Witchy Winter – Snippet 12
“I might could be interested, though,” Cal said.
“Me too,” Jake added.
“Hey,” Cal said appreciatively. “A week ago you’d a said ‘ook ik’ or somethin’ Dutchish. You come a long way, Jake. I met you now for the first time, I might not even guess you for the Hudson.”
“There are also Old World dialects.” Uris inclined his head again.
Alzbieta Torias pointed toward the top of the mound. “The princes who built the mound of Irra-Zostim lived and died over a thousand years ago. The great Onandagos himself is said to have met here with the Zomas schismatics, before their flight into the Missouri. You can find some of his deeds written on those stones, when you have mastered enough of our tongue.”
“Is that what those columns are, then? Writin’ tablets?” Cal snickered. “Here Yedera had me thinkin’ they’s somethin’ important.”
“They’re a temple,” Uris said. “And a calendar. Standing atop Irra-Zostim one stands among the stars themselves. The stones do record ancient stories and genealogies, but they also mark the passage of time.”
“Our people followed the stars back to this place,” Alzbieta said. “And they stopped here, Irra-Zostim tells us, because of all the stars. With a view like this –” she gestured broadly with her arm at the absolutely flat horizon, “one sees a truly full sky. As one saw, the annals say, in our ancient homeland.”
“Though the stars fell when the river rose,” Yedera murmured.
“Whatever that means,” Uris said.
“The mound’s name, Irra-Zostim, comes from the name of one of the mountains in the range that bounded the northern edge of our ancestors’ plain. Now even those mountains’ tops lie buried beneath the waves.” As Alzbieta said this she waved, and men standing in the tower to one side of the palisade’s gate waved back.
The gate began to swing open.
“They’s a lot of good places folk could go to see stars,” Cal said doubtfully. “You tellin’ me your people came all this way to git a clear look at the Big Dipper?”
“And God made for Man a companion,” Uris said, “of starlight and river rock and foam of the sea. And God named her Wisdom, for she was more subtle than any beast of the field, and breathed upon her, and she arose and shone. And she bare unto Man daughters and sons, and the starlight was within them all the days of their lives.”
“I know that one,” Cal said. “Where have I heard it? It ain’t Bible.”
“It’s from The Song of Etyles the Preacher.” Sarah looked as if her words pained her. “Thalanes quoted us those same lines.”
Cal squinted at the priestess. “So you’re star-people, are you? There’s somethin’ nice in that, somethin’ permanent. Like the stars ain’t changin’, you ain’t a-changin’ either.”
“The stars fell when the rivers rose,” Yedera said again. This time her voice had a darker edge to it.
“Stars are beautiful even when they fall,” Cathy Filmer said.
“Come in,” Alzbieta Torias said. “This is Your Majesty’s land as much as mine.”
“Perhaps I might make camp with the beastkind in these trees, Captain.” Jake pointed to the forest to the east of the palisade. “We don’t know how comfortable they’ll feel inside walls, hey? And you have the horn if you need to communicate.”
Bill turned to Sarah, who was already nodding.
“I commend you both on your work with our warriors,” she said. “Please communicate my pleasure and confidence to them all.”
Chikaak yipped and panted at the praise. Then Jake and the beastman scout turned and rode into the trees. The ragged, musky troop followed.
“You got a place for horses in there?” Cal asked Uris.
“Her Holiness would invite you to let them roam free within the palisade,” Uris said. “It’s what the villagers do, until the nights grow too cold for the beasts and they must be put into stables and sheds.”
Cal followed the counselor through the gate, which creaked shut behind them. “Winter’ll be here soon enough.”
“Then we’ll build more stables.” Uris waved at the forest. “There is no shortage of wood.”
“I’s admirin’ your trees, in fact,” Cal admitted. “Those are some tall, straight timbers.”
“Our earliest ancestors here learned to groom the trees,” Uris said. “As they were taught to grow corn and potatoes.”
“Were taught?” Cal swung off his horse’s back and set about liberating the string of animals he’d been leading. “Taught by whom?”
“The Lenni Lenape, some would say.” Uris and Yedera both helped disconnect horses from the lead rope. “The most ancient of the children of Adam still living in the New World, the tribe the Algonks call their ‘grandfathers.'”
“‘Some would say’?” Cal asked. “That sounds like you don’t believe ’em.”
“It’s hard to know what to believe,” Uris said. “I try to state carefully what I know. In this case, what I know is that some say the Lenni Lenape taught us to choose trees that bear nuts and fruit, and grow them tall and straight to make such a forest canopy.”
“Nice as any trees I e’er saw. What do others say?” Cal asked.
Uris was silent.
The three of them shooed the horses away from the gate. Within the palisade walls, the grass grew tall and wild.
“Secret, huh?” Cal said.
Yedera pointed at the top of the conical mound. “The stories carved into those rocks up there tell of our coming to the Ohio,” she said. “Those stories say it wasn’t the Lenni Lenape who taught us corn, bean, and squash farming, or the potato, or how to turn the forest into a garden.”
Cal’s heart was heavy. “Don’t keep me in suspense.”
“The stories carved into those stones say it was the Heron King.” Uris shrugged. “Stories. They also say that we brought sicknesses with us, and that it was the Heron King’s magic that saved the Algonks from our diseases. Is it true? Is it nonsense? Is it an old way to remember something else entirely?”
“I don’t much like that feller,” Cal said.
“The Heron King? You sound as if you know him.” Yedera looked at Calvin as if she were looking right through him.
Since Sarah had let down her guard some, Cal thought he might, too. “I met him,” he allowed.
“And lived.” Uris arched his eyebrows. “I imagine this has something to do with Queen Sarah leading around a platoon of beastmen.”
“Yeah it does. Simon Sword’s a real son of a bitch, but I lived. We all lived.”
“The Heron King gives the great gifts of civilization, including, trade, stability, and peace.”
“Yeah?” Cal asked. “That sounds like Peter Plowshare. And what does Simon Sword do?”
Uris and Yedera shot each other a guarded look. “They’re the same,” Uris said. “Simon Sword is the title under which the Heron King rides to war, which he hasn’t done for generations.”
“That ain’t how I heard it,” Cal said. “But iffen it’s true, I can tell you he’s a-ridin’ to war now, and look out.”
“I’d like to see the scrolls you were talking about,” Sarah said as she dismounted. Bill and Cathy had turned to inspect the palisade walls together, leaving her alone with the priestess — and her eight bearers.
Alzbieta climbed down from her palanquin. Sarah’s surprise at seeing the other woman touch earth with her feet must have shown.
“We’re within a sanctified enclosure here,” the priestess explained.
“So you can touch the earth.”
Alzbieta shook her head. “Rather, this is no longer earth.”
“I got book-learning from my foster father,” Sarah said, “an education that was a wonder to all my Calhoun cousins. And yet I find my father’s people baffling.”
Alzbieta bowed. “The scrolls aren’t here, Your Majesty. They’re in my city home.”
“I guess I just heard the word palace and was so dazzled I missed the rest,” Sarah said. “What’s this place, then?”
“A former country shrine I’m too poor to maintain. I built the wall so the villagers, who are my tenants, can defend themselves and pen in animals. Also, it prevents casual desecration of the site.”
“The animals aren’t a desecration?”
Alzbieta shrugged. “A small one, and one I’ll tolerate. They don’t climb the high mound. But this shrine once had a library.”
“Will you show me the building?”