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Anastasia lay awake under a bearskin cloak, listening to the alien sounds of a land far from home. The stub of a candle hung from the ceiling of her leather tent, providing enough light to chase away the nocturnal spirits, but not the heaviness in Ana's heart.
Three weeks earlier, she had relinquished her home in the Kingdom of Chiveis. When she crossed the mountains into the Beyond, she had abandoned every person she knew in the world except one: the man who slept beside her in a bedroll on the tent floor. She sighed as she lay under her covers, contemplating a future of exile and uncertainty. It wasn't the future she had dreamed of, yet it was the will of Deu, the Creator of all things. Ana resolved to bear whatever burden he might ask of her.
She glanced over at the dark-haired man on her right. At least I'm not completely forsaken, she thought. Teofil had come over the mountains with her, lending his strength and encouragement when she faltered. The steady sound of Teo's breathing reassured Ana in the vastness of the unknown.
Descending from the glacier, the exiled pair had met four army scouts from a land called Ulmbartia. The men had welcomed Teo and Ana into their expedition, for the scouts too were in a foreign land, far from their own realm to the south. Warlike tribes called Rovers wandered these wild mountains, often raiding into Ulmbartia, so the kingdom had sent an expedition to seek out the passes the enemies were using. When the tall, powerful warrior Teo appeared out of nowhere, the Ulmbartian scouts readily accepted his offer to join them in exchange for provisions. Lieutenant Celso and his men-at-arms were happy to add Teo's sword to their dangerous patrols. With Ana cooking and tending the needs of the camp, the soldiers decided their mission had taken a dramatic turn for the better. Teo and Ana were assigned a tent of their own at the expense of the tracker named Bard, who was relegated to sleeping outdoors.
Ana hunched into her bedroll and gathered her blankets. Though it was high summer, a cool mountain breeze found its way into the tent and fluttered the candle's flame. Dawn was still several hours away. Ana was about to roll over when she felt something move against her leg.
Did that really happen?
Ana lay still, trying to convince herself she had imagined the movement at her ankle. Her heart thudded. She held her breath lest she stir up the thing that had invaded her bed.
It's nothing. Go back to sleep.
Ana had decided her anxious mind was playing tricks on her when the creature moved again, sliding against her calf under the covers. It was smooth and ticklish in a revolting way. Ana's mind reeled as she realized the creature was a snake. She began to tremble as she felt it move up her leg, but she forced herself to hold still, hoping it would move past her and find its way out. Instead the creature sought the warmth of her body and slipped beneath the linen shift she was wearing. Ana clenched her jaw at the slippery sensation against her thigh. The snake paused, then glided onto the skin of her stomach. Only willpower held back the scream that clogged Ana's throat as she felt the serpent crawling up her body. Is it poisonous? She didn't dare move in case it was.
Time hung suspended. Ana's every sense came alive. She heard the gentle rustle of her garment and felt every undulation of the snake's muscles against her belly. Though it moved slowly, as if with painstaking deliberation, she knew the creature was coming toward her face. It was about to emerge from her neckline. Ana scrunched her eyes. Deu, help me! Make it go away!
For a long time nothing moved. The tent was quiet. Ana swallowed. Maybe it's gone? Yes. It slid away from me just like I prayed. She opened her eyes and glanced down.
The viper rested in the center of her chest, staring back at her. Its yellow eyes were lidless and glassy. A forked black tongue tasted her skin.
"I'm coming for you," it whispered.
Ana exploded into a scream, snatching the snake behind its head in an attempt to hurl it away. The serpent recoiled, then struck her mouth with a smashing blow. Ana felt its fangs latch onto her lip. The hideous burn of fresh venom flooded her face.
"Teo! Help me! Get it off!" She was outside her covers now, writhing on the floor and grasping the snake's flailing body as it dangled from her lip. Though she yanked on it, the viper refused to let go. Its fangs pumped more venom into her soul.
Strong hands grasped Ana's shoulders, firm yet gentle. A familiar male voice spoke into the confusion. "You're okay! It's Teo. I'm here with you. You're safe."
"I'm coming for you," the snake repeated, then let go. The walls of the tent crowded toward Ana. The world spun in circles.
"Wake up, Ana. You're dreaming. Everything's okay."
What ... ? Who ... ? Where am I? Am I home in Chiveis? Relief coursed through Ana. There were no Ulmbartian scouts. She hadn't left home after all. It was just a horrible nightmare.
The space around her came into focus. A musty leather tent. A wobbly candle. A rumpled bearskin cloak. The night air cool against her skin. She looked into Teo's gray eyes. His handsome face wore a look of deep concern. His hands were steady on her shoulders.
"The s-snake," Ana stammered. "Is it gone?"
"There was no snake. You had a bad dream."
Ana put her hand to her lips. The burning sensation had vanished. She glanced at her fingers. Nothing. "Am I bleeding?"
