Featured Story: “The Hero of Madgeburg.”

The following story is a selection from World Unknown Review Volume III.

The Hero of Madgeburg
by Max D. Stanton

         Jan came out of oblivion with his head swimming and his ears ringing, surrounded by the mangled remains of his friends. He struggled for a moment to remember where he was, and then the Swedish cavalry charge came back to him in all its whinnying horror. The men trampled into the mud all around him had been some of the finest soldiers in the army of the Holy Roman Empire, but Luther’s bastards had undone them in a single pass.
         There was a dense stand of trees not fifty strides away, the perfect place to escape mounted troops, but Jan did not like the look of it. He saw something sinister in the way that the tree branches slowly swayed, as if they were beckoning him. At the Siege of Magdeburg, Jan had not hesitated to charge the breach in the Kröcken Gate and the forest of enemy pikes that lay beyond it, but this forest of harmless trees was giving him pause. He wondered if he had any other choice.
         Jan slowly allowed his aching head to loll to the side to get a better view of the battlefield without giving away that he was still drawing breath. Most of the Swedish troops had dismounted and were looting the dead and dying. Blonde buzzards. They had tied one of Jan’s comrades, a red-bearded Walloon whose name Jan had never learned, between two chargers. Someone fired a musket into the air and the riders set their mounts into gallops, such that the shrieking Walloon’s arms went in one direction and the rest of him was pulled off in the other. Into the woods it was.
         Jan pushed himself off the ground and darted for the trees, keeping low to avoid the enemy’s bullets. The thing he hated most about coming under fire was that one never knew where one might be hit, and that invested one’s whole body with a horrid, tingling sensitivity. Shouts and pops sounded from behind. Jan heard the bee-like sound of lead passing by, including one shot that came so close it seemed to pass through the back of his head, but he did not fall. Then he passed through the tree line, plunging headlong into the green and gloom.
         He heard his enemies pursuing, crashing through the brush and yelling to each other in their odd, sing-songy language, but unlike him, they were weighed down by heavy armor. Their guns would be useless at this range and with so much cover, and with his head start, he was sure that he could escape. He’d find some safe hiding spot, and as soon as night fell, he’d double back around and return to the Imperial lines. The Count of Tilly had to be warned that the enemy was so close and so formidable.
         He was not sure how long he ran or how far. Eventually, he came to a reeking brook coated in scum. He could barely even see the water beneath its blanket of slime and dead plants. There was a dead person in the water as well, a woman wearing nothing but a necklace of black and purple bruises around her pallid throat. She’d been a beauty once but wasn’t anymore. These days it was not a remarkable thing to come upon corpses. But then, as the languid current carried her downstream, she opened her eyes and mouth and began to sing in a voice that was hoarse but strong.

                 It was on a hot summer night
                 When the nightingales sang their sad tune
                 I went down to the river to see my true love
                 Beneath the light of the pale Harvest Moon.
                 Darling, oh darling, I cried,
                 Our love was too hasty and soon
                 In the spring, we first made our two bodies as one
                 And since then I’ve not bled with the moon.
                 But my lover, he held me so close
                 I remembered the sweetness of June
                 And he told me that he would make everything right
                 As the nightingales sang their sad tune.
                 Oh, how I blushed and I laughed
                 I thought I could hear wedding bells
                 Then my true love’s strong hands,
                 they wrapped ‘round my throat
                 And in his blue eyes I saw hell.
                 In terror, I tore at his hair
                 But my struggles did cease all too soon
                 And our poor little baby, it died in my womb
                 As the nightingales sang their sad tune.
                 My lover laid me on the banks
                 To do again what he first did in June
                 Then he set me adrift ‘midst the frogs and the snakes
                 While the nightingales sang their sad tune.
                 Oh, while the nightingales sang their sad tune.

         Jan gaped in horrified awe as the musical corpse floated past. He thought that he had already witnessed or participated in every variety of awfulness that this fallen world had to offer, but now he saw that had had been wrong. At Magdeburg, they had not left enough people living to bury the dead, so the surviving locals had unceremoniously dumped thousands of charred corpses into the Elbe River. On the march out of town, Jan had seen the legions of floating dead with fish and turtles bobbing up out of the depths to nibble and flies buzzing all about. It was a hideous sight, but those dead, at least, had not broken into song. Since then, any body of water larger than a puddle had made him anxious, and the taste of fish made him gag. Jan tried to cross himself, but his hand wouldn’t make the motions.
         His thoughts drifted back to the girl in the green dress at the wine shop. She must have ended up in the water as well, another delicacy for the trout. No, he didn’t want to think about that. The priest had absolved him of that, and besides, it hadn’t been a sin to begin with.
         The dead woman was going downstream, so Jan went upstream. Eventually he came to a narrow, arched stone bridge nearly as filthy with algae as the river itself. A large heap of rags and garbage lay at its far end. Jan started across so as to put the river between himself and any Swedes that might still be in pursuit, but as he reached the opposite bank, the pile of rags coughed and rose, taking on the form of a man, if one used the term loosely. The bridgekeeper was tall and broad-shouldered but hunched over such that his fingers nearly scraped the ground. His posture reminded Jan of an ape he’d seen once, chained to a wandering juggler, except that the bridgekeeper was much larger and nobody would pay to see him exhibited. The man’s face was masked beneath a burlap cowl. He held out a thick, four-fingered hand wrapped in dirty bandages. His other hand held a hatchet.
         “Four pennies to cross into the Lady’s Wood,” the bridge keeper said. His voice was low and raspy, and he spoke an odd dialect that Jan hadn’t heard before, understandable but only barely so. “One for each of the Lady’s maidservants and the fourth for little old me.”
