The town lay at the edge of the Black Forest, its name unremembered. It was just after sunset, and the town—village, really—smelled of burning wood and rotting leaves. In the center of the muddy square stood the gallows, and from it hung the corpses of two women, one young, one old, their tongues distended, sightless eyes staring at nothing in particular. A cloud of black flies buzzed about, laying eggs in their open mouths. Perched on a gable overhead, an unclean bird squawked and waited for its chance to feed.
The festivities having ended, the men of the town had all retired to the tavern for the night. Inside the taproom of The Greased Goat, the hearth fire roared and crackled. A crowd had gathered around a rotund figure, dressed in a black coat and ruffled collar, an oversized holy symbol hanging down to rest on his outsized belly. But despite the somber appearance of his garb, the figure’s voice was loud and boisterous.
“No more will these witches deceive us!” roared the witch-hunter, slamming his empty tankard forcefully onto the rough-hewn table. “No longer will your crops wither and your livestock perish! No longer will your babes sicken and shrivel in the womb! The witch and her coven are dead, never to return, or my name isn’t Matthias Krogh!”
Men cheered and clanked their tankards together. Matthias, still thirsty after the hanging, motioned to the tavern girl for a refill. His eyes caught a glimpse of her bosom. Her blouse was immodestly low, he noted. He would have to mention it to the tavern-keep later—impure dress led to impure thoughts, and impure thoughts led to impure deeds. Better still, he would discuss it with the wench later, in his private chambers. He had always found that the young women in these towns were more amenable to correction once a few of their friends had been hung. Matthias looked away, took another swallow of wine and continued.
“These particular witches were a cunning lot,” he said. “They refused to confess, even after being put to the question, unwilling to allow their foul crimes to be exposed to the light of justice. But in the end, no one can hide from the light of God—or the Witch-Hunter General!”
Another cheer went up, this one louder than the first. Matthias’s dim, ale-soaked brain recalled the two women. The older one had been a midwife. She had broken soon after the thumbscrews had been applied. She said she alone had compacted with the devil. Her granddaughter, she maintained, was innocent of any crime. The grand-daughter was a pretty girl and Matthias had insisted on interrogating her alone. He had offered her a reasonable deal: if she signed a confession, both she and her grandmother would be permitted to live. In exchange, she need only service him on the floor of the filthy cell. The foolish bitch had slapped him instead. The sting brought Matthias to his senses—obviously she had used her black magic to beguile him—and to think he had almost fallen for it! It had taken him hours to extract a confession from her. The girl had proved frustratingly resilient, and he had been forced to use the choke pear and iron spider. But in the end, she broke down and confessed. They all did. Now both grandmother and granddaughter hung from the gallows, together, their dark plans thwarted. Pity about the girl, he thought. Had the witch not been so stubborn, she might have saved herself.
“They begged for their lives of course,” Matthias continued, returning to the moment. His voice took on the quavering tone of a frightened girl. “Please, they begged. Show us mercy! God may show mercy, said I, but in this life the price for witchery is the rope!”
The crowd cheered for a third time and Matthias’ deputies slapped him heartily on the back. In the exuberance of the moment, Matthias slapped two silver coins onto the bar and ordered all the glasses refilled.
That’s when he noticed a lone figure, ensconced at a small table in the corner of the room, ignoring the celebration altogether.
“You there,” Matthias said, walking towards him. “What’s the matter, my sullen friend? You do not give the cheer. May we count you among us or do you feel some dint of pity for these brides of Satan?”
The figure turned slowly. He was a landsknecht, a mercenary, dressed in red and black, his wool shirt deliberately torn in the latest fashion. His ostrich-plumed hat lay on the table. His zweihander sword rested on the table’s edge, within arm’s reach. His face was lean and his beard neatly trimmed. His eyes were the same blue-steel color of his sword.
“Seems hardly sporting,” he responded. “Torturing women who cannot defend themselves.“
“Then you do not approve of my methods?” Matthias asked.
“No,” he replied coldly. “I do not.”
“Am I to assume then, that you do not believe in witches?”
The crowd grew quiet, becoming aware of the drama unfolding before them.
“Aye,” said the mercenary. “I believe in witches and I’ve met them. But I doubt a witch of any power would waste her time with this backwater shit-hole of a town.”
Matthias stepped closer. “And whom do I have the pleasure of addressing that he may question the methods of the Witch-hunter General?”
The tavern-keeper, who had remained silent, stepped forward. “That would be the Bastard “D’Uvel,” he said. “The butcher of Karlstadt, terror of Carcosa, mercenary, and killer of witches himself.”
