Tuesday Tidbit: Finding Plants and Checking Birds

Saxo looks in on the birds.

Mistress Clarey looked from her husband to Saxo and back. “As close as Huw is to rising to journeyman, I think we need another apprentice.”

“Not unless prices for birds rise. And Master Jeaspe says Saxo needs to be trained, in case he has a beast healing gift. Can’t happen until Huw’s better and we finish with the female, and get the entire team ready to sell at the Scavenger’s Winter Fair. Law says the gifted have to be trained, but not that a man ruins his business doing it.” With that he seemed to remember Saxo. “When you finish, feed, then see about the pasture birds.”

“Feed, then the pasture birds, yes, sir.” If he was careful, he could gather some of the herbs of the field while he worked. He’d marked a dozen root plants, the ones that gathered goodness over the summer and had to be dug after the first true cold. Goodwife Eadburg had explained the most important ones to him, and what they could do for people, and maybe for the birds.

Saxo watched as Mistress Carey began turning the paddles inside the box. He broke up several lumps. Green hay always clumped, no matter how evenly spread in the mill. The eich-wood paddles pulled the feed into the metal teeth below. The teeth broke any remaining grain husks and tore up the hay more finely. The birds could eat both without mixing, but they did better during the cold season with the blend. Green and tan trickled out of the bottom chute and into a basket. Once it had almost filled, Mistress Carey shoved it out of the way and nudged the next basket into place, not stopping on the crank. Saxo broke up another lump, then pushed some hay closer to the paddles and scraped the sides of the hopper, just in case. Then he half-slid down the ladder and moved the next basket clear, pulling the replacement into position before returning to his task.

Once they finished, and he cleaned out the bigger pieces of the mill, Saxo fed the great-haulers. He fed the mated females first, since they tended to eat more slowly than the others. He tipped each basket into a long trough, spreading the feed out for the birds. They’d been trained not to come too close to a person with a basket, but he worked as fast as he could. Only a fool let the birds eat out of a basket—they’d eat the basket too, then get very sick or worse. Then he fed the geldings, any one-year females, the full males, and the last bits from the baskets went to the pasture birds. The mated females also got a bit of powdered bone, to keep their natures balanced so the egg didn’t drain their bones of goodness.

Mistress Carey and Goodwife Eadburg had given him some worn cloth bags and old baskets to use for gathering herbs and plants. Saxo took two of the bags and a small wooden digger, and tucked them under his jacket. If he didn’t find any proper roots, at least he’d be warmer with the extra cloth. The wind had begun to blow from the west, bringing wet with it. Saxo checked the birds’ water as he passed the pens. Before he entered the pasture, he stopped at the tiny shrine mounted onto the fence. Miniature images of two gods stood within the ornately painted wooden box. Saxo bowed and murmured, “Thank you, Yoorst, Lord of the Beasts. Thank you, Korvaal, Lord of the Fields, for your bounty and mercy.” He bowed again, then opened the gate for people and wormed his way through. Master Agri did not want the birds sneaking out, and even if a bird got the inner latch open, she’d have to step into the space, close the inner gate, unlatch the outer gate, and then step sideways and around to leave the pasture.

Saxo looked left and right. Three birds rested near the thorn-fruit tree, grey and tan lumps dozing quietly. Four more, including one of the males, made trilling sounds at each other beside the big rock. Saxo averted his eyes. He didn’t see any signs of distress among the birds, so he eased along the fence to his right, one eye on the fence and the other on the birds. The first of the plants he wanted grew near the rough corner, the patch none of the birds grazed. That was good. Saxo found his marker beside the now-withered heart shaped leaves and slender stems of the waybread. He pushed away the dead leaves and other debris, then used the wooden trowel to dig out the soft, black soil from around the roots. He didn’t find any spots or other signs of weakness or decay on the first root, so he dug a bit deeper. Then he worked his fingers under the root and pulled the slender, slightly hairy tuber out of the ground. He brushed every bit of dirt free from the waybread root. Any left would offend the plant and weaken the goodness, or so Mistress Eadburg swore. Using a metal trowel also interfered with the healing powers of the plants.

Saxo dug two more hand-sized roots, then filled in the hole and pushed all the dead grass and leaves back into place. At least four more small roots remained. Gember, Lady of Grain, and Korvaal of the Fields both punished the greedy, and some plants would wither from loneliness without their kin, just like some great-haulers stopped eating when penned up alone. Saxo also pulled up his little wooden marker stick and added it to the cloth bag.

As he worked, one of the geldings, the one with the dark neck feathers and pale wings, wandered closer and watched. Saxo stood slowly. “Chrrrrr, Chrrr,” he trilled, calm and quiet.

“Trrwee?” The bird blinked, staring down at him. It sniffed the air, then turned and left him alone. Saxo waited until the bird was well out of kicking distance before moving again.

Saxo alternated watching and counting great-haulers, and digging plants. He went as far as the little stream in the rough end of the pasture. His marker had washed away and the stream had revealed one of the roots he sought there. “Thank you, Korvaal of the Field and Donwah Lady of Waters.” He used only his fingers to pull the water dock from the bank. His hands hurt, then went numb and clumsy before he got two of the big tubers free of mud and bits of gravel. Some tiny silver and black spotted fish darted by. Two stopped and sniffed his fingers, if fish sniffed. The water looked and felt whole, not fouled by dung or a rotting carcass. Even so, once he got the tubers tucked into the bag, Saxo went upstream as far as he could, checking the banks and stone-bottomed stream bed. Donwah of the Waters did not tolerate people who found a problem in Her waters and left it for others to fix.  He found tracks of birds, great-haulers and the forest birds, and what might have been a flutter of leaf-tossers. He also found cervi tracks, and frowned. They competed with the great-haulers for forage, especially in winter. He’d need to tell Master Agri so he could get permission from the temple to hunt the trespassers.

“How many birds?” Master Agri demanded when Saxo returned from his chore.

“Twenty seven, sir. All looked well, all moved well. I found cervi track near the far stream.”

His master stomped his left foot in the dust of the farm yard. “Damn. I’ll ask at the temple next Eighth Day.” The wrinkle-faced man scowled from under his hood, back to the wind, arms folded. He stared at Saxo, looked him up and down. Master Agri sniffed. “Master Jeaspe sent word back. He wants to train you. I won’t have my birds go untended, especially since Huw can’t work that arm for at least an Eight Day, probably longer.” He looked Saxo up and down again. “Here comes first. After the Scavenger’s winter feast, you can train. And don’t dose the birds’ insides, hear me? Only the outsides.” One strong, knobby hand, like a great-hauler foot, shot out and grabbed Saxo’s shoulder, squeezed, then shook him.

“Yes, Master Agri, sir. Only the outsides, only things Mistress Eadburg taught or that all men know.” His heart soared even so. He could help the birds feel better!

Another shake. “Right, boy. Now go finish the dung rounds, then see about cleaning the training harnesses. I’ll need the heavy ones, since Huw won’t be fit to help for five days or more.” Master Agri stomped off.

Saxo spread the roots in the place Mistress Carey had given to him in the barn for that, then traded the wooden trowel for the dung shovel. At least he’d be out of the wind and the little spits of cold rain while he cleaned and mended the bird harnesses, Yoorst be praised.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.


Excellent Herbs Had our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old–
Excellent herbs to ease their pain–
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane–
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
( Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you–
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

I’ve been thinking about the opening of Kipling’s poem “Our Fathers of Old” as I write the current Merchant book. The protagonist is an herbalist-healer, or will be. Perhaps. Back in the day, before modern medicine, and sometimes because of what today we’d call academic medicine, people relied on plants and animals for medical treatment. Which for the author means learning a lot more about medieval and Dark Ages plants.

Readers of the series know that the four humors, more or less, are used in the Merchant world. However, once you move past “it it should be wet, dry it; if it should be warm, cool it,” things become a touch more complicated (Tycho Rhonarida’s fondness for spicy fried things notwithstanding.) What about infections, blisters, burns, fevers, coughs? Some of that comes out in White Gold of Empire, when a respiratory disease hits the city. And there have been mentions of “the summer complaint,” which carried off babies and small children well into the 20th century. What about worms and other intestinal problems? OK, the less said about intestinal parasites, the better, more or less. There are some things I don’t care to be fully realistic about.

