Mansfeld, Germany
January 1491

The candle’s soft light flickered off the rough stone walls as Margarethe moved quietly down the hall. Her thin slippers and linen shift did little to keep the bitter night air at bay, but she didn’t mind. The chill kept her thoughts focused on something other than what dawn would bring.

“I should feel honored,” she reminded herself. Her sins would be forgiven and all she had to do was give up what meant most to her in the world. Redemption through sacrifice, as the Church put it. And by complying, she assured her family’s place in Heaven, along with safety here on Earth. Wasn’t that enough?

Still, warm tears slipped down her cheeks. She quickly brushed them away with her fingertips, and then took a deep breath and silently opened the door to her son’s room. Candlelight pushed against the darkness, falling on her son’s angelic face as she stepped over the threshold. Seeing he had kicked off his blankets again, she smiled and set her candle on the small table beside his bed to tuck him in again. But her hands stilled as fresh tears flooded her eyes. Would she never see his sleeping face again? Never see him smile or hear him laugh?

Why, God? Why do you demand my son?

He stirred, his eyes fluttering open. “Mama?”

“Yes, Martin?” she said softly.

His eyebrows furrowed. “Why are you crying?”

She shook her head and swallowed past the lump in her throat before answering. “I just love you so much.”

He tilted his head. “So, they are happy tears?”

She bit her lip to keep the truth from escaping then forced a smile. “Yes, my son. They are happy tears.”

Fully awake, Martin sat up and studied his mother. “Are you worried about today?” Stunned, she quickly looked away, trying to collect herself as she picked up discarded garments strewn across the floor. “No, of course not. I am…just a little nervous, that is all. “ “Not me,” he said. “ It is part of God’s plan after all. ”

She froze, and then turned toward him, his expression serious. At only seven years old, his maturity continued to amaze her, and she wondered if this quality was what the Church had seen in him. She sat beside him on the bed and kissed his forehead. “Yes, my son.”

The incessant clatter of hooves broke the early morning quiet as a small carriage, accompanied by a dozen riders, rattled along the pitted dirt road toward Mansfeld, Germany. Stripped of the usual finery and ceremonial red, the procession drew little attention, just as Pope Innocent VIII had intended. “We will be arriving shortly, Your Eminence,” Leonardo Battista commented as the carriage lurched from another pothole. As the pope’s most trusted cardinal, he worried about his companion’s health. The long trip had been taxing, and there was still the return trip to Rome once their business in Mansfeld was completed. Seated across from

him in the plush compartment, the pope yawned wearily. Leonardo leaned forward and spoke just above the noise outside the carriage. “May I ask a question?”

“Hmm.” A smile twitched at the corners of Leonardo’s mouth, but he quickly sobered. He knew he was pushing the margins of propriety, but his curiosity had gotten the better of him. Still, he hesitated. “What is it you wish to know?” the pope asked impatiently.

“Excuse my boldness, Your Eminence, but is she really a witch?”

“Does it matter?” Pope Innocent bit out, his expression stern, his eyes piercing through Leonardo. “She associated with witches. That is enough, is it not?”

Leonardo sat back and lowered his eyes. “Yes, Your Holiness.”

The pope yawned again. “Witches are heretics, and all heretics must be punished, their sins too great to be forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice.”

Leonardo nodded. “But she will be allowed to live?”

“By my grace, yes. And in return, she will become our willing servant. She is perfect, as is the boy.”

“From what I hear, he is an outspoken hellion,” Leonardo murmured.

The pope let out a loud barking laugh. “That he is. Intelligent, too, from what his instructors report.”

“And that is what you seek?”

The pope smiled and a shiver zipped up Leonardo’s spine. “Precisely.”

It wasn’t his place to question the pope’s motives, but it still didn’t make sense. “What makes this boy special?” Leonardo thought. He is just the son of a copper smelter. “What are your plans for him?” he asked tentatively.

The pope stared at—or rather—through him for a moment. “God’s will,” the pope said finally. “He will take part in Septem Montes, the Seven Hills project.”

Septem Montes? That was the plan put in motion by the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV twenty years earlier. Sixtus’s nephew had been a mere altar boy at the time but had an intellect far beyond anything Sixtus had seen.

“So, he will be the first,” Leonardo said slowly.

The pope nodded. “Yes. It will not be easy on the lad, but then nothing worth doing ever comes easy.”

Leonardo couldn’t help but shudder. He crossed himself then said a silent prayer for the boy.

“Stop the carriage before we reach the Luther home,” Pope Innocent VIII said. “I will need to change out of these traveling clothes. It is important I give the proper impression.”

“He is here. He is here!” Martin’s eyes shone bright as he raced toward the front door. “Mama, our special guest has arrived.”

