Birth of the Kingdom - By Jan Guillou


In the year of Grace 1192 just before the mass of Saint Eskil, when the nights turned white and the work of sowing the turnips would soon begin, a mighty storm came over Western Götaland. The storm lasted for three days and three nights, and it transformed the bright, promising season into autumn.

On the third night after the midnight mass, most of the monks at Varnhem cloister were still sleeping soundly, convinced that their prayers were resisting the powers of darkness and that the storm would soon die down. It was then that Brother Pietro out in the receptorium at first thought that he’d been wakened from his sleep by something in his imagination. He awoke and sat up in bed without knowing what he had heard. Outside the walls and the heavy oak door of the receptorium was only the howling of the storm and the lashing of the rain on the roof tiles and the leafy crowns of the tall ash trees.

Then he heard it again. It sounded like an iron fist pounding on the door.

In terror he tumbled out of bed, grabbed his rosary, and started muttering a prayer that he didn’t quite remember but that was supposed to ward off evil spirits. Then he went out to the vaulted entry and listened in the dark. Three heavy blows came again, and Brother Pietro could do nothing but shout through the oaken door for the stranger to make himself known. He shouted in Latin, because that language had the most power against the dark forces and because he was too groggy to say anything in the oddly singing vernacular that was spoken outside those walls.

‘Who comes this night to the Lord’s steps?’ he called, with his mouth close to the door’s lock.

‘A servant of the Lord with pure intentions and a worthy mission,’ replied the stranger in perfect Latin.

This calmed Brother Pietro’s fears, and he struggled with the heavy door handle of black cast-iron before he managed to open the door a crack.

Outside stood a stranger in an ankle-length leather cape with a hood to protect him from the rain. He shoved open the door at once with a strength that Brother Pietro could never have resisted and entered the shelter of the entryway as he pushed the monk before him.

‘God’s peace, a very long journey is now at an end. But let’s not talk in the dark. Fetch your lamp from the receptorium, my unknown brother,’ said the stranger.

Brother Pietro did as he was told, already reassured by the fact that the stranger spoke the language of the church and knew that there was a lamp in the receptorium. The monk fumbled for a moment with the last embers in the heating pan before he managed to light a wick and insert it into an oil lamp. When he returned to the vaulted entry outside the receptorium, both he and the stranger became bathed in the light reflecting off the whitewashed walls. The stranger swept off his leather cape and shook the rain from it. Brother Pietro involuntarily caught his breath when he saw the white surcoat with the red cross. From his time in Rome he knew quite well what that meant. A Templar knight had come to Varnhem.

‘My name is Arn de Gothia and you have nothing to fear from me, brother, for I was raised here in Varnhem, and from here I once rode forth to the Holy Land. But I don’t know you; what is your name, brother?’

‘I am Brother Pietro de Siena, and I have been here only two years.’

‘So you’re new here. That’s why you have to guard the door when no one else wishes to do so. But tell me first, is Father Henri still alive?’

‘No, he died four years ago.’

‘Let us pray for his eternal bliss,’ said the Templar knight, crossing himself and bowing his head for a moment.

‘Is Brother Guilbert alive?’ the knight asked when he looked up.

‘Yes, brother, he’s an old man but he still has much vigour.’

‘That doesn’t surprise me. What is our new abbot called?’

‘His name is Father Guillaume de Bourges, and he came to us three years ago.’

‘Almost two hours remain before matins, but would you please wake him and say that Arn de Gothia has come to Varnhem?’ said the knight, with what looked almost like a jocular gleam in his eyes.

‘I’d rather not, brother. Father Guillaume maintains that sleep is a gift from God which we are duty-bound to administer well,’ replied