ASTARTLED cry burst from Joan’s lips.
“Who’s there?” Lothar asked sharply.
Slowly Joan came out from behind the pillar. Lothar and Anastasius looked at her with astonishment.
“Who are you?” Lothar demanded.
“John Anglicus, my liege. Priest and physician to His Holiness Pope Sergius.”
Lothar asked suspiciously, “How long have you been here?”
Joan thought quickly. “Some hours, Sire. I came to pray for His Holiness’s recovery. I must have been more tired than I realized, for I fell asleep and only just awoke.”
Lothar looked down his long nose disapprovingly. More likely the little priest had been trapped in the chapel when Anastasius and he had entered. There was no place to run and no place to hide. But it scarcely mattered. How much could he have overheard, and, more important, how much understood? Little enough. There could be no danger in the man; he was obviously no one of importance. The best course was to ignore him.
Anastasius had arrived at a different conclusion. Obviously John Anglicus had been eavesdropping, but why? Was he a spy? Not for Sergius, surely, for the Pope lacked the ingenuity to use spies. But if not, then for whom? And why? From now on, Anastasius decided, the little foreign priest would bear close watching.
Gerold was also studying Joan curiously. “You look familiar, Father,” he said. “Have we met before?” He peered at her frowningly through the dim light. Suddenly his expression changed; he stared like a man who had just seen a ghost. “My God,” he said chokingly. “It can’t be …”
“You know each other?” Anastasius asked.
“We met in Dorstadt,” Joan said quickly. “I studied some years at the cathedral school there; my sister”—she emphasized the word ever so slightly—“stayed with the count and his family during that time.”
Her eyes flashed Gerold an urgent warning: Say nothing.
Gerold recovered his composure. “Of course,” he said. “I remember your sister well.”
Lothar broke in impatiently. “Enough of this. What have you come to tell me, Count?”
“My message is for your ears alone, my liege.”
Lothar nodded. “Very well. The others may leave. We will speak again, Anastasius.”
As Joan turned to go, Gerold touched her arm. “Wait for me. I would like to hear more … about your sister.”
Outside the chapel, Anastasius went his way. Joan waited nervously under the baleful eye of Lothar’s steward. The situation was extremely dangerous; one ill-considered word, and her true identity could be revealed. I should leave now, before Gerold comes out, she told herself. But she yearned to see him. She stood rooted there by a complex mix of fear and anticipation.
The chapel door opened, and Gerold emerged. “It is you, then?” he said wonderingly. “But how—?”
The servant was eyeing them curiously.
“Not here,” Joan said. She led him to the little room where she kept her herbs and medicines. Inside, she lit the poppy oil lamps; they flared into life, enclosing the two in an intimate circle of light.
They stared at each other with the wonder of rediscovery. Gerold had changed in the fifteen years since Joan had last seen him; the thick, red hair was traced with gray, and there were new lines around the indigo eyes and wide, sensual mouth—but he was still the handsomest man she had ever seen. The sight of him set her heart hammering.
Gerold took a step toward her. All at once they were in each other’s arms, holding on so tightly that Joan could feel the metal rings of Gerold’s mail through her thick priest’s robe.
“Joan,” Gerold murmured. “My dearest, my pearl. I never thought to see you again.”
“Gerold.” The word blotted out all reasonable thought.
Gently his finger traced the faint scar on her left cheek. “The Norsemen?”
He bent and kissed it gently, his lips warm against her cheek. “They did take you, then—you and Gisla?”
Gisla. Gerold must never know, she must never tell him, the horror that had befallen his elder daughter.
“They took Gisla. I—I managed to escape.”
He was astonished. “How? And to where? My men and I scoured the countryside looking for you but found no trace.”
Briefly she told him what had happened—as much as she could tell in so hurried and constrained a circumstance: her escape to Fulda and acceptance as John Anglicus, the near-discovery of her identity and flight from the abbey, her pilgrimage to Rome and subsequent rise to the position of Pope’s physician.
“And in all this time,” Gerold said slowly when she had finished, “you never thought to send word to me?”
Joan heard the pain and bewilderment in his voice. “I—I did not think you wanted me. Richild said the idea of marrying me to the farrier’s son was yours, that you had asked her to arrange it.”
