by Garon Whited
The rain pattered on the roof. Wind whistled in the eaves. Occasionally, a branch on the north side slapped against a shutter with a clattering noise. The smoke from the chimney whipped away in vortices, scattering quickly in the night-clouded sky. Through the vanes of the shutters, a faint, golden glow shone steadily, intermittently overwhelmed by lightning flashing above the trees. Thunder rumbled in the belly of the clouds, but the rain continued to patter down instead of pour.
Hooves splashed in the puddles of the road and muddied them. Hot breath steamed in the cool, humid air as the riders reined up. They spoke quietly while their horses shifted uneasily in the rain. One of the lightly-armored soldiers spoke first.
“All right, we’re here, Father. What are we doing?”
The cleric, wearing robes instead of armor, adjusted his hood to keep the rain off his face.
“This is the home of a witch.”
“A witch, Father?”
“Indeed. She has cast many spells upon the sick and injured, as well as calling upon infernal powers to increase the harvest. A thousand rats lie dead in the streets.”
“Doesn’t sound too infernal to me,” one of the soldiers muttered.
“Fool!” hissed the cleric. “The Devil does good as a lure to the faithful! Accept his aid and you turn away from God and the Church!”
“Shut up, Torith,” the sergeant advised. “The priest, here, he’s calling this.”
“Yessir,” Torith muttered, while the sergeant turned to the cleric.
“What’ll you have, Father?”
“Break in the door and capture her. She must be taken back to the cathedral and burned.”
“You heard the man. Get the log.” The soldiers dismounted without grumbling, content to at least have a definite purpose. The cleric also dismounted. He watched the proceedings, hands clasped behind him, standing straight and tall. Six men crept quietly up to the door, the leading four carrying a length of log suspended between them on ropes. Two others hurried around back, cudgels in hand, to prevent an escape.
The four front men swung their small ram back and forth to get their timing right. On the third swing, they hauled it back as far as they dared before slamming it forward, crashing into the door just above the handle. The bolt and bar snapped or tore free of the wall and they released their weapon, letting it fly into the room and crash to the floor.
The six men rushed inside, cudgels raised, screaming their Deus vult! There was more screaming once they were inside, but no words—at least, none of any religious significance, aside from a tendency to violate the third Commandment. The golden glow of the lights flickered and danced as thumping, banging, and shouting continued.
The robed man stood quietly, patiently, watching the shadows play about the door and listening to the shouts and screams. His heart raced, but he gave no sign. He was young for such a holy mission, but he was strong in his faith and set in his course. He would not fail.
Some minutes later, two men came out, one limping, and dragged a slumped figure between them. They called to their other fellows around back. These two went inside and began removing the wounded as the lights inside grew brighter. A lick of flame escaped a shutter as fire spread from the battle inside the house.
They dragged their captive across the rutted dirt in front of the door. The slumped figure splashed at the feet of the robed cleric. A tumbling mass of loose, dark hair splayed all about, damp from the pattering of rain, soaked where it lay in muddy ruts. The sergeant rolled her over on her back, but he and his partner held both cudgels and daggers at the ready. A long mark over one cheekbone stood out in the rising firelight. Her eyes remained closed.
The cleric, for his part, caught his breath and didn’t know what to do with it. Even loose-limbed and disarrayed, she was beautiful. Perhaps moreso than usual, for her loose shift was growing more damp and clinging to her form. Her beauty struck him between the eyes and froze him, from his heels to his expression, until the lack of oxygen nearly caused him to faint. How could anything with the face of an angel be such a thing of evil? How could such beauty be wrong?
But beauty was often the clothing of the Devil, he reminded himself, the better to lure men to sin. Lucifer himself was once the most beautiful and brightest of all the angels.
He took a breath, still staring at her. The sergeant nodded to his soldier. The man sheathed his dagger and set his cudgel well out of reach before taking a double handful of water from a puddle and dashing it in her face. She sputtered, coughed, and rolled on her side, one hand rising to the side of her head opposite the beginning bruise on her face.
