—– Chapter V —–
Bent low in his saddle, the inquisitor felt old – as if the full weight of his 50-some years were collectively bearing down upon his shoulders. Having passed Jenbach a couple of hours ago, he knew they were getting close to Innsbruck. They were winding their way through the final stages of the Brenner Pass, and the weather could not have been more perfect. Rich sunlight blanketed the emerald green grasses of the meadows, and a light, cool breeze rustled through the flanking tree lines, preventing the riders from overheating. Small homesteads dotted the vista in front of the them, bucolic farms full of healthy-looking crops and well-fed cattle.
But inside Kramer was racked with turbulent emotion, a noxious collection of unbalanced humors. Once again, he had been weak, incapable, helpless, hopeless. His impotence addled him, consumed him, threatened him with inertia. Where the future should have been there was nothing but night.
A few paces back, Aldo rode in silence. Although he appeared physically unburdened, the younger man’s face was set in a rigid mold of grim resolve. Both wanted nothing more than to be off the road, as it had been a hard and brutal journey.
Kramer still couldn’t believe what had transpired at the falls. After the young child had disappeared over the water’s crest, the inquisitor had turned to face the other boys who had come rushing to his side with tears in their eyes. A hot flash ripped through him, and his hand snapped forward, colliding with the rosy cheek of the closest boy and sending him tumbling to the wet earth that covered the riverbank.
“You killed him,” he snarled at the children, advancing threateningly in their direction. The boys turned to run into the forest, but he was upon them in an instant. He raised his hand to strike additional blows, but Aldo intervened, grabbing his arm and throwing him back in the opposite direction.
“What are you doing?!” screamed Kramer, shocked at Aldo’s surprise action, slipping and nearly falling to the ground. The boys scampered into the underbrush, melting into the trees. Aldo stood staring at the falls, stoically observing the gathering mist, unmoved by the thundering of the surf or the child that had gone over it.
“They killed that child!”
“He fell in.”
“He fell in.”
“You’re wrong. I saw it.
“My lord, you saw what you wanted to see. The boy had a misstep. Nothing more.”
Those words continued to ring in Kramer’s ears as they crossed through the pass, reverberating internally and threatening what he considered sacred. He tried to push past the thoughts, refocusing on what remained of their journey.
The two men cantered through the grass, brushing past endless fields of lilies and fording myriad small streams. But they continued to ride quietly, hardly looking at each other, merely following the route that had been mutually agreed upon. At about midday they stopped for a small repast of bread and cheese before continuing onward until shortly past sundown. While making camp, Kramer could sense that Aldo wanted to say something to break the tension, that he desired to move past the horror at the falls; but no words came. They merely sat in silence once their camp was established, staring at the fire until bedding down for a night of uneasy sleep.
On his sweat-soaked bedroll, Kramer tossed and turned, his rest marred by disturbing visions. He saw cities of the dead, gigantic facades that towered above him like mountainous charnel houses. He witnessed a sky riddled with holes, atmospheric abrasions exposing the world to terrors from above. He passed people who had been grievously injured, men whose midsections dripped with blood. Then the dream peaked and Kramer cried out, waking with a start in a grove that was thunderingly quiet.
The next day, the silence between Aldo and Kramer continued as before, the only sound being the clomp of hooves and the whistle of the wind through the trees.
“How much further?” the inquisitor finally said wearily.
“Just a few miles more,” came Aldo’s halting response.
The younger man dug in his heels and urged his steed forward, eventually drawing parallel to Kramer’s Arendeel.
“My lord,” the man began slowly, laboriously, as if searching for the right words.
“I do not wish to speak of it.”
“What happened to the child was not your fault. It just happened.”
“Be silent!” the inquisitor cried, suddenly choking back emotion, his hands flying upward in a way he hated.
Aldo shrank slightly in his saddle, dropping back behind Kramer. As he disappeared from his line of sight, the inquisitor’s body felt cold and empty, as if someone had scraped out his innards. Still, there was truth in the old adage. Misery did love company, and as much as he may hate to admit it, it was nice to feel less alone.
“I can’t believe that, Aldo,” the inquisitor finally said, slumping further in his saddle. “I won’t believe it.”
The pair moved single file through the land, fording the Vomper Bach and galloping through the market town of Wattens without a second glance. Drawing closer to Innsbruck, Kramer noticed a significant change in the agrarian landscape. The plots of land on either side of the road were no longer the cheery, pastoral farms they had seen earlier on the journey. What had once been common was now enclosed, filling Kramer with a rash of conflicting emotions.
