The mare he was riding was touchy and nervous. It shied at shadows and leaves. A wolf barked- not even particularly nearby- and the horse froze, it's ears pricked.Kevin gently smacked the leather on her neck prompting her on. This was nothing. These small inconveniences did not bother Kevin Drakelock. He supposed the animal was behaving this way because she was stolen. That did not bother him either. As, he rode, he grinned a satisfied grin, and thought: "I am as cold as cold itself, and nothing can chill me."
There was a dismal truth there. In a lifetime as short as Kevin's had so far been, he had squeezed in a maximum of wickedness. He chuckled to think that tonight, he was working for a priest.
Kevin counted himself a man devoid of superstition and religion. He attended church- occasionally- in disguise. He wore several luck charms- a pair belted at his waist and another in his boot. Life after death? That was another thing that didn't bother him. And he did not believe in witches.
An unusually powerful gust of wind howled; the stolen horse skittered and snorted. The path they rode was wooded, and uphill. The mare seemed to be frightened by the brush on either side of the trail. Kevin leaned forward into the wind. Suddenly a creak, a crack and Kevin threw up both arms in time to save himself; a heavy trunk rotten through months ago had found its moment to break free just as Kevin rode beneath. But the blow that missed Kevin's skull instead fell on the mare's hindquarters. She threw up her forelegs, shrieking. Kevin scrabbled to catch the reins again, but she bolted in a panicked gallop. The pathway swung to the left, but the frightened animal swung to the right! Twigs and leaves took away Kevin's vision and he felt himself hitting the earth, hard.
He lay still, learning to breathe again. Then he took count, first of his limbs, then of his digits. All still there, and all still workable. He worked his legs under him. He groaned, but only out of habit. A wolf bayed again. Kevin reflected that the mare might get herself eaten. A rough grin cut his face: another thing that would not bother him.
On foot, he regained the path, whereupon he found something else to improve his mood. It was his pack. It was a very large one. The horse had thrown it before it had thrown him, most likely when she had reared into her terror stricken gallop. Kevin heaved the pack onto his shoulders. It was more than 100 pounds he judged, although less than 150. There was nothing for it. He got her draped around his shoulders and started in to hiking.
Father Bennet believed in witches. Out of the wind, behind a shelf of rock, all alone in the dead of night except for his gelding pony, he waited. His mind, it seemed, had decided to pass the time by imagining terrors in every shadow of the woods. He had built a very large fire, partly to ward off the cold, but especially for the wolves. He was a nervous man. These hills were not known as haunts for wolves, but he had heard many of them calling to each other hereabouts tonight.
Witches, he knew, sometimes used wolves as servants. Other times a witch might take the shape of a wolf - a gift of the devil. They could drive beasts and men mad, they could control the weather, they could -
-"What if" came the thought, unbidden and unwelcome to Bennet's mind "What if tonight, each wolf in these hills is actually a witch in disguise?" He shuddered.
Another fear that was beginning to steal up on him was that he might have done wrong by hiring Drakelock. The man was a rank sinner and dangerous to boot. Supposing he had by some error of calculation, not brought the agreed on fee? What might Drakelock do to him? He fumbled for his money bag to count once more.
A sudden scream split the night, not ten yards away! Bennet lurched to his feet, silver coins scattering among the rocks. His heart leaped to his throat. He spun in the direction of the noise and saw Kevin Drakelock, a massive pack across his broad shoulders stepping into the firelight.
"Ha hah hah!" Kevin shouted "You should have seen yourself jump!"
Kevin slung his pack heavily to the ground and stretched in relief.
"What's the matter old fellow? I didn't scare you did I?" He laughed again.
The priest shivered as his fear drained away and he laughed hesitantly. Then his eyes fixed on the bundle and he grew as still as if Kevin had thrown an adder onto the ground.
"Is... Is that...?"
"What?" Kevin looked dumbly about, then followed the other's gaze. "What, this?" He toed the massive pack. "Well yes, of course it's her!", he replied to the question in the priest's eyes "What else-"
And with total irreverence, he tugged from the pack a hand, attached to an arm, and then to a shoulder and then a body. The body of a witch.
A small, sharp noise escaped the priest.
"What's wrong, Bennet?" demand Drakelock "This is what you wanted, what you hired me for."
"Not that- no- not- not the body!" stammered the priest in obvious horror "Why bring that? I gave you strict instructions... You cannot finish a one like this by any common means!"
"What are you talking about?" Drakelock was harsh. "Pay me."
"Yes, of course, I'll pay, but fire! I told you- you must use fire! Else, she being a witch, she may rise again and seek vengeance!"
"Father, you're a fool." stated Drakelock "A corpse, is a corpse, is a corpse. Are these my coins that you've hurled all about?"
"Yes, but first, quickly, you must help me- please- there is fire here. It is large. Help me get her into it! Haste!"
Kevin regarded the man a moment, his tolerance thinning. He had hauled the limp body partially erect when he had freed her from the bag. With an extra heave, he brought it to a nearly erect position. He shoved it rudely towards the priest.
"Do it yourself!" Kevin smiled broadly as the priest caught the corpse, as if in an embrace, squealing with disgust and fear. Kevin turned and bent for the coins.
"Drakelock, Drakelock" moaned the priest "Oh please Drakelock, help me do this!" With great difficulty and superstitious dread, the priest dragged the body towards the flames. An awkward effort, a heave, and the thing tumbled more or less into the center of the bonfire.
"Tch tch tch" growled Drakelock, taking in a lung of ash, precipitated by the corpse's fall. "Tell me Bennet- Just what exactly do you think you are accomplishing there? Burning her like that, I mean?"
The priest sat, his eyes fixed on the fire and the fuel.
"Well--"He spoke slowly, not turning his head, "The fire is a cleansing element. It will destroy that which is guilty, consume that which is evil. But it is also a testing element."
"Right. Meaning that if she were innocent, the flames would not harm her, I suppose?" The killer had his coins now and came to sit beside the priest.
"And what if you and I are the guilty ones?"
And just as he said this the fire exploded; wood and ash, sparks and flames flew in every direction. It flung the two men to the ground. And the witch they saw as a strong woman's silhouette, standing unburned in the flames, with long hair blowing, as she mastered the wind, and they heard the sound of a hundred wolves answering her as she called.