Council Of Fire – Snippet 22
Maneto likes the rain
Soleil cast off from Trois-RiviÃ¨res in pouring rain. It would have been prudent to wait a day or two for the weather to clear; but Red Vest made it clear to Montcalm that he did not believe that the weather was mere circumstance.
“Maneto likes the rain,” Red Vest said, standing under the overhang aft of the pilothouse.
“I like the rain as well,” Montcalm told him. “It is a gift from God.”
As with so many other things, the native’s response to the comment was to spit on the deck and turn away.
Soleil ran out its guns. The gun-captains did their best to keep the powder dry and the gunlocks in proper order–but that was easier if the ship was in an actual battle, with a target in sight and the “clock running.” As with so many things in the navy, it was long periods of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.
Soleil‘s intended course was across the lake southwestward, toward the place where the river narrowed again. It was a maze of crosscurrents; the wind wasn’t cooperating either, requiring the ship to make frequent corrections in course.
Then, without warning, the choppy water they were passing through went calm and flat. Red Vest took his rifle in hand; Montcalm did so as well.
There was still a breeze enough to partially fill Soleil‘s sails, but it was otherwise whisper-quiet, with the occasional interruption of a bird call from the shore. Even the ship’s crew had gone largely silent, giving the scene an eerie feel.
And then, just as suddenly, something erupted from the water less than twenty feet away. It was a horror from nightmare: something like an octopus, pallid green and grey, with a distended head containing pupilless eyes and a ragged mouth, a huge, dark torso shedding water and long, ropy tentacles extending out from its sides. Soleil was almost bow-on to the creature, but the ship’s captain showed presence of mind by bringing it about to present a broadside; the gun-captains were already issuing orders, preparing the six starboard guns to fire.
With a movement almost too quick to notice, one of the tentacles lashed out toward Soleil and wrapped itself around Red Vest, who stood only a few feet from Montcalm himself. It lifted him off the deck and into the air.
Before Montcalm could react or bring his weapon to bear, the ship’s guns fired with a deafening roar, hurling canister shot over the short distance between Soleil and the Maneto. It caused the creature to recoil; the tentacle that held Red Vest straightened and stiffened, and Montcalm thought he heard the native cry out. But as he watched, Red Vest took careful aim with the rifle he still held and took the one shot he would be able to take.
The captain of Soleil was bringing the ship about, preparing for a port broadside. Montcalm took aim with his own rifle, as did several others on the deck of the ship, and fired, but the pitching and turning of the vessel made them ineffective. At the same time, though, there was a bloom in the creature’s right eye, causing it to utter an unearthly sound. The tentacle relaxed, and Red Vest was hurled into the now-roiling water, still clutching his rifle.
While the rifle shots from Soleil‘s deck were fruitless, the cannon fire found its mark. Large pools of dark blood spilled on the waves and the Maneto, still howling, sunk into the water just as the other broadside was launched.
Montcalm rushed to the rail, looking for some sign of Red Vest, who had just performed the single bravest act he had ever witnessed. The muddied lake was disturbed by the now-underwater thrashing of the Maneto, making visibility difficult. There was even the possibility that some part of the two broadsides had struck Red Vest, or that he had been pulled under by the creature. He began to take off his coat, preparing to dive overboard to try and locate him, but one of the crewmen pointed at the water and shouted, “There he is!”
Montcalm sat with Red Vest in his cabin. The native was draped in two heavy Indian blankets. Most of his outer clothing lay nearby, stained with the creature’s effusions that had mixed with the lake-water. The rifle, also badly soaked, lay on the deck before him, partially stripped. He had never let go of the weapon, and Montcalm could scarcely blame him–it had given him excellent service in a moment of extreme danger.
“I have never witnessed such a feat,” Montcalm said.
“Your ship guns did far more,” Red Vest said. But he nodded and even favored Montcalm with the slightest of smiles.
“There is something I do not understand.”
“What is that, Marquis?”
“Of all the men on the deck of the ship, it was you that the creature chose to grapple. Why was that?”
“A simple answer,” he answered. “I asked to be chosen.”
“Marquis, you are a brave man. But you do not understand what has awoken. You needed to be shown. I asked the Ciinkwia to choose me.”
“But–but certainly I did not need to be shown by you risking your life in that manner. I already believed in the threat.”
“Believing is not understanding, Marquis. The scarecrow believes. You believe. But you believe in the cross-God. But if you ask the scarecrow what he thinks about the Ciinkwia, he will say that they are made up, the stories of primitives. Of unbelievers.”
“Yes. He would say that.”
“He would believe in the Ciinkwia if he was brought face to face with them.”
“Face to face . . .”
“We will go to the shore, Marquis. I will speak to the Ciinkwia and they will tell me more of what I must do.”
“This is insane,” RÃ©cher said, shifting from foot to foot, his steps making a squelching sound. “What did that savage say to you?” he whispered.
Red Vest was a dozen feet ahead, up a little hill. He turned; it was unclear whether he had heard the priest’s comment.
“This demonstration is partially for your benefit, PÃ¨re. He intends to show you something that you will refuse to believe.”
“I am prepared to believe–”
“Oh, spare me, PÃ¨re. You have trained for a lifetime in the finest institutions of Christian education and traveled thousands of leagues to this unknown frontier to save lost souls. You have not come here to open your eyes to new experiences and new . . .”
While they spoke, Red Vest had raised his hands toward the rain-filled sky, and a bright glow had begun to form around him.
“I hesitate to say,” Montcalm said, not looking at the priest.
“What am I watching?”
The glow was forming into two human figures–one vaguely male, the other vaguely female, made of rain-spattered light.
“Red Vest called upon these beings and asked them to choose him to fight the Maneto. They honored his prayer.”
“And when you say ‘prayer,’ Monsieur, you imply that he . . . worships these beings? He considers them gods?”
Montcalm did not answer.
“No,” RÃ©cher said. “No. This cannot be. This shall not be.”
“I don’t think you have much choice in the matter.” Montcalm felt rooted to the spot. The two figures had almost completely materialized now: a man and a woman, in traditional native attire. They were very tall. The woman held a staff shaped like a sheaf of wheat; the man had a bow over his shoulder and held a tomahawk.
“There is always free will.”
“You must not interfere with this,” Montcalm said. He placed a hand on RÃ©cher’s cassock, but the priest shook him off.
RÃ©cher took his pectoral cross in his hand and walked slowly up the hill. From Montcalm’s view the priest’s steps were sluggish.
“No,” the man-figure said, glancing at the woman-figure. “Let him approach.”
Red Vest did not lower his hands but glanced over his shoulder. Montcalm saw an expression on the native’s face he had never seen: terror and . . . something else.
“Exsurgat Deus et dissipentur inimici ejus,” RÃ©cher said, gripping his cross and holding it in front of him. “Et fugiant qui oderunt eum a facie ejus. Sicut deficit fumus deficiant; sicut fluit cera a facie ignis, sic pereant peccatores a facie Dei.”
Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Him flee from before His Face. As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish away, as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
The two figures remained silent and motionless while the priest spoke the Latin phrases.
“How dare you?” Red Vest said, turning to face RÃ©cher. Rain streamed down his face, but his eyes were filled with the light that streamed from the two figures above him. “Your cross-God has no power against–”
“My God has power everywhere,” RÃ©cher shouted, “and power against everything! Begone, creatures of Satan! I rebuke thee, I reject thee, I consign thee to the nethermost hell!”
Red Vest raised his hands, and they too glowed with the light from the Ciinkwia. “Say only a word, and I will do your will.”
“You cannot hurt me,” RÃ©cher said.
“And you cannot hurt us, white man’s priest,” the woman-figure said. “We have slept for many seasons, but we have awakened. We extend our open hands to protect our people–and we close them to smite those who are our enemies.”
As they watched, the beautiful faces gradually changed–it was as if they shed their skin to reveal horrible grinning skulls, glowing with an inner light.
“Do you call yourself our enemy, Priest?”
“If you know me,” RÃ©cher said, not lowering his cross, “you know the power of My Lord, and you know that I cannot turn away.”
“It is time for you to turn back,” the man-figure said. “Beyond the place you call MontrÃ©al belongs to the tribes. We will summon the Maneto and Oniare, we will command the Stone Coats, and they will not trouble your people any further.”
“How can I know that you will keep your word, demons?”
“You doubt our word?” the man-figure answered. “Your tribe has broken every promise ever given to our people. We have gazed into the future and seen other times–and your promises will be broken then as well. You have no assurance from us, Priest. You must accept what we are telling you–and know this. As sun follows sun and moon follows moon, we only grow stronger.”
“Go,” Red Vest said. He moved his palms toward each other, and as Montcalm watched, RÃ©cher began to move backward, one agonizing step at a time.
“Red Vest–” Montcalm said, but the native did not spare him a glance.
“Consider yourself fortunate that you leave here with your life, Marquis,” Red Vest said. “Go.”
They left Red Vest behind, not that there was a choice in the matter. He did not appear to have any interest in returning to Soleil; he had achieved some rapport with the luminous beings. RÃ©cher and Montcalm had no interest in remaining to debate the matter.
The priest was visibly shaken by the encounter–he gladly accepted a drink in Montcalm’s cabin as Soleil stood at anchor off the shore. He positioned himself in a seat that gave no view of the glowing scene visible through the porthole.
“You were brave in that encounter, PÃ¨re.”
“I sounded more brave than I felt, Monsieur.” He sipped at the drink. “During the confrontation I felt . . . I thought for a moment that I would be destroyed by the savage spirits. One more step–one wavering thought–and . . . ” he visibly shuddered.
“Your faith is unshakable. Or so I would have thought.”
“You must not speak of this to the archbishop, but I felt their power–and could scarcely feel my own. I felt small and weak, and sensed a mightiness that I was unable to combat.”
“Nonsense. You rejected them with the power of the Holy Cross you bear.”
“I would like to think so, but I don’t really believe it. I dismissed all thoughts from my mind in the moment. But there was a presence, one I have never felt, not in the most consecrated holy place I have ever visited.”
“What sort of presence?”
“A divine presence, Monsieur. I think . . . I think we have encountered a pair of gods. My faith protected me at that moment, but I am not sure it would do so again.”
“You underestimate your fortitude, my friend. This is merely a test, and you passed it.”
“I suppose you are right.”
RÃ©cher did not continue the thought; he smiled faintly and sipped again at the drink. But Montcalm, accustomed to be a leader of men, saw the tremor in his hands and the fear in his eyes and knew that the priest did not believe it to be true.