From the author: In 1230s Prussia, Knight Commander Meinrad of the Teutonic Order must keep the uneasy peace between his knights and the recently-converted townsfolk while investigating a string of bloody and inexplicable murders.
Dark blood, almost black, soaked into Hellemar’s blond beard. He lay dead on his pallet, killed sometime between the Matins prayer and Prime, when this servant had run to stop Meinrad before he could enter the chapel. The young servant looked on the verge of tears. He had not seen a battlefield yet, so his idea of bloody was nothing worse than a slaughtered swine.
“Bring Brother Oxel and Brother Ratibor here. Tell no one else,” ordered Meinrad.
Work would keep the boy distracted until the shock faded, and Meinrad would need his brothers’ advice. Ratibor was his chief sergeant, an invaluable aide, and Oxel’s village in the Black Forest had tried a witch once. That experience might be important, if only to keep them from chasing the idea of witchcraft far enough to tangle themselves in heresy. A murder like this, in their own barracks, would draw accusations like crows to a battlefield.
Meinrad bent to the pallet to look closer. His back groaned in complaint. After forty-five years of riding and standing at attention, it complained at any shift from pikestaff-straight.
Hellemar lay there in sleeping-shirt and hose. His arms, legs, and face were marked with deep, ragged cuts. His chest had been torn open, breastbone cracked, ribs broken. In the bloody cavity, there was a space where his heart should have been. The murderer had taken his eyes as well, and his manhood, root and stem. There was blood soaking the shreds of his clothes and the pallet, but the floor below was clean. That was wrong. Meinrad had seen men who'd been opened like this on the field gush enough blood to muddy the ground under them. Where was the rest of it? Had the murderer mopped the floor after they ripped Hellemar open like a swine on the butcher’s slab?
More important, who could have done this? Who had come into their barracks and killed Hellemar in some unholy ritual? The tribes around Rheden were all subdued and baptized. They had been peaceful for years. That was why Master Balk had left only a dozen knights—eleven now—to hold the fortress, and why he had made Meinrad their commander. Balk knew Meinrad was too old and too tired of war to ride out for plunder or glory while the bulk of the Order was campaigning farther north.
Meinrad would have to find Hellemar’s killer quickly. If this was the prelude to some attack, he needed to know at once, and if not, he needed to deliver justice before the younger knights and the half-brothers decided to punish the entire village for a madman’s work.
Oxel came in first, his white mantle spotless, his salt-and-pepper beard trimmed smooth. He coughed at the scent of blood. At least it was only blood. If this crusade of theirs were in the Holy Land instead of this cold forest, Hellemar would already have been rotting in the sun.
Ratibor came in a moment later and peered at the body like a scholar inspecting a rare manuscript. One more reason Meinrad valued him so much: he had no fear, and his humility made him bear any task without complaint, no matter how vile. In his half-brother’s grey, he almost looked like a cloistered friar instead of a warrior here on the sharp edge of Christendom.
“Brothers," said Meinrad, "Hellemar has been murdered in his own sleeping chamber. Advise me. Who did this, and how will we find them?”
“This is witchcraft,” answered Oxel. “The killer marked him for the Devil. You know the Prussians are not redeemed by a little sprinkling of water and a few words spoken through their forked tongues. One of them killed Hellemar, as a sacrifice to their real master.”
Ratibor shook his head a little. He showed no offense at the charge of heresy against his people. “This was done carefully, with purpose, but I have never heard of any of the people living here sacrificing like this. They would hang captives from trees, or sometimes burn them, though they learned that from the Saxons.”
Oxel scoffed, but Ratibor knew the customs better than any of them. He was a Prussian, though he had been a good Christian all his life. Most of the German brothers mistrusted him as kin to the pagans they crusaded against, but his knowledge was often Meinrad’s best guide dealing with Prussians whose conversion had come at sword-point.
“Very well. Ratibor, make sure no servants are missing. The man who did this would flee. And gather all the servants who have no one to account for them last night. I will examine them after the Terce bell.”
Ratibor turned away from the body and made to go, still blinking sleep or contemplation from his eyes and pinching his fingers as if they held a pen, as he often did when he was thinking. Oxel blocked the door.
“If you have the barbarian question suspects, he’ll let the murderer slip through his fingers!” Oxel was nearly shouting. “They should be burned with irons and racked to make them talk.”
“Brother Oxel, I have heard your counsel already. I did not ask your opinion on how I should have them questioned, or how I should order my own men.”