Everyone knew some basics, if only so they didn’t poison themselves or their livestock. Nightshade, henbane, wormwood, rhubarb leaves, foxglove, and a few other things were to be avoided because they’d kill you. Watercress had a nasty look-alike in a hemlock that slowly paralyses the respiratory and circulatory centers. Mushrooms . . . best left to experts, or at least don’t eat the ones that everyone knows are bad. People also associated darnel (tars) or false-wheat with hallucinations and death because it hosts a fungus very much like ergot, and can host ergot proper. Other plants are caustic and had medical use but needed to be kept out of pastures and hay meadows.

Medical plants came under some broad categories. Fever tonics, anti-inflammatories, internal medicines, wound-care, pain reduction and sleep aids, and “women’s matters.” Even after Christianity became the official religion, some cures required magic, or were intended to chase off supernatural ills such as being hag-ridden or elf-haunted. Some prescriptions called for the herbs involved to be placed in front of an altar for twelve or so masses, then they were compounded and given to the patient. Psychology mattered as much as pharmacopia. Within the main groups you had sub-groups, some of which were pretty specific. Fevers that recurred every three days needed something different than those that returned after four days, or that came without vomiting. Did the patient have problems urinating because of muscle spasms or because of an enlarged prostate? Each of those had a different plant associated with the remedy.

Often, complicated preparations reveal that some of the herbs balance the others, mitigating some of the effects. For example, one for “wendenhearte” or general malaise and weakness includes: lupine, bishopwort, elfthorn, elcampane, cropleek, hindhealth, radish, and burdock. If you sort the plants, aelfthorn and burdock are sedatives of varying strength, and burdock is also an antispazmotic. Radish and elecampane serve as general tonics and attenuate the effects of aelfthorn, as does hindhealth. Cropleek and bishopwort are antiseptics and “draw out” illness, while elecampane also soothes the stomach and serves as an expectorant. Oh, if you are wondering, aelfthorn is a nightshade, one of the milder ones. [Sinead Spearing Mandrake, Wormwood, and Raven’s Eye: Old English Medical Remedies. loc. 630-31 Kindle]

Battlefield medicine made some use of herbs, although surgery, post-surgical care, and reconstruction were common. The basics such as using poppy and other sedatives, burn treatments, and so on circulated among everyone. Herbwives used what they had and didn’t worry too much about Greek and Roman humors and so on. Physicians used Latin, went to schools, studied for years, and treated the great, powerful, and wealthy. Sometimes, herb wives supplied physicians and apothecaries with things that the men wouldn’t or couldn’t get for themselves.

An herbalist has to know what works for what ailment, how to compound tinctures and infusions, poultices and ointments, common dosages and conversions, and what plants are forbidden under most circumstances. He also needs to be able to identify plants in their natural habitat as well as in a garden, and to know that some things need to be gathered without using iron, or compounded without iron. In other words, it is a very skilled trade, and one that needs a lot of training and education. There’s far more to medieval (and Merchant) medicine than there seems on the surface.

I will also add that while there are some real herbs and compounds used in the book, DO NOT try them at home. Consult a modern herbalist and current books for your region if you are inclined to try herbal medicine for yourself. Some things should only be used for external use, and some really are not that great for you.

Tuesday Tidbit: What Ails The Bird?

A professional comes by to check on the injured great-hauler.

Two days later, Saxo staggered along from the grain-shed to the food mixer. The sack felt as large as he was. Mistress Carys waited by the machine. She’d already put green hay into the mixing box. “Saxo! That’s Huw’s job, not yours.” She planted her fists on narrow hips. “Where’s Huw?”

“Helping Master Agri, ma’am. They are training the new lead female, and Huw told me to bring this to you.” And do all the other things that needed to be done. “All in, or just part, ma’am?”

She pursed her lips, then murmured something firm-sounding as she helped him up the short ladder. She handed him the blunt awl they used to unstitch the top of sacks. “Half. Otherwise I can’t turn the crank. You need to watch the mix. The hay is very wet.”

“Yes, ma’am.” It might clog the paddles, and someone needed to catch it before the machine locked up. He poured in the grain, working it back and forth in an even layer. Mistress Carys took the half-empty sack, and handed him the slender eich rod they used to break up clumps. “Thank you, ma’am.”

She rubbed her hands together, took a firm grip on the handle of the crank, and began to turn the paddles. She was stronger than she looked, but she gritted her teeth as the wooden paddles began to churn the grain and hay together, breaking up the hay and softening the grain. Saxo watched, poked a lump, then bumped some hay back down into the middle of the box. Mistress Carys kept working, her upper body rocking up and down as she cranked.

“Greetings in the name of the Lord of Beasts,” a cheerful voice called, but quietly. Mistress Carys kept cranking, so Saxo waved to Master Jeaspe. The beast healer wore the brown and red robes of Yoorst over thick brown trousers and very sturdy boots. The priest came closer. “Mistress Carys, why are you doing that? That’s work for a man.” He smiled, teasing a little.

She stuck her tongue out as she straightened up. “And greetings to you, too. Because my husband is trying to convince a new female to act as lead. Saxo, please show Master Jeaspe the ailing bird.”

“Yes, ma’am. This way, sir.” Saxo leaned the rod against the outside of the wooden mixing box, climbed down the ladder, and led the beast-healer to the gelding’s pen.

“What ails the bird, Saxo?”

“I think he was stung, or bitten, or got a bramble in his leg, sir. It swelled around a white-centered lump, and felt hot to the touch. He favored that leg.” Saxo started to open the gate to the pen.

Master Jeaspe held up one hand, stopping him. “Let me see from here, first.” Saxo stepped well clear of the gate and waited. The gelding strode over to study the beast healer, turning his head from one side to the other. The gelding’s eyes were bright and clear, and his long neck had no swellings or missing feathers—the warning signs of throat-apple. The gelding moved better, and the swelling on his injured leg had gone down by at least half. The bird blinked, then turned and walked over to get a drink. The healer said, “He looks almost well. I’ll check him now.”

Saxo opened the gate, then closed it once more when Master Jeaspe entered the pen. The healer made soothing noises as he approached the gelding. The healer’s head was almost as high as mid-neck on the great-hauler, even though he didn’t look that tall. Or was the gelding smaller than most? Saxo hadn’t noticed before. As the healer hummed, Saxo felt himself relaxing like the bird did.

The gelding blinked and turned, presenting his injured leg to the beast healer. Master Jeaspe called quietly, “Saxo, what did you use in the poultice?”

“Betony, clary root, lumpwort, and one leaf of stinging stem, pounded with cold water,” he recited. “Goodwife Eadburg said to rub it in line with the hair. I put it on with a cloth, not my hand, and ran down the feathers, not against.”


Saxo blinked as the man held his right hand just above the injury. He saw something, maybe a little reddish brown glow? Master Jeaspe nodded and inspected the leg, still making soothing sounds. The gelding remained calm, crest feathers relaxed, wings still. The beast healer straightened up and eased back with slow, smooth steps. He kept his eyes on the gelding until he reached the gate. Saxo opened it once more, and the healer eased out.

“It was a thorn. Here.” He held out his hand, revealing a black-thorn spike as long as the top joint on Saxo’s little finger. “Your poultice drew it out as well as keeping the healing humors in. You did very well, Saxo.”

Saxo looked down at the dirt. “Thank you, sir.”

“Well? How bad’s the injury?” Master Agri demanded, stomping up to them. Huw followed behind, holding one arm. Dirt covered Huw’s sleeve, and Saxo hid a wince. The female had kicked him, or nipped. Probably kicked, since the fabric wasn’t torn.

“It could have been very bad.” Master Jeaspe showed the others the thorn. “These have a poison in their nature. Saxo’s poultice drew out the poison with the thorn and cooled the heat. Another day, and you can use the gelding for light work. Don’t ask him to pull a full load until after the next Eight Day.”

“Huh.” The bird breeder glared at Saxo. “So the boy’s got a knack. Good to know.”

Master Jeaspe folded his arms. “Who are your gods, Saxo?”

“Born for Yoorst, born to Korvaal, although the priest wasn’t sure on that,” Master Agri said. “Priest thought he might be born to Scavenger, depending on if he was born before or after noon.”

The healer frowned and rubbed his chin. “Saxo, have you ever had temple training?”

