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Snowball's Chance (03 December 2007)

Liesl tumbled recklessly down the stone stairs from the highest turret of Schloss Runeberg. She had to outrun the plaintive cries of her mother. There was nothing she could do for her mother except get beyond the range of the vocal expression of her torment. That's what her mother had told her she wanted Liesl to do—to escape. But there was no escape. He was an animal. But all of the control was on his side. There wasn't the smallest chance Liesl could save her mother—or herself.

She reeled out of the arched doorway to the tower and stumbled down the stairs and lay in a heap in the falling snow on the cold stone paving of the castle keep. Her handmaid, Lutgard swept out of the scullery door and folded her body over the lithe figure of her beloved Liesl. She rocked the young woman in her arms and hummed a soothing tune. But still Liesl could hear the cries of her mother. Liesl could only imagine what her stepfather was doing to her mother up there. But she knew her mother was sick and exhausted and should not be lying with any man, let alone that big brute who was her stepfather, The Burgermeister—the mayor—of Runeburg, a man who not only was the law of the land in Freidenschaft now that Liesl's father, the Burggraf von Freidenschaft was cold in his grave, but who also was the most mammoth and cruelest man of the region.

Liesl's mother, the Burggrafin Kathe, hadn't stood even the slightest chance in the face of the ambition and scheming of such a man. He had overwhelmed her and taken her as if by right the moment Liesl's father had died under suspicious circumstances. And now the man of insatiable appetites, unbounded cruelty, and inhuman physique was driving Liesl's mother to her own grave with his constant demands and assaults—in their private chamber at the top of the tower.

Liesl was sobbing and Lutgard was giving her what comfort she could.

"Come, child, we must get you off these cold stones. Come inside."

"No, Lutgard, no. I can still hear her from there. Isn't there anything—?"

"No, I'm afraid not. At least not now," Kathe whispered. "Someday one of us will gain the courage and have the opportunity to stop him, but not now. There's nothing we can do for her in this man's world. But, I swear, if he lays a hand on you—"

"Is there no where that I can't hear?" Liesl cried out.

"Come, get your cloak," Lutgard said as she raised the young woman up. "We will go down in the stadt. We will go to the Christmas market. We'll find some gold hair clips for that beautiful raven-black hair of yours. I swear that you have inherited all of your mother's beauty. Gold clips. Just the thing."

Lutgard tried to sound like they were going on a jolly adventure as she bundled up her precious treasure and pushed her through the guard tower, under the portcullis, and over the wooden bridge spanning the moat. But it was all a sham. Kathe was past worrying about now. She would be mercifully delivered in the next month or so, withered away from her wasting illness and spilt asunder by the demands of that monster of a man. But Liesl. Liesl had grown into a beautiful woman, fair of face and figure both, ripe as a peach. How were they to keep Liesl out of the clutches of that cruel Gerhardt when he had done with the Burggrafin? All that Lutgard knew for sure was that she would kill him herself ere he touched her Liesl. Bold talk, she knew. Much harder to do in fact.

* * *

Marketplatz was all abuzz with the news—so much so that they barely noticed that the daughter of the Burggrafin had come down from the castle in a rare appearance in the town. The pride of her deceased father, she had led a highly sheltered life almost to the point that her beauty and mystery had become a stadt mystique, a legendary figure of purity and unattainable grace that had spun out beyond the borders of Freidenschaft.

What had the busy market all aflutter was the contingent of the emperor's men that had galloped into the square from the western mountains and had frozen the entire Christmas market in place as they split a twain, with half of the maroon-bedecked cavaliers surrounding a black silk-caped Ritter—knight—jangling their silver spurs against the heaving withers of their magnificent steeds as they flanked their black knight in a dash up the steep cobbled stoned streets into the upper ward of the city en route to the castle. The other half of the contingent veered off at the sight of the Scarlet Unicorn beer garden, boisterously taking up their defensive position in the most comfortable and inviting vantage point they could spy.

In the flurry of activity, Lutgard and Liesl became separated. Lutgard was frantic, but Liesl hardly noticed, so interested was she in all of the sparkling baubles on offer at the Christmas market. She had led such a sheltered life that she seemed more a five-year-old child than a ripe young woman at the threshold of adulthood. She had made her purchase of gold hair clips in no time at all and had moved on to admiring the other delights offered by the seasonal vendors.

