July 3, 1827
Duchy of Holstein, German Confederation
The Norseman stood planted at the peaked end of the crooked planks where the long pier made its dubious connection to the cobblestone expanse of the wharf. He lingered there at the threshold between land and sea, rejecting any invitation to go further. Scowling through his beard, he extended a single, black-nailed finger toward a shady and lightly traveled alleyway.
“Thank you, I’m pleased to provide for supper, if you’ll join me?” Kaspar gestured to the open expanse of the wharf and the town beyond.
The sailor shook his head and spit on the cobblestone.
“As you wish. Should you reconsider…”
“I will not,” he said, his boots clacking against the ancient boards as he returned to his skiff.
The sea smiled inward toward the town in a massive blue crescent. On one side, the ancient walled marina nestled the shoreline, cradling the fishing fleet. To the other, a long beach of white sand meandered off to where the clouds met the sea. The pier cut between the two, reaching its crooked arm toward the distant, tall masts of the ship that had carried him from the darker blue of the world beyond.
Kaspar shouldered his pack and turned his back to the Baltic Sea. Across the cobblestone, the buildings leaned unevenly like a cluster of conspiring drunkards. They shared in the solidarity of erosion, each covered in flaking red paint, their high-pitched roofs slanting with the whim of gravity. The paths between them were incidental, narrow, and shunning of commerce. There were few windows among the wharf buildings, those that existed were tiny and black. They were as eyes detached from a face, wandering over scabby bellies to spy with spiderlike intent.
He set out in the direction indicated by the Norwegian, noticing for the first time the people of the place quietly attending to their affairs. In appearance, they were wholesome enough, but unsophisticated and low born. They regarded him with a casual indifference that he found unsettling; either they did not recognize him or, if they did, they concealed their knowledge for some nefarious purpose. The face of a fishmonger turned as he passed, making the slightest appeal toward the salmon hanging from his rack. The simple gesture put Kaspar at ease. He was a stranger, far from home, and unrecognized as anything but a young traveler.
He found the entrance he was looking for among a conflux of doors where the alley ended in the suggestion of a courtyard. No sign stood in advertisement, he located it solely on the merits of it being the only door that opened.
Sunlight died on the threshold as he crossed into the salty, warm darkness of the inn. The common tables sat empty, the hearth was cold and grey; there was no evidence of recent habitation. Only the faint odor of fish could be detected, as if there were one mummified on some forgotten shelf. A cluttered countertop standing before a narrow doorway offered the only semblance of service. He navigated the disheveled chairs and called into the void beyond.
The thick rope of a wharf rat’s tail slithered between a stack of empty wooden boxes, the shifting pile of them suggesting the beast was of significant girth. Stillness followed and there was no further reply to his greeting.
“Hello? I’m looking for Evald? Evald Vinther?”
The tip of a cold, dull blade pressed against his back, below his shoulder blade.
“I am Vinther,” a voice from the darkness cordially spoke.
“Is it customary to greet your guests in this manner?”
“Depends on the guest.”
“If you are Vinther, then you know who I am?”
The blade pressed deeper into his jacket.
“I know who you are.”
“Is this part of my trial? Your sword would make a more plausible club. Either way, I am not amused.”
“Sit,” said Vinther, tossing the rusted gladius on to one of the tabletops. “I am not here for your amusement and you should not make light. This is not a thing of class or privilege, no boarding school for pampered youth. There are real dangers afoot, and noble blood spills like any other.”
Kaspar turned and faced the man. He was several inches shorter and many years older than himself. He wore a dark wool vest over a dingy white, collarless shirt with faded trousers that bore the scars of many amateur mendings. His entire bearing was somewhat of a contradiction, in that his limbs seemed light and delicate, but composed of lean muscle. Taking to account his dark eyes and thin but bristly mustache, he gave the impression of a violent, and possibly homicidal, squirrel.
“Sit,” he repeated, pulling a chair out from the table.
With some trepidation, Kaspar sat. He picked up the corroded sword from the table and examined it.
“Real?” Vinther interrupted. “Christ still walked the earth when that blade was forged.”
“Where did you find such a thing?”
“Schnapps,” he said, producing a small opaque bottle seemingly from the either, setting it down on the table with a pair of tiny porcelain cups. “My father found it in a tree he felled, tangled in the roots of the stump.”
“Fascinating, but hardly deadly,” he ran his fingers over the blunt and pitted edges.
“Have you ever killed a man, Master Hauser? Or even beheld a corpse?”
“I have not killed a man, but I assure you I would.”
“Then you are not qualified to speak in terms of deadly things.”
“I find your tone rude and offensive. If my father was to hear of this…”
“I’m certain he would encourage me turning you over my knee.” Vinther filled one of the thimble sized cups with clear liquid and drained it in a gulp, “Prost!”
“He would endorse no such action!”
“This is not a game, young Master. It is my responsibility to prepare you for what comes next. The challenges you face will not be lessened by lofty airs or family crests.”
Vinther navigated through the tables and chairs to the hearth and began to build a fire. Stacking the totality of his available wood, he looked back as if considering the sacrifice of one of the battered chairs. Instead, he struck a match and the little fire came to life.
