It was late in the night but with the full moon overhead the party of horsemen moved swiftly at a clatter over the heavy wooden bridge and began the winding ascent up the stony road towards the brooding fortress poised high above. Teufelstein Castle had dominated the village of Teufelsbruck below with that special power unique to medieval society for more than six hundred years and its predecessor fortresses for twelve hundred or more years before that. The names ... devilstone and devilsbridge ... were derived from the massive rock that rose as a granitic island in the swift rush of the Schwartzfluss ... the Black River.
Just below the bridge the icy, dark waters plunging from the mountains split around the massive stone outcropping that eerily resembled a grotesque horned head rising as from the bowels of the earth to part the stream. It was rumored that pagan inhabitants once used the island for high sacrifice and years before some local boys daring to visit it reported finding a deep firepit. They brought back shards of what appeared to be human bones and no one went there again.
A sense of evil permeated the entire valley and there was a secretive aura among the inhabitants that discouraged outsiders. Not that it was easy to reach anyway, tucked away in the far eastern wing of the Austrian Tyrol.
That Germanic province plunged like a broad, squat dagger into the roof of the Italian peninsula, narrowing until its tip sucked in the northern end of Lake Como. And harbored within the Tyrol lay the immensely strategic road from the north, the Brenner Pass, through which for hundreds of years the gray-clad troops of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna had dominated and occupied broad swaths of northern Italy. But this night that old order was changing in cataclysmic upheaval.
Hostility between Austria and revolutionary France had been almost continuous since 1792 but a series of military stalemates and truces had left nothing resolved. Then the Corsican general, Napoleon Bonaparte, had unified the warring factors in France by wile and force and, styling himself as "First Consul" set out to deal with the foreign foes of the republic. His shaky control over France depended on a swift, decisive defeat of the Austrian armies numbering five times the forces available to him. His enemies back in Paris expected him to fail and were secretly prepared to promptly remove and execute him upon that failure.
While French forces crossed the Rhine and drove into Austria from the north with little initial success, Bonaparte invaded northern Italy and confronted Imperial Field Marshal Melas at Marengo on June 14, 1800. It did not go well for France and the day ended with a rout that seemed likely to end Bonaparte's power.
Overconfident, Melas encamped, failing to promptly pursue his advantage, expecting to clean up the French forces the following day at his leisure. During the night, French reinforcements arrived and Napoleon risked all in a daring, slashing dawn attack that routed and overwhelmed the Austrians and changed history as perhaps few single battles ever have. Nine thousand Austrians and seven thousand Frenchmen perished in a few hours but the victory went to the diminutive First Consul.
The riders trotting their mounts up the road to the castle on the night of June 17 were unaware of the momentous events that had unfolded far to the south at Marengo two days before. Major Josip Drevcik of the Emperor's Bohemian Cavalry Brigade had been dispatched to Vienna late in the afternoon of June 14 to bring the exciting news of the great Austrian victory over the hated French.
He could not know that additional couriers had been dispatched sixteen hours later to report the disastrous defeat and surrender of Field Marshal Melas and his army in the reversal that had followed. He was making a detour that would cost him a few hours time but he would still reach the capital before the later riders and set off a jubilant celebration that would swiftly turn to stunned, dismayed shock.
His commander, Colonel Baron Hugo Von Hofstedt, had hastily conferred with the major before he departed and added a second mission to his official one ... a very, very private mission. Drevcik had repeatedly replayed that conversation in his mind as he rode. He had been well aware of his superior's venality and ruthlessness but that meeting had demonstrated a depth of those qualities that had amazed him.
Not that they were uncommon attributes among the officer ranks in the imperial army where a commission was a license for personal gain and advancement of ambition. Nor was the major offended, just surprised. He had underestimated Von Hofstedt; the man was nearly as savage and unprincipled as Drevcik himself.
"Tell me, major, do you have all the funds you need at the moment?" the colonel had asked with seeming innocence. "I've heard you had to borrow from Captain Pikstein last week. Again."
Drevcik reddened as he fought down a wave of mixed anger and disquiet. It was no secret that he had a tendency to gamble and was usually pinched anyway. His wealthy father kept him on a tight leash, the stingy old bastard. He'd bought his officer commission for him and his uniforms, horses and weapons, but the regular allowance he provided was miserly. After calming his rising panic at the unexpected confrontation, he sought to put forth a nonchalant front, shrugging off the question with a question.
