Eden’s End: Shadows Over Ivalstatt
by J. H. Zech
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Reiner, soaked and chilled to the bone, dragged the corpse to the shore. The harsh light of the full moon peeked out from the drifting clouds and revealed exactly what he didn’t want to see: the man’s pale face twisted in anguish and covered in purple swellings.
“Make haste, Reiner.” Cornelia towed the wheelbarrow closer. “If the townsfolk see us, we’ll hang.”
He hauled the body onto the wheelbarrow with a thud, then twisted his shirt to wring out some of the water. His wavy black hair was clinging to his face like seaweed. “Maybe we should stop doing this.”
“We must find the truth of this plague. I don’t want to drag your corpse out of the sea.” Cornelia turned and marched back towards town.
Phrasing aside, he appreciated her sentiment. Reiner sighed and followed her, pushing the heavy wheelbarrow. The clouds slid over the moon, and as the window of light shut, for a second, he thought the swelling on the man’s cheek wriggled. He blinked, and all was still. Shaking it off, Reiner moved on. All this paranoia was going to get to him before the plague did.
* * *
The next day, Reiner headed into the town square by himself. He followed the winding cobblestone road past dreary brown wooden houses, and the square came into sight, along with the well. As he approached, he spotted a face familiar to everyone in Ivalstatt.
“Good morning, Madam Brunnclast,” Reiner said.
The middle-aged woman in a shawl and green dress looked up at him. While she had a few wrinkles, her high nose and fierce gaze exuded power. “Good morning, Reiner.”
A girl of about twelve slipped behind Brunnclast.
“Mind your manners, Julia. Say good morning to Reiner.”
Brunnclast pushed the girl out from behind her. He felt sorry for her. Being so pale and thin, Julia probably didn’t go out much. It was natural for her to be a little shy.
She curtseyed, and her long black hair fell over her eyes. “Good morning, Reiner.”
At the edge of her neck, between strands of hair, Reiner spotted a dark patch. A bruise? “Good morning, Julia.”
Brunnclast turned the well’s crank. “I see you’re not with Cornelia today. May Lord Zero have mercy on her soul.”
He wanted to shout at her what she meant by that, but he held his tongue. With the power of her trade company, she could likely even pressure the town to revoke his legal license.
A bucket of water came up the well, and Brunnclast turned to hand it to Julia, who reached out for it, but then, eyeing Reiner, she held the bucket at her side. “Good day, Reiner.” She left together with Julia.
Something didn’t seem right, but he had other matters to worry about. Reiner drew up a bucket of water and carried it with him back towards the outskirts of town.
He arrived at a cot just outside Ivalstatt. Reiner opened the door and was greeted by a putrid odor.
Cornelia looked up from the corpse. “You’re back. Do you have the water?”
“Open the window, please. I can’t stand this smell.”
She pulled off her gloves and pushed open the shutters. “Aren’t you supposed to be a man? If a woman can stand the smell, surely you can.”
“What kind of woman gets all excited about a corpse?”
She got up in his face with her hands on her hips. “Me.”
There were hints of perfume mixed in with the rotting smell. She at least had made an effort for him. Reiner blushed. With those round blue eyes and narrow face, she was rather cute, the dirty apron with blood stains notwithstanding. He looked away and said, “Fine, you win. Anyway, I brought some water, but is it really safe to drink?”
“I tested the well for acidity, and it was fine. And if the disease were caused by organisms in the water, then Heinrich was the least likely to get sick. He was the tea connosieur of Ivalstatt. He never drank raw water. You don’t get a plague from boiled water.”
Hearing that name reminded Reiner of the unpleasant truth that this corpse they were now dissecting used to be a fellow town citizen. Of course, he wasn’t alone in his guilt. The town had thrown his body in the sea fearing contamination from the plague. He wondered if Cornelia was bothered by it too, but she was humming while cutting the chest open.
Her hands trembled. Even if she put on a brave face, of course she was bothered by cutting open someone she knew. Though the town didn’t appreciate her, Cornelia was doing this for the sake of Ivalstatt. At the very least, Reiner had to have her back. “I’ll make you some tea.”
“Thanks. I want fruit tea! None of that nasty black tea,” Cornelia said.
“And where do you think I’m going to get that? Black tea is what we have, and black tea is what you’ll get.”
“Maybe Heinrich had some at his house.”
“We’re already defiling his corpse. Let’s not do anything else to tempt the heavens. Besides, we need to be on our best behavior right now. Your trial’s tonight.”
Cornelia clicked her tongue. “Witchcraft? What do those idiots know?”
