Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death, and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.
St. Dominic, 1221
July 11, 1327. Bonn, Germany
They were surrounded by ten soldiers, led in front by Monsignor Stefan, Peter noted as they exited the palace into the brisk evening air. The soldiers looked to be well-trained, perhaps some of the best of Heinrich’s personal guards. They marched the two of them down a short street and turned down a longer one, apparently going the length of it across the city.
Johann walked beside him, looking deflated and beaten. He watched his own feet as he walked along, no longer sure what to think or do. He kept pace, though, as did Peter–despite the leaden weapon he kept concealed as he walked.
“Out of the way!” cried Stefan firmly to those who came near, which was hardly necessary. People stayed away from them, but at the edges they peered to see the prisoners being marched from the palace through the streets of Bonn. A wild dog came running up, but even it stopped short and circled the group from a distance, barking halfheartedly.
Thick clouds covered the darkening sky like a woolen blanket. As they marched, Peter noticed three guards watching him specifically—they had heard of his resistance at Dungenheim no doubt. They all had swords, but they were sheathed, Only one was within striking range of Peter, to his right. He would have to bring him down quickly then step in front of Johann and into the other two before they could draw their weapons. And when he did so, there would be seven others to contend with immediately. He knew the odds, and God would very much need to be on their side for any escape to work. Of course, his brother was a priest.
The church bells rang. He saw his Johann’s gaze turn back to the clock tower across the street from them now. Peter knew what he was thinking—it was an odd time for church bells, but nonetheless the church doors to their right swung opened and a crowd came pouring out onto the streets.
“It is the feast of St. Benedict,” a loud voice called merrily from the crowd. “The season is upon us!”
What season would begin with the feast of St. Benedict, Peter wondered. He glanced at the man who had proclaimed the message from the church steps. Amidst the dozens of people flowing from the church around them, with Stefan yelling for them to get out of the way, the clamor of the church bells, the loud barking of now a dozen wild dogs, their eyes locked. He knew the man even though he wore no longer wore his hood. The season was upon them. He pulled out the weapon.
Peter saw his brother’s eye’s register shock as he brought down the man next to him with a strong blow to the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Peter strided in front of Johann as the soldiers nearer his brother began to pull their swords. Peter went for the first, he would not be able to reach both. As he slammed into the first, the second was spun by two hounds that had lept onto him. The crowd surrounding them became ever thicker, the night blacker as the noise and bells, yelling and barking grew louder and louder.
Peter turned to see where the other guards were and he could not see them—there were too many people in between. The crowd was like a great wave upon them, he felt himself and saw his brother being swept onto a side street and toward the city gates, their legs barely keeping up with the crush of the crowd pushing them. Right behind him he saw the man who had approached him in the cell, who had given him the weapon, who was helping them escape. He was dressed just like the blackfriar back in the village.
“We are friends,” he could see the the man saying to him.
In front of them, the guards at the gates turned to the approaching crowd. Peter watched them step forward with confidence, then suddenly look behind them in confusion. He couldn’t see what they saw in the midst of all of the chaos, but he kept moving with the crowd, which seemed to encircle them, toward the gates. He glanced back to his left and got a quick glance of one of the women from the village in Dungenheim, he always mixed them up. Hilda? She was dressed as someone who had just left Church, but seemed to having a knowing look, as if she were acting her part in a play. The crowd shifted and he lost sight of her.
“Brother, did you see that?” he yelled. A few of the men around him glanced in his direction, but he had to yell again to get Johann’s attention.
He pointed in the general direction and said “I saw one of the Beguine!”
Johann was even more confused than Peter was being in the middle of the bustle, but Peter saw his brother’s eyes register understanding.
At that point they we rushing out of the main gate and into the open. The crowd kept with them down the road for some time, then rounded a bend and began disappearing into the surrounding woods.
“My name is Brother Wilhelm,” the man who had met Peter in his cell, now next to him, said. “Please follow me, quickly.”
