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


16 thoughts on “Christmas Rose Part Four

  1. Two questions. First, where can you buy the “ecumenical “ sweater? (Grin)

    Second, was the sweater your (inspired) idea, or did you hear about such a sweater?

    The non synchronized blinking Christmas light sweaters in the audience sounds like you have experienced such from the risers.

    Delightful comic relief before the denouement! Is there foreshadowing in the vehicle parking?

  2. I have a dark red and dark green sweater that gets used (occasionally) at Christmas, and am thrilled that neither $SPOUSE nor I have examples of the Ugly Christmas Sweater. I won’t ask the dreidel-familiar relatives about their wardrobes.

    I found one quasi-typo today: “As more choir members crowed around the proffered phone, ” Crowded.

    Merry Christmas and/or Happy Hanukkah!

    • I was tempted by the Sabaton gift-wrapped tank T-shirt this year, but they sold out before I could make up my mind. On “ugly Christmas sweater” day, I wore a goth-Christmas skirt and waistcoat (dark green holly on a black background). Fr. Martial looked patient as I passed. *Shrugs* I’m a rebel.

    • I was told by $SPOUSE that said sweater Is Not Fitting for the visit with neighbors (“Old fashioned”, says She.) Tuesday’s weather forecast is far too interesting for my taste, so I’ll be doing the weekly market run on Boxing Day. Said sweater might make an appearance. 🙂

      I like it, even if it’s old enough to buy liquor!

  3. In one of Harry Turtledove’s Videssos books, one character, who hated the main character, wore a sicking green outfit to the Main Character’s wedding. 😈

    I wonder how many ugly outfits are worn to get a reaction from people who see the outfits. 😉

    • Be latke to the party and you’ll get greased. 🙂

      Rather long day, and feeling way off kiter. Very nice snippet.

Comments are closed.