Speaks the Nightbird, Volume I: Judgment of the Witchby Robert McCammon
After a decade, New York Times bestselling author Robert McCammon returns with an epic novel of suspense that reinstates him as one of the great storytellers of our time....
The Carolinas, 1699: The citizens of Fount Royal believe their town is cursed by a witch. What else could explain the sudden fires, crop failures and gruesome murders? Convinced/i>… See more details below
After a decade, New York Times bestselling author Robert McCammon returns with an epic novel of suspense that reinstates him as one of the great storytellers of our time....
The Carolinas, 1699: The citizens of Fount Royal believe their town is cursed by a witch. What else could explain the sudden fires, crop failures and gruesome murders? Convinced that Rachel Howarth, the beautiful widow of the recently slain minister, is to blame, they throw her into a gaol to await trial and execution.
Presiding over the trial is traveling magistrate Issac Woodward, aided by his astute young clerk, Matthew who, despite the evidence against Rachel, believes in her innocence. But soon he realizes that there truly is Evil at work in Fount Royal: a malevolent force more powerful than any witch could ever hope to conjure....
Read an Excerpt
Speaks the NightbirdJudgment of the Witch Volume I
By Robert McCammon
All right reserved.
Matthew's eyes opened with a start. The light had dwindled to murky yellow, the candle having burned itself to a shrunken stub. Beside him on the harsh straw, Woodward was snoring noisily, mouth half ajar and chinflesh quivering. It took Matthew a few seconds to realize that there was a wetness on his left cheek. Then another drop of rainwater fell from the sodden ceiling onto his face and he abruptly sat up with a curse clenched behind his teeth.
The sudden movement made a rodent -- a very large one, from the sound -- squeal in alarm and scurry with a scrabbling of claws back into its nest in the wall. The noise of rain falling from the ceiling onto the floor was a veritable tenpence symphony. Matthew thought the time for building an ark was close at hand. Perhaps Abner was right about it being the end of the world; the year 1700 might never be marked on a calendar.
Be that as it may, he had to add his own water to the deluge. And a bit more as well, from the weight of his bowels. Damned if he wouldn't have to go out in that weather and squat down like a beast. Might try to hold it, but some things could not be constrained. He would relieve himself in the woods behind the barn like a civilized manwhile the rats did their business on the floor beside the bed. Next trip -- God forbid -- he would remember to pack a chamberpot.
He got out of the torture apparatus that passed as a bed. The tavern was quiet; it was a slim hour, to be sure. Distant thunder rumbled, the storm still lingering over the Carolina colony like a black-winged vulture. Matthew worked his feet into his shoes. He didn't have a heavy coat of his own, so over his flannel nightshirt he donned the magistrate's fearnaught, which was still damp from Woodward's recent trek behind the barn. The magistrate's boots, standing beside the bed, were clotted with mud and would bear the administrations of a coarse hog's bristle brush to clean. Matthew didn't want to take the single candle, as the weather would quickly extinguish it and the wall-dwellers might become emboldened by the dark. He would carry a covered lantern from the other room, he decided, and hope it threw enough illumination to avoid what Woodward had told him was "an unholy mess" out there. He might check on the horses, too, while he was so near the barn.
He placed his hand on the door latch and started to lift it when he heard the magistrate cease snoring and quietly moan. Glancing at the man, he saw Woodward's face wince and contort under the freckled dome of his bald head. Matthew paused, watching in the dim and flickering light. Woodward's mouth opened, his eyelids fluttering. "Oh," the magistrate whispered, very clearly. His voice, though a whisper, was wracked with what Matthew could only describe as a pure and terrible agony. "Ohhhhh," Woodward spoke, in his cage of nightmares. "He's hurting Ann." He drew a pained breath. "Hurting he's hurting oh God Ann...hurting..." He said something more, a jumble of a few words mingled with another low awful moan. His hands were gripping at the front of his nightshirt, his head pressed back into the straw. His mouth released a faint sound that might have been the memory of a cry, and then slowly his body relaxed and the snoring swelled up once again.
