Authors: G.M. Dyrek
“Had he eaten anything out of the ordinary?” Paulus asked, interrupting her story.
“We always ate better when we were in a town. In the woods, we kept to nuts and berries. I got really worried when Grandda couldn't get up and ended up soiling himself. The demon inside him kept cursing. The noise must have alerted a stranger sleeping in a nearby clearing. Grandda would have surely died had it not been for this stranger. He cured him.”
“A stranger cured him?” Volmar looked up from his writing.
“The stranger was dressed like a gentleman and never told me his name. I-I'm not sure what he did except he took from his bag a smaller bag made of what appeared to be oiled wool and drew from it a small object wrapped in leather. He told me to pray with him as he held it over Grandda's chest. The next morning, I woke up and the stranger was gone and Grandda was himself again.”
Paulus spoke carefully. “Remarkable, truly a miracle. I'd like to meet this stranger.”
“Me too,” Volmar said, wondering what sort of object would have such amazing healing powers.
Paulus toyed with his beard, thinking through all the old man's symptoms and the miraculous healing. “So for three months your grandfather was well. What ails him now?”
“We found work nearby in Staudernheim repairing the piers on the stone bridge. Late yesterday evening he fell from some scaffolding and injured his head on the rocks below along the river's bank. He doesn't remember how long he was lying there. He was fine at first; but this morning he woke and started talking like when that old devil came to him during that night in the clearing.”
Paulus's eyebrows knitted together with worry. “I see.” He lifted the hair on the back of Silas's head and only then noticed the raised bump. “A nasty bump, there's likely to be bleeding inside his brain. I've had some success with rosemary, though. It increases the circulation to the brain and might help. I will prepare your Grandda a tonic right away to ease the confusion and the swelling.” Paulus turned to Volmar. “Why don't you take our young guest to the kitchens down the hill and find her something to eat while I work? She will need her strength, now more than ever, for what lies ahead.”
He placed a hand on his young apprentice's shoulder, and added firmly, “Afterwards, Volmar, take a rest before Vespers
. I will too, once I give the old man a tonic and see to his feet. You too, my dear Sophie,” he said, turning to her, “may find rest upstairs in the women's quarters. I'm sure your grandfather will want you nearby.”
Outer Court of Disibodenberg Monastery
Harvest Festival, Late Morning
Outside a cool mist rose and hung like melancholy in the air, refusing to leave as Sophie and Volmar walked downhill on the outer court of the monastery. Sophie slipped her small hand into Volmar's. He was unaccustomed to such signs of childish affection and held it limply, unsure of how he should react.
Suddenly, from around the corner and further down the cobblestone road, there were the unmistakable sounds of a whip being snapped and several horses snorting in protest. Moments later, there were hoofs charging towards them, barely visible in the heavy fog. Volmar abruptly lifted Sophie into his arms and held her flat against the stone wall of the Infirmary, protecting her from the elegant carriage that sped by, barely missing them.
As the carriage blew past them, Volmar detected a hint of perfume that, to his knowledge, only women of high birth wore and saw from the family's crest mounted on its door that it was in fact, the Count's
carriage. For days, the Count's upcoming visit had been the talk of all the holy brothers. Truly, the most intriguing part of the gossip was not the Count himself, but his beautiful sister who deliberately wanted to forgo all her riches and princely offers of marriage to become a recluse, a humble anchoress at their monastery.
Volmar sat Sophie down, making a mental note to seek out Brother Johannes later. As the head custodian for the monastery, he was privy to the entire goings on of the monastery and would likely know the truth behind this noble family's intrusion.
Unimpressed by the entire ordeal, Sophie dusted off her skirts, which were already crumpled and faded from too many scrubbings, saying nothing as the two continued to make their way down the cobbled road towards the open-air kitchens. As they turned the corner leading there, the distinctive clanking of chisels against rock could be clearly heard, their rhythmic sound reverberating through the courtyard as steady as drumbeats. Sophie cocked her head to one side and asked, “Are they adding a wing to the church?”
