The Hanging Tree
Basha sat cross-legged on the pile of straw that was her bed, and told her unborn child stories to while away the time. It was dryer and lighter here in the upper rooms then it had been in the cellar, and the servant came more often with bowls of steaming pottage. The angel had answered her prayers, yet she was still a prisoner. And Johann took care to lock the door after each visit and the window was fixed with iron bars.
“What will become of us?” said Basha as she touched her belly and felt a muffled kick in reply. “I don’t know what these men mean to do to us. But I am sure it is nothing good.”
Basha walked to the window and peered through the bars. It helped that she had the window and she would spend much of the day with her faced pressed to it, watching the street. She might see guardsmen in their bright clothes, carrying shiny halberds and going to and from the barracks on their patrols. She might see a prisoner being led to the keep, or a soldier’s sweetheart bringing him bread and salted pork. She might see carters and porters arriving in the early morning to deliver wares. She might occasionally see a burgher’s lady, dressed in silk and chaperoned by her man.
Close to Basha’s window was the hanging tree, an old pruned ash with a low horizontal bow. She liked to watch its leaves tug at its branches in the wind, but averted her eyes to the scaffold built bellow it. Three times now she had heard the sound of wild geese as they flew south and she thought of the story the Christians told of Saint Hildegard who transformed herself into a goose to escape her captor. It was a beautiful story for there was something so free about the geese. At this moment it was raining, soft light rain. She didn’t recoil from the rain. It reminded her of what it was like to be free.
“You know,” she said to her belly, “I have an idea. We’ll take my black kerchief,” and as she spoke she unwound the cloth from her hair, “and we’ll tie it to the bar right at the edge of the window. And you never know, my little darling, perhaps a friend will see it.”
As she tied the knot she heard the key turn in the keyhole and the door to the room swing open. She turned to face the door. The Captain’s face was a concoction of lust, fear and rage. And as always when she felt his violence about to be visited on her she froze.
Johann crossed the space between the door and the window in four strides, and pushed his face close to hers. She could see his desire to strike her tempered by his fear of her. “Soon I’ll have you cleansed of Jewish magic but for now I have something that I would like you to see.”
Johann pushed open the shutters and beckoned Basha to the window.
Basha’s heart raced, Johann would see her kerchief, and that shred of hope would be taken from her. She walked mutely to join him by the window. To her surprise Johann was too concentrated on what was going on in the street to register the black cloth tied to the bar.
Basha followed Johann’s gaze. A prisoner, led by four guards, and followed by a group of onlookers walked toward the hanging tree. She instantly recognised her father’s robes and hat. Her heart leapt to her throat. Her father was about to die. Johann turned to look at her, taking evident pleasure in the suffering on her face. But as the prisoner drew closer and ascended the scaffold, she began to hope. It was something about way the man moved, the way he seemed to go so willingly to his death. Something was wrong. She watched as the executioner took off his hat, fixed the noose to his neck and kicked out the trapdoor from underneath him. As the man swung on the rope, Basha caught a look at his face. It was not her father.
Johann turned to look intently at her, and Basha had no trouble in making herself cry. Johann turned back to the window, saw the black kerchief, untied it from the bar, and eyed Basha with a rageful stare.
There was a gentle tap at the door.
“What is it?” Johann shouted.
“A message from the countess,” said the raspy voice of Johann’s servant.
Sonia and Lock ate supper together in the library.
“You look troubled my lord, and you have been gone all day.”
“Troubled barely begins to describe it,” Lock chewed miserably on the roast pheasant stuffed with prunes, and glazed with honey. Cook had really outdone herself, but it did nothing to lift Lock’s mood.
“Is it something to do with the witch hunter?”
Lock choked on a piece of pheasant. “How do you know about that?”
“Oh I know a few things,” said Sonia breezily, “are you going to tell me what’s making you grim?”
“I wouldn’t want to burden your innocent head with my terrible worries.” Lock washed down his mouthful with a goblet of wine.”
“Oh please do,” said Sonia. “It always helps to share your worries, I’m certain I shan’t understand it anyway. So little harm will be done.”
“Very well,” said Lock, and just having made the decision to share, did indeed make him feel better. “Heresy is spreading in the city, the countess is somehow involved in it, and I feel the nobility are turning against me. But I have no information because Felix the black monk has disappeared and I have heard no word from him or his spies. There is a secret printing press that is spreading lies about me and this is somehow connected to a witch hunter from Munich. The captain of the city guard has gone rogue, and I would have believed him to have executed Heinrich the Jew, had I not seen the man alive with my own eyes. He came to me in disguise insisting that he pay for indulges for the man hanging in his place because of an oath he made to a demon. And as if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the countess has invited me to attend her at the schloss tomorrow. And I cannot workout whether or not I should go. If I go not it will show weakness and the hounds will pounce. But if I go I could be walking into a wolf’s lair.”
Sonia nodded seriously. “Do you know the countess well?”
“Certainly I know her. I always felt she disliked me, though I know not why.”
“Is she a good person?”
A good person? Lock paused to consider what that might really mean. He had read Plato and Aristotle, but had never been convinced on the merits of virtue, tending instead to predict people’s actions based on their baser nature. “I’m not sure I know what good means?”
“Does she want the best for her people? Does she make certain to make offerings to the spirits of house, field and forest?”
“Make offerings to the spirits of house, field and forest? By the nails of Christ, child, I must forbid you to spend any more time with the cook. I hate to think what your mother will say when you come home recalling pagan customs.”
“You are only being cruel because you are worried. I understand. All I am saying is that if the countess has at least some good in her, she will not want a war in which many people will suffer. Remonstrate with her. You say you may risk your life by going. But isn’t that what a good person would do? Risk their life to bring peace?”
Lock was struck momentarily speechless. Her logic was flawless. And yet… “I’m afraid I suffer from cowardice.”
“The greater the fear, the greater the courage.” Sonia smiled warmly. “Have you come any closer to solving the mystery of my brother’s death?”
“No,” said Lock flatly.