Wicked 2 – Son of a Witch
Wicked 2 – Son of a Witch
Wicked 2 – Son of a Witch
By Maquire, Gregory
?THANKS ARE DUE to the team at ReganBooks, starting with Judith Regan and including CassieJones, Paul Olsewski, and Jennifer Suitor.
?Thank you to David Groff, Betty Levin, Andy Newman, and William Reiss for commenting on earlydrafts ofSon of a Witch .
?Thank you to Haven Kimmel and to Eve Ensler, for encouraging words sent at precisely the rightmoment.
?Thank you to Harriet Barlow, Ben Strader, and the company of Blue Mountain Center, New York.
?Thank you, again, to Andy Newman, for defending the ramparts as usual, and to Lori Shelly, forable assistance at every wicked little thing.
Under the Jackal Moon
?The House of Saint Glinda
?SO THE TALK OF RANDOM BRUTALITYwasn’t just talk. At noontime they discovered the bodies ofthree young women, out on some mission of conversion that appeared to have gone awry. Thenovice maunts had been strangled by their ropes of holy beads, and their faces removed.
?Her nerve being shaken at last, Oatsie Manglehand now caved in to the demands of her payingcustomers. She told the team drivers they’d pause only long enough to dig some shallow graveswhile the horses slaked their thirst. Then the caravan would press on across the scrubby flatsknown, for the failed farmsteads abandoned here and there, as the Disappointments.
?Moving by night, at least they wouldn’t make a sitting target, though they might as easilywander into trouble as sidestep it. Still, Oatsie’s party was antsy. Hunker down all night andwait for horse hoofs, spears? Too hard on everyone. Oatsie consoled herself: If the caravankept moving, she could sit forward with her eyes peeled, out of range of the carping, thesecond-guessing, the worrying.
?With the benefit of height, therefore, Oatsie spotted the gully before anyone else did. Thecloudburst at sunset had fed a small trackside rivulet that flowed around a flank of skin,water-lacquered in the new moonlight. An island, she feared, of human flesh.
?I ought to turn aside before the others notice, she thought; how much more can they take?There is nothing I can do for that human soul. The digging of another trench would require anhour, minimum. An additional few moments for prayers. The project would only further agitatethese clients as they obsess about their own precious mortality.
?Upon the knee of the horizon balanced the head of a jackal moon, so-called because, once everygeneration or so, a smear of celestial flotsam converged behind the crescent moon of earlyautumn. The impact was creepy, a look of a brow and a snout. As the moon rounded out over aperiod of weeks, the starveling would turn into a successful hunter, its cheeks bulging.
?Always a fearsome sight, the jackal moon tonight spooked Oatsie Manglehand further.Don’t stopfor this next casualty. Get through the Disappointments, deliver these paying customers to thegates of the Emerald City . But she resisted giving in to superstition. Be scared of the realjackals, she reminded herself, not frets and nocturnal portents.
?In any case, the light of the constellation alleviated some of the color blindness that setsin at night. The body was pale, almost luminous. Oatsie might divert the Grasstrail Train andgive the corpse a wide berth before anyone else noticed it, but the slope of the person’sshoulders, the unnatural twist of legs—the jackal moon made her read the figure too well, astoo clearly human, for her to be able to turn aside.
?Nubb, she barked to her second, rein in. We’ll pull into flank formation up that rise.There’s another fatality, there in the runoff.
?Cries of alarm as the news passed back, and another mutter of mutiny: Why should theystop?—were they to bear witness to every fresh atrocity? Oatsie didn’t listen. She yanked thereins of her team of horses, to halt them, and she lowered herself gingerly. She stumped, herhand on her sore hip, until she stood a few feet over the body.
?Face down and genitals hidden, he appeared to have been a young man. A few scraps of fabricwere still knotted about his waist, and a boot some yards distant, but he was otherwise naked,and no sign of his clothes.
?Curious: no evidence of the assassins. Neither had there been about the bodies of the maunts,but that was on rockier ground, in a drier hour. Oatsie couldn’t see any sign of scuffle here,and in the mud of the gulch one might have expected…something. The body wasn’t bloody, nordecayed yet; the murder was recent. Perhaps this evening, perhaps only an hour ago.
?Nubb, let’s heave him up and see if they’ve taken his face, she said.
?No blood, said Nubb.
?Blood may have run off in that cloudburst. Steel yourself, now.
?They got on either side of the body and bit their lips. She looked at Nubb, meaning: It’sonly the next thing, it’s not the last thing. Let’s get through this, fellow.
?She jerked her head in the direction of the hoist. One, two, heave.
?They got him up. His head had fallen into a natural scoop in the stone, a few inches higherthan where the rain had pooled. His face was intact, more or less; that is to say, it was stillthere, though shattered.
?How did he get here? said Nubb. And why didn’t they scrape him?
?Oatsie just shook her head. She settled on her haunches. Her travelers had come forward andwere congregating on the rise behind her; she could hear them rustling. She suspected that theyhad gathered stones, and were ready to kill her if she insisted on a burial.
?The jackal moon rose a few notches higher, as if trying to see into the gulley. The prurienceof the heavens!
?We’re not going to dig another grave. That from her noisiest client, a wealthy trader fromthe northern Vinkus. Not his, Oatsie Manglehand, and not yours, either. We’re not doing it. Weleave him unburied and alone, or we leave him unburied with your corpse for company.
?We don’t need to do either, said Oatsie. She sighed. Poor, poor soul, whoever he is. He needsno grave. He isn’t dead yet.
?IN TIME,when the travelers had rejoined their cronies and relatives in the Emerald City—insalons, in public houses, in taverns of exchange—they heard more chatter about the hostilitiesthey had managed to sidestep. Rumor flourished. Forty, sixty, a hundred deaths resulting fromthe skirmishes between the Scrow and the Yunamata. Barbarians, the lot of them: They deservedto kill off each other. But not us.
?Rumor could be wrong, of course, but it couldn’t be uninteresting. Two hundred dead. Twicethat. Mass graves, and they would be foundany day .
?But the luxury of safety came later. First, the Grasstrail Train still had to resume itssnail’s progress through the Disappointments. Geographical variety—the hills, mountains,dales and forests that made the rest of Oz so memorable, such a heartland—was in short supplyhere. Just flats, shales, more flats, grey as pulped newspapers.
?The prospect was dispiriting, and the notion of having to carry an invalid with them didn’timprove matters. Oatsie Manglehand’s clients had paid good hard cash for her service. Someoriginating from as far away as Ugabu, and others having joined the group along the easternfoothills of the Great Kells, they considered their own safe travel should be Oatsie’s soleconcern.
?Oatsie reminded them that they didn’t have a vote. She’d never represented that her clientswould travel unencumbered by waifs and strays. Indeed, by terms of their contracts, she wasfree of liability should any of the travelers be murdered on the trail by a fellow passenger, astowaway, a hitchhiker, a native. Oatsie had promised to lead the caravan as safely as shecould, relying on her knowledge of the terrain and its populations. That was it. Period. Tothat end, she’d chosen a new route intended to avoid the current hot spots of intertribalconflict, and so far so good. Right?
?The invalid was loaded aboard.
?Despite her bravado, Oatsie was indeed sensitive to her clients’ fears, and in a way she wasglad to have the unconscious young man with them. It distracted the travelers, while heremained oblivious of their resentment.
?She bedded him in the third carriage back, requisitioning from her clients the warmest ofwinter robes. She mounded him into a cocoon. There he languished, day and night, not so much