the next day
the 31st of September, Day of the Moon, Year of the Lord 1526
Greta sat staring out of the high mullioned glass windows that faced the park though she could see little but a blur of green beyond the lashing rain. Greta sat on a cushioned throne, drank wine from a silver chalice and smiled to herself. Lock had taken the bait, and with the storm it seemed that God Himself had aided her. “Do you think,” she asked, “that they will ever invent glass that is in big pieces, so we don’t always have to look through an iron mesh?”
Bishop Lock, ignoring the question, as well as his chair, paced the room.
Greta observed that Lock was extremely agitated. He was sweating. Greta found that she was enjoying his discomfort. She had always found Lock to be haughty and arrogant, he thought he knew everything though he was four years younger than she. Having him where she wanted him put her in good humour. “It’s several hours ride from Eisenberg to the schloss,” said Greta, “You were lucky to have made it here before the storm, but did you enjoy the ride?”
“I try and avoid the unpleasantries of exercise,” replied Lock, “and horses don’t agree with me. I came by carriage.”
“I love riding,” said Greta. “Though I do hate for the sun to ruin my complexion. Its terrible, your Excellency, the sun is shining and I’m thinking I should love to go riding, but than if I go riding, I’ll end up with skin like a peasant. That’s why I’m always praying for cloudy days.”
“May I,” said the bishop as he accepted a cup of wine from Magda, “speak with your ladyship frankly?”
“Naturally.” Greta was happy she had chosen to wear her silk ruff. It gave her face a more regal frame. She always felt more authoritative and confident when she wore that ruff.
“Eisenberg is rife with heresy and the pope knows it. He has despatched an elite unit of Swiss Guard, pike and musket, to be under my command. He expects the place to be cleaned up and that includes you. I am well aware that you offer protection to the preaching zealot. He has been whipping up hatred against the Church and now has a following among the townsfolk. Captain Johann defies my authority and allows innocent men and women to be murdered. He does so because he claims your protection, countess, you who are clearly indicated in the spread of heresy. But,” the bishop raised his arms heavenward, “I am a practical man, give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. I see no reason to turn the province into chaos. I have a proposition.”
Lock paused and gave Greta a searching look.
Greta returned his gaze with sincerity.
“Give me the zealot,” said Lock, “a list of a few prominent heretics, and pay your autumnal tithe. An example must be made, and when the papal troops arrive, the heads of the heretics will be put up on stakes. You and the other nobles will attend mass and we shall forget that this ever happened.”
Greta considered the bishop’s offer. He made it sound so reasonable. But behind it were the things that Greta had come more and more to resent, the arrogance, the tithes and the indebtedness. Lutheranism had made her feel free, free from Lock and the chains of his Church of dues and duties. Luke was her lover. Could she give him up? Would she not rather have Lock seized, his corruption uncovered, and his lands shared out? Instead of Lock, her lover would stand at the head of a people’s Church where folk found God for themselves. And that dream was about to be realised. “My husband always said, never make a decision without sleep. We must obey the wishes of our husbands. Must we not, Lord Bishop? I shall sleep on your offer and give you word in the morning. You of course must allow me to host you for the night here in the schloss. It would be dangerous for you to return in this weather. You know Herr Schwatzborg’s carriage was washed into a gully trying to make the road in a thunderstorm?”
Lock felt the trap close around him. “How do I know that I can trust you? Do you give me your word that I shall not be harmed?”
“I swear,” said Greta, “that you shall not be harmed, while you are within the walls of my house.”
Lock sighed, “I guess I can hope for no better.”
“Yes my lady.”
“Arrange to have the guest quarters prepared for his Excellency. I am thinking the sunroom?”
Lock watched the maid leave. The tightness of her bodice accentuated her hips.
“Isn’t she lovely,” Greta had followed the bishop’s eye. “Teach a peasant girl some manners and she will surprise you with her wit, charm and tales of witches, goblins and magic tablecloths. I know a girl, Lord Bishop, who would love to wait upon a man as eminent as you. I promise that you shall enjoy your stay.” Greta looked genuinely pleased, and Lock felt a moment’s nostalgia for a time when they had not been enemies.
“Yes, Lord Bishop?”
“I have a question to ask?”
“Speak and I shall see if I can answer it.”
“Johann has executed Heinrich the Jew for the murder of Joseph the miller’s son. He was innocent. The dead boy’s sister is my ward and I promised her I would look into the matter.” Lock observed the countess. There was something about the way the she looked at Lock, an odd expression of familiarity. Lock shook his head in feigned sadness. “He was such a fine and gentle lad.”
“Yes,” said Greta, “He was.”
