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- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0425215601
- ISBN-13: 978-0425215609
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The Begotten (The Gifted Series, Book 1) Paperback – September 4, 2007
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
About the Author
Lisa Tawn Bergren is the award-winning, bestselling author of Refuge, God Gave Us You, and The Captain's Bride. She is president and co-founder of Good Books & Company, which sells Christian books and gifts via home shows.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
readers guide for
Look for the other books in the Gifted series!
Praise for The Begotten
“A full-bodied, absorbing tale that combines authentic historical detail with a universally appealing and gripping story that will have readers cheering on the Gifted as they race against time to decipher ancient prophecy and save the world from darkness. With crossover appeal for J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle enthusiasts, this is recommended for all.”—Library Journal
“Bergren’s experience as a Christian historical-fiction author serves her well in this religious thriller, the first of a trilogy set in fourteenth-century Italy . . . [a] classic battle between good and evil.”—Publishers Weekly
“Mysteries and miracles abound in The Begotten, a fourteenth-century Italian thriller with a fascinating cast of characters. The tender heart of Daria, the beautiful healer, gives the story emotional depth, while all around her spiritual and physical battles are waged between light and dark, life and death. The Begotten is the very definition of a page-turner.”
—Liz Curtis Higgs, bestselling author of Grace in Thine Eyes
“Never has a novel been more timely than Lisa T. Bergren’s The Begotten. While other books are distorting history and scriptural truth almost beyond recognition, Bergren has given us an amazing story—one that proposes a fantastic ‘what if?’ and remains true to the Spirit of God as well as medieval times. A wonderful read!”
—Angela Hunt, author of Magdalene
“Masterfully crafted from the heart of a modern-day word-artist, The Begotten will transport you to a world of medieval Italian mystery where truth and beauty break through the darkness and lead the way on a trail of wonder.”
—Robin Jones Gunn, author of Gardenias for Breakfast
“An exhilarating religious historical thriller . . . delightful . . . action-packed . . . superb.”—Midwest Book Review
Titles by Lisa T. Bergren
Novels of the Gifted
CHRISTMAS EVERY MORNING
THE CAPTAIN’S BRIDE
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third party websites or their content.
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eISBN : 978-1-101-01065-5
eISBN : 978-1-101-01065-5
1. Bible. N.T. Epistles of Paul—Fiction. 2. Paul, the Apostle, Saint—Fiction. I. Title.
To Darren and Sarah, fellow travelers and seekers of the Word.
We are blessed by your friendship.
My heartfelt thanks to my husband, Tim, my kids, my agent, Steve Laube, and my preliminary readers: Sarah Shonts, Pastor Bob Rognlien, Randy Ingermanson, Kathy Boyles, Alicia Miller, Pastor John and Hope Bergren, and Cheryl Crawford. Tim, Steve, Bob, Randy and Erik Wirsing, helped me hone my original concept for the series. Bill Myers spent an hour on the phone with me at the start, showing me how to do the research I needed in frightening, uncharted waters, by turning me back toward the rock-steady, grounding influence of Scripture; I was constantly thankful that I was surrounded by friends and family who prayed for me while I researched and wrote this project. Many laypeople allowed me to interview them in depth, prying and probing to find out more about their unique spiritual gifting; all preferred to remain anonymous but I acknowledge here that they helped me in innumerable ways. Piero Boeri, a ninety-year-old Italian I met on a plane from Montana, helped me with Italian via e-mail, and delighted me so much that I used both of his names for characters in this book.
I am also thankful for our tour guides, Dr. Caspar Pearson of ContextRome and Michael of Venicescapes. Thanks to my parents, who watched our kids, and my business partner, Rebecca, who let me leave my real job, so we could see some of these sites in Italy with our own eyes. The academic research librarians of AskColorado were very helpful, as were the local librarians of Colorado Springs. My editor, Denise Silvestro, her assistant, Katie Day, and the wonderful copyeditor, Amy Schneider, made substantial improvements upon the book. All errors that may still be contained within these pages are, of course, my own. Last but not least, my heartfelt thanks to Joel Fotinos, Leslie Gelbman, Lara Robbins, Craig Burke, Chris Mosley, Norman Lidofsky, and the rest of the sales force, the Noble Group, the pros at B&B Media, and everyone on the Berkley team.
A few facts to know before you join me on this adventure . . .
In the fourth century, church officials came together in Constantinople and agreed on common doctrine and works of the Holy Canon—those works deemed legitimate and worthy of being included in the Bible we know today. As had become custom, many books were reviewed and then set aside, due to questionable authorship or potential heresy. Heretical teachings were discussed and condemned.
Despite the fact that Saint Paul references earlier and other letters sent to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9; 1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Cor. 10:10-11), no biblical historian has ever seen these work(s) and no further record or reference has been found to date. But they clearly existed.
