Witchy Winter – Snippet 23
“They do?” Jake considered. “Hmmm.”
“The Sevenfold Crown,” Sarah said. “The Seven Kingdoms.”
“And there were seven kingdoms in the Old World, Uris has told us,” Jake added. “Before the stars fell and the waters rose.”
“It ain’t obvious to me how you make seven from ten,” Sarah said. “Lessen you jest lop off one side of the buildin’.”
“May I borrow one of your crutches, Bill?” Jake asked.
Bill handed over the stick. Cathy immediately moved to his side and took his free arm.
Near the library door was a patch of soft earth. Jake drew the long central row of rooms, four circles in a row. “Here is the trunk of the tree.”
“Tree?” Sarah asked.
“Tree.” He drew three rooms on each side of the central line. “If I draw in all the connecting doors and passages, you get a fairly complex lattice. But look what results if I only draw out the first passage connecting to each of these lateral rooms, beginning at the front door and proceeding toward the back.”
He sketched in the six lines.
“A tree,” Sarah said. “With a central trunk and three branches on each side. Seven branches.”
“What does it mean?” Cal asked.
“That is the right question,” Jake admitted, “and I don’t know the answer. I can only tell you I’m absolutely certain that this pattern has some significance because of the look of shock at this moment on Alzbieta Torias’s face.”
Alzbieta stepped back as everyone looked at her, but the astonishment didn’t fade. “I admit nothing.”
Cathy laughed softly.
“Is he wrong?” Sarah asked.
“I also deny nothing.” The Eldritch priestess stared at Jake. “How did you . . . what did . . . ?”
Jake shrugged. “I find that the quickest way to get useful answers is to ask exactly the right questions.”
“You were going to drop hints and slowly lead me down the paths to secret knowledge, weren’t you?” Sarah asked her Ophidian cousin. “Just think of Jake as my physically embodied, question-posing intuition.”
“Whom you are sending to Johnsland to recover your brother?” Jake confirmed.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“And Margaret?” Cathy reminded her.
“We’ll see,” Sarah said. “Perhaps you, when the times comes.”
“We’ll want some method for staying in touch,” Jake said. “Perhaps something faster than letters entrusted to Dutch Ohio Company traders.”
“I have an idea about that,” Sarah said. “Alzbieta, do you have a writing slate? Such as a child might use to learn her school lessons?”
God in heaven, guide me.
Chigozie Ukwu shivered. The rain fell in drizzling sheets and had systematically soaked into his cloaking. The wool cloak stopped the wind, but it didn’t cover his head or his hands.
Once, he’d imagined he’d labor in the vineyards of New Orleans his entire life, working at his father’s side and — he admitted it to himself, though speaking it out loud felt impious — maybe even succeeding his father in the bishopric. The Synod’s choice of Bishop Ukwu to replace the corrupt de Bienville who’d preceded him had been a great success. Might they not reinforce that success by appointing a second Ukwu after him? An Ukwu who had worked hard without aspiring, who had served humbly, who had showed devotion and commitment to his father and his parishioners?
And indeed, the Synod had chosen an Ukwu.
Only it had chosen the bad son.
“The bad son,” Chigozie muttered out loud to reinforce the thought. Not the prodigal, for this was no parable in which Chigozie would play the part of the hard-working but proud older brother.
Etienne hadn’t wandered, he had fled the path of Christian service. He had chosen the left-hand road, crime and Vodun, the inheritance of Bishop de Bienville that Bishop Ukwu had fought so hard to obliterate.
Could it be true, as Etienne insisted, that their mother spoke to him?
He dismissed the idea. She had grown up in a Vodun home, but had married for love a man who had left the seminary for her. And she had left Vodun for him . . . had she not? His choice to become a deacon during their marriage committed him to celibacy after she died and ultimately put him in the priesthood after all, but that was no betrayal.
Could she have betrayed him by continuing her Vodun, and becoming even a mambo, and after her death, the gede loa of her younger son?
Was it even possible that she was a mambo, and her husband had known?
Chigozie shook his head to clear it.
He could no longer bear the sight of New Orleans.
Once, the Bishop of Miami had been a mentor to him, a second bishop observing his pastoral progress and advocating for him in the Synod. But it was the Bishop of Miami who had told Chigozie that he, Miami, had voted in favor of Etienne’s anointing, and that Etienne would succeed their father.
Chigozie doubted he could bear the sight of Miami, either.
He had burned his priestly garb and gone north.
He kept his cross.
A Memphite barge carried him, giving him passage and a small wage in exchange for work on the oar. He’d been tempted to identify himself as a priest, and offer to bless the vessel, its passengers and crew, and their food in exchange for his passage. It would have been easier work.
But if God had wanted Chigozie to do easy work, He would have made Chigozie bishop. And he hadn’t. So God wanted something harder from the good son.
Chigozie had manned an oar.
His hands were blistered within hours. Before the end of the first day, they’d popped and he’d torn the skin beneath, leaving streaks of blood on the oar and hurting even when he lay in his narrow cot that night. But the pain in his hands, and the even greater ache of his back and shoulder muscles, had satisfied him.
Perhaps his shoulders simply ached so much that he didn’t notice his heartache by comparison.
That evening, he’d been unable to pray.
The next day he’d rushed to his oar, urging the nighttime occupant to vacate the bench early. The scabs on his hands had cracked and bled, the ache in his muscles became a fire, he wolfed down his bread and beans at noon as fast as he could so he could return to rowing. If the tall, dark-skinned, red-headed oarmaster noticed Chigozie’s wounds, he offered him no mercy on their account.
When night fell, Chigozie wished he were shackled to the oar.
That, too, he dared not say aloud.
The docks at Memphis were crowded with refugees rushing south. Mississippi Germans, farmers from Missouri, Hansa merchants. Chigozie had passed his small wages out among the refugees, choosing women who were traveling without men to share his copper coins with. The stories he heard from them were confused.
Had beastkind destroyed their settlement?
Had raiders, the children of Adam, ransacked their warehouses and burned their keelboats?
Was there an army on the march?
Were the princes of the Ohio mobilizing for war?
He heard a song there, with a familiar melody, but words he’d never heard before. The lyric he knew was that of a simple love song, but in its entirety, the ballad seemed to tell a tale of tragedy and loss, with names he mostly did not recognize.
The Hansa Towns shut me out homeless
Away, you rolling river
I toiled enslaved for bloody Zomas
Away, I’m bound away, across the wide Missouri
Beneath the towers of Etzanoa
Away, you rolling river
I spoke this prayer for Shenandoah
Away, I’m bound away, across the wide Missouri
In the hopeful eyes of a German woman to whom he’d given his last coin, Chigozie had found purpose. There was suffering in the north. What was a priest, if not one who sought to alleviate suffering? If he could not be a Levite, he could be a Samaritan, gathering up the wounded and binding their injuries.
He headed north and west on foot, directly into the Great Green Woods.
He had made his way by whatever tracks he could find, from small farm to small farm through the forest, avoiding the castles of the barons and the main roads. He chopped wood for food, or butchered livestock, and in one case carried a message from one homestead to the next, twenty miles through the forest, in exchange for a loaf of bread and a thick slice of pickled beef.
He’d hid more than once to let the strange creatures of the Great Green Wood pass. He’d seen aurochs, the nearly elephant-sized cattle with enormous horns, and sloths ten feet tall, loping between the trees, and even the elusive miniature ponies some called dawn-horses, which were the size of dogs and had four-toed feet. He’d approached the dawn-horses through the mud on his knees, hoping to touch one, but they’d fled at the sight of him.
Mercifully, he hadn’t seen dire wolves, or basilisks, or any of the other deadlier inhabitants of the Wood and the Missouri.
Then he’d come across the burning wagon.
Three bodies lay face-down on the forest path. One horse lay near them, and all four bodies were savagely torn. The wagon, a cart almost too big to pass through the narrow track, had been smashed and its contents strewn into the trees: clothing, farm tools, some dried and salted foodstuffs.
He’d heard an animal snort behind him. Assuming it might be a second horse, Chigozie had turned slowly — and found himself staring at half a dozen beastfolk.
God in heaven, guide me.
The thought was a prayer, the first prayer he’d said since his final conversation with Etienne. The sheer power of the act of commencing the prayer forced him to his knees.
The beastman at the front of the pack was heavy-shouldered, with tiny legs and a bison’s head. He was naked and filthy. Despite the flat herbivore’s teeth, he held in one hand what at first glance appeared to be a chicken wing, and as Chigozie stared up at the beastman, he took a large bite from the meat, spraying warm blood on Chigozie’s face and hands. But the meat came from no bird.
It was a man’s leg.
In his other hand, the bison-headed monster held an enormous club.
God, you want me to suffer, and I will suffer for you, Chigozie prayed silently. You have put me in the hands of these beasts. Let me here do your will.
In answer, Chigozie saw no angel, heard no ringing bell, smelled no frankincense. But a warm glow suffused him, and it was enough.
“Kill the son of Adam,” rumbled another of the beastkind, moving forward. This one had a cat’s hind legs and a face that resembled a lamprey’s: a round mouth with rows of jagged teeth, and nothing Chigozie could identify as an eye.
“That’s no son of Adam,” growled a third. This beastman looked like a fish with legs. “It is too dark. Is it one of us?”
Behind them stood other beastkind who did not come forward: one with a rabbit’s head, one with the upper body of a stag, one that looked like an octopus but dragged itself across dry land. Some of the beastkind lingering at the back seemed baffled by the English conversation, sniffing the air and pawing the earth.
“Are you one of us?” Bison Head asked. He took another bite, tearing away a mouthful of muscle and with it a sinew that dangled from his mouth like a stray noodle.
“I am one of you,” Chigozie said. They were unplanned words, the phrase that sprang into his mind.
“Lies!” Lamprey-Cat shrieked. “It is a child of Adam! Kill it!”
“I’m not hungry,” Bison Head growled. “Are you hungry?”
Lamprey-Cat skulked away.
“I am a child of Adam,” Chigozie admitted.
“But you’re brown.” Fish blew a stream of thick spittle from its round lips in disbelief.
“You say you’re one of us.” Bison Head asked. He licked blood off the bone with a tongue the size of Chigozie’s head and cast the bone aside. “How can that be?”
“I am a son of Adam,” Chigozie said. “And so are you.”
Fish and Lamprey-Cat both made sounds like giggling, but Bison Head responded by standing straighter, staring at Chigozie with inscrutable black eyes, and finally blinking slowly.
“I hadn’t been told this,” he said.
Chigozie began to recite. He found himself in Genesis. “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose . . . . There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
Chigozie hadn’t planned that answer at all. Did that mean it was inspired?
“What’s that?” Bison Head asked.
“It is God’s word,” Chigozie said. “It is history. It is about the birth of your people. You are the mighty men, the children of the giants, who were born to the sons of God and the daughters of Adam. Some might call you the nephilim, the fallen ones, but you and I, we are all children of Adam. We are kin.”
Bison Head stared.
Behind him, Lamprey-Cat hissed softly.
Then Bison Head leaned backward, placing both hands on his hips, and began to laugh. It was a laugh that began in his belly and rolled up and down until his entire body shook.
Once Bison Head was laughing, the other beastkind quickly joined in. They closed ranks and came forward, forming a circle around Chigozie, and he found himself staring up into a closed net of animal faces with bloodied muscles, guffawing, snorting, and hissing in mocking hilarity at his words.
Then Bison Head stopped laughing.
“I’m not hungry now,” the beastkind leader said. “But I’ll be hungry later. Bring him along.”
“Alive?” Lamprey-Cat asked.
“He’ll be fresh when I wish to eat him.”
God in heaven, make me thine instrument.