The Mortal Word – Genevieve Cogman

The braziers in the torture chamber had burned low while Irene waited for the count to arrive. The stone wall behind her back was cold, even through her layers of clothing—dirndl, blouse, apron, and shawl—and the shackles scraped her wrists. Down the corridor she could hear the sounds of the other prisoners: suppressed tears, prayers, and a mother trying to soothe her baby. She’d been arrested at about three o’clock. It must be early evening by now: there were no windows in the dungeons, and she couldn’t hear the bells in the castle chapel or the village church, but it had been several hours at least. She wished that she’d had a bigger lunch. The door opened, and one of the guards poked his head in to check that she was still there. It was a pro forma inspection, not serious; after all, she was chained to the wall, in a locked torture chamber, deep under the castle. How could she possibly go anywhere? His assumptions would have been correct, if she hadn’t been a Librarian. But for the moment, they thought she was a normal human, even if they did believe she was a witch, and she had to play the part. Irene knew that the people in the small Germanic village next to the castle would be particularly devout in their prayers that night. For another witch—namely, her—had been arrested by the count’s guard and hauled off to be put to the question. Otto, the Count of Süllichen—or rather, the Graf von Süllichen—was superstitious, paranoid, and vindictive: he was constantly on the watch for witches and plotters against his rule. The villagers would be afraid that she’d name them in her inevitable confession. The sound of weeping was hushed as the thump of marching boots echoed down the corridor.

Irene swallowed, her throat abruptly dry. This was where she found out if her plan had been quite as clever as it seemed earlier. The dungeon door was flung open brutally, crashing into the wall. Haloed in the torch-light beyond, the Graf loomed there, his arms folded. His heavy black velvet doublet suggested shoulders wider than was actually the case, but the two soldiers at attention behind him were muscular enough for any manhandling that might be necessary. He considered Irene, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “So,” he finally said, “the newest witch who dares sneak into my domain and plot against me. Have you not learned, wench, that all those who came before you failed?” “Oh, forgive me, most noble Graf!” Irene begged humbly. She knew that her German was too modern for this time and place, but he would probably be only too happy to take it as additional proof of witchcraft. “I was a fool to come here.

I cast myself at your feet and beg for mercy!” The Graf looked surprised. “You admit your guilt?” Irene looked down at the floor, trying to squeeze out a tear or two. “You have chained me in iron, Your Grace, and there is a crucifix on the door. I am bound and my Satanic master will no longer help me.” “Well.” The Graf paused, then rubbed his hands together. “Well, this makes a pleasant change! Perhaps I will not have to question you as harshly as I did your sisters. Confess all your evildoings and name your accomplices, and you may yet be spared from damnation.” “But I have done such dreadful things, most noble Graf . ” Irene managed a heartfelt sniffle.

“How can I befoul your ears with my confession? You are a nobleman, far above such things.” As she’d hoped, that got his full interest. “Wench, there is nothing you can tell me which I have not already read. You may not know this …” In fact, she did know it—and it was the reason she was there. “… but I am the most learned man in all Württemberg. Men come from across Germany to admire my books. Many of the treatises of the great holy men and witch-hunters adorn my library. The Malleus Maleficarum of Kramer was my childhood reading. I have studied the confessions of witches from across the world. Yours will be no different.

” An idea of how to get rid of at least one guard came to Irene. “Then I beg you to summon a priest, most noble Graf. Let me make my final confession to him as well as you, so that I may be saved from the flames of hell.” The Graf nodded. “You show wisdom, woman. Stefan. Fetch Father Heinrich here at once.” “But, sire,” the guard protested, “he said that he wanted nothing more to do with the questioning of witnesses—” “Fool.” The Graf cut him off. “This witch is begging to confess her sins.

Hah! This will prove to him that I was right in my suspicions all along. Fetch him and be quick about it … I don’t care if he’s in the middle of mass or the middle of supper, but drag him down here so that this foul wench may cleanse her conscience.” Irene noted that the guard rolled his eyes heavenwards but that he was careful to do it when the Graf had his back turned. “Of course, sire,” he muttered, and left at a trot, closing the door behind him. “Now, wench.” The Graf was practically salivating at the thought of licentious confessions. “Tell me what brought you to my domain and into my hands. And the hands of Mother Church, of course,” he added as an afterthought. “Be warned: if you attempt to hold anything back, I will be forced to put you to the question after all. You see those irons heating in the brazier? You see the rack, and the iron maiden in the corner of the room? Many before have tried to keep silent and have failed.

” He pondered. “Tell me first why your hair is shorn in such an unwomanly way. Did you sacrifice it to your dark master in return for powers of seduction or disease?” Irene couldn’t think of a way to get the second guard out of the room. She’d just have to deal with him before the first one came back. Time to move to stage two of the plan. “He cut it from my head as I knelt before him, most noble Graf,” she confessed. “He spoke words of power as he did so.” Not remotely accurate. Her hair had been cut by her friend and ex-apprentice during a recent excursion to Prohibition America. It was so difficult maintaining a consistent hair-style between alternate worlds.

But nobody in this place and time—sixteenth-century Germany—would believe that a woman would choose to have her hair cut short. “Really?” The Graf walked over to where a book lay open on a lectern and dipped the quill there in the open inkwell. “Recite his diabolical words for me, so that I can have a record of these spells.” “He said—” And Irene shifted to the Language. The time for pretence was over. “Ink, fly in the eyes of the men: chains, open and release me.” One of the many useful things about being a Librarian—as opposed to being a witch—was that Irene could use the Library’s Language to change the world around her. Even if she was in manacles and chained to the wall. Which she wasn’t any longer. The heavy iron cuffs fell open, releasing her.

She prudently took a few steps to the side before the guard, who was currently rubbing his eyes and howling in rage and fear, could think of attacking where she’d been standing. “Breeches, bind your legs together and hobble your wearers, ” she ordered. After all, she was wearing a dress, not breeches, so the only people it would affect would be the guard and the Graf. “Witch!” the Graf screamed, thrashing on the floor with futile kicks. “I thought you already knew that,” Irene pointed out, picking up a twisted piece of ironwork that was probably an instrument of torture. At the moment, the most important thing about it to her was that it was a heavy blunt instrument that could be applied to people’s heads. Two thumps later, and with the room a great deal quieter, she opened the door and stepped into the corridor, fastening her discarded wimple back over her hair. The key—also cold iron—was conveniently hanging on the wall, and she used it to lock the door before going any farther. She had until Stefan got back with the priest. That should be long enough.

Another whimper came from one of the other cells, and Irene found herself torn. Her objective here was to acquire a book from the Graf’s private library. It wasn’t often that she got to do her job—that is, to steal books in order to maintain the balance of the universe—with such a thoroughly unpleasant and deserving target. She should be focusing on that and not on his lordship’s other victims. And if she spent time on them, it might jeopardise her chance of securing that copy of the Heliand. Which was much more important than the lives of a few peasants who would never know about the Library or understand its mission … But releasing all the prisoners would be a big distraction. It was a convenient counter-argument, which satisfied her conscience and very nearly her sense of duty. Of course, that could just be a specious rationalisation. But it meant that she didn’t have to abandon the Graf’s prisoners, so she could live with it. Five minutes later, she’d released two prisoners—whom she left in charge of freeing the others as she sneaked up the nearest stairs.

The next obstacle presented itself quickly enough. The guard-room was at the head of the stairwell, and it was occupied. This whole place was like the Graf himself—utterly paranoid. There was no cover either: the stairwell was plain rough-hewn stone. And although it was only lit by torches, there were no places where one might hide if the guards ran to investigate the distraction below. But Irene did have one trick up her sleeve. She marched up to the guard-room door, opened it, and walked in. The four guards were lounging and sharing an illicit jug of beer, and they stared at her in shock. Fortunately none of them had the wit to immediately shout, “Witch!” or launch himself at her, which gave Irene the time to speak. “You perceive, ” she said, using the Language again, “that I am not the witch you’re looking for, but just another guard on an errand for the Graf, and that it is entirely normal for me to be passing through and not worth your time or interest.

” The headache hit her. Using the Language to confuse people’s perceptions was a strain at the best of times, and doing it to four people simultaneously made it worse. But it worked: they gave her no more than casual nods, as their brains reinterpreted her presence as unimportant. Two of them turned back to their argument over dice, while the third returned to polishing his sword. The fourth kept on staring at her. Irene’s throat was dry as she walked across the room, passing between them, concentrating on not doing anything that might shake their delusion. It wouldn’t last long in any case. But if that fourth guard had somehow managed to see the truth … “Hey, Johann,” he grunted. “Did you have a word with Lise about your sister?” Irene shrugged and made a noncommittal noise, feeling the flesh crawl down her back. Three more steps to the door at the far side of the room.

