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The Red Bishop

An excerpt from

The Red Bishop

Chapter 1

Plymouth, MA 1621

John Billington slapped at the blanket on his bed. It was the second time this month he had allowed the copper warming pan to burn one of the family’s blankets, and now everything was wet. His mother would have to ask Elizabeth Hopkins for another square of brown wool to mend the blanket—and that meant the Billingtons would again lose an extra egg in the barter. If his parents hadn’t been miles away that night, celebrating Mary Brewster’s 39th birthday, they surely would be reminding him of this, and that he should always take the blanket to the snow instead of the snow to the blanket.

John was seventeen, tall and broad with a thin blond beard, dressed in a beige nightshirt and brown linen pants. He took the family’s one extra blanket down from its peg over the hearthstone. Recovered or not from that afternoon’s snowy walk to the common house, it was certainly drier than the one he’d been using.

As he remade the bed with the extra blanket, the door to the house blasted inward. It sounded as if a canon had went off. John jumped and spun around as the flames of the candles in the room flickered. There was a gust of cold air, and three of the candles went out.

A boy of around twelve entered the doorway, barefoot, toes wet with snow. His thick brown hair stood straight up as if he had just been held over the harbor by its ends. His mouth was open in the shape of a scream, yet no sound came out. John was so surprised to see the boy that it took him a moment to realize it was Samuel Fuller. They sat in the back row at school together. John had often chosen him to be on his Saturday foot-racing teams.

“What cheer, Samuel?” John asked. “I pray your uncle is in need of more of our eggs, for I’m afraid my mother will be calling on your neighbor tomorrow for more wool.”

Samuel said nothing. His red-speckled nightshirt billowed as the chilly November wind blew through the door. John shivered, but Samuel was unflinching at the cold.

“Samuel?” John tried. He pulled his long, blond hair behind his ears. “How do you fare, then?”

Still no answer. John hopped over the still-smoking pan. He was about to offer the boy a cup of tea when he saw a great white hand coast in through the dark doorway. He froze at the sight of the gnarled, bony fingers; they were long and stiff like the antlers of a massive buck. They descended onto the back of Samuel’s neck and—almost gently, it seemed—shoved him into the room. The boy stumbled and drooled, and for the first time, John saw that his cheeks were streaked with tears. His clenched fists dripped with blood.

Samuel slowly turned to face whomever—or whatever—had trailed him in the night, and John gasped when he saw that a large section of the boy’s thick brown hair was missing in the back. The bare patch was crimson with blood.

John leapt backward, blindly reaching for his father’s musket on the wall. Savages. He became frantic as he realized that the gun was hanging above the mantle on the other end of the room.

The hand in the doorway expanded over Samuel like a giant white spider, and John could now see that the pale wrist attached to the hand was no thicker than three arrows bundled. A black sleeve cuff appeared, and then John heard a faint whispering in a language he didn’t understand.

“Samuel?” John tried hard not to panic as he inched his way across the room to where the musket hung. “Who comes with you? The Wampanoag? Where’s your uncle?”

It was no use. The dark figure folded its shoulders into the doorway in a strange, swooping motion, and ducked inside the room with a small head of long, gray hair more brittle than August kindling. The figure stayed hunched in front of the door before suddenly springing open like a black sail catching an unexpected wind.

It was a woman. A woman so tall her head scraped the ceiling.

John sprang forward, sputtering. “Leave here! How dare you enter my home! You haven’t the right!” John stretched his hands out to Samuel, who started to sway back and forth.

The giant woman moved closer, gliding slowly but deliberately. Her face was monstrous in the last bits of candlelight: her lips cracked and bloody, her nose long and gnarled. A jagged scar stretched from her temple to her nose, and John saw with a start that both of her eyes were missing. Instead, two dark, gaping holes drooped over a pair of bony cheeks, her eyelids pink and flapping.

John spied the musket beyond her, but he was frozen with fear.

The woman reached over and pulled Samuel toward herself. She whispered a string of garbled, repeating words, brought her right hand to Samuel’s hairline, and scraped her sharp fingers over his head. She pulled a handful of Samuel’s hair up to her mouth and slowly began to chew, running every last strand between her lips. Two red eyeballs pushed forward in their sockets. Samuel raised his bloody hands above his head, offering what appeared to be more of his hair. The woman sniffed it quickly before shoving it into her mouth, and with each swallow, she appeared to grow thicker. Her face added flesh and her bony hands suddenly ballooned with muscle.

John picked up the warming pan by its long, wooden handle. He waved it in front of himself in the pattern of a cross. “Witch,” he croaked. “Witch.”

Outside, far in the distance, a man yelled for Samuel. The witch held him closer, tighter. She stretched her mouth open, her lips now wet and littered with brown hair, and started chewing the top of Samuel’s head, furiously consuming whatever hair remained.

“Help!” John screamed hoarsely, but no sooner than he did, the woman leaped at him, pushing him so hard against the back wall of the house that the outside clapboards splintered. Her breath smelled of dirt and fish and blood. Her face was pocked with burns and flaked with dust, and the crescent scar began to glow a deep, hypnotizing maroon. John saw his terrified reflection in her red eyes.

The voice of the man yelling for Samuel grew nearer, and John choked out a sound that was more of a grunt than a plea for help. The woman suddenly snapped at John’s blond hair with her pointed teeth, taking a chunk out of his scalp. Satisfied with how he tasted, she pulled both him and Samuel out of the room and out into the darkness by their necks. The door slammed closed, locking itself, and the loaded musket fell from the mantle only to blow a hole in the roof above John’s bed.