The Satyr of Brandenburg
By Charlotte Ashley
By the inebriated light of dawn, October the 23rd, 1700, a swarthy figure skulked in the rosebushes lining the Villa del Sulcis, outside the Sardinian town of Soleminis. The lurker clambered onto the tavern’s windowsill muttering badly hushed curses, then clumsily mounted the trellises. After a noisy minute of climbing, the figure leaped for the nearest second-story balcony, catching it by the fingertips.
Only the most carefree of slumbering inhabitants could have ignored such a racket. Draperies parted, hinting at drawn pistols and blades at the ready as several sets of wary eyes sought the cause of the disturbance. After a short investigation, a tall woman with hair the color of moldy straw threw aside her thick curtain and leaned out over the railing of her window.
“Alex?” she demanded, holstering a pistol. “What in the hells are you doing?”
“Shit,” the climber grunted, getting hold of the balcony’s iron bars and struggling to lift her foot over her head. “Héron, help me up. I think I’ve got a thorn in my thumb.”
The tall woman stood straight, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re drunk.”
“So?” Alex snorted. “Come on, woman, your hand.”
“What would you do if I were not here to drag you up? What if the window were locked? What if one of the others mistook you for a villain?”
“Have mercy, Héron, will you give me one of your lessons now? I haven’t slept all night. Give me your hand, a cup of wine, and a bed. Then let us resume my training.” Alex’s foot dropped and she dangled from the iron bars expectantly. Her mistress shook her head and vanished into the room. “La Héron? Héron! All right, I see now, this was not a well-thought-out affair. I apologize! Héron? Héron!”
For a futile minute, Alex struggled angrily, swinging her legs from side to side in an effort to gain purchase on something. When La Héron reappeared on the balcony, she had slung about her a length of linen that looked quite a lot like Alex’s bedsheets. Alex took hold of the makeshift rope and allowed herself to be hauled up.
“Why, for goodness’ sake, did you not just wake the landlord and come through the door?” La Héron asked, taking Alex under the arms and pulling her into the room. “You are on the guest roll. You have every right.”
“You told me I should not be seen with you,” Alex mumbled, lurching over to her pallet and collapsing. “And I suppose it is hard to shake my old habit.” She grinned at her own joke, an allusion to a more cloistered youth.
“You’re not a nun anymore and I am not your circuitor.” La Héron frowned. “You are the daughter of a count and a good woman. You have your own room!”
“My room is cold.” Alex rolled over and shut her eyes. “As for the other thing, I cannot recall the Comte de Saint-Georges, and I certainly cannot recall any noble impression he ever made on me. You won me from Herlechin fair and square. Stop trying to foist me off.”
La Héron shook her head. “I’m due at the castle after lunchtime. The marquess has sent an entourage with instructions and . . . costumes. I have to get dressed.” Alex groaned and started to lift herself from bed, but La Héron waved her away. “No, you get some sleep. You should be at your best when you are presented to the court.”
“I told you, I do not care about the court, the marquess, or my birth. I won’t play the part of a poised lady that I am not.” Alex gestured at her worn riding clothes, her notched belt, her rapier. “I want to stay with you. I want to be your squire. You know I’m nearly as good a duelist as you. I could dazzle them with my swordplay instead of my dancing.”
“No, you won’t,” La Héron snapped. “This tournament is for grotesques only. You are going to act like a lady and you’re going to impress them. I have arranged for you to be introduced according to your title and you are going to use that opportunity to find a place for yourself in human society. I am not your people, Alex. They are. You’re a fool if you can’t see what they offer you.”
“Ugh, stop. You make my head hurt worse than ever. I will go, but only because I want to sleep in.” Alex drew the thin blanket over her boots and turned toward the wall. “Wake me if you need my help.”
La Héron opened the trunk at the foot of her bed and removed an elaborate gown of blue silk hung excessively with ribbons, rosettes, and a stomacher of gold embroidery. She gave it a grim stare. “I have relied too long on your help, I think. It is past time to break the hold I have over you.” She braced herself for a denial from Alex, but the girl was already asleep.
Castillo de Vico Zonza, the newly fashioned seat of the Marquess of Soleminis, was hidden deep in the pines of the Campidano forest not five miles from the village. It was difficult to find by design and difficult to reach by necessity, but in the months since Charles II’s Junta Magna had begun leaning on the Spanish Inquisition, the castle had become a choice destination for the bored and repressed nobility of Sardinia.