It wasn’t until they reached the outskirts of Innsbruck itself that Kramer spoke again, articulating each word slowly and with great effort.
“All things work according to God’s will. Remember that. Nothing just happens. Not even death.”
“Of course, my lord,” Aldo replied wearily, knowing better than to engage when the monk was in one of his moods.
“You don’t believe me. But it’s true. Let me give you an example. Do you know of Salimbene de Adam?”
“Not personally, no.”
“Of course you don’t. Salimbene was a great historian, and he wrote once of a terrible accident that occurred many years ago in the town of Pisa. A large crowd had gathered in a square to watch a great bell being hung. But as it was at last being lifted off its platform, the rope snapped and the bell fell into the crowd, landing on and severing the foot of a young man. And can you think of why such a thing might have happened to someone so seemingly innocent?”
“And can’t imagine.”
“That same young man had once kicked his father with the exact same foot. He had dishonored his father. He was not so innocent as he appeared.”
“That’s justice. That is our Father.”
“That sounds like a madman.”
“Careful Aldo,” said the monk, grimacing as he spoke. “Don’t mistake our friendship as unfettered license.”
Kramer urged Arendeel onward, desperate to put the trip behind him. The journey had done nothing except reinforce his thinking, both for the state of the world and the fickle nature of those supposedly committed to confronting it. It was clear that Aldo’s statement had shaken him. Fighting against its implications had been his life’s work. And such an endeavor had not been without consequence. His commitment to orthodoxy had often made him a pariah; he had never been fully accepted into the communal brotherhood of Dominicans. Similarly, his work had always been met with at best ambivalence and at worst hostility. Even when existing at the center of the church’s power, he always felt like an outsider – the only one unwilling to give ample quarter to heretics or engage in flagrant half-measures.
“Do you expect us to be here long?” Aldo said at last, once again drawing even with the inquisitor.
“I expect so. This town is teeming with maleficence.”
“And will the local clergy support us?”
“They don’t have much of a choice now do they? We have the blessing of Rome.”
“If I can, my lord, this is not Rome.”
At the corners of his mouth, the monk’s lips twitched upward, forming what could only be charitably described as a ghost of a smile.
“No, I don’t suppose it is.”
But then the traces of the smile disappeared, extinguished by some unseen force. Aldo noticed it and shrank away, and Heinrich seemed to fold into himself, as if such levity needed to be compensated for by increased self-recrimination. On some level Heinrich knew that this reaction was unwise and unnecessary, but even still, there was nothing that could ultimately lessen the heaviness in his heart.
He wrestled himself free of such thoughts. Self-possession was key to the task at hand. The world was sinful, and the weak, immoral and licentious deserved what was coming to them. Nothing would prevent that. He had been sanctioned by the pontiff himself.
“How are you planning to begin proceedings?”
“How we always have. We collect accusations; we conduct interviews.”
“But you will move cautiously?”
“Aldo, are you doubting my abilities?”
“Of course not. But remember Strub?” said Aldo with a wiry and tentative grin. “We don’t want to upset the townsfolk do we?”
The monk turned and looked at his bodyguard, his face an unreadable mask.
His eyes then flicked away. A faint smile traced away itself across his face before he clapped his heels onto Ardendeel’s flanks.
The horse and rider shot ahead, and Aldo followed carefully behind them. They wound their way through the city’s narrow streets and byways, their steeds’ hooves clomping against the cobblestones with a cold, crisp clatter. Aldo watched the monk closely. It had been an age since he last worried about Kramer so much. His unhinged behavior at the falls had been disturbing, its intensity made all the more visceral due to it being just the latest in a long series of similar incidents.
He had always thought the old man was eccentric but certainly not dangerous. And his association with him had, up to a point, always been advantageous. Aldo had rarely gone so much as a day without a full stomach and a flushed purse, a claim he could have never made prior to their meeting in the Forest of Sasso Fratino all those years ago. But things were changing, Aldo himself was changing. The roiled populaces, the hostile clerics, the forced and speedy departures had begun to wear on him. Despite being nearly 20 years younger than Kramer, Aldo felt as if they were, in a sense, contemporaries.