“Why else then should I be chosen for such a profound and secret task, if not for the inherit greatness of my family?”
“Secret?” Vinther chuckled. “You come here, a schoolboy with your fair hair and shiny buttons, thinking you would go unnoticed? Your boots alone are a half season’s work for most in this place. It’s always the same, plucked from privilege and nursed on destiny.”
The fire crackled and its glow began to chase away the shadows. Vinther filled the second cup and offered it to Kaspar.
“Prost,” Kaspar said and took the spirit in.
“Let’s see it, then. Before we go too far.”
“The mark, boy. Your golden bauble.”
Kaspar reached into his trouser pocket and retrieved a large gold coin. He held it between his thumb and forefinger so that it was illuminated by the firelight.
“Gods!” gasped Vinther.
“What is it you find so unsettling?”
“What strange gravity, to bring that thing back to this place.”
“I don’t understand your meaning,” said Kaspar.
Vinther stepped behind the counter, collected a pair of wooden boxes, and began dismantling them into the fire. The light from the hearth grew, slowly beating back the gloom. Above the hearth, perched on a dark plaque, a strange trophy was mounted. The beast was small, with the body of a rabbit and the wings of a hawk. The head of the thing was more badger than rabbit, bare fanged and snarling with tiny horns reminiscent of antlers protruding from its brow. It clung to the branch-like plaque on the wall with the taloned toes of its bird like front legs.
“Your taxidermist has a strange sense of humor.”
“The Wolpertinger? Pray you don’t meet one.”
“I don’t think that I should, outside of a nightmare!”
Vinther poured himself another tiny cup of schnapps and sat down across the table from Kaspar, twisting the wiry ends of his mustache. The coin sat heads up on the table in front of the young man, the detail of the face showing clear in the firelight.
“You don’t know the first thing about that coin, do you?” Vinther stared directly into Kaspar’s blue and empty eyes.
“It looks Roman, maybe? I’m not certain.”
“Yes, it is, and as old as that sword. Do you notice anything special about it?”
“It’s gold and very heavy for a coin, larger than most.”
“Notice the embossed face and letters on it, that coin was not struck, it was cast. Very carefully cast, I might add. You’ll not find another like it. Do you know who’s face that is?”
“I do not.”
“That is the face of the Emperor Caligula, a cruel visage indeed.”
“That means nothing to me.”
“It should mean a great deal to you.”
“You sound like a fortune teller, spinning fables over a deck of cards!”
“Fables are tragic and cautionary tales. I’m here to ensure you do not become one,” Vinther frowned.
“My father is a cavalry commander, as his father was before him. War is in my blood and I am as skilled a soldier as you may find. If there is sorrow to be had, I will be the one dispensing it!”
“Go easy, Master Hauser, lest you hack the branch on which you stand.”
“More metaphor! Speak clearly, sir, my patience is thinning.”
“It is not my place to judge why you were sent, nor doubt your merits. For that, I apologize. The coterie behind such plans is certainly beyond my understanding. For my part, my preference is not to send you forth entirely naked and blind.”
Kaspar eased back into his wobbly chair.
“Proceed then, explain yourself.”
Vinther grasped the gladius by its rusted iron handle, the flesh of the grip, centuries gone. With his free hand he plucked the coin off the table and held it to the light.
“All who pass through my inn carry his mark, a piece of gold that defines the trial they must face before they may reach Ingolstadt. You carry a very dangerous mark, yours is the Trial of Varus.”
“Whatever the trial, I am unafraid.”
“You may find that fear serves you.” He poured Kaspar another tiny cup. “Prost!”
“Prost,” echoed Kaspar.
“Take the coin in your hand and close your eyes.” Vinther waited as the boy obeyed. “Now, quiet your mind and tell me what you see. What is the first thing that enters your thoughts?”
Kaspar sat still with coin clenched in his fist; a moment passed.
“I see nothing,” he said.
Vinther’s brow furrowed in contemplation, then he sighed, “You must be hungry from your long voyage. Perhaps we should have supper and begin our preparations in the morning, with fresh minds.”
“Yes, but I have so many questions! What waits in Ingolstadt? Who is Varus?”
“There is a man there. I once knew him as Weishaupt, though he has since taken another name. He fancies himself a modern Socrates. Too much wine, in my opinion.”
“Varus met his ruin through pride and arrogance. Now he is your fable to know,” Vinther stood up to tend the dying fire, but the act was futile. “You’ll find your room through the door and up the stairs. Rest, I’ll bring your supper.”
There was a finality in Vinther’s words that closed the matter, he did not bother to press him further on the subject of the Trial. Navigating through the cluttered counter area, he easily found his room at the top of the stairs.
That night Kaspar dined on roasted pheasant with turnips, carrots, and potatoes. Despite Vinther’s questionable facilities, the fare was deliciously prepared and served with a fine bottle of French wine. Vinther spoke no further on the matter of the coin, or on any other matter besides. After delivering his meal to the room, the man made no further attempt to communicate.
