“Why is it the only future allowed in Christian literature is the future of Left Behind?” — Ken Pick, author
So with that remark, I determined to write a futuristic Christian apocalyptic tale that centers on south-central Pennsylvania that does not involve dabbling in Christian eschatology. I have since abandoned the work as I struggle with other commitments, but someday I will return to this uncertain future and weave a completed work of speculative Christian fiction. So far I have 20,000 words in total and someday I will return to the world of Brother Theodore Frazier of the Winchester Baptist Conclave as he quests with a bodyguard, a hedge witch, a master of wolves, and a little girl who is not at all 100% human. Just don't hold your breath. Also, I apologize for the roughness of the tale. Editing takes place after the story is completed. Thank you in advance for being merciful to an old writer.
By the bye, I wrote a Christmas tale when Brother Theodore and his team winter in Harrisburg. You can read the tale here.
By the bye, I wrote a Christmas tale when Brother Theodore and his team winter in Harrisburg. You can read the tale here.
THE LORD OF ALL FUTURES
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The Pastor and the Hedge Witch
The guard unlocked the door to the cell rooms and made the sign for protection from evil. The reek of years of frightened, incarcerated prisoners poured out of the open door.
“She’s in the back cell all alone by herself, Your Worship. Are you sure you won’t be wanting me in there with you?”
The cleric shook his head. “No. I will be fine.”
An obvious wave of relief came over the guard‘s face, then he sneered. “She hangs in the morning,” he said. “I doubt if even you can save her soul.”
A hint of anger flashed for a brief moment in the priest’s eyes. “I’ve never saved a soul,” he said, firmly fixing the guard’s gaze with his own. “That’s the business of God.”
The guard blanched for a moment. “Forgive me, Your Worship, it was just a figure of speech, but you know these hedge witches.”
“I will minister to her as best I can. You are free to leave, but leave me your keys. I will want to enter the cell.”
The guard hesitated. “I don’t think that’s wise, Your Worship . . .”
“Please,” the cleric said with an upraised hand with a sudden smile.. “Please call me Brother Theodore.” He held out his hand. “The keys?”
Reluctantly, the guard handed the keys over, dropping the heavy iron keys in the cleric’s palm. He opened the heavy wooden door further and Brother Theodore stepped into the cell room.
+ + +
Sarah MacClaran sat in her cell. Her eyes were red from crying, and she felt she had no more tears to shed. Since the violent death of her parents two months ago, she had wondered several times if her fountain of tears had eventually dried up, but the harsh realities of life discovered fresh springs within her heart. No matter. In a few short hours, she would hang from a gallows because of the fear and ignorance of the people she had only tried to help.
The heavy wooden door to the front of the cell room creaked open and Sarah looked up to see the guard admit a large man robed in homespun wool, a heavy hood obscuring his face. Aside from a simple rope tied around his waist, he wore no other clothing except for the well-worn sandals that peeked under his robe as he entered the room and walked toward her cell.
Sarah did not move off the wooden bench that served as both seat and bed. She sat, still hiccuping from her latest bout of tears, and watched as the man stood before the bars and stared at her from under the darkness of his hood.
Gently, he reached up and swept back the hood from his head showing a profusion of hair as red as her own. Curls of it adorned his head and red curls even adorned his mustache and beard, a framework of dark burgundy from which gray eyes studied her intently.
“Oh, Lord,” he said, and Sarah couldn’t say if he uttered the words as an oath or a prayer, “she’s just a child.”
Sarah hiccupped once as a flash of fire came to her eyes. “I’m fourteen winters old. I’m not a child.”
The cleric chuckled to himself. “No, you’re not. I’m sorry. This world makes us all grow up rather fast doesn’t it?” He studied her for a moment. “So I take it you’re a hedge witch.”
Sarah looked at the floor and didn’t answer. The priest spoke again.
“You do understand the townspeople are going to hang you in the morning?”
