Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tale Tuesday: the Peddler and the Swine, part the second

This entry continues the adventures of Hartmund Infelix, the unfortunate peddler from the Peddler and the Swine (part the first) last week.

Schweinfurt was larger than he expected. The way other merchants had spoken of it had made it seem a backwater, and in some ways it was—coming upon it in the midst of the forest was like stumbling on a glade filled with brick and stone. The town walls loomed above the treetops, brown unfinished rock dripping with beads of water from the previous night's rain. There were townsfolk up on the walls serving their thirty days—hard labor, Hartmund knew. It was sweaty work, and boring, and you had to pay for your own leather cote and spear. He'd done it himself a few times, back when he was still a city-dweller so he did not envy those sentries that peered down at him as he reached the town gate. Yet,  it struck him as strange that they were not quite so tired and weather-worn as he remembered being. No, they looked attentive indeed, and their attention was all turned towards one thing: him. It made him nervous, as everything these days made him nervous.

Squelching up the muddy track to the gate, he reached into his purse to find a few coins. Every city in Germany charged an entrance fee for peddlers. It was to keep the riffraff out, Hartmund knew, for the crushingly poor (whether by accident of war or nature) often tried to sneak their way into big cities where they could beg at the gates of churches or inns. He'd seen them often enough to know. But when he reached the gate he was in for another surprise: the warden there, with his big heavy brow and well-turned poll-axe, waved him through without a moment's hesitation. Hartmund stupidly held out the silver deniers in one hand, but the man brushed them aside. "Go on," he said, "with the festival on, no one need pay to come to the ford."

And ford it was; the city sat athwart the Main river and all its buildings seemed to face the water and the wood. The impenetrable forest that girdled Schweinfurt was visible even behind the walls. Hartmund wandered for a time, doing his best to keep his already mud-stained clothes from even worse wear. The streets of Schweinfurt were unpaved, which was to be expected, but they were also nearly empty. They have a festival coming and there is no one here, Hartmund mused, it is no wonder they let me in without a gate-fee.

Sigmundus had taught a young Hartmund that whenever you find yourself in a strange new city, the first thing to do is get its measure. "Spend some time walking around, even with that damn-fool limp of yours!" he'd bellow. Hartmund had seen the inside of Aachen from wall to wall and alley to alley that way, and had learned which hidy-holes to jump in in half of the empire. It was a useful skill, to be sure, and one that he hoped to God he wouldn't have to employ here. Nevertheless... Better to know, he decided. So he set about taking the measure of Schweinfurt and learning its streets. Besides, I can always find an inn afterwards... and I doubt it will rain again. He told himself that because the last time it had rained, the night before, he had been soaked to the bone. His clothes were only just drying off as he came into the city.

With a hobbled step, Hartmund walked to and fro, from the Main to the Gate and back three or four times. It seemed a small enough place, barely a proper city at all. The streets were lined with buildings of brown brick or timber-frame and plaster, jettied upper stories making dim alleys and shadowy walks between them. There were two cemeteries, a number of small inns and taverns, and a statue of emperor Heinrich. Curiously, there seemed to be only one church, far too small a number for a town of such size. When Hartmund inquired from one of the few passers-by he saw on his walk, the man simply growled at him unintelligibly.

There were other buildings beyond the fork of the Main. A heavy granite bridge forded the river, passing from the city to a small island surrounded on all sides by the sluggish waters. Upon that isle there sat a cluster of ugly looking limestone and brick buildings, one of which had a steeple. Another church? Hartmund wondered. Strange to think the Schweinfurt folk would have to cross out of their city proper to go to mass. And still, two churches? Not near enough, not near. It was troubling, until he went to go find and inn. Then all those troubles were replaced with new ones.

The inn of his choice was a slovenly crumbling building, its plaster flaking to reveal the wattle and daub beneath. It stood in a lurching three-story shambles, the thatch of its roof in bad need of changing. A beaten copper tube that he later discovered was meant to be a horn hung over the door. Everyone inside was sullen and glum, and they gave him black-eyed stares as clearly as if he were a Jew. This is not going well, he told himself uneasily. Already I stand out as a stranger. Usually festivals attracted merchants from the whole countryside, and even further abroad. Mayhaps I am simply the first, he hoped.

When he went to negotiate a room, he found the rates eminently reasonable—too reasonable by half. No gouging, no price-hawking, not even crowing over how close the inn was to the festival grounds. And it was indeed close, for a grassy clearing stood opposite its front door, hung with gayly colored streamers and gonfalons that all sagged in the sodden air. Two silver deniers for the entire stay, and that was that, though he never would have said the innkeep was glad to have him. The man's face was like one big sour bruise, nose all puffed up and eyes half hidden behind heavy lids. "Where's all your churches, man?" he was stupid enough to ask. It'll make me seem a proper Christian, he told himself.

"What?" the lumpy-faced innkeep shot back, his eyes suddenly flickering wider. "Whatchya mean? There's the one in town and the Abbey on the water. They do more'n enough for us." He had that universally angry expression that made strangers uneasy. Hartmund felt as though perhaps he'd better keep his mouth shut for the duration and just do his best to unload his pack. Yes, that's what I'll do, he decided later when he finally reached his lodgings on the creaking third floor. He had a fair view of the grounds, the strange cluster of abbey buildings on the river, the thick-built walls of the town, and the creaking peaks of dark glossy colored pines beyond that stretched out in an endless sea, girdling the world in all directions. If a little rain splashed in through the casement, well... the room had only cost two deniers, after all.

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