“Take care, curse you!”
Philla knelt, scooping spilled apples into her apron, avoiding her sister’s angry eyes.
“I’m sorry, Salome. Clumsy of me — but I was just so excited with the news!”
She tried not to smile — Salome disapproved of frivolity— but a small grin managed to creep across Philla’s round face.
“Yes!” Philla scrambled to her feet, dropping half the apples back under the split wooden table in the process. “Everyone at the market was talking about it! Even Dolan the baker, and you know what a dourpuss he is!”
“As dour as I?”
That question, and its tone, sobered Philla quickly.
“Then stop your prattling about the baker and tell me this news, before I show you the sharp side of my tongue!”
Philla poured what apples she still held onto the table, then smiled into her sister’s impatient glare.
“There’s a stranger at the inn!”
Salome’s eyes widened.
“A stranger? At the inn? Where travelers passing through might stay? Why, I simply cannot imagine such a thing!”
The syrupy surprise filling her voice disappeared, like water steaming off a hot skillet.
“I don’t have to imagine. I saw this stranger of yours as I passed the inn last evening. Tall man, dark of hair and eye.”
She squinted down at the short, stocky Philla, who cringed.
“Isn’t news supposed to be new, you lump?”
“He’s a witch-hunter,” Philla blurted. Salome went still as a stone, but for her breaths going in and out. In and out. Then, quite quietly, and without moving her lips:
“A Stalker? Oh my. Did he… did he tell you he’s a Stalker?”
“No.” Philla spoke through a great smile, so happy was she to be a part of a real conversation. “But I gather he was telling everyone he could find last night. Vera said—”
“Did he, Salome interrupted, eyeing Philla sharply, “offer up a name?
Philla thought for a moment, gazing skyward and stroking her chin just as she’d seen Salome do upon occasion.
“No one mentioned a name,” she shook her head. Salome sagged.
“No, as far as I can remember everyone just called him ‘the stranger’. Or ‘the witch hunter’. So I—”
“Not his name!” Salome stepped forward, suddenly looming over her cowering sibling. “Her name! The witch he’s hunting! I need—”
Just at that moment a great pounding shook their small cottage: a balled fist, or possibly a booted foot, rattling the door in its frame.
“Open! By the authority of the Church, I demand entry!”
Philla whirled toward the noise, then spun back to Salome. Salome looked to the door, dismay writ large upon her face. As the pounding began anew she glanced at Philla, features creasing in disgust at seeing her in such a dither. One arm swung, elegant wrist and elbow motion conveying both anger and a message: Go and open the door, you lump.
Philla scurried to pull back the latch, only to be bowled over as the door was wrenched open and a huge, furry shape burst through. Hot breath tickled her skin as she screamed and tried to writhe away, the big dog straddling her with his forepaws, cold nose snuffling about her face.
“Take that beast from my house!”
Philla had never heard her sister sound so angry, the force her voice striking like a slap, shocking her into silence. The dog spun away at the sound, lunging across the room to sniff about Salome’s feet, apparently not daring to leap upon her as it had Philla. It snuffled and chuffed as Salome’s hands came up, but whether she intended to defend herself or eject the dog from the house, Philla would never know. The great beast of black and brown sat before Salome and began to bell, howling rhythmically as the hunter’s hounds when their prey is treed.
“Think you I would be so easily dispatched?”
The source of the pounding now filled the open doorway. Tall and broad, the dark man’s face bore an expression of rage nearly matching Salome’s. Philla’s stare shot from one to the other as they matched glares.
“Who are you?”
“No more games, witch! Turning your dark power against me both proclaimed your guilt and began your downfall.”
So saying, he held out one large fist and slowly loosened his fingers. What looked like fine, white sand drifted down to the floor.
“In the wee hours of morning I did discover your curse-circle about the inn, but in your haste it was incomplete! I did collect your powdered bone to keep the circle from harming anyone else. Then it was but child’s play for Maximus to track the bone-scent right to your very door.”
At his name the dog glanced round at his master. Salome took advantage of his distraction, stepping around the animal, hand raised to strike.
“Get out of—”
A powerful hand caught her hand, and in a trice her wrists were bound with leather cord. She screamed in rage as a sack dropped over her head, drawstrings pulled tight.
“What are you doing?” cried Philla as the Stalker lifted Salome from her feet, tucking her under one arm. Skeins of fine ground bone drifted from her apron pockets as she struggled.
“Now the witch has a trial before God,” said the Stalker, striding through the door, the dog on his heels. “Now we have a trial by fire!”
Philla watched him go, her sobs slowing… and stopping. She moved to the hearth, swiftly untying her own apron. She upended the garment, shaking out the last dregs of what looked like fine, white sand to fall among the coals.
Well, she thought, poking the fire to life. I didn’t count on the dog, but that went even better than expected.
Pine smoke drifted in on the morning air, followed by Salome’s terrified screams. Philla arranged her features into an expression of tortured sorrow, and went out to watch the show.