Wolves Among Us

Wolves Among Us by Ginger Garrett




Acknowledgments

First, to the entire team at David C Cook: I owe you a debt of gratitude. The economy is rocky, the market is changing, and even when I get discouraged, you continue to believe in my books. Thank you more than I can say.

To Nicci Hubert, an editor who gave me plenty of work (or is it the other way around?): I owe you a debt of gratitude too. I had such peace about working on this book knowing you were my editor.

To Chip MacGregor, literary agent extraordinaire: Thank you for being willing to walk with Mitch and me on this road.

To my novelist friends whom I treasure: India Edghill, Siri Mitchell, Kimberly Stuart, Sandra Byrd, the girls on the bean loop, and the writers of the Silver Arrow critique group: Thank you for keeping me sane and always laughing.

To my readers: I love your emails more than I can say! Please keep them coming. I love to know what is on your minds and hearts.

And lastly, to my family—I love you all.





Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.

—Jesus





Chapter One


Germany, 1538

Dinfoil Village at the southeastern edge of the Black Forest

Weeks had gone by since winter had lost her blinding white beauty. Cold gray mud at Father Stefan’s feet and dull clouds above him were all that remained of her icy pageant. He waved his hand at the low clouds, willing them to be gone. The hopeful golden sun of spring was overdue. He longed for its warmth to awaken new life in his little village.

The good Lord had other plans for the morning, however. The sun remained shrouded, and the air kept its chill after a midnight rain. Father Stefan could see his breath when he exhaled, a small wonder that still fascinated him even in these, the middle years of his life.

Each wet stone on the cobblestone streets of Dinfoil was packed so close to the next that the market lane looked like the side of an enormous, glistening brown fish. The lane was as slippery as a fish too, and Father Stefan was careful as he walked. If he slipped and broke a leg, he would be of no use to anyone—not as a spiritual father or as the town physician.

The sky may have refused any promise of warmth, but the new day still brought its own comforts. Bread baking in ovens and the crisp hints of spring’s first greens teased his nose as life burst out into the lanes everywhere he looked. Last night the great lashes of lightning had driven everyone inside early. Now no one wasted a moment starting the new day: Shutters were being opened as he walked, children ran through the leaves torn from trees by the winds, and merchants dashed with their carts along the bumpy stone lanes, anxious to reclaim yesterday’s lost business. When winter’s ice melted away, travelers appeared from many villages, eager to spend their money at the market and meet new people. Fresh tales were as coveted as fresh supplies in those first weeks of spring.

Father Stefan walked through the town square, where children played prancing ponies, skipping in wide circles. One boy slipped, catching himself on his palms. He winced and muttered a curse under his breath. When he caught Father Stefan watching him, he blushed and looked away.

Stefan suppressed a frown and looked around. The boy’s mother had done penance for her coarse language not a week ago, and here her boy was, repeating her sin.

“Mothers, mind your children,” he called out, hoping the village’s women could hear him through their open windows. “The stones are treacherous this morning.” He shook a finger at a boy. “No more of that,” he said.

Father Stefan walked along, greeting his parishioners, nodding at the shopkeepers and housemaids who were still opening shutters. The wealthier the family, the closer they lived inside the square, and the more housemaids he saw at work.

As was usual for this hour, no one appeared in the windows of those expensive homes except maids and dogs. After maids opened the shutters, several dogs popped their heads into the windows, looking down with great interest at the people in the square. Father Stefan particularly liked seeing the yellow mastiff that often sat, solemn as a magistrate, in a window, his jowls set in judgment. Another dog across the lane watched with bulging eyes and a little black mouth. That dog, outraged at the activity below him, barked and yapped at each passerby.

Marie, the young daughter of a parishioner in Father Stefan’s church, pranced past, chasing after her little brother. She ran into Father Stefan, knocking him onto his rear. She looked horrified.

“Father Stefan. Forgive me,” she said.

He held his side with one hand and used the other to push himself back up.

“No need for forgiveness, Marie. It was an accident, after all.”

Her face looked ashen. Her chin began to tremble. She was one good breath away from a loud wail. Stefan reached out and tapped her on the nose, startling her.

“How is your mother’s new baby girl?” he asked, looking down to wiggle his eyebrows at the young boy who now stood at the girl’s side. The boy giggled, and Marie glanced at him before she smiled too.

She had swallowed back her tears, but her eyes were still wide and watering. “The baby is well, thank you. She is at home with Mother. She doesn’t smell very good, though.”

Father Stefan pressed his lips together to catch a chuckle. “Yes, Marie, babies do smell. Tell your mother I will be glad to have her back with us for Mass.”

“But Mother is not well, Father Stefan. She cries a lot now that she has given birth. And she is pale. I try to get my brother to play with me outside, to let her rest, but I don’t think she notices.”

“I see.” He smiled and nodded, a signal that he was ready to be on his way.

Marie grabbed him by the hand. “Perhaps you could come see her?”

Stefan disentangled himself and stepped back. “My place is in the church. As is hers. Remind her of that. When she gets back to church, she will feel better at once.” He leaned down and flicked his hands at Marie, sending her away.

Marie hesitated, then rushed at him and planted a kiss on his cheek. She turned and ran off with her brother before he could say anything else. Stefan pressed a hand against the spot she had touched, mystified.

The sun broke free for a moment, warming Stefan’s arms. He pushed up the sleeves of his shirt, catching more of this sudden pleasure, the second unmerited grace of the day.

The thought prodded Stefan to turn and get on with his morning business. He couldn’t just stand here smiling in the sun like a fool. Pleasure is a fool’s reward, he thought, a distraction that keeps good people from doing God’s work. He must buy his dried hops and be back at the church before the next Mass. As he walked the square, he greeted the sweet young parishioner Elizabeth, who shopped at the herb market. She gave a shy nod and gestured back to the church, which stood at the far end of the square. Stefan smiled and nodded his head in agreement. Yes, it was almost time for Mass. They had both reason to hurry.

He then spotted Dame Alice with her wide, soft face. She sat on an upturned barrel at the front door of her home. Though wealthy, she rarely busied herself with women’s work, much to Stefan’s dismay. Instead she sat at her entranceway with her white hair neatly plaited above her ears, acknowledging those who passed.

Stefan watched as Mia, the sheriff’s wife, bustled past him, darting between the town’s children, clutching her coin bag to her stomach as she approached the butcher’s shop.

“Mia!” Dame Alice called out.

Mia stopped, clearly startled.

Dame Alice gestured widely with her arms. “Come and eat, child. I put a leg of lamb on the fire. Come and tell me of your morning.”

Mia glanced in every direction, her face turning red as others watched the interaction. She pulled her scarf lower over her eyes and hurried away.

“Mia!” Dame Alice shouted. “You need to eat. It’s how God made us.”

Mia pretended not to hear, though Stefan knew better. Her jaw muscles were flexing as if she was sorely tempted by Dame Alice’s invitation. But Mia was a good wife who she knew had no time for the gossip of idle women. Stefan would have to chastise Dame Alice once more at her next confession, though it would do no good. She had lost both her daughters and one grandson in a plague years before. Since then she had cared for the young women of the village like a mother might. He worried that too much gossip was exchanged at her kitchen table.

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