Matthias stopped. He had heard the name of the Bastard D’Uvel and knew the two-hander was not for show. He suddenly felt the presence of the collective eyes of the crowd, waiting for him to respond. Before he could, another voice interrupted.
“Must those women hang there all night,” said a female voice. “Aren’t they dead enough?”
Matthias squinted into the darkness at the source of the voice. Directly across from D’Uvel sat a woman—somehow Matthias had not noticed her before—-but did now. She was young, not quite thirty, with dark hair. She wore it up, revealing a slender throat adorned by a black lace choker. Her dress violated every sumptuary law in the province: leather corset and matching red riding jacket with leather trousers and ankle-high boots. Arcane letters covered the backs of her hands, and she made no effort to hide them. She held the stub of a cigar casually between her fingers; instead of the acrid smell of New World tobacco, the smoke smelled of wintergreen. With her rouged cheeks and lips, she looked as if had walked straight out of a seraglio, yet the look of casual disinterest on her face conveyed the impression of nobility. She stared imperiously at him, as if he were dung on the bottom of her boot.
“All witches must hang overnight,” he said with authority.
“To serve as an example to others who would consort with the Dark One. It was necessary, although I apologize if the spectacle disturbed you, Lady…?”
“Angelique Malveaux,” she answered, exhaling smoke at the ceiling. “And how, may I ask, do you know these women were guilty?”
“Why, they confessed, of course.”
“I’d confess too if you shoved a metal claw between my legs.”
Someone in the crowd laughed. Matthias turned and flashed an angry glare. The tittering died away. He turned back to Angelique. “I have executed nearly three hundred witches, my lady. I know my business. To an expert such as myself, the signs of witchery are as clear as day.”
“And what are the signs, so that I might recognize them?”
“There are clear mannerisms,” he announced with an air of authority. “Impudence. Stubbornness. A shrill voice. A scolding tongue…”
“Then almost any married woman can be branded a witch.”
There was more chuckling. This time he ignored it.
“Then there are the clear physical signs,” he continued. “A hairy lip, split lip, wrinkled brow, or eyebrows that meet in the middle. Somewhere on the body will be found the devil’s mark, where the infernal powers have branded their profane names. And there may be a devil’s teat, where the witch will suckle her familiar demon.”
“And where is this extra teat to be found?” she asked.
“In the armpit, within the folds of the flesh, any cavity—even the nether regions.”
“So you’re an expert on the nether regions, are you?” she asked, smiling. “I bet you’re at it all day.”
“May I remind my lady to whom she is speaking?” he said, squinting. “I am Matthias Krogh, Witch-hunter General, deputed and authorized to hunt and kill witches, and the foremost authority in this town at the moment.”
“Witch-Hunter General?” she said, raising a perfectly-plucked eyebrow. “I didn’t realize that was an official position.”
“Indeed it is,” Matthias lied. “If I wished, I could have you arrested right now.”
“Is that so? Under what charge?”
“Violation of sumptuary laws for one. Your dress is too provocative. And second, contempt for an officer of the court. As a matter of fact, I should very much like to speak to your husband regarding this matter. I doubt he’d approve of you shamelessly dining with your retainer in public.”
“My husband is dead and I’ll dine with whomever I wish,” she said, eyes narrowing. “Tell me, Herr Krogh—under whose court do you serve? In what church were you ordained? Do you have a copy of your commission? Because from where I’m sitting, your only authority seems to come from the mob of sheep-fucking yokels behind you.”
Matthias felt his face flush red. “That’s enough,” he sputtered and turned to his men. “You’re under arrest. Seize her!”
D’Uvel’s hand moved to the pommel of his zweihander. He stood to his full six-feet and brought the double-blade level in front of him. “I’ve been hired to escort the Lady Angelique through the Black Forest, and the Bastard D’Uvel never fails to make good on a contract. Now, if you value your lives, you’ll sit down. If not, I invite the bravest among you to step up and be the first to die.”
No one moved. Their eyes lowered to the wide-plank floorboards. A few of them turned to Matthias, whose face was a deep shade of crimson. How dare this trollop and mercenary question the authority of the Witch-hunter General! His hand went to his sword hilt, but there it froze, unable to pull the blade from its sheath.
“Anyone?” D’Uvel asked, sneering directly at Matthias. “I thought not. Now be off with you. Find some other defenseless old woman to torment.”
Matthias just stood there, seething.
