“You are Valentine the priest?”
“I am. Why do you disturb me in my home?”
“We have information that you have violated a direct decree of the Emperor of Rome. Did you at anytime marry a soldier of Rome?”
“I am a follower of Jesus and a priest of the Christian rite and I have married people in the name of God.”
“You will come with us and stand trial for interfering with the Empire of Rome. You will be put in jail until the time of an official hearing. At that time you may plead for mercy.”
The soldier who spoke left the house first. Valentine followed being held by each arm. He was paraded through the town as the people stared. No one said a word. He prayed and kept his eyes straight on the far mountain. He was placed in the jail. It was dungeon with a gated window on ground level. The room smelled of mildew and dirt. It was bare except for a small cot in the far corner. The room held high ceilings and Valentine had seen it many times before. He had often visited the prisoners when they were ill or seeking forgiveness. The heavy metal door was shut and locked as Valentine stared at the wet walls. The floor was muddy and the air damp.
He was in shock over the recent series of events. He needed to lay down and rest. He always knew this day would come. The mourning of the day had left his people helpless as they saw their priest marched to the jail. He thought of the people and children, and his duties. He knew he would be sacrificed as an example. The loss of the armies must have made Rome nervous. The letters must have acknowledged the secret marriages he had been performing. The women were probably questioned by a few soldiers and in their grief and need for more information concerning their loved ones, they must have told the soldiers his name.
He could not be angry but had to figure a way to help his people from his new home. How would he reach the sick, especially with so many in the midst of recovery? He would have to get the news to Rome where they could send another priest. He had one thing going for him, the jailer Asterius. Valentine had been treating his daughter for a fever that had taken away her sight. Asterius was a kind man of the same age as Valentine. He was not an active participant in the Church, but cared for his daughter’s sight and health. Asterius would help him and God would take care of the rest. Valentine fell to sleep on the cot in the middle of his third Our Father.
The days passed slowly and the Roman guards never left. Asterius could not visit him as frequently as he would have liked because of the imperial presence. Two weeks into his captivity, Asterius came into his dark cell. Valentine had spent much of his time writing letters and praying. He did not understand why they had refused him visitors. The guards would not speak to him when they brought his food. The meager bread and tainted wine had made the priest lose weight. His hair had started to fall out and his body was beset with aches from the dampness. The rain had come and stayed for the past five days. The cell had no drainage system except for the soft mud. There was an inch of water lying on the floor. The old jailer walked through with heavy worry on his face. Valentine looked up and saw the man. He crossed himself and waited for the jailer to speak.
“I am sorry, Valentine, for the length of time it had taken me to visit. The soldiers have turned the town into hysteria. They have brought back three legions of soldiers to camp outside the walls. The soldiers have eaten and drank all the supplies and refuse to pay. They have suffered great losses in the north and fear the coming of the barbarians. The great Roman Empire seems to be shrinking. They have taken over your church and live and sleep on the floor. The women are in fear of their virtue. There seems to be no control and a sense of desperation in the ranks of the troops. They have suffered badly and have blamed the weakness of the army on you. I have tried to reach you many times but the guards are adamant in your treachery. We have a few minutes while all the soldiers are meeting outside the gates. Is there anything I can do to make your time more comfortable?”
“I have my God and his strength will provide for me,” Valentine replied.
“You look as if death has already gripped you.”
“Could you take these letters to my people? I had a feeling something had gone wrong. Have I been scheduled for execution?"
“I have no information, but the growing tide and anger of the people and troops seem focused on your Church.”
“How is your daughter?”
“She still remains blind and the fever restricts her to bed and weakness.”
“You must pray, Asterius, if you hope to get her well.”
“These are dangerous times for your God, Valentine. But I do. We sit and prayer and rub the ointment over her eyes.”
“Have the roses come to bloom?”
“They have. The rain has halted them for awhile, but I think they will be as red and large as ever before.”
“Take these letters to my people and tell them that God has not abandoned them. There will be other priests to follow. Tell them to prayer in the silence of their own homes and with friends and family. Tell them to read the Bible each morning to their children. God will hear their prayers and send refuge. When you return bring no letters, but the rose petals of the largest, most beautiful flower.”
The return of the troops could be heard in the heavy steps along the stone walkways.
“I must leave but I will do as you say. You have always shown great kindness, Valentine. The people of this town will not forget, at least I will not. I will do what I can to make this place bearable.”
“Just take the letters and let God take care of me.”
Asterius walked out of the cell and into the black of the narrow passage. Valentine held his iron cross tightly in his hand. He had no despair in his eyes. He knelt in the water and prayed to his God. He stayed this way until the sun fell over the western mountains leaving his stone prison in utter darkness.
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