Authors: Paul Dowswell
It was a sharp spring morning when Lukas and Etienne first caught sight of the city. Everything on the skyline seemed sharp too. There were churches with pointy spires, towers with pointy spires and even some of the spires had smaller spires. The roofs and walls of the densely packed buildings glowed in brilliant sunshine, and smoke from a thousand chimneys rose straight into the still air.
A stout crenellated wall encircled the entire metropolis, which sat on a bend of a river spanned by a vast stone bridge with two great towers. Lukas had never seen a bridge quite so impressive.
As they grew closer the smoke and stench of the place began to catch in their throats, and the sheer volume of people coming and going through the city gates was bewildering.
Lukas had committed to memory the letter from his Uncle Anselmus, which he had carried with him when he left Ghent. He had lost it, along with everything else, when they had been robbed in Momalle.
Etienne, with his instinct for such people, had met a forger in a hostel shortly before they reached the capital, and had asked him to run up a replacement of Anselmus’s letter. He also had a ‘letter of introduction’ made for himself, under a false name of course, purporting to be from a Prague merchant, offering him work and accommodation in his business. Both were essential to get them into the walled city.
Lukas had been told to bring his letter to the palace gate and announce himself to the guards as apprentice to Anselmus Declercq – court physician to His Imperial Majesty the Holy Roman Emperor.
He had wondered if the palace would be difficult to find, but it was obvious where he needed to go. High above the houses and churches, atop a steep hill, the Castle loomed huge over the rest of the capital.
As they approached via the North Gate Lukas bade Etienne goodbye. With both of them carrying forged documents, they had decided it would be best to enter the city separately.
‘When you have found lodgings send word to me at the Castle,’ Lukas said, then thanked his friend for helping him reach his destination.
Etienne gave him a warm hug and assured him they had helped each other. He promised he would contact him within the week. He wished him well in his new appointment and then strode briskly away.
Lukas wondered if he would see Etienne again. He had grown fond of him over the last few months.
Seeing that Lukas’s destination was the Castle, the city guards waved him through almost immediately, and he wandered along the narrow streets staring open-mouthed at the strange buildings and people. It had been many months since he had walked the streets of a big city. The stench was suffocating. Ghent never smelled as bad as this.
As the city closed in around him he tried to remember the direction of the Castle. Almost at once he bumped into someone, who shoved him aside so hard he fell on the cobbled ground. The man said something heatedly in a language he could not understand and hurried away. Lukas noticed his assailant had only one ear.
In the fall he dropped his bag. As he gathered his senses a young boy ran up to him and picked it up. Before Lukas realised he was stealing it rather than handing it back, he was gone, disappearing into a narrow alley.
There was little in the bag that Lukas would miss – just a change of clothes. But the suddenness of the theft shocked him. Wisely he had had the good sense to carry his money on his belt.
The North Gate took him into the heart of the Jewish Quarter. While many countries had expelled their Jews they were welcomed in Prague, and Lukas looked with interest at the curiously fashioned temples of their faith.
He reached a grand square overlooked by a vast church with magnificent soaring twin towers and was distracted by the wailing coming from two tiny baskets left by one of the church doorways. No one was paying them any attention.
Across the square, heaving with market stalls and people, there was another tower. Lukas guessed it was Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock. A crowd had gathered around the side and as it chimed midday Lukas could see why. The clock itself was a bewilderingly intricate set of dials, hands and strange figures that came to life when the hour was struck. He watched with wonder, but there was something sinister about it.
The crowd’s attention was suddenly caught by a commotion on the other side of the square. Lukas stood on a pillar in front of one of the grand buildings to see over people’s heads. A bear with a spiked collar around its neck was chained to a sunken pole. Lukas could hear the yapping of hunting dogs and the laughter of the onlookers.
Lukas watched for a while, unable to drag his eyes from the spectacle. As he turned away a great shriek rose from the crowd. The bear had broken free, and Lukas could see it lumbering across the square, dragging the broken pole behind it, while two men with whips and gauntlets tried to catch up.
Lukas hoped this was not an omen. He quickened his pace, sensing he would be safe only once he reached the security of the Castle. He was ashamed to feel so unnerved. Here on his own, he felt a long way from home.
It was easy to get lost in the narrow streets. When he passed for the second time a shop with a large green wooden lobster hanging over the door, he knew he needed help.
He had picked up a few words of the Bohemian tongue and approached a young beggar with a peg leg and asked, ‘
’ – the Stone Bridge. The man held out his hand and Lukas reached for the purse on his belt. It was gone. Someone must have lifted it as he watched the clock or the bear. There hadn’t been much money in it, but Lukas felt stupid for having it stolen. He had thought he was sharper than that. Lukas shrugged to show he had no money and the beggar turned away.
