Chapter 16: The Prince of the Torah and the Green-Eyed Cat
A fire raged in the grand hall behind the open hearth, fed by two soldiers with chopped beech and vine. The trestle tables were dressed in brown cloth, and the servants placed upon them dishes of bronze and silver, legs of roasted pork, boiled chickens, baked apples, and dense hot bread, to placate their unwelcome guests. Out in the gathering darkness came the rolling crash of thunder.
Peter sat in the high backed wooden throne, and drank red wine from a jewelled goblet. On his left sat Nuray. Her wet cloak hung by the fire, and Peter had wrapped her in his own, woven from red Flemish wool. Her hunger had overtaken her anger and she greedily sucked the flesh from the chicken bones. On Peter’s right stood the steward of the house who kept Peter’s goblet filled, pouring the sweet aromatic wine from a clay jug.
“This is,” said Peter as he raised his cup “the finest thing I have ever drank!”
“Your lordship has fine taste,” replied the steward, “for this is a well aged barrel and here we make the finest wines in the world. It is said, that it was Markus Aurelius himself who planted the first grape of this vineyard. And when the tartars came and savaged all the land before them, like devils out of Hell, they loved the wine of this vineyard so well that this very house was protected when all else around was raised to the ground. Princes, we say, come and go but the wine of Borfold is eternal”
Peter watched as a serving woman walked beside the table filling the cups of his men whose voices rose in an excited intoxicated hubbub. “And what is your oldest vintage?”
“The Black Vintage,” replied the steward. “It was bottled in reign of Zoltan, and it was made by Stefen the Black, a powerful magician. His wine is infused with elder berries, and leaves of hawthorn. It is known as the giver of dreams.”
“Bring it out,” Peter ran his fingers through Nuray’s long wavy hair, “My lady and I shall drink it.”
Nuray stiffened at his touch.
“As you wish,” said the steward, “but I warn you, it is no wine to be drunk with gluttony.”
“Bring it forth,” said Peter.
When the jugs were brought and the wine was poured, he drank. The liquid was cool in his mouth. It was sweet and smooth and did not burn his throat.
“Drink,” Peter slid the goblet of wine toward Nuray. She looked at him with anger and disgust as she picked up the goblet and he thought she would throw it at his head. But she too drank, drank with a sudden abandon, the wine splashed over her cheeks and chin.
Basha found her way around the darkness of the cellar by touch. Save for the moulding hay it was empty, but the stone was rough-cut and she could feel out its stories, tracing the gaps between the slabs, probing them for a secret, perhaps a message, a needle or some other small forgotten treasure. It was so unlike her cellar at home, where Baba kept flour, butter and apples and where there were also some of Basha’s old toys, a doll, a rocking horse and a cradle. She stroked her belly. Her child was still alive and growing.
Her back and breasts stung from lacerated welts where Johann had whipped her, and it seemed no part of her had been spared the prodding, lash. He had bound her by her wrists to one of cellar’s wooden beams. And there she had dangled, the rope burning her wrists, while he examined her with whip and dagger.
“Soon,” he had whispered to her, “soon I shall do with you what I want.”
Then he had left her to dangle in pain, in the dark, and in silence. Mercifully the old servant had come, cut the rope, and let her fall upon the floor. She had lost sense of time in the smothering darkness. Sometimes the servant would come with a hunk of bread and a jug of water and he would empty the wooden bucket that served as her chamber pot. Sometimes Johann would visit and always it ended in pain, a lash across the face, hot wax poured on her legs, her fingers held till she screamed in the guttering flame. He would whisper than shout, slut, witch, whore, succubus, yet he never violated her though Basha could sense his yearning.
In the spaces between the visits, in the blackness, in the silence, Basha would return to her rituals. She made a circle around her with breadcrumbs. She had woven the Hebrew letters “B” and “J” out of straw and placed those around the circle. She took off the little piece of the torah that she wore cased in iron around her neck and put into the centre of the circle. And began to pray.
“Oh Prince of the Torah, hear me your humble servant. I have created your holy circle. I have fasted for many days, kept clean my hands and feet. Come in my moment of need and hear my plea. Though it must be difficult for you to fly from your eternal paradise, from the world of light to this dark cell. I compel you with the words of prophets to come to me and to guide me.”
This was the ritual that Baba had taught her but she knew that it was no easy thing to summon an angel and that the greatest rabbis had tried and failed. It took patience and days. But it seemed to her that in that moment her spirit lifted. The pain in her body felt less and without any tangible reason she felt hope. She then heard the key in the door.
Johann pushed it open. He carried a whip in one hand and a lantern in the other. A cloaked and hooded man followed him into the room.
Basha quickly swept away the evidence of her ritual.
“Stand up,” Johann ordered.
Basha rose to her feet and straitened her gown.
“So this,” said the hooded man, “is Basha the beautiful. How wonderful. May I touch her.”
“As you wish,” Johann tapped his whip against the palm of his hand. “She’s learned to fear the whip. She’ll comply.”
The hooded man stepped next to Basha and ran his hands over her belly. The way his fingers probed her womb were almost harder to bare than Johann’s lash
“Ah there he is,” whispered the hooded man, “Alive.”
“How soon can you dispel her Jewish magic,” cut in Johann.
“Have patience,” said the hooded man as he stepped away from Basha. “You have done your utmost to put this evil temptress in her place. You have given her what she deserves. But the Jewess is with child and her evil magic is only growing stronger. If you want to avoid the evil of her spells you must ensure that the child survives. I promise you that I will lift her evil magic and you may do with her as you will, but I can not act yet, the stars are not correctly aligned. But for now you must have fear for the child’s life. Feed her well and house her better.”
The musicians among the servants and mercenaries played upon their pipes, drums, psalters and fiddles. Some men cried for more wine, others seized the serving girls and whirled them around in a wild, leaping jig. Each man danced the dance of his village, and into the fire-lit hall, crept to each man, scarred by war, the fondest of his memories, the smile of his sweetheart on a warm spring day, the raising of the maypole and the gathering of birch to make the crowning wreaths.
Peter felt it too, memories that were once so joyous and yet melancholic in their remembering. He thought of Greta and their wedding day. She had been so beautiful clothed in white and she had looked at him with innocent love while they were pelted with handfuls of grain.
The mood in the hall changed. The memories crept back from whence they came and were replaced by elation and exuberance. Nuray climbed upon the table and taking the wine jug in her hand she drank long to the soldiers’ whoops. She began to dance, sending plates and goblets crashing. Faster and faster she danced whirling and wriggling to the music.
Peter climbed onto the table after her. The men began to clap and he too began to dance as if his legs had a will of their own. His eyes fixed on the lean bearded face of Sokol, he was laughing and his laughter echoed strangely in Peter’s head. He watched as Sokol began to transform. His hair grew longer, his beard richer and goat horns sprouted from his head. The wind rattled at the door and the thunder rolled.
He turned to face Nuray who danced before him and saw instead a monstrous cat with wide green eyes standing upright on her hind legs. “You will die with a sword in your hand,” said the cat.
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