Smoke and ashes filled the night air, thick enough to block out the stars overhead. Tendrils of acrid smoke rose from the charred remains of what had once been a small thriving town, and threaded their way among the ruins. Stone chimneys and walls glowed with a pale red tint reflecting the flames and glowing embers that surrounded them.
The fires, started by the invading Swedish soldiers, had been burning since the early morning. They would continue to burn until the next morning. Homes, crops, and forests ... all had been put to the torch in a frenzy of blood lust.
What little breeze there was did not dispel the smoke. Instead, it merely stirred up ashes to sting the eyes, clog the sinuses, and irritate the lungs.
Now that the soldiers had left, there were very few eyes in town to be bothered. Of the three hundred families that had lived there, only a handful of people had survived the day. All of the others had been cremated inside their burning homes or left for dead where they had fallen. The stench was horrible, but would only get worse.
Pity the poor fellows who had resisted the Swedes and were captured rather than killed. It was better to get cudgeled from behind while fleeing than to suffer the Schwedentrunk, the Swedish Drink. That was a painful death, in which a vile liquid was forced into a person through a tube, until the body was bloated from the effects. If that wasn't bad enough, the hapless victim was then trampled underfoot, to increase the pain.
Women and children had not been spared. Men, feeling the blood fury of battle, savagely used females to satisfy their carnal desires. It didn't matter if the female was a young child, or an old crone. Ten, sometimes twenty men, participated in gang rapes, in which the least resistance or even screams of pain were rewarded with sheer brutish violence. Seldom did the victims survive the beastly ordeal. Those few who survived physically, were left with empty minds. They were made unaware of anything around them, and their eyes stared unseeing into the distance.
The town of peasants, armed only with pitchforks and clubs, stood no chance against well armed and battle hardened soldiers. For the horde, it was take what they wanted, rape the women, and kill anyone in front of them. It was a simple mindset that was unleashed on a battlefield to the north. It continued on, unchecked, to the nearby town. Once the passions had been sated, the horde moved on to the next battle, to repeat the process. Behind them lay devastation.
Siegfried Bauer, on legs that were only just capable of supporting him, stumbled down what had once been the only street of the town. The destruction barely registered on a mind that had been overwhelmed by the brutality he had witnessed over the past ten hours. Dimly, one partially intact building registered in his tired brain. Alone and looking abandoned stood the town's gasthaus. One wall had collapsed, bringing half of the roof down with it.
Siegfried went into the building thinking he might find something to drink. He hoped the Swedes had missed something in their haste. It was a faint hope. Soldiers ransacking a town seldom failed to miss anything that could make them drunk. Beer, wine, brandy, and schnapps ... It didn't matter what it was, so long as it contained alcohol.
He nearly died of fright when he heard a muffled noise from within the ruined structure.
"Who goes there?" Old man Grun asked in a weak voice that could barely be heard.
"Is that you, Grun?" Siegfried asked torn between the fear that he had heard a ghost and surprise at finding the man was still alive.
He looked around but didn't see the man. The roof had collapsed. There was a lot of debris on the floor. He figured one of the dark mounds was Grun.
"Could you help me up? My leg is broken."
"Where are you?"
"Under the roof."
Siegfried dug around in the rubble until he located Grun. It took a little work to free the man from under the section of roof that had pinned him down. He carried the man over to a spot relatively clear of debris. Grun cried out in pain when Siegfried put him down.
"Your leg is broke."
"I know. Do you know how to doctor it?"
"He's dead. I saw his body. It looked like they gave him the Schwedentrunk."
"Do you need anything?" Siegfried asked.
"I could use something to drink. I've been trapped under there since morning," Grun said.
"Let me see if there's anything left of your stock," Siegfried said.
"Those damned Swedes probably drank it all," Grun said.
Siegfried went over to the cask that had sat behind the bar. There was still a little liquid left in it. He poured a little out into the palm of his hand. It was the dregs – a little liquid and a lot of sediment. He looked around for something to pour it in.
While looking around, he asked, "What happened to you?"
Grun said, "I heard a noise outside and was heading towards the door to find out what it was. It sounded like a wagon was being pushed against the wall or something. I was standing right where you found me when the wall collapsed and the roof caved in. I was pinned down. The Swedes came in and started drinking. I don't think they knew I was there. Maybe they did. They kept walking over the section of roof that covered me. I thought I was going to die from the pain."
"You were lucky," Siegfried said thinking about how his wife had died.
He found a pewter cup that had been partially flattened when someone had stepped on it. He held it up in the dim light from the fire still burning down the street. The cup would still hold enough liquid to wet the mouth.
"This will have to do."
Siegfried filled the cup with some of the beer from the cask. He took a sip to ease his parched throat before taking it over to Grun. It was vile.
Grun took a drink and then exclaimed, "That's horrible. How in the hell did they drink the cask that low without getting sick?"
"It's better than the water from the well."
"It can't be."
"There's a dead body in the well."
"Does it matter?" Siegfried asked. He had walked past so many dead bodies that he couldn't even count them.
"I guess not," Grun answered.
A voice called out, "Is there anybody here?"
Siegfried shouted, "Schmied? Is that you, Schmied?"
"Yes. Where are you?"
"In the gasthaus," Siegfried shouted.
Fritz Schmied tripped upon entering the ruins of the gasthaus. On regaining his balance, he said, "I was afraid that my family and I were the only ones left alive."
"Your family is still alive?" Grun asked.
He could see that Fritz had been beaten. His left eye was swollen shut. There was blood covering his clothes.
"My wife and son. She's hurt bad."
"What happened to her?"
"The Swedes ... they ... took advantage of her," Fritz answered in a voice that broke from emotion.
The big man wiped his eyes with hands that could bend iron bars. He hadn't even had a chance to fight before being overwhelmed by the Swedes. They had thought it fun to rape his wife and daughters while he was forced to watch. After they had finished with the women, they had taken turns hitting the man. They had left him for dead.
After the soldiers left, his son emerged from his hiding place on the roof of the forge and untied him. Barely able to move, Fritz had gone over to check on his wife and daughters. His daughters stared up at the sky with dead eyes that wouldn't see anything ever again. His wife stared in much the same way. Her mind was gone, though her body was alive. He had hidden his family away before searching for others who might be alive, and could help her.
"What about your daughters?"
"They ... didn't ... survive the Swedes. My wife's mind is gone. She just lays there staring at nothing. Can you help her?" Fritz asked.
"No," Siegfried said.
"Is there anyone else around?"
"Not that I know of," Siegfried answered.
"I've got to find someone who can help her."
"My wife didn't make it. I found her by the stream," Siegfried said remembering what had happened to his wife.
He had been helping his family flee into the woods. He had been carrying his two sons. His daughter and wife were behind him. They could hear the soldiers following them. The hooves of their horses shook the ground and sounded like rolling thunder.
On reaching the woods, he had turned to tell her something and discovered that she wasn't there. He didn't know when his wife had stopped. He glanced back toward the field and spotted his wife being surrounded by Swedes. Knowing that the soldiers would chase her, she had taken off on her own so as to draw the pursuers away from her children. It was the act of a mother desperate to protect her family.
Heinrich Wald stepped into the ruined building. In a low coarse voice, he said, "You're making a lot of noise in here. I could hear you down the street."
"Heinrich! I saw that your place was burnt to the ground. How'd you get away?"
"We hid in the cellar. It's deep and stone lined. It kept us alive even though the house burned down over our heads."
"You were lucky."
"Dieter Weber and his family were with us," Heinrich said.
"At least we won't go without clothes," Grun said.
"All of Dieter's wool is gone. So is my wood. The fire took it all," Heinrich said.
"I'm far more worried about food than clothes or furniture," Siegfried said.
Winter was coming. There wasn't enough time to plant another crop. Their provisions had been burnt in the field.
"You'll be plenty worried about having a roof over your head when winter comes," Heinrich said.
"I'm not sure which is worse: starving, or freezing to death."
"Does it matter? Dead is dead."
Heinrich asked, "Where were the Baron's men? The Baron taxes us to death. He's supposed to protect us."
"I give him three quarters of my crop every year," Siegfried said.
"The Baron is dead," came a voice from outside.
The three men exchanged guilty glances. It wasn't good to be caught talking negatively about the Baron. The Baron wasn't the kind of man to suffer insult lightly. It would be a cruel act of fate to die at the hands of the Baron after surviving the Swedes.
Siegfried worked up enough courage to call out, "Who's there?"
"I'm Manfred Wache."
"Come in here, where we can see you," Grun shouted.
A slender man wearing the uniform of the Baron's guards entered the gasthaus. Where his sword should have been hung an empty scabbard. He looked around at the others gathered there surprised to find only three men. He had expected to find more men alive in the town.
"Where's the rest of his soldiers?" Fritz asked.
"Dead. They're all dead," Manfred answered tiredly.
"What about the Baron's son?"
"What are we supposed to do without a Baron?" Grun asked.
"There's always been a Baron," Siegfried said.
"Not any more."
Manfred knelt down by Grun. He took a moment to examine the man's leg. It was twisted in an unnatural direction.
"Your leg is broken."
"I know that. Do you know how to doctor it?"
"You – big guy – grab hold of him," Manfred said.
"Why?" Fritz asked.
"We need to fix his leg," Manfred said.
"What are you going to do?" Grun asked.
"Hold him down," Manfred said gesturing from Fritz to Grun.
Fritz grabbed Grun and pinned him to the floor. Manfred pulled on the leg. Grun screamed and then passed out. Manfred continued to pull on the leg until he was satisfied that it was almost straight. It was the best that he could do. He knew that even if it healed, Grun would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
"I need some wood. Give me a couple pieces of wood slats from the roof over there."
"Is he alive?" Siegfried asked looking down at Grun.
"Yes," Fritz answered. "He's still breathing."
Heinrich returned with two slats from the roof. Manfred used the two boards to stabilize the leg. It wasn't the best job, but it was dark and would have to do.
Manfred said, "If his leg doesn't heal, we'll have to remove it. Otherwise, it'll poison him."
"I know that," Siegfried said.
The others nodded their heads in agreement. Everyone knew what happened when a limb started to smell. If the limb had to be removed, the person usually died. Grun didn't stand much of a chance of surviving that. It was just the state of medicine at the time.
Manfred sat down on the floor and looked around. It was a pretty sad looking lot gathered there. An old man with a broken leg and a couple others who probably couldn't fight. There was the one big guy who might be of some use in a fight, but judging by the looks of him he wasn't going to be that good of a fighter.
Tired, he said, "Get your families somewhere safe. Get all of the heads of the surviving families over here. You've got to decide what you're going to do until we get a new Baron."
"What about the Swedes? Won't they come back?"
"I wouldn't worry about that. There's nothing left here to interest them," Manfred said.
"That makes sense."
"There's someone out there."
A woman stepped into the building. Her clothes were shredded and barely covered her. The right side of her face was swollen.
Siegfried shouted, "Frau Damenstern!"
"What happened to you?"
"Me and my girls 'entertained' the officers," Frau Damenstern answered.
She had been at the door of her brothel when the Swedes had arrived. She knew enough Swedish to spare her and the girls from being raped. Her offer of drink, food, and willing women had immediately gotten the attention of the officers. That didn't mean they had an easy time of it. It just meant that it wasn't quite as violent as a rape would have been.
"They let you live?"
"I think they appreciated being able to do it on beds. You should have seen the looks on their faces when I demanded payment for the services we had provided."
"Did they pay?"
"No." Pointing to her face, she said, "That's when I got this."
She looked down at Grun on the floor.
"I'm going to miss Old Man Grun."
"He's not dead," Fritz said.
"I'm glad to hear that."
"Manfred Wache. I see you managed to survive," Frau Damenstern said.
"I heard about the battle from the Swedes. Was it as bad as they said?" Helga answered.
"I don't know what they said, but it was pretty bad. They hit us at dawn. We didn't even know they were there. Most of the Baron's men died getting out of their tents. Me and a handful of others fought until we were pushed back to the stream. It was pretty bad. We were horribly outnumbered.
"I saw one of them take the head right off of the Baron. His son got it in the stomach. About that time, I got hit on the head and fell into the stream. I should have drowned, but I woke up on the bank near here."
"Did anyone else survive?"
"I don't know. I doubt it," Manfred answered. He held up a hand and then said, "I hear a wagon."
Worried that the Swedes had returned. Heinrich looked though the door. He breathed a sigh of relief.
"That's Adolf Wagner. He's got two people with him that I don't recognize."
"I wonder what he's doing driving his wagon at night."
Heinrich said, "He left the day before yesterday to deliver some charcoal. He was supposed to return tomorrow with some dye for Dieter."
"Call him over here," Helga said.
"Hey, Adolf! Over here!" Heinrich shouted.
Fritz looked over at Helga. "My wife is hurt. Can you help her?"
"What's the matter with her?" Helga asked.
"The Swedes ... they ... uh ... you know. She's just staring off into space, now," Fritz said.
Helga shook her head.
"There's not anything that can be done for her. Maybe she'll come out of it. Maybe she won't."
"Damn those Swedes to Hell!"
Helga asked, "Where is she?"
"She's at my forge with my son."
"Shouldn't you be there?" Helga asked.
"I've got to find someone to help her."
In a state of shock, Adolf entered the gasthaus. He had stopped at his house only to find it a smoking ruin. There were bones in the ashes, but he didn't want to accept what they suggested.
Adolf asked, "What happened here? Where's my family?"
"The Swedes came. They killed everyone," Siegfried said.
Grun groaned. He was beginning to regain consciousness.
"Where's my family?"
"We don't know. As far as I know, we're it," Siegfried said.
"There's no one else?"
"No. It's just us and few members of our families."
Adolf sat down on the floor and wept.
One of the strangers knelt down by Grun. He asked, "Who set the leg?"
"Does anyone have a lantern?"
"I'll have to check it in the morning," the man said.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Roberto Curado."
"Are you Swedish?"
"What are you doing here?" Manfred asked.
"We hired Adolf to bring us this way from the town west of here."
That had been in the morning. It was a twenty-five mile trip that would normally take all of one day and most of the next. The spot where they had intended to camp for the night was near where the Baron's men had been killed. Adolf had seen the birds and driven on worried about what he would find. Upon finding the dead men, he had continued on to town despite the darkness of night.
Siegfried asked, "Why are you here?"
"Ah, well. My friend and I got into a little trouble in Spain."
"Who is your friend?"
"I'm Samuel Goldstein."
Heinrich thought about it for a second and then asked, "Are you a Jew?"
"That was his trouble," Roberto said.
"Didn't the Jews kill Jesus?"
Roberto said, "Technically, it was the Romans who killed Jesus."
"I thought it was the Jews," Siegfried said.
"Nope. It was definitely the Romans who killed Jesus. Pontius Pilate was a Roman. The soldiers who nailed him to the cross were Romans. The fellow that stabbed him with the spear was a Roman."
Manfred asked, "Did you say things like that in Spain?"
"Yes. That was the trouble I got into," Roberto said.
"I can imagine you weren't very popular," Manfred said.
"I'm a scholar. I read things and try to learn great truths. Sometimes people don't like the truth."
"What are we supposed do with Jews?" Siegfried asked.
"Aren't we supposed to kill 'em?"
"I would prefer that you didn't do that," Samuel said.
Roberto said, "We saw the dead soldiers down the road. I take it that the same folks who killed them ravaged this town."
"That's right," Helga said.
"Who held the land?"
Samuel said, "Do you mind some advice?"
"Why should we listen to a Jew?" Siegfried asked.
"My people have a little experience with their towns getting destroyed," Samuel said.
"He's right, you know," Roberto said.
Siegfried scratched his jaw thinking about it. He was pretty sure the local priest would object to them taking advice from a Jew. Of course, the local priest was dead. The church had been ransacked and burnt to the ground with the priest in it. Finally, he asked, "So what do you suggest?"
"I suggest that you go back to your families and rest. In the morning, you'll have to take care of the dead before the plague comes. Then you'll need to salvage everything of value left in the town," Samuel said.
"Isn't that robbing the dead?" Heinrich asked, looking at Samuel suspiciously.
"It's either that, or join them in death," Roberto said.
"You're foreigners. Why should we trust you?" Fritz asked.
Manfred said, "He's not asking you to trust him. He's telling you what you need to do. I happen to agree with him. Take care of your families. Get some rest. Tomorrow we start to rebuild."
A week later, the heads of the ten families (Siegfried Bauer, Fritz Schmeid, Deiter Weber, Heinrich Wald, Helga Damenstern, Roberto Curado, Samuel Goldstein, Ernest Grun, Adolf Wagner, and Manfred Wache) met at the remains of the gasthaus. All of them were considerably thinner. Their clothes were threadbare.
Manfred said, "I guess, as the last guard of the old Baron, I ought to start things."
When no one argued, he said, "We're in pretty bad shape, here. Winter is coming. We've got no shelter, no food, and no clothes."
As the only farmer amongst the group, Siegfried said, "The food situation is not that bad. We found a cow, a few pigs, some sheep, and several chickens. Although most of the fields were burned, there are many patches that have grain. We can harvest that. Since there are less than thirty of us, we can probably live off of that until spring.
"The cow is giving milk, so that will get us some cheese and butter. We can slaughter one or two of the pigs and one of the sheep. We should have enough meat to last through the winter. The chickens can lay eggs. With the grain from the fields, we'll have bread."
"I can't eat pork," Samuel said.
"You can eat pork, or die," Siegfried said.
Samuel said, "I guess I can eat pork, or die, or I can find something else to eat."
Heinrich Wald said, "The fire did a number on the woods to the south, but we've got trees to the north. I can cut down some trees and make some simple planks. They won't be cured, but we can build a shelter using it."
"A shelter?" Siegfried asked.
"A big shelter. One that is big enough for all, or most of us. Between it and Helga's place, we'll have a place for everyone to stay when winter gets here."
"Where we will build it?"
"I suggest that we build it over my cellar. It gives us someplace to store our provisions."
"That's not a bad idea." Manfred said.
"If you give me the scraps from your trees, I can make some charcoal. With the metal that I've found around here, I'll be able to restart my blacksmith shop. We'll need metal when we start to rebuild," Fritz Schmied said.
"I'm sorry I delivered that load of Charcoal."
"Getting your forge restarted sounds good," Manfred said.
After taking a big breath, Samuel said, "I have some gold."
Everyone turned to look at him.
"I can give Adolf Wagner a gold coin. He can use it to buy some supplies," Samuel said.
Manfred asked, "Why would you do that?"
Roberto answered, "Samuel and I have been talking. We've got an idea that we would like all of you to consider."
"What kind of idea?" Manfred asked.
"Look at us. We've got a farmer, a carpenter, a weaver, a smith, a drover, a banker, a soldier, and a scholar. Working together, we can accomplish great things," Roberto said.
"You've got an innkeeper and the owner of a brothel, too. What about us?" Helga asked.
Samuel said, "You are very important to our plan."
"What are you talking about? What kind of plan?" Manfred asked.
Roberto said, "When a new Baron is installed here, he will need people to work the land. He's going to have to bring a bunch of new people here. We'll be here first, but the newcomers are going to try to use their influence with the Baron, to displace us."
"I can see that happening."
"In order to survive, we have to be ready for them. We have to have food that they will buy from us, until their crops come in. We have to have a carpenter, and be ready to supply them with lumber to build their homes. We have to have a weaver to make cloth for them. We need a smith to provide the tools they'll need. We'll need a drover to bring supplies in and to take our goods out. We'll need a soldier to keep the peace."
"None of that will do us any good unless we have eyes and ears to hear what the newcomers might plan," Samuel said.
"Innkeepers know what people are planning. You'd be surprised what people say while deep in drink," Grun said.
"Whores get told the secret things others have done," Helga said with a knowing smile.
"Exactly," Roberto said. "We can always use the help of a banker to help manage our money."
"A scholar can teach our children to read and write, to understand numbers, and speak foreign languages. Our children will know more than the others. They'll be able to enter into trade agreements," Samuel said.
Siegfried said, "I'm just a farmer. How do I fit into this?"
"Everyone has to work together. You need tools to grow food. Fritz can provide those tools to you at a discount. You need to get your crop to market. Adolf can deliver your crop at a discount. You make more money, which you can use to buy more cattle, sheep, chickens, and pigs. The same for goes for the others.
"Adolf gets your business as well as the business from the rest of us. Manfred will protect Adolf against bandits. Adolf will have more business than other drovers and will be able to get more wagons and hire people to work for him. We each help each other with our businesses.
"With the increased profits, we bank the money with Samuel. He will loan it out to our competitors. They are paying a higher interest than we charge ourselves. It all works to make it easier for us to succeed."
"That's clever. That's real clever," Heinrich said.
"Won't other people complain?" Siegfried asked.
"That's why it has to be done in secret. We can't let anyone else know," Roberto said.
Samuel said, "We are pledging ourselves to each other, over King and country."
"We have to swear allegiance to the Baron," Siegfried said.
"You can do that. It is just that your oath to each other, has to come first," Roberto said.
Adolf said, "May the Baron rot in hell! My family is dead, because he didn't fulfill his oath to us."
Siegfried said, "You're right ... The Baron didn't protect us from the Swedes. In the end, it was each of us on our own. I say we do this!"
Edited By TeNderLoin