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  The Secret of the Abbess of Assisi
  Dr. Vlastimil Vondruška (Translation Darren Baker) 2011, May


In the year of our Lord 1186, the seven-year-old King of Jerusalem, Baldwin V, died and was succeeded by his mother, Sibylla. When she then stepped aside in favor of her husband, Guy of Lusignan, all hell broke loose. The new King of Jerusalem had no interest in living peacefully alongside the Muslims. He immediately banished the former regent, Raymond of Tripoli, to his fiefdom in the north and abrogated all the peace treaties concluded by his predecessors. At issue for him wasn’t religion, but adventure. He liked war, enjoyed waging it and reaping the spoils. And so the years of relative peace in the Holy Land were over.

Guy of Lusignan had the support of dozens of knights who had come to the Holy Land with the same goal in mind – get rich. Perhaps the most ruthless and reckless among them was the Count of Antioch, Renaud de Châtillon. He was already an old man who lived only for killing and looting. Even controlling a fleet of pirate ships on the Red Sea wasn’t enough for him. In the name of Christianity, he set off to attack the island of Cyprus, which belonged to the Emperor of Byzantium. He massacred the defenseless population, completely unconcerned by the fact that they were also followers of Jesus Christ, if in the Eastern manner. His deeds were of such cruelty that the entire Christian world preferred to remain silent about them. No one was happier to see Lusignan sitting on the throne of Jerusalem than Renaud. On the very day of Guy’s accession, he renewed his attacks against Muslim caravans in the Jordan Valley. The sand along the trade routes was soon again stained with the blood of worshipers of Allah. The outbreak of war was inevitable.

Although Saladin had unified the Muslim world by this time, his reaction to this provocation by the Christians was at first restrained. He demanded an apology from the King of Jerusalem and the return of all captives and stolen goods. Only it never occurred to Guy to hold Renaud to account. He believed he would win this war and so immediately began making preparations. In the spring of 1187 he raised an army, something which no other King of Jerusalem ever had at his disposal. Even the exiled Raymond flocked to his banner, for he understood, as did most of the moderate knights, that keeping the Holy Land in Christian hands was at stake. They didn’t agree with Guy, but that didn’t mean they were willing to stand idly by in the face of Muslim attacks. They were, after all, Christian knights.

The troops pulled out of Jerusalem after Easter. Saladin’s forces were waiting for them at Lake Galilee. Soon they were just a day’s march away, but the actual distance between the two armies was nearly insurmountable. The path to the lake led through dry, hilly terrain. Continuing on without adequate supplies, in the dust and along scorching rocks with the sun overhead, wore not only the men out, but also, importantly, the horses. To survive the high plateau only to land into the hands of the enemy was the same as marching off to defeat. Like Saladin, the King of Jerusalem was well aware of this trap, so he called the Christian army to a halt.

They set up camp not far from a small river and started to do what was normal for such situations. The knights and their attendants forayed into the surrounding countryside in search of loot. They fought off boredom by occasionally skirmishing with advance units of the Muslim force. Both armies had engaged in dozens of similar skirmishes before, but they usually ended in a truce. Then, after waiting in vain for some decisive battle to take place, they would head home.

Despite lacking overwhelming numbers, Saladin was in no hurry for a quick truce. Not this time. The Christians had committed too many outrages and acts of violence. But he was not ready to risk a march across the arid highlands. He therefore opted for the closer and more secure goal of attacking the city of Tiberias, which lay on the hillside of Lake Galilee. By coincidence, the command of the city’s defenses fell to the wife of Raymond of Tripoli. Her husband, however, did not feel compelled to risk an attack across the highlands. On the contrary, Raymond publicly announced that it was better to lose one city than the entire army and Jerusalem. He knew that at heart Saladin was the same caliber of knight that he was. Nothing would happen to his wife. At the most, he would have to pay a ransom for her if Tiberias fell. He implored the King of Jerusalem to stay put and not do anything provocative. But Guy used the attack on Tiberias as an excuse to continue the war. He conferred with his most trusted advisers until nightfall, but they too admitted an attack would be too risky. Reason had prevailed. But sometime during the night, while the soldiers slept, the Grandmaster of the Templars came to Guy in his royal tent to persuade the King not to lay his sword aside. “You must proceed like the first Crusaders did when they reached the Holy Land! Their position was worse than ours is now, but still they attacked the infidels and won. God is with us!” he shouted, raising his right hand with the sacral sword of his order firmly in grip. He persuaded Guy to join battle the next day, and in doing so decided the fate of Jerusalem and that of Oldrich of Chlum.

The trumpets sounded at dawn throughout the Christian camp, calling the troops to arms against Saladin. Raymond came up to Guy, insisting he call off the march at the last minute, but Guy refused to see him. Running between the tents, the supporters of the King of Jerusalem enticed wavering soldiers with thoughts of plunder waiting for them in the Muslim camp. They were also busy calculating, based on the reports of their scouts, how big a force they would be facing in Saladin’s host. The army set off before sunrise.

It was a hot day in July. The plain on which the Crusaders marched was totally barren, without shade anywhere for shelter and rest. For months the scorched earth hadn’t seen a drop of rain. Their water supplies, carried in leather pouches, were gone before noon. The helmets on their heads were so hot they were nearly impossible to touch, but removing them only made matters worse. At noon the first man died of exhaustion. Still, no one gave the order to retreat. They staggered along, their heads hanging listlessly, trying not to think about what lay ahead. Such was their life, the life of a Christian soldier.

“Keep going!” the knights called out to the men in their companies. “We will reach Lake Galilee by evening. You can drink it dry if you like. The water is cool, clean and sparkling…” But a few hours later not even they had the strength to keep up the encouragement. The army had slowed to a pathetic crawl. The men began to stumble and many horses collapsed. Dusk arrived and still the lake was nowhere in sight.

“Let’s halt here! We must rest for a while,” implored the Grandmaster of the Templars, his parched tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth. He and his Templars were having the hardest time of all, and their horses even worse. Finally the King of Jerusalem agreed. The army camped in a shallow depression near the village of Hattin. They pitched no tents, constructed no fortifications, not even temporary ones. Nor did anyone post a watch. They were too exhausted. They fell to the ground and begged God to make the sun go down. There was only one well in Hattin, with little water in it. Renaud de Châtillon’s men seized it for themselves.

The camp was surrounded by the Muslims during the night. Despite their exhaustion, the Christian knights couldn’t sleep. They had to be on guard. Saladin could attack any time during the night, but he didn’t. He waited till morning. The Christians suffered from cramps, and thirst made them claw at their throats as if they were suffocating. Barely a soul felt the same grace of God that had stirred them to take up arms. Instead, they were overcome with despair.

In a fit of anger, Raymond cried out at Renaud, “It’s your fault! You provoked this war. You’re not a knight! You’re just a common brigand!”

“It was the King’s decision to set out against the Muslims,” Renaud replied wearily, without any of his usual haughtiness.

“And the will of God,” added the Grandmaster of the Templars, his voice no longer inspired. He knelt in front of his sword, which he had stuck into the earth as if it were a cross. He placed his hands on the hilt and prayed.

At the first light of dawn several thousand foot soldiers lined up in ranks. They had already decided during the night to no longer obey their knights, and Guy didn’t have the strength to stop them. These soldiers set off in the direction of Hattin in an attempt to make a breakthrough for Lake Galilee. All of them yearned for just one thing. Water.