Oxel shut his mouth but still stared Meinrad in the eyes, unchastened. The younger men, even the veterans, thought Meinrad was timid.
“You secure the stockade. Double the watch and see that everything is ready for an attack. Put whoever was on watch last night on double duties, and send them to confess negligence and do fasting penance.”
Singling out the watch would keep suspicion focused outward, Meinrad hoped, to the woods and the wild Prussians who had not yet submitted to the order and the church. With so few knights and half-brothers under him, infighting would leave them defenseless fast. Fear of the outside was manageable. He wished he could have delegated more of the decision. Ratibor had a defter hand with politics than a life of warfare had left Meinrad with.
* * *
The stone fortress was not large enough to house all the brothers in comfort, hence their barracks in the yard outside, but it held the true necessities of life: the kitchens and the chapel, and the commander’s office, where the treasury and records were kept. Meinrad met the servants there. Maybe it would awe someone into a quick confession.
Ratibor was waiting at attention outside when Meinrad came from the chapel. Two of the knight brothers, Arnulf and Karl, were waiting there too, not at attention. Both of them had been Sword Brothers, though they had not been found guilty of that disgraced order’s worst excesses. They wore their beards campaign-long, proudly blond, and never kept their tonsures clean. He should discipline them for it, but they would enjoy the fight. They were already aching for an excuse to buck the timid old man set over them. They stepped too close to him, and Arnulf spoke.
“Putting your pet savage in charge of the questioning is no good. You can’t ferret out a killer by questioning these dogs like hopeful novices. There should be irons, or at least the lash, if you want any of them to confess. We’d be happy to take on the responsibility if you don’t have the stomach for it anymore.”
No doubt the brothers would be happy to apply that logic to the village as well, and seize whatever treasure they could from the accused in the bargain.
“I will use all methods necessary to find Hellemar’s killer. You will return to your duties, and the next time you insult your brother Ratibor, you will do public penance for it.”
They went, without salute or acknowledgement of his order. There would be trouble when he had to deal with them in public. They were popular with the knights and the German half-brothers. Both of them had been stalwart in battle on the last season’s campaign. Meinrad tried to put aside his worry about them and attend to Ratibor’s report, but it lingered, like the groaning of a straining rope.
“I questioned all the superior servants," said Ratibor "No one bound to service with the Order is missing. Three women from the village who work here some days are unaccounted for, but I don’t think they could have done this, and they would not have been let in after dark without the watch noting it.
“I have assembled everyone who could have entered the knight’s barracks last night without attracting notice, and who had no one to vouch for where they were, except the other knights, of course. Who do you want to see first—servants, or the half-brothers who squire for the knights?”
“What will offend the brothers more, do you think—waiting or feeling like they’ve been singled out for questioning?”
“Let them wait. They’ll be annoyed, but you can tell them they’re only being questioned because you couldn’t find any guilty servants and you have to make sure.”
“Are you so sure none of the servants are guilty?”
“If any of them came as close as seeing the murderer’s cloak round a corner they’d be half way to Samogitia by now. These people are serfs and scullions, not killers.”
He took Ratibor’s advice and questioned the servants first. All of them: fat German cooks, local gardeners and cleaners, the too-thin young man who was Hellemar’s groom, were intimidated by speaking to the commander, afraid they might be dismissed from service and sent out into the wilds of Prussia, far from their homes. None of them was guilty, or even suspicious.
The half-brothers who served as squires and body-servants to their knights were less frightened, more offended at the questioning, but Ratibor’s politic suggestion kept them calm enough. They had all been on their own duties, or in their own barracks among dozens more brothers, in the hours when Hellemar was killed.
Meinrad was done with the questioning by the Vespers bell and no closer to a suspect. He would have to do something soon. With no murderer inside the compound, more of the brothers than Arnulf and Karl would think of punishing the town outside the stockade. That would be no better than an inquisition tearing the order apart from the inside. Master Balk had charged him to hold the fort and Rheden and protect Christians from any who threatened them. Meinrad included his knights in that charge, even if the master was likely to forgive their indiscretions in the name of fighting infidels.
* * *
Meinrad woke to frantic shaking. Ratibor was standing over him with a smoking torch.
“It's Kuno. In the yard. Come.”