“Gentlemen!” said the tavern-keeper, placing his arm on Matthias’ shoulder. “I’m sure that’s just the wine talking. Come, come. We’re all on the same side. No one is a friend of witches here. Don’t let a few hasty words spoil the mirth. A free pint for all, courtesy of the house!”
The crowd turned and resumed their drinking, pretending that nothing had happened. D’Uvel sat back down and returned the zweihander to its former resting place against the table. Angelique whispered something to him. No one said anything to Matthias.
Matthias Krogh gritted his teeth and swallowed a mouthful of sour wine. D’Uvel was right; this roomful of farmers stood no chance against a trained landsknecht. And Matthias himself, despite owning a sword, had never actually used one in combat. No, the Bastard D’Uvel had the tactical advantage - that much was certain.
But as much as he hated D’Uvel, Matthias hated the Lady Angelique even more. She was a witch, quite obviously, and a cunning one at that. D’Uvel was a mere retainer; she was the one who had orchestrated his humiliation. He watched her from the shadows. There she sat, sipping her wine, smoking, smiling at the Bastard D’Uvel—-probably flirting with him—apparently unconcerned, as if she were in no danger at all. As if she were any different—-as if she were better than any of the other women he had hung.
And the more he thought of her, the more aroused Matthias became. e Her He found himself thinking of her rouged lips and painted nails. Her leather trousers. Her immodestly tight corset. Her lascivious smile. His mind began to race, imagining all the tortures he would like to subject her to. He imagined her naked, on the rack, gagged, her taught limbs stretched by the ropes. He imagined whipping her, the leather leaving beautiful crimson lashes across her perfect, pale flesh. He imagined himself wrapping his hands around her slender neck as he forced himself upon her, her eyes pleading for mercy as he squeezed the life out of her.
Matthias felt a tingle on his neck, as if he were being watched. He risked a backwards glance at Angelique and discovered she was watching him. Their eyes met and she raised her wineglass toward him, drank, and returned to her conversation with the mercenary.
Witchery, he thought. She could read his mind—-certain proof she was a witch—-and a dangerous one at that. In the dim light of the fire, an evil smile curled on Matthias’ fat lips. Angelique Malveaux must die, he decided. And she must die tonight.
It was past two in the morning when the tavern door opened. Three large men entered and lowered their hoods to reveal the bright colors and torn shirts of the landsknechts underneath. Two carried long swords on their shoulders. The largest carried a blunderbuss. They joined Matthias Krogh and another half-dozen men with clubs in the center of the room.
“Money,” Hans Hurtzman breathed in a low voice, clutching the shaft of the blunderbuss with one huge hand and opening the other. The mercenary was a frightful sight. A long scar ran down the left side of his face, and the eye on that side was dead. In the shadows cast by the dying fire he looked like a demon.
Matthias pressed a leather purse into the mercenary’s open palm. “You took your time getting here,” he growled.
“Where’s the Bastard D’Uvel?”
“You were wise to wait,” Hurtzman said, counting the gold coins. “The Bastard D’Uvel is more dangerous than a starving wolf.”
“Then you know him.”
Hurtzman grinned and the other two landsknechts smiled back, revealing brown and broken teeth. “Aye. We know him. Even fought alongside him at Karlstadt.”
“Then you can kill him?”
“Aye. Any man can be killed. Even the Bastard D’Uvel. Between the three of us he doesn’t stand a chance. Where’s the witch?”
“They’re asleep in the two adjoining rooms at the top of the stairs,” said the innkeeper, dangling the keys on a large iron ring. His face was pale and sweaty and his jowls quivered as he spoke. ”He’s in the first chamber; she’s in the second.”
Matthias had secured the tavern-keeper’s cooperation with two gold coins and the promise to kill Angelique publicly, in the town square. A good hanging was always good for business.
“Gather closer lads, and listen carefully,” Hurtzman said softly. “This is how it’s going to work. Manfred, Heinrich, and me will take the Bastard D’Uvel. The tavern-keeper will open the door. As soon as we’re in position, the rest of you will storm the witch’s room and take her by surprise. Bind her hands and gag her as fast as you can, lads. ‘Tis common knowledge that witches can’t cast spells if their hands are bound. Any questions? Good. Let’s move. Well, Witch-hunter General—what are you waiting for? Lead the way.”
Matthias summoned the courage to mount the wooden stairs, acolytes and farmers close behind. The tavern-keeper came next, holding a dripping candelabra in his shaking hand, and the landsknechts after him. Matthias’ heart was pounding, a combination of hate and fear. At last, the bitch would pay for her crimes. Here he was, creeping outside her door and she fast asleep, not suspecting that death was lurking just outside her door.