The moonlight streaking through his tiny window cast shadows in strange angles, lending the impression of a sky that was out of alignment with conventional astronomy. The ancient planks of the place creaked and shifted through the night and the dark was filled with the padded feet of rodents. Sleep took him swiftly, ferried to dreams too wild and obscure to remember.
In the morning, Kaspar found Vinther sitting at the same table where they had previously spoke. The fire was renewed in the hearth and the floors were freshly swept. Additionally, the tables and chairs were now neatly arranged and there was decidedly less dust to be found. The Roman sword lay where it had been left, in the center of the round table, now shared with a teapot and cups. Vinther poured a steaming cup of tea and pushed it to the opposite side of the table, gesturing for Kaspar to join him.
“Good morning,” said Kaspar, pulling up a chair.
“I don’t know what waits for you in the forest, young Master, though I know the tale of Varus and the curse of the coin that you carry. Your lot is to listen and use what you learn.”
“Something waits for me?”
“Of course,” Vinther smiled. “Our enemies are many and this place is known to them. You will be set upon, that is certain.”
“That is absurd! Why would this path be chosen for me, if only to deliver me to our enemies?”
“It’s a trial, Master Hauser,”
“What if I am killed or the coin is taken?”
“The gold will always return, it’s inevitable. I’ve seen that coin before.”
“And of the one who carried it?”
Vinther shook his head.
“Tell me what you mean to tell me then.”
Vinther stirred his tea and took a sip. Then settling into his chair, he began to speak:
“In his reign, Emperor Augustus fought to subjugate the Germanic tribes, claiming all the lands west of the Rhine for Rome, but he was not satisfied. At the time of our story, there were only a few tribes left that still opposed Rome, and those were scattered and unorganized. Augustus had three well trained legions, more than enough to bring the rest of Germania to heel. Still, he had doubts, principal among them was his governor, an unproven commander, General Publius Quinctilius Varus.
“Varus was a bureaucrat and a cruel governor, infamous for his love of crucifixion. After the death of Herod, Varus is credited with quelling the uprising that followed by crucifying over two thousand Jewish rebels. He was, however, a general in name only, receiving the rank by virtue of marriage. Never did Varus lead an army against a sophisticated military opponent.”
“What does this have to do with my coin?” asked Kaspar, sipping his tea and yawning.
“Everything,” said Vinther.
“Do you have any sugar?” Kaspar held up his cup.
Vinther frowned and continued his story.
“All of Varus’ success in Germania to that point could be attributed to General Tiberius, the former governor, and a German prince named Arminius. Arminius was a slave, taken as tribute when his tribe had been conquered years earlier. In Rome, he was educated and trained as a soldier, where he rose through the ranks and became a very skilled leader and tactician. As the commander of one of Varus’ auxiliaries, he became an indispensable advisor because of his skill and unparalleled knowledge of the region and its tribes. Tragically for Varus, Arminius was not a loyal subject of Rome.
“It was in the fall, as Varus was making his migration west from his fort on the Weser to his winter headquarters on the Rhine, that Arminius sprang his trap. He fed Varus lies about an uprising nearby, urging that they rush to put it down. Of course, Varus believed his trusted commander, dedicating the entirety of his forces to the task.
“They marched on dark and unfamiliar paths, ever narrowing as they passed deeper into the Teutorburg Forrest. The farther he marched, the more divided and spread out his forces became. When they had become so mired in the forest that the troops were forced to march in single file, Arminius took his light calvary and rode ahead under the pretense of reconnaissance. That is when the trap was sprung.
“In the ancient and gnarled trees of the Teutoburg Forest, Varus lost his legions. Hopelessly scattered and unable to maneuver, his soldiers were annihilated by the Germanic tribes. Arminius had authored Rome’s most embarrassing defeat. So humiliating was the loss that the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth legions were stricken from history. No legion of Rome would ever bear those numbers again. Worse, their Aquilae had been taken as trophies by Arminius and his savages.”
“The Eagles, the soul and standard of a legion, mounted on a tall post and carried wherever that legion went. There were three of them, one for each legion.” Vinther gestured at the remaining pieces of wood box. “Add them to flames, would you?”
Kaspar stood and gathered the shattered bits of wood then inserted them into the hearth, under the dead and watchful eyes of the Wolpertinger.
“So, this is my lot, the Trial of Varus. An abject failure! What am I to take from this?” asked Kaspar, returning to the scarred wood table.
“It is not the complete tale,” said Vinther, taking pause to fill his cup.
“What is more to tell? The man was a fool who led his army to slaughter.”
“There is the story of your coin.”
“Fine, get on with it then!” Kaspar scoffed.
“For the remainder of his life, Augustus lamented Varus’ tragedy and forbid any incursions east of the Rhine. Six years passed before another Roman dared dip a toe in the Rhine, not until Tiberius came to power. Gone were the days of the benevolent conquerors, with their paved roads and gleaming marble. Tiberius offered only blood and destruction, dispensed by one of Rome’s greatest generals, his nephew, Germanicus. Ironically, his name was an agnomen, earned by his father who died in Germania, during the very war that saw his enemy, Arminius, enslaved by Rome. He came across the Rhine, eight legions strong, seeking first the site of Varus’ fall. When he reached the Teutoburg Forest, a carpet of bone six miles long waited for him. First, he honored the dead, collecting their remains and carefully interring them beneath the forest floor. Then he sought out Arminius, slaughtering and burning as he went.