Johann and Peter exchanged the briefest of glances, but showed no hesitation in following this man who clearly had a part in their escape. They turned south into the woods to follow him and some of the others, who had now effectively disappeared from the main road.
“Where are we going,” Johann asked, half out of breath.
“Where they will never look,” Brother Wilhelm replied.
The campfire Brother Wilhelm had lit in the small clearing flickered against the dark woods around them. The three men lay on ground they had cleared around the fire. The stars were barely visible above them, the woods were thick and black in every direction. They had barely spoken, moving for hours, before they stopped to rest. Everyone was tired but no one could sleep after such a day.
Peter had no idea where they were. Somewhere hours south of the walls of Bonn. The people who had come in their general direction when they had left the road had split and split in different directions until they had been only three. He didn’t know if he should feel terror or gratitude, all he knew was that he was exhausted. But one question kept coming back to him.
“Where are you taking us,” he asked Wilhelm.
“I cannot say. I have my instructions. Somewhere close, but safe.” he replied.
“Why did you help us get free?” Peter asked.
“Again, I had my instructions. A great many people want to speak with him,” he nodded toward Johann.
Johann looked mentally and physically exhausted. “Why?”
“Because they believe that the man you saw die was carrying important information. Are you really just a parish priest from Dungenheim?” asked Wilhelm, curious.
“You are not a member of the Order?”
“A Dominican? No. Why do you ask?” Johann replied.
Wilhelm shook his head, half in amusement. “The ways of God are unpredictable.”
“What are you saying?” Peter asked with some force. “What do the Orders have to do with us?”
“A fine question,” Wilhelm replied. “You may know some of this, but there is a man named Meister Eckhart, a teacher of sorts. He has studied, contemplated the mysteries and now he teaches truth. He teaches people about the Kingdom of God, which is within them, as Christ states in the Book of Luke. He teaches that to find God the people must clear a place within. They must find their very souls.”
“He is a Dominican, a blackfriar, and so are you?” Johann asked.
Wilhelm nodded. “St. Dominic, just over a century ago, founded our order as a reaction to a heresy infesting southern France, one that would separate those who believed in it from God. He helped many people. He founded the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans as you say, to do the same. To study, to contemplate and to share what they have learned with the world, in order to bring them closer to God.”
“And,” Peter asked skeptically, “that is what you say this Eckhart is doing? Teaching? If that is all he’s doing, why does he have so many enemies?”
“That is complicated,” Wilhelm said. “Some say that finding God within takes power away from the Church. Some say that he is a heretic. Some say that he is dangerous. These things are not so.”
“I have heard,” Johann said, his voice expressing sorrow, “that he is a heretic. The Archbishop himself said that Eckhart claims before crowds that God is not good, but that he himself is good. How can one claim such a thing and be a teacher?”
Wilhelm shook his head. “Indeed, Meister Eckhart’s words can be confusing at times. He says this, though, only to point out that God is larger than goodness, He is above it, He cannot be good because He is everything. It is a part of what he has learned and taught. It is why he must be allowed to continue his work. Eckhart’s enemies take only part of what he says, they twist his words to deceive people. Indeed, even to deceive Pope John.”
“Why does Archbishop Heinrich dislike him?” Peter asked, skeptical.
“He chooses to see Meister Eckhart as a danger, when this is not so. Much of it is personal, much precedes even the two of them. The great saints Dominic and Francis were holy men, but they shook the Church and its ways. Dominic saw the great need for looking to the mysteries of the faith, and for teaching them to the people so they are not led astray. Francis sought a return to the simplicities—poverty, and thanksgiving for what God has provided. Both saw the need for a return to poverty, both saw the need to go back amongst all the people. As you know the orders that developed from the ancient the Rule of St. Benedict were cloistered, they tried to withdraw from society in order to pray for the world, and worship, the way that the Christ Himself describes when he tells the rich man to sell all he owns and to follow him.”
