The First Chapter

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The First Chapter from The Countess’ Captive

28 March 1248

Passing clouds of smoke roll through Hay Market. By now, the flames smolder, lapping at the blackened, brittle skeleton of Cologne’s famous cathedral. Soon, nothing but cinders will be left of her. May the flakes of ash roll past the glass windows of our overreaching archbishop’s palace, so he can see them for what I hope they are: the remnants of his power flitting away like snowflakes on a frigid gust.

Father and I wait in his harlot’s halted carriage in front of the White Stag, only a few blocks from the cathedral’s remains. I hold my sleeve to my nose to keep the ashes from my throat and close the shutters to keep the smoke from slithering in, but that confines the noxious cloud. Father shoves open the shutters, his deep–set eyes narrow at me.

How long will it take him to forgive me?

Truly, it is he who should seek forgiveness, not I.

Sneaking out of my room worried him, and finding me in Ivo’s arms enraged him. But I did not betray him. Not like he betrayed Mama and me. The way I found Father and Galadriel, my mother’s cousin, ten days ago is etched on the back of my eyelids. Her head on his bare shoulders. The silhouette of their unclothed bodies beneath the blankets. The stupid grin on her harlot face.

Another cloud of smoke rolls in, and I cough. “Must we sit here and wait?” I ask.

The smoky breeze jostles Father’s black hair. He says nothing and peers through a slit in the shutters, inhaling the smoke as though he isn’t bothered. The set in his jaw tells me otherwise.

“This smoke will be the death of us. We should head to the fields,” I argue. “The air will be clearer there.

And I might see Ivo. My Ivo. One last time before we go.

My thoughts shift to last night, our first night alone. I breathe in, embracing the scent of smoke filling our carriage, for that aroma was so heavy in his white–blond hair.

I close my eyes tightly, summoning memories. His lips arc into a boyish grin, pushing up his cheeks so lines fan his blue eyes, deep–set and large. A curtain of hair falls into his gaze, and with a toss of his head, the silvery strands flit away. With it comes that Ivo look: so mischievous and playful.

”One horse is not enough to pull four people, a carriage, and our trunks.” Galadriel’s impatient explanation jolts me into the present. “We need another. The beast should have been here before Prime.”

The fire has everyone out of sorts. Who knows if this horseman will even show? “Are you sure this horseman hasn’t run off with your gilder?” I droll.

“I retained the horse with a groschen. The rest of his payment shall come when the horse is delivered. Really, Adelaide,” she sighs. “It is only a little smoke.”

I hope he has run off with your groschen, I think. Hatred surges through my veins, a river of molten iron.

Another cloud of smoke rolls in. Father coughs, and my breath catches—like it does now anytime anyone coughs. A cough: that is the first sign of the fever. The fear passes as the haze rolls by, and Father’s cough subsides. My anxieties shift back to anger.

He bedded her, too, I think. The thought is far more painful. I expected better from Father. I hardly know Galadriel.

It is easier to hate her. He’s the only parent I have left, and a part of me fears that ill–thoughts of him are as poisonous as ill–wishes. No matter how angered I am with Father, I love him and couldn’t bare for the fever to claim him like it did Mama—and thousands of others in Cologne.

An eerie quiet encompasses the market. The clomping of hooves against hardened earth breaks the silence, growing louder with each step. A horse whinnies, and two men exchange greetings. The door flies open, and the carriage driver peaks in. “The horse arrives, milady. Is this the one you want?” He brushes his wiry, black and silver hair from his sooty forehead.

Galadriel peers through the opened shutter. “Yes. Give the man his coin, strap up the beast, and let us go.”

The man nods and shuts the door. The tug of the horses surges the carriage forward.

My stomach clenches as we turn onto Filzengraben, passing what was once my home. The door hangs crookedly from a single hinge. A charred circle marks the spot where our every possession was burned. I swallow hard, and my gaze averts to Father, hoping for a wince, a flicker of pain in his iron eyes, any reaction rather than an empty stare.

A torrent of memories race through my mind: Mama slipping next to me between the blankets of my bed ready with a myriad of stories to lull me into dreams. Father hunching over a table littered with leather scraps and half–made turn shoes, chiding my sloppy stitching. The flitting of fireflies in glass jars, which mysteriously managed to find their way to my bedside table on hot summer nights.

Father snaps the shutters closed, jarring me into the present.

The carriage turns onto Severin Strasse, mere blocks from the gate. Over the crunching of carriage wheels onto stone and hooves against dirt, I hear voices shout in the distance. One familiar and one not.

