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It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Touchstone; 1 edition (May 25, 2010)
Kathleen McGowan is the New York Times bestselling author of The Expected One, an international bestseller published in more than 30 languages. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three sons.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $25.99
Hardcover: 407 pages
Publisher: Touchstone; 1 edition (May 25, 2010)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Rome, AD 161
The Roman emperor Antoninus Pius was not a butcher.
A scholar and philosopher, Pius did not want to be remembered by history as one of Rome's cruel and intolerant tyrants. Yet here he stood, literally up to his ankles in the blood of Christians. While alive, the four brothers had been exceptionally beautiful young men. But after their terrible deaths brought about by beatings and torture, they were unrecognizable masses of blood and flesh. The sight made him want to retch, but he could not appear to be weak before his citizens.
Pius was, for the most part, tolerant of the irksome minority who called themselves Christians. He even found it stimulating to participate in debates with those who were educated and reasonable. However odd he personally found their beliefs--about the single messiah who rose from the dead and would come again--their ideas did appear to be spreading at an unnervingly steady pace throughout Rome. A number of Roman nobles had converted to Christianity openly, and their participation in Christian rituals was tolerated by his government. This growing sect was also finding particular popularity with highborn females; women were included as equals in all its rites and ceremonies. They could even be priests in this strange new world of Christian thought and practice.
The Roman priests who held court in the temples of Jupiter and Saturn were up in arms that these Christians were allowed to offend the gods with their ridiculous concept of a single deity. Emperor Pius generally ignored the priests' wailings, and thus life in Rome went on in relative peace during much of his reign. It was only when some aberration developed to endanger lives in the Roman republic, some tragedy or natural disaster, that the Christians found themselves mortally threatened. The Roman priests, and their followers, were quick to blame the Christians for any and all misfortunes that might befall Rome. Surely it was their monotheistic insult to the true gods of the republic that caused divine retribution to fall on the other innocent and obedient citizens?
Emperor Pius had himself discovered in his debates that there were two types of Christians: the wild-eyed fanatics who often seemed anxious to die to prove their great piety, and the truly reasonable and compassionate adherents who were more devoted to helping the poor and healing the sick than they were to preaching and converting. Pius definitely preferred the latter type; they were making a positive contribution to their communities and were valuable citizens. These Christians, whom he called the Compassionates, were fond of telling stories of their messiah and his great healing ability and of quoting his very wise words about the need for charity. Most often, they spoke passionately about the power of love and its many forms. Indeed there were even some Christians here in Rome who claimed direct descent from their messiah himself, through his children who had settled in Europe. These claimants were the same Compassionates who worked tirelessly to help the suffering and the poor. Their undisputed leader was a stunning and charismatic noblewoman called Lady Petronella. The flame-haired Petronella was beloved by the people of Rome, despite her openly Christian practices, as she was the daughter and heiress of one of Rome's oldest families. She used her wealth generously for the highest good of the republic and preached only of the need for love and tolerance. If Petronella and her Compassionates, had been the only kind of Christian in Rome, this onslaught of terrible bloodshed would likely never have begun.
But the group of Christians that Pius referred to as the Fanatics were another story altogether. In contrast to the Compassionates, who spoke of their messiah in warm and devoted tones as the great teacher of a spiritual path they called the Way of Love, the Fanatics screeched of the one true God who would eliminate all others and bring about a reign of terror for the unbelievers at a time of final judgment. The Romans were deeply offended by this perspective, and the Fanatics compounded the offense by insisting that life on earth did not matter and that only the afterlife was of importance. Such a philosophy, such a craven disregard for the gift of life that the gods bestowed upon mortals, was absolute sacrilege to the Roman priests and their followers. It was incomprehensible to a culture of people who celebrated the experience of the physical senses in their countless spiritual and civic festivals. To most Romans, the Fanatics were an enigma born out of madness, a group to be shunned if not feared.
Thus it was the Fanatics who raised the ire of the Roman people, even when there were no natural disasters to contend with. But when a deadly influenza outbreak struck an affluent Roman suburb, the priests of Saturn began to cry for the blood of Christians to appease their god.