Peter was a rich man. The wagons of his troop were stuffed with loot much of it coming from the Manor of Ujlaki and the ponies groaned under the weight of sacks of treasure, barrels of wine and bolts of cloth. Yet he was not sad to be leaving Hungaria behind. Gone were the endless flat land, the mosquito infested swamps, muddy fields, terrified villages, and tangled forests. Some of his men had become feverish and Peter hoped that the mountain air might do them good. Since morning they had climbed and as the late afternoon sun left the alpine meadows, they made camp in the ruins of a stone tower under the watchful eyes of a herd of chamois.
Peter knew where they were. They were nearing home. The road continued through the mountains to the Pass of Eagles and from there down into the valley of the River Eisen, to Esienberg, and to his wife, Greta. For years he had thought of seeing her upon his homecoming, but now that that moment drew near he was consumed by his desire for Nuray, the Turkish princess. Now that she had yielded to him, and spent her nights in his sheepskin bed. She intoxicated him more than the looted red wine that he drank daily. Krum had once told Peter that love was all in the chase. That once he had tamed a horse all he wanted was a new one to break in. Krum had been wrong. The more time he spent with Nuray the deeper he fell for her.
He felt her eyes on him now as he hammered the peg of his tent into the stony ground.
Nuray cursed him loudly in her own tongue.
Peter rose to his feet as the men approached. He knew them by name, Hans, Erhart, Rolf, and Jan. They were Eisenbergers. They were survivors. Their short swords hung by their wastes, their satin clothes were battered and dirty, and Peter saw that they had a mutinous look, for they approached hesitantly afraid to meet his eye. Peter stared them down. He had hung men before and he would do so again. “Speak your mind,” he said as the men drew close. “There is much to do before nightfall.”
Jan prodded a stone with his boot. “You’re taking us over the Pass of Eagles, my lord?”
“That’s right,” replied Peter, “we’re going home.”
“The Pass of Eagles is a road of ill repute my lord,” said Hans.
“It is guarded by the dragon Steinbauch,” said Rolf
“A ferocious man eating monster,” said Erhart. “He will not let us pass.”
“Steinbauch is but a story to scare children,” said Peter. “Are you children or are you men? There is a real enemy.” Peter pointed back along the road they had come. “They are coming for us from the plains. You have seen the plumes of dust thrown up by riders. They are Turkish slavers come to take you to Istanbul in chains. If they ride hard they will be upon us before nightfall. Have you sharpened your swords and oiled your muskets?”
“Steinbauch is no child’s tale,” said Rolph, “he’s as real as you and I. My father was a shepherd and he has seen the beast. He has a body like a huge lizard and the head of a bloodthirsty dog. You may have ridden the pass my lord and were lucky. But can you assure us of the same luck this time?”
The other men nodded and murmured their agreement.
“There may be a way to appease the dragon,” said Rolph, “It is said that the monster has a particular love of fair women. If we leave the foreign woman as a sacrifice I’m sure he would let us pass.”
Peter drew his sword. “The next man to suggest that again gets his throat cut now and his body left for the vultures.”
Peter lit the match of his musket, and stood behind the barricade of baggage and wagons. The thick mountain fog had seemed to arrive from nowhere, blotting out the view of the southern road, the shepherds huts, the stands of pine and mountain oak and the riders whose hooves sounded in the distance. The fog could mean their death. If they could not see the enemy to shoot them they would have little chance when the cavalry were among them.
“It is Steinbauch,” Peter heard Hans say. “He controls the fog in the mountains and he wants the Turkish princess.”
Peter did not rebuke the mutinous soldier. Instead he kept a tight grip on his musket the sulphurous smell of the smoking wick filling his nostrils. The clop of hooves and the tinkle of bridle bells drew closer.
Beside him Peter could see his arqubusiers kneeling aiming their muskets into the grey blur. “Halt,” said Peter in Latin at the invisible enemy, “halt or be fired upon.”
The sound of advancing hooves ceased.
A wind blew from the mountains and slowly the fog began to pass, revealing a troop of horsemen, red pendants, fluttering in the ailing light. At first Peter took the horsemen to be Turks but as he looked closer he became less certain. They were not like the knights in their heavy burnished armour that had been broken and massacred at Mohacs, but nor were they Turks. Like the Turks, they were lightly armoured and slashing scimitars hung at their waists but they carried the lances and shields of Christian knights and wore high pointed metal helms, decorated with horsehair plumes. And rising from each saddle was a curved wooden pole, lined with long feathers, giving the warriors the appearance being winged.
“You are Peter Von Eisenberg,” said the leader of the riders in Latin, “I am Stanislaw from Krakow and I am fighting Turks not Germans. Tell your men to put away their muskets. We come as allies.”