Judge Dee is back to solve a brand-new case involving the mysterious death of the vampire Count Werdenfels. The mystery? Who killed him. The twist? Three different people are proudly proclaiming to have committed the crime.
The sun set coldly over the Alps as Jonathan woke with a scream. These days, he always woke with a scream. It was very cold in their mountain encampment. Jonathan shivered as he started to make a fire. His master, of course, cared little for warmth.
Soon enough Jonathan had the fire going. He rubbed his hands together. He wore a pelt coat, mittens, and padded boots. But still. He thought he’d never be warm again.
He raised his eyes to the last rays of the setting sun. The peaks of the Alps rose high overhead. The view would be considered breathtaking; but as Jonathan liked to say, you couldn’t eat the view. He thought longingly of pork grease and bread. What he wouldn’t give for some crackling.
Night fell swiftly in the mountains. The peaks above shone with their own ethereal light. Jonathan had heard the master say that there were powers in the peaks even his kind dared not disturb. Jonathan did behold the peaks with suitable awe. But it occurred to him it was just as likely that vampires didn’t like disturbing the peaks for a simpler reason, which was that they were often quite lazy. It was not a thought he would have shared with his master, but it was true nonetheless. Vampires liked their home comforts as much as anyone, even if those comforts were bloodier than most. And there was no food up at the peaks. Jonathan was practical like that. Which made him a lot like the vampires.
His master emerged from behind a rock then and Jonathan supressed a scream.
‘Sleep well?’ his master said. He looked without expression at Jonathan in the light of the fire. His face was long and austere, his eyes cold. He seldom smiled.
‘Yes, master,’ Jonathan said miserably.
‘Come, come,’ his master said.
Jonathan looked at Judge Dee.
The judge had found Jonathan under a pile of corpses a long way from there, on the Isle of Britain. There had been death and fire, steel and blood. There had been horror. The judge rescued him for a purpose and after that, for whatever reason of his own, kept him by his side. Jonathan was grateful, but he wished serving a vampire judge involved less cold weather and more roast pork. Or at least a nice fat chicken.
‘Master,’ he said, ‘why do we trek here in the dead of winter? I mean, it is beautiful – such magnificent sunsets, do you know – but it is rather cold and I think there are wolves.’
‘There are wolves,’ his master said. He sat by the fire and extended his hands to the flames. ‘Have you eaten yet, Jonathan?’
Jonathan burrowed in his bag. He had two sausages left and half a loaf of bread. He threaded the sausages on a stick and put them over the flames.
‘Where do we go, master?’ he said.
‘To the other side of the mountains,’ Judge Dee said.
‘What’s on the other side of the mountains, master?’ Jonathan said.
The judge frowned.
‘Much of whatever there was on the side we just left,’ he said.
Jonathan sighed. ‘Yes, master,’ he said. He turned over the sausages.
The judge watched him.
‘You are unhappy, Jonathan?’ he said.
‘No, master. I mean, yes…master? It is very cold.’
‘Oh.’ Judge Dee considered this. Jonathan took a bite of hot sausage. The grease ran down his chin.
‘I forgot it was cold,’ the judge admitted.
‘I find the austerity of the mountains relaxing,’ the judge said. ‘But I see that you feel differently, Jonathan.’
‘I am sorry, master.’
‘Never be sorry for who you are, Jonathan,’ the master said. ‘Though I do wish you had better table manners.’
‘Yes, master.’ Jonathan wiped the grease off his chin with the back of his hand and the judge sighed.
‘Our business in the mountains will be concluded soon,’ he said, taking pity on him. ‘Come, finish your meal and let us be on our way. The nameless horrors that sit in the Monastery of the Old High Ones wait on no one, not even us.’
‘Of course they don’t, master,’ Jonathan muttered miserably. He swallowed the last bite of sausage and stuffed the rest of the stale bread in his mouth.
He stared at the steep climb ahead with foreboding.
Jonathan tried to wash the blood off his shirt but the creek water was filled with tiny icicles and his hands were freezing and anyway the blood wouldn’t come off.
There was a lot of blood.
He tried not to think of the Monastery of the Old High Ones and the horrors that, well, no longer dwelled there. It had been a complex case and it ended inevitably in a shower of blood. Jonathan gave up on his washing and sat back and let the dying sun warm his face.
At least they were out of the mountains at last.
At least spring was on its way.
At least he could smell roses and daisies again.
He was so sick of edelweiss.
As the sun set, Judge Dee emerged. They had made camp in a secluded valley, near a bubbling stream. Jonathan had made a small fire. The judge stood still and listened to the silence.
‘It is peaceful, here,’ he said.
Jonathan, who never slept peacefully anymore, said nothing. Though he had to admit it was nice. The air was crisp and clear, the fire merry, the bubbling of the brook was also merry, and before they left the now-ruined monastery, Jonathan had liberated a priceless bottle of Römerwein from the cellars. Now he carelessly popped it open and took a swig.
The master looked startled.
‘This wine was brewed by the Romans,’ he said. ‘Centuries ago.’
‘Sure,’ Jonathan said. He took another swig. It was pretty smooth, considering it was so old. He’d once asked his master what happens to vampires when they died. The really old ones turned to dust, apparently. The younger ones into mummies. And freshly turned vampires just turned up corpses. He thought it was a good thing vampires never drank…wine.
He downed another swig, feeling the warmth spread through him.
‘You’re just going to guzzle it?’ the judge asked.
‘Sure,’ Jonathan said. He took another swig. It really did go down easy. He giggled.
‘May I?’ the judge said. He procured a delicate cup made of pure glass and proceeded to pour a minute amount of the wine into it. He handed the bottle back to Jonathan, raised the cup in his long, graceful fingers, and sniffed it with evident appreciation.
‘Priceless,’ he said.
