She caught Greta's eye and pointed her chin in the direction of the man. "Who's that?"
Greta glanced over. "Good luck with that one. Didn't say much."
"I'll try anyway."
Teeann wiped her hands on a cloth and took a tankard of ale with her. She took a roundabout route, looking in at other tables, but steadily advancing on the stranger. When she stood before the alcove, she held up the tankard.
"Another ale, good sir?"
"Not just yet. In a little while, perhaps."
She set the ale on the table behind her and turned back to him. "A man of moderation. And yet I see you have a long sword." Her smile was dazzling, inviting.
The man glanced to his right, at his sheathed weapon propped against the wall. Then his brows knit together, before a light shone in his eyes. He chuckled, understanding her enticement. "Are all barmaids so bold here?"
Teeann shrugged, somehow still making it a suggestive motion. "A woman has to make a living in these hard times."
"Well, lovely as you are, I will not require services of that nature tonight."
"As you wish, milord. If you are not here for pleasure, might you be about business this fine evening?"
The man stared at her. "I see your boldness continues."
"Beg pardon, milord, I meant no offense. I meant only to converse pleasantly. We do not get many strangers in these parts, and it does get wearisome talking to the farmers about the health of their pigs."
He chuckled again. Using his foot, he pushed out the extra chair. "I suppose you'd better sit down, then, attract less attention."
"Thank you, kind sir. It does get tiring, being on one's feet all day." She liked that he didn't make the usual crude joke about being on one's back all night, the way most men did. No, there was something different and dangerous about this one. Still, he was a man, so she leaned forward, further accentuating her charms, and put her arms on the table, giving him all her attention. This flattered most men, and gave her the advantage.
"What is your name, inquisitive one?" His tone was not unfriendly.
"Teeann, and it please you, sir. And what might you be called?"
"You can call me Malleus."
She thought she did an excellent job of hiding her shock, though the blood in her veins chilled like lake water in winter. She even managed to keep her voice level as she spoke. "That's a different sort of name."
"More like a title, really."
"Are you a great lord, then?"
"My title means Hammer, and I am the Hammer of Witches. But you know that, though you cover it quite well. I am but a humble servant of the King, as we all are. I seek to root out evil in our land."
"There is evil abroad? Should I be afraid, then?"
"You know how to frighten a simple barmaid."
He took a firm hold of her wrist, but not in a harsh way. His touch was powerful, and she felt a strength course through their connection. "Simple barmaids have naught to fear from me, though you are far from that."
"Many women go to their deaths from a mere accusation."
He released her wrist and sat back. "I do not punish innocent villagers who stand unjustly indicted of witchcraft because of the spoiling of their neighbors’ milk. Nor do I pursue midwives and potion-makers who provide relief to the townsfolk. I hunt only the ones who work to the genuine harm of others. Yes, there are places where the ignorant accuse women because of superstition and fear, but that is not my office. You and I both know that there are those of your kind who use their powers in evil ways, and that leaves a trace. When I find evidence of that, then I strike."
Teeann looked into his eyes and saw that he was telling the truth. He had as good as stated that he knew she was a witch, and yet he sat before her as calmly as if he had ordered another ale. She should have been terrified, but she was strangely trusting of this man, despite the threat he posed. As most men were simple, she could see into their hearts, but this one was unlike any other she had met.
She cleared her throat. "I know of no evil here. Have you news?"
"I am to meet a man tonight who is to give me proof of evil come to our land. If your sisters are not aware of this, that tells me there is great danger, and I must act fast."
She nodded. "Do you want my help?"
He thought it over. "It depends on how much you trust me, and how much you are trusted among those of your kind."
She narrowed her eyes.
He went on. "I would seek an audience with the head of your order."
She coughed. "And you called me bold."
He laughed. "Yes, who would think it? But you see me, a man alone, willing to meet with one who could have my life, though I could have taken this town with a troop of soldiers, and tortured the truth out of women to find her. That is not my way, for that is as evil as that which I punish. But I fear what may be coming is a greater evil."
Teeann had sat back. The man had a haunted look. "I fear our King, out of his hatred for your kind, has done something terrible, perhaps even called upon the Dark Ones. He told me I would soon have a powerful weapon that would destroy all your folk, although he would not say more. If he knew I was even speaking of this to one such as yourself, he would have my head."
Teeann considered. "I could convey a message. But I do not think it will come to pass."
