An excerpt from my latest "drawer baby."
As Christoph prepared for his journey to Vienna, Cat was inspired to ask to come. She didn't like the idea of him traveling with the wildly enamoured Josefa, who was, in fact, being sent into service at the stone mason’s home.
She didn't like the idea of him being easily able to visit the woman who'd written the cryptic letter. There was also the anticipated discomfort of being left alone on Heldenberg. These things loomed larger than any desire to see the great capital city.
However, the suspicion-evoking reply she was given was that he had too much business to attend to and that she'd be better right where she was.
"Besides," he'd added unkindly, "as soon as you opened your mouth in front of my Viennese friends, I'd be teased about having become a nursemaid, not a husband."
"You will be alone with Josefa and then you will visit Frau Ermler." The words came blurting out. "And, even if you are telling me the truth about them, there is‑‑" and here she almost blurted out "Konstanze", but managed to change it to "those other Viennese women of yours."
" Cat! I warn you; I'm nearly dead from this unhealthy abstinence, but I shall keep my promise to you, although there are times‑‑like now‑‑when I wonder why I bother."
"Well, go on then! Tell all the heifers I say they can have you. Start with Josefa. I don't care! Why should I?"
"Your mouth, little girl! Get out of here before I take you over my knee. I'm done talking. Scat! Scat!" Scowling and looking purposeful, he strode towards her, raising a hand as if she were Furst and he intended to cuff her for the high crime of scratching the chairs.
Cat took off, beating a hasty retreat to the stables. Star, as always, welcomed with a soft whicker and the moist touch of her velvet nose.
Burying her face against the warm smell of the sorrel's neck, Cat cried a little. For the thousandth time she asked herself: why did Wili die? Her sister would have unreservedly loved this man--this wicked man--who was probably going to Vienna to see a whole crew of mistresses…
For comfort, Cat did what she always did. She saddled up and rode into the forest, cantering along a trail that led up the mountain. As she rode ever higher, the trees shrank and shriveled, as if they'd come under an evil spell. Soon, she knew, they'd disappear, and she would be on the rock-strewn high meadows. She would ride straight across to the western cattle path. Then, in waning light, she'd follow that back down to the manor.
After a glorious gallop in the cold bright sun, Cat felt better, although still melancholy.
Was it, after all, entirely reasonable to expect a man to remain faithful to a wife who wasn't really a wife? I know exactly what Papa would say!
She felt a little hungry, for it was close to supper, but she was unwilling to go back to her troubles just yet. It was a beautiful warm afternoon, a mingling ofgold, brown and rust in the forests that spread out below. The sky over her head was blue. The view of Great Heldenberg and her companions was spectacular, even if the peaks were obscured.
There'd been clouds up on the mountain all day, a gray mass which moved as if it were alive, expanding and contracting across the strange lifeless zone of rock and castle‑sized boulder that shouldered the beige, late fall meadows. She’d often seen the peaks hidden in this strange shroud.
In the stables, Cat had heard tales about these clouds. They said they sometimes came down to blanket the upper pastures for days, leaving the herders and their animals in a situation where they hardly dared take a step. Hidden within it, wolves, trusting to their noses, came from the forest and carried off unlucky strays, or, sometimes, dogs or small children. After a time, Cat slowed Star to a trot. The sun was low and she didn't want to miss the cattle path. It was dangerous to do so because of the ravine which lay about a half kilometer beyond. She had turned slightly south and had just entered one of those depressions with which the mountain was pitted, when she felt a cold wet breath on the back of her neck
In an eye blink, the world she'd been moving through, the world of valley and mountain, of brilliant colors and rosy, waning sun, disappeared. Star snorted, half-reared and then stood stock still.
They were enveloped in fog. The air inside was cold and wet and queer smelling, like the exhalation of the ancient bog they’d been skirting. Stiffling a shudder, Caterina dismounted. "Come on, girl," she said to the mare, rubbing her sweaty neck. "Maybe it will go back up the mountain again. In the meantime, we'll walk."
Holding the reins, she began to move in a direction that felt like down. Surely, if they just kept going as they had been, they'd soon hit the cattle path. "If not," she whispered, "You and I will be spending a miserable night together."
Of course, being out in the weather was the least of her worries. Cat racked her brains, trying to orient herself, trying remember the location of the huts shared by the local herders. She walked on, staring at the ground and praying not to miss the worn manured path the cattle made.
Fog poured around them like a river. Sometimes she could see a few yards ahead, sometimes she couldn't even see her feet. She hoped to keep the high meadows on her left, but the grass—when she could see it--seemed sparser.
Was she actually going back up the mountain? It was impossible to tell. Worse, she kept hearing strange sounds, a smothered wailing.
Shepherds? Or--a scouting wolf?
Fear gnawed at her. Without the sun, her sense of time seemed lost as well, and it soon seemed they’d been in the fog forever.
Star's ears pricked. Then, she reared. If Caterina hadn't had a good grasp on her bridle, she would have bolted, perhaps to break a leg or fall into the dreaded ravine.
"Whoa! Whoa! Star!" She threw her arms around the horse's neck. Clinging to the mane with all her strength, Cat desperately sought to find, somewhere in the turmoil, thoughts of calm to send.
The mare hopped from side to side, but Cat managed to hold on. At last Star stood, brown eyes rolling, nostrils quivering.
Looking around, Caterina strained to see what had so frightened the mare. As one of those intermittent breaks flowed past, it let in a rosy shaft which told of sunset. Close, in that light, she saw a familiar landmark: an ancient stone, roughly pillar shaped, perhaps eight feet tall. The shiny gray surface was covered with a moving carpet of sparkling droplets.
This pillar, she knew, sat near the herdsmen's huts, at the very upward end of the cattle path. With a chill, she realized that if she'd gone much farther, she would have ended near the awful ravine.
But--which way was down? She peered at the ground, but now her feet‑‑and everything else‑‑ disappeared again. Matching her spirits, everything turned into ghastly gray. Hoping not communicate her fear, Cat stroked Star's sweaty neck. At the same time, a long shiver coursed along her back.
What to do? Stay by the stone?
As she patted Star and wondered what to do next, a giant, a man of cloud, stepped out of that gray on gray. Water beaded his clothes, silvered his dark head and clung in beads to his flesh. Cat started, and Star reared again, nearly pulling her off her feet.
"Thank the Trinity, the Blessed Mother, and every demon on this mountain!"
The otherworldly man grabbed her horse’s reins.
“The peasants say this thing is a lodestone which keeps people from the ravine, but I never believed it 'till now."
"Christoph!" Cat had never been so glad to see anyone in her life...