In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?
- William Blake -
Breathing raggedly, the courier skipped across dirty patches of melting snow and muddy puddles as he scurried up the steps to the bland stone court hall of the sheriff’s castle in Hofbieber. Without knocking he burst into the hall, bringing with him a gush of icy spring air into the stuffy chamber smelling of stale smoke and unwashed bodies. He thought it empty, for it was Saturday, and trials couldn’t be held on the eve of the Sabbath by law. But in the corner he spied one of the sheriff’s bailiffs stretched out on one the long wooden court elder benches lining the hall near the oven, snoring his insolence.
The courier theatrically cleared his throat as loud as he could before announcing with bored sarcastic ceremony, “Post from my liege lord, his Holiness, Balthasar von Dernbach, Imperial Prince Abbot of Fulda!” Of course, he did not bother extending his document to the snoring dolt.
The announcement didn’t rouse the fat servant in the least, who simply grunted like a boar, before rolling on his side and giving an ear-shattering fart, as he continued to snore his disinterest. The courier bridled at the insult, then deftly hooked his booted toe in the man’s loose pant cuff and rolled him to the floor. He fell with a thud, like a slab of rancid ham hitting the butcher counter. When the fat man finally opened his swollen drunken eyes, he took an idle swing at the lad, cursing him for disturbing his sleep. The courier danced out of his reach, and repeated his announcement. The sheriff’s bailiff was about to give him a sound beating such a cheeky lad deserved, when he stopped short at the sight of the courier’s habit – the Abbot of Fulda’s livery!
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place, you insolent son of a swine?” growled the bailiff, snatching the large folded parchment letter away from the courier with his meaty hands and inspecting the seal on it.
He was about to break the seal with his greasy fingers, when the courier chirped up. “If I may interrupt you for a moment, o worthy imperial servant, this letter is only for the eyes of his Lordship, Balthasar Ross, Imperial Sheriff of Hofbieber!” he explained tersely. The half-toothless bailiff guffawed a sarcastic laugh and was about to open it anyway.
“Of course, I have heard how his lordship the sheriff is an understanding man, and will no doubt forgive you for ignoring the Prince Abbot’s implicit instruction”, the courier warned coyly, smirking. The threat didn’t miss its mark. Instantly the bailiff ceased fussing with the parchment to glare at the courier angrily. The Imperial Sheriff and Hanging Judge, Balthasar Ross, was indeed anything but forgiving. In his annoyance the bailiff was tempted to box the courier’s ears for his clever insolence, but restrained himself again at sight of the Abbot’s livery, well knowing that such an act would not go unpunished.
The fat man motioned the courier to follow him as he shuffled out of the court room to go look for the sheriff.
He found his lord in his stables, where Balthasar Ross was having one of his prized mares covered on this early spring day. He was a giant of a man, standing a good six feet tall, with a pair of merciless blue eyes. Fitting to his office, he wore his strawberry blonde hair shortly cropped – Roman style, and kept his matching beard and moustache neatly trimmed.
The bailiff scowled at his lord, because he resented him. Balthasar was not of noble blood. Like most Imperial Sheriffs in the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, he was an appointed lord – or as the villagers expressed it behind his back, “the Prince Abbot’s personal bully and thug”. The piggish man felt cheated the Prince Abbot had appointed his stall master to become sheriff, when everyone knew the bailiff was supposed to be appointed to this office. And all because his Holiness was so impressed with a bit of horseflesh!
“Whoever can treat such gracious creatures with kindness, sternness, yet reverence, has earned the right to judge men, too!” said Balthasar von Dernbach as he invested his stable boy into the highest government office in the shire.
‘Ha! What a laugh!’, thought the envious bailiff. Balthasar could barely read and write! What did a stupid stable hand know about law and order? That Dernbach! Leave it up to a Prince of the Church, who was cast in exile for more than two decades by an angry emperor to decide that taming a spirited stallion was qualification enough to interpret the law!
As the bailiff ambled over to his lord, whom he feared but did not respect, he idly wondered if his Lord Sheriff was not really the abbot’s catamite lover. How else could a stable boy become sheriff? He frowned at the thought that actually finding proof Ross was the abbot’s secret lover, would not end in the desired reward for the office he deserved, but more likely with a rope around his neck to shut him up forever.
The surly servant extended his lord with the abbot’s letter, while Balthasar was holding the halter of his favorite mare, stroking her fretful neck and calming her, as he proudly watched his newly-purchased stallion ram its flanks against her. She screeched eerily in pain and passion as the stallion jutted against her. “There, there, my beauty…” he cooed soothingly, “All life begins and ends in pain. It will be just but a moment… there, there!”
The bailiff eyed Balthasar warily. 'He speaks to his nags like they were his whores', he thought with disgust, and looked at Balthasar’s crotch to see if he wasn’t somehow unnaturally attracted to his creatures. Now that would be a find, for then the abbot would surely have this dimwit stable boy burned at the stake for unnatural lust, but there was no such luck.
“My Lord”, said the bailiff with felt but not expressed sarcasm as he handed Balthasar the letter from the Prince Abbot. The bailiff turned away to shake his head, waiting impatiently for Balthasar to break the seal. At any moment he expected the sheriff to ask him to read it, well knowing the former stable boy couldn’t read a word of Latin. His impatience grew as he fidgeted while he waited for the tall, well-proportioned man to give up reading what he couldn’t possibly understand.
“Bertold! Saddle my horse at once!” he commanded to one of the stable servants.
“Bad tidings, my Lord?” the bailiff asked his liege a bit incrediously. Since when could Balthasar read Latin?Surely the abbot would not have written him in German!
