You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.
St. Hildegard, ~1150
July 14, 1327. North of Dungenheim, Germany.
“Hildegard Maria Schlaf,” said Lily. “I cannot believe you are serious.”
Hilda felt her heart sink a little bit. It had been going like this for hours and hours. There was no explaining to Lily sometimes. But she would not let the frustration show on her face. “They have no reason to think we’re coming back, Sister.”
“Michael said we were not supposed to do this.”
“I know,” Hilda agreed.
“And that Abbot Seuse would not want it done this way.”
“That is true,” Hilda said, not stopping.
“Michael said it was too dangerous, that God would make plain another way.”
Hilda felt her temper rising, and said a silent prayer to take the anger away. She quickened the horse’s pace. “And sometimes action must be taken, instead of waiting. Sometimes we must be instruments of God, not merely ones who wait for Him. Do you not remember, Sister, that Our Lord turned the tables in the temple?”
Lily sped up to stay alongside Hilda. At least she wasn’t stopping, Hilda noticed. “But Archbishop Heinrich’s men will be there. Perhaps Stefan.” Lily said.
Hilda slowed without realizing it. The thought of the archbishop’s henchman weakened her resolve to go on with this. But she began moving at pace once again. It was the only way.
It went quiet again for several minutes.
“It’s quite dangerous,” Lily said, to signal she had not given up.
“It’s true that the roads are dangerous here, Sister. But we left at dawn, and it is nearing dusk. We are almost there.”
Lily quieted again. They rode on for what seemed a long time. The shadows around them grew longer, and the sun edged near the horizon.
“Do you think we’ll make it by nightfall?” Lily asked.
Hilda did not know. “Yes,” she said with confidence.
“Hello,” a booming, boisterous voice said from just up the road, in front of them. They stopped.
“Hello, Father,” Hilda said.
“I was just taking my evening walk. What brings you to Dungenheim?” said the man. The two women didn’t respond right away. “I am Father Ambrose, come from Kaiser’s Esch. I am caring for both parishes while Father Schwall is away. You must be Hilda!”
Hilda realized she had to respond. “I am, Father Ambrose. As you know we live here in town. We have just returned for a few things,” she said.
“Is that so? There was talk that you had gone for good,” he said with a lighthearted tone.
Hilda did not want to deceive the old priest, but she was long past trusting those she did not know well.
“We come and go, Father,” she replied.
“You forgot your statue of Francis,” he said.
Hilda’s mind was reeling. Was he hinting that they were not truly followers of Francis, but rather Dominican? And, for that to matter to him, was he allied in some way himself? Or was he just what he seemed—a pleasant old man greeting people at the edge of town?
“We will retrieve it now,” she replied.
He smiled and nodded, “very well.” He gestured down the road to town, just beyond him. “Do you mind if I stop in to visit you tomorrow?”
Hilda and Lily looked at one another, and Hilda responded courteously, “of course not, Father.”
They trotted past the older priest and continued on to town. So much for not being seen, they both thought.
He had run as long and as hard as he could in the direction Brother Michael had told him to go. There had been no visible moon nor stars to guide him, and the running had eventually been more than he could stand. He had tripped over branches and onto his face, twice. Finally, he had slept in a pile of old leaves and pine needles. He awoke some time in the middle of the night, staring at the blank sky, feeling a muddy mess. Twigs covered him, and aches and pains stabbed at him from all sides.
He had loved the night his whole life, its peace and timelessness. But that was on his own terms. This tortured woods was surely close to Hell, he had thought. Many true and noble scholars described the entrance to purgatory itself as being in such a hopeless place as these woods. The recent works of Dante spoke of a place like this—an entrance in the woods to purgatory. There was nothing to love about this night. Johann wanted to be in his nice little bed in his nice little church more than anything in the world right now.
“If we are separated, you must go to the North, travel for two days and you will find the road to Cologne. My people will find you there. I will watch over your brother Peter, but you must go,” Brother Michael had said. The truth was that Johann had no intention of being separated from Peter, but in all the confusion of being found by the Archbishop’s men, and in all of the darkness, he had no idea where anyone was, and had simply ran. Seeing no one, he had decided to go north, hoping that was the way they would travel as well. But he had seen no one for a day.
