Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 23
“I must do no such thing,” Notwithstanding Schmidt said, but she said it softly and under her breath.
What had Thomas seen? What did Thomas know? What did Thomas want her to do?
Pacifying the Ohio by coercion sat uneasily on her conscience, but she had made her peace with it. But this?
However exalted the goal, was this a necessary means?
Captain Mohuntubby stood. “You killed that boy. I’ll see you tried for it.”
Hooke laughed. I did not.
Mohuntubby pointed at the boy’s body, facedown in the snow, arms still nailed to the beam. “I know what I saw.”
At that moment, the crucified Parlett brother stirred. He drew his knees up underneath him in the snow. Arms still nailed to the timber, he got one foot beneath him, and then the other, rising into a squatting posture, face still looking down.
He stood, and as he stood he raised his chin to look at Captain Mohuntubby. The boy’s eyes were completely white, and a thick, black fluid welled up at their corners.
Mohuntubby gasped and stepped back.
Notwithstanding Schmidt heard the other Parlett children weeping. “What have you made him?”
The crucified Parlett turned his head to meet Schmidt’s gaze. When his face was turned directly toward her, she seemed to see a different face overlaid upon the boy’s features. It was an older man’s face, with a long, somewhat bulbous nose, and curly hair falling down from a point high above his forehead.
She heard a voice in her mind, but where Robert Hooke’s voice sounding like dry leaves, this voice sounded like breaking glass.
My servant Robert made the boy a glorious thing. Consider thou young Parlett the horse I ride, or the cup containing the wine.
Or the glove masking the fist.
Bringing his arms down with abrupt force, Cromwell shattered the bar that bound his arms. The broken halves fell aside and pulled away from the wracked little Parlett body, leaving nails behind in the cold flesh.
Cromwell stepped forward, the nail prints in his feet like black spots in the snow.
I am come to break the city of the serpent.
Notwithstanding Schmidt stood her ground. “Robert Hooke killed my man Dadgayadoh. I will let Lord Thomas demand recompense for the child’s life, but he must stand trial for the life of my agent.”
Thine agent lives, Cromwell said. Even now, he comes to thee.
“Protect the director!” Captain Mohuntubby shouted.
As she turned to see what Cromwell was pointing at, Schmidt found a half-circle of muskets forming around her. She found the fact somewhat comforting, though beneath her comfort was the nagging thought that a sorcerer who could kill the Treewall of Cahokia could sweep these men away with little trouble.
And that was just Hooke. What about Cromwell?
Silhouetted against the cool blue-white pre-dawn glow of the sky, Dadgayadoh walked toward her.
His confident, upright step had fallen into a slouch; he wore his red blanket and his silk top hat, but without his usual somewhat jaunty look. For a moment, Schmidt thought she must have been mistaken earlier. He must not have been dead, but only sleeping, like Mohuntubby and his men. Awakened by all the noise, her excellent Haudenosaunee trader now rejoined her. He was tired, but alive.
Then she saw his bare feet, the black nails of his fingers and toes, leaving behind a scratchy, confused trail in the snow, his blank stare, his slack jaw.
“Poor Dadgayadoh,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
The draug who had once been Dadgayadoh only groaned.
“Deu meu!” Miquel gasped as a wall of black flame raised to encircle the city. “What is that?”
“Fire, you idiot,” Josep said.
The two men leaned on the taffrail of the Verge CanÃbal to either side of Montserrat Ferrer i Quintana. The ship lay at anchor in the center of the Mississippi and slightly downstream of Cahokia’s walls. This didn’t put it out of reach of the beastkind–the CanÃbal’s crew had killed three of the creatures trying to swim, climb, or fly aboard their ship in the few hours they’d been there–but it put the smugglers mostly out of the beastkind’s notice.
The keelboatmen in Baton Rouge had explained that the Mississippi was too shallow for the Verge CanÃbal, and had insisted that the best way upriver was to be poled or pulled in one of their coffin-shaped punts. They boasted they could make as much as a mile an hour upstream.
At that pace, Montse had calculated that she may as well walk. After a brief flirtation with the idea of horses–but few of her crew knew how to ride, much less care for such an animal–she had found a rivermage.
The man was Dutch, and a smuggler. His name was Pieter, and he insisted on being called Piet. He had only seven fingers and considerably more than seven tattooes, which mostly consisted of images of fantastic creatures, including basilisks, a two-headed alligator, and a pair of mating krakens. He claimed to be an Ohio River hansard, and to be able to navigate the curves of the Mississippi in the dark even without the magic that allowed him to command his exorbitant rates. He also said he’d been up and down the river six times in the last twelve months, and to know all the sandbars, including the newly-formed ones, by heart.
Piet hadn’t exaggerated. They’d come up the Mississippi on a strong wind and pushed through the shallows by Piet’s incantations, and only had to drag the ship off a sandbar once–and that had been Montse’s fault, when she’d ignored Piet’s strong warning and tried to cut through an ox-bow lake.
They’d outrun a tax cutter of one of the cotton princes, and a couple of Imperial Ohio Company canoes. They’d fired on a third Imperial craft to warn it out of their way, and bribed a fourth when it caught them in a slack breeze.
They’d arrived in the middle of the night, and had spent the last several hours trying to calculate their best approach into the city. On the one hand, an army of Imperial irregulars surrounded the city entirely on the landward side. On the other hand, beastkind prowled the river bank.
They didn’t just prowl, they rampaged. In addition to fending off several attacks themselves, Montse and her crew watch beastkind gore each other, kill small river creatures, and even tear to pieces someone who might have been a fisherman–or maybe a Cahokian scout or spy–leaping from hiding as the poor man tried to stow his coracle under a shattered dock. They’d seen two climbing beastkind, with sloth arms and powerful hind legs, get nearly to the top of the wall before finally succumbing to the bullets and arrows pouring from above.
Then the fire had encircled the city.
“It’s an opportunity,” Montse said. “Look.”
She pointed to the river bank, where beastkind squawked and hooted, racing away from the walls.
“This fire isn’t made by the Firstborn.” Josep sucked a lemon drop.
“Lower the boat!” Montse ordered, and her men raced to obey.
“You race into a besieged city that is now also on fire,” Josep said. “Only you, CapitÃ .”
Montse took a coiled length of cord with a steel grapple on the end. Her insides still hurt when she moved. “Sail downriver. I’ll come down and signal when I can.”
“If only you were so anxious to race into my arms.” Josep sighed. “At least take Miqui with you.”
Miquel grabbed another line and grapple and patted the pistols in his waistband. The boy wore a heavy wool coat over his ridiculously light cotton clothing. None of them had been really ready for the Ohio’s cold, and Piet’s river-magery, as powerful as it was, only extended to navigating and sailing the ship, and would not raise the temperature. “If nothing else, we can get off two more shots before the beasts overwhelm us.”
Montse raced down the ladder, not looking to see whether the boy followed her. “We go now!”
Miquel landed with the grace of a life-long sailor as Montse pulled away with both oars. “CapitÃ ,” he protested. “At least let me do the rowing.”
Montse acquiesced, switching places and leaning forward in the graying light. She kept an eye fixed to the beastmen, who splashed into the river or hid in the wreckage of the docks.
The Imperials, peering from their trenchworks, seemed equally surprised, but they weren’t running away.
“Speed is everything,” she said to Miquel. “We run to the wall, throw the grapples up, and climb. The Imperial soldiers might shoot us, and the beastkind might come up after us. Move fast.”
“Do you have any good ideas for preventing the Cahokians from shooting us?” Miqui asked.
Montse shook her head. “Do you know any good prayers? Maybe something from St. Robert Rogers?”
“Maybe we can smile as we climb.”
Montse laughed. “For you, that would even work. For me, I fear my white teeth will only give them a target to shoot at. Are you ready?”
Miquel grunted assent as his last stroke on the oars drove the boat up the shallows and into the muddy bank of the river. Montse leaped ashore, shrugging out of the coiled line and freeing the grapple to throw it.
The great advantage they had was the strange nature of the Treewall. Montse had never seen it, but the wooden palisade with the natural branches at its height was legendary. She’d never seen the city of Hannah’s husband, and she hadn’t expected those branches to actually have green, living leaves on them.
Still less had she expected the leaves to fall out, the very minute she hurled her grapple into the branches.