Witchy Winter – Snippet 14
Alzbieta only smiled.
“Anyway, it’s as good a name as a ‘library.'”
At that moment, Sarah heard gunshots.
Bill stood at the base of the mound, gazing up at the stones at the peak. A path of stone steps led up the front of the steep slope, zigging and sagging back and forth — Bill counted — to make seven angles.
One for each kingdom.
“I cannot conceive the engineering that would build such a thing,” he said to Cathy Filmer, at his elbow. “I believe if you piled an identical heap of dirt beside this one, the rain would instantly destroy it.”
“Perhaps it was built one layer at a time, and once grass had grown up the mound to anchor it, each next layer was added,” Cathy suggested.
“Or perhaps there is some structure inside.”
“Do you mean stone?”
“Perhaps. But a wood structure might do as well. As you say, once the grass had grown over it, the mound would retain its shape.”
“Perhaps fills of different sorts?” Cathy ventured. “Different sorts of soil, or gravel, or layers of stone, to give the mound stability and allow water to drain. And consider that this is a mound of modest dimensions. But the Serpent Mound too, must be artificial, rising as it does from the plain. What massive amount of effort, what power and what resources, were employed to erect that mountain?”
Bill looked at Cathy sharply. “I shall remember these remarks when Her Majesty is looking to appoint a chief of her engineering corps.”
“I should recommend Mr. Hop for that. He seems to have an astonishing capacity to learn.”
“That is quite a gift,” Bill agreed, “if not one, strictly speaking, acknowledged in the Gospel of Mark.”
“Who knows in what strange gospel lie recorded the gifts that shall follow the disciples of Simon Sword?”
Cathy smiled, and Bill chuckled, but his mirth was forced.
“Mrs. Filmer –”
“Bill, you call me that to hold me at arm’s length.”
He hesitated. “Forgive me. Cathy.” He hooked his thumbs into his belt and stared at the mound-top temple again. “We have come to Sarah’s kingdom. We’ve found her allies, and even family.”
“You are thinking she will soon send you to get her sibling where you concealed him.”
“Her brother Nathaniel. It seems likely. And there will be . . . reckonings.”
“You wife may be alive.”
“She would not be an old woman. And I believe we are still married.”
“I know all this, Bill.” Cathy took his hand. “Tell me what you are really thinking about.”
Bill sighed. “If I ride east, I fear it might be the end for you and me. If that happens, I hope you will understand that . . . without you, I could not have lived this long. Without you, I’d have died in a New Orleans ditch years ago. A man needs meaning, he needs something to live for. For a long time, what I had to live for was you.”
“And your wife.” Cathy’s voice held a sorrow as sharp as a blade. “And Charles, your son.”
“Say rather the memory of my wife and the hope of my son. But long separation had rendered those faint, and insufficiently vivid to keep me on my feet.”
A single tear crawled down each of Cathy’s cheeks. “You are perilously close, Sir William, to telling me that your wife owes your survival to me.”
That wasn’t what he’d intended, but Bill felt his foot far down his own throat, and was unsure how to extract it.
The sound of a gunshot saved him.
Bill spun to look westward, the direction from which the shot had come. His legs, still healing from his injuries of three days earlier, buckled under his weight and the pressure of the sudden move, but they held. The blue smoke lying over the gatehouse and the Firstborn warrior waving his arm suggested that the shot wasn’t from a hostile, but the eruption of more shooting from the gatehouse strongly indicated enemies’ presence.
Then long-tunicked farmers and their children began to stream through the gate.
“Please excuse me, Mrs. . . . Cathy.” Bill touched his battered hat and hobbled for the gate as fast as he could manage.
He nearly collided with the counselor Uris, who emerged from the larger of the low mounds. Uris ran with an unsheathed long sword, demonstrating an ease that only came with long practice, and though the Firstborn must be older by a decade or more, his strides were longer and smoother than Bill’s.
“Suh,” Bill said, “I believe there may be trouble. Would you mind –”
“Dammit, man!” Uris snapped. “They’re not shooting at game. There must be unity of command, and you’re the queen’s choice. Don’t ask me if I’d mind, give me an order!”
Bill nodded. He needed to propose to Sarah a formal chain of command and ranks that included all the Firstborn. And he needed to stop thinking of the Firstborn and the beastkind as warriors. Warriors were the fighters of a barbarian tribe, the celts and the saxons had warriors.
Bill needed soldiers.
“Saddle up the horses and prepare for a cavalry charge,” Bill said. “But arm them with their longbows in the meantime.”
Uris nodded and began shouting orders in a language recognized as Ophidian. The Firstborn soldiers within the palisade scrambled to prepare their horses.
Bill staggered to the gatehouse, hearing a dull roar on the other side of the sharpened logs as he drew closer, the tumult punctuated by the staccato snap of gunfire. A final handful of Firstborn villagers skipped in through the gate and then it slammed shut. He dragged himself up the iron ladder to the gatehouse platform at a ragged sprint, drawing two pistols as he reached the top.
His leg wounds stabbed him with pain.
Four Firstborn warriors crouched leaning into the shelter of the log wall. Bill squatted beside them, lowering his head just in time to avoid being hit by a javelin that came over the wall and fell into the enclosure, sinking its sharpened tip six inches into the hard earth.
Bill’s sense of how many beastfolk charged across the picked-over fields was uncertain, probably because some of what he saw looked like steeds charging and some looked like warriors, though more likely than not they were all beastmen. Dozens, certainly. A hundred?
“Tell me your name,” he said to the Firstborn crouching nearest to him.
The man had thin lips and eyebrows and a scar across his forehead, almost hidden by the visorless steel sallet protecting his skull. “Olanthes,” he said. “The men sometimes call me Ole.”
“I’m not much of an expert in the longbow, Ole,” Bill said. “Am I right to think our archers within the palisade should be able to shoot a hundred yards usefully, arcing their shots so as not to hit you and me?”
Ole nodded and pointed. “A hundred yards from our archers would put the arrows right about at that ditch.”
The beastkind were crossing the ditch already.
“Colonel Uris!” Bill shouted, inventing a rank on the spot. It was not well done, and he knew he’d have to revisit it later. “Prepare to fire three volleys! Aim for the large irrigation ditch parallel to the highway. On my command!”
Uris had his thirty men lined up with bows ready, and saluted his agreement.
Bill was in over his head. He would readily have admitted it, had his queen or his lady — as he knew Cathy truly to be — asked, but the truth was that the only other possible candidate for command in this battle was Uris, who had already deferred to Bill. But Bill was a dragoon and a pistoleer, a man who had led a single unit for a time, years earlier, and who had never had strategic responsibility for a field of action larger than a meadow, a mountain ridge, or a single wall.
Now his field of battle was the Kingdom of Cahokia, and House Elytharias was at stake.
The beastkind were nearly to the wall. Bill looked down along the palisade and saw roughly twenty men. They crouched behind the wooden wall to shield themselves from hurled spears and rocks, but they were armed with long spears and swords, and they wore helmets and mail.