‘Which is just another word for free,’ Jonathan said. He took another swig.
‘Nothing is free, but death is freeing,’ the judge said.
Jonathan hazarded a guess. ‘Herodotus?’
The judge looked at him blankly, as though he were an idiot. Which, if Jonathan was being truthful, was how the judge often looked at Jonathan.
Why did the judge keep him? Why did Jonathan accompany Judge Dee to horror after horror? After all this time, he still couldn’t tell. Jonathan would age and die a mortal man, this much he knew. The judge made no vampires. He was a puritan.
‘I drank this wine once when this wine was young,’ the judge said. He smelled the liquid in the glass again and swirled it.
‘Here,’ he said, handing the glass to Jonathan. Jonathan took it and was about to gulp it down when a large black bird dove down on them from the skies. Jonathan, startled, dropped the precious glass. It smashed to pieces.
‘Do you know how many centuries I have had this object?’ the judge said.
‘Two?’ Jonathan said.
‘Far many more,’ the judge said. ‘It was made by a glassblower of great skill, a long time ago, in a place far from here. It is sad, when beauty breaks.’
‘It was just a cup,’ Jonathan protested. ‘Meant to hold wine.’
‘The glassblower, I think, had much the same idea as you, Jonathan,’ Judge Dee said. He almost smiled then, and not for the first time Jonathan thought what an odd being the judge was.
The bird cawed loudly. It hopped on a rock by the fire, glaring at Jonathan with big mean eyes. The judge extended his arm and the bird flew to him. It cawed softly into his ear.
‘I see,’ Judge Dee said.
The bird cawed some more.
‘Indeed,’ the judge said. He nodded. ‘Very well.’
He raised his arm and the dark bird took to the air and flew off.
‘It is a summons,’ the judge said to Jonathan. ‘It appears I am needed elsewhere.’
Jonathan stared into the empty bottle of wine.
‘Yes, master,’ he said mournfully.
‘It isn’t far from here,’ the judge said.
‘The Castle of Werdenfels, in the nearby Duchy of Bavaria,’ the judge said. ‘Come. Let us be on our way.’
‘Yes, master,’ Jonathan said. His momentary good cheer evaporated. He rose unsteadily to his feet. The judge’s cold, inhuman eyes reminded him where he was and who he served.
The judge passed judgement. And his judgement was final.
‘Castle Werdenfels?’ Jonathan said as they set off into the night. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howled and made Jonathan jump. ‘It sounds gloomy and cold, and no doubt filled with vampires of murderous intent.’
At this the judge did smile, revealing his sharp canines in that austere patrician face.
‘You are correct as always, Jonathan,’ he said. ‘Only this time, one of those vampires is himself dead – it would seem that the Count of Werdenfels has been murdered!’
‘Yes, master…’ Jonathan mumbled. He shouldered his bag and trudged after the judge into the night.
For just a moment there, he reflected, he had almost been happy.
They travelled slowly below the Alps, into the Duchy of Bavaria. The ground was marshy, and the mountains cast a long shadow over the plains during the day so that the sunset arrived early. Here and there, Jonathan could see pretty little villages in the distance, and farmed fields and herds of fat cattle. One night they came upon a midnight fair, with lit torches and everyone dressed in ghoulish costumes. Children ran excitedly between the stalls, and a whole hog roasted above open flames.
Judge Dee passed among the celebrations unobserved, and Jonathan ate more than his fill, and candied apples too. A central tent, erected in the midst of these festivities, sold wine and beer by the barrel. Jonathan gladly ordered some of the famed dark beer of Bavaria, while the judge merely held a mug, the drink within untouched. Everyone was too drunk and excited to notice.
‘Castle Werdenfels?’ one of the locals said, when Jonathan raised the subject. ‘It is a dreadful place. They have been trying witches there for decades. Trying, sentencing, and executing.’
‘A terrible place,’ another said.
‘There are wolves roaming wild in the forests round it,’ a third speaker said with relish.
‘And vampires,’ someone else said, in a hushed voice.
Jonathan flinched, and the speakers mistook the nature of his fear and laughed heartily.
‘Don’t worry,’ the first speaker said. ‘There’s a band of vampire hunters passed through here not that long ago. Their leader said they planned to cleanse the castle of its ancient evil. He talked like that, too. But his blades were sharp and his scars were true.’
Judge Dee stirred for the first time at this mention.
‘Did he give a name?’ he said. ‘This…vampire hunter?’
The speaker shrugged. ‘He was from Troyes?’ he said.
‘A Frenchman? Two scars like this?’ The judge indicated two slashes through the air with his fingers.
‘That’s the one. You know him?’
The judge actually shrugged. Jonathan winced at the human gesture: it just showed the judge to be more clearly what he was, a monstrous, inhuman thing.
‘Heard of him,’ the judge said.
‘Say, where are you two from?’ the first speaker said. He was at the stage of drunkenness where jollity swiftly turns to brutality. ‘I’ve not seen you around here before.’
‘Just passing through, friend,’ the judge said.
‘I ain’t your friend.’
There was a distance between him and Judge Dee. And then, there wasn’t. The judge’s face near touched the man’s own. The judge said, ‘That is more true than you could possibly know, my friend,’ he said. ‘But you don’t want to be my enemy.’
He spoke very softly.
The man turned white. The judge patted him gently on the shoulder.
‘Come, Jonathan,’ he said. ‘I trust you are full?’
Jonathan, very carefully, put down his cup. He had plenty of fresh bread and roast hog in his scrip.
‘Yes, master,’ he said.
He followed Judge Dee away from the drinking tent, and they were not followed. Soon the torchlight of the fair was behind them, and they were back in the familiar dark.
‘What do you make of it, Jonathan?’ the judge asked.