Eventually he emerged from the maze of streets and one of the great bridge towers stood before him. The bridge spanned the broad river and was wide enough for two hay wagons to pass.
With dismay, Lukas spotted a tollbooth. Buttoning his coat against the bitter river breeze, he stood by the entrance for nearly an hour – begging with his hand held out – before someone gave him the pfennig he needed to cross.
Stepping on to the bridge, Lukas could see trails of golden water plants catching the sunlight. All along the waterline were sawmills, tanneries and boat-building yards.
‘Out of my way,’ shouted a harsh voice above the clip-clop of hoofs and the grinding of wheels on cobblestone. Lukas darted into one of the passing points on the bridge as a large wagon trundled past. ‘You dolt!’ shouted the red-faced man who drove the wagon, and lashed his whip down on Lukas’s head. The whip caught his cheek and drew blood.
Lukas waited for a gap between wagons and ran. Catching his breath at another passing point he looked up to admire the great tower that marked the western side of the river. Something ominous caught his eye. On the upper ramparts were heads on spikes. Some were rotten green, some were skulls picked to the bone by carrion birds, others were fresh with slivers of tendon or a dribble of dried blood still dangling from the severed neck. Who were they? Criminals? Traitors? Feeling a little sick, Lukas shivered as he thought of all the things he and Etienne had done. Guiltily he glanced around, even though no one in Prague knew him.
Beyond the bridge was the great bulk of the Castle, big enough to be a prosperous-looking town in itself.
The road leading from the river was quite different to that on the other side of the bridge. It led past grand buildings with cloistered pavements and all manner of shops. There were fewer people here and they were better dressed.
Wondering where to find the entrance to the Castle, Lukas thought to try his Czech again ‘
’ he said to one man, who hurried past without even looking at him.
Another did stop – and pointed to a steep hill to the right of the square. Lukas climbed until the cobbled street narrowed, then stopped at a broad stone staircase. This twisted steeply to a large open square where the Castle lay before him, with a magnificent view of the city below. Lukas felt a great rush of excitement. This amazing palace was to be his home.
The Castle stood above the city’s smoke and filth and stench. Like the streets and the people, the air here was cleaner.
It seemed extraordinary to Lukas that one man should have such a vast fortress to call his home. But then, he was the Holy Roman Emperor – successor to the late great Roman Empire. Rudolph was lord of half of Europe.
The closer Lukas got to the Castle the more his apprehension grew. He had never met his uncle. His father had spoken fondly of him, but said there was always something going on inside his head that the rest of his family were not privy to. He would begin a sentence and never finish it, because something more interesting had intercepted his train of thought. They had mocked him roundly for his absent-mindedness when they were children, said his father. But what now? wondered Lukas. Now Anselmus was an accomplished fellow of great standing, would he be prickly and impossible to understand? He would soon find out.
The entrance gate was modest for such a grand building – only a small carriage could pass through. Approaching it, Lukas regarded the palace guard with a flutter of trepidation. They had pikes with vicious spikes and stared directly ahead. There must still be blood on Lukas’s face where the wagon driver had caught him with his whip. He wished he’d thought to wash it off.
Lukas walked up to the nearest guard and stood in front of him. The man ignored him. He coughed, looked him straight in the eye, and still the man ignored him.
‘Stand away,’ came a ringing command from within the gate. Lukas looked over, and there was another guard, an officer by the look of his uniform, with sword drawn.
‘Hello, sir,’ said Lukas. ‘I am come here to meet with my uncle, the court physician.’
‘Be off with you,’ said the man. ‘You insult the office of the Holy Roman Emperor. And if you come back on my watch I shall run you through.’
Feeling very small, Lukas gathered the courage to speak again. ‘Sir, I have travelled from Ghent to meet with my uncle. His name is Anselmus Declercq, and I am his nephew, Lukas Declercq.’
‘Off,’ said the officer. ‘Off and do not return.’ He advanced with his sword pointing directly at Lukas. ‘It is only the thought of your wretched blood soiling the Castle portal that stops me from killing you.’
‘Please let me show you the letter from my uncle,’ begged Lukas. He fumbled in his coat and produced his forgery of Anselmus’s letter of introduction. At least that hadn’t been stolen when he arrived in Prague. The officer was looking dangerously impatient.
Lukas opened the letter and held it out for inspection. The officer plucked it away from him with the point of his sword.
‘Where is your baggage? Where are your servants? You do not even have a purse to your name.’