Meinrad swung out of bed, stiff and still foggy. He pulled on his boots past his screaming back and popping knees, draped his surcoat over his sleeping robe, and hobbled into the yard. It was the dead dark between Lauds and Prime, with clouds covering the stars and the moon long set. The yard was chaos. Men, half in armor and half in nightgowns, ran about like goblins, waving torches until the light blinded as much as it revealed. Ratibor, Oxel, and Arnulf were each trying to impose some order on the chaos, while the half-brothers gathered to the knights by banners, looking for direction and comfort.
Meinrad sifted the shouting for information and managed to learn that Kuno had stood watch at the gate since Compline, but his duty had ended, and he was missed at the Lauds mass. His replacements on watch agreed that he had left the fence, but he had never reached the barracks or the chapel.
Someone had stood two torches in the ground to illuminate the corpse. The big man was pinned to the wall of a shed halfway between the stockade and the fort by a dozen long, thin splinters of wood. Like Hellemar, he had been opened. Like Hellemar, his eyes and manhood, and some of his vitals, were gone. Again, there was no sign of blood that flowed or pooled. Who had done this? How had they?
That was the real question. Kuno had not been in armor, a failure of discipline, but he was still a huge man, near seven feet. Meinrad knew from experience that Kuno's strength was monstrous and matched by an uncanny speed, yet his sword and dagger hung at his belt, untouched. How had anyone, even a bloody-handed rebel hiding in their midst, surprised Kuno and killed him so quickly he could neither shout nor fight? He was nearly as seasoned as Meinrad. No brigand could have taken him like that.
Some order was coming to the yard, as knights and sergeants sent ripples of authority into the rout and calmed the water. Meinrad called the nearest officers to him.
“I want an explanation for this. Two of our brothers are dead, murdered under our noses. None of our servants or the Prussians in the village could have killed Kuno without a struggle. Look, he never even drew his sword. How did warriors get inside the stockade without being seen? Did you double the watch as I ordered, Oxel?”
“I did, and put a knight on duty for every watch. Franz was watching just now, and he swears nothing passed the gate or climbed the fence.”
“Then how do you explain this? Do you think a cook overpowered Kuno and tore him open like a wild beast?”
“It doesn’t matter what Franz saw!” Arnulf shouted so the whole yard heard him. He had Karl and two of the other knights at his back, with most of their men-at-arms. “The killer is in that village. Filthy heathens hiding him for certain. It’s time to pay them back, not wait around for them to kill us one by one while we pretend they’re good Christians.”
Torchlight reflected in Arnulf’s eyes. He looked hungry, mad with it. He wanted to kill. Meinrad knew eyes like that. He had seen them in his companions on the disaster of a crusade that the traitor Venetians had set loose on Constantinople. He’d seen men with that look cut down a boy of fourteen in the doorway of church and pry bright stones out of a mosaic from the age of Caesars. He had to stop Arnulf now, or the fire would spread. The brothers were on edge, dry grass waiting for the spark.
He slapped Arnulf across the mouth. Arnulf lunged forward. He was fast, but Meinrad was expecting him. Meinrad grabbed his shoulders and forced him down onto a knee. Meinrad was still strong, even if the young men were quicker. He held tight to Arnulf’s shoulder. It was the rein for the whole Order tonight.
“I did not ask for your advice, brother, and it is not the time for debate. I am in command, and we have been attacked. All brothers must put themselves in readiness for battle, and they will man the stockade in four watches. Men not serving on guard will move all our food and drink into the fortress, and any weapons or armor that are fit to use. The duty to attend services is suspended until the emergency is passed.
“Brother Hermann, Brother Franz, take your best men and ride reconnaissance as far as you can go and come back in one day. If these attacks are to prepare the way for a larger battle, I want to know.”
Arnulf stared poison at him for a moment, and Meinrad felt the lightness on his own hip where a sword should hang. The other knights began directing their men as he had ordered. Arnulf stood up and joined them.
Meinrad breathed a little sigh. He had held them, for now. He still needed an answer. The murderer must be found and punished before master Balk returned, or Balk would order just what Arnulf wanted: the whole town put to the sword in retribution. He needed someone to hang this crime on, or it would swallow all of them.
* * *
Prayer and a little sleep delivered Meinrad no insight into the problem. Ratibor knocked while he was dressing and entered at his word.
“I want to show you something, outside the village. It might bear on the killings.”
“Of course. Should we take more men?”
“No, I think only we two would be best.”
Meinrad dressed in his full hauberk and wore his surcoat over it. When they rode out he left his helm hanging at his saddle, but otherwise he was fully armored for battle, and Ratibor wore his mail shirt and carried spear and sword as well. Meinrad felt eyes watching them in the village, but the people seemed more afraid of the black cross than resentful enough to harbor heathen murderers. Meinrad couldn’t blame their fear or make himself suspect them because of it. These people had been baptized at sword-point only five years ago. They had reason to fear the Order.
When the two of them were out of the village, alone in the forest, Ratibor rode close beside him.
“I had been trying to remember since I saw Hellemar, and Brother Arnulf's shouting last night about heathen killers shook it loose. The people here, before they were Christians, had a story about a devil that lived in the woods. They said it was made of smoke or bad air, but also that it was like a man made of wood, or a tree that walked, or that it wore the flesh of beast, and that it could be run through or beheaded and not be killed. That it could pass through wooden walls as if they were only mist, and only stone or metal could bar its passage.
“The tale said that, in the time of their grandfathers—always then, no matter who told the story—a clever priest had tricked the devil into a sacred tree and bound it there with chains of different metals, which it could not pass.
“They kept the chained tree as a holy place, and there was always a priest attending it, until the sword brothers burned the tree and stole some of the chains, the ones made of gold and silver. Since then, the people here say the place is cursed and will not go there.
“I mention it, and I am taking you to see the place where the tree was, only because the story also said that the monster killed much as our brothers have been killed. It tore men open, and drank the blood, and stole pieces for itself or its lair.”
This was not what Meinrad had expected. Ratibor was always careful not to bring up anything that smacked of pagan heresy. Half the brothers already questioned his faith, given his birth. He had been right to tell this to no one but Meinrad.
“You know," said Meinrad "that if either of us suggests the killer is a devil from the wood, Father Baren is liable to write to the legate in Chelmno, and whoever spoke such a theologically dangerous idea would not be comfortable.”
The legate was especially on watch for accusations of witchcraft and demonism against Prussians. Those accusations, on no evidence, certified by Bishops more interested in taking land than saving souls, had been one of the Sword Brothers’ favored tactics, until that order had been extirpated and its members absorbed by the more respectable Order under Master Balk. The legate was in the north to ensure that only those with the proper authority saw demons in the Prussian woods. False sightings were to be punished as heresies, and Father Baren would not hesitate to report any of the brothers for stepping beyond their authority.
“It seemed worth mentioning. You said yourself that none of the servants or villagers could have killed Kuno so easily, and I do not wish to suspect my brothers any more than you do. So I must imagine other ways Hellemar and Kuno might have died. I do not think a killer crept over the stockade, or that Franz and Hermann will find a warband coming to sack Rheden, so I must think of other possibilities.”
They came to the place, and it was strange. Ratibor’s story began worrying at the back of Meinrad’s mind like a little gnawing shrew. There was a wide circle of bare ground and the branches of trees twisted instead of hanging over it. The circle was filled with white ash and blackened branches. Nonsense. How could the ashes of a burning from years ago still be here?
Meinrad swung down off his horse and stepped into the circle of ash. He would not quail at heathen superstitions. Ratibor tethered his grey mare and Meinrad’s black charger to one of the last trees and followed, taking his proper place at Meinrad’s shoulder.
The ground inside the circle felt wrong, too hot, as if the warmth of the fire still lingered. Meinrad was sweating in an instant, the stifling air pressing close and weighing him down like fingers catching in his mail. The ash puffed up at each step, staining his surcoat to the knee and hanging behind like a curtain, closing him from the rest of the forest with a grey veil He walked toward the center, trying to make sense of this place that seemed held out of time, as if the burning from Ratbor’s story had happened last night while they were studying Kuno’s bloody end.
Something hard clanked against his boot. He bent to look, sweat dripping off his nose. A hunk of rusted iron that might have been a link of chain, twisted by fire and left for the rain. He cast about and found more, mixed with green copper pitted by the years. These seemed to match the story, but the ash and heat still leered, miraculous and wrong, breathing an unclean smoke into his mouth.
The horses screamed, a long pained whinny tearing into a shapeless yell. He sprinted back across the clearing. His horse was down, torn open all along its belly and dying fast, blood steaming on the soil. He looked frantically for the attacker. A bear? The cut looked like the work of tearing claws. There was nothing down the trail they’d taken.
“Left, circle and meet,” Ratibor shouted as he leapt astride his grey.
He rode right, weaving his horse carefully through the trees. Meinrad ran left, and drew his sword. He went quickly as he could, jumping over stumps and ducking under hanging branches, keeping his eyes out for the flash of a beast running through the trees. Nothing. Not even deer tracks. No sound of footfalls but his own, and Ratibor’s mare muffled by the trees.
