Authors: G.M. Dyrek
Paulus quickly interrupted, “Only to the Infirmary, my son, where you can learn the healing arts and use the mind God has given you.”
Volmar turned from one man to the other, realizing the enormity of this decision.
“Be off with you, Paulus,” Hugo demanded, giving back the Infirmarian the parchment of agreement. “The Good Lord above knows this is where the boy belongs.” He made no efforts to restrain the triumph in his voice.
Paulus accepted the parchment graciously, and studied the face of Volmar. “Is it your will that I leave?” he asked courteously, “For one so young and talented as you are there will always be conflicting choices.” Paulus himself knew the appeal of many interests. He became a healer at the late age of thirty, having spent most of his youth traversing the world as a traveling scholar. Something too, the Infirmarian failed to consider, was Hugo's obvious affections for the boy. As an orphan himself, Paulus knew the power of such attachments. Wrenching one so young from a secure and predictable environment into one that changed daily, even hourly with the demands of the sick, certainly presented the boy a difficult predicament.
“Thank you, sir, for your offer, I am indeed very grateful, but . . .” Here Volmar's usual eloquence failed him. He searched for the words, turning instinctively to Hugo. Volmar's unspoken feelings communicated his desire to Hugo, his desire to leave the stables for the intoxicating prospect of expanding his knowledge with this learned monk.
Hugo's incomprehension over the boy's changed appearance slowly turned into a burning desire to be rid of his young charge. He finished off the boy's thoughts by saying with a growl, “Be off with you both! But I warn you, child, the enticements of the mind will never replace the euphoria of hard work.”
Hugo stood stoically to one side and let them by, silencing their apologetic whispers with a glare and a mouth shut tight.
Country Road Leading to the Village of Sponheim
of October, Monday, in the Year of Our Lord 1106
Hildegard of Bermersheim tried not to listen to her parents arguing. The opulent carriage lurched to one side and the young girl slid up against its latched door, suddenly feeling the draft of the cool morning seeping through its cracks. She stretched out her hands and closed her eyes, imagining herself as light as a feather and with no strength of her own, being tossed about by the chilled breath of God.
“From the day she was born, we agreed she would be our tithe
to the church,” Sir Hildebert said, staring straight ahead. “I told you not to get so attached,” he added harshly, his square jaw clenched.
Lady Mechtilde of Merxheim's dark eyes flashed with unspoken hostility. “I am her mother. And I remember telling you I would do no such thing!” She wore a wig made from a peasant's hair and, as was her habit, she touched it nervously to make sure it was still in place.
“You have nine other children, woman! Surely you can part with one. Especially one so frail and . . .” he stumbled as if correcting himself, “. . . mystifying.” Cautiously, the old knight eyed his youngest daughter sitting across from him as if he wasn't sure if she deserved his pity or his fear. He loosened his collar and, with unacknowledged discomfort, looked away from her. “Besides, the arrangements have been made. She will be well cared for.”
“Are you sure?” Hildegard's mother said, the doubt in her voice audible. “I've heard tales about this fourteen-year-old companion of hers, Jutta of Sponheim.”
Sir Hildebert gave an exasperated sigh as he knocked his cane against the ceiling, signaling to the driver that he needed to take the curves with less enthusiasm. “Please tell me you're not listening to the servants again.”
“Sometimes I think they have more sense than we do,” she added sullenly, taking the silver filigreed clasp from her silken scarf and pinning it to the cape draped around Hildegard's shoulders.
“I thought I gave that to you on the eve of our wedding,” Sir Hildebert muttered.
“You did. I want our child to have something precious from both of us.”
Sir Hildebert rolled his eyes and grunted, “Humph . . . sentimentality, a woman's frailty.”
“And cold-heartedness, a man's demise,” Lady Mechtilde responded with spite, giving him an incensed glare. She shifted her attentions back to Hildegard. “Poor child, her cape will have to do since we will no longer be responsible for keeping her warm.”
Lady Mechtilde dabbed a stray tear with her handkerchief and turned to stare out the window. “Hildegard is such a sensitive child. I'm afraid Jutta will simply overpower her. I've heard that she has behaved scandalously ever since her father's death. Imagine turning down so many eligible suitors! There's even gossip that she wants her own anchor-hold
, a tomb to live and pray in all the rest of her days.”
Sir Hildebert absently twisted his family's signet
ring on his finger. “Count Meinhard, Jutta's brother, mentioned all this to me. I told you before, Jutta suffered a near fatal illness when she was twelve and promised God that if she lived, she would serve Him as a virgin the rest of her life.”
“Well, she seems quite determined to keep her promise. I've heard they are considering converting the old stables at Disibodenberg monastery into an anchor-hold. I do not approve of my child being
someone else's consolation from Heaven. It sounds so . . .” she frowned, “so cold and lonely.” She gazed longingly at her daughter, who had her eyes closed and was now humming a lilting tune. “You must admit, Hildebert, more than any of our other children, Hildegard is the most precocious. She has a beautiful voice and a clever mind.”
“Yet she possesses a weak constitution, my dear. Hildegard would die trying to give a husband children, unlike our Irmengard or Clementia.
We've gone over this several times. I would rather she be someone else's comfort than our grief. Have you not heard what her own brothers say of her?”
“Must you always speak this way in front of the child?” Lady Mechtilde motioned sympathetically to her eight-year-old daughter sitting across from them.
