Tuesday Tidbit: Preparing for Trouble

In which our protagonists contemplate the mayhem waiting in St. Margaret of Scotland. . . .

Monday evening, André returned Deborah’s phone. “The next time, it will be permanent.”

She gulped. “Yes, sir.”

“However, you are not getting the minivan keys back. Because it is going to be replaced.” He wrinkled his nose. “I can’t find parts for the engine that don’t cost more than the thing’s worth, and that’s wholesale. And I’m not dropping the engine and replacing it with a racing engine.”

Confusion surrounded Deborah like a cloud. “Who—? Wait, Hi wanted to do that?” Her voice went up at least an octave. “Race the minivan?”

Lelia flapped the dishtowel at her husband’s Familiar, who briefly sported a faint halo illusion. “Yes. Egged on by a certain Familiar who is not a lemur.”

“Yeah. I wanted him to cut the top off and turn it into a Vannagan or a camper van so I could go to that safari park in Ohio,” Tay grumped.

Confusion flipped to a horror. Deborah made warding-off gestures from at least two different cultures. Lelia felt inclined to agree. The prospect of Tay and Rodney on a road trip . . .

“Ahem,” André gave all of them a sour look. He began counting on his fingers. “Deborah, do not abuse the phone. I will take you to school, or your mother will. As soon as your mother knows her schedule, she will see about picking you up, or you will need to carpool. We’ll cover gas for carpool.” After four he stopped, looked up through his forelock at the ceiling, then remembered. “Oh, yes. The minivan will be replaced with something used, safe, and dull.” He pushed the forelock back out of the way.

Deborah and both Familiars drooped. “Hey, I bet we can find a sports car in primer. That’s a dull finish!” Rodney exclaimed. He and Tay raced from the kitchen, no doubt intent on mayhem. Deborah followed. Her parents sighed.

Lelia gave her husband a sympathetic look. “I’d suggest swapping them for Rosie, plus their food to make up the weight difference, but the Jones know them already.”

“Dark my lady, I fear every magic worker on the planet knows of them, and gives thanks to whichever deity they do or don’t follow that they are not us.” André held up one finger. “Except Mike. He’d offer to trade.”

It was her turn to make warding-off gestures. He gave her an evil smile, then followed the others into the living room. As she started heating water for tea and getting popcorn-making things assembled, she heard his voice. “I have no problem with that sports car. No, the second one, with the custom flame paintjob.”

“But boss, it doesn’t have an engine, and it’s not for sale!” Rodney’s protest echoed down the hallway.

“Which is why I have no problem with it.”

And the rental agreement doesn’t allow lawn ornaments in public view. Why someone would want lawn ornaments not in public view had always puzzled Lelia, but she shrugged and measured oil into the popcorn pan. There was always “that one guy” or gal.

André took Deborah to school the next morning. “You are going to sleep in,” he’d told Lelia the night before. “I’m serious. Because I’m not going in to Fernandez Auto-Mods until after ten on Wednesday, so you will have to take Deborah to school that morning.”

Love, you are working too hard. After so long, she’d stopped trying to persuade him to slow down. “Yes, dear.”

“You agreed without protest. I should be worried.” She’d kissed him, ending the discussion.

Now Lelia hunted through the big freezer in the garage, looking for aging meat and anything with freezer burn. “What? Mystery meat soup it is.” She straightened up, a package of meatus unknownius in one hand and a large freezer bag of veggie blend in the other. The mixed chopped vegetables dated to fall, three years before. “You thought you’d hidden yourself, but I win,” she informed the package as she bore it in triumph into the kitchen.

“Normal people don’t talk to frozen food,” Tay observed from the hall doorway. She gave him a firm look. “As I said.” She shook the paper-wrapped chub at him.

The mystery meat proved to be sausage. She added a hand-full of rice to the soup, stirred it, then retreated to the living room to look for a book. “Tay, do you remember if André’s book about finding spell elements is in the locked case or in with the others?”

“No, yes.” She glared over her shoulder at his nest, and the lemur tail dangling over the edge of his nest. “Meaning no, it is in the general case now. He moved it once both Mrs. Schmidt and Mistress Cimbrissa said Deborah needed to know how to identify and locate spell-associated injuries.” He moved, or at least the silvery-white tail moved. “Not my fault if my mage is imprecise.”

“Thanks, Delphic oracle,” she muttered as she hunted through the titles, tomes, and pamphlets until she found the correct book. The black spine stood out from among the green and light-brown herbals and plant books. Lelia pulled it off the shelf and set it on the couch. She went back to the kitchen to get some water before she settled in to read.

She skimmed the introduction and the usual warnings and cautions. “Right, as if we ever have time for that.” Setting up a full circle, shielded, and wards, and a pattern to warn off Elementals if needed? Maybe Kit had the resources and time, since he tended to work after the excitement was over. Mages in general, shadow mages in particular, did everything on the fly, or so it felt. “Probably just as well.”

Tay climbed down the carpeted lemur tree and sashayed over to the couch. She felt orange eyes staring up at her. “What’s just as well?” he asked before jumping onto the couch to flop against her.

“Not getting the time to think and prepare before we tackle trouble, most of the time.” She turned a few pages, then drank a third of her water. “This bit is about how to shield so that it won’t interfere with looking for evidence of spells.”

Her Familiar wiggled a little, then sighed. “You do think and prepare, just not the way she’s writing about. You and Shadow are always thinking about ‘what if someone attacks now? What if she is a shoplifter? What if Pisicagheara needs back-up?’ It’s just not surface-level anymore. Do you consciously find all the doors in a club or store?”

“No, I just do. You never know.” They’d had to use the last-ditch exit at Two Bats once, and she’d fled the grocery store out the back once, when that gal pepper-sprayed, then attacked the checker she thought had stolen her husband. “But point acknowledged.”

Two chapters later, just before she threw the book down on the cushion on frustration, Lelia found what she needed. “OK, here we go.” She read under her breath, then stopped. “So, in Lelia-English, since I know what Beaker and Spots, Shadow, and I already did, and since we were the only ones casting spells that had effects inside St. Margaret’s, Shadow and I should be able to sift out things that taste like shadow-magic. Anything else is what we’re looking for, since Beaker will be with us, and he can identify his own work.”

Tay nodded. “Right. You know Spots’ magic as well. Pisicagheara will probably be more help than Beaker. Beaker, well,” the silver-bleached round ears twitched, and Tay sniffed. “Yeah. He’s not used to excluding spells. He can tune them out once he identifies things, but if things are as messy magically as Shadow is thinking, Beaker will miss subtle, even blood-path subtle.”

“And blood-path can be subtle. It’s usually not, but it can be.” I don’t want to have to track down a subtle blood-path worker. I’m not that patient. She leaned forward and tapped the wood of the coffee table, just in case. Then she turned back a few pages. “This spell,” she tapped it, then turned the book so Tay could read. “Can Pisicagheara use the touchstone even if Shadow or I’m working this one?”

Tay nodded vigorously. “Oh yeah. That’s usually how it’s done, with the Hunters. Raabe and Imperotessa are working magic through either Pisicagheara or the Senior Hunter, or another clan magic worker is doing her thing, while the Hunters use a touchstone to confirm what needs to be dealt with. Outside spells don’t effect the touchstone unless they are being used against the stone’s owner. Owners in this case.”

“That makes sense. The stone can’t hold magic, because Labradorite leaks too badly, and the mount is silver shielded with silk, and kept in silk.” She’d never seen the Senior Hunter use the touchstone, but she’d never Hunted with him alone, only with Arthur as well as Arthur’s brother. She nodded, then went back to her earlier place, and finished the chapter, and the next. “OK, I think I know what to do, besides supporting Shadow and Pisicagheara, and trying to keep Rodney from tracking ash all over the pickup, if there’s still ash in the church.”

Tay leaned away from her, orange eyes wide, and pointed at his chest with one paw. “Are you insinuating that my associate would deliberately track something onto a black fabric interior?”

“Insinuate? No.” She stood and set the book on the coffee table. “Observe, remember, and anticipate? Oh heck yes.”

“Um, yeah. And this is Rodney, so he’ll probably get his brush full of ashes, too.” Tay sounded resigned. “Rich would just roll in everything and leave paw prints on the ceiling beams.”

Do I hear envy? La, la, la don’t even think about it! Too late—she had a momentary vision of Tay cavorting in the Gothic arches and beams of the ceiling. She took her glass to the kitchen for a refill, and so she could stir the soup. She added a small dollop of minced garlic, then girded her loins and armed herself to scrub bathrooms.

That night, André helped her into the pickup. “I told Deborah that if we’re not back by ten, she’d better be in bed when we do get home.” He made certain that they had both recharge bags, plus the truck bag, then closed the door. “She was working on geometry proofs.”

Lelia made a face, tongue stuck out, nose squnched up. “Ick. That’s when I bailed out on school.” Granted, the cultural flip from Catholic to hard-core Protestant hadn’t helped matters. She’d gotten her GED later, as part of her probation terms.

Her husband gave her a patient look, then turned his attention to driving. Their Familiars stayed quiet. Riverton had suffered a wave of stupid-driver syndrome, setting André on edge. Was it something in the air, or the surge in road construction causing people to stress out and act like idiots behind the wheel? Yes? Well, parking had never been something Riverton possessed in surplus, so that didn’t count.

