Chapter 13: In the shadow of Sacred Mountain
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
Alex Bancroft stood up as I approached, and greeted me by saying, “I suppose if I told you I was sitting here waiting for the Prophesied One, you’d not appreciate the joke.”
I was not entertained by Alex’s sense of irony. “So why are you here?”
“Waiting here for you, in fact. I thought you might want to talk with me after your visit to Hilltop.”
I stopped about four feet away from Alex and eyed him carefully. “You must have an efficient spy network.”
That caused him to laugh. “If that’s what you want to think, so be it. But keep in mind that if I can track your whereabouts, probably the killer can, too.”
“Assuming you’re not one and the same.”
He nodded to that. “Or even if I am the killer. So be careful. Trust no one. And watch your back.”
“Does that include you?”
“Oh, especially me. Remember, I’m a suspect.” He clearly thought the notion quite amusing. That seemed to be his reaction to most things. “Which reminds me, I am also here to extend a dinner invitation. Jezebel, ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed,’ demanded I ask you to come to dinner. Officially, this is just hospitality on my part. Unofficially, Jezebel wants to quiz you endlessly about life in the great world out there, and how one becomes a detective. I think that has become her dream occupation this week. Last week she wanted to be the President’s mistress, because, as she puts it, ‘That’s where the real power is.’”
I had to smile at that. “I’m sorry to disappoint Jezebel, but Tanya’s probably got my dinner on the stove already.”
Alex puckered his lips. “You underestimate Jezebel. She has taken your acceptance for granted, and has already informed Tanya you’ll be eating with us. She even tried to talk Tanya into joining us, but Tanya’s not quite ready for that, yet.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be amused or annoyed, so I decided to go with the flow. “Then I guess I’m coming to dinner.”
The path we were on continued to hug the side of Sacred Mountain for some way before it descended to Lakeview. I noticed the Prophesied One kept glancing up at the mountain with an uncharacteristic frown. After the third time he did so, I asked, “You ever been up to the top of Sacred Mountain?”
He shook his head. “It’s off limits.”
He was evading my question, not for the first time. So I called him on it. “That’s not what I asked you. I asked if you’d ever been up there.”
Alex came to a stop and turned to look at me, frown still in place. “True, and I avoided answering because I didn’t want to. But the real answer is, yes, I’ve been up there.”
I was surprised he admitted he’d been evading my question. I wasn’t sure whether I should be pleased or annoyed. And I was curious, so I asked him, “What’s up there?”
He thought about it before answering. “Relics.”
“That’s not an informative answer.”
“Because an informative answer would take some time.”
I was not to be put off. “Then take the time. I’m not in a hurry to eat.”
Alex ran his hand through his hair, whether in annoyance or in thought I couldn’t tell. “How much do you know about what happened up there?”
“The Children held ceremonies up there.”
Alex looked up in the air and rolled his eyes. “Which says nothing about what really happened.” He paused and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe such ignorance. “The original use for Sacred Mountain was as a testing ground for Instruments. You didn’t become an Instrument until you spent a night up there and came back with Inspiration. Instruments who lost their Inspiration went back up there to have it restored to them.”
“What happened to Instruments if they didn’t get their Inspiration?”
Alex’s frown returned. “They died, variously from exposure or starvation. Several of them are buried up there. It was not thought worth erecting gravestones for them. After all, they’d failed as Instruments.”
He nodded. “The practice died out in the 1870s. Then in the 1890s, the refugees who founded North Village physically altered the mountain top to hold their ceremonies there. The rest of the Children were not invited, quite pointedly. It caused quite a stir at the time. The High Council didn’t like it, but they didn’t clamp down until the North Village Instrument leading the ceremonies, Lavinia Priest, mysteriously perished during one of them. The mountain top has been off limits ever since. Though it’s rumored that some Instruments still go up there surreptitiously to use it in the old way.”
Quite a story, with another one of the cursed Priests thrown in. It was more than I ever knew about the mountain or the Children’s history. Which raised a question. “How do you know all this, Alex?”
Alex rolled his eyes again and gave me a smile. “Despite my reputation, Emily, I don’t spend all my time wenching. The Children aren’t much interested in their history, by and large, but I’ve been reading the records, on and off, since the second year I came here.”
I was impressed. But I couldn’t help observing, “To judge from what I saw yesterday, you do well enough wenching. It was quite a harem. And all so young, too.”
Alex snorted. “My harem. You have no idea, Emily. That was mid-afternoon, when most adults are at work. Wait ’til you see me at dinner, enthralling all the older women, too. Why, I have to violate the rule of seven just to keep up with them all.”
Despite their reputation, I don’t know if the Children were ever for unrestricted sex, plain and simple. Maybe back in the dim past, though I presume the rules about rape and intergenerational incest were probably in place even then. And at some point in the past, they added the rule of seven, which actually has a well-known legend about its origin.
According to the legend, in the early days people could have an unlimited number of lovers. And several High Council members were known for having huge harems. I use the term “harem” advisedly, for while the Children generally made no distinction between the sexes when it came to sex, the story makes it clear that in those days it was men keeping a large number of women as lovers.
Then came Susannah Martin. Susannah, it is said, was so attractive she made fools of men without even trying, which was just as well because she is said to have had an insatiable sexual drive. By the time she was fourteen, Susannah had both a High Council and a “Low Council” of lovers. Supposedly she had bagged the entire 11-member High Council, which happened to be all-male at that date. And she had taken on an additional 11 lovers, all of whom were very young, unlike the High Council members. The legend goes on to tell that when she was brought to bed with a child, she almost died because the doctor couldn’t fight his way to the bedside through the 22 men claiming to be the father. There are even some versions of the tale that say that the doctor was among those claiming to be the father.
Susannah Martin was apparently too much even for the Children. They passed a rule that no one could have more than seven lovers in a month. Supposedly the number was set so that each lover could have at least one day a week with the beloved. And that is the rule of seven.
I once asked Selena about the legend, whether the story was true or not. Selena told me she had investigated using the old records. According to her, Susannah was real, the High Council did happen to be all male when she was between the ages of 16 and 20, Susannah never identified the fathers of any of her 12 children, and the rule of seven did date from that era. But the rest . . . it might be true, it might not, she could not say for sure.
I’d assumed that I’d be eating in the Prophesied One’s household with some of his followers. And that’s what happened, if you exclude the “household” part and number his followers as including most of Lakeview.
There’s a large pavilion on the lake that is used as a communal dining hall by many of the inhabitants of Lakeview. In the summer, the doors facing the lake are opened up, and one can walk from one’s table to a balcony and take in the view. That is where Alex Bancroft took me to eat.
Not that I spent much time talking with the Prophesied One. He had hardly entered the pavilion when he was approached by a middle-aged man who wanted Alex to talk with his children. And that was the way of it for the entire dinner. Alex would spend ten minutes at one table, five at another, nod to an acquaintance, hold a standing conversation with a group of people, and on and on. I noticed he always had a crowd gathered around him. Unlike the other day, they were a mix of ages and sexes, though there always seemed to be at least one nubile girl hanging on his every word.
Instead, I spent the entire meal answering questions from Jezebel Johnson. The girl wanted to know everything about my life in the outside world, from what college was like to living in a big city to dating men in the world. And she managed to fit in a lot of questions about being a detective, too, only some of which I could answer. To my surprise, more and more people stopped by to listen to Jezebel questioning me. I gathered Jezebel questioning someone was considered an event worth watching. And she was good at it, I have to admit. By the time I had finished eating a peach cobbler for dessert, there must have been at least thirty people listening to our exchange.
I was finally hauled out of there by a short, elderly woman with white hair and trifocals who told Jezebel to “stop plaguing the visitor with your endless questions,” and then good-humoredly chewed out the crowd gathered around us for encouraging Jezebel. She took me to her residence, which was an apartment in the Lakeview council’s building, all the while going on about how Jezebel puts every visitor to an inquisition. (I presumed she meant mostly Children from other villages, not outsiders such as myself.)
It wasn’t until we had sat down to tea together that she remembered she hadn’t introduced herself. “I’m Elizabeth Miller,” she said, “the secretary to the council for Lakeview and Hilltop, and I’m Jezebel’s guardian as well. Though I have to say I do a sorry job of it. The girl’s incorrigible. If Alex didn’t keep her in line most of the time she’d be running wild. But you musn’t mind her questions. She means well. She just doesn’t have the manners to know when to be polite and stop pestering a guest.”
I allowed as I hadn’t been too bothered.
“Well, good,” Elizabeth Miller replied. “Now you’re here investigating Stephen Nash’s murder, is that right?”
“Is there anything I can do to help? Any records you need checked?”
Inwardly I blessed my stars. At least something was breaking my way today. “I want to find out who’s using a building up at Hilltop. It looks like a stable which was partially converted into a small dwelling.”
Elizabeth Miller sat back in her chair, took some tea, leaned back again, and thought for a bit before she answered. “This is on the north side of the village? The apartment end is painted gray? The rest of it is unpainted, and I’m sorry to say rather shabby. That’s it?”
Elizabeth Miller smiled. “I praise the Divine that I still have a good memory at my age, because I rarely get up to Hilltop anymore. Too much of a climb. As for that building, they used to stable pack horses there, to go back and forth between Hilltop and North Village. We still use horses, of course, but it was such a bother to keep fodder handy for them up there that we stopped using that stable. But before it was shut down, the council put in an apartment for the stable keeper.”
“So who’s the stable keeper these days?”
Elizabeth Miller shook her head. “There hasn’t been a stable keeper for years. No, the last person to live there was the Instrument Jane Hale. She was a solitary sort, didn’t even talk with that many spirits as an Instrument, and died, oh, about five years ago. And then the apartment was left vacant. It’s still vacant now. I think the only person who uses it is Alex. He goes up there and stays overnight sometimes when he’s talking with the Instruments.”
End of chapter thirteen