Without the support of knights on horseback or any field command, the infantrymen were easy prey for the Muslims. They were all butchered without mercy. To the last man. Meanwhile Saladin’s cavalry fell upon the core of the army. Although the Christian knights were at the end of their tether, they succeeded in turning back the first assault. Still, they had lost the majority of their foot soldiers and without them they could not maintain an effective battle line. Once their horses began to panic, there was no longer any hope of maintaining an effective battle formation.

“We’re all going to die here!” wailed an elderly Knight Hospitaller, whose eyes had become so inflamed from the sun that he could barely see.

“I don’t want to die here!” a young soldier cried out in anguish. He had arrived in the Holy Land only a few weeks earlier.

“God will protect us,” said the King of Jerusalem, trying to reassure them in a firm and steady voice. He then looked around at his knights, who were waiting in silence for him to make a decision. He knew they wouldn’t obey him anyway. In order to give some appearance of royal authority, he muttered, “I absolve you of your vow to my crown. Let every man, God willing, try to break through the siege as best he can! Save yourselves!” It was as if he had announced he was giving up. The battle was lost.

Just off to the side, Raymond was sitting on his horse, surrounded by his men. He glowered at Guy. He was already planning to do as the King of Jerusalem suggested. They had no choice but to attack. He flashed a smile of encouragement at his knights, many of whom he had known since childhood. “We shall be the first of our noble brothers to die. I thank you all for your faithful service!”

He drew his sword and charged in the direction of the hilltop where Saladin’s green banners were flying. It was not an attack in accordance with knightly tradition. Only with great effort did his company manage to stay together. Before them gleamed the shields and helmets of the Muslims. A charging knight usually summoned up his courage by shouting out, only this time they lacked all vigor and enthusiasm. They were happy just to stay in the saddle. They would save their last bit of vitality for the heathens.

The enemy, however, was silent in the face of their advance. To the surprise of the Christians, they did not unleash a volley of arrows against them. In fact, the Muslims began to open up their ranks. Raymond reined in his horse and stopped. He searched for Saladin in the distance and found him easily, sitting on a beautiful black horse beneath a canopy. His beard was short, his face swarthy and deeply lined. They knew each other well. They had often fought together, even more often negotiated. Always in good faith.

Saladin grinned and gestured to the opposing force with his hand that they should continue. Whenever he was content, he knew how to be magnanimous. Raymond bowed his head ever so slightly in a sign of thanks and saluted him. He then spurred his horse forward. As soon as his company had passed through the open ranks of the Muslims, the circle closed tightly again behind them. In addition to Raymond’s men, the son of Renaud de Châtillon also managed to slip through the encirclement.

The battle immediately started, but didn’t last long. Only two other companies were able to break through the lines. One of them was commanded by Balian of Ibelin and the other by Reginald, the Count of Sidon. The Muslims knew that both of them belong to Raymond’s moderate faction. They considered them brave and honest knights. They would never slaughter defenseless merchants or villagers, unlike those who were now cowering in the valley around a single tent, over which the banner of the kingdom of Jerusalem limply hung. But no great effort was made to prevent even these combatants from fleeing.

When Saladin’s soldiers broke into the camp, they found the King of Jerusalem in his tent with several trusted followers. They were lying on the ground, too exhausted to get up. The Muslims had to haul them away to their own camp.

Waiting in a great tent, made out of black silk, was Saladin. He had scored a spectacular victory and knew that the Battle of Hattin would firmly cement his position in the Muslim world. Having seized power only recently, he had to prove that he was the best among Allah’s warriors. There would be no doubt about it after today. He wasn’t so foolish, however, to think that this was the end of it. He had an even higher goal. He yearned to conquer Jerusalem back. That’s why he conducted himself graciously with Guy of Lusignan. Diplomacy was always better than empty boasting on the heels of victory.

He offered the King of Jerusalem a cup of crystal clear water, wonderfully cool thanks to the containers of ice carried there by his slaves. In Saladin’s world, handing a cup to one’s guest was a guarantee of safety. In other words, the life of the King of Jerusalem was in safe hands. But he must act accordingly and acknowledge total defeat.

Guy drank eagerly from the cup and handed it to Renaud, who was standing next to him. It did not occur to him to act otherwise. As a Christian, he wanted to share with his neighbor.

Saladin furiously screamed at his interpreter to tell the Christians that he had offered the cup only to the King of Jerusalem. In other words, he was offering no guarantee to the lives of the others.

Renaud de Châtillon may have been a plunderer, but he was no coward. He had lived his whole life in a harsh and uncompromising manner, even when it was at stake. He snarled contemptuously and growled something so impertinent that the interpreter was reluctant to translate it.

But Saladin understood. With wrath and determination in his eyes and lips, he drew his sword in a flash and chopped Renaud’s head off. He knew from the expressions of the frightened Christians that this man was the main culprit behind the war, on account of all the atrocities he had committed. He therefore deserved to die. The others deserved it as well because they had allowed this villain to unleash his evil.

The Grandmaster of the Templars knelt next to Renaud’s corpse. He picked up his severed head and joined it to the stub of his neck. He closed his eyes and stroked him as if bidding him farewell, but was in fact conducting a discreet body search. Then, terrified, he crossed himself.

Saladin turned his back on him. He had had enough of the Christians. He ordered them to be taken away and given drink. He later conveyed his terms to them.

The Grandmaster slyly edged up to the King of Jerusalem and whispered, “He doesn’t have it with him!”

“What?” asked Guy wearily.

“The holiest secret of our order.”

“For the love of God! How did he get it?”

“I gave it to him during the night. I thought I was going to die,” explained the Grandmaster in horror. “He swore he would give it back to our order after the battle.”

“You fool!” snapped Guy. “You should have given the box to me.”

“Yes,” said the Grandmaster, humbly lowering his head.

“This is a complete disaster,” said the King, crossing himself. He wasn’t speaking about the defeat at Hattin, rather about something in Renaud de Châtillon’s possession that had somehow vanished.

Two months later, on October 2, 1187, the last garrison commander of Jerusalem, Balian of Ibelin, surrendered the city and the tomb of Jesus Christ to Saladin after a short, furious defense.


It wasn’t until evening when Royal Procurator Oldrich of Chlum returned with his troops to the administrative court which had been converted, in the King’s name, out of nearby Lipa Castle. He was angry, tired and suffering from a gash on his face. He had spent two days on the trail of the brigands who were waylaying merchants on the way to Zitava, but they had again eluded him. He suspected that the leader of this band was Adalbert of Jestrebi, but he had to catch him before he could bring him to justice. Lately he seemed beset only by tragedy. First his wife had died in the spring. Then he angered King Ottokar despite securing the condemnation of the murderer of Dobrej, one of the King’s judges. He also fell out with the highest noble in the land, Burgrave Vilem of Landstein, by declining the hand of his daughter Svetlana. And now here at home, in North Bohemia, the lords of Duba and Wartenberg were doing whatever they pleased, as if they were trying to prove these domains were theirs and therefore they didn’t have to take any orders from the King’s representative.