They circled St. Margaret of Scotland twice before Kit Wilmington moved a barricade for them. They parked next to his official vehicle. A large pickup festooned with scratches, at least four custom tool-boxes, and a paint job that screamed “I’m a work truck!” lurked off to the side. André parked, then peered left and right. “I wonder where your boss—” 

“Ahem.” Lelia tipped her head to the side. Arthur materialized from a patch of shadow. He was dressed for a Hunt, as were she and André. Arthur moved without making a sound, flowing from shadow to darkness to concealment. Some day he’s going to do that, and I’ll have a heart attack. Then he’ll be sorry. Or be furious if she keeled over between October fifteenth and Christmas and left him to deal with the holiday rush. She got out of the truck, collected Tay and the two main recharge bags, and followed the men to where Kit stood. André rechecked Rodney’s protective paw covers, then straightened up.

“This way,” Kit said. He led them around the corner.

Merddyn and Rosie waited by the north door. She wore paw covers like Rodney’s. “I have a key,” Merddyn told them. “The support cribbing is up already. That’s all that’s been done, other than removing the largest and most dangerous of the debris once the Fire Marshal and Beaker said it was safe. We,” he petted Rosie’s head, “didn’t sense anything obvious, but we didn’t look, either.”

“That’s not my strength,” Rosie murmured, downcast. “I’m sorry.”

Beaker rubbed his chin. “That you didn’t notice anything is helpful. I’d rather know that we didn’t miss anything and that there wasn’t obvious residue going in.”

Rosie perked up. “Um, it’s been empty, sir.”

Merddyn tipped his ball cap back, then folded his arms. “No Elementals at all. Not even the usual air Elementals that wander in through open doors, or the like. Nothing.”

Lelia glanced to André, then to her boss. Pisicagheara frowned the slightest bit, the only sign of grave concern. Beaker made an interested sound, then nodded and pulled the door open. “If you don’t mind,” he told Wizard and Stripes, “we’d like to look around on our own for a few minutes.”

Wizard shrugged. “We’ll wait for you  to open the door again. It will give us a chance to check some things without overly-curious onlookers.” He sounded patient.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Warding the Shop

Arthur wants some arcane security upgrades before closing for almost a week . . .

“I miss getting up at noon.” Lelia yawned the next morning at a quarter till ten. “And clubbing all night, and having lots of energy, and my knee and hands not aching.” She finished brushing out her hair and frowned at the strands of grey in the brush. “I am too young to have grey hairs.” The silver-white signature of backlash bleaching that ran from eyebrow to split ends did not count, of course. She didn’t like the little wrinkles at the corners of her almond-shaped eyes, either, but she wasn’t as old-looking as some of her former classmates. She emerged from the bathroom, finished her first layer of clothes, and pulled on a “only around the house” dress.

André and Deborah were making an egg dish with lots of herbs, mostly-ripe tomatoes, and cheese. “Really? That’s sooooo dumb,” Deborah sighed and rolled her eyes. “As much garlic as the Hunters eat, there’s no way they can be vampires.”

Lelia coughed to hide a bit of laughter. “No. I’ve seen what we’d call vampires, and neither one bore any resemblance to the hero of that new movie, if that’s what you are discussing.”

“Hi, Mom. Master Tay already ate and I made sure he took his pill. Uncle Rodney ate, too.”

André turned from the stove and sighed as well. “It was a rabbit. A bunny rabbit. Not, however, a domestic one. He was very enthusiastic about dining.”

Oh dear. “Not in the house, I trust.”

“Worse. In the front yard.” He drooped as Deborah made a face. “Just as Mrs. Malone was taking her kids to the park. She does not react well to carnivores when they engage in carnivorey.”

“That would, indeed, be an awkward start to the morning, dear.”

Deborah made another face, then brushed the last bits of grated cheese off her fingers. “As soon as the eggs are done, breakfast will be ready, Mom.”

That night, André arrived early and disappeared into Arthur’s office. Lelia shrugged and resumed entering everything into the ledger. They’d not had a single customer since eight-thirty, and she’d cleaned everything, then moved the most valuable items out of the show windows. She finished adding the last books to the big record, then paged backwards over the past three weeks or so. Yes, steampunk sales really had increased. It wasn’t just her imagination. And more spooky prints as well, which fit the season.

Tay jumped from the floor up onto the counter, mostly. She slid one hand under his rump and heaved his back third onto the surface. “Raj makes it look easy,” he grumbled.

“Raj is built to go from ground to tree-limb without any stops in between. You are built for a more arboreal existence. You can swing. She thuds.”

His round ears twitched and he seemed to be contemplating mischief. Or wondering what the DJ was thinking to play “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” It was dark, just not modern dark, so it totally counted. Tay said, “Beaker called Shadow.”

Dare I ask what he called him? Oh, stop that. She’d been around Familiars too long. “Not Monday night, I trust.”

Tay shook his head, then started studying the underside of his right front paw. “Tuesday, seven thirty PM. Shadow asked if we could bring a friend, one who is used to looking for traces of magical activity and really knows blood-path stuff.” He turned his head almost inverted and locked eyes with her.

“Was that Shadow asking about blood-path, or Beaker?”

“Beaker. He can’t pinpoint blood-path as easily as you and Shadow, or even Defender can.” Tay’s ears resumed their usual topmost position. “He has to draw a lot more out of reserves to sift blood-path from other things, if he’s not working a very fresh scene.”

Lelia hugged herself, rubbing heat back into her arms. “Very fresh. Don’t tell me just how fresh, please. I’m already queasy.”

The alarm on her phone pinged. Ten PM. She turned off the front two rows of lights, then locked the front door and flipped the sign. It now read, “Closed. Come Back Next Thursday. Or Else.” A suspiciously gleeful skeleton in a top hat lounged under the text.

Lelia closed everything down as Tay observed in solitary splendor on the top of the counter. Once she covered the locked, free-standing case with the fine jewelry in it, André appeared in the doorway. “Dark sir?”

“Double shield, keyed to us, and to Pisicagheara. With a temporary tertiary keyed to Pisicagheara alone that lasts only until he reopens the shop.” Shadow frowned. “We’ll need to key them to something we three share.”

Lelia stared at him, then at Rings. Rings tipped his head off kilter again, as puzzled as she was. What did the three of them share? Not keys to the shop, because Shadow didn’t have one. As she mulled, Pisicagheara appeared behind Shadow. Shadow moved out of the Hunter’s path, stepping sideways without thought. Pisicagheara and Ears moved into the shop from the work room.

The Familiars? She and Shadow could draw from each other’s Familiars, and cross-linked to Pisicagheara as well, allowing them to support him if they had to. No, because he can’t draw from the Familiars without us. Can he? She went to stand beside the counter, and Rings. “Rings, can you or Ears support a Hunter without?” She gestured toward Shadow.

His ears returned to the top. His fur fluffed a tiny bit. “I cannot answer that question.”

As in he didn’t know, or as in wasn’t allowed to answer?

Clink, clink, clink.  André had his string of black and gold glass worry beads in his left hand as he leaned on his cane, thinking and puzzling.

“Beads.”

The others stared at her. Lelia pulled her chaplet’s pouch out of her skirt pocket, then removed the blue stone and silver beads from the soft leather bag. “We all carry something from a mentor or—” she nodded to Pisicagheara. Saying “father” felt odd. “That we share in common, besides being goths. Or the belt buckle, and I don’t have that with me.”

Shadow opened his mouth, then closed it. Arthur’s eyebrows drew in with puzzlement, his eyes narrowed, and he frowned, looking off to the side. “Would this change the beads, add or remove anything?” He spoke with no accent at all.

“Ah—” Shadow studied the glass beads in his hand, then turned to face Pisicagheara. “No, sir, it should not. These have no power in them, aside from Draku’s good wishes and a teacher’s blessing. It is the fact that we all carry these, rather than the kind of beads that is important to the spell keys. If I carried a Hunting blade, the way you and Silver do, then we could use that. Or signet rings, which again,” he lifted his left hand. No ring.

“And I don’t wear a waistcoat as often as you do,” Lelia observed. “Shadow needs to take the lead, I think, and we can do a layered double that looks weak from outside. I’ll do the inner layer, and include a drain, to pull even more magic away from any attacker who gets through Shadow’s barrier.”

“Can do, since we’ve got something like that at Brush’s place. And I’ll do the locked layer, with you supporting me, since I’m still closer to sorcery than you are, and it won’t trip alarms with the Clan’s magic users.”

Pisicagheara glowered at Shadow. “I would prefer that it did not.” He folded his arms, studied the floor tiles, then looked up again. “Do this. I do not care for what yet moves in the air when the wind comes from the church.”

If Rings and Ears had possessed eyebrows, they would have risen along with their mages’. Shadow bowed. “Very good, sir. If  you would take, ah, no. Silver, infinity pattern. I am better acquainted with the shop than the workroom. You take the workroom, I stay here. Pisicagheara, please remain in the doorway with Rings and Ears. And hold the beads, please.”

“That I can do. Aught else?” His accent blurred his words.

“No, sir. Be yourself, please.”

Lelia helped Rings down from the counter and started toward the workroom. Pisicagheara flowed out of her path. She handed him her chaplet and inclined her head to him, then continued through the bead curtain and into the workroom. Once there she turned and faced the doorway. Shadow moved as well, and she shifted to sensing magic. She adjusted her position until she and Shadow stood equal distance from Pisicagheara and the Familiars.

“Ready when you are,” Shadow called.

She didn’t answer. Instead she bowed her head. Please, Sir, may I not screw anything up too bad, please? Please help us if You don’t mind. Thanks. Then she drew power from Rings and Ears and the night together, spinning it out and up, making a shell around the shop, lacing it through the ceiling. As she worked she felt Shadow doing the same thing, with a different flavor. His shield “looked” softer and thinner, something a relatively weak sorcerer would make. She tied her spell to the three sets of beads, then added the hidden sting, a tail that led to a “sticky” spot. The sticky spot grounded magic out, into the earth beneath the shop, then out. Someone could shield against it, but they’d have to be looking to see the tail.

She tied the spell to the beads again. If someone got trapped, any of the trio would know it, and Pisicagheara could call for an assist. Or he’ll vent his frustration with the city on the person behind the magic, and ask one of us to wash down the alley to dispose of any remains. If he waited that long. He and Shadow had both disposed of problem individuals more than once, thus far without any questions, fuss, or awkward discoveries by the general public. She pulled a little bag of trail mix out of her belt pouch and devoured it.

As soon as Shadow finished the third spell, she grinned. He’d keyed it to the open sign on the front door, so when Arthur flipped it around, the innermost hard shield would go away. I will need to open, so I can grab the power. She could come into the shop once Arthur unlocked the door, but not until then. That would work.

“Yes, sir,” she heard André saying as she got the recharge bags. “Should a fire or other emergency arise, Lelia or I will know, and we can drop the shields from outside without being present.” Which would be a lot of work, and risk bad backlash, as usual. They lived life on the expert setting.

The men came into the workroom, Familiars dragging along behind. “I have the bag,” Arthur stated, holding the cash bag in one hand. He set it on the closest box, then returned André’s beads. Arthur approached her. He stopped and cupped both sets of blue and silver beads in his hands, head bowed, lips moving. She bent the knee, head down as he prayed. She stayed there until he began to move. “Child,” he murmured, holding out one of two sets of identical beads. She took the chaplet in both hands, bowed a little, and returned them to her pocket. He’d given her back her beads—she knew by touch.

While she and André took care of their Familiars, Arthur opened the cabinets holding more valuable inventory. He removed a bakery-style white box. “Break bread with me?”

“It is our honor as well as our pleasure,” André replied, very formal.

Lelia got water for all three of them, checked the Familiars, and waited as Arthur and André helped themselves. If whatever it is gets cold because they spent too long being all patriarch, I will have uncharitable thoughts at both of th— Oohh! Home-made treats and meat-pies met her gaze, enough to feed a football team, or three magic-using Hunters. She hesitated, then took a meat pie first. Flaky pastry, heavy meat with a tart sauce to counterbalance the meat, and some root vegetable bloomed in her mouth. She ate slowly, letting the guys get ahead of her. Well, slowly for her. They ate two for her one. Arthur frowned, one eyebrow rising, and pointed to a second meat hand pie. His frown remained fixed in place until she had eaten half the wonderful, garlic-rich pie.

When they finally headed for home, she grumbled to André, “He’s never going to stop being a patriarch, is he?”

“Nope. Like me trying to get Mr. Garbage Disposal back there to stop eating everything that moves and some things that never did.” André shrugged. “And he’s right. You have to stop working yourself into collapse.”

Too tired to protest, she yawned and closed her eyes. “I’m glad I’m not working tomorrow or Monday.”

“Amen.”

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

Tuesday Tidbit: The Day After

Another day in the not-so-glamorous life of a mage. The city is closing 24th and turning off water for at least three days. Arthur is Not Amused.

“Well, small favors,” Lelia reminded herself as she walked quickly up the sidewalk along 24th Avenue. The temporary bus diversion wasn’t all that bad, and didn’t require going through the transfer station, for which she gave thanks. She was already tired from helping André after an especially bad nightmare, the worst in a year.

“No one will run you over if you fail to look six ways,” Tay observed. A large flatbed truck with an equally large backhoe on the bed roared past in solitary splendor, exceeding the speed limit as it went. “I retract that statement.”

Several businesses already had “Will be Closed” signs in their windows. Jeremy, the nephew of Louis of All Things Reptile, worked outside the pet store, washing the windows. “Hi Mrs. Lestrang.”

“Good morning. Are you going to have to close next week?”

Jeremy looked left and right, and leaned closer. “Yes. Uncle Louis is really mad, because we have to move all the animals out. We’d scheduled an open house on Saturday, in conjunction with the opening of the new reptile house at the zoo, with guest herpetologists and everything. I thought he was going to collapse, he turned sort of grey when he read the message from the city.”

Oh shit. That really is bad. “That’s terrible! Is there anything Mr. Saldovado and I can do to help you?”

Jeremy went back to washing the glass. “No, thank you though. We found an alternative venue, and were able to rent a space in that space that’s about to be renovated over on 18th. We’re going to start moving terrarria and everything else this afternoon, once the recycling truck finishes its round.”

“I’ll let Mr. Saldovado know. I don’t think we’re expecting an alley delivery. If we can lend a hand, you know where to find us.”

“I’ll let Uncle Louis know.”

Lelia unlocked the front door and sprinted to the workroom to turn off the alarm. She set Tay’s carrier down, then trotted to the front door once again and locked it. “There has to be a better way,” she grumbled for the hundredth time at least. With the lights off, the clothing racks and shelves of books, prints, and other things seemed a little spooky. What might be hiding among the XL shirts? “Oh, stop that,” she growled at herself. “Stop eating cold pizza after midnight.” Which she hadn’t done for decades, but it was the thought that counted.

She turned on the computer, then ducked into the workroom once more. As she’d feared, a very long list of pull orders awaited her. She helped Tay out of his carrier and stowed it, then unlocked Arthur’s office to turn on his computer and the internet radio. As she logged in, the pending playlist appeared on the monitor. “Someone has to be psychic, or they are having road work outside their studio.” The next song plus one was “Curse the Skies” by Darker than Midnight.

She heard the back door chime at ten till ten. Arthur wasn’t due in until noon. Lelia poked her head through the bead curtain. “Good,” he said. “Hold the door open.” She did as commanded. He and Rendor carried five large cartons of books into the work room, followed by two bulging cloth sacks. “Take the counter,” Arthur ordered. “Rendor and I will prepare the book orders. Many came in this morning.”

Many ordered books arrived, or many orders for books? Lelia nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” She nodded to Rendor as well before returning to the front. Tay followed her. “Too busy in the back?”

“I don’t want to get added to a parcel. Your boss is a bit distracted.”

Lelia closed her eyes for a moment. “Should we tell him about the reptile movers coming?” She opened her eyes and unlocked the door, then turned on all the lights.

The lemur tilted his head ninety degrees from upright. “You can. I’ll watch from low Earth orbit.”

The door chime sounded its low, mournful bong and Lelia turned to greet the customer. Mr. Maxwell waved to her. “I want to look at the Black Rose jewelry, and to get my order.”

“Yes, sir.” She found it on the small mountain of bags and parcels looming behind the counter and pulled it for him. Three books, a shirt, and a gears and skull tie-tack, as he had requested. She started to ring up the order.  

The industrial goth found wheat he wanted on the jewelry wall and wended his way to the counter. “Are you going to be closed too, next week?”

“Yes, sir.” She checked the price on the brooch and added it to his order. “At least through Wednesday. Mr. Saldovado thinks perhaps longer. He’s not as optimistic as the street department is.”

Mr. Maxwell made a rude sound as he pulled out his debit card. Lelia turned the card machine toward him, and he slid the card in. As he leaned over to enter his PIN number, his silver Thor’s hammer on a black silk cord swung out, catching her eye. The first time Tay had seen the pendant, he’d almost shed all his fur, he’d laughed so hard. After Mr. Maxwell left, that was. Once again, Lelia wondered if Mr. Maxwell was a Beatles fan, or a neoPagan, or both.

“We’re working late today, then closing starting tomorrow. The owner is not happy, but she’s glad it’s now and not during our rush season. Receipt in the bag. Thanks.” He took his order and hurried out, holding the door for a cluster of inbound customers.

By a quarter to three that afternoon, Lelia’s low back ached, her eyes wanted to cross, and her stomach growled more loudly than did the lion in the Riverton zoo. Customers came in waves, with only the briefest lull between gusts. It seemed as if everyone wanted to know if she’d heard anything about what happened at the church, and if it was a bomb. She’d managed to get almost half the receipts entered into the sales ledger, and kept the orders straight, but that was it. I need to straighten the men’s shirts, and tidy up the prints, and deal with those fingerprints on the fine jewelry case. And eat, and drink some water. All at the same time. Tay had made himself scarce, somewhere. I’d ask where could he hide, but he’d probably drop out of the ceiling tiles yelling “Banzai” or something. Especially the “or something.”

She rang up one more sale. The young lady left, and a moment of quiet filled the shop. Lelia hurriedly straightened shirt collars and sleeves, moving a small back into the proper section. Then she darted to the prints and replaced three sweet prints that had wandered into the spooky section, and put two steampunk images into the proper file.

“Cousin Katoka?” She turned to find Rendor standing beside the counter.

“Yes, sir?”

Dumitra’s husband seemed to study her. He wasn’t as tall as Arthur, and had broader shoulders, but sported the same very dark brown hair and tan complexion. Like the other inactive Hunters, he wore dark colors but not black. “Master Saldovado says that you need to come eat.”

Dumitra appeared behind her husband and waved. “I can work the computer, Katoka. Have done it before.”

Huh? Don’t ask. Arthur had never, ever to her knowledge called in his niece and her husband before. “The orders are by last name, written on the receipt in the bag,” Lelia said. She slid one last print back into its proper home before starting toward the workroom door. “Oh, nuts.” Some of the books were out of order. She stopped and began re-shelving them properly.

“Mistress Lestrang,” a low tenor voice growled. She gulped and beheld Arthur glowering at her. “Come eat. Now.”

“Yes, sir,” she squeaked, slinking past him and into the workroom. She heard a quick, low male conversation in the Clan’s speech before she washed her hands in the tiny restroom. Now that she smelled food, her stomach changed from growling to howling. Arthur returned to the workroom and watched her devour a large bowl of hot pasta-and-sausage salad. Tay had climbed onto the storage shelves and stared from an empty space, almost as intent as her boss. Only after she scraped the last little bit of sauce out of the bowl did the two males relax.

“Tomorrow. Come in after noon, no earlier,” Arthur began. He folded his arms. “You will close. Shadow will come at closing, and you will re-work the shields on both shop and workroom. I do not care for the taste lingering in the air.”

Why not Corava? She didn’t ask. “After noon, and rework the shields later, yes, sir.”

He started to add more. Thump! Thump thump thumpity thump! pounded on the back door. He strode over and opened it as she drew power for shields.  “Help, please,” Jeremy begged. “Uncle Louis looks sick and I can’t get him to stop working and rest.”

“Go with him,” Arthur ordered. “Rendor and I follow. Now.”

Lelia didn’t bother answering, or washing her hands. She grabbed Tay and hurried after Jeremy, ducking into the back of All Things Reptile. “Uncle Louis, Mrs. Lestrang can help hold things for you.”

She blinked and caught herself before she tripped over a terrarium and it’s tightly-coiled contents. “Thank you,” Louis wheezed from an office chair in the corner. “I want to stage things so we can move them quickly from the shop to the trucks. I’m fine,  just need to catch my breath for second.”

“Don’t let him do anything,” Tay whispered into her ear.

“No kidding.” Louis really did look grey, and not just from the odd purple lights. More loudly she said, “Sure, sir. How about I work on the small terrarria, put them in a row over here to make room while Jeremy starts with the larger ones?”

“That works. Don’t over do it, please, Lelia. The glass is heavier than it looks. None of the venomous reptiles are back here yet. Those go in a separate truck, last load.”

“Yes, sir.” Ugh. She helped Tay down and he would his way over to where Louis sat. Tay plunked himself beside the older stop owner, his tail draped over the man’s shoe. Lelia shrugged, then set to work.

Arthur and Rendor appeared not long after. Rendor blanched, gulped, and gave his uncle-by-marriage a nervous glance. Arthur made the hand gesture for “get moving” and went to assist Jeremy. A truck grumbled and beeped as it backed up to the door not five minutes later. Jeremy and the Hunters loaded the truck as Lelia toted sacks of pet food and other harmless things out of the shop and out to where the men could grab them easily.

Louis got up and started trying to help. He wheezed more loudly. He sat hard on the concrete floor, pulling open his collar. Tay fluffed and his tail started thrashing. Lelia called 9-1-1.

“Mom, where are you?” Deborah demanded at six-thirty that evening. The phone showed Krimhilde’s business number.

“On the bus, half-way home. Why?”

“Dad’s working late and Mrs. Schmidt has a late client, a kinda-emergency. Can you come get me, please?”

Lelia started to tip her head back against the grab-bar, then remembered that this bus didn’t have grab-bars behind the seat. “Yes, if the minivan will start.” It had been acting up again. She sympathized with it. “I’ll call this number when I leave the house.”

“Thanks Mom. Love you.” Silence.

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

To Be a Guardian

Familiar Tales readers know that there is a role among the Hunter clans that, at least in River County, has gone unfilled for many years: that of the guardian. The last man to fill that role has been dead almost a century, and the other Hunters know that something’s missing. The Hunters hearth remains cold, never lit. So long as the main hearth burns, it’s not a major concern, but it is a concern. None of the inactive Hunters has felt the call to fill that role, and the priestess has not indicated that a Hunter has an unfilled vocation.

Arthur and the others knew of the role, but he had forgotten about it. He’d never had much to do with the guardian in the southern branch of the Clan, and he’s deliberately forgotten a great deal about that time. It is past and gone. He is Boianti, “born to be a Hunter,” and that is his duty until death. He strives to be nothing more or less. Until . . .

Until he went unwillingly to the Old Land. First, he was permitted to see the Lady’s chapel in the mountain, a place he had never, ever imagined he could behold with his own eyes. Then he learned of the connection between his favored blade and a legendary Hunter of the past. Were that not enough of a boon, the tie between Arthur and his soul’s daughter was recognized and affirmed by the priestess of the oldest line of the Clan, her and the guardian with her. He’d heard of beads blessed by the Lady and Defender both, but to be given a set! Arthur was about to faint in awe by that moment. Then came the Defender’s blessing, and the realization of a new vocation, should he be allowed to take it. He was called to be a guardian. Tay witnessed and confirmed the calling.

The guardian must be an experienced Hunter, one respected by the other Hunters, and one who is an elder. He must have proven that he can provide good counsel as well as being a warrior. He must be devout, and must be a father of two generations. He is generally a sensitive, but not necessarily a magic worker himself. Thus Meister Gruenewald could never be a guardian, because he has no grandchildren, and because he’s not especially devout. (He believes, but his religiosity is his business and none other’s.) Arthur now fits all the requirements. His words have also provided soul’s comfort to two Hunters at least. That’s the seal on his being a potential guardian.

The guardian supports the priestess, and Hunts spiritual as well as other prey. When he is called to a mundane Hunt, it means something very, very serious is in the offing. As in the Terrible Hunt, where Arthur acted as Hunter and as priest. He was Defender to the Lady. Lelia supported him with magic, he took that and with, let us say Special Assistance, Arthur closed the gate and sealed that infernal plane away from ours for the foreseeable future. And then collapsed, because he’s not built to handle that kind of power. Lelia may have kept him alive until other help came when she protected him from hypothermia. He thought so, later, when everyone put the pieces together. Most of the Clan assumed that he’d gotten hit by some of the backlash when the mages did whatever it was they did and everything went rodeo. Arthur, the priestess, and his older sister knew better. His sister could see the change, the new connection between her brother and the mages. And between Arthur and something else.

The elders in the clan want Boianti to stop leading the Hunters. They will never tell him that, or try to order him, because that’s not how it is done. He has not failed in his duties. They worry. He’s the oldest active Hunter, and they can see signs of wear and tear—everyone can. The other elders also worry about his mental state. Boianti will never marry, so he lacks that support and comfort. He has a family, yet he continues to Hunt, while working more than full time. A few of the elders have spoken to the priestess about this. She has watched Boianti, and thus far sees none of the warning signs. Yet.

She also sees the change in his heart, and the possibility set before him. She wants him to take up that call. The priestess knows that the clan is unbalanced. It’s not supposed to be a matriarchy, and the Hunters need a reminder of this, as do the others. The Lady is the handmaid of the Lord, not the primary deity. The priestess also knows that some of the younger Hunters need wise counsel from someone they trust. She can’t do all of her tasks without the guardian being present. He is the balance, the physical side of the Lord’s work. She represents the spiritual side, or so the clans believe.

Until a guardian comes forward, the fire in the Hunters hearth remains cold, and the Hunters are without a spiritual guide who truly understands what they are going through. The clan needs a guardian, be it Arthur or another older Hunter.

Tuesday Tidbit: The Evening After

After-action discussion, with teenager.

“But Moooooom—” Deborah began late that afternoon.

“No. Your father said we are ordering supper in. Pick something and I will call. Order a fancy salad it that’s what your heart’s set on, but no, I am not making a giant salad here tonight.” Lelia glared at her daughter. “We had to deal with bael-fire, regular flames, half a dozen nasty charms, and other things. Pick what you want and change out of your uniform, please.”

“Fine. I want the super chicken salad, with raspberry dressing.” She stomped down the hall as loudly as possible in sock-feet, and slammed her bedroom door.

Lelia considered scolding her daughter. “I’m too tired.” Instead she ordered the salad, plus two extra large meat-n-three plates from Czech Market, along with rolls and desserts. It put a dent in her grocery budget, but she’d make it up the rest of the week. They needed to work through the canned food and what they had on hand anyway.

