The following continues the new serialized tale from Ari Marmell—author of Agents of Artifice. Be sure to check back each week for the next chapter in this ongoing tale of Ravenloft!
While the majority of the details portrayed over the course of Chapters One through Three are purely fictionalized, the background circumstances are, alas, entirely factual.
On July 15, 1099, the "pilgrims" of the First Crusade—led by, among others, the Duke Godefroy de Bouillon of France—collapsed portions of the defensive walls of Jerusalem, putting an end to the siege of the city. The next twenty-four hours were among the bloodiest in the history of the Crusades, as seemingly-maddened knights and soldiers slaughtered an enormous portion of the Holy City’s population: Muslims, Jews, and even some Christians; men, women, and children. Nobody was spared the violence and anger of the crusaders; and while historical accounts claiming the soldiers waded in blood up to their ankles are almost certainly exaggerations, they still represent a chilling view of what happened that day.
This is not fiction, much as we might wish it were. This is history.
And if there are Dark Powers, scouring the many worlds for those "worthy" of their embrace, surely such horrors committed in the name of God would be exactly what they sought.
Another week passed, slowly, frustratingly, as Diederic and Leona made their way through the thick overgrowth. On several evenings, the giggling of little girls resounded in the distance among the trees. Once, Diederic awoke at midnight, convinced he had heard someone whispering, "Come! Come and dance with us!" while tugging upon his leg, only to find nobody present when he opened his eyes. But beyond these unnerving experiences, the Fair Folk of the forest seemed content to keep their distance, so long as the travelers put aside their tribute every night—a practice in which Diederic was no less devout, now, than was Leona herself.
Once and once only, on an afternoon where the spring rains fell gently but insistently through the canopy of leaves, they heard the distant barking of hounds and the calls of a second Inquisition hunting party. But whether it was the rain, simple luck, or the false trail Diederic laid in the Redbreast's rotting, cloying blood, the hounds missed their scent, and the hunters never drew near.
Leona spoke to Diederic only so much as circumstances required, and otherwise kept her own counsel. She was, perhaps, unsure of how to treat him, how to speak with him, now that she had seen what he was capable of. But after a week, when the forest thinned ever so slightly and the game trails showed signs of regular use, her dark mood lifted. She began to talk, frequently, even desperately, though she had little to say. When she had pointed out the fourth variety of tree, and delved deep into the history of the second hunter's trail, and lovingly detailed the fishing in the tiny river that trickled its way through the underbrush, Diederic had finally had enough.
"Leona!" he barked, interrupting an intricate description of a river trout.
The young woman practically leapt out of her skin. "What!"
Much more calmly, Diederic said, "Is there something in particular you'd care to share with me?"
"Something other than fishing, and game trails, and the differences between oak and ash and yew?"
"I've not been here in well more than a year," Leona said softly. "When I left, the crops were faring poorly, trade had all but ceased, and the Redbreasts were taking men and women on the flimsiest of excuses. I… am not certain what to expect."
Diederic smiled, and scratched idly at his wild growth of beard. "If it offers superior amenities to my previous arrangements, I'll call it sufficient."
With a laugh that seemed to well and truly shatter her black mood and calm her nerves, Leona laid a hand briefly on Diederic's elbow and resumed her trek.
The sun hung low in the western sky when the trees thinned further and Birne itself finally drifted into view.
Nestled in a small hollow between inclines too small to be called hills, Birne seemed little more than a haphazard collection of structures: perhaps a dozen farms, roughly fourscore other buildings, and a few open wells. The road through town was itself little more than a game trail, widened and marked by permanent wagon ruts. The fields extended to the edges of the forest. It was exactly as Diederic had imagined it to be.
With their shadows marching ahead of them like heralds, Leona and Diederic strode slowly into town, and were greeted with silence. The outermost fields lay abandoned, the workers having completed their tasks for the day, and only the occasional scarecrow, hanging limply, watched them as they passed.
The crops were short, this early in the season, and several of the outermost fields remained unsown. Thus, when the travelers did finally come across someone active in the fields, they had no difficulty in spotting him, or hailing his attention. He wandered over, running a hand through straw-blond hair, suspicion casting a pall over a face still round with the unshed softness of childhood.
"Help you, travelers?" he asked gruffly, attempting to mask the shifting, breaking tones of adolescence.
"Alfrec?" Leona leaned in, squinting in the rapidly fading twilight. Her face erupted in a wide grin. "Alfrec, is that you? Scions above, you've sprouted like a weed!"
"My apologies, Lady," the teen offered, scratching beneath his wide-brimmed hat in puzzlement. "I fear I don't recognize…." Abruptly he froze, his eyes finally adjusting to the setting sun from which the two strangers had appeared.
Leona grinned further, in anticipation of revelation. And revelation there was, but hardly of the sort she had envisioned.
Alfrec's eyes grew wide, threatening to flee his head entirely. His voice leapt up at least an octave as he shrieked "Witchcraft! Witchcraft!" at the top of his lungs. He was still screaming as his sprinting form disappeared through the crops, trampling newly-sown sprouts underfoot. In mere seconds, nothing remained to tell of his presence but the girlish shouts fading into the distance and the straw hat that slowly settled to the earth at Leona's feet.
Diederic raised an eyebrow at Leona's thunderstruck expression. "I shall assume," he said dryly, adjusting the angle of the axe that lay across one shoulder, "that this is not a normal greeting in these parts."
"I don't understand," Leona whispered. "I know Alfrec. I watched over him in his crib, when I was young and his parents needed to be out. Why would he…?"
"I don't know." Diederic twisted his neck about, looking for any response to the teen's shouts. "But I know how serious a charge witchcraft is in Malosia, and I think we might want to find someplace less exposed to discuss it."
Leona nodded. "My cousin Marta lives near this end of town. We can stay there until we sort this out."
The house to which she led him was not large, even by the standards of Birne, but it was certainly homey. Surrounded on two sides by rich, well tended gardens—one flower, one vegetable—it was a simple affair, narrow and two-storied. The chimney was constructed of stone, the rest of the structure wood. Diederic could not help but note that, even as the sun finally disappeared and night truly fell, no smoke emerged from within that chimney, no firelight flickered in the cracks between the window shutters.
He did not share his concerns with Leona. Perhaps Marta was simply early to bed? He stood beside the porch, his head awash in myriad scents from the flower garden, and waited as his companion pounded on her cousin's door.
When the response came, it came not from within the house but from Birne's central road. Even before they hove into view, Diederic heard the grumbling of a dozen angry voices, heard the tromp of footsteps, and saw the flickering of the torches.
Leona was about to have a very unpleasant homecoming.
"Stay behind me," he hissed at her, taking a single stride along the tiny walkway that led to Marta's door. "And try to forget that you know these people. If any win past me, you had better be prepared to use that dagger."
"What? But I—"
"There she is!" The teen, Alfrec, stood near the front of the crowd, pointing over his elders' shoulders. He was accompanied by perhaps two dozen men and women. All were clad in the heavy, worn clothes of the farmer, the laborer, the manual craftsman. And each clasped something to hand, be it a torch, a cudgel, a pitchfork, or a knife.
Diederic opened his mouth to speak, to lay down a challenge, only to groan as Leona pushed past him, her arms spread wide.
"What is wrong with you?" she called to the advancing mob, hurt and anger causing her voice to break. "Is this how you welcome your lost children?" The mob stopped at the edge of Marta's property, glaring but not quite willing to step forward.
"I'm one of you! Leonera Talliers! Sorran, you and I grew up together! Elsi, how many days did we work side by side in the fields?"
At the forefront of the crowd, an older man stepped forward. His shoulders stooped, his face was beaten to leather by decades in the sun, yet he nonetheless carried himself with the weight of authority, and the strength bred by a lifetime of toil. He carried in one hand a sickle, in the other a torch to light his way.
"Leona Talliers is dead," he said, his voice raspy and harsh. "She was taken by Redbreasts well over a year gone."
"Yes, Theoric, I was," Leona replied. "And I escaped, thanks in part to this man here. We—"
But the old man—Theoric—scoffed, and a ripple of disbelief passed through the crowd like a wave. "Nobody escapes from the Inquisition!" someone unseen called out from the rear.
"Not without witchcraft, they don't," Theoric added. "Maybe you're not who you look like, or maybe you are, but in either case, we've enough problems with curses and black magic around here as it is." Emboldened by his words, and perhaps by the look of despair that sank across Leona's features, the mob took a step forward as one….
Only to find Diederic, his axe held in a loose, casual grip, standing between them and their intended victim.
"No witchcraft aided our escape," he said, calm, collected. "But if you take another step, if you attempt to lay a hand on Leona, I will be happy to demonstrate the skills we did employ to win free."
At the forefront of the mob, men and women exchanged nervous glances. A faint creak sounded as, somewhere in the midst of humanity, someone drew back the string on a hunting bow.
Diederic's eyes narrowed. "You could try it," he offered. "But you had best pray to your God and all six Scions that your first arrow kills. Because I swear to you, you'll never loose a second."
The would-be archer lowered his weapon.
"You would slaughter innocents, Sir…?"
Diederic met Theoric's gaze. "Sir Diederic de Wyndt. And no, old man, I would not slaughter innocents. So I suggest you and your folk remain innocent in my eyes."
The village elder nodded. "And you two truly escaped the Inquisition? With no magic aid?"
"There were more than two of us, but yes. In fact, we took the clothes we wear now, and the supplies we carry, from Inquisition Redbreasts. I should be happy to try to find an emblem or insignia, something to prove to you what I say."
Theoric took a single step, and then carefully hung his sickle from the rope he wore as a belt. "Leona," he said, looking over Diederic's shoulder, "I ask your forgiveness. Things here have been—truly unfortunate, while you've been away. Perhaps we acted rashly, but I hope to make you understand: our concern is genuine."
Leona stepped forward. Her eyes burned with anger, but she managed a curt nod.
"Back to your homes!" Theoric called out. "And let tomorrow be a day of happiness! We truly have recovered one of our lost!"
And the mob dispersed, though for every expression of gladness or apology, Diederic saw a narrowed pair of eyes, or overheard a whispered doubt. Not everyone in Birne, it seemed, was as willing to be convinced as Theoric himself.
Nor did that fact escape the old man himself. "Some of us," he said softly, "are more frightened than others. Many of the townsfolk are looking for someone to blame for their misfortunes, Leona. I had hoped the capture of one witch would suffice, but they need more. And others may worry that your presence as escapees will draw the Redbreasts down on us as surely as if you were witches.
"I am sorry. I fear that no matter what happens, you should not expect a pleasant homecoming."
"A bit late for that, already, I should think." Leona turned to go, but stopped suddenly as Theoric's words truly struck home. "What 'other witch,' Theoric?" And then, in a voice grown suddenly high with worry, "Where is Marta? Why did she not come to the door?"
The old man sighed, his gaze flitting from Leona's face to Diederic's axe. "I shall show you," he said finally, his shoulders slumping. "But you won't like what you see."
He led them through the center of Birne, urging quiet so that the townsfolk might sooner make their way home to sleep. Along the way he pointed out the homes and shops of the town's leading citizens, bragging about how this blacksmith forged the finest horseshoes, how that hunter always carried home the richest game—or at least, how they had once done so. Alas, harsh times had come to Birne. Even Diederic, no farmer or gardener, could see that the crops that had sprouted thus far were thin and feeble, and that the trees nearest the village had already been stripped of their lumber-worthy branches. He did not bother to ask why the folk of Birne did not press farther into the forest for their building needs. He knew that the Fair Folk would be his answer.
"There can be no doubt," Theoric continued as they passed a well from which frogs sporadically chirped, "that our misfortune is of no natural cause. The flowers bloom, and the grasses grow. It is only the food crops that fail to sprout. Visitors continue to pass through, if rarely, but no traders have come to Birne in many a season. The milking cows grow fat, while the beef cattle sicken and fail."
"Has it grown so bad so swiftly?" Leona asked, her voice awed. "I recall it was difficult, but this…."
The elder nodded. "The folk of Birne have come to believe that the concerns of Pontiff Cornelis are not so unfounded as we might once have hoped. They say," and here he cast Leona a sidelong glance, full of import that Diederic could only partly apprehend, "that the Inquisition is right to seek out witches and heretics in our midst, and in other villages throughout Malosia."
Leona stiffened. "And the people here believe I am a witch?"
"You must understand, Leona: the Inquisition branded you thus. Few believed it when you were first taken, but for a time, our situation indeed improved. Now? Now nobody doubts the presence of witches, summoners, and corpse-talkers among us. It's unlikely that I, or even your strapping friend here, could have talked them out of wreaking vengeance upon you, when first you appeared, if not…." A coughing fit followed, but a deliberate one, and Leona understood what Theoric hesitated to say.
"… if not for someone else they could blame," she finished for him. "Someone who was here when their fortunes soured, as I was not."
"Just so. Here we are."
Diederic knew it was a church before Theoric so much as opened his mouth again. The coating of whitewash—a rather poor attempt to make the building seem fancier than its humble wood construction—had begun to crack and peel. The sloped roof was shingled and well maintained, and above the main entry stood the sixfold sun, sculpted of wrought iron and probably worth more than the building itself.
Like most churches in Diederic's experience, the building bore a spiritual weight, as though its footprint on the landscape, its shadow in the day and its looming presence at night, were larger than the edifice itself. Part of that, he knew, was the smattering of graves that so frequently accompanied the small town church, like children following after a protective mother (or fleas on a dog, he sometimes thought in his less charitable, less pious moments). And part of it was that nearly every such church, regardless of location and climate, boasted at least one gnarled and ponderous tree somewhere on its property, a grasping hand that laid claim to lands well beyond the church proper.
It was an apple tree, this time, far older than the church itself. What hung upon its largest, sturdiest branch, however, was no apple.
"Dear God," Diederic breathed, even as Leona gasped and ran ahead. "Is it really necessary to keep her hunched up like that, old man?" For the wicker cage that swung from the branches was barely wide enough for the woman within to crouch, and certainly not tall enough for her to stand. The cramping alone must have been agony.
Theoric at least had the decency to look embarrassed. "Sir Knight, you must understand. This woman is a witch, a sorceress, and a trafficker with vile things."
"So you say," Diederic muttered under his breath.
"For us to offer even the simplest comforts risks allowing her sufficient strength to concentrate and work her wiles. I'll have no witchcraft aiding her escape—not when she has so much to answer for!"
"Theoric!" The call came from ahead, where Leona stood livid beside her cousin's cage. Her voice quaked with repressed anger, so much so that the men responsible for guarding the prisoner, positioned to either side of the hanging cage, laid hands to their hunting knives and glanced nervously at one another.
The old man smiled wanly up at Diederic. "Would you be kind enough to grant us a moment, Sir Diederic?" Scarcely waiting for so much as a nod, Theoric jogged ahead, his hands already raised in supplication.
Diederic leaned back against the fencepost at the property's edge and watched. The discussion between them was heated, and it looked more than once as though Leona would strike the town elder. But their voices were kept low enough that Diederic could make out tone only, no words. For nigh on twenty minutes they argued back and forth, silhouettes lit only by a lantern kept by the two men standing watch.
Finally, her fists clenched and her entire body rigid, Leona stormed back to Diederic. Her face was tear-streaked, her jaw set.
"I need your help, Diederic."
The knight, who had held his breath in anticipation of just that statement, released it in a soft sigh. "Leona," he began carefully, "I haven't the time for this. I'm here to get my bearings, to learn more of Malosia. After that—"
"Diederic, please! Marta is no more a witch than I!"
"I'm sure that's so. But unless you want me to tear her from that cage and slay our way out of here, I'm not entirely certain how you want me to help."
"Diederic…." Leona was all but begging, now. "Diederic, they're not even going to try her. The folk here have already determined her guilt. Theoric tells me… he tells me that the only question up for debate is whether to hold her for the next Redbreast patrol or to"—her throat all but closed around the words; she forced them through via sheer brute strength—"burn her ourselves.
He squeezed his eyes shut and sighed once more. His hunt for Lambrecht seemed as far and impossible now as it had in the depths of Perdition Hill.
"All right. I'll see what I can do come morning."
The mists rose around midnight, thick and heavy. They poured upward, first from the streams and creeks, spreading in an endless flow. They crept across the ground, silent, rolling, until they filled the tiny streets and byways of Birne; a man walking outside at night, with a lantern clutched in his hand, could not have seen his own feet. They crept about the houses and buildings, prodding at doors and windows, slipping fingers of fog through the tiniest cracks and crevices, until all but the most tightly sealed of structures was partly hazy within, as well as without.
Dawn rose, gray and diffuse, and brought with it a slow but insistent rain. It turned the road to churning mud and set the streams to a mad rush. Cows and chickens stood miserable, drenched and shivering, and people scuttled quickly about their daily labors, shoulders hunched against the rain. The very air was wet upon the skin; it even smelled of water.
Yet the sun behind its curtain of clouds could not burn away the mists, nor could the rains wash them from the air. Birne floated amid an infinite sea of fog.
It was not, Leona told Diederic as they breakfasted that morning, an auspicious start to his efforts.
"The fog has always been an ill omen here," she explained, sliding poached eggs onto a pair of plates and handing one across the table. "Our misfortunes always seemed to grow worse beneath its touch, as though it was the shadow of some plague or blight fallen upon Birne."
Diederic mumbled around a forkful of egg.
He sat at one side of a small table, perfectly square, in Marta's kitchen. The accused witch—having, as she put it sourly, "plenty of room for guests at the moment"—had offered her cousin and friend the use of her house while she was otherwise occupied. As it appeared from without, it was a simple enough affair, consisting of little more than a bedroom and a combined kitchen and sitting room, each furnished poorly but comfortably. A large attic sat above. It was far less than Diederic was accustomed to as a landed noble, but after months of imprisonment and camping in the wild, it would suffice.
A fire burned fitfully in the hearth, sizzling on occasion as a rivulet of rain made its way past the flue, but the flames failed to take the chill of the mists from the air. The house was comfortable enough otherwise, and Diederic was tempted to put his investigation off for a day or two, until the weather improved. Any delay in his efforts here, however, meant a delay in the hunt for Lambrecht, and so none was acceptable, however comfortable it might prove.
Thus, with the barest modicum of manners and etiquette, he shoveled his breakfast into his mouth and set about gathering what he would need to ward off the elements. Cloak, boots, and heavy tunic were obvious. Although his soldier's instincts railed against it, he decided to leave his hauberk behind this day. He expected no battle, and the chain links would trap water and cold during the day, and require hours of cleaning and drying come nightfall.
His massive axe might prove more a hindrance than a help too, as he sought the trust of the townsfolk. But he did, at least, strap an Inquisition thrusting sword, as well as a single-edged hunting knife, to his belt. Expecting battle or not, Diederic was no fool.
"Where to first?" Leona asked, reaching for her own cloak.
"First," Diederic said, his gaze unblinking, unyielding, "you are going to close up all the shutters, make certain the doors are locked, and wait right here until I return."
Leona froze. "I beg your pardon?" Her voice was ice.
"I'm doing this alone, Leona."
"Diederic, you're a stranger here. Most folk won't even speak to you, and those who do certainly won't be honest."
"And you, Leona, are a witch."
The knight shrugged. "So far as many of your fellow citizens are concerned, it's the truth. To others, you are at least an accused witch. At best, you are family to a witch, sympathetic to her cause. The people here may not be open with me, but they'll be afraid of you, Leona."
"You can glare all you like," he continued a moment later. "But can you look me in the eye and tell me I'm wrong?"
Grimacing, she turned away. Diederic nodded once, offered "Be careful until I get back," in a much softer tone, and then shut the door firmly behind him.
Everything outside was shades of gray. The rain succeeded in washing away what little bits of color might have showed through the pervasive fog. Diederic moved through a realm of ghosts and shadows. Houses, unseen until he was mere paces away, loomed from the mists, and were just as suddenly gone. If there were other passersby along the road—and now and again Diederic heard just enough whispered conversation or muddy, squelching footsteps to assume there were—he never saw them.
He had no sense of where to start, so in the end, he chose almost at random. As most of the typical misfortunes attributed to witchcraft were those of farmers—such as sickly livestock, poor crops, and the like—it made most sense to begin with the farms that formed the outskirts of Birne.
As he and Leona had expected, the farmers had little to say to Diederic. Most were polite enough, or at least respectful enough of his social class not to slam the door in his face. But few offered details, or proved willing to answer questions with anything more than a noncommittal grunt or the standard "It wouldn't be my place to speak about that."
The knight's persistence eventually bore fruit, albeit meager. It was early afternoon, though that would have been hard to prove given the ambient light, and Diederic's patience was wearing thin, when he knocked on the door of the largest farmhouse on that side of the village.
The man who answered was stooped with age and arthritis, though his features seemed slightly younger than Theoric's. His snow-white hair was cropped close to his head, and his cheeks were covered in stubble so rough it might have doubled as a wood-file.
His name, he informed Diederic after inviting the knight inside for an ale or a cider, was Alpert Mason, eldest bearer of the Mason name—at least among those currently above ground, he cackled—a proud family that had moved to Birne almost as early as the village's founders. He was afraid of no stranger, no sir, and he had seen too many good years in Birne to let some fiend-worshipping, filth-talking, godless witches ruin it all now!
"So you truly believe Marta is a witch?" Diederic asked, a cup of steaming cider held to his lips.
"Oh, aye. Our town's always been blessed, Sir Knight. We had our problems, now and again, but never awful, never lasting. Things only went bad in recent years, and truly hideous over the past months. In all my years, I've never seen the seeds take to the earth so poorly, or the early sprouts come in so feeble. We're barely into spring, and I've already seen one blight spread through the fields. I don't imagine it'll be the last, either."
"Shouldn't things be improving, now that she's imprisoned, then?"
"Ah, that's the thing about witches, son. I've never yet heard of one to work alone. Covens, circles, and cabals, that's their way." He spat once on the floor in emphasis. "And the fog! God and Scions, I don't know what they called up in the fog this time, but damned if it's not vile! Had two cattle die on me last night, I did, and there's nary an egg to be found in the entire coop this morning. Rumor around the well is that it's the same every farm from here to the Cineris, and that…."
"Yes?" Diederic prompted as the old man's voice faltered.
"You understand, it's not wise to speak of such things. Gives them power. But I heard tell this morning that Selia's eldest boy took ill something horrible last night, and he's always been a healthy lad. It may be nothing, but a lot of folks are blaming the fog. And a few are blaming you."
Diederic raised an eyebrow at that. Alpert simply shrugged.
"You and Leona arrived just before the fog rose, Sir Knight, and you're out and about asking questions in defense of someone everyone knows is a witch. Me, I respect your loyalty to your friend, but a lot of the others have different ideas about your motives. Wouldn't expect anyone else to talk to you today, were I you."
And indeed, though Diederic left the Mason farmstead with further questions, he found nobody else as willing as Alpert had been to open up. A few spoke to him briefly, confirming what the old farmer had said regarding the town's prosperity and recent tribulations, but by the time night fell, Diederic had nothing more than clothing soaked to the skin to show for his efforts.
The rain continued to fall that night; the fog grew thin and wispy, but failed to dissipate entirely. In the distant woods, wolves howled at the unseen moon. The people of Birne huddled beneath the covers and behind locked doors, and silently prayed—some to the God Most High and the Six Scions, others to powers less benign—for their reign of ill fortune to end, and for the strangers to cease drawing the ire of dark powers with their endless questions.
Diederic himself snored lightly on the floor by the fireplace, wrapped in several layers of blankets to cushion the cold stone beneath him. He and Leona had already drawn stares from the townsfolk when they chose to stay together in Marta's empty home. He would not encourage any further talk by attempting to share Marta's only bed. The rumors would be bad enough without the truth of their innocence to shield them.
They had spoken that night, going over what little Diederic had learned, but Leona had been unable to add anything of substance. Diederic, tired and cold, had decided to put off further discussion for the morning, when they would decide what to try next. He fell asleep knowing how awful such a night must be for Marta, trapped without shelter from the raging elements.
The attack came roughly an hour before dawn.
Diederic bolted upright at the sound of splintering wood, and was already fully awake when the shutters collapsed inward, shattered by a series of blows from a hatchet. He ignored the torch as it came spinning into the room; nearly extinguished by the pervasive rains, it guttered and spat upon the floor. Diederic knew it would burn itself out long before it could do more than scorch the heavy wood on which it had landed, that the house was in no danger of burning. Instead, alerted by the sounds of heavy footsteps on the porch, he faced the door.
Indeed, the torch had been little more than a primitive distraction. The door buckled beneath the force of the first impact, gave beneath the second, and a trio of people clad in black, their faces incompletely masked by cloth scarves, appeared within. From the sounds of squelching in the mud, a fourth and a fifth intruder waited outside, perhaps intending to clamber in through the window.
The trio held makeshift but effective weapons in their hands: here a heavy cudgel, there an axe handle. They were young and male—Diederic could tell as much from their movements and their posture—and their enthusiasm for violence clearly outweighed their skill at inflicting it. Clad only in a long night-tunic, so disdainful of his attackers that he couldn't be bothered even to reach for a weapon, Diederic flexed his hands and smiled.
First across the room came the largest of them, clutching a tree branch heavy enough to stave in bone if it were allowed to connect. He swung it over his head, clearly intending to bring it smashing down upon his enemy, in a show of brute force and brutish skill. Diederic took a single step, meeting the fellow while he was unprepared to defend. One hand caught the attacker's wrists, preventing the club from descending. The second delivered a straight jab into the man's gut, even as Diederic also kicked out, driving the ball of his foot upward into his attacker's knee. Joints separated, the breath rushed from the intruder's chest, and the first of the trio struck the floor with enough force to shake the house.
The second hung back, stunned into inaction by the swift dispatch of his friend. Silhouetted by a second torch carried by the third fellow behind him, the young attacker was recognizable to Diederic; the scarf did nothing to hide his eyes, or the fleshy curves of recent childhood around them. It could only be young Alfrec, who had fled before them when they arrived, and gathered the mob against them. Diederic's grin widened, and he tossed off a friendly wave at the young man, who paled around his mask.
And then the first of the men outside dove in through the window and rolled to his feet, hatchet in hand, and Diederic ceased to find the whole affair funny. A cudgel meant an intended beating, but a hatchet-wielder could only mean to kill.
The knight stepped back to the bedroll in which he had slept and bent low. As the newcomer neared, leaving thick and muddy footprints on the wood, Diederic scooped up his chainmail hauberk and hurled it with an angry shout.
Fifty pounds of metal wrapped itself about the charging man who—even with arms raised to deflect it—could do little to avoid the massive projectile. The sheer momentum of the impact took him off his feet; he landed hard, the breath exploding from his lungs.
Diederic was past him in a flash, his arms outstretched. The second man who had remained outside, climbing through the window after his companion, had barely pulled his arms and chest through when the knight had him in a heavily muscled grip.
Diederic twisted once, firmly. Several bones in the intruder's neck snapped as one, and the body went limp, hanging in the open window.
When the door to the bedroom opened and Leona emerged to stand behind the knight, a heavy dagger in her hand, the two remaining attackers had clearly had enough. Alfrec and his companion bolted into the foggy night, their weapons falling to the mud with a wet clatter as they vanished.
"I'm not certain you should be here just now," Theoric whispered, appearing between Diederic and Leona at the edge of the churchyard.
Diederic shrugged, and took a moment to wipe the ubiquitous rain from his brow. "I wish to pay my respects, Theoric—more honor, I should say, than the young man deserved after his cowardly assault. Still, it's a shame that he forced me to act as I did, and I would have the townsfolk know that I do not take what happened, including my own response, lightly. If any object to my presence here—"
Two of the black-clad passersby, squelching through the mud on their way to the graveside, paused long enough to glare at Diederic. One hawked and spat; the glob disappeared into the muck at the knight's feet.
"—then that is their concern and none of mine," he finished calmly.
They stood and watched as dozens of Birne's citizens gathered in the feeble shelter of the apple tree. Marta, still in her cage, had been moved out of the way for the duration of the ceremony, and the good people stood about the muddy pit that was a freshly dug grave. Before the hole stood an icon of wood: three beams nailed together in the center: a poor man's approximation of the sixfold sun. Already its lower extremities were coated with mud and other detritus, but those gathered round it treated it with utmost respect. A red-haired young man in a cassock, whom Diederic had heard called Father Cerran, stood beside the wooden icon, his arm draped about an old woman who stared dully across the open grave. Her gray hair was plastered to her face, her heavy wool shawl grown fat with accumulated rain. Her shoulders slumped with old age and new sorrow, and her shaking, feeble hands clenched hard at the hem of her gown. If she heard the words of comfort the priest offered, she made no sign of it.
Finally, the crowd ceased to grow. Theoric moved from Leona's side to stand with the mourners, and the priest began to speak. "My friends," he said, his voice high but heartfelt, shouting over the rain and the rustle of the leaves, "let us not despair, as we gather to bid our farewells to young master Rolan Reveaux. As his life—while short—was happy and full of love, let his passing remind us of the love we have for one another, as we support our friends and neighbors through these difficult times."
"Wasn't love that killed Rolan!" someone in the crowd called out. A mumble of agreement rippled through the gathering, but Diederic and Leona were gratified to note at least a few of the mourners rolling their eyes at the interruption.
"No, it was a case of terminal idiocy," Diederic muttered, sufficiently under his breath that none but Leona would hear.
"Rolan," Father Cerran continued, shouting louder now to forestall further interruption, "was a good lad, devoted to his family and to his faith. He loved…."
The eulogy continued, but the downpour increased its tempo. Diederic could not be bothered to strain his ears to hear any more. He shifted his cloak about on his shoulders instead, warding off what he could of the wet chill, and settled in to wait.
Leona tossed him an irritated glance. "You might show a little respect," she hissed angrily.
"I'm here, am I not? That alone, I think, should be sufficient."
"Sufficient! Diederic, you killed a Reveaux! They're one of Birne's founding families!"
"He did, I'd remind you, try to kill me—us—first."
She could only sigh in aggravation. "My point, if I may make it, is that anyone who was not too afraid or too insular to speak to you before is surely certainly too angry or too offended to do so now. That you were merely defending yourself is the only reason they have not already tried to hang you. Well, that and fear of what you might do to them," she amended swiftly. "But cooperation? Now? Not damn likely."
"That's just fine," Diederic commented, staring thoughtfully across the churchyard at the pontificating priest. "I believe I have other avenues to explore."
They waited for many more minutes, until Cerran had completed his eulogy, and the several prayers that followed. Theoric uttered a few words about banding together as a community in the face of hardship, and several of the dead boy's friends, Alfrec included, offered a tale or two about their departed companion. And then it was simply a matter for the gravediggers to struggle with the soft and viscous earth, while everyone else went their separate ways. Diederic, his honor satisfied, was among the first to leave.
For hours the old woman stood, oblivious to the cold, the mud, the fog, the rain; she only watched. As the mourners passed by, some few stopping to offer a final prayer or flower, she watched. As the gravediggers fought hard against the sodden earth, finally covering the simple pine coffin and filling the grave with mud more liquid than solid, she watched. And when there was no more to see, when the constant rain had hidden any trace of the grave except for the humble wooden marker, she watched still.
"Silma?" Theoric appeared beside her, his hair feebly protected from the elements by a wide-brimmed hat. "Silma, you need to let it go."
For the first time, the old woman's eyes focused, and she turned on her companion with a narrowed gaze. "You, Theoric? You, of all people, would say this to me?"
"Silma, please!" He begged her, openly begged, as he never would have had any other citizen of Birne been present. "I grieve with you. I grieve for you! And the time will come for vengeance! But not now!"
"Why not now?" she spat back at him. "If the ancient pacts no longer hold the power they once did, then I must strike now, while they hold weight at all!"
"And if you draw his attention further? If he interferes with the rites? Gods and demons, Silma, the equinox is only weeks away! Would you have us unprepared?"
"I will not fail. And after that? Perform your rites, or not. Prepare, or don't. I care not, anymore. My son is dead, Theoric. I am going to the orchard."
"I am going to the orchard," she said again, slowly, as though educating a foolish child. "And should anyone attempt to stop me, Theoric, they can expect the same as the whore Leona and her vaunted guest."
Theoric remained behind, watching as Silma Reveaux disappeared into the fog. Slowly, he lifted his soggy hat from his head, held it to his chest, and prayed.
Next Week: Chapter Nine...
"Well met, Father. May I speak with you a moment?"
Cerran placed the worn copy of the Septateuch upon the altar—a well loved copy, he might instead have called it—and stared across the dimly lit church. The stranger stood in the doorway, shaking off the worst of the rain. Already nervous around a man of such barely restrained violence, the priest could not help but note the pair of blades that hung about the knight’s waist, and the chain hauberk he now wore beneath his cloak.