Chapter 08: Nightshade
Chapter 08 of the City of Gargoyles. Second Book in the Light-Father Trilogy
Complex bolts of lightning arced and forked ceaselessly from cloud to cloud as Nightshade sheltered beneath the immense Gothic archway of the eastern railway entrance into Milverburg that was aptly sculpted as the mouth of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. The wind roared from the south-west so the veils of rain did not reach her but violent gusts and eddies whipped her long milk-white mane this way and that until, sighing with irritation, she laid down her staff and tied her hair back into a ponytail.
She did not flinch as the tip of a spear touched her spine and a voice cried out: “You let your guard down, Mother Nightshade! I could’ve been a Tally-Man and run you through!”
“I doubt it, Mouse, because your spear is not what it seems,” Nightshade smiled, keeping her back to the young girl.
There was a shriek and a clattering of the spear upon the flagstones. “My spear turned into a snake,” Mouse cried out in horror. “It tried to bite me!”
Nightshade stooped to pick up her staff then handed the spear back to Mouse, marvelling at its exquisite workmanship. Inlaid with silver, it was superbly balanced and had once belonged to an Iberian prince some three hundred years ago. “Silly Mouse, I knew you were behind me and as for the illusion: well, I am a Wiccan! So, are all the others as restless as you?”
Mouse handled the spear nervously before standing it upright to look up at the beautiful but enigmatic albino Wiccan. “Yes, Mother Ivy just threatened to turn Amos into a warty toad again,” she said dejectedly, moving closer to Nightshade to solicit an embrace and watch the immense display. “He’s such a bull-pat at times but he’s unbearable now he’s worried about his sister.”
“He was mourning for her but now he knows she’s alive, it’s only natural that he wants to tear the world apart to find her.”
“But he’s been awful; swooning like some helpless maiden in a saga.” Mouse put the back of her hand to her forehead and struck a forlorn pose: “If only I’d been a real b-brother to S-Surl she would not have needed a w-w-wig!”
“Tch! Such mockery is cruel, Mouse; shame on you.”
“But it is funny when we have no joy in our lives.”
“I understand, dear heart,” Nightshade smiled, placing her hand on Mouse’s head. “We Mothers had no real childhood to speak of either.” She paused as a blinding flare of light was instantly followed by a thunderclap that left their ears ringing. “Glorious Diana, preserve us!” she gasped. “That was close! I think it struck one of the towers on Uppermost.”
“The Light-Father told me how hailstones make the lightning as they rub against each other in storm clouds. He said lightning is so hot it makes the air explode to create the thunder. It’s strange to think that Thor’s hammers are made from ice!”
“So the Light-Father did find time to teach you something. He is a most unusual man. I’d love to see his world with my own eyes. To think they sent men to the Moon!”
“Me too but he hasn’t talked to me about Fierce since we got here,” Mouse said sadly, a tear trickling down her cheek. “I just wanted to talk to him so much about losing her but he was always so sad about her death and leaving the others behind.”
Nightshade put her arm about Mouse’s shoulders and drew the girl close to her. “Dear heart, guilt is a dreadful burden. The Light-Father blames himself for Fierce and the others who died so you must forgive him. He needs to heal too.”
“But we need his magic,” Mouse pouted.
“I know, dear heart, but remember; he was also wounded by an evil the like of which this world has never seen: something even darker and more terrible than the Order.” She gazed at the heavens: some of the bolts were so gargantuan that they seemed to crawl from one horizon to the other. “Maybe this evil has manipulated the Order all along,” she murmured thoughtfully.
“I know the Light-Father was stabbed by Azrael but you, Ivy and Fern were badly hurt too yet you never seemed to be as worried about the little ones as he was.”
“We were worried, Mouse, but the Light-Father does not understand Surl’s gifts as we do. We always… believed that they would somehow survive in that dreadful place.”
“So Surl will become a Mother one day?”
“Yes, she may become as powerful as Mother Moss so we must get her back at all costs. Because she is a seer, perhaps the only one left in all of Gaia, she may prove to be the only hope we have of surviving this nightmare.”