André picked up the food on his and Rodney’s way home. Lelia met the pickup in the garage, before he closed the door. “In the passenger foot well,” André said. She got the bags, and a drink carrier, and brought them into the kitchen. Deborah sulked as she set the table. She wore mismatched purples and yellow. Lelia shrugged and returned to the pickup. She relieved her husband of the recharge bags and truck supply bag. “Stash them in the utility room,” he ordered. “We’ll reload after supper. Ears and I need food. Now.”

“Yes, sir.” Please may Deborah not push things until he’s eaten. She got plates and sorted out the two big meals from the fancy chicken salad, sliced the bread, and tucked the desserts and milkshakes into the fridge and freezer respectively. André didn’t bother changing out of his work clothes. He and Rodney dragged into the kitchen. Deborah pulled Rodney’s food out of the ‘fridge and set the laden plate of meat chunks behind the kit fox’s dining screen. Tay had been grazing since he got home, so he sat in his high chair and worked on water.

André said grace, and all four diners tore into their food. The hearty sausage with sides helped improve the world, especially after Lelia used the sour black bread to mop up any drops of sauces. Deborah gloomed and munched through more lettuce than would feed a rabbit for a year. Only after André finished cleaning his plate did he look up at anything else. “So. The word is that if the roof doesn’t collapse by tomorrow, it’s probably not going to collapse. The fire marshal hopes. They’ve closed the entire area around St. Margaret’s. St. Andrew’s on Broad Street has agreed to let the congregation use their facilities until things get fixed up enough to at least have mass at St. Margaret’s.” He ran a hand through his sweat-spiked hair. “Beaker’s probably going to contact us. He’s getting statements from all the magic workers. Rumor has it that the sheriff sent him home early, in someone else’s car so he didn’t fall asleep behind the wheel. His wife was working and couldn’t pick him up. Uncle Leopard didn’t need to be driving, either.”

Deborah’s dark, almond-shaped eyes opened wider and wider. She finished her mouthful of salad and wiped dressing off the corner of her mouth. “Crap. Is that what Danny was babbling about, a bomb in some downtown church?”

Lelia shook her head as Tay face-pawed. She said, “Not an explosive bomb like the one they found in the warehouse in Pittsburgh, no, but something caught things in the church on fire, and released bael-fire as well to keep the firemen out until a lot of damage had been done. It took your Dad and I, Uncle Leopard and Kit, Delores Lee, Merddyn Jones and Rosie, one of the covens, and a few others to deal with everything.” She felt tears threatening and swallowed hard. “The organ fell in and burned, so did part of the big rose window. I don’t know what else was lost.”

Her daughter made a silent “O.” Then she gulped and glanced at her dad, then back at her mom. “Um, that’s worse than what Sister Bernadette said. Lots worse.”

“It was bad,” Tay stated. “Very bad. Sensitives felt it several miles away.”

“Master Saldovado was still jumpy when I left this evening. He felt it through the shields on the shop.” Which probably means that Corava and I need to get together, take them down, and rebuild them from scratch. Not tomorrow.  

Deborah gulped. “That—, um, can I text Mrs. Schmidt and ask if she needs help tomorrow? I’ll get my work and stuff done tonight.”

Lelia considered. André caught her eye and nodded. “Yes, you may,” Lelia said, as André pulled his phone out of its holster and entered his access code, then passed it to Deborah. Her thumbs flew and the outgoing message whooshed. She returned the phone to her dad as Lelia stood, took the empty plates, and replaced them with dessert.

Later that evening, André emerged from the shower. Lelia heard kitchen sounds. Just as she finished valiant battle with three buttons on one of her jackets, he appeared. He handed her a milkshake, then sat in his chair. “Mrs. Schmidt will pick Deborah up from school at three. Deborah will miss is part of her second study-hall, but she has all her work done already, and is reading ahead tonight. She being Deborah. I thanked her for offering to help, and I’ll call the early departure in to the school office tomorrow.” He had some of his own milkshake, then leaned his head back against the chair, eyes closed. “I want a piece of the bastard who did that.”

Rodney waited until André set his shake down on the little table beside the chair, then jumped up into his mage’s lap. “You’ll have to get in line, Boss. I’d say at least a third of the magic workers and sensitives want a share, along with the fire department and St. Margaret’s parishioners.” The silvery white kit fox settled. André stroked the Familiar’s short fur, eyes still closed. Tay clambered down from his nest on the lemur-tree in the front window and climbed onto the couch. Lelia relished the thick chocolate shake and waited. At least Rodney murmured, “Talk to me, boss.”

“The bael fire. How did it bring down the organ loft so fast? And why all those charms?”

Lelia shivered. No emotion colored her husband’s voice. He’s going cold, please Lord, keep him from losing it before Deborah goes to bed, please. I don’t want her to see what comes next if he loses it with her around.

Her phone pinged, then pinged twice more in quick succession. “Well, we know it’s not Patrick Lee,” she sighed as she pulled it out from under the folds of mended jacket and checked the screen. “Just as bad.”

“Kit?” Tay asked.

“Arthur. Um,” she peered at the screen, then sounded out the word. “What on— Oh!” She felt her face turning warm. “Ahem. He is a bit out of sorts with the city, or so I would guess.”

Tay bounced on the sofa. “Oh, oh, can I see, pretty please? I like new words.”

“No. You do not need to soil your innocent eyes with this sort of language.” Although he’d probably said worse himself that morning. “And Arthur’s too young to know that sort of term. M. G. needs to have a word with him.” She stood and showed André the screen.

Silver-white eyebrows rose so fast they darn near went into orbit and bright blue eyes flashed wide open. “I don’t think even M.G.’s old enough to say that word, assuming it isn’t autocomplete’s fault.” Both mages looked at each other, then to their Familiars. “Naah,” all four declared. “Jinx,” André continued. “I suspect your surmise is correct, and that your esteemed employer is, indeed, suffering discontent with management of this municipality, given his opinion of the ancestry of the head of the traffic department.” André had some more milkshake, then stiffened. “That may affect the print shop, too. Oh—” he caught himself. “Gnardbites. I’d better warn Collin. Down, Rodney.”

Rodney jumped down, leaving a kit-fox sized blotch of pure white on his mage’s trouser leg. André mouthed an uncharitable thought, set his half-empty milkshake cup on the little side table, and hurried to where he’d plugged his phone in to charge.

Her phone pinged twice more. She took her shake with her into the kitchen before looking. Yes, Belle, Book, and Blacklight would open on Friday and Saturday. No, they would not open the next week, and a message would be added to the shop’s digital storefront. And the parents of the street department’s manager betrayed their people to the Turks, Mongols, and Russians, not necessarily in that order. At least, that’s what she guessed Arthur’s invective meant. “That’s an insult that really doesn’t translate well,” she muttered before adding water to Rodney’s fountain.

“Is it one of Mrs. Lee’s Russian things?” Deborah asked from the doorway. “Some of those don’t make any sense, even after Art translated them.”

Lelia shook her head. “No. Master Saldovado says that the acting Street Department supervisor is descended from people who helped the Turks and Mongols.”

“Wow!” Deborah breathed. Awe filled her voice. “That’s really choice. Like ‘things you  only about your worst enemy ever’ choice. Mistress Cimbrissa filled me in one day, after one of the younger Hunters cut loose while we patched him. What made Master Saldovado so mad?”

Good to know. I won’t borrow that one.. “The city is going to cut off water as well as close 24th Avenue, starting on Sunday and going at least until Wednesday. And close the alleys, so we can’t even get inventory delivered. He’s a bit irritated.”

“No sheep, mom. I hope they get everything done before October.”

So do I, otherwise the city might suddenly be missing a few management-level employees. “They’re supposed to. I think repairing a sanitary sewer is higher priority than the pothole on Riverside Drive.”

Her daughter giggled. “The one that someone sent a Sweet Sixteen card to? One of the guys at school says it’s actually old enough to vote, if not old enough to buy beer yet.”

Lelia nodded and got out of Deborah’s way. “Yes, that one.” The birthday card—and a cake with candles tucked into the pothole—had made the internet news.

“I’ve gotten my work done, and I’m ahead on the English book, so I’m going to read more in Mistress Cimbrissa’s herbal before bed.”

“Good. Thank you for helping Mrs. Schmidt.” I like this Deborah. I want to keep this Deborah. Please?

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

Tuesday Tidbit: After the Fire

A bit of a recap: Deborah Chan is a sophomore in high school, age 16 going on 17. She is a bundle of hormones and prickles. A fire of unnatural origins broke out in St. Margaret of Scotland church, leading to an all-hands call for magic workers. The bael-fire is out, and so is Lelia.

Gears caught her elbow as she sagged. “The sorcerers are protecting the fire crew. Shadow’s over-watch. The Tuesday coven’s ready to take over when the sorcerers get tired. Clergy support is en route.”

“Understand.” She finished the last of the magic, then retreated to where the bags sagged against each other. Lelia sat on the stones of the plaza. Tay spilled into her lap. She got a cup of his energy gel out of his bag and opened it, somehow, despite shaking hands. Work boots and black paws appeared, trotting up beside her. Stripes and one of her mages. Thank You. “Can you help, please?” Lelia managed. “Take him so I can move out of the way?”

