Konstantin was sensitive to the presence of powerful magic. In his line of work, you had to be if you were going to succeed. In his line of work, he had succeeded. Usually he experienced a mild prickling along his spine when he found a witch. Sometimes it was more. Whenever his sister was nearby her awakening power made him feel like he was being stuck with pins and needles. While this level of reaction was unusual, he had known several witches stronger in their accursed gift. Deirdre was one such woman. Standing beside her was like being bare-knuckle punched in the belly button by a champion pit fighter; he had never before come across someone so formidable.
When the two hooded individuals stepped into the clearing, he felt like he had been hit by a runaway cruise ship. They oozed with barely restrained power. Even the trees of the forest groaned sympathetically when the two passed, as if blown by gale-force winds.
Up close he was surprised by how small they were, their power made them seem larger than life. Face to face, he was confronted by two diminutive nymphs heavily wrapped in ragged and dirty clothing. After regarding the taller Inquisitor for a heartbeat their pale hands left deep pockets and reached up, pulling down oversized hoods.
Konstantin frowned. “Why you’re just…”
“Children!” Brita finished for him, a hand over her open mouth.
The two most earth-shatteringly powerful creatures Konstantin had ever seen were indeed only children. Clearly related, they were identical in almost every way, down to the blue bows in their knotted white hair and the dirt smudges on their pale elfin faces. Konstantin was reminded of the twins from The Shining. Once as a child he had hidden behind the couch in the living room while his father watched that movie. He hadn’t understood most of it, but the parts he did had given him nightmares for months.
The girls were cute, but their eyes were disturbing. They were the milky white of the blind.
We’re not blind Frederick William Konstantin. We do not need eyes to see the anger and fear inside you. And there is something else, isn’t there? Is it regret? There’s something to think about Inquisitor.
Konstantin shuddered. They had not opened their mouths to speak; they simply stood holding hands, staring at him with their useless eyes. The voices had been inside his mind. They next turned toward his sister, one reaching up and brushing a tear from her cheek with a gentle finger. He did not know what they said to her, but she smiled ruefully and kneeling gave them both a tight hug.
“Hrist! Mist! What have you girls gotten into? Look at you, you’re an absolute mess!” Deirdre began clucking over them like a mother hen, licking a corner of her shirt sleeve and wiping at their smudged faces industriously. They adopted a very childish petulance.
You left us alone for so long we got bored.
We were just playing.
Deirdre put a hand on her hip, shaking the other accusingly in their faces.
‘You didn’t see any people did you? You know how dangerous it could be to talk to strangers.” The girls pouted, crossing their arms over their chests.
Dangerous for them maybe.
Unable to maintain her disproving tone Deirdre finally grinned and pulling the girls close, kissed their cheeks until they broke down squirming and giggling.
“Oh girls, it’s so good to see you. I missed you so much while we were in that horrid city.”
“Well Deirdre, what’s this then? Have you captured some feral woodland children for us to spank?” Felix’s voice roared from the edge of the meadow. The men were back from hiding the van. Squealing the children extricated themselves from Deirdre’s ministrations, streaking across the grass toward the big Northman.
Laughing he scooped them both up into his strong arms and began dancing around the clearing with them. Konstantin shrugged uncomfortably. When the girls laughed they did it both out loud and in his mind.
After Felix set them down they ran to Naoise, hugging each of his tree-trunk like legs. Their heads barely reached his hips.
Did you bring us a present from the city Naoise? Did you? They jumped up and down in excitement. Smiling broadly, the gruff warrior reached into a coat pocket, pulling out tiny silver chains with heart shaped lockets. Grinning rapturously the girls traced the outline of the lockets with sensitive fingers, their blind eyes staring up at nothing in particular. Running over to Snorri they proudly showed off their new treasures before allowing themselves to be pulled down into the seated Deirdre and Brita’s laps for a thorough hair brushing.
Standing on the edge of things, Frederick Konstantin had a hard time remembering that the children were evil.
The child was evil. Solomon Rex was sure of it. Peering into the interrogation room through the one-way glass he had become increasingly frustrated. The little monster was proving undisciplined and downright naughty. Rex massaged his throbbing temples, wishing that he could get the coarse robes off of his aching back. He sighed. God had sent him here. He might as well get on with it.
Yelling filtered out from the closed room. The soldier inside was scuffling with the young prisoner.
“Ow! You bit me you little bastard!” Rex opened the door as the soldier was leaning back for another swing, his face red and angry as he continued yelling at the bound child.
“Stop that growling you little cretin! You’re a dirty little thief aren’t you? A common criminal.”
Solomon Rex moved swiftly, grabbing the man’s clenched fist before he could complete his strike. Getting a fistful of hair with his other hand he flattened the soldier’s face on the metal table.
“How dare you punish this innocent child for your own ineptitude, trooper? He has not failed in his duties, you have.”
With a grunt and a shrug of his powerful shoulders he lifted the man clear above his head and threw him bodily from the room. Brushing his hands together he turned to the wide-eyed boy, a broad grin plastered across his face.