He slowed to a walk and sucked in air. The muscles of his legs pulled, threatening to cramp, and he walked them slowly soft. He met Ratibor on the path a little distance from the clearing.
Meinrad shook his head.
“I didn’t see anything either,” said Ratibor.
They started back toward the clearing. “Whatever it was, the same thing killed Kuno and Hellemar,” Ratibor said, leaning down from the saddle as if the leaves overhead might be listening.
“'Whatever'? Are you still trying to convince me to accuse a devil of killing our brothers?”
“You saw the same cuts I did. They didn’t look like blade work.”
Meinrad had no answer for that, but heathen stories about a wood demon wouldn’t satisfy his knights, and they might leave the master and the legate looking to get satisfaction out of Meinrad, with a lash or a pyre.
There was nothing to do for his charger. It was dead and cooling slowly when they returned. They rode back double on Ratibor’s mare, going slowly while she struggled with the weight. Meinrad had time to think. It was easy to imagine something large, a walking tree or a shape of shadows or a great beast, pacing them, just far enough into the trees he couldn’t see it. It was easy to seize an answer to all his questions about how the knights had been killed. A devil with no fixed shape, with razor claws and strength born of the pit, would answer everything.
* * *
The town was as tense as the hour before a North Sea storm when they rode through, double on Ratibor’s mare. The villagers were locked up inside their cottages without even a pretense of marketing or working the fields. The stockade bristled with half-brothers, holding spears and crossbows at the ready, following his orders. It felt as close to violence as when the stockade had been first raised, while they were still building the fortress here to hold the Order’s first conquests across the Vistula.
The gate was opened quickly and slammed behind them. Meinrad answered no questions about their adventure in the forest or the absence of his horse. He shut himself in the commander’s chamber in the fortress and thought, pondering how to escape this without letting his men massacre the village or getting himself tried for heresy.
He did not leave his room until the Vespers bell called for the service. He needed prayer. He took his place in the first row, just below Father Baren’s pulpit. He addressed his mind to God and let the psalms and the priest’s clear voice wash over him, until one line caught in his mind:
“Unless the Lord watches over the city, he that keeps it stands watch in vain.”
But did the Lord watch them, here in these wild lands, so long turned away from his light? Would he watch while the brothers’ swords struck off the heads of new-made Christians and despoiled their women of property and freedom? The men on the walls were ready for it; he had felt it when he came back to the village. The brothers wanted blood, and the villagers knew it. They were bracing for the blade to fall. Surely if the Lord was watching, he would not allow a devil to come among his servants. Or he would demand they stand against the fiend, damnation be to heresy and doubt, if a creature of the pit appeared before them.
A hand on his shoulder.
Ratibor bent close to whisper in his ear. “Gytautas the merchant is dead, like our brothers. You should come. People are panicking.”
There was no way to go without being seen, so Meinrad rose and went. Let them wonder. Everyone would hear soon enough. As soon as they left the chapel, he sent Ratibor to gather the rest of their banner. With the town so tense, he wanted men at his back, and that would give the knights less excuse to charge to his rescue if something happened.
He buckled his longsword over his hauberk and pulled on his coif for a second time that day, and when he went to the gate, Ratibor led ten half-brothers in mail shirts, with swords and shields and grey mantles all gilded in the sunset. Hermann was guarding the gate, back from his fruitless reconnoiter. Meinrad ordered him to keep it shut and let none of the brothers into the village unless Meinrad sent back orders.
While they walked, Ratibor reminded him about the victim. Gytautas was one of their great successes, a convert brought to the church after the Order’s victories but an enthusiastic one. He had endowed money for the building of a church in the village, once enough of his neighbors joined him, and he had married the daughter of German settlers, using their connections to open more business bringing in goods from Christendom. He was the new Christian Prussia the Order had been charged to build.
There was a crowd in the street, chattering, half of them forgetting to make the sign of the cross and instead showing older gestures that Meinrad had to overlook. The crowd shied back from his men and gave them a straight path to the house.
The stout blonde widow was wailing on the doorstep. A young man, a son probably, took her in hand and gestured them through the cottage into the yard behind. Ratibor barked orders, and most of the banner stopped to keep the crowd back, each one holding a wide space as the crowd recoiled from their crossed mantles.
