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The Opening Of The Wolfsburg Murder

Well, I did say I would post my story by Friday. I have been chipping at it, trying to make it presentable. So, for your reading pleasure,


The Wolfsburg Murder:


Brynhild sat cross-legged on the cold stone floor in the back of the archive. The scrolls of laws and deeds that she had arranged before her in a rainbow of parchment rustled as she ran her finger lightly over them. She picked the oldest looking one and opened the folio. It released a dusty smell, and all the gall ink had faded to a light brown, rather like the color of her hair. She laid it on her lap and rested her chin on her palm. The tips of her fingers brushed her prominent, pointed ears.

She scanned the pages, her gaze quick over the stilted Latin. No, nothing about Stichen Abbey, the emperor’s gift, or limits on the king’s gift here. She did another quick scan of the pages, but nothing popped out at her. She frowned and put it to the side, and then reached for another likely-looking scroll.

Her mother’s voice broke the quiet of the archive, booming through the storage room and kitchen. “Girl-child get out here! They’re leaving now!”

Brynhild grimaced and stretched her legs out. Fortuna pessimi, how would she find something to help her friend Sister Renate if she kept being interrupted? Burgravine Giselle’s voice grew more strident and louder as she came closer. Brynhild stood up and put away the scrolls she had surveyed on the wooden shelves lining the archive. She scampered up the stairs, walked through the storage room to the kitchen, and then out to the hallway that led to the kitchen gardens.

Wolfsburg castle bustled that morning. Servants ran up and down the wide stone stairway to the second story and the women’s quarters. The front doors were wide open, letting in gusts of air scented with May flowers. Bigitte and Alfred were standing at the base of the stairs. Their twin children, Johan and Jutta, clung to Alfred’s legs as he counted, and then re-counted, the combs in his travelling pack.

“But Vatti, you just got back! Why can’t I go with you?” Johan wailed. His gold-green eyes sparkled with tears.

Alfred looked down and kissed his son’s forehead. “No, Sweetie. You have to stay with your mother. I won’t be too long this time. No more than a week.”

Bigitte patted the boy’s head. “Besides, you’ll have Rolland and Knut to play with here, Sweetie.”

Their little boy sighed, but the girl shook her head. She punched Alfred’s bag and stomped off. Bigitte turned around, black curls shaking loose from her wimple. “Jutta, Sweetie, come back here. We’re going to see everyone off.”

She took one long stride and hoisted the little girl on her shoulder. Jutta protested and squirmed in her mother’s arms as she brought her back to the base of the stairs.

Brynhild went up to them, smiling. “At least it’s not raining. All of you will have a good head start for your travels.”

Alfred nodded. “I hope it will last. I’ve had enough water for a lifetime. Oh, Sweetie, did I pack my cape?”

“The one I repaired yesterday? I think I saw you put it in the bottom.”

Alfred promptly dug back into the bag, his blonde curls shifting around his neck. He pulled out a corner of a cloth and made a face. “It’s folded wrong.”

He dumped everything out on the floor and picked up the cape to fold. Bigitte shook her head. “You don’t have time to repack.”

“It’s not straight.”

Brynhild gave Bigitte a bemused look over Alfred’s head. Bigitte smiled fondly and bent to kiss the top of his head. The two women knelt to help him re-fold and pack his belongings. Heavy footsteps on the steps caught their attention.

Bigitte’s older brother, Karl, was coming down the stairs with his own travel bag over his shoulder. Bigitte grinned. “Are you ready to go boss around some peasants at Bergstaat?”

He grinned back, and wide dimples appeared, his luminous smile matching bright brown eyes. “More like I’ll be bossed around by them. The servants here already know to ignore us.”

“Nah, they’re just selective in their hearing.”

“Selectively bad?”

Brynhild pushed the last comb to Alfred and stood. A wide grin immediately took over her face at the sound of Karl’s approach, and she turned to Karl. “Maybe I’ll have something blue for you to wear by the time you come back.”

Karl had reached the bottom of the stairs by then. Alfred stood up and Karl looped one long arm around his brother-in-law’s shoulder. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll figure something out before your parents put me back on guard duty.”

Alfred glanced up at him. “That could be next week, the way things are going. Unless I completely screw up at Trier.”

Bigitte pointed out that he was as prepared as he was getting, and he gave her a rueful smile.

Karl shrugged. “At any rate, they can’t put us on guard duty before you’re back from Trier and I’m back from Bergstaat.”

Bigitte poked them both. “You’ll both be careful while you’re away?”

“Careful of what? We’re only restocking the storage and checking the defences against sieges.”

Brynhild chuckled. “Careful of greedy servants hiding supplies and tumbling defences, at the least. It will be alright, though, I’m sure.”

Bigitte nudged her ribs. “You sure know how to put people at ease. Next, you’ll tell us not to stand under crumbling stairs.”

Johan latched onto Karl’s legs. “Oncle Karl, why can’t I go with you or Vatti? I’m big now. I’m 5.”

“I know, and you’re getting bigger every day, but you still have to stay here, you goose.”

Johan whined.

Giselle stuck her head into the hall. “Everyone out. The carts are almost loaded.”

The 6 came out into the bailey. Pot boys and manservants streamed past them laden with furniture and provisions for the road and tied them into the wooden carts standing between the low stone walls that fenced in the kitchen garden and the wooden stables.

Sunlight sparkled on the low-walled gardens and small craft huts. Even more sparkly was Margrave Manfred, a barrel-shaped red-haired man who had opted for a riding robe and leather shoes that were embroidered with silver. He sat on a white palfrey and leaned down to talk to his daughter, Sabina.

Sabina also sparkled in a green bliaut embroidered with gold at the cuffs. She allowed a strand of her strawberry-blonde hair to escape from her crisp white wimple, and she played with this strand as she leaned against her father’s horse and beamed around her. Her belly held up her dress in a bell that showcased her pregnancy. She must have worked quickly: she had only been married since January. Ulf, her balding husband, stared down at her anxiously from his own destrier.

Lady Margaret was helping Sir Oswald mount his horse. She was only beginning to show her pregnancy too, and her bliaut outlined the swell perfectly. It also matched her violet eyes, and the lace on the bodice matched her wheat-white hair. This was pregnancy number 5 for her, and her two sons, Rolland and Knut, stood at her feet, staring up at their stepfather as she pushed him steady and tucked his money bag into his belt. She took a step back and curtsied. “The Emperor Frederick will be impressed.”

Oswald wasn’t particularly impressive. His surcoat had mustard stains and his perpetually terrified expression creased his wrinkled brow. Giselle snorted and looked him over, hazel eyes sharp. Her frizzy, reddish-brown hair was well-tamed and hidden under a wimple that had started to gray from constant washing. “I hope you, Manfred, and Eric manage to be better than this. Frederick hasn’t exactly cared about what his son has done here in Augston in the past.”

She swivelled around to her own husband, who stood next to her with his arms crossed over his chest and a sour expression on his pointed features. His ears stuck out from his russet hair and strained in the sun. He didn’t bother looking at Giselle. “He’ll see what Ludovic did to Bergdorf and he’ll want his mint back. I should hope even you can figure that out.”

Giselle rolled her eyes.

Eric looked behind him and spotted Karl and Alfred. “Are you two ready to get my castles in order?”

They nodded gravely.

Eric saw Brynhild next to them. “Don’t forget to send Thietmar to Bergdorf as soon as possible. And you need to make sure my toll port castle is siege-ready.”

“Yes, Vatti. I’ll go there as soon as I can wrap up here.”

His gaze had already left her, and he strode off to his spotted destrier that a stable boy was just bringing out of the stables. Brynhild sighed through her nose. Bigitte wrapped her arm around Brynhild’s shoulder. “Don’t leave too soon. I’ll miss you.”

Brynhild leaned into her side and smiled, giving her a side-hug.

Alfred turned around. “You’ll be careful here?”

Bigitte grinned. “I’ll put padding on everything until we can jump off walls.”

He smiled and shook his head, nearly chuckling. “I’ll miss you.”

Bigitte squeezed his hand and kissed him. “I’ll miss you too.”

Manfred looked up. “Giselle, you’ll take care of Sabina, won’t you? After losing everyone at Bergdorf, I can’t lose her too.”

“Millions of women have survived being pregnant before her, Manfred. She’ll be fine.”

“But you’ll make sure she’s all right.” He peered at Giselle anxiously, the fact that he would be worried to distraction otherwise writ across her face. Giselle curtsied low and vowed that his daughter was in good hands.

He gave his daughter a last hug and straightened up. “Are we ready to go?”

