“You know, I’ve heard that cold water has detrimental effects on the male anatomy.”
Konstantin was startled out of his reverie by Deirdre’s teasing voice. Splashing desperately, he floundered over to the edge of the water where he had left his bundle. The dark skinned woman was standing beside it, tapping a delicate bare foot. She was naked.
Konstantin gulped in embarrassment, averting his gaze back down into the pool. His blush deepened when he realized he could see the reflection of her lithe body in the still water. Posing lasciviously, she chuckled at his obvious discomfort, grinning cruelly.
“What’s the matter Inquisitor? Don’t you think I’m pretty?” She teasingly shook her rump at the flabbergasted Konstantin. A strangled bleat was his only response. Tiring of her sport, she tossed him a towel. At his pleading gaze she sighed dramatically, and then turned her back, so he could climb out of the water without further humiliation.
“I hope you didn’t pee in there,” She said over her shoulder. “I need a good bath.”
Konstantin grunted noncommittally. Dried, and dressed in a spare pair of trousers he had borrowed from James, he took his leave of the shameless woman. Gathering his wet clothes he fled back to the firelight of camp. Deirdre watched his retreat with a mischievous grin. Shrugging, she turned back to the water. “Christians.”
Naoise’s prodigious bulk materialized out of the gloom. “You shouldn’t have done that. I almost feel sorry for the poor man.”
Deirdre feigned surprise. “Lo! Doth a mine ear deceive me? The fearsome Naoise Magnusson feels sorry for a Holy Inquisitor of the Church!?”
He roared with laughter. Scooping up the naked woman, he held her wriggling above the cold water. “Silence your teasing woman. The night has ears you know.”
Her struggling stilled, ineffective as it was against his steely strength. “Sir, I demand that you put me down right now.”
His one eye winked. “As you wish, milady.”
With a twitch of his powerful arms, he hurled the shrieking woman into the pool. As she came back to the surface, spitting and sputtering, he followed her in with a mighty cannonball. Laughing, they kissed each other’s chattering mouths.
“Thor’s mighty balls, that is cold!”
Concentrating, Deirdre dipped a glowing finger into the chilly water, stirring slowly. After a moment steam began to rise. Naoise stretched languidly in the now warm pool.
“Ahhh, that’s much better.”
The boy sat still, watching his master slumber. If he had a name once, he could not remember it. He was simply a tool, created and trained for a singular purpose. He was a hunter. He looked up at the bed where his master slumbered. The tattooed man was dreaming again, periodically an inaudible mutter escaped his twitching lips.
The hunter leaned against the wall, the cold stone a relief on his shredded back. His gaze settled upon the polished wooden case beside the bed. Licking cracked lips, his eyes darted around nervously. Sidling over to it, he glanced up at the bed. His master was still sleeping. He reached forward cautiously.
With shocking speed the sleeping man’s hand shot out, capturing the extended arm in an iron grip. The hunter froze. He looked up with trepidation. His master’s eyes were open, but the man was staring rapturously at the ceiling, his face flushed in excitement.
“I know where they are.” Inquisitor-Brother Solomon Rex whispered.
As Konstantin fled Deirdre’s nudity, back to the rebuilt campsite, James and Felix began walking in the other direction, toward the improvised bath, a groggy Snorri held between them still in his soiled sleeping bag. Both nodded cheerily as they passed the returning Inquisitor, ignoring the sick man’s feeble struggles.
“Hurry up man, he smells like a lush patch of dingleberries.”
“Yeah, he kind of looks like one too.”
“The resemblance is uncanny.”
Someone had thoughtfully strung a line beside the fire. Konstantin began hanging his wet clothing. From her position between the twins, who were busy trying to guess what color the other was changing the fire; Brita had a clear view of her brother. She was horrified by his physical condition. His wiry torso was completely covered with mottled bruising and deep cuts, some which still bled freely.
“Frederick, look at you! You’re a mess!” She pulled a small medical kit from her bag. Deirdre had been happy to turn hers over when they left Munich.
“Get over here and let me stitch you.”
Grudgingly, the battered Inquisitor sat down in front of his concerned sister. Pulling on a pair of latex gloves, she wiped away some of the fresh blood trickling down his back. Frowning, she leaned in to confirm what her fingers were telling her. Beneath his newest wounds, Konstantin’s back was a road map of thick white and purple scar tissue.