         War bred this sort of scum like rotten meat bred maggots, bandits with no allegiance to any cause, king, or general but themselves. Ordinarily, Jan would have never consented to pay this villain’s toll, but ordinarily, Jan carried a sword and a musket. He’d broken off his sword in a Protestant’s ribs during a skirmish that morning, and he’d lost his gun somehow during the charge. He still had his favorite knife on his belt and more good Toledo steel in a sheath in his boot, but he didn’t relish the concept of a fight to death for four pennies. Four pennies seemed a reasonable price for avoiding a scrap with this brute, especially given how bloody the day had been already. And in any case, he had gotten rich in the sack of Magdeburg. Jan reached for the sack of gold that he kept around his neck and was appalled to find that it was gone. It must have been torn off of him somehow during the day’s fighting. Maybe one of the Swedes had taken it away while he was knocked senseless. In any case, all of the fighting and killing and suffering had been for nothing. Not nothing, exactly. There was the rightness of the cause to consider, but you couldn’t buy anything with rightness.
         Without making any overt move towards violence, Jan let his right hand hang down near his belt knife. “I don’t have even one penny on me, brother,” he said. “Let me across, and put the four pennies on Emperor Ferdinand’s bill.”
         “No Emperor in these woods,” the bridge keeper replied. “Only the Lady rules here.”
         Jan wrapped his fingers across the knife’s hilt.
         “I’m a sensible man,” the bridge keeper said. “If you don’t have any money, we can strike a deal. Let’s just leave the Lady’s maidservants out of it, and settle up directly between the two of us.” The bridge keeper rubbed himself indecently with his deformed paw and raised his hatchet.
         Jan drew his knife and slashed horizontally, tearing the bridge keeper’s throat open. The man did not drop his axe or even lower it, but his next heartbeat sent a gusher of bright red blood spurting out of the wound. He put his free hand to his neck as if attempting to hold it shut and brought the hatchet down with surprising strength. Jan barely dodged a blow that would have cleaved his head in two if it had connected. There was another heartbeat, another spurt of blood, and the bridge keeper raised his hatchet again.
         Jan thrust forward this time, punching the tip of his blade straight into his enemy’s heart. The bridge keeper’s axe tumbled from his fingers and clattered on the stone. The man let out a wet wheeze and dropped.
         Jan cleaned off his knife using the dead man’s rags—well, wiped the blood off, anyway; you couldn’t clean anything using those rags—and put the weapon back in its sheath on his belt. How many times had that blade saved his life now? Just then, he heard shouts and horses. He looked down at the fallen bridge keeper. So that his enemies couldn’t follow him by the trail of the dead, he hoisted the man up with a mighty effort and rolled him over the side of the bridge into the water, where he disappeared with a splash. Maybe soon he’d be singing a song about the brave soldier who had killed him. Jan then ran to the far side of the bridge and ducked underneath it as four Swedish riders appeared from the direction of the battle.
         There was a crude camp down here, but Jan had no time to take the details in. He dove to the ground, taking cover in a patch of tall grass, and watched his enemies pass by. The Swedes paraded by the bank of the river, peering over to the side where Jan lay hiding. Despite their advantage in numbers, arms and mounts, they seemed apprehensive. One of them pointed to the spot on the bridge where Jan and the bridge keeper had fought, and Jan realized that they’d probably spotted the blood. Tossing the scoundrel in the drink had been a useless effort after all. The horsemen consulted amongst themselves and then rode on without crossing. Jan rose up from the grass, feeling relief for the first time that day. He couldn’t figure out why the riders had departed so rapidly even after catching his trail. Perhaps they’d decided that the prey wasn’t worth the chase. Perhaps they didn’t want to give their comrades time to snatch up all the good loot from the battlefield. In any case, best not to question good fortune.
         On the subject of loot, Jan looked around the bandit’s camp to see if there was anything that might help him on his journey back to friendly territory, food especially. He hadn’t eaten since early that morning, and the day’s trials had set his stomach growling.
         He quickly realized that there wouldn’t be much to plunder here. Jan saw a few crumpled blankets so filthy that he wouldn’t have put them on a horse, a heaping midden overrun by rats, and a tin pot suspended over some smoking coals by a crude tripod of sticks and twine.
         Jan thought he smelled cooking pork as he approached the pot, and his mouth began to water. But when he looked inside, he retched and bile rose up into his throat. The pot was full of a greasy brown stew, made up of chopped turnips, weedy wilted greens, and two severed human hands. Jan inspected the midden pile. Scattered amongst the remains of a deer and a mischief of busy rats, he saw human bones and matted clothing. The bones were scraped by teeth marks, and many of them had been cracked to get at the marrow. At least one of the monster’s victims had been an Imperial soldier like himself, for Jan saw some clothes similar to his own mixed in amongst the refuse. Jan was profoundly glad that he had killed the bridge keeper rather than giving the creature any tribute. Even in wartime, when a great many sins were permissible, this was disgraceful and sick and wrong.
         Suddenly, there was a splash from the direction of the river, and something hit Jan hard from behind, knocking him down into the refuse heap. The rats scattered, chirping in offense as their banquet was broken up. Before Jan could move, the bridge keeper was atop him, heavy as a boulder, dripping and slimy from his dip in the river. He locked one of his hands around Jan’s throat in a noose-like grip, and with the other, he pulled Jan’s belt off and tossed it away. Then he began ripping Jan’s pants open. Jan scrabbled at the bridge keeper’s face, tearing his hood away, and what he saw beneath it would have made him scream if he could get any air into his lungs.
         The creature beneath the cowl was not human, but he couldn’t have been an animal, either, because Jan was sure its like had never gamboled in Eden. The juggler’s ape had been a more artful parody of man. The bridge keeper had gnarled, bestial features with a boar-like jaw, a blood-red protuberance of puffballs and pustules that might have been a nose, and sunken yellow eyes with no pupils in them. He was covered in patches of wiry black hair that crawled with lice the size of grasshoppers. “Hello, little darling, how about a kiss for the hero of Magdeburg?” the creature hissed.
