Lady Red vs The Great Beyond

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Chapter 8

Chapter VIII

I saddled up in the middle of the night, nearly two months after the battle at the abbey. It was now edging summer and I could not waste any more time, though I had little desire to return to the hard eating and wet sleeping of camp life. I had squirreled away as much food as I could over the last few weeks and now had enough to get me to my next destination, the City of Eastport, far to the south.

I led Master out of the stable into the darkness under a blanket of stars and a pair of waxing moons. He seemed to like these night departures, owing to a spring in his step that I did not expect. I walked him up to the gate that would lead me back down the road to the abbey and on to next part of my adventure. I felt the same pang of guilt mixed with fear as I had when I crept out of my house that winter night so long ago. I'd be alone again, on a dangerous path toward an uncertain destination, but it had to be this way. Charlie was needed here and Bernard too. My own selfish need for a companion on my journey would have to come second.

As we approached the gate, the dim moonlight shone on a group of figures huddled together against one wooden wall. Nocturni custos, the only people who stirred at this late hour. As I approached, one of them turned and I realized he was not a custos, but the preacher Stephen McLean. He had on travelling gear, a heavy cloak, a length of bow-wood tied across his back, and a clutch of arrows in one hand.

"I'll get my horse." He said before I could open my mouth and I felt such a relief. I don't know how this preacher knew I'd be leaving or why he wanted to come along, but we had been through a trial together at that abbey. He could be trusted. Without another word the preacher fell in beside me and we departed Gatewater for the south. I looked back over my shoulder towards Charlie's place. It was all in darkness. That's just what I had planned, but still a part of me, the womanish part, wished that he would be there at a window, watching me go. Master kicked himself up to a trot while I was daydreaming, as if sensing my apprehensions.

We rode on in silence, and softly, for all the hazards of the road were invisible in the dim light of the white moon. I spent the silent time thinking about Gatewater and Charlie and Papa and the abbey.

"Spelunca ursi fulminei.” Echoed in my thoughts.

It was the only clue I had been able to wretch from the captivus I interrogated at the abbey. I knew the meaning or thought I did. Oldspeak is never perfectly translated. Maybe I had heard the man wrong; my little sword buried to the hilt in his chest may have affected his diction. But there they were, three simple words now burned into my brain so that I could hear them even with my ears plugged.

“Cave of the lightning bear.”

I had mentioned it to Bernard before we left, but he said that no worbears had been seen near Gatewater in decades, and the last was driven out when he was just a boy. Charlie could not recall any sightings, and his custos were not old enough to have helped out with the worbear hunts. I thought of bringing it up with the preacher, but he seemed content to ride along in silence. There was something in the way the preacher rode, staring straight ahead with his hood pulled up and his fist clenching the reigns, and the way he kept his legs too tight around the flanks of his big duster; it was all strangely comforting and I didn't want to disturb him. Besides, this sort of night invited the quiet.

We rode through the gray dawn, making our way a little easier in the growing daylight. The birds began to call to each other and I felt it was fixing to be a beautiful day, but it made me feel no better for skulking out of Gatewater like a thief in the night. I have to stop blaming myself, I thought. I did what had to be done. A long good-bye would have made things worse.

The preacher stopped his horse in the middle of the path, and Master stopped too, his ears pricked up and nostrils flaring. The preacher stared down at a spot on the road and looked unnerved. I looked down too, but couldn't make out what he saw. Master started to sidestep and I looked around for a predator or a bandit or something that explained his fear.

"Do you know where we are?" Said the preacher, his voice tight.

I looked around for some landmark and saw through the dim morning light, a skull with a great rack of antlers nailed to a post. Suddenly it came flooding into my body like a wave of panic. I must have forced it from my thoughts that I would pass by the abbey on the south road. This was the spot where Master almost bled to death. The road was all dirt, with no indication of the place where he fell, but somehow he knew. And he didn't like it.

"We should keep on going, preacher." I said as Master stepped away from the invisible spot on the road.

"I have to go up there and say something for the fallen." He replied with a determination I knew not to challenge. "You don't have to come. I think they would understand."

