Ulrich lived by himself in a small cottage outside Talenburg’s walls. He almost never received visitors, so he was surprised when someone knocked on his front door just before dusk.
He opened the door to reveal the city’s hatmaster. Gottlieb was a short, portly man in his early forties. His red hat was usually decorated with gold feathers, but this time it had a single black feather. The hatmaster was in mourning.
Ulrich did not bother inviting him inside. “What do you want?”
“You are going to execute a woman named Ingrid Fleischer tomorrow,” Gottlieb said. “You must not remove her bonnet before you kill her.”
“I have to remove the condemned’s hat before they go to their final punishment,” Ulrich said.
“She is possessed,” Gottlieb said. “If you look at her hair, you will fall under her glamour.”
Ulrich was surprised by the hatmaster’s warning. He raised a gloved hand and pointed at his hat. “I am protected from enchantment. What business is this of yours?”
“She killed my wife,” Gottlieb replied. “Do not remove her bonnet.” He tapped his hat three times to emphasize his point.
• • •
Ulrich had seen every kind of reaction from the condemned. Some cried and struggled. Others accepted their fate and tried to make peace with God before they died. The first of the prisoners, a scrawny man named Albrecht Metzger, fought all the way. His clothes were filthy and he wore a stained, brown cap on his head. The crowd jeered as the constable dragged Metzger onto the platform and threw him to the ground. The prisoner tried to get to his feet, but the constable kicked him in the stomach.
The constable handed Ulrich the notice of execution. Metzger had been found guilty of murder and the judge had turned him over to Ulrich Henker, Talenburg’s nachrichter. The after-judge.
Witnesses had seen Metzger being beaten by his own wife. As the law demanded, Metzger’s neighbors removed the roof from his house. A man that could not protect himself from his own wife did not deserve protection from the elements. In retaliation, Metzger killed one of his neighbors.
“I had no choice,” he whimpered. “She made me do it.”
“Some of us have less choice than others,” Ulrich said. He had been born an executioner’s son. He laid his sword, a noose, an axe and a small wooden cross on the platform. Then he grasped Metzger’s cap with his gloved hands. Hats were naturally attracted to their owner’s heads, but Ulrich’s gloves were designed to counter this. He pulled harder and the cap came away.
He tossed the cap in the air. It landed on the hilt of his sword. Metzger rolled across the platform towards his cap, as though pulled by an invisible leash. He stopped when the tips of his hair rested inches from the cap.
“Death by blade,” Ulrich pronounced.
The crowd roared its approval.
The constable lifted Metzger and forced his head onto the block.
Ulrich hefted his sword and stood behind the prisoner. Even though he was confident in the protection his hat and gloves offered, he did not want to place himself in sight of the evil eye when the head came off.
As always, his blow was true. Metzger’s head was cleanly severed.
The gravedigger removed the body and the constable led the other prisoner onto the platform. Ingrid Fleischer wore a plain, brown dress and a white bonnet. Ulrich didn’t recall seeing her before, but he was not good with faces. It was the same with the chickens he kept at his house; they all looked the same. His mother had given them names, but why grow attached to something you were going to kill?
“Kneel,” he commanded. Ingrid did not respond, so he put a gloved hand on her shoulder and pushed her down.
The constable handed him the notice of execution. Ingrid Fleischer had been one of the hatmaster’s apprentices. She had been found guilty of murdering Anna Gottlieb.
Ulrich did not trust the hatmaster, but couldn’t work out what Gottlieb hoped to gain by his warning. People reacted strangely when death came to their loved ones. The crowd expected him to remove the woman’s bonnet to determine the manner of her death. Ulrich did not hold any particular fondness for his job, but it was his source of livelihood. He loosened the strings on the bonnet and pulled it from her head.
He tossed the bonnet in the air. It landed on his sword. The woman rolled forward until she lay next to the hilt. She shook her head and her long, black hair came undone. A glimmer of light caught his attention. He couldn’t help himself; he looked closer.
The woman had a few silver hairs. They didn’t look like the gray streaks of old age. The silver streaks gleamed in the sunlight and it was like looking at a river of blazing diamonds. The sword dropped from his hand.
“Nachrichter!” the constable called. “Are you all right?”
Ulrich had to save the woman. After years of taking lives, the idea of saving a life filled him with a sense of purpose. “The condemned has been placed in my authority,” he pronounced. “As nachrichter of Talenburg, I invoke my power to offer her my protection. If she consents to be my wife, she shall be spared my blade.”
The constable’s mouth opened in surprise. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Ask her if she consents.”
It was rare for executioners to offer to marry the condemned. Some women would rather die than face a life of isolation as a nachricter’s wife. Executioners were seen as tainted by their contact with criminals and death. Ulrich had been promised the daughter of Dresden’s executioner, but she had died of illness and he had been alone since his mother died.
“Kill her!” someone called from the crowd.
The constable crouched down beside Ingrid. “Do you accept Ulrich Henker’s offer of marriage?”
She turned her head to look at Ulrich and stared at the bonnet in his hands. She nodded.
• • •
The law specified the type and color of hat that free citizens could wear. High hats for Jews, yellow hats for bankrupts, and black hats with silver feathers for executioners. When Ulrich visited the city, passers-by had plenty of opportunity to notice his hat and avoid him.
Gottlieb’s shop was a single-story stone building with a red-tiled roof. The boy employed to open the door watched him approach. “It is hot inside, master. Perhaps you would be more comfortable outside.”
Normally, Ulrich waited outside for an assistant to come to him, rather than upset owners by entering their shops. “Open the door,” he growled.
The boy hesitated and then obeyed. Ulrich marched past him.
The shop was filled with shelves of fabric and racks of hats. A young man wearing the plain red hat of an apprentice hatmaster stepped forward.
“I wish to speak to Master Gottlieb,” Ulrich said. “I require wedding hats for myself and my bride.” Ingrid was being held in prison and would not be released until the marriage.
The apprentice cast a glance at Ulrich’s hat then hurried from the room.
A portrait of von Kezler on the wall caught Ulrich’s attention. Underneath the painting was a golden plaque inscribed with a quote from one of von Kezler’s treatises.
The fifth law of energetic resonances instructs us that after roughly a month, a hat will become attracted to its owner’s head. Hats can also be designed to repel negative energy. A properly prepared headpiece accompanied by a pious heart safeguards us against the Devil’s wiles. I say unto you that a good hatmaster is more valuable than the most saintly of saints.
“You are a foolish man,” Gottlieb said as he entered the room. “I warned you not to remove the woman’s bonnet.”
Ulrich strode over to the hatmaster. He was half a foot taller than Gottlieb. “The constable told me they found Ingrid standing over your wife’s body. You told the court she was jealous of your wife. Why did you tell me she was possessed?”
“I’m in mourning,” Gottlieb said. “It is not the time to question me.”
“You are in mourning, but your shop has not closed. Why did you tell me she is possessed?”
“I studied the laws of energetic resonances under von Kezler himself,” Gottlieb replied. “I understand the laws of attraction and possession. A water spirit entered Ingrid. It doesn’t want to stay in our world, but is bound to Ingrid’s bonnet. While you keep the hat, the spirit will stay.”
“If that were true, then I should give her the hat,” Ulrich replied.
“If you do that, the spirit will return to its home in the old forest, taking Ingrid’s body with it. If you destroy the bonnet, they will both die. You cannot banish the spirit without killing Ingrid,” Gottlieb replied. “You should not marry that woman.”
“If I don’t marry her, she will die.”
“What is one more life to you, nachrichter?”
• • •
The wedding ceremony was held in Ingrid’s cell. Only the bride, groom, and a priest attended. The constable served as witness. Ingrid didn’t speak a word. She merely nodded when asked if she took Ulrich as a husband.
Afterwards, Ulrich took her home and prepared a bath. He removed her clothes and helped her into the wooden tub. The last time he had touched another person was before his mother had died. He took off his gloves and ran a finger across Ingrid’s cheek and stroked her hair. She had nine silver hairs in all. They were the most beautiful things he had ever seen.
After the bath, she searched out a quill and ink. Using her right hand, she scratched some words on a sheet of parchment.
Help me. She looked at him with sapphire eyes.
He would do anything for those eyes. “How?”
The spirit has bound my mouth. The hatmaster found a lake in the old forest where nine rivers meet. Destroy the nine rivers.
“How do I find them?”
Ingrid’s body trembled. She transferred the quill to her left hand. Give me my bonnet.
“I can’t do that.” He had paid one of the priests to hide the bonnet in the city’s cathedral.
“Is that you, Ingrid?”
He waited, but she stood motionless. He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “Release her!”
She did not react. He grabbed her jaw and forced her lips apart. A torrent of water exploded from her mouth, splashing onto the floor. He tried covering her mouth with his hands, but the force of the water was too strong and it streamed out between his fingers. He grabbed his hat and thrust it in her face. The flood of water stopped as suddenly as it had started.
Ingrid took the hat from her face. It made him uneasy to see his hat in another’s hand.
She bent down and touched the water at her feet. It formed into a series of frozen letters.
The bones of water are ice.
Ingrid stepped down on the frozen letters, shattering them. Shards of ice floated into the air, swarming around her like angry bees around a hive. A single shard landed on one of the silver feathers in his hat. The other shards darted one by one into her mouth and disappeared.
She threw him the hat. There was no sign of ice on any of the feathers. “What are you?” he asked.
He couldn’t find the words to reply.
Since you will not return my bonnet, I will reclaim your hat at the time of my choosing.
• • •
The door boy stepped in front of the entrance. “I am sorry but Master Gottlieb is with a client.”
Ulrich poked the boy’s chest with a gloved finger. The boy stumbled backwards in shock. Ulrich swept past him and opened the door.
The hatmaster and a young lady were seated at a table on which rested a fortune telling board.
“God designed the special parts of man so they are attracted to the special parts of woman,” Gottlieb said. “Energetic resonances allow us to discover the identity of your future husband.”
“Tell me about the nine rivers,” Ulrich demanded.
Gottlieb’s face almost matched the color of his hat. “How dare you disturb us!”
“If you don’t answer me, I will break your neck,” Ulrich said.
The lady looked horrified and Gottlieb motioned for her to leave. She fled the store.
Ulrich did not have the patience to play games with Gottlieb. There was only one sure way to make sure the hatmaster answered his questions. He grabbed Gottlieb’s hat and tried to pull it from the hatmaster’s head. The hat resisted. He pulled harder and the hat came away. He twisted it sharply.
The hatmaster fell to his knees. “Please!”
“Tell me what you know.”
“You will return my hat?”
“If you tell me about the nine rivers.”
Gottlieb hesitated then said, “I traced ley lines running through the forest and discovered a lake and nine rivers. I summoned a water spirit. Even though I warned Ingrid to be careful, she touched the water and the spirit entered her. I thought I could banish the spirit, so I brought her back here. I locked her in her room, but she escaped. My wife tried to stop Ingrid escaping and the spirit attacked her.”
“Where is the lake?”
Gottlieb didn’t answer.
Ulrich twisted the hat and Gottlieb cried out in pain.
“I made a map,” Gottlieb said. He searched through the contents of his desk until he found a piece of parchment showing a path from the city to a clearing in the old forest.
“How do I destroy the rivers?” he demanded.
“I don’t know.”
He tightened his grip on the hat.
“I don’t know!”
Ulrich suspected the hatmaster was telling the truth. He pointed to the wooden board on the table. “I will tell you your future. If you talk to the constable, I will kill you. You are an important man in this city, but that will not stop me.”
Gottlieb smiled. “You will be the spirit’s next victim.”
“I am well protected.”
“The spirit is cunning. It is already playing with your feelings.” Gottlieb pointed to the fortune board. “Do you want to know your future.”
“Maybe I shall open a hat shop,” Ulrich replied. “I had to study resonances to become an executioner. My wife is an apprentice hatmaster.”
Gottlieb looked affronted. “Do not even suggest such a thing. No one would buy hats from your cursed hands.”
“Why should I believe your nonsense, anyway?” Ulrich asked.
“Energetic resonances give us a scientific explanation for destiny,” Gottlieb insisted. “Our future exerts a magnetic force that draws us towards it.” He indicated four small stones marked with symbols resting at the corners of the board. “These lodestones are charged with magnetic energy. Fire, earth, water, air.” He pointed to a stone with a knife painted on it. “Violence.” A clock. “Old age.” A black sphere. “Death.” He dropped it into Ulrich’s hand. “Place this in the middle. It will show the element in your future exerting the strongest attraction.”
Ulrich put the stone on the board. It rolled next to one of the lodestones.
“Death by water,” Gottlieb pronounced. “You are foolish to seek the rivers.”
Ulrich separated the black sphere from the water lodestone. He placed it near the center of the board, but this time slightly closer to the other side. It rolled next to the air lodestone.
He threw Gottlieb’s hat back to him. “If we are strong enough, we make our own fate.”
• • •
After an hour of traipsing through the forest, he reached the clearing indicated on Gottlieb’s map. A perfectly circular lake of about fifty feet in diameter lay in front of him. Eight rivers ran into the lake, each of them aligned to the cardinal points on the compass. The ninth river flowed from the center of the lake up into the sky, like a waterfall flowing in reverse; the water surging into the clouds above. It looked as though countless diamonds were fleeing the earth for the sky. How could he destroy something so beautiful?
When he returned home, Ingrid sat silently in the kitchen.
“I found the lake,” he said.
She took the quill in her left hand. If you try to destroy the rivers, you will die. Her body shook and she changed the quill to her right hand. Please help me. It keeps taking me.
“How do I destroy the rivers?”
I don’t know.
Ulrich drew her close. “I will save you.” He kissed her on the lips. Her mouth remained shut. He led her to the bed, undressed her, and made love to her. He left his gloves on.
After she had fallen asleep, he took a pair of scissors and cut off one of her silver hairs. He put the hair inside one of his gloves and went back to bed. His dreams were usually filled with the faces of those he had killed. That night he slept soundly.
• • •
When he woke, the little finger on his right hand was gone. It had been cleanly severed. There was no blood or pain. He grabbed Ingrid by the shoulders and shook her awake. “What did you do?”
She got out of bed and took the quill with her left hand. I warned you.
The little finger on his right hand glove was also gone. He checked inside the glove, but couldn’t find the hair.
Eight silver hairs remained on Ingrid’s head.
He left the house and walked through the forest to the lake. The water in one of the ground rivers was completely gone, its bed dusty dry.
He returned home and confronted the spirit. “Release her!” he demanded.
She wrote a message with her left hand. My bonnet.
There were no executions that day, so he stayed home and sharpened his sword. After Ingrid had gone to sleep, he opened the cellar door. He lifted Ingrid out of bed, carried her down the stairs, and placed her on a blanket. He cut a silver hair from her head. This time, he cut the hair into tiny pieces and scattered them on the floor. He went upstairs and locked the cellar door.
The next morning, his ring finger on his right hand was missing. The corresponding finger on his glove was gone. The cellar door was still locked. Opening it, he discovered Ingrid asleep on the blanket. The pieces of cut hair were gone.
He carried her upstairs and woke her. “We will defeat it. I’ll cut all of the hairs now.”
She wrote a message with her right hand. No. One hair a night.
• • •
Each night he cut away a hair and woke to find one of his fingers missing. He tried to stay awake all night, but sleep always claimed him. His right hand was a ruined stump and he abandoned his work as an executioner.
Please stop this. It will kill us both. Ingrid wrote.
Ulrich’s father had taught him the worst thing to do was lose your nerve mid swing. Once you raised your blade, there was no stopping it.
“The spirit won’t win,” he said. “I have one more finger than you have silver hairs.”
• • •
Only the index finger and thumb on his left hand remained.
We have to go to the sky river.
She had written with her right hand, but he looked at her suspiciously. “Is that you?”
“I thought you wanted me to stop.”
It’s too late now. The last river is more powerful than the others. You have to cut the final hair in front of it.
“And if I don’t?”
The spirit will completely possess me.
“Then we should go now.”
I can’t return to the lake unless you bring my bonnet.
He looked into her eyes, but could not read them. “Wait here,” he said. He hid a knife in his boot and left the house. He retrieved Ingrid’s bonnet from the cathedral.
When he returned, Ingrid stood by the door. He slung the bonnet over his right stump and tucked the scissors in his belt. “Come with me,” he said.
They walked through the forest until they neared the clearing. He checked that his hat was firmly on his head and marched into the clearing. Eight of the rivers were now nothing but empty channels. Only the sky river remained.
Ingrid knelt by the side of one of the channels and ran the dust through her hands.
He took the scissors from his belt. He had stood over people so many times with his sword in his hands. His strikes were always true, but now he was crippled and wielded only a pair of scissors.
Ingrid looked up at him. The hair on his head twitched and his hat appeared in her left hand. She gently brushed one of the silver feathers with her right hand. A shard of ice darted from the feather, spiraled through the air, and landed on the scissors. They became so cold that even through his glove, his hand grew numb. He dropped the scissors. Ingrid’s bonnet fell from his right arm and landed in front of her.
She smiled and threw his hat into the sky river.
A tremendous force pulled at Ulrich’s head, lifting him from the ground. The sky river caught him in its current and he tumbled up into the air. He tried to open his mouth to call for help but it filled with water.
His last thoughts were of water and air.
He drowned in the clouds.
Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer. He has visited more than 70 countries and his experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories have been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Weird Tales. aidandoyle.net