Speaks the Nightbird

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ISBN: 9781416552505

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The Carolinas, 1699: The citizens of Fount Royal believe a witch has cursed their town with inexplicable tragedies—and they demand that beautiful widow Rachel Howarth be tried and executed for witchcraft. Presiding over the trial is traveling magistrate Isaac Woodward, aided by his astute young clerk, Matthew Corbett. Believing in Rachel’s innocence, Matthew will soon confront the true evil at work in Fount Royal….

After hearing damning testimony, magistrate Woodward sentences the accused witch to death by burning. Desperate to exonerate the woman he has come to love, Matthew begins his own investigation among the townspeople. Piercing together the truth, he has no choice but to vanquish a force more malevolent than witchcraft in order to save his beloved Rachel—and free Fount Royal from the menace claiming innocent lives.



Speaks the Nightbird

By Robert McCammon

Chapter One
Came the time when the two travellers knew night would catch them, and shelter must be found.

It had been a joyful day for frogs and mudhens. For the human breed, however, the low gray clouds and chill rain coiled chains around the soul. By the calendar the month of May should by all rights and predictions be charitable if not merry, but this May had entered like a grim-lipped miser pinching out candles in church.

Waterfalls streamed through the thick branches that interlocked forty feet above the road. The leaves of ancient oaks and elms, and the needles of the lofty pines, were more ebon than green, the huge trunks bearded with moss and blotched by brown lumps of fungus the size of a blacksmith’s fist. To say that there was a road beneath those branches would be taking liberties with language: it was a canchre-colored mudhole emerging from the mist and disappearing into the mist.

“Steady, steady,” said the wagon’s driver to the pair of laboring nags as they pulled southward, breath steaming and skinny flanks trembling against the weight of wooden wheels through slop. He had a small stinger of a whip close at hand, but he declined to use it. The horses, which along with the wagon had been afforded him from the municipal stable of Charles Town, were doing all they could. Beneath the wagon’s soaked brown burlap canopy, and behind the raw pinewoodplank that occasionally fired splinters into the travellers’ rear ends, were two unmatched trunks, a valise, and a wig box, all four pieces of luggage bearing scars and gouges that betrayed lives of undignified shipment.

Thunder rumbled overhead. The horses struggled to lift their hooves in the muck. “Get up, there,” the driver said, with not a smudge of enthusiasm. He gave the reins a half-hearted flick, his hands protected by a pair of gray cloth gloves, then he sat without further comment as raindrops fell from the furled edges of his black, mud-spattered tricorn hat and added more soggy bulk to his raven’s-hue fearnaught coat.

“Shall I take them, sir?”

The driver glanced at his fellow sufferer, who was offering to hold the reins. By no idylls of the imagination could the two be called bookends; the driver was fifty-five years of age, the passenger fresh of twenty. The older man was big-boned and had a heavy-jowled and ruddy face, with thick and bristling gray eyebrows set like ramparts over deeply cast ice-blue eyes that were as congenial as newly primed cannon barrels. His nose — as a polite Englishman might say — was well-dimensioned. A forthright Dutchman might say its owner had bloodhound in his lineage. The driver’s chin was also a sturdy piece of sculpture, a square bulwark scored with a cleft that could have sheltered a small musket ball. Usually his face was scraped clean by scrupulous passes of the razor, but today the salt-and-pepper beard was making an appearance.

“Yes,” he said. “Thank you.” He passed the reins over, one of the many times they’d exchanged this duty in the past hours, and worked some feeling back into his fingers.

