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Volume 10, Issue 1: Pictura

Bridges

Douglas Jones

The bridge started to give way too soon. Just moments before it had been locked to the landscape, an oaken plateau that was one with the earth. Its round, rough beams had upheld countless village folk and nobles over the river into Rudolstadt. Chickens had scattered across it, winters had gripped it, an Emperor had ignored it, and Lutheran refugees had hidden beneath it, clinging to its dark underbelly. But now it had to fall. Thick-shouldered men covered the bridge pounding it and tying its beams to lines of yoked oxen, pulling, pulling, each snap and groan provoking curses of success.

The third daughter of the Count of Henneburg stood straight, watching from the river bank; she quickly removed her hands from her waist and crossed them high on her breast. She whispered orders for greater haste to one of her male servants. He ran off to the bridge, and then she spun around in a torrent of blue and started back toward her castle. As Princess Katharine reached the grass summit, men from the bridge started to yell and jump into the water. She turned and saw four lines of oxen snap forward and heavy pieces of bridge fly like kindling into the air and then stick into the riverbed. Its centuries had come to an end. The men on land and in water looked up to her silhouette on the hill and cheered her. Katharine waved, smiling thinly and spoke to those beside her.
"Now the Duke of Alva will have to go around Rudolstadt." Only a footbridge into Rudolstadt now remained, too weak and troublesome for passing troops to bother. Passing troops often caused more damage in passing than in war. Germany was at peace, but the Emperor fought wars beyond these borders, and as his troops passed through towns the mercenaries were given to believe that they could freely display their covetousness in theft, petty murders, and rape of innocents.