The two men pulled their respective horses to a halt in-front of a large, stately building that housed their quarters. The priest and his servant then separated. Aldo jumped down from the saddle and took hold of both sets of reins, leading the horses to their stalls before joining the servants for their evening meal. After dinner, he returned to the stables, ensuring that the horses were watered and fed before taking up a post near the building’s entrance to smoke his pipe and watch the stars. From this position, he could see Kramer’s quarters, and when squinting, he could even spy the inquisitor moving tirelessly back-and-forth across the arched window of his study.
The night wore on and the Aldo felt himself grow weary. Despite his best intentions, he nodded off, his head supported by the heavy oak beams that constituted the side of the stables, mouth agape and gasping like a dying trout. In his dream, he walked along shiny cobblestoned lanes of a city that he had never seen before. On his side, the town rose above him, following the gradual incline of the ground, running up against a series of stark and craggy peaks. Winding its way through the cityscape, frothing, spewing and pounding with indescribable force, was one of the most beautiful waterfalls Aldo had ever encountered. He continued walking, marveling at the homes and buildings, which were each immaculately crafted with a jaw-dropping array of brick and pewter, glass and iron. Ornate ringlets of metal were seamlessly interwoven into the facades, running continuously across circular windows and knitting together jewel-like cogs and gears that clicked and clacked in circular unison.
Aldo woke with a start, nearly falling off the bale of hay on which he was resting. Looking up, he could see the light go out in the windows of Kramer’s quarters. He got to his feet and crossed from the stables to the central house, cracking the door open and stepping inside. The halls were faintly lit with rows of low-burning candles, and there was not a soul in sight. Making his way toward the monk’s rooms before stopping short. The priest must have already retired, and that last thing Aldo wanted was to disturb him. After several days of sleeping out on the open road together, he knew that Kramer experiencing a full night’s rest was a rarity indeed.
He turned sharply but then noticed that the entrance was ajar on Kramer’s study, which was connected to his bedchambers by a side door. Raw curiosity moved him, and and he moved forward and slipped inside.
Aldo was struck by the richness of the room’s many tapestries, not to mention the immensity of the room’s hearth. Personal papers were washed across the multiple desks, as if the contents of Kramer’s own mind had been emptied throughout the room. The papers were covered with the tight scrawl of the monk’s handwriting, which listed a dizzying array of names – records of infractions and maleficence, accusations and rebuttals. Noting that a huge swath of the names listed in the records were female, Aldo felt himself once again possessed by that cold, sick feeling at the pit of his stomach.
He had hoped that, with the introduction of papal bull, Kramer’s antipathy, his raging discomfort might begin to dissipate. No longer would he need to be at war with the world, the world that – up until recently – had never understood his quest to bring about a better form of life. But what was in front of him spoke to a preoccupied mind, to obsessions elemental in nature. But then the papers shifted. Aldo came across a series of documents filled with images he knew well. There was no mistaking Catherine of Siena. The ecclesiastical euphoria, the strident benediction were inimitable. He had seen Kramer pay tribute to the saint before. The sight filled him with a sense that he could only describe as peace, the knowledge that everything was still under at least tenuous control.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Aldo left the room, extinguishing one of the few candles that remained alight, plunging the study into near total darkness. He quietly exited the manor’s house, circling around to the servant quarters where he fell into a dreamless sleep. From the little Kramer had shared with Aldo, the younger man knew that the monk had recently come to see Siena as a testament to female virtue, whose goodness was reflected in her marriage to the church and the church alone. And it was in this worshipful devotion to Siena that Aldo’s hope for Kramer rested. He saw her centrality in his religious life as a sign of budding moderation, of nascent sensitivity for the weaker sex. Kramer’s antipathy toward women had been one of the compromising factors to their work, a vengeful attitude that frequently led to them ruffling the wrong feathers.
But Aldo had not entered the priest’s bedroom, for if he had, he would have seen a different image, a contrasting picture that would have peeled away his newfound serenity as a hunter skins freshly-killed game. What he would have seen was the inquisitor lying his bed, features faintly lit in the silvery moonlight. And he would have seen the monk’s old bible perched open on top of his thin, wizened chest, its gnarled pages open to Exodus 22:18: a terse command and long-cherished passage.
“Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.”
Seeing such a thing would have disillusioned Aldo, confirming, once again, Kramer’s broken nature. Aldo was no friend to women, considering them tedious bores capable of providing merely an occasional stray pleasure, but he was savvy enough to see that the world was changing, transitioning from one stage to the next. What lay ahead was unclear, but it was not mere darkness, shapeless and unreachable. The story was there, even if its specific words had not yet been written.