A new construction, the palace had been appointed wielding the full wealth of Spain and the latest mechanical arts out of Naples and Rome. Subterranean rotundas were layered like a trifle under the mountain Bruncu Cirronis; ballrooms with rotating floors, terraced indoor baths linked with waterfalls that flowed both ways, a cavernous musical theater fitted with the bellows of a gargantuan autoharmonium, and a labyrinth. The exact number of underground floors was a mystery to everyone, but the potential for secret, possibly forbidden, experiences made an invitation to Vico Zonza all the more sought-after.
“You cannot know what I traded to get you this invitation,” La Héron hissed, her sharp knuckles needling Alex’s spine like dagger points. “Get up there and mingle.” With a shove, both women stomped off to play their respective roles.
“Welcome, guests!” The silver-haired Marquess of Soleminis opened both arms wide, encapsulating in his greeting both the extravagantly dressed lords and ladies in the gallery and the odd assortment of duelists on the floor of the Chamber of Demonstrations. La Héron took her place on the floor, tugging her skirts as she squinted under the room’s thousand lights. “It is my great pleasure to introduce you all under such festive circumstances. May you enjoy my hospitality during this—ah—first of many Exhibitions at Vico Zonza.”
La Héron hid the impatient clicking of her shoes under the polite applause of the nobles. She cast an annoyed glance at Alex, who stalked about the balcony box, glaring with open hostility at those around her.
On the floor, the eight-foot-tall ogre next to La Héron looked down at her with open mirth on his face. “His hospitality?” he murmured. “S’pose that means he’ll let us stay in the castle instead of that shithole villa?”
“To my most esteemed of guests,” the marquess continued, indicating the motley crew in front of him, “I extend the welcome of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Too long have you been shut out of our beautiful country. I hope this Exhibition will herald a new age of exchange between Sardinia and the Otherworlds.
“And to my lords and ladies, I present our champions, the most remarkable swords in all of Christendom.” In the gallery, titters. The Inquisition would never count these exotics among good Christians. The marquess was being naughty. “First, the famous Don Ennio Angeli of Naples, the World’s Oldest Man; once companion to Orlando Furioso himself!”
A dashing man of no obvious age dressed in the antiquated garments of a knight of Charlemagne stepped forward, flashed a lascivious smile at a young woman in the gallery, and waved. The audience cooed, whispered, and applauded.
“Impressive, yes? A-hm. Will he be the match of our next competitor? Lords and ladies, behold the dancer, the singer, the charming and dangerous Satyr of Brandenburg, Piacere!”
La Héron’s eyes grew wide as a goat-legged fellow pranced forward with a fiddle under his arm. He bowed, tucked the instrument beneath his chin, and played a quick pasacalle. Every eye in the room turned glossy and wet with emotion and enchantment—every eye, but these: the ogre watched Piacere with the same hard glare as La Héron. When their gazes met, he acknowledged their shared suspicion with a curt nod.
“You know him?” he whispered.
“Unfortunately,” La Héron grumbled. “He’s dangerous, and a cheat. Banned from the Caucasus to Teamhair na Rí.”
“From the Isle of Logres,” the marquess continued, “hidden from men but scourge of the Northern Seas, I present to you the mad, the terrifying, the mercenary ogre, Donshead Doombellows!”
The ogre winked at La Héron. Then he took one stomping step forward, saluted, and returned to his place.
“And finally, my friends, famed throughout the Kingdoms of the Bourbons and Habsburgs for her beauty, grace, and strength at arms . . . the, ah, giantess, La Héron!”
La Héron grit her teeth and stepped forward. The marquess shot her the briefest of frowns as she started to bow. Steeling herself, she tucked her ankles together in a clumsy curtsy instead.
“My friends,” the marquess said as he turned to his gallery, appeased. “We will see wonders this fortnight! Our champions will do battle on the shifting grounds of the Chamber of Demonstrations every night for your entertainment. We shall tally their wins and losses, and on the Eve of All Hallows’, I will crown a Supreme Champion of Vico Zonza!” He clapped his hands over his head. “May the best sword win!”
The gallery applauded and laughed, heated more by the afternoon’s libations than any interest in the martial arts. The champions and their attendants waiting in the servants’ gutter were, however, more grave. The purse the marquess had offered to whoever he judged the winner of his play-tourney was enormous, enough times a standard tournament win that La Héron was willing to suffer the indignity of the foolish costumes and incorrect title.
“What an idiot,” Donshead Doombellows boomed afterward, making no attempt to keep his opinions from the disapproving staff forced to scatter from his path. “This jackanapes has no idea what he has invited into his pretty home. But you know, don’t you?” Despite his greater height and girth, his bare, taloned feet the size of hay bales, and his iron-capped tusks, the look he gave La Héron was cautious. “You are no giantess. But what are you? You smell like fish.”