“I apologize for your rough treatment child, the Guard are…unimaginative in their methods.”
The boy twisted his head, wiping snot and blood on a skinny shoulder.
“I told them about the inquisitor and blonde lady.” He lifted his chin defiantly. “It’s not my fault they’re no good and can’t find ‘em.”
Rex squatted beside the boy, nodding his head solemnly.
“You are right my son. I bet you could do a better job of tracking those two couldn’t you? I have heard about you child, you’re a hunter. The best.”
The boy nodded.
“I could find them. I could find anybody. This is my city. But….I don’t want to get that lady in trouble. She was nice.”
The Inquisitor feigned horror. “Oh no child, you misunderstand. I don’t want to get her in trouble either. You see I’m their friend; I’m trying to warn them about the Guard. That is why I need to find them so badly. Would you help me find my friends?”
The boy met Rex’s eye. “Yes Inquisitor. I could do that.”
Rex clapped his hands exultantly. “Praise Jesus! Come child, let’s get you cleaned up.” Unlocking the chains he took the boy’s hand, leading him from the room.
“You know little one, I have a feeling we are going to be great friends, don’t you?”
“Their parents were killed years ago.”
Konstantin paused his gnawing assault on the acorn he had discovered.
Snorri repeated himself. “The girls. Their parents were killed when they were just babies.” Konstantin sighed, lowering his meager snack.
“Eaters or bandits?”
Snorri leered, “church soldiers.”
Konstantin turned away from his captor’s battered face. “You’re an asshole Snorri.”
“The pot and the kettle Inquisitor. The pot and the kettle.”
“Boys!” Deirdre waved her hand from across the meadow. “Our rides are here, let’s get a move on.”
Levering his pained body up, Konstantin rose slowly from his seat against the gnarled oak, limping back out into the clearing. He looked across, past the small knot of people rummaging through the pile of supplies. Felix was admiring Konstantin’s confiscated pistols. Naoise was polishing a monstrous war-axe he had retrieved from somewhere. The driver had somehow returned without Konstantin noticing, this time with a pair of high caliber rifles slung across his back. He had a disturbing knack for appearing and disappearing randomly. Konstantin resolved to keep a closer eye on him.
There was movement in the trees. Konstantin stopped.
Horses. Their rides were horses.
“You’re joking. What is this, the dark ages?”
Naoise looked up from saddling a particularly muscular animal; its mane cropped short and dyed purple like his. “For the next several hundred miles. Yes.” Nobody laughed.
Deirdre shrugged. “The further north we travel, the harder the Fimbulwinter was. There are neither trustworthy roads this far north, nor guaranteed facilities for replenishing a vehicle’s petrol. If you need to get anywhere out here, horses are the best way. Besides, we need to keep you and your sister’s whereabouts a secret. We can’t afford to attract any extra attention to ourselves. The way the people who live out here move about is by horse. Therefore, we will also use horses.”
Felix led over one of the dun colored beasts.
“Inquisitor, meet Elvis. Elvis, meet Inquisitor Frederick Konstantin.”
Konstantin and the horse eyed each other suspiciously, the animal snuffling its displeasure. He could not understand how the others seemed to be friendly with the mindless creatures; even Brita wore a delighted smile as a shaggy mare nibbled apple slices from her outstretched hand.
“Fear not Inquisitor, Elvis here is docile and even-tempered, even for a gelding. He will stay with the herd. All you have to worry about is not falling off.” Felix patted its thick neck affectionately.
“I suggest you make an effort to be friends, your life may soon depend on him trusting you.” Konstantin grimaced, but began patting the animal unenthusiastically. He had never known horses were so big.
These aren’t big silly! Fjord horses are a small breed. Like our ponies!
He turned to scowl at the grinning twins as they frolicked around the meadow on two identical fat-bellied ponies. Witches.
The small field had become crowded with bodies of both the two and four-legged variety. Besides Naoise’s fiery looking stallion and the sleek mares being ridden by Deirdre and the driver, Brita, Felix and Snorri were each perched comfortably upon stout geldings of their own. The supplies were loaded into packs strapped across the backs of two more of the animals. Hrist and Mist had called them fjord horses. With Elvis and the girls’ ponies they made quite the herd.
At the moment they were all looking at him impatiently, as he was the last to mount up. Even Elvis seemed annoyed while it tongued at the bit in its mouth. Grumbling a prayer, Konstantin climbed up into the saddle, clutching the horn and reins in white-knuckled fists.
Once she was convinced he would not be falling off immediately, Deirdre gave a quick head-count.
“Nine. Good. We’re all here.” Satisfied she led the unlikely caravan into the forest. She wanted to put some distance on the ground before the light failed completely.
Pulling the collar of his coat up against the chill, Konstantin sat hunched in his saddle, swaying uncomfortably with Elvis’ rolling gait. Hypnotized by the repetitive motion his world shrunk to include little more than the hindquarters of the horse plodding in front of him. His thoughts turned inward.
Konstantin knelt behind the low stone wall, his breath steaming in the still night air. The full moon lent everything a pale silver hue, from the armored soldiers beside him to the old farmhouse on the other side of the barrier, wisps of smoke curling from its recently repaired chimney. There was a double tap in his headset. The men were all in position.
He turned to the robed figure beside him.
“All is ready Father Clement. Do we have permission to move on the target?”
The priest’s answer was to step over the wall and begin striding toward the ramshackle home. Signaling to his soldiers, Konstantin followed, freeing his pistols from their low-slung holsters. He was halfway across the unkempt lawn when yelling rang out from the house, hastily lit lanterns shining through the windows of several rooms. Troops rushed past him with axes to break down the heavily barred front door.
Father Clement instead veered to the right and, with the agility of a much younger man, dove through one of the ground floor windows. Screams and gunshots followed. Konstantin bit back a curse, the gunshots were a bad sign. Clement refused to carry firearms. He preferred doing the Lord’s work up close and personal. Following the priest’s lead, Konstantin clambered through the shattered window in time to see the robed cleric disarm and subdue a desperate looking teen. Clement looked up at the younger Inquisitor.
“The witches have barricaded themselves upstairs.” He paused, and with a grunt snapped the captive youth’s neck. “The family has foolishly chosen to fight to protect them. Let us expunge this evil together Brother Konstantin.”
Konstantin nodded his agreement before following his own guns cautiously up the dark stairwell to the hallway at the top. Once there, they were drawn to the sound of muffled sobbing behind a closed door. Clement signaled Konstantin into position. Before they could kick it down the door behind them burst open, strong hands grabbing at them from the darkness.
Konstantin squirmed, locked in a burly farmer’s constricting embrace. Beside him Father Clement grappled with a grey-bearded elder. The man was old, but his voice was strong as he let out a mighty yell.
“Deborah! Take the girl and get out of here! Save the ba…” His call was cut short when Clement’s clenched fist crushed his windpipe. From the corner of his vision Konstantin saw the door across the hall bursting open, female figures darting out of the room down the still empty stairway. Father Clement moved to intercept them, but was blocked by the two men still tussling.
Straining mightily against the outlaw’s steely grip Konstantin succeeded in freeing one of his guns, emptying a clip into the man’s unyielding torso. He dropped with a howl, letting the Inquisitor suck in some much needed air. Pushed by the older priest he stumbled back down the stairs in pursuit of the escaped women.
They need not have worried.
In their absence, the soldiers had infiltrated the ground floor, easily capturing the fleeing women as they tumbled down the rickety steps.
One woman was older; probably the wife of the man Clement had killed upstairs. The younger one looked to be her daughter; the large man Konstantin fought had probably been her husband. She was clutching two bundles to her chest while the old woman shielded her with skinny arms. Konstantin hesitated. The women had been captured too easily. Witches were feared for good reason. Something did not feel right. The bundles were crying.
“Father…I do not believe these women are tainted by the gift. Perhaps we have received poor information?”
Father Clement chuckled merrily, “We are not here for the women Brother. We are here for the babies.”
Konstantin stared at his mentor in shock. “But Father, they are infants. How could they have made a pact with the Devil? Surely they are innocent.”
The priest shook his head sadly. “Do not question your orders child. You can feel the aura of power radiating from these two already. If we were to allow them to grow old, they could wreak unspeakable evil.”
Konstantin was horrified. This was wrong. This was very wrong.
“But perhaps if we were to raise them properly. Maybe their power could be used for good? Does their magic have to mean they are inescapably evil?”
Clement would not hear his arguments. “Yes Inquisitor. All magic is evil. There can be no other possibility. These two will be taken to New Rome and punished for their sins.”
“But they will be tortured!”
“It is God’s will.”
“Father…perhaps you could allow me to…that is to say, witches have died in raids before. Maybe these two proved too dangerous to capture? I would be willing to…to do it.”
Father Clement regarded him with narrowed eyes.
“I understand your feelings about this Inquisitor, but you really must learn not to question our Holy duties in any regard.” He sighed, “If this is so very important to you however, you may dispose of the little ones yourself.”
Konstantin sagged in relief even as his heart was breaking. After prying the screaming women away, soldiers delivered into his arms the two squirming bundles. He began walking back up the stairs as the troopers were enthusiastically disrobing the distraught mother.
“Stop it you fools!” Clement interrupted their sport, “Just kill them and be done with it. We are civilized men of God. We do not rape women.”
He turned to the departing Konstantin. “Inquisitor. Kill the babies quickly, I find myself weary of all this excitement.”
Inquisitor-Brother Frederick Konstantin bowed his head in acknowledgment. “His will be done.”
Konstantin snorted, forcing himself out of his painful reverie. His sister’s concerned face hove into view as she rode her mount next to his.
“Frederick, are you alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
He snarled inarticulately. “What are you doing back here witch? Do your new friends know you’re speaking with the prisoner?”
Tears welled up in her big blue eyes. Kicking her heels into her horse’s flanks she startled it into a bouncing trot, leaving Konstantin to watch her figure disappear into the pervading nighttime gloom, leaving him alone with his thoughts.