The Cover of Darkness
Zuza led Lock through the shadows of the trees, Hazel, birch and fruiting Elder. Lock stared into the darkness beneath the trees. An owl hooted in the forest. Lock Shuddered. He had always been a little afraid of the dark. “Is it far to Go?”
“Not far, your Excellency,” whispered Zuza. “We are nearly there.”
Lock followed the girl down into the ditch. Wild roses clawed at his cloak and nettles brushed against his leg. He followed her up a grassy mound. At the top of the mound was a black hole.
“There,” whispered Zuza, “He’s down there. Inside the chapel mound.”
“Brother Felix,” Lock called into the hole and heard his voice echo in the space beyond, “are you in there?” As he stared into the darkness Lock felt fear grip him. Maybe the girl had tricked him and would push him in.
“Your Excellency,” the voice of the black monk echoed back, “can that really be you?”
“Yes,” said Lock, “it is I. How do we get you out of there?”
“A rope,” replied the monk, “ throw me a rope and pull me through the hole?”
“A rope,” Lock turned to Zuza, “do we have a rope?”
“I don’t have any rope your excellency.”
Lock began to pace backward and forward. Somewhere nearby a nightingale called.
“Your Excellency,” began Zuza, “forgive me for asking, but if we tie our cloaks together, and I could even remove my gown, then perhaps we could make a rope long enough to reach the monk.”
“That’s it,” said Lock, “bless you child.”
“Of course,” said Greta conversationally to a dripping Herr Fluss, “now that we are Lutherans we are freed from all our debts to the false Church.”
“Not to mention,” said Friedrich, who was wringing out his sleeves, “our annual tithes. I don’t know about you, but I can’t spare any of my harvest this year to pay for Lock to bathe in milk and sup on boiled swallows.”
Water pooled at Captain Johann’s feet as he sat on the edge of his stool. “Oh why don’t you just speak to the point. We’re Lutherans now. That means Lock is gone. The question is how to divide his property?”
A brief and awkward silence followed, that Greta felt compelled to fill. “The villages in the northern part of the river valley pay Lock for tenancy. It would make sense if they came under the protection of the von Eisenberg domain. If we are to begin spreading the word of Luther then the common people must be persuaded to follow.”
“I suppose the bishop’s departure would leave empty his town house,” observed Herr Ebes, a wealthy Burgher.
“Hold on to your clock,” said Johann, “The town properties of the Church must surely pass to the city guard.”
“What,” said William, the foreign witch hunter, “of the abbey of Saint Hildegard the Virgin? I will give my men and my pistols for the first of their treasures.”
Greta felt discomfort creep over her. The abbey was part of her emotional landscape and she visited it to give alms. Ivy covered its walls, shading the neat gardens tended by the dark robed sisters, at the foot of the cave filled cliffs. They made excellent cakes, and omelettes and even brewed their own ale. It was a haven for women and girls from across the kingdom “Are abbeys,” asked Greta, “disallowed by Luther?”
“A monastic life,” said Luke the only dry person in the room, “has no basis in scripture, either for men or women. But I am not here for material gain. I am here to spread the new creed. The question then is how do we destroy the power of Bishop Lock?”
“Exactly,” said the Widow Messer, “If we kill Lock, seize his lands and reject the Pope, then won’t that put us at war with the Empire?”
Greta smiled. She’d hoped somebody would ask that question. It was the one she had long dwelt on herself. “Do not worry about the emperor. He himself is at war with Rome. I have been writing with Duke Ferdinand of Vienna. He wants our support against the Turks. Other princes have embraced Luther. Ferdinand considers faith to be a matter of a noble’s conscience.”
“What about Peter?” asked Herr Fluss. “The count was always on good terms with the Bishop.”
Greta thought about her husband. He had been obsessed with fighting and spent most of his hours with his soldiers, yet he had lavished every favour upon his wife, and Greta’s memories of him were fond. He had been fair, and at times gentle, and she had loved him but that was long ago. “The Count von Eisenberg,” said Greta, “is dead, slain by the Turks on the field of Mohacs.”
The group began to talk in a low hubbub.
“My condolences,” said Herr Fluss, “Peter was a good man.”
“I suppose,” said Friedrich with a grin, “that makes you the Widow von Eisenberg?”
