Death and Fortune: Book One of 1526

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Chapter 13 The Monk and the Captain

Later that Day

Greta

Greta von Eisenberg walked beside Felix the black monk as they descended a stone pathway lined with fruiting rowans.

“In those strange foetid, winterless jungles of the East I saw many wonders.” The Dominican paused in his telling to tighten the belt of his habit and look around at the forest, which clawed at the edge of Greta’s park. “There are birds of a thousand shapes and hues, whose strange cries fill the understories of that forest where they dwell in endless night. There are flesh-eating plants that will grab the careless wayfarer. There are spiders larger than rats, while elephants, tigers and true unicorns move through meadows of grass that are higher than a man’s head. I have seen grey armoured, venom spitting dragons. And tribes of cannibals whose skin is as black as basalt. Despite all these dangers it was the steaming foreign vapours that were most deadly to our people and men dropped daily from the fever. So it was with great relief that we arrived in the lands of a king who made us welcome as his guests. His gardens were filled with spices and fruits of myriad shape and flavour and the men of that kingdom lived in perfect ease.”

“And what of the women?” asked Greta.

“Oh, the women! Owing to the ease of their lives they were beautiful as nymphs and each greatly accomplished in the arts of music, dance and serving.”

“I’m surprised,” said Greta, “that having found such an earthly paradise you would ever leave.”

“It was with a heavy heart that we left, for the kingdom became afflicted with a terrible curse and so it was that the children began to disappear. The king believed the words of his evil advisors, that we had brought this curse upon them, and so he banished us from that paradise.”

“Incredible,” said Greta. They had reached a walkway that wound under a row of willows beside a flowing mountain stream. “Here, I promise you, you will see nothing more exotic then a flock of storks. They transform themselves into human folk in the winter it is said. But forgive me I diverge. There was something I wanted to ask you. Was it on your return that you met with his Holiness and was offered the position of inquisitor?”

Felix stopped walking and stared at Greta.

Greta laughed. “You are surprised at a lady having such astuteness. Fear not. It is not from magic that I have discerned that part of your story but from your medallion. A branch, a cross, and a sword, is that not the mark of the inquisition?”

“Yes,” said Felix quietly, “It is. Fortune has endowed your ladyship with superior intelligence.”

“Has she really?” Greta resumed walking, looking over her shoulder to make sure that Felix was following her. “I am afraid you flatter me without due cause. I am a frail woman. My knowledge of such things is a matter of ordinary coincidence. I am only an Eisenberger by marriage. My maiden name is von Tachov. My family were Bohemian Hussites. The symbol of the inquisition is easily recognisable to those who were brought up to fear it. But tell me. I should like to have your wise opinion. As an expert in the ways of evil who is worse, the idolatrous Turk, who crushes good Christian nations under his boot, or is it the Lutheran whose belief in Christ and God is sincerely held?”

Felix answered without hesitation. “The heretic is worse, far more dangerous than the Turk. The Turk is an external enemy and thus can never truly mar the light of God. But the heretic twists scripture to his own whims. He is by far the greater devil. There is no evil in this world more pernicious than the rot of heresy.”

“I see,” said Greta, “I thank you for your wisdom and candour. Come there is something I wish to show you. My father in law built this most beautiful and secret little shrine. It goes by this little door and under a mound. Come, you must see it.”

Felix followed Greta along the edge of the stream, past a group of ducks, around a corner and onto a path, thick with fruiting brambles, nettles, willow herb and wild roses. The path descended into a little dell, on one side of which was a stone wall and a small arched door was set into the side of the mound.

Greta took a key from her purse and fitted it into the door.

It was cool and dark inside the mound. The only light came from a circular opening at the top of the domed structure. Around the edge of the dome was a circle of columns.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Greta’s voice echoed, dancing back and forth among the columns.

“It is,” said Felix.

“And I?” said Greta as she walked to the middle of the shrine so that the light flowing through the circular opening illuminated her, “do you find me beautiful? You may speak in confidence for no one know our whereabouts.”

The monk hesitated before he spoke from the shadows. “Yes, Countess, I find you beautiful.”

“And what if I were to tell you that I was a believer in the way of Luther, well what then? Would you still find me beautiful?”

Felix was silent.

“Well,” she pressed, “what then?”

“Then I would have you put into a barrel filled with iron nails and roll you down the hill.”

