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Authors: Aiden James,Michelle Wright

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BOOK: Curse of Stigmata (The Judas Reflections)
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“Why are his eyes full of water?”

“Why do you ask so many questions?” I replied impatiently. “Juan, in one hour we depart. Perhaps it’s best if you explain her duties.”

In spite of Racco’s condition, I had to leave, and prayed Brigitte would prove capable. Comte would return soon enough with an antidote and a plot for revenge.

My companions and I took off by foot in direction of Dario’s map. The scenery prompted memories of Lucerne from long ago. Since the 14th century, I’d enjoyed sharing the tale of a haunted mountain, high up in the Alps where, supposedly there walked the restless spirit of Pontius Pilate.

Like me, Pilate had a legendary suicide, allegedly throwing himself off the top of the mountain into a lake, after the trial of Jesus. It was said, on a clear day, if you looked up you’d see his ghostly figure wandering slowly in circles. Constant reports of violent storms, supposedly caused by Pilate, only made this absurd legend that much more fun for me.

“We should arrive at the shepherd’s farm in about two hours,” said Dario, taking the lead. “The way is temperate, a gradual climb. Just watch your feet for fallen rocks.”

“Did we bring a flask a brandy?” Juan asked. I hadn’t forgotten, passing it to him with a smile.

We were still in early winter, before the first heavy snow. Had we left a month later, access would become all but impossible. Time was on my side, provided I wasn’t forced to spend weeks half way up a mountain with the weather closing in.

As the terrain became difficult to negotiate, Juan stumbled and fell.

“I swear to God it’s not the brandy making me unsteady on my feet, it’s the rocks,” he lamented. “What kind of man desires a life so isolated and inhospitable?”

“A shepherd who loves his animals, or a man with something to hide?” I replied tersely, the cold wind caused my fingers to briefly turn numb and my lips to dry for a second before rejuvenation. Juan also appeared to be fine, surely aided internally by copious amounts of brandy. As for Dario, he had the skin of an animal and was accustomed to the mountains, his blood cooled from many cold winters.

The cold inspired the hope for a warm fire, good wine, and the company of a luscious woman to take the lingering taste of Isabella away.

“I know what you’re thinking, the same as I. Anywhere would be better than here,” Juan said, as we helped Dario pitch the tent, which hopefully would keep us warm and protected from wild boar, known to roam the area.

It rained that first night in the mountain, enough to create mud patches that made walking arduous. After a basic breakfast of bread and goats cheese, I was in no mood for further challenges.

“Emmanuel, are you fearing you’ll step in something horrible? There are plenty of sheep roaming the mountain, their dung is everywhere. Be careful where you step!” Dario exclaimed as he bellowed with laughter.

“I’ll watch my step; sheep dung is the last thing I need.”

“They say in these parts it brings good fortune if you step in the dung with your right foot,” Juan advised. “Without knowing, of course.”

Juan was a mine of information. But on this occasion, it was ill advice. The last thing I wanted was to walk straight into a pile of stinking shit. Little did I know it was to be the least of my worries as I headed toward a living nightmare beginning with Juan who spotted what appeared to be the rotting carcass of an animal. On closer inspection, we discovered it to be human remains in an advanced stage of decomposition.

“What on earth have we stumbled upon? My God.” Dario moved closer to inspect it. I moved with him, always curious for gruesome sights. “Perhaps a wanderer. It’s not uncommon for them to come to the mountains, often in search of work or food. He may have become exhausted and starved to death. I doubt it’s anything sinister. Look at the remains of his clothes, rags, nothing more than a pauper.”

“We should bury him. I have the tools to dig a shallow grave and the rain has stopped.” Juan was always the thoughtful one, if it was down to me, I would walk away.

“Then make it quick, we’re losing time. I don’t want a delay.”

“Heartless, Emmanuel, have you no compassion?”

Only when it suited me did I show some kind of emotion. My motto being
never
to allow my interests in others to become attachments, nor was I distressed with every poor story told or seen. I learned to be more discerning of the company I kept. For example, Racco, who was a trusted friend, his predicament would remain a concern. I looked on with amusement as two men with a bigger conscience than mine set about digging a grave. Once done they buried the body with a small amount of earth and covered it with rocks.

“Animals have already taken a bite or two. These rocks should prevent them from digging up the corpse,” Juan remarked.

“I think we should say a little prayer.”

Dario recited something from Revelations. Then I insisted we should make our way.

“Judas Iscariot, you are sometimes more than irritating. I’ll use the word rude. It has a better fit.”

“Is my name not Emmanuel Ortiz? Why insist on calling me by another? Just like Roderick, you insist on reverting back to my real name when annoyed,” I replied tersely to Juan’s slander.

“I’m relieved
not
to be immortal,” remarked Dario. “I wouldn’t care to be frustrated with you two for hundreds of years. It would surely send me to the madhouse!”

My relationship with Juan was no different to the one I had with the stoic Irishman, Roderick Cooley. Banter between us was considered the norm, even insults intending to wound would fly around, with or without a drink or two to bolster the bravado. It had become part of what sometimes appeared to be a meaningless existence, perpetuated by my spasmodic yet intense urges to search for coins and ponder on the future.

