The first book of The Crucible, an exciting new historical fantasy from the author of the popular Axis triology. The Nameless Day is, according to the ancient pagan calendar of Europe, the one day of the year when the world of mankind and the enigmatic world of the spirits touch. Mid-century the forces of evil slide across the divide and invade Europe. The Church sends Thomas Neville, an English nobleman, on a secret mission through the shadowy forests and arcane religious orders of Europe to discover the extent of the danger. But not even Neville, a priest, is prepared when the horror of the Black Death sweeps across Europe. The forces of the Church and God rally against the infiltration of the Devil's minions. The battle has begun.
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Sara Douglass was born in Penola, South Australia, and spent her early working life as a nurse. Rapidly growing tired of starched veils, mitred corners and irascible anaesthetists, she worked her way through three degrees at the University of Adelaide, culminating in a PhD in early modern English history. Sara Douglass currently teaches medieval history of La Trobe University, Bendigo and escapes academia through her writing.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 reluctantly--and somewhat unsteadily--rose 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 visit--and 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 day--as 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 Angelo--but 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 sin--a 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 Preachers--the Dominicans--and 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 Dominicans--if 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 mo...
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