This was not something new to Matthew. Many nights the magistrate walked in a dark field of pain, but what its source was he refused to talk about. Matthew had asked him once, five years ago, what the trouble had been, and Woodward's response had been a rebuke that Matthew's task was learning the trade of judicial clerking, and if he did not care to learn that trade, he could always find a home again at the orphans' refuge. The message -- delivered with uncharacteristic vinegar -- had been clear: whatever haunted the magistrate by night was not to be touched upon.
It had something to do with his wife in London, Matthew believed. Ann must be her name, though Woodward never mentioned that name in his waking hours and never volunteered any information about the woman. In fact, though Matthew had been in the company of Isaac Woodward since turning fifteen years old, he knew very little about the man's past life in England. This much he did know: Woodward had been a lawyer of some fame and had found success in the financial field as well, but what had caused his reversal of fortune and why he had left London for the roughhewn colonies remained mysteries. At least Matthew understood from his readings and from what Woodward said about London that it was a great city; he'd never set foot there, or in England either, for he'd been born aboard a ship on the Atlantic nineteen days out of Portsmouth.
Matthew quietly lifted the latch and left the room. In the darkened chamber beyond, small flames still gnawed at black bits of wood in the hearth, though the largest of the coals had been banked for the night. Bitter smoke lingered in the air. Hanging from hooks next to the fireplace were two lanterns, both made of hammered tin with small nail-holes punched in the metal for the light to pass through. One of the lanterns had a burnt candle stuck on its inner spike, so that was the illuminator Matthew chose. He found a pine twig on the floor, touched it alight in the remains of the fire, and transferred the flame to the candle's wick.
"What are you about? Eh?"
The voice, cutting the silence as it did, almost lifted Matthew out of his shoes. He twisted around and the lantern's meager but spreading light fell upon Will Shawcombe, who was sitting at one of the tables with a tankard before him and a black-scorched clay pipe clenched in his teeth.
"You up prowlin', boy?" Shawcombe's eyes were deepsunken and the skin of his face was daubed dirty yellow in the candlelight. A curl of smoke oozed from his mouth.
"I...have to go out," Matthew replied, still unnerved.
Shawcombe drew slowly on his pipe. "Well," he said, "mind your legs, then. Awful sloppy out there."
Matthew nodded. He started to turn toward the door, but Shawcombe spoke up again: "Your master wouldn't want to part with that fine waistc't, would he?"
"No, he wouldn't." Though he knew Shawcombe was baiting him, he couldn't let it go past. "Mr. Woodward is not my master."
"He ain't, huh? Well then, how come he tells you what you can do and what you cain't? Seems to me he's the master and you're the slave."
"Mr. Woodward looks out for my interest."
"Uh huh." Shawcombe tilted his head back and fired a dart of smoke at the ceiling. "Makes you cart the baggage, then he won't even let you dip your wick? All that shit about wolves and how you ought to be guarded. And you a twenty-year-old man! I'll bet he makes you scrape the mud off his boots, don't he?"
"I'm his clerk," Matthew said pointedly. "Not his valet."
"Does he clean his own boots, or do you?"
Matthew paused. The truth was that he did clean the magistrate's boots, but it was a task he did without complaint. Some things over the years -- such as organizing the judicial paperwork, keeping their living quarters in order, darning the clothes, packing the trunks, and arranging sundry other small affairs -- had fallen to Matthew simply because he was much more efficient at taking care of details.
"I knew you did it," Shawcombe went on. "Man like that's got blue blood in his veins. He don't want to get them hands too dirty, does he? Yeah, like I said, he's the master and you're the slave."
"You can believe what you like."
"I believe what I see," Shawcombe said. "Come over here, lemme show you somethin'. You bein' a slave and all, you might well want to have a look." Before Matthew could decline and go on his way, Shawcombe lifted his right fist and opened it. "Here's somethin' you ain't never seen before and ain't like to see again."
The lantern's light sparked off the surface of a gold coin. "Here!" Shawcombe offered it to Matthew. "I'll even let you hold it."
Against his better judgment -- and the urge to pee pressing on his bladder -- Matthew approached the man and took the coin from him. He held it close to the lantern and inspected the engraving. It was a well-worn piece, much of the lettering rubbed off, but at its center was a cross that separated the figures of two lions and two castles. Matthew could make out the faint letters Charles II and Dei Grat around the coin's rim.
"Know what that is?" Shawcombe prodded.
