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He had been a boy when the white men came to take their land. The boy who would later grow up to be Red Spears remembered the crack of guns. He remembered the thunder of hooves as his people were ridden down. But most of all he remembered the white shaman. The other white men had simply called him witch. All red men knew him as the Forest Eater. Even after all these years, with gray beginning to streak his black hair, Red Spears remembered the Forest Eater. He remembered a lean figure, a raw-boned face filled the surety of youth and strength. Most of all he remembered the flames. Even as a boy, he had known of the mystic rights of the shamans of his tribe and those of the others. But their magicks had been small things, charms to help ensure a successful hunt, bring rain or heal a sick child. The white man’s magic was huge and terrifying. There was no chanting or invocation of the spirits, he had simply gestured with his hands and anything within his sight simply burst into flame. Arrows had burnt in mid flight. Trees had turned into giant torches. Red Spears had seen a brave burn at the white witch’s command, filling the air with brief, agonized screams and the sickly smell of cooking meat.
Red Spears shook away the bitter memory and refocused his gaze on the basket of seeds and nuts that he held.
Soon. He promised himself. Soon.
He replaced the basket and looked about his small tent. Instead of anchoring himself, the sight only led a further wave of memories. Memories of his dead wife and the daughter who had betrayed him.
Unable to stand the sight, Red Spears left his tent and regarded his tribe. They were the Black Turtles and they were a pitiful sight. There were a dozen families in total, their tents looking only slightly less ragged than his own. For a moment he looked at the empty space in the middle of the encampment. Instead of the communal fire, he saw the old longhouse that had been the center of village life. The Forest Eater had burned that as well.
Red Spears looked about at his people as they went about they’re daily lives. They were lean with hunger, but that was not so uncommon. Life is always a struggle, regardless of the environment. What was so unfamiliar, and what made Red Spears’ heart break, was the fear in their eyes. There were men stationed about the camp at all times. Not because of the white men. No, for now at least they were content to remain where they were. It was the other tribes they feared now. This was foreign ground, taken out of necessity when they had been forced to flee their homes.
“Patience, old friend. A few more days.”
Red Spears pulled his mind back from his gloomy thoughts at the sight of his friend and mentor, Stone-jawed Wolf. Older and more experienced in the shaman’s arts, he shared the same desire to take revenge upon the settlers and reclaim what was once theirs.
“It can’t come soon enough.” Red Spears said grimly. “I can’t stand looking at this--“
He gestured around their pitiful camp. “--any longer.”
Stone-jawed wolf placed a leathery hand reassuringly on the other’s shoulder.
“The storm is coming, Red Spears. Magic can only do so much, but it is coming. The invaders will be swept aside and not even the Forest Eater will be able to save them.”
. . .
With each breath, he felt the power flow within him. He felt the air around cool then warm again. Cool, the warm, over and over. He felt the power concentrate. He felt its potency. He also knew its pointlessness. The old man’s lips curled in a smile of self-deprecation.
“Dear, dinner’s ready.”
Josiah Mattison rose from his porch chair, grimacing at the creaking and ache in every joint. Before him, reflecting the starlight above, were the cheerful lights of Bedford’s Rest, emanating from windows and door like shafts of purest gold. For a moment the discomfort of old age was swept away and Josiah allowed himself to feel a sense of pride.
Back east, he had been a pariah, hated and feared for what he could do. Devil-spawn. Accursed. Sorcerer. Witch. Out on the frontier, away from the comforts of civilization, the need to simply survive made men more tolerant of his kind.
The smells of the evening meal, lured Josiah back to the present and he turned to enter his house. Marianne was already seated at their small table and wore an expression of mock censure.
“What took you so long Josiah?”
The old man smiled and kissed his wife before taking his own seat.
“I was only reminiscing, love. Nothing more.”
The old woman’s lined face softened at his words. And there, there was the soft smile that banished all the dusty years and made Josiah Mattison feel young again. What was the power of his magic against that smile but a paltry vanity? Marianne said grace and the couple ate in silence. As the meal progressed however, Josiah could see his wife’s demeanor become increasingly sad and pensive.
“You still miss Adam?”
