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A small valley in the mountains south of Kaprun, Archbishopric of Salzburg
A full moon was standing above the small alpine valley, its silvery light reflected by the blanket of snow Frau Holle had thrown over the landscape from the skies. In most places, the white cover reached the height of a full-grown man or more, but here, in the lee of a huge boulder, the rocky ground was showing through. Not much could be heard above the biting wind, besides the rumbling of a waterfall higher up in the valley. Not much, until the knocking of a small hammer pierced through the night.
"Shh! Don't make that much noise, Stumpy. The old bastard will hear us." The speaker was a tall, thin man, covered in a heavy gray cloak. He looked around furtively.
The smaller, rotund man he addressed snorted, half angry, half amused. His partner always worried too much. Personally, he was much more bothered by the freezing temperatures then by the minuscule risk of being heard. He pulled his own cloak closer. It would really suck to die of fever, just before they could land their biggest coup ever.
"How on Earth do you want me to break up these rocks? Sweet-talking them? Besides, you worry too much, Beanstalk. First of all, he's an old man. Second, he'll already be asleep. And third, we are a mile away from his farmhouse and out of sight, with a waterfall covering any noises. So let me concentrate on what we came for."
With that, he went back to the task. A half hour later . . .
"Eureka!" said the beanstalk, looking over his partner's shoulders.
"Since when do you speak Greek? But you could be right. I'll have to test it first." With that, Stumpy picked a small bottle out of the backpack standing next to him, carefully making sure nothing had leaked. Some acids were nastier than others, and this one . . .
A few minutes later, he announced the result. "We found it. Finally."
"So, it really is gold, little guy? Not pyrite, as you claimed when that little goat driver told you about it before you decided to slit his throat just in case?"
"Nope, it is real, all right, Beanstalk. As real as the ring in your ear. You can bet your sorry ass on it."
"Well, that's great and all. But now we have another problem."
"I know. The old mountain goat is much too headstrong to sell his farm. Doesn't know what's good for him. We probably couldn't even pay him off to keep his mouth shut, either." Stumpy shook his head, almost despairing before so much stupidity.
"Well, he thinks he doesn't need any more money."
"Everybody needs more money. And he desperately needs money, my big friend, he just doesn't know it yet."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, let's just say his son will soon require a new roof over his head. And houses are expensive."
Kaprun, Archbishopric of Salzburg
A Thursday afternoon, late February, 1630
Outside, the snow lay a foot high, and a freezing wind drove through the village. But inside the smithy it was always warm, as long as the charcoal fire in the center of the room was lit. He'd probably hate that fire in the heat of August, but right now it was like the promise of paradise.
"So, we are agreed?" Master Gottfried Eder asked, towering over his guests like a giant of legend.
Matthias looked at his father for a moment, then nodded. The two grown men shook hands.
"Very well. Matthias, I expect to see you on Monday morning, half an hour after sunrise."
"I will be there, Master Eder."
On the way back home, Matthias studied his father from behind. While not as massive as Master Eder, he still was six feet tall, with blond hair like his son. A life of hard work hadn't bowed him, though. Matthias knew it had carved deep lines into his face.
Suddenly, Matthias's father stopped, turned, and put his hand on his shoulder. He left it there for a moment, then squeezed it.
"We made the right decision. Master Eder will be a good master for you, even if he is a widower. He's a fully qualified master and well-travelled; he knows a lot and is a fair and honest man. For that, I am willing to put up with you another three years." The twinkle in his father's eyes showed Matthias that he was joking. Unlike his mother, he clearly was happy his firstborn was going to continue to live with the family, even if he wasn't to be a farmer like his father.
It wasn't that his mother didn't love him just as much. But he had three sisters his mother needed to take care of. Maria Christina, two years younger than him at age eleven, and the twins, Carlotta and Elisabeth, called Lotte and Lisl, both five years old. They were a lot of work and his mother had been looking forward to having him apprenticed with a master who could take him into his own household. Alas, Master Eder's wife, a friendly woman half the size of her husband, had died from a fever a year ago, and there was nobody else to run his household. No surviving children. Not even a sister. So, Matthias would be his sole apprentice and continue to live with his parents.
If Matthias' father owned the fields he was working, things would be different. But the lease would end seven years from now. Their new owner, son of a rich farmer from Bischofshofen, had told them in a courteous and friendly manner that he wouldn't renew the lease after that date but rather work the fields himself, together with his other possessions. Other ground wasn't available anywhere near, and it was unsure if anything would become available over time. Thus the need for Matthias to branch out into a new profession.
"I know. And I will do my best to become the best blacksmith in the district."
His father weighed his head. "Maybe. But there will also be other options. There are many specializations for smiths you might want to choose from later. But that's three years down the line, so let's not worry overly about that right now."
When they got home, little Maria was waiting for them outside the small wooden house, just saying goodbye to Heidrun, the neighbor's daughter. She had not liked the idea of Matthias living elsewhere at all and was anxious to learn whether that fate was now avoided. When Matthias smiled at her and nodded, she let fly a cry of joy and jumped up to hug him. Her enthusiasm almost made him fall and sit down in the snow. His father's hand steadied him just in time.
"Slowly, slowly. Look, you dropped your puppet." That caused a cry of dismay. The ungainly thing, made from wood and wool, was her most prized possession and she quickly recovered it from the snow. Mother had made it and it had two different faces – a happy and a sad one. Maria clutched it tightly in her small hands. Then the three of them went inside, out of the chilling wind.