Gytautas was in his yard, a few steps from the woodpile. It looked as though the firewood he had been carrying had rebelled, burst its binding, and sharpened each stick into a crude spear to impale him. He was leaning half upright, suspended on the bundled stakes that pierced him through belly, chest, and limbs. There was no blood on the ground under him, but the wood of the spears was dark, as if they had drunk it into their grain.
Already, villagers were peering over the fence to see the spectacle. God’s Blood, he should have had his men secure the yard, not the front of the house.
He stared at the grisly icon Gytautas had been made into. It taunted him. Whoever had done this was sowing panic with intention, placing each body more publicly, fanning the fear and anger hotter. A little longer and someone would break. A little longer and Ratibor would come to tell him the villagers were muttering that this evil came from the Order, or that the knights were to blame for not protecting them, or that the knights themselves had murdered Gytautas and staked him out because they hated Prussians and wanted them all dead.
He wouldn’t stay for it. He turned away and called his men after him, back to the stockade. Let the villagers deal with the body as they would. He wouldn’t catch this creature by staring at its handiwork in the twilight, but maybe he could still prevent a massacre and draw the creature out to make good on whatever it really wanted.
He marched back up the hill with hand on his sword, and the crowd shrank from him, but they followed behind, and he could hear them murmuring. Curse it all. If he ordered his ten men to disperse the crowd, they might not be enough. If the village fought, he and his men would be overrun. If the brewing mob followed him to the gates, the rest of the brothers would be enough to kill them all. He kept on, not deigning to turn his head. Maybe he could still command his knights firmly enough to keep them on one side of the walls and the village on the other without bloodshed.
The stockade wall was less well manned than when he left. The gate slammed shut on the heels of his last man. The brothers inside were drawn up in an ordered company, Arnulf directing them, Father Baren beside him, nodding, endorsing. The knights stood at the head of their banners, ready to rush out and overwhelm the crowd. Oxel looked at Meinrad helplessly. What could he do when the brothers all wanted blood to pay for the fallen?
Arnulf turned, smiling like the Devil in the torchlight. He pointed past Meinrad with a naked sword.
“You men, fall in behind Karl’s banner and follow him in the battle. The commander is detained now, for his infirmity.”
So that was the tale they had told themselves—his age the fig-leaf for their mutiny. It could wash either way, now or when the master came. He drew in breath to shout Arnulf down.
A rain of rubbish sent the sentries still manning the gate crouching behind their battlement, and the shouts from outside drowned his chance of answering, but he still stood in the gateway, and he saw the brothers wavering. He might hold them yet.
A stone arced over the fence and crashed on a half-brother’s helm. The man fell, boneless and limp.
“Enough waiting,” Arnulf yelled. “Open the gate and forward now. Teach the heathens to fear us again!”
Some held back, Hermann and Oxel and Meinrad’s own banner, but Karl and Arnulf led the rest forward. They broke around Meinrad as if he were a rock in the rushing stream. Their faces flashed in the torchlight as they passed him, bright eyes and black, hungry mouths. They would be drunk on blood and slaughter soon, laughing to convince themselves they were heroes while they stood over the bodies of anyone too slow to outrun their swords.
One of the green boys who had never seen campaign ran past, close enough to touch, screaming with the rest, covering his fear. No, Meinrad wouldn’t let the boy get his first blood like this. He slammed his armored shoulder into the youth, knocking them both out of the column of men. The boy sprawled, winded, gaping.
“Keep him here!” Meinrad shouted to whichever loyal brother would still jump at his order.
He ran out after the rest. Maybe he could take Arnulf by surprise and claim some sort of authority to stop the slaughter, at least until the master came back to hang him for turning on his brothers.
The front rank of the crowd stumbled back when the gates swung open. Arnulf led the charge out, screaming like a fury, sword in one hand, a torch in his other turning his white surcoat scarlet. A few fools tried to make a stand, setting pitchforks against the charge like pikes. With luck, maybe Arnulf would run onto one in his mad rush.
A scream from far back in the crowd arrested all attention, one voice and then many, fear and pain. Arnulf raised his hand and the charge halted. He was too experienced a campaigner to ignore it.
Something moved in the dark, and the crowd boiled away from it. Some fell. It was halfway through the mob before a fallen torch stayed lit long enough to show what it was.
The beast was ten feet tall, with patchwork skin of twigs and fire-blackened chips of wood that shifted like they were floating and showed a pool of black beneath. The blood Meinrad had been looking for stained the wood from claw-tip to elbow, and the stolen hearts clustered at its chest like grisly medals. Eyes ringed its head in a rotting crown. The other organs it had taken hung on its belly or between its legs, like it had tried to build a body by pinning the stolen vitals to the skin they should have sat beneath.