The shadow of the castle had crept slowly around its hill, gaining gray, losing blackness, and Katharine had shifted in her window seat only once. She had hoped the sun would flash off the metal of the Duke's sea of spears and shields at their first crest. Still nothing. She had sat many hours here in the arms of her late husband, Henry, the Prince of Schwartzburg, discussing the new Lutheran freedoms, old injustices, and the soft curl of her hair—the Prince's favorite topic. But that had been a long lonely decade before. Her cloak of loneliness had grown heavier in the past year. It always lightened with prayer and by her turning outward to her efforts at educational reform in the village. Lutheran refugees whom she often hid in her castle always reminded her of the important things, lightening the load of solitude.
A writhe of brown movement drew her eyes toward the footbridge. A royal courier dismounted there, tied his horse to a bridge stave, and ran across. Katharine started out of the tower, down the spiral of cool granite, ignoring the warnings of her attendants. The courier was being set to wait in the grand hallway when Katharine blew into the explanations. The tight-skinned courier bowed and said that he had two pieces of correspondence, one from the Emperor, Charles V, and the other from the Duke of Alva, the Emperor's Spanish general.
Katharine didn't read the Emperor's letter, but she unrolled the Duke's message as if it were a note confiscated from a disobedient child.
"The Duke wants to join us for a midday feast tomorrow," she said in monotone. Some young attendants gasped. Others ran off for preparations. "He and three of his officers alone," she added louder, down the hall. More attendants ran off. She waved off the remaining girl still standing behind her and looked hard at the courier. "I believe you have something else for me." She held her thin hand out, palm up. The courier started, thinking that he was to surprise her with the third message. He slowly pulled it out of his cape, touching only its edges. She dismissed the courier and then stopped him with a warning. "You know you will surely die if the Duke of Alva learns of this message." The courier straightened, insulted.
"The Duke of Brunswick is my sworn master. He has my first loyalty." The courier left without bowing. Katharine smiled as she read and walked, swaying slowly and lightly as she passed through a pale wedge of sunlight.
Philip, the Duke of Brunswick, served as one of the Duke of Alva's chief officers, and he had often tried secretly to win the hand of Katharine, promising to rescue her out of solitude. He said he had promised her husband that he would care for her, but that was long ago, prior to their turn away from Rome. Philip had previously been a sworn enemy of Lutherans, but he had now secretly converted. He could no longer bear serving the Duke of Alva, but few survived such conversions.
In this letter, Philip confirmed their plan. He would accompany the Duke of Alva to the feast but midway excuse himself on account of severe stomach illness. He would feign such an illness that he would have to rest for several days and then catch up to the general after a week. By that time, Philip would be safe inside Katharine's castle and have time to gather his men. He promised to respect her previous spurning of his requests for her hand. He was coming to her like so many others, only as a convert to the gospel seeking refuge. Katharine folded the coarse paper and led it into a fireplace.
Katharine was wakened by her anxious attendants the next morning. She could hear cattle outside, more cattle than she had ever heard. Once at the window, she saw the cattle was actually thousands of men, the Duke of Alva's men, over the river. Many soldiers sat lazily on the far river bank, fishing and washing. The village people were quietly terrified. Katharine had reduced some of their worry the week before by encouraging them to store their most precious possessions behind the walls of her castle—animals and plows and books and even children. Many did; others didn't.
When the sun reached its height, the Duke of Alva himself, along with Philip the Duke of Brunswick and two other officers, crossed the footbridge into Rudolstadt. Katharine, dressed lavishly in deep purple, met them in the grand hallway. The general and the officers' eyes visibly softened at her appearance. German and Spanish didn't blend well, but all instantly turned to Latin, chopped though it was. Katharine didn't look Philip in the eye. The Duke of Alva made every effort to show that he had come in peace for a feast. He said she had nothing to fear. He had not even brought a guard with them.
"You see," he said, "I'm sure all the Lutheran stories about me are quite exaggerated. I am a gentleman after all." He laughed, and everyone joined him. He smoothed his black moustache, and they all followed the princess up the stairs to her private banquet room. When the attendants opened the tall doors to the room, the Duke and officers froze. Gold and brass and silver interlaced colorful fruit and deep wines and steaming meats.
"Not even the Emperor has ever produced anything so beautiful for us," said the Duke. He whistled lightly.
"Perhaps," began Katharine, "the gospel would improve his love for feasting." The room went silent. The Duke retained his smile but waved his finger in the air slowly.
"Oh, you are already being so naughty. Let us not walk down that ugly path." He paused and laughed before his next joke. "After all, you will not want me to give a lecture comparing German to Spanish food." Laughter trickled between them. She feigned a scowl. "I thought not," he said.
After the first two courses, Katharine started glancing more and more at Philip, trying to urge him on to the plan. Then as the second course was being cleared away and the third course laid out, one of Katharine's stewards entered the room. He was granted permission as requested to speak into Katharine's ear. She pulled her curls back and listened to his whisper. Then he was curtly dismissed. Katharine stared down at the floor for a moment then stood, gripping one hand in the other.
"Dear Duke, I have been informed of something horrible happening in the village."
"Horrible?" he asked, still chewing.
"Yes. Some of your men have crossed into our village. It appears they are slaughtering my people's oxen." The Duke threw down his meat and cursed in Spanish.
"I can't believe it," he said.
"Then you will stop them?"
"I can't believe they have such poor taste. Can you believe these mercenary barbarians would eat ox?" The look of anger vanished from his face, and he sat back and laughed. Philip and the other officers joined him in laughter. Katharine stood, pushed over her chair and started for the door. The Duke grabbed her wrist. "They are soldiers. These are some of the costs of war. This is unavoidable." She pulled her hand free.
At that moment, Philip doubled over moaning and coughing. He got down on all fours on the floor. Katharine and the other two officers came to his aid. The Duke sat where he was and continued eating.
"He's sick," insisted Katharine, appealing to the Duke. "Get this man downstairs quickly."
"Yes, yes, go ahead," said the Duke, quite uninterested, waving the event on. Several attendants led Philip limping out the door. Katharine and the officers returned to their seats. Silence pressed against the walls for some time, waiting for the Duke to speak.
"I'm very worried about that one," said the Duke, waving a bone in the air.
"I'm worried about my people," said Katharine.
"Not so much I think, as you are worried about Philip." He leaned forward and looked in her eyes.
"Don't be foolish. What do you mean?" she asked.
"Foolish. That's a good word. I am Spanish. I am not an imbecile." Katharine looked to the officers but found no help. "Your dear little Philip there tries this sickness game with every woman he meets. He's quite insane. I keep him for the entertainment." Katharine's face warmed. "I suppose he also passed you secret notes and talked about being a Lutheran refugee and how he was a friend of your long lost husband, eh?" He studied her face. "Yes, he did. I can see it." Katharine stared through the Duke. Then she focused.
"Have you finished your little story?" she asked. "I'm giving you one more chance to get your men out of my village. Give the word now."
The Duke shrugged at his officers and smiled. "I don't think so," he said.
Katharine mimicked his shrug to the officers. "Then," she whispered, "Duke's blood will flow in place of oxen blood." She clapped her hands above her head three times. The dining hall doors burst open and a flood of her soldiers filled the room. So many blades surrounded the Duke's neck that he had to guard his breathing.
"My duty is to see that my people suffer no loss," she said, standing over the Duke. The Duke began carefully to laugh at her. Impatience seized her. She shouted.
"Go ahead. Kill the Duke." His eyes bulged, and he screamed in high pitch. Now it was Katharine's turn to laugh. The Duke instantly gave the command to stop the pillaging in the village, and a wall of her soldiers dragged one of his officer's downstairs to pass the order on. Katharine stood behind the Duke; she reached into her pocket and pulled out the Emperor's letter and waved it slowly in front of the Duke's eyes.
"The Emperor has given me his personal oath that you will replace anything you destroy." Her finger caressed the Duke's forehead.
"And I'm sorry to say that your little amusement over Philip has come to an end. His plate of German food had some of our special ingredients from our dark forest. Let's just say he wasn't pretending sickness this time." She stepped back, and her men filled the void. "You military men don't seem to know much about women in castles. Let me tell you a little secret. Women talk. Philip's game is old gossip." Then her smile cooled. "My heart is forever tied to my husband's." She waved her hand, and her men pulled the Duke out of his seat.

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