"Show her this, then, and see if she will meet." Malleus drew forth an object and placed it in her hand. It was a broken piece of iron, with strange symbols upon the surface.
"What is it?"
"I know not for certain, only of what it portends. She will know more. It is likely worth both of our lives."
"I will speak for you, but I am young, and have no voice or power."
"You would be doing a great service. It would not be forgotten. Tell her I know what horrible death I would suffer should I betray your trust. I have seen several such."
Further discourse was interrupted by the front tavern door suddenly swinging wide, and the cries of a large man. "Murder! Foul murder! Raise the alarm!"
Teeann gave a startled glance at the man across from her, who now wore a grim expression. He rose and reached for his sword. "We may already be too late."
All who were indoors streamed out into the night. By torchlight, the yard of the inn showed a wagon with a body stretched out in the back. The wagoner addressed the crowd. "I found him on the Konigsberg road, not far from here. I was late returning from market. Had to fix a sprung wheel. There he was, lying in the road. His horse was gone."
A voice called from the throng. "How do you know he had a horse, if it was gone?"
Malleus strode to the front and examined the body. He answered for the wagoner. "He's wearing riding breeches spattered in mud. He had ridden hard."
A man held up a torch to better see the face of Malleus. "And who might you be, stranger?"
"I am the Hammer of Witches. I bear the King's seal." The gasp in the crowd was audible, but Malleus spoke over the din. "This crime is under my authority now. Everyone get back. I'll need to see the magister."
"That is me," said the man with the torch. The muttering throng, which had been eager to crowd around the mark of a violent death, moved back, afraid of even the mention of witches.
Malleus spoke to the magister when they had room. "You see the knife in his back? I am going to remove it and examine it." Malleus took a cloth and tugged the blade free from the body. He eyed the knife in the light of the torch, and quickly looked into the magister's frightened eyes. "Not a word. I forbid you to say it. Do not frighten them further."
The magister's mouth was tight, but he nodded. Malleus wrapped the knife and stowed it in his pouch. "Help me turn him over."
They rolled the body so that the man now lay face up. Malleus turned to the crowd. "I want each of you to come up one by one and tell me if you know this man."
Of the dozen present, none claimed to know the dead man, and Malleus had watched their faces closely for any sign of recognition. Malleus spoke to the magister again and sent them back inside, but Teeann lingered at his nod.
"What is it?" She looked at the body. "Was that who you were to meet?"
"Yes." He held the cloth with the knife and opened it.
Teeann almost cried out.
"Do you see what I mean?" Malleus rewrapped the blade and put it away. "A witches' dagger. Someone is trying to point to your folk, to set me upon them. You know the stakes. If yon magister opens his mouth and tells them what this is, we'll have a riot on our hands. Go, and make her believe that I must talk to her. Do you need a horse?"
"Take mine, then. The black. Can you saddle it yourself? Are you good with a horse? I fear he is somewhat temperamental."
She smiled. "One of my many talents. I shall take good care of him."
"Go then, and Godspeed. Lives are in your hands, woman."
Teeann rushed to the stable, whispering to the stable boy who roused sleepily at her entrance. She found the huge black horse of the Hammer. He whinnied a warning, but she drew closer, and laid a palm on his neck. She spoke calm words, and felt the muscles of the great beast relax. She stroked his side, speaking low, and soon put the blanket on his unprotesting back. In a trice, he was saddled and ready. She had no time to change into riding clothes. A minute later, Teeann was riding the huge black into the night, and the horse responded to her urging for speed.
The tiny cottage showed only the faintest glow from within. But it meant the woman inside was awake, and that was good. Teeann knocked and the door opened to show an old woman. She looked at Teeann with shrewd eyes. Teeann made sign with her hand, and the woman nodded, signing back.
"Teeann, isn't it? Daughter of Ysolde? Come in, then."
Teeann stepped inside, gathering her courage.
"You have ridden hard, girl, to see me. Is it about the murder?"
Teeann nodded, surprised that the woman had heard already, despite what she knew of the powers of her sisters. She tried to unstick her tongue, she who was so glib with the men of the tavern.
"Terrible news. He was stabbed with one of our daggers."
"Aah," the old woman said, sitting in a chair. "That is bad."
"There is more. Malleus is here."
The woman shook her head. "I feared it was so. Dark days indeed."
"Old Mother, I met him before we heard of the murder. He knew what I am, and yet he made no threats to me, but talked of his mission, which was not about us. He was to meet the man who was killed, who would bring him proof of a great evil."
