3. The Cottage
Bitter traces of winter hit the Constable’s neck and melted, bringing about a fresh round of curses.
“Do you think she’s telling us the truth?” The Vicar clutched his cloak close to his face.
The Constable dropped a leg into another hummock of powder. “Not sure what to make of her just yet.” His opposite leg sank into the white void ahead of them. “Once I see it for myself, I can be a better judge.”
The Vicar chuckled as he eyed the plume of smoke rising from the Smithy’s home in the distance. “Good. You’re the only judge and jury that we’ve got.”
The Constable followed his companion’s gaze. “We’ll drop by on our way back. Make sure he’s still alive.”
The Vicar tapped him on a shoulder and pointed at the remnants of a smooth track through the snow.
The Constable bobbed his head. “He was still down when she pulled him this way.” He stopped in a clearing along the road where the winds had blown the precipitation away. “This town has grown quite a bit over the years, hasn’t it?”
The Vicar stopped beside him, stomping the snow off his boots. “You know, I can recall a time when it was only the two of us.”
The Constable’s stare followed the gray bellies of low-drifting clouds on the nearby hills. “I can recall clearly a much younger clergyman knocking on my door, asking me if I knew God.”
The Vicar’s chest hitched in laughter. “Was I that green?”
The lawman nodded. “Pretty much.” He pulled a small rolled cigarette from a pocket in his overcoat and flint strike. The rolled tobacco extended toward the Vicar. “Want one?”
He waved his open hands. “I couldn’t.”
“Ah.” The Constable lit up. “Vows and whatnot.”
The Constable tucked his flint back in its pocket. “Well, we better get back to it before the weather turns worse.”
“Agreed.” The Vicar trailed behind him along a narrow sliver of cleared cobblestone and brick.
They moved along in silence and the occasional puff of fragrant smoke until the Cleric’s shop and cottage came into view. The wooden sign on her storefront creaked back and forth in vagabond breezes. The Constable rubbed the end of his half-spent smoke on a sleeve and tucked it into a pocket.
He strode to the boxy front window on the healer’s shop and peered into the shadows indoors. “Looks secure.”
A loud crack like lightening got both men’s attention. The Vicar broke the connection and scurried around to the back of the cottage.
Pulsing white light radiated from the stone structure’s windows.
“Cleric?” The Constable pounded on the front door. Even louder now. “Cleric? It’s the Constable! Open up.”
He rattled the door with his hand. No good. He glanced to the Vicar’s wide and thick shoulders.
The holy man motioned his companion aside. The Vicar bum rushed the door, cracking several of its oaken planks on impact.
“No good son of a…” The Vicar backpedaled, rubbing his stinging shoulder.
More thunderous cracks and forks of purple light erupted from the home’s main room. The Constable unsheathed his sword and bashed the hilt into the door handle. On the third blow, the door yielded.
The Vicar let loose a battle cry and charged into the abandoned and dark room.
The Constable looked around, stunned. “Gone.”
The duo spread out and searched the cottage. No cleric, no stranger. Neither thread, nor a hair from either of them.
“Vanished in to thin air,” the Vicar said, running back into the main room to join his neighbor. “You saw it, didn’t you?”
The lawman nodded. “They couldn’t have gone far.”
* * *
“There’s something about them you should know.” The Mayor motioned her hand for the Taverness to bring her something.
The Taverness returned from a dark corner of the inn with a child-sized rocking chair and sat it close to the healthy flames.
The town’s leader eased into the chair and swayed. “Those people aren’t exactly who you perceive them to be.”
Kannen stood next to her, her arms crossed.
The Mayor nodded. “The one they call The Constable has a sordid past and can’t be trusted.”
The Innkeeper joined them, sipping from her piping mug. “She speaks true, I’m afraid.”
Kannen leaned into the stone wall next to the mantle. “How do you know about his past?”
The petite woman stalled her chair and looked up into Kannen’s eyes. “I’m the Mayor. It’s my business to know everything about everyone.”
Kannen probed the Mayor’s body language for deeper meaning, but the woman surrendered little. “What did he do?”
The Mayor’s chair resumed its gentle undulations. “Plenty, child.”
The Innkeeper leaned into the wall opposite Kannen. “There are some that say he buried men alive. This mountain serves as their tombstone.”
Kannen’s brow lifted. “If they’re all under mountain, who did you get that from?”
The Innkeeper’s lips curled. “He talks in his sleep.”
Heat rose around Kannen’s throat. She lowered her gaze to the floor. “Sorry. That’s none of my business.”
The Innkeeper fluffed her red curls. “A girl’s gotta keep some of her secrets,” her eyes lowered to the rocking chair, “even from the Mayor.”
“Certain people,” the Mayor said, her eyes not wavering from the ruddy coals, “should be approached with care.”
“We don’t have the time to make pleasantries.” The newcomer walked to the front windows. Her eyes narrowed as they looked into the passing grayness. “Your entire town needs to be prepared for this.”
A flash of light from down the street caught her eye. A loud rumble soon followed. The Innkeeper set her mug on a table, spilling some of her tonic and joined Kannen at the front.
“The storm?” The Taverness’s tone didn’t exude confidence.
Kannen shook her head. “That was too close.”
Kannen felt the eyes of everyone in the room fall on her.
“Has anyone heard from the Miller,” the Innkeeper said, breaking the stillness, “or the Smithy for that matter?” There was a tenseness in the woman’s voice that hadn’t been there prior.
One of the Mayor’s arms raised from its armrest. “I thought I saw the Miller join the Cleric on my way here.”
A flutter of red curls sped past Kannen in route to the storage room. “You did.” The Innkeeper’s voice got muffled like she was foraging behind some barrels. “I told him to escort her back to her cottage and help.”
The Mayor nodded. “And the Smithy?”
The Taverness came forward. “The lights were lit still when I came.”
The Innkeeper returned with a small stack of planks and some hammers. “Maybe we should send someone to check on him and his family?”
“Perhaps,” the Mayor crossed her legs. “Once the others return.”
* * *
“What do we do now?” The Vicar cast a fresh piece of wood onto the Cleric’s fire.
The Constable’s hat gestured toward the door. “Back out into it, I suppose.”
“And the Smithy?”
A grimace from the lawman. “We should let her know what we’ve found first.” He fastened his overcoat and took a step toward the door. “I saw light in his windows on our way down. He’s likely fine. We’ve got two missing neighbors that are more pressing.”
The Vicar cracked the front door, letting in a fresh whirlwind of flakes and cold. “They won’t last long in these conditions.”
The Constable trailed behind him out into a new wave of precipitation. “Nope. Let’s get back to the inn first. Then, we can devise a search party.”