“It doesn’t matter. There are many of those idiots. Judge Grimm is fair, but even he’s not immune to political pressure. If you anger the townsfolk too much right now, he’ll be feeling the heat to hand down a heavy punishment.”
“I’ll take the black tea,” Cornelia grumbled.
Reiner lit a fire in the metal stove and put the kettle in it. The stove kept the room warm too. It was a shame the rest of town wouldn’t get to use Cornelia’s nifty invention. They had become convinced anything new, that Brunnclast’s trading company couldn’t profit from, was a gift from the devil. It was the 1700s already, and this remote town was still living in the 1500s.
One day, he would find a job in a big city; any government could use a lawyer, after all. He would take Cornelia with him. Surely the denizens of a city would be more open-minded. Ivalstatt didn’t deserve Cornelia’s genius.
After Cornelia finished the autopsy, they had some tea together, and Reiner spent the afternoon with her. It was a relatively pleasant afternoon for him, considering the dreary state of Ivalstatt.
Soon, night came. Grey clouds blindfolded the moon, and the hazy light drenched everything in shimmering shadows, so much so that it felt like the forest around the cot was flickering.
Reiner finished tying Cornelia’s soft blonde hair. She looked very pretty wearing a blue dress. She couldn’t show up to court in bedhead and chemical-soaked rags, after all. Truth wasn’t all that mattered in a trial, and he had made his preparations to ensure Cornelia’s innocence. He only hoped they would be enough. Wearing his finest trench coat and his black hair combed, Reiner was also ready to stand with her in court. “It’s time to go.”
Cornelia stood up. “I’ve got nothing to apologize for.”
He sighed but smiled. Even if it wasn’t always the smartest thing to do, she didn’t back down from things she believed in, and he liked that about her. “You don’t need to explicitly apologize, but at least behave a little apologetically so you get some sympathy.”
As they left the cot, Reiner thought he heard the corpse breathe, but a few leaves glided by him, and he realized it was just the wind.
* * *
They arrived at a small courthouse near the town square, and a good number of townsfolk were sitting in the gallery.
Mayor Neinhart was at the prosecution’s table, with Madam Brunnclast at his side. Neinhart gave one of his usual haughty glances as Reiner and Cornelia entered the courtroom. The tall and bulky mayor wore a formfitting brown suit, far fancier than anyone but Brunnclast could afford. His curved yellow mustache shined with polish, as if he needed to remind everyone who the mayor was.
Once they arrived at the defendant’s table, the bailiff announced, “All rise, for the honorable Judge Grimm.”
Everyone rose, and the judge walked in from the side and took a seat at the bench.
“You may be seated,” the bailiff said.
Everyone sat down. Judge Grimm faced the room from the elevated bench. The stern-looking old man in black robes wore round glasses and eyed everyone like a hawk.
“The order of business today is Ivalstatt v. Thromburg. Will the defendant please rise?”
Cornelia stood up.
“The charges against you are as follows: Using witchcraft to spread a plague and petty theft at Baumeister Bakery. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty to all charges,” Cornelia said.
They had come to court prepared for the first charge, but not the latter. Had Neinhart slipped it in at the last moment?
“You may be seated. Will the prosecution make their opening statement?” Judge Grimm said.
Cornelia sat down, and Neinhart rose.
“Miss Cornelia Thromburg has been a citizen of bad character, as all of Ivalstatt knows. Undermining authority, questioning all that we hold dear. She has gone too far this time, however, with her inducement of this plague. I will bring her crimes to light in this trial.”
What utter drivel. That he could say all that with a straight face was incredible. Neinhart had spoken in a clear and authoritative voice throughout, and he had a talent for talking if nothing else. And really, there was nothing else. The situation had come to this because of his incompetence in dealing with the plague, and now he needed a scapegoat.
“Will the defense make their opening statement?” Judge Grimm said.
Neinhart took a seat, and Reiner stood to speak. “Your honor, Cornelia Thromburg may seem strange, but she is human like anyone else, and a citizen of Ivalstatt. All that she has done, she has done to help find a cure for this plague. I will show in this trial that she has been misunderstood and is completely innocent.”
Judge Grimm banged his gavel and moved things to the first charge, the most serious, of witchcraft to spread the plague. Neinhart called upon Brunnclast as his witness.
“Did you see Ms. Thromburg at the well around when the plague started?” Neinhart asked.
“Yes,” Brunnclast answered.
“And you saw her put something strange in the well, correct?”
Reiner cried, “Objection! This is a leading question.” He wasn’t of much use in the sciences, but he’d be damned if he should lose in a battle of law.
“Do not lead the witnesses,” Judge Grimm said.
Neinhart and Brunnclast shot dirty looks at Reiner.
