Thursday Tidbit: A Hunter’s Lair

Arthur’s evening, when he’s not Hunting (or filling orders, or cursing software, or . . .)

Kssss! Blade slid across gleaming blade. Skender pressed the attack, using his greater strength to force Arthur back. He bared his teeth and twisted, then ducked to the side and feinted with his left hand. A deep snarl greeted his evasion and Skender swung hard. Too hard. Arthur leaped, then shoved his brother’s shoulder as he came down. The blow caught Skender at full extension and off balance, unable to regain his footing. Thud, he landed on his face in the soft dirt of the practice ring. Arthur staggered, caught himself, spun, and came up on guard. Red haze filled his vision.

“Break! Break now!” two voices commanded. Ladislu and one of the Healers, Arthur’s younger sister, ordered the halt. Arthur saluted and sheathed his sword. He breathed slowly, pulling the still-warm, humid air into his lungs. He exhaled fury and adrenaline both with the breath as he calmed mind and body. Murmurs rose from the younger Hunters. He turned to face them. Silence, and two stepped back, away from him. Arkady swallowed loudly, face pale. Perhaps he would cease pushing his seniors for the next while.

He turned back to face his older brother. Skender rolled to a seated position. “Damn it, Boianti. Too much time you spend with that lemur. You are half become one.” No malice in the malediction, perhaps a touch of humor. Skender accepted Ladislu’s extended hand, regained his feet, and kept his weapon. Ladislu sketched a bow and backed out of the ring. Skender saluted both judge and opponent, then slid his blade into the sheath hanging between his shoulders. He breathed hard, beads of sweat making his forehead shine in the dim light from the lamps in the now-empty barn.

“Point to Boianti,” Ladislu declared. “But that was a true desperation counter, sir.” The faintest hint of disapproval colored his dispassionate tone.

Arthur nodded only sufficient to be seen by the judge. He turned to face the younger Hunters once more. “What result should that move be used against many of the beasts we hunt?” he asked.

Quiet. He heard Skender—no, felt Skender—moving to stand at his left shoulder. Georg shifted his weight, then said, “Sir, it might catch you in air, impale you should it posses claws or digits of sufficient length and strength?”

“Correct.”

“A second beast, concealed, could catch you as you land, sir?” Tadeuz spoke with greater confidence. He had survived an ambush, but not without a scars.

“Also correct.” He waited.

Rendor spoke from the pool of darkness where he and several other inactive Hunters stood. “Sir, a magic user could cast a spell to catch and hold you as you descended, or to tangle you as you touched ground.” We,” he gestured to the Hunters, “do not always consider magic literally under our feet. Shadow, the big redhead, Silver would all do the like.”

“As would the sorcerer called Spots,” Skender growled. “Here, at this moment, we Hunt no known magic users. That is . . . not always so.”

Arthur inclined his head in agreement. “Exactly so. The Terrible Hunt.” He let the others nod or snarl. “Strong magic aided us. Come the future?” Hunters Hunted against magic users, more often than not. So had it always been. The pups needed to learn that, or die.

Rendor bowed, left the shadows, and approached the ring. “Florian,” he called.

Florian grinned, teeth full bared, bowed with an extravagant flourish, and joined his elder in the ring. Nikolai, Florian’s Hunting partner, rolled his eyes and whispered, “Lady of Night, lend me patience,” sufficiently loud for all to hear. Florian ignored the jibe as he and Rendor saluted the judge, then each other. Skender stalked to the left. He passed behind the judge to stand as secondary watcher. Skender’s fingers flicked the pattern of dismissal. Arthur acknowledged the command and departed for the main house. He smiled to himself, once clear of the other Hunters. He had not bested his brother for several years.

Soft summer stars shimmered above him. The waning moon slept yet, her light hidden by the gently rolling land. A bat fluttered past and avoided him with an adroit tumble. The child bemoaned her inability to enjoy nights as she had once done. He inhaled. Warm, life-rich summer night smells flowed around him. The usual night sounds of the home farm filled his ears. “Who-hoo!” He froze, one foot on the lowest step of the main house.

“How-hoo!”

He drew the silver dagger from his boot sheath and triggered the shield spell in his signet ring. A faint bitterness tainted the air. Where? He turned, listened, tasted the wind for more hints.

“It passes, Hunter. It lingers not.” His eldest sister spoke from the deep porch surrounding the house.

He bowed to her and returned weapon and shield to their proper places. “It watches.” He climbed the steps and joined her.

She nodded, then gazed into the night with white-clouded eyes. What did she see? “It watches and waits. It is canny, and old.” She turned to him. “That concerns me.”

He opened the house’s main door for her, then followed her through. A shield closed behind them as the door latch touched the plate. “I shall wash, then join you,” he said. He did not care to eat while smelling of dirt and sweat.

“Yes.”

[snip]

Food, his eldest sister, and Raj and Corava awaited him in the small dining room. “Eat, please,” his sister ordered. “We have already dined, including you, small mistress.” She shook a warning finger at the Pallas cat. Raj gave her a look of feline hauteur and remained in the chair, head well above the top of the table. Arthur ignored the determined stare and served himself. He murmured his thanks, then sat and ate.

[SNIP]

“Before you inquire, that is not Charles the Bold Bird in the stew.” His eldest sister’s irritation drew a curious look. “Skender knows better than to go into the poultry yard without performing the proper rituals.”

Again, he smiled at his brother’s expense. “Indeed. All know that monarchs demand the honors due their dignity and rank.” And due their very sharp spurs and beak! “I confess, I still savor the memory of Tay and Rodney fleeing in panic from Charles’ wrath.”

He sipped the dry summer white wine, blended with a hint of sweet apple juice. His thoughts returned to the Hunt. “The undead. A full Hunt at the dark of the moon?” Which would also be midsummer night, he realized. Would the two balance?

Corava turned her hands in a gesture of uncertainty. “Something else shifts, sir, and we . . . are not certain which is a greater threat.”

Alas, that matched what Tay had said the day before. Perhaps the two would meet and destroy each other? No, such never happened in his world. Use one evil to track the other? No, but . . . “Imperotessa, could Wings track the undead in owl form?” He would have Silver request Wings’ assistance, should it prove possible.

The large cat’s golden brown eyes narrowed, and her long whiskers tipped back as did her ears. He heard the swish of her tail. “It is possible, Pisicagheara, but only should she find the nosferitau with eye first, then her mage and Silver help track the ill presence. Wings recovers from a hard working, and might refuse.” Her tone implied likely refusal.

“Thank you.” He stood. “And thank you.” He bowed to his sister, and then to his sister-by-marriage.

“You are welcome. May the Lady watch you this night.” His sister locked eyes with him. “Go wary, brother. We know not the second presence.”

He inclined toward her once more. “Wary shall I go.”

He heard the other Hunters dispersing as he descended the steps behind the house. Where could he rest? Not on clan land. Like as not one of the two creatures of darkness had begun to track him. Not the concealed place in the warehouse, either, not tonight. One of the pups would challenge him, or think to take him by surprise. Arkady, mayhap, or one of the others who still did not truly realize the price of failure. Four years had passed since he or Skender had blooded a fellow Hunter outside of formal training. Fifteen, perhaps, since either had killed a fellow Hunter. The youngsters grew overbold.

He studied the stars and tasted the wind’s scent as he prowled through the shadows. A hint of river, so faint as to be almost unnoticeable, caressed him. “Thank You, Lady of Night.” He started the nondescript dark sedan and drove with care down the faint tertiary path away from the home farm. It required him to open and close a half-hidden gate. The hinges resisted, then protested as they complied. Someone had failed to do his duty to ensure that the gate could be opened. Someone would regret that carelessness.

Arthur drove slowly once he reached the edge of the bluffs over the river, upstream of the city. The valley below grew rugged and narrowed, with a half-dry, marshy side-channel for part of the run. No one had cared to settle the flood and miasma prone stretch. Now the land belonged to River and Devon Counties, preserved for nature. No one knew of the old mine—or perhaps quarry—tucked into the bluff. He had found it by accident, then found its secret and took both as signs, with gratitude.

He parked in a secluded opening and listened. Only the proper night sounds came to his ears. A small animal hurried about its business, and the breeze whispered in the heavy summer leaves. The air smelled cleaner despite the heat-miasma rising from the bar, muddy places below. Arthur nodded to himself and crept down a small, twisting animal trail. The narrow way descended below the crest of the bluff, hidden by the heavy canopy and thick trees. A skunk had expressed pungent displeasure, nose-searing displeasure. Raccoon scat and half-eaten sumac buds littered the ground. Deer had nipped tender shoots here and there. All appeared well, for the moment.

He waited several minutes before he eased down the slope to the old mine. Or perhaps quarry, but the work stopped where a coal seam faded into the bluff. Nothing moved or appeared to have changed, so he ventured into the darkness. Unlike the spring cavern, this remained dry. Animals avoided it, for reasons he did not quite understand. The floor sloped up, climbing a few feet as he walked, bowing lower as the tunnel progressed. Not sand but fine stone covered the floor, smoother than the sandy stone and not as gritty to the touch. The passage widened once more, allowing him almost to stand. The tunnel seemed to stop, save that it turned hard to the right. Air moved, warm in summer, cool in winter. That had reassured him—a second way out existed, even if it would take much work to find and use.

