Nick Hat was a blur of action, up from his stool and flinging the table over as a barricade, spilling the treacherous tankards in every direction. He swung a fist, giving pause to the nearest attacker, though the drug deprived him of his aim.
The tavern room swam before my eyes as the suddenly bestial-seeming Poles massed to rush our corner of the room. I saw that we had but one chance before they overran us with the sheer weight of their numbers.
“Let the fear of the Lord be upon them whom he despiseth,” I declaimed (in the Latin), steadying my voice with an act of will as I chalked an angelic glyph upon the reverse of the table. I redoubled my concentration, forcing my hand to perform the strokes accurately in my urgent haste. “Let them quake before the judgment of the righteous angels of the Lord!”
And Heaven be praised, the angels answered my plea. Unseen to mortal sight, their host scourged the souls of all the attackers before me. Some, against the walls of the room, escaped it but of the pack in the middle all save two quailed in recognition of their sinful intent and turned in headlong flight.
“Et judicium omnibus,” I murmured in weary satisfaction, And justice for all. But I spoke too soon! The big innkeep himself, with the eyes of a very demoniac, drew on a hideous strength and forged onward through the tide of his fleeing comrades.
Kato darted between me and Jonas near the door, drawing his katana and striking an onrushing Pole an overhead stroke that clove his victim through the breastbone. With a kick he pushed the body clear of his blade.
Jonas levelled Black Betty at the menacing innkeep, the blast of shot catching him full in the chest and shoulder and knocking him back against the wall. But insensible to injury the innkeep came on, launching over the bar and into the fray. Seeing this, Sam York drew his brace of pistols, Grace and Favour, and took careful aim. With fiendish strength the innkeep shouldered aside the pair of his accomplices at bay before Kato’s sword and swung a meat cleaver at his head. The Nipponese smoothly ducked it, but with redoubled frenzy the cleaver swung again on the backhand, faster than the eye could follow. Kato escaped only by the wildness of the attack, which chopped a great mass of plaster out of the wall behind him.
Across the room a second desperate attacker leapt at Nicholas Hat, but had not seen the mercenary draw his long sword. Nick let the man’s own weight brutally spit him on the blade at the same time as sidestepping a clumsy swipe from the foul-breathed ghoul on his other side.
The other half of our would-be attackers were still all but clawing at the walls in panic for the judgment of their souls. Two of them scrabbled open a door behind the bar and fled into the night.
And then, with Nick Hat buying us the time by stoutly holding the breach between his table-barricade and the wall, we concentrated a volley fusillade on the demoniac innkeep. His aim certain, Sam discharged both his pistols and both shot found their mark, but the monster was unstoppable.
Jonas and I each pulled out our loaded pistols. Though fear of hitting Kato spoilt my shot, Jonas struck true. Drenched in an immense quantity of his own blood, the innkeep nevertheless roared on. His two accomplices on either flank failed to strike past the guard of Kato’s katana, as indeed he drew his kodachi in his left hand and redoubled his attack on the innkeep, dazzling swordplay pushing him reeling backwards.
As the fear of the angels left them, the three remaining Poles saw the lethal defence we were mounting but nevertheless, in evident desperation, brandished their clubs and farm tools and joined the fray. The foremost charged down Nick Hat, batting aside his cold steel greeting and swinging down with its own attack. In evading that one, Nick took his eyes for just a moment off his first opponent who struck him in the ribs with his cudgel.
Our fire-power was now spent, and our grim struggle for survival against the man-monsters drew on. They were for the most part clumsy but desperate fighters and though the innkeep himself remained undaunted he was as much slowed from loss of blood as we were from the effects of his drugged ale.
Already fighting off two opponents, Nick Hat avoided the clumsy charge of yet a third by the gruesome expedient of cutting his head clean off his shoulders even as he closed. Another reached over the table to strike at Sam York, who first clubbed the wretch back with his pistol-butt, then drew his scimitar and impaled it through the throat. As Jonas reloaded his pistol my own contribution was to beg the aid of a ruling angel of the element of air to distract the innkeep and hopefully gain Kato a final opening, but the effort proved ineffective against the brute.
For a space Kato matched Nick’s accomplishment in battling three opponents at once, including the innkeep leader, but it took all his speed with both blades, and allowed no chance for a counter-attack. He was sorely pressed. Saving his neck with a crossed-blades block at the last instant, he was nevertheless swayed back by its force. And then he turned the tide of battle, baffling the innkeep with lightning-quick feints of the katana before stepping in and delivering a sweeping slash with his kodachi. The innkeep leaned desperately back out of its path, but not far enough. The tip of the weapon opened his throat and he collapsed to the floor with his life’s blood gushing from the wound.
Jonas shot another one dead, and Nick, driven to vengeful fury cut down the man who had very nearly planted a rusty hatchet in his arm, before backing off to stand shoulder to shoulder with Sam York.
Nine of our attackers were down and, despite our swimming heads, still we five stood firm. An inkling of self-preservation finally dawned on the wretch facing Nick and Sam, and he backed away.
Of a sudden, though there had been no one behind him, only the great cauldron on the hearth, a pair of hands grasped him about the throat and began to strangle him. Prying at the hands, he reeled around and to our shock and horror we saw the jagged stumps at the wrists of these dis-bodied hands. And then it seemed we saw yet more severed hands ejecting themselves from the cauldron and proceeding to scuttle across the floor like crabs.
Within moments Kato cut down his remaining opponent and, undeterred by the strangeness, Sam York decisively strode over and chopped down the last man, sending him sprawling back to upset the cauldron, whereupon the hands twitched their last and lay still.
And then the only sounds were the wintry wind at the door and our own heaving breaths. We were the only ones left in the inn. “The drinks are on me!” declared an exhausted but suddenly elated Nicholas Hat.
The whole furious mêlée had taken less than a minute, and even now Michael Tremayne burst in with his rapier only to witness the scene.
We had been drugged. These emaciated and desperate men appeared to us in this state as the living dead whilst they threatened us, but now on closer inspection simply looked pitiful in death. We reached the dark conclusion that they had been driven by starvation to waylay travellers and subsist on human flesh. They attacked in desperation, committed to fight to the death by the sure knowledge that they would be hanged if any victim escaped to tell of their crimes.
But since we clearly could not trust our own senses during this nightmare episode, surely the hands in this cauldron of sickening human stew had merely been flung about the room when the cauldron was upset. They could not really have moved, like Sam York called them: “The lost travellers’ revenge”, could they? Though I know necromancers to work their spells with dead man’s candles, and even by the power of their twisted pacts to maintain the semblance of life in their own severed hands, the victims of these anthropophages could not all have been necromancers!
But withal, it began to seem that strange evils, the forces of the Devil, were awakening in the world or even dogging our very own steps. Not for the first time did I rue the loss of my magical materials, and my pursuant inability to seek the counsel of higher intelligences.
Having tended to our only superficial injuries, and watching one another’s backs, we confirmed that the place was now empty. The two who escaped the fight had fled southwards into the forest and were now far beyond pursuit. A search of the building discovered such of their victims’ clothes as the wretches themselves had not already been wearing and a quantity of the zloty coin of Poland to a value of roughly £4. Nick Hat retained the innkeep’s cleaver and, ever practical, scavenged winter clothes from the fallen. I too took a cloak, and Kato a pair of boots better suited to the roads of the European winter than his strange wooden pattens. Nick was only reluctantly dissuaded from trying to claim the salvage price for a second-hand cauldron.
The bodies of our attackers and the hands of their previous victims were unceremoniously removed outside. We secured the stable and the inn itself and Sam York took charge in assigning watches for the night, a swordsman and a pistolier in each shift.
We rose with the frozen dawn after a few hours’ restless sleep. Though I almost regret it, I expressed the sentiment that the hands from the stew were all that remained of good Christian men, and should be buried as such. Bishop Jonas was then prompted to propose a decent burial for all the man-eaters, to Sam York’s and my dismay. Sam preferred that they be hung from trees to dissuade others from imitating their crime. I pointed out that however crude, this was only the same as gibbeting them, which would have been the sentence for brigandage under English law, let alone murder and the eating of human flesh. And I added that with snow upon the iron-hard ground of the Polish winter, digging any sort of grave for eleven bodies would be the work of at least a day, even if there proved to be so much as a shovel remaining in this forlorn place. But then Nick Hat revealed a new side to his character, adamant that they should be buried, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Every argument, however pragmatic, was met with the blank insistence that they must be buried “Because it’s the right thing to do.”