“Surl has no craft mark so how can she be a Wiccan?”
“The mark could be anywhere,” Nightshade replied, poking Mouse playfully and making her giggle. “It could be here or here or here – we just haven’t seen it yet. We know her gift is not due to the genetic manipulation of the scientists at Exodus although you and the other Scatterlings bear much of their legacy.”
“I know,” Mouse said miserably, making rapid thrusts and parries with her spear against an imaginary foe. “I’m stronger and faster than most children my age but I’m so tired of being hunted by the Order – they even hunt me in my sleep.”
“Oh? Are you still having that dream you told me about?”
“Yes the one where the tree of us are riding in the Barnacle on the River Craw and racing through the broken Copper Bridge with masonry crashing into the water all around us but when Shield and I turn around, Fierce is no longer with us. Suddenly, we arrive at this calm lake where the sky is blue and the sun is warm on our faces and our parents are sitting in a rowing boat.”
“Is your sister always with them in the dream?”
“Yes and she’s waving at us. There’s an old man steering the boat: Mister Helfburn who owned the house in Crawcester where we stayed after the floods. We found him dead in his chair; he was watching the river and drinking whisky as he died.”
“Then I envy him in some ways,” Nightshade said, hugging Mouse tightly as the clouds above them were illuminated by vast flares of blue-white light. “Shield told me of your adventures so it is not surprising that you dream of them so. Your dream is simply telling you that she sails the shores of Avalon with your parents. Poor Mouse, you’ve seen so many things that no child should ever see but here we are: two small gargoyles standing in Thor’s mouth and watching Gaia in all her fury.”
“I’m so tired of being frightened, Mother Nightshade.”
“As am I, dear heart, yet we will protect you and cleanse Gaia of the Order. I swear this on the blood of my fallen sisters.”
“I hope so,” Mouse smiled gratefully through her tears. She let her spear fall to the ground once more, wrapped her arms around the Wiccan’s slender waist and buried her face into her chest. “I miss my parents so much! Do you remember yours? You haven’t told us anything about where you’re from.”
“There is little to tell, dear heart,” Nightshade said in self-deprecating tones. “I am what I am: Mother Nightshade of the Fourth Degree; a Servant of Leo and a Wielder of Fire.”
“Hmph! That says everything and nothing,” Mouse huffed. “So are you saying you were hatched out of a Wiccan egg?”
Nightshade laughed then waited for a titanic rumble of thunder to die down. “Ha! I surrender, Mouse! Very well, I’ll tell you of our coven first. Poor Mother Rosemary was of the Sun: she could wield the Light of Creation so her ‘element’ – if you want to call it that – was the energy of the Sol itself. She could even breathe life back into those souls stranded at the very Gates of Death and guide them back into this world. Eirannau used cross the Gael Sea to visit her and they revered her as Dian Cnecht reborn in female form.”
“Was she more powerful than you?”
“I was not quite her equal but, amongst the Mothers, I was still respected,” Nightshade smiled modestly. She opened her free hand and above the palm an intense glowing sphere formed and Mouse could feel the heat upon her face. “I, too, can melt brickwork and set the greatest of fires but I also have craft enough to confuse the minds of our enemies as you found out just now with your spear.”
“Ugh! The snake was so real,” Mouse shuddered. “I could feel its scales in my hands and I heard it hissing.”
“That’s because it was a fooling of all your senses. Fern is as strong as me in that facet of the craft and one day, Shield and Surl may possess such gifts and insights.”
“But I thought Wiccans could only wield one element?”
“Not so but we are strongest in the one that calls out to us and awakens us. Fire called out to me but we all have other gifts such as telepathy and telekinesis to some extent what people used to call ‘far-seeing’ and ‘far-moving.’ All of us can cast illusions of one sort or another but, as I said, the ability in casting a ‘geiss that blinds’ varies greatly from one Mother to the next.”
“What about Mother Veneris?”
Pain crossed the delicate features of the Wiccan and the fiery sphere faded away. “Oh, I so grieve for her, dear heart! She was a Wielder of Water and a friend and a mentor to me. She could’ve raised a wave high enough to drown this citadel twice over but those infernal begiullers laid her and Rosemary low at the Great Abbey before they could wield their full power. None before them would have survived had their craft been unleashed.”
“Mother Rosemary frightened me,” Mouse admitted. “Her irises would change colour when she was angry and all the shadows about her seemed wrong somehow.”
Nightshade looked down at Mouse with some surprise. “Well, you are perceptive and no mistake.”
“But what were those shadows?” Mouse persisted.
“It’s hard to explain but Rosemary could stand at the Portals of Hell and the Gates of Heaven as a Bearer of Souls and what you saw was a manifestation of those souls. The Eirannau used call her the wibrana and bring gifts of carved ravens and one even carved the staff that Fern now bears.”
“A Bearer of Souls? So she could heal people and see ghosts like Mother Fern does all the time?”
“Hmm, not so: Fern’s ghosts are phantasms created by her guilt whereas Rosemary could actually converse with earthbound souls. Before the Great Plague, many powerful people sought her aid in wresting secrets from the dead. She would always encourage those souls to abandon earthly ties and cross into the Light but now there are billions of vengeful shades roaming Gaia bearing a rage great enough to tear reality apart. Everyone in the Order would be naught but ash if that hatred ever became corporeal.”
“Huh? Corporeal? What does that mean?”
“Ah, how can I explain this, Mouse? You’re all so mature for the years you have that I keep forgetting you’re still children! You know when the hairs on the back of neck stand on end and you feel a chill when there’s nothing there?”
“Yes, sometimes,” Mouse said doubtfully. “Mother Moss told me that was just a ghost walking through me.”
“Exactly! One ghost has a little physical presence which a few of us can see but imagine four billion angry spirits all focused in one place: they could bring down a mountain range!”
“Ah, I see,” Mouse nodded then she looked up at Nightshade with a worried look on her face. “Now that Shield is a Mother, will she go mad if all these ghosts start speaking to her?”
“Fear not, like Rosemary, she will not lose her wits nor will we take her from you.”
“Will she be taking the dead into the Light?”
“No, we feel she has not craft enough to be a Bearer of Souls,” Nightshade replied carefully. “But she was strong enough to keep you from entering the Gates of Death with Fern’s help.”
“I remember but I got so suspicious of Shield once: she spent so much time with Mother Moss in that office building then she would come back to the Keep, white as paper and trembling.”
“Mother Moss determined your sister’s element of awakening to be Air which she honed at that Keep of yours in Crawcester. To be trained like that is painful and can drain the hardiest of souls. Your sister will become very powerful but she must learn to control that power or it will consume her and we’ll have to…”
“You mean if she ever becomes evil from using her power,” Mouse interrupted angrily. “You’ll kill her like all those other poor Daughters you’ve murdered!”
“Please understand, dear heart,” Nightshade sighed heavily. “This is not something that Mothers are proud of but we have no choice in the matter. History had shown us again and again that evil Wiccans left unchecked become dark and terrible creatures. They were the origin of so many dark fables about witches and created all those centuries of prejudice against us but you don’t need to worry about Shield: her heart is pure.”
“I know. That’s why I love her so much. She kept Fierce and me alive in Crawcester but at the Keep, like Fierce, she kept her secret from us until she destroyed those two Angels out in Beorminghas,” Mouse said proudly. “Long before we got to the Keep, we almost died in the flood on the Craw but she made our rope bounce out of the water and onto a mooring post. We didn’t know at the time but that was when she first used her power but she has no time for me because she’s so besotted with Saul.”
“It’s natural to be jealous of her falling for Saul. She is indeed your sister yet she is also a beautiful young woman whose heart is awakening to love,” Nightshade laughed kindly. “Hah, in such a world their love gives me such hope and joy!” She cupped Mouse’s cheeks in her hands. “You see, Mouse, Daughters were forbidden from taking lovers but that is just foolishness with mankind all but destroyed. When this madness is over you’ll mature as your sister is now doing; you’ll seek out a man; you’ll fall helplessly in love with him and then you’ll have lots of little mouselings!”
“I don’t want mouselings! I want my sisters back!”
“Please, dear heart, don’t cry again. You hate Mother Moss for making Shield keep a secret from you and for setting Fierce upon her grim journey but never forget that Fierce accepted that fate willingly knowing that she would have to sacrifice herself to save her sisters – such was her love for you. I bless her for even I with all my craft, could never have shouldered such a burden for so long knowing full well the time and manner of my death.”
Mouse waited for another earth-shaking roar of thunder to subside. “What of you? You never answered my question. Who are you, really, Mother Nightshade? What’s your real name? How did you become a Mother? When did you awaken?”
“Ah, Mouse, you do know I’m an albino?”
“Yes, I can see that,” Mouse grumbled. “I’m not stupid.”
“I did not say that but many people believed that albinos were a portent of evil and the midwife actually fainted when I was born. However, my parents were both well-educated and they accepted my condition but then they found the mark of the craft upon my left shoulder. Everyone knew of the mark of the Wiccans so they hid it as best they could but, alas, they made many naïve enquiries about Wiccans and so the Order knocked the door one night and forced their way into the house.”
“How did you escape?” Mouse gasped.
“Diana protected me. My parents had to watch as a Father inspected me for the mark knowing that the make-up could rub off at any moment. He left after sympathising with them for having such a ‘damaged’ child and he actually wished them well!”
“By Saint Saul, your parents were brave.”
“Yes, they were but my very earliest memories are ones of fear as they struggled to keep my secret safe and my shoulders covered at all times. I was thus very lonely and bored as a child until my craft stirred one day when I had but six years and was about to start school. I was yet to feel the call of my defining element but straight away things became… difficult.”
“Bordan, she’s doing it again!”
“She’s doing what again, Kendra?” Bordan demanded irritably, putting down his newspaper. “God’s teeth! It’s difficult to have a conversation with you when you’re bellowing down the stairs from the landing while I’m eating my breakfast in the kitchen!”
“Well, come upstairs then!”
Bordan muttered several pithy comments about bachelorhood before levering himself to his feet with a heartfelt sigh of resignation. He trudged upstairs and along the landing to find his wife hovering at the doorway of their daughter’s bedroom. He looked over her shoulder to see their six-year old daughter sitting cross-legged on the floor and waving her hands to and fro.
“Ah,” he groaned, putting a hand to his forehead. “Telekinesis! I thought it was just a myth put about by the Order to discredit the Wiccans. I’ve not seen one scientifically documented example of far-moving and the Wiccans always deny it exists.”
“Yet there it is,” Kendra said, stifling a sob. “She’s far-moving! Same as yesterday only I thought I was hallucinating when that ball floated across the room.”
Five stuffed toys were marching in unison around their little albino daughter who was singing a nursery rhyme: “March, march, march, little soldiers, march to the music of the band…”
“That’s no myth, Bordan, or do you deny the evidence of your own eyes?” Kendra whispered. “The craft is manifesting in her. We can’t send her to school even after all the preparations we made with the principal to deal with her albinism. What would a teacher do if they saw her doing that?”
“Look, Da, my toys are alive! It’s magic!”
“Yes, Ellete, it is magic,” he said carefully. “Can you ask them all to lie down so you can get dressed and have breakfast with us? I have to go to work soon.”
“Okay, Da,” Ellete smiled and waved her hand once more. The toys flopped to the floor and she started pulling off her nightdress and stopped suddenly. “Oh! I don’t feel so good,” she whimpered, clutching at her head and swaying.
Kendra swept her up in her arms as Bordan inspected the toys. “You’re right: there is no way we can send her to school after this,” he groaned. “But if we keep her home, our neighbours will start asking even more questions than they are now. The prejudice is bad enough but if they ever found out she was a Wiccan they would burn this house to the ground and us with it! That happened to a family up in Hind only last month.”
Kendra cradled her daughter who was already beginning to revive and whimper at the tone of their voices. “I’m sure Eowynne Unwin has already reported us to the secret services – her brother is a Master of the Royal Conclave of Architects and you know how close they are to the Order and the shareholders at Exodus!”
Bordan sighed and ran a hand though his hair in exasperation. “She’s not the only one, I’m sure of it.”
Kendra kissed her daughter on the forehead. “It’s why we have constables visiting us all the time: the neighbours keep telling them that we’re keeping her prisoner.”
“Yes, I know,” he laughed wryly. “It’s our good fortune that the constables believe us rather than those tattle-tells when they see that she’s an albino. They’re good men but poor Ellete will never understand why they’re so afraid of those blood-red irises of hers. I don’t want her to lose her innocence but we can’t hide a craft this powerful and we can’t keep her home from school.”
Ellete began to wriggle in Kendra’s arms. “We have friends working for Exodus. Maybe they can suppress the genes causing this without their managers finding out. We have to try, Bordan, otherwise they will take her from us!”
“How can Exodus help?” he shrugged. “They still do a lot of work for the Order and they won’t be able to explain how a small child’s brain can generate enough power to make dolls and toys come to life. It must require a lot of energy so it’s no wonder she nearly fainted. Look, she has a nosebleed as well.”
“I’m really hungry, Ma,” Ellete mumbled, snuggling against her mother as if nothing had happened.
“I bet you are, dear heart,” Kendra murmured soothingly, dabbing at Ellete’s nose. She showed Bordan the small spots of blood on the tissue, the unvoiced concern plain upon her face.
“I want to go to school and make some friends!”
“I know you do, angel, but the other children don’t have magic like you do. If you made toys dance around, they might be too frightened to play with you.”
“I’d never be mean,” Ellete said, patting her mother’s face. “I’ll keep it a secret. Are bad people coming to take me away?”
“We won’t let anyone take you, Ellete,” Bordan reassured her. “We’ll keep you secret; we’ll keep you safe.”
“I love you lots too,” Ellete said simply then she screwed up her eyes: “Um, I think I had a weird dream last night.”
“What do you mean by that, dear heart?” Kendra asked.
“There was a tall woman in funny clothes, holding this big stick and she came up me and called me her daughter and I said I’m my mummy’s daughter not yours and she said ‘for now’ and then she went away and I woke up.”
“See, Bordan?” Kendra said bitterly. “The Wiccans are far-seeing into her dreams! Telepathy, damn you! You just had to talk to them about her craft mark again.”
“As you did when she was born,” he retorted angrily. “Only they know what the craft entails when no scientist on this Earth can explain what they do. We may have no choice but to give Ellete to the Wiccans – they’re the only ones who can protect her.”
“Never! Because some parents do get to see their girls again,” Kendra said through gritted teeth. “The ones they send home dead. We can no more trust them than we can trust the Order and the government. Remember when the newscasters were calling for the Wiccans to be tried for murder even though the autopsies proved that they all died of natural causes?”
“I know, I know,” Bordan conceded, going to the window to study the busy main street at the front of the house. “But I don’t know what else we can do! If we keep her home the authorities will ask why she’s not at school but if the Wiccans take her, for some reason the police just stop asking questions.”
“Oh, the Wiccans see to that. Even I have to admit their abilities are real but they can’t have her.”
“Ah, Kack! I think we have a bigger problem.”
“What do you mean? How can it be any bigger than this?” she demanded incredulously, indicating the toys on the floor.
“Trust me: it’s worse. A police car is in the street and two vans with the markings of the Order. There are about fifteen or so constables and Brothers all talking to each other and pointing up at the house.” He ran into one of the rear bedrooms for a moment then rejoined his frightened wife. “They haven’t posted anyone at the rear of the house yet. Thank the Virgin Mary we had the foresight to see this day coming!”
“Do we really have to run away now?”
“Yes, we do: we have no choice. I’ll barricade the front door while you grab those two suitcases we keep packed. Make sure you pick up our wallets, papers and passports from the bedside cabinet and wait with Ellete by the back door. Hurry, dear heart,” he urged, taking her by the shoulders and pressing his forehead against hers. “Please. We have so little time left to us!”
“Are we playing hide and seek?” Ellete asked innocently.
“Yes, dear heart,” Bordan said, kissing his beloved daughter on the head. “Only we must make sure they never find us.”
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