In the center of this growing drama was a wealthy Roman widow, the Lady Felicita. Felicita had converted to Christianity when, overcome by grief following the sudden death of her noble and beloved husband, she had turned her back on the Roman gods. It was said that, left alone to raise seven sons without a father, she went mad with the anguish of her loss. Felicita was visited by Christians who offered her comfort in her mourning, and she ultimately found strength and solace in the Fanatics' extreme perspective on the absolute importance of the afterlife. In this ideal, Felicita was consoled that her husband was in a better place where she would join him one day, and they would be together with their children as a family in heaven.
While Felicita burned with the passion of the newly converted, most of the nobles in her community were not overly upset by her behavior. Felicita would spend hours each day on her knees in prayer, but most felt that this was her own business. In addition, Felicita was charitable and generous, donating portions of her dead husband's fortune to the building of a hospital and compelling her older sons to contribute physical labor to help the infirm. As a result, Felicita's strong and beautiful children were very popular with the people of the Roman suburb in which they dwelled. The boys ranged in age from the golden-haired youngest, called Martial, who was in his seventh summer, to the tall and athletic eldest, Januarius, who was twenty years on earth.
The world in which Felicita and her sons lived remained relatively peaceful until the influenza swept into their town. It struck intermittently and at random, but those who were afflicted by it rarely survived the extreme fevers that accompanied the retching and convulsions. When the firstborn son of a Saturnian priest succumbed to the illness, the distraught man rallied the population to join him in accusing Felicita and her sons of bringing down the wrath of the gods upon them. Clearly, Saturn had punished his own priest to make his point clear: the Romans would need to be strong in their opposition to these Christian people who dared to regard their true gods as obsolete. The gods would not stand for it, and certainly not a god such as Saturn, who was the domineering and ruthless patriarch of the Roman pantheon. Hadn't Saturn even devoured his own son when he found him to be disobedient?
Felicita and all seven of her children were subsequently brought before the regional magistrate, Publius. Because of Felicita's noble status, they were not shackled by chains or tied but were allowed to enter the court of their own volition. Felicita was a handsome woman, tall and well built, with flowing dark hair and the walk of a queen. She stood straight and proud before the court, never wavering and showing no fear.
The proceedings began calmly and were carried out with due order. While Magistrate Publius was known to have a harsh streak when provoked, he was not as monstrous as some of the local jurists were known to be. He read out the charges against Felicita and her sons in measured tones.
“Lady Felicita, you and your children have been brought to this court today under suspicion. The citizens of Rome have grave concerns that you have angered our gods, most specifically, that you have offended Saturn, the great father of the gods. Saturn has taken vengeance upon your community, claiming the lives of a number of your neighbors, including innocent children, as a result. The laws of our people state that 'refusal to accept the gods angers the gods and disrupts the forces of the universe. When the gods have been angered, those culprits who have caused their consternation must beg forgiveness by making sacrifices to them.' Therefore you and your children are commanded to worship in the Temple of Saturn for eight days, making appropriate sacrifices as designated by the priests until the god has been appeased. Do you accept this as a fair and just sentence?”
Felicita stood mute before the court, her children standing in a line behind her, equally silent.
Publius repeated the question, adding,“You do understand that the alternative is death? Failure to appease the gods puts our entire nation at risk. Thus you will perform your sacrifices or you will die. The choice is yours.”
Publius' exasperation grew as Felicita made him wait for what seemed an interminable amount of time. When it became clear that she did not have any intention of speaking, the magistrate eventually snapped. “You offend the authority of this court and the people of Rome with your silence. I demand your answer, or it will be beaten from you.”
Felicita raised her head to look directly at Publius. When she finally replied, it was with the fire of conviction in her eyes and in her words.
“Do not threaten me, heathen. The spirit of the One God is with me and will overcome every assault you make upon me and my family, as he can take us to a place where you will never go. I will not enter a pagan temple nor make sacrifices to your powerless gods. Nor will my children. Not ever. So do not waste your breath further with this request. If you would punish us, do so and be done with it. But I do not fear you, and my sons do not fear you. They are as strong in their conviction as I am, and will remain so.”
“Woman, do you dare to bring the lives of your children into jeopardy over your misguided ideals?”
Publius was dumbstruck by her response. The sentence he had passed upon this Christian family was unprecedented in its leniency by all Roman standards. He was certain she would breathe a sigh of relief and guide her brood of boys quietly to the temple to begin their shared penance. Was it possible that Felicita would risk the lives of her entire family over an eight-day temple requirement?
Publius continued, less measured now. His shock and growing irritation crept into his voice.“Beware before you speak again, as this court has the power to see all of you punished most severely for your crimes.”
Felicita very nearly spat her reply. “I said, do not threaten me, foul pagan. Your words are empty. You cannot punish me in any way that will change my mind, so spare your breath. If this means you must put me to death, then do so and be quick about it so that I may reach my God and be reunited with my husband. If my children must die with me, they will do so gladly, as they know what awaits them in the afterlife is far greater than anything you can imagine on this terrible earth.”
Publius was now utterly outraged. It was unnatural, even monstrous, for any mother to offer up her children for sacrifice. What twisted god was this that the Christians worshipped who would require the lives of seven children to appease his bloodlust?
The magistrate's voice boomed through the court. “Unhappy woman, if you wish to die, so then die, but do not destroy your children in the process! Send them to the temple so that they may live.”
Felicita's reply was a scream that shook the stones of the courtroom. “My children will live forever no matter what you do to them! You have no power over them or over me.”
Publius spluttered at her audacity before ordering Felicita to be placed in chains and sent into a holding cell. As she was dragged out of the court, she shouted to her sons, “My children, look up to heaven where Jesus Christ awaits you with the only true God. Be faithful and courageous so that we may all be united in heaven. If one of you falters, all is lost! Do not fail me!”
Once their mother had been removed, the magistrate spoke to the children. The youngest two were in tears but trying hard to keep them in check, chins buried in their chests and little bodies nearly convulsing with sobs. Publius, himself a father of boys, felt pity for these small ones, innocent victims of their mother's madness. He addressed Fe-licita's children as a group.
“Your mother is a misguided woman who would threaten the lives and security of all Rome with her offenses. You do not have to follow her terrible example. This court recognizes each of you individually and promises leniency and pardon to you. All you must do is renounce these words of your mother and agree to accompany the priests to the Temple of Saturn and make appropriate reparations to that god for having offended him. This will restore peace to the land and abolish the plague that has killed your innocent neighbors.”
He watched the silent seven, the younger ones all with eyes downcast, and addressed the final question to the elder four. “Do you not wish to see the end of suffering in your community? For this is in your power. Your actions have brought plague and death to your neighbors. You now have the opportunity to correct that and set things to right.”
The eldest son, Januarius, answered for all of them. He was the image of his mother both physically and spiritually. Januarius replied with her same fervor. He stated, voice steady and strong, that he would gladly die before entering a pagan temple and that he would take his brothers with him to heaven rather than see them corrupted by heathens. Further, he defended the honor of his pious mother, punctuating his last sentence by spitting on the shoes of the magistrate.
That final act of disrespect turned the heart of Publius to stone. He made his deadly decision in that moment. If Januarius was intent upon dying for his mother and her monster god, then he would be given the opportunity to do just that. Perhaps if Felicita was made to witness the gruesome death of her own firstborn son, she would recant and save the others.
This kind of flagrant disobedience to the Republic and its gods could not be allowed to go unpunished, particularly as it had been witnessed in a public forum. A bloody spectacle to warn other Christians against such crimes was most assuredly warranted and in the best interest of the peace and prosperity of Rome.
Januarius was dragged into the public forum and shackled to a whipping post. His mother and three older brothers were given seats near enough to be splattered by his blood with every blow that split his flesh. The younger children, still seen as victims by Publius and the other magistrates of the court, were held in custody away from the execution.
