Biographies & Memoirs


THE new Pontiff took up his duties with a youthful vigor that caught everyone by surprise. Overnight, it seemed, the Patriarchium was transformed from a dusty monastic palace into a bustling hive. Notaries and secretaries hurried down the halls, arms filled with rolls of parchment plans, statutes, cartularies, and benefices.

The first order of business was to fortify the city’s defenses. At Leo’s behest, Gerold undertook a thorough circuit of the walls, making careful note of every point of weakness. Following his suggestions, plans were drawn up and the work of repairing the walls and gates of the city began. Three of the gates and fifteen of the wall towers were completely rebuilt. Two new towers were constructed on opposite banks of the Tiber where the river entered the city at the gate of Portus. Chains of reinforced iron were strategically connected to each opposing tower; when the chains were stretched across the river, they formed an impassable barrier to ships. The Saracens would not be able to gain entry to the city by that means at least.

There still remained the difficult question of how to protect St. Peter’s. To consider the problem, Leo convened a meeting of the high clergy and the optimates, including Gerold and Joan.

Several suggestions were put forth: posting a permanent garrison of militia around the basilica, enclosing its open portico, fortifying the doors and windows with bars of iron.

Leo listened without enthusiasm. “Such measures will only serve to delay a forced entry, not prevent it.”

“With respect, Holiness,” Anastasius said, “delay is our best defense. If we can hold the barbarians back until the Emperor’s troops arrive—”

If they arrive …,” Gerold interrupted dryly.

“You must trust in God, Superista,” Anastasius rebuked him.

“Trust in Lothar, you mean,” Gerold said. “And I do not.”

“Pardon me, Superista,” Anastasius said with exaggerated politeness, “for pointing out the obvious, but there is really nothing else we can do at the moment, since the basilica lies outside the city walls.”

Joan said, “We can bring it inside.”

Anastasius’s dark brows arched sardonically. “What do you propose, John—moving the entire building stone by stone?”

“No,” Joan replied. “I propose extending the city walls around St. Peter’s.”

“A new wall!” Leo’s interest was sparked.

“Wholly impractical!” scoffed Anastasius. “So great a project has not been undertaken since the days of the ancients.”

“Time, then,” Leo said, “for another.”

“We haven’t the funds!” Gratius, the arcarius, or papal treasurer, protested. “We could bankrupt the entire treasury, and the work still wouldn’t be half done!”

Leo considered this. “We will raise new taxes. After all, it is only fitting that the new wall, which will serve for the protection of all, should be completed with the help of all.”

Gerold’s mind was already racing ahead. “We could begin construction here”—he pointed to a map of the city—“by the Castel Sant’Angelo. Run the wall sideward up the Vatican Hill”—he traced an imaginary line with his finger—“circle it round St. Peter’s, and bring it down in a straight line to the Tiber.”

The horseshoe-shaped line Gerold had drawn enclosed not only St. Peter’s and the monasteries and diaconae surrounding it but also the entire Borgo, in which were located the teeming settlements of the Saxons, Frisians, Franks, and Lombards.

“It’s like a city of its own!” Leo exclaimed.

“Civitas Leonina,” Joan said, “the Leonine City.”

Anastasius and the others looked on with chagrin as Leo, Gerold, and Joan beamed in happy conspiracy.

AFTER weeks of consultation with the master builders of the city, the design for the wall was completed. It was an ambitious project. Formed of layers of tufa and tiles, the wall would stand a full forty feet high and twelve feet wide and be defended by no fewer than forty-four towers—a barrier that could withstand even the most determined siege.

In response to Leo’s call, workers poured into the city from every town and colony of the papal campagna. They crowded into the hot and overcrowded tenements of the Borgo, straining the city’s resources to the breaking point. Loyal and eager though they were, they were untrained, undisciplined workers, and their efforts proved difficult to organize. They showed up each day uncertain what to do, for there were not enough skilled builders to supervise their efforts. On the ides of May, an entire section of wall unexpectedly collapsed, killing several of the workers.

The clergy, led by the cardinal priests of the city, pleaded with Leo to abandon the project. The collapse of the wall was a clear indication of God’s disfavor, they argued. The whole idea was folly; so tall a structure would never stand, and even if it did, it would never be completed in time to defend against the Saracens. Far better to direct the people’s energies toward solemn prayer and fasting to turn aside the wrath of God.