“Speak?” she asked. She coughed again and pressed both hands to her head for a moment. The cleric nodded at the men. They pulled her upright, onto her knees, but kept their cudgels raised and ready to strike. She kept her hands on her head, fingers laced deep in her hair, until they were done. She took several deep breaths and muttered something before she lowered her hands with a satisfied sigh. One hand came away bloody, but she paid it no further attention.
“All right,” she agreed. “What do you want me to say?”
Still half-afraid of his own reaction to this beautiful thing, the cleric slapped her, backhanded, and rocked her head to the side. She took it, and took it well. No fainting maiden, this. She turned her head back to look at him again, eyes blazing, and only the rough hands on her shoulders kept her from launching herself toward the cleric’s throat. Instead, she reached up and probed the inside of her mouth with one finger. It came away bloody. She examined it with care, as though she had never seen her blood, before swishing her hand through a puddle. The cleric watched, fascinated.
“I meant no insolence,” she replied, levelly. “I regret my tone and plead for your forgiveness. Upon what subject, oh priest, do you wish me to speak?”
The cleric, for his part, was uncertain. He wanted her to speak, to confess to her witchery, but he feared her words. Even her voice was that of a succubus, attractive, warm, enticing. Everything about her was… was… seductive. Never mind there were four veteran soldiers of the Crusade lying on the ground nearby, either unconscious, dead, or moaning wounded. They could be forgotten simply by looking into those huge, warm, copper-colored eyes. A man could drown in them as a man might drown in molten copper if it were not for the heat within.
“You are a witch,” he stated through lips as dry as sand. His tongue worked, after a fashion, and he wondered if anyone but himself could hear the loose, disconnected way he spoke. “The Church has heard the evidence of those upon whom you have cast your spells. It is decided you will come into the city and there be burned alive, that the fires set in your flesh shall purify your soul.”
“If that is the will of the Church,” she agreed. “However, for the salvation of your bodies, it would be best to remove everyone farther from the house.”
“What? How do you mean? What infernal torments do you contain within this damned structure?”
“The lamps upset in the fight have set fire to… well, everything by now.”
“What of it? A witch’s house should burn, lest some terrible artifact or damned tome be left to corrupt innocents.”
“Granted, but I’m not a witch. I’m a wizard. And some of my arcane objects—”
The gout of flame blew out all the shutters and jetted ten feet into the night. A bolt of fire shot up the chimney and lit the surroundings like a flare for several seconds. The patter of the rain stopped, as though shocked. The horses reared and screamed and ran.
Cursing, the guards didn’t wait for orders. Two ran after the horses. One of the wounded crawled slowly away from the burning house. The two holding the prisoner remained as they were, but cursed under their breath.
“What was that?” demanded the cleric.
“Probably one of the scrolls cut loose and blew up the others. They’re paper, after all. I’m just a little worried about what happens when the heat gets to the mirror. I have no idea what happens if it cracks. The iridium can take the heat, but the glass and silver are another story.”
As she spoke, she probed her mouth again, drawing out another bloodied finger. She sighed and washed her hand again.
“So, are we riding back to wherever?” she asked, and her tone was well-controlled. It sounded like simple curiosity.
“We will walk, if we must,” the cleric decided, looking out into the darkened wood and wondering how far the horses might run, how many they might find.
“Uh, Father?” asked the sergeant. “A word?”
“What is it, sergeant?’
The other guard drew a dagger. He held the woman by one hand in her hair and pressed the point to the base of her skull. He very carefully did not allow any portion of his body or weapon within easy reach of the kneeling figure. He ignored everything else—mud, rain, horses, wounded, even his partner and his superior—in favor of making sure the woman did not move. Judging by his expression, he was both respectful and a bit afraid.
The cleric, oblivious to this treatment, stepped aside with the sergeant.
“Father, I don’t think we can walk her back to town.”
“What? Why not?”
The sergeant looked at the four men still in various stages of disabled or dead.
“We surprised her,” he stated. “Now she knows how many of us there are, how we’re armed and armored, and if she gets to her feet she’ll kill all of us.”
“You are warriors of God!” the cleric stated. “Your armor is the armor of—”
“—righteousness, yeah. Got it, Father. But I’d like a shield of steel to go with my shield of faith and a sword made of something more than spirit. You didn’t see what this Hell-spawned wight did before we managed to knock her down. Korus is probably dead. She pitched a clay lamp square into his head and he was on fire when he dropped. Tarl is bleeding from an eye, ear, and his nose, and I hope Danneth already has sons, ’cause he ain’t gonna have any now. Moro’s knee says he’s not going to run anywhere soon and I wouldn’t bet he ever will.” The sergeant sighed and ran the back of his hand over his brow.
“She’s not a witch, Father. She’s a demon with a knack for beating people to death. And if we don’t get the horses, tie her up, and tie her to one, I hope to Heaven a knife in the back of the neck will kill her. We can’t walk her back.” The sergeant held up a hand to stifle an angry retort. “Let me say that again, Father. Can not. I swear it. None of us will live to see the city wall again.”
The cleric stared at the sergeant for several seconds, then glanced at the woman. She remained as she was, kneeling in the mud, hair acting as a handle for what was—now obviously—a frightened and determined man.
“You’re certain of this?”
“Father, I ain’t certain of anything besides my hope of Heaven and my fear of Hell—and she’s likely to send all of us to one or the other. Of the two, I won’t presume to guess which is more likely.”
“Blasphemy,” the cleric cautioned.
“Forgive me, Father. It’s been a bad night and it’s just got started.”
“Forgiven. Fine. When we get a horse—”
A tinkling, shattering sound heralded by the barest instant a banshee wail. The sound speared through the night, a scream mixed with a tornado and seasoned with fingernails on slate. It lasted no more than a handful of seconds, but was entirely too loud to be borne. Everyone alive clapped hands over ears—everyone, that is, except the guard holding the prisoner. His eyes watered and his teeth locked, the point of his weapon pricked her skin, but he neither let go nor looked away.
A white light shone from inside the house. It blazed with an intensity that made the walls seem like paper, then faded to flames again.
When everyone recovered from the cacophonous sound and the blinding light, the cleric and sergeant returned to face the witch. In the rising firelight, she was, if anything, more beautiful than before.
“Did I hear him call you ‘Father’?”
“I am a priest.”
“Thank you. Father, may I offer a word of caution?”
The cleric regarded the burning building. This was not going as planned. Perhaps he should have consulted with Father Frenaur, possibly even asked the old man to come along. But Father Frenaur was too old for night rides in the rain, and one witch should be easy enough… Too late, too late for such regrets. And now, a witch presumed to offer a word of caution? Then again… First, jets of fire. Second, wails of the damned. Third…?
“I know—excuse me.” She probed her mouth again, drawing forth a bloodied finger. “Damn. Still bleeding.” She washed her finger in the puddle again and looked up at him. “Pardon me, please. I was saying you might want to consider running.”
He glanced at the house. Under any other circumstances, he wouldn’t listen to a witch, even such a stunningly beautiful one. Perhaps especially a beautiful one, knowing her beauty to be but a lure and a temptation. However, given the sergeant’s experience and caution, as well as what had already happened as the building burned…
He recognized the need to take charge, to take command, to regain the psychological gage. He was the priest. She was the witch.
“Explain yourself,” he demanded.
“Well, first off, bad things are happening to the house. I built the house, so I know how that’s going to go. It’s not going to be too awful, all things considered, but we’re closer than I find comfortable. What really bothers me is my birthday presents. My Pop gave me those.”
“’Pop’?” he repeated.
“Father. I mean, my father gave me presents on the anniversary of my birth. It’s a custom of my country.”
“You mean a mortal father, not a spiritual one?”
“As in, ‘The flesh-and-blood person,’ right?”
“Yep. My Pop.”
“Very well. What of him?”
“He’s way more powerful a wizard than I am. He builds magical things. He’s good at it. He’s one of the best. It’s possible he’s the best. Don’t get me started. Point is, he gave me several gifts over the course of my life. So, when those things start to go—like the mirror just did, with the screaming?—all hell’s going to break loose.”
“What do you mean by that?” the cleric demanded. “A gateway to the infernal realms will open?”
“Grr. No. Sorry. Bad metaphor. Not literal hell, but figurative. Like when, uh, when a company of men attacks a small outpost and quote, ‘all hell breaks loose,’ unquote, in the fighting. He gets it,” she finished, jerking a thumb at the sergeant.
“It’s a figure of speech, Father.”
“Very well. Let us move somewhat farther away and await the return of the horses.”
The evolution was done with great care. Neither soldier chose to be in front of her, but walked behind her. One held both her wrists, arms bent up behind her. The other held her hair and pressed a dagger to her neck beneath her wet, dark curls.
She was a model prisoner, making no sudden moves, and going easily where they urged. Another twenty yards away, they pushed her to her knees again and she settled there amiably enough.
“Where’re Lukon and Durk?” the sergeant grumbled, almost betraying nervousness. “They should have managed at least one horse by now.”
“I have no idea. Perhaps the hell-scream drove them farther afield.”
“Possibly, Father, but I would have thought…” he trailed off, and sighed.
The witch visibly perked up at this news. Quickly, she probed her mouth again and examined her finger. It came away bloody yet again. The cleric felt the urge to apologize, but quashed it firmly. There is no apologizing to those in league with the powers of darkness. There is no pity for their earthly suffering. They must be punished in this life to save their souls for Heaven. Thus was it written, thus would it be done.
She sighed and lowered her hand into another puddle. This one, undisturbed by hooves or boots, was clear. The blood on her finger spread crimson tendrils through the water. They drifted away from her. It was a slow movement, little faster than a typical diffusion, but all the blood swam gradually in the same direction. It was as through drawn in one direction by an unseen force, like silt slowly settling, only to the side, not down. The edge of the puddle was stained red, and the red crept slowly onward, oozing through the mud, soon lost to sight.
She laughed. All three men jumped as though struck. It was startling for its complete incongruity. The laugh was a pure, happy thing, on par with a child discovering rain for the first time on a summer afternoon, or the revelation of a full moon after a storm. The men glanced at each other, none wanting to be the first to ask and betray the strange feelings it engendered.
The captive settled back, sitting down properly, relaxing. As she did so, lightning struck with a terrible brightness and deafening crash, then did so a second time. The rain started to fall more earnestly.
When the thunder’s rumble died away and the only light was the rising flames from the burning house, she was still chuckling.
“Why do you laugh?” asked the priest.
“You remember I spoke of my father?”
“Yes?” the cleric replied.
“He’s not always a nice man, but he does try.” She raised her voice a trifle, pitching it to carry. “And, to give him all due credit, whenever I’ve asked him to be merciful, he’s always—always, and without ever failing me even once!—managed to contain his more murderous impulses. I’m proud of him for many reasons, but that’s a big one.”
“And?” the cleric prompted. “What do the sins of your father have to do with anything?”
“You’ve invaded my home, burned it down, and bashed me around. I’m cold, I’m wet, and I’m pissed off.” She swiped the inside of her cheek one more time. The blood on her finger ran sideways to the tip and fell in a drop. She smiled, a beautiful and terrible smile. She kept her voice raised and said, “So, just to be clear, I am not asking him to be merciful.”
“I repeat: What has that got to do with anyth—”