The first executioner was a huge man whose arm muscles bulged as he brought the whip down with all his strength across the prisoner's back, over and over again. At intervals during this flogging of Januarius, the magistrates ordered the executioner to pause. They first asked the condemned if he would like to recant and accept his punishment--and live. Januarius spit on them the first three times. The fourth time he was closer to death than to life and was unable to respond. Thus the final appeal went out to his mother.
“Woman, this is your oldest child, the blood of your union with your husband. How can you watch his torment and not recant? If you accept your penance, he may still live and you will save your other children.”
Felicita refused to acknowledge the magistrates. She spoke only to Januarius, but her voice was loud and sure. “My son, embrace your father for me, for all of us, as he awaits you at the gates of heaven. Think no more about this earthly life which means nothing. Go to where God awaits, my child!”
It did not take many more lashes to end the life of Januarius. His blood seeped away into congealing pools as the lashes tore open what was left of his body. When he was declared dead, the executioner unshackled the corpse and dragged it just far enough to be out of the way yet still in sight of Felicita and her three elder sons.
This spectacle of horror repeated itself three more times as each of Felicita's elder children refused to accept the judgment of the court. Several executioners had to be brought in, as the effort needed to beat each young man to death was too exhausting for any single man, regardless of his size and strength. By the fall of darkness, Felcitia had watched as four of her children were flogged to death. She had, in fact, encouraged their deaths by torture. There was no indication that she was going to recant, no matter how gruesome the methods used to kill her children. With each child lost, she appeared to be gaining strength in her twisted version of faith.
The magistrate Publius was now faced with a terrible dilemma. He had no desire to execute the younger boys, who were innocent victims of their mother's madness. And yet Felicita, strangely, appeared to be winning in this battle. She had not broken during the execution of her children, not once. There were no tears and no wincing. Her condemnation of the court and of the pagan priests grew louder and more emphatic with each death. That she was mad was not in question. No mother in her right mind could endure what had occurred here today. Even the executioners were as horrified as they were exhausted by what they had done in the name of their father god, Saturn, and for the security of Rome.
But allowing Felicita's three remaining little ones to live would show weakness. It would demonstrate that her will and faith were stronger than that of Rome and the gods.
This was how the emperor himself, Antoninus Pius, had come to be summoned to this affluent suburb for consultation, had come to be standing in the blood and gore that had once been Felicita's elder sons. This matter had the potential to become a state crisis, and Magistrate Publius did not want the blood of the innocent younger children on his hands if such a thing went against the emperor's will. Antoninus Pius was, himself, at a loss to determine the correct course of action in this hideous case. He considered the now infamous moment, generations earlier, when the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate had ordered the execution of Jesus the Nazarene, thereby creating the martyr around whom this strange cult was built. Pius did not want to create more martyrs whose ghosts would serve to weaken the might of Rome. He also did not want the blood of little children on his hands. But he was not certain how to avoid it. Indeed, the matter had already gone too far.
It was no doubt the most benevolent goddess of beauty and harmony, Venus herself, who smiled on him that evening by sending him an answer. When the alluring and graceful Lady Petronella arrived requesting an audience, Pius breathed a sigh of relief for the first time on that terrible day.
Lady Petronella did not have to plead her case with the emperor, although she had been fully prepared to do so. She was stunned that he seemed relieved to see her and to concede to her plan. Petronella was the popular wife of a senator, yet her status as an unapologetic, albeit gentle Christian could have made this mission difficult. Her beauty and elegance had gone far to win over the more hardened nobles of Rome, including this emperor, who was a great lover of attractive women. She came dressed in a simple cream gown, but one made from the highest-grade silk from the Orient. Her hair, the color of burnished copper in the sun, was plaited elaborately, strands of pearls woven through the coiffure. Around her long and delicate throat was an exquisite pendant with a large central ruby from which dangled three tear-shaped pearls. A smaller brooch, etched with the symbol of a rooster with ruby eyes, decorated one shoulder of her gown. To the uninitiated, Petronella's adornments were merely the trappings of a rich woman. But those who knew her intimately understood that these precious stones were the symbols of her esteemed family. The rubies and pearls indicated descent from the ancestor they referred to as the Queen of Compassion--Mary Magdalene. The rooster emblem was the symbol of the other strand of her blood, that of her sanctified great-great-great-grandfather, who was no less than Saint Peter, the first apostle of Rome. She had, in fact, been called after the apostle Peter's only child, given the name that was a feminized version of Peter.
