Two days later, Hans and his crew found a hostel just outside Ingolstadt at the head of the road to Augsburg. He planned to travel upriver and let the river guide them to well past Ulm, where he hoped to pick up a road to Konstanz on the lake. He imagined there would be an easy road from Konstanz to Zurich, but now he felt sure they were being followed. Once the witch Ursula got over her fright and gathered enough men at arms to feel safe, and that might be a lot, he expected her to come after them. So now, he considered the map he once saw. They could go to Augsburg, to Memmingen, and on the salt road to Lindau. From there, they need only go around the lake to St. Galen and on to Zurich.
Hans watched Bushwacker and the soldiers move the wagon into the barn. “Your hound and cat will have to stay in the barn with the other animals,” the man said. “No animals in the house. The lady is strict about that.”
“Pater?” Hans called from the porch steps. Pater came out with Bushwacker and Kurt. He came close to speak to Hans, but he did not whisper because there did not appear to be anyone around.
“You know I don’t like leaving the money in the wagon but bringing it into the common room would be worse. You might as well put a sign on the chest saying here is all my money. Help yourself.”
Kurt snickered, but when Hans looked at him, he said, “Oh. Yes. The others will be along in a minute.”
Hans nodded. “Alderman has already taken the women inside. Let’s see if the lady of the house has something worth eating.” Hans looked back once and saw Sergeant Adolph and Ralph close the barn door. No telling where Herman had got to.
“There is only an old rooster in the barn, up in the rafters,” Bushwacker said. “I hope he is pouting because they cooked all the chickens. I’m starved.”
As Hans and his crew went inside, a man stepped from the side of the porch where no one saw him. His eyes went wide, no doubt thinking about all that money.
Inside, Hans got stopped by Alderman. “Don’t eat the bread,” the elf said. “The rye is full of Ergot, a fungus that infects rye seeds. In humans it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, gangrene, and death. Mostly, it affects the mind. Paranoia, delirium, and seeing things like strange and terrible visions.”
“What about Bushwacker?” Pater pointed. Somehow, the dwarf got ahead of them. He already sat at the table and had a plate full of rye and pumpernickel bread, and chicken to make sandwiches.
Alderman laughed. “It won’t hurt him. He is a dwarf. I think there is nothing a dwarf will not eat. In fact, as I understand it, half of a dwarf’s life is spent eating and the other half is spent sleeping.” He laughed and the others laughed a little with him, but Bushwacker heard and turned with his mean face toward the group.
“I’m insulted. We work hard when there is work to do.” he said. He looked at Hans and decided not to follow through with his thoughts. Then, after a moment, his expression changed to a smile. “Lor…” he continued. “But that would be a good life.”
Everyone genuinely laughed, and then stayed away from the bread, even when Mister Muller, the house steward said the lady of the house would be disappointed. “We have had some cold and wet years which is good for the grain. This last year, July was very wet, and the autumn got an early frost. There were plenty of big, black grains in the bread. I heard it makes the best bread.”
“The Ergot,” Alderman said. “The fungus makes the grain enlarged and turns it black.”
“No thank you,” Heidi interjected. “Bread is bad for the waistline.” She kept Helga away from it.
“The ones who came before you and ate earlier had plenty of the good bread of the house. The lady of the house will be disappointed if you don’t have some.”
“Thank you,” Hans said. “But we are all on a restricted diet, out of deference to the ladies.”
The steward harumphed and left the room since he failed to entice them with the bread. Alderman whispered a thought. “I think he knows what is in the bread.” Hans nodded. He thought that as well but wondered why the man wanted to poison his guests.
An hour later, after it got good and dark, Misters Wagner, Schulz, and Becker met outside. “Money,” Mister Wagner said. He pointed to the barn and promptly threw up.
“Becker,” Mister Schulz said. “You have to… Probably a bag… You.”
“I can’t,” Becker said. “It is dark and scary, and the moon looks green, like a strange face staring down at me. By myself?”
Mister Schulz began to shake, but Mister Wagner finished vomiting for the moment. “You have to do it,” Mister Wagner said, moaned, and held his stomach. Becker shook his head and began to sweat. “You can do it.”
Becker was afraid of the dark, but his friends appeared to be ogres in disguise. He began to worry that they might eat him if he did not do what they said.
“You can… You… Money,” Mister Schulz said, and the two men pushed Becker to the barn door. Then Mister Schulz began to shake and fell to the ground. Mister Wagner handed Becker a candle stub before he ran to the outhouse.
Mister Becker wanted nothing to do with the darkness, but the others could not do it and he tried to focus on the money. He went in. The door squeaked. He saw the cat’s eyes like glowing embers in the dark. He imagined a fireplace and stuck out his candle to light it in the embers. The cat screeched and scratched Becker across the face. The dog woke up and bit the man in the leg. The mule kicked the man in the butt, so he stumbled across the room and banged into the wall. And the rooster in the rafters woke and made a horrible racket.
Becker found the door and found Schulz and Wagner outside. He shouted. “There is a witch. She scratched me with her claws.” He showed them his face. “And a man who stabbed me in the leg before the giant, monster in the dark nearly broke my back with his club. And all the while, the judge up above yelled Hang him. Hang him.” The picture Becker painted seemed vivid enough. All three men ran off screaming into the forest.
The following morning, the watch from Ingolstadt came out and asked plenty of questions. The lady of the house could hardly move from her bed. Her husband was missing, and so was Mister Muller. The lady did pull herself together enough to confess Mister Muller brought some free rye flour out of which she made her bread.
“Mister Muller must have put the poison in the bread,” Hans said.
“We did not eat the bread,” Heidi said her line. “It is bad for the waistline.”
“We did not eat the bread either, out of deference to the ladies.”
The watch officer did not exactly believe them, but it became more believable when they found Mister Wagner in the woods. He was in no condition to be touched with other than perhaps by a few buckets of water, having soiled himself and apparently rolled in it. And he yelled. “I’ll get the law. They tried to poison me. I’ll have this place shut down.” That much was clear. The rest was garbled or unrepeatable.
They found Mister Schulz dead. They found Mister Becker hiding up a tree yelling at them to not let the wolves get him. No one found any wolves.
No one stopped them when they collected their wagon, mule, dog, cat, and three horses and left that place, and Pater asked, “So where do you think Mister Muller went?”
“Off to try his free flour somewhere else,” Heidi guessed.
“I wonder what he is honestly up to,” Hans said.
“Just what I was wondering,” Alderman agreed.