Not all of the emperor's men had stumbled, saddle sore and dusty of throat, into the Scarlet Unicorn. One comely young swashbuckler had separated from his comrades and had ventured into the line of wooden booths in the Christmas market, mesmerized by the vision of beauty he had spied as the cavaliers had thundered into the square. He knew it must be she, the one they sought. No one else could be that fair.

Lutgard waddled around the maze of booths in panic, her heart beating wildly and her eyes trying to see everything and focus on her precious ward, but, in her panic, not really seeing anything clearly. Liesl wandered the booths, each exhibiting more wonders than the last. She was completely oblivious to the absence of her protector, trained to trail unobtrusively in the wake of nobility, albeit minor nobility. Stephan, the comely emperor's man circled in the market, his eyes never leaving the luscious young Liesl, his approach ever closer.

At the opening of the dimly lit Hochallee, running off the square at the rear of the shops of Hochstrasse, the main thoroughfare rising through the high city toward the crouching walls of the Schloss Runeberg, the booth of the straw nativity Christmas figurine had established its place, as it had done for the previous 150 years. Liesl had received such a figurine for every one of her eighteen Christmases of memory, but she'd never seen so many on display at one time. She was delighted. She was overwhelmed. She was completely open and defenseless.

As she circled to the side of the booth to see the new delights to be seen there, she was pulled into the shadows of the Hochallee. She was pushed up against the stuccoed rear wall of a glazier's shop. She was shocked and winded into silence by being pressed against a wall, completely encircled in the strong, possessing arms of . . . a man. She had never been in this position before. She had never been touched by a man, let alone pressed against the wall along her full length by a strong, muscled, rubbing, possessing man, enclosed, throbbing heart to heart, with this overpowering stranger against the falling snow by his heavy maroon cloak. She had the sensation of hazel eyes in a young, handsome face. Blond hair, chiseled features, wondrous smile, full, searching lips. Lips on her throat and then on her own lips, forcing her lips open, possessing her fully. She had never been kissed like this before. She, in fact, had never been kissed at all. But she had imagined being kissed and it had been nothing like this. Nothing had ever been like this. Heat. Electricity. Ears ringing. Sensations running through her body that she'd never felt before.

She felt faint. As she was blacking out, she heard her name, her name being called frantically. Lutgard calling out in a panicked voice. And Liesl wasn't the only one who heard the voice and felt the flash of recognition moving through her body. She had swum back out of her faint, now alone in the alley, before Lutgard found her. She met Lutgard at the side of the straw figurine booth and managed to shield her terrifyingly arousing brief experience—her exhilarating terrifying brief experience—from her protector by waving a delicate hand at the wonders on display in the booth, deftly sweeping Lutgard's attention from her flushed face and languorous demeanor. Lutgard couldn't know. No one could know. What had happened was enough to besmirch her reputation forever, to close the door on any hope she had of escaping the hearth now so cruelly and threatening controlled by her stepfather, the rapacious Burgermeister.

* * *

With trembling lips, Lutgard was standing over a night gowned Liesl, seated at her mirror in the dark hour before withdrawal behind the heavy brocade drapes of her bed. Liesl was only half listening, in rising anger, to Lutgard burbling out the stepfather's summons to his study. Lutgard couldn't meet her mistress's eyes. Liesl assumed, in her panic, that Lutgard had seen the surprise assault by the strong, young stranger within the shadows of the Hochallee and had reported Liesl's shame. And the disloyalty rocked Liesl to her core. She would never have believed Lutgard capable of this, even though convention required precisely this denunciation of the besmirching of Liesl's virtue. Not her Lutgard.

And, in fact, she completely misunderstood Lutgard's discombobulation. Lutgard was terrified of the summons by the stepfather. Was he not even to wait until the Burggrafin's demise? Was he intent of forcing himself on Liesl already? If that was what this was about, Lutgard was ready, a well-sharpened kitchen knife hidden in the folds of her robes. But her fears and panic were fighting with her determination. Was this where it would all end—for her and for others? They were defenseless before the law. They were mere women.