The twins and Margaret’s boys protested, and it took another quarter of an hour to get the carts hitched up to all-rounder horses and rolling forward over the packed earth. They crept across the bailey, around the looming, dark watchtower called the bergfried, and down to the wooden gate. Augustus, the guard on duty, let the men out, and a stream of guards and male servants followed, their bags swinging on their backs and their voices rumbling on down to the town at the bottom of the slope.

Sabina, Brynhild, Bigitte, and Giselle stood at the gate and watched the procession wind down the hill and through the half-timbered huts. Sabina waved. “Bye Vatti!”

Giselle glowered at them, then turned to Brynhild. “I don’t know what you have to wrap up here, but there isn’t a hurry. I won’t be able to send guards with you for a day or two.”

Brynhild nodded her head and smiled beatifically up at her. Fortuna pessimi, more delays.

Sabina rested her hand on her belly. “Oh, I think this one is moving. He tires me out.”

Bigitte patted Sabina’s back. “Yeah, carting around the twins was pretty exhausting too. It’ll be over soon.”

“Not too soon, I hope. I have the most beautiful embroidery pattern for the swaddling, and I haven’t even started on it. Oh, you want to help?”

Bigitte made a face. “My needle work really begins and ends at mending. You’ll wind up with a blob of gray stitches if I help. Brynhild has a good hand for it.”

Brynhild said, “Oh, you’re not bad. It’s just a process.”

Giselle complained that there were months too early to worry about it, which Sabina took to mean that all three of them had volunteered to join her embroidery project. “It’s going to be so much fun. It’s so pretty. You’ll see.”

The two younger women smiled and followed Sabina back into the castle. Giselle shrugged and went to order the guards around some more. The three young women passed the bergfried, and the children ran to them, pleading with them to join their ball game. The game lasted until the main meal of the day was announced, and the children had to be herded to the dining room to eat.

It wasn’t until afterwards that they could all gather in the women’s quarters that overlooked the kitchen gardens from the second story. The women all sat on the big bed that took up most of the room. Wooden walls on the front and back held up curtains that they tied back to let in the late afternoon sunlight. The white-washed walls gleamed, and the window seat overflowed with mending projects and an assortment of books. Blue wooden shutters were opened so wide they touched the walls, letting a bird hop through the window and twitter at them.

Giselle spread her accounts over the fur-lined blanket and took a pen to the ledgers. “5 groschen for the charity account, a half groschen from the castle account for food- Bigitte, do you remember how much the mustard seeds were?”

Brynhild and Bigitte looked up from the hemming they were doing for Sabina. Bigitte said, “Another quarter groschen.”

Brynhild had brought up the most likely law books from the archives and had them spread over the edge of the swaddling so she could try to read it at the same time.

Margaret came in and plopped down on the settle by the window. The children followed her in with Hilda, the nurse maid, in tow, and Jutta climbed up on Bigitte’s lap with her little drop spindle. Bigitte got her started on the spinning, finished her edge of the swaddling, and then gleefully gave up sewing in favor of kicking around the ball with Johan.

Margaret took up her own sewing and shot a look at Brynhild. The younger woman had finished her edge and was now deeply engrossed in the law books. She gave her cousin a quick glance and returned to reading. Margaret grimaced. “What grimoire are you studying? Planning on turning someone into a toad?”

Brynhild waved her off. “Section 38.5 of the Heidrichen laws. Although I’m sure that sounds like toads to someone of your discerning ear.”

She glared at Brynhild and fluffed the shirt she was mending. Giselle looked up from her ledgers. “Don’t start, you two. Bigitte, we’re short on linen. You’ll have to purchase some for us from the market. You know what we need?”

Bigitte looked up from kicking the ball. “Uhm…the cheap kind?”

“There are no cheap kinds and, no, it needs to be fine-spun and as pale a beige you can find. We’ll need at least 8 lengths- Magdeburg lengths.”

“Oh. Er, yes, of course.”

“I’ll come with you, Mutti! I can take Sunny.”

“You’re too small for Sunny. I’ll have you ride with me-“

“You don’t need to drag that boy everywhere you go, Bigitte. He doesn’t need to learn linen and he’ll get dirty. Doesn’t he have his tutoring tomorrow morning?”

Bigitte flushed. “Oh. I forgot.”

“Ah, you’ll get used to this. Girl-child, don’t forget to give Bigitte your palfrey for the trip. You’ll need to clear out the linen closet for it to, if you can get that laundress on it.”

Sabina looked up. “Maybe we can all take a trip to the market later this week for thread. I’m running low on this lovely green. That’ll be fun.”

