The Inquisition came for the witches in the middle of the night.
Elizabeth Tran was woken up by a loud explosion that shook her room. She crawled over to the window and looked out. She could see fire and smoke rising from the old coven, hidden behind the tops of the distant trees. She stared for several minutes, her stomach twisting into knots.
“Melanie,” Elizabeth said quietly.
Elizabeth closed the blinds and tried to sleep, but it eluded her. She tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable. Her mother woke her up for school, and she dragged herself to the bathroom to get ready. Father and Mother were in the kitchen eating breakfast when Elizabeth was done. Mother put a plate of French toast and a large glass of orange juice in front of her.
“You look like you didn’t sleep last night,” Father said, reading the newspaper.
“So you heard that?” Mother asked.
Elizabeth nodded her head.
The phone rang. Father got up to answer it. The conversation was short and he returned after less than a minute. “School’s delayed,” he said. “Until noon.”
“What?” Elizabeth asked. “What for?”
“There’s a procession they want us to attend,” Father answered.
After breakfast, the three of them left the house for the procession or parade. Fall had come, and Elizabeth tightened the scarf around her neck. Smoke was still rising from the coven. Elizabeth’s eyes lingered on it for a moment before falling in line behind her parents.
Craftsbury wasn’t a large town, settled in a valley in the Oak Ridge Mountains. The mountains were covered in ancient oak trees that were turning red and orange with the season. At the center of the town square was a statute of General George Washington, and a platform had been built in front of the clapboard church. Elizabeth saw a few of her classmates in their school uniforms, but no one made eye contact with her.
The procession started, and Elizabeth’s heart jumped into her throat. There were a few dozen women of different ages chained together and being forced to march by a small army of Papal Zouaves. Then there were four Rosarian Maidens in their powered armor. Most of the Zouaves were white, but she spied a few blacks, Asians and even a few orcs amongst them. All four Maidens were white. Riding on a large white charger was the Inquisitor himself, his red cassock billowing in the cold, early morning wind.
The procession made its way to the town square, and the Inquisitor mounted the platform. He looked at the courthouse and whispered something to an adjunct, who ran off to take care of whatever needed doing. The flags in front of the courthouse were pulled down and reordered so that St. Peter’s key of the Papacy flew above the Stars and Stripes.
The Inquisitor opened with a benediction; everyone crossed themselves and bowed their heads as he prayed. He gave a short speech, extolling the virtues of God and goodness–he said suffer not a witch to live at least three times. The whole thing was finished by him hanging a dozen women for heresy, apostasy, witchcraft and other crimes. None of them pleaded for their lives. They already knew what their fate was. Some of the remaining women and girls were crying. The Zouaves had taken off their helmets, revealing their tonsures and shaved scalps.
Elizabeth stood on her tip-toes, but she couldn’t see Melanie amongst them. Her stomach fell.
The Inquisitor dismissed the town with another prayer. Father seemed upset and agitated, but he didn’t say anything on the walk home.
It was dark out by the time Elizabeth returned home from practice. Dark and cold. The sun had set, and the world’s rings were visible on the southern horizon. The rings of ice and dust glittered in the reflect light from the sun. A tiny moonlet rose and set in the time it took Elizabeth to walk from the school back home, the chunk of rock zooming across the sky at speeds she couldn’t even comprehend.
It was cold. She had her hands buried in the pocket of her sweater with her nose and mouth covered by the scarf wrapped around her neck. Despite that, she could see her breath fogging in the cold air.
The bodies were still hanging in the town square, but Elizabeth didn’t look at them for long. The Papal Zouaves and the Rosarian Maidens were bivouacked outside of Craftsbury, and the remaining prisoners were being held in the basement of the courthouse. All Elizabeth could think of during class was Melanie. The two had been life-long friends, but Melanie had run away a year ago. Elizabeth assumed that Melanie gone off to join a coven or something like that.
Elizabeth’s home was on the outside of town. It was a large, rustic mansion made from local timber with a heated pool in the back. The Tran family was a large landowner, owning thousands of acres of old growth trees and apple orchards. They owned one of the few automobiles in town, along with a large stable of horses and the only private inground pool in the whole county.
“Elizabeth, is that you?” Mother called out as Elizabeth closed the front door behind her.
“It is, Mother.” Elizabeth could smell dinner, but Mother’s voice had come from the front parlor. The servants must be here today.
“Come into the parlor, sweetie,” Mother said, solving that one.