“We will pray as if all depended on God, and work as if all depended on ourselves,” Leo replied sturdily. Every day he rode out to check on the progress of the building and to urge the workers on. Nothing could deter him from his determination to see the wall completed.

Joan admired Leo’s stubborn defiance of the skeptics. Utterly different from Sergius in character and temperament, Leo was a true spiritual leader, a man of drive and energy and enormous strength of will. But Joan’s admiration for him was not shared by everyone. Sentiment in the city was divided between those who approved of the wall and those who opposed it. It soon became apparent that Leo’s continued ability to govern was going to depend very much on the successful completion of the wall.

ANASTASIUS was well aware of the situation and the opportunity it presented. Leo’s obsession with the wall left him dangerously vulnerable. If the project proved a failure, the resulting popular disapproval might provide Anastasius with just the opportunity he needed. His supporters in the imperial party could march to the Lateran, remove the discredited Pope from office, and install their candidate in his place.

Once he was Pope, Anastasius would protect the holy basilica of St. Peter by renewing and strengthening Rome’s ties to the Frankish throne. Lothar’s armies would prove a far better defense against the infidel than Leo’s impractical wall.

But, Anastasius reminded himself, he must tread cautiously. Best not to take an open stand against Leo, not while people were still waiting to see the end result of the Pontiff’s daring enterprise.

The wisest course was to support Leo publicly while doing all he could to bedevil the building project. To this end, Anastasius had already managed to arrange for the collapse of a section of wall. It had not been difficult; a few of his most trusted men had stolen out in the night and undermined the foundation with a bit of surreptitious digging. But the collapse had proved to be only a minor setback. Clearly something more was needed—a disaster of sufficient proportion to put an end to the whole ridiculous project once and for all.

Anastasius’s mind twisted this way and that, seeking a way to strike. Again and again he came up without an idea. He fought a rising frustration. If only he could reach down with a giant hand, pluck the entire structure off the ground, and cast it into the flames of Hell with one great, irrefutable stroke.

The flames of Hell …

Anastasius sat bolt upright, energized by the sudden appearance of an idea.

JOAN woke to the new day slowly. For a moment she lay confused, staring at the unfamiliar configuration of wooden beams on the ceiling. Then she remembered: this was not the dormitory, but her own private quarters—one of the privileges of her exalted position as nomenclator. Gerold had also been awarded private quarters in the Patriarchium but had not slept there for several weeks, choosing instead to stay at the Schola Francorum in the Borgo, to be nearer the ongoing work on the wall.

Joan had seen him from a distance, riding around the construction site encouraging the workers or bending over a table discussing plans with one of the master builders. They had no opportunity to exchange anything more than a passing glimpse. Yet her heart rose excitedly each time she saw him. Truly, she thought, this woman’s body of mine is a traitor.

With a deliberate effort, she fixed her attention on the day’s work and the duties that awaited her.

The light of dawn was already coming through the window. With a start of surprise, she realized she must have overslept. If she didn’t hurry, she would be late to her meeting with the head of St. Michael’s hospice.

As she swung out of bed, she became aware that the light coming into her room was not the dawn. It could not be the dawn, for the window faced west.

She ran to the window. Behind the dark silhouette of the Palatine Hill, on the far side of the city, ribbons of red and orange light streamed into the moonless sky.

Flames. And they were coming from the Borgo.

Without pausing to slip into her shoes, Joan ran barefoot through the halls. “Fire!” she shouted. “Fire! Fire!”

Doors were thrown open as people spilled excitedly into the hall. Arighis came toward her, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“What’s all this?” he demanded sternly.

“The Borgo is on fire!”

“Deo, juva nos!” Arighis made the sign of the cross. “I must wake His Holiness.” He hurried off toward the papal bedroom.

Joan ran down the stairs and out the door. It was harder to see from here, for the numerous oratories, monasteries, and clergy houses surrounding the Patriarchium obscured the view, but she could tell the fire had spread, for the entire night sky was now illuminated with lurid brilliance.

Others were following Joan out to the portico. They fell to their knees, weeping and calling upon God and St. Peter. Then Leo appeared, bareheaded and in a simple tunic.

“Fetch the guard,” he ordered a chamberlain. “Rouse the stable-boys. Have them make ready every available horse and cart.” The boy ran off to carry out his orders.

The horses were led up, restive and irritable at having been dragged from the comfort of their stables in the middle of the night. Leo mounted the foremost, a bay.

Arighis was aghast. “You do not mean to go yourself?”

“I do,” Leo replied, taking up the reins.

“Holiness, I must object! It’s far too dangerous! Surely it would be more fitting for you to remain here and lead a mass for deliverance!”

“I can pray just as well outside the walls of a church as within,” Leo replied. “Stand aside, Arighis.”

Reluctantly, Arighis complied. Leo spurred the bay and took off down the street. Joan and several dozen guards mounted and followed close behind.

Arighis frowned after them. He wasn’t much of a rider, but his place was at the Pope’s side. If Leo was bent upon this foolish course, then it was Arighis’s duty to accompany him. He mounted awkwardly and set off after them.

They rode at a gallop, their torches reflecting wildly off the walls of the houses, their shadows chasing one another down the dark streets like demented ghosts. As they drew near the Borgo, the acrid smell of smoke rose to their nostrils, and they heard a great roar like the bellowing of a thousand wild beasts. Rounding a corner, they saw the fire straight ahead.

It was a scene out of Hell. The entire block was aflame, shrouded in a solid sheet of fire. Through a shimmering red haze, the wooden buildings writhed in the grip of the flames that consumed them. Silhouetted sharply against the fire, the figures of men capered about like the tortured souls of the damned.

The horses whinnied and backed away, tossing their heads. A priest came running toward them through the lowering smoke, his face smeared with sweat and soot.

“Holiness! Praise God you are come!” By his accent and manner of dress, Joan knew him for a Frank.

“Is it as bad as it looks?” Leo asked tersely.

“As bad, and worse,” the priest replied. “The Hadrianium is destroyed, and the hospice of St. Peregrinus. The foreign settlements are gone as well—the Schola Saxonum is burned to the ground, along with its church. The houses of the Schola Francorum are in flames. I barely got out with my life.”

“Did you see Gerold?” Joan asked urgently.

“The superista?” The priest shook his head. “He slept on one of the upper floors with the masons. I doubt if any of them got out; the smoke and fire spread too quickly.”

“What about the survivors?” Leo asked. “Where are they?”

“Most have taken refuge in St. Peter’s. But the fire is everywhere. If it isn’t stopped, the basilica itself may be in jeopardy!”

Leo held out his hand. “Come with us; that’s where we’re headed now.” The priest leapt up behind him on the bay, and they all rode off in the direction of St. Peter’s.

Joan did not follow. She had a different thought in mind: to get to Gerold.

The line of fire rose solid and unbroken before her. No way to get through there. She circled around until she came to a line of blackened, ruined streets through which the fire had already passed, and turned down one that led in the direction of the Schola Francorum.

Scattered individual fires still burned on either side, and the smoke grew thicker. Fear tightened her throat, but she forced herself to go on. Her roan shied and fought, unwilling to advance; she shouted and kicked him, and he leapt forward skittishly. She passed through a landscape of horror—shriveled stumps of trees, hollowed skeletons of houses, charred and blackened bodies of those trapped in the act of fleeing. Joan’s heart twisted within her; surely nothing living could have survived this holocaust.

Suddenly, improbably, the walls of a building rose before her. The Schola Francorum! The church and the buildings nearest it had been reduced to ashes, but wondrously, miraculously, the main residence still stood.

Her heart beat with renewed hope: perhaps Gerold had escaped! Or perhaps he was still inside, injured, needing help.

The roan stopped stiff, refusing to go farther. She kicked him again; this time he reared defiantly, tossing her to the ground. Then he took off at a wild gallop.

She lay stunned, the wind knocked out of her. Beside her lay a human corpse, shiny and black as melted obsidian, its back arched in the death agony. Gagging, she rose and ran toward the schola. She had to find Gerold; nothing else mattered.

Great burning pieces of ash were everywhere, on the ground, on her clothes, in her hair, suspended around her in a heavy, choking cloud. Hot embers scorched her bare feet; too late, she regretted not having put on her shoes.

