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Jefferson Burke and the Secret of the Lost Scroll
By Ace Collins
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Andrew Collins
All right reserved.
March 14, 753
Baltore the priest had no idea where they had come from. Like ghosts, they seemed to appear out of thin air, but he was well aware that his plight was of his own making. He should have stopped at the inn two miles back. That would have been the logical choice for a man traveling alone. As he dug his heels into his mount, he cursed himself for not being more careful. If he had listened to reason, he'd be safely sharing a meal with a few Roman citizens rather than riding into the face of a cold March wind, fleeing a trio of bandits. Alas, listening to others had never been his strong suit. He always had to do things his way. His mother had told him time and time again that his muleheadedness would lead to his destruction. Now it appeared she was right.
The horse Baltore rode was gentle and trustworthy, but hardly fast. It didn't gallop as much as it lumbered along the dusty trail. He knew that almost anyone pursuing him would be riding steeds faster than his. So, if he had no chance to either outwit or outrun them, why was he urging his horse to go faster? Why didn't he just pull to a stop, dismount, and give up? After all, the chase would not last long, and the culmination of this adventure would be no different if it ended now or five minutes into the future. Yet, as if driven by the hounds of hell, Baltore raced toward the coming night alternately reviling himself for his stupidity and praying for a miracle he knew he didn't deserve.
In the dwindling light, neither Baltore nor the aging horse saw the hole, but the rider felt it. At a full gallop, he had no time to adjust. The gray animal stumbled and tried in vain to regain his footing. Baltore was torn from his saddle and tossed headfirst into a dense thicket. The branches cushioned his fall, but the thorns tore at his skin. Blood oozed from scores of scratches on his arms and cheeks as he awkwardly rolled to his feet. He could hear the bandits. They were still a hundred yards behind him but closing fast. Maybe he had time to remount! Maybe they hadn't seen him fall! Maybe ... then the horrible reality flooded his mind. His horse had collapsed on the far side of the road. The ride was over and so was the chase.
As the specter of death approached, he realized he still had one more holy mission to accomplish. Ignoring the pain, he raced to the dead animal as fast as his short, thick legs could carry him. Pushing aside the flowing sleeves of his clerical robe, the stocky man reached for the leather bag attached to his saddle. But before he could grab it, an arrow pierced his left hand. Time had run out.
In shock, Baltore studied his hand. The arrow had stopped after traveling six inches through his palm. Like him, it was stuck in limbo — not moving. Blood filled his palm. The projectile's tip seemed to mock him, urging him to yell, to scream. Yet though he knew he should be in pain, he wasn't. It was as if he had fallen into a trance with his focal point the arrow. He felt numb, so numb that he barely heard the voices shouting or noted the black-clad trio dismount.
Baltore's world, which just a few seconds before had been consumed by a race down a forest trail, was suddenly void of chaos. There was no mission, no enemy to run from or confront, no yesterday or tomorrow. There was just now. And in the now, nothing mattered except how to deal with this unexpected injury.
A thousand voices spoke to him, and an equal number of questions were tossed his way. Should he pull it out? If he broke it in half, would that make it easier to remove? Would it hurt less just to leave it in? He kept his gaze on his hand until he was grabbed by the shoulder and spun around to face the three marauders. Suddenly he again was a part of the real world. He felt an intense pain.
Like a wounded child looking for compassion, Baltore held his hand out toward the men. The shortest one grinned, grabbed the shaft at the fletching, and yanked the barbed iron tip back through the wounded hand, retracng its path. Baltore's cries filled the woods. Yet no one, except the three men who seemed intent on tormenting him, was there to hear. The injured man's tears rolled down his cheeks and fell to the ground.
"Where is it?" the short one demanded as he stuffed the bloody arrow into his belt.
Baltore feebly shook his head. It wasn't the answer the man wanted. A large fist met the friar's chin, dislodging three teeth and knocking him back into a tree. As he spat, Baltore moaned, "I'm a poor priest. I have nothing of value."
The words had barely cleared his mouth when the final rays of sunlight caught a flash of metal. A second later a sword, obviously handled by a master, sliced off his left earlobe, and the trio laughed. Blood dripped from this new injury.
"We can take you apart piece by piece," the tallest bandit announced in an almost merry tone. "We can make it easy for the birds to dine on a meal of heavenly delight. You see, we know you're a priest. We don't care. Killing a king, a peasant, or a man of the cloth, it's all the same to us. If you value your life, give us what we want."
"But I beg you," Baltore began, his bleeding hand extending forward.
"Don't beg, priest." The leader's words cut the air with the same authority as his sword. "We know what you have. You can give it to us and keep what's left of your fleshy body."
He allowed Baltore to digest that thought before adding, "Or we can simply take it from you after we kill you. It's up to you. How soon do you want to meet your God?"
