The leper saw the apparition bearing down on him. The face was hollow, cadaverous. A jagged scar, thick as a snake's middle, ran down the side of the horseman's face. The demon rider on his coal black mount stared at the leper in the gloom and the unfortunate one scuttled into the protective shadows of the alley, his warning bell clanging out its cacophony of terror.
The horseman whipped the frothy flanks of his mount. He threw his head back and laughed. The sound was a strangling screech of horror.
What had it been which so terrified the leper? Not the sight of the grotesquely scarred rider. This was Toledo where disease and filth had produced such hideous deformity that few men blanched at the view of another. This was Spain where crowds gathered in the streets viewing with relish the hot sparks gushing from melting human fat as the doomed heretics twisted in the fires which consumed their mortal bodies.
No, the leper had scuttled away from the blanket shrouded form which was held tightly in the grip of the maimed rider. He had blanched and cried out at the sight of the tiny shoeless foot, so naked and white, which protruded from the smothering covering. He had scurried into the protective blackness of the dung stained alley rather than listen to the terrified scream of a helpless maiden whose tortured and mutilated body would tomorrow lie twisted, broken and bloodless.
The leper knew with a finality which is given to people who are forced to live on the streets. There had been other nights and other tightly wrapped bundles which resembled the human form. There had been other whimpered pleas stemming from the thick folds of gagging cloth. There had been other beautiful young women who had disappeared. The leper had seen, and having seen, he knew.
But even the leper could not anticipate the full extent of the horror which awaited Juanita Sanchez in the brooding castle which nestled in the high hills surrounding Toledo. Only Don Verrine held the secret of that.
A maniacal expression worked its way across Verrine's twisted face. He clutched the blanket-wrapped girl to him. He squeezed her yielding flesh, feeling her thrash convulsively against him. He recalled the fleeting glimpse he had of her tawny beauty and lithe limbed grace. "The senorita will please me much," he crowed to the chill night wind.
The horse's hooves beat a steady tattoo over the dirt road. Their sound became hollow as they thudded over the thick slats of a wooden draw bridge. Juanita Sanchez heard the screeching of iron against iron as the great gate clanged shut behind her. She heaved once more against the hard sinew of the rider. Bound hand and foot as she was, she could not free herself from the death inducing clutch.
From under the suffocating weight of the blanket, she heard feet shuffling towards her. She heard coarse voices shouting obscene things. She felt herself being swung through the air and carried head down through a twisting, descending path. Their hands were cruel on her aching body. Their words stung her like a thousand barbed whips. Terror caused her heart to pound mercilessly in her rib cage. She gulped huge quantities of air. But they would not force their way through the constricted aching mass which was her throat.
The journey came to an end with a bone jarring suddenness. Juanita Sanchez felt herself being dropped heavily to the irregular stone surface of a subterranean floor. She sensed the horny, taloned fingers which raked over the soft contours of her young flesh, stripping away the foul smelling blanket.
Little pinwheels of light danced before her eyes. At first they were all consuming. Then slowly they receded to be replaced by a visage so evil that the shriek froze in Juanita's slim throat.
The blackened gums gaped down at the trembling virgin. The stumps of what had once been teeth hung jagged from them. The arm which came to a coarsely stitched glob of flesh where the hand should have extended, touched her quivering breast. But worst of all was the gyrating scar which ran down the side of the chalk whiteface. It was like a thing alive, possessed of its own diabolical will.
Juanita squirmed desperately feeling the uneven stones tearing at her body. The confining ropes limited her motions so that she could not hope to escape the diabolical indecencies being performed upon her. She raised her bound wrists in mute supplication. Don Verrine gripped them in his one good hand, squeezing and kneading until Juanita knew her knuckles must be smashed to pulp by the unbelievable strength of her tormentor.
Silently her soft red lips formed the words. "The Swordsman!" Her limbs jerked convulsively. Tears welled in her eyes. Her young conical breasts heaved of their own volition.
Don Verrine's fetid breath bathed Juanita's face. His agate hard eyes feasted on her terror. His hand reach-ed under her tattered skirt. The white muslin cloth gave under the pressure of his taloned fingers. Juanita pounded at his muscular back with her bound fists. The Swordsman giggled maniacally as he stripped the girl's outer garments from her.
Finally he stood over his now naked victim, his nostrils flaring, his face red from exertion. His eye swept across the chamber, lighting on the literally thousands of gleaming blades which shone in the flickering light of the wall tapers.
In that manner the tableau of malignant horror was frozen into a scene of unrestrained madness. Juanita Sanchez managed to raise herself to a sitting position, hiding her charms as best she could with her upraised knees and shivering arms. "Please," she whimpered, "I have done you no harm. I am but a simple girl. I know nothing of life in the castle."
Don Verrine slapped his thigh and cackled in a shrill voice. "I am but a simple girl," he repeated. "Would you deny that you are a woman of rare beauty? Would you deny the evil that lurks in your bosom? The evil which must be excoriated by an agony so great that it will cleanse your immortal soul with its fire?" Each word was said with a growing intensity until the very stone walls reverberated with the mad ravings.
"Tomorrow, I am to be wed to a fine man. He is even now preparing for the wedding," Juanita whimpered. "Allow me to return to him. I swear. I will never reveal a word of this incident to him."
The Swordsman's mocking laugh swirled around Juanita's head. "But tonight is your nuptial feast, my little one. Tonight you will test your bridal bed. Tonight you will become the bride of the sword. And now enough of this talk. Your weeping and wailing bore me. It is time for the ceremony to begin."
Don Verrine strode to a length of rope which dangled from the vaulted ceiling. With malevolent deliberateness he unhitched the end. From the dark shadows above her, Juanita saw a long metal bar descending towards her. Inch by torturous inch it was lowered. The thick, rust-stained surface was scant inches, above her.
Before she could make any motion to defend herself, the Swordsman was beside her, shoving her brutally to the slime covered stones. His weight pressed her shoulders against the abrasive, unyielding surface. With a surety borne of long practice, the one-armed fiend imprisoned her fragile wrists and forced them over the iron bar. Despite her frenzied kicking, he lifted her bound ankles to the contraption, securing them with thick coils of rope. Now only her back rested on the ground.
A second later, the sweating, straining girl was lifted into the air, the barbaric cords cutting into her flesh, almost disappearing in its virginal softness. Higher and higher she was carried. The bar above her twisted slowly with a nauseating motion.
Juanita managed to turn her head so that she could see the full expanse of the room below. Her full lips parted in an ear-piercing cry of terror. For below, imbedded into a stone pit was a bed of steel blades, their burnished steel fixed at every conceivable angle, waiting to rip into her.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Don Verrine played out the line. The entire room faded before Juanita's panic stricken eyes until all she could see were the savage points below. At last she felt their coldness caressing her nudity. The points dug in ever so slightly, slashing her in a hundred places. She closed her eyes and waited for the mercy of death to engulf her.
But a quick death was not Don Verrine's plan. His muscular back bent as he pulled on the rope again, lifting his victim from her couch of torment. His beady eyes watched her quivering limbs as he lowered her once again until she touched the blades. Little tendrils of blood ran over her back. Her screams of agony were a constant thing.
Time after damnable time the process was repeated. At last the bleeding girl fought the ropes which held her, hoping to crash down onto the hellish swords, hoping that by one simple gesture she might die. She could have saved herself the effort. Death would come only when Don Verrine willed it to come.
Juanita Sanchez had never met Don Verrine, The Swordsman before. But this was no guard against his maniacal lust to torture and kill all women. His name was whispered in the city of Toledo behind locked shutters. Men clutched their wives and daughters to them as they spoke of The Swordsman and offered special prayers. Yet while he lived, a hundred young women, perhaps even more, learned of the terror of his torturing blades.
Don Verrine had not always been a madman. Once he had been a courageous and gallant soldier of Spain. In the year 1618 he had recruited a detachment of men of Toledo and prepared to ride out in defense of Spain against the combined forces of England, Holland, France, Sweden and Germany.
The night before his departure to the Thirty Year War, Don Verrine had enjoyed the fervent arms of Donna Carlata. She had responded to his caresses with an ardor which defied description. The words of her deathless devotion to the young and handsome warrior had been carried to him on the honeyed sweetness of her breath. 'My love, should the war last a thousand years, I will remain faithful," she had promised. "No man shall ever possess me but you. These gifts I extend to you tonight will be locked away until you return to claim them once more."
The piety and sincerity of her expressions were like a balm, soothing Don Verrine's wild jealousy. The naked Carlata had snuggled closer to him. Her lips brushed his ear. Her tiny white teeth flashed in the night. Don Verrine's sigh had been one of contentment and for the moment, trust.
The armies of the Thirty Years War fought a foe more ruthless than any soldier. It was disease. Viral epidemics swept through camp of Spaniard and Englishman alike. There was no escape from the stench of putrid and mortifying flesh. Men died with neither musket being fired or sword bared. Their bodies bloated and turned black and finally exploded in the hot sun. Their entrails coated the ground. The flies came and devoured them and moved off to spread the lethal disease.
Some say that Don Verrine's reduction from man to beast occurred when he came down with a raging fever. They contend that the disease caused a permanent malfunctioning of his brain. Others argue that he had always been a man of great rages and jealous furies.
Be that as it may, the fever stuck and after hovering between life and death in a monastery for several months, Don Verrine finally returned unannounced to Toledo. There he found the ever faithful Donna Carlata, still naked. However she was now firmly immersed in the arms of a castle page.
Although Don Verrine could have killed the younger man with one blow in a swashbuckling gesture, he tossed the page a sword and ordered him to defend himself. The page was a youth from the country, strong, agile, unafraid.
Weakened as he had been by the near lethal illness, Don Verrine found the duel more than he had bargained for. Time after time, he was driven backwards, frantically parrying the thrusts of his adversary. Once the errant page lunged forward. His blade ripped downward from a point just below Don Verrine's eye, laying the flesh of his cheek wide open. Desperately the returned warrior grabbed the blade with his bare hand. He managed to push it away before the page could send it home through the Don's eye into his brain.
The duel carried on for nearly an hour before the naked and terrified Donna Carlata. At last her latest lover lay at her feet. The blood from his severed aorta pumped over her naked breast in great hot geysers.
Don Verrine stood looking down at the two. Then he grabbed Donna Carlata by the hair and dragged her naked form to the dungeons below. There he kept her chained to the wall for weeks while he systematically flayed the living skin from every inch of her anatomy.
But weakened as he was from his former illness, Don Verrine could not fight off the new sources of infection. The wound on his hand festered and oozed pus. The hand swelled to a size where he could no longer don his jerkin. At last a physician, despairing of the Don's life ordered preparations made for an amputation.
In the days before anesthesia, eight out of ten men died of shock during the dismembering of a limb. At best the surgery represented the ultimate in butchery. They gave Don Verrine a bullet to chew on as was the custom of the time. They paid scant attention to the bits of broken teeth which slobbered over his jaw when the agony made him bite down with all his force.
They were too busy hacking and sawing away at the wrist. At last the hand parted with a grisly snapping of bone. The surgeon picked a broad sword out of the fire where it glowed cherry red. He laid its flat against the stump. Nauseating fumes of burnt human flesh filled the room. Don Verrine's scream of agony echoed through his castle. He immediately fell into a shock-induced coma.
Once again he hovered between life and death for weeks. There followed a period of slow recuperation. The Don walked the castle halls brooding and mumbling to himself. Each night he would return to the dungeon to view the rotting remains of his erstwhile lover. Each night the sight would drive the madness more firmly into his brain.
Those in the castle saw what was happening. But it was none of their business. To question the Don's behavior was to invite slow torture.
The Swordsman as he was now called, began riding into the night on a frothing black steed. He took nobody with him. Nobody can be sure what his thoughts were on these nocturnal junkets. During the day he would lock himself in his rooms and refuse to see any of the castle staff. He ordered all mirrors removed from the grounds.
One can only surmise that his disfigurement might have been driving him slowly mad. According to this rationale, it would be easy to believe that he held women accountable for it. Not only the faithless Donna Carlata, but all women. Rage at what had become of his own body probably drove him to carry out his depravities against the young virgins of Toledo. A furious pride would not allow him to buy the caresses of available women. A blind rage caused him to channel his need for release into the dismembering of those who represented beauty. Donna Carlata had turned him into a beast. All who were brought to his dungeons would learn of the aberrations of this beast.
Don Verrine might have gone on kidnapping, raping and torturing for years had not another epidemic swept Toledo. This time it was the dread St. Vitus dance. To the horror of physician and clergy, men, women and children by the hundreds, danced and twitched themselves to death in the city streets. The death carts trundled over the cobblestones while the filthy drivers kept up their mournful chant, "Bring out your dead."
In an age when superstition still abounded, and nobody was above suspicion of having trafficked with the Devil, Don Verrine's immunity to the disease became the cause of his downfall. The villagers used it as an excuse to denounce him.
Later medical men were to know that the body's immune system is triggered by exposure to a certain virus. This is the whole theory of vaccine. However the knowledge came too late to save the bloodthirsty Don. He died in the fires of the Inquisition. His last words were a screaming tirade against the faithlessness of women.