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GUNWITCH

A Tale of the King’s Coven

 

By David Michael

 

Copyright © 2011 by David Michael.

Published by Four Crows Landing.

Gunwitch: A Tale of the King’s Coven
. Copyright © 2011 by David Michael. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information contact Four Crows Landing:
[email protected]

 

Designed by David Michael.

Cover artwork and layout by Don Michael, Jr.

 

Published by Four Crows Landing.

 

1.00-2011.10.5

 

This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Most of the locations are made up too.

for

the Three Prawns Crew –

Tick Tock, Bluu & Devlin Darkmantle

Chapter 1

Rose

 

Lake Patrizio

1742 A.D.

 

As the moss-hung canopy of the bayuk gave way to the open sky of Lake Patrizio, Rose Bainbridge picked up her paddle and began paddling. Stroke left, stroke right. Stroke left, stroke right. She kept her rhythm steady, matching the speed of the pirogue as the small boat moved across the surface of the water toward the rusted and smokestained skyline of New Venezia. Force of habit driving pointless precision, she thought. Because she rowed only to preserve the illusion that rowing was necessary, to hide the truth that the boat moved across the water at the will of the pirogue’s other passenger.

Continuing the pantomime of rowing, Rose looked over her shoulder at Chal. The native girl sat in the stern, her paddle in the bottom of the boat, untouched, her long black hair loose and streaming behind her in the wind of their passage. Chal saw Rose look at her, and used a finger to push stray wisps of hair out of her face and tuck it behind her ear.

“Maybe we’re going too fast?” Rose said.

That made Chal laugh, a sound like water over rocks. The speed of the pirogue increased.

Forcing her lips into a line to prevent a smile, Rose faced forward again. She resisted the temptation to row faster, because that would only encourage Chal further. Sometimes the girl could be such a … a …
little
girl. Not for the first time, Rose wondered if this was what it was like to be a parent. And not for the first time, she regretted the thought. Because she would never know.

You ever seen a pregnant gunwitch?
The question rose from the past to mock her again.

Rose gritted her teeth and stopped that line of thought. Now was not the time. What was done was done.

The pirogue went faster. The rushing water nearly pulled the oar out of Rose’s hand.

She gave up on rowing, braced the oar on the bow in front of her and looked back at Chal again. The wind whipped loose strands of Rose’s hair across her face and pulled against the metal clasp that held back the rest.

Chal met her gaze and laughed.

In spite of herself, in spite of bad memories, in spite of the unexpected and unwelcome summons from General Tendring, Rose laughed as well. She could not say precisely why she laughed. Whatever the reason, the laughter was a welcome release. Even if it lasted only seconds.

As her laughter subsided, the pirogue settled into the water again, its speed diminishing.

Rose faced forward again and resumed her needless rowing. “I’m just trying to protect you,” she said with a quick look back over her shoulder.

Chal’s teeth flashed in a smile. “And I you,” the girl said. “The waters move the boat, so you row to hide what they do. The storm clouds follow you. So I help you outrun them.”

“Some storms you can’t outrun,” Rose said.

Chal’s smile turned rueful, and her apparent age matured, the little girl gone. Rose did not know how old Chal was. In their five years together, companions in the bayuk, scouts leading and protecting ambitious colonists to the frontier, the girl would never give a straight answer to the question. “I am a child among the children of the world,” Chal would say. Or, “I am not so old that I cannot dance in the rain.” Mostly, though, Chal would only laugh that bubbling laugh of hers and look mischievous and even younger. Rose judged the girl to be no more than twenty, maybe as old twenty-five. Maybe young enough to be Rose’s daughter. If Chal had been born half a world away. If …

Rose turned to face forward again.

Behind her, Chal sighed. “The storm clouds still follow.”

Rose did not reply. She focused on keeping her rowing steady. Left, right. Left, right.
Focus. Concentrate. Repeat.
The mantra from her instructors.
In repetition there is concentration. In concentration there is focus. In focus there is power.

In focus there was no memory. No lost child. No lost innocence. Only the oar in her hands, the water of the lake, and the companionship of Chal.

With focus, though, also came increased sensitivity. Now, when her paddle dipped into the water, Rose could feel the subtle shiftings that created the improbable current that pushed the pirogue along. Magic, not unlike her own, but she did not know how Chal did it. The subtlety of the moving current belied the power invoked.

With her pistol, Rose could make a man explode at five hundred yards, further if she had a scope and properly measured powder. Then she could do a right-face and engulf a small building in flame or rip out its supporting walls. But all of that seemed insignificant to what Chal did so easily from the back of the pirogue, directing the currents of a lake the size of Lake Patrizio. Rose needed concentration and her pistol. Chal seemed to need only a laugh and a whim.

More than once Rose had speculated on how she might move the waters the way Chal did.
At first you do not know what you can do
.
Then you know
.
Then you do.
More words from her training. The corporals at the King’s Coven did not teach the conscripted privates of the 101st Pistoleers. Rather, the corporals demonstrated what was possible, sometimes on the privates, then insisted that the privates duplicate their results. But in this Rose had chosen
not
to know or to do. She knew and had done much that she wished she could forget and undo. She would not pry into Chal’s native secrets. She preferred the mystery. She had not asked Chal who or what the native girl was running from, hiding from. And Chal had never asked her the same questions.

The lake water, so blue after the murk of the bayuk, became dirty again as they neared the city, but dirty in a way very different from the shallow streams of the bayuk. Here sunlight gleamed a rainbow along the oily surface and highlighted floating trash and debris. Other boats, pirogue’s like theirs, as well as rafts and barges and fishing boats with sails or outboard paddles and belching smokestacks spread from the city’s lakeside docks and piers.

Rose maintained her pretense of rowing as Chal threaded a path through the other boat traffic. She only stopped when they approached an open berth on a mostly empty pier. A few other pirogues had been tied up to the pier, and a dilapidated barge was being unloaded. She stepped out of the boat to the dock and tied off. She looked around as she pulled her pistol from her belt to check its load.

None of the laborers or slaves unloading the barge paid her or Chal any mind. But the big foreman barking orders in a mixture of German and English paused midcurse to stare at her.

Rose returned the man’s stare, blank expression in response to leer, then inspected her pistol. Satisfied that the load and the priming were still dry, she pushed the runecarved muzzle into her belt again and turned her back on the foreman. In the pirogue, Chal picked up Rose’s rifle and tossed it up to her. Rose caught the rifle with both hands and automatically checked its load. Also still dry. She adjusted the strap so the stock would not hit her legs as she walked, then slung the rifle over her shoulder. Trained and disciplined as an infantryman in the King’s Army, Rose had often wished she was as tall as one, as well.

“Well well well.” A man’s voice, thick with a German accent. “What is this? A couple of savage beauties?”

Rose turned around. And looked up. The foreman was even bigger up close. She smiled and put her hand nonchalantly on the butt of her pistol. Then dropped the smile and pulled out the gun. The foreman was not looking at her. No need to be subtle if he was watching Chal.

“Mädchen!” he shouted over Rose. “Be careful. You will tip it–”

He watched in shock as Chal walked down the center of the pirogue, then leaped to the dock. Rose did not have to look to know the boat had scarcely shifted. And had certainly not tipped over. Chal refused to go into water, whether river or lake–and
never
the ocean–not even up to her ankles, but boats on those waters did what Chal told them. Even without the boat, though, Chal turned men’s heads, drew their attention away from more pressing dangers.

Rose stepped up to the man and poked him in the ribs with the muzzle of her pistol. She did not bother pulling back the hammer. She hoped he would just back off and let them go. It was already hard enough to get work in New Venezia. Men had a difficult time hiring a woman who could–and had, in front of multiple witnesses–beat a man senseless with just the butt of her gun, her bare hands, and a pair of dirty moccasins. She doubted the foreman was looking to hire a scout to guide his barge through the bayuk, but people would talk. And, judging by the size of him, she was not sure she could take him alone. She was an inch or two taller than the rifle she carried, but he was another twelve inches taller still. And at least three stone heavier. At least.

The pistol pulled the man’s attention from Chal. He looked down at Rose. “Now now now,” he said, backing up, “there is no reason to being hasty.”

Rose stayed close, moving with him as he stepped away, keeping the pistol pressed against him but letting it slip down until the muzzle rested against the man’s heavy belt buckle. Now she cocked it. The man’s face went pale and he stepped back again, this time trying to twist away. Rose still followed him, pushing the muzzle hard into his stomach, forcing him further back until he teetered on the edge of the wooden platform over a short drop to the water. “We’re in a hurry,” she said. “Versteht?”

“Ich–I–yes.” His eyes moved from her to behind her, then back to her.

Rose nodded and resisted the urge to push him off the dock. She turned her back on him. As she expected, Chal stood to one side, cradling her short-barreled cavalry rifle, stock in the crook of her right arm, hand resting near the trigger, barrel only coincidentally pointing at the center of the big man’s chest.

Chal smiled at her and Rose smiled back.

“Hunde!” he yelled at them from behind as they walked away.

* * *

Rose and Chal walked along the pier and through the busy docks, ignoring the catcalls of the laborers and the sullen glares of the slaves. They stepped around the steamgrunzers that loaded and unloaded the larger seagoing merchant vessels and filled the air with the white hiss of steam, the black smoke of burning coal, and the clank-thump-clank-thump of heavy gears and metal feet.

They walked through the lakefront quarter of the city, where the wooden structures of the original natives and first wave of Italian settlers still predominated, though under the looming shadows of steel and concrete put up by the German and, more recently, English trading companies. They pushed through the crowds of sailors, soldiers, rivermen, colonials, and natives to reach the wide street that led to the front gate of Fort Gunter.

In the heart of New Venezia, away from the docks, two more women generated little notice. Even one with a long rifle and another with the high cheekbones and smooth dark skin of a native queen. The crowds thinned as they neared the fort, though, and they stood out again, two women entering the world of men.

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