The Friday after Plow Monday
In the forty-ninth year of the reign of Edward III
(16th January 1377)
A DRIBBLE OF RED WINE ran down Gerardo's stubbled chin, and he reluctantlyand somewhat unsteadilyrose from his sheltered spot behind the brazier.
It was time to close the gates.
Gerardo had been the gatekeeper at the northern gate of Rome, the Porta del Popolo, for nine years, and in all of his nine years he'd never had a day like this one. In his time he'd closed the gates against raiders, Jewish and Saracen merchants, tardy pilgrims and starving mobs come to the Holy City to beg for morsels and to rob the wealthy. He'd opened the gates to dawns, Holy Roman armies, traders and yet more pilgrims.
Today, he had opened the gate at dawn to discover a pope waiting.
Gerardo had just stood, bleary eyes blinking, mouth hanging open, one hand absently scratching at the reddened and itching lice tracks under his coarse woolen robe. He hadn't instantly recognized the man or his vestments, nor the banners carried by the considerable entourage stretching out behind the pope. And why should he? No pope had made Rome his home for the past seventy years, and only one had made a cursory visitand that years before Gerardo had taken on responsibility for the Porta del Popolo.
So he had stood there and stared, blinking like an addle-headed child, until one of the soldiers of the entourage shouted out to make way for His Holiness Pope Gregory XI. Still sleep-befuddled, Gerardo had obligingly shuffled out of the way, and then stood and watched as the pope, fifteen or sixteen cardinals, some sundry officials of the papal curia, soldiers, mercenaries, priests, monks, friars, general hangers-on, eight horse-drawn wagons, and several score of laden mules entered Rome to the accompaniment of murmured prayers, chants, heavy incense, and the flash of weighty folds of crimson and purple silks in the dawn light.
None among this, the most richest of cavalcades, thought to offer the gatekeeper a coin, and Gerardo was so fuddled he never thought to ask for one.
Instead, he stood, one hand still on the gate, and watched the pageant disappear down the street.
Within the hour Rome was in uproar.
The pope was home! Back from the terrible Babylonian captivity in Avignon where the traitor French kings had kept successive popes for seventy years. The pope was home!
Mobs roared onto streets and swept over the Ponte St. Angelo into the Leonine City and up the street leading to St. Peter's Basilica. There Pope Gregory, a little travel weary but strong of voice, addressed the mob in true papal style, admonishing them for their sins and pleading for their true repentance…as also for the taxes and tithes they had managed to avoid these past seventy years. And while Gregory might insist he'd returned to Rome only to escape the vile influence of the French king, every Roman knew the true reason: the pope wanted his Roman taxes, and the only way he could receive them was if he was resident in Rome itself.
The mob was having none of it. They wanted assurance the pope wasn't going to sally back out the gate the instant they all went back to home and work. They roared the louder, and leaned forward ominously, fists waving in the air, threats of violence rising above their upturned faces. This pope was going to remain in Rome where he belonged.
The pope acquiesced (his train of cardinals had long since fled into the bolted safety of St. Peter's). He promised to remain, and vowed that the papacy had returned to Rome.
The mob quieted, lowered their fists, and cheered. Within the hour they'd trickled back to their residences and workshops, not to begin their daily labor, but to indulge in a day of celebration.
NOW GERARDO sighed, and shuffled closer to the gate. He had drunk too much of that damn rough Corsican red this dayas had most of the Roman mob, some of whom were still roaming the streets or standing outside the walls of the Leonine City (the gates to that had been shut many hours since)and he couldn't wait to close these cursed gates and head back to his warm bed and comfortable wife.
He grabbed hold of the edge of one of the gates, and pulled it slowly across the opening until he could throw home its bolts into the bed of the roadway. He was about to turn for the other gate when a movement in the dusk caught his eye. Gerardo stared, then slowly cursed.
Some fifty or sixty paces down the road was a man riding a mule. Gerardo would have slammed the gates in the man's face but for the fact that the man wore the distinctive black hooded cloak over the white robe of a Dominican friar, and if there was one group of clergy Gerardo was more than reluctant to annoy it was the Dominicans.
Too many of the damn Dominicans were Father Inquisitors (and those that were not had ambitions to be), and Gerardo didn't fancy a slow death roasting over coals for irritating one of the bastards.
Worse, Gerardo couldn't charge the friar the usual coin for passage through the gate. Clergy thought themselves above such trivialities as paying gatekeepers for their labors.
So he stood there, hopping from foot to foot in the deepening dusk and chill air, running foul curses through his mind, and waited for the friar to pass.
The poor bastard looked cold, Gerardo had to give him that. Dominicans affected simple dress, and while the cloak over the robe might keep the man's body warm enough, his feet were clad in sandals that left them open to the winter's rigor. As the friar drew closer, Gerardo could see that his hands were white and shaking as they gripped the rope of the mule's halter, and his face was pinched and blue under the hood of his black cloak.
Gerardo bowed his head respectfully.
"Welcome, brother," he murmured as the friar drew level with him. I bet the sanctimonious bastard won't be slow in downing the wine this night, he thought.
The friar pulled his mule to a halt, and Gerardo looked up.
"Can you give me directions to the Saint Angelo friary?" the friar asked in exquisite Latin.
The friar's accent was strange, and Gerardo frowned, trying to place it. Not Roman, nor the thick German of so many merchants and bankers who passed through his gate. And certainly not the high piping tones of those French pricks. He peered at the man's face more closely. The friar was about twenty-eight or -nine, and his face was that of the soldier rather than the priest: hard and angled planes to cheek and forehead, short black hair curling out from beneath the rim of the hood, a hooked nose, and penetrating light brown eyes over a traveler's stubble of dark beard.
Sweet St. Catherine, perhaps he was a Father Inquisitor!
"Follow the westerly bend of the Tiber," said Gerardo in much rougher Latin, "until you come to the bridge that crosses over to the Castel Saint Angelobut do not cross. The Saint Angelo friary lies tucked to one side of the bridge this side of the river. You cannot mistake it." He bowed deeply.
The friar nodded. "I thank you, good man." One hand rummaged in the pouch at his waist, and the next moment he tossed a coin at Gerardo. "For your aid," he said, and kicked his mule forward.
Gerardo grabbed the coin and gasped, revising his opinion of the man as he stared at him disappearing into the twilight.
THE FRIAR hunched under his cloak as his exhausted mule stumbled deeper into Rome. For years he had hungered to visit this most holy of cities, yet now he couldn't even summon a flicker of interest in the buildings rising above him, in the laughter and voices spilling out from open doorways, in the distant rush and tumble of the Tiber, or in the twinkling lights of the Leonine City rising to his right.
He didn't even scan the horizon for the silhouette of St. Peter's Basilica.
Instead, all he could think of was the pain in his hands and feet. The cold had eaten its terrible way so deep into his flesh and joints that he thought he would limp for the rest of his life.
But of what use were feet to a man who wanted only to spend his life in contemplation of God? And, of course, in penitence for his foul sina sin so loathsome that he did not think he'd ever be able to atone for it enough to achieve salvation.
Alice! Alice! How could he ever have condemned her to the death he had? He'd been so young, and so stupidly arrogant in that youth. Alice had been his paramour, his mistress, and, when she'd fallen pregnant to him and could not find the means of explaining this child to her husband…she'd…she'd…Oh God forgive me for not saving her! For not realizing what she would do in her extremity!
Thomas tore his mind away from that terrible time, that frightful sin which had propelled him from his life of privilege into the Church, and instead concentrated on what he needed to: his salvation from the terrible sins of his past. If his feet and hands pained him, then he should welcome the pain, because it would focus his mind on God, as on his sinful soul. The flesh was nothing; it meant nothing, just as this world meant nothing. On the other hand, his soul was everything, as was contemplation of God and of eternity. Flesh was corrupt, spirit was pure.
The friar sighed and forced himself to throw his cloak away from hands and feet. Comfort was sin, and he should not indulge in it.
