The Spider Stone
TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have norelation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantlyinspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pureinvention.
First edition November 2006
THE SPIDER STONE
Copyright ? 2006 by Worldwide Library.
The English commander took Joan’s sword and raised it high.
The broadsword, plain and unadorned, gleamed in the firelight. He put? the tip against theground and his foot at the center of the blade.
The broadsword shattered, fragments falling into the mud. The crowd surged forward, peasant andsoldier, and snatched the shards from the trampled mud. The commander tossed the hilt deep intothe crowd.
Smoke almost obscured Joan, but she continued praying till the end, until finally the flamesclimbed her body and she sagged against the restraints.
Joan of Arc died that fateful day in France, but her legend and sword are reborn…
Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Epilogue
Special thanks and acknowledgment to Mel Odom for his contribution to this work.
Under the blazing sun, Yohance's legs felt like stone, not flesh and blood. They seemed heavierthan he could ever remember them being. He lacked the strength after so many miles to move themeasily. In truth, he didn't think he could go much farther before he collapsed.
And what would happen then? The slavers who had destroyed his village and killed so many of hispeople were hard-eyed and merciless. If he fell, he knew they would kill him, too.
The chains pulled at his manacled wrists, jerking him once more into faster motion. Scabs onhis wrists tore open. Blood stained his wrists, hands and forearms. Several times over the pastfew days, he'd prayed that the gods would take him. Although he'd always feared death, he wasno longer so certain that death was frightening. Some of the other prisoners said he shouldwelcome it.
"Come on, boy," the old man in front of Yohance snarled. He was abrupt and unkind. Judging fromhis behavior and the scars on his back, this wasn't the first time he'd been captured. A grayfringe surrounded his head and lined his seamed jaws. Several teeth were missing and the restwere yellowed wreckage in spotted gums. Like Yohance, the old man went naked. None of theprisoners were permitted clothing. "You've got to keep moving."
Yohance stared at the man. He didn't know his name. The man wasn't from Yohance's tribe. Facialscars and tattooing marked him as a warrior among his own people. But the white marks againstthe deep ebony of his back offered mute testimony to his servitude.
"Do you hear me, boy?" the old man demanded.
Yohance nodded. He didn't try to answer. Thirst had swollen his tongue and thickened hissaliva. Until these past few days, he hadn't known he could go so long without water and food.
"If you fall behind, it's not just you that will be punished." The old man yanked on the heavychains again. The sun had heated the iron links until they almost burned Yohance's flesh.
Yohance wanted to move more quickly, but he couldn't. He was only eleven, the smallest of themen and boys he was chained to. When the slavers had taken him, there had been some debateabout whether they should try to keep him or simply put him to death. In the end, his life hadbeen saved by the flip of a coin.
The old man quickly looked away. Hoofbeats drummed against the hard-packed earth behindYohance.
"Move faster, you heathen!" a harsh voice thundered.
Even though he'd expected it, when the whip cracked harshly across Yohance's narrow shoulders,he was shocked. Pain burst across his sunburned flesh, and the sudden agony dropped him to hisknees on the trail. Sand and rock chafed against his legs, but it was hardly noticeable withthe new injury assaulting him.
For a moment Yohance hoped that he would die. He remained on his knees and tucked his faceagainst the ground. He didn't want to cry out. He bit his lip and his tears splashed againstthe dry ground.
"Get up," the old man ahead of Yohance whispered, tugging with weak desperation on the chainthat bound them. "Get up or he will kill you."
Yohance knew that. The slavers relished seeing fear and weakness.
"Don't you just lay there, boy!" the slaver roared. "If you don't get up I'll run you down!"
The horse's hooves drummed against the ground again. Yohance felt the vibration echoing in hissmall, frail body. His hair hung loose in snarls, no longer bound by the ivory headband hismother had fashioned for him. If he'd been only a little older, if he'd participated in ahunting party, his hair would have been cut like a man's.
But he was only a boy. Too weak and afraid to defend himself against the aggressors who haddestroyed his village and killed those of his people they didn't succeed in enslaving. Theharsh crack of the slavers' rifles still sounded in his ears and had chased happiness from hisdreams for three nights as they'd traveled toward the slave market at Ile de Goree.
For all his life, Yohance had heard about the slave market. The city was a rancid pool ofdespair and evil, filled with men who profited by selling other men. Some of those men werefrom Africa, but others were from England, Spain, France and beyond. All of those peopletrafficked in slaves, selling them or sending them to their colonies in the New World.