He gave his bailiff a friendly clap on the arm as he smiled, saying, “No, Heinrich! God has decided to bring His Church back to our land, and rid us of this loathsome lot of heretics!”
Heinrich, the envious bailiff, chewed his lip uncertainly, as he watched his lord gallop off with the courier towards Fulda. He sighed cursing Balthasar, “Devil take you, you accursed catamite!”
* * * * *
Three hours later, the sheriff was still in the ante-chamber waiting to be summoned for his audience with his Holiness, and growing impatient as he paced the parquet floors of the huge ante-chamber in the Prince Abbot's palace in Fulda. Other merchants, knights, clergy and pages were milling about all waiting to see the Prince Abbot. Balthasar was just beginning to believe he was not going to be admitted today, when the prior steward came out and called his name.
Nervously he doffed his velvet cap, and straightened the imperial insignia chain of his office on his velvet cloak before he entered the room. Confidently he marched into the throne room to make his respects to the new Prince Abbot, Balthasar von Dermbach, kneeling humbly before his liege lord. The abbot extended his ringed hand, which the sheriff respectfully kissed, before daring to look up into his face.
Before him sat a weak old man, frail with from the trials God had thrust upon him. His hair was thin and gray and his skin fallow and jaundice, with deep furrows in his waxy complexion. The only spark of life in him was his fanatical blue eyes, which burned brightly.
“You may rise, my son . Ah… my dear Balthasar! How wonderful it is to have you visit me here”, the abbot crooned in his feeble voice.
“Yes, your Holiness. I came as soon as you summoned me. Your Holiness should know by now that his humble servant is here to obey his every wish, and do the will of the Mother Church”, Balthasar answered obediently.
“My son, it is rightly so, that I have summoned you. For years I have watched you – watched you grow and become a man. I know you are a righteous man, who will carry out the Will of God, the Mother Church and the Holy Roman Emperor with his dying last breath”, the abbot said in a hoarse voice.
“You have heard truly, your Holiness. I would put only the Will of God before that of the Church or your Holiness. It pleases me to see that your Holiness, our faithful servant of the one true Mother Church, has triumphed over the heretics – may God have mercy on their souls – to return safely to Fulda”, the sheriff replied obsequiously to his liege.
“Yes, yes, my son. It is a sign. Balthasar, it is God’s Will that I vanquish these devils and heretics from His Empire on earth for once and for all. For this purpose, I have written to his Holiness in Rome, requesting him to sent me Jesuits to help me build schools and colleges, to quench this evil seed in men’s minds called ‘Lutherism’ – may his soul burn in the fires of purgatory forever!”, he spat hoarsely.
“So mote it be, your Holiness”, the sheriff added respectfully.
“Balthasar, my son, I have asked you here to help rid us of our land of a plague. The devil walks upon the earth, my son. He has whispered into the ears of our folk, and taught them to translate the Holy Scriptures into German, to doubt the infallibility of the Mother Church. Everywhere the devil has his hand in play. If he is not confounding the minds of men, he is spreading the plague, and evil throughout our shire. These are serious times, my son. I am looking for a righteous man to do the work of God here on earth, to rid us of Satan! Vanquish him to his abode in Hell!” the abbot spoke fanatically at length, his eyes flashing his pure determination.
“Holy Father, there is no greater mission, for which I would gladly volunteer myself”, Balthasar replied humbly.
“I never doubted your love for the Mother Church, my son. For this reason, I shall declare you today, my Maestro Maleficium, my Witch Hunting Master. I want you to purge our shire of witches and heretics, Balthasar. With my dispensation, you shall have free hand to capture all, who will not rescind, recant and repent their sins. As it says in the Holy Scriptures, “Thou shallt not suffer a witch to live“. Burn them – burn them all! You shall receive all of the necessary dispensations and atonements for doing the righteous of God, my son. Rest assured, when your work is done, your reward shall be a throne for the righteous in the Kingdom of Heaven”, the abbot spoke, talking Balthasar’s hand in his own weak ones and patting it affectionately.
Balthasar smiled weakly, wondering if the Prince Abbot was really meant what he had just requested of him. Witch Hunter. Rumors had reached his ears from Trier, Bavaria, and Franconia, of the work of the Jesuits. He was overcome with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand he feared the devil, but at the same time he wondered if he really had the stomach to condemn women and children. Refusing his lord was out of the question, since he feared having his soul condemned to hell more than feared killing a few heretics. After all, he didn’t have to kill them if they recanted and came back into the bossom of the Mother Church. On the other hand, if he could manage to deliver the church and restore to its former glory, he would be celebrated as a hero, sung of by men and worshiped by women.
The abbot handed him a parchment. “Here, my son. This is the charter naming you my Malefiz Master. With it you have the authority to arrest them, try them and seize their property. And I will bless all of the earthly money and wealth you confiscate from those unholy heretics, who are in league with the devil. I will bless it and rebuild the cathedral bigger and more magnificent than ever before, making it a worthy hostel for our Lord Jesus when returns to walk upon the earth. Go now, Balthasar, and burn them all! Burn them and bring the keep their unholy wealth for me. It will be our little secret, for I fear our Holy Father in Rome might sympathize with the devil. Tell no one, my son! Save the devil’s money, that I might bless it, and build a church to rival the very Throne of God. Balthasar, it is in your hand to save our Church. Go now, my son, and do God’s work!”
He kneeled, and kissed the ring of the Prince-Abbot once again, before he replied, “Holy Father, no assignment would honor me more than to fight for the Mother Church against the forces of darkness. Please, give me your blessing.” The abbot gave him a weak smile before touching Balthasar's head and making the sign of the cross.