Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 08

Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 08

Her men were accustomed to her brusque pace. Schäfer immediately pointed in the direction of the Imperial arrivals¾away from the Mississippi and the alien Treewall of Cahokia¾and both traders paced the director step for step, one on either side of her.

Notwithstanding Schmidt had learned two lessons early in her days with the Imperial Ohio Company. The first was that she must give direction early and often, and ask for it almost never; the second was that she must move quickly and show energy at all times. If she failed to do those two things, men saw her as a heavy woman, and expected her to be slow, torpid, and passive.

If she succeeded in doing them, she took men by surprise. And she much preferred taking men by surprise.

Always.

In a way, it was a lesson she had first learned from her father. After attaching himself to one charismatic prophet too many, he’d been disfellowshipped by the Ministerium. He promptly began redistributing the pain he felt from the separation, inflicting it on his wife and daughter by physical beatings. His wife had faded, died inside, and taken the beatings with little complaint. Notwithstanding had resisted the beatings and being called knothead in grim silence for years, then tried to run away.

He’d chased her and brought her back, once, and then a second time.

The third time he chased her to bring her back, to more pain and insult, he’d found her camped along the banks of the Wabash with a man named Joe Duncan. This time, Notwithstanding had stolen all the money she could on her journey, and had hired Duncan, a man of no morals or fixed abode, to be her bodyguard. At her instruction, Joe Duncan had taken her father by surprise and killed him, sinking an Arkansas Toothpick into his belly.

That same night, when Duncan had tried to force Notwithstanding to submit to his lecherous attentions, she had surprised and killed him in turn. She’d hit him in the head with a horseshoe, something she never could have brought herself to do to her father.

She had buried the two men in a single muddy grave.

Notwithstanding Schmidt called her canoe the Joe Duncan as a perpetual reminder. Freedom was necessary. Power was necessary.

Even if the purchase price was a crime.

She looked about as she crossed her camp. On three sides of Cahokia, she and her Imperial forces had besieged the city. Its gates were shut, its gray-caped defenders glowered down from the tops of its wooden Treewall, their cheeks pitted by hunger. A hundred yards of mud- and blood-stained snow surrounded the city’s wall, and beyond that lay the trenches Schmidt’s men had dug.

Warfare of any kind was not Schmidt’s métier. She had had the trenches dug after the turncoat Imperial artillerists within the walls had demonstrated their ability to kill her men with impunity. Within the trenches, huddling in shadow during daylight hours, were corpses. Walking dead. Not Lazars like Robert Hooke, who seemed preserved and was articulate, but shambling, moaning draug, who rotted, festered with worms, and fell apart. Their preference for avoiding direct sunlight meant they drove all but the strongest-willed and -stomached of her men from the trenches during the day; at night, the draug dragged themselves about the base of the city’s walls, groaning and scratching like homeless burrowing beasts.

Behind the trenches were tents, and in the tents, and milling restlessly about, were the Imperial Ohio Company militia. The best of these men were used to protecting markets in border towns and guarding caravans from Wild Algonk or Comanche depredation, and had never participated in anything like a siege.

The worst of them had been prisoners only two months earlier, and could hardly be kept from knifing each other over the bad roll of a sheep’s knucklebone. They were far better put to use as marauders and looters in the Seven Sister Kingdoms.

The only reason the Cahokians hadn’t broken the siege was that they themselves were few and poorly organized, a town watch or the private bodyguards of the city’s wealthier citizens. Also, on the fourth side, the city faced the river. The river and its banks teemed with braying and howling beastkind. What had once been an ordered and thriving array of wharves lay shattered like split kindling, obscured by the steam rising from the bodies of slinking beasts.

Because of the marauding beastkind, Imperials had to approach their camp overland. Schmidt had commandeered and then expanded the docks of a fishing village five miles downstream, protecting it with one of her best militia corps; she now reached the head of the path that led to that village and found the arrivals from Philadelphia.

“I had expected gramarists,” she said. “University men. Who are you?”

Three young men–no older than sixteen, and maybe not that old–gazed serenely at her. Their heads were all shaven and bore the same swirling tattoos in bright blue ink. They wore a uniform that was unmistakably Imperial without bearing any insignia whatsoever–Imperial blue breeches, waistcoats, coats, stockings, and even shirts.

Their faces were identical.

Then they opened their mouths and spoke in unison. “WE ARE THE PARLETT QUINTUPLETS. LORD THOMAS SENDS US.”

Behind the three young men stood a squad of Imperial soldiers. They looked as nonplussed as Schmidt felt. Their officer, a long-limbed man with thick eyebrows and a high, nearly vertical forehead, stepped forward. “Are you Director Schmidt?”

Schmidt nodded.

“Captain Onacona Mohuntubby.” The captain saluted. “I’ve brought the Parletts here safely, and I’m ordered to place myself under your command.”

“Cherokee?” Schmidt asked. It paid to recognize names, kinships, and peoples of the Empire. Those were the unofficial and invisible networks of capital and power that lay alongside the more formal structures of courts, companies, and Electors.

Mohuntubby nodded.

“Quintuplets means five,” Schmidt said. “Looks to me like you lost two of them.”

“WE ARE TWO IN PHILADELPHIA,” the Parletts announced. “AND THREE IN THE OHIO.”

“You are the means by which My Lord President will communicate to me?” Despite the heavy blue coat over her shoulders, the winter chill bit into Schmidt’s flesh. She resisted the urge to shiver by sheer force of will.

The three Parletts abruptly changed facial expression, the vacant serenity replaced by a grimace that would have looked more at home on the face of an old curmudgeon. “DIRECTOR SCHMIDT,” they growled, their voices changing tone as well, “THIS IS TEMPLE FRANKLIN. DO YOU REMEMBER ME?”

Captain Mohuntubby took an abrupt step backward and dropped his hand to the sword hilt at his belt.

Schmidt nodded. “I remember you.” Franklin had no official title or form of address; he was Thomas Penn’s éminence grise, his Machiavel.

The Parletts laughed, a sound like a rusted hinge swinging slowly. “THE PARLETT QUINTUPLETS WERE GIVEN BY THEIR PARENTS TO THE IMPERIAL COLLEGE OF MAGIC AT BIRTH.”

“I’m not good at dealing with children,” Schmidt said. “I can never remember their names.”

“THE PARLETTS DO NOT HAVE INDIVIDUAL NAMES. I AM INFORMED BY COLLEGE GRAMARISTS THAT THEY DO NOT EVEN HAVE INDIVIDUAL SOULS. THEIR SHARING OF A SINGLE MIND IS WHAT WILL ENABLE OUR COMMUNICATION OVER THE GREAT DISTANCE THAT SEPARATES US.”

“And I will deal with Lord Thomas through you?”

“OR THOMAS HIMSELF MAY SPEAK WITH YOU THROUGH THE PARLETTS. THEY ARE IN A SAFE PLACE, A PLACE TO WHICH ONLY HE AND I AND A FEW TRUSTED SERVANTS HAVE ACCESS.”

Horse Hall? But it didn’t matter. “I assume you have two of the quintuplets?”

“WE BELIEVE THAT IF ONE DIES, THE OTHERS WILL SURVIVE AND REMAIN IN CONTACT. WE HAVE KEPT TWO HERE TO GIVE US A MARGIN OF SAFETY, IF SOMETHING SHOULD HAPPEN TO ONE OF THEM.”

“And I get three because the Ohio is the more dangerous end.”

“CONSIDERABLY MORE DANGEROUS, DIRECTOR. AND IF THE MIMICRY OF THE PARLETTS IS TO BE BELIEVED, YOU ALSO HAVE A CONSIDERABLY MORE MELODIOUS VOICE THAN I.” The Parletts twisted their faces into something that might have been a leer.

Notwithstanding Schmidt laughed. “Then they are liars through and through, Franklin, and you had better come up with another means to stay in touch.”

The Parletts bellowed their raucous imitation of Temple Franklin’s laughter.

“LORD THOMAS IS SENDING THE PROMISED REINFORCEMENTS.”

“More than this one squad, I hope. Competent as Captain Mohuntubby appears, I think he’ll have his hands too full protecting the Parletts to be able to effectively besiege Cahokia.”

“INFANTRY AND MOLLY PITCHERS.”

“Good. We have a wall to batter down.”

“THE MILITARY WILL BE UNDER THE COMMAND OF GENERAL SAYLE.”

“The Roundhead? The cannoneer? I hate a fanatic.”

“SAYLE IS NOT A FANATIC. YOU WILL HAVE DIRECTION OF THE CIVIL GOVERNMENT ONCE CAHOKIA CEASES ITS REBELLION AND SURRENDERS.”

Schmidt managed not to sigh. Sayle was a fanatic; if not for a saint, then for a strategy. “The company has the experience to manage that.”

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