“I hardly think anyone could have missed it,” Margarethe muttered, wiping her hands on a kitchen cloth. She straightened the few treasures Martin had collected and displayed on the mantel above the hearth—a pigeon feather, a small stone, a gnarled twig—trying to appear calm, but her heart pounded in her ears and she feared she would faint at any moment. Taking a deep breath, she peeked at her youngest, Jacob, thankfully still asleep in his cradle, and then followed in Martin’s wake.

Hans wrapped an arm over his wife’s shoulders and gave her a slight squeeze. “Shall we go greet the pope?” They stepped out onto the front stoop and waited as an inconspicuous carriage and entourage of cloaked riders came to a halt in front of their small stone cottage. Martin shifted anxiously from one foot to the other. Margarethe rested her hand on his small shoulder, as much to stop his fidgeting as to appear unified in front of the leaders of the Church.

“Is he coming out?” Martin asked, glancing up at her.

“When he’s ready,” Hans replied. But truthfully, he was just as anxious as his son. He didn’t believe the accusations against his wife, but his opinion had proved to be of little consequence. Even his position on the town council wouldn’t have saved her from the pyre. Only by the pope’s grace had she been spared.

Dust from the road had long since settled but still the carriage door remained closed. “Has he changed his mind?” Hans thought, fear shooting through him.

Margarethe stood stiff as a board, staring at the carriage, hating it more and more with each passing second. They have come to take my son. She shook her head. No. They have brought salvation. Without it, her life would be forfeited, and her family destroyed. Hans would lose his position with the town council, and her children would forever be persecuted as the spawn of a witch. No amount of indulgences would be enough to buy her family’s way into Heaven. She pulled her gaze away from the carriage and looked at Martin. So young, so innocent. She couldn’t bear the thought of what it would do to him to watch her be burned alive. Yet that was to be the fate of her two friends very soon. The town had found them guilty of witchcraft, blaming them for the harsh winter and dismal harvest, and now they awaited execution while she had been pardoned. While Anna and Sophia were indeed outspoken, independent, unmarried, and intelligent—making them outcasts– Margarethe had never witnessed them practicing witchcraft. But either way, it didn’t matter. The fact they didn’t attend Mass was enough to convict them in the eyes of their fellow citizens. When the three of them had been brought before the town council, Margarethe feared for her life.

Everyone knew the witch trials were just a formality. No one who had been accused had ever been pardoned. Then Hans received a letter from Rome, explaining that despite her sins, she would soon be called upon by the Bishop of Rome to serve a higher purpose. She naively believed her prayers had been answered, until she learned the Church planned to take her son. But what could they possibly want with the seven-year-old son of a poor copper smelter? She doubted the pope himself would travel so far just to have Martin become an altar boy. Lost in thought, she suddenly realized Martin had left her grasp and was running toward the carriage.

Hans took off after him, but Martin had a good head start, having bolted out so quickly. “Martin, stop!” Margarethe screamed. Nothing was set in stone yet. The pope could easily change his mind should Martin do anything uncouth. One simply didn’t disturb the most powerful man in the world, the Vicar of Christ, the supreme judge and lawgiver.

Her husband was doing his best to reach their son before he brought disgrace to his family, but years of toiling in mines had injured Hans’s knees, making him lag behind. Ignoring his mother, Martin reached for the door handle of the carriage and opened it. Inside sat two men. One was dressed all in white, a gold sash draped around his neck. Seated across from him was a man clothed in a black robe with a red belt.

“Hello, Martin,” said the man in white. “It is good to finally meet you.”

“You want to do what?” Margarethe asked, stunned.

“It is not your place to question His Holiness!” The thin glass of the windows rattled with Leonardo’s booming voice. How dare this impudent witch do anything but grovel before Pope Innocent VIII.

The pope raised his hand. “She needs to know and agree fully. Without her consent, this plan will fail.”

“Yes, Your Holiness,” Leonardo replied, stepping back.

Margarethe shot a look at Leonardo, his head bowed, arms folded across his chest. “You do not approve of me.”

Leonardo looked to the pontiff then, with a sneer, said, “No. All heretics need to be punished for their sins. Their only mercy should be given in death.”

“But I am not a heretic. ” Margarethe paled. So, they didn’t believe her. Had they really only pardoned her to get their hands on Martin?

“There are tests we can do to be sure.” Leonardo’s smile held no comfort. Hans, who had been sitting quietly at the table listening, couldn’t help the involuntary gasp at the thinly veiled threat. Those tests always resulted in death. Either the woman was determined to be a witch and burned alive, or she never survived the trial—which was the only way she would be deemed innocent.