Marianne nodded. “I know it’s foolish of me, love, but I simply can’t stop seeing him as a little boy.”
Josiah reached across the table and took her hand in his, feeling a sympathetic squeezing of his own heart.
“I know. I wish that he was still small enough to dandle on my knee. But he is a man grown now. He had to carve out his own place in the world as we did.”
He tried to sound like he believed his own words. At rock bottom he did believe them. But all the reason in the world alleviated neither his wife’s pain, nor his own. However, a sudden inspiration did. Josiah took Marianne’s hand again.
“I’ve just had a thought. Tomorrow, I’ll send a messenger to Providence Fold and ask if Adam can come and visit us with Alice. Who knows? Their children might be old enough to come along as well, and we can see them for the first time.”
Marianne answered her husband’s smile, her eyes shining with thanks and delight, banishing the dismal clouds of melancholy in an instant.
“Oh! Joshiah that’s a wonderful idea.”
“Then it’s settled.” He said, returning to his unfinished plate. “I’ll send for a horse first thing in the morning.
. . .
Charity reached up to keep her bonnet in place as wind began to rise. Strands of jet-black hair managed to escape regardless and flicker across her mahogany features. Something about the wind worried her, but she couldn’t understand why. Beside her a tiny, pudgy hand reached out of a basket beside her and tried unsuccessfully to grab at the sleeve of her dress. Charity pushed the dark thoughts away with an effort and smiled down at her infant son. Brian’s tiny round face, smiled toothlessly up at her and he made soft little cooing noises. She leaned down to kiss his tiny brow.
“Don’t worry, sweet heart. Mother’s just worrying over nothing.”
At least she hoped she was. The ominous feeling refused to go away and Charity found her mind wondering more and more away from the job of weeding the small vegetable garden behind her house. She ought to try and finish the work before the rain came, but try as she might, she couldn’t bring herself to focus on the task at hand. She looked back in the direction of the wind. Slate gray clouds could now be seen, drawing ever closer. For some reason the sight filled her with sudden panic.
“Best get inside. That storm looks only minutes away.”
Charity almost jumped out of her skin. She spun around, raising the trowel as if to defend herself with the gardening tool.
“Sorry, Charity. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Charity relaxed with a sigh of relief. It was Adam Mattison, one of the neighbors. He was a lean man, with a hard angular face, except when he smiled, as he did now, albeit apologetically.
“You’re probably right.” She sighed again, this time with frustration as she regarded her garden once more. “I can’t seem to focus on my work anyway.”
“Is Daniel still with the old man?”
“He went to visit Mr. Ortiz around noon. Perhaps he’ll wait out the rain with him.”
Adam shook his head. “Your husband’s too generous for his own good. I doubt the old Spaniard will repay him with anything but curses and maybe a thrown kitchen knife.”
Charity smiled, thoughts of Daniel’s kind and tousled face briefly banishing her feeling of mounting dread. Perhaps, her neighbor was right, but if excessive kindness was her husband’s only fault, than Charity would consider herself blessed above all other women on this earth. The kindness to help an aged and cantankerous Spanish hermit, was the same kindness that had loved a girl who had left behind a people, a dead mother, and the father whose stubbornness and hate had killed her as surely as the fever had.
At first Charity thought it was the rumbling of thunder. But it was too soft and too continuous. Adam must have heard it too, for he looked in the same direction, shielding his eyes against the wind.
“Speak of the devil, it’s Daniel! And old Ortiz is with him.”
Adam sounded only confused, but for Charity, the feeling of dread had returned. Abandoning the trowel, she picked up the basket holding her baby son and moved over to the fence by Adam. Daniel’s horse was clearly straining under the weight of two men, even if one of them was small, old and brittle. Yet his owner was kicking at its sides with ruthless abandon.
“The Indians are attacking!” Daniel’s voice rang out as he rode into the village. “They’re attacking! They’ll be here soon!”
Doors and windows were flung open. Cries of dismay and shouted questions pursued the horse and both riders. Charity was not one of them. Icy claws clutched at her heart.
The Indians are coming.
Her father was coming.
She could still recall the bitterness that had defined Red Spears her entire life. She could recall the fury on his face when her mother had fallen ill and she had proposed asking for help from the white doctors. She knew that they possessed great knowledge of many things. Perhaps they might know a way to save her. He had raged at her. He had beaten her as well. Even now she remembered the blows falling on her head, arms and back as he had held on to her in his free hand. Unable to stand it anymore she had bitten his finger, forcing him to let go and she had run away. It had taken days, stumbling fearfully through the woods before she had reached the settlement. At first the white men had spurned her pleas for help. They had laughed and spat at her and for a moment she was convinced that Red Spears had been right. He had always said that the white men were cruel and heartless; they had taken his people’s land from them. It was the reason why he had reacted with anger to the idea of a white doctor helping his wife. But then, a farmer had taken pity of her and brought her to the village doctor. He too had shown kindness to her and while he had been unwilling to travel himself, he had given Charity medicine to help her mother.
She returned as quickly as she could, only to find death and more rage. And not just her father’s. They had fought. He’d tried to beat her again. She had kicked him in his aged knees and fled again, blinded by her tears. This time, one of the braves had tried to stop her, but she had kicked and bit until he released her. That night, Charity renounced her name, her family, and her tribe. The kind doctor had taken her in and taught her medicine. The white men had been suspicious and hostile at first, but gradually they had softened towards her. The village pastor had baptized her in the local church where, years later, she had married Daniel. They had joined the families that struck out to establish a new settlement further west. They had built their cabin together and had begun building a family.
But now her father was coming to destroy all of that. As Daniel finished delivering his warning and rode his horse back towards their home, Senor Ortiz behind him in the saddle, Charity could not decide if she hated Red Spears more than she pitied him.
“We need to hurry.” Daniel said, as Adam rushed forward to help the aged Spaniard down from the saddle.
“How many?” The other man asked.
“I don’t know.” Daniel replied. “But they’re moving fast. We have an hour at most.”
“Magia del diablo rojo.” Senor Ortiz rasped. The old man had suffered greatly from the ride.
“We’ll send the women and children east.” Adam said. “And send a messenger ahead. In case the worst should happen, the Indians won’t dare my father’s power. If he’s still fit enough to travel, news of his coming might scare them off.”
Charity felt her heart clench with sudden fear. “What about you?”
The look on Daniel and Adam’s faces confirmed her worst fears even before the former spoke.
“The men will hold our ground.”
Before Charity could voice her horrified objections, Ortis shook his silver bearded head and chattered to the younger men in Spanish.
“No puedes detenerlos! Te matarán a ti y luego a tus mujeres!”
Charity didn’t need to understand the language to grasp his meaning. When she had left it for good, the tribe was desperate and weak, always at risk from other tribes. Red Spears would never attack unless he was certain he could win.
“He’s right!” She said desperately. “You need to stay with us. Protect us. What good is preserving our homes if our men are all dead.”
Neither man liked the idea, but she saw the look in Daniel’s eyes. It was a look of fear, born from seeing things.
“We’ll go with them.” He told Adam. “At least we can guard the rear. Help our families prepare. I’ll find a rider.”
Fortunately fear lent wings to the villagers. In less than half an hour they were on the road towards the east. Urgency caused them to leave all that they could not carry with them. Only a few wagons were brought, mainly to transport the young, old, and sickly. Charity, unwilling to let Daniel out of her sight, hung back towards the rear of the column. Every fit man was mounted and armed, constantly looking over their shoulders. By now the sky overhead was covered by a mantle of slate. The wind blew stronger and the trees overhead creaked and moaned. Charity carried Brian in her arms. Mercifully the child was asleep. As the village disappeared from sight around a bend in the trail, she felt the first drops of rain begin to fall.
. . .
Josiah Mattison grimaced at the sight of storm clouds in the west. He reckoned it would reach them before evening. Rainy weather always made the ache in his joints worse. He did his best to ignore the throbbing, instead he tried to focus on his power. His old mentor had taught him the value of constant practice, even as his physical body waned. One could never be certain, this close to the frontier. His power had been necessary to win this portion of the frontier. It might be needed one day, to defend it.
A pity that his own son had not possessed the talent. But perhaps some other young blood, flush with power would come. There were always rumors of more people leaving the cramped cities of the east to carve out a place for themselves out west.
Josiah snorted cynically at the thought. We are witches until others decide to use us.
Would the people of the frontier had tolerated him if he hadn’t played such an important role in the fight against the Indians? He didn’t think so. Still, he had played a role, and so far had been generously rewarded. He had a patch of land of his very own, a loving wife, and a beloved son, now starting a family of his own. Best of all, he now garnered the respect, rather than fear and prejudice, of his fellow man. All in all, there were worse ways to face one’s own twilight years.
The drumming of hooves shook Josiah from his reverie. Time had flown by and the sky was now completely overcast. The wind was blowing unusually strong, but it had yet to rain. Josiah blinked in surprise when he realized that the horseman was headed towards his own house. With a grimace, he rose creakily from his chair. Even as he did he felt a icy lump forming in his gut. As promised to Marianne, he had sent a rider that morning with the invitation to his son. Somehow he knew that whatever message was meant for him, it would not be nearly so cheerful.
“You are, Josiah Mattison?”
“I bring an urgent message from Providence Fold. The Indians are attacking!”
The cold lump grew larger. Josiah felt his limbs tremble as if they were aging all over again before his eyes.
“What of the people? What of my son, Adam?”
“Alive when I left them. They beg you to come west as fast as you can.”
Behind Josiah, the door opened and he heard his wife walk up to him. He faced her and his heart wrenched at the fear in her eyes. He felt the same fear, coiling around his soul like a viper. With an effort, he tore his gaze from Marianne and faced the rider.
“I’m too old to ride a horse.”
“I’ll carry you, sir. I just need a fresh mount.”
“We have one in the stables.”
As the man hurried away with his exhausted steed, Josiah took Marianne into his arms. He tried to say something, to think of words that would reassure her. But the ice in his heart kept preventing his mind from find them. When the rider returned with a fresh mount, he was still there, still holding his wife.
. . .
Charity did her best to shield her baby from the rain as the column of fleeing villagers trudged along as quickly as the wagons would allow. The wind howled and the creaking and groaning of the trees sounded was like the groans of men on the rack. She knew that her father and Stone-Jawed Wolf had delved deeply into the arts of the shaman in the name of vengeance. To conjure forth a storm like this implied that their power surpassed anything known or sung of in the history of her people. And now that frightful might was turned against the people of the frontier. Not far behind she could hear, barely, the frightened whinnying of the horses and the half angry, half afraid curses of the men who rode them.
The village of Bedfords’ Rest was over a day away on foot and burdened as they were with young and elderly, Charity knew that even with their head start there was no way that they would reach safety before her father and the rest of the tribe caught up with them. For all their bravery the men guarding the rear would be a paltry protection at best against the power now aligned against them, save the intervention of luck of the divine. Their only real hope was that the rider they’d sent ahead had found Adam Mattison’s father and that they would reach the fleeing villagers in time to intervene. Sorcerers were not uncommon on the frontier, but like the shamans of her former people, most of their talents were small, lacking the power supposedly wielded by the mages of the land across the ocean.
A sudden scream of terror jolted Charity from her thoughts. She whirled around in time to see what looked like a thick, brown serpent puck one of the men from his saddle, it’s coils wrapped firmly about his middle. The horse fled screaming in terror as its rider was lifted high into the air. His companions swore and a few attempted to shoot the snake, but only two went off, the rest had wet powder. Charity couldn’t see if any of the shots had hit, but if so, the monster seemed unaffected. The trapped man screamed as the coils pinioning his arms suddenly whipped forward and flung him against the earth like a child throwing a ball. Even over the wind, the wet crack of bone was distinct. By now the women and children at the rear of the column were aware that they were under attack. Screaming in terror they tried to run, shoving past those ahead of them in desperate panic.
Charity could only stand, frozen in terror as more of the brown serpentine shapes emerged from the rain and darkness to wreak carnage among the horseman. One whipped out of the darkness to send a man’s head flying into the air. Charity screamed as the spout of blood from the severed neck was swiftly washed out by the driving rain. She searched desperately for Daniel. In the darkness and confusion, the sodden riders and their terrified mounts seemed indistinguishable. Unable to counter or even comprehend what they were facing, several horseman were panicking along with their mounts. They turned and spurred their horses away, up the road in the wake of the fleeing women and children. Charity couldn’t hear them over the sound of the storm and the scream of terror but she saw two men fall from their saddles with arrows in their backs. It wasn’t just the shamans. They had brought warriors with them as well.
Suddenly one of the riders was at her side and reaching for her and the baby in her arms. It was Daniel.
Holding Brian in one arm she grabbed at her husband’s hand. He struggled to pull her up and into the saddle. Then the horse screamed as a brown coil began to wrap around its hind legs. In desperate panic, it reared, throwing the pair to the ground. Brian, knocked about by the fall, began to scream in his mother’s arms as the horse ran off into the dark. Charity screamed as some long and lithe, reached for her. Daniel, already back on his feet, swung the butt of his rifle at the shape and now Charity saw that it was not a serpent. It was a tree root. It recoiled from Daniel’s blow, not in pain, but in surprise. It had not expected to be attacked in this way. Or rather, the mind that was directing it had not.
By now the remaining men were either dead or fleeing themselves. Charity scrambled to her feet, the baby still wailing in her arms. There was no time to comfort him now, instead she tugged at the back of Daniel’s shirt.
“We must run!”
There was a man lying face down in the mud not far from where they stood. He might have twitched but in the darkness it was hard to tell. Before Daniel could respond there was the triumphant war whoops of the Indians and over a dozen braves melt out of the rain and night to surround them. Charity saw the merciless light in their eyes and the tomahawks gripped in their hands. She held Brian closer to her chest, even as she knew that there was no protection she might offer him. Suddenly the waving serpentine roots withdrew and from behind the circle of warriors, two gray-haired men emerged. Charity knew who they were even before the first addressed her in the tongue of her birth.
“Father! Please spare us!”
The eyes of Red Spears were as cold and hard as napped flint. “Leave these lands daughter and you will live, though by rights I should kill you for your betrayal.”
“I tried to save her! You would have let her die!”
Red Spear’s eyes flashed, but he spoke on, ignoring her words.
“You will give the child to us. He will be raised in the ways of his rightful people on the land that is rightfully his.”
His eyes flicked over to Daniel. “He must either leave this place, or die. All white men must leave our lands. If they will not leave, then we shall bury them here.”
Daniel couldn’t understand what was said, but he saw Charity clutch their son protectively to her chest and placed himself between the Indian shaman and his family. Red Spears regarded him for the first time and in the older man’s eyes Daniel saw hatred and contempt. The shaman raised his hand and a massive root rose over the settler’s head like a massive whip, ready to strike him down.
A sudden shout from one of the warriors made Red Spears pause. The injured white man suddenly leapt to his feet and sprung at the two mystics, his rifle raised a club to crush their skulls into paste. Stone-Jawed Wolf reacted first, a sudden gust of rainswept wind arose, blowing the attacker off balance and sending him back into the mud. He managed to turn over onto his back before Red Spears sent the root through his chest with a wet crunch, pinning him to the earth like an insect on display. Lightning flashed overhead and Charity screamed in horror. In its light, she saw the face of Adam Mattison, twisted into a rictus of rage and pain. For several terrible moments he screamed and thrashed like a fish on a spear as blood soaked into the mud around him. Then, mercifully, he went still.
Daniel and Charity stared in mute horror at the grisly sight. Brian, exhausted from crying, finally fell silent. Then over the rain, there came the sound of drumming hooves. Charity was too horrified to turn and see the source of the noise, but she did look from the body of Adam to her father’s face and she saw his expression change from shock to barely concealed rage. The warriors also saw the new arrivals and for the first time, she saw fear come into their eyes. Daniel, less paralyzed than his wife, turned and saw a horse and two riders, one of them, an ancient, white-bearded man. Several of the warriors drew bows on the newcomers, but one of the shamans shouted at them and they reluctantly lowered their weapons.
. . .
“Let them shoot!” Stone-Jawed Wolf demanded. “Kill him now and nothing can stop us!”
Red Spears did not take his eyes from the Forest Eater as he gingerly dismounted. There were no thoughts left in his head, but the sight of flames and the fires of his own hatred.
“No. This white man’s life is mine.”
The younger white man and his traitor daughter were retreating towards the Forest Eater. It was hard for Red Spears to reconcile this withered, white bearded ancient with the young, hawk-faced sorcerer who had almost destroyed his people and sent them fleeing from their homes. It had been many decades ago, but it seemed that the passage of time had not been generous to the Forest Eater. He looked like a bundle of twig-like bones with the skin stretched over them. It seemed a though a gentle breeze could blow him over, yet he seemed unaffected by the storm winds conjured by Stone-Jawed Wolf. The Forest Eater looked around at the warriors, his eyes had a searching gaze about them. Before Red Spears could divine any meaning from it, the old man’s eyes dropped and they saw the body of the white man, he had just killed.
The strange gray-green eyes of the white man widened with horror. Even with the beard obscuring his face and the darkness of the storm, Red Spears could red the Forest Eater’s face and posture. Shock was replaced by a shattering grief and though the white man’s face was already wet from the rain, Red Spears knew he was crying.
He knows this dead man. A friend? A relative? A son.
The realization brought a grim smile to Red Spears’ face and he called out to his daughter.
“Tell the Forest Eater that this is nothing more than repayment for his deeds. He has only himself to blame for this night. He made a mistake the day he burned down my village and sent the Black Turtles fleeing into the night.”
His daughter hesitated, then translated his words to the old white man. With what seemed a titanic effort, the Forest Eater managed to tear his gaze away from the body of his son. His eyes met those of Red Spears and for a second the grief was still there, welling up and pouring down his sunken cheeks. Then, the tears stopped and the only thing Red Spears saw in those eyes was a hate as dark as the spaces between the stars.
Good. Now he knows what I have known. Let his last moments be full of helpless anger and despair. I will repay him in full for what he took from us.
He turned his mind back to the magic, readying the great roots to crush his hated enemy once and for all. But before he could unleash his power, the old white man said something to his daughter and, after hesitating a brief moment, she called out to Red Spears.
“Josiah says he remembers your tribe. He says that the only mistake he made that night, was allowing any of you . . . you to survive. His son is dead now, because he didn’t wipe you from the earth.”
For some reason the words only enflamed the shaman’s anger.
“He mourns a single life? What of all the lives that ended in his fire? What of our people? What of the Black Turtles, forced onto the land of other tribes, who bled us dry with their raids? What of us who spent every day just to find or steal enough food to feed their children, while the white men made their farms and raised their fat livestock on land that was once ours?”
By now the Forest Eater’s tears had been washed away by the rain. As Charity translated, he stood up straighter and shuffled forward. The warriors raised their bows again, but Red Spears didn’t move. The old man wasn’t drawing on his power, and even if he tried, he and Stone-Jawed Wolf would be able to kill him first.
Let the white man try to defend what he did. When he is done, I will take great pleasure in crushing him.
Instead, when the Forest Eater spoke, there was nothing like contrition or excuse making in his tone. Charity seemed reluctant to translate the words, but at last, she faced her father again.
“You speak of stolen land? Have your people already forgotten the Wolf Tribe and the Red Rivers? The Black Turtles were at war with them when I first came to the frontier. You traded with us for our guns and used them to wipe out your enemies. Yes, we did eventually come for you to take your land for our own, but man has killed man for such things since the dawn of time.”
A bitter smile now peeked out through the white beard.
“The folks back east are always spouting pretty philosophies about brotherhood and peace. Men who spend their lives surrounded by the comforts of civilization. What do they know of the world beyond their precious cities? To them, an Indian is some romantic figure in a book, not an actual human who carves the flesh from his enemy’s scalp for a trophy. I’ve heard some of these men condemn the westward expansion and the conquest of new lands. Yet the very land they live upon so comfortably now, was either bought or stolen from others and I doubt that given the choice that they would just meekly hand it back to whatever red men once called it theirs. Your kind have been slaughtering one another long before the first colonist landed on these shores. In the end we’re all thieves and murderers Indian. The only difference between your people and mine, is that my kind simply have better weapons than yours. Hate me all you like for what I did, but spare me your pretense to a moral high ground.”
Red Spears felt his hands quiver with rage. This man. This bringer of death and destruction. He dared to say that they were alike?! That his race of white murders was in any way comparable to the Black Turtle?!
Suddenly, Red Spears saw the old man begin to inhale. Stone-Jawed Wolf was faster. The old shaman pointed at the Forest Eater and the sky was split by a thundering crash and a blinding pillar of crackling light the engulfed the old white man where he stood. Red Spears cried out and flinched away, his blinded eyes streaming agonized tears. The sound of the lightning strike made his ears ring for long seconds and for a moment, he feared that his friend’s attack had stripped him of his senses. Then, the ringing and the searing light faded away. But what they left behind was ever more astonishing that Stone-Jawed Wolf’s display of storm magic.
The Forest Eater still lived.
. . .
For a fleeting instant, Josiah Mattison wondered how he could still be alive. He had begun to draw on his power, drawing heat from his surroundings when the lightning had struck him. He had had little choice but to try and absorb the intense heat or the others would die alongside him. Even so, it seemed impossible. It had felt like trying to swallow the sun. He had not expected this. If anything he had expected one fo the Indians to strike him down, with spell or mortal weapon before he could launch his attack.
Then the instant passed, and there was nothing to do but release the power before it consumed him.
. . .
To Charity it looked as if the old man glowed from within. The light turned his skin red and it was as if the skin itself were stretched taught that that of a drum. The she heard a whooshing exhalation from Josiah Mattison.
Where once there was rain, there was only a cloud of hissing steam that vanished within seconds. Even standing behind the old witch Charity feel as if the heat of the summer sun were suddenly beating on her. The Black Turtle braves began to shout and she saw to her horror, their garments and weapons beginning to smoke and their skins beginning to blister. The great roots her father had raised seemed to shrivel in the intense heat, then blacken, then burn. Then the men burned as well. Then the trees behind them so that the world was transformed into a hellscape of black smoke and red orange light. The men danced in brief agony like living candles before the fire consuming them, stole the air from their lungs and the collapsed to burn silently upon the ground.
The rain unleashed earlier by Stone-Jawed Wolf fought back against the spreading blaze and after a long heart-stopping minute, the power released by Josiah Mattison waned. The forest still burned and the first dozen rows of trees had been blasted to char and cinders, but it seemed that the fire’s spread would be controlled, if only a little. Charity prayed that the fire would not reach Providence Fold and that her family would at least have a home to return to.
Daniel and the rider who had brought Josiah were staring in fearful incredulity at the old man who had done this awesome and terrible deed. Josiah Mattison had fallen to his withered knees, gasping for breath, his body drenched in sweat. Charity looked at him, then as the burning forest. She remembered the storm and her father’s roots killing men like Adam Mattison.
Why oh Lord? Why do you permit mortal men to possess such awful power?
Suddenly she felt hatred stirring inside her. Against her father, against Josiah, against all shamans, witches and others who used that foul and awful thing called magic. Then a soft gurgle drew her gaze down, to baby Brian in her arms. Her son looked up at her with wide, soft eyes, and the hatred died amidst a flood of relief.
Josiah Mattison’s voice was a harsh painful croak, as if the flames he had blow upon the Black Turtles had seared his own throat as well.
“My precious, beautiful boy.”
Charity saw the quivering of his shoulders, heard the sobs in his voice, and suddenly, the last dregs of her hatred evaporated as if they had never been. This was no grand and terrible monster, an eater of forests and despoiler of lands. There was only an ancient man, grieving the death of his son. Silently, Charity begged God’s forgiveness for her evil thoughts and passed Brian to Daniel. Cautiously, she walked up to the old man and knelt beside him. At first, Josiah Mattison stared at her through tear drenched eyes, as if he didn’t recognize her. Then, as gently as she could, Charity took the old witch into her arms, and held him as he clung to her, as he cried for Adam and as he added his tears to her still soaking dress.
Robert L. Webb © 2020