“I’ve heard that many monasteries are anything but poor,” Peter said with an edge to his voice.
Wilhelm nodded. “Those that withdrew learned the skills necessary to function on their own: farming, leather working, the natural sciences. As the great cities continued to fall, people came to them, seeking prayers, knowledge, support. They did well, and some in the Church did well with them. They all became, in different ways, a part of the system of nobility. That is why, centuries later, Dominic and Francis were so extraordinary. They preached not to stand over the world, and not to retreat from the world as monks, but to go into it as friars, brothers and to help the poor and uneducated. Their friars would earn their living through begging, they would go amongst the people. In these ways they were the same, but their missions were quite different.”
“I don’t care about your missions,” Peter said. “I care about our lives.” He looked irritated. “Tell us why they all are looking for my brother, and how we can put an end to all this.”
Wilhelm nodded slowly in regret for the two brothers. “Pope John has Meister Eckhart. To question him, they say. I think they want him to be branded a heretic, but that is a difficult accusation. Many, perhaps all, believe that the Meister sent a messenger out from Avignon, where he is, for some purpose—to inform us, his brothers, of something important, or perhaps for some other, unknown purpose. Archbishop Heinrich’s men somehow found this messenger along the way and chased him, cutting him, but they could not stop him. Wounded, he struggled only as far as he humanly could.”
“Dying while passing through Dungenheim,” Johann said. “Dying before me.”
“Perhaps. Heinrich apparently thinks he was coming specifically to your village. I believe you, though. I believe he died on his way somewhere else. But he did die before you, and he passed you a message,” Wilhelm said, staring more sternly at Johann than before. “If you pass that message on, I believe you will both be free of this struggle,” he looked to Peter, “and then you can return home.”
Johann looked concerned. Peter’s back stiffened and he turned to Wilhelm, “are you suggesting we are not free now? Are you just another captor?”
Wilhelm laughed in surprise. “You are twice my size Herr Schwall,” he said to Peter. “I merely seek to get the two of you somewhere safe. There is someone who wishes to meet with your brother.”
“There were just a thousand of you, pushing us out of the city,” Peter said with an edge. “Maybe it’s now your order that surrounds us. Perhaps we need to get free of all of you?”
Johann raised his hand to stop them. He could handle no more conflict. “Regardless, Peter, Dungenheim is not safe. I do not feel kept, and we must find safety, which Brother Wilhelm has promised to bring us to. But who wishes to meet me there?”
“If you did not know well of Eckhart, you would not know this person well,” Wilhelm explained. “But there are sometimes saints among us. True friends of God.”
Peter watched his brother’s eyes narrow tightly in the firelight. He knew his brother well. Something in what this Brother Wilhelm had just said had sent a shock through him. A saint among us? What could that mean, Peter asked himself. What does it mean to Johann?
“Hilda, the Beguine, was among you,” Peter said to Wilhelm. “I don’t pretend to know a Francican’s purposes from those of a Dominican, but I was told she was a follower of Francis, and there she was, pushing us out of that down with what were undoubtedly your fellow blackfriars in common clothes. Is she the person you speak of?”
Wilhelm shook his head, “I know no Hilda, and I do not mean her. Still, we have many friends. What I do know with my whole heart is that we must get some sleep, then continue on. Heinrich will not quit his search until he has the information he seeks.”
“Nor will your people, I suspect,” said Peter.
Wilhelm looked at Peter curiously. A tenseness was growing between them. But there was something else in the air. He sensed it before he heard it.
“Quiet!” hissed Wilhelm as his head whipped around to look behind him. He rose to a crouch and crept away from the crackling fire. He returned, came to Johann and whispered to him. Then he turned to Peter. “They are here! We must go!”