I swallowed hard and smacked Master to keep him from stepping again. I absolutely did not want to go back up there. The preacher dismounted sternly and began to lead his duster up the path toward the abbey. He'd given me a way out. I didn't have to go, and he was right; the spirits of those men would probably understand why. It wasn't a battle waiting for me up there. No danger now, nor death. What waited for me up that hill was far worse than any battle when you fear what may come. What waited for me was all too known. The men I had killed or abandoned to death, the pain of their spirits and the thought I should have done more. Now the preacher strode off to face them when I wanted to ride on.

Looking back, this was one of those moments when you make a decision that will affect you for the rest of your life. The preacher was half way up when I jumped off Master and led him up the steep incline towards that hellish place.

It was a ruin. Most of the walls had come down, some on top of the others, some outwards to form a sprawling pile of charred rock and timber. The preacher tied up his horse and began climbing over the debris, pushing pieces aside and lifting broken stones. I tied up Master and walked over to join the preacher in his efforts, but before I could, the smell of the place overwhelmed me and I felt a powerful sickness in my guts. I thought I would vomit, but I kept it down and only coughed.

"Just wait over there, Lady Stanton. I'll be just a moment."

I did as he suggested and paced the grass a few yards away, playing with the coin on my necklace to occupy my mind and to keep me from being sick. By and by he climbed down off the pile of stones, soot covered and carrying a custos' frock folded up in one hand. It was badly burned, but he took it and laid it down on the grass. He smoothed it out and pulled some of the burnt bits away so it didn't look so bad. I wondered whose coat it was and decided I didn't want to know.

The preacher produced one of his books and opened it to a page marked with a strip of purple cloth. He read a passage in Oldspeak, a blessing, but I missed some of the words and can't recall it. I was far away at that moment, thinking about Peters. Maybe this was his coat, with its burnt edges and torn crest. I must touch it, I thought, and say something. I knelt next to it and held the torn pieces of the crest together in my hands and the sight of it, mixed with the smell of the smoky ruin, brought me back to that terrible day.

It was dark as night and all around me the echoes from above made their way through the cracks and spaces overhead. Peters was gone and now I was in a dungeon and I recalled thinking this was not the first hole I had been in, alone in the dark. But who would rescue me this time? I couldn't rely on Papa or even Charlie, who might take a day or more to reach me, and I would not last that long if the fire above kept spreading.

A great crash from behind spun me around and I saw, illuminated by a shaft of orange light, a wooden hatch splinter open and a yellow clad figure fall from above to join me in the depths. A cloud of dust filled the shaft of light and I raised the Professor. The figure stood up and my hand, which I did not instruct, raised the Professor and fired. The preacher threw his hands up, shouting, but my ears were ringing from the shot and I couldn't make out his words. Waving his hands in the air, he came toward me, "Easy!" He shouted. "It's only me!"

"I wasn't shooting at you!" I yelled, and indeed I had not, and he turned to see another form sliding slowly, grimly, through the hole, pierced by my bullet. Somehow, though I don't know if I did it on purpose, I had seen the shadowy form clawing for the preacher as he picked himself up. It felt like my hand had acted on its own will. The body slipped through the hole and thudded to the floor, sending a fresh cloud of dust up into the streaming light. We went over to the opening in the roof and the preacher, amazed at my accuracy, threw an arm around me and thanked me profusely. "Come on!" He shouted. "This way!"

But I just stared at the man I had shot, crumpled in a heap, head down, limbs splayed. The preacher came back and pulled me this time and I was dragged along with him before I snapped free from his grip and barked at the preacher "I must get my answer!"

I turned back to the crumpled form, unsure of what I meant to do with him, when suddenly the ceiling above us collapsed and rained fiery stone and timbers down upon the body of the captivus. I had narrowly avoided being crushed under those stones and now the smoke and the dust choked me. I spat out a mouthful of it, lunging for the prostrate form now half buried under burning debris. I grabbed an arm and pulled with all my strength, feeling the deadness in the weight of him, knowing it was useless, knowing I had to try something. The preacher must have wanted to grab me, but instead grabbed another limb and we, together, pulled the broken form from the stone pile. His clothes had caught fire and the smell of him made me feel a sickness rise in my chest. We rolled him over and I grabbed his throat and I shook him and yelled, and to our very great surprise his eyes flew open and he growled like an old dog, twisting his head with great effort to meet my eyes.

"Where is the Beyond?" I screamed at him. "Where is it? Where did my papa go?" And then a fury broke out of me, flooded over me, and I felt as if this captivus had taken Papa away from me. It was his fault and I screamed and shook him and slapped him and he stared, he only stared at me while I railed and the preacher grabbed me and I tried to shove him away. I wanted to murder this man. I wanted to murder him for taking Papa away, for robbing me of my father.

Then he spoke to me in a tiny whisper, so that I quieted down and put my face close to his and I heard the words, "Spelunca ursi fulminei." I looked him in the eyes and he said it again, louder than before, and I let go of his throat. I let the preacher pick me up and pull me away towards the hidden door. I don't recall my feet touching the ground, but the door burst open and we were in a dirt tunnel, running, and the abbey was collapsing behind us. We ran as smoke and dust and fire chased us down the tunnel, lighting our way with a hellish glow. I tripped and sprawled across the dirt floor, and the preacher pulled me up by my coat and in a moment we burst through a cellar door and into the blazing light of day.

I fell to the grass gasping for breath. Smoke poured out of the cellar door and I crawled away and saw that we were a hundred feet from the abbey, if it could be called an abbey any longer. It was all fire and half-collapsed, smoke and flames pouring out of every window. I sat on the grass and choked for breath as the preacher lay next to me, wheezing, his face blackened with soot.

"Spelunca ursi fulminei." I said to myself through deep cleansing breaths. I was so lost in the moment that I didn't see a horse and rider approach from the rear. They were on top of us before I spun around to see the familiar yellow cloak of one of the custos we had sent away to Gatewater for help atop my beloved horse. Master was dripping with sweat, but looked pleased to have helped. It was good to see him again.

In a tiny, doubtful voice, orange flames reflecting in his eyes, he asked, "Is anyone else—?"

The preacher sat up and gave him a grim look that needed no voice. The custos leapt off my boy, drew his sword, and began to descend the little steps into the cellar door.

The preacher coughed and tried to stand. "Wait! You won't make it ten feet down there. It's all ablaze!" But the man would have none of it and was down into the smoke with a grim look. I jumped up to grab him out of there, but he seemed to have found the error of his way, and before we could reach the cellar door his head popped up and he began to climb out. He was halfway when I knew something was wrong as his face was snarled into a painful expression, then I saw a gleam of iron poke out of his stomach. The custos stumbled, like he was pushed the last step, and he collapsed dead onto the grass at my feet.

Like out of a nightmare, a bloody spear point swung out from the smoke and out came the broken form of the captivus, swinging the spear with one good arm in a wide arc in front of him. I leapt back, scared out of my wits by this deathless man. The preacher made a move like he would attack, but my boy, bless his heart, charged the captivus and slammed his body into him, sending my attacker sprawling into the grass. I leapt upon him, sword drawn, and stuck him in his chest, pushing with all my weight to drive the little sword home.

"Where's the Beyond?" I screamed at him again, his milky eyes staring above me, one arm outstretched, fingers tearing at the grass. I pulled myself up and over his body by the grip of my sword so we were eye-to-eye. He wouldn't look at me; he just gazed over my head at the sky above us.

"Where's my papa you teching son of a bitch?" I screamed again. "Tell me where's he gone! Tell me, Gods damnit!"

I felt like someone I had never met. Hot blood rushed into my head and my ears rang from my own screaming. My fingers gripped my sword tightly and I twisted it. He's dead anyway, I tried to tell myself.

Then, "Spelunca ursi fulminei."

"What?" I stared at him and watched his lips move.

"Spelunca ursi fulminei." He said and then again, louder, "Spelunca ursi fulminei!" Then he was still and the preacher picked me up and what happened next I have already told. I feel I shall forever be haunted by my actions at the Abbey of St. Christopher. That day answered an unasked question for me: how far was I willing to go to save my dear Papa?

The next day neither me, nor the preacher said a word to the other or even tried to; I took to daydreaming and the preacher, when I watched him, seemed equally far away, shut up in his head. He had the curious habit of moving his lips while he thought, like he was speaking without sound. It sometimes gave me the impression that he was praying to himself. He wore his gray hair loose and shaggy about his face, not at all preacher like, but he took to the road well and shot a pair of rabbits for our supper. We camped in the hulk of an old autocart that someone had boarded with planks to keep the rain out. It always made me wonder how these great heaps moved about.

That night I busied myself cleaning and reloading my pistol. This was a ritual that I have often used to help me focus my thoughts and get my feelings sorted. After visiting the abbey and reliving my nightmare, I needed to focus.

Papa used to say a clean gun is a clean shot. The powder charge causes coke to form in the chambers and the barrel if it`s not cleaned after every use. Coke is basically the old powder stuck inside the gun and it must be removed since a spark can ignite it and cause the gun to explode. Papa chastised me one day when we were out shooting that I had done a poor job the previous week of cleaning it. He asked me if I liked both his hands and if I`d like to see all his fingers off and mangled and such. The next time I did a better job and I have been careful ever since.

I scrubbed the barrel, though it hardly needed it, and I removed the cylinder, where the chambers are, to clean them out before replacing the ignis, sometimes called igniters, on the outside of the chambers. There are six on my gun. When you cock the hammer and pull the trigger the hammer falls and strikes the ignis, which causes a spark to fly forward into the chamber that ignites the powder charge. This pushes the ball out and down the barrel and, with any luck, straight into the heart of your fiercest enemy.

My little brass powder horn had a nifty feature where you could close the top, tip it upside down, and set the precise amount of powder that came out. The size of the charge was very important as too little powder meant the ball would not have killing speed, and in some cases, it may not leave the chamber. Too much powder meant the whole chamber might explode and leave you learning to eat with your other hand. I placed a ball at the mouth of each chamber and tapped them gently into place with a piece of tough pine heart, specifically because pine heart would not make a spark. Once the ball was seated, I took a little pig lard and filled up the rest of the chamber to the top. This way, one chamber going off would not ignite the others. The lard made it water tight and the ball would not come loose through hard riding or from smacking some old pervert with the butt-end.

I slept fitfully and dreamt of the preacher hunting with his bow. I knew him to be the preacher, but he looked younger, almost a boy. He spotted a low flying bird and shot it. It spun, wings out, and crashed into the earth at my feet. When I picked it up I saw it was not a bird, but a tiny horse with great wings like a Pegasus. I was enraged and drew my gun to kill the preacher for shooting a horse. I pulled the trigger, but my gun exploded in my hands. I awoke feeling angry and guilty, and all the next day I couldn't shake the feeling that the dream was some kind of omen, and I found my fingers ached when I thought of it.

The second night was much the same as the first. Neither the preacher, nor I, initiated any long conversation. Our only communication was in short words or gestures. He formed a habit of disappearing each afternoon, then reappearing with some game he'd poked. He was Apollo himself with that bow and we had a fat squirrel and some sort of bush bird on the second night. The preacher was a slight man and ate little, so we had plenty.

Instead of talking, he spent the evenings reading his scorched book with the leather cover and coloured pictures. He offered to read it aloud, but I declined. Religion was not a rare thing in Angland. People would speak about the Gods—mostly while cussing—but a church or an abbey was a rare sight. Most of the bigger towns had some kind of religious building where the preacher read the sacrament and made you eat wafers or some such. After he would yell at everybody about how evil they were and then he would tell them to pray for salvation and protection from the Immortales, though I doubt any of the common folk had ever seen one. A god or a copperhead that is.

The preacher had a borrowed mare he called Regal because she had a very practiced gait where she would pick up her front hooves and sort of hop when she walked. Despite her bulk, she looked and acted like a prancing pony in a royal parade. Neither Master, nor Regal, had to be hobbled at night, which was good because I did not have any. Hobbling is when you lash a horse’s forelegs together so he can only take little steps. That way he can walk and eat, but he can't run off. Instead, the two stuck to each other like old friends and nosed around in the bushes. The preacher said that Regal reminded him of his old mare Minerva, so named for the Goddess of Wisdom. I wondered how Minerva would have liked someone riding around on her likeness, but I did not ask the question. It ended up being an ironic name too, he said, as Minerva was one of the stupidest creatures the preacher had met and if that mare had her way, she would just stand there, rooted to the ground, waiting for her next meal.

The third night I studied the campfire, as I wanted, and watched little white wisps of ash float up like white moths that disappeared into the blackening sky when the preacher asked me, “What do you believe you’ll find when you reach the Beyond, Samantha?”

He used my full name, which I disliked, as it was only used when I was in serious trouble, but I never corrected him. “My father,” I answered.

“And what else?”

“I don't know.” I said after a time.

“Many have gone, but those who are found are beyond sanity.”

“So, you think I will go mad if I go there?”

“It is very possible that what we call Beyond is not a place. It's possible that the Beyond is insanity. Have you considered this?”

I had not. When I didn't answer he kept going. “So, you are on a quest for madness.”

I felt little prickles up my back and a feeling of hot anger rise in my face. I snapped back. “If you put it like that, preacher, then I guess I am.”

“Please don’t be upset.” He put his hand up in a friendly gesture.

“I’m not.” Although I was.

“I, in no way, intended to decry your noble quest. I only wish to learn more since I will be your companion.”

“To be honest preacher, I assumed we would part ways at the next town. I always thought preachers to be flighty and aloof.”

“I have no intention of leaving, unless you wish me gone."

"Why would you stay, preacher?"

"Why do you call me that?” he asked with a smile.

“Because you are one?”

“That’s an Old World term. No one has used it in centuries. The term everyone uses is reader or speaker, depending whether the man has a church or is a wanderer.”

“Papa called you people preachers. Said that they would read and copy books in languages no one knew and that they were not to be trusted. Just because a holy man says something is holy don’t make it so.”

“Many feel as you do." He smiled weakly. "Men like me are not trusted. The Lords’ distrust us and the townsfolk dislike us, but we carry on regardless.”

“So what were you? A speaker or a reader?”

“I was taught by a man named Isaac of Hollyrood. He was a speaker who went from town to town with his books, speaking to groups of townsfolk and telling them about Jupiter, Zeus, and Stalwart, and of the copperhead menace. He spoke to my town when I was fourteen. I saw him standing on a bench outside the tavern and he spoke so elegantly it instantly touched me. He was young, as was I, and lost, as was I. But he had found his calling in speaking, not just to people, but to their souls. I stood enraptured. I still recall the first passage I heard, the first of Stalwart I had ever heard: ‘and now alight upon the hill of ruinous forms lay heaped Mankind’s hopes, Mankind’s dreams, Mankind’s very existence. And now came lightning, Zeus Almighty, and with a cry like a thousand crashing waves, he smited the men of copper, and lay waste their golden cities.’ His eye's scanned the gathered few and found my eyes and I marveled at the poetry of his words.

From that moment I wished to follow him. My father was furious and my mother took to her room for a week and refused to come out.”

“Just a week?” I joked. “My mother would shut herself up for a week if I got stains on my trousers.”

He laughed quietly to himself.

“I left with Isaac and travelled with him for years. We went all over Angland and across the great mountains where the Lords’ power wanes and through vast forests. We encountered every manner of beast and creature. Isaac taught me to read, write, and paint. By age eighteen I was able to read and speak four languages. I had learned many prayers too, in Oldspeak, which Isaac said was the language of our predecessors. Oldspeak contained dangerous words, he said, used in prayer, but sparingly. People think the language attracts the copperheads.”

“Where’d you learn to shoot a bow like that?”

“Isaac had a big appetite, but refused to eat animals. He said if I wished to eat them then I would have to kill them.” He smiled again and I saw he had nice teeth for a travelling man. He was charismatic and I liked that side of him. It was a far cry from the brooding silent man of the first two nights.

“How long were you with Isaac?”

“Twenty years before he passed.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“That was ten years ago... or is it eleven?” he asked himself.

The preacher looked far away and I felt I had killed the conversation, so I just let it die. I picked at the last of the roasted bird and stared at the little campfire. I loved campfires and I took to daydreaming that I was back with Papa on one of our rides. Our fires were always little, just dry twigs and branches mostly, so we always had to sit close to keep warm. Papa would tell a story and I would sometimes daydream instead of listen and when he'd catch me he would throw a handful of needles on the fire. The thick smoke that billowed out would make me cough and he would laugh at me until I laughed too.

The preacher must have drifted off too, for the next thing I knew the little fire was dead and we were sitting in the stone dark. The preacher wrapped his bow-shaft and arrows in a blanket and then tied the bow cord around his wrist. He lay down and slept on a mossy patch of earth with a blanket tucked up under him. He was asleep in a moment, like he was in a feather bed.

I tossed and turned as I was prone to. The night was warm and I slept with no blanket. The two moons were up; the white moon nearly full and the blue moon just visible through the treetops. It came to my mind that the preacher had never answered my question about why he wanted to stay with me. I made up my mind to ask him the next day and with that decision I rested easier. By and by I drifted off to sleep wondering what month it was and wondering what Mama was doing back in a place I knew so well, but now didn’t know at all.

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