The younger man’s lean, long-jawed face had courted more candle glow than sunlight. He was thin but not frail, rather sinewy like a tough garden vine. He wore square-toed shoes, white stockings, olive-green breeches, and a short, tight-fitting brown jacket made of cheap kerseymere over a plain white linen shirt. The knees of his breeches and the elbows of his jacket had been patched at least as often as the older man’s clothing. On his head was a dun-colored woolen cap, pulled down over finely textured black hair that had recently been cropped close to the scalp to combat an infestation of lice in Charles Town. Everything about the younger man — nose, chin, cheekbones, elbows, knees — conveyed the impression of sharp angles. His eyes were gray, flecked with dark blue, the colors of smoke at twilight. He did not urge on the horses nor spank them with the reins; he only intended to guide. He was if anything a stoic. He understood the value of stoicism, for already in his life he’d endured such trials as might break someone who did not.

As he worked his hands, the older man mused that if he saw fifty-six after this ordeal then he should put aside his vocation and become a samaritan in thanks to God. He was not cut from the crude frontier cloth. He considered himself a man of taste and refinement, an urban denizen ill-suited to pierce this wilderness. He appreciated clean brickwork and painted fences, the pleasing symmetry of manicured hedges, and the solid regularity of the lamplighter’s rounds. He was a civilized man. Rain was down his neck and in his boots, the light was fading, and he had but a single rusty saber in the wagon with which to protect their belongings and their scalps. The village of Fount Royal lay at the end of this mudtrack, but that was cold comfort. His task at that place would not be a gentle one.

But now a touch of mercy! The rain was tapering off, the sound of thunder more distant than before. The older man thought that the worst of the storm must be moving over the ocean, which they’d glimpsed as a frothy gray plain through brief breaks in the forest. Still, a nasty drizzle continued to sting their faces. The hanging folds of mist had curtained the treelimbs, giving the forest a phantasmagoric pall. The wind had stilled, the air thick with a swampy green smell.

“Carolina spring,” the older man muttered, his husky voice carrying the melodic accent of well-bred English generations. “There’ll be many new flowers in the graveyard come summer.”

The younger man didn’t answer, but inwardly he was thinking that they might perish on this road, that a stroke of evil could befall them and they’d vanish from the face of the earth just as Magistrate Kingsbury had vanished on this same journey not two weeks ago. The fact that wild Indians haunted these woods, along with all manner of savage animals, was not lost on his imagination. Even with its lice and plague deaths, Charles Town looked like paradise compared to this dripping green hell. The settlers of Fount Royal must be insane to stake their lives and fortunes on such a territory, he’d decided.

But what now was Charles Town had itself been wilderness twenty years ago. Now it was a city and a thriving port, so who could say what Fount Royal might become? Still, he knew that for every Charles Town there were dozens of other settlements that had been devoured by misfortunes. Such too might be the eventual fate of Fount Royal, but at present it was the physical reality of someone’s hard-worked dream, and the problem there must be tended to like any problem of a civilized society. But the question remained: why had Magistrate Kingsbury, en route from Charles Town to Fount Royal on this same — and only — road, never reached his destination? The older man had supplied a number of answers to the younger’s inquiry — that Kingsbury had run afoul of Indians or highwaymen, that his wagon had broken down and he’d been set upon by beasts. But though the older man had the nose resembling a bloodhound’s, it was the younger man who had the bloodhound’s instinct. Any lingering scent of a question was strong enough to keep him pondering in pale candle glow long after the older man had retired and was snoring in his bedchamber.

“What’s that?”

A gray-gloved finger pointed toward the mist ahead. In a moment the younger man saw what his companion had spied: the pitch of a roof off to the right side of the road. It was the same dark green and wet black as the woods, and might be as ruined a place as the trading post at which they’d expected to rest the horses and break bread in early afternoon, but instead had found only charred timbers and collapse. But there on the roof before them was a pretty sight: a stone chimney flying a flag of white smoke. The mist moved, and the rough-hewn lines of a log cabin took shape.

“Shelter!” said the older man, with exultant relief. “God’s grace on us, Matthew!”