“What did you see her do at the well?” Neinhart asked.
“She threw an object in there. It must have been a charm from the devil. There was a string attached to something reddish. And when she pulled it out of the well, it had changed color to blue. She did something to the well with witchcraft and caused the plague in Ivalstatt.”
The townsfolk in the gallery whispered and glared at Cornelia. Judge Grimm banged his gavel. “Order.” His booming voice quieted everyone down in a hurry.
After Neinhart and Brunnclast had finished their theatrics, Grimm gave Reiner permission to cross-examine Brunnclast.
“Madam Brunnclast, you said you saw Cornelia engaged in witchcraft at the well, but how do you know what she did is witchcraft? What knowledge of witchcraft do you have?”
“You need no knowledge to understand what she did was clearly unnatural. What kind of object just changes colors like that? Only witchcraft could do that.”
“Have you ever seen blood?” Reiner asked.
“Goodness!” Brunnclast cried.
“Objection!” Neinhart stood up. “Your honor, this line of questioning is mere harassment.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Judge Grimm asked, staring down at Reiner with a menacing aura. Strangely, he was smiling a little. From what Reiner had seen during previous visits to the courthouse, Grimm enjoyed his job, but his face was naturally scary. Even knowing that, the gap between that smile and the dourness in the rest of his face gave Reiner the chills.
“I assure you that this is an important question,” Reiner said. He turned to Brunnclast. “Have you seen what happens to blood after it’s been outside the body for a bit?”
Brunnclast looked at Grimm, who nodded at her to answer.
“Right. But not only that. Initially, it’s a bright red, but it changes to a dark color. This is natural. No witchcraft involved. So, what makes you certain that something else that changes color is witchcraft?”
Brunnclast was sweating. “Um... That’s... well... It just is unnatural!”
“I have no more questions for Madam Brunnclast.”
“You may return to your seat,” Judge Grimm said.
Brunnclast dragged her feet back to the prosecution’s table with a sunken look on her face. Neinhart grit his teeth.
“May I add something?” Cornelia asked.
Judge Grimm raised an eyebrow. “Anything you say will go on the record. Are you certain?”
“Yes. It’s about the object that changed color. I did throw something in the well. But I didn’t poison it. Nor was there any witchcraft involved. After the first case of plague, I wondered whether the well was contaminated, so I wanted to check.”
“And you’re claiming this object you threw told you something about the water?” Judge Grimm asked.
“Indeed, it did,” Cornelia said. “The object was a piece of wood coated with a dye made from lichen. It changes colors depending on the properties of the water. If the water is acidic, it can corrode the well and contaminate the water with tiny minerals. But the wood turned blue, which meant it was basic, the opposite of acidic. In other words, I verified that at the very least, the plague was not caused by acidic water causing contamination.”
Everyone sat blank-faced. No one knew how to respond. Even he only understood about half of that.
“Er... I checked if tiny grains of rock poisoned the well naturally, and the water had no problems.” Cornelia smiled awkwardly and scratched her head.
“Right. Moving onto the second charge. Petty theft. Prosecution. You may call your witness,” Judge Grimm said, unfazed.
Neinhart called upon the baker Baumeister, and the baker described how Cornelia had rushed into his store, picked up a baguette, and left him with a tiny gear instead of money.
Reiner turned his head to Cornelia, who had turned red. There was no getting out of this one.
He stood up to give his response. “Ms. Thromburg didn’t intentionally steal the bread. She carries some of her parts and her coins in the same pouch, so she mixed them up. Ms. Thromburg regrets her mistake, and I ask for leniency considering it was an accident.”
Judge Grimm rolled his eyes.
After all the proceedings finished, Judge Grimm delivered his verdict.
“On the charge of witchcraft... Not guilty.”
Cornelia beamed bright enough to serve as the town’s lighthouse.
“On the charge of petty theft... Guilty. But in consideration of the fact that it was an honest mistake, the sentence is a week of street cleanup.” Judge Grimm banged his gavel.
“This is ridiculous! She’s a witch!” Brunnclast cried.
“She’s a witch!” some of the townsfolk followed.
Judge Grimm banged his gavel twice. “Silence. My verdict is final. This is a court of law. If you wish to convict someone of being a witch, bring some evidence.” He left the bench and walked out the side.
Reiner and Cornelia left the courthouse with angry townsfolk mobbing them from the sides, and Neinhart and Brunnclast giving them the death glare.
A commotion came from the crowd. Mr. Baumeister stumbled out from amongst the townsfolk and collapsed, vomiting black blood. Purple welts had appeared over his body. Everyone yelled and dispersed in a panic.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Zech