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AMSTERDAM & PUIVERT
May & June 1572
Thursday, 22 May 1572
Old Mariken knelt before the altar of the chapel in Begijnhof, as she had each night since receiving the letter, and prayed for guidance.
Written in an elegant hand, on fine paper, sealed with wax and a noble crest; it was her duty to answer. Yet the days had passed and still she had not replied. The words seemed to burn through her clothing, branding her skin with the hiss of calumny. A promise made thirty years ago at a deathbed in a boarding house off Kalverstraat.
‘Heer, leid mij,’ Mariken whispered. ‘Lord, guide me.’
The author of the letter was a French cardinal, a powerful man. It would not do to refuse him. The request for information about the boy and his mother seemed harmless, couched in plain and reasonable language. There was no cause for alarm. Yet Mariken could sense a malignancy beneath the official words. She feared if she gave his Eminence what he sought, not only would she be breaking her vow to a dying woman, but she would also be signing the boy’s death warrant. Such knowledge as she possessed was powerful and dangerous.
For an instant, Mariken smiled at her foolishness. If the boy still lived, then he was a man of some thirty-five years standing. Yet he was forever fixed in her memory as a child sobbing over the cold body of his mother, clasping a package given to him. Mariken had entrusted the package to her friend, Sister Agatha, for safekeeping, intending to retrieve it and return it to the boy when the time was right. But in the passage of the years, she had forgotten about it. She never knew what was in the package, though she suspected what it might contain. A common enough story: details of a betrothal, a promise made and broken, an illegitimate birth, another woman ruined.
‘Domine, exaudi orationem meum.’ Lord, hear my prayer.
Mariken’s words echoed loud in the empty space, too loud. Her heart stumbled and she turned from the altar, fearful of being discovered alone in the chapel at such an hour of the night. But no one lifted the latch, no one stepped into the nave.
She raised her eyes to the Cross and wondered if anyone else would remember Marta Reydon and her son. She doubted it. Most of her companions of those days were gone. Though many years had passed, she still prayed for Marta’s soul. She had been a woman as ill-served in death as she had been ill-used in life.
Mariken had first made Marta’s acquaintance in the alleyways around the old parish church of Sint Nicolaas, where the women who sold themselves to the sailors coming off the ships gathered. Mariken and her friend Sister Agatha, a nun from a nearby convent, had done what they could for the poor creatures.
Mariken shook her head. It was so long ago. Her memories had lost their colour. Her fist tightened around the letter concealed beneath her long plain robes. She could delay no longer. It would go ill for her if she failed to furnish the cardinal with the details he wanted – no, the confirmation of what he appeared already to know. For although the Beguines were religious women, not cloistered nuns, they, too, took a vow of obedience and service, and their community also needed protection in these lawless times. Though Amsterdam had not yet joined the Protestant rebels, Mariken feared it was but a matter of time before the city fell. The Calvinists were gathering at the gates. Many of their Catholic sisters and brothers had already been forced from their convents and monasteries and quiet gardens, and had fled. The Mistress of Begijnhof would expect her to do her duty to the Holy Mother Church.
All the same.
When receiving the letter, Mariken had first made inquiries up towards the harbour, where information could be bought in the taverns of Zeedijk and Nieuwendijk for the right price. Then, she had turned to a powerful acquaintance on Warmoesstraat. A wealthy grain merchant, Willem van Raay was a pious man, a discreet man, a keeper of secrets. Mariken had nursed his daughter back to health some years previously, so she trusted him well enough to ask if he might have heard of a Pieter Reydon, or if there was gossip about why so eminent a French cardinal might have his gaze fixed upon Amsterdam. He had taken a letter for Reydon, to pass on if he managed to find him, and promised to investigate.
But two weeks had passed and still she had heard nothing.
Mariken accepted now the only thing was to call upon Willem van Raay in person. It was another burden on her conscience. They were forbidden to go out during the day without permission and, since she could not confide her reasons for wishing to leave the community, she would have to lie. At least by slipping out at night, she tried to persuade herself, she was avoiding that second transgression.