“Yes.” She gathered herself and lifted Tay and the energy gel both, passing them to Merddyn Jones.

“Use my shoulder, please, ma’am,” Rosie the Skunk murmured into Lelia’s ear. Lelia did as suggested, trying not to push too hard on the Labrador-sized skunk.

“Thank you very much.” Lelia petted Rosie’s shoulder, collected Tay, and carried him to an unoccupied bench at the edge of the plaza. She set him down, then trudged back for the recharge bags.

Merddyn met her half-way and gave her the bags. “What’s going on?”

Lelia shook her head a little. “Bael fire in the church, and something else. Rings said that someone was trying to desecrate the church. We felt it at the shop. So did Shadow and Ears and Ink. Beaker and Spots were already here, Gears got here just after we did, Tuesday coven’s arriving now, and clergy are also on the way.”

“Fire chief called me. Rosie and I helped with the last restoration, and we have the plans of the church, and the materials lists.” Merddyn looked left and right, then waved to someone. “Scuze us.”

“Thanks, and sure.” She flopped onto the bench beside Tay. Cool wind chased the smoke away from them, thanks be.

 André and Rodney came toward them. She poured water into Rodney’s portable bowl and opened a pack of meat paste. She also opened a small can of full-sugar soda for André, muffling the sound.  Then she stood, slow and quiet. André’s hands shook from more than just fatigue; shook so badly she could see them moving. Rodney guzzled half the water and started on the meat paste. She held out the can, steadying his cane as André took the can in both hands. He knocked the soda back in one long slug. When he lowered the can, she asked, “Gentle sir?”

He pulled her close with one arm, then hooked his cane onto his belt. He dropped the can onto the recharge bag. She held him until the old memory faded and the shaking faded with it. The flames. She knew in her bones that the real flames had done it.

“I’m sorry, dark my lady. I should have supported you better.” He hung his head.

She released him and got chocolate and jerky out of the bag. “I can’t mesh with Beaker and Spots the way you can. And someone had to shield the firemen. You split shields a lot better than Rings and I do.” They all turned toward the church. A trickle of sooty water flowed out of the main doors.

Tay started to speak. All at once half a dozen people raced out the doors, grabbed hoses, and started pulling them away from the building as one fireman waved his arms, driving everyone back. Lelia gulped. No, please, oh no!

Creeeeaaaakkkk, Whoosh CRASH! Smoke and debris vomited out the door.  HHhhssssssss. She grabbed André and they held each other. Tay and Rodney both moaned. The rose window! The colored glass shivered, then fell into the building, leaving a black void. Crash! After an eternity, the firemen returned to the building. The smoke flowing out the hole in the wall thinned, then disappeared. More water flowed out of the doors.

Beaker and Spots, along with the other magic workers, joined them. Beaker looked as old as his father, minus the grey, his face drawn in from the exertion. “Thank you,” Beaker said. He turned and met everyone’s eyes. “All of you, and that’s from the Fire Chief.” He drank a slug from a bottle of water, then dropped it and pulled a heavy-duty notepad and pencil from his jacket and started scrawling.

Cliff, the acting leader of the Thursday-night coven, pointed to the smoke and char outside the church. “That wasn’t just fire, like an accident.” The four witches, three other warlocks, and others all nodded, murmuring or growling agreement.

“It tastes wrong,” Marci, the youngest witch, said. “Bitter and cold, not like true fire.”

Spots scowled. “Bael fire and regular fire, and a dozen or so charms. Beaker, Shadow, and I had our hands full with the charms and shielding the fire crew. Silver and Gears dealt with the bale fire and some other things.”

“Explains what we,” Cliff gestured to the coven, “felt. Something tried to keep us from shielding the scene. No fire Elementals answered, and the air Elementals did not like whatever it was.”

Beaker looked up from his notepad.  “Thank you. That helps me.” He wrote again. “Once it’s safe, I’ll probably ask some of you to help cleanse the site. I know that the priest will handle the spiritual side, but we,” he waved the dark notepad, “will need to help.”

Marci nodded, then stopped. “Will difference of traditions matter?”

“Not for this level,” a half-familiar voice called. Father Anthony Deng joined them. The slightly-built Catholic priest panted slightly. “For the interior, yes, Father Garibay will be asking other Christian clergy to help, not just Episcopalians, but to deal with the intentions and corruption here,” he pointed one stubby finger at the stones of the plaza, “any light-sided tradition will be welcome.”

“Aaaaand speaking of welcome,” Tay hissed, pointing with his tail to Krimhilde Schmidt and a flow of ferrets. Dolores had joined them and carried a cooler as wide as her shoulders. “Duck!” Isabeau made a low pass before flapping up to fly around and over St. Margaret’s. The eagle owl returned and perched on the back of a park bench. To Lelia’s mild surprise, the bench did not tip over.

“We have food and drinks,” Krimhilde announced. “Real food. André, we need a third tailgate.”

“Yes, ma’am. Rodney, stay here.” He limped off to move the pickup. It no longer looked like a sheriff’s vehicle, Lelia noted. Lelia gave Rodney more meat, and offered Rosie a beef-stick. The skunk sniffed delicately, then took the snack with her front teeth, as far from Lelia’s fingertips as she could. The meat stick disappeared in two tidy bites.

Half an hour passed before Krimhilde gave everyone permission to leave, and the police cleared a space in the barricades for their vehicles. “We’re ordering supper in,” André told her as they approached the shop. “Unless Deborah has cooked enough for six, we are ordering in. And more than just a discount pizza.”

“Yes, dear. Thank you.” He pulled to a stop in front of the store. “I love you.” She and Tay bailed out before the determined-looking Street Department gent could block the pickup in with his armload of orange cones.

The shop door opened for her. Arthur studied her from head (bare) to boot toes (scuffed). “Food is waiting. Eat. Now.”

She scurried to the work room and devoured a roast beef sandwich, waffle fries, and a small milkshake. The large soda filled any spaces left.

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

Writing Womanly Women in Fiction

A re-post from 2017, because some have asked for more “how do I write” posts.

How do you write womanly women in fiction? I hit that question hard when I started the first of the Colplatschki Chronicles, Elizabeth of Starland. I’d been writing Rada Ni Drako, and while she is many things, some of which I can’t say here without getting at least an R rating and I try for PG-13 at worst, she’s not overly feminine. At least, not for a very long time, or in most company. Auriga Bernardi lifts the bar higher, because she’s never going to be a professional soldier like Elizabeth von Sarmas was pushed into becoming. And I have a sense that the female lead in the Bronze Age story is going to be even less aggressive than Auriga. What does that mean? And how do I do it without having the character turn into something from one of those caricature Victorian morality stories? Continue reading

Tuesday Tidbit: Meadow

I don’t know where this bit came from. In my mind’s eye I see it as anime, for some reason.

“The dawn tastes wrong,” Ishano crouched and inhaled again. “Here tastes right.” He stood once more.

Up the stream bank, Hori used one hand to shade his eyes as he looked sunward. The grasses in the pasture across the ford nodded in the dawn wind. Waist-deep mist hovered over the bend in the stream. He heard a few birds calling their dawn hymns, but not enough. He lowered his hand and joined Ishano in the marrow valley.

“We cross, but stay near the trees,” Ishano said. “Cover your face and speak not. I do not trust the open sky.” He looked down and met Hori’s eyes. Dark concern filled Ishano’s mismatched eyes. He pulled the ends of his veil-scarf around and covered his mouth and nose. Hori did the same. To veil without females present . . .

Hori took a firm grip on the wear-smoothed wood of his staff and clambered up the dew-slick grassy slope. Ishano followed, striding with long-legged ease up the bank. Truly, a southerner must have visited his family in the days of tales. Hori listened to the land and sky, nodded, and walked along the pasture’s edge. Tree-birds sang, but  only as quietly as on a morning with heavy cloud. No clouds hid the dawning this day. The grass-birds remained silent. He listened harder, eyes moving, glancing from pasture to tree shadows and back. He should see the white and red backs of the hitsugi grazing out in the level green of the pasture. Instead, he saw only grass, and the trees on the other side of the meadow.

Ishano stopped and crouched, head up and alert, and rested the tips of his fingers on a bare strip of soil. Something had ripped out the grasses. leaving four strips of red dirt bare to the sun. Hori glanced at his own hand, then down at the strips. Twice as long, and perhaps three digits wide. A clump of torn grasses, dirt, and root-bits marked the end of each strip. A worm wiggled out of one clump, seeking proper soil. Ishano lifted his hand  and pointed north of east, where the distant peaks turned the sky above the trees jagged and darker blue, still touched with faint white. Hori’s fingers touched the luck pouch on his belt. warding off trouble and travel. Ishano stood and they continued on.

At the end of the pasture clearing, Hori stopped. “Ksss,” he hissed at Ishano. Ishano too stopped. Hori pointed to a set, many sets, of hoof-prints in the soft, damp soil. A new path pushed through some inukokari, boar’s head, bushes. A tuft of dark red and dirty-white wool twisted around a thorny stem. Only the hitsugi-ma, the matron of the flock, grew both colors together on her back. They had found the flock’s trail.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Along the Big River

Halwende continues his exploration, somewhat warily. [Note: This will be the last excerpt from this book that I post.]

Just after dawn Halwende, Magnus, and one of the younger men started north, walking between the river and the forest. Kal and the other hunter moved south, not as far, while the youngest man stayed with Ulber and the beasts, just in case. Eigris flew over, traveling to the south, and other birds. The water seemed lower than the day before, although Halwende didn’t care to get close and measure. The river bent to the north, a good sign, and they moved at a good pace over the firm, grassy ground. The land to the north opened up, and the hills they’d seen the day before retreated from the river’s valley. “Better for a settlement,” Magnus observed when they paused to look around. The wind blew from the north, heavy with river and mud and wet.

Halwende started to answer, then froze. Green swept down on him, a curtain. He went to one knee. “Lady of the Wild, what is Your will?”

Continue. This I give you, this and to the north and east. Cross the river. I lift my hand from this land. As before, he saw Her in Her glory walking east and north, followed by a green mist that faded from the forest and beasts. Some beasts strode with Her, leaving the land to men and Yoorst’s creatures. Your treasure waits here, something lost and waiting, come.

“Keep going, upriver,” Halwende managed. “We keep going.” He concentrated on breathing, feeling the dampness working through the fabric of his trews. After a dozen breaths the tiredness receded, and he got to his feet.

“Donwah be praised,” the young hunter gasped as they passed a thick stand of wet-footed grey-needle trees. A ford awaited them. Bare stone emerged from the soil. The grey and black-flecked rock led down into the river. The water seemed slower and shallower, almost pooling downstream of the ford before rushing on. The land around the ford sloped less, too, flatter and easier to approach and retreat.

Indeed, they could cross, although they used ropes and went with great care, tapping the stone ahead of them with their staves. A thin fringe of trees screened the river  on the north side, then opened into a natural meadow as large as the cleared area around Valke keep. A wild ovstrala spooked and disappeared into the far tree line, thudding into the woods. “We keep the beasts on the south side, m’lord,” Magnus said. His tone suggested that only a true fool would do otherwise.

“Aye. I have no desire to see if the story is true about our beasts calling wild beasts to them.” Waking up in the middle of an ovstrala herd . . . never ended well. Not for the subject of the story at least. “I don’t care to be remembered as Halwende the Flat.”

They set about blazing marks on the trees and looking for stones for cairns. Rocks proved to be hard to find, until Magnus went a little farther to the west and discovered several mounds and a wet, boggy area with rocky soil around it. They carried rocks to where rocks ought to be, and Halwende made notes. He’d sketch and write out their claim later. They worked until the sun stood one hand above the trees at the north side of the meadow as seen from the south, then hurried back to where the wagon and others waited for them. The river had fallen lower, and they saw more debris caught among the trees. And a few animals, too, including three laupen. The stench of the fast-rotting beasts hurried the men’s steps.

They feasted on more cervi, sweet-root, and some crack-shell nuts that Kal had found. “No sign of the wood-carver that left ’em, yer grace. Bird forgot he’d cached ’em, like as not.”

Mouth full, Halwende just nodded his acknowledgement. That night, after he made some notes by firelight and sketched out their way and the river’s bends, he watched the stars. The red eye of the Great Vulpe glowered down at him. He rested his head on his interlaced fingers and stared back. A few dark shapes flitted overhead, darting and diving on quiet or silent wings. Far in the distance, something bellowed defiance, or perhaps indigestion. The faintest hint of a howl reached his ears, or did it? Even falling, the river’s mutter and rush hid much that moved in the night. The Great Vulpe eased to the west, making way for the Tower and Plow. Who named the stars? How long ago? Did the gods teach us the names, as they taught us how to find our way by the stars and sun? What treasure did we find? No gold or silver, not laying on the ground for any to gather. No coins glittering in the water, either, or growing on a tree. He smiled, then yawned. Where had that story come from, and how strong would be the branches of a tree that bore gold leaves? Sleep came before he had an answer.

#

“A what?” Halwende asked, blinking. He sat back in the chair at the portable camp table and tried to corral his thoughts. “A marriage proposal waits for me at Valke keep?” He didn’t recognize the man, but that didn’t mean much. The chamberlain or Lother could have hired him, or he could be a trader’s courier, come to Valbaum on other business and bringing messages with his trade.

Halwende sat outside the site of his new keep, working on his notes by the last light of the sun and a small lamp. He’d heard disputes that day, and had watched the men measuring out ground for a new stronghold inside the walls of Valbaum. Supper should be ready soon. He’d go south the next day, weather permitting.

The courier offered him a sealed message. “Yes, your grace. And a portrait. Lord Adalbert of Crosstrees seeks a husband for his second daughter, Aedit. Rumor has it that he needs land, not silver, your grace.” A knowing look crossed the man’s narrow face, and he lowered his voice. “He has too many schaef for his land, and four daughters by his first wife, two sons by the second.”

Oh dear, yes, land is far more important. Where is Crosstrees? Well, Aglak Rothbard has the final say, blast it. “Thank you. As soon as I finish here, another two days or so, I will return to the keep and consider the offer.”

The messenger shifted from foot to foot, then glanced over his shoulder. “Ah, your grace, there is another message.”

Something about the man— Halwende eased his knife from its sheath on his upper leg, out of sight. He leaned forward, as if eager for the news, but still relaxed. “And it is?”

The man lunged forward, a blade also in hand. Halwende flipped the table’s top at him, then followed it. The light wood caught the assassin’s legs, slowing him. Halwende’s greater weight followed, smashing the stranger to the ground. “Who sent you?” Halwende demanded, his won blade on the man’s throat.

The attacker snarled, then shoved himself against the blade, cutting his own throat. Halwende rolled clear of the blood that sprayed up, cursing as he did. That brought men into the room.

“My lord!”

“I’m fine. He’s dead, or will be, Scavenger take him, laupen gnaw his bones.” Had the blood gotten on his notes? No, and the lamp had gone out when it hit the ground, as it should have. Halwende got to his feet, then wiped the knife on the leg of his trews and sheathed it. He’d clean it properly later. He drew a little magic from inside himself and cast it at the message the man had brought. Nothing. Even so, he used only two fingers when he picked it up off the ground and studied the seal. It looked like an imperial seal, blue with a silvery sheen to it. “Move clear,” he ordered. He set the message back onto the ground, made a sort-of blade of the magic, and used that to break the seal. Nothing, the pages popped open without anything more happening. He panted, as tired as if he’d run after cervi for an afternoon. “I’m fine,” he repeated. Someone righted both table and chair, and he sat once more. “Need food.”

“Had a wrist sheath,” one of the arms-men said. He pointed to the dead man’s right hand and wrist, now bared to the light.

“Search him but be wary for surprises. And call the Scavenger’s voice, please.”

The message . . . As he waited, he read it. Then he ate, and read the message again. “How kind of you,” he snarled well under his breath. Stop. He’s not standing in the way of a marriage, so long as it is to one of those three. One of whom is what’s-her-name of Crosstrees. Aedit. And now I have land to spare.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Heir and Travel

Halwende is commanded north. His followers politely disagree.

Winter and spring passed before Valdher next gave Her sign. Halwende had just finished leading Eighth-Day worship. He waited until all the others departed, then stepped into the tiring room and removed his robes. That done, he returned to the chapel to snuff the candles on the altar. The flames bowed to Valdher’s statue, then bowed again. He went to one knee, head down, as rustling filled the air.

Look north, my pathfinder, north and east. Treasure awaits my servant.

“Thank You, Lady of the Forest. Thank You for Your grace and gifts.” He bowed until his forehead touched his knee. The sound faded, but he remained low until the tears prickling his eyes passed. A sense of pure relief filled him, and he sat on the floor, head in hands. “Thank You.” The walls of Valke keep had grown close, too close, this winter. Too many people, yet not the right people. He wanted— He caught the thought, stopped it, and rose to his feet. He bowed to Valdher and retreated with haste before something happened. He did not want to know what She would do if he entertained that sort of vision in Her chapel.

The next day he called the senior servants, including Master Lothar and the new chief hunter, Januz. They all gathered in the receiving hall. Many had worried expressions, and they talked quietly, glancing toward him from time to time. Halwende took a long breath, then said, “I will be brief. Valdher has sent a sign. I am to go north and east. I do not know how far.” Not that far, like as not, because She would not lift Her protection from the mountains, and Sneelah’s domain remained closer in the east than the west.

Murmurs and more frowns greeted his words. Master Lothar folded his arms. “Your grace, you need an heir. You should not be leaving these lands without an heir and someone to guard and care for them.”

That he had not been expecting! He bristled. Yes, and I need new boots, too, and I know which will arrive faster, unless there’s truth in the story about an elch bringing one of my ancestors to his parents. Then he caught himself. I’m the last Valke male, and I have duties to my people. Which include not throwing them to the laupen if I die. Not that he was going to die—he knew better than to be stupid.

He took another breath of the cool, smoke-touched air of the room. “I do need an heir. And unless you know of an eligible daughter who is not already betrothed, vowed to the gods, or prohibited by closeness of blood, I cannot wed between now and the next naming of daughters.” He’d asked, very, very carefully, about one candidate over the winter, and his majesty had replied with clarity and firmness.

