The location of Castra Taurorum was of interest, assuming the Wizard was there. Otherwise it was just someplace to go and have a group temper tantrum. Tekoni didn’t know if he was at home on top of the hill or gone elsewhere. The Winky Bears’ patrol job didn’t change whether he was there or not. They were there to warn of anyone approaching, which was a rare occurrence.
Turning into a sparrow and peeking in a window, which was my first impulse, wouldn’t do. I didn’t know what the Wizard looked like, for startsies. Further, he might be downstairs in the dungeons, busy giving someone a monkey face or torturing them or something. The peek in the window approach would only work if he was actively wizarding by the window I was looking in.
“Why in the world did he turn you into bears and prehistoric birds and give you monkey faces?” I asked Tekoni and Kogwahee.
“It is a sign of our slavery, dominus,” Tekoni told us.
“If one of us actually managed to run away, we would be recognized as his servant and killed,” Kogwahee added. “We’re hated because we’re his creatures. There is a reward for our bodies if we run. There was no place we could go.”
“So you were stuck there? And the Winky Bears are starving to death?”
“’Winky Bears?’” questioned my sweetheart.
“I’ll explain another time, darlin’. Why let them starve to death?”
“There are lots more where we came from,” shrugged Kogwahee. “None of us expect to live very long. We fliers had it better than the bears, but not by much. We could forage for ourselves while we were out on missions. But when we weren’t, we were chained to our perches and fed once a day.”
“Bears got to forage too,” Tekoni told us, “but we were fed once a day as well. We ate grass, roots, berries, and insects, regular bear food. We needed meat, though. The grass isn’t nutritious. It’s just bulk. We ate the berries quickly from the bushes, until they were all gone, even the green ones. I hated eating bugs, and grubs are worse! Ugh! We never got enough meat. We would get it fresh one day, then for the next five or six days it got nastier every day. Today it stank and it was greenish on top, purple inside, and it was slimy. It was so rotten I could barely get it down.”
“And then couldn’t keep it down,” I agreed. “So both of you were disposable.”
“The ones who were there before us told us that we’d last maybe two years if we were good,” said Kogwahee. “Three at the outside.”
“You could understand all that snorting and growling and giggling?” I asked.
“Yes. It sounded like regular Iroquois to us,” he said, “Some spoke Latin. We could understand that and speak it if we knew how before.”
“I knew there was intelligence there,” I observed. “I just didn’t know it was a language that people actually spoke. Could you understand when we spoke to you?”
“Yes, dominus,” Tekoni told me. “The sound is different but the words come through.”
“Would your other bears know if the Wizard is there or not?” Nevy asked.
“Maybe. If they do, it will just be luck.”
“What does the wizard look like?” I asked.
“He is half-blood,” Tekoni told me, “very old, half Saxon, half native. No one knows his tribe. It is called Krankwa?”
“Karankawa,” I answered. “They live far to the southwest of here. They’re reputed to be cannibals.”
“That’s true of him. He prefers the meat of men. His hair is white. He was a slave himself once, or so the slaves he has today told me. He has been branded a runaway.”
“Skinny? Average? Plump?” I asked.
“Corpulent,” Nannakussi supplied. “Very. He likes to eat. He is so fat that walking is hard for him.”
“He is fond of bear meat, they tell me,” Tekoni said.
“And large birds. But only fresh and plump,” said Kogwahee. “He picked the fattest at the auctions and they never lasted long. He kept them penned while he fattened them up.”
“None of us would eat the meat we were given until we were starving unless we knew what it was,” Tekoni added.
“What was it usually?” Nevy asked.
“Usually goat,” replied Kogwahee. “Or sheep.”
“Sometimes not,” added Tekoni.
“Sometimes it was table scraps,” added Kogwahee.
“He has a very wide cruel streak, dominus,” Nannakussi told me seriously. “He always wanted me to give his enemies pain.”
“Why did they break Lord… Jack’s finger?” asked Nevy.
“It has always been our custom in warfare when we war among ourselves or with our neighbors,” Kogwahee responded.
“To break people’s fingers?” Nevy asked.
“So he could not use the hand to hold a weapon, domina,” Kogwahee told her politely. None of his fingers had been broken, but I had done in a few of his comrades, so we were maybe even, especially since he was my servus and I wasn’t his. “And to measure him as a man, whether he be a slave or to adopt him into our clan,” he added.
“Or to kill me,” I supplied. “I’m not entirely impressed by this Pax Romana stuff.” Nevy, Nannakussi, and Kogwahee all started to speak at once. I held up a hand and plowed on, changing the subject: “I’m going up to the house and ask if Jabba’s home.”
“’Jabba?’” Nevy asked.
“Star Wars reference, honey,” I told her. “You gotta see it, but take my word: Jabba the Hutt is a fatty.”
“I guess I need to see it. What do you call that approach in English?” Nevy asked me in English. “’Brute force’ was it?”
“I was thinking of taking you and Tekoni with me,” I told her in the same language.
“And me!” said Chulëntët loudly.
Our Treasure was immediately and firmly forbidden from tagging along. Her bottom lip poked out in a dramatically overdone pout.
“Keep doing that and your face is gonna stay like that,” I told her.
“It will?” she asked, sounding delighted and doing it again.
“You should take me,” Nannakussi said. “I’ve been there.”
“And who’ll protect everyone?” I demanded.
“Chulëntët,” he suggested, looking at me like he often did when talking to his child. “Kogwahee, Grandmother Leofgif, and Lady Blæda, of course. Two of them are experienced witches, one is an Iroquois warrior, and our Little Treasure may be the most powerful of them all. Don’t take everything upon yourself, dominus.”
“He’s right, my lord sweetheart,” Nevianne agreed.
I hesitated, but I could see the wisdom of what he said. I never claimed to be brilliant. Besides, I wasn’t even sure Tekoni could make it all the way up the hill, not that I’d planned on walking.
“They know you at the house?” I asked Nannakussi. “Whoever’s there, I mean?”
“Maybe,” he replied. “There aren’t that many visitors, I think. Not willing visitors, anyway.”
I told my sweetie and my friend what I thought we should do. Naturally, they both argued with me, and in the process the plan got refined. Everyone else, with the exception of Sabina and Tekoni, felt free to critique as we exchanged wind. Even they would open their mouths to say something now and then. They just didn’t manage to get anything out; either they were too shy or someone talked over them, or both. Eventually we reached a point where further objections were either foolish or on aesthetic grounds. I actually liked what we came up with; my original plan had too many assumptions and dependencies in it. The more moving parts, the more potential points of failure, or so the engineers tell me.
Nannakussi chose a battered-looking jerkin, a ragged loin cloth, and a pair of worn-out knee-high moccasins to wear for our visit. He wound some cloth around his head as a turban, since I’d burned his scalp lock at the shrine of Nanapush. He was growing his hair out like mine now, since we all knew he was returning to my reality line when this mess was over, always assuming we lived through it. He took his bow and quiver, his tomahawk, and his knife, all of which he would have to surrender to the major domo. We had that part covered.
Over his shoulder he carried his wampum bag, which was big enough to also hold coins, letters, and dispatches. Over the other shoulder he had a bag for his travel rations: pemmican; some dry, stick-like sausages; some dried fruit; and some hardtack. There was also enough room for a pair of love birds (actually finches; doves would have been too big) to snuggle in the corner.
I could feel Nevianne’s heart beating against my own chest as Nannakussi strode off at his trail march, a thousand steps to a quarter mile. We settled together in the first real privacy we’d had in awhile, barring our trip to the abandoned campsite. All right, since before lunch. We spent the time billing and chirping in low tones. I enjoyed the experience even though my love’s protrusions were at the moment imaginary. So were her lips, and her beautiful aerse. Her mesmerizing blue eyes were at the moment black. My imagination still worked pretty well, and as a finch she was gorgeous.
I saw more of the bear creatures on the way to Palégos’ fortress-like mansion, located at the top of Bear Mountain. Up close, all of them looked weak and emaciated. I wondered how the Wizard expected them to be effective protection when they were all sickly, if not deathly ill. If we managed to leave, I was hoping dominus Jack (I was trying to get out of the habit of saying the name Asmodeus for fear it was hexed) would release them all from the spell. If he didn’t think of it himself, I would remind him. I didn’t expect to have to, unless we were being chased by imps or goblins or something.
Matachena, who was in charge of the Wizard’s household, was another who lived under the Wizard’s spell. It had pleased Palégos to make him hunchbacked. He was a Lenape, of the Munsee people. I had no idea how he had come to be the Wizard’s slave. His family lived with him: a wife, two daughters, and a son. I had heard the Wizard refer to them as “the little hunchbacks,” though I had never seen them, nor his wife. Matachena hated his dominus, I suspected, as much for his master’s habit of calling his wife, daughters, and son to his bed as for his physical deformation; or possibly it was just for the contemptuous manner in which they were all treated. Palégos was a much harsher master than was normal, much less in comparison to my own dominus.
Matachena met me at the door, somehow warned by the bear creatures. He was a large man who was maybe ten years older than I. His hair was already white. It had been shot with gray the last time I had seen him, a year before, despite his being no more than Lady Nevianne’s mother’s age.
“You!” he gasped. “My lord said you were dead!”
“Not dead. Sorely wounded, all my men dead, yes,” I responded. “Deprived of Wit and of my wits for awhile, yes. Dead, not quite. Is… He at home?”
“Nay, gone away. You should come back next week.” I think that was his way of warning me to go away while I had the chance, and not come back at all.
“It’s been a long journey for me, Matachena,” I told him. “I would rest before resuming it.”
He hesitated, but he opened the entry door and we walked to the atrium after I had stacked my weaapons. A young boy, ten or eleven years old, I guessed, appeared. He looked Lenape, perhaps Iroquois. He was naked and he kept his face blank. “Wine and bread for the sachem Nannakussi,” Matachena ordered.
“Where has His Excellency gone?” I asked conversationally, when we were alone again.
“He tells me nothing,” Matachena answered. “He comes and he goes. You know that. I am merely his slave. He could be anywhere.”
“I know that,” I replied. “You sound unhappy?”
“No, no!” he said nervously, afraid the walls had ears. “Not at all!”
“I understand,” said I. “How long has he been gone?”
“Since yesterday,” Matachena replied. Both of my previous visits had been short and we had never spoken much other than the brief formalities of arrival and departure. Such as I knew of the major domo I knew from Palégos himself or from direct observation. This was our first real talk in our native language.
“How often does he See you?” I asked. I opened my trail pouch and took out my pipe and tobacco. Now I felt it stir a little as the birds hopped out along with it.
He shrugged. “How often does he communicate with you? When he pleases. Last time he was gone, I heard from him once. The time before that, not at all.”
The boy and a girl appeared with a wheeled cart. She was as naked as the boy. She was perhaps four months pregnant, and no older than thirteen. Like the boy, she tried keeping her face expressionless. The boy poured two goblets of wine, while the girl laid out the bread, a pot of honey, some butter, and smoked fish. When she dropped a piece of the bread to the grass Matachena gave her a worried look.
“I’m sorry, nuxa,” she gasped, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Your daughter?” I asked, knowing I wasn’t supposed to.
“Yes,” he said, reluctantly. The Wizard’s slaves were reluctant to part with any kind of information. “She is Òpinkët (Little Opossum).”
I thought it an unfortunate name for a pretty enough girl.
“The boy is named Chëmamës (Rabbit). He is my son.” And a worse name for a boy, even though he was not yet a man. I suspected the Wizard had named him.
From her father’s face, I guessed who the father of the young girl’s child was. The thought turned my stomach, and I have a strong stomach. “You should leave here,” I told Matachena quietly, glancing up at the two finches in the tree behind my host.
“No one leaves,” he told me, making a frantic motion of dismissal. The boy and the girl both looked terrified at the subject of our conversation.
“I can arrange it,” I told him. “Your master can’t See or hear this conversation, so don’t be afraid. My dominus and domina are here with us.”
Matachena looked around, looking panicked. Then he watched as the two little birds flew down from the tree over my head. Òpinkët stared at the fearless little birdies in fascination, then squawked as they turned into a man and a woman.
“My lord Asmodeus,” I introduced, proud of the way they had made their entrance. “My lady Nevianne.”
Matachena’s eyes were wide. “She… My lady, you succeeded?” He looked at my lord doubtfully.
“I don’t look like a demon, do I?” dominus Jack asked conversationally. “I looked like a bird a moment ago. I can look very different at will.” He waved a hand – purely for effect – and they were both clothed in light clothing of softest wool. I hadn’t known he could do that, but I wasn’t surprised. I was convinced he could do anything he wanted. “Tell me, how many people work in the house?” he demanded.
Matachena hesitated and my dominus held up a forefinger. After a moment it started to smoke, then it started to burn. The flame turned from red to yellow to white, and we could all feel the heat it threw off. Matachena moved his bench back to avoid it, even as the flame grew from a finger’s length to a foot, a foot and a half… Even lady Nevianne stepped back for fear of scorching. Then it abruptly receded, leaving the finger as it had been.
The flames convinced Matachena. “Fifty or sixty, counting his creatures,” he said reluctantly.
“Name them,” demanded my lord.
“I, my wife and my children,” he said. “His valets are with him. The butcher and his assistant. The cook and his assistant. The blacksmith and his apprentice. The baker, the wash woman, the dungeon master, two animal keepers. Two gardeners, two housekeepers, a masseuse, the keeper of accounts, two bath slaves, six concubines and two eunuchs. He is… getting ready to replace us, I think. My family and I. The rest are his changeling animals.”
“Summon your family,” my lord ordered.
The boy left, to return in a few moments with a woman who was obviously his mother, and a girl a year or two older than Òpinkët. The girl and the mother were also pregnant, both by a month or so more than the younger girl. The mother was hunchbacked like her husband, and all were naked.
“Horny old goat, isn’t he?” my lord observed in English to my lady. He looked disapproving.
“All the children are his?” my lady snapped in Lenape after making a face at him.
“Yes… my lady,” replied Matachena. “We are his slaves.” He looked shamed, even though there was nothing he could have done. His owner had the power of life and death over him and his family. That included their bodies. He wasn’t by far the first slave to have his wife, his son, and his daughters used for his owner’s pleasure.
“My lord Asmodeus hasn’t made any of his slaves pregnant,” she responded. “He has more dignity than that and more concern for the members of his household.”
“My lord?” I reminded. We were on a tight schedule. The idea was to get this done as quickly as possible, before the venenarius noticed he couldn’t keep an eye on his home.
He sighed. “Good point. You and your family will serve me from now on, Matachena,” he told our host. His voice said he didn’t expect any argument.
Matachena looked terrified. The thought of serving a demon for all eternity was a worse idea than the thought of serving an evil wizard until being disposed of. Still, the boy went to his knees first, followed by Little Possum, then theid sister. Finally Matachena and his wife submitted.
“Chëmamës is not a fit name for a Lenape man,” our lord continued. “Nannakussi will name you for a hero.”
I appreciated that, even though the boy was just a kid. I named him Japekow, after one of my men who had died at my lady’s house.
“Fetch me the keeper of accounts, Japekow,” our lord ordered.
“Yes, dominus,” the boy replied, taking off like a rabbit to do his bidding.
“Òpinkët,” he ordered, “I think I’ll call you Pinky. I need to talk to the butcher and his assistant and the cook and his assistant.”
“Yes, lord,” she stuttered, still frightened, and went to fetch them.
“And your name, child?” he asked the remaining daughter.
“Kukhutët (Little Owl), lord.”
“You may fetch the keeper of the animals, Cookie.” Like her brother and sister, she set off to do as she was bidden.
“Your wife’s name?” ask Matachena’s new dominus.
“Wewu-lelen-damówi (Joyful), my lord.”
“Lady Nevianne would straighten your back for you and for Wewu-lelen-damówi,” our lord told Matachena. “The process will give you pain, which is unfortunate. We can do it all at once, or we can stretch it over a period of days. Which would you prefer?”
“To be made straight again, lord? Just do it if you can!”
“Tell me to stop if it is too much,” our lady told him. Domina Nevianne made a motion with her hand. He went slowly, very slowly, from bent almost double to as straight as I am, accompanied by horrible crackling sounds. It sounded as though the bones were breaking. Dominus Jack was helping as well, I could see from his expression, trying to control the pain for his new servus. Despite his efforts, Matachena shrieked as though being tortured, until he fainted. He never once said to stop. He was a Lenape warrior.
The keeper of accounts arrived with young Japekow, to find Matachena stretched on his back on the bench, pouring sweat, as his wife tried to comfort him. I wondered how long it had been since he had actually lain on his back.
Our lord met the Keeper of Accounts. He was a Saxon with thin hair and a hare lip that showed half his upper teeth on one side. He was no more than four feet tall, another of the Wizard’s “jokes.” “I want a summary of Palégos’ accounts in forty five minutes or less,” he told the man. “On paper.”
Japekow seemingly hadn’t told him about the new arrangements: “And who are you to make such a demand?” demanded the Keeper. At least he was a brave little fellow.
“My name is Asmodeus,” our dominus told him.
“Prince of Demons,” our lady added. “Lord of Lust.”
“Prince of Wrath,” I added for good measure. “Wielder of the Bloody Mace, Count of the Corpse-Strewn Plain.”
“Right,” said the keeper with a shrug. He worked for a wizard; he wasn’t impressed.
Our lord was briefly about nine feet tall, coal black, with three heads: a man’s, a bull’s, and a bear’s at the end of a snake’s neck. I think he had a few more arms and legs than usual, with all his fingers and toes tipped with six-inch ripping claws. He exhaled a couple rings of fire from each mouth.
I was afraid the Keeper had died of fright on the spot, but our domina eventually managed to revive him.