Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Peddler and the Swine, part the first

Bit of historical fiction for ya today. The post yesterday on Talleal, it turns out, was a more anemic version of his deity entry than I meant to display. I've updated it now with all the new and pertinent information.

In the time of Kaiser Frederick, King of the Romans, there was a peddler named Hartmund and called the Unlucky. Hartmund Infelix was from Thuringia, in the central heartlands of the most sacred empire. He was a canny man, used to dealing with suppliers who wanted to cheat him and customers who wanted to rob him. He had developed a good sense of when someone was willing to compromise and was so good with money that people sometimes also called him "the Jew." Hartmund was never offended by this, or if he was he never let on. After all, it was (in a way) a compliment, and he had known many good Jewish goldsmiths with whom he had worked. Too many to think of them the way the other Franks and Germans did. He had once heard that Louis d'Artois (who was king of the Franks) had saved some Jews from a burning at the hands of his knights. Ever after that, Hartmund had been more favorably inclined towards them.

Hartmund liked to wear fine colored hosen to show his quality. He was no Edelmann by any stretch, but he had the silver in his coffers to pay for beautiful things. He enjoyed reds and blues, brilliant and dyed in southern Frankia, and wore them well. His tunics were sadly of local Thuringian cloth, not the best stuff, but he had adorned them with silver studs as soon as he had the coin. Most proud of all was he of his woolen Arras cloak, which kept him warm as a hearthstone in the winter. It was deep crimson and had a heavy hood and a fine buckled broach to keep it on. When he wore it he felt half a Ritter, though his belt was a plain leather girdle.

He walked with a slight hitch in his step. His foot had been run over by an ox-cart when he was just learning his trade from fat old Sigmundus Magnus. It had never healed quite right, so he walked with a stick wherever he went. Sigmundus had been hellishly angry at the expense they had to lay out to get Hartmund a physician to tend the broken foot, but in the end the old man paid for it.

At one time, Hartmund had been master of a number of wagons and warehouses. Silver had poured into his archae and flowed through his fingers like water. That was before they burned to the ground in a fire that had spread through Meiningen like the devil's own blaze. That was where Hartmund had set up the majority of his business—Meiningen, right in the middle of Thuringia. The fire had obliterated all of his hard-won interests, and most of the things old Sigmundus had passed on to him. He had still been half a boy, then, but now that his hair was falling out and his feet were sore and twisted he was still taking to the road to make back the monies lost in the conflagration.

It was in this state that Hartmund traveled the empire with a walking stick in one hand and a wooden-framed pack on his back. He had gone back to old standbys: selling ointments, oils, and pilgrim's badges, selling relics and polished bronze mirrors, and little odds and ends. It didn't make him much, but it was enough to keep him from starving. As long as he kept out of the way of his betters, he knew he would be fine. The one time he'd failed to observe that rule, a Ritter had knocked out one of his teeth for him. "That will teach you to be over-inquisitive!" the man had said afterwards.  He'd lost a tooth, but gained a free meal from a soft-hipped miller's wife who had been standing by to watch the whole thing. More than that, he'd discovered she was a widow when he arrived at the mill, and the two shared a bed for an evening. A congress that the priests would have told him meant he was going to hell... but he was going to hell anyway, he figured, for countless sins and the inability to read Latin. You should probably read Latin, he thought, if you wanted to go and carouse with angels and all that.

By any road, that was how Hartmund came to be walking, stick in hand, along the road from the great imperial city of Nürnburg to the ancient settlement at Würzburg where, almost a century ago, a huge number of Jews had been massacred. This thought haunted Hartmund as he hitch-stepped along the muddy track that passed for a road in these parts. "If they can kill Jews in Würzburg," he muttered to himself one afternoon, "they can kill a peddler who is just called the Jew."

Nevertheless... there was a market fair at Würzburg where Hartmund could sell his wares. It was one that he had attended most years, when he could. He never spent silver on a stall, for that cost several groz. Back when he had the warehouses, yes, but now that he was alone on the road without horse or wagon there was no need. He could do all of his selling out of his pack.