According to the sacred family legend, Saint Peter's only daughter, the first-century saint known as Petronella, had married the youngest son of the holy family, Yeshua-David. Mary Magdalene had been heavily pregnant at the time of the crucifixion, and was spirited away to safety in Alexandria immediately thereafter. In Egypt she gave birth to the son of Jesus, called Yeshua-David, whose own life was wondrous and powerful. It was said that on the day that Yeshua-David and the original Petronella first met as children, they became inseparable. They married and had many children, thus creating a legacy of pure Christian strength that preached the Way of Love throughout Europe. The women in this lineage subsequently married into powerful Roman families to protect their line. Staying alive to preserve the Way was their sole mission. It was their family legacy, as it had been delivered to their patriarch by Jesus Christ himself.
Jesus had given Peter his name, Petrus, meaning “the rock,” because he believed his friend the fisherman to be solid and unwavering in his commitment. He was the rock upon which Jesus could build a strong foundation for growth, one of the chosen successors to ensure that the teachings of the Way would not die. Jesus had commanded that Peter deny him so that he would escape persecution and live to preach another day. Sadly, Peter's triple denial of Jesus was now infamous and often used to illustrate his weakness of character. It was just one of many injustices manufactured by the scribes who would twist Christian history for their own purposes. But Peter's descendants knew the truth and remembered it with pride, adopting the rooster proudly as their family emblem. That Peter would deny Jesus three times before the cock crowed was their Lord's own request. Contrary to the derogatory legend, Peter was showing his strength in following the sacred orders that Jesus had given to him.
The exact words, spoken privately by Jesus to Peter on that blessed night in Gethsemane, had been passed down and memorized by all Petrus children:
Live to preach another day. You must remain. Only then will the Way of Love survive.
The words of Jesus to Saint Peter, spoken in the Garden of Gethsemane, had been distilled into the sacred family motto:
Lady Petronella was the remaining “rock” of the Christians, and as such she must now face this predicament that could prove dangerous to their Way of Love.
Indeed, Petronella hoped to represent the legacy of her most steadfast and compassionate ancestors today with this mission to the emperor to save Felicita and her remaining children. What concerned the lady now was how much confidence Pius appeared to have in her ability to reach Felicita and to turn this situation around for Rome. While she was determined to try, Petronella had deep reservations about the outcome of this venture. Felicita's fanaticism was legendary among the Compassionate Christians, even before her inconceivable act of offering her children up for sacrifice. Would Felicita listen to her? It was hard to know. Petronella's pedigree among Christians was pristine to the point that most nearly worshipped her. And beyond all else, she was the current guardian of the Libro Rosso, the sacred book that contained the true teachings and prophecies of the holy family. Her authority could not be argued by any reasonable Christian. But a woman who would cheer on the unspeakably brutal executions of her children as an act of faith was not a reasonable Christian.
Before requesting an audience with the emperor, Petronella had prayed long and hard for guidance. She prayed to her Lord for his strength and for the clarity to understand his will through the teachings of love. She invoked the Queen of Compassion and asked to be guided by her remarkable grace. She rubbed the central ruby of her pendant and said a final prayer.
“I remain,” she whispered aloud, then steeled herself for the inevitable confrontation to come.
“Good evening, sister.”
Petronella had been allowed, through intervention of the emperor, to meet with Felicita in one of the magistrate's offices. It would have been unseemly for a lady of her status to descend into the depths of the dank, fetid cell where Felicita had been held. While the prisoner had been given a clean shift to wear during the visit, she was filthy and her skin was stained with the blood of her children. Petronella winced inwardly and prayed that her horror was not immediately apparent on the surface.
The two women greeted each other as all Christians did: as siblings of the spirit. After the formalities, Felicita asked with suspicion, “Why have you come?”
Petronella's gaze was steady, her melodious voice soft. “I have come to offer my condolences for your loss and see if there is any comfort your community can provide for you in your time of grief.”
Felicita appeared not to hear her at first. Then she looked at the elegant woman in surprise. “Grief? What grief?” Petronella was taken aback. The woman must surely have lost whatever was left of her mind after what she had witnessed. “Lady Felicita, we are all heartbroken over the loss of your beautiful boys.”
Felicita was looking past Petronella now, as if she were not there-- or as if it didn't matter if she were. She shook her head slowly and replied as if entranced, “Heartbroken? Why, sister? I am joyous on this day as my brave children did not deny their God. Our Lord Jesus Christ will welcome them into heaven and celebrate their strength and faith. Don't you see? This is a day for rejoicing! I can only hope that tomorrow the magistrates will give orders to take the rest of us, so that we may all be together in heaven by the time the sun goes down.”
Petronella cleared her throat to give herself a moment to think. This was worse than she had anticipated.
“Sister, while I understand your great faith in the power of the afterlife, if I may say so, Jesus taught us that we must celebrate the joy of life that we have here on earth. That it is God's great gift to us. Your three youngest sons can and should be spared so that they may grow and live in this world that God has created for them.”
“Get thee behind me, Satan!” Felicita shrieked with a venom that caused Petronella's head to snap back as if slapped. “You . . . ,” she spit at the calm woman standing before her as she continued to rage, “you stand here in your Roman finery, married to a foul pagan, and yet you dare to judge me? I will not betray my God for anyone or anything, and neither will any of my children. We are righteous and God will reward us for our courage. Our reward will be togetherness in heaven in the sight of that God.”
Petronella, praying inwardly that the blessed Magdalena would send her both patience and compassion, tried a different tactic. “Felicita, your death and the deaths of your remaining children will remove powerful voices from this earth, voices that can spread the good news of our teachings and serve to educate others. Do you not think that God wants this? These young boys will grow knowing that their brothers died for their beliefs, and it will make them strong in their resolve to continue our teachings. They must remain. They will be heroes for the Way. This is what God wants from them, and from you.”
“How dare you presume to tell me what God wants? I hear him clearly, and he tells me that he wants my children to be martyrs, not heroes. He requires them as a sacrifice to his greater glory. Just as Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac.”
Petronella took a breath and explained patiently, “Yes, but Abraham was stopped before he could kill his own son. The Lord was testing him to determine his obedience, and yet once he was convinced of it, he sent the angel of mercy, Zadakiel, to stay the hand that was holding the sacrificial knife. For it is never God's wish to see any of his children suffer. Felicita, the Lord is begging you to be that merciful angel who stays the hand of the executioner. Please, do not kill your remaining children. If you do, you will not be choosing the Way of Love. If Jesus were here with us now, he would not allow you to murder your babies. Of this, more than anything, I am most certain.”
Felicita turned feverish eyes on Petronella. “Jesus is waiting for me at the gates of heaven, waiting to embrace me and to reward my courage. It is you he will reject, you who married a pagan and who concedes to your heathen neighbors at every turn.” “I love and honor my neighbors as his commandment instructs. It is not concession, Felicita. It is the Way of Love. It is tolerance.”
“It is weakness!”
“There will be no Christians left if we do not embrace tolerance. Our Way will not survive if we do not learn how to live it in peace with others. The Way bids us to be patient with those who have not yet seen the light. Jesus tells us we must forgive those who do not see.”
“Then I pray he will forgive you, sister.” Felicita hissed the last word, making it clear that she no longer believed that Petronella was her sister. “I pray that God forgives you for your weakness and for your evil intent in coming here tonight. Only a devil would try to stop me from carrying out this ultimate sacrifice for the extreme glory of our Lord!”