Ottokar II was now in the second year of his reign, and while he had showed himself to be a forceful and resolute monarch, he was inundated with problems. If only he had to deal with the ones in the Czech kingdom! His father Wenceslaus I had married him to the fifty-year-old heiress to Austria, Margaret Babenberg, who in terms of age was more like Ottokar’s grandmother. Together with her hand, he acquired the Austrian lands, and that was enough, at least according to Wenceslaus, to secure a happy marriage. The Czech king had thus become the most powerful ruler north of the Alps. An old adage of his ancestors held that the more family one had, the more problems he had to deal with. And was it ever true. Ottokar had so many problems abroad that he had nothing left for the petty, bickering nobility of North Bohemia.

Maintaining law and order around Lipa fell upon the shoulders of Oldrich of Chlum, and that’s why he was in a sour mood now that the highway robbers had eluded him again. He was greatly fond of this hilly and wooded part of the Czech lands. For the first time in his life he actually felt at home somewhere. He had been happy here while his wife was alive. Now he felt consumed by only responsibilities. But there were things of higher value in the life of a knight than mere fleeting happiness. The Lord had given him a sword in order to protect the meek. As the royal procurator, Oldrich put his entire soul into this task. At the cost of incurring the wrath of the King, the church, and the most powerful nobleman in North Bohemia.

As he passed through the gate, he could see his squire waiting for him in the courtyard. Ota of Zastrizly was a curious fellow. He had recently become a knight and, although an adult, still referred to himself as a squire. And so it stuck. He was also single, despite all the attention he received from more than a few girls. Not to mention a married woman or two, the local chaplain once noted with displeasure. Ota smiled and informed him that if God had destined him for holy matrimony, he would have led the right girl to him. The chaplain indignantly reminded him that it was hard to find the right one when he was too busy sinning with all the rest.

“You don’t understand,” countered the squire. “How am I to decide which one is the right one, according to you, unless I get to know as many of them as possible first?”

“Of course you should get to know your future wife. But in a devotional way, like when praying in church,” retorted the chaplain.

“You think I’m looking for a nun? I prefer to meet women under circumstances which, I hope, will occupy my future wife and me more than prayer.”

There was nothing the chaplain could say to that. He sometimes complained about him to Oldrich, who would then upbraid his squire. His reproaches, however, were never more than a little halfhearted. He knew his squire was set in his ways and, besides, he liked and appreciated him. He was the most faithful of servants, always ready to stick his neck out for his master, and as he himself once laughed, the heart will not be dictated to. Ota added in jest that a man being faithful to his master and to his wife were not the same thing because men choose their masters, and not their women, for life.

Ota may have made light of his romances, but he never actually hurt the feelings of any of the girls. He usually chose those who were also looking for a bit of pleasure on a whim. He could certainly offer it. A good-looking lad with his fair hair curled in the German style, he was tall and strong, yet moved about nimbly and gracefully. Despite the care he took in his looks, there was nothing effeminate about him, unlike most of the other youths of his rank. Sneers could be heard around the courtyard that these lads spent more time in ladies’ chambers than they did on the tiltyard. Ota claimed to be an honest exception, inasmuch as he could be found in both arenas.

“My lord,” Ota urgently called out to Oldrich as he entered the courtyard. “There was a messenger here today from the King.”

“What did he want?” asked the procurator, leaping out of the saddle and handing the reins to a groom waiting to lead his horse to the stables.

“He brought a letter. Apparently it’s very important but that’s all he knows. It has something to do with the exalted aunt of our still more exalted King. The exalted Abbess Agnes.”

“Enough with the exalted already,” Oldrich reprimanded him. His good mood was slowly starting to return. “Agnes of Bohemia is no longer an abbess in case you didn’t know. She gave up the office as a token of humility. Now she prefers to be called an older sister.”

“That doesn’t change anything. With nuns, there are still only problems. We’re expected to undertake a pilgrimage…,” said the squire, breaking off in midsentence. Oldrich gave him a knowing look and growled.

“You read the message, didn’t you?”

“The messenger said it was important. We’re expected to leave soon. You see, the seal on the paper was done very poorly and, well, it came undone. I read the message only to make sure we did not neglect our responsibilities,” explained Ota, trying to affect a guilty look.

“So the message is unsealed?”

“Not quite. I lightly heated up the bottom part of the seal and stuck it back. I realized you would not look too kindly on me sticking my nose into your affairs, my lord. But of course, thanks to my precautions, I know where our exalted King is sending us to.”

“As if I didn’t have enough to worry about here,” Oldrich sighed as he headed for the still unfinished court. “So where will it be now? No, let me guess. We just passed the anniversary of St. Wenceslaus. To Stara Boleslav by chance?”

“Much further, my lord.”

“To St. Vojtech on the Sazava? No? Somewhere in Moravia?”

But Ota only shook his head.

“Don’t tell me the King wants to send us to Austria?”

“No, he’s sending us much further. Practically to the end of the world. To Galicia. On a pilgrimage to St. James at Compostela. The older sister has decided to go there.”

“What? Are you talking about Agnes of Bohemia?”

“Yes, the former abbess, now just an older sister,” observed Ota innocently. “We are going to accompany her there.”

“It would be better if you referred to her as abbess. ‘Sister’ from your mouth sounds like some wench. Still, the pilgrimage to Compostela is the most famous in the Christian world. I’ve never been there before myself. But it’s going to take several months. I’m supposed to have so much time for such an undertaking? I’m the King’s representative in North Bohemia,” said Oldrich, shaking his head. “Why me? The King has plenty of knights at court who are quite useless. Being an escort would suit them just fine. Why doesn’t he send one of them? Who’s going to take care of matters here?”

“It says in the message that for the duration of the pilgrimage the Pope plans to declare Treuga Dei, the Truce of God, throughout North Bohemia. Should the lords of Duba and Wartenberg try anything against the King, they would be excommunicated by the church. They will think twice about stirring up trouble. And Captain Divis will easily take care of the rest.”

“That’s complete foolishness!” growled the procurator in disbelief. The Pope declared a truce of God only to protect the property of Christians who had accepted the cross and left for the Holy Land to fight the infidels. Oldrich had once studied at an ecclesiastical school in Magdeburg and was almost positive that the Pope had no such authority merely on account of an ordinary pilgrimage. But he stopped short of criticizing the decision of the Holy Father in Rome. He had once criticized a decision made by the Bishop of Magdeburg and it almost cost him his life. It was also the reason why he never became a prelate and instead entered the service of the Czech king. Although not a member of any important clan, he had gained Ottokar’s trust while the latter was still heir to the throne. He eventually rose to important positions thanks to that trust.

For Pope Innocent IV to bestow such unusual protection for Agnes of Bohemia was an indication that something extraordinary was at stake. He was incredulous that it was simply about an ordinary pilgrimage to the tomb of Apostle James. What reason could the Pope have to protect a single pilgrim, even one of royal blood? Oldrich sensed fear and uncertainty, which was usual whenever he was confronted with a difficult task. It was almost as if God had given him the ability to foretell danger that lay ahead.

But his fears weren’t simply founded on some irrational feeling of foreboding. Plain logic told him that the whole situation was rather strange. Why would the Pope extend protection to Agnes unless she was in danger? Swarms of pilgrims flocked to Compostela and nothing ever happened to them. For a truly devotional pilgrimage, a small company of knights should suffice. But the King had entrusted his beloved aunt into the hands of Oldrich of Chlum. Apparently he was worried about something. And the Pope too.

