Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 16

The beastkind warriors on the wall, on the other hand, stood still and stared fiercely down at the Imperials below.

The Imperials–Maltres looked and saw men pointing at the wall. They saw, they knew.

What would they do about it?

“Sir William,” he said.

“Mmmm,” the Cavalier answered.

Maltres thumped the Earthshaker’s Rod on the wood under his feet. “Sir William, are you concerned about discipline?”

Chikaak made a small sound like a whimper.

“I am always concerned about discipline, suh,” Sir William said. “The children of Adam are by nature such unruly beasts.”

The Johnslander turned his face to Maltres and smiled. His eyes were oddly glassy.

“You could use some sleep, Sir William.”

“So could we all.”

“I need to borrow the wardens for at least a few hours, and maybe longer.”

“Outbreak of crime?”

“An outbreak of fruit!” Maltres thumped his staff again. “Haven’t you noticed? Look below you! Look at the Treewall! The goddess has blessed us, but I fear riots and theft will lead to violence if we don’t prevent it.”

Sir William shook himself and looked about. “Hell’s Bells, you’re right. The goddess, you say?”

“May I borrow the wardens?” It wasn’t entirely clear that Maltres had to ask; the wardens had been exclusively under his command until a few days earlier. Now, though, they were one of four more or less well-organized segments of Cahokia’s defense, the other three being the household troops of the Elytharias family and those of Cahokia’s other great families, the corps of Molly Pitchers that had defected to Cahokia, and Sarah’s personal retinue of beastkind. The wardens and household troops reported to Sharia Varelas and the artillerists to Jaleta Zorales, former rivals of Sarah’s for the Serpent Throne, who had given her their allegiance upon her being called as the goddess’s Beloved. At least while on military duty, they all answered to William Lee–the beastkind directly–and they called him General.

Many details were yet to be decided, but the organization worked. If the crisis holding them together passed, Maltres doubted the organization was yet solid enough to stand on its own.

Lee nodded. “We beasts shall hold the wall, suh! You may place your trust in us.”

Something was wrong, but Maltres didn’t have to time to find out what.

He banged his staff on the floor a third time and raised his voice. “The next man I see putting fruit into his mouth gets hanged!”

That put a sudden end to the gorging. Grabbing the nearest officer, Maltres passed on clear, concise orders–the peace to be kept, all household to be entitled to one basket of produce of any kind per person, the remainder to be collected into the city’s storehouses.

As he descended the stairs, he heard the barked commands that heralded the beginning of his instructions’ implementation.

He returned to the Great Mound.

The Podebradan Yedera stood before the temple door.

“Where is she?” Maltres asked.

“Beneath. Where she can sleep. With the priestesses.”

“With the other priestesses, you mean.”

The Unborn inclined her head slightly.

“She lives?”

“She lives. She rests.”

“She has saved us. For now, at least.”

The Podebradan nodded again. “A doubter, such as Zadok Tarami, will say that she has destroyed us in the long run.”

“Do you doubt?”

Yedera shook her head. “I hold true to all the things of my mothers, Vizier. Their ways, their beliefs, their stories, their gods. It would take more than a desire to join any man’s empire for me to topple the Serpent Throne. It would take more than a fear of death for me to abandon the children of Wisdom.”

“I wish we had twenty thousand like you.”

“In this city, I doubt you have twenty. Perhaps not ten. Ours is not a society that organizes monthly meetings.”

“Each of you sworn to a different noble family?”

“I am the only Oathbound attached to the family of Alzbieta Torias and Sarah Elytharias.”

The Unborn Daughters of St. Adela Podebradas were elite warriors whose field of action was not generally war. They were named for the Serpentborn queen of the old world who had rejected her Imperial husband, a son of Eve, in divorce, and who had eventually been executed for her temerity; or rather, they were named for the daughters it was imagined she would have had, and their behavior in some ways suggested people outside the common sphere of descent from Adam. They didn’t marry, they ignored taboos and social conventions, they celebrated no feast days; during the recent Christmas celebrations, Yedera had stood apart in every meeting, refused all invitations. The seven Sister Kingdoms acknowledged and legitimated their setting apart, exempting the Unborn from taxes, military service, and other forms of mandatory contribution. They were bodyguards and temple defenders, they were paladins, they carried out sworn acts of vengeance and punishment, they were even assassins.

They were fiercely loyal to their kind, and sworn to serve a single family.

Battlefield warriors or not, Maltres Korinn wished there were more of them in the city.

“And if Sarah Elytharias required the death of a single troublesome person?” he asked.

She didn’t inquire whom he meant. “Inside or outside of these walls, I stay true to the things of my mothers.”

They stood awhile in silence.

“I take it I’m not to be allowed in?” he asked.

“Cathy Filmer tends Sarah with her healing arts. Alzbieta Torias is also in attendance.” Unexpectedly, Yedera cracked a lopsided smile. “Between the two of them, the Beloved may feel she is surrounded by more than enough noise already.”

Maltres leaned on his staff. His inclination was to look northward, toward his own estates. Instead, he looked westward to the river and the wooden shore beyond, teeming with bloodthirsty, maddened beastkind. The emissaries of the Heron King had promised him destruction and his footsoldiers were certainly trying their hardest. Beyond the Great Green Wood, on the borders of the Missouri, lay Zomas. One of Maltres’s hopes in dealing with the claimants for the throne of Cahokia was that if Gazelem Zomas had won, the split kingdom might have been reunified or at least reconciled. An ally on the Heron King’s other flank could have been very useful.

Perhaps he should talk to Gazelem anyway. Perhaps he still might be able to facilitate an alliance.

Maltres shook his head and shifted his stance, looking to the east.

“A heavy part, to wear a crown.”

“I wear no crown,” he said immediately.

“I agree, My Lord Duke,” Yedera answered, looking at his face intently. “And yet standing here, looking at our enemies on either side, you think the thoughts of one who does.”

“Say rather that I think the thoughts of one who would offer good counsel,” Maltres Korinn said. “I would be for the Beloved daughter of Wisdom what Uris was for your mistress.”

“An old man who talked too much, schemed too quickly, and died of his own mistake?”

“You speak ill of the dead.”

“I am a Podebradan.”

“Uris’s failure was mine. We both stood against Sarah Elytharias, not knowing that the goddess had chosen her.”

Had the goddess chosen her? Or did the goddess choose her afterward, once she had defeated you and Uris?”

Maltres considered. “I don’t know whether it matters.”

“I don’t think it does, now. Either Sarah was always the goddess’s choice, and once the goddess made Her will known, you followed Sarah’s banner, or Sarah became the goddess’s choice, at which point you aligned yourself with her. The Virgin forgives. Either way, you’re with the goddess and Her Beloved now.”

“Or I’m on the side of a malevolent serpentine demon that plagues the descendants of the priest-king Onandagos and their people, seeking revenge for a primeval imprisonment.”

“Yes,” Yedera agreed. “Or that.”