RUDI BAUER ran for his life and cursed his bad luck. He would never have touched the gold coin—much less put it in his pocket—if he’d known it belonged to a witch.
It had been a blustery morning, with more than a hint of snow stinging his nostrils, when Rudi left his warm cottage and climbed the high meadow to hunt rabbits in the shadow of the Berg. All day long he scrambled on the mountain, but his aim was crooked, or perhaps it was his slingshot. By dusk, icy pellets stabbed Rudi’s hands and face, and he had nothing to show for the day but the golden guilder in his pocket and its rightful owner flinging hexes down the mountain in his wake.
So now here he was, half running, half stumbling downslope, the wind and sleet screaming in his ears.
Or was it the witch?
Rudi didn’t stop to find out. He hurtled down the mountain, his legs threatening to give way and send him off the edge and onto the rocks below.
But he wasn’t thinking of that. Or he was trying not to. He was thinking how remarkable it was that the witch was real after all. All this time, he’d assumed she was nothing but a fairy tale; a bedtime fable told to every child in the village of Brixen. His own mother had often told him the story of the Brixen Witch, who lived under the mountain, hidden and silent so long as no one disturbed her domain.
He had never liked that story at bedtime. It did not result in happy dreams.
And other than a few stories, nothing much was said about the witch in Brixen. People said it was bad luck to talk of such things.
“So I found the entrance to her lair,” thought Rudi to himself as darkness fell and the lights of the village appeared below through the slanting pellets of ice. “I wonder if anyone else knows where it is. I wonder if I’d ever be able to find it again.”
But he couldn’t imagine ever wanting to find it again. Every blink of his eyes brought a flash of memory: the gaping mouth; the teeth like spikes; the foul icy breath. And the screech—it had been painful to his ears, like a thousand cats fighting in a room with walls of stone.
Rudi shuddered as he hurled himself toward his own front door. One last look over his shoulder. One last ear-piercing shriek that may have been the storm, but may have been—
And he crashed into the house, somersaulting onto the floor as the door hit the wall with a bang. In one quick instant he was surrounded by everyone he loved most dearly in the world, and he had never been happier to see them.
“Close the door, boy!” yelled his father, jumping from his chair and spilling his pipe onto Rudi’s head. “You’re letting October into the house!”
“By the saints!” said his mother. “You’re muddy as a salamander. And now look at my rug.”
“Where are the rabbits?” said Oma. “I’m getting too old to eat my dinner so late.”
Rudi blinked up at them, trying to catch his breath. He swallowed hard, lifted his head, and croaked, “Witch.” Then he collapsed into a heap.
“Which what?” said Oma, tsk
ing and nudging Rudi with her toe. “The boy needs to learn to speak up. I don’t see any rabbits on his belt.”
“Nor do I,” said his mother, sighing. “Then it’s barley soup again.”
Rudi sat up, dug pipe ash out of his ear, and tried to speak calmly. But all he could manage was, “A cave … on the mountain … something chased me….”
“What was it?” said his father. “A bear? A wolf?” He squinted at Rudi. “A bad-tempered marmot?”
“Should have shot it anyway,” said Oma. “It would have been as tasty as rabbit, I’m sure.” She smacked her gums.
Rudi regarded his slingshot and his grandmother in turn. “It was bigger than me,” he told her. “With teeth. And claws. And a screech like the Devil himself.”
“Rudolf Augustin Bauer!” scolded his mother. “Such stories you tell!”
Rudi considered that the stories he told were only those she’d told him first, but he kept silent in that regard.
Rudi’s father refilled the bowl of his pipe and struck a match. “Your eyes were playing tricks on you, son. You know better than to be caught up there as the light wanes, especially when a storm threatens. Are you sure you didn’t come upon a fox sleeping in its den? That would raise a snarl, I’ve no doubt.” And he snorted and clapped Rudi on the back, so that Rudi nearly collapsed again onto the rug.
Rudi sighed. His father must be right. It had been getting dark, and the snow had started to fly, and it had become difficult to see. He smiled crookedly, and felt his face grow warm, and scratched the back of his head.
“You’re right, Papa,” he said. “That was it. I’m sure it was a fox.” And Rudi stood on the rug, kicked off his muddy boots (to his mother’s exasperation), and took himself up the stairs to clean up.
But as he pulled off his grass-stained trousers, a new thought popped into his head. He plunged his hand deep into his pocket, and his fingers closed around something hard and flat and round.
A golden guilder.
It gleamed softly, even in the dimness of the loft, and it was unlike anything he’d ever seen. Not that he’d often seen any gold coin up close before. But it had a thickness about it, and markings he couldn’t read.
“What kind of fox keeps an old gold coin in its den?” he whispered to himself. But he decided it was just coincidence. If Rudi had stumbled upon the cave, why not someone else? Another hunter had dropped the coin long ago, and today Rudi had found it. That was all.
His mind wandered to what he might be able to buy with such a coin. A new pair of skis? A new rug for his mother? A slingshot that actually worked?
And then one ragged syllable burst from Oma’s mouth, flew up the stairs, and scraped Rudi’s eardrums.
Rudi’s breath stopped in his throat. The coin fell from his hand onto his stockinged foot and rolled under his bed. He stifled a curse.
“Which what?” boomed Papa’s voice from below. Then he laughed. “Is that how you play the game, Mother?”
Rudi scrambled into clean trousers, fumbled beneath the bed for the coin, and jammed it under his pillow. “How’s that, Oma?” he called over the railing, his voice cracking.
“When you first spilled into the house all breathless and red in the face,” she called up to him, “you said ‘witch.’ Didn’t you?” Oma’s mind was sharp. It was her ears that sometimes lagged behind, but they always caught up eventually, and that’s what they were doing now.
Rudi gulped, and resisted the urge to glance back at his pillow. “I was being silly,” he called down. “Like Papa said—it was a trick of the light.”
Oma squinted up at him for a moment. Then she shrugged and sat herself down to dinner. “As you say. You were there, not I.”
Rudi breathed a sigh of relief, which brought the aroma of hot barley soup and fried apples to his nostrils. He bounded down the stairs, his appetite surging.
“All I mean to say,” said Oma, as if the conversation had not just ended, “is that if you did visit a witch, I hope you didn’t take anything. Anyone who steals from the Brixen Witch’s hoard is hounded without mercy until she gets her treasure back. That’s all I mean to say.”
And Oma dipped her spoon into her bowl and slurped her soup.