In the eighth century, the Iconoclast movement gained momentum and ultimate power in the Eastern Church. Iconoclasts were vehemently against any graven images, including illumination—the ancient art of illustrating, gilding, and beautifying the Holy Scriptures along the margin and sometimes in the midst of the text. Some illuminists claimed to be divinely inspired, often adding illustrations that could be interpreted by only them. Others claimed they were prophetic. Thousands of books and manuscripts representing centuries of work were burned in the eighth century, and illuminists who refused to turn away from their craft were put to death. In Italy, the Western Church clung to the belief that icons were holy and blessed, something to be exalted rather than eradicated. Many illuminists made their way to Italy and beyond in that era to escape persecution or demolition of their works.
Join me in the eighth century now.
—Lisa T. Bergren
The Year of Our Lord 731
“THIS way, Your Grace,” whispered a monk ahead of him, gesturing toward a room bathed in shadows.
Bishop Claudiopolis Thomas turned the corner and paused a moment in the doorway, sensing everyone hesitating around him, neatly echoing the hesitation he felt inside. Before him, laid out on a table, with dusty streams of dusk light streaming through a narrow window and onto its pages, was the script.
The bishop willed his feet to move forward, but dread rushed through him like an inner robe slipping over his shoulders and down to his feet. What was this task before him? What evil laid in his midst?
Hiding a hard swallow behind a cough, he lifted his chin and placed one slippered foot before him. Monks moved to either side like the Red Sea before Moses. They were nothing, these men in drab gray robes who sought nothing of significance for themselves or their Lord. Mice, really. Rodents, feeding upon a molding cheese of the devil . . . If it weren’t for men like himself, watching out for the children of God, they would all be swept away to Hades.
Reaching the front of the lambskin-covered manuscript, he nodded to his assistant. Taking a fabric-tipped stick from his robes, the plebe opened the cover of the book and turned to the first page. Touching it with his fingers would surely mean eternal damnation. The plebe carefully averted his eyes, looking not to the page, but to his master for guidance.
The bishop stared at the first page with hard eyes, praying for the will to withstand its siren call to admire, appreciate, draw him in. For Thy will, Lord Jesus! he cried silently. For You alone, must I do this task! Traveling the length of his emperor’s territory, searching out the heretical works alongside other Iconoclasts, was becoming a burden almost too great to bear. He had burned paintings and ordered sculptures destroyed. Like golden calves in the temple . . . Now he had been called to seek out the illuminated manuscripts and cleanse the Word of God from graven images. This was his final task, his final endeavor.
He nodded, directing the plebe to turn another page. His knees and trembling hands threatened to betray him. Even a godly master like himself could feel the devil’s temptation drawing him in. Could they all not sense it? The weak pope, Gregory III, had led them down this path . . . taught them to venerate the icons instead of cast them away. This script must be destroyed, along with its creator! The monk refused to recant, refused to change his ways. What choice did that leave the bishop?
“Your Grace,” said a man from the dark corner, taking a tentative step forward. “I never allowed the evil one to enter these hallowed halls. My work . . . my work was meant as an act of worship. My paintings were divinely inspired.”
The bishop stared hard at the man, and at the pubescent, dark-haired boy to his side, slightly behind the monk. A student in training, perhaps? The heresy already grew tentacles. He returned his eyes to the book, nodding toward the plebe. “Go to another section, please.” The book was a complete Bible script, encompassing five or more years of work in a scriptorium. If only there had not been images, the careful, perfect writing could have been preserved for other students of Christ. But the artist had blasphemed the Holy, created work that could not have been divinely inspired unless it was for the dark lord and not his own.
Licking his lips, Thomas nodded once more. The plebe turned to yet another section, and Thomas sucked in his breath. He fought off a wave of dizziness, tried to clear his throat to speak.
The abbot rushed to his side. “Your Grace! Are you all right?”
Thomas could do nothing but stare at the Latin words at the top of the page. “You have blessed this project, man?”
The abbot, sweating now, stared down at what the bishop was reading. Slowly, he lifted his hand to his mouth and whispered, “Deus Misereatur. There must be some mistake.”
“I can explain,” said the priest behind them.
The bishop, never turning, raised one hand, fingers splayed. “We will not hear further words from a heretic. There is no way you can explain including an uncanonized letter in the Holy Writ.”
The bishop dared to lean closer and read a few more lines. The cardinal would wish to know about this. Specifics.
A letter of a man masquerading as Paul, to the Corinthians, but not the first or second holy letters. A strange letter with haunting words. The bishop swallowed hard. He could not allow himself to be sucked in. He mustn’t read heresy. The lies had a way of entering one’s head and feeding upon a man’s thoughts until it became truth. Abyssus abyssum invocat . . . Abyssus abyssum invocat! Hell calls to hell!
He glanced at the plebe, hoping the boy did not see the sweat upon his upper lip. Thomas refused to brush it off. “A bit more, please. I must know the breadth of heresy contained here.”
Along the margin of a perfectly lettered page, was a gilt-enhanced painting of a woman, dark hair curling in lush tendrils along her neck, finger teasing at the nape, olive-shaped eyes of a seductress. . . .
“Goddess worship!” the bishop cried, slamming the bedamned book shut. If it hadn’t been chained to the wall, he would have rushed it to the fires himself. “What madness has been allowed within these walls?” he thundered.
He whirled toward his guards. Outside, the hallway was lined by brown-robed priests who hastened out of view. Thomas whipped his head toward the abbot. “Out! Bring me the key at once! We must make haste and burn this treachery and its creator today! Satan has made his way into thy hallowed home, brothers. Today, we shall burn him out!”
The priest fell to his knees before the bishop. “I beg of you to understand, if you will give me but a moment to tell you—”
“Recant at once and make your boy understand the error of your ways.”
“I will not. This is not heresy. It is where my Savior has led me—to use my gifts, to show the world what beauty and honor—”
“I cannot,” he said, clasping his hands before him. “I cannot turn away from what I know to be right and true. It took me a year to illuminate that particular letter. I stayed to the task because of a divine calling. Your lordship, if you will only—”
“You and your wretched work shall burn,” Thomas said slowly, sorrowfully. He looked about to the brothers who still congregated in the hallway. “Quickly, before anyone else is swayed by the evil one’s intentions.”
The bishop turned back to the monk, squaring his shoulders, lifting his chin. “Brother, you were called by divine powers, indeed. You were fooled by the shadowed one into believing that you worked for your own cause! Foolish, foolish man. Recant now. This is your last warning.”
He could see the fear that rushed into the balding man’s face, could almost see the fires of the stake in his eyes. But then the monk became even more resolute. Slowly, he came up from his knees to stand before his master. What audacity! In the face of judgment? In the face of death? In Thomas’s years of carrying out the emperor’s edict ordering the destruction of all icons, this was a first.
“It was foreseen,” the monk said simply. “I was foolish to try to avoid it. Do what you will, Your Grace. There is more at stake than my life. I give it, freely for the sake of the Master and all who follow him.”
“What master?” the bishop asked, leaning forward, wanting to tear open the man’s head and heart to see the darkness that must be quickly rotting him inside. “Who gave you this so-called vision? Permission to include it along the Holy Writ?”
“The Lord Jesus Christ and none other,” the man said.
The bishop leaned back and slapped the monk hard across the face, sending the man reeling to the stone floor. “Blasphemy!” he whispered. “Blasphemy! You are no longer entitled to name our Lord in the presence of other holy men. You are hereby excommunicated from the Holy Church and sentenced to burn at the stake tonight, along with your wretched book. May your evil heart be condemned to hell and may the Holy Church be saved from parasites such as you.”
He wheeled then, his fine robes cascading around him like a dancer’s skirts. Over his shoulder, he said lowly, “Lock him in this room until nightfall. Let him stare at the bare space that once held his precious book; let him contemplate his downfall. Do not grant him last rites. He is no longer your brother. He is Satan in your midst.”
The bishop paused at the door, waiting while everyone filed past him, staring at the monk and his dark-haired student.
“Please, sir, may I stay with him?”
“Nay, child. Come with me. You must not stay in his presence a minute longer.”
“A word. I need a moment to say my farewell.” His deep brown eyes pleaded. Eyes of an innocent. He would soon be freed from his treacherous bonds. But he would need to feel an affinity to Thomas if the bishop were to win back his soul.
“Only a moment, child. I must speak in private with the abbot and then I will return for you.” He eyed his two men nearest the door. “Lock them in and do not leave this hallway until I return.”
The boy looked to his master, the man he had assisted in the task of illuminating the letter this past year. He was not an instrument of the devil; he was not. The boy himself, though young, had witnessed the Holy Spirit in this very room, felt the warmth of the Presence, the brush of angel wings.
Hastily, he helped the old man to his feet and to the cot at the edge of the room, and as he did so, the elderly monk opened his fist and placed a slender knife into it. The monk closed the boy’s fingers around it and looked into his eyes.
“Oh, my son, this was foreseen,” the monk whispered, trying to smile. “We have spoken of this day. I will die but our cause shall not. There are others who will follow. You will be led to God’s chosen ones.” As he spoke, he caressed the boy’s cheeks, like a father about to be separated from his son. He wiped away the boy’s tears even as others streamed from his own. “Find your way to Roma and seek out my friend—he will guide your steps. Just as surely as God has guided my hand, the Lord will guide you too. Do not fear. It is imperative, child, that our work on the letter is not lost. Do you understand?”
The child nodded, wiping his nose.
“Good. Now go! Cut it out, quickly! Before he returns!”
The boy rushed over to the manuscript and turned to the letter, the letter that had brought the Holy One into this very room. He winced as he cut, frustrated that there was no time to properly slice the leather bonds and free the letter from the folds. He had just slid the pages under his robes and shut the cover for the last time when the abbot and bishop returned.
“Get away from that foul tool, boy!” the bishop shouted and the boy backed away in haste, hiding the knife among the folds of his robe. The abbot rushed to the wall and with trembling hands unlocked the chain that had held the book for years in this very room. Worth a year’s wages, illuminated manuscripts were known to disappear, even from the center of a monastery, thus making locks necessary.
“Bring the boy,” the bishop said, gesturing from the guards to the child.
But the monk’s eyes held his as he was whisked away. “God is with you, my child. Never forget it. Always and forever, no matter what happens, he is with you.”