Master Agri jumped in before Saxo inhaled to speak. “No need, Master Jeaspe. He’s a charity child, so he can read names and numbers, and count. He doesn’t need more than that.” The healer’s frown grew deeper, and the farmer added, “Does he? Did the law change?”

Master Jeaspe glanced to Saxo, then Huw, and back to Master Agri. “Not the law. He may have the gift for herb healing, and that needs to be trained. The Great Northern Emperor has reaffirmed the decree that all gifts are to be trained, even if the bearer does not use them again. If Saxo has the gift, he needs to learn how to use it properly, so he doesn’t accidentally do more ill than weal.”

Saxo risked a glance at Huw. The older boy’s face had folded into a ferocious scowl, anger burning in his dark green eyes. What was wrong? Suddenly Saxo remembered. The feed mill! Mistress Carys needed him at the feed mill. Saxo bowed and hurried back to the machine. He shouldn’t have stayed with Master Jeaspe. “I’m sorry, Mistress Carys,” he called as he slid on the dirt. Two baskets of mixed feed needed to be moved. “I won’t forget again.”

“You didn’t forget. The beasts come first, and you’d gotten all the lumps out for me. Move the full baskets to the barn, and I’ll load these two.” She nodded to the two full containers of fresh feed.

“Yes, ma’am.” Saxo wrestled one off the ground and staggered with it to the barn, then returned for the second one. A third waited by the time he finished. They were more bulky than heavy, but even so, he felt tired when he finished moving the fourth basket. “I’ll get more fresh hay.”

She stopped him with a raised hand and a small frown on her round face. “No. Rinse your hands and break your fast. I know you didn’t eat what I sent, so do it now.”

Thanks be to Gember! “Yes, ma’am.”

He rinsed his hands, then bolted the food and followed with several gulps of water. The heavy, sausage-smeared bread filled the hole inside him. He trotted to the hay pile and grabbed an armload. He’d learned how much he could carry without wasting any. He hurried back to the feed grinder and climbed up the ladder. Mistress Carey steadied it, and him, as he dropped the hay in the box. He made sure it was evenly spread, then ran back to the pile and got a second load. He’d finished, and was adding the last of the grain by the time Master Agri and Huw finished their business.

Huw’s left arm looked fatter. “That’s why you need to watch the crest feathers,” Master Agri reminded him. They start going flat, and you hear that hiss, you need to either get clear or step so close the bird can’t put force in the blow.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll never forget, sir,” Huw assured the beast-raiser. He sounded tired. Saxo looked away, picking up the eich rod and pretending he had not seen or heard.

“Go rest,” their master ordered. Huw bowed, sort of, and staggered a little as he went to the barn. Once he’d left, Master Agri growled, “Of all times to get kicked. Just a muscle bruise, but a bad one. Master Jeaspe agreed to ease it, then applied something to pull out the heat.”

Saxo bit his tongue to keep from making a sound. That meant Huw couldn’t do even the little things until he healed. It wasn’t fair. Everyone knew you stayed far away or very close to an untrained great-hauler, or one that acted agitated. Well, Radmar had turned His Wheel, and Yoorst only know what Huw had done, or not done, to irritate the young female.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: Ailing Great-Haulers

In which a great-hauler needs some TLC . . .

“Saxo, what are you doing?” A firm hand grabbed the back of his neck and collars and hauled him upright. “Boy, I told you—” Master Agri stopped. “That bird’s leg.”

The young, grey-tan great-hauler gelding walked back and forth in his pen, nibbling a little of the fresh food Saxo had given him after he poulticed the bird’s leg. A green smear and lump showed the thick blend of herbs just above the feather line at the base of the skin-covered lower leg. The gelding moved more easily than he had that morning. He swallowed the grain and greens blend, blinked, then ate more.

“Sir? It hurt and couldn’t pull. I tried to help it stop hurting.” Saxo tried not to whine. Master Agri had told him to make the bird comfortable and to take care of it until the beast healer came in two days. “It’s the same poultice that Goodwife Eadburg uses on people.” He’d been washing the container he’d blended the herbs in when Master Agri caught him.

The wrinkled man scowled. “What made you think it would work, boy?” He shook Saxo.

“It did before, on the lead female on Goodman Folker’s team after she got bitten by the stinging flies before Rella’s summer feast, sir.” He didn’t like seeing beasts in pain, and Goodman Folker had been happy to let him try the sticky, green paste that worked so well on people’s bruises and swellings with carbuncles. It helped the birds as well as it did people, and had even made the stingers pop out of the leg flesh. The bird stopped trying to scratch and chewing at the leg. That alone made the leg heal faster, even before the power of the herbs rebalanced the bird’s natures, drawing out the extra heat.

Master Agri stared from the bird to boy and back. He shook Saxo again. “Don’t do it again unless the beast healer gives his permission, hear me?” A third shake came with the words.

“Yes, sir.” How was he to ask? Not a good question. There were no good questions for Master Agri, unless it was “What else needs doing, sir?”

The bird-raiser let go of his collar. “Clean that, then get on with your work. Huw can’t do it all.”

“Yes, sir.” Huw never did all his work, just the half he wanted to do. He left the dirty, nasty, hard things for Saxo, unless Master Agri or Mistress Carys watched him. But Huw was almost a journeyman, and was an apprentice under contract, not a charity apprentice.

Saxo finished washing out the little clay pot and the scrap of cloth, then put them in the shed with the other containers. Then he got the dung scoop and eased into the large pen holding six mated female birds. They liked to nip if they thought he was too close. He kept one eye on the birds and one on the ground, scraping up the mounds of droppings with the curved wooden shovel. The metal edge keep the old wood from breaking. Saxo piled the dung just outside the bottom of the pen, slipping the scoop’s blade between the wooden rails and tipping out the contents. The light brown four-year-old female snapped, crimson crest feathers slicked back. He flattened himself against the side of the pen. She nipped hard and left big, deep bruises. The female snapped again, then ignored him. He waited until her crest feathers fluffed, then several heartbeats more. Only then did he gather the last bit of waste. Task done, he eased out of the pen and made triple sure that both latches closed and locked. The pale grey female had learned how to undo one latch, but not the new one. Yet.

Saxo got a different shovel and a dung-cart. He loaded the mound of dusty, sour-smelling waste into the cart and pushed the cart to the heap. He’d gotten all the pens cleaned. The birds in the pasture scattered their waste on their own, like the wild birds did. Saxo shoveled the droppings onto the dark brown mound. Goodman Folker would come tomorrow to collect it to spread on his fields. He only had six great-haulers, all the smaller, darker kind from the eastern hills. Master Agri grumbled about that. Huw said that the eastern birds didn’t work as hard as Master Agri’s did. Saxo shrugged as he returned the cart to its place. Goodman Folker’s birds liked him better than his master’s birds did. Only Yoorst knew why, and the god of beasts had other things to do besides explain His ways to charity apprentices like Saxo.

Just before Rella’s light dimmed for the day, Saxo checked on the male in the healing pen. Saxo gave the male more water. The three-year-old, pale brown and grey gelding hissed a little at something on the other side of the pen, then stalked toward the water trough. He moved more easily, and kicked toward Saxo. That was good, sort of, as long as the gelding missed—he still had his claws, and the kick alone could break a man’s arm or leg. The bird’s head and neck feathers fluffed out as he calmed down. Saxo watched the bird a little longer, then plodded toward the barn where Master Agri stored the wagons, carts, harnesses, and other equipment. The apprentices slept there, up in a loft, so they could guard the barn.

Saxo rinsed his hands and face, and brushed off his clothes. Mistress Carys had left his food in the barn. Huw ate in the house, since he was a senior apprentice, almost a journeyman. Saxo didn’t care. The thick bread, pottage with bits of sausage, and wilted herbs tasted very good, no matter where he ate it, and Saxo wiped up every bit of pottage with the bread. It was too late in the season for much fresh fruit, and the dried fruit needed to be saved for later, or so he’d heard Mistress Carys telling her husband. Goodman Folker said that the signs pointed to a mild winter, since there weren’t as many nuts and fruits this season. Saxo shrugged. Great-haulers mattered more to him than wild nuts and fruits.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

Apprenticeship, Journeymen, and Guilds in the Merchant World

How do you learn a skilled trade that’s not farming, basic spinning and weaving, or other everyday things that all people learn? If it is a non-guild family tradition, you learn from parents and older relatives. If you show magical gifts, you are apprenticed to the appropriate mage guild. Otherwise, you apprentice to a trade of some kind, provided your parents have the funds to pay the fees. (If you are an orphan, things are a little different, in some places, depending on the situation.)

