Back | Next
Contents


Part Two

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
 


Chapter 15

Hans Richter was awakened by a boot planted on his rump. The boot was abrupt, curt, and just barely short of brutal.


"Get up, boy," he heard Ludwig commanding. "Now. There's work to be done." The laugh that followed was more in the nature of a jeer. "You'll get your first taste of real fighting today, chicklet."


Dimly, Hans heard Ludwig clumping away. As always, the big man's footsteps were heavy and leaden. He sounded like a troll, moving about a cave.


Groaning, Hans rolled over on the dirt floor. His head was splitting with pain. For a minute or so, his eyes tightly closed, he fought down the urge to vomit. The struggle was fierce, not because he cared about the contents in his stomach, but simply because he didn't want to endure Ludwig's ridicule. Had Hans been alone, he would have gladly heaved up the remnants of his meal, even though it had been the first food he'd eaten in two days.


Most of that meal had been wine, in any event. Cheap, bad wine—the kind to be found in a peasant's farmhouse. The other mercenaries, led by Ludwig, had insisted that he drink his share.


More than my share, came the thought. I drank more than my share, on purpose. It made them laugh, how quickly I got drunk. But that's what I wanted. It gave me an excuse.


Memory of the night before came crashing in. Hans opened his eyes. He found himself staring at a corpse, not three feet away. The farmer, that was. The man was staring up at the ceiling of the farmhouse with sightless eyes. The rough clothing was caked with blood all through his midsection. Flies swarmed on the corpse.


Again, Hans felt the urge to vomit. And, again, fought it down desperately. His enrollment in the mercenary company was still very recent, and hung by a thread. If the soldiers decided he was unfit for their trade, they would cast him back into the pool of camp followers. Unarmed. Again.


Better anything than that. He still had what was left of his family to shelter. Ludwig protected his older sister Gretchen from the other soldiers, since he had taken her as his concubine. But Annalise, just turned fourteen, was already drawing their eyes. As a mercenary's sister, she would have some status. So would his grandmother. If Hans lost his place in the company, Annalise would be a tent whore before she saw another birthday. His grandmother would die in a field somewhere, abandoned and alone.


Hans decided he had mastered his stomach. He rose, and staggered toward the doorway. His eyes avoided the two corpses piled in a corner of the house. Those had been the old folk. The farmer's mother and his aunt, probably. Crones, of no interest to the soldiers. Hans remembered how casually Ludwig and another mercenary had murdered them, as if they were a pair of chickens.


He also kept his eyes away from the only bed in the house. That bed had been put to use by his companions, the night before. Hans had guzzled the wine as fast as he could force it down his stomach, in order to avoid the activity taking place there. Ludwig and his cohorts would have insisted that he participate. Drunkenness was the only acceptable excuse.


The bed was empty, now. The farmer's daughter had probably been dragged out this morning to join the camp followers, along with the boy. Her lot would be hard, and her brother's worse. Unlike Hans' sister Gretchen, the girl was not attractive enough to become a soldier's concubine. She would be a laundress and a prostitute. Her brother would be one of many camp urchins, available to run errands and do chores for the soldiers. Beaten for any reason, or, often enough, simply on a drunken whim. If he survived, the boy might eventually become a mercenary himself.


That was unlikely, however. Hans estimated the farm boy's age at ten years, no more. He would get less food than anyone, which was little enough. Hunger and disease would probably carry him off, long before he could reach the relatively secure status of being a soldier.


Hans stumbled out of the doorway into the farmyard. The bright sunlight, for all the pain it brought to his head, was a blessed relief. He could handle pain of the body. He had been a printer's son himself, once, not so far removed from the peasantry. Pain and hunger and hard work were no strangers. But he wondered, sometimes, how long his soul could endure this new world. The sunshine seemed to lighten that burden, a bit.


Ludwig and his men were gathering the camp followers, driving them into a semblance of marching order with shouts and blows. There were about fifty of them, mostly women and children, to service Ludwig's twenty mercenaries. Ludwig held no official rank in that band of soldiers. With his size and domineering personality, the point was moot. The informal arrangement was typical of Tilly's army. The officers didn't care, as long as the soldiers did their duty on the rare occasions when an actual battle had to be fought or a siege undertaken.


