Council Of Fire – Snippet 41

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Council Of Fire – Snippet 41

Chapter 30

We were already enemies

Fort Johnson, Colony of New York

From the time she awoke in the pre-dawn she was reminded of where she was, and why she was there.

The little life growing inside Molly Brant was what she had of William. There had been no word on her husband–which he was, whether some acknowledged it or not–and the men who had followed him out of the fort in pursuit of the leaders of the Indians that threatened them. Joseph, his hands almost healed now, chafed every day to go out in search of their trail, but Molly had told him, asked him, begged him not to do so.

He had his place, and she had hers.

She was mistress of Fort Johnson now, directing the staff to aid the refugees who arrived daily from the west. The first ones were encamped near the low stone wall that surrounded the estate, with later arrivals finding spots on the hill; they had come close enough that now from the porch of the Hall she could smell their cook fires when she emerged in the morning. There might come a time when they would be in the building itself, though Skenadoa had advised against it.

“They cannot all be trusted, Sister,” he had said to her. “We should not let just anyone through the gate.”

He warned her not to walk through the camps alone; but she ignored him in this, today as on every other day. Anyone who came to the gate, from whatever tribe and clan, was admitted and given a place–and she went among them daily to see what their needs might be.

This morning she walked along a narrow lane formed by a group of makeshift tents more than halfway up the hill. A group of elder squaws had brought–or found–a large cookpot and were working at preparing a morning meal for those with them. They were chattering in some dialect–Cayuga, she thought–but greeted her in English as she approached.

“How is the little one?” the oldest one said, setting aside her work to approach. The others seemed to draw back, as if deferent to their senior sister.

Molly placed her hand on her stomach; as if in response, she felt movement–a slight kick.

“He will be strong, I think.”

“You know it is a boy?”

“No,” Molly said. “Only the Great Spirit knows. But I hope it will be a boy. But it will be loved, boy or girl.” There were some tribes, she knew, where girl children were uncared for.

The crone stepped forward and reached an old, gnarled hand; Molly let her come close and touch her belly. There was another kick in response.

“Strong, eh,” the old one said. “A boy.” She smiled at Molly and drew off a small bracelet from among the many that hung loosely on her right wrist. “Take this.”

“You are kind.”

“I am old,” the woman said. “My chief husband gave that to me fifty summers ago. He is with the Great Spirit now–he would want to be remembered.”

“So do we all.”

“Many will not,” she said. “But you, Degonwadonti, you will be.”

“You know who I am.”

The old woman chuckled. “All know who you are, wife of Chief Big Business. We heard that you were taking in those who lost their homes, and we came to you.”

“Sir William has always been generous–”

You,” she interrupted. “We came to you.”

Molly wasn’t sure how to respond to this, so instead asked, “Where have you come from, Elder Sister?”

“Our village was Ichsua, by the river. We traveled half a moon to reach here. The messenger came and told us to leave and seek shelter–or to stay and die.”

“Messenger?”

“You have not heard the tale?”

When Molly shook her head, the crone grasped her by the elbow and took her over near the cookpot, settling into a seat on a blanket. She made room for Molly, who sat beside her.

Others stopped their work and gathered; even if they knew the story, they appeared to be interested in hearing it told.

“Ichsua,” the old woman began, “was a fine place by the river.” She extended one stick arm and drew a jagged line in the dirt in front of the blanket, then placed a few sticks beside it. “Here were our houses, and here we planted maize and beans and squash. The river gave us fish, and the men brought back game. The Great Spirit smiled on us . . . until the messenger came.”

“Tell me about the messenger.”

“He smiled too much,” the old woman said. “He came alone, not a warrior, but he was unafraid of our braves. None challenged him when he crossed the bridge into Ichsua.”

“He had a bandaged hand,” one of the other crones said; and another hissed something under her breath: Molly heard the word baby, but nothing else.

“He had a bandaged hand,” the storyteller acknowledged. “With his right he held a walking-stick, but he kept the other close by him and covered.” She wrinkled her nose. “It had an odd smell.”

“What did the messenger say?” Molly asked.

“He told us that Guyasuta, the Mingo chief, was two walking days from Ichsua. He would spare no one who remained. He did not offer parley, or any terms. Stay and die, leave and live.”

“We had heard that Guyasuta was gathering allies from the western tribes.”

“Not from Ichsua. We trade . . . we traded . . . with the English. We were already enemies.”

“Why did your braves not kill this messenger? Surely, he insulted their honor, Elder Sister. Were they afraid of him?”

The crone looked at the assembled audience, which had become much larger now. She took her time to reply, as if she did not want the words to pass her mouth.

“Yes,” she said. “They were afraid.”

“The hand,” one of the other old women said. “They were afraid of the hand.”

“The bandaged hand?”

“He was something out of the ordinary,” the crone added. “His hand was a–”

“Not in front of the baby,” someone said–the one who had whispered before. Molly placed her hand protectively on her belly.

“Tell me,” she said. “What was the hand?”

“Among the Cayuga there is a legend,” the old woman continued. “Maybe it is not known to the Mohawks, or the other eastern tribes among the Haudenosaunee. There is a spirit hand called an Oniate, a dry hand, or arm, that comes from the corpse of a dread warrior. Shamans who serve the gods below instead of the Great Spirit above sometimes replace their own hand with the Oniate, giving them power; and sometimes they wield the Oniate like a weapon.”

“What does this Oniate do?”

“Those it touches are struck down by disease or killed,” the woman answered matter-of-factly. “Our braves were afraid of the Oniate. The messenger knew our fear. He smelled it, and he smiled.”

She reached out with her hand and rubbed out the river and scattered the sticks and stones. “Ichsua,” she said, “is no more.”

***

Skenadoa caught up with Molly down near the Fort Johnson gate, where she was speaking with a pair of elderly sachems. His long stride took him directly to her side, and the older natives stepped away silently.

“This is dangerous, Younger Sister,” he said. “Particularly for one bearing the chief’s child.”

“I am not afraid of them,” Molly said, hands on hips. “And I was trying to learn something before you scared them away.”

“Learn something? About what?”

She lowered her voice and said, very quietly, “Oniate.”

“That’s a tale told by old squaws to frighten children.”

“The refugees from Ichsua say differently.”

“Do they. Did they see one? Was it floating through the air, a dry hand grasping for them–” He reached his hand out, mock-serious, snapping his thumb to the tips of his fingers menacingly.

She steered Skenadoa away from the group and toward the broad path leading up to the Hall. “In this time of great change, Elder Brother, why would you have any trouble imagining that such a thing as a Dry Hand might actually exist? No, they only suspected they saw a shaman who had replaced his hand with one. But it seemed to have the ring of truth to me.”

Skenadoa thought about this for a moment. “Who knows of this?”

“There were a number of people who heard the tale.” She gestured uphill, toward where the recently arrived Cayugas had camped. “I don’t know how far it’s traveled.”

“This is dangerous, Little Sister,” Skenadoa said. “Fear is like wildfire–it spreads easily, and even if you stamp it out in one place it will spring up in another. These people already believe the worst, and now they have to hear of this.”

Molly crossed her arms across her chest. She felt another slight kick from her belly, but ignored it. “I will not lie to these people, Skenadoa. They already feel unsafe. They have come here because we offer them some security. If there are Oniate out there somewhere, it is better that they know–and know that they are not here.”

“Are you sure?”

“Am I sure of what? That no one has come within the gates who might have let his own arm be severed so he could be joined to a Dry-Hand? Or is carrying one?”

Skenadoa did not answer the question, but turned slowly around, making a complete circle, taking in the view of all the refugees who had gathered on the grounds of Fort Johnson.

Before she could answer her own question, Molly Brant began to have the strangest sensation. It was as if the world had become flat, like a painting, all around her; dimly lit, with only occasional sparks of brightness. Beyond the gates of Fort Johnson’s acreage, in the not-too-distant forest, those sparks were etched in ebony, painful to look at, like vicious gouges in the landscape. Yet the bright spots within the enclosure, the sparks–which seemed to correspond with older individuals, including the two sachems who stood at a respectful distance from herself and Skenadoa–were gentle light, like the warm, inviting glow of a fine beeswax candle viewed at a distance.

This is your place, she heard in her mind. The evil spirits cannot enter here.

“No,” she said. “No . . . one has come here. No one can come here.”

No, she thought. I will not permit it.

The lights winked out, and the painting faded away, leaving only an empty, gray sky.

***

“Molly?”

She found her eyes had closed. She opened them and found herself lying in her bed. A concerned Joseph stood beside it, holding her hand; Skenadoa stood at the window, looking out. There were long shadows outside.

“What–” she began and tried to sit up, but Joseph placed his other hand on her arm and she relented, lying back. “What happened?”

“You spoke a few words I did not understand,” Skenadoa said, turning away from the window to face her. “Then you collapsed. I brought you back here.”

“There are people waiting to hear that you are all right,” Joseph said. “Are you all right, sister?”

“I feel just fine. The baby–” It made its presence known, and she placed her hand on her belly, not letting go of her brother. “It seems to be all right as well. I may have to be a little more careful.”

“A lot more careful,” Skenadoa said. “And many people know about Oniate. But . . . there is something strange about it.”

“What is that?” Molly asked.

“Everyone who knows told me more or less the same thing. ‘We are not afraid,’ they said. ‘She will protect us.'”

“She, being–”

“You, Younger Sister,” Skenadoa said. “I do not know what you said to them, but everyone seems convinced that you–personally–have the power to keep them safe.”

The evil spirits cannot enter here.

She had heard that in her mind. It was unclear where it had come from, except possibly from the Great Spirit, but in her heart she believed it.

This is my place, she thought. I will–I must–keep these people safe.

“They are right to believe this,” Molly said. “This is their sanctuary. I shall do what they believe I will.”

“How?”

“The Great Spirit,” she answered, and hoped it was enough.

 

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