“I do not doubt it,” said Greta, “It would not bother you. I’m sure you love the sound of shrieking innocents.”

“I derive no pleasure from my duties.”

“Do you not?” Greta moved between the columns her heart raced with fear but she did her best to keep her voice calm and even. “Your story of the east was so wondrous, and I believe it. But I could by the flick of your eyes, by the hesitation in your voice, tell that there were some things you did not tell me. Tell me now, why did the king of that earthly paradise eject you from his kingdom?”

She watched in the dim light as Felix drew his dagger from his belt. “He ignored the word of God so we enslaved the children of his kingdom to work on our new domains.”

Greta circled back around keeping to the shadows between the columns. “And when you first arrived in India what was the cause of the conflict with that kingdom.”

Felix walked into the middle of the shrine so that the light struck his dagger. “The Indian workers would not obey our orders, they would not accept Christ as their savour so we sewed them alive to the sails.”

Greta had made her way back to the door and as it creaked open Felix moved swiftly toward her brandishing his dagger, but he was too late. She closed and locked the door behind her.

Basha

The streets were covered in mud, the contents of chamber pots, and the excrement of animals, so Basha walked with wooden platform shoes to keep her feet above the filth. The night was dark so she saw her way by looking up at the starlit sky. A street cat paused to watch her pass, then fled. A pig grunted from a neighbour’s yard, and a bat flitted between the eves of the houses. She slipped into the shadow of an overhanging house to let a group of men pass, singing in discordant, drunken voices. She passed the looming shadow of the church and at length came to the area around the barracks by the inner-city wall. She passed the tower, where her father was imprisoned, and the stone barracks beside it, and came to the house of Johann captain of the city guard. It was built with wooden frames filled with layers of straw and plaster, and topped with a steep slate roof.

She took the heavy iron knocker, fixed into the oak door, and knocked.

There was no answer.

She waited.

Drizzling rain blew from the north, dampening her hat, cloak and shawl.

She felt alone, as the raindrops collected in her hair.

She was about to depart when the door creaked open. An old servant answered. His hair was white and wiry, his face cadaverous. He led Basha along a corridor into a parlour where a fire crackled in an open hearth. The room was adorned with hunting trophies. The heads of hulking boars thrust themselves from the walls, between the busts of stags and bison. In the middle of the flagstone floor was a large bearskin rug. Beside the fire sat Captain Johann, and beside him, a huge hunting hound. Basha’s heart leapt into her throat, but then she noticed the strange contortion in the beast’s face and body. It was as dead as the other animals.

“Show the Jewess where she may sit,” said Johann.

Basha followed the old servant who indicated a stool placed beside the fire. The hairy animal skins tickled her feet as she crossed the room. Basha sat and mentally ran through what she must say for the hundredth time. My Lord Johann, you must understand that my father is innocent. The horrible murder of my betrothed hurts us both. But I understand that your job is a difficult one and thus I thought that if it pleased your lordship to free my father I could give you fifty pieces of Spanish gold. It is all my family has.

As the greedy eyes of Captain Johann drilled over her, the order of her words flew from her mind like ducks scattering from a hunter’s bow.

Basha’s lip quivered, she toyed nervously with the red woollen charm around her wrist “My... my...”

“You are here because of your father,” said Johann. “You have come to beg to free him.”

“Yes,” Basha looked at the ground. “He’s innocent.”

“Well go on then, beg.”

Basha was silent not knowing what to do or say.

“Get down on your knees,” said Johann, “kiss my feet and beg.”

Basha felt the tears come streaming out of her eyes she fell off the stool and crawled toward Johann, burying her face in his boots, she cried as she kissed the leather. “Let him free,” she whispered, “Let him free.”

Basha screamed as Johann kicked her in the ribs.

“Get up,” he said.

Wiping the tears on her shawl Basha rose.

“Strip,” demanded Captain Johann.

Basha was frozen, shamed, humiliated.

Johann rose from his seat and Basha saw that he gripped a riding whip. His face was red and shaking. “Strip for me, you whore,” he shouted, “or by the Devil I’ll whip you half to death.”

As her outer gown slid to the floor, the gold stitched into its seems clinked as it landed on the wooden boards and a feeling of dark despair fell upon her as she detached her mind from the horror of her predicament.

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