"Charles the Second is the King of Spain," Matthew said. "So this must be Spanish."
"That's right. Spanish. You know what that means, don't you?"
"It means a Spaniard was recently here?"
"Close. I got this from a dead redskin's pouch. Now what's a redskin doin' with a Spanish gold piece?" He didn't wait for Matthew to venture a guess. "Means there's a damn Spanish spy 'round here somewhere. Stirrin' up some trouble with the Indians, most like. You know them Spaniards are sittin' down there in the Florida country, not seventy leagues from here. They got spies all in the colonies, spreadin' the word that any black crow who flies from his master and gets to the Florida country can be a free man. You ever heard such a thing? Them Spaniards are promisin' the same thing to criminals, murderers, every like of John Badseed."
He swiped the coin from Matthew's hand. "If you was to run to Florida and your master was to want you back, them Spaniards would jus' laugh at him. Same's true of somebody done a stealin' or a murder: get to Florida, them Spaniards would protect him. I tell you, once them blackamoors start runnin' to Florida by the scores and gettin' turned into free men, this world's gonna roast in Hell's fires." Shawcombe dropped the coin into the tankard, which still had liquid in it, judging from the sound of the wet plop, then sat smoking his pipe with his arms crossed over his chest. "Yeah," he said with a knowing nod, "a Spanish spy's out there, payin' the redskins to get up to some mischief. Hell, he might even be livin' in Fount Royal, an Englishman turned blackcoat!"
"Possibly." Matthew's need for relief was now undeniable. "Excuse me, I have to go."
"Go on, then. Like I say, watch where you step." Shawcombe let Matthew get to the door and then said, "Hey, clerk! You sure he wouldn't part with that waistc't?"
Shawcombe grunted, his head wreathed with blue pipesmoke. "I didn't think so," he said in a quiet voice.
Matthew unlatched the door and went out. The storm had quietened somewhat, the rain falling now as misty drizzle. In the sky, though, distant lightning flashed through the clouds. The mud clasped hold of Matthew's shoes. A half-dozen steps through the mire, Matthew had to lift up his nightshirt and urinate where he stood. Decorum, however, dictated that he relieve his bowels in the woods behind the barn, for there were no leaves or pine needles nearby with which to clean himself. When he finished, he followed the lantern's glow past the barn, his shoes sinking up to the ankles in a veritable swamp. Once beyond the forest's edge, he gathered a handful of wet leaves and then crouched down to attend to his business. The lightning danced overhead, he was soaked, muddy, and miserable, and all in all it was a nasty moment. Such things, however, could not be rushed no matter how fervently one tried.
After what seemed an eternity, during which Matthew cursed Shawcombe and swore again to pack a chamberpot on their next journey, the deed was completed and the wet leaves put to use. He straightened up and held the lantern out to find his path back to the so-called tavern. Once more the waterlogged ground opened and closed around his shoes, his kneejoints fairly popping as he worked his legs loose from the quagmire. He intended to check on the horses before he returned to the so-called bed, where he could look forward to the magistrate's snoring, the rustling of rats, and rainwater dripping on his --
It was so fast he hardly knew what was happening. His initial thought was that the earth had sucked his legs out from under him. His second thought, which he barely had an eyeblink of time to act upon, was to keep the lantern from being extinguished. So even as he fell on his belly and the mud and water splashed around him and over the magistrate's fearnaught coat, he was able to lift his arm up and protect the light. He spat mud out of his mouth, his face aflame with anger, and said, "Damn it to Hell!" Then he tried to sit up, mud all over his face, his sight most blinded. He found this task harder than it should have been. His legs, he realized, had been seized by the earth. The very ground had collapsed under his shoes, and now his feet were entangled in something that felt like a bramble bush down in the swampy muck. Careful of the lantern, he wrenched his right foot loose but whatever held his left foot would not yield. Lightning flared again and the rain started falling harder. He was able to get his right leg under him, and then he braced himself as best he could and jerked his left leg up and out of the morass.
There was a brittle cracking sound. His leg was free.
But as he shone the lantern down upon his leg, Matthew realized he'd stepped into something that had come out of the earth still embracing his ankle.
At first he didn't know what it was. His foot had gone right through what looked like a mud-dripping cage of some kind. He could see the splintered edges, one of which had scraped a bleeding gouge in his leg.
The rain was slowly washing mud off the object. As he stared at it, another flash of lightning helped aid his recognition of what held him, and his heart felt gripped by a freezing hand.
Matthew's anatomy studies did not have to be recollected to tell him that he'd stepped into and through a human-sized rib cage. A section of spinal cord was still attached, and on it clung bits of grayish-brown material that could only be decayed flesh.
He let out a mangled cry and began frantically kicking at the thing with his other shoe. The bones cracked, broke, and fell away, and when the last of the rib cage and vertebrae had been kicked loose Matthew crawled away from it as fast as the mud would allow. Then he sat up amid leaves and pine needles and pressed his back against a treetrunk, the breath rasping in his lungs and his eyes wide and shocked.
He thought, numbly, how distraught the magistrate was going to be over the fearnaught coat. Such coats were not easy to come by. It was ruined, no doubt. A rib cage. Human-sized. Ruined beyond all hope of cleaning. Damn this rain and mud, damn this wild land, and damn Shawcombe and the chamberpot he should have had.
A rib cage, Matthew thought. Rain was running down his face now. It was cold, and the chill helped him organize his mind. Of course, the rib cage might've belonged to an animal. Mightn't it?
The lantern was muddy but -- thank providence! -- the candle was still burning. He stood up and made his way over to the broken bones. There he knelt down and shone the light upon them, trying to determine what animal they might've come from. While he was so occupied, he heard a soft slithering sound somewhere to his right. He angled the lantern toward it and in a few seconds saw that a gaping hole some four feet across had opened in the boggy ground; the slithering sound was mud sliding down its sides.
Matthew thought it might have been what had collapsed under his feet and caused him to fall, for the earth itself was rebelling against this incessant downpour. He stood up, eased to the edge of the hole, and directed the lantern's light down into it.
At first he saw what looked like a pile of sticks lying in the hole. Everything was muddy and tangled together into an indistinct mess. The longer he stared, however, the more clear came the picture.
Yes. Horribly clear.
He could make out the bones of an arm, thrown across what might've been a half-decayed, naked torso. A gray kneejoint jutted up from the muck. There was a hand, the fingers shriveled to the bones, grasping upward as if in a begging gesture for help. And there was a head, too; mostly a mud-covered skull, but some of the flesh remained. Matthew, his mouth dry of saliva and his heart pounding, could see how the top of the skull had been crushed inward by a savage blow.
A hammer could've delivered such a death, he realized. A hammer or a rat-killing mallet.
Perhaps there were more corpses than one in that burial pit. Perhaps there were four or five, thrown in and entangled together. It was hard to tell how many, but there were a great number of bones. None of the bodies seemed to have been buried with their clothing.
Hey, clerk! You sure he wouldn't part with that waistc't?
Matthew felt the earth shift and slide around his feet. There was a noise like a dozen serpents hissing and, as the ground began to collapse around him, Matthew saw more human bones being pushed up to the surface like the muddy spars of ships wrecked on vicious shoals. Dazed as if locked in a nightmare, Matthew stood at the center of the sinking earth as evidence of murders revealed themselves under his shoes. Only when he was about to be sucked under into an embrace with the dead did he turn away, pulling his feet up and struggling toward the barn.
He fought his way through the rain in the direction of the tavern. The immediacy of his mission gave flight to his heels. He slipped and fell once again before he reached the door, and this time the lantern splashed into a puddle and the candle went out. Red mud covered him from head to toe. When he burst through the door, he saw that Shawcombe was no longer sitting at the table, though the tankard was still in its same position and the bitter-smelling pipesmoke yet wafted in the air. Matthew restrained the urge to shout a warning to the magistrate, and he got into the room and latched the door behind him. Woodward was still stretched out and soundly asleep.
Matthew shook the man's shoulders. "Wake up! Do you hear me?" His voice, though pinched with fright, was strong enough to pierce the veil of the magistrate's sleep. Woodward began to rouse himself, his eyelids opening and the bleary eyes struggling to focus. "We have to get out!" Matthew urged. "Right now! We've got to -- "
"Good God in Heaven!" Woodward croaked. He sat upright. "What happened to you?"
