”

Arsenius caught him by the sleeve. “Be careful, my son. It’s a dangerous game you’re playing. You have not forgotten what happened to your uncle Theodorus?”

Forgotten! The murder of his uncle in the Lateran Palace had been the defining moment of Anastasius’s childhood. The look on Theodorus’s face as the papal guards gouged out his eyes would haunt Anastasius till the day he died.

“I’ll be careful, Father,” Anastasius said. “Leave everything to me.”

“Precisely,” replied Arsenius, “what I intend.”

AD TE, Domine, levavi animam meam … Joan prayed, kneeling on the cold stone of the Patriarchium chapel. But no matter how hard she prayed, she could not rise into the light of grace; the strong pull of a mortal attachment kept her rooted here below.

She loved Gerold. There was no longer any point in trying to evade or deny that simple truth. When she had seen him riding toward the city at the head of the Beneventan troops, her whole being had rushed toward him with a powerful conviction.

She was thirty-three years old. Yet she had no one to whom she was intimately connected. The practical realities of her disguise had not permitted anyone to get too close. She had been living a life of deceit, denying the truth of who she was.

Was this why God withheld His blessed grace? Did He want her to abandon her disguise and live the woman’s life to which she had been born?

Sergius’s death had freed her from any obligation to remain in Rome. The next Pope would be Anastasius, and there would be no place for Joan in his administration.

She had fought her feelings for Gerold for so long. What a blessed relief it would be just to let go, to follow the dictates of her heart and not her head.

What would happen when she and Gerold met again? She smiled inwardly, imagining the joy of that moment.

Anything was possible now. Anything might happen.

BY NOON on the appointed day of the election, a great crowd had gathered in the large open area to the southwest of the Lateran. According to ancient custom, formally affirmed in the constitution of 824, all Romans, lay and clergy, participated in the election of a new Pope.

Joan stood on tiptoe, straining to see over the tossing sea of heads and arms. Where was Gerold? Rumor had it that he had returned from his monthlong campaign against the Saracens. If so, he should be here. She was gripped with a sudden fear—had he gone back to Benevento without seeing her again?

The crowd parted respectfully as Eustathius, the archpriest, Desiderius, the archdeacon, and Paschal, the primicerius, came into the marketplace: the triumvirate of officials who by tradition ruled the city sede vacante, meaning in the interregnum between the death of one Pope and the election of another.

Eustathius led the people in a short prayer. “Heavenly Father, guide us in what we do here today, that we may act with prudence and honor, that hatred shall not destroy reason, and love shall not interfere with truth. In the Name of the holy and indivisible Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Paschal spoke next. “The Lord Pope Sergius having gone to God, it falls to us to elect his successor. Any Romans here assembled may speak and voice what sentiments God has inspired in them, that the general will may thereby be determined.”

“My Lord Primicerius.” Tassilo, the leader of the imperial faction and one of Lothar’s agents, spoke up immediately. “One name commends itself above all others. I speak of Anastasius, Bishop of Castellum, son of the illustrious Arsenius. All the qualities of this man’s nature commend him for the throne—his noble birth, his extraordinary scholarship, his indisputed piety. In Anastasius we will have a defender not only of our Christian faith but of our private interests as well.”

“Of your interests, you mean!” a voice called mockingly from the crowd.

“Not at all,” Tassilo retorted. “Anastasius’s generosity and large-heartedness will make him a true father to you all.”

“He’s the Emperor’s man!” the heckler cried again. “We want no tool of the Frankish throne for our Lord Pope!”

“That’s right! That’s right!” Several voices rose in vigorous agreement.

Anastasius ascended the platform. He raised his arms in a dramatic gesture, quieting the crowd. “My fellow Romans, you judge me wrongly. The pride of my noble Roman ancestors runs as strongly in my veins as in yours. I bend my knee before no Frankish overlord!”

“Hear, hear!” his supporters cheered enthusiastically.