The camp followers were heavily laden with the mercenaries' gear and plunder. The "plunder" was pathetic, in truth. There was no gold or silver or jewelry to be found in peasant homes, and precious little in the houses of small German towns. Some of the "loot" would have caused Hans to laugh, if he didn't know of the carnage which had obtained it. One of the women—Diego the Spaniard's "wife"—was staggering under a wrought-iron bedframe. Diego had forced the poor creature to carry that thing for seven weeks now, even though he had no possible use for it. The Spaniard had been furious that the house had held nothing else of any value. He had spent two hours torturing the owner in an attempt to find hidden treasure. But there had been none. There almost never was. Only a bed. After Diego was finished, the pallet had been too badly soaked with blood to be salvageable. But he had insisted on taking the frame.


The small woman staggering under the bedframe stumbled and fell to one knee. Diego, seeing her mishap, snarled with anger. He strode up and delivered a vicious kick to her backside, sprawling her flat on the ground. She did not make a sound. Her face held no expression. She simply drew her legs under her and lurched back onto her feet.


Wincing, Hans looked away. In seconds, he spotted his own family. Gretchen, as always, was at the center of the crowd of camp followers, with his sister and grandmother nearby. His grandmother and Annalise were carrying bundles, but Gretchen always carried the largest, even though she was burdened with her baby. She was a big woman, and young, and strong, and had never allowed her good looks to go to her head.


Hans was not surprised to see the newest camp followers sheltered under Gretchen's care. The farmer's daughter seemed in a total daze. Her little brother was sobbing. There were no tears, however. The tear ducts would have been emptied hours earlier.


Hans took a breath and marched over. Ludwig would be demanding his presence within seconds. But he wanted to speak to Gretchen first.


As he drew near, threading through the little mob, Gretchen turned her head toward him. She was saying something to Annalise, but as soon as she caught sight of Hans her mouth closed. Her face, in an instant, stiffened like a statue. Her eyes, for all the natural warmth of their light brown color, seemed as cold as winter.


When Hans came up to Gretchen, he glanced at the farmer's children. Orphans, now. His words came in a rush.


"I didn't— I swear, Gretchen. I got drunk right away." Almost desperately, he nodded to the daughter. "Ask her. She'll tell you."


Gretchen's stiff face softened into quiet anger. "You think the poor girl remembers faces?" she demanded. Her eyes moved to the band of soldiers now forming into a loose column. The gaze was pure bitterness. "I didn't. Thank God."


The child nestled in Gretchen's left arm turned his head and stared up at Hans, with the unfocused eyes of babies. His mouth curved into a smile, seeing Hans' familiar face. The baby gurgled happily.


The sight, and the sound, melted away Gretchen's anger. Hans felt a surge of warmth toward the child, for bringing that break in the tension.


As he had often before, Hans wondered at that warmth. He had grown very fond of Wilhelm, in the months since his birth. Gretchen positively doted on him.


Odd, really. Wilhelm was Ludwig's son. Probably. After the first day, when their town was sacked by Tilly's army and Ludwig led his men into their father's print shop, Gretchen had been reserved for Ludwig's exclusive use. The baby certainly resembled his presumed father. Like Ludwig, his hair was very blond, his eyes blue. And already he was giving evidence that he might grow to Ludwig's size.


Gretchen's eyes came back to Hans. He was relieved to see that his sister's hostility was completely gone.


"It's all right, Hans. We do as best we can." A shout came. Ludwig's bellow, summoning him. "Now go," she said. "I will see to the family."


Hearing that word, the sobbing ten-year-old boy at her side was suddenly clutching Gretchen's hip. A moment later, his sister joined him, clutching Gretchen's arm. The dazed look in her eyes seemed to lift, a bit.


Hans' "family," plain enough, had just grown. He was not surprised. A third of the camp followers belonged to Gretchen. Adopted, as it were.


Ludwig's bellow came again. Angry, now. There would be a cuffing, sure enough.


"Go," hissed Gretchen.


 


The cuffing was not severe. Ludwig was in a good mood, insofar as that innocent expression can be applied to a troll in human guise. His gaiety, of course, was at Hans' expense.


