Our halting interrogation of the szlachcianka’s soldier had already taken quite some time when we withdrew to discuss the situation. Sam York was becoming concerned for his fine steed, if others of the ‘Devil’s Mistress’s’ soldiers might be patrolling the road, and Nick Hat muttered something about the armour of the other three soldiers. The pair returned to the horses and the mule cart down by the roadside, and Michael Ezekiel Tremayne and Bishop Jonas shortly rejoined us in the clearing by the woodcutter’s cottage.
I related to these two that my interrogation had gleaned only a modicum of intelligence, and listed again the things we had yet to learn. Jonas boomed that he knew the minds of papists and that a spot of fire and brimstone would truly put the fear of God into the man. I yielded the role of translater to Michael Tremayne, that he and Jonas should have a clean slate. Where the man had previously defended his conscience by cause of having simply done his soldierly duty, a sermon from Jonas upon Satan’s demons tormenting his soul with fiery pitchforks throughout an eternity in hell promptly melted his resistance.
We were soon apprised of the facts. The old szlachcic had been of advanced years and when death claimed him his daughter, Katya, a woman in her twenties, had succeeded to the title and assumed the rule of the demesne. But she immediately became haughty and cruel and given to sadistic punishments at the slightest provocation. She was driven by whatever was in the Dungeon, which from that day was off limits to all but a score of callous mercenaries.
We were painfully aware that if the return of the patrol was missed before we arrived, the castle might be on heightened alert, so we seven resolved to venture thither without further ado. Nick Hat was only persuaded by Jonas’ strongest imprecations to leave the plundered armour for the woodcutter to hide, rather than risk that any search of our cart discover it.
We turned off the Warsaw road up onto the castle approach and as we neared we were challenged at point of muskets by the gatehouse detail. “Halt, strangers! Declare yourselves.”
“Greetings, men of Poland,” proclaimed Jonas, translated again by Michael. “I am the Archbishop of Bath and Wells in England, and I am upon a pilgrimage with my retinue to a monastery a short distance hence. I would prevail upon the hospitality of your lord or lady this night. Please bid them come down and receive us.” (BENNY)
The gate guards were somewhat taken aback and apparently revised their intent. They replied, with clearly unaccustomed deference, that an audience would be arranged. We were to enter the castle but must leave our arms in the cart before we proceeded. Our several swords of various descriptions, English bows, pistols and one large blunderbuss we left in Bob’s keeping upon the cart (the exception being my own Bohemian snaphaunce pistol which I had covertly transferred to the rear of my waistband).
We were shown in through oaken doors to the great hall of the castle, a place steeped in a rich legacy, with many tapestries and mediæval weapons upon the walls, and suits of armour which I recognized as deriving from the heyday of the Order of the Teutonic Knights’ rule over these lands. But in despite of these trappings and the fire crackling in the great hearth, the hall felt strangely forbidding and cold, somehow devoid of the liveliness that such a place should have.
Scarcely had we taken in the scene when the four guards drew steel. “Surrender or die!” grated their spokesman. As two of them held us at swords’ point, the other two produced ropes and indicated that they would bind our hands behind our backs. Jonas’ protests on our behalf were met grimly. “These are our orders. Shut your mouth or it will go the worse for you!”
Not without misgivings, but painfully aware of the great number of soldiers within call, we complied trusting that we would be freed as soon as we were able to speak to the szlachcianka herself. We were led through a doorway and, at the end of a short passage, down rough-hewn steps into the infamous Dungeon itself. The dank walls seemed to leech all warmth from the air, and by the light of guttering torches wide-spaced upon the walls we beheld a large chamber with cells upon either side holding a dozen young women in meagre rags.
|Upon a central table were arrayed a great range of instruments of torture, an iron maiden stood against one wall, its spiked-lined door flung back, and opposite it stood another, ominously closed and with scarlet blood oozing into a bowl at its foot. Before this, caressing it like a lover, stood a peculiarly beautiful young woman, her porcelain skin contrasting with the rich black of her garment. This then was the szlachcianka Katya, ‘the Devil’s Mistress’.|
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” recited Jonas in the manner of the papists, expecting to gain the sympathy of his Polish audience, but cut short by a cuff across the mouth. Clearly no Church held sway in this godforsaken place.
“Silence in our mistress’s’ presence!” barked the guard.
“This is an outrage!” he protested. “I am a bish– an Archbishop.” Under the cold scrutiny of the Devil’s Mistress he sought to suck in his considerable girth and draw himself up to his full height, meeting her gaze with all the dignity he could muster.
“Yes… a man will make a pleasing change to my Master’s tastes. Bring him.” She indicated the vacant iron maiden and turned away. Jonas gasped and briefly sought to resist as two of the guards roughly forced him forwards at the points of their swords.
“Danger…” murmured Tremayne, beginning to peer urgently about the chamber.
“Execute the others,” said the Devil’s Mistress coolly over her shoulder.
“No!” I gasped involuntarily, my reaction conveying as much to my companions as any translation. But then I recovered myself and feigned to command, “Stop! We are here from Countess Báthory of Hungary herself, the Master’s true chosen, who is displeased with you. Stop this, and thrown down your weapons!” I turned as I spoke, fixing my gaze especially upon the guard whose long sword was inches from my back. Though I gave the others in the Dungeon no pause, this one was daunted by the fierceness of my threat and his sword-tip sank to the ground as he looked to his mistress for directions.
Beside me Sam York moved too fast for the second guard to stop him, and swung his full weight around behind a great kick, but it went too high and his boot clunked harmlessly upon the man’s breastplate. Then Nick Hat was on the man too, a furious knee ramming his codpiece into his body so hard that he gave a strangled yelp and passed out in a heap on the flagged floor. (LOOSE SWORD!)
Tremayne twisted past the swordpoint of the other guard and flung himself upon him, ramming his forehead into the man’s face under the rim of his morion helmet. Kato meanwhile leapt in the air, his knees coming up practically to his ears, and when he landed lightly on his toes, his still-bound hands were now miraculously in front of him. But as he sprinted forward to garner a weapon of some sort from the grisly array of implements on the table the guard stepped away from Tremayne and lashed out, raking the tip of his long sword across Kato’s exposed back.
Jonas, meanwhile, took advantage of his two guards’ distraction and span his massive bulk around, sending one of them toppling back half into the waiting iron maiden. Unheeding of the other’s sword-stroke laying open his shoulder (BENNY) he tore across the room, bearing down upon the Devil’s Mistress. Given her surprise at this sudden resistance he was able to charge right into her before her snaking right hand could draw the cruel mace from her belt.
But the bishop’s soft belly pressing her against her beloved iron maiden only raised the Devil’s Mistress to dreadful ire. Her eyes verily burned like scarlet flame in the dungeon gloom and she spat at Jonas full in the face before trying to slash her long, claw-like fingernails across his cheek. Held in the moment, her spittle warm on the skin of his face, even the god-fearing bishop could not help feeling a sudden attraction to this female that was most unnerving…
(I HAVE MY PISTOL IN THE BACK OF MY BELT. AND A KNIFE IN MY WALLET.)