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Chapter 16

On the Road, February 1532

Danger from my own people, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure…2 Cor 11:26

“Why don’t we head for Moravia?” Jan suggested. “Anabaptists are safer with the Hutterites than any other place in Christendom. They live communally, with everyone sharing their goods. Cornelia, you would have a tight roof over your head, and you’d never go hungry either.”

“That sounds like my kind of home,” Cornelia said. “Where is Moravia?”

“Far away to the west,” Anna said, not feeling the least bit excited about this idea. So many long miles to travel before they could rest, and with an elderly woman to think of. And what if they didn’t like it once they got there? She didn’t dwell on the real reason. Adriaen was not there. He preached in dangerous places, and whatever dungeon they had stuck him into, it wasn’t in Moravia.

“We could wind our way through the Netherlands, keeping an eye open for Claes and Elizabeth, pass through Germany, and on to Moravia,” Jan said.

Cornelia nodded, but Anna didn’t say anything. Jan gazed at her, an inscrutable expression on his pale face. “Or where would you like to go?”

“Home. I just want to go home, back to the life I had before this horrible Reformation.”

Jan sighed. “I wish from my heart that it lay within my powers to grant you this wish, but alas, I am a mere mortal. These are hard days, I know. But remember, after the storm comes the rainbow. We have to keep reaching for the hope that things will get better—better than we can imagine.” He stroked his fiery beard thoughtfully. “For now, we must make a decision. I know of one or two houses near Amsterdam where I have found shelter in the past, but there is always the possibility they have been discovered by now. And who knows, maybe those Brethren have recanted and no longer shelter fugitives.”

“We must go somewhere,” Anna said slowly. “And one place is as good as another, I suppose. If the two of you want to head to Germany, I will go with you, as long as we stay far away from Mantelhof.” No need to travel back to that scene of terror where she could be recognized.

“Of course.” Jan looked at her searchingly. “I’m sorry you have had to suffer through so many painful ordeals. Please tell me if I can help in any way.”

She nodded. His kindness brought a fresh wave of tears to her eyes. “Let us go, then.”

“I know some Brethren who live in Strasburg, where the authorities may be more sympathetic,” Jan said. “We could go there.”

Abandoning the sled, being of little use since the snow was melting, they turned to the trade route leading towards Germany, carrying the bearskin and their few belongings.

There was no money for inns, so they avoided them as they travelled through the countryside. They had to be alert for highwaymen and robbers as well as Tauferjagers. Though they owned little, there were those who would steal even that. Even the clothes on their back had some value.

The late February snow had mostly melted, and only dirty, grayish patches remained on the leeward side of hills and ditches. Cornelia had a surprising amount of energy, and cheerfully tramped for hours, unfazed by the many miles and the uncertain destination ahead of them, calling it a great adventure.

“God will lead the way,” she said, as she scurried along, her wiry body bent against the wind and her gray hair blowing around her wizened face. “The first friendly village I see, there I will stay.” She taught Anna and Jan how to dig early spring roots--which ones were edible, and which ones were used for medicinal purposes.

They sheltered in a vacant barn that first night, and their supper consisted of a crust of dried bread each, washed down with icy, but muddy, water from a nearby creek. Anna and Jan insisted Cornelia use the bearskin to wrap herself in for the night, a privilege she protested. After gathering some forgotten wisps of old straw for Anna and Jan’s beds, they all made themselves as comfortable as possible. Anna tried to ignore the rustlings of the night creatures, and felt grateful they had found a roof at least.

The following day, they reached the little town of Muiden on IJmeer Lake, and in order to pay the fare of a boat to travel onwards, Jan worked on the docks for the day. By nighttime; his soft schoolmaster’s hands were blistered, and his back must surely ache from carrying heavy cargo. When darkness relieved him of his duties, he fell in a heap in the corner of an empty boathouse, where the three of them spent the night. In the morning, a large shadow filled the doorway as Anna awoke.

“River rats!”

Anna jumped to her feet in an instant, shielding Cornelia with her body. Jan rose stiffly and positioned himself beside her. Two more men were poking their heads through the doorway. Their dirty clothes, scarred faces and weathered appearance marked them as veteran sailors. One of them had terrible raw looking scars on both cheeks and two missing fingers. Shards of ice raced up and down Anna’s spine. Jan rubbed his eyes and blinked.