Lukas started to explain that he had been robbed on his arrival in the city, but the officer was examining the letter and clearly not listening.
‘Arrest this vagrant for impersonating a relative of the court.’
The forged letter might have fooled the guards at the city gate, but it was not good enough for the palace.
‘Take him to Daliborka Tower.’
Surrounded by four soldiers, Lukas was dragged into the Castle. As he turned a corner into a dark alley he saw the officer rip his letter to shreds and let them scatter in the wind.
Lukas was hauled through a series of grand courtyards and portals, then past the narrow northern wall of the Castle along the yawning face of the Cathedral nave. When they reached another great courtyard he screwed up his courage and shouted, ‘Uncle Anselmus, help . . .’ but the ‘me’ was squeezed from his lips into a strangulated squawk.
‘Shut up,’ said the guard, holding him by the throat.
At the bottom of the hill was another guarded gate and for a few glorious moments Lukas thought they were going to throw him out the other end. But they turned sharp left and he was dragged up a steep flight of stairs and through a small maze of passageways. Below them was an ancient stone tower. Down they went and Lukas had to move his feet very quickly to stop them bashing against the stone steps.
At the entrance to the tower one of the guards banged three times on a black wooden door fortified with heavy iron struts and bolts. In the pause that followed Lukas could hear shouting, or was it screaming? His stomach turned over and he thought he would be sick.
The tower reeked of unwashed bodies and human effluent. A voice behind the door demanded to know who was there. ‘Imperial guard with a prisoner,’ came the reply. Bolts were drawn back. The door opened with a billowing fart of heat and stinking smoke. In front of them was a narrow staircase. Lukas heard a high, unnatural shrieking, and something in the smell coming up the stairs reminded him of burning meat.
‘Down we go,’ said a guard with mocking cheeriness. Lukas was shoved almost off balance and stumbled before he regained his equilibrium. What were they going to do to him?
The scene that greeted him at the bottom of the stairs was beyond his imagination. Lukas fainted.
Another scream brought him abruptly to his senses. He was soaked through. He wondered if he had wet himself in fright, but then recalled the sensation of cold water being thrown over him. He was in a small enclosure built into the side of the wall, facing a wooden door with a small iron grille. The cell had no ceiling and was like a large chimney breast with an open top about twelve feet up, through which he could see the wooden joists of the floor above.
He steeled himself to peep through the grille. He was in the Castle torture chamber. There were body cages and all manner of tongs, prodders, stocks and chains. Some half-starved wretch was tied spreadeagled to a rack and a gross, sweaty, bare-chested man with a black hood over his head was prodding him with a red-hot poker.
The scrawny prisoner did not scream again and Lukas marvelled at his courage until he realised he was unconscious or worse. Despite his own terror, Lukas wondered what the poor man had done to deserve such hellish treatment.
He heard the door at the top of the staircase burst open and a small spring of hope fluttered in his breast. Uncle Anselmus? Surely someone would have told him his nephew had arrived.
There were several sets of footsteps clattering down the stairs. Lukas craned his neck to see.
A gaunt, severe-looking man with cropped white hair swept into the room accompanied by three soldiers and a priest. ‘Has the wretch confessed?’ he said to the fat man.
‘No, Grand Inquisitor,’ he replied with a bow.
The gaunt man ordered water to be thrown over the unconscious prisoner. Lukas watched with mounting terror. Was this what they were going to do to him?
The prisoner began to groan and then came to. ‘Do you admit to consorting with Satan and all his minions?’ said the Inquisitor.
The man gibbered hysterically.
‘See how he mocks us,’ said the Inquisitor. ‘See how he laughs in our face.’ He turned to the hooded man again. ‘Apply the iron.’
Lukas turned away and heard a ghastly scream.
When he could bear to look he saw that the prisoner had passed out again.
‘He is being assisted by Satan,’ said the Inquisitor. ‘The dark one has lulled him into sleep. See how he has not a care in the world. Apply the iron.’
Lukas steeled himself for another scream, but none came.
‘Even my poker cannot raise him from his slumber,’ said the man in the hood.
‘More water,’ said the Inquisitor. The man was doused again.
After a pause the Inquisitor looked at the prisoner, then stepped forward and held his wrist. He placed a brass ear trumpet on the man’s chest and listened.
‘He’s dead,’ he snarled, and struck the fat man with the trumpet, denting it with the force of his blow. ‘If you kill any more of the prisoners, I shall begin to suspect you are an agent of Beelzebub – sent to spare his disciples from the wrath of the Inquisition.’
‘My lord,’ said the man fearfully, ‘I have taken every care. This one must have been weakened by his wickedness. Perhaps the succubi have been visiting him at night?’