“What’d I do? Nothin’! That’s what I done,” Gregor defends. His cries cut sharply through our silence. My breath catches.

Oh God, please let this be nothing. Please let this be two worthless drunkards pestering Gregor and nothing else. Please let this have nothing to do with last night.

“Look, gatekeeper, there. There is a divot in the cutters,” a deep voice notes with authority. “How did it get there?”

I bite my lip to keep from cursing.

This has everything to do with last night, everything to do with me.

“You’re arrestin me for havin’ a divot in my cutters!” Gregor exclaims.

The breath escapes me. Gregor shall surely be thrown in the North Tower for this, for me, for my carelessness. Lunging forward, I stick my head out the window. Father yanks me by the surcote, and I fall onto the seat. His unforgiving glare burns, and I look away.

I am no longer in the carriage, but kneeling on the cold, puddled stone floor of the North Tower. Shrieks of tortured men pierce my ears, and I try not to imagine what horrors they endure, but I cannot help it no matter how tightly I close my eyes, how tightly I cover my ears. I envision Gregor upon the wrack, the shrieks coming from him. His face contorts with confusion and terror as he gapes upon a masked man and a table of tools designed by the devil himself, constructed for one purpose: torture.

What must I do? How can I fix this? Do I confess and save him?

I can’t go back to the stocks! I can’t.

But if the archbishop finds out what I did, I can forget the stocks. Last night I freed a heretic. The archbishop hangs and burns heretics. What will he do to someone who frees them? I imagine the punishment for heretics and their liberators is the same.

On the stake, flames engulf the flesh, crawling up the legs like a thousand thrashing leather whips. Suffocating, by noose or smoke, would be the best for which I could hope.

The arguments from the gate grow louder.

“That’s Gregor.” Father peeks through the open shutters. “What would the guards want with him?”

I swallow hard. Each roll of the carriage wheel is another moment lost. Gregor may not have many left.

But would my confession serve enough to save him? The archbishop might still torture him for a false confession and burn him anyway. My fingers grip the edge of the seat like the ledge of a tall building, letting go will likely lead to a horrible death. What is the sense in us both suffering such a fate? My resolve withers at the thought, but I shake this coward’s rationale from my head, take a deep breath, and pounce for the door.

Someone grabs me by the arm and reels me back. I fall hard on the carriage floor. “What do you know of this?” Father looms above me.

I avert my gaze. Should I tell him?

“Adelaide!”

“I freed Elias last night…and I used Gregor’s cutters to do it.”

“Stop the carriage!” Father barks.

The carriage halts abruptly, rocking Galadriel and Father forward.

“How am I to fix this, Adelaide?” Silence lingers between us, for I haven’t an answer he’ll accept. He snatches me up by the collar. “Answer me, girl.” The heat of his scream scalds the side of my face, and I brace for his strike.

It doesn’t come.

I peel one eye open and then the other. Galadriel’s hand rests lightly upon Father’s arm, the arm that holds me in a steel grip.

Her voice, thin as a whisper, says, “I know what to do.”

Father’s grip lightens, and I slip to the ground. “Wait.” His angry gaze darts to me for a moment. Then, his face falls. “She is my daughter. She is my responsibility.”

She grasps the sides of Father’s face, her pretty blue eyes catching his gaze. “Ansel, look at me. I am a countess. They shall listen to me, and if not–” She looks down, her full lips curling into a girlish grin. “Well, there is nothing in this world that coin cannot buy.”

She rises, knocking on the carriage to summon the driver. She takes a deep breath and straightens her back. The door opens, and she ducks out. The driver holds out his hand, and she takes it like a queen. I push my back against the seat and watch her through a slit in the shutter from the safety of a carriage.

“You should have come to me,” Father hisses.

“You were angry with me.” A weak defense.

“I am still angry with you! You do not think. Of course, Konrad would have his guards searching Airsbach for the culprit. It is where he thought this rebellion started. How could you not have thought of that?” He shakes his head. “Freeing Elias was a selfish and reckless thing to do.”

“Selfish?! I saved a man’s life and risked my own to do it.”

“You saved yourself from a guilty conscience. By saving Elias from the stocks, you’ve sent him to the stake, and you may send Gregor with him.”

Galadriel saves him as we speak, I think, but the words are too bitter to speak.

“What if we parted earlier or later, Adelaide?” Father continues. “Do you think the archbishop will be a forgiving man today, after his cathedral has burned?”

“No,” I reply.

