Chapter twelve excerpt from debut novel The Witch Hunter.
Suddenly a scent wafted under my nose, old but not forgotten. It was a fresh smell, but it invoked memories I wished to forget. As its burning scent grew stronger, a part of me recognised it and recoiled. I coughed.
Simon sniffed the air and said, “That smell. What is that?”
I glanced at him and said, “It’s smoke. And burning meat.”
“Some cooking fire, no doubt.” Thomas said.
I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
My nose wrinkled at the scent. I’d smelled it once before, years ago when I was very young. The coppery odour had left its imprint on my memory, clear as day. I never wanted to smell it again, nor relive the scene that came with it.
Brother Thomas asked, “Harold, are you all right?”
I looked down at my hands. My knuckles were white and my good hand had curled into a fist. To my surprise, it was shaking. Teeth pawed the ground uncertainly behind me, sensing my distress. Simon looked at me with concern. “Master Harold...” he began, “Are you unwell...?”
“Good Lord, he’s white as a shroud.” Thomas said.
I shook my head strongly and pulled myself into the saddle. I kicked my heels at Teeth’s belly, sending him into a gallop. He whinnied and set off, his powerful hooves thundering against the forest floor. Behind us I could hear Simon and Thomas urge their animals after us and attempt to catch up. I rode hard, feeling Teeth’s muscles bunch and coil beneath me as we raced. But even as we covered ground so quickly it blurred before my eyes, I knew it was too late. We were not fast enough.
Dimly I heard Simon’s voice call out behind me, “Harold! Stop! Why are you riding so fast?”
Thomas called something behind me but I did not hear. Simon urged his horse faster and in a few minutes caught up to me. “Harold!” Simon called, “Where are you going? Was it something I said?”
I ignored him and leaned forward on Teeth, gripping the horse by the mane. I rode the animal tightly with my legs wrapped around him, moving as one through the brush. We darted over fallen trees and branches, crashed around bushes and through brambles that tore at our faces. We raced faster and faster, but my heart sank with each ground-eating step. I could see the smoke up ahead through the trees.
I pulled Teeth up short who neighed, rearing, and then stopped. He pawed the ground, his eyes wide. I dismounted awkwardly, barely registering the pain that shot up my arm as I banged it against the saddle. I stood at the top of a rocky slope and beneath it, lay a small clearing where Charles and two other men stood around a burning, stinking fire.
One of the lads was saying, “Never knew a wolf would smell this bad.”
As I skidded down the slope, rocks slipped beneath my boots, and I almost ran into one of the young men standing there.
“You idiots!” I exclaimed. I shoved one of them aside and kicked dirt at the fire. “Stop this!”
One of the lads said, “Hey!” and pushed me back.
Another said, “What do you think you’re doing?” and he punched me in the gut. I doubled over in pain, and held a hand to my stomach. He’d hit right where one of the wolves had gripped me with its jaws, and I could feel something wet seep through the bandage.
“Stop!” I gasped. “Can’t you see what you’re doing?”
Two of the lads exchanged confused glances and looked at me. Charles came to stand inches from my face and demanded, “What are you doing here? We’re burning the wolf. It won’t come around here again. What’s your problem?”
The smell of burning hair and hot flesh was in my nostrils, sick and cloying. It smelled like pork that had cooked for too long. It was sickly sweet, smoky, and putrid. I did not welcome the memory it brought. Years had passed since it had happened, but the smell and its lasting thoughts never left me. How could I make them understand? Wolf didn’t smell that way.
I coughed and thought I might be sick.
“Can’t you see that’s not a wolf?” I exclaimed.
One of the lads stood next to Charles, watching me. “You’re mad. That’s a wolf. Are you blind?”
I pushed past them, stumbling to my knees before the fire. The flames licked at its prey, and the thing in its grasp burned merrily, cloying the air with its stink and sending black smoke up to choke the trees.
There within the flames, lay the burning body of an animal. Its carcass moved in the fire, as if it were still alive. I was suddenly reminded of how as a child, I had once found a small bird lying on the ground. It lay there and moved, yet it did not breathe. I picked up a stick and poked it, and found a nest of maggots underneath, squirming and eating away at its insides. Their movement shook the poor creature as if it was still alive, mimicking the semblance of life in its death. I shut my eyes at the thought and could still see them, wriggling as the bird’s eyes lay open, staring at nothing. I gagged.
The smoke stung my eyes, making them water. I blinked hard and backed up, rocks and pebbles scraping my good hand as I watched the fire. In the distance, I heard hoof beats and voices calling as I sat and watched the carcass burn. Was it a trick of the light, or was that a body in the flames?
Hands roughly pulled me away and set me further back on the ground. Simon appeared over me, saying something incomprehensible. I shook my head and leaned up on my elbows, gradually sitting up as I watched. The animal’s scent toyed with my nostrils, filling them with its stink.
Simon leaned closer and asked, “Harold, what happened? Are you all right?”
I looked up at him helplessly. At that moment the fire popped and spat something at my cheek. It rolled down, leaving a hot smear down my face. All I could think of was the bird I’d seen as a child, covered in wriggling maggots. I turned to the side and vomited.