He was hungry. He was achy. He had scars from being cut by the branches as he had run. He propped himself up and futilely looked around in the night to see if there was anything he could eat—berries or anything. It was black. There was nothing. He heard a fierce noise.
He looked above and thought he saw the silhouette of a falcon flying above him. It sent a chill down his spine. He refused to consider the ridiculous idea that it might be the Archbishop’s falcon, now reporting back to its master. He had heard tales of witches and spirits that could use or possess animals, make them to their bidding. These were childish thoughts. These forests had falcons, they always had.
Could the Archbishop be in league with evil? Could there be peculiar spirits and influences around him? Might that explain why he seemed to have such a spirit of anger? Or is it because he truly is a man of this world, concerned always about the power and honor, and his title is just an affectation of status, borne only to show he is a prince of the world?
Either way, the Archbishop’s pursuit of a humble parish priest made no sense to Johann. But this was not a time to try to think clearly. He was awash with pains from his aches, from his hunger, and from his head. He heard noises around him. Soft screeches.
He was no longer thinking clearly, he knew it. He began to see a torchlight approaching him through the black woods. “Alpha,” the torchman’s voice rasped from afar. “Omega.” Over and over, it called for the beginning and the end in Greek as it walked almost directly for him. It got louder, “Alpha?” “Omega?” It sounded like a question. Was he dreaming? Was he in purgatory?
When the torchman got closer, he stopped suddenly and got quiet. The torch flickered not far from Johann for what seemed like an hour, but could not have been. Johann knew that he had been seen, or sensed.
“What are you?” the torchman’s voice scratched out into the night air.
“I am a priest,” Johann responded, uncertain how to respond.
The torchman seemed a bit surprised that there had been an answer, a bit less angry. “These woods are dangerous for a priest.”
“Are there thieves?” asked Johann.
“I have fought off far worse than thieves,” said the torchman, who approached slowly. He looked down at Johann on the ground. In the torchlight Johann could see that the man was a towering, rough-looking sort with an unkempt beard and manner. His clothes were old and torn, his skin rough. He looked as if he had been living in these woods for years. His eyes did not wander.
Suddenly Johann shook, an inhuman squeal came from a bush off to his right, joined by another on the other side of him. The torchman didn’t move an inch.
“Alpha. Omega,” he said sternly and the squealing stopped. The bushes rustled and two wild boars emerged and stepped toward the torchman. They all stared at Johann, this unwanted invader into the heart of the forest they seemed be suggesting belonged to them.
“Why is another priest so far from where priests are?” the man said.
“I’m just . . . er . . . another?” asked Johann.
The torchman stared at Johann a while more, then gestured for him to follow. After a short walk they came to a large pile of branches and leaves. The torchman tossed them aside, then reached down and pulled back a piece of leather. Beneath it, barely buried in the earth, was a body. Johann looked back at the torchman in shock.
“This was a priest?” he fumbled into his pockets, which were empty, and began his prayers for the dead.
“He was dressed as one,” he responded, pulling the torch toward the body so Johann could see. “I have already prayed for his soul.”
Johann looked back at the torchman briefly, then the smell from the body reached him. His stomach turned.
“An older man to be in such a hurry on horseback,” the torchman continued.
Johann didn’t know how to respond. The nausea was overwhelming. He couldn’t speak. But he couldn’t turn from the grim site. And why did this man think he could offer final prayers in place of a priest. For all Johann knew this torchman had killed the priest for his horse.
“There’s a word for priests dressed like that,” the torchman rasped as he knelt next to the body, bringing the torch even closer. “I couldn’t spend enough time with God among people, but since leaving them I’ve forgotten so much.”
Johann couldn’t take his eyes off the body now that the light was so close. He forgot everything else and just looked for a long time. “There is a special word,” he finally replied. “They are called blackfriars.”