La Héron shrugged. “I am La Héron. Nothing more. You’ve a good nose. What did you smell of that fiddler?”
Donshead scowled. “Resin. Herbero. Semen. And the heady stench of the damned. Nobody I ever knew stunk like that.” He shook his head. “A cheat, eh? I don’t want any trouble. I don’t need gold that badly. This is supposed to be my blasted vacation. Some wine, some laughs, the sun of Sardinia. What do you say we take him on now, hey? After his cups, when all the humans are asleep. The two of us, we could best him, whatever he is.”
“You look to be a sturdy fellow, Doombellows, but you would not fare well against Piacere if he were cornered.” La Héron pursed her lips. “Let me tell you about Piacere: he does not cheat in the arena. He will not even appear in the arena, if he has his way. He will swindle and sway, needle and pay. He will manipulate the fates of the rest of us until we fell each other and leave only him standing. If you were to meet him in a dark alley, you would find your mother at your back with a knife in her hand, or your knife at her throat. No,” She shook her head., “I would leave off this idiot tournament now if I did not have to be here. And the gold may mean nothing to you, but I need this purse. Let us just keep on our toes. We’re all of us best advised to meet with him only under the bright lights of the castle halls.”
The ogre shook his head. “Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re right. Will you instead do me the honor of walking me back to Soleminis? I’d still feel safer with you at my side.” His meaty lip dipped into a roguish grin that La Héron matched.
“I like you,” she said. “Eat supper with me. They’ll do a goat à la tartare for you at the villa.”
“And that pretty thing you travel with?” Doombellows raised an eyebrow suggestively. “Will she be joining us?”
“With any luck, no. I have arranged for her to stay upstairs, where she belongs.”
The ogre blew a very wet raspberry. “Smelling like she does? Not bloody likely.”
“What?” La Héron stopped walking.
“She smells like you, my lady. Fish and feathers and, I don’t know, bracken. You’re all over her.”
“Shit,” La Héron muttered, and continued walking toward the exit.
“If you want to be rid of her, why not just leave her? Release her from her contract. Break her heart, send her away.”
“It doesn’t work like that.” She sighed. “I won her soul in a duel. It will take something stronger to separate us. An oath, maybe. A vow.”
“She’s under some kind of curse, hey? Ahh, I smell it now. You’re hoping she’ll fall in love,” the ogre said, catching up. “You’re hoping she’ll get married. Hum.” He considered it. “Great bonds have been broken by less. Best of luck to you both.” He sounded unconvinced.
They passed through the servants’ gate into the autumnal sun filtering through the pines and started the long walk back where they belonged.
The Chamber of Demonstrations had changed, as the Chamber of Demonstrations was built to do. The opulent gallery remained as it had been the previous evening, raised boxes overlooking the room lit with twinkling candelabras, filling now with the arrival of chattering Sardinian lord and ladies.
The floor, which yesterday had been set with nothing more than polished wooden boards, was now a painted replica of the pass at Thermopylae, complete with movable mountains and a fanciful Mouth of Hades containing the open flames of a furnace. Beneath the lip of the gallery, La Héron scuffed the heels of her dress shoes on the sand strewn across the floor to test her footing and grunted with satisfaction.
“I think those are real flames,” Donshead muttered as he helped fasten a fleuret to the point of La Héron’s rapier. “This should be interesting.”
“It won’t be if Angeli fails to show up. I shouldn’t be surprised if the marquess orders you into his costume to replace him.” La Héron squinted into the shadows of the servants’ gutter. “This is troubling. He was with Piacere last night.”
“Then he’s probably hungover. He’ll stumble in before long.”
“If he has succumbed to Piacere—wait—there’s the man.”
Don Ennio Angeli of Naples hobbled out of the gloom into the glittering light of the Hall looking every one of his supposed nine hundred and seventy-five years. Gone was the healthy strut of yesterday, replaced with a stilted march, like someone being pushed from behind toward the gallows. He teetered past Donshead and La Héron without so much as pausing, his glassy eyes tracking them as he passed.
“This will be . . . unfortunate,” Donshead said.
“I’m afraid so,” La Héron agreed.
Don Angeli continued his reluctant march to the middle of the field of battle, turned to face the audience, and offered a stilted bow. La Héron joined him, saluting the audience, then her opponent. When he neither met her eyes nor returned her pleasantry, she turned to stand on her mark.
