A Witch and a Demon? Part 1

The young monk, Michael, hesitantly invited me to his parents’ home.  He confessed that visitors were limited to a few close friends to protect his mother from the common eye.  “She’s. . . fragile.”  But then he admitted the fear that she would be accused of witchcraft if her true nature came to public light.

At first, I saw nothing unusual in the thin woman who served a delectable meal, including minced pork sweet cakes and trout sauced with crumbled honey bread and milk.  And wine, which surprised me, for I expected only ale in the house of a simple traveling merchant. 

She said little, but there was a table of garrulous male guests.  The physician, Hans Murer, was a puffy man, in a coat with no sleeves, as if his beshortened arms could not bear any encumbrances to the emphatic gestures with which he seasoned his conversation.

And there was a Schwarze Reiter, a fearsome Black Rider, which Michael’s brother, Jakob, had also been.  Elite in the Imperial Army, these famous armored pistoliers, with their all black horses and their three pistols–two in saddle holsters and one in a boot–could fire an harquebus from the shoulder while riding a horse without the reins.  This dinner guest had been best companion to Jacob, who seemed to be with us, though he died over a decade before.

“I fought with Jacob at Dornach,” the Black Rider said, “where he inflicted much misery on the enemy, hanging to the side of the horse as it ran, so that it looked riderless until he fired across the saddle.  He was taught that trick by a Hospitaler, and it was no small thing with a matchlock, for we had no wheellocks at Dornach.”

“Dornach,” said Dr. Murer.  “Freedom to the Confederates at last.”  The doctor looked even softer beside the weathered Black Rider.  “Yes, you were soundly beaten there.” 

It seemed rude to rub a man’s face in a defeat.  But this Black Rider, who could converse with soldiers in four languages and had seen the sea and the Pope, was philosophical about his battles.  He arrest his tankard in mid-air to give Murer his polite attention.  “To fight for the Holy Empire against the Turk is one thing.  To fight so that the House of Hapsburg can beat the freedom out of the Switzers–that we had no heart to do. 

The pistolier grinned.  “Who cares?  There will be other wars.  Always other wars.  I prefer to fight the Turks.  Then one’s enemy is always the enemy. 

“But the Switzers are magnificent soldiers.  We outnumbered them three to one at Dornach.  Yet we left 3000 upon the field, including many men of rank.”  He took out a gold toothpick and began to pick his teeth.  “A man who fights for freedom carries a sword of passion.  In the Engadine, the Switzers burned their own villages, so our army had to retreat or starve.”

Murer’s face grew red with passion.  “And to think their freedom began with the peasants, who made pikes by tying their scythes to their hiking sticks.”

“That was many years ago.  I assure you, there were no hiking sticks on the field at Dornach.”

“But that was the beginning.  Our own peasants have more power than they know.”  

“My friend, Dr. Murer,” Michael’s father said loudly, “you may be a doctor, but you are an idiot!  Peasants have no power.  What has ever been gained by their revolts?  Nothing but more taxes.  More can be gained by patience than war.  The way,” he dropped his voice, “to better one’s lot is to take advantage of the times.”

Michael nudged me.  “This is my father’s favorite speech.”

“There is much change everywhere,” the father said.  “The power of the nobles is crumbling.  Peasants move to the cities.  No one notices.  The cities need the labor.  They work, they buy citizenship.  Soon they become craftsmen.  Craftsmen become merchants.

He paused and took a long drink of his wine.  “Look at me.  My father was not a free man.  He belonged to the manor.  When he married, my mother was from a free family, but their children were born tenants of the manor.  But now, I am a merchant of leather goods.  I am free.  And my son was a Reiter, not a conscripted villager or some poor journeyman standing in for his master, but a professional soldier, paid in wages and spoils.”

In all this, no one paid the least attention to Michael’s mother, who suddenly made a choking sound which drew all our eyes.  I was astonished to see her trembling violently, like a hairless dog in snow.  Her expression was terrified, as she looked down the table toward us, and yet, I believe, not seeing us.  Michael quickly went to her.  “Mutti,” he said with great tenderness, “come lie down.” 

His father only shrugged and murmured, “Too much war talk.”

Sanctuary of Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue, France

She wrapped her arms around herself and moaned, “Sabnacke.  Oh-h-h-h-h!”  And she gave such an eerie, piteous moan that the hair on my neck stirred.

Sabnacke.  A demon who afflicts men with sores, rotten with maggots.  He preys particularly on soldiers.

But I must tell you the rest in my next post, Best Reader.  For the courier’s horse paws impatiently, and the man himself glares at my delay.


  ←Previous    A Witch and a Demon?  Part 2

 (Schwarze Reiter image from CHART Figurines.)

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