Seeing Hans’s clenched fists, Leonardo realized he had gone too far. The man was a good Christian who had just married the wrong woman. Feeling compassionate, Leonardo gentled his voice. “Of course, we have dismissed all charges against your wife. All we ask is that you allow us to train your son for the greater good of our Church and people.”

Margarethe knew she should bite her tongue, but she couldn’t just stand by and watch her son be used by these men. If they could so easily toy with her life, what would they do to Martin? “But how will this be for the good of the Church? You are telling us you want Martin to be trained to turn against the Church.”

Pope Innocent VIII stood, stretching the kinks out of his legs. Two weeks was far too long to sit cooped up in a carriage. “That is correct,” he said. “He will turn against us, with our blessing. Your son will be an important part of history. He will shape the future of our religion.” Margarethe shook her head. “I do not understand.”

“I know, my child,” the pontiff answered. “It is complex, but all you need to know is that you are serving your Church in the highest possible way.” Then he turned and focused his piercing gaze on her. “And only this will allow you redemption for your association with those witches.”

Margarethe nodded slowly. She wished with every fiber of her being to be forgiven and accepted into Paradise, where she might spend eternity with God. But was it right to subject her son to such unknowns for her own salvation?

“But why our son?” Hans asked. “We are grateful for your grace and compassion, but I just do not understand the reasoning.” He had always hoped his son would become a lawyer. The pope turned to Hans. “I understand your concerns and am allowing you to question us, but you must understand that this decision has already been made. Your son will take part in the plan laid out by my predecessors. This is bigger than any of us. It will not die with me, but will be passed along to the next pope and the next, far into the future.” He walked over to the fireplace, smiling softly at the child sleeping peacefully in a cradle. “The truth is our numbers are declining. There is no vigor in our congregations, no excitement for young people considering which path they should follow. Christians are becoming complacent and lazy. They are easily tempted by the cunning words of heretics. And the problem will only get worse unless we take action now.” He looked to Leonardo. “It is our job to convert every last man, woman, and child to follow our Blessed Redeemer and Glorious Lord.”

Margarethe watched the pope pace around her small parlor, his crisp white robes so out of place among the simple wood furnishings.

“We need to wake up the world to the correct way of thinking before it is too late and their souls are damned to Hell for eternity,” he continued excitedly. “We need a new wave of disciples, boys who can lead the charge in different areas of the world, giving people something to fight for.”

“You’re planning to start another Crusades?” Hans whispered, horrified.

“We need passion, Hans. Passion like our Church has not seen in centuries. Passion like Christ brought when He revolutionized the world with His message.”

His question left unanswered, Hans tried again. “But what you are suggesting—”

The pope waved his hands impatiently. “Do you know your history, Hans?”

He frowned. “For the most part, yes.”

“Then you remember the fate of the Waldensians.”

Hans nodded slowly. Every Christian knew that story, how early in the thirteenth century, the Waldensians were persecuted for their teachings conflicting with the Church. “They were heretics, who were justly punished.”

“Correct,” the pope said. “We burned dozens of Waldensians at the stake. And? What was the result?”

Hans thought for a moment. “A dividing line was set, showing the people the correct path to choose for salvation.”

“Our flock became more faithful, more devoted,” the pope said, nodding in agreement. “We grew stronger.”

Margarethe couldn’t help but see the similarities between what had happened with the Waldensians and the current witch trials. Were Anna and Sophia being made an example of for the same reason? And now they demanded her son as well. Would the Church’s greed never cease? “But the Waldensians were heretics,” Margarethe said, trying to keep the rising panic from her “Our son is not. We are devoted followers of the only true Church and— ”

Hans raised a hand and Margarethe fell silent. “I think I understand,” he said. “Martin will become influential, will he not?” It wasn’t the life he had planned for his son, but the alternative was far worse.

“That he will,” the pope said with a knowing smile. “Your son will be known throughout time. People will follow his word and fight against us.” His smile faded. “There will be bloodshed, but I will protect Martin and his future family. No harm shall come to him.” Margarethe relaxed a bit, placated by the pope’s oath. Yet, anxiety continued to nag at her.

The pope smiled at Leonardo then turned back to the boy’s parents. “It’s a small price to pay to unite this world under one church. Martin’s followers will still be followers of Christ, but they will be impassioned to follow their own sect, with their own ideologies. Then later—much, much later—we will unite the seven factions we have created, and the Mother Church will collect her prodigal children home once more. Christianity will flourish.”

The first year was the hardest on the Luther family. Even though the Church had allowed her son to remain with his family during his initial training, Margarethe still mourned the loss of his innocence. Each day, Martin would attend school at the local chapel, and then receive hours of training from visiting monks. He slept only a few hours at night, and what little sleep he got was often restless. Having no time for anything but his studies, Martin stopped playing with his brother and friends and all too quickly, the bright gleam of youthful innocence had faded from his eyes.