"What are you saying?"
"He saw the dagger and knew it for what it was, yet forbade the magister to spread the news. He knows the panic it would bring, and thinks we are falsely accused of this crime."
"Does he now?"
"There is more." Teeann drew her breath. "He would meet with you and have words."
"Meet with the Hammer of Witches?" The old woman laughed. "Are you mad, girl?"
"He seeks to stop this peril, and find the truth, not persecute us. He would meet you alone, without soldiers at his back, and he knows what we could do to him should he lie. Twas his horse I rode here, though I met him this night."
The old woman sat silent.
"Old Mother, I am not some silly girl asking you to trust my lover. I know the hearts of men, and he does not speak false. I know his office and fear his power, yet I am more afraid of what will happen if this evil is not checked."
"Your words have weight, girl. But you ask me to place myself upon the stake, at the hands of the man who is our enemy."
"There is more. He bade me give you this, that you would know from whence it came."
The old woman cried out and almost dropped the piece. She spoke a spell of protection as Teeann stood in fear.
"What does it mean?"
"It means we are undone."
"What shall I do?"
"Return, and I will send news. You have done well this night, Teeann."
Teeann went back outside and unhitched the black horse. She swept into the saddle and scratched behind his ear. "No need for speed now, my friend."
Two hours later, Teeann was back at the inn, the black combed down, watered, fed, and put to well-deserved rest. She had only stopped to tell Malleus before seeing to the horses' needs. Malleus had come out himself and looked with approval at her care of his mount, not trusting the task to the sleeping boy by the door. They went back inside the inn, where all else had left. A sole low candle burned to shed light. The body lay on a table by the wall. Malleus went behind the bar, dropped a coin on the back counter, and poured a goblet of wine. He returned to hand it to Teeann, who sat at one of the tables. She drank a portion, and set it down.
"Different turn, someone serving me." She gave him a wan smile.
"Will she meet me?"
Teeann shrugged. "It is much to ask. I spoke for you as best I could."
"I could ask no more, and have not enough words to thank you. You are brave."
"You are willing to go alone to meet our most powerful sister for many leagues. I'd say you were the brave one."
He laughed. "True. I might spend the rest of my days as a toad."
She laughed as well. "We don't really do that, you know."
"I know. It's what you can do that frightens people."
Her reply was cut off by a knock at the inn door. She rose to answer as Malleus put his hand on his sword hilt. Teeann opened the door a crack and spoke to whoever was outside. She closed the door, looking pale.
"She will meet you."
"Now. Upon the big hill."
"Where is that?"
"I'll show you."
"Good. I want you with me."
"To give you courage?"
Malleus drained what had been left in her goblet. "That too."
He awoke the stable boy, and pressed a coin into his hand, telling him he was borrowing a horse, and pointing to his own mount still there as surety. The boy nodded and saw them out.
Teeann rode behind, her arms wrapped around the man. Had she earlier been told she would be embracing the man who hunted her kind, she would have laughed in scorn, but here she was, pressed to his back and enjoying the sensation. He rode well, moving with the strange horse as if in long familiarity.
They were soon at the hill, and Malleus tied the horse. He took out a lantern, lit it, and handed it to Teeann. Without a word she took the lead, walking to the top of the hill. There was silence all around, and total blackness, except for the light of the lantern. Then the moon broke through the clouds, and they could see all down the hill and the valley below.
Malleus chuckled. "She wanted to make sure I had no soldiers waiting in the shadows."
"Indeed I did, Witch Hunter," came the voice of the Old Mother. "It would not be the first time you set a trap."
"I set no trap tonight," said Malleus. "But there is one who seeks to ensnare us both, and set us at odds."
"How did you know it was not us?"
"The murdered man was bringing me proof of what occurred up north, and I knew the murderer was not your kind, the ones that abide the law, at least. It would be rather deadly and stupid of you to stop his mission and leave proof of your guilt. Whatever our differences, I do not think that of you."
The crone nodded, and spoke to Teeann. "You have done well, girl. You may go."
"I would have her stay," said Malleus. "You and I do not trust each other, but we both trust her. She is a part of this now, and she risked as much as we for this meeting."
"So be it. You are not what I expected, Witch Hunter."
"And you are not eating the leg of an innocent babe while drinking blood from the skull of a priest," said Malleus.
