Authors: Paul Dowswell
Out into the evening air they went and back down the narrow road to the tower. Just as they came to the staircase that led to the northern wall, a group of people came in through the Eastern Gate. Lukas searched their faces, seeking a likeness he might recognise as family. He had never met his uncle, but he supposed he might look a bit like his father.
It was difficult to see in the evening gloom, but just at the end of the party Lukas saw a well-dressed man of middle years with a nose just like his father’s. ‘Uncle Anselmus,’ he cried out. ‘Anselmus Declercq!’
The man turned. ‘Who is this brat?’ he asked.
‘A vagrant assassin,’ said a guard.
‘Please, sir,’ Lukas pleaded. ‘I am your brother’s son.’
‘I have no brother,’ said the man with a shrug, and walked away.
The guards continued with their prisoner, not concerned now to keep the spikes from piercing his neck.
Daliborka Tower loomed before them, and Lukas could see the heavy wooden door that led to the dungeon below. Now he knew what was down there, he could barely keep his legs from collapsing beneath him. Only the thought of tearing his neck on the spikes of the collar kept him upright.
They shuffled down the stairs, the heat from the dungeon fires rising up in a pungent miasma. The collar was removed and the guards flung Lukas back into a cell. He sat there in his own bubble of misery, wishing he could magic himself away.
Time passed. There was a banging at the door. Footsteps approached his cell. Lukas did not peer out to see who was coming. His cell door creaked open and he cowered against the wall, his eyes tight shut in terror.
‘Some supper for you,’ said a kindly voice.
Lukas look up in disbelief. One of the guards had brought a pitcher of water and a wooden plate with bread, cheese and sausage.
‘You can’t torture a man without a proper meal inside him,’ he said.
Despite his fear, Lukas wolfed down the food. He had had nothing to eat since the morning.
‘When will they come to torture me?’ asked Lukas.
‘Later,’ said the man plainly. Then he looked around to see who else was in the dungeon. ‘Look, lad,’ he whispered close to the grille, ‘just tell them what you’ve been up to. Everyone talks eventually. Save yourself all that nastiness. If you tell them right away, they’ll kill you quickly. Beheading . . . probably. It’ll be over in no time. But if you won’t tell them, then it’ll just go on. Nobody likes that. Well, most of us don’t.’
‘But I haven’t done anything,’ said Lukas desperately. ‘I’ve come to see my uncle, Anselmus Declercq.’
The man shook his head and let out a weary sigh. ‘Let’s be having that plate and pitcher,’ he said.
‘Thank you for your advice,’ said Lukas, grateful that someone had spoken kindly to him. Now that he was a little stronger for eating, he dared to look again through his cell door. There were two fires in braziers and a selection of iron bars and pokers. Feeling faint, he looked elsewhere.
His eyes settled on the most terrifying piece of apparatus, which looked like a bed frame with iron chains and a pulley and rope attached to the lower end. This was a rack. His father had been tortured on a similar device. Victims were stretched by their arms and legs until the bones came out of their sockets. Lukas wondered what sort of man would make use of such a thing.
The door banged again and Lukas heard footsteps and a commotion on the stairs.
‘Hey there,’ cried a voice before them. ‘Hey there.’
Lukas peered again through his door. A tall, spindly man of middle years was hurrying towards them. A shock of white hair sprouted over his ears, below a gleaming bald pate. A great white beard grew down to his chest.
‘Is this the prisoner who asked for Anselmus Declercq?’ he said to the guards. He was quite out of breath.
The guards nodded. Lukas began to speak. ‘Uncle?’
‘You must be Lukas,’ said the strange man as he peered through the slit in the door. ‘You are the image of your mother.’
For one giddy moment Lukas thought his uncle might take him away then and there. But the guards were having none of it.
‘Eminence,’ said one, ‘we cannot release this boy on your say-so. We have to consult the officer of the watch.’
There was renewed banging at the door.
The officer who had first arrested him arrived with an enormous sinister figure, wearing a hood that covered his face. Lukas guessed it must be the torturer he had seen earlier.
The big man swept off his cloak with a theatrical flourish. He was bare-chested and a broad black leather belt held up his considerable breeches. Although he was running to fat, which fell in wobbly folds around his middle, he gave an impression of possessing great strength.
‘Prepare the prisoner for torture,’ said the officer. The fat man picked up some bellows and began to fire up the coals in the braziers.
