Saturday Snippet: Hunters Hunt

Someone didn’t get the memo about a three-day weekend . . .

His phone buzzed at eleven on the first night of July. Florian called. Nikolai rolled to his feet and began dressing for a Hunt. “Anno?”

“Constructs, five of them. Grey’s Mill road at the Martinsburg blacktop,” Florian reported. “Constanche says three the size of large dogs, two bear-sized.” His Hunting partner sounded most unhappy and rushed—not good signs. “Marius will join us if he can. Ladislu and Vladi are on the way.”

“So am I.”

“Defender lend you his wings. Grey’s Mill Road at the Martinsburg blacktop,” Florian repeated, then ended the call.

He already wore sturdy black trousers, so all he had to do was pull on his shirt and boots, and pull his hair into the ponytail. Lerae remained sound asleep. He kissed her forehead, then hurried to the car. He’d loaded the shotgun, his long blade and other things already, just in case. Thanks be that the road construction had ceased for the long weekend. He didn’t speed. Speeding attracted attention. It also attracted deer, skunks, and other things to the road, or so half the Hunters swore. Nikolai recited the Ave, calming himself and easing the Hunt fire starting to race through his blood. Not now, not while a little late farm traffic remained on the road. Thanks be, one of the Clan farms sat near the intersection, so he could park without inspiring unwanted curiosity. Indeed, just as he arrived, Marius’ pickup eased in behind him. They got out, strapped on their long blades, and Niko slipped more silver loads into the pouch on his belt. He also slipped in the special ear-protectors.

Nikolai stopped and took a long breath. Lady of Night, tune my ear to the night. St. Michael, Defender, be with us, if the Great God and His Son will. Then he listened to the magic around them. There, to the south and east. He gestured to Marius, who nodded and followed him. Dissonance like a diminished seventh crossed with a tritone grated in the darkness. A bitter scent, skunk-like but not a proper skunk’s stench, burned his nose and overwhelmed the proper life-rich smells of the summer night. Beside him, Marius snorted and made the hand gesture for “upwind.” Niko gestured his agreement and they shifted into a trot, not quite a Hunters’ lope, not yet. The midsummer moisture dampened their steps, softened the sound of their passing.

SSGGrrrrrrr. A night-bird called, one not found on these shores. The Hunters slowed, listening harder. The dissonant note in the night grew stronger. Whuf like a bear, then claws ripping roots. Bent plants showed where something large had lumbered into the woodlot ahead of them. Slss the sound of a long blade leaving its sheath. They’d found the constructs, and the others. Niko eased off the safety on the shotgun and he and Marius stepped forward, listening, looking, smelling the night.

Vladi appeared in Niko’s peripheral vision. He gave the gestures for “three, smaller.” Niko nodded his understanding. He was warned. Vladi slowed and passed behind Niko and Marius, allowing Florian to take his place. Where were Ladislu and Constanche? Florian gestured up, into the trees. That was Ladislu, then. Another nod, and the four Hunters eased into the thicket.

A beast with glowing stripes like foxfire turned, jaw open. Whoorf, Whoorf it barked, voice breathy and wrong. Two more striped beasts, as tall at the shoulder as Niko’s hip, turned toward them. “Mine,” Florian breathed as his twin said the same thing. Niko stopped moving, alert, shotgun at the ready but fingers clear of the triggers and barrel aimed one head above the beasts. The other three swarmed forward with long-blades in hand.

A jarring shift in the magic warned him. Niko turned, smooth and silent. A shape like a bear on its hind legs filled the gap between two trees. It stood taller than the local bears, and its eyes glowed blue-white. Where was Ladislu? Nikolai lowered the barrels and aimed, extending his sense of the night as far as he could. There, behind him, all Hunters behind him! The beast lurched forward one step, then a second. The paws took on a red-yellow glow and the claws extended, longer and thicker than a proper bear.

Boom, he fired, then pumped the shotgun. Silver shot peppered the false-bear. It howled, staggered forward, then fell.

“I have it,” Ladislu called. He darted forward and slit the throat, almost beheading the thing.

“Danger!” Niko whirled around as the others jumped back from the three dog-like constructs. Another bear thudded toward them, growing as it approached. Niko fired, pumped the shotgun, fired a second time, pumped, and fired once more. The second round, a blessed lead slug, opened the thing’s chest, and silver shot followed. The combination stopped the construct. It howled, waking half the birds in River County, then dropped to all fours and charged! The twins leaped onto the thing, stabbing, then slashing, a flurry of silent silver motion. The beast staggered again before collapsing. Nikolai eased forward, wary and ready. “One more in the head,” Florian commanded. Nikolai did so.

Once Niko reloaded the gun and Florian took the blood for him, the Hunters studied their kills.

“Not from the game,” Vladi observed. “These look like mastiffs, or started as mastiffs?” He crouched beside one of the dog-like beasts. “Mastiff as the base pattern,” he decided, pointing to the heavy shoulder and stripes. The beasts had cat-like claws, and heavier, thicker jaws than true dogs, with fangs like prehistoric beasts.

Nikolai listened around the Hunters. Florian too extended his senses, then shook his head. “I sense nothing else save these,” Florian reported.

“Likewise.” Niko activated the safety on the shotgun. He returned to the first bear construct and studied it, memorizing the details and the not-bear-ness of it. Claws too long for the paws, long fangs such as the other things had, white eyes that slanted like a snake, and a longer tail that ended in a tip rather than the rounded bear tail, all those he catalogued in his memory. Then he drew a pouch of basil from his pocket. “Great God who made all that is good, Lady of Night, bride of the Most High, cleanse this creature of evil, your servant Hunters beg. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” He scattered the dried basil and its blessing over the remains. A strong, perfect octave and fifth sounded as blue-green fire licked flesh from bone and bone from earth, leaving nothing behind. A true construct, then, not a twisted creature, thanks be.

“Well, that was interesting,” Florian observed once they returned to where they’d parked.

Ladislu and Vladi both snorted. “Interesting does not bring peace of mind,” Vladi stated, giving Florian a hard look. “Especially for those of us who go on duty at noon.”

“Perhaps this will be the extent of your excitement,” Marius offered, then passed the short, muscular paramedic his choice of jerky, trail mix, and things-in-buns. Vladi took one of the sausage buns and passed the sack to Ladislu. Nikolai checked the shotgun, then set it in his trunk and drank some water. He took the trail mix, since that was all that remained when the bag reached him. He had his own supplies as well, so he didn’t mind. He and Marius were the late arrivals.

“Where’s Constanche?” Marius inquired, mouth semi-full.

Ladislu swallowed before answering, “Monitoring the games, just in case. He saw the beasts on his way here, and watched long enough for Florian to pick up the trail, then returned to his primary duty.”

The others nodded. Two Hunts in one night wore on a body, but they’d all done it. “Any sense of the origin? Not abyssal, that I can tell,” Niko added quickly. “I didn’t sense any great magic as I drove out of the valley, either.”

Florian gestured his agreement. “Nor did I.”

Ladislu nodded. “I warned the senior Hunter. Letters is on call this night as well.”

The Hunters all relaxed, or at least their shoulders lost some tension. Niko finished the trail mix and gnawed on a protein bar. The sorcerer of shadow could track certain things better than they could, especially once the trail had cooled.

Vladi leaned forward and caught Niko’s eye. “Is your lady on duty this weekend?”

“Yes, starting tonight. She gets off Monday morning.” Vladi winced. Niko nodded. “That was my thought, but she volunteered to cover the weekend. Yes, I questioned her sanity.”

“Not to her face, I take it, since you yet live.” Vladi winked.

“No. I do not care to be the target of a justifiable homicide, thank you.” He managed to keep a straight face despite the others chuckles and rolled eyes.

The Hunters parted ways not too much later. Florian caught Niko’s eye. “Still no word,” he murmured. “May the Lady be with you.”

“Thank you. Defender guide your blade on your Hunt,” Niko replied.

He collapsed into bed just after four. 

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Goth Possum, an Abandoned Pie, and a Snowman Pat

Monday was odd. Or at least, on Monday morning I observed three odd things. Makes me wonder what would have happened if I’d gotten up earlier and gone wren hunting* . . . I might not want to know.

I finished a story, then went to the gym. On the way, I saw something lying in the road. Dark, furry, a dead animal lay in the road. As I slowed and detoured around it, it proved to be a melenistic possum. The late critter had a black coat shading to dark brown at the bottom of the flanks. The head looked normal grey possum color, but the tail seemed darker than standard. How odd. I’ve never seen one like that before, but it explains why it got hit in the wee hours of the morning.

