The year is 1357. The Inquisition rages throughout medieval France, searching ruthlessly for heretics. In an epic tale of passion, mystery, and unspeakable danger, one woman faces the flames...and triumphs.
Mother Marie Françoise, born Sybille, is a midwife with a precocious gift for magic -- a gift that makes her a prime target for persecution at the hands of the Church. She flees her village and takes refuge in a Franciscan sisterhood. Before long, Sybille's unusual powers bring her under the scrutiny of the Inquisition. Michel, a pious and compassionate monk sent to hear her confession, finds himself drawn more intimately into Sybille's life and destiny than either of them could have imagined. Like a magician herself, Jeanne Kalogridis weaves a tale of star-crossed love, of faith and heresy, of mysticism and witchcraft, against a fascinating historical backdrop -- the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War, and the catastrophic defeat of France at the hands of the English. The result is a page-turning novel about one of the most intriguing periods in history.
Fast, malignant clouds shroud the moon and stars, and the softer velvet black of the night sky; profound darkness veils all, save for those instants when lightning illuminates the distant mountains, and I see:
My galloping mount's coat gleaming like onyx, his wet mane whipping like a Medusa's crown in the angry wind; see, too, the road to Carcassonne before us, studded with stones, brambles of wild rose, and bushes of rosemary that yield their astringent fragrance as they are crushed beneath the horse's hooves.
Rosemary brings memories; roses are not without thorns; stones are hard.
Hard as the rain: in the flash, it appears long, jagged, crystalline -- a hail of icicles, of small, frozen lightning bolts. They pierce and sting, and though it seems right that this moment should be physically painful, I feel a welling of pity for the stallion. He is exhausted, gasping from the long, strenuous run; even so, when at last I rein him in, he fights me, rearing his head.
As he slows reluctantly, lifting strong, graceful legs to pace sidelong, I put one palm flat against his shoulders and feel the muscles straining there.
He is sensitive, my steed, in the way most animals are, though he does not possess the Sight: he cannot see those pursuing us, but he can sense the Evil residing in one particular heart. He shivers, but not from the autumn chill, and rolls his great dark eyes to look questioningly back at me; I can see terror in the whites.
We have fled our enemies this long; why, now, do we wait for them?
"They will not hurt you," I tell him softly, and stroke his neck as he whinnies in protest. His coat is cold and soaked from sweat and rain, but underneath, the muscles emanate heat. "You are a fine horse, and they will take you where it is warm and dry, and feed you. You will be treated kindly."
Would that I should encounter the same.
In that instant, I want to weep, hard and bitter as the rain; hard, so very hard. The stallion senses this and, distressed, increases his pacing. I collect myself and give his wet neck another stroke. My pursuers would say I was casting a spell on the poor animal; but I know it is only the opening of one's heart to another creature, the unspoken sharing of calm -- a true calm I must look deep within myself to find. One cannot lie to animals.
I am almost near the end of my journey, but the Goddess has spoken: there is no further use in running. Should I continue to flee and my Enemy to chase, none of it will save my poor Beloved. Surrender provides my only chance -- a slender one, fraught with risk, and my Sight will not reveal the outcome. I shall live, or I shall die.
Soon the horse and I fall silent and still. The rain has eased, and in the absence of one noise, I hear another.
Thunder, but there is no lightning in the sky.
No; not thunder. Hoofbeats -- not one pair, but several. We wait, my steed and I, until they come closer, closer, closer....
And out of the darkness appear four, seven, ten cloaked men on horseback -- the very ones I have Seen in my mind's eye all the dark hours of my flight now materialized in the flesh. A black cloud slips to reveal a slice of new moon, and the glint of metal: nine of these men are gendarmes from Avignon, from the pope's personal cadre. I am encircled. They close in, drawing the noose tighter, and lift their swords.
New moons are for beginnings; this one bodes an end.
I and my stallion remain perfectly composed, perfectly still.
Suspicious, some of the gendarmes face outward: where are my protectors? Certainly, they lie in wait nearby, ready to spring on my captors; certainly, they would not have simply abandoned me, a small and unarmed woman, their supposed witch-queen.
Ah, no; 'twas I who tried to make my escape without them -- but so loyal were they that they soon found and joined me. And when the Goddess demanded my surrender -- mine, not theirs, for She had need of their service elsewhere -- I sent them away. At first they refused to leave me; indeed, Edouard swore he would die first. I could only close my eyes and open my mind, my heart to theirs, that they might hear the Goddess as I did.
Edouard sobbed as though his heart would break; the others' faces were obscured by their hoods, but I sensed the silent tears streaming down their cheeks. We said no more; needed say no more, for all was known. Thus my brave knights rode away.
And now I watch three of the Enemy's men leap from their horses to plunge swords into sparkling blackberry brambles, into thick, tall foliage, blades whistling as bits of leaf and stem go flying. One man climbs up into a nearby olive tree and hacks off branches until he is satisfied no one waits in ambush.
Mystified, they return to their mounts' sides and stare at me as I continue to sit, calm and quiet as my stallion. Darkness or no, I see fear upon the gendarmes' faces. They wonder why I do not simply bewitch them -- turn them into swine, perhaps, and escape.
All of them, that is, except the tenth man, who feels quite certain this capture is his doing. This is the cardinal Domenico Chrétien. Unlike the others, who are cloaked in somber black, he wears upon his back and head the color of blood. His countenance is broad and plump, with upper and lower lips of crude thickness, and eyes hidden in deep folds. His body is likewise soft, belying the heart within.
Commandingly, he calls: "The Abbess Mother Marie Françoise?"
This is the Enemy. We have met only once upon this earthly plane, though on another we are old acquaintances. It is difficult not to look upon him with familiar contempt. So filled with self-loathing is he that he would kill anyone who reminded him of what he is. There is only one alive capable of greater harm to my people -- the one I have come to stop, lest I and my Race be obliterated from the face of this world.
"The same," I reply to his question. I struggle, and manage to conquer my hate; to do otherwise would make my soul as closed as his.
"You are under arrest on the charge of heresy, witchcraft, and maleficium directed at the Holy Father himself. What say you?"
"That you know better than I of what I am guilty."
A humble admission on the face of it, but my Enemy understands this veiled rebuke, and his expression subtly darkens, though he dare say nothing in front of his men -- his men, who have no idea what is actually happening here, who would not believe if they were told. "You will come with us, Abbess."
I do not resist; indeed, I give a nod of compliance. Even so, I am pulled roughly off the horse, who rears, knocking down one of the guards and causing minor alarm until he is at last subdued. As I had told him, he is a fine mount; the gendarmes appreciate this, and one of them takes hold of his reins and speaks soothingly until the animal is reassured.
As for me, I am stripped of the cloak that hides my dark habit, veil, and wimple, and my arms are bound behind my back; then I am flung facedown over the back of a different horse and tied to the saddle. One man murmurs: "Now there's the perfect position for a highborn lady."
The others snort faintly at this, but no one laughs, even though I am bound, outnumbered, and apparently at their mercy. In the silence that quickly follows, I hear their fear.
It is a difficult ride home. My face slaps against wet horseflesh, and when the rain begins again in earnest the back of my habit is quickly soaked through, leaving my spine aching with cold. Water runs down my arms and legs and neck. Inverted, my veil grows heavy with rain and soon falls; my wimple slips, leaving my shorn head exposed, letting the rain spill into my ears and nose and eyes.
I try to comfort myself: it is the Goddess's will. It is my life's mission, foretold from my birth.
On the way to my destiny, the horse from time to time steps upon and crushes pungent herb; I close my stinging eyes in pain at its perfume.
