One Witch at a Time
The boy hurried along the road as quickly as he could manage while tugging the hand of a squirmy girl.
“Slow down, Rudi!” the girl called.
But Rudi would not slow down. Why had he ever agreed to bring Susanna Louisa in the first place? Here he was, racing home to intercept a thief, who at this very moment might be raiding the farm. Taking his family’s most prized possession. All because of a foolish bargain made by a nine-year-old girl.
“Please, Rudi! I’m hot! I’m thirsty! I’m tired!”
Rudi cursed under his breath. Then, over his shoulder: “You got us into this trouble, Susanna. Now you’ll come with me to make it right.” And he pulled her along without breaking pace.
• • •
The day had started so well.
It had been a perfect spring morning, promising to be bright and warm. Dominating the ring of mountains that sheltered the village of Brixen, the black peak of the Berg reached into the cloudless sky like a knife poised to strike a crystal goblet.
Rudi Bauer had set out early, planning to arrive in Klausen before midmorning. It was the first market day of the year, and now that he was thirteen, Rudi would be venturing there on his own for the first time.
Before starting his journey, Rudi stopped at the fountain in the town square to fill his water skin. And, in a stroke of unlucky timing, there was Susanna Louisa. Before he knew it he had a companion, and they were trooping up the road together.
“I’ve never been to the spring market. I’ve never even been to Klausen. Thank you for letting me come, Rudi.”
He glanced at her sidelong. Somehow he couldn’t tell her, “Your mother paid me half a penny to take you,” so instead he mumbled, “You’re welcome.” He gave one last halfhearted try. “Are you sure you want to come?”
“Oh, yes, Rudi. I want to see the market. Do you suppose there will be lambs? I’d love to see the lambs.”
“The lambs in Klausen are no different from the lambs in Brixen.”
“How do I know that, unless I see for myself? Besides, Mama says I should make myself useful. I’m going to sell these.” She held out a huge basket. “Hildy laid them. She’s my very own hen, so I’m allowed to sell her eggs.”
After a moment’s searching through a basketful of straw, Rudi finally found, at the very bottom, two brown eggs. They shimmered like gold in the dewy morning light.
He sighed. “If you want to be useful, why not stay home and help your mama with the new baby?”
Susanna Louisa hopped along, sending her basket swinging dangerously. “That won’t do. Mama says I’m never so useful as when I’m outside in the fresh air. What are you taking to sell, Rudi?”
“Dairy stuff,” he said, adjusting the pack on his back. “Cheeses. Butter.” Even a dairyman’s son could hardly make three meals a day of cheese and butter. Rudi was hoping to trade for cured meat, or grain, or both. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat. “I’m allowed to sell a cow, if I can strike a good bargain.”
Susanna stopped and looked around. “What cow?”
Rudi bit back a sharp remark. “The buyer will come back to the farm to get a cow. If I can strike a good bargain.”
“But don’t you need your cows, Rudi? Mama said you lost two cows already this winter, and now you have only three. Mama says three cows don’t make a dairy.”
“We’re fine,” Rudi said, perhaps a little too quickly. “Anyway, that’s why I’m going to market today instead of Papa. Rosie will be calving any day now, and he needs to attend to her. So, you see? We’re fine.” Then, as if to betray his lie, Rudi’s empty stomach rumbled so loudly he was sure it echoed off the Berg.
They finally arrived at the market on the outskirts of Klausen, and quickly became separated in the jostle of the crowd. Rudi guessed that Susanna would turn up at the nearest sheep pen, but he grumbled at himself. He’d been paid half a penny to watch her, after all, and already he’d lost sight of her.
He made his way through the busy marketplace, pushing past stalls displaying cabbages and rabbit skins and slabs of cured meat. Worry soon gave way to hunger, and so he traded a precious wedge of cheese for a slice of fried bacon and a roll of bread. Before long his stomach quieted, and he began to enjoy himself.
Rudi loved the Klausen market. For one rare day he was surrounded by people he didn’t know. Most of them had traveled no more than a day’s walk, and so they were practically his neighbors. But in this small
corner of the world, even the next village seemed a foreign land. Rudi felt proud to be here on his own. He would make such a smart trade that Papa would send him every market day. And then he would be not simply Rudi Bauer, the dairyman’s son. He would be Rudi Bauer, world traveler and shrewd trader.
