Amelinda and Jurian sat by the hearth in silence. He looked at her, searching for a glimpse of the fräulein he had courted and married twenty years ago. Tightly braided, blonde hair, fading to white, crowned her head. Dull, grey eyes glared at him. Her lips were tightly pursed. “If you believe that Perchta will come” he said, “you deceive yourself.”
“Are you sure this Frau Verena is coming?” she asked, ignoring his statement. Her brusque voice betrayed her impatience. “Perhaps she has deceived you.”
“No, she will come.” he said, rising from his chair and stoking the fire. Standing up, he brushed back the thinning hair from his forehead. “But this would have been easier had you let me go to her and bring the wool back with me instead of insisting she bring it for your inspection.”
Amelinda fixed a cold stare on her husband, a tall lanky man, slightly stooped from the constant burden of farm life. “I do not know of this Frau Verena and can ill afford another foolish decision at this time. Did you not say it was the manservant who came to you?”
“Yes, I was asking in the village where anyone could be found who had extra wool and Rolf, Frau Verena’s farmhand, approached me offering a trade. He said she is a Wohlgeboren noblewoman who lives to the north in the Shatten Forest.”
“An unusual place for a farm, I would think. And how strange that a noblewoman, even a Wohlgeboren of low station, would engage in barter with common folk.”
“Who can understand the follies and whims of the rich?” asked Jurian. “And what does it matter to you as long as she brings good wool? The sample Rolf showed me was of exceptional quality.”
“Who are you to judge wool? If you were deceived, once in hand it could not be returned. No, if she wants to trade, then she must come and I will determine its quality.”
Some time passed before they heard collar bells approaching. Jurian stood up and crossed to the window. “This must be Frau Verena’s sledge. I see Rolf at the reigns.“
“Go and help them,” she ordered. Jurian wrapped a long woolen shawl around his neck and stepped outside.
He waited at the gate while Rolf guided the horses up to the cottage. Even though he had just come from the comfort of his hearth, the bitter wind stung his ruddy cheeks. A passenger wrapped in a white cloak, face hidden by a large hood, sat beside Rolf. He pulled back on the reigns, stopping the sledge. “Welcome,” Jurian said, “and thank you for coming out on such a bitter day.” He could not see the passenger’s face. “Is this Frau . . .”
“Please,” said Rolf, cutting Jurian short, “a favor for an old man, fetch the wolle sack if you will while I help Frau Verena down. ” A little gnome of a man, he nimbly hopped out of the sledge.
“Yes, of course, go on to the door,” said Jurian, walking to the rear of the sledge. He peeled back the cover and slung the large burlap sack over his shoulder. He caught up with Frau Verena and Rolf as they reached the door. He pushed it open with his free hand. “Please, go inside Frau Verena, and make yourself welcome at my hearth.” He still had not seen her face.
Inside, Amelinda rose from her chair, waiting as the cloaked figure walked toward her. Rolf remained just inside the door. The figure held an ebony cane which tapped on the wooden floor with each step. “Welcome, Frau Verena. Jurian says you have brought wool to trade.”
“Indeed,” Frau Verena replied. She drew back the hood of her cloak, revealing a finely featured face, skin the color of alabaster. Her flowing grey hair was gathered at the nape of her slender neck. She motioned for Jurian, keeping her eyes, the color of rust and gold, fixed on Amelinda. He quickly came forward, placing the wolle sack on the floor at her feet.
“How many?” asked Amelinda.
“Twenty fleeces,” said Frau Verena, “washed and ready for the wheel.”
“Like I said, it’s fine wool.” Jurian pulled a handful from the sack. He offered it to his wife. She took it to the window, holding it up to the light that filtered through the dingy glass.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said, rubbing the wool between her bony fingers. She brought it close to her eyes. “Average at best,” she said, tossing it back to him. She turned a dour face toward Frau Verena. “Jurian says you are willing to trade the wool for five klafters of wood, to be cut and split before Christmas. I think you get more wood than we get wool in this trade.”
“For fine wool, as your husband has acknowledged, it is a fair trade. However, if it does not suit you, Jurian can put the wolle sack back in the sledge and we will be off.”
Amelinda scowled at the woman, then turned to Jurian, “It’s your back to be traded, take it to her.”
He hefted the sack on his shoulder. “Her name is Ute.”
Frau Verena touched his arm, holding him still. She focused her eyes on Amelinda. “Jurian told Rolf you had brought a child into this house to do the spinning.”
Amelinda stiffened. “Just an orphan from the waisenhaus at the Abby in Melk, brought here as a servant of this household. The nuns were not sad to see her go. Most likely a Jüdisch mongrel, one less mouth for them to feed.”
“I see, perhaps, a tainted soul in the eyes of the princes of Rome. No less tainted in your eyes by her misfortune of birth and circumstance. I shall see this child before I leave.”
“Why? Who I choose to bring to this house is no concern of yours.”
“That of course is true, but you shall not have the wool until I have seen the child.” She turned to Rolf. “Go turn the sledge around.”
Amelinda stared at the woman for a few moments, then said, “Go on, if it is your wish, but be quick about it, she has much to do and little time to do it. There will be a price to pay if her work is not finished.” She nodded to Jurian.
“This way,” he said, leading Frau Verena into a narrow hallway. At the end, past the regular rooms, he drew aside a rough curtain revealing a small alcove. He motioned for her to enter. Too far from the hearth for warmth to find its way there, he could see his breath as he followed her in. The cramped space was just big enough to hold a spinning wheel and a straw tick. He felt sorry for the young girl. During the summer, she had been able to venture outside the cottage to perform her chores. Then, she could at least see the sun. As winter descended, however, Amelinda confined her to this tiny room, spinning wool with only an oil lamp for light and heat. The only time she was allowed to leave it was to perform her kitchen chores.
A delicate girl with dark wavy hair looked up from her spinning as he set the wolle sack down. “More wool?” she asked.
“Yes, this is Frau Verena, Ute. She is a noblewoman and has asked to see you. The wool comes from her.“
“Jurian, I would have a word with Ute in private,” Frau Verena said.
“But Amelinda. . .” stammered Jurian, looking toward the curtain.
“I shall deal with her when the time comes. Now go,” said Frau Verena. Jurian hesitated. She pointed to the curtain, “Go!” and waited until he disappeared before she moved. She reached into a pocket in her cloak, retrieving a pair of leggings. She held them out. “These are for you. They will keep you nice and warm.” Ute paused, looking toward the curtain. “Don’t worry about her. These cost nothing; they are a gift.”
Smiling, Ute took the leggings, quickly placing them under the tick. “Thank you,” she said, turning her deep brown eyes toward the floor, “but I must get back to my work. If I am not finished when Perchta comes, the mistress says I will be punished.”
“Ah,” she paused looking into Ute’s eyes. “Perchta. What do you know of Perchta?”
“Amelinda says she is coming and if my spinning is not done when she arrives then she will be angry and I will be punished. I think maybe she is a noblewoman. Do you know her?”
“A noblewoman, perhaps. And yet there also is the Perchta of the Alpine legends. But, how would you know of those legends? The nuns at the waisenhaus surely would never speak of that Perchta. Not Christian enough to suit their purposes I would think. Shall I tell you?”
“Yes,” said Ute.
“The legends say that during midwinter, Perchta comes in her sledge made of ice, drawn by four white wolves. She wears a crimson cloak and carries an oak branch. It is said she rewards with wealth and abundance those who have behaved well and worked hard.”
Ute frowned, thinking of the wolle sack in front of her. “What becomes of those who don’t get their work done?”
“That is a different matter altogether. Perchta deals harshly with the idle and greedy.” Frau Verena lifted Ute’s chin with gentle fingers and looked into her eyes. “But after all, it is but a legend. For you, Perchta will most likely be a noblewoman. Have faith my little Ute, things will be better. I have one more gift for you before I take leave,” she said, reaching into the pocket of her cloak. She pulled out a small parcel wrapped in parchment. It was tied with a bit of yarn. She handed it to Ute. “Open it.”
Ute placed it in her lap and untied the yarn, peeling back the paper. A broad smile appeared on her lips. Inside was a small poppy seed stollen. “Oh, thank you Frau,” whispered Ute. She carefully wrapped it back up and retied the yarn. “I shall save it for later, once my work is finished.”
“Good mein kind. Now, I am afraid I must go.”
“Auf Wiedersehen Frau.”
Jurian was waiting just outside the curtain when Frau Verena came out. He looked at her, but she gave no indication of what had transpired between she and Ute. She followed Jurian back down the hall and into the main room of the cottage. She stopped in front of Amelinda. “Ute says you await Perchta.”
“What of it? This house has worked hard, and I am well overdue for my reward,” said Amelinda.
“Perhaps you confuse Perchta with Sinterklaas, the bearded buffoon, handing out gifts from a sack. Not so for Perchta who, the legends say, spins the fates of human beings.” Turning away, Frau Verena pulled up the hood of her cloak and left.
It was suppertime of the second day since Frau Verena’s visit. Ute set the table, laying out the sausage and cabbage soup, then returned to the spinning room. Earlier, Amelinda had ordered her to set out samples of the yarn by the hearth, believing Perchta would now come that the spinning had been completed. Jurian came in with wood for the fire. He laid a log on the embers and sat down at the table with Amelinda. “Ute has finished spinning the wool that Frau Verena brought. Perhaps she could come and sit with us to take her supper.”
“You are a fool to treat a foundling from the waisenhaus, and Jüdisch besides, as if she were your own flesh and blood,” said Amelinda. Her brow furrowed as it always did when she was angry.
“But surely she’s deserving of some small kindness. She’s but a child and I had hoped that since we have no children she might. . .”
“Might what?” Amelinda snapped. “She is a servant, bought and paid for. She can sup on leftovers while she washes the dishes. If you desire to eat with her, take your food to the spinning room.” She turned her face away from Jurian, signaling the conversation was over.
“As you would have it!” said Jurian. He went to the cupboard and retrieved another plate. “You believe that if you have worked us hard enough, Perchta will come and bestow gifts or good luck upon you. A cache of silver coins perhaps? But you do not see that in the process you have enslaved poor Ute and forsaken me. What will your Perchta think of that?”
“It is you that have forsaken me by resisting my efforts. As for the child, she is no worse off than being a slave to the nuns in the waisenhaus. I have been poor my entire life. Why can’t I live in a fine house with servants? Why must I dig in the earth every day to eat? Why should I be poor? I have no reason to apologize for my actions.”
“There is nothing wrong with working hard to improve one’s status. But to gain it at the expense of others? To fail to recognize the blessings you already have and could have can only lead to woe.” Stuffing some utensils in his pocket, he stacked sausage on the plates, dipped some cabbage soup in the bowl and set off down the hall.
Amelinda finished her supper. She waited for Jurian to return. As the evening wore on, the fire burned down into a small mound of coals covered in grey ash, and her mind drifted, imagining the wealth that would be hers when Perchta came.
Amelinda roused from her dreams to find Jurian had not returned to stoke the fire and it was in danger of dying. Perturbed, she rose from her chair to get some wood. She had just taken a small branch from the kindling box when, she heard the soft crunch of sledge runners in the snow followed by the panting of large animals. As she moved to the window to look, there was a sharp rap at the door.
Before she could react, the door burst open. Gusting, bitter night air swirled snow around the room. Amelinda shivered. A woman, cloaked in crimson, entered. Her face was pale as frost. Raven hair floated about her shoulders in the midwinter’s wind. Her fierce eyes, the color of rust and gold, fixed on Amelinda. “I am Perchta and have come for reckoning.” She struck the floor with her ebony staff. Immediately, The door behind her closed and the swirling snow fell still. The staff, long and straight, twisted into a gnarled oak branch.
Amelinda studied the woman. There was something familiar in her fine, chiseled features. She gazed into the woman’s fierce eyes. “I know you!” cried Amelinda. “Frau Verena? This can not be, but I fear it is. What manner of deception is this?” She looked toward the hall, ready to call for Jurian. Perchta clenched her free hand and Amelinda immediately felt fingers gently tighten around her throat.
“Leave them be. ‘Tis you and I that have accounts to settle. And as for Frau Verena, I take whatever form suits my purpose, raven, grey haired, noblewoman, or she who stands before you. Perhaps it is you who seeks to deceive.”
“Forgive me, Perchta. I was startled and spoke foolishly. I seek not to deceive you,” Amelinda pleaded. “See here,’ she said pointing toward the yarn that Ute had set by the hearth. “I have laid out these samples of the handiwork of this house so that you will recognize the work that has been performed in your honor.”
Perchta looked toward the hearth. “The bounty of this house has been wrought as a result of your tyranny and not of your industry.”
“Fine work, nonetheless, I think you would agree,” said Amelinda. “And would it have been accomplished had I not made it so?”
“Indeed, and as such, you believe it demands a fitting reward?”
“Then you shall have it.”
“Praise your kindness, Perchta,” said Amelinda, smiling. “And could you find it in your grace to provide some small reward for Jurian and the girl? I think it fitting they should have some small token.”
“But do you not think they will see your reward as their reward?”
“Yes, of course. You are indeed wise.”
“Then it is settled. Come with me,” said Perchta. She waved her hand, opening the door. Amelinda followed her into the bitter night. A great sledge made of ice rested before the cottage. Four white wolves, big as draft horses, waited in the traces. They snuffled as Amelinda approached. Behind the sledge, a rabble of specters stretched into the darkness.
Perchta climbed into the sledge. She took the reigns, looking at Amelinda. Using the oak branch, she pointed to the rabble. “They are my Perchten,” she said, “the spirits and souls whose reward is to follow me ever in the midwinter night, as so shall you.” Amelinda started to protest, but her mouth filled with twigs. Perchta raised her staff. It immediately transformed into a fiery whip which she cracked over the heads of her wolves. They bolted and the sledge lunged forward into the darkness. Amelinda watched as the specters followed, churning along like so many dead leaves in a storm. As the last one passed, Amelinda was drawn in behind and disappeared into the night.
In the morning, Jurian awoke to find a fragment of a twisted oak branch on the hearth. A single set of footprints, leading from the door, disappeared in the freshly fallen snow. In the years to come, he would raise and love Ute as his own daughter, but search as he might, he never found any trace of Amelinda.
By Paul Stansbury
Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections and a novelette: Little Green Men? His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Now retired, he lives in Danville, Kentucky.