“Why? She didn't mince her words to them! She told them that they walk with the Devil and warned them that their children will one day turn against them. She didn't even stop there! She said she had a âvision' of them as adults crawling pitifully like spiders into a high stone tower!”
Lady Mechtilde grimaced, “If it was Drutwin and Roricus, I don't doubt it's true,” she said, shaking her head with annoyance. “It would do them some good to listen to their baby sister's warning. You must admit, they do act rashly and are entirely disobedient.”
“Come now, think, woman! We've all witnessed Hildegard's powers of foretelling the future and have heard her communing with the spirit world. It's unnatural! She's unnatural.” He glared across at his own flesh and blood as if she was diseased and now, as a last resort, required amputation. When he looked away, he concluded sharply, “These two young girls will suit one another, whether or not they make their home at Sponheim or Disibodenberg.”
Hildegard stopped humming, suddenly fully aware of her parents' painful attentions. She'd heard enough of her father's reasoning and her mother's pleading to know why they thought she was better off as a ward of the church. She opened her eyes, cupped her hands and blew on them, scattering imaginary seeds, remembering the secret vision she had had of her own future; of her own talents spreading and sprouting new growth that would last beyond her lifetime. She knew not what the seeds represented; only that she was destined to plant them. No, she consoled herself, her parents were both wrong. Her future resided not in their hands, as they thought.
Hillside Overlooking Disibodenberg Monastery
of October, Wednesday, in the Year of Our Lord 1111
Disibodenberg, the Benedictine
monastery, was perched high on a hillside overlooking two rivers, the Nahe and the Glan. There it nestled comfortably in the cold pale sun of the winter morning, between rows and rows of tidy vineyards. Its formidable bell tower stretched upward like a fingernail pointing to God. It could be argued that the monastery was neither fully in this world nor the next, but somewhere in between, keeping a watchful eye on the small bustling village of Staudernheim.
High on an opposing hillside, a lone rider brought his horse to a standstill. Smoke rings escaped from the horse's nostrils as it snorted in protest. Matthias relaxed his grip on the reins. He was in his late thirties, dressed as a gentleman but built like a warrior, tall and deeply tanned with broad, square shoulders.
“There, there, girl, take a rest now,” he said, patting his horse's taut neck. He lowered his eyes, keeping to the shadows at the edge of the forest, and surveyed the crowds gathering below on the grounds outside the monastery for the festival.
He envied them. Like sea waves they could come and go with rhythmic ease. Their movements were simple and purposeful; never calculated or deceptive like his.
Once, he had relished the adventure, the thrill and challenge of living a life on the boundary between the law and the lawless. Now, though, he resented the constant peril he had to endure each day. He had become weary, travel-worn, and lonely.
Matthias stiffened, suddenly hearing a queer noise directly behind him. Between the twisted skeletal arms of a blackthorn's branches, the dark crone of the woods, he caught sight of a bushy whip of a squirrel's tail darting into the safety of a knothole. The nervous squirrel's movements caused more of the blackthorn's dying yellowing leaves to fall helplessly to the ground.
Matthias focused once again on the throngs of moving people below. His extraordinary sixth sense prickled, telling him what his eyes had failed to pick out. His pursuers were near. To him they had a smell, and mysteriouslyâlike a cat known to identify a dying manâhe too, had an enhanced sense of death's threatening gaze and could tell when his life was in danger. “Must it always be a game of predators and prey?” he muttered to his horse.
The black horse snorted impatiently.
“I know, girl,” he said, patting her black mane absently. “I was hoping that our journey would come to its end as well.”
His eyes continued searching, taking in the minute details of each stranger in the long lines awaiting entrance into the monastery and in those erecting tents along the surrounding hillside. He listened as the bells tolled the hour of prayer, Terce,
and knew intimately the learned ritual to this melodic signal. He watched as, one by one, the community of cowled black-robed monks dropped their tools in the fields and solemnly made their way to the cloisters. Even those raking leaves under the orchards had to leave their work to join their holy brothers in worship. It was a comforting ritual he had once observed and delighted in.
It was then that Matthias saw his pursuers galloping up the far hillside, heading to the monastery. An older and younger man dressed pretentiously as gentlemen, both on trained warhorses. There was a distinctive, familiar odor to the lust those two possessed for spilling blood. Together the two riders pushed ahead of the crowd of people and passed effortlessly ahead of everyone else through the porter's arched gate.
Matthias felt exasperated. Now he would have to retreat to the south and return at a later time, after the dismal winter winds and snow had thawed. He knew this was his penitence
He spurred on his horse with the heels of his fine leather boots, thinking bitterly of all the lost years in this chasm of his life. He was a man without a country or a cause, existing alongside the living, but essentially dead. He'd already spied on his younger brother, Amos, who held his estate, his children, andâas he had found out nearly seven years agoâwarmed himself at night lying beside the wife of his youth. Matthias had paid handsomely for a deed committed in the terrors of war and now he longed for release, freedom from the burden and obligation he carried tucked inside his belt.
Infirmary at Disibodenberg Monastery
Harvest Festival, Later That Same Morning
It was effortless, really. From years of practice, Volmar slipped his hand under the cloak of the elderly man and lifted his knife. Its blade was thin, unsheathed and as sharp as an angry woman's tongue.
was bustling with activity. Removed from the main buildings of the monastery, it served the people directly. It was the third day of the harvest festival and practically the entire village was present with some sort of gluttonous
illness or combative complaint. With patience, Volmar settled the old man beside the open hearth on a small pallet, where the roaring fire lent color and warmth to his ashen dampness.