Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 02

Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 02

#

Thomas discreetly touched the Jupiter ring on his right hand as he followed Temple Franklin into the Walnut Street Prison. He always walked with an erect posture–it strengthened his air of command–and he consciously threw his shoulders back and his chin up now.

He wasn’t wearing his town coat because he didn’t want to be recognized. Instead, Temple had brought a three-chinned, eight-fingered gramarist from the College to ward him with hexes of protection. The magician had done his job efficiently in the library at Horse Hall, repeatedly invoking both St. Reginald Pole and also the Dagda. He had not sat down, had kept his back to the corner at all times, and had politely declined Temple’s offer of a drink.

The College feared Thomas. Excellent.

Now Thomas and Temple, both wearing brown coats and brown tricorn hats such as any Philadelphia burgher might don, walked from cell to cell. Temple had the ring of keys, and they stopped to open random doors and look at the men behind them. No light came through the high, tiny windows of the cells, because of the late hour; in addition to the keys, Temple carried a fat taper.

“The problem with these men,” Thomas said, “is that they’re not warriors.” He gestured with disdain at three unshaven, foul-smelling prisoners. Emaciated and filthy as the men were, they still had the soft look of clerks and merchants.

The gesture itself hurt him. He had been shot in the shoulder by Wilkes the actor. Thanks to the ministrations of College magicians, the wound had almost entirely healed, but he still ached when he made certain motions with his arm.

Thomas shut the door and they moved on.

“I see that as an advantage.” Temple fluttered his fingers, a gesture vaguely reminiscent of a cheap stage magician’s theatrics.

“I see it as a sign that we have drained our prisons of their most brutal and dangerous men, and now we are reduced to scraps. I want more marauders for the Ohio, Temple. Look at these fellows–they’re bankrupts and frauds, not cutthroats.”

“They’re men with families.” Franklin smiled.

They opened another door. Here too, the prisoners were ragged scare-crows whose hair had not been cut in weeks and perhaps months, but they bore sure signs of middle class Pennslander living: they still had teeth in their mouths, for instance, and Thomas had yet to see a tattoo or a ritual scar.

Thomas considered, then dismissed an idea. “But they’re in prison because they’re families can’t pay their debts. There’s no ransom to be had here, Temple.”

“No ransom,” Franklin agreed. “But men with families won’t desert, or turn against you. Children and wives of men released from prison via your benevolent work-release program–“

“Fight-release,” Thomas said, “let us be honest. Or even better, pillage-release.”

“Even better,” Temple agreed. “If your father is released from prison and brings home plunder from war, do you not feel benevolently toward the emperor who released him?”

Thomas thought about that possibility. “You, there,” he called to the nearest prisoner, a man whose belly fat had not been completely drained by Walnut Street. “What say you? If you could be released from prison and also be paid to fight for your Emperor, say, in the Pacification of the Ohio, would you do it?”

The prisoner raised a befuddled face into the greasy yellow light of Franklin’s taper. “Would you consider advancing me some of the money on credit?”

“An enlistment bonus, eh?” Thomas snorted. “The Emperor’s shilling? But if I am to pay in advance, I could have free men. Let us go, Temple. These fellows have clearly not been in here long enough.”

“But,” the prisoner said. “But–“

Temple Franklin slammed the door shut.

#

They followed the acorn.

The acorn had apparently been wrapped inside Nathaniel’s ear when he was born, and the Cavalier Captain Sir William Johnston Lee carried it with him along with an enchanted, milk-giving rag from Philadelphia to the home of the Earl of Johnsland, not far from Raleigh. The earl had kept the acorn and rag all Nathaniel’s life, clutching it to himself through years of madness. Now Nathaniel had both objects, in a small wooden box, and his sister, a Firstborn witch named Sarah, had enchanted it to lead him to their third sibling.

Nathaniel had only met Sarah in a visionary-transcendent state he experienced as a starlit plain, but which might be something like heaven, but he had rescued her from one kind of prison and she had rescued him from another, and he felt deeply connected to her.

The acorn didn’t point them toward specific paths, but when Nathaniel held it in his cupped palms and thought about his sister–Margaret Elytharias Penn–the acorn rolled to show them which way to go. It always rolled in a consistent direction, northward and eastward.

When Jake held it, the acorn did nothing.

The acorn didn’t do this of its own accord; it was a spell Sarah had cast, and the birth-bond that linked the acorn to both Nathaniel and Margaret was an essential piece of the gramarye.

They had tried other methods first. Nathaniel had ridden across the starry plain of the sky on his drum-horse, listening for a voice that sounded like it might be Margaret’s, and he’d never heard one. He’d heard the rattling voice of Robert Hooke once or twice, and that had given him pause. He’d heard the voice of the wiindigoo Ezekiel Angleton, the dead Yankee Wizard who had attacked him in Johnsland, too.

The three fresh scars on his neck, cut by Angleton’s long nails, burned.

Sarah had gifts of sight that Nathaniel couldn’t fathom. She’d tried them to find Margaret, and they had also failed. Something hid her. But the acorn, for whatever reason, pointed the way.

Perhaps, coming from their father as they did, the acorns were the most powerful bond holding the siblings together.

Jake and Nathaniel walked. Nathaniel could only walk; flesh and blood horses shied away from him, and, though he couldn’t explain it at all, he shied away from them, too. In the same way that his body didn’t feel right holding a knife anymore, or wearing his coat right side out or his hat forward, he didn’t feel right sitting astride a horse.

Nathaniel’s inside-out coat and backward hat were the reason they trampled through so many brambles and forests. On the road, but especially in towns, Nathaniel drew too many stares. He smiled and, if asked, told people he was a juggler with a circus. When Jake was asked, he said that Nathaniel was touched in the head.

They avoided saying anything at all by staying off the larger roads. Jake didn’t complain and Nathaniel didn’t have to insist.

Jake carried a small sack of coffee beans he said he’d been given by Sarah. Twice a day, each of them chewed and swallowed a single bean, and after eating a bean, Nathaniel wanted to run. Without conscious thought, he tapped his fingers lightly on the large drum he wore slung over one shoulder–that, too, seemed to speed his feet and alleviate his fatigue.

Jake’s hands shook, except when he thumbed through his fraying, water-warped and -bloated deck of Tarocks. He asked Nathaniel many questions and, when Nathaniel asked, he told his own story. Mostly it was the tale of a deaf-mute from New Amsterdam who’d grown up as an unloved errand boy working in his uncle’s merchant venture, but from time to time that tale shaded into something darker and more violent. Sometimes, when Jake told tales of being that terrible god, Nathaniel thought he heard distant screaming. It was as if the Dutch ship-boy had dreamed of being a god of chaos and destruction, and then had matured into a man who couldn’t remember which had been real, the ships or the cataclysms.

This was another reason Nathaniel should enter the starlit plain again, to find healing for Jacob Hop.

But he didn’t dare.

A third reason to enter the plain of the sky would be to find Ezekiel Angleton. Ma’iingan, the Ojibwe man who had rescued Nathaniel when he’d been abandoned in the forest and then helped him find his way into the sky and a meeting with Ma’iingan’s manidoo, his personal demigod, had called the man a wiindigoo. Sarah had known Angleton from earlier battles. The man had raised the dead to attack Nathaniel, and might now–must now–be on Nathaniel’s trail. If he entered the plain of the sky and listened, Nathaniel thought he’d be able to find Angleton, the better to flee the man.

But whenever the darkness of the forest shadows or the bitter bite of the January wind made him consider doing so, Nathaniel remembered sinking in Robert Hooke’s warm, amber pool, hands trying to drag away his soul for eternity. He’d only been rescued from that attack by Sarah’s intervention, and the enchanted slate that had allowed her to intervene had been shattered in the act.

He felt Sarah’s eye on him, from time to time, and even without leaving the mortal world he could sometimes hear her. She might not be able to rescue him again, but he believed she was following his progress toward finding their sister.

During the brief periods when Nathaniel lay trying to sleep, he thought he also heard Margaret. He thought the voice belonged to Margaret because it sounded like his voice, and Sarah’s.

Mostly, he heard Margaret weeping.

“Don’t worry, Margaret.” He huddled deep into his inside-out coat, the wrong-turned collar chafing his neck. “We’re coming.”

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