         The words sent a jet of ice through Jan’s veins. The troll leaned forward, forcing his cold, swollen, drowned-man’s tongue down Jan’s throat.
         Jan tore at the troll’s face and neck, and his fingers hooked into the monster’s open wound. Jan reached inside, grabbed at whatever meat he could get hold of, and pulled, yanking the troll’s tongue out of his own mouth and through the cut, leaving it to dangle like a grotesque neckerchief.
         Jan managed to get his legs up under his attacker and kicked him away with an enormous effort, knocking him back into the river. He drew the knife in his boot and leapt onto his foe, driving the blade down into one of the troll’s eyes with a powerful overhand thrust. Then he gave the same treatment to the other. The blinded bastard bellowed out of both the old mouth in his face and the new one in his neck, tongue lapping against his collarbone, and lashed out with a backhanded blow that sent Jan sprawling. He rose from the reeds and staggered towards Jan with his eyes running down his cheeks like gruesome tears, the hilt of the boot knife still sticking out one of his eye sockets.
         Jan backed away from his enemy and picked up two large, pointed rocks. He tossed one of them into the river. As the troll turned towards the splash, Jan caved in the crown of the monster’s skull with the other.
         The troll stumbled beneath the blow but still did not fall even though his brains were leaking out of him. That was fine with Jan. He wanted to hit the son of a bitch some more.
         By the time the troll went down and stayed down, Jan’s arm was burning, and he was covered in cold sweat and hot blood. But somehow the abominable, deathless creature was still breathing, and its arms and legs were still moving weakly.
         “Why did you say that to me?” Jan asked the troll. “About Magdeburg?” The troll gurgled something, but Jan realized that asking questions of this thing was futile. Even if he tried to answer, his tongue wasn’t in his mouth anymore.
         There was another axe down here, lying by the midden. Jan picked it up and brought it down across the troll’s neck with the same even swing that he used to chop firewood. A satisfying jolt ran through his forearms as he decapitated the beast. The bridge keeper’s awful, ruined face continued to twitch and grimace, though, and his arms and legs continued to writhe. Jan carefully dismembered his fallen enemy, and even after he was hacked into six pieces, all of the pieces continued to move independently of each other, like a worm cut in two. Jan tossed the limbs into the river one by one, being careful to put some distance between them. The arms still tried to grasp for his throat while Jan was throwing them away. Jan dropped the head into the human stew, even as it tried to bite at his hands. Then he fed coals into the fire beneath the cooking pot until its contents were bubbling.
         At first, Jan had thought that he could shelter here until nightfall, but now he knew to a certainty that he didn’t want to be in this forest after dark. The main Imperial force was camped miles away to the east. He and his fallen comrades had been sent out from it on their ill-fated expeditionary mission, and now he was the only one left who could report on what the expedition had found. Jan walked away from the setting sun, and while he moved at a rapid pace, the woods seemed to go on endlessly. He was sure he would have reached civilization by now or at least what was left of civilization after more than a decade of war. On the previous day’s march, he had passed through any number of sacked towns and burned fields. Now there was only forest primeval. No sign of Adam’s children at all. The shadows were getting long, and he was getting desperate.
         Just as the sun was setting, he reached a meadow where a lovely young maid was gathering blackberries. He expected her to scream for help and run in terror at the first sight of him—that was the only sensible reaction for a lone girl encountering a bloody and bedraggled soldier like himself—but instead, she smiled. “What do we have here?” she asked. “A brave Catholic knight back from the war?”
         He was just a lowly foot soldier but saw no reason to correct her. “Yes,” he said. “I need to get out of these woods and get a message to my general. In the name of—in the name . . . please help me.” He had wanted to say, “In the name of God, please help me,” but his tongue could no more pronounce the name of the Almighty than his hand could make the sign of the cross.
         The maid stroked his cheek tenderly, even though his beard was full of mud and clotted troll blood. “Of course I’ll help, you poor man,” she said. “I know a place nearby where you can rest. It’s so calm and peaceful you’ll forget you ever went to war. No more fighting now, my sweet knight. No more struggling. Just follow me.”
         Jan had not cried since he was a child. Indeed, he’d thought his last tears had been beaten out of him in boyhood, as if he were a cloth that had been wrung out. Even when burying old friends or suffering miserably from wounds or on the black nights that followed a defeat, he’d maintained a manful composure. But now that he was confronted by this sweet, kind girl after the hell he’d been through—and the hellish things he’d done—the tears welled out of him like the waters of the Great Flood. The maiden wrapped her soft white arms around him as he sank to his knees weeping.
         When he had recovered sufficiently to stand, the girl took him by his bloody right hand and led him through the forest, following a stream that ended at a steep, mossy hill. A waterfall streamed down the hillside, feeding into the stream and throwing off mist and rainbows in the red light of dusk. It was very nearly as beautiful a sight as the maiden.
         Ancient, worn stone blocks had been pressed into the side of the mound to make a crude staircase, but even with those, Jan had to use both his hands and feet to ascend. “Is your home atop this hill?” he asked the girl as they climbed.
         “The whole forest is my home,” the girl said gaily. “But this is the part of it that I like best.”
         “Where is your father?”
         “In hell.”
         The casual tone of her response set Jan aback. He couldn’t imagine his own father singing amongst the choir eternal, lazy, heavy-handed bully that he’d been, but paternal damnation wasn’t the sort of thing one shared with strangers. “Your brothers?”
         “I don’t have any. I have two sisters, though. They live with me in the forest. You might meet them later on.”
         “But how do you and your sisters survive here without anyone to watch over you? How do you keep the wolves away at night?”