Margarethe’s heart broke as she watched her energetic, imaginative son turn serious and often sullen. More nights than she could count, Martin would return home from his training with welts and bruises. But whenever Margarethe complained to Hans of their son’s harsh treatment, he reminded her that it was God’s will and they could not interfere.

After a few months, Martin stopped asking his mother to put salve on his wounds. Although she suspected the beatings continued, Martin couldn’t stand to see her barely contained sorrow and guilt any longer. One day, when Martin was ten, he disappeared, never returning home from school. That night, Hans led men from the town in a search for him; three days later, Martin showed up on their front stoop—dirty, cold and hungry. He never did tell her what had happened, but Margarethe believed he’d had enough and ran away. Secretly, she’d hoped he would not return, though the life of a fugitive could never provide the freedom she wished for him. She often regretted her decision to allow the Church to use her son, and if given the choice, she would have gladly recanted it—if it would have meant Martin’s freedom. But even if she burned for a crime she didn’t commit, she knew the Church would still have its way. Martin would never be free.

From then on, Martin was different, his devotion and obedience almost frightening. The monks had succeeded in laying down the ground work for his training, imprinting on the boy the conviction that his calling was more important than anything, including physical suffering. Upon seeing this change, his mentors felt it was time to begin his true indoctrination, entrusting the eleven-year-old with the deepest secrets of the Church, things only a handful of men knew.

As part of their agreement with the Church, Hans had insisted that his son continue his regular education, so in 1501, Martin attended the University of Erfurt. Just before he graduated, a plague struck the town, killing several of his closest friends. The loss affected Martin deeply, and he began to question God’s plan. Why had God allowed a plague to hit Erfurt? Why had his friends perished while he remained healthy? The only answer his mentors gave was that God sent the plague to punish sinners.

The experience left a deep impression on him. Martin Luther continued his training but with an uncertain heart. He wanted to remain worthy of God’s approval, but he couldn’t help wondering if this really was the correct path. Still in doubt, he graduated with a master’s degree and decided to pursue his law degree, which was his father’s fervent wish. However, on July 2, 1505, while traveling back to Erfurt after a trip home, he was caught in a thunderstorm. A bolt of lightening struck the ground beside him, throwing him from his horse. Realizing his own mortality, Luther decided on the spot to devote himself fully to his calling. Withdrawing from law school, he sold his books and entered a monastery two weeks later.

Luther threw himself into the daily life of a monk, embracing the conviction that abandoning worldly comforts brought man closer to God. He wore the most uncomfortable garments he could find and routinely slept without covers at night. He ate only when necessary to keep his body from starving and refrained from speaking except to utter a confession or prayer. He studied every waking moment, and before long he was allowed to don the black robe of a confirmed monk.

He continued his private studies for five years, and then his mentors instructed him to go to Rome to receive his next orders directly from the pope. His pilgrimage to the Eternal City rook forty days, and upon arriving, he was awe-struck by the beauty of the city of God. At the same time, he felt weary and disheartened. Hordes of pilgrims flooded the city, praying before relics for their salvation. Clergymen sold indulgences, promising the purchaser admission into Heaven regardless of their sins. The higher the price, the higher the level of forgiveness.

When he arrived at the Apostolic Palace, a priest led him to the pope’s private apartment. A young man about Luther’s age was working on a complex fresco of the imprisonment of Saint Peter when they walked in. The pope sat at one end of a long table, scrolls and letters spread out before him.

Upon seeing them enter, Pope Julius II said, “Raphael, why don’t you enjoy lunch outside today?” The young man turned then bowed, laying his paintbrushes on a small worktable before leaving the room. “And you?” the pope asked, turning to face Luther. “Are you hungry?”

“No, Your Holiness,” Luther replied.

The pope studied him carefully. “You should eat. Starving yourself is not God’s will.” Luther’s mouth dropped open. “But—”

“I know,” the pope said dismissively. “It is the way you have been taught. But from this moment forward, things are going to change.”

Before Luther could sit down, a priest bought forth a tray laden with food, setting dish after extravagant dish on the table next to the pope. “Change? How?” Luther asked as he took a seat at the far end of the table.

“We need to prepare you for what is to come,” the pope said. “It is finally time to put my plan―my Septem Montes—into action.”

“So, this is the man who is responsible for my life’s work,” Luther thought, studying the older man for a long moment. The nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, Pope Julius II, had conceived the secret plan of which Luther was now an integral part. A plan that would alter the course of Christianity. Conflicting emotions of admiration and distrust warred within him. This was a man Luther had been taught to revere his entire life. Yet with so much power and prestige, why then did this man do nothing to help the pilgrims seeking salvation on his very doorstep?

