Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 03


 Bill hobbled on two crutches toward the Mimir’s Well. The Well was a tavern just inside the western wall of Cahokia, whose signboard depicted a cup of some dark red liquid with a one-eyed crow perched on the rim. It had survived the fires on the night of the Heron King’s assault, despite being an aboveground building of half-timber construction with a thatched roof. Good luck on the proprietor’s part, or maybe a hex against flame. The warehouses and receiving offices built in the manner of the children of Eve around the Well had mostly burned down and had not yet been rebuilt.

The mounds were much less damaged, the wood of their structures being sunk into the cold winter earth.

Even if the neighborhood hadn’t burned in the assault, it would have been quiet. The docks on the other side of the Treewall were destroyed by rampaging beastkind, and the beastkind still prowled the frozen riverbank, cutting off river traffic into Cahokia. The Treewall’s western gate, called its Mississippi Gate, was shut, warded by Cahokia’s too-few wizards, and watched by armed men from the ramparts above. So were its Chicago Gate (on the north side), its Ohio Gate (on the east), and its Memphis Gate (on the south); the Imperials cut off traffic on these three sides, bottling the city up and forcing her to live on stores that had already been meager to begin with and were now running out.

Children, skinny but bright-eyed, played across the street and sang:

I’ll sing you seven, O

Green grow the rushes, O

What are your seven, O?

The spirit of the Lord

And it ever more shall be so

The words didn’t sound right to Bill, but it had been a long time since he was a child, innocently singing Christmas shanties.

It was also a long time since he’d seen a goat or a chicken. He hadn’t seen a horse or a dog in a week. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a rat.

The Treewall had been scorched as well, but it had grown new bark and leaves. That was Sarah’s doing. Bill had been fighting elsewhere, but he’d heard from Maltres Korinn how she had run the Heronplow around the entire city. That spell had restored life to the wall and stopped the raging of the beastkind still within it.

The thought reminded him that he wasn’t alone.

Bill turned to Chikaak. The beastman warrior, a man-sized and man-shaped coyote who stood on his hind legs, was Bill’s sole remaining sergeant. Faithful Calvin Calhoun had fled after committing sacrilege against Sarah’s goddess, and Sarah had sent the odd Dutchman Jacob Hop after her other siblings. The Firstborn counselor Uris had died at the hands of Cahokian wardens, bribed by a traitor. That left Chikaak, bound by a magical oath upon Cahokia’s Sevenfold Crown, an oath which Bill knew could be disrupted by a thing as small as the physical application of a bit of silver.

Bill felt dangerously exposed.

“I shall not require your assistance here, Sergeant,” Bill told the beastman.

Chikaak didn’t move. With his tongue lolling out his mouth, the damned fellow looked as if he were grinning. “You’re seeking relief from pain.”

“Hell’s Bells, yes, I am. My legs are both broken beyond healing. I shall never run again and I walk only with difficulty. My . . . physician,” he had almost said lady, which would have been closer to the truth, though Cathy Filmer had been a Harvite novice and was the closest thing to a doctor he’d seen in years, “tells me I am likely to feel pain the rest of my life. Yes, sergeant, I would like a little relief, and some of us are not constituted so as to be able to lick our own wounds.”

Chikaak’s expression didn’t change.

“You’re not following my instruction, suh,” Bill growled.

“You’re my commanding officer,” the beastman said. “But my oath is to the queen.”

Dammit. “Very well, then. Come watch me drink.”

Bill stumped into the Well. Years of walking into taverns had conditioned him to expect the smell of food, and his mouth was watering even as he pulled the door open. The bitter gush around his tongue sharpened the pang in his stomach as he realized that the tavern smelled only of sweat and candle wax.

No food.

There was drink, at least. Men huddled over tankards and cups at the Well’s scarred tables, sipping without speaking. And there was music: a man huddled beside the fired plucked slowly at a lute that seemed to be missing strings–this, too, likely an effect of the siege–and sang an English ballad.

It’s been a long, hard journey since Peterborough burned

Many a good man buried, many bitter lessons learned

I’m sunk up to my shoulders in this thick black Ely mud

My eyes are full of chainmail and my heart is full of blood

I’m not the last man

I’m just the last man standing

It was an English tune, and after a moment, Bill recognized it. It was a ballad about Hereward the Saxon, last resisting warrior against the Norman invasion of England in the eleventh century. It was a fitting song for soldiers trapped and determined to fight to the end.

I’ve seen the girls of Flanders dance in taverns by the way

And English girls on alder trees by Norman nails did sway

We fired the wall, and William’s witch fell broken all apart

My oath on Etheldreda’s bones goes dancing through my heart

I’m not the last man

I’m just the last man standing

Bill would be the last man standing, if need be, but right now the mere thought of standing pained him. He dragged his carcass across the floor to a table beneath two smoked-paper windows. Hurling his crutches into the corner, he crashed onto the chair; it wobbled, and so did the table, but they held.

Chikaak had the wit to remain skulking by the door, and out of Bill’s way.

The serving boy who approached was skinny but clean. He had the milk-white face and teeth of a pure-blooded Wallenstein, and hair so blond it nearly glowed.

“Whisky.” Bill tried not to growl. “Please.”

“No whisky.” The boy had a hint of a Chicago V in his W, and he smiled hopefully. “Wine?”

“Dammit.” Bill sighed. “Wine.”

By habit, he had sat with his back to the wall, facing the tavern’s door. The sight of Chikaak, tongue dangling, waving away the serving boy and staring at Bill, brought up a wave of impotent rage, so Bill dragged himself around the small table until he faced the corner. That left his back exposed, but if Chikaak was bound and determined to stand and watch Bill drink, he could rely on the beastman to sound an alarm if anyone attacked.

Besides, Bill was in priestly, mystical, alien Cahokia, not stab-you-in-the-back New Orleans.

The wine came in a wooden cup carved with German images: a tree, a serpent, a squirrel, a bird. Bill deliberately ignored the smell and drained half the cup in one long gulp.

It tasted more of vinegar than of wine.

“Heaven’s footstool, what have I come to?” he muttered.

A man stepped past Bill and sat at the same table. Chikaak bore down on them both, growling, but Bill raised a hand to restrain the beastman. The stranger looked Firstborn in the fineness of his facial features, though with darker skin than usual, as if he had Indian or Africk ancestors. He wore a green tunic with gold abstract patterns embroidered around the neck and sleeves, and he smiled at Bill.

“The man is unarmed,” Bill said to his sergeant. “At ease.”

Chikaak withdrew, snarling, and the Firstborn smiled again. “Thank you, Captain Lee.”

Bill instantly regretted calling off the beastman. “You have the advantage of me, suh.”

“You must surely recognize that you are well-known in this city. A few–myself among them–remember your days of riding in the Missouri with Kyres the Lion, but everyone has heard of your part in driving the Imperial Ohio Company militia from Cahokia.”

“So that we may starve,” Bill said. “What a hero I am.”

“There is still wine.”

“Two parts water, at least.”

“Only two? I’d have guessed four, by now. My name is Gazelem Zomas.”

“Zomas.” Bill sighed. “The eighth kingdom. Deep in the Missouri, or beyond it, the white towers of Etzanoa built by those who would not accept the rule of the great Onandagos, or some such tale?”

“That is one story. Another story is that the man who should have been king of Cahokia was driven out by Onandagos, and built Etzanoa as a refuge for all Adam’s children who could find no other home.”

Bill shrugged. “As you like. We are speaking of the same place.”

“Did you know that the southern gate of this city was once called the Zomas Gate? Relations have not always been hostile.”

“And yet now it is the Memphis Gate.”

Zomas shrugged. “You haven’t been to my home, I take it.”

“I’ve seen the towers from afar. Kyres Elytharias did not regard the king of Zomas as his friend.”

“He and my uncle were rivals in the Missouri. Some of what Kyres saw as doing justice, my uncle saw as interfering in the affairs of another man’s realm.”