Excerpt from Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Pope Joan
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  • First Published:
    Aug 1996, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 1997, 432 pages

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Joan looked up at her mother, her eyes wide and serious. "Would you have done it, Mama--to be wise, to know about all things?"

"Only gods make such choices." Seeing the child's persistent look of question, Gudrun confessed, "No. I would have been too afraid."

"So would I," Joan said thoughtfully. "But I would want to do it. I would want to know what the well could tell me."

Gudrun smiled down at the intent little face. "Perhaps you would not like what you would learn there. There is a saying among our people. 'A wise man's heart is seldom glad.'"

Joan nodded, though she did not really understand. "Now tell about the Tree," she said, snuggling close to her mother again.

Gudrun began to describe Irminsul, the wondrous universe tree. It had stood in the holiest of the Saxon groves at the source of the Lippe river. Her people had worshipped at it until it was cut down by the armies of Karolus.

"It was very beautiful," her mother said, "and so tall that no one could see the top. It--"

She stopped. Suddenly aware of another presence, Joan looked up. Her father was standing in the doorway.


Her mother sat up in bed. "Husband," she said. "I did not look for your return for another fortnight."

The canon did not respond. He took a wax taper from the table near the door and crossed to the hearthfire, where he plunged it into the glowing embers until it flared.

Gudrun said nervously, "The child was frightened by the thunder. I thought to comfort her with a harmless story."

"Harmless!" The canon's voice shook with the effort to control his rage. "You call such blasphemy harmless?" He covered the distance to the bed in two long strides, set down the taper, and pulled the blanket off, exposing them. Joan lay with her arms around her mother, half-hidden under a curtain of white-gold hair.

For a moment the canon stood stupefied with disbelief, looking at Gudrun's unbound hair. Then his fury overtook him. "How dare you! When I have expressly forbidden it!" Taking hold of Gudrun, he started to drag her from the bed. "Heathen witch!"

Joan clung to her mother. The canon's face darkened. "Child, begone!" he bellowed. Joan hesitated, torn between fear and the desire to somehow protect her mother.

Gudrun pushed her urgently. "Yes, go. Go quickly."

Releasing her hold, Joan dropped to the floor and ran. At the door, she turned and saw her father grab her mother roughly by the hair, wrenching her head back, forcing her to her knees. Joan started back into the room. Terror stopped her short as she saw her father withdraw his long, bonehandled hunting knife from his corded belt.

"Forsachistu diabolae?" he asked Gudrun in Saxon, his voice scarcely more than whisper. When she did not respond, he placed the point of the knife against her throat. "Say the words," he growled menacingly. "Say them!"

"Ec forsacho allum diaboles," Gudrun responded tearfully, her eyes blazing defiance, "wuercum and wuordum, thunaer ende woden ende saxnotes ende allum..."

Rooted with fear, Joan watched her father pull up a heavy tress of her mother's hair and draw the knife across it. There was a ripping sound as the silken strands parted; a long band of white gold floated to the floor.

Clapping her hand over her mouth to stifle a sob, Joan turned and ran.

In the darkness, she bumped into a shape that reached out for her. She squealed in fear as it grabbed her. The monster hand! She had forgotten about it! She struggled, pummelling at it with her tiny fists, resisting with all her strength, but it was huge, and held her fast.

"Joan! Joan, it's all right. It's me!"

The words penetrated her fear. It was her ten-year-old brother Matthew, who had returned with her father.

"We've come back. Joan, stop struggling! It's all right. It's me." Joan reached up, felt the smooth surface of the pectoral cross that Matthew always wore, then slumped against him in relief.

Excerpted from Pope Joan by Donna Cross Copyright© 1996 by Donna Woolfolk Cross. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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