Luther listened obediently to the pope’s instructions, and by the time he returned home a few weeks later, the feeling of distrust had grown. The tranquility of his hometown did nothing to erase the scenes of corruption and profligacy he had witnessed in the Holy City. While he knew this was all part of the plan, that he needed to be shown such sin and debauchery to fuel his rebellion against the Church, he couldn’t help feeling genuine disgust at what had become of God’s Church.

As his training resumed, the monks relaxed their usual harsh and punishing methods, the need to cultivate fear of the flesh no longer necessary. Instead, they focused on nurturing the seeds of the new doctrines that had already taken root within his mind.

“You will need to lash out against us,” his tutors reminded him.

“I am well aware of that,” Luther said. The full impact of what he would need to do both terrified and excited him, allowing doubt to creep in once again. He would be going against the most powerful men in the world, almost all of whom knew nothing of the truth behind his actions. Yet, the thought of sparking a fire in the hearts of the people, inciting them to take control of their own salvation, pushed him forward.

“You are destined to be part of God’s plan. You can and will carry out your mission,” his tutors continued. Luther nodded slowly. “And remember, we will always be watching.”

On All Hallows’ Eve in 1517, Luther hammered his disputation, the Ninety-five Theses, to the door of the All Saints’ Church of Wittenberg, which his tutors found fitting. The treatise objected to Church practices in ways that had never been dared before and resonated with the people immediately. Luther didn’t have to wait long for a reaction. For a monk to speak out publicly against the Church as he did was tantamount to declaring war.

By January, the printing presses were running ceaselessly, distributing copies of the Ninety-five Theses throughout Germany. The peasants relished the David and Goliath story, siding with their newfound hero. People started questioning the tax-like tithes the Church demanded. The belief that they could find salvation without paying for indulgences took hold and spread like wildfire.

While keeping up a front of outrage and disgust, Pope Leo X gave Martin a private blessing to start the Protestant Reformation soon after. He, like the popes before him, was well versed in Septem Montes and played his part zealously, depleting the Church’s funds like no other pontiff before him. His feasts and boar hunts were infamous for their debauchery and gave Luther more fuel for his reformation, as he rallied the people against the sins of the clergy, the abuses of power, and laid the foundation for his own religion. Yet, few men knew that this was the plan all along.

Outside
Worms, Germany
1521

The Diet of Worms had gone just as Martin Luther had expected. During the three-day trial, Luther had repeatedly been brought to face the council, presided over by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, himself. An honor to be sure, but one that would only help fuel Luther’s reformation. Monarchs, whether they be kings or emperors, should have no authority over the will of God.

At first, Luther made a show of repentance, even going so far as to extend the trial by requesting time to consider his answer. But he had known the moment he was summoned to appear before the Diet what his answer would be. He refused to recant any of his writings, issuing the challenge to the council that unless it could convince him by Holy Scripture of his errors, he would recant nothing. The challenge went unmet, as the council was unable to support its accusations with scriptural evidence.

His stand against the Church had not been well received by clergy and many faithful, on the surface at least. But it mattered little. Everything was going according to plan. Perhaps too well, Luther thought as he rode back to Wittenberg, Germany. He left the town of Worms before a final edict had been issued, but he already knew what the council’s decision would be. The emperor would declare Luther an outlaw, no doubt banning his writings and demanding his arrest.

Despite his resolve, a shudder ran through him. He would face the very real possibility of being killed on sight. Being labeled a notorious heretic would provoke dogmatists to come after him. He couldn’t help wondering if Septem Montes had planned for this as well. Making him a martyr would surely fuel the revolts that had already broken out across Germany, solidifying his reformation. With only a few in the Church aware of the plan Pope Innocent VIII had entrusted to him three decades prior, Luther would need to act carefully going forward. He knew he had Pope Leo X’s blessing, despite the fact the pontiff had issued an edict excommunicating him several months before. But Luther had little fear for his eternal soul. This was God’s Will, after all.

Everything he had done was in accordance with Septem Montes, the Seven Hills Project Pope Julius II had devised half a century earlier.

Lost in thought, Luther nearly missed the pounding of horse hooves behind him. He peered through the carriage’s rear window, but despite the height of the May sun, the forest was dark, obscuring his view. Someone―rather, half a dozen someones―were rapidly approaching, a cloud of dust billowing behind them. Highwaymen? Fear compelled Luther to whip the reins, urging his horse to go faster, even though he knew there was no way a horse pulling a two-wheeled carriage could outrun a group of riders. Immediately, he regretted his decision to reject the offer of Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, to secure safe passage for him to and from the trial. Yet once the emperor’s decision was announced, even the prince himself would be punished for aiding Luther.