He gestured impatiently for her to get on with her work. With steady fingers she doused his wounds in alcohol borrowed from Jim’s pack, and bandaged the less serious lacerations. The deeper ones she stitched neatly and expertly. Konstantin never flinched.
Her work finished, Brita sat back down with the twins, enjoying their game with the fire. Freed from her ministrations, Konstantin rooted around in search of something to eat. He was disappointed to find nothing prepared. Since the closest source of water had now served as a bathtub for him, the witch and her husband, and the feces covered Snorri, he opted against filling a pot to boil their rice or beans, instead munching on his share of the beans raw.
Brita watched her brother in disgust.
“You’ll eat pretty much anything, won’t you?” She asked.
Konstantin gave the twins an uneasy look. They were both staring blankly at the fire, whistling innocently. He looked at his sister and shrugged.
“I’m hungry. I’ve been eating acorns when I find them.”
“Raw? Freddy, the tannic acid could shut your kidneys down. Why would you eat them, don’t they taste bitter to you?”
He shrugged again, mumbling, “They taste fine to me.”
All too soon, his meager portion of beans was depleted. Resigned to another night of hunger, Konstantin crawled into his sleeping bag, rubbing his belly ineffectually. Turning away from the light, the Inquisitor prayed silently until sleep took him.
At his back the twins were delighted to sense Brita turn the fire purple.
Konstantin rode through an ancient wood, dwarfed by trees that had been old before the dawn of man. In places, some of the immortal giants had fallen, allowing shafts of watery sunlight to reach the forest floor. Along these strips, young saplings competed, reaching to fill the gaps left in the upper canopy. A thin layer of silver mist swirled across the lichen covered ground, stirred by Elvis’s passing. The air was warm.
Konstantin directed his mount around a mossy mound, the crunch of the animal’s hooves, and the creak of its leather harness the only sound in the tranquil wilderness. His dark eyes drank in the serene surroundings. The arching corridor of trees he passed through, with its trailing creepers, and intermittent shafts of sunlight, rivaled the most opulent cathedral in beauty.
He frowned. He was not in the wilds anymore. This was not the savage wasteland he had just been riding through. This was a forest untouched by human hands, a forest lost in time. He was sure he had never been here before, but the stately copse somehow felt like home. Perhaps this was the world as God had meant it.
A familiar voice broke the pristine silence. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes mother, it certainly is.” He smiled down at the approaching woman as she stepped into one of the infrequent shafts of sunlight. She was dressed in a conservatively cut, pink evening gown, and looked like a young Betty Grable. Her elegantly styled hair and designer shoes somehow seemed a little out of place amidst the detritus of the forest floor. Now that he thought of it, her entire appearance was a little strange.
“Mom, why do you look like that?”
Her rouged lips smiled. “Because you don’t remember what I look like sweetheart.” She spun on her manicured toes, allowing the dress to swirl around her knees. “And you always liked Sweet Rosie O’Grady.”
Konstantin nodded, comforted. “Oh.”
She took his hand in her own. He was standing on the ground now; Elvis was nowhere to be seen.
“Come darling, there’s something I need to show you.” She led him through the primeval forest toward a craggy ridge.
“Where am I?”
His mother’s avatar shrugged her shoulders as she skipped beside him. “I don’t know sweetie, it’s your subconscious.”
He scratched his chin with his free hand. For the first time in days he was clean shaven. “So this is a dream?”
She squeezed his callused fingers. “Bingo.”
Konstantin took a deep breath of the calm air. It smelled of pine needles and his mother’s perfume. It smelled peaceful. He smiled contentedly.
“I like it here.”
Mom-Betty patted his shoulder. “I’m glad honey. Now help an old lady up, would you?”
Assisting the woman wherever the going was steepest, Konstantin soon achieved the summit of the granite ridge. He leaned against a weathered menhir, struggling to slow his breathing.
His mother tapped her foot impatiently. She did not seem winded by the climb. She pointed down into the valley before them.
“This is what I wanted to show you.”
He stared at the sight, and then turned to his guide, confused.
“Mom, I…don’t understand.”
She reached around the taller Inquisitor’s waist, pulling him into a tight hug. Standing on her tiptoes, she gave his cheek a kiss before placing her lips next to his ear.
“When it matters, you will,” She whispered. “I’ve got to go my prince, our time is up.”
Konstantin rested his cheek against the top of her head. Her hair was coarser than he imagined it would be. “I miss you Mom.”
She leaned against his chest. “I love you Frederick. Take care of my baby girl for me.”
He nodded into her scratchy hair. “I will.”
“Hey asshole, wake up. I don’t think the horse likes you that way.”
Konstantin’s eyes blinked open. He had fallen asleep in the saddle again, and was leaning against Elvis’s rough mane, his arms wrapped around the animal’s neck. From his vantage point he looked down at the prone Snorri, who leered back unapologetically.
After the fight with the cannibals, the sick man had been too dizzy and weak to ride, so Felix had built him a litter out of branches. After strapping him onto the sled, they had tied it to his horse’s saddle, and for the past few days he had been travelling in this fashion.
Even though the going was rough, he finally began recovering, which unfortunately for Konstantin, meant the abrasive young man now had enough energy to harass the fugitive Inquisitor, and a secure position from which to direct his barbed comments.
Konstantin’s anger coiled in his belly, like a snake preparing to strike. He fought it down, instead directing his attention to the rest of the group.
They continued riding north. Deirdre set a steady pace, but the horses could only be pushed so hard, especially in this terrain.
Some days they made good time, breaking out of the woods onto rolling grasslands. Other days they faced impassible obstacles like rivers or the remains of cities, and had to back track significantly. They avoided the ruins at all costs, sometimes going miles out of their way to do so, as that was where wild tribesmen were most likely to be found. No matter what detours were taken however, Deirdre kept them to their northerly course. Forgetting the day to day hardships, spirits remained high, and why shouldn’t they? They were moving ever farther from the Church. Despite himself, even Konstantin found that he was smiling at his companion’s antics more frequently.
Luck seemed to be with them, because after the fight in the old factory, they remained unmolested by both beast and man, until one afternoon they arrived at the flooded banks of the river Elbe.
Deirdre eyed the muddy water approvingly. Raising her small hand she halted the company.
“We stop here,” she declared, and putting actions to words, she leaned back in her saddle and agilely flipped off the rear of her horse. The huge Naoise, who comically dwarfed his spirited beast, took his booted feet out of the stirrups and placed them on the ground, allowing his animal to simply walk out from underneath him. Konstantin was unsure how the animal bore the man’s weight day after day without collapsing. Eschewing any theatrics, the sore Inquisitor gingerly lowered himself from the saddle, sighing in relief when his feet reached the ground. Even after all this time riding, he was still horribly uncomfortable perched on Elvis’s wide back. At least the gelding had stopped making a hobby out of trying to lose his reluctant rider.
Konstantin, collecting an empty jug from one of the pack horses, strolled down to the river, his nightly duties in setting up camp now second nature. He was surprised to see James and Naoise, with his axe clutched in a ham like fist, striding purposefully along the bank, marking trees.
Felix was at the water’s edge, teaching Brita and the twins how to skip stones. Konstantin gestured to the two men who were whispering conspiratorially with their heads together in front of a towering beech.
“What are those two about?” he asked the bearded Scandinavian. Felix adjusted Mist’s grip on a stone, and then looked toward the men in question.
“The American is marking trees for Naoise to cut down. He’s going to build us a raft.”
Konstantin stared at the loud-mouthed sniper’s back with squinted eyes. The man was currently engaged in an energetic bout of wedgie picking.
“He knows how to build a boat?”
Felix shrugged. “I assume so. He’s an engineer by trade.”
Konstantin shook his head, squatting down to fill his empty bottle. “Lord help us.”
The jug full, he trudged back to their sandy campsite, depositing it next to a much improved Snorri. Konstantin had to admit that though the man might be a pompous fool, he was an excellent cook.
Deirdre was reclining comfortably on her horse blanket, having finished hobbling the animals and brushing them thoroughly. Stringing a needle with some thread, she was preparing to mend a tear in her husband’s spare pants. Konstantin looked down at his tattered coat. Deirdre arched an eyebrow.
“If you leave it here, I’d be happy to patch it for you.”
“You would do that for me? Your prisoner?”
She gave a smoky laugh. “Inquisitor, you’re a prisoner of circumstance more than anything. Besides, we all probably owe you our lives by now. You’re a good friend to have in a fight.”
Konstantin was startled. He had been called many things over a lifetime devoted to the Church, but friend was not one of them. Dropping his jacket beside the sitting woman, he walked off along the riverbank, to ruminate alone.
When he returned some time later, drawn back by the enticing smell of rabbit stew, James had already begun roping together his timber raft.
Konstantin frowned. Felix and Brita were holding hands. Noticing her brother, Brita blushed crimson, and releasing her grip on Felix, she brought over a steaming bowl, distracting the protective Inquisitor from his budding questions.
Deirdre rapped a spoon against the bubbling pot, drawing everyone’s attention.
“Whenever you’re all done eating, get some sleep. We’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow. Brita honey, once everyone is fed, come help me with the dishes.”
The day dawned crisp and cold. Once everybody was up and had refreshed themselves, Deirdre made an announcement.
“We’re leaving the horses.”
Konstantin nodded, he had expected as much when it became clear that they were to travel on the water for a time. In his opinion, it was questionable whether James’s vessel would float with just the people on it, let alone the heavy horses. The group bore the news stoically, with the exception of the twins, who threw magic tinged tantrums when Felix tried to collect their ponies.
They calmed somewhat after a private discussion with Brita, who promised that the ponies would be happier running free through the wilderness, but the girls were still sullen and unpleasant as they bundled onto James’s rickety looking raft.
Konstantin found himself strangely saddened as he looked into Elvis’s huge brown eyes when Felix came to take the animal. He had grown used to the hairy beast. He patted its neck nearly affectionately. The horse bit him on the shoulder.
Snickering, Felix led the animals away from a crestfallen, or in Konstantin’s case annoyed, group. Deirdre explained to the twins that he was bringing them to a meadow close by, where they would be safe and happy. Konstantin thought he heard gun shots before the Northman returned, looking troubled.
“We could have kept the horses Deirdre, they’re strong enough swimmers.”
Deirdre patted her brother-in-law on the shoulder sympathetically.
“You know where we are going Felix.” Her voice dropped to a whisper only he could hear, “that much horseflesh would have made us an irresistible target.”
Felix sighed unhappily. Gathering one of the flat pieces of wood that were serving as their paddles, he pushed away from the bank, moving their cumbersome craft into the river. Despite its crude design of split logs lashed together, the raft proved sturdy and well balanced. The women had set up a small canopy made from the girls’ tent in the center of the boat, where they now sat amongst the remains of the supplies. Konstantin took up position along the edge with Snorri, Naoise, and Felix. Together with James manning a rudimentary rudder, they were able to keep themselves in the middle of the river, where the current provided the bulk of their motion.
The wind was cold, and for Konstantin the trip was made still more uncomfortable by the rough water splashing across his boots periodically. He pulled up the collar of his coat, grateful for the skilled mending Deirdre had completed the evening before.
They floated all day, sometimes passing between the ruined remains of bridge pylons or through wide marshy areas, where the river had spilled over its original banks to flood the surrounding countryside. At one point they floated around the listing hulk of an ancient barge, which had become irretrievably lodged on the silty river bottom ages before.
Staring through the gaping windows of the rusty bridge, Konstantin could see shapes moving in the gloom. They paddled past as quickly and silently as possible.
Night came swiftly on the river, the western sky burning a brilliant mix of reds and purples and pinks before ceding control to the moon and stars.
Even with the loss of the sun, the darkness was incomplete. Some distance before them the sky glowed a hazy orange, the light’s origin hidden by a bend in the river. Brief flashes could be seen, followed by a hollow booming.
At Deirdre’s direction, the men poled their craft to the bank, grounding it beneath the drooping branches of a crooked willow.
“We can go no further this way. The river is blockaded ahead.”
Konstantin peered toward the perplexing glow. “What lies before us?”
James splashed past him, checking that the contents of his rifle case had remained dry during their watery journey. His response was uncharacteristically curt.
“It’s a dead city.”