“Hans? Hans Vissler? Is that you?”

Das ist mein Name, Rotschopf. Where have I met you before?”

“You don’t remember the runt of the neighbourhood back in Zurich? Fancy meeting my fellow countryman here.” Jan was smiling. Apparently he didn’t minding being called Redhead.

“You!” The scarred man took a few steps into the interior of the boathouse. “You mean you survived childhood? I thought you’d be long gone by now, the way you were always sick and mewling.”

“Seems I’m stronger than we knew, doesn’t it? Say, do you know of a boat we could use to cross the river?”

Anna’s shoulders relaxed in relief. If Jan knew these rough-looking men and dared ask for a boat, they were probably kinder than they seemed. Cornelia was sitting up, her beady eyes daring anyone to cross her, or harm her newfound friends. At that moment, she looked quite capable of casting a spell on someone.

The big sailor, introduced as Captain Clement, peered into the dim interior. “We kin take you but we ain’t taking no women.”

Anna put both hands on her hips. Her sizzling look could have fried him. “Pray tell, why not? Why would you make such a ridiculous rule?” Some men could be so arrogant.

“This is a men-only ship, a cargo ship, that’s why. We take only working passengers.” He looked disparagingly at her, not impressed by her boldness, then to Cornelia sitting on the floor in a tangle of shawls and wiry gray hair. “We can’t be responsible for the safety of women on my ship. Besides, women on a ship are bad luck.”

“I can work! And so can Cornelia! She can chop wood as well as any man, isn’t that so, Jan?” She glared at Jan, daring him to admit that he could not chop wood very well.

“I’ll give you my word that both these women can do as much work as I can, or more.” Clement stared at Jan, noting his pale face, his narrow shoulders, his soft white hands which were blistered from one day’s work.

“I can see that you are no stronger than a woman,” the captain said, frowning. “But you are no woman. That makes all the difference, see?”

Jan nodded. “We will find another ship.”

“There is no other ship heading to Germany that will take Anabaptists,” Clement said. Anna started. How did he know? Was the word ‘fugitive Anabaptist’ written on their foreheads?

Jan stared at Hans, at the raw cheeks with pus oozing from them, and at his bandaged hand with the empty space where two fingers should have been. “What happened to you?”

Hans shrugged. “The government don’t like those who read the Bible and follow it, didn’t you know? When I committed every debauchery under the sun and drank myself stupid, they didn’t care. But then I cleaned up my life after reading the Bible and spread the Word, so they decided to teach me a lesson.”

Jan drew in a long breath. “Well, don’t let us keep you. We will find another way to go.”

“Wait!” Captain Clement said gruffly. “We can take you as far as Harlingen, that’s all. And you have to pay double fare because of the women.”

Anna gasped, feeling as angry as a thunderstorm. “That’s not fair. We pay double and work? I refuse to go on those terms.” It was not only that she disliked his terms, but they didn’t have that much money between them. Jan’s labor the previous day might have earned enough fare for him, but not for all three of them.

“Ahem…” They all turned when Cornelia spoke up, though she was still huddling on the floor. “I will make a fair offer…You will take us on your ship and we will not pay a penny. In return I promise to heal friend Hans’ cheeks by the time we arrive at our destination. We will all help on ship duty as well as we are able. You agree to these terms or I put a curse on your ship. I am a witch you know.” She cackled her worst and shook a crooked finger to prove her point.

Anna smiled inwardly. Good old Cornelia. If these sailors only knew how harmless she was! Her rough exterior hid a heart as soft as butter. Anna was a little surprised that Cornelia kept up the charade of being a witch, though. What if they just tossed her overboard?

Clement waved his arms frantically at those words. “No, no, no! You cannot put a curse on my ship! This is a new ship and I’m taking her out on her maiden voyage. My aging father financed the Vrijheid, and he will disown me if anything happens to her.” Heaving a big sigh, and drawing his bushy black brows together over his dark eyes, he finally said, “Very well, then. You may travel with us, though I will not guarantee your safety, nor can I offer you a very comfortable bunk. If Hans’ cheek is not healed when we arrive, I report you to the authorities as a witch, which you just admitted to being.”