Don’t notice anything, she prayed, don’t notice anything … One of the dice rollers looked up, confused. “Johann?” he said. “That’s Bruno.” The original questioner frowned. “No, that’s Johann—” Irene threw herself through the door and slammed it shut behind her. “Door, lock and jam!” she gasped. She heard the wards in the lock click into place a moment before someone yanked on the door handle on the other side. The door strained in its frame as more guards added their weight to the handle, shouting in an attempt to raise the alarm. So much for her margin of safety. Irene ran down the corridor ahead of her.

The stonework was smoother here, and the torches better quality. This meant she was getting closer to the Graf’s quarters at the top of the castle, but it also meant she was more likely to be noticed. Even if nobody recognised her as the “witch” who’d been brought in earlier today, they would see her peasant clothing and ask awkward questions. Irene mentally reviewed her experience as a Librarian. From all her years of stealing books, to maintain the balance between order and chaos, what would serve her best? Maxims such as When in doubt, hide the evidence or Deny everything and ask for a lawyer flickered unhelpfully through her mind. I want everyone out of my way while I head upwards. So what if they all focus downwards … This part of the castle was for servants. Kitchens, guard-rooms, laundries, bedrooms. The smell of boiling cabbage and turnips coming from ahead of her indicated a kitchen nearby. That would do nicely.

Irene waited for someone to emerge. It was a male servant with a harried look, carrying a stack of folded uniforms. She caught his arm, and before he could react, she told him, “You perceive I’ve told you the Devil is loose in the dungeons, and that this is absolutely true. And you must rally the guards to go down there and save the Graf.” Then she let him go and stood well back, taking an alternate route through the servants’ passages as the alarm was raised. Irene repeated the manoeuvre several times as she made her way up through the castle. This place had a superfluity of guards, and they were all converging on the lower parts of the castle. Even if they didn’t all believe in the Devil, they did believe in the Graf—and in what the Graf might do to them if they didn’t respond enthusiastically enough. Or perhaps they did believe in the Devil. In the febrile atmosphere of panic and suspicion that surrounded this place, it was easy enough to believe in evil.

Finally, with a sigh of relief, she set foot on the stair leading to the Graf’s private quarters and library. The plans she’d memorised had proved accurate—so far. There was a great deal of confusion going on below—she had heard screams and crashes, and she thought she could smell smoke—but the focus of interest was still downward, not upward. She had a pounding headache, but also some anachronistic aspirin hidden in her bodice, for when this was all over. So far the mission was going according to plan. Well, more or less. Somewhat. She was still alive and nearly at her objective. And if there was a little bit of regime change going on below stairs, well, these things did happen. She used the Language to open the heavily locked door, closed it behind her to cover her tracks, and wearily plodded up the stairs, admiring the tapestries and embroidered rugs on the landings.

Like the rest of the castle, this tower was heavy stone, constructed to last for centuries and keep out both draughts and invaders. It was why she’d devised this whole infiltration. The Graf and his guards were too paranoid for her to have entered the place under any normal circumstances. She’d had to lure him into bringing her inside himself. But getting out was going to be difficult. It all depended on whether the Graf’s private “library” was as large as he liked to claim. The rooms at the top were laid out in a spiral around the ascending stairs, each one heavily locked. As she unlocked and checked each, Irene saw that inside they were scrupulously clean. The shelves were rich with the smell of beeswax, and the heavy covers of the books gleamed with inset jewels or gold lettering. Either the Graf did the dusting himself—unlikely, Irene judged—or the maids were escorted up here daily.

There was no way any mere servant would have been allowed the keys to the Graf’s pride and glory. Oil lamps burned continually in all the rooms, making them much better lit than the rest of the castle below. Fortunately the Graf did have some organisation to his collection. Most of it concerned witchcraft, demonology and diabolism, and horrific crimes (presumably in case any had been committed by witches). But he’d put the few works that were actually connected with theology and hagiology in a small side bookcase in the fifth room. Irene knelt down to sort through the books. Since they were all large, heavy volumes, and most had their names on the fronts, not the sides, she had to slide each one out to check it. The silent footsteps from behind took her by surprise; if it hadn’t been for the shadow that fell across her book, she wouldn’t have been warned at all. She threw herself to one side, letting the book fall and feeling a pang of guilt as it thudded to the ground, bringing her arm up to shield her face as she rolled. A thin line of pain scored her forearm.

Irene came to her feet, grateful for the loose skirts of her dirndl, and took the other person in. It was a woman: she was in a silk shift, wildly inappropriate for anything except bed, her blonde hair falling loose over her shoulders and down her back. In one hand she clasped a needle-pointed misericord dagger. She was holding it point-up in a knife-fighter’s grip, rather than the more amateur point-down position. And, Irene noted with growing dismay, the blade had an unpleasant black stain from hilt to point. Irene’s arm throbbed. Right. Poison. She had to take care of that, but she had to take care of this woman first. She’d heard that the Graf had a mistress (it had been the first thing the village gossips mentioned), but she hadn’t realised that the Graf kept the woman in his private library.

The woman shifted her weight from foot to foot, watching Irene carefully, then slid in for another attack, her blade moving to slice rather than stab. She was keeping a defensive position, going for flesh wounds rather than serious injury. Irene blocked the woman’s thrust with a self-defence move. Something from an unarmed combat class, years ago and in a different world. Irene caught her wrist and twisted hand and wrist round behind the other woman as she kicked the woman’s knee out from under her, forcing her to the floor. “Drop it,” she ordered. “Witch!” the woman spat. “Do your worst!” Irene tried not to consider this a challenge. Instead she simply wound her free hand into the other woman’s flowing hair and banged her head against the floorboards a few times, till she stopped moving. Her arm was really aching now.

She needed to get that poison out of her system fast. Prudently she kicked the dagger well out of the other woman’s reach, then peeled back her own sleeve. It was a shallow cut, but deep enough for something to get into her bloodstream. Irene settled back on her knees. “Poison or any other substance on the dagger, leave my body through the route that you entered!” she commanded. A sudden spurt of blood came from the wound, spattering across her skirts and over the floor. Irene gritted her teeth as she swayed with light-headedness, waiting till the flow had stopped before turning her wimple into a tourniquet and bandage. She couldn’t actually see any poison in the blood, but then one wouldn’t, would one? The little voice of common sense at the back of her mind pointed out that she was getting distracted. And she needed to tie up the Graf’s mistress, find that book, and get out of there. Irene shook her head and pulled herself together.

Priorities. Right. The book turned out to be on the next shelf down—rather than, as Irene had been starting to fear, the last book on the entire bookcase. (Sometimes the universe had an unpleasant sense of humour.) Her Old Saxon was shaky to non-existent, but the title was clear, and she’d checked beforehand what some key phrases in the text should be. It was the full version of the Heliand, rather than the partial ones the Library had already taken from this world—the life of Jesus in verse form, in Old Saxon, composed sometime during the ninth century. And this one, unlike versions of the Heliand from other worlds, was supposed to have some interesting divergences from the New Testament that made it unique. Mission accomplished. Now Irene just had to get out of this castle—and out of this world. The Graf’s mistress lay bound and unconscious on the floor.

Irene stepped over her and walked to the open door, the book a heavy weight under her arm. She closed it, the iron handle cold against her hand. Now, would this work or not? Reaching the Library from one of the thousands of alternate worlds required a sufficiently large collection of books. The Graf’s library was reasonably large—well, for this time and place—and was certainly dedicated to the function of being a library, rather than simply a showplace or a warehouse. It would make her life a great deal easier if this did work … “Open to the Library, ” Irene ordered in the Language, and pulled the door open. The room on the other side was as far from the stone tower stairway as possible. A meshwork of metal shelves covered the walls and spun out across the ceiling, firm under the weight of piles of printouts and books bound in gleaming white cardboard and slick plastic. In the centre of the room, a set of computer screens hummed in an electronic Stonehenge of server towers, dark mirrors that reflected the rest of the room. From the floor, the Graf’s mistress gasped in shock. Irene stepped through the open doorway, but before closing it, she turned to address the other woman.

It seemed unfair to leave her with all the blame. “I suggest you tell him that you stabbed me and I vanished with a scream,” she offered. “You’ve got my blood on the floor and on the dagger, after all. And it’s a good ending for a story about witches …” And then she shut the door and broke the link to that world


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