The Priest awoke to a missing satchel of kaneh and a fire that had burned itself out. A pile of ash was all that remained. He sat up and his bones crackled like dead leaves. He looked to the heavens.
“Father, what I wouldn’t give for a younger body. This one is a bit too careworn.”
He stood and stretched his legs. His knees popped and buckled. He winced at the pain, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. He bent and retrieved his cloak from the floor. As he put it on, he noticed a faint but pungent smell outside his hut. The air was damp and sour. It smelled like death.
The Viking, he thought to himself, dashing out his front door and racing toward the mountain pass. As he neared it, The Viking came racing off the path towards him. Relief washed over the both of them.
“What is that stench?”, said The Priest.
“I don’t know”, said The Viking. “We should be cautious. Get behind me.”
The Priest did as he was told. The Viking wasn’t one to bark orders at people haphazardly. It meant real danger could be close.
The Viking unsheathed his axe.
They made their way around The Priest’s hut and into a dense ash grove that had grown up beside the river that ran around the base of The Mountain. The river froze during the winter, and they crossed it easily. The ash grove ended just before a jagged cove that ran inland. Beyond the cove was a clearing and, just beyond that, The Deep Wood.
The smell was coming from that direction.
Birds of prey had begun to circle overhead. The sun had just risen, and they had no doubt found the wretched smell quite alluring. Their presence confirmed the worst: something was dead over there.
They made their way through the ash grove and walked across the frozen water of the cove. As they crested a snowbank, The Priest gasped.
The sand along the cove’s shoreline was painted with blood.
The Viking motioned to The Priest to stay behind him. The Priest nodded. The Viking readied his axe.
As they reached the bloodstained shore, they finally saw the source of the stench: six small bodies lying neatly in a row. Three of them were boys, three of them were girls. None of them looked over the age of ten.
They had been lined up head to toe, alternating boy and girl. Their eyes were closed. Upon each eyelid had been placed a coin. The Viking picked one up from the boy closest to him. Both sides of the coin were scratched out. A shiver ran through his body. He carefully put the coin back.
“My God”, said The Priest. His legs became shaky, and he fell to his knees.
The Viking kneeled by his side. He placed his hand on The Priest’s back. The Priest calmed. He looked at The Viking with hollow eyes.
“What is this?”
The Viking shook his head.
“I do not know”, he said.
“Should we bury them?”, said The Priest.
“In time, yes”, said The Viking. “But first, we must figure out what happened here. Who are these children? Who killed them? Are the murderers still on The Mountain?”
The Priest began to weep. He could not reckon the scene before them.
“There’s something else.”
The Viking’s tone caused The Priest to look up. “What?”
“The only blood here is back on that shore. And I can see drag marks in the clearing that lead out of The Deep Wood.”
The Priest frowned.
“It means they weren’t killed here. So where did these children come from?”
They stared at the violent tableaux, transfixed by its savagery. The loss of innocent life cast a sobering shadow upon them. The Priest bowed his head and began to whisper a prayer for the dead.
Suddenly, across the clearing, there was a rustling as something raced toward them from within The Deep Wood.
“Keep behind me”, said The Viking in a hushed tone, once more stepping in front of his friend.
The Viking raised his axe high above his head. The Priest cowered and covered his ears.
The thing in the woods was screaming.
SOUNDTRACK 04: “Agnus Dei”, Rufus Wainwright
CONTINUE TO CHAPTER FOUR (Coming Soon.)