Michael the Sorcerer
Episode Two. The Dark Wood
Michael knew that only one punishment was befitting a knight who showed cowardice in battle -- death. Margrave Heinrich would not hesitate in meting out the maximum sentence. The margrave was not an unusually cruel man for his time, but he would consider a knight who fled the enemy in battle as having committed the worst possible crime. Only treason would rank higher. One of Michael's brothers lost a hand to the margrave's sword for dropping his lance during a charge. Michael watched in horror as Pierre was forced to put his arm flat upon a table while the margrave hacked off his hand like a butcher cutting a leg of lamb. Blood spurted from his wrist as though a spigot had been turned on. His heart-rending scream and the thud of his body as he passed out would live forever in Michael's memory. Michael did not wait for the wound to be treated or to see what was done with the severed hand, but ran from the room retching and vomiting into the castle garden. The thing about the incident that was burned into his brain forever was the look of satisfaction on Margrave Heinrich's face.
Hence, he would not be safe until he was far from Heinrich’s lands. There would be no pity for him. He turned his horse south and headed into the Schwartzvald, a primeval woodland so vast that no one knew its true extent, where dangerous wild beasts, wolves, bears and mountain lions roamed. According to legend, even dragons were to be found within its borders. Here and there, a few brave farmers had made inroads along its perimeter, but for the most part, it was as pristine and wild as when The Almighty created it.
For Michael in his desperation, it was the best possible place to avoid pursuit. Plentiful game would keep him fed as long as he used his arrows with discretion, retrieving all that were not broken or lost. He was enough of an outdoors man and hunter to know the tricks of survival in the wilderness and how to use the stars, the sun and moss on trees to guide him on his journey.
At first he traveled swiftly for fear that Heinrich’s men would hunt him down, resting only briefly at streams to refresh himself and his steed. By the time the setting sun turned to twilight, he felt that he put enough leagues between himself and the scene of the battle to be safe for a while. Certainly, he had several hours head start on any pursuers.
He killed a rabbit which he heated over a campfire. What meat he could not devour, he smoked over the dying fire to aid in their preservation. In the morning he would wrap them in leaves and put them in his horse's pack. He rested his back against a large oak that was surrounded by thistle bushes that hid him from casual observation. If a man or beast approached, he would be alerted by the sound of their coming. Michael was catlike in his ability to sleep light and become instantly awake.
Michael traveled many days in this manner, living off the fruits of the forest, bathing and drinking in the numerous streams and rivers he crossed. None were so deep or swift that he could not cross on horseback.
By the time the moon had gone through its phases, he reached a part of the forest that was denser and darker than any he had passed through thus far. So narrow was the path between giant trees, he dismounted and led his mount by the bridle. For hours he hacked his way through tangled undergrowth with his short sword. Little sunlight showed the way. All sound, even the chirping and cawing of birds, was muffled, and an earthy musty aroma drifted up from layers and layers of leaf fall and moss beneath his feet.
Because of the forest's gloom and forbidding atmosphere, Michael felt safer than ever from his master's pursuit, and thus happy in his heart. Those who hunted him, if anyone still was, would surely give up before entering such dense wood.
Although he knew that sooner or later he must return to civilization, at this point he was filled with the joy of being free and alive. In shear exuberance he sang out a lusty, drinking song about legendary battles, pagan gods, beautiful damsels and great deeds. Suddenly in midverse he stopped. Ahead through the trees he saw a clearing within which lay a thatch-roofed cottage, a vegetable garden and a pigsty where four or five fat pigs grunted and wallowed happily.
After so long living on wild game, berries and roots, the thought of juicy roast pork brought saliva to Michael's lips. He took his short sword from his belt and tiptoed toward the mouthwatering swine. When he reached the gate of the pen, however, a gravely ancient voice shouted, "Intruder, come one step closer, and I'll turn you into a hog so you can join your fellows in the mud."
Michael looked up. The lined creased face of a peasant woman stared from the cottage window. Michael had heard stories of witches who lived in the forest, worshipped ancient gods and could do enchantments. They made their abode in such terrible wildernesses as the one he was in to escape persecution by The Church. Hence, he was unsure whether she could make good on her threat or not. He decided not to take the risk.
He bowed in a courtly manner. "Madam, I be truly sorry that I have trespassed upon thy property. Tis just that I beed traveling many days and the sight of such delicious walking meals allowed Satan to overwhelm my usual high moral character with a demon of temptation."
She squinted at him between narrowed eyes. "And what art thy doing here? Are thee lost? Or have thee come to purchase some philter or potion?"
"Neither. I be an outcast who may be pursued by my master. Although by now I be sure that I hath successfully eluded him and his vassals. Tell me Madame, besides preparing philters and potions and turning men into swine, do thou do other sorcery?"
"Yes. Why do thee ask? Do thee have need of magick?"
"I wouldst like to purchase a spell that would make me immortal."
The woman cackled like a hen in heat. For a while Michael feared that she would have a stroke she was laughing so hard. When she finally stopped, she said, "What a fool thou are, Sir Pork Stealer. If I could make men immortal, I would be richer than Emperor Otto, even richer than the pope. Men would trample a great road a league wide to get to my door. Nonetheless, I have heard of one who supposedly has the power to perform such miracles. But I suspect that his price be well beyond thy means."
"I will find a way to pay whatever he asks. Who is he, and how may I find him?"
"Ah, that will be my secret for the present. Come into my humble abode for a spell. I will feed thee some of that swine thou desire so much, and we shalt discuss terms."
Michael realized that before this crone would tell him the name of the powerful sorcerer who could grant immortality, she would exact some price from him. Since he had no place to go and plenty of time to get there, he accepted her invitation. Also, the idea of a porkish meal made his mouth water, and his stomach growl.
He bowed. "My pleasure, Madam."
He sheathed his short sword, tied his steed to a sapling and entered the cottage. Like most peasant homes, it consisted of a single room that was the abode not only of its mistress, but various domestic animals. A nanny was tied in one corner and several fowl wandered about the place. In addition to a crude wooden table and chair set, there was a straw pallet for sleeping and many shelves containing numerous bottles and jars. Michael assumed these held the philters and potions that the witch dispensed to her clients.
A delicious aroma wafted from a large cauldron stewing over her crude stone hearth.
"Sit," the witch screeched, pointing to a crude wooden chair.
Michael placed his helmet on a corner of the table and plumped down, happy to rest.
As the witch served him pork stew in an earthen bowl, she remarked, "My, without that iron pot on thy head, thou art quite handsome. And young. But I should have guessed that. What do thou call thyself?"
"Michael of Eilenberg. And thy name, Madame?"
She ladled a bowl of stew for herself and poured two flagons of wine before taking a seat across from him. "I have many names, but thee may call me Melissa."
While they supped, they chatted about inconsequential things. Michael told Melissa something of his life in Saxony as an apprentice knight, about the archbishop's prediction that the second coming was nigh and about the battle.
"That archbishop may not be so wrong in thinking that the apocalypse be nigh." Melissa narrowed her eyes and lowered her voice as though about to reveal a dark secret. "I have seen portents and signs that the end be near."
Perhaps it be only thy own end thou foresaw, Michael thought. For as he gazed into that ugly, lined and creased, toothless face, he was sure that she was as old as anyone could ever get. She had to be more than forty, mayhap even fifty.
After they finished their repast, Melissa took away the earthen bowls and refilled their flagons with wine. They could now discuss their business.
"So Michael, thee wouldst like me to tell thee how to find this powerful sorcerer who may -- or may not -- grant thee eternal life."
"Yes, I will pay thee handsomely for such information. I have gold." Michael patted the spot where his purse was hidden.
"It be not gold that I want from thee, dear boy." She reached over and patted him on the cheek. "Thou see, I have a pretty daughter who is yet a virgin, and thee seem to be a lusty fellow. I will give thee the information thou seek if thee service her."
Michael flushed. This was an odd request. "Thee want me to uh ... lie with ... thy daughter? And then thee will tell me the name of the sorcerer, and where I canst find him?"
Michael became suspicious. Was this daughter extremely ugly? "Where is thy daughter? May I see her?"
"She be not here now, but be nearby. Thee cannot see her until later tonight, however. After thee and I retire, she will come to thou."
"Very well." How horrible could she be, Michael thought. He was desperate. And beside, his curiosity was piqued.
Later that night Melissa made up a pallet of straw in one corner of the room, untied the goat and shooed it and the fowl out the door. After she extinguished the fire, she brought out a single candle which she placed next to where Michael was to sleep. She also made him drink a potion she concocted.
"What be this?" he asked suspiciously.
"An aphrodisiac. I give it to thou to ensure that thy manhood not fail at the last moment."
Michael was offended. "No such thing has ever happened to me."
Nonetheless, she insisted that he swallow the philter. Immediately afterwards he felt strange, excited in a vague manner and powerful. He blew out the candle, undressed and waited the arrival of Melissa’s daughter. After several minutes, he heard footsteps and a warm, naked body crawled in under the comforter besides him. She was soft and buxom. He kissed her lips, her breasts and her stomach. She sighed and caressed him back. Finally she pulled him toward her, hugging him fiercely, her nails clawing at his back as he penetrated her. He could hardly believe she was a virgin. She seemed too experienced for that.
It was not long before Michael exploded in an inferno of ecstasy. Once sated, his curiosity became aroused. Unable to contain it any longer, he waited until the maiden fell asleep, slipped from her arms and felt his way around the cabin to the shelf where Melissa kept her lighting brands. He lit one from the embers of the hearth and used it to light the candle next to his pallet.
He lifted the candle and gazed at the sleeping woman. To his disgust and rage, it was the witch Melissa herself whom he had made love to so lustfully. He shook her awake. "Thee tricked me, daughter of the evil one," he whispered hoarsely.
Her eyes twinkled at him playfully. "Thee did not seem to mind whilst thee serviced me."
He realized the truth of that. "Very well, I hath kept my side of the bargain. Keep thine."
"The sorcerer thee seek be named Theopiles. He be the court wizard of the robber baron, Achdamousreich whose castle is several weeks ride to the south. In Bavaria."
Before sunup, Michael rode away although Melissa begged him to stay a few more days.
that impeded progress. Titans poured gasoline on the heaps of bodies and lit them. The stench of burning human flesh m
If you're enjoying this serial, you may want to read my novels and short story anthologies.