"Does any man ever really have all that he needs, sir? As to Pikstein, I'll repay...."
Von Hofstedt chuckled and interrupted with a wave of his hand.
"A careful, philosophical answer. I wonder if Emperor Franz is ever caught short by a few million kroner here or there."
The image of the Habsburg monarch worrying about making ends meet amused Drevcik and a smile edged over his harsh, hawkish features even as the colonel spoke again,
"Here then is a philosophical question for you. What is the value of an individual human life?"
Drevcik frowned. Where is this going? Slowly, cautiously, he responded.
"A loved child or wife, a brother, a talented artist or great leader ... priceless I suppose. A black African slave, whatever the market bears. A traitor, coward or drooling imbecile, nothing, and every person will have his own set of values to others. A man with value to me may have none to you, sir."
"Bravo! Well put!"
Von Hofstedt was genuinely impressed. He liked Drevcik and had never regretted making the tough young officer his adjutant. His answer showed him to be a realist. He had judged the young officer as well to be a pragmatic opportunist with little in the way of inhibiting principles when his own good was involved and had chosen him for these qualities since they mirrored his own. He pursued his inquiry to the next step.
"I'm curious, major. How do you feel about slavery ... the buying and selling of human beings?"
Drevcik sucked in a breath. Slavery had long been outlawed in the provinces of His Imperial Majesty, as in most lands where the Roman Catholic Church dominated. From a personal standpoint he viewed the institution as having merit, but he needed to be cautious on this ground.
"The church says...."
Von Hofstedt impatiently raised a hand,
"Mother Church says thou shallt not kill too, unless it happens to be in the best interests of Mother Church to do so, then we are sent forth to slaughter in the name of Christ until the streets run with blood. What do you think?"
Drevcik shrugged again,
"Some men are simply superior by birth or circumstance. Their dominance or use of other, lesser men makes the system operate. The serfs attached to many great estates within the empire are not really free to move at will and are little above slaves despite the high sounding edicts from the throne."
"And yet they are white, not ebony."
Drevcik nodded. "I see no difference. An inferior white man ought to serve the purposes of his superiors just as surely as any black wretch."
"No qualms about the buying and selling of human flesh, then?"
A quick shake of his head,
"No, sir. As a practical matter, not really. It's simply part of reality and most humans are, individually, of no great importance in the long run. They're simply going to live a while and then die at nature's whim, to be forgotten in a few years at best."
"Or die at the whim of other men?"
Drevcik inclined his head in agreement,
"That too. We saw enough of that just hours ago here at Marengo."
"What of the French prisoners we took today? What is the worth to you of any of their lives?"
Is that what this is all about? Does he want me to lead an execution squad to dispose of these revolutionary regicides?
Since the beheading of Louis XVI, the French were a terrifying anathema within the archaic monarchical system still holding sway in the rest of Europe. Their republic was recognized by no one except the ridiculous so-called United States and prisoners taken in battle were often treated simply as rebels and summarily killed, though officers were more usually ransomed to their families back in France.
The French tended to respond in kind and Austrian prisoners had frequently been put to the sword, though this new man Bonaparte was said to have banned the practice and disciplined his troops severely for violations. Field Marshal Melas had, in turn, ordered that French captives were to be treated well.
The prospect of a killing orgy was not unpleasant and Drevcik almost hopefully asked,
"Has the field marshall changed his silly stance and decided to...."
"No, no. No massacre is in the works. The French took many of our men and a trade of some type will likely be worked out in a day or two after Bonaparte surrenders, likely tomorrow. I simply asked what value any single life among the French prisoners has for you."
Drevcik shrugged, really puzzled now,
"No value whatever. Whether any one of them lives or dies makes not the slightest difference to me."
Von Hofstedt flashed a predatory grin and leaned forward, his words lowered to a conspiratorial whisper,
"That, Herr Major Drevcik, is where you are very, very wrong."
He began to explain, and Drevcik began breathing hard in excitement as comprehension flooded his brain.
It seemed that the master of Teufelstein Castle, not far from the route to be followed by Drevcik towards Vienna, had what the colonel termed perverse tastes in sexual pleasure. No one would miss a few of the Frenchmen in the confusion that follows a battle and the man would likely pay generously for sturdy, attractive young men upon whom to vent his violent urges. Nor would they survive his games to return to France and tell awkward tales.
"At the rather vicious youth academy in
Salzburg where I served for a while as provost when I was a major like
you, I became acquainted with Friedrich Von Ritter, the son of the thirteenth
High Count of Teufelstein.
Xxxx"Young Fritz had such a powerful personality that he virtually mesmerized the other boys, though most were secretly terrified of him as well. I was curious about him and established a sort of trust, though he is so cold he is incapable of real friendship. Eventually I began using him as a spy to keep track of the other boys and even the faculty, something he seemed to deeply enjoy.
Xxxx"After a while, he began to cautiously share some of his inner thoughts, perhaps needing to open up to someone and I suppose I was the best he had available at the time. The gory fantasies he gradually began sharing with me made my blood run cold.
Xxxx"There was an almost salivating hunger within him to savor the agonies of other males, to control them, to manipulate, to hurt ... and, ultimately, to destroy as proof of his total power over them. Were I particularly pious I'd have thought he was the spawn of the devil after which his family takes part of its title."
"I take it that he's the fourteenth Markgraf now?"
Von Hofstedt nodded,
"About a dozen years ago when he was just
eighteen his father died. He was the only son and I have heard rumors that
suggest he has used his power and wealth to put substance to his fantasies.
Xxxx"We have little time, major. I have already surveyed the prisoners and selected three that I have had quietly removed. They are waiting at a barn just down the road on your route, guarded by two rather dense, fanatic young cavalry troopers who see following orders as a duty mandated from God. They will provide escort for you to keep the French pigs under control."
Within the hour, Drevcik found himself admiring the colonel's selection of market animals to offer at Teufelstein Castle. There was a strikingly handsome, stocky young lieutenant with silky, fair hair and two tall, muscular troopers with fetching looks, neither older than twenty. None had been injured in the fighting and even their uniforms were still in surprisingly good repair as they stood with concerned, wide eyes, hands bound and mouths gagged.
The two Austrian hussars selected by the colonel as guards were also really just youths, buff farmboy soldiers thrilled to have been selected for this exciting mission. They knew they would be escorting the major to Vienna to deliver news of the victory to the emperor himself. They had no notion of why the three Frenchmen were being taken along but accepted there must be a good reason and left it at that.
The prisoners were quickly placed on mounts and tied to the saddles and the party, leading extra horses to rotate for an improved pace, had set off briskly into the gathering dusk of the late afternoon.
Drevcik had been delighted to accept the colonel's offer to share in whatever bounty was gleaned from the project. The prospect of gain deeply excited him and as he rode, glancing up at the brooding castle coming closer now with each stride of his horse, he prayed the master of the place would indeed be willing to buy the captives. He carried a letter from Von Hofstedt to Von Ritter, though names were not used. Von Hofstedt styled himself Dante and Von Ritter was Lucifer.
"The code names used between us for our spy notes when he was my agent at the school," Von Hofstedt had chuckled. "He'll not have forgotten them."
He had shared the letter with Drevcik before sealing it and the major swallowed hard at the final sentences and paled slightly. The colonel looked hard at him,
"It is necessary. You realize there is no other choice?"
Drevcik nodded. It did make absolute sense. It had just caught him off guard and he quickly recovered. Von Hofstedt asked anxiously,
"You can do this?"
Drevcik nodded after just a moment,
"Certainly, sir. I recognize the necessity and it even enhances the potential for profit from the venture, not a bad side effect actually."
Von Hofstedt nodded, relaxed and smiled again. He had known the major to be a hard man with little conscience or ethical restraint, eager for advancement and wealth and was pleased that he had guessed right that he would embrace the plan ... in its entirety. The matter of a few Frenchmen was not an issue, of course. It was the rest of what was to be done that might have dissuaded a more squeamish man than the major ... a more patriotic officer.
"What if the Markgraf does not choose to make the purchase or happens to be absent?" Drevcik asked.
He suspected the answer was rather obvious,
"What do I do with the Frenchmen then?"
"There are many wooded ravines between here and Vienna where bodies will not be easily found."
Drevcik had nodded and even smiled. The prospect of personally executing a few of the French bastards was actually quite appealing. Now he again glanced upwards at the castle, outlined against the moonlit sky. Please have him be present, He prayed. And make him generously eager to buy the goods I bring him!
