Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Gift by Bryan Litfin

The Gift
Crossway Books (April 30, 2011)
Bryan Litfin


The people of the twenty-first century nearly destroyed the earth in a global nuclear holocaust. This is the story of what God did next.

The horrific war followed a viral rampage that began in the year 2042. Together the biological threat and the human conflict reduced the earth’s population to a tiny fraction of its former size. The survivors viewed those who lived before the Great War of Destruction as an ancient culture whose ways were now lost. Clawing their way back from brutal chaos, the people of the postwar centuries recalled some of their former technologies and learned other skills anew. Thus, in a strange rewinding of history, the society of the twenty-fifth century became medieval once again. Men rode on horses and fought with swords; they sailed ships without engines and built civilizations without machines. And what about their religion? That too they rebuilt with little reference to the distant past—until a young soldier and a beautiful farm girl stumbled upon an ancient book.

The alpine Kingdom of Chiveis had forged a noble society when Captain Teofil of the Royal Guard’s Fifth Regiment and Anastasia of Edgeton found themselves swept up in their great adventure. Anastasia was kidnapped by outsiders and relinquished all hope of returning to her home. Everyone in Chiveis feared she had been lost forever—everyone, that is, except one soldier who believed in action more than fear. Teo set out alone to find Ana in the Beyond, snatching her from the outsiders at her most desperate moment. They galloped away on a single horse into the black forest around the outsiders’ village.

Although Teo and Ana only wanted to return home, circumstances led the pair to a lost city and its forgotten temple, a building the Ancients had called a cathedral. In that vast edifice of mystic beauty, Teo and Ana found the Sacred Writing of the one true God. The language of the book called him Dieu, or Deu in the Chiveisian speech. It was a name they would learn to treasure.

The recovery of this long-lost book opened up new spiritual horizons not just for Teo and Ana, but for a community of seekers who longed to know the God of the Ancients. Yet their knowledge was incomplete, for only a portion of the Sacred Writing had survived the ravages of time. Though the first Testament remained intact, the pages of the second had dissolved. The New Testament could not be found in Chiveis.

Opposed by enemies who did not want to see the religion of Deu return to the world, Teo and Ana faced the ultimate choice: to curse the name of their newfound God or be run through with a sword. Ana was willing to die for her faith, but Teo—always fiercely protective—offered her a third way. He would take her across the snowcapped peaks of Chiveis into the unknown world on the other side. Though it broke Ana’s heart to leave her beloved homeland, she agreed to go. The army closed in; the die was cast; Chiveis refused to believe. And so it was that Teo and Ana joined hands and stepped into the Beyond once more.
Chapter 1

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.

She froze.

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.


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