For earlier chapters in The Book of the Prophet Joshua, look here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. The sun sank beneath the trees. Joshua was one day north of High Jasper. The river bent east before him. He knew this
The sun sank beneath the trees. Joshua was one day north of High Jasper. The river bent east before him. He knew this road, knew that the river bent back just out of sight, beyond the pine-crested hill before him. Beyond those pines, purple in the fading light, a haze of smoke was rising. He did not know if it was a single great conflagration, or else the thousand fires of a great camp. His thumb traced a line on the grip of Alfred’s rifle.
If he had a camp beyond that bend, he would place a watchman up high to look down on the road. Joshua cut west, away from the river and the ridge, into thick brush where he could go unseen.
As he made his slow way through the dark wood, thorns tugged at his clothes, flies buzzed about his face, and cobwebs clung to him. He grew angry. With anger came an idea. Instead of bypassing the ridge, he would find its western end and walk back along its length.
The way was slow, but the undergrowth disappeared as the hardwood forest turned to a gallery of tall pines. He could see far between the boles, and up ahead he caught a flash of reflected moonlight. A lone sentry, raising a bottle to his lips.
Joshua had the patience that came with age. He looked ahead at every step, neither snapping an errant twig with his foot nor crossing through bright moonbeams as he stalked his prey. As silent and sudden as a panther, he sprang from the darkness, falchion falling.
The man’s eyes grew big as the blade fell. It severed his windpipe. An unborn scream turned to gurgles as he died. Joshua did not watch. His eyes were turned south, down the other side of the ridge, where the camp of the Serpent lay.
“Do you see?” he whispered. “They’re marching north. They’re looking for us.”
“Do not ask for his help,” the voice answered. “You will be Ramah’s help tonight. You will deliver them.”
It was not Ramah Joshua thought of as his eyes leapt from fire to fire below. One of them was larger, brighter, standing apart from the others. There was a throne before it, and a bald man in white robes surrounded by servants. Joshua put the rifle to his shoulder and took aim.
He did not bother reckoning the distance. It was long. But Joshua had hunted so many times in his youth, it was instinct. The wind, the arc of the bullet—everything came together in one moment, a vision of justice raining down from above. He squeezed the trigger.
The firing mechanism exploded.
The High Priest jerked the cup from his lips and turned his night-blind eyes to the dark.
“Where?” he demanded.
“North, my lord,” a guard answered. “On the ridge. The northern sentry, I think.”
“Take three men and go. Tell the others to make ready.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The guard obeyed at once. Meanwhile, the high priest stood and walked to the fire, holding the cup out above the nearest glowing coals.
“Send, O Serpent, a worthy enemy. Let my strike be sure and swift, the poison strong. In token of his blood, a great libation, accept the less from one who is in your coils.”
He tipped the cup and the offering spilled, spattered, and hissed in the hungry flame.
The guards returned and cast a prisoner at their master’s feet. All of them were bloody, but not half so bloody as the wretch that knelt between them, his arms twisted out to force an unwilling bow. He had fought them, but he was outnumbered, and a red and bloody burn lay across his eyes. He could not see, and these men knew no mercy.
“You are Joshua?” the high priest asked.
“Even beneath all that, I recognize you.”
The prisoner was silent.
“What? No insults? No cutting words for the savage idolater?
“What would you have me say?”
“What did you come to say? I did not send for you.”
Joshua raised his head as high as he could, twisting his face back and forth, struggling to see.
“Well?” the priest said.
“I did not come to talk.”
The master leaned back in his throne and ran a hand over his smooth scalp.
“My lord,” a guard said. He held a mangled rifle. “We found Eli dead from a sword wound. I think this one was trying to kill you when his gun misfired.”
Sharp eyes flicked back to the prisoner.
“Well. Striking from afar. Not what I expect of the Hadochee god, but I suppose it would have done the job. Yet the Serpent is strong to save me.”
Joshua lowered his head and spat. It was bloody.
The priest laughed.
“There’s the old defiance. Well, assassin, unless I miss my guess, you did not expect to find me here.”
He motioned to a servant, who ran into the darkness and returned a moment later with another man. Joshua heard his heavy footsteps approach the high priest’s throne. Then he heard a man swear. The voice was familiar.
There was a moment’s silence, then spit landed in the prisoner’s face. The priest laughed again.
“Very good! Yes, Joshua, Bernard has come to show me the way. You have made my life difficult, so we are going to your refuge, we will plunder it, we will take our captives, and we’ll burn the rest to the ground. That is how the Serpent deals with those who make themselves his enemy.”
Joshua cast his face around again, desperate to see and clearly unable.
“He does not understand, Bernard. Explain it to him.”
“He is strong,” the traitor said. “He protects his own.”
Tears and blood leaked from one of Joshua’s blinded eyes. He struggled, and the guards twisted his arms still more, forcing him down. He gasped but struggled still. Then, suddenly, he stopped. His head was cocked to one side, as if listening.
“Joshua?” the priest said.
“Can I ask you something?”
The master flicked a finger and the two men eased up. Joshua’s blind eyes fixed themselves on a spot just to the left of the throne.
“I assume you had him killed. Am I wrong?”
“You see,” Bernard spat. “Weakness! His god tells him to forgive, so he lets Lafitte escape. And Lafitte would have done exactly what I’m doing. He would have come to you and led you to Ramah. This is what his god does to those who worship him–give them up into the hands of their killers.”
A few days ago, those bitter words would have cut Joshua deep. Tonight, they did not. Nor did they have the desired effect on the high priest.
“And yet,” the cleric said, “Lafitte is not here.”
“He must have died in the swamp,” Bernard said.
The priest shook his head.
“Lafitte did not die without help. What are you getting at, preacher?”
Joshua did not answer. He was listening again. Then his bloody face twisted into a fearsome snarl.
He caught the guards by surprise, writhing until he broke one man’s grip before grabbing his arm and slinging him fully into the guard on his other side. The third man, the one who held the rifle, was yelling for help. By then the prisoner was fully free and his blind eyes fixed on the source of the voice. Joshua rushed him, tackling him to the ground. Another guard ran in to help, but Joshua was rolling away, his hand flicking out. A knife flashed and the fourth guard’s throat opened wide, spraying blood across the embers of the fire, spattering, sizzling.
“Back!” came a voice like thunder. The high priest stood before his throne, terrible in his wrath. The fighting men obeyed.
Joshua’s rictus grin turned blindly to his foe. He crouched, listening, waiting for someone to approach.
“I would have you die,” the priest said, his arms rising to the blackness of the sky, “knowing the truth.”
“What is the truth, worm?” Joshua snarled.
“The truth is that there is one law under heaven, the Serpent’s law. Spoils to the swift, glory to the strong, power to the wise–coil and tooth and venom. That is all there is, preacher, and all that will ever be.”
Between the flame and the void, Bernard stood and watched as his new master seemed to grow and swell and his old shrank, clinging to a stolen knife. While the awful moment passed, before the final, bloody brawl, he heard the blind old man growl two words.
The priest’s hands flew together and at their crack he rippled, spinning out into a mass of writhing coils. The coils resolved into a black-scaled streak flashing out, enormous mouth open, fangs bared at wounded prey. But Joshua lunged beneath it, driving up with the stolen point to strike, withdraw, and strike again. The serpent twisted, hissing, winding around the man. But the man was as wily as his foe, twisting, writhing, loosing every limb from a fatal grasp. When he could, he struck, and watery blood spurted from the monster’s side with every blow. At last Joshua rolled free and faced the beast, sliding backwards step by hurried step.
The Serpent let him.
“Well?” the old man snarled. “Is that enough damned blood for you?”
There was, between them, a little over three paces. It was further than Joshua could leap. It was just within the range of the Serpent.
The Serpent struck.
Fangs sank deep in Joshua’s thigh. He had expected it, and his knife plunged down to sink itself deep in the Serpent’s eye. The fiend did not care, and it pumped his leg full of venom. It tore through the old man’s veins, setting them ablaze. He spasmed, and he fell.
The Serpent held on a moment longer and shook.
Joshua gasped but could not scream. He could not struggle. He just trembled.
The Serpent’s fangs withdrew, and the creature shimmered. The high priest stood in its place.
“Do you see, Bernard?”
Bernard’s face was white.
The business done, he turned to his guards.
“Take him to the river and throw him in. Let the water take his corpse.”
The guards obeyed.
At the edge of camp, by a river astir with beasts that swam by night, a splash was heard. Alfred’s broken rifle slipped away in the current. A second, heavier splash followed.
Joshua went after.