Times were difficult. That's what everyone in Nuremberg would say a few decades later. The oppression of the burgraves had become nothing short of persecution. The weight of such petty nobility bore down on the city like the crushing hand of God, and as their demands escalated, the people of Nuremberg struggled, gasping in the mud, strangled by the greed of the landed. So poor that they couldn't even afford to drink their troubles away, many took their own lives. Many more were corrupted, even if only to feed their families.
Into such a life was Gerulf Koertig born on the 27th of January, 1201, and as the world welcomed Gerulf, it bade farewell to his mother. Only his father, Eginhardt Koertig, remained to care for him. For a time, Eginhardt's sister (a warm, caring woman) tried to help manage the child. In the fall of 1202, though, she took ill and died soon after. Alone with his grief and the endless needs of his growing son, Eginhardt began to squander his savings on drink and gambling. His bitterness grew, and all semblance of his once even temper dissipated.
So it was that Gerulf arrived into a difficult and often lonely childhood. Having abandoned his work as a bricklayer, Eginhardt slipped into poverty, and the boy with him. Life consisted of scraping by on what hardened stubs of bread or dried scraps of fish could be scavenged from the garbage or stolen from the market. When he was sober enough to balance on two feet, Eginhardt could be quite brutal, and after slapping Gerulf around a bit, he might fall to sobbing.
In the year 1212, Nuremberg held a small fair to commemorate the crowning of Frederick II as King of Germany. Situated in such an excellent spot for trade, Nuremberg enjoyed a larger attendance than it expected, and Gerulf was all too happy to slip out while his father snored in drunken stupor to marvel at the exotic wares and perhaps even try to obtain a few of the crumbs of such opulence.
Among the merchants present was an elderly man: a bookseller if asked (for that would be quite prestigious), but he was more a scribe by trade. His name was Adelhard Waldenhof, and he hailed from Strassburg. Adelhard's presence was something of a gesture of good will. Nuremberg, though crushed by poverty, still held great potential for trade, and as a representative of the newly-formed Scribe's Guild in Strassburg, he would help to lay the foundation of relations with Nuremberg's merchants.
The afternoon was balmy, and Adelhard was in somewhat sour spirits as a morning rain had come on rather suddenly and ruined a bit of simple writing he had been doing. The fair-goers of Nuremberg seemed far less surprised than the visiting merchants, however, and proceeded along at their usual melancholy pace. He was content to watch other merchants hawk their wares, being merely a placeholder for another purpose. He was content, that is, until he spotted a young boy tromping down the soggy aisle.
The hairs on his neck stood on end, and he saw that the people scurried in front of the child or lagged far behind him. Lank black hair lay wild about his shoulders, and though his eyes were red-rimmed and carried bags, there was a gleam within them. Adelhard had no doubt: the boy had it. Some of his patrons referred to it as the 'Gift', but the scribe wasn't so sure that was an accurate description. To him, it felt more like an oppressive and uncomfortable hum, and were it not for the pay, he might never take commissions from such people.
Nevertheless, something within his aging heart felt for the poor boy, and he shouted, "You there. Boy!" He waved the lad nearer. Closer, the miasma of discomfort became overwhelming. He stopped the boy short. "That's far enough. What's your name?"
"And who are you?" The boy responded, placing his hands on his hips and jutting out his chin.
"I am Adelhard of Strassburg, and it is rude to answer a question with a question," he replied, folding his hands.
"Well, Adelhard of Strassburg, I am Gerulf."
Gerulf. Defiant Gerulf. Adelhard, unsettled as he was, hurried through his business of asking questions, trying to discern if this boy was who he thought he was. He settled the matter in short order, and asked if Gerulf would be willing to bring his parents on the following morning to discuss the possibility of attending school.
"My ma is dead, and Da won't come." Gerulf's brow furrowed. "He's a drunk. Lays about the place all the time."