‘Master?’ Jonathan swallowed and wiped his greasy hand on his cloak. He shrugged. ‘I guess the vampire hunter did it,’ he said.
‘Have you known many vampire hunters?’ the judge asked.
The hint of a smile played on the judge’s lips.
‘I thought not,’ he said.
Jonathan shrugged again. He cared not for mysteries.
Instead he smiled as he reached into his scrip and pinched a big fat chunk of meat to put in his mouth. He cared a lot more for pork.
Castle Werdenfels stood about eighty meters above the Loisach Valley, not far from a pleasant little town called Garmisch, which Jonathan never got to see. It was another night and they had almost reached the castle, when the judge stopped and sniffed the air. His teeth lengthened and he hissed in a barely audible sound that raised all the hairs on Jonathan’s arms. The judge’s tongue flicked out as he tasted the air.
‘What is it, master?’ Jonathan said.
The judge did not reply, but began to trudge in a different direction. They passed through marshy grounds and patched fields and into wilderness, and came at last to a small hut that stood secluded in a spur of rock, and there were graves dug all around it.
‘What is this place, master?’ Jonathan said.
The master didn’t answer him but hissed again in that strange, disconcerting way of his. A vampire’s call.
A stooped, hooded figure stepped out of the hut. The moonlight bathed it. It made an answering cry, and a dark bird high overhead cried in alarm and took to the air.
The master nodded. The hooded figure slowly removed its hood.
In the light of the moon, Jonathan saw another vampire. It hardly came as a surprise to him, of course. This vampire looked old, his skin blotchy with red patches, his eyes sunken. He looked at them in turn, then spread his arms.
‘Welcome,’ he said, in a gravelly voice. ‘Come in peace and enter of your own free will. I am Claus, the hermit.’
‘How do you do,’ Jonathan said politely.
The vampire hissed. Jonathan clenched his teeth so he wouldn’t scream.
‘We thank you,’ the judge said. He took a step and Jonathan followed him. They came to the hut and stood before the strange hermit.
‘I am Judge Dee,’ the judge said.
The hermit looked startled. ‘Your name is well known,’ he said. ‘What brings you to these parts?’
‘We are headed to Castle Werdenfels,’ the judge said. He examined the hermit closely. ‘Do you know it?’
‘It lies not far from here,’ the hermit said. ‘Ruled over by a boorish lord and his wife. But I do not truck with them. Many of our kind style themselves counts or princes. But I follow the Unalienable Obligations, and keep my presence hidden, and I make no get of my own, and I feed only sparingly. And thus I survive.’
The judge inched his head, for the hermit had recited the rules of survival, by which vampirekind is bound; and he was not displeased. Too many of their kind were venal fools, the judge often told Jonathan: who overfed; who drew attention to themselves; who made too many offspring. Such beings died young.
‘May I offer you blood?’ the hermit, Claus, said. ‘It would be an honour to share what little I have with the famed Judge Dee.’
Jonathan looked about him. All around the hermit’s hut lay a small cemetery. Graves were dug into the earth, and all but one had headstones carved and placed atop them. The last grave was small: a child’s grave, he thought, and thus unmarked. He shivered. The air smelled damp here, and there were bones on the ground.
‘How do you feed?’ the judge asked.
‘I am useful,’ Claus said. ‘The village folk nearby consider me a holy man. Sometimes they bring me those who suffer. The dying, those for whom death would be merely a release. These I help—’ He flashed his fangs. ‘Then I bury them properly, and honour them in this way. They value me here,’ he said. ‘Yes. They value me.’
Jonathan knew that most vampires did not live as lords and ladies in grand castles. Most lived as rats, hidden in the slums in cities, or out in the countryside as hermits, posing as holy men or witches. He almost felt sorry for this Claus, living here like this, feeding off the dying.
He did not like this place at all. He thought perhaps even the castle would be better.
‘You are welcome to shelter here,’ the hermit said. ‘The night is short, and word is there’s a band of vampire hunters on the loose in these parts of late. I have little enough of my own, but you will be safe here. Come in peace and enter of your own free will.’
The judge nodded appreciatively, for twice now the hermit spoke the invitation, and that is not lightly given by one vampire to another.
‘Tell me,’ the judge said. ‘What do you know of what transpires in Werdenfels?’
The hermit shook his head. ‘I care little for them. The count is fond of hunting, and likes executing witches. Poor women mostly, of these parts, who are more often than not mere herbalists or abortionists. The count hunts every night. His wife, the Lady Maria, is Italian and in life was a minor relation to the Duke of Saxony. So what nobility the count has comes purely from his wife’s side. More recently I heard they had a guest, an elder of our kind. But like I said, I do not mix with them what live in castles.’
‘We shall continue on our way,’ the judge announced. ‘Yet I thank you for your hospitality. Be well, hermit.’
‘Be well, Judge Dee,’ the hermit said. He stared at Jonathan with a hungry look.
‘Is this one your meal for the night?’ he said.
‘Come, Jonathan,’ the judge said. Jonathan didn’t need any further prompting. He couldn’t wait to get away from the hermit’s graveyard.
‘His blood must taste fresh and sweet,’ the hermit said longingly.
‘Be well,’ the judge said.
‘I have half an old woman in the back, but her blood’s cloying and thin,’ the hermit said. He kept staring at Jonathan. Jonathan followed Judge Dee.
‘Come back any time!’ Claus the hermit said. ‘If anything remains of the boy I will gladly take the leftovers.’
Jonathan shuddered. The judge smiled, showing sharp teeth. They walked away from the hermit’s hut until that dismal place vanished into the night as though it never existed.
They had sought shelter that day in the thick forest, and the next night came soon after sunfall to the castle. It rose forebodingly over the surrounding valley, high on its encampments, with steep hillsides leading up to it and with a dry moat on one side. Bats flew overhead, but they were fruit eaters, not blood suckers. Or so the judge said.