It was a fairly new structure, which explained why it hadn’t been marked on the map. The nearer they got, the stronger was the smell of freshly axed pinelogs. Matthew noted, perhaps ungraciously, that the cabin’s builder had not been the most skilled nor neatest of craftsmen. Copious amounts of red mud had been used to seal the cracks and chinks in crooked walls. The chimney was more mud than stones, spitting smoke through its fissures. The roof sat at a precarious angle, like a tilted cap on the head of a blowzy drunk. The cabin was unadorned by any paint or decoration, and the small narrow windows were all sealed by plain plankboard shutters. Behind the cabin was an even more slovenly looking structure that must be a barn, beside which stood three swaybacked horses in a fenced enclosure. A half-dozen pigs snorted and grumbled in the nasty mire of a second pen nearby. A red rooster strutted about, followed by a number of wet hens and their muddy chicks.

A stake had been driven into the ground beside a hitching rail. Nailed to the stake was a green pinewood placard with the words Tavern Ye Trade scrawled on it in thick eggwhite paint.

“A tavern too!” the older man said, taking the reins from Matthew as if his hands could speed them to that hitching rail any faster. “We’ll get a hot meal tonight after all!”

One of the horses back by the barn began nickering, and suddenly a shutter opened and an indistinct face peered out. “Hello!” the older man called. “We’re in need of shel — ”

The shutter slammed closed.

” — ter,” he finished. Then, as the horses made their last slog to the rail, “Whoa! Hold up!” He watched the shutter. “Inhospitable for a tavern-keeper. Well, here we are and here we’ll stay. Right, Matthew?”

“Yes, sir.” It was said with less than firm conviction.

The older man climbed down from his seat. His boots sank into the mud up to his ankles. He tied the reins to the hitching post as Matthew eased himself down. Even losing two inches to the mud, Matthew was taller than his companion; he stood ten inches over five feet, an exceptionally tall young man, whereas his companion was a more normal height at five feet seven inches.

A bolt was thrown. The cabin’s door opened with dramatic flourish. “Good day, good day!” said the man who stood on the threshold. He wore a stained buckskin jacket over a brown shirt, gray-striped breeches and gaudy yellow stockings that showed above calf-high boots. He was smiling broadly, displaying peg-like teeth in a face as round as a chestnut. “Come in and warm y’selves!”

“I’m not certain about it being a good day, but we will surely enjoy a fire.”

Matthew and the older man scaled two steps to the porch. The tavern-keeper stepped back and held open the door for their entry. Before they reached him, both wished the pungence of the pinewood was stronger, so as to mask the appalling smell of their host’s unwashed body and dirty clothes. “Girl!” he hollered to someone inside the tavern, just as Matthew’s left ear got in the path of his pewter-melting voice. “Put another log on that fire and move y’self quick!”

The door closed at their backs and gone was the light. It was so gloomy in the place that neither of the two travellers could see anything but the red glimmer of fitful flames. Not all the smoke was leaving through the chimney; a duke’s portion of it had made its home in the room, and hung in greasy gray layers. Matthew had the sensation of other shapes moving around them, but his eyes were blurred by smoke. He felt a knotty hand press against his back. “Go on, go on!” the tavern-keeper urged. “Get the chill out!”

They shuffled closer to the hearth. Matthew banged into a table’s edge. Someone — a muffled voice — spoke, someone else laughed and the laugh became a hacking cough. “Damn ye, mind your manners!” the tavern-keeper snapped. “We got gentlemen among us!”

The older man had to cough several times too, to relieve his lungs of the tart smoke. He stood at the flickering edge of the firelight and peeled off his wet gloves, his eyes stinging. “We’ve been travelling all day,” he said. “From Charles Town. We thought we’d see red faces ere we saw white.”

“Yessir, the red demons are thick ’round here. But you never see ’em ‘less they wants to be saw. I’m Will Shawcombe. This is my tavern and tradin’ post.”

The older man was aware that a hand had been offered to him through the haze. He took it, and felt a palm as hard as a Quaker’s saddle. “My name is Isaac Woodward,” he replied. “This is Matthew Corbett.” He nodded toward his companion, who was busy rubbing warmth into his fingers.

“From Charles Town, do y’say?” Shawcombe’s grip was still clamped to the other man’s hand. “And how are things there?”

“Livable.” Woodward pulled his hand away and couldn’t help but wonder how many times he would have to scrub it before all the reek was gone. “But the air’s been troublesome there these past few weeks. We’ve had hot and cold humours that test the spirit.”

“Rain won’t quit ’round these parts,” Shawcombe said. “Steam one mornin’, shiver the next.”

“End a’ the world, most like,” someone else — that muffled voice — spoke up. “Ain’t right to wear blankets this time a’ year. Devil’s beatin’ his wife, what he is.”

“Hush up!” Shawcombe’s small dark eyes cut toward the speaker. “You don’t know nothin’!”

“I read the Bible, I know the Lord’s word! End a’ time and all unclean things, what it is!”

“I’ll strop you, you keep that up!” Shawcombe’s face, by the flickering red firelight, had become a visage of barely bridled rage. Woodward had noted that the tavern-keeper was a squat, burly man maybe five-foot-six, with wide powerful shoulders and a chest like an ale keg. Shawcombe had an unruly thatch of brown hair streaked with gray and a short, grizzled gray beard, and he looked like a man not to be trifled with. His accent — a coarse lowborn English yawp — told Woodward the man was not far removed from the docks on the river Thames.

Woodward glanced in the direction of the Bible-reader, as did Matthew, and made out through the drifting smoke a gnarled and white-bearded figure sitting at one of several crudely fashioned tables set about the room. The old man’s eyes caught red light, glittering like new-blown coals. “If you been at that rum again, I’ll hide you!” Shawcombe promised. The old man started to open his mouth for a reply but had enough elder wisdom not to let the words escape. When Woodward looked at the tavern-keeper again, Shawcombe was smiling sheepishly and the brief display of anger had passed. “My uncle Abner,” Shawcombe said, in a conspiratorial whisper. “His brain pot’s sprung a leak.”

A new figure emerged through the murk into the firelight, brushing between Woodward and Matthew to the edge of a large hearth rimmed with black-scorched stones. This person — slim, slight, barely over five feet tall — wore a patched moss-green woolen shift and had long dark brown hair. A chunk of pinewood and an armload of cones and needles were tossed into the flames. Matthew found himself looking at the pallid, long-chinned profile of a young girl, her unkempt hair hanging in her face. She paid him no attention, but moved quickly away again. The gloom swallowed her up.

“Maude! What’re you sittin’ there for? Get these gentlemen draughts of rum!” This command had been hurled at another woman in the room, sitting near the old man. A chair scraped back across the raw plank floor, a cough came up followed by another that ended in a hacking gasp, and then Maude — a skinny white-haired wraith in clothes that resembled burlap bags stitched together — dragged herself muttering and clucking out of the room and through a doorway beyond the hearth. “Christ save our arses!” Shawcombe hollered in her miserable wake. “You’d think we never seen a breathin’ human before in need of food ‘n drink! This here’s a tavern, or ain’t you heard?” His mood rapidly changed once more as he regarded Woodward with a hopeful expression. “You’ll be stayin’ the night with us, won’t you, sirrah? There’s a room right comfortable back there, won’t cost you but a few pence. Got a bed with a good soft mattress, ease your back from that long trip.”

“May I ask a question?” Matthew decided to say before his companion could respond. “How far is Fount Royal?”

“Fount Royal? Oh, young master, that’s a two, three hour ride on a good road. The weather bein’ such, I’d venture it’d take you double that. And dark’s comin’ on. I wouldn’t care to meet Jack One Eye or a red savage without a torch and a musket.” Shawcombe focused his attention once more on the older traveller. “So you’ll be stayin’ the night then?”

“Yes, of course,” Woodward began to unbutton his heavy coat. “We’d be fools to continue on in the dark.”

“I suspect you have luggage in need of cartin’?” His smile slipped off as his head turned. “Abner! Get your arse up and fetch their belongin’s! Girl, you go too!”

The girl had been standing motionlessly with her back against a wall, her face downcast and her bare arms crossed over her chest. She made no sound, but walked at Shawcombe’s drumbeat toward the door, her feet and legs clad in knee-high deerskin boots. “Ain’t fit for a pig out there!” Abner complained, holding firm to his chair.

“No, but it’s just right for a hog like you!” Shawcombe countered, and daggers shot from his eyes again. “Now get up and get to it!” Muttering under his beard, Abner pulled himself to his feet and limped after the girl as if his very legs were stricken by some crippling disease.

Matthew had wanted to ask Shawcombe who “Jack One Eye” was, but he hated the thought of that girl and the old man — the girl, especially — struggling with the heavy trunks. “I should help.” He started toward the door, but Shawcombe gripped his arm.

“No need. Those two sops sit ’round here too long, they get lazy. Let ’em stir a bone for their supper.”

Matthew paused, staring into the other man’s eyes. He saw something in them — ignorance, pettiness, pure cruelty perhaps — that sickened him. He had seen this man before — with different faces, of course — and he knew him to be a bully who revelled in power over the weak of body and feeble of mind. He saw also a glint of what might have been recognition of his perceptions, which meant Shawcombe might be more intelligent than Matthew had surmised. Shawcombe was smiling slightly, a twist of the mouth. Slowly but forcefully, Matthew began to pull his arm away from Shawcombe’s hand. The tavern-keeper, still smiling, would not release him. “I said,” Matthew repeated, “that I should help them.”

Shawcombe didn’t surrender his grip. Now at last Woodward, who had been shrugging out of his coat, realized some small drama was being played out before him. “Yes,” he said, “they will need help with the trunks, I think.”

“Yessir, as you say.” Shawcombe’s hand instantly left the young man’s arm. “I’d go m’self, but my back ain’t no good. Used to lift them heavy bales, port a’ Thames, but I can’t do it no — ”

Matthew gave a grunt and turned away, walking out the door into the last blue light and what was now blessedly fresh air. The old man had hold of Woodward’s wig box, while the girl was around behind the wagon trying to hoist one of the trunks up on her back. “Here,” Matthew said, slogging through the mud to her. “Let me help you.” He took hold of one of the leather handles, and when he did the girl skittered away from him as if he were a leper. Her end of the trunk smacked down into the muck. She stood there in the rain, her shoulders hunched over and the lank hair covering her face.

“Ha!” Abner chortled. In this clearer light, his skin was as dull gray as wet parchment. “Ain’t no use you talkin’ to her, she don’t say nothin’ to nobody. She’s one step out of Bedlam, what she is.”

“What’s her name?”

Abner was silent, his scabby brow furrowing. “Girl,” he answered. He laughed again as if this were the most foolish thing any man had ever been asked, and then he carried the wig box inside.

Matthew watched the girl for a moment. She was beginning to shiver from the chill, but yet she made no sound nor lifted her gaze from the mud that lay between them. He was going to have to heft the trunk — and the second one as well, most likely — in by himself, unless he could get Abner to help. He looked up through the treetops. The rain, strengthening now, pelted his face. There was no use in standing here, shoes buried in the mire, and bewailing his position in this world; it had been worse, and could yet be. As for the girl, who knew her story? Who even gave a spit? No one; why then should he? He started dragging the trunk through the mud, but he stopped before he reached the porch.

“Go inside,” he told the girl. “I’ll bring the other things.”

She didn’t move. He suspected she’d remain exactly where she was, until Shawcombe’s voice whipped her.

It was not his concern. Matthew pulled the trunk up to the porch, but before he hauled it across the threshold he looked again at the girl and saw she had tilted her head back, her arms outflung, her eyes closed and her mouth open to catch the rain. He thought that perhaps — even in her madness — it was her way of cleansing Shawcombe’s smell off her skin.


Copyright © 2002 by McCammon Corporation