Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 44
Uris was dead, in part due to Maltres’s miscalculations and mistakes.
Four wardens met Maltres’s two servants and the six of them held the net ready. A seventh man stood by with a blanket that had been sewn to Korinn’s very particular instructions.
The three gates of the Treewall dropped.
A horn blew from the Great Mound. Alzbieta had objected to the impiety of directing an assault from the goddess’s temple mount, saying it was a violation of ancient law. Maltres had joined Sir William in pointing out that the peak of the mound was the single best vantage point in Cahokia for seeing all three sallies, more or less from the same spot, and arguing that the law might in this case be stretched. Atop the roof of the Temple of the Sun would have been even better, slightly, but even Maltres balked at that thought.
So had Sir William. Captain–no, General Lee–had suggested the rooftop himself, but then withdrawn the idea, saying, “but perhaps, Your Majesty . . . that’s just a little bit more than the law will allow.”
Alzbieta had looked prepared to dispute the point further, but Sarah had intervened at that point, directing Sir William to use the mound. She had a strange knack for impieties, the Beloved. It set her apart, although Maltres Korinn was hard pressed to articulate exactly why. Perhaps her will to trample sacred traditions and her ability to get away with it marked her as favored of the goddess? Perhaps her success in trampling the rules showed that she had a strong grasp of what was truly impious, and what was merely conventional?
Perhaps Maltres simply wanted to believe that Sarah was doing right. Perhaps he wanted someone else to take on all the burdens of administration and leadership, so he could go home.
Sarah’s beastkind warriors charged out all three gates. Immediately, a thicket of guns rose before each gate, and a tight volley exploded into the beastkind. Sarah’s warriors were fearsome and huge, and they began to fall.
Had the Imperials been waiting for such a sortie?
Had they been warned?
Responding to the same signal horn, riflemen along the walls leaned forward into position. At that moment, the rest of the Imperials returned fire. Farther down the line, Maltres saw first one warden, and then a second, take a musket ball and fall wounded.
None of the magicians was shot. All of them had closed eyes and chanted Latin together, except Sarah, who was feverishly mumbling incoherent syllables and locked into her own invisible battle, and two wizards from one of the kingdom’s noble houses, who waved their hands in front of each other repeatedly and shouted.
They were protecting the magicians.
Behind the beastkind came the riders. For the moment, they ran alongside their horses, staying low to minimize the chances that an Imperial musket ball abruptly ended their commission.
Beastkind dropped here and there, too, shot by besieging rifles. As the beastkind reached the Imperial lines, the riflemen on the walls fired their first round. They too were restricted by the plan to three shots each, and to ensure compliance, they had only been issued three paper cartridges.
The riflemen fired at the defenders on the roads, and then three seconds later, the charging beastkind hit.
Maltres looked to the top of the Great Mound. Sir William leaned on two crutches and pressed a telescope to his eye, looking southward and eastward. One of his beastkind, a warrior with the head of an eagle, stood on the north side of the mound, and waved a feathered arm to General Lee.
Sir William blew his horn again, a different collection of tones.
Sarah’s mumbling grew more feverish.
The wedge of beastkind forcing itself past the trenches and over the barricades to the east of the city shifted position. Each warrior turned to face laterally and took a step forward. Shambling dead dragged at their feet and bayonet-wielding irregulars stabbed at their faces; beastmen and beastwives fell, but the carnage on the besieging side was even greater.
And the wedge opened through its center, and created a passageway.
The messengers leaped onto their horses–shots stopped some in their tracks–and raced through the passageway. Looking southward and northward, Maltres saw the same maneuver in execution. To the north, though, something had gone wrong. The beastkind wedge hadn’t opened, and instead the beastkind warriors were piling up in heaps of dead and wounded. The messengers mounted, but found their way blocked and themselves target for musket fire.
Two, he thought, managed to jump their mounts over the Imperial trenches and continue. Otherwise, the north side of the city was a failure.
South and east, the messengers galloped through.
And then their horses screamed and fell. Maltres could see no cause for their collapse, but the beasts dropped to the road and thrashed in the mud and snow, great gouts of blood staining the land.
Caltrops? Or some other unseen trap.
They had failed to take the Imperials by surprise.
There was a traitor. Someone had warned the Imperials.
The riders of the fallen horses were bayoneted to death by men in blue, or torn limb from limb by the shambling horrors from the trenches.
But not every rider had fallen. A few, seeing the fate of their comrades, had veered off the road. They rode through the Imperial camp itself, jumping cookfires and trampling tents in their mad dash to get to open space beyond.
Cahokia’s riflemen took their second shot, aiming to clear as much road as possible before every messenger. The task was complicated by the fact that the messengers were no longer on the roads, but here and there within the Imperial camp, soldiers fell to Cahokian fire.
The riders galloped on.
Gunshots took down more of them, but the first of the heralds was entirely through the Imperial camp now. South and east, messengers streamed away from Cahokia with a cry for help.
Too few, dammit.
Sir William blew his horn a third time.
The beastkind began to retreat. Imperial irregulars followed them out of the trenches, and so did the dead. Maltres saw not only whole corpses, but detached limbs dragging themselves after the beastkind to give chase.
Zorales’s third round of cannon fire cut through the larger knots of attackers, south and east. As the beastkind shook off the Imperial fighting them, their retreat gained speed. The third round of musket fire from the walls shook off some of the more persistent pursuit, and then the beastkind raced into a sprint.
More of them were picked off by shots from the trenches.
North, none of the beastkind was returning.
Half, Maltres Korinn thought bleakly. Half of Sarah’s beastkind had fallen.
And most of the heralds.
The surviving beastmen came through the gates, and then the gates were drawn shut.
Sarah had no intention of ever getting snared within Robert Hooke’s death-vortex spell, and if she did get caught, she planned to break out immediately. She squeezed the Heronplow until her knuckles turned white and she siphoned energy through the orb.
She stepped out of her shoes.
She saw a wall of reaching hands, rising up from the east as the sky darkened from winter blue to pus-amber. She shuffled her feet and willed her mind backward and out of reach of the spell.
The hands pursued, but they didn’t close.
Robert Hooke rose into the air, arms spread wide and coat spreading behind him like wings. He laughed, a sound like rattling bones.
Sarah heard the guns begin to fire and through Sherem’s eye she saw plumes of smoke fired from the mouths of the cannons and rifles of her soldiers.
She ignored the sight.
Lost thy nerve, helldropping?
She backpedaled, careful to keep her physical feet rising and falling rather than actually moving back. Death by falling wouldn’t serve her cause.
“Thinking you ain’t worth my time, Rot-Face.”
She saw her beastkind warriors race from the eastern gate in Sherem’s gaze. Then the spell-less Polite looked up to the line of Cahokian magicians on the wall. They began to recite the spell they had concocted and rehearsed with Sarah.
“Cruces perdimus.” She heard the words with her own natural hearing; they were the ones she had devised, in Latin because her Ophidian was still rudimentary. The Firstborn wizards crossed their hands like the upside-down crucifixes of Hooke’s barrier. “Murus cadit.”
As they chanted, they passed a lead musket ball from hand to hand. The ball started with Alzbieta and with each repetition of the words of the spell it shifted one person down the line. Yedera and Maltres stepped back to let the mana-gathering ball pass without their touch.
Sarah would have liked to contribute power to the spell herself, but she repeatedly saw the face of Thalanes, stiffening into a death mask on the rain-battered rooftop of the St. Louis cathedral of New Orleans, and she poured the energy into her own spell of flight, instead.
Thou thinkest to outwit me. Hooke laughed, floating in the air above Sarah. Thou thinkest to distract me so thy messengers may escape.
Through Sherem’s eyes, Sarah saw the first messengers breaking through the Imperial lines at that moment.
Then Sherem poured powder into his musket.
“Looks like it worked to me,” she said.
I care not for thy messengers. No help can come to thee in time.
The musket ball reached the end of the line of wizards. There Sherem took and dropped the ball into his weapon, tamping it down firmly. Sarah saw the work of loading the musket from close up, as if she were doing it herself.
Sherem had begged for this assignment, along with that of being Sarah’s eye.
He wanted to be part of the magic. Sarah couldn’t find it in her heart to refuse him. Maltres Korinn, hearing her plan, had suggested a marksman. She had told her Vizier she didn’t think accuracy mattered.
Really, Sherem should only have to hit the wall of black fire, and maybe not even that. Maybe a bullet crossing the line of the fire would be enough.
“Well, I guess that’s checkmate for you, then, Bob,” Sarah said. “Can’t fault me for trying.”
On the contrary. I find great fault in thee. I find the fault of pride, more than any other.
“Yeah, well, you ain’t the first preacher to tell me so.” Through Sherem’s sight, Sarah watched the Polite rest the musket barrel on the Treewall.
Pride in placing thyself above the good of the Empire. Pride in placing thyself above the good of all the children of Adam. Thou thinkest to stand in the service of life, but it is only mankind’s universal death that is preserved by thine actions.
“Hell.” Hooke’s wall moved closer, and Sarah forced more energy into her retreat. “I sound like a real bad seed.”