Proctor Brown urged his horse into the shallows, fording the Potomac River an hour before sunset. Water splashed up and soaked his shoes; after ten days in the saddle, with his stockings almost as stiff as his legs, he hardly noticed wet shoes. If he found the Walker farm tonight, he’d have a chance to dry off and clean up. Assuming he was welcome.
The jarring lunge up the far bank reminded him that he was more accustomed to being behind a horse, hitched to a cart or plow, than on top of one. He grunted, shifting weight from his sorest parts to those parts almost as sore. A day of rest could be a good thing. It might take that long to convince Alexandra Walker to return with him to The Farm outside Salem, Massachusetts. It depended on how vividly she remembered the assassins sent to kill them during her last visit.
Proctor wanted her help, in case the killers came again. It took a witch to defeat witchcraft, and Alexandra was stronger and more experienced than any of the other witches he’d been able to find this past year.
When they reached the road, Proctor’s sturdy little bay mare turned toward the smoke and rooftops a mile away. “No, Singer, the other way,” he said.
With a weary toss of her head, Singer circled onto the cart road that led south into the Shenandoah Valley. Even this late in the day, the August air lay on them like a damp wool blanket, one that had been warmed by a fire and filled with biting insects. Land stretched out around them, lush and green, all the way to the mountains.
So this was Virginia, the home of General Washington and half the leaders of the Revolution. Last night about this time, Proctor had arrived in McAllister’s Town, Pennsylvania, where the innkeeper at The Sign of the Horse bragged about Thomas Jefferson’s visit the previous April. Jefferson had praised the inn’s sausages, which were made by the innkeeper’s cousin. The sausages were good, but Proctor doubted that he’d slept in the very same room as Jefferson, no matter what the innkeeper claimed. Still, it had been worth the extra half a shilling to get that close to the author of the Declaration of Independence.
Proctor pushed back his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he scanned the landscape. He was a bit twitchy, wary even. This was the farthest he had ever been from home. The crickets chuckled at him from the safety of the tall grass that lined the trail.
Something rustled through that grass, startling him from his thoughts. Proctor reached for his musket, but by the time he sighted down the barrel, whatever had been there was gone.
He tried to convince himself that it was only a stray dog, or maybe a pig loose from some nearby farm. He knew that he’d been jumpy ever since the battles with the Covenant last year. Being this far from home only made him jumpier.
Not that he needed more reasons to be jumpy. As a young man in Massachusetts, he’d been forced to conceal his talent for magic lest his neighbors turn on him. But ever since the battle at Lexington, he’d needed that magic to spoil the plots of the Covenant, a mysterious group of European witches who wanted to crush the American rebellion. The Covenant’s ultimate purpose remained hidden, but the stakes were so high that they’d murdered other American witches and had tried several times to kill Proctor. Not just kill him, but turn the magic in his blood into a curse against American soldiers.
He rolled down his sleeves to cover the pink scars on his forearms, a memento from that particular encounter. Thanks to Deborah, he’d survived and they’d reversed the Covenant’s spell before the battle at Bunker Hill.
Deborah Walcott. Prior to the war, Proctor had been engaged to Emily Rucke, the beautiful daughter of a West Indies merchant, the kind of young woman everyone noticed. These days only Deborah filled his thoughts, though she kept herself plain as a Quaker and tried, like every witch he knew, to go unobserved.
What Deborah couldn’t hide was the spark inside her. When the Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, she perceived the new danger.
“The Covenant will strike back hard,” she told Proctor. “Only a third of Americans support the rebellion. If the Covenant can make a mockery of independence and break our will to fight, people will go running back to Mother England like chastened children.”
Which was why they needed every witch who could detect or break a spell, including Alexandra Walker—who, when they’d seen her last, wanted nothing to do with magic ever again.
One of the farms ahead, rooftops silhouetted against the sky, must be hers. The sudden return of his thoughts to the present caused him to tense. Something was wrong.
The crickets had fallen silent.
A figure loomed suddenly beside the road, and Proctor raised his musket. Then he realized it was only a scarecrow, made real by the twilight.
As he relaxed, a small flash of light revealed the creature’s distorted face, with intense, malevolent eyes and a sneering mouth.
Proctor started in the saddle, jerking on the bridle, and Singer flared her nostrils and came to a stop. The figure that he’d taken for a scarecrow emerged from the shadows as a man, his face lit red by the hot coal of his pipe.