“Welcome, my guests, you who are about to be witnesses to an epic battle! Who shall rule the pass—the Giantess, or the Ancient Hero? Only when one champion admits defeat will the other claim victory!” The marquess met the eyes of each duelist in turn, soliciting nods that confirmed they understood the stakes. “Lay on, my champions! May the greatest of you be victorious!”
Alex, who had secured a choice position at the marquess’s elbow, rolled her eyes. La Héron grinned in return and eased into stance.
As was her custom, she was armed with only a heavy rapier, an off-hand dagger tucked politely into its sheath at her side. For his part, the Don had been saddled with a fancifully decorated falchion reminiscent of the courts of the Medici. Seeing the honed edge of his curved blade, La Héron subtly flicked the fleuret off her own weapon. Though the old man wavered in his stance looking too weak to heft the sword, she would not chance her blood being shed without the ability to return the favor.
He charged first, suddenly, his sword raised over his head like a butcher’s cleaver. La Héron waited until Angeli was close then ducked away from his stroke, sidestepping and allowing him to tumble past her. She turned in a flourish of silk as he skidded to a stop in the sand, twisted, and raised his arm again like a marionette. The nobility in the gallery cheered gamely and some bolder or drunker persons began calling advice to the duelists:
“Stab him in the heart! He’s open!”
“Behind, before he turns!”
“Tajo! Cut her open, you idiot!”
Angeli charged again. This time the slash came sooner, his blade driving hard for her forearm where a buckler might have been in another age. Undefended and unarmored, La Héron skipped back, nudging the tip of his blade off course with her own and returning a quick lunge. Her point caught him lightly in the rib, drawing first blood.
If Angeli noticed, he did not show it. His blade circled up again, slashing twice more in quick succession crosswise, first at her shoulder, then at her belly. La Héron parried both blows easily and extended her arm, this time piercing the man in the shoulder.
She drew back and put up her sword, giving Angeli a meaningful look. He was bleeding from two small wounds now and she had barely exerted herself. The crowd laughed and applauded. In the gallery, Alex sat with Sebastien, Vico Zonza’s heir, a hale-looking youth with shining black hair and dark eyes fixed intently on the former nun. The marquess caught La Héron’s eye and waved a hand, indicating that she should continue. Despite her dominance thus far, Angeli was making no move to concede.
“Very well,” La Héron muttered, and settled into stance once more.
This time, she took the offensive. Angeli had raised his weapon again, exposing everything vital with little more than a thick doublet to protect him from her thrusts. She took two quick steps forward and lunged for his breast, ready to dip under his parry, but the defense never came. Instead, he stepped into her attack, her blade slipping deeper into his flesh than she intended as he drove his blade down. He hit her cross guard with such force that her rapier tore over his ribs before she dropped the weapon.
“The blazes, Angeli!” La Héron cursed, stumbling backward and drawing her dagger. Blood gushed freely from the wound that cut him from breast to bladder, but he merely raised his arm once more. “Stand off, man. You need a barber!” Angeli’s glassy eyes contained not a hint of acknowledgement.
“La Héron!” the marquess called from the gallery. “Do you forfeit?”
La Héron looked back and forth between the bloodied man set to advance, and their patron. “I? No, no, My Lord. But, Angeli—”
“One doesn’t live to be the world’s oldest man without a hint of the immortal, hum!” Vico Zonza laughed, allowing his guests to release their own nervous titters. “Lay on, then!”
The man’s front was now entirely drenched with blood that was starting to trail behind him as he marched toward her. La Héron leveled her little dagger reluctantly.
“No immortal I ever knew bled so much,” she hissed at him. “Don’t make this worse than it has to be. It’s only gold!”
Angeli said nothing, but dove at her again, hacking with circular strikes, quicker and harder than ever. La Héron wove this way and that, dancing up the wooden planks of the fake canyon and over stones of papier-mâché, waiting for an opening. Angeli seemed hardly to see her, spinning blindly like a wind-up toy.
She took careful steps back until she felt the heat of the furnace behind her. Gathering her skirts up in her fist, she narrowed her eyes and threw her dagger.
The thin point took him in the wrist, sinking halfway to the hilt. Angeli appeared no more bothered by this wound than the last, but his grip loosened. La Héron wasted no time taking her advantage. She charged in close and caught his sword-hand in her own. With her other hand she gave him a shove, spinning him around and twisting his injured arm behind his back. The falchion fell to the floor with a thud.
“Yield,” she barked at him. Angeli did not reply, but thrashed about like a fox in a trap. La Héron caught his other arm and pushed the man forward, face to the open furnace. “Yield,” she repeated.
