The Poisoned Pilgrim: A Hangman's Daughter Taleby Oliver Potzsch
It is the year 1666. The physician Simon and his wife, Magdalena, the hangman’s daughter, set out from their home in Schongau, southern Bavaria, to make a pilgrimage to Andechs Abbey. Once there, Simon meets the mysterious Brother Virgilius, a watchmaker and inventor. Simon is fascinated by the eerie automata Virgilius has created. When the monk disappears… See more details below
It is the year 1666. The physician Simon and his wife, Magdalena, the hangman’s daughter, set out from their home in Schongau, southern Bavaria, to make a pilgrimage to Andechs Abbey. Once there, Simon meets the mysterious Brother Virgilius, a watchmaker and inventor. Simon is fascinated by the eerie automata Virgilius has created. When the monk disappears and his workshop is destroyed, Simon senses there is evil at work and calls in Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau. Together they embark on a quest – to find a maniacal murderer . . .
Read an Excerpt
At the same moment,
in the forests below the Holy Mountain.
Lightning flashed from the sky like the finger of an angry god.
Simon Fronwieser saw it directly over Lake Ammer, where for a fraction of a second, it lit up the foaming waves in a sickly green. It was followed by a peal of thunder and a steady downpour — a black, soaking wall of rain that within moments drenched the two dozen or so pilgrims from Schongau. Though it was only seven in the evening, night had fallen suddenly. The medicus gripped the hand of his wife, Magdalena, tighter and, along with the others, prepared to climb the steep hill to the Andechs Monastery.
“We were lucky!” shouted Magdalena over the thundering downpour. “An hour earlier and the storm would have caught us out on the lake.”
Simon nodded silently. It wouldn’t be the first time a ship of pilgrims had gone down with all hands in Lake Ammer. Now, barely twenty years after the end of the Great War, the crowds of pilgrims streaming to the famous Bavarian monastery were larger than anyone could remember. In a time of hunger, storms, ravenous wolves, and marauding brigands, people were more eager than ever to find protection in the arms of the church. This longing was fed by reports of miracles, and the Andechs Monastery in particular, thirty miles southwest of Munich, was renowned for its ancient relics that possessed magic powers — as well as for its beer, which helped people to forget their worries.
When the medicus turned around again, he could just make out through the rainclouds the wind-whipped lake that they had just managed to escape. Two days earlier, he had left Schongau with Magdalena and a group from their hometown. The pilgrimage led them over the Hoher Peißenberg to Dießen on Lake Ammer, where a rickety rowboat took them to the other shore. Now they were proceeding through the forest along a steep, muddy path toward the monastery, which towered far above them in the dark clouds.
Burgomaster Karl Semer led the procession on horseback, followed on foot by his grown son and the Schongau priest, who struggled to keep a huge painted wooden cross upright in the storm. Behind him came carpenters, masons, cabinetmakers, and, finally, the young patrician Jakob Schreevogl, the only other city councilman to follow the call for the pilgrimage.
Simon assumed that both Schreevogl and the burgomaster had come less in search of spiritual salvation than for business reasons. A place like Andechs, with its thousands of hungry and thirsty pilgrims, was a gold mine. The medicus wondered what the dear Lord would have to say about this. Hadn’t Jesus chased all the merchants and money lenders from the temple? Well, at least Simon’s own conscience was clear. He and Magdalena had come to Andechs not to make money but only to thank God for saving their two children.
Simon couldn’t help smiling when he thought of three-year-old Peter at home and his brother, Paul, who had just turned two. He wondered if the children were giving their grandfather, the Schongau hangman, a hard time at home.
When another bolt of lightning hit a nearby beech, the pilgrims screamed and threw themselves to the ground. There was a snapping and crackling as sparks jumped to other trees. In no time, the entire forest seemed to be on fire.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!”
In the twilight, Simon could see Karl Semer fall to his knees a few paces away and cross himself several times. Alongside him, his petrified son stared open-mouthed at the burning beeches while, all around him, the other Schongauers fled into a nearby ravine. Simon’s ears were ringing from the bone-jarring thunderclap that seemed to come at the same instant from right over their heads, so he could only hear his wife’s voice as if through a wall of water.
“Let’s get out of here. We’ll be safer down there by the brook.”
