Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Quintessence of Absence”
By Sean McLachlan
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Sean McLachlan and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by New Epoch Press.
Lothar fumbled open the door to his tenement room and saw his old boss standing in the dingy hallway. He rubbed his eyes, thinking he was still hallucinating, but it was Francesco all right, standing there as real as anything, although the vermilion hue of his cloak, the green of his ruffled shirt and the black of his tricorner hat blended into one another and his powdered wig rippled to some unheard rhythm. Lothar was just coming off a nepenthe high, and the eyes could play tricks for a while. Those minor effects didn’t distract him much, though. If he had been cresting, the figure before him would sprout gossamer wings and flippers and wash in on a sea of beer.
Yeah, it was Francesco. Lothar would know that disapproving look anywhere. The Fop from Florence, that’s what he used to call him. He hadn’t changed a bit. He wore his fine clothes as naturally as his air of superiority, but the rapier and poniard hanging from his belt were no fashion statement. Francesco was the captain of the guard for the powerful Eisenbach merchant family. The Italian had been Lothar’s boss when he worked for the family as a sorcerer, predicting the weather for Eisenbach’s trading vessels and hexing those of competing families. But that… well, that was a long time ago.
Lothar rubbed his eyes again, trying to focus.
“I hope that you will invite me in,” Francesco said, smoothing his short, pointed beard. “I wouldn’t want it known I requested entrance to such a place.”
“Um, come in,” Lothar mumbled.
Francesco entered, taking in the warped floorboards, the nosepipe lying by the lumpy straw pallet, and the complete lack of other furniture in one sneering sweep. After a moment he turned to Lothar.
“I’ve been in the German lands twelve years now, and I must say I have never seen an abode quite like this. I won’t ask how you are, because I can see clearly enough. I’m glad to say I’m still in good health.”
“Cut the sarcasm and get to the point.”
“Herr Eisenbach has a problem.”
“Then fix it yourself. You got me fired, remember?”
“You got yourself fired, smoking that noxious paste.”
Lothar’s eyes narrowed. Although he couldn’t remember much of the day before, he certainly remembered the day (what? five years ago?) Francesco caught him taking nepenthe in Herr Eisenbach’s house. Francesco’s outrage, his own stumbling excuses, Herr Eisenbach’s grave injunction never to set foot on his property again…
Lothar wiped his nose with the back of his hand, smearing away a thin trail of blood that he wiped on his breeches. Francesco’s eyes widened.
“Are you all right?” he asked, handing him a silk handkerchief.
“It’s nothing,” Lothar said, taking the cloth and wiping his nose.
“It’s that rubbish you’re smoking.”
“Nah, just the change in the weather. I always get nosebleeds in the autumn.”
“It’s still summer.”
Lothar shrugged and tried to return the bloodied handkerchief. Francesco waved it away.
“Keep it. Let me take you out for breakfast. It looks like you could use a good meal, and I’d like to talk to you about a job.”
Lothar’s awareness cleared instantly. A job meant money. He was completely broke, and he’d smoked the last of his nepenthe the night before. If he didn’t get more in a day or two, things would get ugly. In a sudden flurry he got dressed, grabbed his worn, patched cloak, and hustled Francesco out of the room.
In the early morning quiet the beer hall was dark and empty. A sleepy-eyed waitress set down sausage and cheese as the two men sat at a table in the corner. At one end of the room an old marble statue of Bacchus stood next to a large oil painting of Odin. The faint whiff of burnt offerings on the altar nearby carried over to them, but Lothar was more interested in the beer keg next to Bacchus.
“Get me a beer,” Lothar demanded of the woman.
“A bit early, is it not?” Francesco asked.
“No, it is not. And get one for the Italian too!” Lothar called after her.
“I don’t want one.”
“Don’t be stingy. If you don’t drink it, I will.”
Francesco sighed and studied the gaunt, ragged man before him. He shook his head.
“You look like you’re about to nod off so I’ll get straight to the matter at hand,” he said. “Herr Eisenbach recently discovered Birgit is smoking nepenthe.”
“But she’s just a kid,” Lothar said. He remembered Birgit, Herr Eisenbach’s daughter, a bright-eyed child who was the joy of the household. Part of Lothar’s job had been to teach her Latin and geography. Lothar always spoiled her a little, letting her play in the garden when she should have been reviewing her declensions or memorizing the cities of Cathay, but she did well in her studies in any case. He had been “Uncle Lothar,” her favorite tutor.
“It’s been five years, remember? She’s sixteen now, and arranged to be married to the Margrave of Nordhausen. When Herr Eisenbach found out she was smoking, he locked her in her room. Unfortunately she escaped and hasn’t been seen in a couple of weeks. We’ve been looking all over for her, but our men are stretched pretty thin at the moment and we were hoping someone with your… connections… might have better luck.”
“How much is in it for me?”
“A hundred franks, more if you can return her, ah, intact. She’s due to be married, after all.”
“If she’s living on the street, don’t count on it.”
“The important thing is to get her back. We can worry about her virtue later.”
“I’ll need money up front, I might have to pay for information and… ”
“Certainly not. I’m not giving you any money so you can stick that pipe up your nose and burn your brains out. You’ll get your pay when you find Birgit. Until then you stay straight.”
Lothar tensed. He needed money now. But he knew Francesco too well to argue. There was no budging that fellow.
“Why can’t you have her traced? Don’t you have another sorcerer now?”
“Yes, although I have to say he’s not as good as you once were. His tracing ritual brought up nothing, strangely enough. He thinks there’s a magical block.”
“No ransom has been asked for. And kidnap victims don’t usually leap from second story windows and run off into the night.”
No, but someone in withdrawal would, Lothar thought. If Herr Eisenbach wanted to straighten his daughter out, he should have nailed the windows shut.
He’d been through withdrawal himself: the nausea, the skin crawls, the pain that pervades the entire body until it’s impossible to think of anything else. The only thing that could cure it was more nepenthe, and he didn’t want to share with Francesco what he thought Birgit might do to get it.
“Perhaps I could try a trace. I’ll need to get some components… ”
“I’ll buy them for you,” Francesco’s eyes narrowed.
“Well, I guess if there’s a block on her there’s really no point.”
“No, I suppose not. Are you going to eat something?”
Lothar looked at the table. He’d drained his stein and started on Francesco’s without asking, or even really noticing, but the food in front of him was untouched.
“I’m not really hungry.”
“I’ve heard nepenthe kills the appetite, but you still need to eat.”
“What do you know? It actually makes your body more efficient. It balances the bodily humors so that you don’t need as much sustenance.”
“Oh yes, Lothar, your humors look wonderfully balanced. I’d say you’re in the prime of health. Eat, that’s an order. I’m not going to hire you if you’re such a wreck.”
The Italian shoved the plate closer to him and piled some of his portion onto the sorcerer’s meal. Lothar took a few reluctant bites.
The clomp of boots made them look up. A crowd of soldiers carrying muskets tromped down the stairway from the inn above. After kneeling at the altar of Odin and burning some oak leaves, they sat down at one of the tables.
“Aren’t those Hohenstadt militia? What are they doing here in Kranzburg?” Lothar asked.
“Where have you been hiding the past month? No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. The Duke has been calling in all the provincial militias. The Baron of Saxony is threatening war. He’s contending the Duke’s right to the throne.”
“The Baron’s still trying to press that old claim? The Duke’s family has been ruling Anhalt for five generations. He’s got a clear right. The Rathaus would never accept anyone else.”
“The Rathaus is a bunch of stuffy old men. They’re not going to argue with Saxon cannon.”
“You don’t think the Baron would really march on Kranzburg?”
“He might. This is why we’re stretched a thin at the moment. We’ve had to double the guards on our river shipments just in case. Which reminds me,” Francesco fished in his cloak and produced a pistol and a powder horn. “Do you know how to use one of these?”
“I’m not a cripple, Francesco! I did my time in the militia like everyone else.”
Francesco handed the pistol and horn over. Lothar admired the pistol’s fine quality, cocking it and studied the lock. The flint was newly worked and the pan scoured clean. Francesco was always fastidious with his weapons. It would bring a good price, but the suspicious Italian would probably ask to see it every time they met. Unless…
“I’ll want that back.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Take this too, you can show it around,” Francesco said, handing over a small locket.
Lothar’s eyes gleamed as he saw the gold pressed into his palm, then clouded when he opened it. Inside was a miniature of a young woman’s face. High cheekbones and blond curls framed wide blue eyes from which sparkled hope and intelligence. It was Birgit, much grown. Somewhere along the line she’d turned into a young woman and Uncle Lothar had missed it. He closed the locket and put it away. No, he wouldn’t sell that.
Francesco called the waitress over and paid her, rising to leave.
“There are some things I need to take care of. Considering the situation, you can imagine how much sleep I’m getting. Start making enquiries with your… friends, if that’s what you call them. Report back to me soon. Herr Eisenbach is beside himself.”
Poor kid, Lothar thought. She won’t last long on the streets.
Lothar didn’t have much of a family. Both his parents died years ago, and his only sister was married and living in another city. Birgit had been like a little sister to him. She was so full of life she made Lothar feel more alive as well. Intelligent too, and not in the crafty way her father was. Always paid attention during her lessons and brought him gifts for winter solstice -– a new inkwell or some book. How did she go from that to being a nepenthe head?
Lothar never asked himself the same question. His life had decayed so gradually he barely even noticed. Even though he’d been using regularly for six years, he didn’t consider himself an addict like Helga, the aging prostitute who sometimes shared his room and bed, or Claus, one of his hookups, whose face was so drawn he looked like he’d died years before and it was just the drug walking around encased in a tight sheath of flesh. Those were the real addicts, Lothar told himself. They were trying to escape from their lives, Helga from the memories of what her father used to do to her as a child, and Claus from the death of his wife and son in the last plague.
And Lothar? He’d never had anything like that happen to him. He was, if he had reflected on it for any length of time, simply weak. Life’s angles were a little too sharp, work a little too stressful, magic a little too difficult. He drank every night since he was a youth to soften those angles and take off that stress. Then he discovered dreamweed. That gave him long restful nights and fantastic visions, but they faded all too fast upon waking. He gave it up when he found nepenthe. For a time his magic got better and life seemed brighter. People liked him more, commenting on his glowing smile and ebullient attitude. He excelled at his work, fashioning spells he never thought possible. And all because of nepenthe. He was in love, there was no other way to describe it, completely enraptured by that little dram of black paste in his nosepipe every night.
Then Francesco caught him and he lost his job. Everything went to Hades after that. It was all the fault of that narrow-minded Florentine bastard. He was doing his work fine, what business of it was Francesco’s what he did on his off hours? Now, five years later, no merchant house would hire him and he could find damn little work anywhere else. He hadn’t cast a spell in months. His books and most of his magical components were long gone, sold to keep him off the streets and in nepenthe.
Lothar didn’t dwell on these things as he wandered sullenly along a winding cobblestone lane, passing wood-framed houses from which peeped small-paned windows between beams of dark oak, the shingled roofs rising at sharp angles towards the sky. Lothar hadn’t been outside at the noon hour for longer than he cared to remember. The sun made his head hurt and he craved a smoke. He was still out. Claus hadn’t had any, and neither had any of his other regular contacts. None of them recognized Birgit’s picture, either.
He had scored a few coins, though. Went to a gunsmith and emptied out the powder horn on the counter. The startled old shopkeeper hadn’t given him much, but it was enough for tonight, or two nights if he rationed it.
He didn’t worry about Francesco discovering his little trick. He still had the powder horn, filled with sand to keep it the proper weight, and had even put a little powder in the pan of his flintlock pistol. Just as he was leaving the shop he realized he had forgotten to load it. Lothar shrugged. It didn’t matter. He’d never shot a gun outside of militia training, and he didn’t think he’d need to now. The important thing was to get some nepenthe.
Assuming he could. The street seemed completely dry. His last chance was Alger, to whose house he now headed. As the lane veered off to the right and headed up a steep rise, Lothar had to throw himself against a wall to avoid a squad of uhlans trotting around the corner, lances held aloft and breastplates gleaming in the sun.
Alger’s place was nicer than that of any other user he knew. The dealer didn’t smoke as much as most, and sold more than he smoked. After being let in the front door by one of Alger’s flunkies, a gaunt-faced old nepenthe head named Hans who worked around the clock in exchange for smoke, Lothar ascended narrow steps to a wide living room decorated with framed prints and a few worn, cheap tapestries. The windows were closely shuttered. Candlelight revealed a half dozen customers sitting on Turkish pillows scattered about the floor. Some inhaled deeply from nosepipes, while others had already drifted off to that sweet sleep Lothar knew so well and loved so much. The acrid smoke made his skin itch in anticipation.
Hans went to fetch Alger. The dealer was a respectable-looking fellow, dressed in new trousers and hose and a clean white shirt. He even sported a wig, which unlike Francesco he usually forgot to powder. On the street anyone would mistake him for a prosperous shopkeeper or a member of one of the lesser merchant families. This was just fine with Alger. Respectability was almost as good as anonymity and, as he often pointed out, was he not a merchant of a sort?
“Lothar! Welcome! How good it is to see you,” Alger took Lothar’s thin hand in his chubby paw, broad face cracking into a toothy grin.
Lothar led him to a far corner of the room where they could speak unheard.
“Can I get a couple of drams?” he asked.
“Of course, my friend, but why the secrecy? You know you’re safe here.”
“I need some information too,” Lothar pulled out the locket and opened it. “Have you seen this girl?”
The smile dropped from the dealer’s face.
“She’s the daughter of a rich merchant I used to work for. She’s in trouble and her old man will pay plenty if she’s returned.”
“I suppose there’s nothing up front.”
Alger studied him, then nodded.
“Yes, I’ve seen her. She’s been in a couple of times. Her and two foreigners.”
“When? Who were the people she was with?”
“Last I saw her was maybe five days ago. As for her friends, I don’t ask questions. Glad they haven’t come back, though. Gave me the shivers. Neither spoke, but I could tell they were foreign. Dark, like Italians, but different than Italians. Tall, they were, and a bit pale despite their dark skin and black hair. Both had bushy moustaches. Wore their hair down to their shoulders like ladies. Cut of their clothes was different too.”
“Did she call them by name?”
“No. She hung on one of them, though. He seemed to be in charge. Both the girl and the other foreigner kept looking to him for directions. When he stood up to leave, they both leapt to their feet.”
“Did they buy nepenthe?”
“Quite a quantity. The leader paid for it, but the girl handled it.”
“So how were their clothes different?”
“Both had on heavy cloaks. Strange considering the heat we’ve been having. It was night but you know how warm the nights have been. Came late at night both times. They also had these strange, shapeless caps, kind of like an army helmet but made of felt. Both carried swords too, with weird designs of dragons on the handle. The leader had a gold ring with a big ruby. Kind of looked like a nobleman.”