Much of central and eastern Europe was but little changed from the medieval ages and powerful nobles still wielded literal life and death power over the villages and farms within their domain. The valley of the Black River had been the private reserve of the Von Ritters for so many centuries that no one really knew quite how long and Fritz saw little different in the power he held from that of his distant ancestor who had been elevated from a mere Graf or count to the awesome status of a Markgraf ... margrave as the English said ... equivalent of a French marquis, just below a duke in rank.
The fool had been rewarded for a valiant, suicidal charge against the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1529, breaking their ranks and convincing the ottoman sultan that the losses risked in further attack on Vienna was not worth the effort. Fortunately for Fritz, the first Von Ritter Markgraf, unlike ninety percent of his men, had survived the charge to continue his bloodline.
Fritz was truly amazed at the arrival in his courtyard of the Austrian party with the trio of French captives. He instantly hardened between his thighs at the mere thought of what delicious fun he could have with these handsome, muscular young men. While his guards transferred the prisoners to his dungeon deep beneath the castle, he invited the stiff-necked major ... what was he anyway, a Czech? A pole? ... to share a stein of wine and warm up by the hearth in the sitting room while they discussed a price for the purchase. He read the letter handed over once they were alone and smiled.
How droll! A little betrayal and treason is always a nice add to the mix of things. That ass Von Hofstedt hasn't changed one whit.
He crumpled the sheet of parchment and tossed it into the fire before pulling on a bell cord to summon his chief attendant. The muscular blond boy had his hair buzzed almost to the skull and there was a feral glint in the blue eyes as they glanced at the major with speculative interest. Von Ritter spoke quietly into the young bull's ear and the stud nodded, then departed with a look of sheer relish on his face. Fritz turned his attention back to the officer warming before his fire. Nights in the mountains, even in summer, quickly cooled sharply after dark.
"So, what, Herr Major, do you think is a fair price these days for a Frenchman?"
"The lieutenant seems a nice prize," Drevcik shrugged. "I suppose the common soldiers should bring less, though I would think the enjoyment to be had from them might be similar. An officer stripped of his uniform is formed the same as any other man, is he not?"
"A point well made," Fritz nodded, "And an Austrian cavalryman? Naked is he not also formed the same as any other man? What then is his worth?"
"A great deal more ... or at least so I hope, your excellency. I surely hope a great deal indeed."
Von Ritter chuckled,
"Put diplomatically. I like that. Very
well. I shall give you three hundred fifty gold kroner for each of the
French soldiers, and five hundred for the officer, not because he will
necessarily bring greater pleasure in my dungeon but because he could have
Xxxx"And I'll pay four hundred each for these pretty Austrian boys you have brought me, a token more than the Frenchmen in recognition of their German blood, though I assure you it empties from their veins in the same dark color and their screams are quite indistinguishable."
Drevcik choked on the sip of wine he had just taken. Two thousand gold kroners! A fortune ... perhaps not to the truly wealthy but certainly to him. His half ... a thousand!
"I take it that's a ja, Herr major?" Von Ritter was enjoying the obvious surprise of the young officer.
"It ... it's ... very generous, sir! Generous indeed!"
"I believe in rewarding those who ... facilitate ... my pleasure. I'll have the sum brought at once by my steward and you can be on your way. I wish you a safe, speedy journey to Vienna. I'm sure the imperial court will react with much joy at your tidings so you must not delay further."
In the courtyard, Drevcik caught a glimpse of his two cavalrymen being hustled through the door that led to the dungeon staircase. They had been disarmed and their arms tightly bound. One spotted Drevcik and called out, his voice trembling in boyish terror.
"Was geht hier, Herr Major? Warum sind wir Gefangener bekommen? Es mußt etwas falsch hier sein!"
What's going on here, sir? Why have we been taken prisoner? There must have been a mistake!
"Schweig, knarr! Sie bleiben hier. Diese sind meine Befehlen. Sie mußen die Wunschen des Markgraf ohne Fragen oder Aufwarten erfolgen. Tun alles das er wolte. Alles!"
Shut up you fool! You remain here. These are my orders. You are to obey the wishes of the Markgraf without questions or delay. You will do everything he wants. Everything!
The boy gulped hard, his eyes like saucers, but he dutifully locked his heels and barked back the stock answer required by his disciplined training.
"Jawohl, mein Herr!" Yes sir!