         The girl laughed. “Are you volunteering to be our bodyguard? There’s no need. All things that live beneath these trees serve the Lady of the Wood—wolves included—and they would never harm us without her leave.”
         So despite her seeming piety, the girl had some heathen in her as well. It was like that with so many country folk. They’d keep a cross in the right hand and a sprig of mistletoe in the left. But better to be half good Christian and half pagan than to be a Protestant, and damned in the entirety.
         “What do you do about the two-legged wolves, then?” he asked. “Bandits, soldiers, and the like.”
         “Men like you? Oh, don’t look so sad. I was just teasing. The truth is that I do have a protector. Brucellus is his name. Whenever I’m in the slightest danger, Brucellus comes galloping to my side — so don’t think about any funny business, my knight.” She winked at Jan and smiled again. “I’m a virgin and I think Brucellus aims to keep me one forever. Hush now, we’re almost at the top.”
         The forest was alive with the cries of little creatures and the conspiratorial whispering of the wind and the trees, but silence reigned at the top of the hill. A ring of tall stone slabs covered in moss and pagan runes stood vigil around a steaming hot spring. The spring’s waters trickled over down the edge of the hill to feed the waterfall. The girl led Jan to the edge of the spring and peeled away the ragged clothes that were nearly glued to his body with mud and blood and sweat. Jan glimpsed uneasily at the standing stones around him and stepped into the bath. Immediately, he felt a soothing relief and refreshment so welcome that he nearly burst into tears again. The water around him darkened as his coating of filth dissolved. He dunked his head beneath the steamy water and scrubbed the dirt and gore away.
         When he emerged, the girl was kneeling at the edge of the spring. She put her hands on his bare shoulders and massaged them. Her hands were soft for a peasant girl. “My bold Catholic knight,” she purred, nibbling at his earlobe with her sharp little teeth in a way that brought equal parts pain and pleasure. “My big, strong man. My hero of Magdeburg.”
         Jan started and pushed the girl off of him. There was no way she could know about that. “What did you say?” he demanded. “Why did you call me that?”
         Just then, he saw that, behind the girl, a creature was pacing at the edge of the stone circle. In the same way that the troll had shared the basic shape of a man while being entirely wrong in the particulars, so this thing aped the stallion. The monster had eight muscular legs ending in sharp, jagged hooves that tore the earth apart as he walked, a lean trunk covered in matted white fur, and a wild mane of red spines like a fire coursing along his head and neck. Most of the beast’s head was concealed beneath a drooping sac of tumorous yellow flesh at the center of his forehead, but Jan could see a dozen or more milky white eyes scattered about the sides of his head like boils. He made a rasping noise like metal scraping metal as he walked, and he drooled white foam from his toothy muzzle.
         The girl, noticing Jan’s terror, turned around and saw the intruder. “Oh,” she said casually. “Brucellus is here. He must think you’re a threat to my virtue.” She laughed, making a sound like tinkling bells.
         Brucellus pawed the ground, spraying up clods of black dirt, and roared louder than cannon fire. The flaccid yellow sac on his forehead rose up twitching and stiffened into a long and vicious spear. Then the unicorn lowered his head to charge.
         Jan scrambled dripping out of the spring, shoving the girl aside, and ran for the closest edge of the hill. It was too steep to descend without falling to his death, but there was a thick tree branch just beyond its edge. Jan took a running leap of faith and latched onto the limb. He hung there naked, dangling in mid-air over a long drop with his feet kicking at nothingness. He glanced back towards the hill. Brucellus was pacing back and forth at the spot Jan had just jumped from, trying to reach out with his horn to prod Jan off of the branch. The tip of the unicorn’s horn danced just inches from Jan’s bare ribs. It looked as sharp as any sword. The diabolical virgin was still sitting at the edge of the hot spring, watching the scene unfold with a devilish grin on her red lips. “Get him, Brucellus!” she cried.
         Jan heard the sound of wood cracking and felt a stomach-churning jolt that nearly pried his arms apart. He looked over and saw with horror that the branch he clung to was buckling beneath his weight.
         He heard another crack, louder this time, like shattering bone, and Jan tumbled screaming. Pain clubbed him across his midsection as he fell onto a lower branch, and the wood cracked again, and he fell again. The branches struck him over and over as he plummeted, as if the tree itself was trying to beat the life out of him from daring to seek shelter in it. Then he hit the stream, dropping through the water to embed in the suffocating mud at the bottom. He could not see; he could not breathe. He struggled against the mud, but the harder he fought, the more it sucked him in. Somehow he managed to pull himself free of it and shot up for the surface, his lungs screaming for air. He washed up against the bank, coughing and sputtering and astonished to still be alive.
         At the top of the hill, the unicorn roared again. He crawled down the waterfall like a spider, his legs spread at angles utterly unlike that of any horse, screaming in rage as he darted through the rainbows. Jan pulled his aching body out of the water and fled for his life.
         He didn’t dare to look back, but he could hear the jealous monster behind him, snarling and whinnying as he crashed through the woods. In a forest this dense, Brucellus couldn’t break into a full gallop, but he was still a horse—or at least a horse-like thing—and Jan was still a man, and the ultimate outcome of the race was not in doubt. Finally, Jan could take it no more. He looked over his shoulder and saw the demon steed almost atop of him, thrusting his yellow lance towards Jan’s shoulders. Jan dove away from the unicorn, back into the river.
         The current was swift and powerful at this spot, and Jan, who had never been a strong swimmer, was quickly carried away by it. It pounded him mercilessly against sharp rocks and pulled him beneath the surface again and again to choke him on the foul water. Sometimes he thought he saw burned bodies being swept through the river alongside him or felt their lifeless hands grasping at him from below. Then the motion ceased, and all was cold and dark.