Adelhard sighed and rubbed his forehead. His concern for the boy was great, but his patience with Gerulf's presence was waning. "Then we must go to him," he said. Gerulf narrowed his eyes, but Adelhard waved him on as he stepped out of the stall, slinging a bag around his body. "Go on, now. Lead the way, then."
The meeting did not go well. The scribe knew a beaten man when he saw one, and life had beaten Eginhardt thoroughly. The aggrieved man hadn't given up the fight, though, and it was a sore contest between them to determine Gerulf's fate. Gerulf himself shied into a corner, clearly afraid of his father, his strong defiance melted away. When at last Eginhardt surrendered, the scribe could not muster the pity to reassure him that his son would be well cared for. The last words Gerulf heard from his father that evening as he and the scribe departed were admonitions to never return.
Adelhard conveyed the boy back to Strassburg and cared for him until he could make contact with Durenmar. It was the sweetest month Gerulf had ever known. He was warm, had fresh clothes and hot meals every day: more than once a day, even! Adelhard and his wife, Hilda, were childless, and thus the three of them bonded as well as was possible, compassion narrowly overruling the power of Gerulf's unsettling aura. So, when a representative from Durenmar arrived on regular business, it was difficult for Adelhard to bring up the matter. Though he felt some sense of relief, watching Gerulf trail behind the Durenmarian out of sight was still heartbreaking, and Adelhard's wife was even worse for the wear.
Gerulf's apprenticeship began at Fengheld where he studied under Ingrid of Bonisagus. Ingrid was a follower of Bonisagus, but very fond of her fellow maga, Dorana. Gerulf was a quiet student, and his work progressed quite well. Unfortunately, he and Ingrid did not bond well. Gerulf was a natural academic, that much was for certain. However, his reluctance in social situations and his disinterest in diplomacy with other apprentices and magi frustrated Ingrid. Several years into his apprenticeship, they invoked a mutual truce on the matter: Ingrid relented somewhat while Gerulf attended major functions and at least attempted to ingratiate himself to the other magi.
As the years passed, Gerulf's capabilities in the lab grew significantly, and Ingrid became quite proud of his work. He showed a particular talent for controlling his environment particularly with warding spells, and his study habits were consistent. Ingrid always felt, though, that something troubled him. He was like a young man always on the edge of despair. Even moments of near-happiness, when she thought she might have seen the beginnings of a smile, seemed suddenly snuffed out: their light, dimmed.
In a letter to Dorana (who was away at the time of its writing), Ingrid described a sensation she experienced one evening while working in the lab with Gerulf. It was a chill which was more than skin-deep: as though the life had suddenly drained from the room and every corner menaced like a sharpened edge. She had asked Gerulf if he had noticed anything in that moment, but he merely shook his head and remained focused on his work. While Ingrid did not want to doubt Gerulf's integrity, she couldn't help but notice a thin sheen of sweat on his brow.
When the day of his Theoretical Interview arrived, Gerulf performed very well. His knowledge of Hermetic Theory was strong, and his presentation, though cold, was calm and clear. Proclaiming himself Gerulf Waldenhof, the new Magus Bonisagus returned to the Fengheld Covenant in triumph. It was perhaps the happiest that Gerulf had been since living with Adelhard and Hilda in Strassburg. Ingrid was pleased with Gerulf's success, but her joy was muted by continued strangeties in Gerulf's behavior. She felt certain that he wasn't malicious, but the sense that he flew before something unknown was growing stronger. He would work in the lab until late hours of the night, sometimes going without food or drink. He would sometimes abruptly depart from a room with hardly a word. And, always, he sought solitude over company. Ingrid, by contrast, had always enjoyed being able to socialize with other magi. The Gift made having relationships difficult, so even though magi were few and far between, the sips of socializing were far better than the desert of deafening solitude. Nevertheless, she felt some pride in Gerulf's accomplishments thus far, and they mutually respected each other.
