Council Of Fire – Snippet 40
We are in a world where there are stone demons
Even by the time he was able to convey the story in his biography, years later, Edward was still not completely certain of the details. The rangers had begun to be accustomed to the unusual . . . the supernatural, he supposed. The men of the 40th left their apprehensions behind within the firm structure of their military training, following orders rather than trying to make sense of what was happening before their eyes.
General Wolfe scribbled it all in his personal journal, a leather-bound commonplace book he carried with him. Edward was not sure what he wrote, and never later found out.
Duncan Campbell, the ethereal leader of his company of Highlanders, informed him that they–as beings from the Beyond, he presumed–could feel the presence of other such intruders, and felt it an affront to His Majesty’s person; accordingly they would convey him to the site with all dispatch. Sir William Johnson could wait: the enemy, whatever or whoever it was, came first. The land seemed to slip beneath them as they walked and rode–in short order it became necessary to cover the horses’ eyes so that they were not unnerved by the mode of travel, which was like a dream.
If it had been the Scotsmen’s choice, there would have been no rest and certainly no sleep–but the living members of the troop, both human and equine, required both. Thus, in the dark woods they made camp, the sleepless Highlanders keeping watch, and nothing troubled them–at least until the moon was high.
There was a disturbance at the outskirts of the camp of which the prince was only apprised when the subaltern of the 40th appeared at the entrance to his tent, touching his hand to his cap and imploring the royal pardon.
“There is a soldier who wishes to convey his respects to Your Highness,” the subaltern said.
“He claims to have escaped . . . Your Highness, I think it best that he tell you himself.”
“Present him then, and ask General Wolfe to attend me.”
The man touched his cap and departed. Presently another man, clearly somewhat worse for wear, appeared, and gave a perfect salute. He had no hat or wig, and his uniform showed evidence of rough travel. His face was impassive, but Edward could see fear in his eyes.
“At your ease,” he said. “I understand you have a report to make.”
“If . . . if it please Your Highness,” the man said. “Private Kenneth MacArran, recently posted to Fort Pitt at the forks of the Ohio.”
“The fort . . . Highness, the fort has been overthrown. I escaped with my life, along with a few others.”
“Are you a deserter, MacArran?”
“If I were, Highness, I would not seek to report to you. I did not desert my post. There is no post to desert. It was destroyed by…”
At this, MacArran reached up and touched his hand to his forehead, covering his face.
Before he could continue, General Wolfe came in behind him, saluted, and took up a position behind the young soldier, who removed his hand from his face and looked from Wolfe to the prince, not sure what to do next.
“Tell your story from the beginning, MacArran,” Edward said. “Omit no detail. Do your best, young man.”
“Three nights ago,” he began after a moment, “everything was as it had been for some months–very quiet, since we took the place from the French. A fine fortress it is, Your Highness . . . or was. The watch reported movement in the wood, and then–they began to come. Great tall soldiers, taller than a man, and like . . . like nothing I had ever seen.
“I was not on the watch, so I only saw them when they forced their way through the gate. Musket fire was useless against them, only chipping bits off their sides, like flint. They were not men–they were made of stone, and yet they walked and fought as men.”
“Stone men?” Wolfe said, as if refusing to believe.
“They were made of stone, sir, I swear it!” The young man looked anguished, as if his story was not believed–and under normal circumstances it would have been dismissed. “We have–we had–a few Seneca at the fort, Your Highness,” he continued, speaking to the prince. “They called them Genonskwa. Stone Coats. The Indians fled as fast as they could manage and told us to do the same.
“They did more than just slay the soldiers, Your Highness. They tore apart the fort, stone from stone. And they spoke a chant. I can still hear it.” He covered his ears with his hands. “I can hear it–and the screams–”
This time, heedless of the presence of a prince of the blood and a general in His Majesty’s army, the man broke down, hands over his face.
Prince Edward stood and took hold of the man’s elbow and steered him to sit beside him, a gesture that was completely divorced from royal hauteur. Wolfe’s expression showed what he thought of it, but Edward ignored him. The young man had lost any semblance of military dignity, and it took a few minutes for him to gain control of himself.
“So,” Wolfe said, after Edward had beckoned him to another seat, “Fort Pitt has fallen to stone demons.”
“So it seems. I should like to ask,” Edward said, “now that we are in a world where there are stone demons–do they come of their own accord, or did someone send them?”
“The French would want Fort Pitt destroyed, just as we wanted Fort Duquesne destroyed before it. Tell me, Private MacArran,” he said to the young man who sat uncomfortably at the right of Prince Edward, “when these stone demons attacked, were there any Frenchmen with them?”
“No, sir,” the man said. “Only Indians.”
“What sort of Indians?”
“I am no expert at telling the bastards apart, begging Your Highness’ pardon,” he said, “but they weren’t the same sorts that were within the walls. They say that the Indians in the Ohio Country are their own tribe now. They call themselves Mingo, and they pay no heed to the Covenant Indians.”
“Covenant–” Edward began, but Wolfe said, “the Iroquois, Your Highness.”
“Ah. So Fort Pitt was destroyed by demons sent by renegade Indians from the Ohio country. That is an additional complexity, I suppose. Though not for our Highlanders.”
“Is this the threat they seem to perceive?”
“I suspect so, General. And when we have rested, I expect that we will be going to meet them.”
By the time dawn had arrived the next morning they were traveling as before, the world passing by as if projected by a magic lantern; Campbell had warned them not to step too far away from the rough circle of Highlanders for fear of being left behind.
Sometimes the Scotsmen sang. It was somewhat discordant, harsh soldiers’ songs of battle and lost loves and missed opportunities, made even more difficult by the certainty that their battle was lost, their love was a thing of the past, and the only opportunity that presented itself was the chance to serve and–perhaps–redeem themselves on behalf of the prince who had promised them rest. The situation was so tense and surreal that those among the troop who still drew breath had little to say to each other.
Late in the day, when the irregular, rough hills had begun to cast long shadows, the strange mode of travel halted. They found themselves in a wide clearing–what appeared to be a cleared hard-packed dirt road, stretching east to west.
Duncan Campbell presented himself before Prince Edward.
“They are coming,” he said. “Ye can feel it in the earth.”
Edward glanced at Wolfe, who nodded. Beneath them, they could feel a small, regular shuddering in the ground, enough to make the horses snort and neigh. Wolfe called the men to order, but Campbell held up his hand.
“This is our fight, General,” he said. “Should we prevail, there is nothing for you to do. Should we fail, you should be ready to leave as quickly as possible.”
“We are no cowards, Major Campbell.”
“I did not say you were, sir,” Campbell replied. “But this is beyond your ken. Musket and sword will not harm these. Yon lad–” he gestured toward MacArran, who was standing with the men of the 40th–“can tell you the truth of it. We will turn the tide of the enemy in the king’s name, or you will have to make other plans.”
Wolfe appeared ready to make a sharp reply, but the prince nodded to Campbell, and he thought better of it.
And suddenly, the ghostly figures of the Highlanders faded away, leaving the rest of the travelers alone in the dusk.
Moments later, they began to see large human-shaped figures coming down the road. They moved slowly and deliberately, walking in step four abreast, looking like tall Indian braves. Instead of showing any sign of war decoration, their skins bore scales, like great stone snakes. The faces were fierce and devoid of expression.
“Form skirmish line,” Wolfe said, not taking his eyes off the advancing forces. He exchanged a glance with Prince Edward, wondering if he was thinking the same thing: where the hell are the Scotsmen?
The regulars and rangers formed a line abreast; each had his musket shouldered and aimed. The stone Indians continued to advance, four by four, coming closer and closer–
And just as the Highlander ghosts had vanished, they materialized once again in the path of the oncoming enemy. There was a far-off skirl of bagpipes and a banshee chorus as the ethereal Scotsmen collided with the stone demons. The Scots had been almost transparent, like wisps of dull fog, but in the impact they transformed, glowing brighter than day, more like sheets of flame, white and blue. Had they been men and not spirits, the stone figures might have overwhelmed them, but it was clear to the prince and the general that the fight was taking place in some way, in some realm that they could not see.
The men stood, transfixed and silent, watching the battle take place a hundred yards ahead of them where the stone Indians had stopped and now seemed to be crumbling and melting as the shades of the Scotsmen passed through them in unstoppable waves.
It only took a few minutes. When the light of the battle faded, there was still light in the western sky beyond the hills. No sign of either stone figures or ghostly soldiers remained.
“I think we have given them the battle they desired,” Prince Edward said at last. “I pray that means that they can rest.”
“I cannot disagree, Your Highness. Now we must attend to ourselves,” Wolfe said. “I am not sure exactly where we are, but I suspect this is the colony of Pennsylvania. If Fort Pitt is to the west–” he gestured toward the direction from which the stone Indians had come–“then we should travel east and north, toward Fort Johnson.”
“Is that not some considerable distance away?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And . . . no one knows that we are here. I imagine our arrival is likely to cause some surprise–as is our disappearance.”
“After what we have seen–here and elsewhere–nothing should surprise anyone,” Wolfe said. “What I fear is that if these stone demons were summoned by someone inimical to our Crown, other, similar things could also be summoned. Our brave Highlanders are gone. What happens when the next enemies march down that road?”
In the gathering dusk, Prince Edward had no answer.