Monday, March 17, 2014


We rode by easy stages all morning, following the river back to Schmeckle. The sun was warm and the air smelled sweet, or perhaps it just seemed so to me as I rode alongside my Anna. She seemed shy and uncertain of herself, quite different from her demeanor when we first met. I found her coyness charming and, without meaning to, I talked far too much about myself. In due course we arrived at the village. We stabled our horses with the blacksmith and, according to Brother Mattias’s plan (worked out with Brumm on the way while I was making a fool of myself) we went directly to the Mayor’s house. His housekeeper, an old woman with long, matted black hair streaked with white answered the door. She told us that the mayor was engaged and not receiving visitors. As she moved to close the door Brumm pushed past her with a gruff comment about overbearing servants and the rest of us followed.
We entered the sitting room and found the mayor staring out the window. When he turned to face us I was shocked at his appearance. He was a ruined man, haggard and unkempt. His red rimmed eyes were vacant, and he visibly flinched as his housekeeper entered the room and walked to his side. She turned to face us and the humble servant who had met us at the door transformed before our eyes into a vision of horror. Her twisted visage was terrifying, and I felt my blood freeze as she surveyed our little group contemptuously. Smiling and pointing a long clawed finger at the mayor, she said sweetly “He belongs to me”.
The hunters confront the witch
“Good morning, Emma” said Mattias, although not as confidently as was his manner.
“I will eat your soul, holy man” said the witch “but not too soon. First you will watch your friends die.” She turned her gaze on Anna, grinning malevolently, rolled her eyes back in her head and started to chant “By Oak and Ash and Thorn I command thee…”
I wanted to run to Anna, to protect her with my life, if need be, but my legs wouldn’t answer. I looked back at my love and the first thing I saw was her face. She was pleading with the monster with her eyes. Then I saw the pistol in her shaking hand, pointed directly at me.  
Mad Emma was laughing, but the sound was without mirth, conveying only malice. “Ah, true love!” she sneered. “Make your lover a gift, my dear!” At this, Anna’s expression changed from one of fear to profound sorrow. Slowly, she turned the pistol and placed the muzzle against her own breast. “You will not!” shrieked Emma “You will obey me!” and the sound of her voice unmanned me. The report of the pistol echoed off the walls of the small room and Anna was thrown back and dropped to the floor.
I awoke in my bed at the inn with Brumm by my side. “He’s awake!” he shouted, and a moment later Mattias and the landlord crowded in. “God be praised” said the Brother. We thought you weren’t coming back. The side of my face, my shoulder and chest were heavily bandaged and burned marvelously.
“Anna?” I said.
“I’m sorry, Heinrich” said Mattias, taking my hand “she is safe in God’s care now.”
I felt overwhelmed with sorrow, and for a time I could not trust myself to speak. Brumm and the landlord left Mattias and me alone. At last I was able to ask what had happened.
“When……when Anna fell you turned on the witch. She began to laugh, a horrid sound, but the sound died in her mouth when you drew your long knife and threw yourself across the room upon her. The struggle lasted but a moment and was terrible. She tried to tear the flesh from your bones but your knife was at her throat. You took off her head, and a bloody mess you made of it. As it came away and her black soul left her body there was a blinding flash and the room was filled with a terrible smell. The Devil claiming his own, I suppose.  We brought you back here to care for your wounds, but we didn’t think you would make it. You have been asleep these two days past. “
I remained abed for three more days regaining my strength and mourning for what I had lost. Mattias stayed by my side, talking incessantly and bringing me back little by little. Farmer Brumm came by each day to check on my progress, but he was quite busy setting right the damage that had been done to the community, as far as he was able. The mayor was a broken man and would, in all likelihood, never recover. The village elders chose Brumm to replace him. They could not have chosen better than that brave, honest fellow. Brother Mattias rode part of the way with me on the road to Ardoberg. At last our roads parted as he had to return to Rome to report on the business in Holstein. He was hoping for a holiday of his own in that city before another assignment came his way. It seems there is a wealthy widow of middle years there who is quite fond of him. I asked, smiling, how that squared with his vow of celibacy and he replied that it was not so much a vow as a guideline, or recommendation, as it were. We wished each other good health and parted ways. I hope we shall meet again.
I resumed my position in Ardoberg and excused myself to my superiors for returning so late. An unfortunate accident and a slow recovery, I explained. I couldn’t very well tell them the truth. For a man of my years to be going off on an adventure would be seen as evidence of ….unpredictability unbecoming of a Civil Servant. I think often of my time there, and I wonder if I will ever regain that feeling of dull contentment that used to define me.
Notes: This was an actual game that Mike and I played. The concept was to recreate a classic horror movie type situation with Mike and me as the heroes, hunting down the evil witch. The concept came from a great board game called A Touch of Evil, which I got for Christmas. We set the 16’x6’ gaming table with a village in the middle and mysterious locations in the four corners to be investigated.  The miniature rules used were Chaos in Carpathia, and we had homemade campaign rules based on the board game to drive the action between confrontations. As luck would have it the witch dragged the town down into darkness before we could find her in the game, but that wouldn’t have made a very good story so I changed a bunch of stuff to make it more entertaining. Hooray for Hollywood! 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Gathering darkness

