I. The First Blasphemy
To claim that the Brothers Grossbart were cruel and selfish brigands is to slander even the nastiest highwayman, and to say they were murderous swine is an insult to even the filthiest boar. They were Grossbarts through and true, and in many lands such a title still carries serious weight. While not as repugnant as their father nor as cunning as his, horrible though both men were, the Brothers proved worse. Blood can go bad in a single generation or it can be distilled down through the ages into something truly wicked, which was the case with those abominable twins, Hegel and Manfried.
Both were average of height but scrawny of trunk. Manfried possessed disproportionately large ears, while Hegel’s nose dwarfed many a turnip in size and knobbiness. Hegel’s copper hair and bushy eyebrows contrasted the matted silver of his brother’s crown, and both were pock-marked and gaunt of cheek. They had each seen only twenty-five years but possessed beards of such noteworthy length that from even a short distance they were often mistaken for old men. Whose was longest proved a constant bone of contention between the two.
Before being caught and hanged in some dismal village far to the north, their father passed on the family trade; assuming the burglarizing of graveyards can be considered a gainful skill. Long before their granddad’s time the name Grossbart was synonymous with skullduggery of the shadiest sort, but only as cemeteries grew into something more than potters’ fields did the family truly find its calling. Their father abandoned them to their mother when they were barely old enough to raise a prybar and went in search of his fortune, just as his father had disappeared when he was but a fledgling sneak-thief.
The elder Grossbart is rumored to have died wealthier than a king in the desert country to the south, where the tombs surpass the grandest castle of the Holy Roman Empire in both size and affluence. That is what the younger told his sons, but it is doubtful there was even the most shriveled kernel of truth in his ramblings. The Brothers firmly believed their dad had joined their grandfather in Gyptland, leaving them to rot with their alcoholic and abusive mother. Had they known he actually wound up as crow-bait without a coin in his coffer it is doubtful they would have altered the track of their lives, although they may have cursed his name less—or more, it is difficult to say.
An uncle of dubious legitimacy and motivation rescued them from their demented mother and took them under his wing during their formative man-boy years. Whatever his relation to the lads, his beard was undeniably long, and he was as fervent as any Grossbart before him to crack open crypts and pilfer what sullen rewards they offered. After a number of too-close shaves with local authorities he absconded in the night with all their possessions, leaving the destitute Brothers to wander back to their mother, intent on stealing whatever the wizened old drunk had not lost or spent over the intervening years.
The shack where they were born had aged worse than they, the mossy roof having joined the floor while they were ransacking churchyards along the Danube with their uncle. The moldy structure housed only a badger, which the Grossbarts dined on after suffering only mild injures from the sleepy beast’s claws. Inquiring at the manor house’s stable, they learned their mother had expired over the winter and lay with all the rest in the barrow at the end of town. Spitting on the mound in the torrential rain, the Brothers Grossbart vowed they would rest in the grand tombs of the Infidel or not at all.
Possessing only their wide-brimmed hats, rank clothes, and tools but cheered by the pauper’s grave in which their miserable matriarch rotted, they made ready to journey south. Such an expedition required more supplies than a pair of prybars and a small piece of metal that might have once been a coin, so they set off to settle an old score. The mud pulled at their shoes in a vain attempt to slow their malicious course.
The yeoman Heinrich had grown turnips a short distance outside the town’s wall his entire life, the hard lot of his station compounded by the difficult crop and the substandard hedge around his field. When they were boys the Brothers often purloined the unripe vegetation until the night Heinrich lay in wait for them. Not content to use a switch or his hands, the rightly furious farmer thrashed them both with his shovel. Manfried’s smashed-in nose never returned to its normal shape and Hegel’s indented left buttock forever bore the shame of the spade.
Ever since the boys had disappeared Heinrich had enjoyed fertility both in his soil and the bed he shared with his wife and children. Two young daughters joined their elder sister and brother, the aging farmer looking forward to having more hands to put to use. Heinrich even saved enough to purchase a healthy horse to replace their nag, and had almost reimbursed his friend Egon for the cart he had built them.
The Brothers Grossbart tramped across the field towards the dark house, the rain blotting out whatever moonlight hid above the clouds. Their eyes had long grown accustomed to the night, however, and they could see that the farmer now had a small barn beside his home. They spit simultaneously on his door, and exchanging grins, set to beating the wood.
“Fire!” yelled Manfried.
“Fire!” repeated Hegel.
“Town’s aflame, Heinrich!”
“Heinrich, bring able hands!”
In his haste to lend aid to his neighbors Heinrich stumbled out of bed without appreciating the drumming of rain upon his roof and flung open the door. The sputtering rushlight in his hand illuminated not concerned citizens but the pock-cratered visages of the Brothers Grossbart. Heinrich recognized them at once, and with a yelp dropped his light and made to slam the door.
The Grossbarts were too quick and dragged him into the rain. Heinrich had diminished in size less than they had grown since last they battled, but still the odds were against him. The farmer struck at Hegel but Manfried kicked the back of Heinrich’s knee before Heinrich landed a blow. Heinrich twisted as he fell and attempted to snatch Manfried when Hegel delivered a sound punch to the yeoman’s neck. Heinrich thrashed in the mud while the two worked him over, but just as he despaired, bleeding from mouth and nose, his wife Gertie emerged from the house with their woodax.