“Germanicus led three campaigns across the Rhine, successfully retrieving two of the three Aquilae, belonging to the eighteenth and nineteenth legions, as well as the wife and son of Arminius. The last Aquila proved to be elusive. While the first two eagles were cast in bronze, that of the seventeenth legion was made of gold, thus prized above the others. It was said that Arminius himself kept the trophy, setting the stage for momentous confrontation.”
“Ah, so I am to be like Germanicus, a righteous avenger!” Kaspar snatched up the coin and held it between his thumb and forefinger. “Tell me, was this coin his reward?”
“I wish that I could say it was. History will never know how that clash may have resolved. Before he could mount his final campaign across the Rhine, Germanicus was recalled to Rome. Tiberius bestowed a triumph upon his nephew and paraded him through the streets displaying the recovered Aquilae, trophies, and prisoners, including the wife and son of Arminius.”
“Why would the emperor do this on the eve of success?” Kaspar asked. “Did he ever return?”
“He did not. Germanicus was reassigned to Asia, then Egypt, in a series of less than glorious appointments. Ultimately, he was poisoned by one of his rivals, his second in command Piso.”
“That is a fascinating story, but again, you have me flummoxed as to how this relates to me or the golden coin of Caligula,” said Kaspar.
“Germanicus had a single heir, a son,” said Vinther. “His name was Caligula.”
“Finally, to the point!”
“It was in the year forty-one, more than twenty-five years later. Caligula decided to finish what his father had begun in Germania. He commanded one of his most talented generals, Secundus, to cross the Rhine and retrieve the final Aquila. Accompanying Secundus was his senior commander, a former slave turned soldier, Thumelicus, son of Arminius.
“Arminius was long dead at this time. The golden eagle passed among Germanic warlords like a mantle of power and status. Those who carried it thought themselves invincible. Thumelicus would prove this belief to be a fallacy, crushing the Germanic coalition and claiming the golden eagle, once proudly owned by his father.”
“Ah, now I see the similarity! My father was a soldier in our secret war and, like him, so have I become! Just as Thumelicus fulfilled his own father’s destiny!”
“Hmmm…” Vinther pondered Kaspar’s theory, then continued, “Secundus and Thumelicus traveled to Rome to personally deliver the Aquila to Caligula. Upon arrival, they were summoned to a private audience with the Emperor and his Praetorian Guard. A massive fire with bellows had been constructed in the audience chamber, choking the room in heat and smoke. To the horror of Secundus, the Emperor commanded him to place the Aquila into a smelting pot, which was then lowered into the fire.
“It cannot be understated the profound fervor a soldier has for his Aquila. The callus destruction must have been an intolerable insult to Secundus and every soldier present, regardless of which legion it belonged to. It is said that Caligula laughed like a lunatic as he poured the gold into the mold, forming the coin you now carry in your pocket. Then, in a nightmarish fit of fancy, he ordered his guards to seize Thumelicus. Caligula insisted that his mouth be forced open. This was accomplished by wedging the spout of a wine jug down his throat. He then poured the remaining gold down the improvised funnel, dancing with glee.”
“What a gruesome end,” said Kaspar.
“It was doubly so for Caligula. Less than a week later he was cut to pieces by his own Praetorian guards, right after they declared Claudius emperor. Secundus, who had been spared Caligula’s madness, produced another Aguila and presented it to Claudius as that of the Seventeenth, bringing resolution and redemption to the story, albeit a false one.”
Kaspar examined the coin again. “So, this is the lost eagle of the Seventeenth Legion? What a strange piece of history! Still, if there is some clue or precursor to my own fate, I have yet to see it.”
“Perhaps it is not your place in the tale that you should consider, but the coin’s place in yours.”
“Why do you speak of it as if it is anything other than an object?” asked Kaspar, spinning the coin on the tabletop. “As if I were somehow subject to its judgement?”
“The coin has two sides,” said Vinther. “Call them life or death, victory or defeat, good luck or bad. Think of it any way you want, but just understand the consequences of flipping such a coin.”
The coin rattled to a stop and the golden face of Caligula stared back from the ages.
“Claudius was given the coin by the Praetorian Guardsmen that executed Caligula. It is said that he kept it close to him until it was lifted from his corpse by the murderess Agrippina, who presented it to her son, Nero. When Nero’s reign came to an end, he fled, an enemy to Rome. In his final hour he tasked his secretary, Epaphroditas, with cutting his throat, being too cowardly to fall on his own sword. He paid him with that golden coin, thus ending the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It is said the coin returned to Germania, disappearing for generations before it reappeared once more in the year 410, when Alaric carried it into Rome and sacked the city.”
“And then what?” asked Kaspar with an exasperated sigh.
“And the story continues!” Vinther slapped the table. “Do you not yet understand?”
“No more than you do!” Kaspar rolled his eyes and snatched up the coin, returning it to his pocket.