The door to the schola came into view. Another few yards and she would be there. “Gerold!” she shouted. “Where are you?”

Wild and ungovernable as the wind that whipped it, the fire shifted direction, depositing a scatter of burning embers on the shingled roof, already dry as tinder from the fire’s first passage. The embers glowed darkly and then caught; moments later, the whole building burst into flame.

Joan felt the hair on her scalp lift and fall in a violent rush of scorching air. The fire reached toward her with scalding tongues.

“Gerold!” she screamed again, driven back by the advancing flames.

GEROLD had stayed up late into the night, poring over plans for the wall. When at last he snuffed out his candle, he was so exhausted he fell immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep.

He woke to the smell of smoke. A lamp must be foundering, he thought, and stood to put it out. The first breath he drew seared his lungs with a pain that drove him to his knees gasping for air. Fire. But where is it coming from? The thick smoke made it impossible to see more than a few feet in either direction.

The terrified cries of children sounded nearby. Gerold crawled in their direction. Frightened faces swam toward him in the darkness— two children, a boy and a girl, no more than four or five years old. They ran to him and clung, wailing piteously.

“It’s all right.” He pretended a confidence he did not feel. “We’ll soon be out of here. Have you ever played horse-and-rider?”

The children nodded, wide-eyed.

“Good.” He swung the girl onto his back, then the boy. “Hold on now. We’re going to ride out.”

He moved awkwardly with the added weight of the children on his back. The smoke had become even thicker; the children gasped and choked. Gerold fought a rising fear. Many victims of a fire died with no mark upon them, the breath stopped in their throats by smothering smoke.

Suddenly he was aware that he had lost his bearings. His eyes searched the darkness but could not make out the door in the ever-thickening smoke.

“Gerold!” A voice called through the choking gloom.

Bending low to get the best of the air, he lurched blindly toward the sound.

BEFORE the walls of St. Peter’s, a pitched battle was being waged against the advancing fire. A crowd had gathered to defend the threatened basilica—black-robed monks from the neighboring monastery of St. John and their cowled counterparts from the Greek monastery of St. Cyril; deacons, priests, and altarboys; prostitutes and beg gars; men, women, and children from all the foreign scholae of the Borgo—Saxons, Lombards, Englishmen, Frisians, and Franks. Lacking any central coordination, the efforts of these disparate groups were largely ineffectual. They were making a chaotic attempt to locate vessels and jars and fetch back water from nearby wells and cisterns. A single well was surrounded with a great crowd of people while another stood entirely deserted. Shouting in a confusing variety of tongues, people pushed and shoved to get their vessels filled; jars collided and broke, spilling precious water on the ground. In the course of the struggle, the dipping beam of a well was broken; the only way to retrieve its water was to climb down the well shaft and pass the bucket up—a process so time consuming it was quickly abandoned.

“To the river! To the river!” people shouted, heading downhill to the Tiber. In the fear and confusion, some took off empty-handed, realizing only when they reached the riverbank that they had nothing to carry water in. Others brought enormous jars that, when filled with water, proved too heavy for their strength; halfway up the hill, they dropped them, weeping with grief and frustration.

In the midst of this chaos, Leo stood before the doors of St. Peter, as solid and immovable as the stones of the great basilica itself. People took heart from his presence. As long as their Lord Pope was here, all was not lost; there was still hope. So they kept battling the flames that moved forward inexorably as a tide, driving the line of sweating, straining firefighters relentlessly backwards.

To the right of the basilica, the library of the monastery of St. Martin was aflame; scraps of flaming parchment blew out the open windows and, borne by the wind, landed on the roof of St. Peter’s.

Arighis tugged at Leo’s sleeve. “You must leave now, Holiness, while there’s still time.”

Ignoring him, Leo continued praying.

I’ll call the guards, Arighis thought desperately. I’ll have them carry him off by force. As vicedominus he had the authority to do so. He hovered in tortured indecision. Could he bring himself to defy the Apostolic One, even to save him?

He spied the danger coming before anyone else. A great piece of silken altar cloth blew out through the burning walls of the monastery in a curling rope of fire. The wind caught it, straightening it into a blazing arrow headed straight for Leo.

