I was roused from a deep and pleasant sleep early in a rainy morning. I was dreaming, I forget of what, but I remember that it was pleasant. I left the dream behind and I found myself facing the Wizard Palégos. He was my sachem, the Eye of His Excellency, the Procurator of the Province of Agus, Count Rægan of Sustan.
“Ist thy band ready to march, Nannakussi?” the wizard demanded without even a “How are you?” as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. The room was dim. I could barely see that there was someone there. I knew him by his voice. Around us others slept, neither seeing nor hearing what we said.
“Aye, Lord, at first light,” I told him. It was not the first time I had been called thus. There were covens to be found at nearly every crossroads in the province. Most were of no consequence, but because I had Power within me, I was often the one he called upon to control them when they got out of hand. I had been lucky or unlucky enough to have been born a Wit.
“How long for thee to reach Sandy Isle?” he demanded, speaking quickly. Palégos was a soft voiced man, but I knew him to be ruthless when it was called for. I had never heard him sound nervous before.
“If we leave with ye sun we can arrive by noon,” I told him after reflecting for a moment. “Perhaps a little after.” From our post on the north tip of Assateague Island, which was ours in the summer, it was about twenty Imperial miles. Traveling by foot, my troop traveled at four thousand paces per hour, or a thousand per quarter. If we had horses it would have been faster, but only I, as war sachem, had one.
“Have you supplies for three days’ operation?” he demanded.
“Aye,” I replied, trying not to sound indignant. Of course we had supplies for three days, and more. In truth, in this area we could remain in the field permanently if need be. I was remiss in my duty were it not so.
“Good. Ye coven needeth destroyed, Nannakussi. None must escape. All must die.”
“Lord?” I asked, surprised.
“They have tried to summon a demon, Nannakussi. They wooed the High Demon Asmodeus, the Storm Fiend, God of Rage. They failed, I believe, though still I cannot say for sure. If they succeeded, or if next time they succeed, all are in mortal danger!”
“How many are there in this rogue coven?” I asked. A demon loose in the land? Were they all insane? And Palégos only believed they had failed? Palégos was known to see all!
“’Tis a single inner coven,” he assured me. “Only Seven. The rest matter not.”
“Hast thou names?” I asked, forgetting myself and slipping into informal speech.
“Ye maiden’s name is Nevianne,” he told me, ignoring my slip. “Leofgif, Mildrith, Blædswith, Ælflæda, Eadgyth, and Sigeflæd.”
“I will deal with the matter, lord!” I assured him. I knew there wouldn’t be more. Covens, at least the inner circle, were always seven. The outer circle, from which the inner was replenished, were either thirteen or nineteen, but they were students of little power and not initiated.
I spent the next hour and a half getting my troop ready to leave. Winke-lìntà-mëwakàn, my woman – her name means “Happiness” in my language, and she was named aptly – helped with my supplies, filling my travel gear, finding my new moccasins and winding them to my legs. She made our prayers to Nanapush to forgive Palégos’ wrath and my agency in its execution. Chulëntët, my angelic Little Bird (she was four) brought me tobacco so I would have luck and a clear mind, and I started my day with smoke. My knife and my sword were sharp and polished; I’d no desire to cause the coven members undue pain. My bow strings were dry and protected, and my bow had a loose strap to ride comfortably on my back. Winke fed me from the common pot, and my troop followed me from the longhouse and into the rain. The sun was peeping over the horizon and we began our first thousand paces north.
As we tramped along the sandy trail I worried. I had the Wit, as Palégos knew. That and proximity were why he had picked me for the task and not my rival, Merekowan, or some brainless Susquehannock bully boy. Palégos saw all. Why hadn’t he seen the maiden fail? How could he not? It was a point for me to worry on. If she had not failed, would we find a trail of destruction and death already awaiting us?
The Wit showed me the crossroads, its handful of huts clustered around its ugly, falling down wooden Temple. It was raining there, just as it was drenching us here. Dreary it looked. I peered hard, using all the Wit that I possessed, and still saw nothing, merely a backward hamlet. I saw no danger to myself or to my loved ones, though I could see ahead that I would have a splitting headache that would last for days. I didn’t know what that would be from; all the details around it were hazed.
I saw no corpses. From a distance I saw the Cackling Crone, the Wise Woman, the Cheerful Wanton, the Chaste Wife, the Patient Teacher and the Guardian Wit. She saw me looking and ran to tell the others we were on our way.
So much for the element of surprise. I called myself a fool and a damned fool for giving us away. Never, never search out the Seeress.
Yet the Maiden was still hidden from me. I couldn’t like that. She was key. The rest of the coven could drop dead and we would still be in mortal danger. Either she no longer existed, which implied a very old Druidical approach to the Sacrifice, or…
Or the Demon had consumed her. That would be very bad for all of us. I had never met a demon. Someone is foolish enough to call one up perhaps every hundred years or so. I understood they didn’t only feed once and then disappear.
Still, it wasn’t the first rogue coven we had dealt with. Usually they were mild enough. They cured disease, cleared water, sometimes spoke with the dead or the living, brought fish or game, created love or indifference, brought or dispersed rain, all that sort of routine thing. If they occasionally combined a wax doll with hair or nail parings and gave it a poke, usually nothing serious came of it. If they destroyed crops, they destroyed only half, leaving the Emperor’s portion and seed. If they went out of bounds they met our troop.
I finished my count and Sasusanan, my second, took up his, the simple rhythmic count from one to one thousand, marking off each quarter hour of travel. A thousand paces later Okonikon took the duty. I listened with half an ear as the Hundreds went past and I worried. I decided I should cast runes when we stopped, despite the time it would consume.
My Lord Asmodeus tried to describe his Realm to me, but I confess I could understand little of what he said. First, his speech was difficult for me to follow. He told me that our Saxon dialect that we spoke in the province of Agus had been drifting apart from his, and his from ours, for at least five hundred years. Well I could believe it. If the Latin dialects spoken in Dacia and Carthage were mutually unintelligible, then why should two Saxon dialects be not? I kept having to ask him to speak more slowly, or to explain what a word meant. Many words, in fact.
Second, many of the words he tried to explain were incomprehensible even after he had explained them. For example, he told me that we both lived in the same place. To him our Sandy Isle was named Fenwick. I had never heard of it, and if we both lived in the same place, why had we never met? Because, he explained, the two were separated by spaces so tiny they could no longer be divided, smaller than a grain of sand. Yet surely, if they were so close, one should be able to see for that distance? He told me that he could, but that few – perhaps even no others – could, that he used not vision but some other, seventh sense. The space was too close to see with the eye.
Fenwick Isle had a permanent population of perhaps five hundred people. Sandy Isle had forty, perhaps fifty people on a very busy market day. The closest mainland town for him, was called Selbyville. It had almost three thousand people, and was considered small. I had ever been anywhere with that many people in one place, though I understood there were Imperial cities that had many more than that. He told me that Sussex County, comprising perhaps half of the province of Agus, had a hundred times the number of people as Selbyville, which would make it as big as present day Rome or Lundinium or Augusta Vindelicorum or Antioch! Impossible! Yet he assured me it was true. I wondered how folk turned around without bouncing off each other.
Third, even the concepts that I could understand after explanation, using words I understood, still made no sense. His world relied on machines like ours relied on magic. His folk had been to the moon and come back, and they were thinking of Tiv, the Red Planet, next. They had spread from our mighty Ocean to another even mightier Ocean on the other side of our continent, subjugating the natives in fearsome battles, and occasionally being subjugated in their turn. They had traveled to all the countries of the world, “Making mistakes as we went along,” he assured me. His people spoke with all, and had been at war with many at one time or another. Diseases such as we of Sandy Isle cured or half-cured with our poor magic, they not only cured with their “sciences,” but had wiped out root and branch. They knew no plagues. Their idea of “plague” was the sniffles and more of the elderly passing on, not empty farms, or the stench of dead hamlets, villages, or towns with none left alive.
In that world so near yet so far away, the pain of the dying was alleviated by potions they called “drugs,” which weren’t the same as our ideas of drugs. Most children born lived long lives, maybe seventy or eighty or even ninety years. It was rare for children to die before the first twelve months were past, so rare that babes were given their names at birth. There was no cholera nor rickets, no polio, no scurvy.
If I had known not that he was the Demon Asmodeus, I would have been sure he was Pithias, Prince of Liars. As it was, I knew not. He had no reason to lie. Had he any reason to tell the truth, other than as a matter of whim?
He denied he was that Asmodeus, which told me he lied, whether he could step from the confining trap or not. I must have made some mistake with the trap, whether he arrived breathing fire or not! The fact that I hadn’t seen him breathe fire didn’t mean that he couldn’t do it. And yet I had foreseen his coming, and I knew his face from my dreams, and I had no fear of him – at least no more fear!
And then came our Witty Blædswith, rushing breathless, to my door, mud up to her kneecaps and her hair awry. “Nevy!” she called, rushing into my house and tracking my floor. “Nevy! They are coming for us!”
“Who comes, Blæda?” I squeaked. I tend to lose my voice when I’m frightened. It’s been so since I was little. My father used to call me Squeaky.
“Palégos!” she nearly screamed. Her hair looked like her voice, which was awry.
“Himself?” I asked, sounding like a mouse.
“His men! They be led by their sachem Nannakussi, with a troop of eleven hard-armed men!”
“How’d you know that?” asked My Lord Asmodeus, walking in from where he had been exploring outside and taking her by surprise. “And who’s Nannakussi?”
Blæda looked at him and her eyes started to roll up in her head. I slapped her across the face, hard. Her eyes came back into focus and she gathered her wits, giving me a resentful look. “I… I… As I sat in the outhouse this morning, Lord… Prince… King of Demons, Nannakussi touched me in my mind. He is a Wit, as am… am… I.” She added a “Lord” to be on the safe side.
Her voice sounded much like mine, and we both sounded like mice. My father would have been amused. She had utterly no idea how to address him or what would happen if she got it wrong.
“Oh,” he said carelessly, seating himself on the stool I kept by the door. His voice, as usual, was amused, even sardonic. “So who’s Nannakussi? Why’s he have an eleven-man brute squad? When’s he going to get here? What’s he going to do? And sit down. You look like you’re going to faint.”
Blæda sat across from me at my breakfast table. She opened her mouth to speak but she looked terrified. Nothing would come out. She was beyond even squeaking.
“Count of the Corpse-Covered Plain,” I began my explanation formally, “Nannakussi is chief of the Isle south of here during the summer, the mainland during the cold months. He is one of Palégos’ henchmen, though at least he be not the worst. Calling thee up, as I am sure thou know’st, is a capital offense.” Nannakussi was indeed a fearsome man. He was a Wit, like Blæda, only stronger. His scalp lock had been offered, in the manner of his people from the time he was first wed, and now was said to reach nearly to his knees. He had built a shrine sacred to Nanapush on the mainland that had smelled of the burning hair of his enemies many times.
“We must scatter,” squeaked Blæda, “lest our heads adorn stakes looking on the four corners!”
“Unless thou protecteth us, Lord,” I squeaked in chorus.