After I had collected myself, I read the letter again and sat there, shaking my head in disbelief.
"Papa never said he had a brother!"
"I'm not surprised, we hardly spoke. I've actually met you before. You were maybe five or six. I came and stayed for a summer at Sam's, well, your house. I don't think your mother cared much for me. Being a bard is not a highly prized job in the farming towns."
"Because you don't fashion anything?"
"Because I don't fashion anything." He echoed the words that came right from Mama's mouth.
"I don't remember you. But it's been ten years I guess. Why wouldn't Papa tell me I had an uncle?" I asked. The emotion of reading Papa's letter was stirring inside me and I was desperate to make sense of it.
"We didn't part well when we last met. He wrote me letters and he apologized for his part in our feud, but to my shame I never wrote him back. And now you said he's missing? How do you mean?"
"He went Beyond. Last winter he disappeared from the house." I wiped my face again with my sleeves. "He didn't take his coat or his gun or his hat or his horse. He just vanished. The Inquisitors came and said he was dead. They named me the governess-in-waiting, but I wouldn't have it. I left after him."
"And did you pick up his trail?" John Thistle's eyes narrowed and he stared at the floor, like he knew what I was about to say.
"I have only come across trouble and no trace of Papa. I suppose I squeezed a single clue from a captivus, but it is in Oldspeak and to be frank, I'm sure it means little or nothing at all. I have met some very kind folks, I duelled a swordsman, and I saved a caravan master from certain death."
I got carried away with excitement and with Uncle John, and I suppose that's what I should call him since I had no reason to doubt him, he just smiled and nodded as I spent the better portion of an hour recounting my adventure to that point. I started to feel a little like I was sitting with Papa, I guess owing to the fact that they looked so similar, and with the dying firelight they could be twins. It was easy talking to him and he made me feel comfortable. Just as I came to the crux of the story about Thomas and the copperhead, Uncle John's eyes grew large and his eyebrows dropped down in a bitter scowl. I guess I stopped talking and wondered if maybe he didn't believe me or maybe he was offended by my talk of copperheads.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"You said it was a naked man, this copperhead?"
"Yeah, not a stitch on him. You think I'm telling tales?"
"No," he said quickly. "Please, continue."
"The preacher was there, he can tell you. That copperhead moved like a lightning bolt. He was up in the trees before I could blink and I don't know how I hit him, but I did; his blood was on the leaves."
"You shot a copperhead?"
"Yes sir, I did. He didn't die though. He leapt through the trees like a squirrel and we didn't see him again. Then Thomas comes crashing out of the bush and scares the tech out of us. Sorry for my cussing."
I told him the rest; about getting to Eastport and seeing his poster and thinking he looked like Papa and all. After my tale, there was a short silence interrupted by a knock at the door and Uncle John turned his scowling face toward it. He motioned for me to stay quiet and I was, though I didn't know why.
"Who is it?" he asked.
"My name is Stephen, I'm looking for Samantha. Is she within?"
"Come in preacher!" I called. He entered and I leapt up, excited, and pulled him by his hand toward Uncle John. "Stephen McLean, meet John Thistle, my uncle!" And they both shook hands, but cautiously.
The preacher seemed to take a moment to realize what I had said for he turned to me and frowned, "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I said he's my uncle. He has this here letter written by my dear Papa, but he hasn't seen Papa in ten years or something. Do you think its destiny? We saw that poster and he looked like Papa and we came here and… do you think he'll come with us?" I turned to Uncle John. "I mean, if you're not busy, of course!" I rambled on about what I don't remember, but the preacher took on a serious look and I slowly realized that we were not of the same mind about Uncle John.
"Preacher, what is the matter?" I asked, feeling embarrassment creep into my face.
"It's just rather sudden, that's all." He set about scrutinizing Uncle John with a firm gaze, but a pleasant smile. For his part Uncle John scrutinized the preacher right back with his eyebrows crowding his eyes, and so we three stood in a triangle saying nothing while I waited for them to decide who was the bigger man.
The preacher spoke first. "If you are who you say you are, sir, then perhaps you can provide us with some information as to the whereabouts of Sam's father."
"I would if only I could. I haven't spoken to Samuel in years, ten at least. He wrote me letters to tell me of Emily and Samantha, but otherwise we had no contact."