         Jan lay still as a dead man until he realized that he had washed up on the riverbank at a bend. He crawled onto dry land, vomiting mud and water, and pulled himself onto his feet. Dazed, exhausted, and in tremendous pain, he staggered blindly onwards through the woods until eventually he fell into unconsciousness.
         Jan awoke to the piercing, penetrating pain of a spear going into his belly. He screamed, clutching at himself with one hand to try to keep his guts inside and pushing away with the other in a feeble attempt to push the unicorn away. To his surprise, he did not feel the slippery meat of intestines beneath the one hand, nor did he grasp the unicorn’s terrible horn in the other. He opened his eyes and found himself whole and alone. It was morning, and Brucellus was nowhere in sight. The pain in his belly was from hunger and perhaps disease from drinking too much of that filthy river water. But hunger and disease could kill him just as surely as the unicorn, if more slowly and perhaps more horribly. He had not eaten since before the battle, and the battle seemed like it had been hundreds of years ago in a distant land. Hunger was sucking his strength so greedily that just getting to his feet made him dizzy.
         He had passed out by the side of a road—a mean little dirt road, but a road nonetheless. A road was sure to lead to a town, and in a town, there’d be food to beg or steal. Clothes, too. His body was torn and muddy from his flight through the woods, the work of his brief bath completely undone and more, and cold dew clung to him, penetrating deep inside and making every joint ache.
         He stumbled down the path drunk from fatigue, leaning on trees for support. More than once, he fell and thought he would not rise again, but some inward reserve of will or desperation kept him going on. If he had to die, let it at least be in a bed and in a place where his body might have a Christian burial. Not in this goddamned forest. All thought of getting back to the Imperial lines was gone; now it would be sufficient just to get beneath a roof. But he came across no sign of civilization during his wanderings, and he did not see another soul until sunset, when he came across a tonsured monk.
         At first, Jan thought the monk to be a trick of his exhausted mind, but the man raised his hand in greeting when Jan raised his, and when Jan fell into the monk’s arms, the arms held him up. Jan was about to kiss the crucifix that the monk wore about his neck but held back when got a good look at it. The half-flayed little wooden savior pinned to the cross was frozen in extremes of unendurable agony, shrieking mutely, his eyes rolling back into his head insanely, more like an animal dying in a trap than the Son of God at his moment of triumph. But the monk’s smooth, almost babyish face was not unkind, and he did not seem taken aback by Jan’s nakedness. “You seem weary, child,” the monk said wryly.
         Jan broke down in sobs. “Help me, Father, help me, please . . .”
         The monk sat Jan down in the shade of a tree and gave him a drink of water. Then he retrieved a satchel full of mushrooms from beneath his robes. “I’m afraid I don’t have much for you, my friend, but hopefully these will keep you going. I picked them myself. Take as many as you want.” The satchel was empty a moment later, and Jan’s mouth was full. The mushrooms were raw and had a faint sourness to them, but they were delicious regardless. “That was quick,” the monk said indulgently. “But then, they say that hunger is the best spice.”
         “Thank you so much, Father. You’ve saved my life.”
         “We’re coming to a place where you can get much better fare than that. Are you feeling strong enough to walk with me a little while? It’s not much farther.”
         “What’s not much farther? I’m lost.”
         The monk chuckled. “So are we all. I’m going to hear mass at the village down the road. Come along with me. It won’t do to be late.”
         Jan’s head began to feel very queer. His jaw tightened into a rictus, and he broke into a cold sweat. Faerie lights danced at the edge of his field of vision, but when he tried to look at them directly, they vanished. Up in the sky, the stars shot back and forth as if the war in heaven had resumed, and both sides had broken out their artillery. Jan wondered if the mushrooms he’d gobbled had actually been good to eat. Or perhaps he was considering the matter backwards, and they were the only good mushrooms to eat. Faint shrieks echoed from deep within the woods. Jan heard laughter as well and was surprised when he realized that he was making the sounds himself. Meanwhile, the puny Christ on the smiling monk’s chest writhed and squeaked, fresh red paint spilling from His lovingly carved wounds.
         Traffic began to pick up as it got dark, and Jan marveled at what a singular group of celebrants this remote service was attracting. On the road, he saw richly attired merchants, their fingers and necks glittering with wealth—Jan would never wear gold on his fingers, he’d seen too many rings removed by amputation—and starveling peasants, still crusted with dung and mud from their fields. He saw princes and belled lepers walking side by side, conversing in a spirit of equality. He saw white-bearded elders in velvet robes adorned with stars and planets, and Moors as naked as himself but for garish paint on their bodies. Werewolves and satyrs capered down the road, and Jan recoiled in terror from these goblins until he saw that they were wearing masks and animal skins. Painted mimes and jugglers and dwarves in motley circulated as if escorting the pilgrims towards a carnival, and Jan got the loose, crazy feeling in his gut that he sometimes felt at the commencement of a sack, the sensation of being in a place and time where all of the rules have been suspended. He walked amongst the weird pilgrims entranced.
         Jan dreamed a waking dream that he was flying high above the forest. In formation alongside him flew hundreds of naked witches, their bodies slick with bloody, pungent grease, straddling shovels and broomsticks and butter churns. Looking down, he saw that the forest was a vast, slow-moving whirlpool, and even up in the sky, Jan was swept along in its swirling, spiral current just as he’d been swept along in the current of the river. He was being carried towards the center.
         A clap on his shoulder pulled him out of the dream. “Hey, friend, we’re here,” the monk said, beaming. Jan blinked in confusion. He was on the road again. There was nobody present but himself and the monk. He looked into the sky, but there were no airborne witches there, only some geese on a moonlit flight. Geese were mean birds, but Jan did not believe them to be Satanic in nature. He would have to ask a learned priest. It was a good thing that he was traveling with one.
         “Was I just flying?” Jan asked.