Baltore glanced back at his dead horse. With that one look, he gave away the only secret he had left. He now had no bargaining chips. No longer was his life worth even a grain of salt.
"Grab the bag," the tall man ordered. The widest of the three, his black hair creeping out from under a metal helmet, waddled toward the horse and cut the rope binding the bag to the saddle, then tossed the pouch to the band's leader.
"Your pope made this far too easy," the tall one said as he glanced into the pouch. "Yes, much too easy for us, but not so easy for you."
"Why do you want that?" Baltore demanded, his voice filled with passion. "It's nothing but an old document written in a language you wouldn't understand."
The tall man produced a grin that cut as sharply as a knife. "My name is Thomas ... Thomas of Myra. I've studied Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. I can read seven different languages. I once spent three years in the great library in Alexandria. I've traveled to places you have never heard of and have met men you revere as legends. In fact, I probably know His Holiness as well as you, though the pope doesn't really know me at all. He doesn't know my potential or my ultimate goal. He knows nothing of my methods. I know what this is. I also know why you have it and what you intend to do with it."
The man pulled a scroll from the pouch. He unrolled a bit of the ancient thin leather on which the words had been penned and held it up to catch the last of the fading light. After a few moments of study, he returned it to the bag.
"Baltore," he said. The priest looked up. "Yes, I know your name. I've been following you for months waiting for this moment."
The priest was so amazed by this revelation, he forgot about his pain. Why hadn't he seen these men? How had he not known they were there? He had been so careful. Or at least he thought he had. Maybe one of the monks had given him up. No, that couldn't be.
"Baltore. Wake up!"
The priest looked back at the tall man.
"Have you read what is written here?" the mysterious man asked.
Baltore had been ordered not to, but the temptation had been too great. What good would lying do now? He nodded.
"Did it frighten you?"
"No," Baltore replied.
The tall man grinned. "Why do you suppose these words so frighten the church's leaders?"
Baltore shrugged. His vows ordered him to serve the church, not to question the motives of the men who led it. Hence, they thought and he acted. It had never dawned on him to actually consider their motives.
"It is about power," the tall man, the one whose name was Thomas, explained. "In this scroll is the power to control not just men but governments. This paper rewrites history, and there are many who don't want it to be rewritten. But I do. Baltore, I will rewrite history, at least my own history. And I can do so with what you have so generously given to me. Sadly, you won't be around to see my rise. As a moral man, I doubt you would enjoy what I will become, but I believe, as a historian, that if this scroll contains what legend says it contains, you would find it fascinating."
The man walked toward his horse and glanced back at his confederates. "Kill him."
If the order shocked them, the men's faces didn't reveal it. The response was swift and sure.
Baltore never saw the sword coming, but he felt it as it sliced into his belly. A second later it slid out of his body as easily as it had entered. The wounded hand no longer bothered him. Nor did the ear. Nothing bothered him. He fell to his knees. As his eyelids closed, the last thing he saw was the blood seeping through his red robe.
The glint of morning sunlight filtering through the naked branches of the trees brought Baltore to his senses. At least that's what he later told his brother. As he lay on the ground peering up at the yellow beams, he wondered where he was. Heaven? Surely not, the air was too cold. But if not heaven, then where? He remembered the flash of the sword, his own murder. He was sure of that. In fact, it had happened right here, on this trail. So if this was death, it was nothing like he expected. What next?
Sucking in a deep breath, Baltore felt air rush into his lungs. He was alive! Everything must have been a dream. That was it, a nightmare. He remembered he had fallen off his horse. He probably had hit his head and imagined it all. Yes, it was a dream, a warning from God.
Suddenly, panic set in. He had wasted too much time. He had an important mission, and he had to move on. He tried to get up off the ground, but the sharp pain proved that what had happened on the trail had been no dream. Moving his hand in front of his face, he saw that a bandage had been carefully wrapped around his wound. He struggled to his knees and looked down, touched where the sword had sliced his belly. That too had been dressed.
"God in heaven!"
Now seized by a sense of fear and confusion, Baltore painfully staggered to his feet. He saw he wasn't alone. Two of the bandits had not left. They were as still as the rocks along the road — dead!
Baltore looked all around. There was no one else. He heard the chirping of birds. A horse was tied to a far tree. It looked like one the bandits had been riding. The priest's leather pouch, the one the bandit had taken, was carefully bound to the saddle.
Baltore made the sign of the cross, then painfully walked to the animal and untied the reins. He pulled himself up into the saddle and headed east. He didn't look back, even once.
As the priest rode away, the lone living member of the trio moved out from the shadows. He stepped over one of the bodies and took a final look around. Then he slipped back into the woods and mounted his horse. He rode off into the west.
History would never reveal who he was or why he chose to spare the priest.
Excerpted from Jefferson Burke and the Secret of the Lost Scroll by Ace Collins Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Collins. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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