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Authors: Jessica Cornwell

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BOOK: The Serpent Papers
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Inside her cottage was unpleasantly dark. The windows were small and tightly shuttered, the kitchen marked by the presence of a metal cauldron bubbling above an open fire. As Lloret and the woman became quickly engrossed in some tête-à-tête, I thought it best to leave them, and gather my nerves outside. I sat beneath the lantern hanging from her door and watched the moon bulge across the heavens, her veil so bright that I could see all the valley’s stones and the individual leaves of low scrub. It soothed me to observe this rugged highland glinting like an oiled obsidian mirror. I noted the position of the spring of the serpent,
la font de sa serp
, not far from the stone cottage. Soon enough Lloret threw open the door behind me and demanded that I enter. Here I saw more than I had previously discerned. Canvases and stretched parchment were stacked against the walls of the cottage, dried herbs were strewn from the rafters. A desk had been prepared, hinged drawing board equipped with magnifying glasses and a multitude of quills, two penknives, a cutting stone, a rule and pencils. There was linen paper, filler and ink, and reeds kept in a jar – from which she must cut her own nibs, alongside vials and potions.
, I thought, suddenly afraid,
this woman is a witch.

‘Are you hungry?’ She walked towards me. My stomach turned. I stammered that I was, but perhaps put off the idea of food. Lloret remained silent. The woman went to the stove, where a vat of soup was unveiled, and hunks of meat to warm the belly. Lucretia placed a bowl of the festering stew before me. I was immediately repulsed.
Lloret worships this being!
I thought.
But perhaps his mind has been transfigured!
I refused to bring any food to my lips, having decided that Lucretia was magic, like Circe or Morgan le Fay, and that if I ate her fare I would be trapped as a pig in her yard, or worse, become a devotee like the lovesick Lloret.

‘Do I frighten you, Senyor Sitwell? You have read too much. I am no faerie. Lloret. Tell the man how much I can bleed.’ She pulled up the sleeve of her dress and showed me a scar that ran down to her palm. Lloret pulled a candle closer, so that the light fell on the raised mark. ‘Do you think a faerie bleeds?’ she asked. I pushed the bowl away, reassuring myself that every demon and witch from time immemorial had said the same.

‘You are very rude for a gentleman. Ruthven wrote that you were rude, and rude you are indeed.’ She gestured at the priest and they began conversing rapidly in their thick dialect of Catalan. Lloret announced then that I brought a package with me, an offering the woman expected. He got up from the table and strode to our saddlebags, returning with the wrapped bundle. Taking the package from Lloret, she set it on the table and pulled back the cloth. Inside was a sealed golden reliquary box with a panelled roof inlaid with fine enamel. The box was decorated with an intricate pattern of golden fig leaves, embedded with minute glass birds, the craftsmanship of which was wondrous to behold.

‘Open it,’ she commanded.

I did as I was bidden, removing the metal key from its latch. Before me were several sheets of parchment tied together by a thin black ribbon. The parchment itself was very old, riddled with the remnants of an animal’s veins, and looked not unlike a set of leaves sown together. Gilded illuminations glittered in the candlelight, and the Latin letters moved as if they were alive. In an instant, I recognized the penmanship of a master – my own Rex Illuminatus.
Immediately I reached for the pages, but Lucretia caught my hand and held it back.

‘You must not touch them. They will sear into you. They will speak to you in a thousand voices. These are the Serpent Papers, Sitwell. They are written in the Divine Language, a language like no other on earth.’

‘Do you know this tongue?’ I asked.

‘You could learn it, Sitwell, but the strength of it would devour you.’

Lucretia lifted my hands in hers and kissed them. ‘
What transpires will be for you to decipher. A riddle of your own.
’ Her lips never moved, but I swear I heard her voice sounding within my body. I attempted to pull away, but she held me tightly.

‘Listen closely, Master Sitwell,’ the priest said. ‘She is a worker of many miracles, she is a final treasure whom we call the Nightingale. Ruthven has asked that she show you what she is, that you might understand the nature of the secret you will safeguard.’

As he spoke, Lucretia bowed to each of the four corners of the room, invoking the North, the South, the East, the West, before raising the relic box in her hands above her head.

I call you Mystery!
’ she cried, pressing the relic box towards the heavens. ‘
I call you Mendacious One of Red Erythre, Ida – born of wooded dells, mud-bound in stained Marpessus! I follow the deepening river Aidoneus, older than Orpheus, but all have called her Madness! Sisters! Come forth! For I am the Liminal Nothingness! Traverser of the Void!

With each name came a gust of wind, blowing the candles so that we were plunged into darkness.
Convulsions racked her form, her colour changed and her hair rose – while a warmth like a hundred hands began pulling at my clothes and tugging at my hair. Lucretia’s eyes clouded in a stony emptiness as a foreign, female voice entered her mouth. ‘
As a virgin I was clad in iron, shackled by the strength of fate, I have not lost my sovereignty
,’ the voice sang.

I felt a heat rising on my skin, a hum coursing through my veins.

You have called me Thrice Great, Two-Faced, Forked Tongue
Following this recitation Lucretia commenced to sing in a language unlike any other I have heard before, at first guttural and aspirated like the hissing of a serpent, then dark and soft as the call of the dove. As Lucretia sang, the papers in the golden box began to glow and I swear to you, Katherine, that before my very eyes a flood of light roared up from the parchment and drowned the room with a dazzling radiance – a monstrous effervescence that burnt our hands and faces, filling the dark rafters and shuttered windows, before sinking into the earthen floor as she sang in this language I could not decipher. And the sound! O, that sound! I shall never forget it until the day I die. A powerful throbbing broken by sweet, crystal calls that wrenched at my heart! With each mysterious syllable it seemed to my intoxicated senses that a golden leaf unfurled and golden boughs grew until the radiance was a veritable arbour above us.

‘This is alchemy!’
I cried – starting from my seat to stand in the golden leaves. ‘This is the very wonder Rex Illuminatus spoke of! The fashioning of Gold!’

Lucretia panted, breath heavy before me.
What emerged as a glow from her lips and eyes and ears swiftly transformed into a marvellous light, brighter than a thousand flickering candles, a heady gold like the rising of the sun, and it poured out from her neck and throat and chest, lifting her body up off the ground as the light sent out roots to the floor and suddenly her entire form appeared to shatter as a leaf of gold shatters under the hand of the illuminator, bursting into luminescent dust until there was nothing left but the song, a crooning deep song, and from the dust and song there grew a tree of light, the breadth and length of Lucretia’s body, split into four branches, and at the top of the branches in place of leaves there was a hanging crescent moon. The figure of the woman flickered in and out of the golden light – while I found myself mute, stupefied into wonder – I could not gather strength to speak, so terrified was I by the spectacle. A single moment seemed interminable, stretching for hours. The woman emerged from the golden tree to put out her hands, and showed them to me.
With this language you can create anything. It is the unutterable alphabet of the imagination. The sound of flux, of Spirit. With it you can read the universe, conjure entire histories, see all futures, live forever, but should you use it coarsely, greedily, inhumanely, the more it shall burn, eating you away until you enter the wind!
Then holding her hands above her chest, she rubbed her palms together, harder and faster she rubbed them, sweat streaming from her brow as a cold shiver ran through my bones, and I felt the urge to abandon everything. To run far away, fast down the mountain valley – away from there! Too soon the voices came again – fiercer, louder – the windows and doors of the cottage burst open with sudden gusts of a howling inferno – light rushing from the woman’s fingers until we were all surrounded, and light spun about her until with a great roar it exploded out and covered up my eyes, showering my skin with gold! At once I threw myself down on the floor, trembling with fear.

‘Lloret!’ I cried in horror. ‘What devilry is this?’

In a final gust the siege abated. The light drained from Lucretia and her gaze cleared. She wiped the spittle from her mouth before slumping down in a chair like a dried chaff of wheat.

‘Mark me, Sitwell. Mark me well,’ she whispered. ‘I am in you now. I have bound your blood to mine.’

The lapsed priest bowed his head, kneeling beside me.

‘Tell him,’ she said fiercely. ‘Mikel, you must tell him now.’

Lloret’s eyes met mine.

‘I have brought you here tonight, Master Sitwell, because I was ordered to do so upon certain eventualities. Eventualities I could not reveal until after the fact. You cannot return to Valldemossa. The Captain has made provisions for your safety. He has given you everything. His wealth, his heritage, his library. You are a rich man. He wishes that you return to London, where his solicitors will pass his estate into your possession.’

‘Whatever do you mean?’ I rasped.

‘The Captain has asked me to inform you in this fashion and not from the papers.’ With that dreadful pronouncement, Lloret handed me a crumpled envelope and watched as I read – but I can write no more of this – I must tell you straight and frankly: Captain Ruthven is dead. Worse, he is murdered. Found dangling from a noose in Barcelona, his heart violently removed from his chest, his body burnt. He has sacrificed himself to his enemies. And in doing so he has given me all that they feared the world might find. As his sole benefactor, I must bear this lodestone. I hold the entirety of his estate. And I do not know what to do with my terrible burden! For Ruthven’s death has shackled me to his fate . . . Dear God, perhaps my writing has endangered your life, alongside mine? You must be swift. Gather up my letters, even the messages of love – you must gather every word that I have sent you since leaving England and place them in the most secret of locations. Tell no one what I have told you. Tell no one, from this point forward, that I have written to you at all. Do not act rashly, you must be strong – on no account should you seek to destroy or burn our correspondence, for it must stand as evidence of what I have witnessed shall Ruthven’s murderers ever be brought to justice. I have entered into perdition. My darling, you must keep my secret as your life depended on it, for surely it does now – forgive me, please forgive me – for once you have known what I have known, there is no turning back – but do not fear. Wait word from me, and stand your ground. My God, Katherine. One thing and one thing alone is clear—

Book the Third

A Prophet’s Holograph



‘Divination is fiction applied to life to predict the future.’

‘Fiction?’ I asked. ‘What is that?’

‘A novel form of writing.’

‘Outside of the canon? There can be no books that do not relate to God,’
I said.

BOOK: The Serpent Papers
11.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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