Witchy Winter – Snippet 09

Clay frowned in distaste. “What would that be, a blind bat?”

Luman popped out the bat’s other eye. The creature trembled with pain and fear in his closed fist, and he indulged in a moment of sorrow for the innocent bat.

Then he broke its neck.

He reached forward to lay its corpse beside the oilskin. This was pure theater, and theater agreed with Director Schmidt in advance. It worked; Reuben Clay stared at the eyeless bat as if it were a murdered baby.

In truth, Luman himself felt a little ill. Was he really cut out to be a wizard? Did he really want to do this?

“Luman will enchant this town so that we can keep an eye on it. He’ll know immediately if you cheat on our arrangement. He’ll know immediately if you act to cancel his spell. He’ll know immediately if any harm comes to my agent.”

“This isn’t a deal,” Clay said. “It’s a prison cell.”

“In which you will personally get rich. So long as you can keep quiet. And if things go wrong for you here, you know that any friend of the Emperor can expect to find a warm welcome in Pennsland.”

From a coat pocket, Luman extracted a lump of uncooked bread dough. He had mixed the dough himself two days earlier in an iron pan, swishing wheat flour, water, and a nubbin of old sourdough together with his bare fingers, then left it to rise in his lap. This or orange beeswax were the two basic modeling clays preferred by his Memphite spells. Sometimes the substances could be used interchangeably, but Hecate definitely preferred bread dough.

And the sacrifice of living creatures, damn her.

Luman began to stretch and shape the lump.

“What’s he doing?” Clay asked Schmidt.

She shrugged. “He’s a bit of a thief, as magicians go. Steals one thing from the brauchers, something else from Memphis, a third spell from some Haudenosaunee witch. I never know exactly what he’s doing.”

Luman had shaped the dough ball into the form of a tailless dog, and he now stood the little animal on the desktop. “Thief is such a harsh word. Couldn’t we say that I borrow other people’s craft?”

“You aren’t borrowing if you don’t give it back.”

Luman snorted, digging in another pocket for a clump of black dog’s hair. The hairs had cost him a bite and a minor infection, but it had been worth it to harvest as much hair as he had from that shaggy black hound in Pittsburgh. At least he hadn’t had to kill the beast. “You can’t give back knowledge, Director. Think of me as an explorer of the arcane world, a man willing to take on any initiation or pursue any course of study, no matter how dark the road or how recondite the learning.” He stuck the hairs onto the dog’s rump, twisting them to stick them into the dough and fashion of them a dog’s tail.

“For the good of the company,” Schmidt said.

“And our investor, the Emperor.” Luman cut an open mouth into the dough dog’s head. Then he gouged tiny eyesockets into the dog’s face and inserted one bat eyeball into each.

Reuben Clay shuddered. “You two are unarmed. You’re alone, except for your traders, and they’re ten minutes away, by the river.” He reached under his desk and came up with a polished flintlock pistol, which he rested on the table, pointing between the two of them. “If I simply shoot one of you now, within moments my men in the warehouse will be in here with clubs and knives to subdue the survivor.”

“True,” Schmidt agreed. “And then the five hundred Company Soldiers following us downriver will arrive tomorrow morning. Not finding my agent here to give them the signal to stand down, their orders are to raze Parkersburg to the ground.”

“You would make war on the Hansa?” Clay frowned.

“Not at all. I would buy Hansa goods and pay you handsomely, Grand Mufti Hansard of Parkersburg, to allow me to do so. Some of your traders will make a little less money than they used to, but the Pacification is expensive, and I have to be careful how I allocate my funds. If you can’t find it in your heart — or rather, your interests — to be enriched, then Parkersburg will be destroyed, and multiple eyewitnesses will swear up and down that it was Firstborn warriors in the livery of Adena who did it. My men will have to procure the corpses of a few Adena fighters for verisimilitude, but that’s easily done.” She leaned forward, over the desk. “In fact, I imagine my soldiers would be very happy to do it. They’ve all just been let out of Imperial prisons in Philadelphia, Trenton, and Baltimore in order to enlist. They may have some rage they’d like to express.”

Clay took his hand away from his pistol and rubbed his face. “It seems I have no choice.”

“The Hansa god is good to you, Grand Mufti. He makes you rich.”

Luman took the dough dog in hand and stood. “I’ll be outside.”

He let himself out.

“If you would be so good as to produce a pen,” he heard Notwithstanding Schmidt say as he closed the door behind him, “we can close this deal.”

On the boardwalk, Luman looked left and right to be certain he wasn’t observed. Parkersburg’s crowds didn’t much flood into this narrow side street, perhaps out of deference to Clay. Excellent.

Luman took one last object from a coat pocket; a never-used drinking vessel. It was a large shot glass, and to be certain of its virginity — and therefore its power — he had personally watched the glazier in Philadelphia blow this glass and its nine companions, packed in straw in a small box in the Joe Duncan. No need to fill every pocket of his coat with breakable glass; Luman Walters wasn’t punched very often, but when it happened, he didn’t want shards driven into his skin.

Luman dropped to his belly on the ground and dragged himself underneath the boardwalk. He craned his neck to look up over his shoulder, positioning himself as near the center of the three-way crossroads as he could, and beneath the overhanging second story of the warehouse. No need to set up his sentinel in a spot where the next rain would simply wash it away, if he could avoid it.

Luman dug a hole, six inches deep. The earth was damp from the river’s humidity, but packed solid, so it took him several minutes with his athame to scrape out a pit. He pressed his Homer amulet against the dough dog’s back, imprinting its three efficacious texts into the little model. Then he gently placed the dog inside the shot glass. He was careful not to deform the dough creature beyond recognition; a mere lump of dough wouldn’t do. But by curling the dog’s spine a bit and pulling its legs beneath it, he could nestle the construct down in the bottom of the glass without disturbing its hair tail or depriving it of its canine shape.

Then he spoke to the dog.

“I adjure you three times by Hecate, the Black Bitch of the Crossroads, phorphorba baibo phorborba, that Reuben Clay keep ever mindful his agreements with Notwithstanding Schmidt, and that he lie awake under every visible moon, thinking fearfully of punishments that await him if he breaches. I adjure you by Kore, who has become the Goddess of Three Roads, and who is the true mother of Reuben Clay, that you warn me in dream of any action Reuben takes to breach his agreement. Phorbea brimo nereato damon brimon sedna dardar, All-Seeing One, iope, make it so.”

He placed the dog in the bottom of the small pit. With his athame, he cut his own palm and squeezed three drops of blood into the drinking vessel and its dog passenger. He covered the pit with his uninjured hand, to keep excess blood from the enchantment, and finally he pressed his Homer amulet into the disturbed earth.

He dragged himself out from under the boardwalk and dusted himself off. Another advantage of his many-pocketed wizard’s coat was that it shed dirt and rain easily.

As he stepped back onto the wood of the boardwalk, he felt it hum beneath his feet. He was not especially sensitive to magic, to his regret; they’d rejected him in Philadelphia for that very reason, setting him on this path of learning magic one scrap at a time, like a hedge witch with a grudge. Any person who stood still and paid enough attention, or who knew what to look for, could feel the same things Luman Walters felt.

That knowledge was sour in his belly.

He made up for lack of talent by working hard. There was no coven he didn’t desire to infiltrate, no esoteric lore he didn’t covet.