The dead followed Volkmar. They rode silently, on horses made of cloud.
The migraine that besieged his skull did not relent. He pressed a palm to his forehead and, with the other, he rubbed his eyes.
Along with the ghosts of the unburied came the rain, seeping from the clouds hanging low overhead.
When he was spoken to, Volkmar did not answer. He stared straight along the length of the road. Then Asti appeared.
He might not have been at all impressed had he not, mere days ago, descended from a barren, icy hell, the farthest place from civilization imaginable. Compared to the fort on Mount Turin, Asti was a bustling metropolis. Set against Frankfurt, however, it amounted to hardly even a burg.
Much of what he’d seen all along the way—crop rows hugging gently curving hills; distant, galloping horses racing across their enclosures; carts filled with marketable goods, headed for town—continued to fill his view as he and his fellows progressed along the road. The sights bore a pleasant, calming quality.
The rain cleared, though dark clouds lingered on the horizon. Volkmar allowed himself his first deep breath in several hours.
There were farmhouses and sheds, red roofs catching the heat of the sun. Tanned, sweat-soaked serfs toiled in the field. Only occasionally did one of them look up to frown at Volkmar. He couldn’t fault them for the sentiment. No land to call one’s own, no rights, the possibility of, at any time, being levied into the local baron or prince’s army to fight in a war that didn’t really affect one—a terrible life. Disgraced though he was, Volkmar was briefly glad to have been born to a higher class of society. Then he remembered the interminable responsibilities associated with his station, the constant killing, the posturing, the scraping and bowing. Perhaps it was better to lead a simple life, owning nothing but, by the same token, owing nothing.
To the next serf, he waved. The gesture was not returned.
At the head of the line or riders, Volkmar reached the top of a long incline and looked down.
“Well, this is Asti proper,” he said to himself.
Richter, behind him, whistled through his teeth. “I can’t wait to get to know her women.”
Wolfgang said, “Eh, I’ve seen bigger.”
“It’s certainly quaint,” said Miklós.
“This country is very pretty. Not good for much else, though, are they?” said Wolfgang.
“You’ll see when we arrive in Genoa. You’ll eat that statement.” The Hungarian sniffed. “One of the grandest cities in the world—though still nothing compared to Budapest. And, generally, any other Hungarian town.”
As Volkmar led his steed down the winding road, he drank in the air thick with dew and pollen. He was more a city man. Asti was as close to comfort as he’d gotten in years.
The small, wooden homes clustered within the palisade wall. A cornucopia of blended scents blasted him: freshly-cleaved wood, the reek of sour ale pouring from open tavern doors, the underarm sweat of men drilling with dulled iron swords, the baker’s stale batch of breads, the market’s cabbages, browning in the sun… As the band approached the city gates, Volkmar’s thoughts lingered on each of these smells that reminded him of everything he’d missed.
Dusk swept over the land and their progress was slowed somewhat by the determined shuffle of fieldworkers returning home. Volkmar rubbed his eyes again and swiveled in the saddle. The sun touched the earth and then crept behind the hills. When he turned back he gave a wordless shout, a blend of amusement and disdain.
The inn’s swaying wooden sign illustrated, in bright yellow and orange paint, an obese, hairy and beer-guzzling man. Reclining on top of a barrel, his cheeks were plump as apples and his eyelids were closed to indicate dazed cheeriness.
Volkmar clicked his tongue. “‘The Lazy German’. What nerve.”
“Bastards,” said Wolfgang.
“Well, we obviously will be spending the night here.”
Miklós Istvanfi sat opposite Volkmar, who was brooding. His eyes traced the line of Volkmar’s sharp, stiff shoulders. The German didn’t like the way he was being ogled. In fact, he didn’t find there was much to like about Miklós. The man never dressed in a manner appropriate to his station, preferring expensive, silken garb to the wools a merchant’s son ought to be wearing. He did nothing correctly, really. Clearly, he thought highly of himself. If Volkmar were the sort to indulge the vice of gambling, he would’ve have bet Miklós was angling to appear a lordling. To what end, who could say?
His smug mug didn’t exactly improve his appeal. Everywhere he looked, he seemed to be appraising things and people and finding both wanting. No doubt, he assumed things of Volkmar, too, and based his measurements of character solely on superficial detail: That Volkmar—probably his father was born a swineherd and, through providence or accident, discovered he could swing a sword well enough. That sort of thing happens on occasion. How droll.
You could tell Miklós believed his own family’s rise from rags to riches to be the will of God. By the arrogant slant of his eyelids alone, he broadcast his superiority to any who were receptive, like a farmer casting seeds upon a tilled field.
