Authors: James Rollins
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Historical
ALEXANDRA AND ALEXANDER
MAY BOTH YOUR LIVES SHINE AS
BRIGHTLY AS ALL THE STARS
The precision of any fiction is a reflection of the facts presented. As such, while truth may sometimes be stranger than fiction, fiction must always have a foundation of truth. To that end, all the artwork, relics, catacombs, and treasures described in this story are real. The historical trail revealed within these pages is accurate. The science at the heart of the novel is based on current research and discoveries.
The holy relics were granted to Rainald von Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne (1159–67), following Emperor Barbarossa’s sacking of the city of Milan. Such a treasure was granted to the German Archbishop for his aid and chancellorship in service to the current Emperor. Not all were content to see such a treasure leave Italy…not without a struggle.
L’histoire de la Sainte Empire Romaine
(The History of the Holy Roman Empire), 1845,
men fled into the shadows of the lower valley. Behind them, atop the winter pass, horses screamed, arrow-bit and cleaved. Men shouted, cried, and roared. The clash of steel rang as silvery as a chapel’s bells.
But it was not God’s work being done here.
The rear guard must hold.
Friar Joachim clutched the reins of his horse as his mount slid on its haunches down the steep slope. The loaded wagon had reached the bottom of the valley safely. But true escape still lay another league away.
If only they could reach it…
With his hands clenched on the reins, Joachim urged his stumbling mare down to the valley’s bottom. He splashed across an icy brook and risked a glance behind him.
Though spring beckoned, winter still ruled the heights. The peaks shone brilliantly in the setting sun. Snow reflected the light, while a billow of rime-frost flagged off the peaks’ razored tips. But here in the shadowed gorges, snowmelt had turned the forest floor into a muddy bog. The horses slogged up to their fetlocks and threatened to break a bone with every step. Ahead the wagon was mired just shy of its axles.
Joachim kicked his mare to join the soldiers at the wagon.
Another team of horses had been hitched to the front. Men pushed from behind. They must reach the trail coursing along the next ridgeline.
“Ey-ya!” yelled the wagon master, snapping a whip.
The lead horse threw its head back and then heaved against the yoke. Nothing happened. Chains strained, horses chuffed white into the cold air, and men swore most foully.
Slowly, too slowly, the wagon dragged free of the mud with the sucking sound of an open chest wound. But it was moving again at last. Each delay had cost blood. The dying wailed from the pass behind them.
The rear guard must hold a little longer.
The wagon continued, climbing again. The three large stone sarcophagi in the open wagon bed slid against the ropes that lashed them in place.
If any should break…
Friar Joachim reached the foundering wagon.
His fellow brother, Franz, moved his horse closer. “The trail ahead scouts clear.”
“The relics cannot be taken back to Rome. We must reach the German border.”
Franz nodded, understanding. The relics were no longer safe upon Italian soil, not with the true pope exiled to France and the false pope residing in Rome.
The wagon climbed more quickly now, finding firmer footing with each step. Still, it trundled no faster than a man could walk. Joachim continued watching the far ridge, staring over his mount’s rump.
The sounds of battle had settled to groans and sobbing, echoing eerily across the valley. The ring of swords had died completely, signaling the defeat of the rear guard.
Joachim searched, but heavy shadows steeped the heights. The bower of black pines hid all.
Then Joachim spotted a flash of silver.
A lone figure appeared, limned in a patch of sunlight, armor glinting.
Joachim did not need to see the red dragon sigil painted on the man’s chestplate to recognize the black pope’s lieutenant. The profane Saracen had taken the Christian name Fierabras, after one of Charlemagne’s paladins. He stood a full head taller than all his men. A true giant. More Christian blood stained his hands than any other man’s. But baptized this past year, the Saracen now stood beside Cardinal Octavius, the black pope who took the name Victor IV.
Fierabras stood in the patch of sunlight, making no attempt to chase.
The Saracen knew he was too late.
The wagon crested the ridge at last and reached the rutted, dry trail atop it. They would make good speed now. German soil lay only a league from here. The Saracen’s ambush had failed.
Movement drew Joachim’s attention.
Fierabras drew a great bow from over a shoulder, black as the shadows. He slowly set arrow to string, notched it, and then leaned back and drew a full pull.
What did he hope to win with one feathered bolt?
The bow sprang, and the arrow flew, arching over the valley, lost for a moment in the sunlight above the ridgeline. Joachim searched the skies, tense. Then, as silent as a diving falcon, the arrow struck, shattering into the centermost casket.
Impossibly, the sarcophagus’s lid cracked with the sound of a thunderbolt. Ropes broke free as the crate split, scattering open. Loosed now, all three crates slid toward the open rear of the wagon.
Men ran forward, attempting to stop the stone sarcophagi from crashing to the ground. Hands reached. The wagon was halted. Still, one of the crates tilted too far. It toppled and crushed a soldier beneath, breaking leg and pelvis. The poor man’s scream christened the air.
Franz hurried, dropping from his saddle. He joined the men in attempting to lift the stone crate off the soldier…and more importantly back into the wagon.
The sarcophagus was lifted, the man dragged free, but the crate was too heavy to raise to the wagon’s height.
“Ropes!” Franz yelled. “We need ropes!”
One of the bearers slipped. The sarcophagus fell again, on its side. Its stone lid fell open.
The sound of hoofbeats rose behind them. On the trail. Coming fast. Joachim turned, knowing what he’d find. Horses, lathered and shining in the sun, bore down on them. Though a quarter league off, it was plain all the riders were dressed in black. More of the Saracen’s men. It was a second ambush.
Joachim merely sat his horse. There would be no escape.
Franz gasped—not at their predicament, but at the contents of the spilled sarcophagus.
Or rather the lack thereof.
“Empty!” the young friar exclaimed. “It’s empty.”
Shock drove Franz back to his feet. He climbed atop the wagon’s bed and stared into the crate shattered by the Saracen’s arrow.
“Nothing again,” Franz said, falling to his knees. “The relics? What ruin is this?” The young friar found Joachim’s eyes and read the lack of surprise. “You knew.”
Joachim stared back at the rushing horses. Their caravan had all been a ruse, a ploy to draw off the black pope’s men. The true courier had left a day ahead, with a mule team, bearing the true relics wrapped in rough-spun cloth and hidden inside a hay bundle.
Joachim turned to stare across the vale at Fierabras. The Saracen might have his blood this day, but the black pope would never have the relics.
JULY 22, 11:46
approached, Jason passed his iPod to Mandy. “Listen. It’s Godsmack’s new single. It’s not even released in the States yet. How cool is that?”
The reaction was less than Jason hoped. Mandy shrugged, expressionless, but she still took the proffered earphones. She brushed back the pink-dyed tips of her black hair and settled the phones to her ears. The movement opened her jacket enough to reveal the press of her applesized breasts against her black Pixies T-shirt.
“I don’t hear anything,” Mandy said with a tired sigh, arching an eyebrow at him.
. Jason turned his attention back to his iPod and pressed Play.
He leaned back on his hands. The two were seated on a thin grass sward that framed the open pedestrian plaza, called the Domvorplatz. It surrounded the massive gothic cathedral, the Kölner Dom. Perched on Cathedral Hill, it commanded a view over the entire city.
Jason gazed up the length of the twin spires, decorated with stone figures, carved in tiers of marble reliefs that ranged from the religious to the arcane. Now, lit up at night, it held an eerie sense of something ancient risen from deep underground, something not of this world.
Listening to the music leaking from the iPod, Jason watched Mandy. Both were on summer holiday from Boston College, backpacking through Germany and Austria. They were traveling with two other friends, Brenda and Karl, but the other two were more interested in the local pubs than attending tonight’s midnight mass. Mandy, though, had been raised Roman Catholic. Midnight masses at the cathedral were limited to a few select holidays, each attended by the Archbishop of Cologne himself, like tonight’s Feast of the Three Kings. Mandy had not wanted to miss it.
And while Jason was Protestant, he had agreed to accompany her.
As they waited for the approach of midnight, Mandy’s head bopped slightly to the music. Jason liked the way her bangs swept back and forth, the way her lower lip pouted out as she concentrated on the music. Suddenly he felt a touch on his hand. Mandy had shifted her arm closer, brushing her hand atop his. Her eyes, though, remained fixed on the cathedral.
Jason held his breath.
For the past ten days, the two had found themselves thrown together more and more often. Before the trip, they had been no more than acquaintances. Mandy had been Brenda’s best friend since high school, and Karl was Jason’s roommate. Their two respective friends, new lovers, hadn’t wanted to travel alone, in case their budding relationship soured while traveling.
So Jason and Mandy often ended up sightseeing alone.
Not that Jason minded. He had been studying art history back at college. Mandy was majoring in European studies. Here their dry academic textbooks were given flesh and girth, weight and substance. Sharing a similar thrill of discovery, the two found each other easy traveling companions.
Jason kept his own eyes averted from her touch, but he did move one finger closer to hers. Had the night just gotten a tad brighter?
Unfortunately the song ended too soon. Mandy sat straighter, pulling away her hand to remove the earphones.
“We should be getting inside,” she whispered, and nodded toward the line of people flowing through the open door of the cathedral. She stood up and buttoned her jacket, a conservative black suit coat, over her flamboyant T-shirt.
Jason joined her as she smoothed her ankle-length skirt and combed the pink tips of her hair behind her ears. In a breath, she transformed from a slightly punk college student into a staid Catholic schoolgirl.
Jason gaped at the sudden transformation. In black jeans and a light jacket, he felt suddenly underdressed to attend a religious service.
“You look fine,” Mandy said, seeming to read his worry.
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
They gathered their things, threw their empty Coke cans into a nearby trashcan, and crossed the paved Domvorplatz.
a black-frocked deacon greeted them at the door.
Mandy mumbled as they climbed the stairs.
Ahead, candlelight flowed through the cathedral’s open doorway, flickering down the stone steps. It enhanced the feeling of age and ancientness. Earlier in the day, while taking a cathedral tour, Jason had learned that the cathedral’s cornerstone had been laid back in the thirteenth century. It was hard to fathom such a breadth of time.
Bathed in candlelight, Jason reached the massive carved doors and followed Mandy into the front foyer. She dabbed holy water from a basin and made the sign of the cross. Jason felt suddenly awkward, acutely aware that this was not his faith. He was an interloper, a trespasser. He feared a misstep, embarrassing himself and in turn Mandy.
“Follow me,” Mandy said. “I want to get a good seat, but not too close.”
Jason stepped after her. As he entered the church proper, awe quickly overwhelmed unease. Though he had already been inside and learned much about the history and art of the structure, he was again struck by the simple majesty of the space. The long central nave stretched four hundred feet ahead of him, bisected by a three-hundred-foot transept, forming a cross with the altar at the center.
Yet it was not the length and breadth of the cathedral that captured his attention, but its impossible
. His eyes were drawn up and up, guided by pointed archways, long columns, and the vaulted roof. A thousand candles trailed thin spirals of smoke, sailing heavenward, flickering off the walls, redolent with incense.
Mandy led him toward the altar. Ahead, the transept areas to either side of the altar had been roped off, but there were plenty of empty seats in the central nave.
“How about here?” she said, stopping midway up the aisle. She offered a small smile, half thanks, half shyness.
He nodded, struck dumb by her plain beauty, a Madonna in black.
Mandy took his hand and pulled Jason down to the end of the pew, by the wall. He settled to his seat, glad for the relative privacy.
Mandy kept her hand in his. He felt the heat of her palm.
The night certainly
Finally, a bell sounded and a choir began to sing. The Mass was beginning. Jason took his cues from Mandy: standing, kneeling, and sitting in an elaborate ballet of faith. He followed none of it, but found himself intrigued, becoming lost in the pageantry: the robed priests swinging smoking globes of incense, the processional that accompanied the arrival of the archbishop with his tall miter hat and gold-trimmed vestments, the songs sung by both choir and parishioners, the lighting of the Feast candles.
And everywhere the art became as much a part of the ceremony as the participants. A wooden sculpture of Mary and baby Jesus, called the Milan Madonna, glowed with age and grace. And across the way, a marble statue of Saint Christopher bore a small child in his arms with a beatific smile. And overlooking all were the massive Bavarian stained-glass windows, dark now, but still resplendent with reflected candlelight, creating jewels out of ordinary glass.
But no piece of art was more spectacular than the golden sarcophagus behind the altar, locked inside glass and metal. While only the size of a large trunk and constructed in the shape of a miniature church, the reliquary was the centerpiece of the cathedral, the reason for the construction of such a massive house of worship, the focal point of faith and art. It protected the church’s most holy relics. Constructed of solid gold, the reliquary had been forged before the cathedral had even broken ground. Designed by Nicolas of Verdun in the thirteenth century, the sarcophagus was considered to be the best example of medieval goldwork in existence.