"And yet you have harmed my sisters. Hunted them down, put them in chains, and had them tortured and killed."
"I have. At times there is no choice, for the King will have his blood sacrifice. If I were to free all the unjustly accused, they would remove me and put in someone far worse. You know the ones who held my post before me, and you know this is true. Few were innocent when I had them punished. I am ashamed it was any, but my power is not that of a king."
"Your fool of a king is the one who has undone us all."
"He blames your kind for the death of his beloved mother."
The crone spat. "Twas his own ancestor who killed her."
Malleus frowned. "I do not understand this riddle."
"It was in the time of his grandfather's grandfather's grandfather. A mad fool king, whose wife perished giving birth to a child. One of the king's advisers, fearing us and our power, told him it was we who had caused her death. A lie, but the grieving monarch began your office, to scourge us from the earth and hound us to our graves."
"This much I know."
"But he did more. He called upon the Dark Ones and made a Blood Pact. All of his line would suffer the loss of their most beloved in this world, if the Dark Ones would grant him one vengeance. A demon named Bastemoth to set forth upon the world, an ancient evil."
"To crush us and kill with sly shadows and dark fire. But the fool king did not account for what would happen if our kind fell. For who would stop the demon then? The Dark Ones would return in force, and rule over all."
The old woman sighed, seeming to recall a tragic past. "War. We came by the hundreds, and died the same. All for the lies of men. We struck and struck, and gradually, the power of the demon lessened, and we drove it from its lair, to the far north of the White Wastes. The power of the Dark Ones was too strong, and the thing could not be entirely destroyed, but in its weakened state, we bound it under a mountain of ice, with spells and iron seals. And since then we have fought the power of the Dark Ones and kept them from returning. Until now."
She handed Malleus the broken iron piece. "This was one of our seals. Your fool of a king dealt with the Dark Ones, like his ancestor before, and released the demon. Already it seeks us out, as evidenced by the murder of your man this night."
"That explains why he did not take me into his confidence. All I had were shadows of things I could not bring to hand. Yet I knew he was dealing with evil in some way. It leaves a stain." Malleus regarded the iron shard. "This demon, this Bastemoth. How do I stop it?"
"I can have two hundred soldiers here by tomorrow night."
"And they would be crushed like ants under your boot heel. They are of no use."
"So what then?"
"Only my kind stand between that foul thing and your destruction. If we go to war, many of us will die. And for what? So your king can continue to blame us for something sacrificed by the blood and betrayal of his own line?"
"He will never be swayed, but he is old. His son, however, might someday listen to reason. I can promise nothing, but I will do what I can."
"Precious little," the old woman spat. "While continuing to hunt and persecute us."
Malleus said nothing.
"Well," said the old woman. "At least you do not lie with honeyed words and promises." She sighed. "You will have your war, then. We strike tomorrow night. Our only hope is that it no longer has the same power as before. We have done much to push back the Dark Ones in the time since."
"If you did not know of it being released, how do you know where it is?"
"Deep in the Black Forest is a ruined tower, where once before we fought it. Evil still inhabits the place, and none of our kind venture near. It must be there."
"The forest is many leagues hence. We could not get there in time. What can I do?"
"Make your peace. For if we fail, all you know will soon be gone."
Malleus and Teeann returned to the inn, not speaking. Dawn was breaking, and the just-risen stable boy was scratching himself as he took the borrowed mount and accepted another coin from Malleus.
Teeann looked up at the sky. "This might be our last day of life. What do we do?"
Malleus gave a grim smile. "Not what I would wish to do. I must take the magister under my watch and scour the countryside for evidence of witches. Get some rest, if you can."
But Teeann couldn't rest. She changed and went to work, pretending to smile, and going about her tasks despite the weariness she felt, for there was also something running through her like the current of a river. The face of Malleus was never far from her thoughts. His voice, the confidence and strength of him as they rode together. It kept her going, though the long day seemed like a thousand years.
At twilight, a woman came to the back door of the inn and spoke to Teeann. Malleus had taken a room above, and had returned but minutes before. Teeann went up to the door and knocked. He looks weary, she thought. She longed to embrace him, to have him tell her all would be well. She knew she was afraid, but with him by her side, she would face the danger.
Instead she passed on the news. "We are summoned. Old Mother wishes you to see what your king has unleashed. We are to join the battle, albeit without any advance of the outcome."
He sighed and nodded, reaching for his sword. She shook her head. "They said you had no need of that."
