The Wintrose Chronicles II: The Wintrose Crucible
"Pete Mesling is a brawler of a writer. Whether his touch is light as a feather, like Bradbury, or a hard left hook, like Lansdale, he has you exactly where he wants you."—John Bruni, author of Tales of Questionable Taste
“Do you think it’s gone?” Brother Gabbin asked.
“I can’t be sure,” whispered Brother Drear.
Brother Wintrose only stared up through the cracks in the floor, flicking his eyes back and forth in an effort to catch a glimpse of the thing—or a sign of its departure.
The three monks had found the small house several months ago, and Wintrose immediately took it as a sign that he was on the right path, that he was one step closer to seeing his abbey built. Now he wondered why God would provide a shelter in which he and his brethren could begin their studies and plans in earnest, only to introduce such vile horrors into their lives as these beings that had been roaming the woods lately, and now infiltrating their dwelling. As a test of faith it seemed inordinately rigorous, but a divine test was a hopeful possibility, so he allowed it to become belief. If nothing else, it had given him something to tell Gabbin and Drear to ease their harried minds a bit.
Wintrose was about to suggest that he leave the crawlspace to investigate, when the clicking of nails on the floor above their heads resumed. He could imagine the long, ugly talons, three per foot, as they sounded on the wood from one corner of the room to another. The shins of these prowlers angled backward to meet knobbed knees. This one’s long, flat head was likely to be swiveling now, searching at the end of its sinewy neck. Sniffing out meat. Its diaphanous wings would be drawn in to its sides while it was indoors. The monks couldn’t hope to avoid capture forever. It was a miracle they hadn’t been dispatched already. They had no good estimate of the numbers these creatures had achieved. More every day, at any rate. Or rather, every night, for they only began their hunting and seeking after sunset, which is partly why Brothers Gabbin, Drear and Wintrose had managed to stay alive this long; the days allowed them to move around, fortify and contemplate.
Drear had come up with the unsettling notion that the horrid beasts weren’t just passing through, but were coming up from one of Hell’s reeking vents to put down roots in the Rocky Forest. Maybe, he had suggested one night as the three of them passed around a jug of wine, the monsters weren’t just after food as they scoured the countryside, snouts low to the ground. Perhaps they were looking for a place to start a kingdom, in much the way Wintrose hoped to realize his dream of a proper mountain hermitage, where the brotherhood could grow and flourish. The idea had an apocalyptic note Wintrose couldn’t ignore—or claim to find wholly unappealing. In a way, it strengthened his resolve to raise battlements against the forces of evil. It wasn’t impossible that Brother Drear had hit upon the very logic behind God’s test, but Brother Wintrose knew to be cautious of convenient answers. Being overly eager to believe, he had learned long ago, was no better than rejecting intimations of the divine out of hand.
At length, the clicking trailed off. Presumably the horror had slunk out through the main door. Wintrose could tell the other two men were looking at him, though only a thin, washed-out facsimile of light trickled into the crawlspace. He stared back into their dimly lit faces but said nothing. The door to the house groaned on its heavy iron hinges and snapped shut. Dread crawled down Wintrose’s back as he envisioned the thing pausing to close the door on its way out, no doubt with a toothy leer and one of the low grumbles they sometimes made when they were more or less content. At least this one hadn’t done any of the hideous caterwauling they often exhibited—never a signal of contentment, only of sheer animal rage and frustration.
Wintrose pushed open the trapdoor and took a careful look around. The room was clear, so he hauled himself up and then helped his friends. The thing had left the dozen or so lit candles in the room unmolested, and he wondered if it had sensed holiness here—and feared it. He couldn’t help seeing omens in almost everything these days.
Sleep didn’t come easily to Wintrose. Not only was he shaken by their narrow avoidance of detection and capture, but the intruder had made child’s play of the oaken bolt they’d used to lock the door. Tomorrow they would reassemble the mechanism, but nothing prevented the creature, or its deformed cousins, from returning in the night.
When sleep finally claimed him, it was deep and consuming.
In the morning, he was the last to wake, which was unusual. And how quickly daybreak chased away the flittering shades of nighttime’s frights. Adjusting his appearance before a mirror, he attributed his sound sleep to a growing sense of being on the side of righteousness. All thoughts of being too scared to fall asleep in recent weeks were gone from his head, until he stepped away from the mirror and recognized his arrogance. Pride would be the topic of their next philosophical discussion, he decided.
“Brother Gabbin,” Drear said, excitedly tapping his friend’s forearm and struggling to swallow a mouthful of gruel, “do tell Brother Wintrose what you’ve just told me. You won’t believe it.” He turned to Wintrose. “You simply won’t believe it.”
Wintrose joined them at the table but took no food, only clasped his hands before him in the manner of prayer.
“When I was out yesterday,” Gabbin said, “I came upon a house along Bredloe Pass. I was trying to find the most accessible route up the ridge you’ve talked about as a possible site for the abbey, so I went deeper into the hills than we’ve yet been.”
“This house,” Wintrose said, trying to steer Gabbin back on course, “who lives there?”
“I watched it for some time and only saw a man come and go. Owns a couple of horses, he does. And a barn. He must live off his garden and whatever game comes his way. But I wonder if he might be of some help to us. Perhaps he knows something about these devils that have been sprouting up like tinderweed.”
“Why have you said nothing of this before now, Brother Gabbin?”
“I only wanted to choose a time when you might hear the news with a glad heart.”
“Not when I most needed a bit of cheering up, eh?”
“I’m sorry, Brother Wintrose.”
“No need for that. I merely tease you, my loyal scout.”
Gabbin looked at him with glistening eyes and pulled the hair back from his face, relieved to be in the abbot’s good graces still.
Wintrose loved the two of them with all his heart. They put so much faith in his guidance, it was almost frightening. They devoted themselves to his cause—a cause he himself had trouble believing in without the occasional reservation—and asked nothing in return. If he could find more like them, his abbey would be a formidable bastion indeed. Gabbin, with his unruly, graying hair and awkward manners was as true to God as any man Wintrose had known. And Drear’s monastic black hair, cut short to frame his face, was the perfect cover for the exuberant wit and imagination of the man. Two very different men, in some ways, they wore the same muted gray cowl as Wintrose. He was their elder, and it was his vision they pursued, but all three men were equals as far as he was concerned. He felt blessed to be in their company.
Now they awaited his guidance.
“We shall travel to this house, you and I,” he said to Brother Gabbin. “Brother Drear, would you stay here to mend our door and devise a better lock?”
“Of course, Brother Wintrose.”
“It’s settled, then. Both of you, finish breaking your fast. I’ll take food with me on the road.”
The day was clear and bright, with just a few fat clouds in the crisp blue sky. The high forest was seldom without its breeze, but today there was warmth behind it. The going was easy, and time flew away from them as they walked and chatted.
“We’ve come a long way already, Brother Gabbin. If it’s much farther we won’t make it back to Brother Drear before nightfall. The sun drops quickly this time of year.”
“Only a little farther, I assure you. Around that bend you see up ahead.”
Wintrose stroked his beard and continued in silence.
Gabbin, of course, was as good as his word. As soon as they rounded the long curve through this part of the pass, the house and barn could be seen beyond a stand of towering conifers whose branches only began halfway up their trunks. A dramatic, rocky slope predominated the other side of the pass. Smoke drifted from a stone chimney as they approached the two-story house. The front door was wide open and revealed a woman in a lighted room. Her back was to them, but she appeared to be hunched over something.
“Must be the wife of the man you saw,” Wintrose said when they were still some distance away.
“Yes, very likely,” Gabbin said.
Their sandals on the wooden porch steps alerted the woman to their presence, and she twirled around to reveal a man in a chair, his feet fastened to the legs with twine. Though a table prevented Wintrose from getting a clear view, the man’s hands appeared to be similarly bound. A red handkerchief had been tied tightly around his head to gag him. His eyes looked wild—whether with terror or malice it was impossible to judge.
“Good evening, madam.” Wintrose bowed slightly. “May we be of service to you in some way?”
“What do you want?” she snapped. “Away with you. I’ve got no alms for the poor.”
“You misunderstand. I offer our help to you. There seems to be trouble here.”
“Nothing I can’t handle. Now off with you.”
Gabbin gave Wintrose’s sleeve a frightened tug, but Wintrose wasn’t about to leave until he knew what was going on.
“I beg your pardon, but if you’ll only take a moment to explain…”
“Oh, very well. If you’re not leaving, come in. Sit, sit.”
Wintrose and Gabbin lowered the hoods of their cowls and sat across the table from the captive, who thumped up and down in his chair and muttered something urgent behind the cloth in his mouth.
The woman brought tea and sat next to the tied-up man. She pushed at her voluminous red hair in a couple of spots and tried to smile.”The name’s Meery Dagget. Apologies if I seem a little brusque this afternoon. Caught this one nosing around in the barn this morning. Been trying to figure out what to do with him.”
“I’m Brother Wintrose, and this is Brother Gabbin. Is this man a thief, then?”
She seemed to search for an appropriate answer. “Let me be straight with you, Brother Wintrose. There have been some strange goings on in these woods of late. Very strange indeed.” Wintrose could feel Gabbin’s gaze on him but continued to stare at the woman. He tapped Gabbin’s knee a couple of times underneath the table in an effort to reassure him. “Do you know what I speak of?”
A sound from upstairs claimed his attention momentarily, but he tried not to let on. “Perhaps, madam. Do you refer to the creatures that swarm our hills when the sun goes down?”
Her smile widened, and she cackled dryly. “I do! Would you believe, sir, that this little worm is working for the damned things? Helping them to establish dominion right here in the forest, he is.”
Wintrose’s flesh crawled. Perhaps Brother Drear was closer to the truth than any of them had dared imagine. “That’s a heavy accusation, Mrs. Dagget. Pray, untie the kerchief and let us hear it from his own lips.”
“Never! He whines and howls in such a strange tongue—calling to his masters, no doubt. I’ll not have them coming round here at his behest.”
Something fell to the floor upstairs, followed by footsteps. The monks rose, apprehensive, as two pairs of boots could be heard clopping down the steps. Suddenly a young man burst into the room, his face badly bruised, his shirt torn open.
“This isn’t the man you saw around the place, is it?” Wintrose asked Gabbin, who only shook his head slowly back and forth.
“Free my brother, witch!” The young man shouted breathlessly, pointing at Meery.
“Ah, the cat’s come out of the bag, I see. And has an urge to do some lashing, eh?” She turned to Brother Wintrose. “Their type never works alone. My husband took that one upstairs while I looked after this one.”
A short, round man came around the corner at last, rubbing the side of his head. Meery glared at him but said nothing.
“That’s him!” said Gabbin, with a poke of his elbow into Wintrose’s side. “That’s the man I saw.”
“What lies has this viper been filling your ears with, holy man?” the young man asked Wintrose.
“No lies, boy,” Meery interrupted. “Only the truth of how you and your friend here are agents of the very devil.”
“Oh, she’s a cunning one,” the man said with a sharp laugh.
Mr. Dagget shrunk into a shadowy corner and fingered his hat. He didn’t appear to want much to do with the escalating tempers in the room.
“Enough!” shouted Wintrose. “Someone tell me what in hell goes on here, or so help me, I’ll make my own way to the bottom of it.”
The young man jumped on the opportunity to have his say. “Sir, I’m Char, and this is my brother, Hayt. We recently learned some rather disturbing news about Mr. and Mrs. Dagget. We learned, in fact, that they—not us—have been in communication with the devils that keep us all indoors after dark these days. The last straw came when Hayt went spying and found these two cavorting with the demons in Hider’s Glen. Naked, they were, and giving free rein to their basest urges. Isn’t that right, Hayt?” His brother nodded enthusiastically. “We had to do something, so we came here to make them tell us all about the hellish monstrosities, see if the villains have a weakness we might exploit.”
“They have a weakness, I assure you,” said Wintrose. “They exist only to hate, and that is a profound weakness against the forces of goodness and justice. Humanity has the upper hand in this fight. Now, madam, what have you to say for yourself? Do you deny this man’s charge?”
“Oh, what’s the use?” Mr. Dagget’s eyes went wide at his wife’s audacity. “You’ve no prayer against us. They’ve given us a taste of their power. We’ll share in that power as payment for helping them.”
“You are beyond naïve, woman!” Brother Gabbin yelled.
“You see,” Char continued, “these two were able to turn the tables on us. They took us hostage, but as you can tell, I’ve escaped.” He looked back at Mr. Dagget. “This one whistles a different melody now than when I was in bondage, I assure you. There was no end to his threats and bullying then. Or his violence.” He dabbed at a wound on his forehead and glanced at the blood that stuck to his finger.
“Madam,” said Wintrose, “I want this man set free. You’ve no right to keep him here that I can discern.”
Meery gazed into Wintrose’s eyes a while before answering. “Very well. I thought he and his brother would make a nice gift for the horde, but we’ve gained their trust. We don’t need these boys. Take them. I never want to see any of you again.”
Char rushed to his brother’s side and untied him.
“We’ll wait outside,” said Wintrose.
“Do you think Char is telling the truth?” Gabbin asked once they’d walked a short distance from the house and stopped in the shade of a profuse willow tree.
“Char, yes. The question is whether Hayt told him the truth about what he’d seen, and whether the Daggets are really as friendly with the demons as the woman intimates. There are mysteries in these woods, Brother Gabbin, to last a lifetime. And we’re getting tangled up in them.”
“Brothers,” Char called as he and his brother hurried toward Gabbin and Wintrose, “thank you for waiting. The counsel of holy men would be most welcome in this matter. But first allow me to make a proper introduction of my brother. Say hello to Hayt.”
Brother Gabbin bowed.
“Good to know you both,” said Wintrose. “My friend and I go by the names Gabbin and Wintrose. Can you follow us back to our cottage? We can talk along the way.”
“We’d be glad to. Wouldn’t we, Hayt?”
“By all means. The sooner we devise a plan for dealing with the Daggets and those… things, the better.”
“Agreed,” said Gabbin with a hesitant smile.
The brothers reminded Wintrose of a traveling comedy team he’d seen as a boy. Char was fully a foot taller than Hayt and much thinner. Nor was there any trace of kinship in their features.
As the four of them set off toward the monks’ temporary home, clouds amassed overhead, bringing the illusion of early nightfall. Some minutes passed before anyone felt like uttering a word.
The Rocky Forest rains were legendary for their beauty, but not for any positive effect they had on the progress of travelers. By the time Wintrose and his party were within sight of the cottage, they were exhausted and drenched. And it was dark. Shadowy movement had been accompanying them along their path for several miles, but what could they do, other than slog on? Terror jabbed and mocked them, as though they were a menagerie exhibit, but the four men refused to give in to its ridicule. They knew, to a man, that opening the door on fear—out here in the dark, rainy woods, exposed—would be tantamount to tearing down a dike.
If it was the devilish creatures that crashed around in the underbrush as the men walked, they seemed content to observe. But there was no telling when that contentment might turn to restlessness. Only when Brother Wintrose tried the door and found it locked tight did he allow himself any relief. Brother Drear had managed well without them, it appeared.
Wintrose pounded his fist against the heavy door, but there was no response. “Odd,” he said under his breath.
The sound of pained coughing erupted somewhere.
“That came from behind the house,” Gabbin said. He was out of sight around the corner before any of the others had time to react. They quickly followed.
Sprawled in the wet grass was Brother Drear, glistening red wherever the rain hadn’t sluiced away the blood of his wounds. Gabbin dropped to his side immediately and cradled his beaten head. “What happened here, Brother?” Drear’s body hitched as he coughed up a stringy clot of blood, but he seemed to nod toward the house.
“Look there.” Hayt pointed to a shattered window.
“Dear God,” Wintrose said. “They must have dragged him out. It’s a wonder they didn’t kill him. What are the scoundrels after?”
“They revel in our suffering,” Char said in an angry tone.
Before anyone could say or do anything more, an ear-splitting shriek came up out of the woods behind the house. Gabbin, Wintrose, Char and Hayt stared in that direction.
“All of you, please, stay here and tend to Brother Drear,” Wintrose said. “If I can catch these loathsome river maggots in the act of something, I must.”
If the screaming didn’t come again, he’d never be able to track the source, but he knew it would. One scream from an innocent victim wouldn’t be enough for their diseased appetites. His instinct was good. The high-pitched cries came at regular intervals, making it easy to follow the sound deep into the trees. As he drew closer to it, he became less convinced it was a cry of pain and more certain it signaled abject terror.
He stepped into a clearing almost without noticing it, for it wasn’t the clearing itself that was of interest but what was going on at its center. The devils must have been incredibly quick in their handiwork. Hanging by his ankles from a rope stretched high up between two elder-spruces was Mr. Dagget. In the grip of his hands were his wife’s ankles. All that stood between her and a twenty-foot drop onto a cairn of sharp stones was her husband’s strength, for as long as it held out.
A tittering noise worked its way around the edge of the clearing, but Brother Wintrose saw nothing of the creatures.
Meery Dagget started in on another shattering screech but cut it off when her eyes fell upon Wintrose.
“You!” she hollered, her voice hoarse. “Holy man, get us down from here. They’ve turned against us.”
Wintrose took several steps toward her and examined the pile of rocks. “Not the way I’d choose to die,” he said, shaking his head. “If I had a choice, that is.”
“Look, no one has to die if you’ll just cut us down from here before my husband faints. He’s been hanging here longer than I have.”
From a distance he’d wondered why her skirts didn’t hang down past her head. Now he saw that her arms and clothing were tightly bound to her body. Her fiery orange hair hung loose, however. Mr. Dagget, meanwhile, was putting his last reserves of energy into preventing his wife’s head from colliding with those rocks. His face looked red, even in the dark and the wet. His lips pressed together in fierce determination.
“How could you?” Wintrose asked Meery Dagget. “How could you partner with such things as these? My friend lies, as we speak, at the very rim of Death’s canyon. They broke into our home, dragged him out into the cold, rainy night and just about knocked the life out of him.”
“Can we have this discussion after—”
“No, we’ll have it now. It appears there are enemies in this world so monstrous even their friends are to be treated with the greatest suspicion and contempt.”
“Is there no room for pitying the sinful in your doctrine? How rigid are the laws you choose to live by?”
“The sinful I can forgive, Mrs. Dagget. The unrepentant damned I cannot.”
“You’re taking a bold step if you walk away from us in this predicament, holy man!” But he was already retreating into the woods. “May your conscience be the—”
He shivered and closed his eyes briefly at the dull sound of the woman’s skull cracking open on the sharp stones. He was glad to have been spared the sight. Then came the sobs of her unfortunate husband. Brother Wintrose pulled the hood of his cowl down over his eyes and returned through the rain to the cottage. The eerie laughter amid the trees had fallen to something like respectful silence, and he wondered if God was really the one testing him.