With the body disposed of in a respectful manner, we were off for the last leg of our journey. There hadn’t been a soul for miles, or a dwelling as we headed to our destination. Finding an abandoned 12th century church, Dario built a small fire close to the broken altar, and the smell of grilled snails gathered from nearby rocks seasoned in mountain herbs alongside slices of preserved beef, was enticing. He considered himself an Andorran through and through, as he told of snails being a delicacy of the region for centuries. I listened while he explained about the merging of Spanish and French Andorrans through marriage in the 13th century.

“It made us independent. Andorra being neither Spain nor France. Our own little principality, and, with God’s help, long may it stay that way. I will not abide war and strife.”

I was beginning to enjoy the company of Dario, who was proud to tell me he was a man of God living his life in nature and relative peace as a mountain man. Part of me envied his simplicity. I doubted he ever held fear for the future.

As we finished eating, a man appeared at the door of the church wearing a worn peasant cloth, his face partially covered. He beckoned for us to come outside.

“Is it okay for us to go out there, Dario, could it be a trap?” asked Juan, worriedly.

“Of course it’s okay, the man happens to be the shepherd. He’s come down to greet us.”

“How did he know we were here, and… in this church?” I was intrigued by the man’s sudden appearance in this odd location.

“He has the gift of sensing. Don’t be put off by his appearance, there’s a canniness about him.”

Realizing this was the shepherd I sought, I determined to quickly procure what I came for and be on my way. Hastily I introduced myself.

“I know who you are,” he replied, sourly. “The one who betrayed Jesus with the kiss of death, if I’m inclined to believe the folklore. My name is Isaac Caillouet. I’m told you want to discuss something important. If, it is of benefit to me, then maybe I have what you want. But you’ll need to come with me to find out.”

’m unsure of this situation,” I remarked quietly to Juan. Isaac’s face was that of a man I could not trust. Eyes set close together and cloaked by thick black eyebrows. His features etched with lines, each one a story of life in the harsh outdoor elements. His thin lips were a sign of cruelty, and each half smile became a snarl.

“Let’s see if you can survive a night or two in my mountain hut, Judas. I foresee your bones chilling hard, beyond comfort. A man more used to a pompous four poster bed with servants at his bidding will not take kindly to my way of living.”

“I can assure you, I will manage. My bones do not chill, and, if they did, it would pass in a second. I have endured far worse than you offer, good sir, far worse.”

I hoped my answer was clear enough, though he didn’t bother to reply, preferring to confer with Dario over the mysterious dead body. According to Isaac, it occurred often. Desperate beggars searching for food and shelter hoped for a mountain dweller to take pity on them before they fall down dead from starvation and cold.

Isaac didn’t strike me as the charitable type. My impression was of a cold-hearted man who had no qualms in letting someone freeze to death outside whilst his goats were kept safe and warm. I wondered, then, what of his daughter?

“It’s an hour’s walk, no more,” he advised as we set off. “What’s the history of your sword? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

He watched me packing my things in the church, his eyes focused on the small red handled sword with intense curiosity.

“It’s from a Hungarian village.” Not knowing Isaac’s feeling toward immortals, I left off the tale of how I earned the weapon in the eleventh century.

“It must be worth some value, perhaps I will wager you for it. I’ve been told my swordsmanship is excellent.”

“No,” I replied firmly. “It’s too important a weapon and memory for me to play with.”

I was determined to keep control. Isaac was a man who liked to hold the reins and the most unusual looking shepherd I’d ever encountered. Most of them being short and introvert, caring more for their animals than people or confrontation. Six foot tall, Isaac appeared to be the opposite, and I could tell was hedging for a fight.

One hour later, we arrived at his mountain home. A large hut perched in the middle of nowhere with nothing but goats for company. The door opened to reveal a sparsely furnished room or two, and a wood burner giving heat while goat meat sizzled on a spit.

“Sit, make yourselves comfortable.” Isaac stoked the wood burner and reached for a carafe, presumably full of wine. “Rachel, where are you girl?” he called loudly.

I couldn’t believe the name, assuming it was the daughter. Isaac and Rachel were names from the bible. He didn’t strike me as a religious man. I was more curious than ever.

“Rachel, I will only ask once more, come out. Now!” There was a large oilcloth hanging over a doorway, and judging by the direction of her initial, meager response, I assumed that she hid behind it.

“Let the poor girl be,” I said, coming to her defense. Three strange men had suddenly appeared in her home, it was no surprise she was reluctant.

“What… you think she is shy? Ha-ha… wench… show yourself or feel my belt!”

Isaac’s face was thunderous, his neck veins bulging. I remained quiet, but prepared to take him down
if
he dared to strike her in my presence. Before it could escalate, a young girl, no more than eighteen years, coyly appeared from behind the cloth, her eyes darting around the room.

BOOK: Curse of Stigmata (The Judas Reflections)
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