THE WEDGE AND THE HAMMER

by

Edward Stasheff

 

            Morte's eyes roved over the charcoal peddler, sizing her up, then looked down at her little blonde daughter.  Morte smiled. The little girl shrank back against her mother, peering at Morte with wide eyes from behind the woman's skirt.

Ortho leaned over the wheelbarrow full of charcoal, ostensibly to examine the product, but really to lean closer to the peddler so he could lower his voice. 

            "Eh… looks good."  He nodded grudgingly.  "Large chunks… no brownwood… how much?"

            "Copper a basket," the lean brunette answered, slightly bored.  "Less, if ye basket be small."

            "Give us two baskets then, Charlotte me lovely," Morte said.  He stepped closer to the young mother than was strictly necessary and thrust his hand into the pouch at his ample belly.  "This should do, methinks."  He pulled out a silver penny and held it up between greasy fingers. 

Charlotte's eyes widened slightly at the sight of the silver, enough to buy ten baskets—then narrowed in suspicion.  "That be a lot of coin for tinkers.  That real?"

Ortho and Morte were disguised as a pair of wandering tinkers, their red Bloodhound robes hidden in their knapsacks.  It was the perfect disguise, offering an excuse to move from town to town and gossip with goodwives, always on the lookout for hidden priests.

"Aye, 'tis silver aright."  Morte shrugged.  "The rest be for your… other wares.  I understand ye have…" he cocked an eyebrow at her in what he must have thought was a seductive way, "…something to sell?"

Ortho rolled his eyes.  Morte had all the subtlety of a forge hammer. 

Charlotte gave Morte a wary glance, her mouth twisting like it was full of vinegar.  She took a tiny step back from him and his odor. 

Ortho scowled.  She didn't seem to realize they were her contacts—probably because Morte had oversold the double-entendre in his question… again.

            "Keep your silver, then, if that be what ye want," Charlotte spat.  "All I be selling is in yon barrow.  Buy it or be gone."

            Morte's face darkened like a thundercloud.

            "What my cousin doth mean," Ortho jumped in quickly, "is that our friend did mention that you might have some news to share."  Ortho kept his head down, his voice low.  "News about… oh, things to do, people to see."  He pressed a lump of charcoal between his fingers and watched it crumble. 

            Charlotte stiffened.  "A… a friend, y'say?"

            "Yes.  A friend," Morte said, stepping closer to her again.  "A friend like Sir Luvoneau."

            Charlotte's eyes widened.  She stepped back from Morte.  "S-sent you then, did he?" she asked in a voice barely above a whisper.  Far from being impressed by Morte's name-dropping, she suddenly seemed nervous.

            "He sent us, aye," Morte said, his voice low.  "But we do take our orders from a greater master."  Under his breath, he mumbled a quick verse in an ancient, glottal tongue—and, for split second, his eyes glowed with Hellfire.  Morte loved doing that trick.

            Charlotte gasped and shrank back.  Her arm shot out and pulled her daughter tight against her.

            "Act natural," Ortho hissed, "unless you do want to draw notice!"  Ortho casually pulled a basket from their tinker's cart, never making eye contact with the peddler.  "Now relax.  Smile.  We are nothing more than folk haggling for coal."    

            Charlotte gave him a curt nod, then tried to calm herself by heaving a deep breath.  From the corner of his eye, Ortho noticed the effect this had on her bosom—and, an instant later, heard Morte's stifled moan.

"Good," Ortho nodded.  "Now take the penny, goodwife, and help a few lost souls know where—and when—to find the Lord."  There were many words sorcerers couldn't say—God, Christ, Jesus—but 'Lord' wasn't one of them.  Lucifer, after all, was the Lord of Hell.

            Morte flashed Charlotte a predatory grin.  "Help us, Madam, and we can help you."  He held the penny out to her, circling a grimy thumb over it.

            Charlotte hesitated a moment, glancing around for anyone watching them.  Then she reached out and snapped the silver from Morte's fingers as if his skin was made of flame.  She leaned closer to Ortho, who was scooping charcoal into his basket.  "'Tis Saturday next," she whispered, almost too softly to hear, "in the barn upon Squire Verdier's lands."

            "At what time?" Ortho asked.

            "At midnight.  I mean, uh, the witching hour."

            "If what you say does prove true, there shall be more silver for you," Ortho said.  "But if it does prove false, well… my cousin shall become rather angry."

            "Ye would not like me when I'm angry."  A malicious grin tugged at the corner of Morte's mouth.  "Ye would do well to keep me happy."  He looked down at Michelle.  "Her too."

            Charlotte's eyes widened in alarm and fear.

            "Thank you, goodwife," Ortho interrupted at full volume, signaling that their whispered meeting was over.  He turned, grabbed his other basket, and began filling that one too.  "You hath eased our minds."

