Valentinus checks over his shoulder before rapping his knuckles on the coarse wood door. It
jerks open a few inches. A set of eyes peer at the priest.

“Can I help you?” a shaky voice inquires.

Valentinus scans each direction of the cobblestone street.

“Fine day isn’t it? Would be a shame if it rained.”

The doorkeeper’s eyes widen. The door inches open.

“Indeed” the door keeper responds “but if it might rain, one should certainly seek shelter.”

The door swings open. The doorkeeper steps through the threshold. He too checks the street
then grips Valentinus’s tunic sleeve and pulls him into the home. Once the door is closed and securely
latched, they embrace.

“It is so good of you to come.” The doorkeeper speaks into Valentinus’s shoulder.

Valentinus grips the young man’s shoulders holding him at arm’s length. He bends his wiry frame
slightly to look him in the eyes. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything, Antonius.”

Antonius swipes a tear from his face and nods. “We’re in the basement. Come.”

Antonius swats aside a curtain and glances through a window before leading Valentinus through
the home. He pushes aside a table and lifts an unmarked hatch door hidden in the floor. A crude
wooden ladder extends into a dimly lit cellar. Antonius extends his hand and shrugs as if in apology.

Valentinus begins down the ladder without hesitation.

“In times like these, friend, this is perfect.”

Antonius nods. He glances at the front door, scans the room and exhales. Once Valentinus
reaches the dirt floor, Antonius begins down the ladder.

The cellar is damp. The muffled silence is accented by a rhythmic dripping Valentinus can’t
place. Valentinus surveys the cellar as if it were the Pantheon, a smile plastered on his face. His eyes
land on the bride, Claudia, who is being fussed over by an older woman.

Claudia wears a simple clean dress. No doubt made by her and a collection of friends and
relatives. The white woolen tunica falls along her body, a thin rope tied around her waist knotted along
the small of her back. The tunica swishes against the dirt floor as the bride sways in anticipation. She
adjusts the colorful stolla over her shoulders, ignoring her mother as she affixes a red veil to the mantle
around the bride’s head.

The lantern light reflects off the young bride’s cheeks. Her eyes remain fixed on Antonius. She
presses her lips into a thin smile. Her top teeth bite into her lower lip. Another man, barely old enough to
be called a man, is present in the cellar. A woman of similar age stands nearby holding a bouquet of
flowers. Valentinus chuckles to himself at the small gesture. Even in times like these, one would be
remiss to dispense with tokens of affection.

Valentinus completes his scan and watches Antonius whose eyes are locked on Claudia. His
chest neither rises nor falls.

“Breath.” Valentinus whispers in his ear.

Antonius lets out a breath. His face reddens.

“Shall we?” Valentinus indicates the bride with an open palm. Antonius’s head bobs. Valentinus

The mother of the bride finishes her fussing and stakes out a spot just behind Valentinus’s
shoulder. She taps it three times. Valentinus turns.

“Thank you for doing this, father.” She whispers

“Of course,” Valentinus replies turning towards the couple.

“It’s interesting, no?” Valentinus turns to the woman again, a curious expression on his face.

“What is?”

“Well, for all the risk you take to ensure young men can marry. Yet…” The woman averts her
eyes from Valentinus and shrugs.

“Yet, I remain unmarried?” Valentinus finishes for her.

“As you say.” She says without meeting his gaze.

“Perhaps someday, dear woman.” Valentinus reaches for her hand and pats it. “God willing.”

She gives a relieved smile and hustles back to her daughter to adjust her stolla for the umpteenth

Valentinus removes a small book from his tunic and approaches the couple huddling together.

The older woman takes a short step backward and wrings a handkerchief in her hand that occasionally
floats to her eye. The young man stands near the ladder, one ear cocked towards the living quarters.

Valentinus clears his throat.

“I don’t have to tell you both the importance of this day.” The couple makes eye contact, their
smiles broaden. “I also don’t have to tell you of the danger.” Valentinus looks toward the lookout
guarding the ladder. He gives Valentinus an “all clear” signal. “Emperor Claudius has determined that
marriage is a distraction from the pagan wars he wishes to wage, but our Savior Jesus Christ teaches us
something different.” Valentinus opens the small book.

“The Apostle Matthew records our savior saying this:

‘You have heard it said ‘Love your friends and hate your enemy’ but I tell you ‘love your
enemies and pray for those who persecute you’. That you may be children of the father of heaven.”
Valentinus looks up from his reading, sees that all eyes are on him and turns a few pages of his book.
“He also records our savior saying these words ‘At the beginning the Creator made them male and
female and said ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and
the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one. Therefore what God has joined
together, let man not separate.”

Valentinus folds the book into his tunic. And scans the room again.

“So children, shall we let war, which our Lord detests, separate man and woman that he binds?”

“The apostle Paul recognized that without love, spirituality is worthless. Your joining together

“The apostle Paul recognized that without love, spirituality is worthless. Your joining together
today is both a symbol of Christ’s love for the church and an act of defiance of the rulers of the prince
of the air. May God grant you favor and prosper this new family.”

