Luther and Katharina
Before dawn on Easter morning, 1523 Saxony, Germany
Time to jump.With trembling legs tangling in her scapular, Katharina crouched on the stone ledge of the window and peered down at the matted grass, still hard and untouched by spring. She blinked back a wave of dizziness and hoped the two-story drop wasn’t as far as it looked.
The blackness of the barren cloister yard spread before her—the neatly trimmed hedges, the gardens, and the thick stone wall beyond. Nothing moved. No one was in sight…although anyone could be hidden in the thousands of shadows the April moonlight couldn’t reach.
“Jump, my lady.” Greta nudged her. Her tight wimple framed delicate features showing the strain of anxiety. “We’ve waited long enough.”
“You must help lower me.” Katharina clutched her maidservant’s arm to steady herself. She took a last deep breath of the familiar mustiness of the abbey, then swung her feet over the edge.
“No,” came Margaret’s strained whisper behind her. It echoed against the bare walls of Katharina’s cell, gripping her and threatening to immobilize her.
“We mustn’t leave without Sister Ruth.”“We’ve been back from the vigil too long.” Greta spoke urgently. “We can’t wait anymore.
”In the scant moonlight Margaret’s thin face was as pale as the plain white band wound around her forehead. Her narrow nose and pointed chin were pronounced and severe but belied by the kind worry in her eyes. “Something must have happened to Sister Ruth—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Greta said, nudging Katharina further to the edge.Katharina glanced over her shoulder to the other sisters, some huddled against the wall shivering, others resting on her straw-filled pallet. She had the feeling they were shuddering more from fear than from the frosty air that had swept into the narrow, unheated cell.
If she delayed any longer, she’d put everyone at greater risk and possibly ruin their chance of leaving undetected.
“Just a few more minutes.” Margaret’s fingers quivered against Katharina’s arm. The tall woman, who was like a sister to Katharina, had one fault—too much compassion.
Through the barred aperture on the cell door, Katharina glimpsed the outline of Aunt Lena’s head. But there was no sign of anyone else and no sound—just the utter silence required both day and night. Katharina prayed that all the other Marienthron sisters were sleeping heavily, especially after staying up much later than usual celebrating the Vigil of Easter with the consecration of the Easter fire outside the church. It was the one occasion each year that changed the routine of their carefully prescribed worship hours, the one occasion when they were permitted to stay up late, the one occasion when escape might be possible.
Katharina’s chest tightened with agony. She didn’t want to abandon Sister Ruth, but they had run out of time. “I’m sorry, Margaret.” She squeezed her friend’s cold, bony fingers. “But Greta’s right. We need to be far away by the summoning for Prime. We must leave now.”
Katharina tugged up her habit and gripped the rough stone. Did she dare jump? Did she really think she could sneak all nine of them out of the abbey without getting caught?
She’d prepared for this moment for days, considered every detail, from the time they would leave to the exact route. She’d even spent days prying loose the lattice window in her cell so she could remove it soundlessly on the night of their escape.
In spite of such careful planning, something could still go wrong. Anything could happen between her window and the cloister wall. And if they made it over the outer wall, Abbot Baltazar would hunt them down like hares.
The skin on her back prickled at the memory of Abbot Baltazar’s whip whistling through the air and slapping against the bare flesh of the Zeschau sisters. Only yesterday he’d beaten the young women because of a letter he’d discovered hidden in one of their pallets. Communication with the outside world was severely limited to help maintain their proper focus on God. But lately the abbot had restricted their visitation rights and missives even more. He was no fool. He knew the rumors about Martin Luther and his writings had begun to make their way into convents. And after intercepting the Zeschau sisters’ letter, the abbot was well aware of just how much Luther’s teachings had infiltrated Marienthron.
Of course, through the beating, the abbot had hoped to discover who had given the Zeschau sisters the letter and how. But the young women had remained silent, much to his frustration.
Katharina’s stomach lurched. If a mere letter could incite him to violence, what punishment would he devise for their attempting to run away?
Fingers squeezed her shoulder tenderly. She pivoted on the ledge and found herself looking into the tear-filled eyes of Aunt Lena.
The thick cell door stood open, and another one of the nuns stood guard.
“God will be with you, child,” Aunt Lena whispered. Her black veil shadowed the tiredness and sadness that always seemed to etch her plump face.
“Come with us.” Katharina knew her request would do little good. Aunt Lena had insisted that at age forty she was too old to leave the convent, get married, and start a new life. And now Katharina had run out of time to convince her otherwise. She stroked the woman’s fleshy cheek, knowing if she escaped to freedom, she wouldn’t see Aunt Lena again.
Aunt Lena cupped Katharina’s chin and pointed her face toward the plain wooden cross, the single adornment allowed in the barren cell. “Don’t forget to pray.”
She pulled Katharina’s head against her ample bosom and pressed a kiss to her temple. “I love you, Katharina von Bora."
“Katharina’s throat constricted with an ache that rose from her chest. When had she last heard anyone speak those words? Certainly not in all the years she’d lived at Marienthron, where stoicism was commanded and affection forbidden.
Aunt Lena stepped back, her features reflecting embarrassment at her bold words. Although none of the nuns were supposed to show favoritism, Katharina had always known that her aunt cared about her. But this was the first time she had spoken words of love.
Katharina wished she could express her feelings for the woman who had replaced her mother. But even if she found the words, they couldn’t slip past the tightness in her throat.Go.
Aunt Lena motioned in the sign language they often used. No more good-byes.Please. Come with us
. Katharina signed back.
Aunt Lena shook her head and pointed at the window.
Katharina hesitated. As the nun on night watch, Aunt Lena would be questioned about the escape. Eventually Abbot Baltazar would guess her aunt’s involvement in aiding them and would discipline her. How would she survive his wrath, the beating he would surely give her?
Greta gripped Katharina’s arms, her fingers digging through the layers of her habit to pinch her skin. “My lady, we’re wasting time.” Panic laced the servant’s whisper.
Katharina nodded. The time for thinking was over.