“What do you think would have happened if those guards had already arrested Gregor?” he asks. “Let me tell you. Gregor would be in the North Tower right now. Konrad would have him tortured. If Gregor yielded, then there’d be a bounty on your head. If Gregor did not, then Konrad would burn him at the stake. Did you think of that?

“No, you didn’t,” he continues before I have chance to speak. “And Elias, he shall never yield, Adelaide. He’s a heretic according to every law. He’ll die a heretic’s death, taking any followers, any associates with him. He’ll not think twice for doing so. The man believes himself a martyr.”

“You didn’t see him last night. So many days in the stocks would make any man cautious,” I say.

“Did so many days in the stocks make you cautious?”

His words plant seeds of doubt.

Elias might never cease. My fingers rush to my lips, stifling a gasp. Ivo! I’ve asked Elias to teach Ivo to read and write. If Father speaks the truth, then I’ve put Ivo in danger. The screams from the North Tower echo in my mind again. The groans, the wails, the begging, the pleading that I’d heard less than a week ago, come from Ivo. My Ivo.

“You have no mind for these ventures, Adelaide,” Father chides, and I concede with a shameful nod. “You are a woman and have a woman’s mind. You too often forget that.”

The sting of his words barely register. Ivo. I have to warn him.

I turn my gaze to the outside of the carriage. Galadriel’s flaxen hair, made wavy by last night’s plait, ripples in the wind. Her cloak blows aside, revealing the subtle curve of her hips, her chest. The larger of the two guards catches sight of her. His eyes widen, and he nudges the shorter man next to him. Surely it’s not every day a lady speaks with them and certainly none so beautiful as Galadriel.

“I wish to leave, and yet the gate is blocked,” Galadriel coldly notes.

The shorter guard bows quickly, his mop of mousy curls falling into his eyes. His larger counterpart clumsily follows, strands of his thinning, fox–colored hair sliding out of place.

“Sorry, milady,” apologizes the smaller, mousy–haired guard, his Roman nose bobbing with each word. “We must arrest the gatekeeper. Come now.” The larger man shoves Gregor forward.

“But I ain’t done nothin’ wrong. Lady—”

“What has he done?” Galadriel interrupts, widening her eyes in warning, before Gregor reveals that he knows her. Turning to the larger guard, she rests her hand on his arm. His cheeks flush nearly as red as his hair. The small guard’s face twists with jealousy. “Is he a thief?”

“I ain’t no thief,” Gregor croaks, choking on anger.

Galadriel retracts her hand, crossing her arms. “Then what is the matter here? What has he done? Why is the gate blocked? Why can I not pass?” She fires the questions like arrows.

Galadriel’s expectant gaze darts from one guard to the other as though the one to answer her question will appease her anger, perhaps even win her affections. She wields power and feminine wiles like a blacksmith wields his hammer. These poor fools are the molten iron, and she’ll bend them to her will.

The fox–haired oaf leans close to Galadriel. “We are not supposed to tell our orders, milady.”

The shorter man flashes him a look as sharp as swords and gruffly gestures for the oaf to come along. “It is no worry of yours, milady.” He puffs out his chest. “We have our man now, and he shan’t be bothering you or anyone else.”

The oaf shoves Gregor forward, and Gregor’s gaze shoots to Galadriel: desperate, horrified, helpless.

“Well, my interest is peaked now,” she says. “What could this feeble, old man have done to warrant two strong guards hauling him away?”

“We have orders from the archbishop himself to keep our mission a secret, milady,” the shorter man says. “We are a part of his personal guard—”

“Konrad gives your orders?”

“Yes, milady, the archbishop.”

“I assure you that Konrad and I are good friends. I know him very well,” she lies. Insinuation drips from her words. “Did you not see me at his side at the hanging of the priest Soren and his bastard? Who do you think convinced him to be so severe?” Both guards faces pale. Galadriel’s eyes rove them with faint disgust. “At my whisper, I can have your jobs. Perhaps even more than that.”

“Please, milady,” stammers the red–head, his panicked gaze darting from Galadriel to his friend.

“The heretic escaped last night,” confesses the shorter guard. “Someone freed him. Cut the lock right off the stocks.”

“God in Heaven!” Galadriel breathes, crossing herself. “First the cathedral and now this. The devil’s work indeed!”

“Not the devil, milady,” the shorter man points to Gregor. “The gatekeeper.”

Galadriel feigns confusion.

The short guard holds up the cutters, sliding his fingers along a small gap. “He used the cutters to break the lock. You can see the divot left from the lock right there.”

Galadriel laughs aloud. “This feeble old man broke through an iron lock?” The guards share confused looks. “A good jest. I may be a woman, but I am not a fool.”

A shadow darkens the shorter guards face. “It is no jest, milady.”

“It must be. Look at his hands. They’re as twisted as a lady’s plaits.”

The men’s gazes dart to Gregor’s rheumatic hands. Gregor crosses his arms, hiding his mangled fingers.

Galadriel feigns an amused smile. “Old man,” she calls.

“Yes, milady.”

“Take the cutters.”

“But…”

“Do it,” she barks.

Gregor’s face falls. “Yes, milady.”

The oaf holds out the cutters, and Gregor takes them clumsily, putting them beneath the pit of his arm.

Galadriel motions to the rope that opens the gate. “Now cut the rope.”

“Milady…” he pleads.

Galadriel widens her eyes in warning.

Gregor approaches the gate with a heavy sigh. He struggles to grasp the cutters with his rheumatic fingers, dropping them twice. When he finally gets them within his grasp, he clamps down, shaking in an effort to cut a rope as thick as my forearm. He drops the cutters again and curses beneath his breath.

Galadriel allows him a few more attempts before she approaches the rope, sliding her slender fingers along the strands. “He has not cut a single thread!” she concludes. Gregor’s shoulders fall. “And you two assume that this man could cut through an iron lock!? And with these cutters? Why they are nearly rusted through.” The smaller man’s face contorts. “Now, give me those cutters, gatekeeper,” Galadriel orders again. After a few attempts, he picks them up and hands them to her. “And you come here.” She summons the oaf. “Take this, and get this man a sharp pair of cutters so that if he needs them, he can use them. It is the least you can do after the fright you have given him.”

Galadriel places two silver coins in his pudgy palm. It is more than enough to purchase good cutters and many flagons of good wine. The oaf’s red eyebrows rise as he salivates over the groschens. Even the smaller man’s face softens as he looks into his friend’s palm before taking the coins from his hand. Galadriel turns to the carriage, and at once her regal face pales, revealing the fear she hid so well.

The shorter man bounces the coins in his hands. “What’s this gatekeeper to you?” he asks, and Galadriel halts. “Why do you care what happens to him?” Her face darkens and eyes narrow, fear boiling into rage.

She turns on her heel and makes short work of the space between them. The guards’ eyes widen with fright. “How dare you address me so informally?!” she growls, shaking the cutters at him. “How dare you question me?! Who do you think you are?!” Then she rounds on the oaf who nearly cowers, though Galadriel is only two–thirds his height. “What is his name?” Galadriel demands of the oaf, pointing the cutters at the smaller man. He looks frightfully, pitifully to his friend. “Tell me, or I shall report you both to Konrad!”

The short man falls to his knees. “My apologies, milady. It is no business of mine. Have mercy, please.”

“It is too late for your apologies,” she hisses. “But now I should like to answer your question. This gatekeeper is no one to me, but to someone he is everything, and for that, he deserves protection from those who can give it, from men like you. As a guard, is it not your job to protect the people of this great city? Is it not your job to protect us from the heretic on the loose? And yet, here you stand, ready to send an obviously innocent man to torture and death. So it is either that you are lazy or stupid, and I have not yet figured out which, but I do know that Konrad deserves better guards than you to protect his city. That I do know.”

“Please, milady. Have mercy.” He grasps Galadriel’s hand, but she rips it from him. “I have children to feed. My wife died of the fever, and they only have me to care for them.”

“A desperate lie, I am sure.”

“It’s true, milady, I swear it,” the man says. Galadriel looks to the oaf who vouches for his friend with a sad nod.

“I shall have to think upon it. It is for the greater good of Cologne to have better guards, even if your children do starve.”

“I shall be a better guard. I swear it.”

“If I come back and find this man has been harassed, if I find his cutters have not been replaced, then I know you by sight, and I swear that I shall have more than your jobs.”

“Yes, milady,” the men stammer, their voices overlapping. “Thank you, milady.”

She shoos them with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Now go. Catch this heretic and fetch cutters for this man.”

The men run past our carriage toward Hay Market. Galadriel stays with Gregor, his face the portrait of shame. She puts her hand in his, sliding her perfect fingers along his gnarled ones. They whisper quietly. Gregor’s lips purse, and he nods as she talks, surely explaining that she never meant to insult him, only to save him, save him from my folly. His gaze moves to the carriage, and he tips his head in greeting to us. The undeserved forgiveness only makes my guilt heavier.

