January 5, 2013

A Hunter's Faith

A Hunter’s Faith
A short story by Tyler Milson

They picked her up in a rundown village, several leagues out of the city. She had tangled hair and eyes that spoke of the tangled webs she must have woven. She was not frail, nor was she whole but if the stories were to be believed she came from an area drowning in poverty, only seeing crumbs of bread and strips of horse meat for food. Not enough to feed anyone let alone a girl.
            Of the village, the soldiers said not a word. But Mikail Sodonys knew that it was now a hollowed, ruined place.
            The plague. That’s how it always went. First bumps and boils would manifest that, when plucked and pinched, would ooze pus and bleed. There was a fever that accompanied the bumps, quickly followed by the coughing up of blood and manifestation of coarse rashes on the skin. Most victims died within two to seven days. The sickle of sickness was what the poets called it, implying its use by the Grim Reaper as a tool of death just as sure and swift as the stroke of his blade through a neck. Mikail didn’t agree with that. Death came quickly but seemed torturously slow for those infected. He knew; he had seen enough of the plague for a lifetime. It was unholy, he knew, and he also knew what most often came with plagues: witches.
            That’s how they knew she was a witch. Visually, she fit the description well enough with her tattered hair, dark robes, and ordinary features. Girls and grown women that seemed unremarkable seemed to make the best witches. Maybe they became witches for that very same reason. Mikail would never know. Outside of appearance, they knew this girl was a witch simply because she seemed in perfect health, the sole survivor of a village trampled by the Black Death.
            To be safe, though, they kept her in a caged wagon, well away from any soldiers to avoid the possibility of contracting the disease. And that was how she was brought to Sodonys.
            A soldier, fully armored like the others save for the red cloak on his back that designated him as the leader approached the facility. Mikail strode forward to receive him.
            “Father-“ he began.
            “I’ll have none of that,” Sodonys cut in. “I’m not a Father nor am I anyone’s father.”
            “Then how shall I address you…my – my…lord?”
            “Lord will suffice,” Mikail replied. He continued, “To whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
            The soldier stiffened and straightened his back, clearly not used to formality Mikail supposed. “If it please my lord, I am Ser Harold Pennymance, 4th battalion of the Outriders.”
            The Outriders, Mikail mused. Glorified thugs sent out to clean the streets. The perfect men to send into a plague; no men that were like to be missed.
            “Well then, Ser, would you like to tell me how you came upon this one?” Mikail said, gesturing towards the girl in the cage.
            “Yes my lord. We had reports of reports of plague in Carlpool around two weeks back. Now, begging my lord’s pardon, we may be Outriders but we’re not stupid. We decided to wait before investigating as it were.” Mikail smiled at that. “We got there about five days ago - weather was rainy, mud everywhere. Looked more like a caved in rabbit hole than a village. We went through and we searched every house one by one like we always do. We thought we were done and finally came upon this one in the last house we searched.” Sodonoys broke in, “And let me guess, she was shivering in the corner, scared but not starved like the rest? Did that seem strange to you?”
            “Strange…” Pennymance frowned as if the thought caused him pain. “Yes, my lord, strange indeed. It wasn’t our first ride, though, and it wasn’t our first witch - our second ever, actually.”
            “Did you question her? Did you ask her what she had been eating and why she thought only she was spared by the Black Death?”
            “We did, my lord,” he hesitated. “She said that God had saved her and that she had his protection.” Mikail Sodonys laughed at that, a witch trying to use the holiest of cloths as a shield against heresy. “That doesn’t surprise me, Ser, please continue.”
            “When we claimed she was a witch she grew silent and hasn’t spoken a word since,” he said, finishing the tale.
            “That is curious,” Mikail admitted. Usually witches would beg and scream at anyone who would listen, protesting their guilt. “Still, I am glad that you have brought her to me and that this Inquisition will be different than previous ones. I was beginning to get bored.”
            The soldier nodded his understanding. “We’ll be off now, my lord. We pray that your work goes well.”
            “Prayer will not be necessary, Ser,” Mikail Sodonys said. “My work always goes well because it is never the work of God. For, I am not a priest but a witch-hunter.”

His men had brought her into the large facility, gave her bread and water, but chained her hands and feet to a table and chair welded into the floor of a small, dark, and dank room, one of several used for Inquisitions.
            Mikail Sodonys, ready to begin his Inquisition after only a few hours of preparation strode in, closed the door and rekindled the overhead lamp above. Still, the room seemed bleak even when lit, light sucked into the black stone used in its construction. The girl winced at the sudden illumination and could not look up for some time, no doubt waiting for her eyes to adjust. Sodonys waited until she finally made eye contact with him before speaking.
            “Do you know where you are, child?” he asked in a soft tone.
            “N-no,” she mumbled, stuttering perhaps in fear. Her voice sounded dry and hoarse.
            “This is Castle Berwick, though I will admit it is more manor than castle,” he supplied. After a moment he asked, “Do you know why you are here?”
            Her head rose at the question and she looked him dead in the eyes. “You think I am a witch,” she replied.
            Mikail laughed. “That, my dear, remains to be seen. This is an Inquisition. Think of it like an interview to see whether you are a witch or not and I as your expert interviewer.”
            “Is that important to you?” she asked.
            “Is what important?” Mikail asked, confused by her question.
            “To be seen as an expert?” she asked with a grin.
            Mikail Sodonys did not dignify her with a response but did pause a moment in consideration. “You are an intelligent girl it seems, to ask such questions. Where did you learn, child?”
            “I am no child, Father, but a woman of sixteen, fully bloomed,” she replied.
            “And I am no Father – no priest, my dear,” he replied in a cool tone that masked his mounting frustration.
            This time she laughed which surprised Sodonys. “Then what are you? I’ve never heard of an Inquisition where it’s no priest questioning you.”
            “I am a witch-hunter.”
            “So does that mean I’m a witch?” she asked in an innocent tone.
            “Are you?” he replied, leaning forward to study her more closely.
            She leaned forward as well until they were roughly a hand’s width apart. He could see straight into her deep green eyes and saw no trace of fear there. How unusual, indeed. “No,” she replied flatly. As firm a denial as any, Mikail supposed. This one will be tough to crack.

A few days later and the Inquisition had not gone any smoother. The girl had been completely uncooperative and hadn’t even supplied her name. This was going nowhere, and fast. That bothered Mikail as he had prided himself on the swiftness in which he elicited confessions from witches and had them answer for their crimes. They might have been the church’s laws but they were still laws and he would see them upheld even though he was not pious.
            It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in God, it was more like he believed in God in his own personal, private way. Mikail Sodonys didn’t believe that men had to congregate in man-made buildings to hear the word of God. He didn’t believe that any mortal man could speak God’s word but it wouldn’t do to declare that. Doing so would result in excommunication which was tantamount to death in these dark times. He would admit that some men were tools of God but could never speak with His voice. Mikail believed that a man could believe, not that a man should believe what others do because it was the standard.
            No, he was different. He was special. He had to be. Otherwise he was nobody.
            With determination on his mind, he entered the small cell to begin the third day of Inquisition. Maybe starting more simply and displaying compassion would work better than his typical, stern approach.
            He produced a key from his pocket and undid the shackles on her hands. When he did, he could see that her wrists were raw and bloody, no doubt from where she had tried to slip them through her bonds. She looked up at him, confused.
            “I’m not a cruel man,” he informed her in answer to her unspoken question. “Could you please tell me your name?”
            She paused, probably unsure of whether to respond or not. Finally, she spoke, “Georgina.”
            “Georgina, well met, I am Mikail Sodonys,” he answered, making sure to keep his tone courteous and respectful. It was not typically to introduce oneself by name in an Inquisition. But this is not a typical Inquisition, he thought. “This might seem improper for an Inquisition, but I have to inform you that if you do not give me at least some information I will be forced to declare that you are a witch.”
            She winced at that, as if the words struck a blow to her that she did not expect. “Forced to declare that I am a witch…” she mimed in an incredulous tone. “As if it’s even a possibility that you’ll declare me innocent,” she continued following her statement with a horrified, disturbing laugh.
            “You have to believe me that if I find you are not a witch then you are not a witch,” Mikhail said.
            “I have to believe you?” she asked. “I have to believe that an Inquisition is any other excuse than to roast me on a spit!” she said sarcastically.
            “Let me lay the facts before you, Georgina: you were found, the sole survivor in a village completely ruined by plague and famine. Yet there you were when the Outriders found you, hale and whole. How do you explain that? Hm? How do you explain that away when by all rights you should have been stick-thin or dead with rest?”
            “Dead with the rest?” she screamed. “You mean dead like my mother and whoring father? Dead like my little sister? My aunt was in the village, she’s dead too, not you would care, you bastard!”
            Mikail was taken aback by her comments. He had not suspected such outbursts as responses.
            “Do you think I’m stupid?” she asked him but didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “I know how Inquisitions end; they end in blood and fire, or if I’m lucky I can drown. Oh, sure I’m supposed to magically float up if I’m innocent or be spared from the hot touch of the flames’ whips.” She paused for a second, considering something. “Tell me, Mr. Sodonys, are you a man of God?”
            “I believe in him if that’s what you mean,” he replied.
            “I’m not. How could I be, especially as a woman?” she asked. “You do housework for a living and you’re beat if you’re insolent. When you flower your father bends you over and takes you himself while your mother – a woman too – sits helplessly in the next room. You’re sold to someone when you’re old enough or there’s something they want in exchange for you. If you’re the sole survivor of a massacre or a plague then you’re a witch and you’ll die for it without a chance to prove your innocence. That is the God you believe in, Sodonys. That’s the God your clergy loves so much!”
            He stood up quickly and slapped her hard. Her head jerked sideways and her arms rose to cover the mark it had left on her. “That’s enough!” he roared. “You will not speak ill of God or those he chooses to serve him.”
            “No,” she said. “How could I ever speak ill of my most holy executioner?”

It had been an entire three weeks and Mikail Sodonys could find no proof that Georgina was a witch. She would not admit to witchcraft or heresy despite his most fervent attempts and remained contemptuous to say the least. He wasn’t sure which she had contempt for more: him or God Himself. But regardless, it seemed that she was destined for the pyre.
            And what if I’m wrong, he thought to himself. What if she really is innocent and I send her into the flames? He had never been wrong before and no other Inquisition had taken so long nor had taken its toll on him like this one had. In her defiance, Georgina poked at the very core of his internal beliefs and his own personal belief in God. He would never admit it to her but he wondered if some of what she said was right about the God he had trusted in for so long. What if He didn’t care? Why would he condemn young women such as Georgina to such terrible fates? But at the end of the day, that was the way of the world and who was he to change it?
            Finally, the day had come and he had the Berwick workers remove Georgina and clean her up. Afterwards, he gave her a hot meal himself and a plain but comely gown to change into. That night he let her sleep in a bed in the guest chamber of the manor. The next day, he had her chained in a carriage and sent to town.
            Later that afternoon he arrived in the Berwick town square to a throng of villagers ready and eager to see a witch burning. Under extreme pressure from the clergy, he was forced to declare that Georgina was a witch, with no firm evidence to the contrary. Stories were told about Sodonys and people gathered to see the fruit of his longest Inquisition yet, even a few clergy members themselves were there to greet him on the wooden stage.
            “Master Sodonys,” said one of them who rose up to meet him. He wore a simple brown robe with an emblazoned gold cross on the chest area and sported no hair save for his eyebrows. His eyes looked cold and dead compared to Georgina’s green and lively ones. “We are pleased that you have reached a decision after such a long and difficult Inquisition and would offer you God’s prayers and embraces in comfort.”
            “Thank you, Father. I will be glad to have them. This has been a trying month for me.”
            “We are glad to see it over and to aid you through it.” More like make sure I burn her, Mikail thought. Of late there were those that questioned his will due to this latest Inquisition running so long. Let them supervise, they will not be disappointed.
            Finally, Mikail Sodonys took the stage and raised his arms, calling for quiet in a crowd that wanted anything but silence. It took some time but they calmed and let him speak. He raised his voice so he could be heard far back.
            “Good people of Berwick,” he called out. “This has been my longest and most trying Inquisition ever. You know me has a witch-hunter. A crude name but apt, given to the most talented of Inquisition performers. I thank you for it!” The crowd cheered in response. He let them quiet again before continuing in a more formal tone. “I, Mikail Sodonys, in my twenty-third Inquisition, have found this woman, Georgina of Carpool, to be guilty of heresy and witchcraft, having used her unholy black arts to deliver pox and plague upon the good people of Carpool, including her very own family.” The crowd cheered even louder and went silent quickly, eager for the proceedings to continue. “For such a crime most foul, the sentence is to be burned upon a fire. May the flames cleanse her soul as we send her to heaven!”
After that, the crowd was uncontrollable and no more words were necessary. He took a solemn stance and gave a subtle nod to the executioners with their torches. The girl on the pyre was gagged, though it seemed to Mikail that she was trying to scream. With haste, her executioners flung their torches at the base of the small wooden tower, setting it ablaze. Mikail, not being able to watch any further left the stage and ducked away into an alley. No one seemed to notice.
Behind him, the cheers were incessant and black smoke was rising. He knew by now that villagers would be flinging stones at her but she was probably already dead by this point. With a heavy heart, he continued through the alley, turned the corner, and found his isolated carriage. He took out his key and opened the back of it.
Georgina was sitting there just as he had left her, bound and gagged. He removed he gag putting his finger to his lip to beckon silence. She nodded and he set about removing her bonds.
“Who is on the pyre?” she asked him after a short time.
“A witch brought in two days ago,” he replied.
“Is she?” Georgina asked.
“She confessed in Inquisition. She is a witch.” She nodded and he helped her down from the carriage.
He paused a moment and then said, “I thought a lot about what you had told me. I can see now that your only crime was being born a low class village girl. I don’t know the wiles and whims of God but I can see that he meant for me to spare you and perhaps, in so doing, to find my own salvation for those who I may have wrongly convicted of heresy. You must forgive me, Georgina, I was wrong.”
She closed her eyes and bowed her head. He bowed his head too, wanting to share the moment.
Suddenly, in her hands materialized a dagger. She quickly turned it in one hand and stabbed him in the stomach. He felt his world turn to pain and a wash of red as she twisted the blade within him. He could feel his blood pouring out and it was warm and cold at once. What an odd sensation¸ he thought, strangely calm.
“You were not wrong, Mikail,” she said, caressing his face as he fell to his knees. “The only sin you committed was not believing in yourself – not believing in what you are.”
Then she turned and began to walk away from the village and the horrific scene playing out behind them. I was wrong, he thought. But I was the best. How could I have been so wrong? He watched her walk away, slowly faded into the distance and then his world turned black.