The door! Even in the dim light of the candelabra, Matthias could see some sort of drawing in charcoal on the door—-some sort of sigil, not unlike the paintings that had adorned the witch’s hand—-undoubtedly some sort of spell designed to warn her of their approach. No matter. She and her bodyguard were hopelessly outnumbered. There was no escape for her now.
The tavern-keeper inserted the large iron key into the lock and turned it, cautiously. Hurtzman pushed it open and the landsknechts rushed in and took up positions on either side of the bed. D’Uvel lay asleep under the blankets, his zweihander sword resting against the wall. Hurtzman lowered his blunderbuss toward the bed. The other two mercenaries raised their swords to strike. Clearly they were taking no chances.
Hurtzman nodded and the landsknechts reigned blows down upon the bed.
Matthias signaled to the tavern-keeper, who turned the key to Angelique’s room. The tumblers clicked. The local men raised their clubs. The tavern-keeper pushed the door and it opened inward with a loud creak. Matthias smiled and motioned for the men to enter.
Then, without warning, the tavern-keeper exploded.
All of them were splattered with gore. The hallway looked like an abattoir, the walls red, ribbons of sinew and chunks of meat clinging to the door and ceiling. The tavern-keeper —or what was left him— looked like he had been turned inside out, a shank of raw flesh and exposed ribs.
For a moment, they stood, eyes wide in shock, frozen to the spot. Then the screaming began. Every man dropped his weapon and fled.
Matthias wiped tattered pulp from his eyes and turned toward Hurtzman. Inside D’Uvel’s room, straw and feathers were everywhere. The landsknechts had pulled back the tattered blankets to reveal the remains of another blanket, arranged in the form of a body. Suddenly the adjoining door opened and D’Uvel rushed in, plunging a dagger into the back of the first mercenary. Hurtzman spun and pulled the trigger of his blunderbuss. In the split second it took for the powder to ignite, D’Uvel grabbed the barrel of the blunderbuss and pointed it away from him. The other mercenary took the blast full in the chest and was flung backwards against the wall. D’Uvel smashed Hurtzman in the teeth with the shaft of the blunderbuss, sending him crashing to the floor.
Matthias didn’t wait to see how the fight ended. He
launched himself along the stairs, deciding the witch could wait. Downstairs the tap-room was empty, the townsfolk having fled screaming into the night. Matthias had almost reached the door when a wind arose and slammed the door shut. The air smelled curiously of wintergreen.
“Going somewhere?” asked a female voice from behind. The hairs on Matthias Krogh’s neck pricked up. He turned. Angelique Malveaux sat cross-legged in a high-backed chair in front of the hearth. In one hand she held a wine goblet, in the other the stub of her cigar. The fireplace roared behind her, the flames a demonic blue. Matthias could have sworn he saw phantom shadows dancing out the corner of his eyes. The witch herself was beautiful and terrible, her eyes glowing with malice.
“You have a debt to pay, Matthias Krogh,” she said in a low voice, dropping the end of her cigar and crushing it under her leather boot.
Matthias did not wait for her to finish. He bolted for the staircase…
…and slammed head first into the Bastard D’Uvel. D’Uvel’s chest was like concrete. Matthias staggered backwards into a post. When his eyesight cleared he could see D’Uvel holding his two-handed sword in one hand and the head of Hans Hurtzman in the other. The dead mercenary’s eyes were rolled upwards and his mouth was agape, thick tongue lolling out of his mouth.
Matthias felt a creeping chill, starting at his neck and branching out to all his extremities. His legs refused to move, as if rooted to the floorboards. A ghostly wind arose as Angelique’s spiked heels clicked across the wooden planks, her fingertips crackling with sorcerous energy. Matthias dropped to his knees in front of her. Angelique’s laugh echoed unnaturally through the tavern.
“What’s the matter, Witch-hunter General?” she, said her lips curling into a lascivious smile. “After all these years, you’ve finally found a real one…“
There was a sickening crunch as Angelique drove her boot heel into the back of Matthias’ hand. For the first time that night—but certainly not the last—Matthias Krough screamed.
The town lay at the edge of the Black Forest, its name unremembered. It was just after sunset, and the town—-a village, really—smelled of burning wood and rotting leaves. In the center of the muddy square stood the gallows, and from it hung a single corpse. It was that of a man clad in black, holy symbol still dangling from his neck, tongue distended, sightless eyes staring at nothing in particular…
©August 2017 Dan DeFazio
Dan J. DeFazio has published two previous Bastard D'Uvel stories in Swords & Sorcery. He has also been published in Dragon Magazine.