“Where was their coinage from?”
“Funny you should ask. They paid with little bars of gold. I’ve seen that before, when foreigners don’t want you to know where they’re from.”
“Do you know where they’re lodging?”
“Now Lothar, you know I can’t… ”
“She’s been kidnapped. If we can get her back it would mean plenty… ”
“She didn’t look very kidnapped to me.”
“She needs money to hook up, and these foreigners are providing it. As far as that rich merchant I told you about is concerned, she’s been kidnapped. He’ll pay well.”
“How much? And who is this merchant, anyway?”
“It doesn’t matter who,” Lothar replied, not wanting Alger to try and retrieve her himself. “And as far as money is concerned, he said anyone with information leading to her return would get two hundred marks.”
That wasn’t true, but Lothar figured that if he got Birgit back, it would be easy enough to get Herr Eisenbach to pay up.
Alger chewed on his knuckle. Lothar could almost hear the clockworks creaking behind those shifty eyes, weighing the possible profit against Lothar’s reliability.
“I heard they’re staying at one of the abandoned warehouses next to the old docks,” Alger said at last.
“Thanks, Alger. Now about those drams… ”
The warehouses stood next to a dilapidated quay on the river. Out on the water, stout merchant vessels vied for room with little fishing boats. Kranzburg relied on the river for most of its trade, but none of the boats stopped here. The old warehouses stood on a low area prone to flooding. Torrential rains a few years before had inundated the long wooden structures, destroying thousands of marks worth of merchandise. The burghers built new docks and warehouses in a better location and left the old ones to the beggars and rats.
Lothar patted his pocket to check the little packet Alger had sold him was still there, then made sure the handle of his pistol poked out from under his cloak. This was a bad section of town, even by his standards. It paid to be careful.
He surveyed the rows of buildings. The place looked abandoned. With a hand on the butt of his pistol, he went to the door of the first building.
The search was long, slow work. The warehouses were dark and musty, and he had to tread carefully lest he break through a rotted floor or disturb one of the neighborhood’s less savory inhabitants. The first five buildings produced nothing but rats, flocks of pigeons, and one irate old beggar who threw an empty bottle of schnapps at him. Lothar kicked him around a bit to teach him a lesson; he’d never liked drunks.
Lothar wondered why there weren’t more people around. Dieter, a young nepenthe head he bought from when he was really desperate, squatted here with his friends. But when he went to Dieter’s “home,” a curtained off corner of one of the warehouses, he found no one.
The sixth warehouse showed him why.
In a back room he found what he was looking for. The instant he entered he knew he was on the right track, although he would have traded much to be wrong. A cold wave of fear washed over him as he beheld the deep crimson sigils painted on the walls, floor, even the ceiling. They were all connected, letters and words, if those were letters and words, flowing into one another and combining into unhealthy shapes suggestive of some unclean horror. With a gasp he realized the paint, daubed on in broad, horrid strokes, was blood.
Lothar had seen plenty of black magic, even participated in a few rites himself, but the oppressive coldness of this room nearly sent him reeling out of the building.
With an effort studied the signs. Their power was unmistakable. They appeared to be a weaving of some kind, a hex probably, but as powerful as it was, Lothar got the impression it was unfinished. It didn’t have the charnel stench of a past summoning, or the ashen coldness of a completed curse. Instead, Lothar’s sensitive nerves felt the prickle of gathered forces not yet released. Beyond that his knowledge ended. This was like no spell he had ever seen.
Lothar took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. He pulled out the locket, opened it, and placed it by one of the sigils painted on the floor close to the doorway. Birgit’s wide eyes seemed to watch him as he used a piece of chalk to draw a circle around the locket, encompassing an edge of one of the crimson letters. He felt an involuntary shudder as the chalk passed over the dried blood. Then he traced a series of magical symbols in the interior of the circle. It was a basic knowledge spell, but he was out of practice and his shoulders tensed as he concentrated on getting it right.
“Ll’mtte fhre odna hwta sha cmbeoe f’thois l’gir,” he whispered, the arcane syllables echoing off the moldy walls.
The chalk glimmered palely in the dim room. He sat cross-legged in front of the circle he’d enchanted. Taking deep, regular breaths, Lothar allowed his eyes to go out of focus. The dimly luminescent circle seemed to grow, its edges hovering at the circumference of his vision. The symbols danced before his eyes.
As his vision blurred, his thoughts floated away to a dim, vague place of impressions and instinct, where knowledge came in shreds of dream. He inhaled sharply at the unaccustomed transportation of his consciousness to the spirit plane. It had been long, too long, and the once-familiar sensations were almost as disorienting as the drug he was bonded to.
After a few moments he relaxed, allowing his training to take over. He allowed the feelings to carry him off, take his mind away from the mundane world and into something more profound. The locket with its little painting hovered before him, seeming to suck him deeper into the spell.
Impressions came quickly. He felt a wan spark of life emanating from the locket and draining into the complex patterns of signs. This spell was killing her, emptying her as if it were some great leech. The blood would explain that. It was hers.
At least she wasn’t dead. With a sensation he could not quite call sound, Lothar could hear the soft beat of her heart. She hadn’t been sacrificed; it was more like she was being used as a component of the spell. And the weaving was as yet unfinished. With a wrenching feeling in his gut he realized that by the time it was, Birgit would have no more blood to give. Whatever this magic entailed, it would eventually cost the girl her life.
But not just her own. Faintly he could hear the beating of other hearts. A dozen or perhaps a score of others contributed their blood to this spell.
Birgit, however, remained the focus. As his mind traced the complex weavings of magical energy he realized Birgit’s blood was used at all the key areas, the symbols that acted as nodes of power and tied the spell together. Her blood, and only hers, appeared necessary somehow.
For what? That his spell couldn’t reveal. The limited incantation could only show the general relationship between the sigils and the woman associated with the locket. Lothar allowed his eyes to refocus, letting out a hoarse sigh not wholly of fatigue. He smudged out the circle, picked up the locket, and carefully returned it to the inner pouch in his robe, next to the nepenthe. He knew more than before, but the exact nature of the sanguine ritual remained hidden from him.
He knew only one man who might know about magic like this, Moses Loucheim. The old Jew had been Lothar’s teacher. He was an expert in sorcery, the Kabbalah, and the more obscure branches of the magical arts. Moses despised black magic, but decades of study had taught him a great deal about it. Lothar examined the symbols closely so he’d be able to describe them to him.
But that could wait until tomorrow. It was already nightfall and the town militia would have locked the gate to the ghetto by now. He would have to wait until morning. Besides, he had more pressing matters.
Lothar sat on the edge of his bed, the nosepipe cradled in his palm. With his other hand he opened the little package of paper Alger had sold him. Inside were two drams of nepenthe. It looked like a blob of wet tar. Street dealers often sold pitch to unknowing neophytes, but Lothar would never have been fooled.
Scraping off half of the paste with a tiny spatula, he smeared it into the bowl of the nosepipe. He hesitated for a moment, reached for the rest of it, paused, then put the spatula away and wrapped up the remaining portion. He didn’t want to be out again when he woke up the next morning.
With a practiced gesture he slipped the twin stems of the nosepipe into his nostrils while his free hand lit a length of coiled twine on a candle flame and brought it to the pipe.
He hesitated again. Birgit was in trouble, kidnapped and hurt while he sat here and smoked. What was he doing? He should be out there looking for her. He hadn’t talked to all the nepenthe heads he knew. He should check if any of them had met her. Perhaps he should go see Helga, see if any of the pimps had acquired a new girl recently.
His hand trembled and he nearly dropped the burning wick. He was in no shape to conduct an investigation. It was better to see Moses first and find out what he was up against. Then he could ask around. And if he had nothing to do tonight, why not have a smoke?
No. He should really keep a clear head. Francesco was right. If he was going to be any help at all, he should stay off for a while, just until they found her. Then with the reward money he could celebrate with a fine night.
He looked at his trembling hand. His whole body tensed with anticipation, waiting for that smoke. He was in no shape to do anything at the moment. If he started going through withdrawal he wouldn’t be any help at all. No, the wiser thing would be to smoke tonight and start out fresh the next morning. He’d keep clean after that. Yeah, that was the best thing. He’d be much more useful tomorrow if he had a smoke tonight. What did Francesco know about withdrawal? Screw him! If the Italian thought he looked sick now, imagine what he’d say if he found Lothar writhing on the floor in a pool of his own vomit.
Case closed. It made sense for him to smoke.
He drew the burning cord to his pipe and inhaled.
The flame licked at the paste, drying it until it flared up and released its balm.
Acrid smoke sent burning jabs of pain up both his nostrils, like hot pokers thrust straight up behind his watering eyes.
The pain lasted only a moment, replaced by a feeling that his entire body was emptying. As he closed his eyes he felt as if he was a thin shell expanding outward from nothing. Automatically he exhaled through his mouth, the flat taste of the drug barely registering on his tongue, and inhaled again. Tiny lights sparkled inside his eyelids and he fell backwards onto his bed. The nosepipe rolled away, a little trickle of blood following it, but Lothar didn’t notice. He was in the arms of his lover.
Ah, that was the only way to describe it, Lothar mused. He savored the floating, expanding feeling for a while before languidly opening his eyes.
Gone was his dreary tenement room, the cracked plaster, the splintering beams, the warped and filthy floor. It was a palace now. The plaster shone with an ethereal light, the beams seemed like the great oaks of a sacred grove, the floor an undulating seascape. He could almost hear the distant cry of gulls.
He knew this was all an illusion, but that only made him happier. Wasn’t he a sorcerer? Wasn’t his mind of a higher order? No commoner could see these visions. The average person used nepenthe to escape, to see pretty pictures that did nothing except entertain or titillate. Lothar used nepenthe to grow, not hide. Just look at those walls, refulgent with a light not of this Earth! They seemed to be made of silk or of gauze. If he pushed on them, he was sure, his hand would pass through and he would enter another world, a better world, where he would be the master of all that was beautiful and harmonious. To his ears came the faint strains of ecstatic music, played by otherworldly minstrels calling for him to join them, far from tenements and criminals and wars, in that better place. He rolled off his bed and crawled along the floor, its wooden waves carrying him along on their tide, tiny ships sailing past on the surf, and he reached out a hand, almost touching the barrier now, almost to that world, and things began to grow dark, his vision indistinct, his mind ever more muddled. He sank to the floor as the final stage of nepenthe set in, dissolving his being into that wonderful sense of nothing he so craved. And so he lay, knowing nothing, feeling nothing, until well after the moon had set and the sun had risen, a beatific smile on his lips.
As he trudged through the dark, crowded lanes of the ghetto, Lothar picked his way around deep puddles and slicks of mud. It had rained the night before, but he hadn’t noticed. The streets bustled with men in black overcoats and hats, faces framed by long ringlets. Women in shapeless dresses and headscarves eyed him suspiciously. It was rare for a non-Jew to venture into the ghetto, and those who did were usually up to no good.
Lothar used to come here regularly to study under Moses Loucheim, one of the ghetto’s many scholars. The man’s erudition had slowly eroded Lothar’s distaste for his people. The government kept Jews separated into their own neighborhood, walled off from the rest of Kranzburg and gated at night. For some reason Lothar never understood, the Jews insisted their god was the only true one, and all the others were mere phantoms or demons. Because of this they’d been persecuted and segregated. A few times in the past the Duchy tried to force them to convert, putting the rabbis to the sword if they didn’t sacrifice to Odin and Tyr and all the others. It never worked. The Jews never fought back, but they never submitted either. Killing them was pointless, so the government pushed them aside instead. Now they lived here, proud in their poverty and squalor, making a living as best they could from the various trades they specialized in: woodworking, medicine, and translations of Eastern texts.
It was for this reason Lothar originally came to the ghetto. He wanted to learn Chaldean, that tongue of the ancient wizards, and there was no better Chaldean scholar than Moses Loucheim. Soon Lothar became his prized pupil. Together they pored over rotting scrolls and clay tablets, plumbing the secrets of legendary mages of distant centuries. And there had been another attraction at the Loucheim household…
The chanting coming out of a synagogue distracted him. He spotted the Jewish house of worship immediately from among the close-set wooden structures. It was easy to find, because it was the narrowest and most humble building on the street.
Lothar approached the open door and peered into its dim recesses. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw a little cluster of men wrapped in white shawls. Each had a book, Lothar had always been impressed that every Jew knew how to read, and they rocked back and forth as they chanted their prayers. On a raised platform before them was the silver scroll case containing their holy text.
The scroll case was the only precious metal Lothar could see in the whole place. He thought of the great gold statue of Odin on the Kriegsplatz, the silk robes of the priests of Mithras, the emerald-eyed idols of Sif. Jews were allowed none of those things. Unlike the faithful of other rites, the followers of Yahweh had to pay a tax on their places of worship, and even an additional tax for the scroll case.
Lothar passed the synagogue and turned a corner. He’d been this way so many times his feet took him in the right direction without his needing to think. Another turn brought Lothar into a cramped alleyway, the smell of cooking and the bark of dogs, and there, at the corner, stood the familiar oak door.
It was like all the others, worn, weather beaten, its green paint faded almost to nothing, but he’d passed through that portal so often that seeing it felt like returning home.
Lothar hesitated. What if they didn’t remember him? What if they’d moved, or been killed in that riot the soldiers went on last year? What if Moses had another student? What if Rachel…
The young mage shook his head. That was the paranoia talking. After coming off a nepenthe high there was always a dull period, occasionally spiked with irrational fear. The bloody signs he’d seen in the warehouse were probably making it worse. Lothar shuddered.
He wiped his nose clean, straightened his shirt and, heart thumping, knocked at the door. As he waited he eyed the little wooden mezuzah nailed at an angle on the door frame. A blessing to the house. Moses told him once that it was put on a tilt because the rabbis couldn’t agree whether it should be horizontal or vertical, so they compromised. Lothar wasn’t sure if the old man was pulling his leg or not, but considering the minutiae the rabbis incessantly argued over, and the subtle sense of humor Jews used with outsiders, both answers were possible.
For a long moment Lothar heard nothing, and he was about to bolt when there were sounds of movement inside. The door opened. A hunched old man wearing a black skullcap over thinning hair and long white beard peered out at him.
Moses studied him for a moment. Although the scholar looked haggard and tired, the product of long years of study in close quarters, his eyes remained sharp and took in everything.
“You’re still on it,” Moses said.
“Do you remember what I said to you?”
Lothar remembered. Moses figured out he was using nepenthe even before Francesco had. The old scholar had kicked him out. Clean up, he said. Only the pure have the right to seek mystical knowledge. Lothar had begged and pleaded, saying he was only experimenting, that it wasn’t harmful, even that it helped with his magic, but his teacher turned a deaf ear. Clean up. I will have no such people in my house.
“Please, sir, I need to talk with you,” Lothar said in a rush, fearing the old man would slam the door in his face, “It’s not for myself. A girl is missing and her family wants me to find her.”
Moses studied him for a moment, indecisive. His eyes softened as he looked on his former student.
“Oy, but you look thin. What have you been doing all this time? You look like you’ve been sleeping on the street,” he asked.
“I’ve been alright. I’m working for the Eisenbachs again. Really, everything’s great.”
Moses sighed, opening the door a trifle.
“You are not carrying any of that trash, are you? I will not have it in my home.”
“No, teacher,” Lothar said, lying automatically. A pang of guilt pierced him, but he said nothing more.
“Come in, then. If someone is in trouble I should help. Maimonides taught us that. You should read his “Guide for the Perplexed.” But no, you are more interested in wasting your life. But what can I do? You ask me to help, I have to help,” the old man sighed and raised his hands to the sky in supplication.
Here we go with the guilt trip, Lothar thought. It was always the same if I wanted to go to a tavern instead of read some old scroll. Not that he was the only one. Even Francesco tried it. “Think of your responsibilities, Lothar.” “You’re wasting your talent, Lothar.” Why can’t people mind their own business?
This inner tirade vanished as Lothar entered the cramped interior. A wave of nostalgia washed over him. It was just as he remembered, the battered old desk, the piles of manuscripts and scrolls, the crackling little hearth, the table with the worn but clean tablecloth upon which Rachel always kept a vase of flowers.
There were some there now, tulips. Her favorite. She still lived here…
A clattering from the kitchen made both men look. A feminine form appeared in the darkened doorway. Rachel came into the light of the single lamp that burned at the desk. Lothar stood entranced. She hadn’t changed a bit. Skin of dusky olive seemed to absorb the lamplight and radiate it back with a dull glow. Soft brown eyes widened in recognition.
“Rachel, go to the kitchen!” Moses ordered.
“But fa… ”
Rachel retreated through the door from which she came. She looked over her shoulder and, for a moment, her and Lothar’s eyes met. It had been so long…
He had become close to both Moses and his daughter. The memories of the sweet smells of her cooking wafting out of the kitchen were some of the most pleasant he had. Over time she had learned his favorite dishes and always had them ready when he arrived. Nothing was ever said, but she always had an excuse to come into the front room. She could spend an entire hour just cleaning while he and Moses studied ancient texts. He never minded the interruption, and Moses pretended not to notice, squinting at the complex Chaldean script.
“I just wanted to talk to her a moment,” Lothar said.
“You lost the right to talk to my daughter when you became a criminal.”
“I’m not a criminal!”
“Oh, so they’ve made it legal now?”
Lothar sighed and slumped in a chair.
“It’s shameful what you do.”
“Look, I didn’t come here to get a lecture… ”
“So now you talk back? Not a word for five years and this is how you thank me for all those lessons! If you didn’t come here to get some sense in your head, what did you come for?”
Lothar suppressed his anger, focusing on what he needed to do.
“The daughter of the man I used to work for has gone missing. I’ve been hired to get her back. She seems to have become involved in some sort of black magic. I need to find her before something terrible happens.”
“One of those addicts, I suppose? No wonder they turned to you.”
“Look, the girl’s life is at stake. She’s supposed to be married in a month and her father doesn’t even know where she is. There’s more to this than I understand, and I need you to help me. It’s not for me. I know you don’t care about me anymore, so do it for her.”
“Don’t care about you? What do you think I’m trying to talk sense to you for? Because I want you to die?”
Lothar sighed. He knew this would happen, but he needed Moses to interpret the signs. This moralizing lecture was the price he had to pay.
“So what can I do for you?” the old Kabbalist asked. “If this girl is in trouble, at least I should try to help.”
Lothar filled him in on all he knew and discussed the spell he had done, and the signs he had seen.
“Ach, this is bad. Your pupil has gotten herself in too much trouble. The great Hashem knows I have experienced some of that myself. Tell me, what did those signs look like?”
Lothar grabbed a piece of scrap paper from Moses’ overflowing desk and, wetting a quill in a tiny inkstand, traced the sigils as well as he could remember. Moses studied the drawing, eyes widening.
“It is worse than I thought,” Moses said. “This is a blood ritual. Her life force is being used for the spell, and will be extinguished when the spell is complete.”
Lothar nodded. “So where does this spell come from? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It’s very rare, and very evil,” Moses said quietly.
“Who’s casting it? Christians? They use blood in their rituals.”
“There are no Christians in Europa that I know of,” Moses responded. “They all live in Jerusalem and along the Galilee. No, this is from closer to home. See this line?” Moses indicated a squiggle of characters Lothar had drawn. “This is the Wallachian language.”
“Yes, a province between Transylvania and Moesia, east of Hungary.”
“I know, I know. I taught geography, remember? But why would Wallachians be casting spells in Kranzburg? I’ve never even met a Wallachian.”
“How should I know?” Moses shrugged. “I don’t even know how to decipher this. It’s an obscure tradition of magic, one I’ve only read about.”
“Would anyone else in the ghetto know?” Lothar asked. Many Jews had come into Kranzburg in recent years fleeing pogroms in the east.
“I don’t know of anyone who has come from Wallachia. My people avoid it. It’s a haunted region, with cruel leaders and strange stories of what goes on there.”
“What sort of stories?”
“Magic is rife there, and most of it is of a foul kind like this. There are a great many warlocks and strange beings that are neither living nor dead.”
Lothar nodded. He’d heard some stories himself, although he didn’t really believe them. The truth was, magic was on the wane. As cities grew and the world was constricted by the bonds of ocean-going trade, people had less use for the mystical arts. New knowledge was forging ahead in the fields of science and industry. New inventions were making farming and textile manufacture faster and more efficient. The tales of monsters and creatures of the night were fading into legend, if, in fact, they had ever been true in the first place. But in a remote region like Wallachia… well, anything might be possible.
“So you don’t know anyone who might be able to translate these glyphs?” Lothar asked.
Moses shook his head, his mouth a grim line over his flowing white beard.
“Well, thank you for your help. I really appreciate it.”
Moses looked at him.
“That’s quite all right. I wish I could do more. But what about you? I’m more worried about a talented young fellow like you than some merchant’s brat. When are you going to do something with yourself? Think where you could be now if you hadn’t gotten mixed up with that trash… ”
Lothar was about to protest when the door to the kitchen opened. Rachel returned, carrying a tray of food and two steaming mugs.
“He was just leaving!” Moses barked at his daughter.
“I’m bringing lunch… ”
“You brought me lunch not half an hour ago. He’s fine, he has things to do and… ”
“Father, you can’t turn out a guest without offering him something to eat!”
“I said he was leaving! You have things to do before you depart, now go do them.”
Rachel’s face fell. She returned to the kitchen, quietly closing the door behind her.
“Depart?” Lothar asked, his heart freezing.
Moses scowled at him.
“She’s to be married the day after tomorrow. Then her husband will take her to Wittenberg.”
Married the day after tomorrow. Wait, no, tomorrow now, a day’s past, Lothar mused as he watched the foam break on his beer. Then leaving for Wittenberg. How far is that? Eighty leagues? It’s in another duchy too. I’ll never see her again.
Getting married. He couldn’t believe it. It was bound to happen sooner or later, but he’d always hoped there was some way…
She came out with lunch, even though Moses already had lunch. So she wanted to talk with me. What about? What would she have said?
Lothar took a long pull off his stein, thinking back to when he was still a welcome guest in the Loucheim household. No, almost like a member of the family, despite their different faiths. He and Moses would stay up late into the night, tracing legends, translating texts, constructing spells. Moses was one of the greatest mages Lothar had ever met; it had been an honor to study under him.
It was a pleasure too. Rachel would stay up as late as they did, bringing them ruggalach and tea, or a light meal to keep up their energy.
She was acting as more than the dutiful daughter. Lothar always noticed she’d tarry a while after setting the food down to ask how their studies were going or if they needed anything else. During those times she always asked Lothar, not her father, and spoke German, not Hebrew. Like she had the day before. Moses never seemed to mind, in fact Lothar always thought he could detect the trace of a smile on his lips and a crinkling of the crow’s feet around his eyes, as if he was secretly glad of the attention his daughter gave his student, and the attention she received.
But nothing was ever said. Lothar and Rachel had never been left alone for more than a moment, just when Moses stiffly raised himself from his chair to fetch a book from another room or go make water after drinking too much tea. At those times Rachel and Lothar said nothing at all. They would sit there, pretending to be preoccupied with their work while stealing glances at each other. Rachel’s dark features would redden a little around the cheeks, and a smile she did not try hard to suppress would steal across her face. Lothar knew he looked the same. If only Moses had spent a longer time away, or if Lothar had the courage to take those moments to say what he should have said.
But summoning spirits was easier than summoning the courage to do that. And now it was too late, five years too late, for tomorrow she would be married.
To whom? Did it matter? No. Nothing mattered. And, in a way, it seemed appropriate. Nothing had ever really mattered, not magic, not friends, not even the gods. His faith had always been lacking, his friends superficial and distant, the whole world a sham and he knew it. Anyone who studied magic knew it. After death there was nothing except more dreary existence. What was the point in that? At least the Jews had some greater plan. Their god wanted them to do something, some great goal that was never very clear to Lothar, or even any of the rabbis he’d talked to. What did the Germans have? More life after life. Warriors went to Valhalla to fight more battles. Sorcerers went to the spirit world to cast more spells. Who cares?
Lothar took another pull from his stein, realized it was empty, and grabbed the first stein in sight.
“Instead of stealing my beer for the second time this morning, perhaps you could pay attention to what I’m saying?” Francesco asked.
Lothar swallowed a mouthful, began to put the stein back on the table, thought better of it, and took another gulp. He noticed the beer hall was louder than when they had entered half an hour before. Raucous soldiers from Kranzburg and various outlying towns crowded the tables. One group was singing a hymn to Odin, a boast that if it came to war with Saxony, they’d send the Saxon vermin to Valhalla with their heads shoved up their asses.
“Where’d all these soldiers come from?” Lothar asked, vaguely realizing that he was slurring his words.
“The Duke called up the reserves, as I just informed you. Although being drunk two hours after sunrise it is hardly surprising you’ve forgotten.”
The men at the next table let out a roar. A soldier stood on his head atop the table as a friend poured the contents of a stein into his mouth. Lothar and Francesco watched in amazement as he drained the entire portion without spilling a drop. The soldier flipped back upright to the applause of his comrades, then let out a terrific belch.
“Perhaps you should sign up. You’d fit right in,” Francesco suggested.
“Very funny. That’s not my style.”
“I suppose not. Moping alone in that filthy room of yours with that ridiculous pipe up your nose is much more your style. Something for the discerning gentleman, no doubt.”
“You got a point, make it!”
“The point I should be making is that you need to take a good look in the mirror,” Francesco said. “But the more pressing matter is finding Birgit. I looked into the Wallachian connection you mentioned last night… ”
Lothar concealed his surprise. He didn’t remember meeting with Francesco the night before, but apparently he had. He’d gone straight home from the ghetto and smoked the last of his nepenthe. Apparently he’d seen Francesco after that and told him what he’d discovered. Taking another pull from his stein, Lothar tried to follow what the Italian was saying.
“… my contact at the dock knew something. Some Wallachians did arrive by riverboat about a month ago.”
“What was their stated purpose for entry?” Lothar asked. All foreigners had to give the harbormaster a valid reason for entering the Duchy.
“They said they were merchants, though they carried little cargo. They had a goodly amount of gold, though, and tipped the harbormaster quite well.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Upriver, from Thüringen.”
“What would they be doing there?” Something clicked in Lothar’s mind. “Hey, isn’t Thüringen allied with Saxony?”
“Well, not officially, but you’re right, it is. That’s an interesting point,” Francesco stroked his small, pointed beard. “What could that mean, I wonder?”
“If we learn more about that spell we may find out.”
“I’ve checked on that, and I’m afraid your friend knows as much about Wallachian magic as anyone in Kranzburg. All our new sorcerer could do was confirm what the Jew said. We seem to be little better off than before.”
“Why don’t we tell the town militia? If there are suspicious foreigners casting magic within the city walls at a time like this, I’m sure they’d investigate it better than we could.”
Francesco shook his head.
“You’re forgetting Herr Eisenbach. What if Birgit was found with them? Think of the scandal. No, we can’t risk that.”
Both men sat silent for a moment, lost in their thoughts. Lothar took out the locket and opened it, staring at the image of his former pupil. He felt helpless. Birgit had so much promise. He couldn’t bear the thought of her growing up to be like… well… like him.
Then he had an idea.
“Francesco, buy me some wine.”
“If you think I’m going to waste all my money getting you drunk while we have important… ”
“Shut up and do it, you Florentine fop. I need it to cast a spell.”
Francesco gave an exasperated sigh and called to the serving girl. When she returned with the wine, Lothar snatched it from her and wove his way through the crowd to the statue of Bacchus. Francesco followed close at his heels.
Lothar examined the statue. It was old, from the time of the Great Empire of the Romans, and it deserved a better home than this filthy place. There was a small flat area on the front of the base where an offering could be made. Thinking for a moment to remember his prayers, he started to intone in a low voice. Francesco crossed his hands and bowed his head in reverence.
“Now I raise the old, old hymn to Bacchus,
Blessed are those who know his mysteries,
Blessed are those who share his cup,
With milk the earth flows! It flows with wine!
It flows with the nectar of bees!
And he cries, as they cry, Evoë!”
His father taught him this old charm. He’d been a milliner, successful enough in his own way, and certainly well versed in the ways of Bacchus. Bacchus was the god of luck as well as alcohol, so on his last drink of the evening, his father would say this prayer for protection against footpads and other hazards on the long walk home. It worked for well-nigh thirty years, until one wretched winter night when his father slipped on the ice and broke his ankle. Between his drunken stupor and his useless foot, he hadn’t been able to make it back home. The town militia found him the next morning, frozen solid.
“Bacchus! Evoë! Evoë!”
Lothar drained half the cup in one swig–Bacchus was a kind god and always shared–and poured the rest on the base of the statue. Then he made a deep bow. Francesco followed suit. They returned to the table.
“If you wish to mend your ways, there are better gods to pray to,” Francesco said when they sat back down again.
“Cut the sarcasm, it’s a spell for luck.”
“Oh, in that case my one and a half marks were well spent. We need as much luck as we can muster. And when does this luck materialize?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t always work.”
“Well, there’s no god for nepenthe as far as I know, but perhaps all those beers you’ve stolen from me will cause Bacchus to smile upon you.”
