Et Lamiis Malleus: Chapter III

— Chapter III —

Born in 1430 in the Schlettstadt area, Heinrich had long existed in the orbit of the church, even if he had not originally envisioned it becoming his life’s work. As a child he had been introverted and bookish, choosing to study and read while his peers were running wild in the meadows, thickets and streams that surrounded their small mountain town. Naturally, this affinity for the cerebral made him a source of both curiosity and derision with the local children. He had never been able to forget the time that he had been roughly shoved into the frigid Oberriedgraben by a couple of older boys and almost drowned as a result.

If there was solace to be found, it had existed in his home. His mother and father encouraged his love for learning, bringing him texts from the local monastery and allowing him to spend as much time as he wanted with the provincial clerics. He never walked in a straight line when he was on his way to these sessions, instead adopting a crisscrossing gate that was dangerously close to a wander.

They also ensured that he was well taken care of, his mind given opportunities to both work and rest. He was never afraid of getting beaten after his father made his once-a-week foray to the neighborhood ale house, nor receiving a verbal lashing from his mother if he ever asked for seconds or thirds. And unlike many of his peers, his father’s wages at the town’s mill kept a roof squarely over their heads, transforming them into a common fixture rather than a fleeting privilege.

But around his 15th birthday, his family’s fortune turned. One night after a late shift at the mill, his father was heading home, traversing the thin path of earth that ran next to the eastern edge of town. With his shirt pocket clinking with a few extra Groschen, the man’s mind was largely gay and carefree, envisioning a quiet morning and a peaceful day thereafter. But then an armored fist came sailing out of the night, crashing into the man’s face with such force that his jaw instantly snapped. He crumpled to the ground, groaning in agony, his destroyed jaw hanging freely. Next, a heavy boot snapped through air, catching his sternum and making something inside of him explode. By the time Heinrich found his father the next morning, he was nearly unrecognizable; his body was lacerated and mangled, his face reduced to pure mash.

Heinrich could barely remember the funeral that followed, aside from nearly slipping into his father’s freshly dug grave due to a surplus of soft and wet earth. And for much of the next few years, Heinrich was lost in a haze of psychosomatic numbness, circling emotion but never truly giving in. His mother soon remarried, wedding a man named Harold Bigge. The speed that this occurred was to be expected. For as few options as Heinrich had open to him, his mother had considerably fewer. Even still, Heinrich had hoped she would choose a better partner. His step-father was not a smart man, nor was he kind. Known as the “Irongut” at the regional pubs, he was a prodigious drinker who was prone to abuse, and over the years, Heinrich gradually lost count of how many times he had come home to find the rooms in tatters and his mother in tears.

When Heinrich was 23, an event occurred that reshaped his horizons. In 1453, the 21-year-old sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople, bringing an end to the Empire and hurling Heinrich’s world into disarray. For the first time, the Turks were at Central Europe’s doorstep, and the region was abuzz with a percolating fear. The collapse of the Empire spoke to him, expanding his mind to what he might hope to accomplish. It was as if he suddenly knew that there was agency within him, but that the conduit to realizing any ambition he may have lay not in the material. The material could be broken like the stones of the once-great city or the bones of a common miller. No. His conatus could only reach its fullest expression through the realm of the spiritual. It was the only way to bring a chaotic universe to heel.

__________

Now on the road to Innsbruck, the inquisitor felt as though his life was reaching its natural culmination. The air was fresh and sweet-smelling, the temperature cool, pleasant and encouraging. Aldo rode beside him, as stalwart and seemingly unburdened as ever.  Although only ten years younger than the inquisitor, Aldo carried himself with a vitality that seemed decades removed. Heinrich supposed that that was what came from a lack of knowledge. There was bliss in ignorance, and despite himself, the inquisitor felt the poisonous prick of jealousy.

But he quickly pushed aside such thoughts, for he knew that they were inappropriate and unnecessary. He was an inquisitor whose respect and prestige had long been growing. The Dominican had almost always impressed his peers with both his passion and tireless work ethic. After he joined the order following the fall of Constantinople, he quickly rose to the role of Prior within his native community. As the years went by, his devotion continued to pay off, eventually bringing him to the metropolis of Salzburg. There he attended to the Prince-Archbishopric Bernard II of Rohr, departing just before the bishop’s ignominious abdication of 82 and avoiding getting swept up in that scandal. Occasionally, it almost felt as if there was a higher power looking out for him exclusively, one that was guiding him in each step of his journey, allowing him to meet any challenge at hand.

