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Dei Britannici by D.J. Butler - Baen Books


DEI BRITANNICI
A Prologue to Witchy Eye
D.J. Butler


“Please,” Father Edward Grant pleaded. “I believe this may be vital.”

The cold October rain skipped right past Grant’s tall boxy hat and poured down his neck. He shivered, despite the heavy cloak. He’d ridden a long way, dressed in priestly black in the hope that if he met Cromwell’s men, their respect for clergy might give him some protection.

“The general be in council.” The guard’s face was stony, but then relaxed, ever so slightly. He and his fellow soldiers wore Churchill’s red and white, faded and stained almost gray. “I wot who you be, Father. I were born and raised in Aldershot. St. George’s Road, just up the ’ill from your church.”

Grant seized the guard’s hands. The other man’s skin felt hot to the touch, the priest was so chilled from his two days’ ride over the North Downs and into the Weald. “Daniel!” he cried. “You’re the butcher’s son, I know you! I baptized you, Daniel!”

“Aye, you brought me to salvation, Father, but this ben’t the right moment for such recollections. I be on duty.”

The other guard, who hadn’t spoken, stepped forward and put a hand on Father Grant’s shoulder.

A breeze blew open the tent flap behind Daniel for just a moment, and Grant caught a glimpse of long curly white hair. Not the powdered white of an aristocrat’s periwig, but the glossy white of a man whose natural hair had turned that color prematurely, and framed within the silver curls, pale ivory skin.

“Sir Isaac!” Father Grant tightened his grip on Daniel’s hands, hearing the younger man’s knuckles pop. “Sir Isaac Newton, I see him in there in the council.” His mind raced.

“Aye, Father, he were invited General Churchill’s council of war, and you were not.”

“Only do this, and I will leave.” Grant shuffled back half a step, mud sucking noisily at his heels, but retained his grip on Daniel’s hands. “Only give Sir Isaac a simple message. If he is not interested, I will go away.”

The second guard grunted his disapproval, but Daniel nodded. “Aye then, Father. What be the message?”

“Tell Sir Isaac someone has stolen the Aldershot parish register. Sir Isaac, you understand. Sir Isaac must hear the message.”

The two guards looked at each other skeptically.

“I am not mad,” Grant said. “You know me, Daniel, I baptized you.” He sobbed once, saying the word baptized. Then he sniffed deeply, feeling the rain and chill begin to settle into his lungs. “You know I am not mad.”

“I wot you were not mad, Father.” Daniel took a deep breath. “And therefore I shall bear your message. Stay here.”

Daniel pushed the priest farther back. With an effort, Father Grant relaxed his hands and let Daniel go. The young guard from Aldershot stooped to enter the tent.

The second guard snarled, tilting his pike forward slightly in a threatening manner. “I be no Aldershot man, and I ken you not, sir. Keep your distance.”

Sir Isaac Newton exploded from the tent and into the rain. He was not dressed for the weather in his white shirt and breeches, but he plunged past the guard to grab Father Grant by the shoulders in a close embrace. He smelled like man who had not bathed in many days, and his fingernails were stained odd colors—alchemy, no doubt.

“The parish register of Aldershot!” Newton gasped. “Stolen! Are you certain?”

“I . . . I am the parson, Sir Isaac,” Father Grant stammered. “The lock was shattered with a musket ball, and nothing was taken but the register. You understand why I have come straight here, I think.”

“Damn it! Damn us!” Sir Isaac spun and dragged the priest with him toward the tent door. “Damn you!” he cried to the guard. “Damn the delay! Damn it all!”

He pulled Father Grant into the tent.

The interior was lit as well as warmed by torches, and further warmed by a small fire. All the flame left the tent smoky despite an open flap in the tent ceiling that let in a constant spatter of rain in exchange for venting some of the fumes. Standing around a light table bearing a map were men Father Grant didn’t recognize, other than Daniel the butcher’s son and, from his paintings, General John Churchill. The famous war leader had a shopkeeper’s face, but enviable hair, long, black, and thickly curled. He looked much better groomed than his wizard.

