Germany, 1538 Dinfoil Village at the southeastern edge of the Black Forest
Weeks had gone by since winter had lost her blinding white beauty. Cold gray mud at Father Stefan’s feet and dull clouds above him were all that remained of her icy pageant. He waved his hand at the low clouds, willing them to be gone. The hopeful golden sun of spring was overdue. He longed for its warmth to awaken new life in his little village.
The good Lord had other plans for the morning, however. The sun remained shrouded, and the air kept its chill after a midnight rain. Father Stefan could see his breath when he exhaled, a small wonder that still fascinated him even in these, the middle years of his life.
Each wet stone on the cobblestone streets of Dinfoil was packed so close to the next that the market lane looked like the side of an enormous, glistening brown fish. The lane was as slippery as a fish too, and Father Stefan was careful as he walked. If he slipped and broke a leg, he would be of no use to anyone—not as a spiritual father or as the town physician.
The sky may have refused any promise of warmth, but the new day still brought its own comforts. Bread baking in ovens and the crisp hints of spring’s first greens teased his nose as life burst out into the lanes everywhere he looked. Last night the great lashes of lightning had driven everyone inside early. Now no one wasted a moment starting the new day: Shutters were being opened as he walked, children ran through the leaves torn from trees by the winds, and merchants dashed with their carts along the bumpy stone lanes, anxious to reclaim yesterday’s lost business. When winter’s ice melted away, travelers appeared from many villages, eager to spend their money at the market and meet new people. Fresh tales were as coveted as fresh supplies in those first weeks of spring.
Father Stefan walked through the town square, where children played prancing ponies, skipping in wide circles. One boy slipped, catching himself on his palms. He winced and muttered a curse under his breath. When he caught Father Stefan watching him, he blushed and looked away.
Stefan suppressed a frown and looked around. The boy’s mother had done penance for her coarse language not a week ago, and here her boy was, repeating her sin.
“Mothers, mind your children,” he called out, hoping the village’s women could hear him through their open windows. “The stones are treacherous this morning.” He shook a finger at a boy. “No more of that,” he said.
Father Stefan walked along, greeting his parishioners, nodding at the shopkeepers and housemaids who were still opening shutters. The wealthier the family, the closer they lived inside the square, and the more housemaids he saw at work.
As was usual for this hour, no one appeared in the windows of those expensive homes except maids and dogs. After maids opened the shutters, several dogs popped their heads into the windows, looking down with great interest at the people in the square. Father Stefan particularly liked seeing the yellow mastiff that often sat, solemn as a magistrate, in a window, his jowls set in judgment. Another dog across the lane watched with bulging eyes and a little black mouth. That dog, outraged at the activity below him, barked and yapped at each passerby.
Marie, the young daughter of a parishioner in Father Stefan’s church, pranced past, chasing after her little brother. She ran into Father Stefan, knocking him onto his rear. She looked horrified.
“Father Stefan. Forgive me,” she said.
He held his side with one hand and used the other to push himself back up.
“No need for forgiveness, Marie. It was an accident, after all.”
Her face looked ashen. Her chin began to tremble. She was one good breath away from a loud wail. Stefan reached out and tapped her on the nose, startling her.
“How is your mother’s new baby girl?” he asked, looking down to wiggle his eyebrows at the young boy who now stood at the girl’s side. The boy giggled, and Marie glanced at him before she smiled too.
She had swallowed back her tears, but her eyes were still wide and watering. “The baby is well, thank you. She is at home with Mother. She doesn’t smell very good, though.”
Father Stefan pressed his lips together to catch a chuckle. “Yes, Marie, babies do smell. Tell your mother I will be glad to have her back with us for Mass.”
“But Mother is not well, Father Stefan. She cries a lot now that she has given birth. And she is pale. I try to get my brother to play with me outside, to let her rest, but I don’t think she notices.”
“I see.” He smiled and nodded, a signal that he was ready to be on his way.
Marie grabbed him by the hand. “Perhaps you could come see her?”
Stefan disentangled himself and stepped back. “My place is in the church. As is hers. Remind her of that. When she gets back to church, she will feel better at once.” He leaned down and flicked his hands at Marie, sending her away.
Marie hesitated, then rushed at him and planted a kiss on his cheek. She turned and ran off with her brother before he could say anything else. Stefan pressed a hand against the spot she had touched, mystified.
The sun broke free for a moment, warming Stefan’s arms. He pushed up the sleeves of his shirt, catching more of this sudden pleasure, the second unmerited grace of the day.
The thought prodded Stefan to turn and get on with his morning business. He couldn’t just stand here smiling in the sun like a fool. Pleasure is a fool’s reward, he thought, a distraction that keeps good people from doing God’s work. He must buy his dried hops and be back at the church before the next Mass. As he walked the square, he greeted the sweet young parishioner Elizabeth, who shopped at the herb market. She gave a shy nod and gestured back to the church, which stood at the far end of the square. Stefan smiled and nodded his head in agreement. Yes, it was almost time for Mass. They had both reason to hurry.
He then spotted Dame Alice with her wide, soft face. She sat on an upturned barrel at the front door of her home. Though wealthy, she rarely busied herself with women’s work, much to Stefan’s dismay. Instead she sat at her entranceway with her white hair neatly plaited above her ears, acknowledging those who passed.
Stefan watched as Mia, the sheriff’s wife, bustled past him, darting between the town’s children, clutching her coin bag to her stomach as she approached the butcher’s shop.
“Mia!” Dame Alice called out.
Mia stopped, clearly startled.
Dame Alice gestured widely with her arms. “Come and eat, child. I put a leg of lamb on the fire. Come and tell me of your morning.”
Mia glanced in every direction, her face turning red as others watched the interaction. She pulled her scarf lower over her eyes and hurried away.
“Mia!” Dame Alice shouted. “You need to eat. It’s how God made us.”
Mia pretended not to hear, though Stefan knew better. Her jaw muscles were flexing as if she was sorely tempted by Dame Alice’s invitation. But Mia was a good wife who she knew had no time for the gossip of idle women. Stefan would have to chastise Dame Alice once more at her next confession, though it would do no good. She had lost both her daughters and one grandson in a plague years before. Since then she had cared for the young women of the village like a mother might. He worried that too much gossip was exchanged at her kitchen table.
Stefan nodded in satisfaction as Mia ducked inside the shop. Perhaps she was too thin, but it was merely a testament to her tireless devotion to her husband and child. A model citizen, that Mia, he thought. Never a moment spent in mischief with other women.
Stefan looked up to see an unfamiliar woman with a hard, lined face staring at him from across the square. From the distance her eyes were blue flames. Her dull gray hair was long and free, hanging down to her waist. The strange woman looked up into storm clouds that were now rolling toward the village. Her eyes narrowed as her gaze returned to Stefan, accusing and cold, as if the night’s storm had been his doing.
A rooster crowed from the roof of a shop, distracting him. Thunder growled as it approached from behind the clouds. He turned back and strained for a glimpse of the woman again, but with no reward. Sometimes the market brought strange customers. She was, no doubt, just another oddity in his day.
Storm winds stirred his thin robes. He pulled his sleeves further down on his arms and put his mind back to his errand.
Mia’s husband, Sheriff Bjorn, had arrived on his doorstep last night. He had drunk a considerable amount of Stefan’s beer before he left for home. Stefan’s beer had no equal, though all the priests of his order learned the art of brewery. Wine tasted bitter and ruined many stomachs. But Stefan’s beer, made with grains he selected by hand and scent, ministered to anyone who drank it. His beer, the color of an emperor’s robe, was rich in nourishment and always bubbling. Even the pasty, flecked loam, leftover from the brewing yeast, proved good for ailing infants and livestock.
Bjorn, thirsty and agitated, had arrived at his doorstep, hoping for a draught. He had said he spent all night looking for the wolf that had stolen two of the sheep from the parish stock. Erick, Stefan’s servant, had wanted to join the hunt, but Bjorn refused him. Bjorn was not given to companionship. Erick would learn that in time.
The wolf—a tiresome, clever enemy who had yet to be caught— taunted then all. Taking two sheep was a crime that could not be overlooked. Stefan’s flock of sheep was small, only ten animals. His flock of parishioners was small too, perhaps one hundred people in total, not including those too weak or old to come to Mass. Stefan knew the wolf would be caught in time. But wolves and sinners had one thing in common: When they stole what was not theirs, their appetite for more only grew stronger. Appetite was always the doom of the unjust.
Another cloud rolled over the sun, and its shadow swept over the townspeople. A slinking darkness stole their last hope for a fine spring morning. Everyone paused, looking up and around. Shadows so early in the day meant a storm was growing in power, hiding itself at the edges of town, preparing for its first strike.
As the cloud peeled back from the sun, the shadow passed, and Stefan sighed.
A woman bumped into Stefan just then. He steadied himself and reached out to her, but she collapsed. His knees buckled under her sudden weight in his arms, and he struggled to get her to her feet. He lifted her and realized the woman was Catarina, a quiet, gentle wife from his parish. He looked up and saw Mia step from the butcher’s shop, carrying a roast, stopping when she saw the accident, as did a few others.
Catarina’s eyes were open, but she didn’t seem to recognize anyone. She pointed at the darkened alley that ran between two lopsided rows of houses.
“What is wrong, Catarina?” he asked.
She opened her mouth to gasp for a breath she could not catch.
“Did something scare you? Is it the wolf?”
She managed a deep breath that shook her body. “I love the Lord, as you are my witness. This crime is not my doing.”
Stefan saw in his peripheral vision Dame Alice, who jumped up and moved toward them.
“Do you believe me?” Catarina asked, her voice straining. “Father Stefan,” she said, grasping his arms. “I’m trying to tell you he’s dead.”
“Who is dead?”
Dame Alice came from behind Father Stefan, pushing him aside, taking Catarina by the shoulder. “Who is dead, child? What are you talking about?”
Catarina kept pointing down the lane, but there was no sign of mischief. “Nonsense, dear,” Dame Alice said. “Why would you say he is dead?”
“His horse is in the lane. My husband is not on it.”
“You saw his horse wandering alone?” Dame Alice asked, stroking her arm. “Is that all? My dear …”
“From this one fact you have imagined your husband’s death and have frightened us all?” Stefan tried to control his indignation. “He’s probably drunk again, is all. Sleeping it off somewhere to get out of the rain.”
Catarina should have been happy. Cronwall was not known for being a gentle husband.
Dame Alice reached for Catarina’s hand. “You’re so cold, child.” She took off her outer cloak and wrapped it around Catarina, who did not notice.
Stefan pressed his lips together and cleared his throat. “Now, Catarina …” “You’re going to say this is my fault.” Catarina looked up at him. She dug her fingers into his arm. “The village is in danger.” Father Stefan tried to pry away her fingers. “Stop this. Cronwall is just sleeping his liquor off somewhere. He will be home soon.” She gripped his arm tighter, making her knuckles go white, then she buried her face in his robe. “You don’t understand.”
“Elizabeth,” Stefan called out, hoping the young girl would still be about. When he saw her peering through the crowd, he nodded to her. “Bring Catarina a dried apple. She has no color in her face.” The girl obediently ran off to the market.
He sighed. “And someone wake Bjorn,” he called out.
Catarina shoved him away. “No.”
“My request for Bjorn should please you. If what you say is true, we’ll need the sheriff. He can make an arrest.” She laughed or coughed—he couldn’t be sure which—and flecks of spit landed across his cheek.
When he unlatched her hand from his arm, Catarina ran off, leaving Stefan to wipe off the spit. His wet fingers were tinged with what looked like blood, but Catarina had said nothing about being hurt. The crowd that had gathered was whispering, watching him. Stefan walked between them to peer down the lane Catarina had pointed to.
Church bells rang, calling everyone to Mass. Stefan frowned at the reminder. He belonged in church, not in the street, and not down a dirty, empty lane looking for a lone horse and a dead man on the word of a confused woman. Women were prone to hysteria. He found it most discouraging. His fine morning was ruined.
He turned for the church, which was only a few doors down, but no one followed.
“Time for Mass!” he shouted. A few people glanced at each other. “Bjorn will not be here for a good hour; we all know that.” At this, people followed.
Stefan glanced back at the lane just once more. Sin was his responsibility. Crime belonged to Bjorn. As for women—well, only God knew what to do with them.