The role of the confraternities and guilds is to ensure quality of products, train (and tame) young men in the crafts, and to protect the interests of the trade. Certain things are guild secrets and are not discussed outside of closed meetings, even with spouses or senior journeymen. Part of passing on the trade and training men is the apprenticeship system. Apprentices usually start at age seven or so, perhaps older in the case of a trade that requires physical strength or is especially dangerous (stone cutting, salt making). Apprentices are chosen for basic moral character, intelligence, good health, and a willingness to take orders. A master can refuse to take an apprentice, and he can release an apprentice if the young man behaves too badly or refuses to learn. The parents or appropriate temple (if an orphan) sign a contract binding the apprentice to serve for X number of years or until he is passed to journeyman. The apprentice agrees to certain duties. The master also agrees to certain duties, including feeding, housing, training, providing medical care if needed, and moral instruction. The master and his lady are, in effect, the parents of the boy from the point the contract is signed until he sets out on his journey year, or he is kicked out for bad behavior.

Apprentices do the basic work of cleaning, sorting (once they know enough), washing, fetching and carrying, and working the bellows or winches. They also study reading and writing, basic math, business and trade law and custom. This is when the boys start to see how to sort wood for quality, how to sharpen tools and why each tool is used for a certain purpose, why some metals are quenched in oil and others in water, the best caulk for a ship, and so on. As they mature and show signs of learning, they shift over to more delicate, or demanding, or precise skills. An herbalist’s apprentice might compound basic tinctures and washes. If he messes up, no one will die, and he gains the needed skills. A cloth trader’s apprentice will sort fabrics into general types, confirm tax tags (but NOT remove them!), and assign goods to different types of storage.

Journeymen go a step farther. Some run shops during quiet times. Others make basic barrels, or pots and dishes, or coarse breads and leb-breads. At some point, all the masters in the city or region will meet and agree that an apprentice has shown enough skill and responsibility to be worthy of promotion. The young man undergoes testing and a ceremony, and becomes a journeyman. He has more responsibility as well as privileges. If he fails badly enough, or behaves badly enough, the masters may break him back to apprentice, as has happened twice in the Merchant series. Commit a serious offense and he will lost all privileges and rights and be expelled from the city or town permanently. He may not practice his skills, either.

Ideally, most journeymen continue on, do well, and eventually qualify for a journey year. The young man goes to a different master to learn more about the trade, or to study a different aspect of it. It also allows other masters to confirm that indeed, the candidate is worthy of elevation and should, in due time, be admitted to their ranks if he proves himself.

Apprenticeship is usually age seven or so to age fourteen, then journeyman to age twenty one or until the young man passes the mastery tests. There are a LOT of young master mages at the time of the book in progress, because so many died from the southerners’ poison. Mages are still scarce. This worries a lot of the surviving mages, because they don’t want untrained but well-meaning people getting into trouble and causing a bad reputation for all magic workers. Also, a lot of guild knowledge was lost.

Some towns and villages don’t have enough craft masters for a confraternity. In those cases, or if all the healers happen to be priests for example, the clergy will take on the role of guild masters and will train apprentices, then send them elsewhere for their journeyman training. That’s not ideal, but everyone agrees that it is better to have a talented child identified and trained in the basics by a priest of Korval than to lose that potential master carpenter. Other guild masters will still have to confirm his skills and readiness to advance to master, or to confirm his journeyman rank.

Saturday Snippet: Glen Coe II

And now for the trail . . .

Mike hid his shiver, but not easily. Luciphera pulled her jacket closer. He scooped up Rich and led the way back to the washrooms, then to the car. The air moved a little, just enough to be a faint breeze out in the open. It smelled wet, and sort of grassy but not quite. It wasn’t a sea smell, like in Oban, or forest, or back home. He shrugged and kept his eyes open for traffic of the four-footed kind. They way his life went, they’d find Scotland’s largest stag by hitting it. The ridges and mountains eased closer to the Coe River, green and grey hemming in the world. Grey stone spilled down here and there, steep slopes succumbing to gravity and rain, a reminder of the power of ice and water. Tourists and others stood out as crimson, sky-blue, or canary yellow dots among the greens. Nothing taller than waist-high grew in the glen, at least not in this area. He could see some sheep here and there, well disguised by the dirt on their fleeces.

Luciphera slowed, signaled, and snarled at herself as the wipers came on instead. He did not smile – he wasn’t driving, after all. And he’d done it too. She signaled and turned into the trail head parking. Well up the Glen from the cluster of cars, a solid block of inn stood out, pale cream against the greens and grey. Up the slope, a waterfall danced down the sheer wall of the glen. “It’s hard to believe that this is a dead volcano,” he admitted as he let Rich out. He pulled on a better jacket, then strapped a harness on his wiggling Familiar, along with a leash.

“Awwwwww. Come on boss, I won’t get into trouble.”

“Rich, it’s not you getting into trouble,” Luciphera said, pointing up the trail with her hiking stick. “It’s tourists giving your mage trouble, or that determined park-ranger looking person scowling vehemently in our direction.”

“Oh. Um, yeah.” The mongoose subsided for a moment. “The one with the firearm-looking thing?”

“You got it,” Mike said. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to throw a physical shield over Tik-Tik unless he had no choice. The presence in the glen might react.

Luciphera didn’t say anything until she finished negotiating the gate. First, she lifted the metal strap over the top of the outer gate, then reached down and lifted a second latch. She eased through the small opening and turned hard right. Only once the outer gate closed could she repeat the process with an inner gate, then continue up the trail a little ways. Mike sucked in what little gut he had and copied her. He could probably vault the wooden part of the fence, but not with an official-type person watching, unless he had a really good reason. Once he and Rich caught up with her, Luciphera nodded. “I agree on the volcano. Calderas are supposed to be tidy and round, more volcano looking. Not track-shaped.” She drew a long oval in the air with her free hand, then started walking up the trail.

Rich stayed close to Mike, not tugging on the lead. “This is what, three or four booms in a line?”

“Ah, two booms, but older stuff fell in when the caldera collapsed for the last time and made it long instead of just round?” He only paid attention to rock stuff when it affected his life, or could be used for cool points. “No, that’s right, multiple booms, then the land stretched under the remains of the caldera. It’s the same age as the mountains near home, the Appalachians.”

Glaciers had carved on the glen more recently than they’d worked on the Appalachians, though. That and latitude, since they were so much farther north than Kentucky or Riverton. Luciphera had stopped to take a photo of the waterfall. Mike and Rich nodded to the naturalist, who glowered down at Rich from under a flat, lichen-green tweed cap. Rich waved his silver-white forefoot, smirked, but stayed quiet. The frown on the lean, pointed face grew deeper, but the stranger didn’t speak. I wonder if he’s one of those preachers the lady at supper last night was talking about. The Free Kirk Calvinists. Mike studied the land around them, arms folded. If he had to try and grow food or raise sheep and cattle here, he might slide into Calvinism too. Or was this the Catholic area? I can barely keep track of Orthodox denominations, let alone anything else aside from Sunni and not-Sunni. That’s complicated enough, thanks.

His friend had started moving again, and had gained a dozen meters of so on him. Rich trotted ahead, more or less in a straight-ish line. Then he stopped dead. “Need a lift,” he said. Mike hoisted him onto his shoulder. “Don’t like this,” Rich murmured. “Ahead, on left. Red jacket with hood.”

What’s he seeing? He shifted to seeing magic. Ohhhh nuts. Do we warn him? The person had shields, and what looked like a focus of some kind. The man glanced up the steeply-curving slope ahead, then back down at a large, flat rock. He’d moved off the trail. Luciphera stopped and glanced back at them. Mike stretched his stride, drawing a little power from Rich. I do not like that. What’s he trying to do? The sense was some sort of reading, as if the stranger sought information from the stone.

Luciphera eased closer, then closer still. She pointed up the slope, away from the man, and asked, “Are you seeing that?”