I owe him more than an apology, but since that is all I have to offer, I would like to give it. “Papa…” I start, but his fierce gaze silences me. I look down. “I would like to apologize…to Gregor.”

“No. You can bear the burden of your guilt in silence. I won’t have you risking us all to ease it.”

The door opens, and Galadriel’s shaky hand grips the driver’s. Her face whitens, and she collapses into her seat, shivering. She drops the cutters on the floor of the carriage and pounds on the wall, signaling the driver to leave in great haste.

Father unties his cloak and wraps it around her. “Are you all right?”

Her hand shakes as she clutches her chest. Sweat glistens on her forehead. She nods. “Do you think they believed me? Do you think Gregor is saved?”

Father points to the cutters on the floor. “They gave you the only evidence against him.”

Galadriel’s chest heaves with a great breath, and she sighs. “As long as Hochstaden doesn’t find out…”

She drops her twitching hands between her knees. The droplets upon her forehead swell, her face pales unnaturally, and I could have predicted the faint before it came. Her eyes roll, and she folds, falling upon the floor of the carriage. Father jumps to catch her.

She lies limp in his arms. “Galadriel!” He shakes her shoulders. “Galadriel!”

I drop to the floor, untie the cloak, and open the shutters. Now that we are out of the city, the air is clean and brisk.

Her eyelids flutter, and a sigh slips between her lips. Her eyes dart around the carriage, looking lost. Her gaze finds Father’s, and she smiles like a lovesick fool. Father folds his lips. The furrow in his brow melts away.

Will he look at her the same way she looks at him: like some lovesick fool?

He doesn’t. And I think he could never love her like he loved Mama. The thought warms me like strong wine.

Father helps Galadriel into her seat, and rather than sit beside me, he joins her on the other side of the carriage. My taste of triumph turns quickly bitter.

Serfs and villeins solemnly make their way through the light smoke to the fields. Ivo. I must warn him. I can’t let Elias get to him. I won’t see Ivo punished like a heretic. I peer out the left window. Many of the workers sew while others still plow.

How many furlongs are we from the Bauer’s fields? I wonder, biting my lip. The heat of a stare bores into my cheek. I look up. Father watches my bouncing knee. His narrowed gaze darts from my face to the left window and back to my face again. Sometimes I think he can read my thoughts—though he only bothers himself when it’s most inconvenient.

I still myself and gaze out the right window instead, an effort to ease Father’s suspicion. We’ve passed the Bauer’s fields by now. But by how much?

I slide near the door and feign sleep, resting my head against the shift Ivo brought me days ago. It is the only reminder I have of my mother. The rest of them were burned in the street. I breathe in. The fabric still smells like lavender, still smells like her. A snore jostles me from thought.

Father’s eyelids bounce, and his head nods forward. I watch. He is just barely asleep. Barely will have to be good enough.

I bunch a length of skirt in my hand and lip a silent prayer before taking a deep breath and plunging through the door.

My feet sink into the earth, but I spring up quickly. Father’s angry shout cuts through the snap of whips cracking at oxen. I pick up my skirts as I dart forward, dashing into the fields, heading toward the city wall. I run, but the space between us narrows. Father hollers after me again, his furious voice growing louder, closer. My legs burn, but fear churns them harder, faster. I look to either side, scanning the fields for Ivo’s silhouette, unable to find it.

”Ivo!” I cry. ”Ivo!”

But it isn’t Ivo I see. It is his father, Erik. His red hair beams like a lantern a few furlongs ahead.

“Erik!” I call, pushing my legs harder.

I feel the breeze of Papa’s hand as it swipes past my shoulder, and I cry out. I open my mouth to yell out for Erik again, but my toe catches on a jagged rock, and I gasp instead.

I catch the sight of the stone just as the ground comes up to meet me. I shield my face, bracing for the fall. The crack of my skull against the rock sounds before the searing pain registers. I roll to my side with a moan. The cold ground embraces me as the darkness takes me away.

***

A great crowd swarms Hay Market. Why? Why are so many people here? Smoke slinks heavily between their feet, and the fumes fill my nose. I put my hand to my face and cough.

It is a dark, starless night, but a rich fiery light flickers off the sides of the throng of blank faces, each staring in the same direction.

“What’s happening?” I nudge the moon–faced boy beside me, but he does not move. His eyes do not flinch at my touch.

What is everyone looking at? I push up on the tops of my toes. A thousand heads block the view, fading into the smoke.