"Come, little one," Lutgard managed to say through her fears. "Wrap yourself in this thick robe. The castle is freezing. And come, we cannot deny the summons. But I will be there. Fear not. You will not see me, but I will be within steps of you all the time."

"That robe?" Liesl said. "I'll be lost in that. Give me a moment. I'll dress."

"No, this robe is perfect, Precious," Lutgard wheedled. "Against the cold, of course. The heavier and bulkier the better."

Both Liesl and Lutgard took an involuntary step backward as they entered the presence of the Burgermeister in the shadow-clad study with its blackened-oak walls and leaded-glass bay window overlooking the twinkling lights of the lower town. A fire roared in a fireplace that brightly lit the back of the massive, blue-velvet wrapped body of the lord of the manor while throwing everything but his blazing eyes and lascivious smile into dark relief. Neither had seen their cruel master with such a malevolent and pleased-with-himself countenance.

He beckoned to Liesl, who moved toward him but was held back a good four paces from the front of the ornately carved wood desk by the trembling, yet determined grasp of Lutgard. Gerhardt waved the servant away, and Lutgard shrank back out of the light, but only as far as the shadows just beyond the open study door. She fingered the knife in the folds of her robe, wondering if this was the day of resolution or dissolution.

Liesl steeled herself, trying to form an explanation that would save her the justified wrath of her master for her transgression in Hochallee, but knowing that no explanation would suffice. She was damaged goods now. Her future was even bleaker now that it had been before she had descended through the high city into the Christmas market. This morning she had assumed that her life could hardly be bleaker, but now she knew she had been wrong. Now, after her stepfather had voiced the reality of the Christmas market incident, there would be no chance for her in life, not the least chance.

"We were visited by emissaries of the emperor today, Liesl," Gerhardt said.

Here it comes, Liesl thought bitterly. I am undone. I have been compromised by someone from the emperor's delegation. The maroon cape. The emperor's colors.

"You know that the empress—yet another of Wilhelm Josef's empresses—has died, do you not?" the Burgermeister said.

What was this, Liesl thought? How was this a lead in to uncloaking her shame?

"Yes . . . Father," Liesl answered in a small, breathless voice.

"And do you know how he chooses a new empress?" Gerhardt asked. But they he caught himself. "But of course you do not know. No one would dare talk to you of such things."

He didn't know. He didn't know about this afternoon. Liesl's heart raced and her spirits lifted. He could not know of that and now be talking to her as if her virtue was unassailed. She, in fact, had heard how the syphilitic old bag of lard of an emperor chose his consorts—four of them so far, three within the last ten years. She'd never been told directly, of course, but she'd heard the servants speak of it when they didn't realize she was nearby. She knew that the emperor was equipped to be the death of a woman, just as her stepfather was, and that he was deceased as well. That he mated his wives to death—just as her stepfather was mating her mother to death. But she could not voice her knowledge to her stepfather. She must remain pristine and chaste with him. He held her future in his hands. Her only hope was escape him by marriage. And, as ambitious as he was, her one hope was that he would use her to rise on the ladder of minor nobility, just as he had bettered himself by wedding a Burggrafin.

"No, Father," she said with downcast eyes. "Is there something of that I need know?"

"No, I think not," Gerhardt said, with a little laugh cut off by a snort. "All you need know is that he is searching for a new wife and that, your reputation for beauty and purity having been broadcast beyond our borders, you have been placed on the list of his prospective brides."

"I am . . . honored, Father . . . but—" Panic was setting in again. Liesl wasn't the least bit honored. This would be a death sentence. The man was old and diseased and a splitting torture for any woman, if what she had heard was true. Her life would be at an end—before she'd have had a moment to live a life. All those people in the village. All of them looking up at the castle, envious of the life those in the castle family lived. She would willingly trade lives with any one of them at this moment.

"There is no delicate way of saying this, Liesl, so I will come right out with it, and you will say nothing in opposition, or I will strip you and whip you where you stand. This is a high honor. This could be the making of our family."

"I . . . I don't understand," Liesl stammered out. But she wished she hadn't said it as soon as the words escaped her lips. She didn't want to understand. Something told her she didn't want to hear any more.

"The emperor chooses his wives by trial, Liesl. Tomorrow night, as the sun creeps away over the horizon, the emperor's carriage will arrive at the castle. You will be prepared to go to the emperor for at least the night. If he wishes, you will stay longer. If he is not pleased, you will be returned here and he will move on down the list of his prospects. If you please him—and I and your mother expect you to do everything in your power to please him—you will become empress, and our family will rise in the ranks."

"But, but . . . I will be ruined if he doesn't—"

"Shut up, you ungrateful child. You act as if you have no concept of the opportunity we are being given here. You won't be ruined. The emperor provides one of his minor knights, his Ritters, as a husband of the young women he casts off. The rise in rank would only be minor for us, but the need for a dowry would be waved. Even this would be advantageous for us—for this whole region. And if no substitute husband is forthcoming from the emperor, I have no objection to taking you back into the family. Should anything happen to your mother, I wouldn't mind myself—"

Liesl heard nothing further. She swooned toward the floor, prevented from injury in her fall only by the strong arms of her protector, Lutgard, sweeping back into the room to gather her precious burden into the safety of her arms, if only for one more night.

Lutgard briefly entertained the possibility of staving off the certain suffering facing her young mistress by using the knife still tucked in the folds of her robe. But she struggled with what to do with the knife—to use it to propel Liesl into eternal purity or to use it to cut out the filthy cancer that was the Burgermeister. In the end, her own uncertainty of her capabilities forced her into nonaction. Her "place" in this medieval, master-dominated world lay too heavily upon her. She had always known that something of this sort lay in Liesl's future—but Lutgard couldn't begin to grasp of the horror of the reality of these choices for her precious one.

* * *

Liesl was numb and unresponsive through the preparation phase that took most of the next day. The bathing and powdering and rouging went more calmly than Lutgard had thought possible, mainly because Liesl moved languidly as if she were in a trance, so far had she withdrawn into herself, into a protective shell of disbelief and separation from reality. There was a brief flash in the eyes of both Liesl and Lutgard—but for differing reasons for the two—when the gold hair clips bought the previous day in the Christmas market were affixed in Liesl's glossy, much stroked raven-black hair. And the only twinge of panic that could be discerned flowing through the young lady's perfectly formed and lovingly prepared body came when the only article of clothing brought out for her journey was a thick, white ermine cape robe.

As the sun set across the valley of the land of Freidenschaft and the lights began to twinkle on in the town below, a massive gilded sleigh on runners and pulled by six gray Clydesdales pulled up at the end of the drawbridge. it had snowed all day, and the city was a fairy wonderland that Liesl only barely saw through the fog of the heavy breath of the horses as she was bundled out the castle and buried as deeply as Lutgard could manage into the many layers of fur blankets in the sleigh. Liesl was still numb and unresponsive. Lutgard was smiling and clucking, trying to will courage into her child who was being torn out of her arms, and quite possibly out of her life. But the tears streaming down the old woman's cheeks belied her emotions of grief and the terror that lay ahead in all directions.

The maroon-uniformed footman slapped the stairs into the open sleigh up and fastened them, creating a door separating Liesl from her family and her life, and he was barely back up onto the driver's bench before the sleigh's equally maroon-uniformed driver had flicked his whip and set the Clydesdales into motion down the steep snowy street between the deceptively silent and unseeing hulking shops and residences of the Hochstrasse winding its way down to the market square, the residents of the high city all unseen but their eyes glued to the corners of their windows to take in every aspect of the momentous occasion of the emperor summoning the pride of their city for trial. This would not be just Liesl's trial—this would have a lasting effect, one way or the other, on all of their lives and fortunes.

Down through the Hochstrasse flew the sleigh; whipping past the boarded and sleeping booths of the Christmas market in the Marketplatz; down, down, through Runeburg's lower town on the Ausstrasse; through the market gate in the massive city wall, open at this time of day only for the convenience of the emperor's sleigh; sliding out into the cold, snow-clad night of the Freidenschaft countryside; ever faster, homing onto the track toward the high alps; gliding through the eerily silent night toward Konigstein; the high mountain fastness of the emperor's winter castle and the bed of an old, diseased, wife-splitting man.

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