But a world traveler probably ought not lose track of his companion, no matter how flighty she was. Rudi tucked away his last bit of bread and bacon for Susanna and continued his search for her.
“And don’t come back, you scruffy waif!” called a voice. It belonged to a woman in the greengrocer’s stall, who was shaking a bunch of spring onions. “I’ll have no beggars or charlatans here!”
With an uneasy feeling, Rudi let his gaze follow the direction the onions were pointing. A girl hurried away between the stalls, but it was not Susanna Louisa. In fact, though he could not see her face, Rudi knew instantly that this girl was not from Brixen or any of the neighboring villages. Instead of the simple boiled wool that was the custom in the Brixen Valley, her long coat was made of stitched shearling and trimmed with fur. Despite the warm day, mittens dangled from strings at the ends of her sleeves. And instead of the braids that the local girls wore, her hair fell loose around her shoulders. Hair the color of a shiny copper florin.
Rudi followed the girl.
Now she approached the butcher’s stall, holding out a hand and uttering words that Rudi could not hear. The butcher, a large man in a crisp white apron, shook a thick finger at her in reply. She drew her coat around herself and turned away.
Rudi’s curiosity melted into a pang of sympathy. He felt out of place himself here in Klausen, among so many people he didn’t know. And he was only an hour’s walk from home. How lonely must this foreign girl feel, especially being met with such scorn?
Rudi stepped forward.
“P-pardon me . . . ,” he stammered, feeling his face grow warm. “Is there something I can do? I mean, if you’re hungry . . .” He reached into his pocket for the bread and bacon he’d been saving for Susanna.
“Hungry?” said the girl, as if surprised by Rudi’s words, or perhaps it was his abrupt introduction. “You think I was begging, yes? Not begging. I can offer goods in trade.” She glanced around her, as if looking for someone, and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “It doesn’t look like much, but it’s more than it seems.”
Rudi guessed that she was about thirteen, like himself. How far had she traveled? Her boots were caked with mud, and so was the hem of her shearling coat. Her face was sunburned, and her bright hair was tangled into knots. Her brown eyes . . .
. . . were fixed on him, waiting for an answer. “If you please? I am hungry, I’ll confess. But I’m not begging, mind you. I have goods to trade.”
He cleared his throat and tried to pretend his face was not burning. “I’m Rudolf Augustin Bauer, from the dairy in Brixen. I have the finest cheeses for sale or trade.”
The girl curtsied with stiff politeness but did not introduce herself, as Rudi had hoped she would. “You are quite kind. I can pay you. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s more than it seems.” The girl held out her hand, revealing precisely what she meant to pay.
Rudi’s mouth fell open at the sight. He stared, and then he sputtered. “Sorry,” he blurted. “There’s been a . . . misunderstanding.” He pushed the bread and bacon into the girl’s hand and hurried off.
No wonder the greengrocer and butcher had been insulted. Rudi might be the son of a dairy farmer from a tiny village in the mountains, but he was no rube. So she was hungry. He was hungry too, but fair was fair. He could not afford to trade his wares for nothing, not even to a lost-looking foreign girl with exquisite red hair and liquid brown eyes. Rudi stalked through the marketplace, muttering to himself.
After a few minutes’ wandering and muttering, Rudi came upon a sheep pen, and there was Susanna Louisa.
“Rudi!” she cried, bouncing up to him. “I have something to tell you!”
He noticed that her basket was empty. “You sold your eggs?”
“No, I dropped them. But something else! I sold your cow for you, and now you’ll never be hungry again!” She held out her hand, and Rudi saw that she was holding exactly what the foreign girl had offered him only a few minutes before.
Rudi felt the blood drain from his face. “You sold one of our cows for that?”
She nodded, looking very pleased. “I told her she could come to your farm this very day. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“No! It’s not! Our cows are not yours to sell! How could you be so stupid? How could you trade an entire cow for that?” Rudi jabbed a finger at her open hand. “For a . . . a handful of beans?”
Susanna’s smile faded. She regarded the pile of dried beans in her hand. Then she lifted her chin in indignation. “Rudi. I am not stupid. I would not trade a beautiful cow for a bunch of plain old beans. But these are not plain old beans. These . . .” She held them up to his nose. “These are magic beans.”