Teo leaned toward her and inspected her face in the candlelight. "You're unhurt."
"It seemed so real. A snake was in my bed." She shuddered. "It touched me."
Teo glanced around. "The tent is tight. The mesh in the vents is unbroken. A snake couldn't get in here."
Ana felt a heavy weight settle into the pit of her stomach. The snake may have been a dream, but everything else was real. The tent. The scouts. The journey over the mountains into the Beyond. Her beloved Chiveis really was lost — maybe forever.
A draft stirred the air in the tent. Goose bumps arose on Ana's exposed legs. She gathered her knees to herself, wrapping her arms around them.
"I'm cold, Teo."
The bearskin cloak enveloped her, then Teo's arm encircled her as he held her close. Ana tucked her chin to her knees and began to cry.
"The Eternal One knows the plans he has for you," Teo said softly.
It was a quotation from the Sacred Writing of Deu. Those holy words and the strong arm around her shoulders were Ana's only comforts in the turbulent sea of grief.
* * *
The afternoon sun sparkled on the water. Bard dropped the string of rabbits on a flat rock next to the stream, then retrieved a knife and cleaver from his rucksack. It didn't take him long to gut and skin the carcasses. When the job was finished he opened his padded satchel of spice bottles, cursing the Ulmbartian quartermaster who had packed several vials of unknown contents for the expedition. Though Bard couldn't read any of the labels, he knew from taste or smell what most of the bottles contained, and he left the mysterious ones alone. Locating the salt, he deposited the rabbits into a leather bag to soak in brine. By dinnertime the meat would be ready to cook, and that was a good thing, because Lieutenant Celso could be very demanding when he was hungry. The soldiers would return from their patrol in a few hours, and they would be expecting a hearty meal.
Rolling his neck to work out a kink, Bard glanced toward the camp upstream. It was a well-chosen location. The tent sites were level, water was close, and plenty of dry wood lay about. A natural stone grotto in the hillside made a cozy place for a campfire, not only catching the warmth to ease the evening chill, but also shielding the fire's light from any prying eyes that might be wandering in the woods. When he was on an expedition, Bard never let himself forget he wasn't home in Ulmbartia. He was across the high pass, deep in a Rover-infested wilderness. Danger could come from anywhere.
The expedition, Bard's sixth foray into the wild mountains as an army tracker, had been unlike any other. In part this was because they hadn't encountered any Rovers yet. Normally the soldiers would have had a few skirmishes with their enemies by now. Yet the main thing that set this mission apart was the presence of the two strangers in camp. Three weeks ago Bard and Lieutenant Celso had been investigating some Rovers' tracks when the lieutenant stepped on a branch. The sound triggered movement upstream. Several paces away, a man in foreign clothing scrambled to his feet. Bard laughed as he recalled his surprise at seeing the handsome warrior standing over his young lady-friend. They obviously weren't Rovers; their attire was too civilized. How had this strange pair found their way so deep into the wilds? The warrior had waved, so Bard and Lieutenant Celso returned the greeting. Now, three weeks later, Teofil was a mercenary in the service of Ulmbartia, and Anastasia was a far better camp cook than Bard had ever been. He grabbed the sack of rabbit meat and walked toward the tents.
Anastasia was feeding leftover scraps to the expedition's bloodhound. Though Trusty's tracking ability hadn't been needed so far, he made an excellent companion for the two guardians who were left to tend camp while the soldiers were out. The woman tossed the dog a last chunk of gristly meat, then glanced up.
"Hello, Bard," she said. Her accent wasn't quite right, but she was doing her best to learn the Talyano speech.
"Hello, Anastasia," Bard replied. He held up the sack. "See what I have?"
"In what the sack is?"
Bard broke into a wide grin. "No," he corrected, "you're supposed to say, 'What is in the sack?'"
Ana's cheeks flushed, and she shook her head with a shy smile. "I try, Bard, I try."
"I know. And you're doing well. Talyano isn't easy to speak. You've learned a lot over the past few weeks."
"Teofil is faster."
Bard pursed his lips and nodded. "He has a knack for languages like I've never seen. He's almost to the point where we can converse back and forth."
"Me too. Very soon. Watch." She pointed at the leather bag Bard was holding. "What is in the sack?"
He burst into laughter. "There you go! You're a fast learner, Anastasia of Chiveis."
At the mention of Anastasia's homeland, her face fell, and Bard immediately regretted his words. Though the other men in the scouting party didn't know it, he sometimes heard Ana crying when she thought she was alone. Sensitive by nature, Bard knew how much the beautiful young foreigner missed her home. He felt sorry for her. Unlike the macho soldiers who shunned him, the gentle woman with the sunny disposition treated him with acceptance. The pair had developed a friendship of necessity as they watched the camp while the three Ulmbartian soldiers and Teofil were on daytime patrol. Anastasia gave Bard dignified camaraderie, and he tutored her in Talyano. It was a good arrangement.
