The Satyr of Brandenburg
By Charlotte Ashley
[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part novelette. Please visit last week’s post to read Part 1.]
Donshead Doombellows accompanied La Héron to confront Piacere, for she knew better than to go alone. “Witnesses,” she told the ogre. “We can remember each other. That will help.”
The satyr was in the villa’s common room entertaining a party of young nobles from the castle, fiddle at his chin and wine at hand. There was an air of camaraderie in the room, the warm togetherness of a family feast, cloying and intimate. One by one, guests drifted into the satyr’s orbit, their expressions and demeanors softening as Piacere’s presence enchanted them. The smell of roast boar and uncorked wine embraced them, delicious on undertones of crackling cedar logs.
“This really is a fine tavern, though,” Doombellows murmured, moving to sit at a table by the fire. La Héron pulled the chair away from him before he could settle into it.
“Focus,” she snapped, slamming the chair down. “Watch me, not him, or you’ll be applauding as he peels the skin from my bones.”
The ogre shook his head and affected an intimidating grimace. “Brokemasts and bracken,” he swore. “He’s good.”
La Héron grunted in acknowledgement and pushed her way past the satyr’s admirers to his table. The satyr returned her scowl with a merry smile.
“La Héron!” he cried. “My old friend! Sit! You will drink at my generosity tonight, in celebration of your great victory!” Drunken revelers raised their cups to her, roaring congratulations as the rosy-cheeked tavernkeeper arrived with an armload of bottles for the table. La Héron crossed her arms.
“You cannot even pretend, can you, Piacere? The match ended not an hour ago—I am the first to arrive. How could you know I won, if you had not intended Angeli to lose?”
“Why, I know because you are here and he is not! My great friend Don Angeli, he would have come straight to my table to drink by my side if he could.” The satyr’s smile turned into a sneer. “He is, I must conclude, with the barber. I hope you did not hurt him too badly.”
“I? Let us speak plainly, Piacere; your companions are too befuddled to need lies. You know bloody well what is become of Angeli, and you’d better produce him alive and unharmed or I will have your reputation made clear to the marquess and every noble in Sardinia.”
“My dear Héron, are you saying Angeli was not alive and unharmed when you left him?” Piacere affected a shocked look. “How is that possible? How could you, such a decorated duelist, who is always so careful, who is so celebrated for her control and sangfroid, have left him otherwise?” The satyr leaned back in his chair, tipping it onto its rear legs. He plucked the first notes of a dance on his fiddle, narrowing his eyes at her. “Unless you had dispatched him deliberately.”
“Do not threaten me,” La Héron growled, laying her hand on her hilt, “unless you intend to answer for it. You forget that I know you, satyr. You have not the courage to face anyone in honorable combat. I can speak to your record. My name carries my word.”
“Truly?” Piacere’s eyes grew black as he leaned forward. “You, who has just killed a man in front of an audience of the best blood in Sardinia? And not for the first time, hm? Perhaps they would like to hear about Muscovy, in the year of Gavriil Ivanovich?” La Héron’s fist tightened around her sword. “Yes, Héron, you are not the only one with a long memory. Leave off your threats. They are unbecoming.” His expression lightened again and with it, the room’s lamps appeared to burn brighter. “Drink with me. We could be friends again, you and I who have so much in common.”
La Héron took an inadvertent step forward, then pushed herself back. “I’ll drink with you in hell, satyr,” she growled. “We were never friends.”
“Very well, I applaud your strength of will. You have changed since Muscovy. But don’t tattle tonight, ma chère. I have been invited to dine with the marquess himself. It would be a shame to ruin the joy of that table, don’t you think? I understand there will be a particular young lady there, a Mademoiselle Louise-Alexandrine de Saint-Georges. She seems like a very charming companion!”
“Elfballs,” Doombellows swore under his breath. La Héron forced herself away from the table, one stiff step at a time, grinding her teeth.
“You will have to face me sooner or later, Piacere,” she said after clearing her throat. “On the field or elsewhere. I do not have to tell you what will become of you if Mademoiselle de Saint-Georges is not there to watch me trounce you, sound of mind and body.”
“You hear how she threatens me, friends?” the satyr complained, and the faces at the table grew stormy, turning thunderbolt eyes on her. Piacere shrugged. “But you should have seen her back in the day, when we were still close. You have never beheld so wicked, so cruel, and so reckless a duelist. But such fun we had together! Remember the brawl at the Tzar’s Mews? Remember the nymphs at Bakhchysaray? The sweet nectar of sap, the trickle of glossy blood, their whimpers—”
“You know I cannot remember,” La Héron said, voice low. “That was not me. That creature even you are not foolish enough to summon again.”
“No,” the satyr said, voice low to match hers. “I know better than to try that again. But I have other ways of taming you, my dear.”
White with anger, La Héron turned, wordless, from the table, shoving aside her shaken and confused companion. She threw open the door of the tavern with such force that she very nearly brained the person about to enter.
“Héron!” Alex exclaimed, stepping lithely out of her path. “There you are! I’ve come to tell you—”
La Héron did not slow her stride, but took her companion by the collar and moved her bodily into the shadows by the hay station.
“Alex,” she hissed. “You must not dine with the marquess tonight.”
“What? Ow, Héron, leave off. What has gotten into you? You berate me and beg me to fraternize with my peers and then threaten me when I do? Are you drunk?”
“No—no. My apologies.” La Héron let go of Alex’s collar, uncharacteristic confusion playing across her face. “But our situation has changed. You cannot dine with the marquess. The satyr will be there. You will stay with me.”
Alex’s shoulders drooped with disappointment.
“But—Héron, I have been invited as the guest of the marquess’s son, Sebastien. You must realize what that means? One satyr at a table, surrounded by guests, attendants, and servers-at-arms! He could not possibly harm us. And this opportunity—”
“He can, and will. Alex, he knows. He knows you and I travel together—and he will take you to hurt me. None of them will raise a finger to stop him. You have no notion of the danger in his power, Alex. You would not be yourself.”
Alex frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “Héron, do you not know me at all? I am always me. For better or worse—usually worse, honestly—I cannot be anything else.”
“I thought that, too, once.” La Héron’s eyes flashed gold, pupils receding. In the shadows, her cape could have been mistaken for great, folded wings. “And for people like us, people without pretense or guile, people who are so much themselves that there is no room for anything else—we fare the worst by him, for when he takes away our selves, there is nothing left but emptiness.”
“You make no sense, Héron, and you are not trying very hard to explain yourself. I admit, the satyr has a certain unnatural charm about him. But I am not incompetent. I am perfectly capable of skewering a foe when I see one!”
“Of course, Alex, but this is not a matter of skewering. If you relax your vigilance even for a moment with that creature—”
“Then I will not relax.” Alex’s eyes flashed angrily in the moonlight. “Do you think that just because you bought me a dress that I will sit like a faun at the feet of Vico Zonza instead of standing by my first friend and teacher? Do you think I will fall, giggling, into the arms of that silly boy and forget all my debts, all my oaths, and my honor? Do you think me inconstant? Lords of the Depths, you are worse than Sebastien!” She squared her shoulders again.
“Alex, stop. You must listen to me—”
“I’ve been listening, Héron, but you have said very little! Just orders and rants and some very rough handling. Something has gotten into you and it is unpleasant. So no, I won’t be staying here. I have been invited to dine with the Marquess of Soleminis as the particular friend of his son and heir, and I don’t give one bloody tick who else will be there. Sebastien will take my hand in public and we are going to have a lovely time and with any luck, I won’t ever have to return here, to you, again!” The younger woman stepped back into the golden light cast from the window. She fixed La Héron with a glare at once angry and pleading.
“By the blood of Christ, Alex, I swear I am sorry for my outburst. But you mustn’t go. You mustn’t.” La Héron reached out and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder, but Alex shrugged it off.
“Your reasons are very poorly articulated indeed,” Alex muttered. “As you say, I am not your charge and you are not my matron. If you want our bond broken, then you are going about it exactly the right way.” With a last frustrated snort, she circled the hay bales and mounted a chestnut mare barely tied to the bars. Within seconds, she spurred the beast to a gallop and was on the road full-pace toward the castle.
“Shit!” La Héron cried, after a moment’s stunned silence. She jerked open the tavern door again only to find the common room vacated of all guests. “Where . . . ?”
“That jolly fellow thought you and your lady might like some privacy,” the tavernkeeper said quietly from the kitchen door. His moustache drooped in disapproval. “They’ve all left now.”
La Héron marched up the stairs to her room without another word.
With Don Angeli gone, there were only three planned duels left in the Exhibition before All Saints’. La Héron was due to fight Donshead Doombellows on the 26th; Doombellows would face Piacere the night after; and eventually La Héron would get her crack at the satyr.
“Only I don’t believe for a minute he will face me in the arena, nor you,” La Héron whispered to Doombellows as she readied for their match after two spent in her room, brooding upon Alex’s dinner at Vico Zonza. “Watch yourself, my lad. It wouldn’t take him a quarter of an hour to draw everything Doombellows out of you, leaving just your artifice. You’ve held up to him well so far, and you’ve brought no friends to weaken you, but that is no reason to grow complacent.”
Doombellows continued lacing up his bracers as she chattered.
“We must stick together, you and I,” she continued. “He clearly intends for one of us to destroy the other. If we stay alert, stay ready, he will be forced to face or flee. His hold on the others must break, then—”
The lights in the Chamber flared up and she was interrupted by an outburst of laughter and applause from the gallery. Their stage had been revealed.
The Chamber of Demonstrations had changed once again. The entirety of the marquess’s conservatory appeared to have been emptied out into the Chamber, crowding most of the floor with a steaming jungle of mixed greenery. Mughal palm trees stood draped with masses of English ivy, while rows upon rows of lush ferns, cacti, and flytraps were set out at intervals designed to surprise even the most careful explorer. In the middle of this imaginary forest was a clearing set with a large iron cauldron.
“Put out the fire,” La Héron insisted. A terrified servant did as she bid. She turned to Doombellows. “Well, let us get this over with.”
The costume La Héron was meant to wear for her duel against Donshead Doombellows was a great deal less elegant than the previous one. The marquess’s Director of Stage had evidently decided to leave off the pretense that La Héron was any part respectable lady and had committed entirely to the myth of her giant-size heritage. She was allowed to wear her own tunic and breeches, so long as they were filthy, but the costumers provided for her a necklace of bones, a crown of crude arrowheads, and an enormous leopard pelt meant to be worn about her shoulders.
Donshead Doombellows wore exactly what he had been wearing for the last three days.
This time, La Héron made certain that her rapier was capped and safetied, though Doombellows could return her no such courtesy. Although he had a captain’s smallsword at his belt, the weapon he intended to fight with was a solid stone club bracketed with iron spikes, each half a foot long. These had been blunted, but a swing of this boulder could flatten anyone, blunt or not. La Héron saluted him as he joined her in the clearing, then the audience.
The marquess stood. “My friends, my guests. We have seen wonders these last days, but none yet as strange, as savage as the battle you are about to witness! Watch, but do not approach, our next challengers as they clash in the depths of darkest Brunei!” From somewhere deep in the servants’ gutter came the march of a great drum.
La Héron started to say something sarcastic to her comrade-at-arms, but Doombellows left her no chance. He snapped his club through the air between them, then launched at her a vicious backhand that might have sent her sailing over the trees, had she not leaped backward with only inches to spare. She regained her footing instantly, her dismissive jollity forgotten. Nothing on Doombellows’ face suggested this match was anything but deadly serious.
Despite his weapon’s great weight, Donshead Doombellows wielded it with the speed of a foil. He swung it to and fro, lunging into each stroke to lend it yet more deadly force, pausing only to change direction when his quarry was forced to roll under a blow here, or leap over a shrub there. La Héron fled, watching Doombellows with calculating yellow eyes, but not daring to remain close enough to launch a counteroffensive.
La Héron took her attacks where she could. A quick lunge out of a copse here, a slice at his elbow there. Still, she made little progress in this fashion and it seemed that soon the ogre would fell the entire forest and be free to pulp her.
She skipped sideways into the bush, shielding herself with a stout shrub that Donshead merely tore from its pot. She chanced a quick jab at his meaty forearm, but his leather bracers were too thick for her blunted tip. She backed deeper into the staged woods, slipping between the dense foliage where the ogre could not fit. He bashed it away using his club like a scythe.
“Not you, too, man! Wake up! Come back!” La Héron barked between breaths. “Come, Donshead, shove Piacere away. You are going to kill me if you keep up like this!” She stumbled over a fallen palm, rolled to a stand, and shook off her skewed crown. “At least put down that damn club and take up your sword so we can have a fair fight!”
The ogre did not reply. He lurched into a particularly mighty overhand smash that La Héron avoided by swinging around a load-bearing trellis and kicking the ogre behind the knees. He buckled slightly, turned, and brought the club overhead in an arc. The crowd hooted and jeered, the more brutish of them calling for her blood.
La Héron spared a glance at the gallery as the ogre lumbered toward her. The marquess smiled placidly at her, swirling a finger in the air as if to indicate that she should continue. At his side, Alex was as white as tallow with one hand to her lips.
La Héron looked back at her opponent, who would be within range to attack in seconds.
“Donshead Doombellows!” she cried. “I forfeit! The match is yours!”
But the ogre did not slow. He raised his club and hurtled into a renewed attack. La Héron dashed to the side just in time.
“Did you not hear me?” she panted, looking up at the marquess. “I forfeit! Lay off, Doombellows!”
The marquess glanced expectantly at the ogre and, seeing no capitulation from him, shrugged.
“Lay on,” he called. “Come, My Lady, neither of you has even drawn blood!”
“My Lord,” Alex said, clearing her throat. “I am not sure MonsieurDoombellows is quite in his right mind. La Héron has forfeit. Should you not—”
“Mademoiselle Alexandrine, your compassion is charming. But he is a wild creature, hm? If the savagery of this battle dampens your spirits, perhaps my son could take you back to the music hall for some air—”
Doombellows launched yet another deadly succession of attacks with his great weapon. La Héron was forced to flee again into what was left of the jungle, tearing off her leopard cape as she ran. When the ogre bent double into the last of his blows, she threw it in his face, stepped on the end of his club, and lunged full-weight into his throat. Her blade sank into the rolls of flesh, but no blood followed. He lifted his weapon once more and La Héron was thrown to the ground.
“You see?” the marquess said. “The giantess has life in her yet. What fun!”
La Héron recovered her feet and tore through the brush, emerging on the far side by the gutters. Doombellows had shaken loose the cape and was turning quick circles, seeking his opponent.
La Héron faced him like a torero, waiting with an unshakable calm.
She produced a tiny knife from the folds of her breeches and tossed it to her off-hand, twirling it with surgical precision. Anticipating Doombellows’ swing by inches, La Héron stepped to one side and slashed his belt in two, causing his sword to dangle. She scooped the weapon from its sheath, pivoted, and placed her boot on the ogre’s enormous backside, giving him a mighty shove. The ogre stumbled, stepped on his lose belt, and fell straight forward, hitting the ground with a thud that shook the gilded rafters and set the chandeliers ringing.
La Héron wasted no time leaping atop the ogre’s back and swinging hard with his big blade. She hit his wrist with a hard thunk, severing his hand entirely. It rolled away, a knotted block of wood.
“So this is what is left, is it?” La Héron muttered, looking at the wooden limb with resignation. With a twist and a lunge, she took the sword in both hands and drove it deep between the ogre’s shoulder blades. He stopped then, arched, and fumbled at his back. From the audience, gasps and jeers arose from all sides.
“. . . in the back, why, how could even she?”
La Héron ignored them. With one boot planted firmly on his neck, she wrenched the sword from his trunk-like torso, then plunged it in again, this time into the base of his spine. The ogre’s arms dropped and he fell still. Though no blood emerged from either wound, his only movement was a rising and falling of his back; his only sound a hollow clicking from deep within his chest.
Leaving the sword where it was, La Héron jumped off the thing that was left of Donshead Doombellows, and bowed to the marquess and the dumbstruck audience.
This time, nobody applauded.
The guests of Vico Zonza turned to gossip and conspiracy. Had not the Inquisition been at least a little bit right about these Otherworldly persons? They were, at best, soulless; at worst, they were bloodthirsty savages. What further horrors could the finale bring?
They could not wait to find out.
La Héron, savage and murderess, would face the charming Satyr of Brandenburg on the eve of All Saints’. The Chamber of Demonstration had become a ballroom of black and white marble, black velvet hangings on a bright white backdrop, Comedia masks of saints and devils adorning the false walls. The saint resembled the smiling face of Piacere; the devil wore La Héron’s habitual scowl.
“His Lordship has taken sides,” La Héron muttered to herself, surveying the room. Eager as she was to finally match swords with the satyr, she knew he would not simply fight her. The true threat could come from anywhere, could be anyone.
The gallery was packed to the walls with glassy-eyed fops and flush-cheeked ingénues chattering excitedly, the gutters with equally feverish servants tracking her with unusual engagement. In the box of honor, Alex sat at the elbow of her young beau, while the marquess engaged in close conversation with Piacere. Seeing this, La Héron marched into the ballroom.
“Piacere!” she called. “Won’t you join me down below? I believe we have an appointment.”
The satyr turned his grin on her and leaned lazily on the rail. “I could never forget an engagement with you, my dear,” he drawled. “Do you have a speech prepared for your concession, or should I just send someone down to collect your sword?”
La Héron spat. “Spare me your theatrics. Just get down here. I don’t believe it will take more than a minute of your time.”
A petulant scowl marred Piacere’s face as he stood straight. “I don’t understand why you must ruin my fun, La Héron. What are the others to you? You could have given up at any time. This all could have ended, bloodlessly and joyfully, if only you had played along.”
“I won’t promise not to spill your blood, it is true. I owe you too much, Piacere, for Angeli and Doombellows—and Muscovy. You would have been better advised to stay as far from me as you could for the rest of eternity.”
“I cannot believe you are still angry about Muscovy, Héron! How was I to know you would make such a terrible companion? I had never met one of your kind before. I have danced with empresses and dined with goddesses, caroused with pixies and slept with yōkai. But I had never before met someone who was nothing but what they are.” He grinned. “I think you are very special. Doesn’t that flatter you?”
“You are too old to be this stupid, Piacere. It is precisely because there are others like me that I must kill you now.” She paused and watched the marquess for his reaction, but no one in the galleria made a sound. To a body, they sat still and obedient, like dolls set out at a dinner party. Her gaze roamed over the marquess’s handsome son and landed on Alex, as still as the rest of them.
Piacere followed her gaze over his shoulder. “Ah, this one. I see why you like her, La Héron, she’s quite jolly. We have spent a great deal of time together these last nights. I count her now among my very best friends.” He gestured, and Alex rose at his side. “I don’t expect she will allow you to simply kill me.”
“Come down here and we shall see,” La Héron growled, drawing her sword. “If you think I cannot kill you and rescue a simple human girl in the same breath, then you have learned nothing of me at all.”
Alex descended the stairs first, a vanguard for the bored-looking satyr who plucked idly at his fiddle. Though she was impeccably turned out in a yellow gown with white ribbon, she had apparently been armed with her own rapier as well.
“You say you don’t remember Muscovy, La Héron, but I never forgot it,” Piacere continued as the tall woman backed into the ballroom, giving them space to safely exchange blows. “You loved my music. You succumbed to my company as readily as anyone. But once you had given yourself over to me, there was nothing left. No shell, no face. No façade. What was that thing, then, that sat at my table? What drank my spirits, ate my food, fought my duels? It was a bloodthirsty thing, reckless and relentless. That creature was no friend of mine or anyone’s.” Piacere closed his eyes at the memory. “That was too much, even for me.”
La Héron said nothing, but turned to align Alex and Piacere with her blade.
“You think you fought your way back to the space that thing had taken, but in truth, I let you go. I did not want it near me for one more day. It was amusing at first but—” He shrugged. “Is that what lives in the space between everything, do you think? Or is it only your kind who have such unholy shadows?”
“You should have given up your trickery and never had to find out. The next time you try to steal away someone like me, you might meet a very unpleasant fate.”
“Give me some credit, Héron. I have learned to pick better companions. After all, how many of you could there possibly be? I have not met another these four hundred years.” He lifted his soft hand and pointed at her. “Mademoiselle de Saint-Georges, I leave you to your work.” He turned his back on them.
Meeting La Héron’s eye, Alex smirked.
With a backstep and a twist, Alex caught Piacere by the ponytail, pulling him toward her. The satyr stumbled with the ambush.
“What? Impossible!” The satyr coughed as Alex reeled him in by the hair and brought her saber’s edge to his throat. “How aren’t you listening to me?”
“I don’t listen to anybody, you goat-turd,” she growled, eyes sparkling. She looped his long hair through his belt and hauled him around by the waist to face his nemesis. For the first time in days, La Héron enjoyed a genuine smile. “Do you really want to kill him, Héron?” she asked.
“Yes,” La Héron replied. “But, like all things that feel very good, that is probably not wise.” She sheathed her sword and snatched Piacere’s fiddle from his hands, smashing it on the ballroom floor. His lower lip curled in grief. “Let us take him far from here so that these people might be released from his spell. We can decide his fate on the way.”
They had descended barely halfway down the tunnel toward the servants’ exit when they heard the astonished cries of the crowd behind them. They made greater haste.
“Saint-Germaine? Are you mad?”
“There is a prison there for the likes of this fellow. I should never have taken my eye off of him. I will not repeat that mistake.”
“But Saint-Germaine, Héron! Could we not take him to the Hague?” Alex rode slowly behind her friend with a rope gathered in her hand. At the other end, Piacere, gagged and filthy, stumbled to keep up on foot. “It’s just that—is it wise for me to enter Saint-Germaine?”
“The world is stirring, Alex. I think the time has come to apply ourselves differently. A great man is currently in hiding in your father’s lands, and I think we should avail ourselves to him. Taste the wind, Birdsong. A rich master might be just what we need right now, and your blood will recommend us to him.”
“I don’t understand. Why now?”
“Because you withstood Piacere. I misjudged you, even after all this time, and I am sorry for that. I thought it was only a fairy curse that kept you by my side—” She slowed her horse to allow Alex and the satyr to catch up. “But now I see that you are something more. You are like me.”
“I could have told you that,” Alex grumbled. “I ought to be angry with you still. How could you think I’d let Piacere muddle me?”
“Perhaps,” La Héron said with a sigh, “I did not think at all. I let my fears rule me. It has been so long since I had any, I had forgotten what they feel like.”
“Does that make me your weakness, then?” Alex’s eyes sparkled with amusement at this.
“I can see your heart is well and truly broken by the loss of Sebastien whatever-his-name-was, Alex, for it has addled your brain. I have lived a good, long time alone and I could manage it again.”
Alex snorted skeptically and La Héron patted her hand.
“But I do not want to. I am . . . glad for your company.”
“And I, yours,” Alex returned fondly. “So, to Saint-Germain. Very well. Perhaps our fate lies there.”
“Who knows?” La Héron sighed. “Who ever knows? We’re both ruled by unknowable winds. Let us just see where this road takes us.”
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.