A screeching laugh made Lothar turn. Across the room he spied a familiar figure sitting on a soldier’s lap. It was Helga, the prostitute who shared his tenement room when she had nowhere to go, and his bed when he had nepenthe to spare. They shared more than that too; Helga had given birth to a boy a year before. She insisted the baby was his, although how she could know was anyone’s guess. Lothar cast a spell and found out the uncomfortable truth. He hadn’t told her, insisting the boy wasn’t his, but she still pestered him about it. What could he do? He could barely support himself, let alone a son. It was better that they stay apart.
“Anyone you know?” Francesco asked, following his gaze.
“Just an old girlfriend of mine,” Lothar said.
“Then it looks like your prayer backfired,” the Italian said, watching as Helga doffed the soldier’s cap and playfully put it on her own head.
“Perhaps… ” Lothar mused.
Helga worked the other side of town, near the new port, and there were certainly enough soldiers in that neighborhood to keep her busy. This was too much of a coincidence. She had obviously entered the beer hall before he did the ritual, but in this crowd he would have never noticed her if she hadn’t laughed like that. And the gods were beyond time. Perhaps Bacchus knew he was going to make a sacrifice and turned Helga’s steps towards this place.
What could it mean? And why did it have to be her? Suppressing his reluctance to see her, he stood up and called out her name. Helga’s features darkened when she spotted him. She plopped the cap back on the soldier’s head, none too gently, tore his arm from her waist, and stomped across the beer hall to him. Lothar’s heart sank.
“So there you are! I spent half an hour pounding on your door thinking you were home, only to find you wasting good money on beer when you should be supporting your son and me! Why haven’t you visited us? I came yesterday too and you weren’t in. Where have you been?”
“Helga, this is Francesco, my old boss, Francesco, this is Helga,” Lothar said, trying to divert her attention.
When she saw Lothar’s companion, Helga’s demeanor changed immediately.
“Well hello, Herr Francesco,” Helga curtsied, “It is always nice to meet an associate of my husband’s”–she raised her voice to drown out Lothar’s objections–“Lothar is a talented mage, everyone says so, but he doesn’t assert himself. He needs someone to see to his career. I hope you’ll give him some work soon. His son will grow up to be a fine man, and I want him to have all the things I never had.”
“Husband? Son?” Francesco looked at Lothar in astonishment. Before the mage could deny it the conversation carried on without him.
“With him out of work, what’s a mother to do?” Helga gave Francesco a sorrowful look. “You see what I have to sink to just to make ends meet, but it’s all for my boy, our boy.” Helga looped an arm around Lothar.
“Well he certainly is a talented sorcerer, fraulein,” Francesco replied, casting about for something to say. Lothar saved him.
“Hey, why don’t you go order the, um, lady a meal while she and I have a little chat, eh?”
Francesco took the bait gratefully and left, shaking his head.
“What are you playing at?” Lothar growled as soon as Francesco was out of earshot.
Helga whirled on Lothar, all spit and vinegar again.
“Well, somebody has to think of the baby, you sure don’t! What’s wrong with me trying to get you some work, you lazy lump? And what are you doing drinking with a fine gentleman like that anyway?”
“He’s an old boss, I told you.”
“Is he offering you work? Don’t deny it, I can see it on your face. What’s he paying you?”
“I need some money. It’s getting more dangerous than ever on the streets. A friend of mine nearly got killed last week.”
“Look, he hasn’t paid me a mark, what can I do?”
“Do you have anything?”
Lothar knew she didn’t mean money.
“I’ve been out for days.”
“Don’t lie to me, Alger said you were at his place two days ago! Where do you have it?” She started rummaging through his pockets.
“Get off!” he grabbed her wrists.
“Let go of me!” she shrieked as she tried to break free. She bit his hand.
“Stop it!” Lothar bellowed.
“Hey! What in Hades are you doing?”
It was the soldier with the little cap who had been flirting with Helga. He was a burly man, with a swagger in his step and a falchion strapped to his belt. He came striding over, all booze and brawn, a few of his friends behind him.
“First you take her away from me, and now you’re roughing her up! If you’re gonna be like that, give her back!”
Lothar grabbed the handle of his pistol and was about to pull it out when he remembered it wasn’t loaded. The man saw the movement, however, and drew his sword.
A plate crashed over the soldier’s head, chicken and gravy splashing onto his face and shoulders. In a blur of motion, Lothar saw Francesco kick the man’s legs out from under him, knock the sword out of his hand, then whirl to face his companions, drawing both his sword and dagger simultaneously and taking a ready fencing posture.
The small crowd of rural militia gaped for a second, unused to being challenged in their bullying, but they soon regained their composure and drew their weapons. Lothar pulled out his pistol and pointed it uncertainly at the mob.
“Hold!” came a throaty bellow from across the room.
It was the proprietor, a middle-aged man with an impressive paunch. He didn’t cut much of a figure as he waddled over to the fray, but the blunderbuss he leveled at them commanded attention.
“There’ll be no fighting in my bar. If you want to kill someone, go to Saxony,” he ordered. He turned to Lothar and his companions. “Out. The three of you. And don’t come back.”
As they stepped out onto the street Francesco cleaned his gravy-stained hands with a silk handkerchief.
“I would appreciate it if you don’t get me into any more fights this morning as I try never to get involved in mortal combat before lunch. It’s bad for the digestion.”
“Very funny,” Lothar said. “But thanks, you came right on time.”
“It is a good thing I did, all you have is that pistol. Is it even loaded, by the way?”
“Of course it is, do you think I’m stupid? Look,” Lothar slid open the pan so the Italian could see the powder inside. Francesco nodded.
“Herr Francesco,” Helga purred, “Lothar was just saying he wanted me to have some of his pay… ”
“Lothar isn’t getting paid until he’s completed his job.”
Helga’s lip twitched, revealing yellow teeth. For a second Lothar thought she was going to fling herself at Francesco and rake his eyes with her fingernails. He’d seen her do that before. It wasn’t pretty. But in a moment she regained her composure.
“Well I hope he finishes his work soon. It’s not safe for a lady to be working on the streets right now.”
Suddenly Lothar realized he had missed something important.
“That’s the second time you’ve said that. What do you mean by it getting more dangerous?”
“It’s never been safe. Some men think just because they’re with a working girl they can do anything they like… ”
“No, not that. You said something about a friend getting hurt?”
Helga nodded, then shivered and hugged herself. Lothar was shocked. She never looked out of sorts. It would take a lot to scare her.
“It was Karletta. You’ve met her. She picked up a gentleman, a foreign fellow. He took her back to his place and tried to bleed her to death.”
Lothar grabbed her arm.
“Where was this? Can you take us there?”
“I don’t know and I wouldn’t go if I did. She barely got away with her life.”
“Can you take us to her?” Francesco asked.
“I’ll pay you for your trouble,” Francesco said, saying the magic words like an accomplished sorcerer.
“Why of course, Herr Francesco, anything for a gentleman. It’s not far, come with me,” she hooked her arm around his, and grabbed a little tighter when he tried to pull away. She led Francesco down the street, with Lothar following gloomily behind.
Bacchus, he silently prayed. You must be angry with me for all the nepenthe I’ve taken. I promise you a flagon of wine every week, no two, if you just save me from Helga.
* * *
Karletta lay on a dirty straw bed in a tiny back room. A lone candle glimmered mournfully in a corner, casting her wan features in a ghastly light. Her wide blue eyes, set deep into a pale face, stared motionlessly at the ceiling. A filthy bandage was wrapped around her neck.
Lothar noticed a bundle of old rags in the corner. In it lay a baby, his baby. As soon as they entered the room Helga went over and picked it up, looking meaningfully at Lothar as he knelt by Karletta.
“Hello, Karletta, how are you feeling?” he asked, glad to be able to look away from Helga and the baby.
Karletta’s eyes moved in their sockets, her head remaining motionless. She looked at Lothar, speaking in a tremulous voice.
“Oh, hello Lothar. It’s so nice you came to see your son.”
Lothar winced. He didn’t look around to see Helga’s reaction. He could imagine it just fine.
“Um, actually I’m here to see you. This is Francesco, a friend of mine. He’s going to send for a doctor, aren’t you Francesco?”
“That’s right, madam. But first we need to ask you some questions about the men who did this to you.”
Karletta winced in pain as she turned her head to study the Italian.
“I don’t know anything.”
Helga bent over the woman and, holding the baby on her hip, smoothed out Karletta’s hair with her free hand.
“It’s okay,” she soothed her. “You can trust him. He’s here to help, just like he says.”
“Everything will be fine,” Lothar agreed. “Can you describe who attacked you?”
“A rich gentleman. He spoke with a strange accent,” she whispered in a tremulous voice.
“What did he look like?”
“Dark, like your friend, with a great big moustache. His clothes were strange, baggy trousers and a funny loose cap.”
“Did he have a ruby ring on his finger?” Lothar asked.
“I think so. He acted kind to me, and promised a lot of money if I went with him. Of course I said yes.”
“Then what happened?” Francesco asked.
“We went to an abandoned house by the river, near the Tinker’s Bridge. I’d been to worse places, but I got a funny feeling from him. He never flirted with me, you see, didn’t say all the usual things fellows say when they’re taking me home, just asked me questions. Never touched me once.”
“Questions? What sort of questions?” Lothar asked.
“About the Duke, mostly, and the soldiers here. I can’t really remember.”
“There were a whole lot of people there. Two other foreigners like him, and a crowd of nepenthe heads.”
Lothar opened the locket and held it close so she could see.
“Was she among them?”
“I… I think so. There was a girl who looked like that, but not so beautiful as that picture.”
He and Francesco exchanged glances.
“Go on,” Francesco urged.
“They were all smoking, except for the foreigners, that is. They wanted me to smoke too, but I don’t touch the stuff. I’m always telling Helga to stop, for the sake of her baby, but she never listens.
“They insisted. Well, I took one of those filthy nosepipes and pretended to smoke. In my line of work the fellows always want you to take something with them, smoke or drink or all sorts of things, so I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending to when I don’t really. After that I acted a bit funny the way nepenthe heads do. They seemed satisfied with that, and ordered all of us to get up together and go into the next room.
“At first I thought it was going to be a group thing. They had us all sit down on pillows and waited until everyone was half asleep from the drug. Then the three of them split up and each one went to one of the nepenthe heads. The lordly one came to me.
“I acted as I should, putting my arms around him and such, but he’d have none of it. He pushed me back down on the pillows and cut me in the throat, right here,” she said, pointing to the bandage on her neck.
“It was horrible,” she sobbed. “The blood came pouring out. I screamed and he started laughing, catching it in a silver bowl. The other two foreigners did the same to the others. The nepenthe heads didn’t scream; they were too far gone to feel it.
“I leapt up and ran. It was a miracle I got away. Just ran right out of there, my dress all soaked in blood and more and more of it coming out all over. I nearly died getting back here, and good old Helga here fetched a surgeon who treats us girls. He patched my wound. I would have died if it weren’t for them.”
Helga patted Karletta’s hand. “You rest now. You’ll be alright in a few days.”
“Not if that bandage isn’t changed,” Lothar said. “Her humors are bound to get fouled. We’ll send for a proper doctor to take a look at that cut.”
Francesco produced a handful of coins that he divided among the two women.
“Here. Thank you, Fraulein Karletta, and thank you, Fraulein Helga. Try not to waste it like Lothar. Helga, go buy a proper bed for your baby.”
Helga nodded, but she had a distant look in her eyes. Lothar knew that look. He’d had it many times himself. She was already thinking of going to Alger’s place.
Francesco took Lothar to one side.
“I’ll send for the doctor and then we better get going. Birgit’s life is in obvious danger.”
“I agree. They’ve already moved once, the abandoned warehouse is proof of that, so let’s get to that house before they move again.”
The time was now past noon, and a lowering sky threatened rain. Lothar and Francesco picked their way carefully along the strand, over the rubble of old buildings and the trash gathered by the street sweepers from more prosperous neighborhoods and dumped here. Lothar threw stones at the half-wild dogs that picked through the refuse. They snarled as they backed away. Out on the river, Lothar could see fishermen plying their little boats, casting nets to catch their day’s wage. Directly upriver, Tinker’s Bridge arched like a gray bone over the dark waters. Tradesmen’s houses were packed closely on its edges to catch the travelers much like the fishermen caught their fish.
All this activity was in the distance, and the house they sought, which stood alone on the stony bank of the river, seemed strangely isolated, as if the city had grown around it and left it forgotten.
It was a low, single-story structure. Although dilapidated, it had been fixed up recently, the shutters mended and closed, the larger cracks in the plaster pasted over. There was no way to approach without being seen, so they simply forged ahead, hoping no-one looked out the windows and was bold enough to shoot at them in broad daylight.
Francesco drew his sword and Lothar his pistol. Standing to either side of the door, they stood silent for a moment, listening. Lothar felt a tickling under his nose and wiped it with the back of his hand, bringing away blood. Francesco looked at him, a silent question on his lips, and Lothar shook his head. He’d be fine. Francesco nodded and kicked in the door.
The two men burst inside. For a moment they stood there, eyes adjusting to the light. They saw a short hallway. An empty room stood to one side, dust gathered in its corners. Ahead, the hallway opened up into a larger room in which they could see a few scattered pieces of furniture. They walked forward.
With a shrill screech a dark form burst out of the shadows and hurled itself onto Lothar. The sorcerer was knocked onto the floor as he felt a bony hand clawing at his throat, while another hand reached inside his pocket. Lothar struck at the man, for that’s what it was, although a horribly emaciated one. With an inhuman fury the creature redoubled its efforts.
Francesco slashed at the attacker’s back with his sword, just deep enough to wound. The man, eyes popping horribly in a face so sunken it looked as if it had collapsed, lurched to one side and fell to the floor. He scrambled with his arms and legs, trying to regain his feet as the cut in his back sent searing pain through his frail body.
Then he gave up and lay on the floor, rocking back and forth and letting out an infantile keening.
Lothar staggered to his feet and retrieved his pistol. Francesco held his sword at the ready, throwing nervous glances around him in case there were more surprises in store.
“What’s the matter with him?” Francesco asked, looking at the demonic vision that writhed on the floor. “Is he hexed?”
“No,” Lothar shook his head. “He’s going through withdrawal. A bad case too. Looks like he’s been into it heavy for a long time and has gone without for a while.”
The man’s face lit up as Lothar spoke. He fixed the mage with bloodshot, desperate eyes.
“You know. You know. Do you smoke? Can I have some? Can you get me some? For the love of Tyr, I need a smoke. Don’t leave me like this. You’ve been through it, I can tell. I can see it in your eyes. Don’t let me be like this. I fell asleep by the river and when I came back they were gone! I forgot we were supposed to leave! Now I don’t have any! Please, help me, for the love of all the gods!”
“Who else is here?” Francesco demanded.