Bard opened the sack, lifting a dripping carcass from the brine. Ana's eyes lit up, and she nodded approvingly. Her hair shone golden-blonde as it caught the afternoon sun. "Good! I like ribbits," she said.
Ribbits, Bard thought to himself. That's cute. Anastasia was learning his language as fast as she could.
This time, he didn't have the heart to correct her.
* * *
With their bellies full, the men reclined around the campfire in the rocky grotto they had dubbed their "dining room." Firelight flickered on their faces, and shadows danced on the walls behind them. Teo had come to enjoy the company of the three Ulmbartian soldiers, especially Lieutenant Celso, a wiry middle-aged man with a sharp tongue. The commander was a true warrior, and an excellent leader of men. Only the fourth Ulmbartian, the fair-haired tracker named Bard, remained a mystery to Teo. Bard seemed uncomfortable around the other rugged men.
One of the soldiers belched, drawing guffaws from his companions. Teo frowned and kicked the offender with the toe of his boot. "There's a lady in the camp," he said.
Ana's meal had been exquisitely prepared. She had added wild onions, mushrooms, and juniper berries to the rabbit stew, simmering the meat until it was falling off the bone. She had also made a salad of dandelion leaves and chard with an oil dressing. All the men agreed they had never eaten so well on an expedition.
Teo touched Ana lightly on her back. "Everything was delicious," he said in Talyano.
"Thanks." She smiled at him, then held up a bottle of thick, golden liquid. "This is new to me. I like it. It's good."
"There's nothing like a fine olive oil," Bard chimed in from across the fire. "It's made by the Likurians. They're always one step ahead of us."
Teo glanced up. "Who are the Likurians?"
"A wealthy people we trade with," Lieutenant Celso explained. "Their kingdom lies a few days south of ours. Likuria sits upon a vast sea whose water cannot be drunk."
"It's salty. It would kill you."
"I've read of that in books, though I've never seen it."
"You can read?" Lieutenant Celso was surprised. "Few in Ulmbartia can."
"In Chiveis, Teofil was a" — Ana sought the right word — "a teacher," she finished. "Very smart." She tapped her temple.
"They can both read," Bard said to the men around the fire. "Haven't you heard Teofil reading his holy book at night? Apparently their civilization is advanced."
"Are you a priest, Teofil?" one of the soldiers asked. "In our land it's usually the religious who can read."
"I'm not a priest, but I am a follower of the true God. His name is Deu."
"Ah, the high god of the Chiveisi."
"No." Ana shook her head. "The Creator of all. The God of everyone." The men murmured at this.
"Where did you get your holy book?" Bard asked.
Teo and Ana glanced at each other, exchanging knowing smiles. He knew what Ana was thinking: The telling of that story would take all night!
"From those big grins, it must be a good tale," Bard said. "Come on, Teofil, tell us the story."
Teo stirred the fire with a stick, wondering where he should begin. Should he start with the first time he met Ana — when a bear attacked him and Ana's archery saved his life? Should he describe how he invited Ana to be his escort at a party in the woods, only to find she was repelled by its debauchery? She'd fled into the forest, where evil raiders captured her. That wasn't a good memory for Teo.
Ana spoke into the silence. "Captain Teofil is a hero like no other man. Enemies took me away, carried me from Chiveis. I was lost. Teofil came to me." The campfire crackled and sent up a shower of sparks. "Tell the whole story, Teo," she whispered to him in Chiveisian speech. All eyes were transfixed on him. He took a deep breath and began to narrate.
"As you can see, Anastasia is very beautiful. Outsiders from beyond our realm took her to be a queen. I alone went after her."
Teo could see from the men's faces that the story had already arrested their attention. In the best Talyano he could muster, Teo described the epic adventure he and Ana had shared. He followed Ana for four days, tracking her kidnappers to their home village. As Ana was being taunted in a feasting hall on the night of her "wedding," Teo disguised himself as a jester. The ruse enabled him to mingle among the men until he could extinguish the hearthfire, plunging the hall into darkness. In the confusion he whisked Ana away, and they escaped on horseback. But their enemies gave pursuit. Chasing the fugitives through a dense forest, they soon caught up with Teo and Ana. The enemy warriors spurred their horses and attacked. Teo did battle with four men at once, yet defeated them all. As he recounted the story to the Ulmbartian soldiers, he stood up and acted it out. The men around the campfire listened in silence, their eyes glued to him.
"The leader was a cruel man named Rothgar," Teo said. "He held me against a tree, then drew his knife." Teo demonstrated how he fought against Rothgar but couldn't stop the knife that was about to plunge into his belly. Slowly Teo drew back his arm to imitate the killing blow.