Arighis hurled himself at Leo and pushed him out of the way. A moment later, the altar cloth slapped Arighis full in the face, searing his eyes, wrapping itself around his head and body in a white-hot caress. In an instant, his clothes and hair were on fire.

Blind and deafened by the flames, he ran leaping down the basilica steps until his legs gave way and he fell. In the last terrible moments while his body burned but his brain remained sharply aware, Arighis suddenly understood: this was his destiny, this the sacrificial moment toward which his entire life had been directed.

“Christ Jesus!” he screamed as the unspeakable pain pierced through to his heart.

THE cloud of smoke lifted a little, and Gerold saw the open door ahead. Beyond it, Joan’s image shimmered in the heated air, her white-gold hair a shining halo in the firelight. With a final effort, Gerold heaved himself and the children upright and lurched through the door.

Joan saw him emerge from the smoky haze and ran toward him. She helped the sobbing children down and held them close to her own body, while her eyes remained fixed on Gerold, who stood swaying, unable to speak or move.

“Thank God,” she said simply.

But the message in her eyes spoke so much more.

THEY left the children in the care of a group of nuns and hurried to the basilica, where Gerold saw at once that the firefighters were stationed in the wrong place; they were battling the blaze at close range.

Gerold took command. He ordered the men to fall back a safe distance and create a firebreak by uprooting bushes, twigs, and everything that would burn, then spading over the grass and watering the earth down.

Seeing the sparks showering down upon the basilica, Joan seized a bucket of water from a passing monk and climbed up onto the roof. Others followed her: two, then four, then ten. They formed a human chain, passing full buckets up from below and returning empty buckets to be filled. Pass, pour, pass, fill, pass, pour, pass, fill—they toiled side by side, arms aching with the effort, clothes and faces smeared with grime, open mouths gasping for breath in the smothering air.

On the ground below them, the fire crept closer, flames slicking across grass that blackened in an instant. Gerold and the men labored desperately to increase the area of the firebreak.

On the steps of the basilica, Leo made the sign of the cross, his face turned imploringly to the heavens. “O Lord God,” he prayed. “Hear us now as we cry out unto Thee!”

The advancing fire reached the break line. The flames swelled, girding to leap forward over the denuded ground. Gerold and his men attacked with more buckets of water. The flames hesitated, drew back hissing angrily, then began to consume themselves.

The basilica was saved.

Joan felt the wet welcome of tears on her face.

THE first several days after the fire were spent burying the dead— those whose bodies could be found. The intense heat of the fire had reduced many of its victims to charred bones and ashes.

Arighis, as befitted his high position, was laid to rest with solemn ceremony. After a funeral mass in the Lateran, his body was interred in a crypt in a small chapel near the tombs of Popes Gregory and Sergius.

Joan mourned his loss. She and Arighis had not always gotten along, especially in the beginning, but they had come to respect each other. She would miss his quiet efficiency, his uncanny knowledge of every detail of the complicated inner workings of the Patriarchium, even the aloof pride with which he had carried out the duties of his office. It was fitting that he would now rest for all eternity near the Apostolic Ones, whom he had served with such devotion.

After the required days of mourning were observed, the grim accounting of the damage done by the fire began. The Leonine Wall, where the blaze had apparently started, had sustained only minor damage, but some three-quarters of the Borgo had been completely destroyed. The foreign settlements and their churches had been reduced to little more than blackened rubble.

That the Basilica of St. Peter had survived the holocaust was nothing short of a miracle—as it quickly came to be regarded. Pope Leo had stayed the fire, it was said, by making the sign of the cross against the advancing flames. This version of events was eagerly taken up by the Roman people, who were badly in need of reassurance that God had not turned against them.

They found an affirmation of their faith in Leo’s miracle, fervently attested to by everyone who had been there. Indeed, the number of witnesses grew with every passing day, until it seemed that all of Rome must have been at St. Peter’s that fateful morning.

All criticism of Leo was forgotten. He was a hero, a prophet, a saint, the living embodiment of the spirit of St. Peter. The people rejoiced in him, for surely a Pope who had worked such a miracle would be able to protect them from the Saracen infidels.

The rejoicing was not, however, universal. When word of Leo’s miracle reached the Church of St. Marcellus, the doors were immediately closed and barred. All baptisms were postponed, all appointments abruptly canceled; those who inquired were told that no one could be admitted to the presence of Cardinal Priest Anastasius, for he was suddenly indisposed.

