Tuesday Tidbit: Bears and Problems

Lord Adrescu discovers two problems on his lands, one of which is more easily solved.

They Hunted twice more before Easter’s feast. Ioantan studied the remains and shook his head. The bear-like form bristled with arrows, a dozen at least. They had only slowed it enough for Radut to impale it with a boar spear, pinning the thing for Adrescu to kill. The other creatures had been easier to slay, praises be. “My lord, I’ve not seen anything the like before. ‘Tis neither change beast nor true abyssal, nor a were.”

Adrescu handed the Razboini’s reins to Wadim and dismounted. The creature had stood as tall as his horse’s head when it reared up on hind legs. The front claws sported sharp tips that led to finger-like pads. As he looked more closely, he realized that the second claw formed a tube, and something black and wet dripped from it. He took the blood from the neck, as was proper. Radut’s spear lay with the beast. “Back away, all of you,” Adrescu commanded. Wadim led the horse farther from the body. Adrescu drew a pouch of blessed basil from his belt and called, “In the name of the Great God who made all that is good, in the name of His Son who died that all might live, in the name of the Lady of Night and Her Defender who serve by the power of the Great God, may the Lord cleanse this of all foulness and banish all evil.” He scattered the basil, then leaped back as blue-green flared like a bonfire.

“Deus meus!” Radut exclaimed. The bear-like shape collapsed like an empty hide. Only arrows, pelt, and spear remained. The cleansing fire consumed even the claws. “That—”

A woman’s voice called, “That warns that we face something that can twist beasts. Or someone,” Mistress Crina said from beside Radut’s horse. The grey-white gelding snorted but ignored her. She crouched and rested one hand on the hide. Her eyes unfocused, then snapped back into clarity. “Take the spear.”

Ioantan lifted the far end of the boar spear. The stocky Hunter shook the end, and the hide fell free. “Ah, honored Mistress?” He gulped a little as he showed the others where the blade had been. Nothing. “I’ve not seen this before.” His voice shook the slightest bit.

“No. I’ve read of such, from the days of the eastern hordes.” She took a long breath. “The hide may be claimed, or left.”

The others looked to Adrescu. He swallowed, then said, “I claim it. But it will remain outside the keep walls until Fr. Pavel blesses it.” A chorus of relieved agreement came from the others, including the tamadii.

Radut rode at his right hand on the return to the keep. “My lord,” his half-brother began. “Has a beast corrupted our weapons before?”

That was not the question Adrescu had anticipated. He took a long breath of the warm spring air, gathering his thoughts. The scent of the fresh-turned soil and life grounded him. Birds had begun to emerge from hiding. The foul beasts had driven them away. The Great God made the small ones wise in their own way. “I have not seen it before now,” he answered once they passed the women gathering in the washing bleaching on the bushes in a garden beside the road. “I think I read of such, on the old chronicles, but I confess, my interest wandered and I don’t truly recall.”

Radut nodded, as did Animus. Adrescu made a small warding gesture. His head knew that the horse had no magic or powers, but sometimes the gelding still raised the hair on his neck with its manner. Did more than a horse stare out of those odd blue eyes? Radut made a sound of agreement, drawing his brother’s attention back to the moment. “I never read them, but for some reason a tale from the time of the Mongols comes to mind. I know not if it had any truth to it, and it’s not one of the ones often told.” Adrescu gestured for him to continue. “My lord, if I recall right, one reason Lord Vlad retired from governing was that he and his suflit fratru felt themselves cursed by contact with changed beasts tainted by infernal power. I,” he stopped and stared at the road ahead of them. “I know not whether to believe that or not.” His tone changed, and he sat deeper in the saddle. “I do know that she shouldn’t do—”

Razboini saw the flapping fabric, as did Animus and the other horses. The brothers’ mounts startled but continued on. Chaos erupted behind them as the others rode through spooks and Wadim’s gelding reared, then kicked out, almost hitting Mistress Crina’s pony. The pony snapped at the gelding before the tamadii turned her mount away from the eruption.

“No,” Adrescu roared. “No not strike her!” The scrawny man with the young woman had lifted his heavy ox goad and began punishing the girl. Adrescu urged his stallion forward and rode to the man and women. The women all cringed away from the red-faced man’s anger. “She acted in ignorance.”

The man bowed. “My lord, she should have seen you, and should have waited. She dishonors her family with her stupidity, and only understands correction by the hand.”

“By the hand, not the weighted goad,” Adrescu snarled. The farmer opened his mouth, then snapped it closed and bowed, moving farther away from both the Hunters and the women. “Have you seen sign or heard sound of change beasts or abyssal touched creatures?”

The man stammered, then managed, “That one said she saw strange tracks by the stream.” He pointed to the girl who had shaken out the fabric. “She tells false tales, my lord.”

Adrescu handed the reins to his brother and dismounted. He approached the young woman slowly, expression calm and gentle. “Do you remember what you saw?”

She gulped, glanced at the man with the goad, and hung her head. “Tracks not a wolf or bear, too big for mountain cat. Strange claws, my-, my-, my lord. It followed down the stream to the ford. Then the tracks went away. I, I, I did not cross to follow, my lord.”

“Do you recall when you saw them?”

She hunched her shoulders. “This sab-, sab-, Sabbath past, my lord. Late in the day.”

Two days before. She was sent to get water, or driven to get water, and fears being punished. Or punished again. “To care for animals or people in need is not a violation of the day. Thank you.” He moved away from her, turned, and remounted. Radut handed back the stallion’s reins. The others had ridden up closer, and he told them, “The changed bear passed here two days ago, late in the day perhaps.”

Mistress Crina nodded. “That fits the other account we heard, my lord. And means the beast moved north.”

“I’d guess north and east, but yes, north most certainly.”  He gave the hand sign for ride on, and they continued on the way back to the keep. The sun’s heat already felt like a weight on his shoulders more than the blessing that it truly was. Or was it the weight of what the future might bring, should Codrin’s vision prove true? Great God have mercy, please turn the infidels against each other. Such had happened in the past, either brother fighting brother for the throne, or as the infidels argued over who was the more devout. He snorted a little to himself at the thought.

“My lord?” Radut inquired, a small smile on his face.

“Thinking about the southern heretics fighting over who is the purer heretic, more devoted to the pursuit of error.” He knew enough of Islam to shake his head at the errors and half-truths it purported to follow. “I fear we will not be so blessed, this year.”

Radut gazed ahead of them, watching the fields and forests. “Anno. The sultan is not so old as to be weak and ill, not that I have heard. Nor do I know anything about a lower lord breaking away, as once happened.” He shrugged. “I know what we are to do, and Lady be thanked, we have a warning.” He glanced at his brother for a moment. “Although why you are supposed to use that tiny needle with the fancy trim to fight a giant bull?”

“Not so tiny needle, might I remind you?”

A snort greeted his words. “Should I quote our father— ‘Ware!”

Advertisement

Saturday Snippet: Nikolai Gets the News

Nikolai, one of the Hunters, is trying not to worry about the injured Arthur. Then his Hunting Partner calls . . . [Contains spoiler for Preternaturally Familiar]

“How was the concert?” Lerae asked once they’d both finished.

He nodded. “It went well. I don’t think Meistro Fowler is going to program that many major works together again. We went until ten-thirty both nights, even trimming some of the usual announcements.”

She winced. “No. So you got home around eleven-fifteen?”

“One. A Hunt in Riverside park delayed me.” Should he speak of the Hunter born? Yes, she needed to know. “We were ambushed, and the Hunter born was gravely injured.” He looked at the empty plate before him. “I called him to aid, should he be close, since Florian is at his father’s farm. I did not know that the Hunter born had set aside his blade. He was unarmed save for his boot-knife when two abyssal creatures jumped him. One bit him, may have clipped the femoral artery.” She’d know exactly what that meant.

Lerae’s eyes went wide, and she covered her mouth with her hand. “Lady of Night have mercy.”

“Amen. I—” His breath caught, and he forced feeling aside once more. “I did not know. He Hunted unarmed, and then ordered me to cleanse the three beasts instead of aiding him. I should have seen that he carried no weapons, but I was too intent on the Hunt. His blood is on my hands.”

He heard her chair scrape back, and she embraced his shoulders. She offered no words of false comfort, thanks be. He took one of her hands and kissed it. “Thank you.” She released him and took his plate to the sink along with hers. He stood, brushed his teeth, and then went out to check on the plants and see if the storm had made more of a mess than usual. The neighbor’s tree preferred to dump hail-tattered leaves and small branches into their yard, not the proper one. Niko had asked Mistress Talyssa to check, and she’d seen no spells or signs that the Elementals were harassing him more than usual. He shrugged once again and cleaned the front yard. The back could wait. He needed to finish that poster design, and he’d not gotten any work done on it Friday or yesterday.

His phone rang just before five that evening. He blinked screen-tired eyes and answered it. It was his Hunting partner, Florian Bauer. Niko stared out the small window by his computer set-up, letting his eyes rest. “Anno. How are you?”

“Tired of finding leaks in my father’s barn. And sheds. And henhouse.” Florian snorted. “Rebuilding the buildings would be easier.”

Niko snorted in turn. “Has Marius’ barn leaned any farther?”

“I’m not asking.” The other Hunter paused. “The Hunter born.”

“Has he—?” The words came as a whisper.

