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Authors: Jody Hedlund

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BOOK: Luther and Katharina
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The men laughed.

Blood rushed to Luther's face. “I'm too busy.”

“My son's always too busy. Too busy to give his old father an heir to pass on the family name.”

“Should a man condemned to death take a wife?” Luther strained to keep his tone respectful. “Once I'm captured, my enemies will burn me at the stake. Why would I want to leave behind a widow and children? The devil only knows what kind of torture my enemies would devise for my family.”

At Luther's words his father's face blanched. Hans took a sip from his tankard, his Adam's apple protruding as he struggled to swallow the drink.

Guilt ripped through Luther, and he bowed his head. He knew his father loved him and only wanted the best for him. But it seemed as though their relationship was forever to be one of disappointment and hurt.

At the clatter of a tankard and a strangled cry, Luther's head jerked up in time to see the young merchant to whom he'd given his meal fall backward off the bench. The crowd parted to make room for him on the ground as he convulsed, his lips white and his face turning blue from lack of air.

“Get the physician,” someone called.

A man kneeling next to the merchant reached for the piece of fish discarded among the rushes. He sniffed it, tasted it with the tip of his tongue, then flung it back to the floor. “It's poisoned.”

The pounding in Luther's head came to an abrupt halt. Silence held him captive as he stared at the lolling gray tongue and bulging eyes of the merchant, each ragged breath possibly his last.

Luther's hands began to shake, and he tucked them into his cuffs. “God have mercy.” He looked at the mass of flushed faces, searching each one. The devil was there somewhere.

“Poison?” His father's voice boomed over the clamor. “Why on God's green earth would anyone want to poison Herr Muller?”

A small drum began tapping in Luther's head again, growing louder, beating against his temples until he wanted to groan with the pressure. Death stalked him everywhere he rode, in every town he visited, at every corner he turned. His enemies never ceased plotting his demise.

But this time death had come too close…

It had been only one bite away.

I
n the faint light of dawn, Katharina examined the unfamiliar landscape, the newly plowed fields, the peasant huts in the distance. It had been years since she'd viewed the world surrounding the convent.

Now she could see that Marienthron was situated in a lush valley, protected by hills on one side and dense forest on the other. She knew the abbey owned most of the land in the surrounding countryside, gained over the decades as payment from noblemen who had placed their daughters at the convent. The abbot commanded compulsory labor from the peasants who lived on it. He ruled over them like a prince and brought in a steady income to support the convent.

“Merchant Koppe's message instructed us to travel through the forest,” Katharina whispered, glancing across the pasture. Along its edge tall evergreens jutted high against the thinly veiled moon. “We need to follow the river Mulde north of Grimma. He'll meet us at the crossroads.”

The yells within the cloister yard echoed louder in the crisp air. The other women had plastered themselves against the convent wall and now watched her with frightened eyes. They were like sheep with her as their shepherd. She wasn't sure how she'd gained that role, but she was determined to lead them as best she could.

“Run.” Katharina's muscles tensed. “Run as fast as you can for the woods.”

Greta bolted forward, leading the way. With their scapulars and veils flying behind them, the others ran after the maidservant, losing all concern for silence in their haste.

Sister Ruth hoisted one of the Zeschau sisters onto her wide back like a sack of kindling wood. Katharina reached for the other. She was too petite to carry the young woman, but she slipped her arm around the sister and half dragged, half carried her forward. After only two dozen paces, Katharina's breath came in gasps, and the woods loomed no closer.

“Faster!” Greta called over her shoulder, far ahead of the others.

Like Katharina, the other nuns had never moved beyond the slow, thoughtful walk that behooved the contemplative life of a nun. They couldn't help but trip over clods of soil, stumble through the tangle of their tunics, and sob in fear as they raced for the cover of the woods.

Under the weight of Fronika Zeschau, Katharina lagged behind. She didn't want to put Margaret in more danger, but she was grateful when her friend rushed back to her and silently took the other side of the girl, easing Katharina's burden. Even if Katharina had wanted to admonish Margaret to stay with the others, she couldn't speak past the burning in her lungs.

Finally the forest swallowed them. Branches slapped and roots snagged. But Greta, in the lead, didn't slacken her pace. Panic gave them momentum to fight the undergrowth that clawed at their habits and the sharp rocks that bit through their slippers.

The river Mulde served as their guide. Although they could no longer hear the shouts, they knew that Abbot Baltazar was somewhere nearby and that he wouldn't rest until he tracked them down.

When the forest gave way to a clearing around the cloister pond, they crumpled to the ground, unable to go on without a rest.

Katharina couldn't feel the chill in the grass past the heat roaring through her blood and the sweat dampening her face and plastering her tunic to her back. Her muscles cramped, and her arms and legs shook. Margaret sprawled next to her, silent of any complaints, but each wheezing breath was a testimony to the exertion. For endless seconds they lay unmoving, their cacophony of labored breaths mingling with the croaking of the recently awakened spring frogs.

Katharina pressed the ache in her side and felt for the pouch she'd hidden under her habit. It contained her only earthly treasure, the one gift she had of value and her only connection to the life that had been snatched from her so long ago.

In the vast sky overhead, the clouds were tinged with the pale pink glow of dawn. Would this finally be the beginning of a new life? Did she dare to believe it was within her grasp?

Nearby branches crackled, then crashed to the ground.

Katharina's blood froze as several men lurched into the clearing.

Margaret sat up and started to gasp, but Katharina cupped a hand over her friend's mouth.

The first hints of pale light outlined the hard countenances of the men beneath their straw hats. They wore the coarse linen of a laborer: short belted tunics and low boots secured with laces. Since they were carrying hoes and spades, she guessed they were the peasants who worked the fields surrounding the abbey.

“Well, well,” said one of the men, stepping forward. “What do we have here?”

There was something hard and dangerous in the man's tone that made Katharina's limbs tremble. Nevertheless, she stood as gracefully as she could and straightened her shoulders. “You may continue on your way. We are not your concern.”

“Not our concern?” The man chortled as he lumbered closer. “Of course we're concerned.” With a lunge he grabbed Margaret and jerked her to her feet.

A whimper slipped from Margaret, and her frantic eyes found Katharina's.

“Unhand her and leave her be,” Katharina said, attempting to keep a quaver from her voice.

“ ‘Leave her be,' she says.” With a curse the peasant threw Margaret aside and stalked toward Katharina.

She didn't have time to react before the laborer gripped her arm and jerked her against him so that his breath bathed her face with the stench of strong beer. “You telling me what to do?”

“We are nuns, the brides of Christ. It's your God-given duty to protect and honor us.”

“Did you hear that, boys?” The man tossed his friends a gap-toothed grin. “It's our
duty
to protect these rich, thieving church whores.”

The other laborers hooted with laughter and crept nearer, forming a half circle around the nuns, who had clustered into a shivering huddle.

Church whores.
Katharina's insides twisted at the insult—twisted because people thought of them that way and twisted because she knew there was some truth to the accusation. As much as she wanted to ignore the whispers of indiscretions, there had been too many stories along with unexplained disappearances of sisters and workers. None of her closest companions spoke of such abuse happening to them, but she was sure more of them had experienced the pain than had admitted to it.

She wouldn't let her friends experience abuse. Not here. Not this way.

“Be on your way,” Katharina commanded, hoping her voice sounded more confident than she felt. She cast a frantic glance to the thick brush and woods beyond the pond. Could she find a way to escape these men, or were the women destined to be ravaged and abused on the doorstep of the convent?

“You won't be going anywhere.” The peasant's fingers groped her habit, sinking into her soft flesh and sending revulsion to the pit of her stomach. “Not until we have a little fun with you.”

He yanked on her scapular, ripping it free of her habit with a sickening tear. The rending of linen incited the other men, and in an instant they landed upon her helpless sisters. Their laughter mingled with the women's cries.

Panic twisted Katharina as tightly as flax fibers on a spindle. She pummeled her captor. The horrified calls of the others spurred her—she had to rescue her weaker sisters. “Take me, but let the others go!”

The peasant's knuckles slammed into the side of Katharina's face. Excruciating pain forced her to her knees. Blackness swirled in front of her. Before she could move, the peasant forced her backward so that her head slammed against the ground.