Unable to form any words through his tears, the boy simply nodded. The bishop placed a large hand on his shoulder, as if in comfort, but it only felt heavy upon him.
Hours later, he watched as his master was tied to a stake and a great fire was set. Tears he thought were spent rose in his eyes, yet he refused to look away as the flames licked upward, as the heat made him step back.
The bishop threw his master’s life’s work, the book, into the fire at the priest’s feet.
The priest glanced over at the boy, a quiet question in his eyes.
The boy patted his shirt in response, reassuring his master, feeling the sacred pages next to his skin. The boy shook his head in confusion; he could hear the priest, even though the old man’s parched lips moved not. Go, child. Go!
The boy glanced over at the bishop, his face and grand robe dancing eerily in the heat waves between them. The bishop’s eyes narrowed.
Go, child, go!
Looking at his master one last time, the boy turned and fled into the night.
The Year of Our Lord 1339
IN his six years as a knight of the Church, they had burned at the stake scores of sinners. As each died, Gianni de Capezzana could not determine whether any were any less saint than he. This one was different.
For the first time, Gianni longed to immediately put his adversary to death, to drown the chill emanating from the Sorcerer in the heat of flame. This one was coldly sinful, delighting in the dark power—Gianni could feel the force of it surrounding, threatening. He glanced backward, over his shoulder, to make sure his men were right behind him. As they passed, the men filled and lit occasional oil lamps among the loculi to show them their way out.
The lamps did little to dispel the dark shadows from the passageway of the ancient catacombs before them, but now was not the time for torches or even any more small lamps. If they did not surprise this group ahead . . . Surprise was their principal ally. They would simply have to risk the dark.
Cold sweat rolled down his neck and down between his shoulder blades. The death hallways were cool enough to ease the heat of his armor, but fear—a feeling rare to him—made him hot as fever. “It is only the stories, the foolish stories of the villagers,” he muttered, as if mentoring a squire instead of himself. But his mouth was dry, making him want to pause, cough. He forced himself to take another step and then another, knowing if he stopped, he’d turn around and retreat.
It was dread. Different from the dread of battle—this fear filled his mind and soul. This was why he had been called to the Church, to do battle with evil, to hunt it down before it hunted the weak. But this . . . this threatened to overcome him. Over and over again he fought down the urge to turn and run. “Deo iuvante. May God give us his strength,” he whispered, clenching his teeth. “Send your angels, Lord God. Be with us in this.”
Sword in hand, his eyes scanned back and forth, briefly settling upon the loculi on either side, early Christian skeletons shelved like books in a scholar’s library. The Romans had burned their dead. It had been the Greeks who had insisted on coffins and death crates, and the Christians who adopted the cheap burial grounds. The cardinal had spoken of this place, having seen early Church documents. But the abandoned catacombs had long been lost to the overgrown hills of Roma. Never did Gianni believe he would be within them! Whatever happens to me here today, Lord God, do what thou wish with my bones. Just bring me into thy presence in heaven.
Aeneas appeared at the doorway. “Up ahead,” he whispered, casting a brief, curious eye about the room. But his mind was clearly on their adversary.
Gianni immediately turned and led the way Aeneas directed. Flickering light told him there was a torch ahead and he raised his hand to slow his company of knights. Their noise made him wince. There was no element of surprise possible, he realized, even with a stealthy approach. The stone caverns went on for miles, and carried sound just as far. Surely their approach was known by now, and if so, they were too late! “Charge!” he cried, in motion before the word fully left his lips, hearing his men follow after a moment’s hesitation. They roared together, a great cacophony meant to send an enemy to quaking.
His company of twenty-four filled a large room, lit by one torch in the center, and stopped in stunned silence. The stone altar . . . the blood . . .
A knight behind him began to quietly retch.
Gianni raised his torch higher and slowly walked forward. He swallowed hard, forced himself to touch the pooling blood. It was fresh. This travesty had happened within the hour. He looked up and around the room, noting tunnels that led away, each equally cold and silent. Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent, he whispered, quoting Virgil. Fear and silence everywhere present terrify the soul.
He kneaded his temples with one hand, forcing himself not to be drawn into the fear. He must think! Their enemy was not far gone. He raised his torch again. “You men, light your torches. We must see where we are. What this place is.”
Aeneas and the others lit their torches and the walls of their cavernous hall came alive with light. One man behind him gasped. Another fell to his knees.
Gianni lifted his torch higher, perusing the frescoes, reading the ancient Latin. “If you are searching for them, here lies united a host of the Blessed. The venerable sepulchers enclose their bodies, but the royal palace of Heaven has carried . . . Here lie the companions of Sixtus . . .”
Aeneas was reading alongside him. “Not Pope Sixtus.”
Gianni looked about the room again and shook his head with grim fury. It was an ancient papal crypt. Six sarcophagi lined the room! His enemy had dared to do such evil here! Here, in the lost crypt of popes!
“Captain . . .” said a knight with a tremulous voice behind him.
Gianni turned. The knight stood in the center of the room, looking at the blood, pooled on the ground and atop the stone altar. It was then that Gianni saw it. It wasn’t an altar, but another sarcophagus, ornately carved on the outside.