The Hungarian sipped at the white wine rippling within his wooden cup. The only light came from the quarter-moon and three fizzing candles. These were scarcely more than stubs decked in waxen ladders, the wicks barely holding their tips above the sizzling pool.
“My lord,” said Miklós, “why are we here?”
Volkmar swiveled in his seat. He pressed his palms onto the table between them. “I thought you were in love with this place. So, what do you care?”
You’re thinking, “What a prick,” aren’t you? Volkmar smirked at him.
Miklós said, “I merely wonder from where you will find your one hundred souls. You have not forgotten your mission, I trust.”
“Of course I haven’t. It is my task, and mine alone,” said the German, leaning back. “Where I find the soldiers is none of your concern. Trouble yourself with your own affairs. Surely you have enough of them to keep you busy.”
“I merely sought to—”
“I’m afraid I must set aside courtesy and bluntly insist you remove your nose from my business. If ever I need some beans counted, I shall happily appeal to your expertise.”
Miklós threw his wine cup across the room. Its contents smeared across the eastern wall. “I will not be spoken to in such a way. My father—”
“—isn’t here, now is he?” Volkmar shrugged. “We could speak of my father, too, my friend, but what would be the point? We are not the deeds of our fathers, though they have killed one another forever now, and though we have taken up their wars. We are only what we, ourselves, do. So, sit down. Control yourself. I thought you were a man of civilization. Act like one.”
Miklós’ hands were shaking. He rubbed them, pads of his fingers sliding over his sweat-slick knuckles, but they wouldn’t stop. “I—I require privacy. Excuse me.” He ran out of the room, his feet pounding the hallway stairs.
Volkmar stayed put.
Arrogant little princeling, he thought to himself.
He set his feet on the table and inhaled the cool night air. It was better air than on Turin, even though it smelled faintly of piss. Town life, eh?
He closed his eyes for just a second.
Someone patted him on the shoulder.
“How did you get in here so quietly?” Volkmar asked, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck.
Wolfgang saluted. “Sir, you were asleep. You’ve been here a few hours.”
“What? Oh, well.” He yawned. “Why am I awake now, then?”
“It’s the Hungarian, sir. He’s… not well.”
Can a single day not pass without some disaster befalling me? Through gritted teeth, Volkmar said, “What did he do now?”
“I’m not sure. There was an attack. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s best if you come along.”
Volkmar stood, combed a hand through his wild mane of hair, straightened his collar and cloak and followed Wolfgang. Down the stairs, into the hall and through the front door of the inn they went, walking as quickly as dignity would allow, and proceeded through the streets of Asti.
The moon hung low in the graying sky. Daybreak neared.
I have been asleep far longer than a mere “few hours,” thought Volkmar, groggy and stumbling every few steps. Blast you, Wolfgang, for not waking me sooner—but they remained alone outside.
“Where is everyone?” he mumbled.
The stirrings of waking families, of farmers headed to their fields, ought to have been audible by now.
“We’re headed for the house of healing, sir,” Wolfgang told him, pulling him away from his musings. “Our idiot ward is being detained there.”
“Detained? What in the blazes did he do? Have you spoken with him?”
“Briefly, my lord. There was a woman assaulted during the night. She was mangled. She didn’t died in the gutter, like a dog.”
Volkmar said nothing.
“The watchmen seemed rightfully enraged. I don’t know how long they’ll be able to refrain from violence. I left Richter there to watch over the situation, but we’d still best hurry.”
They didn’t run. That would have been unbecoming. Instead, they strode with determination, fighting through the rising chilly gale. At this late—or early, depending on one’s point of view—hour, any torches and lamps had sputtered their last flames long before. It took Volkmar some time to accustom himself to the dark, during which period he did his best not to trip over stones, or to tread on human waste and other roadside debris.
The house of healing was a single-story, wooden square of a building naturally nestled in the poorest, filthiest quarter of town. The structure had been abused by the elements over the years that it had stood, bearing an excess of wind-scars and wood-rot.
Its insides were in a similar state of not-quite-suspended decay, though what he saw within struck Volkmar as far more terrible, given that this putrefaction bore a human face.
“Wolfgang, you didn’t prepare me for this.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I hadn’t the words to describe it.”
Rows of beds lined either wall. Their occupants were, for the most part, asleep, though the occasional wailer, and those poor souls who were tended to by the surgeons, who did far more than wail, cut the stale, stifling air with their voices. A black-robed priest shuffled past, to and fro, going about the solemn, silent business of administering final sacraments to the dying. He didn’t look Volkmar in the eye, his face ensnared by a permanent frown.
Men lashed to their bedposts glared from over their leather muzzles. Eyes rolled back in heads, whites flashing everywhere he looked. Frothy drool covered chin and cheek on many faces.
“Before tonight, I’d never seen so many instances of demonic possession in one place,” Wolfgang muttered, crossing himself three times. “God protect us.”