He caught her meaning, and leaned close to her as well, one hand on her shoulder, as if he sighted along her stick. “Yes, I am. It looks unstable, like a rock-slide waiting to happen.” He extended his shield around her. The magic of the glen stirred, and he braced. Please don’t hit us. And don’t hit him, either.

Power shifted under him, then hesitated, dark and cold. Please, Lord, not again. Please spare Luciphera if it hits us. Or if glen responded to the sorcerer’s proto-spell.

“Don’t ground it into the land if it hits us, Defender.” Tik-Tik shook as if with fear. “It feeds like that.”

He gulped. “Luci, if you sense magic moving toward us from the glen, run. Don’t ask, don’t look, just run.”

“Are, are you sure?” Fear filled her voice.

“Yes. You’ll be fine, but get away from Tik-Tik and me as fast as you can.”

The power loomed, then eased away, shifting its attention. He caught an odd sense, but didn’t have a name for it. Off to the left, the sorcerer waved his hands in a complicated flat pattern. “Yowch!” The presence in the valley stung him, just a tiny bit. Tiny by its standards, Mike guessed. The guy stripped one glove off with his teeth, and Mike winced at the red glow, like a terrible sunburn.

Luciphera turned her head, eyes wide, meeting his. “Um, that’s what you were worried about?”

“Pretty much, but even more so. Something here doesn’t like any magic. Any other magic, I should say.”

She nodded hard. “Got it.” He lifted his hand. A drop of water thumped on his hood. “Scotland strikes again.” She giggled a little with relief as she pulled up her hood. “So much for the sunny picnic weather the TV promised.” With that she set off again.

The inn at the end of the scenic trail served scones almost as large as his hand, which was saying something. Mike savored the thick soup, hot scones, clotted cream, and tea. He wanted a pint, but refrained.  Rich worked on a bit of fatty bacon. Luciphera cradled her tea mug in both hands, after devouring a large sandwich and a slice of cake. “The nature book says that the weather is because of how the edges of the calderas affect wind from the sea.”

Mike nodded. “There’s a reason for the postcard we saw showing ‘A Fine Day on Ben Nevis’.” It had been solid grey, like the inside of a cloud.

Rich licked his chops, then twitched his whiskers and tail. “The farther north, the wetter, and this side is wetter than St. Andrews.”

I still have trouble with Britain having so many kinds of weather. He’d read something that claimed Eurasia’s weather went east west, while North America’s went north south, and that was part of why people spread the way they did, and culture developed on east-west lines. We’re no farther than Riverton is from Pittsburg, and the weather and landscape are so different. Although, it did explain some things. Shadow claimed that the English went odd from being cooped up on an island for thousands of years. Ditto Japanese pop culture. Mike had more tea and shrugged to himself. Meister Gruenewald was a lot stranger than either of those, and he’d lived on the mainland for his entire life.

Luciphera’s eyes went wide, and she covered her mouth with one hand. “Oh. Dear.”

He glanced over his shoulder and regretted it. A guy in a faded, brick-red canvas kilt with cargo pockets had come into the tea room. He wore a flannel shirt in Black Watch plaid over a mustard-yellow tee-shirt, and looked as out of place as a giraffe in a cat show. A voice with a flat California accent demanded a table for one.

Mike leaned forward. Rich and Luciphera leaned in as well. “Tourrrists,” he groaned, then winked. She snickered. Rich gave him a disappointed look, then attacked the last bit of cream on Mike’s plate.

That night, after they returned to Oban and retired for the night, Mike looked at his Familiar. “This morning. What did you sense just as the glen redirected its attention?”

“Um.” Rich went still, then blinked twice. “Approval? Like we’d passed a test? No idea, Defender. That’s . . . don’t mess with it, leave it alone.”

“No shit. I don’t care to get burned again, literally or magically.” His arm still ached a little around the edges of the burn scar, especially when he was tired.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Saturday Snippet: Glen Coe I

Mike, Rich, and Luciphera go hiking. Bumped to Friday due to Day Job.

Luciphera parked in the far end of the visitors’ lot at the main visitors’ center. Mike unfolded from the front seat and opened Rich’s carrier. The mongoose started to bolt, then stopped. He descended in a graceful flow from the seat and stood beside Mike. That’s odd. He extended a tiny bit of magic as he locked, then closed the door. Ah, yeah.

Old and cold. Chill filled the local magic flows, like a winter breeze but made of magic. The land here had watched glaciers advance and retreat, seas rise and fall, and creatures humans had yet to imagine live and die over the eons. It reminded him of an eagle staring into the distance, seemingly unaware of the birds and smaller animals below its perch, but ready to strike at any moment. The presence predated the events of the 1600s, but those had not helped. Perhaps. “We stay quiet,” Rich murmured.

“Yes.” Like that thing near Draku’s eyrie. It and Meister Gruenewald had a treaty of sorts. Perhaps. Perhaps. Mike shivered, then followed Luciphera between tall blooming hedges that hummed with bees to reach the gift shop and visitor center. Rich detoured, as did Mike. The facilities were quite civilized. They met up again in the gift shop.

“Can we get one of those for Angus, please, please?” Rich begged, pointing to a tee-shirt proclaiming “Kilt – what happened to the last person to call it a skirt.”

“If you spend your own money,” Mike said. Luciphera chuckled, then continued to a very large 3-D topographic map of Glen Coe, Ben Nevis, and the other mountains around them. “I’m just not used to mountains that fall into the sea, almost.”

“No. Ours back home are inland, except for Alaska and part of California.” She wrinkled her nose as she read one of the caution notes. “I’d ask who goes hiking in Scotland without preparing for weather changes, but I’m sure there’s someone.”

One of the volunteer guides gloomed over to them. “Aye. Tourrists.” The word dripped with resigned contempt. “Come up from London and think that just because the peaks are nae sa high as th’ Alps, they’re tame.” He shook his head.

“Like the ones who try to pet the fluffy cows in Yellowstone,” Mike said.

“Aye!” The man perked up, in a dower sort of way. “Are ye thinkin aboot climbing?”

Luciphera brushed her hair back from her forehead as she straightened up. “No, sir. I’ve never climbed serious mountains, and my friend didn’t bring his equipment with him.”

“Good choice. If ye want a general introduction, this trail . . .” He pushed a button, and a path along the valley glowed yellow. The docent showed them several options, ranging from flat and damp to not so flat and still damp. “Mind ye stay away from th’ sheep. They’re in controlled grazing paddocks, to preserve wildflowers and other adapted plants.”

Mike put a hand on Rich before he mouthed off. The mongoose sagged, but held his peace until they went into the small theater to see the film about Glencoe and the infamous massacre. “I wouldn’t bother the sheep,” Rich protested, tail thrashing, whiskers twitching. “Just look at them.”

“Rich, I remember when you ‘just looked’ at the puppies in the park,” Luciphera sighed. “They don’t speak mongoose.”

“And harassing the livestock is a criminal offense, especially here,” Mike reminded him. The lights dimmed, and the film began. Mike shivered as the story unfolded. They violated the laws of hospitality. You don’t do that, ever. There’s so much karma debt there. . . He’d learned that over and over in Southwest Asia and elsewhere—the laws of hospitality were sacrosanct, and the lowest of the low were guests who betrayed their hosts after breaking bread and taking shelter under the roof. A warm hand took his in the darkness. Luciphera squeezed, then let go. She understood.

“Nae dogs and nae Campbells,” Rich whispered. “Took generations to cleanse most of the blood corruption from the land here.”

Most? I don’t like the sound of that. “Not our job, right?” he whispered back.

A furry head thumped his neck half a dozen times as Rich shook his head. “Oh no, no way, no. Healer, land healer with native blood and the agreement of the locals, maybe. Not us.”

The lights came up. Luciphera stood. “So, I want to see that house, and the archaeology thing, then the waterfall trail.”

He stood as well, and smiled. “The trail that ends in the inn with the four star tea?”

“Well, there’s that too. If we need to warm up.” She grinned and winked. They left the theater and read about the history of the mountaineering clubs and rescue groups, then the Special Forces training area just outside the mountains. She got a few things in the gift shop.

A tourist looked at Mike. “Which clan do you belong to?” the man demanded. “And what’s that on your shoulder?”