As the Normandy Tribunal approached, Ingrid suggested that Gerulf accompany her in order to gain exposure in another Tribunal. His prospects for founding a fledgling coven, she explained, were quite dismal in the Rhine. His best opportunity lay in, unfortunately, socializing with other magi at the various other venues in an attempt to find like-minded folk from other regions to form a new covenant or to at least obtain a position in an already established covenant.
"It would be best for you, Gerulf. Believe me," Ingrid said, sitting back in her chair and cradling a goblet of wine in her lap.
He sighed and paced over to the bookcase, examining the volumes. Ingrid knew he could not even see the books. This was how Gerulf thought: with seeming distraction which belied a keen thought process. "You know I'd rather focus on my work. This politicking is nonsense. Why must it be so difficult to simply study in peace? The social environment of the Hermetic Order stunts theoretical progress."
Ingrid clicked her tongue. "Such niceties are hard to come by, Gerulf. All things are revealed in time, even beyond the veil. But, this life is fleeting, and though we may seek to gain power through understanding, we should always remember that the world is transient. And, so are we."
"I've heard your arguments before," he said, turning around with fingers interlaced behind his back. "I remain unconvinced. You yourself suggested that this tribunal is not as open to newly gauntleted magi, yes? And to what end? What purpose does restricting newer generations of magi serve, especially when we are, as you put it, transient?"
"I cannot explain the value of such things," she said, taking a sip of wine, "until you've experienced such value for yourself. The human condition does not adhere to logic in all things. There are those aspects of life which must be understood before they can be known: felt before they can be seen." She looked him directly in the eye.
Gerulf paused, and his eyes fell to the floor. "Even-," he began, then stopped. After a moment, "Perhaps it is necessary, but it will be unpleasant. This gathering is likely the utter cesspool of the sort of lame rhetoric which I've become accustomed to from most of our ilk, and I doubt your supposition that I will find a new home in its meanderings."
Ingrid set her wine aside and stood, smoothing her robes. There was something to be said for having a profession which allowed one such comfortable attire. "Gerulf, some of the greatest minds of our era attend these functions, and while I entertain your remarks in the privacy of our covenant, I'll not have you disrespect the other magi of the Normandy Tribunal. You will attend to your attitude and keep clean the reputation of this covenant and our house."
Gerulf nodded. "Of course, Ingrid. I would not so dishonor you. I will be ready for travel in the morning," he said, turning toward the door. Ingrid suddenly missed the days when he had asked her permission before taking his leave. Children grow up so fast.
"Gerulf," she near-whispered, and he turned to look over his shoulder. A familiar chill came over her as she steeled herself. " I don't know what troubles your soul, why you are so obstinate on the matter of friendships, but," she said, coming around her desk, "consider with your keen intellect that your only hope to overcome it or obtain any comfort is through people. People, Gerulf," she repeated as he looked away. "Seek them out. Do not so casually toss aside a chance at peace. I ask you as both your mentor AND your friend." She reached out and took his hand in both of hers. "Don't give up on us."
He looked her in the eye, and she felt the weight of it: whatever it was he carried. "I haven't, Mistress. Not yet." And then he withdrew, shutting the heavy oak door quietly behind him, and the room felt warm once more.
The long hallway stretched before him, the shadows of the right-hand windows interlacing like webs across the floor. The silence wrapped around him like a warm blanket, and he let loose the breath he had held in a long sigh. He rested his forehead against the closed door briefly, emotion rising in revolt. With strong effort, he beat them into submission. There was, however, one thing that cold rationality could not deny.
She knew of his plight, and that alone put him at tremendous risk. Ingrid was right: he had to find a way out of Fengheld, even if it meant evoking charm and engaging deeply in the Normandy Tribunal. His mistress had such a way about her. By divulging her knowledge, she fulfilled her own prophecy. His salvation indeed lay with his fellow magi, for he needed to distance himself from her now that her suspicions were raised.
His composure regained, Gerulf took a casual pace down the darkened hall. Once again, it would be up to him to shape his fate, and he felt more than equal to the task.