An endless-seeming silence, then, “Not yet. But Cimbrissa and the others fear that he will. The bite was both poison and unclean. Already signs of infection have begun, and he runs a high fever.” Florian took a long breath. “The blood from the beast that bit him has been saved for his feast.”

Nikolai closed his eyes. “His blood is on me. I called him to aid, and did not ask why he carried neither long-blade nor shotgun.”

“Ach, Scheisse,” came the hiss. “What saw you?”

The memories came easily, as clear as if he lived them again. He recited the tale, ending with “Ladislu told me to come home, not to go to the home farm.”

A long indrawn breath, as if the next sound would be one of the oh-so-legato Lady chants from worship. “Ladislu was wise. The senior Hunter— I lack words. Constanche said that he went rigid, all color fading as he saw the Hunter born, eyes dilating. His wife and sister guided him away, and the priestess joined them. About what they spoke Constanche did not say.”

No, he would not know. “Truth, brother, I dread attending worship.”

“I will stand with you,” came the assurance, as fast as thought. “You could not know if the Hunter born spoke not of setting aside his blade.” He heard papers shifting, then the soft thud of something falling to the floor. “I’m at work, finishing inventory early. Tomorrow, some of us will gather to ask the Lady’s grace on those who need it. Eleven, full dark.”

“I will be there. Thank you. How bad is the new software?”

“Recall my complaint that I thought FarmFile hated me? It treated me with great consideration and love compared to this ill-begotten excuse for a database. My sister-by-marriage wonders if it was designed by an abyssal being condemned to work as a coder for some terrible sin.” A hint of laughter shaded Florian’s morose words. “I find many reasons to agree with her suspicion.”

 Niko had to smile despite everything. “Would you like to trade and merge graphics files into ArtAdPro 3.0? It is supposed to have been beta-tested. They lied.”

A retching, moaning sort of sound came over the phone, and Niko bared his teeth with unholy glee. “Ah, no, thank you. What little remains of my sanity begs to be excused, and my father swore on his blade that his sons would not touch graphics lay-out programs. At least, I hope he did.”

Roasting meat scent wafted into the room. Nikolai sniffed and stood. “I believe that my lady wife desires my presence at the supper table.”

“Save me a plate, please, if there’s enough. Father wants me to come into Riverton to collect the checks from the rent box.”

Nikolai rolled his eyes, then his head and neck and stretched his shoulders. “I will try. Do you want the creamed spinach or the—”

“Stop, you vicious bastard. May your firstborn play nothing save the Beatles and Top-Forty love ballads.” No true anger colored Florian’s words.

Niko made a rude gesture in the general direction of Florian’s place of employment. “I’ll take that as a vote for the mashed turnips. Defender be with you.”

“Lady bless.”

Niko slid his phone into the charger, backed everything up yet again, then went to the kitchen. Lerae smiled. “Just in time. The meat needs to be sliced.”

He smiled in turn, then kissed her on the cheek as she stirred vegetables. “Florian will be in town this evening. He asked for a plate, to assuage his misery at doing inventory with new software. Even his sister-by-marriage says it’s junk.”

“And you said?”

“I asked if he wished to trade tasks with me, then offered him creamed spinach or mashed turnips.” Florian couldn’t eat dark leafy greens without becoming ill, and detested “mushed food” as he put it.

Lerae gave him a tired look as he studied the roast, then found the proper knife and a sturdy meat fork. “He needs a wife,” she observed yet again, then added a sprinkle of a spice blend to the peas and sweet corn. “Odile says that Annatina has been trying to catch his eye, but he has been as blind thus far.”

The meat shifted, and Nikolai turned his full attention to cutting the meat without causing a terrible mess or slicing himself. Only when he’d carved half the roast did he say, “I do not believe that he will notice her. Marius spoke once of a private vow made by his twin, but it was not my business.”

“No.” She nodded firmly, then stirred the green and yellow mixture once more before turning off the fire. “Will you be playing for the patriotic concert this year?”

He set two slices of meat onto a plate. “Not unless Ari has a problem between now and the third. And then only if they ask very nicely. It’s Beatles-heavy.” He did not care for that body of work, any of it, no matter how well arranged.

“I understand. Dr. McWhorter has invited those of us not working that evening or night to his home that evening to watch the down-stream fireworks. Spouses are welcome.” She added vegetables to the plate, then carried it to the table. A basket of bread already waited, along with a cold potato salad that she’d made on Friday.

He thought about it as he washed the knife and put it back in the holder. “I’ll know after tomorrow night. There’s a special gathering.”

Bless her, she caught his meaning without needing more. “We don’t have to confirm until Thursday.”

Florian knocked, then opened the door a little before nine that night. “Greetings and the Great God’s blessing be on the house,” he called as he came in.

“Be welcome in the name of the Great God and His Lady,” Lerae replied. She’d been the one to suggest granting Florian both hearth and pot right, just as Nikolai still had with Florian’s brother and parents.

“My thanks for the welcome,” Florian replied. He handed her a large plastic bag full of  buns and cookies. “Mother has been trying some of Sharrie’s family recipes. Not the ones that begin with ‘boil until dead’,” he assured her.

She chuckled. “I’d be more worried about the food turning invisible on my plate.” They used simple white dishes most of the time. “Cauliflower, mashed potatoes, and baked chicken in white sauce do not appeal.”

“You forgot the half-dissolved jiggly fish, and I agree, as does Sharrie. Marius is slowly converting her to using something besides two grains of ground pepper and one flake of thyme in the entire batch of tomato sauce.” Marius’ wife’s preference for bland food had become something of a family joke, one she took in good grace and even agreed with at times.

Lerae disappeared into the kitchen. The sound of dishes and food wrap soon followed. The Hunters looked at each other. At last Florian leaned forward and gripped Nikolai’s shoulder. “No change,” he said, voice low. “That might be good, or at least less bad.”

“Thank you. Has anyone spoke of how the creatures reached the park?”

“Not yet.” Florian lowered his hand and glanced toward the door, then met his eyes again. “Nor why the beasts were there. Have you heard of any covens working that night?”

Nikolai thought hard, trying to recall. “No, that is, Midsummer yes, but not so soon after. Perhaps the solo warlock of Garridon’s acquaintance, or one of the sorcery workers? They do share space with the covens.”

“Hmm.” Florian looked thoughtful. “There’s another sorcerer known to Art who might be sufficiently strong to attract such attention. I know not if he shares space.”

Both Hunters shrugged. “I would rather herd cats than keep track of magic workers,” Niko said. “No, I’d rather herd musicians past a free buffet than deal with magic workers.”

Knowing chuckles greeted his words. Lerae appeared in his peripheral vision. She carried an almost overloaded plate of meat, vegetables, and pasta salad. “Here.” She winked at Florian. “I needed to clean out the salads in the back of the fridge.”

Florian drooped with the drama of a swooning melodrama maiden, then straightened up and inclined toward Lerae. “Thank you, oh wonderful paragon of womanhood and generosity. You are a model of hospitality and decorum, despite having chosen a musician as mate.” Florian studied the heaped platter. “Oh, roast? I love you.” He made calf-eyes at Lerae. She made a kissy-face back at him as her husband rolled his eyes.

“Ahem!” Niko mock glowered at both of them.

“In a brotherly fashion, I assure you.” Florian sobered. “For the meal and shelter, my thanks. May the Great God bless this place both graciously and well.”

“May the Lady and Her Defender be with you this night and in the nights to come,” Niko replied. Lerae patted Florian on the shoulder, then got the door for him, since his hands were full. Once she closed the door, Nikolai asked, “Will the meat make it to his car?”

She giggled. “Probably not.” She put one arm around his waist. “News?”

He hung his head. “The Hunter born is likely dying. The bite carried both venom and germs, and he lost a great deal of blood.”

Lerae held him close, providing all the comfort she could. Her tears dampened his shoulder. It helped.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: After the Fight

Lord Adrescu and his people rest and reflect.

By the time Adrescu finished cleansing the other three of their kills, Mistress Crina had gotten Lacrima to her feet. The girl staggered over to a tree and leaned on it, head hanging. Crina cleansed the fifth beast using Wadim’s pouch, and returned it to him. “Onto the horse, you can eat as we ride,” Crina ordered Lacrima.

The young woman took a long breath and walked with shaky steps to where Schnell waited. Adrescu met her there. She started to curtsey and back away. “No. I will boost you into the saddle.” Huge, light brown eyes met his, and she swallowed hard. “Put one hand on the saddlebow, and one on the cantle.” She did as ordered. He crouched and cupped his hands. “Lift your left foot, yes, and put it in my hands. On three I will lift you. One, two, three.” He heaved her up. She scrambled, then got her right leg over Schnell’s back and sat firmly. The gelding twitched but otherwise ignored her. Adrescu slid her left boot into the stirrup. She found the right one on her own and clutched the saddlebow with both hands again.

“Ride ahead and warn them,” Adrescu ordered his brother once he had remounted Razboini.

All he could see of his half-brother was teeth, Radut smiled so widely. “Yes, my lord!” Animus rose onto his hind legs, turned, and leaped into motion. Radut lay flat on the gelding’s neck as they raced down the trail.

Wadim shook his head. “My lord, I don’t think he will grow out of it.”