“Sir.” Father Grant executed his best bow, holding his dripping hat to his chest and keeping it there.

“My sergeant here says you’ve come to report a stolen register of baptisms,” John Churchill said.

“Aye,” Daniel said.

“And burials and weddings.” Father Grant nodded. “Though it’s the baptisms in particular that concern me.”

“And my thaumaturge Isaac is thereby distressed, though I do not for the life of me see why. Still, he is my wizard, and what is the point of having a magician in your company if you ignore his advice? Also, I find that the most surprising things become matters of life and death when one battles the Necromancer and his forces.”

One of the other men in the tent pressed a warm goblet into Grant’s hands. It smelled of wine and he gratefully took deep gulps, breathing as much as tasting the spices.

“It’s the Aldershot parish, John,” Isaac Newton said. “Aldershot.”

“A third of our men here today are from Aldershot,” Churchill said.

“Stolen,” Newton continued. “The church was broken into and nothing was stolen but the register.”

“They left the pyx and the chalice,” Father Grant said. “Pure silver. They left the poor box. So not ordinary burglars. Not looters.”

“And if Aldershot, why not Farnham?” Isaac said. “Why not Haslemere? Do you understand, John?”

John Churchill removed an octavo volume from his coat pocket and ran his fingers over the spine and cover. Father Grant caught a short glimpse of the book’s title and author, stamped in gold on the front: DEI BRITANNICI, WINSTON CHURCHILL. John’s father, a scholar whose researches into the ancient Britonic and Saxon religious practices of the island had earned him first censure, then praise, and ultimately a reputation for being a heretic.

“I am beginning to understand,” John Churchill said.

“I do not,” Daniel said, somewhat indignantly. The others ignored him and he kept his place.

“It is contagion.” Newton paced the tent in an erratic pattern, wheeling and retracing his steps, changing his angle radically with each turn. In his movements, he resembled nothing so much as a bee. An enormous, silver bee. “A person, having once been in contact with the Aldershot register—and at such a fragile and energy-ridden moment as baptism, at that!—must always be in contact with that register, from the point of view of a practitioner of gramarye. It’s an act of genius, if cruel genius. Do you think he has read the Principia? Good god, did I inadvertently teach the Necromancer his craft?”

I have read the Principia,” Father Grant said. “It is how I saw the problem.”

“There you have it, Isaac,” Churchill said. “If you gave the Necromancer this foul idea, then you also planted the seed of our salvation in the heart of this good parish priest.”

“Begging your pardon, Sir Isaac,” Grant added, “but in addition to neatly demonstrating the principle of contagion, might this not also be an example of the principle of sympathy?”

Newton stopped pacing and fixed Father Grant with a piercing eye. “How so?”

“The man’s name is like the man. Therefore the man’s name is the man. Especially at baptism, where the child is remade in a new image. What one does to the name, one does to the man. Or am I mistaken in my understanding?”

“It is indeed I, then, who have done this to us.” Isaac Newton’s eyes brimmed with sudden tears.

John Churchill snorted. “Oliver Cromwell was forty years on this earth before you ever saw your mother’s breast, Isaac. What on earth do you believe you can have taught him about magic?”

Father Grant, shocked by the sight of tears, struggled to recover. “Indeed, he may have come to similar conclusions from reading Albertus Magnus. Or Cornelius Agrippa, or other books. I once spent an hour in the library of a London Jew, who had the most astonishing texts.”

Churchill clapped his hand on Newton’s shoulder, nearly knocking the other man down, but he turned his attention to Father Grant. “Is Albertus Magnus part of your lectionary cycle, Father? That seems rather off the beaten path.”

Father Grant looked down at his hat. “I aspired as a younger man to wear the red. To be an adept of the Humble Order of Saint Reginald Pole. Only I hadn’t the talent for it.”

