Herr Brumm was an avid hunter and proved to be a capable tracker. We followed the trail steadily West for a time. I was unaccustomed to moving across rough terrain at such a pace. My companions both seemed inured to this hardship and I feared I would hold them back, or worse, be left behind. Finally, we emerged from the wooded terrain and found ourselves in the home field of an old manor house. It was a handsome structure, but showing signs of neglect. While making our plans back at the inn Brumm had told us of the reclusive Baroness Von Rundel, the last of her ancient family, who lived here with a few retainers. This was one of the locations we had discussed while laying our plans at the inn and, I confess, being suddenly confronted with the possibility of a new danger was an unpleasant sensation.
We presented ourselves at the front door where we were met by the man Rapp, who served as her butler. We requested to speak with the Baroness but, although he recognized Brumm, he was on the point of turning us away when a woman appeared behind him and said “Thank you, Rapp. I will receive our guests in the library”. The Baroness, for it was she, was of middle height, perhaps in her early 30s, with golden hair and grey eyes. Her carriage was distinctly aristocratic but her face radiated kindness. We followed her to the library where we shared the events of the last few days and how we had tracked the degenerate laborers to the area of her manor. She told us that several of them had indeed entered her home field not 30 minutes before our arrival, and had been run off by Rapp and the dogs. Brumm was for continuing to follow them, but they had scattered in several directions and Mattias felt we had more to learn from the Baroness.The hunters arrive at the manor house
We spent the afternoon discussing the situation with the Baroness, who insisted we address her by her name, Anna. Despite her reputation as a recluse, she was a charming and gracious hostess. Her intelligence and gentle manner were having quite a strange effect on me. I had always been a confirmed bachelor but as the afternoon became evening and she invited us to stay at the manor overnight rather than make the long journey back to the village, I agreed with the enthusiasm of a much younger man. I caught an amused glance from Brother Mattias out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t care. I felt that, perhaps I had found the woman I was meant to spend the rest of my life with. You may laugh at a man approaching forty years acting like a young sprat, but those who have felt as I have will understand. Farmer Brumm retired to his room soon after dinner. Brother Mattias asked for, and received, the use of her library and Anna invited me to join her in the drawing room. We talked far into the night and by the time I retired to my quarters it was clear to me that we had formed a bond.
I lay awake for a time happily thinking how I might approach Anna regarding our future together, but the exertions of the day soon claimed me and I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. I awoke with a start about an hour before dawn. Everything was quiet, indeed unnaturally so. The quiet was oppressive but I dared not break it. I lay very still thinking of my life, the opportunities wasted, the failures. How disappointed my parents must have been. What a fool I had been to think Anna might love me, that anyone might love me. There was something more. The sadness overwhelmed me. The darkness in my soul was like a living thing that would be with me always. I could not live on like this, yet I lacked even the courage to end my miserable existence.
Mad Emma sends her curse winging through the night sky
The knock on the door broke the silence like a gunshot. Sunlight was streaming through the window. How long had I lay in this state? The man Rapp was enquiring after my well being. The others had breakfasted and were preparing to depart. I could not find voice to answer. Soon Brother Mattias, Brumm and Anna were at my side. I was ashamed that she should see me in this state. Mattias asked that we be left alone for a time. He looked at my face and into my eyes for what seemed a long time in silence and then he interrogated me closely. He told me that the witch had reached out for me in an effort to destroy my will. I didn’t understand how this could be, but Mattias showed it to me in his Hammer of the Witches book. Immediately he set to work to counter Mad Emma’s spell. Throughout the day he prayed over me, punctuated by long discussions about my life and my faith. We stayed behind closed doors for most of the day, although Anna insisted on interrupting several times to bring in food or tea. On these occasions she would sit with me and talk while I ate. Her smile and the light touch of her hand on mine did as much, perhaps, as Mattias efforts to bring me back to myself. Brumm had kept busy all day visiting the surrounding farms to see what he could learn about Mad Emma and her cohorts. By evening I had shaken the terrible curse that Emma had placed on me, although I felt drained. We decided to stay one more night and set out for the village in the morning. Mattias, Brumm and I all stayed in the same chamber that night. Mattias hung the small brass cross that he wore around his neck on the window and placed several objects; a small bag of dirt, a glass phial half full of what looked like dirty water and the skull of a common cat, around the room. He seemed to take great care in the placement of these objects but when I asked what he was doing he just laughed and referred to them as the superstitions of an ignorant man. Still, we slept well and when I awoke I was feeling myself again.
At breakfast Brumm told us what he had learned from the local farmers. It seemed the bonds that held this community together were starting to unravel. Since we had left the village another man had gone missing, crude dolls made from knotted grass and other ritual magic objects had been found in the church, causing the village priest to pack up and leave, and several prominent citizens had openly discussed trying to make peace with Mad Emma.
We were losing.
We decided to return to the village to try and stabilize the situation. Perhaps with all of the activity in the village there might be a thread that we could follow back to Emma’s lair. As we stood in front of the manor preparing to set out, the man Rapp brought us provisions for our journey and dropped his impassive butler’s mask long enough to wish us Godspeed. Anna came around the corner of the house on horseback. Her stableman led three saddled horses.
“Baroness” Brumm protested “You can’t come with us. There is terrible danger.”
“Herr Brumm” she replied “I am not accustomed to taking orders in my own courtyard. In any case, I think I may be able to exert some influence here and there that may be useful.” She glanced at me briefly and smiled just a bit and my heart leaped in my chest.And so it was that we skirted the wood and followed the river bank back to the village.