The Beggar King (Hangman's Daughter Series #3)by Oliver Potzsch
The third book in the internationally bestselling Hangman's Daughter series takes readers to the imperial city of Regensburg, where the hangman has been accused of murder.See more details below
The third book in the internationally bestselling Hangman's Daughter series takes readers to the imperial city of Regensburg, where the hangman has been accused of murder.
"The Beggar King is a richly appointed historical novel, a compelling tapestry of violence, intrigue, and tenderness. Pötzsch drags you into his beautifully rendered and dangerous seventeenth-century Europe and doesn't let you escape until the final climactic page."
—Glenn Cooper, international bestselling author of Secret of the Seventh Son
"Twists and turns enmesh both the characters and the reader in this absorbing tale that captures, with an authenticity that is truly rare, the sounds and sights and smells of seventeenth-century Germany. A gripping story of love, betrayal, and long-delayed revenge."
—James Becker, author of The Moses Stone
"The Beggar King weaves a fascinating web of intrigue that invokes much more than just the intricate politics of 17th-century Germany. Oliver Pötzsch has brought to life the heady smells and tastes, the true reality of an era we've never seen quite like this before. The hangman Jakob and his feisty daughter Magdalena are characters we will want to root for in many books to come."—Katherine Neville, bestselling author of The Eight and The Magic Circle
Praise for The Dark Monk
"Swift and sure, compelling as any conspiracy theory, persuasive as any spasm of paranoia, The Dark Monk grips you at the base of your skull and doesn't let go."
—Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Out of Oz
"Oliver Pötzsch takes readers on a darkly atmospheric visit to seventeenth-century Bavaria in his latest adventure. With enough mystery and intrigue to satisfy those who like gritty historical fiction, The Dark Monk has convincing characters, rip-roaring action, and finely-drawn settings."
—Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night
"Weaving together the mystery of a murdered priest, a Templar treasure, and a kind-hearted hangman, Oliver Pötzsch's The Dark Monk is a labyrinth of clues and rich characters in seventeenth-century Bavaria. Pötzsch keeps the action boiling, the clues intriguing, and the history fascinating and authentic."
—William Dietrich, author of The Emerald Storm
Read an Excerpt
IN THE DANUBE GORGE NEAR WELTENBURG,
AUGUST 13, 1662 AD
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER
THE WAVE CAUGHT JAKOB KUISL HEAD-ON AND swept him off the bench like driftwood.
The hangman reached frantically for a handhold as he felt himself slip across the raft boards, feet first, toward the gurgling, swirling river. Slowly yet inexorably, the weight of his body dragged him into the cold water. His fingernails scraped along the planks as he slid, and he could hear frantic shouts nearby, though they were muffled as if by a thick wall. He managed at last to grab hold of a carpenter’s nail jutting out of a plank and was hauling himself up just as someone came sliding past him toward the churning water. With his free hand, he lunged, seizing a boy by the collar. About ten years old, the boy thrashed about and gasped for air. The hangman pushed him back into the middle of the raft, where his relieved father grabbed the boy and hugged him.
Wheezing, Kuisl crept back to his seat in the bow. His linen shirt and leather cape clung to his body, and water streamed down his face, beard, and eyebrows. Looking downriver, he realized the worst was yet to come. The raft was drifting helplessly toward a towering rock wall over forty yards high. Here, in the Weltenburg Narrows, the Danube narrowed abruptly, transforming this part of the river into a roiling cauldron that had cost many a raftsman his life, especially in times of high water.
“My God, hold tight, hold on tight, for heaven’s sake!” The forward helmsman leaned on his rudder as the raft plunged headlong into another whirlpool. The tendons in his arms stood out like knotted roots, but the long pole in his hands didn’t budge. Heavy thunderstorms had caused the river to rise in the last few days so that the otherwise tranquil gravel banks along both shores had been swept away entirely. Branches and uprooted trees raced by in the white foam as the huge raft sped faster and faster toward the rock face. Next to him Kuisl heard the terrifying sound of the raft’s timbers scraping the limestone cliff that now loomed directly above, casting its shadow over the small group of passengers like a stone colossus. Sharp rocks cut deep into the port side of the raft, slicing through the outermost logs lengthwise like they were butter.
