Below is the first day's output on my November Nanowrimo novel. Every day I've posted the output over at The Hallowed Ground Read Along Blog where you can still register, read the book as I write it, comment, and at times win prizes. Hope to see you there!
They came in the night with their creak-wheeled wagons and patchwork tents, rolling down through the gulch and up the other side to pitch camp. In Rookwood, they called it ‘Dead man’s Gulch,’ and in Rookwood, names were important. If you walked too far through that God-forsaken, dust-drowned ditch, you were bound to drag your boots through bones. If you felt something sharp dig into your heel, it could be a tooth taking a last bite of something hot and living. The Deacon stood in silent shadows watching their progress, occasionally glancing up into the pale, inadequate light of the waning moon.
The scouts had come to him two days back. They’d found a location that suited his needs, not too close to the town, sheltered, with water nearby. It was surrounded on two sides by rocky crags and bordered at its back by the gulch. The Deacon timed their arrival to occur at night. He preferred the moonlight. The town watched the sunset over barren, forgotten ground. When it rose again, curious eyes would see tents glistening in the sun. There was no breeze, and had been no breeze for days, so the canvas wouldn’t flap in the wind. It would look like a mirage to any who drew near enough to see it, and that suited The Deacon just fine.
His wagon was the first to cross the gulch, and as the horses dragged it up the long, dusty incline he fell into step with the front wheels and swung up beside the driver. Sanchez held the reigns lightly, but his knuckles went suddenly tight with tension as The Deacon settled into the seat.
“Not much farther,” Sanchez said. His gaze remained locked on the road ahead, and the tone of his voice was carefully neutral.
The Deacon was silent. Behind them, the other wagons struggled to follow. Some were pulled by horses, others by mules, and still others couldn’t manage the crossing without their passengers crawling out like rats from sinking ships to push and pull. They might as well not have existed, for all The Deacon seemed to care.
They entered the camp area and circled once. The driver made no move to stop; he waited. Eventually, The Deacon grunted, and they rolled to a halt. From where they sat the moon was just visible between two rocky crags. It cast a beam of silver light that fell across the wagon, slicing it in half.
“Here,” The Deacon said.
The driver hopped down and disappeared toward the rear of the wagon. The Deacon sat still as a wooden Indian and watched the first of the following wagons enter the clearing. They crawled in like vermin. They squabbled briefly over location. Two big, burly roustabouts swaggered into the center - a large, vacant expanse – and began barking orders.
The main tent would hide them from one another. It would provide alleys to hide in and shadows to call their own. It gave the camp a center.
The Deacon slid down from the wagon’s seat and strode to the middle of the clearing. Among the wagons and tents, conversation stilled. Motion ceased. They watched as he stopped dead center and turned slowly. He missed nothing. He placed each one of them, etched their locations into his mind. Then he closed his eyes, raised his head to the sky, and glanced up into the pale face of the moon.
He raised his arms.
Maybe it was the sudden motion. Maybe it was one of those coincidental moments in time where two concurrent events blend to a single image. The Deacon’s long dark cloak flapped around him like a shroud, or full, dark wings.
From the trees lining the gulch, the crooked, drooping shrubs and the craggy outcroppings of rock, a black cloud rose. They screamed to the night, rising like a dark tide. At first they seemed to be bats — or something worse. Only after they spread and draped the sky were they revealed.
“Rooks,” a man breathed.
The Deacon opened his eyes and watched as the birds dispersed and dove, winding out of the sky like small tornadoes of shadow and returning to their roots – or to different ones. Further away from the camp. Further from the center.
“And the rooks shall rise,” The Deacon intoned, his voice carrying across the clearing and into the night. “They shall rise and announce the coming of death. They shall carry the souls of the faithful home.”
He knelt in the dust and pressed the tip of his finger into the dirt. He circled the finger slowly, drawing a pattern. The clearing might as well have been empty. There was no sound. The wind whirled around him, lifting the collar of his long coat and rippling across the brim of his hat.
If’ you stepped very close, you’d have heard him speaking in very low tones. If you watched his finger dig its way through the dry, parched earth, you’d have made out the symbols drawn one after another. If you breathed, the rooks might have risen again, eager to carry you home to glory.
The Deacon rose. He turned once more, and as he spun he whispered to the wind in each quarter in its turn. He stepped away from the center, and when he’d reached the corner of his wagon, the two roustabouts returned to the clearing. They stepped up to the point where The Deacon had drawn in the dirt, and their four strong arms drove a sharp, rounded stake into the ground. It was as big around as the base of a small tree, and even their combined strength could only barely embed it in the earth. A third man stepped forward with a large wooden mallet. The two big men knelt, and the third man drove the stake home, swinging the mallet between the first two without regard to the proximity of their heads and hands. His aim was perfect. Four hard shots and the base was stable. It would hold the center post of the main tent.
