At the same moment,
in the forests below the Holy Mountain.
Lightning flashed from the sky like the finger of an angry god.
Simon Fronwieser saw it directly over Lake Ammer, where for a fraction of a second, it lit up the foaming waves in a sickly green. It was followed by a peal of thunder and a steady downpour — a black, soaking wall of rain that within moments drenched the two dozen or so pilgrims from Schongau. Though it was only seven in the evening, night had fallen suddenly. The medicus gripped the hand of his wife, Magdalena, tighter and, along with the others, prepared to climb the steep hill to the Andechs Monastery.
“We were lucky!” shouted Magdalena over the thundering downpour. “An hour earlier and the storm would have caught us out on the lake.”
Simon nodded silently. It wouldn’t be the first time a ship of pilgrims had gone down with all hands in Lake Ammer. Now, barely twenty years after the end of the Great War, the crowds of pilgrims streaming to the famous Bavarian monastery were larger than anyone could remember. In a time of hunger, storms, ravenous wolves, and marauding brigands, people were more eager than ever to find protection in the arms of the church. This longing was fed by reports of miracles, and the Andechs Monastery in particular, thirty miles southwest of Munich, was renowned for its ancient relics that possessed magic powers — as well as for its beer, which helped people to forget their worries.
When the medicus turned around again, he could just make out through the rainclouds the wind-whipped lake that they had just managed to escape. Two days earlier, he had left Schongau with Magdalena and a group from their hometown. The pilgrimage led them over the Hoher Peißenberg to Dießen on Lake Ammer, where a rickety rowboat took them to the other shore. Now they were proceeding through the forest along a steep, muddy path toward the monastery, which towered far above them in the dark clouds.
Burgomaster Karl Semer led the procession on horseback, followed on foot by his grown son and the Schongau priest, who struggled to keep a huge painted wooden cross upright in the storm. Behind him came carpenters, masons, cabinetmakers, and, finally, the young patrician Jakob Schreevogl, the only other city councilman to follow the call for the pilgrimage.
Simon assumed that both Schreevogl and the burgomaster had come less in search of spiritual salvation than for business reasons. A place like Andechs, with its thousands of hungry and thirsty pilgrims, was a gold mine. The medicus wondered what the dear Lord would have to say about this. Hadn’t Jesus chased all the merchants and money lenders from the temple? Well, at least Simon’s own conscience was clear. He and Magdalena had come to Andechs not to make money but only to thank God for saving their two children.
Simon couldn’t help smiling when he thought of three-year-old Peter at home and his brother, Paul, who had just turned two. He wondered if the children were giving their grandfather, the Schongau hangman, a hard time at home.
When another bolt of lightning hit a nearby beech, the pilgrims screamed and threw themselves to the ground. There was a snapping and crackling as sparks jumped to other trees. In no time, the entire forest seemed to be on fire.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!”
In the twilight, Simon could see Karl Semer fall to his knees a few paces away and cross himself several times. Alongside him, his petrified son stared open-mouthed at the burning beeches while, all around him, the other Schongauers fled into a nearby ravine. Simon’s ears were ringing from the bone-jarring thunderclap that seemed to come at the same instant from right over their heads, so he could only hear his wife’s voice as if through a wall of water.
“Let’s get out of here. We’ll be safer down there by the brook.”
Simon hesitated, but his wife seized him and pulled him away just as flames shot up from two beeches and a number of small firs at the edge of the narrow path. Simon stumbled over a rotten branch, then slid down the smooth slope covered with dead leaves. Arriving at the bottom of the ravine, he stood up, groaning, and wiped a few twigs from his hair while scanning the apocalyptic scene all around.
The lightning had split the huge beech straight down the middle, and burning boughs and branches were strewn down the slope. The flames cast a flickering light on the Schongauers, who moaned, prayed, and rubbed their bruised arms and legs. Fortunately, none of them appeared injured; even the burgomaster and his son seemed to have survived the disaster unscathed. In the gathering dusk, old Semer was busy searching for his horse, which had galloped away with his baggage.
Simon felt a slight satisfaction as he watched the burgomaster running through the forest, bellowing loudly.
Hopefully the mare took off with his moneybags, he thought. If that fat old goat shouts one more hallelujah from up there on his horse, I’m going to commit a mortal sin.
Simon quickly dismissed this thought as unworthy of a pilgrim and quietly cursed himself for not having brought along a warmer coat. The new green woolen cape he’d bought at the Augsburg cloth market was dapper, but after the rain it hung on him like a limp rag.
“One might almost think God had some objection to our visiting the monastery today.”
Simon turned to Magdalena, who was looking up at the sky as rain ran down her mud-spattered cheeks.
“Thundershowers are rather common this time of year,” Simon replied, trying to sound matter-of-fact and somewhat composed again. “I don’t think that — ”
“It’s a sign,” cried a trembling voice off to one side. Sebastian Semer, son of the burgomaster, held out the fingers of his right hand in a gesture meant to ward off evil spirits. “I told you right away we should leave the woman at home.” He pointed at Magdalena and Simon. “Anyone who takes a hangman’s daughter and a filthy bathhouse owner along on a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain might as well invite Beelzebub, too. The lightning is a sign from God warning us to do penance and — ”
“Shut your fresh mouth, Semer boy,” Magdalena scolded, narrowing her eyes. “What do you know about penance, hm? Wipe your britches off before everyone notices you’ve peed in your pants again.”
Ashamed, Sebastian Semer stared at the dark spot on the front of his wide-cut reddish-purple petticoat breeches. Then he turned away silently, but not without casting one last angry look at Magdalena.
“Don’t mind him. The little rascal is nothing but the spoiled offspring of his father.”
Jakob Schreevogl now emerged from the darkness of the forest, wearing a tight-fitting jerkin, high leather boots, and a white lace collar framing an unusual face with a Vandyke beard and a hooked nose. A fine rain trickled down his ornamented sword.
“In general I agree with you, Fronwieser.” Schreevogl turned to Simon and pointed at the sky. “Such violent storms aren’t unusual in June, but when the lightning strikes right beside you, it’s like you&...