Ota was carefully observing his master when it occurred to him why he was hesitating. So he added, almost as an apology, that the message contained nothing more. Just something about the Provost of Vysehrad, Wilibald Odo, also accompanying them.

“The further we go then, the better,” sighed Oldrich. He knew the Provost of Vysehrad well and they didn’t like each another at all. Wilibald Odo was the sole member of the King’s council who opposed him when he was investigating the death of Dobrej, the King’s judge. The provost was a conceited blockhead. Oldrich inquired of his squire whether he might have come across any good news in the message.

“But of course,” declared Ota. “The message said we have to be in Prague the day after tomorrow, at the latest. So I ordered the cook to bake a blueberry pie.”

How Oldrich loved blueberry pie. Naturally, no one knew how to make it as delicious as his late wife did. No matter how hard he tried not to, he dwelt on her practically all the time at home. He knew it wasn’t good. Everything in life needed some limit, even memories. A long trip might finally help clear his head a little. It was actually something to look forward to. He loved new adventures. He had never been so far away from home in his life. A smile flashed across his face. Of course, he had no idea of the test of his Christian faith that awaited him.

- - -

Had Oldrich of Chlum assumed they knew more about the pilgrimage in Prague, he would’ve been greatly mistaken. The King wasn’t even there. Last year, immediately after Ottokar II ascended the throne, Bela IV, the King of Hungary, attacked Olomouc with his Cuman tribes. He was joined by Otto, the Duke of Bavaria, and, as usual, the Poles. Olomouc was able to fight off the attack and the conflict was quelled through the intervention of Pope Innocent IV, but peace had not come to the eastern frontier of the country. And so Ottokar was again leading his army into Moravia.

Agnes of Bohemia received Oldrich, but obliged him with only a few polite words after mass in the Church of St. Francis. The only thing he was able to learn was that the leader of the expedition would be Jacob de Vries, a Knight Commendatore of the Templars. The commandery for the Czech province was located in the Church of St. Lawrence in the Old Town section of Prague. It was only a few steps from the Church of St. Francis, so he stopped there. But he missed the commendatore.

He soon returned in a lousy mood and went to the inn At the Golden Wheel, where he was staying with his squire. Ota still wasn’t there. Oldrich sat at a table in a corner by the window. This was his favorite spot. He could see the courtyard outside while sitting next to the fireplace. It was October and uncomfortably cold as dusk was setting in. He ordered a mug of warm mead and sulked about what he could expect over the next few days. Hearing the sound of hooves, he turned his attention to the window and saw a rider entering the courtyard through the open gate. He immediately recognized him. On the horse sat Burgrave Vilem of Landstein. He ruled over the country in the King’s absence from Prague Castle.

Up until that one particular case of betrayal, Vilem had always been protective of Oldrich. The procurator could no longer be sure if the burgrave was as favorably inclined toward him as before. He had declined Svetlana’s hand and, moreover, the position of king’s judge, which he had done in order to save the life of an insignificant knight. The fact that Vilem was now there in person was quite extraordinary, as if the King himself had stopped by this inn in Old Town. Perhaps it meant that everything was forgotten and he still considered Oldrich a favorite. It could also mean that Vilem forgot nothing and wanted him to experience the full weight of his authority. This powerful official had plenty of reasons in either case.

“Damn Abbess Agnes!” Oldrich swore under his breath. He stroked the short beard on his chin, which he was in the habit of doing in similar situations. He was relieved to notice that Vilem was accompanied by only two soldiers and they remained in the courtyard. Their meeting would be private. This probably meant he wasn’t going to be arrested. Finally something! He drank from his mug and waited wearily.

The doors of the tavern flew open and in walked a tall, older man with an imperious air, wearing a frock made of blue velvet. A dark cape interwoven with gold, five-leaf roses, the symbol of his family’s coat of arms, was flung around his shoulders. Wrapped around his waist was a magnificent silver belt adorned with violent amethysts. He did not bother to close the door behind him. He simply took off his helmet and headed directly to the corner where Oldrich sat at the table. He knew exactly where to find him.

The fat innkeeper obligingly closed the door and followed him to the table. He politely offered him a chair and asked, in a silky voice, which wine to bring him. He had only the best, including two flagons from Thessaly brought to him by way of Venice. “Alexander the Great himself drank this wine,” explained the innkeeper, his ingratiating tone belying all the money he was hoping to make on Alexander’s account.

“What are you drinking, Oldrich?” Vilem asked, friendly enough. “Mead? Bring me a mug of it as well.”

“Only mead?” Creases appeared in the innkeeper’s fat face, but the burgrave paid him no notice. Oldrich sat up in his chair. He knew Vilem wasn’t one to bestow favors without getting something in return. Now here he was smiling at him graciously. What could he want?

“I see you’re still loyal to this tavern. This is where you hid Christian that time, right?” the burgrave continued most amiably.

“That’s in the past,” Oldrich replied politely but firmly. Christian was the innocent knight he saved from being executed.

“Of course,” Vilem concurred. He took the mug of mead brought to him by the innkeeper and toasted Oldrich. “What’s past is past. But you know what’s really interesting? The King wasn’t angry at you at all for helping a condemned man to escape. I would even say he respects you all the more because of it. And then there’s the matter of my daughter.”

Oldrich knew that it would be at least polite of him to inquire how Svetlana was. But he didn’t. Vilem waited in silence. There was a bit of a twinkle in his eyes, as if he knew exactly what the procurator was thinking. The burgrave was a very shrewd man. He had studied at the renowned college in Basel. He was not like most of the other nobles. Although a knight, he prized learning. It was another reason why he wanted to see Oldrich, now a widower, at the side of his daughter. Basically he liked him, in his own calculating way.

Oldrich preferred to change the subject. With a wrinkle of concern in his forehead, he lamented, “I’m troubled by the assignment the King has given me.”

“No reason to be,” said the burgrave, shaking his head resolutely and drinking from his mug. It was evident in his lips that he was enjoying the mead. “None of the responsibility will be yours. You don’t even have to be a part of the escort for Abbess Agnes.”

“Then why in heaven’s name do I have to go to Compostela?” Oldrich asked sullenly. He was starting to suspect that the undertaking was going to be even more difficult than he originally supposed.

“Perhaps because you have sinned. The King wants to give you the chance to redeem yourself for being stubborn by making this pilgrimage,” Vilem laughed. Oldrich took it as a provocation, so Vilem clasped his hands together and humbly added that it was something quite different and would, moreover, be enormously beneficial for his soul.

“I have been to Compostela,” the burgrave went on good-naturedly. “An unforgettable experience for any Christian! I still often think of that journey.”

Oldrich never once heard the burgrave mention it.

“You know my daughter,” he continued. “She’s a lot like you. Also very stubborn. When she gets something into her head, there’s no use trying to dissuade her. She’s like a mule. I guess I must’ve talked too excitedly about the pilgrimage to Apostle James, I don’t know, but the result is Svetlana now wants to go to Compostela too. She’s already talked three girls from the best Czech families into joining her. Some of them may even want to enter Agnes’s Order of Damianites later on. That’s why she’s letting them go with her. Of course, she told them they would have to provide for their own escort. The journey there is long and who knows what can happen along the way. But the King has given her his support.”