“They’re not here for me,” Luther told himself. How could anyone have possibly known he would be traveling this road? True, this was the most direct route to Wittenberg, but most travelers chose to go the long way, avoiding the forest entirely. Cast in shadow even at midday, the road through the dark forest was indeed disconcerting. Luther took this route for that very reason. The fewer people he encountered, the better.

The six riders continued to barrel toward him. Luther pulled his hat further over his eyes and veered his coach to one side, hoping the riders would continue past without paying him any heed. He couldn’t be overtaken now, not when he still had so much work to do. His reformation had only just begun.

Within a heartbeat, the horsemen surrounded him, forcing his gig to a halt. He froze as each masked rider aimed an arrow at his chest. So they really were here to kill him. It didn’t matter whether their target was his money or his soul. Dying here would end everything. For all of his training to no longer fear the flesh, his heart raced and his hands became so slick with sweat, Luther could scarcely keep hold of the reins. He said a silent prayer, begging the Lord to

allow him to live long enough to complete his work. His tutors had insisted that should he not fulfill his role in Septem Montes, Luther would forfeit his salvation. Eternal damnation would be all that awaited him.

He reached for the small coin purse tucked beneath his robes, hoping to barter for his life, only to hesitate when one of the men dismounted. Pulling his sword on Luther, the man climbed into the carriage. Pulling a length of rope from his pocket, he tied Luther’s hands together, securing them to the side of the gig. Then he retrieved a burlap sack from another pocket and after a moment’s hesitation, pulled it over Luther’s head. “Forgive us, Professor Luther,” the man whispered.

Just as Luther feared, this wasn’t a simple heist. The men were operating under someone’s orders. But whose? For a moment, he worried that Pope Leo X had rescinded his promise, but Luther quickly dismissed it. Septem Montes was too important. Even if the pope were fool enough to go against the plan, others within the Church would never allow it. Still, doubt crept in—an uncertainty that had plagued him since the beginning. It didn’t have to be him. If he failed, the Church would simply start again. The work was important, but not necessarily the man.

The reins cracked and the carriage lurched forward. Where are they taking me? Fear began to smother Luther, more suffocating than the burlap hood secured around his neck. If they were planning to kill him, why not just be done with it? What better place to make someone disappear without a trace than this dark forest?

Bereft of his sight, Luther tried focusing on his other senses—the breeze against his bound hands, the creak of the wheels as they rolled along the dirt road. He hadn’t felt the coach turn around, so he doubted they were taking him back to Worms and the emperor. That meant they were continuing north, toward Wittenberg. Although it was his home, he knew Wittenberg was not safe. Nowhere in Germany would be safe for him.

Beyond Wittenberg lay Berlin. Did the emperor plan to make an example of him? Burn him at the stake like the Waldensians three centuries before? No—although he ruled the most powerful empire in the world, even the emperor was still a vassal of the pope. During the long and arduous ride, the uncertainty of whether he still had a role within Septem Montes weighed heavily on Luther. He offered up frequent and fervent prayers, yet his anxiety remained. His captors spoke little and only stopped when Luther insisted he be allowed to relieve himself. The bits of light he could see through the weave of the sack hood gradually extinguished as dusk fell, yet the men continued on their course as fast as the horses could carry them.

Luther had fallen asleep at some point, and when he opened his eyes, the carriage was stopped, and sunlight peeked through the hood. The man beside him untied Luther’s hands from the side of the coach, but still he could not move. Every muscle in his body ached with the stiffness of remaining in the same position throughout the long journey. Luther felt a tug on the rope binding his hands.

“This way,” the man said. Another grabbed Luther’s arm, supporting him as he stepped down from the gig. Gravel crunched beneath his feet. The only other sound came from the early morning songs of birds. No horses, squeaky wagon wheels, no children playing, no venders hawking their wares. None of the usual sounds of a bustling city.

The bird songs faded, and the gravel gave way to smooth stone as the men led him into a building, their footsteps echoing off the surrounding walls. Still, no one said a word. Finally, they sat Luther in a chair, untied the binds at his wrists and removed the burlap hood. Six men stood before him.

“Welcome to Warburg Castle, Professor Luther,” one of the men said. “Forgive us for the rough treatment, but we had to cover your head, lest anyone see you and know you were brought here.”

“But why…,” Luther began, but the rest of the words failed him.

“His Highness, Prince Frederick III, ordered it so. He guaranteed you safe passage to and from the Diet of Worms, but when you fled, this was his solution—to make it appear as though you had been kidnapped. The prince will return from Worms in another couple of days. Until then, you are to stay here and keep out of sight. And while you are here, we will refer to you as the Knight George.”

