25. William’s Son

London, England
June, 1667

There were two hundred seventy-eight cracks on the bedroom wall.

Lately, Carlisle had ample time to count.

The weight of Elizabeth’s body lingered on his forearms, as though she lay there as a phantom, even in death. Witches were to be purified after they hanged, but Carlisle was stronger and faster than his father and amid the chaos at Tyburn, he’d cut down his beloved and, weeping, delivered her body into her brother’s arms instead.

Her mother, who stood there screaming, slapped him.

Carlisle stumbled home in a daze, went immediately to the second floor, stripped to his shirt, yanked out the trundle, and crawled under the quilt.

That had been days ago.

He had nightmares. Nightmares which began as wonderful dreams; he was married, he had a child, and then the world would literally fall apart, chasms opening in the earth and ripping his family away from him. He dreamed he failed at Tyburn, and watched the surgeons take Elizabeth’s body, screaming as they cut into her. He would cry out in his slumber and awaken himself, only realize that the nightmares were true.

So he tried not to sleep.

His father acted oddly. At times he came into the room and hollered, demanding that Carlisle pull himself out of the spells “that woman” had cast upon him. Other times, when he seemed to think Carlisle was asleep, he prayed over him, stroking his hair and neck with a tenderness Carlisle had never before experienced.

But Carlisle didn’t move.

One afternoon the door opened, and it wasn’t William.

“Eight days, Friend,” Thomas said, as he crept into the room.”Eight days you’ve been here.”

Carlisle opened his eyes. Eight days? He supposed that was possible. He blinked.

Thomas bent over and made eye contact. “So you are awake. Your father said he was uncertain.”

Carlisle didn’t answer.

Thomas sat down on the floor, folding his legs beneath him. He spoke to Carlisle as though he were having a conversation, despite receiving no answer from the still being on the trundle bed.

“You once knew this, but I do not know if you are even aware the date any longer,” he said. “Anne and I will wed the day after tomorrow. We both would wish to see you there.”

The wedding. Of course. Carlisle’s stomach knotted.

“I realize it is a great deal to ask,” Thomas went on, “and that you must take time to grieve your own loss. But we would like it if you were there. Life will move on from this day, my friend. No matter how improbable that feels at this time, it will. You will move on.”

Carlisle swallowed. He didn’t want to move on. He wanted to die. And he was getting there, partially, he thought. Not eating made him weak, weakness made him ill.

How long would it take for hunger to kill him, he wondered. A fortnight? A month?

As though Thomas had read his mind, he said, “You cannot expect to starve yourself to death, Carlisle. For one thing, it is unlikely to work, and for another, what kind of revenge does that take on your father? If you die, he gets his way.”

Except that William Cullen would die before long also. And then what? The world would be left up to its own devices.

That would be fine.

His friend met his eyes, brown upon blue, and Thomas reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“Carlisle, please do not be foolish. I will see you at my wedding.”

Then he stood, and was gone.

Thomas’s words swam in and out of Carlisle’s consciousness.

“It is a great deal to ask…you will move on…do not be foolish…what kind of revenge does that take?”

He hung on that word. Revenge.

Carlisle wasn’t a vengeful person. In fact, if anything, his easygoing temper had always been his undoing; something which his father struggled to beat out of him. He wasn’t prone to angry outbursts; he wasn’t prone to deciding who was with God and who was not.

And so death had occurred to him before revenge.

He still did not move, simply lying there and staring at the wall while he thought. It was nearly nightfall before he understood how to undermine the force that was the Reverend William Cullen.

As he climbed out of bed for the first time in over a week, the first thing Carlisle reached for was his chisel.

~||x||~

The congregation was large and joyous, and Thomas Milner and his betrothed both looked radiant. William couldn’t help but to beam as he began to pray over them.

The prayer came easily; he’d said these words so many times before. But as he looked up into the congregation, his voice cracked ever so slightly. Thomas Milner had come to their home two days before, and had spoken to Young William, asking him to come join in the wedding festivities. And so the boy was here, shaven and in clean clothes, but there was no joy in the lines of his face. Instead, the blue eyes stared blankly, as dull as his mother’s had been the day that she’d died.