The parking lot at the gym was full. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who wanted to get in a little exercise. I ended up parking in the unofficial overflow lot across the way. Technically, the lot belongs to a church, but they don’t mind us taking up some space, since we are well away from the office and the school door. Something round sat in a parking space beside a smaller car. I shrugged and parked, then hurried over and did my thing. The weight section was crowded with young men, all college age or so. A few older men and women worked out as well, but the average age had dropped by easily 20 years. I found an empty bench and lifted. I cut my workout short because of all the people coming and going. Many were not paying much attention to their surroundings, and I’ve almost gotten hurt before when a careless person distracted me during a big lift.**

I did cardio after my weights, then went back to the truck. The round thing proved to be an intact pumpkin pie. Someone had left a perfectly good pumpkin pie in the parking space. It looked store bought. That, or the baker is much better with crimping crusts than I am. Had it been dropped and abandoned? Had it been a spare that someone set down after a church function, got distracted, and left? No idea. Something would eat it, so I didn’t try moving it to one of the distant dumpsters.

Back home, I hopped out of the truck and noticed a disk of ice, like a cowpat, beside the truck in the garden. It sat right above one of the soaker heads for the irrigation system. Oh no. Had Dad and I forgotten to turn off both parts of the system? Oh dear. Not good. I looked for others, but didn’t find evidence of hose activation or other frozen material. What could have done it? As I turned toward the house, I saw that the bowl of water for the outdoor critters had been emptied of ice. Mystery solved!

Some Mondays are just strange.

*In Ireland and parts of England, it is traditional to hunt the wren on St. Stephen’s Day. According to legend, the wren betrayed Jesus. The wren is sometimes also associated with the darker side of magic and winter.

**As in almost brushed me as I lifted the weights over my head in a shoulder press. Please don’t be that person.

(I set new personal best weights in all categories this year – 85 lb bench, 50 lb shoulder press, 60 lb deadlift. Given my chronological maturity and mileage, this is a Good Thing. Also keep in mind I don’t have a spotter or trainer, so I progress very slowly and carefully.)

Arches and Beams

There are several ways to keep the outdoors out of buildings. Flat roofs (which are not really 100% flat in most cases), thick layers of brush and small branches to make a dense layer, mats of woven stuff under turf, wooden beams with sod on top (and cloth or newspaper to slow the leaks and divert falling critters), stone, metal over wood and stone . . .

Heavy wood beams on top of heavy structure, covered in thin pieces of wood. That’s what you do when wood is available and needs to last a long time. I’d guess that the core of this Polish shed went back to the late 1800s. The reforestation of the 1800s had made wood more available than it was between 1600-1820.

When wood is in short supply, you build with imported wood, then cover it with plaster and thatch. The thatch weighs less than a tile or slate or wooden roof of the same quality, allows better air flow but retains heat, and lasts for 30-40 years when done properly. A good thatch roof in northern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein in this case) is up to 24″ thick. In the case above, the materials are reeds brought in from the Low Countries and England, since the local reeds are not numerous enough, or grow in protected areas and can’t be harvested in the needed quantities. A wooden frame supports the thatch. Fire isn’t as much of a hazard as you’d think, at least in that part of Germany, because it tends to be wet.

However, since fire was one of the greatest hazards of urban areas in the Middle Ages, those places that could required slate or tile roofs. In the north, in the German lands, Low Countries, and Poland, brick replaced the non-existent stone and very expensive imported wood.

Slate, lead, and copper over wood and brick, with some stone. This is Lübeck, the center of the Hansa trade network, and very wealthy. Fire-resistant roofs replaced thatch at a relatively early date. Brick also took the place of both wood and stone. The large holes in the “spine” of the building on the left are to allow the wind through. The stepped roof lines serve a similar purpose – North Sea winds are fierce when they get going, and there’s not many hills or other things to break the flow of air over the land. Ground floors often served as floodways. You didn’t store or build anything on the ground floor that you weren’t willing to either sacrifice or have get wet. The water came at you from both directions up in this part of Europe.

I mentioned timbers?

Mind your head when you get up, or when you stand quickly near the washroom. This is from an old hotel in Olomutz, Moravia, Czechia. Wonderful place, but not for the tall or forgetful. It had a tile roof, probably synthetic tile because of the weight and because of hail. I was on the top floor because, well, I’m small, can carry my luggage up medieval staircases, and don’t mind hiking up steep and narrow medieval staircases. (The porter meant well, but I was in a hurry and other people needed his help a lot more than I did.)

When you have more wood than you need, so to speak, you can do this:

This is down almost on the Polish/Slovak border, in the mountains. Wooden roof because fire is not a danger, wooden building because wood was cheap in terms of labor and supply both. Cheap being relative, however. Parts of Eastern Europe, like western Europe, had occasional shortages of the desired types of wood, even if wood in general was plentiful to “not scarce”. I couldn’t get into this church because a service was in progress. The interior is plastered and painted.

When we think of wood and timber shortages, most of us think about England and Britain in general, because that was one reason given for sending people to the Americas – find wood. Also, the traditional history of the Industrial Revolution centers on a lack of wood for fuel, so coal came into use, which along with the pump led to the use of steam and mechanizing factories and . . . As always, the story is more complicated, but good building timbers tended to be relatively scarce going back to, oh, the Roman Era. When you build things like:

Another, older church is below. It goes back to the 1100s, although I suspect the roof joists are not that old. It was the the first church in England built to honor St. Olaf, and is in York. It was a parish church, and is still active. The oldest surviving beams below date to the 1400s.

If you can’t afford any of those, or your trees are all too short?

Thatch and turf on turf. It works.

Book Review: The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History

Mostern, Ruth. The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Yale University Press, 2021) hard cover.

It was once called the Great River, and flowed clear. Over time, human use, climate shifts, and political responses to floods and droughts led to the river becoming the Yellow River, sometimes called China’s Sorrow. How this happened is a story as convoluted as the river’s floodplains, and a fascinating lesson in parts vs the whole, and the limits of human power. People and water, and silt and sand, worked together to destabilize the great river over the course of a thousand years.

Asian environmental history has been relatively under-studied, in part because of problems with language, in part because of the enormous spans of time involved. European environmental history is easier to divide, and the archaeological pieces are gathered into tidier “heaps” of sources, so to speak. Only within the past 20 years or so have many works about the environmental history of China been published. This book builds on several classic works of that history, and expands the time-span of the history of the Yellow River.

Mostern argues that while climate shifts and weather pattern changes played a role in the changes observed in the Yellow River watershed, human activity played a far greater role, especially after roughly the year AD 600 CE. Differences in priorities between imperial governments and local officials, plus the focus on relatively free-market development and agriculture, led to Han Chinese culture expanding into regions not suited for intensive farming. By 1855, the Yellow River had become unusuable and impossible to manage (given the finances and technologies of the time), and what had once been a fertile and prosperous region turned into a salty, gravel and sand-choked series of barrens and wetlands. The Loess Plateau in the bend of the Yellow River transformed with ever-increasing speed from grasslands and mixed forests to a rugged, eroded near-desert that sent millions of tons of sediment to cover the floodplain downstream.

Warfare caused much of the damage to the ecosystem of the upper Yellow River, but stable imperial regimes could be just as bad for the environment. The region is one of conflicts – hot and cold air masses, desert winds and tropical moisture, herders and farmers, imperial centralization and tribal societies. Competing armies stripped the land of forests and grass, and the soldier-farmers of Imperial China denuded the land to build walls and grow food for their own survival. When the nomads chased the Han back to the river and farther south, they too removed forest cover, although long stable periods did allow for regrowth of grass and trees. Sometimes. The development of iron-bladed plows and intensive farming technologies caused further, faster, erosion. Demand for fuel and building wood in peace time as well as war devoured more and more forests, causing more erosion and more flooding downstream.

Some observers saw what was happening and argued that the erosion and loss of ground cover needed to stop at the source. When the capital city remained in the upper Yellow River, the government seemed—sometimes—more interested in considering those ideas. But once the government moved downstream, the focus shifted to coping with the results of the problem, not the sources. Huge floods in 1048 and other years devoured tens of thousands of farmland, displaced millions, and drained the imperial treasury. Only the Grand Canal made it possible to feed and supply Peking/Beijing as the land around it turned sandy and salty from inundation and sediment dumping. In 1885, efforts to keep the Grand Canal open failed, and sea transport became the only to move food to the city. Southern China refused to pay for the problems of the Yellow River.

The book is very well written with excellent illustrations, tables, and a long appendix of methodologies. It helps to have a background in overall Chinese history, but that is not needed. A bit of hydrology helps even more, otherwise the learning curve might be a touch steep in the introduction and first chapter. I found the book an easy read, but one with lots and lots to ponder and mull over. The author is even handed in her approach – people can’t know what they can’t know, and the imperial hydrocrats’ priorities made sense to them. They lacked the tools and the resources to see the entire watershed as a whole. Those who did pull back to see the larger picture lacked the will to sacrifice the imperial capital to floods in order to pour resources into the upstream lands.

The author’s use of some terms struck me as odd, enough so that it pushed me out of the story a few times. I disagree with using the term “Anthropocene,” although in this case there is some logic to it, given the importance of human influences on the life of the river. Other usages were literally correct, but jarring, almost as if the author were not a native speaker. I do not know, and it does not affect the overall readability and quality of the book.

I recommend the book to historians of water, historians of China, people interested in the interactions of government and the physical environment, and conservationists. The idea that “the problems caused by central control can be fixed by central control” rings all too true in the West today. I am reminded of an interview I did with a farmer about flooding on a small river. He shrugged and said, “Rivers flood. That’s what rivers do.” People can try to work around, with, or against floods and droughts, but only by looking at the watershed as a while, rather than reach by reach. This is an excellent addition to the literature in several disciplines.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation or remuneration for this review.

Tuesday Tidbit: Castle Houska

Mike and Rich get an assignment . . .

“Why me, sir?” For once it the question did not entail theology or philosophy.

Rabbi-Major Aaron Cantor made a puzzled shrug. “I don’t know. Our Czech counterparts asked specifically for a military magic user of shadow, or magic-using clergy. I know that diplomatic duty is not something we usually cover, but they asked, and the Poles are a tiny bit preoccupied.”

“Just a wee bit, yes,” Rich chittered. “Whale shark levels of tiny, sir.” Mike reached up and rested a hand on his Familiar out of habit more than from hope that it would calm the white-tailed mongoose. “Where is the event of concern?”

The military rabbi sorted through some things. “Oh.” His expression flashed from puzzlement to grave concern. “Houska Castle. Someone is having a diplomatic reception at Houska Castle as part of the treaty negotiations.”

Mike facepalmed as Rich sagged with near boneless dread. “That explains both the request and the concern, sir,” Mike said. “They still have not found the hikers who disappeared in the swamp, have they?”

The moon-faced cleric leaned back and stared at the ceiling, head tipping back and forth the tiniest bit. “No, as of,” he glanced at the wall calendar. “Not as of last Thursday. I believe that we need to move that incident up on our ‘events of interest list,’ given the proximity to a place of known negativity.” The professional phrases concealed much that was better left unsaid.

“I concur, Rabbi.” Rich’s tail had fluffed to double the usual girth, based on the tickling sensation on the right side of his mage’s throat. “Conducting negotiations that are likely to generate negative emotional energy in a location constructed to block access to an abyssal plane is less than ideal.”

In other words, whoever proposed the idea needs to meet the clue bat, and whoever accepted it should be interviewed by clergy, or by us, or the Czechs. Not his job. His job was to look fancy and prevent all Hell from breaking loose, possibly literally if the story was true. “Request permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Close the door, then permission granted.”

Once he had closed the door and the sound shield activated, Mike said, “If the stories are true, Tik-Tik and I may find ourselves dealing with an open planar breach. In other words, we’re screwed if someone effs around and finds out just why that place was built, sir?” It wasn’t a question, not really, but it was safer to phrase such things as questions.

“Affirm. HaShem forfend, but if the story is true, yes.” Rabbi-Major Cantor folded his arms and leaned back. “I authorize you to contact your instructor and inquire if he is aware of any changes in the area around the castle.”

“Thank you, sir.” Mike opened the door.

The rabbi stood. “The usual briefing materials will be in your file. You are dismissed, and may HaShem guide you and protect you.”

“Thank you, sir, and amen.” Mike inclined in a slight bow and departed. As soon as they got out the main door, he set Rich down on the gravel beside the sidewalk. The mongoose disappeared behind the scraggly bush pretending to be a decorative hedge. As Rich did his thing, his mage let his eyes unfocus, resting them and trying not to think.

Mike ignored the constant movement of men and machines, the voices in English, German, and NATO-lish. Grafenwoer hosted an armored regiment (US), armored regiment (Bundeswehr), and “support troops.” The 776th “Prayer Warriors” fell under the last. A tank-carrier lumbered past, laden with two Challenger tanks. The Germans preferred not to have their roads broken and chewed by heavy armor. They also preferred to pretend that the 776th did not exist. Mike came back from wool-gathering as Rich tugged on the hem of his pants. He crouched and helped his Familiar back onto his shoulders.

“What’s up? Besides the temperature?” Rich chittered, then settled. The Germans loved the 30 degree C heat. Mike had uncharitable thoughts at the ball of fire baking Europe as he returned to his quarters. Yes, it was August, but still. The excessive heat was excessive.

August, when all of western and central Europe went on— “Diplomatic negotiations. In August. Between three European countries. Does that strike you as odd?” Mike kept his voice down, even though the diesel engine roar drowned almost everything.

Rich went still. Only when they reached the door of the officers’ quarters did he murmur, “Very odd. Oddly odd. Not impossible, but strange yes.”

Mike waited until the shield-spell on the building recognized them, then opened the door. He stepped in, closed the door, and called, “Mongoose on the loose,” before setting Rich on the dirt-grey, industrial tile floor. Two doors closed, one rather firmly, before Rich touched down. The white-tailed mongoose raced back and forth across the hall, then darted forward, froze, raced back, skittered the turn, and zoomed ahead once more. Rich slid to a stop just shy of the door of their room. He not-bounced until Mike lowered the shield, then opened the door. Every magic user stationed here shielded his quarters.

Once inside, Mike set his cover in the appropriate spot, sagged into the chair at the desk, and sighed. “So, which instructor should I contact?” I think I know who the Rabbi-Major meant, but he’s not here and not current. Maybe. And he’d probably be either asleep or clubbing.

Rich went still. “You know, Defender.”

“I do, and I do not like pestering him.” For several reasons, starting with the clearance problem. Although, he’d been less than surprised to find out that Meister Gruenewald, despite not officially existing, had clearances short of the nuclear launch codes. Not that he’d need them, probably, Mike snorted to himself. The “old lizard” could wreak more than enough mayhem without stooping to mere nuclear fission. “This is a good reason, since we can’t scry what we need to know, but I do not like involving him.”

Tik-Tik stared at him with dilated eyes. “Defender. Take what he offers.” The weight in his Familiar’s voice made Mike’s hair stand up and salute. “This evening. Call him and ask.”

Mike bowed his head. Non nobis, Domine. It was the very unofficial motto of the regiment. He allowed himself to wallow in self-pity for a few seconds, then looked up again. “I will. After we see what we can find via open sources, so we don’t duplicate anything.”

“Good. Good, very good, no copying, don’t make him bored, no lectures, nope.” The mongoose resumed making figure-eights around the legs of the bed and chair. Mike got some water and logged into the computer system. No time like the present.

[snip. There is an absence of data.]

After supper, Mike hung a red and white tag on the door showing that magic would be in progress. Unless the building caught fire, no one should disturb him. Maybe. Tik-Tik sat quietly on the chair as Mike moved his crystal ball from its padded, silk-lined case onto a proper stand, then removed the silk cover. The mongoose eased over enough to allow his mage to sit, then climbed up onto his shoulder. Please, may this not be as bad as I fear, please? Mike drew power from himself and his Familiar, then murmured, “Draconis montis, scutum de monte.” He reached through the ball with his and Tik-Tik’s magic, aiming west into the Black Forest. He felt a stronger magic user “catch” the magic, and shadow power answering his query. He opened his eyes.

The ball turned dark green and black with flecks of silver. The colors swirled. They resolved into a pair of green eyes, so bright green they glowed. The focus pulled back to reveal a lean face with prominent cheekbones. Meister Gruenewald sat back from his own ball. “Guten abend. Was brauchen Sie?” Good evening. What do you need?

A miracle and winning lottery ticket, in that order? “Guten abend, Herr Meister Gruenewald. Ich brauche Information Festung Houshka daruber.” I seek information about fortress Houshka.

The sorcerer of shadow at the other end of the call mouthed something rude in German and possibly Latin. “Warum?” Why?

“Tik-Tik and I have been ordered to attend a diplomatic function at the fortress, sir. The timing and location bother me greatly, but I cannot find anything specific on the open internet or in my files.”

Long, slender fingers that ended in talon-like nails touched tips just below Draku’s face. “You are right to be concerned. One of the two people who disappeared in the peat swamp was a grey sorceress. Cutting through the bog was not on the planned route, per my sources. The lack of bodies?” He shrugged eloquently with one hand, then steepled his fingers once more.

“Yes, sir.” Peat bogs held their secrets very, very well, and confused magic in ways no one could yet explain. “The strange timing and stranger location for sensitive diplomatic negotiations concerns Tik-Tik and me both.”

“Anno. August is not the proper time, and that location—” The sorcerer made a complicated gesture. “Moment mal.” Just a second.

He muted the call and leaned back, speaking to someone. A book appeared. Draku spoke again, then turned back to the ball and unmuted the spell. “Szimon reminds me that no one has been called in to properly cleanse the fortress since just after the Darkness War. I find that strange, since it is now a tourist castle.”

Tik-Tik groaned, then said. “Sir, how much truth is in the legends? Has anyone found traces of a fixed planar breach in the past?”

Draku had opened the book and paged through. He looked up, thin eyebrows drawing down into a sharp V. “No. Because they did not know what to look for, and I have not taken the time. The current owners earn too much from the dark stories and ‘ghosts’ in the castle to desire it to be cleansed. I know that clergy have slipped in and done what they could, especially in the chapel.” He turned another page. “Ah. Look.” He held up the book.

Mage and Familiar leaned closer to see better the drawings. A talon tapped the page. “From the chapel. A left-handed centaur hunting creatures of bane. Or so it has been described. I have doubts. It appears to include a glyph, or did when first drawn.”

Had someone painted over the glyph, or had it been erased? Both? “Assuming that the painting is as drawn, sir, I see why people express curiosity.” That was not the sort of art in most chapels unless it was part of a last judgement or saint’s life. “Am I correct in surmising that, given the chapel’s patron, esoteric practices took place there before the portal to hell appeared?”

The book closed. “Yes. How far back is not known, but the oldest trustworthy sources list the place as one to be shunned by those who follow the right hand path. That dates to what you would call early Bronze Age.”

Tik-Tik fluffed, ears flat against his head, whiskers slicked back along his muzzle. “Thank you, sir. We are warned. Is there anything you suggest we avoid, spell types or activities?”

“Teufel snare,” came the instant answer. “Anything that seeks to draw and drain a magic-user’s power into ground. If things are as I suspect, such will create resonance and intensify the negative energies, not mitigate them. Recall the account of Letters’ encounter with the Wild Hunt?”

Mike scrambled to remember. What did the kid do? I don’t remember him doing any— Duh. He didn’t facepalm, but he wanted to. “Passive defenses, purely defensive spells if possible, and protect any bystanders first.” Don’t feed the animals.

“Gut. Do that. I want a full report should you return.” Draku set the book aside and leaned back once more. “Remember this.” He held up one talon. “No matter what threatens, nothing can damn your soul without you taking the first step. Drag you into a different plane, yes, but not damn you. If the place does indeed conceal a planar breach, you are not strong enough to close it yourself, not after this long. Do what you can, Defender, Tik-Tik, and let me know what you observe, should you be able to do so. God be with you.” The ball swirled dark green and black once more, then returned to its customary soft grey with random silver flecks.

“That does not inspire confidence,” Mike admitted after a minute or two of silence.

Rich remained motionless for another minute. “No,” he admitted. “But better that than the opposite.”

“Point. And it is high summer, and that might weaken any dark power as much as it weakens us.” His voice didn’t sound confident even to his own ears. He eased to his feet. The room wavered for a moment and an ache pulsed between his ears. “Ugh.”

“Food. Put the ball away and eat. Recharge, we need to rest and recharge,” came the chitter in his ear. Mike set the mongoose on the chair, then returned the ball to its case.

“Food.” A fast-food outlet just happened to be close to the 776th’s corner of the base. An outlet open twenty hours a day that served hearty German snacks and meat-in-stuff, not fish or light snacks.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved


Some came from countries that no longer exist, and sold at a Five and Dime near Bremerton’s navy base. The box of a dozen glass ornaments cost fourteen cents. Others began their travel in Romania, made for hard currency export during the depths of the Cold War. Others stem from Australia, Germany, Poland, Santa Fe NM back when it was fun. Others were made by relatives, including my Southern Belle aunt who painted china as well as canvasses. As DadRed observed this year, “We could easily do a second tree.”

Ornaments mark moments in time – gifts when Sib and I were born, Texas-related things when we moved down here, my parents marriage while Dad was in the Navy, special vacations and trips, friends made around the world . . . Sib liked Star Trek, so there’s Bird of Prey that plugged into a light-bulb socket and made shooty noises. I have all the airplane ornaments Hallmark has released thus far. There are cats galore, wildlife in wood, spun glass, fabric, resin, blown-glass . . . We go for colorful, memorable, and “that looks neat!” Theme trees are not a Red family tradition, any generation of it. Sib and Sib-in-Law have cat-resistant ornaments, mostly wood, fabric, resin, and a few made from lab-glass that are carefully secured to the tree. The tree is affixed to the wall, just in case.

The oldest ornaments predate me. They came from Woolworths and Skags. Of the glass birds, only one survives and it now lacks a tail. It had been a swan with a white filament tail tipped in silver. The glass balls have patterns of rough dots and stripes on the outside. The material had once been silver, but is now almost black. They cost ten cents for a dozen, and came from Romania.

The newest ornament? A large blown-glass dragon with a red and white sash across its chest, holding the crest of the city of Krakow. We also have Polish straw ornaments as well, fish and stars and a witch and a few others, all obtained from Poland through a shop in the US.

As Mom and Dad Red finished decorating the tree this year, I polished a solid silver unicorn we got at Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago. Um, a few as in over twenty. (That trip was the last time I ever dressed for style instead of weather. I was cold the entire time.) It goes with the reproduction of the Unicorn in Captivity from the tapestries in the Cloisters Museum. Dragons outnumber unicorns in the family collection, even though unicorns are more liturgically appropriate. The most numerous animal is the cat, then dragon, fox, birds of all kinds, and so on down to a single felt kangaroo and koala. Friends in Australia gave us those one year.

We also have embroidered and beaded figures that hang from the drapes, and all of the Smithsonian carousel animals. Those are far too heavy to hang on the tree, so they hover in front of the windows. Some are in better shape than others, as years and packing problems took their toll. The Nativity scene disappeared when we moved here, and I suspect it was stolen along with other valuables. I have the pewter pocket Nativity that appeared in my dorm room drawer the first Christmas I was in college. I have no idea where it came from, and my parents deny any knowledge. It had not been in the drawer in November, then appeared hidden in with my socks in early December.

Some questions are best not asked. Like “Who ate the cookie?” or “How did you manage to break that?”

Christmas Rose Part Five

After the concert . . .

His and Lucy’s vehicles were the only ones left in the parking area. Jude relaxed even more, lowering his shields and reading the night. What was that? He turned toward south by west, tasting the flavor of the magic.

Craaaaan— Whrrr— Silence. He turned back to the pickup. Lucy undid the hood latch and got out. “Can you help me, please?”

“Ah, yes.” He hefted the heavy steel hood as she put the support in place. She had a little flashlight and peered into the engine. “That’s not good.” The alternator belt had failed.

“No. There’s a spare in the tool box, but I didn’t think to grab the key.” Irritation filled her voice. “And I left my phone on the kitchen table. I remembered it just as I got here.”

He started to reach into the rucksack on the seat of Martha’s car, then stopped. “And mine is at Aunt Martha’s, charging.”

She opened her mouth to say something, then froze, eyes wide. “Oh shit. What’s that? Bad magic!”

Without thinking he turned again. “Yes. In the state forest land on Hunter’s Road.”

“You’re that sensitive?” she breathed.

“I was warned. I need to go, now.” Except that meant leaving her here, in the cold. He hesitated.

“I’m coming with you. I can shield, and if it’s pattern magic, I can help.”

Jude shook his head. “No. If whoever it is summons something, Pasaru and I can’t fight it and protect you.”

Lucy planted her fists on her hips. “Jude Tainuit, I am not staying here. And I’m not helpless, remember?”

Defender, what do I do? The stench of wrongness grew worse, stronger and deeper. “I—”

“I’m not waiting here, she repeated.

Jude thought several unkind things, then nodded. “Come. Pasaru will meet us there. He tracks the scent of the magic.” He unlocked the car door. Lucy ducked in and had the seat belt fastened almost before he could close the door. Jude moved the rucksack to the back, then got in.

He started the engine, and split his senses, seeing both magic and the road. He drove west, toward Hunter Road and the state nature area. As they got closer, the sour feeling grew in intensity. Lucy made a face. He nodded again, then turned onto a long farm driveway. “We stop here. Don’t alert them. No panic,” Jude explained.

Lucy covered her eyes for a moment, then nodded and got out. She closed the door very quietly. “Panic means doing something stupid.” Her eyes unfocused for a few heartbeats. “More stupid. I sense strong intention but weak power right now. Close to coven magic but off center.”

“Yes,” a harsh voice said from above. Jude pulled on the right gauntlet and spun a tiny bit of magic into his right hand. Shoim landed. “Half a dozen, boys, don’t recognize the pattern. Good news—they cleared the leaves away from the fires.”

“Thanks be for small miracles,” Jude said under his breath in the clan’s speech. Lucy twitched. She stared at him with new intensity, then relaxed. Aloud he said, “Pasaru and I will track to the magic and deal with the boys. Shield, please, and be ready to grab overspill.”

She nodded as fast as possible. “Shield, and deal with overspill. Backlash is yours?”

“Yes, if it comes to that.” He’d hurt if it came to that. She could get help if that happens. Lady of Night, please may we not need that. Defender guide my blade if the Great God wills. And please may I not lose my temper. Pasaru did that.

They walked into the woods. “Cut fence,” Jude warned, gesturing toward the strands curling back onto the fencepost. A sound of acknowledgement came from behind him. Shoim hissed something unflattering. The snow-damp leaves made no sound. I don’t hear her steps. He turned his attention back to the magic ahead of them. The flavor grew still more sour and “dirty,” like laundry left too long unwashed in a plastic bag, or spoiled milk on a summer evening. Jude drew magic from Pasaru and from the night.

“Elemental, left side, by the stump” Lucy murmured. He stopped and turned. She turned as well and approached the knee-high, dark shape. She went to one knee and spoke quietly. The shape gestured then disappeared into the soil once more. She stood and returned. “The pattern directs magic down, into the ground. It’s worse down there than up here.” She stuck out her tongue. Blegh.

Without thinking he made the hand-sign for “proceed” and returned to the Hunt. Now he could see glimpses of light, flickers where none should be. Magic swirled ahead, some land power but more raw, untrained, and badly-directed personal power. By the Defender’s blade, what do they think to do? Aside from burn down the forest, that was. He stopped and observed as he drew more power from the flows around them.

Seven shirtless teenaged boys stood around a pattern scratched in the dirt and snow.  Five green and silver candles burned in cheap brass candlesticks. A weak shield surrounded the teens, so they had done one thing properly. Perhaps. As Jude watched, the magic in the outer shield faded, diverted to the primary spell.

Should he reach under and push the magic out of the soil, forcing it back in a way that would startle and disrupt the boys’ work? Or interrupt, break the pattern, and let Pasaru rip them apart with his tongue? The magic shimmered, grey and black overwhelming green.

“That’s not smart,” Pasaru whispered.

“No,” Lucy breathed. “They seek to summon money. They attract something else. The glyph miwali needs a limit mark.” The faint whiff of fear around her decided Jude.

“I end this. Shield and be ready,” he ordered. He cast a heavy shadow illusion around himself and Shoim, and stepped into the clearing. As he did, he punched through the remains of the outer shield and broke the summoning part of the spell. “What do you?”

Six of the seven jumped and stared. The spell wavered. The seventh boy chanted, “Almost there, almost there, I feel it moving to us!”

Jude undercut whatever answered. The magic recoiled and snapped back. Three boys yelped. He grabbed the backlash before it more than stung the fools. Pasaru hissed, “You know nothing of proper magic, fools and thieves the lot of you.”

“But, but,” one of the smaller boys said, eyes wide. “It’s not theft if you summon the money. It comes from a different plane.”

Lucy stomped up beside Jude, arms folded. “That’s pure bullshit,” she declared. “Everything returns three-fold, good and ill. You steal. And if you are trying to use a spell from Wizard of the West, you steal twice over as well as being dumber than a flock of spooked sheep.” Contempt oozed from her words. “And you didn’t read to the end of the book, where it clearly says that none of the spells will work. Where are your shields?” He felt her sending magic out as a shield around the pattern spell.

The most powerful magic worker, a redhead almost as tall as Jude, spluttered, “We had one, and there’s nothing that bad out here! Who the hell are you, anyway?”

Jude bared his teeth and stepped closer. He cast a small illusion, making Pasaru’s eyes and talons glow crimson and silver against the shadow behind them. “We are land workers sworn to the light. You profane this season with your greed.” He sent power into the pattern, then down, cupping his left hand as he caught the sour and twisting magic. He lifted it, making it visible as writhing red-eyed worms and vipers.

“Enough of this.” Jude shattered and cleansed the remains. Lucy shielded the boys from any overspill, smoothing it then passing it to Jude.

“We also know better than to attract creatures that eat magic users,” Pasaru snarled. “There bad things out here. Things that will make you piss yourself with terror. Then the beasts will play with you before consuming you. Slowly. Things like that,” he gestured with one wingtip.

Jude cast a third illusion, this one in the shape of one of the abyssal slime beasts he’d dealt with. A black spot turned into a maw as the green-purple foulness oozed over the forest floor, scorching the ground with its evil presence.

One of the boys swayed, then sat hard, about to faint. Jude dismissed the spell. “Douse the flames, take your candles, and go. Now.”

“And put on your shirts. That’s not how you do skyclad, and what you’re flashing won’t impress anyone.” Lucy snorted. “Trey, do your parents know that you’re out of the house tonight?”

The redhead smelled of panic and building fear. “Uh, uh, don’t tell them please! I promise I won’t do this again if you don’t tell them. I’ll be grounded for life.”

“If you’re lucky,” she replied. “Geh weg.” Scram.

The teens did as commanded. Lucy checked each candle in turn, making completely certain that the wicks stayed cold. The redhead found a stick and tore up the pattern as Jude glared at him. “Who cut the fence?”

Four boys pointed at the smallest teen, who shook his head. “Wasn’t me! And anyway, only two strands were still good when we—”

Shoim hissed.

“Taking after your Strohfus cousins, I see,” Lucy said. The temperature around them dropped several degrees from the ice in her voice. “Who will be in the county jail for six more months, might I remind you?”

“And whose father may spend several years in the state prison for cattle theft,” Jude added. “Find a better role model.”

Lucy and Shoim both pointed back to the east. The boys slunk away. Jude shadowed them far enough to make certain that they got to the edge of the woods, then returned. Lucy had scraped away the last bits of pattern. “The earth Elementals say thank you.” She glowered at the dirt, grumbling, “And they used oil pastel instead of proper chalk. Donnerwetter, what do they teach them in school?”

Jude reached out, seeking any hint of rot left in the soil. “Not common sense, that I am sure of.” Not rot, but something else bubbled up behind them. Lucy gasped. He spun around.

Ave Doamni Noxi,” Shoim whispered. Hail, oh Lady of Night.

“Jude?” Lucy held one trembling hand out ahead of her, not quite pointing. A soft red glow appeared on the ground, then grew taller, supported by green the color of all good and growing things. Magic flowed around them, wild and strong, heavy with mystery. The flower, now almost knee high, shimmered and began unfolding. He dropped to one knee. Beside him, Lucy did the same. “Es ist ein Rose entsprungen,” she breathed. Lo how a rose er’ blooming.

O Rose Mystica,” Shoim whispered. Oh, flower of mystery. The red bud opened, revealing a crimson heart shading to deepest pink with outer petals of purest white and blood red. The emerald green stem and leaves moved back and forth as if touched by a soft breeze, but no air moved in the darkness of the woodlot. Only ancient magic swirled, good, powerful, and fierce.

A second bud appeared beside the first, dark blue dotted with white. Jude’s breath caught as the bud opened, revealing petals the blue of the Lady’s robe, the statue in the clan’s chapel. The white spots shimmered like stars or silver beads for a handful of heartbeats, then deepened to the same beautiful azure as the rest of the petals. Thank You, oh thank You.

The flowers swayed. The scent of finest perfume, warm with spices, filled the hard winter air, then faded. The flowers too faded, disappearing into the darkness. Jude hung his head, eyes closed, locking the memory away in his heart. Then he stood and offered Lucy his free hand.

She accepted it, and he helped her to her feet. Instead of letting go, she moved closer, still holding his hand. “You saw—?” Wonder and hope filled her eyes.

He nodded, as did Shoim. “I did. We did. A true Christmas rose.” He tightened his grip the slightest bit. She leaned toward him.

“Ahem.” Shoim’s cough cut the cold air. “And you are going to see stars, if you are fortunate, when Mr. Hoffman catches you out in the woods at midnight with his daughter.”

Lucy blushed as she let go of Jude’s hand. “Hawk,” Jude began, teeth clenched, “your words are neither needed nor welcome.”

“And it’s not midnight yet, and I don’t have a curfew, Shoim.” Lucy shook one finger at the raptor. “Dad’s not that bad.”

If Shoim had possessed eyebrows, they would have risen with disbelief. “Really.”

Jude looked up at the bare branches and stars. Familiars! “We do need to get back to the car. I told Aunt Martha that the concert would be over at eight, and she’ll start worrying if her vehicle does not return on time.” He gestured toward the road. Lucy nodded and led the way along the deer path.

As they came in sight of the road, Shoim spread his wings a few inches. “You need to recharge, both of you. And it’s not just her vehicle that she’ll worry about, Jude. It’s you.” He began flapping. Jude extended his arm just in time as the harrier took off. “Meet you in town,” he called, then disappeared.

And just how is he going to land, pray tell? Some questions should not be asked aloud. With a grumble about Familiars and manners, Jude opened the car and offered Lucy her choice of snacks. She took the chewy dried fruit bar and a sausage kolache. He had the last kolache and some trail mix. Once they finished, Jude opened the door for Lucy, then checked the car as he walked around to the driver’s side. The teenagers had not done any damage that he saw. The car started as it should, and he drove to the Hoffman’s farm and specialty dairy.

As he turned off the road onto the Hoffman’s drive, Lucy shifted in the seat. “Your Familiar’s not exactly normal, is he? For Familiars, I mean.”

Jude took a long breath. “I would like to say that he’s the unhappy exception, but the other Familiars I’ve met share some of his, um, quirks?” Before she could panic, he added, “I’ve only met two others, so it might be just bad luck on my part.”

As he hoped, she giggled as she opened the door and got out. He followed her to the three-story wood and stone farmhouse. He waited at the foot of the front porch steps as she climbed them. The front door opened, and a large paternal figure loomed in the light of the doorway.

“Dad, the pickup died. Jude brought me home when we couldn’t get it started again. Straight home,” she added quickly. “I think it was the alternator, and I don’t have a toolbox key.”

“And your phone is here, on the kitchen table,” her father said, looking over Lucy to Jude. “And your phone?”

“I left it with Aunt Martha, sir.” He does not look pleased with either of us.

Mr. Hoffman glowered. “Hmm. I’ll get the key and see to the pickup. You will take me to town, yes, Jude?”

There is only one safe answer, I do believe. “Yes, sir.”

[Snip. The pickup is mended]

Mr. Hoffman returned everything to the tool box. Jude got well clear as the farmer climbed into the pickup’s cab and cranked the engine. The engine caught on the second try. Mr. Hoffman rolled down the window. Jude handed him the flashlight back. The older man studied him once more. “I see why Lucy likes you. You’ll do. Have a Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, sir.” Jude backed away, then moved the sedan. The pickup pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Jude parked once more and went to where Shoim perched. “That was interesting.”

“I’ll say. See you at Martha’s house.” Shoim departed, leaving his mage shaking his head. As usual.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

In Hoc Anno Domini

Every year, the Wall Street Journal publishes this editorial in the issue closest to, or on, Christmas Eve. I have a copy, carefully cut out and put away. Christian or no, the warning about other Caesars and the return of darkness still holds.

The opening of the editorial is below:

“When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.

Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.

But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression—for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?

Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.

So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.”

For the rest of the editorial:

Christmas Rose Part Four

Something hides in the weeds . . .

The next morning, Jude pulled on a pair of very heavy work gloves and marched into Martha’s woodlot. He carried a brush-cutting blade, one he’d found in the “odds-n-ends clearance” at the hardware store. It went with the heavy leather arm guards strapped over his jacket. He made his way past the apple and pear orchard and glanced at a few cherry trees he’d discovered recently. The snow had amounted to a bare dusting that already melted from the county blacktop and bare fields. The sun felt almost warm on his shoulders as he picked his way over tree roots and around a stone-lined well. “You need to cover that,” Shoim informed him from overhead.

“Yes, but not today.” First he’d need to clear away the leaves and other things, then see what sort of well it might be. If it were worth cleaning out, then he’d tell Martha so she could add it to the plat maps and they’d use a different sort of cover. He continued on until he reached the southern end of the woodlot, where the nettles and scrub grew thickest. He studied the tangle. “I feel tired already.”

Shoim flapped past. He soared up onto a branch where he could watch. “Don’t push things too hard, Tenebriu. You need physical strength this time of year as well as magical.”

“Agreed.” Jude found what appeared to be the end of the mound of blackberry canes and other brush. “And I’ve not used one of these in my off-side hand for a while.” The brush-cutter was not his sword. He pushed some canes aside with his left arm and set to work. A short time later, he removed his jacket.

The sun reached noon. Jude stopped and eased his back, then shook out both hands. He’d made a path several feet wide through the tangle. In the process he found the remains of a stone wall of some kind. A number of mice flushed from cover as he worked, along with a ground squirrel. Shoim had dined well. “Defender be thanked,” Jude breathed as he stared at what hid behind the tangle and the now-dormant nettles.

Two small stone structures huddled in a brush-choked clearing. Jude eased closer, sniffing hard. “I don’t smell any larger animals.” Someone had made the larger building of fitted dark-grey stone blocks, or so it looked from outside. The door had long rotted away. He pulled a penlight from one of his belt pouches and shone it inside. The builder had included stone shelves. “Oh, a milk house of sorts.” He walked around the outside. No windows interrupted the walls. He nodded. When he leaned in and looked up, he only saw a few little pinpricks of light.

The other building perched over a cellar. This one, made of fist-sized chunks of rock cemented together, had suffered more from the years. It had once boasted a wooden floor. More holes than wood now covered the cellar. “Not today.” Nothing good would come of falling through rotten steps. Thank you, Lady of Night, who guides Her servants to safety. These were not as close to the house as the half-cellar, but looked far more weather-safe.

He switched to seeing magic. Nothing untoward appeared around him. Except . . . “What—?” A faint shimmer, not the warning color of twisted magic, but silvery and emerald green, flowed to the west. He traced it as far as the edge of the property. It vanished deep into the ground. “Pasaru, what see you?” he asked in his own tongue.

“Magic of the light, but different? Not land magic exactly, and not healing magic, but like both?” He sounded as puzzled as his mage. “I do not remember sensing that before. Where does it start?”

Jude pointed with the blade. “Under that ferocious heap of thorns and wickedness. Which I am not venturing to trim right now.” His shoulders ached, as did his back. “Now I remember why my uncles pooled their silver and bought a machine to fight vines and bushes.” Were this not so far from the road, I’d rent one and deal with that. But not today. And the stone wall might cause problems for a machine, should it eat one of the rocks.

“Might not be a bad idea. Oh, and I need some of the flat wooden things you use to mount trophies on.” Shoim took to the air, climbing out of calling range before his mage could do more than blink.

Jude shrugged and returned to where he’d left the sheath for the brush cutter and his jacket. Half a dozen mouse heads in a tidy row stared up at him from beside his jacket sleeve. Familiars.

The moment he returned to the house, Martha ordered him to take her car to the concert. “Lucinda is picking me up and bringing me home,” she told him. “No one knows when we’ll finish, so this is better for both of us.” As he opened his mouth to argue, she added, “And you will take the car to work tomorrow, and pick up my grocery order. And put gas in the car.”

Bauxite wandered into the kitchen.”Mrow?” She brushed Martha’s leg with her tail.

“And get cat treats, please. I forgot to add those to the list last week.” Martha leaned over and petted the cat.

I lost this fight before it began. “Cat treats. Yes, ma’am.” He retreated to the guest room to take a shower. Truly, the hot water heater was one of the Great God’s blessings to mankind! Hot water cured many of the world’s ills, at least for a short while. Dinner waited when he emerged, along with hot cocoa. “I’m working on Thursday, but in the afternoon.”

Martha slid a pan of something into the oven. “Good to know.” She straightened up and set the timer. “Oh, and I have an order with Mr. Heinz to pick up on Friday.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He dug into the last of the potato soup from Sunday. A toasted cheese sandwich waited as well. She’d used up the last of the loaf and some cheese of Uncertain Age. It had been something pale and tart, more tart than she preferred. He liked it, but couldn’t recall the name.

She sat across from him, a glass of water in her hand. “I’m sorry I can’t come to your concert.”

He blinked. “Ah, thank you. I know the quilting party has been scheduled for several months.” And if you don’t go, the other ladies will be very worried about you. For a week or so, it seemed as if every time he turned around, someone inquired about her health and if she needed anything. He’d been surprised and a little uncomfortable. His people did not discuss illness so much.

“Still, I want to hear you. Sean sang a little, mostly Irish songs and some military things.” She sounded wistful as she gazed past him, eyes unfocused. “And hymns at church, of course.”

“Of course.” He ate more, filling the empty space inside.

She drank half her water, then leaned over and pulled the To Do list pad closer. “So, cake done, sausage thawing, beans put on to soak, cheese grated,” she checked the items off. “Willa’s husband will drop something off at the bakery tomorrow, she called to tell me.”

“Apple butter?” he teased.

She smiled back, shaking the pen at him.

“I’m going to wait near the state forest land,” Shoim said as Jude got ready to depart. “I’ll meet you back here. I’m— I don’t quite know what.”

One of them needed to watch, if the Elemental’s concerns bore out. “Fr. Antonio knows I might have to leave.” He hesitated, then said, “I’ll keep my shields lower, so I can sense things more easily.”

The harrier made a noncommittal sound. “Be careful. Things are prowling.” He stared into the darkness. “Nothing for us to touch, yet, but . . .” His voice faded.

“Anno.” There was a reason why the Hunters remained alert and wary during the darkest days of the year.

He found a place well away from the main doors of the Verein building that evening. He parked beside Lucy’s farm pickup, backing as she had so that he could leave quickly if he had to. Lights shone gold and white from the three rows of windows. A swag of evergreen and holly framed the gleaming wood and brass doors. The stone and brick building dated to the 1880s, when a new wave of Germans arrived in the area, chased out of their homes by Bismarck’s persecution of Catholics. The sturdy brick building had hosted music events, dancing, a Turnverein gymnastics and fitness club, and more social and political gatherings than anyone could remember. Well, he admitted as he tugged his jacket straighter, Mrs. Katarina Schmidt probably knew. One of the ladies at the library had whispered to a colleague that Lucy’s great aunt had led the county heritage society since just after the Flood. He smiled at the idea, then took a deep breath and went into the building.

Jude followed the sound of voices to the smaller of the two ground-floor meeting spaces. Kyle, Lucy, Fr. Antonio, and Barbara stood off to the side. He hesitated, counting doors. One on each side of the room, the main door, and two of the windows appeared low enough to allow a safe departure, if they could be opened. He relaxed a feather’s thickness. He stayed close to the wall, skirting the rows of padded metal chairs set out for the listeners.

The others seemed to be studying a phone with varying expressions of dismay and amusement. “All I can say is that it is a highly skilled execution of a truly tasteless idea,” Fr. Antonio stated. He straightened up. “I keep thinking that the ugly holiday sweaters have reached their low point, and every year someone proves me wrong.” He nodded to Jude. “Snacks are in the room there.”

“At least it’s not sacrilegious this year, sir,” Barbara said. “Maybe. What do you think, Jude?”

He came closer and peered at Kyle’s phone. “Ah, that it’s ecumenical?” Someone had hand-knitted and embroidered a sweater showing the Maccabees pelting dying Greek soldiers with dreidels. What seemed to be alternating menorahs and pancakes framed the scene. Large, sequin-studded oil jars made up the sleeve patterns. He straightened up. “I hope no one makes a quilt pattern of that.”

Groans and chuckles greeted his words. Lucy hid her mouth as she giggled, then smiled. “Aren’t you glad that Mrs. O’Neil doesn’t do art quilts?”

“Very much so!” He smiled back.

As more choir members crowded around the proffered phone, Jude and Lucy helped Fr. Antonio hand out the music folders. Soon everyone had arrived. They warmed up, then got out of the way of arriving guests. Jude made himself relax. So many people in one space disagreed with him. Four carried shields, and one toward the back should have been shielded. Lucy started to say something, then stared, blinking hard. “Ah, now I understand Fr. Antonio’s concern.”

Jude tried not to stare. Two ladies wearing flashing Christmas-light necklaces sat side-by-side. Neither necklace blinked in sync with the other. “Yes.” He averted his eyes.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Christmas Rose Part Three

A busy day at work and after.

Once Martha retired for the night, Jude banked the fire in the woodstove, then went out into the darkness. “Nothing moves yet,” Shoim informed him from his new perch. Jude had added perches to both ends of the shed, painted to blend in with the older wood and metal. Now the harrier had a sheltered place to loiter or overnight closer to his mage, and vice versa.

“For which I give thanks,” Jude replied in his own tongue. He looked up. Thin clouds muted all but the brightest of stars, and Venus. Mars glowered down from beside the Bull’s eye, two red points behind the veil. His people did not look to the stars for omens, but still . . . “I’ve been studying how to work magic around Elementals, should the need arise.”

“Good.” The nearly invisible harrier rustled. His black and dark brown feathers and black-gold eyes blended into the night. “I wonder if it is related to what Veronica mentioned, the boys who tried to observe the coven’s last practice session.”

Hmmm. I’d not thought of that. He went to the gate and shifted to seeing magic, just watching and feeling the flows of power that coursed through the night. Closer to town, he sensed the coven weaving their solstice spells. He did not pry. He turned his attention to the magic closer at hand. Land power had slowed with the cold and longer nights, but shadow power more than filled the void. He pulled a little magic from night itself and played with a ball of shadow, bouncing it in his crippled hand. “I hope you are wrong and fear you might be right.” He allowed himself a sigh. “At least abyssal summonings are usually predictable and easy to find, most of the time.”

The harsh sound of Shoim’s chuckle floated from the south end of the shed. “Indeed. May any problems be weak and easy to deal with.”

“From your beak to the Great God’s ear,” Jude replied. “I’m a little surprised that the coven didn’t want us to attend tonight’s working.” The coven leader, Veronica, had expressed concern that his presence as a shadow worker might interfere with their power gathering and balancing.

Shoim sniffed. “Lucy objected, but Veronica and Hans overrode her concerns. I wonder if the coven will be looking for a new buffer soon, or if Lucy will find a different coven?”

Jude sent the puff of magic in his hand to his Familiar, then stretched. We should be Hunting this night. But I sense nothing new. “We need to look into the rotten place in the far north. Not tonight.”

“No, because if you think we are strong enough to take that on this close to the turning of the year, you are as stupid as a—” The choice and most unflattering terms that followed sent Jude’s eyebrows rising to his hairline.

“I hope you did not learn those from Rodney.” Master Lestrang’s Familiar had the foulest mouth Jude had heard in many years.

“Of course not. From Tay.” Shoim stuck his beak into the air. “He got two of them from the Dark One, after the Dark One opened that last property tax assessment.”

Which explained a great deal. The guardian was not supposed to be a corrupting influence, but in Master Saldovado’s case, well, leopards did not change their spots so easily. And tax officers had invited invective since . . . The time of Noah’s flood, most likely. Explaining his tardiness if he were not at work by five the next morning would be far more difficult. “Defender be with you on your Hunt.”

“Lady bless.” Shoim shifted a little on his perch, then dozed off.


Ten o’clock came and passed before Jude found a free moment to add Martha O’Neil’s order to the list at the bakery. The week before Christmas threatened to overwhelm the bakery, as usual. Jude made pie and bar crusts, restocked the shelves and display cases in front of the store, helped unload the trucks as best he could, and pulled hot baking sheets from the ovens, then reloaded the ovens. “Carefully timed chaos” Mr. Scharbauer, the master baker and store owner, had called it. Jude slid warm bread loaves into bags, then moved them clear of the counter top so Clare could slide a baking sheet of barely-cool mincemeat hand-pies onto the space.

“Thanks,” she gasped. She stopped for a moment to catch her breath. “I don’t think it was this wild last year!”

“It wasn’t.” Jerry, one of the graduated journeymen, had come back to help with the rush. He shook his head and began easing the hand-pies off the tray. “Mrs. S. says that there are twice as many pie orders this year.”

Jude nodded and started folding boxes for the order of hand pies. “I know I’ve made more crusts. Mincemeat is very popular this year.” So was apple.

Mina appeared in the workroom door. “We’re almost out of bread.” Jude stopped folding and moved the loaves to the cart. He pushed the cart to Mina. She grabbed it. “Thanks!” Cart and coworker hurried out of sight.

By two o’clock, when Mr. Scharbauer paid him for the day’s work, Jude needed real food and time to breathe without the heavy dust-mask. “Thank you. I need you Thursday, but not until noon. Then the usual time on Wednesday and Friday.” As the broad-shouldered, middle-aged baker handed Jude a very heavy looking bag of overdone and broken things, he said, “I think there’s more rush because of being closed on Saturday.”

“That makes sense, sir. I’ll take Aunt Martha’s order home on Friday.”

“I’ll plan on that. Thank you.” Mr. Scharbauer returned to the fray.

Jude changed out of his denim overcoat and heavy dust mask, then departed. What is in here? He stopped beside a dumpster in the alley and peeked into the white paper sack. “Lady bless,” he whispered. There were at least three sausage kolaches, and not overdone ones, either. He glanced left and right, then pulled one from the sack and bit into the bun. He tasted meat as well as bread. Ah, these are the ones with the failed casing. The sausage had spread into the dough. It tasted wonderful, but the customers preferred intact sausages.

Jude slipped the bag into his leather rucksack and eased out of the alley. Since court was in session, the Courthouse Café was staying open all afternoon. He nodded and got a late dinner, then went to St. Boniface Catholic Church. Fr. Antonio would start hearing confessions at three-thirty, with mass at six, then the Christmas concert rehearsal at seven-thirty. On the way, Jude fished his phone out of the bottom of the rucksack and checked on Martha.

“I’m fine. One coughing spell, and don’t you tell anyone who looks like a doctor.” The heat in her voice could have baked every pie he’d made that morning. “The nurse keeps calling and I’m about to tell her to go jump in the river.”

Jude smiled a little, then said, “Your orders are on the list, ma’am.”

“Good. At least one thing went right today.”

Shoim waited at St. Boniface, atop one of the handicapped-parking signs. “Took you long enough,” the melanistic northern harrier grumbled.

“Would you like to visit the bakery and see why I was delayed?” Jude slid the rucksack off one shoulder and retrieved the left falconer’s gauntlet from the bag.

The hawk blinked a few times. “No. I don’t want to be baked into a pie.”

“Well,” a voice from behind Jude said, “you are a black bird.” Jude let Shoim climb onto his wrist before turning to face Father Antonio Manfredi. The broad-shouldered priest smiled a little. “And the bakery seemed a little hectic last week. I suspect it is even busier now.”

“Yes, Father. They will close on Friday afternoon, and there are more out of town orders.” Jude smiled, mindful of his teeth.

The priest made a thoughtful sound, then continued into the church. Jude went into the office first, to leave his tithe before going down to the chapel. Laurence Kupfer, Miss O’Raurk, and two other parishioners already waited. Jude genuflected before sitting well away from the door of the confessional. He rested his arm on the back of the pew, easing Shoim’s weight. “I am glad that you are not larger.” Or a carrion eater.

“I am perfectly sized for my duties,” Shoim stated. “And perfect for blending in at night, and for Hunting abyssal creatures and constructs.”

And not cursed with false modesty. In theory, humble and self-effacing Familiars existed. The small sample Jude had met in person did not fit that description.

That evening, following mass, the choir met. Lucy Hoffman, Kyle Traeger, and a dozen others milled around the impromptu rehearsal room. Fr. Antonio had “found” a small electric piano and tucked it into a corner of a large, unused storage room. Jude got his music from the row of black folders and hummed to himself. Shoim perched on the back of a chair. He’d joined in once. Fr. Antonio had stopped rehearsal, borrowed one of Jude’s gauntlets, and he and Shoim had stepped into the hall for a minute or two. Whatever had been said, Shoim behaved after that, more or less.

“Do any Familiars actually sing?” Kyle asked as they got into position.

Jude tried to recall. “I think one? Yes, one in Riverton, or so I’m told. I don’t know about others.” The topic had come up after a lesson, when Rodney and Shoim decided to try “Don’t Fear the Reaper” as a duet. Alas, noise-blocking spells don’t work on Familiars!

Fr. Antonio played a chord on the little piano. Conversation turned into singing. After the warm-up, the priest smiled. “Concert order for tomorrow. ‘Veni Emmanuel,’ then ‘Angel Carol, Es ist ein Rose, In Dulce Jubilo, Riu Riu Chiu, O Holy Night and no, sopranos, we are not adding the optional descant.” Everyone smiled as the ladies nodded with enthusiasm. “Then ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Reindeer Rag,” he sighed and shook his head a little, “and finally ‘Behold a Star’. No matter what Mrs. O’Raurk says, we are not doing The Twelfth Night carol.”

“We’re still in Advent, no matter what the DJs think,” one of the altos muttered darkly. Jude nodded, even though he didn’t listen to the radio. He’d heard grumbles.

“Exactly. So.” Fr. Antonio leaned over and played a note. Jude listened and locked the tone into his ear. “Remember, this is chant. It has no tempo, but you still need to watch me, please.” He glanced at the music on his stand, then looked up again and gestured. The basses and baritones began the ancient plea for the coming of a savior. The women came in on the second verse, “Veni veni O Oriens.”

There would be two solos as well, but they only rehearsed the choral pieces. After just over an hour, Fr. Antonio dismissed them. “Please be at the Verein building as close to six-thirty tomorrow as you can. There will be some snacks in case you don’t get time to eat between work and warm up.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “And no flashing Christmas light necklaces or sweaters, please?”

Two of the tenors studied the ceiling and the alto beside Lucy pretended to be disappointed. Jude rolled his eyes. And to think he’d assumed the “singing” Christmas kittens sweater had reached the nadir of taste!

Fr. Antonio caught him and Shoim as the others departed. “Do you have a moment?”

“Yes, Father.” Jude finished putting the folders in a travel box, then waited.

“I’ll be blunt. I don’t like the rumor I’m hearing about some teenagers trying to work grey magic.” Fr. Antonio folded his arms. “Laurence Kupfer said that he thought someone tried to watch the coven’s working, but couldn’t see clearly through the layers of shields.”

Only being in the church kept Jude from saying what he wanted to. “Father, that matches what I’ve heard. And an Elemental asked Shoim and me to cleanse a bit of state hunting land, if something happened there. The earth Elementals are usually quiet this time of year.”

“Hmm.” The priest narrowed his eyes and glanced to the side. “Good to know. I’m used to warmer climates, or much colder.” He met Jude’s eyes again, then Shoim’s. “Call me if you need more than magical cleansing. There are times when even strong healing shadow magic is not sufficient.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll do that,” Shoim said.

The priest relaxed and started to turn toward the door. “Oh, you might be interested to know that Julian Wegner has been asking about spiritual instruction.” He raised one thick grey eyebrow.

“Thanks be to God,” Jude whispered. “That— Thank you for telling us. We’d been worried.” He closed his eyes. Thank you, Great God, Lady of Night, thank You.

Shoim nodded so fast his beak blurred. “Please may he continue on this path.”

“Amen. Now go, so I can lock up and see if Bishop Carmichael is speaking to anyone yet. He’s rather distressed that Notre Dame will not be in any bowl games.” Mischief sparkled for a moment.

And Army is. Master Lestrang had been gloating that both of “his teams” would be advancing. “Yes, Father.” Jude departed. He made sure that the door had locked behind him.

 A few flakes of snow trickled down from the low clouds, a token reminder of the time of year. The forecast called for no more than an inch or two, meaning he’d arise to find a foot of fluff covering the world, probably. “Was there ever a time when weather forecasters were usually correct?”

Shoim shifted a little on his right hand. “Tay says they were, back before the mess with the serpent in the garden. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.” Before Jude finished boggling, Shoim added, “Don’t believe Tay. He also swears he was at a Rolling Stones concert and nowhere near the garden when everything happened.”

Don’t believe that Tay is that old, or don’t believe that Tay had nothing to do with Adam’s fall? He spend the rest of the walk back to Martha’s farm sorting out Shoim’s meaning. “Were it Rodney, I’d assume he had been involved in some way,” he said at last.

“Ummm. I plead the fifth amendment.” They’d reached the gate. Jude lowered the shields, and cast a little bit of shadow on the south-facing perch. Shoim launched, then landed as Jude opened the gate and entered the farmyard. “The Lady be with you.”

“Defender guide your Hunt.”  

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved