Witchy Winter – Snippet 11

“This is the reign of Simon Sword.”

Chapter Ten

They rode north for two days. Frost came on the morning of the first.

Though off to the west, Cal occasionally saw birds — herons, for instance — that indicated the presence of the Mississippi, the river itself was far enough away he couldn’t see or smell it. The track they were on became a road, and then, passing an Adam-stone standing watch discreetly inside a blackberry bramble, turned onto a highway.

The highway was paved, but unlike, say, the Charlotte Pike, or the other Imperial highways Calvin knew, this highway had not cobbles but perfectly flat, round stones. In fact, the paving stones reminded Cal not so much of the Imperial roads or the main streets of Nashville, as of the stones in the plaza atop Wisdom’s Bluff.

The highway cut a straight path through tall forest, the land was flat, and the journeying was easy.

They passed Ohioan Firstborn more than any other kind of traveler, dressed in long tunics and wool cloaks that looked vaguely archaic. The more Firstborn Cal saw, the more he saw the Firstborn blood in Sarah. She never had much color to her skin, but with the little summer’s shading she did have fading into winter’s pallor, she was really starting to look Ophidian. She wore her purple shawl and the bandage over one eye, though; she was still Sarah, and the more so as a soft fuzz of black hair again covered her skull. When it was cold she shrugged into the blue riding coat of one of the Philadelphia Blues.

They also passed Germans, who wore wool coats and hailed the party with great gusto. Three riders moving north overtook and passed them, and Bill pointed them out as Free Horse Peoples of the north, most likely Sioux. And they passed one Wandering Johnny who tried really hard to sell Uris a dictionary.

Uris declined.

Bill, Jake, and Chikaak drilled their troop of beastkind warriors morning, noon, and night. Even after only two days, the beastfolk learned to advance shoulder to shoulder, retreat the same way, and stand in a line.

Still, very few of them could actually hit anything with a musket.

Alzbieta’s palanquin at night was strapped between trees and served her as a hammock. The Polite wizard Sherem slept on a bedroll near the fire, and Cal found himself waking every hour to be sure the damaged mage hadn’t accidentally rolled himself onto the hot coals.

The further north they went, and the closer to midwinter, the further south the sun rose and set.

On the evening of the first day, Uris organized the Firstborn warriors to join in the military drill. At first, they stood timidly, looking from side to side at the multiform beast-creatures that surrounded them. After an hour, they learned to stand calmly, and to advance and retreat together.

The sheer strangeness of the mixed troop should count for something in battle.

On the afternoon of the second day, they entered a clearing. To the west, toward the river, stretched cornfields and a scattering of buildings that amounted to a village. The fields had been harvested, and a few black birds, grazing goats, and villagers in long tunics now picked over the forlorn stalks that remained.

To the east lay the forest, with tall trees mostly limbless on their lower trunks, leaving wide spaces to pass between them. Here and there thickets and smaller trees grew, but mostly the forest gave the impression of being manicured, if not recently, then for a long time in its past.

The trees almost looked like church pillars.

Between the highway and the forest, withdrawn from the road a few hundred paces, stood the mound. At first glance, Cal took it for nothing but a grassy hill, growing in the center of a tall wooden palisade, with two lower mounds at the foot. Initially, the low mounds were more interesting, because they were clearly irregular, and appeared to have windows and doors.

But the second time Cal’s head swung around and his eye landed on the mound, he realized that wind, water, and ice would never have made such a thing. There were no hills around it, for starters. The land was flat as a Hudson River pannenkoek, with this sole peak jabbing skyward.

Also, whatever force had built the mound had rendered it a nearly perfect cone. God might move in mysterious ways His wonders to perform, but that just wasn’t how the good Lord made mountains.

To Cal’s eye, the only flaw in the cone was that the top was flat, with a ring of stones on it that looked a bit like a crown.

“Jerusalem,” he muttered. “You live in that?”

“Such ferocious cursing,” Cathy Filmer said.

Cal hung his head. “Well, I know Jesus said not to swear by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. But I reckon sometimes I git strong feelin’s, and it’s better I jest say ‘Jerusalem’ than some of the other choices.”

Cal hadn’t been addressing any of the Firstborn in particular, but Yedera answered. “We do not live in that,” she said. “No more than Franklin lived in the rod-tower of the Lightning Cathedral. No more than you live in a preaching-tent.”

“We got churches where I come from,” Cal muttered. “Both kinds: regular and New Light.”

Yedera snorted. “This mound is a monument, a temple. Our queens and kings build such mounds, and our prophets. They contain libraries, orreries, ossuaries, calendars, and thrones. But no bedrooms.”

“So nothin’ useful to ordinary folk.” Lord hates a prideful man, but Cal didn’t want to admit he had no idea what an orrery or an ossuary might be.

“Perhaps order, government, ritual, and a knowledge of the cosmos aren’t useful to ordinary folk in Appalachee. We find it important to know our place in the world, and the proper way and time for doing all things.” Yedera looked at Cal with challenge in her eyes.

“Yeah, that’s all interestin’, no doubt,” Cal admitted. “But iffen my pa didn’t teach me any of those things, I reckon I can find the answer in the Bible or a Franklin almanac, or jest by lickin’ my finger and holdin’ it to the wind. I don’t expect I need an ossurery to know when to plant and when to thin out my neighbor’s herd. I sure as hell don’t need a throne for the purpose.”

“Hmmm,” Cathy said.

What was she hmming about? The throne comment, or the fact that Calvin had said hell?

He began to feel ganged up on. The heat he felt in his face suggested he was blushing.

Yedera’s expression changed to one of amusement. “And yet you serve a queen.”

“That’s different,” Cal mumbled. “Sarah’s kin.”

Though that was basically a lie.

“Welcome to Irra-Zostim,” Alzbieta Torias said from her sedan chair. “This was built by your grandfathers, Your Majesty.”

“You mean John Penn and Kyres Elytharias’s father, working together?” Jacob Hop asked. He rode alongside the beastman warrior Chikaak, who was the only one of the beastkind who had dared learn to ride. Since he was studying under the Dutchman, who was himself no great rider, his horsemanship was an awkward proposition at best. Add to that the manifest panic of the horse at smelling a coyote on its back, and the result was a blond man and a dog-headed monster constantly reining in horses trying to bolt five directions at once. “It seems much too old for that, hey?”

“I believe she means your more remote ancestors, Your Majesty,” Bill said.

“If Your Majesty will permit, I’ll be happy to help her further her studies of our languages.” Uris inclined his head deeply.

Sarah laughed out loud. “We know each other well enough we can stop some of the pretending. I don’t know any Ophidian. What do you mean, languages? Are there seven different ones?”

“Not for the seven sister kingdoms, no. But Ophidian is an old tongue, and has a classical priestly dialect you may wish to learn for ritual purposes, as well as the language that we commonly speak among ourselves. Also, there is a trade patois some of our merchants and soldiers know, that has German and Algonk and French mixed into it. The Germans call it Schlangegeschäftssprache, the ‘serpent business language.’ You won’t need that one, I think.”