Chapter 6: Visitors
The 29th of August, the middle of the week, Year of the Lord 1526
Heinrich ran his finger along the iron manacle that chained his leg to an iron ball. The dungeon in the city keep had one window, a slit in the rock that gave just enough light to discern the contours of the stone walls. The cell was filled with damp hay and a gutter ran along its edge into which the prisoners could relieve themselves, yet the jailor’s bucket never seemed to contain enough water to wash away the muck. The dungeon therefore had a stench that Heinrich found difficult to endure. The jailor fed the prisoners cabbage and turnip gruel once a day, poured from a jug into shallow iron bowls.
Hans the cutpurse, manacled to the wall, rattled his chains as he gabbled. “They’ll hang you. Sometimes your neck breaks and you die easy, but sometimes you’ll be strangled, then you die slow. Either way you’ll kick your heals in the Dance of Lord Death and sometimes it takes awful long. But I don’t imagine my neck would be that strong. How about you, Jew? The captain said I’d be headed to the stocks again, but you, you’ll be straight for the hanging tree, dangle, dangle, dangle.” He grinned.
“I’m going to trial,” said Heinrich, “I’ll be found innocent.”
“Innocent, innocent,” Hans laughed, spitting and coughing as he tried to keep talking between his sobs of mirth. “Trial? An innocent Jew? Old Captain Johann he’ll come down with a pair barber’s clamps to pull a few of your teeth and you’ll spit out a confession along with your blood. Innocent is no good to him. If it’s not your head impaled on North Gate, then he’ll have to find another to take its place and that won’t suit him. The townsfolk need their sport, one to throw the pig slops at, and another to hang. Everybody likes to see a Jew swing. Because they eat the flesh of Christian babes. People like to know that something is being done. The folk know there is nothing like a dead Jew to bring them a few weeks of hot dry weather. I’ve heard it said by a gentleman that you folk will eat a Christian babe when the the fancy takes you.”
The wooden door squeaked like a rat as it was shoved open.
Captain Johann the jailor, and a guardsman, entered. “Let’s get this over with,” said Johann, “I wouldn’t want to be late for the countess’s feast.” They unlocked Hans’ manacles and then marched him out of the keep.
The Captain turned to look at Heinrich before he closed the door. His look reminded Heinrich of a mural painted on a merchant’s house, cats chasing mice; one of the cats had had a particularly greedy and savage expression.
In the long silence that followed, Heinrich’s thoughts changed from relief that the irritating and unnerving rants of the cutpurse were over for good to an odd nostalgia for the time when there was at least some conversation in the dungeon. Just as he was about to say something the other prisoner spoke.
“Hey, Jew, Rat-Face is right. Innocent is no good to
Sir Codpiece. He’ll see you hang. Now I’ve seen that silver you gave to Sag-Belly the Jailer to keep you comfortable so you can lay down and stretch properly, and the manacle not so tight as to chafe your ankle. What say you drop a few groats for old Harold here and get them to loosen my manacle, just a fingers breadth. That’s all I’m asking.
Sonia Muller, studying the ways of God under the good Bishop Lock until her comfortably distant wedding day, sat in the kitchen eating a slab of bread and butter, and thanked her good fortune that she had escaped the tower in which her mother had kept her for so many years. The cook, a sturdy old woman, leaned over a large cauldron filled with beefy broth.
The part of Sonia’s body that she thought of as Hell ached with a constant, yet oddly pleasant pain. Hell was a much larger part of her than she had at first imagined and the gates of Hell had been so engorged by ritual practice that the Devil could no longer easily enter. But the bishop had showed her that the administration of sacred oil used for baptism and unction could be used to smooth his passage.
The practice of helling, as she called it, had changed her life. She felt the ecstasy of God several times a days, and even more often at night. The bishop had shown her that he didn’t even need to be there, and she could experience ecstasy on her own by arousing the fires of Hell. It was all she seemed to be doing, helling. She would start to memorise a new prayer, forget what she was memorizing a few minutes later, then start to think of helling. She would feel the prickle of Hell and then her hand would slip under her skirts and she would begin to feel the grace of God enter her body. How did people who did not know about this ritual exist?
Sonia was thinking about helling while she reached for a small bowl of fresh milk that the cook had left by the fire. But before Sonia could get her hand close to the bowl, Cook bought her stirring spoon down with a crack on her knuckles.
“Ouch,” said Sonia, “what was that for?”
“Are you trying to ruin us you worn down millstone?” Cook always talked like that. Even though Sonia’s parents were rich, Cook knew that she wasn’t really a lady. Sonia had noticed that since the helling had begun Cook’s language had got more colourful. But every time Sonia asked, what’s a hussy? or what do you mean by a well-worn-shoe? Cook would throw up her hands and say, Christ, never you mind, child. Sonia had stopped asking.
“What do you mean? I just fancied a bit of milk?”
“You did? Well that milk is not for you, so keep those sinful little hands of yours off it.”
“Well who’s it for then?”
“Who’s it for? You really know nothing do you, you little sword sheath.”
“You know Cook, my mother kept me in a tower to keep me pure.”
“Well a fine job she’s done,” said Cook, “that milk is for the heinzelman.”
“The house elf,” said Cook, “a glass of warm milk placed by the fire is all he needs and he’ll chase away mice, rats and other vermin and if I’ve forgotten anything he’ll take care of it. But if somebody else drinks his milk or he gets none, or thinks I’m paying him, he’ll cause a terrible disturbance. The milk will go sour, the goulash will burn and we will become infested by fleas.”
“Really,” said Sonia, “and he lives in the house? What does he look like?”
“About a foot high, knobbly as an old tree, skinny as a hungry cat, and ugly as a leper.”
“Gosh,” said Sonia, “so…”
Sonia’s question was interrupted by a knock on the kitchen door.
The kitchen maid curtseyed as she entered. “A visitor,” she said, “for Lady Sonia.”
“For me?” asked Sonia, “but who would want to visit me?”