JOAN was working day and night, distributing clothing, medicine, and other supplies to the hospices and charitable homes in the city. The hospices were crowded with casualties of the fire, and there were too few physicians to tend them all, so she lent a hand wherever she could. Some burned and blackened bodies were past healing; there was little she could do for them but administer doses of poppy, mandragora, and henbane to ease their death agonies. Others had disfiguring burns that threatened to become corrupted; to these she applied poultices of honey and aloe, known specifics for burns. Still others, whose bodies were untouched by fire, suffered from having breathed in too much smoke. These lingered in torment, fighting for life with every shallow breath.

Shattered by the cumulative effect of so much horror and death, Joan was again afflicted by a crisis of faith. How could a good and benevolent God let such a thing happen? How could He so terribly afflict even children and babies, who were surely not guilty of any sin?

Her heart was troubled as the shadow of her ancient doubt fell upon her once again.

ONE morning she was meeting with Leo to arrange for the papal storehouses to be thrown open to the victims of the fire when Waldipert, the new vicedominus, entered unexpectedly. He was a tall, bony man whose pale skin and blond hair revealed his Lombard ancestry. Joan found it odd to see this stranger in Arighis’s robes of office.

“Holiness,” Waldipert said with an obeisance, “there are two citizens without who seek immediate audience.”

“Have them wait,” Leo replied. “I will hear their petition later.”

“Pardon, Holiness,” Waldipert persisted. “I believe you should hear what they have to say.”

Leo raised an eyebrow. Had it been Arighis, Leo would have accepted his word without question, for Arighis’s judgment had been known and trusted, but Waldipert was new and untried; unfamiliar as yet with the limitations of his position, he might be clumsily overreaching himself.

Leo hesitated, then decided to give Waldipert the benefit of the doubt. “Very well. Admit them.”

Waldipert bowed and left, returning moments later with a priest and a boy. The priest was dark complexioned and squarely built. Joan recognized him as a stalwart of the faith, one of the many who toiled in honorable and impoverished obscurity in the lesser churches of Rome. The boy appeared by his dress to be in one of the minor orders—a lector, or perhaps an acolyte. He was a well-made youth, fifteen or sixteen years old, compact and comely with large, open eyes that must have normally radiated a cheerful good-naturedness, though at the moment they were clouded with grief.

The newcomers prostrated themselves before Leo.

“Rise,” Leo said. “Tell us on what business you have come.”

The priest spoke first. “I am Paul, Holiness, by God’s grace and yours priest of the house of St. Lawrence in Damasco. This boy, Dominic, came to the chapel today requesting auricular confession, which service I was glad to render. What he told me was so shocking that I brought him here to tell it to you.”

Leo frowned. “The privacy of such confessions may not be violated.”

“Holiness, the boy comes here willingly, for he is in great distress of mind and spirit.”

Leo turned to Dominic. “Is this true? Speak honestly, for there is no shame in refusing to repeat the secrets of the confessional.”

“I want to tell you, Lord Father,” the boy replied tremblingly. “I must tell you, for my soul’s sake.”

“Go on, then, my son.”

Dominic’s eyes blurred with tears. “I didn’t know, Holy Father!” he burst out. “I swear on the relics of all the saints I didn’t know what would happen, or I would never have done it!”

“Done what, my son?” Leo asked gently.

“Set the fire.” The boy broke into a torrent of violent sobs.

There was a stunned silence, broken only by the sound of Dominic’s crying.

“You set the fire?” Leo asked quietly.

“I did, and may God forgive me!”

“Why would you do such a thing?”

The boy swallowed his tears, struggling to master himself. “He told me the building of the wall was a great evil, for the money and time being squandered on it would be put to better use repairing churches and relieving the misery of the poor.”

“He?” Leo said. “Did someone order you to set the fire?”

The boy nodded.


“My Lord Cardinal Anastasius. Lord Father, he must have had the Devil’s tongue in him, for he spoke so convincingly that what he said seemed right and good.”

There was another long silence. Then Leo said seriously, “Be careful of what you say, my son. You are certain it was Anastasius who commanded you?”

