It was early autumn, that time of year when the leaves are only just beginning to blush hesitantly with colour, as if nervous for making their presence known too early. The evenings of amber- and rose-coloured dusk became shorter, and the pleasant cool of summer nights was rapidly becoming the uncomforting chill that promised a long, dark night.
September is like adolescence, thought Matthias Fletcher as he rode along the rough dirt road. A month of conflicting humours, never quite sure what it should be.
Matthias liked autumn, especially autumn in Massachusetts, for an autumn in that state is a beautiful thing indeed. However, after experiencing twenty-two summers, Matthias had decided that the season wasn’t to his liking. In his opinion, both the weather and the emotions of people ran too hot during the long, humid months.
Matthias didn’t know what his companion’s views on the seasons were. Solomon rarely spoke, and when he did, it was for an important reason. He wouldn’t waste breath discussing something as trivial as the weather. “The Almighty gave me only a short time on His earth,” he’d say. “I won’t squander that time by engaging in useless chatter.”
And that had been that.
Solomon rode ahead of Matthias, astride a charcoal-black mare called Testament. Like her rider, the horse had no doubt seen better days, but those days hadn’t seen fit to make an impression upon either of them. Horse and rider were calloused with the weary experience of those who had become firm acquaintances of hardship, rather than comfort.
Matthias’s steed – a plucky russet gelding that he’d named Samson – plodded along the road. The day had been long, and saddle-soreness had wormed its way into Matthias’s muscles.
“Maybe we should stop,” said Matthias.
Solomon didn’t turn his head to acknowledge his companion. He didn’t speak for a while, and Matthias was just beginning to think that the older man hadn’t heard him when he grunted a response.
“Nearly there. Patience, boy.”
Patience wasn’t a virtue that came easily to Matthias. He’d never been one to wait quietly while events unfolded around him. Given his line of work, his recklessness was a flaw, and to his credit, Matthias recognised the flaw and attempted to correct it by emulating the stoic demeanour of his companion and mentor.
Yet the day had been long, and Matthias was no longer too concerned about trying to keep Solomon happy.
“It’s growing darker,” he said.
Solomon didn’t reply.
“I do not like the look of this road,” sad Matthias, trying a different approach. “What if brigands accost us?”
“Then keep your cudgel close to hand,” said Solomon.
Solomon reined Testament around so that he could look Matthias face-to-face. The younger man realised he should’ve kept his mouth shut.
Some men age gracefully, and manage to maintain an air of youth about them. Their hair may remain thick and coloured, their skin may remain smooth and unmolested by Time’s cruel touch.
Solomon was not one of those men. He had aged in the way that a boot or side of beef ages, becoming rough, leathery, and filthy. His face was grizzled and jowly and looked like it had never played host to a smile. Solomon’s unkempt hair was grey and thinning, his nose had been broken, his teeth were bad, and he sported a permanent dirty fuzz of stubble across his cheeks, chin, and throat. He wore a shapeless, wide-brimmed hat, rough workmanlike shirt and breeches, and an leather longcoat older than him, faded nearly to grey by sun and rain. Under the clothes, Solomon’s body was a tough, thin thing of age-withered limbs and aching bones.
If Matthias had passed him in the streets, he would’ve thought him a beggar or demented vagrant at first glance and paid no further mind.
Yet if one looked at Solomon longer and more carefully, they would’ve seen something much more than a tired, broken old man.
Despite his dishevelled, raggedy-man appearance, Solomon held himself tall and proud. There was a type of arrogance in his posture, an air of superiority that seemed to make the unspoken announcement – and it was forever unspoken, for Solomon would never be so boastful as to give voice to it- “I am a greater man than you could ever hope to be, and woe betide those who may think otherwise.”
There was a paradoxical vitality to Solomon, the sense that although he seemed weary and battered by age and experience, he could snap into action, as fast and deadly as an old but well-maintained trap. The old man’s eyes and mind were as sharp and cold as whetted blades.
Those sharp-knife eyes stabbed into Matthias.
“In all my years,” Solomon wheezed, “I have never heard such whining from a person who wasn’t dying or at their mother’s breast.”
Matthias’s cheeks – clean-shaven and smooth in contrast to Solomon’s – flushed. The old man had a particular talent for evoking shame in him. When Solomon scolded or derided him, he felt like a troublesome child again, receiving a lecture from some stern patrician authority figure.
“My apologies, Solomon. I will stay my tongue from now on.”
Solomon snorted and wheeled Testament round to resume a steady trot down the path. Matthias quickened Samson’s pace so that he was riding beside Solomon.
“If the fellow we spoke to was not mistaken, we are not too far from the village,” said Solomon after some time.
Matthias was about to speak, to exclaim how much of a waste of a time he thought this whole journey was, but he decided to stay silent. He didn’t want to invite Solomon’s scorn twice in one evening.
“You’re wondering why I listened to him,” said Solomon, as if he’d read the younger man’s mind.
“Of course not!” stammered Matthias.
“I cannot abide a man who lies for the sake of foolish reasons,” said Solomon. It wasn’t even a warning to Matthias, but a simple, bald fact. Still, Matthias felt the familiar rush of shame.
“Again, my apologies Solomon.”
“Remember Matthias, even a lie that the speakers believes harmless obstructs us in our holy duty. We are seekers of truth and justice, and lies are one of the most nefarious of weapons wielded by those who would dare to oppose us and the Lord. We must be the blade that cuts through falsehood and deception. What is it I always say, boy?”
“Perception is more pleasing than truth?”
Solomon coughed, a hacking old-man cough, and spat out a phlegmy lump that had been dredged from the depths of his lungs.
“Men no longer want the truth,” mused Solomon. He was unusually talkative, so Matthias shut up and listened to his mentor. “Men want to believe only in what they see, without any kind of proof or evidence. The truth is unpalatable to many these days. Even to the others of our small fraternity, truth is an inconvenience, something that can be ignored or fabricated.”
Matthias knew that the incident back in Andover had left Solomon in a black mood. A woman there had been accused of witchcraft, and Solomon had been in the process of investigating the case to determine the woman’s innocence. Their examination had taken two weeks, and during that time neither Solomon or Matthias had laid a finger of the accused woman. They’d just talked to her, and she’d talked back, and Solomon had sat there with her in the dingy cell where she was being held, and he listened to her.
Solomon had been assured of the women’s innocence, and had declared her as pure of soul and deed, claiming that the accusations had been born of ill-feeling and maliciousness. But the people of Andover had not listened to Solomon. They had wanted a witch to punish. They had wanted the alternative. They hadn’t wanted the truth.
Another of the brotherhood, the notorious Tobias Hale, had been summoned to deliver a second opinion. Within a few hours of arriving, Hale’s tools of excruciation were slick with the woman’s blood, and she was confessing to heinous acts of blasphemy.
Solomon’s protests had fallen on deaf ears, and Hale had the woman burned the same day.
The old man had raged – an uncharacteristic show of emotion for him – but eventually he had buried his fury behind his tired old face, and he and Matthias had left Andover, the smell of burning flesh still nauseatingly rich in their nostrils.
That had been six days ago. Matthias still heard the woman’s screams in his dreams, and knew that it was his punishment for failing her so utterly. He wondered if her screams were in Solomon’s dreams, but he knew better than to ask the old man.
“There can’t be justice without truth,” muttered Solomon.