From the author: A little dark fantasy flash.
Twenty-some years ago, an acquaintance who was publishing a small local magazine (circulation 300, tops) asked me to write him 500 words he could use. I whipped out this little peculiarity.
I think it's not bad. Although it's only five per cent of a novel, it has a beginning, middle, and end.
by Matthew Hughes
To Fleischburgh on a smooth-gaited horse came Witchfinder Schiffler, pale as curdled milk, jaded eyes sliding sideways like eggs in a greasy pan.
Before him stepped Interrogator Arboghast, neat as a fox. Behind lumbered pate-shaved, slab-shouldered Ludenko, his dread instruments clanking in a sack.
Sudden errands called the townsfolk indoors, to watch and whisper, and wonder whose name Arboghast would scratch in black ink on blanched parchment, to place in his crimson wallet.
At the guildhall, the burgomeisters offered their best ales and meats. Names were spoken: a dyer with a mark on his face; a weaver's daughter; a hunchback by the wool market; a horse coper's widow.
Schiffler voiced soft questions, stroked his nose, pursed lips like an unripe plum. His slender fingers offered languid gestures. Arboghast wrote down the widow's name. The Witchfinder affixed his seal, and selected a pasty.
The townsfolk most feared Arboghast. Schiffler was remote, Ludenko a mere brute. But Arboghast came to people's doors, archers loitering at his heels. Peering from beneath russet brows, he'd smile and open the red wallet, stretching the terrible time before pronouncing the name.
The widow cried her innocence to heedless stone walls. Time somehow passed. Arboghast intoned questions. Ludenko pressed, twisted, worked his gyres and levers with surprising subtlety.
They left her gasping, staring bewildered at ruined fingers. The first day was commonly like this: heartfelt denials, then the wonderment of the pain minor, slowly opening into the lonely night preceding the travail majeure.
Arboghast returned to the guildhall. Schiffler and the burgomeisters were apportioning the widow's estate. By law, a third was the town's, a third the church's, a third the Witchfinder's. The widow must also pay for Ludenko's wages and materials, but that was a pittance.
The burgomeisters bowed and ducked their way out. Schiffler separated some coins from the heap on the table, slid them toward Arboghast, and poured the rest into a brassbound coffer.
The Interrogator regarded the coins. "Little enough for demanding work," he said.
"Then seek a more rewarding office," said the Witchfinder.
"Master..." continued Arboghast.
Schiffler sniffed. "The issue is tiresome and long settled."
In the morning, the widow responded satisfactorily. Arboghast could soon proceed to the Articles of Contrition. By lunchtime, there remained only the soliciting of accomplices' names.
Over game pie, Arboghast said, "Arduous labors merit proper recompense."
Schiffler folded his hands. "Elicit good prospects from the widow. There is your path to prosperity."
The Interrogator returned stiff-legged to the work. The widow compliantly sobbed four names. Arboghast disregarded each; instead, he penned a fifth in his spiky hand.
By sundown, the fire had dwindled, the ashes lifting on the smoke-stained breeze. Arboghast whispered to the burgomeisters. Glances were exchanged. Heads nodded.
At midnight, Arboghast knocked. His sleep broken, Schiffler flung open his door. Rough men secured him with cords.
Smiling, Arboghast brought the parchment from his wallet. The coffer's brass edgings glowed by candlelight. The Interrogator's lips parted to frame a name.
This story originally appeared in Minus Tides.