“That’s too bad,” Churchill said. “I’d trade a lot for few more solid Polites.”

Isaac Newton straightened his back, his grief falling off him like red leaves blown off by an autumn storm. “But this parish priest had done you better service than many a wizard would be able, John. Thanks to his warning, we have a chance.”

The flattery from Sir Isaac, his participation in the discussion with such eminent men, and the danger he knew loomed over them all boiled together in Father Grant’s veins and thrilled his heart. “A nighttime raid?” he suggested. “Have you men bold and able enough to creep into the Necromancer’s camp and steal back the register?”

John Churchill blinked at him. “Is that where the book is, then?”

Grant faltered. “I don’t . . . I thought . . .”

“They could be anywhere,” Sir Isaac said grimly. “For all we know, he has the register of every parish in Hampshire locked up in the Tower of London and is there preparing to incorporate them into some unhallowed spell.”

“What is his intent, do you think?” Churchill asked.

Isaac Newton’s expression was grave. “I hope it is merely to kill all your soldiers, John.”

Daniel the butcher’s son gasped audibly.

“Quite,” Churchill agreed. “I’d rather have them dead than raised against me as more of those rotting Lazars.”

“A counter-spell!” Father Grant suggested. “We gather the men in a church until the danger is passed, and we ward the church, further, against the Necromancer’s black art.”

“Isaac’s black art, you mean.” Churchill chuckled. “No, I think not.”

“How would you know when the Necromancer had tried his spell and failed?” Newton pointed out. “Even assuming I could create a counter-spell that would defend against such an attack. It is I who am to do this, is it not? When you say we, Father, do you not mean Isaac Newton shall do it?”

Father Grant wanted to apologize for his presumption, but what came out was a mumble, incoherent even to himself.

“What about silver, John?” Newton asked. “How much have we got?”

Churchill shrugged. “This army marches more on paper redeemable with the Knights of Saint John than it does on specie, Isaac. I doubt I have enough coins to give each man a silver shilling to clutch.”

“And that might not be enough to protect them, in any case.” Newton frowned.

“I have a different idea.” Churchill’s eyes gleamed.

“Tell us,” Father Grant said.

“I have a conceived a scheme that should save the men of Aldershot,” Churchill said, “as well as any other men whose baptismal records Cromwell has stolen. And it won’t exhaust my wizard or cost me silver. And indeed, it should allow us to lay a trap for the Necromancer’s men.”

“It certainly sounds good, John,” Newton said. “What other miracles might it accomplish, this plan of yours?”
Churchill smiled slyly. “It will make of Father Grant here a sort of magician.”

“No,” Edward Grant murmured. An uneasy feeling pinched his stomach. “I don’t see how that could possibly be true.”

“Father Grant,” Churchill said, “I think you are the only man who can save the Aldershot lads from the Necromancer now.”

Grant’s knees trembled. He drained the last of his goblet and set it on the table. “What do you need?”

“Sergeant,” Churchill said to Daniel, still standing in the door of the tent. “I need you to round up every stray animal in camp. Let us spare the horses, if we may, but every other animal. I mean very cow, goat, dog, cat, rat, and mouse you and your men can find. If it were less cold, I’d set you to trapping snakes as well. My orders, no exceptions, any man resisting is to be knocked unconscious. Am I clear?”

“Aye, sir.” Daniel offered a weary salute and exited.

“And me?” Grant asked. “What do you need me to do?”

“First,” Churchill said, “I need you to steel your conscience.”

##

His sobs long since exhausted with the rainfall, his eyes red and his heart black, Father Grant crouched in the gorse thickets on a ridge overlooking Churchill’s camp. With his travel cloak wrapped around him and his hat pulled down low, he should be invisible from the valley, a black blotch against the dark green gorse. Dawn was near. At the edge of camp, the horses grazed where they had been picketed, blissfully unaware anything had happened.