Reading Group Guide In The Burning Times, Jeanne Kalogridis transports us on a richly imagined journey to medieval France, where an abbess and a monk unravel their interlocking pasts and discover their true destiny as he hears her confession on behalf of the Inquisition. Brother Michel, a Dominican scribe, first encounters Mother Marie Françoise (born Sybille) in the dank depths of a Carcassonne dungeon, where she stands accused of witchcraft. In this unlikely setting blooms a complex, mystical story of danger and fate. Despite Sybille's professed pagan ways, Michel senses deep goodness in her and hopes to spare her from the fiery fate of condemned heretics. "I was born into fire," she begins. "Here is the story as it was told to me." Over the course of three days, her confession becomes no less than the story of her life. She speaks of her grandmother's lessons of magic and healing, the trials that drove her to masquerade as a person of faith, and her search for Luc de la Rose, the beloved with whom she hopes to reunite. Sybille is not the only one with secrets to reveal. She has been charged with a duty of her own -- to persuade Michel to listen long enough to learn an extraordinary secret about his own identity. So embarks their passionate, dangerous flight toward destiny.
Discussion Questions: 1. Michel says of Sybille, "Heretic or no, there was much that was good in her; and even if there were not, she deserved, as did all God's children, the opportunity to come to know Him before her death." Did you believe Michel wanted to convert Sybille to Christianity? How does Michel's experience with Sybille challenge and change Michel's faith throughout the story? 2. Discuss how the book differentiates between religion and morality. The characters identify themselves either as Christians or members of the Race. Which rituals and beliefs exhibited by the each group are common to world religions? Which traits most distinguished the Christians from the Knights of the Race? How did your own religious beliefs affect your reaction to the book? 3. At what point did you suspect that Michel's role in the story went far beyond that of a mere scribe? When he was visited by Luc's dreams? Or earlier, when he first sensed Sybille's essential compassion and saintliness? What did you guess about his involvement before it was revealed to you? 4. Put yourself in Michel's position when Sybille reveals his true identity. Would you believe her declaration? Or would you distrust her on the basis of the teachings of your superiors? What events or details leading up to her revelation would play a role in your reaction? 5. Of the story's many twists and turns, which did you enjoy most? Which plot twist came as the greatest surprise? Why didn't you see it coming? 6. What is the ultimate lesson Sybille learns from her extraordinary trials? Is the lesson religious in nature, or does it transcend spiritual definition? If so, how? How does she put this lesson into practice, and how does it help her achieve her goals? 7. Many of the book's central characters are misunderstood or mistreated women who nevertheless battle against forces of injustice. Do you see Sybille and her grandmother as forerunners of modern feminists? When female characters did seize power, how did they go about it? Besides women, what other groups were targeted by the Inquisition, and why? 8. Do Luc and Sybille remind you of any notable historical or mythical couples? If so, which ones, and in what ways? Which aspects of their relationship are unique and unprecedented? What do you think will become of Sybille and Luc, now that they are reunited? Considering their combined resolve and powers, what complications or challenges might test them in the future? 9. Which of the secondary characters did you find most intriguing? Which would you be interested in learning more about? Invite each group member to choose a character of particular interest. Share conjecture about what that character's day-to-day life may have been like. 10. Kalogridis is unsparing in her descriptions of the pain and injury characters suffer in the course of their adventures. How did the stark realism of these descriptions affect you? Did they aid your understanding of what was at stake for the characters? Would the book have been less successful if Kalogridis spared us this vivid suffering? If so, how? 11. The Burning Times could be categorized as a mystery, a fantasy, and a work of literary fiction. Did it evoke those genres equally in your mind? If not, on which level was it most successful? If you were shelving books at a local store, in which section would you put The Burning Times? 12. Recreating fourteenth-century Europe for current-day readers is a painstaking enterprise. Which details were most effective in evoking the book's setting? How much did you know about this time period before you read the novel? Did this affect your perception of it in any way? What events and customs of our times will seem strangest a thousand years from now? What details might future authors focus on to convincingly evoke our own culture?