Winter 1631-32, Jena

Catherine Mutschler made her way carefully through the winter mud. She was tired and listless after being kept up most of the night by Maria, her three-year-old daughter. She'd finally managed to settle Maria only by feeding her the last of the bread mixed with thin soup, but that meant Catherine had only had thin soup to eat today. That should change at her next stop. Ursula Mittelhausen was the housekeeper for a successful alchemist and not only did she provide a lot of sewing work, she also gave Catherine any scraps from the kitchen. Catherine had learnt to accept charity with dignity. It had been all that stood between life and death for her family after her husband died in a road accident in Jena. She had been extremely lucky—and the city council continued to remind her of her good fortune—that she and her two children had been granted poor relief even though they weren't citizens or residents. Not that the alms went far. Before getting the sewing work from Ursula, Catherine had been struggling to provide her children with the necessities of life. Even by sharing a room with another widow, a spinner, and her children, their combined income had never quite been enough to pay the rent and buy firewood, clothes, and sufficient food. The six of them, Catherine and her two daughters, Marguerite and her son and daughter, had been slowly starving to death.

She looked up at the sign over the door of the house that Ursula kept. "HDG Enterprizes" it said. Catherine had reason to be thankful for Doctor Gribbleflotz. The extra work he provided had made a considerable difference in Catherine and Marguerite's life. With the additional income from making and repairing the "lab coats" and aprons Dr. Gribblefltoz insisted his apprentices wear, she and Marguerite had just taken over the lease of a pair of rooms. The extra space would make it easier for them to work without the children getting underfoot all the time. With more space they would be able to take in more work. Maybe they'd survive the winter.

She knocked, shivering from the damp cold that was seeping through the layers of clothes she was wearing. The door was opened by a youth. If he had looked well-fed Catherine would have though he was about twelve, but in these times of shortages, he could be as old as sixteen. As malnourished as he looked, he had to be a new apprentice. Ursula, and to be fair, her employer, insisted that the apprentices all be well fed. That meant business was good for Doctor Gribbleflotz, and what was good for the doctor was good for Catherine. She smiled for the first time in she didn't know how long. In a lighter mood, Catherine followed the youth toward Ursula's office.

The clack-clack-clack sound of a machine made Catherine stop. She peeked through the open door of a side room, and froze. For a moment she couldn't believe what she was seeing. Then she collapsed.

****

Catherine came to with a jerk. Someone was passing something under her nose. Spirit of Hartshorn. The fumes could raise the dead, and Catherine wasn't even half-way there yet. She was confused. Ursula Mittelhausen came slowly into focus, and the bottle of hartshorn was removed, to be replaced by a bowl of stew. Mechanically she ate from the bowl.

When she finished the stew, Catherine lowered the spoon and slumped a little in the chair. She wasn't ready to discuss what she had seen in that room yet, and she knew it would be a few minutes before she felt better. She looked around the room. It was the kitchen, and it looked as if it had been invaded by apprentices. She watched a pair of female apprentices slap pale green dough from a cooking pot into molds.

"What are they making?"

"They are making pill boxes for Dr. Gribbleflotz' little blue pills." Ursula reached over to a tray on the sideboard and passed Catherine one of the completed pill boxes.

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