“And you believed her?” Abruptly he released her. “Great God, Joan, had we no better understanding between us?”
“I—I didn’t know what to think. You had gone; I could not be certain why. And Richild knew—about us, about what happened at the riverbank. How could she have known, unless you told her?”
“I don’t know. I only know that I loved you as I have never loved anyone before—or since.” His voice tightened. “I drove Pistis almost beyond endurance on the road home, straining to catch sight of Villaris, for you were there, and I was wild with impatience to see you … to ask you to be my wife.”
“Your wife?” Joan was dumbfounded. “But … Richild …?”
“Something happened while I was gone—something that helped me see how empty my marriage was, how vital you were to my happiness. I was returning to tell you that I meant to divorce Richild, and marry you, if you would have me.”
Joan shook her head. “So much misunderstanding,” she said sorrowfully. “So much gone wrong.”
“So much,” he replied, “to make up for.” He pulled her close and kissed her. The effect was like holding a candle to a wax tablet, dissolving what the years had written. Once again they were standing together in the river behind Villaris in the spring sunshine, young and giddy with new-discovered love.
After a long while he released her. “Listen, my heart,” he said huskily. “I’m leaving Lothar’s service. I told him so just now, in the chapel.”
“And he agreed to let you go?” Lothar did not seem the kind of man to set aside willingly any man’s obligation to him.
“At first he was difficult, but I got him to come round in the end. My freedom comes at a price; I’ve had to surrender Villaris with all its estates. I’m no longer a rich man, Joan. But I have the strength of my two arms, and friends who will stand by me. One of them is Siconulf, Prince of Benevento, whom I befriended when we served together on the Emperor’s campaign against the Obodrites. He needs good men around him now, for he’s being hard-pressed by his rival Radelchis. Will you come with me, Joan? Will you be my wife?”
Brisk footsteps outside the door jolted them apart. A moment later the door opened and a head peeked in. It was Florintinus, one of the palace notaries.
“Ah!” he said. “There you are, John Anglicus! I’ve been looking all over for you.” He looked sharply from Joan to Gerold and back again. “Am I … interrupting anything?”
“Not at all,” Joan said quickly. “What can I do for you, Florintinus?”
“I’ve a terrible headache,” he said. “I wondered if you could prepare one of your palliatives for me.”
“I’d be happy to,” Joan said courteously.
Florintinus lingered by the door, exchanging idle conversation with Gerold while Joan quickly prepared a mixture of violet leaves and willow-bark, decocting it in a cup of rosemary tea. She gave it to Florintinus, and he left at once.
“We can’t talk here,” she said to Gerold as soon as he was gone. “It’s too dangerous.”
“When can I see you again?” Gerold asked urgently.
Joan thought. “There’s a Temple of Vesta on the Via Appia, just outside of town. I’ll meet you there tomorrow after terce.”
He took her in his arms and kissed her again, softly at first, then with an intensity that filled her with aching desire. “Till tomorrow,” he whispered. Then he went through the door, leaving Joan’s head spinning with a dizzying mix of emotions.
ARIGHIS peered sharply through the predawn light, checking the Lateran courtyard. All was in readiness. A lighted brazier had been placed alongside the great bronze statue of the she-wolf. A pair of sturdy fire irons were set inside the flaming brazier, their tips beginning to glow red from the heat of the flames. Nearby stood a swordsman, sharpened blade at the ready.
The first rays of the sun crested the horizon. It was an unusual hour for a public execution; such events normally took place after mass. Despite the earliness of the hour, a crowd of spectators was already gathered—the eager ones always arrived well in advance to secure the best position for viewing. Many had brought their children, who scampered about in excited anticipation of the gory spectacle.
Arighis had deliberately set the hour of Benedict’s punishment for dawn, before Sergius awakened and changed his mind. Others might accuse him of proceeding with unseemly haste, but Arighis did not care. He knew exactly what he was doing, and why.
Arighis had held the high office of vicedominus for over twenty years; his entire life had been devoted to the service of the Patriarchium, to keeping the vast and complicated hive of pontifical offices that composed the seat of government in Rome running smoothly and efficiently. Over the years, Arighis had come to think of the papal household as a living entity, a being whose continuing welfare was his sole responsibility and concern.