“No one, no one, no one. They left me all alone. I haven’t had any in two days.” The creature rocked back and forth, his head in his hands, now seemingly oblivious to the shallow slash across his back.
“Who were you with?”
“Nicolae, Anatolie, Cezar, they always came through for me. All they wanted was a little in return. It wasn’t too much to ask. It even made the smoke stronger. Less blood, more smoke in the system,” the man cackled.
“What are you jabbering about?”
The man grinned and held up his hands. His wrists were bandaged.
The man’s eyes fixed on Lothar’s.
“Not so much, after all, just a little cut and pour it into the bowl. Then some smoke, oh, great smoke, the best I’ve had in years. Nicolae only bought the best. You should talk with him. You’re healthy still. Got lots of meat on those bones. You’d bleed well, smoke plenty. Oh, by the gods I need some. Help me!”
“Where did they go?”
“I don’t know, damn you! Otherwise I’d be with them, bleed for them, oh the smoke, the smoke!”
Lothar leaned against the wall, feeling sick. He hated to see people strung out. The crawls, the shakes, the all-over ache that turned into burning pain. He knew what it was like, and thanked the gods he’d never been as bad as this.
“Do you have any money? Please, only a few marks, just for a bit of smoke. That’s all I need. I didn’t want to hurt you. I just wanted your money, that’s all. I fell asleep by the river and when I came back they were gone. Oh, by the gods I need some money!”
“Francesco, give this guy some coins.”
“Excuse me, I’m not some moneylender on Geldstrasse. I’m not going to keep on buying you beers and feeding your whore friends… ”
“Give him some damn coins!” Lothar screeched. He almost raised his pistol at his friend, but controlled himself at the last moment.
Francesco paled a little and stared at Lothar in wonder.
“You can take it out of my pay when this is all over,” the sorcerer mumbled.
Without a word Francesco reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of marks, dropping them into the man’s eager palm.
“Oh thank you! Thank you!” the man gasped, kissing the Italian’s buckled shoes, smearing the polish before Francesco could pull his feet away in disgust. Then he grabbed Lothar’s legs and grinned up at him with blackened teeth.
“I’ll never forget you, brother, thank you.”
And with that he leapt to his feet and bolted out of the house. Francesco and Lothar watched him go, a haggard figure loping along the strand, coins held high in a gnarled fist, a bloody slash along his back. He tripped once, was back on his feet in an instant and kept running, headed for town.
Francesco pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the blood from his sword. Lothar was quiet. The Italian looked at him for a long time.
“You’re quitting,” Francesco said at last, so softly that Lothar barely heard him.
“It’s not like tha… ”
They explored the rest of the house. In a back room they found what Lothar had been dreading.
The small room was covered, floor, walls, and ceiling with strange, meandering glyphs. They were deep crimson, nearly black, and they did not have to look closely to know with what they were painted. Francesco put his hand to his mouth and looked like he was going to be ill.
Once again Lothar pulled out the locket and his chalk, drawing a circle around the little gold pendant after he laid it on the cracked and splintered floor. Then he sat cross-legged, taking deep breaths and trying to relax. The atmosphere of the place distracted him, but his slow, measured breathing took hold, slowed down his racing heart, and allowed him to concentrate.
As before, his vision clouded, and the face of his former pupil hovered before him. A deep thrumming filled his ears, and he heard the secret sounds of the city fill his consciousness. The magic was strong here, the spell almost complete, and its ambient power increased his own ability.
He could hear the whispers of a thousand desperate men and women, all thinking of their next smoke, their next rest, their next oblivion. He traveled along a thin vaporous trail of sweet cloying vapor that brought him to the dark places of Kranzburg, where desperate deals were struck to trade money for forgetfulness, or flesh for relief. He sensed a woman’s surrender for a hit from a nosepipe, and felt a pang when he remembered how Helga had done this so often with him, and so many more times with so many others. He felt the reluctant tug as a man gave up his last heirloom for that little paper packet that promised so much, and another man, with no possessions left, who surrendered his body to one who was willing to take it in exchange for nepenthe.
And he felt the smoke itself, that sweet bliss. It did not fill his lungs as on the material plane, but here, where he floated in the nether realm of magic, the dream world on the mirror side of life, he inhaled and mingled with its true spiritual nature. It pervaded him, soaked into every pore and coursed through every vein, reaching into every thought and memory and numbing past, present, and future with sweet bliss, sweet sweet bliss, until he was nothing but nepenthe, nothing but forgetfulness, one great zero. No more consciousness. No more striving. Beyond life and death and magic and mundane he was at peace, just nothing, a blessed absence that he’d never felt even in his early days of smoking.
No, that wasn’t true. He’d felt it once, that first time, that awkward nervous snort with friends in a dingy booth in a closed beer hall. Now he relived it, the sharp inhale, the astringent tang in his nostrils followed by expansion, connecting with everything and dissolving into all. Becoming none. Ah, there it was again, that absence. Oh, to feel that all the time. Not death, beyond death, not even death could be so without being. To join with that forever, all he had to do was give in, join with that happy clan of nothings, so easy…
An explosion of pain on the side of his head brought him back to harsh reality. He screamed, not from the pain, but the agony of separation from that which he so desperately sought. He wailed as he opened his eyes.
He lay on the floor, sprawled out on the bloody sigils. A large sliver of wood was in his hand, held against his wrist. A trickle of blood ran to the floor, joining with the marks already drawn there.
Francesco yanked the sliver out of his hand.
“What happened?” the Italian asked. “You went into a trance and then you tore a piece of wood from the floor and tried to slash your own wrist.”
“I was there… I was there… ”
Francesco pulled him to his feet.
“You were chanting something. It wasn’t in any language I recognized. What were you saying?”
Lothar shook his head, trying to clear it.
“I don’t remember that, although I bet I know what language it was. Wallachian.”
“I don’t understand.”
Lothar paused a minute, trying to collect his thoughts.
“This spell is an unmaking. Of what, I’m not sure. It’s not a hex or a summoning; it’s different than any spell I’ve ever seen. All spells create something, or manipulate what already exists. Even destruction is a manipulation of a kind. But this spell is to make something cease to be. It’s nepenthe, the essence of it, in the form of magic.”
Lothar shook his head again.
“I don’t know. It’s the most powerful spell I’ve ever seen. It sucked my mind right into it.”
“Is Birgit alive?”
Lothar searched through the impressions he had received from the great stream of nothingness that bound all users together. He nodded.
“Yes, I heard her heartbeat. It’s fading but she’s alive. The spell is gaining power, or expanding its absence, I should say. We need to hurry or we’re going to lose her, and perhaps much more.”
“I’ll pull more men off guard duty. This sounds more important than securing our boats from Saxon raiders. We’ll search the city. Tell us every dealer you know, every user. We’ll question all of them.”
“I can’t tattle on all my contacts!”
“Are you insane, man? This spell is monstrous! It made you slash your own wrist. It’s a threat to the entire city! These Wallachians must be agents of the Baron of Saxony. We have to root them out. This is more important than your derelict friends.”
“Then let’s go to the town militia, let’s go to the Duke himself. They can search the city far better than we can.”
Francesco’s face clouded for a moment. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, unsure if he should say what needed to be said.
“We can’t,” he said at last.
“Because Herr Eisenbach brought them here.”
“As I told you, our new sorcerer isn’t as good as you were. Herr Eisenbach has been looking for a replacement. The Schiller and Graff families are taking more and more of our share of the shipping market. If this keeps up the Eisenbachs will be ruined. So Herr Eisenbach needed someone versed in black magic. He wanted to put a hex on the other families. Nothing violent, of course, just something to ruin their luck. A few beached ships would go a long way to the Eisenbachs retaking their place as a leading merchant family.”
“So he hired the Wallachians.”
“Yes. Herr Eisenbach’s cousin recently came back from a trading venture along the Danube with all sorts of tales of the wizards living in those lands. Our sorcerer researched their magic and made inquiries, and eventually hired the Voivode Nicolae.”
“Voivode, it’s a title in their land. He’s some manner of war leader and black wizard rolled into one.”
“Well, he was supposed to be the best. Turned out to be too clever for us, that’s for certain. He took the travel documents we sent and that was the last we heard of him. We assumed he was a confidence man and had sold the documents, but apparently he came to Kranzburg after all.”
“So he’s here with his retinue, courtesy of Herr Eisenbach’s connections, and you don’t even know what he’s doing here?”
“Well, in a word, no.”
“Not as such. If he’s half as powerful as we’ve heard, then he’s capable of just about anything. The journey is a long one. He must be here for an important purpose.”
“And with a fair amount of gold to throw around. Did you send him that?”
The Italian shook his head.
“No, payment was to be upon arrival. He must have brought the gold himself.”
“Or got it from Thüringen.”
“What are you thinking?”
“Thüringen has a none-too-secret alliance with Saxony, everyone with their ear to the ground knows that. They’re still angry that we took Nordhausen from them in the last war. Perhaps they hired Nicolae to cause trouble in Kranzburg in preparation for a joint invasion.”
Francesco stroked his beard and thought for a moment.
“Yes, that’s possible. If it’s true, then Birgit isn’t the only one in trouble. The Duke has a good spy network of his own, and he may have detected the Wallachians’ activities. If Nicolae gets caught by the Duke’s men and his documents are checked, they’ll be traced back to Herr Eisenbach.”
“They’ll draw and quarter him.”
“Most probably, yes.”
Another thought was tickling the back of Lothar’s mind.
“Wait! Isn’t Birgit supposed to marry the Margrave of Nordhausen?”
“Yes,” Francesco said slowly.
“And the Thüringians want that city back! It’s the reason they’d hire Nicolae to cause trouble. And here Nicolae is tricking the very man whose daughter is to marry the Duke’s military governor in the city they lost. That can’t be a coincidence.”
Francesco’s face darkened.
“It seems the good Herr Eisenbach hasn’t been entirely forthcoming with me. There’s more to this than he’s telling. But what could that be?”
Lothar shook his head.
“I don’t know. We need to find Birgit. Mobilize all the men you can. I’m going back to my room to meditate. I caught a whole flood of images in that spell, and I need time to sort them out. It might turn up something useful.”
Back in his tenement room, Lothar sat cross-legged at the foot of his bed, trying to sort out the images that had filled his head during the brief time he had been enmeshed in the Wallachians’ spell.
Birgit was the focus, of that he was sure. He sensed her blood was more important than that of the others. It was used in all the focal points of the ritual and its power seemed to pervade the incantation.
But why? She didn’t have any talent for magic. He would have noticed that when he was her tutor. So what was so important about her blood? Lothar tried to settle his thoughts and let the answer come to him, let the myriad of impressions coalesce into some distinct pattern.
There was a knock on the door. He groaned inwardly. Helga, no doubt. If he kept quiet maybe she’d go away.
The knock came again, followed by a soft voice.
“Lothar, are you in there?”
It was Rachel.
He scrambled to his feet. He tucked in his shirt, straightened his collar, and tried to fix his hair, wishing he hadn’t sold his mirror.
He opened the door and there she stood in the hallway her face half concealed beneath the hood of a cloak. Her dark eyes fixed on him.
“Can I come in?”
“Of… of course,” Lothar stammered. “Isn’t your father with you?”
“His knees hurt him. He can’t walk far these days.”
“You shouldn’t have come alone,” Lothar said. It wasn’t safe for Jews to venture outside the ghetto, especially if they were attractive young women traveling alone.
“I can take care of myself,” she said as she entered. “I had to see you.”
Rachel’s face fell as she saw the dingy interior. Her eyes rested on the nosepipe sitting by the bed. For a moment neither said anything.
“How did you find me?” Lothar asked.
“My father has ways. It’s not too difficult with the proper spell.”
Lothar nodded. Any decent sorcerer could trace an individual he knew well if there weren’t any magical blocks. But that didn’t answer Lothar’s real question.
“Your father sent you?”
Lothar was amazed. He couldn’t count how many Jewish religious laws she must be breaking right now. Moses had always cut corners with his faith, but this was too much even for him.
“Yes. Well, not exactly, though he was worried about you. We both were. He studied some of his books and found out more about Wallachian sorcery. It’s terrible black magic. You are in a great deal of danger, and so is that poor friend of yours. When he told me that I… ” her voice trailed off.
“I told him he had to help you. I knew he had something that could help, a family heirloom handed down from his great-grandfather. Papa comes from a long line of Kabbalists.”
From her pocket Rachel pulled out a brass six-pointed star about three inches wide. It was slightly convex and engraved with complex patterns. Lothar studied it and realized they were Hebrew letters and Kabbalistic symbols. On the back of the disk were several short spikes, as if it was supposed to be set into a larger object.
“What is it?” the sorcerer asked.
“It’s a ru’ah kame’a.”
“For creating a golem,” Lothar gasped. “I’ve heard of these. I never thought they really existed.”
“They’re rare. I think Papa has the only one in the Duchy. He says it’s a completed ritual. You don’t have to chant or draw a circle or anything, it’s all done, except for one final step.”
Lothar’s head swam. A spell that could be used instantly, that was unheard of. Magic required long rituals and preparation. Even a simple knowledge spell like he’d used in the warehouse took a few minutes to do. But this could be done right away, like firing a gun.
“You need to press it into a surface, that’s what these spikes are for. After that you only need to say one word, chaim.” Rachel explained.
“It means “life.” You say that and the golem will emerge from whatever surface the amulet is on.”
“Chaim,” he said again.
“That’s right. Papa says the golem will attack any sort of evil magic. If you are faced with those people who are hurting your friend, it will know what to do.”
“Good. I was worried I’d have to have a conversation with it in Hebrew,” Lothar smiled.
Rachel chuckled. The warmth of the sound made Lothar feel better than he had in a long time.
“Don’t tell anyone you have it,” she said. “They’re illegal. A long time ago a golem ran wild in another duchy. The spell was banned after that. But the Loucheim family kept theirs.”
“Moses is giving me his family heirloom?”
“He didn’t want to at first. He’s afraid it won’t work for a pagan. But I insisted,” she said, her face set with a determined look. “He can’t refuse me anything right now. Not when I’m about to, well, you know.”
Lothar didn’t reply. He put the amulet in his pocket.
“Is he at least a good fellow?”
“He’s just finishing his studies at the yeshiva at Wittenberg. He’ll be a rabbi in a couple of months. He’s a good man,” she said, not aware that she was smiling.
Lothar looked away. That smile used to be reserved for him.
Rachel fidgeted, losing her nerve.
“I… I can’t stay. Papa is mad enough that I’m coming here alone on such a day, but I had to. I can’t make it worse by being late getting back home.”
“No,” Lothar said, his voice flat, all emotion killed in him. “You can’t be late.”
For a moment Lothar thought Rachel would say more, but they just stood there, a tangible silence growing between them. Rachel passed her hand over her face.