Adrescu had to chuckle. “No, I fear our father’s cautions fell on deaf ears.” Lord Mihali had forbidden his men to race their horses, lest horse and rider both suffer injury or death. “My brother has never been one to obey an order he disagrees with.” 

“Aye, my lord.”

Behind them, Crina muttered something under her breath, probably a resigned complaint about young men and men who thought they remained young.

The ride back to the fortress passed without any attacks. Several riders met them as they approached the safety of the sturdy, dark stone keep. Adrescu relaxed. Codrin wheeled his gelding and moved in to ride beside Adrescu. “You are out of bed?”

“Barely, my lord.” The lean, short Hunter’s face remained too pale. “Radut ordered food and drink to be ready for you, sir.”

“So why do you ride out? Good.”

“Because if I didn’t get away from the honored vindecai, I would be forced to confess to intemperate actions as well as uncharitable thoughts.” Codrin took a long breath. “And to see how the new tamadii fared, and if she needed,” he held up a glazed clay bottle.

“Ah. Good thought. Go.”

“My lord.” Codrin turned the nondescript horse and rode toward the women.

Razboini snorted and tried to speed his steps. “Yes, fine.” Adrescu gave the stud his head, and the Hungarian stallion lunged into a parade trot, stretching his stride in the fancy gait. At least it was only food he wanted, not a mare. He’d been trained to ignore mares while he was under saddle.

Grooms met them as the group rode into the gates. Codrin dismounted beside Adrescu. “She refused to drink, my lord,” he warned.

“Thank you.” Adrescu dismounted and hurried over to stand beside Schnell. As the seer had warned, Lacrima’s face had gone pale once more, and she swayed. “Release the saddle and I will help you down,” Adrescu ordered.

The young woman gave him a blank look. Her eyes rolled back in her head. He grabbed her as she slumped to the left and slid off the pony, as limp as a sack of rags. She’d already pulled her feet out of the stirrups, so he just caught her and carried her away from the horses. She weighed almost nothing, or so it felt. He growled to himself—she’d burned too much of herself stopping the false-wolf. One of the larger men helped him get the girl over his shoulder, and Mistress Georgeta met them in the doorway.

“This way, my lord.” Lacrima did not stir until they laid her down on a mattress on the floor, with her feet higher than her head. Crina followed. “She overreached,” Georgeta stated.

Crina nodded. “Very hard. Stripped a false-wolf of power and killed it. Abyssal,” the tamadii reported. “And wouldn’t eat as we rode. She held onto the saddle bow the whole way, then fainted.”

Adrescu frowned. “She’s too light. I know she’s eating, but she’s too light, her bones are too small.”

Both women nodded, thin-lipped and angry. “Yes, my lord. She had not eaten properly for some time. It wasn’t just winter-hunger,” Georgeta said. “And you will fall over if you don’t eat, my lord.” She glared at him, then turned her attention to Lacrima. The girl stirred, started to moan, and stopped the sound.

Adrescu gave Mistress Crina a puzzled look. She shrugged. He left them and went to where food waited, lots of food. Not fancy, but filling bread, cheeses, dried fish, and some very early greens graced his table. As per custom, Radut and Wadim had already started eating. During and after a Hunt, all hunters and magic workers were equals at table. It made no sense for someone to pass out or suffer because their lord was slow! Adrescu’s father had disapproved of the tradition, for all that he’d followed it. Adrescu found it wise, and insisted that no one wait for him after a Hunt.

He sat and devoured what appeared in front of him. The mug contained herbed wine with something else, something strong enough to warn him to finish his first plate of food before drinking anything more. The cooks had done well, stretching the previous year’s harvest into spring. He missed meat, but it was Lent, and they were fortunate to have a dispensation to be allowed butter and cheese after Hunting. Hunters on duty abstained from food and drink only before mass, as did all believers. It was not discussed with outsiders, but all in the Hunters’ lands knew.

“How is our new tamadii, my lord?’ Radut asked once Adrescu had finished one full plate and slowed his devouring.

“She was just regaining her senses as I left.” He drank a little, in part to cool the flash of anger. “Mistress Georgeta says that she went hungry too often when younger, and not just the usual seasonal fasting and short rations. She has no fat and her bones are light. I carried her easily.”

The two Hunters exchanged angry looks. “That fits what we saw when we brought her in, my lord,” Wadim growled. “Shift and slippers patched and worn, no cloak, bruises on her arms and what of her legs we saw . . .” His voice faded away and he drank.

Codrin joined them, moving slowly. The vision had gripped him hard, perhaps too hard. Adrescu waved at him and he sat with care. Wadim pushed the last of the bread toward the seer, and he took the smallest piece, and a bit of cheese, and ate. Before Adrescu could order him to eat more, Codrin said, “My stomach’s still churning.” He sipped some of the wine blend, then took a larger slice of bread and some of the fish.

That night, after evening prayers, the Hunters and two tamadii stayed in the chapel after the others departed. The blood bottles, six cups, and a pitcher of unconsecrated wine sat on a small table off to the side, near the font of live water. Father Pavel returned from putting away his vestments and the others parted, making room for him. Lacrima relaxed, or seemed to, when the priest came back. Did she fear the men, Adrescu wondered? Or had she never heard of the Fruits of the Hunt? She stood behind Mistress Crina, putting the older tamadii between herself and the others. If Fr. Pavel noticed, he said nothing. He raised his right hand. “In the name of the One who gave his blood that all might live, all glory and honor and praise be unto Him.”

“Amen,” the others chanted, and bowed. Lacrima lagged, but she’d never seen the ritual before, perhaps.

The priest held both hands above the flasks of blood. “Blessed be God the Father, the creator of all that is. Blessed be the Son who gave His life that all might live eternally. Blessed be the Spirit, which troubled the waters and stirs the soul. Thanks be for strength in time of trial, and thanks for the healing power of the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” came the fervent reply.

Fr. Pavel lifted the pitcher of wine. The priest said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Through wine, the blood of the Hunt turns into life, just as the power of God turns ordinary wine into the blood of the Lamb.”

“Thanks be to God,” came the reply.

Fr. Pavel poured the blood into the pitcher, then held out one hand. Adrescu offered him his knife. The priest stirred the pitcher with the blade, then held it above the pitcher and allowed the Fruits of the Hunt to drip free before returning the knife. Adrescu wiped it on a bit of cloth even so before he sheathed it. “Take, drink, and know that the Lord is good.”

“Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.”

Fr. Pavel stepped back, and Adrescu poured one cup. Radut took it. Wadim accepted the second. Crina chivied Lacrima forward, and Adrescu gave her a cup, then poured one for Crina. Codrin lifted his, and at last Adrescu poured his own cup. The Hunters and healers saluted the altar and the Lady, then drank. Fr. Pavel abstained unless he had participated in the Hunt himself.  Any Hunter could bless the Fruits of the Hunt, but Adrescu preferred a clerical blessing if a priest was willing. In this, too, the Hunters held a quiet dispensation.

Lacrima squeaked, then swayed. Wadim and Radut caught her. “Lacrima, drink more, now,” Crina ordered. “It is not drugged. You need it. Drink.” Crina herself took another swallow, as did Adrescu. Shaking, Lacrima did as ordered. The men stepped clear and returned to their own cups.

The yearning and sense of weakness faded as Adrescu drank. He sipped, taking his time, letting the power in the blood-touched wine work through his body and mind. The colors in the chapel grew brighter, and warmth spread in his limbs. The usual post-Hunt fatigue faded, and some of his aches eased as well. Not all of them, no, but enough so he felt younger and far better than he had. “Truly, the Lord our God is good, and is the one true God,” he observed.

“Amen and amen,” Codrin agreed, sipping as well. “Blessed be the One who rewards His servants with life.” He had not Hunted, true, but Codrin’s vision surely counted as worthy of the Fruits.

Adrescu turned his attention back to Lacrima. She appeared dazed and stared into her cup, then up at Crina, then back at the cup. “You Hunted, as I said,” Mistress Crina replied, answering the obvious question. “For that reason you receive the Fruits of the Hunt. Many generations ago, Our blessed Lady revealed the secret of the Fruits to our people. Because we shed our blood and give our lives to protect this land and others from the corruption of evil, we are allowed to partake of the blessings of the Fruits of the Hunt.”

Fr. Pavel nodded and folded his arms. “Just so, my child. It is not a blessing to be taken for granted, or to be abused. The raw blood of abyssal or corrupted beasts will cause an agonizing death for he who drinks it alone, unblessed. When blended with wine and blessed with all due reverence and care, the Fruits provide life. Life given by life cleanly taken, taken without wrath or greed or arrogance.” He held up a cautionary finger. “This is not the wine of the mass, and may never be used for mass. It is from a different stock, and the two never come close. Neither do the Hosts touch this. They are for a different, higher purpose. This is a blessing, not a sacrament.”

Adrescu did not twitch at the reminder. His soul needed the sacraments. His body liked the Fruits. Lacrima looked happier, if still puzzled. Adrescu asked, “Lacrima, have you ever partaken of the Fruits when your father or brothers or uncles Hunted?”

A fast head-shake answered his question. It did not surprise him. Most Hunters, when they could, shared the Fruits with their families. Custom did not forbid it, and it probably helped women recover from childbed. Given what he could guess of how her father and male relatives treated her, to refuse her the Fruits would be expected. He fought down his anger. This was most certainly not the place or time.

