The Windmill of Hartbruck by Lisa Voorhees
On breezeless days such as this one, Mirte Doevelaar nudged the windmill’s sails into action with the gentlest command from her fingertips. By careful manipulation of her power, a light wind whispered through the sails. The drive shaft creaked, spinning the gears that rotated the giant millstone on the stone floor. Below, her brother Emiel measured out the flour in burlap sacks.
This far into the country, no one could detect her wind handling.
The Usurper had outlawed the use of magic in the city of Auberlon, but the village of Hartbruck lay well outside its limits. On the westernmost boundary, the Doevelaar farm sat surrounded by acres of uninhabited forestland. Though her family had owned the farmland for generations and the windmill for the past two, the Usurper’s encroachment on outlying villages threatened the Doevelaars’ livelihood more with each passing month.
The Usurper’s obsession with power had driven him to round up any women capable of handling magic and imprison them indefinitely. Rumors regarding events at the Royal Prison swept across the countryside. A stage had been constructed outside the walls, and as the number of beheadings rose, so did the question of the Usurper’s sanity.
Far from being able to use their power to help nourish and work the land so it would continue to produce fruit and nurture livestock, women were being slaughtered by the hundreds.
The Usurper would not share his rule with those denizens of the Devil, or so he professed. How he expected to rule a kingdom without their help was beyond Mirte.
She kept steady pressure on the sails, lifting the hem of her skirt to descend the several flights of wooden steps to the stone floor below ground where Emiel worked.
Twenty-seven years old, with broad shoulders accustomed to hauling sacks of grain and plowing the fields, he was still her little brother, minus the baby fat. Their parents had died of the plague when she was sixteen. She’d cared for him since he was eight years old, her mothering instincts sharply honed where he was concerned.
Once they acquired sufficient savings, they would flee west, far from Auberlon and the Usurper’s reach. Ekaria’s queen was a master water handler of the highest order. Mirte’s ability would be welcomed; she would be free to practice her magic for the good of the land and its people.
The ladder took her the last few steps below ground. Emiel glanced up at her, a fine white dust coating the front of his cotton shirt and work-worn trousers.
“Not too much,” he said as a warning, lifting his chin toward the sails. “There’s no wind today. If anyone passes by…”
“They won’t,” Mirte said. “Not now that harvest is past.”
Emiel tied off a sack and tossed it aside with the others before positioning a new bag and opening the lever to fill another. “The mild weather won’t last much longer,” he said. “We should think about leaving soon. Before the frosts arrive.”
“I’m aware. Why do you think I push the mill? We need guilders for the journey.”
Emiel frowned. “Money is one thing, but it’s not what’s most important. You don’t travel into Hartbruck, Mirte, you don’t realize. The streets are crawling with Inquisitors, inspecting every tradesman’s shop and tavern for women who can handle magic. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll sweep the countryside and search the farms.”
Mirte focused on the wind lacing through her fingertips, powering the mighty sails. She resisted the urge to turn the sails faster, to pour more grain through the millstone, to produce more flour that they could sell.
The Usurper and his Inquisitors had no right to any of it.
“If He would see fit to send the storm winds, I wouldn’t have to resort to this,” she said, glowering, holding up her hands.
Emiel pressed his lips into a thin line. His faith was staunch, even in times of difficulty. She’d uncovered more than one crucifix buried underneath his pillow whenever she washed the sheets. “He will provide. He always has.”
Mirte scoffed. “Listen to you. Wanting to flee with what little savings we have, yet insisting on God’s provision. We work for what we need, and without any storm wind,” she said, gesturing upward while maintaining her hold on her power, “He might as well have abandoned us when we need Him most.”
Emiel clucked his tongue. “Don’t say such things.” He tied off a bag of flour and reached for another empty sack. The soles of his felt boots were nearly worn through, the side stitching unraveled at the ankle. He’d need a new pair before they left.
“Many have not been so fortunate as us,” he continued. “The Bremmers, for instance.”
“Why? What’s happened to them?”
Emiel adjusted the bag under the chute and opened the lever. Milled grain flowed into the bag. He met her gaze. “Eliza was arrested and taken to Auberlon. Hans hasn’t been able to sell any of the milk without her purifying power. The untreated milk makes everyone sick. Inquisitors have shut down operation of the farm and sold the cows. Hans and the children have nowhere to go. They will starve this winter, with only bark from the trees to boil for food.”
“I had no idea,” Mirte said, power leaching from her fingertips as her heart sank. She’d lost focus; the sails ground slowly to a halt.
With her release, the gears ceased their wooden clattering, and Emiel pricked up his ears. He held out one hand and touched a finger to his lips. “Listen,” he said. “Do you hear that?”