Mike smiled, one hand on Rich. “Any Scots in my family was too long ago to document, sir, and my Familiar.” Since every army known left genetic material in the area, who knows? Although a wandering Viking is more likely. Some of the Varangian Guards in the Byzantine art looked a bit like him.

“Oh.” The American returned to an intense study of clan badges and tartan patterns. The young man restocking the coffee mugs mouthed, “Tourrists,” and rolled his eyes. Mike agreed whole heartedly.

“I dare you to say Clan MacRadescu,” Rich giggled once they went back outdoors. “Do it, do it, do it,” he chanted.

Mike pointed to the bushes. Rich weaseled off to do his thing while Mike made another pit stop, then held Luciphera’s bags while she did the same. Refreshed, the trio followed the short nature and history trail to the reconstruction of a turf house. Luciphera looked at him, then at the house, then back at him and shook her head. “Not happening,” she said. “I don’t see you moving into one of these, no matter how cozy it might be in winter.”

Since his shoulder reached half-way to the peak of the steeply-sloped grey-green thatch and turf roof, he couldn’t argue. “Life imitates nature,” he observed, waving toward the ridge on the other side of the glen. “These would blend in very well once moss grows on the roof.” The ridge line and the roof line matched, as did the green of the lower slopes and the black and green walls. Turfs six inches thick and more had been cut, then layered to make the walls. “Rich, stay out of the roof.”

“Awwwwwww.” Rich sniffed around, then darted into the dark, shadowy interior.

Luciphera ducked through the doorway. “Mind your head, Mike,” she called. “It’s really low.” Thus warned, he bent double and followed. Once his eyes adapted to the very dim light from the doorway, he started to straighten up. He could stand, if he stayed in the center of the room, away from the roof beams. “I don’t think the people were as tall as we are,” she observed.

“No. Not as much protein in the diet, so shorter and lighter mostly. Plus this keeps heat in.” The turf house had no windows, just a door at each end. It smelled of smoked meat, peat and turf smoke, and wood. It was a little overwhelming, and his eyes watered. I guess you got used to it, especially in winter. The smoke is better than a dozen unwashed people and chamber pots. The people here had survived, but not exactly thrived. But they’d been independent of the English and Scottish crowns, too, and if this was all they knew? My ancestors weren’t all that different – blood feuds as a sport, fighting outsiders when given the chance, suspicious of change, carrying grudges until after the second coming? Check. “I don’t think I want to stay in that traditional house hotel, thanks.”

“Does it have snakes?” Rich chittered. “Snakes in thatch? Those are fuuuuuun!”

“No. There are no snakes. Zero. Keine Schlange. Nae snakes,” Mike informed him. “And get out of that!” He grabbed Rich just as he started trying to burrow into a basket near the door. “Dude, you are not an exhibit. Quit.” He bent over again and unceremoniously hauled Rich back into the open air as Luciphera took pictures.

Rich found a stack of wood and wove in and out of it, sparing his mage the challenge of trying to explain damage to a display. Luciphera stepped out of the house, blinking. Even the cloud-covered, mottled-grey sky was bright compared to the inside of the turf building. “It’s eleven,” she began. “Let’s go to the trail now, in case rain moves in.”

“Rain will move in,” Rich said, now still and serious. “Glencoe has rain and overcast when all around are clear. The land remembers.” Mike hid his shiver, but not easily. Luciphera pulled her jacket closer.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday Tidbit: The Aftermath

Mike, Rich, and Co. have to deal with the results of someone’s folly. As usual . . .

Mike smelled food and fresh air. He managed to get up the stairs. Capt. Sluka and Ondra Adamcik waited. Mike started to speak, but the civilian shook his head. “Eat, please. We’re stalling the other Americans until you can eat.”

Rich, sitting on a portable table with a plate of his own, waved his silver-white front paw. “Need food first, boss. Houser and Custiss are not happy, for different reasons. Custiss dropped his shield, has a headache.” Rich ate more sausage. His left hind foot now matched his right forefoot, both silvery white.

“The consul is most disappointed that the Belarussians attempted to use magic to assist in the negotiations,” Adamcik said. “Eat, Captain.” He peered at Mike, came a step closer, and peered again. “Your hair is now silver.”

That explains—. “Backlash, sir. It means my Familiar and I are injured inside as well.”

Major Kowalczyk pointed to the table. “Food.”

“Yes, sir.” Mike sat and devoured things in a bun, pickled vegetables, cheese, and slices of spiced pear.

Fed, watered, and arm temporarily bandaged, Mike felt a little more human. Almost. “The others are all OK?”

Kowalczyk shook his head. “Turko. She’s trapped in her head, seeing whatever you fought. None of us can break her out.”

“Needs clergy and not-us help,” Rich said. “Boss, talk to consul, then fall over. We’re drained.”

For once he could not argue with his Familiar. “Yes, we are. Thank you sir,” Mike nodded to the Czech diplomat. “And you, Mistress Kaminska.”

“I’ll come with you,” Sluka said, her hands shaking a little. He pretended not to see. Once they left the others, she began, “I apologize. I froze and I shouldn’t have.”

“You ever see an abyssal creature in person?” Rick asked. “Not an illusion or illustration, but in person?”

She shook her head. “No, but that’s no excuse.”

Rich shifted to face her better. “Not excuse, but cause. If you’ve never seen something like that, felt the aura and smelled the stench, you freeze. He did. Others do. It’s normal. You didn’t run or panic. That’s good.”

“He’s right, Captain, if not diplomatic.” They’d reached the door. Mike girded his mental loins as Capt. Sluka knocked on the door. She moved well clear as the door opened. “Captain Radescu reporting as asked.”

“Come in.” Mike eased in the door. Rich felt limp, as if he’d fallen asleep. “Captain Radescu, what happened? And why did you go running off?” Consul Houser frowned from behind his desk, irritation quite clear.

He took a very long breath. “When the two spells triggered in the meeting room, the energy release attracted something very bad, sir. Something from the cellar. That’s what caused the creature to manifest. It chased Major Kowalczyk because he has a great deal of unused magic, and that sort of creature gains power from others.” Mike inhaled again. “My Familiar and I dealt with it, then went to the source of the abyssal power, down in the cellar. Marija Kaminska blocked the cellar door as Rich and I closed the portal once more. Ms. Turko had slid the stone just far enough to release a lot of nasty magic, sir.”

Mr. Custiss, still pale, swallowed hard and nodded. “I felt that and hope I never, ever do again. Did something break?” He tapped his head.

“Yes, sir. Magic backlashed. My Familiar and I are both injured.” He held up his arm. It hurt, hurt a lot. Ms. Pullman covered her mouth with her fingertips, eyes wide, and leaned away. Mike lowered the arm once more.

Mr. Houser drummed his fingers on the desk. “I see. Were it not for what I observed with my own eyes, Captain, I’d not believe you. But I have no choice.” He scowled. “I am very disappointed with Colonel Petrov for not trusting our and the Czechs assurances that no magic was in use.” Pure irritation drew his features into a frown, fingers still moving. “Your abrupt departure and lack of explanation were undignified and did not contribute to calm.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Do not say a word, because you’re going to bite his head off. Don’t. The magic-enhanced energy shot had begun to wear off, his upper body ached, and his head throbbed. Food and water were not enough.

“Why is Familiar Radescu so quiet?”

“He’s asleep, sir. Backlash hits Familiars very hard.” And their mages, too. You’re starting to blur on the edges. Not good.

The consul’s frown eased. “I see. You’re dismissed. Write up your observations, please. We will resume negotiations tomorrow, assuming nothing else happens.”

“Thank you, sir, and yes, sir.” Mike departed, closing the door behind himself. He made it to his own room by leaning on the wall as he walked. Once inside, he sat on the bed. Rich oozed down from shoulder to bed and snored even louder. “Right. Waiting won’t make it better.” He took off his jacket, then gritted his teeth and unbuttoned the shirt. He peeled the left sleeve off, mouthing a lot of very bad words as he did. He went to the washroom and rinsed his face, then studied his arm.

Blisters ran from the back of his left hand up his arm almost to the elbow. He didn’t feel much pain. Yet. The brown and white center of the burn seemed dry, not wet and weeping. His hand and arm worked. He glanced in the mirror. He’d aged decades, face drawn in and almost gaunt, eyes sunken with dark rings under them. A silver-white streak ran from his forehead back through the center of his hair, a narrow skunk stripe.