One of his hands clenched involuntarily as he stared out into the congregation. The witch on Ratcliffe Road confessed, and she implicated her coven: the Bradshawe girl and two others. It was of no consequence that his child had fallen for one of them. If anything, he’d saved his son.

Someday, he thought, Young William would see this.

He just hoped he would be around to appreciate it when it happened.

“…we proclaim you married, in this day, the twenty-seventh of June, Anno Domini sixteen hundred and sixty-seven,” he heard himself say, and this startled him. Somehow, he had reached the end of the service, without thinking a whit about either what he was doing or the bride and bridegroom.

The couple embraced each other, and the congregation cheered, and the next thing William was aware, people were standing and flocking to congratulate the two and rib them both about their wedding night. William smiled broadly but insincerely, as he found himself searching the congregation for his own child.

A sharp pang shot through him when he finally saw the boy. He had not moved an inch, simply allowed the men around him to clamber over him into the aisle.

And instead of standing and cheering, he sat completely still, his arms crossed over himself, tears rolling down his cheeks.

William looked away.

It was late afternoon by the time William returned to the parsonage. Young William had not appeared at the tavern for lunch. Probably for the better, as the laughter and singing and general merriment would’ve been spoiled by such a sullen presence. A few times during the celebration, William caught Thomas Milner’s eye. The groom scouted William’s vicinity as though expecting to see the younger Cullen at any point.

William had only shrugged.

When he entered the house, the scent of stewing pottage met him at the door. He looked to the table to find his place set with a bowl and flagon of beer.

William’s pace slowed as he entered the room. It had been, what, a week or more since his son had spoken to him? And the last words they’d exchanged had been screaming… He winced as he recalled the kitchen items flying at him, and at once he began to tally the things which were available for his son to throw—the pot, the ladle, the bowl, the cross…

The cross?

He stared. No, not the same cross. This one was subtly different, and more impressive. Three different colors of wood ran through the upright; the edges were finished with a twisting design. The Geneva doctrines required simplicity, a rejection of the extravagance of both the Catholic church and now even of the Church of England. This new cross flirted carefully with that line; just ornate enough to be interesting, and yet simple enough to warrant a place in their home.

He had always thought his son’s insistence on carpentry to be merely a diversion, a childish, recalcitrant way to delay the inevitable decision to attend seminary and follow in his father’s footsteps.

This cross, however, was the work of an artist.

“Thou hast made a new cross,” he said, approaching it cautiously. His son shrank back defensively, but then nodded.

William examined it more closely. The design on the edges appeared as though it were a wooden rope, drawing to mind the crucifixion without making it overt. Subtle beauty, and superior craft.

“It is beautiful,” he said, reaching out to touch the wood. “Mr. Tyne has taught you well.”

He studied his son’s face for a reaction, but the boy’s expression remained stony. The blue eyes were blank.

Was this to be taken as a peace offering?

The table, he realized, was not set for two.

“Thank you, William,” he said quietly. “This quite makes up for the other.”

A snort.

William gestured to the table. “Will you have supper with me?”

The boy shook his head.

He wasn’t sure what to do. He settled for bringing his bowl to the pot of stew, and ladling out a portion for himself. It wasn’t until he returned to the table and sat down that his son finally spoke.

“I wish to take over the raids, Father,” he said.

Take over the raids?

“I beg thy pardon?”

His son shook his head. “You heard me. Your health is compromised.”

William’s spoon fell into his bowl with a loud clank. For a moment, he only stared.

“And thy opposition to punishing evil?”

“There is no evil.”

He should’ve expected as much. “William—”

His son’s fist dropped to the table with such force the bowl clattered. “There is no evil!”

Then he gulped, and took a step back.

“But you are right about one thing,” he said. “I must prove you so. And I will. I shall take over the raids.”

“This is about the woman.”

“Her name was Elizabeth.”

William winced.

“Fear you hearing the names of the innocents you’ve killed? I cannot imagine why.”

