Save the night I had kept watch over my dead brother, the night of the All Saint’s Festival was the longest in all of my days. It seemed the darkness had gripped the world like a great beast and refused to release its hold. Until I came upon the revelation, the darkness had just been in me, when God’s light broke through the next morning.
Needless to say, I did not sleep a wink while our small party holed up inside the church to keep vigil over the dead. Father Branigan at least looked at peace in his eternal slumber, as Helda’s tonic had helped him pass more at ease into Heaven. Surely a Godly man as him ended up there rather than purgatory or hellfire. I wondered if I were to die, where would my soul go? For I knew I was not without sin, so perhaps purgatory then? What of Azra? Did she still drawl breath? Where had her soul ended up? I saved my prayers for her soul as I doubted Father Branigan needed any help getting into Heaven.
My anger had cooled into despair and self -pity by dawn’s first light. I knew I probably needed confession for not only my sins, but also my horrendous thoughts after being locked inside the church all night long, especially with Yara who made a great show of wailing and weeping over Father Branigan. I knew you were supposed to love thy neighbor, but that old wench made it hard. I also over heard her interrogating my Father about “your son’s unholy fits”. She went on in a voice pretending to be a whisper but loud enough for the whole sanctuary to say how “The boy appears to be possessed by an unclean spirit.” I certainly had unholy thoughts about the old cow afterwards, but bit my tongue out of respect for the fallen priest who certainly did not want bloodshed in his beloved church.
Mylon and the other villager whose name I could not recall, had gotten into the church’s collection of wine and drank themselves to sleep, much to my father’s displeasure. Helda had mostly been the one to tidy up the body as Yara was pretty much useless. Even looking upon his still body, I could not believe that Father Branigan was no more. Killed by a dragon while accompanying Azra home to see that she arrived safely, the witch carried off by the beast, it seemed like a story told around a fire late at night. I could imagine it being told. I felt the heavy guilt of it crushing upon my chest making it hard to breathe.
It was Father’s voice that broke me free from my ponderings. He looked so weary, on top of all of his regular Sheriff duties, he now had a dragon killing villagers to concern himself with. No longer was it just ramblings from an old drunk or whispered rumors from afar. A dragon had come to Briar Hollow. Just like the man in the cell had predicted. What else did the thief know?
I knew Father also feared the state my mother was in when we did not return home last night. Ever since my brother had died, mother’s grip around us all had tightened. It was simply not acceptable not to come home before morning. A worried and angry woman was something to be feared indeed.
Father place hand upon my shoulder softly.
“Braylon my son, ride home with haste and tell your mother what has happened. She shall be sick with worry. I am going to gather my men and ride over to Hunter’s Glen to collect more information on the beast. We shall return before the day’s end.”
I nodded. My mouth was dry, my tongue thick and tangled. Even I knew we had nothing to fear of dragons during the light of day. I rose to my feet and clapped Father upon his shoulder in a similar fashion. It was time I acted like a man and did my duty without complaint. I wanted to accompany Father to Hunter’s Glen, but I had been tasked with something important.
“Stay safe Father,” I said. “Be sure to return home before nightfall.”
“I shall. Give your mother and brothers a kiss on my account.” I gave Father a look and he smiled gently. “At least your mother then.”
“That I shall. I’ll be on my way then,” I made towards the doors when I paused with a thought and looked back at him, “Father, do you think Azra is still alive?”
“I do not know my son. I do hope and pray that if her end did come, it was quick and without pain. That poor girl had suffered more in her life than most would in ten lifetimes. May she be with God and her soul at peace.”
Father bowed his head and muttered a prayer. I nodded and walked away quietly. I hoped my Father’s words had come to pass. If Azra was dead, that she had felt no pain. But I doubted that was the case. It hurt to think such thoughts about the terror and pain she must have felt in her final moments. It cut me so deeply I felt as though a dagger had plunged through my heart.
Mylon was snoring loudly in a pew at the back of the church. He had a bruise on his cheek from where I had struck him last night. I was sorry of many things, but not for that. I knew most of the villagers would share his same sentiments that Azra’s misfortune was a blessing. That the witch of Stonehill had gotten what she deserved.
But striking him again would prove nothing. I would not change opinions with my fists .That was a hard lesson to learn. One I must admit I had not fully grasped yet. Unfortunately, I was also not very good at changing opinions with my words either. My powers of persuasion were nothing to boast about, save where they had gotten me with Ledora, which was now a moot point anyway.
I left Mylon drooling and sleeping off the wine, and left the church. The rain had washed away Father Branigan’s blood from the street. But I could still recall how he had looked lying in the mud last night, holding in his guts and begging us to save Azra. We had failed him and her both.