Authors: Susanne Winnacker
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Sword & Sorcery, #Horror
Copyright ©2014 Susanne Winnacker
Cover by Romantic Book Affairs.
All Rights Reserved.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, events and places are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.
Whom will you cry to, heart? More and more lonely,
your path struggles on through incomprehensible
mankind. All the more futile perhaps
for keeping to its direction,
keeping on toward the future,
toward what has been lost.
- RRainer Maria Rilke
My soul, dressed in silence, rises up
and stands alone before you: can't you see?
- Rainner Maria Rilke
ela’s breathing was shallow. The last chime of the bell faded away and for a moment the Cologne cathedral was filled with silence, a brief respite that wasn’t meant to last. Nela could still feel the reverberations of the chimes in her bones like a deep ache in her muscles after a too long run. Whenever she entered the vaulted nave, she felt transported back to another time; it hadn’t been touched by the twenty-first century yet. Neither had the men surrounding her.
As one, the brothers of the Brotherhood drew in their breaths and rose from the dark wood choir stalls. They flanked the choir to both sides, but from her spot at the front, kneeling at the base of the high altar, Nela could only make out the glaring red cross on their dark gray frocks. They weren’t even priests, still they used the church with haughty implicitness.
Nela lowered her head a tad more. She shouldn’t be thinking like that. The brothers began chanting in deep baritone notes that pierced Nela’s chest even worse than old St. Peter had done with its chimes. With every word falling from their lips, the pressure around Nela’s heart grew until she was sure that it would have been a relief to have all of the bell’s twenty-four tons crush her.
She tried not to listen to the words of the song, but they entered her mind – a stark reminder of the purpose of this ritual and her place in the world. The song spoke of purging the world from evil, of cauterizing the devil from their midst, of protecting the pure from the tainted.
Their chanting grew louder. Nela braced herself, her shoulders hunching, when a white frock swished past her and its wearer walked up the three steps to the altar. Again the red cross pattée glared at her, and when Grand Master Claudius turned his back to her and the Brotherhood, the second part of the Brotherhood’s emblem was emblazoned there: the crossed swords with blood dripping from their blades. An image that was much closer to the true nature of the Brotherhood than the cross.
Grand Master Claudius raised his arms, his long bell sleeves sliding down. The Brotherhood might have stopped calling themselves crusaders, but their leader had kept the old title. The chanting ebbed away and Nela shivered.
It was cold in the cathedral and she was only wearing a red linen smock over her underwear, but Nela knew that wasn’t why her body was reacting the way it did. For the first time, Nela allowed herself a sideways glance at Finja and Oskar, kneeling beside her on the stone floor. Their faces were flooded with the same anxiety Nela couldn’t suppress. She’d known them for as long as she could remember and had always known they’d have to bear this day together. They were the only other witches in the district of Cologne that had turned sixteen in the last quarter after all. She’d thought she’d feel comforted by their presence, but in the end each of them would have to carry their burden alone.
Grand Master Claudius whirled back around, done with his study of the Brotherhood codex, which he probably knew by heart anyway, and Nela, Finja and Oskar bowed even lower. Any moment now her nose would brush the mosaic. The Brotherhood began rocking back and forth, their long black frocks swishing over the bare stone floor. The scent of incense was heavy in the air. The Binding was getting closer.
Fear swirled in Nela’s body. She’d been dreading this day for months. Her eyes flickered to her parents. They were standing outside the choir to the left of the high altar with Oskar’s and Finja’s parents as well as the two witches who sat in the Chamber of the Joined Council (not that the two had ever done anything to improve the rights of witches). Wrought-iron gates and massive stone pillars separated them from Nela and the others. Their heads, too, were bowed and they were kneeling on small wooden benches so they could look over the stone wall where the iron gates were anchored. Her mother’s head tilted up as if she could feel Nela’s gaze and their eyes met. Her mother’s tanned skin was taut from the tight braid taming her beautiful golden hair. Nela’s hair was also pulled back into a bun, so it wouldn’t get in the way.