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

Something Sweet

So, I’m writing a series of short stories/ fairy tales, that are quiet, soft, and happy. Here’s part of the first one, “The Little House on Kitten Paws.” The end of the excerpt is not the end of the story.

Es war einmal a young girl named Gretchen. She lived with her mother and father in a snug wooden house at the edge of the village, where the fields and forest blended one into another. A painting of flowers and vines decorated the side of the bright white house. Other houses boasted paintings of animals, or geometric designs, also in bright colors. Like the other village houses, a good vegetable and herb garden grew behind the house, away from the path through the village.

Gretchen’s father owned a team of horses, Hansi and Stein, and a fine wagon that carried wood and grain and other things for people in the village. He’d come from “away,” perhaps as far as two towns distance. Gretchen’s mother had ten generations in the village burying ground. Gretchen took after her mother—plain of face but skilled with her hands, and blessed with moon-colored hair that shimmered white-blonde. She spun wool, making both fine thread and sturdy yard for the weavers. She knitted and embroidered. The family’s garden prospered despite being so close to the cool forest, but not so well that the other village women envied them.

Gretchen went into the forest with her mother and other women to gather berries, nuts, and herbs. Her mother knew more about the plants of the woods than did other women, as had her mother. They picked nettle tops and dock leaves, blackberries and tart gooseberries, purple-hued foxglove for making calming teas, chamomile, and other things. Some of the women knew mushroom lore, and trimmed the large, tan, flat mushrooms that grew like little shelves from some trees. Everyone knew that puff-balls from the pasture carried the goodness of the sun. Gretchen and her mother traded their wild herbs for mushrooms and garden herbs.

One midsummer day, when she was ten years old, Gretchen and her mother went into the forest without the other women and girls. “You are old enough to see the great treasure of the woods,” her mother told her. They left the path to the berry bushes and followed an older, narrow trail into the cool shadows of the deep forest. The underbrush shrank as the trees loomed tall. Birds called, and puddles of sunlight glowed here and there, where the thick leaves permitted it. After a time, they came to a clearing lush with sweet-herbs and grass. The summer sun poured blessings down from above, warming the air. Gretchen heard a cheerful, quiet babble of flowing water. “There,” her mother whispered. “What do you see?”

Gretchen leaned forward, looking at a spot in some tan-gold rocks where light danced on water. “A spring, Mama?”

“Yes.” Her mother led her across the grass and they stepped carefully on two stones in a small creek. “This is a sweet spring. Nothing bad may grow here, and the water is safe, no matter how hard it rains or storms. A saint blessed this spring, and the clearing around it.”

Gretchen stared at the herbs and flowers, and at the clear water. Cresses waved gently in the stream, green and soft, and a little silver fish flashed across the water, then hid once more. “Which saint, Mama?”

“No one knows, it was so long ago, before the village grew. Nothing bad can stay here, Gretchen. Anything that grows is safe,” her mother repeated, pointing to unfamiliar red berries growing among the blades of grass.

“Yes, Mama.”

“Do not speak of this to the others. It is not a secret, but it doesn’t belong to the village.” Her mother gestured to the forest around them. “It belongs to the woods, and the saints. We may come here to visit, but not to stay.”

[SNIP. Things happen, and Gretchen, now 15, leaves home to seek her fortune]

The next morning, before the sun had begun to fade the morning star, Gretchen gathered her warmest things and fled to the forest, trusting her mother’s words. A few birds chirped as she walked with hesitant steps along the narrow path. The darkness hid the big stump and other familiar guides. A heavy “whunf” came from between the trees to her left and she sped her steps as much as she dared in the near-darkness. The trees hid the false dawn and stars. An owl hooted three times, and Gretchen whispered the charm against evil spirits. A few threads of mist—pale wisps like lost spirits—rose between the trees.

Slowly, as the sun drew closer to the unseen edge of the world, Gretchen saw trees and bushes. A faint shimmer of silver coated some of the big leaves. “The dew,” she whispered, and nodded. That was it. The forest smelled as it always had, both full of life and a little cold. Spring’s warmth always came late to the deep woods.

Soon, the trail reached the clearing and the spring. Gretchen set her bundle down at the edge of the sunny verdure, then took a drink from the stream. The water tasted sweet and soothed her stomach. A bit of color in the damp grass caught her eye, and she ate a few of the little white berries. Her hunger eased. “Thank you,” she told the grass and water, then returned to the edge of the clearing. Now what should she do? The warm sun took away the soreness in her shoulders and back. Soft bird chirps and the music of the spring made her sleepy, and she lay down, her head on her bundle. “I’ll just rest a moment.”

Footsteps, soft and steady, woke her. She opened her eyes to find a house sitting in the meadow! Gretchen blinked. No, not sitting, standing. Soft paws like a kitten’s feet grew from each corner of the little building. Cheerful red shutters and golden walls seemed to welcome her. Moss grew here and there on the roof, making fur-like stripes. The house stopped at the spring, then walked back into the grass. It settled down like a cat, front paws curled under as it sat in the sun. Gretchen smiled. It couldn’t hurt her. She stood, stretched, and dared to come a little closer. “Hello?” She said, quietly, one hand out as she would approach a strange cat.

The red-painted door opened, and the little house on kitten feet tipped toward her, making it easier for her to enter. She returned to her bundle, picked it up, and dared to step inside. “Oh!” A cozy sight met her eyes. A good, snug wood stove all clean and white sat beside cupboards of dishes and jars with flour and other things. A small bed tucked into a corner, near two chairs and a table. Spinning things waited under one of the windows, and a snug pantry waited near the cooking area. She looked around, then went back out and asked, “May I stay?”

The house trembled a little, and she heard a soft rumbling sort of sound. It purred! Gretchen petted the wooden wall, then returned to the house and put her things in the proper places. She needed wood, though. Gretchen crossed the clearing and gathered wood from the forest, away from the blessed meadow, and brought it back to the house. She lit a small fire in the stove. The rumble grew louder, and she felt the house sway a little, as if the paws made kneaded the ground like a happy cat. The swaying soothed Gretchen’s fears. She slept well that night in the little bed.

Come the next morning, the house had moved to a different place in the woods. Gretchen went out and gathered fruit and some early nuts, as well as herbs. She found fresh water and filled two buckets. Then she swept the little house. It wiggled, as if the broom tickled it. Then she swept the walls outside. The house purred, content.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: At the Stones

In which the Hunters get an unwanted surprise, and a good one. In that order.

They reached the old stones in good time. He stopped well clear of them and drew his blessed silver cross from under his tunic. He held it in his right hand and twisted his vision. He saw the ancient corruption, but nothing more, St. Michael be praised. He released his sight and the cross both and cued Razboini to step to the side, off the main trail. Radut rode up to join him as Wadim and the women continued closer to the stones. “Dismount or fall, my lord?” Radut inquired in a low voice.

Adrescu considered the young woman. “Fall.” Sore, uncertain, and not used to straddling a horse? She’d fall. Crina dismounted first, handed the reins of her mare to Wadim, and walked to Lacrima. Schnell flicked his tail but otherwise ignored her. Crina held the gelding’s bridle as Lacrima gulped, released her grip on the saddle-bow, and swung one leg over the front of the saddle. Thud. She didn’t fall completely over, and she didn’t grab Schnell’s stirrup at least, but it was not a graceful arrival.

“You win.” Radut cued Animus to move away from the others, and began riding large circles around the old stones. Adrescu too remained mounted, watching and listening. Crina took the reins back from the younger Hunter and led her mare to a tree. She tied the horse loosely and beckoned Lacrima to come closer to the tall, slender grey and white stones.

Six stones formed the inner ring, seven the outer, with a scattering of white and bright red stream cobbles inside the inner ring. On stormy nights of the dark of the moon, the stones cast a faint sickly yellow glow to those with the gift to see magic. They did not move, and the number never changed, despite what outsiders claimed. Who had raised the stones, no man knew. They traced back as far as the unwritten histories stretched, to the time before the Hunters accepted the Great God and His Lady and Son, even before the division of the people into the mountain folk and the cursed lowlanders. The taint in the land around the stones remained quiet, but returned each time it was lifted, until the lords of the valley had ordered the tamadii to cease their labors. It grew no worse, and so the Hunters watched it, nothing more. As with the cursed spring, so long as it changed not, no steps need be taken.

“Look at the land as you would an injured man,” Crina instructed. “What do you see?”

The younger woman gulped so loudly he could hear it. She wrote on the wax-board that she had brought with her. Crina read it aloud. “The color of dry blood around the color of green pus. Inside that, purple black, like the beasts of winter.”

Adrescu nodded, as did Wadim. The girl was a land-reader. Good. But could she heal land as well as men?

“Come closer.” Crina led the way to the outermost edge of the stones. Lacrima followed, moving slower and slower, reluctant and hesitant. “What’s wrong?”

Again, Lacrima wrote, and again Crina read aloud. “The land ails, reaches toward something, reaches that way.” Lacrima pointed to the east as Crina read her words. She pointed toward the densest shadows among the dark pine trees.

How odd. He’d never heard— “Sa,” Adrescu ordered, reaching down and pulling a Hunting spear into his left hand as the stallion surged into motion. Radut, already trotting, dropped his short reins and yanked bow and arrow from their cases. Animus turned toward the source of danger, cued by leg and weight alone.