Someone tapped on the door. Mike glanced down. “Not up to it.” He wasn’t pulling on a shirt until he treated the burn. He plodded to the door and opened it. A young woman with a first-aid kit stood there. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Captain Sluka said— Oh, that’s bad.” The woman frowned. “That’s a serious burn. Sit, please, so I can look at it.”

He didn’t move. “You are?”

She glared up at him. “Hana Kopa, certified trauma nurse for both magical and physical injuries.”

“She’s OK, boss,” Rich called, then yawned. “You need help.”

In several senses of the word, yes. Mike retreated and sat.


“. . . Our Czech counterparts are going to monitor the actual portal, sir. Ms. Turko will not regain her sanity, I suspect. She did not expect what appeared, and what it did to her.” That explained the surge that knocked us head over heels. What the blazes was she thinking, and who told her to try that?

Rabbi-Major Cantor shook his head. “There’s a difference between eschewing the esoteric and denying the reality. I’m sorry that she learned the difference in such an unpleasant manner.” His crisp enunciation was for the benefit of the State Department observer on the secure speaker phone.

“What about the missing hikers?” came a disembodied voice from the phone. “He was one of ours, an American, Dan Young.” The voice sounded unhappy.

“Given that the Czechs had been watching him as a person of interest in a human smuggling case, and the confirmed death of his associate, I believe that he is dead,” Rabbi-Major Cantor said. “They have not found his entire body yet. More they have not said.”

Not quite true, but more than sufficient for what State needed. I know that we play for the same team, but some days, sheesh. Mike stayed quiet. Rich too held silence, whiskers twitching, tail lashing back and forth across the desk. The rabbi had cleared everything but the phone and his computer off the surface, just in case.

“Part of him’s enough to notify the family if they ask. Thanks. Captain Radescu, I have your report.”

“Yes, sir.”

After the call ended, Rabbi-Major Cohen waved one hand. “Sit, before you fall over. I see that pressure bandage on your arm.” Mike sat and arranged his left arm on the arm of the chair. “How bad does it hurt?”

“No more than a bad sunburn, sir. The middle has no sensation at all.” He was lucky to still have almost full motion of that arm and wrist. “Third degree. I still don’t remember exactly what happened.”

Rich nodded from atop the desk. “It got really hot, sir, almost burned my paws. It’s easy to see why people thought that was a portal to hell. There was an access point below as well, but that filled in over the years. We suspect that clergy played a role in channeling the portal into a less-accessible and more easily defended direction, but no one knows.”

The chaplain nodded. “Without records, there’s no way to know, and so many wars went through that region . . .” He frowned. “I wonder if the SS burned those along with their own documents?”

Mike exhaled. “It is possible, sir. But the place was damaged in the Hussite Wars, then the Thirty Years War, and a few other things. I have no idea if any parish records or episcopal documents survived those upheavals.”


Silence filled the office. Rich wiggled, then dove off the desk and into his mage’s lap. He did a three-sixty, then another, then a one-eighty before Mike rested his right hand on the Familiar’s back. “Chill, please.” Rich settled.

“Your leave starts three weeks from Tuesday, HaShem permitting. You’re going Stateside for at least one of those three weeks of leave. At least.” The chaplain leaned forward and locked eyes with Mike. “Not to Rock Am Ring. Not Whitby. Home. To rest. Is that clear? That comes from Reverend-Colonel MacAdams own lips, understand?”

“Sir, yes sir.” Rich grumbled something Mike ignored. Those are both over for the season already, but he doesn’t need to know that. Nor did their superiors need to know about the invitation to a special concert at a club in Poland in early November.

Once back in their own quarters, Rich erupted. “You need to tell them about Krakow! They need to know about Krakow.”

“Which them? If you mean my superiors, they will when the time comes and I apply for a weekend pass. If you mean back home? Oh no, no you don’t. Because there are two shadow mages who will hurt me badly for going without them. And Dad will be seriously steamed, even though he didn’t love their last album.”

“Aaaaawwwww. I wanna see Tay turn green. There’s a cover band in Riverton called Green Lemurs. He’d fit in great!” Giggles erupted as Rich rolled back and forth, convulsed with mirth.

Sir, I’m sorry. Whatever I did, I’m heartily, completely, truly sorry. He glanced down at his left arm and shivered. “We need to tell Draku what happened,” he reminded his Familiar.

Laughter stopped. “We do. Not now. Not until you talk with Fr. Chaput about what you saw and heard.” Rick climbed up the little steps onto the bed, then from there onto the chair and into his lap. “We need to talk to him. Before it starts eating into you. She chose, Mikael Sergeivich. You didn’t push her to do it. She. Chose.” Brown eyes older than the hills stared up at him. “Understand? Free will. She chose to ignore the warnings and try to release power for Petrov to tap, and she paid the price.”

“Is paying. That’s what hurts, Rich, hurts so damn bad.” No one deserved what she seemed to be living through, over and over and over. In a strange country, because the Belarussians refused to take her back with them. They didn’t have the facilities, or so Petrov had claimed. Mike stroked the rough fur under his hand and sighed.

An answering sigh greeted his words. “No easy answer, boss.” He wiggled again. “Oh yeah, and you need to get Rodney to introduce you to Shoim’s mage.”

“This mage is not a girl, I hope.” Don’t even think about it.

“Nope!” Giggling ensued. “Gothy, gloomy, very not a girl. Land healer. Shoim wants him to learn about good music, our music.”

Mike sighed and stopped petting.

“And I need a new outfit for Krakow! Something back and shiny, not PVC, lots of sequins. Can get it from Silver’s boss, or that Slovak place on the border. Lots of skulls and sequins!” Rich bounced on the bed. “Something expensive nice new.”

Maybe the Hindus were right. Maybe he’d pissed off God in a previous life, and Rich was the result. I apologize, Sir. St. George, if you have a moment, could you ask God to let me know how to make amends, please? Before Rich ruins my budget? Please?

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Saturday Snippet: Port of Call

Mike, Rich, and Friend are on the west coast of Scotland.

Alyssa McMasters, or Luciphera as her Goth scene name proclaimed, nodded at the Victorian bar-brooch in the water-front antique shop. Jet, marcasite, and silver formed a delicate, glittering lacework around an oval of jet. The letter L in Gothic script took up most of the central stone. “That’s lovely!”

Mike reached inside, drew a tiny thread of magic, and sent it out to touch and read the jewelry. Nothing. He didn’t sense any “tarnish” of bad wishes, and it wasn’t an empty focus, unlike the ring now tucked into his bag. “It really is,” he said. “And it looks sturdy.”

Luciphera sniffed and said, “You are too practical by half, Mike,” then winked. Her tone of mild exasperation brought an answering smile from the shopkeeper. Luciphera turned back to the nice lady. “I’ll take the bar-brooch, please.”

Task done, Mike eased out of the cramped confines of the antiques shop and back into the street. The clutter did not agree with his broad-shouldered frame. Nor did leaving his Familiar unchaperoned even for a moment. Where had Rich gone off to? Thump. Something thudded against his left shin. Mike glanced down. Rich had found a blue and white striped ball almost as big as he was. The white-tailed mongoose grinned up at his mage, then chased the ball back toward a group of small children who squealed and bounced with delight. A wild game of “chase the ball and the mongoose” ensued. Mike took his time, only interrupting his Familiar when Luciphera emerged from the shop, smiling with triumph. “OK, Rich, time to go.”

“Aaawwwww,” he groaned as Mike scooped him up. “You’re no fun. I never get any fun.”

“Dude. Your fun is my nightmare. Expensive nightmare.” He settled Rich across his shoulders. Rich dug his claws into the special canvas pads now worked into the jacket’s shoulders. Mike had borrowed the idea from Lelia Lestrang and Tay. No one paid attention to that sort of trim on a tweed jacket, especially not here in far western Scotland. He’d found one of the few places where big red-heads attracted no notice, almost. Mike mirrored Luciphera’s smile.

“Thanks for checking this.” She lifted the box, then tucked it away in her bag. “Do you want to do the coastal walk now? We seem to be between traffic rushes.”

He considered, then nodded. “Yeah, or we go at sunrise.”

A discreet rude gesture greeted his suggestion. “Only if we have closed a club first, then gotten food.”