"A real battle for you, chicklet!" roared Ludwig. "Some of our boys got bloodied down south a ways, so we're going to sack Badenburg to teach these Protestant fucks a lesson." The grin in the big man's bearded face was jeering. "No more lazing about in the lap of luxury. You'll be blooded before tomorrow's over. Or bloody ruin yourself!"


The veteran mercenaries standing nearby echoed Ludwig's guffaws. The laughter was good-natured, for the most part. But Diego the Spaniard's humor, as always, was sadistic.


"A gutted mess you'll be," he predicted. The sneer on his face became a leer. Diego grabbed his crotch. "Annalise's looking better by the day!" he chortled.


Hans felt a spike of rage run down his spine. He detested the Spaniard as he did no other man in Ludwig's band. More, even, than Ludwig himself. Ludwig was a brute, a beast, an ogre. Diego was something far worse. It was no accident that the Spaniard was always the man chosen by Ludwig whenever torture was to be done.


Yet Hans said nothing. He averted his eyes. He was terrified of Diego. The sallow-faced Spaniard was not a big man. Nothing compared to Ludwig. But he was as savage as a weasel, and just as deadly.


Hans braced himself for further ridicule. Fortunately, a small knot of horsemen came cantering up, diverting everyone's attention. The captain "in command" of Ludwig's band had arrived to give the orders.


Hans didn't even know the captain's name. It was meaningless. Hans took his orders from Ludwig. He only gave the captain and his three companions a glance.


But then, seeing the priest in the group, Hans' glance became a stare. Apparently, there was to be a sermon along with commands. The priest would almost certainly be a Jesuit, attached to the Papal Inquisition. He would exhort the troops to fight in the name of holiness.


Hans' guess was confirmed by Diego's muttered words of scorn. The Spaniard was contemptuous of the Jesuits and the pope's Inquisition. Weak-livered punks, he called them. Diego liked to boast about the Spanish Dominicans and their Holy Office of the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition answered to the crown of Spain, not the Vatican. They did as they pleased, and damn the pope's Italian lawyering. Just burn the filthy heretics. They're all Jews and Jew-lovers anyway, the ones who aren't outright Moors.


"Limpieza," the Spanish called it. Pure blood, to be protected from taint. That mattered as much to them—more, in truth—than the pope's concerns over religious dogma.


The captain finished his brief exchange of words with Ludwig. The priest urged his horse to the fore.


A sermon, sure enough.


* * *


Hans tried to block the sermon from his mind. He did not even look at the Jesuit, lest his eyes betray him. He simply stared at the ground, hands clasped as if in prayer.


The priest was speaking of the need to safeguard the Catholic faith from heresy.


Hans could not help hearing the words. His thoughts seethed with fury.


Liar. We were Catholics ourselves. Our whole town was Catholic.


The priest was advocating the true faith.


We were kneeling in prayer when your "Catholic" mercenaries came into my father's shop.


Denouncing the Protestants.


The Protestants murdered my grandfather, and took away my mother. But it was your good Catholic Ludwig who drove a sword into my father's belly when he held up the rosary.


Denouncing sin, now.


And what was it, priest, when your soldiers sired a bastard on my sister? Was it hers, tied hand and foot to my father's bed?


The rest, he managed not to hear. Hans' thoughts moved far away. Bleak and hopeless. Utterly despairing thoughts, as only those of an eighteen-year-old young man can be.


Hans knew the truth. Satan's rebellion, stymied for so long, had finally triumphed. It was no longer God who sat on the heavenly throne. The Beast had replaced Him. It was the serpent's minions, not the Lord's, who wore the vestments of the clergy. All clergy, of all creeds. The creeds themselves were meaningless. Satan's joke, nothing more. The Lord of Flies was amusing himself, tormenting the land and its folk.


The sermon was done. Hans, had he still retained Gretchen's vestige of faith, would have thanked God. But there was no God to be thanked, any longer. There was nothing.


He managed, barely, to pull himself back from that brink. Suicide was at the bottom of that plunge. Hans had been tempted, often enough. But—


He flared his nostrils, and took in a deep breath. Still staring at the ground, still with his hands clasped before him.


The hands were not clasped in prayer, for all the strength with which he squeezed the fingers. Hans Richter was simply reminding himself that all was not lost. He still had something. Something to call his own, and something to give what he could.


Family. That I have. That I will protect, as best I can. Whatever else.


 


Back | Next
Framed