She had purloined the key to the outer gate earlier, though she hadn’t absolutely decided to use it: not least, Mariken didn’t relish the thought of being out unaccompanied in the dark streets at such an hour. But God would surely watch over her. Once she had spoken to Burgher van Raay, she would have information enough to compose an appropriate letter to the cardinal and her conscience would be clear. The burden would be lifted from her shoulders.
Mariken crossed herself and rose slowly to her weary feet, still feeling the cold imprint of the tiles on her knees. Every single bone seemed to ache with the pain of living.
She rearranged her falie over her wisps of grey hair and went out into the night. It was dark in the courtyard, though a few midnight candles were burning in one or two of the wooden houses around the green. The brook babbled its night-time song between the thorn bushes. Mariken glanced up at the Mistress’s window, praying she had not woken and found the key gone, and was relieved to see her window was dark.
Fearful and troubled, Mariken fumbled and dropped the key. In all her years in the community she had never disobeyed the rules in such a manner. Her old heart thumping, she finally succeeded in unlocking the gate. She stepped onto Begijnensloot and into the narrow medieval streets beyond the bridge. Mariken was so anxious that she did not observe the shadows shimmer behind her. As she crossed Kalverstraat, head bowed, she did not feel the shifting of the air. So when the blow came, pitching her forward into the Amstel, she had no time to think.
Like many Amsterdammers who lived their lives ringed by canals, Mariken could not swim. As the first mouthful of water filled her lungs, she just had time to think how glad she was that now she could not be forced to betray the trust placed in her. She was aware of a man standing on the quay watching her drown. As her heavy grey robes quickly pulled her under, Mariken prayed that the boy Pieter and his mother would, in time, be reunited in God’s grace.
And that the cardinal would never know the truth.
Two Weeks Later
CHÂTEAU DE PUIVERT, LANGUEDOC
Friday, 6 June
There was barely a whisper of wind.
Minou held her long, pale fingers to her temples and pressed. Her head continued to pound. She could feel the approaching storm in the prickling of her skin and the sheen of sweat at the base of her throat.
Her family would be gathering now to hear her decision. She could delay no longer, yet still she hesitated. Minou glanced around the musicians’ gallery. The familiarity of it soothed her spirits. But when she turned back to the window, and saw black storm clouds mustering above the valley, unease caught in her chest.
What should she do?
Minou loosened the high collar at her neck, the brocade stiff between her finger and thumb. It was unlike her to be so indecisive. She presumed it was because so many of her family were here, bringing back dark memories of the last time they had all been together in Puivert.*
‘Les fantômes d’été,’ she murmured. The ghosts of summer.
Blood and sinew and bone. The thrust of the sword and the swing of the rope, the roar of the fire as it took hold in the northern woods. Many had been lost between that dawn and dusk.
Ten years had passed. The forest had come back to life. New green shoots had replaced the black, charred trunks, soft dappled light painting new pathways between the trees. A carpet of pink and yellow woodland flowers blossomed in the spring. But if the land no longer bore the scars of the tragedy, Minou still did. She carried the horror of what she had witnessed deep inside her, like a shifting splinter of glass. She never forgot how closely Death had walked beside them. How his breath had scorched her cheek.
It was why she had invited her whole family to a service of remembrance in the chapel to mark the anniversary and to lay the past to rest once and for all. Afterwards, Minou had gone alone into the woods and laid flowers at the overgrown grave of the previous châtelaine of Puivert. There had been other tributes, poesies and scraps of ribbon. A Latin prayer. For although the castle was now a Huguenot enclave, many in the surrounding countryside remained committed to the old Catholic faith. The flourishing Église Saint-Marcel in the village of Puivert below attested to that.
As if mirroring the pattern of her thoughts, the bells of the church began to call the hour. Minou picked up her journal. It was her custom to write in the afternoons, carrying parchment and ink up to the open viewing point at the top of the keep. It was her way of linking the girl she had been to the woman she had become. So, though duty was calling, she decided to allow herself a few moments more of solitude. Writing helped her make sense of the world, a testimony on life as she lived it. Writing, if nothing else, would calm her conflicted thoughts.
Quitting the chamber, Minou climbed the narrow stone staircase to the roof, up steps worn thin by generations. At the narrow landing at the top of the keep, she took her old green travelling cloak from its hook beside the door, lifted the latch and was about to step out onto the roof when a voice rang out below.
Feeling as if she had been caught out, she turned quickly.
‘Je suis ici, petite.’
Minou heard footsteps, then the inquisitive face of her seven-year-old daughter appeared on the floor below. Marta was never still, in body or mind. Always rushing, always impatient. As usual she was holding her linen cap, stitched with her initials, crumpled in her hand.
‘Maman, where are you?’
Minou took her fingers from the latch. ‘Up here.’
‘Ah.’ Marta peered into the gloom and nodded. ‘I see you now. Papa says it is time. It is past four o’clock. Everyone is waiting in the solar.’
‘Tell Papa I will be there presently.’
She heard Marta draw breath to protest but then, for once, think better of it.
‘In point of fact, Marta, could you also ask Papa to –’
But only the echo of Minou’s own voice swam back at her. Her quicksilver daughter had already gone.
The assassin crouched in the tangled undergrowth, his finger and thumb stiff in position around the wheel-lock pistol. His gaze was fixed upon the highest point of the castle.
He was ready, had been so since first light. He had made his confession and prayed for deliverance. He had laid his offering at the grave in the woods of the previous châtelaine, a pious and devout Catholic lady murdered by Huguenot vermin. His soul was pure. Shriven.
He was ready to kill.
On this day, he would rid Puivert of the cancer of heresy and be blessed for it. He would purify the land. For ten years, the Protestant harlot, an imposter, had filled the château de Puivert with refugees from the wars. She had given sanctuary to those who should be driven down into the fires of Hell. She’d taken food from the mouths of the true Catholics who belonged here.
No more. Today he would fulfil his vow. Soon, the bells of the castle would ring out for Mass once more.
‘Thou shalt not suffer a heretic to live.’
Had not the eminent priest preached those very words from the pulpit in Carcassonne? Had he not fixed him with a gimlet eye, selecting him of all the congregation to fulfil God’s command? Had he not given him benediction and provided him with the means?
The assassin’s right hand tightened on the pistol, as his left slipped to the heavy purse hanging at his waist next to his rosary. Though his greatest reward for his most Christian service would come in the hereafter, it was only fair he should have some credit on this earth too.
The man rolled his shoulders and flexed his fingers. He could be patient. He was a poacher by trade, well used to tracking and hunting his prey. The blood-stained sack at his feet gave testament to his skill. A rabbit and an entire colony of rats. The kitchen gardens in the upper courtyard of the castle attracted all kinds of scavengers. It would have been a sin not to profit from his presence there.
The assassin shifted position, feeling the taut muscles spasm in his right thigh. He looked up through the canopy of green leaves. The sun was shrouded by dark clouds as he heard the solitary toll of the village bell strike the hour. The Huguenot whore customarily took the air at the top of the keep at this time in the afternoon, so why did she not show herself today?
He listened, alert to the slightest sound, hoping for the creak of the wooden door. He heard nothing save for the rumble of distant thunder in the mountains and foxes on the slopes of the garrigue beyond the boundary of the woods.
It was God’s will that the heretic should die. If not today, then tomorrow. France would never be great again until the last Protestant had been driven from her shores. They were the enemy within. Man, woman, child – it mattered not. Dead, imprisoned, exiled – it mattered not. Only that the wound be cauterised.
The assassin sat back to wait for his quarry. At his feet the blood of his catch continued to seep through the hessian of the sack, staining the green woodland grasses red.
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