Crina’s voice carried no sign or surprise or fear. “Ah. Thank you for warning us. Now, I want you to come over here . . .” He shut out the sound and concentrated on the danger ahead. Now he heard the heavy paw-falls of fell beasts on the still-hard ground under the trees. He twisted his sight and caught a glimpse of four, no five, stocky, broad-chested shapes slinking toward them.

“Wolf-warps,” he told Radut. “Five I see.”

“So do I.” Animus turned a little to the right. Radut had not drawn his bow, yet, but sat alert and ready. “Lead and right-most.”

“Left-most and second.” He backed Razboini two steps. The stallion snorted but moved willingly, as alert as his rider.

Hareeeeee! The false-wolf’s howl cut through the air, and the pack erupted from the shadows of the trees. Beside him, Radut aimed and fired, aimed and released. Adrescu rode toward the left side of the pack. He hurled the first spear at lighter beast following the lead warp-wolf. The spear struck in the flank and the barbed head pierced the beast’s lung. Pink froth erupted as Adrescu rode for the next target. The left-most animal dodged, swinging wide and passing him. Razboini followed without being commanded, and raced after the reddish-black beast. The stallion closed the distance in four strides and his rider leaned to the side. He jammed the spear as deep into the twisted creature as he could. It tumbled, and Razboini staggered, caught himself, and jumped over the carcass. Adrescu heard Radut call out a warning, then a horse’s scream.

Yipe! Yipe, yipe, yi— Silence. Razboini returned to the carcass, and at his rider’s command, rose onto his hind feet and crushed it. Bone splintered under the heavy blows, assuring the beast’s death. Adrescu rode back to his first kill and dismounted. He pulled two small bottles from the saddle pocket, opened first one, then the other, and caught the blood of the creature.

“Here, my lord,” Radut said from above him. He handed down his own blood bottles, and Adrescu filled them from Radut’s kills. Radut stayed on alert, bow in hand, ready. “I see no more for now.”

“The pull is gone, my lord,” Crina called from behind him. “And you will need to help Lacrima onto her horse.” He handed Radut the flasks and turned to see what had happened.

The fifth false-wolf lay at the outer edge of the stone circles. Crina held the reins of Wadim’s horse as he filled a blood flask from the beast. Where was Lacrima? A pile of fabric lay beside the closest stone, and his heart went cold. Wadim stood. “My lord, she is fine, merely over-tired.” He sounded shaky himself.

“I got two, you got two,” Radut reminded Adrescu. “I heard the sling’s buzz.”

“Yes.” Wadim kicked the body at his feet. It had an unnatural sheen, and Adrescu approached, one hand on his Hunting blade. “My lord, the new tamadii stripped it of magic and killed it.” Wadim gulped. “This has scales like a fish.”

“And shimmers like a rotting fish,” Mistress Crina said. As soon as Wadim mounted and took back the reins, she went to the younger tamadii. Lacrima had begun trying to sit. Her face had a greenish tinge, and she breathed through her mouth, eyes on the ground. She mimicked drinking. “Someone’s water, please?” Crina asked. Radut rode up to her and handed her his own water skin. “Thank you.” He backed his horse away from the women and rejoined Adrescu. Without being asked Radut offered two pouches of blessed basil, his eyes still on the land around them.

Adrescu walked to the closest body. “In the name of the Great God who made all that is good, and of His Son who healed the sick and cast out demons, I pray that the land be cleansed of foulness.” He scattered the dried herbs over the false-wolf. Blue-green, heatless flames flared, taking away the impure magic and any corruption yet in the beast. When the flames died away, a charred skeleton lay on the ground for a moment, then shattered into dust. He looked up at Radut. “Abyssal.”

“Aye, my lord, or so tainted by abyssal power that the body cannot bear cleansing.”

By the time Adrescu finished cleansing the other three of their kills, Mistress Crina had gotten Lacrima to her feet. The girl staggered over to a tree and leaned on it, head hanging. Crina cleansed the fifth beast using Wadim’s pouch, and returned it to him. “Onto the horse, you can eat as we ride,” Crina ordered Lacrima.

The young woman took a long breath and walked with shaky steps to where Schnell waited. Adrescu met her there. She started to curtsey and back away. “No. I will boost you into the saddle.” Huge, light brown eyes met his, and she swallowed hard. “Put one hand on the saddlebow, and one on the cantle.” She did as ordered. He crouched and cupped his hands. “Lift your left foot, yes, and put it in my hands. On three I will lift you. One, two, three.” He heaved her up. She scrambled, then got her right leg over Schnell’s back and sat firmly. The gelding twitched but otherwise ignored her. Adrescu slid her left boot into the stirrup. She found the right one on her own and clutched the saddlebow with both hands again.

“Ride ahead and warn them,” Adrescu ordered his brother once he had remounted Razboini.

All he could see of his half-brother was teeth, Radut smiled so widely. “Yes, my lord!” Animus rose onto his hind legs, turned, and leaped into motion. Radut lay flat on the gelding’s neck as they raced down the trail.

Wadim shook his head. “My lord, I don’t think he will grow out of it.”

Adrescu had to chuckle. “No, I fear our father’s cautions fell on deaf ears.” Lord Mihali had forbidden his men to race their horses, lest horse and rider both suffer injury or death. “My brother has never been one to obey an order he disagrees with.” 

“Aye, my lord.”

Behind them, Crina muttered something under her breath, probably a resigned complaint about young men and men who thought they remained young.

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

Why Follow Someone?

Granted, sometimes it is a case of following someone out of morbid curiosity to see what disaster is about to ensue, so that either plausible deniability may be ensured, or to see just how bad it could possibly be . . .

[Speaking of which, NO POLITICS! Please.]

I was thinking more about “What motivates the Hunters to follow a certain leader?” When you have a generally merit-based society, what causes some people to start turning to a particular individual and treating that person as a leader? I do not think of myself as a leader, but other people do. I freely admit, I’m not entirely certain why, save for the “morbid curiosity and entertainment value” aspect of things. But why do the Hunters follow Skender and Arthur? Why do they follow Danut Adrescu? What motivates people to follow, when other options are available?

In Danut Adrescu’s case, blood ties play a role. He’s the clan leader, descended from clan leaders (or their sisters, depending on who was born first and who outlived whom) going back a long way. He and his half-brother have been trained to be leaders, and the others in the larger group have a set of expectations about what the clan chief is supposed to do, how he’s supposed to behave, and how he will reward virtue and punish vice. Adrescu’s going to have to do a bit of the latter, assuming he survives whatever the Ottomans seem to be hatching, assuming that Codrin’s vision is truly precognitive. Radut has also earned the respect of the other men and women, in his case partly because he refuses to allow a crippling injury keep him from doing what needs to be done. His skill as both a horse trainer and horse rider also play a role. Kinship as a tie of military service was found in feudal Japan as well as other places. When in doubt, follow your kindred, circle around the center of the larger family’s property, and protect those related to you – that’s one of the oldest loyalties in the books, literally.

There’s not as much opportunity for loot with the Hunters as in traditional armies. You could argue that the Fruits of the Hunt are loot, and it’s true that the Hunters in Adrescu’s time were not averse to confiscating the goods of people who were proven to be getting into mischief, be it mundane or esoteric. Should Adrescu have to face the Ottoman Turks, his soldiers and Hunters will grab what they can if they win. It’s tradition, and a good reward. In our world, even into the early modern era, there were people who fought with, oh, Prince Eugene of Savoy, because he had a record of winning and rewarding his men very well. Or of letting them reward themselves from the enemy. When the monarchs and princes couldn’t pay their hired soldiers, the men found loot on their own – see Rome, 1527, and Charles V’s problem with losing control of his troops. In Eugene’s case, it also tied into charisma. He took care of his troopers, even when he considered them swine. He tended to win more often than he lost, he ended up with loot at some point during most campaigns, and he tended to be impartial when it came to discipline.

Skender and Arthur proved themselves to the Riverton clan as Hunters first and foremost. Then Skender began quietly taking on more and more duties, especially the lesser duties of the senior Hunter. The then-leader was old, in poor health, and couldn’t do those things. Skender showed that he had the needed skills, sense of duty, and training to lead, should the opportunity arise. Arthur supported his brother, and may have on occasion dealt with other Hunters who might have posed threats to Skender. Perhaps. Maybe. No one ever admitted to doing such, and Skender could more than take care of himself. So when the old clan leader died, the Elders and Hunters agreed that Skender was a reasonable choice. It wasn’t without challenges and fights, as series readers have probably surmised. And every so often a Hunter would push things, leading to injuries.

Now? Skender and Arthur have both proven themselves, and no one is suicidal enough to take them on as a pair. Arthur served as head of the Hunters, overseeing training and ensuring order more-or-less. The other Elders and retired Hunters knew about Arthur’s injuries and how hard he pushed himself, and admired him. The younger Hunters respected him profoundly, feared him, and occasionally challenged him. Once or twice, a younger Hunter went to Arthur for counsel, and he provided it without demeaning the younger man or telling others. When it appeared that he’d been mortally wounded on the Hunt, it hit the “puppies” hard. Skender was the senior Hunter, true, but Arthur was their leader. At the same time, when Skender took full responsibility for his brother’s injuries, Skender gained more respect as well (although it didn’t stop some of the youngsters and Elders from growling about it, well away from the rest of the clan.)

