Prologue – Come to know the Truth
The building, the Holy Inquisition used as headquarters, once belonged to a fraternity of monks and crusaders, and it had not only been one of their bases, but also a hospice and a shelter for the poorest of the poor; a last refuge for the sick and the dying. Compassion and the grace of charity once filled its chambers and its rooms, but those days belonged to the past. Long forgotten and remembered within old diaries only. Today, the old masonry and its unique construction served other purposes.
The old hospice's upper floor allowed a direct view at the marketplace of a small town, like there were many all around the country. Its name was of no meaning, except for one: To note down where the heretics came from, who would die today.
It was a small town, indeed, and it had no meaning to the man, who got chosen to lead a number of trials against some of its inhabitants.
His gaze followed all the goings-on outside and everyone, who had to pass the ancient building, while an astonishing crowd assembled right there, where once a week merchants and patrons bargained over prices and goods, where once a week glee-men and jugglers played music and showed their acrobatics and where never before a stake got built up.
The folks surrounded the funeral pile - curious, excited and fervent - and although it was a hot midsummer day, and although they had to stand the burning midday heat, they were joking and laughing. Their clamour resounded within the town's narrow lanes and it even soaked through the closed window into the small room, the inquisitor used as his personal interrogation chamber.
"Fools", the man standing in front of the shaded window thought while keeping taps on the crowd: "None of you knows what all of this really is about. You're thirsty for blood, another one's blood, and the truth is, you're just relieved that it is he or she who dies today and not you! Getting spared this time! That's all you can think about while another poor soul dies within the flames! That's why you scream as loud as possible and that's why you sneak around the stake like a beast around its prey!"
He would never admit it openly, but he felt shaken in disgust when he thought about the salivating mob and the upcoming spectacle. Deeply nauseated, he turned away from this sight and started to pace up and down across the room, his steps following the tact of his thoughts.
Having a look at this human rabble assembled outside, it seemed to be justified to lead this everlasting fight against heretics and other deniers of the true and only belief, but who of them did really know anything about heresy and the true and only belief?
Most of them were hardly capable of reading and writing – if at all. Not one of them understood, what they got preached from down the pulpit almost every day of their lives. Conditioned by fear, ignorance and threat, also known as the best and most effective methods to assure the devotion of the crowd.
The Holy Inquisition knew masterly how to use these methods. That masterly that fear went around wherever its servants showed up: Fear of getting accused, fear of getting questioned, fear of getting torture, fear of getting burned alive and so the stakes enlightened the sky tp honour God and his Holy institution that no one and nothing would ever dare to slip through its fingers.
The inquisitor sighed. This time he did not have to deal with heresy. This time he had to deal with witchcraft, magic and superstition.
It was on rare occasion that the Inquisition had to deal with such extraordinary incidents, but more and more often the civil courts, who actually had to lead cases like these, asked for the help of the well-read inquisitors.
Like this time.
The inquisitor had not been pleased when he got sent to this small and unimportant place to lead a case against a supposed witch, even if there was rumour about her being a heretic as well. Another sigh escaped his lips. It was not his choice to make. He had to follow the rules of his order and the will of the grand inquisitor.
The Holy Inquisition was known for its astonishing success if it came to fight heresy, but nevertheless, one aspect could not be denied:
More than once there had been delinquents, who weren't willing to give up their queer thoughts, their disbelief or their misled minds – even if merciless interrogation and torture waited for them. Not to mention a painful death within the flames.
Challenged, that was, how the inquisitor felt, while he still paced the small chamber restlessly; challenged by a stubborn and unreasonable woman, by a supposed witch, who got questioned in here for several days meanwhile.
That was, why he wanted to interrogate her again, for a last time, and that was, why he ordered to take her in again before she would face her fate down at the marketplace; her fate and the stake.
He didn't have to wait for long.
Two guards dragged the woman in right when he thought it should be time for them to return. He did not move, remained standing at his place near the window instead, his face hidden under the wide hood of his vesture, his back turned against the guards and the woman they accompanied. A small gesture of his hand did do to tell the guards they should leave them alone.
He waited until the door closed again behind them, then he turned around, his face still hidden underneath the hood, and just his eyes shimmering within the little light of some candles and a lit chandelier.
The following silence appeared to last half an eternity, then, finally, he lifted his gaze and asked: "Can you hear the screams and the yelling? Can you hear the murmur and the laughter? It's solely meant for you! The crowd out there is just waiting for you! The people are just waiting for you. For you to die. The mob drools to see your body burn. I'm sure you know what this means, am I right? The disgrace and the pain? Bethink yourself! One single word will spare you from the worst suffering. What keeps you from swearing off your mislead belief and your unholy dealings with magic?"
For a while, there was nothing else to hear, but the damped noise soaking in from outside.
It was then, that the woman finally screwed up her courage: "The worst suffering? The worst suffering? What do you know about the worst suffering?"
When he neither answered nor reacted, she made some hesitant steps towards him: "Tell me, do you know how it feels if white-hot irons get forged to your wrists? No? Do you know how it feels if your ankles get bruised that heavily that you begin to believe embracing death must be a relief? No? Do you know how it feels to get forced to undress down to your bare skin for only one reason: that half a dozen ruttish males can stare at you, barely able to hide their lewdness? No?"
She shook her head shivering in disgust: "You know nothing about the worst suffering."
