Konstantin was startled. He had not noticed the driver riding beside him. The man was disturbingly sneaky.
“Whatever you said to the girl. It must have been brutal. I might have to go comfort her.”
Konstantin definitely did not like the look on the man’s face. It appeared that Brita had another admirer.
“You grow too bold, Driver. She is my sister.”
The man nodded to himself, sucking on his lower lip. Unlike the other men, he was clean shaven, his graying hair kept neatly trimmed. “Well that explains it then.”
“Why you’re not sleeping with her.”
Konstantin drew himself up indignantly. “I am a monk of the Holy Inquisition. She is a registered nurse and sister of the Franciscan order. We have both taken traditional vows of celibacy, so that we can better focus on the Lord’s work.”
The man chuckled. “Is that what your teachers told you? You know the real reason priest’s cannot marry is land, right?”
“Sure! Way back in the dim and misty past priests could have wives. Your beloved Church put an end to that though, once they realized that the un-ordained sons of ministers and clergy were inheriting Church land. In case you haven’t noticed, your Authority really doesn’t like sharing. I learned that little tidbit from Sturluson there.” He indicated Snorri before leaning closer to Konstantin, his voice a conspiratorial whisper. “The man’s a hopeless romantic. Poet. You know the type. He fancies himself an amateur historian too. If you ever feel like engaging in theological debate he’s your guy. Hates the Church. I never found out why.”
He leaned away again, unfazed by Konstantin’s menacing glare. His voice returned to a normal volume. “Where are my manners? We were never officially introduced. James the German, driver, scout, and sniper extraordinaire.” He held out a callused hand. Konstantin ignored it.
Crestfallen for only a moment, the driver rallied and resumed chattering at his unenthusiastic audience. Konstantin decided that for a man who moved so silently he sure enjoyed the sound of his own voice.
“I bet you’re wondering how I came to be the sharpshooter of this outfit.”
“I never had any formal military training. Can you believe that? Unlike these folk, I’m not from this part of the world. There was no mandatory military service where I grew up. I’ll tell you a secret. It’s not really Germany. I’m an American by birth.”
That got Konstantin’s attention. He had never met an American before. If the man riding beside him was any indication, he considered that a good thing.
“You know it’s funny, most people don’t think there are any of us left, not since we lost the continent. Obviously we’re not a popular group, what with blowing up half the world. Weren’t really popular before then either, from what I’ve heard. We’re rare, it’s true, but there are some here and there, those whose ancestors were lucky enough to have been travelling abroad at the end. And then there’s Hawaii probably, maybe…” He continued on, oblivious to the fact that he had again lost Konstantin’s attention.
There was a disturbance up ahead; Deirdre was engaged in a heated discussion with Naoise and Felix. Their trail to this point had paralleled a small ravine with a cold flowing brook at the bottom, but now took a sharp turn into even denser forest. Konstantin turned back to his riding companion.
“…Computer games. That’s how I learned to shoot if can you believe it. Computer arcade games, I used to love them…”
Konstantin interrupted his babbling monologue. “Driver, what are they are arguing about up there?”
The slender man scratched his chin, squinting into the darkness. His eyes were even better than Konstantin’s. “Deirdre wants to stop for the night. Naoise and Felix vote that we continue. They’re worried that there might be a tribal presence in the area. Watch this, Deirdre will win.”
The American named German proved prophetic, as both Naoise and Felix soon threw up their hands in surrender. Dismounting they led their animals between the scratchy boughs of a dense pine grove.
Shrugging, the driver followed their lead. “She always wins.”
“What do you think of him?” Naoise asked his wife.
“What do I think of who?” Dierdre responded.
“The Inquisitor. Konstantin.”
“Ah. Honestly, I’m not certain,” she glanced back at where the man was riding beside the chatty American sniper, an unhappy scowl on his face.
“He’s impossible to like. There is no humor in him. Jim is probably the only son of a bitch dumb enough to actually want to talk to him. Those eyes…they’re not right. He doesn’t exactly cultivate confidence in those around him. Even Brita fears him, but…”
“But?” Naoise prompted.
“There is something about him. Some charisma. He’ll never be an inspiring leader of men, but he’s no follower either. He is willing to disobey orders, if it is for something important enough to him. We’ve seen that. I think he would do anything to protect his sister. Anything at all.”
“I agree,” Naoise said, “that’s what I’m afraid of.”
The big fighter’s feelings were clear. He didn’t trust the Inquisitor, and he never would. Inquisitors were evil.
Brita’s cold hands fumbled with the clasps on her horse’s saddle, stiff fingers slipping on the oiled leather. Panting in frustration, she leaned into his comforting bulk, burying her face in his bristly mane.
“May I help you?” her brother laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. She jerked away from his touch.
“Why? So you can lecture me some more and tell me what a terrible person I am?”
“Brita…” He looked anguished, his manacled hands still half raised toward her. “Brita, I came here to apologize. I am sorry for the way I have treated you. I…know you sister. I know your heart. You are no more wicked than a newborn babe.” His face twisted in a pained grimace. “It seems impossible, but I think…the teachings could be wrong. I just don’t know what to believe anymore.”
He paused, his fingers searching through the pockets of his rumpled coat. “Brita, I want you to keep this. It’s yours.”
She stared. It was the crucifix he had taken from her back when she had first asked for his help.
“I don’t have a chain for it I’m afraid, but I thought you would want it back anyway.”
“Oh Freddy…” She wrapped her arms around the man who had sacrificed everything to save her. “Thank you so much. I’m sorry too, that this has been such a trial for you. I wish you would have just let me be executed, so you would not have to be here now.”
He rubbed her back with his chained hands. “Don’t say that Brita. Don’t ever say that.”
“Could you do me a favor?” She nodded against his chest. His voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. “Could you pray for me?”
Voices rose in argument from the interior of the grove. Konstantin helped Brita pull off her animal’s saddle and bit, freeing it to graze at the dense underbrush.
He looked around, unsure of what to do with the beast next. “Umm…stay.”
Taking Brita’s hand, he pushed through the prickly trees toward the others. The center of the grove proved surprisingly cozy; there was a small clearing with room enough for everyone’s sleeping bags.
The object of contention was a neatly laid circular fire pit rimmed with stones, proof that people had been in the area recently. Deirdre was of the opinion that they were close enough to Church patrolled territory to preclude the existence of large or aggressive tribes. Naoise played the devil’s advocate until the driver and Snorri were sent out to canvass the area, scouting for further signs of human habitation.
While he was gone, Felix and Naoise busied themselves tending to the rest of the horses. Deirdre sent the girls looking for firewood while she and Brita unpacked some cooking pots for dinner. When Brita asked if it was safe for the girls to go off alone, Deirdre reassured her that the children were quite capable of taking care of themselves. Those left at camp were actually more vulnerable to attack while they were gone.
Deirdre, spotting Konstantin lurking between two of the bushy pines, tossed a pair of empty plastic milk jugs.
“Would you be my hero and get us some water? I want to boil up some rice.”
Konstantin shrugged. Choosing discretion over valor he gathered the bottles and trudged back up the trail to the fast moving brook. He had no desire to be the witch’s “hero”, but he was hoping for a share of the dinner.
He was bent over the rocky stream, filling the second bottle, when he heard screams. Dropping the jugs, he bulled through the undergrowth, protecting his face from low hanging branches with his chained hands. Reaching a clearer area his strides lengthened, covering distance as quickly as his battered body would allow. The screams were growing fainter, moving swiftly away from the camp.
Stumbling through a last bushy thorny prickly patch he came upon obvious signs of a struggle. The undergrowth was broken and bruised from something heavy being dragged through. He noticed a glint in the low light. It was one of the driver’s rifles, cast aside where it’s carrying strap had snagged on a jutting root. Konstantin quickened his pace, the cold air burning in his lungs. There was blood. A lot of it.
The gruesome trail led to the base of a huge oak, one of the old grandfather trees of the forest. He looked up and felt his heart lurch into his chest. Staring back at him from its perch on a thick limb twenty feet in the air was a fully grown tiger, one enormous paw casually pinning what was left of the driver against the tree. A wheezing, gurgling whimper reached Konstantin’s ears.
Merciful Heaven, the man was still alive. The great cat was almost invisible, its sleek white-yellow and black striped body fading into the shadows. Konstantin could see little but moonlight reflecting off of its golden eyes.
The cat bared its dagger-like teeth in a menacing snarl, unhappy that its meal was being interrupted. Konstantin felt a rumbling deep within his chest. With an amazed detachment he realized that he was growling back at the beast, approaching the tree even as logic dictated he should be retreating. Over the past several days, events had spiraled continuously out of his control. With the appearance of this newest threat, his rage and frustration had apparently reached a critical level. It now demanded to be released.
Black eyes locked with gold. The animal stood on the limb, arching its back in warning. The storm of anger swirling inside Konstantin buried concerns for self preservation, and feelings for the loud American which were mixed at best beneath an overwhelming desire to cause harm. He kept closing the distance, fully expecting his troubled young life to end at any moment in a fury of teeth and claws, but promising to bring the pain as he went down. His rage clamored for release. It wanted, no, it demanded the dark ecstasy of bloodshed. He prepared to give the darkness free reign.
Incredibly, the cat did not leap down and tear Konstantin apart. Instead it lifted the paw holding the savaged driver hostage, causing his body to tumble back to earth with a juicy thump. Giving Konstantin a disgusted sniff, the feline bounded out of the tree, disappearing into the forest.
“Holy shit, did you see that!” The others had arrived in a rush. Guns drawn, Felix and Naoise ran after the departing animal, though Konstantin knew they would never catch it.
Deirdre marched over to the unsettled inquisitor, grabbing his chin in her slender fingers. He winced at the electric burn of her touch.
“How did you do that?” She demanded. “How did you send the cat away?” She stared at him accusingly. Brita stared at him with a mixture of relief and concern. Snorri stared at the gristly remains of his friend staining the forest floor. The twins’ blind eyes stared at nothing in particular, but linking hands they backed away slowly.
His anger screamed for release. Even shackled as he was, he knew he could snap the pushy woman’s neck like a twig before anybody reacted. With an enormous effort he resisted, fighting to regain control over his emotions. He had always been known for his temper, but never before had he come so close to losing complete control. Never before had he so wanted to. Gritting his teeth he instead turned his gaze to the broken man lying at the base of the tree.
“He still lives, but not for long. You should say your goodbyes while he might be able to hear them.”
Noticing him for the first time, Brita loosed a shriek. Up close, it did not seem possible that the man could still be breathing. His entire face had been crushed by the tiger’s massive jaws, his limbs broken and twisted from his jarring trip along the forest floor.
Jaw set, Deirdre yelled at the mesmerized men.
“Snorri! See to the girls! Get them back to camp. Now!”
Huffing and puffing, Snorri charged back to the old oak, and scooping up the twins, he set off in the opposite direction, answering the girls’ concern over their fallen comrade with reassuring lies.
Konstantin continued watching Deirdre, perplexed. Eyes closed in concentration she had removed her overcoat and was rolling up the sleeves of her heavy blouse. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. She was summoning her magic.
Brita moved closer, clearly interested. Konstantin stepped back. The woman was about to unleash her demonic powers.
Muttering to herself, she held her hands a hairsbreadth above the body, moving them around in jerky, shuddering patterns.
“The bones can wait, they are of lesser importance. It is the internal bleeding that must be dealt with immediately.” She opened her eyes, concern flashing across her frowning face. “Hang in there Jim, you foolish bastard. Don’t you dare do this to us.”
She took a deep breath. Her hands began glowing, like magnesium flares. Konstantin felt swirling winds buffet him from every angle. The rage inside him rose. Squinting past the wind through teary eyes he watched her raise her glowing hands above her head before plunging them down into the injured man. The light spread through his body until the pair was a supernova of flaring brilliance. Eyes squeezed shut against the overwhelming light, Konstantin heard the man shrieking in unimaginable pain. The rage howled for release. It was clear to him that she was murdering the man with her dark sorceries, as if the pain of his brutal disembowelment had not been enough to satisfy her lust for torture.
Konstantin was not sure how much time had passed but he slowly became conscious of his own shaky breath, his fingers stuffed into his ears in a childish attempt to escape the horrifying screams. All was quiet now. The screams were gone.
Only a weak sobbing remained. He opened his eyes cautiously. Night had reclaimed the area. Brita was on her knees, twitching feebly. He pulled her to her feet. She seemed stunned, but otherwise unharmed.
Deirdre lay over the body of her friend, completely spent. There was still blood everywhere; Konstantin could not tell if her exertions had been in vain. Remembering the screams, he shivered. He did not know if he would want to survive after having felt the pain that could elicit such noises from a grown man.
Brita gasped. It was the driver who had spoken.
Deirdre visibly arrested her tears, raising her head weakly from his chest. “Jim?”
His fingers curled around her shaking hand. “Thank you.”
He was barely audible and promptly passed back into unconsciousness. They both appeared weak as babes, but miraculously whole.
Grunting in distaste Konstantin pulled the witch up beside him. Meek as a kitten she allowed him to hold her until Brita was able to get a good grip. Her body was surprisingly warm and soft. Leaning on the young Sister for support, she began shuffling back toward camp. Konstantin glanced at her as she left and then did a double take. Did she just blow him a kiss? Witches.
Shaking his head, he bent and got as comfortable a grip as his chained hands would allow on the sleeping man. Careful not to jostle him, in case his recovery was not as thorough as it appeared, he set off after the departing women.
Though it was too dark to tell, he felt certain the trees were full of crows.
“Deirdre?” With an effort she raised her head, meeting Brita’s blue eyes with her tired green ones.
Brita looked away, suddenly shy. “I became a nurse because I want to help people, and I do my best, but despite my best efforts there have been many, less injured than Mr. Germon, that I have seen die.” She paused their shuffling walk. Brita waited patiently for her to continue, a manicured eyebrow raised.
“Deirdre…would you teach me to use my ability?”
Smiling, Deirdre placed her hands on Brita’s cheeks. Bending her head gently she brushed the young woman’s smooth forehead with a kiss.
“Brita sweetheart, I thought you would never ask.”
He had hoped to get the irrepressible American back to camp without having to talk to him. He sighed. Clearly he was not in God’s favor.
“Your sister is hot.”
“You’re a prick James.”