Jonathan said little. They came to the gates of the castle and the judge knocked. They stood and waited. Presently a side gate opened and an old man poked his head out.
‘Who dares disturb the solitude of Werdenfels—’ he began, in a voice that was more tremulous than grave. Then he finally noticed them and blanched.
‘M…master!’ he said.
‘I am Judge Dee,’ the judge said.
‘Yes, yes!’ the old man said. ‘Come in, be welcome in the…I mean, of your own free will and—’
‘I do not need an invitation,’ the judge said. His voice was icy. ‘I am the judge. I have been called and I will judge and pass sentence. My authority in this is absolute.’
‘Yes, yes, of course! Please! Judge Dee himself! And—’ the old man stared at Jonathan dubiously, ‘a person! Please, come in! Oh, it is so distressing! You see, my master, Count Werdenfels, he has been murdered!’
Jonathan stared back at the old man.
‘Yes,’ Jonathan said. ‘We know. Do you have any sausages?’
‘Sausages. And some eggs and bread? If you could whip something up—’
‘Hush, Jonathan,’ the judge said. He crossed the threshold into the castle and Jonathan followed.
‘Who are you?’ the judge said.
The old man said, ‘I am Helmut, sir. The count’s familiar.’
‘Is your mistress in?’
‘My lord’s widow is within. She is…entertaining.’
‘And yet vampires so rarely are,’ the judge said. ‘Tell me, were you close, you and your master?’
‘Were you familiar?’ Jonathan said.
Helmut scowled at him. ‘He was my master,’ he said. ‘I served him faithfully. My life is without meaning now that my master’s gone. Take my blood!’ He exposed his neck pitifully to the judge. ‘It is not right that my master dies and I yet live.’
The judge’s pale hand shot out and his fingers wrapped around the old servant’s neck. He lifted him off the ground. Jonathan, who had taken an instant dislike to the dead count’s familiar, smirked. Helmut choked without sound.
‘Do you accuse anyone of killing your master?’ the judge inquired. He lowered Helmut to the ground. The old familiar made rasping sounds as he breathed in new air.
‘It is not…for me…to accuse…’ he said, pointing towards the lights within the castle proper. ‘You must ask…her!’
‘Very well, then,’ the judge said.
And with that, he marched into the castle, with the reluctant Jonathan in his wake.
‘Who killed the count?’ the Lady Maria said. She stared at Judge Dee in some surprise. ‘Why, it was me, of course.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ the judge said.
Lady Maria sparkled. ‘Oh, do not beg!’ she said. ‘And there is nothing to pardon! I’ve been trying to get the old bastard for years. Finally did it, too, and good riddance. Now I can have the castle to myself. Well, other than the guest who won’t leave and those vampire hunters in the woods. But I’ll deal with them myself.’
They had found the lady of the castle in the ballroom. A band played dancing music and several handsome young men from the nearby towns, their chests bare and glistening, danced with the Lady Maria. She was the sort of vampire who looked young until you stared too long into her eyes, and then you saw exactly just how old and just how deadly she really was. A fire burned, and all the young men had teeth marks on their necks and torsos, where the lady had nibbled on them like snacks.
‘Care for a drink?’ she said.
The judge shook his head minutely. He showed no outward emotion, yet Jonathan could imagine the cold anger underneath his calm exterior.
The truth was that mysteries were bunk: murder was straightforward and everyone did it, from the emperor down. Husbands killed their wives and sometimes wives killed their husbands. Men robbed and murdered every day in every street in every town of the Holy Roman Empire. Knights slaughtered Saracens in the Holy Land and Saracens slaughtered crusaders. The poor killed and the rich killed, and convicts were executed, and it didn’t matter if people used the sword, a kitchen knife, or poison. The end result was always the same.
‘Why was I summoned?’ the judge said.
The lady shrugged. ‘Were you summoned? No one has informed me of this fact. But as you can see I am well within the Unalienable Obligations, and there is no need for your presence. I am sorry you’ve had a wasted journey. Feel free to stay the night. Oh, it’s you again.’ She turned and fixed her eyes on the human servant, Helmut, who came scuttling in after the judge and now stood shaking with righteous rage, pointing his finger accusingly at the mistress of the castle.
‘You did not kill him!’ he shrieked. ‘You have no claim!’
‘Wait,’ Jonathan said. He couldn’t help himself. ‘You’re accusing your mistress of not murdering the count?’
The lady burst out laughing. ‘Did you summon Judge Dee?’ she asked the familiar. ‘I would have you drawn and quartered and boiled in vinegar, Helmut, if only you didn’t delight me so.’ She waved a hand airily. ‘But the judge will take care of you himself, I am sure. One does not simply waste the Council’s time.’
Helmut turned pale but stood his ground. ‘You did not kill him,’ he said. ‘You cannot lay claim!’ He turned to the judge, his face twisted in anguish. ‘Is it not right, master, that whoever bested the count is the one to inherit?’
Judge Dee stared curiously at the deceased count’s familiar.
‘You argue for a matter of inheritance?’ he said.
‘So who killed the count?’ the judge said.
‘It is not for me to accuse.’
‘This is absurd!’ Lady Maria said. She hissed, and her teeth opened wide. ‘I’ve had it with you, Helmut. I want you gone from my home, and the damned guest of my husband with you!’
‘Who is this guest?’ the judge said.
The lady shrugged. ‘Some elder parasite. A Roman. He came three months ago and wouldn’t leave. He is still here. My husband paid him the respect of age and placed him in the upper quarters next to ours. I have him imprisoned there for the moment. He is a parasitos, an eater-at-another’s-table. My husband tolerated him but I will not.’
‘And these vampire hunters you mentioned?’ the judge said.
‘Oh, those. They’re harmless fools. They hide out in the forest and make trouble. I will hunt them down eventually.’
‘Curious,’ the judge said quietly. But his voice carried nonetheless.
‘What is this?’ the Lady Maria said. ‘I told you, I murdered my husband! Do you dare question me?’
The judge looked at her coldly.
‘I am Judge Dee,’ he said. ‘Do you dare question me?’
The lady had the good sense to blanche. ‘Of course, of course,’ she said. ‘You will see for yourself. Please, be welcome in my castle. I shall have our best quarters prepared. Helmut, could you arrange accommodation? The judge—’
‘Of course, mistress,’ the old familiar said. He bowed and vanished noiselessly, and Jonathan reflected on the curious relationship the man had with his employer: for all their hatred they seemed equally dependent on each other.
‘I will take a small glass,’ the judge announced, surprising Jonathan, for the judge almost never fed in public. ‘And I shall determine for myself how and in what manner the count perished. Is there a corpse?’
‘He lived too long,’ the lady said, with some evident regret. ‘He must have turned to dust when he expired.’
‘You were not there in person?’ the judge said.
The lady exposed her teeth. ‘A hunter lays a trap,’ she said. ‘And waits. Tomorrow night, I will show you.’
Jonathan rubbed the bridge of his nose. No one liked convoluted plots more dearly than a vampire. He put his hand out, halting one of the dashing young men who surrounded the lady.
‘Is there some human food?’ he said.
The man, trapped, shot a frightened glance at his mistress. She waved a hand.
‘Take the judge’s boy to the kitchens,’ she said.
‘There’s plenty of venison,’ the man told Jonathan in a low voice. ‘And some good cheese and pickles.’
‘Then lead the way,’ Jonathan said, and he followed the young man to the one place in the castle he felt comfortable. Vampires, after all, seldom went into the kitchen.
‘A curious case,’ the judge said.
They were in their opulent quarters. It was just before dawn. A warm fire burned and they both had drinks. Jonathan’s wine was red and so he pretended the red liquid the judge was sipping was also…wine.
‘What do you make of it all, Jonathan?’ the judge said.
More than once in their travels, when this question was posed to him, Jonathan wanted to ask the judge why, in all that was holy – or, rather, all that was unholy – did it matter what he, Jonathan, thought. Judge Dee had rescued him in England not out of kindness but from a simple need for, well, directions. Yet after the events of the Hell of Black Rock, the judge kept him on.
‘I suppose the lady did it,’ Jonathan said. ‘She did seem quite proud of it, master.’
‘If you believe everything a vampire tells you,’ the judge said, ‘you will not live very long, Jonathan.’
‘Those vampire hunters, then,’ Jonathan said. ‘That’s what vampire hunters do, don’t they? Kill vampires?’
‘Try to, at any rate,’ the judge said.
‘Well, there you have it then.’
‘What of this mysterious guest of the late count?’ the judge said. ‘We should endeavour to speak to him. A Roman elder, he would be quite powerful. Indeed, I doubt the good Lady Maria really has him imprisoned unless he chooses to let her, for reasons of his own.’
‘Yes, I thought that strange, too,’ Jonathan said. ‘The lady acts as the mistress of the castle, yet has little apparent control. A guest she can’t get rid of and vampire hunters in the woods, they are a sign of weakness, and weak vampires die quick, as the saying goes.’
‘What saying?’ the judge said.
‘Well, not technically a saying,’ Jonathan allowed. ‘But, master, all these suppositions are entirely – what is that word you like to use? – circumstantial. We will not solve this case simply by discussing it.’
‘Indeed, Jonathan, we will not,’ the judge said. ‘Though I believe the facts in the case are elementary. But regardless. Tomorrow we shall conduct our investigation’ – he put a slight ironic emphasis on the ‘our’, Jonathan didn’t fail to notice – ‘and see for ourselves. I am sure that however the lady murdered her husband, it was done with flair.’
‘Yes, master,’ Jonathan mumbled. The sun was soon to rise. Judge Dee finished his cup and silently turned into mist and vanished. How and where the judge slept each day not even Jonathan knew. The judge did not survive the long centuries by being easy to find.
‘My husband was a keen hunter,’ Lady Maria said. The night was thick and the stars numerous in the sky, and the lady’s eyes shone red in the dark. ‘And punctual. It is dangerous for our kind to fall into routine, yet a routine he had. My husband was turned some three centuries back, during the reign of one of the Ottos. I believe he was fond of hunting back when he was warm-blooded. As a vampire I think it still brought him comfort. Each evening after sundown he would wake and nibble on something warm, then climb out of his window. He crawled down the side of the castle, then vanished into the woods to hunt in wolf’s form. He liked to mark his territory in this way, too, so each evening he would pass the same corners and leave a scent. He was a fool! I will show you. Come.’
Jonathan raised his head to the top room at the turret. A light burned there, illuminating the small window that was shaped like an upside-down cross. Jonathan imagined the count crawling down the side of the castle like a spider, and he supressed a shudder of revulsion.
They marched on into the night. The judge moved quietly, confidently, his red eyes missing nothing. Jonathan stumbled on roots and heard mostly the beating of his own heart in his ears. From time to time the lady would point out something invisible in the dark and say, ‘You see here?’ or ‘This is his mark,’ and the judge would nod, so Jonathan figured she was telling the truth.
‘Once he established a pattern,’ the lady said, ‘all I had to do was lay down a trap and wait. Even if he didn’t follow the exact same route each time, sooner or later he’d return to the same spot. And so I – hello, here we are.’
Jonathan stumbled, for the ground suddenly vanished underneath him. The judge’s hand snapped out and caught him painfully by the wrist. The judge pulled. Jonathan was lifted into the air, then found himself back on solid ground. The lady’s red eyes shone in excitement.