“They sacrificed him, right here, atop the pope’s grave!” said the knight. Gianni walked toward him, dreading that he was right. What kind of man committed such sacrilegious acts? What kind of man dared to murder atop the monument of one of God’s own?
“The boy’s blood was put to good use, knight.”
Gianni whirled, facing the dim outline of a man just ahead along a passageway, standing against him in cold defiance.
“You will die! You will face the wrath of God!” Gianni cried, rushing forward.
“Captain, wait! To whom do you speak?”
Gianni looked back in confusion to Aeneas. “There! Ahead! Come!” But when his eyes went back to where he’d seen the man, he noted five different passageways bleeding off the larger hall, and all lay empty. He swallowed the foul words that leapt to mind. “Did you not see him? Hear him?”
His fellow knight shook his head, brows furrowed in concern and fear.
“The Sorcerer? He spoke to me!”
“They cannot see me,” the Sorcerer whispered in Gianni’s right ear, and the knight whirled again, nearly nicking several of the closest men with his blade. They cried out, on alert with their leader, swords at the ready, but clearly confused by his actions.
“Captain,” Aeneas said urgently, drawing near his left as was their habit, eyes scanning with him. “What is it?”
“He is here,” Gianni said through gritted teeth, turning slowly, willing his eyes to see through the darkness.
“I was here,” whispered the voice in his left ear, “but am no longer. You are too late.”
PIERO knew her from the moment he first glimpsed her in the garden, even before he saw her guard with the family herald. A peacock as her family crest. But he would have known her instantly, even without it. After thirty years of waiting, seeking, watching, she was here.
Piero forced his eyes from her and walked to the wall, pretending to gaze out upon the city. But his thoughts were cascading back in time, to when he was a young man, a student. And to his teacher.
His teacher had taken him on a journey one day, out into the hills far beyond Roma’s ancient walls. In the ruins of a small village, they made their way to the center, Piero biting back his question out of respect for his master, obediently following where he led.
The old man cast him a secretive glance and then entered an old Byzantine church, recognizable only by fragments of mosaic that likely covered the entire floor centuries before. Once, there might have been a ceiling, resplendent with gilt mosaics, or marble columns. But none of that remained. Only crumbling stone and mortar.
The teacher motioned him forward, to a side chapel with tall walls that remained largely unbroken. When he realized what he was seeing, Piero fell to his knees and then to his face.
A moment later, the teacher’s hand rested on his shoulder. “You know what it is?”
“Surely this is the chapel of some saint.”
“I agree,” he said. “Although who, I have never been able to ascertain. Please, my son. Rise.”
Piero drew upright, but remained on his knees, looking around in awe. There were biblical scenes in fresco as light and lively as if they had been painted but a week prior. There were Mark and Luke, John and Matthew. Jesus in numerous settings.
Piero sensed the teacher nodding and glanced his way. “Yes,” the teacher said. “It is marvelous, is it not? There are many rooms in Italia such as this one, where the faithful met and worshipped, but this room is especially important to you.”
“To . . . me?”
“To you.” With some effort, he got down to his knees in front of Piero and brought his satchel closer. “I have looked for you for many years, my son. Your appearance in my seminary told me it has begun.”
“What? What has begun?”
The teacher smiled and held up one finger. “Tell me what you see about us, among the frescoes.”
“Christ, teaching beside the Galilee. Jesus again, as a boy, with the teachers in Jerusalem. There, at the Last Supper . . .”
“Yes. And who, who is that?” he said, pointing in the direction of a woman’s figure. Behind her was a slave. The woman was standing over a child, one hand on the child’s head, an herbal branch in her other hand. A healer?
“I know not. A saint? One of the mothers of our Church?”
“Hmm . . . possibly. Who is she reaching out toward?”
Piero’s eyes ran down the length of the woman’s elegant arm, past the herb that seemed to be pointing to the next figure. “A man, on a road. A monk, by the cut of his robe.”
Piero rose and went closer to the painting and then took a step back, spooked. He cast a tentative smile to the teacher. “It resembles me a bit.”
But his teacher did not smile back. “And down the road, the road that monk travels. Who do you see?”
“A knight. Roman, by the cut of his dress.”
“Do you see anything that ties these three figures together?”
Piero looked from one to the next. “A peacock. At each of their feet.”
His mentor said nothing more about the frescoes, simply bent and unrolled a leather envelope that he had pulled from within his satchel. With arthritic hands, he untied the old leather bands. Piero found himself not wishing to draw closer, sure that he was about to know something terrible. Something wonderful, but mayhap too large for any normal man to take in. An irrational fear stole his breath.
“Come closer, my son. It is time you know of our divine secret.”
The divine secret. And finally, he was no longer to share it alone. She was here!
But it had taken the friar weeks to approach her. Again and again, he questioned the leading of the Holy One, wondering if it was merely her likeness to the script and years of searching that made him assume she was the one. But she had come to the convent as if led to him. As the only man on the grounds, he stood out, and several times he had caught her staring at him. But it was not his shaved head that drew her eye. She felt it too. He was sure of it.
Walking with the abbess one day on their weekly visit, he saw her working in the garden, cultivating herbs, weeding. “Mother, who is that woman over there?”
The nun glanced over to the woman and then back to the path before them. “Lady Daria d’Angelo, Father, another noblewoman on pilgrimage.”
“She carries much sorrow in her eyes.”
“Broke her heart, he did,” piped up a nun on the other side of the abbess. “Just as sure as their handfast.”
The elderly nun frowned at the girl and shook her head. “Sister, again and again I’ve told you. You must learn to hold your tongue from gossip or you will never amount to anything as a woman of God.”
Cowed, the girl stepped back and followed the two of them in silence.
“To whom was she handfasted?” Piero asked gently.
“Marco Adimari of Siena,” the girl supplied helpfully. The abbess glanced back at her and her bright eyes fell again to the path.
Siena. It made sense. He had known he was to go to Siena, felt the pull of it many times. He had not known when. “She is a fine and beautiful woman. What reason would Adimari have had to break their handfast?”
“She is barren. Both families are in desperate need of an heir. Though they were fond of one another, they had no choice but to part. She came here to Roma on pilgrimage, hoping to find solace in the holy sites and direction for her life.”
“And has she?” He gazed across the garden to the woman.
The abbess drew them to a halt and glanced up at him, curiosity alive in her eyes. “It is unusual for you to take interest in any of our guests, Father.”
“Has she found solace?” he asked again gently.
“To a certain extent. She spends hours in the chapel and here, in the garden.”
“It has been almost two months now,” he said. “How long does she intend to remain within these walls?”
“I know not,” she said with a shake of her head. “She refuses to speak of leaving, but she must go soon. Though just a woman, she is responsible for her family’s businesses. If she fails to do so, distant cousins will step in.”
“She has told you of this?”
“Nay. Her guardian in Siena, Vincenzo del Buco, sent me word a week past. And I must confess, her African makes many of the sisters ill at ease, with his silent, solitary ways, hovering over her. They whisper of their desires for him to depart. I do my best to hush them but—”
“I would imagine that nuns would be first to find comfort in silence and solitude. Mayhap I should have become a Benedictine rather than a Dominican.” He tossed the nun a grin. “Who is he to her? Slave?”
“Freed slave. They were raised together, practically. He reads and writes as well as the lady. With no tongue, most assume he is dumb and frequently treat him as if he were deaf as well.”
Father Piero had briefly greeted and observed the man these past weeks, always standing erect and alert at the edge of Daria’s location, missing nothing. “You managed to learn a great deal from a man with no tongue.”
“Yes,” she said, glancing guiltily back at the young nun behind them. Gossip, no doubt.
They walked for a bit in silence. “He hardly appears to be a threat to our sisters here, in the convent. His manner is more guard-like than predatory.”
“Yes, yes, it is Lady Daria he always watches over. It is as if he hopes to shield her from any harm again. But the harm has been done to her heart. Only our Lord can shield a woman in such matters.”
“You said she has business to attend to in Siena. What business?”
The abbess paused for a moment, clearly thrown by his singular and obvious interest, let alone such an extended conversation. For the two years since he had come to preside over the convent, their weekly talks had been no longer than five minutes of conversation, and almost entirely over the business of the convent or its holy women. Visitors were tolerated but largely ignored.
“The d’Angelos have headed the woolen guild for over a century, and she also does a significant trade in herbs, spices, even more in inks and parchment.”
Piero threw her a quick glance. “She supplies Siena’s illuminists?”
Piero laughed under his breath.
“And herbs? Spices, you said?”
“Herbs, spices, medicinals, yes.”
Piero shook his head and laughed, ignoring the abbess’s consternation and confusion. “She has no male kin?”
“No one but Baron del Buco—he treats her as a niece, of sorts. And as a member of the Mercanzia, it is he who leads her in matters of the guild. It is because of him that our lady has been able to hold on to her interests, even from afar.”
“I see,” Piero mused, moving away from the abbess to a point at the wall, where he could look out over the city. He leaned his arms out, supporting his body tentlike, and let his eyes scan the city’s buildings.
She was here. He had to talk to her. The only question was how? And when?
A week later, Lady Daria was again among the gardens, pruning and cultivating the plants and flowers. The nuns used the tender petals for flavoring food and water, and in liquids meant to soften the skin. As she worked, Father Piero drew near and kneeled in the herb garden to weed. “Lady d’Angelo,” he greeted her with a nod.
“Father,” she said with a demure nod back toward him. But her wide, olive-brown eyes did not leave his. “You intend to weed.”
“The nuns usually care for the gardens.”
“Indeed. But at times, it is good for a man to contemplate the weeds in his own soil and take care to rout them out.” He bent to pull weeds from between the straight rows of rosemary.
They worked in companionable silence for several minutes. Father Piero sensed, more than saw, Daria’s man edge closer to them. But when he glanced up at the tall African, the man stared beyond him, as if watching the horizon.
“Why did you free him?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the ground before him.
“I did not free him. It was my father. Hasani chose to stay beside me. Have you been properly introduced?”
“We have shared a few words.”