“Holy Saint Nepomuk, patron protector from the flood, be with us! Hail Mary, full of grace, help us in our distress! Blessed Saint Nicolas, spare us . . .”
Kuisl looked sullenly to one side, where a nun sat, clutching an ivory rosary and wailing incessant prayers into the clear blue sky. So, too, the other passengers sat on the wooden benches, crossing themselves and mumbling petitions, their faces white as chalk. A portly estate farmer awaited his certain demise with eyes shut tight and drops of sweat on his brow. A Franciscan monk appealed in a cracked falsetto to the Fourteen Holy Helpers, orphan saints who couldn’t have been much older than him when the Plague made martyrs of them. And the lad whom Kuisl had just saved from drowning now clung to his father and sobbed. It was only a matter of time before the rocks would rip these timbers apart and grind them to a pulp. Most of the passengers were unable to swim, but in such turbulent waters that wouldn’t have saved them anyway.
“Accursed water! Blast it!” Kuisl spat into the river and heaved himself toward the bow, where the helmsman still struggled to redirect a rudder fastened to the raft by rope. With legs spread, the Schongau hangman braced himself beside the raftsman and leaned into the pole with his powerful torso. It felt as if the rudder had snagged on something far below in the ice-cold water. Running through Kuisl’s head were the horror stories raftsmen told about malevolent, slimy monsters lurking at the bottom of the river. Just the day before, some fishermen had told him about a catfish five yards long that supposedly lived in a cave near the Danube Gorge. What in heaven’s name could be down there, holding fast to the rudder’s pole?
All of a sudden he could feel the rudder moving just the tiniest bit. He pushed harder, groaning, feeling that at any moment his bones might break. With a final grinding sound, the rudder came free. The raft spun out from the whirlpool and, with one last shudder, was catapulted away from the rock face.
Moments later they were shooting swift as an arrow toward two small rocky outcroppings on the right riverbank. Some of the travelers carried on screaming, but at this point the raftsman had gained control of his raft. They rushed past the foam-splashed rocks, plunging headfirst into the water until at last they’d made their way out of the dangerous gorge.
“Thank you very much!” The helmsman wiped the sweat and water from his eyes and reached out a callused hand to Kuisl. “The Long Wall might have had us for supper. Do you have any interest in rafting yourself?” He smirked at Kuisl, reaching out to feel the hangman’s biceps. “You’re as strong as two oxen, and you sure can curse like a natural-born. So, how about it?”
Kuisl shook his head. “Bless you for that, but you wouldn’t enjoy having me. One more whirlpool like that and I’d throw up right there in the water. Solid ground under my feet is what I need.”
The raftsman laughed, and Kuisl shook his wet, matted mop of hair so that droplets flew in all directions.
“How long before we get to Regensburg?” he asked the helmsman. “This river is driving me crazy. I’ve thought our time was up at least ten times now.”
Kuisl looked back at the rock walls that overshadowed the river on both sides. Some reminded him of stone beasts, and some of the heads of giants who stared down at this swarming mass of tiny mortals far below. Just a moment ago they had passed by the Weltenburg Monastery, now little more than a ruin consumed by war and high water. Despite its sad condition, many travelers on the Danube still stopped there to offer silent prayers. After a heavy rain, the narrow gorge below was considered a challenge for even the most experienced raftsmen. It certainly couldn’t do any harm to pause for a few Hail Marys beforehand.
“The Long Wall is, by God, the worst stretch along here,” the helmsman said, making the sign of the cross. “Especially when the water is high. But from here on out it’s a calm ride, I promise. We should get there in a few more hours.”
“I hope you’re right,” the hangman grunted, “or I’ll give you a good paddling with that damned rudder.”
Kuisl turned away and padded cautiously along the slippery narrow aisle between the rows of benches, toward the back of the raft where the cargo was stored. He hated traveling by raft, even if it was the fastest and still the safest way to get from one town to the next. The hangman preferred to feel the solid forest floor beneath his feet. Tree trunks were good for building houses and tables and even gallows, if you like, but they surely weren’t meant for this tumbling around, pitching, and tossing in raging river rapids. Kuisl would be happy when this was all over.
The travelers, who had meanwhile regained some color in their faces and were now praying or laughing loudly in relief, looked to Kuisl with gratitude. The father of the boy he’d saved tried to embrace him, but the hangman brushed him off and turned away grumpily, disappearing between the crates lashed down in the stern.
Here on the Danube, a four-day journey from Kuisl’s home, neither the passengers nor the crew knew that Kuisl was the Schongau executioner. For the helmsman up front that was fortunate; if it had gotten around that a hangman had lent him a hand, he probably would have been expelled from his guild. In some regions, Kuisl had heard, just touching, or even being looked at by, an executioner could strip a man of his honor.
Kuisl climbed onto a barrel of pickled herring in the back of the cargo area and lit his pipe. Now, with the infamous Weltenburg Narrows behind them, the Danube widened again. The little town of Kelheim appeared on the left, and heavily loaded barges passed so close to the raft that Kuisl could almost reach out and touch their cargo. A fiddle could be heard on a vessel farther off, accompanied by the jangle of a tambourine. Behind that, a raft the size of a house plowed through the current at a leisurely pace. Loaded with lime, yew wood, and bricks, it lay so low in the water that small waves kept washing over the logs. In the middle of this slow-moving vessel, next to its tiny makeshift cabin, the captain rang a bell whenever smaller fishing boats drifted too close.
The hangman exhaled a few clouds of tobacco smoke into the almost cloudless summer sky, trying for a few minutes at least to forget the somber reason for his trip. Six days ago a letter from far-off Regensburg had arrived at his house in Schongau. Its contents troubled him more than he wanted his family to know. His younger sister, Lisbeth, who was married to the owner of a bathhouse and had been living in the distant Imperial City for years, had fallen seriously ill. It was a lump in her stomach, or so it was thought, accompanied by dreadful pain and a thick, black discharge. In the hastily scrawled lines of parchment his brother-in-law entreated him to come to Regensburg as soon as possible, since it was uncertain how long Lisbeth would survive. The Schongau hangman therefore emptied the medicine chest at home, packed his linen bag with opium gum, mountain arnica, and St. John’s Wort, and was on the next raft heading down the Danube. As executioner, he wasn’t allowed to leave town without prior approval of the city council, but Kuisl had simply ignored the prohibition. Just let Court Clerk Johann Lechner have him drawn and quartered when he got back! His sister’s fate was far more important to Kuisl. He didn’t trust the educated quacks, who would likely just bleed her until she was as white as a drowned corpse. If anyone could help his sister at all, it would have to be him and nobody else.
The Schongau executioner killed and healed. He was a master of both.
“Hey, big fellow! Would you like to join me for a drink?”
Jarred from his reveries, Kuisl looked ahead, where one of the raftsmen was raising his glass in a toast. The hangman shook his head and pulled his wide-brimmed hat down low over his forehead to protect himself from the blinding sun. His large hooked nose and, below that, the stem of his pipe were all that were visible under the brim. From beneath his hat he could observe both the travelers and the raftsmen among the crates in the middle of the raft, toasting their successful passage through the fearsome gorge with slugs of brandy. Like an annoying insect, a thought was troubling Kuisl. It would come and go, and the whirlpool at the Long Wall only briefly succeeded in displacing it.
Ever since his departure he had had the strange feeling he was being watched.
It wasn’t tied to any one thing in particular, but a combination of instinct and his many years of experience as a mercenary in the Great War had taught him to heed the little twitch between his shoulder blades. He didn’t know who was watching him or why, but the twitch persisted.
Kuisl looked around. Among the passengers he counted two Franciscan monks and a nun. In addition, there were traveling tradesmen, journeymen, and a handful of simple merchants — altogether around two dozen travelers, who along with the hangman had joined the convoy of five rafts. On the Danube it was possible to travel to Vienna in just one week, and within three weeks even as far as the Black Sea. In the evening, when the rafts moored together along the shore, everyone would meet around the fire, exchange a few words, and tell stories of previous travels and adventures — everyone but Kuisl. He didn’t know a soul and usually sat alone, which was fine by him, as he considered most people nothing more than gossiping simpletons. From where he sat, off to one side, the hangman observed the men and women each evening as they sat around the fire, laughing, drinking cheap wine, and nibbling on legs of mutton. And again and again, he thought he felt someone’s unwavering eyes upon him. Even now, under the bright noontime sun, he felt an itch or a tickle between his shoulder blades, as if a little bug were creeping across his back.
Kuisl, acting bored, dangled his feet from the wooden barrel. He filled his pipe again and looked out at the far shore, hoping to seem as if he were intently observing the horde of children standing there, waving at him.
Abruptly he wheeled around to face the stern of the vessel.
For a fraction of a second he did notice someone staring at him: the second helmsman, who operated the rudder in the stern. If Kuisl remembered correctly, the man had boarded in Schongau. The man was thickset and almost as tall as the hangman himself. From his blue Tyrolean jacket hung a hunting knife as long as a man’s forearm. His shoulders were broad, a hefty paunch bulged over his copper belt, and he wore his knee breeches stuffed into tall, coarse leather boots and a Tyrolean hat commonly worn by raftsmen. The most striking thing about him, however, was his face. The entire right-hand side was furrowed with little pockmarks and scars, likely the result of severe burns. Over one eye the man wore a black patch. A shiny pink scar extended from his forehead to his chin as if embossed on his face, and it seemed to twitch like a thick, iridescent worm.
For a moment Kuisl felt as though he weren’t looking at a face but an animated grotesque.
A hateful face.
When the moment passed, the helmsman bent down again over his oar. He sat with his back to the hangman as if their eyes had never met.
An image from Kuisl’s past flashed through his mind, but he couldn’t quite grasp it. The Danube flowed by lazily, taking the memory with it and leaving only a misty, vague presentiment.
Where in the world . . . ?
Kuisl knew this man. He couldn’t say from where, but his instinct warned him. As a mercenary soldier in the Great War, the Schongau executioner had come to know all kinds of people — both cowards and heroes, some crooked and some upright, victims as well as murderers — and among them were many whom war had driven mad. One thing Kuisl could say with certainty: the man standing just a few steps from him, calmly guiding the tiller through the water — this man was dangerous. Dangerous and shrewd.
Deliberately, the hangman adjusted the larch-wood cudgel on his belt. All in all, there seemed no cause for concern. There were plenty of people who might say the same thing about him.
Kuisl got off the raft in the small town of Prüfening, still a few miles short of Regensburg.
He grinned, shouldering his medicine bag and waving to the raftsmen, merchants, and craftsmen. If this scar-faced stranger was in fact on his trail, that man had a problem now. As helmsman, he could hardly leave the raft before it arrived in Regensburg. And, sure enough, the raftsman stared at him with his one healthy eye, as if he was contemplating abandoning the raft and setting off after Kuisl. But then, evidently, he thought better of it. With one last hateful look, so brief it went unnoticed by everyone else, he turned back to his work, wrapping the slick rope, thick as a man’s arm, around the posts in the jetty.
The raft remained moored there until a few more travelers boarded for the short trip to Regensburg. Then it cast off and began to glide slowly toward the Imperial City, whose tallest spires were now visible on the horizon.
Kuisl watched the raft drift away. Then, whistling a military march, he started down the narrow road leading north. Soon he’d left the little town behind and was surrounded on either side by fields of grain rippling in the wind. A stone marked the border where Kuisl left Bavarian territory and entered the lands belonging to the Free City of Regensburg. Until now he’d known the place only from stories. He knew that Regensburg was one of the greatest cities in the German Empire and was subject to no one but the kaiser himself. And he’d heard that the electoral princes, bishops, and dukes all convened there as a Reichstag to determine the empire’s fate.
When Kuisl’s gaze took in the towering spires and city walls in the distance, homesickness came over him. The Schongau hangman was not a man made for the wide world — the Sonnenbrau Tavern tucked behind the church, the green Lech River, and the deep Bavarian forests were good enough for him.
It was a hot August afternoon, and the fields shimmered gold in the sunlight. In the distance, black storm clouds were beginning to gather on the horizon. To his right, a gallows hill rose up from the fields; several corpses swayed gently in the breeze. Now-derelict trenches served as reminders that the Great War was not so far in the past. By now the hangman wasn’t alone on the road anymore; coaches and lone men on horseback rushed past him, as well as oxen slowly pulling farmers’ overladen carts. A broad stream of noisily babbling people, all on their way to Regensburg, had apparently come to a stop near the entrance to the high gate in the city’s western wall. Among the throng of poor farmers clad in wool and other coarse cloth, the pilgrims, the beggars, and the wagoners, Kuisl also caught sight of quite a few magnificently attired noblemen, mounted high on horseback, making their way through the crowd.
The Schongau hangman frowned as he watched this strange procession. Evidently one of the Reichstag meetings was close at hand. He took his place among the people in line before the gate. Judging from all the complaints and curses, this seemed to be taking longer than usual.
“Hey, big fellow! Which way is the wind blowing up there?”
Kuisl bent down to a farmer who was apparently addressing him. When the little man found himself eye to eye with the grim-faced hangman, he swallowed hard before continuing. “Can you see what the problem is up in front?” he asked with a modest smile. “Twice a week I bring my carrots to market, usually on Tuesday and Saturday, but I’ve never seen such a throng.”
The hangman stood on his toes. Now he was almost two heads taller than the people standing around him. Kuisl could see a half-dozen armed watchmen standing guard at the gate, holding tin boxes in their hands, in which they collected a toll from each traveler. To the sound of furious protests from the farmers, soldiers plunged their swords into wagons filled with corn, hay, and cabbages as if they were looking for someone.
“They’re inspecting every single wagon,” the hangman groused, sneering down at the farmer. “Is the kaiser in town, or do you always make such a fuss?”
The man sighed. “Ah, it’s probably because some important ambassador has just arrived. But the Reichstag doesn’t even meet till next year! If it continues like this, all the market stands will be taken before I make it to the Haid Square. Damn!” He cursed and took an angry bite out of a turnip he plucked from a basket in front of him. “Damned ambassadors! A plague — they’re no better than the Moslems! They bring us nothing but trouble. They don’t lift a finger and just hold up traffic.”
“But why are they here?” Kuisl asked.
The farmer laughed. “Why? Why, to eat us out of house and home! They don’t pay a cent in taxes, plus they bring their own servants along, taking the work from the rest of us! They claim they’re here to figure out how to keep the goddamned Turks from invading the German Empire. But if you ask me, that’s all hot air!” He sighed deeply. “Why can’t the kaiser hold his Reichstag somewhere else for once? But no, every few years they come around again, and we have to put up with it. It seems like the envoys are always here.”
Kuisl nodded, though he hadn’t really paid much attention. What did he care about the Reichstag? All he wanted was to see his little Lisbeth. In the meantime the high and mighty could go right on planning the next war. They’d have no trouble finding people willing to follow them, to let themselves be slaughtered for the promise of wealth and glory. As for himself, he’d have nothing more to do with that old cut and thrust.
“And how about yourself? What are you doing here?” the farmer asked. “Have you found a place to stay yet?”
Kuisl closed his eyes. Apparently he’d stumbled across the chattiest farmer in all of Regensburg. “I’ll be staying at my sister’s,” he mumbled, hoping that the little fellow might leave him in peace now.
All the while, the hangman and his companion had being moving along the line, and now only two wagonloads of hay separated them from what people were calling Jakob’s Gate. The watchmen peered beneath the wagons, prodded the hay with their swords, then waved the wagons through and turned to the next traveler in line. The first rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance. A storm would not hold off for long.
Finally it was their turn. The farmer was allowed to pass without further ado, but Kuisl was waved aside.
“Hey, you . . . Yes, you!” A guard wearing a helmet and a breastplate pointed at the hangman and ordered him to step closer. “Where are you from?”
“Schongau, down by Augsburg,” the hangman replied, looking at his interlocutor as he would a stone.
“Aha, from Augsburg . . .” replied the watchman, twirling his fancy mustache.
“No, not Augsburg, from Schongau,” the hangman replied in a gruff voice. “I’m no dirty Swabian. I’m Bavarian.”
“No matter,” the watchman said, winking at his comrade behind him. He looked Kuisl up and down as if measuring him against some mental image. “And what brings you here, Bavarian?”
“My sister lives here,” the hangman replied curtly, refusing to indulge the mocking undertone. “She’s gravely ill, and I’m paying her a visit, with all due respect.”
The watchman grinned smugly. “Your sister, indeed! Well, if she looks anything like you, you should find her in no time.” He laughed and turned back to his comrade with a smirk. “Living and breathing lumps of rock with hooked noses are pretty uncommon ’round these parts, isn’t that so?”
Laughter broke out all around. Kuisl remained silent as the watchman continued poking fun at him. “I hear they feed you Swabians on noodles and cheese until you got ’em coming out your ears. You’re living proof that this stuff’ll make you fat and dumb.”
Without batting an eye, the hangman moved a step closer and seized the man by the collar. The watchman’s eyes bulged like marbles from their sockets as Kuisl yanked him off the ground and looked him in the eye.
“Listen, young fellow,” he snarled. “If there’s something you need me to tell you, just ask straight out. Otherwise, hold your tongue and let me through.”
Suddenly the hangman felt the point of a sword at his back. “Put him down,” a voice behind him said. “Nice and easy, big fellow, or I’ll ram this sword through your guts so it comes clean out the other side. You hear me?”
The hangman nodded slowly and set the frightened man back down. When he turned around, Kuisl saw a tall officer in a polished cuirass before him. Like his colleague, he wore a twirled walrus mustache and a helmet that gleamed in the bright sunlight and covered a mane of blond hair. He now had his sword positioned directly at the base of Kuisl’s throat. A small crowd of onlookers gathered around them, eagerly waiting to see what would happen next.
“Fine,” the captain said, his lips pressed in a thin, mirthless smile. “Now you will turn around and we’ll go together to the room in the tower. We keep some cozy quarters there, where Bavarians such as yourself can take time to reflect.”
The officer pressed the point of his sword a fraction of an inch into the hangman’s neck to emphasize his point. For a moment Kuisl was tempted to seize the man’s sword, pull him up close, and drive his larch-wood truncheon straight between his legs. But then he noticed the other watchmen standing around with lances and halberds raised, whispering among themselves. Why had he let himself get riled up? It almost seemed as if the watchman had deliberately gone out of his way just to provoke him. Was this how Regensburgers dealt with all strangers?
Kuisl spun around and marched off toward the tower. He could only hope they’d let him go before the good Lord called his sister home.
As the door closed behind the hangman, the first raindrops began to fall on the pavement outside, and within moments the rain was drumming down so hard that the people waiting at the gate had to pull their cloaks over their heads or seek shelter in nearby barns. Hail as big as pigeon eggs fell from the sky, causing many a farmer to curse himself for not having brought the harvest in earlier. It was already the third raging thunderstorm that week, and people were praying. Each family crowded together around an altar in their homes; not a few of the inhabitants of the surrounding villages took the deluge as an expression of God’s righteous anger, and of his punishment for the debauched ways of the accursed city folk — the fancy clothes, their swindling ways, their shameless whoring, and all the arrogance of building ever taller, ever grander houses. Hadn’t Sodom and Gomorrah perished in a similar way? With the Reichstag set to take place next January, all the pompous nobles would show up again; they would drink and whore and, instead of attending mass, would celebrate their own power — while, in fact, it was God alone who would decide the weal or woe of the German Empire!
With a deafening crack, a bolt of lightning struck the walkway atop the battlements, followed by such a loud clap of thunder that children as far away as Emmeram Square started wailing. In the brief flash of the next bolt of lightning, a figure could be seen struggling along the road from Jakob’s Gate into town. He walked with a stoop, his face lashed by the hail and rain. No one else dared go out in such weather, but the man had an urgent message to deliver, and it wouldn’t wait.
The scar on his face throbbed as it so often did when the weather was changing. The hangman had almost slipped away from him, but the man knew his enemy would have to pass through Jakob’s Gate — there was no other way into town from the west. The man had run from the raft landing to the gate as fast as possible to warn the guards. A bit of money in the right hands had won them the time they needed to carry out their plan.
Revenge! How long they both had been waiting for that . . . !
The man grinned, and the scar on his face began to twitch nervously.
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