She tried to imagine her mother in her stead when she’d received her mark all those years ago. Her father didn’t lift his head, but Nela hadn’t expected him to. She wished her parents could do something to stop this. When Grand Master Claudius began his sermon, Nela’s mother gave her the smallest encouraging nod before lowering her head. Nela stared down at her hands, knuckles white from clutching the fabric of her smock. Her knees were cold and stiff from kneeling for almost one hour but she’d have gladly suffered worse if she didn’t have to listen to the Grand Master’s hate speech.
Every word from his mouth was a slap to the face but Nela knew better than to let it show. His voice rose as he condemned witches as the devil’s brood and explained why they needed to be stopped from practicing magic. Then he went on and on about the peace treaty between the witches and the Brotherhood, and that it was only thanks to the Brotherhood that the darkness of the past hadn’t permeated the present. Today the Brotherhood was a part of the church but in the past they’d been independent, even though members of the church had financed them. Their purpose had never changed, though. They were dedicated to purging the world from witches. Since the peace treaty had been signed during the zenith of the witch hunts after the Second World War – which some people referred to as the witch war –, the Brotherhood only persecuted those that didn’t abide to the law laid down by the treaty.
To end the brutal witch hunts, every witch family had agreed to get a magically binding tattoo - which captured witches had created under torture - that would burn them whenever they practiced magic, as well as to stay under the close surveillance of the Brotherhood.
Two priests walked up to Grand Master Claudius, one of them carrying a silver tray with the needle, the other a cup with the ink. It was dark red – since it contained actual blood from the witch that had worked magic on it as well as holy water and permanent ink with traces of iron. With every act of magic, the tattoo would spread like the strands of a spider’s web across her back and iron would be released into her skin, would be absorbed by her organs, and would slowly, with every breach of the law, poison her body. She would die of organ failure if she were lucky – or the expanded tattoo would betray her to the Brotherhood.
Grand Master Claudius walked up to Oskar who was on the far right. His light brown hair was smoothed back, not a single strand out of line. Nela had never seen him like that. The cameraman that Nela had been trying to ignore stepped forward, his camcorder directed at Oskar and the Grand Master. Until then, the cameraman had only filmed their backs. Of course, Nela had known he was there, recording the worst day of her life for everyone’s entertainment; she’d seen him when she’d entered and it was hard to miss the tall spotlights in the corners of the choir. But seeing him made unreasonable anger rise up in her – anger she couldn’t afford. There would be time for that later, when she’d watch the reportage on the Brotherhood’s very own online channel. She wasn’t a follower of their podcasts but Finja had showed her more than enough of their videos to let Nela know she didn’t want any part of it. But that wasn’t her choice. Sometimes it seemed she was given hardly any choices at all.
Oskar’s shoulders stiffened when the Grand Master stopped behind his back and picked up the needle. One of the priests pulled down the red smock, revealing Oskar’s pale back. The cameraman moved closer, the lens aimed at Oskar’s sweaty face. Finja wasn’t looking, her head low, blond hair covering most of her face and eyes closed, but Nela couldn’t avert her gaze, not even when the Grand Master dipped the needle into the ink and touched it to Oskar’s skin. He arched his back with a groan, then bent forward, hands clenching. Nela, too, closed her eyes.
But she could hear the soft clinking when the needle hit the bottom of the ink cup, Oskar’s harsh breathing, the Latin words the Grand Master whispered, the rustling of fabric, and beyond that the soft buzzing of the spotlights.
When Grand Master Claudius spoke the words “May Evil be purged from your soul,” the Brotherhood’s chanting stopped and Nela opened her eyes. Oskar was pale and his hands were still clenched, but he kissed the ring the Grand Master held out to him.
As if he was the pope.
Indignation spiked in Nela and for a moment Grand Master Claudius focused on her as if he knew what she was thinking. But that couldn’t be. Nela had learned to mask her feelings. Maybe he was surprised that she dared to watch while Finja had sunken into herself. His eyes were the coldest blue she’d ever seen and there was no kindness in them.
He walked up to the altar where he held the tip of the needle into the flame of a candle before he moved on to Finja who made herself even smaller, her shoulders curving toward her face. Nela wanted to take her hand, but they were supposed to bear this alone. Penance for their sins.
Despite the chanting, Nela could hear Finja whimpering softly throughout the marking; it seemed to take much longer than with Oskar.
When it was finally Nela’s turn, she was almost frozen with fear. The smell of blood and metal flooded her nose as the priest holding the cup stopped beside her, too close to her face. She could almost taste blood on the back of her throat. The Grand Master came to a halt behind her and she had to fight the urge to glance over her shoulder. He picked up the needle. His hand had age spots – which was weird since he didn’t look older than sixty - and veins shone through the skin. The Grand Master leaned over her and pushed down the collar of her robe. Her skin erupted with goose bumps when the cold air hit her, but worse – so much worse – was the short contact of the Grand Master’s fingers with her skin. She pressed her lips together. The cameraman knelt in front of her. Nela knew he’d film her face all through the Binding, and she defiantly stared back.
The Grandmaster dipped the sharp tip of the needle into the ink and then he touched it to the skin between her shoulder blades, and hot pain shot through her. The Brotherhood’s chanting picked up again, growing more fervent as the minutes trickled by, and the Grand Master started reciting his Latin incantation.
Nela bid down on her lip to stop herself from crying out. Even this little sign of weakness would be captured on video forever. Every pierce of the needle felt like fire. She’d read about tattoos on the internet, and it had never been described like this – as if flames were consuming your skin. The magic woven into the ink was causing it and always would if she as much as considered using her magic. A constant reminder of what would happen to her if she broke the law; flames would consume her. The needle stabbed her skin over and over again. She knew what he was tattooing into her back. She’d seen it on her mother and father. Three simple phrases would bind her:
Malum in Se
Ubi lex, ibi poena
The first phrase meant ‘wrong in itself’ and referred to what she was, a witch and thus an abomination in the eyes of the Brotherhood. The second phrase ‘where there’s law, there’s punishment’, and at last ‘We are consumed by fire’.
From the corner of her eye, she watched her parents holding hands, looking down at the ground. The brothers of the Brotherhood didn’t once stop their chanting. Her entire back was burning when the Grand Master was finally done. The needle clanked onto the silver tray and the ink was almost gone.
Grand Master Claudius put his hand on the top of her head and she had to stop herself from flinching away from his touch. A second later, his white frock with the red cross was in front of her and he held his hand out so she could kiss his ring. It was silver and massive with the cross in front of the bloody swords. She brushed her lips over the ring, maybe a bit too quickly, and sat back on her haunches. She knew she was expected to look up and so she did.
The eyes of the Grand Master were even colder as he took her in, like someone who might be watching a bug. Even without his speech, she would have known that he despised her for what she was – a witch, and worse: a witch and a woman. The epitome of sin. The Brotherhood only accepted men into their rows and her mother had implied more than once that they blamed women for all evil – at least when they weren’t busy blaming witches.
Grand Master Claudius walked up the three steps of the altar and turned toward them. The brothers of the Brotherhood stopped singing and her parents like the other witches peered up. She exchanged a quick glance with Oskar who looked much better, but Finja was staring blankly ahead, droplets of sweat clinging to her forehead. Nela could feel something trickling down her back, too, but she didn’t think it was sweat. She wanted to twist around to catch a glimpse at the tattoo but knew she wasn’t allowed to move. The spotlights dimmed gradually, throwing sinister shadows across the choir. The Brotherhood knew how to stage a finale.
She focused on the Grand Master who was facing them, but his eyes went over them, straight toward the camera. If nothing else, Grand Master Claudius was a fantastic actor. Behind him on the altar the golden Shrine of the Three Kings shone in the light of the setting sun that streamed through the arched windows. He raised his arms over his head. “This mark shall stop you from sinning, shall ward evil, and protect the pure souled”.
‘How’ she wondered ‘can a mark stop me from sinning if my mere existence is already a sin in your eyes?’
Instead of voicing her thought, she lowered her head as if accepting his blessing. A deep sadness flooded Nela. She hadn’t even explored her magic yet, and now she would never be able to do it. Her back burned fiercely as if in confirmation, and for the first time that day she allowed herself to cry.