Vilem of Landstein paused and raised his eyebrows slightly. Let’s see, what else? Oldrich of Chlum clearly understood. It had been a long time since he felt such fury inside.

At that moment the doors to the tavern opened up and Ota the Squire sauntered in. He walked up to the table, politely bowed and excitedly began to tell Oldrich that he had some wonderful news. Among the pilgrims accompanying Agnes to Compostela would be a group of maidens from the nobility. The journey was therefore not going to be as boring as he originally feared.


It soon became clear that the departure from Prague was nowhere near as urgent as the message had suggested when it was first received in North Bohemia. They were supposed to set off in four days time. Oldrich of Chlum decided to use the lull to learn as much as possible about the journey ahead of them. At dawn he headed for the Vysehrad Chapterhouse. The writings contained in the scriptorium there were mostly by church scholars on the Christian faith, but it owned several scientific works as well. And while the St. Vitus Chapterhouse had more books, Oldrich knew the Vysehrad librarian, Emmeram of Greifsfeld, and admired his rather prim erudition. If there was anybody who could help him in this matter, it was him.

“You’re the third person who has shown interest lately in the pilgrimage to St. James,” the shaven-headed librarian, wearing a monastic frock, genially nodded. A sleepless night and toothache had left dark circles under his eyes. Whenever something bothered him, he looked even more gaunt and withered than he actually was.

“That’s probably because Abbess Agatha is making this journey to Compostela,” said Oldrich. The bony librarian frowned and admonished him, with all due severity, that the highborn Agnes was not an abbess, only an older sister in the service of Jesus Christ. He opened a chest and took out four codices bound in white pigskin.

“I have everything ready. Would you believe it, Sir Procurator, that our own provost wandered in here by mistake?” He didn’t even try to hide the sarcasm in his voice. The Vysehrad provost, Wilibald Odo, was a Norman by birth. He had lived in the Czech kingdom since his youth, but had never properly mastered the language. He was tall and muscular, had beautiful flaxen hair, light eyes and a bellicose temperament, just like his Viking forebears. The librarian hated the provost because Wilibald Odo knew only a few basic Christian tenets and was convinced they were quite enough. By some mysterious twist of fate, he had become the confessor of Agnes of Bohemia. He disdained learning and preferred the sword as the testament of his faith. He also despised Emmeram and let him know it.

“At least Wilibald Odo now knows where to find the library in his chapter,” chuckled Oldrich. He knew exactly how to get to the skinny monk.

“Yes. Miracles are possible even today,” Emmeram scornfully observed. “But only that he was able to find the library, because our most distinguished provost got no further than the door. Rather he stood there and ordered me to write down only the essential information on parchment. He didn’t open a single book! He said he didn’t have time to read all the nonsense that somebody else wrote way back when. If only you could have seen how he looked at me! He knows that I’m writing a treatise about the life and work of St. James. He knows how to belittle people, but you’ve probably already observed it yourself. He might be a servant of Christ and therefore our brother, but he enjoys humiliating people just the same.”

“Tell me, brother librarian, what did you note of importance on the parchment?” Oldrich asked with undisguised interest.

“You can have a look for yourself. He still hasn’t sent for it,” replied the bilious skeleton, fishing a scroll out of the chest. He unrolled it and handed it to his guest, who read: “James the Greater or Older (there was another disciple of Jesus named James, referred to as the Lesser). He was the younger brother of John, the evangelist and another apostle. He was present for the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ after his resurrection. He was one of the leading apostles. He preached the Gospel in Hispania, was the first of the twelve to die a martyr’s death in Jerusalem, after which his disciples put his remains in a boat and set it adrift. Led by the hand of God, the craft made it all the way to Hispania, where local fishermen found it and buried the remains where Santiago de Compostela stands today. Be careful, brother Provost – the place is called Compostela, not Santiago (Santiago is Hispanic for James).”

Oldrich rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the librarian. He observed, somewhat amusingly, “Unusually accurate, but then every monastic novice knows this story.”

“The provost ordered me to write only the main facts,” Emmeram grimaced. “That I did, as you can see, because I’m not sure whether that Viking pirate even knows as much as your typical novice. I will consider it a miracle if he reads my scroll all the way to the end. Besides, why should I even have bothered? He ordered me to go with him. If he needs something, he will ask.”

“You are going to Compostela with us? That’s good news,” smiled the procurator, but the quarrelsome librarian cut him off to say it wasn’t good news at all. He had a lot of work to do, plus a toothache, and on top of all that he hated riding on horseback. He suddenly checked himself, as if he started wondering whether the procurator was here just so he could hear such complaints. He crossed himself to ward away the thoughts that stood in contradiction to his monastic humility, and asked Oldrich how he could be of service.

“I would like to find out as much as possible about the pilgrimage to Compostela. But just so we both understand, I’m only interested in the journey itself. With all due modesty, I can say I already know quite enough about James.”

“And whatever you don’t know, I will be happy to explain later. There will certainly be plenty of time for disputation along the way,” Emmeram gladly offered. “Otherwise, I must apologize that our codices have little to say about the way there. Just some Benedictine monk inscribed a few remarks about his pilgrimage on the lifted pastedown of the Gospel of John. Naturally, he wrote them in Occitan. Even though it is the closest language we have in the Christian world to Latin, you probably wouldn’t understand everything. I would have to translate the text for you. But even that wouldn’t help you very much. The monk wrote down only tripe. Where to find a good inn or river to ford or how to get around the mountains. But what prayers to say on arrival, not a single word. Fortunately, I know them. The venerable Isidore of Seville wrote many illustrative treatises on the spiritual importance of the pilgrimage. Unfortunately, we don’t have them here in our library, but I know them practically by heart. And then…”

“I would nevertheless be grateful to you, brother, if you would translate the text of the lifted pastedown of the Gospel.”

Emmeram nodded with a sigh and opened a thick codex. The book side of the back cover contained a description in small letters of the journey from Constance to Besançon, and from there by boat on the Doubs and Rhône Rivers to the sea. Then it was walking across the province of Languedoc to Toulouse, then on the Garonne River to Bordeaux and finally by boat along the ocean shoreline to the harbor below Compostela. According to the Benedictine monk, this particular way was longer than on foot but much quicker. It only took him a little more than a month to reach it, because it was all downstream and the progress was therefore rapid. Oldrich thanked the librarian and asked to borrow the codex from him. He studied the text on the pastedown.

He knew the way from Prague to Constance. The monastery in Melk in lower Austria wasn’t far away. From there it was possible to go on the Danube to Sigmaringen, then only one or two days in the saddle to Lake Constance. That was, of course, if you were traveling in spring or summer. Here it was already October and he could feel a chill on his neck. He couldn’t understand why Agnes had to make her pilgrimage during the worst months for traveling. But whether she was being guided by reason or not, he had no doubt they would take the more comfortable way.

Agnes of Bohemia had to be at least fifty but looked young for her age. She was thin and ever restless, having long subscribed to the maxim of St. Gregory that the devil finds work for idle hands. Although an adherent to the asceticism of St. Francis of Assisi, she would have found it difficult to choose the less comfortable route to St. James. Being longer, they would reach the tomb later, and Oldrich suspected that Agnes was in a hurry to leave so she could celebrate Christmas in Compostela.

The librarian slipped his arms into the sleeves of his monastic habit and quietly observed him. He tended to judge the souls of Christians by the way they treated books. Oldrich turned the pages with an attentive and dignified solemnity. Quite nearly the same as Emmeram of Greifsfeld.

Oldrich gently closed the codex and secured it with metal clips to prevent it from accidentally opening. At that moment the door hinges creaked to announce the presence of the Vysehrad provost in the library. Surprised to see Oldrich there, he growled, “What are you doing here? If you are indeed the learned man they say you are, Sir Procurator, you have no need to be snooping around in libraries. You would already know everything beforehand.”

“My learning is certainly no match for yours, venerable provost,” Oldrich calmly declared. “You have no need to read any books.”

“I have prepared these notes for you here,” said Emmeram, handing the provost a parchment scroll. The prior snatched the roll from him, quickly opened it and bemoaned the fact that it was so long. With a parting glance around the musty library, he blessed them and left.

“Did you hear that? And this man is the provost of the Vysehrad Chapter! When King Vratislav founded it, it was supposed to be a seat of ecclesiastical scholarship,” sighed the pitifully thin librarian. “Now he fills this place with monks whose only advantage is they come from noble families. Otherwise they are lazy and stupid. And do you think, good sir, that the situation is different elsewhere? The church is deteriorating, and it’s all the fault of those begging orders. All this living in poverty and filth and ignorance and declaring that it’s the only true path to salvation. But where will it really lead in the end?”

“It doesn’t look like Wilibald Odo is suffering from poverty,” the procurator observed ironically.

“That’s for sure. He prefers a lack of education for his deprivation. Well, what can you expect from the offspring of pirates? The Normans once burned our farm on the Rhine and nearly murdered my entire family.”

Oldrich politely bowed his head and clasped his hands in a sign of prayer for the salvation of the souls of the librarian’s deceased family members. He quickly counted up the events of which he was speaking and figured they had to have occurred at least two hundred years earlier. How he must really hate the provost!

- - -

Meanwhile Ota, who had not received any special task from his master to fulfill, decided to try and find out something about their expedition. He was particularly interested in learning which young maidens would be accompanying them. He thought about paying a visit to Svetlana at the burgrave’s palace within the confines of Prague Castle. Ota had once saved her life, even though she was convinced that his master deserved most of the credit. And while she smiled sweetly at him whenever they crossed paths, he didn’t think it was very tactful to be asking her such questions at this moment. She might chide him for taking too much interest in women before setting off on a holy pilgrimage. Svetlana could be very spiteful when she wanted to and Ota could never imagine her becoming somebody’s meek and submissive wife, much less a nun.

As he strolled along the broad road leading to the Old Town market, he pondered how he might find out more about that little matter of interest. In the end he decided that the most reliable sources, as always, were those in the know, in this case the army of nursemaids and cooks that attended the nobility. And so by noon, he had discovered the names of the three girls who would make up Svetlana’s retinue of highborn maidens.

He did not personally know Jana of Blatna, nor could he remember ever catching a glimpse of her or even hearing of her at court. His recollection of Katherine of Gutstein was also rather vague, for he had not seen her in a long time. He knew, however, that a friend of his, Michal Kekule of Stradonice, was aiming to win her hand. Frankly, he could not imagine it ever happening. When it came to the fair sex, Michal was without doubt the clumsiest and most bashful of knights. Finally there was the third name, and it gave him cause to worry.

Zdena Berkova of Sloup belonged to a branch of the aristocratic clan from Duba. In spring, after one excellent feast in Lipa, he became rather more intimate with her than church doctrine would allow for chaste behavior. They had not seen each other since that time, but Ota wasn’t sure how he should act when he met her again. He wasn’t exactly her first lover and they exchanged no promises when they parted ways in the morning. But it had to have meant something. That was the difference between girls of noble birth and ordinary ones: that which went unsaid might just as well have been said, and then try to argue with them in a reasonable manner!

The easiest solution would be if a knight from North Bohemia wooed the hand of Zdena Berkova. It would take her mind off him and everything would go back to normal. But in all likelihood he would learn that Zdena had no suitor, which he could not understand because she was both pretty and rich. He was starting to worry about the complications he was going to face on the journey. And he didn’t even want to think about what would happen if Agnes insinuated herself between them. Her other passion besides piety was arranging marriages for the daughters of aristocratic families.

“So what?” he told himself. “I’ve been through worse things. What’s the point of organizing a defense when there’s no enemy at the gates?” He knew just what to do. The stupidest thing would be to avoid Zdena. At the first opportunity he would try to speak to her in seclusion. He considered it more honorable to tell her right off that what had transpired between them was over. Or better put, it had never begun. Better to have it out in the open at the start than to endure nasty reproaches or expressions of love and tears. His friends often envied him his success with girls, but if only they knew how much work went into dumping them honorably.

He was aroused from his thoughts by a shrill voice speaking in German. “Are you Ota the knight, from Zastrizly?” It was a man of small build and sharp features. His unmistakable foreign accent indicated he wasn’t German. Ota had been so preoccupied that he didn’t notice him following him all this time. He was swarthy, wore the chain mail of a warrior, and had a black cape draped over his shoulders. He didn’t have a sword with him, but a dagger, with a beautifully polished handle adorned with brown topaz, hung from his belt.

“At your service,” Ota bowed politely but warily.

“A grown man but still a squire. Isn’t that rather odd?” the stranger jested. “I might know how to change that.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Only saints want to live in poverty. And you’re no saint from what I’ve learned. If we were to go around the taverns of Old Town, the wenches in at least half of them would recognize you. Not bad, I would say!”

“Surely you exaggerate,” laughed Ota. He was curious to find out what all this was about and so adopted the same friendly tone. “I would wager that only a third of the wenches at most would remember me. The rest is just gossip.”

“Such tastes still don’t come cheaply. Perhaps you might need this?” smiled the rough-hewn stranger as he reached under his dark cape and pulled out a pouch stuffed with coins. He pressed it into one of Ota’s hands. If it was really full of denarii, there would have to be at least ten times threescore silver coins in it. More money than he earned in an entire year.

“You’re wasting your time,” Ota sneered. “I don’t need to buy any wenches, especially with somebody else’s money.”

“Money is always useful! A long journey awaits you. When you get to French lands, you will be amazed what the tailors there can make. And from what material! You won’t know what to look at first in the markets. Moorish weapons, Byzantine perfumes, Venetian lace. Treat yourself to a little luxury. Life is too short, noble knight from Zastrizly,” the man said in all earnestness and bowed. Stepping back, he added, “No need to thank me. Perhaps we shall meet again.” He left the purse in Ota’s palm, then turned and quickly headed in the direction of Judith’s Bridge.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Ota shouted and ran after him. He grabbed him by the hem of his cloak and attempted to give him the money back, but the stranger folded his arms across his chest. Sternly looking at Ota, he scolded him. “Kindly remove your hand. It wouldn’t do for us to grapple on the street like two people in the market. But should you be so foolish as to call for help from, say, that cross-eyed bailiff who’s been watching us from around the corner, I shall deny that the money was ever mine. Have a safe journey to Compostela!” With that, he pulled himself free from Ota’s grasp and briskly continued on to the river.