"Matthias! Wake up!" The urgency in his father's voice let him snap to full awareness in an instant. He sniffed. Smoke. Fire! He looked around, alarmed, but couldn't see any flames. So there was still time to put on his shoes and outer clothing. He half-saw, half-heard his parents do the same with his three siblings on the other side of the big bed he shared with them.
Suddenly, the wooden wall that almost touched their neighbor's house erupted in flames. In the light they provided, he saw his mother throwing the few valuables and documents they possessed into a bedsheet. Father picked up the twins. His voice was astonishingly calm. "Matthias, take Maria and lead her outside."
Matthias nodded and did as he was told. When the two of them got to the unpaved street, they turned around. They could see their neighbor's house ablaze, with flames licking up to their own roof and that of the building higher up in the street. Then his mother came out the house with the linen bag on her back, followed instantly by his father, the twins on his arms.
He let out a little sigh. They had made it all out in time. Dimly he was aware of cries of ‘Fire!' and men and women preparing a bucket line to the nearby creek.
"Liselotte!" A cry of despair. Liselotte was the name Maria had given her two-faced puppet, inspired of course by the names of the twins. A tug, a twitch, and Maria had freed her hand. She ran back into the now brightly burning house. A moment of shock—then Matthias ran after her. Tried to, rather. A steely hand snatched him by his neck, another gripped his belt, and together his father's callused hands threw him back into his mother's right arm, which clamped down on him like one of these newfangled vises, one of which he had seen in Master Eder's shop. Her left arm held the twins just as close. Desperately he turned his head, and out of the corner of his eyes he could see his father ripping two buckets from his fellow villagers. He drenched a linen sheet in one of them and emptied the other over his head. Then he ran into the burning house and was gone.
Two days later, on Saturday evening, the relevant parties met in Kaprun castle. The office was simple: floor and walls of grey stone, plain wooden furniture and stacks and stacks of paper, with lots of red tape around them.
To start, Master Eder gave his report on the events. As the blacksmith, he knew most about fires in the village and currently also was village headman anyway. Eder concluded:
"The fire clearly started in the Bolender house. I think it was caused by an oil lamp, but I can't be sure. All in all, it could have been a lot worse. Our fire-fighting equipment worked well, and everybody helped as they should. Still, four houses have burned down. Yet except for the house where the fire started, there are only two dead: Martin Heckler and his daughter Maria. Both died because they went back into the burning house. In addition, Eduard Bolender and his wife are dead, but their two children live, without even a visible scar. So, we are missing, mourning, four of our own.
I have personally taken in the surviving members of the Heckler family. My house is plenty big enough, it stood half-empty for too long. Matthias is scheduled to start his apprenticeship with me on Monday anyway, and his mother can cook for all of us. The Meier family has moved in with their in-laws for now. But they have enough money to get started on a new home soon. Can't say the same about the Michaeli family. And there's simply too many of them. They might be forced to move their children to their relatives in Zell am See while they rebuild slowly."
"And the two orphans, Lars and Heidrun Bolender?" Pflegerichter Thomas Gabriel, Pfleger for short, was the church-paid administrator, judge, and castellan of the district of Kaprun. Also standing in his office was Vicar Melchior Mauser. Originally a Capuchin monk, he had just been sent from Salzburg City in the north of the Salza valley to make sure the peasants were all well-instructed in the tenets of Catholicism and, just as importantly, that no Protestants were hiding out among them. A gray-robed clerk in the corner took notes on a little standing desk.
"For now, their aunt has taken them in. But she won't be here in spring; she'll be going back to Salzburg City. So, they will go and live with their grandfather on his Alm."
"Are you sure that is a good idea?" Mauser asked. The farm in question was located in a small side valley, halfway up the mountains, far away from everybody else. The kind of place where a distrustful inquisitor might expect secret Lutherans to hang out.
Eder shrugged. "The elder brother is of the reasonable sort. He'll be sixteen soon, and I think he can keep an eye on his little sister, while he learns the farm business from his granddad. That farm is pretty big, with plenty of goats, a handful of cows, and a little lake full of fish. So, at the very least they won't starve."
"Wait. Isn't that the valley where little Peter went missing last year? You know, the goat driver?"
"Not really. He never picked up the goats of Old Bolender that day. I am sure about that, because tall Heinrich, the cheese merchant, went up that same day to talk deliveries and saw the goats himself, with Bolender complaining a bit about Peter not being on time. So, Peter went missing before he got to that valley. Could really have been anywhere. And if a bear got him, his body might have been dropped a dozen miles from here."
There weren't many bears left in the Alps, but those survivors roamed far and wide and could be dangerous even to a grown and armed man. A twelve-year-old kid like Peter wouldn't have stood a chance.
Pfleger Gabriel nodded, then addressed Mauser. "So, was it witchcraft or was it an accident?"
"No signs of witchcraft that I could find. None at all. Only unsubstantiated rumors." If Vicar Mauser didn't like that, one way or the other, he didn't let his feelings show. He wouldn't go into the details of the rumors, either.
Master Eder just grunted at first, then jumped in. "Very mean-spirited rumors. Spread by people who for one reason or another have an old grudge against the old man. I haven't been able to nail down the source, but there's another rumor, saying the first one gets spread around because he doesn't want to sell his valley to others who think there might be some silver or gold to be found. But if his grandchildren go live with him, he will have even less reason to sell."
Gabriel raised his eyebrows. "Any gold would belong to the archbishopric, anyway."
"So it would. But then, the kind of people who are likely to be spreading such rumors wouldn't bat an eye at stealing from the archbishop either."