A slow patter of rain began on the third day. It was still the early spring. Nürnburg was a nice place in the spring. They like me in Nürnburg, Hartmund thought. He dodged between the pools of water that began to form in the ruts of the muddy road and thought back to his buildings in Meiningen. They never liked me there, though. Sigmundus had helped him purchase those. Without him, they never would have taken my silver. Infelix, that was what they called him. More so after the fires. God must not love Hartmund.

The rain picked up and gusts of wind carried it beneath Hartmund's hood to splatter against his cheeks. He rubbed them and felt the rough hardness of his unshaven face. He hadn't taken a razor to it since before Nürnburg and his beard grew fast. Not good, he thought. He didn't want to be mistaken for a Jew, not in Würzburg.

He dodged across the muddy track and under the lee of the trees, their leaves swaying and rustling to produce a sound like the distant northern ocean. He stumbled at the last moment, cursing his infelicity, and fell face first in the wet dirt. Damn that twisted foot. He pulled all his limbs under himself and levered his body back into an upright position. Mud, of course. His fine hosen were covered in it, but luckily his Arras cloak had only picked up some crushed grass.

It was as he was righting himself that he smelled the first hint of something foul. He fumbled for his walking stick to help support him. Once its glossy knotted surface was beneath his hand, he hobbled forward to take a look beneath the boughs. Bracken and heather grew thick in this part of Bavaria, so it was a moment before he found the source of the stink. Pushing aside a few fronds of brush, he was greeted with the sight of a man who had been ripped asunder from groin to armpit.

Hartmund raised a hand to his face. Salvator mundi! This fellow's been torn apart! The wounds looked as though they had killed him. Slumped against the bole of a tree, he might almost had been sleeping were it not for the grotesque flaps of flesh and the stink of pus and death. Rough, Hartmund observed, not made by any blade. Evil work, this. He wondered if there were demons abroad in the forest. The thought was enough to send him scurrying back to the road, rain and all.

Before he got there, a voice called out: "Ho! Ho there! You take the Würzburg road?"

He slowed, then stopped. There were only two things that could be living in the forest: outlaws, or demons. "I... I do!" he said hesitantly. "Who asks it of me?" Please let him not say Satan!

"A fellow traveler!" said the voice, and from the gorse and bracken there stepped a man with a long staff of his own and a barrow led by a donkey. Oh, thank Christ, Hartmund sighed. "The way to Würzburg is dangerous indeed at this hour. Bandits encamp upon it."

"There's a man dead right here," Hartmund said uneasily. "Perhaps you can help me take him to be shriven?" If there was a sure way to draw ghosts and demons to a spot, it was the unburied dead.

The other man, a tall fellow with a proud nose, bald head, and watery blue eyes, peered into the trees. "Boars," he proclaimed. "This whole forest is full of 'em. From here to Schweinfurt."

Hartmund frowned. "Schweinfurt? Who would go there?" The ford of the swine was well out of the way for most travelers. Though it bore the title of a 'free city,' Hartmund had never known any merchant to bother with it. There's no silver to be made in Schweinfurt.

The man with the barrow shrugged. "I made a good amount selling herbs and poultices," he admitted, "for that is from whence I come. I simply kept my head down and made not a fuss."

Something came into Hartmund's mind just then, a story about Schweinfurt that he had almost forgotten. "Isn't that the place where those boys were killed?" Yes, that was right. Boys had gone missing there, young children.

"I know it not!" the barrowman shrugged. "I know only what I saw with my own eyes. Whether boys go missing or not is no concern of mine." He clucked at his mule. "On, on, Heinrich. And to you, a good morrow traveler! May you find your fortune, rather than your death." Like that man hidden in the heather. Hartmund had half a mind to call after the other merchant, demand that he help carry the body to a church and help get it buried... but then a shiver went through him, so instead he hurried on.

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