"What happened next?" Lieutenant Celso's mouth hung open, and his eyes were wide.
Teo glanced at Ana, who was staring into the fire. All the men looked at her.
"Do you want to tell it?" he asked. She shook her head.
Teo made the motions of an archer drawing a bow. "Just as my enemy was about to kill me, Anastasia shot him with an arrow. His body fell to the ground. And do you know what she said?" Teo paused dramatically. The men waited in hushed expectation.
"She said, 'You chose the wrong woman, Rothgar!'"
Everyone around the campfire burst into cheers. One of the soldiers clapped Ana on the back, and Lieutenant Celso raised his mug of ale to her.
Ana motioned to Teo with the back of her hand. "Get to the part about the Sacred Writing," she said.
When the clamor among the men died down, Teo resumed his story. He described how he and Ana had discovered a lost city built centuries ago by the Ancients.
"We know of the Ancients," Lieutenant Celso said. "The remains of their society can be found in Ulmbartia as well."
"I've never seen anything like what we discovered there."
"A temple," Ana said. "The house of Deu. Beautiful and holy."
"A man of the ancient times had hidden a book in the temple. He left ... how would you say it? He left tracks for us."
"Clues," Bard corrected.
"Right, clues," Teo said. "The clues led us to the Sacred Writing of Deu. Only the first part had survived the centuries. The last pages were destroyed. So we don't know the whole story of our God."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Gift"
Copyright © 2011 Bryan M. Litfin.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE SOLIDARITY,
PART TWO EXTRAVAGANCY,
PART THREE VICTORY,
STUDY QUESTIONS, 409,
What People are Saying About This
“Litfin has woven another fascinating narrative in his imaginative future world of epic adventure. Using his keen understanding of theology and history, he has skillfully infused this novel with the grand themes of grace and redemption at every turn. There's a lesson for readers here as Teofil and Anastasia face their own brokenness and find who has the power to give strength and courage in their weakness.”Thomas Cornman, Academic Vice President, Cedarville University
“The Gift is a powerfully written story about forgiveness and a desire to know the truth, no matter the cost. It's impossible to read this book and not develop a greater appreciation for the Scriptures and a deeper understanding of the Christian faith. Few authors touch my heart so deeply that all of their books make my favorites list, but Bryan Litfin has done it with this series.”Michelle Sutton, author, Letting Go and It's Not About Me
“A captivating narrative that journeys into the discovery of a living religion that seems lost and unrecoverable, this tale imagines how a sovereign God might reveal its mysteries anew. Any lover of theology and Western history would enjoy watching believers uncover lost symbols and writings, piecing together the greatest paradoxes of the faith in the drama of a fictional narrative. Action, conspiracy, romance, and faith combine in a tale depicting how the treasured beliefs of Christianity might first appear to a generation that had never seen its wonders.”W. Brian Shelton, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Toccoa Falls College
“Litfin writes with a warmth reminiscent of Lewis, both of whom can tell drama and battles, and even tragedy, while still making the reader feel alive. His fascinating research and knowledge of Christian theology makes The Gift an enlightening read.”David Ulrich, college student, Orange County, California
“I finished this book within twenty-four hours of receiving it! Thrilling action, sound theology, a damsel in distresswhat more could you ask from a novel? The Gift caused me to feel deeper love for my wife, more gratitude for my children, and a renewed sense of God’s mercy in the gift of Christ. Enjoy!”James M. Hamilton Jr., Professor of Biblical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment
“Litfin draws readers into an evocative post-apocalyptic world, where the true faith is emerging from the ashes of the pasta faith the enemy is intent on destroying. A suspenseful story, skillfully woven with characters who risk their lives for loyalty, honor, and truth.”C. S. Lakin, author, Someone to Blame and The Wolf of Tebron
“The second installment of the Chiveis Trilogy steps into a futuristic but believable world where evil is powerful. This story elicits widened eyes, shed tears, and gasps of surprise as the author reflects on the reality of our fallen world and the grace God gives us through Jesus. As Teo and Ana piece together the truth of God’s perfect narrative and search for the God they have yet to fully know, I rediscovered the beauty of the gospel and saw the Savior in a whole new way.”Rachel Estes, college student, Denville, New Jersey
“So, you’re looking for some adventure are you? I’m afraid you’ll have to stop reading this review and open up the book if you’re looking for that. Behind this introductory section lies the enchanting world of Ulmbartia, Likuria and Roma. The story that awaits you is sure to be foreign to anything you’ve ever experienced before. I invite you to set sail on the oceans of Dr. Litfin’s imagination. Following a brave professor turned mercenary and a beautiful maiden turned aristocrat, you have no need to fear the treacherous road that lies in the pages ahead. The time has come for you to decide, dear reader: Will you take the fateful dive and flip the page? You have nothing to lose and a whole new world to gain.”Gary Corcoran, college student, Newport Beach, California