The horseman looked around warily. The woods were dark, though the sun high above was just past its zenith. The trees were too tall and thick to allow the light entrance.
Through the dimness and shadows, the rider could just be seen. His horse was a fine, well-groomed animal, but its color could not be told in the indifferent light. It looked tired, but its neck still arched proudly, and as the rider surveyed their surroundings, the horse pawed the ground with weary impatience.
“I know, boy,” said the horseman, patting the sweat-soaked neck affectionately, “if we can find an inn I’ll get you the finest mash you’ve ever had!”
The horse wasn’t much affected by this reassurance.
The rider was obviously a soldier; his bearing would’ve told that without all the trappings that more eloquently proclaimed the fact. His helmet was in his hands, but his armor was still upon him. A steel back-and-breast formed the largest part of this armor; a sectioned metal skirt lay upon his thighs, and his shoulders were protected by pauldrons that looked like lobster-tails. A leather coat was worn under this armor, its sleeves slashed for both utility and fashion. A tattered burgundy cloak still hung from his shoulders. High leather boots and short leather gloves completed his apparel.
He bore weapons as well as armor; two horse-pistols hung in their holsters before his knees, while a narrow sword with a swept-hilt was upon his left hip, a heavy dagger on his right.
The man’s features were not uncommon for that land; he had a square face, thick blond hair, and pale blue eyes, all of which proclaimed him a German. He was not German, however; at least not recently. Wherever his ancestors had come from, young Robert Hastings was English, and brave as St. George himself. He’d shown that much, certainly, over the last three years! He’d fought in more battles than he could count, including the good King’s victories at the Lech and Lützen. He’d been among those who had found the good King’s body, with the King’s young page lying beside him. Robert had slain more Catholics that day than he could remember, for the anger at the death of Gustavus II of Sweden had almost destroyed his sanity. The ribbons of the captaincy he’d received for his ferocity were some miles behind him, now; he’d torn them off to aid in his escape.
Ah, but it was galling! The King’s successor in Sweden was his little six-year-old daughter Christina, and the general who’d assumed command of the Army was only a degree better than a fool. The tragedy of it! That such a brilliant man should be cut off when he was most needed! Robert ground his teeth at the memory of yesterday’s battle. After the King had died the Swedish army had remained in the Empire, fighting Catholics whenever they could. But yesterday the Emperor’s son, the infuriatingly competent Mathias Gallas, had lured the Swedish army into a trap, and all but destroyed it entirely.
Robert was among the few survivors.
He might be the only one, for all he knew. His cavalry squadron had been cut off from the main body of Swedes at Nördlingen, and had been harried into the dust by Imperial riders. Robert’s last companion had died six miles back, and Robert had been forced to flee.
Only four shots left, he had; both his pistols were charged, and he had powder and shot enough for one more charge each. His sword was notched and nigh to breaking; his dagger had even seen more action than a good dagger should. His armor was hardly damaged, though his cloak and leather coat were torn and tattered from near misses. As he thought about his recent fights, his finger went unconsciously to the dent just below his heart, where a poorly charged pistol-ball had dented and splashed with lead his breastplate.
“I should be dead too,” he said aloud, “but God must want me alive for some reason or other. These wicked papists must need more chastisement, and if I ever reach home, I’ll bring an army back again!”
His voice echoed a little among the trees, and with a start he realized that someone was moving toward him.
Someone with a caliver and a lighted match. The peaked morion-style helmet the man wore didn’t signify much, but since the caliver was pointed at Robert, he guessed that his assailant was probably a Spaniard. He wore a back-and-breast like Robert’s, though lacking the tasses and pauldrons, but with a slashed and tattered leather coat so like Robert’s as to be its twin! A heavy rapier hung from his hip, and large left-hand dagger from his other. His boots and overall dress were like those of a cavalryman, but the caliver in his hands was much too big for use on horseback.