It strode through the crowd, crushing stragglers with idle blows as it passed Three steps. It was a tree, its hands long, grasping twigs, sliding forward on a writhing foot of roots like twining snakes. It bounded through the thinning crowd like a great cat and raised a wolf’s jaw to the sky to scream. Arnulf’s following broke and ran.
Meinrad drew his sword and ran to meet it. “Gott mit Uns!”
Something he could fight. God showing him the right path at last.
He closed nearly as fast as the beast while it was still slowed by stumbling villagers it turned to kill. Some of the other knights had broken, but Arnulf and Karl stood their ground, along with Hermann and Father Baren brandishing his crucifix. Half-brothers fled back past Meinrad in a flood, faces grey as their mantles with the fear.
He was still six paces away when Father Baren met the monster. Baren raised his cross. “In nomine Christi—”
The devil punched blade-sharp fingers through Baren’s chest, one hand and then another, and tore him in half. Blood flowed up its arms and stained them. Arnulf screamed and charged, swinging his sword wildly. He hacked into its bloody forearm, striking chips off with each blow, but it showed no pain. It punched one of those talons into his gut. He stumbled back, but his mail held. He still stood.
The beast fell onto four legs as Meinrad closed with it. It smelled of ash, and sweet iron blood, and rot. He drove his long sword in two-handed between the shoulder and the neck, questing for a heart. Its wood-skin was hard as horn, but he punched through. Behind the skin was no resistance; he pulled his blade out with a wisp of black smoke clinging to it and leapt away from raking claws. Smoke coiled out of the wound he had made and pooled around the devil’s feet.
Holy Mary defend them if their blades couldn’t hurt the thing. Father Baren was already dead. Meinrad settled himself into a defensive crouch and parried as it came for him. Missed strikes dug channels in the ground, but he didn’t feel that hideous strength when he caught its arms on his blade or felt claws scrape across his mail. It was strong, but no more than a strong man.
The knights who had been bold enough to stay spread out. The four of them surrounded it, former quarrel forgotten in the fray. The devil chose a shape like a man, with too-long arms that had an extra joint and twisted like a whip when they struck out. The knights held, but they were tiring fast, and none of their blows seemed to discomfit it. Meinrad mulled a retreat, but it would pull them down if they ran.
It whirled on Hermann hunched behind his shield. The wooden fingers punched through solid oak without slowing, gouged his eyes out in a crimson fountain. He fell to his knees screaming. The devil raised its arm to finish him. Meinrad leapt to catch the blow on his sword. It forced him to one knee. There was no mark on Hermann’s shield. The claws had passed through like the oak was air.
Steel, that was it. Wood couldn’t hold it back, but metal could, just like the chains the fire had broken. Meinrad barely got his sword up in time to parry another raking strike for his unarmored face. Curse his helm left in his chambers. They were failing. If they kept up this fight, all four of them would be dead soon.
“Gott mit Uns!” The cry came from the gates, and a volley of crossbow bolts followed, staggering the devil. Karl and Arnulf ran. Meinrad sheathed his sword, shouldered Hermann, and followed. A second volley. Ratibor was commanding two lines of half-brothers, each one loosing in turn.
They were through. The gate slammed shut.
They couldn’t stop here. The stockade wouldn’t hold it. Ratibor’s old tale had been right: wood was no more than smoke to the devil thing.
“Into the fortress, everyone! We need stone walls.”
He was wheezing. It had been a long time since he had fenced on foot in his full armor, and never against a devil like that. He was one of the slowest, even after he passed Hermann off to a pair of half-brothers.
It came through the stockade when the retreat was halfway across the yard. Some of the knights started to slow and drop into a fighting crouch. . Meinrad shouted them up and on. Another volley of crossbow bolts overhead kept it off their heels. Ratibor had been first to the fortress. They were across. The gate slammed shut behind them. Pain stabbed a stitch in Meinrad’s side, and he grabbed the rough wall to keep standing. The rest looked no better than he felt.
His knights were flagging. Even the veterans had the staring eyes of men after a long battle. They would break quickly against this awful enemy. Most of the half-brothers were just as weak, slumping to the ground to rest instead of taking their proper posts in defense. He needed Ratibor. Here he was, ready as always.
