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Previously (in "Goodbye," Grantville Gazette 78)
Hermann Donnersberger from Munich put a beer into his hand, breaking his reverie. Matthias didn't know much about him, so far. That would change soon enough. What he did know was that Hermann's father was a well-known swordmaker and Hermann himself was a messerschmied, a knife smith, by trade. Which, at least as far as apprentices and journeymen were concerned, included swordmaking, as he never got tired of explaining. He was in his second year of travels, had long black hair, broad shoulders, and twice Matthias' muscle mass. Hermann would be his guide for at least the first three months on the road, until he was sure his charge was able to find his way around the countryside without help. Given that there was a war on, that help was more necessary than ever.
Matthias already had said goodbye to his new father, his mother, and his little sisters. He never remembered much of the rest of the night—his last night in Kaprun for at least three years and a day.
Where the highway left the village, Hermann was waiting for him, leaning against an old fir. "Are you ready?"
Matthias took in the village he had called home for all of his existence. No sign remained of the big fire that changed his life so much just three years ago. And from now on, everything would be new, different. It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. In the distance, he could see the church tower of the next village they'd be passing through. The first step of many on his way of penance. He took a deep breath. After that, he was finally able to say, "yes."
Together, they took the first step east. And thus began the next phase of his life .
Chapter 1: On the Road
Salza valley, on the high road to Bischofshofen, Archbishopric of Salzburg
He had done it. Eight hours ago, he really had left his home, not to return within the next three years or maybe even longer. Every few yards he was tempted to turn and look back. Every few yards he fought the temptation. Forwards. That’s where his future now lay. A future of hardship and uncertainty. But also one of learning and freedom. Except for the temporary teachers he would pick for himself, nobody would tell him what to do.
Well, almost nobody. For the next three months on the road, Hermann Donnersberger from Munich would be his guide, guardian angel, and bossy big brother. Of course, each of them could technically decide to walk on without the other, but for Matthias, a newbie on the road, that would be a very bad thing. For Hermann’s reputation, too, unless Matthias provided him with a good excuse for dropping him—like not following his counsel without good reason.
“Because the next house is half a mile away and I don’t want to get wet.“ Hermann’s thumb pointed back to where they came from. Finally having a good excuse for doing it, Matthias turned around. Sure enough, a dark rain front was coming down the valley from the west. He turned back and started moving in earnest. Those clouds looked like a lot of rain. Wet rain. Cold rain. Maybe even with some snow in the mix.
At least the main road along the Salzach river was good: even and covered by crushed greyish stones that somehow had baked together. These newfangled scrapers and other machines seemed to make road construction a lot easier, and Archbishop Lodron always had invested a lot of money into building projects.
They more or less made it. Only the very first drops hit them, but when the cloud unloaded its full fury over their heads, they were already sheltering under the roof of a well-made barn, drying their outer garments on balls of straw while sitting on another pair and munching on a winter apple each.
"So, tell me about your sweetheart."
Matthias was confused. "What do you mean?"
"The one you must have left heartbroken when you left town with me . . . pretty boy." Hermann wasn’t exaggerating much. Except for the slightly crooked nose, Matthias was pretty good-looking for a boy. He was also reasonably bright and able to speak more than three words at a time. Add a bit of muscle, and the maids would flock to him, Hermann was sure.
"There is no such person."
"No one?" Hermann was incredulous.
"No one was really interested. I guess, ever since the day my sister and dad died. I wasn’t in the mood for any such thing, either."
That took Hermann slightly aback. But then he told himself that he should have known. Matthias had told him the story of his father's and sister's death. At least in broad strokes. He could see how this could cause a youngster like Matthias to become closed off, emotionally. No new attachments meant less chance to get hurt. But then, getting hurt by pretty girls was a normal part of growing up for a boy. So Hermann added unlocking this side of his new "younger brother" to his top priorities.
"That's hard to believe. No nightly dreams about some local beauty?"
Matthias actually blushed at that. Aha.
"So, what's her name?"
"Just "Erika"? What Erika? What does she look like?"
"My cousin. The eldest daughter of my aunt. She is sixteen and . . ."
"What do you mean? She doesn’t have much money."
Hermann rolled his eyes. "I meant, does she have big tits?"
"Um, no. I don’t particularly like big tits, anyway."
Hermann wondered for a moment whether he should inquire into other aspects of her anatomy, but they had left that village and Matthias wasn’t to return for another three years. He decided to drop Erika from the discussion.
Outside it was still raining heavily. So, what to do next? Ah, right.
"Time for something new, pretty boy. I am going to teach you some basics of stick fighting. Who knows, maybe you decide to become a swordsmith after all?"
Matthias grinned. "You haven't seen that gun Master Kotter made. I don’t think you can make me change my mind there. On the other hand, I do want to learn how to properly fight with a stick."
They both picked up their stenz, the travelling stick each of them had cut themselves from a piece of green bush, picking wood that was reasonably straight but still turned around itself like a screw.
A couple of hours later, he knew a lot more about stick fighting. Or at least, he knew that Hermann could properly fight with a stick. He, Matthias, had maybe a hundred aching body parts that had received a blow or a poke. On the other hand, he had only managed to hit Hermann once—when his sweaty hand had lost control of the stick and let it fly, and it connected with Hermann's shin.
Rubbing the shin, his teacher explained patiently, "Yes, that's an option when you are desperate and your enemy doesn’t expect it. It does have a downside, though. You are now unarmed and not able to block. Which means I can now proceed to beat the shit out of you." When he lifted his own stick, Matthias took to running. Hermann grinned.
"Ok, that was the last lesson for today. If you don’t have a chance beating your opponent, run away. You are a fast learner, after all."
Hermann put his stick away and sat down again on a block of hay. Outside, the wind had picked up, and the rain had gotten even stronger.
"Looks like we'll be staying here overnight, even if we haven’t managed the full thirty miles yet. Luckily the rules allow for this kind of exception, as long as we move on right away the next morning. As for tonight . . . no fire in a barn, obviously, but it's dry and safe. I have slept in much worse places. So will you, before your travels are over."
Matthias carefully made his way back to his own ball of straw. He fished two of the dry sausages his mother had given him for his travels out of the backpack and threw one to Hermann.
"Did your father teach you how to fight?"
"Sure. As a little toddler I already had wanted to play with the swords he made. Much too dangerous, of course. I still bothered him about it all the time. So, when I got a bit older, he made us some leather-covered wooden swords, and he showed me how to handle them."
"I guess he whipped your sorry backside just as much as you did with mine."
"Worse. After all, it was my idea to teach you. Can't blame you for accepting my offer. Whereas my dad did blame me for bothering him all the time. And he took it out on my backside, I can tell you."
Matthias laughed. "Did it change your mind?"
"Of course not. Why am I sitting here, you think? He did convince me, however, that becoming a sword maker was a much better option than becoming a professional sword fighter. Less dangerous, usually better paid, and I still get to play with the best swords there are. I can even become a member of a fencing society like the Marx Brothers and practice swordfighting regularly. That should also help me acquire clients. Well, assuming I become one of the better swordmakers. But my father has taught me a lot already, and I have learned even more on the road."