“Good day,” the stranger said, lifting his pipe stem. He wore a pair of calfskin gloves, even in this miserable heat.
“Good night is more like it,” Proctor said. It was no wonder he had mistaken the man for a scarecrow. The stranger’s jacket was of foreign cut, plum-colored with relics of silver embroidery on the cuffs and pocket-flaps. A golden velvet waistcoat was mismatched to a red silk scarf tied about his throat. His tattered wig was topped by a ragged bicorn hat sporting a cock’s feather. The feather was surely the freshest piece of the motley ensemble.
“It’s good to see a young man heading away from the war, instead of rushing off to join the rebels,” the stranger said. His voice was hollow, his accent as odd as his clothes.
Proctor bristled. He’d risked his life in the war, and he had been cut off by his mother for using magic to fight it. He believed it was the right thing for the country and was glad the Declaration of Independence had been issued, even if it meant renewed fighting.
“I’ve served as a minuteman and would rather be thought a patriot than a rebel,” Proctor said. “Do you have something against independence?”
“No, just against—” He puffed out a cloud of tobacco smoke, pausing as he searched for the right word. “—pointless bloodshed. No offense intended, young man.”
“None taken,” Proctor said, though the young man irritated. Singer stamped her hooves aggressively, the way she did when strange dogs came too close. It would be best to move on. “I’m looking for the Walker farm. You wouldn’t happen to know where it is?”
“The Walker farm?” A smile spread slowly across the stranger’s face. “That’s a coincidence. I’ve just come from the Walker farm. Follow the trail up to the big oak with the blaze on it. Then turn to the left and climb over the hill. That’s where you’ll find it.”
“Is it far?” Proctor asked. He wondered how the stranger knew the Walkers. The way Alexandra talked, her parents and brothers were all ardent patriots.
“It’s a mile, maybe a bit more,” the stranger said. “Be careful or you’ll miss it in the dark.”
“May I have your name?” Proctor asked. “So that I may remember your kindness to me to the Walkers.”
The stranger puffed on his pipe again and blew out another small cloud of smoke. “Bootzamon,” he said finally. He chuckled, as if at some private joke. “Folks around here call me Bootzamon.”
“Thank you, Mister Bootzamon,” Proctor said. With a tip of his hat, and more than a bit of relief, he kicked Singer’s sides and headed up the trail.
A hundred feet on, he stole a glance over his shoulder. For a second Bootzamon once again appeared to be a scarecrow standing at the edge of the road. Then the coal flared in his pipe, destroying the fancy, and Proctor turned away from the strange man.
He followed the ruts of the road to the blazed oak standing on the little knoll just where Bootzamon said it would be. Proctor tried to stand in the saddle to look through the trees for some sign of a house, but soreness constrained him to craning his neck. The wind shifted and brought to his nose the scent of cheap tobacco. It smelled like Bootzamon’s pipe; the stranger had probably refilled his tobacco pouch at the Walkers.
He rode down the trail until the dark shape of a primitive house emerged from the trees. Rough-hewn logs, chinked with mud and stones, supported a roof with a single chimney. The plank door stood wide open, but no light shone within.
The hairs tingled on the back of Proctor’s neck. He reached into his pocket for a handful of salt, in case he needed to cast a quick protective spell.
“Hello,” Proctor shouted. “Alexandra. Mister Walker, Missus Walker.” His voice carried past the house, bringing back no reply but the chirping of the crickets.
Nothing appeared wrong. The garden looked well tended, as much as he could see of it in the twilight beyond the split-rail fence. So did the field of corn just past the house.
He dismounted slowly, grunting as he hit the ground. After tying Singer to a narrow stump that seemed meant for that purpose—it was next to a trough made from a dugout log—he limped over to the house.
“Hello,” he cried again, leaning into the open door.
Something smelled wrong, sharp and metallic, but the smoke-stench from the hearth overwhelmed it. It was too dark to see anything without a light. He suddenly wished that he’d done a scrying before continuing his journey today, but he hadn’t seen a need and he hated to risk doing magic where he might be caught.
He stepped cautiously inside.
“Hello! Is anyone home?”
His nose wrinkled again at the smell. The shadows within marked out two rooms. He stepped into the one on his left and slipped in something on the floor. His shoulder banged the wall, but he caught himself before falling.
