England in the fourteenth century: a land of poverty and opulence, prayer and plague…witchcraft and necromancy.
As a child, Elisha witnessed the burning of a witch outside of London, and saw her transformed into an angel at the moment of her death, though all around him denied this vision. He swore that the next time he might have the chance to bind an angel’s wounds, he would be ready. And so he became a barber surgeon, at the lowest ranks of the medical profession, following the only healer’s path available to a peasant’s son.
Elisha Barber is good at his work, but skill alone cannot protect him. In a single catastrophic day, Elisha’s attempt to deliver his brother’s child leaves his family ruined, and Elisha himself accused of murder. Then a haughty physician offers him a way out: serve as a battle surgeon in an unjust war.
Between tending to the wounded soldiers and protecting them from the physicians’ experiments, Elisha works night and day. Even so, he soon discovers that he has an affinity for magic, drawn into the world of sorcery by Brigit, a beautiful young witch who reminds him uncannily of the angel he saw burn.
In the crucible of combat, utterly at the mercy of his capricious superiors, Elisha must attempt to unravel conspiracies both magical and mundane, as well as come to terms with his own disturbing new abilities. But the only things more dangerous than the questions he’s asking are the answers he may reveal.
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Elisha had witnessed magic once, when he was yet a boy, the last time a witch had been brought to trial. This was before even the terrible drought which had forced his family into the city to find work. His parents came in from the country to watch the execution, packing lunch for all of them, plus a few leftover vegetables from the garden gone soft and rotten, ripe for the throwing. Nathaniel, judged too young over his protests to the contrary, had been left at a neighbor’s house to sulk.
The three of them rode in their pony cart, the rangy new colt drawing them onward with the press of country folk all out in a common purpose. A tall pole had been erected outside the city wall in a patch of barren ground. The vivid purple of the royal pavilion, where the king and his two sons could recline in comfort for the festivities, brightened the gray of the city wall. Elisha had never been so close to the royal family, before or since. Nobility and townsfolk occupied the ground nearest to the site, leaving some distance for safety, so that the country farmers took up the surrounding grass, paying a few pennies to stand atop wagon seats for a better view.
Vendors wandered the makeshift rows, hawking all manner of sweets and ale from barrels slung upon their backs. Musicians roamed as well, offering songs for the ladies, while a handful of bards tossed off poems with quick wit.
Elisha begged a penny from his father to buy a little pennant of cloth painted with a hawk. So equipped, he ran about the grass, watching it flutter in the breeze. Dashing down a long slope, he stopped short.
Heedless of the direction he’d run, the boy found himself surrounded by fine carriages and ladies seated beneath stretched fabric to avoid the sun. He’d just begun to squint into the distance, searching for his parents, when the crowd around him fell silent, then let out a roar. Or so he thought until he turned around.
Elisha stood in the second rank of witnesses, not ten yards from the stake. Around him stood the king’s archers, keeping a watchful eye for rioters, not caring for a wandering child. From their distant rise, Elisha’s family could make out little but the pillar and its mound of wood. Close-to, he saw the woman bound there, clad in white, the pale ropes wound all about her.
Her hands writhed against the bindings, and her lips moved faintly. They had shorn her hair, leaving only a rough fringe of red, revealing her terrified face.
The roar came not from the people gathered round but from a crimson flame licking the piled wood at the woman’s feet.
Elisha’s mouth hung open, and he shut it with a snap, his mother’s scold sounding inside his head.
As the flames drew ever nearer to the woman’s bare feet, the movement of her lips became fierce, until she let out a shriek that deafened him for an instant. Then the crowd roared indeed, chanting for her death. Smoke swirled around him, choking him and stinging his eyes. He rubbed them, reluctant to miss any of the spectacle. And it was then that the miracle happened.
Even as he stared, making out the woman’s form within the growing flames, she seemed to sway and stretch. Then as she howled, her back bent, and the first bond broke. From both shoulders, the fabric strained, then tore. Golden and enormous, a pair of wings stretched out behind her, dwarfing her in their embrace.
Their first powerful sweep knocked Elisha down and blasted the shades around him, tearing at the ladies’ hair, sending one pavilion crashing to the ground as the tethered horses bucked and ran. Nobles screamed and called out prayers. The priests scrambled back to their feet, thrusting up crosses and shouting into the wind.
