The Dragon Done Itedited by Eric Flint and Mike Resnick

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The Witch's MurderDave Freer and Eric FlintBrother Mascoli knew that he made an unimpressive figure in his much washed and faded cassock. The monk of the Peterine order of Saint Hypatia was a small man, as plain and unassuming as the wooden cross from around his neck, which he held aloft in an effort to try and cool the mob."Burn her!"The crowd carried pitchforks, kitchen knives, staves and burning brands. If the door they'd been attacking held out for much longer they would probably set fire to the house.Mascoli clambered awkwardly onto an empty barrel, which allowed him to look over the heads of the mob. The chant that had attracted his attention, and brought him running to the scene as fast as his old legs would carry him, had begun to pick up again. He held up his hands for quiet. "Brothers! Sisters! Cease! What are you doing?""We're here to burn the witch!" said a tall man, with a slight cast to his eye, from the middle of mob. "She's a pagan, a devil-worshipper and a murderess!"In the villages and small towns along the marshy fringes of the Venetian Lagoon there was a reasonable chance that most of the people were half pagan themselves. This mob was unlikely to be any exception. Not a half a mile outside the town he'd passed a little shrine to two-headed Janus at the crossroads. The two faces of the old idol were weather-etched into mere featureless rounded shapes. But it was well tended, with a fresh offering of flowers. He'd spotted some drops of fresh blood on the ground, near it, and gone to look closely. If there was blood sacrifice, the church would intervene. But Mascoli had found the true culprit soon enough. A torn bladder, plainly from a fresh blood sausage that had gone awry, discarded on the nearby pathway to a lonely farmhouse. There was a lot of pig-killing at this time of year, as the peasant farmers got ready for the winter. If he hadn't stopped to investigate, he would have reached the small town in daylight, before the mob had assembled. Yes, they were a half-pagan lot, here. Not that the entire population wouldn't all be in church, and praying devoutly, and taking communion on Sunday. It was just that old ways and beliefs clung among the peasantry. The marshes had been the last redoubt for many people over the centuries, for pagans too. The twisted muddy reed-fringed waterways had hidden many things over the years, including witches and nonhuman creatures. Brother Mascoli knew, well enough, that some of them were black indeed. He also knew that others were not. They came through the consecrated wards of the water-chapel to visit him, to seek healing. Another thing struck him. The accent of the accuser had Milanese overtones, if he was any judge. He turned his mild gaze on the man. "And who are you, sir, that make such accusations? You sound a foreigner to these parts."It must have been the right thing to say, because the crowd hushed. Villages—and this one straddled the divide where locals would proudly call it a town, and outsiders would call it a village—were insular places. Strangers could take generations to integrate completely. The fellow started, as if surprised that he should even be asked. "I am Dottore Sarbucco. This is my home," there was an infinitesimal pause, "now. I am from Milan, some years back, before I came here seeking quietness and my health. But we are here to deal with this witchwoman! She has murdered Vincente! Killed him by her black arts. Brother, is it not written that you shall not suffer a witch to live? We must haul her hence or roast her in her vile nest before she escapes!"The crowd yelled its approval. Mascoli held up his hands for calm again. "Friends, please! The church and the law have their own methods for dealing with those who abuse magic. It is not for us to preempt God's justice." The monk felt very alone there, perched above sixty villagers. Still, he had been a preacher and healer to the rough canal folk and the nonhuman denizens of the marshes for forty years. He was not about to be cowed. "Go home. Let the Podesta and the priest come to me, and also this woman's accusers. We will try the truth of this matter. There will be no rough justice served here this evening." "Podesta's drunk," said one of crowd, with a knowing chuckle. "You won't get sense out of him before sext tomorrow." "And Father Baritto has gone to give the last rites to old Fili," said another. "It's all of five miles to the farm. He'll not be back tonight."A man came thrusting through the crowd, whacking people aside with a rough crutch. He was not someone Brother Mascoli would want to stand in the way of, at least, not by what one could see in the torchlight. His broad face was marred by several scars and was further adorned by a crooked broken nose. He still had all his teeth, though, and he was grinning. A path opened in front of him. Plainly, once they realized who was coming through the villagers had no desire to stand in his way. "Good day, Brother," he said, as if this were a chance meeting in the course of a pleasant evening stroll. "Carlo Palinni at your service. I am newly retired here, from service in the army of Padua. I have a small pension-job as assistant to the Podesta, and the receiver of messages from the Doge's messengers." He grimaced and patted the crutch. "I am not much use as a soldier these days. Can I be of assistance?"Brother Mascoli eyed him with both relief and trepidation. The man was offering to help but he looked more like a criminal himself. Mascoli had tended those, as he tended the wounds of any who entered his small run-down chapel. That was why he was here now: he'd come from Venice, with a very scanty purse of silver, to buy certain herbs and simples from a woman of this town on the eastern fringe of the lagoon. Winter was creeping in and with the winter fogs came the coughs and chest complaints, especially from the bridge brats. What they needed was food, warmth and a dry place to sleep, but all he had to offer was treatment for the coughs and his prayers. He was never sure how effective the former was. One of the city's closet Strega—at least, Mascoli was sure that he was a magic user—had pointed him at this source. This very house, on the edge of the village, unless he was mistaken. It meant that there was a genuine likelihood that the woman trapped inside actually was a witch, or at least a worker of magics. "Can you clarify this situation?" he asked gently. "I would, but I'm new here myself," said the old soldier. "Very new. I only arrived here the day before yesterday. I heard the noise and came to see. I've already noticed that there's not usually much noise in these parts after dark." The last was said dryly. The soldier pointed with his crutch. "You. Pox-doctor. Sarbucco. And you. Wine-draper. What's your name again? Lampara. You stay here and tell us what this is all about. We will deal with it. The rest of you go home. Now."There was something so very final and firm about that "Now" that the edges of the crowd began to melt away into the twilight even as he said it. A few of the crowd stood irresolutely and then suddenly found reason to be elsewhere when they realized that they'd be standing there on their own. The soldier snagged a pitch-dipped brand from a departing villager. It cast a ruddy light on the two men who remained. Mascoli was sure that he saw someone else lurking in the shadows. The hint of a skirt, perhaps. The man the soldier had called "pox-doctor" looked absolutely furious. The other, Lampara, looked as if he had sampled too freely of his own wares. Actually, the whole group had reeked of wine. One or two had been reeling drunk as they'd staggered off. That in itself was not necessarily odd, except for the circumstances. It was early and in the middle of the week, with no feast day or holiday in sight. "Now," said the soldier, grimacing as he straightened his leg and sat down on the step of the house. "What's all this about?" "Murder!" said the innkeeper Lampara. "And she's the only one who could have done it." His voice shook slightly, and there was no mistaking the genuine horror in it. "You should not have stopped us," said Sarbucco angrily. "She can reach through walls to kill with black magics. She killed Vincente! She murdered him in a locked room. She is evil to the core."Brother Mascoli had very keen hearing. He was sure that he heard an outraged sniff at this comment, from somewhere behind him. "We are not murderers. And evil cannot triumph over God and the law," he said tranquilly, although in his heart he knew evil could sometimes defeat the law, at least.By the brief snort and the shake of his shoulders, the old soldier didn't believe it either. "Tell us, exactly, what we are dealing with," said Palinni. "And then if needs be we'll haul the suspect out and keep her for the Podesta in the morning. Well, after sext bell." "You must come and see," said the innkeeper eagerly. "It is my back room. I keep it for . . . uh, private business. It has no windows. Only the one door made of good oak. Three fingers thick at least. And it was locked from the inside, when Vincente began screaming. He screamed her name. Over and over. We all heard him." Lampara shuddered and crossed himself. "It was very horrible, brother. When we came in he was lying there, facedown in a great pool of blood. Dead!""And he was alone in the chamber, Brother," said Sarbucco. "The witch killed him, as surely as I stand here. Half the town must have heard him accuse her, as we tried to break the door down. The testimony of a dying man cannot be denied.""Well," said the soldier, grunting as he stood up. "There is that. I've known it to be wrong at times, though." Palinni reached into his pocket and produced a large bunch of keys. A very large bunch for an honest man to just happen to have in his pocket. Then he frowned as he looked at the door. "I should have guessed," he said grumpily. "Not locked. Barred."He knocked hard on the door. "Come out. They've all gone.""No. Go away," said the woman behind the door, who had plainly been listening at the crack. There was a thin edge of hysteria in her voice."Signora, if you don't open the door they'll burn you out," said the soldier. "I know the ways of the mob. They'll drink some more courage and come back.""And if I do come out these liars will burn me anyway. I swear I had nothing to do with the death of that fool Vincente Trazzoria. I did not even know he was dead until they came hunting me like a pack of mad dogs. I will die in my own home." There was definitely a sob at the end of her statement."Sister," said Mascoli, in the gentle voice he usually kept for treating hurt children. "I am Brother Mascoli, a Sibling of the Order of Saint Hypatia. I prevented the mob from killing you earlier. Surprise was on my side then. It will not be again. Come out, and we will escort you to a place where you can stay safely, at least until you are given a fair trial. If you have truly done no ill, then you have nothing to fear. Magic leaves its own traces and I am skilled at detecting those."After a moment, there was the sound of a heavy bar being lifted. And then came another pause. "The Podesta may not accept such evidence.""Accept it or not," growled the soldier. "Come out and down to the cells. That way you will at least live until tomorrow."The bar was lifted, and the door pushed slightly open. Frightened dark eyes peered at them from around the edge of it, making sure that the mob was not hiding in the darkness. "Witch," hissed Sarbucco. She spat at his shoes. The innkeeper looked terrified, as if he would like to melt back into the darkness. "Take her arm," said the soldier to the innkeeper, preventing his hasty departure and pushing him forward with his crutch. "I would, but it is awkward with this thing." They walked down the dark street, with shutters snapping closed as they went, until they came to the building in the middle of the town which plainly served as the prison, courthouse and residence for such forces of Venice's law as watched over this backwater of her empire. It was, by local standards, quite impressive—two stories, of brick and mortar and with a tiled roof. The soldier rapped on the door with his crutch. At length it was unlocked and they were faced by a sleepy plump man with blond hair, carrying an arquebus. He blinked at the party. "Signor Carlo?" "It's not San Marco come back down from heaven," said Palinni. "Let us in, Karg. We've got a prisoner for the cells."Like most of the Schiopettieri who served as the Republic's police, this one was apparently a German mercenary. Karg swung open the door and let them into the stone-flagged room. Coming into the light, Brother Mascoli could see their prisoner properly for the first time, and understood why she was suspected of being a witch and trafficking with the devil. She was quite beautiful, in truth; but also, in the back country where women flowered young and were old crones at thirty-five, too old to be considered that attractive by most villagers. Judging by the tiny lines around her eyes, she was at least forty years old. She carried herself far too upright, too, for a commoner. Her dark hair was straight and lustrous, with just one or two strands of white."You two, go home," said the old soldier, pointing to the innkeeper and the doctor. "Karg, see the lady to a cell."Palinni was used to giving orders, Brother Mascoli thought, looking at the man. If he was to have suspected any man of murder, it would be this one. He turned to leave."Where are you off to, Brother?" asked Palinni."I thought I would fulfil my promise and go to the room where the unfortunate man was murdered, and see if there was any magic used, and if there are traces left as to who might have done it. And then I was going to the church. I wrote to Father Baritto and he promised me a bed. He is away, but perhaps there is a housekeeper . . .""Lives alone," supplied Karg. "But the sacristan can let you in. If it is not unlocked. There's not much crime hereabouts.""Other than murders and witch-burning mobs just as soon as I arrive," said the old soldier. "Well, lead on, Brother. Not too fast. I am a bit slower than I should be on this pin. Lock up after us, Karg.""Is it wise? The mob may come here," said Mascoli. This place was more of a fortress than the woman's house had been, but one man and one arquebus seemed scanty defense. "We're only two doors down from the inn. We'll hear if anything happens, and I've never let murder or dead bodies in a pool of blood put me off my supper, which I haven't had yet." Palinni spoke with casual disregard for the finer feelings of his companions. "Let's go. You can tell me how you came here just in time to stop a witch-burning, and I'll see if there is enough copper, and piety, in my purse to buy you supper." He looked critically at the Hypatian monk. "Piety is in short supply, but it's feed you or let a strong breeze blow you away."Mascoli had resigned himself to a cold night and an empty stomach, being no stranger to either, and he was rather taken aback by the rough kindness behind the comment. This Carlo Palinni was not quite what he'd first taken him to be. He gave orders far too confidently to have been just a foot soldier, although his appearance did not suggest anything else. "Let us go then, Signor Palinni. I confess it has been some time since I ate. And the sooner we get to the body the better. I am a healer. I have seen many ailments and wounds, and know a little of what could kill a man.""Better and better. I'll add a glass of wine to the meal." The old soldier was stumping along next to him with quite a turn of speed, despite his comments about how his leg slowed him up. The inn was crowded, with many of the faces that Mascoli had seen in the mob. That in itself was also unusual, as money for drinking was sparse in villages. But perhaps the excitement had brought them out. There was a sudden silence as they walked in. It was not hard to guess what the topic of conversation had been. "Lampara," said Palinni. "Give us two plates of food, and some of that wine of yours. The red from Signor Forli's vineyards, not the rubbish you tried to give me the first night I was here. And you can take us to look at the body while you get the food ready.""But Signor Carlo," protested Lampara, "I have closed up that part of the inn. There is another door in the passage. I . . . I thought it best that he lay there until Father Baritto gets here. It is the dead. You should not gawk at the dead.""You fat fraud. You'd sell tickets to your grandmother's funeral," said the soldier genially. "I wonder what gave you this idea." "The Dottore . . ." He looked at the soldier's face and nodded. "I will get the key." As he scurried away, Mascoli looked curiously at his companion. "For a man who has barely been in town for two days, you know a remarkable amount about t

e locals. Who makes the good wine. People's names . . .""You learn to be quick about learning both as a soldier. Especially about the wine," said the man, thrusting people aside with his crutch, and heading them towards a nondescript door at the back of the common room. The innkeeper joined them with a large key and opened it. The passage behind was as black as the very pits of hell. Mascoli took a tallow-dipped rush from a pile in the corner and kindled it from a simple lamp, just wicks thrust into a clay bowl of olive oil, perched in the sconce. They walked down the cool passage, which sloped distinctly."This is a cellar?""Yes. It was," said Lampara. "But I no longer use it for that purpose. It serves for guests who want a private place away from the common room."Walking down the cool passage, Brother Mascoli had to wonder just who in such a village would want such privacy? A tryst for lovers seemed unlikely, not if they had to enter through the common room. Such places were often used by conspirators or heretical sects or the practitioners of the kinds of magic that was best not revealed to the sun. "Who was this Vincente?" he asked. "A local man?"The innkeeper scowled. "He was born here, yes. But he went off to Venice just as soon as he could find a boat to carry him. He came back after the war with Milan full of big stories about how he'd been a galley oarsman and been to Outremer. His father was dead then and he got the two farms out Fruili way.""A wealthy man?"The innkeeper snorted. "Only if you count his debts as wealth. He was a gambler. One doesn't like to speak ill of the dead, but he wasn't even a good gambler. He owed money to nearly everyone. But he said he'd had a good coup." He sighed. "He promised me . . . And now I'll never see my money either."They came to the broken door. The wood itself had been splintered rather than the heavy old lock. Mascoli pushed it inwards and lifted the rush to look at the blood on the flagged floor. He could only look at the blood because there was no body.There was quite a lot of blood, though. The innkeeper's eyes widened in horror. "He was dead!" he exclaimed, his voice shaking. "I saw him myself. Half the town saw him. Dottore Sarbucco examined him. Felt for a pulse in his neck. He was dead!"Palinni was already prowling around the room. "Well, either you were mistaken or someone moved the body. When did you lock the outer door?" "On my honor, straight after the last person left. I went and hung the key up behind the bar. Magro, you can ask him, he said to me, 'We are going to kill a witch and you still hang the key up.'"He called me an old woman," added the innkeeper indignantly. "The Dottore told me to lock it. But no one calls him an old woman.""Magro's a fool. Can't tell a jackass from an old woman," said the soldier. "You hung the key up where everyone in this little town knows you always hang it, I'll wager? In the same place as you've hung it for the last twenty years, belike."The innkeeper nodded. "When we leave here, you'll lock it again. This time I'll keep the key." Palinni turned to Brother Mascoli who was kneeling on the floor next to the small table and the pool of blood. "Well, Hypatian? Praying for the dear departed?" There was a hint of amusement in his voice.Mascoli shook his head. "Looking at the blood, Signor Carlo. It is not enough, if the man bled to death. Of course he may have bled internally." "Hmm. It's an odd place for a man to sit alone, for no reason," said Carlo, stumping over to the table. "What was he doing in here?"The innkeeper tried to look blank but only managed to look evasive. "I do not ask," he said, throwing his hands up. "It is the customer's business.""Perhaps you should go and wash those hands, Pontius," said Brother Mascoli allowing his thoughts to escape his lips. He would have to do penance for that, but it was obvious something was awry here. He took four candles from his frayed pouch, and began to carefully set them out at the cardinal points. If some dark magic had left its residue here the wards would provide some protection. The innkeeper blinked at him. "My name is Paolo, not Pontius.""Well, Paolo-Pontius," said the soldier, "get along with you and see how that woman of yours is doing with a plate of food for us. How long will you be, master monk?""It will take but a short while," said Mascoli, and began to chalk the seven lines of enclosure, chanting from the psalms as he did so. But even as he did it, he knew it for a waste of labor. Nothing more magical than a dried salamander being struck into flame had ever happened down here, he'd warrant. There was none of the faint taint to the air that magic always brought to his nostrils. A smell not unlike that of a tinker's solder, which he had been told that most people were unaware of.A little while later he knew the definite truth. None of the telltale signs of magical workings were here. But he was still left with the feeling evil had been done in this room."He did not die by magic," he said to Carlo and two or three of the tavern louts who had sneaked down the passage to gawk.Carlo nodded. "I assume that that's why someone removed the body."Brother Mascoli found himself nodding in reply. He knelt, soaked up a little of the blood onto a shred of linen, and put it into a small bottle in his pouch. He caught the questing gaze of the soldier. "There may be someone with hunting dogs," he explained."Clever. I had not thought of that. Of course it will depend on the victim dripping blood. I'll see to it in the morning. Let's get some food into you." Brother Mascoli followed him to a hot plate of bollo misto. His companion ate too, in silence, as they listened to the inn's patrons telling increasingly grisly stories about what was behind the locked door. The large, simple key, Brother Mascoli noted, Carlo Palinni had carefully put in his pouch. The wine, an inky Barbera, was too like the blood on the floor for comfort. After he had eaten, one of the locals escorted him to the sacristan, who took him to a truckle bed that had been prepared for him. He knelt, prayed and gratefully lay down on it. He'd walked a long way that day. He could have come all the way by boat, but such a passage was beyond his slender means. There were other, better uses for the little bit of silver he had with him. He was tired, but sleep was far from him. He wondered if it had occurred to anyone, his crippled escort or anyone else, that the missing body implied that the murderer had had at least one accomplice. The woman had not killed the fellow by magic, if she had killed him at all. Troubling thoughts about Carlo Palinni crossed his mind, too, until he drifted into an uneasy sleep.  His rest was disturbed in the gray predawn by someone sitting on the bed. He opened his eyes to find Palinni at the foot of it. "Good morning, my clerical friend," said the soldier, scratching a stubbly scarred chin. "You are up early." Mascoli rubbed sleep from his eyes. "And to bed late, too. A few people to talk to, and a large number of fruitless hours spent tapping walls and floors in a cellar."Mascoli blinked. "I had wondered . . .""I thought you might. It was quite obvious that the real murderer might have hidden there and screamed false accusations. Through a thick oak door one screamed voice is much like another. The bad news is that there is no hidden chamber. I am especially good at finding them." The monk had to wonder why. "He could perhaps have hidden behind the door, and joined the press of onlookers?" The grizzled old soldier shook his head. "I am before you there. I questioned all of those who were on the scene. Most of them were too full of wine to be holding anything back. Three of them were there at the front, when the door broke. Big fellows all, charging it. They fell into the room—and the door bounced back and closed behind them. They were sweating freely just telling me of it, being in that candle-lit room with the dead man.""They could have been accomplices . . ."The soldier shook his head. "I don't think so. Their stories were are slightly different.""Meaning they lied."The soldier shook his head. "Meaning they told the truth. If their stories had all been exactly the same, then I would know they'd colluded. The stories were close enough, just slightly different as to the details. No, this Vincente was all alone in that locked room with no secret chambers or exits. It does look like the magic you say could not have happened, did. And what's more, he was known to have had a very public dispute with the woman in the street, two days ago, in which she threatened him with 'consequences.'""And what does she say about this?""Nothing. She has decided that she will not talk to me. I wondered if she might talk to you." "Me?""You. She trusted you yesterday. And you are not from this little nest of rogues. They'll lie like flat fish to protect each other. I don't trust them at all.""You are going to a great deal of effort, Carlo Palinni," said Mascoli, getting up. He was wondering if all of this was true—and if so, why the old soldier was pursuing the matter with such diligence."I have my own axe to grind," explained Palinni, with just a hint of implacable grimness on his broad, scarred, and patently untrustworthy visage. "Come down to the cells. Please."Mascoli nodded. "I will be there, shortly." In the pale light of dawn the little town looked much like any other fishing village on the marshy fringe of the great lagoon. It smelled a little better though. The wind was blowing across the sandy scrub-covered sandbar from the Adriatic only a few miles away, bringing the salty tang of the open sea with it. Brother Mascoli took a deep lungful of sea air and knocked on the door leading to the cells. The same Schiopettieri, Karg, opened it for him. The plump German did not look as if he had slept. He yawned. "Through here, Brother."The town had two cells, which was probably more than it needed most of the time. The woman did not look as if she'd slept either."Blessings, sister," said Mascoli. "Spare me the religious prattle. When are they coming to kill me?" There was both pride and fear in her voice. She stood straight and defiant holding onto the bars."Sister, I could find no trace of any magic being used in the cellar where this man was killed."She looked at him, incredulously. And then burst into tears.Mascoli reached through the bars and took her hand, gently squeezing it. He let her cry for a little while. "It is said that you threatened him.""I . . . I did it just to frighten him." She sniffed, and then said defiantly, "He called me a

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