"And do you know anything of the people who go Beyond?" Asked the preacher with a forced politeness.
Uncle John replied coolly, "No more than most men. People go missing and never return."
The preacher turned to me then and with the same forced smile said, "Lady Sam, we must leave. It's getting late." He turned back to Uncle John and thanked him nicely for meeting us. Uncle John shook the preacher’s hand with the preacher smiling tightly and Uncle John scowling openly.
"Can I see you tomorrow?" I asked Uncle John.
"I'm in town until the end of the month. Where are you staying?"
"The Longhouse." Finished the preacher.
I flashed him an angry look, but he continued smiling at Uncle John who only nodded in reply.
"I'll come see you again tomorrow." I said to Uncle John and stuck my hand out for him to shake it.
Uncle John shook my hand and said it was fine to see me again, and we could come see his show as many times as we liked. I handed him back the letter, but he waved his hand and told me to keep it. I was secretly hoping he would let me take it, so I smiled and thanked him greatly, shaking his hand a second time. I turned to leave, but the preacher stepped between Uncle John and I, saying, "Mr. Thistle, one more question. If you hadn't seen Samantha in ten years or more, how did you recognize her?"
I was about to bark at the preacher for being so cross with my uncle John. He just had to be my uncle; he had a letter from my dear Papa that talked about me and Mama. How else would he have gotten it? But I didn't bark at the preacher, I guess because I wanted the answer myself. Uncle John put his hands on his hips and lifted his chin a little, like he had when he was reciting poems on stage an hour before. He shook his head so that his long, wavy black hair brushed his shoulders.
"I recognized the coin on her necklace." He said confidently.
The preacher crossed his arms under his robes and I became uneasy. "Mortalis es?" Asked the preacher.
My mouth was dry and I found I wanted to answer for Uncle John, to smack the preacher for his disbelief, but before I could there was a knock at the door.
"Who is it?" asked Uncle John, but there was no reply. The preacher kept his eyes on the bard.
There was another knock at the door, louder this time, and Uncle John crossed to the door in one step, meaning to throw it open. Instead, as he reached to grasp the handle the door exploded and we staggered back as pieces of splintered wood bombarded us. Out of instinct I reached my hand over my shoulder for Prick.
Before I could draw, a figure stepped into the doorway; a man in a long, dark robe. Like a preacher, I thought. Only this was no preacher. My own preacher pushed me behind him so he was between me and the intruder, while Uncle John roared something that I could not make out. I heard a woman scream from down the hallway and the clatter of boots as people elsewhere in the building stampeded.
The room was so little I could not get around the preacher to fight. I just looked around him and wished I had brought the Professor with me. The man threw back his hood and my eyes grew wide and my breath caught in my barren throat.
"Copperhead!" Shouted the preacher and he lunged forward with a little dagger that came out of his robes, driving straight to the same pale-faced demon we had battled in the woods.
With a face unnervingly calm and a swift flick of his arm, the preacher's charge suddenly reversed and he flew through the air, crashing down on top of me, which threw us into the wooden tub next to the bed. I pushed hard to free myself, but the preacher was knocked out and weighed a ton. As I struggled to get out from under him, I watched as the robed copperhead circled with Uncle John, both staring at each other, both with their hands down, fists unclenched.
With a flurry of motion the two men grappled, each with a hand to the other's throat. Uncle John twisted his body and tried to throw the copperhead, but he wasn't strong enough. The copperhead smiled and grabbed Uncle John's forearm with a pale hand and squeezed. I could hear the sound of bones snapping and the sound of it filled me with a horror. Uncle John's face was set itself in a furious visage and I could see he was going to lose. I got my boot up under the preacher and shoved him out and onto the floor. I forced my body up onto my feet and drew Prick in a great slashing arc toward the body of the copperhead. In a heartbeat the copperhead pushed off Uncle John's body and threw his legs up into the air to avoid my sword. I didn't hit him, but he had released his grip on Uncle John and I looked for an opening.
"Run, Sam!" snapped Uncle John.
"No! We fight together!" I cried and I held my sword between me and the copperhead. In a flash, the copperhead kicked me and my little sword flew through the air and clattered against the wall behind me. I was flat on my back, wheezing, like I'd been kicked by a horse. The preacher, now awake, grabbed me by the shoulders and lifted me to my feet. I stepped forward to get back in the fight, but the preacher held me back.
The two were circling again, looking for an opening.
"Let me go preacher! Uncle John!" I yelled. But that didn't help any because Uncle John looked over and the copperhead made his move, crashing into Uncle John and crushing him into the far wall, causing the wood to creak and pop.
Uncle John looked hurt and I wanted to rush over, but he turned to me and groaned, "Run, damn you! Find the bear! Find the door!"
Uncle John wrapped his legs around the copperhead's body and then raised his fist to punch him, but the machine-man easily caught his fist and laughed, quietly at first, then building into an evil cacophony. Uncle John only smiled back and instead of trying to punch straight forward, he drove his elbow backward into the wall behind him. That was all it took and that wall burst open; the two men disappeared into the night air, falling, falling into the dark. I ran to the hole and looked out, with the preacher by my side. But there was nothing. The street below was littered with debris and a few dumbfounded people staring up, others pointing away at some distant curiosity.
Alarm bells rang all around and shouts of "Copperhead!" came from the people below. Soon the street was bustling with activity; custos in plastick armour hoisting lanterns on poles to scour the roofs, going door-to-door in search of the copperhead that attacked the bard John Thistle. The preacher put a hand on my shoulder and I looked up at him. I was sure of what he was going to say, and it must have showed in my face, so that he did not feel the need to say it.
We spent a very long night in the company of the Eastport City Carceris because of that mess. We were held for interrogatus, though my custos pronounced it wrong. They treated us fair, mostly. I told them everything I knew, except for the part about John Thistle being my uncle, if he was that. Truth be told I didn't know anymore. The preacher and I were sent flying in a blink by that demon, but Uncle John had battled it to a draw.
I pondered this for the better part of my captivity until hours later when I was led down a set of stairs and into an iron barred cell with a stone floor. It was freezing down there, made colder because they kept my hat and my coat. It was a low moment to be sure, but I was heartened to see that my neighbour was an old chum. Caravan Master Thomas was seated on a low bench in the next cell over. He looked exhausted, but put on a big smile when he saw me sit down.
"What are you in for?" I joked, trying to use prison lingo though I had never been a prisoner.
"Bad luck." He laughed, "You?"
"The preacher and I went to see the bard John Thistle and he was attacked by our copperhead before our very eyes. The copperhead took him and disappeared. The custos did not like the fact that we survived, I guess. They kept asking, 'Why did the copperhead pass on you? Why did the copperhead do this? Why did the copperhead do that?' As if I have any clue why that demon does anything!" I was fuming. Something about those bars made me feel guilty, even though I wasn't. "What about you?" I asked.
"The same as you, Lady. I told them about the copperhead that attacked the caravan and killed my guard. They let me go after I wrote a letter swearing I told the truth. My two guards, they support me. I was staying until Morris was buried, and to give the road a few days to clear. I was at the tavern on the square when I heard 'Copperhead! Copperhead! ' So I go outside to help, but I see nothing. I ask the custos if I can help them, I have fought the copperhead before. They decided I could help by answering questions. They took my sword, Lady. They took yours too, I see. I must have it back. I feel like a child without it."
"I gave up all I had too. I wish I had my coat. It's colder than death down here!"
"If I had a coat to give it would be yours, Lady." He smiled and sighed.
"Well, thanks. I suppose we shall be neighbours then, until they get their ducks sorted up there. Do you get fed down here?" I was starting to get hungry.
"They have not fed me. I do not know for how long I have been here."
"Great. So no food, no bed, and no coat. They sure know how to treat a lady."
"All there is to do is sleep," said Thomas. "Make sure you sleep under the bench, Lady. It is warmer down there."
"Why, I never thought of that. Thank you. Say, how do you know so much about prison?"
He suddenly looked embarrassed and I put my hand up to say that he didn't need answer, but he did anyway.
"I was in a war, in Georgia. A civil war. The kind where people of your own nation fight you. Two brothers, Olujimi and Lekan, each wish to be king, but just one crown. For two years I was a rappatan in the Army of Olujimi. I was a maker of maps. I do not know if there is such a thing in Angland armies."
"We have the tabulae. They're scouts and spies. When I was little I would pretend I was a tab playing in the woods. They ride the fastest horses and survive on what they can hunt in the woods."
"Except I have no horse, just my feet.” He said with a grin. “The rappatan would go ahead of the army and draw the battlefield on paper: the hills, the trees, the people, the buildings. Then run the paper back to the general."
"Why didn't you use horses?" I said, shocked.
"The trees in Georgia are not like here. There it is thick forest, so thick that no horse can pass. So we ran everywhere. One day, I made a map then I slept through the day. I ran back at night; always better at night. But I ran into the enemies. Right into the camp. The army moved during the day and I ran right into them." Thomas smiled at the memory, but I had a feeling he was smiling just to hide the shame of capture.
"I tried to eat my paper so the enemies could not see what I wrote. The general laughed and said, 'Eat the paper! I don't care! I'll give you more to eat!'". Thomas shook his head and patted his hand on top, obviously embarrassed.
"For two years Lady, I am in a prison. Two years. As long as I was a soldier, I am a prisoner."
"So they let you out? The war was over?"
"No. I escaped. I pull a piece of iron chain from the wall and I use it to tear the bar from the window and I ran. I ran fast and far. Day, night, day, and night again before I stopped. I found a farm and the farmer said, 'Why are you running?' I always tell the truth, so I said I am a soldier of Olujimi and was held as a prisoner of the Army of Lekan. He looked at me then laugh in my face. 'Olujimi is dead', he said! 'Olujimi is dead! Lekan is king for two years'. And so I ran again. I went north, away from Georgia, and became a caravan guard. I’ve lived here for six years. I have my own caravan now. I live well. But I miss my home, Lady."
"My papa went missing last winter and everyone said he was dead. I was supposed to become a governess, so they gave me his gun, but I was so mad at everything. Mad at everyone. I went and got into a fight almost straight after. This boy named Billy pulled out a knife and I shot him. Dead. I was so scared of what would happen to me. So I ran." I looked at Thomas and saw understanding in his face. He nodded slowly, then broke my gaze and looked far off, beyond the prison walls. I leaned back against the cold stone, my boots propped on the water bucket, my heart somewhere else entirely. I knew what it was like to miss home; to be an exile.
By and by I slept, though on top of the bench, not underneath as Thomas had suggested. I dreamt I was in my papa's lab, but not my papa's lab. The furniture was right, but the walls vanished in an inky blackness that chilled me. A sound came from the blackness, like a water droplet dripping in a cave, echoing and cold. Papa had caught the copperhead I fought and killed it. He had it hanging by its belly on a hook and crane. He was tinkering with its head and pulling little pieces from its fractured skull: a quint, a small mirror, a coil of string. He looked to me and said, "Bring me the heart." I turned to a small table and found a beating heart there, not a machine heart, but a real one; red blood squirting from it with every beat. I picked it up and found it was warm and heavy. It shook in my hand as it beat, but I was not afraid. "Place it in the chest." Papa instructed, and I laid it gingerly into a cavity in the center of its chest. Instantly, the copperhead's whole body began to spasm. His legs kicked, his arms vibrated, and his fists clenched. His terrible eyes flickered open and he stared at me, smiling his demon smile. My papa turned to me then and said, "You gave him life."
I awoke on the bench, shivering from the cold, shivering from the remains of the dream, from the edge of the darkness of my dream, feeling that deep, echoing sound, and knowing there was something in the darkness. Something that I had to know. Like the darkness was my ignorance of some powerful truth.
I rolled over to the sound of keys jingling. "You're free to go." Said a rough looking carceris in red plastick armour.
"What about him?" I asked, pointing at Thomas while stretching my aching back.
"Him too." Said the guard, as if it pained him to release a prisoner.
We both ascended the stairs gently, for sleeping on a wooden bench in the freezing cold is only slightly better than death. Thomas had actually slept under the bench and looked less cold than I.
We met the preacher upstairs, and found him busy swearing to all the Gods that we were true and honest people with no wish to consort with the demon copperheads, nor any other rebellious, antagonistic or violent factions. It was quite a pretty speech, which ended with the return of our stuff and we three signing papers swearing we had told the truth. I gulped a bit at the part of the paper that went ‘upon pain of swift execution, ye undersigned swear to have told the truth per omnes deos, by all the Gods.’ The paper used a formal term that I had never seen written out before: omnino veraciter, meaning the entire truth. I had left out one little detail but that was hardly the same as lying, I'm sure. In addition to swearing we were honest souls, we were no longer welcome in Eastport until the first day of next winter or until the copperhead was caught, whichever came first. It was impressed upon us that our very short exile was the result of intervention by the Governor, or else we would have surely been kicked out without a stitch of clothes. This suited me fine for I did not mean to stay any longer. I meant to find John Thistle before that copperhead found us again.
We bid farewell to Thomas, this time for good. He was leaving with his caravan in the morning. He had to pay double for new guards, but he only shrugged and smiled. What a good man, I thought as he walked away, throwing his sword across his back and swinging his big shoulders side-to-side. "Farewell, Thomas!" I shouted after him. "I hope you see your home again soon!" He turned and smiled with those big white teeth and called something back in his native language, waving his hand high in the air. The preacher called back, "Safari nzuri ya!" which he said means good journey.
It was a short walk back to the Whisker, punctuated by many suspicious glares from the city folk, and when we got there the preacher and I collapsed into our bunks without saying a word. I slept through the day and awoke at dusk. The preacher had packed all of our things, which included some hard cheese, biscuits, and lots of trail meat. We were heading after John Thistle and we did not know where that might take us. There were settlements out west, certainly, but they grew thin toward the mountains. Fortunately, we could follow the course of the Presumpscot River for some time before we would have to head west through the forests of Inwood. I packed up the Professor and put him deep down in my saddlebag, at least until we were out of civilization. I considered writing a second letter to Charlie to tell him of our destination, but I did not know how to word it, nor how to end it or how to even start it, so I just quit while I was ahead. This left me with a bit of a pull in my guts, so I told myself I would send another when we reached a mail post. That settled me down some and I helped the preacher haul our stuff to the stable to fetch our companions.
It was close to midnight by the time we gathered up the horses and made for the edge of town. Why can't I ever leave a place by day? I thought with a frown. We stopped at the west gate and the preacher chatted amiably with the nocturnus custos. I tried not to eavesdrop, which was easy since the preacher gabbed away in a dialect I could not follow. It was Anglish, don't get me wrong, but much of the words he used were too fast and twangy to make out. The preacher saluted the custos and we rode out of the gate and through a crowd of rude huts that were so disorganized they might have fallen from the sky and piled one to the next. Despite our forced departure from Eastport, I felt easy in the saddle, while the preacher wrestled with Regal for the first bit until she got going straight. Master needed no such handling, as always he wanted to go.
As we passed the last little fires of town, we were instantly alone on the hard packed road with a cool wind blowing at our backs. The sky was remarkably clear, with both moons up; the white at a half and the blue ever-full. As a thousand-thousand stars twinkled above, I couldn't help but think of Charlie and our night together under that same blanket of stars. I began to wish I had written him again, and I even thought of some nice things to say. Why, I could have remarked that I will look at the stars and think of him or that when the two moons are in the night sky I shall think of them passing near each other like two hearts. Why was it that the further I got from him, the closer I wished to be? I'd had all the time in the world to spend with him just a month or so ago, and now that I could not see him, I wished, more than anything, to have his big callused hand wrapped around mine.
The preacher, possibly sensing my spiraling mood, cleared his throat and spoke. "The custos at the gate said that men were still looking for Thistle. They tracked him west to a place called The Turnabout. It's an inn on the river a few miles or so upstream. We can start looking for him there."
I nodded and kept looking at him, as I felt he wasn't finished with his sentence. I guess I had him figured too, because he sighed a little and continued.
"John Thistle is not your uncle." He said. My guts twisted a little and I gripped the reigns tighter. Master sensed my mood and slowed down and stopped without my asking. The preacher stopped too, turning Regal so we were face-to-face. He must have expected me to be angry, but I wasn't.
"He knows something about Papa. Whether they are truly brothers or just old friends who act like brothers or what have you, but he knows something."
"I agree. But when we find him you must let me do the talking."And if he's dead? I thought, but didn't say. I just nodded again and we were on our way, riding soft under that blanket of stars, the light of the moons guiding us along to an uncertain future.