Fighting that wind, Elisha rose. The sweep of her wings blew back his hair.
She glowed from head to foot, from wingtip to wingtip, the feathers glistening in the air. Even among the saints and virgins of church frescoes, he had never seen anything so beautiful. Elisha felt sure their eyes met. Her luminous eyes reflecting the flames that spat around her as she struggled to rise, then widening in agony as the first arrow struck. Blood spattered the golden wings.
Arrows tore into her feathers and slammed into flesh, piercing her legs and breast and throat.
Screaming, Elisha ran toward the fire. If he could only reach her, he could stop the bleeding, cut the ropes and set her free. Had the smoke so blinded them that they could not see she had transformed into an angel?
A priest snatched him by the shoulder, clinging despite the boy’s resistance. Still, he had come close enough to be struck first by the heat, then by the tip of one powerful wing as they beat their last and vanished.
The witch’s body bent into the flames, all life gone from her long before her body was consumed.
Panting, Elisha stood still, watching the flames, one hand pressed to his cheek where the angel’s wing had stroked his skin.
Even now, twenty years later, that soft, delicious touch lingered in his flesh. For the first time, he wondered if he had avoided love because of that angel, because their eyes had met through a wall of flame.
His fingers traced a line across his cheek.
Too far away to see the truth, his parents thought the flames had gone out of control. When the priest returned their child, they were relieved he had not been harmed. Rumors abounded that the witch had worked some final curse upon those nearest, and Elisha was baptized again and made to attend a week of special services to rid him of whatever evil residue she had left behind. For a time, they all acted as if he had absorbed some witchcraft. His father beat him twice as hard, and four times as often, to re-instill the proper discipline, and Elisha allowed himself to be convinced that the angel had been a trick, a perversion of God’s seraphim meant to ensnare the minds of the weak-willed and the children. But as the memory of prayers and beatings receded, the angel’s touch remained.
After they moved to the city, he’d found a barber in need of an apprentice. He learned well enough how to cut hair, pull teeth, and bleed patients on the orders of their doctors, but he quickly surpassed his master in his eagerness to learn the ways of surgery. If ever he had the chance to bind an angel’s wounds, Elisha would be ready.
He laughed at himself in the darkness, fingering the strap of his leather bag. For twenty years that memory seemed too secret to share even with his conscious thoughts. As an adult, he had never spoken of it to anyone, though he heard the occasional reference muttered in a tavern or whispered in the church. Certainly he never sought out the company of witches, not that there were any to find in these parts after that day. The few who had been hunted down since were quietly dispatched with sword or arrow lest they cast another such glamour upon an audience so vast.
Considering this, he finally stood, took up the satchel and the dreadful weight within it, and gathered his tools from the table. The Bone of Luz, that mystical seed from which he might grow a new man, should be a thing of anatomy, yet he had not seen it nor heard of any who had. Still, even Lucius Physician professed his belief, and he had studied at Salerno. Church law forbade dissection, except where required for criminal investigation, but Elisha’s work had introduced him to most of the bones and organs of the body. Where might the Bone lie, then? Not the abdomen, surely, where it might obstruct the body’s courses. Legend placed it at the top of the spine, but wouldn’t those martyrs beheaded then be denied their resurrection? He guessed it would be found in the skull, the sanctum of a man’s intellect, and perhaps his soul. Trepanation was not Elisha’s specialty. Despite his experience, the thought of punching a hole in someone’s head, even to cure him of worse ills, worried him greatly. The Bone, if it did exist, must reside somewhere behind the eyes.
Snuffing the lamp, Elisha shut the door behind him and picked his way in the dark to the back of the house and his own chambers. There was still the packing to do—selecting the best and most needed of his tools and medicaments, the rest to be left to Helena’s disposal. Before he began that, however, he located certain salts and herbs and a squat, lidded pot recently emptied of weapons ointment and suited to his needs. In the alley behind the house stood the pump and cistern. On its stone overflow rim, he set down the satchel and gently searched its contents until he found the infant’s small, soft head. In the terrible operation he had performed, most surgeons would have crushed the little skull to let it pass more easily. Thankfully, he had not needed that final barbarity today. Placing it into the pot, he covered it with oils of turpentine and lavender, hoping the Bone within would not be damaged by the preservative mixture.
When that was done, Elisha washed his tools, then himself and his bloody clothes, splashing cold water by the bucket over his body. He scrubbed his hands until it felt that he would bring forth blood of his own, and finally returned to his study with his burdens, shivering in the growing chill of night. He sealed the lid of his little pot with wax and thrust it to the bottom of a small chest. He found fresh clothes, draping his wet things to dry for the morrow.
Elisha sat a long time with the sorry satchel before him. He knew what must be done, but the tools would be in his brother’s workshop, and the thought of going inside, facing that absence, made him feel heavy as stone. Still, he could not leave Helena to face her child’s remains—or risk someone knowing what he had taken. Someday, he might return to her in triumph, restoring the baby he had cost her. Her husband was a loss for which he could not make amends.
Not far off, the church bells rang, and Elisha stirred himself to motion. He had little enough time as it was. He took up the satchel and went to the workshop. He almost knocked, but his lifted hand paused in time. No amount of knocking would rouse the dead. He pushed gently and went inside. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust—a long moment in which the shadows formed his brother’s corpse. But no, the place was empty, Nathaniel’s body taken away to prepare for burial, his blood merely darker shadows on the earthen floor.
Nate always started work early, and Elisha used to pause in the yard to listen to the rhythm of hammer and files. Once, he caught his brother singing while he worked and made some remark, hoping to touch him beyond the rift he had caused, but Nathaniel turned from him and sang no more.
Elisha’s eyes burned with sudden tears. He forced himself to look away, forced himself to move to the neat racks of tools and find the spade for turning the coals in the hearth. On a narrow bench by the windowsill waited a row of little crosses Nate would have sold at fairs or to his other customers. Elisha took one of these, the shape pressing into his palm beneath the handle of the spade. If it should carve straight through him it would not be punishment enough.
He made his way through the narrow streets, giving a few coins to the guard at Cripplegate to let him pass. Beyond the wall, and a few more turns, Saint Bartholomew’s churchyard lay before him, humped with graves. He wished he knew where his brother would lie, so he could place the child close by. Failing that, he found a place that looked too narrow for an adult’s grave, not far from the church’s tower. The monastic hospital rose a short way off, founded by a king’s fool two centuries ago, along with the church itself. A man would have to be a fool to place his trust in either God or doctors. His brother had been failed by both.
Using the short-handled spade, awkward in his hands, Elisha peeled back the layer of grass and dug as deep as he might. He nestled the satchel into the hole, dark into darkness, and bowed his head. There should be prayers for this. On a better day, he might recall them. He wet his lips and searched for words, his hands pressed together before him. “Dear Lord,” he started, and a lump rose in his throat. He stared down into the dark hole where his brother’s child lay. God was too far away to hear anything Elisha might say.
To the child, he whispered, “Forgive me.” His fingers knotted together and his shoulders shook, but he felt no answer. “I swear I will take care of you.” He was the elder; his care was what Nathaniel should have had. He tried, hadn’t he? He didn’t want Helena for himself, he wanted to show Nathaniel what he thought she was, to protect him. But Elisha was wrong. He wronged his brother, he wronged his brother’s wife. He became a barber to heal others, but instead he wounded them unto death.
Softly, ever so softly, as if the other graves could hear him speak, he said, “If I can, I’ll see you born again. If not, if there is life in me, I’ll see your spirit laid to rest.”
He drew back and began to fill the little grave, pressing the grass back over it. Tomorrow he would go to war. He deserved death for the terrible day his deeds had brought, but he hoped for life. He hoped for a penance so great, a labor so severe that these dead might be appeased.
Last, he found the cross his brother made. Crosses of wood and carved stones marked the graves around him, some with words he knew to be the names of the dead, with their dates of birth and death, dates that bounded lives both long and short. April fifth, the Year of Our Lord, 1347. This child had not a year, not a month, not even a single day. If they had spoken of names for their baby in the darkness of their bed, Elisha did not know it. He pushed the end of the cross, empty of mark or word, into the grass and brushed the dirt from his hands before he crossed himself.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered through his tears, his hands clutched together, begging. “I am so sorry.” He squeezed his eyes shut, his throat burning, until the tears receded, and he thought he could rise without stumbling.
Excerpted from "Elisha Barber"
Copyright © 2014 E.C. Ambrose.
Excerpted by permission of DAW.
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