He rubbed his sore shoulder. A few coals glowed red in the hearth, enough to start a fire for some light. He still had that wary itch at the back of his neck, but he dismissed it. That odd Bootzamon fellow had just been here, and he’d mentioned nothing wrong.
Proctor shuffled forward, moving his feet carefully to keep from slipping again or tripping over some stray piece of furniture. When he reached the hearth, he groped in the dark until he found the iron poker. He repeated the effort until he located the basket of tinder and wood. Using the poker to stir the coals, he blew on them and fed them dried twigs and branches until they leapt into flames.
Outside, Singer whinnied. Proctor knew he needed to go out and remove the mare’s saddle and rub her down. Or maybe it was the Walkers returning.
“Hello, in here!” Proctor called. He added wood to the fire and prodded the coals until the room glowed orange and red.
Singer whinnied again. Proctor turned his head toward the door, conscious that the crickets had fallen silent.
His gaze shifted from the door to the room.
Not all the red was cast by fire.
He jumped back. The iron clattered off the stone hearth as he dropped it. Blood was smeared everywhere. He checked the bottom of his shoe—he’d slipped in a pool of wet blood on his way in. It was fresh. A woman’s body lay under the table. The top of her head was missing. A man’s broken body, cut to bloody ribbons, was folded against the wall.
“Jesus,” Proctor whispered.
“Funny, that’s who they called on too,” said a voice that made Proctor jump again.
Bootzamon stood framed in the doorway. For just a second he looked like a scarecrow. Then his pipe flared, and he blew out a stream of smoke.
“Mister Bootzamon,” Proctor said, trying hard to keep his voice steady. “What happened here?”
Bootzamon shook his head sadly. “It appears to be an Indian attack. Exactly how old are you, young man?”
“Turned twenty-two this past month,” Proctor answered in reflex. He looked for a way past Bootzamon, remembering that the Covenant’s assassins had come to The Farm dressed as Indians last year. “What makes you say it’s Indians?”
“See, that’s too bad,” Bootzamon said. “My master wants young witches only. ‘Catch the young ones, kill the old.’ I couldn’t find the Walker girl, but I got to thinking you might be young enough to take her place.”
His cockfeather brushed the lintel as he stepped through the door. One arm hung at his side, the gloved hand casually dangling a bloody tomahawk.
Proctor saw the weapon, but he felt magic tickle the back of his neck. Worse than murder had been done here already. He reached into his pocket for his bag of salt while his thoughts raced for the right protective spell. Keeping his eye on Bootzamon, he sprinkled salt in a quick circle around himself. “The Lord is my rock and my fortress, my deliverer. Deliver me from my strong enemy—”
“Bosh,” Bootzamon said around the pipe stem in his lips. He removed the pipe and blew smoke toward Proctor. A wind slammed through the house, banging open the window shutters and scattering Proctor’s circle of salt.
The wind died, and Bootzamon stood there, tapping the tomahawk against his palm.
“You’re a witch,” Proctor whispered, and then felt foolish for saying it. His own use of magic was too slow, too useless for this kind of fight. He bent down quickly and snatched up the iron.
“Not precisely a witch,” Bootzamon said. “But I may be a ghost—boo!”
Bootzamon chuckled and danced closer to Proctor. “Or I may be an Indian.” The last word came out with a sneer as he swung the tomahawk at Proctor’s head.
Proctor banged the tomahawk aside with the iron, then reversed his swing and slammed the metal bar into his attacker. It was like hitting a bag of sticks and straw. The tomahawk flew one way and Bootzamon the other. He hit the far wall, crumpled to the floor, and then popped up again, pipe in mouth. He reached up and recocked his hat, then licked his gloved finger and ran it along the edge of the feather.
“What are you?” Proctor asked.
“What are you?” Bootzamon retorted. “I’ll tell you what you are—you’re nothing but a miserable bag of snot and bones, piss and Scheiße. And, sadly, too old to be of use to me.”
Bootzamon stretched his hand toward the tomahawk. The weapon slid toward him across the floor, the blade scratching a line through the blood, and flew up into his hand. The flickering light from the fire cast a sinister glare over his features, distending and exaggerating them.
He blocked the only path to the door.
Fear shot through Proctor like fire through dry grass. He turned and leapt headfirst through the open window. He slammed into the ground, and the air crashed out of him, but somehow he held on to the poker.
Bootzamon flew through the window and landed nimbly on his feet next to Proctor.
