She couldn't be certain of this. She was no doctor.
Of one thing she was sure, though. With his arrival, the mood of the Grasstrail Train changed. Why? Perhaps this: If the poor creature had been beaten to within an inch of his life, and lived, there might be hope for all of them. Think about it: His face hadn't been scraped. People relaxed. The nasal buzz of prayers around the supper campfire gave way to a quieter mood. Song returned, in time.
We'll make it. We deserve to. The privilege of life has been accorded us, see? We've been saved. Must be for a reason. Spines straightened, eyes grew bright and moist in a rapture of gratitude at the plan of the Unnamed God.
Another week and they had rounded the landmark rocks that marked their U-turn north, and they left behind them in the Disappointments the greatest threat of ambush.
In this month of Summersend, the wind flicked the strands of oakhair in the forest that grew between the lakes. Squirrels spilled nuts on the skarkskin roofs of the wagons. The air was more watery, too, though both lakes were out of sight beyond the miles of woods on either side.
As the oakhair forest thinned and they reached the Shale Shallows, the shady surround and homely walls of an old settlement solidified in the middle of walnut-colored fields. The first stone building they'd seen in six weeks. Despite its steep, aggrieved gables and pinched outbuildings, despite its battlement defenses, nothingnot even the Emerald Citycould seem more welcome a sight just then.
"The Cloister of Saint Glinda," they buzzed. "How holy it appears."
The maunts who lived within were divided into ranks. Some took vows of silence and lived cloistered. Others took vows of indulgence.
Under the Jackal Moon
They indulged in teaching, tending the sick, and operating a hostelry for those traveling between the southern Kells and the Emerald City. So the broad carved doors were swung open when the Grasstrail Train pulled up. The welcoming committee, a band of three middle-aged maunts with well-starched collars and bad teeth, stood at attention.
They greeted Oatsie with frosty politeness. They were suspicious of any unmarried woman who had found a way to live single, apart from female community. Still, they offered her the traditional wipe of the face with sweet rosefern. A fourth maunt, sequestered behind a screen, played a welcoming anthem, poorly. Harp strings snapped, and the sound of a most unmauntish oath issued forth.
The travelers didn't care. They were almost in heaven. To anticipate beds!and a warm meal!and wine!and a captive audience, ready to thrill at the story of their journey!
In this last item, though, the maunts gave bad value for money. At once their attention was riveted by the invalid. They carried him into the loggia and hurried to collect a stretcher so he could be hauled upstairs to the infirmary.
The maunts were beginning to shift the fellow to private quarters when the Superior Maunt wafted by, fresh from her morning devotions. She greeted Oatsie Manglehand with the least of nods, and glanced upon the broken lad for a moment. Then she waved her hands: Remove him.
She said to Oatsie, "We know him. We know this one."
"You do?" said Oatsie.
"If my memory hasn't begun to fail me," the Superior Maunt continued, "you should know him, as well. You took him from us some years ago. Fifteen was it, twenty? At my age I don't apprehend the passage of time as I ought."
"He'd have been a child twenty years ago, an infant," said Oatsie. "I never took an infant from a mauntery."
"Perhaps not an infant. But you took him just the same. He traveled with a disagreeable novice who served for several years in the hospice. You were conveying them to the castle stronghold of the Arjikis. Kiamo Ko."
The foregoing is excerpted from Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire, pages 1-8. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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