Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #Fantastic Fiction, #Wizards, #Fantasy - Series
"Only," I echoed dryly.
The shriven witch was shuffling slowly down the road now, joined by a second. A third rose from confession and joined them.
"Where are they going now,"' I asked.
"To seek a physician, I doubt not," Friar Ignatius answered.
"Their souls being healed, they shall seek a cure for the ills of the body."
"So they won't go back to their jobs?"
"Certainly not, Wizard. They cannot do so without once again selling their souls."
Which pretty well did in the bureaucracy-at least for a few days, until Suettay could find new recruits. But by that time, the combined revolution and invasion would be over, and there might be no Suettay to do the recruiting, The line of witches and the toiling priest were already shrinking, the map blurring, until a band of bright blue showed at the bottom of the pool-the Mediterranean. A belt of greenery began to grow, separating into individual trees at the edge of a meadow, then a silver line grew into a brook-with four men and a troll at its edge, staring down at something.
"Why, that is ourselves!" Frisson cried.
"Hold on," I said. "I think we're about to get our marching orders." Because the scene was shrinking again, the blue band of sea disappearing. The forest swam across our gazing pool and down, and we found ourselves looking at the line of a road that swam up through what I thought of as Yugoslavia. Little black dots were converging on the road, black dots that resolved into men in homespun as the scene expanded again-homespun tunics, with scythes and flails over their shoulders.
"An ambush?" Gilbert frowned, tensing.
"No," I said. "I think they're recruits." They were. We found it out even while we were in the forest. We followed the trail around a huge old oak-and suddenly they were there, a dozen peasants in green and brown, with bows and daggers instead of scythes.
"Outlaws!" Gilbert scowled, reaching for his sword.
"Hold on." I caught his hand and held the sword in its sheath.
think they want to parley."
They did; the leader came forward, hard-faced and wary. "We wish to return to our homes," he said, "but we cannot, whiles this brutal queen and her henchmen rule."
"We could change that," I told him, "maybe."
"And what is it that may be?"
"An army," I said. "If we get enough men, we'd stand a very good chance. The Spider King is helping us, and he's getting advice from some experts."
So we went on down the road, but with a dozen armed men at our back.
A little farther on, an old hag suddenly broke through onto the trail and came tottering toward us, just barely keeping herself upright with a makeshift crutch, one clawed and spotted hand reaching out. The outlaws shouted, "The Witch of the Rock!" and leapt into defensive positions.
"I am Suettay's clerk no longer," the old woman wheezed as she came closer. Then she erupted in a spasm of coughing. I caught a whiff, and recoiled-what had she been eating for breakfast? Silage?
And she was tottering toward me! I backed off, fast.
"Oh, withdraw not from me!" she cried, staggering forward a few more steps. Then she went into another coughing fit, overbalanced, and fell on her knees. That didn't stop her, though; she kept coming on her kneecaps, hands uplifted, imploring. "Heal me! For are you not he who dares to heal a witch?"
"Uh ... I've been known to do it." I glanced at Friar Ignatius.
"But only when the witch is ready to repent and abjure her witchcraft. I mean, my cures don't work as long as you're sworn to the Devil's service. Besides, what point is there in my healing a person who's going to turn around and throw a whammy at me the next minute?"
"Oh, I would not do so! She had to break off to cough again, deep racking barks that shook her whole body. They passed, and she wheezed. "I would the'er repay good with ill!"
"Then you're not much of a witch-" "I am not! I wish to be no longer! I fear the gaping mouth of Hell, with its leaping flames!" She coughed again, then turned to Friar Ignatius. "Are you not a priest? Then shrive me, I pray! That even if I die ere he doth cure me, my soul will not burn in Hell for eternity!"
Friar Ignatius gazed at her for a long moment, then nodded. "Come aside," She tried to get up to her feet to come after him, but ran into another coughing spell and didn't make it. She fell back, and his face turned somber. He waved the rest of us away and drew a stole out of a pocket in his sleeve. Draping it around his neck, he went over to the pitiful sobbing heap and knelt down by it. He made the sign of the cross and recited, "In nomine Patris, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus. What would you confess, my child?"
The word "child" rattled me-and so did the stole. I sidled over to Frisson and said, "Guess he's more than a brother, eh?"
"He never said he was not a priest," the poet returned, low-voiced.
"What illness does this witch have, Wizard?" I studied the woman, who was muttering a mile a minute to Friar Ignatius, between coughing spells. "Hard to say without asking her and thumping her chest-but at a guess, I'd say it's tuberculosis. Could be pneumonia, but I don't think she'd be able to move this much if it were."
"Would not her demonic master give her wards against such?"
"Only if he had a good reason for keeping her alive-and she's just an underling, not one of those who set policies that make thousands miserable and tempted to resort to evil. Why prolong her life? This way, he gets her soul that much sooner."
At least, that made the kind of sense Frisson could understand. Me, I didn't believe any of it-not the bit about the Devil, nor the stuff about magic. But he did, and I needed to communicate in his terms. "Her lungs are filled with fluid," I said, "and there are tiny creatures in there that are making her body malfunction to keep the goo pouring in. Think you could craft a verse that would kill them off and dry up their habitat?"
Frisson's eyes lost focus. After a few moments, he pulled out parchment and quill. I obligingly turned my back to give him a writing surface and said, "Say it while you write it out-I think we need quick work, here."
He began to mutter while he scribbled. I couldn't quite catch the words, except for "sere" and "see" and just plain "dry" now and then-but I could see what was happening to the hag.
The racking coughs that kept interrupting her confession grew fewer, and even as I watched, her skin began to regain some color. The feverish glint faded from her eyes, but they didn't fade to dullness-they brightened, with good health. She didn't begin to gain weight, of course-that would take a few good meals. Every day. For a couple of weeks.
Finally, she stopped talking and bowed her head, trembling. By this time, she was looking so healthy that I figured the trembling had to be remorse-or fear, that Friar Ignatius might withhold forgiveness. And he did look severe. No wonder, if half of the things he'd heard were as bad as I was guessing. But he nodded slowly and began a softvoiced dialogue with the witch. She nodded, answering him in monosyllables, seeming to wilt even more with each answer. At last, satisfied, he nodded and began a short monologue. I couldn't hear any of it, but I guessed he was telling her what she had to do as penance. Give her credit, she didn't even wince. In fact, when he was done, she looked up in surprise; then, at his admonition, she began to mutter a prayer. Friar Ignatius closed his eyes, tilting his head back, and muttered his own prayer. It lasted just a little longer than hers; then he spoke a few final words, making the sign of the cross toward herand, so help me, she made it, too, crossing herself from forehead to abdomen, then from shoulder to shoulder. She bowed, saying something, then pushed herself to her feet, turning away ... And tottered.
Gilbert was there to catch her by the arm. "Stand still a moment; let your limbs grow used to keeping you upright again."
"They do!" She stared, amazed. "I knew confession was good for the soul-but for the body, too?" Then she realized what she had said and turned to me. " 'Twas you, was it not? You healed my body as he healed my soul!"
"Not this time", I said, and gestured toward Frisson. "This is the man you want to thank. " "I do, oh, I do!" She threw herself at Frisson's feet. "Thank you a thousand times, good master, a thousand thousand! You have given me back my life; you have given me a chance to atone!"
"I ... I rejoice," Frisson stammered, "yet 'twas done at his behest!" He pointed to me. "I would never have thought of the manner of it by myself! Praise Master Saul!"
"I shall, I shall!" She swiveled to me, salaaming, and I had to move fast to get my boot out of kissing range. "I cannot thank you enough, nor praise you enough! Oh, how can I ever repay you? " "By helping other people," I said automatically. "Go through the countryside as long as you can, and look for poor people to help."
"But I have no magic to aid them with! Ah, would that I did!',
"No magic, no," I said, "but you may find that simple labor is enough. Certainly you can listen to people's troubles and try to comfort them. And if you meet any other witches, you might mention how much better you feel for abjuring witchcraft."
The former witch looked up in surprise, then stood slowly, her face firming with resolution. "Even so, then. While life and breath remain, I shall do what little I may. Farewell, physician! Every night and morn, I shall praise you in prayer!"
She turned away, moving off down the road, standing much straighter than she had, and seeming to gain strength with every step. Friar Ignatius stepped up beside me, watching her go. "That was well done, Master Saul. You have wrought well this day." I shrugged. "I just don't like seeing somebody in pain, if I can do something about it, Reverend. But you seem to have done pretty well, too."
"Only the duties of my office." Friar Ignatius folded his stole and put it away, shaking his head. "It was the fear of damnation that brought her to me. Like so many, she had never really thought of the tortures of Hell, never let them seem real to her, until she was nigh death."
"Whereupon she came to me to prolong her life, to stave off Hell."
"Aye, but once having thought of Hell as real, she knew the fear would never leave her, for she would come to the flames and demons someday." He shook his head. " 'Tis not the best of reasons for abjuring Satan and witchcraft, but 'twill serve."
"You'd rather she wanted to confess out of sheer remorse, eh?"
"Aye-so I was at pains to remind her that Purgatory is just like Hell. The fire is the same the agony is the [email protected] the soul in Purgatory will one day be freed and rise to Heaven, whereas the soul in Hell will never have an end to his tortures. There is no hope in Hell."
That reminded me of Dante's Hellmouth, with the slogan over the door, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here"-but it also reminded me of Dante's version of Purgatory, which was much less drastic than Friar Ignatius'. Either way, though, was better than torture that never, never ended.
"I could understand why a witch would definitely prefer Purgatory," I said, "no matter how long she had to stay there."
"A witch, or any sinner." Friar Ignatius nodded. "And all those who govern this land, and all those who are their underlings, are either witches or sinners."
I winced at the thought of all the people I would be sending to Hell in the process of trying to stay alive myself. "All of a sudden, I hope you become very busy, Reverend."
I changed my mind the next day. The bureaucrat witches and warlocks started coming out of the hedgerows, quaking with the terror of Hellfire and calling to Friar Ignatius to shrive them. Most of them were sick, too, so I suggested gently that we handle it methodically-he took them in for confession, then sent them on to me for healing. Frisson quickly built up a catalog of verses; all I had to do was describe the visible symptoms, and the shaken but joyful penitent would describe the invisible ones, and Frisson would flip through his booklet of verses, finding the Symptoms and handing me the appropriate poems. Some of them were very odd, but they all worked.
"It's amazing that you can keep coming up with so many verses that exactly fit the situation," I told him during a lull. He shrugged. "When the inspiration seizes me, Master Saul, I write what it will have me scribble; I do not think of its use. Natheless, I cannot help but think that this must be very poor poetry, if it comes so readily, and is so utilitarian."
You've been listening to the critics too much," I grumbled. "Take a look at your impact instead."
And we started out on the road again, with me wondering who was the really important person in this party.
They came in groups of four and five, and by the second day, they were showing up every four hours or so. In spite of anything Gilbert or I might say, Friar Ignatius always insisted on stopping to hear confession. "Aught else," he told me, "would be to forswear my vows. I must not turn away a single sinner; 'tis a part of my vocation to reconcile them with God."
"My vocation is staying alive, and it's definitely a part of that to dethrone the queen," I retorted. "In the long run, that will save a great number more souls! The more often you stop, the longer it will take us to get to her capital, and the longer she'll have to gather her forces and fortify her castle-not to mention preparing an ambush with overwhelming power!"
Friar Ignatius shook his head serenely. "You still think in terms of this world, Master Saul, and fail to see that this battle will most truly be won in the domain of the spirit."
"That may be, Reverend, but a hail of spears and arrows in this world can very effectively prevent us from joining battle in the next."
"It shall not," he assured me, with amazing authority, "for the strength that underlies those spears and arrows is the power of evil. If we counter that fell force, the spears will never be thrown." I would have argued, but the man had so confounded much charisma that for the life of me, I couldn't think of a comeback. I thought one up ten minutes later, of course, but it didn't do much good then. I saved it for our next argument, but he had a comeback for my comeback, and hit me with one more argument that I couldn't think up an answer to just then. That was the way our exchanges went, all the way to the capital-I was always one answer behind