Marcus shut his eyes quickly, squeezing them shut, hoping Tobias hadn’t seen him in the dark. There was a lot of moonlight coming through the trees, but he supposed it was possible. He didn’t breathe for several long seconds. Finally, Tobias spoke up.
Marcus and the men around him stretched and shifted awkwardly. Marcus tried to look as if he had just opened his eyes, rubbing them for effect. He avoided meeting Tobias’ gaze as the latter addressed the group.
“This man Carter has intruded himself upon our community, and taken it upon himself to dole out judgement. As well you know, this is the domain not of any man, but of the Fisher.”
Some of the men nodded in the darkness, Marcus among them.
“The Fisher, and the Fisher alone, has the divine right to pass judgement on the sins of men. Now, as its humble servant and speaker, I am burdened with the task of interpreting this divine judgement, but not even I have the right to pass judgement of my own accord. Carter has stepped out against the laws of our community, and something must be done.”
There was some low murmuring from the group now. Internally, Marcus grinned. None of the men around him were theologians or philosophers. They bowed to and obeyed the divinity of the Fisher, of course, but they left the finer points and deeper theological concerns to Tobias. Tobias was intelligent. Marcus considered himself intelligent, too, but he knew he had a more practical, immediate intelligence, more akin to animal cunning. Tobias’ intelligence was deep, and slow, a brain like an iceberg behind steely eyes. Like an iceberg, it had a weight and force that could carve through continents.
And like an iceberg, you could only see the surface, and had to guess at just how vast the thing was underneath.
No, these men were not priests. They were crusaders.
“We should make an example out of him. Chase him out of town.”
The voice had come from next to him, and Marcus turned to see a thick boulder of a man, fists clenched, teeth gritted. The man was Lee Vickery. His younger brother, Noel, was the young man who Carter had sucker punched in the stomach earlier that night. Other low voices came from the dark, sounding their agreement.
“If we run him out, what stops him from coming back? And bringing friends, or police? He can’t leave Fisherman’s Creek. We have to keep him here.”
The fire was rising in his belly, now, and his heart was beating fast. What he wouldn’t give to knock out Carter Murphy’s front teeth.
“In the ground, if we have to.”
Tobias shook his head, and raised a calming hand.
“We can’t hurt him, and we can’t run him out of town. Harvest time is approaching, and who knows when the next outsider will arrive? They’re becoming less and less frequent, now. No, we need Carter Murphy to be here during the harvest.”
Marcus crossed his arms.
“Well, what do we do then?”
Tobias looked at each of them in turn before answering.
“We give him no reason to leave. We welcome him. Perhaps even invite him to church. Bring him into the fold, show him the error of his ways. He will submit. He is physically strong, but he has no energy in him, none of the fire granted us by our service to the Fisher. He will want to adapt, and fit in, and we will show him how to do so. So be patient, brothers.”
The men around him nodded their assent. Only Marcus and Lee Vickery shared a look in the dark. Lee’s gravelly voice undercut the group’s murmuring.
“But will he be punished?”
Tobias walked to Lee, and put his hands on the man’s shoulders. Lee was the stouter man, but Tobias stood easily a head taller and was strong from hard labour. Lee shrunk away.
“In time, yes. He will pay for what he has done. Harvest time will come and pass, and the Fisher will tempt him, and he will take the bait, for he is weak. Yes, the Fisher will have him, and he shall know hell.”
Marcus scoffed, then froze when Tobias turned to face him.
“Yes, Marcus? You believe you know better? Do you not trust my judgement?”
Every man present was staring at him now, with the exception of Lee, who was trying to extricate himself from Tobias’ grip.
Marcus took a step back and almost slipped, struggling to find purchase in the mud of the riverbank.
“I think if we let him get away with it-“
“Get away with it?”
Tobias released Lee, who staggered backwards, and stalked over to Marcus.
“You think being trapped in the deep, dark hell the Fisher has waiting for him, drowned forever, is ‘getting away with it’, Marcus?”
“Or perhaps you think he is getting away with it because the Fisher will not catch him. Is that it, Marcus? Is it doubt in the Fisher’s power?”
“Of course not.”
“Then what, pray tell me, makes you think he will ‘get away’ with anything, Marcus? You know I value your wisdom. All your wisdom.”
Tobias made a sweeping gesture at the other men.
Marcus took another step back and slipped again. This time, he could not keep his feet, and he fell backwards heavily, and landed hard in the mud. His tailbone screamed at him.
“I was wrong!”
Tobias was standing him over now, breathing hard. He reached down and grabbed Marcus by the shoulders and lifted him out of the mud. Tobias took a step towards the creek.
Marcus was pleading now.
“No, no, please, not in the creek, I was wrong, I spoke out of turn, please!”
Tobias dropped him, and again he landed hard. He felt something in the region of his tailbone snap.
“Is there anyone else in a questioning mood? Who perhaps needs to be reminded of the power of the Fisher?”
Tobias looked about at the men surrounding him. Lee’s shoulders were hunched. The other men alternately stared at Marcus, the sky, or the black waters of the creek beside them.
Tobias spun around, facing each man in the group in turn, staring them dead in the eye.
“You think because I advise patience, it means the same thing as mercy? Mercy, for an outsider, who raised a hand against our own, who deigned to know better, to judge our own in place of the Fisher?”
He stepped out of the group, and strode towards the creek.
“You forget, friends! You forget everything I have taught you, everything our fathers taught us! Wisdom handed down by the voices of men from the very beginning of this place, and beyond!”
Tobias made sure all eyes were on him. Once he had their undivided attention, he took a purposeful backward step. He was now ankle-deep in the water, his feet gone from view, the creek made shadowy black by the dark of the night.
“The Fisher is powerful, and wise, but it is not merciful. It will tempt the sinner, and he who submits to temptation will be caught, and he will be punished. The Fisher will take him down to hell, where the sinner will drown, and be born, and drown, and be born again and drowned again for all time.”
Behind him, reflected moonlight danced in the centre of the river. Sometimes it looked for all the world like a ripple. Marcus jumped. He thought he had heard, just on the edge of hearing, something very much like a splash of water.
“I have been burdened. The Fisher does not see fit to explain its whims to man. Would you explain your reasoning to an insect before you crushed it beneath your heel? As the speaker for the Fisher, I am tasked to explain the workings of a god. I take the unknowable motions of a god, and make them words, and you would question me?”
A wind picked up, and the surface of the creek began to splash and ripple as it was buffeted.
“When I advise patience, it is not because I am being merciful. Do not assume that. Nor is the Fisher being merciful. Never assume that. It is because a force greater than all of us has deigned that patience is the way. Who are we to question this?”
Tobias stepped forward. Marcus breathed again. The creek was only six metres wide at this point, but there was the sense that beneath the black surface, something immense had moved away.
“Harvest time draws near, my friends, and every year is more difficult than the last. This year, an outsider has fallen in our lap, showing willingness to help our town. All I ask is patience. He will be punished. When the Fisher takes him.”
Tobias clapped his hands, once, and the spell was broken. Marcus slowly got to his feet, one hand to his lower back. Not one man offered him a hand. The group slowly dispersed, in silence, no man daring to look at another. No one could stand to look into the face of a friend and see their own fear reflected there.
The sunlight streaming in through the window above the head of his bed and landing on his face woke Carter early in the morning. He blinked, sat up, and immediately wished he hadn’t. His stomach was roiling, and his head felt like someone had been bouncing it like a basketball. He swung his legs around, wished he was dead, stood up, wished he was dead, blinked in the early morning sunlight, wished he was dead, and stepped gingerly out of the room while fervently wishing he was dead.
He slowly made his way downstairs, pausing occasionally to fight waves of nausea. Eggs. He needed eggs. And coffee.
He stepped onto the floor of the Wanderer and looked around, momentarily lost. As his brain clicked into gear he remembered where he was, and he made his way to the Wanderer’s kitchen. As he stepped through the doors, he paused.
Shit, he thought. None of the food in here is mine.