Chapter One: The New Cyrus

He was on the verge of consciousness.
A hundred bells were pealing, each one dragging out into a plaintive drone which, although supposedly a herald of joy for the feast of Corpus Christi, sounded discordant and sickening as he limped onward. He had been travelling for longer than he could remember, more than a year, for he had heard the Corpus Christi peal before, hundreds of miles away. He stood outside the city walls, shivering as he watched the birds, little more than specks flying up out of their roosts in the high domes and steeples.
Coughing into his hand, he looked down at the blood which covered it. He was not going to reach Rome. He was never going to see the sacred sites that, he had been promised, would heal him. Gritting his teeth, the pilgrim struggled forward. Every step was a labour which exhausted him to the point of faintness, and every breath choked him. Somehow, although this climate was warmer and drier than that of his home, the air seemed intent on chilling him.
He was almost at the gate into the city when his vision failed entirely. Now blind as well as crippled, he reached towards the place where he knew the walls should be. His sight would come back, he knew it would. He had fallen momentarily blind before on this journey, when the pain of treading the path of pilgrimage had become too much and his body had closed down into a forced sleep.
Sleep. That was what he needed. Accepting his limitations, he sat down on the side of the road: another beggar before the walls of beauty.
He had heard of Florence as he travelled. Of the colour and music, the power of mind and power of spirit which the place exuded. Everyone celebrated the city. It would be a shame to enter when his sight had betrayed him. He valued beauty, although he saw it in places where others did not. He found it in birdsong and wayfarers’ flowers, in peace and contemplation. That, indeed, was what had prompted the priest to send him on his journey.
“One who values such things, my child, should not be left to suffer. God has not seen fit to pardon your sins, but you will find His blessing in commitment and steadfastness. You must prove yourself to Him. Go to the Holy See and pray before Saint Peter, whose faith allowed him to take the Gospel out into the world. God shall see your repentance then.”
And so he had begun his journey, passing over borders and through towns, unhindered except when some chased him from their lands. Recently, as he had passed through the Duchy of Milan, one of the landowners had loosed hounds on him for sleeping against the wall of a sheepfold. He was unable to flee, and the dogs had caught him in seconds. They had been called back only once he had begged for mercy. That had marked the start of this strange fever.
Settling down on the roadside, he drifted into sleep. His dreams were beautiful; in them God had healed his crippled body. All around him were stunning fountains, and he stared into one, gazing in disbelief at his own reflection. He was no longer tired, dirty, and ugly. He looked happy.
“Gently,” someone said in a firm voice, and he opened his eyes on the real world.
It took him a moment for the pilgrim to notice, and a further moment to confirm, that his sight had not fully returned. He pulled away from the hands which tried to raise him and spoke a series of frantic words in his own tongue. Shapes loomed over him, hardly human, tall and corpse-like as his blurred vision distorted the image.
“Peace, my child,” said the voice. It was not coming from either of the shapes before him, but from the side. “Do you understand me?”
He nodded. “I have learnt some Italian and know some Latin,” he croaked. “I was going to Rome.”
“Rome? You are a long way from Rome, pilgrim. Where have you come from?”
“The north.”
“Over the Alps?” There was real fascination in the voice now. “Did you come from over the Alps? Over the mountains?”
“Through them.” His teeth chattered around the words, and he reached towards the owner of the voice. “I have to get to Rome. I have to find God.”
“What is your purpose in finding Him, my child?”
“Healing,” he replied, gripping his swollen ankle where the dogs’ teeth had found him.
“You hear,” the voice sighed. “Take him to the convent.”
“Please,” the pilgrim continued, panicking as he tried to fight off the two other men, who, nonetheless, easily pulled him to his feet. “I didn’t mean any harm. I just wanted to sleep!”
He shouted, trying to argue his innocence, but soon felt himself slipping back into unconsciousness. Only vague shapes were visible, and these seemed to bend in and out of focus, sometimes pushing against him, sometimes leaning away.
He was being dragged. His feet scraped along the ground, each jolt of his toes against the cobbles bringing him forcefully back to his senses. But none of his senses seemed to be working. It was not just his sight which had left him: his ears distorted the sombre sound of water, and the noises of the feast-day celebrations were corrupted. He tried to plead with his assailants, but no words would come from his lips.
He must have passed out entirely, for the next thing he knew, he was waking up again—still shivering, but now he could feel the heat of a fire close to where he lay. Somehow, this only made him tremble even more.
