They ran for weeks.
When they stopped, it was never for more
Eventually, the weather changed. The chill of early autumn melted into a gentle, humid heat; the trees were gold and full, having not shed their leaves for winter. Mordecai brought her to a town so that she could ask after their location. As they approached the outskirts, Mordecai’s features shifted. His wings became transparent, barely noticeable, like currents of wind flowing from between his shoulders. His eyes mimicked Brigid’s own; a white sclera and a pale blue iris. The horns were gone; the ears rounded; the nails shortened. When they walked up the main road, he appeared no different than any other man passing through the shops and sidewalks. He followed behind Brigid like a servant, his gaze to the dust, his gait slow.
“You don’t need to do that,” she muttered.
“True,” he said. “But I want to.”
“You can at least raise your head,” she said.
“That I do not want to do,” he replied. “I can see more than you think this way. Do not concern yourself with me. Gather your information, Mistress.”
Brigid massaged her temples.
Everything in her life had drastically changed within the span of a
single afternoon, and she had spent these last months fleeing both physically
and mentally. Every step she took was on
a bed of broken glass, but she had no time to mind her bloodied feet. Now, as she took in the neat buildings and
smartly attired people around her, she thought of what remained in
Bells rang throughout the plaza; it must be Sunday. People flowed towards the white tower in the north of town, a church that looked much like the one back home. She glanced at Mordecai as they joined the crowd. He smiled back at her and said, “Fear not. I shall be safe in the house of God.”
“No bursting into flames or anything?” Brigid said, half-joking.
“I could, if such a display would please you,” he said.
“Probably not wise.”
They slipped into the back of the church; the pews were already full. Most of the community was present, and Brigid knew from experience that church created a social mood. She could tap someone on his way out and get her questions answered, then escape before too many people noticed that she was a stranger.
Several other tardy families hovered behind the last pew, and it wasn’t much trouble for Brigid and Mordecai to blend in with them. Except, of course, for the fact that everyone in the small chapel knew each other, and this curious young couple was definitely not known.
Brigid could feel eyes on her as the sermon began, heard muttered questions and equally confused replies. Her stomach turned; rationally, these people were just wondering about the newcomers, as anyone naturally would. A simple glance could not identify a witch.
Mordecai was entirely untroubled. He smiled with white, even teeth at the inquisitive murmuring, even bowed slightly at a young lady who stared for more seconds than was strictly polite. The girl blushed and turned away, grinning down at her hymnal.
Brigid nudged him, shaking her head, and he shrugged. His appearance and mannerisms were perfectly human, but they were a glamour, a winter coat that the properly sensitive person could see. They needed to stay inconspicuous.
The sermon dragged on, but Brigid’s nerves were too frayed to process a word of it.
Something about penance and retribution; fire from the mountaintop, sulfur below. The preacher was a young man with lungs fit for a concert hall; his pronouncements boomed over the congregation as he stalked the pews, gesturing wildly, his face alive with zeal.
“He is quite the showman,” Mordecai murmured to Brigid, impressed.
Brigid pursed her lips. The sermons back home were much more palatable. Father O’Kelly focused on forgiveness and service, on the peace afforded those who loved their neighbors. Of course, discipline was important; no community could survive without everyone pitching in as much as they were able. But in some hands, religion was a walking stick; in others, it was a cudgel.
The room had gone quiet. Brigid snapped to attention and realized that the preacher was in front of her, hand extended, grinning broadly.
“Ma’am,” he said. “I ask you again, do you accept our Lord Savior as your own?”
He drawled the words ‘lord’ and ‘savior’, dragging them out past the door and into the street.
“I do,” Brigid said, and took his hand. His grip was warm and firm, but less of a vice-hold than she expected. He winked at her.
“And do you, dear lady, good madam, blessed child of God—do you swear to drive out sin from your life?”
Brigid nodded mutely. He leaned in closer and held his free hand to his ear with a flourish.
“I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch that!”
Brigid was terrified. Why had this man singled her out? Did he know what she was? Was this a game? Why was he smiling so hard?
She breathed deeply as Mordecai looked on with amused concern. Damn him. She could have done with some invisibility.
“I—yes. Of course,” she said, filling her voice with false conviction.
“And do you also swear to expose sin wherever it may be? To witness to the lost, either by word or by sword?! Do you swear, fine lady, to unearth evil where it lurks in the silence and the shadows, to shed the harsh light of the Lord upon it, and to cast it headlong into the burning lakes from which it spawned?” The preacher’s speech finished on an ecstatic wail, which so excited the congregation that they cheered in response, even as Brigid numbly agreed to do all of those things.
The preacher squeezed her hand with a surprising, unsettling gentleness. He was just a few inches taller than she was—which was to say, hardly imposing—slim and fair-haired, with eyes like a freshwater lake. He let go of her and stepped back, bowing slightly. With much less fanfare to his tone, he said, “Then we bid you welcome.”
With the service finished, everyone filed out into the early afternoon, talking among themselves about preparations for supper and errands that needed their attention. No one paid any further mind to the newcomers. Brigid stood in the crowd, dumbfounded, her fingers shaking, as they tended to do when her nerves were overwhelmed.
“We must go,” she said at last, as people continued to jostle past and shout over her. “Quickly.”
“But, mistress, we do not know where we are,” Mordecai replied, with some consternation. “We may have even strayed from our goal.”
“It’s fine. We’ll find another place. There are countless townships in this region.”
“With all due respect, we are not entirely sure of which region we’re in, presently …” Mordecai said.
“I told you, it’s fine,” she hissed. They were alone in the church now; even the preacher had gone on his way. “I don’t like this place. It’s dangerous.”
“And I was so looking forward to a bed this evening,” Mordecai said, with a wistful, affected sigh.
“Soon,” she said. “I promise. Just not here. Please.”
“As you command, mistress,” Mordecai said. “Let us be off.”
He held open the door for her, lowering his chin respectfully.
“Stop that,” she said, going out, “you’re not my servant.”
“Oh?” he said, as though that was the most quaintly interesting opinion he’d ever heard. “What am I, then?”
“You’re—you’re …” Brigid hesitated to say ‘friend,’ as she barely knew him, and he was profoundly odd besides. “You’re someone I’ve asked for help.”
“Contracted for help,” he said. “Not that I object, mind you, but it’s important to be precise.”
Brigid walked quickly along the main road, planning to establish a comfortable distance between the settlement and the two of them before they took off again.
“What do you mean?” she said crossly. “Are you saying that I forced you into this?”
“That was the object of the summoning spell.” He held up his hands. “Again, I am grateful. My kind long to walk on the surface. But we do so only at a witch’s pleasure.”
His implications disturbed Brigid, and she halted, turning to face him. “I will not keep a slave, Mordecai. If that is what this is, then you are freed from—”
Mordecai caught her wrist. “Stop, Brigid. You continue to mistake me. I chose this binding. You called to me, and I answered. It is true that I must heed you, to a certain extent, but I make my own decisions.”
Brigid frowned. “My mother taught me the basics of the ritual, but little beyond that. She said it was only for an emergency.”
“Your mother was a cautious woman,” Mordecai said.
“Great lot of good it did her,” Brigid muttered. “If I had called you earlier—if I’d have known that those people were after her ...”
The grief was a fierce tide, a sudden knife, a lightning strike. It came upon her violently, without warning, and she broke away from Mordecai to wipe the tears that had sprung to her eyes.
“Perhaps,” Mordecai said, his gaze locked on and yet distant from her, his expression inscrutable. “Perhaps not. It is pointless to consider, either way.”
“I miss her so badly,” Brigid said. She clapped her hand to her mouth, trying to stifle the quaking, wracking sobs that threatened to escape.
They were half a mile from the town now, standing on a dirt road, the sun sinking above them. The air buzzed with the drone of cicadas and sat, warm and still, on their shoulders. Mordecai stared at her, his fingers flexing now and then, and she felt achingly, miserably alone.
“You must think that I’m pathetic,” Brigid whispered. “If you’d really like to sleep in the town, it’s all right. I can wait for you.”
“No,” he replied, and his eyes dropped to the ground. “I am simply helpless. And I will not stay in that place without you.”
The answer startled her, but then Mordecai’s head jerked up abruptly, as though he’d caught a scent, and he whipped around to glare down the road. Half a second later, too quickly for either of them to react, a sharp, thin projectile barreled towards them, finding its target in Mordecai’s right arm.
He howled in pain and shock as the glamour that kept him human dissipated, revealing his claws and fangs, now bared with rage. Mordecai tore the bolt from his arm and snapped it in half. Thick, black blood spattered his clothes and soaked the earth around his boots; Brigid’s throat closed at the horror of the sight.
“Show yourself,” Mordecai growled. His voice was terrible in that moment, a ragged, reverberating sound like metal spikes driven into a stone wall. Brigid clutched her stomach, frightened by the primal noise of it, the ancient, pitiless anger, so different from the measured tones he had adopted until that point.
“Gladly, demon!” the shooter called back, and soon a figure came into view—the blushing girl from the church.
She kept a loaded crossbow aimed at them both as she walked forward, her steps determined, self-assured.
“Leave us be,” Brigid said, trembling, tasting acrid bile on her tongue. Mordecai’s blood would not stop flowing; it was like an oil spring coating his arm, glistening and viscous.
“No,” the girl said. “Not until I’ve sent him back to hell—and you with him, if I must.”
Mordecai snarled, but did not move to strike—his body was positioned in front of Brigid’s, and his attention was fixed on the weapon in the girl’s hands.
She couldn’t have been more than fifteen, skinny and tan from a life spent doing chores in the sun. Chores that apparently included crossbow training, as she held the thing expertly, with the calm confidence of a seasoned hunter. Her Sunday dress whipped around her ankles as an evening wind picked up; the fabric was thin and patterned whimsically with daisies.
“I knew what you were,” she said. “I could smell it on you. I been taught.”
“Not well enough,” Mordecai said. “Brigid. Assist me!”
“Wait—” Brigid said, still unnerved by the raw quality of Mordecai’s voice, by the entire sum of his altered demeanor.
Power emanated from him like white rapids coursing over rocks, and it needed direction. Her direction.
The girl fired another shot.
“No!” Brigid cried, and in that instant, gave Mordecai the will he needed to sustain his spell. He rushed forward at an unfathomable speed, grabbed the bolt in mid-flight, and then threw it aside as he kept moving.
He was upon the girl before Brigid drew another breath, teleporting to close the distance between them before she could pull the trigger again. He grabbed her by the waist, sinking his claws into her stomach and back, holding her so that she could not escape. The girl screamed and dropped her weapon; Mordecai crushed it under his heel.
“God protect me!” the girl wailed, tears of pain and terror streaming down her face.
“I’m sure that he has more pressing concerns than a whelp like you,” Mordecai hissed, about to drive his claws more deeply into her belly, about to gut her like a wriggling fish.
“Stop—stop it,” Brigid cried, her will clear and resonant, irresistible to Mordecai’s ears. “You’re killing her.”
Mordecai released the girl. She collapsed onto the road, coughing up blood, weeping in pain.
“I’m sorry … I’m so sorry.” Brigid ran to her. “Let me help you, please.”
“Get away,” the girl said through clenched teeth. “I’d rather die than be helped by a whore of the devil.”
The words were like a pail of ice water to Brigid’s panicked mind. She sat down beside the girl and said, grimly, “Well, I’m afraid that’s the only option you’ve got right now. Mordecai.”
He paced angrily, his wings extended, the feathers puffy with agitation. “You would save this wretched creature? You are nothing to her! You are scum.”
“Scum or not,” Brigid said, “I still can’t watch someone else suffer.”
He shook his head, but the fašade was already re-asserting itself; when next he spoke, the arch accent was back in effect. “Fine. As you will.”
His demonic features faded away as he kneeled in the dirt, opposite to Brigid.
“What are you going to do—don’ touch me, don’ touch me!” the girl howled, then fell into a coughing fit. Mordecai’s claws had torn deep gouges in her stomach and between her shoulderblades—not so deep that she was beyond repair, thankfully, but she was rapidly losing blood. Brigid took an herb pouch from her coat and unlaced it, withdrawing a few dried passion flowers. She placed the flowers on the girl’s mouth, watching as the girl, trying to protest, swallowed the petals. Moments later, she was asleep.
Brigid sighed in relief. She spread her coat out on the dirt, and then arranged the girl’s body so that she was lying flat upon it. Then, she pressed her palms to the bare skin beneath the girl’s dress. She shut her eyes and felt out the web of life, the interconnected strands of energy that existed in every breathing thing.
This was the magic that Anna spoke of most often and with the greatest fondness; the ability to see life as a tapestry of energy that could be broken and repaired. Brigid sliced the tip of her index finger with a small dagger, and then touched the worst of the girl’s wounds, the place where the skin was entirely stripped away, where there was shiny, livid muscle, wet with blood, heaving with injured life. The strands of the girl’s life force were as clear to Brigid as the veins in her wrist, hanging in the air like the afterimage of a map; Brigid could feel them pulsing, ebbing, like an ache in the back of her mind. She could see where the stands were thin, frayed, on the brink of severance, and that was where she knew to send the magic.
Mordecai took her dagger and cut his own finger, though with obvious disapproval. He placed his hand beside hers on the girl’s body. Together, they gave of their own energy, channeling it and their will into the girl, funneling their combined efforts towards the weakest areas of the life web. The wounds closed as the strands were repaired, and after a few minutes there was nothing left but fresh skin and a smear of blood.
“Well done! Very well done, indeed.” Someone called to them, clapping.
Brigid, exhausted and confused, looked up—and then went cold with fear.
(( to be continued ))