The man in brown rode into the tiny village to the sound of cheers. But there was no one in sight. Where did the voices come from? And why weren’t the villagers tending their farms and livestock?
He found the answers in the middle of the settlement. A crowd of men, women and children in rough clothing filled the village square. He estimated maybe sixty souls in all. It seemed like everyone had taken the day off from their never-ending labors. Something in front of them had captured their attention; but for a few curious children and a couple of youths his approach had gone largely unnoticed. The rider craned his head, seeing a thicket of wooden staves raised before the people,
Not staves. Muskets.
A voice, clear and ringing, cut through the air.
“This I promise you: today the Haferdämonen meet their end!”
Wild applause and full-throated yells filled the world. Slowly, stiffly, the rider dismounted his chestnut mare. There was a time he could do that without his muscles threatening to lock up. Those days had gone with the last shades of black in his short gray hair. Standing on the animal’s left, he gently led it through the crowd, keeping his rifle and his messer far away from the horse’s questing muzzle.
“And who is this?”
The peasants turned to look at him. At his weathered buff coat made of the hides of monsters, the pair of huge pistols swinging from the horse’s saddle, the second pair of pistols peeking above his boot-tops, the rough sword and the time-worn rifle, and, as he drew closer, the amulet he wore around his neck.
“A Hexereiter!” a man whispered.
“It can’t be! Here, in this day and age?”
“Quick, hide the children! And your silver!”
This he heard, and more. The crowd parted before him, the women shielding their children, the menfolk shielding their women.
Through the gap he saw the soldiers. An entire company of foot infantry, resplendent in their immaculate green-white-yellow uniforms. They stared him down, their faces impassive. Their Kapitan, front and center, glared at the rider, and sniffed.
“Identify yourself,” the officer demanded.
“Johann Roger Werner,” the rider said. “And yourself?”
“I am Kapitan Paul Heinrich Frank Welf Friedrich Eisenberg, Second Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Fifth Fusilier Regiment, in the service of Herzog Klein of Marenland.” He paused to breathe. “Are you a Hexereiter?”
Werner held out his amulet. It was a beast’s head impaled on a sword, beaten and rough and dull.
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