Inhaling a deep breath, she raised her gaze and went on: "Tell me also, are you not a priest? Are you not a Dominican monk? Have you not sworn to serve our Lord in love and humbleness? Shouldn't it be your duty to return hope to all those poor souls, who lost the right way, to spend comfort to the deserving poor and to reach out your hand to help them find the light? Is that not what you should do? Instead, you cause them fear, torture and death! They do not even dare to look at you when they get aware of you! Whoever comes across you will change the side of the street if possible. No one wants to accompany you. No one wants to get seen with you! It's only distrust and discord you sow amongst people! Tell me, what feeling does this cause you, my lord inquisitor? Satisfaction? Pleasure? You must have been a human being once! What happened to you that you chose this path of hatred, blood and tears?"
She stopped when the inquisitor moved within the shades and when he stepped closer. He beheld her for a while – silent, motionless, curious.
The woman was young, but the days she had to spend within a cold and dirty cell made her appear tired and haggard. He was convinced her face must have been pretty once; now it looked pale and subsided. The mills of the Holy Inquisition, the mills he had put her through, had been eager to destroy her beauty and her liveliness within just a couple of days, but as it seemed they had not been eager enough to destroy her will. Maybe it was that her hair was stiff from dirt and dried blood, maybe it was that her body got marked by the repeated interrogations, but there was something within her eyes that told him a different story: She was not broken yet and she was able to resist his gaze...
In a sudden resolve he lifted the hood.
The woman's eyes widened and she stared at him in utter surprise. What she came to see within this moment, was not what she would have expected...
The face that came in sight was narrow and stern. It belonged to a handsome man in his middle ages and it got dominated by a pair of soft brown eyes. They almost appeared to be black within the strange play of light and shadow up here in his chamber. Neither arrogance nor lordliness got shown upon his features, but his words were filled with scorn, tiredness and resignation when he finally gave her a reply, his voice calm and steady: "Many astonishingly questions asked by a condemned witch, but instead of answers they provided you with this tattered piece of cloth you're forced to wear now..."
"It will be the last piece of cloth I will ever wear', she interrupted him: 'I'm very well aware of it..."
Her answer surprised him. Of course, this woman got confirmed to be a witch, a heretic in addition, and all those questions, she dared to ask him should never have been allowed to get asked by a woman, but no matter if asked by man or woman these questions got asked by a keen mind.
He knew, she was capable of reading and writing, he knew, she was able to speak in different tongues and he knew, she had a tremendous knowledge about herbs and plants and how they affected body and health. Some of the witnesses he had questioned himself had told him she always had been friendly and compassionate against every living being, be it human or be it an animal, and some of them would even swear she would own the ability of foretelling the future.
Was it true? Was it wishful thinking? Was it ill will? Or was it simply badmouthing?
All in all it was rather uncommon, but was it really blasphemy? Was it witchcraft? Was it enough to justify her death?
Once again, she interrupted his thoughts: "Answer me, if you're not afraid: Do you really believe our Holy Lord would have wanted this?"
She pointed at all the black and blue marks her face and her body were covered with, she raised her hands and showed him the angry and weeping wounds the white-hot irons had caused to her wrists and she let him gaze at her swollen ankles, but he kept silent and she went on: "Are you truly convinced, a healer is able to endanger you or your belief? Are you? If yes, trust me, if I tell you, knowledge is not an antagonist to devoutness and asking questions will never mean to undermine authority. Would you really deny to help the deserving poor? Would you really deny a piece of bread to the hungry? Did you consecrate yourself to Him to kill innocent in his name? Have you ever made a guess what he would say if he would come to know about this? I heard them say, he taught about love, about forgiveness, about peace and trust." She beheld him again and added: "There are many things I can see within your eyes, what I cannot find within them are hate and cruelty. Why are you denying love and reliance to the people?"
The inquisitor still kept silent.
For some endlessly long moments.
Then, when he finally moved, he stepped over towards the door and called for the guards. For a last time, his gaze met the gaze of the young prisoner: "You dared to ask many intelligent questions, but if you expect me to reply to one of them I have to disappoint you. I've no answer for you, I'm sorry. What I can tell you is the following: Your life will end today, out there under the greedy eyes of a salivating crowd, but", he raised his eyebrows: "at the end of this day, you will be free. Your spirit will be free, your soul will be free. That is much more than I will ever gain..."
It was more than astonishing what he just said – not only for her, but also for him and he knew, she was neither a witch nor a heretic...
Before the guards entered and before they grabbed her to drag her out, she was able to keep his gaze for a little longer and she replied: "My lord, one day you will come to know the truth. All the suffering, all the dead only serve one purpose: fear shall keep the people from asking questions like I dared to ask them today, but mark my words: the firm grip of the Holy Inquisition will just cause more questions and more and more people will slip through your fingers while you make a try to squash them within your iron grasp. Remember my words and don't be afraid: I will neither condemn you nor will I curse you, because I have been able to look behind your mask and even if you don't believe me that is what you do: wearing a mask! Your eyes, though, were telling me a different truth and you will come to know the truth! Soon..."
With this, she got dragged out. As soon as the door slammed shut behind her, silence spread again within the small chamber high above the marketplace and the inquisitor remained alone within the shaded room.
Somewhen later loud screaming and yelling were to hear, soaking in from down the marketplace:
The crowd was contented and pleased.
He sat down and closed his eyes.
You will come to know the truth...