“Where was Lothar when the infidel was at our gates?” Anastasius continued. “In failing to answer our need, he forfeited the right to call himself ‘Protector of the Lands of St. Peter!’ As Lothar’s rank is exalted, I owe him honor; as he is a fellow Christian, I owe him courtesy, but my fealty is first and always to Mother Rome!”

He had spoken well. His supporters cheered again, and this time they were joined by others in the crowd. The tide of opinion was shifting toward Anastasius.

“It’s a lie!” Joan cried. All around faces turned toward her in startled surprise.

“Who speaks?” Paschal peered into the crowd. “Let the accuser come forward.”

Joan hesitated. She had spoken without thinking, sparked to anger by Anastasius’s hypocrisy. But there was no backing out now. Boldly she mounted the platform.

“Why, it’s John Anglicus!” someone said. A murmur of recognition swept the crowd; everyone knew or had heard of Joan’s brave stand at the walls during the Saracen attack.

Anastasius blocked her way. “You have no right to address this assembly,” he said. “You’re not a Roman citizen.”

“Let him speak!” a voice called out. Others took up the cry until at last Anastasius was forced to stand aside.

Paschal said, “Speak your accusation openly, John Anglicus.”

Squaring her shoulders, Joan said, “Bishop Anastasius made compact with the Emperor. I overheard him promise to lead the Romans back to the Frankish throne.”

“False priest!” “Liar!” The members of the imperial party began shouting in an attempt to drown her out.

Raising her voice over them, she described how she had overheard Lothar ask for Anastasius’s help in getting the people to take the oath of loyalty, and how Anastasius had agreed in return for Lothar’s support.

“This is a grave accusation,” Paschal said. “What say you to it, Anastasius?”

“Before God the priest is lying,” Anastasius said. “Surely my countrymen will not believe the word of a foreigner over that of a fellow Roman!”

“You were the first to support the oath taking!” someone called out.

“What of it?” countered another. “That proves nothing!”

A good deal of bickering followed. The debate grew heated, the mood of the crowd shifting first one way, then another as speaker after speaker rose to support or condemn Anastasius.

“My lord Primicerius!” Arighis, who until then had not spoken, came forward.

“Vicedominus.” Paschal acknowledged Arighis respectfully, though with some surprise. Devoted and loyal servant to the papal throne that he was, Arighis had never meddled in politics. “Have you aught to add to this debate?”

“I do.” Arighis turned to address the crowd. “Citizens of Rome, we are not free from danger. When spring comes, the Saracens may attempt another assault upon the city. Against this threat we must stand united. There can be no division among us. Whomever we choose for our Lord Pope, it must be one upon whom all can agree.”

A murmur of assent swept through the crowd.

“Is there such a man?” Paschal asked.

“There is,” Arighis replied. “A man of vision and strength, as well as learning and piety: Leo, Cardinal Priest of the Church of the Sancti Quattro Coronati!”

The suggestion was met with profound silence. So intent had they all been on debating the merits of Anastasius’s candidacy, they had not stopped to consider anyone else.

“Leo’s bloodlines are as noble as Anastasius’s,” Arighis went on. “His father is a respected member of the Senate. He has performed his duties as cardinal priest with distinction.” Arighis saved his most telling point for last: “Can any of us forget how he stood bravely at the walls during the Saracen attack, rallying our spirits? He is a lion of God, another St. Lawrence, a man who can, who will protect us from the infidel!”

The exigency of the moment had spurred Arighis into uncharacteristic eloquence. Responding to the depth of his feeling, many in the crowd broke into a spontaneous cheer.

Sensing opportunity, the members of the papal faction took up the cry. “Leo! Leo!” they shouted. “We will have Leo for our lord!”

Anastasius’s supporters mounted a countereffort on behalf of his candidacy. But the sentiment of the crowd had clearly changed. When it became apparent to the imperial faction that they could not carry the day, they swung their support to Leo. With one voice, Leo was proclaimed Lord and Pope.