Simon hesitated, but his wife seized him and pulled him away just as flames shot up from two beeches and a number of small firs at the edge of the narrow path. Simon stumbled over a rotten branch, then slid down the smooth slope covered with dead leaves. Arriving at the bottom of the ravine, he stood up, groaning, and wiped a few twigs from his hair while scanning the apocalyptic scene all around.
The lightning had split the huge beech straight down the middle, and burning boughs and branches were strewn down the slope. The flames cast a flickering light on the Schongauers, who moaned, prayed, and rubbed their bruised arms and legs. Fortunately, none of them appeared injured; even the burgomaster and his son seemed to have survived the disaster unscathed. In the gathering dusk, old Semer was busy searching for his horse, which had galloped away with his baggage.
Simon felt a slight satisfaction as he watched the burgomaster running through the forest, bellowing loudly.
Hopefully the mare took off with his moneybags, he thought. If that fat old goat shouts one more hallelujah from up there on his horse, I’m going to commit a mortal sin.
Simon quickly dismissed this thought as unworthy of a pilgrim and quietly cursed himself for not having brought along a warmer coat. The new green woolen cape he’d bought at the Augsburg cloth market was dapper, but after the rain it hung on him like a limp rag.
“One might almost think God had some objection to our visiting the monastery today.”
Simon turned to Magdalena, who was looking up at the sky as rain ran down her mud-spattered cheeks.
“Thundershowers are rather common this time of year,” Simon replied, trying to sound matter-of-fact and somewhat composed again. “I don’t think that — ”
“It’s a sign,” cried a trembling voice off to one side. Sebastian Semer, son of the burgomaster, held out the fingers of his right hand in a gesture meant to ward off evil spirits. “I told you right away we should leave the woman at home.” He pointed at Magdalena and Simon. “Anyone who takes a hangman’s daughter and a filthy bathhouse owner along on a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain might as well invite Beelzebub, too. The lightning is a sign from God warning us to do penance and — ”
“Shut your fresh mouth, Semer boy,” Magdalena scolded, narrowing her eyes. “What do you know about penance, hm? Wipe your britches off before everyone notices you’ve peed in your pants again.”
Ashamed, Sebastian Semer stared at the dark spot on the front of his wide-cut reddish-purple petticoat breeches. Then he turned away silently, but not without casting one last angry look at Magdalena.
“Don’t mind him. The little rascal is nothing but the spoiled offspring of his father.”
Jakob Schreevogl now emerged from the darkness of the forest, wearing a tight-fitting jerkin, high leather boots, and a white lace collar framing an unusual face with a Vandyke beard and a hooked nose. A fine rain trickled down his ornamented sword.
“In general I agree with you, Fronwieser.” Schreevogl turned to Simon and pointed at the sky. “Such violent storms aren’t unusual in June, but when the lightning strikes right beside you, it’s like you’re feeling God’s anger.”
“Or the anger of your fellow citizens,” Simon added gloomily.
Almost four summers had passed since his marriage to Magdalena, and since then, a number of Schongau citizens had let Simon know just how they felt about this marriage. As the daughter of the hangman, Jakob Kuisl, Magdalena was an outcast, someone to be avoided if possible.
Simon reached for his belt to check that a little bag of healing herbs and medical instruments was still attached there. It was quite possible he’d need some of his medicines during this pilgrimage. The Schongauers had often sought his help in recent years. Memories of the Great War still haunted some of the older people, and plagues and other diseases had swept over Schongau in recent years again and again. Last winter, Simon and Magdalena’s sons had also fallen ill, but God had been merciful and spared them. In the following days, Magdalena prayed many rosaries and finally convinced Simon to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain with her after Pentecost, along with nearly two dozen other citizens of Schongau and Altenstadt — citizens who wanted to show their gratitude to the Lord at the famous Festival of the Three Hosts. Simon and Magdalena had left the two children in the care of their grandparents — a wise decision, in view of the last hour’s events, the medicus again admitted to himself.
“It looks as if the rain will finally quench the fire.” Jakob Schreevogl pointed at the storm-ravaged beech, where only a few flames still flickered. “We should move along. Andechs can’t be far off now — perhaps one or two miles. What do you think?”
Simon shrugged and looked around. The other trees were just smoldering now, but the rain had in the meantime become so heavy that the pilgrims could hardly see their hands in front of their faces in the growing dusk. The Schongauers had taken refuge beneath a nearby fir to wait out the heaviest rain. Only Karl Semer, still looking for his horse, was wandering around somewhere in the nearby forest, shouting loudly. His son had decided in the meantime to sit down and pout on an overturned tree trunk, trying to drive the cold from his bones with help of a flask he’d brought along. His Excellency Konrad Weber frowned at the young dandy but didn’t interfere. The old Schongau priest was not about to pick a fight with the son of the presiding burgomaster.
Just as the pilgrims were beginning to calm down, another bolt of lightning struck not far away and once again the Schongauers ran like spooked chickens down the muddy slopes, farther into the valley below. The priest’s wooden cross came to rest filthy and splintered between some rocks.
“Just stay together,” Simon shouted into the thunder and rain. “Lie down on the ground. On the ground you’ll be safe.”
“Forget it.” Magdalena shook her head and turned to leave. “They don’t hear you, and even if they did, they’d hardly obey a dishonorable bathhouse owner.”
Simon sighed and hurried after the others with Magdalena. Beside them, the carpenter Balthasar Hemerle carried an almost thirty-pound pilgrimage candle. Though its flame had gone out, the powerful, nearly six-foot-tall man held it up as straight as a battle flag. In comparison, Simon looked even smaller and more slender.
“Stupid peasants,” Hemerle grumbled, stepping around a muddy puddle in great strides. “It’s just a thunderstorm. We have to get out of this goddamned forest — fast. But if those cowards keep running around like that, we’ll get completely lost.”
Simon nodded silently and rushed ahead.
In the meantime darkness had descended completely under the dark canopy of trees. The medicus could see only vague shadows of some of the Schongauers, though he heard anxious cries farther off. Someone was praying loudly to the Fourteen Holy Helpers.
And in the distance now howling wolves could be heard.
Simon shuddered. The beasts had multiplied considerably in the years since the Great War and by now had become a true plague upon the land, like wild pigs. The hungry animals were no threat to a group of twenty hardy men, but for anyone wandering alone through the forests, the wolves presented a real danger.
Branches lashing his face, Simon struggled not to lose sight of at least Magdalena and the sturdy Balthasar Hemerle’s pilgrimage candle. Fortunately, the carpenter was so tall that Simon could see him over the tops of bushes and even some low trees.
Suddenly the huge man stopped and Simon stumbled, almost bumping into him and Magdalena. The medicus was about to utter a curse, when he froze and felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
In a small clearing directly before them stood two wolves with drooping jaws, growling at them. Their small eyes were red dots in the night, and their hind legs were tensed, ready to pounce. Their bodies were thin and scrawny, as if they hadn’t found prey for a long time.
“Don’t move,” Balthasar Hemerle whispered. “If you run, they’ll attack you from behind. And we don’t know if there are any more nearby.”
Slowly Simon reached for his linen pouch, where along with his medical instruments and herbs, he kept a stiletto as sharp as a razor. He wasn’t sure the little knife would help against the two famished beasts. Beside him, Magdalena stared at the wolves, unmoving. A few steps away Balthasar Hemerle raised the heavy candle above him like a sword, as if he were about to smash the skull of one of the beasts.
A pilgrimage candle sullied with wolf’s blood, Simon thought. What would the abbot in the monastery have to say about that?
“Stay calm, Balthasar,” Magdalena whispered to the carpenter after a few moments of silence. “Look how they have their tails between their legs. The animals are more afraid of us than we are of them. Let’s just slowly step back — ”
At that moment, the larger of the two wolves lunged for Simon and Magdalena. The medicus dodged to one side and, out of the corner of his eye, saw the animal rush past. Scarcely had the wolf landed on his feet than he turned around to attack again. The animal snarled and opened his mouth wide, revealing huge white fangs dripping with saliva. Simon imagined he could see every drop individually, magnified as through a microscope. The wolf prepared to jump again.
From somewhere a shot rang out.
For an instant, Simon thought lightning had struck again nearby, but then he saw the wolf whining and writhing in agony before falling to the ground where he twitched one more time and died. Red blood flowed from a wound in his neck onto leaves on the ground. The second wolf growled once more before running off and, a second later, disappeared into the darkness.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Amen.”
Now a broad-shouldered figure appeared between the trees holding a smoking musket in one hand and a burning lantern in the other. He wore a black habit and a hood drawn over his face. In the pouring rain, he looked like an angry forest spirit in search of poachers.
Finally, the stranger pushed back his hood. Simon found himself looking into the friendly face of a bald man with protruding ears, crooked teeth, and a bulbous nose furrowed with veins. He was probably the ugliest man Simon had ever seen.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Brother Johannes from the Andechs Monastery,” said the fat monk, squinting at the three lost pilgrims. “Have you by chance seen any bloodroot growing nearby?”
Rain and cold sweat pouring down his face, the medicus was too exhausted to answer. He slid to the ground alongside the trunk of a beech, mumbling a little prayer of thanks.
It appeared that in any case he’d have to dedicate another candle up on the Holy Mountain.
Half an hour later, the Schongau pilgrims, led by Brother Johannes, climbed the narrow path up to the monastery.
Everyone was filthy, their clothes ripped or tattered; some had suffered a few scratches and bruises. But otherwise, they all appeared unharmed. Even the burgomaster’s horse showed up again. Right behind the fat monk, old Semer rode at the head of the procession, trying to make a dignified impression, an attempt that was not entirely successful, however, in view of his battered hat and muddy coat. In the meantime, the rain had turned to a steady drizzle as the storm moved east toward Lake Würm. The sound of thunder was faint and distant.
“We have you to thank, Brother,” declared Karl Semer in a stately voice. “Had you not appeared, some of us would have gotten lost in the forest.”
“What a stupid plan to leave the road with a storm coming on and take the old path to the monastery,” grumbled Brother Johannes as he shifted a sack bulging with iron tools to his other shoulder. “You can count yourself lucky that I was out foraging for herbs, or the wolves and the lightning would have finished you off.”
“Considering the approaching darkness I thought it was advisable to — uh — take the shorter route,” the burgomaster retorted. “I’ll admit that — ”
“It certainly was a stupid idea.” Brother Johannes turned to the pilgrims and examined the large white pilgrimage candle that the carpenter was still holding in his callused hands.
“Damned heavy cross you have there,” he said, obviously impressed. “How far have you carried it?”
“We come from Schongau,” said Simon, who was just behind the monk with Magdalena. The medicus’s vest was filthy, the red rooster feathers on his new hat were bent, and his leather boots from Augsburg looked like they needed new soles. “We’ve been traveling for two days,” he continued wearily. “Yesterday near Wessobrunn, we heard a pack of wolves howling, but they didn’t dare to attack us.”
Brother Johannes panted as he continued up the steep forest path, his lantern swinging back and forth like a will-o’-the-wisp. “You were very lucky,” he mumbled. “The beasts are getting fresher. In this area they’ve already killed two children and a woman. And to make matters worse, we are plagued by vagrants and murderous gangs.” He hastily crossed himself. “Deus nos protegat. May the Lord protect us in these uncertain times.”
In the meantime, the forest had thinned. Before them, the Schongauers saw the warm and inviting lights of the small hamlet of Erling, located on a plateau at the foot of the Holy Mountain. Simon breathed a sigh of relief and squeezed Magdalena’s hand. They had reached their goal unharmed — a blessing not shared by all in these hard times. He fervently hoped their two children were well in Schongau. But he had no doubt they were, in view of the overflowing love of their grandparents.
“I hope you all have a place to stay,” Brother Johannes said. “It’s no pleasure sleeping outside in the field on such damp June nights.”
“We Schongau council members are staying in the monastery guest house,” replied Burgomaster Semer coolly, pointing to his son and the patrician Jakob Schreevogl. “We’ve arranged for the others to be boarded with farmers in the area. After all, our journey is for the benefit of the community, isn’t it?”
Brother Johannes chuckled. His face, already lopsided, contorted into a grimace. Once again Simon couldn’t help noticing how ugly he was.
“If you mean the repair of the steeple, I must disappoint you,” the monk replied. “The farmers don’t give a damn about the condition of the monastery, but the abbot promised bread and meat to any resident of Erling who provides shelter to a needy mason or carpenter. So it shouldn’t cost you anything.”
Semer nodded contentedly and stroked his horse’s mane. “Thanks be to God,” he exclaimed. “I promise that if the Savior sends us good weather, the work on the church will be finished soon.”
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >