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ON THE COVER
Speaks The Nightbird
By Robert McCammon
May, 2007, 16:10

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(In this excerpt from Speaks The Nightbird, Matthew Corbett has his first encounter with the wily and sex-obsessed preacher Exodus Jerusalem, who has come to Fount Royal to make his own use of the witchcraft trial of Rachel Howarth. This scene takes place in the gaol—the “jail”—where Rachel is imprisoned and Matthew also is serving a three-day sentence for an altercation with a blacksmith.)

Matthew and Rachel had heard the commotion, Paine’s speech, and the voices of the men outside the door, so they knew what to expect. Exodus Jerusalem first paused before Matthew’s cage and peered through the bars. “Who art thee?”

“My clerk,” Woodward said, his voice all but vanished.

“He is present to keep watch?”

“I’m present,” Matthew said, “because I have been sentenced for three days due to an incident I regret.”

“What?” Jerusalem pursed his lips. “A magistrate’s clerk has become a criminal? This too must be the witch’s doing, to undermine the trial.” Before Matthew could reply, Jerusalem’s head swivelled toward the other cell and his gaze fell upon Rachel, who sat on her bench with her sackcloth cloak pulled around her but her face exposed.

There was a long silence.

“Ah, yes,” Jerusalem said at last, “I see a deep pool of sin in that one.” Rachel gave no reply, but she did return his stare.

“Look how she glowers,” Jerusalem said. “Like a hot flame, eager to burn mine heart to a cinder. Wouldst thou delight in flying me to Hell on the wings of a crow, woman? Or wouldst thou be content to drive nails through mine eyes and split mine tongue in two?” She didn’t answer, choosing to shift her gaze to the straw. “There! Dost thou see? The evil in her quakes before me, and she cannot bear to look longer upon mine face.”

“You’re half right,” Rachel said.

“A taunt, it seems! She’s a witty bitch.” Jerusalem walked past Matthew’s cell and stood next to the bars of the other cage. “What is thy name?”

“A witty bitch,” she answered. “You have already named me.”

“Her name is Rachel Howarth,” Bidwell said, standing behind the preacher.

“Needless to say, she is very uncooperative.”

“They always are.” Jerusalem curled his long, slender fingers around the bars. “As I say, I have had much experience with witches. I know the evil that hath eaten their hearts and blackened their souls. Oh yes, I know.” He nodded, his eyes fixed on Rachel. “This one hath committed two murders, is that correct?”

“Yes. She first murdered our Anglican reverend and then her own husband,” Bidwell answered.

“No, thou art wrong. This witch became the bride of Satan when she spilled the blood of a reverend. She hath also bewitched thy crops and the minds of thy citizens?”

“Yes.”

“Conjecture,” Matthew had to say. “So far unproven.”

Jerusalem looked sharply at him. “What sayest thou?”

“The evidence is not yet complete,” Matthew said. “Therefore the charges against Madam Howarth are still unproven.”

“Madam Howarth, didst thou say?” Jerusalem gave a slight, chilly smile.

“Thou dost refer to the witch with respect? Gentlemen, I fear we are witnesses to the corruption of a young man’s soul. It is a witch’s evil desire to drag into Hell as many persons as demonically possible. In the Old World, entire towns were burned to the ground and their citizens hanged because they were corrupted by a single witch.”

“That may be so,” Matthew replied, “but this is the New World.”

“Old World or New, the eternal battle between God and Satan remaineth the same. There is no middle ground. Either thou art a Christian soldier on one side or a pawn of the Devil on the other. Where dost thou stand?”

It was a nice trap, Matthew realized. He also, for the first time, realized the convolutions of warped logic that had been brought to bear against Rachel. “If I say I stand on the side of truth,” he answered, “does that make me a soldier or a pawn?”

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