He drooped, then waved her ahead for the moment. The teen lounging on the bench near Mike leaned forward. He gave Luciphera a leer and started easing to his feet. Mike caught his eye and frowned. The kid returned to his sullen slouch. Good choice. He and Luciphera weren’t flying their freak flags that high. Her full black skirt and long-sleeve grey blouse looked more like mourning than modern Goth, if someone ignored her boots. Shoulder-length black hair wasn’t all that rare, either. Mike kept going and caught up with his friend. “So,” she began, then paused until the diesel roar of the “lorry” faded. “Today we hang out and rest. Tomorrow Glen Coe?”

“Weather permitting, yes. The part about ‘expert hill walkers and experienced mountaineers’ makes me twitch.” He rested one hand on Rich, forestalling a demonstration. There was another reason Glen Coe bugged him, but he could shield against that.

Blaaaaaaatttt. A big, black-hulled Caledonian-MacBryer car ferry sounded its horn. The sound rolled over the water and echoed from the stone facades of the Victorian seaside holiday hotels lining the harbor frontage. A small fishing boat eased farther over to the other side of the channel. The white and black Cal-Mac could eat four fishing boats and not notice. The ferry departed with ponderous dignity, headed for the islands. Gulls screamed overhead as semi-quiet returned to the harbor. A small, shaggy dog took offense and barked at the closest seagull. The gull ignored the yapping. Rich giggled, then subsided.

Luciphera stopped to read a sign about languages and place names. They had crossed into the Gaelic part of the world, the western Highlands. “That’s a lovely way to describe a moment,” she said, pointing to the line of verse across the top of the sign.

He read over her shoulder. “It is.” They shared a taste for poetry, among other things. “Too bad you can’t use so few words to convey meaning and sense in an official document.”

A small, blunt elbow thumped his midsection. “No work talk.” She shook a warning finger at him, then flounced off up the walk way.

Thppppth came from his Familiar. “Told you so,” Rich proclaimed from his perch. Mike didn’t dignify the comment with a reply. He took a deep breath of sea-scented air and caught up with his friend again. He waved away a swarm of something. Probably midges, with his luck. European insects loved him.

The path joined the road. A stern sign warned drivers to pay attention to pedestrians and give them the right of way. Mike still made himself as small as possible. He also cast a “please look” spell, encouraging people to notice him and Luciphera both. With a stone wall on the sea side of the road, they had no room to dodge traffic. He could vault the wall if he had to, but the thirty-foot drop would hurt, and he couldn’t drag her with him. Mike didn’t relax until a footpath reappeared just as they reached the tight bends at Dun Ollie. Traffic sped up again, he noticed, then hurried to get ahead of Luciphera and open the gate. It had one of the “reach under, lift, then slide, then move gate” latches on the inland side, where most people had trouble reaching or seeing. Allister had showed him the trick, thanks be. Luciphera smiled and eased through. He followed and re-latched the gate. He didn’t see any sheep, but that didn’t mean much, he’d learned.

“Are you expecting the sheep to have a scout?” she teased him. “One up in the trees, with a spy glass, waiting to make an escape attempt?”

Rich giggled, then started to bounce. Mike helped the mongoose down to the ground before answering. “Of course. I’ve watched Monty Python and Shaun the Sheep. I know what sheep are capable of.” Especially when you needed them to ignore you, like back in— He slapped the memory down hard, pushing it away to where it belonged. This is not there. This is Oban, Scotland, with Lu, on leave. The moment passed. “Plus, they are dumb enough to run into traffic for the hell of it.” Why sheep preferred the edges of roads to their own lush pastures he didn’t want to guess. Pure stupidity, probably.

Rich emerged from several clumps of grass. “No snakes or lizards. No fair.”

“Too cold.” Mike got Rich back on his shoulders and they continued up the trail. It wound around the remains of the first Dun Ollie, home of Clan MacDougall. Scotland seemed to grow ruined castles. Mike read the history sign and studied the remaining wall and tower. He boggled. “Early castle sacked in 689, first MacDougalls in the 1200? Good grief.” People had used the hill under the castle for eight thousand years. He shook his head a little.

Luciphera took a few photos of wild flowers and an especially dark and twisted, half-dead tree, then started ahead once more.

“What?” Fast twitching whiskers tickled his ear.

“I should stop being surprised at how long people have lived here.” Mike nodded at the castle. “Or on the mainland. People re-use good spots. But they’re so casual about it here.”

Rich sniffed. “Yeah. Different scale, different priorities, different culture. More people in less space, so more reuse. Back home, build out, not up.”

Also a good point.

By the time they wandered back to town that afternoon, breakfast had worn off. They’d stopped at the war memorial, and he’d read the names. A generation, probably, lost. Lots of brothers and cousins. Luciphera hadn’t said anything, but she’d leaned on him a little, being there. Now she scooted her chair out and set a very full dish of ice cream on the small table. She didn’t have the accelerated metabolism of a magic worker, but she’d been up early doing some work before breakfast. They opted for ice cream at a shop full of locals. “Plain,” Mike informed his Familiar as he set the dish down on the floor. “No, you can’t have mocha or whisky-flavored. Just vanilla, very vanilla.” Oh shit. Wrong phrase. Wild giggles rose from under the chair, and Luciphera had to cover her mouth, then cough to hide her snickers. His face turned a little warm and he sighed, “I know better than to use that word in this company.”

“Yes, you do. Even in this context.” She winked, then took a bite of her top scoop. Her dark, perfectly-curved eyebrows rose to her hairline. “The peppermint is quite strong,” she squeaked

“Curiously strong?” It was his turn to wink. The little tag on the case stated that the ice cream included the actual mints, so she’d been warned. The mocha reminded him of his one experience with Cuban coffee, in a cold, sweet, and wonderful way. The walnut didn’t seem as strong, but tasted richer. A lot of people ordered the seaweed flavor and acted delighted with the taste. He wasn’t quite sure. Maybe it’s the Calvinist streak, eating vegetable ice cream. Or they are messing with us tourists.

“Are we still on for Glen Coe tomorrow? I know you said you and Rich wanted to look into some things about it?” She asked as they strolled later, glancing into shops and oogling a book store’s display windows. “That must be a first edition.” She leaned closer and peered at the card under the leather-bound volume. “It is, the limited release English-English anniversary edition.”

The purported icthyology of the Lock Ness Monster interested him more, until he saw that it was a novel. “Yes, unless there’s something you’d like to do more. I don’t think we have the gear to climb Ben Nevis, and Rich doesn’t do fishing.”

“Why not? I like fish, fishy fish, not eely fish. Eels feels funny, eely eels, squealy eels,” Rich chanted, then snickered.

Luciphera shook a finger at the Familiar. “Because fishing here requires being calm, quiet, patient, and sneaky. You only match one of those four. And the streams are cold, very cold. Even the lowland streams are cold. Trust me.”

Rich sagged flat, pretending to be fur trim, then flapped his tongue at her. Thppth.

“And this is why I don’t take you nice places.” Mike shook his head. “Since we won’t be camping overnight, Glen Coe should be fine, as long as we take rain gear.”

They moved to the next block and rolled their eyes at the tourist goodies. “I think you need to take the plaid Highland cow back for your sister-in-law,” she said. “What’s wrong with nights there?”

Shadow’s daughter will want a dozen, one in every plaid they offer. He glowered at the long-haired, tartan-colored stuffed animal. “I know someone else who would want it even more. Sheila would just beat me with it.” He shifted topics. “Something in the valley disagrees with magic workers, or vice versa. I can’t get a solid answer as to what, but I can guess why.” Things like the Glencoe Massacre left very strong traces on the landscape, and attracted things that throve on death, pain, and betrayal. Three hundred years wasn’t long enough to wash the stain away, especially not in a land that still remembered the Romans quite clearly, as one of his colleagues had discovered during a night nature hike along Hadrian’s Wall. “Now, the framed watercolor painting of the wild haggis in it’s native habitat there for my brother, that might work.”

She elbowed him as Rich chanted, “Do it, do it, do it.”

Mike glanced at the price tag. “Never mind. It doesn’t include shipping.” Maybe he should ask Shoshana if she could do one as a joke. Except she might discover a plane where free-range haggis roam the moors and dales. Yeah, no thanks. He was afraid to ask if any of her cute, pastel creations came from Elsewhere.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved