Dolssa is an upper-crust city girl who's been branded a heretic, on the run from the friar who condemned her mother to death by fire and wants Dolssa executed, too. Botille is a matchmaker and a tavern-keeper, struggling to keep herself and her sisters on the right side of the law in their seaside town. When their lives collide by a dark riverside, Botille rescues a dying Dolssa and conceals her in the tavern, where an unlikely friendship blooms. Aided by her sisters and Symo, her surly but loyal neighbor, Botille nurses Dolssa back to health and hides her from her pursuers. But all of Botille’s tricks, tales, and cleverness can’t protect them forever, and when the full wrath of the Church bears down upon them, Dolssa’s passion and Botille’s good intentions could destroy the entire village.
From the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning All the Truth That's in Me comes a spellbinding thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final page and make you wonder if miracles really are possible.
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The Convent of the Jacobins, Tolosa
I must write this account, and when I have finished, I will burn it.
Mine is the historian’s task, to record the events of the last century, showing God’s mighty hand in ridding these southern lands between the Garona and the Ròse rivers of the heresy of the Albigensians.
I am asked to show future generations how God’s justice was carried out by the crusade against these so-called “good men” (bons omes), “good women” (bonas femnas), and “friends of God” (amicx de Dieu), and how the inquisitions that followed, wrought by my brother Dominicans, finished God’s holy work. The collected records of more than half a century of inquisitorial toil are mine to examine: transcripts, testimonies, and confessions from a generation now all but extinct.
When searching out a history, sifting through a thousand facts and ten thousand lives, one often uncovers pieces that do not fit. The prudent choice is to cast those details aside, like chaff into the fire. The story must be understandable. The moral should be clear.
Perhaps I am not a prudent man. I found pieces that haunted me, voices echoing from parchment leaves that would not let me sleep at night. I could find no rest until I searched out the truth, studied what I could learn about those involved, and found a way, with, I pride myself, a minimum of invention, to make the pieces fit. If only for me.
There are those who would say this record casts doubt upon the righteousness of the Church’s work. Which is why this book, written for my private satisfaction, must not outlive me.
I myself have never been an inquisitor. I was, I confess, not cut out for it. But I was a patient laborer in the fields of knowledge, and so to Tolosa’s archives I was sent after my university studies in París. Here I have spent nearly thirty years.
It was in the days when Count Raimon’s daughter Joana still ruled as Comtessa de Tolosa, before Provensa came under the rule of the king of Fransa, and when I, myself, was new to this vocation, that the bishop of Tolosa, himself a former inquisitor of renown, came home to the Convent of the Jacobins to spend his final days.
It happened that I served in the hospice one evening. The ailing bishop began to speak to me. He seemed impelled to tell his tale. He confessed to a secret doubt that had plagued him through- out his life—unease over whether he had done God’s will in one particular case. I reassured him with all my heart that he had done his best to serve the Lord. He thanked me with tears. In the morning, he was gone.
Some months after, I found papers belonging to a priest in a seacoast vila, a priest known for composing sacred songs of great beauty. The papers made it clear he was not their author. A woman had written them, and with them, a curious and troubling account of her own spiritual journey. Names and places in the woman’s account reminded me of the old bishop’s testimony. And so I wondered.
Later still, a lengthy narrative from a friar in Barçalona fell into my hands, painstakingly recorded. The pieces of my mystery at last began to fit. I puzzled over its connecting threads. Finally, and perhaps, rashly, I decided to stitch the pieces together, however clumsily, and record it. The gaps and errors in the sewing are my own; of its overall completeness, however, I feel certain. These voices from the past had arisen like ghosts demanding to be heard.
This, I will confess, is one of the secret thrills of my historical work. But listening too closely to those voices, in these times in which I live, may also be its most terrible danger
I swear to tell the full and exact truth about myself and others, living and dead. Why keep secrets? There’s no one it would help. The dead are all I have to talk about, anyway. What harm can there be in telling their stories now? They are safe, beyond reach.
There was a time when my name was Botille, when I lived with my sisters and our old Jobau. We lived by our wits, and great buckets of nerve, and anything—anything—we could steal, or sell.
Like most in Provensa, we’d seen hunger and illness. We’d grown up in Carcassona, a city broken by the crusaders before we were born. But what was yesterday’s war to little girls? We’d lost our mother. That was all we had room for. She left each of us her love, her reputation, two sisters, and Jobau. And one silver crucifix to share.
We begged for our dinner and stole washing from peasants to clothe little Sazia. We huddled together to keep warm at night. Jobau’s drinking and his temper harried us from town to town at the hands of the bayles. We were wanderers, survivors, always searching for a home.
We thrived upon it. Greedy little urchins, foolhardy little thieves.
Now I see we were magic, my sisters and I. We laughed at ourselves, at Jobau and the world. Nobody’s ever made me laugh like my cynical little Sazia could. You wouldn’t think it to know her now. We gave Plazensa, the eldest, fits of rage with our cheek.
Life was sweet, though I doubt we realized how much. Home was each other. Not walls, but the adventure of the search to find them.
Our wanderings led us to a small seaside town called Bajas, and there, among vintners and fishermen, we saw an opening and decided to seek a home. We washed our faces and combed our hair and tried to make something more of ourselves. We swore we’d give up thieving. We’d grown old enough to know it was safer to be inside the law, and the arms of the vila, than out of them. We took over an old derelict tavern and dared to run it.
Plazensa’s brewing, our scrubbing, Sazia’s fortune-telling, and my hustle brought customers in. We began to feel that we might belong, and others counted us among their neighbors and friends. Finally and forever, I believed, we could be safe.
Then I met Dolssa.
The summons came from Dominus Roger, him who’d baptized me and taught me to reverence the body and
blood. Our own parish priest came to lead me to the cloister of the abbey church of Sant Sarnin, the great cathedral of Tolosa. The inquisitors wished to speak with me.
My mother turned pale. She pulled me into her chamber under pretense of wrapping a scarf around me.
“Daughter, hear me quickly,” she said. “Answer as little as possible. Don’t upset them. Say nothing about your preaching, and certainly nothing about your beloved.”
I would have none of this. Who were they, that I should fear them?
“Speak only as you are,” was her warning. “A modest and true Christian maiden. Be humble. Be still.”
“But Mamà,” I said, “why would I be otherwise?”
“My darling,” she pleaded. “You don’t fear them, but you should. Inquisitors have made Count Raimon send hundreds of heretics to the fires. Their verdicts—not even he dares resist them. Not anymore.” She rested her forehead against mine. “You were too young to know all that happened during the war years, and even since. Your papà and I shielded you from it as best we could.”
I was aghast. “What has that to do with me, Mamà? I’m no heretic! Is that what you believe of me?”
“Hush!” Mamà glanced at the door. “Of course you’re not. You know how I feel. But you are different. You are . . .” She hesitated. “Your words give you authority. You have believers. This is some- thing the inquisitors can’t ignore.”
“My beloved does not fear them, nor keep silence,” I told her. The waiting priest tapped at the door. We both felt caught. Mamà’s whisper became an urgent breath in my ear. “Youth makes you bold. Love makes you trusting. But it is madness to provoke these inquisitors. They will not like what you say about your love. Not when you’re so young, and a girl.”
I waited for her to finish. There was no point in vexing her. But she knew she had lost.
“God knows I will stand by you, come what may.” Her grip upon my arms was tight. “For my sake, guard your tongue to guard your life, my daughter.”
DOLSSA DE STIGATA , THE ACCUSED
Testimony recorded by Lucien
The Cloister of t he Abbey Church of Sant Sarnin, Tolosa
You wish to speak with me, Friar Lucien? Prior Pons? My priest said you wished to ask me questions.
I have seen you, Friar, in the street. You pass by our house often.
Tell me, what is it like to live in a convent? To take holy vows along with others? I’ve often wondered.
My mother prayed and planned for me to enter the cloister. The thought was sweet, in a way. But my beloved told me my path was different. Silence does not serve his purpose for my life. He asks me to tell others about our love.
All right. You shall ask the questions, and I will answer.
Oc, I reject all heresy and false belief, and cling to the true Catholic faith.
Oc, I swear to tell the full and exact truth about myself and others, living or dead.
Non, I have never seen a heretic. I do not know any of the bons omes nor bonas femnas that are called heretics. I have lived a very sheltered life in my parents’ home. Non, I have never listened to their preaching, nor helped them, nor fed them, nor carried gifts for them. How could I? I rarely even leave my house, Friar.
I am eighteen years old.
My name, as you well know, is Dolssa de Stigata. My father was Senhor Gerald de Stigata. He was a knight. He died five years ago last spring. My mother is Na Pitrella Braida de Stigata. I live with her and our few servants in my father’s ancestral home here in Tolosa.
I, preach? In my home, oc. I have shared my thoughts with relatives and friends on a few occasions.
That is where you heard me? Through a window. You saw me. I preach that my beloved Christ is the ardent lover of all souls. That he stands beckoning to all God’s children, to come taste of his goodness. To be one with him, as he is one with me.
Why do I preach this? Good friar-preacher, you who wear the mantle of Blessed Dominic the Preacher, I could ask the same of you!
Oc. In this room, questions are yours to ask.
I preach because my beloved calls me to. My one desire is to shine his love into the world.
Oc, since you ask, I’m laughing. How can I not? You wondered, how do I know the devil hasn’t tricked me? I can only answer, if it is the devil who teaches people to trust in the love of Jhesus, then what, I wonder, should we call men of the cloth like you?
Far less impertinent, good friar, than you calling my beloved a devil. Remember who my beloved is.
Plainly, friar, I am a femna, and yet I speak. I do as my beloved urges me to do. Who shall forbid what my beloved commands?
Oc, Sant Paul said it was a shame for women to speak in church, but I do not speak in church. I worship in church, and I speak in my own home, as a Christian woman is free to do.
But oc, you guess rightly. If my beloved bid me to speak in church, I would do it. My beloved is greater than Sant Paul. Surely, you would not argue that an apostle’s words are greater than the Lord’s? The apostles didn’t listen to Santa Maria Magda- lena, either, though she was right when she told them she had seen her Lord risen from the tomb.
You accuse me of heresy.
Oc, I am listening. I’ll give you my answer.
I can no more retract or deny what I have said about my be- loved than I could choose to stop breathing. Against my will, breath would flow into my lungs; against your will, speech will flow from them also. If you seek to silence me, I will only cry more urgently. My beloved’s praise will not go unsung, not so long as I have breath.
Oc, I know who you are. I know what you claim you can do to me.
How can I fear you with my beloved beside me? His arm is mightier than all flesh, and I know he will protect me.
Istruga picked, of course, the worst time possible to tell me.
We wore our hair dandled up in rags to keep it off our hot necks, allowing the sun to burn our sweaty skin. Our oldest, flimsiest skirts we had pulled snug between our legs and pinned to our backs. There we were, thigh-deep in juice, stomping, squashing, mashing the cool, slimy grapes under our heels and deliciously through our toes, while the harvesters clapped and laughed and sang to Focho de Capa’s fidel. It was a party. A frolic. And a bit of an exhibition. Astruga’s thighs—purple, even—were nothing to be ashamed of, and as for mine, skin was skin, wasn’t it? The sky was blue, the air was hot, the sea breeze stirring our little vila of Bajas was playful, and the splashing new wine was sweet on my lips, its perfume rich enough to knock me over and drown me happily in the old winepress.
And that was when Astruga told me she was pregnant. Not in so many words, of course.
“Look at the buffoons.” Sweat rolled in rivers off her wine-red cheeks. Jacme and Andrio had linked their beefy, sun-tanned arms and were now swinging each other in idiotic loops, bawling out their song, while the other men slapped themselves and howled, and the married women shrieked with laughter. Jacme and Andrio were great laughers, those two.
“They’re a pair, all right,” I said. My thighs ached from all the stomping, but the music compelled us onward. I’d waited ages for my turn in the press. I wasn’t about to flag now.
Astruga showed no signs of slowing. She leaped like a salmon through her sea of sticky wine. Always a restless one, Astruga. “I need one.”
Maire Maria! She needed a man. Today, not tomorrow. I sighed. Harvest frolics were known for this. All those tozẹts with their lusty eyes upon her, her buoyant chest bouncing practically into her eyeballs, and her skirts tucked up and pinned over her bottom . . . Of course she would feel herself in a mood to pick one of these young men, like a grape off the vine, and crush him against the roof of her mouth.
Across Na Pieret di Fabri’s neat vineyards, chestnut trees blazed with fall color, while dark, narrow cypress pines stood sentinel. Past the trees was the village proper, Bajas, crowning its round hilltop like a bald man’s hat, and beyond it, the brilliant blue lagoon of the sea, my sea, that cradled and fed tiny Bajas, and con- nected her to the entire world.
Paradise had stiff competition in our corner of Creation. Jacme chose that moment to scoop a handful of pulpy juice out of the vat and pour it down his throat. Purple dribbles bled into his stubbly beard. He winked at us, and old Na Pieret de Fabri, whose vineyards these were, whacked him harmlessly with her hat.
I looked at all our sweaty purple tozẹts. Great overgrown boys they were, though I supposed I must call them men. “After we’re done, you can take your pick of omes.”
“Botille,” Astruga said, her smile still as bright, “I need to speak with you.”
I lowered my weary leg and caught my breath. I knew what those words meant.
Astruga capered like a baby goat, kicking up her heels and splashing wine into the open, leering mouths of the tozẹtsdancing around the vat. And now I knew why, why she’d bribed Ramunda, whose turn in the winepress it ought to have been, to give her this chance to bounce and spin in her purple skin for all Bajas to see. She needed a husband, and fast. Perhaps, she had reasoned, if she played today well, she could find herself one.
Or I could. For that was my job in Bajas. Most tozas helped the family business of catching fish or harvesting salt. Some spun wool or silk; others wove baskets, or helped their papàs and mamàs fashion clay pots. Countless others grew vegetables and tied and trimmed grapevines.
But I, I caught suitors, harvested bridegrooms, wove dowries, fashioned courtships, grew families, and tied and trimmed the unruly passions of our hot-blooded young people into acceptable marriages. I brought them all to Dominus Bernard’s altar in the end. Only sometimes, as now, with a baby on the way, I did not have the luxury of time to plot and plan.
I watched Astruga’s eyes linger on Jacme’s broad face. “Jacme?” I whispered.
She shrugged. “He’ll do.”
I danced a little closer to her. “Is it he?” She looked away, and shook her head.
I danced in a circle around her. If she wanted my help, she’d best not turn her eyes away from me. “Who is the father?”
She turned the other way, like a naughty little toza who won’t confess to stealing the honey.
“Tell me,” I pressed. “I have ways of making the father marry you.” And I did. My sisters and I—we had ways all our own.
The high flush in Astruga’s cheeks cooled. “Not this time, Botille.”
Ah. He was married already, then. Well, no matter; Astruga was young and fresh. Weren’t all the tozẹts adoring her even now? This would be easy for me.
“Are you working on another match right now?”
“If you marry off that cow Sapdalina before me, I swear, I’ll claw her eyes out.”
It was Sapdalina’s troth I was working on, and while I wouldn’t call her a cow, per se, she was a challenging case. At least she wasn’t pregnant.
“That would hardly be fair to Sapdalina,” I observed.
Her angry face fell. “Oh, please, Botille. I’ll do anything. You’ve got to help me.”
Astruga’s skirt came unpinned and sank into the wine. She squealed and snatched it up, then thrust the soiled cloth into her mouth to suck out the blood-dark juice. Just then the church bells rang, and she let the skirt fall once more.
I looked toward the village, with its white stone walls, its rising houses ready to teeter and topple one another, and the brown square bell tower of the church of Sant Martin.
She’d shown me what, if I hadn’t had a head full of wine and fidel tunes, my instincts should have smelled before Astruga had even spoken a word. The fruit growing in her vineyard was planted by a handsome rake, a delightful talker, a charmer if ever there was one, and the source of all my best clients. I owed him, really. Already a growing list of roly-poly babies had him as the papà they would never know.
Dominus Bernard, Bajas’s priest at the church of Sant Martin.
Focho de Capa, self-proclaimed lord of the revels, scooped a ladle of syrupy juice from the vat and drank it with great flourish. “Bon an!” A good year, good for the grapes.
We climbed out of the vat. Itier pulled us each out by the wrist onto the platform next to the press and planted wine-stained kisses on our cheeks. We climbed down the ladder. Astruga let herself be seized about the waist by frizzle-headed Itier and led off to the table that had been set up, spread with bread, cheese, salmon, and roasted vegetables. I lingered behind to wipe a bit of the juice off my arms with a rag Na Pieret di Fabri handed me.
Widow Pieret’s eyes were still as blue as la mar, though her face was brown as carved chestnut and creased with as many deep grooves. Her husband, related to the lords of Bajas, had been a vintner, but his death, five years back, left Na Pieret to manage his great vineyards alone. It had been a terrible blow. Still, Na Pieret, who had never been weakened by childbearing, had borne up under the burden admirably. But today, though she smiled, she seemed tired.
“What is it, ma maire?” I genuflected, a courtesy owed to a great lady of advanced years, then I rose and kissed her cheek. All old women were “my mother,” but Na Pieret was someone I could almost wish were my mother.
“Ack! You are covered in viṇ.” She patted my cheek. “Smart Botille. Not a thing happens in this village but what you have a hand in it, is there?”
“Oh, pah.” I unraveled the damp rags from around my hair. “I won’t take the blame for everything.”
Na Pieret leaned against the handle of her cane. I noticed her head quiver slightly. “I need your help, Botille.” She spoke quietly. “I can’t run the vineyards anymore.”
I saw how much it hurt her to speak these words, though she said them simply and without self-pity.
“But your hired help, surely. They do the work for you, non?” I looked over to the feast table, where half a dozen of her hands lounged, stuffing their faces. “Are they lazy? Do they steal from you? Sazia and Plazensa and I can put a stop to that. We’ll teach them a lesson—”
“No, no.” Na Pieret squinted her eyes against the rays of the setting sun. “They are only as lazy as any other laborers ever were. No, they are kind to me.”
“Then what is it?”
“I need a strong back, and eyes I can trust. I need someone who cares about the grapes like they are his own. But you know I have no children to entrust them to.”
The wine on my skin had dried to a slimy, sticky sheen, and I began to itch. Hot breezes from the south did nothing to help. “My mother had two daughters,” Na Pieret went on. “My younger sister died last winter, leaving her two sons orphans, seven leagues from here, in San Cucufati.”
She nodded. “I want you to bring them to me. I will give them the farm, and they shall become my sons.”
Seven leagues? I pictured myself traveling seven long leagues with two quarrelsome little eṇfans in tow. What did she think I was, a nursemaid?
“How old are they?”
Na Pieret pursed her lips. “They were sturdy, useful children when I met them last,” she said, “thirteen years ago.”
I smiled, and looked over at Astruga, busy stuffing a piece of bread into Itier’s mouth. “Is either of them married?”
“Botille!” Na Pieret laughed. “You haven’t become one of the desperate tozas yourself, have you?”
“Non, Na Pieret.” I took her by the elbow and steered her to- ward the table. “But there are always plenty of them about, and now I have two more husbands to offer them.”
Na Pieret tapped my forehead with her swollen knuckles. “Only see to it you don’t marry off my new sons to any of the silly tozas.”
I shoved a half-drunk Andrio aside to make room on the bench for Widow Pieret to sit. “That, ma maire,” I said, “is a promise I doubt I can keep.”
Excerpted from "The Passion of Dolssa"
Copyright © 2016 Julie Berry.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
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