Head shakes greeted his words, and more murmurs.

He managed a faint smile. “And before anyone inquires, no, I am most certainly not going to inquire about Duke Wilteer’s cousin.”

Relief greeted his words, and a few knowing nudges and smiles, along with coughing from one of the steward’s assistants. I’m sure she has many virtues. Somewhere. Probably hidden in the bottom of the jakes. If a quarter of the rumors were true, she’d seduced most of the manservants on her father’s estate, and a few others as well. And bragged about it. No. He’d prefer not to be cuckold before the seal even set on his marriage contract, thank you!

An eight-day later, he set out with two hunters and three teamsters. They’d take some supplies to the northern settlement and see how things progressed, collect Magnus and Kal, and then a smaller group would move north and east. The sun felt kind as they walked. Only normal forest sounds surrounded them, and the woods seemed healthy. Januz and his men had taken a larger number of cervi than usual over the winter, with Valdher’s blessing, and the lower plants and bushes throve. A few hare had been seen, and one or two other southern animals. Things did indeed warm, or so the animals suggested.

The group traveled quickly on the dry, improved road. Instead of a narrow track, a wider, cleared path now led north from the older Valke lands. A logway allowed safer passage through the marsh, and he saw signs of schaef and ovsta flocks having passed through. The logway appeared sound, although he never quite trusted them. The water was supposed to protect the logs, not rot them, but still . . . He didn’t like the road to sag under his feet.

Magnus greeted him at the gate of the new settlement north of the stony ridge. “Welcome to Valbaum, yer grace,” he called. “You just missed the excitement, yer grace.”

Halwende clasped the older man’s forearm. “Wild ovstrala? And I give you leave to use my lesser title.” Magnus had earned that right.

Magnus smiled, a lopsided smile. “Nae that. Digger-foot wandered into the shearin’ line.” Halwende felt his eyes bulging. The hunter’s smile spread wider. “Come see, yer gr— m’lord.”

“You, go into the village and deliver what needs delivering.” Halwende waved the teamsters and wagons ahead, then followed Magnus around the gate. The wood of the wall gleamed raw and light brown. It would weather to grey. Stone. I want stone here. I want to stay here, in my city. Valbaum is mine, not my father’s. Magnus disappeared around a corner, and Halwende slowed a little before turning. “By Valdher’s antlers what the blazes?”

Magnus laughed. “That’s what the schaef-herds said too, m’lord, but a little less kindly.” An enormous white lump lay near the schaef pens. The schaef had been moved, and four men worked to skin the lump. “Same feet’s the one we killed back before his old grace’s passing, m’lord, but white, with different fur, and a longer face. Bigger eyes, too. This one, though, well . . .” He pointed to the head, now separated from the rest of the body. Halwende went closer and looked

“That explains it, perhaps.” The eyes had clouded, part-blinding the beast, whatever it was. Digger-foot indeed! He squatted down and studied the upturned front claws and paw pads. He picked up the foot. It was heavy, a good five pfund at least, plus the leg attached to it. He shifted his balance, bent closer, and sniffed the not-dirt still caught in the claws. A faint whiff of rotting meat reached his nose. He sniffed the fur. “Either this stepped in a dead beast, or it tore into something dead and ate part of it.” He liked the softness of the fur, but who could tan such a thing? Well, someone would try if he offered enough coin. He set the paw down and stood.

Magnus, arms folded, nodded. “M’lord, we think, that is, me an’ the other hunters here, that it also eats the dead when it can. The teeth.” He used a stick and pried open the beast’s jaws. Black lips parted to reveal both biting teeth and flat, chewing teeth. “Like an ovstrala, but the front can bite and tear like a man or a laupen or other meat-eater. That reminds me, m’lord.” He met Halwende’s eyes. “We’ve heard vulpen, off in the distance, this winter and early spring. Saw some tracks, nothing more.”

That gave him pause. Halwende looked down at the white thing again, then back to Magnus. “In that case, we’re going to take extra einar spears, and have someone with a strung bow at all times.” Kill one of the dark, oily, slender laupen and the rest of the pack would turn on the dead one, or they fled. Vulpen, like the war dogs of legend but larger, would try to avenge their fallen comrade. Or so he’d been warned. They no longer came so far south except in the heart of winter, and even that had not happened since he’d been a child.

“Aye, m’lord. And we keep a fire all night, bright fire.” Magnus glanced to the north, and what lay beyond it. “I trust the Lady of the Wilds, yer grace, but not some of Her creatures.”

I’d trust vulpen more than some men, but vulpen just want to eat me. “No argument here. There’s some truth in the story about the priest who got eaten by einar.” Not much, and certainly not in the version he’d heard from a drunk arms-man many years ago, but some truth. None of the gods had much patience for the willfully foolish.

Two days later, they crossed the hills to the north of the valley. Halwende went ahead with Kal, then stopped in a small clearing inside a stand of wild castana trees. He took a deep breath, then another, and slipped into the same attentive place as when he prepared for worship. After some time, he did not know how long, darker green than what lay around him appeared in his vision. North and east, pathfinder. North and east, trust me. What you see now is not for you, not yet. You may hunt and gather as you pass,  but nothing more.

He came to himself, then sat in the damp duff with a soft thud. “Thank You, great Lady, for Your will. Blessed be Valdher, Lady of the Wilds and all that dwells therein.” Halwende rested elbows on knees and cradled his head, waiting for the exhaustion and headache to pass.

“Yer grace?” Kal sounded concerned. Something . . .

Halwende got his legs under him and stood, then leaned on a tree until the land returned to level. “We keep moving. We can hunt here, and gather nuts and the like, and deadfalls, but nothing more. Valdher has not lifted Her protection from this valley yet.”

“Yes, yer grace.” Kal nodded, alert, looking at the dappled green-gold light and shadows around them.

They returned to the others. “Keep going north and east. This isn’t ours yet.”

Another day passed before Valdher lifted Her hand. Halwende reverted to hunter and scout, thinking of nothing save what he saw and heard. The ovstrala moved reluctantly, perhaps unhappy to be away from Korval and Yoorst’s domains. Or perhaps they were just ovstrala and had minds of their own. The air cooled, and rain passed in the night, light but chilly.

“Too many cervi,” Magnus said, poking the thread-grass and sweet black-leaf with his staff. The plants should have been knee high, not ankle high at most. He used the other end of his slick-worn staff to tap a branch, the end frayed and chewed. “They’re eatin’ themselves into hunger.”

“Why?” Halwende stared down the animal path ahead of them, then back at Magnus. “Where are the laupen and other hunting beasts? Did they all move north, leaving only the cervi?” He almost wanted to ask, but the Lady’s answer might not ease his worries, if She answered.

Magnus shrugged. “Maybe the white digger-foot ate the eaters?” He grinned. “Or sat on them.”

Both men chuckled, then continued down the trail. If I were a valke in truth, I could fly up over the trees and see what lies ahead of us. And starve to death if the mice and other small game fail, or freeze to death, or be smashed by a storm wind. Some of the books hinted that strong, very strong, magic workers had been able to change men into beasts, before and during the Great Cold. Wulfhilde had said that even the Scavenger’s Son she’d spoken with had been unsure if any truth lay behind the tales. I do not care to find out. Halwende moved silently, listening between steps, relaxed but wary.

They heard the river before they saw it. “That sounds big, m’lord,” Kal observed.

“Aye.” They went slowly. The trees thinned, and stopped. “Donwah of the Waters that’s huge!” A fast-running river easily as big as the Moahne appeared before them. A river in flood, Halwende realized, since it lapped the base of still-green trees. The land sloped down toward the stream. Flood-borne mud turned the water the brown of eich-tanned leather. “It was higher,” he said, pointing with his own staff to the line of flood-litter and drying mud upslope of the current edge of water.

“Not a good place for a port city, yer grace,” Ulber said that night as they camped. The teamster had just finished securing the ovstrala for the night. Kal had shot a cervi, and they ate from the beast. More meat cooked in a pot for the morning. Halwende had found sweet-root where the river had retreated, and those, baked in the edge of the fire, spared their road bread. “Not with the water comin’ so high. We need a ferry.”

“Ye don’ wan’ t’ swim yon creek?” the youngest hunter asked with a wink.

The older men snorted, and Kal said, “I don’t want to smell wet ovstrala for the next eight-day.”

“That too,” Ulber growled. “Two’s not enough, not to swim. Water’s too fast, and we can’t see the far bank clear, ye ken? Slow bank, like so,” he held one hand at a low angle. “That they could do, mayhap, if older animals go first. If it be steep, a fast bank?” The hand tipped up. “Nae. Won’t even try it. Wet grass’s slick, too. No, that’s a ferry crossin’, not a ford, not now.”

“No, and the valley’s too narrow,” Halwende said. He’d been chewing on the idea along with the cervi slices. “We go east, upstream. See what lies there. The beasts can rest tomorrow while we scout and see what the river’s doing.” Something about the river bothered him. It’s just a big, flooded river. Why does it make my skin crawl? Is it because flowing water breaks magic? No, that doesn’t fit. Other flowing water hadn’t given him the same sense of dread.

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