Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 29
They called themselves the Village of the Merciful.
Some had argued for Kingdom. There had even been a few votes for the idea that the community should name itself after Chigozie Ukwu–the Ukwites, or the Chigozi. Chigozie himself had pleaded against those options and in favor of a name that sounded more like a church: the Community of Christ, or the Church of Christ the Merciful.
Kort and Ferpa had argued energetically in favor of the word Merciful.
Though Kort never raised a hand in threat or raised his voice, the other beastkind that streamed to join Chigozie’s followers all deferred to him. Was it size? Fearsomeness? A general air of charisma? A reputation he had earned with previous ferocity?
Whatever the source of his influence, Kort’s view carried the day.
Within a week of Christmas, Chigozie had thirty followers. Many of them had been within the walls of Cahokia on the morning of the solstice, the same morning Kort had been there. Something had happened to them, though none of them could say what. Their madness subsided like a retreating wave, though the wave still carried many of their fellows with it.
And the madness didn’t disappear entirely. When hungry, or afraid, or provoked, the Merciful could still react with energy and even violence.
But mostly, they reacted as Chigozie would have expected any child of Adam to react. Sometimes with mirth, sometimes impatiently, sometimes with a short temper, but mostly with a cheerful decency and a desire to get along. They came to join the Merciful of their own free will; they tried to live in peace.
It wasn’t hard to find Chigozie. He didn’t try to hide, and on the hill with two springs of fresh water where they made their camp, he erected a twelve-foot-tall wooden cross. At dawn, the Merciful gathered to face eastward and sing the songs Chigozie taught them.
Many thought he should have a title. Again they tried King, but also Lord, General, Prophet, and Duke. Chigozie demurred, though at the title Bishop his heart broke and he very nearly agreed to be called Priest . . . which, after all, he was.
But he held fast. “Call me Brother,” he insisted, whenever anyone showed the slightest hint of an intent to do otherwise. “Brother Chigozie. As I call you Sister Ferpa, and Brother Kort, and Sister Lanani. We are all children of Adam. We are all creatures of the same God.”
The hill was theirs to occupy because the village and castle adjoining had been destroyed. Chigozie resisted suggestions that he move into the remaining roofed rooms of the castle–instead, when any of the Merciful were injured or ill, he housed them there, beside a large fire. They came to refer to the three connected rooms (formerly a dining hall, a kitchen, and a pantry, though most of the stores had been depredated before the Merciful arrived) specifically and the ruined castle generally as the Houses of Healing.
Chigozie built a small shelter for himself to live in. It was simple, as he had no art in the matter, and he was only able to do it at all because he could salvage planks and tables from ruined houses of the village.
He lay down a rectangle of bricks. On top of that, out of flooring stolen from elsewhere, tabletops, and stray planks, he stitched together a rough floor. At this point, the Merciful ignored his insistence that he do it alone and helped him raise walls and a peaked roof. A salvaged iron stove provided warmth, and Chigozie hung blankets and furs on all the walls, with a twice-folded wool blanket hanging in the doorway.
The structure had no windows, and to circulate the air inside, Chigozie had to open the door to the winter’s blast. But it gave decent shelter, and no one had been killed inside it.
After burying his club, Kort had lost his taste for theological dispute. He grunted assent to Chigozie’s statements that they worshipped God the Son, God in the Bread, and after the morning hymn he drank from the bowl of blessed water and ate a fragment of the blessed loaf Chigozie passed around.
If they gained too many more adherents, he’d have to appoint a suffragan to help him with the morning liturgy. The thought gave Chigozie pause–it would introduce rank, something he’d been steadfastly resisting–but fortunately, the numbers of the Merciful grew slowly. After an initial influx of beastkind who had participated in the assault on Cahokia, they reached an essentially stable size.
Kort now seemed to live to do two things: serve his fellows with manual labor, and sing.
Come, we that love the Lord
And let our joys be known
Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the throne
Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God
But children of the heav’nly King
May speak their joys abroad
Chigozie stood on a boulder on a low knob of earth two thirds of the way up the hill, facing the Merciful. They sang with a call and response technique, because other than the words to a few Christmas songs they’d worn out in the first week, Chigozie was the only one who knew any hymns.
The hill of Zion yields
A thousand sacred sweets
Before we reach the heav’nly fields
Or walk the golden streets
He was preparing to begin the song’s fourth verse when a bugle interrupted him. To his surprise, soldiers in sallet helmets and red cloaks rode out of the forest at the base of the hill and began to climb. A pack of hounds accompanied them, racing ahead as well as following behind.
Several of the beastkind hooted and pawed the earth in anxiety, fear, or perhaps bloodlust.
“No!” Kort bellowed. “We are the Merciful.”
Chigozie swallowed his own fear and waited.
The Merciful far outnumbered the men who rode to the edge of the gathering. Nevertheless, a thick energy burned below of the surface among the beastkind as the newcomers arrived. They numbered twenty, and they were dressed like riders, with tall black boots, black trousers, and black coats, and then over the top a broad-brimmed red hat and a long red cloak. They wore breastplates and also armor on their thighs, and the armor appeared to be carved of wood, lacquered red. They carried a short rifle or carbine holstered alongside their saddles and pistols. They rode in two files, and the second rider of one of the files carried a banner. Chigozie didn’t recognize it, but thought the black image against a red field represented a cuckoo wearing a crown.
The man to the right of the banner-carrier raised a bugle and blew his call again as the riders came to a stop. Their posture was alert but not threatening, close enough to attack the Merciful but far enough back to turn and ride away.
Curiously, the faces of the men might have been pulled from a New Orleans dance hall. Some had the pale features and dark hair of the Eldritch; others were Indians, though Chigozie could not have identified a specific tribe; still others looked like they might have Bantu blood in their veins.
He raised his arms and voice. “Welcome. Did you come to sing?”
One of the riders at the front of the troop took off his hat and wiped sweat from his brow. He had a broad face and wide nose, skin that was slightly dusky, and straw-blond hair. Some kind of German, or part-German Creole?
Chigozie couldn’t place these soldiers, and that made him uncomfortable.
“We don’t know the words, preacher.”
“I sing them first, and then the congregation sings. You don’t need to know words. You only–“
“Stop!” The rider waved Chigozie into silence with his hat. “This is Zomas land.”
Chigozie pointed at the rubble on the adjacent hill. “Until three weeks ago, this land was claimed by a man calling himself Baron McClane.”
The rider snorted. “Welcome to the Missouri, preacher. Any idiot who could pile one stone on another has been claiming noble status around here for decades. Well, no longer. My name is Captain Naares Stoach. Turim Zomas the second, Lord of the White Towers, sends me to tell you that you must vacate this land or submit.”