“Yes, Lord Father. It was to be only a small blaze,” Dominic said in a strangled voice, “just enough to burn the scaffolding on the wall. God knows it was easy enough—I soaked a few rags in lamp oil and wedged them under a corner of the scaffolding, then set them alight. At first the fire stayed confined to the scaffolding, just as my lord cardinal had said it would. But then the wind came up and took it and— and—” He dropped weakly to his knees. “Oh, God!” he cried in sick despair. “The innocent blood! I’d not do it again, not if a thousand cardinals commanded me!”

The boy cast himself at Leo’s feet. “Help me, Lord Father. Help me!” He raised his tormented face. “I cannot live with what I’ve done. Pronounce me my penance; I will bear any death, no matter how terrible, for my soul would be clean again!”

Joan stood stock-still, transfixed between horror and pity. To the list of Anastasius’s crimes must surely be added the evil perversion of this boy’s nature. His simple, honest-hearted soul had never been meant to commit such a crime, nor to bear its heavy weight on his conscience.

Leo laid a hand on the boy’s head. “There has been death enough already, my son. What benefit to the world would there be in adding yours to the tally? No, Dominic, the penance I impose upon you is not death, but life—a life spent in atonement and penitence. From this day forward, you are banished from Rome. You will take the pilgrim road to Jerusalem, where you may pray before the Holy Sepulchre for divine forgiveness.”

The boy raised bewildered eyes. “Is that all?”

“The road to atonement is never easy, my son. You will find the journey hard enough.”

That, Joan thought, remembering her own pilgrimage from Frank-land to Rome, was truer than young Dominic could possibly understand. He would have to live out his days far from his native land, separated from family and friends, from all that he had ever known. Along the way to Jerusalem he would have to brave a host of dangers— precipitous mountains and treacherous gorges, roads infested with thieves and brigands, starvation and thirst and a thousand other perils.

“Spend your life in unselfish service to your fellow men,” Leo went on. “In all things conduct yourself in such a way that the scale of your good deeds will outweigh this one great evil.”

Dominic flung himself to the ground and kissed the hem of Leo’s robe. Then he rose, pale and resolute. “I am bound by you, Lord Father. I will do all exactly as you have commanded. I swear it by the sacred Body and Blood of Christ our Savior.”

Leo made a sign of blessing over him. “Go in peace, my son.”

Dominic and the priest left the room.

Leo said gravely, “Cardinal Anastasius comes from a powerful family; we must do everything in strict accordance with the law. I will draw up a writ specifying the charges against him. John, come with me; I may need your help. And, Waldipert—”

“Yes, Holiness?”

Leo nodded approval at him. “Well done.”

“YOU’VE done well to bring me this news, Vicedominus,” said Arsenius. He was in a private room of his palace with Waldipert, who had just finished reporting the details of the meeting between Pope Leo and the boy Dominic. “Allow me to express my gratitude for your help.”

Arsenius unlocked a small bronze chest that stood upon his desk, took out twenty gold solidi, and handed them to Waldipert, who quickly pocketed the coins.

“I am glad to have been of service, my lord Bishop.” With the briefest of bows, Waldipert turned and left.

Arsenius took no offense at Waldipert’s hasty departure; it was imperative for the vicedominus to get back to the Patriarchium before his absence was noticed.

Arsenius congratulated himself on his foresight in having identified Waldipert as a young man with a future many years ago, when he was only a chamberlain in the papal household. It had been costly, buying the man’s loyalty all these years. But now that Waldipert was vicedominus, the investment would pay off handsomely.

Arsenius rang for his servant. “Go to the Church of St. Marcellus and bid my son come at once.”

HEARING the news, Anastasius sat down heavily in a chair opposite his father. Silently he cursed himself, humiliated that his father had learned how badly he had bungled things.

“Who would have guessed the boy would talk?” he said defensively. “To betray me, he had to condemn himself.”

“It was a mistake to let him live,” Arsenius said matter-of-factly. “You should have had his throat slit the moment the deed was done. Well, it’s over now. We must look to the future.”

“Future?” Anastasius echoed bleakly. “What future?”

“Despair is for the weak, my son, not for such as you and me.”

“But what am I to do? Surely the situation is past all righting!”

“You must leave Rome. Now. Tonight.”

