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Gönningen, Duchy of Württemberg
The icy wind was blowing through Stephan Drechsler's dark hair, as the village school master helped to lower the tiny coffin into its grave, the rough rope cutting into his exposed hands. He noticed neither the wind nor his bloody hands. His mind was too busy trying to fight the despair emanating from his heart. No coffin should ever be this small or this light.
It was the seventh such coffin he had helped bring to rest in the earth this winter, the seventh of his pupils gone. It didn’t weigh much, despite the good wood the carpenter had used to make it. Wood was one of the few things they had no shortage off, here on the verge of the escarpment of the Swabian Jura, a dozen miles or so from both the free imperial city of Reutlingen and the city of Tübingen with its famous university. Wood from the trees growing all over the escarpment. Apples and pears were just as plentiful, with lots of fruit trees dotting lush meadows where the plains abutted the hills.
But nobody could live on apples and pears alone, even if they didn’t suffer from a sudden cold spell in May. The soil of the wider Neckar valley, further down from the meadows, was quite decent, and there was plenty of water, but after generations and generations of splitting real estate between male heirs, these fields were way too small and couldn’t feed their many owners any longer. In better years, they had driven their pigs into the woods for feeding, but the marauding soldiers had confiscated them all. Them and the goats, sheep, and cows. They had killed and eaten the chickens on the spot. The villagers tried to make oil and flour from acorns and other seeds available in the woods, now that the pigs weren’t eating them anymore, but it wasn’t enough. When no armies were around, the amtmann in Tübingen still demanded his taxes, and the church wanted its tithe. Even with the amtmann's huntsmen ignoring poaching of game for the time being (after all, the young dukes were in exile and the amtmann would rather have his taxpayers survive for the time of their return), it still wasn’t enough.
Sure, there were people in the village better off than the rest. There always were, even in a poor village like Gönningen. In fact, the village once had been a stadt, a town, with the right to hold markets, but lost that right again, shrinking to its current size soon after. Still, there survived a handful of impressive buildings like the former manor of a local lord and the church of Sts. Peter and Paul that spoke of better times in the past. In those happier times, the poor had rarely been that destitute, and the better off had been in a better position to offer charity, making sure everybody in the community at least had a roof over his head and enough gruel to eat. Horrible tasting gruel, often enough, yet sufficient to survive the winter. But the wealthier farms had been plundered first, and the owner of the Tuffstein quarry and plant, the only industry around, had been killed recently by soldiers, together with his family and his three remaining workers. Now there was barely enough coin around to pay the headman and the schoolmaster for their services. After fifteen years of war, nobody could afford to import food for the poor from other places.
This winter, the old had died first. There hadn’t been many of them left, though. Christmas had brought a short respite, bought with shorter rations afterwards. Now it was the time of the little children to die, despite their parents sparing them as much food as they could. It wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. And the coffins were so very light . . .
At the wake in the Dorfschänke, the local inn, he saw his despair mirrored in the eyes of the village headman, making a mockery of Otto Fröhlich's name. Rarely had Stephan seen an unhappier man. Even among this subdued crowd, he stood out, the burden of his office adding the weight of a failed responsibility to the general sadness.
Holding on tightly with both hands to his stein full of apple cider, Otto slowly shook his head. "We can't go on like this, Stephan. We need to do something."
Sitting on a bench across him, Stephan took his time, studying the deep lines in the face of a man who had become a friend over the years. Besides being the elected headman of the village, Otto was a simple carpenter. The one and only in this village. But the middle-aged man had traveled far and wide as a journeyman in his youth. The same could be said about quite a few others in the village, but Otto had traveled much further than the others. He had left Germany after his first years of travels, even made it to Jerusalem. With the village pastor dead from dysentery two years ago and no replacement in sight, that made Otto the only man left in the village that Stephan felt he could have a serious discussion with, even if Otto had never made it to the level of a master craftsman. No need for that in a village like Gönningen.
Stephan himself had been a poor orphan. But he had been lucky and was recognized as a prodigy by one of the duke's agents making his tour through the village schools of the district. A stipend for Latin school had followed, and he had been good enough to merit an additional stipend for studies at the University of Tübingen. Then, just before he wanted to leave for Tübingen, the war had forced the university to suspend its activities. Originally, the suspension should have been temporary, and he had gladly accepted the offer of his home village to replace the sick, old village teacher for a few weeks until the university reopened. But weeks had become months, the old teacher had died of pneumonia, months had become years, and he had become stuck with the job nobody else wanted.
"You are right. We need to do something. But what? So far, I have spent entire nights thinking about it, and I haven’t had any Eureka moments."
Otto raised his eyebrows. "Eureka moment? Is that Latin for someone beating some sense into you?"