The Secrets of Morgarten

Other submissions by Louise Mangos:
If you want to read their other submissions, please click the links.
Strangers on a Bridge (Suspense & Thriller, Screenplay Award 2023)
Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
A beautiful weaver, a medieval sleuth and a fugitive knight meet in an Alpine village under threat from the Habsburgs in 1315. Can a mystery be solved before a mighty battle ensues? And who will be the victors in their turbulent triangle of love?
First 10 Pages



15th November 1315, Morgarten

Burning arrows streaked like meteors through the air, landing around the mill and the out-buildings. One of them pierced the roof of the open-sided barn between the toll tower and the chalet. Pitch burned through the thatch and trickled onto the straw underneath. The entire barn was soon on fire, as though the rain and snow of the past weeks had never soaked the building.

Magda studied the clouds and shivered. Her glance fell to wisps of mist drifting through the forest canopy across the valley. She prayed the wind would not cause the flames to jump to their chalet. Walter placed his hand on her arm, urging her to stay with him on the hillside. It wasn’t safe to go back to the hamlet.

He lifted the alpenhorn to his mouth and blew a long, haunting tone. And again a second time. When the sound reached the opposite slope, a flurry of movement rippled across the Figlenfluh Ridge. The men from the village who’d been waiting all night in the cold scrambled like ants to their posts. Using thick pine branches and brute strength, they levered the first of the boulders over the edge. Moving sluggishly at first, the rocks picked up momentum as they rolled down the steep slope. Thick logs from the oldest trees followed on the boulders’ wake. The jumble of giant objects brought down shrubs, trees, mud and rubble along its way. Even from that distance, the ground vibrated under Magda and Walter’s feet.

After a moment of silence, the noise reached them across the narrow head of the Aegeri Valley. Magda put her hands over her ears. The thunder was as loud as any violent alpine summer storm she’d experienced in her nineteen years. As the assault continued, she wondered whether the whole mountain would fall down and fill the valley.

The missiles crashed onto the enemy Habsburg soldiers who had turned to try and flee the onslaught. Their advance was additionally hampered by the marshland. Horses’ hooves sucked down into the swampy depths. The soldiers on foot fared no better, the weight of their armour restricting their onward movement. They were now discarding their armour to avoid being pulled under and drowning in the cold boggy waters before they’d even wielded the first slash of their swords.

The men of Morgarten returned the enemy’s crossbow fire, their bolts reaching their mark with accuracy, which would have surprised the Habsburg troops. The enemy horses that had broken through the first defence could no longer be urged forward, despite spurs digging red rawness into their flanks. Steam rose from their rumps, their mouths sawed at their bits, and they grunted with effort. The beasts pranced and strained on the spot, attempting to lift their legs, hooves caked in the stagnant mud of the marsh. As they reared unexpectedly onto their haunches, the formation of the foot soldiers behind them descended into chaos. Men lost their boots to the bog, but pressed on regardless.

As Magda took her hands from her ears, the screams of the horses and the blood-curdling battle cries of her people echoed between the valley walls. The smell of rotting reeds, horse sweat and the iron of blood hung on the air. Hundreds of enemy troops were spread out in a disorganised chain between the lake and the hamlet. The men of Morgarten ran into their midst, using their halberds in all of the weapon’s capacities – axe blades to decapitate soldiers and smite the horses’ legs, the lance ends to pierce soft organs. And when all else failed, the wooden shafts were lifted to defend Habsburg swords.

Magda focused on a horse floundering in the swamp, vapour spurting in puffs from its flared nostrils. The white of its panicked eye was visible even from her vantage point on the rocky outcrop. She thought at first it was Sébastien’s handsome black stallion. But then she realised the beast was a dun, and that the blood of hundreds of men had turned the marshland and its pelt dark. The blood of hundreds of men whose deaths were surely pointless. What madness drove men on, even when what lay in front of them was already helplessly slain?

After all that had passed since spring and the arrival first of Walter and then of Sébastien, she wondered whether this senseless, violent loss of life could have been avoided with the secrets the three of them held.


Eight months ago

15th March 1315, Schornen


Magda hummed to herself as she hung a swatch of newly-dyed linen to dry in the courtyard between the chalet and the toll tower. Her fingers were coaxing out creases, pulling the cloth on the line, when she heard the familiar bray of Mihal’s mule.

She turned to see the medicine man leading his faithful beast down the path from the pass. The animal stepped cautiously along the trail, his rump packed with an assortment of bags stuffed with gadgets and tools. Glass phials and tiny clay pots clinked and jangled in the leather boxes strapped across his saddle.

The children ran up the trail to meet Mihal, turning to skip at his side as they accompanied him to the hamlet. A group of adults gathered by the stream to welcome him, clamouring for news of relatives in neighbouring villages. Magda wiped her purple-stained hands down her apron and hurried to the chalet kitchen to fetch the visitor some refreshment.

Once the men and women had gone back to their work at the mill or to the fields, Mihal came to the courtyard and sat on the bench. He turned his face towards the warmth of the spring sun while Magda placed a plate in front of him.

‘You’re a sight for sore eyes, Magda Stauffacher,’ he said.

‘It’s good to see you, Mihal. Please, eat. En guete.’

Magda smiled as she took the reins of the mule and led it to the water trough, leaving Mihal to chew on some dried venison and a hunk of freshly-baked rye bread. After tying the mule, Magda sat next to Mihal on the bench. He swilled his food down with the remnants of last autumn’s cider Most and pressed his gnarled, spit-dampened finger to the fallen crumbs on the table.

‘Come on, Mihal, don’t keep me in suspense. Which exotic southern land have you been to this time?’

‘Guess,’ he said, reaching for one of his saddle bags and pulling out a skein of multi-thread twine.

‘Venice? Oh, I’m so envious!’

‘No. Further east. A city with spires and spices, music from magical instruments, and costumes that would make you swoon,’ he said as he placed the skein in her hands.

‘What’s this?’ she asked, gently pulling apart the loops of fine threads.

‘Cotton. Found growing in the hills to the west of Constantinople. The fibres around the seeds are as fluffy as new-born lambs-tails. Weavers are already using it as far north as Milano.’

Magda sniffed the threads and rolled them between her fingers.

‘It’s fine like silk, but sturdier. It must be a dream to weave.’

‘Quite different from your reed flax,’ Mihal said, nodding towards the swamp lying between Schornen and Morgarten. ‘How’s your expertise with the baselard coming along?’

Magda wrinkled her nose, placed her palms on the table and studied the spider-like scars on the tops of her hands. She might be proud of how softly she could spin the fibres and weave her linen from the tough mountain flax, but harvesting the reeds to extract their core was threatening to destroy the hands she needed for sewing.

‘There’s no avoiding the wickedness of the reeds, no matter how carefully I wield the blade,’ she said. ‘Edgar’s no help, always excusing himself to fish in the lake. Says his role takes precedence in the village’s needs.’ She mimicked her brother’s gruff voice: ‘It’s a luxury to clothe yourself in more than one outfit, Maggi, but don’t forget we still need to eat.’

‘You and your brother are far too contrary, Magda. These roles have been allocated to men and women since the beginning of time.’

‘But it’s so unfair! Casting fishing lines is suited to the soft hands of a woman. It’s harvesting reeds that should be left to the battling hands of a warrior.’ Magda showed him her hands. ‘These would be much worse if it hadn’t been for the salve you made for me. Which reminds me, I’ve almost run out. Is it time for a new shirt, Mihal?’

She gave him a demure smile.

‘I’m working on a new recipe for a healing salve. But it’s not quite ready. I’ll soon have something to trade for your fine needlework.’ Mihal puffed out his chest and brushed his palm along his tunic from under his grey beard down to his paunch. ‘Your reputation is growing, my dear. I was complimented on this when I stepped off the boat in Genoa.’