It was strange to see the torturer so afraid. He could easily have picked up the Inquisitor and thrown his spindly body against the wall or even the bed of spikes that was propped upright close to Lukas’s cell.
‘And who else do we have?’ said the Inquisitor.
‘One from the country, accused of bewitching his neighbour’s cattle,’ said another, more confident voice. Lukas guessed it was one of the soldiers. ‘And a vagrant. Tried to enter the Castle under false pretences.’
‘Well, he’s no concern of mine,’ said the Inquisitor, ‘and the sorcerer can wait a little longer.’ He turned on his heels and left.
Lukas sat down in his cell and tried to ignore the gnawing in his guts. He felt exhausted, and the warmth from the braziers used to heat the irons was making him drowsy. Despite the terrible scenes playing in his head he fell into a fitful sleep. As he dozed he became aware that he was being sprinkled by something. At first he thought it was rain from a leaking roof, but he quickly recognised the sour smell of urine.
Lukas looked up, disbelief etched on his face. There, in the shadows above him, unnoticed before, was a cage with another prisoner in it.
‘Stop it,’ he shouted, his fear briefly exceeded by revulsion.
‘You should have to worry about far worse things than that,’ said a sheepish voice above his head. ‘What else am I supposed to do? Let my bladder burst?’
‘Silence,’ said a guard somewhere in the dungeon.
His misery complete, Lukas fought back tears. There was another clatter of boots on stone stairs. ‘Present me with the boy and hand me a leading stick,’ said a stern voice.
The cell door was unbolted and Lukas was grabbed by the shoulders. He was held upright by two burly guards while another slipped something over his head. It was a heavy iron hoop on a long wooden pole. Lukas could not see what was inside the hoop but he could certainly feel it. The whole thing was lined with sharp spikes, pressing into his soft skin.
The man holding the pole gave a little tug and the spikes bit into the back of his neck. Lukas tried to be brave, but as the hoop gnawed into his neck again he gasped in pain. ‘Silence,’ said a man behind him. He wanted to turn and look, but moving his head even a little made the spikes bite.
‘Advance,’ said a guard.
Lukas yelped as he struggled upward. Aside from the spikes, the hoop was heavy around his shoulders and its rough iron rim chafed his skin.
It was getting dark now – early evening, he would guess – and lights burned from every window.
‘To the palace court,’ said the voice behind him. They walked up the hill towards the huge Cathedral, and as they reached the large courtyard that lay before its southern exterior Lukas was jerked into a doorway and up a sloping ramp. He felt like that bear he had seen on a chain and understood why it had been so desperate to escape. He could feel a wet trickle down his neck now, where the spikes had drawn blood. He didn’t look down to see how much. It was too painful to move his head.
They entered a courtroom with an imposing wooden platform where a handful of officials were sitting solemnly under the soft glow of hundreds of candles.
An elderly bearded man in an impressive cloak sat at the centre of the platform in a great wooden chair. Lukas had seen men in similar dress at his father’s trial, before he was burned at the stake.
‘And what is the nature of the crime?’ the elderly man enquired.
The palace gate officer stepped forward. ‘Vagrancy and impersonating a relative of the court in order to gain entry to the palace.’
‘And on what do you base this charge?’ said the elderly man.
‘Despite having the appearance of a vagrant, the youth here claims to have travelled all the way from Ghent, sire. Yet he has no baggage and no retinue. He also has no money at all. Following recent attempts on the life of His Imperial Highness, I have good reason to suspect he is an assassin, come to infiltrate the court. And the letter of introduction he produced was plainly a forgery.’
‘A wise precaution,’ said the old man. He turned his gaze to Lukas. ‘And what do you have to say?’
Lukas could barely speak. He could not believe the grave charges levelled against him.
‘I am the nephew of Anselmus Declercq, court physician,’ he said.
The old man looked upon him with contempt. ‘Anselmus Declercq? How do you know of a court physician with such a name? A wretch like you. You are not related to such a prominent person.’
‘Please, sir,’ said Lukas, ‘can Anselmus be summoned so I may talk to him?’
‘Such impertinence,’ the officer scoffed. ‘His Eminence is away from the Castle on imperial business. It is not known when he will return.’
‘Your story is nothing but lies,’ said the old man to Lukas. He turned to the officer. ‘Take this vagabond back to the Daliborka Tower and put him to the torture. I want to know who else was conspiring with him to kill the Emperor.’
The leading stick twitched again. This time Lukas felt its spikes in his throat. ‘Please,’ he gasped in desperation, ‘I tell the truth.’
‘To the torture,’ thundered the old man, and waved a hand dismissively.