Walking the Dust
26: Black Magic Woman
About a week's journey West of Wosh-Tun, following the coast, you come to a town called Salvation.
It's not an official border town, but it marks the boundary of Hoodoo, an area people down there call the 'real' south.
They do things differently down there, is what my father always told us, all magic and ghosts. I thought that was the dumbest thing I ever heard, but up in Lo-Wil we never did have time for anything we couldn't see with our eyes, or lay our hands on.
Laying hands on is one of the things they do in Salvation, and I saw it with my own eyes a couple days after I arrived.
I was hanging around because I wanted to learn about their customs, and faiths, before I headed deeper into the area. I'd been introduced to the town's Queen, Mae-ju. She wasn't on the council — that was a whole bunch of old guys — but, as far as I could tell, she had final say over anything she wanted to. Not a bad position to be in.
Queen Mae-ju was the town's top magician, but not the only one. You couldn't walk a hundred yards without finding another woman (and they were all women, which I guess is something positive) making charms and healing people.
They were suspicious of me at first, like everyone I meet, but I told them I wanted to see the truth about their magic, and if other people had been spreading lies, I'd do my best to counter them. They didn't embrace me with open arms after that, but they did seem to stop caring what I saw or heard.
It was healing that got me my closest look at the magic being practiced. A goat caravan came to town, and a couple of the shepherds were beat up pretty bad. They said they'd been hit by bandits, who had killed some of their goats, beaten up the leaders, and taken what little coin they had. Which wasn't a lot.
Queen Mae-ju took the most senior of the injured men in, and healed him. She called me in to watch, said it would help me understand Hoodoo, and see what their magic was really like.
Now I'm no physician, and no spell caster either, but it seemed to me there wasn't any magic involved. Sure, she lit candles, said words in a language I didn't understand (and declined to teach me, when I asked her later), then waved her hands around in the smoke and darkness.
But after all that she applied poultices, and herbs, and a hot iron to some of the guy's wounds. She finished by wrapping wet bandages around his cuts and bruises, with more poultice, and frankly she seemed to know what she was doing.
Of course, once that was done there was more words and hand-waving and whatnot. I figured it was all an act, something to make people believe simple, old-fashioned medicine was actually magic that only these women could perform.
Like I said, not a bad position to be in.
But then the shepherd asked Queen Mae-ju for help with something else — the bandits. Turned out this wasn't a rare occurrence. The bandits were a regular feature in Hoodoo (something that made me think twice about going much further, I admit).
This time, though, the shepherds had managed to get something from the bandits' — a couple strands of hair from the leader, pulled out during the fight.
Queen Mae-ju's eyes lit up when she saw the hair. She took them and sat down at a polished mirror glass with some candles and herbs.
For the next ten minutes she crushed herbs, sprinkled them over the hairs, then burnt a tiny bit of the hairs in the candle flames. Again and again, a little at a time, all the while speaking those secret magic words, until there was nothing left. Then she blew on her hands, clapped them three times, and it was done.
The shepherds gave the Queen a goat in payment, sold some more, then moved on. I stayed another day, then left, heading further into Hoodoo after all. Figured if I didn't go somewhere because of bandits, I may as well go home and never leave Lo-Wil again.
It took me two days to reach the next town. And I'll say this: I didn't see a single bandit.