A most remarkable thing happened to us just a few leagues shy of our destination. We were riding through the last section of woods before we entered Eastport's farm country. This forest was not the gloomy pines of Gatewater, but dotted with yellow birch thick with summer leaves. The road was wider here and well-kept. The blue sky stretched before us in a wide line and the preacher and I were both riding just a little faster than usual on account of it.
Traffic was picking up, as it does close to a town, and we began to see merchant caravans passing with men armed cap-a-heel, top-to-bottom, who eyed us suspiciously and I eyed them right back. For the most part, the preacher kept up a sunny disposition to counterweight my seriousness. He called out to the wagon pilots and used local jargon that seemed foreign to me, but he made the pilots grin. One, a dark-skinned man with a smooth face and a square jaw, woah’d to a stop and he and the preacher chatted for a few minutes in some foreign tongue. The words he used were long and unpleasant sounding, with throaty grunts and no small amount of spitting. The blackened man was from a place called Georgia where folks were known as highly prized fighters and warriors. To see one as a caravan master was not unusual. This man carried a large curved sword across his back and no doubt knew how to use it. I wondered absently if he had ever thrown it at anyone. Papa used to tell me that the Old Ones separated people based on their colour, their city, their country, and even their choices of husband or wife. During the re-build, he said, people stopped caring about all of that. Everyone worked together and everyone married whomever they liked. There was no sense having bigotry when every man was needed to survive.
“Samantha,” said the preacher and I snapped to as I was daydreaming again. The caravan master laughed out loud, throwing his head back and showing his bright white teeth.
With a practiced accent, he bowed where he sat and said, “Good day to you my Lady and swift journey.”
I sort of bowed too and tipped my hat. He snapped the reigns and I saw the cords of muscle in his arms and I had no doubt that the caravan was well protected. His horses lurched forward toward the forest and I gave Master a heel and he skipped towards town.
We had just left the forest and entered a wide expanse of farmland when we heard hoof-fall behind us. I turned and saw a lone horse stamping up from behind, breaking out from the woods and blowing by us like we were sign posts. Master spooked and I did too seeing the poor horse's ears pinned and the panic in his stride. The preacher spun his big mare back toward the woods and Regal pawed the ground and snorted hard. His horse may have been little, but she was a fighter. Mine was too smart to like violence, so instead he side-stepped and spun in a full circle rather than face the direction of the woods. I drew my little sword and whacked him hard on his ass to get him to smarten. It had the desired effect of making him face the right way, but it also had the effect of making him race in that direction at a full-tilt gallop.
Regal and the preacher were hard behind us and I kept my sword drawn in my left hand while I unsnapped the Professor with my right. Though Master did not want to listen at first, once he did he was a good partner. Horses are like men, they just need direction and motivation; except some men will not accept the bit.
We rounded a short bend in the forest path and I yanked hard on the reigns when I saw what had happened. The caravan, with the Georgian pilot, sat in the middle of the road with two horses missing on the near side and two more stamping and screeching, making the wagon lurch back and forth on the spot. A man lay flat on his stomach, sprawled out like he had come falling out of the sky, sword still in his belt, and helmet still on; quiet and unmoving. Two more men, whom I recognized as the caravan’s guards, were unloading a trunk from the back. The bigger man was missing his helmet and blood streamed from his forehead, and the smaller one tore off his gloves to get a better grip on the pilfered trunk. I just gawked, but the preacher acted quick and thwacked an arrow into the wagon's side. It stuck there with the feathery end, vibrating, and the guard’s eyes glued to it. They stopped what they were doing and put their hands in the air.
“What’s the meaning of this?” shouted the preacher. “Where’s the pilot?”
“We-we-we was teching attacked!” stammered the bleeding guard, his eyes darting nervously. “The teching pilot’s gone. Into the woods,” continued the second, “we was just taking our pay before we was next!”
"Lies only compound your guilt!”
“No, honest, sir! A man stood in the middle of the road, all naked. At first we laughed and thought him drunk, but suddenly he leapt in the air like a spider, so quick was he! Morris was dead afore he knew what the tech happened!” He wiped blood from his head and pointed a red finger at the face down guard. “The naked man threw Morris from the wagon then he and the pilot fought; the pilot slashing at him with that big arse sword and the naked man dodging left and right like a moth.” The man was panic-speaking, his mouth just running and running and when he began to weep the second man took over.
“Morris was newly-wed and we thought to take his pay to his wife.” The smaller man said.
To tell it straight, I thought the preacher would shoot them both right there for murder and robbery and I would not have blamed him. They attacked the pilot to rob the caravan and lost one of their own, with the pilot fleeing at being outnumbered. Now these two cowards were free to unload the precious cargo and head back to town to whore and gamble. They would make up some story about bandits and it would be believable enough this time of year.
But instead of shooting, the preacher lowered his bow and told the two men to get out of there, except he cussed about it. They retreated at a two legged gallop toward town, promising to send the town custos.
I dismounted and made my way to Morris to ensure he was dead, something his friends probably did not bother to do. With his back-side up and his helmet on I used Prick to pry his body over. The preacher caught my idea and helped me roll him. I do not like to touch the dead, no matter how fresh, but the preacher was all hands in rolling the unfortunate man.
He rolled over like a sack of flour and I was immediately puzzled as now I was looking at his front, where his face should have been, but I only saw a mass of hair. The man had a huge beard, I thought, but the preacher cussed.
“That is your second cuss word in three minutes, preacher.”
He ignored me and removed the man’s helmet, which came off with a wet plop. Then I realized that Morris had no beard. His head was twisted grotesquely around so it faced the wrong half of his body. I turned away, but the damage was done and I barfed all over the road. I reckon I have seen many ugly things on my adventures, but that image still turns my stomach. To this day, if someone cracks their neck bones in my vicinity, I will turn greener than a frog’s hind end.
I wiped my face with some leaves and begged the preacher to cover the man, which he did with a blanket from the wagon. I busied myself unhitching the two remaining horses and I tried my best to calm them down. I was only half successful as they continued to stamp and snort and cry. After the preacher covered Morris, he looked at the broken splinters of what had been the hitch where the other two horses were. One had run our direction, but the other was nowhere to be found. How frightened he must be, I thought, I should find him.
As usual, I was more concerned for the animals involved than the people. I had forgotten all about the Georgian until the preacher began to call out something that sounded like haloo gin par toward the trees.
“What the he...” I started, but the preacher shushed me. Shushed a governess! Well, I crossed my arms and stamped a heel down, but the preacher ignored me, and while I was pouting he continued the call of whatever-you-call-it toward the trees. Several minutes went by and I returned to the horses and tried again to calm their jittery nerves. They had quite a scare. I had them tied to a tree and I was petting and stroking the lead horse, a spotted gray mare with one brown eye and one gray eye. No matter what I tried, she kept hauling on her tie, jerking her head back so hard I thought she might pull the tree down. I thought maybe I would loosen her chest strap and I ducked under her neck to check her other flank, and I stopped dead in my tracks.
A frozen bolt shot down my back that spread like cracks in the ice across my whole body. I gasped and tried to shout, but nothing came out. In the thick brush just a few feet away was a human face that seemed to float in the leaves like a phantom. The man was light skinned, deathly pale, with black hair and a devilish grin on his face that set my hands trembling. I pulled my gun and fired, but the demon vanished in a streak upwards and over my head. I ducked under the mare and watched as she slammed her head back against the tie to get free, calling murder. I scanned the treetops for the demon, but I could not see him.
“Preacher!” I shouted, but he was already there with his bow in hand. He knocked an arrow and drew a line from treetop to treetop. I gaped wide-eyed upward, hoping for some sight of the devil so I knew where he was, but secretly hoping that he was gone. Seconds felt like hours as we stood scanning the treetops with gun and bow. It felt like two forevers before I had enough spit to swallow again.
Just as I thought my wish had been granted, the preacher shut his eyes, whispered something, and loosed an arrow upwards, almost straight over our heads.
Instantly, there was a crash of branches and a big pine tree shook violently, waving overheard. The treetops began to crash together in a sequence as the devil leapt from tree to tree, fleeing into the woods. His pale form just visible as he crashed into each tree until he was so deep in the woods I could no longer hear the leaves or the branches, and all was quiet. The horses calmed and then stood still and the preacher lowered his bow, replacing the second arrow into a quiver at his side as if he had picked a daisy to put in his pocket.
I must have stared at the preacher, speechless, and if I spoke I do not recall.
The preacher, still holding his bow, made the sign of the Watch by touching two fingers to his left wrist and then touching his forehead.
“That was a copperhead,” he said, “a fast one.” He smiled with half his mouth and gave my shoulder a shake. “I think you hit him.” He pointed at the leaves where the man, or copperhead rightly, had been standing, watching me. The big broad leaves of a dawson’s bush swayed gently in the little breeze and I could clearly see my bullet hole in a leaf. The preacher walked over and turned the leaf so I could see its underside, which was dotted with specks of black and red.
“That was nice shooting.” He said and gave my shoulder another shake. I was still not in a speaking mood as I just stared at the leaf.
If I had not had enough frights for the day, there was a sudden crash in the brush ahead of me and out came the Georgian, breathing hard, sword in hand. He stopped as he found his forehead just a few inches off the end of the Professor. I reacted out of instinct and it took me a few blinks to figure out it was not the demon who had come back to finish the job. Still, I did not lower my gun. We three stood for a moment or more in silence. The Georgian with his sword held out, the preacher with an arrow knocked, and the Professor cocked and ready.
“Thank the Gods!” Said the Georgian.
“Mortalis es?” Asked the preacher, calm and controlled.
“I am, by all the Gods!”
“Are you bleeding?” Asked the preacher without emotion.
“Yes, my leg, here.” He pointed to his thigh that was slashed through his pants, staining them dark red.
The preacher lowered his bow and again replaced the arrow. I was not so convinced, but the preacher placed his hand upon my outstretched arm and bade me to lower my gun, which I did after a plaintive look in his direction. I gently lowered the hammer with my other hand and holstered my gun.
The Georgian let out a big sigh and slid his sword into the holster at his back and then plopped down onto a fallen log, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the tail of his shirt. I took off my coat and joined him while the preacher preferred to stand as he unstrung his bow and passed around his water skin for us.
We told the Georgian our side of the story while he rested. He shook his head, unbelieving, and spat when we told him of Morris. I looked disgusted at him, but the Georgian said it would keep the spirit of Morris at rest so we would not be haunted. I spat too, although I did not overly believe in ghosts. But up until five minutes ago, I did not believe in copperheads either, so why take chances?
The Georgian told us much the same story as the two cowardly guards. They had come upon a naked man in the road. He had killed Morris, throwing him from the wagon with amazing strength, and he had fought the man, slashing at him with his great sword and then chased him into the woods. He was gone for several minutes when he realized the man was allowing him to catch up, moving just fast enough to elude the Georgian without losing him entirely. The Georgian felt he was being lead into a trap and turned back, but the man must have beaten him back to the caravan where he met up with us.
The Georgian introduced himself to us by name, but I could not pronounce it. Even the preacher had difficulty, as it required you to make a knocking sound that I could not produce without stamping my boot on a log. The Georgian said that most people in Angland called him Thomas instead, and he had grown use to it.
“The preacher says that the man was a copperhead.” I told Thomas.
“I have encountered only one before,” he replied, wiping his brow again, “but he was neither fast nor strong.”
The preacher looked remote.
“He leapt into the trees in the direction you came. Did you see him?” I asked.
“Yes, Gods help me, I hid until he passed. He is a demon to be sure.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Said the preacher, but something about the way he handled himself with that copperhead made me think otherwise.
“I encountered a man like him," continued Thomas, "across the sea, where my ancestors live. I was young then, no more than twelve. I travelled with my father and his brother on a barren road in a high mountain pass. It was dead of winter and snow covered everything. I could not believe how cold it was or how the horses could stand to step upon it. As we came upon a little rise, a man lay in the roadway, partly clothed and not moving. We call out to this man, but he made no reply. As we approached, he suddenly sat up and we all jumped like young boys. The man had no skin on his face, but no blood nor bone either, instead his face was a mask of golden metal. The creature swung his arms backwards and over his head, like he was swimming, and he propelled himself like so, off the road and into the woods, so we lost sight of him.”
Thomas made the motions of a swimming backstroke so I understood how the copperhead had moved.
“My uncle,” he continued, “later proposed that the creature had fallen sick and been attacked by animals so that he could no longer function properly. We encounter few such creatures in my home country.”
I no longer wished to talk about it. "I'm just glad it's gone." I said. I couldn't shake the queasiness that was crawling up my guts, so I got up to check on the horses again.
“I agree,” replied Thomas.
The preacher sighed and spoke, “We should get your wagon somewhere safe and maybe deliver Morris to his widow.”
We three looked over to the blanket that covered Morris and paused as we inwardly volunteered the next person for the job of moving him. Finally, the preacher said, “Sam, give me a hand with him.”
“Me?” I asked, a little too high-toned. “I’m the smallest one. Thomas is all muscle, and he’s Morris' boss.”
“He’s injured, Sam. Besides, you will have to learn to honour the dead as governess. You know the Oldspeak and can help me.”
Thomas did not interject, instead he stared off into the abyss, lost in the memories of his youth or maybe just pretending not to hear us so he could avoid hauling a dead person around like an old sack. Evidently, in Georgia, the dead just lay where they fall.
He set about wrapping up his bloody thigh while the preacher and I began the ugly job of loading Morris into the wagon. I demanded that the preacher fix Morris’ head while I had my back turned and my fingers in my ears. Plugging my ears did not help, and the preacher’s attempts were in vain. The poor man’s head was positively fixed in the wrong direction. Instead, the preacher wrapped up Morris’ head tight enough that I could imagine it was on normal, though my imagination, in this case, was wanting.
Death happens to everyone. It has happened to everyone before us, and will happen to everyone that comes after us. It’s as common as being born, exactly as common, I guess. Does that make the prospect any less terrifying? I wondered. That’s just something else we share with every other person born: we’re all scared of dying.
Papa explained it to me like this at a funeral of a Lander who had been struck by lightning during a great storm. He saw how upset I was that someone I'd personally met and knew, though not greatly, had died without warning. He asked what I thought about the funeral and I told him it was a dreadful and awful and terrible thing and that I wished to live forever. He thought for a moment while looking at me, which always preceded some piece of wisdom he was about to pass along, and he was trying to figure out how to word it so I would get the meaning. After a long moment, he said if everyone lived forever, life would have no meaning. If everyone lived forever, there would be no cakes.
I laughed at him then and I told him that of course there would be cakes. Why, I would personally bake a cake every day if I could live forever. He smiled sideways at me, which indicated he was about to bury my crude logic. I loved that.
He said, as best as I can remember it, “Why bother falling in love, getting married, having children, reading books, writing books, hunting, falconing, or riding a horse? Why bother learning history, arithmetic, geography, soldiering? Why grow flowers or bake cakes?” I waited as I knew he would answer his own question. “Because there is an end to all things, Sam.” He grew very serious then and knelt down to meet my eyes.
“All things end. Books, horses, flowers, and cakes. That’s what makes you appreciate them. Because you know that soon they will no longer be there, so you must love them while you can. Sam, one day I will be gone and you will be governess. Because of that we must make every day a good one, we mustn’t fuss or fight over small things. Death is so important because it makes life worth living.”
I recall that his speech kept me up all night. I had never considered life without my papa before that day. He was everywhere and everything. He taught me about governing and shooting and riding and all the things I loved. He never seemed sore at me like Mama was so often. That’s not to say he never got angry at me, he certainly did, but he never yelled. Instead, he would just look awfully hurt and sad, like he was ashamed of me. That was worse than all of Mama’s screeching and cussing and telling me she wished I’d never been born.
I thought about all of this while hoisting Morris into the back of Thomas’ wagon. No matter the wisdom of Papa's theory of death, actually being around a dead person is utterly terrible. One moment you’re hominis; a living, breathing person with thoughts and feelings, and the next you’re an enormous sack of meat. The dead do not help you when you lift them, and everything moves in ways it should not. Muscle ceases to flex and become flabby; all limbs go every which way. Despite my papa's theory, I still wished to live forever, if just to avoid the embarrassment of ever having to be a corpse.
By degrees we were able to load him into the back of the wagon between a barrel of mulled wine and several bags of mill flour. Thomas helped by rearranging his load, but he would not touch Morris. I did not blame him.
The preacher stood at Morris’ feet and I stood at his head, leaning on a wool bundle.
“Do we have to say stuff, preacher? Is it not enough that we’re taking him to his widow? She can pay to have him buried and then they’ll say a few words, won’t they?” I must have sounded whiney because the preacher just ignored me and closed his eyes. He muttered the same dinner prayer as he did before and I let him.
“Now Sam, if you could say something appropriate please.” He said when he finished asking his Gods for grace.
“How do you know that I know Oldspeak anyway?” I asked with a grimace.
He frowned back, “Because you speak it in your sleep,” he said.
I was startled. “I did not realize that I talked in my sleep.” I made a note to myself that later I would have to ask the preacher what else I talked about.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.” I said and I drew an x in the air over Morris’ body.
“What does that mean?” asked Thomas from behind the preacher.
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I replied without thinking.
“Who are they?” asked the preacher.
“Old Gods.” I answered.
Thomas spat to scare away the spirits of the Old Ones.I hopped down the wagon and whistled for Master, who stood several yards away, looking at nothing. How swell a thing it must be to not have a thought in your head, I mused. Presently, and with a lump in my heart, I snagged the young mister and we three rode off in the direction of Eastport, a direction I had hoped would be the final step in my adventure to find my dear Papa.