Witching Hour

Don Salazar de Campanos unconsciously swayed back and forth with the motion of the carriage as it slowly ascended the summit to his new posting. He was to become the Governor of the Castel Sant’Elmo, in charge of the servants, soldiers, and prisoners housed there. His younger sister, Catalina, whom he had cared for since their parents had died of fever several years ago, stared out of the curtained carriage window, wide-eyed at the monstrous castle growing ever larger. The slow clopping of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestone kept time with Salazar’s rising impatience.

“Catalina! Quit acting like a wide-eyed doe and remember who you are! It is unseemly for you to be showing your face to every jack-a-nape that may be looking,” he snapped.

Catalina reluctantly let the curtain fall back across the opening and sat back looking suitably chastened. Salazar noticed her clasped hands upon her lap and the whitened knuckles, but dismissed it as inconsequential. She needed to learn her place in life, and it was his duty to teach her. He had promised his father upon his deathbed to keep her from the evils of the world, and he had never gone back on his word once it was given.

The carriage finally clattered to a halt in front of two lines of soldiers facing each other, pikes crossed to create a steeple effect. Don Salazar swung the door of the carriage open forcefully and stepped out with the cold efficient gaze of his position. An order rang out and the pikes snapped back to the soldiers’ shoulders as they came to attention. The absence of tangled pikes revealed the soldiers’ captain, a handsomely featured man, at the end of the line. Salazar marched forward, eyes never straying from the captain.

The captain bowed as Salazar stopped in front of him. “Welcome to the Castel Sant’Elmo, milord. My name is…”

“Yes, yes. There will be time for that later. I, and my sister, have had a long journey and would like to refresh ourselves as it is becoming dark. If you would be so kind as to show us to our apartments and have some of your men bring our luggage, I am sure we can resume the…pleasantries later. Don’t you agree, Captain?” Salazar bared his teeth in a close approximation of a smile.

The young captain, momentarily flustered by the rudeness of the new master of the castle, quickly recovered. A tight smile crossed his face. “Of course, milord. Right away. If you will excuse me, I will make sure everything is as you wish.” He bowed and moved away from Salazar, shouting orders at his men.

A young soldier bowed to Salazar and gestured for him to follow. Salazar nodded curtly, and the two walked away from the parade grounds. As Salazar disappeared into the castle, a palpable feeling of relief, mingled with disappointment, suffused those remaining. Several men spat on the ground that Salazar had tread upon.

The captain put a quick end to the antics of his men. “That is enough! We are soldiers, and we have a duty to follow and respect the lord and master of this castle no matter our personal feelings! I will not tolerate this disrespect from any man. Is that understood?”

A murmured chorus of “Yes, sir” greeted his announcement, but the spines of the men stiffened and they took on a more professional air. The captain accepted his men’s reluctance, for his disappointment rivaled theirs. Satisfied with how matters were proceeding, he turned to leave, but a soft voice stopped him. “Salazar? Brother, can I come out now?”

The captain gritted his teeth for a moment at further proof of his new lord’s thoughtlessness, but quickly replaced it with a brisk professional face. He marched to the carriage door and opened it with deference. “My apologies, milady. Your brother mentioned you were with him, and in my haste that fact slipped from my awareness.” He bowed to the shadowed figure in the carriage. “I humbly pray your forgiveness for my error.”

Catalina stepped out of the carriage, clad in a veil that hinted at the beauty that hid beneath it. The captain held out his hand to help her down, and a pleasurable sensation ran through his body as her dainty hand fit into his. He sensed the smile beneath her veil as she said, “No need to apologize for my brother, Captain…?”

It took him a moment to realize she was asking for his name, as he found himself stricken by the dulcet tone of her voice; a sharp contrast to her brother’s harsh staccato. “My name is Captain Jacobus Salvatoris, milady. I am your humble servant,” he said while bowing again.

Catalina gave him a small curtsey. “I am Catalina de Campanos, Captain. It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance.” She looked around the grounds for her brother. “Is my dear brother here, Captain?”

Jacobus’ countenance turned red. “No, milady. I am afraid he has already started to his quarters. If I may be so bold, I will escort you to yours.”

Catalina gave him a small laugh. “I like bold men, Captain. I would be honored to have you as my escort. And I daresay, if you fall into the habit of apologizing for my brother’s actions, you will find yourself doing naught else with your life.”

“If you will follow me then, milady, some of my men will be along shortly with your things.” They walked off, chatting about inconsequential matters. Neither of them made note of the fact that her hand never left his.

However, it did not escape the notice of Salazar, staring down from the upper walkway. “Tell me, boy. What is your captain’s name?”

“Jacobus Salvatoris, milord,” the soldier replied. “Shall I summon him for you?”

Salazar’s eyes narrowed as he continued watching Jacobus and Catalina. “That will not be necessary. Send a serving girl to my room with refreshment as soon as you leave me.”

The soldier bowed. “Of course, milord.”

*************
Catalina settled into her apartment after saying farewell to the handsome Captain Salvatoris. She prayed that their paths would cross often during her stay. As she refreshed herself after her travel, a timid knock came through her door. Catalina opened the door to see a slip of a girl, not more than a few years younger than herself, standing there with her eyes firmly fixed on the ground.

“If it pleases milady, I am Pulisena Germani. I am to be your maidservant while you are here. Is there anything I can do for you, milady?”

Catalina smiled and placed her finger under Pulisena’s chin, gently raising it so their gazes met. “Please come in…Pulisena, was it? It is so nice to see a female face in this stronghold of men. I despaired for a moment that I would have no one to talk to here.” Catalina placed her hand on Pulisena’s shoulder and guided her inside the room.
“And please, dispense with the milady while we are alone. Catalina am I, and Catalina is how you shall know me.”

Pulisena bowed deeply. “Thank you, mila- Catalina, for your kind words. Is there anything you require?”

“You can help me prepare for supper. I am dreadfully famished after my trip. And while I prepare, you can regale me with tales of the men here, especially Captain Salvatoris,” she replied, smiling wistfully.

As Pulisena helped Catalina with her toilet, she said, “Captain Salvatoris is a very gallant gentleman. He has always been kind to me. You will nary hear nary a cross word be uttered from his lips. Why do you ask?” She started brushing Catalina’s long dark hair.

“Oh, no reason. He escorted me to my room, and I wished to know more about him.”

Pulisena started to say something else, but was interrupted by a scream that rang throughout the castle. She turned pale and dropped the brush, crossing herself as Catalina jumped out of her chair. “What was that horrible noise, Pulisena?”

She noticed a small cross in her maidservant’s hand that seemed to be made from the stems of some kind of plant. The girl was gesturing wildly and murmuring some kind of chant under her breath. Catalina gathered her in her arms to calm her down. “Shhh, little one. Talk to me. What was that noise?”

A moaning sob escaped from the maid. “Long ago, a curse was laid upon this castle by a stregheria that was imprisoned here. Anyone who rules the castle that is cruel to a strega would suffer her wrath. She was burned at the stake, but her bones were never found in the ashes! It is said that she haunts the castle, waiting in judgment upon those that sit in power.”

Catalina laughed at the younger girl’s story. “Is that what you are so afraid of? A silly superstition? I am sure there is some reasonable explanation. Don’t fret, child. I’m sure there is nothing that will harm us here.”

Pulisena grabbed her mistress’ arms with unexpected force. “It is not a superstition, milady. My grandmother, a stregoneria, told me this story. She has instructed me in the ways of our beliefs. I beg of you, milady, take this so that you may be protected.” She reached into a small bag tied around the waist of her dress and brought out a carving that looked like a plant with three branches that had little trinkets on the end.

“This is a cimaruta charm, milady. It will ward off witches.” Pulisena pointed to the various charms. “This moon represents Diana, while this key stands for Hecate, and the serpent for Proserpina. But this charm, the sacred heart, is what will ward off any witchcraft. Please, milady…Catalina, please take this.”

The girl acted so earnestly that Catalina felt compelled to take the charm from her. “Thank you for your kindness, Pulisena. But I must know, what are stregheria? And what is the difference to a stregoneria?”

“Of course, milady. You are not from our country. A stregoneria practices the magic of our people, but we are good Christians. We are the healers, and, with God’s aid, try to keep good people safe from the stregheria witches. Stregheria are followers of la vecchia religione, the old religion. They reject Christianity, although they hide among us by pretending to accept God. You should beware them, milady, please.”

“Of course I will, little one,” Catalina said. Bells started tolling throughout the castle. Catalina gave a start. “More witchcraft?”

It was Pulisena’s turn to give a small laugh. “No, milady, merely time for supper. If you will follow me, please.”

**************

Pulisena saw her lady seated and served, then went in search of Captain Salvatoris. She found him standing on the parapet, staring out over the city with his hand clenched tightly around his sword pommel. “Captain! How glad I am to see you! Have you seen my sister, Selene? She was not at supper as she usually is.”

Captain Salvatoris spun around quickly at the sound of her voice, the torchlight reflecting the sadness and anger in his eyes. “Pulisena, I am sorry. I had to send her home earlier. She had…taken ill.”

Pulisena worried at her lip with her teeth. “Will she be all right?”

“If God wills it, she will be. I sent her home because I know your grandmother is a healer. I pray she finds a way to heal her of…this.”

She turned to look out over the city, focusing on the area where her family resided. A note of worry crept into her voice. “You do not think the new master will release her from her position, do you? Our family needs the money we receive from our work.”

Captain Salvatoris gathered her hands into his and turned her so she could look into his face. Pain shone in his eyes and his lip trembled, but when he spoke his voice was firm, yet soft. “Little one, I have no sisters of my own. You and your sister have filled the void in my heart caused by that lack.” He put her hands upon his chest. “It is from that devotion that I tell you to leave this place and find work elsewhere.”

Pulisena cringed a bit at his words, fear crossing her face to be replaced by a dawning understanding. “Did…did the master do something to Selene?”

Salvatoris turned from her and beat his fists against the top of the parapet wall; his head hung low and tears streamed uncontrollably. “I am so sorry, little one. If I had known, I would have stopped it.” He wailed his anguish to the moon overhead. After he regained control, he told her, “On the morrow, I will bring Don Salazar’s actions before Bishop Giovanni and let the Church devise a suitable punishment.”

Pulisena’s voice was ice. “Why? We both know the Church will do nothing as my sister is but a peasant while he is of noble blood, such is the way of things under Spaniard rule.”

A grim determination set across his face. He grasped her hands and kneeled before her. “Then I will go tonight. I promise you, Pulisena, I will see justice done. If I have to, I will drag the Bishop out of his bedchambers and take him to see your sister and the wounds inflicted upon her. That fiend will pay for his actions.”

He rose and strode off to fulfill his vow. So quickly did he leave, that he did not hear her say, “Yes…yes he will.”

******************

Pulisena knocked confidently upon Don Salazar’s door. “Milord,” she called, “I thought you might like some wine to help you recover from your day.”

The door swung open and Salazar stood there half-dressed in pantaloons. Relatively fresh scratch marks adorned his chest. When he saw the pretty young serving girl holding a tray with wine and goblet a predatory smile creased his face. “Why thank you, my dear. Please, come in.” He swept his arm out with a flourish indicating she should enter.

She strode into the room and headed straight to his desk. She placed the tray on top and began to prepare his wine. She was aware that he had closed the door, locked it, and now stood close behind her. She forced herself not to shudder as his hand caressed her hair. “Such pretty girls in Naples, I find,” he told her.

Pulisena whirled around, holding his goblet in front of her. “Well, milord, why not drink. After, I would be happy to give you a proper Neapolitan welcome.”

Salazar grinned and moved over to his bed. He took a deep drink from his wine goblet. When he finished, he patted the bed where he wanted her to sit. She obediently went and sat next to him. He said, “You are much more accommodating than the other serving girl that was here earlier, I must say. It is so refreshing to meet a young woman who knows her place and fulfills her duties without complaint.”

He placed his hand on her leg and started to rub up and down, each upward stroke raising her skirts a little more. She sat there stoically, enduring his repulsive touch while she waited. It did not take long for Salazar’s eyes to start feeling heavy. “Today must have been more tiring than I thought,” he said in a slurred voice. “I am afraid we will have to…”

He slumped over, barely awake and aware, unable to get his body to obey him. Pulisena jumped off the bed and shoved him down so that he lay across the mattress. “I want you to know this, even though you will not remember. That serving girl earlier is my sister, Selene. The women in my family are strega, and you have made a grave mistake. What you have given out will be revisited upon you three-fold.”

Salazar felt her pull some of his hair from his head before darkness welcomed him home.

*******************

Pulisena knocked on the door and awaited its opening. The face of Catalina appeared out of the crack that appeared. “Pulisena!” The door swung open all the way. “Please, come in. I have been missing your company.”

Pulisena entered, the lantern lit in the room casting her twisted shadow upon the wall. “I cannot stay long, Catalina. I have a message from Captain Salvatoris for you.”

Catalina raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh? Whatever would the good Captain have to say to me?”

The strega felt guilty for a moment, which only lent credence to her performance. “He…he bade me tell you that your beauty has stricken him, and that your image will not leave his thoughts. He wishes for you to meet him at the cypress grove on the edge of town at midnight. He knows you are unfamiliar with the area, so he asked me to guide you if you agree.”

“That is hardly the proper behavior for a young woman of my stature,” she said. Her excited smile, however, betrayed the weak protestation. “Yet, I suppose I should meet with him, if only to help him get over his affliction. What do you think, Pulisena?”

“If you wish it, Catalina, I will be only too happy to guide you.”

“Oh, I do, but I worry about what my brother may do should he find out.”

Pulisena shook her head and gave Catalina a reassuring smile. “I was just there a little time ago. I brought him some wine, and combined with the stresses of the day, he went into a deep sleep. I do not believe you will have to worry about him.”

Catalina whirled around the room as if dancing. “Truly, my friend? Oh, you are such a wonder. I daresay I feel we shall become as sisters before our time is done.”

Pulisena smiled sadly at the mention of sisterhood. “Just be sure to be ready when I come for you. I have other preparations to make before we can be successful in our endeavors tonight. By your leave, milady.” She curtseyed to Catalina and backed out of the room.

As she closed the door, she could hear Catalina say, “I have a feeling tonight shall be a night to end all nights.”

***********************

Don Salazar awoke as the full moon’s light shone on his face. He bolted upright, confused and disoriented. He looked around the room and uttered a cry when he saw a hooded bent figure leaning on a gnarled walking staff in his room. One of the feet looked to be clad with a bronze sandal. “Who are you and what are you doing in my chambers?”

The figure just raised her head so he could look at the face under the hood. He saw an old crone with hanks of oily gray hair falling around her wizened face. She turned and disappeared through the closed door.

Salazar leaped out of bed and threw open his door, looking around wildly for her. He caught the barest glimpse of her black-robed figure as he turned the corner down the hallway. He quickly grabbed a dagger from his sword belt hung by the door and ran after her. No matter how fast he ran he never seemed to get any closer. He would always catch just a glimpse of her robe as she turned each corner, leading him through the maze of the castle. Finally, he turned the corner to a walkway, and there she stood, looking at the castle gate.

She pointed her staff down to the grounds and Salazar peered down to see what she was gesturing to. Two women on horseback rode out of the gate. As he watched them ride off, an uncontrollable lust raged within him. He had to have them, and by God, he would.

He ran for his horse as the cackle of the old crone echoed through the yard. As he rode out of the gate, a raven flew overhead, its body highlighted by the full moon’s glow. Somehow he knew he was to follow it. He kicked his horse to a dangerous speed and flew down the summit of the castle hill.

Salazar rode as a madman, unheeding of time or location, until he reached a crossroads. He had to choose one of three paths, and his raven guide had disappeared. He tried to go forward, but a serpent’s hiss made his horse whinny and shy away. He then tried to go right, but a growling coal-black dog with red eyes barred his way. He looked down the left path, and saw a horse standing next to a grove of cypress trees.

He took off down the left-handed path and dismounted from his steed. As he walked into the grove, a familiar voice called out, “Captain Salvatoris? Jacobus? Is that you, my love?”

Fury overtook Salazar. How dare his sister come to some moonlight assignation with some common soldier? He drew his dagger and roared his way into the small clearing. “Fiend! You dare defile my sister with your filthy touch! Come out here, Captain, and face me like a man!”

Catalina screamed as she saw her brother rush in with murderous eyes. He ran to her and shook her violently. “And you! Slut! Have I not taught you to be better than this? Spreading your legs for some commoner…Where is he?” he screamed as he threw her down to the ground.

She fell hard on her back, her dress flying up from the force. He looked at her as she lay there, and the lust came back to mix with his rage. He stalked over to where she lay panting in fear. “If you are so willing to give up your sacred treasure, maybe I should be the one to take it.” He threw himself on top of her.

Catalina screamed and clawed at her brother’s face. “Stop, Salazar! Stop! What madness has possessed you?”

He slapped her viciously across the face. “Madness? Me? You are the one soiling your blood with common filth, whore! At least this way, any get that may come of this will be of noble blood.” He raised his dagger to threaten her.

She grabbed the hand holding the dagger, and the two began to struggle. They rolled in the grass, each vying for control. Finally, Catalina uttered a pained sigh and stopped moving. “Brother, you have killed me,” she whispered.

Salazar leapt off of her to see the dagger implanted in her breast. Her blood soaked his hands and the hair on his chest. The realization of what he had done crashed over him. He fell to his knees and howled his grief to the moon over and over again.

A cold laugh from behind him caused him to turn around, spittle running down his mouth and a wild look in his eyes. He growled as he saw the young girl that had brought him his wine, and lust once again seized him. He bounded toward her, but stopped as she threw a shiny knife over his head. The lust subsided, and he looked at her curiously.

“A beast by your deeds, so a beast you shall become,” Pulisena said to him. “That serving girl who ‘didn’t know her place’ was my sister, Selene. As you have taken mine from me, so I have caused you to take yours from you.” She pointed up to the full moon hanging overhead. “Diana has seen your crimes. Ever more shall the madness come upon you when she shines full in the night. That is my curse upon you, until the men you once lorded over find and kill you like an animal.”

The two could hear hoof beats encroaching. Pulisena pointed imperiously to the trees. “Run, beast, for I do not want your death so soon. And if you were truly man enough to face death, you would have tried to kill yourself when you realized what you had done.” Salazar just stared at her with fear in his eyes. “Run!” she commanded.

Salazar bounded into the trees, howling all the while. Pulisena calmly turned around and waited for the riders to come. Salvatoris entered the clearing first, surprise and dismay on his countenance as he saw Pulisena. His gaze turned to the form lying in the grass and the dismay turned into grief. “Catalina!” he yelled over and over as he jumped from his horse to run to her side.

He gently lifted her head from the ground and his heart leapt when she opened her eyes. “Jacobus, is it really you?”
“Yes, milady. Lie still so we may help you.”

She smiled weakly. “There is no help for me. My brother has killed me and she made him do it. She is a…a…strega.” And with that final statement, she died.

He lay her back down on the ground, taking care to close her eyes. He said a prayer for her that God might find it suitable to admit her to Heaven. When he finished, he looked at Pulisena, who still stood in the same place, only now surrounded by the Bishop and other men-at-arms. “What have you done, Pulisena? I told you I would find justice for Selene. You did not have to do this!”

“It was easy. A little belladonna to subdue him, some hair pinned to a knotted cord, some mandrake, and a little l’erva du garramone applied. It is amazing how simple the spells are to drive a man mad,” she said calmly. “Selene would not have found the justice she deserved from the church. I regret nothing.”

Tears flowed from Jacobus’ eyes as the little girl he loved as a sister stood before him, a stregheria unmasked. “Bishop Giovanni, take Pulisena Germani into custody, please. The charge is witchcraft,” he said quietly.

She merely nodded as if she expected as msuch. “I do not blame you, Jacobus. You have always been dutiful and kind to my family. I would ask one favor of you, though you owe me nothing. Look after Selene for me, please?” She held his gaze until he nodded. Her shoulders sagged with relief. “Thank you.” The men-at-arms bound her hands and feet, and placed a gag in her mouth. They threw her over the back of one of the horses and rode off, leaving Jacobus alone.

**********************

Jacobus kept his promise and resigned his post to help nurture Selene back to health. He stood by her side during the auto-de-fe that saw her sister burned for her crimes. The two of them found their shared sorrows turn to love, and they were married. They grew old, as did their children. But after that night, they never ventured out again during a full moon. They, and their children after them, huddled inside as rage-filled howls echoed across the city.

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