Anselmus spoke up. ‘There has been a mistake, Freiherr Svoboda. This boy is my nephew. He has come to the Castle to serve as my apprentice.’
‘Your Eminence,’ said the officer arrogantly, ‘how can you be sure he is not an imposter? Have you met the boy before? The only way to discover the truth is to torture him.’
‘You will do no such thing,’ said Anselmus. He sounded alarmed, which made Lukas even more afraid. ‘Who is the officer of the watch? He must be informed at once.’
Svoboda turned to him and said curtly, ‘The officer of the watch is fully informed of the situation.’
‘Then I shall go to him immediately and –’
Svoboda cut him off in his tracks. ‘Save yourself the trouble. You are speaking to him.’ He turned to the guards. ‘Bring out the prisoner.’
‘You must stop at once,’ said Anselmus, as Lukas was dragged from his cell.
‘Your Eminence,’ said Svoboda, ‘I have jurisdiction in this matter. I ask you respectfully to withdraw.’
One of the guards placed a mailed hand on Anselmus’s shoulder and the physician was firmly marched away, spluttering angry protestations.
Lukas watched in despair as his uncle disappeared up the winding staircase. Guards on either side hauled him up. He was so terrified his legs had collapsed beneath him.
‘Chain him up,’ said Svoboda.
Lukas’s hands were placed roughly in manacles attached to chains that hung down from the ceiling.
‘Haul,’ ordered Svoboda.
Behind his back Lukas could hear a clanking noise. Then his arms were jerked tight and he was lifted off his feet. The manacles bit into his wrists and his hands fumbled for the chains above them to take his weight. At once, his shoulders began to ache.
His shirt was ripped off and he felt the heat of the braziers on his bare back. They left him there for a few minutes. Then Svoboda approached him, his brow beaded with sweat. He leaned so close Lukas could taste his stale breath.
‘Who persuaded you to commit treason? Was it the Duke of Freiberg? Was it the Lutherans? Was it the Jews? The Turks?’
Although he knew it would not help him, Lukas could not bring himself to lie. ‘My story is true, sir. I am come to serve as apprentice to my Uncle Anselmus.’
‘Ready the iron,’ said Svoboda.
Lukas felt the scorching heat of the fire iron on the small of his back as the torturer held it close, waiting for his moment. He imagined his skin was already blistering in its scarlet glow. It was like some glassy nightmare. Everything around him, his every sense, was pin sharp – the manacles cutting his wrists, the acrid smells of the dungeon, the flickering light from the braziers – as he waited for the agony to come. Was this what hell was like? He fought the urge to gabble out a confession. What could he tell them?
Another voice butted in. ‘Enough, Freiherr Svoboda. Release this youth.’
It wasn’t his uncle, but Lukas recognised the voice from somewhere.
‘But, Your Excellency, the boy was about to confess.’ Svoboda sounded almost petulant.
‘I’m sure he was,’ replied the newcomer. ‘I’m sure he was.’
Lukas felt the chains lower. As soon as his feet touched the ground he twisted round. His uncle was with a man he recognised as the head of the court. The one who had sent him here to be tortured earlier that evening.
Anselmus took off his cloak and wrapped it round Lukas’s shoulders. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘It’s over.’
As they walked out of the stifling heat of the dungeon, Lukas began to shiver in the cold air. He was grateful for his uncle’s cloak and pulled it tight around his body. His two rescuers held on to him on either side, not speaking. Lukas sensed there was an awkward atmosphere between them.
They turned into a large doorway with guards on either side. This was where they had taken him to the court. The doorway led into an impressive passageway – large enough to accommodate a carriage and team of horses.
Anselmus and the judge parted company. ‘Thank you for your intervention, my lord,’ said Anselmus briskly. The judge nodded but made no reply.
Anselmus led Lukas up another winding staircase to the side of the hall, up and up, until they could go no higher. ‘Here are my quarters,’ he said, indicating an ornate wooden door with elaborately cast silver hinges and handle.
Behind it was a large, well-heated room. Thick blankets hung at every door, and the walls were covered in tapestries.
‘Sit down by the fire,’ said his uncle. ‘I shall fetch you a shirt and some supper.’