"Just listen!" Matthew said. "I found bodies out there! Skeletons, buried behind the barn! I think Shawcombe's a murderer!"
"What? Have you lost your senses?" Woodward sniffed the younger man's breath. "It's that damn Indian ale, isn't it?"
"No, I found the bodies down in a hole! Shawcombe may have even killed Kingsbury and thrown him in there!" He saw the magistrate's expression of bewilderment. "Listen to me! We have to leave as fast as we -- "
It was Shawcombe. His voice beyond the door made Matthew's blood go cold. There came the rap of knuckles on the wood. "Gentlemen, is all well?"
"I think he means to kill us tonight!" Matthew whispered to the magistrate. "He wants your waistcoat!"
"My waistcoat," Woodward repeated. His mouth was dry. He looked at the door and then back to Matthew's mud-splattered face. If anything was true in this insane world, it was that Matthew did not lie, nor was he servant to flights of fantasy. The shiny fear in the younger man's eyes was all too real, and Woodward's own heart began beating rapidly.
"Gents?" Now Shawcombe's mouth was close to the door. "I heard you talkin'. Any trouble in there?"
"No trouble!" Woodward replied. He put a finger to his lips, directing Matthew to be silent. "We're very well, thank you!"
There was a few seconds' pause. Then: "Clerk, you left the front door open," Shawcombe said. "How come you to do that?"
Now came one of the most terrible decisions of Isaac Woodward's life. His saber, as rusted and blunt as it was, remained in the wagon. He had neither a dirk nor a prayer to protect them. If Shawcombe was indeed a killer, the time had arrived for him to deliver death. Woodward looked at the room's single shuttered window and made the decision: they would have to leave everything behind -- trunks, wigs, clothing, all of it -- to save their skins. He motioned Matthew toward the window and then he eased up out of the damp straw.
"What's got your tongue, boy?" Shawcombe demanded. His voice was turning ugly. "I asked you a question!"
"Just a moment!" Woodward opened one of the trunks, lifted a pair of shirts, and put his hands on the golden-threaded waistcoat. He could not leave this, even with a murderer breathing down his neck. There was no time to work his feet into his boots nor grab his tricorn hat. Grasping the waistcoat, he straightened up and motioned for Matthew to unlatch the window's shutter.
Matthew did. The latch thunked out of its groove and he pushed the shutter open into the falling rain.
"They're comin' out the winda!" Uncle Abner yelled, standing just beneath it. Matthew saw he was holding a lantern in one hand and a pitchfork in the other.
Behind Woodward, there was a tremendous crash as the door burst inward. He twisted around, his face bleached of blood, as Shawcombe came across the threshold with a grin that showed his peglike teeth. Behind him, Maude carried a double candlestick that held two burning tapers, her white hair wild and her wrinkled face demonic.
"Oh, oh!" Shawcombe said mockingly. "Looky here, Maude! They're tryin' to get gone without payin' their bill!"
"What's the meaning of this outrage?" Woodward snapped, putting on a mask of anger to hide his true emotion, which was raw and naked terror.
Shawcombe laughed and shook his head. "Well," he said, lifting up his right hand and inspecting the mallet with which Maude had earlier crushed the black rat, "the meanin' of it, you bloody ass, is that you and the clerk ain't goin' nowhere tonight. 'Cept Hell, I reckon." His eyes found the prize. "Ahhhhh, there 'tis. Give it here." He thrust out his grimy left hand.
Woodward looked at the dirty fingers and then at the waistcoat he held so dearly. His gaze returned to Shawcombe's greedy hand; then Woodward lifted his chin and took a long breath. "Sir," he said, "you'll have to kill me to take it."
Shawcombe laughed again, more of a piggish grunt this time. "Oh, indeedy I'll kill you! " His eyes narrowed slightly. "I 'spected you'd go out like a mouse 'stead of a man, though. 'Spected you might give a squeal like that other little drunk titmouse did when I whacked him." He abruptly swung the mallet through the air past Woodward's face, and the magistrate flinched but did not retreat. "Gonna make me take it, huh? Allrighty then, ain't no skin off my bum."
"They'll send someone else," Matthew spoke up. "From Charles Town. They'll send -- "
"Another fuckin' magistrate? Let 'em, then! They keep sendin' 'em, I'll keep killin' 'em!"
