WEARING A BROWN TWEED SUIT and his customary dark tortoiseshell sunglasses, Dr. Alberto Mazzini pushed through the crowd of loud and agitated reporters blocking the steps of the Musée d'Histoire in Boréée.
"Can you tell us about the artifact? Is it real? Is that why you're here?" a woman pressed, shoving a microphone marked CNN in his face. "Have tests been performed on the DNA?"
Dr. Mazzini was already annoyed. How had the press jackals been alerted? Nothing had even been confirmed about the find. He waved off the reporters and camera operators. "This way, Docteur," one of the museum aides instructed. "Please, come inside."
A tiny dark-haired woman in a black pantsuit was waiting for Mazzini inside. She looked to be in her mid-forties and appeared to almost curtsy in the presence of this prestigious guest.
"Thank you for coming. I am Renée Lacaze, the director of the museum. I tried to control the press, but . . ." she shrugged. "They smell a big story. It is as if we've found an atom bomb."
"If the artifact you've found turns out to be authentic," Mazzini replied flatly, "you will have found something far greater than a bomb."
As the national director of the Vatican Museum, Alberto Mazzini had lent the weight of his authority to every important find of religious significance that had been unearthed over the past thirty years. The etched tablets presumed to be from the disciple John dug up in western Syria. The first Vericotte Bible. Both now rested among the Vatican treasures. He had also been involved in the investigation of every hoax, hundreds of them.
Renée Lacaze led Mazzini along the narrow fifteenth-century hall inlaid with heraldic tile.
"You say the relic was unearthed in a grave?" Mazzini asked.
"A shopping mall . . ." Lacaze smiled. "Even in downtown Borée, the construction goes night and day. The bulldozers dug up what must have once been a crypt. We would have completely missed it had not a couple of the sarcophagi split open."
Ms. Lacaze escorted her important guest into a small elevator and then up to the third floor. "The grave belonged to some long-forgotten duke who died in 1098. We did acid and photo-luminescence tests immediately. Its age looks right. At first we wondered, why would a precious relic from a thousand years earlier, and half the world away, be buried in an eleventh-century grave?"
"And what did you find?" Mazzini asked.
"It seems our duke actually went to fight in the Crusades. We know he sought after relics from the time of Christ." They finally arrived at her office. "I advise you to take a breath. You are about to behold something truly extraordinary."
The artifact lay on a plain white sheet on an examiner's table, as humble as such a precious thing could be. Mazzini finally removed his sunglasses. He didn't have to hold his breath. It was completely taken away. My God, this is an atom bomb!
"Look closely. There is an inscription on it."
The Vatican director bent over it. Yes, it could be. It had all the right markings. There was an inscription. In Latin. He squinted close to read. "Acre, Galilee . . ." He examined the artifact from end to end. The age fit. The markings. It also corresponded to descriptions in the Bible. Yet how did it come to be buried here? "All this, it does not really prove anything."
"That's true, of course." Renée Lacaze shrugged. "But Docteur . . . I am from here. My father is from the valley, my father's father, and his. There have been stories here for hundreds of years, long before this grave tumbled open. Stories every schoolchild in Borée was raised on. That this holy relic was here, in Borée, nine hundred years ago."
Mazzini had seen a hundred purported relics like this, but the tremendous power of this one gripped and unnerved him. A reverent force gave him the urge to kneel on the stone floor.
Finally, that's what he did - as if he were in the presence of Jesus Christ.
"I waited until your arrival to place a call to Cardinal Perrault in Paris," said Lacaze.
"Forget Perrault." Mazzini looked up, moistening his dry lips. "We are going to call the Pope."
Alberto Mazzini couldn't take his eyes off the incredible artifact on the plain white sheet. This was more than just the crowning moment of his career. It was a miracle.
"There's just one more thing," said Ms. Lacaze.
"What?" Mazzini mumbled. "What one more thing?"
"The local lore, it always said a precious relic was here. Just never that it belonged to a duke. But to a man of far more humble origins."
"What sort of lowborn man would come into such a prize? A priest? Perhaps a thief?"
"No." Renée Lacaze's brown eyes widened. "Actually, a jester."
Veille du Père, a village in southern France, 1096
The church bells were ringing.
Loud, quickening peals - echoing through town in the middle of the day.
Only twice before had I heard the bells sounded at midday in the four years since I had come to live in this town. Once, when word reached us that the King's son had died. And the second, when a raiding party from our lord's rival in Digne swept through town during the wars, leaving eight dead and burning almost every house to the ground.
What was going on?
I rushed to the second-floor window of the inn I looked after with my wife, Sophie. People were running into the square, still carrying their tools. "What's going on? Who needs help?" they shouted.
Then Antoine, who farmed a plot by the river, galloped over the bridge aboard his mule, pointing back toward the road. "They're coming! They're almost here!"
From the east, I heard the loudest chorus of voices, seemingly raised as one. I squinted through the trees and felt my jaw drop. "Jesus, I'm dreaming," I said to myself. A peddler with a cart was considered an event here. I blinked at the sight, not once but twice.
It was the greatest multitude I had ever seen! Jammed along the narrow road into town, stretching out as far as the eye could see.
"Sophie, come quick, now," I yelled. "You're not going to believe this."
My wife of three years hurried to the window, her yellow hair pinned up for the workday under a white cap. "Mother of God, Hugh . . ."
"It's an army," I muttered, barely able to believe my eyes. "The Army of the Crusade."