Proctor rolled away, rising, swinging the poker as he stumbled upright. Bootzamon was either a witch, doing magic, or he was a creature made from magic, like the animated corpses that had attacked Proctor and Deborah on The Farm that dark night the year before. Either way, the magic had a focus. Break the focus, break the spell.
He retreated around the corner of the house, watching Bootzamon follow him with an almost casual step. The coal from the pipe cast a thread of light along the cockfeather in his hat. Roosters were the focus of all sorts of black magic. The cockfeather must be the focus—it made perfect sense.
“I smell you,” Bootzamon said. “Even a corncob nose can smell the stink of sweat and hunger, fear and death on you.” He pulled the pipe from his mouth and held it down at his side. “I smell you—”
Proctor lunged and knocked the hat off Bootzamon’s head, dodging the tomahawk as it swung at him. Holding the iron bar in front of him like a shield, Proctor snatched up the hat and yanked out the feather, crushing it in his fist.
Bootzamon stood there, unfazed.
“If you think my hat looks better than your own, you’re welcome to it,” he said, jamming the pipe in his mouth. “It can cover your naked skull once I peel off your scalp.”
“The feather’s not the focus?” Proctor said, stunned. But then what was—?
Bootzamon laughed. He made a quick lunge toward Proctor. It would have been deadly but the creature froze mid-step. The dark light in his eyes began to fade, and his body suddenly grew more lumpy and shapeless. He pulled out the pipe and saw that it was extinguished.
“Dickon!” Bootzamon cried.
A horned, man-shaped shadow the size of a cat swirled up out of the earth. Its left fist was closed around a burning coal that illuminated a webwork of veins in the back of its hand. With a screech of anguish, it smashed the coal into the pipe. Then it disappeared in an upward spiral of smoke, leaving behind the stink of saltpeter and brimstone. Proctor suppressed a shudder of revulsion—it was one thing to believe in imps and demons, but another thing entirely to see one summoned by name.
Bootzamon drew deep on the relit pipe and puffed out another noxious cloud of cheap tobacco.
The pipe. Of course. Proctor should have guessed that first. He could try to smash it, but he didn’t think he’d get a second chance to hit Bootzamon in the head. He backed away, slowly, measuring his step, making sure of his footing. If he went around just one more corner, he could make a dash for Singer.
Bootzamon chuckled at him, then coiled and made a leap that carried him over Proctor’s head. Proctor ducked, swinging the iron wildly. When Bootzamon landed, Proctor charged him.
The creature leapt back again, another fifteen feet, and held out his arm, the tomahawk hanging limp in his hand.
“What are you going to do?” Bootzamon taunted. “If you break me, my master can put me back together. If you destroy my limbs, I can find replacements.” The tomahawk snapped upright in his fist. “You, on the other hand, are neither so durable nor so easily repaired.”
His arm snapped back, and he threw the tomahawk at Proctor, who twisted aside, dodging it easily. Now was his chance—he charged at Bootzamon.
Something in the glitter of the dark eyes warned him.
He ducked as the tomahawk returned, passing through the space his head had just occupied, landing with a soft thwack in Bootzamon’s fist.
“Ah, that worked on the woman,” Bootzamon said, sounding either pleased or disappointed.
Proctor circled to the right.
“You wouldn’t know where I could find the girl, would you?” Bootzamon said, dancing jauntily from side to side, holding the tomahawk ready to strike. “I could promise to make it quicker for you if you tell me—”
Proctor attacked in the middle of Bootzamon’s sentence, and the creature reacted by leaping backward again.
“It’s not polite to interrupt—” Bootzamon said as he landed next to Singer.
He was interrupted by the mare, who lashed out with her rear hooves the instant he landed. The blow sent Bootzamon flying off in several directions—an arm one way, body another, pipe a third.
Proctor dropped the poker and dived for the pipe.
Bootzamon popped up to his feet and swung an empty shoulder socket toward his life spark. His other hand still clutched the tomahawk. “Give that back to me,” he growled.
“You didn’t say please,” Proctor said. He snapped the pipe in half.
“You stinking peasant farmer—”
The words died on the creature’s lips. His head shrank to a dried gourd with a corncob nose, his remaining arm flopped loose like a broken flail, and his legs turned stiff, not bending at the knees. He ran straight-legged for Proctor, raising the tomahawk above his head in a wordless scream.