The sun was just rising, but there was just enough light to do what they needed to do. Hilda walked one side of the road, Lily the other, both staring at the ground. They had to wait for the darkness, but too much and they wouldn’t be able to see in front of them.
Hilda felt herself hurrying, her mind wandering, but tried to force herself to focus. Something had to be here, she had agreed with Michael. The messenger had not come all the way from France in order to tell the village priest that he was a member of the Friends of God. While not widely known, certainly enough people, friend or foe, knew of the group the Friends of God. It only made sense that the friar must have been carrying something. Something he wanted delivered to them.
It was not widely known that Hilda and her sisters were members. Only a handful of the Dominican hierarchy in the region knew all of the members. This friar she had never met. But he came straight to the village where she and her sisters were at, and he had died here.
Perhaps he was only passing through, she thought. Perhaps it was chance. But it didn’t feel that way. Michael had told her where the body had been, information he said he had learned from Peter. The thought was that the blackfriar, as they now called him, may have tossed some small object aside as his attackers caught up with him. She and Lily had been sent to find out.
She glanced across the dark road to Lily, who was searching that side. They dared not raise their voices to one another. One would come to the other if they found anything. Hilda pulled apart some tall grasses, but nothing was there. She kept looking. They were slowly moving from the spot in front of Peter’s house and toward the Church.
Hilda continued in a pattern the shape of a tight Z, scanning the ground, worrying about the rapidly dwindling sunlight. Her thoughts turned to Lily. She worried about her. She had asked so many questions about where Father Schwall might be. They were all concerned, but Lily seemed so worried. She was a sensitive soul, much like the Father himself. Hilda had seen more of the world than Lily—the brutality of it, disease and the way human beings treated each other.
In the distance she heard an ox grumbling—in Peter’s barn. Her thoughts turned to Thomas Aquinas, the big dumb ox, his detractors called him. He had wanted to be a Dominican but his parents wanted no part of the new Franciscans or Dominicans, the beggars who lived in the world. Much more prestigious would have been an abbot with the Benedictines or Augustinians, prospering in some town, looked upon for knowledge and wisdom. And Aquinas had become a Dominican friar and a great genius.
The world was changing around them because of the friars efforts. It was slowly returning to caring about the poor as the Lord had done. But people must understand the faith to practice the faith. There were so many heresies threatening to drag people off, away from the path of salvation. People claiming Jesus was not begotten of God, people claiming that only the next life mattered, and not what they did in this one, people claiming that this world was all that there was. To lead others to burn was the worst of crimes. People must be taught and told, not to left with the idea that poverty was sacred and all else profane, but rather taught the full message of the Gospels so they know how to stay on the path on their own. God’s friends must be caring, must be tolerant, must see things always with God’s eye and not their own. What was needed was not merely a poverty of physical items and wealth, but a poverty of soul, a willingness to empty yourself of yourself so that God could fill you.
Hilda heard a noise like brushed grass and glanced over to Lily. Lily, she could see through the darkness, was looking back at her. It wasn’t Lily who had made the noise.
“Hello again,” said Father Ambrose, from the edge of the street, nearest the Church.
“Good evening, Father,” a startled Hilda replied.
“What an odd activity for this time of the day, are you looking for something,” he said, clearly amused.
“Just looking for something we may have dropped, Father.”
“On the roadside?”
Father Ambrose’s hand went up and dangling from it was a small leather pouch.
“Something like this?” he asked with a smile.
Peter stood chained to the wall. next to Brother Michael as Monsignor Stefan came through the metal door of the large cellar. They were in the lowest level of the Archbishop’s residence in Bonn. The stone walls blocked out day and night, and the dance of the flames from the torches on the wall provided the only light. The air they breathed was thick and cold.
Stefan looked grim, coming into the room. “We know who you are now,” he said, looking at neither of them. His eyes were fixed on the ground in front of him, as if he were trying to control himself. He walked slowly along the long wall in front of them. His voice was steady despite the emotion boiling just below the surface. “It took some time. I had to speak to a number of people. I had to put a brother at risk, luckily he has come back to us safely. But we know.”