Again, Sarah did not respond except with renewed tears trickling down her cheeks.
“What did you do to make them so angry at you?”
It took a few moments for Sarah to speak, but then the words came in a torrent, not because she trusted this robed stranger, but because with her life now measured in hours, she needed somebody to talk to, somebody who would treat her like a human being instead of a freak.
“I did nothing,” she whispered. “There was a little boy. He was sick. I gave him one of my potions to take away the pain. It was just willow bark. I . . . I didn‘t ask his mother if I could.”
The priest waited in silence. He had heard the story, knew the townsfolk had exaggerated the story through fear, but he needed to know if this woman-child would speak truth.
“He died, didn’t he?” he whispered.
“Yes,” the girl whispered back through her tears. “And I don’t know why. The potion I gave him should have eased his pain, but his tongue swelled and he couldn’t breathe.”
“Yes,” the cleric said. “It’s called anaphylactic shock. The potion should have worked, but he was one of those rare people who had a severe allergy to the main ingredient in your potion.”
Sarah looked up in angry puzzlement. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” The priest shrugged. “I’m sixty-one years old. I was eight when The Change came. I remember terms from the Old World.”
Even hours from her death, the girl paused in sudden curiosity. “You remember technology?” she asked.
“Tell me,” the cleric said, ignoring her question. “How do you know what herbs and materials to use in your potions?”
The girl shrugged. “My mother taught me everything she knew, but now if I see a plant I’ve never seen before, I just have a rough idea what I can use it for.”
The man smiled. “Yes. That’s intuition. Before technology a lucky few had it, but the gods of technology chased it out of humanity.” He looked at her suddenly. “Do you worship any of the dark powers? Pray to them?”
“No,” came the angry response. “I don’t pray at all.”
“I can work with that,” he said. The priest looked over his shoulder at the door he entered. Taking the keys in his hand, he unlocked the heavy bolt. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Come. Let’s get you out of here.”
Sarah stared in amazement. “What are you doing? Is this a joke?” she whispered back.
“No joke. I need an herbalist and you’ll be perfect.”
“But the guard. . .”
“Trust me,” the cleric said in a low voice. “In the next room there’s only the front door and a window. You saw it when you were brought here? Good. When I go out the front door with the guard, you open the shutters and get outside into the alley. Behind the building there is a large wagon with a big man on watch. Tell him Brother Theodore sent you. He’ll get you out of here.”
“I don’t know if I can trust you.”
The man shrugged. “Then wait for the hangman. Your choice.”
With that, he spun on his heels and walked to the door, quickly opening it and closing it behind him. Sarah didn’t hear the lock latch.
Quickly, she left the cell and walked as quietly as possible to the door. Putting her ear to it, she could hear the cleric talking excitedly. She listened as the guard replied, and then after the sound of receding footsteps there was silence.
After a minute’s delay, Sarah opened the door. The main room was empty of furniture, the only light available from a guttering oil lamp. Outside, Sarah could hear muffled voices of people on the front porch of the jail.
The shutters on the window gave her no trouble. Quietly, she slipped outside into the cool predawn air. Starlight allowed her to make out dim shapes in the alley. Fortunately, the protruding eaves provided dark shadows just large enough for a young girl.
Sarah had no intention of going anywhere with the cleric. The horror that overtook her village and drove her to a life on the road also took away her ability to trust. However, once in the alley, she saw her options were limited. The large alley had only two exits. One led to the front of the building where she could still hear the cleric and the guard talking between themselves. The rear of the alley was blocked by what she supposed was the rear section of the cleric’s wagon.
Suddenly, Sarah squeezed herself against the wall as two men walked past the front entrance of the alley. They carried rope and simple tools and Sarah knew her time was up.
She held her breath as they joined in on the conversation on the jail’s porch.
In a swirl of homespun skirt, she whirled and ran toward the back of the alley, her leather sandals making no sound in the dirt. An unknown offer from strangers always won out over a certain date with a noose and if they were slavers, Sarah would find a way to escape. Two months on the road had hardened her to the realities of life and only the wily survived.
The wagon was a huge, enclosed affair. Gypsies would sometimes ride in wagons such as these where they could sleep, eat, and store the goods they traded in. The only adornments were tiny windows shuttered against the night and a tiny porch on the rear of the wagon, barely wide enough for a child to stand upon. Quickly moving to the front, she saw two huge, horses standing in their traces, their breath coming out faintly as mist in the cool air. On the buckboard sat a man, large and muscular. On both sides of him, hooded, twin oil lamps shed a weak light.
When Sarah came into view, the man reached for the sword at his side as quick as thought, but his hand paused on the hilt as their eyes locked. Scars covered the man’s arms and face and Sarah realized this fighter probably had scars over much of his body.
“Brother Theodore sent me,” she said breathlessly. The giant reached down a massive hand. Sarah grabbed it and with a mighty lift from the driver, she found herself sitting next to him on the buckboard.
The man grabbed the reins, clucked his tongue, and the horses began a slow, steady walk. His massive fist smacked open a small door behind him, opening into the interior of the dark unlit wagon. “Inside,” the man said. “We can’t let you be seen. Watch your head.”
The next moment, Sarah found herself in total darkness as the door shut behind her. Bracing herself against some type of wooden frame in the dark, she felt the wagon sway as it moved through the streets. Moments later, she heard the voice of the cleric and Sarah felt the wagon momentarily stop and then sway as Brother Theodore took his seat next to the driver. The door cracked open. “Okay in there?”
“Yes,” she said.
“We’ll be coming up on the gate in a few moments. Keep quiet if you want to save your neck.” The door shut with a click as the wagon restarted its movement.
A few minutes later, she felt the wagon come to a stop and heard the challenge by the night guard still on duty. After some chatter she could not fully make out, she heard the gates open and the wagon once again moved forward. She held her breath, but she heard no additional challenge.
Sarah slowly lowered herself down to sit on the floor inside the dark wagon. She had no idea what the future would bring, but she was leaving the village of Shippensburg in the demesne of Cumberland behind her and traveling further on into a world bereft of technology and overflowing with mystery.
+ + +
Sarah sat in darkness for an hour before the wagon came to a halt. The tiny door opened and the cleric stuck his head inside. “The sun is up,” he said. “We’re stopping for a quick breakfast.”
Blinking in the rising sun of a crisp September morning, Sarah crawled out onto the buckboard. They had stopped off a dirt road surrounded on one side by a meadow and on the other, a wooded hill sweeping up toward its summit. She could hear Brother Theodore and the driver puttering about in the back. Momentarily she considered running away into the woods. She was quick and light on her feet, but her stomach growled and as she had not eaten for the better part of a day, she thought better of it.
The driver poked his head around the back of the wagon, “Come and eat,” he ordered. Sarah didn’t need a second invitation.
The driver opened the rear door of the wagon and pulled out three small stools as the cleric pulled the lid off a small wooden bucket and rummaged around inside it. To Sarah’s delight, Brother Theodore took out dried meat, cheese, and some small rolls of hard, crusty bread.
While Sarah ate as one famished, the driver grabbed a small leather skin and was pouring weak, malted beer into jugs.
“Aren’t you afraid the town’s guards are going to catch up with us?” Sarah asked through a full mouth.
The cleric shook his head. “First, I doubt they will believe a cleric helped a hedge witch escape her own hanging. Even if they did chase us for some reason, we told the gate guard we were going south to Chambersburg. In truth, we’re heading north. To Carlisle.”
The driver had taken a seat on one of the stools. He cut his dried meat with a huge knife and ate it directly off the blade. “Because that’s where we are heading,” he rumbled.
Sarah took the hint and attacked her breakfast. She well knew that instead of eating and drinking alongside a Pennsylvania lane, she should be dangling from a hangman’s noose. She shuddered. “Thank you for getting my neck out of a noose,” she said.
“The pleasure is mine.” the cleric said simply. He took a swallow of the bitter beer. “Personally I don’t believe in hanging hedge witches. There are no real doctors anymore and it’s the herbalists that have to do. I do wish the locals would call them by that term instead of hedge witches.”
“But that’s what we are,” Sarah said. “I make potions, amulets, charms, pillows. My mother was a hedge witch and so am I.”
“It’s still not real magic,” the cleric said with a small contented belch. “You make your potions out of herbs? Your amulets and charms out of clay right? And then you soak them in essential oils? That’s herbalism. And you stuff your pillows with scented plants, true?”
He grinned in triumph. “No magic. Just an understanding of plants and shrubs and fungi. The real magic, if I can call it that, is the intuition you use in knowing what does what.”
Sarah thought best to avoid the conflict by ignoring it. “Is it true you remember technology? Is it true that people used to fly and ride in wagons that went as fast as the wind?”
A sad look of longing came to the cleric’s eyes.
“Oh, here we go again,” the driver said with an annoyed snort. He got up and opening the rear wagon door, began to collect dishes and put things away.
“Yes, I remember and Odell here has heard my story so many times he could tell it to you himself.
“As I said, I was eight years old when The Change came. That’s when the Islamic terrorists released a genetically-engineered bacterium that ate crude oil. They thought that if they plunged the world back into the age of their Prophet when there was no technology, their god, Allah, would rule supreme.
“And to the best of my knowledge, they have succeeded, but also to the best of my knowledge, the sons of Isaac made sure the sons of Ishmael didn‘t fare all that well for their audacity.”
Brother Theodore took a swig of his beer and flung the dregs on the ground. “That was in the year of our Lord, 2020, fifty-two years ago. I remember as the world ground to a halt, when the cities destroyed themselves rioting for food that never arrived. Then the plagues.”
He smiled at a sudden memory. “One thing my father told me before he died twelve years ago was that today the air is a lot more breathable and you can see the stars at night.”
“Did you ever fly?” Sarah asked.
The cleric shook his head. “No. Never flew, but I remember what airplanes and cars used to be, but that world is gone. Dead and gone. I’m sure we’ll get some technology back, but oil was so important. And what coal is left is so low-grade as to be almost worthless. Not that we’ve recovered enough technologically to pull it safely out of the ground. Or how to use it once we do.”
He looked at Sarah firmly. “Here’s how this works, child,” he said, suddenly changing the subject. “You are free to leave us whenever you want. You are not a slave. You will be safe with us. Odell and I are honorable men. If you brought your virginity with you, you will have your virginity when you leave us. I offer you safety, food, and a type of roof over your head. I need an herbalist with intuition. As long as you want, you can travel with us.”
‘Where are you going?” Sarah asked.
“North. My own intuition and God are steering me that way. I’m on a quest of sorts, but that’s not important to discuss now. The bottom line is I offer you the basics of life in return for your services as an herbalist as long as you want.”
Sarah knew she had no realistic choice. Her painful encounters with others had settled the matter of her virginity, but with this strange cleric and his scarred companion, she might have peace and a place of safety.
“I will travel with you,” she said simply. “And I can probably find herbs along the way to pay my way with hedge witchery.”
“Herbalism,” the cleric said.
“Hedge witchery,” Sarah said firmly. “If that title was good enough for my mother, it’s good enough for me.”
“Okay,” the cleric said in laughing defeat. “And what name do I call you, hedge witch?”
“Sarah MacClaran,” she replied.
“I am Brother Theodore Frazier of the Winchester Baptist Conclave. My companion is Odell Giles. I’m glad to have you on board. Now can you do anything about a touch of rheumatism?”
“If I find any cinquefoil, I can fix you up in a hurry,” Sarah said with some pride.
“Then,” the cleric said, “as my father used to say, ’This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’.”