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.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Part 2 - The best laid plans

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.
  At dawn the next day Brother Mattias and I met farmer Brumm in the village square and began our journey to the ruined abbey. With Brumm as our guide we made good progress and arrived at our destination within the hour. We approached the ruins cautiously, hoping to surprise the vagabonds. We were unsure of their numbers but Brumm told us they lacked spirit and could be handled easily enough if one showed resolve. Mattias seemed up to the task and I took comfort in Brumm’s steadiness. This sort of thing was new to me but I was determined to play a man’s part and not let my companions down.

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.”

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Retribution

Part 1, A holiday gone wrong
“You look like an honest man. I can always tell. I have a powerful thirst and, alas, not much money in my tuck. If you will stand me a tankard of ale I will tell you a story that will amaze you, and every word is true. Mind if I sit?” The man had already taken a seat, and I wasn’t sure I was happy about that. He was of medium height, balding and his clothing was travel worn. He had a most interesting face, like a man who had seen much and had suffered much, and yet a face not without humor.

                    The village of Schmeckle-Something is not quite right here
 My name is Heinrich Emmler. I had come from the city of Ardoberg on holiday. I am the Master of the Electoral Public  Archives by profession, but a Naturalist by vocation. I specialize in the cataloging of rare birds, and the wild places of the province of Holstein are said to have some truly rare species. Now, here I was in the village of Schmeckle, deep in the wooded hills of Holstein and all I had seen so far were surly rustics, the landlord of this establishment where I was lodged, all innocent of soap and water, and now this oddly charming stranger with the outlandish accent, who would most likely knock me on the head later and rob me.   
The ale was set before us in due course, and the stranger drank his straight down. He then began his tale, pausing only briefly to motion to the landlord for two more. I set his story out here as I remember it, and if it seems implausible, what I myself experienced soon after will sound more unlikely still.
A stranger engages Heinrich with an extraordinary tale
So spoke the stranger: “The people of the village are being terrorized by what they claim is a witch. For years villagers have caught glimpses of this impossibly ancient looking hag lurking in the vicinity of the village at night. They call her Mad Emma. She seemed always to be collecting one thing or another, wild plants, tree mold, vermin, animal bones, for some unknown purpose. When approached she would fade into the darkness. Over time, the yokels grew to fear her. Some claimed to have seen her flying on a broom through the night sky and others to have seen her meeting the Devil in a forest clearing.

At last, a group of local men surprised Emma during her nocturnal foraging, dragged her to the nearby river and threw her in. The local folk hold that if a hag is thrown into deep water and she floats, that is proof that she is a witch. If she sinks, then she was innocent and those who threw her in must pay for a Mass to be said for her soul. In this case, she did indeed sink without a trace, proving, they thought, her innocence. A few days later as the Mass was getting under way the church was filled with an unbearable stench that drove the villagers and the priest out into the street. Since then the locals have reported livestock sickening and dying and the crops are starting to wither. Several people have seen the hag in the countryside at night and in each case she has made the sign of the evil eye before vanishing into the darkness.”
There was something about this rustic inn, the rain beating down on the thatch, the fire casting fantastical shadows on the walls and just the two of us travelers and the landlord present that made the strangers story sound a little more plausible.
“A fine story, friend, and worth the price of a tankard or two.”  Indeed, two empty vessels stood before my companion and he held a third to his lips. “My name is Heinrich Emmler,of Ardoberg. Will you tell me yours?”
“I am Brother Mattias, and I am in your debt” said our story-teller.
“Am I to understand that you are a clergyman?”
“I am that. My Order is the Irish Christian Brothers”.
“Not a Roman Priest, then? Why are you not in clerical garb? I confess, I haven’t heard of your Order.”
“No, not a priest, no. A Brother is a servant of God who has better things to do than to learn his Latin! My Order is small and the nature of our mission is such that we are not widely known. As for my cassock, it was left behind with the rest of my poor possessions recently when I had to leave Albania on short notice, with the Sultans minions nipping at my heels.”
I must confess, at this point my thirsty new friend had me entirely engaged. All thoughts of bird watching in the countryside had fled, and had been replaced with an irresistible urge to delve deeper into Brother Mattias’ story, however nonsensical it would prove to be. It is not given to mere mortals to see into the future. If I had known what the next few days had in store regarding Mad Emma, I would have left the inn that night and returned to Ardoberg directly, standing not upon ceremony.
Note: The really nice buildings in the pictures were made by JustMike