Why follow? There are a lot of reasons. Experience, family ties and tradition, the hope of reward, the desire to be present when the dreadfully creative disaster unfolds (because great stories sometimes start with, “Ya’ll won’t believe what Bubba did this time.”) Me? I like a leader who gives me a long leash and who states clearly what needs to be done, what is being done, and why (when possible), and who supports subordinates when the chips are down.

Tuesday Tidbit: The Coming of Spring

Four weeks have passed since Lacrima’s arrival.

A month later, Danut Adrescu paced the wall walk, looking out at the valley below the old fortress. Wisps of smoke rose from the farm houses and the village oven, visible in the light of the waning quarter moon and the glow of false dawn. The cold air’s bite lacked the fangs of true winter, and already a few glimpses of dark soil appeared in the fast-melting fields of snow. The days grew longer and longer. Soon, the snow would disappear. Soon the tide of Easter would come, and the passes would open. He wanted to Hunt something, to pound his fist on the sheltering wood above the topmost stones of the wall. Instead he scowled, arms folded, and stared to the south. He heard Radut’s voice speaking to one of the soldiers on watch. Uneven steps approached and stopped. “Yes?” Adrescu growled.

“First, if you wear a hole in the floor, fall into the courtyard, and land on the dung heap, people will laugh, my lord.”

He turned and made a rude gesture in his half-brother’s direction. Radut grinned. “Now, now. The Church frowns on such things among kin of closer than the fourth degree. And I’m not one of those southern heretics, so no, thank you.”

Adrescu had to smile in turn. “Nor are we married. What else?”

“Fr. Pavel will be able to lead mass tomorrow, according to Mistress Georgeta. He will hear confessions this afternoon.” The smile faded. “And Codrin had a vision, a true vision. The rumor about the Ottoman heretic making a pact with the Infernal One may be true.”

“Damn that fool to the deepest hell,” Adrescu hissed, hands clenched into fists. He felt the leather of his gloves straining, so tight did he grip. “And he will not attack his fellow heretics, I suspect.”

Radut turned to gaze at the valley. “If he does, then truly, we have been given a blessing undeserved—time. But I share your fear, my lord.” He leaned on the thick, sturdy sill of the archer’s gap. “The warmth also worries me. If the snow melts quickly, and the rivers crest in April, we will have our hands full.”

Adrescu moved to stand closer to his half-brother. “What saw Codrin, and how fares he?”

“A figure twice the height of a man, like Goliath, but with a bull’s head and horns, and bull’s hoofs. He carried both a sword and the taint of Hell. He wore the robes of the Ottomans, and a green banner traveled beside him.” Radut hung his head. “Codrin remains insensible. The vision struck hard, harder than before. He related it to us before he lost consciousness. I fear for him.”

As did he. Adrescu nodded and looked to the valley as well. “His is a hard gift to bear.”

“Aye, my lord.” Radut straightened up and turned toward Adrescu. “It came as he touched the hilt of your new blade.” He sounded confused. “Yet it was a fore-vision, not the past.”

Adrescu shrugged, still looking at the growing light of dawn on the mountain peaks around them. “We will know soon, I fear. May the Great God grant us time enough to prepare as best we can, and a respite from the Hunt.”

“Amen.”

That afternoon, he went to confession. To his mild surprise, Lacrima emerged from the curtained space. A small wax-board hung from her belt, along with a stylus. Ah, she could write her confession now. She saw him, curtsied, and hurried away, almost tripping in her haste. She reminded him of a hare—still, then jumping into motion. She shied from any who raised his voice or hand, even in jest. She’d gained flesh, thanks be. He pretended not to notice as he took his place, kneeling on the floor.  When he emerged, with a stinging reminder about the consequences of sins of physical lust ringing in his ears, he noted the vindecai deep in prayer, Rosary in hands. He genuflected and sought space and quiet in the St. George chapel.

Mistress Crina approached him the next day, after he broke his fast. Radut came with her, and they spoke quietly as they drew near. Radut stopped and took a place near the chamber door. What was so important that it needs must be guarded? Adrescu beckoned, and the tall, sturdy tamadii bowed and approached. “My lord?”

“Yes?”

“It is warm enough that the land begins to wake. I want to take Lacrima to one of the known places of trouble, to test her gift.” The older, still-unwed tamadii glanced to his half-brother, then back. “With Hunters. I do not trust the breeze fully this day.”

He set down his spoon. “You fear something on the wind?”

Crina reached up and played with the end of the grey and black braid that hung over her shoulder and down her chest. “My lord, I’m not certain, but as strongly as the vision struck Codrin, I fear that things move to test us.” Meaning him, and the defenses of the mountain folk.

He ate more, then said, “Yes. I will finish, then go out with you, and her, and Radut, and two proven Hunters. We ride. Does Lacrima know how to handle a pony?”

The land Healer gave him a tired, almost frustrated look. “Lead, care for, physic, groom, saddle, yes. Ride? No, my lord. She writes that only men and proper women ride.”

What in the name of St. Stephan the Horseman did that mean? He blinked, then shrugged. “Well, put her on Schnell. One of us can lead him if it comes to that.” Whoever named that pony ‘Speedy’ had a truly strange sense of humor. Or the pony had used up all his energy as a colt and never regained it.

Crina smiled with one side of her mouth. She’d dealt with Schnell before. “Yes, my lord. The spot by the leaning stones is close enough if we must return quickly, but away from the stronghold’s defenses and masking.”

He made a warding-off sign with his right hand. “Indeed. And it is a known evil, so anything new will give us warning.”

“That too, my lord.” 

A short time later, Adrescu swung into Razboini’s saddle. He sat, wary and ready for mischief. It had been a while, and the stallion liked to loosen up with a kick and buck or two, especially if he wasn’t under his war saddle. The blood bay’s back started to hump, then relaxed. His rider did not relax. He checked the Hunting spears in their case at his right side, and his riding sword. The slashing blade’s slight curve made it better for use from horseback. Razboini shook his head, making his bridle jingle. Adrescu slapped his neck and the stallion settled down.

“We’re ready, my lord,” Radut called. He rode a grey gelding so pale as to be nearly white, with staring blue eyes. No other man would touch the beast, so Radut cared for it himself. Horse and rider suited each other so well that Adrescu sometimes wondered if his half-brother’s mother had been a been a beast-witch and not a serving maid. Radut and Animus seemed one animal, inspiring yet another surge of envy.

“Good.” He raised one gloved hand, then lowered it and kneed Razboini into motion. The others followed, with Radut as tail. Crina and Lacrima rode in the middle. Schnell was on a lead rope tied to Wadim’s saddle. Lacrima clutched the saddlebow in front of her and sat like a sack of turnips. A bag with her wax tablet and other things hung from the cantle and bumped her leg. Crina handled her mare with more grace and a firm hand. The gate opened ahead of them and they departed the fortress, hoofs thumping on the hard-packed dirt of the trail below the old stronghold. It felt good to be out in the sun, away from the walls.

As they reached the valley road, Razboini twitched. “Do not—” He felt the stallion’s back start to arch, and got ready. The stud rose onto his hind feet, slammed down onto the road, and kicked for all he was worth. Then he bucked. The hard landing shook Adrescu’s marrow, but he stayed in the saddle and rode through the temper fit. “Are you done, you brown plains-born bastard of an ill-mannered ass and an Ottoman mule?” he demanded. Razboini shook his head and neck, then trotted forward.

The other horses behaved, for equine versions of behave. Lacrima did not fall off, something Adrescu took as a positive sign. She needed to learn how to ride. He turned his attention back to the land around them. Indeed, the snow had begun disappearing into the dark dirt of the fields and pastures. The streams ran high, white as the churned over rocks and darker in quiet places. They lapped the edges of the banks. He nodded. Floods would happen, as usual, if a little early. If the cold did not return to strike the new growth and ruin it. Nothing was safe until after the feasts of St. Boniface and Cold Sophia. Some of the trees sported leaves, and the grass, what he could see of it, had a healthy strength as it reached for the sun. The heat felt good on his shoulders, very good. This time of year, his black cloak and breeches warmed but did not bake him. Forest birds sang, welcoming the warmth and longer days.

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

“Black Paths” and Trade Routes

In Barry Cunnelif’s Desert, Steppe, and Ocean, he makes the observation that trade routes never disappeared completely. Even if something had not been available for generations, as long as a sample remained, someone would say, “You know, I wonder if we/I can get more of that,” whatever that happened to be—lapis lazuli, fancy weavings, spices, unusual metal alloys, odd pottery. Movement of food also seems to have followed a similar pattern, although there were other complications, most notably the question of bulk transport of a perishable good.

I just finished reading a rather different book entitled Oceans of Grain. I’ll do a full review later, because I need some time to chew on the author’s ideas, pun intended, and decide what I think about them. The book is fascinating, and useful. One thing the author points out over and over is that the “black paths,” the trade routes for grain from the Russian and Ukrainian steppes to other places never went away. Come plant disease, come Black Death, the trade routes might fade from use, or be avoided, but they always came back. Just like the older routes across Central Asia, and I suspect in other places as well. People remembered that something good or useful came from “over that way,” and once demand returned, then transportation also restarted.