Smiling in triumph, Cornelia nodded. “Agreed. Isn’t that so? Anna? Jan?” It seemed to Anna that Cornelia was taking by far the biggest risk; how could she heal a festering sore in less than one week? It seemed typical of her to sacrifice herself in this way, and Anna could only hope it would all work out.

In under an hour they sailed out of port, with Anna’s back aching from all the heavy boxes she had carried down to the hold. She dared not think what they contained. Jan also looked ready to drop. His fair skin was sunburned and his poor hands were bleeding from broken blisters rubbed raw. Cornelia had better heal them too.

Only Cornelia seemed to have any energy left when they set sail. Serenely, she sat on deck on a pile of ropes and gazed out over the water, as if she was part of the sea. Her black old eyes sparkled like chips of coal in the sunlight. Curiously, she seemed to belong on the water and loved it.

Anna was kept busy scrubbing the floor of the ship’s galley, washing dishes, preparing food and was at the beck and call of the sailors whenever they wanted their clothes mended or washed. She put in long days and fell exhausted onto her narrow bunk at night. Surprisingly, she did not become seasick, unlike Jan. It looked as if he had the hardest time being worth his fare.

Anna saw Jan a couple of times when she went below to fetch ale from the barrels. His usually white face was tinged with green, and he smiled weakly when she brought him some tea one morning.

“I fear I’m not doing a good job of protecting you, Anna. But if you run into trouble, you come to me immediately.” Anna agreed although she wasn’t sure what he would do in such a case. “I am constantly praying for your safety, Anna. I could never forgive myself if anything happened to you.” He looked deeply into her face with those compelling green eyes.

“You have come to mean very much to me,” he continued. “I don’t think I want to ever part from you.”

Anna stood back, amazed. “Wha…what do you mean?”

“I apologize for not making myself clear. I’m not very adept at proposing. I know I am a sorry specimen right now, but I’ve been thinking. And I am asking you; would you consider sharing the future with me? As my wife?”

Anna nearly dropped the cup of tea. “But why?” she gasped. Jan proposing? She had come to love him as a brother, but it had hardly crossed her mind to think of him as anything more. She handed Jan the tea and looked at him with concern. He had been quite seasick. Was he feverish, perhaps? His pale face said otherwise, but maybe he drank too much wine. She detected no sign of drunkenness, but what other reasonable explanation could there be for this startling declaration?

“Anna, I know this is sudden,” Jan said. “But believe me, I do not ask this question lightly. I have come to admire your spirit, and I find myself wanting to be with you always.” Jan paused, drawing his reddish eyebrows together in a frown. “I don’t have much to offer you, since the family home in Switzerland has been confiscated, therefore I will understand if you decline on those grounds. All I can offer you is my undying admiration, deep respect and as much protection as I am able. This I give you freely, regardless of what your answer will be.”

“Jan, you are too good. This is an honor I never expected, and I will have to give this some thought.” Ever since she’d become a teen, Anna had felt the pressure from her parents, and society in general, to find someone to marry. Her poor success on that score had convinced her there must be something wrong with her. But now, here was a lovable, generous, honorable man proposing marriage, and she could not believe it. Or accept it. She wanted to say yes. YES, she would marry him, even though he seemed like a brother to her rather than a lover.

Jan was kindness itself, selfless to a fault and she knew he would be true and loyal unto death. What was wrong with her? This is what she had been wishing for, for years. But Jan? In the deepest recesses of her mind, she knew what was wrong with her. There was a man, in a dungeon somewhere, who held her heart captive. A man she might never see again, but as long as he lived, she could not think of marrying another. Not unless he married someone else, then she would have to give him up. A twinge of pain shot through her at this reminder.

Perhaps she should just forget Adriaen and consider this man, the first who ever admitted to admiring her, flaws and all. There was no way of knowing whether she would ever hear anything of Adriaen again, and even if she did, would he marry the woman who had abandoned his children? Besides letting his wife die while she slept. Anna flinched.