The commendatore of the Templar order in the Czech province, Jacob de Vries, came from Flanders. He was a strong man, middle-aged with chiseled features to his face. He had blue eyes, a wide, slightly flat nose, and tight, narrow lips, all lined by a well-groomed red beard. The lush locks of his hair were the same color and hung down to his shoulders. He was dressed in the attire of his order, a gray cloak with a red cross embroidered across the chest. He knelt humbly before Agnes of Bohemia, but with a fury in his face to match his pretense to humility.

“Forgive me, older sister Agnes, but I simply cannot agree. I am the leader of the expedition. I am responsible for the safety of the pilgrims and therefore cannot countenance the presence of this man with us. Oldrich of Chlum does not have a good reputation. He does not venerate the sacraments, he interprets church dogma however he sees fit, and he recently posited himself against the King himself. I would say nothing if he joined us as a penitent dressed in plain robes, but he is to make the pilgrimage as a knight. Why?”

“Enough!” said Agnes, wearily stretching out a white, manicured hand. She had a magnificent gold ring on despite the coarse garments she wore as her sign of humility. She may have been the representative of the Damian order of impoverished sisters, but she was also the daughter of a Czech king.

“Your objections are groundless, Commendatore. King Ottokar himself chose Oldrich of Chlum to accompany us. Unlike you, he thinks his administrator for North Bohemia is a faithful servant. And I have doubts about this insinuation that he is not a good Christian. I dare claim there would be less wickedness in the church today if all prelates were as honest as he is.”

“So why doesn’t he lead the expedition then?” de Vries fumed. “It would seem he is a paragon of Christian virtues even though his battles for Jesus Christ have gone no further than wielding a goose quill. Meanwhile, I have been shedding blood in the Holy Land for ten years fighting the infidels.”

“No one is disparaging your services. And what matters is God is well aware of them. He will reward you for them when the time comes. But you would do well to remember that pride is a sin. Did you raise your sword against the Muslims to liberate the tomb of Christ or only to promote yourself over other believers? Worse is the one who cannot control his sword. It was the King who ordered Oldrich of Chlum to join us. He will look after a company of four virtuous maidens. If you are indeed so well informed about the lack of virtues of the gentleman from Chlum, then you certainly know he has recently enjoyed the attentions of the daughter of the burgrave in Prague. He was therefore chosen to accompany the noble Svetlana. Enough about it already!”

“Fine. I am a humble servant of the church and will obey,” he said, with apparent effort. He looked at the floor. “But there is one more matter, older sister. Much more serious!”


“Are we really going to Compostela to pay homage to Apostle James? I have received a letter from our distinguished Grandmaster in Acre. In the name of the order of the Templars, he has entrusted me to ask you whether our journey is not somehow connected to the death of Count Renaud de Châtillon.”

Not a muscle in the face of Agnes of Bohemia twitched. Only her eyes flashed angrily. Still, she answered him in a calm voice. “My dear Commendatore, a moment ago you expressed your doubts about the true faith of Oldrich of Chlum. But you can be assured he would never doubt my pious intentions. His faith is strong. Why does your Grandmaster suspect my intentions? What reason does he have? If my soul were suddenly consumed by anger, I might say something foolish like I was not in Jerusalem when it was conquered by the infidels. But your Grandmaster and his order were. You can go now!”

Jacob de Vries rose, shaking with fury.

- - -

Although the pilgrims were not supposed to begin their long journey until the Monday after the feast of St. Havel, Oldrich left Prague with his squire Ota on Saturday. The reason was simple: some members of the expedition, it seemed, had already left Prague Castle. Svetlana, the daughter of the burgrave, had sent word to Agnes that she and the other maidens were going to wait in Landstein, the seat of her father’s dominions, since the pilgrims would have to pass close to the castle there anyway. Several knights had left with them. Oldrich, moreover, now understood that with the exception of the King, no one supported his presence among the pilgrims. It therefore didn’t matter whether he departed alone or with the others.

“And when I discovered that the Bishop of Prague was planning to celebrate mass on Monday for the benefit of the pilgrims,” he informed his squire, “I decided it was better to leave immediately.”

“I would do the same,” agreed Ota. They were in the saddle galloping along on the road to Benesov, which was broad in width to accommodate the trade traffic. It was a beautiful autumn day. The sun felt warm and the road was lined with a wall of brown and yellow-colored woods. “What’s the point of waiting in Prague anyway? Keeping company with virtuous maidens is far more agreeable than with virtuous prelates. It’s better for us to start off in Landstein.”

“You’re wrong on several accounts,” Oldrich chuckled. His mood much improved once they passed through the gate and left the dark fortifications of Old Town Prague behind them. He loved the open countryside. “First, none of the prelates on the expedition is virtuous. Second, none of the maidens you associate with is virtuous. So it’s all the same who we keep company with. And third, we’re not going to Landstein.”

“I suppose now you’re going to tell me we’re not even going to Compostela,” sighed Ota. “It’s no easy task to serve you, my lord.”

“If you’re referring to that stranger’s offer, I won’t stand in the way of you and fortune,” the procurator taunted him. Ota had, of course, informed him about the suspicious encounter he had had on the street. When he tried to hand over the purse filled with silver coins to his master, however, Oldrich refused to take it. He couldn’t help thinking out loud at the same time that the man who gives is a fool, but the one who doesn’t take is a bigger one. Ota got the money without having to promise anything for it. So he can keep it. For now anyway. Who knows what good it might bring them on the way.

“Are you dismissing me from your service?” Ota immediately protested. Of course, he knew his master was joking, but he still felt a twinge of resentment.

“I do hope you’re not expecting me to list all the reasons why I can’t do without your services,” said Oldrich in a conciliatory tone. He reined in his horse. The road began to wind and climb a steep hill.

“You can if you want to. It’s nice to hear such things sometimes. Besides, there’s nothing else to do. By the way, where are we going if not to Landstein?”

“We are going to Landstein. But we’re taking the long way, so there will be plenty of time for me to list all your good qualities. And your bad ones while I’m at it. Of course, I will need more time for them, so let’s start there first. Zdena Berkova of Sloup to be exact.”

“How do you know about her?” Ota sheepishly asked.

“My dear Ota, am I not the royal procurator? The best in the Czech kingdom according to our most gracious sovereign. It’s therefore only logical that I know about you two.”

“I guess so, my lord,” Ota replied with a radiant glow in his eyes. He was clearly enjoying himself. “You are indeed an excellent procurator, while I am only a humble lover. The best in the land according to several girls. It’s therefore only logical that they court my affections.” He was cut short by a blow from Oldrich, which he managed to dodge at the last moment. Ota spurred his horse on and since they were at the end of the climb, he dashed off ahead at a rapid gallop.

- - -

They spent the night at a wayside inn in Olbramovice and reached Milevsko the following day after lunch. Although it was a Sunday, the superior of the Premonstratensian priory eagerly welcomed him. Abbott Quido was a young man with a goodhearted expression. Oldrich had once proved very helpful to him when he was just an ordinary monk, but he never had the opportunity to repay him. He was all smiles as he made Oldrich comfortable in his magnificent hall and offered him some excellent Burgundy wine, which he had brought from the mother convent in Premontre.

“I’ll begin by telling you why I’ve come here,” said Oldrich after they clinked glasses. “I am accompanying Agnes of Bohemia to Compostela.”

“Yes, I heard she was planning to make a pilgrimage there,” nodded Quido. “To be honest, I was a bit aggrieved by the news. When I was in Prague this summer, she promised to spend the Christmas holidays in our monastery. We’re trying to find money to repair the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary and she would certainly know how to persuade the King on our behalf. Of course, there is nothing we can do now except wait for our venerable abbess to visit us another time.”

“There wouldn’t happen to be a monk in the priory who speaks not just French, but also Occitan? Perhaps even Hispanic?”

“I have two here who come from southern France. They must certainly know Occitan. But whether Hispanic…I’ll find out. Would you like to take one of them with you on your journey?”

“Yes, but not just for interpreting purposes. He should also be a virtuous and trustworthy man. Well, he needn’t so much be a man. Important is that he’s virtuous.”

“All my brothers are virtuous,” the abbot replied with a friendly wink. “Should his virtue take on any particular form?”

“Of course. I don’t care if he’s self-indulgent, proud, penurious or stupid. To a certain degree. But he must abide by the sixth commandment and not entertain any sinful ruminations or intentions in the company of women. I would like him to serve as confessor for the four maidens who will be in our party.”

“I can see you do not want to entrust this task to your squire. One of the brothers I mentioned a moment ago is well-suited to serve in this capacity. I cannot guarantee he won’t entertain any sinful thoughts, but I can vouch for his lack of sinful intentions. He is simply not capable of any. He suffered an accident once and since that time he’s been missing that which is necessary for such intentions. He is a very good man. The name he took after arriving here in the monastery is Hyacinth. But please, don’t ask him anything about his past. From what I know, his parents were burned as heretics during the Inquisition in Languedoc because they were Waldensians. He knows excellent Occitan because it’s his native tongue. But in spite of all he went through as a child, he’s a fervent believer. He has been living in our monastery for several years. I’ll call him for you.”

Oldrich was satisfied with brother Hyacinth. He was a tall, handsome man of about forty who spoke, notwithstanding the physical impairment touched upon by the abbot, in a beautifully deep voice. His eyes, however, betrayed a kind of girlish delicacy and, as could be expected, a fragile soul. Despite his manly appearance, loud noises frightened him. He was also clever and obliging, so there probably would be no problems with him on the journey. After he was told what was expected of him, he humbly bowed his head and quietly added that he served God wherever it benefited the order, the trials and tribulations of which he had accepted. And to do everything to make brother abbot satisfied with him.

For a moment Oldrich hesitated to accept the abbot’s invitation to stay overnight in Milevsko, but finally agreed. “It would not do to travel on the day of our Lord,” Quido earnestly argued. “Brother Hyacinth must say farewell to the other brothers, go to confession. Also, the steward must prepare a bit of food for him for the trip, some money, a change of clothes, a bowl and so forth. Do you think it will be easy for me, a servant of God, to make our steward break the Ten Commandments and work on Sunday? And what’s more, it’s been a long time since I last saw you. Do you think I will just let you go and calmly wait several more years for you to appear again? Nothing doing! I will prepare a feast and we shall spend the evening together.”

“Even if today is the day of our Lord?” Oldrich jested.

“Listening to your pious Christian wisdom would be nearly the same glorification of this day as reading sacred books,” said the abbot with a smile. He then quickly crossed himself and added that God would certainly forgive him these words because they were spoken with honest intentions. He suggested that Oldrich rest up for a while and they would meet again in the evening. He called for his prior and ordered him to prepare accommodations for him and his squire in the almshouse for guests.

- - -

They didn’t leave the priory in Milevsko as planned the next day. Abbot Quido led Oldrich to the library and proudly showed him four large shelves filled with thick leather-bound codices. Oldrich originally thought he would take just a quick look inside the scriptorium out of courtesy, but then he opened the treatise of Isidore of Seville and began reading it. The librarian was eager to please and soon brought him another codex containing a commentary on the Gospel of St. John. It also included a major historical essay by Jarloch, another abbot at Milevsko, on the events that took place in the Czech lands a century earlier. Oldrich eagerly turned the large parchment sheets, embellished with neat script, and all of a sudden it was already afternoon.

“We’ll leave tomorrow,” Oldrich told his squire, a bit apologetically. “I completely forgot about the time.”

“You see, my lord, it can even happen to you. Sometimes when I’m forgetful and arrive late, you scold me as if I were a child.”

“My dear Ota, I forgot about the time because of books. You, on the other hand, are inevitably late on account of skirt chasing. There’s a difference, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps. But the question here is which delay is the more agreeable. I hope you’re not planning to stay here tomorrow as well because of a few books? I thought I would die of boredom today. I spent half of it with this Friar Hyacinth. Absolutely the most boring holy man I have ever met in my life. The fact is I don’t really care for virtuous maidens, particularly when they’re in a group, but Hyacinth…he really has no interest. Poor Svetlana. Good thing she’ll have you by her side!”

“One more word and I’ll have Hyacinth accompany you on this journey! I will be nice to him and he will be my basilisk. But let’s be clear! Svetlana is no joking matter here. Of course, it’s my fault. I should have given you something to do. Whenever you’re idle, you think of only foolishness. Next time I’ll be sure to keep you busy!”

Oldrich scrutinized his squire while he admonished him. He had told him nothing about the physical deficiency of Hyacinth. He didn’t consider it important. In his mind, a Premonstratensian friar was no more boring than most other monks, but Ota’s sixth sense apparently suspected that something wasn’t quite right with this particular monk.

“Surely there was nothing I just said to warrant such a threat,” Ota breezily defended himself. “I wasn’t loafing around. I was thinking about our journey. And you know what is truly odd? Everyone seems to prefer we didn’t make the journey. All with the exception of our noble King. Perhaps his aunt Agnes won’t be happy to see us either, even if it will be our task to protect her. She was quite curt with you back there. What was that all about?”

“She rarely is cordial. But there’s something worse here. I have the feeling that this expedition isn’t entirely religious in nature; rather it’s being made for reasons which, unfortunately, I’m not familiar with. Three months ago she promised to spend the Christmas holidays here in Milevsko. And now all of a sudden she has changed her mind and decided to go on this pilgrimage to Compostela. No one makes a decision like that on a whim. If somebody wants to make a pilgrimage for its own sake, why the rush and leave at the beginning of winter? Any rational pilgrim would wait until spring. The anniversary of Apostle James is celebrated in summer. It’s the time when all pilgrims gather in Compostela. I learned about it in an essay written by Isidore of Seville, which they have here in the library. So you can see that the time spent here wasn’t a total waste.”

“It’s a pity the codex didn’t answer the question why anyone would make a pilgrimage to Compostela for reasons other than religious. It would certainly facilitate further inquiry into the matter, my lord,” said Ota, rather smugly. Even though he was trying to be funny, he felt a little uneasy. A feeling he was not too familiar with.

“Who said anything here about an inquiry? No crime has been committed. Not yet anyway. Also, I always thought you prefer to look for answers anywhere other than in books. Perhaps that group of virtuous maidens knows something. There’s an opportunity for you! Zdena Berkova of Sloup is a very sharp young woman.”

“Now who’s the basilisk here,” mumbled Ota, but Oldrich heard him. He laughed and added, “You will soon get your opportunity. I already arranged everything with Abbot Quido. We leave tomorrow morning right after mass.”

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