“He has few words in his mouth to share. But many more in his heart.”
Father Piero’s own heart was beating very quickly. He had not expected the woman to be so forthright, so free in her speech. Ladies of stature rarely spoke to men, and even more rarely to priests. He fought the desire to stare at her, to compare chin and long lithe neck to the illuminated page.
“You have words yourself, Father, that you wish to speak?” she asked quietly.
He glanced over his shoulder at her, and she stared boldly back at him. “I have seen you, gazing at me when you think I am not looking or aware. Hasani has seen you. What is it that you wish to say to me? Do you wish us gone from the convent? Have we overstayed our welcome?”
She was like a fortress preparing for battle . . . drawbridges pulled, men rising to their stations, arrows pulled to the bow. Father Piero sighed and gathered his cloth, spade, and knife. “I assure you, daughter, I have many words, holy words, to share with you. When the time is right. And nay, you have not outworn your welcome. Indeed, you may abide with us for as long as you deign necessary.”
“I have met few priests who are uneager to share holy words.”
She was brave, this one. Uncommon. He smiled, delighted by her strong spirit even though pain still seeped from her eyes. What was her role among the Gifted? How would others be drawn to her? He was eager to learn of it and fought the desire to drill her with questions, to allow his story to spill out before her and let her muddle through it alongside of him.
“There are holy words and there are holy hours, daughter. This is not the hour.” He shielded his eyes and glanced up at Hasani, who still stared beyond them but clearly listened. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “But the hour is at hand. Take care to keep your lamp lit.”
Daria watched the curious, impish man go. He was unattractive, with an odd, conical-shaped head made more obvious because of shaving and no chin to speak of. Never had she met such an odd sort of priest. And yet she was unaccountably drawn to him, eager to hear more from him. It had been weeks and months since anyone had sparred with her, given her thoughts to chew on throughout her long, sleepless nights. Not since Marco . . .
She returned to her pruning with ferocity. “Do you sense danger from that priest?” she asked Hasani.
He gave her his customary grunt that meant nay.
“I am drawn to him. Not as a maid to a man, but from within. I get an odd sense about him. As if . . .” She shook her head. “Mayhap it’s foolish, but I think I might invite him along with us, back to Siena. Perhaps he’s the strength I have needed to return. A chaplain who will give me insight, direction. And if he’s good enough to watch over the good sisters here, perhaps he’s good enough to watch over our spiritual well-being.”
This time Hasani nodded once.
The priest disappeared inside the amber, curved portico that led back to the kitchen. “If I could ever persuade him to leave his holy harem.”
Hasani grunted his disapproval over her jest. And it was only then that Daria realized she was smiling for the first time in a very long time.
“You actually saw him?” Cardinal Boeri asked, taking a gold-edged cup from a servant’s tray.
“Nay. Not quite in full. His silhouette. No facial features.”
“My height, I’d wager, maybe seventeen, eighteen hands, maybe slightly taller. I am uncertain. Not as broad as me. But powerful.”
The cardinal rose and set down his cup, then stepped down off the dais to pace with Gianni, as was his habit when he needed to think. He steepled his fingers before him, tipping index nails to lip, then motioned Gianni along. “He reminded you of no one you knew?”
“Nay, Your Grace. But he held himself as a lord. This was no serf. His diction, his carriage, was that of a man of means. An educated man. But it was terribly dark in the catacombs, and I saw little but his shadow.”
The cardinal nodded, absorbing this information. “You have traveled with me for some distance and time, sir, and been in these noble halls far and wide during feast time. No man comes to mind that echoes this man’s dark image?”
“Nay. Forgive me, your lordship. I have failed you.”
“Nonsense, nonsense. This is a new adversary we fight, Gianni. It will require new tactics.”
“I must confess he was like an apparition, a ghost. One moment here, the next there. None of my men heard his words. He whispered in my ear, and only mine.”
Cardinal Boeri stopped and knit his hands beneath his rich crimson robes. He stared out the window, feeling the gentle morning breeze flow over his face. Gianni waited in silence, eager to hear the wise man’s words, but respectfully waiting. Did he think the captain of his guard had gone mad? Gianni himself had wondered.
“With such evil in our midst, evil that dares to enter ancient papal chambers . . .” The cardinal shook his head as if pained. “We have no hope of restoring the papacy here in Roma with such madness about us. Word of it must not reach Avignon. And we must eradicate this evil—cleanse our city.”
Gianni nodded once, leaving his head bowed.
“Tell me of the child.”
Gianni fought to keep his voice neutral, militarily uniform in his report. He swallowed back the bile in his throat at the memory. “Male. Perhaps eight. Tied to a primitive stone altar. His . . . it was a horror.”
“A reading among the remains?”
“Yes. They had spewed them across the stones like a divine map.”
“And his heart?”
“It is as you feared, Cardinal.”
The cardinal blanched slightly. They had heard of such dark happenings in other, more remote city-states, but not in Roma. He raised a pained hand to his head. “There is much work to be done with the faithful . . . to teach, to admonish, to share, to mold them into all that Christ called them to be. That task in itself is overwhelming, but to have to do battle with such powerful evil . . .” He again stared out the window, his dark eyes not really focusing on any of the buildings below them in the valley.