A thought warns me: Turn around. Go home. I shake the words from my head and surge forward.

I shimmy through the crowd, gently at first, excusing myself. No one moves aside. No one complains. No one acknowledges me at all. They are as stubborn and stupid as cattle. I push harder, shoving old ladies and burghers’ wives. And strangely, no one chides my ill manners.

Smoke thickens, and I put my sleeve to my mouth and nose to filter the stench. The rich smoke reeks of burning flesh—like a hundred pigs cooked far too long over the spit. A gag rises in the back of my throat, and I turn my back to the cloud, hoping to catch clean air.

I expect to look upon a sea of faces, but all I see are the backs of heads again. I whirl around, and the same sight is before me. Fear and foreboding push the hairs up on my arms and neck.

I push on—faster now—making my way through the crowd, jumping up to see my progress. The throng extends into the horizon still, as far as my eyes can see, vanishing into a wall of smoke. I charge through the throng at a run, shouldering through them, holding one hand to my mouth to muffle the smoke. The silence is menacing. I run faster and harder until I unexpectedly, suddenly break through. I am falling.

I land in the downy plume with a swoosh. It puffs up in a large splash, shooting up a thousand fireflies with it. They scatter into the darkness as the feathery substance snows down. I hold out my hand and capture a few flakes, rubbing the warm snow between my fingers, turning it to powder. I place the powder to my nose, inhaling its smoky odor.

Ashes.

I am swimming in ashes.

The smell of burning flesh fills my nostrils again. A chill rides up my spine, and I jump up, brushing the ashes from the bottoms of my sleeve, my chainse. These aren’t the cinders of timbers. They are the cinders of people.

The roar of fire, and the flicker of flames forces my gaze up.

I see a boy, almost a man, tied to a stake. His head bows. His legs are withered, wrinkled, black. I hope the smoke has killed him, that he no longer suffers. A breeze blows the smoke toward me. I keel over, gagging at the stench. The wind turns, and I compose myself, drinking clean air in gulps.

“Addie,” someone whispers, and I look up. The boy on the stake is still. “Addie,” it hisses again menacingly. I turn in every direction, looking for the whisperer. A firefly streaks by my face, and I swat at it.

I hear my name again and again as a swarm builds, encircling me. I crouch and cover my ears, readying myself for what I know they shall call me, but their buzz fades. I peel open an eyelid. They spiral the stake, a glimmering eddy of eerie green–gold.

 WEAK! WEAK! WEAK!!! They chant louder and louder, pounding like the beat of a drum. One fly breaks from his swarm and lands on my shoulder. I swat him, and he whirls around, landing on the other side. “You cannot save him,” it whispers and giggles shrilly.

I shudder and look up.

This is no stranger on the pyre.

“No, no, no!” I race to the pyre, looking up into Ivo’s unconscious, sooty face. The heat is is a wall. It’s crackle: a roar that drowns out the chanting flies. I grab for the pyre, but my hands ignite with pain. I look around for something I can use to squelch the flames, but there is nothing. No water, nothing, but an ocean of ashes.

The straw at the base crumbles, barely more than embers and cinders. The fire laps at Ivo’s chest and face, climbing far beyond my reach. Tears roll down my burning cheeks as I undo my belt, tear off my surcote, and use it to beat back the blaze.

I swat at the flames, but they grow higher, swallowing my surcote. It is no use.

Weak! Weak! Weak! WEAK! They chant, and they’re right. I crouch to the ground, trembling with heavy sobs. I cover my nose, muffling the awful stench. I seal my eyes tightly, hoping if I can make it dark enough, I won’t see the horrific image behind my eyelids every time I blink. And just as I think things couldn’t possibly be more horrid, a ghastly shriek pierces the chanting, followed by a wail of pain.

I am falling.

***

“Ivo!” I cry out, jerking upright. I look around through foggy eyes at unfamiliar surroundings. The floor rises and drops below me. My vision clears.

I am on the floor of the carriage. It was just a dream, a nightmare. Ivo is safe—for now.

Father sits ambivalently before me on the bench in the carriage. Galadriel sits, with a furrowed brow, beside me on the floor. I wipe sweaty tangles from my temples and skim a large bump on my forehead. A streak of pain stabs down my face, and I flinch. Memories return to me in a rush, and I quickly recall falling into the outcrop of stone near the Bauer’s field outside the city walls. And, that is all. I do not recall warning Ivo.

“We must go back!” I expect a scowl from Father, but he doesn’t regard me at all. His elbow rests upon the sill of the window, and he stares outside. “Please, Papa,” I beg and grasp for the arm nearest me, but he whips it out of reach.

“Do not ask a thing of me.” His lip curls. “If your lips continue to move, you shall find yourself in a convent where they can be put to good use.”

“But, Papa!”

He shoots me a glare of warning. I snap my mouth shut.

Galadriel’s dress shuffles as she rises to her seat, brushing her skirt to straighten them with one hand, holding a cobblestone in the other. I gaze upon her looking for pity, for help, but she quickly shifts her eyes. She shall be no help to me.

I take my seat beside Galadriel. She hands me the cobblestone. I roll it around in my hands, examining it for evidence of its importance. I look to her quizzically, but she gazes forward. I nudge her, but she does not move.

I lean in close to her ear. “What is this?” I whisper as lowly as possible.

“A stone,” she whispers even lower.

“I know it is a stone. Why do you give it to me?”

Her eyes widen in warning. “It’s from your mother’s grave. Now hush before you upset him further.”

Mama’s grave. My stomach sinks. In my worry for Ivo, I hadn’t thought of missing the chance to say parting words at her grave. Who knows when I shall see it again?

My fingers spread along the cool surface of the stone, and I close my eyes, conjuring Mama’s wide smile, soft, mousy hair, and mahogany eyes. The memory withers, and her warm skin pales to gray, her lively eyes cloud over. The image of her death mask tears at my insides. I shake away the thought, the feeling of pain that is now synonymous with her.

The stone is heavy in my hands. Why would Galadriel do me such a kindness? Galadriel looks out the window upon the forest. Perhaps, the stone is an olive branch. Perhaps, she wants to make peace. She tried to save us from the stocks, and when we were freed, she gave us shelter. She risked herself to save Gregor, and now she thought to save this stone for me.

My hatred for her melts, emptying a spot for guilt to fill. I shake the moods from my head. Mama’s spot in the bed was hardly cold when Galadriel weaseled her way into it, I remind myself. Galadriel usurped my mother’s place and not a fortnight after her death. They were cousins, and she betrayed her. Any fondness I have for Galadriel is a betrayal, too.

Even if this weren’t so, I cannot allow Galadriel’s few kind deeds to deter me from getting back to Cologne, and I have more pressing matters to attend to. I shall have time to change Father’s mind about Bitsch, even if it is a week after we arrive. But my time to warn Ivo wears thinner with each turn of the carriage wheel.

I cannot send a letter directly to Ivo, for he may go out in search of Elias to read it for him. Perhaps, I should send the letter to Elias, voiding our deal, telling him he need not tutor Ivo and should, instead, flee for his own safety. Of course, I cannot address it to him, for he is a wanted man, and if the archbishop’s guards hunted down Gregor within a half–day, surely the archbishop would be motivated to put out a reward for Elias’s capture.

I could address the letter to my room at The White Stag, where Elias shall stay again tonight, but by the time the letter reaches Cologne, Elias shall have left it. My only option seems to address the letter to Brother John who performed Mama’s good funeral. Surely he can find Ivo and warn him against any contact with Elias.

***

We passed the end of the world or at least the end of the world as I knew it. The trees loom close, blotting out the sun. According to Mama’s tales a forest was a place as ominous as night, filled with wolves and witches, devils and brigands—and we haven’t a defense against any of them. The silence is disturbing, but not so disturbing as when something stirs. The shutters give the same false safety as a blanket gives a child frightened by shadows, but I keep them closed none–the–less. I’m not sure if the hours spin fast or slow, though I’d guess the latter. Without a sun rolling across the sky or bells tolling for masses, it’s hard to tell.

By the time the forest clears into rolling hills, I venture to push the shutters open. A creek rambles alongside us, weaving its way into an ever–widening river. The sun begins its descent. Slices of silver dance across the peaks of the small river waves. The air is clear here, but cold. If I take too sharp a breath, the chill burns my nose.

“We shall be in Oppenheim just before Compline,” Galadriel announces, her face lighting with child–like excitement as she reaches across me to pull the shutters closed. Father gives her a quizzical look. “The view from the south of the city is far better than it is from the north,” she explains. “I want you to be surprised.”

My stomach rolls as the carriage twists and turns, rises and falls, along this meandering, hilly road that skirts Oppenheim. I take a slow breath to ease the nausea. That only makes matters worse. The soft perfume of forest has faded, giving way to the less forgiving scents of a city: refuse, manure, and hearth smoke. Bleating rings close, and I peek through a shutter slit. A shepherd in rough homespun and a tawny skullcap steers his flock of sheep through a treeless field.

He veers north, and we crest another high hill. The river’s splashings soften to a brook’s babblings. Galadriel leans over me and throws open the shutters.

The view would be breathtaking—if I cared to see it. Oppenheim’s hill is crowned with a great stone castle, banners of the onyx eagle flapping over its towers. Each level below is older, less arranged. Wide, tree–lined streets halo stone manors and a half–built cathedral. If I close my eyes and listen close, I can hear the song of chisels on stone. Galadriel says the unfinished church will be dedicated to Saint Catherine. Below this the streets narrow, wandering into alleys that twist around timbered inns, merchants’ stands, cloisters, and monasteries. In their shadows hide the taverns, brothels, and hovels.

We added an hour to our journey just for this eagle’s nest view. If I was a willing traveler, say a girl on pilgrimage, it would have been worth it. But I’m not. This city, which I must sadly admit is far, far fairer than Cologne, elicits no excitement, no wonder. Sometimes I think my heart has grown hard as stone. I am not yet sure if that’s a good thing or not.

“It is beautiful, is it not?” Galadriel prods.

I wait for Father to say something, but he looks to me. Now he wants me to speak? I bite my tongue out of spite alone.

This heartbeat of silence quickly snuffs Galadriel’s excitement.

Father clears his throat. “It is the finest city I’ve seen in all my days.”

Father’s pleasantries are too late. The air in the carriage hangs heavy with her disappointment. Did she really think we’d be happy? That a pretty view would make us forget all we’d lost? If anything, it serves as a reminder. My eyes roam the city, catching on places similar to Cologne’s Hay Market, Cologne’s Gilded Gopher, Cologne’s City Hall. I brace for a grief that doesn’t come. It seems I am just as numb to sadness as I am to joy.

The rushing of water grows loud as we near the Rhine Gate. A hundred boats, from trading galleys to fishing vessels, lie empty along the great river’s shore. The gate to the city lies open before us. From inside the walls, this city looks much more like Cologne, except there are no carts filled with the dead, and I recall, no large pits outside the city walls to dump them in. The fever has passed this city. I gape out the windows, finally finding a child–like awe.

“There’s no fever here,” I stammer, and look to Galadriel. She brightens at my happy expression. “And the people are cleaner and dressed in finer clothes. Is everyone in this city a burgher?”

“Burgmannen,” she says.

“What are burgmannen?”

“The lord here has no real power. Galadriel points to a man in a scarlet surcote with well–crafted boots and a fine woolen mantle. “He pays the burgmannen to protect him from invasion and to stay loyal to him. Oppenheim is a Free Imperial City, you know,” she adds. “It was a See of the Church before, but now it belongs to the people.”

A free city? A city for the people? Could the same ever happen for Cologne? ”How did they did they make such a thing happen?”

She shrugs her shoulders in reply.

The carriage stops at another tattered inn such as The White Stag, but at least it is finer than the Gilded Gopher. The driver’s feet fall into the hard ground with a thud, and he shuffles to the door. He holds out his hand to Galadriel and tips his head in obeisance. “My lady,” he says, but she shushes him.

“I am a burgher’s wife tonight,” she whispers, and I cringe at the thought.

“Well, neither of you is dressed for that title, milady,” he notes.

She looks down at her fine clothes and then back to Father, in his rough woolen chainse and surcote. “Yes, I suppose you are right. Well, I doubt I shall be seen by anyone who knows me in this place.”

So she keeps us in these lowly establishments on purpose. God forbid she would run into anyone from her station gallivanting with a shoemaker and his orphan.

She places two groschens in his hand. “Here, after you’ve taken in my trunk, find a warm bed and an even warmer girl to keep you for the next two nights. Be ready to depart the following dawn.”

He bows and dashes to the back of the carriage, lugging her trunk through the door. I barely have my feet planted before he jumps back onto the carriage, whips the horses, and disappears into the city.

Galadriel rushes to her room and changes into something a little more common. We eat in a dark corner of the tavern in near silence, and I excuse myself for bed to keep my wicked tongue from saying something that might force Father to make good on his threat.

I lay upon the bed, staring at the ceiling, looking for patterns in the wood like Ivo and I once used to do when staring at clouds. Father’s familiar gait sounds up the stairs, followed by a softer saunter. A hinge wines, and the door to the room next to mine shuts with a clap. How can he share a room with her? I huff and rise from the bed.

At least they’re out of the tavern.

 

 

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