Chapter 3 of The Holy Lance, a fantasy thriller

Chapter 3 traces the lineage of a man in early 20th century Russia to the son of the Tsarevich Alexei and Afrosina born in 1718. Again, comments are welcome

CHAPTER 3

Peter the Great, an enormous man in full military uniform, paces in front of a fireplace’s roaring fire. The Winter Palace room is immense, lighted by several candle chandeliers hanging from an elaborately painted 15-feet high ceiling. Heavy tapestries adorn the walls. Several pieces of gilded salon furniture and a writing table sit on heavy oriental rugs on the marble floor.

At one end of the room a set of floor to ceiling doors opens. A minister enters, carefully, silently closing the doors behind him. He remains at the doors, waiting to be recognized by the man who is the Tsar of all the Russias. Peter stops pacing and stares wildly at his minister

“Why do you stand there? What news? Out with it!” he bellows.

The minister approaches and hands Peter the Great a small, wax-sealed envelope, the same envelope given to the soldier at the Riga encampment. The Tsar breaks the red seal, tears the envelope open, pulls out a small, hand-written note, and reads it. When he is finished reading, he crushes the note in his gargantuan hand before glowering once again at his minister.

“This tells me nothing! My son’s concubine? What has become of her?”

“She lives. She is on her way to the palace, as we speak, majesty,” the minister responds with a slight bow as he speaks.

“Damn her! And this filthy child of theirs?”

The minister hesitates, searching for just the right phrase. Peter bursts with impatience.

“Well?” he shouts as he flings the letter into the fire.

“The news is not good, sire.”

“Out with it. Speak!”

“He has, shall we say, disappeared.”

“What? Disappeared? Is he the victim of some sorcerer’s trick? Do I have to beat you to answer me directly?”

“As you wish, your majesty. The child is gone without a trace, as are the wet nurse and cavalry officer charged with his care.” The minister steps back and waits for the inevitable explosion of Peter’s wrath.

“Incompetence! Idiocy! Find that child. Either that child dies, or all of yours do. For the sake of your family, for the sake of Russia, find that child!”

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The village east of the Urals is indistinguishable from hundreds of others scattered about the endless steppe of the Russian Empire. A wide dirt road through the middle of the village is flanked by a handful of crudely constructed, unpainted houses covered in snow on January 30, 1730. The road is deserted except for a man struggling to free a cart overloaded with peat, one of its iron-rimmed wooden wheels stuck in a deep frozen rut, a rut the snow hid from his view until it was too late.

He lashes the thick winter coats of his gaunt horses to no avail. They are too weak, and the cart will not budge in spite of their desperate efforts. He curses under his breath, knowing his only course of action is to lighten the team’s load by removing squares of peat until the overburdened beasts can pull the cart free.

As he begins to climb onto the cart a man bursts from the house on his right. He is an enormous man, more than two meters tall, and he plows quickly through the snow until he stands next to the cart. The cart’s owner looks down at him in amazement as he realizes this enormous man is no more than a child.

“Can I help?” the child offers.

“Are you strong enough?” the man responds.

“Try the lash again and we’ll see,” he says as he heads to the back of the cart.

“It’s no use. They’re too exhausted. I meant are you strong enough for me to hand the peat down to you until they can pull?”

“Stronger than any man in our village or any village, my father says. Try the lash. Go ahead, one more time.”

The man shakes his head as he steps down from the cart. The lad places himself at the back of the overloaded cart near the wheel stuck in the rut. He spits on his hands, rubs them together, and bends down to grab the cart’s bed.

“Ready when you are!” he calls to the man.

A crack of the lash is followed by a weak protest from the team of two. Another crack and they try to bolt to avoid a third. As they bolt, the enormous child puts his legs, shoulders and arms to work. The cart begins to move forward.

“Again!” he commands.

Another crack of the lash, another feeble jerk from the horses, and another burst of strength from the child, unlike any the man has ever seen, and the cart lunges free from the rut!

The horses pull the cart with relative ease for a few paces until the cart’s owner stops them with a jerk of the reins. He turns his head to see the child standing with a broad grin on his face, his fists on his hips, and his arms akimbo. The cart’s owner lets out a hearty laugh.

“Well, young man. What is your fee for this feat of strength? You’ve saved me half a day’s labor, and you’ve saved my team half a day’s standing still in this wretched cold!”

The child, happy to have been of use to a fellow man, simply waves and bounds through the snow back to the smoky warmth of the only home he has ever known, back to the bosom of the family that took him in when he was two months old.

The look on the man’s face betrays his astonishment. He has never in his 45 years witnessed such strength in a full-grown man let alone a child. He shakes his head as he climbs on to the cart’s wooden bench to drive his load of peat to the manor east of the nearly anonymous village.

While the cart makes its slow and careful way through the snow and out of the village, in a palace in Moscow, the short and ill-fated reign of Tsar Peter II is brought to a sudden and merciful end. The 14-year old Tsar succumbs to smallpox. As the cart disappears in another snowstorm, the man-child, whose size and strength are becoming legendary in the region, will in the days ahead, with the death of his half-brother Peter II, unknowingly allow a legitimate claim to the throne of the Russian Empire slip silently into historic obscurity.

Like thousands of villages scattered across the empire, no one living in or near the man-child’s village in the second decade of the 18th century has the slightest idea what any member of Russia’s ruling class, tucked safely away in St. Petersburg and Moscow, actually looks like. But over the decades to follow, the villagers will begin to repeat what the occasional traveler offers, that the young orphan who grew to be larger and stronger than most men before he reached the age of twelve is nearly an exact copy of Peter the Great.

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Before the early 20th century disintegration of Russia as a viable state, many claimed a genetic connection to the Romanovs. For more than two centuries charlatans preyed on the ignorance of men and women in every corner of the world laying claim to the privileges one might feel obliged to confer upon a true Romanov. Few who practiced such transparent deception within the empire itself escaped imprisonment and the lash. Most confessed quickly to their fraud when exposed; a few went to their deaths repeating their delusional claims of royal birth; and none achieved the escape from grinding poverty to a pampered life of unending indolence and luxury they all sought.

The numbers of those engaging in this peculiar brand of deceit in Russia began to dwindle during the reign of Nicholas II as the response from fellow Russians evolved from showering such claimants with privilege to pillorying them with scorn and ridicule. By the time Nicholas abdicated in favor of Grand Duke Michael in March of 1917, those willing to stand up and proclaim their blood relationship to the disgraced Tsar numbered fewer than those actually so related. By the end of 1917, prudence dictated that all fraudulent grand dukes and duchesses, counterfeit princes and princesses, and phony counts and contessas go underground, which they wisely did.

Any imposter who entertained the hope that he might remerge after the brutal civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, regardless of the outcome of that war, had those hopes finally eviscerated when news of the brutal murder of the Tsar and his family at Ekaterinburg on July 17, 1918, spread throughout the former empire. Those barbarous executions could not, however, kill the whispers repeated by generations in at least one village, that one man in that village could trace his patrilineality to a child who seemingly appeared out of nowhere nearly two centuries ago, and that this child as a grown man was the virtual physical reincarnation of the most celebrated and admired of the Romanovs, Peter the Great.