Witchy Winter – Snippet 02
“What are you playing at?” Charles asked.
“Come on,” Landon said to Nathaniel.
“I don’t want to.”
~Feed me, feed me.~
Nathaniel clamped his jaws shut tight and managed not to repeat the voice’s words. The whine spiked to a sudden shriek and he gasped.
“All you have to do it stand in the corner. You can look at the wall if you like. Where’s the moon-hut, George?”
George pointed, and Nathaniel could just make out the corner of a log-chink wall. “The entrance is on the other side. You’ll have to hop that fence and turn the corner.”
“What are we waiting for?” Landon snatched the reins of Nathaniel’s horse and dragged him ahead several lengths.
“Wait!” George called. “This is no ordinary tryst. There are taboos.”
“What does that mean?” Landon asked.
“Rules. You go in naked.”
Landon laughed. “Well, of course you go in naked.”
“No,” George said. “I mean from here. You take your clothes off. Nathaniel, your witness, will carry your clothes and hold them for you in the moon-hut. You may hold his when it’s his turn. I’ll keep your horses.”
“George,” Charles protested.
“Shut up, Charles,” George said. “You and I have no role here, but to wait and stand watch.”
Landon slid from the saddle. He practically pulled Nathaniel from his horse and threw clothing into his arms: a coat, a tricorn hat, a greasy shirt, breeches that smelled sour, stockings that smelled worse. “Boots?”
“Best give them to Nathaniel, don’t you think?” George said. “Just in case the moon-woman is particular.”
“Just in case!” Landon shoved his boots on top of the pile teetering in Nathaniel’s arms and then seized Nathaniel by the elbow. “Anything else I need to know?”
“The moon-hut is extremely primitive. That’s part of the taboo, it’s identical to huts the Irish lived in two thousand years ago. Dirt floor. No lights are allowed, that’s part of the ritual. But she’s expecting you, so just find her bed and do your sacred duty.”
Landon dragged Nathaniel with him. In the starlight Nathaniel could see the other boy’s pale shoulders and naked back; he was grateful he couldn’t see more, and terrified of what he was about to see in the moon-hut.
The smell got worse as the two boys approached the hut. At the fence, Landon didn’t wait, hurling himself over the split rails and landing on the other side with a soft squelching sound.
“You’re mad, but your nose works,” he whispered to Nathaniel. “It does stink. We must be near a pasture somewhere, or a bog. Don’t let the druids grab you! Now come quick, if you’re going to witness this heroism.”
In that moment, Landon’s face caught the light of the stars, and Nathaniel saw fear in the other boy’s eyes.
“You know,” Nathaniel said. “You know this is nonsense. What George is saying can’t be true. Don’t let George do this to you just to amuse him. Don’t let George rule you like this.”
He felt like the words should have come from Charles’s mouth, rather than his.
Landon’s face twisted from fear to indignation. “Shut up! Shut up and follow me!”
Nathaniel stumbled over the rail fence more awkwardly. Dropping most of Landon’s clothing, he hesitated, and then decided simply to leave it. The other boy disappeared into a low square doorway darker than the silver-gray log-chink wall into which it was cut.
The stink was overwhelming. It was an animal stink, but Nathaniel couldn’t identify quite what it was. The ground was muddy with November’s rain and sucked at his boots as he followed Landon to the moon-hut. At least he had foot-gear on. Nathaniel imagined he’d be whimpering from cold, if he were the one who was naked.
He stepped inside.
Within, the air was even closer. Nathaniel heard deep breathing sounds and realized there were several sets of lungs inhaling and exhaling slowly.
How many moon-women were there?
“I think she’s in the corner,” he heard Landon whisper. Then the other boy sang softly, “come to me, my lovely, let us make a child for the moon . . . .”
“What in seven hells?” Landon barked.
Oink, oink, oink.
Outside, a gunshot. Then more: bang! bang!
“George!” Landon whispered. Then he yelled: “Nathaniel! Thunor’s fist!”
Nathaniel crashed into the wall of the hut trying to get out and dropped the rest of Landon’s clothes. Squishing his way across the muddy pigs’ enclosure, he saw lights come on in the building on the far side.
~Come back, bring food!~
“Come back!” he shrieked. He had no idea where Charles and George were. He saw a length of split-rail fence and ran for it.
“You there! What are you going! St. Anthony, Mary, get me gun, there’s a naked man in among the pigs!” The shouting voice had an Irish accent, the accent of a servant or a tenant farmer.
Or a druid?
Nathaniel had almost reached the fence when Landon tackled him. They went down together in cold wet pig droppings, and everything Nathaniel had previously smelled was a rose by comparison. Pig feces on his face and in his mouth, he began to vomit.
“You bastard!” Landon dragged Nathaniel to his knees and punched him in the jaw. Nathaniel fell back into the muck. “You bastard, George!”
But Landon kicked Nathaniel in the ribs several times. His shrieked words began with you bastard, George, you bastard, Nathaniel, but quickly decayed into incoherent screaming.
~Not the knife! No, I’m innocent!~
“Not the knife!” Lights flashed, and Nathaniel didn’t know whether he was seeing real lights, or a falling fit was coming on.
“Get your hands off that man!” The Irish voice had a slight slur to it.
Landon paused a moment in administering his beating. Nathaniel cracked an eye and saw his tormentor, stark naked and smeared with pig droppings from head to foot, standing over him in the watery yellow light of a lantern.
A white light flashed, obscuring his view. It was a seizure. A seizure was coming on.
“Sean, that’s one of the lordlings from the big house.” A woman’s voice. “One of the earl’s sons?”
“George?” the man called. “What in hell would George Randolph Isham be doing, swiving one of me pigs in the middle of the night?”
“Hush with that sailor talk, Sean.” The woman slapped the man’s shoulder.
The man staggered sideways, lantern in one hand and blunderbuss in the other weaving chaotically. Landon cringed as the gun swung past him, and Nathaniel covered his ears. “I’m only saying, George Isham can do better than old Bess. Hell, she’s just a sow. If he wants her, he can have her.”
“Not him,” the woman said. “One of the bastards. Landon.”
Landon shrieked and threw his hands up to cover his face.
“Mr. Chapel!” the Irishman barked. “Good fecking hell, man, if ye want to cuddle old Bess, ye’ve only got to say it!”
Whatever humiliation Landon suffered, he would take it out in rage on Nathaniel. Nathaniel had to get away.
He kicked Landon hard behind his knee. The earl’s bastard fell backward into the muck, feet flying skyward as he hit the ground hard. Nathaniel rolled directly away from the Irish couple and sprinted for the fence.
“And who’s that, then?” Sean yelled.
“Has he hurt ye, Mr. Chapel?” Mary called.
“Shoot him!” Landon squealed.
Boom! The blunderbuss went off, but the shot missed. Nathaniel caught the top rail of the fence in his solar plexus and fell forward over it, landing again in mud that was cold and wet, but had the virtue of not being pig feces. He staggered to his feet, seeing his nude and mud-smeared fellow-bastard charging at him.
~Kill them! Kill them! Give them to the god!~
Landon was humiliated. He was angry. Did he actually blame Nathaniel?
Nathaniel, who had tried to pull him back?
Nathaniel was afraid to find out. He crouched as Landon raced up to the fence, and then sprang up to smash his forehead into the other boy’s nose.