“That solves it,” said Johann. “I will have Lock seized tomorrow.”
“There will be no need for that,” said Greta and here she let the fox out of the sack, “I have him and that cursed inquisitor under guard in this very house. There will be no need to spill any blood.”
At that moment there was a knock on the Pink Room door, and an armed servant entered, a glum expression on his face.
Lock and Zuza, heaved as they pulled Felix, span by span toward the hole. Lock felt distinctly vulnerable without his regal cloak and tunic and distinctly aware that the young woman, pulling behind him, was at least as strong as he and that his fatness was clearly visible in his white under shirt. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that the girl, stripped to her under gown, was the very picture of physical fitness.
“One, two, three, pull,” said the girl.
They both pulled. There was bang and a curse from inside the hole.
“I think he’s at the top,” said Zuza.
The two of them watched as Felix pulled himself out of the hole and stood on the mound, his silhouette illuminated by the rising moon. His monk’s habit flapped in the wind. He turned his face heavenward. His face looked gaunt and his beard covered his mouth. The storm had moved on and the wind had whipped the sky clean of clouds. “There is a bright moon tonight,” said the black monk, “and enough light to ride by. Horses, we must have horses.”
“You’ll find them in the stables. Only the stable boy will be watching them. He’s a good lad.”
Felix turned his attention to the girl. “Who,” he asked Lock, “is she?”
“She is something of a saint among this den of heretics,” said Lock.
“I see,” said Felix. “You shall be returning with us to the city?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that,” she said, “I have my duties to attend to.” Dressed only in her underclothes the girl shivered.
The black monk shrugged.
Lock opened his mouth to speak, but before he had chance Felix drew a long dagger from his robe and slit Zuza’s throat in one swift movement.
She collapsed on the ground blood flowing over her white undergarments.
“Why?” shouted Lock, anger rising in his voice.
“Quiet,” said Felix, “we are in the midst of a war between God and the Devil. She has served her purpose. Shed your tears over the peasant later. Come with me if you want to live and win.”
Basha was thirsty. It had been a long time since the servant had brought victuals. Her chamber pot was full and her body ached. The baby inside her needed water. She tossed and turned in her bed, unable to sleep. Tears began to flow from her eyes.”
“Basha, Basha, Babushki?”
Was she going mad? Somebody was calling her name. It sounded like it was coming from the pile of straw. Was it a Dybbuk, a ghost or a daemon?
“Babushki it is I, Soloman son of Abraham.”
Basha knew now that the voice speaking must be that of a spiteful Dybbuk. “Go away you evil spirit,” she shouted, “Leave me in misery. No friend could find me here.”
“No, Basha,” said the voice. “It’s I, Soloman. You do not really think that your grandmother will let anybody have any peace until you’ve been brought back? I’m on the other side of the wall, in the neighbouring room. I climbed up the hanging tree and through the windows. Jango the traveller, son of Zafir, saw your black kerchief when he went to see the hanging. The word spread that you were here. I have brought a saw and an axe and I shall rescue you.”
Despite the pain Basha leapt to her feet. “Solomon,” she shouted, “you don’t know how much I love you.”
When Lock and Felix arrived at the Forest Gate, Lock fell of his horse while trying to dismount. He wasn’t sure what felt worse, his arse from the long dangerous ride, or his heart from the pointless slaughter of Zuza and the stable boy. Lock had always thought of Sonia as innocent and chuckled to himself at her gullibleness, but in that moment as he lay in the mud outside the city gate, he realised that he was scarcely less innocent then she. In one day he had seen a women hung by her wrists and whipped to death and had had a friend slaughtered in front of his eyes by a man he had considered his ally. Were the lives of women so cheap that men could slaughter them for sport? What kind of god approved of such barbarity?
Felix pounded on the door with his fist. “Open in the name of God,” he shouted. “I escort his Excellency the Lord Bishop Manfred Lock.”
The oak doors swung open. Three men stood between Lock and the city. One man held a lit torch. And Lock could see the blue and yellow of their slashed satin doublets. They wore steal breastplates and black helmets, in the Italian fashion, adorned with red feathers. They carried swords and daggers. “Bene est, qui venit in nomine Domini Dei vestri,” said the middle of the two men, “For I am Aldo captain of the Swiss Guard sent by his Holiness. I have secured the city.”
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