Jonathan peered at the hole. It had been cunningly disguised, a hole deeper than two men and covered in a thin weave of rope topped with a thin layer of earth and leaves, so that it looked like solid ground. The covering had fallen down, though. And sticking out of the hole were long, sharp wooden sticks.
‘The tips are made of fragments of the True Cross,’ the Lady Maria said with some pride. ‘It was no easy task, acquiring them quietly, but I still have family connections in the old country, and there are relic merchants aplenty who hawk their wares. And that stake in the middle, there? It’s tipped with a bone fragment from the skull of St. John the Baptist. The seller assured me it was genuine.’
‘I see,’ the judge said, though he did not sound impressed. Jonathan knew that if one were to put together all the fragments of the True Cross sold across Christendom, one would have enough wood to build Noah’s Ark and still have wood to spare. Nevertheless: the spikes looked deadly.
‘I set my trap, and waited,’ the lady said. ‘On the night in question, my dear husband departed his abode as usual. He ran into the woods as a wolf. I had gone to sleep early that night. The next evening, when I awoke, he had not returned. I came back here to check and saw that, indeed, the covering had fallen. He could not have survived my spikes. It is a shame there’s no corpse to show you, but I suppose you could check the dust. It was easy work, Judge Dee. I only wish I’d done it years ago.’
‘You were thorough,’ the judge said.
‘You’re too kind,’ the lady said.
The judge methodically examined the trap. From time to time he pointed out invisible marks, muttering to himself or Jonathan, it was hard to say. ‘Note this small avalanche of dirt there,’ or ‘The wood does not appear to exhibit holy properties which are immediately obvious,’ and so on. Finally he was done.
‘Well?’ the lady demanded.
Judge Dee said nothing. His keen eyes had caught something in the dark, it seemed. Silently, he gestured for them to follow him.
Jonathan traipsed again through the dark forest.
This was his lot, he reflected resignedly. Ever since he’d met Judge Dee his life was at the service of dark forces. Yet something within Jonathan still, however foolishly, believed that not all in the judge’s work was evil: that he represented order, a sort of moral compass even for the immoral and immortal beings of vampirekind.
So he followed him willingly, for all that the forest was dark and spooky, and things hooted in the dark, and somewhere there was the whistle of a rope and someone coughed and—
Something fastened around Jonathan’s ankle and pulled. He lost his balance and found himself pulled up into the air.
In moments he was dangling upside down.
‘Vampires!’ came the cry from the night.
Jonathan saw flames bobbing between the trees. Arrows whistled through the air. Jonathan flinched, felt one pass too close for comfort.
The Lady Maria was a blur in the night, roaring with fury, her teeth elongated and her nails extended into claws. She slashed, and a man fell screaming at her feet.
Jonathan couldn’t see Judge Dee.
An arrow whistled in the dark. The Lady Maria pulled the bloodied arrow from her chest. She hissed, a sharp inhuman sound like nails on glass. It made Jonathan’s eyes water. There were shadows in the night. They crept up on the lady. They threw a net. It fell softly and the lady cried in pain. The net was weighed with silver.
The cry rang out. Hanging upside down, Jonathan had trouble making out the scene. He saw a large, burly man with deep scars down his face.
Behind him was Judge Dee.
The judge held his sharp nails to the man’s neck. His teeth were bared to strike. The man stood very still.
The Lady Maria, surrounded by vampire hunters, stood still, too. The men held weapons on her, stakes and arrows and swords.
‘It seems,’ the judge said, ‘we are at an impasse.’
‘You,’ the scarred man said. His voice rasped.
‘I,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Hello, Chrétien. I wondered when we’d meet again.’
‘Kill me and she dies,’ the man said.
The judge said, ‘What is that to me?’
The Lady Maria howled in rage. She tried to strike out but the net held her down and the threat of the men was real. She subsided.
‘Wait,’ the hunter, Chrétien, said. ‘Judge Dee! I claim the right of kill and thus the castle of Werdenfels. There are precedents—’
‘What is this!’ Lady Maria screamed. ‘You are no vampire! You have no right! You’re…you’re…cattle!’
‘And you’re a leech, a misbegotten thing, an abomination under God and Christ!’ the Frenchman said.
‘I will tear out your heart!’ Lady Maria screamed.
‘And I will cut off your head!’ the Frenchman shouted.
‘Could somebody let me down?’ Jonathan said.
‘Jonathan, what are you doing up there?’ the judge said. ‘Chrétien, you lay a claim of inheritance? But that would mean—’
‘Yes,’ the vampire hunter said, and his eyes shone with pride in the torchlight. ‘It is I who killed Count Werdenfels!’
It was sometime later. The lady had been released. She retreated back to the castle, promising to rain a thousand deaths upon the vampire hunters. And somebody had finally cut Jonathan down. His head spun for a while, but otherwise he was fine.
Judge Dee and the vampire hunter Chrétien sat around the fire. A burly Norman named Wace handed Jonathan a cup of wine, which Jonathan drank gratefully.
‘It was simple enough,’ Chrétien said. ‘The count had developed a routine. He was fond of hunting—’
‘We know all this,’ Jonathan said.
‘Hush,’ the judge said.
Chrétien shrugged. ‘We simply had to wait for him in the woods. He came as a wolf. Then we were upon him from our ambush. We slaughtered him. Our weapons are fashioned of cold steel blessed by the pope in Rome. He never had a chance. The castle should by rights be mine. And if I must kill his vampire wife to get it then so be it. She can stay and die or flee and live undead another century, it matters not to me.’
‘You know our laws, Chrétien,’ Judge Dee said. ‘You know they do not apply to humans.’
‘I have no fight with you, Master Dee,’ the vampire hunter said. ‘But I am tired of the long, cold nights and the inhuman monsters who inhabit them. I want some comfort now, and warmth, and I hear Castle Werdenfels has a wonderful wine cellar. I will trust you to judge me fairly. That is all I ask.’