Borne forward triumphantly on the shoulders of his countrymen, Leo ascended the platform. He was a short but well-formed man still in the prime of his years, his strong Roman features set off by a thick growth of curly brown hair and an expression that suggested intelligence and humor. With a sense of solemn occasion, Paschal prostrated himself before him and kissed his feet. Eustathius and Desiderius immediately followed suit.

All eyes turned expectantly toward Anastasius. For a fraction of a second he hesitated. Then he forced his knees to bend. Stretching himself full length upon the ground, he kissed the Pope-elect’s feet.

“Rise, noble Anastasius.” Leo offered him his hand, helping him to his feet. “From this day forth, you are Cardinal Priest of St. Marcellus.” It was a generous gesture; St. Marcellus was among the greatest of Rome’s churches. Leo had just presented Anastasius with one of the most prestigious sinecures in Rome.

The crowd cheered its approval.

Anastasius forced his lips into a smile as the bitter taste of defeat settled like dry ashes in his mouth.

“MAGNUS Dominus et laudibilis nimis.” The notes of the introit filtered through the window of the small room where Joan kept her medicaments. Because St. Peter’s lay in ruins, the ceremony of consecration was being held in the Lateran Basilica.

Joan should have been in church with the rest of the clergy, witnessing the joyous coronation of a new Pope. But there was much to do here, hanging the new-picked herbs to dry, refilling jars and bottles with their appropriate medicines, setting things in order. When she was done, she scanned the shelves with their neatly stacked rows of potions, herbs, and simples—tangible testimony to all she had learned of the healing art. With a twinge of regret, she realized she would miss this little workshop.

“I thought I might find you here.” Gerold’s voice sounded behind her. Joan’s heart gave a sudden leap of joy. She turned toward him, and their eyes met.

“Tu,” Gerold said softly.


They beamed at each other with the warmth of reestablished intimacy.

“Strange,” he said, “I almost forgot.”


“Each time I see you I … discover you all over again.”

She went to him, and they held each other tenderly, gently.

“The things I said the last time we were together …,” she murmured. “I didn’t mean—”

Gerold put a finger to her lips. “Let me speak first. What happened was my fault. I was wrong to ask you to leave; I see that now. I didn’t understand what you have accomplished here … what you have become. You were right, Joan—nothing I can offer you could possibly compare.”

Except love, Joan thought. But she didn’t say it. She said simply, “I don’t want to lose you again.”

“You won’t,” Gerold said. “I’m not returning to Benevento. Leo has asked me to remain in Rome—as superista.”

Superista! It was an extraordinary honor, the highest military position in Rome: commander in chief of the papal militia.

“There’s work to do here—important work. The treasure the Saracens plundered from St. Peter’s will only encourage them to try again.”

“You think they will come back?”

“Yes.” To any other woman Gerold would have lied reassuringly. But Joan was not like any other woman. “Leo is going to need our help, Joan—yours and mine.”

“Mine? I don’t see what I can do.”

Gerold said slowly, “You mean no one has told you?”

“Told me what?”

“That you are to be nomenclator.”

“What?” She could not have heard aright. The nomenclator was one of the seven optimates, or highest officials, of Rome—the minister of charity, protector of wards, widows, and orphans.

“But … I’m a foreigner!”

“That doesn’t matter to Leo. He’s not a man to be bound by senseless tradition.”

She was being offered the opportunity of a lifetime. But accepting it would also mean the end of any hope of a life with Gerold. Torn by opposing desires, Joan did not trust herself to speak.

Misinterpreting her silence, Gerold said, “Don’t worry, Joan. I’ll not trouble you again with proposals of marriage. I know now we can never be together in that way. But it will be good to work together again, as we once used to. We were always a good team, weren’t we?”

Joan’s mind was whirling; everything was coming out so differently from the way she had imagined. Her voice, when she answered, was a whisper. “Yes. We were.”

“Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.” The words of the sacred hymn reached their ears through the open window. The ceremony of consecration had concluded; the Canon of the Mass was about to begin.

“Come.” Gerold held out his hand. “Let us go together to greet our new Lord Pope.”

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