Witchy Winter – Snippet 21
“I am a man of prejudices, I admit. But I’m learning.”
Cathy knew from the expression on Bill’s face that he was plagued by the same two questions troubling her.
Must we include the Cahokians in this conversation?
And must we hold this council here?
As if she were reading their thoughts — and maybe, with her eyepatch off, she could — Sarah shook her head. “Thank you,” she said, opening the discussion. “Thanks especially to Sir William, who came up here on two injured legs, and to Calvin and Jacob, who carried him.”
“It was easy.” Jacob didn’t sound Dutch at all. “Two poles and some blankets make a simple travois, and we just dragged him up.”
“I’m not certain my dignity requires this much discussion of how I arrived.” The smile Bill directed at Cathy was rueful. He leaned on a pair of long crutches Calvin had made him. Despite Sarah’s and Cathy’s ministrations, his thighs — which were healing — were knitting together slightly crooked.
“It would a been easier iffen we could a used a horse.” Cal shook his head. “I’m all for showin’ respect, but that was a steep hill, and even with a travois it was longer’n I expected.”
“This is a sacred site,” Alzbieta Torias said. “Would you drag Sir William into a church on a travois?”
Calvin snorted. “Last time I stepped foot in a church, I had a pistol in each hand. When I got inside, I’s attacked by walkin’ dead men straight outta a history book, watched a bishop git hisself murdered and then a monk, climbed on the altar with muddy moccasins, and eventually turned into a pigeon. So, yeah, I reckon I’d a drug Sir William into the same church on a travois without e’er a thought. Or up here.”
Alzbieta only stared.
Cathy managed not to laugh out loud at the Handmaid’s shock.
They stood within the ring of stones atop the mound Uris had called Irra-Zostim. What had appeared from the flat land below to be twelve rough-hewn columns were in fact thirteen, and each leaned inward slightly and came to a dull point, like an enormous canine tooth. A spiral groove climbed from the base to the tip of each stone, once deep but worn by centuries of weather, and crossed by hatch marks, loops, and branches on both sides. Occasionally the groove passed between simple carved pictures — a man with a snake’s head, a mountain rising from the sea, stars in a configuration Cathy didn’t recognize — but mostly they passed over age-mottled stone. Moss obscured the grooves on the lower halves of several of the pillars.
The Firstborn had said there were stories on the columns. Could the few and simple pictures record the tales? The Walam Olum of the Lenni Lenape was like that, a series of pictures illustrating that nation’s history and prompting the memories of the storytellers who had learned the text. It was a picture book with the words taken away, in effect.
And the Lenni Lenape had ties with the Eldritch of the Ohio. The Elector song about the Seven Kingdoms claimed that Talega was half Lenni Lenape. She had never seen Talega herself, but hadn’t the Ophidians said that one explanation for where their ancestors learned their civilized arts — the Three Sisters agriculture, the husbanding of the forests — was from the Lenni Lenape, whom they had met when they’d arrived?
All Sarah’s companions who had survived the flight from New Orleans were in the circle: Cathy, Bill, Calvin, Jacob Hop. As well, she had brought up Uris, Yedera, Alzbieta, and even Sherem, whose wits hadn’t recovered.
If anything, though Sarah ministered to him daily, he had gotten worse. Now he stood scratching one fingernail against a stone and mumbling.
Sarah hadn’t invited any of the beastkind, though Chikaak was generally inseparable from Jacob Hop. Cathy hadn’t asked why; she assumed that for Sarah, as for Cathy, the beastfolk warriors still carried a taint of the Heron King. Though they were bound by oath no less than the Ophidians, as far as Cathy knew, they still felt variable.
Not that Cathy trusted the Ophidians.
“Thank you for the work, Calvin,” Sarah said. “I think it’s worth taking extra trouble to respect the holy things and spaces of my people. I didn’t bring us up here despite the sacredness of this mound, but because of it.”
Alzbieta Torias smiled. “You’re thinking that perhaps up here I may tell you things I wouldn’t tell you, if we were to hold this council on flat earth.”
“I’m hoping,” Sarah said quietly. “And there are other reasons.”
“I think the time has come for revelations,” Sarah added. “I’ll start. I havn’t been fully forthcoming with you about what happened on Wisdom’s Bluff.”
“Your Majesty said she didn’t recover the regalia of Cahokia. I know that to be at least partially false.”
“I believe my words were ‘close, but not quite,’ in the riddle game you and I played. I’ll tell you now, cousin Alzbieta, that I found where my father had hidden the Orb of Etyles, the Sevenfold Crown, and also the Heronsword.”
Alzbieta held very still. “I thought I’d named those items.”
“I found them because he meant me to find them. He hid them there for me. Though I don’t know why he would carry such precious objects to the edge of the Empire.”
“The ruler of Cahokia has ritual obligations,” Alzbieta said. “Some of them can only be fulfilled in certain places. Some of them require the regalia to fulfill.”
Sarah nodded. “I found the regalia, but I traded away the Heronsword, Alzbieta. I don’t have it.”
Alzbieta opened her mouth several times, but made no sound.
“Traded it?” Uris asked. “Your Majesty, it was yours to trade, if it was anyone’s, but . . . to whom did you give it?”
“To the Heron King.”
The Firstborn all looked shocked.
“It’s worse than you think,” Sarah said. “Whatever you may have heard in Cahokia, Simon Sword isn’t just another name for Peter Plowshare. They are two different gods, or two different phases of the same god, maybe. Peter Plowshare is a giver and a builder. Simon Sword, well . . . he’s the reason the beastkind are rampaging, I think. And I believe that’s just the start.”
Uris staggered and would have fallen if Jacob Hop hadn’t caught him.
Sarah looked coolly at the Ophidians, not flinching or looking away. Well done; show no fear. “I did it reluctantly, and only because the alternatives seemed worse.”
“What alternative could possibly have seemed worse?” Yedera asked. “You unleash the storm upon the Seven Kingdoms.”
“Marriage.” Sarah laughed out loud sharply, suddenly the fierce young woman again. “Not to just anybody, mind.”
“The Heron King wished to marry you,” Uris said.
“Yes.” Sarah’s Appalachee twang disappeared again. “And not the nice one.”
I am the supplanter, the lion with prey
I am the bridegroom, I am the bride
I am the chosen, anointed of seven
Breaker of horses, bane of the river
Star-fallen wanderer, I lead the children sunward
I am the secret, Beloved of the goddess
Born of the tree, the city my mother
Keeper of the crown of two kingdoms
“Well, you sound like an interesting person indeed, then,” Sarah said. “In fact, you sound like a man. Maybe even my father, who was Imperial Consort and King of Cahokia both — keeper of the crown of two kingdoms.”
“Your father sang those words in delirium. He may have written them, though I could never ask. I’m translating out of Ophidian, of course. In fact, out of an older form of it.” Alzbieta smiled, a thin, forced smile. “Your Majesty doesn’t need to possess the Heronsword, sometimes called the Heronblade, in order to make a claim on the throne of Cahokia. Is that one of the questions you wished to ask me?”
Sarah nodded. “Thank you. And you fear for the consequences of Simon Sword being again in possession of his weapon, as do I. Or you should. Can you tell me what the sword does? He called it a ‘Thing of Power.'”
“It’s his power,” Alzbieta said. “It’s true, many of our kingdom believe that Simon Sword is just a different title of the Heron King. This is a deliberate half-truth they are told, to keep from them the darker truth, which is that the great ally and benefactor with whom we have built our civilization must every few generations be replaced by a ruthless destroyer. The kings and queens of Cahokia have held the Heronblade in custody for long generations. Perhaps since our arrival in the Ohio. Perhaps since the time of Onandagos himself. Our custody of the weapon weakens Simon Sword’s power when he is born and shortens his reign. It has also given our queens and kings great martial prowess, and made us the foremost of the Seven Kingdoms.” She met Cathy’s gaze. “I knew, you see. We here, we all knew.”
“Priestly lore,” Sarah said.
“Cahokia, always alone,” Cal muttered.
“War, death, change, judgment,” Jacob Hop said.
The others turned to stare at him.
“What do you know, Jake?” Sarah asked.
“Nothing. Only what everyone knows about Simon Sword.” Jake held up one of the Tarocks, the Simon Sword card. The illustration on its face looked a bit like Jake himself. “He’s the great bringer of change.”
Uris sighed. “And he’s the great bringer of change even when Cahokia holds his sword. And now?” He shrugged. “Who can know what storm comes now?”
Sarah looked even paler than usual. “All the more important to retake my throne, then.”
“Yes,” Alzbieta agreed. “Your Majesty said you traded the Heronsword. You haven’t yet said what you traded it for.”
Sarah said nothing, but reached into her satchel and removed the Heronplow. It caught afternoon sunlight and flashed briefly. Her eyes dazzled, Cathy thought she saw plowed and drained fields, dotted with conical mounds rising from the earth and furred with rows of tassel-eared corn.
“I was rather hoping you might know what to do with it,” she said.
Alzbieta shook her head.
“I had no idea such a thing existed,” Uris said.
Sarah nodded and replaced the plow in her bag.
Jake followed the stare of the wit-stunned Sherem and began examining the grooves on the stones.
“Sir William,” Sarah said. “We march with an army in the field. We’ve been tested in battle and emerged victorious. The time has come to tell me about my siblings.”
“Siblings?” Alzbieta asked.
“We’re triplets,” Sarah said. “Raised separately and in hiding.”
“Your Majesty is the oldest. I was told that by Thalanes, who attended the birth to pray by the midwife’s side and ease her work with his gramarye.” Bill broke into a grin. “Likely he also made Hannah coffee.”
Sarah’s laugh this time was soft and remorseful.
“When Thalanes bore you to Appalachee to hide you — at the time I did not know his destination — I took your brother Nathaniel. I rode to Johnsland.”
“My brother,” Sarah said haltingly. “What was . . . wrong with him?”
Bill straightened on his crutches, fire flashing in his eyes. “Nothing was wrong with him, Your Majesty. He was strong and slept well.”
“You know what I mean.”
Bill frowned. “Nathaniel Elytharias Penn had a very distinctive ear.”
“Red?” Sarah asked. “Swollen?”
Bill nodded. “And pinned flat, forward against the side of his skull.”
Sarah had lived her first fifteen years with an acorn in one eyesocket, and when the acorn had come out, she had discovered a gift of sight. Sarah saw power, aura, emotion, dishonesty, fear.
What things could her brother Nathaniel hear?
Jake had taken a card from his coat pocket and was holding it up against the stone, squinting at it.
“Go on,” Sarah said.
“I am a Cavalier of Johnsland, born and bred. The earl was my feudal lord — is, if my family’s lands have not been taken away. He had also been a friend of Hannah and of her father. What I didn’t know was that his mind had become weak.”
“The earl is a passionate man,” Cathy said, not meaning to. When Sarah looked at her quizzically, she explained herself. “His blood runs hot. He pursues what he wants, beyond reason.”
Bill grunted. “His son and heir, Richard, was a friend of Thomas. I knew this, but I did not know how good a friend he was. The earl agreed to foster Nathaniel and took him into his house. For my part, I returned to my wife and children, thinking to develop farming skills and keep an eye on young Nathaniel from the vicinity.
“But Richard, wondering at my arrival and at the sudden appearance of a baby in his father’s household, made inquiries. He confronted me with his suspicions, at a moment when I was . . . weak with whisky, shall we say?”
“Understood, Sir William.” Sarah nodded.
“I inadvertently confirmed his guesses. He made to ride for Philadelphia immediately.”
“So you did the loyal thing,” Sarah said.
“I killed the man, Your Majesty.” Bill took a deep breath. “I couldn’t explain it to my wife. I had sworn an oath not to reveal the child except to the earl himself, and having broken the oath once in my cups, I was doubly resolved not to break it again. She got it into her mind that I had betrayed her. That my shooting of Richard was a duel over a woman. That the child was mine, perhaps. Since I wouldn’t account for myself, she could see no other explanation.”
This was more history than Sarah had intended to ask for, surely, but she didn’t stop Bill. Cathy had heard the tale before, more than once. Still, it broke her heart.
Her heart broke on Bill’s behalf, and her heart also broke for her own sake.
For her connection with the Earl of Johnsland, and for her son.