There were voices by the fire; he could make out the sounds of at least three different men. One, he was sure, was the man who had spoken to him earlier.
“Pico, I heard it from his own mouth.”
“And I hear you. But many men travel to Florence, brother. How can you be sure this is the one?”
“Far fewer have come this past year.” The third voice swung from anger to resignation. “The Medici blood flows thinner in this generation. Gone are the days of art and culture; we are now subjected to obscurity and mockery.”
“Hush,” hissed the first speaker. “He is stirring.”
The pilgrim froze, but he could not stop shaking, and his teeth chattered so violently that his jaw ached. He realised there was little use in the masquerade of slumber and, lifting a hand to his face, peeled back his eyelids, relieved to find that his sight had returned.
His relief was short-lived, however, for the first figure his eyes rested on as it towered over him was a man—if indeed it was a man—clad in black. The garment covered the figure’s head and swept down like a swathe of darkness. No face was visible beneath the deep cowl.
Instinctively falling back into his native language, the pilgrim begged for mercy from this apparition of death, his quivering words becoming those of a prayer.
“He is calling on the Blessed Virgin,” the third voice announced.
The figure standing over him traced the sign of the cross on its chest and reached forward with a cloth, mopping the pilgrim’s brow. Now that the foreboding form had tilted slightly, the light of the fire played upon its hands and face, revealing it to be a human and not the angel of death.
“That language you spoke,” the man began, and the pilgrim realised that this was the same person who had found him on the roadside. “That was not a tongue I know. How do you come to speak so many languages?”
The voice was full of suspicion, almost accusatory, and the pilgrim leaned away, shifting backwards.
A change came over the black-enveloped face, its strong features softening. “Be careful, my child. You will fall.”
The pilgrim shook his head as the figure reached out to stop him.
“You are lying on a table. You will fall. What is your name, child?”
Too afraid not to answer, pinned by the figure’s narrowing eyes, the pilgrim tried to coax his voice to speak. But his breath was shallow, and he could not support it even long enough to stammer his name. “F-f-fr…” he heard his own voice stutter.
As the man’s cold hand rested on his arm, he pulled away. It was only now, as the world gave way beneath him, that his mind processed the warning he had been offered. He clattered to the stone floor and, for the third time, slipped into unconsciousness.
The next time he awoke, it was to the sound of singing. Captivated, he listened to the music as it travelled down to him, as though coming from heaven. Every note made him shiver, not with fear or sickness but with elation. He felt as if each plaintive note carried a thousand promises. For the first time that he could remember, he felt no pain. All around him was utter peace, and he allowed himself a grateful smile.
Opening his eyes, the pilgrim stared up at a wooden ceiling. In places it had been covered with plaster, but this must have been done some time ago, for little of the plaster was left now on the wooden beams. A candle burned on the table beside him, but it was not like the candles he had seen before: this one smelled of flowers and glowed with a redder flame. Still daring to hope that God had heard his prayers and delivered him with healing, he tried to sit up. At once the pain in his leg, and indeed his entire left side, returned with a force which made him feel sick. He clapped his hands over his mouth and then realised he was not alone.
Two men stood close to the door of the small room, their eyes fixed on him. The first seemed familiar, his disdainful features softening as he realised that the pilgrim was observing him, but the frown he wore looked as if it could never be wiped from his thin face. His nose seemed to drop directly from the eyebrows which overshadowed his beady eyes.
The second man was quite different. He had a calm face, with a hint of a smile in its natural repose. His cheeks were at once swollen and defined, and this swelling seemed to run into his lower lip, which might easily have been his most prominent feature had his nose not protruded like an eagle’s beak. It was impossible to see anything more of him, for he was cloaked in a black habit.
“Rest, Francesco,” this man said, his large lips never lifting, his voice reassuring. “Your wounds have been tended, and you are safe here. There are no hounds to chase you and no rope to strike you.”
“How did you know?” the pilgrim asked; he assumed the man was addressing him, although his name was not Francesco.
“Pico told me.” The man motioned to the thin figure beside him, who nodded but seemed incapable of smiling. “He oversaw the physician’s work. Tell me what you have done to provoke such treatment.” He paused, seeing the young man stiffen, then added, “I told you truthfully, Francesco: you are safe here.”
Choosing not to question the man about the error of his name, the pilgrim pulled the blanket over himself more tightly. It was not that he was cold—although he was now almost naked apart from for his dressed wounds and a loincloth—but that he wanted to hide from the other men.