The mother chokes back a cry.

Valentinus clears his throat. “Now—“

“Someone’s here!” the lookout hisses.

A pounding resonates through the room upstairs.

“Open up!” a voice bellows.

Valentinus looks at bride and groom. His brow is furrowed.

“Do you both agree to stay faithful to each other as Christ is faithful to his church?”

More fists beating on the door.

The couple nods.

The door upstairs bursts open. Wood on wood resonates off the floor. Valentinus raises his right
hand, holding it out toward the couple.

“I bless this marriage in the name of Christ. You are now man and woman.”

Footsteps pound on the wood floor. Muffled voices exchange words. The man holds the ladder
and braces a foot against the first step as if to ascend. Antonius reaches out one hand, still holding his
bride’s shoulder with the mother.

“Darius, what are you doing?”

“I’ll buy you time.” Darius whispers. “Get your bride out of here.” Darius ascends the ladder
and quietly shuts the opening in the floor. His voice calls out to the occupants in the home. The words
are indiscernible.

Valentinus’s eyes dart about the cellar and land on a discreet wooden panel on the alley side of

Valentinus’s eyes dart about the cellar and land on a discreet wooden panel on the alley side of
the home. Claudia looks to her mother who nods solemnly.

“You must go.”

Valentinus joins Antonius at the panel. The two work to pry it open. Cool air wafts through a
tunnel just tall enough to crawl on allfours.

The scrape of wood on wood echoes from the floor above. A shout. A crash. A thud.

“You must hurry.” Valentinus urges. Mother and daughter grip each other’s hands.

“Go with your husband.” Her mother consoles her. “I’ll be alright.”

Claudia’s face is speckled with tears. Antonius hurries by her side and whispers in her ear.

Claudia nods and embraces her mother. Then without a word she follows Antonius to the tunnel.

Valentinus and Antonius each cup their hands, creating steps for Claudia’s smallfeet. She pushes
off and scrambles into the dirt tunnel. She tries unsuccessfully to keep her dress clean.

The false floor lifts and the muffled voices become clear.

“It’s just a cellar” Darius’ voice echoes through the chamber.

“Then it won’t bother you for us to have a look.”A guttural voice retorts.

Valentinus locks eyes with Antonius and mouths the word “go.”

Antonius lifts himself into the tunnel as Claudia shuffles on one hand and both knees still
gathering her stolla in her remaining hand. Valentinus closes the lid of the tunnel before they can say
another word. He strides to the floor opening and gazes up to see the silhouette of two Roman soldiers.

One is large and broad-shouldered. His armor seems to strain to contain his physique. The other is thin
and wiry and seems to swim in his own tunic. Both have Roman broad swords strapped to their side.

Darius stands speechlessly across the opening, mouth agape.

“Hello, gentlemen.” Valentinus greets the soldiers louder than necessary. “To what do we owe
the pleasure of this visit from the soldiers of Claudius.”

“They were right.” The larger soldier says to the other. “Valentinus is here. Find the groom.” Twiry soldier looks about as if to find the groom standing in the corner of the room. The larger soldier
sighs and points to the hole. “You there, priest.”

“That I am, sir.”

“Give us the ladder.”

Valentinus surveys the cellar slowly as if searching for the ladder. His face lights up as if
surprised when he sees it. He ambles toward it commentating loudly.

“It is good of you to join us, you know.” He bends slowly as if his back were a well bucket
being slowly lowered. “We were about to sample a wine that has been aging for a year.” He hooks the
ladder to the cellar opening. His hands remain on the rails. “Hopefully we haven’t waited around for

The large soldier shuffles down the ladder in two steps, nudging Valentinus out of the way with
his hip. His eyes dart around the cellar. His head turns from the mother in her best dress, to Valentinus
hands folded into opposing sleeves. He notes the young woman holding a bouquet of flowers behind her
back. The soldier’s eyes lock onto Valentinus as the other soldier fumbles down the ladder.

“You wouldn’t be performing a wedding ceremony against the decree of Claudius now, would
you, priest?” The soldier spits the word priest as if it tastes like sour wine.

Valentinus looks from the elderly woman to the young lady. “And who would be the groom?”

The soldier’s eyebrows twitch. He surveys the room again as if taking inventory. The elderly
woman, the young bridesmaid, the priest…

“Sir,” the thin soldier traces the outline of the wooden door to the tunnel. “Look at this.”

The boss makes eye contact with Valentinus before he can hide the disappointment on his face.
The soldier smiles and marches toward the tunnel.

“Where would the groom be? Is the question.” The soldier retorts.

He pries open the wooden cover. A cool draft enters the room. In the tunnel, shadows shift. The
soldier can just make out the silhouettes of two bodies climbing up a shaft leading to the street above.
He grips the top of the door and turns to Valentinus.

“Valentinus, you’re under arrest.”

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