Magda beamed with pride.

‘The colour has held well. I couldn’t think of a better person to be a walking display of my work,’ she said, nudging the tunic over his rotund belly.

‘Although I fear this tunic is mysteriously shrinking,’ he said. ‘Too many kofta stews and baklava over the past months.’

‘So you will be needing a new one.’ Magda said, wondering what culinary delicacies he spoke of. At the thought of food, she remembered the bread and Torten she should be preparing for the mid-Lent village festival. ‘Will you be staying for the Mittenfastenfeuer?’ she asked.

‘I’m afraid I must move on tomorrow,’ said Mihal. ‘You heathens certainly know how to throw a party. Many others in the Confederation are far more pious and will be fasting until Easter.’

‘It raises our spirits after the hard winter. There were losses this year. Three more elders, two sick children,’ she said, her eyes prickling with unshed tears.

‘It will be good to take your minds off the troubling threats beyond your border,’ said Mihal.

Magda bit her lip. From where they sat they could see over the stone wall to the Aegeri Valley spread across foreign territory. Habsburg territory.

‘Damn that border! Why must it divide Schornen and Morgarten? They have so cruelly split our families and farms!’

‘Ah, the whims of politicians. It’s because of your strategic position at the head of the valley,’ said Mihal waving a hand behind them. ‘Your geography has determined the border, not your kin.’

The sound of a staff against rock drew their attention to the trail leading down from the pass. A tall man was approaching on foot. Magda’s heart raced in alarm and she glanced at Mihal. He turned towards the figure, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the sun.

‘A stranger. I must fetch Papa,’ said Magda.

‘Don’t fret. I think that’s young Walter,’ said Mihal.

‘You know him?’

‘He’s from Uri. He’ll be carrying a message, probably for your father. He poses no danger, but it would be good to alert Josef.’

Magda made her way down the slope towards the mill, a shadow cast on the joyful visit of Mihal. Messages these days were lacking good tidings, as they were usually about marauders, thieves and political unrest.

She crossed the stream, glancing at the new arrival. He was alone and wore no armour. When he stopped to survey the Aegeri Valley, she watched him breathe in the spring air. Pride bloomed in her chest, as though she was the one responsible for what he could see from his vantage point. She turned to share his view. The forested cliffs to the west dropped sharply into the crescent-shaped lake – the Aegerisee. The village of Morgarten was spread along the eastern shore. The water reflected the clear blue of the sky, drawing the eye to the furthest point with green meadows surrounding the distant farmhouses and chalets.

Magda sighed and stepped through the door into the darkness of the mill house.

A strained swearword directed at the contraption running the mill made Magda wait a moment. Her brother Edgar was bare-chested with flecks of something dark on his muscular arms. He was wielding a long metal object, as her father directed him from the other side of the giant mill stone. Her father stood for a moment, placing his fist in the small of his back.

‘A messenger is at the tower, Papa. You should come.’

Her father waved his hand in her direction without looking and bent back down to the task.

‘I’ll be there as soon as we get… this…’ His mouth clamped with effort as he and Edgar strained to align a cog on the mill.

Magda returned to the chalet where the stranger was deep in conversation with the medicine man. As she approached she picked up their conversation.

‘Are you heading north?’ the young man asked Mihal, his voice friendly. ‘I must have missed you in our village. I heard no news of your passage.’

‘Delivering tinctures to the brothers at the abbey in Einsiedeln,’ said Mihal. ‘But it’s always worth the small detour to Schornen to order some new clothes or to sample some of Magda’s delicious food.’

Mihal winked at Magda as she cleared the table. She studied the stranger surreptitiously. A row of healthy white teeth accentuated the smoothness of his cheek that had yet to see the coarseness of a beard. He turned to smile at her and his blue eyes held her stare. She looked away. Although only a messenger, she thought him brave to be walking without protection or an obvious weapon. Even Mihal carried a dagger.