Again, Luther wanted to ask why, but he could only stare at them. “The emperor has not yet issued his final edict,” another man said, “but the prince feels it will most certainly not be in your favor. As only the prince and the six of us know your identity, it would behoove us for you to pose as the Knight George and await His Highness’s return.”

The men each bowed, and then left the room, closing the door quietly behind them. Luther sat in silence for a long moment. When the shock finally subsided, he offered a prayer of gratitude. Prince Frederick was taking an enormous risk in harboring a notorious heretic, but with the prince’s assistance, Luther would be able to complete his work. His Ninety-five Theses had been the first hammer blow, the first fissure in the great foundation of the Church, but more strikes were needed to awaken the masses, to make the people question what they had believed all their lives.

Seeing a small desk situated against a wood-paneled wall near the room’s only window, Luther stood and walked to it. The men had set his meager belongings on the desk―his Bible, his theses, and his other writings. They had left a stack of blank pages, a quill, and small bottle of black ink.

Luther debated writing to his tutors and informing them of his whereabouts, but quickly decided against it. If the letter were intercepted, he would not be the only one at risk. If the emperor discovered where Luther was hiding, everyone in Wartburg Castle would be punished, whether they knew his true identity or not. The days turned to weeks as Luther awaited Prince Frederick III’s return and news of his punishment. Despite what the Church considered the actions of a heretic, word of his trial had spread, adding fuel to the fire of his reformation. But it was not enough. Luther needed to get the people out from under the apron of the Mother Church, or his reformation risked the same fate as the Waldensians’. He knew Christians needed to nurture their own faith, instead of blindly following their priests or bishops.

As Luther paced his small room, seeking guidance from familiar Bible passages, the truth struck him. “This,” he thought as he closed the book and felt the weight of it in his hands. How blessed he was to be able to read the Word of God for himself. Not many in his country could read, but even fewer could read anything but their native language. Typically only clergy were taught Ancient Greek, the language of the Bible. To get the Word of God into the hands of the people, it needed to be translated.

Luther chose to begin with the New Testament, painstakingly translating each book from Ancient Greek into German, the people’s language. He worked day and night, spending nearly every waking moment hunched over the small desk in his room. He repeatedly sent one of his six caretakers out for more paper and ink.

Translating offered Luther a fresh look at the beloved scriptures he knew so well, and as he labored, the work steeled his resolve. Luther believed earnestly in what he had written in his Ninety-five Theses and other volumes, crafting new theses as inspiration struck. His tutors would have him believe that everything he wrote about was a lie, fabricated to bring about a reformation of the Church that would return its lost children into the fold when the time was right.

No. The Church didn’t need a staged reformation. It needed a real one. Using the pretext of continuing his work on Septem Montes, Luther grew his reformation under his own design. He enlisted the help of supporters like Andreas Karlstadt and Gabriel Zwilling to head a revolutionary reform agenda in Wittenberg while he remained in hiding at Wartburg. If his tutors got wind of his establishing a new church instead of the intended false branch of Catholicism, they would no doubt sanction his death.

Nearly a year after going into hiding, Luther finally completed his translation of the New Testament. He returned to Wittenberg in disguise, uncertain of the state of the reformation.

Zealots, calling themselves Zwickau prophets, had turned the social order into utter chaos. Their radical doctrines incited riots, a problem for the town council, but Luther was grateful for the religious confusion the zealots created. It paved the way for him to reestablish himself as a conservative influence within the reformation.

Wittenberg, Germany
March 1522

Banishing the Zwickau prophets gained Luther the respect he’d hoped for from Wittenberg’s town council. With it came the freedom to preach to the people without fear of arrest. Luther had taken his first step toward reining in his reformation, which had become like a petulant child during his absence. With the pulpit once again at his command, he hammered home his stance on bringing about change through the Word of God. Yet, his control over events outside Wittenberg proved more tenuous.

Radicalism spread like a plague—one Luther was inclined to let fester. At first. The radicals’ misconceived doctrines often provoked revolts, which further solidified Luther as a righteous authority among the rabble. However, the situation was quickly becoming unstable. As conflict broke out, Luther attempted to quell the rebelling peasant classes through his writings, yet their atrocities only increased. They destroyed religious statues and burned monasteries and libraries throughout Germany.

How dare they commit such sins in my name. Luther angrily paced back and forth across the length of his study. How many lives had been lost to their violence? How many of his Christian brothers and sisters had lost their homes or places of worship? Striding back to his desk, Luther picked up his quill and, once again, vented his outrage on the sheets of paper. He awaited news from Leonhard Koppe, a Torgau city councilman whom Luther had enlisted to aid in the escape of nuns from the Marienthron Convent in Nimbschen. Their plan was simple, but Luther believed in its success, knowing few, if any, would search among barrels of herring for the missing nuns.