“Oh, God!” Anastasius buried his face in his hands. His whole world was crumbling around him.

Arsenius said sternly, “Enough! Remember who and what you are.”

Anastasius sat up, struggling to master himself.

“You will go to Aachen,” Arsenius said, “to the Emperor’s court.”

Anastasius was bewildered. The sick fear gripping his heart was keeping him from thinking clearly. “But … Lothar knows I denounced him at the papal election.”

“Yes, and knows as well why you were compelled to do so. He’s a man who understands political necessity—how else do you think he managed to wrest the throne from his father and brothers? He’s also a man in need of money.” Arsenius took a leather pouch from his desk and handed it to Anastasius. “If the imperial feathers are still ruffled, this purse will help smooth them.”

Anastasius stared dully at the heavy bag of coins. Must I really leave Rome? The idea of living out the remainder of his days among a tribe of barbarian Franks filled him with loathing. Better, perhaps, to die now and have done with it.

“Think of it as an opportunity,” his father was saying. “A chance to win powerful friends at the imperial court. You’ll need them, once you are Pope.”

Once I am Pope. The words penetrated the heavy fog of Anastasius’s despair. Then he was not being sent away forever.

“I’ll look after your interests here, never fear,” Arsenius said. “The tide of opinion cannot run in Leo’s favor forever. Eventually it will crest, and then subside. When I judge the time to be ripe, I’ll send for you.”

The cold nausea that had gripped Anastasius began to recede. His father had not given up hope; therefore, neither must he.

“I’ve arranged for an escort,” Arsenius said briskly. “Twelve of my best men. Come, I’ll walk with you to the stables.”

THE twelve guards were mounted and ready, armed with sword and pike and mace. Anastasius would not want for protection on the dangerous roads. His mount stood nearby, tossing its head impatiently— a strong and spirited beast; Anastasius recognized it as his father’s favorite stallion.

“There’s two or three hours of daylight yet—enough to give you a good start,” Arsenius said. “They’ll not come for you today, for they’ve no way of knowing you suspect anything, and Leo will surely take the precaution of drawing up an official writ for your arrest. It’ll be morning before they start looking, and then they’ll try St. Marcellus first. By the time they think of coming here, you’ll be well away.”

Struck with a sudden concern, Anastasius said, “What about you, Father?”

“They’ve no reason to suspect me. If they try to question me as to your whereabouts, they’ll find they have a wolf by the tail.”

Father and son embraced.

Can this actually be happening? Anastasius wondered. Things were moving so quickly it was bewildering.

“God go with you, my son,” Arsenius said.

“And with you, Father.” Anastasius mounted and turned his horse quickly so his father would not see the start of tears to his eyes. Just beyond the gate, he turned back for a last look. The sun was westering, spilling lengthening shadows over the sweet slopes of the Roman hills, painting with red-gold hues the majestic skeletons of the Forum and the Colosseum.

Rome. Everything he had worked for, all he cared about, lay inside its sacred walls.

His last sight was of his father’s face—pained but resolute, and steady and reassuring as the rock of St. Peter.

“MEMBRUM putridum et insanibile, ferro excommunicationis a corpore Ecclesiae abscidamus …”

In the cool dark of the Lateran Basilica, Joan listened to Leo pronounce the solemn and terrifying words that would sever Anastasius from Holy Mother Church forever. She noted that Leo had chosen the excommunicatio minor, the lesser form of excommunication, in which the condemned was enjoined from administering or receiving the sacraments (save for the last rites, from which no living soul could be excluded) but not from all intercourse with his fellow Christians. Truly, Joan thought, Leo has a charitable heart.

All the clergy of Rome and its patrimonies were gathered to witness the solemn ceremony; even Arsenius was here, for he would not jeopardize his own position as Bishop of Horta with a futile public opposition. Leo suspected, of course, that Arsenius had been complicit in his son’s flight from justice. But there was no proof to substantiate such a charge and no other ground for complaint against him, since it was certainly no crime merely to be a man’s father.

As the candle representing Anastasius’s immortal soul was upended and extinguished in the dirt, Joan felt an unexpected twinge of sadness. A tragic waste, she thought. So brilliant a mind as Anastasius’s could have been used to do much good, if his heart had not been twisted by obsessive ambition.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!