Mirte hastened up the ladder to the ground floor and peered through the doorway, Emiel close behind her. A cloud of dust at the end of the road signaled a pair of riders.
Darkly clad men with flowing red capes on well-muscled war horses. Inquisitors.
“No, it can’t be,” Mirte whispered, her heart drumming out a tangled beat.
“I told you they’d arrived in Hartbruck,” her brother said. “Didn’t you believe me? We’re out of time, sister! We were out of time weeks ago.”
We didn’t have any savings a few weeks ago. Mirte clutched the doorframe. Best not to remind Emiel how dire their situation was. He would lose heart, and she would need that heart to help sustain both of them on the arduous journey through the Severed Hills.
Mirte gathered her courage. “Hide the flour and sweep up the remains. Fast,” she hissed, shooing him inside. “I’ll deal with the Inquisitors.”
Emiel hurried down the ladder, transported the newly-filled bags to a hidden recess in the floor, and slid a loose stone over the hole. He had barely finished cleaning by the time the Inquisitors reined in their war horses.
Metal braces on the mens’ arms glinted in the sunlight. Tall and solidly built, the cruelty in the Chief Inquisitor’s steel-colored eyes mimicked the sneer on his lips. His horse frothed at the mouth and stamped polished hooves on the ground, kicking up dust. His red cape hung to his breeches, sunlight reflecting off the shine of his knee-high leather boots.
He dismounted, swept his gaze over the fields where the sheep grazed, up the arms of the windmill, and finally down, settling on Mirte. He approached her, stopping inches from her face.
Mirte’s mouth went dry.
He held a finger in the air. “Not a trace of wind today,” he said in a gravelly voice. “Yet the windmill was turning as I exited the woods.” The Chief Inquisitor stared into her eyes.
“I can’t imagine why,” Mirte said. “We have no–”
He backhanded her across the face and Mirte gasped, her cheek burning. The Inquisitor grabbed a fistful of her raven-colored hair and yanked her head up. “Mirte Doevelaar,” he rasped. “If you’re lying to me, I have ways of finding out.”
The second Inquisitor moved to back him up, should she protest.
“Let her go,” Emiel said from behind, pleading.
A slow smile stretched across the Inquisitor’s face, the rims of his teeth lined with a layer of finely sharpened silver. “You must be Emiel.”
“I am. Take your hands off her.”
The Inquisitor chuckled, a soft, sinister sound. He released his grasp on her hair, and Mirte massaged her neck.
“I’m sure you won’t mind if I have a look around,” he said, backing up a step, his gaze lingering on the entrance to the mill. “Since you both have nothing to hide.” Again, he stared into her eyes.
Emiel stepped in front of Mirte, shielding her. “Go ahead. We will wait while you make your inspection.”
The second Inquisitor curled his lip in a mirthless smile. “If we discover you’ve been using magic to hoard flour for yourselves, you’ll answer to the Magistrate of Auberlon. He’s not known for leniency.”
Mirte stiffened. Emiel touched her hand, and she remained silent. The Inquisitors stepped past them into the heart of the windmill, sniffing the air.
By sundown, the Inquisitors had not left. Their horses were stabled in the barn alongside the Doevelaars’ two draft horses. Seated at the head of the long oak table in the kitchen, the unwelcome guests watched as Mirte prepared soup.
Emiel sliced a loaf of fresh bread, buttered two pieces, and set them in front of the men.
Mirte stirred the pot above the fire in the stone hearth, attuned to Emiel’s efforts at getting the Inquisitors to speak. Her brother’s face was drained of color, and as the afternoon dragged on, his mounting anxiety was palpable.
He wanted the Inquisitors out of their house as much as she did.
She ladeled soup into wooden bowls and placed them in front of the intruders. After serving the rest of the soup, she and Emiel took seats opposite each other.
The Chief Inquisitor dunked his bread in the steaming broth and finished the slice in one messy slurp. Mirte forced down each spoonful, sick with fear. Emiel wasn’t faring much better.
When he finished eating, the Chief Inquisitor wiped his mouth and set his napkin on the table. “Not bad for country fare,” he said. “Though I’m struck by the amount of mutton. The Doevelaar farm has not suffered from the stormlack as others have, isn’t that true?”
Mirte locked gazes with Emiel, then turned to the Inquisitors. “We wanted you to have your fill,” she said, glancing briefly at each of them. “The herd is half the usual size.”
“Not by my count. We allowed ourselves a glance through your records,” he said. “The figures were quite astonishing. Tell me, how do you come by those kinds of profits in times like these?” The silver lining on his teeth glinted in the firelight.
God help her, the man was pure evil, a viper poised to strike. Emiel started to speak and Mirte silenced him with a warning glare. She would handle this. Emiel tended to be too honest for his own good.
“We ran through our reserves of grain at the start of summer,” she said, “and have struggled to maintain the herd since. We’re managing, but poorly.”
A deep laugh rumbled in the man’s chest. “You make excellent soup, Mirte, but you’re a lousy liar.” A dark flash passed through his eyes; he dashed the empty bowl aside with a quick sweep of his arm, the steel brace hitting the table with a thud. “Those pale blue eyes of yours would mark you anywhere, girl. You’re a wind handler.”
He lunged forward and grabbed her by the shoulders, hauling her off her feet. His strength was brutal, his clasp that of an enraged bear, his nails digging into her flesh.
“Put her down,” Emiel yelled, reaching for a knife.
The Chief Inquisitor threw her to the ground and turned on Emiel. He wrestled the knife from her brother and thrust it into the table. “Stupid boy,” he hissed, punching him in the stomach.
Emiel doubled over, wheezing in pain.
“You’re lucky I haven’t arrested your sister already. But I’m kinder than I appear, and I have my weaknesses. One of them is a good meal. The other…” His gaze traveled over Mirte, huddled on the floor. She shrank into the corner. A shiver laced up her arms and shot through her spine, bolting her in place.
He knelt down, propped his elbows on his knees, then ran one cold finger along her cheek, pinching her chin, forcing her to look at him. “I could be convinced to give the Doevelaar farm a pass under certain…conditions.”
“Never,” Mirte growled, prepared to spit in his face. She scrambled to her feet and smoothed her skirts.
“What do you want from us?” Emiel stepped up behind her, his breath ragged.
The Chief Inquisitor smirked. He yanked the knife from the table, spun the tip of the blade on his finger, then tapped it against his palm. “You’ll both spend the night in the barn. We’ve not yet completed our search. Whatever means of production you’re hiding, we will find out.”
One knife against both their backs, the Chief marched them out to the barn. The second Inquisitor rolled the door shut with a bang. The heavy wooden bolt shuddered into place.
Mirte and Emiel were shrouded in darkness.
Emiel coughed, a sharp, hacking sound, rousing Mirte from a restless slumber. Nightmarish visions had plagued her rest; the countryside in flames, the soil turned to ash. She pressed thumbs to her eyes, to rid them of dust. Beside her in the darkness, Emiel spoke.
“Did you sleep?”
“Well enough,” she lied. “You?”
Her brother sighed through his nose. “Yeah.” Emiel was a terrible liar.
Mirte stifled a bitter laugh. “We’ll need rest to face what’s coming.”
“What’s that? Have you had a vision in your dreams?”
Foretelling or premonition, Mirte could never be sure which. In either case, a storm was brewing on the horizon. It was time for her and Emiel to flee, and in order to do that, they’d need to make a plan. The Inquisitors wouldn’t keep them locked in the barn forever.
The first blush of dawn illuminated the crack at the bottom of the barn door, and with the light came the sound of approaching hoofbeats on the road outside.
Mirte hurried to the barn door and peered through the opening.
Emiel followed close behind. “Who is it?” he asked, anxious to peek through the opening himself.
“The Inquisitors. They’re meeting someone on the road.”
“What are they doing?”
Mirte hushed him. “I’m trying to see.”
She watched as the Chief Inquisitor handed the new arrival a canvas bag. The receiver was similarly dressed, black-clad with a flowing red cape, but otherwise like no creature she’d ever seen. His flesh and form were more lizard-like than human. Giant teeth lined his jaws, his massive reptilian hands rimmed with curved, saber-like claws.
“Dear God,” she whispered, a chill creeping through her at the sight of those instruments of torture. “It’s an Extractor.”
Emiel gently pushed her aside to glance through. He stiffened, then turned to her, pale. “Mirte…” His lip trembled.
Mirte’s voice froze in her throat. She had no way of comforting her brother, much less herself. Once those vicious claws pierced her skin, the beast would siphon her magic away from her, taking it into himself and destroying it. She would not only be stripped of her power, she would be permanently weakened, better off left for dead.
She spied through the opening again. The Chief Inquisitor placed the canvas sack inside the Extractor’s saddlebag before the whole lot of them turned and approached the barn.
“He’ll strip you of your magic,” Emiel said, “and likely kill you if you resist. You have to run. Let me deal with them.”
Mirte squeezed his palm, willing her hand not to tremble. “Fight,” she said. “Fight and don’t back down. I’m not going anywhere without you.”
The wooden bolt slammed open and the barn door squealed on its hinges. Mirte squinted against the sudden wash of early morning light.
“Lovely morning, isn’t it?” The Chief Inquisitor strolled inside, followed by his second-in-command, their boots scuffing the dirt floor.
She and Emiel moved out of the way.
The Extractor’s shadow loomed in the doorway. He grunted softly, the breath of his nostrils fetid, filling the air with the smell of rotted meat.
“You have no right to detain us,” Emiel said, stepping up to face the Inquisitors, “or keep us from our work. We’ve done nothing wrong.”
The Chief Inquisitor sniggered, then fixed Emiel with a cold gaze. “I disagree. I believe we’ve a witch in our midst.” He glared at Mirte and raised his hand. A snap of his fingers, and the Extractor lunged for Mirte.
Sharpened claws brushed against her flesh. He twisted her into an armlock and pressed the tip of one claw to her throat. Mirte gasped, both from the pain in her shoulders and the sense that she was steadily being drained of her abiding knowledge of the wind’s presence, even though she wasn’t handling it.
Emiel leapt toward the Extractor, and the Chief Inquisitor punched him in the gut. The second-in-command picked up a loose piece of lumber and dealt a sickening blow to the side of her brother’s head.
Mirte screamed as the giant lizard dragged her out into the barnyard. Her brother’s cries filled her mind, blinding her to the pain of the Extractor’s grasp, his relentless hold on her power.
The beating inside the barn continued, Emiel’s agonized shouts quieting to whimpers. The harder she fought against the Extractor, the more profound his draw on her power. She tasted blood; she’d bitten her tongue.
With a savage effort, she attempted to wrest herself from the Extractor’s clutches. A set of iron manacles clanked at his side, and with one clawed hand, he grappled for them while keeping a firm grip on her.
If he cuffed her, she was doomed, as was Emiel.
With the last of her energy, Mirte reached out in a sensing. If a drop of her power remained, she would feel the wind, even if it was miles away. A faint tremor resonated deep inside her chest and Mirte’s heart leapt. If the Extractor sensed what she had, he would draw even harder on her power. Breathless, she stilled her heart and cast a quick glance at the horizon, her vision watery, her muscles wracked with pain.
Lightning forked across the sky, the horizon purple as a bruise. Thunder rumbled and a curtain of rain drifted beneath the clouds, bathing the forest several hundred yards away.
Hope surged inside Mirte, blunting the putrid odor emanating from the Extractor’s mouth as he breathed in her ear, tightening his claws at her throat, piercing her skin.
“You’re done for, witch,” he growled.
Mirte clung to the last remnant of her power and, through sheer force of will, snatched at the wind as it whistled past.
God in Heaven, thank you.
The thread of power grew to the thickness of a rope, and as she bit back a cry, the Extractor’s grip on her wrists loosened. With a roar, she twisted out of his grasp, sensing a stinging sensation at her throat followed by the warm trickle of blood down the front of her neck.
Mirte concentrated on her wind handling. With her last breath, she would save Emiel and flee this place, whether they died during the escape or not.
She maintained her hold on the wind, gathering it inside herself. With one hand, she forced the Extractor back, and with the other, she set the sails on the windmill spinning. The drive shaft could only tolerate so much torque before it would snap, releasing the sails.
Mirte funneled the bulk of the stormwind into the sails. The closer the storm drew, the more wind she handled, and the faster the sails spun.
The Extractor tipped his head back and howled, a warning cry. The two Inquisitors appeared at the doorway to the barn.
With an ear-splitting crack, the drive shaft gave way and the rotating limbs of the windmill took flight. They crashed to the ground in a maelstrom of timber and heavy canvas, impaling the Chief Inquisitor beneath one massive beam and crushing the others.
Exhausted, Mirte fell to her knees. The clouds burst, unleashing torrential rain. A choked cry escaped her throat, her tears mingling with the rainwater dripping from her chin. “Emiel,” she gasped, forcing herself to her feet and staggering past the wreckage.
She collapsed against the barn door and squinted into the darkness. Her brother lay in a bloody heap on the floor. Mirte rushed to his side, gripped his head in her hands.
His swollen eyes fluttered open. He brushed his hand against hers. “You did it,” he whispered.
Mirte kissed his forehead. “God did it,” she said. “He sent the storm.”
From one of the stalls, a horse nickered, mirroring her anticipation of their impending flight from Hartbruck.
The storm raged for another hour, long enough for Mirte to retrieve their savings from the Extractor’s saddlebag, prepare the horses, and pack what few leftover provisions they had. She bound Emiel’s broken ribs and tended to the wounds on his face. Grimacing in pain, he squinted at her out of one eye and smiled as she helped him to his feet. They would ride together.
When the rain ceased, they fled for the Severed Hills.