Jan was here now and available. Letting her thoughts wander, she wondered what her life would be like if she forgot about Adriaen and settled down somewhere peaceful with Jan. Perhaps a little cottage in a country village with little red-headed boys and girls running around. Children! How she longed for children of her own. It was tempting to accept. Very tempting. Then she sobered. She hadn’t proved capable of being responsible for children, and it was remarkable that anyone was even willing to take a chance on her. Still, Jan had been the one to get her in that mess. Maybe it was him that wasn’t capable. What if, contrary to his words, he left her in the lurch the next time danger threatened?

“Anna, don’t decide now.” Jan’s green gaze seemed to penetrate her very thoughts. “Think about it and pray about it. I will continue to do the same. The Lord’s will be done.”

That was another thing. She didn’t know yet if she ever wanted to be baptized in his faith. It was beginning to make more sense and she was fast losing faith in the Catholic church, the more she heard about their cruel persecutions of innocent people. But become a hated Anabaptist? Live every day in fear? She was in danger now, but the danger would increase tenfold if she were baptized. Even the ones who recanted were still beheaded. She could not do it, not yet.

Yet this was also the problem with waiting for Adriaen. Even if she did miraculously see him again in this life, she had no reason to believe he would see her as someone he could marry. Anna was afraid she was as far from his mind, as he was close to hers. In her impracticable dreams, he would come back, the country would settle down and agree on their religion, and Adriaen would propose to her. They would live somewhere safe where Adriaen could work at his trade of goldsmithing, and she could make his home a loving, welcoming place, and have children of her own. A woman’s life could be a good thing with a good man.

Dreams! That’s all it was. She could not live forever on dreams.

“I will think about it,” she promised as she picked up the empty teacup and headed back up to the galley to more drudgery. Jan would be a man who could make a woman happy. She felt like shaking herself that the idea did not appeal more to her innermost heart.

In the galley, Hans was sitting beside a table, with Cornelia bending over him smearing some strong-smelling concoction on his cheeks. The wounds were no longer runny with fluids, and it looked like Cornelia at least was keeping her end of the bargain.

“So you were baptized a year ago?” she was saying.

“Yes, by Jacob van Campen.”

“I wish it too for myself as soon as possible. Is there anyone in Friesland?”

“Melchior Hoffman might be there. He has baptized hundreds of people. I am sure the Brethren can help you if that is what you desire.”

“I do desire it. Jan has spent many days instructing me, and I am ready to accept the outward confession of the faith.”

“God bless you and give you His peace. I will bear the scars on my cheeks forever, and my two fingers are gone, yet I can feel no shame or regret for taking up the cross of Christ.”

“Is this common, that they brand heretics?”

“In some places, yes. The local government doesn’t want to kill the Anabaptists, but the higher ruling powers force them to do something to protect the land from this ‘heresy’, so they brand us and chop off fingers instead of executing.”

“Will that keep the Emperor happy, though?”

“He decreed execution without trial, but as long as I don’t get caught again, I should be fine. Many magistrates disagree with Charles, but they want to keep their well-paying jobs, so they make it appear like they’re doing their duty. If I’m called on to suffer death for the sake of Christ, I hope to do so joyfully with the crown of Heaven in view, and leave a faithful witness.”

Anna felt a little awkward listening to this conversation. Like she somehow didn’t belong. Lord knew she had heard enough about the Anabaptist faith through the long winter days in Cornelia’s hut. All the words seemed to collect only in her mind, instead of passing on down into her heart. She was interested in the views and angles of the controversy, but could not commit her heart and soul to this faith until she was certain it was the true one. She wanted to become a True Soldier of Christ, but where was the True Army?

She wanted to belong to everybody. She wanted everyone to just come to some solution and agree. Why did one denomination feel the need to kill another just because they interpreted the Bible differently? From what Jan had taught, she believed in ‘Thou should not kill.’ That was something she could agree with, even though it made the Catholics and the Lutherans both wrong. They insisted that they had to keep order in their realms, and wars were necessary to prevent other countries from invading their lands.

What would a world be like where no one killed? It was beyond comprehension. The Old Testament was full of wars and killings, but the Anabaptists believed in the New Testament more than in the old, because Jesus came and showed a better way, the way of love. “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you,” Jesus said.

Anna wondered how one could do that. In some of the booklets the Anabaptists distributed, they even called their persecutors names; the whore of Babylon or the Antichrist. Was that loving your enemies?

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