Goodwin Prescott

Heritage

instalment six

Chapter Sixteen

the Austrian Tyrol
June 17, 1800

It was late in the night but with the full moon overhead the party of horsemen moved swiftly at a clatter over the heavy wooden bridge and began the winding ascent up the stony road towards the brooding fortress poised high above. Teufelstein Castle had dominated the village of Teufelsbruck below with that special power unique to medieval society for more than six hundred years and its predecessor fortresses for twelve hundred or more years before that. The names ... devilstone and devilsbridge ... were derived from the massive rock that rose as a granitic island in the swift rush of the Schwartzfluss ... the Black River.

Just below the bridge the icy, dark waters plunging from the mountains split around the massive stone outcropping that eerily resembled a grotesque horned head rising as from the bowels of the earth to part the stream. It was rumored that pagan inhabitants once used the island for high sacrifice and years before some local boys daring to visit it reported finding a deep firepit. They brought back shards of what appeared to be human bones and no one went there again.

A sense of evil permeated the entire valley and there was a secretive aura among the inhabitants that discouraged outsiders. Not that it was easy to reach anyway, tucked away in the far eastern wing of the Austrian Tyrol.

That Germanic province plunged like a broad, squat dagger into the roof of the Italian peninsula, narrowing until its tip sucked in the northern end of Lake Como. And harbored within the Tyrol lay the immensely strategic road from the north, the Brenner Pass, through which for hundreds of years the gray-clad troops of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna had dominated and occupied broad swaths of northern Italy. But this night that old order was changing in cataclysmic upheaval.

Hostility between Austria and revolutionary France had been almost continuous since 1792 but a series of military stalemates and truces had left nothing resolved. Then the Corsican general, Napoleon Bonaparte, had unified the warring factors in France by wile and force and, styling himself as "First Consul" set out to deal with the foreign foes of the republic. His shaky control over France depended on a swift, decisive defeat of the Austrian armies numbering five times the forces available to him. His enemies back in Paris expected him to fail and were secretly prepared to promptly remove and execute him upon that failure.

While French forces crossed the Rhine and drove into Austria from the north with little initial success, Bonaparte invaded northern Italy and confronted Imperial Field Marshal Melas at Marengo on June 14, 1800. It did not go well for France and the day ended with a rout that seemed likely to end Bonaparte's power.

Overconfident, Melas encamped, failing to promptly pursue his advantage, expecting to clean up the French forces the following day at his leisure. During the night, French reinforcements arrived and Napoleon risked all in a daring, slashing dawn attack that routed and overwhelmed the Austrians and changed history as perhaps few single battles ever have. Nine thousand Austrians and seven thousand Frenchmen perished in a few hours but the victory went to the diminutive First Consul.

The riders trotting their mounts up the road to the castle on the night of June 17 were unaware of the momentous events that had unfolded far to the south at Marengo two days before. Major Josip Drevcik of the Emperor's Bohemian Cavalry Brigade had been dispatched to Vienna late in the afternoon of June 14 to bring the exciting news of the great Austrian victory over the hated French.

He could not know that additional couriers had been dispatched sixteen hours later to report the disastrous defeat and surrender of Field Marshal Melas and his army in the reversal that had followed. He was making a detour that would cost him a few hours time but he would still reach the capital before the later riders and set off a jubilant celebration that would swiftly turn to stunned, dismayed shock.

His commander, Colonel Baron Hugo Von Hofstedt, had hastily conferred with the major before he departed and added a second mission to his official one ... a very, very private mission. Drevcik had repeatedly replayed that conversation in his mind as he rode. He had been well aware of his superior's venality and ruthlessness but that meeting had demonstrated a depth of those qualities that had amazed him.

Not that they were uncommon attributes among the officer ranks in the imperial army where a commission was a license for personal gain and advancement of ambition. Nor was the major offended, just surprised. He had underestimated Von Hofstedt; the man was nearly as savage and unprincipled as Drevcik himself.

Drevcik reddened as he fought down a wave of mixed anger and disquiet. It was no secret that he had a tendency to gamble and was usually pinched anyway. His wealthy father kept him on a tight leash, the stingy old bastard. He'd bought his officer commission for him and his uniforms, horses and weapons, but the regular allowance he provided was miserly. After calming his rising panic at the unexpected confrontation, he sought to put forth a nonchalant front, shrugging off the question with a question.

Von Hofstedt chuckled and interrupted with a wave of his hand.

The image of the Habsburg monarch worrying about making ends meet amused Drevcik and a smile edged over his harsh, hawkish features even as the colonel spoke again,

Drevcik frowned. Where is this going? Slowly, cautiously, he responded.

Von Hofstedt was genuinely impressed. He liked Drevcik and had never regretted making the tough young officer his adjutant. His answer showed him to be a realist. He had judged the young officer as well to be a pragmatic opportunist with little in the way of inhibiting principles when his own good was involved and had chosen him for these qualities since they mirrored his own. He pursued his inquiry to the next step.

Drevcik sucked in a breath. Slavery had long been outlawed in the provinces of His Imperial Majesty, as in most lands where the Roman Catholic Church dominated. From a personal standpoint he viewed the institution as having merit, but he needed to be cautious on this ground.

Von Hofstedt impatiently raised a hand,

Drevcik shrugged again,

Drevcik nodded. "I see no difference. An inferior white man ought to serve the purposes of his superiors just as surely as any black wretch."

A quick shake of his head,

Drevcik inclined his head in agreement,

Is that what this is all about? Does he want me to lead an execution squad to dispose of these revolutionary regicides?

Since the beheading of Louis XVI, the French were a terrifying anathema within the archaic monarchical system still holding sway in the rest of Europe. Their republic was recognized by no one except the ridiculous so-called United States and prisoners taken in battle were often treated simply as rebels and summarily killed, though officers were more usually ransomed to their families back in France.

The French tended to respond in kind and Austrian prisoners had frequently been put to the sword, though this new man Bonaparte was said to have banned the practice and disciplined his troops severely for violations. Field Marshal Melas had, in turn, ordered that French captives were to be treated well.

The prospect of a killing orgy was not unpleasant and Drevcik almost hopefully asked,

Drevcik shrugged, really puzzled now,

Von Hofstedt flashed a predatory grin and leaned forward, his words lowered to a conspiratorial whisper,

He began to explain, and Drevcik began breathing hard in excitement as comprehension flooded his brain.

It seemed that the master of Teufelstein Castle, not far from the route to be followed by Drevcik towards Vienna, had what the colonel termed perverse tastes in sexual pleasure. No one would miss a few of the Frenchmen in the confusion that follows a battle and the man would likely pay generously for sturdy, attractive young men upon whom to vent his violent urges. Nor would they survive his games to return to France and tell awkward tales.

Von Hofstedt nodded,

Within the hour, Drevcik found himself admiring the colonel's selection of market animals to offer at Teufelstein Castle. There was a strikingly handsome, stocky young lieutenant with silky, fair hair and two tall, muscular troopers with fetching looks, neither older than twenty. None had been injured in the fighting and even their uniforms were still in surprisingly good repair as they stood with concerned, wide eyes, hands bound and mouths gagged.

The two Austrian hussars selected by the colonel as guards were also really just youths, buff farmboy soldiers thrilled to have been selected for this exciting mission. They knew they would be escorting the major to Vienna to deliver news of the victory to the emperor himself. They had no notion of why the three Frenchmen were being taken along but accepted there must be a good reason and left it at that.

The prisoners were quickly placed on mounts and tied to the saddles and the party, leading extra horses to rotate for an improved pace, had set off briskly into the gathering dusk of the late afternoon.

Drevcik had been delighted to accept the colonel's offer to share in whatever bounty was gleaned from the project. The prospect of gain deeply excited him and as he rode, glancing up at the brooding castle coming closer now with each stride of his horse, he prayed the master of the place would indeed be willing to buy the captives. He carried a letter from Von Hofstedt to Von Ritter, though names were not used. Von Hofstedt styled himself Dante and Von Ritter was Lucifer.

He had shared the letter with Drevcik before sealing it and the major swallowed hard at the final sentences and paled slightly. The colonel looked hard at him,

Drevcik nodded. It did make absolute sense. It had just caught him off guard and he quickly recovered. Von Hofstedt asked anxiously,

Drevcik nodded after just a moment,

Von Hofstedt nodded, relaxed and smiled again. He had known the major to be a hard man with little conscience or ethical restraint, eager for advancement and wealth and was pleased that he had guessed right that he would embrace the plan ... in its entirety. The matter of a few Frenchmen was not an issue, of course. It was the rest of what was to be done that might have dissuaded a more squeamish man than the major ... a more patriotic officer.

He suspected the answer was rather obvious,

Drevcik had nodded and even smiled. The prospect of personally executing a few of the French bastards was actually quite appealing. Now he again glanced upwards at the castle, outlined against the moonlit sky. Please have him be present, He prayed. And make him generously eager to buy the goods I bring him!

Chapter Seventeen

Much of central and eastern Europe was but little changed from the medieval ages and powerful nobles still wielded literal life and death power over the villages and farms within their domain. The valley of the Black River had been the private reserve of the Von Ritters for so many centuries that no one really knew quite how long and Fritz saw little different in the power he held from that of his distant ancestor who had been elevated from a mere Graf or count to the awesome status of a Markgraf ... margrave as the English said ... equivalent of a French marquis, just below a duke in rank.

The fool had been rewarded for a valiant, suicidal charge against the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1529, breaking their ranks and convincing the ottoman sultan that the losses risked in further attack on Vienna was not worth the effort. Fortunately for Fritz, the first Von Ritter Markgraf, unlike ninety percent of his men, had survived the charge to continue his bloodline.

Fritz was truly amazed at the arrival in his courtyard of the Austrian party with the trio of French captives. He instantly hardened between his thighs at the mere thought of what delicious fun he could have with these handsome, muscular young men. While his guards transferred the prisoners to his dungeon deep beneath the castle, he invited the stiff-necked major ... what was he anyway, a Czech? A pole? ... to share a stein of wine and warm up by the hearth in the sitting room while they discussed a price for the purchase. He read the letter handed over once they were alone and smiled.

How droll! A little betrayal and treason is always a nice add to the mix of things. That ass Von Hofstedt hasn't changed one whit.

He crumpled the sheet of parchment and tossed it into the fire before pulling on a bell cord to summon his chief attendant. The muscular blond boy had his hair buzzed almost to the skull and there was a feral glint in the blue eyes as they glanced at the major with speculative interest. Von Ritter spoke quietly into the young bull's ear and the stud nodded, then departed with a look of sheer relish on his face. Fritz turned his attention back to the officer warming before his fire. Nights in the mountains, even in summer, quickly cooled sharply after dark.

Von Ritter chuckled,

Drevcik choked on the sip of wine he had just taken. Two thousand gold kroners! A fortune ... perhaps not to the truly wealthy but certainly to him. His half ... a thousand!

In the courtyard, Drevcik caught a glimpse of his two cavalrymen being hustled through the door that led to the dungeon staircase. They had been disarmed and their arms tightly bound. One spotted Drevcik and called out, his voice trembling in boyish terror.

What's going on here, sir? Why have we been taken prisoner? There must have been a mistake!

Shut up you fool! You remain here. These are my orders. You are to obey the wishes of the Markgraf without questions or delay. You will do everything he wants. Everything!

The boy gulped hard, his eyes like saucers, but he dutifully locked his heels and barked back the stock answer required by his disciplined training.

His saddlebag jangling slightly with its golden burden, Major Drevcik passed through the outer gate scarcely a half hour after he'd entered, the massive portal closing behind him with a dull thud. He tried briefly to envision what might be done to the quintet of young men he'd left behind and found himself shuddering for just a moment in revulsion of his betrayal of the pair of Austrian troopers. Then he thought about the gold kroners lodged safely just before one of his hips, lashed securely to the saddle, and his qualms edged swiftly away and were replaced by a rising sense of jubilation as he rode into the night..

Back within the courtyard, Erich stepped from the shadows and stood beside his master.

Von Ritter affectionately caressed the boy's nearly shaven skill, liking the feel of the soft, velvet stubble against his palm.

The noble shook his head,

Erich thought just briefly before replying, one hand lightly pawing the rapidly swelling bulge in the crotch of his tight-fitting breeches,

The count sighed in pleasure. What a wonder all that had been ... a dream come true.

He still marveled at the incredible events that had unfolded the day young Erich arrived at the gate of the castle three years before at the reins of a small horsecart belonging to his father. One of the many rude peasants holding a farm at the sufferance of the Von Ritters, Joergen Holsnigg was always anxious to please his liege and a delightful opportunity had arisen to do so while resolving a problem of his own. With luck he'd even turn a kroner or two.

Though just barely eighteen, Erich had not seemed intimidated when he finally was afforded an audience with the tall, cold-eyed Markgraf. He was suitably deferential, doffing his cap and keeping his gaze properly lowered, though he was immensely curious about the man.

Not that he could really see much since the noble's form was swathed in a full-length, hooded cloak of dark crimson, secured at the throat by a gold chain-clasp. He explained that he had brought a gift from his father's farm in the hope that the master would be pleased and might give some small token of esteem in return.

Fritz patiently let the carefully rehearsed pitch roll forth. He was enjoying his study of the hunky body of the sturdy, well-built farmboy. A fine piece of meat is this one! Would that his father had sent him as a gift!

He envisioned the youth stripped naked and spread-eagled for his pleasure down in the dungeon and shuddered in deep excitement. He wondered if the boy realized how little was the likelihood of his ever departing the castle. His life or death was within Fritz's power to determine and just now a long life was not in the cards for the pretty-faced, wonderfully buff teenager. The thought of screams erupting from the full-lipped mouth instead of words sent a shiver of delight edging down the noble's spine and he finally interrupted the stream of words with a wave of his hand.

I'll roast you instead, little farmbrat. Very, very slowly over a bed of glowing coals.

Looking very self-pleased, Erich step­ped to the back end of the cart, reached into the bed of straw and deftly grabbed a thick ankle just above a naked foot equipped with big, long male toes. He hauled forth into full view a strong, muscular boy of his own age, naked and with his wrists bound behind him, a gag tied over his mouth.

Oh well now! What have we here? The count diverted his attention from Erich's person to the nude form of the very big-hung teen­aged boy perched on the edge of the cart, one leg dangling over, the other bent at the knee to one side as he balanced in place.