Robert moved his hands away from his pistols, breathing a prayer of thanks that he’d removed his Captain’s ribbons. He might get away yet! A common mercenary wasn’t likely to be killed out of hand. He might even be hired, if he could stomach working for a Catholic. Robert didn’t think he’d be able.
“Inglés?” said the man with the caliver, proving himself a Spaniard, “vos sois Inglés?”
“Oui, Anglais,” said Robert in French, hoping the Spaniard would understand.
“Avec les Suecos?” said the Spaniard in terrible imitation of French.
“Yes,” said Robert, switching to Italian, “I am a soldier of fortune. They’re not here to pay me any more, so...” He shrugged.
“Are you a gentleman?” asked the Spaniard in relatively good Italian, “are you a gentleman señor? You are a heretic, assuredly, but can your word be trusted?” Robert eyed the smoking match a mere fingerspan from the flashpan, and decided against an angry answer.
“I am son of the Earl of Lincoln, signor,” said Robert in a cautious tone, “a gentleman born and bred. My word can be trusted, yes.”
“Good,” said the Spaniard, “my own father is the Viceroy of New Granada. His father was with Cortés when he conquered Mexico. Do not judge me on this, however,” he went on with an ironic smile, “I am also an honorable man. I will put aside my caliver if you will give me your parole.”
“You have my word. I shall not harm you so long as you make no assault.”
“Done, then,” said the Spaniard. He pulled the match back away from the flashpan and lowered the muzzle of his caliver. He took a few steps back and leaned against a tree.
Robert shook his head and dismounted. The horse was glad to be rid of his weight, and shivered appreciatively while Robert loosened the saddle’s girth.
“What is your name, signor?” he asked the Spaniard.
“Cristobal Sepulveda,” was the reply, “from Asturias in Spain, originally. My grandfather was the second son of Don Rodrigo of Laredo, and went to Cuba to make his fortune. That he did, and more! He returned to Spain just before the Great Armada sailed, but he was not allowed to go with the Armada. Better if he had!” there was a sort of smile here, grim and given with slitted eyes. Robert knew very well the part England had played in the destruction of the Armada. Spain and England were not the best of friends.
“I am Robert Hastings,” said Robert, before the pause grew long, “my family has been in England since the Conquest, and there are Dukes as well as villains in my family. I am third son of the Earl of Lincoln. I’ve been here in the Empire for three years.”
“I have been here only a few months,” said Cristobal, “I am with the regiment of Don Gonzalo of Vitoria, but I have lost them. We were driven from the field by the Swedish riders, and I don’t know what became of the rest. I am weary of this fighting already. I am ready to return to New Granada and be decadent again.”
“Have you already been deeper in these woods?”
“Yes,” replied Cristobal, “my horse is dead, a few miles further up the valley. I have been wandering all night, and so I would still be, if I hadn’t heard your voice.”
“I shouldn’t have been so careless,” said Robert, “but these woods are so still and lonely! It’s hard to imagine anyone else being here.”
“This I know,” said the Spaniard with a wry smile, “but there are people here. Well, not people, exactly.”
“How do you mean?”
Cristobal looked worried.
“I’ve been wandering all morning, wondering what I should do,” he said, “and cursing myself for not doing it sooner. I almost fear that I am a coward, but if you had seen...”
“What are you talking about, signor?” Robert inquired.
“Last night, I saw...” Cristobal hesitated. “Let me start over. I rode into these woods with three of the others of my regiment. We weren’t sure which way the battle was, so we decided to camp for the night. We built a fire, and I went to check the horses. You may be sure that I took my weapons; I even put on my helmet, just in case there were bandits in the woods. This caliver is not mine; I took it from a dead footman, but I carried it around with me.
“While I was brushing my horse, shots suddenly rang out. My horse was struck, and as it fell dead, it pinned me beneath its body. Two of my companions had run towards the horses, and they were shot as they neared me, and they fell so that they covered me completely. My eyes could just see over Ernesto’s boot, but I was covered, and could hardly breath. My legs were caught underneath the horse, and I could only struggle to move!
“When I heard voices coming, I stopped struggling. No bandits that I have ever heard of will use muskets or calivers, but these men, when they came into the firelight, were no soldiers. They had the look of bandits, but their leader was a gentleman, or, I should say, had been one. Gentlemen do not attack their enemies from ambuscade in the dead of night! As I watched, they took poor Alvaro, who was still alive, and slit his throat. You can imagine how quiet I became then! The caliver was beneath me, and how it hurt! I prayed a thousand prayers to the Virgin, and she protected me, for though they stripped my comrades of their weapons, they left them their armor, and assumed that I had run off into the night.” Cristobal stopped when he saw Robert blench. “I forgot,” he said, “you heretics in England do not venerate the Virgin. I am sorry for you!”
“I could say the same,” said Robert, “bowing down to dumb idols isn’t something that I could ever do. But let us not discuss religion. The Empire has been fighting for a hundred years over religion, and if we start talking about the difference between Popery and the Church of England, we’ll soon have killed each other.”
“You are right,” he said, “I shall continue my story. It is enough to make any Christian shudder!
“These bandits were not content to merely kill us. They sat around our fire and ate the dinner we had prepared. I heard them talking, and, since I understand a little German, discovered what wicked men they were. Their leader is a man called Rupert von Gürrer, or something like that, and he told them that he was going to complete their tryst tomorrow, or today, that is. I couldn’t understand what they meant, but I soon understood that they were going to sacrifice a virgin to some pagan god! They are Satan-worshippers, you see! They talked of several of the girls in a town called Hyuraa...Hiera...Hora...how I hate Germany! I cannot pronounce anything here! It is a little town a few miles to the west.
“But though I was horrified then, it was even worse a few minutes later. Their pagan god came, and stood among them!”
Robert blinked in surprise.
“What?” he cried.
“May God witness, I swear it’s true ,” said Cristobal, “a tall creature with jet black hair and white skin that glowed red in the firelight. It had ears that were sharp as daggers at the top, and eyes the size of my fist! There were eight fingers on each hand, and it wore armor like from the old days, chain mail and tall pointed helm. It carried a sword, and called itself the messenger of the Hidden King.
“The bandits all bowed and cowered, and this Rupert fellow promised that they would bring it a virgin, as promised. And they mean to do it tonight. What it will do to this poor girl I shudder to think!”
Robert shook his head in bewilderment.
“Are you sure about all this? Did you not bump your head when you fell? People don’t believe in faeries and such, any more.”
“And neither did I,” said Cristobal, “until last night. There is one thing I heard that I can prove to be true . They said they would meet at the ‘old dance’, which is at the top of yonder hill,” he pointed, “and when I woke this morning, I determined to find out if it had been a dream. But there, at the top of that hill, are eight standing stones in a ring, and at their center an altar shaped like a mouth, stained black with blood.”
“Good God!” cried Robert, “you are not a man to invent lies, I believe, for you have not that look about you. You are a gentleman both in manner and mode of speech, and how many of the ruffians that fought at Nördlingen speak four languages? I must believe you, therefore, and I will add this: you are assured of my assistance. I see by your look that you mean to save this girl from the bandits and their unholy liaison. I shall go with you, and we’ll slay these devils and their witches.”
“Well spoken, Hastings!” cried Cristobal, “that is exactly what I wanted! I managed to escape from beneath the horse this morning, and I had hoped to find someone to aid me against the bandits. We two shall fight for God against the devil, and we shall conquer!”
Robert smiled grimly and nodded.
“Powder, lead and steel. That ought to do for them!”
Darkness fell early that night, and Robert hid with Cristobal in a thicket beside the path that lead up the hill. In spite of Cristobal’s protestation of a gentleman never setting an ambush, they had determined that it was the only way, and had set aside their finer feelings for the need of the hour. The girl’s life and virtue were more important, they deemed, than their own glory, so they hid themselves and waited.
Having determined that Cristobal’s match would give them away, they each took one of Robert’s pistols, and several charges of powder and shot which Cristobal had for his caliver. They would fire and reload and fire again, then attack with swords.
The full moon was some way above the horizon when they first heard signs of the approaching bandits. Torches flared down the hill, and slowly marched up it. Minutes passed while the two waited tensely. The night was cold, but sweat dripped down their faces and dampened the palms of their hands. The bandits rounded a corner and closed the distance to a few feet.
Robert and Cristobal fired their pistols simultaneously, and the first two of the bandits crumpled and fell. They set themselves feverishly to reloading while several answering shots whizzed by them, but they continued their task, fumbling with the cold, but at last they were ready to fired again. The dark figures of the bandits were nearly upon them when they fired again, and again two shapes fell to the ground. With a ring of steel on steel they drew their swords and daggers and attacked the bandits. There were only a half-dozen of them still standing, and the confusion allowed the two comrades a great advantage. They weaved and parried with the skill of gentlemen while the ragged bandits stumbled and nearly killed each other, and soon there was nobody between the two comrades and the bandit leader. He was past them, hurrying up the hill, dragging with him a figure that glimmered white in the moonlight.
With a yell they gave chase, and while Cristobal seized the arm of the girl and pulled her from the villain’s grasp, Robert attacked with sword and dagger.
Had they been in a Paris courtyard, or a park in London, the fight would’ve been elegant and refined, and the play of swords would have been as much show as substance. Here on a dark hillside in the midst of the Black Forest, there was no display. They hammered at each other with blood-seeking blows, and no quarter was asked or expected. For several prolonged moments they fought, steel ringing on steel, sword-blades skittering across breastplates, daggers ripping through cloaks. Then Robert’s sword found and opening, and he thrust it home through the armhole of the bandit’s back-and-breast. With a moaning wheeze, the bandit leader slumped to the ground, and there he remained, unmoving.
“Well done, English Robert,” said Cristobal, “come here! We must find their horses and ride away from here. They may have friends.”
“Let us reload first,” said Robert.
As they did, Robert allowed himself to observe the virgin the robbers had chosen for their sacrifice. He was amazed and horrified to see that the girl was twelve or thirteen at the utmost, trembling and terrified in her night-gown. She clung to Cristobal in such emphatic dread that Robert was obliged to reload both of the pistols, and when he was finished, to carry them both as they made their way back down the hill.
A sudden fear descended as mist began to rise from the earth around them. The trees, stark and gnarled in the moonlight, became twisted demons in the growing fog. Chills ran down Robert’s spine again and again as they continued down the hill. The girl was whimpering with fear, and Robert could see Cristobal’s wide eyes even in the dimness.
They stopped, for they had reached the bottom of the hill. But instead of horses tied to a tree, they found a circle of standing stones around them, and in the center a horrible altar shaped like a devil’s gaping orifice.
Standing around the altar were five tall and terrible shapes. Their eyes glittered with malevolent light, their faces were cold and beautiful, like marble statues, but marked with malice and hatred of mankind. The wore silvery armor and helms and bore naked swords in their hands. Robert had heard of these creatures in fireside tales long ago, when his nurse had frightened him with stories of Elves and Goblins and Gnomes. He’d never believed in any of it, once he’d grown up, but here before him stood five Elves, and fear suddenly gripped his soul.
“You have come to keep tryst, humans,” said the Elf in the center, who wore a tall silver helm set with a golden crown. Here was the Hidden King of whom Cristobal had heard! “Deliver the promised maiden, and the power of the Huldrefolk and their King will be yours.” His voice was quiet and sibilant, like a whisper, but powerful and filled with dread.
Robert looked at Cristobal and swallowed.