Proctor plunged his hand into the trough. Steam boiled up around his fist as the pipe was extinguished, and Proctor jerked his hand out with a yelp.
Gourd, scarf, clothes, and straw fell in a jumble at Proctor’s feet. The tomahawk slid across the ground to the edge of his bloody-soled shoe.
In the grasses nearby, a cricket ventured a chirp.
Proctor shook his hand. His knuckles hurt, as if he’d punched someone in the jaw. After retrieving the fire iron, he poked carefully through the pieces—a broomstick, an old thresher’s flail, and pieces of chair legs knotted together formed Bootzamon’s scarecrow bones. Only when Proctor had knocked them apart did he dare breathe easily.
The sound of the crickets rose in grateful chorus.
He went over to Singer. She had froth around her mouth, but her eyes were calm again. Proctor stroked her neck and fetched a handful of oats from his saddlebag. As she nibbled from his palm, Proctor said, “Thanks.”
Singer rubbed her head against Proctor’s shoulder and pulled at her tether. He gave her another handful of oats.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t done here just yet. He took a long look at the pieces of the scarecrow scattered on the ground. It was so dark now, he wasn’t sure he could see them all. Wasn’t sure they hadn’t moved or collected themselves.
The fire in the cabin had faded, leaving no more than a dim glow through the open door. Taking the gourd and broomstick first—the skull and backbone—Proctor carried the pieces inside and shoved them one by one into the flames until the creature was completely destroyed. If he concentrated on the work and watched where he put his feet, he didn’t have to look too closely at the dead bodies.
Still, by the time he fed the last bits of straw into the fire, he had seen enough. The woman had auburn hair, the same color as Alexandra’s; the man was lean and broad- shouldered, just the way she’d described her father. Though he turned out Bootzamon’s pockets before burning the clothes, he had not discovered the missing scalps and could not give the bodies the final dignity of being complete. With the stink of burned wool and silk strong in his nose, he searched the second room and the sleeping loft, but he found no sign of Alexandra or her several brothers.
He stood in the doorway and leaned his head against the jamb, breathing fresh air and staring out into the night. Poor Alexandra—she was going to be devastated, just as Deborah had been when the Covenant killed her parents.
Deborah! What was the phrase that Bootzamon had used? Catch the young witches and kill the old. The Cove?nant knew the location of The Farm. If Bootzamon had been sent after Alexandra, then The Farm wasn’t safe. He had to get back home now.
He retrieved a purse full of salt from one of his saddlebags, brought with him to create a protective circle around him as he slept. He used nearly all he had left around the perimeter of the small house, saying, “Let there be no remembrance of former things, neither let there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those who shall come after.”
The words trickled out of his mouth like the salt from his fist, starting over again each time he dipped his hand in for more. Anyone who came here now would turn away, forgetting why they came. The house would be all but invisible to them, for at least a time.
When he finished, he stood at the door and whispered a silent prayer to God, begging His forgiveness and asking Him to consecrate the bodies inside in place of a proper burial. All his aches and soreness, forgotten during the fight with Bootzamon, came rushing back, amplified by his new bruises. Night was no time to travel, but he couldn’t stay here.
He walked toward Singer and found her at the end of her tether, well away from the trough.
A red light glowed in the bottom of the water. The pipe.
Proctor plunged his hand into the water, still teakettle-warm. He fished out the broken bowl-end of the pipe and took it to the splitting stump. Using the heaviest piece of firewood he could find, he smashed the pipe into pieces. Then he took the butt-end of the log and ground even the pieces into dust until there was no flame left.
“Good night, Mister Bootzamon,” he said.
He turned toward the house one last time—and didn’t see it. He knew better, but it was still unsettling. Deborah had done a good job teaching him after all.
Proctor walked over to Singer and climbed back into the saddle. She seemed as eager to leave the farm as he was. They had to push through the thick, oppressive air and the dark to find the cart road and turn north again. About an hour later, they came to the ford on the Potomac.
“Didn’t think we’d be back again so soon,” Proctor said.
Singer plunged down the bank and splashed into the water. Proctor rubbed his eyes to stay awake as they crossed. Five hundred miles away, Deborah and the other witches were in danger already. And they didn’t know what was coming.
Excerpted from Traitor to the Crown: A Spell for the Revolution by C. C. Finlay. Copyright © 2009 by C.C. Finlay. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.