It is pitch black in the crypt. The wax candles on the torchières by the granite staircase leading down from above have long since burnt out. As if the place was not ghostly enough already, the wind is howling like a pack of wolves closing in on their prey in a desolate forest. Upstairs, windows must have broken in his long absence, either by acts of vandalism or the simple wear of time. At least no one has broken into the crypt itself and looted his tomb it would seem. Before locking himself up and slipping into his coffin, he did pay the local farm boys a handsome sum in gold coin to be caretakers of his crypt for as long as necessary, but how long has he been hibernating in this forlorn dungeon? For years, decades, perhaps even a century? Stefan is stirring in his coffin to the howls of the wind. Ah, the unquenchable thirst. The first time he felt that thirst is forever etched into his memory. As are the events leading up to it.
He had been only 18 years old when he first laid eyes on her. The atmosphere in Lübeck had been bubbling with excitement and activity. Several merchant ships from other Hanseatic cities had recently arrived by way of the Trave, the river encircling the fortified city and connecting it to the Baltic Sea less than 10 miles away, and after mooring their ships on the docks and unloading their goods in the harbor, hordes of happy, frivolous sailors with money in their pocket had disembarked and infested virtually every drinking hole in the city. Their shouting and laughing had been audible from his bedroom on the upper floor of the patrician villa he inhabited with his parents. The excitement had been infectious, and Stefan had pestered his father all morning to get permission to go to a public bar, soak up a bit of the atmosphere and learn more about recent events from across the sea. Eventually, his father had caved in and for the first time ever, he had been allowed to visit a bar on his own. “All right, all right, but for your first beer, son, you want to pick a decent place. Don’t mix with the sailors and the riffraff. Go to Waldron’s.” All smiles, Stefan had simply nodded and with a few silver pfennigs in his pocket, he had left their house near Koberg, sprinted past the Heiligen-Geist Hospital, turned down Königstraβe, past City Hall and the majestic Marienkirche, recently converted from a Roman basilica to a Gothic cathedral, and finally down Mengstraβe.
Having been to Waldron’s a few times with his father, Stefan knows the location perfectly well, but this is the first time he walks down the chiseled basalt steps to Waldron’s Bierstube all alone and with a license to drink. With a mix of trepidation and bubbling excitement in his stomach, he pauses outside the thick oak door with iron fittings marking the entrance to the bar. The heavy door creaks on its hinges as he pushes it open. Muted chatter and the fragrance of roast meat welcome him as he passes the threshold. Seating himself at a long blackwood table assembled with large hand-forged wrought iron nails, Stefan reflects that his father is probably right; Waldron’s Bierstube is too expensive for the average sailor. There are no drunks lying around in pools of their own vomit and no beggars pleading for leftover bones. There will clearly be less brawling here, and the clientele appears to consist of merchants and perhaps even one or two noblemen or women, judging by the fancy clothing of the guests. There are comparatively few of them, however, and the bierstube is remarkably quiet. If you are eager to learn news from the big world outside the island of Lübeck, this is unlikely to be the right place. His initial disappointment, however, fades like dew as soon as a young barmaid comes up to his table.
“What would you like to drink, young sir?”
The red-haired barmaid is wearing a fully lined midnight blue vest with a low neckline accenting her bosom. Her long skirt is of the same color as her vest only embroidered and decorated with golden thread. She looks at him with a big smile and sparkling hazel eyes. Such enchanting eyes.
“Umm. I dunno. What do you recommend?”
“Well, we have Brauberger, of course, Augustiner, and an imported one. Affligem. But a youngster like you probably mostly drinks ale or wine, right?”
Stefan is unwilling to admit that she is exactly right. He has precious little beer drinking experience beyond the generic ale served at his own household.
“Hey, surely, you’re not much older than me, haha. Guard your tongue, please!”
“Well, thank you. I take that as a compliment, Sir?”
“Stefan. Stefan von Graff. May I ask your name?”
“Elizabeth. I don’t give my family name to customers. Don’t want any stalkers haha”
“Wise choice, I’m sure. Let me try the Affligem, please.”
The red-haired beauty turns her midnight blue back to him, and coasts past a few other tables to pick up empty beer mugs before returning to her station behind the bar in the center of the room to pour his beer. Stefan is doing his utmost to avoid staring at her shapely figure, but he is finding it difficult to take his eyes of Elizabeth. When she returns to his table with a foamy draft beer in a two-pint stoneware mug, he inadvertently locks eyes with her. Ah, those hazel orbs of beauty. He could lose himself in those eyes.
“Are you sure you can handle this? It’s strong foreign beer, you know.”
“Sure, I can haha.”
“Is your father by any chance Alexander van Graff? The famous merchant?”
Stefan nods, a bit embarrassed and annoyed that his father’s reputation always precedes him.
“I remember seeing him here before with some of the councilmen. We get a lot of fine folks. You see that gentleman in the corner there?”
Stefan looks in the direction Elizabeth is gesturing. The table in the far corner seats a middle-aged man in a gorgeous crimson silk tunic with goldwork and a bycocket hat in matching color. There is an almost regal atmosphere about his clothing and self-assured demeanor.
“He is a member of the Diet and is leading some of the Sound tariff negotiations with Valdemar IV, the Danish king. Or so I’ve heard.”
“Ah, the bloody Danes. Thank God, we are no longer under their rule. I hear Valdemar has now allied himself with the Teutonic Knights.”
“Honestly, I’m not really interested in politics. Go talk to Mr. Wittenborg if you want the latest news. Not only is he a diet member, but he is also related to the mayor.”
“I think I’d rather talk to you. If you are not too busy that is?”
“Haha, but why would you talk to a simple barmaid like me, good Sir Stefan?”
Faced with Elizabeth’s sweet smile and delightful chuckle, Stefan is unable to reply in any other way than by giving a nervous laugh while averting his eyes from her intense gaze.
Stefan had ended up talking to Elizabeth for hours that day and by the time he had run out of pfennigs and grudgingly left the bar, he had been so tipsy that he had bumped into a group of drunken sailors on his way home, almost getting himself beaten up. “Take it easy with that foreign beer, son. It looks like you had a good time haha” His father had not berated him but given him a respectful glance, signaling that he perhaps finally considered him to be a grown man.
From that day on, Stefan started frequenting the upper-class bar on Mengstraβe as often as possible. Elizabeth would always come sit at his table, and they would chat whenever her bartending services were not called for by other customers. He learned that Elizabeth was only a few years older than himself, that she lived outside the city itself in a small cottage with her dad and little brother. Her mom had died giving birth to her little brother, so life had not been easy for them, and the money Elizabeth could make from working at Waldron’s made up an indispensable part of their family budget, her dad being a woodworker with a measly pay. After a few weeks, Stefan came up with the bold idea of inviting Elizabeth home for dinner one day.
“Are you daft, boy!? I told you we don’t associate with the riff-raff. It’s a renowned bar, but she is just a barmaid for Christ’s sake. Forget about her. I am planning for you to meet Esmeralda van der Hoof soon. She is the daughter of a wealthy merchant family in Bremen. A suitable match for you and a strategic win for our merchant house.”
Even now, years, or quite possibly aeons, after her death and the death of everyone he knew in Lübeck, his father’s flat rejection of his incipient romance with Elizabeth still haunts him as he is stirring in his coffin about to emerge from his long sleep.