“You told me yourself, once, my lord, that our battle is not against flesh and blood. . . .”
“Et potestates adversus mundi rectores tenebrarum harum contra spiritalia nequitiae in caelestibus,” the cardinal finished in Latin.
“The powers of this dark world,” Gianni said. “I feel as if we’ve merely encountered foot soldiers to date. This man, this Sorcerer, is the captain of a fearsome army.”
“Nay, dear man. He is not a captain. I fear he is near to the prince of darkness himself. Who else would the fallen one send to our holy city? Who else could have such terrible power? The ability to whisper in your ear and yet not be seen? We must pray, Gianni, fast and pray over you and your men all night before you go hunting this one again.”
“You are afraid?” Gianni said, eyes narrowing.
“I am respectful of uncharted, treacherous waters. Christ, our Lord, will not allow any spirit close to us he does not wish us to face. Bring him to me and I will use faith as my shield, the Word as my sword. Together we will bring this man down, Gianni. We will bring him to holy judgment and God can confine him in the hellish prison he deserves. I want no other innocent harmed or misled.”
They walked together down a hall, intermittently broken with sunlight streaming through narrow windows. “You never questioned me, my lord. Never asked me if I conjured up the whole thing in my mind.”
They walked a few steps in silence. “Why not?” Gianni asked. “Could it not be that I am as mad as the hysterical women of the leper colony? That this holy work has addled my thinking?”
“Nay. I know you too well to believe it possible.”
“But there is something else.”
Gianni forced himself to remain silent.
The elderly cardinal paused again and faced him. His dark curly hair had become increasingly gray this last year. “I know that you have questioned my ways in the past.”
“Nay, my lord. I have—”
He raised a slender hand. “Cease, Gianni. I know this is true. We have encountered things you did not understand, and yet you served us faithfully. Such devout service does not go unnoticed.”
Gianni bowed his head. “I long only to serve, your lordship.”
“All our battle on behalf of the Church, all the tedious trials, seeing justice done—and it was justice,” he said, eyeing Gianni meaningfully. “It was all a proving ground. Our Lord God knew that this was ahead of us, my man.” The cardinal placed his hand on Gianni’s shoulder, and the knight was cast back to when he was a young squire leaving his village outside Siena, and his kindly and stooped grandfather reached up to place a hand of blessing upon his shoulder. “You had questions, and yet you served the Church faithfully. God will bless such faithfulness, my man. He will bless it. Come what may, believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior, and none can stand against you. None.”
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This book represents a growing subgenre of Christian speculative fiction - the religious thriller. Christian romance and historical fiction are established subgenres. However, "religious thriller" sounds like an oxymoron. The Publisher's Weekly review left me scratching my head in confusion. "CBA readers will find much to cheer, but others will also enjoy this classic battle between good and evil. Disregard Da Vinci Code comparisons and think Lord of the Rings, but without Hobbits and the allegorical trappings."
CBA encourages the publication of upliftingly enjoyable novels such as Christy by Catherine Marshall. Stretching the CBA's boundaries beyond The Chronicles of Narnia seems difficult. I often wonder if The Lord of the Rings had been published now whether it would have been embraced by CBA given the backlash against the Harry Potter books and their ilk. Besides, what is the LOTR without Hobbits and the allegorical trappings?
The story is set in 14th century Sienna, a city-state that will become part of the modern nation of Italy. A prophetic book, purportedly written by the Apostle Paul, describes the coming battle between good and evil, "not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." - Ephesians 6:12.
The powers of darkness work through men moved by greed, lust, sorceries, and death. The Gifted work through powers bestowed by God--wisdom, healing, faith, visions, discernment, miracles, and prophecy.
Before others of the Gifted can gather, the power of darkness strikes like a hammer to destroy them. Can mere men and women stand against such power?
Ms Bergren recreates the world of 14th century Sienna with a deft touch, bringing alive a culture that is completely foreign to our own.
With trembling hands, the old woman set down the box upon the table
and opened the lid. Spectacles! Gianni had only seen two pair of the
new contraptions--once in Venezia, the second in Roma. They were
frightfully expensive, an extravagance of the wealthy. And the lady
bestowed them upon a servant?
Though I would not claim an extensive knowledge of church or renaissance European history, Ms. Bergren fills her story with historical references with just the right amount of explanation that give her story breadth and scope, such as the removal of the papacy to Avignon in France.
The pace and tension of the story rise page by page, impelling the reader forward chapter by chapter to the rich, satisfying conclusion. Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton could do no better.
Ms. Bergren's storytelling demonstrates the blossoming of a genre that will appeal to people of diverse faith cultures--the religious thriller. I am looking forward to reading the other books in the Gifted series.
If you are merely seeking a thrilling read, congratulations you have it, however if you're open to the realm of God's greatest promises you'll be blessed with a richness that far exceeds a good read.
The Begotten is book one of a trilogy I read all three books in one week and pray that the series is made into a movie.
An awesome story with awesome characters who all have awesome faith!