"They'll send the militia," he said, which was not nearly as fearsome as it sounded and was probably untrue anyway.
"The militia!" Shawcombe's teeth gleamed in the murky light. "They're gonna send the militia all the way from Charles Town? But they didn't come lookin' for Kingsbury or none of them others I laid to rest, did they?" His grin began to twist into a snarl. He lifted the mallet up to a striking position. "I think I'm gonna kill you first, you skinny son of a bi -- "
Woodward made his move.
He whipped the waistcoat sharply across Shawcombe's eyes and rushed the man, grabbing his wrist before the mallet could begin its descent. Shawcombe hollered a curse and Maude started shrieking, a sound that surely scared the wall-dwelling rats into flight. Shawcombe's left hand came up -- a fist now instead of a palm -- and smacked into the magistrate's chin. Woodward's head rocked back, his eyes clouding, but he kept his grip on Shawcombe's right wrist. "Abner! Abner!" the old woman was yelling. Woodward fired his own blow at Shawcombe's face, a fist that grazed the man's cheekbone when Shawcombe saw it coming and twisted to avoid it. Then Shawcombe clamped his free hand around the magistrate's throat and squeezed as they fought in the little room, one trying to get the mallet into action and the other intent on restraining it.
They staggered back against the bed. Shawcombe's eye caught a movement to his side and he looked in that direction a second before Matthew slammed him in the head with one of the magistrate's boots he'd picked up from the floor. Another swing of the boot struck Shawcombe on the shoulder, and now Matthew could see a glint of desperation in the man's eyes. Shawcombe, who had realized that the magistrate was more formidable than he appeared, gave a roar like an enraged beast and drove his knee upward into Woodward's genitals. Woodward cried out and doubled over, clutching himself. Suddenly the mallet was free. Shawcombe lifted it high, a two-handed grip, in preparation to bash in the back of the other man's skull.
"No!" said Matthew. The boot was already swinging forward, and with every ounce of strength he could muster, Matthew hit Shawcombe across the bridge of the nose with its wooden heel.
The noise of the blow was like an axeblade striking oak; somewhere in it was the crunch of Shawcombe's nose breaking. Shawcombe gave a strangled cry and stumbled backward, intent on grabbing at his wounded face instead of seeing the color of the magistrate's brain. Matthew stepped forward to wrest the mallet away, but suddenly he was attacked by the shrieking old hag, who grabbed at his coat collar with one hand and with the other shoved the candleflames toward his eyes.
Matthew reflexively struck at her, hitting her in the face, but he had to retreat to get away from her, and now Abner was coming into the room with his lantern and his pitchfork.
"Kill 'em!" Shawcombe whined, a nasal sound; he'd met the wall and slid down to the floor, his hands clamped across his face and the mallet lying beside him. Blood, black in the ochre light, was leaking between his fingers. "Abner! Kill 'em both!"
The old man, rain dripping from his beard, lifted the pitchfork and stepped toward Woodward, who was still groaning and trying to straighten himself up.
Matthew was aware of the open window behind him. His mind worked, faster than his body could react. He said, "Thou shalt not kill."
Abner stopped in his tracks. He blinked as if stunned. "What?"
"Thou shalt not kill," Matthew repeated. "It's in the Bible. You do know the Lord's word, don't you?"
"I...the Lord's word? Yeah, I reckon I -- "
"Abner! Goddamn it, kill 'em!" Shawcombe bawled.
"It's in the Bible, is it not? Mr. Woodward, would you go out the window, please?" The magistrate had tears of pain streaming down his face. He'd regained enough sense, however, to realize he should move quickly.
"Shit! Lemme up!" Shawcombe tried getting to his feet, but both eyes were already turning purplish and starting to swell. He had a harder time than he'd expected finding his balance, and it yet eluded him. He sank back down to the floor. "Maude! Don't let 'em get out!"
"Gimme 'at damn pigsticka!" Maude grabbed the pitchfork and tugged at it, but Abner resisted her.
"The boy's right," Abner said; his voice was calm, as if a great truth had been revealed to him. "It's in the Bible. Thou shalt not kill. That's the Lord's word."
"Ya damn fool! Give it 'ere!" Maude tried, unsuccessfully, to wrench the pitchfork out of his hands.