Yohance couldn't imagine the places some of the elders had described in the stories he'd beentaught to memorize. He had sat around the campfires with his mentor and listened, still andsilent as stone, as the warriors had recounted their adventures among the slavers. In everycase, those men had lost someone, family or friends they would probably never again see.Sadness had stained every word, and Yohance had memorized that, too. He bore it in his heartlike a boulder.
He had to do those things. He was a Keeper of the Ways of the People. Without Keepers torecount triumphs, as well as sorrows, his village would have lost its history. He and boys likehim were chosen to devote their lives to remembering the history of his people. It was anhonorable undertaking, an endeavor that Yohance had gladly promised his life to pursue.
According to the tales, rich men lived in wondrous cities where fire and water obeyed theirevery whim. In Yohance's village, women and small children tended the cook fires all day andcarried buckets of water in from the stream. But, even with all those miracles at theirdisposal, the rich men desired slaves to work their fields.
For years, Yohance's village had remained safe. Then, before he had been born, his people hadfought slavers again and again, and had finally gone into hiding, leaving their ancestral homesto climb higher in the mountainous terrain and escape the attacks. The move had brought newhardships to the Hausa people, and many times they had gone without good food. They had givenup everything to avoid the slavers.
Still, the slavers had come. Three days earlier the raiders had found Yohance's village. Hisfather believed the slavers had followed a hunting party back to them. The hunters had beentrained to move carefully and to leave no trail, but they had been fortunate and had brought inenough antelope meat to feed the village for days. It had been a day of celebration. They hadprepared for a feast.
The raiders had attacked in the night, rushing from the darkness and taking charge with theirrough voices and fire-spitting rifles and pistols. Abed with their stomachs full for the firsttime in weeks, Yohance's people had been caught off guard. The raiders had taken the villagewithout mercy, killing all who tried to oppose them and many of those who attempted to flee.
The next morning, after the slavers had gorged themselves on what food that the village hadmanaged to put back and sated their evil lusts on the women, all the survivors had been placedin manacles and chained together for the long trek west to the coast.
For three days, the captives had walked from when the sun rose until it set in the evening. Atthat time, Yohance fell wherever he was permitted. The hated chains never came off. Morningsfound his wounds thickly clustered with fat black flies. On each of those mornings, one or moreprisoners had died in their sleep.
Such a death, Yohance had come to think by the second day, was a gentle thing.
Hafiz, Yohance's mentor and teacher in the ways of the Keeper, had died violently. As villageelder, the raiders had executed him to take the courage from the village. The brutal tactic hadworked. Everyone knew about the slavers. They knew if they didn't escape, if they weren't
killed because they were too old or wouldn't stop fighting, they would be sent to live in far-off lands. Perhaps there they could hope to escape. Or perhaps the gods would provide a goodlife somewhere else.
"Get up!" the slaver snarled again. He jerked his horse to a stop only a few feet away fromwhere Yohance lay. Two thick clods, torn from the earth by the horse's hooves, thudded againstYohance. "Do you hear me, boy?"
Yohance didn't look up. He couldn't. Looking into the eyes of the raiders was like looking intothe eyes of demons.
Hafiz had told him that many of the Hausa's names came from the Arabian warriors. Theircultures had met before, in battle and tender embraces. The Hausa shared some of the blood ofthose fierce desert warriors. Yohance prayed for strength.
Another man rode up beside the first. They spoke in their language instead of that of theHausa. Yohance didn't know what they said.
Part of him just wanted to stay there and die. He felt certain that would be easier. He didn'twant to be torn from his home or his family. But it was already too late for that. His fatherwas dead, one of the men who had fought, and his mother and two sisters were in chains as hewas, all of them cruelly used by the raiders.
Without warning, Yohance vomited, giving in to the fear that was his constant companion. Heretched and coughed. So little food and water were in his stomach. Yellow bile spilled on theground. He felt the stone come up, and he was more fearful of that than anything else.
Hafiz had given him the stone to take care of. It represented Anansi's promise. Long ago, thetrickster god had promised that Yohance's village would always stand, that his people wouldn'tbe scattered forever as so many peoples were.
As long as the stone existed, so too would his people.
Before the raiders had seized them, Hafiz had taken the stone from its altar and given it toYohance. The slavers had taken the gold coins, ivory pieces and few jewels that had been on thealtar, never realizing that the stone had been there, as well.
Yohance bent forward. He curled one hand around the stone before it could be seen. It was roundand worn smooth from all the years that had passed since it had been created. The craftsman whohad made the stone had carved Anansi's shape, a spider resting on its six hind legs with thefront two lifted to attack or to defend – or, as Hafiz had said, merely to seek out the world.
Both spider and man, Anansi was the messenger to the gods. He was neither good nor evil.Instead, he was selfish and curious, like many people. Yohance had been taught to embraceAnansi's ways, to interact with the gods on behalf of his people, and to keep the records oftheir lives and triumphs.
"If you die and the stone is lost," Hafiz had told Yohance as the slavers' rifles blastedaround them that night, "the home of our people will forever die with you. As long as thisstone exists and our people have possession of it, Anansi's promise will exist."
And where is that promise now? Yohance thought bitterly. He had no doubt that Hafiz's body hadby now been eaten by hyenas or leopards. Yohance knew that his father's body would be gone, aswell. What the predators didn't take would be claimed by the ants and other insects. Spiderseven made homes in large bodies to build web traps for bugs that feasted on rotting flesh.
Despite his anger, frustration and fear, Yohance struggled to get to his feet. His hand wasgrimed with a coating of bile and sand. He held the stone tightly.
One of the men spoke.
As Yohance stood, he lifted his head and gazed at them. One of the burnoose-clad men shovedaway the rifle of another. Both men wore beards and carried curved knives and swords in theirbelts.
"You will walk?" the new arrival asked. He was older than the first.
"I will," Yohance whispered. It was the best his dry throat could manage.
"Only a little farther," the man said. "Then you will rest for a time. There will be water."
Yohance said nothing. Even the promise of water couldn't lift his spirits. Holding the hardstone in his fist, he willed himself to be as hard and emotionless. He had to have water.Without something to drink, he wouldn't be able to swallow the stone again.
Hafiz had told Yohance that was the best way to hide the stone. Once the raiders had taken hisclothes, Yohance had seen the wisdom of his teacher's words. Hafiz had told Yohance that he hadcarried the stone in a similar manner on two earlier occasions.
Whips cracking in the air, the two slavers got the procession under way again. Slowly, withflagging strength, the line of human beings staggered into motion.
Yohance knew he wasn't the only one who was tired. A few of the stronger prisoners helpedweaker ones. But they wouldn't be able to help them on the ship's journey to the New World.Disease and the stench of death filled the holds of those vessels. Yohance had been told thatthose who died were simply thrown overboard for the ever-present sharks to feed on.
The party crested a hill and peered down at the small watering hole against the side of a hill.Stones lined the hole's lip. Yohance's heart fell when he saw how little water the holecontained. The slavers would drink first, then their fine horses. Yohance doubted there wouldbe any left for the prisoners.
Surprisingly, the slavers dismounted and brought out buckets and rope. As Yohance watched inamazement, the men brought up bucket after bucket of water.
"It is a wadi," the old man chained next to him said. "The Arabs build these along their traderoutes. Water is often scarce. They dig deep holes, line them with rock, and the land guidesthe rain into them. When the water is deep enough, it will stay within the rocks rather thansoak into the ground."
Yohance could only nod. Though he hadn't been out of his village before, he'd heard of suchthings. He waited his turn in line, then – when he wasn't being watched – he slaked histhirst from a hand-carved gourd and once more swallowed Anansi's Promise. Since they were givenlittle food, he knew that the stone would stay within him for a time.
Harsh cracks suddenly rolled over the area. Several of the slavers fell from their mounts. Theybled from catastrophic wounds and the dry earth sucked the liquid greedily down.
The prisoners dived to the ground even as other slavers toppled from their horses or droppedwhere they stood. In seconds, the surviving slavers took to the hills, their robes flowing inthe wind as they rode for their lives.
A hush fell over the prisoners as they watched armed men walk down from the hills. All of themwere black, wearing native garments and jewelry, but carrying rifles made by white men. A fewalso carried swords, spears and bows.
"We are saved," a man cried as he pushed himself to his feet. "They have come to free us."
The armed man closest to the speaker drew back his rifle and hit the man in the face with thebrass-covered buttstock. Unconscious, the prisoner fell in a heap.
"You are not free!" a scarred warrior declared. "I have stolen you! Now you belong to me!"
"They are slavers," the old man whispered. "Just like the others."
The other prisoners drew quietly to one another and awaited their new fates.
