This isn’t really an appropriate topic for Easter Sunday (Western church calendar), or maybe it is. It is about evil that leads to justice.
At last, we get to the guy in the suit, top-hat, and cape, twirling his black mustache and gloating over the . . . Oops.
Some bad guys get to do that. Alas, the rest of the doers of evil deeds tend to be a little less obvious about who they are, and have more complicated motives than getting Pretty Polly to marry them for [insert nefarious reason here]. Nor do they tend to gloat the way Auric [Corrected] Goldfinger did. Unless you are writing a true melodrama, in which having characters chew the scenery is part of the fun, and you should go for it with gusto and humor.
There are a few times when you can have a villain without a motive (sort of like a Rebel Without a Cause [or Clue. Ed.]), especially if you are writing horror. That’s part of the definition of horror, the enormous weight of the unknown that surrounds the story. For other genres, readers tend to get impatient with, “Because she’s evil, that’s why” unless you set it up really, really well. I’m not that good. My villains need a motive, be it bureaucratic, or personal, or magical, or the desire for revenge (sometimes personal, sometimes not.)
In Wall of the Fifth River, we have a villain. His motives are quite reasonable. He is a priest of the river gods, or of gods he thinks are the real gods of the river, and he wants to keep them happy and contented. His predecessors found a way to do this, a two-part way, by giving the gods a percentage of the most valuable thing the people have. OK, this sounds like something many religions do, so you’re not breaking reader belief (pun intended.)
So, here’s the first encounter between Foy (chief scout) Vashon (smart warrior) and the eventually bad guy.
At the cross-road, the two riders hesitated, then continued up toward the building on the mound. It gleamed white under the noon sun, with scarlet and deep green bands around the edge of the roof. As they drew closer, the people around them gave the pair curious looks, and they saw more children, mostly two years and older. One boy played with a clay ox on wheels, pulling it with a string. Two girls chased a rolling hoop, steering it with slender sticks. All the children wore good clothes, clean and pale. Well, the stone streets did not stain the way grass and dirt did, and the children looked too young to help their parents with the animals. Vashlo nodded to himself as he and Foy passed through a gateway without gates.
Foy hesitated, then moved to the side, away from the city folk coming and going. “I do not like it,” he whispered. “Too cold. Something chills me, something worse than what we left behind the mountains.”
“Can you tell where it comes from?” Vashlo wanted to untie his knife, but what good was even the strongest bronze against a spirit?
“No.” Foy shook all over, like a horse with flies. “But I don’t want to stay here longer than we need to.”
No one with all their wits and senses stayed in any city longer than they had to. Vashlo nodded his agreement, and they resumed their walk, following the others on a way that circled around a large pool of water. Someone had lined the hole with stone or something else black and hard, and steps led down to the water and out again. Two men wearing only loin-cloths folded their hands and bowed, then entered the pool. They swam across the length, ducking under the water three times, then emerged at the end. Women waiting there handed the men clothing, which they put on after turning and bowing three times more to the water. Foy and Vashlo shared a shrug. Perhaps it was the local version of a sweat tent?
Everyone around them stopped at once as a wooden rattle clattered and bells chimed. The people turned toward the building on the mound, bowing. Foy and Vashlo copied them. A man appeared on the platform under the building. He wore a white waist-wrap that extended down to his shins, with an extra piece draped over his shoulder. His bald head gleamed a little in the noon sun, and he carried a staff. A smile appeared on his round face. He had a beard that had been trimmed into a curve just below his chin, but that did not seem to have been oiled or curled. The people straightened up and resumed their walking. The stranger descended the steps and strode towards the two strangers, little metal tassels on his shoulder-piece chiming as he moved. Foy and Vashlo bowed again.
The stranger studied them. He spoke slowly, his voice smooth and almost melodic. “Greetings, travelers.”
“Greetings, honored elder,” Vashlo replied.
“Do you seek the blessing of the gods?”
“No more than all men, honored elder. We are strangers and came to pay our respects to the gods of the city and the land.” That was the custom among all civilized people, after all.
The elder started to frown, then smiled once more. “Indeed. It is wise to please the gods, wherever one passes.” He blinked dark eyes. “Do any children among your people need healing or blessings?”
Vashlo hid his surprise. What a strange question? “I do not know sir. At present all are well, but that will change as the gods will it.”
“A wise and good answer. Should a need arise, bring them here. Children are special favorites of our city god, and my fellow priests and I are always willing to offer sacrifices and prayers on the behalf of the very young.”
Foy inclined his head in a bow. ‘Thank you, honored elder. We will so tell our elders, that they might remember if there is need.”
The priest raised his left hand. “Go with the blessings of the city gods, and may your people find rest and ease.”
The two men bowed, waiting until the priest walked away to stand upright once more. They finished walking around the temple, then returned the way they had come.
So, Foy, who is sensitive to magic, senses something badly wrong in the temple complex. [Foreshadowing]. They meet a nice man, who we will see later giving children blessings and acting like everyone’s really kind uncle who has little treats for the younger kids and who makes time for them. Except the people act a little odd around him, even if the children don’t. Oh, and there are no children younger than two or so. [Cue dissonant, minor music] Later on, the local priests and some other city people express further interest in the tribe’s young children, and some of the nomads wonder about all the strange river beasts hanging around the bridge. [Scary music builds in the background]. Remember, you need to foreshadow three times at least for readers to start to get suspicious.
We jump to the reveal. It takes place at night, as the tribal seer and the chief are discussing what to do next:
Foy dropped to his knees, bowing to Dravane and Mahon. “Honored chief and seer, we must have nothing to do with the men of the city.” He shook and dripped as if he’d raced leagues on foot in the midday summer sun. His face seemed pure white despite the reddish light of the fire. “They consort with evil.”
Dravane leaned forward from where he sat on the other side of the fire. “What did you do and see?”
Foy swallowed hard. “Honored seer, I followed the tracks of the missing mare and foal down to the meadow near the river. I found them, and Endria caught them and started back to camp. But I sensed something wrong, and heard voices from upstream. I tied my horse to a post and crept upstream, hiding in the reeds. Honored seer, may the gods save me from ever seeing such things again.”
“What?” Mahon demanded.
Foy began shaking. “They feed children – babies – to demons! I heard crying, and watched as the priest Vashon and I met took a yearling child out of a basket, held it over his head, and threw it into the river. As he did, something moved, and grunted, snapping at the baby as it entered the water. In the moonlight and torchlight I saw eyes glowing red, and a beast like the one Ani saw, but glowing.” He gulped. “The priests chanted, and threw four more babies into the water, all of them devoured by the demon creatures. Power came to the priests, and the priests sent it somewhere, I think the city.” Foy’s face had shifted from white to green. “As the beasts tore apart a child, it screamed in pain. The priests laughed and smiled. Honored seer and chief, I threw up. Had I had my bow with me, I would have killed all the men for such evil.”
OK, these guys are Bad News. They are breaking the law of the gods, as well as violating the laws of hospitality (as has already transpired earlier in the story). Later on we see that the priests are doing something even more sadistic, all for the good of the city with the knowledge of the people of the city.* This the nomads cannot stand.
This scene is based on archaeological evidence, and reports from British Colonial Administrators from the area that’s now in Pakistan. It took them until the 1830s to get women to stop sacrificing children to the gods of fertility by feeding babies to local alligators.
The villains have the best of intentions – protecting their people and keeping them safe. It is a sad thing to give up some children, but so the gods demand. Right now readers are probably begging for the SMOD** or something to hit the city. It’s going to come, trust me. Now the chief priest, the one we met in the first scene? Oh, he’s not what he seems, and he enjoys what he does. So we have “misguided evil” and “pure evil kill-it-with-fire.” Or in this case, water.
We have our protagonists, our villain, and our motives. What next?
In two weeks, I will jump to the final confrontation.
*Those of you who are thinking, “Um, you know, this reminds me of a famous short story/ thought experiment that Alma really does not like” are on the right track.
**Sweet Meteor of Doom.