Vinther kept his silence, once again taking the sword up from the table. He went to the fire and stared thoughtfully into the flames, prodding them with the iron relic.
“You’ve learned all that you can from me,” he said. “You should be off. It is important you pass through the forest before night fall. You’ll find bread, cheese, and salted fish in the pack. Take the water skin, if you haven’t one, and there is a bottle of schnapps that I’m sure you’ll need before the end,” Vinther pointed to a nearby table where he had laid Kaspar’s pack and items.
“Thank you,” said Kaspar.
“Also, pistol and shot,” he pointed to the weapon laying near a small powder horn. “You know how to use and maintain one?”
“I am a soldier, Mr. Vinther, as I have said. When I return from Ingolstadt, I will continue my training and become a cavalry commander, like my father.”
“Good. There are boiled eggs you may take with you. You’re best to eat them on the road.”
Kaspar stretched his stiff limbs and yawned.
“Meaning you will want to be on that road as soon as possible. You should go.”
“No more history lessons? No dire warnings?”
“You do not want to spend the night in the forest, it is not safe,” said Vinther.
“That’s all? You said you’ve seen this coin before. Who carried it?”
“What more can I say? We serve something higher, within the gold. Your mark is the highest standard of that power above all others. It is not a thing to be wielded. You are either the vessel of its work or the road which takes it there. I cannot be more clear.”
“Yet somehow completely cryptic.”
“You won’t want to lose light in those woods.” Vinther took up his broom.
“What about a horse? Is there a mount to be had in this town?”
“None that could be spared, or that would risk the forest road.”
Kaspar shrugged and gathered up the provisions, loading them into his pack as Vinther continued his sweeping.
“Which way should I go?”
“There is only one way.”
Kaspar received no further instructions from the Innkeep, nor did the man lift his head from his work. Outside, the sun was bright, and the breeze carried the clean, salty smell of the ocean. The narrow cobblestone alleys of the wharf district seemed slightly less insidious than they had the day before. His path carried him past the long and crooked pier, now reaching out to an empty, blue sea. Peeling the shell from a boiled egg, he set out toward the main street of Eckernförde.
Near the end of the thoroughfare, past a tailor and a market, he came to an ancient church. Bulging out from behind the structure, the sloped churchyard sprawled against the confines of its wrought iron fence. A peculiar congress of butterflies fluttered at the side of the road, slowly drifting toward the church along a slight trail that forked off from the road. Kaspar followed the butterflies up the grassy path from the road and past the old stone church where they dispersed amongst the graves. Tall grass lapped against the stone markers, which shifted and leaned as if adrift in a sea of wildflowers. The graves sat untended, more stone than memorial, home to lichens and moss. One noteworthy exception was a large monument set with an engraved iron plate. Around it, the grass was neatly cropped and the weeds conspicuously absent. Two glass votive candles sat atop the chiseled stone that, even in the bright sunlight, Kaspar identified as being lit.
He stood at the border of the iron fence, peeling eggs and staring across the decrepitude of the churchyard until the tolling of the church bell broke the spell. Nine bells rang out, betraying the fact that he had lingered more than an hour watching the grave. At his feet, his pile of eggshells was crawling with ants. Reluctantly, he turned away from the churchyard and made his way back to the road.
The town of Eckernförde nestled between the sandy shores the Baltic and a primordial forest of elm, oak, and maple. Just as the crooked pier tethered to the tall ships that visited its bay, a single road stretched out into the eternal shade of the nameless wood. Only a modest interval of stunted grassy hills and uninspired thicket stood between the town and the towering trees, just enough to keep the sight of the forest at bay.
The mouth of the road came abruptly in a wall of oak and elm. It carried on in a direct line through a gapping throat of overhanging branches that almost entirely muted the sun. Kaspar stood and watched the branches sway and listened to the birds. The salt faded from the air and, for the first time since he arrived, he did not smell fish. Detecting none of the unwholesomeness of Vinther’s ramblings, he entered the woods and put the queer town at his hind.
All manner of woodland life proliferated along the road. Deer were in such abundance that he was tempted to try his luck with the old man’s pistol. Squirrels, rabbits, and other small game fearlessly conducted their business, barely taking notice of Kaspar’s intrusion. Around mid-day, he paused at a clear stream that dipped close to the road and topped off his water skin. Digging through his pack, he found his last boiled egg and sat on a fallen tree to shell it. He tossed a large section of the shell into the stream and watched it course the tiny rapids. A squirrel appeared creek-side and chased the shell downstream bounding from rock to rock taking swipes at it. He leaned back against the tree, observing as another squirrel joined the chase. A cool, sweet breeze came through the trees, carrying the mindless tune of birds and blowing leaves. His eyes began to droop.
The sound of rustling startled him awake; he had fallen asleep at the creek. The two squirrels had returned and were tugging at the flap of his pack, boldly trying to drag it away. They scattered when Kaspar sat up, climbing a nearby tree while chirping their frustrations. It was cooler and the forest was slightly dimmer than it was before. He guessed that it was late afternoon though, through the thick canopy of trees, it was impossible to judge the sun’s position. He snatched up his pack and started down the road.
The light continued to dim, and it became clear that he had slept the entire day. Darkness encroached, filling in the spaces between trees and swallowing the road before him. With the darkness came an unnatural silence, smothering him in the sound of his own breathing. He pressed on through the gloom and the road seemed to constrict, the branches hanging menacingly low. The distant call of a wolf broke the stillness, then was answered by another. Kaspar decided to go no further that night.
Considering Vinther’s warning, he began searching for a campsite that would offer the greatest security. The faintest break in the canopy was visible off the western side of the road, through which the last rays of sunlight shimmered on the treetops. He left the path in that direction, finding a deer trail through the tangled roots and fallen trees. He followed it a short distance toward a natural indention in the ground surrounded by three massive oak trees. By Kaspar’s judgement, it would provide suitable shelter from the elements and keep him hidden from the sight of anyone traveling the road. Racing against the dying light, he made a small stone circle for his fire pit and gathered a quantity of dry wood. Before long, he had a small fire going.
The forest at night was surprisingly cool, despite the warmth of summer. He retrieved his jacket from his pack along with the bottle of schnapps. He fastened the pack tightly, remembering the industrious squirrels, and secured it to a snubbed branch of one of the oak trees, a few feet off the ground on the tree behind him. Nestling into the crook of the tree, he uncorked the schnapps and took a hearty pull.
“Prost,” he said, lifting the bottle toward the sound of the howling wolves.
His dreams came sputtering in jagged visions, detached from the familiar and tainted with horror. Unwholesome trees and sooty mist offered shuttered glimpses of titanic monstrosities, boiling from the earth’s spastic womb. Everything shook with a gelatinous decay, part of a dissolving dance of fur, flesh, and iron. The voices of wolves and men wove hymns in the wind, songs of praise and damnation. Each pulse of light revealed a fragment of the whole, stitched together with veiny roots and pulsating with mucus. And, like all dreams that bind one’s feet, the violent sickness of its totality was only realized in his complete paralysis.
When he awoke, he was bathed in bright and warming sunlight. The smoldering grave of his campfire in its ring of rocks remained at his feet, but the forest had vanished in the night. A clearing manifested in a two-hundred-foot radius around him, perfectly circular in shape. No grass or shrubs inhabited the surface of the vast and silent plain. The naked and upturned earth had the quality of a dead and fallow field. For lack of any reasonable explanation, it was as if the trees had uprooted themselves and walked away in the night.
He shot up and searched desperately for the road but found no trace of it through the thick and tightly ringed trees. Examining the immediate camp site, he found it exactly as it should be, excluding the absence of trees. He found the bottle of schnapps corked and laying where he had set it by the fire, though his pack was nowhere to be seen. As his shock matriculated into terror, he became aware of the smothering silence. No bird chirped and no creature stirred, even the wind was mute.
“Hello!” he shouted, but the word came out dampened as if he were screaming into a pillow.
Kaspar ranged out in a spiraling jaunt, looking for any sign or explanation. His eyes scanned the freshly turned dirt, looking for tracks or traces. He looked to the sun to find some clue of his bearing but could not find it in the sky. Though the heat was stifling and the day brilliantly lit, there was no sun in the sky. He flailed his limbs and spun about like a lunatic, vainly searching the earth for his shadow. There was none.
As his trajectory carried him closer to the circle’s edge, a familiar sight caught his eye. His pack was hanging from the same stunted oak tree where he had placed it. The oddly shaped cleft that he had nestled in was unmistakable, its identity further confirmed by the presence of the other two oak trees, formally of his camp. He began to swoon with the heat and confusion, waves of nausea broke against him as sweat poured like a tide from his brow. Thrusting his hand into his pocket in panic, the feeling abated slightly on finding the golden coin still in his possession.
Something was moving in the trees, though it appeared more as if the trees were moving away from that something. Beyond where his pack hung, a void was opening in the trees, the earth roiling with roots. He stumbled forward to retrieve it, his feet struggling against his fear with dreamlike paralysis. The strap was within his grasp, but the tree moved away. Kaspar could only observe with dread the arrival of the stranger through the trees.
The crone in herself was not abjectly fearsome, lacking a sharp–toothed countenance or any other signature malignancy. Nearly every inch of the hag was wrapped in a maelstrom of drab colored skirts and scarfs, weaving around her like a funnel cloud of fabric, rendering it impossible to tell where one garment began or another ended. Only the tips of her worn and pointed boots protruding from below the hem gave any suggestion that legs existed within. A single bony hand protruded from the folds around her torso, the digits bent awkwardly as if trying to cast a shadow puppet. Her entire hand undulated on the axis of her skeletal wrist, slowly spinning the way one might swirl a spoon in tea.
In the context of her entry, her innocuous appearance was deeply unsettling to Kaspar. He thought of the pistol and shot secured in his pack, hanging only a few steps away. He lunged forward and reached for it, and again the tree seemed to lean away. A fevered sweat afflicted him, carried by the dizzying fear that he had wandered into Hell and now stood before one of its emissaries.
“Allow me, young master,” said the woman retrieving the pack from the tree. Her accent was Slavic.
Kaspar snatched the bag from her hands and immediately dug into its contents, searching for his weapon. Vinther’s pistol was the only item missing.
“What have you done with it?”
“With what, dear?”
“With my pistol! With the road and with the sun! What have you done to me? Are you in league with Vinther, is this some trick of his schnapps? You’ve poisoned me! For what? Another ‘Lesson?’”
“Poor child, you are delirious. Come, we will find rest and shelter.” Her oddly gyrating hand tilted on its axis so that a single finger pointed at him, circling an imaginary radius around his heart.
The grizzled woman turned back to the densely crowded forest, returning in the same direction from which she came. There was no disturbance in her skirt to suggest the movement of legs, presenting the image of an ambulating pile of rags effortlessly sailing into the wood. Even as the pointed tip of her shawl wrapped head vanished among the summer leaves, Kaspar was compelled to follow.
There was always a path, though it seemed that, at any time, he could not see more than a few paces ahead through the trees. Their course did not vary, and the trail did not jog. Likewise, it did not rise or fall. Yet, somehow, the trees made way, motionless removing themselves from their obstruction. The effect was a noxious one for Kaspar, who felt he had walked miles of trail while never moving forward an inch.
Time passed without perspective. After moments or hours, they came to another, smaller clearing, this one completely shaded by the canopy of trees. In the center stood a clean and amiable looking cottage of stone with a neatly thatched roof and a brick lined chimney. Garden boxes surrounded it on all sides, overflowing with herbs and wildflowers. Some distance to the rear, there was a large ring of rocks surrounded with what looked to be iron torches. Unlike the field in which he woke, or the forest trail, here there existed a great number of strange birds. Though Kaspar could not see them in the dense packing of leaves, he observed their evidence in the twitching of branches and the constant and peculiar “Eee-Ack!” of their calls to each other.
“Here we are, home and safe,” said the Crone.
Kaspar was sitting on a wooden stool near a wood stove in the kitchen of the house. He did not remember walking through a door or even taking a seat. A pot steamed on the stove, its gurgling contents exuding a sweet, organic odor.
“Who are you?”
“Call me Mother Helena,” she said stirring her pot with a wooden spoon. “Daughter of Helena and mother to Helena.”
“What have you done to me? I don’t feel well.”
“Oh? What ails you, my young friend?”
“I can’t remember, myself, or anything. I feel like I’m in a dream, but not my own.”
“That must be a terrible feeling indeed!”
“My name is Kaspar Hauser, my father is a cavalry soldier,” he starred into the cherry glow of the woodstove. “I want to be a horseman, like my father.”
The lips of the crone stretched into a sympathetic smile, the lines on her face were carved like deep bark. She was behind him, then beside. Gently clutching his shoulder, then tending the hearth, existing at all these places with a liquid elasticity that sucked time from the world and exiled it from reality.
“I can help you, I suppose.” Mother Helena now sat creaking in her rocking chair.
“I need help,” he said. “I need to go to Bavaria.” Kaspar was lying at the hearth looking into the rafters of the cottage. The fire crackled in his ear.
“That man won’t help you.”
“Will you help me?” Kaspar was now sitting on the dirt floor of an empty room in the house. The door was locked, there were bars on the windows. His whiskers had grown long and he felt unkempt.
“I suppose that I might, but remember the price.”
“A shiny gold coin. Payment, freely given”
“No, I can’t. The coin is mine!”
“Yours? Do you know who you are?”
“My name is Kaspar Hauser. I want to be a horseman, like my father.”
It was night and the “Eee-Ack!” of the strange birds reached a frenzied pitch; hissing, gurgling, and screaming. Kaspar could hear them clawing on the rooftop and fluttering about the cottage with clumsy wings. They collided with the house and each other and seemed to be massive, like sheep or goats. Their grotesque shadows crossed the silver moonlight, filtering through the bars of his cell.
He pulled himself up to the high window, wedging his elbows on the thin ledge to hold himself in place. Outside, in the darkness, the old crone was busy with some strange doings. She stood in the center of the small stone circle; the torches now lit with flame. The familiar tracing of her withered hand undulated toward a point in the forest. A change in tone, signaled by the flaring of the moon and the wretched cries of wolves, permeated the scene. The old woman trembled in her skirts and whispered into the darkness.
The howling drew closer, taking on a pained, human quality. Growing clearer as they approached, he was certain he recognized Latin words swirling in the caterwaul. Then, penetrating the circle’s light, Kaspar witnessed their tortured forms. They were wolves in shape, but with elongated limbs and standing as men. Their canine heads tapered to veiny necks, mouths crowded with jagged, yellow teeth, broken and oozing with sputum. In entirety, their bodies were covered in coarse tufts of mangy hair, sparsely planted over grotesque musculature. Most alarming, these things were clad in an array of ancient and rusting armor of Roman design. By appearance, the armor was so decayed and corroded as to seemingly embed itself within the flesh and hair, becoming like rusty carapaces.
A singular creature of exceptional size approached the circle’s edge and confronted the withered matron, her hand ceaseless in its gyration. It extended its own appendage, a clawed mockery of a human hand, and made a horrible demand.
“Aquila,” it growled.
Kaspar lost his hold on the window’s ledge and fell to the earthen floor of his room. Outside, in the moonlight, he heard the crone bargaining with the devils, repeatedly hissing the words, “Not yet!”
He curled into the fetal position, leaning against the cool, stone wall and wondered on the horrible abominations that had come to assail his sanity. Fear was constant and complete. When next he looked to the window, the sky was moonless, the air quiet and still. He buried his face in his palms and wept, noting with disgust at the length that his fingernails had grown to. Time was like a wind that came at its own leisure, without his consent and void of reason.
“I need help,” he spoke quietly to the dust of his cell.
“I suppose I might,” said Mother Helena. “But remember the price.”
“I will pay any price,” he wept and tried to remember what a horse looked like.
He was on the stool again, this time sitting inside the ring of stones outside. The torches were lit, casting a flickering tunnel upwards through the trees. The old woman stood before him, outside the ring. In her hands, she held quill and ink. There was a book in his lap, thick with pages, though it would only open to one.
“I don’t like it here,” he said. “I want to go home.”
“Put your name in the book, pay the fee.”
The quill was in his hand, the book open, spanning the gap between his knees. He stared at the words on the page but could not understand them.
“I don’t remember.”
“Of course, you do, my little horseman.”
He began scrawling, the ink blood–red on the vellum. The hag’s face contorted in anger as he continued to write, exceeding his required signature. She tore the book from his lap, part of the page tearing off in his hand.
“Enough! Now payment must be received, that is our contract!”
The ominous “Eee-Ack!” of the birds filled the air accompanied by the spastic fluttering of wings. Dark shapes moved among the shadows and fell upon the rooftop with meaty thuds. Others scampered across the ground, chortling as they penetrated the ring of torchlight. Dozens of them crowded the perimeter, closing the distance with terrifying speed. Kaspar had seen a similar monstrosity before, though he could not remember where or when. He was, however, certain beyond doubt that they were not birds.
The beasts possessed the trunks and heads of wild hare, though the jaws were equipped with rows of saw-like teeth akin to some prehistoric fish. The fur covered parts of their bodies swarmed with massive lice, plowing through their hair in visible furrows. Protruding from behind the stunts of their folded ears, disproportionate antlers extended, ending in sharp points, or broken in jagged lines. Their tiny wings were like that of a pigeon, fluttering madly against gravity. The legs also were bird like, possessing obscenely long talons that continuously grasped and clutched blindly at the naked air.
With dark bulging eyes the Wolpertingers came to him, pulling and ripping at his clothing.
“The coin,” hissed Mother Helena, “The price”.
Kaspar closed his eyes as they enveloped him in a frenzy of filthy wings and plague–ravaged hides. It was over in a second, the beasts having achieved their objective. When his eyes opened again, one of the beasts stood near the tent of the hag’s skirt clutching the golden coin in the webbing of its disgusting appendage. It screeched gleefully as it offered the prize to its master.
“It is done,” she said, stooping to retrieve the coin.
The monstrous throng took flight in unison, victoriously swarming like moths marching to the moon. Regret consumed him, though he could not force himself to resist or even object to the witch’s “price.” Mercifully, the moon faded and darkened the skies, concealing the fluttering chaos. With the moon came the familiar malaise of slipping time, eroding his memory and leaving only sadness in its wake. Only the torn scrap of vellum, clutched in his hand, confirmed that it had been real.
May 26, 1828
Nuremberg, German Confederation
“Well, what is it?” asked the shoemaker. “What’s your business?”
The teen stood in the threshold of the cobbler’s shop, unsure of where he was or how he arrived there.
“I don’t remember,” he said.
“An idiot, are you?”
“I don’t know,” his hands fished nervously in his pockets, extracting a torn piece of vellum. He read the words written in rusty brown blood, “My name is Kaspar Hauser. I want to be a horseman, like my father.”
“Come inside, boy. Let’s get you something to eat and we will see about finding your father.”
June 1, 1828
Duchy of Holstein, German Confederation
Her heels clacked across the dusty planks of Vinther’s inn like the hooves of some unknown beast. The furling mass of ratty scarves and skirts concealed her lower body like a funnel cloud of filth. Above the mantle, a dry scream emanated from the hollow entrails of the stuffed creature; a haunted and distant, but clearly audible “Eee-Ack!” The broom fell from his fingertips as he unconsciously backed himself behind the counter. Briefly he thought of his iron sword, but the crone was upon him, her dead black eyes arresting him in paralyzing fear.
“Vinther, I presume?”
“Yes,” he said, the cluttered countertop the only barrier between them.
She slapped the coin down on the countertop, the golden face of Caligula gazing into the gloom. Vinther reached tentatively toward the coin, but the crones hand came down upon it.
“You no longer serve this master,” she said. “When others come, and they will, your inn will be closed to them. Do you understand?”
Vinther nodded, slowly, his eyes transfixed by the witch’s hand. A golden eagle stretched its wings within the gray and gnarled flesh of the woman’s bony hand. It moved within the skin like a living thing, struggling against black veins of slowly pulsing blood, that bound it to the flesh.
“I understand,” he said, but the wretched hag was already gone.