His saddlebag jangling slightly with its golden burden, Major Drevcik passed through the outer gate scarcely a half hour after he'd entered, the massive portal closing behind him with a dull thud. He tried briefly to envision what might be done to the quintet of young men he'd left behind and found himself shuddering for just a moment in revulsion of his betrayal of the pair of Austrian troopers. Then he thought about the gold kroners lodged safely just before one of his hips, lashed securely to the saddle, and his qualms edged swiftly away and were replaced by a rising sense of jubilation as he rode into the night..
Back within the courtyard, Erich stepped from the shadows and stood beside his master.
"It would have been easy to take that one too, my lord, and he was not unattractive, though not on par with these others I suppose. Still he would have been fun to break."
Von Ritter affectionately caressed the boy's nearly shaven skill, liking the feel of the soft, velvet stubble against his palm.
"You are such a savage, Erich. Honestly, sometimes you frighten me with your lust for blood!"
"I had a very good instructor in that regard, sire!" Erich responded and they both laughed.
"Remember, my little wolfhound, greed is dangerous and restraint a wise virtue at times. If the officer did not reach Vienna, there would be much of a stir and inquiries."
"No one would have known he was here ... at least no one who would dare say anything," the boy argued half-heartedly. "Isn't it even more dangerous that he knows about you and your ... interests?"
The noble shook his head,
"He will not talk. He just committed treason.
Actually, I suspect the good major may well bring us further prizes on
his own for which he will not have to share the bounty with his superior.
Xxxx"Perhaps then he will not need to depart but stay to enjoy my hospitality. You may yet have your lusts satisfied upon him. You pique my curiosity though. If you could what would you do with him?"
Erich thought just briefly before replying, one hand lightly pawing the rapidly swelling bulge in the crotch of his tight-fitting breeches,
"I think, sire, I'd do what we did with Gunther. I enjoyed that a very great deal."
The count sighed in pleasure. What a wonder all that had been ... a dream come true.
He still marveled at the incredible events that had unfolded the day young Erich arrived at the gate of the castle three years before at the reins of a small horsecart belonging to his father. One of the many rude peasants holding a farm at the sufferance of the Von Ritters, Joergen Holsnigg was always anxious to please his liege and a delightful opportunity had arisen to do so while resolving a problem of his own. With luck he'd even turn a kroner or two.
Though just barely eighteen, Erich had not seemed intimidated when he finally was afforded an audience with the tall, cold-eyed Markgraf. He was suitably deferential, doffing his cap and keeping his gaze properly lowered, though he was immensely curious about the man.
Not that he could really see much since the noble's form was swathed in a full-length, hooded cloak of dark crimson, secured at the throat by a gold chain-clasp. He explained that he had brought a gift from his father's farm in the hope that the master would be pleased and might give some small token of esteem in return.
"Times are hard this year and the harvest was lessened...."
Fritz patiently let the carefully rehearsed pitch roll forth. He was enjoying his study of the hunky body of the sturdy, well-built farmboy. A fine piece of meat is this one! Would that his father had sent him as a gift!
He envisioned the youth stripped naked and spread-eagled for his pleasure down in the dungeon and shuddered in deep excitement. He wondered if the boy realized how little was the likelihood of his ever departing the castle. His life or death was within Fritz's power to determine and just now a long life was not in the cards for the pretty-faced, wonderfully buff teenager. The thought of screams erupting from the full-lipped mouth instead of words sent a shiver of delight edging down the noble's spine and he finally interrupted the stream of words with a wave of his hand.
"What is this bounty you claim to have brought me from your father's farm? A suckling piglet to roast?"
I'll roast you instead, little farmbrat. Very, very slowly over a bed of glowing coals.
"Better, sire! Far, far better!"
Looking very self-pleased, Erich stepped to the back end of the cart, reached into the bed of straw and deftly grabbed a thick ankle just above a naked foot equipped with big, long male toes. He hauled forth into full view a strong, muscular boy of his own age, naked and with his wrists bound behind him, a gag tied over his mouth.
Oh well now! What have we here? The count diverted his attention from Erich's person to the nude form of the very big-hung teenaged boy perched on the edge of the cart, one leg dangling over, the other bent at the knee to one side as he balanced in place.
"My cousin Ulrich," Erich announced proudly, "my father invites you to dispose of him."