The Wintrose Chronicles III: The Pilgrimage of Brother Wintrose
"Pete Mesling's None So Deaf explores the darkest regions of the human soul in readable tales that take no prisoners."—Nancy Kilpatrick, Nevermore!: Tales of Murder, Mystery & The Macabre
The town of Lund lay nearly ten miles from the abbey, and Brother Wintrose was exhausted by the time he got there on foot. Lund’s seaside shanties and various shops and homes all had a scalloped look to them, as though the whole town got submerged in salt water every high tide. A bracing, saline wind skittered inland, causing Wintrose to seek immediate shelter. The first establishment to present itself being a tavern, he ordered a mug of keg ale and sat near a fire that hissed and popped in its capacious hearth.
He was dimly aware of nodding off and trying to fight it, when the door swung open and in walked Char and Hayt Fasserby, rubbing the chill out of their arms. He hadn’t seen them in months.
“Well, if it isn’t the Rocky Forest abbot himself!” Char exclaimed, closing the door and joining Wintrose at his table. “Two more, Scap,” he called to the barkeep, the same number of fingers raised.
“My friends,” said Brother Wintrose. “It is good to see you, and surprising. Twenty years we’ve known each other, yet we meet so seldom.”
Hayt had been warming himself before the fire but now sat down beside his brother.
“You’re a long way from Scratch Mountain,” Char said to Wintrose. “What brings you to the seashore?”
Wintrose tilted his mug and stared into it. “I need a boat, same as many a wanderer who’s come before me to Lund, no doubt.”
“A boat?” Hayt said. “Have you left the abbey for good, Brother Wintrose?”
“No, no.” Wintrose chuckled dryly and pulled at his beard. “I need to get to the Wizened Isle. A scholar there by the name of Donen has written me, requesting my presence.”
“Has this to do with the scourge?” Char asked. Wintrose nodded. “Then we’ll find you a boat, but it won’t be here in Lund, not during high-trade season. And not with half the fleet here laid waste by the demons. We’ll need to go half a day north to Briar. A fellow there by the name of Clurry owes me a favor or two.”
“I can’t ask you to—”
“You haven’t asked us for anything. We’re going with you, and that’s an end to it.”
Wintrose’s lips parted, but instead of speaking he hoisted and drained his mug. Soon the brothers Fasserby were done with their drinks as well, and the three men were out the door, heading north on foot.
The temperature dropped along with the sun, and when a cold mist drifted in from the sea, the travelers made camp. Char and Hayt set about building a fire under a span of broad-leafed boughs. No one had mentioned it, but they hadn’t come this far without company. For the last several miles, strange laughter had been gathering on both sides of the path the men followed. And a rushing, tumbling movement could also be heard as the laughing things scurried to keep pace while remaining hidden from view. Now that the travelers had stopped for the night, the surrounding brush was quiet. Quiet but watchful, Wintrose presumed.
“Perhaps we should find a cave higher up, among the rocks,” Wintrose said as Hayt stoked the fire into a good strong blaze.
“No,” said Char. “I think we all know what’s out there, following us. They’d love nothing more than to trap us in a cave, where they’d have only one entrance to cover. I’d rather see them work a little harder than that if they’re going to tear me limb from limb.”
That settled it. Wintrose was in neither the mood nor the condition to argue. It seemed a cave might be a bit warmer, and there was sure to be one hidden in the rockier terrain, but if his weary body managed to find sleep here in the open, who was he to complain? Tomorrow would be a clean slate. He wouldn’t be so quick to acquiesce after a night’s sleep and a morning’s breakfast.
As tired as he was, Hayt and Char were first to drift off—too many of Wintrose’s fireside stories, apparently. The feeling of being watched kept Wintrose up, staring into the dwindling campfire, until long after the brothers had been reduced to snores. But fatigue won out in the end, and Wintrose slept until morning without interruption.
The far-off cawing of a predatory bird roused Brother Wintrose. He rubbed his eyes against the dawn’s glare as it reflected off the sea. He really did feel better as he reached for the small pack he’d carried with him on his journey. That’s when he noticed that Char and Hayt were nowhere to be seen, the only remnant of their presence the crooked stick Hayt had used to roast a hare.
It was damned odd. He had no worries about reaching Briar. And Char had given him the name of his acquaintance there. But it wasn’t like the brothers to pull a disappearing act like this. It didn’t smell right.
The only thing to do was carry on, but not until he’d had something to eat. He pulled a dry hunk of bread from his pack and nibbled on it. His water was almost gone, but he couldn’t resist a long draught. He stuffed what was left of his small loaf back into the pack, along with the remaining swig of water. Then, hoping that Briar would prove to be a community bursting at the seams with abundance and generosity, he hauled himself to his feet with the help of his crook and resumed his course.
Many morning sounds accompanied Brother Wintrose on his way. Early birds twittered gleefully from hidden perches. Dew squirted up from the grass in a susurrous drone as he stepped. And the pleasant buzz of reawakening insect life set the very air alive. But there was one sound missing from the scene: that of impish laughter and shuffling movement. The creatures seldom came out of hiding in the morning hours, but lately they enjoyed making their presence known in a thousand irritating ways, at all hours of the day and night. Wintrose didn’t want to make the connection, but his thoughts were there before he could call them back. Char and Hayt’s disappearance corresponded with the absence of the devils. Only two explanations seemed possible. Either Char and Hayt were in trouble, or they were in cahoots with the demons. Wintrose’s thoughts vacillated between the two possibilities the entire way to Briar.
The town itself was bowl-like, as if its acreage had been scooped out to make the setting as unique as possible. Approaching from the far side may not have been as dramatic, because the bowl was shallower there—chipped. But coming at it from the south made it seem like something out of a fairy story.
Wintrose had no problem finding Clurry’s hut. Char had indicated the location with the same casual precision Wintrose had long admired in the man. He cared about exactness. He cared, period. That’s why it was so frustrating to think he and his brother—toward whom Wintrose had always felt the same trust, if not intellectual admiration, he felt toward Char—might have given themselves up to the sinister cause that seemed to have limitless potential for spreading its poison these days.
“Yes?” said the golden-haired man who answered the door. “What is it?”
“I’m looking for Clurry,” Wintrose said, pulling back the hood of his cowl.
“Not anymore you’re not,” the man said, his voice tired and short tempered. “What do you want?”
“We have a friend in common, Mr. Clurry. Char Fasserby. He said I might be able to count on you for a favor, on his behalf.”
“You know Char? Well, why didn’t you say so? Come on in. Step lively, now. Let’s have it out over a cup of tea, eh?”
“That sounds delightful. Thank you.”
The place hadn’t looked like much from outside, but Clurry’s eye for arrangement had cast a charming spell over the interior of the one-room hovel. Miniature framed art hung on the walls, and a cheery fire carried on in a hearth decorated with numerous tiles, each intricately carved as if part of a story.
They sat at a small, round table in the center of the room to drink their tea.
“It’s a boat I seek,” said Wintrose. “Passage to the Wizened Isle.”
“The Wizened Isle? Why, there’s nothing to the place anymore. Just Donen’s Temple. Donen himself could have died fifty years ago and no one would know.”
“He isn’t dead. He wrote me. I must get to him, and soon.”
“Then you shall. The day old Clurry can’t figure out a way to put a man on a boat is the very day to start forging nails for his coffin.”
“God be with you, Clurry. Your kindness will not go unfelt in the world if my hopes have any foundation in reality.”
Wintrose might have reserved his blessing—or delivered it with less zeal—had he first laid eyes on the vessel Mr. Clurry was able to hire for him. It was smelly even for a fishing trawler, and the grease from a recent harvest had coated everything with a slick sheen. Wintrose’s crook and sandals were all but useless in keeping him upright as he boarded, but with the help of two brawny stevedores he managed. It instantly became clear to him why Clurry had been so insistent about saying goodbye at the shipping manager’s office. He must have known how humble Wintrose’s accommodations were likely to be.
Of course, humility was nothing to be ashamed of. It was a virtue, and Brother Wintrose would have climbed a mountain of mackerel if it meant he stood a chance at ending the Rocky Forest plague. As it was, he only had to spend two-and-a-half hours breathing fish remnants before coming within view of the stony shore of the Wizened Isle.
The island took its name from the view it offered the eastbound traveler. Any seaman coming at the small island, as Wintrose now did, from the west was greeted by the dramatic profile of an extremely old man. It was merely the way the rocks that made up the island had tumbled out of the sea countless ages ago, but the resemblance to human features was startling. Wintrose could think of no better place to begin strategizing the next campaign in his war against the Rocky Forest devils than in the region of a naturally occurring stone tribute to humanity. He only hoped Donen had as much valuable information to offer as he had made it seem in his recent missive; the scholar’s offhanded allusion to three holy relics had prompted Wintrose to leave his precious abbey temporarily without a head.
As soon as the stoical captain of the fishing vessel deposited Wintrose amid the sharp rocks and sandy loam of the island’s jagged shoreline, he turned his boat around and headed straight back to Briar. There was much fishing to be done, and time was money, but the man promised to return in several hours. Before turning his attention to the climb that lay ahead, Wintrose watched the trawler grow smaller and smaller as it scudded toward the horizon.
He wouldn’t have to go anywhere near the promontory of the Wizened Isle. Donen’s Temple was famously nestled within a stand of western hemlock, roughly at the midway point of the island’s anomalous rock formation. The climb was a test of his old bones, but he suspected they’d support him through worse before this was all over. It was steeper going than the hike between Wintrose Abbey and Briar but not nearly as long. Soon he was face to face with the arched blood-red doors that served as the temple’s main entrance.
He wasn’t sure how to proceed. There was no knocker, and the doors seemed too large and solid for knocking with bare hands. Noticing that one of them was slightly ajar, he opted for the direct approach by squeezing in unannounced. He stood in a small vestibule. Directly ahead, an ornately carved door, much smaller than the main doors, blocked his way. Beyond it must be the temple proper, he reasoned. The small door popped inward with the slightest twist of a handle, the shriek of its hinges echoing around the circular room beyond.
“Brother Wintrose, is that you?”
He couldn’t tell where the voice had originated, only that its reverberations sounded at every point along the perimeter of the room. A thick tree trunk rose from the center of the floor. His eyes followed it up about twenty feet to its midpoint. There heavy ropes were tied around the bole and extended across the high-domed room, anchored to the circular wall at four equidistant points. Something about the scene was very wrong, but Wintrose allowed his gaze to continue up the trunk to the top, which swayed gently despite the securing ropes. A wooden platform, maybe a foot squared, had been affixed to the apex of the trunk. On the tiny platform stood a heavy, trembling old man, his hands bound behind him. Wintrose marveled at the design of it all.
“I am Brother Wintrose. Tell me you are not Donen the Scholar.”
“It is I. There’s no time to lose. The demons were able to send a contingent to the Wizened Isle to do this to me. They must be growing stronger than I’d imagined.”
“They are everywhere,” Wintrose said.
“In the drawer of a small table, in the vestibule, you’ll find a ring of keys. The black one opens the door to my chamber, behind me. The gold one unlocks a trapdoor set into the floor there. It opens onto a foot-deep cubicle. In it you’ll find a scroll and two small glass spheres. The scroll will describe in more detail the holy relics I mentioned in my letter—where to find them and what to do with them. The orbs are for your protection. They are filled with explosive powders and are capable of producing considerable fire when hurled at an object.
“I’ve managed to hold out for your arrival, Brother Wintrose, but I’m afraid my strength is at an end. Please, retrieve the items I’ve mentioned and be gone, so you won’t have to witness anything unpleasant.”
“But perhaps I could—”
“There’s no time. Go!”
Wintrose hurried into the vestibule. Scanning the small area, he soon found the table with the keys. As he slid open the drawer, a crash from inside the temple caused him to start. It sounded like a heavy vase dropping to the ground and shattering. His pace wasn’t nearly as hurried when he retraced his steps into the temple, for he feared what he would find. Fatigue had taken its toll on Donen. The scholar lay prostrate on the floor, his head cloven and its contents spilling outward in an ugly pool of red and gray. Wintrose gave the mess a wide berth on his way to Donen’s chamber.