“I should walk you to the ghetto. It isn’t safe for you to walk alone, certainly not in this neighborhood,” Lothar said.
Rachel nodded and they left. Out on the street they walked side by side, both feeling uncomfortable. Neither knew how close to walk to the other, not so close as to be breaking the rules of propriety, and not bearing to be too far.
Lothar trudged by her side, not saying anything. He cast sidelong glances at her, painfully aware that this might be the last time he ever saw her. Rachel did the same. Once their gaze met and they both snapped their eyes forward, looking straight ahead until the high stone wall of the ghetto loomed ahead. The iron gate lay before them, its portals deceptively open.
They paused. It was better to say goodbye here, up the street where there was less chance that one of Rachel’s neighbors would see.
Lothar and Rachel looked down at the cobblestones.
Maybe things could have been different, Lothar thought. He felt ashamed to be thinking such thoughts on her wedding day, but there they were. Five years of silence hadn’t killed what he felt, and he was sure that Rachel felt the same. But it was too late now.
Why didn’t she say anything?
Well, neither had he.
Lothar looked at the woman he was losing, the woman he never really had, and felt as if his life was ending. He wanted to say something, to finally say something, but the feelings they had for each other had never been given words. What was the point of doing so now?
Rachel looked up.
“I have to go,” she said.
She grabbed his arm. Lothar’s heart nearly stopped at the feel of her touch.
“Promise me one thing,” she said, her determined eyes glistening. “Quit taking that stuff. You’ll die if you keep taking it, I just know it! Please tell me you’ll stop. Do it for me.”
Her hand tightened its grip on his arm as her eyes bore into his. He’d never seen such strength in her before. She had her father’s willpower.
“Promise me,” she demanded.
“I… I promise.”
She let his arm go, still gazing into his eyes.
“Thank you,” she said. “Goodbye.”
She turned and left. Lothar watched as she disappeared through the ghetto gate. He remained there as the sun slanted to the west. The town bells rang the hour, and the soldiers stationed at the gate pushed its heavy iron doors shut with a clang.
Sitting at the foot of his bed, Lothar tried to clear his mind and concentrate once again on the impressions the spell had given him. His thoughts kept wandering, but the power of the spell was such that a few fleeting images passed through his mind.
He saw the city laid out before him as if he were looking on it from a great height. Then he plunged into a darkness pervaded by the smell of nepenthe. His body shook at the mere suggestion of it and he had to force himself to continue. For a few minutes there was nothing more. He cleared his mind of his craving (he was out anyway, and hadn’t he made a promise?) and the images flitted through his mind once again. They were vague, indistinct. Suppressing his frustration, he kept his mind open.
Then came a clear vision. A man and a woman, nobly dressed, sitting on gilded chairs in a mirrored hall with crystal chandeliers. The woman played with a young boy on her lap. Next to the man, a girl sat and talked. Lothar could not hear her words.
They looked familiar. He had seen those faces before. But where?
Then it hit him. The Duke and his family. The present and future rulers of the Duchy of Anhalt.
Why was he seeing them? Certainly their blood wasn’t part of the ritual, so why did they come to him so clearly? They were obviously connected to the spell in some fashion.
Lothar’s blood ran cold. They weren’t part of the spell; they were the target. All the energy he felt flowing out of the veins of Birgit and the other victims was being focused on them.
Lothar struggled to concentrate. He needed to find out where Birgit was being held. He needed to stop that spell now more than ever. The image of the family faded and was followed by more flitting shreds of vision. He saw flags, although not clearly enough to see to what state they belonged. There was the distant rattle of gunfire. He saw the darkness again, smelt the acrid tang of nepenthe.
That was all. He was too distracted. Rachel’s face was all he could think about. Married tonight. Behind that metal gate Rachel would be promised to another man. She’d be in his arms tonight, and tomorrow they’d leave for Wittenberg. She would be out of his life forever.
Lothar groaned and flung himself on his bed. There was no point in trying to meditate. Burying his face in his pillow, he wished he could forget. He pounded his fist into the mattress with impotent rage and despair.
He heard a faint crackle as his fist hit paper. He looked over, confused, then pulled away the sheet and saw, wedged into the straw, a little packet of paper. He grabbed it and tore it open. Inside was a little blob of nepenthe, maybe a dram and a half. The paste was a bit dry; it no longer glistened like tar but was cracked and dusty like an old turd. It had obviously been in there for quite some time.
Lothar let out a whoop at his good fortune. This had happened before. He would stash away some of his drug and then forget all about it. It was always a treat when he found it again, like someone giving him a present on winter solstice.
He sat up and grabbed his nosepipe. He scraped the paste into the bowl, examining it as he did so. No, it wasn’t too far gone. Dry nepenthe was a little tricky, though. Sometimes it would be weaker, but occasionally it would become much more potent, like beer kept too long in the cask. How would this batch be? Well, there was only one way to find out.
With a flint and steel he lit a taper and slipped the nosepipe up his nostrils.
Only after he had inhaled for the third time did he remember his promise to Rachel. Self-loathing rose up in him and he yanked the nosepipe out of his nostrils.
It was too late. He was already leaving.
Lothar’s body expanded, mind shattering and flying in all directions like a bursting cannonball. He was a human explosion, with nothing at the center.
He opened his eyes and beheld Wallachia. It was as he had always imagined it, an exotic land of steep gorges and darkened forests, where fell beasts stalked and hissed in impenetrable forests. Atop rocky crags wolves howled, and through nighted villages slunk men who were not men, searching for the blood that was their sustenance.
Proud castles rose before him, guarded by long-haired warriors of barbaric ferocity. They were assailed by turbaned hordes of Ottomans, who had long fought for this land and long been denied it. Leading them was a silk-robed sultan, his bejeweled scimitar glistening under an Eastern sun.
And there, emerging out of the glorious Oriental panoply of his vision, was the answer he had been looking for, the place where Birgit was being held. Gone were the far distant battlefields, gone were the dark forests and sheer crags, and there before him stood the house. He saw it as if he were standing right in front of it, and knew in a flash exactly where it was. The vision burned like white fire through the misty wisps of his hallucinations.
As quickly as it came, it started to fade. The outlines of his world waned and shrank. He was about to slip into oblivion again. The dried nepenthe made him crest higher and more quickly than ever before, but he was crashing just as quickly. Desperately he tried to gather his thoughts, casting about the room for something to write with. He needed to leave a note to himself for when he awoke. He knew he wouldn’t remember if he didn’t. He stumbled against a wall, fumbling around for his quill and inkstand. He still had them, didn’t he? Or did he sell them when he sold the last of his books? He couldn’t recall. He was sinking. He’d never find them now even if he had them.
A wet sensation on his face and a salty tang in his mouth told him his nose was bleeding. He despaired as he sank to the floor, his world darkening. Then, with the last shreds of his disintegrating mind, he had an idea. Feeling his way to a wall, he ran his finger under his nose, taking away a sticky mass of blood and mucous. He raised his finger to the wall and started to write.
He didn’t wake until late the next afternoon. The dried nepenthe had been too powerful, and while his body slowly came to life his mind was reluctant to follow. Finally, Lothar opened his bleary eyes. At first all he saw were the warped boards of the floor. He raised his head to look around the room. On the wall in front of him, scrawled in his own blood, were three words.
His muzzy mind tried to focus. There was some significance there. Then in a flash he remembered. Birgit!
The words sparked a vague memory of a house on a hill. Watchtower Hill lay to the north, on a high bluff from which a military watchtower commanded a view of the city and surrounding countryside. A road went right over the hill, leading to several hamlets further north. Peddlers and merchants sometimes used the road and there were several houses along the route. He concentrated on the faint memory. Yes, he knew it now. The one he had seen was nearly at the summit of the hill, not far from the watchtower itself. It would be simple to find.
Stumbling around his room, he pulled on his cloak, grabbing the pistol and the strange amulet Rachel had given him. His head still spun from the night before, but he managed to make it down the tenement steps to the street without falling, only to rush back again when he realized he hadn’t closed his door. On his second time down the stairs he stumbled and nearly fell. He paused, trying to calm his nerves and clear his thoughts. The dried nepenthe had become too strong, and made him clumsy and stupid. Carefully he made it to the street and headed for the city’s northern gate. His steps soon led him out of the seedy district where he lived and onto a main avenue.
Soldiers were everywhere. Several units lounged in a shaded beer garden by the side of the street as cavalry trotted past. At one intersection he squeezed around slow teams of oxen pulling cannon. It was obvious the Duke was expecting trouble.
Lothar wondered if he should find Francesco first. He could use the Italian’s help, but that would waste precious time. Some sense was telling him the final part of the spell would be done tonight. How he knew this he couldn’t say, perhaps it was only a hunch, or maybe something he picked up in his brief immersion in the ritual itself. All he knew was that he needed to stop it before it was completed. If he didn’t, Birgit would be dead before sunrise.
Luck was with him. At the north gate he spotted a familiar face. It was Ernst, another of Herr Eisenbach’s henchmen, a stout fellow dressed in a metal helm and buff coat despite the warm weather. A sword and a brace of pistols hung on his broad belt. Ernst stood by the gate watching everyone who came and went.
Lothar ran towards him, tripping over his own feet and landing in the man’s arms.
“Shove off, you rotten beggar!” Ernst shouted as he threw Lothar to the ground.
“Ernst, it’s me! Lothar!” he said as he tried to get up.
Ernst stared at him for a moment before his face lit with recognition.
“Freya’s tits, man! You look a wreck. Those stories they tell about you must be true,” the guard said, helping him up.
“I’m not sure, exactly. He mentioned he hired you. Are you… ”
“You need to find him. Now.”
“He ordered me to watch the gate. He’s got people watching all the exits to the city in case Birgit… ”
“Birgit’s already left the city, I know where she’s being kept… ”
Lothar told him of the spell and his vision, and gave him directions to the house on Watchtower Hill. When he finished Ernst nodded.
“I’ll go find him right away. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to stop the ritual.”
“We might not have time to wait, the hill is a whole league away. I have to go. Find Francesco and follow me as soon as you can.”
Ernst ran off into the city as Lothar headed out the northern gate.
The sun hovered low above the western horizon by the time he made it to the hill. The dirt road was steep, and Lothar’s sickened body wasn’t used to so much exercise. He huffed and sweated as the lowering sun dazzled on the far-off river. Looking out, Lothar could see the bridge near the house he and Francesco had raided. Lothar stopped for a moment to catch his breath. He looked to the south, where the whole city of Kranzburg stretched out below him, its winding lanes interlaced like veins in a leaf. Directly at its center the marble walls of the Duke’s palace shone in the setting sun. He traced the curve of the river from the bridge, around the northern end of the city and away to the east, enclosing the city on three sides. Far to the southeast he could make out the ruined wharves of the old harbor, where he had first discovered the writing in the warehouse.
A little rested, Lothar turned back to the north and continued uphill. The watchtower was about half a league ahead of him, and soon, he knew, the house would be visible.
He stopped, turning back and looking at the city again. One part of the ritual to the southeast, one to the southwest, and now a new place to the north. A perfect triangle, and at its center, the city. No, that wasn’t quite right, for the warehouse and the second house were only on the edges of the city. There were outlying districts beyond them, on the other side of the river. So what was at the center? The palace. Yes, the palace was at the dead center of the triangle the Wallachians had created. Whatever the purpose of this spell they were weaving in blood, the palace was their target. So the Wallachians were the vanguard of an invading force, just as he feared.
He continued climbing. The watchtower, a thin spire of stone silhouetted against a reddening sky, rose before him. He entered a little copse and the house came into view. It was a compact, two-story wood-frame building, shaded on all sides by trees. As with the warehouse and the cottage by the bridge, it appeared to have been abandoned for some time. Weeds grew on the overgrown lawn, and once-beautiful rosebushes were now choked with weeds. The windows were shuttered. He slipped behind a tree and studied the building.
After a few moments a thin, disheveled man came around the corner of the building. Even from a distance Lothar could tell he was a user. Lothar ducked behind the tree.
After a moment he dared a peek. The man hadn’t seen him and continued his circuit of the house. Soon he disappeared behind the building.
Lothar hesitated, unsure what to do. He didn’t dare wait for Francesco and the other guards, much as he wanted to. But if he tried to save Birgit himself, he’d surely be killed. The Voivode Nicolae was a military officer, and his two companions would be dangerous as well. And here he stood with a fuzzy head, out of breath from what should have been an easy walk for a man his age, and carrying no weapon except an unloaded pistol.
What an idiot I’ve been. Why in Hades did I smoke last night? If I’d been thinking straight I would have asked Ernst for a gun. Damn my eyes! If I hadn’t sold the powder in the first place, I wouldn’t have needed to ask him.
Lothar leaned his forehead against the rough bark of the tree, trying to control his labored breathing and clear his head. What could he do? Birgit was in danger and he wasn’t able to help. Francesco was relying on him, so was Herr Eisenbach. He was letting them all down.
What hurt most of all, though, was the knowledge that he had broken his promise to Rachel. She made him swear he wouldn’t smoke, and less than an hour later he had. He used to tell himself he would do anything for her, he still meant it, but when she asked him to do one little thing, something for his own good, he let her down.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, wishing Rachel could hear him.
He’d said those same words to Moses, and to Francesco, and to Herr Eisenbach too. They hadn’t believed him, and looking back he knew his words had been false.
Lothar stood up straight and drew his pistol. He’d been useless to everyone for five years. Now he had a chance to make good. He might not be able to stop the ritual, but he could slow it down. His death might buy Birgit enough time for real help to arrive.
He saw no point in stealth. He needed to act now before his weak will failed him once again. Holding the pistol by the barrel like a club, he let out a roar of frustration and anger and charged at the house. In a flash he crossed the lawn, leapt up the front steps and ran shoulder first into the front door.
With a crash the door flung open and he stumbled into the darkened interior. For a moment he paused, eyes adjusting to the dim candlelight of the interior. A noise to his right made him spin around. The haggard face and bloodied nose of a nepenthe addict rose before him. He swung his pistol and cracked the man on the jaw, sending him hurtling to the floor.
All around him the shadows were moving. From far corners of the room, dark figures rose in ones and twos. They were men and women, some young, some old, all looking thin and ragged in tattered clothing. The acrid smell of nepenthe hung in the air. They shuffled towards him from all sides, a constricting circle of desperate humanity. There must have been two score of them, all with arms or necks swathed in bandages. The candlelight caught the gleam of knives as they closed in.
Lothar desperately looked about. At the far end of the room he spied the graceful curve of a marble stairway. It was the only way out except for the front door, and he was damned if he was going to run away now. He sprinted towards the stairs. A nepenthe head staggered towards him, glassy eyes trying to focus though his hallucinations. Lothar could imagine what the man must be seeing. The addict tried a feeble lunge with his knife that Lothar easily avoided as he ran past.
He wasn’t so lucky with the next one. A woman stood square in his way, a meat cleaver in her hand. In the half-light the bandages around her neck made her look like a gentlewoman wearing a lace collar, but the patched and faded dress and the wicked gleam in her eyes told otherwise.
She swiped at Lothar as his forward momentum carried him right into the path of the blade. He twisted his body to the side, but the cleaver sliced a shallow cut across his chest. Lothar swung at her and missed. He kept running.
Then he was beyond them, staggering up the steps. His chest burned from the cut and something seemed to be wrong with his left arm; he focused his will on getting up to the next floor. There was no stopping now.
As he made it to the top, a door opened to his left, suffusing the upper hallway with the bright glow of candles. In the doorway stood a giant of a man. He wore a loose shirt and baggy trousers of fine material. Around his waist was a wide leather belt studded with iron. From the belt hung a broadsword. His broad features were swarthy, with wide-set brown eyes that glittered with malevolence.
Those eyes fixed on Lothar. Below a bushy black moustache a cruel mouth curved into a grin. The man reached for his weapon.
With a yell Lothar charged at him, pistol upraised. As the Wallachian drew his sword, the sorcerer brought down the butt of his pistol with all his might. The hardwood handle made a satisfying crack across the man’s cheekbone and his head snapped back. Lothar raised his pistol to strike again.
The man regained his balance and eyed Lothar, his grin widening as he smashed the pommel of his sword into the sorcerer’s stomach.
Lothar fell to his knees, his stomach a knot of pain. He gasped for breath but his lungs felt constricted, burning with pain and lack of air. He barely felt the pommel crash down again, this time on the back of his skull.
Some dim corner of Lothar’s mind registered that he was being picked up. He heard growled conversation in strange, flowing syllables. Bright lights danced before his eyes. Someone pulled his hands behind him and wrapped tight cords around his wrists.
Awareness returned. He lay in a corner of a sumptuously furnished room. Brass candlesticks were set in various spots, illuminating fine couches and a mahogany side table inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Thick Turkish carpet covered the floor. Despite their opulence, the furnishings could not completely cover the rot of the old building. The plaster was flaking on all the walls. The uneven floor creaked beneath him as he shifted his weight.
But Lothar’s attention focused on the room’s inhabitants. At the door, standing with his arms crossed, was the man he had fought. When he saw Lothar looking at him he flashed a mocking grin. Lothar got little satisfaction from the apple-sized welt on the man’s cheek. Nearby stood another warrior, almost the double of the first, who cradled in his hands a heavy mace. It was cast of a single piece of iron, with a handle a full three feet long and a knob at the end fitted with spikes. The owner gave Lothar a hungry look.
And, reclining on a settee in the center of the room, was Birgit, dressed only in a nightgown. Her hooded eyes and expressionless face showed she was half asleep with nepenthe. The girl was curled up in the embrace of the third Wallachian. His noble features and silk shirt set him apart from his fellows. The Voivode stroked Birgit’s blond hair, the ruby set in his ring glowing an angry red in the candlelight. He played with her absently, as one might do with a kitten, his hard eyes set upon Lothar.
For a moment, though, Lothar didn’t return his gaze. He couldn’t take his eyes off Birgit. Karletta was right, she did look a lot less beautiful than her picture. The round face and the rose color of her cheeks he remembered from her childhood had vanished. Now that face was drawn and pale, with eyes sunken deep in their sockets. She raised a thin arm and stroked Nicolae’s moustache.
“Who’s this funny little man, Nikki?” she cooed.
“I’m wondering the same thing,” the Voivode rumbled, his German heavily accented. “He has been quite rude, coming in unannounced.”
“My name is Lothar, I was sent by Birgit’s father to find her.”
He struggled with his bonds and a sharp pain jabbed his left shoulder. It was the side he had used to batter down the door. Lothar could barely feel or move the fingers in his left hand. He realized he must have fractured something. The pain felt worse than the throbbing in his head, or the dull burn of the cut on his chest.
“Uncle Lothar?” Birgit tried to focus on his face. “Why, so it is! Look Nikki, it’s Uncle Lothar. He used to be my tutor.”
“Is that so?” Nicolae said, eyes narrowing.
“Oh yes, he used to teach me all the names of all the cities and lands in the world. I even learned about Wallachia, Nikki. It’s between Transylvania and Moesia. The Danube River flows through it all the way down to the Black Sea. And the Black Sea opens onto… ”
“So he is in your father’s employ?”
“Oh no! He was very bad. They caught him smoking nepenthe and sent him on his way. Poor Uncle Lothar,” Birgit pouted.
“You knew about that?” Lothar said.
“Oh, they didn’t tell me, of course, but you know how that house was. Everyone whispering all the time, you find out about everything before long. I didn’t even know what nepenthe was until I was older and all the girls started talking about it. It helps with the complexion. Isn’t my face nice and white?”
“It’s wonderfully white, my dear,” Nicolae said, “now why don’t you have a nice little smoke and let me and Uncle Lothar have a chat, eh?”
The Wallachian reached over to a side table for a nosepipe. Set on the table beside it Lothar saw a brass hypodermic needle, and, beside that, his useless pistol and the amulet Rachel had given him. He cursed himself silently when he saw it. Why hadn’t he remembered to use it?
The answer was in the Voivode’s hands. As Nicolae gave Birgit the nosepipe, she eagerly set it in her nostrils. Plucking a candle from a nearby holder, she gave a satisfied smile and lit up. Then she sighed and lay back on his chest.
Nicolae looked at her and chuckled.
“For the life of me I cannot understand why you Germans use this drug so much,” he said to Lothar. “In my country if someone is caught with such a thing he is impaled and left by the crossroads as an example to others.”
“Well, it’s made her your plaything, hasn’t it?” Lothar growled, struggling with his bonds despite the pain.
“Oh no, at least not in the way you assume. No, she is still a virgin. Not that she was not willing and I was not tempted, but she is much more useful for me the way she is.”
Nicolae reached for the hypodermic.
“Virgin’s blood,” Lothar whispered. “You want virgin’s blood mixed with nepenthe for the ritual.”
Nicolae cocked an eyebrow and examined Lothar as he extended one of Birgit’s limp arms.
“You know more than geography. Yes, your little student is providing just the ingredient I need. We shall be completed shortly.”
“Herr Eisenbach’s men have surrounded this place, give up now,” Lothar said, hearing how lame the words sounded.
Nicolae barked out a laugh.
“Perhaps Cezar hit you too hard on the head. After your dramatic entrance my men looked all around. We are quite alone. I’ve posted more guards now, and had the one who let you past whipped for his stupidity. Besides, even if more of Eisenbach’s men are coming, they will not get here in time.”
“The militia is coming too.”
“The good Herr Eisenbach told the militia and risks execution? I think not. And don’t think there will be help from the watchtower, either. I chose this house because it is quite well screened with trees. The sentries did not see your little charge across my front lawn.”
Nicolae wrapped some twine around Birgit’s hand, balling it into a fist. Then he removed the bandage on the inside of her elbow. Dark scabs crusted the skin underneath.
“Ah, she was a clever one once, eh? Did you hear how she rattled off her geography lessons? But after a few months smoking that poison, she was easy to lure away from her father. She’d become a stupid little girl,” he said, emphasizing the last three words with three smacks on her wrist. “Yet her blood flows still.”
Lothar’s stomach churned as he watched Nicolae slip the needle into Birgit’s arm, filling the glass tube of the hypodermic with dark red liquid.
Cezar, the swordsman Lothar had so vainly tried to fight, approached holding a silver bowl. Nicolae pulled the hypodermic out of Birgit’s arm and stanched the flow of blood with a bandage, then squirted the steaming liquid into the bowl. Cezar carried it out of the room through a door Lothar hadn’t noticed before.
“An excellent man, Cezar. Not as dull as he looks. He helps with the writing.”
“Whatever you’re trying to do, it’s not going to work. Herr Eisenbach’s men will hunt you down. It’s not like you have much of an army downstairs. Even I got through them.”
“Oh, there’s a better army coming,” Nicolae smiled.
“You mean two armies.”
The Voivode cocked an eyebrow, saying nothing.
“The people of Kranzburg will never accept rule by Saxony. The Duke’s family has every right to the title.”
“Not if they don’t exist,” Nicolae smiled.
And suddenly it was all clear to him. The palace at the center of the triangle, the essence of nepenthe, the blood of a virgin. It was the ultimate unmaking. The triangle is the shape of containment, limiting the spell to its focal point. Nepenthe is forgetfulness, the absence of memory. And the virgin’s blood? Virginity is an absence of a sort too. The absence of motherhood, an ungrown branch of the family tree.
Nicolae was going to make the Duke’s family cease to be.
Lothar’s head reeled with the possibilities. Would they have ever existed? Would the people remember them? Even if they did, there would be no one left with a better claim to the Duchy than the Baron of Saxony. And Thüringen would be sure to get Nordhausen back, and probably more besides.
The Duchy would be carved up like a pork roast on summer solstice.
Birgit was the perfect focus for the spell. A virgin and a nepenthe head. But how had Nicolae met her?
Nicolae picked up the amulet and studied it.
“This is a curious thing. The writing is Hebrew, is it not? I must confess I have never met a Jew. A wise Voivode got rid of them in Wallachia a long time ago. Impaled the holy men and burned the rest in their synagogues. Too bad you weren’t among them. Is this one of your religious symbols? I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what is written here. Ah well, I will have to torture it out of you when I’m finished with the ritual.”
For the thousandth time that day, Lothar cursed the after effects of the previous night’s smoke. Why hadn’t he kept his head clear? He would have remembered to use the amulet instead of charging like a lunatic to his death. Even when he tried to do some good he made a mess of it. He tried to calm himself. He needed to get to the amulet somehow.
Cezar emerged from the other room carrying the silver bowl. Nicolae dropped the amulet back onto the table with a clatter and picked up the hypodermic again. Lothar gritted his teeth in disgust.
“What are you getting out of this?” Lothar asked as the Wallachian pierced Birgit’s flesh once again. “Saxon money? Weapons? They’re going to make you an important man back in Wallachia, aren’t they?”
“Wallachia is a bit like the German lands, and I am a bit like the Baron of Saxony. Both regions are a patchwork of little fiefs mostly owned by small men with no ambition. We fight our little squabbles while greater powers like the French and the Ottomans rule whole empires. The Baron wants to rule more than Saxony, and I want to rule more than my little strip of farmland. I will help him make a real kingdom, and he will send me 40,000 Saxon mercenaries to help tame my neighbors.”
“And how many Thüringian mercenaries will you get?”
Nicolae did not answer. Again hot blood gushed into the silver bowl. Birgit sighed in her stupor. Her face had grown very pale, her breath barely audible. Lothar sobbed with frustration as he struggled with his bonds. Cezar disappeared into the ritual room once again.
“It won’t be long now,” Nicolae said. “And after that, my Jewish friend, I think I will cut off your fingers one by one and feed them to you.”
A shout from outside made Nicolae leap to his feet. He hissed a harsh command to Anatolie, who moved to the door and bolted it. Cezar ran out of the other room and drew his sword. Nicolae reached behind the settee and grabbed a blunderbuss, which he slung over his shoulder before picking up Birgit.
“That was a warning from my sentry,” Nicolae growled. “Your friends have arrived after all. It looks like I will have to speed up the ritual. Say goodbye to your student, and goodbye to your Duchy.”
With Birgit in his arms, Nicolae strode into the ritual room, kicking the door closed behind him.
For a moment there was no sound. Anatolie and Cezar stood poised at the door, glancing in Lothar’s direction to make sure he remained still.
Screams and the clash of steel rang out from the below. A gun went off, then another. Cezar brandished his sword at Lothar, mutely warning him to keep quiet.
“Francesco! Up here!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.
Cezar rushed at him. Lothar rolled out of the way just in time as the broad blade cleaved into the floor, cutting through the carpet and deep into the wood beneath.
Lothar kept rolling, wincing as the weight shifted onto his injured shoulder. The sword swooped past his ear.
Then he bumped against something solid. He had rolled all the way to the other wall. Cezar grinned and went in for the kill.
The sound of splintering wood from across the room made the Wallachian turn. Ernst stood in the doorway, the kicked-in door hanging on a single hinge. He gripped a sword in one hand and a pistol in another. He pointed the pistol at Anatolie’s head and fired.
With a speed remarkable for a man his size, the Wallachian ducked out of the way and the ball buried itself in the far wall. Ernst cursed and made a low cut with his sword. The Eastern warrior parried with the haft of his mace. He pushed Ernst off balance, then swung his mace in a high arc, bringing it down with a clang on Ernst’s helmet. The man fell to the floor and lay still as a stone. Anatolie roared in victory…
… and his shout broke into a cough. The tip of Francesco’s rapier was lodged in his throat. The Italian stood in the doorway, executing a perfect lunge as if he were fencing for show in the garden of some gentleman’s club rather than fighting for his life. Francesco twisted the blade, the Wallachian let out a sick rattle, then he shoved a foot of sharp steel through the back of Anatolie’s neck. Lothar could hear the spine crack and separate. As Francesco yanked his sword free, Anatolie crumpled at his feet.
Cezar bounded across the room and swung his sword at Francesco’s head. The Italian nimbly ducked, feinted with his rapier, caught the Wallachian’s blade as he took the bait, then buried his poniard deep into his chest. Leaping over his opponent’s body as he fell, he headed for Lothar.
The door to the ritual room opened. Nicolae took in the scene in an instant and unslung his blunderbuss.
Francesco halted. He didn’t have time to get to Nicolae before the Voivode cocked and fired. He hurled his poniard at him. Nicolae ducked and the blade buried itself in the doorframe. Nicolae raised his gun, opened the pan and fumbled with the flintlock. Francesco spotted Lothar’s pistol sitting on the table in front of him.
“No!” Lothar screamed.
In a single fluid motion Francesco picked up the pistol, cocked it, flicked open the pan with his thumb and pulled the trigger. There was a soft puff as the powder in the pan lit, but no loud report of the gun firing. Francesco and Nicolae stared at the pistol in disbelief.
Nicolae smiled as he fired the blunderbuss full into Francesco’s chest.
The force of the shot hurled Francesco halfway across the room. He tumbled atop the two men he had killed, half his chest blown away, his fine ruffled shirt shredded and smoking. Entrails slid onto the carpet as blood welled in an ever-widening pool around him. Francesco’s mouth lay agape, his powdered wig pushed over lifeless eyes.
Nicolae cocked his head to listen to the sounds of the fight still raging below. He ran across the room and pushed the shattered door up against the frame, jamming a couple of chairs and all three bodies against it, before running back to the ritual room and shutting the door. Lothar heard a bolt slide shut.