“Shall we make camp soon?” he called out to Aldo as they passed by the raging Oberaubach. Somewhere in the distance, Heinrich could hear the faint roar of the waterfall, and as they continued on into the hills, the air became thick and full of mist from the falling torrent.

“Aye my lord,” came Aldo’s reply. “Let us get to higher ground first. No need to wake up soaked by all this mist.”

They turned their steeds up, beginning to traverse a thin pass that led through the woods and then opened onto a rocky path that lay directly parallel to a multi-tier waterfall. Their horses were steady and surefooted, but Heinrich felt himself grow wary the further they ascended. The rocky path was growing increasingly narrow, and the black stones that covered the ground were shiny and slick from the misty condensation that billowed across the landscape. At any moment, it seemed highly probable that his horse might pitch forward and send him tumbling into the ravine and choppy whitewater far below.

“You must trust her my lord!” Aldo cried ahead of him, “Arendeel will guide you if you let her.”

He scowled at his companion’s receding back but begrudgingly relaxed his hold on the horse’s bridle and reins. The pair continued to ascend, rounding a corner and getting a full view of the waterfall’s highest point. The water surged and pounded over shiny boulders that dwarfed the size of the riders themselves. Arendeel whinnied beneath him, clearly startled by the sight of the fearsome surf which raged just adjacent to their position. Instinctively, the inquisitor tightened his grip, asserting a measure of control that he hoped would be sufficient.

Another thin and high sound then rang out. For a split second, Heinrich thought that it was once again Arendeel. But it was a not a neigh, nor was it a whinny. The sounds were human in nature, although heavily distorted by the never-ending thunder of the rushing water. He craned his neck back and forth, looking for the source of the noise. But he couldn’t see anything aside from the foam and the surf licking across stone, slowly but irrevocably eroding everything it touched. Out of the corner his eye, something moved one level down from them and across the river. He flicked his vision in its direction. Three young boys were at the bottom of this tier of the gorge, and one, the smallest, was sliding off an outcropping of rock that jutted out into the waves.

“Aldo!” Heinrich cried, his voice barely punching through the ambiance of the falls.

Before the other man even turned around, Heinrich had dismounted and gone careening down the gorge, sending shards of blackened stone clattering in every conceivable direction. The boy had already partially disappeared under the slapping and frothing water by the time the inquisitor reached the bottom of the crevice.

“Aldo!”

The boy’s blonde and curly head then broke through the surface of the stream. His features were fixed in a sort of indescribable horror, the type of expression that only appears when one is faced with their own death. The boy gurgled and gasped for a moment before he was sucked down again by violent forces. After a second or two, he popped up further down the gorge, the waters carrying him away from Heinrich’s position with tremendous speed.

The inquisitor struck out after him, moving as quickly as he could across the difficult terrain of boulders and branches. Behind him, he heard the shower of stone that signaled Aldo’s arrival at the edge of the water. Try as he might, however, he struggled to close any distance between himself and the boy. And with a growing sense of horror, Heinrich realized that he might not be able to recover the child before he was lost forever over the next drop in the waterfall’s course.

With a deep breath the inquisitor dove into the raging waves, his thin arms thrashing against the battering brown liquid. With all his strength, he swam out toward the center of the river where the boy was floating and bobbing up and down. Every inch of him burned with the effort, but the waters were immune, indifferent to his struggles, inconsiderate of his altruism. A powerful pull then sucked him to the right, away from the child, and hurled him up against one of the massive boulders that protruded from the watery billows. The impact smashed all remaining air out of him, and he felt himself go limp. He had failed the boy, and he had also likely doomed himself.

On the banks nearby, Aldo steadied himself before plunging into the swell. Displaying a power that dwarfed the inquisitor’s own, he cut his way across to where Heinrich was momentarily positioned, grabbed the stupefied inquisitor by the hair and finally hauled him to the opposite side of the river where he threw the gasping and coughing man to the ground.

“No,” Heinrich choked out amidst lung-rattling coughs. “No!”

Hauling himself up to all fours, Heinrich turned bleary eyes back toward the river just in time to see the small, terrified face of the boy disappear over the crest of the falls. He hung his head in abject despair, and his fingers dug instinctively into the mud that flanked the river’s edge. Neither man moved, and neither of them spoke. The only sound was the falls, which rushed on into the valley below, continuing the course it had chosen since time immemorial.

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