Elizabeth took off her shoes and loosened her scarf before walking into the front parlor. Despite the house’s rustic exterior, everything inside was sleek, modern and colored in neutral earth tones. The sofas and chairs stood on narrow legs, and had sharps, angular edges. The furniture was arranged in a small half-circle around a roaring fireplace. Father and Mother were sitting on the sofa in the middle, and sitting next to them was a man wearing a blood red cassock.
“Hello, Elizabeth,” the Inquisitor said in a voice that was surprisingly soft.
“Monsignor,” Elizabeth said, bowing her head slightly.
“A dutiful child. I’ve come across dreadfully few in my years.”
Elizabeth raised her eyes to study the Inquisitor. He was a white man, and judging by the lines in his face and his greying hair, he was a few years older than Father, who only had a few strands of grey at his temples. The Inquisitor’s hair was almost entirely grey and cut short, and his small beard was mostly grey with a little black. He still had a boyish look to him despite his obvious age, and his impish little grin was unsettling. A black sash was tied around his narrow waist; he wasn’t a particularly large man. He’d looked larger this morning when he was riding his charger.
“Elizabeth, go get washed up and changed,” Father said. “Monsignor Humphreys will be joining us for dinner tonight.”
Elizabeth took the opportunity to retreat to her room. She took a quick shower to wash the sweat off. Her parents hadn’t told her what to wear, but they were having dinner with an Inquisitor from the Church, so she picked one of her Sunday dresses: grey wool and long sleeved. Something simple and modest that the Inquisitor would have no qualms with it.
Everyone had retreated to the dining room by the time Elizabeth went downstairs. She took her seat at the table, between Father and Mother with the Inquisitor across from her. The servants came into the dining room with drinks and salads. Hard cider for the adults and regular cider for Elizabeth. There was a cinnamon stick and an orange slice in each glass. The salads were tossed greens with tomatoes, dried cranberries, pecans and blue cheese. Elizabeth poked at the salad and ate a few bites. Her appetite had left her.
“Elizabeth is on the school’s passer team,” Mother said.
“Is that why you were late, Elizabeth?” the Inquisitor asked.
Elizabeth nodded her head. “We had practice. We’ve made it to the territorial playoffs.”
“You might make for a good Rosarian Maiden,” the Inquisitor said. “Strong in body, strong in mind and strong in spirit.”
Elizabeth tried to say something, but she couldn’t figure out the proper words.
The Inquisitor laughed. Like his voice, his laughter was soft and quiet. “You have nothing to worry about, child. Maidens are recruited from our orphanages and charities.”
Elizabeth looked back down at her food.
“Such a large house,” the Inquisitor said, “for only one child.”
“The older children have all grown up and moved out,” Mother said. Elizabeth was the youngest of six children, but the next oldest sibling was still seven years older than her.
“Your youngest son is a seminarian, is he not?” the Inquisitor asked.
Mother nodded her head. “Yes, Luke is attending the seminary at Immaculate College.”
“Immaculate College,” the Inquisitor repeated. “The Jesuits always have such nice schools and they produce such civically minded priests.”
Elizabeth looked at Father out of the corner of her eyes. He hadn’t said anything all night and he still seemed agitated and upset.
The servants brought the main course. Smoked salmon with rice and asparagus. There were slices of warm, crusty bread with apple butter. Elizabeth’s mouth began to water and she felt her appetite returning.
The Inquisitor cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Tran, I noticed that you had an American flag in your front yard.”
Everyone froze at the Inquisitor’s comment.
“Yes,” Father said. “We are Americans, aren’t we not?”
“But we’re also Catholics.”
“Pro aris et focis,” Father said.
For God and country.
“I must say, this is certainly a new one,” Father continued. “When I was in college, someone once asked me if I had a portrait of George Washington or Ho Chi Minh on my mantle. I’m sure you noticed that I have a portrait of the Christ on my mantle these days.” Father wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Four generations of Trans have served the United States of America. My grandfather was a Minuteman and died on some airless rock in the Titans’ Halo. My father was a Zouave until losing both legs at Guernica. I marched with Father Braxton through the Briarpatch, and I have one daughter in the Minutemen and one son in the Faith Militant.”
“I’m not questioning your patriotism, Mr. Tran,” the Inquisitor said. Elizabeth was confused. Father was as patriotic and pious as they came.
Father raised an eyebrow. “Then what?”
“Pro aris et focis,” the Inquisitor said. “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.”
“But yet millions of Americans choose both,” Father said.
“You’re the chairman of the local Committee of Correspondence, are you not?” the Inquisitor asked.
“And I’m the treasurer of the local Knights of Columbus.”
“Don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Tran,” the Inquisitor said. “I’m not questioning your patriotism to your country or your piety to your God. I’m just curious as to God or country.”
“Both,” Father said. “I thought the United States was God’s chosen country. I thought Americans were God’s chosen people. I don’t believe the interests between the two can be divergent.”
“An apt answer, Mr. Tran,” the Inquisitor said. “I’d heard you were critical of my methods here last night.”
“We cannot suffer a witch to live, I agree, but were the public executions necessary?”
“Public executions of witches is an American tradition, is it not.”
Father tapped a finger on the dinner table.
Mother was the one who responded. “Robert just doesn’t agree with violence. He’s a bit of a pacifist sometimes.”
The Inquisitor nodded his head and returned to his smoked salmon.
Elizabeth had trouble sleeping that night. All she could think about was the Inquisitor and the attack on the coven. When she was awake, her mind was fabricating terrifying images of Melanie’s final moments. When she was asleep, her mind put her in Melanie’s shoes. She woke up in a cold sweat and her body shaking. She turned over to face the window, pulled her knees into her chest and sighed.
Morning finally came, and Mother allowed Elizabeth to sleep in. It was Saturday and she didn’t have practice today, so she lay there staring at her window and watching as the sun climbed above the Oak Ridge Mountains and into the sky.
Elizabeth got out of bed and got dressed. Leggings, leather boots, flannel shirt and a fleece jacket. Father was still asleep, but Mother was awake and listening to Tyler Bass in the kitchen.
“Are you going somewhere?” Mother asked.
“I want to go for a ride,” Elizabeth answered. “I need some fresh air to clear my mind.”
“I understand that,” Mother said. “You should have some breakfast first.”
Elizabeth sat down at the table and her Mother got up to make oatmeal. “Mother,” Elizabeth said quietly, “is Father in trouble?”
“What do you mean?”
“The conversation with the Inquisitor last night.”
“Your father isn’t in trouble,” Mother answered. “He’s just known in the diocese for having certain…opinions.”
“Yes, your father has opinions on how to handle witchcraft and the Marxian heresy,” Mother said. “You shouldn’t worry too much about it, sweetie. Your father is a personal friend of the bishop’s.”
“The Inquisitor didn’t trust Father.”
“Because we’re Vietnamese.”
Mother didn’t say anything.
“It is, isn’t it?” Elizabeth repeated.
“Life isn’t fair, sweetie,” Mother said. She put a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder and kissed the top of her head. “The only one who’s fair is the Lord. Christ will protect us.”
Elizabeth nodded her head, her mind filled with questions, but it didn’t seem like the proper time and place to ask them.
“We’ve been tainted by the sins of the Viet Minh, and the Church has a long memory.” Mother began to stroke Elizabeth’s hair. “But remember what Christ said during the Sermon on the Mount.”
“Jesus said a lot of things during the Sermon on the Mount. It spans three chapters of Matthew.”
“When they strike you, turn the other cheek.”
“Even if they come at you with the entire weight of the Inquisition?”
Mother pulled her hand away from Elizabeth’s hair. “Especially then. Even if they kill your body, your soul will survive. Your faith will make sure of that.”
Elizabeth nodded her head. “Yes, Mother.”
“The Inquisitor was right about one thing. You are a dutiful child,” Mother said. “I’ll pack you a snack for your trip. How long do you expect to be gone?”
There was a single federal highway that ran through Craftsbury; it headed east out of the Oak Ridge Mountains towards the foggy port cities of Innsmouth and Barnstable and west deeper into the mountains and into coal country. Smaller roads branched off from the federal highway, and they ranged anywhere from narrow paths between the trees that were unmarked and known to only hunters and trappers, all the way up to wider roads made of packed dirt and gravel that were maintained by the Territory’s government.
Elizabeth selected a pony from her family’s stables, saddled it and rode off. She traveled on the soft shoulder of the federal highway for a few miles before veering off onto one of the packed dirt roads that snaked its way up and over the mountains. Mother had packed her apples, hard cheese and nuts along with some apple tarts wrapped in wax paper.
It was a chilly morning and while a part of Elizabeth was wishing that she’d dressed warmer, she was hoping that the sun would come out and warm the day. That was proving to be a futile wish, though. The grey clouds obscured the sun and the planet’s rings and kept the temperatures down. She climbed to the summit of one of the mountains and paused for a moment to look down into the next valley. Fingers of fog still clung to the valley floor, wrapping themselves around trees and climbing up their trunks.
Smoke from the coven was still rising into the sky the next valley over.
Elizabeth gave her pony a rest before continuing. She gave it some water and oats while she walked in circles to stretch her legs. She ate one of the apples and a few slices of the cheese as she did so. Something was gnawing at her stomach, but it wasn’t hunger. Was it fear? Fear of what she would find at the coven?
Everyone had known about the coven, and everyone had reported it to the Church, whose resources were stretched thing as it was. It had only been a matter of time before the Inquisitor arrived with the Faith Militant to burn them out. The witches had always kept to themselves, but it was as the Inquisitor said: suffer not the witch to live.
Had Melanie been a witch? Elizabeth didn’t know, and Melanie’s parents certainly never had the patience to answer her questions. “Some friend I was,” Elizabeth said. She hadn’t even known Melanie was having trouble at home and she certainly hadn’t known that Melanie would run away. She hadn’t said where she was going, but there were scant few places a runaway girl could go in this part of the world.
Elizabeth continued the ride down the valley and then up the next mountain. The fallen leaves were matted to the ground, made wet by the fog and the mist. The trees were also denser and closer together the further from town. Most of the land around here was publically owned by the federal government, and it was rarely maintained.
A wolf howled in the distance, causing Elizabeth’s hear to turn to ice. Wolves weren’t entirely unknown out here, but they were so rare that whenever one was spotted, it was major news. She hadn’t heard anything about wolves in the area. The pony didn’t seem to notice anything, so Elizabeth shrugged. “Maybe I’m just imagining things,” she said.
Elizabeth found the ruins of the coven a little after noon. She’d never seen the coven before it was burned down, but all that was left now were burnt ruins that were still smoldering and smoking. It’d been a large building, set in a mountain meadow. She tied her pony to a tree, dismounted and hesitantly approached the smoking ruins. There were burnt bodies in the ruins, some of them nothing more than skeletons turned black by the fire. She turned away and threw up everything she’d eaten today.
“Stop right there.”
Elizabeth looked up, wiping vomit from her mouth. A young woman was stepping out of the forest with a battle rifle pointed at Elizabeth. She wore ballistic leather and chain mail armor over a red cloak.
“Rats always return,” the young woman said. As she stepped closer, Elizabeth saw that she was no older than her with a shaved head. Her skin was dark brown and her eyes were blue and almond shaped.
A Rosarian Maiden novice.
Elizabeth took several steps back, tripped and fell backwards, scrapping her hands. She tried to explain herself, but she only stuttered, her tongue suddenly turning to sand in her mouth.
“Sister Magda,” a second voice called.
“I’ve found one!” the young woman said. A second woman stepped out of the forest. She was dressed identically to the first, but her hair was longer. Sister Magda looked at her companion over her shoulder, and Elizabeth saw the rose tattooed at the nape of her neck. “A rat has returned to the den.”
“She’s a bit late, don’t you think?” the second Maiden said. Elizabeth was shaking as the second Maiden stood over her. She put a fist on her hip and smirked. “Today is not your lucky day, heretic.”
“Please, don’t,” Elizabeth said quietly.
The second Maiden reached down for her, but she was thrown backwards. Sister Magda raised her battle rifle and fired several shots. The rifle was deafening. Elizabeth closed her eyes and covered her ears with her hands. She found herself instinctively saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over again.
Everything felt very still. Elizabeth moved her hands were ears and opened her eyes. The Rosarian Maidens were gone, and the only sound was the wind blowing through the trees. A few leaves fell from an oak and gently spun towards the ground. She turned her head when she saw something out of the corner of her eyes. It was a faint apparition floating a few feet next to her, looking like the negative of a shadow.
“Melanie?” Elizabeth asked.
It was hard to tell. The apparition certainly had human features, but they were faint. To Elizabeth, it looked like Melanie.
Elizabeth stood up on shaky legs. “Melanie, is that you? What happened?”
The apparition turned away from Elizabeth and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees.
“I miss you,” Elizabeth said. “Things just haven’t been the same since you left.”
The apparition began to float into the sky, and Elizabeth watch it in silence. She wiped away her tears and was about to turn away when she saw something glinting in the faint sun. She bent down and saw a small crucifix on a gold chain. It was similar to one that Melanie used to wear. Elizabeth bent down, picked it up and squeezed it in her hands.
“Thank you,” she said, putting the crucifix around her neck.