         The monk only shook his head at this. “Those mushrooms got right on top of you, didn’t they?” he asked. “You shouldn’t have eaten all of them.”
         “Do geese serve the devil?”
         The monk stroked his chin and considered the question thoughtfully. “They say that Francis of Assisi preached the gospel to the birds of the field,” he said. “But it stands to reason that some of them didn’t listen to the rubbish that he was selling. Don’t worry about it, there are more pressing matters for us to consider right now than the cosmic allegiance of waterfowl. Look yonder.”
         Up ahead was a village so rustic that it seemed a barbarous relic, really little more than a cluster of rude wooden shacks and some fields hacked out of the forest. The village itself was totally still and dark, a bonfire was glowing in one of the fields, and Jan heard distant flutes and drums.
         “It’s almost midnight,” the monk said. “The mass is just about to begin.”
         There was no altar in the field, or at least none that Jan could recognize as such. Rather, there was a platform of carved black rock, similar to the obelisks on the unicorn hill but broad and flat enough to use as a stage. The villagers had built an enormous, crackling pyre behind this platform, sending columns of sparks swirling through the night sky. Even at a distance, the flames prickled Jan’s bare skin. But while the flames gave off much heat and smoke, they produced little light, and most of the festival grounds were shrouded in darkness.
         For a moment, the feel of the heat and the smell of the smoke transported Jan back to the fall of Magdeburg once more. He and his now-dead friends swaggered down a cobblestone street together while the city burned to the ground around them, as if their very presence was immolating the enemy. They were laughing, joking, cheering, all of them drunk as lords on beer and victory, with plunder in their knapsacks and blood on their hands. Jan had begun that day doubting if he would be alive to see nightfall, but at that moment, he had felt more alive than he ever had before. Whatever else became of him, he’d always be the first man who passed through the Kröcken Gate. Then he thought about what he done later that fateful day, and it threw him back into the present.
         The villagers had set up long wooden tables all around the bonfire. The monk led Jan over to one of these tables and found him a seat. The queer feeling in Jan’s head was starting to subside, and the anarchic feeling in his gut that he sometimes felt at the commencement of a sack was giving way to the sick, guilty feeling that he always felt at the end of one. The trance broke. He was in the midst of something terribly wrong.
         The flutes and drums rose to a fevered pitch, and the shadowy crowd fell still. The monk leaned over and whispered into Jan’s ear. “Midnight at last,” he said eagerly. “Now the magna mater will take to the stage, and the black mass will commence.”
         A grotesquely pregnant woman mounted the stone platform, wearing a white gown and a crown of jewels and antlers. Two attendants in black robes and tall pointed hoods stood at her flanks, their sex and age obscured by their occult outfits. The mother raised her arms, and her escorts cut her gown away with razors. Her bare, distended belly undulated hideously, as if whatever was inside her was thrashing to escape. It seemed of a size where it might hold an entire litter of infants. “It is time for the Lord of the Sabbath to be born,” she cried.
         The attendants helped the mother onto her back and then pulled her legs apart, displaying her hairy sex to the celebrants. Blood and pus and ichor bubbled out of it, and the earth itself quaked in rhythm with her fat, quivering thighs. The unseen musicians began to blow their pipes and beat their drums in accompaniment with her pushing, a throbbing, hideous music that made the blood in Jan’s temples pound.
         The magna mater screamed in pain and triumph, and a wet, tarry mass spurted out of her. The unnatural fetus unfolded before Jan’s appalled eyes, repeatedly twisting in on itself, dividing twice as big as it had been before, and taking on a more definite and blasphemous form with each repetition. Misshapen arms and legs and raven wings sprouted. A goatish, leering face emerged from its trunk, gradually migrating up above its shoulders as it melted back in on itself and reformed, until at last it was perched above the demon’s shoulders atop a long neck. When at last it finished, it was a giant, taller and more powerfully muscled than any man Jan had ever seen. It sat cross-legged between its mother’s spread-open knees, its left arm pointed downwards and its right arm pointed skywards and its wings spread wide behind it in vicious mockery of the angel that it once had been. Its piss-yellow eyes slid open, the sideways lids splitting from side to side, and it smiled. If there had been anything of substance in Jan’s stomach, he would have vomited. The gathered worshippers burst into braying cheers.
         “Let the Sabbath begin,” the demon commanded.
        In the blink of an eye, the empty tables filled up with every good thing to eat and many bad things besides. There was buttered bread and flagons of beer, a dozen varieties of cheese and more of sausage, savory stews, delicate sliced meats, pickles and jams and fruit and cakes. Jan would have killed for fare like this when he was in the army. In fact, he had killed for meals much worse than this one, but now, even in his state of near-starvation, he had no appetite at all. For in addition to the food, there were also candied roaches and platters of fried rats and clay pots brimming with piping-hot shit and worse things yet. A roast baby and a roast piglet both gleaming with cooked fat were impaled on the same skewer, little nose pressed against little snout. The monk tore off a haunch of child and tucked into it greedily, the juices running down his pink chin. “A much better spread than a pocketful of mushrooms, eh?” he asked with a wink, spraying half-chewed bits of flesh as he spoke. The band struck up a new song, a melody of maniacally insistent fiddles to provide a fitting musical accompaniment to the ghoulish celebration. Sitting before the bonfire, the Lord of the Sabbath cast a long shadow over all in attendance.
         Jan sat frozen in place, trying to think of some way out of this horrific revel that would not forfeit his life or his soul. He tried not to look at the demon, but it kept on catching his eye. If thy eye offends thee, pluck it out, and cast it into the fire. How lucky there was a big fire already lit. Jan took hold of a long golden serving fork and pondered whether he had the strength to drive it through his own neck. Suicide was a grave sin, of course, but was it a graver sin than enduring this company for a moment longer?