Volkmar said, “Let’s find Miklós. But, afterward, I’d like to have a word with the senior physician. There must be a reason for this madness.”
He grimaced as he passed the grizzly visage of a pair of pregnant women, one of them still alive, whose midsections had been torn. By blade or other tool, Volkmar couldn’t say. Their frazzled hair, pallid skin and agonized expressions were only half as morbid as the selection of bloody surgical implements set haphazardly on a tray beside them. In another corner of the building, there could be heard the screeching of an infant.
The live woman babbled, “My baby, my baby, my baby.” A tear of blood dribbled from her eye and down the length of her crooked nose.
Suddenly, Volkmar understood how Asti could have seemed so dead, devoid of all sound and other signs of life, even so close to dawn. A curse hung over the town, a black pall that had, evidently, driven a third of the population to insanity.
What scourge could have engineered such abominable results? Were there on the loose psychotic killers? Had a pack of wolves torn through the town yesterday?
Then Volkmar saw Miklós before him. An armored man stood on either side of the brown-stained sheets. City guard—they appeared very well armed for such a provincial town. A second glance told Volkmar that they were actually in service to the Church, specifically the local bishop. The embroidered crosses on their arms and chest made that much clear.
Volkmar had some considerable experience with uppity bishops. In his own home city of Bremen, the Prince Bishop made no secret of his grand design for the archdiocese: the formation of a fully ecclesiastical state, in which the Church would rule over every aspect of the lives of men. Suffice to say that Volkmar was not amused, nor did he approve.
The German searched the area and spotted Richter slouched against a corner, hood covering his face. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement.
“Tell me,” Volkmar said slowly, facing the guards. “Tell me what happened.”
One of them, a stub-nosed fellow with a curling black mustache and scraggly beard, said something in his own language.
Piedmontese, or Genoan, perhaps? Volkmar shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t understand.”
“He’s accusing me of murder,” Miklós translated idly. His voice was neutral, as if he were reading from a weathered, old book.
Volkmar looked the Hungarian over, catching details his weary mind had left unanalyzed a moment ago. For one, the young fool bordered on catatonia and his wrists and ankles, too, were tied to the bedposts. Then there was his mouth: caked blood clung to his lips. Some of the drops had traveled as far as his collarbone, snaking along his throat.
Volkmar shut that away. “And did you?” he asked.
Miklós looked at him, but his eyes were unfocused. “No,” he said. The watchman barked at him. He translated, “This one wants you to know that I’ll be hanged. That I butchered the woman, ripped at her like an animal. It can’t be forgiven. So they’ll hang me. After making me suffer, of course.”
Volkmar stood over him, his shadow covering the Hungarian. “Did you commit murder? Did you, Miklós?”
Finally, the fear seemed to reach him. “Please, you’ve got to help me,” he whined. “I didn’t, I didn’t. It was thieves. Brigands, I swear. They came at me, I bit one of them. The woman witnessed the robbery and screamed… Then they went after her. Please, please! I didn’t do it!”
“Lügner,” Wolfgang snarled.
“I’m not a liar.” Miklós thrashed, pulling at his restraints.
A man’s hushed voice, old and weary, rasped in German, “Oh, but yes, you are, my child. And a monster, at that.” The surgeon slithered over, tray of rusting tools in his arms. “We’ll have to operate immediately.” He looked at Volkmar. “To let the demons out. You understand. God save this sinner.”
He and the watchman had a heated exchange, cutting one another off at times. Something was exciting them. Miklós whimpered, “Now they’re saying there have been many murders here, over several weeks. Yesterday was the worst of the sprees. All of the victims have been horrifically disfigured; all have had their throats bitten. As if by an animal, they say.”
“Miklós,” said Volkmar. When the other wouldn’t calm down he shouted, “Miklós.”
The Hungarian began to cry.
“Tell them what I say.”
Volkmar faced the surgeon and guard and spoke to them and Miklós translated for both sides.
“This man came into town with me yesterday. He could not have killed all those peasants. And I vouch for his innocence now.”
Miklós translated the words of the watchman: “Am I to trust the word of a cabbage-farmer over the blood that soaks this wretch’s face?”
Volkmar crossed his arms. “I’m taking him.”
“I think not, he belongs to the dungeons and then to the crowd, who will watch on with joy and pride as he is punished for his crimes.”
“He belongs to Kaiser Heinrich and I believe we are still in his client kingdom, are we not?”
The watchman blinked, opened his mouth and shut it. Finally, he said, “Impressive though the Imperator is, he cannot excuse the crimes of which this whelp stands accused.”
Volkmar said, “But he can. The will of the Kaiser law.” He paced at the foot of Miklós’ bed. “With so many troubling attacks in so short a span of time, what proof do you have that this man is responsible for any of them? None whatsoever. And I’ve already informed you that he came to Asti only just last night.”
“What proof do we have?” It was the surgeon who spoke, this time, readying his drill. “We see the blood on his lips, the deadness in his eye. He is in league with the Adversary, sirs, can you not see?” He nudged the watchman aside. “If you’d but give me access to the rear of his cranium, I shall perform the operation to excise the demons from his skull. I need only open a hole large enough to provide sufficient space for exit.”
“No one is to touch him,” snapped Volkmar, snatching the drill and throwing at the far wall. He pointed at both the watchmen and the surgeon. “You all amount to less than nothing. Get out of my sight before you regret crossing me.”
The guards advanced by a foot. Their weight rested on the balls of their feet, ready and eager to pounce. Their hands moved to their weapons, but they each only possessed a club and knife. One gestured toward the door.
“Don’t threaten me,” said Volkmar, raising his fists. “Your service to a bishop is worthless to a servant of an empire.”
One of the watchmen screamed a retort but Miklós was too busy mumbling to himself to provide translation. He closed his eyes.
Volkmar let his arms dangle. The men dashed at him, but they were intercepted.
Richter tapped one of them on the back of his neck. When the man turned, Richter gave him a splitting, wide-eyed smile and knocked the steel sallet from his head almost playfully.
“Ah-ah,” said Wolfgang, who had the other by the arm, an unadorned dagger binding the pair. The guard grunted as the blade gave his cheek a slight nick.
“We’re leaving,” Volkmar said, drawing his own dagger, “and, in recompense for the inconvenience, your friend is coming with us.”
Richter, taking advantage of the man’s paralyzing confusion, disarmed the watchman he’d overpowered.
Volkmar hacked at the ropes binding Miklós. Once freed, the Hungarian seemed to regain some of his composure, but he still made no attempts to stand.
“Come on, then,” said Volkmar, grabbing Miklós by the nape of his neck and dragging him to his feet.
By then, the patients were all howling like caged dogs. Those tending to the infirm hissed at one another, shuffling nervously backward, clinging to the walls as the Germans and their human baggage made for the front door.
Pale-fingered hands lunged at them as they fled, grasping at collar, cloak, sword—anything they could reach. Some shrieked in German, “Take me with you,” or “My child. Take my child.”
The surgeon made one final attempt to impede their progress, but Volkmar backhand-slapped him aside, knocking the frail, old man down. Shouldering the door open, Volkmar was touched by the sharp light of dawn. As he blinked, he saw the helmets first by the beams of light bouncing from them: a patrol of three watchmen, wearing the same jerkins as the two inside the house of healing.
One of the patrolmen put thumb and forefinger to his lips and whistled. The other two drew their clubs and began shouting for help.
The three Germans stood shoulder to shoulder, ready for a scrap. Wolfgang held his dagger to the his hostage’s throat.
“God’s wounds, now where do we go?” said Richter.
A faint clack, like a pair of wooden canes on stone, caught Volkmar’s attention.
He spun around to face the door they’d come through. A short, haggard man leaned on crutches, brown hair falling before his eyes. “Back inside, quick.”
Volkmar gave the order, and his men and Miklós slipped back into the house of healing.
“Who are you?” Volkmar asked the stranger.
The man said, “Take me with you and I’ll get you out of this city. I swear it.”
“Go back to resting, cripple.” Wolfgang said, shoving him back. “We have not the time for you.”
The man wobbled, barely steadying himself enough to avoid toppling. Volkmar gave his soldier a sharp glance.
The cripple, having regained balance, said, “Soon enough, they’ll have men at every gate. The Bishop ordered a whole contingent of loyal lapdogs to this city when the murders started. Or, was it just before…?” He grinned. “Either way, how will you escape, you belligerents, with the entirety of Asti’s watch and citizenry both hounding you, chasing you through the streets? You won’t, is the answer. You’ll run. You’ll be cornered. And you may yet end yourselves with the valiance characteristic of those actions of yours I’ve witnessed so far. But you will be ended.”
“And you’ll just slow us,” said Wolfgang.
“Really, I’ve misled you into thinking you have a choice in the matter. I’m not the quiet type,” said the man.
“I have a big problem keeping things to myself,” he rephrased. “With a mouth like mine flapping, everyone within two-hundred leagues will feel like they were here, like they saw what you did. And they may also see some things you didn’t necessarily do.”
“All you’ve done is encourage me to tear out your tongue by its root,” said Wolfgang.
A fist slammed against the ancient doors. Volkmar could hear the frame splintering. It would be only a matter of minutes before it gave way. And the stranger was right: the Germans would be cornered.
“How will you help us escape? Quickly now,” said Volkmar.
“Hold a moment,” said the man.
He opened the door and a guard tumbled inside. He looked up, confused, just in time to witness the wooden crutch swing down. The watchman crumpled. Wolfgang slammed the door shut again.
“That will make them more hesitant, buying us a little time.” The stranger grinned in triumph. Then he twisted and hobbled off. “There is an entrance to the old Roman sewer in this building. The blood from all of the operations is mopped up and expelled into that hole. This way, then. Follow me.”
The man could move surprisingly fast for someone unable to bend his legs at the knees. Volkmar and his men stayed close. They ignored as best they could the accusatory stares and lamenting cries of the malodorous, the melancholic and the malcontents around them.
“There,” said the stranger, pointing to the grate in the stone floor. “Pull that up, and you’ll be able to follow the tunnels to the outskirts of town. Or anywhere within, too, if you so desire.” He whipped his head back, flipping his brown bangs from his eyes. “I’ve shown you good faith, sirs. Please don’t let my kindness go unrewarded.”
Volkmar drew a sharp breath. “Alright, come with us.” The watchman tried to free himself from Wolfgang’s grip, so Volkmar, not once breaking eye-contact with the stranger, pressed the tip of his dagger into the rib of the bishop’s thug. “But know that if this is a trick—”
“Excellent. Now, we’d best hurry.” The cripple laughed.
Richter grunted as he tugged free and threw aside the iron circle covering the entrance to the sewers.
The stranger, his laugh subsiding, said, “Let’s go.” And he tossed his crutches into the hole before jumping in himself. He used the rungs carved into the stone to lower himself down. From the bottom, he called up, “Look lively, up there. You oughtn’t let a bowlegged man outmaneuver you.”
Wolfgang whispered to his lord, “Once we’re out, we lose this one. By no means can we trust him.”
Forcing the watchman hostage down second, Richter going first, then Volkmar and, finally, Wolfgang, a few moments later, they were all gathered around the small circle of light coming from above.
The stranger said, “I am Emicho. I’m letting you know so you can engrave it on my tombstone, if need be.”
He lurched onward, his white, sickly face gleaming in the faint light reflected off the river of feces-clotted water to their left.
Wolfgang grabbed the stammering Hungarian and dragged him along. Richter did the same with their hostage. Volkmar followed the clack-clack of wood on stone.
“You impossible idiots are doomed,” yawped the guard.
Wolfgang smashed him against the stone wall. “Shut up.”
“Suddenly he speaks German,” Richter noted, taking care to keep Miklós in front of him, but not too far.
“You’ve brought death upon yourselves,” the watchman whined, though part of the sentence was warped when Wolfgang knocked his head against the stone a second time.
“Where do we go from here?” Volkmar asked Emicho.
“Right. Then deeper. Farther in,” he answered, pointing ahead.
Emicho had left them in order to “scout the roads above for danger.” He’d indicated the path Volkmar and the rest should follow. Asking Wolfgang for assistance, the cripple’s shit-smeared boots rested on the other man’s shoulders until he could find purchase and clamber up along a shaft and reach the surface.
“See you shortly,” said Emicho.
Richter hissed, “Listen, citizen, if you betray us—”
“You won’t live long enough to punish me. But you’re in too deep to do anything about it now. So, try trusting me instead.”
His face disappeared.
Volkmar, Richter, Wolfgang, Miklós and the watchman continued their slog through the whirling vortices of watery human filth.
The patrols came by frequently, stomping along the roads under the afternoon sun. Their passing sounded like thunder to the Germans underground.
Whenever Volkmar and the others came to a stretch of the tunnels where they were partially exposed to the open air, they’d duck down and wait for the milling townsfolk and watchmen to disperse.
The bishop’s footpads now wore full combat gear: chainmail, jerks underneath; shin-guards; bracers; half-helms. Volkmar could almost smell their sweat pooling under their mail and shirts, wafting down to his nostrils through the cracks and openings in the sewers’ passageways. Though a sudden, malodorous updraft of rat waste masked this stench rather effectively.
“There’s another,” Wolfgang murmured, as a particularly grotesque and furry specimen scurried along an eroded stone ledge, tail flicking vibrantly.
Miklós gagged. He clung to the slimy wall.
“Ah, the Roman-built sewers of Asti. Excellent for one’s constitution,” said Richter. He hummed pleasantly. He pointed a white finger at a bobbing shape in the swirling filth. “Oh, fellows, look: floating, chunky excrement. A relation of yours, Miklós?”
“Shut up, goat-herder,” said the Hungarian. His priceless silks had been ravaged by the fetid waters.
“Bold words coming from a murderer,” said Wolfgang.
“Do you want us all to die?” Volkmar rasped. “Don’t you hear them? They’re looking for us. Persistently. Do you wish for death?”
“Yes,” said Richter, turning his back, “but not my own.”
“We’re abetting a killer. A killer of women, no less,” said Wolfgang, jabbing a finger at Volkmar. “We’ll be exiles forever.”
“You’d do well to rein in your insolence, friend. Besides, once we’ve left this town behind us, they’ll probably find a few pickpockets to blame. End of hunt,” said Volkmar, sloshing through the knee-level mucky murk.
Their hostage twitched and sneezed. Wolfgang rapped his knuckles against the back of the man’s skull.
“Let’s rest here a moment,” said Volkmar.
They sat in silence for a long time.
The rats pattered back and forth, squeaking. One stopped before the group and groomed its whiskers proudly. Then there was the constant sound of running water. The dripping nearly drove Volkmar mad.
“The others,” said Richter, picking under his fingernails with his knife, “where do you think they are?”
“Adelbert is out whoring, I’m sure,” said Wolfgang.
“Exotic women carry all manner of diseases. I told him that, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“When has he ever?”
“We can’t lose Ekkehard, either. He’s the only one of us who can really read. Aside from Lord Volkmar.”
Wolfgang grunted his acquiescence.
“We won’t lose anyone,” said Volkmar. “Emicho will find them. He has his methods, apparently.”
“Good. Let’s trust the cripple with our lives.”
“That’s funny,” said a voice above them.
Volkmar looked up.
Emicho’s head appeared, haloed with golden sunlight. “As an aside, I’m surprised my deaf old grandmother hasn’t heard you yet, with all the noise you’ve been making.” He winked. “Follow that corridor—”
He let out a yelp of pain and collapsed over the hole, eclipsing all the light. Then someone or something hauled him off.
“You thought we wouldn’t check here?” A square-jawed guard leered at them, grinning with broken teeth.
“Help, help, I’m down here,” yelled their hostage.
“Go,” barked Volkmar.
Leading the way, he sloshed through the tunnel, fumbling with the broach of his cloak as it crushed the apple of his throat. Then it let loose and drifted downstream.
Damn it, that was expensive.
The others followed at his heels. The guard still shouted his lungs blue. Finally, his breath expended, there was silence. There was the rapid-fire splashing of footfalls, coming closer, from either end of the tunnel.
Volkmar placed one hand on Richter’s shoulder and the other on Wolfgang’s. “We don’t kill them.”
Richter sighed, sagging at the chest. Wolfgang patted his head. “Aye, restrain yourself, if you can.”
“Me?” Richter twirled his dagger around his fingers. “You’re the berserker, friend.”
“Please. I am the epitome of self-control and everyone knows it.”
The group held fast. The only sounds came from the approaching guards and the hostage, who yipped in anticipation, and water droplets whose steady drip-drip filled Volkmar’s ears. It was dark; the anticipation was intoxicating.
Then he saw them, but only by the glint off their weapons.
“Idiots. Bringing longswords to a knife fight,” said Richter.
He was right. In this case, it would have been wiser to bring daggers or short clubs along. The watchmen wouldn’t have the space to deliver wide swings, rendering themselves much less effective.
Also, Volkmar noted, they’re fighting real soldiers, not the town drunk and his cronies.
The shadows crept closer, uncertainly.
Wolfgang then charged forward, ululating like a rabid wolf. The wet slap of flesh on flesh, and cloth on cloth, followed.
Volkmar had killed a lot of men over the years he’d waged war in service to the Kaiser. He’d lost count of the souls he’d cast down to Hell, in fact. But, no matter how old and seasoned he grew, he always felt that familiar tingle in his palms, that thrilling hush, just before the first blows were exchanged.
He dashed forward and bowled his enemy over, tearing the sword from his grip. He flung the weapon into the murk and kicked where he thought his foe’s face ought to be. The subsequent satisfying crunch indicated success.
A scream erupted from behind him.
The third and final guard wavered. When he broke, Volkmar let him run.
“I only slashed his palm and arm,” said Richter, clapping his hands on his hips. “Pathetic.”
Wolfgang hurled the watchman he’d been drowning after his fleeing friend, growling, “Well, piss off, then. And count yourself lucky.”
“Everyone hale and whole?” said Volkmar. When no objections were raised, he added, “Good. Let’s go save the cripple so he can finish saving us.”
A few minutes later, he peered into an empty alley. When he determined the coast was clear, he, his men, Miklós and the guard emerged from the sewer. Volkmar tossed Wolfgang his dagger and told him to wait with the hostage. The Hungarian slid to his knees behind a stack of barrels
Volkmar and Richter retraced their steps, only on street-level this time, until they found another watchman standing and slavering over Emicho. Leering, the man was rotund and hairy and leaned heavily on his halberd. Amazing that it didn’t creak under his weight.
“Ho, there,” said the guard, staring at them, his chins were quivering. His grimy teeth hung weakly within a sinking jaw.
“That’s an impractical weapon you’ve got, there,” said Richter.
The guard hefted the halberd, as if remembering that it was more than a walking stick. “At least I have something.”
Volkmar glowered at him. “You think you’re going to get us both with that thing? It’ll be a shame if you stick one of us—and that’s in no way likely—but, even if you do, this doesn’t end well for you. Ask yourself, are you paid enough to stand in the way of the likes of us?”
It might have been his words, or the determination in their eyes, or their grim, slime-ridden appearance that made the fat man flee. Volkmar didn’t care that he would never know.
His chainmail chinking, the watchman stumbled through the streets, drizzling a trail of sweat behind him.
Volkmar scooped Emicho up, supporting him underarm. Richter handed him his crutches.
“Are there any more?” he asked.
“It should be safe,” said Emicho.
“Are you certain?” Richter said with a sneer.
“Look, nothing is ever perfect,” Emicho said, testing his balance. “There’s been a diversion. Everyone else should be occupied.”
“A diversion?” asked Volkmar.
“Specifically, a fire. A very large one. It’s attracted the attention of most of the townsfolk.”
Once they regrouped with Wolfgang, Emicho said, “About twenty leagues east off here there’s a monastery. The monks will shelter you.”
“And my men?” Volkmar asked.
“They should all be with my friends by now. Just beyond the gates.”
“Why couldn’t they cart you around town?” said Wolfgang.
“They could have, but they wouldn’t. They’re the ones who threw me in the house of healing, and, boy, is that a misnomer,” said Emicho. “Even if they were to help me, they’d never take me farther than the monastery. And where would I go from there? With you lot, I can go very, very far from here.”
Volkmar shook his head. He’s keeping something from me. Still, I have few choices, at this point. He knows where Ekkehard, Adelbert, and the others are. I don’t.
They must have spent longer underground than Volkmar realized, for the amber light was swiftly shifting to strawberry. Putting their backs to the setting sun, they clung to the lengthening shadows. Volkmar could practically hear his men’s teeth gnashing at Emicho’s speed or, rather, lack thereof. It was like watching a legless rabbit try to hop.
Emicho paused. “Oh, and Guntram wished the following message be relayed: ‘God hates Hungarians’.”
Miklós, hunched, shoved his way to the head of the impromptu column, pouting like a chastised four-year-old.
Richter made a dramatic display of aiming a kick at his backside but stopped himself from going through with the action when he caught Volkmar’s glare.
Slinking along the alleys put Volkmar in mind of his childhood, when it had been a merry little game to flit like a moth from shadow to shadow. Only a little later in life, he’d abandoned the pastime, for it looked to him too much like cowardice. Real soldiers stand in the open and meet on honest terms. Inglorious death renders all equal.
“Why are there no patrolmen on guard?” said Volkmar when they’d stopped.
Only Emicho stood in the middle of the road. Otherwise, it was vacant. The outer palisade and eastern gate lay just ahead, its doors wide open. Beyond: the road, flowered fields and an expanse of waist-high grass. It was so obviously a trap; all that was missing was the mythical Sirens’ song.
“Your men are outside,” said Emicho. “This is your chance.”
“Let’s say I believed you. How then could you have made this happen?”
“I’m the unofficial prince of sorts, here. I’ve lived in Asti long enough to understand some very important truths.”
Wolfgang said, “Sir, if we sit here like stubborn mules—”
“I know. Alright.” Volkmar strode forward at a brisk pace. “If it is a snare, at least Emicho will be the first to die.”
The cripple laughed. “That’s right.”
As they passed under the heavy shadow of the wooden arch, Volkmar expected the doors to slam shut, to crush them into pulp. They didn’t. They were spared arrows and stones and even hot oil. It felt too convenient, when they emerged alive, but Volkmar was willing to overlook it this time.
Emicho limped ahead of them, apparently talking to himself, “Marteau will have brought them there, yes. God damn it, but my foot aches.”
“Where are we headed?” said Richter.
“First, out of sight of the watch towers, unless you want to sport plumes in your head,” said Emicho.
Their watchman hostage shook in Wolfgang’s grip.
“What’s wrong with him?” said Volkmar.
“You’re all dead,” said the guard. “The whole diocese will be after you.”
“Don’t place your worth too high.” Wolfgang twisted the man’s wrist as he spoke, causing him to yelp.
“They won’t worry about me, but you’ve brought the Devil with you. They’ll hunt you forever to purge the evil you’ve stirred.”
“What the hell is he jabbering about?”