That welfare was now threatened. In less than a year, Benedict had turned the Patriarchium into a center of corrupt power brokering and simony. Grasping and manipulative to the core, Benedict’s very existence was a malignant canker upon the papacy. The only way to save the patient was to amputate the diseased member. Benedict must die.
Sergius did not have the backbone for the deed, so it fell upon Arighis to shoulder the burden. He did so unhesitatingly, knowing that he acted for the good of Holy Mother Church.
Everything was in readiness. “Bring the prisoner,” Arighis commanded the guards.
Benedict was marched in. Clothes rumpled, face drawn and ashen from a sleepless night in the dungeon, he anxiously searched the court yard. “Where is Sergius?” he demanded. “Where is my brother?”
“His Holiness cannot be disturbed,” Arighis said.
Benedict whirled on him. “What do you think you are doing, Arighis? You saw my brother last night. He was drunk; he didn’t know what he was saying. Let me talk to him, and you will see: he will reverse the judgment against me.”
“Proceed,” Arighis commanded the guards.
The guards dragged Benedict to the center of the courtyard and forced him to his knees. They grabbed his arms and pulled them across the pedestal of the statue of the she-wolf so his hands rested levelly on the top.
Terror creased Benedict’s face. “No! Stop!” he shouted. Raising his eyes toward the windows of the Patriarchium, he cried out, “Sergius! Sergius! Serg—!”
The sword sliced downward. Benedict screamed as his severed hands dropped to the ground, spurting blood.
The crowd cheered. The swordsman nailed Benedict’s severed hands to the side of the she-wolf. According to ancient custom, they would remain there for one month as a warning to others tempted to the sin of thievery.
Ennodius the physician came forward. Pulling the hot irons from the brazier, he pressed them firmly against Benedict’s bleeding stumps. The smell of burning flesh rose sickeningly in the air. Benedict screamed again and toppled into a faint. Ennodius bent to attend him.
Arighis leaned forward attentively. Most men died after such an injury—if not immediately from shock and pain then shortly afterward from infection or loss of blood. But some of the strongest managed to survive. One saw them on the streets of Rome, their grotesque mutilations revealing the nature of their crimes: severed lips, those who had lied under oath; severed feet, slaves who’d fled their masters; gouged-out eyes, those who had lusted after the wives or daughters of their betters.
The distressing possibility of survival was the reason Arighis had asked Ennodius and not John Anglicus to attend the condemned man, for the skill of the latter might be great enough to save Benedict.
Ennodius stood. “God’s judgment has been rendered,” he announced gravely. “Benedict is dead.”
Christ be praised, Arighis thought. The papacy is safe.
JOAN stood on line in the lavatorium, waiting her turn for the ritual hand washing before mass. Her eyes were swollen and heavy from lack of sleep; all night she had tossed restlessly, her mind filled with thoughts of Gerold. Last night, feelings she believed long buried had resurfaced with an intensity that astonished and frightened her.
Gerold’s return had reawakened the disturbing desires of her youth. What would it be like to live as a woman again? she wondered. She was accustomed to being responsible for herself, to having complete control of her destiny. But by law a wife surrendered her life to her husband. Could she trust any man so far—even Gerold?
Never give yourself to a man. Her mother’s words echoed like warning bells in her mind.
She needed time to sort out the turmoil of emotions in her heart. But time was one thing she didn’t have.
Arighis appeared beside her. “Come,” he said urgently. He pulled her out of line. “His Holiness needs you.”
“Is he ill?” Worriedly, she followed Arighis down the corridor to the papal bedroom. Last night’s rich food and wine had been purged from Sergius’s body, and the strong dose of colchicum Joan had administered should have staved off a return attack of gout.
“He will be if he keeps carrying on as he is.”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“Benedict is dead.”
“The sentence was carried out this morning. He died immediately.”
“Benedicite!” Joan quickened her steps. She could imagine the effect this news would have on Sergius.
Even so, when she saw him she was shocked. Sergius was scarcely recognizable. His hair was disheveled, his eyes red and swollen from weeping, his cheeks covered with scratches where his nails had scored them. He was on his knees beside the bed, rocking back and forth, whimpering like a lost child.
“Holiness!” Joan spoke sharply into his ear. “Sergius!”