The three men rose and ran into the night. After a few steps Peter could barely see Wilhelm, just a few steps in front of him and could not see Johann at all, but Wilhelm moved with urgency—Heinrich’s men were no doubt close. Peter thought he heard horses. He knew from experience that Heinrich’s men would normally move fast with horses, but not much faster then the three of them were moving in a wooded forest.
“We are this moment surrounding this forest! There is no escape from it!”
The voice was undoubtedly Monsignor Stephan, Heinrich’s aide. Peter quickened his pace through the maze of trees as branches, which battered against him as he rushed forward. From the way his voice carried, Stephan seemed to be directly behind them. Wilhelm veered to the right, which Peter barely saw in time through the night, and he followed. He listened for his brother beside him on one side or the other, but there was no way to separate the sounds of the night, and the darkness was near total, with only silhouettes of the trees seconds before he reached them.
He was fit and strong, but he knew he was not quick. He saw Wilhelm getting out in front of him, disappearing into the dark, and he could all but feel them gaining behind him, the glints of their torches visible here and there around him. He needed to either find somewhere to quickly hide and hope they pass without notice, or to quickly turn. But he did not want to risk leaving his brother, and without Wilhelm they would basically be lost in the woods, which seemed endless here. So Wilhelm was in charge. He must be thinking along similar lines, Peter thought, if he was who he said he was.
The flickering torches somewhere behind him glinted off something coming up ahead of them. Wilhelm veered quickly right and seemed to fall to the ground. It was part of an ancient stone fence. Peter flung himself behind it as well. He landed next to Wilhelm and tried to control his breathing, which he knew he could not. He glanced around for his brother, and at the area. It was a small, ruined section of an ancient fence, perhaps Roman, one that was no doubt once strong, but now it was just a squared pile of rocks ready to tumble to the ground. But it was enough for them to duck behind and hope that Stephan and his people rushed passed them, or off another direction. Keeping low but struggling onto his elbows he looked around him a bit more. He could not see Johann near him.
Then he heard them. Dogs.
“Blast,” said Wilhelm, just barely audible.
Peter began the slow scramble back up onto his feet, he ran a few yards, then tripped over a branch on the ground. Wilhelm was right behind him, and fell over Peter. Instantly, they were surrounded. Four, five dogs, well-trained, circled them, barking to their masters but not yet attacking. The riders were quickly behind, too quickly for Peter to even get up again. They had been too close, right behind them at the end.
A moment later Monsignor Stephan rode up to them with a smile.
“Domini canus,” he laughed. “The Hounds of God, yet the Dominicans are revealed by dogs of our own.” He glanced at the scene as more riders surrounded them with their torches. He scowled as he looked around. He pulled the reins of his horse, examining the whole area.
“The village priest, where is he?” he said to his men. He looked to Wilhelm, who shrugged, then to Peter, who could only blankly pant, still trying to get oxygen into his oversized frame. Inside, though, Peter began to panic as well, and he looked around for his brother himself.
Stephan came back to them. “Brother Wilhelm, you were a spy in our very midst. Acting as one of us, but secretly opposing us.” His voice dripped with contempt, bolstered by the failure to find Johann. “We knew there was someone,” he said under his breath and he continued to look around.
Stephan turned to two of the riders near him. “You and you, bring your men and scour the surrounding area. Bring me the priest.”
He turned back to Peter and Wilhelm. “Tell me where he has gone.” It was a demand.
Wilhelm looked up at him. “If I knew, Stephan, I would not tell you. But I cannot say.”
Stephan looked to Peter, then looked around them. He did not seem pleased.
“How can this priest be so elusive?”
“Perhaps God is with him,” Wilhelm responded, half amused, apparently unafraid.
“And perhaps the opposite,” Stephan said. “But whatever the cause, you have had no such luck. The two of you will join the others in the jail, and then we will see what you truly know.”
Peter rose slowly to his feet and looked around again. Johann was nowhere to be found.
Copyright 2013 Patrick Pierce, Traditium.