Sanchez knelt in the shadows beside the wagon until The Deacon had passed and begun to climb the side of the ridge, winding up and away from the encampment without a glance back. When the big man was out of sight, Sanchez rose. His own belongings were heaped beneath a small tree a few yards away. There wasn’t much, a canvas bag with his belongings, and a bundled lean-to he could erect in a few moments, or take down just as quickly.
He moved to the rear of the wagon and screwed two tall metal supports down until they rested on the ground and held the rear of the wagon upright. He did the same at the front of the wagon. He placed a mason jar half full of whiskey on the wagon rail and watched as the liquid straightened into as flat a line as he could get it. He locked the supports in place and unhitched the horses. He knew he’d have to groom them and feed them, but it had to wait. When The Deacon came back off that cliff, he’d expect his quarters to be ready, and Sanchez had no intention of disappointing his master.
He whistled once sharply, and a slender, dirty boy materialized out of the milling workers erecting the big tent and finalizing the rest of the camp. Without speaking, the two of them hurried to the rear of the wagon. When the tarps that covered the bed were unbound, they grabbed handles at the rear and slid wooden slats out until they locked. At the end of this, they dropped a set of folding stairs to the ground, then unscrewed and locked the rear supports, effectively doubling the wagon’s length. A series of pulleys and ropes allowed them to quickly pull the tarps up and over the top — not patchy or rotted canvas, like so many of the other tents, but white and thick, catching the moonlight and reflecting it back at the sky.
Once the tarps were in place, the boy disappeared back into the shadows, and Sanchez mounted the stairs. He hated these moments more than any others. The space within the tent had taken on the aspect of The Deacon himself. He flipped the cot down from the side of the wagon, and the heavy wooden desk on the opposite side. There was a small fold out table at the very front, right up against the front of the wagon’s bed. Sanchez lowered it into place, and glanced around. Everything had remained in place during the trip. He was particularly happy to see that the books had not tipped from their shelves. On several occasions he’d had to straighten them and return them to their places, and he’d found the touch of the leather spines repulsive. He studiously avoided reading the titles burned into their spines.
He unrolled The Deacon’s bedroll onto the cot and took a final glance around to be certain he’d forgotten nothing, and then stepped back down to the dusty earth. He let the flap of the tent fall into place behind him, and moved to the shadows, seating himself cross-legged beside his bags. He would find a place to erect his own camp only after The Deacon had returned and settled in. He risked a glance up at the cliff, but saw only shadows. He settled against the gnarled base of a tree and closed his eyes - but he did not sleep.
* * *
The Deacon stood far above the camp at the tip of an outcropping, facing the town of Rookwood. Too many trees and obstacles stood between his perch and town for him to catch any glimmer of firelight, but he knew they were there. He felt them.
As he stood, he tugged a rawhide thong that hung about his neck until a long, thin pouch came free of his shirt collar. He held it in his hands, but he didn’t glance down at it. The soft, supple leather rippled between his fingers, as though something inside sought a weakness. The Deacon raised his gaze to the moon and gripped the pouch more tightly. His hand shook, and glimmers of light leaked between his fingers, though he took no notice. The pouch had begun to glow, and trails of wispy vapor slid out and around his hand, wound about him, and constricted.
Miles away he sensed their heartbeats. He heard murmured whispers. He felt the heat of their couplings and the pain of their illness. He sensed the life around him, and hungered for it. It gnawed at him and teased the corners of his sanity. The trembling in his hand spread until he stood, weak and shaking. He staggered half a step forward, and only caught himself at the brink of the cliff. Below, his followers scurried like busy ants, constructing their nests and erecting the great tent. Another step and he’d have planted himself in their center like a dark, rotten seed.
He stuffed the pouch back into his shirt, and shuddered as it touched his flesh. For a moment, a sickening greenish light seeped out near his chin, and then faded. He stepped back from the edge of the rock, and turned away. Without a backward glance, he began the arduous climb back down from the rocks. The tremor had left his hands, and his steps were strong and even, but his face was even paler than usual, and his expression was strained.
He reached the bottom, passed by Sanchez without a word or a glance, and disappeared into his tent. Sanchez waited a while longer, until the lantern flickered to life inside, and then slipped into the shadows to find a small corner to stake off as his own. It was late, and the morning would come far too soon.
Near The Deacon’s tent, all eyes were averted. None took notice of the strange shadows dancing across the back-lit canvas, or questioned why - at times, there seemed to be more than one.
It had begun.