He shrugged and followed her behind the stable. As they stood, there came a rush of air, and Teeann saw a woman descend on a crooked branch of willow that made it look like she was riding a broom. She motioned for them to get on. Teeann looked at Malleus and clambered up. Malleus joined her, and this time his hands were around her waist.
The branch rose in the air with all three as riders, and Teeann felt a thrill as she never yet had.
Malleus spoke into her ear, and the sensation tickled her. "Have you done this before?"
"Never," she replied. "It takes half a hundred years for the skill and knowledge to do this."
"I confess I am afraid," he said. She thought to herself that few other men would be strong enough to admit their fear to her so, and she liked him the better for it. They flew through the gloom, racing across the countryside swifter than any horse. Teeann held the branch, and Malleus held her. If their mission had not been so fraught with danger, she would have enjoyed this.
One hour passed, and then another. Then they drifted down to the ground, upon a bare hill, and the woman motioned for them to get off. They did so, and she flew away without a word.
"There." Malleus pointed across the valley, where the remains of the stone castle rose like black teeth in the moonlight. Teeann looked up, and saw hundreds of women in the sky, in all directions. Even she, of the craft, had no idea there were so many of her sisters.
There was no alarm, no roll of drums or call trumpets. All was silent one moment, and then the sky erupted in cracking booms as streaks of blue and green fire rained down on the tower from the ranks of women.
A shower of flame erupted from the tower, as arcs of red and orange fire blasted witches from the sky. Some exploded like pine knots in the hearth, some screamed as they fell like guttering torches to the earth. Teeann screamed herself to see so many burn. Malleus held her, and she buried her head in his shoulder, unwilling to watch any more.
The sky seemed as if it was day, with streams of flame crossing, meeting, and ending in bursts of light. A giant shadow rose from the tower, of indistinct form, yet in shifting, ghastly outline. The red spurts of fire shot from its black limbs, on and on, as witches poured down their magic on it from above, while they fell like birds to the scattershot of a cannon. Just as it seemed as if it would never stop, the red flames grew weaker, and unearthly bellowing screams could be heard from the castle, terrible roars that shook the valley. The shadow shrank back into the tower. Witches bore down, getting ever closer, casting ball after ball of flame along with the rivers of fire that combined when several worked together. The tower exploded, and Malleus and Teeann recoiled at the sudden burst.
The silence that came after was short, for a high keening commenced and filled the sky as witches wailed for their fallen sisters. Teeann bore it, painful as it was, for it was her family, her legacy as well. Malleus bowed his head and wept, and Teeann could not believe it. They held each other tightly, even as the Old Mother came to earth near them.
"You have your victory, Witch Hunter," she said, but then she saw his face.
"I have been upon the battlefield, and never have I seen such courage," he said, his voice broken.
"Yes, well, take that back to your King, and may the deaths of our sisters comfort him on his golden throne. His mad plan is stayed, but he may yet continue our persecution."
"I will work for the day when my office is no longer wanted. You have my word."
"An oath is taken seriously among our kind," said the old woman. "Have care in your words."
Malleus bowed to her. Her face was a mixture of anger and sadness, but Teeann could see that her eyes may have softened just a bit. She addressed Teeann, who still clung tight to the man. "Girl, you may have him, if he is of your choosing. I would not have believed it, but the world is strange. Know, though, that some of our sisters will hate you for your choice, feeling you have betrayed them. Are you strong enough to bear their wrath?"
Teeann nodded, and she felt Malleus look at her. She blushed, not daring to meet his gaze.
The old woman gave a final shake of her head and flew away, leaving them alone.
Teeann looked across the valley, at the ruin still lit by flames. "What now?"
"I have much to do," said Malleus. "I must see that our King has no more dealings with the Dark Ones."
"Will you come back?"
"I would like that. Though I will not ask you to wait."
"My kind live a long time, Witch Hunter. Perhaps you will return when you are no longer on the hunt."
How strange a thing, thought Teeann, to fall in love with a man who hunts witches. Perhaps I will understand it in a hundred years or so.
©April, 2017 Dale T. Phillips
Dale T. Phillips has published five novels, over sixty short stories, nine books of story collections, poetry, and non-fiction. He took writing seminars from Stephen King in college, has appeared on stage, television, and in an independent feature film, and competed on Jeopardy. He also co-wrote The Nine, a short political satire film. He has traveled to all 50 states, Mexico, Canada, and through Europe.