His son circled him now, coming around to the other side of the table. Instinctively, William pulled his bowl toward himself.

“I do not plan to throw things, Father,” he said. “Not today. But you are a man of faith. Surely, if God intends for you to find evil, I will find it also. If you are right that you follow His path, then He will make sure that I follow it also.”

The stool squeaked against the floor as the boy sat.

“I will take over the raids,” he said. “And if you are right, you will be proved so. And I will go to seminary to serve our congregation as you have asked.”

William’s heart leapt. “And if you prove me wrong?”

“I become a carpenter. And I leave London.”

The Milner boy hadn’t spoken to William when he came to plead for Carlisle’s presence at his wedding. But on his way out, he’d given William a piteous glance. “You made a mistake, Reverend Cullen,” he’d said. “And I hope that mistake does not cost you your son.”

But he’d made no mistake in his handling of the woman. If anything, he had saved his child from certain corruption. And his son would discover the truth. He would understand the reality of evil.

William found himself nodding.

“Then we have an agreement?”

“We are agreed.” He looked at the cross. “When will you begin?”

His son followed his gaze, turning his body so that he appeared in silhouette. In the rapidly darkening room, the light from the fire flickered against his skin, casting ominous, fast-moving shadows across the sharp planes of his face.

“Tonight,” he answered.

~||x||~

Early August, 1667

Growing up, Carlisle had always been known for his ability to concentrate. The way he could sit for hours reading, or spend a whole day sweeping the sanctuary—people praised him for this. They called him disciplined and dogged, and they thought him virtuous for it.

But if there was any part of him which was evil, it was surely this part, the part which could focus so singularly on facilitating the downfall of his only surviving relative.

The nightly raiding parties were small. Some of those who came suspected that his father grew weak; for them, this was only one more reason why it made sense that Carlisle take his father’s place. A few of them even mentioned it, that they looked forward to the day that Carlisle would stand at the pulpit.

That day would not come, he thought. Not if he had anything to do with it.

Summer stretched on; weeks passed and the days slowly grew shorter again. Carlisle went out every night, sometimes with others in the congregation, often alone. Thomas spent nearly all his time with his new bride, which suited Carlisle perfectly. He was as through with his raking days as was his married friend.

He stopped those he thought his father would stop, but instead of leveling blind accusations, he asked for explanations and looked for proof. A neighbor insisted a witch made his cow sick; Carlisle discovered a child had mixed nails in with its feed. A man claimed a demon possessed his home; a further search found a roost of bats in his attic.

But instead of validation in these small triumphs, he found restlessness. And so he roamed the streets, increasingly alone. Carlisle had never been an angry person before. Now the anger licked at him, flames of a fire deep in the pit of his belly, slowly reducing him to ash from the inside out.

So it was he was wandering the city, lost in angry thoughts, when he heard, “Ho, there, Mister Cullen!”

Carlisle looked up to see Judge Porter, the man who had presided over the executions at Tyburn that awful day. He was a young man, not more than ten years older than Carlisle, and he walked even in the darkness with a casual assuredness.

“Mister Porter.” Carlisle nodded his hello, but didn’t slow his pace, walking so quickly that the judge needed to jog to keep up with him. The other man said nothing, however, and simply walked alongside.

They were nearing St. Paul’s; entering the section of the city hardest hit by the fire ten months before. Already people were rebuilding; clearing old lots of charred rubble. But in this section of the city, the air still reeked of char and ash, a smell so powerful that in places it managed to overtake the stench of waste and debris of the open trench sewers which ran the streets. It was darker here, too—flattened lots and no remaining windows to shine lamplight into the street.

Before long, he found himself in a wide expanse, the grounds of the cathedral itself. He stopped, staring up at the ruins of the great cathedral. The hulking building had fallen in on three sides, its remaining blackened walls sagging freakishly toward each other.

“It is frightening, is it not?” the judge said quietly. “Our great St. Paul’s, destroyed thus.”

Carlisle nodded, staring upward. The great spire in the center of the building was completely gone, opening a hole in the roof wide to the heavens. Paul’s Walk was all but destroyed, with only a handful of soot-covered columns still standing, defeated sentries oblivious to the fact that there was nothing left to guard. He held out his lamp, which illuminated the walk oddly, casting menacing shadows on the burned walls.