            "And if there be anything else of ours ye would like to ease..." Morte said, more warning than invitation, "do come and find us.  We can be quite… grateful."

            "I, uh…" Charlotte blinked at Morte, clearly scrambling to think of a diplomatic answer.  She failed.  "Well!  I, uh… thank ye for the offer, milords… but I must be upon my way."

            "So soon?"  Morte frowned.

            "Oh, aye!  I must… uh…"  She licked her lips nervously.  Morte inhaled sharply.  "Put me daughter to bed.  Oh, and supper too, aye."  She laughed, a bit too high and fast to be genuine.  "Well, uh… Good day to ye, milords."  She turned and scurried away, dragging both wheelbarrow and daughter behind her.

            Ortho picked up a basket of charcoal and loaded it into their tinker's cart.  Morte lingered a moment, watching Charlotte's hips sway away, then sighed and picked up the other basket.

            "So," Ortho said, "the Mass is in two day's time, then."

            Morte didn't answer.  He rammed his charcoal basket down hard into the cart.  "Ye see how she did back away from me?" he demanded of Ortho.  His voice was hard and fast; he was angry.

            "Aye.  So?"  Ortho shrugged.  "She did step away from me, too."

            "Aye, but the way she did look at me…" Morte muttered, more to himself than anyone. "Like she did find me… repulsive…"

            Ortho knew from long experience where this was going—and he had to head it off, fast. 

He affected a casual sigh.  "She's scared of you, Morte.  They all are.  You know you will not find a Christian woman alive who doth fear you not.  Well... once she does know what you are, at least… what we are," he added as a quick afterthought.

            Thankfully, Morte didn't notice Ortho's slip of the tongue.  He was lost in dark thoughts of Charlotte.  "Met her type before, I have," he grumbled.  "Princess o' the town... got her pick of the lads... thinks she's too good for the likes of us...  Needs to be taught a lesson, she does."
            Not again! Ortho groaned inwardly.  He knew what that 'lesson' would entail, and who Morte had in mind for the instructor. 

            It was always like this.  Whenever Morte felt a woman had snubbed him even slightly (which, incidentally, was every single woman they met who was even the slightest bit attractive), Morte seemed to feel a deep, primal need to "teach her a lesson," preferably by the ugliest means possible. Worse, thanks to his Satanic Grimoire, Morte now had the power to do so. This wasn't the first time Ortho had needed to calm Morte out of a boiling sexual rage, and Ortho knew the strategies by heart.

            "We have work to do," he reminded Morte gently.

            "Aye.  So?"

            "So what if they do change the time of the Mass?  Or where it shall be held?  What then?"

"Hmm," Morte grunted, turning that over in his mind. 

"She's our spy, Morte."  Ortho pushed his advantage.  "We do need her goodwill if we are to catch this priest."

            "Eh... aye... I s'pose…" Morte said grudingly, nodding.  "'Tis why I do like you, Ortho. Ye always be thinkin' ahead.  I may be the muscle, aye... but ye be the brain."

            Any man of arms would roar with laughter at the idea of Morte as muscle.  He was short and squat, sporting a pot belly and a wispy adolescent mustache on his greasy, pimply face.  But Ortho knew Morte was a potent and vicious sorcerer.  He studied his Grimoire with a devotion more intense than some monks studied scripture.  Morte drank in the power of his Black Bible, always thirsty for more demonic spells and the strength they gave him.  Ortho could only pray that he would never have to cross spells with Morte—because Ortho knew he would lose.

  "Still..."  Morte's tone turned dark again.  "After we do catch the priest... when Charlotte does come to get her coin..."  Morte left the sentence hanging, letting Ortho's mind fill in the implied threat. Ortho didn't take the bait. They walked for a while in silence.

            "Mind you," Morte said suddenly, breaking the quiet, "that little girl of hers… she's not bad, neither."

            Ortho's stomach tightened.  Some aspects of sorcerer life he found harder to abide than others—and their penchant for little girls was one of them.

            "What—that babe?" Ortho scoffed.

            "Aye.  Nice 'n skinny, she is," Morte said, his voice growing husky.  "An' got that long blonde hair... I likes me a blonde, I do."

            Ortho's mind spun, trying to think of a way to talk Morte out of his train of thought—without Morte realizing what Ortho was doing.

Ortho shot him a puzzled look.  "Aye, Morte—but I thought you did like your women buxom, do you not?  That babe's flat as a board!"

            "Well... aye, true," Morte agreed with a shrug.  "But I'd wager she's nice and tight, she is.. Aye, I would trade six o' one for half a dozen of t'other—would not you, Ortho?"

            Ortho saw the opportunity for a distraction and seized it.  "Me?  Oh, I know not... 'tis not really my sort, I guess."