‘What message do you bring to Schornen, Walterli?’ asked Mihal. ‘No, don’t answer that! Let us enjoy this moment in the spring sunshine. I’m curious to know about that cantankerous old father of yours. Is he still killing rogue Habsburg emissaries?’

‘I wish you wouldn’t call me that, Michi,’ said the young man, bristling, but with tolerant humour. ‘I have long grown out of my childhood nickname. And as for my father, his aim is still true, but his draw slows a little with his age.’

Magda approached the table with an extra mug and fresh water in a jug filled from the fountain. She poured three mugs and pushed one of them towards the stranger. He smiled his thanks. Magda was silently vexed with Mihal for not introducing them.

‘Aside from messenger duties, are you still honing your tracking skills?’ Mihal asked.

Magda watched the stranger as his gaze returned a moment later to the old man.

‘Against my father’s wishes, Mihal. I still refuse to become a soldier. And against my late mother’s wishes I don’t want to become a farmer either. I tracked down a thief in Altdorf last week, earning myself a few Taler. There’s not much reward in it I’m afraid. At least when I’m delivering messages, I get to see the beauty of our land.’

Walter’s gaze fixed on Magda. She was furious with herself for allowing a blush to colour her cheeks as he uttered the word ‘beauty.’

‘Might I know who your father is?’ she asked, to change the subject and force an introduction.

Walter raised his chin and Magda expected contempt if he was living with a father who didn’t agree with his ambitions. But instead he continued jovially.

‘He is both a rebel and a compatriot, but nevertheless well-loved by us all. My father is Wilhelm Tell.’

‘Oh! Herr Tell! I met him once. He was here for a meeting with my father and Uncle Werner. He is indeed an imposing man,’ she ended in a whisper.

‘Then we can already be considered acquaintances, Magda Stauffacher,’ he said, bowing with one hand across his chest and the other offered in official greeting.

She took his hand. His hold was stronger than she would have imagined, but his palm was not yet calloused with years of physical labour. Her breath caught for a moment in her throat, before the crunch of boots on the gravel of the courtyard distracted them both.

‘Papa!’ Magda exclaimed as he arrived from the mill. ‘This is Wilhelm Tell’s son, Walter. He brings a message.’

‘A pleasure to meet you, Walter.’ Her father’s frown smoothed to friendliness. ‘Josef Stauffacher.’

They shook hands. A younger, darker version of her father appeared behind, wiping his fingers on a leather cloth. He looked at Walter with hooded eyes. Even after he’d heard the messenger’s name, a wariness remained on Edgar’s features.

‘And this is my brother, Edgar,’ said Magda.

Edgar stood behind her father. He took his time wiping his palms, leaving Walter’s hand hanging a moment between them.

‘Sorry,’ Edgar said, finally shaking Walter’s hand. ‘Pig fat from the mill wheel. She’s been sticking.’

‘Come on lad, spit it out. What do we have to fear this time?’ Josef asked Walter.

‘Your brother Werner has sent a warning to be extra vigilant along this border. There have been raids through Arth on the Lake of Zug. It seems Heinrich von Hünenberg has been up to his terrorising tricks again,’

‘I hate that man,’ said Magda. ‘He’s quite despicable.’

‘Ach, Maggie, we have been saving you to offer as his concubine in exchange for peace in the valley.’ Edgar roared with laughter and slapped his thigh.

‘Stop teasing your sister, Eddi,’ said Josef. ‘Tell me, Walter, will my brother be sending troops to protect us?’

Magda felt sorry for Walter as he paled a little.

‘Unfortunately, he can spare no men. They’re enlarging the forts at Altdorf and Schwyz. He was hoping you could muster help from the men of your village, sons of the farmers.’

Josef pounded the table. The mugs juddered along its surface. Quickly gathering his temper, Josef looked at Magda.

‘Have you a plan for dinner my girl, or are you expecting food to fall in our laps?’