         The Lord of the Sabbath sniffed the air. “Halt!” it commanded, its voice booming like incoming artillery, and the witches stopped their feasting and fornication. “There is one amongst us who does not belong . . . the one whom this very forest was planted for. A soldier of the Holy Roman Empire, naked as the day he was born, sad and alone even in the midst of our jolly company.” The demon lingered on the words “Holy Roman Empire” as if enjoying their flavor. “I will not suffer any man to be unhappy at my Sabbath. Bring him here.”
         The monk seized Jan’s arm, and without thinking, Jan plunged the fork into the man’s round belly. Not long ago, he’d have killed the bastard with a single thrust, but weakened as he was, all he managed was to give him a nasty poke. But it was enough to make the monk let go and set the cannibal howling. Jan drew on what little strength he still possessed to shove the table over, capsizing the wretched feast and buying himself a little chaos in which to run.
         Jan sprinted back for the darkened village with all the hosts of hell in pursuit. His bare, swollen feet were in terrible pain, and yet he forced them on, and they made him stumble as if seeking retribution against their cruel taskmaster. Shadowy figures bearing burning brands were closing in on him from all directions, a hundred baleful fires dancing in the night. Somehow he reached an abandoned inn. Stumbling blindly through the darkness, he found an empty barrel and climbed inside it to hide.
         At Magdeburg, the smoke of the burning city had parched his throat, so he’d kicked in the door of a wine shop while his friends went on to loot a church. While he was draining a bottle of something sweet and fruity, he’d heard a muffled cough from the rear of the shop. There, hiding inside a barrel like a rare vintage being saved for a special celebration, he’d found the girl in the green dress. As she looked up at him with her big brown doe eyes, Jan had felt a sudden, intense appreciation for the goodness and beauty of creation. To think that God had made anything as lovely as her . . . and then put her at his disposal. He was good to His servants indeed.
         “Hello, little darling,” he said as he pulled her out of her hiding spot. “How about a kiss for the hero of Magdeburg?” He had stabbed her with one of his weapons and then with another and gathered more wine for his comrades as the girl bled out sobbing.
         Later, sick with shame and a crippling hangover, he’d made confession to one of the itinerant lowborn priests who followed in the army’s train with the cooks and fences and prostitutes. The cleric told him that he’d done nothing wrong since this was a just war in defense of Christendom, but he could say some Hail Marys if he wanted, and that’d be two thalers. The price of confessions had risen since the sack.
         Now it was Jan hiding in the wine barrel awaiting his doom. As he lay curled up inside it, desperately afraid and lonely, he couldn’t stop wondering if this was what it had been like for her. For so long, he’d been able to keep her ghost out of his thoughts, but now he found that he couldn’t think about anything else.
         It was getting warm inside the barrel. In fact, it was beginning to feel like he had hidden inside of an oven. Smoke seeped into the barrel until his lungs could no longer cope, and he was seized by a coughing fit. When the lid came off, he thought he saw his own face grinning down at him.
         The man who’d found him kicked the barrel over, and Jan spilled out of it onto the dirt floor. Three witches stood over him, richly attired in capes of black and red velvet with bejeweled clasps. Each of them wore a leather mask with an animal’s face: an owl, a toad, and a rat, respectively. By now, Jan had no fight at all left in him. It was almost a relief to be found. Almost. Without a word, they seized him, tying ropes around his throat and wrists and waist, and so bound, they took him up and led him away.
         The witches were burning the whole village just as the Imperials had burned Magdeburg. Even if he’d somehow escaped from the inn, he’d have only found himself walled in by fire. The heat and smoke were even more suffocating than they’d been in the barrel; Jan thought he might pass out, but no such relief was forthcoming. His pursuers mobbed him as the owl, the toad, and the rat led him out of the flames and back to the witches’ Sabbath. They taunted him in a hundred different tongues, slapping him, biting him, spitting on him, pulling at his hair, and Jan could not even cry out to God to ask why he had been forsaken. But he didn’t need to ask; he knew why he was damned.
         The Sabbath-ground was more subdued by the time they returned to it. It was mostly deserted but for shadows flickering at the edge of the firelight and some prone, groaning forms, exhausted or mortally wounded in the revels. Now the band was playing a soft, weird dirge, accompanied by an invisible choir singing in Latin. The owl, the toad, and the rat dragged Jan into an audience with the demon. The Antichrist was still seated before the dwindling bonfire with its whorish mother seated in its lap and fondling it indecently. Her sex was caked with blood and sulfur from the birthing. Jan knew that he couldn’t face these two directly without forfeiting whatever remained of his mind, so for the sake of his sanity, he looked into the dirt at their feet.
         “What shall we do with him this time, Mother?” the demon asked. Up close, its voice was much like that of the lowborn priest who’d absolved him after Magdeburg, except that the demon seemed sober.
         “Let’s bring him to my sister,” the satanic slattern said. “I think the Lady of the Wood would enjoy seeing him while he’s still alive for a change.”
         “You heard her!” the demon roared to the three masked witches. “Get moving!”
         The morning star was beginning to peek over the horizon as they reached their destination, a crumbling, half-rotted shack in a dark and gloomy grove. Dozens of little lights twinkled in the trees. Jan thought these were fireflies at first, until he saw that they did not flit about. As they got closer, he saw that the trees around the cabin were hung with tiny wicker cages, and in each cage a tiny skeleton was confined, and in each baby skull a ghostly light shone. A cold breeze whistled through the trees, rattling the cages and the bones, and carrying the sickly-sweet, rotten-flesh odor of war from someplace upwind.
         The door to the shack opened with a creak, and a wizened female figure tottered out of it, using a gnarled stick as a cane. Jan had once seen a corpse that had fallen into a bog and been pickled there. The crone was in somewhat worse condition. When she saw Jan, she broke into a gummy grin. Most of her teeth were gone, and the few that remained were brown and broken. “The hero of Magdeburg,” she croaked. “You’ve come back to me again. It’s been decades since I’ve seen you breathing. Usually, you’re brought to me in worse condition than this.”