            "Eh?"  Morte looked up.  "Oh!  Right.  Not really your... thing, is she?"

            "Well..." Ortho drew out the suspense.  "Perhaps a bit... but not really, nay."

            Morte lapsed into silence, chewing over the new clue about Ortho's sexuality.  Morte didn't know what Ortho's 'thing' was, but he was endlessly curious about it.

            For that matter, Ortho had no idea what his 'thing' was supposed to be either.  That was sort of the whole point.  Ortho had talked himself into a corner with that one.

            The brotherhood of sorcery reveled in debauchery, vice, and sin, especially the fleshy kind.  Compulsory attendance was required at frequent ceremonies that were little more than thinly-veiled orgies of sex and blood.  Ortho's conscience—and fear of eternal damnation—prevented him from joining in. 

Ortho knew how to resist the fleshly temptations of what he witnessed—he'd been novice in a monastery long enough to learn that much, at least.  But explaining his lack of participation, without arousing suspicion—that was the tricky part.  At first, Ortho had insinuated that he preferred boys.  That had worked for a while—until his fellow sorcerers began providing him with boys.  Ortho had to think fast. He pretended to take great offense, yelling that they had gotten it complexly wrong, that they didn't understand him and never could.  Then he left the orgy in a huff. 

He didn't drop any hints whatsoever as to what he did prefer, however, and it fascinated his Satanic brethren to no end—and so began the great guessing game.  At the next ceremony, his fellow sorcerers brought him a boy sheep.  Ortho never said it wasn't his type, exactly... it was just the wrong color.  And had too many wings.  That was when they began to wonder about Ortho's sanity.

Frankly, Ortho was beginning to wonder about his sanity, too.

            Ortho could keep the guessing game going indefinitely with the brotherhood of sorcerers—he only saw them once a fortnight, after all—but Morte was another matter.  They spent too much time together, knew each other too well.  And Morte was forever temping Ortho with... well, whatever he guessed Ortho's tastes might be.  Morte almost seemed to take it as a point of honor to provide Ortho with whatever his lusts desired.  It was only a matter of time before Morte grew suspicious of Ortho's excuses for abstinence.

In the end, Ortho was forced to up the ante further than Morte's wildest imaginings—which was no easy feat.  Ortho had arranged for the young lad to "accidentally" barge in on Ortho wearing nothing but a corset and a smile while holding a cauliflower, a ferret, and two wedges of Swiss cheese.  Ortho had never seen anyone look so confused.

            Ortho had acted embarrassed and sworn Morte to secrecy, but the news had spread quickly through sorcerer circles anyway—just as Ortho had hoped it would.  Now, although none of his fellow sorcerers could fathom just what that mad fellow Ortho was up to behind closed doors, they were all fairly sure it was even more perverted and depraved than their tastes.  From that point on, Ortho was able to act finicky at the orgies without arousing too much suspicion—so far.

            "Aye, well... we do have two days till the Mass, then," Ortho said, trying to change the subject.  "What shall we do till then?"

            "Aye, a good question," Morte said.  "We could go a-trolling at the tavern, I s'pose.  Bound to be a nice ripe one there, aye."

            ...and Morte was back on sex again.  Did the man think of nothing else?

            "Nay."  Ortho shook his head.  "Too much work.  I do know an easier way—and faster, too."

            "Oh, aye?"  Ortho had Morte's undivided attention now. 

            "Aye," Ortho confirmed.  "Young Sir Luvoneau fancies himself a lady's man.  If there's a doxy here or near, I daresay he doth know where she be.  He would do well to introduce us, should we ask him… 'nicely'…"

            "'Nicely,' heh," Morte chuckled. 

            "Might be a stable girl… scullery maid… serving wench…"

            "Aye, and them whores be dirty little things, too," Morte said with a grin.  "Do whatever a man tells 'em without a fight—and without biting it off, neither," Morte said, licking his lips.  "Hope 'tis a blonde one, it is…"

            "Very well, then," Ortho nodded.  "Let us be off to Luvoneau Manor."  He grabbed the handles of their tinker's cart, lifted, and started walking.

            Victory again, Ortho thought with a sigh.  Diverting Morte's lusts onto a whore was a tactic Ortho had honed to an art form.  In this morally gray world he found himself in, stuck between demonic and divine, he'd grudgingly come to acknowledge that a willing woman—even if loveless and unmarried—was better than a violent rape. 

Ortho sighed and shook his head.  Listen to him!  He considered it a victory to push Morte into fornication—and long as it was the right kind of fornication!  It was this sort of hair-splitting and rationalization, Ortho knew, that led down the path to damnation.  Ortho didn’t know how much longer he could keep walking this tightrope before he lost his footing—and Fell.

 

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