As Anselmus banged pots and pans around in the kitchen and muttered to himself, Lukas stared into the fire feeling supremely glad to be alive. He was bewildered too. This was the city where he had come to be safe, yet he had faced death within hours of arriving.
His uncle returned with a damp flannel for Lukas to mop the dried blood around his neck. Then he brought a steaming goblet of mulled wine and a thick woollen shirt. Lukas expected him to look relieved, but could see he was deeply angry instead.
‘You are lucky that I returned. I have been in Zidice these last few days and only arrived back this evening.’
He paused, then looked sad. ‘This is an unpredictable place, Lukas,’ he said. ‘There are many traps for the unwary and each one of us at court must be vigilant. The palace is home to men of widely differing beliefs and opinions – all of them vying for the Emperor’s attention and approval. I learned of your arrival only because my friend Ruzicka told me he had encountered a frightened youth on a leading stick who asked after me.’
‘Who is the Inquisitor?’ asked Lukas. ‘I had heard this city was free of the Inquisition.’
Anselmus sighed. ‘Monsignor Gerwald Mach. He’s the Inquisition’s representative here and a very bitter man!’ Anselmus laughed scornfully. ‘Our venerable Emperor, long may he prosper, won’t let him persecute the Jews, or the Protestants, or the alchemists and astronomers, so he’s just left with witchcraft.’
Lukas slept on a couch in front of the fire. He woke frequently from nightmares, and the aches and bruises from his ordeal left him restless. When dawn came he was disturbed by the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen. He turned around and pulled his blanket over his head and drifted back to a blissful sleep, almost delirious with relief that he had been spared from torture. Later he was woken again, by someone close by, raking the ashes from the fire.
He peered over his blanket to see the slender back of a young woman on her knees at the fireplace. Her clothes were rough and he supposed she was Anselmus’s maid. He coughed to draw attention to himself. She turned and shrieked.
He guessed she was in her early twenties. She was small and dark, and once she had recovered her senses she curtsied formally and said something to Lukas he did not understand. He sat up in bed and introduced himself. But she seemed desperately anxious to be away.
Undeterred, he repeated his name. ‘Lukas,’ he said, pointing at himself.
‘Otka,’ she said, and fled.
Lukas heard her agitated voice outside the room. Anselmus appeared soon afterwards. ‘Met Otka, have you?’ he said with a chuckle. ‘I didn’t get the chance to warn her I had a visitor.’
‘I frightened her,’ said Lukas bashfully. Actually he was quite amused by her reaction.
‘She comes in every morning,’ said Anselmus, ‘then goes after supper. Her stepfather works in the alchemy workshops. He’s not a natural philosopher,’ he said loftily. ‘He just tidies up, keeps the fires burning – that sort of thing. They live on Golden Lane, a bit close to Daliborka Tower for my liking.’
‘And Golden Lane is part of the Castle?’ said Lukas.
‘Yes, yes, of course.’ Anselmus sounded testy. Lukas felt confused. How was he supposed to know? Perhaps Anselmus noticed the hurt look on his face. ‘I will ask Otka to show you around the Castle after you have eaten,’ he said.
They had a long and pleasant breakfast, Lukas still light-headed with relief. Anselmus told him he had been expecting him since March. He was anxious for news of his sister-in-law and keen to know as much as possible about his new apprentice.
When he asked about the medicinal properties of camomile and Lukas looked blank, Anselmus snapped, ‘I knew all about camomile when I was your age.’ Clearly there would have to be a great deal of learning in a very short time.
Having been assured that Otka would not disturb him, Lukas took a bath in front of the fire and then dressed in some of his uncle’s clothes. He was tall for his age and Anselmus was only a little taller. The clothes felt big on him, but not uncomfortably so. ‘When you earn your first wage you must buy your own clothes,’ said his uncle, ‘but until then you can make do with mine.’
When he was ready, Anselmus called for Otka. She appeared immediately and gave them both a little bow. Lukas thought she had a nice face, although she was not what he would have thought of as pretty. Anselmus spoke to her in the Bohemian tongue. Lukas had picked up a few words on his travels, but not enough to hold a conversation or understand what was being said now.
‘She speaks a little German too,’ said Anselmus. ‘I’m sure you will be able to manage.’ Like many Netherlanders, Lukas had grown up speaking both Flemish and German.
Otka looked at him and smiled, showing her large white teeth, which seemed slightly too big for her mouth. ‘Follow,’ she said.