Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 41

The inn’s room had a single bed and a narrow table, with no fireplace and only the single window. Two tall tapers on brass candlesticks sat on the table, lighting the chamber. Nathaniel sat cross-legged in the center of the floor and closed his eyes. He inhaled deeply and shifted his drum into his lap, but before he could focus his mind, he heard Jake sitting down facing him.

“I’m coming with you,” Jacob Hop said.

“To spy?”

“No.” Jake spoke with a straight face. “We’re going to heal your sister. But if Robert Hooke comes to take you, I’ll be there to help.”

“What will you do?”

“I’ll start by throwing Tarocks at him. If that doesn’t work, I’ll throw myself under his feet to slow him down so you can get away.”

Nathaniel opened his eyes. “Don’t do that.”

“I don’t serve you, Nathaniel Penn. I serve my queen, Sarah Elytharias, and she sent me to bring back her siblings. If I die and you live to return to Cahokia, then I have succeeded.”

Nathaniel considered. “I understand. And still . . . don’t do that. There will be another way.”

“Not always,” Jake said. “I’m closing my eyes now, I’m ready.”

Nathaniel drummed and sang:

I ride upon four horses, to heaven I ride

I ride to seek my sister, horses by my side

I bring a true companion, by perils tried

I seek the land of spirits, to heaven I ride

He rose from his sitting position, pulling Jake behind him onto the back of his drum-horse and up onto the starlit plain. He listened for Robert Hooke, and heard sounds of cursing and shouting, far in the west.

Good. Whatever made Hooke suffer should make Nathaniel glad.

He listened for Margaret, and now–having heard her voice, he recognized it and could pick it out of the deeper song of the cosmos–he found her nearby.

~You know,~ Jake said. ~In this place, your coat is rightside out and you wear your hat the right way.~

Nathaniel checked his clothing and was surprised to find it was true.

~Ha,~ he said.

They rode across a short meadow and through a curling valley to find the house they’d left outside Haarlem shortly before. On the starlit plain, the white farmhouse appeared as a sagging warehouse painted a dark crimson.

~They’re smugglers,~ Jake said. ~They must be.~

Nathaniel was pleased that his head didn’t hurt, and he nodded.

~Your vision is just as powerful as your sister’s,~ Jake said.

~This isn’t vision. This is . . . motion. Of an unusual kind.~

They rode through the front door. Within, bottles of rum stood stacked around all the walls. Three men sat at a table, playing cards. Nathaniel rode closer and saw that fronts and backs alike of the cards were blank.

~Strange.~ Jake produced his battered Tarocks and held them up for him and Nathaniel both to see. The usual images were on the cards, front and back.

Though on the faces of the Major Arcana, Nathaniel thought he saw a second set of images, ghostly as watermarks and lurking behind the colorful paintings he knew.

And was that music he heard, coming from the cards?

~Put those away,~ he told the Dutchman.

Later, they could examine the cards again.

~Will Hancock pay us or will the Frenchman?~ One of the card players asked the others. He was burly and lacked one ear. ~The loss of a ship is no small thing to recompense.~

A second card player, a thin man with a drooping nose, shrugged. ~It’s La Fayette’s money either way.~

~They’re talking about John Hancock,~ Jake whispered. ~He’s the biggest smuggler north of Baltimore. And someone named La Fayette. Maybe the Marquis, the Acadian Elector?~

~I understand them,~ Nathaniel whispered back. ~They’re speaking English.~

~No, they’re not,~ Jake said, and then they both fell into thoughtful silence.

~I didn’t mean that Frenchman. I meant Le Moyne. In New Orleans.~ One Ear played a card and the other two cursed.

~They’re family,~ said the third card player, a man with burn scars on both hands. ~Same money.~

~Yeah?~ Droop Nose asked. ~You and I are family, Luuk. I’m married to your sister. How about you pay off the note I owe old man Van Beek?~

~Go to hell,~ Burn Hands said cheerfully.

~There’s an upper floor,~ Nathaniel said. There had to be, the building was too tall to contain just this one room.

Though the starlit plain didn’t exactly obey the ordinary rules of size and dimension.

~I don’t see stairs,~ Jake said.

~We don’t need stairs.~ Nathaniel sang:

I ride the winds of heaven, iron inside

I shall not be resisted, my will denied

No wall can stop my progress, she cannot hide

I seek my sister Margaret, to heaven I ride

With a liquid neighing sound and the thunder of an invisible drum, his horse leaped up and through the ceiling–

emerging through the floor above into a cell.

Margaret sat on a wooden chair and stared at a blank wall. Her face was just as expressionless as the wall; her hands were folded in her lap.

~Margaret,~ Nathaniel said.

No response.

Nathaniel heard a footfall and he spurred his horse aside, expecting to be dragged into Robert Hooke’s amber pool, or get stabbed in the back.

Behind him stood another Margaret. This Margaret was identical, in an orange and gray flannel dress, except that her hair shot straight out of her head in all directions like a halo, and wiggled. She waved her arms at Nathaniel and her eyes bulged wide, but she held her lips tightly together and made no sound.

~What do you think your sister’s gift is?~ Jake asked. ~Is this her work? Is she projecting an image of herself? Or which of these is the real Margaret? They appear identical.~

~Not quite. Look.~ Nathaniel pointed; only the sitting Margaret wore the amulet.

Fire seized Nathaniel suddenly, knocking him to the floor. He fell tangled with Jake, and with his horse, which suddenly seemed to be a drum again.

The room around him flickered. The two Margarets faded in and out, and in their place he saw a single Margaret, lying on a small iron cot. Beside Margaret stood a bent-backed, unshaven man in an orange frock coat. He stared at Nathaniel and laughed.

“Who do we have here? Is it an Acadian wizard, whose master doesn’t want to pay for a ship his cargo sank?”

A third scene overlaid the first two, and at the same moment Nathaniel seemed to see the cell on the starlit plain, the second-story inn bedroom at the Benedito de Espinosa, or a windowless stone-walled chamber with a man in orange.

The room looked like a cellar.

“Or are you some adept from the Imperial College, chasing down the rumor of a lost Penn scion, who must be eliminated if Thomas is to sleep well at night?” The man in orange stood inside a circle chalked onto a stone floor. The circle completely enclosed Margaret’s cot. Incense burned where he was–which must be somewhere in the white farmhouse, or beneath it–and he held an aspergillum in one hand. He shook the aspergillum in a circle around him, splashing liquid on the floor within the confines of the chalked space.

Fire fell on Nathaniel and Jake.

“Or are you someone else? Maybe you’re with the pirate queen, and you want to steal back your hostage with this Talligewi sorcery.” The orange-clad mage chuckled. “Today is not your lucky day, friend. Today’s the day you go in the bottle.”

The mage let the aspergillum fall to his side. It hung there, connected to his belt by a leather strap.

Nathaniel tried to bang his drum, but his fingers wouldn’t respond. He tried to sing, but his parched throat emitted a cracked warble with no words and no power. The sleeping Margaret, he noticed, also wore the lumpy amulet. The same amulet worn by Margaret in the chair.

The mage reached into a coat pocket and produced a dark brown glass bottle.

The Margaret who could move, but not speak, wore no amulet.

Jake threw the Tarocks.

The cards burst into flame as they sailed through the air. Doing so, something in them was freed. Men and beasts and horses sprang from the cards as they disintegrated, and a stampede of Major Arcana rushed over the orange wizard. The images themselves took fire as they moved, and a river of flame struck the mage, who dropped the bottle and raised his hands defensively–

Nathaniel could move.

He sprang toward Margaret. He saw three of her, so it took mental effort to shut out the sleeping Margaret on the bed and the frantic mute Margaret, and focus on Margaret sitting and staring at the wall.

He dodged beneath a flaming horse and was buffeted by a drunkard on fire, but he lunged across all three rooms and wrapped both hands around the amulet hanging around sitting Margaret’s neck.

He yanked it off.

An intense surge of pain shot up both arms to his brain, and he fell to the ground, frozen.

Sitting Margaret stood and looked at frantic Margaret. Each took a step toward the other, and then a second, and then they melted into each other and became one. As the last of the burning Tarock images faded and the orange-wearing wizard turned and glared at Nathaniel, Margaret stepped in front of Nathaniel. Her hair flared and waved and she raised one warning finger.

“Now you’re really going to get it,” she growled at the wizard.

The mage’s answering smile was unsteady. “Oh? I think you’ll find I can deal with you on this plane just as easily as I can in Haarlem.”

But as the wizard spoke, behind him in the farmhouse cellar, the flesh and blood Margaret stood. As she climbed to her feet, her hair rose and spread until it waved about her head like the white spores of a summer dandelion.

The wizard raised his aspergillum–

and flesh and blood Margaret tore it from his hand.

She pulled so hard, the strap broke and he fell to the ground. He yelped and when he hit the stone, his lungs emitted a high-pitched squeak.

Nathaniel tried to move, but was still frozen in place.

 ~Don’t let him do any more magic!~ Jake yelled.

Margaret bent over the wizard as he struggled to catch his breath. “Corporem–” he grunted, and she shoved the handle of the aspergillum into his mouth, muting him instantly. She picked him off the ground entirely and slammed him to the stone again, forcing grunts of pain from the wizard.

Then she slid his body across the floor. Like a wet sponge run over a school slate, she smeared a large gap into the chalk circle.

Nathaniel tried to rise, and couldn’t. He tried to throw the amulet away, and couldn’t. He felt a cold stupor and an electric paralysis flowing from the lump in his hands through his entire body.