A plague of rats. A giant beast outside the village walls. A host of missing children. And one young woman determined to save her people.
In 1424 Hamlin, Katerina faces threats from all sides. An outbreak of rats has overtaken the village, a mysterious beast is on a killing rampage of the village’s children, and Katerina’s evil stepfather is a dark presence inside the walls of her own home. Katerina is determined to hunt and kill the Beast of Hamlin herself before more lives are lost.
When Steffan, the handsome but brash duke’s son, comes to town seeking glory and reward, Katerina decides he might be the ally she’s been looking for—even though the only gentle thing about him seems to be the sweet music he plays on his pipe. But there’s more to Steffan than she suspects, and she finds herself drawn to him despite her misgivings.
Together Katerina and Steffan must stop the enemy from stealing the children of Hamlin. But their interference might create an even worse fate for the entire village.
Praise for The Piper’s Pursuit
“The Piper’s Pursuit is a lovely tale of adventure, romance, and redemption. Kat and Steffan’s righteous quest will have you rooting them on until the very satisfying end!” —LORIE LANGDON, author of Olivia Twist and the DOON series
- Full length clean fairy tale reimagining
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
|Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
|5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.20(d)
|13 - 18 Years
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Summer of 1424, the town of Hamlin, in the German region of the Holy Roman Empire
Did Katerina dare to stay out hunting past dark? The sun was going down, casting long shadows as she skirted the forest on her right and an empty meadow on the left. At least the town gate was visible ahead.
She checked her crossbow, making sure the arrow was strung and ready. Her unruly brown hair was starting to come free from the leather tie taming it at the nape of her neck.
She picked up her pace as she passed a particularly dark section of the forest. She could easily imagine the giant wolf, or whatever the beast was that had killed so many, coming out of those dense trees and leaping at her. Would she have time to aim her crossbow before she fired? She would only get one shot.
She laid a hand on the long dagger she kept in the sheath on her belt. If she missed, she might have time to stab the animal before it attacked.
Were her ears playing tricks on her? Or was that a rustling sound coming from the trees?
She stopped and raised the crossbow. Her heart thumped hard against her chest, so hard she could barely breathe. If she died, what would happen to Mother?
It was probably just a rabbit. She kept the crossbow aimed at the dark trees while moving her feet slowly in the direction of town.
Something was shifting the shadows. The bushes were shaking. Leaves gave way.
Wait until you're certain you have the best shot possible. She willed her hands not to shake, holding the crossbow up to her eye to make sure she could aim quickly.
A figure stepped out.
A child stood staring blankly at her. Katerina lowered her crossbow to her side.
The breath rushed out of Katerina's chest. A child! How could a small child be alone outside the walls of town? Everyone knew the beast was killing men, women, and children out here. When she was able to draw in enough breath to speak, Katerina approached the child. "What are you doing out here, little one?"
The girl was filthy. Her face was nearly black with soot or dirt, Katerina couldn't tell which. Her hair was as tangled as a field mouse's nest. The child's wide blue eyes stared unwaveringly at Katerina's face.
"Mama. I want Mama." But her expression didn't change and she didn't move.
She must be one of the missing children that had been presumed killed and eaten by the Beast of Hamlin. Tears gathered behind Katerina's eyes. Thank You, God, for letting me find her. Katerina wanted to pick up the child and run for town. But that might frighten her.
Blinking back her tears, Kat asked, "What's your name?"
"How long have you been lost, Bridda?"
The child's expression didn't change and she didn't answer.
"Are there any other children with you?"
Bridda shook her head.
Katerina hung her crossbow over her shoulder and across her back, then walked toward Bridda until she was close enough to reach for her hand. She squatted in front of her. "Are you all right?"
The little girl lifted her hand slowly. It was as dirty as the rest of her. Katerina took it between hers and squeezed gently. The poor child just stared into her eyes.
"How old are you, Schätzchen?" Katerina used the term of endearment her own mother used for her. Kat's heart twisted at the tired, almost hopeless look in the little girl's eyes.
"Are you from Hamlin?"
"What is your father's name?"
Her expression held a tinge of confusion. Then her eyes lit up. It was as if a memory came to her, and she said, "Johannes."
A surge of breath rushed into Kat's chest. "Come. I'll take you to Hamlin and we'll see if we can find your father and mother." Katerina stood, still holding on to the girl's hand, and started walking, anxious to get the little girl safely out of the forest.
The little girl gazed up at her and tugged ever so slightly on her hand.
Katerina bent down. "What is it, Bridda?"
"Don't let him get me." Her voice was a whisper.
Katerina shivered, her gaze flicking back toward the trees. "Don't worry. I won't let the beast get you."
Katerina hurried toward Hamlin's town gate with the little girl's hand held firmly in hers. A minute later, Katerina noticed the poor child was walking slower and slower.
Katerina squatted. "May I carry you?"
The child looked her in the eye and nodded. Katerina put her arms around her and lifted her up, holding her snugly.
As they entered the town gate, Katerina spied a guard she knew, her friend Hans.
Hans saw her as well, and his mouth fell open. He started toward her.
"Hans, this is Bridda. I found her outside the wall. Do you know of a man named Johannes who's missing a six-year-old daughter?"
Hans stared at the girl from beneath thick brown hair that fell across his forehead. He breathed, "It's a miracle. How ..."
"Do you know her?"
"I know her father. Wait here. I'll go find him."
Hans started to leave, but Katerina put her hand on his arm to stop him. "Before you go ... how long has she been missing?"
"About five months."
Hans turned and started running.
Katerina stared at the tiny face next to hers. "Where have you been for five months?"
Bridda just stared back at her.
As they waited for Hans to return, Bridda's pale blue eyes started to look livelier, shedding the lost, stunned expression as she tentatively turned her head to look around her. Her gaze seemed to fix on certain points. Was she recognizing buildings, or maybe people? She also seemed to be watching the rats running through the streets. The plague of rats had descended on the town about the same time the beast had started its killing rampage. Katerina wondered, not for the first time, if the two things were related, though she couldn't imagine how.
So many questions were running through Katerina's head. How had this little girl avoided being killed by the beast while she was in the woods? And even stranger, how had she survived on her own for five months?
* * *
Hungry, dusty, and tired, Steffan was thankful when he came to a small village. He'd been wandering toward home since he'd left his brother Wolfgang and Wolfgang's new wife in Poland. A bed, no matter how lumpy, and a warm meal would be a welcome change after sleeping on the hard ground and eating anything he could kill or forage.
He spotted the village inn and went inside, even though he had no money for either food or a room.
The innkeeper was friendly, so while the man stroked his graying beard, Steffan said, "I am very good at playing the pipe. I could play for your patrons in exchange for a meal."
The innkeeper nodded. "You play for one hour, then my wife will serve you the finest stew in the Holy Roman Empire, then you play a bit more. Yes?"
Steffan had already extracted his pipe from his bag. He placed it against his lips and began to play.
Everyone in the room turned to face him, most of them smiling. By their looks, music was a rarity here.
When he had played about an hour, the innkeeper's wife brought him a tankard of ale, a bowl of mutton stew, and a slab of bread. He sat to eat, and the innkeeper joined him.
"You're not from nearby, are you?"
"I'm from Hagenheim originally, but I haven't been there in over a year."
"You may not have heard, then." The innkeeper leaned forward, fixing his eyes on Steffan's.
"Of the plague of rats that have been tormenting the town of Hamlin."
Hamlin was a town under his father's authority, in the region of Hagenheim. His oldest brother, Valten, was the Earl of Hamlin.
"I have heard tales of this plague of rats. I thought they might have only been the fanciful stories people invent to distract children."
"Indeed, they are not just fanciful stories. The plague of rats is real. I have seen it with my own eyes." The grizzled innkeeper lowered his voice. "But there is something else plaguing Hamlin, something more terrible than rats."
"What do you mean?" Steffan shoveled another bite of stew into his mouth. Truly, the innkeeper was not exaggerating overmuch when he'd said it was the best in the Holy Roman Empire.
"People are being taken, gone — more than sixty people, last I heard."
Steffan rested his wooden spoon on the side of his bowl and stared back at the man. Was he daft? An outrageous liar? Surely sixty people could not have simply gone missing from Hamlin.
"What do you think is happening to them?"
"They say a beast is dragging them off and eating them."
"A beast? What sort of beast?"
"No one knows exactly. Some think it could be a wolf, or a large dog gone wild."
"It would take a very large and vicious dog to kill a man, and wolves rarely kill people, especially in town. Is there proof?"
"Would the bodies of several half-eaten villagers be proof enough for you? A woman was found with her arm torn off, the rest of her body partially eaten, and her throat ... The poor woman's head was nearly separated from her body."
Steffan winced at the gruesome images his mind conjured up, familiar images of his time fighting in Poland. He had to blink hard to rid them from his thoughts and remember where he was.
"Has anyone actually seen the beast, or been attacked and lived to tell of it?"
"Ja, there have been two or three. One man was attacked on his way through his field outside Hamlin town. He said it looked like a giant wolf. The beast bit him on the ankle, but the man beat it with his walking stick until the animal let go. But the wound took on a putridness and the man died a few weeks later."
Not a good way to die. If only the poor man had had some of the healing salve Steffan's sister-in-law had given him.
"I have been traveling for a while and have not heard about this. All I've heard about are the rats."
"The mayor of Hamlin is my sister's brother-in-law's cousin," the innkeeper went on, his gaze shifting to the door as two men walked in and seated themselves, "and he does not want the news to be spread abroad."
"Why is that? Does he not want the creature captured or killed?" Steffan resumed his eating, taking a bite of stew then of bread.
"The mayor's lord is the Duke of Hagenheim, and the mayor is afraid of being held accountable for allowing the beast to kill so many people. He's offering a reward to anyone who will either kill or capture it, but no one has been able to find it. Or they are too afraid to go looking."
"A reward, you say?" Steffan leaned in, remembering the one silver guilder in the pouch on his belt — all the money he had.
"The mayor says he'll give one thousand silver guilders and his daughter's hand in marriage to the man who can kill the beast that's wreaking havoc and frightening the townspeople."
When the innkeeper said the words "a thousand silver guilders," Steffan's heart jumped into his throat. The money was a very enticing reward, though he was hardly anxious to marry a mayor's daughter he'd never seen before. Hamlin suddenly seemed a very interesting place.
"Has this creature come into town?"
"People believe so, because several children have been taken from inside the town walls. But often it's attacked those outside the town walls, people who farm small plots of land or have gone to visit families in the countryside."
Steffan listened to everything the innkeeper had to say about the Beast of Hamlin, but when he started to talk about other things, Steffan's mind wandered to what the man had told him about the reward.
He must kill this beast.
It was just the sort of noble feat that could bring him glory, get his name into a popular ballad sung by the troubadours and Minnesingers, or his likeness onto a church mural or stained glass window. The story would be told everywhere, including Hagenheim. Then he wouldn't be ashamed to go home again and face his father and mother.
For a year he'd been on a quest for adventure, treasure to discover, or any task that might earn him money — except what he had done in Poland, which was to fight and kill someone else's enemy. His most recent quest had been to save two pigs that had fallen into an old well, which he had accomplished after many hours of effort. His reward had been a hot meal and a bed to sleep in.
It seemed good deeds and money seldom went hand in hand. The last real coin he'd earned had been from playing his pipe in a harvest festival at least a month ago.
His family was very musical, as his father played the lute and most of his siblings sang and played various instruments. Steffan found his pipe useful for entertaining himself and his fellow soldiers. Now that he was traveling alone, it helped distract him when his thoughts wandered to unwanted places.
But if he could succeed in slaying this man-eating beast, his father would surely hear of it. Perhaps that would make up for all the bad things he had done. And perhaps then Steffan wouldn't feel as if he were the least of all his brothers — the one bad apple in the Gerstenberg family tree.
* * *
Katerina watched the townspeople hurrying home before dusk turned to night. No one seemed to notice her or the child in her arms who was covered in dust and grime.
Hans came running down the street toward them with a man by his side. The man's face was pinched and tense, almost as if he were in pain. His gaze landed on Bridda. He cried out and ran faster, pulling ahead of Hans.
He was crying when he reached them, his face twisted, as he reached out his hands toward her.
The child hesitated, but only for a moment. Her little hands extended, her eyes brightened, and she said, "Papa."
Bridda's father plucked her from Katerina's arms, clutching her tenderly to his chest. Sobs erupted from his throat, but he quickly pressed his lips together and held her out so he could look at her.
"Oh, my little Schätzchen. It is a miracle."
Tears welled up in Katerina's eyes at the joyful reunion. Her chest ached as she whispered, "Thank You, God."
The father was still gazing hungrily into her face. "Are you well? Are you hungry? Are you hurt?"
Bridda patted his cheeks with her little grimy fingers. He grabbed them and kissed them.
"She is home. I shall take you to her. Shall I?"
Bridda nodded, still keeping her eyes pinned on her father's face, as if he might disappear if she looked away.
He kissed her cheek. Then, over Bridda's head, his teary eyes met Katerina's. "I thank you, Fräulein. How did you find her?"
"I was outside the wall, just now. She simply walked out of the forest."
"I thank God, thank God. But where has she been?"
"I don't know. Hans"— Katerina motioned at the tall guard — "Will you walk with Johannes and Bridda back to their home?"
While Johannes was talking to his daughter, she leaned closer to Hans. "Come back and tell me where they live. And tell him I shall come to them tomorrow, to ask questions."
"Yes, Fräulein Katerina."
Katerina watched them leave and took a deep breath. Thank You, God. It truly was a miracle that the girl was found alive, but Katerina wondered again at the mystery of where she had been and how she had avoided being killed by the beast.
As she stood waiting for Hans to return, she noticed an unfamiliar man on horseback riding at a slow walk through the town gate. There was something about his face — relaxed and yet sharp- eyed — that caught her eye. He might also be considered quite good-looking, sitting tall in the saddle of his large warhorse, but when his gaze met hers, his expression changed and his lips curled upward. She would have sworn he was thinking, You find me handsome, don't you?
How she detested arrogant men.
She gave him her sternest look and turned away from him. Now that she thought about it, he wasn't so handsome after all. She preferred short dark hair and brown eyes, and his hair was long and blond, his eyes also a light color, probably blue or green. She couldn't tell from this distance. Not that she cared. She only hoped he was astute enough to understand she was not interested. But the clopping of his horse's hooves on the cobblestone street behind her grew louder. Still, she refused to turn around and look at him. She had no time to waste on this stranger. Her mind was on Bridda and solving the mystery of where she'd been for the last five months. Tomorrow she would question both the parents and Bridda, if the parents would allow it.
"If you please, Fräulein," a male voice said behind her.
Katerina turned to see the arrogant stranger sitting atop his horse, looking down on her.
She glared at him.
"I am in search of the Bürgermeister of Hamlin."
Katerina looked him over. Why did he want to speak to the mayor? This stranger did not wear the clothing of a nobleman. He could possibly be a knight, though he wore none of the trappings — no mail shirt or colors or quilted gambeson. But perhaps that could be attributed to the fact that the summer air this day had been so hot.
"This is Hamlin town, is it not?"
"It is." She studied him a moment longer. He did not have a vicious look, but one could never be too careful.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Piper's Pursuit"
Copyright © 2019 Melanie Dickerson.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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