A young woman on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun.
A desperate flight from a murderous massacre.
One honorable man comes to her rescue.
Another becomes her nemesis and captor.
And a life and death search to reunite with her one true love.
Village of Gaeta
North of Naples
THE MASSACRE CAUGHT the villagers of Gaeta by surprise. In the convent of Santa Maria delle Vergine, the first shrieks of the Saracen raiders as they raced down the hillsides and into the outskirts of the village had forced the small group of nuns from their beds. Some rushed to the chapel to face the enemy. The others fled terrorized into the summer night. They were the lucky ones. That desperate flight would save their lives.
Protected by the hood of her mantle, Sara, a novice, the convent’s only inhabitant who had not yet taken her vows, stood among the sisters clustered together on a hill next to a grove of trees. She shivered against the fading night’s breeze. A full moon and the first rays of dawn shed a scarce light over the valley below. She gazed down at the village of Gaeta—a handful of buildings and homes, a church, and their convent—a sprawling mass of land surrounded on three sides by the sea. An eerie mist hung above it.
The desolate tolling of the church bell suddenly rose on the wind.
Sara watched in horror as Saracen warriors galloped through the village bellowing their battle cries. A knot of terror jammed in her chest when she saw them enter the convent. She held up a hand, a plea for the women to listen. The church bell suddenly ceased ringing. Screams, shrieks, and moans leapt out of the silence like sparks from a fire. Stunned, Sara could not tear her gaze away. Saracen marauders attacked homes, broke down doors and windows, and dragged villagers and nuns outside to meet their demise. The world was truly desolate, without redemption. The villagers were people she knew, whom she had toiled with and served. There had been no time to warn or save anyone. To each his own. The Saracens were bent at slaughter.
A group of villagers had barricaded themselves inside the church. The attackers set fire to the building and waited for them to flee the smoke and flames. Then the bloodthirsty murderers, wielding axes and swords, struck them down. For years, these Saracen enemies had burned towns and hamlets, churches and orchards, pastures and vineyards. The hatred the Saracens bore for the Neapolitan people had resulted in battles that had raged for decades. The reason for the hatred, however, had long faded from everyone’s minds.
Sara had never imagined anything like this before – the massacre of an entire village! Cold stark horror gripped her.
Gaeta's rude houses were scattered over a wide area. Even if most of the villagers had not been surprised in their beds, they had little chance to help one another. The Saracens slew with merciless brutality, torching structures at random. Sara had heard stories of impaled captives, of fingernails pulled out and limbs hacked off, even decapitations or of people roasted alive at the stake.
All she and the nuns could do was watch in horror. The women were unable to tear their gazes from the death striking those who had not been fortunate enough to escape. Some of the sisters fell to their knees to pray and weep. One fainted and lay huddled against a tree trunk.
When Sara had heard the first screams, she pleaded for the nuns to flee. Only a few of the women had heeded her advice. The abbess and the most devout chose to lock themselves in the convent’s small chapel to pray and await martyrdom by arrow or spear or axe. Sara and the nuns knelt stunned with fright on the crest of the wind-swept hill watching what might have been their doom. She could not blot out the unfettered visions of the massacre from her mind, the rape, the death. Convent and chapel belonged to them no more.
A crimson glow rose above the outline of the village. A long flame soared into the sky like a red tower. Sister Gilda gripped Sara’s hand. A ring of fire encircled the chapel’s belfry and smoke ascended into the night. Flames now fully engulfed the buildings. Sara mourned the men, women, and children who had fallen victim to the Saracen’s brutality. She turned away from the mayhem, the rapes, the eviscerations, the killing of babies. Gaeta was no more.
She whispered a prayer of gratitude for having escaped. Now, it was up to her to lead these women to safety. Afterwards, she would leave religious life and its severe practices forever. A burning need to put distance between them and the Saracen savages was foremost in her thoughts. She shoved back her hood. Her unbound chestnut hair tumbled down in a wind-ruffled surge upon her shoulders as she turned to face the women. She advanced to speak to the eldest, Sister Gilda, who knelt and watched the burning mission with a stupefied gaze.
“Are you going to cower here all night?” Sara’s words lashed out like a scourge. “We must go! Now!”
All the nuns turned to stare at her, wide-eyed.
“Shame on you!” admonished Sister Gilda, her thin wrinkled face white against the darkness. “Down on your knees, brat! Pray for those who are dying!”
Sara let out a brusque laugh. The reprimands of an entire year festered inside her like rotten, bitter herbs. “There is nothing we can do for the dead and dying. We must run for our lives, find help and shelter, otherwise, we will be the Saracen’s next victims. We must live!”
“May the Mother of Mercy thaw your arrogant heart and chastise you for your sins,” Sister Gilda retorted. “For a novice, you speak as if you are rotten to the very core of your heart.”
“Just because I am not yet a nun, does not mean that my heart doesn’t grieve as passionately as yours, Sister Gilda. The entire village is burning. Stay and scold until dawn if you wish. Stand here and rebuke the murderous Saracens as they ride up this hill to butcher you. I am certain they will give such old beauty as yours short-shrift.”
The sinewy nun offered no response. With harsh words, Sara had defeated her many times before. Sister Gilda knew well the value in biting her tongue. Several of the other women rose and flocked around Sara, whining with terror. Their faith, although reverent, failed them in this time of desperation. It would not help guide them to a safe path. They stood trembling in the wilderness, too close to the brutal band of Saracens. There was no safe refuge nearby. Flight in any direction would be dangerous. Sara sensed the night’s horror had unnerved the women. The unknown oppressed them.
“It is still dark,” said one, the panic in her voice undisguised. “What will we do?”
“Sister Gilda will pray for us,” Sara mocked.
“Sara, please help us, you are the wisest among us!” pleaded another.
“Then we cannot stand around sniveling,” Sara responded. “The sun will rise soon. I intend to go to the town of Caserta. It is further inland and will be safer.”
“But the woods are dreadful during the day as well as in the night,” said one of the younger nuns with wide, dark eyes.
Sara took the girl’s hand. “But kinder than the Saracens. Come with me. I will take care of you.”
Even as she spoke, she could see a line of torches move away from the village and weave its way up the long slope towards the jagged thicket of trees where Sara stood with the nuns.
“Look yonder.” Sara pointed down into Gaeta and the slowly approaching line of torches. “Let Sister Gilda wait and pray until the bearers of those torches arrive. I am fleeing.”
An instant clamor arose among the nuns. When courage and resourcefulness were needed most, danger now rendered them helpless. The torches moved side-to-side, ascending the hill as though the Saracen warriors who carried them were doubling right and left, following a jagged trail in the dark like hounds casting about for a scent. It would not be long before the Saracens reached them. The sight was ominous, and renewed their panic.
“Sara, please help us!” one of the nuns cried out.
They gathered around her, befuddled. Even Sister Gilda lost her appetite for martyrdom and became human once more. They were hungry for a leader and Sara stood among them confident, fearless. She looked toward the east, where a white glow above the treetops told her the sun was rising.
“See the dawn?” Sara said. “We will have light soon. There is a path over the hill that heads east and then south. I will take that path. Whoever wishes may follow.”
“We will come with you, Sara,” one of the others answered.
The five women collected themselves and stood close together. Much to Sara’s surprise, the first one to move was Sister Gilda, who had been in charge of the convent’s linens, and then Sister Maralda, their stout cook. Sisters Flora and Emma, the twins, and Sister Inga followed behind them. They stumbled and faltered, clutching one another. Despite their fear, they made clumsy, but fast progress.
Sara led the way through the fading darkness. Soon, they came upon a path at the edge of a wood. They followed it until thickets fully surrounded them. Twisting branches formed a canopy above, and the morning sky became nearly indiscernible between the leaves. To Sara, the forest seemed like a grotto that diminished into a fathomless gloom leading nowhere. Nevertheless, if not for the path’s comfort that promised to lead them to safety, they would have been helpless.
Their state of affairs was heartbreaking. As brides of Christ, they had dedicated their lives to peace and lived by a daily regimen of teaching children, chants, charity, and prayers, but even the walls of a convent could not protect them against the vile Saracens who burned homes, martyred children, and sacked and fired entire towns. The failure of their faith to protect them, taunted Sara with every step.
Their abbess had often said that the world, for all its apathy and wickedness, deserved to meet the bane of war. Those words, it seemed, had returned to haunt her, bringing about the good woman’s own death.
As they trudged through the early morning mist, the sisters grumbled about the sad state of their duchy. It would have been natural for them to cry out for vengeance, to let their resentment soar against those in power who had failed them, but their faith kept them silent.
Sara walked in front, listening to their comments with a touch of contempt. “You are very astute, all of you,” she said over her shoulder. “You talk of raids and massacres as though the whole land has been devastated. True, the Saracens have burned defenseless places and stormed towns, but Gaeta is only a tiny village in the duchy of Naples. You must trust that the duke’s soldiers will protect us from these savages.”
Sister Gilda glanced heavenward. “I pray that God lets it be so!”
“One great man is all that is needed to lead our armies against these heathens,” Sara added.
“Perhaps you will find him.” Derision laced Sister Gilda’s words.
“Not I. The danger posed by the Saracens will soon bring forth a leader,” Sara responded, ignoring Sister Gilda’s curtness. “Whenever an enemy exists, a hero is certain to come forward. We will find our champion before long, wait and see.”
“I wish I could find something to eat,” whined the plump Sister Maralda. As a cook, she always worried about the next meal.
“Perhaps Sister Gilda will pray for some provisions,” Sara said. “Bread and water perhaps?”
“Bread!” said Sister Maralda. “Did someone speak of bread?”
Sara patted her belly. “I have a small loaf hidden under my habit.”
Sister Maralda sighed. “Oh, Sara, I would chant a day’s worth of psalms for one morsel of that loaf.”
“Chant away, Sister Maralda,” Sara responded. “Begin with Psalm seventy-eight. I believe it is one of the longest.”
“Do not tease a hungry sufferer,” Sister Maralda admonished.
“The psalms, Sister Maralda, or not a crumb,” Sara said.
“Keep it for yourself, you mocciosa viziata, you spoiled brat,” Sister Maralda retorted. “I can go without.”
“We will share it, all of us, very soon, unless Sister Maralda wants to eat the entire loaf by herself,” Sara said.
In the growing light, Sara kept the women on their path. At times, it led them into patches of open ground, parts of which were covered with brush, while others teemed with bracken and bushes. She had never seen such faint-hearted women as these nuns. If a twig snapped, they clustered together. They mistook an owl's hoot for a Saracen battle cry. A hawk’s trill made them believe someone trailed them. Their sharpest reaction, however, came when they stumbled upon a grazing herd of deer. The sudden bolt and clatter of hooves as the creatures bounded away stirred panic among them. It took some time before Sara could calm them down and urge them to keep walking. She knew it would be many months before the fear of the ordeal they had witnessed would fade from their minds.
As the morning dragged on, fatigue slowed them down. They were as frail as ailing children were. Religious life had done little to strengthen their bodies, but had done much to distort their minds. She had no choice but to be strong and unrelenting. The women looked to her for strength and direction. She must get them to safety. Without her to lead them, they would be doomed. She put this knowledge to effect, and held it like a whip over their timidity.
As they went, she found ample possibilities to use her cunning. When they pleaded for her to stop so they could rest, she warned she would continue without them. The threat forced them all to plod after her. When they griped, she told tales of Saracen cruelty and lust, and made the fear in their hearts throb more than their weary feet. With these ruses, she kept them moving, knowing that the greatest kindness was heartlessness, and that to indulge them was nothing more than misguided pity.
Finally, regardless of the Saracen threat, the exhausted nuns refused to go any farther. Judging by the height of the sun, it was mid-morning. The woods thinned, and they gazed upon a serene valley. A huge oak tree grew nearby. Petulant and complaining, Sister Maralda crept under its boughs, muttering, and committing Sara’s soul to Purgatory. The rest declared they would rather die than take another step. Like the others, Sara’s body soon succumbed to fatigue. Any additional urging on her part to keep the women moving was futile. Bunched together beneath the branches, they soon fell into a weary slumber. She conceded and lay herself down to sleep under the shelter of the tree.
Before sleep could overtake her, Sara studied the sleeping women and the world around her. Somewhere in its vastness lay her secret destiny. Her quest for it would be unrelenting. She was determined to live life to its fullest and revel in the glories of joy and love, security and freedom. One day, she decided, she would experience it all. First, however, she must bring them to safety. Then her life would truly begin.
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