"Hurry," Matthew said, as he helped the magistrate over the windowsill and out. Woodward fell into the mud like a flour sack. Then Matthew started climbing out.
"You ain't gettin' far!" Shawcombe promised, his voice tight with pain. "We'll hunt ya down!"
Matthew glanced back into the room to make sure Maude didn't have the pitchfork. Abner was still holding on to it, his face furrowed with thought. Matthew figured the old man wouldn't remain in that state of religious piety much longer, though; he was as much of a murderer as the other two, and Matthew had only rolled a stone in his path. Before Matthew let go of the sill, he saw another figure standing in the doorway. It was the girl, her face pale, the dark and dirty hair hanging in her eyes. Her arms were clasped around herself, a protective gesture. He had no idea if she was as mad as the rest of them, or what would become of her; he knew for certain, though, that she was beyond his help.
"Go on and run like a dog!" Shawcombe taunted. The blood was dripping between his fingers to the floor, his eyes becoming narrow, puffed slits. "If you're thinkin' to get that sword was in your wagon, it's done been got! Damn blade ain't sharp enough to cut a fart! So go on and see how far ya get!"
Matthew released the sill and jumped down into the mud beside Woodward, who was struggling to his feet. Maude began flailing Abner with curses, and Matthew knew they'd better put as much distance between them and the tavern as they could before the pursuit started. "Can you run?" he asked the magistrate.
"Run?" Woodward looked at him incredulously. "You might ask if I could crawl!"
"Whatever you can do, you'd best do it," Matthew said. "I think we should get into the woods, first thing."
"What about the horses and the wagon? We're not just going to leave them here!"
"There's no time. I expect they'll be after us in a few minutes. If they come at us with an axe or a musket -- "
"Say no more." With an effort, Woodward began slogging toward the woods across the road from the tavern. Matthew followed close at his side, watchful in case he staggered.
The lightning flashed, thunder clapped, and rain fell upon their heads. Before they reached the forest, Matthew looked back at the tavern but saw no one yet following. He hoped Shawcombe had lost -- at least for the moment -- the desire to rouse himself and come out in this storm; he doubted if the old man and woman were very self-motivated without him. Probably Shawcombe was too busy dealing with his own pain to inflict it on anyone else. Matthew thought about going back for the horses, but he'd never saddled and bridled a mount in his life and the situation was volatile. No, he decided, it was best to head into the forest and follow the road in the direction they'd been going.
"We left everything," Woodward said disconsolately as their feet sank into the quagmire of mud and pine needles at the forest's edge. "Everything! My clothes, my wigs, my judicial robes! Dear Christ, my waistcoat! That animal has my waistcoat!"
"Yes, sir," Matthew answered. "But he doesn't have your life."
"And a sorry thing that will be, from this day forward! Ahhhhh, that man almost made me a soprano!" He peered into the utter darkness that lay ahead. "Where are we going?"
"What?" The magistrate faltered. "Has that man's madness impressed you?"
"Fount Royal is at the end of the road," Matthew said. "If we keep walking, we might be there in a few hours." An optimistic appraisal, he thought. This swampy earth and the pelting rain would slow them considerably, but it would also hinder their pursuers. "We can return here with their militia and retrieve our belongings. I think it's our only choice."
Woodward was silent. It was indeed their only choice. And if he could get his waistcoat back -- and see Shawcombe kicking at the end of a noose -- it would be worth a few hours of this vile indignity. He could not help thinking that once a man fell into the pit of disfavor with God, the hole was bottomless. He had no shoes, his balls were bruised and aching, his head was naked to the world, and his nightshirt was sopping and covered with mud. But at least they did both have their lives, which was more than he could say of Thymon Kingsbury. Execution is not one of my duties, he'd told Shawcombe. Well, that just might have to be amended.
He would come back here and get that waistcoat if it was the last thing he did on this earth.
Matthew was moving a little faster than the magistrate, and he paused to wait for Woodward. In time, the night and the storm swallowed them up.
Copyright © 2002 by McCammon Corporation
Excerpted from Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon Copyright © 2003 by Robert McCammon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Robert McCammon is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen novels, including the award-winning Boy's Life. There are more than four million copies of his books in print. Visit his website: www.robertmccammon.com
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