“Elf-king!” Robert cried in a quavering voice, “we are not here to keep tryst, but to break it. We have slain your cohorts, and will keep this Christian girl away from you. You may not touch her, I charge you in the name of God!”
The creatures smiled at him.
“We have brought you here, pitiful mortals,” said the no longer hidden King, “and we care not for your Christ. We shall have her, and then we shall send your puny souls to hell, where demons will gnaw you forever!”
“You shall not touch her!” cried Cristobal, echoing Robert’s words.
One of the Elves came around the altar and towered above Robert as the young man quailed and shook. Then he remembered the pistols in his hands, and he thumbed forward the hammer of their wheel-locks.
“Come no closer!” he cried, pointing one of the pistols at the approaching Elf.
Robert discharged his pistol point-blank into the Elf’s chest.
What happened next was like a dream. Robert saw the ball smash through the Elf’s armor and chest, and saw the Elf hurtle backwards from the impact. But before Robert’s disbelieving eyes, the Elf’s chest healed and the armor stitched itself back together. The Elf smiled and came forward again, and laid a hand forcefully on Robert’s shoulder.
And drew it back again, smoking. The Elf was screaming with pain, and Robert remembered now the weakness of the fair folk: they could not touch iron, and the good Spanish steel of his armor was made, of course, mostly from iron!
“Ha!” he cried, dropping the pistol and taking hold of the little girl’s arm, “you cannot hurt us, Elf-king! We bear swords of steel, and can kill you just as we like!”
“Your iron will not protect you from our magic!” cried the Elf-king wrathfully, “you will yet shriek in hell!”
Robert blinked as the Elves disappeared, then screamed in pain as he was suddenly engulfed in flames. He dropped the other pistol and tried to pat out the blazing fires, but he could not, and the pain grew until the tears started from his eyes. In one small corner of his brain a distant memory kept repeating, and it translated into a single purpose: don’t let go of the girl’s arm!
With the same suddenness of their appearance, the flames died and Robert gasped with relief. His respite lasted only a few moments, however, and he was assaulted by stinging snakes that flew through the air on gossamer wings. They bit him over and over, and again he cried out in agony as great purple welts burst through his coat and breeches. The little girl was struggling against his grip, but he continued to hold her, his fingers closed tightly around her slim arm.
The next attack was more insidious than the first two. Robert had killed many men in his three years of war, and not one of their faces had escaped his memory. Now they stood around him, with accusing eyes and plaintive wails, and with them came their widows and children, pointing at him and calling him murderer, murderer! Robert shut his eyes and sobbed with grief, but he could still see them, close around him, calling his name, over and over.
But Robert did not relinquish his hold.
Assault after assault came, plucked from Robert’s own mind, various and insidious and terrible. The only girl Robert had ever seduced came to seduce him; his younger brother, who had died of the plague while Robert had been in Germany came and faulted Robert with his own death. Hundreds of women gathered around and tempted him, a dragon swallowed him and he screamed and writhed in the acid within its belly.
Then the mode of the attacks altered. The little girl suddenly changed into a wriggling snake, and Robert was hard-pressed to keep his grasp. Then she became a wolf, and Robert had her by the upper part of the snout, while the lower fangs chomped and raked his hand. A demon, a succubus, a salamander, a cockatrice; the girl changed into each of these as quickly as Robert could blink his eyes. Through them all he kept hold of the girl’s arm.
Then his own flesh began to melt away before his eyes, and he cried out with horror as it dropped from his body. As a agonized skeleton he writhed, screaming with terror and anguish. As he watched, his bones disintegrated to powder, and his skull settled atop a mound of pale dust. Without a hand, however, he still felt his hand to be upon the girl’s arm, and he concentrated on that with all his energy.
More attacks came, his suddenly restored body half engulfed in fire and the other half frozen, a vengeful ghost slashing his limbs from his body with a flaming sword, a five-headed snake taking great bites from his flesh, a two-headed giant plucking off his head and eating it!