Churchill’s men lay strewn about camp. Some were on cots, others in tents, some on the ground beneath trees, others slumped forward at watch posts. The fires, hammered by rain until midnight, were now almost extinguished.

At the far end of the valley, the sound of marching.

Unnatural marching; too regular, too wooden.

The horses heard it first, and responded. They pulled at their pickets, they whinnied in protest.

Father Grant, alone in the gorse where John Churchill had left him, forced himself to watch.

The men of Essex and Kent, the Roundheads, came into view first. They wore the Necromancer’s black and brown. They carried muskets over their shoulders and bandoliers of cartridges over their chests. Their marching was disciplined enough, but it was human.

Behind the easterners came the Models.

They were the height of men, and some had faces painted onto their knob heads. Garish red devil faces, or crooked crimson grins under green hair, or bright yellow circles with black dots for eyes. Some also had black uniforms painted on their wooden bodies, but many were unfinished, showing garishly what they were—wooden puppets, the height of men, holding spears. Age, weather, and battle had chipped and splintered them, leaving many of them as spiny as hedgehogs.

Puppets without strings.

Murderous, man-sized marionettes.

It was the Models, walking on broad wooden feet the size of tree stumps and stepping forward together, as perfectly synchronized as a clock, that made the unearthly sound of the Necromancer’s advance. Their joints clicked as they walked, and the movement caused the wood of their long limbs to creak like a forest in the wind.

The Roundheads reached the first watchmen, still at the edge of camp. They rolled the guards onto their backs, and then a collective cheer went up from Cromwell’s army.

Several of the soldiers bayoneted the already dead men, to be sure.

Father Edward Grant had saved Daniel and the other Aldershot lads from that fate, at least.

The other Roundheads broke rank and ran forward to loot the camp.

The Models stopped where they were. Controlled by the Necromancer, or by one of his sorcerous lieutenants, they had no lust for booty like that which drove their mortal colleagues.

Grant felt sick to his heart.

The Roundheads rushed forward. Most threw their muskets into the grass, anxious not to be burdened and slowed down by the cumbersome Brown Besses in their race to get their hands on silver rings, gold teeth, pay packets, even fresh food.

As the Roundheads flooded into camp a sudden horn blew.

At the horn’s signal, every man of Aldershot and every other man in Churchill’s Hampshire Corps sat up, took aim, and fired. A ragged BOOM rang out over the valley, wreathing the scene in blue smoke at the exact moment that a crescent sliver of orange sun rose in the eastern sky.

Roundheads fell on all sides.

In Edward Grant’s ears, the booming of the guns sounded like the ringing of the bell. Once for each man in the camp, and the last time for himself.

Stunned, disbelieving, most of Cromwell’s men only stopped their efforts to loot and stared instead. Churchill’s men fired again; each had lain within reach of as many loaded muskets and pistols as possible.

John Churchill’s men rose with pikes, bayonets, and swords, and charged into the unresisting Roundheads. In Grant’s mind’s eye, the book of the Gospels slammed shut. Again and again, once for each man who fell.

“Pikemen, form up!” Churchill strode from his tent with a pistol in each hand, hair flying behind him. It made a grand entrance, and for good effect, he fired the pistols at the Models.

The Models charged.

“Fire!” Churchill yelled.

He did not mean guns. As the Models crashed into the pikemen and slowed, becoming entangled with the long spears and halberds that tried to push them away, another dozen men charged from Churchill’s tent. Daniel the butcher’s son was one of them, and they held bottles in their hands. The bottles were stopped up with oily rags, and the rags themselves were burning.

In a frayed wave, the bottles hurtled through the air. Maybe half of them missed, but even those that struck the ground shattered, splashing the Models with flaming oil. The direct hits were even more impressive, coating the Models in some cases nearly from ball-like head to clomping foot in sheets of flame.

Some flaming Models managed to crash through the pikemen. If anything, the Models were more terrifying when aflame—their mere touch wounded, and one of them scooped up two of Churchill’s men, one in each arm, and hugged them screaming to its chest as it collapsed, all three of them destroyed by the fire.

All three, snuffed candles.

But mostly, with Cromwell’s musketeers fleeing, Churchill’s men had only to hold back the Models while they burned down to cinders.

When the last Model was a heap of embers, Father Edward Grant staggered down through the gorse.

All night long, one at a time. He had asked each man in camp his full Christian name, and then by bell, book, and candle, he had excommunicated them. He had started with John Churchill, who’d done it, he said, to set the example, and he’d done it holding his father’s book. Isaac Newton followed, then Daniel the butcher’s son, and last of all Father Edward Grant.

Whose name, after all, was also in the Aldershot parish register.

Paradox. He had excommunicated himself, and God must have accepted it, because Father Edward Grant yet lived. But that was not blasphemy enough. Saving his own life by renouncing heaven was not vile and venal enough for this black night, no.

To know for certain when the spell had been cast, John Churchill suggested, and also to give the Necromancer the impression that his magic was succeeding, Isaac Newton added, they had agreed it was important that something die.

After excommunicating each man, therefore, Father Edward Grant had baptized an animal by the same name. Cats, dogs, mules, vermin. Baptized and then penned up, tethered, or caged, and last of all to receive baptism had been a scrawny brown mouse christened and baptized Edward Grant. In that one final case, Grant had baptized the mouse first, hoping he might still then have the authority to do so, before excommunicating himself.

He shook at the memory.

The animals had died one at a time, simply dropping in their tracks. Churchill had organized his battle plan and given his men orders, then sent Grant up onto the ridge to be out of harm’s way.

Now, as Grant staggered down the hillside, cold and bone-tired, feeling a fever begin to burn up his forehead, Churchill strode forward to meet him. Daniel the butcher’s son followed a few paces behind.

“Father!” Churchill called, opening his arms to embrace him.

Grant accepted the embrace, reciprocating it but little. “No,” he said, “I am no father. Indeed, I am not Edward Grant.” He reached into the pocket of his coat and took out the little brown mouse, stiff and cold. “This was Edward Grant. Father Grant, Christian.”

Churchill looked at his face carefully. “Maybe. But if so, then you are Edward Grant, magician. Edward Grant, hero. Edward Grant, the man who saved England.”

Grant was too numb to respond. Instead he staggered on. “I must gather the animals up.”

“Why?” Churchill asked.

“They died Christian beasts. They deserve Christian burial. God forbid one of your men try to eat a baptized sheep. In the eyes of God and the church it might be cannibalism.”

“I’ll help you,” Daniel offered. “I’ll dig a grave for each, if you like.”

Churchill chuckled uneasily. “Of course.”

Grant took a few more unsteady steps.

Then he collapsed, but Daniel caught him.

Churchill called again. “You really have saved England, you know!”

“You’ve saved me,” Daniel whispered. “You brought me to salvation again, Father.”

“Have I?” Grant stopped, not looking back but gazing on the camp, where Churchill’s men now looted the bodies of the Roundheads for their bits of silver and copper, their weapons and ammunition. He looked up into Daniel’s face, blunt and honest and wearing a look of mixed pride and surprise. “Perhaps. And have I also damned England? Have I damned you, Daniel? Have I damned us all?”


Copyright © 2017 D.J. Butler


D.J. (“Dave”) Butler grew up in swamps, deserts, and mountains. After messing around for years with the practice of law, he finally got serious and turned to his lifelong passion of storytelling. He now writes adventure stories for readers of all ages, plays guitar, and spends as much time as he can with his family. He is the author of City of the Saints, Rock Band Fights Evil, Space Eldritch, and Crecheling from Wordfire Press, and Witchy Eye from Baen Books. This story is set in the world of Witchy Eye. Read more about Dave and his writing at http://davidjohnbutler.com, and follow him on Twitter: @davidjohnbutler.


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