All of a sudden he could feel the rudder moving just the tiniest bit. He pushed harder, groaning, feeling that at any moment his bones might break. With a final grinding sound, the rudder came free. The raft spun out from the whirlpool and, with one last shudder, was catapulted away from the rock face.
Moments later they were shooting swift as an arrow toward two small rocky outcroppings on the right riverbank. Some of the travelers carried on screaming, but at this point the raftsman had gained control of his raft. They rushed past the foam-splashed rocks, plunging headfirst into the water until at last they'd made their way out of the dangerous gorge.
"Thank you very much!" The helmsman wiped the sweat and water from his eyes and reached out a callused hand to Kuisl. "The Long Wall might have had us for supper. Do you have any interest in rafting yourself?" He smirked at Kuisl, reaching out to feel the hangman's biceps. "You're as strong as two oxen, and you sure can curse like a natural-born. So, how about it?"
Kuisl shook his head. "Bless you for that, but you wouldn't enjoy having me. One more whirlpool like that and I'd throw up right there in the water. Solid ground under my feet is what I need."
The raftsman laughed, and Kuisl shook his wet, matted mop of hair so that droplets flew in all directions.
"How long before we get to Regensburg?" he asked the helmsman. "This river is driving me crazy. I've thought our time was up at least ten times now."
Kuisl looked back at the rock walls that overshadowed the river on both sides. Some reminded him of stone beasts, and some of the heads of giants who stared down at this swarming mass of tiny mortals far below. Just a moment ago they had passed by the Weltenburg Monastery, now little more than a ruin consumed by war and high water. Despite its sad condition, many travelers on the Danube still stopped there to offer silent prayers. After a heavy rain, the narrow gorge below was considered a challenge for even the most experienced raftsmen. It certainly couldn't do any harm to pause for a few Hail Marys beforehand.
"The Long Wall is, by God, the worst stretch along here," the helmsman said, making the sign of the cross. "Especially when the water is high. But from here on out it's a calm ride, I promise. We should get there in a few more hours."
"I hope you're right," the hangman grunted, "or I'll give you a good paddling with that damned rudder."
Kuisl turned away and padded cautiously along the slippery narrow aisle between the rows of benches, toward the back of the raft where the cargo was stored. He hated traveling by raft, even if it was the fastest and still the safest way to get from one town to the next. The hangman preferred to feel the solid forest floor beneath his feet. Tree trunks were good for building houses and tables and even gallows, if you like, but they surely weren't meant for this tumbling around, pitching, and tossing in raging river rapids. Kuisl would be happy when this was all over.
Excerpted from The Beggar King by Oliver Pötzsch. Copyright © 2013 by Oliver Pötzsch. Excerpted by permission of Mariner Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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