He sighed again, ragged and deep, and envied the life of the gatekeeper. Rough, honest work spent in the city of the Holy Father. Service to God.
What man could possibly desire anything else?
PRIOR BERTRAND was half sunk to his arthritic knees before the cross in his cell, when there came a soft tap at the door.
Bertrand closed his eyes in annoyance, then painfully raised himself, grabbing a bench for support as he did so. "Come."
A boy of some fifteen or sixteen years entered, dressed in the robes of a novice.
He bowed his head and crossed his hands before him. "Brother Thomas Neville has arrived," he said.
Bertrand raised his eyebrows. The man had made good time! And to arrive the same day as Pope Gregory…well, a day of many surprises then.
"Does he need rest and food before I speak with him, Daniel?" Bertrand asked.
"No," said another voice, and the newcomer stepped out from the shadows of the ill-lit passageway. He was limping badly. "I would prefer to speak with you now."
Bertrand bit down an unbrotherly retort at the man's presumptuous tone, then gestured Brother Thomas inside.
"Thank you, Daniel," Bertrand said to the novice. "Perhaps you could bring some bread and cheese from the kitchens for Brother Thomas."
Bertrand glanced at the state of the friar's hands and feet. "And ask Brother Arno to prepare a poultice."
"I don't need" Brother Thomas began.
"Yes," Bertrand said, "you do need attention to your hands and feet…your feet especially. If you were not a cripple before you entered service, then God does not demand that you become one now." He looked back at the novice. "Go."
The novice bowed again, and closed the door behind him.
"You have surprised me, brother," Bertrand said, turning to face his visitor, who had hobbled into the center of the sparsely furnished cell. "I did not expect you for some weeks yet."
Bertrand glanced over the man's face and head; he'd traveled so fast he'd not had the time to scrape clean his chin or tonsure. That would be the next thing to be attended to, after his extremities.
"I made good time, Brother Prior," Thomas said. "A group of obliging merchants let me share their vessel down the French and Tuscany coasts."
A courageous man, thought Bertrand, to brave the uncertain waters of the Mediterranean. But that is as befits his background. "Will you sit?" he said, and indicated the cell's only stool, which stood to one side of the bed.
Thomas sat down, not allowing any expression of relief to mark his face, and Bertrand lowered himself to the bed. "You have arrived on an auspicious day, Brother Thomas," he said.
Thomas raised his eyebrows.
Bertrand stared briefly at the man's striking face before he responded. There was an arrogance and pride there that deeply disturbed the prior. "Aye, an auspicious day indeed. At dawn Gregory disembarked himself, most of his cardinals, and the entire papal curia, from his barges on the Tiber and entered the city."
"The pope has returned?"
Bertrand bowed his head in assent.
Brother Thomas muttered something under his breath that to Bertrand's aged ears sounded very much like a curse.
The man's cheeks reddened slightly. "I beg forgiveness, Brother Prior. I only wish I had pushed my poor mule the faster so I might have been here for the event. Tell me, has he arrived to stay?"
"Well," Bertrand slid his hands inside the voluminous sleeves of his robe. "I would hear about your journey first, Brother Thomas. And then, perhaps, I can relate our news to you."
Best to put this autocratic brother in his place as soon as possible, Bertrand thought. I will not let him direct the conversation.
Thomas made as if to object, then bowed his head in acquiescence. "I left Dover on the Feast of Saint Benedict, and crossed to Harfleur on the French coast. From there…"
Bertrand listened with only a portion of his attention as Thomas continued his tale of his journey, nodding now and then with encouragement. But the tale interested him not. It was this man before him who commanded his thoughts.
Brother Thomas was an extremely unusual man, with an unusual background…for a friar, as well as for more wordly men. He came from one of the powerful families in England, the Nevilles, and was an intimate of princes and dukes. Even Edward III had spoken fondly of him. Thomas had fought across Europe in many campaigns, acquitting himself with great honor, and had enjoyed the wealth of the extended Neville family, as well as that from his own estates. Thomas could have risen to magnificent heights within the English court: God alone knew he had the birth, the wealth and high-born friends and patrons to do so. And then he'd thrown it all away, walked away from his life of wealth and privilege and power, and joined the Dominicans.
All over a woman who had died in the most terrible of circumstances, and for whose death this Thomas Neville had so blamed himself he now appeared bent on spending the rest of his life in penance and service to God.
The Prior General of England, Richard Thorseby, had been extremely reluctant to admit Thomas Neville into the Order of Preachersthe Dominicansand had examined Thomas at great length before finally, and most unwillingly, allowing him to take his vows.
Men like Thomas were usually trouble.
On the other hand, Thomas could be extremely useful to the advancement of the Dominicansif he was handled correctly.
Bertrand smiled politely as Thomas told an amusing anecdote about ship life with the rowdy merchants, but let his train of thought continue.
Why had Thomas chosen the Dominicans? The mendicant orders, of which the Dominicans were the most powerful, were orders which took their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience very seriously. Indeed, "mendicant" was the ancient Latin word meaning "to beg." Friars remained poor all their lives, were not allowed to own property or live luxurious lives…unlike many of the higher clergy within the Roman Church.
If Thomas had chosen to join the more regular orders of the Church, Bertrand thought, he could have been a bishop within two years, a cardinal in ten, and could have aspired to be pope within twenty. Yet he chose poverty and humbleness above power and riches. Why?
From one of the Nevilles?
From what he knew of the Nevilles, Bertrand could not believe that one of their family would have chosen piety above power, but then one never knew the wondrous workings of the Lord.
"And so now you hope to continue your studies here," Bertrand said as Thomas' tale drew to a close.
"My colleagues at Oxford"
Bertrand nodded. Thomas had spent two of the past five years teaching as a Master at one of the Oxford colleges.
"spoke of nothing else but the wonders of your library. Some say," and Thomas spread his hands almost apologetically, as if he did not truly believe what some had said, "that Saint Angelo's library is more extensive than the administered by the clergy of Saint Peter's itself."
"Nevertheless, you are here, Brother Thomas. You must have believed some of what you had heard." Bertrand shifted slightly on the hard bed. His hips and shoulders ached in the chill air of his cell, and he berated himself for wishing this young man would leave so he could crawl beneath the blanket.
"But it is true," Bertrand continued. "We do have a fine library. For many generations our friary has been well funded by successive popes"Bertrand did not explain why, and Thomas did not ask"and much of this benevolent patronage has been put to building one of the finest libraries in Rome and, I dare say, within Christendom itself. You are welcome, Brother Thomas, to use our facilities as you wish."
Thomas bowed his head again, and smiled. "You are weary, Brother Prior, and I have taken up too much of your time. Perhaps we can talk again in the morning?"
Bertrand nodded. "We break our fast after Prime prayers, Brother Thomas. You may speak with me then. Do you wish Daniel to show you your cell now?"
"I thank you," Thomas said, "but Daniel has already pointed out its location to me, and there is something else I wish to do before I retire."
Thomas took a deep breath, and from the expression on his face Bertrand suddenly wondered if perhaps it had been piety that had impelled Thomas to join the Dominicans.
"I would pray before the altar of Saint Peter's, Brother Prior. To prostrate myself to God's will before the bones of the great Apostle has always been one of my dearest desires."
"Then for the Virgin's sake, brother, let Arno see to your feet before you go. I'll not have the pope say that it was one of my brothers who left blood smeared all over the sacred floor of Saint Peter's!"
AFTER THE celebrations of the day, Rome had darkened and quieted, and the streets were deserted. Thomas walked from the friary over the bridge crossing the Tibermore comfortably now that Arno had daubed herbs on his ice-bitten feet, and wrapped them in thick, soft bandages inside his sandalsthen halted on the far side, staring at the huge rounded shape of the Castel St. Angelo from which the friary took its name. Thomas had heard that it was once the tomb of one of the great pagan Roman emperors, but the archangel Michael had appeared one day on its roof and from then on the monument had been converted to a more holy and Christian purpose: a fort, guarding the entrance to the domain of the popes in Rome, the Leonine City.
Thomas turned his head and stared west toward St. Peter's Basilica built into the hill of the Leonine City, and surrounded by lesser buildings and palaces housing, once again, the papal curia and the person of the Holy Father himself. Lights glinted in many of the windows in the papal palace, but even the excitement of a once-again resident pope could not diminish Thomas' wonder at seeing the great structure of St. Peter's Basilica rising into the night.
Thomas' eyes flickered once more to the Castel St. Angelo. Legend had it that a longdead pope had caused a tunnel to be built from the papal palace next to St. Peter's into the basements of the fort: an escape route into a well-fortified hidey-hole, should the Roman mobs ever get too unruly. Given the widespread reputation of the Romans for spontaneous and catastrophic violence, Thomas wondered if the first chore Gregory had undertaken once ensconced in his apartments was to personally dust away the spider webs and rats' nests from the tunnel entrance.
Thomas grinned at the thought, then automaticallyand silentlycastigated himself for such irreverence. He looked at the gate in the wall of the Leonine City. It was closed, but several guards were on duty, and Thomas hoped they'd let him through.
They did. A single Dominican could harm no one, and Thomas' obvious piety and insistence that he be allowed to pray before St. Peter's shrine impressed them as much as it had Bertrand.
The pressing of a coin into each of their hands dispelled any lingering doubts.
Beyond the gate Thomas walked slowly up the street leading to St. Peter's.
The Basilica was massive. Since the Emperor Constantine had first erected the Basilica in the fourth century, it had been added to, renovated, restored and enlarged, but it was still one of the most sacred sites for any Christian: the monument erected over the tomb of St. Peter, first among Christ's Apostles. Here pilgrims flocked in the tens of thousands every year. Here the penitent begged for their salvation. Here kings and emperors crawled on hands and knees begging forgiveness for their sins.
Here was the heart of functional Christendom now that Jerusalem was lost to the infidels.
Thomas faltered to a halt some hundred paces from the atrium leading to the Basilica, and his eyes filled with tears. For so long he had wanted to worship at St. Peter's shrine. Initially as a child, having watched his beloved parents die from the corruption of a return of the great pestilence; through all the years of his youthyears wasted in blasphemy and angerand finally, to this man grown into the realization that his life must be dedicated to God and furthering God's mission here on earth.
It had been a long, difficult, fraught journey, but here he was at last. He told himself that the arrogance and adultery of his youth had been necessary, if only to turn him toward God. Love and a woman had been his utter undoing, and he had forsaken both completely. This was his destination, the sanctity of God, not the uncertainty and terrors of love. He had loved Alice, and look what that had wrought. God was his only safe harbor.
Thomas resumed his slow walk toward the Basilica. At the end of the street thirty-five wide steps rose toward a marble platform before an irregular huddle of buildings: several huge archways, a tower, and tall brick apartments with colonnaded balconies. These buildings formed a wall to either side of the entrance archways into the vast court that served as the atrium of St. Peter's.
After an instant's hesitation, Thomas climbed the steps and crossed the platform. Immediately before him were the three archways, the paved atrium stretching beyond them.
Normally, Thomas knew, it would have been full of stalls and traders selling pilgrim badges, relics, genuine holy water, splinters from the true cross and threads from Christ's robe, but tonight the stalls were empty, their canvas roofs flapping in the breeze. For this day, at least, the pope had ordered the Leonine City emptied of traders, street merchants and hawkers.
The court was even empty of pilgrims, and Thomas' spirits rose. He would have St. Peter's to himself.
As he approached the entrance into the Basilica he prayed that the pope had retired to his private apartments.
Thomas did not want to share St. Peter's shrine even with the Holy Father himself.
His heart thudding, Thomas entered the building.
It was massive, but what caught Thomas' eye was its layout, used as he was to western churches constructed in the form of a cross. Constantine had built the Basilica in a roughly rectangular form, modeling it on the Roman halls of justice. The very eastern wall, where stood the altar over St. Peter's tomb, was rounded, but the rest of the Basilica was laid out as an immense hall with four rows of columns supporting the soaring timber roof and dividing the interior into a nave with two aisles to each side.
For long minutes Thomas could not move. His lips moved slowly in prayer, but his mind could not concentrate on the words. His eyes, round and wondrous, roamed the length and height of the Basilica, stopping now and then at a particularly colorful banner or screen, or lingering on the statue of a beloved saint.
Finally, he stared at the altar at the western end of the nave. Even from this distance he could see the exotic twisted columns guarding the altar, covered with a canopy hanging from four of the columns.
Thomas raised a hand, crossed himself, then slowly, and with the utmost reverence, walked down the length of the nave toward the altar. There were a few worshippers within the Basilica kneeling before some of the side shrines, and barely visible in the flickering light of the oil lamps, but there was no one before the altar itself.
Tears slipped down Thomas' cheeks, and his hand grasped the small cross he wore suspended from his neck.
He had walked all his life toward this moment, and he could now hardly believe such was the munificence of God's grace that he was finally here. He had lived the arrogant life of a knight, reveling in the thrill of the battlefield and the luxury of a life of privilege as a member one of the greatest families in England. He had lived the sinful life as a lover, and had then refused to stand by his lover, with the most frightful of consequences. Yet God had forgiven him for all of these terrible sins, even if Thomas could barely begin to forgive himself. If he was here now, standing before the altar of St. Peter, then it was through the grace of God, and Thomas vowed he would dedicate his entire life to the service of God. He was safe only in the hands of God…he could not be trusted to manage his own life without precipitating the death of those he held most dear. He was safe only in God. Only in God.
"Only in God," Thomas whispered.
Again Thomas' steps faltered as he reached the altar. He knew that to one side steps led down into a chamber from where he could view through a grille the actual tomb of St. Peter, but for now all Thomas wanted to do, all he could do, was to prostrate himself before the altar.
He slumped to his knees, his eyes still raised to the altar, then he dropped his head and hands, and lowered himself until he lay prostrate in a cruciform position before the altar.
It was cold and horribly uncomfortable, but Thomas was filled with such zeal he did not notice.
Holy St. Peter, he prayed silently over and over, grant me your humbleness and courage, let my footsteps be guided by yours, let my life be as worthy as yours, let me be of true service to sweet Jesus Christ as you were, let me ignore hunger and pain as you did, let me immerse myself in the true wonder and joy of God. Holy St. Peter…
Hours passed unnoticed, and the Basilica emptied of all save the friar stretched before the altar. Thomas' muscles grew stiff with the cold and the fervor of his thoughts, but he did not notice his discomfort. All Thomas wanted was to be granted St. Peter's grace, to be accepted to serve
Thomas was lost in prayer. He did not hear.
One of Thomas' outstretched fingers twitched slightly, otherwise he showed no outward sign of hearing.
Now the voice grew more insistent, more terrible.
Thomas' entire body jerked, and he rolled onto his back, his eyes blinking in surprise and disorientation.
He jerked again, and rose on one elbow, staring down the nave of the Basilica.
Perhaps a third of the way down, on the left wall of the Basilica, a golden light exuded from one of the side shrines.
Thomas scrambled about until he was on his hands and feet. He lowered his face to the stone floor. "Lord!"
Thomas, come speak with me.
Shaking with fear and wonder, Thomas inched his way across the floor, his breath harsh in his throat, his eyes wide and staring at the stones before him.
Thomas crept to the entrance of the shrine, daring a quick look.
The shrine consisted merely of a niche in the wall, large enough only for a statue of an angel, arms and wings outstretched.
Thomas supposed that the statue was of some alabaster stone, but now it glowed with a brilliance that made his eyes ache. The face of the statue was terrible, full of cruel righteousness and the power of the Lord.
Thomas averted his eyes in dread.
"Lord!" he said again.
No, Thomas. Not the Lord our God, but His servant, Michael.
The archangel Michael…
"Blessed saint," Thomas whispered, his fingers clawing forward very slightly on the floor.
Blessed Thomas, said the archangel, and Thomas felt a brief warmth on the top of his bowed head, as if the angel had laid his hand there in benediction.
Thomas began to cry.
Do not weep, Thomas, but hark to what I say. There are few men or women these days who can be called of brave heart and true soul. You are one of them.
"I would give my life to serve, blessed Saint Michael!"
I do not think you shall have to go that far, Thomas, for you are of the Beloved.
Of the beloved?
"Blessed saint, I am a poor man with a great sin on my soul. There was a woman who I"
Think you I know not every deed of your life? Think you that I cannot see into every corner of your soul? The woman used you. She was a whore. What you did was right and caused a great rejoicing among my brethren.
Thomas felt as if a great weight should be lifted from his shoulders at the archangel's words, but instead his guilt continued to overwhelm him "I abandoned her, Saint Michael. And if she acted lustfully, then it was because I had tempted her away from her husband"
You were unmarried, Thomas. She had taken vows to her husband before God. Who do you think sinned the most in your adultery?
Never forget that it was a woman who betrayed Adam.
"I was still responsible, great saint."
There was a silence, and Thomas thought he must have angered the archangel. He trembled, thinking to speak, but as he opened his mouth the archangel spoke again.
Your guilt is a fine thing, Thomas, and you must use it to remind yourself never again to fall victim to the temptations of a woman. It is an invitation to sin, and regret.
"I will remember, blessed saint." Thomas had never meant anything more wholeheartedly in his entire life. A love for a woman had brought him such pain that he never wanted to feel it again. He'd had enough regret for one lifetime.
Use your regret and guilt to strengthen yourself, Thomas. Use it to ensure that never again will you stray from God's path. Abandon temptation wherever you find it. Listen only to God's word, and those of His angels.
"I shall, blessed saint!"
You have passed your first test, Thomas. Now comes one much greater.
Evil roams among your brethren, Thomas.
Thomas shuddered. "Among the fellows of my holy order, Saint Michael?"
It well may, but I speak of the wider community of mankind. For many years now evil incarnate in the form of Satan's imps has walked unhindered, wreaking havoc and despair. The world is altering, Thomas, and turning away from God. You are Beloved of both the Lord God and my brethren, and it is you who shall head His army of righteous anger.
Thomas felt all the disparate elements of his life fall into place. When he'd been closest to despair, unable to see the meaning and course of his life, the Lord had all the while been guiding and training him. He'd thought his life before entering the Order worthless and empty. Now Thomas knew differently.
Exultation filled his soul. He was to be a soldier of Christ…and the enemy was evil.
"What should I do? I am yours, blessed saint, mind and body and soul!"
Study. Pray. Grow in understanding. In time, and only when the time is right, I will return to give you further guidance.
Thomas got no further. Suddenly the glow and warmth was gone, and Thomas found himself alone in St. Peter's Basilica before a lifeless statue, its face once more cold and impassive.
He struggled into a sitting position, tears still streaming down his cheeks, his hands clasped before him, staring at the statue of St. Michael.
"I am yours!" he whispered. "Yours!"
Aye, came the faintest of whispers, as if from the summit of heaven itself. You are one of ours indeed.
For the first time in many long, terrible years Thomas felt some measure of peace. God and his angels had reached out and embraced him, offering him warmth and succor and purpose where before his life had lacked all of these things. His life without God had been a disaster. Now he had a chance to redeem himself.
Thomas rose very slowly to his feet, stumbling a little from his cramped muscles. He had no idea why God had chosen him for this mission, why He'd chosen a man so heavily weighted with sin, but Thomas had no thought of refusing St. Michael's command.
Offered both redemption and peace of mind, and given a fight in which he could lose himself, there was nothing now that Thomas would not do for God.
Copyright © 2000 by Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty Ltd.