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Hand of the Smith
“Only two hellars . Come, come see what the whole buzz is about.” Fraulein Milla squawked. Her pudgy body was evidently strained by the effort of standing, the opposite of her usual position. I knew what was in her barn, and would have usually had no intention of visiting it. Today I came because it was The Fourth Time, or so we called it. We were of course still in shock, as we had been The First Time, The Second Time, and The Third Time.
It was raining that day, as it had quite often during this era: our Terror. I tread the ten long strides between the path and the timbered barn, where Milla stood at the entrance.
“I’m surprised you came Katrina. Usually you aren’t fond of a grisly sight,” the stout woman croaked.
“I need to know if I can protect my family,” was all I could say. I shoved the hellars in the con artist’s gluttonous hands, and went into the barn.
Most of the town was convened in the claustrophobic, manure filled shed. Toward the rear Fraulein Franziska was hanged from the beam. Her face was now covered with a coarse grain sack. Father Jude stood in the front of the crowd, his hands raised to quiet the people.
“Never, never in all my years in Bavaria or elsewhere have I seen Him so disappointed in us. We must all repent, fast, and sacrifice to stop this butchery of innocent people.” There was a murmur of approval from the mob.
“What will the children do to repent?” a man cried.
“The children will fast with us,” the priest said determinedly.
“My son is very sick,” one person objected, “he must eat.”
“He shall fast, or else your son will be the next to be punished,” another warned.
“People, do not be ridiculous. If the child is sick, he shall eat,” Father Jude allowed.
“No, I will protect him with what I can,” said the individual with the sick son.
“There’s no need,” one woman declared, “I know who the assassin is. Every victim has been branded with pincers on the hand. The murderer is the blacksmith.” A hush went over the crowd.
“Hang him,” the tailor shouted. Father Jude raised his hands again.
“I will interrogate Bernen the smith, personally, and notify you as to whether he is the murderer.”
I couldn’t remain here anymore. I loped back to my house and found my husband working at the forge.
“Bernen, you must leave,” I whimpered, “I am positive that you’re not the murderer, but many people think otherwise.”
“I cannot leave, or they will punish my family in my stead,” he whispered.
“Then we will all depart.”
“Katrina, I trust the judgment of the people. If they think I’m the culprit-” suddenly the door slammed open, and Fraulein Zelda came in.
“I heard him,” she exclaimed, “he said â€˜I’m the culprit.’ ” The people who were in the barn came pouring through the door. There was now a large ring around Bernen. He was pressed to the floor, and I was shoved to the back.
“You murdered my son,” shrieked Ailis, placing her hand on Bernen’s head, “may God forgive you.” I tried pushing through the mass of people, but I seemed to make no progress.
It seemed to be centuries later that I found that I was alone in the house. Had I fainted? I was lying on the ground, and I saw that I was covered in blood. The throng must have been wilder than I suspected. As I contemplated this I remembered why the mob of people were here. What would the bloodthirsty crowd do to my husband? I went outside to see that had happened. Footprints covered the muddy ground. A few split from the main trail and wandered to Fraulein Zelda’s cottage. Grey clouds threatened to invade, ruining my trail. From the cottage I could hear cheering, and through the glow, could see the silhouettes of foaming beer mugs being raised over a table. My reddened fists came down on her splintering wood door. After about a minute she opened the door for me.
“What do you want?” she inquired, placing her hands on her hips. Her dark curls hung loose from her cap.
“Where is he?” I barked, for she knew perfectly well the reason I had come.
“He has been arrested so Father Jude can question him. The priest will ask God for an answer and if he is guilty, Bernen will be hanged.”
“He doesn’t know more than anyone else who the murderer is,” I wailed.
“If he is innocent, no harm shall befall him.” Her voice was agonizingly indifferent. She spoke as if she were merely commenting on the weather, rather than a human life.
I could go nowhere but back home. I was not admitted to the jails, and people would avert their eyes when they noticed me. Were they afraid of guilt by association, or was it that we were now a disgraced family?
As I arrived home a man and a woman were waiting at the fence. My presence was announced by the squeaking of my boots, before I was in hearing distance of them. As I came closer they turned to address me.
“We have come to collect money you owe us,” the butcher said. He removed his hat and started turning it in his permanently blood-stained hands. His awkwardness made me uneasy. The butcher looked at the ground and shifted his weight from his left to right foot.
“The payments are not due for another month,” I objected.
“Well, you know…” he went on, “situations change and I need to know that I’ll be paid.” The woman looked at me for the first time. Her face looked like a cheese, ready to crumble at any moment. She wore a black cloak that covered the rest of her, and only a wisp of white hair escaped over her face.
“You know my son, Sigfrid, died building Ludwig II’s castle. I have no way of living and need the 125 hellars you owe me.” These people appeared persistent and I had no doubt that they would call for help if I refused to pay them. I paid them each and they left.
In the evening, Bernan returned home. He walked with a limp, and a hunch. He never spoke a word to the children, or me but sat in the forge staring at his anvil and tools. I tried to sleep, but had a nightmare. In my nightmare, someone was going to hang me, but I could not speak to defend myself, and tell the executioner whom the true culprit was. Right as the barrel was knocked out from under my feet I saw a gilded hearse go by.
In the morning I staggered to the market. The angry wind whipped my face, and I couldn’t see where I was going. Elory, the king’s personal fisherman was gossiping with Milla and Ailis.
“Found him dead floating down the Stambourg River,” Elory claimed.
“Who?” asked another newcomer.
“King Ludwig!” Milla and Ailis proclaimed. Many of us gasped.
“Yes, I was in the bushes when I heard a gun shot and saw Ludwig fall. I ran to him, and there was an odd mark on his hand,” Elory added. All of a sudden my heart raced and I fled from the market place to the church just in time to hear the drums stop rolling.