Volmar gave a light laugh as he paused by the worksite. “They haven't stopped adding on to the sanctuary since I've been here. This time, though, work is underway in transforming one of the old stables into an Anchorage. If you can imagine, it's to be seventy-five feet long, with two rooms, a stone fireplace, and a walled-in garden.”
Sophie stood very still, her gaze bright and sharp, clearly entranced by the workmen. “My Grandda was a stonecarver and a mason, too,” she said, speaking with pride. “For several years he worked on the capitals
of the portal facing the market for Saint Martin's Cathedral in Mainz. He would use the knife you took from him to carve models in wood late at night beside the fire, so he'd have a guide when he'd chisel the stone. When his hands started shaking, I would carve for him. He taught me all that he knew. I completed the face of the angel to the right side of the Holy Throne of Christ on the portico.”
“I suppose your Grandfather was asked to leave when they found out the deception,” Volmar said, completing her thoughts.
Sophie nodded. And then she added quite wistfully, a secret dream. “One day, I'll show them, I'll carve the most beautiful scenes illustrating the Stations of the Cross.”
“That would be a masterpiece,” Volmar said, staring with respect at the child's hands, tanned and calloused against the soft supple leather of her purse. He'd heard that there were craftswomen who worked tirelessly on the grand cathedrals, but one so young? “Surely you have other family?”
“No, no, not anymore. That's why Grandda and I left Cologne.” Sophie cast her eyes downward. “My mother died having me, and my father went off to war in the Holy Land and never came back. When Grandda started showing signs of his advancing age, he thought it best for me to go and live with my mother's sister and . . .” she added sheepishly, “learn the ways of womenfolk.”
Volmar gave Sophie a look of mild surprise. “Did she not take you in?”
“Her husband refused, and she couldn't go against his wishes. She had four children of her own to care for and feed anyway so there wasn't any room for me. Grandda and I stayed one night and were told to leave the next morning.” Sophie added with an edge of sarcasm, “Can't blame my uncle, really. After all, look at me. I'm a girl. To marry me off, they'll need a dowry
Sophie's thoughts were cut off abruptly when a cat suddenly jumped down from the roof drains, landing effortlessly in front of the two young people. The creature rubbed up against Volmar's leg, purring. The young monk bent down to pet its soft fur. “Hey, time for another meal, hmm, Samson?”
Sophie moved forward and cautiously stroked the cat's gray back and upright tail. “Samson? What an unusual name.”
“Samson showed up at the monastery seven years ago missing an ear and with a dreadful gaping wound on his thigh. I had to shave most of his fur off to apply the sage ointment suggested by Brother Paulus. He looked so pitiful without his hair, so he was named Samson.”
“I thought it was forbidden for monks to have pets.”
“True. We are prohibited from indulging in such worldly pursuits. However, Samson takes care of the rats that eat our stored grains and the voles that plague the gardens of Brother Albertus. Everyone gives him scraps to show their appreciation, so he's quite well-fed and essentially belongs to all of us.”
Thomas, the head mason's red-headed son and apprentice, approached the two from the building site of the Anchorage. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve, unknowingly smearing more mud and mortar across his face. Volmar knew of him, and was always a little wary of his unpredictability. He had the reputation of being both intense and temperamental, the kind of boy who remedied his boredom through arguments. “Couldn't help but overhear the story this girl told you, Volmar,” he said, turning his back on Sophie in further insult. “You can't possibly believe that she was allowed to work on a cathedral.”
Volmar nodded to Sophie. “I believe her, Thomas. Sophie's grandfather was a stonemason in Mainz.” Volmar realized almost immediately that he should have kept out of this, for Sophie was perfectly capable of holding her own against this young man's condescending attitude.
Sophie turned to Thomas skeptically. “I don't see how you can use up all that mortar you've mixed. We were never allowed to be so wasteful. You'll still have more than half of it left over after you finish your courses of stone.”
“Clever little runt, aren't you?” Thomas said, crossing his arms and leaning up against a pillar. He was actually smiling at her, his teeth surprisingly white despite his worn appearance.