         Jan steeled up what remained of his courage to address her. “I’ve never met you before,” he said, although in truth, she did seem familiar. “How does everyone in these woods know that I fought at Magdeburg?”
         The crone cackled hoarsely, a sound like a strangling. “Explaining it to you is my favorite part of the cycle,” she said. “I love the look you get on your face.” She took his three leashes from the three masked witches. “Come along. It’ll all make good sense once you see the Lady of the Wood.”
         Despite her age and apparent decrepitude, the hag was as strong as the troll, and she dragged Jan along through brambles and thistles to a clearing where only one tree stood. It was a willow, enormous but gnarled and diseased. More than a hundred corpses hung from its branches, and each one of the corpses was Jan. Barely any two of the doppelgangers had perished in the same way; there were some with their bellies opened up and their guts hanging out of them, and some pierced with daggers or swords or spears, some partially devoured by wild beasts and some beheaded and hung upside down by their ankles. Some had been burnt up into blackened cinders, and some were purple and bloated from drowning. Some had been torn apart with such savage thoroughness that they were no longer recognizable except by a purple birthmark on Jan’s right shoulder, and the pieces left of them were dangling from hooks like sides of beef at a butcher’s shop. All of their faces were frozen in expressions of unendurable terror and agony, at least all of the ones who had any faces left. Blood and little gobbets of liquefying flesh dripped down from them like rain. The thick, black soil around the tree was littered with bones and with dead Jans so rotten they had slipped out of their nooses and were turning into dirt to feed the hungry roots. Jan dropped to his knees, sinking into the humus of his own decaying bodies. “What is this?” he gasped.
         “This is the Lady of the Wood,” the hag said. “Don’t tell me that you’ve forgotten her.”
         At this, Jan realized that the whorls and gnarls of the willow’s trunk made up a screaming face, dripping with crimson sap — and that the screaming face was that of the girl in the green dress, just as he’d seen her last. It was as if she’d fallen beneath the gaze of a woodland Medusa. The leaves were even the exact shade of her garment before he had stained it red.
         The crone dragged Jan beneath the tree and tossed the other end of the rope around his neck up over a low-hanging branch. The toad took a hold of it and yanked downwards, pulling Jan up onto his toes. The crone bent over, muttering about an ache in her back, and took a rusty knife from the belt of one of the rotten Jans.
        “Please . . . no . . .” Jan begged. “Don’t kill me.”
        The crone let loose her barking laugh again. Jan felt a flash of pain, and sticky warmth ran down his bare chest as she sliced off one of his nipples and then tossed it into her mouth to gum on. “We’re far too late for that, my sweet,” she said as she savored her treat. “A Swede put a bullet through the back of your skull almost four hundred years ago. Your bones lie in an unmarked and unsanctified grave deep beneath a supermarket parking lot, forgotten even by God. But the Lady . . . she’ll always remember her hero. She can’t ever forget. So she made this hell for you—for the both of you—where you could come and die forever. You’ll flee through this forest for all eternity, Jan, again and again and again, trying to get back to the Imperial lines and failing infinitely. You’ll always wind up here at the center of the woods, dangling from my Lady’s green branches.” The crone stroked Jan’s chin with a calloused, claw-like hand. “There’s that look that I love.”
         She kissed Jan on the forehead, and then she got to work with the rusted knife. Even as she cut his manhood away root and stem and drew his steaming entrails out of him and pulled long strips of his skin away, the pain he felt from the steel was less than the pain he felt from his despair. As he faded away, the toad and the owl and the rat pulled on the rope, hoisting him up by his neck with the rest of his dead selves.
         He caught one final glimpse of the girl in green’s screaming, wooden face as he dropped into the dark.
         Jan came out of oblivion with his head swimming and his ears ringing, surrounded by the mangled remains of his friends. He struggled for a moment to remember where he was, and then the Swedish cavalry charge came back to him in all its whinnying horror. The men trampled into the mud all around him had been some of the finest troops in the army of the Holy Roman Empire, but Luther’s bastards had undone them in a single pass.
         There was a dense stand of trees not fifty strides away, the perfect place to escape mounted troops, but Jan did not like the look of it. He saw something sinister in the way that the tree branches slowly swayed, as if they were beckoning him. At the Siege of Magdeburg Jan had not hesitated to charge the breach in the Kröcken Gate and the forest of enemy pikes that lay beyond it, but this forest of harmless trees was giving him pause. He wondered if he had any other choice.
         Jan slowly allowed his aching head to loll to the side to get a better view of the battlefield without giving away that he was still drawing breath. Most of the Swedish troops had dismounted and were looting the dead and dying. Blonde buzzards. They had tied one of Jan’s comrades, a red-bearded Walloon whose name Jan had never learned, between two chargers. Someone fired off a musket into the air as the riders set their mounts into gallops, such that the shrieking Walloon’s arms went in one direction and the rest of him was pulled off in the other. Into the woods it was.
         Jan pushed himself off the ground and darted for the trees, keeping low to avoid the enemy’s bullets. The thing he hated most about coming under fire was that one never knew where one might be hit, and that invested one’s whole body with a horrid, tingling sensitivity. Shouts and pops sounded from behind. Jan heard the bee-like sound of lead passing by, including one shot that came so close it seemed to pass through the back of his head, but he did not fall. Then he passed through the tree line, plunging headlong into the green and gloom.

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Max D. Stanton is an academic and writer of weird tales who lives in Philadelphia with his lovable hell-hound Bear. Stanton’s fiction has appeared in publications including Sanitarium Magazine, Disturbed Digest, and the anthologies Under a Dark Sign and Candlesticks and Daggers.