People always seem to want what we don’t have. Some thing different, something Odd, catches our eye and we dig it up, or trade for it, or (a very few per generation) go to see where it came from and if we can get more. Doing that for food is obvious, and appears over and over in history. Mesopotamian records, Chinese records, the Books of Genesis and Ruth, the decline of “Old Europe” and the arrival of the Proto-Indo-European speakers, the end of the Anasazi and the rise of the Rio Grande Valley peoples, they are all part of the constant story of finding food and bringing it home, or going to where the food is. But what purpose does lapis lazuli serve, or raw copper that is not made into tools? Obsidian made excellent sharp arrowheads and knives, although it is a bit more fragile than flint, and passed from hand to hand across continents, or at least across regions. But what about carpets and cloth? Apparently a market has always existed for “like what we make but different,” even if it is the same material? It seems to be part of being human to want unusual things, either for status, or just because they are “not like what we make.”

German highways overlay Roman roads, which often used or paralleled older routes, some of which might be animal trails to salt or good grazing or shelter. English roads follow Roman roads, but not always, because the Roman used roads to show power as well as to get there from here the fastest way possible. Ancient routes across the steppe connected grain-consumers to grain growers, and later railroads ran along the foot paths and cart-roads. To the east, old, old ways ran from oasis to spring to sheltered valley, from the Black Sea or even the Balkans east to China. Other routes branched off to the south, to Mesopotamia, the Oxus and Indus Rivers, and the Amur. Trading cities rose and fell with climate and culture, but despite multiple interruptions over the centuries, ideas and things passed back and forth. Domesticated horses, wheeled chariots, bronze technology, barley and other grains, silk and gems and spices, back and forth they went.

Perhaps, instead of Homo ludens or homo faber, we should use homo commercium. Man the trader instead of “man who plays” or “man the maker.” Because we swap everything and anything, and do it over the same paths for thousands of years.

Tuesday Tidbit: The Vindecai Reports

Mistress Georgeta informs Lord Adrescu to the health of his men – and the skills of the new Healer.

The vindecai watched, then turned back to face him. It always surprised him that she only stood as tall as his shoulder—he was not a large man. She wore the dark brown and cream headdress of a married woman. Her blue dress sported crimson embroidery on the hems, collar, and cuffs, and snug sleeves from elbow to wrist. An array of knives and herb pouches hung from the belt around her thick middle. Almond-shaped grey eyes betrayed her distant Mongol ancestry, as did her round face.

“Yes?”

She dipped a small curtsey. “My lord. I came to report on the three Hunters injured during your absence.”

“Speak as we walk, please.” He needed to move, and he suspected she did as well. Indeed, she ran her set of heavy Rosary beads through her fingers as she spoke.

“My lord, I had to re-open Avram’s leg enough to free muscle that had gotten bound with a bit of skin. Since the one who Healed him has no training at all, truly, St. Gabriel was with both of them. He will make a full recovery, as will Wadim and the other. That she did not block blood? A miracle, my lord.”

He nodded and made the sign of blessing, as did she. “No training at all?”

“None.” She sniffed. “Self-taught on animals, perhaps. I have heard of that among the herb-grannies, but never seen it.”

That would explain what Radut and she described. Adrescu shrugged to himself. It mattered not, save for finding her family. “Can she speak? Nehas said that she seemed mute.”

The vindecai waited until they had reached the main hall to answer. “My lord, I do not know. I say that because she spilled hot water on herself, not boiling but painful hot, and she made no sound.” She made a frustrated gesture with her hands, then clasped them at her waist as was her custom, beads still moving. “The girl has no physical reason to be silent.”

“Huh.” He sat in his great carved chair. A pot-boy brought a drinking bowl of hot mutton broth. He sipped, then said. “Did you find any way to trace her to her family?”

Mistress Georgeta’s lips drew together like a pouch pulled tight shut. “No. Marks of beatings, yes, but nothing like the family on the Bent Tree Farm carry. The beatings went beyond what is proper.”

Adrescu caught himself before he ground his teeth or spilled the hot broth. “All the more reason to keep her here. Her skills will be her dowry, and her family has forfeited any bride-price they might ask.” To discipline a child or wife, that all men did, but to leave scars went far, far beyond mere discipline.

“Thank you, my lord. The scars are visible when she pushes her sleeves back to work.” Mistress Georgeta nodded. “She can do plain sewing and knows some of the decorative stitches, can cook and prepare herbs for either the pot or for storage, can spin wool and flax, milk cows and goats both and harness either to pull,” the vindecai counted off. “And she can distill, and use a saw and wood-ax. She knows some of the herbs of blessing, all the wild herbs of bane, but had no letters or numbers. I’m teaching her those now.”

What a strange combination. Did her father have no sons, or none old enough to do a man’s tasks yet? “What of her other skills?”

“Very strong. So strong that I think she may be a tamadii as well, twice blessed.” She studied the beads at her waist, fingers still moving. “More, perhaps, but Crina sees that better than I do. Codrin agrees with both healing gifts, and also suspects that she had other blessings. Fr. Pavel is not sure, but this season, and untrained?” She shrugged with one hand, then returned to the beads. “We will know come spring.”

He glanced left and right for listeners, then beckoned her closer. She came and leaned in. “Does she show man-fear?”

“Yes and no. Not of all men, but of dark, heavy men. She cowers when anyone, man or woman, raises a hand.” She leaned back, glanced at Radut as he came into the hall, and said in full voice, “Should you choose to set a bride price, my lord, I would begin with high and go up.”

His half-brother smiled and shook his head. “I do not care to have two wives, Mistress Georgeta. One is sufficient for any wise man.”

Which explained why the Ottoman heretics claimed so many women to wife or worse. “Indeed. The Lord said that a man should be faithful to his wife, and a wife should obey her husband. Singular.” Adrescu finished the hot broth. The maid held out a small tray and carried the drinking bowl back to the kitchen. “So, continue training the girl, and teach her more letters.” He caught himself. “Name. Has she a name?”

Mistress Georgeta made the left-handed gesture for puzzlement. “She has to, but when I asked her to write it, she wrote, ‘Lacrima call me.’ Not that her baptismal name was Lacrima, but that I should call her that.” The Healer’s thin eyebrows pulled in toward her small, flat nose. “Fr. Pavel cannot find that name in the baptismal records for the years that might match her age.”

“Sorrows,” Adrescu translated. Radut nodded and shrugged. Adrescu continued, “I see no reason to refuse her request. Perhaps that’s what her family called her, instead of her baptismal name, since she’s mute.”

“That might be, my lord. She learns quickly, very quickly.” Mistress Georgeta smiled a little. “I am envious, as I freely confess.”

Both men chuckled, and Radut said, “If numbers come easily to her, I share your envy.”

Two days later, Adrescu knelt in the small space for confessions. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It is ten days since my last confession.”

“Speak, my Son, that the Most High might hear and forgive.”

He began. “I have had uncharitable thoughts and wrath at my fellow men.” Did Anton deserve it? Perhaps, but that was not his to decide. “I have been proud, and I have . . .”

At last, Fr. Pavel said, ” . . .Ten ‘Our Fathers,’ and one Rosary. My son, take care, lest clean anger become wrath and blind you to true peril. As King Solomon in his wisdom wrote, ‘Pride goeth before a fall, and a haughty spirit before its own undoing.’ In the name of God, you are forgiven. Go forth and sin no more.”

“Thanks be to God. Amen.” Adrescu stood and retreated to the small St. George chapel. He preferred its quiet for his personal meditations after confession. The warrior saint glowered at the demon-dragon impaled on his lance. The image maker had captured the ghastly colors of an abyssal beast, purple and yellow and sickly green all blended together. St. George’s horse reared, about to crush the serpent’s tail with his hoofs. Adrescu bowed, then knelt and began to pray. “Pater noster . . .”

The next morning he partook of the sacraments with a clean heart. His body craved the Fruits of the Hunt as well. He set the craving aside. Spiritual hungers must be sated first, then bodily.

[A vindecai is a Healer of people or animals only. A tamadii is also a land Healer, or one who might have additional gifts besides Healing. Tamadii is not unlike “to heal” in the KJV, in the sense that it has several secondary meanings, including spiritual. Deborah is a tamadii, or would be if that term were used any more. Likewise Jude, even though he is not a healer of bodies.]

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

Tuesday Tidbit: A Healer and a Mystery

This is from the story about Arthur’s sword’s previous owner. Lord Danut Adrescu has returned to his fortress to find a mystery awaiting him.

The next morning, he attended worship in the chapel. He entered the holy space in the heart of the mountain and bowed low to the unseen Presence. He had seen chapels of the Church of Rome, and preferred his people’s way of depicting the Lord Almighty, the Great God. How could any artist, no matter how blessed, dare to try to capture the unknowable majesty and power of the Most High? This was better, here where living water flowed from the very rocks, where no one ventured to show that which no man could look upon and live. The Bride of the Most High, the Lady of Night, stood at Her Lord’s right hand, Her defender, St. Michael, waiting to serve. Green paraments draped the altar, and the Lady wore a dark-blue mantle over a white robe, both trimmed in green. Adrescu took a place in the back, since he had not been shriven and could not partake of the feast of the Eucharist.

