I sat in the common room of the inn with Brother Mattias far into the night. The landlord had given up long since and had retired. The good Brother enthralled me with stories of his adventures in strange lands. His Order, it seems, was created by the Vatican for the purpose of rooting out occult practices in the dark corners of Europe. I am a rational man, and in the light of day in a civilized place I would have laughed off these tales as the creations of a talented liar. Here in these brooding hills, sitting in this little inn with only the light of the dying fire between us and the darkness, his stories seemed real enough.
Mattias spoke of unnatural creatures, servants of the Devil, who would appear in some remote village and slowly work their evil until the place was given over entirely to the dark forces. When news of such activity came to the Vatican, one of the Irish Christian Brothers would be dispatched to confront the evil. Some were lost, but great victories were won, too. This war had been going on for generations without the people in the great centers of European Enlightenment being aware of it, but in the countryside the common folk knew, and were afraid. I asked why the Roman Church didn’t make this great struggle known, and Mattias reminded me that 100 years before they had tried that. As a result, a witch hunting hysteria swept across Europe and many old women, but very few actual witches, were burned. Since then they had acted quietly, and only in areas they were certain that evil was trying to gain a foothold. As the first light of dawn filtered through the dirty window and the last embers of the fire were dying Brother Mattias informed me that I had been chosen to assist him in this great work. He smiled, congratulated me and instructed me to get some sleep and meet him back here at noon to make a start. By that time he had so worked his magic on me that none of this seemed strange at all.
After listening all night to Mattias’s ghoulish stories one would think that sleep would not be easy or peaceful, but in fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept so well. I awoke entirely refreshed about an hour past noon, and made my way to the common room. I saw my new friend sitting at the same table by the window. By the sheer number of cups and plates in disarray on the table, I could see he was just finishing a substantial meal. As I advanced into the room the Landlord was at my elbow telling me the Brother had charged his meal to my account. I felt so rested and refreshed I smiled and nodded my assent, then went to join him.
As I partook of a little soup and bread, Mattias shared ‘our’ plan of campaign. In cases like this, he said, the entity would terrorize the local people with misfortunes up to and including murder. They would ply their dark arts to sow discord amongst the population until they sank into despair and submission. His job, he explained, was to find the enemy and destroy it. He produced an ancient tome from a leather bag and placed it on the table.
“This” said Mattias “is the Malleus Maleficarum. It means Hammer of the Witches.”
“I know what it means” I responded with a smile “I learned my Latin at an early age.” This was met with a sour look, which I enjoyed immensely.
Pressing on, Mattias said “This will help us to identify the signs that will ultimately lead us to her lair.”
“Have you ever hunted a witch?”
“No, not a witch, no, but the book will be our guide. We’ll get her, sir, never you fear.”
“Well, let’s say we do find your witch. What will we do with her?”
Mattias smiled brightly, having come to the heart of the matter. “Well, ideally we would burn her, although if pressed for time taking off her head will work just as well.”
He spoke matter of factly, like a tradesman working out a solution to a familiar problem. I was taken aback. I had come here for a relaxing holiday and allowed myself to be gulled by this smooth talking stranger who was now proposing that we hunt down and set fire to an old woman!
“Have you lost your mind, sir? We can’t burn an old woman alive!”
“Not a woman, my good man, a witch. How do you kill witches where you come from?”
“We don’t…” Suddenly the door flew open and a man helped a sobbing woman to a table. I kept my seat as I have always been a man who minds his own affairs, but Brother Mattias walked over and sat with the couple. He took the woman by the hand and they spoke in low tones. The man still looked agitated and the woman distressed, but Mattias seemed to have a calming effect on them. The landlord brought them ale and sat down. There they stayed for the better part of an hour while I sat just out of earshot. Mattias seemed to be doing most of the talking. At last the man and woman got up and left and Mattias returned to our table.
“Things are worse than I thought” he said. “That poor woman’s brother has gone missing after a dispute with a gang of landless farm laborers who seem to have fallen under the control of Mad Emma. Two days ago their neighbor’s milk cow was killed in the night, and yesterday the miller abandoned his mill and left for the city. His neighbor tried to get sense out of him, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t say why. The man, a local farmer, says people are afraid and are talking about making their peace with the witch. We must act now or this village will be lost! The farmer has agreed to join us here later this afternoon.”
The landlord, who had seemed indifferent to the event s unfolding in the area surrounding the village, had actually been too frightened to speak. Seeing that we intended to take a hand in the matter, he agreed to provision us and to allow his inn to be used as a meeting place for those wishing to join us. He also directed us to the village blacksmith, where we were able to purchase two decent pistols and two stout hunting knives. The farmer, Hans Brumm, who had come in with the woman was respected in this community and was known as a reliable man. As good as his word, he arrived in the late afternoon and we made our plans over dinner. Beyond the village within a few hours walk at most there were several places where the witch might have her lair. A manor house owned by a reclusive Baroness, a castle that had been abandoned for years. The windmill had only recently been vacated by the miller who had fled the area and a ruined abbey that was said to be occupied by the renegade farm laborers who were thought to be in thrall to Mad Emma. We decided to go to the Abbey the next day and confront the curs in an attempt to gain information on where the witch’s lair might be.
The degenerate laborers are surprised by the witch hunters
We came upon the beggers sleeping. Without hesitation Brother Mattias strode into the abbey courtyard where they lay around a burnt out campfire. “Get up you louts!” he shouted. Brumm followed close behind, shouting and kicked one of the sleepers awake. I came in third brandishing my pistol and trying to look fierce. The laborers scrambled to their feet, snatched up an assortment of agricultural tools that served as their weapons and faced us. To my own surprise I shouted “Drop your weapons, damn you!” and fired my pistol in the air. Our opponents started to move on us and I immediately regretted emptying my weapon. Mattias’s pistol banged and sent a ball close past one man’s ear. Brumm stepped forward and dropped the ringleader with his musket butt. At this, the rest of them dropped their weapons and ran off through the ruins and into the woods like rats. I found myself shaking with excitement and tremendously relieved. I had never imagined I would be in a situation like this. Would my friends back in Ardoberg believe me? While I was composing myself, Brumm had dragged his victim back on his feet by the scruff and was shaking him like a terrier. Mattias confronted the prisoner.
“What shall we do with this fellow” he said.
Brumm leaned around to look into the prisoner’s face. “We hang him” he growled. “There is a fine stout oak just beyond the wall.”
They were clearly trying to frighten the man in order to extract information from him on the location of Mad Emma’s lair and also on the fate of the missing brother of that poor woman at the inn yesterday. I was hoping the man wouldn’t notice we had no rope.
“We know you serve the witch” Mattias said to the oaf. “Tell us where she is and we’ll let you go.”
“She protects us!” This from the oaf.
“Is she protecting you now?” said Brumm as he threw the man to the ground. “What did you do with Paul, my wife’s brother?”
“We did nothing! He’s run off, that’s all. He’s afraid of her!”
“I know you Sib.” said Brumm “If you are lying I will find you and I will hang you.”
Mattias knelt down next to the thoroughly frightened man and spoke in a gentle tone. “We don’t want you, man. We want the witch. Tell us where her lair is and we will let you go.
“I don’t know where she lives. When she wanted us to do things she would find us.”
“He is telling the truth” said Mattias. “Turn him loose”.
Brumm sent the oaf on his way with a kick. As the man disappeared into the woods I asked Mattias what our next move was to be. “Give him twenty minutes” he said “and then we follow him.”