“God is not on your side. He turns his back to you, sinners. The Bishop will out—”
Miklós roared like a wounded bear and pounced on the guard. Moonlight bounced off a rock gripped tightly in his white-knuckled fingers. He hammered the guard’s skull, jets of thick, black blood spouting forth.
Then he was on the ground, without his rock, staring into the eyes of Volkmar, who was stunned. The lord leapt on him and kept him in check by pressing down on his chest. The other hand unsheathed the dagger at Volkmar’s waist. Miklós’ gaze traced the length of the blade, a mere hair’s breadth between its tip and his jugular.
“What are you playing at, Miklós?” said Volkmar in a hushed tone. He didn’t look around, fixing his focus on the pinned Hungarian, but he sensed no movement from the two soldiers or Emicho.
Stuck in place, they said not a word nor made any signs to intercede.
“Miklós,” Volkmar insisted, nicking the Hungarian’s throat.
“We couldn’t have let him go,” he said as a drop of blood beaded. “We couldn’t. He knew which direction we were headed. He would have gone back, made it easier for them to find us.”
Volkmar was not convinced. Miklós then gripped the lord’s wrist, stabbing into the flesh with his nails. Volkmar strained under the hold. So they struggled for a few moments, the blood in the veins of his hand purpling from the pressure.
“Miklós,” he said through his teeth. “Let go.” Surprised at the Hungarian’s strength, he felt the grip tighten even more.
“I have a mission,” said Miklós, eyes boring through Volkmar’s head. “I’m not going to let some fruit-picking peasant guard obstruct me. He had to be silenced. I did what had to be done.”
He released Volkmar, who looked at him, gazed into his dirt-brown eyes. They were very dark, indeed, and seemed to grow darker.
What sickness lies in your mind? thought Volkmar. What cruel angel placed you in my care?
“Get up,” he growled, sheathing the dagger. To Emicho, “You, take me to my men.”
For a moment, the cripple said nothing. Then he cleared his throat, gesturing. “The old stables are just around that bend.”
Miklós stood up and dusted himself off.
They left the fresh corpse where it lay.
The forest of birch trees thickened the further they went. After a quarter of an hour, under cover of the canopy, Volkmar caught sight of a barn with a collapsed roof. The rest of it appeared ready to fall, too.
“Burnt out last year,” explained Emicho, sucking on a reed. “No one comes here anymore. Well, save a few.”
A shifting in the bushes set Volkmar on edge. Emicho raised a hand. “It’s alright.”
A gaunt-faced man with oiled black hair approached them, saying, “What kept you?” He ran a hand over his scalp. His delicate fingers held long, ridged and uneven fingernails.
Like a ferret’s, Volkmar thought.
But he forgot about the newcomer when, from the barn’s agape entry, Guntram waved and came to his side. Most of the remainder of Volkmar’s sworn soldiers trailed after him. In all, however, he counted only twelve; there were five missing.
“Where are the others?”
Guntram lowered his head. “We faced many difficulties during our escape.” His glower fell on Miklós. “So. He survived.”
Ekkehard barreled outside. His thick, red mustache puffed with his upper lip. “How many women will you kill, Hungarian, before your bloodlust is sated?” he said, as he dabbed a slash across the meat of his upper leg.
Miklós stalked off toward the ravaged building, stiff at the shoulders. He barely even bent his knees as he stamped through the high grass.
“He kills men too, now,” said Wolfgang, watching him go.
“One of ours?” Guntram asked, tensing, ready to bare steel.
“No. The Bishop’s lapdog.”
Guntram relaxed. “What a loss.”
“He was a prisoner,” said Volkmar, folding his arms. “He should not have died. Not that way.”
Guntram shrugged. “I’m more concerned with the loss of our own, sir.”
Ekkehard tried to straighten himself but winced and gave up.
Emicho hobbled over, bringing the gaunt man with him and said, “My lord, this is Cerveux.”
“It means ‘brains’,” the man said helpfully. “Because I’m wrong. In the head.”
He extended a hand. His fingernails stabbed outward. A crust of dirt and fungus had formed underneath each.
Volkmar thought better of shaking his hand, instead giving a slight nod. Cerveux retracted the appendage, brushing his hair again.
“We have no time to rest, alas, now that our band is accomplice to murder.” Volkmar turned to Emicho, adding, “At any rate, I’m tired of this place. Emicho, take us to the monastery.”
The man’s crutches hindered him far more now than in Asti. All the mud and rock made for uneven footing. It seemed minutes had passed before he’d made his way to the front of the pack.
Moonlight filtered through layers of crimson leaf. The soggy carpet slurped underfoot. A warm, damp wind rose, causing the men to sweat away the last of their water.
Their tunics pasted to their skin, they marched through the wood.