“We might if we have time,” everyone else replied. Bigitte laughed, and Giselle gently added that she hoped they could make time between the inventory and the letters.

Margaret’s sons kicked the ball away from Johan. He yelped and chased after them. Jutta shoved the handle of her drop spindle in her mouth and shot after the boys. The ball bounced off a wall and rolled toward the bed. Johan dove for it, but Rolland scooped it up and scrambled on the bed. He clambered onto Brynhild. She moved the book aside, and bemused, grabbed his shoulder as he tumbled into her.

Margaret jumped up and scowled at her. “You could get your own child to play with you know.”

Brynhild pivoted to her and raised her brow. “Not being a brood mare is hardly a reason to hate colts.”

Rolland rolled back. She lowered him to the floor, and Margaret pulled him to her. “I wouldn’t want him climbing over whatever devil’s brew you’re cooking up.”

Brynhild rolled her eyes.

Giselle hissed. “Margaret, calm down. She wasn’t doing anything.”

“Oh, that’s what you always say.”

“Because it’s true.”

Brynhild picked the book back up. “He’s fine now, Margaret, he’s not nearly as useless as some I could name.”

Her cousin glared at her and sat back down. The stray bird chirped into the sudden quiet.

Augustus poked his head in. “Burgravine Giselle? Strausser is here.”

Giselle frowned and packed away her ledgers. “Where-“

Augustus moved out of the way and two men followed. One was Strausser, whose name wasn’t actually Strausser. He was from the city of Strauss, and no one could remember his real name. He was scrawny and possessed a bulbous, pock-marked nose, in contrast to the well-built and smooth-faced guard that came in with him. This blonde with a receding hairline and grey eyes was a guard that Oswald had ordered to stay with Margaret at Wolfsburg while he was away.

Margaret smiled and stood. She went over to him and looked down at the scrap of parchment he was holding. “Conradin, hello, what are you doing up here? I’d have thought you would be entertaining yourself with the other guards. Is that from your family?”

Conradin folded it up and tucked it into his belt. He bowed. “Yes, just a friend saying hello. I just came up to do my duty in checking in on you. Are you comfortable, my lady?”

“Quite.”

Sabina called from the bed, “How sweet of you to check on her. I wish someone as nice as you would check on me.”

Margaret turned around and shook her head at Sabina. She returned to her work. Giselle shot her ward a glare and reminded her in an undertone, “Married woman, Sabina. Behave.”

Sabina batted her lashes at all present and feigned innocence, though only Gus and Conradin smiled back at her.

Strausser held up a folded-up piece of paper that had been sealed. “Adelberta sends her love and probably something about salt. I should get an extra ale ration for the bother I went through going through Serrick, by the way. My feet are killing me.”

Giselle sighed through her nose. “You’ll get your standard fee, Strausser. You are our courier, after all.”

Strausser made a face. “I don’t see why. I should quit.”

Giselle harrumphed, ready to argue, but Brynhild lifted a hand. “You do excellent work. We have nothing but admiration for your speed, and it’s so critical in times like these. In fact, I have something that particularly requires your speed today. You know how Vatti needs the best out of all of his men.”

Strausser flushed and looked at her. He glanced at his feet. “Well, I guess.”

“Would you be able to go to Meiser and tell Thietmar to meet Vatti? It’s urgent that he goes immediately. I’ll write the letter for you, though I’m sure you could remember it.”

Strausser leaned against the doorway and watched Brynhild borrow a scrap of paper from Giselle’s ledger. She hastily wrote instructions to the knight she had hired to perform military services for Eric. She pulled from under her bag another letter she had written to a monastery that had a few law books. It was on the way to her castle and she hoped they would send her the books when she asked. She folded both scraps of parchment and sealed them before giving them to Strausser. Giselle had taken the letter Strausser had come with by then and she read it while standing next to him.

She sighed and looked down at Brynhild as Strausser accepted the new letters. “Adelberta is sending more salt, but shipping it is going to cost us. I hope we’re not under siege anytime soon, or the meat is going to rot. Curse your father for not ordering supplies at a time like this. He’s a flaming idiot.”

Sabina squealed. “Oh, you’re always so mean to him. Give him a break. He is trying to rally an army.”

Giselle shot her ward a look of pure irritation and made a noise like a cat hacking up a hairball. She was not, however, going to answer directly. She waved all three men off, telling them they could carry on. Brynhild shrugged this off and beamed at Strausser. “Thank you so much.”

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