But Robert wouldn’t let go.
Suddenly he came to himself again, and was kneeling on the ground in the circle of stones. The girl lay beside him, unconscious, and Cristobal knelt panting on her further side. They both still had hold of her arms, and above them stood the four Elves and their Elf-king.
“You are strong, mortals,” said the Elf-king, “and you will be still stronger if you give us the girl. You will be kings over the whole earth, and maidens will die to have your sons!”
“Never, Elf-king,” said Cristobal, still panting, “we will never give her to you.”
“I will follow you forever,” said the Elf-king in a baleful voice, “I will follow you to your homelands, across whatever seas there be, and I will haunt your children and your children’s children to the end of time!” He roared and grew tall, and Robert’s heart again quailed within him.
A sudden inspiration took him as he looked at the range of hills that lay far to the east.
“You won’t have the chance, foul spirit,” Robert said, rising to his feet and drawing his sword. “I’ll kill you here and now!”
He took a step forward, and saw the terrible glee of the Elf-king as his fingers slipped from the girl’s arm, but then it was too late. Behind the Elves the sun showed its face suddenly above the horizon, and where there had been eight standing stones around the altar, there were now thirteen. Robert jumped up and down, shouting with joy, and Cristobal soon joined him, and together they danced around the five new standing stones with merry abandon.
“My faith, what a trick that was!” cried Cristobal as they sat panting from the exercise, “you got them all, Robert the Englishman!”
“Aye, but it wouldn’t have worked had we both not held out so long against their magic,” said Robert, “and I will say this; I will never agree to your way of worshiping God, but your faith is strong, and I will have no quarrel with it.”
“I agree,” said Cristobal, “you are Anglican and a heretic, but your faith in God is great. I will not burn you at the stake, no matter what the Romans say.”
“We are gentlemen and soldiers both, and I think we are not so different.”
“No, not very,” cried Cristobal.
Soon afterward they revived the little girl and carried her by turns down the hill. She spoke only German, and as Cristobal’s German was far from fluent, they could only learn her name, which was Ella, and make a guess at her village. They found several horses tied at the bottom of the hill and soon they rode through the valley to a small town which welcomed them with much rejoicing, for it proved to be Ella’s village. The priest spoke Latin, and Robert was described by Cristobal as a friend of the Church, which he almost was!
The two friends rode from the little town the next day with good provision and many thanks, but their hearts were warmed more by the knowledge of their own deed, and by their friendship which had overcome the differences of nation and religion.
“Well, Robert my friend,” said Cristobal as they reached the border of the Dutch Republic a few days later, “shall we tell our children and grand-children of our great adventure against the Elfin King and his knights?”
“No, I don’t think so,” laughed Robert, “I think they’d probably throw me out of England if I tell such a tale. If they didn’t behead me first! I think we should just quietly write it down as if it was a fairy-story; just a fine mythical fable.”
“A fairy-story indeed!” Cristobal grinned, “but in Spain I shouldn’t even do that! The Inquisition would burn me at the stake for such heresy! And to admit that I was the friend of an English Heretic? No, I think we’d best keep the whole thing quiet.”
“Are you off for New Granada, then?” asked Robert, after a pause had quieted their laughs and brought on the melancholy of parting.
“I am,” replied Cristobal, “I’ve some thought of going to Florida, however, for there is much opportunity there.”
“Good luck, and Godspeed,” said Robert, extending his hand, “I might go across the sea myself someday. England has colonies over there now! Perhaps we’ll meet again on the far side of the sea.”
“Perhaps,” said Cristobal, clasping Robert’s hand, “and if we do, I pray God that it not be across the battle-field.”
Robert laughed and clapped his friend on the back, then turned his horse towards the free Dutch Republic, while Cristobal headed for the Spanish Netherlands. They would probably never meet again, on this side of the sea or the other.
But perhaps their children would.