Chapter 1: A Summer Night
The 23rd of July, day of the moon, Year of the Lord 1526, on the edge of the Hungarian Empire
Manfred Lock, Lord Bishop of Eisenberg, sat reading by the window. The bundles of mint, lemon balm, and rose failed to keep out the pernicious vapours of the town – the stench of excrement, of rotten blood from the butchery, of moulding hay from the stables, of burning fat from the chandlers and of brimstone from the iron foundry. Lock put his book down to look at the city in the bright moonlight, a jagged landscape of slate roofs and spires.
Lock was lucky. His journey to Rome, that glorious den of depravity, had won him the favour of his Holiness and the support of the archbishop of Buda and, when the Bishopric of Eisenberg became vacant, Lock had been able to secure the appointment. The diocese was rich and extensive with land and mining rights that rivalled the crown’s. The Bishop’s dwelling, more castle than house, stood right at the top of the Eisenberg hill dominating the city bellow it. It had a walled and cobbled courtyard, from which an old ash tree grew, a row of stables containing six horses and two carriages, two stories of living quarters, extensive cellars, and a tower with a cone shaped slate roof.
At twenty-seven years old Lock was a young bishop, and could look forward to a long and affluent bachelor life, and yet he missed the intellectual milieu of home. True, Eisenberg was a thriving town, a hub of trade and industry, with its own class of burghers. It had a guild of alchemists, and it was of course famed for its engineers. But despite all this it had no university and exuded all the urban flavour of a large stone walled farm. The locals were cliquey and suspicious of Lock’s foreignness, and his efforts to improve the city’s hygiene had come to naught. Disease and Lord Death were ever close.
“For He hath delivered me out of all trouble and mine eye hath seen His desire, upon mine enemies.” The droning voice of the girl, Sonia Muller, ceased as she completed her recitation of the fifty-fourth psalm. “Is this all I can do to become closer to God?” she asked with a hint of irritation, “saying the psalms?”
Lock picked up his book, a well-illustrated edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and turned to look at the girl who sat on a stool by the open fireplace. “Yes, child,” replied the bishop, “a life of constant prayer, studious learning of the psalms, attending mass, receiving communion, shunning vanity and having constant faith in the Lord. These things will bring you into His Kingdom.”
“But,” the girl’s lip trembled, “I want to be close to God now. I want to feel divine ecstasy like Saint Flora. Is there nothing I can do to hasten the process?”
The bishop placed the book on his reading table and considered the girl. Her round face was the colour of milk. Her high-collared blue satin gown was laced tightly about her throat. She was the fifteen-year-old daughter of the miller, a vassal of Lock’s. The miller had presented Sonia to Lock when he had visited to survey the land. Lock had been impressed with her comeliness and literacy. He had suggested to her parents that he might take her on as a student, assuring them that he believed in the education of girls. He had thought he would be glad for the company but perhaps he had made a mistake. She was excessively devout and terribly naive. Lock understood that she had had a sheltered upbringing. But who did not know that eggs came from chickens?
“Well,” she asked impudently, “how can I get to God now?”
The bishop turned back to idly looking out the window. “There are ways of getting close to heavenly rapture that I have read about in some Augustinian texts. But the rituals, well they are unusual and you had best not worry about them. Prayer and recitation of psalms will be sufficient.”
“What are they?” the girl demanded. “What are the rituals? I want to know.”
Lock sucked air slowly in through his lips, “I suppose there can be no harm in explaining the theory. You see the Augustinian claimed that the Devil and Hell were not only a being and a place but existed to a certain measure in each of us. God, you see, banished the Devil to Hell and thus things were put into their place and God was happy. The Augustinian believed that by ritualistically sending the Devil to Hell we could invite God’s light within us on this earth.”
At the sound of the words the Devil the girl’s eyes widened with excitement. “Oh teach me the ritual, your Excellency. Teach me.”
Countess Greta von Eisenberg stepped from her bedroom onto a colonnaded balcony that overlooked the grounds of the schloss and the wilderland beyond. The warm summer night’s breeze ruffled the blue Venetian satin of her long-sleeved gown. It brought with it the smell of damp leaves and horse dung. The night was alive with the sounds of chirping crickets, cooing pigeons, and in the distance, a barking stag. The moon was full, the night was bright and she looked out over the wooded hills that advanced toward the craggy mass of the mountains. A fifth summer was passing, her thirtieth birthday was approaching, and it was yet another year without word from her husband, Peter, away with his soldiers in the south.
True, she had no time for sloth or idleness, and worked to administer the von Eisenberg estates, collecting taxes, giving alms to the poor, and hosting hunts and feasts for the nobility. She kept the king’s law, and punished criminals. She should, she supposed, be grateful for her blessings. Her home, the schloss, was a wood frame palace, built by her late father in law to be the seat of the count’s power. It contained guest rooms, parlours, stables, and a parade ground. Greta employed a host of servants, cleaners, cooks, footmen, maids and retainers and her husband had given her full power to act in his name. She knew that her wealth and freedom were the envy of others, and yet on nights like this she felt empty. What was the good of being a dutiful wife if your husband was a distant memory? Peter had not given her an heir, but it was not the absence of a child that bothered her, it was the loss of her husband’s company.
“Help me, by God.”
Greta looked down.
A man stood at the foot of her balcony. His hair was a tangled mass of shadow, but in the ailing twilight she could see that he was naked and dirty, and yet his dialect was not that of a peasant.
Heinrich son of Mendel, Exalarch of Eisenberg, lead his donkey along the forest path. The moon was bright and he needed no lantern. He touched the band of red wool around his wrist, a spell against evil. The forest on the night of a full moon was a dangerous place, where spirits walked and the vampires sought their prey. It was good that he knew all the spells, and, as keeper of his people’s magic, he spoke the magic tongue of the ancients better than any. He should have no reason to fear, and yet he did. Perhaps, he reasoned, I am just worried because of what I promised my daughter. But it had to be more than that. His heart told him that this was an ill-fated night.
He made his way along the sandy path, deeper into the dark spaces beneath the trees. A fox crossed several feet in front of him. It turned briefly to look, before darting under the low leaves of a birch. The grunt of a wild boar in the undergrowth startled him and sharp fingers of hawthorn scratched him as he pushed forward toward the light, toward the camp of the Travellers.
The Travellers had first come in the time of Heinrich’s great grandfather, Jacob, and Heinrich had heard the story of their coming from his own lips. They had ridden over the mountains bedecked with silk and jewels, selling the finest horses that had ever been seen. Their skin and hair was dark like turned earth. They prayed to deities that were part man, part animal. Jakob had received the right of the king to trade with them, and it was a right that had passed to Heinrich.