"You will still go to Ile de Goree," the scarred warrior said in his thunderous voice. "Youwill still be sold to the New World of the white men. But if you listen and obey, you will liveto do it." He glared contemptuously at everyone in the group. "Otherwise I will kill you andleave your bodies un-mourned for the carrion feeders to take away in pieces."
A few of the women started crying.
Yohance sat back and prayed. He felt the weight of the stone in his stomach. Though he wasstill, he didn't feel rested, or even that he was gaining back any of his lost strength. He
hoped only that even in foreign lands Anansi's Promise would find a way back to his home toprotect his people.
But he had to wonder if the trickster's power could survive a trip to the white man's NewWorld.
A mob surrounded the old warehouse in downtown Kirktown, Georgia. Many of the people carriedsigns and shouted angrily. Police cars and uniformed officers enforced the demarcation betweenthe crowd and the warehouse. A news helicopter hovered overhead.
Seated in the back seat of the cab, Annja Creed stared through the morass of angrycivilization. The car slowed, then finally came to a standstill as angry protesters slapped thevehicle and cursed. The action warred with the overall appearance of the city. Kirktown lookedlike the ideal tourist stop for anyone wanting a taste of genteel Southern manners.
We're not about manners today, Annja thought.
Kirktown was a small Georgia town that had limped through the Civil War, became a textilesuccess during industrialization, but had struggled on into the twenty-first century. Oldbuildings stood with new as the town continued to grow around the industrial area, finallyoutliving the textile era and leaving the older buildings to rot at the center of the downtownarea. Like many Georgia towns, and cities in the South in general, the population was almostequally divided between white and black families, with some Hispanic and Asian communities, aswell.
And like a lot of small towns, Kirktown had kept its secrets close and its darkest secretsburied.
Annja Creed had come to help dig up at least one of those. Looking at the site and the crowdthronging it, she felt like an outsider – a familiar feeling. She'd been raised in anorphanage in New Orleans. No matter where she went in her life, most of the time she felt likea visitor.
The cabdriver, a barrel-chested Rastafarian with silver wraparound sunglasses and a gold tooth,turned to look back over the seat. "I'm sorry, miss, but this looks like it's as far as I cancarry you."
"We can walk from here," Annja said.
"You can see what we're up against," Professor Noel Hallinger said. "Every time there's a raceissue, the reactions are immediate and severe. I wasn't sure if the police would be able tohold the site clear long enough for me to bring you from the airport."
Annja nodded as she lifted her backpack from the seat and opened the door. Her head was alreadyfull of questions. She'd made notes in a notebook on the way. "How many bodies did you sayyou'd found?"
"Sixteen so far. But there may be more." Hallinger was a tall man in his early sixties. Hishair had turned the yellow-white of old bone and hung over his ears and the back of his collar.His face held a deep tan that testified to long years spent outside in harsh weather. Brightblue eyes narrowed under the Chicago Cubs baseball cap. He wore jeans and a khaki shirt.
"Have you made any identifications so far?" Annja slipped her backpack over one shoulder, thenwished she'd bought a newer, lighter-weight notebook computer.
"You're sure the bodies are all over a hundred years old?" Annja started for the warehouse.
"Who are you?" a tall black man demanded, stepping in front of her to block the way. He lookedto be in his sixties, fierce and imposing. He wore a business suit with the tie at half-mastbecause of the heat. Even in November, Georgia insisted on being uncomfortably hot.
"Annja Creed." She stood five feet ten inches tall and wore a favorite pair of comfortableworking jeans, a sleeveless olive Oxford shirt over a black T-shirt, and hiking boots. Herchestnut-colored hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail. Blue-tinted aviator sunglassesprotected her eyes from the midday brightness.
"Why are you here, Miss Creed?" the man boomed. His challenge had drawn a small crowd that wasgrowing steadily. More and more heads turned toward them.
"I came to help," Annja responded.
Beside her, Hallinger took out a cell phone and made a call.
"I'm here to help find out who those people are," Annja replied. "If we can, we're going to getthem home."
"It's been 150 years or more," the man said in an accusing tone.
"That's what I've heard," Annja said.
"And you think you can find out who those poor unfortunates are?" The man glared at her withhostility.
"I'm going to try."
"Those people should be left alone," a broad woman shouted. "Just leave 'em alone. They beenburied there for 150 years. Ain't no need in disturbin' they rest. All them folks what wasgonna miss 'em back then, why, they in they graves, too. You got no call to be a-stirrin' upghosts an' such."
I so did not need this, Annja thought. But she'd known what she was going to be getting intofrom the moment Professor Hallinger had outlined the situation in Kirktown. She'd come partlybecause of her curiosity, but also out of respect for the man. They'd had a sporadic connectionover the Internet archaeology boards she liked to frequent, and they'd worked together for ashort time on a dig outside London a few years ago.
But the oddities that had been found – which was why Hallinger had sent for her – drew herthere. She knew she couldn't have stayed away from something like this. How often could anarchaeologist expect to find a dig site inside the United States that might offer a glimpseinto West African history?
Close to never, Annja had told herself back in her New York loft. She reminded herself ofthat again.
"We can't leave them there." Hallinger folded his cell phone and put it away. "That building isscheduled for demolition."
"That building's been abandoned for close to twenty years now," someone said. "It should justbe shut up and left alone."
A police car moved forward through the crowd. The siren chirped intermittently in warning.Grudgingly, the crowd parted.
"Hey!" someone shouted. "I know that woman!"
Annja's stomach spasmed. She was betting there were more television watchers in the crowd thanreaders of Archaeology Today or any of the other magazines to which she occasionally
contributed articles. Besides that, few of those articles featured any pictures of her. Therewas only one place that people might recognize her from.
"She's that woman from Chasing History's Monsters!"
And that was the place, Annja thought. It wasn't the first time that her part-time work on thesyndicated television show had created problems for her.
Chasing History's Monsters was a weekly foray into the exploration of creatures, myths andwhatever else the show's producers felt comfortable covering. Each week, at least two or threestories, legends or fables would be fleshed out and presented with a mix of facts and fiction.
For her part, Annja usually shot down the myths and debunked hauntings and demonic possession,blowing away legerdemain with research and study. Her concentration was on the history of thetime, of the thinking and the people and how all of that related to what was going on in theworld of today. Of course, even though she poked holes in fabrications, that didn't make truebelievers any less willing to believe.
"Kristie!" some young men shouted, mistaking Annja for her popular co-star. They jumped up anddown, mired in the crowd, trying to get a closer look. They were pushed farther back as thepolice car rolled through. "Kristie! Over here!"
The tall black man turned to the police vehicle. He slammed both hands on the hood. The suddenloud noise quieted everyone.
"I've filed an injunction to stop this demolition," the man roared. "The sanctity of thosegraves needs to be maintained."
Two policemen stepped out of the car. The older one was black and the younger one was Hispanic.Both of them had that hard-edged look that Annja recognized. She'd seen it first on the facesof the men who patrolled New Orleans, then in the faces of men serving in the same capacityaround the world.
"John," the older policeman said, "I'm going to ask you to back off once, politely. And if youdon't, I'm going to arrest you."
"We have the right to assemble," the man said.
"Assemble," the officer agreed, "but not to impede. The construction company and the owners ofthis land have graciously allowed people to come in and make the attempt to find out who thosedead folks are. They didn't have to do that. They could have just cleaned them out of there."
"Like the refuse they were treated as all those years ago?"
"I'm not here to debate, John," the policeman said. "I'm asking you to step aside and let thesepeople get on with their jobs."
"They were murdered!" John shouted.
Murmurs came from the crowd.
"We don't know that," the policeman said. "And even if they were murdered, whoever did it isdead. We're not going to find a guilty party." He took a breath. "Now step down."
Reluctantly, the big man stepped back. A corridor opened up to the police car. Annja walkedforward.
"Afternoon, miss," the police officer said. The badge on his shirt identified him as A. Marcus.He opened the squad car's rear door for Annja.
"Thank you, Officer Marcus." Annja slid into the back seat.
The younger officer put Hallinger in on the other side. They were driven to the building lessthan a hundred yards away. The sea of protesters, driven to a new frenzy, flowed in behindthem.
"You'll have to forgive them," Marcus said. "Kirktown is usually a fine city. A place whereyou'd want to bring your family." He glanced up at the news helicopter circling in the sky.Sunlight splintered from the frames of his glasses. "Today...well, we're just not at our best."
"Is there a chance that any of the people located under the building are ancestors of thepeople here?" Annja asked.
"Probably. The Civil War and the Underground Railroad was a long time ago, but people haven'tforgotten. Racial tension is something that I don't think will ever go away in this state."
"It's too easy to separate people by skin color," Annja agreed. "Then you've got money,politics and religious preference."
Marcus grinned. "Yes, ma'am. I figure that's about the size of it. Always has been."