Stefan was dressed differently now. Peter didn’t know the name of all of the vestments, but instead of religious clothing, Stefan was wearing a simple, faded tunic—white with specks of red that might once have been an image, but might have been blood. A sword hung at his side. The sword was not a simple one, he could tell even in this light, it seemed solid and ornate, with a large ruby reflecting torchlight from its place at the base of the sword’s handle. Hints of red light from the ruby followed Stefan on the floor below him.
If it the specks on his tunic were blood from people Stefan had questioned before then his saying that he knew who Peter was was all the more chilling. Peter was a farmer from a dusty little village, and they had him confused with some heretic. They thought he belonged to a monastic order. They thought he had secrets when he had none. In truth, he could barely tell one of these orders from another, and he certainly had no place in his heart for any. He didn’t even know enough about his own faith to be a heretic. He only truly knew the earth and what he could build with his hands.
“To have you in our midst, to treat you as one of us for so long—disgust right now rips at my very being,” Stefan went on. “You were treated as one of us, all along you were a betrayer.”
Peter turned to Michael, chained to the wall next to him. The Monsignor was clearly talking about this man, who had helped them escape. Looking at Michael now in the torchlight, he somehow looked different. He seemed older, more worn. The energy was drained from his face. Any joy he held was gone. He no doubt knew the fate the two of them were facing better than Peter did. The look of Michael now sent ice down Peter’s spine. It was not fear, though. Just the look of a man who knew too well what was coming.
Michael glared across the room. “And does your lord know who you are Stefan?” Michael struck back, his anger evident.
Stefan’s eyes finally raised from the floor, the two men stared across the room at one another.
Michael continued: “Your supposed ordination does not wash away the treason and the sin, Monsignor. I know the treacherous knights of your sort. I know all about them. Your leaders did not all simply sail away. Some kept behind and melted in, changed their shape. But your soul you cannot change.”
Stefan’s eyes were like granite, his thoughts couldn’t be read, nor did Peter want to know them. After a moment Stefan responded.
“He knows. We are all without our masks this day, we are revealed. We all have our pasts. But I am not the one in chains,” he hissed. “And, whatever my past, I have less blood on my hands than you and your kind. You, who have sent my brothers to death. Were it up to me, I would execute judgment on you this very moment.”
“You feign loyalty when there is none of it in you, templar.” Michael said with contempt. “You have been judged and found wanting, and scurried off to a new master. You have no brothers. You are no Franciscan.”
The flames danced in Stefan’s eyes and he looked at Michael. “We all rely upon forgiveness and mercy, Michael. You will need both, very soon.” Stefan then looked to Peter.
“And you,” Stefan said. “You are not as mindless and as you appear. Your sympathies for the heretic, your place in their plots is what? To hide them? To spread the lies? To what extent are you and your fowl little village complicit in this pagan cult that worships puts itself above God?” He gestured to Michael. “We will find out, and we will send you and your friend here meet your creator.”
Peter stood, his mouth agape, unsure of what to say.
Stefan stared at Peter, seeing his confusion. “If you are just muscle for them, just a pawn, you may not know the awful things that you are complicit in. But you are complicit nonetheless. We will find out and your sins will be known, Peter Schwall.
Stefan looked back to Michael. “Michael of Cologne, as we know you now,” he said, “you and your associate stand accused of heresy. Before we can execute you, your heresy will be confirmed at an inquest, where you will undoubtedly be treated more fairly than you have treated others.”
Michael looked resolute, he knew what had been coming. Peter looked confused at the whole exchange. Stefan looked to Peter.
“You do not know this man as he really is, do you?” he asked Peter, gesturing again to Brother Michael. He studied Peter’s face. “I believe that much. Well then, know now: This humble Brother Michael who aided your escape is instead Inquisitor Michael of Cologne. One of the feared Dominicans who travels the land sitting in judgment of others’ alleged heresies. He has been a spy, a rat, amongst us. But it is time that his actions, and yours, be judged.”
Stefan’s stern face melted slowly into a smile.
Copyright 2013 Patrick Pierce, Traditium.