Freiherr Johannes Pähler vor dem Holte stood and admired his ancestral lands. Beside him stood the taciturn young Franciscan, Brother Thomas, who had taken up residence in the Baronial home and was said to be planning to build a Franciscan Monastery. Vor dem Holte had recently returned from the Northern Crusade in Samerland following the death of his father, Freiherr Meinhard, at the hands of the Hanse. Freiherr Meinhard had been accused by the Hanse of banditry and murder of merchants. The Hanse armies had blockaded him in his castle and when he refused to surrender had stormed it and hung the old Baron like a common criminal. They had also requested his lands be forfeited to the dead merchants’ families. Fortunately, the Emperor had agreed with the younger Vor dem Holte and the lands were retained by the family. He now hated the Hanse with a passion and resolved to destroy those upstart merchants.
Vor dem Holte had joined the Teutonic Order following the disastrous campaign of Komtur Heinrich Stango on the Vistula Lagoon which had left the pagan Sambians in control of the area once again. The new Grand Master, Poppo von Osterman, had petitioned Gregory IX and the subsequent Golden Bull of Rieti had legitimised the new Crusade.
Across northern Germany, Denmark and Sweden, young nobles had heeded the call and among them was Juncker Johannes Pähler vor dem Holte. He made a name for himself joining with the Livonian Sword Brothers in pacifying the Curonian Lagoon area They had founded the new city of Memel on the ruins of the city the Sword Brothers had burnt and had then massacred the local population. This action stopped the Samogtians supporting their neighbours, the Sambians, and allowed the Order to pacify and convert any remaining living pagans. Vor dem Holte thought it was a good outcome.
Vor dem Holte distinguished himself in the campaign, personally sending many pagan souls to hell just as he believed they deserved and making himself richer in the process. His reward, for his outstanding zeal, was to be sent on an embassy to Novgorod Veliky. It was there that Vor dem Holte first encountered the power of the Hanse and the insidious nature of their philosophy. He did not think it was proper or correct that these merchants were not ruled by nobles or princes. At the Kontor of Novgorod they had treated him as an equal and, unbelievably, they had even infected the people of Novgorod, who now had a Posadnik elected by the local assembly, the Veche. Thankfully the city was also jointly ruled by the Archbishop of Novgorod, who although of Orthodox persuasion, was a noble, and he could talk freely with him rather than the upstart commoners.
Vor dem Holte failed in his mission to get military support from Novgorod but did not suffer any consequences from his superiors. It did not go equally well for the Posadnik and Veche of Novgorod. When Alexander Nevsky heard about the discussions, and in fear of Berke Kahn’s negative and possibly for him, fatal response, he punished the Posadnik and the leading members of the Veche by chopping off their noses and adding a third more ermine pelts to the tribute due to the Grand Duke of Vladimir. Berke Kahn was indeed pleased with the extra ermine furs.
But all this was in the past and the Juncker had come back to be the Freiherr. His immediate plans were to revenge his father. He looked at the harvested fields with some satisfaction until he noticed at each corner of the field that stalks of rye had been tied together and left as some form of votary or shrine. He brought his discovery to the attention of the Franciscan who scowled in response and launched into a monologue about someone called Burchard of Worms who had warned all good Christians against witchcraft in his Canon Episcopi. And this, said Thomas, was Witchcraft.
Vor dem Holte began to get a sore head and regretted his decision to involve the Friar. It was always this way when priests started going on about something or other. They could never be satisfied with how things are. They needed to find something to disagree with and then, to preach about it for longer than he cared to listen. He thought of maybe dismissing the Franciscan but he owed him a debt of gratitude for solving a problem that would certainly have led to a compromising situation both with his superiors and with a certain Posadnik. He had to act to stop this incessant noise in his head. Vor dem Holte shouted to one of his Sergeants, who were both keeping a safe distance from the noble and the friar and trying to amuse themselves by standing on homeless field mice, to bring him the local priest.
Father Mathias was brought, have dragged, half stumbling in front of the Freiherr and the Friar. He was an older man, no doubt one of the peasants who had been ordained by his father to save money and keep the populace happy. It was unlikely that he could read Latin and probably mumbled the prayers thought Vor dem Holte.
Vor dem Holte demanded to know the significance of the tied rye stalks and who had done it. The old priest tried to explain that it was a harmless country practice and was just a custom the villagers indulged in. As their priest, he ignored such minor sins, as he believed, did God. The Franciscan could take no more. He ranted and raved, spittle flying from his mouth as he screamed about pagans and witchcraft. The old priest flinched and whimpered as the two Sergeants held him upright.
Vor dem Holte had had enough of the Priest, who was whimpering and the Friar who was raving. Beat him he said. He walked away as the sergeants beat the old man with their spear butts.
The next day, Vor dem Holte sat bored in his hall drinking watered wine. His temper had not improved since yesterday. He had intended to go hunting but the sudden storm had put paid to that. He tried to engage one of the sergeants in a game of dice but the man, terrified of winning, had made sure he lost each game. Vor dem Holte was about to have the man beaten to toughen him up but decided it might not be good for morale in general. A better idea was that he would use the time to get his new set of clothes fitted properly, the shirt was not right and the hose was too loose. He called for his tailor but was interrupted by one of the guards saying that there was a man wishing to speak with him.
Vor dem Holte looked at the man approaching him. He was small and oddly wrinkled. Remarkably, he was not wet from the increasingly heavy rain that was beating on the shutters. The wrinkled man swept his hat off and proceeded to advise Vor dem Holte that, for his own safety, he must replace the rye stalks at the corner of the fields. It was Vor dem Holte's turn to rage and rant about commoners coming to tell him what he should do and attempting to bully him. He demanded to know who the man was and threatened to have him evicted from his no-doubt festering hovel on the estate. The wrinkled man just smiled and said his name was Eckhart, sometimes called the faithful, and that he was a servant of someone he referred to as Frau Holda who sometimes was also known as Percht mit der eisen Nase. He therefore did not need evicting if the Freiherr should please, but he must with utmost haste replace the rye stalks. Vor dem Holte replied he knew no one called Frau Holda and even if he did he would not be menaced in his own home. He took a cudgel from the wall and began beating Eckhart. When he had vented his anger and was somewhat calmed, he ordered the sergeants to chain Eckhart in the cellar to await execution tomorrow. And if they found this Frau Holda, chain her up too.
Later that night the storm intensified. The old Priest, Father Mathias stood in the door of his small house watching the clouds race across the sky, wincing slightly from the bruises on his body. He could hear the howl of hounds and knew the Hunt was abroad. Fearful that he would be caught up in their wake, he turned to go inside and bolt the door, as most of his sensible parishioners had done. The movement in the sky caught his eye and he could not help himself looking at the Hunt which was outlined against the full moon. To his horror he saw two figures followed the Hunt, one a tall man and another wearing the robes of a friar. He crossed himself and bolted the door.
In the morning the sergeants were surprised that Eckhart had escaped his chains. Fearful, they went to tell their Lord but he could not be found either. His bed had not been slept in. Thankfully that dreadful Franciscan had disappeared too.