“I couldn’t go any further,” he whispered into the blanket. “I was so tired.”
“He came from over the Alps, Girolamo.” Despite his dour expression, there was animation in Pico’s voice—excitement, even. “Is it him? It is, isn’t it? What other cripple could survive such a journey?”
“Why does that matter?” the pilgrim demanded, tightening his grip on the blanket until the weave opened between his fingertips. “I’m going to Rome. Then, if God sees fit, I won’t be a cripple any longer.”
“What assurance you have in your faith!” Pico remarked. But his eyes were on the man called Girolamo. “It must surely be him. Have we not waited long enough?”
“You are thirty, Pico. Hardly an old man.” Girolamo stepped over to the terrified figure on the bed, placing a cupped hand on his forehead. “Rest, Francesco. No man, least of all one so young, should suffer as you have.”
The pilgrim—accepting the name Francesco as his own—dropped the blanket and snatched the man’s hand. “I fell asleep beside the sheepfold, so he turned his dogs on me. And I was whipped for trespassing on another man’s land. I did not know either of them could not be crossed. Father, I have not sinned.”
“I am a brother, not a father,” the cowled man explained. “But I believe you are innocent. That is why you are here: to rest and recover.”
“Then will I be free to continue to Rome?” Francesco asked, comforted by the two hands which now gently held his own.
“I would never dream of keeping a pilgrim from his homage.” The man paused as he set Francesco’s hand down; then his own disappeared within the voluminous sleeves of his habit. “There is one thing I wish to know.”
Francesco curled back into the bed, away from the monk’s concern. But, despite his trepidation, there was something about the man which compelled trust. Perhaps it was as simple and clear as Francesco’s own unwavering faith, which led him to believe that he could trust all Men of God—for certainly he did not trust the mousy Pico, shuffling from foot to foot with an eagerness Francesco could not understand. Or perhaps it was the fact that Pico watched him with fascination, while the other man showed genuine care.
“What is it?” he whispered at last, awaiting the answer with fearful uncertainty.
“You told my holy brother that you came over the Alps. Yet you told him this in Italian. You are not a scholar, Francesco. How did you become a linguist?”
He had anticipated all manner of accusatory questions, but this was not one of them. “When you need to beg, you…you need words to survive,” he stammered. “I knew no Italian when I began this journey, and only a little Latin. I had to learn, or I would not have lived.”
“Are you not satisfied?” Pico said, his words tripping over one another while he rubbed his hands. “Does he not fulfill everything you anticipated? You know as well as I, brother, what corruption lies at the heart of Rome. Who better to—”
“Wait,” Girolamo interrupted, silencing his younger counterpart with calm authority. “Poor Francesco has suffered enough. Let him rest. Here,” he continued, walking to a high table large enough only for the flagon and beaker which rested there. He poured out some wine and helped Francesco to sit up. “Drink something, my child. It will help you sleep.”
Francesco took three thirsty gulps before he realised the weight of the man’s words. The room around him began to pulsate, the whitewashed plaster racing towards him before shrinking back again. He tangled his fingers into his long blond hair, a feature which divided him from the Florentines, and tried desperately to hold onto consciousness. He was afraid of the purpose these two men had for him, and of what they might do to achieve it. His other hand gripped the coarse wool of the friar’s robe, and he begged the cleric to stop the light-headed dizziness which swamped his mind. But the languages he had learnt in the last year were melting into one, so his words made no sense to his own ears, far less anyone else’s. As he gave way to sleep, he felt strong arms hold him close and lay him back on the bed.
His dreams took him home, and he smiled at the simplicity of it all. There was no city, just a sprawling settlement of farms, mills, and livestock. Somewhere among them were his parents, perhaps his brothers and sisters too; or perhaps they all slept within the graveyard, unmarked and unremembered. They were strangers to him. Abandoned as an infant and entrusted to the care of Gunnie, the priest’s housekeeper, he had grown up to a life of hard work and servitude. Not that he begrudged it. Whoever his parents had been, they had at least secured him the safety of the loft above the priest’s stables. Others had been left to perish outside, in the bitter winters of the north.