A sharp rap sounded at the door and he turned. “Come!” The door creaked open and a small boy poked his head in.

“Uh, this letter just came for you, Professor.” He held out a folded sheet of paper, the flap sealed with a glob of red wax. Martin stood and took the letter, waiting until the door had closed once more before examining it. The insignia imprinted in the wax was one he recognized, matching a letter he had received some weeks before from the Marienthron Convent nun, Katharina von Bora, when she had written to beg his assistance in helping the nuns escape the monastery.

Returning to his desk, he gently broke the seal and spread the pages of the letter out before him. The penmanship was hurried yet gentle.

Dear Sir,

I thank you for your assistance in our safe conduct to Wittenburg. My sisters and I shall be eternally in your debt.

Your man Koppe told me that you intend to ask our families to admit us once again into their homes. However, you and I both know that fear of canon law is a powerful adversary. Our defection from the Church will be viewed as no less than criminal. I ask instead that you find suitable husbands for my sisters, for they are more restless for marriage than life. As for myself, I shall marry none save you. For years, my life has been yours, my instruction within the monastery dedicated to assisting you with your most important work. Yet, my tutors have become restless of late. They know, Martin. And I fear how they will counter your reformation.

Eternally yours,

Katharina von Bora

Luther sat for a long moment, weighing his options. The foundation for his new church had already broken ground, taking root throughout Europe. Such flames would be hard to extinguish; yet, he knew the Mother Church was capable of doing just that. But would they? Would they risk crushing his reformation only to have to start back at the beginning? No, it was more likely they would find a way to turn what he had created to their benefit.

He picked up his quill and retrieved a fresh sheet of paper to pen a letter to the woman he could now count among his allies. He needed to know everything she had heard from her tutors. If her role was to help him, then he would accept, if for no other reason than to extend the Mother Church’s illusion of control for a little bit longer.

Vatican City, Italy
February 1524

Pope Clement VII eyed the other men seated around the large oval table. Newly elected to the papacy, he was by no means unfamiliar with the way of things within the Apostolic Palace. He had, after all, been the principal confidant of his cousin, Pope Leo X. Some of the faces that stared back at him were ones he knew well, yet this was his first time hearing of the Septem Montes.

Martin Luther had been a thorn in his cousin’s side for most of his papacy and, now, Clement understood the truth. While Luther appeared to be in opposition to the Church, the unfolding of the Reformation was strictly controlled from behind the scenes of the Church. Until recently. Clement, however, preferred not to be involved. His hands were full with the Italian War.

“Holy Father?” one of his cardinals asked, as the assembled clergy waited for his response.

Clement sighed. “So, you do not believe he can be persuaded back onto the path?”

“We have little doubt, Your Holiness,” another cardinal answered. “Let us just say, his tutors were quite…thorough in instilling hatred for the Church when he was a boy.”

Cardinal Angelo, from the Kingdom of Castille, raised his hand and the pope nodded for him to speak.

“We have a saying in my country, Holy Father, that if a bull leaves the pasture, you do not let it trample your garden. If this Martin Luther will not return to the flock, then he should be put down.”

“And lose half a century’s worth of work?” a cardinal across the table bellowed. “What if the same thing happens again?”

“Calm yourselves,” Cardinal Nicholas said. The oldest and shrewdest of his cardinals had served the Apostolic Palace longer than anyone, having ascended from the position of a humble friar. “Luther is simply the first step of seven. I have no doubt the others will branch off much more smoothly.”

“Yes, but the first step is also the most important,” another cardinal said. “The church Luther creates will have innumerable followers when the time comes to bring them back under our control. If we do not subjugate his church soon, we will have no guarantee of success.”

Nicholas smiled and leaned forward, resting his chin on his laced fingers. “Angelo, did you not just tell me of a promising young priest from your country?”

“Sí, he has plans to attend the University of Alcalá within the year. But what―”

Nicholas held up his hand, cutting the cardinal off. “Holy Father, may I suggest a different course of action?” At the pope’s nod, Nicholas continued, a sly smile on his wrinkled face.

“Since starting anew is not an option, and it seems Luther is unwilling to continue the work as outlined in Septem Montes, perhaps we should establish a new order, one that will…persuade Luther’s church to fulfill its role when the time comes. This order could shepherd the other six branches as well, once they have been formed, should other unforeseen challenges arise. A society of soldiers, if you will. Christ’s soldiers.”

“Definitely the shrewdest,” Clement thought, and the plan had merit. If anything, it would take the whole matter off his hands.

“And who do you propose we get to institute such an order?” one of the cardinals asked.

Nicholas’s smile widened. “I believe Angelo’s man will be just what we need.