A soft chime of bells sounded, then the fainter, deeper tolling of the main bell.  Fr. Ioan and his two assistants came in, and all bowed to the Presence Who watched from the shadows behind the altar. Fr. Ioan belonged to Adrescu’s people, and had little difficulty fitting in despite his having been ordained in the Church of Rome. The grey-bearded priest noted Adrescu’s presence but said nothing. That suited Danut Adrescu quite well. He needed time to consider the past few weeks and to prepare himself for confession.

He ate in the main hall and listened as Nehas read those few messages that had come in. Radut stood by the door, listening. Only after he had finished eating did Adrescu gesture for Radut to come closer. His half-brother moved with awkward steps, the legacy of a mis-healed injury. He rode better than any other man among the people, and held the Hunters’ and soldiers’ respect. “So, Nehas says you went Hunting and found a healer instead?”

Radut snorted and folded his arms. He shared Danut’s light brown hair, green eyes, and Hunter’s teeth and hands. Even before his injury, he’d stood a full head shorter than Danut, and had his mother’s round face instead of their father’s narrow one. Where his heavy shoulders came from, well, there were stories of a wandering Saxon in the family line. Their father had favored the mace and war-flail over the sword for that very reason. “Would that she was all we found, my lord. We also met almost a dozen hell-hounds, the lithe, fast ones. They got Wadim’s old brown gelding, but he got one and a half of them.” Radut bared uneven teeth.

“Almost a dozen? St. Michael’s blade, any idea where they came from?” He drank some of the hot herbal tisane that followed the morning small-beer.

Radut shrugged. “No, my lord. The snow had frozen too hard to back-track them, and we didn’t dare wander in the night. I’ve not heard yet of any farms being struck, but . . .” He shrugged again, and Nehas and Adrescu both made gestures of understanding. No one moved in the cold if they could avoid it. “Codrin didn’t like what he saw of them. They had that purple-yellow sheen, not like the heavier wolf-ish ones.”

“I don’t like either of them,” Nehas stated. “Before you ask, I did not send out-watchers to the farms yet. Lord and Lady willing, tomorrow unless a messenger bird or other news comes.”

Adrescu considered matters, then nodded. “Concur. But the vindecai?”

Radut unfolded his arms and began walking back and forth, as he did when confused. “My lord, she’s a mystery. We had chased the pack into the clearing by the cursed stream’s main pool. Wadim had gone down near one of the big yew trees, the strange one, Avram as well, closer to the pool proper. The rest of us were trying to finish killing the things. When I looked again, the girl was kneeling beside Wadim. Then she got to her feet and went to Avram. She laid hands on his leg, and the flesh closed, St. Gabriel my witness.” He stopped pacing and held his right hand up. “Not as well as Mistress Georgeta, but the wound would no longer kill him. Then she went to Petr. She Healed his arm and collapsed, unconscious.”

Adrescu’s eyes had opened wider and wider with the telling. “She Healed three, in the cold? No wonder she collapsed.”

“Aye, my lord.” Radut bared the tips of his teeth. “And whoever her male relations are, they need to be spoken to. She didn’t have a cloak or any winter gear at all, and wore old sheepskin slippers without socks or stockings.” He gripped his heavy sword-belt with both hands, knuckles white. “We saw no sign of smoke or any other reason why she was in the night without proper clothing. Codrin brought her back on his horse.”

Adrescu set the tankard down. “Looks she like anyone?”

Both men shook their heads as one of the maidservants refilled the tankard and returned to her post by the heart fire. “No, my lord,” Nehas said. “Dark brown hair with a widow’s peak, brown eyes, fair skin, and a light figure, but that could be hunger.” He glanced to Radut, then added, “Mistress Georgeta knows more, but the girl had no spare flesh on her bones.”

That decided him. “Whoever she is, and whoever her family are, she stays here and finishes her training. The Most High knows we need more vindecai, and if she is also a tamadii, so much the better. I do not care for the last stories from the south at all.”

Radut scowled but held his peace. Nehas said, “Agreed, my lord. When even the Ottoman heretics mutter about one of their own dabbling in things best left untouched, it bodes ill for everyone. If the stories have any truth to them,” he added swiftly. False rumor spread faster than truth, especially rumors of war.

No justice cases awaited him, so After he finished eating, Adrescu went to the indoor weapons training hall. Whichever of his ancestors had ordered the thing built, they were in Paradise now, like as not, given how many times the men and women blessed his memory! It was not warm, nor was it as well lit as the outdoor rings, but the salle was much safer in this weather. The men trained in both places, no matter the weather, but today? Well, Radut and the others didn’t need to lose fingers, toes, and noses to the cold. Adrescu acknowledged the bows of those already at work, and continued to the armory. “Where— Ah.” He’d claimed a sword off one of the Ottomans who no longer needed it, and now was the time to test the blade. Other matters had demanded his attention until today.

The belt had been made for a larger man than the Ottoman. Someone had punched extra holes in the fine, thick leather and had done a terrible job of it. Adrescu fastened it properly so that the scabbard hung at his right side. He could fight with either hand, but the left came more easily. His people did not hold that to use the left hand boded ill of a man, and so he carried his blade on the right. He returned to the salle and began to stretch muscles stiff from the cold air and from the long ride. They’d pushed harder than usual yesterday to reach the fortress, but none of the men had trusted the day or the night.

Once warm, Adrescu drew the blade. The basket-hilted rapier looked like the fine steel of Brescia or Milan. The master who made the blade, and the master who created the hilt, had excelled themselves. The sword balanced perfectly, and fit his reach and height as if it had been made to his measure. It was not as heavy as the usual swords he carried, but something about it appealed. Perhaps it was the unusual pommel with the double-barred cross, or the silver-work decorating the steel basket of the hilt. And it was sharp and sturdy enough for hard use, both tip and blade. He began to work, starting with basic exercises, then moving into more complicated moving attacks and parries. Already the blade felt like an extension of his arm despite the lightness. He drew his Hunting dagger and tried some of the parries from the book of swordsmanship in the library. Again, the gestures and defenses came easily. He stopped and considered the sword.

Fr. Ioan had blessed the captured weapons and horses. Nothing of evil should remain on or in the blade. Harald had tested the steel and proclaimed it sound, unlike some of the things the Turks carried. Adrescu turned his arm and wrist, watching the light from the high, rock-glass covered windows play on the blade. “No, you are just a very, very nice blade.” Had it been intercepted before the buyer could use it? Or had the buyer been less of a swordsman than he thought, and so the weapon ended up in the hands of a Turk? Adrescu saluted the figure of St. Michael on the far end of the salle and sheathed both sword and dagger.

Harald approached, and Adrescu acknowledged the one-eyed blacksmith. “What say you?”

The big, fair man touched two fingers to his forelock in salute. “That blade suits you, Danut Mihalison.” He crouched and measured the length of the sheath, then lifted the bottom slightly with one hand. He stood. “Different belt, my lord. Same buckle, yes, different leather. That wears poorly already.” Harald tapped the top of the belt-hanger.

Adrescu looked. Indeed, the leather had begun to thin and even crack. A glance to his Hunting dagger showed the same problem. “Huh. The holes do not show that wear.”

The Northman played with the end of one of his beard braids. His fair hair and red beard had raised questions, questions Fr. Ioan and Adrescu had both put an end to. “Good hide but badly tanned would be my guess, Danut Mihalison. The thickness balanced the drying until now. Were it not cracked, only dry, proper treatment would keep the belt sound.”

“But cracks once started cannot be stopped, not in leather.”  Well, if that was the only thing wrong, he was still better off than most. “Leather we have and in plenty.” The men shared wolfish smiles.

“Aye, Danut Mihalison. If the belt pleases, Mariutza can make a fair copy.” She had inherited her father’s skill with leather, and his short sightedness, so the rules of trade craft had been waived. That she and Harald had not been blessed with children had made it easier, and the other leather masters had agreed with fewer protests than Adrescu’s father had feared. “Keep the buckle. It suits your size.”

“Tell your wife to plan on that, and I will send the old belt to her for a pattern.” Pity, because true Italian-tanned leather cost as much as an entire sheep, sometimes as much as a whole healthy cow!

“I will.” Harald saluted once more and returned to inspecting one of the old broadswords. A few men stood tall enough to use them, and good weapons remained valuable. The pistols of Nuremberg and other places could not replace a good blade. A man needed speed on the Hunt, and to be certain that his weapon could kill when needed. That was not true of the hand-cannons, not yet. Blade, draw-bow or perhaps crossbow, lance and spear, those could be trusted. Most of the time.

Adrescu set the sword aside and stripped the sword hangers and his Hunting blade from the belt. He left the belt with Harald’s tools. As he departed the salle, he found Mistress Georgeta speaking with one of the female servants, one of the simple ones. “Good. Thank you. Now go back to the still room. To the still room.”

“Still room, yes.” The girl plodded off. “Still room, the still room,” she told herself.

The vindecai watched, then turned back to face him. It always surprised him that she only stood as tall as his shoulder—he was not a large man. She wore the dark brown and cream headdress of a married woman. Her blue dress sported crimson embroidery on the hems, collar, and cuffs, and snug sleeves from elbow to wrist. An array of knives and herb pouches hung from the belt around her thick middle. Almond-shaped grey eyes betrayed her distant Mongol ancestry, as did her round face.

“Yes?”

She dipped a small curtsy. “My lord. I came to report on the three Hunters injured during your absence.”

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