If Manfried’s nose were not so flat the blade would have cleft it open as she slipped in the mire. Hegel tackled her, the two rolling in the mud while her husband groaned and Manfried retrieved the ax. Gertie bit Hegel’s face and clawed his ear but then Hegel saw his brother raise the ax and he rolled free as the blade plummeted into her back. Through the muddy film coating his face Heinrich watched his wife kick and piss herself, the rain slowing to a drizzle as she bled out in the muck.
Neither brother had ever killed a person before, but neither felt the slightest remorse for the heinous crime. Heinrich crawled to Gertie, Hegel went to the barn, and Manfried entered the house of children’s tears. Hegel latched up the horse, threw Heinrich’s shovel and a convenient sack of turnips into the bed of the cart, and led it around front.
Inside the darkened house Heinrich’s eldest daughter lunged at Manfried with a knife but he intercepted her charge with the ax. Despite his charitable decision to knock her with the blunt end of the ax head, the metal crumpled in her skull and she collapsed. The two babes cried in the bed, the only son cowering by his fallen sister. Spying a hogfat tallow beside the small stack of rushlights, Manfried tucked the rare candle into his pocket and lit one of the lard-coated reeds on the hearth coals, inspecting the interior.
Stripping the blankets off the bed and babes, he tossed the rushlights, the few knives he found, and the tubers roasting on the hearth into the pilfered cloth and tied the bundle with cord. He blew out the rushlight, pocketed it and stepped over the weeping lad. The horse and cart waited, but his brother and Heinrich were nowhere to be seen.
Manfried tossed the blankets into the cart and peered about, his eyes rapidly readjusting to the drizzily night. He saw Heinrich fifty paces off, slipping as he ran from the silently pursuing Hegel. Hegel dived at his quarry’s legs and missed, falling on his face in the mud as Heinrich broke away towards town.
Cupping his hands, Manfried bellowed, “Got the young ones here, Heinrich! Come on back! You run and they’s dead!”
Heinrich continued a few paces before slowing to a walk on the periphery of Manfried’s vision. Hegel righted himself and scowled at the farmer but knew better than to risk spooking him with further pursuit. Hurrying back to his brother, Hegel muttered in Manfried’s cavernous ear as Heinrich trudged back towards the farm.
“Gotta be consequences,” Hegel murmured. “Gotta be.”
“He’d have the whole town on us,” his brother agreed. “Just not right, after his wife tried to murder us.” Manfried touched his long-healed nose.
“We was just settlin accounts, no call for her bringin axes into it.” Hegel rubbed his scarred posterior.
Heinrich approached the Brothers, only registering their words on an instinctual level. Every good farmer loves his son even more than his wife, and he knew the Grossbarts would slaughter young Brennen without hesitation. Heinrich broke into a maniacal grin, thinking of how on the morrow the town would rally around his loss, track these dogs down and hang them from the gibbet.
The yeoman gave Hegel the hard-eye but Hegel gave it right back, then the Grossbart punched Heinrich in the nose. The farmer’s head swam as he felt himself trussed up like a rebellious sow, the rope biting his ankles and wrists. Heinrich dimly saw Manfried go back into the house, then snapped fully awake when the doorway lit up. Manfried had shifted some of the coals onto the straw bed, the cries of the little girls amplifying as the whole cot ignited. Manfried reappeared with the near-catatonic Brennen in one hand and a turnip in the other.
“Didn’t have to be this way,” said Manfried. “You’s forced our hands.”
“Did us wrong twice over,” Hegel concurred.
“Please,” Heinrich’s bloodshot eyes shifted wildly between the doorway and his son. “I’m sorry, lads, honest. Let him free, and spare the little ones.” The babes screeched all the louder. “In God’s name, have mercy!”
“Mercy’s a proper virtue,” said Hegel, rubbing the wooden image of the Virgin he had retrieved from a cord around Gertie’s neck. “Show’em mercy, brother.”
“Sound words indeed,” Manfried conceded, setting the boy gently on his heels facing his father.
“Yes,” Heinrich gasped, tears eroding the mud on the proud farmer’s cheeks, “the girls, please, let them go!”
“They’s already on their way,” said Manfried, watching smoke curl out of the roof as he slit the boy’s throat. If Hegel found this judgment harsh he did not say. Night robbed the blood of its sacramental coloring, black liquid spurting onto Heinrich’s face. Brennen pitched forward, confused eyes breaking his father’s heart, lips moving soundlessly in the mud.
“Bless Mary,” Hegel intoned, kissing the pinched necklace.
“And bless us, too,” Manfried finished, taking a bite from the warm tuber.
The babes had gone silent when the Grossbarts pulled out of the yard, Hegel atop the horse and Manfried settling into the cart. They had shoved a turnip into Heinrich’s mouth, depriving him of even his prayers. Turning onto the path leading south into the mountains, the Brothers casually made their escape.