The morning sun was just cresting the rugged mountains to the east, and a chill clung to the air. Morgen craved warmth. She hoped to chase the numbness from her fingers before she continued with her father on their journey.
A few twigs and a narrow branch lay beside the charred skeleton of last night’s cooking fire. She tossed them on the blackened char, sending up a puff of ashes. Morgen found the flint and steel on the ground and started a small flame, which quickly licked at the dry wood. She held out her hands to cup the warmth, then looked across the grassy meadow to the pines that wrapped the mountainous valley. It wouldn’t take much effort to collect a few more dried branches to keep the fire going.
Morgen lifted herself off the ground and stretched quietly, trying to avoid waking her father. Her mustard-yellow dress hadn’t been quite enough to keep her comfortable through the night; the chilly fingers of night had reached through the woolen fabric. She brushed off an ant that was marching across the bust of her embroidered underdress before lifting her skirts and walking off.
“Where are you going, liebling?” Her father’s scratchy voice called after her.
She stopped to turn around and wrapped her arms across her waist to preserve what little warmth she had. Tybalt was propped upright against an outcropping of rock, gazing at her with lifted brows. Her father’s shirtsleeves and breeches were smudged with dirt. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent money on clothing for himself. If they weren’t always moving from one place to another, chasing down valuable gems and metal ore, she might have time to take a needle and thread to the holes.
Morgen swept the braid securing her blond locks over her shoulder and answered, “I did not mean to wake you. I am off to collect a little firewood so we may warm up before we leave.”
He groaned and adjusted in place, lifting his bushy blond eyebrows again. “I would like to start off early.”
“Then load the horse if you must, but I wish for some warmth before we go,” she said and turned around.
Morgen hiked up the slope into the woodland to search for branches dry enough to kindle a flame. Her stomach was empty and groaned in displeasure, but she ignored its demands. She was well aware of their situation. The small mouthfuls of cheese and bread she’d consumed last night had been enough to allow her to fall asleep eventually, but she was eager to find a village or town to replenish their supplies.
With an armful of sticks and kindling, she turned back. The dark pine trunks and their pointed canopy of emerald needles blocked the sunlight from breaching the glen. She could see the grassy clearing where their horse was tethered and the rock her father was propped against.
It was then she heard the voices. Many times she’d heard her father mutter and speak to himself, or even sing while he worked, but it was not his voice she heard. Morgen crept closer, staying to the shadows of the pines to overhear better.
“…nice little camp you have here. Are you all alone or traveling with others?”
“I travel by myself,” her father answered.
Another man spoke up. “We have been wandering for some time and are hungry. Do you have something to share from your bag?”
Tybalt craned his neck toward the trees where she’d been collecting wood and answered loudly in return, “I cannot turn a hungry man away, though I am with very little myself.”
The three strangers walked about their camp bold as bankers, though from the state of their clothes, they weren’t refined folk or even close. An unsettled feeling took hold of her gut. Deep down she knew they weren’t to be trusted, so she remained where she was to see what would happen next before acting.
One man stood beside a horse, holding onto its reins. He scuffed the toe of his leather shoe in the ground while looking about the clearing. “We are on our way to Innsbruck. Where are you off to?”
Her father handed a piece of bread to a man dressed all in black and lied, “I have been hearing news of the mines in Schwaz. Thought I might look for a job there.”
“An old man like you?” The one holding the horse laughed. “I am surprised you have the strength to swing a pick over your head.”
Morgen didn’t like the sound of this. Who were they to call her father an old man when they’d never met before? She pinched her lips together, trying to decide what to do. The mountain paths through here didn’t seem to be traveled often, and she knew of no village near enough to seek help.
“Do not be so unkind to Herr…” said the third man, who wore a strange black cap the like of which she’d never seen before. He stepped close to her father’s horse to stroke its withers. “What is your name?”
Her father seemed to sense danger was at hand as well, though he was busy searching the grove of trees, presumably to catch sight of her. His answer was made despite his clear distraction. “Tybalt Hausle.”
The man in the black cap grinned at him. “Herr Tybalt, you have our thanks. This is a fine creature. Worth quite a bit of silver, I daresay. Would make our long travels much quicker.”
Morgen’s father didn’t respond. He only stared at the man in silence, waiting for something more. Maybe a clear indication of what the men wanted from him or a sign from the heavens above. He was not as young or light-footed as he once had been, but he knew how to swing a pick. Unfortunately he’d already packed his tools in his leather sack and strapped it to their horse along with all of their other valuables.
Although her father seemed uncertain how to proceed, Morgen wasn’t. It was clear as day what they were after. She grabbed hold of one of the pieces of firewood and prepared herself to run at the strangers using her blunt weapon.
All at once the man standing beside Tybalt’s horse leapt onto it, and her father rushed at him, shouting, “Nein! It is everything I have!”
Just as Morgen began to run forward with her makeshift club raised over her head, a hand grabbed hold of her arm.