He kept on rocking, blind and deaf in an extremity of grief. Clearly there was no way to reach him in his present condition. Taking some tincture of henbane from her scrip, Joan measured out a dose and held it to his lips. He drank distractedly.
After a few minutes, his rocking slowed, then stopped. He looked at Joan as if seeing her for the first time.
“Weep for me, John. My soul is damned for all eternity!”
“Nonsense,” Joan said firmly. “You acted in just accordance with the law.”
Sergius shook his head. “‘Be not like Cain, who was of the Evil One and murdered his brother,’” he quoted from the First Letter of John.
Joan countered with an answering passage. “‘And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.’ Benedict was not righteous, Holiness; he betrayed you and Rome.”
“And now he is dead, by my own word! O God!” He struck his chest and howled in pain.
She had to divert him from his grief or he would work himself into another fit. She took him firmly by the shoulders and said, “You must make auricular confession.”
This form of the sacrament of penance, in which one made private and regular confession ad auriculam, “to the ear” of a priest, was widespread in Frankland. But Rome still held determinedly to the old ways, in which confession and penance were made and given publicly, only once in a lifetime.
Sergius seized on the idea. “Yes, yes, I will confess.”
“I’ll send for one of the cardinal priests,” she said. “Is there someone you prefer?”
“I will make my confession to you.”
“Me?” A simple priest and a foreigner, Joan was an unlikely candidate to serve as confessor to the Pope. “Are you sure, Holiness?”
“I want no other.”
“Very well.” She turned to Arighis. “Leave us.”
Arighis shot her a grateful look as he left the room.
“Peccavi, impie egi, iniquitatem feci, miserere mei Domine …” Sergius began in the ritual words of penitence.
Joan listened with quiet sympathy to his long outpouring of grief, regret, and remorse. With a soul so burdened and tormented, it was no wonder Sergius sought peace and forgetfulness in drink.
The confession worked as she had intended; gradually the wild passion of despair subsided, leaving Sergius drained and exhausted but no longer a danger to himself or others.
Now came the tricky part, the penance that had to precede forgiveness of sin. Sergius would expect his penance to be harsh—public mortification, perhaps, on the steps of St. Peter’s. But such an act would only serve to weaken Sergius and the papacy in Lothar’s eyes— and that must be prevented at all costs. Yet the penance Joan imposed must not be too light or Sergius would reject it.
She had an idea. “In token of repentance,” she said, “you will abstain from all wine and the meat of four-footed animals from this day forward until the hour of your death.”
Fasts were a common form of penance, but they usually lasted only a few months, perhaps a year. A lifetime of abstinence was stern punishment—especially for Sergius. And the penance would have the added benefit of helping protect the Pope from his own worst instincts.
Sergius bowed his head in acceptance. “Pray with me, John.”
She knelt beside him. In many ways, he was like a child—weak, impulsive, needful, demanding. Yet she knew he was capable of good. And at this moment, he was all that stood between Anastasius and the Throne of St. Peter.
At the end of the prayer, she rose. Sergius clutched at her. “Don’t leave,” he pleaded. “I can’t be alone.”
Joan covered his hand with her own. “I won’t leave you,” she promised solemnly.
ENTERING through the crumbling portals of the ruined Temple of Vesta, Gerold saw with disappointment that Joan had not yet arrived. No matter, he told himself; it’s early yet. He sat down to wait with his back against one of the slim granite pillars.
Like most pagan monuments in Rome, the temple had been stripped of its precious metals: the gilt rosettes that had once adorned the coffers of the dome were gone, as were the golden bas-reliefs ornamenting the pediment of the pronaos. The niches lining the walls were empty, their marble statues having been carted off to the lime kilns to be turned into building material for the walls of Christian churches. Remarkably, however, the figure of the goddess herself survived, ensconced in her shrine under the dome. One of her hands had broken off, and the lines of her garment were roughened, eroded by time and the elements, but the statue still had remarkable power and grace of form—testimony to the skill of its heathen sculptor.
Vesta, ancient goddess of home and hearth. She represented all that Joan meant to him: life, love, a renewed sense of hope. He breathed deeply, drinking in the damp sweetness of the morning, feeling better than he had in years. He had been low of late, weary of life’s stale, unchanging round. He had resigned himself to it, telling himself it was the inevitable result of his years, for he was nearing forty-six, an old man’s age.
Now he knew how wrong he had been. Far from being tired of life, he was hungry for it. He felt young, alive, vital, as if he had drunk from the fabled cup of Christ. The rest of his life stretched ahead bright with promise. He would marry Joan, and they would go to Benevento and live together in peace and love. They might even have children—it was not too late. The way he felt at this moment, anything was possible.
He started up as she came hurrying through the portal, her priest’s robes billowing behind her. Her cheeks were rosy from the exertion of her walk; her cropped white-gold hair curled around her face, accentuating her deep-set gray-green eyes, eyes that drew him like pools of light in a darkened sanctuary. How ever had she succeeded in this man’s disguise? he wondered. To his knowing eyes, she looked very womanly and wholly desirable.
“Joan.” The word was part name, part supplication.
Joan kept a cautious distance between them. If once she let herself into Gerold’s arms, she knew her resolve would melt.
“I’ve brought a mount for you,” Gerold said. “If we leave now, we’ll be at Benevento in three days’ time.”
She took a deep breath. “I’m not going with you.”
“Not going?” Gerold echoed.
“I cannot leave Sergius.”
For a moment he was too taken aback to say anything. Then he managed to ask, “Why not?”
“Sergius needs me. He is … weak.”
“He’s Pope of Rome, Joan, not a child in need of coddling.”
“I don’t coddle him; I doctor him. The physicians of the schola have no knowledge of the disease that afflicts him.”
“He survived well enough before you came to Rome.”
It was gentle mockery, but it stung. “If I leave now, Sergius will drink himself to death within a six-month.”
“Then let him,” Gerold answered harshly. “What has that to do with you and me?”
She was shocked. “How can you say such a thing?”
“Great God, haven’t we sacrificed enough? The spring of our lives is already behind us. Let’s not squander the time that is left!”
She turned away, so he would not see how much this affected her.
Gerold caught her by the wrist. “I love you, Joan. Come with me, now, while there’s still time.”
The touch of his hand warmed her flesh, sparking desire. She had a treacherous impulse to embrace him, to feel his lips on hers. Embarrassed by these weak and shameful feelings, she was suddenly, unreasonably angry with Gerold for having aroused them. “What did you expect?” she cried. “That I would run off with you the first moment you beckoned?” She let the wave of anger rise and crest within her, submerging her other, more dangerous emotions. “I’ve made a life here—a good life. I’ve independence and respect, and opportunities I never had as a woman. Why should I give it all up? What for? To spend the rest of my days confined to a narrow set of rooms, cooking and embroidering?”
Gerold said in a low voice, “If that’s all I wanted in a wife, I’d have married long before now.”
“Do so, then!” Joan retorted hotly. “I’ll not stop you!”
A knot of bewilderment appeared between Gerold’s brows. He asked gently, “Joan, what has happened? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong. I’ve changed, that’s all. I’m no longer the naive, lovesick girl you knew in Dorstadt. I’m my own master now. And I won’t give that up—not for you, not for any man!”
“Have I asked you to?” Gerold responded reasonably.
But Joan did not want to hear reason. Gerold’s nearness and her strong physical attraction to him were a torment. Savagely she tried to break its hold. “You cannot accept it, can you? The idea that I’m not willing to give up my life for you? That I’m one woman who’s actually immune to your masculine charms?”
She had sought to wound, and she had succeeded.
Gerold stared at her as though he saw something new written upon her face. “I thought you loved me,” he said stiffly. “I see I was mistaken. Forgive me; I’ll not trouble you again.” He went to the portal, hesitated, turned back. “This means we will never see each other again. Is that really what you want?”
No! Joan felt like crying. It’s not what I want! It’s not what I want at all! But another part of her cautioned her to hold back. “That’s what I want,” she said. Her voice sounded curiously distant in her own ears.
One more word of love and need from him, and she would have broken and run to his arms. Instead he wheeled abruptly and went through the portal. She heard him racing down the temple steps.
In another moment he would be gone forever.
Joan’s heart rose like a cup filled to overbrimming. Then the cup tilted, spilling forth all her pent-up emotion.
She ran to the door. “Gerold!” she cried. “Wait!”
The loud clatter of hooves against stones drowned out her cry. Gerold rode swiftly down the road. A moment later he rounded a corner and was gone.