The crowd jeered and laughed, but La Héron frowned and hesitated. The man was as frail as ice and weighed little more than a large dog. His violent struggles served no purpose but to pump more blood from his growing wounds. La Héron tried to hold him still.
“There is no honor in this for either of us, you fool!” she hissed, leaning in to his ear. “Yield, before you kill yourself.”
Angeli quit his struggling. La Héron loosened her grip and sighed. “Good man. Now—”
All at once, Angeli wrenched forward again. The motion caught La Héron off guard and she stumbled, tripping over the man’s heels and propelling him toward the flames. With a yelp, she recovered and caught the back of his jerkin just as his wounded arm dipped into the mouth of the fire.
Don Ennio Angeli did not even shout. La Héron yanked him away from the furnace, but his sleeve had already caught fire. In the space of a breath, his whole hand flared up like a torch, then his arm, then his collar.
“No!” La Héron shouted, but the flames spread with the speed of a spark in a barn. She pulled away, shielding her eyes with her arm as Angeli’s entire body exploded into a crackling bonfire.
And, as quickly as it had started, the fire flared out, exhausted. Where Angeli had stood a moment ago, there was now only a tumble of ash followed by the clattering of dry bone. The remains did not even smolder.
This did not lessen the horrified reaction from the marquess’s guests. The gallery erupted into a cacophony of shocked exclamations and screams. Foppish youths swooned, red-faced gamblers shouted, and bored hedonists licked their lips. The marquess, the heir, and Alex had all leaped to their feet, ready to act, but there was nothing further to be done.
“A scarecrow,” La Héron muttered, dazed. She turned to the gallery and bowed theatrically. “Most Illustrious Lord, I have vanquished my foe and sent him down the flaming river to Tartarus. The pass is mine!” The audience’s hysteria subsided, slowing to mere confusion. “I, uh, hope you have . . . marveled . . . at the mysteries of the Otherworld.”
Alex took the lead, launching into polite applause. Sebastien Vico Zonza followed, and slowly, enough of the audience participated in the nervous ovation that the rest were left to wonder if, indeed, they had just witnessed nothing more than a marvel of stage trickery. La Héron tipped her head in acknowledgement and fled the field.
“What in every sodden hell was that?” Alex cried, meeting La Héron as she stormed off the floor and into the servants’ gutter. She jogged to keep up with La Héron’s long stride. “‘Mysteries of the Otherworld’?”
“That damned satyr and his tricks,” she seethed. “What was I going to say? They’d have tossed me in a dungeon—they still might. Piacere has the real Don Angeli, somewhere.”
“That wasn’t Angeli?”
“That was his shell, his pretense. His soul has been seduced away by Piacere’s fiddle. The satyr was to fight Angeli in the next round, so he set me up to finish off his façade. He’ll get a pass tomorrow.”
“We’re going to find Piacere, then?” Alex hiked up her skirts to better match her friend’s pace. Her dark eyes gleamed with anticipation. “Make him tell us where Angeli is? Get him to confess, or—”
“Absolutely not. You are going back upstairs. I will deal with the satyr. You can’t risk yourself in this mess, and I can’t be restrained by you.”
“Pfft.” Alex waved a hand. “You needn’t restrain yourself on my account. Nobody need know—”
“Louise-Alexandrine.” La Héron stopped short, turning to look at the girl. “Piacere is too dangerous. And if he should try his trickery on me again—”
“Let him try! I will send anyone who lays an evil hand on you to hell or worse!”
“It’ll be to hell with all of us if you don’t keep out of it! Piacere is not an opponent to be bested in a fight. I don’t need a second and you are not to seek him out on your own. He cheats, Alex. He flouts every rule I know.”
Alex looked about the empty hall, face reddening with frustration. “We have fought cheats before. Together.”
“I’m not talking about tournament rules, Alex,” La Héron said. “Now, go upstairs.”
This concludes Part 1 of “The Satyr of Brandenburg.” Click here to continue reading the story.
About the Author
Charlotte Ashley is a writer and bookseller living in Toronto, Canada. Her short fiction appears in a number of anthologies and magazines, including the Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017. She has been nominated for both the Aurora and Sunburst Awards. Charlotte recently published Archipelago, an alternate history swashbuckling portal fantasy told in three novellas, co-written with Andrew Leon Hudson and Kurt Hunt.
About the Narrator
Summer Fletcher loves impractical things like fancy pastries and shooting arrows from horseback. When they are not writing, Summer is the host and assistant editor of PodCastle.