Petronella had run out of patience, and there was no further need for it. It was clear that Felicita was too immersed in her twisted sacrificial fantasy to hear anything that resembled reason, or even sanity. How could she be anything else but completely invested, after sacrificing four of her children to that idea on this day?
Petronella stood to take her leave, saying quietly as she moved toward the door,“Then I shall pray for all of us, Felicita. And for everyone who dares to believe in the Way of Love.”
The following morning dawned dreary with a haze that covered the sun. The priests of Saturn were declaring it an evil omen even before the news came that the plague of influenza had continued to spread through the night, killing five more. Two of the dead were children of the temple priests.
The emperor Antoninus Pius was accosted by a cadre of angry holy men even before breakfast. They were certain that Felicita had caused this increased plague through her refusal to acknowledge the gods. She must be made to change her mind. They demanded that her surviving children be brought into court and threatened with execution one by one.
The pressure on the emperor grew more extreme as the day wore on, coming now from many regions of the republic as the legend of Felicita and her reign of terror began to spread. He finally succumbed to the weight of it, reconvening that terrible court of execution.
Felicita and her three remaining sons stood before the magistrate. She was a wild-eyed Medea now, completely diseased by the fevered fantasy in her brain, which had been fed by the blood of her eldest. The little boys were terrified, and the youngest cried openly, blond curls sticking to his wet cheeks. Pius had called Publius to his home and instructed him privately that these children must not suffer in death. If it was unavoidable for them to die, then so be it. They would die. But the torture of babies would not be his legacy.
One by one, each of the boys was called before the magistrates. Publius coaxed them, in his most gentle voice, to turn their backs on their mother and follow the priests to the temple. Felicita was chanting now, a terrible, high-pitched wail of a chant, over and over again. “Be not afraid, children. Your father and brothers await you in heaven.” One by one, the children shook their heads at the magistrates, as if under their mother's hypnotic spell. As each was led forward to the chopping block, Felicita was asked if she would recant and save this child. Her response each time was a hideous laugh, a terrible parody of the sound of joy.
In the space of a single hour, three beautiful children, including one who was little more than a baby, lost their heads to the executioner's sharpest sword. He was swift with each, ensuring that the boys did not feel any pain. But when it came to the death of their mother, he was not so lenient. He used an axe instead, and it took three blows to separate the lady from her head.
Emperor Antoninus Pius fled the hideous suburb that had been forsaken by the gods that same night, never to return to it. Felicita's reign of terror was over. But he was certain that he would be forever haunted by the sound of her insane laughter and the images that accompanied it as that last, tiny, golden-haired child died on the chopping block under his command.
That evening, an exhausted Lady Petronella called a meeting of her closest brethren, the core group of Compassionates, in order to relate the terrible events of the day. She would need at least one to volunteer as a messenger, to be dispatched to Calabria. The Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher was in residence there, and they would need his sage guidance to navigate the storm that was about to descend upon the Christians in Rome.
Petronella explained to those gathered that she feared that Felic-ita's reign of terror was just beginning, that it would mark danger to Christians throughout the empire and begin the terrible persecutions of previous generations anew. All the progress her family had made over a hundred years to be accepted as upstanding Roman citizens, to preserve the safety of Christians, may have just been washed away by the blood of Felicita's children. The Fanatics would feed on it and become more outspoken, and the Romans would quash their uprising with the savagery that is born of fear.
She could see at the edge of her vision that something had been put into play here through these events, some terrible distortion of the teachings of their Lord that would take on a life of its own and grow into the future. It was a wicked vision, one that terrified her with the force of its darkness. She recounted it to the other Compassionates, all of whom shivered with the ring of truth in her sad prophecy.
“I fear it is the one we have called sister who has proven to be our greatest adversary. She has unleashed an unstoppable force for evil with these actions. The blood of those children will be used to rewrite the true teachings of our Lord. And words written in blood can only come from a place of utter darkness. The teachings of the Way of Love will drown in the blood of those innocents.”
Petronella shuddered as the words poured out, unbidden, from some secret place where the truth of the future is held in keeping. On a terrible night such as this, her family's legacy of feminine prophecy was a most unwelcome gift.