In his dream, he was trying to climb the ladder to the hayloft, his tired arms struggling to heave his slight weight up the hemp rungs. The rope burnt into his hands, but his purpose was absolute. Something beautiful awaited him up there. He did not know what, but, with the knowledge afforded by dreams, he was certain of its existence. His inability to bend his left leg, however, meant the hatch remained out of reach. He began to feel hot and, in horrified disbelief, looked down to find the room below him vanishing in a sea of flames. The two rungs he had managed to climb were themselves being swallowed by the fire, and he frantically tried to heave himself to safety. But surely, if he reached the loft, he would be trapped? As he paused to consider this dilemma, his feet began to burn and he cried out in pain and fear.
It was enough to return him to reality. As he trembled and kept his eyes tightly closed, he felt someone holding him close. He was sure it was the same friar who had cradled him earlier, like a child, slowly rocking backwards and forwards. Now Francesco found himself falling into a calm slumber, strangely content to adopt the new name and persona which Pico and the friar had created for him. Perhaps that had been the meaning of his dream: let the old world burn and the new one embrace him. After all, if he reached Rome and God saw fit to heal him, would he want to make the long journey back to the north? No; the care and affection in the friar’s embrace had been lacking from the past seventeen years of Francesco’s life, and he could not abandon such tenderness now that he had found it. He was with Men of God, so surely the attention they paid him must be sent from God himself.
But was he living a lie, as he claimed the name Francesco and failed to correct the ignorance of these men? What if the real Francesco, a boy as frightened and desperate as himself, was out there in the world, in even greater need of their assistance?
As he rested his head against the monk’s chest, hearing the steady heartbeat and letting its placid rhythm lull him back into slumber, he realised that he needed to tell the truth to these people. He was not the man they thought he was; he was on his way to Rome to beg forgiveness from God for the crimes which had left him carrying this affliction. With newfound determination, he decided that, as soon as he had regained control of his senses, he must confess.

Author’s Statement

Few people in history are more divisive than Girolamo Savonarola. He split opinion when he was alive and continues to divide people today, some claiming that he should be canonised, others declaring him to be the Antichrist. Much of the fiction written about him focuses on his time as the de facto ruler of Florence, but I wanted to explore something which ended at the same time that his more famous exploits began: his unexpected friendship with Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. This fascinating dynamic was one I decided to explore from the point of view of an outside observer…and so POISONED PILGRIMAGE was born!
The novel begins with the arrival of a young disabled pilgrim in Florence. He is on his way to visit the relic of St. Giles in Rome when Pico identifies him as Savonarola’s prophesied “New Cyrus.” After this revelation, our protagonist is renamed and remodelled by the San Marco community. He is given the name Francesco and encouraged to learn skills which the monks believe will enable him to bring about the promised reform of the church.
However, when Francesco finds the body of a papal supporter in the River Arno and later overhears a plot against Pope Alexander VI, his simplicity and strong moral compass drive a wedge between Pico and Savonarola. Francesco swears to find the dead man’s killer so that he can rest in peace, but, after spending summer in Florence, he is weighed down by guilt at having failed to reach his pilgrimage destination. Divided between wanting to stay and seek justice and wanting to continue in his holy quest, Francesco tries to decide on his true path.
Ultimately the decision is made for him, when Pico becomes concerned that Francesco is a papal spy. The Count tries to dissuade Savonarola from trusting Francesco, stating that Francesco has harboured suspicions of Savonarola’s guilt in the murder. Torn by this conflict between his protégé and his promised saviour, Savonarola attempts to protect them both within the walls of San Marco. But Pico is too wild-hearted, and Francesco too honest. Francesco soon finds himself in the centre of a many-sided battle among the Medici, the papacy, the community of San Marco, and a group of plotters who are furious with Pope Alexander for awarding Columbus’s new world to the Spanish. He cannot outsmart any one of these factions, but tries to remain one step ahead of them all while striving towards his ultimate goal: the completion of his pilgrimage.
Filled with enemies wearing the mask of friendship and people prioritising political gain over humanity, POISONED PILGRIMAGE delves into Renaissance Europe as it teetered on the cusp of the Reformation. Mixing real people and events with fictional characters, the book explores the conflict between science, art, and religion through the moral gaze of its young protagonist.

Virginia Crow grew up in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Great Britain, using the breathtaking scenery to fuel her imagination and the writing fire within her. Now she lives in that same far-flung corner of Scotland, soaking up inspiration from the rugged cliffs and miles of sandy beaches. She loves cheese, music, and films, but hates mushrooms.

 Embark, Issue 17, October 2022