“I was educated here,” Carlisle muttered, gesturing toward the ruined cloister.

A smile spread across the Judge’s face. “It does not surprise me, Mister Cullen. Educated with the common man and the gentleman. Such an education gives one a broad worldview. Dare I say—a thoughtful worldview?”

Carlisle didn’t answer.

“I wanted to be a barrister,” he said at last

Even in the dark, Carlisle could see the surprised expression on the Judge’s face.

“Of course that would not be possible,” he went on at once. “I was settled to become a solicitor, but I had not my father’s blessing to attend law school.”

There was a long moment before the judge answered.

“Your father said you had agreed to join the ministry.”

He nodded. “A condition of my marriage.” His voice cracked on this last word. For weeks he had not spoken of this. He would not give his father the pleasure of seeing him broken. But now the mere thought of Elizabeth sliced through him with such ferocity that he nearly doubled over.

The judge again was silent, and together the two men stared up at the blackened stone.

“I asked for her pardon,” came the voice a few moments later.

“Excuse me?”

“I asked for her pardon,” repeated the judge. “Of your father. That day at Tyburn. Your father insisted that she had bewitched you. But I believe you to be no more bewitched than he. Besotted, perhaps. But not bewitched. And I am sorry that I did not press him more.”

The judge clasped his hands behind his back and began to wander in the direction of the ruined cathedral. His feet seemed to pick out sure footing among the rubble, and so Carlisle followed.

After twenty yards or so, the judge stopped.

“You are fairer than your father,” he said, “and I speak not of your countenance. If I might be of assistance to you ever, Mister Cullen, I beg you to ask.” He took a deep breath and added, “To minister means to care for. Or to give aid. And it is not always the case that it is those we appoint who truly do the ministering.”

Carlisle snorted. “My father believes my skepticism will send me to Hell.”

Much to Carlisle’s surprise, the judge laughed.

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness,” he said, smiling, “for they shall be filled.” Placing a hand on Carlisle’s shoulder, he turned him away from the rubble.

“We should go from this desolate place,” he said. “And you, it seems, ought to rest.”

Did he look that haggard? Carlisle wondered, but he nodded and began to turn.

His lamp wasn’t large; just enough to light his path in these areas where there were no longer taverns and homes to keep the streets lit after darkness. So as he swung it to turn, its beam did not go far.

But it went just far enough.

The man, if he was that, looked gaunt. Even weak. His hair hung in stringy ringlets, too long even for one who was not a dissenter. The moon had risen, and its light caused the other’s skin to glow a pale silver.

And then there were the eyes. At first, disbelieving his own sight—he was nearsighted after all—Carlisle assumed them to be brown. But then the lamplight caught them just so he saw them for what they truly were: a deep ruby, the color of fresh blood.

Carlisle yelped. Maybe the demon did, too, he couldn’t be certain. The lamp fell from his fingers and smashed on the stone.

“Run!” yelled Judge Porter.

Heart hammering, Carlisle’s legs churned beneath him, propelling him away from the ruins of the cathedral and down the darkened street. He didn’t dare look behind him, and instead simply dropped his head and ran. It was only when he stood a few streets from his home, back amongst houses from which issued the warm glow of oil lamps, when he finally slowed and allowed himself to discern if the other had given chase.

The judge was a ways behind him, but still unencumbered. And there was no one behind him. They were alone.

“What was it?” Judge Porter’s voice wheezed a little as he spoke.

“I know not.” Carlisle’s chest heaved as he leaned against the wall of the nearest home. Sweat poured off his face, blurring his vision and stinging his eyes. He wiped at them with the back of his wrist as he frantically tried to catch his breath.

It was only then he realized it wasn’t merely sweat causing his eyes to sting. At once, his hands began scrabbling at his cheeks, furiously wiping with such force that his fingernails scratched his own skin. He didn’t want to cry. Not like this. These were tears of frustration. Of anger. Of humiliation.

In the ruins of Saint Paul’s lived a demon. A real one.

And that meant that his father was right.

~||x||~

It took Carlisle three days to muster the courage to go out again. He used the church chores as an excuse, sweeping, dusting, and polishing until his knuckles ached. But he’d been on the fourth go-round sweeping the sanctuary for the day when he burst into a fit of anger and snapped the broomstick over his knee.

Then he’d gone to find Judge Porter.

The judge was swift to agree, as was Thomas. Carlisle spread the word no further, and so it was just the three of them this night, their lamps swinging from their arms as they stood in the rubble of the once-glorious cathedral.

They would destroy the demon.

And then Carlisle would pretend nothing had ever happened.

“Over there,” Carlisle called, pointing to the center of what had once been the nave. Ironic, he thought, that the creature had chosen the very center of the church in which to live.

The other men paused, looking at one another nervously.

He sighed. “I will go.”

“Carlisle, wait—” Thomas began, but one look from his friend was enough to silence him.

“It is my problem,” he snapped. “It is not your livelihood on the line.”

Thomas looked as though he might make a second overture, but then, at the judge’s urging, he hung back.

Inside the cathedral, the smell of smoke and char was still so heavy that it seemed to suffocate him, as though from somewhere deep within the church, the fire still burned. His footsteps echoed on the tiled floor. Moonlight shaded through the wrecked roof, casting shadows across the debris—ruined pews, windows exploded, their frames mangled from the heat.

Like these walls, it had taken mere days to reduce Carlisle to little more than rubble and ash. All that had remained of Carlisle was this fragile hope, charred and in danger of falling, the hope that at least, he could prove his father wrong.

Now the demon had stolen that, too.

And for that, it would die.

His poor eyesight meant that even with the aid of his lamp, he didn’t see the forms until they moved, their clothing having obscured their brilliant skin from the moonlight. There were two of them, near where the altar had once stood: the same ruby-eyed one he’d seen three days ago, but also a second, gaunt-looking, his hair bedraggled and his eyes as black as the night around them.

“Run,” the red-eyed one said, and it startled Carlisle to hear a strange Latin, not like the one he’d learned in school.

“Run,” it repeated. “Run, human, or die.”

Reaching down, Carlisle yanked his dagger from his boot. “You mistakenly assume that I desire to live,” he said.

The pain was devastating and utterly complete. One moment, Carlisle stood upright, the next, his face was on the ground as fire ripped through his neck and shoulder and arm.

He screamed. Maybe. He wasn’t entirely certain. He attempted to push himself to his feet with the arm that wasn’t burning—was his arm burning? There was no flame that he could see. Just searing, unbearable pain. He collapsed back onto the floor, his right arm clutched in his left.

Three lamps exploded as they hit the ground, and went out, plunging them into darkness. A scream—Thomas? But Thomas was a fast runner, and whatever these demons were, they’d attacked Carlisle first…

Squinting, Carlisle just managed to see the screamer. It was the judge, flailing as he was dragged by his feet…Carlisle realized at once that Judge Porter had run to his defense, coming from behind him. He tried to yell and found he couldn’t. The demons and the judge vanished into the dark.

As suddenly as the clamor had arisen, everything went silent. All that was left was a gasping, raspy noise accompanied by ragged cries of pain—coming from him, he realized.

He struggled to push himself up enough to see. There was no sign of Thomas. His friend seemed to have managed to run.

Thank God.

Still gasping, Carlisle collapsed onto his back.

The invisible fire spread, and soon his whole side was engulfed.

He had been cursed. Or maybe he was dying, he wasn’t sure. How could he be on fire if there were no flames? Perhaps he’d already died, and this was Hell?

But his heart hammered in his chest. His eyes still welled with tears of pain and shame and anger. His breath came in ragged gasps that hurt.

He wasn’t dead.

Yet.

When he squeezed his eyes closed against the pain, he saw the flames lapping the skin of his father’s victims, the women accused of witchcraft. “To cleanse them,” his father had said, his firm hands holding Carlisle before the fire, even as he’d wanted to run. “To purify them.”

His father would purify him, too.

The fire was spreading faster now, and he couldn’t manage to stand. Carlisle’s stomach heaved as he pulled himself to his hands and knees, but somehow he refrained from becoming sick.

Dizzied, he stared up at the ruined walls of the Cathedral. Even burned and crumbled, they still stood true, a straight line to the sprinkling of stars overhead, as though even in ruins, they still pointed the way to Heaven itself.

His voice was scratchy and weak; whatever this fire was, it would overtake him before long. But Carlisle fixed his eyes on the walls and gazed up.

“Please, Lord,” he whispered. “Please have mercy on my soul.”

Then, carefully, with his knees and one good arm, he pulled himself away.

~||x||~

At midnight, Young William had not returned. One o’clock came and went. As did two o’clock.

William was pacing when the Milner boy arrived to the parsonage just after dawn. He appeared bedraggled and frantic, his face dirtied with streaks of dried tears.

The other man had barely managed to choke the words, “St. Paul’s” when William took off as fast as he could manage. To prove him wrong. The words rang in William’s ears as he half-walked, half-ran. His son had wanted to prove him wrong. And so it had been he who was out in the darkness, skulking the streets of London…

He bit his lip so hard it bled.

By the time he made it to the Cathedral, it was nearly noon, the sun beating down on the open expanse where the ruined building now stood. A small knot of people had gathered, having heard the news. At least two dead in a gruesome attack. A pile of mangled, rotting bodies found among the rubble of the cathedral. The crowd ambled about, morbidly picking through the ruins for valuable possessions.

William turned to the nearest person. His hands shook from exhaustion, and his voice was hoarse.

“Where are the bodies?” he demanded.

“Oh long gone, Sir,” the man answered. “Taken by horse cart. Mangled. As though an animal attacked them.”

Mangled.

It wasn’t until the other man caught him that William even realized he’d begun to fall.

“Are you all right, sir?” he asked, helping William back to his feet

“Did anyone see them?”

“The bodies?”

He nodded.

The man shook his head. “Seek you someone?”

William found it nearly impossible to say the words.

“My son,” he managed weakly.

Sadness crossed the other man’s face. “I am sorry, sir,” he said. “Perhaps he was not among them?”

But William was already moving toward the rubble. A single boot, ripped free of its owner, was somehow still here, not stolen yet—because it was mateless?

Next to it lay a dagger.

William’s hand trembled as he went to close his fingers around it. He recognized the hilt at once. Originally only a simple wood, later carved by an apprentice carpenter with an intricate, knotted design, and oil worked into the wood nightly until it shone.

He turned the dagger over in his hand. The blade was completely clean.

Had his child not defended himself?

Had his attacker been too quick?

Tears bit at the corners of William’s eyes. He gripped the hilt of the dagger so tightly his knuckles turned white, and pulled it to himself. He ducked deeper into the shadows of the cloister walk, behind a wall where he could not see the blood, and where he would not be seen. Here where the walls met, it was dark—the tall stone walls blotted out the sun so that William huddled in complete shadow. Like the wraiths his son had hunted when he met his end.

He wouldn’t have been out here if it weren’t for you, came the sickening thought.

He ran his hand over the hilt of the dagger. It was carved every bit as intricately as the cross that now hung in their kitchen. Despite William’s misgivings, his child had become an expert craftsman.

Carved into the pommel of the dagger were three letters: W.C.C. William had seen this on the back of the cross, also—W. Cullen was carefully scorched into the back of the wood. For even with all his denial, his son had still used the name he was given. He had not once relinquished the tie to his father, even as he fought against it.

And what had William done in return?

“I prayed to protect him,” he said to himself. And then, louder, “I prayed for you to protect him!”

The walls didn’t answer.

The Lord hadn’t protected him, William thought, because William hadn’t protected him. His son. Sarah’s son. The only thing he had left of the woman he loved.

He closed his eyes, hugged the small knife to his chest, and sank against the cold wall.

“Carlisle…Carlisle, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry,” he screamed.

Then, huddled in the shadows, William began to weep.

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