Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 12

Chapter Three

“You speak ill of the dead.”

Luman Walters was hungry.

Not metaphorically hungry. Not hungry with the desire for knowledge, which was part of what had driven him to leave his mostly effective and reasonably comfortable working relationship with Notwithstanding Schmidt and slip within the walls of Cahokia, just before the gates had all been raised.

He was really hungry.

There was food within the Treewall, but very, very little. Private stores were being rationed out. Animals were kept indoors by their owners, until those owners themselves were prepared to slaughter them.

Children, as yet, were permitted to be outdoors. Given the snow that blocked the streets, though, most of them stayed inside. Those who were outside traveled in ragged gangs, and Luman did his best to avoid them . . . just in case.

Luman felt guilt at the thought of taking food from any Cahokian mouth. He had no right to be here, and had resolved that he would both fight to defend the city, when the time came, and also not consume its resources.

He had eaten one rat, trapping it himself with a bit of braucherei. It had a sour flavor, but Luman was hungry enough that he’d have done it again, if he’d seen any more rats.

He hadn’t.

Instead, he repeatedly sang a short braucher prayer that was supposed to ease hunger, thirst, and sleep. It mostly worked, though Luman found himself growing thinner.

He slept on the cot in The King’s Head, paying for the room by performing minor magic for the landlord, a slow-talking Talegan with obvious Lenni Lenape features named Zo’es Collins. Spells to stop fire. Spells to secure income. Before the milk gave out, Luman had carefully placed the Collins’s Bible atop his full butter churn, to keep the butter from going bad. But he spent most of his waking time either in the Basilica, helping Mother Hylia and the secular priests there care for the refugees, or in the streets of Cahokia, watching the actions of the city’s strangest and most fascinating inhabitant, her would-be queen, the half-Eldritch, half-Pennslander, all-Appalachee witch who stared at the world through mismatched eyes. The refugees knew Luman as the stranger who had driven the marauding beastkind from the church; they didn’t know how he had done it, and a few of the younger Missourians, more wildly afflicted with inflamed imaginations, whispered that he was a gunfighter, or that the pockets of his long coat were full of exotic weapons. Regardless, his word became authoritative, and Luman found himself settling disputes and easing fears.

The rat had been an occupant of the Basilica. Luman calculated that the rat’s death was only just punishment for the pages of the hymnals the rodent had apparently eaten, and he’d roasted it over a fire made from the splintered rood screen. Holy wood, holy fire, holy meat. On crude but undeniable magical principles, he’d felt as if the flesh of the rat were some sort of consecrated host.

He eyed the white doves that flocked on the high roof of the Basilica, but they were too hard to catch by hand, and Luman wasn’t yet hungry enough to actually shoot one of the church’s birds. It felt too impious, too close to shooting an angel.

But if I am hungry enough . . .

The witch Sarah Elytharias–no one in Cahokia called her by the name Penn–knew Luman, so he was careful not to come too close to her. He didn’t want to be taken for an Imperial spy. But her movements were often accompanied by an entourage of priestesses, ministers, and even beastkind soldiers, so he could watch much of what she did from the slopes of the Basilica Mound, peering through his spectacles and even sharpening his eyesight and hearing by minor charms, when occasion suggested.

He would like to get closer to her. He needed his next magical mentor, some access to an initiatory path, a new source of power. None of the priests in the Basilica would admit to any such thing even existing, and Mother Hylia maintained her diffident evasions, no matter how many times she saw Luman play the Good Samaritan with the wounded travelers of the Missouri.

He stood on a bright morning in early January on a large east-west avenue, the road that most directly connected the large eastern gate with the Great Mound and the Basilica. The witch Sarah stood atop the eastern wall looking intently at something outside; whatever it was also captured the attention of the wardens and Pitchers and other warriors on the wall, because they stared and murmured.

Before Luman could recite any spells to hear what Elytharias and her two woman advisors were saying to each other, the gate opened. The iron grill rose, and the iron-studded wood on the other side slowly dropped. Luman saw first the Imperial camps–larger than they had been a few days earlier–then the militia, then the trenches and earthworks.

And then a single man, with long white hair and beard, lurching forward on his knees.

Long-cloaked Cahokians standing all around Luman on the avenue gasped as one.

They knew the man.

Luman watched the old fellow creep forward. His knees were scabbed and callused, his once-white robe tattered, his skin blue from the cold. A thousand eyes stared at him, but he didn’t look back, not at a single face.

Instead, he looked up and forward.

Luman didn’t need to turn to know what the old man was fixed on. He was staring at the Basilica.

Luman retreated ahead of the old man, keeping an eye on his forward progress. Sarah, he noticed abruptly, had descended from the wall, but he couldn’t see where she’d gone.

The old man trembled, and left streaks of blood behind him in the snow. Could he even reach the Basilica?

The crowd closed in around him, leaving nevertheless a straight, narrow aisle ahead. They knew where he was going.

Who was he?

Could this be the mentor Luman was hoping for?

Crossing a plaza, the old man’s knees slid out from under him on a patch of ice. Hands reached out to elevate him and he pushed them away. Unsteadily, he rose to all fours . . . waiting, breathing hard as a frozen breeze snatched the tatters of his robe away, revealing a sunken chest that was also frozen blue . . . and then dragged himself to his knees and advanced again.

With the last coins of his Imperial salary, Luman bought a half-full cup of watered-down beer at a tavern. He asked for a crust of bread as well, but the drooping man behind the bar only frowned and shook his head. Luman then positioned himself at the foot of the Basilica Mound, holding the cup before him.

Watching the crowd mill about him, thickening the walls of the pilgrim’s aisle, he found Sarah Elytharias again. She and the two women stood on Cahokia’s other sacred mound, in front of the Temple of the Serpent, visibly watching.

From the conversation about him, Luman gleaned the pilgrim’s name: Father Tarami. He was a priest of the Basilica, and he was returning from a long pilgrimage, something called the Onandagos Road.

When Tarami reached the foot of the mound, he sat back on his own heels and looked up. Luman tried to catch his eye with a smile and a flourish of the cup, but Tarami ignored him. The old man’s breath came with effort, his lips were cracked, and Luman could hear the rumbling of his belly.

Tarami began to climb.

With each ponderous movement forward, the priest muttered some prayer under his breath. Luman heard the syllables clearly, but didn’t know the language and had no charm to decipher it. Throwing a sharp elbow into the belly of a tall, black-bearded Ophidian with sooty hands, Luman turned in and seized the position immediately behind Tarami. Muscling his way with each step and pushing away other enthusiasts, he held the spot.