“For the sake of His sorrowful passion,” she screamed, “have mercy on us and on the whole world.” A familiar powerlessness blanketed her. She'd been at the mercy of others her whole life, and here she was once again without the ability to control her own fate.

“Stop!” A voice rang through the chaos. A tall man with a pike strode forward out of the brush and crossed through the long-dried grass, his face a mask of fury. He swung his pike at the peasant holding Greta with such force that it hit the man's arm with a crunch. The peasant yelped and fell away.

“Get off the women!” the newcomer shouted.

“Why do you care?” The man holding Katharina peered at the tall man but didn't seem surprised to see him. She seized the moment of hesitation and clawed her captor's face. He cried out and reared back.

She scrambled away from him, and her fingers closed around his discarded hoe. Grasping it, she heaved herself up. With a fury born of desperation, she lunged at the other men, beating them away from the sisters.

Howling and cursing, the laborers backed to the edge of the clearing. Katharina gasped for breath and turned toward the tall man, who was holding Greta against his body and was smothering her lips with his.

“Release her at once!” Katharina demanded, lifting the hoe and aiming it at the man's head. Her breath came in gasps.

Greta broke away from the kiss. “Don't hurt him, my lady,” she said, turning and shielding the man with her arms. Her wimple had fallen off so that her short-cropped hair was free of constraint. The soft, fair waves fell around her face, adding a fullness that made the girl even prettier.

“This is Thomas, Merchant Koppe's servant,” Greta said, glancing over her shoulder with tenderness. The man was muscular and had chiseled features that were rugged and handsome for a commoner. Thomas stroked Greta's cheek in response.

Katharina shifted her attention away, embarrassment making a swift path through her. She'd heard rumors of Greta forming an attachment to the merchant's servant during his deliveries to the convent, she but hadn't imagined such familiarity. She'd wanted to believe her servant was as chaste as herself, although she wasn't naive enough to think that such liaisons couldn't happen.

At the grumbling of the other peasants, Thomas shot them a narrowed look, one that silenced them. “We're done with our meeting for the night,” he said bluntly. “Time to go home.”

Katharina lowered the hoe and twisted the wooden handle made smooth from years of hard use. It was Easter morn. These laborers certainly weren't heading to work today of all days. So why did they have their hoes and spades? At such an early hour of the morning no less?

“We should go,” Greta whispered with a furtive glance in the direction of the convent.

“Yes,” Katharina said. “Take us at once to your master, Thomas.”

Through the growing light of morning, he regarded her with a piercing coldness and animosity she couldn't begin to understand. She tried not to shiver, even though all she wanted to do was sink to the ground and give way to violent trembling. Instead, she began pulling the others to their feet, encouraging them softly.

They had lost too much time. And with all the noise from their encounter with the peasants, surely they'd alerted Abbot Baltazar to their whereabouts. As if sensing the same, Thomas bade a curt farewell to the laborers and then led the women rapidly away, taking them deeper into the woods. If not for Thomas's sure steps, she wouldn't have noticed the nearly invisible path. She couldn't keep from wondering how Thomas was so familiar with the woods and what his connection was with the other peasants.

As she struggled along, her lungs burned and her legs grew weak. Under Fronika's weight, she was tempted to drop to the ground and rest, and she had to keep reminding herself why they were risking so much. They'd destroyed Doctor Luther's smuggled writings as soon as they'd read them, but his words were seared into her mind:
Priests, monks, nuns are duty bound to forsake their vows….Their vows of chastity are contrary to God and have no validity. Marriage is not only honorable but necessary….Men and women, who were created for it, shall be found in this estate.

Those words had awakened desires that had been forced into slumber when she'd understood the reality of her destiny those many years ago—the reality that she'd lost her family and would never have one again. The closing of the convent gates had slammed shut the possibility of having a normal life or any semblance of freedom. She'd known she would live and die a virgin, without ever experiencing the joys that came from married life and bearing children. And she'd done her best to accept the fate that had been handed to her. She'd believed that becoming a nun was the surest way to reach heaven.

BOOK: Luther and Katharina
13.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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