‘Welcome to our humble dwelling.’ The elder gestures towards a broken-down hovel in the snow-strewn yard. A gaping hole yawns in the roof. Place looks empty and abandoned under the pale noonday sun. ‘Please – come inside. Meet my people.’ Owen suppresses a sigh and follows him indoors.
Inside is a small meagre room ringed with candles across the floor and empty fireplace hearth. Owen hangs back as the elder is immediately surrounded by a swarm of anxious Romani, clad in rough homespun garb of earthy browns and greens. The crowd chatters excitedly away like squabbling magpies, and Owen winces at the rush of voices; it’s giving him a headache, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a tankard of good strong beer.
‘Father!’ A young redheaded woman shoves through the crowd to fling her arms around the elder, hugging him tightly. ‘Thank goodness you’re safe!’
‘Thank you,’ the elder smiles back at Owen. The woman’s face is buried against his shoulder, but Owen isn’t about to spoil their moment of happiness.
‘Mhm. You’re welcome,’ he grunts, a pang of envy flickering in his chest at their tender embrace. How long has it been since he was last held like that?
‘We feared the worst,’ the woman murmurs, voice muffled by her father’s robes. Then she pulls away and smacks his shoulder. ‘I told you it was too soon to go outdoors! It isn’t safe!’
‘And I told you it was necessary to offer aid to these townsfolk, Ilsa,’ the elder sighs, gently disentangling himself and beckoning at Owen.
Owen moves forward into the candlelight. Several Romani gasp. Others shrink back, looking wary. Whispers ripple through the crowd. The Romani watch him without welcome; the hands that have reached for bowstrings, and clenched around knife hilts, do not relax.
‘What’s he doing here, Arn?’ mutters a thickset bearded man, glaring at Owen. His hand drifts toward the hatchet on his belt.
The elder raises his hand. ‘Peace, Matteo. I was waylaid by some of the priests but unharmed, thanks to this man.’ He sighs. ‘Although I fear there may be trouble ahead because of it.’
Matteo’s eyes narrow. ‘What did you do?’
Owen shrugs, smirking. ‘I’m a little rusty. They’re both still alive.’
‘You used violence?’ Matteo bristles with outrage.
Arn lays a hand on his kinsman’s brawny shoulder, smiling apologetically at Owen. ‘The younger generation believe words can speak far louder than actions.’
‘Well, you’re Romani.’ Owen rolls his eyes, scratching his prickly stubble. ‘Words are what you do.’ God, he could sure use a drink right now.
‘You know of us?’
Owen approaches the window, resting his elbows on the sill and savouring the cool breeze. ‘My family’s always been on good terms with Romani. Although,’ he chuckles with fond remembrance, ‘my father once got into a fistfight with an elder. Fun times.’
‘True Romani don’t fight,’ Matteo mutters, and Owen can just hear his frown. He smirks and turns back, straightening up.
‘When he tried to convince the elder to have your oral histories transcribed onto paper.’ He relishes the flash of shock on Matteo’s face. ‘Let’s just say the elder … disagreed.’
‘Ah, yes,’ Arn chuckles, nudging Matteo. ‘We are rather protective of our old ways, I admit. History is a living thing. Paper is dead.’ He gestures towards the firepit in the corner, where a rabbit slowly roasts on a spit. ‘Would you like something to eat?’
Owen brightens. ‘I’d prefer something to drink!’
‘Matteo, bring our friend some water.’
‘Oh, erm – never mind,’ Owen grimaces.
Ilsa wrinkles her nose at him. ‘You stink of beer, y’know that?’
‘You –’ Owen starts to growl, then finds himself on all fours retching bile. Ugh, he’d forgotten how much it hurt trying to throw up on an empty stomach.
Arn kneels beside him rubbing his back. ‘Are you all right?’
‘He’ll be fine once he staggers back to a tavern.’ And wow, the disapproval is positively oozing off Ilsa.
‘I just need some water,’ he grunts to the floor.
‘Preferably the kind with alcohol in it.’
Harr harr, lady. And also: fuck you. ‘Eat shit and die,’ Owen groans, lurching upright. He tries to spit the rancid taste from his mouth but his tongue is swollen leather. Ugh.
Arn gives him an appraising look. ‘So you’ve attempted to stop drinking before?’
His stomach still churns, but at least it’s not trying to claw its way up his throat anymore. ‘You probably haven’t heard because you’re too busy riding caravans from one place to another, but the rest of us have to trudge through big empty tracts of nothing without a single mug of ale, and sometimes there’s enough nothing that it’s a real pain in the arse. But I’m not going to get drunk if I’ve got to be sober, all right? I just …’ he winces, ‘I usually didn’t.’
Ilsa smirks. ‘You say such believable things.’
Owen flips her off, turning to Arn. ‘Listen, perhaps you could just tell me why you’re all here?’
Matteo draws himself up to his full height. ‘Romani live anywhere they deem right –’
Owen cuts him off. ‘Yeah yeah, I know that, genius. But you’re nomadic tribes. Usually. You don’t settle.’ He nods around at the unfurled bedrolls, the baskets of herbs and clay jugs of water. ‘Yet you lot seem to have been here quite a while.’
Ilsa raises her eyebrows. ‘And how d’you know that?’
Owen’s jaw tightens. ‘Because the locals are all blaming you for the night attacks.’
Arn and Matteo exchange bleak frowns. ‘The church’s doing,’ Matteo groans. ‘They always need someone to scapegoat!’
‘To divert people from the truth,’ Arn sighs sadly, hands sliding into his sleeves. ‘How the church itself brought the Devil’s hordes down upon the land. They incurred God’s wrath themselves, and He turned away in shame.’
Owen gives Arn a long dubious look. ‘Really.’
Arn nods. ‘There were Romani in Gresit a week ago. Then’ – his voice hitches – ‘then the church burned a woodland healer at the stake as a witch.’ He gestures towards the overflowing baskets of herbs and plants. Drooping bells of aconite. Posies of hemlock. Bundles of sweet-scented rosemary. Sprigs of heather. Yellow-eyed chamomile blooms. Spears of purple lavender. ‘This was all we could salvage from the ashes of her home.’
‘Shit.’ Owen scrubs a hand through his unkempt blond hair, grimacing when his fingers come away greasy. ‘But you didn’t answer my question.’
Arn bows his head sadly, dragging a hand down his face. ‘There’s no structure left here in Gresit. No doctors, no medicine, no aid. The bishop’s men prowl these streets by day, the Night Hordes paint them red with blood every night.’ He looks up with pleading eyes. ‘If you truly know Romani, then you know we never turn away from those in need. We can’t. We have a God-given duty to help. So that is why we remain here. Despite the harassment. Despite the ill feeling towards us. You understand, yes?’
Owen nods curtly. ‘I know you’re a nomadic people who gather hidden knowledge, memorise it, carry complete spoken histories with you. That you have practitioners of healing within your tribes.’ He glances aside at Matteo, a faint smile of grudging respect. ‘That you despise battle, but would never run from it. I’m a Belmont; it’s our job to know these things.’
Matteo’s eyes widen in newfound admiration. ‘A Belmont? I thought your family had vanished long ago.’
Owen scoffs mirthlessly. ‘If “vanished” is the polite way of saying exiled, vilified, and burned out of the ancestral home, then yeah. That happened.’
‘Then you know what it’s like to be driven out for a crime that wasn’t your making.’ Arn’s eyes are gentle with sympathy. ‘What are your plans, Owen?’
Owen huffs a breath, counting off on his fingers. ‘Find some more food, find some drink, get drunk, eat some food, move on.’
Matteo frowns. ‘That’s it?’
‘Maybe find a tall tree, go sit in it, watch the shitshow unfold tonight before I move on.’ Seriously, can people not take a hint? Attachments are dangerous. Caring gets you hurt. Caring gets you killed. ‘Watch the good little people dying horribly, all that fun bollocks.’
Ilsa’s face twists with disgust. ‘You feel no compassion?’
Owen rounds on her, fists clenched. ‘This is what the church wanted. My family were the only people who could’ve fought the armies of Hell, but they didn’t want our help! They hated us, hunted us down, burned us out and cursed our name. Because they wanted to fight the darkness all on their own shitty terms, good fucking luck to ’em!’
Arn bows his head. ‘But the ordinary people of Wallachia, they never had a choice. They were left alone to suffer! Abandoned. Forgotten.’
Owen turns away with a snarl of frustration. ‘For evil bastards to win power, all ordinary common folk have to do is stand aside and keep quiet. They thought they could just idly let the church burn innocents without wondering who they actually were? Let them chase out so-called “heretics” without questioning if they were persecuting those who fought monsters for their ungrateful arses – then declared them black magicians and devil-worshippers for it?! There’s always a choice. And they. Chose. Wrong.’ He sighs and unclenches his fists; all the tension sloughing off him like water, leaving him wrung-out and drained of anger.
It’s quiet enough he can hear the candles sputtering. And now everyone’s staring at him. Ugh.
‘They always do,’ he mutters in the sudden hush.
Arn sighs sadly. ‘Well, find a good tall tree, Belmont. Tonight you can watch us die, too.’
Owen shakes his head. ‘Don’t be stupid. Leave now. While there’s still time. Head south, hook up with another caravan train. No need for you to be martyrs for townsfolk who hate your guts.’
Suddenly Matteo is on his feet. ‘She was his sister!’ He blurts out.
Arn whirls on him. ‘Quiet, Matteo!’
‘I don’t care!’ Matteo turns back to Owen. ‘It’s Arn’s sister they burned at the stake.’ His voice cracks with sorrow. ‘We can’t even bury her body now. It’s not our way to just leave our dead unattended to! We stay for the people of Gresit, to offer them our aid.’ He bows his head. ‘And in memory of her. To continue her work, what little legacy she had left.’
Arn’s eyes are brimming with tears. He squeezes Matteo’s shoulder. ‘Yes, we do. We won’t turn our backs on those in need. Helga would never allow it.’
Owen breathes out. ‘So … you’re staying to die with the good people of Gresit, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because you don’t even have your sister’s body to bury?’
Arn nods miserably. ‘If you want to put it that way.’
Owen sighs and turns on his heel, stalking to the window. His jaw clenches as he gazes outside at the lengthening shadows. Late afternoon. Only a few hours of daylight left.
His next words are dredged up from deep within, the clawing ache of weary resignation. ‘If I go see the bishop, will you please leave before nightfall? Wait outside the town walls. Give your aid to any survivors left when the Night Horde finally rips through this place.’
Matteo frowns. ‘Why would you do that for us?’
Owen rounds on him, fuming. They’re going to come for you soon. These “good people”–’ he air-quotes exaggeratedly ‘– want their pound of flesh tonight. It’ll be a pogrom. They were chattering on about it in the marketplace this morning. Real eager too. It’ll be a little hard to give your aid to these “good people” if you’re dead.’
Matteo’s eyebrows rise. ‘But you didn’t answer my question.’
‘Look,’ Owen sighs at the ceiling. ‘I know what it’s like to be persecuted by your own countrymen for an accident of birth. Who your parents were, where you came from.’ He turns away, addresses the candles on the mantelpiece. ‘If I can convince the bishop to back off, will you please leave this town before sunset?’
Arn inclines his head gravely. ‘If that is your condition for speaking up on our behalf, then … yes.’
‘Great,’ Owen cracks his knuckles and strides to the door. ‘I’m leaving now. Don’t go walkabouts looking for people to give support to. Stay right here.’
He bites down a groan before turning back to Arn.
‘It’s not dying that frightens us,’ the elder says softly. ‘It’s living without ever having done our best.’
‘I don’t. Care,’ Owen grits out. ‘You’re leaving tonight, remember? Don’t go outside. I’ll be back soon.’
‘But why’re you even doing all this?’ Matteo has stood up, eyes creased with concern. ‘Why help us? Why now? Why you?’
Owen glances left. Glances right. Shrugs. ‘Well I don’t see no bugger else.’
Isla folds her arms, glaring at him. ‘Owen, can you at least manage not to kill anyone while you’re out?’
He shrugs. ‘Perhaps.’
‘I want an actual yes.’
‘We all want things.’
‘Owen,’ Matteo grinds out.
Owen rolls his eyes, clasps a hand to his heart and recites with extremely poor grace, ‘I promise on my honour as the last living Belmont son not to let the priests’ slimy guts ruin my second-best tunic, so help me God.’ He spreads his arms, smirking. ‘Happy now?’
‘It’ll have to suffice,’ Arn smiles, eyes twinkling. Not wallowing in despair anymore, so that’s a plus. He pats Ilsa’s shoulder. ‘Relax, daughter. He isn’t all crazy. Just mostly.’ She snorts, throws up her hands and stomps away into a candlelit corner to pout. Matteo is glaring across the room at him, arms folded in an expression as intentionally reproachful and threatening as possible.
Owen just grins back smugly.
Sunlight explodes in his face. Owen winces and steps out into the yard. Even with his best squint, the afternoon sun’s doing his throbbing headache no favours.
Boots crunch through the icy slush. A shadow falls across him. And suddenly there’s a knife pointed at his throat.
‘Careful there,’ Burly drawls, his voice mockingly teasing. ‘Me knife hand’s not too steady. I could slip ’n’ take yer eye out.’
Owen groans. Great. Real comedian, this one. More thugs in priestly robes surround him. Brandishing knives. Spears jabbing aggressively. Skinny – now One-Eye – glares from beneath a heavily-bandaged face. Two archers are kneeled on crumbled masonry blocks, training arrows on him. Eight thugs in total.
‘The Bishop of Gresit requests your kind attendance at the church,’ the grandfather-beating arsehole tells him.
Owen smirks. ‘Actually, I don’t think I’m allowed into churches.’
‘The bishop says he’ll make an exception in your case.’
Owen chuckles, raising open palms. ‘No. Seriously. I realise you’re all trying to menacingly abduct me, but I’m excommunicated.’ And they’re all pointing sharp things at him, but sod it, he wasn’t scared by this lot before either.
Burly’s scowl deepens. ‘The bishop said that the terms of even major excommunication mean you are obliged to appear when summoned by the Church.’
Owen frowns skyward. ‘Well, shit.’
‘Yer a Belmont, aint’cha?’ One-Eye snarls.
Owen feigns blank ignorance. ‘What’s a Belmont?’
Not that dumb, smartarse!
‘You are!’ One-Eye bristles. His neighbours shudder and cross themselves as he jabs his knife at Owen’s coat-of-arms. ‘That’s a Belmont crest! House o’ Belmont, Family Belmont!’
Owen shrugs. ‘Never met ’em.’ He smiles wearily at Burly. ‘Let’s go meet your bishop, eh?’
‘Nah!’ One-Eye shoves him. ‘Yer a Belmont! This is all your fault!’
‘I dunno what you’re talking about, mate.’
One-Eye’s smirk widens. ‘Everyone knows the Belmonts traded in black magic. The Belmonts consorted with monsters!’
Owen rounds on him. ‘The Belmonts fought monsters, sonny.’
Another priest shrinks back with a fearful moan. ‘The Belmonts were cursed by the church. Banished! Disgraced! Their lands taken ’cause they were evil. And now the Night Hordes run amok across Wallachia. Black magic fouls the land. Whose fault is that?’
Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Well it ain’t mine.’ He smiles pleadingly at Burly. ‘Let’s go meet your boss, hm? Then I’m leaving. Okay?’
One-Eye folds his arms. ‘So you can lead all yer monster friends back here?’
Owen crushes him with a glare. ‘So I can find somewhere to piss and somewhere else to sleep far away from this fucking dump!’
‘Enough!’ Burly seizes One-Eye by the collar and yanks him ahead. ‘Let’s go. Bishop’s orders.’
‘Fine.’ Owen gives a sarcastic bow. ‘Who am I to deny the will of God?’
Burly glowers at him. He smirks back as the others surround him. ‘It’s great to see you fellas. Really. It’s going to be more fun seeing you getting ripped to shreds by demons later, but –’
Ow. Getting poked by the sharp things still hurts. Where does everyone even get the energy for this? ‘Hey,’ Owen snaps. ‘You aren’t gunna like it if I don’t come quietly.’
‘You ain’t in any position to be making demands,’ Burly sneers. ‘You can’t fight all eight of us.’
To which Owen’s primal wolven brain perks up, growling: Why the hell not?
‘All right, fair,’ Owen tells the sky. ‘Though theologically I think I’m well within my rights to at least argue, aren’t I?’
‘No, you’re not. As an excommunicated –’
Owen pinches the bridge of his nose, grimacing. ‘Wasn’t talking to you. Look, let’s just meet the bishop already. But if I enter the church and catch fire or something,’ he smirks, ‘it’s your fault.’
The rest of Gresit should be making themselves scarce. Everyone knows that a lot of priests armed with pointy things making a fuss about someone doesn’t end well for anyone else who gets pulled in either. You put your head down, walk on by and pretend you didn’t see anything.
But people are craning their necks out of windows and doorways as they walk past.
Owen waves and calls, ‘Sorry for the delay! I’ll be at the western courtyard in – would you stop that!’ He twists out of reach of One-Eye’s knife and kicks the man’s feet out from under him. ‘I’m trying to get to your goddamned murderous bishop to be threatened already! I’d already be there if you’d quit fucking around!’
Apparently that’s priest for ‘please skewer me’.
He wouldn’t say he’s particularly great in close quarters. Plenty of monsters can turn you into gory paste in a single blow so it’s wiser to fight at a distance. Hence the whip. These pigheaded priests, however, stab and swipe and slash like they expect his only countermove to be feeble cowering. And he’s certainly had practice with getting clear, keeping ample distance, dodging and weaving, swatting their pathetic attacks aside with his leather vambraces. Only needs to elbow one crack in the face and he’s free of their shitty attempts at encircling him. Breaks the man’s nose nicely too; he crumples to his knees groaning, blood pouring from his smashed face.
Then it’s enough to snap Owen’s whip right in front of the pack before anyone else can rush forward. They pull back, raise their weapons hesitantly like it’ll defend themselves against him. Idiots. ‘Put. The damn pigstickers. Away,’ Owen growls. He doesn’t want to fight them. Or rather, he does. But wrath’s only wrath when it’s disproportionate. This here is wholly reasonable and proportionate dislike, why he snapped his whip in front of their noses instead of into. If anything he’s got to be careful not being too lenient here – wouldn’t that be a sin too? Should be. You shouldn’t have any right to turn someone else’s cheek.
Point is, he’s fine with whatever carnage happens to them later. They brewed all this horseshit up, fair they choke to death swallowing. ‘Your orders,’ he barks, ‘were to march me to the church. Where I’m going. Can we just move this along?’
One-Eye darts forward, blade flashing. Owen grabs his knife-wrist and slams a fist into his windpipe. The crunch of cartilage beneath his knuckles is a delicious sound. One-Eye crumples to the ground, clutching his throat and gurgling.
‘Now stay down – aw, fuck.’ Another paunchy idiot lurches in jabbing with his spear, but Owen slips inside his reach and wrenches the spearhaft aside, nose to nose with the wide-eyed priest. And oops, his knife just can’t seem to help pressing into this moron’s jugular vein. While he tries and fails to stifle his panting. His wheezing. His tears.
‘Look into my eyes,’ Owen growls. He nods down at One-Eye sprawled wheezing in the dirt. ‘D’you fuckers really, really, wanna make my day any more annoying right now?’
‘N-n-no,’ whimpers the tearful idiot. His spear clatters to the floor.
‘Good boy.’ Owen smirks and shoves him away into the street. Nobody moves. He turns his back on them, coiling up his whip. ‘Seriously? Have you chumps ever fought anyone who actually knows what they’re doing? Or just innocent bystanders?’ Still. Calm. Unruffled. Eight hostile armed goons surrounding him at knife- and spear-point.
Psychology. Fighting’s all in the head. Win it before you get in it.
‘Put the pigstickers away, boys,’ he repeats.
Burly glances down at his blade, then back at Owen. ‘How do I know you’ll come with us?’
‘I’m happy to talk. I was planning on a drink later anyway, but since you’re here, now’s as good a time as any. Your boss-man’s got questions. So’ve I. We’ll hash it out face-to-face like civilised folk, right? Not at knifepoint. That’s a coward’s trick. You a coward?’
Burly’s face flushes pink. ‘No,’ he growls.
Owen nods, palms open and empty. ‘So put those knives away, and we’ll go meet your boss. That’s what you wanted, right?’
Burly’s eyes widen. No waver, no blink or false bravado in Owen’s eyes. Just calm, quiet, supreme self-confidence.
The silence deepens. Burly hesitates for a long moment, gaze flickering helplessly between Owen and the knife loose in his hand. Then he huffs a breath and snaps around, nodding at the others. They step back. Bowstrings ease. Spearpoints rise. Knives scrape into sheaths. The leader rams the stiletto back into his waist sash, glowering at Owen. ‘Fine. No weapons. C’mon.’ The others shuffle their feet and look away. No longer top dogs. Spooked by an unarmed man. Uncharted territory, for goons who made their living hurting elders and bullying defenceless townsfolk.
Owen shoulders past the leader towards the church. ‘Let’s get going, then. I haven’t got all day.’
The others trudge after him. Dispirited. Humiliated. ‘Don’t try anything funny, bastard,’ One-Eye croaks, rubbing his bruised throat. ‘We ain’t done with you yet.’
Owen just shrugs in the hush of the street.
You aren’t holding me at knifepoint anymore, either, he thinks. Psychology.
The church looms before them, a bleak foreboding place under the pale afternoon sun. Twisted skeletal trees. A raven flaps overhead with a harsh cark!
What a dreary place.
The priests heave open the huge double doors, glowering as he walks inside and … wow. It’s so empty in here. Just him and the bishop awaiting somewhere ahead. Big imposing church, fine, but still … Place looks barely used. The world went to hell outside but there was no one cowering within these walls, no desperate prayers or wretched sobs. There’s not even clawmarks of the Night Horde anywhere, and yet no one sheltered here during the long nights of bloody terror. The bishop’s choice? Theirs?
Given what happened, perhaps it might be the one good decision the steaming shitpile ever made. The whole population packed inside here thinking it’d do anything to keep demons out, it’d be like eels hiding in a stewpot.
Owen walks towards the podium. The head madman isn’t there. Wait … yes, there the fucker is, gliding in from the side on soft-soled shoes, all calm and slow and dramatic in his black vestment robes. As if the sky’s not already falling. Owen groans; why do only his entrances always get fucked up? That’s unfair.
The bishop halts at the lectern, framed against the afternoon sun streaming through the arched windows. Showoff. He opens his mouth and nope, fuck that. ‘You’re a biblical sort,’ Owen calls out with a smirk. ‘When all this is over, you’ll be likened to a certain apostle of Jesus all over Wallachia, I’ll tell you that.’
The man frowns sternly beneath his klobuk. ‘And yet here you are, going around stirring up my flock.’
Owen shrugs. ‘Only difference is, you didn’t even need thirty silvers to betray your god.’ Angry mutterings behind. Cloth rustles. Footsteps approach.
The bishop raises a hand; the priests halt, weapons half-drawn. ‘I am the Bishop of Gresit.’ He nods aside; Owen senses the lurking goons melting back into the shadows. ‘Apologies for your rough escort hither – my men love to be dramatic.’
Owen gazes coolly around; the huge arched windows, the distant puddles of candlelight, the yawning vaults of gloom. ‘Well thank Heaven you’re above all that,’ he mutters. ‘What the hell d’you want with me?’
‘All in good time.’ The bishop gazes down at him, finger idly tapping the lectern. ‘You’re a Belmont, I take it?’
‘Interesting family,’ muses the bishop. ‘Interesting history. Fascinating house too. All gone now, of course. Burned to the ground, wasn’t it?’
‘Don’t glare at me, my good sir. I didn’t burn it.’
Owen folds his arms, seething. ‘Is there a point to all this? Or did you summon me here just to gloat?’
The bishop’s face glows. ‘I’m here to save Gresit.’
Owen chuckles. ‘Huh. And how d’you intend to do that?’
The bishop’s voice hardens. ‘I brought you here to answer some questions. Not. Ask them.’
Owen gazes coolly back. ‘Well, tough shit! How exactly do you intend to help these people by killing Romani?’
The bishops sniffs in disdain. ‘The Gypsies brought these troubles upon themselves. Their wretched sins. One cannot live without God.’ He snickers. ‘Quite literally, these days.’
Owen scoffs. ‘So you think the Night Hordes came … because people weren’t religious enough?’
The bishop glares down his nose, like Owen’s merely a smear of horseshit on his velvet shoe. ‘I did what needed doing,’ he spits.
Unease curls through Owen’s gut. ‘But you were there for the burning of that healer, I heard all about that.’
‘Oh yes.’ And sod everything, the bastard’s actually preening. ‘I arranged it, in fact,’ he purrs. ‘The woman was a witch, after all. She consorted with Satan. Practiced his filthy dark arts.’
Owen’s scowl deepens. ‘But she helped people, she aided them when they sought her out –’
‘She was a witch!’ The bishop leans forward, fingernails digging into the lectern. It’s as if the lid has been pulled off some dark writhing nightmare, his face a hideous twisted mask of derangement and fury and utter viciousness: his serene calm facade cracks; his eyes glitter with malice and he hisses, crazed and hysterical, utterly certain in his blind righteousness, ‘She deserved it!’ Chest heaving, he fishes out a handkerchief and wipes a fleck of spittle from his mouth. Breathes out. Suddenly calm and composed once more.
Owen folds his arms. ‘Riiight. And I’m here to be disciplined, is that it? Made an example of? Just like her?’
‘Not as such.’ A faint smirk flickers across the bishop’s face. ‘I have a gift for you.’ He holds out an open palm, his silken voice making Owen’s skin crawl. ‘Your life, Belmont. Take it and go.’ He clenches his fist, draws it to his heart. ‘Tonight, the Gypsies will be dealt with, and then Gresit will be secure.’ His gaze hardens to flint, voice lowering to a venomous hiss. ‘But I refuse to toil so hard for the soul of this town, with an excommunicant heretic within its walls! You could undo everything by your … unholy presence.’
Owen’s stomach twists with dread. ‘My God,’ he mutters. ‘You really believe that horseshit, don’t you?’
The bishop’s lip curls. ‘You will leave Gresit by sundown, or you will not see the morning. Do I make myself clear?’ He closes his eyes, rests a hand upon his Bible as his voice drips with scorn. ‘Despite the crimes you’ve committed against my aides, despite the crimes your family has committed against God … I will be merciful. Just this once. You will walk safely … until sundown.’
Owen’s hackles rise. ‘My family committed no crime,’ he growls, jabbing a furious finger at the bishop. ‘You bastards simply decided we were wrong to defend this land against the supernatural, to defend its people when they couldn’t defend themselves! And now –’
WHAM. The bishop’s fist thumps the lectern as he bellows, ‘You Belmonts have never understood the power of the Word of God!’ His eyes bulge with self-righteous fervour, a maddened gleam in his wizened face. ‘The people of this town are mine, and they’ll do as I command in His name.’ His wrinkled hands curl into claws as he looms over the lectern, glaring down on Owen like a giant predatory vulture. ‘By morning, no Gypsy will be left alive to defile these streets, and you will either be gone … or be dead!’ His eyes glitter; his next words are a calm, chilling whisper. ‘Do you understand?’
‘Yes,’ Owen snarls, glowering in impotent rage.
The bishop smirks. ‘Do this for me, begone from this town by sunset, and perhaps the matter of your family’s excision from the church may be, hm … considered.’
Wow, Touchy rat-bastard. Owen snorts and turns away, flipping off the ceiling as he goes. ‘No offence, pal, but you’re only just a bishop. Excommunication came from a liiittle higher up the ladder than your scrawny arse.’ He stomps towards the huge oaken doors.
The bishop splutters in outrage. ‘What do you think you’re –’
Owen raises his voice. ‘Going to save the good people of Gresit you’re blaming for you having murdered some old innocent woman. Physically save, mind. Not spiritually. Hate to step in the shitty job you’re doing of that,’ he says, more to the cutthroats with crosses who are squirming by the door, like they’re finally having second thoughts about standing between him and the exit.
‘Run all you want, Belmont,’ taunts the bishop. ‘It changes nothing. Our word is law. The Gypsies burn before sundown. Leave, before we hunt you down and drive you out. You have one hour.’
‘Right.’ Owen squares his shoulders. ‘Thanks for the heads-up.’ He tries to shove a priest out of his way and the man actually shies back like he’ll get filthy heresy spilt on him if Owen even dares touch his robe. God, they’re really that fucking scared of him all of a sudden? Well, he’ll take wary fear over belligerent shanking any day.
‘Don’t do this, Belmont!’ the bishop calls after him. ‘It’s a useless waste. Your family couldn’t save their own damned souls. And you can’t save these people!’
‘Yeah?’ On the sunlit threshold Owen turns to glare back, steely and resolute. ‘Watch me.’
To be continued…
© 2021 | Tom Burton
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