Lothar looked at the still form of his friend. He hated himself. If he hadn’t been so tied to nepenthe this would have never happened. Then he glanced at the table. The amulet was still there. He had one last chance to make good.
It took some moments to struggle to his feet. He had to lever up against the wall, his useless arms tied tight behind him. Once he was upright he walked over to the table. He turned around and fumbled with the amulet, cursing as his numbed fingers slipped on the smooth metal and it fell to the floor.
Lothar sat down, straining his neck so he could see behind him. A little more fumbling and he had it. He got to his knees, then to his feet.
Carefully he turned the amulet so the spikes on the back were sticking away from him. Then he backed up against a wall. Standing on tiptoe and shrugging his shoulders, he pressed the amulet as high up on the plaster surface as he could.
He turned around and examined the amulet set into the wall. It looked like some bizarre decoration. Stepping back and clearing his throat, he spoke a single word in a loud and confident voice.
The hair prickled on the back of his neck as he felt a whirlpool of magical energy coalesce around him. The amulet grew red hot before his eyes; he could feel the heat it gave off from two paces away, yet the wall around it did not burn. The sounds of battle faded as Lothar stared, entranced. The wall emitted a slight crackling.
A pair of eyes opened in the plaster. The pupils burned with a golden radiance. They blinked once, revealing lids as white as the plaster around them, lined by thin cracks. When they opened again they fixed briefly on Lothar before scanning the room. The sorcerer held his breath.
There was more crackling, and around the amulet, now glowing with a white heat, a crack appeared in the shape of a man. A little cloud of plaster dust settled on the carpet. The eyes flicked to the far wall as Nicolae opened the door.
The Voivode must have sensed the magic too. His face was a mask of terror. As Lothar stepped aside and he saw the man in the wall, he screamed and slammed the door.
With the squeal of tearing wood and the snap of breaking plaster, the golem stepped free. Its first footstep shook the floor. With a life it should not have had, it lumbered across the room. As it passed, Lothar could see its profile, slats of plastered wood front and back, and thick beams between. In the wall, a man-shaped hole yawned into an adjoining room. The creature he had summoned made its way with single-minded resolve towards the ritual room.
It smashed through the door as if it were a silk curtain and disappeared inside. The Voivode screamed again, then let out a long wail, cut short by the sounds of rending flesh.
Herr Eisenbach sat at a broad mahogany table. Fine Flemish tapestries brightened the oak-paneled walls. Persian carpets were spread across the floor. In a corner stood an elaborate glass tree as tall as Lothar. In its branches perched golden birds with eyes of amethyst. From a jade case imported from Cathay, Herr Eisenbach pinched a tiny amount of snuff. Sniffing it up both nostrils, his fleshy face screwed up and reddened. Then he sneezed thunderously and blew his nose into a silk handkerchief.
Lothar sat before him, shifting his weight uncomfortably in a straight-backed chair. His left arm was in a sling and his chest still hurt from where the Eisenbach family physician had sewn his wound closed.
To one side sat another man, young and studious looking. His aquiline nose was raised slightly as he inspected Lothar with distaste.
Finally the merchant spoke.
“I cannot begin to thank you for helping save my daughter yesterday. From what the doctor said, she was nearly dead from lack of blood.”
“Will she recover?”
“The doctor says that given enough rest she will be fine. The wedding will have to be delayed, unfortunately. Which brings up a delicate matter. You saw the conditions she was under. In your opinion do you think she survived her ordeal… ah… intact?”
“She’s a virgin, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Are you sure? If that’s true she can be married. It’s important she be given a good match.”
“The ritual required virgin’s blood.”
Herr Eisenbach looked relieved.
“Good. Then the Margrave will not be disappointed.”
“No, the Margrave will not be disappointed,” Lothar replied through set teeth. “How’s Ernst?”
“Ernst? Oh, Ernst, the guard! Oh yes, the doctor said he’ll live. He got a concussion, that’s all. A pity Francesco wasn’t so lucky. And two other guards got killed fighting those horrible addicts. I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it. The whole thing sounds dreadful.”
The merchant took another pinch of snuff and sneezed again.
Lothar said nothing. It was obvious the merchant wasn’t losing any sleep over their deaths. Lothar thought of Francesco. What god had he worshiped? One of the old Roman ones, probably, being an Italian. He’d make a burnt offering to Charon to help his soul cross the Styx.
The young stranger spoke for the first time.
“I was wondering if you could enlighten us to how you managed to kill Nicolae with your hands tied,” he said.
“I’m afraid I don’t remember everything clearly,” Lothar said, “and who in Hades might you be?”
“Ah! How foolish of me,” Herr Eisenbach said. “This is Alexander, my sorcerer. He’s been with us for about five years now. Alexander led the attack on the house, although unfortunately he did not make it up to the top floor until everything was over.”
Lothar detected a trace of annoyance in the merchant’s voice. Alexander’s face puckered as if he’d tasted something unpleasant. Lothar didn’t remember seeing him at the house, but between the nepenthe, the blow to his head, and the shock of Francesco’s death, he didn’t remember much.
“We found the Voivode torn to pieces in the room next to where you lay,” Alexander continued. “Next to him was a collapsed heap of wood and plaster, and there was a hole in a nearby wall. A very strange hole. We also found this.”
He held out a slim hand. Lying in his palm were half a dozen fragments of brass. They were dull and twisted, as if they had been thrown in a forge.
“It was a spell of my own design,” Lothar lied.
The other sorcerer did not look convinced.
“This resembles a certain rare Jewish spell, one that is illegal in this Duchy… ”
“Now, now, Alexander,” Herr Eisenbach calmed him. “The important thing is we got Birgit back. There’s no need to worry about the methods.”
“Just as there’s no need to worry about how the Voivode and his men got here in the first place?” Lothar snapped.
The merchant gave him a hard look.
“That half-farthing nobleman and his two brutes are dead. That’s all that matters now,” he replied.
“So what did you say when the militia arrived? They must have heard the gunshots,” Lothar said.
“Yes, they heard the shots,” the merchant said. “Alexander told them the truth. Birgit had been kidnapped and we set out to find her. It turns out you were right about that spell they were creating. They were trying to destroy the Duke’s family. This is quite a coup for the Eisenbach family. We now have a great deal of gratitude at court.”
“How wonderful for you.”
“And that makes me grateful to you, Lothar. I must admit when Francesco suggested we hire you to find Birgit I was a little dubious, but it takes a thief to catch a thief, eh? No offense, of course. You succeeded quite admirably. Here.”
He slid open a drawer in his desk and pulled out a leather bag. He set it in front of Lothar with a clank.
“Two hundred marks. Consider the extra money a bonus.”
Lothar tried to think of an appropriately sarcastic response, but the merchant was still talking.
“Oh no, you don’t have to thank me. You earned it. And there’s more. I want to rehire you. You have a lot of potential, and your connections with Jewish wizardry may come in handy. They can be a useful lot if handled correctly. But I know you’re still using that drug. It almost killed my daughter, and it will surely kill you. So here’s my offer. Stay clean for a month. Then come back and my doctor will examine you. If he says that you’ve kicked the habit, I’ll hire you on as Alexander’s assistant. Your salary won’t be as good as it was before, I’m afraid, but there will be room for advancement.”
Lothar looked at Alexander. The young sorcerer glowered back.
“I’m not sure what to say,” Lothar admitted.
“Think about it. One month,” Eisenbach said, holding up a bejeweled forefinger. “This is your chance to make good. Now I’m afraid I must ask both of you to leave me. I’m due to see the Duke’s secretary tomorrow and I must plan my wardrobe.”
Both sorcerers rose. Lothar picked up his pay and hefted it. He could practically smell the nepenthe. It would be nice to put the images of the past few days behind him.
As he and Alexander walked out the door and walked down the hall something occurred to him. Lothar stopped and looked the other sorcerer in the eye.
“You and Herr Eisenbach saw them, didn’t you? You saw the Wallachians when they came to town.”
“I… of course not,” he stammered.
“Yes, you did. Herr Eisenbach called two of them brutes, a fair description that probably wasn’t mentioned in their correspondence.”
“He saw the bodies at the house,” Alexander said hastily.
“He didn’t go to the house, he said so himself. And Nicolae bragged that Birgit was easy to lure away, which means he came here. But you never told Francesco the Wallachians made it to Anhalt. Francesco was too honest to be trusted.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Alexander said.
“Herr Eisenbach was worried Saxony and Thüringen would defeat us. The Margrave of Nordhausen wouldn’t be much of a match for Birgit if he got deposed. You didn’t bring the Wallachians here to hex the other merchants, you brought them here to hex the Duke. If it didn’t work, well, the Duke might win the war and everything would be fine. But if did work, Saxony and Thüringen would be very grateful. Who would Birgit have married then?”
“You dare accuse Herr Eisenbach of treachery?” Alexander hissed.
“But once Nicolae gained entrance to Anhalt, he didn’t need Herr Eisenbach anymore,” Lothar pressed on. “He needed a virgin for the spell, preferably a virgin using nepenthe, and here is where he found one.”
Alexander’s whole body shook. For a moment Lothar thought he was going to lash out, but then he realized Alexander was using all his willpower not to run away. Lothar took a step forward. Alexander edged back.
“The scum tricked us,” Alexander blurted. “A few days ago we caught a servant listening in on Herr Eisenbach’s meetings. We searched his quarters and found he was sending messages to Thüringen. They knew all about Birgit’s betrothal and her addiction. It was their plan to abduct her all along.”
“So that makes it all okay, then? You idiot.”
“Do you think we’d have invited them here if we knew they sacrificed virgins?” Alexander said.
“Herr Eisenbach wouldn’t have, he’s careful with his investments,” Lothar said in a voice cut with sarcasm. “But Francesco said you researched their magic before you hired them. You must have had an idea what they were going to do. But you didn’t tell Herr Eisenbach, did you? If the Eisenbach family prospered you’d prosper too. And what does it matter if some stupid nepenthe head dies in the process?”
“It’s your word against mine,” Alexander choked out.
“It would be fun to whisper in his ear, though,” Lothar grinned. “It’s not like he’s very happy with you anyway.”
“You can’t prove a thing!” Alexander snarled, regaining some of his courage.
“No, I can’t. You’ll get to keep your head, you son of a bitch, but I think I’ll take your job.”
“How are you going to do that? Stop smoking for a whole month?” he asked.
The words hit Lothar like a pail of cold water. A smug smile spread across Alexander’s narrow features.
“I don’t think so,” Alexander continued. “My job is secure. Please leave by the servant’s gate. Herr Eisenbach has his reputation to think of.”
Alexander turned on his heel and strode off down the hall, leaving Lothar to stand red-faced, the bag of money in his hand.
Helga waited for him at the front door to his tenement with their baby in her arms. She stood in the doorway, the eaves sheltering her from a steady drizzle. The infant whimpered softly, a tiny hand playing with a stray lock of his mother’s hair. Helga’s face was set in an impatient scowl, but the moment she saw him her expression changed to one of shock and concern.
“What happened to your arm?”
“Come in and I’ll tell you all about it,” he said.
As he trudged up the four flights of steps he gave an account of what he had been through in the past few days. For once Helga was silent. They reached his door and Lothar dug out the iron key from his pocket, slipping it into the lock and opening it. The room was musty and dark. He looked around at the stained walls and filthy straw bed. His spirits sunk even lower.
“So did they pay you?”
“Two hundred marks,” he said, walking across the room.
“That’s great! Let’s go to Alger’s and celebrate,” she said, her lined face lighting up.
Lothar opened the shutters to the window. Gray light peeked into the room.
“Close the shutters, the draft is bad for the baby. Come on, I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”
Lothar ignored her, rummaging around his bed.
“There’s more,” he said. “Herr Eisenbach offered me a job.”
“A job! That’s wonderful! The baby needs new clothes.”
“There’s one condition,” he said picking up his nosepipe. “I have to stay clean.”
Helga snorted, rocking the baby back and forth in her arms.
“That’s nothing. Alger has an herb that’ll fix you up so you’ll look like you haven’t touched anything in your life.”
Lothar nodded. He’d heard of it, too late to save his job. After that, there’d been no need for it. He walked over to the window, peering down at the dingy alleyway below. The carcass of a cat lay in a puddle, a rat feeding on the decomposing flesh of its belly.
“I won’t need it,” he said.
“What do you mean? What are you doing at that window?”
He held out his hand, leaned further out over the low sill. Rain spattered on his head. A little forward momentum and he would plunge to the ground below. He reached out his hand…
“Get back from there!”
… and let the nosepipe fall.
He watched as it plunged down and shattered on the rat’s head. A thin squeal came up from below. He pulled himself back in and turned to Helga.
Helga stared at him in disbelief for a moment. The ends of her mouth curled up in amusement.
“No, I’m not joking. I’m through. I want my old job back.”
“You’re going to let some fat merchant tell you how to run your life? What you can do with your own body?”
“He’s worse than you think.”
“Then forget him. We have enough to get by for a while.”
“It’s not about the job, although I have to admit I’d like to see a certain other sorcerer out of work. I want to be free of it. And I promised a friend I’d quit.”
“Who? That Italian gentleman?”
Lothar said nothing, preferring she believed a lie than know the truth.
“What’s come over you?” she asked softly.
“I want something different. You’re always saying I’m not living up to my responsibility. Well, you’re right. I want to spend the money on my son, and you. Us. You need to quit too.”
Helga barked out a laugh.
“If I get that job you won’t have to work the streets anymore,” Lothar said.
Helga wavered for a second before her eyes grew hard again.
“But you won’t. You won’t quit. You don’t have it in you.”
Lothar turned back to the window, looking out over the dreary cityscape of slanting roofs and gables.
That was probably true. He felt all right now, but what would happen when the shakes started? How strong would he be when his body was wracked with a pain that only one thing, besides time, could cure?
Yes, Helga was right. He’d fail, and then he’d try again. And probably fail again.
But at least he’d start trying.
Sean’s tastes in travel lean towards the adventurous. He’s traveled to more than 30 countries, interviewing nomads in Somaliland, climbing to clifftop monasteries in Ethiopia, studying Crusader castles in Syria, and exploring caves in his favorite state of Missouri.
Sean worked for ten years as an archaeologist in Israel, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and the U.S. before becoming a full-time writer specializing in history and travel. He is the author of numerous history books on the Middle Ages, the Civil War, and the Wild West. He is also the author of the collection The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner, and Other Dark Tales, and A Fine Likeness, a horror novel set in Civil War Missouri.
When not buried in archives or hunched over a laptop, you can find him hiking, prowling around museums, ransacking bookshops, watching B-movies and silent films, and online at Civil War Horror.
Author photo courtesy Leo Stolpe.