“Set our banner to watch here and on the gatehouse battlement.” Ratibor’s leadership had kept those men farther from panic than the rest. “Everyone else to the main hall. Knights, prepare your banners to man the walls. Oxel, take charge of the stores and tell me how long we can hold this place under siege.”
There were grateful sighs as most of the brothers left the narrow entry and clattered to the great hall. He looked to the knights. They were not rushing to order their men. Everyone wanted a rest. Should he press them? A hard choice. He had no experience measuring men against a monster like this.
A scream from the entry, and he was running back. Too few followed on his heels.
The monster was coming in. Probing fingers slipped between the iron bands of the gate. One of the men was rolling on the floor, covering his eyes and wailing. The other's sword dropped from nerveless fingers. A wrist followed the thing's claws. Meinrad hewed at the hand. His sword bit into the gate as hand pulled back through. The hand bulged though again, higher.
“More steel!” shouted Ratibor down the corridor. “Bring swords and pikes, and make a fence so it can’t slip in.”
Meinrad’s banner came first, but many more followed. Meinrad dissuaded the monster with a few more strokes that left marks in the wood, but soon men were fencing the gaps with spears and poleaxes, and Ratibor was directing them to wedge hafts so they could leave the fence without bracing it.
If they survived, Meinrad would speak to the master. Ratibor must be knighted for this. He had done more good commanding the fortress than Meinrad.
He heard a rasping over stone. Damn his knights for cowards and sluggards! The battlements were still empty. It must be climbing the wall. It still wanted to get in, to kill them before they could defend themselves or think of how to trap it again.
Of course it wanted them, if iron and stone were all that could hold it. Who else in these woods kept enough of either to bind the thing again? That was why it battered itself against their walls and weapons instead of taking easy prey from Rheden’s wooden houses.
Where could it get in? The arrow-slits above were too narrow even for its flowing form, and the postern gates were iron.
The tower. The trapdoor to the parapet was wood, with only two iron bands. It could slip through. He ran.
Meinrad pounded up the spiraling stair, blood in his ears, boots on the stone. His sword was light in his hands again. It felt like angels were lifting up his feet. He was armored in steel, with his good blade in hand, and he knew his foe now. What it wanted, what it could do. Let God and steel decide.
One of its claws grasped the battlement as he pulled himself up the last rungs and onto the tower top. He chopped at it and sheared off three fingers. His blade sparked on the stone. Blood sprayed his arms, black and rotten—Hellemar’s blood, or Kuno’s.
Its other hand grasped the battlement and it swung over. He shuffled back not to be crushed. It stood for a moment, on two legs more like a dog’s than a man’s, and regarded him down a long, biting muzzle. Smoke poured from its missing fingers and all the little cuts it had taken tonight, drifting lightly in the wind like tassels of damasked silk.
It came for him, arms wide. He trusted his mail and stepped inside, hewing at its trunk like he was splitting wood. It buffeted him, but his hauberk held and he drew deep gouges through its hide . It slashed at his face. He held it back and pared away another finger.
The battle thrill was singing in his blood. He would have it, pay it back for Hellemar and Kuno, for driving his knights to the knife’s edge of slaughter. He slammed his sword into its chest, high. He could pull down and split it wide.
No. This was wrong. It had been stronger than this, fast as an arrow, when they fought below. Why would the Devil tire so soon? Why would it let him cut it open?
The smoke spilling from it did not fade; it roiled with currents, with intention. Ratibor’s story had not said it was monster of wood but of smoke. Why did it still wear this body that kept it from slipping easily into the keep and killing? This body that still smelled of the ash that Meinrad had trod in at the burned grove.
The last splinters of the pagan tree still trapped the thing. If he broke it, the devil would be free: a spirit of smoke, drinking the blood of men.
It slashed for his eyes again with that unnatural speed, not waiting for him to finish his mistake. He barely stumbled out of reach. He wouldn’t last long if it fought in earnest, but he did not need to kill it like a man or a boar. He only needed something to bind it, like the chains around the tree had done.
Christ defend him. He ducked under and bulled into it. It was light for something so large. He carried it back, locked his arms behind it. It was in a ring of steel now. It braced against the battlement, but he never slowed. He jumped, and his weight over-balanced them.
He had a moment to hope that enough of the creature would remain for his men to report the truth of it and escape trial for crying witchcraft without evidence, or that one of them would invent a clever lie that settled that awkward question. A heartbeat to regret that he would not live to see Ratibor knighted.
They struck, his arms still locked around it, and he felt nothing.
This story originally appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.