‘Will you show me the place of the ambush?’ the judge asked.
So Jonathan had to abandon the warm fire and the wine and traipse after the judge and this Frenchman, who the master had clearly met before, in some mysterious circumstances and clearly before ever Jonathan came on to the scene. As it were. And so here they were in the midst of the dark forest, and the Frenchman pointed out marks on the ground and signs of a scuffle and ugly slashes of steel on the bark of the trees, and blood on the ground, lots of blood.
‘Three men we lost, in the battle,’ Chrétien said, ‘three good men, for one lousy vampire. Begging your pardon, Judge Dee.’
The judge said little. He examined the scene. He said, ‘And is there a corpse?’
‘Alas,’ Chrétien said. ‘The count was old, when we finally killed him he must have turned into dust.’
‘It is my claim,’ Chrétien said. ‘And my claim is righteous.’
‘The lady won’t like it…’ Jonathan murmured. But neither vampire nor man paid him much attention.
It was almost dawn by the time they returned to the castle. The old familiar, Helmut, was the only one to greet them.
‘The lady’s in her chambers,’ he told them, ‘and in a most foul temper.’
He provided them with sustenance – a selection of cold cuts and wine for Jonathan, a small cup of fresh blood for the judge – and left them in their roomy accommodation. The judge sipped his cup as Jonathan devoured pork, cheese, and pickles.
‘You should have been a vampire,’ the judge said. It was not meant as a compliment.
‘Master,’ Jonathan said, his mouth still full – the judge grimaced – ‘who got him first, do you think?’
‘The lady or the hunters?’ the judge almost smiled. ‘Which do you think?’
‘I don’t know, master.’
The judge interlaced his fingers. ‘I shall make my final investigation tomorrow,’ he said. ‘But day is almost here. Good morning, Jonathan. I bid you fair sleep.’
With that, he finished the blood in his cup and, just like that, he was gone.
When Jonathan woke night had fallen, and the judge was already up. He paced the room. ‘Hurry,’ he said.
Jonathan groaned, rose, washed his face as best he could, and followed the judge. There were arrow slits cut into the walls here and there and through them Jonathan could see flames burning outside, and he could hear voices, too, and he knew that the vampire hunters were gathered beyond. The judge led him to the late count’s quarters. Helmut waited for them outside.
‘Through here,’ he said.
He opened the doors onto a sparse, austere room. Animal heads hung on the wall: deer, bear, wild boar, an ibex.
‘Look,’ Jonathan said. He pointed to dark stains on the floor. ‘Blood.’
‘Perhaps he was a messy eater,’ the judge said, giving Jonathan a pointed look.
‘Come out and face me!’ came a cry from outside. ‘I lay claim to this castle under the Unalienable Obligations and inheritance by kill!’
Somewhere down the corridor the Lady Maria shrieked in outrage. ‘I will drain you of blood and leave your empty, shrivelled husk on the top of the Zugspitze!’
‘I killed him!’
‘I killed him!’
Judge Dee climbed out of the window. He crawled along the wall like a lizard, looking at things Jonathan couldn’t. Jonathan supressed a shudder. He sometimes forgot what the judge could do.
He was suddenly aware of another presence in the room. He turned.
‘Master Dee?’ Jonathan said. His voice felt weak and tremulous. ‘Master Dee?’
The master reappeared in the window.
‘Ah,’ he said.
Jonathan stood very still. A huge vampire wearing an old-fashioned armour and tunic, of a sort not seen in the Western world in centuries, stood towering over him, his teeth bared and extended.
‘I am Magnus Maximus,’ he said. ‘And I claim this castle for myself. You see…it is I who killed Count Werdenfels!’
Jonathan groaned. He couldn’t help it.
‘Of course you did,’ he said.
‘Maximus,’ the judge said quietly.
‘Fifth legion!’ the old vampire said. ‘I was Emperor of Britannia…briefly. That bastard Theodosius had me thrown to the lions, metaphorically speaking. An old leech turned me, back in Aquileia. I have been doomed to wander ever since.’
The Lady Maria came storming into the room then. She stopped and glared.
‘What is the meaning of this!’ she said. ‘You! Parasite! I want you out of my home!’ She turned to Judge Dee. ‘This repulsive specimen has been leeching off the noble houses of Christendom for centuries!’ she said. ‘Once a guest, he never leaves! My husband let him in out of kindness, or more likely to annoy me. How did you escape your captivity?’
The Roman smirked. ‘You think you can hold me captive? I was an emperor.’
‘An emperor of a garbage heap!’ the lady said. ‘Well?’
An explosion boomed outside the castle walls, and once more Jonathan could hear the raised voice of the vampire hunter Chrétien.
‘Come and face me! The castle is mine!’
‘Oh, for…’ Lady Maria said. She glared at the Roman. ‘I will deal with you later,’ she said. Then she burst out of the window, turned into a huge bat, and flew straight at the vampire hunters gathered outside.
Jonathan heard screams. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. He felt a headache coming on.
‘So who killed the count?’ he said.
‘I did,’ the Roman said again. ‘But it does not matter. I will go and deal with the others first. I want you gone from my castle by morning. Good night to you.’ With that, he too leaped out of the window, to join the battle below.
The judge really did smile then. ‘Well, Jonathan?’ he said. ‘What do you make of all this?’
‘I am sure I don’t know,’ Jonathan said miserably. ‘I am sure it does not matter, either. Vampires never play by the rules, anyway.’
‘This is what I think happened,’ the judge said. His only audience now was Jonathan. Even the old familiar, Helmut, had disappeared. He was probably hiding in the wine cellar, Jonathan thought rather uncharitably.
‘Yes, master…’ Jonathan said.
‘I think we have been summoned here for a reason,’ the judge said. ‘And that reason is happening right now, outside.’
The judge rubbed his hands together. ‘Count Werdenfels was a creature of habit,’ he said. ‘A dangerous thing for a vampire. He also had enemies, both within and without. Each night, the count came here, to this room. He would then climb out of the window and go hunting in wolf form.’
‘Yes, master,’ Jonathan said. ‘I know all this.’
‘I am merely summing up,’ the judge said testily.
‘On the night in question, the count went out as usual,’ the judge said. ‘The first trap he came to was the Lady Maria’s. I have examined the site in depth, Jonathan. It’s a cunning trap, but the useless relics the lady bought were mere superstition. I surmise that the count did fall into the trap, and some of the spikes pierced his flesh, but they did not hit his heart. The Count was wounded, but alive. He escaped the lady’s trap and, no doubt full of rage, headed back to take his revenge.’
‘Which is when he came upon Chrétien and his band of hunters.’
‘They had been waiting for the count. And the count was wounded, but still deadly. He killed three of Chrétien’s men. Once again, there was no corpse. I surmise that in the confusion the count turned into mist or a bat and vanished. He was badly hurt, but not yet finished.’
The judge smiled without humour. His sharp teeth glinted in the candlelight.
He said, ‘And he came back here.’
Outside, the night echoed with screams. Jonathan stared at the dried blood on the floor.
‘The count came here,’ the judge said. Quietly, inexorably. Working out the only logical implications of a case that seemed to no longer matter. ‘He came back to his place of safety. He was wounded, badly hurt. But alive. He crawled in through the window, and then—’
‘The Roman,’ Jonathan said.
‘Yes. The parasitos was waiting. The count was weak. His guest pounced. It is the nature of vampires, Jonathan, to strike the weak. They had battled. You can see here, and here.’ The judge indicated marks on the walls. Jonathan did his best to follow. ‘The Roman was strong. But the count still had a fight in him.’
‘So this is it?’ Jonathan said. ‘The Roman killed him, here? So he has right of inheritance?’
Judge Dee sighed. ‘A vampire judge seldom resolves disputes,’ he said. ‘Vampires ultimately decide matters by teeth and claw. And consider this, Jonathan, if the Roman killed the count, then where is the corpse?’
‘This is what bothered me from the start of all this,’ the judge said. ‘If Count Werdenfels was dead, then where is his body, Jonathan?’
‘But the count was old,’ Jonathan protested. ‘He must have turned to dust.’
‘Nonsense, Jonathan. This Roman parasitos, maybe. But the count? He was a mere three centuries old. Hardly an elder. There should be a corpse.’
‘Then what happened, master?’
The judge paced.
‘The count arrived in the room. He and the Roman battled. The elder was strong, but the count was cunning. I surmise that once more he turned into mist, thus fooling the older vampire. He drifted out of the room and the castle and fell to the ground. He was badly hurt and day was quickly closing. He needed to hide. He needed shelter.’
Outside, the sounds of battle were easing. Jonathan heard whimpers, a cry cut short. He wondered who was still alive out there.
‘You are saying…none of them killed Count Werdenfels?’ Jonathan said.
‘Yes. Come, Jonathan!’ Judge Dee hopped onto the windowsill. ‘Let us go!’
Jonathan said, ‘If it’s all the same to you, I will take the stairs.’
Judge Dee met him down below. Jonathan followed his master. They passed what was left of the battle. The Lady Maria was pinned to a tree with a stake through her heart, her mouth still open in a silent scream. The judge found Chrétien of Troyes buried under a pile of corpses. His eyes stared into nothing. In his fist he still clutched a short sword: it was pinned into the parasitos’ Roman armour, now empty but for a pile of dust.
The judge did not stop. He hurried his steps and Jonathan followed, stumbling in the dark, while the judge pointed out marks Jonathan could not see.
‘The count went this way. Look. Here are wolf’s prints. Here he flew as a bat. See the blood he left behind on the bark of this tree. Here he hovered as mist. Here he crawled. Here – hello. Here is where he came.’
Jonathan raised his eyes. In the moonlight he could make out a small, forlorn hut.
It stood alone.
It was surrounded by graves.
‘Ah…’ he said.
‘Master Dee.’ The hermit, Claus, came out of the hut then. He smiled, revealing his sharp, long teeth. ‘You came.’
‘Master Claus. Were you packing?’
‘My possessions are few,’ the hermit said comfortably. Another figure came out of the hut then, and Jonathan recognised Helmut, the count’s old familiar. Helmut froze when he saw them.
Jonathan looked at the scene with new eyes. He saw the small, lonely hut, the graves dug all around it. His eyes were once again drawn to one small, fresh grave. He had seen it before. The grave was unmarked.
A child’s grave, he had thought.
But what if it wasn’t?
‘You?’ Jonathan said. ‘All this time, it was you?’
‘The count came here,’ Judge Dee said. ‘He was weak and in pain. What final shape did he take, Master Claus? A bat? Something small.’
‘They bring them to me, sometimes,’ the hermit said. He sounded sad. ‘Those who suffer, for whom death would be a release. These I help.’
Jonathan stared at the small, unmarked grave.
‘Master?’ the familiar, Helmut, said. ‘We should go.’
‘Yes, yes,’ the hermit said. He turned back to the judge. ‘I apologise, but the sun’s soon to rise and I must take to my new abode. You are welcome to spend the night here, of course. Master Dee,’ the hermit said. ‘I trust all is well in your eyes?’
Judge Dee looked at the hermit. He looked at the grave.
He nodded curtly.
‘All is well,’ Judge Dee said.
“Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels” copyright © 2021 by Lavie Tidhar
Art copyright © 2021 by Red Nose Studio