“A runt is a small dog or cat and, in case you haven't noticed, I am neither.” Sophie stuck out her tongue at him, lifted her skirts and took off down the hill towards the kitchens.
Volmar inclined his head towards Thomas, who apparently didn't seem to mind being made a fool of. Maybe, the young monk reasoned, the apprentice was grateful to meet a worthy opponent.
Open Dining Hall at Disibodenberg Monastery
Harvest Festival, Late Morning
The smell of warming bread quickened Sophie's steps, and soon she was running ahead of both Samson and Volmar as she hastened to get in line behind several other road-weary travelers.
The dining hall near the open kitchens of the monastery was practically full to capacity. Visitors from all over the region were milling in and out due to the festival and were grateful for the charitable hospitality. Volmar took pleasure in studying those around him and reading their lives in their faces. It did him good to hear laughter and to listen to children crying around him out of greed, not pain. These were mostly peasants from neighboring villages, he judged, mingling with a few merchants smelling of exotic spices and carrying colorful caged birds.
Volmar blessed Sophie's food before sitting silently across from her at the long trestle table. He watched her in amazement as she devoured
several bowls of lentil soup and endless slices of thick horse bread, dark and heavily seeded with whole grains.
“This is so much better than rye bread,” she said between mouthfuls. “I can't stand the taste of rye, it's too sour.” Obviously Sophie had not had any food for days. She ate nearly half of the five-pound loaf before slowing down.
Volmar's thoughts drifted as he watched her eat. With a bit of washing up, Volmar mused to himself, Sophie would probably look something like Anya would have had she lived. It wasn't often he would indulge in such memories, and he let his mind leisurely wander back into the past. Anya and Sophie would be about the same age now and, he reflected, would probably possess the same resilient temperament.
Volmar was jarred from his thoughts as a small commotion started to erupt near the entrance. Two high-born men in navy velvet tunics, black silk tights, and high leather riding boots had stormed into the kitchen's open-air dining area, reeking of ale. They were darker-skinned, tanned, Volmar guessed, by a stronger Middle Eastern sun. The men were dressed as gentlemen, possessing all the signs of returning Crusaders
The young monk watched as the two men glared out across the dining hall, walking purposefully up and down the rows of tables, clearly looking for someone in particular. One by one their stares silenced the room. By the time they reached Volmar's table, the young monk could clearly see their disappointment. One of the men, the older and more muscular one with a short wiry gray beard, reached down and plucked the slice of bread from Sophie's hand and took a bite.
“Not bad, my friend, though I think the village food and its company might be more to our liking.” Reaching down with a smirk on his rough features, the man took hold of Sophie's chin and pulled it up, tracing her scar with his finger. “Look here, it seems someone wanted to shut this little girl's mouth, didn't they?”
“How dare you!” Volmar shouted angrily. He rose to his full height and glared at the man across the table. “Get your filthy hands off of her! She was eating that piece of bread!”
The stranger locked eyes with young Volmar. His sneering eyes took in the boy's simple black wool robe, leather pouch, and blackened fingertips. “So she was, Scribe, so she was.” He then wiped his hands clean on the hem of Sophie's tattered cape before tracing the slight curve of the girl's neck with his finger, adding hoarsely, “A few years older and rest assured, I would have taken more than just her bread. Think on that, my dear brother, and burn.”
The other man coughed loudly, clearly embarrassed by his friend's show of coarse humor.
Volmar planted his hands firmly on the table, icily glaring across at the stranger with righteous indignation. “How dare you speak to a child in such a manner!”
The older man gave out a snort of laughter, taking little notice of Volmar's outrage. In mocked complicity, he reached for Sophie's fist, pried it open and put the half-eaten bread back. “See? There. Forgive my rude behavior, my lady, I've been duly chastened by God's holy scribbler.” The stranger then gave a comical bow and straightened up, laughing harshly and bitterly as he did so. As his wild voice rang out over the dining area, the two men made their way back to the entrance and left.