Over time he had cached a few things here, weapons, food, other necessities. All wise Hunters did such, if they could. None knew when friend might become foe, alliances shift, and the Hunters become hunted. Better to prepare for dangerous times then to die for lack of a place of refuge. Arthur brushed off the stone bench left by the long-forgotten miners and spread an old, dirt-brown blanket across the cool, tight-grained stone. He could sleep on bare stone, had done so in the past, but preferred not to save of necessity. He removed his boots and set them and his knives within easy reach. He lay down and composed himself for rest. “Great God be with me, if it is Your will,” he whispered as he closed his eyes. “Lady of Night, watch over Your servant and protect me if it is Your will.” He slowed his breathing and relaxed tired muscles. Rest came easily.  

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: Feasting and Spice Tails

Tarno had to pay for the tails. Now we see why the tails are so popular. Among other things.

Tarno broke ice off the water in the bucket the next morning before pouring it into a pot to warm beside the fire. The farmers and butchers would be busy the next few days if the cold held, slaughtering the schaef and great-haulers, cattle and other animals they did not plan to keep over the winter. Yet another reason for the Scavenger’s feast to mark the beginning of preparation for the long, hard cold.

The boys trotted far more eagerly as they returned to the old market. When the other temples moved south to the new market and the younger parts of the city, the Scavenger had kept His domain in the north, aloof but also close to the butchers’ quarter. As they entered the square, they found long tables filling the space. The remains of the bonfires had been moved away, the coals and part-burned wood saved for the use of the priests or of those in need of fuel. Enormous platters of black sausages, dark bread, chilled root-vegetable pickles, and of course the stacks of spice rats filled the centers of the tables. A priest or priestess guarded each of the heaps of treats, staves at the ready to discourage the over-eager. Judging by the unhappy expressions on some of the boys and a few adults, the priests had already thumped a few hands or heads—hands of the children, heads of the adults. Even the Scavenger-born had to wait their turn on this day. Small plates, now almost empty, sat along the edges of the market square. The rats had already taken their turn. They were permitted to help themselves, unlike the people.

At the appointed time, the priests blessed the food. First the Scavenger-born, most looking very sleepy from their all-night vigil, took food. Then those born to Donwah, then everyone else, from oldest to youngest. As platters emptied, priests-in-training and acolytes replaced them with freshly-filled trays. Tarno made certain that Kyle and Donton took some of everything, even the black-root pickles that they did not care for at all, and then moved well away from the spice rats. He did not trust Kyle to resist the urge to try to steal one of the huge, sweet, rat-shaped loaves. Tarno stood between the boys and the tables, ready to intercept either one.

“Hai, Master Tarno,” Hildi said, coming to stand beside them. “I see that the rats have proper tails this year.”

“Aye. If any are nibbled, ’tis none of my doing.” He glanced at the boys, both working on the chewy bread and heavy blood sausage. Kyle had gobbled the black-root first to get it over with. Donton ate around it, for now. “Nor my sons.”

Hildi chuckled and nodded. “Aye.” She leaned closer and whispered behind her hand, “Rumor has it that a would-be toll claimant will be workin’ off her fine scrubbin’ floors for the main temple and the temple in the new market.”

Tarno hissed a little as he inhaled between his teeth. Whoever she was, she must have failed badly, or have been warned away twice and still persisted. Fool and twice a fool, to steal from the Scavenger on His feast! “I hope she learned her lesson, if the rumor proves true.”

“Indeed.” Even the Scavenger-born who lived by theft and deception left their patron’s goods alone. Hildi leaned away, then rose on her toes, trying to see something or someone. “He’d best not think to approach Master Schae—”

An angry man’s voice rose over the murmur of chewing and quiet conversation. “—An’ that’s why I claim a hearin’ now and here!”

The two salters exchanged tired looks. Clang! The sound of the Scavenger’s Son’s black-iron staff on stone cut off the flow of words. “A poor decision,” Tarno said, then took another bite of bread and sausage.

Hildi nodded her agreement and strolled into the crowd, easing between clusters of people.

Kyle swallowed his mouth-full and looked up at his father. “Father, what did that sound mean?”

It meant that someone would be paying a forfeit to the temple, at the very least. Tarno weighed his words carefully. He did not want to speak falsehoods. “The Scavenger’s Son will not hear the man’s petition, Kyle. He, the Son, made sparks on the stone with his staff instead of speaking. That told the watch to order the petitioner to either honor the feast properly, or to depart to his home and return at a better time.” Tarno watched the little swirl of motion over that direction. “The only time a temple will hear a petition on the day of a great feast is if it is a life-or-death matter, and I have never heard of such here. It may have happened, and might yet happen, but I have never heard of one.”

“You speak correctly, Master Tarno,” a woman said from behind him. He and the boys bowed to one of Gember’s priestesses. The brown-clad woman nodded, acknowledging the honor. “Continue eating, please. The last great feast petition happened not long after the construction of the first water gate on the mill run across the Joss, on Gember’s great feast, over a hundred years ago.” She smiled at the boys, then leaned forward and studied Donton’s remaining bread. “I take it that black-root pickle is not your favorite?”

The poor boy turned as red as a winter-crisp apple’s skin. “N-, n-, no, ma’am.”

“Most boys grow into the flavor,” she assured him. He started eating it, for once not making noises or complaining. After he finished, the priestess raised her right hand a little and curved two fingers into Gember’s sheaf. “May the Lady of Grain’s gift bring you strength.”

“Thanks to the Lady of grain,” Tarno and the boys murmured, bowing again. The priestess continued on her way, and the boys looked up at their father, then cast longing looks toward the well-guarded trays of spice rats.

“Yes, you may go get in—” They raced off to get into line before he could finish speaking.

“We did that, once.” Cila’s man, Marskil, said with a chuckle. He nodded to the right. Tarno saw Cila trying to guide their three toward the proper line. A long, thin leather strap connected the straps on the toddle-baby’s bumper to her mother’s heavy leather belt.

“Is Jemma trying to sneak away already?” Tarno inquired of his youngest niece.

Marskil folded his arms and shook his head. “She had a spell during the summer fever, acted as if she might be god-touched. Rella’s healer-priest recommended the bumper and strap, should she have more attacks.” He smiled. “Thanks be, she’s been spared so far, but we thought it would be a good protection today in the crowd, should someone knock her while Cila looked away.”

Ah. That made very good sense indeed! Tarno locked the idea into his memory for when he and Urla had children, should they be so blessed.

Acolytes of all the temples had removed the mostly empty trays of other things by now, leaving only the heaps of golden-brown, rat-shaped loaves. The Scavenger’s Son handed his iron staff to one of the other priests and lifted up a loaf. The tail flopped and Tarno smiled. No one could fault him if their rat lacked sufficient tail! Everyone bowed, shifting out of the way as the priest carried the rat to the far corner of the square. He set the loaf onto the ground in the shadows beside the temple, then returned to take his place beside the center table. Clang! He tapped the stone with his staff.

The other priests handed their staves to the youngest adult Scavenger-born. The children and others formed mostly-orderly lines. The priests gave each family a spice rat. As long as Tarno’s two spread hands were wide, the loaves resembled rats seen from the side, with spice-root tails, and candied gold nuts in the center of each ear. For once no one complained or tried to get a second rat. Tarno suspected that the earlier disturbance had dampened desire. Kyle and Donton brought the rat to him and held it up. He took it and—reluctantly—turned it so they could pluck off the ears. The ears really were the best part. He would divide the tail between the boys when they got home. Spice root on its own did not agree with him any longer, alas. He enjoyed the flavor, but not the upset stomach.

Those who wished could now depart. As tired as he felt, Tarno opted to start for the house. Even the bright sun could not banish the hard cold or soften the edges on the wind. Would this indeed be a hard winter? They had been fortunate the last three, but Radmar turned His wheel for all things.

After the boys fell asleep that evening, Tarno broke the front paws off the now-headless rat and savored the burst of heat from the bits of candied sea-orange rind. He banked the fire and crawled into bed himself, almost as tired as his sons.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Thursday Tidbit: Arthur and . . .

Drak, I give in. Here’s the start of the answer to your question.

He considered the matter, then pushed his chair back from the desk and stood. The child hummed to the music as she counted the books, confirming his earlier tally, less the recently sold. Tay, her Familiar, napped under the sales counter. The lemur likely communed with the other Familiars as he slept. No customers disturbed the moment. Not that he objected to their trade—far from it!—but a moment for Hunter matters was needful. The child wore a simple black blouse and skirt, appropriate for the sticky heat that filled Riverton, trapped in the river valley. She moved with gentle grace, despite her plaints of clumsiness. He watched, smiling a little, then brushed through the bead curtain. The soft clatter warned the child of his presence. She turned and dipped a small curtsy. He acknowledged the honor, then said, “Silver, what know you of,” he caught the word, changed it, “vampires?”

She too hesitated before speaking. Slowly, with care, she ventured, “Ah, they are the cursed undead. True vampires, not,” she waved the inventory list at the books. “They are not romantic, or tragic heroes, or especially attractive unless they try to be.” The child swallowed. “Ah, you don’t want one in the neighborhood. I think, perhaps, sir, staking or beheading one will destroy it?”

He caught himself before he frowned. Why did she sound fearful? Had she encountered one? He set the thought aside for now. “Correct, although there are other ways to destroy a nosferitau, or strigoi or moroi as others term them.” She released the tension in her shoulders and hands. Should he speak of the observation? Yes. “I ask, Mrs. Lestrang, because the younger Hunters and a woman of the clan report finding signs of a nosferitau. It is hoped that only one lurks, but the sign had faded in the recent dampness.”

The child’s crooked smile echoed his own feelings regarding the recent rains. “Master Saldovado, if this is damp, I fear to imagine wet.” She sobered. “Should I pass the news to Master Lestrang?”

“Yes.” Half-familiar cords came from the speakers above their heads. The child gulped, her right hand moving to touch her silver St. Michael medallion. He too listened. “Prince of the Night” by Stygian Black. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not. The dark shimmer of the door chime ended the conversation, and he returned to the office. The sooner he resumed cross-checking the customs fees with the charged prices for imported goods, the sooner the chore would be finished.

When Corava Istrate, his sister-by-marriage, and her Familiar arrived that afternoon, she said, “Unchi Art’ur, an owl called twice, then twice more as the youngest Hunters trained. Your nume fiiu said that the call matched not the owls known to this land. Imperotessa reports that Wings pursued her prey elsewhere.” Corava frowned, reaching to touch her grey head scarf. She had yet to remove it before starting work. “The other magic workers have not looked for traces.”

Once the sun rose, traces would burn away, were they in full sun. “Thank you. I have warned Silver that a nosferitau moves.” How did he know? He frowned to himself and held that thought for later. “Please help her with the inventory.”

Corava’s Familiar, Raj, the over-size Pallas cat, took Corava’s place in the doorway.

“Something moves,” Raj said, golden-brown eyes intent on his. “The other Familiars and their mages sense ill presences. Shadow told Beaker.” She sighed. “Much would be simpler could Beaker act freely, or Letters came into his full gifts.”

“Hmm.” Perhaps that explained his own certainty. “Should we, the Hunters, go seeking?”

Tay, the magic-whitened lemur, joined Raj. She looked to the lemur. He sat and lifted his forefeet, as if he were a pan-scale. “Find the ill, or one of them.” He lowered his left paw. “Wear yourselves out and yet face a second foe.” The right paw descended until both paws balanced once again.

He nodded. The possible gain and possible risk balanced. He need not act just yet. “We watch and wait. A false track is worse than no track.”

Orange eyes held his. “Indeed, Hunter-born.”

Irritation erupted in the shop. “What? No, they didn’t— Tay!”

“Raj, you bad cat!”

The Familiars slapped paws and bolted, no doubt seeking refuge among the boxes in the far corner of the workroom. He kept his eyes on the bare, cream-painted wall until he mastered his amusement. The small masters truly were a law unto themselves. Should he arise and see what mischief had transpired? No. Better to pretend ignorance, as he did with so many other matters. He returned his attention to the pending import tariff changes for media and books. They had been left unaltered for half a decade. Someone had felt the need to rectify that oversight, alas.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: The Scavenger’s Feast

In which Tarno and the boys attend the vigil before the feast. NOTE: Yes, this is a slightly different version of the story than is told in Miners and Empire.

Of all the gods, only the Scavenger’s feast fell on the night and the following day, rather than from dawn to dusk. For once the watch turned blind eyes to people in the streets after dark, because the Scavenger commanded it. Tarno banked his fire carefully indeed, then led the boys out of the salters’ district and up to the main temple, in the far northern part of the city, near the old market. Bitter cold air oozed between the houses and warehouses, making Tarno glad that he’d found heavy things for the boys. They’d likely crowd the bonfire even so, but at least they wouldn’t risk losing a finger or ear.

“I don’t like it,” a thin voice said ahead of them. The shapeless bundle of woman waved at the air. “Too cold, too early.”

“Green winter, full graves. White winter, hungry graves,” the equally well-wrapped man beside her recited. “Cold kills the bugs and weeds.”

“And schaef, and fowl, and great haulers,” she declared. “And men.”

And drove up the price of wood, Tarno sighed. Already rumors came in from outside the walls about fuel wood growing dear. “Some say ’tis because the Great Northern Emperor visited th’ land, and the cold stayed after him,” a hide seller from the east had told Rand Graber. “His goddess wants the snow and cold back, so she can extend her domain. I don’ hold to such, but some do, and seek more and more wood to hold against the winter.”

That had led to much talk and market gossip until Rella’s Daughter had explained. “Yes, the Great Northern Emperor is also a priest of Sneelah, goddess of the  Cold and Ice. She is also a goddess of battle magic. Battle magic is banned, and for good cause.” The Daughter had pointed with her staff to the painting on the side of Waldher’s new chapel, the painting showing the strange beasts that had appeared in the years after the southern king poisoned the magic workers. “War magic does that to beast, land, and man. After the Great Cold, some men twisted magic to bad uses, and the first emperors had to stop them before the land itself twisted. No battle magic, no shaping beasts or plants. Healing that which ails, yes, but no beast-mage can, oh, make a blue schaef.”

“What about a well behaved great-hauler?” someone in the crowd had called.

“Like as not it will be smart, too, Per, and then where will ye be?” A second voice demanded.

Master Weisblat, the head of the tanners, had offered, “He’ll have his accounts in order for the first time in years, but th’ bird will refuse to pull and will join the scribes, like as not.”

After the laughter died away, Rella’s Daughter had said, “Sneelah’s time is not come. Winters will be hard or easy as they are, not because the Great Cold returns.” Something in her eyes and voice had told Tarno that she spoke as more than just priestess, and he had bowed. The question had not arisen again.

Now, two eight-days later, people flowed into the old market. Not everyone, because some preferred to make their devotions by day, or they feared the cold because of age or illness. Young children and nursing mothers too were exempt from the night worship. Tarno kept one hand on Donton. The boy did not care for crowds or night, and if he began to fear overmuch, Tarno would take him home and pay the forfeit. The stars above seemed to glare down, as hard and cold as the stones under Tarno’s boot soles. Everyone breathed smoke, or so it seemed.

Tap, tap, tap. Metal rang on stone. Tap Tap TAP! Thrice more metal struck stone as the gathered priests of the dark god banged the butts of their staffs against the steps of the old temple. The dark shapes loomed in the cold, flanked by two rats, each the size of a large man. “All hail the Scavenger, lord of the darkness.”

“All hail the Scavenger,” the crowd called in return.

“All hail the Scavenger, lord of the land-hidden.”

“All hail the Scavenger.”

A cold voice chanted, “All hail the Scavenger, lord of death.”

“All hail the Scavenger.”

“All hail the Scavenger, lord of what remains,” a priestess sang.

“All hail the Scavenger.”

The priests turned as one and marched into the open temple doors. The Scavenger-born followed first, then those who could fit into the temple. Everyone else gathered around the fires now burning in the market, close enough to hear the priest and priestess who remained on the steps. The fires’ light made the rat statues seem to move, bending and nodding as the wind stirred the flames.

The priest intoned, “After the Great Ice retreated, only barren land and water remained. Dust covered what was not marsh or lake or river. Of life, no sign remained, for the beasts of the cold had left, but nothing could feed or shelter the beasts of the south. And so the gods took counsel.”

The priestess raised her staff in both hands over her head. “They divided the world and blessed it, Gember and Korvaal, Yoorst and Rella, Radmar and Maarsdam, Waldher and Donwah, and the lesser gods of city and village. Only the Scavenger did not speak, for he had been forgotten. His sister, Donwah of the Waters, found him in the dark, secret places and told him of the other gods’ choices. Great was His anger, but only for the time of the beat of a heart. Then He smiled.”

“Truly, sister, we have the better part.” The priest raised his hands and staff as well. “‘For we have all that is hidden, yours in the waters and mine in all that lies under the land and in the night.’ Only slowly did the younger gods realize their error, that they had chosen the lesser part. For this reason the Scavenger is the great lord, the lord of the hidden, the lord of the broken places, of the secret deeps and all that from them comes. All praise to the Scavenger!”

“All praise to the Scavenger!” The crowd’s words echoed off the walls of the temple and the bonfires seemed to bow to the rats. The rats nodded, accepting the homage, or did they? Tarno shivered. Donwah guarded the mysteries of the waters, but her brother guarded the greatest mysteries of all.

The priestess lowered her arms. “Do not fear the Scavenger, lord of the darkness. Darkness is the time of rest and growing, of prayer and sleep. No man can work without rest, no beast labor all day and all night. Sleep is the gift of the Scavenger as salt is the gift of Donwah and the Scavenger.” She waited.

“All praise to the Scavenger.”

“It is right to give thanks, and praise, to aid the lost, to grant mercy to the dying stranger, to bring gifts of the soil to the light that they may bless man and beast,” the priest chanted. “Do not fear the Scavenger, but go carefully, mindful of his depths.”

“All praise to the Scavenger,” the chilly worshippers replied.

Tarno eased the boys closer to one of the fires, one in a less crowded corner. The Rella-born minding the fire nodded to them as she eased a log into the orange and red flames. Tarno watched carefully, lest either boy get too close and start to scorch his clothes. It happened every year, and he did not care to be this year’s warning. Donton clung to his hand as Kyle eased as close as was safe to the snapping heap of logs and coals. As soon as both stopped shivering and relaxed, Tarno took Kyle’s hand and they returned to the crowd.

The priest’s breath steamed as it came from the shadows under his hood. “Together, Donwah and the Scavenger blessed the Joss Valley with salt. Donwah’s waters enter Her brother’s lands and gather His salt, bringing it to the light. Without Her, men must dig for salt. Without the Scavenger, only the salt of Donwah’s seas would touch the land.”

Tarno made a face in the darkness. He’d eaten bread with raw sea salt as part of his apprenticeship. Ugh. It made the crudest of spring salts taste like pure honey in comparison. “All hail the Scavenger,” he called with the others.

“Oh lord of the hidden, lord of darkness, Scavenger of that which remains, hear our prayer,” the priestess chanted. “Show mercy on us when we forget Your honor, mercy when we fail to return Your portion to You.”

The listeners chorused, “Forgive us, great Scavenger.”

“Lord of that which lies below, hear our prayer, oh Lord of the secret places. Grant us Your gifts of salt and metals, of clay and stones of honor, that we may use them to Your honor and glory.”

“Scavenger, hear our prayer.”

The priestess’ voice sounded dead as she intoned, “Lord of the final secret, have mercy on us as we show mercy to the lost, to the stranger, to those who die far from home.”

“Have mercy on us, great Scavenger.”

Tarno led the boys twice more to the fire before the litany and worship drew to a close. Those not born to the Scavenger could leave and return for the feast after the rise of the sun, as could those with young children. Donton counted, so Tarno left a gift in the box at the edge of the old market, received a blessing, and herded the boys all the way to the south end of Halfeld Flus. Chilled to their bones, the boys climbed into the big bed with him, shivering until they finally slept.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Saturday Snippet Two: A Quiet Haven

So, Margaret Ball over at MGC gets the credit/blame for this proto-story, and Cedar kicked it from idea into words-on-screen. It is in the Familiar-verse.

Martha heard the usual pattern of soft taps on the back door. He had a key, but never came in without warning her in some way. She dried her hands on the dishtowel and opened the door. “Enter and be welcome.”

He bowed. “Thank you.” He wiped his feet carefully on the mat, then handed her the brown cloth tote bag that he carried. “You might want to freeze it.”

“Thank you. There’s hot tea, cinnamon apple, if you would like some.” She peeked in the bag as he closed and locked the door. Fresh meat, probably venison or wild pig, not poultry. She did not ask, just as she did not ask about other things. “I have some spare freezer bags.” Martha busied herself bagging the meat and tucking it into the big chest freezer in the garage. He would be fixing the tea the way he preferred it, and sitting in the living room chair that she considered his.

Indeed, when she returned, he’d gently shooed Bauxite off of the chair. The black cat sulked as only cats could, back to both of them, soaking up the heat from the woodstove. He’d also added a small log before sitting. Martha sat as well and picked up her needlework, pinning more of a quilt top together. The blue and cream fabric comforted her eyes. After several minutes of quiet, he opened his eyes. She asked, “How are you?”

He smiled, revealing teeth a little sharper than most people’s. “I’m well. Just tired.” The smile faded. “Ah, may I stay the night? And tomorrow as well, perhaps? The storm will be here sooner than I’d anticipated.”

She considered her schedule, and the weather. No one would be coming to visit that she knew of. The plumber and the propane delivery man had both stopped in that morning. “Yes, you may. The bed in the guest room has clean sheets, and the plumber cleaned out the line in the bathroom.” She rotated the fabric and considered the seam allowances. “Tree roots in the line, as you would expect.”

“They do have a knack,” he replied, smiling again. “Thank you. I don’t want to impose.”

He never imposed, not even the night he’d first appeared, half-dead and badly injured, in her kitchen garden.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Saturday Snippet: Master and his House

Art and Meister Gruenewald return to the Old Lizard’s lair.

Two days later, Art waited at Meister Gruenewald’s shoulder as the sorcerer of shadow worked a complicated spell. A layered series of shields and defenses unlocked, and they passed through a plain iron-bound wooden door. The defenses closed behind them, then the door thumped shut. M.G. relaxed, as much as he ever did. “Go,” he ordered. “We will discuss matters in the morning.”

Art bowed and went. The small, rugged fortress sat tucked against a south-facing slope in the highlands of the Black Forest. The building’s roots went back at least to the Romans, probably long before if Art understood the archaeology correctly. The dense, thick stone walls trapped the cold and never warmed, no matter how hot summer might be. Nor did they chill any farther during the winter. Or so Art’s dad said. Art enjoyed the coolness as he plodded up the stone steps to his room. Meister Gruenewald had worked him hard on that last day in Slovakia, and Master Pytor had tossed in a few surprises of his own. Since he remained among the living, Art assumed that he’d passed. “Yeah, I can see why Dad and Mike like having the Atlantic between them and their teacher.” He dumped his travel bag on the heavy wood and leather chair beside the table in his room and flopped onto the bed for a moment. Traveling by second-class economy train wore him out, in part because of holding an illusion for the entire trip.

With a grumble and groan, Art rolled into a sitting position, then stood. “Hot shower. All else follows.” Just how M.G. managed to evade utility bills, especially gas and electricity bills, remained a closely guarded secret and one Art preferred not to know. He appreciated the American-style shower, however. Washed, dried, and dressed in warmer clothes, Art descended to the ground floor and strolled to the dining room.

Szymon nodded and gestured to the food-laden table. Art touched his forehead with two fingers in a sort of salute and grabbed a plate. M.G. ate when he needed to, whenever that might be, as did his students. Food remained available and plentiful, in part because everyone chipped in as best they could. Over half of Art’s fellowship had gone into the communal food pool. Since M.G. provided housing and access to research materials, Art was not going to complain at all. He helped himself to pork stew, fresh peas and baby onions, Spanish rice with shrimp, and something in a white sauce that looked French. Nope, Scandinavian, or so his taste buds suggested as the flavor of smoked salted fish filled his mouth. Everything served could be kept warm over small heaters augmented by magic. Only M.G. could have gotten away with that kind of waste of power. Or was it a waste? Not to M.G. Art ate and let his brain rest.

“The journey?” the solid Polish sorcerer inquired.

“Mostly quiet, sir. We shared the car with a university hiking club on their way home.”

Szymon gave him a knowing smile. “Hiking club.”

Mouth full, Art just nodded. The young men had obviously enjoyed refreshing themselves with the regional beers during and after their hikes. Several had acted determined to continue enjoying the outing, loudly and with much song. Not in tune or entirely comprehensible, but enthusiastic and cheerful, thanks be. They reminded Art of some of the guys in the grad-student dorm back in Riverton, except the Germans held their beer a lot better. Well, they’d had more experience, and didn’t drink to get plastered, unlike that one dude down the hall.

Edite sagged into the chair beside Art. The Portuguese sorceress flopped against the high back of the chair and imitated a deceased heroine of a Portuguese fado. Art raised his eyebrows but otherwise ignored the drama in favor of eating. Edite straightened up and sniffed. “The new book in the library. It refuses to cooperate with me.”

Szymon finished his rice and asked, “The bestiary or the grimoire?”

“Grimoire.” She braced on the arms of the chair and stood, then went to get food.

Art ate more and looked a question at M.G.’s current assistant. Szymon lifted his empty hand off the top of the pale wooden table and turned it palm up in a shrug of sorts. “It is supposed to be from a Polish collection originally, then looted and taken to Berlin, and from there to Paris before being sold as an incunabula. Half of it is a manuscript, and whoever wrote down their spells and potions should have hired a proper clerk.”

Which meant no doubt that M.G. would want Art to tackle it. Art asked, “Any theme in particular, sir, or just a general personal collection?”

“General personal, although there are a lot of what appear to be transformation spells in it. Many are repetitions of the printed text, but two of the others seem unique. The book was sold as a treatise on were-transformations.”

Oh no. Art’s meal turned into a lump of lead in his gut. He finished his glass of mineral water and said, “A woman named Claudia visited Chlotilda and Pytor, seeking information on plants that could ease transformation spells. She acted wary of Meister Gruenewald.”

“How curious,” Edite said as she set her plate down. She sat, murmured a prayer, then picked up her fork. “Marija ball-called from Krakow, warning about rumors of someone experimenting with transformations. Only of animals into other animals, thus far. She didn’t have any further details. Heike and Walburga sent the warning to Marija. The pair were called to deal with something in Silesia. Marija didn’t have details of that encounter yet, either.” Edite waved her left hand with frustration as she began devouring the rice and shrimp. “Needs more pepper,” she pronounced, then ate more.

“I’ll see if I can get Master Lestrang’s recipe for curry,” Art threatened. “Even his Familiar is scared of it.”

Szymon pretended to cast a ward over the food table. “I ate one of Master Lestrang’s curries. One. I have not yet recovered.”

What would they do if they met his dad’s chili? Breathe fire, then flee, probably. Art gnawed on a slice of bread before using it to mop up the last of the stew in his bowl. The Europeans gave him slightly bothered looks, as if worried that his barbaric ways might be contagious. They’d never been hungry. He had.

Art slept very well that night. He dreamed just before dawn, and woke up shivering. He sat, head in hands, until the last shreds of the dream receded. “Ugh. How can I dream a reaction headache? That’s not right.” He didn’t say fair, lest the karma bus make a detour his direction. Bits of the fight with the crazy sorceress who had held Aunt Corava in raven form had blended into the story of the twit who tried to turn herself into a jaguar. Art had been on the edge of that mess, mostly holding a shield as Naphtha and Ink disassembled the spell after Gears and Conqueror had tracked the chick down. What had she been thinking, to cast a spell that required a spoken key to end? Art hadn’t lingered to find out. Not with a test to proctor at eight the next morning!

“I don’t like transformations,” he grumbled as he got ready to face the day. A quick glance out the window showed tatters of grey cloud snagging the higher peaks to the south, and misty rain moving in from the west. At least it would break the heat wave everyone complained about. Art ate a hearty and solitary breakfast, then went to the small weapons room and practiced again with blade and spell shield. Thus exercised and fed, he girded his mental loins and braved the archive.

(C) Alma T. C. Boykin 2021 All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: A Witnessed Betrothal

In which a trip to market is followed by . . . in-laws-to-be.

“Father?” Donton sounded worried. Tarno picked him up and held him on his lap where he sat by the fire early the next morning.

“Yes?”

“Will we still be your sons if Mistress Urla has boys?”

Tarno held him closer. “Yes, you will. You and Kyle are my first children, and you will be first in my heart. I will talk to Mistress Urla about that, and will make certain that it is in our marriage contract.” All children, if they were blessed with more, would get a share of his movable estate, but Kyle and Donton would get a larger portion, as his oldest sons. If they lived longer than he did.

Kyle leaned against him. “Tad says that the children of a second wife get more of their father’s care, and estate.”

“Tad speaks true, if the marriage contract says so, or the father acts unjustly. Raadmar turns the wheel, and Donwah washes away the wealth of a man who favors his new children in that way.” Unless there was good reason, like Rand Graber’s father disinheriting and then disowning his oldest son and bodily throwing him outside of the city walls entirely. The young man had not survived long after being declared outside of the law. None of the salters would speak of what had caused so drastic an act. Tarno had a few ideas, starting with abusing blood kin and getting worse from there.

“Now. I need to visit the market, and you need to do your chores.” Kyle straightened up, and Donton slid off Tarno’s lap, landing with a firm thud. “Donton, please don’t be outgrowin’ your clothes before I come home.”

Donton smiled, showing all his teeth. He trotted after his older brother, both aiming for the back garden. Tarno smiled. He half-recalled having as much energy as the boys, perhaps. He put on his shoes and left the house, walking quickly up the street. Women swept their door-steps and the bit of street before their houses, or hurried out with baskets and bags in arms. The women of the salters district tended to be up with their men and worked just as hard. But then did most all women. Tarno dodged an overladen apprentice and did not lift a loaf off of the nearly overflowing mound. He considered it, but doing so before asking a young woman born for Gember to confirm her desire to wed? He was many things, but not that foolish!

Tarno purchased sweet buns and two large loaves of fine bread, then returned to the house. The boys had finished most of their work. “No, not yet,” he warned Kyle when the boy started easing toward the bread basket. “When Goodman Erbstman and his family arrive, then you may have a bun. Now you need to go help Aunt Cila bring the other things from her house to ours.” He’d bought the food and she had cooked it, since he lacked the skills for festival fare, and the boys . . . They tried, Gember and Yoorst knew, tried very hard. Effort did not always balance a lack of experience and age, however.

As he had hoped, Tarno met Goodman Erbstman, his lady wife, Urla, and Hepsha as they entered the great market square. “We have business,” Erbstman said. “Urla, go with Master Tarno on yer business, and meet us in the market hall, clothworkers’ end.”

“Market hall, yes, sir,” Urla said. She wore the same skirt and blouse as before, with a heavy, green and brown plaid shawl on her shoulders. Her braid hung down her back, loose but out of the way as befitted a young unmarried woman. Tarno gestured, and allowed her to lead the way to Donwah’s temple in the salters district. When they reached the small temple, he opened the door for her. She hesitated, giving him a puzzled look, then entered ahead of him. Was she used to following her father and mother? She curtsied low to the Goddess as he bowed.

A rustling sound came from the half-hidden doorway leading to the priests’ chambers. A veiled form moved, cleaning along the far wall of the temple, watching them without obviously watching them, and easing closer. Tarno nodded to himself, and turned to Urla.

His heart beat sped, as if he cut wood or stirred too-thick brine. “Mistress Urla, Donwah as witness, do you of your own free will agree to marry me?” If she said no . . .

She tipped her head a little to the right, as if considering him and his words. “Yes, Master Tarno. Donwah as my witness, I agree to marry you of my own free will. I have heard naught against you or your sons, and my father and mother have not pushed me toward marriage.” Her lips curved up into a small smile. “If anything, they have urged caution, and said that should I feel compelled to break the betrothal, they will not hold it against me.”

He did not sag with relief. Nor did he act surprised or excited. Instead he smiled in turn and nodded. “Thank you, Mistress Urla. I would not and will not marry a woman against her will.” Some couples did wed against the will, and some of those eventually grew to love each other, but most shared grudging respect and a marriage bed, nothing more.

A woman spoke from behind him, her voice low and flowing. “So sworn and witnessed, and it shall be made known, Mistress Urla Erbstman and Master Tarno Halson.” He turned, moved to stand beside Urla, and bowed. The priestess raised her broom-free hand in blessing. “Go with the blessing of the Lady of the Waters, and return after the Scavenger’s feast to be handfast.” As she spoke, Tarno swallowed hard. Fine blue, white, and silver embroidery and needlework decorated her robe and the edges of her veil. No ordinary priestess but Donwah’s Daughter herself had witnessed their words. He bowed again. When he looked up from the smooth stone floor, the Daughter had disappeared into the shadows. The loud gulp at his left suggested that Urla shared his surprise. Neither one spoke until they had honored the goddess once more and departed, each leaving a small gift.

Tarno cleared his throat. “The Market Hall, Mistress Urla?”

She nodded. “Yes, sir. The clothworkers’ end.” That would be the end to the south, away from the salters’ stall. She followed behind him at his left hand. When they married she’d shift to the right as befitted the honor of a matron. A few carts and wagons trundled up the street, despite the earliness of the day, but not as many as in mid-summer or at the quarter-year market. The later sunrise and gate-opening, plus harvest, made this one of the quieter market dates. A chill breeze brushed the back of his neck, easing under his bound-back hair to find the gap between hair and collar.

Trrwiss! Clatterclatterclatter! Tarno lunged back, grabbed Urla’s shoulder, and pulled her toward the right side of the road. She caught her skirts in both hands and walked very fast, as did everyone else. “Loose cart! Clear the way!” A two-bird cart clattered toward them, great haulers hissing and calling as they jogged.

The birds’ crests remained up a finger or two. They had not panicked—yet. Three men ran after the cart. A loose guide rope flapped in the wind of the birds’ passing, the likely cause of the run. Men and women snatched up children and goods and made themselves thin against the walls and in doorways. No one ran or yelled, lest the birds panic and turn a run-away into a disaster. The light weight, ocher-red cart seemed to dance behind the grey-brown birds as it hit worn or proud places on the road.

Two baskets and a bundle of something bounced out of the cart, landing hard on the stones of the road. A chorus of groans rose from onlookers as the contents of great hauler eggs whitened both basket and ground. The day-worker beside Tarno spat, then murmured, “Ah, Yoorst and Korvaal heard but did nae understan’. Tis’ th’ wrong yolk for m’ needs.” The big man slapped his worn and oft-mended shoulder yoke. Tarno bit his tongue to keep from chuckling, and Urla covered her mouth with one hand. He could see laughter in her eyes even so. Only after birds and owners had passed well down the way did people begin moving away from shelter.

A woman in much-patched skirt and blouse stopped in the road and crouched, resting one hand on the bundle. “I speak for Goodman Algam and watch until he returns.” Tarno and at least three others called back—quietly—and vouched for her claim. No one would bother the goods until their owner returned. Not that anyone with sense wanted to deal with the mess of broken great hauler eggs.

“I hope they stop before they reach the river,” Urla ventured as the road widened into the market square.

“Yoorst willing, they should. There’s a hard bend in the way where the old wall once stood, and most birds slow there.” They couldn’t see that the road turned. Perhaps that was why the houses had built there, as a precaution against runaways? Tarno had never considered the idea. The road just bent and that was all.

He and Urla stayed close to the eastern side of the market, where the shops and inns stood, along with a very small chapel for the Scavenger. Priests only stood duty there on market days, to confirm or deny claims of Scavenger’s Toll. Indeed, a black shadow moved in the morning shadow, and a staff-butt clicked against the threshold stone just after Tarno and Urla passed. Tarno looked as far to the south as he could see, then to the north, searching for more great haulers. The way seemed safe, and he stepped into the open.

Voices rose from the short row of booths marking the pottery and metal workers section of the market. Then a loud voice indeed bellowed, “And I say quiet!” Tarno ducked despite being nowhere near the market master. The men and women closest to him flinched as well, and two women made the Horns in the direction of the trouble. “I care not who began th’ strife, it ends now or ye’ll both feel my staff on yer backs.” The very stones seemed to shiver at the roar, and those not doing business made haste to depart, lest they attract Master Richten’s attention. Tarno glanced to Urla. She didn’t quite tip-toe, but moved with great care indeed. They crept into the protection of the shadows at the end of the market hall.

“. . . And that’s why nae man of good sense does trade with him, lessen they have nae choice,” one of the cloth-sellers informed a stranger. “He’s a gifted potter, but will nae let go of a slight lessen th’ Scavenger an’ Waldher themselves give t’ command.”

That explained the problem, and Master Richten’s wrath. He’d cautioned that craftsman before, and the potters’ confraternity had warned the man as well. The stubborn fool might have his table overturned and his sales space closed this day. Tarno heard tongue clucking and saw several people making the Horns. Did they fear Radmar or the market master more? Not a good question to ask. Radmar likely turned His wheel faster than the market master forgot stupidity or bad dealings.

Goodman Erbstman stood back as his wife finished her bargain. “I call fair dealin’,” the yarn-buyer called. Three people repeated his words, and he and Goodwife Erbstman touched palms on the agreement. The yarn-buyer handed the matron four market tokens. That made good sense, and gave her more value for her yarn than pure coin would. Silver for trade, gold for ornament, and market tokens for food, or so the proverb went. But not for taxes, which had occasioned much grumbling in the confraternity’s last business council.

“If you have finished your trade, I offer you hospitality,” Tarno told Dor Erbstman.

“Thank you, Master Tarno. We are finished, and a bite to break our fast would be welcome indeed.” The farmer smiled a little as several people slowed their steps, looking more closely at the family and their host. For a single man to offer hospitality to those outside his family or confraternity meant only one thing, and word of the betrothal would spread as fast as if sprinting great haulers carried it.

“Please, this way.” Tarno gestured to the south, and the family followed. They collected their sturdy, two-bird wagon and the group made their way to the salters’ quarter. Hepsha handled the lead rope, talking to the birds in a soft voice. The female nodded and stepped quietly, as if she understood the young woman’s request. “She truly is blessed,” Tarno observed.

Her father made Yoorst’s sign. “Aye, Master Tarno. The gods take and give, and perhaps gave more than they took.” A simple second daughter without dowry would never find a good man, like as not. A simple woman with a beast-handler’s touch and gentle way, on the other hand, brought more than a dowry with her.

Once they reached the salters’ district, Tarno showed Hepsha where to leave the wagon. “The way is too small, and the birds might feel confined,” he said, speaking clearly. She turned and murmured to the lead female, then guided the pair and wagon to the proper place. Tarno pumped water for the birds himself. Yoorst favored those who favored His creatures, after all. And Hepsha seemed to be a mistress of her craft in her own right. The birds had not startled or called as they passed the remains of basket and eggs in the road, unlike another passing team.

“This way, please,” Tarno said, guiding them to his house. The men and women out in the street watched without watching, and he imagined that he could feel the rush of air from wagging tongues. Well, who didn’t know that he sought a wife for his household?

The door to his house opened, and Kyle appeared. The boy held out a plate of bread. “Be you welcome, Goodman, goodwife, young mistresses,” he said. Cila must have reminded him of the proper words. The smell of good food flowed out around Kyle.

“Thank you for the welcome, and for the bread. Truly, Gember blesses those who feed the traveler.” Goodman Erbstman took a piece of bread and passed it to his wife, who in turn passed it to Urla. When all four had pieces, they ate, then entered the house. Tarno came last and closed the door.

Indeed, Cila stood beside the hearth. Tarno gestured to her. “My sister, Cila, married to Kalman. Cila Halsdatter, Dor Erbstman, his lady, Mistress Urla, and Mistress Hepsha.”

Cila dipped in a small curtsey. “Be welcome to this house and household, Goodman Erbstman.” She gestured to the food arrayed on the table. “Please, take and eat.”

“Thank you for the food and the welcome,” Erbstman said. He found a plate and began serving himself, followed by his wife. Tarno recognized Cila’s dishes and spoons in with his own. All could eat. Tarno let the boys get food before he did. They had worked hard the past few days.

Cila departed. She had her children to see to, and her husband. Donwah willing, Tarno would not need her help after today. Urla sat quietly, taking in the house and the furnishings as she ate. Kyle and Donton had set out the cooking gear and best linens for the visitors to see and use, along with the spice boxes and salt-barrel. The salt-box sat on the table, its polished dark red wood gleaming. Two lamps also shone, and Tarno sensed Cila’s hand in that. Not only would it reveal more of the inside of the house for his potential in-laws’ inspection, but it showed his prosperity. As cheap as great hauler oil was this season, it did not mean as much as wax candles would have, but those would be prideful. And expensive, and he did not care to spend funds he would need come spring.

Indeed, after he finished eating, Dor stood and studied Tarno’s table and benches, chair, bed, and other goods. He looked at the boys’ loft but did not venture up the ladder. His wife did, then returned and gave a satisfied nod. It passed her scrutiny. Donton showed the Erbstmans the back garden, including the night-soil bucket. Well, town people dealt with night-soil differently than did those living outside the walls.

Dor came back into the house. He too appeared satisfied with everything. “So, Tarno, what date are you considering for the handfasting?”

“The Eighth-Day eve after the Scavenger’s feast, Dor. The priest of Donwah said it was an auspicious day, and that no other couple had spoken for the date yet.” That it allowed time for any serious protests to be verified passed without mention.

“Good. We will have brought the out-flocks back to the home farm and have separated the weaned lambs from their dams. Grain harvest will be over as well.” He extended his right hand and they shook.

By the time the family departed, all had been agreed to. Tarno felt as if he had set down an over-loaded shoulder yoke as the weight left his shoulders. He and the boys would need to strew the floor with rushes for the winter, but nothing more until after Scavenger’s feast.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Saturday Snippet: Like Grandfather, Like Grandson

Thomas Arthur “Art” Chan-Lestrang learned more from his father and grandfather than makes someone comfortable . . . A conversation about herbs and transformations had been going on as Art starts breakfast.

Arthur bit into the heavy bread. The sourness balanced the fat in the wonderful, fresh butter. Yeah, he’d miss some European breakfast foods. Not the German jelly-filled giant doughnut holes, though. Krapfen just did not play well with his insides. As he chewed, he considered intoxicating plants and working magic. How could you concentrate while under alkyloid influence? Poorly, probably, although some of the synthetic marijuana compounds did unlock whatever in the human nervous system corresponded with sensitivity to magical energies. But not working magic, at least not thus far that he’d ever heard of. Street drugs could enhance magic already present, or unlock a sensitivity, but not confer the ability to work magic. That he’d heard of, Art made himself add. Belladonna, the nightshades, aconite, henbane, fungi, Jimson weed, datura, they all messed with your perceptions. Or killed you. He snorted a little to himself.

Mistress Chlotilda must have heard him. She looked his direction and asked, “Something amusing, Mister Lestrang?”

“There’s a joke about certain mushrooms being so filling that one will feed a man for the rest of his life. Fly agaric and death’s head amanita being two of those, ma’am.”

The Austrian herbalist frowned deeply. “I do not find that amusing. Too many people die from misidentifying mushrooms.”

Karina shrugged and helped herself to the soft cheese. “I’ve told the joke as a caution, Mistress Chlotilda. Some students remember the lesson better with dark humor, when appropriate.” She took two buns to go with the cheese. “Claudia’s questions . . . They puzzle me. All that she seeks is either common information or legendary. There is no quick, easy way to work transformation spells and hold them for extended periods.”

The little hairs on Art’s neck started to rise. Meister Gruenewald had entered the room and paused by the door. He glanced around, and sat, facing Art. Mistress Chlotilda stopped her own meal and fixed a plate for M.G., then brought him both coffee and tea. M.G. too looked concerned, brilliant green eyes narrowing, thin lips turning down in a distinct frown. Art asked, “Ah, sir, did Henk mention our encounter with Claudia, if she is the same woman Mistress Chlotilda refers to?”

Meister Gruenewald’s left hand curved into the Clan’s negation gesture. He followed it with “later.” Art nodded and returned to his repast. He’d added a little cream to the tea, just to keep it from sending his pulse into the stratosphere. Master Pytor had made the tea to his liking, as black as Art’s dad’s wardrobe. The brew would probably float the battleship Potemkin. Art sipped, waited for a count of ten, and then drank. Between the cream and having already eaten most of his breakfast, he should be safe. Master Pytor’s tea seemed to be stronger than Cuban coffee, according to the responses of the people who drank it without paying attention. Meister Gruenewald had warned Art. Henk hadn’t been so fortunate.

That afternoon, Art pled research needs and retreated to the library with notepad, pens, and pencils. He found two books about “lost Slavic magical traditions” from the early 1900s and settled in to work. Compared to some of the post-SEE materials he’d read, they weren’t too exciting, but the authors’ inclination to pan-Slavism made him wince a little. At least Master Pytor didn’t incline that way. Being a sorcerer probably played a large role, since pan-Slavism had tied to closely to the Russian Orthodox Church. Pytor favored the Greek Rite Catholic for good reason. “At least the author’s not trying to rehabilitate Chernobog,” Art muttered under his breath as he took more notes. He knew just enough about the creatures that some neo-Pagans treated as Chernobog to run the other direction and call for back-up.

By the time for supper, Art had sufficient foundation material that he could sketch out the journal article. He leaned back in the chair and considered his outline. “Yes,” he whispered. Start with a reminder about focusing on Romantic perceptions of Slavic magic instead of actual practice at the time, then work forward to the SEE, then jump to current Christian and neo-Pagan practices. He drummed his fingertips on the top of the heavy mahogany desk and stared at the sliver of daylight leaking through the heavy curtains. Should he include a sub-section on regional variations, or save that for a separate article? The latter might work better, since he would likely have more than sufficient textual and observational material for two articles. He scribbled a margin note and got ready to stand.

A faint change in the air warned him. Art slid forward, out of the chair and under the solid desk, drawing his dagger as he moved. Thunk-thud. The projectile hit the wall and landed on the parquet floor without rolling. Art slithered as best he could out from under the desk, blade in hand and ready to stab or slash. “Gee, Art, someone would think you were paranoid.”

Art didn’t bother replying. He rose from his crouch, scowling as Joey smirked at him. The other American sorcerer spread empty-seeming hands. Art kept silent, watching, waiting for the next attack. The smirk spread into an arrogant grin. Joey tossed a ball of shifting light up and down in his right hand. Art shifted his weight to the side oh-so-slightly as a lean shadow glided up behind the sorcerer. The misty form eased closer. As it extended one arm, Art lunged to the side. Joey hurled magic, then choked as Draku yanked him backwards, hard, his walking stick across the young man’s throat. Art pulled power from his medallion and neutralized the spell before the library’s defenses reacted.

“Do not use magic in the library, Iosef Matiavich,” Draku hissed. “You violate neutral ground.”

Art slid the dagger into the sheath hidden in the small of his back, under his jacket. He collected his research materials and returned the books to their proper places. He had used cardstock markers to show the correct slots among the ranks of titles and tomes. He ignored a quiet choking sound, followed by the soft thump of someone sitting firmly on the floor.

Gaaaasp. Wheeeeeeze. Gaaaaaasp.

Art turned and bowed to Meister Gruenewald.

His teacher beckoned with one talon-like digit. Art tucked his papers and tools into his satchel. He stepped around the lump of now-panting sorcerer and followed M. G. into the corridor. The older sorcerer said, “After supper, we discuss your observation of the morning.”

“Yes, sir.” Art followed M.G. to supper. Sausages, the local version of sauerkraut, potato dumplings, and German celery salad awaited them.

[SNIP]

The next morning, before breakfast, Art concentrated on holding a stand-away shield around himself while working with the side-sword and his dagger. It took no more power than his standard shields, but additional concentration. As he parried his invisible attacker, something made his brain itch, sort of. He drew more power from his medallion and whipped around to take a low guard stance.

Bamp. Hard-cored power hit his shield. Art grounded it, then snarled, “Murus speculus,” and flipped his defenses into a focused mirror-shield as a second pop of magic hit him. The spell bounced and smote its caster.

“Hey! What was that for? I was just kidding,” Joey protested. “Chill, Art.”

Art drew himself up and imagined what his grandfather would look like if he were so disturbed. Apparently it worked, because Joey gulped and backed away. “Just kidding, I said.” He licked his lips and glanced to the shadows of the practice courtyard. Someone moved in Art’s peripheral vision, eased into a doorway and out of sight.

“You know the rules, sir,” Art growled. “No challenges, no attacks. This is a place for learning, not for trouble.” Joey should know after two weeks here.

“Mister Lestrang is correct,” a Russian-accented voice grated from the opposite side of the practice courtyard. Master Pytor loomed out of the long morning shadows. Art dropped his defenses and saluted with the sword. Pytor acknowledge the salute. “Mister Lestrang, you are dismissed.”

“Yes, sir.” Art inclined in a slight bow and made himself scarce. Joey had messed in the wrong mess-kit, as Uncle Rodney would say. Art cleaned the sword and put it back in the rack, checked his dagger as well, and went to get ready for breakfast.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: Life Continues

A betrothal does not end the daily round of work and paperwork.

The next two days found Tarno cutting the last of the old wood for the salt works. The new logs had at least a month to go before they could cut the driest, and then it would dry for the rest of winter and part of spring. The boys helped, Donton carrying water and food to those splitting the logs, and Kyle carrying the split wood into the wood house. On the third day, Tarno visited the small temple of Donwah closest to the salters’ confraternity building.

The priest-in-training met him when he entered the sanctuary and bowed to the goddess. “Greetings and welcome,” the young woman said.

“My thanks for the welcome. I am Tarno Halson, and I ask to speak with a priest concerning a handfasting date.”

“One moment, of your courtesy,” she murmured, then disappeared into the deep shadows of the cool, damp-smelling temple. A scent like running water, not moist soil or a flooded building, filled the air. Before Tarno could follow that line of thought too far, a tall, slender figure in a flowing blue cloak over shirt and trousers appeared. The veiled priest carried a book. Tarno bowed to him.

“You seek a handfast date, Tarno Halson?”

“Yes, sir, if the Lady of Waters wills. The Eighth Day eve following the Scavenger’s feast. My betrothed is born for Gember, born to Donwah. She has accepted my offer, as have her parents.”

Tarno felt the priest studying him, even though the half-veil hid his eyes. “And have you asked her of her own will, without family?”

“No, sir. I planned to do so here,” he nodded down, “at the next market day. Should she agree again, her family will visit my home.”

“What say the other salters?”

Tarno spread his hands. “Master Schaefer has heard no objections. No one has an unpledged daughter of proper age, and none of the widows whom I could marry wish to marry. The others are too close kin.”

The priest nodded. “Good. I relieves me that you have done the needed diligence. I’m sure someone will object. However, unless a surprise kinship appears, the temple should have no objections.” He set the book down on a small table and opened it, skimming to the women’s register. “Her name?”

“Urla Erbstman, daughter of Dor.”

The crooked finger ran down the page until it stopped beside the family name. The priest studied the entry. “You share no kindred. They came to the valley three generations ago and have not married within the walls.” He straightened up. “The Eighth Day eve following the Scavenger’s feast is auspicious, and we have no additional rituals scheduled for that day. Provided she agrees, of her own will and desire, then we will put you on the marriage list.”

“Thank you, sir.” He hadn’t recalled any kin connections to the Erbstmans, but surprises had arisen in the past. Thus the need to check with the temple records. No man could marry closer than three degrees, and for good reasons.

The priest closed the book and raised his hand, making the sign for the waves of the goddess. “Go with Donwah’s blessing, and I will inform my brothers and sisters that you will need a neutral observer come the next market day.”

Tarno bowed to the priest. “All praise to Donwah, Lady of the Waters.” When he straightened up, priest and book had both vanished. Tarno left a small offering in the box and retreated to the warmth of the sunbaked square.

He waited until color returned to the world, then strode to the wooden post where the Council and Market Master Richten posted important notices. One of the white-smiths read off the latest announcement to those gathered around. “Goodman Karlo is fined a quarter silver for not abiding by fire-cover hours. Goodwife Fuchsban is fined a silver ring for breach-of-the-peace and is under ban and supervision until the day after the next market day.” The smith stopped and shook his head as the listeners murmured and grumbled. At least two coins or market tokens changed hands. “I thought it would be until the Scavenger’s feast,” the grey-capped smith complained. “I owe Lukus a half ring.”

“May be that the council thought to go light, since she’s under renewed temple ban until Gember’s harvest feast,” one of the listeners false-whispered. The scrawny man raised one twisted, withered arm. “I wager Raadmar will restore me arm to youth and strength afore Goodwife Fuchsban abides in quiet peace with a tranquil heart.” Tarno was not the only man to make god-sign or the Horns to ward off ill fortune. Raadmar turned the wheel at His will, and no man knew if he would rise or fall.

“To wager on a sure thing is no wager,” a passing day-worker called from under his bundle of sticks and roofing reeds. The others chuckled or grumbled.

The white-smith returned to his reading. “Last notice – the Temple of Gember will tolerate no samplin’ from the ovens or coolin’ racks inside the courtyard walls.” He turned and looked at the men and women, a sly smile on his face. “Now what grown man would be doin’ that, I ask ye?”

Knowing laughter filled the chilly air, and not a few winks and nudges passed among the men. Mistress Wilburga, who led the washer women, planted one strong fist on her very large hip and frowned mightily from under her spotless white head-cover. “Halfeld Flus don’ have na’ grown man fast enow t’ lift the goddess’ loaves. Iffin’ th’ boss cooper don’ wan’ his brat t’ feel the dough-paddle again, he’d best watch him during fire-cover hours.” She stomped off, her clogs clattering out a warning to anyone who thought to get in her way. Several porters glanced toward the sound and dodged behind great hauler carts and passing wagons. No man crossed the washer women twice. Tarno had seen them lift a full wash-trough and dump it, water, clothes, and all, on two strangers who thought to get fresh with one of the women and steal some of the clothes. He’d heard stories about a man beat to death with laundry bats for tryin’ to have his way with Wilburga many years ago.

Once the clump of listeners dispersed to go about their business, Tarno read the rest of the notices. Indeed, Mistress Fuchsban had to remain within the walls of her home for two more eight-days. Would she learn to keep a civil tongue, or would she emerge with renewed fire and spite? Her husband should have done a better job of restraining her, and her parents too. “Bend the twig and the tree will curve,” he muttered under his breath. He’d be wise to avoid that street, and the woodworkers neighborhood in general, until he wed.

#

The day before the next market day turned clear and cold after almost an eight-day of mist and teasing flakes of snow that sifted down from the low clouds. Tarno’s sister, Cila, and one of her sisters-in-law helped Tarno, Kyle, and Donton clean the house from roof-beam to threshold. The boys hung all the bedding and household linens out to air, those that had not been washed the day before and hung on separate drying lines. “Has the confraternity said aught yet?” Cila asked as she scrubbed the floor. Tarno and Kyle had carried most of the movable furnishings out into the street, where Donton kept watch.

“No, although two people pressed Rand about Widow Inver.” Tarno had heard about that in two-beers-worth of detail. “She refuses to wed unless there is god-sign. Thus far no one has seen any that Raadmar’s priests will accept.” He thought she was foolish to refuse every suit and offer, but he preferred not to tempt Raadmar with impiety, either.

Cila sat up on her heels and shook the wood and husk floor-brush at him. “Were I her, I would do the like. Were I her, Inver would have died years before he did, or I would have fled to the temple and demanded separation with penalty. That man—” The heat in her voice could have cooked every dish at the Confraternity’s annual banquet on Donwah’s winter feast. Tarno stared at his sister, eyes as wide as he could open them. He’d never heard her speak so!

She returned to scrubbing. “You ne’er saw the bruises, the burns he gave her when he drank too much. And when he thought she served him poorly. Why do ye think she bore no childer? His fist and foot saw to that.”

“Why’d she nae speak?”

“Would ye have taken her word on her word alone?” If Cila scrubbed any harder, she’d wear a hole in the wooden floor. “When did he allow her to speak with others alone?”

Tarno opened his mouth, then closed it again. “I do nae recall.”

“Because he ne’er did. He and his brother both. She feared them too much to flee to a temple.” Cila sat back on her heels, then stood. “Tis one thing to raise hand and voice. Another to scar and render a man or woman barren.”

He swallowed against his gorge. He’d never raised a hand against Annaka, although he’d raised his voice a time or two.

“I was called to witness as a married woman of good repute when she claimed the full estate instead of just the widow’s share. A priestess of Gember, one of the Scavenger, and three matrons saw the marks — scars, bruises, a burn not yet healed, and that nearly an eight-day after Inver’s death! She got full estate, and a ban against her in-laws. My man and two of the watch warned the in-laws not to approach her.” Cila reached for the pail of rinse water. Tarno jumped clear as she dashed it against the floor, then chased it out the back door with an old twig broom. “Were I her, I’d nae wed again.”

Neither would he. All the more reason to be patient with Urla, should the marriage go as hoped. He fetched more water before she asked. When he came back, she smiled and rested one damp hand on his bare arm. “Tarno, I know ye ne’er laid a hand on Annaka, may the gods give her rest. But you are not as many men. Inver was not as most, either. Goodman Erbstman’s been asking, on the quiet, about ye and t’ boys. He’s been told true. I hope Urla agrees, for her sake and for yours.”

“Father, where’s the ash bucket?” Kyle called from the back door. “Goodman Seife’s askin’.”

“Here.” Tarno hurried out with the covered leather buckets full of wood ash for the soap-maker. By the time the watchmen called for the hour of covering fires, the house looked far better. Tarno decided not to place rushes down, not yet, not until Erbstman could see for himself the state of the house.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Thursday Teaser: Noble and Empire

This ambushed me last week. No, I was not planning on returning to the Merchant world again so soon . . . This happens a hundred years or so after the end of the Great Cold.

Henrik fought even as he felt his magic buckling, collapsing. The shield failed and with it, his strength. He fell to his knees, then rolled onto his flank. Slsss a blade left the sheath. Footsteps creaked on the hard-frozen snow. He’d escaped the Scavenger’s call before, but no longer. So be it. Sneelah, through Her speaker Rohdbard, had won.

“Enough,” three voices called, speaking as one. “Enough, sister,” Donwah’s priestess repeated.

“You triumph. Let him live.” The Scavenger’s Son, refusing to claim a life?

A gloved hand jerked Henrik’s head back by the hair, baring his throat. “Full victory and justice,” the icy voice, devoid of the last trace of Rohdbard’s own speech, demanded. “Nothing less.” Cold steel, cold as the grave, colder than the snow and ice of the North, crossed his throat. Pain filled his skull to the breaking point and past. Henrik heard his own voice, felt his throat tear as he screamed, heard another echo the cry. Blackness swept the world, and he knew nothing more.

#

His muscles refused to obey. He tried to open his eyes, but something held them closed. Soft footsteps came from somewhere to his left. The tiny sound sent daggers through his skull. His stomach churned and nausea swept over him, then ebbed like the grey waters of the northern sea.

“My lord, please.” He was no one’s lord, not now. No man ruled save the Scavenger, not here. Something, someone lifted his shoulders, warm hands supported his head, then lowered him down, but not flat. A half-familiar voice repeated, “My lord, please, if you do not drink, you will die.”

How could he die twice? But no man nor woman knew what lay in the Scavenger’s lands, not truly, not even the miners. Warm metal touched his lips, and he drank. He tasted meat and an herb. Another touch, and he drank again. The sickness in his guts faded. After the meat, a bitter, thick herbal tea touched his tongue. Then darkness once more, soft blessed darkness, free from failure, free from pain. Blessed be the Scavenger, the final healer, the One who ended all pain.

When Henrik next woke, he clenched his fist, then relaxed. The pain in his head flowed away as he forced the muscles to release their hold. He kept his eyes closed. He sensed no light, so why bother? Instead he listened. The chamber sounded small. The dead sound of hangings around the bed or walls . . . No. The faint ring and echo suggested bare walls and a stone or hard wooden floor. Steps approached. Wood, not tile or stone, or so he guessed. Not a prison cell, then, not that it mattered.

Aedit. Where was she? Had the emperor, Sneelah, broken her as well? Please, Valdher, Rella, please may she be safe and whole. She had no part in his battle. But Sneelah . . . Valdher bore Gember’s sweetness and Rella’s mercy compared to Sneelah. Please, he’d suffer all the pains of the world if only Aedit might be spared.

“My lord, I am touching your head to remove the bandages on your eyes,” a man murmured, so quiet as to be almost unheard. Thus warned, Henrik remained still and did not flinch. The heavy pressure on his eyes eased, but he kept them closed. A damp cloth wiped his eyes, then his forehead as well. “My lord, the room is dark. There is a closed horn-lantern, but not where you will see it easily if you open your eyes. The healer-priestess says that it will be another day before you can tolerate more light than that.”

“Aedit?” Henrik whispered, all the sound his abused throat could produce.

“Is well, and will reach Valbaum tomorrow, should all go as it has.” The man hesitated, then repeated “She is well, and in good health, my lord.”

“Thank you.” Thank You, Lady of the wild lands, Lady of light, thank You for Your mercy.

He heard the sound of pouring, and steps coming closer once more. “My lord, Teo and I will help you sit. Then you need to drink, please. It will give you strength, and was sent by the temple.”

Thus warned, Henrik tried to sit. He managed it, almost. Had the servants not caught him, he would have fallen back. His muscles obeyed, but reluctantly. He kept his eyes closed and drank. It tasted as bad as he’d anticipated, and his stomach rebelled, then subsided. “Had it been sweet, I would have thought poison,” Henrik muttered.

A soft chuckle greeted his words. “Aye, my lord. The healers swear that the foulness is not so bad. They tell rank falsehoods.” More pouring, this thicker, perhaps. “This is meat and gold-grain, to rebuild your strength.”

Henrik slept again after he ate. When next he woke, he opened his eyes. A trace of light spilled from the shielded lantern in the corner of the chamber. Pain built behind his eyes until he closed them again, pain like when he stared at bright sun on snow at noon. What had Rodhdbard done to him? After the pain ebbed, Henrik tried again. If he squinted and looked elsewhere, he could see bed posts, a table, and two stools. Patterns stood out against the stark white of the wall. Patterns? Painted borders and a design, but of what he could not tell. Where was he? Not any of his palaces. Bors had said that Aedit traveled to Valbaum, the ducal seat. But where was he? Cold grew in his gut. Not dead, not with Aedit, not at the emperor’s current residence, so where had he been taken?

“My lord.” Teo looked at the floor when Henrik asked. “My lord, you are in the hunting lodge in the Snowcrest Hills, near the source spring of the Maerla. Valdher’s Daughter will tell you more, my lord.”

“The emperor’s hunting lodge.” His voice sounded dead to his ears. A prisoner, then.

The door opened and a tall woman in green and brown swept in. She carried a black staff topped with a raabvogel. “No, Duke Henrik. Yours now. The lodge and the hills are yours. You may go anywhere in the hills, but not cross the Maerla or the road to the village. All others are free to come and go.”

“And Aedit, honored sister?”

The priestess shook her head, her large, dark brown eyes tired. “May pass freely between the cities you created, but may not come here. Our sister struck a hard bargain for your and her lives, Henrik.”

He closed his eyes. He should hate the northern Lady, goddess of the snow and ice. He felt nothing. “So be it, honored sister. If that was the price for my bride’s life so be it.”

“Hers and yours, noble brother.”

He’d rather be dead. Henrik bit his tongue, stopping the words. Sixty years had taught him that much — arguing with the Lady of the wild lands never ended well for him. Priest he might be, Hand of the Lady, but he could not challenge Her decisions and go unscathed. “So be it. May I write to Aedit?”

“Yes.” Valdher’s Daughter frowned. “She is regent for the Emperor, until an heir is brought forward. You no longer have any role, Henrik.” He heard disappointment in her voice. “His imperial Majesty . . . may find that decision to be one of his poorer ones, or he may not.”

Without a strong hand and sword arm, one that could move quickly to stop trouble or provide aid when problems arose, Rohdbard would find that the north did not remain as calm or prosperous as before. Henrik could not find it in himself to enjoy the prospect. “Indeed.” In truth, he felt nothing. “Honored sister, why do I feel no feelings?”

“Ah.” She came closer and whispered, “Sneelah stripped you of all magic that comes not from the hand of the Wild Lady, brother. We, your brothers and sisters, fear that She took more than just magic, but we do not know and will not ask, lest it rekindle Her fury.”

He closed his eyes. “Thank you. I had feared other injury.”

“So did we, noble brother. So did we.” He heard her steps grow quieter then fade away entirely. Darkness eased closer, and he embraced it. Perhaps in dreams he might see Aedit once more.

An eight-day later, he stood on the terrace beside the hunting lodge, staring out at the meadow and forest beyond. Warm and cool evening breezes blew together, tugging his cloak’s hem and brushing his forelock into his eyes. He ignored it. Four eight-days had passed since his confrontation with Rohdbard, and spring crept north, even here. Snow still held the peaks of the hills, but here, the south-facing meadow and grounds around the stout lodge bore a lush cover of green grass. White and delicate pink flowers dotted the verdure. Ovstra grazed out of sight, resting after bringing supplies. Others could come and go. He could not. He clenched his right hand as he looked down at his boots, then up once more.

The light still brought pain to his eyes, but not so much as before. Sneelah had marked him well. He remained numb, almost entirely without anger or joy, sorrow or regret. Perhaps being denied Aedit was a mercy of a sort. For him, not for her. She had reached Valbaum without encountering trouble beyond the usual. He gave thanks, had given thanks. He needed to resume his priestly duties. Valdher had little patience for those who failed to do Her proper honor.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved,