Tuesday Tidbit: Gifts Given

The ‘Paws present their employer with a token of their esteem. And vice versa. [Note: This is the last excerpt that will be posted.]

On the Feast of the Circumcision, Seigneuresse Leoni called the Paws, all of them, to the keep. Arnauld presented her with the fine Italian woolen cloth, leather from Florence, and a book of medicine and magic from Bologna. They had cost more than he wished to pay, but the other men had been insistent. “We’ve got a home, Captain,” Jean Niger had declared, and a loud chorus of agreement had drowned out any further objections.

“Thank you, Captain, men. As the Lord gave so richly to us, so it is my duty and honor to give a symbol of that to you,” the countess said. She gestured, and servants handed out sturdy woolen tunics and other garments, knives, bosses and leather for shields, and heavy winter cloaks for those who did not have them. She’d already sent two barrels of good beer and one of fortified wine to the village at the foot of the keep, along with food and sweets, for later.  Arnauld, Bjorn, Gaston, Karl, and the other officers passed out the goods to the men. They’d hand out the coin and jewelry payment later.

Arnauld spoke for the others. He bowed and said, “Our thanks to you, Seigneuresse, for your great generosity and honor. May the Lord bless you and grant you peace in this world and in the world to come.”

She smiled. “Thank you. And a token of your employment, Captain.” The castellan handed him six small leather bags, one more finely worked than the others. Arnauld took that as a sign and gave the others to his officers. She gestured for them to open them. He did and swallowed hard.

A silver pendant on a silver chain, both heavy and strong, bore the design of a wolf’s head, jaws agape. Behind the head a paw rose up, and behind those, a mountain. The eyes of the wolf were made of green stones, with crimson enamel claws that seemed to glow in the winter sun. He turned the pendant over and found St. George. From the murmurs and half-whistles behind him, the others’ gift must be equally rich and fine.

Arnauld went to one knee, bowing to the Seigneuresse. She came closer and extended one hand. He handed her the pendant. She opened the chain and slipped it over his head. The wolf hung over his heart. The eyes seemed to flash, the same green as his liege’s eyes. Or did they? He looked up to her. Her smile turned old and knowing. Then she returned to her seat of honor. “Thank you, Captain. You may rise, and may the blessings of Our Lord be with you and the Wolf’s Paws. You may go.”

Three days later, as fine, icy snow drifted down, Benedict the Short frowned. “Captain, something moves at the river, something of power.”

Arnauld wasn’t the only man to mouth a curse or to growl at the news. “Could you sense where or what sort of thing?”

The Bavarian nodded. His large mouth drooped under his heavy reddish-brown beard. “Aye, sir. From the north and east, pushing into the river valley. It looked like a dull fog but more solid. Whoever sent it didn’t try to hide his work.” He glanced to the north, as if to see through the walls. “It tasted of fear and bitterness. I pulled the watchers back and warned the seigneuresse’s shepherds and forester.”

“Good.” Arnauld stood and paced, then paced again. “Watch for now. Gaston, Bjorn, get men ready but don’t move yet.” Something bothered him, itched. “I don’t want to reveal that we’re here, and who we are yet.”

Bjorn growled deep in his chest. “All know of the comtessa’s power. Few know of us, other than swords.” The others either nodded, or startled a little, blinking.

“Yes. We may need that surprise, if the tales from the east and west are true. And if someone is dabbling with powers best left untouched.” Arnauld crossed himself, as did the others.

He took watch duty on the keep’s wall the next morning, pacing and planning. The day stayed dark, heavy clouds hanging low but not releasing snow. The wind blew then died, then stirred again, fitful and hesitant. That … Arnauld scowled toward the north. The Paws needed to block the northern river gap, but how without revealing too much? If they faced an attack by men alone, it would be simple. Not easy, no, but simple, and the land favored the defense. And magic could conceal them from men’s eyes, or distract those eyes until the Wolf’s Paws struck. Magic against magic? No, none of his men had a strong attack-magic gift, for which he was grateful. He folded his arms and glared.

Soft steps approached. He turned and bowed as Seigneuresse Leoni approached. “What troubles—” She stopped and pointed. He turned.

A fire flared on the ridge. It faded, then flared again. “That, Seigneuresse. Watchers on the river. Magic crept in two nights ago, spying. Now something more moves.” He inclined toward her once more. “By your leave?”

“Go. You confirm what I sensed. It is blood tainted power, Captain. Go with God.”

“Seigneuresse.” He bowed lower and trotted past her, taking the steps two at a time. He already wore his padded jacket and leather. All he needed was mail and his helm. Those waited below, in the stable, ready.

Gaston met him there, already armed. “The others are getting the horses and adding boar spears, stop-lances, and other things to our equipage, Captain. Serjeant Jean and those staying here will close the gates once we leave. Bjorn should be moving. Benedict the Short and the others saw things coming down the river plain.”

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


Tuesday Tidbit:A Damp Discussion

Age, mileage, the Comtessa’s lands, and company business. All of which can land a man in hot water.

As the feast of the holy birth drew closer, Arnauld d’Loup mulled over the state of the d’Vosges lands. He did so in the steaming warm comfort of a mineral spring two valleys west of the keep, eyes half closed as he listened to the other men and to the sounds of the forest. His shoulders, back, and legs lost some of their aches in the wet heat. Now he understood why the old emperor had liked the waters at Aachen so well!

The Romans had, perhaps, improved the spring. The bench-like stones that allowed a man to sit with the waters not quite to his chin suggested that someone had added to what the Lord had left. Other hot springs flowed in the d’Vosges lands, including a boiling pool with brimstone-tinged waters that flowed straight from Hell. He’d watched a miner gathering the foul yellow stuff. These waters pleased him far more.

“What think you of the news from the east, Captain?” Serjeant Jean Blanc sounded hesitant, as usual.

What did he think? “If the story is true, it should be a matter for the Church and the emperor, unless the magic worker thinks to come here.” Merchants coming from Strasbourg claimed that a new lord had been named to the region, a duke of Lotharingia, one who dabbled in things forbidden by both the Church and the emperor. “Since the Duchy of Lotharingia and the bishops of Freiberg, Strasbourg, and the Abbey at Basel have earlier titles, and the emperor has two sons, I doubt anyone who says he has been named to govern this area. As a palatine, perhaps, but not as duke.” Still, something bothered him, had been bothering him since the trader passed the news. And it was not the price in good silver of the fine fabric and the book he’d purchased for the Paws to give to the Seigneuresse during the feast of Christmas.

Noises of agreement came from the others. With a swallowed grumble, Arnauld sat straight, then eased out of the pool. The chilly afternoon air encouraged haste as he dressed once more, drawers, trews, tunic, leather jerkin, socks and boots. He raked his hair back with his fingers and wrung some water off the tail in the back. He needed to cut it before Christmas. He’d been told he had his mother’s darker coloring, almost southern, with brown hair, black beard and brows, and dark green-brown eyes. He’d not looked in a mirror or pool for two years and more. The last time he’d seen himself, he’d noticed white streaks in both hair and beard. They matched the white scars on the rest of him.

“Has the miner on Stinking Creek forgiven Left-handed Paul?” Karl asked Sergeant Jean.

A snort came in reply. “No, and he probably never will, not even if they have four sons. Be damned if I know why not—Paul married her, and she had no prospects or dowry.” Arnauld turned to look at the others. Jean, still in the water, lifted one hand out and shrugged. “I’d be pleased, but she’s not my daughter.”

“No. Your daughter would be selling her—” Splash. The other serjeant’s head disappeared under the waters with Bjorn’s hand on top of it. The lieutenant made a show of counting to four before he removed let Michele back up. “Damn it, I was joking,” the sopping serjeant spluttered.

“And I don’t want the pool fouled with your blood and shit after someone gets tired of your jokes.” Bjorn got out and dressed as quickly as Arnauld had. “That rumor from the east.”

Arnauld sorted through words as he finished arming. Yes, they were on safe lands. But a wise man went ready for anything, because trouble didn’t respect borders or holy days. “If that were the first time we’d heard the rumor, I’d ignore it. But this is twice, both from the same area, told by different people. I think we should start preparing for a fight.” Only a fool fought in winter, fools and the northern pagans.

“Ja. And if the second part of the stories are true, he draws on powers that favor the darkest days of the year.” Bjorn scowled. “Perhaps the Wild Hunt will ride and take him away, if things are true.”

“And perhaps we will awaken to find self-roasting deer and boars that stuff and stew themselves waiting for us under a meat-pie tree.” The old joke drew chuckles and mutters of “Please God may it be so,” from the others as they shook off the waters and dressed.

On Christmas day, after the solemn vigil and mass, Comtessa Leonie began the feast. She sent food out to every settlement on her lands, and to the mines in the west. Venison and some boar graced tables in both the keep and the villages. Several troupes of musicians visited and added their songs and wit to the gatherings, within proper limits. Arnauld kept a close watch on Karl and some of the others who had a habit of drinking past the point of wisdom. Merriment too often turned to bloodshed, something he did not want at all. Neither did the other Paws, or so it seemed. He heard no reports of trouble. At least not from within the d’Vosges lands.

“Captain d’Loup, I was with the Duke of Swabia in the imperial camp two summers ago,” one of the traveling musicians said on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, three days after Christmas.

Arnauld studied the man, then nodded. “I don’t recognize your face, but your playing I remember.” The man had suffered some attack, by man or beast, and scars and a bent nose marked him now. What did the man want?

The lutenist glanced off to the side, and adjusted one of the pegs on the head of his instrument. “We came from the west and south. The lord there is new but powerful.” He met Arnauld’s eyes. “Perhaps strangely power full. We did not linger, or visit his court. The peasants moved quietly, and the women stayed close to their houses.”

Arnauld crossed himself, as did the musician. “You were wise. We have heard rumors from the east, carried by merchants, but they spoke of a newly named Duke of Elsas. No such person has sent word to the Seigneuresse, nor has an imperial messenger brought word.”

“May God grant that only one such exists, Captain.” The traveler began to play, a quiet, melancholy tune. Arnauld gave him some copper coins and went to take his turn on the wall walk of the keep.

Clouds covered the stars and seemed to press down on the ridge behind the keep. The wind hissed and snarled, pulling at his cloak and driving bits of snow into any tiny gap in a man’s clothing. Arnauld scowled at the sky and pulled his heavy leather gauntlets farther up his wrists. The night disturbed him, but he had no good reason why. He heard faint sounds of feasting in the courtyard below, in those moments when the wind faded. A bonfire burned. Given the news, perhaps a bonfire on the ridge, a warning, should burn instead? He folded his arms and walked, eyes straining against the dark. Unbidden, a quiet voice hissed in his memory. His father had been able to see clearly in the darkest of nights, and to run without tiring for a full watch, or so people had sworn. Why did he not take up that gift? Arnauld gritted his teeth. “Curse, not gift,” he snarled to the poisonous voice. “Get thee behind me, Tempter.”

What was that? He turned to face east, and the ridge, listening. The wind faded. A sound like hounds and geese brushed his ears. He listened harder, mouth going dry. Voices like those of men calling to others on a hunt grew stronger, as did the baying. “St. George defend me.” Arnauld ran along the wooden wall walk, then down the steps.

The Seigneuresse’s castellan met him. “What comes?” the older man demanded, eyes wide.

“Wild Hunt.”

“All under roof, now!” The castellan bellowed. The courtyard cleared, and Arnauld wasted no time himself, ducking into the closest open door.

It closed, and he heard the bar sliding home. “The Hunt, Captain?” the countess’ maid, Matilda, demanded.

“Yes. In the Rhine valley. I heard hounds and huntsmen both.” He crossed himself, and sensed her do the same.

Matilda moved farther into the room, away from the door. He stayed where he was. The maid said,  “The Seigneuresse feared that such might move this year.” She sounded troubled. “It’s a bad omen, that the Hunt rides so far west.”

Was it? He’d never heard such, but he’d also done all he could to avoid being out when in places where the Hunt was known to visit. “I’ve heard of the Hunt being roused out of season by battle, such as when the Romans died in the north, but nothing more than that.” He avoided things and men of magic, especially land magic, lest they stir his curse into being. Bjorn, Gaston, Benedict the Short, and one other dealt with things of magic.

“Huh.” She fell silent.

Arnauld listened, waiting. Being out of the wind was welcome, but for how long? He recited ten Pater Nosters and the Credo, then slid the bar away and opened the door. The bonfire yet burned, red and gold and warm. He eased out, listening. His earlier discomfort had faded away. He crept back up the steps to the wall walk. Only the wind troubled the night, and even that seemed gentler despite the snow. Tension left his shoulders, and he resumed his duties. The night remained dark. Sounds of laughter resumed below.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: A Meeting and a Vow

The officers gather and discuss matters of interest.

The next afternoon, all the officers and serjeants met at the roofless building on the eastern side of the ridge to discuss what they had seen so far, and to survey that road better. Arnauld smiled broadly as he told them about the deer. Answering smiles swept across the gathering. “Boar as well, but those only after the second frost, once the claimed pigs are taken in, as the laws of the empire require.”

Karl, arms folded, frowned under his black mustache. “Captain, what about the laws of the kings of France?”

“The Seigneuresse is a vassal of the emperor.” He raised one hand. “It goes back to Charlemagne. And the emperor is far away, as is the minesterial paletina.”

“Do you want to have to answer to the Dukes of Burgundy or Bar?” Gaston asked as he leaned against the doorframe.

Karl spat. “No. Especially not Bar. He’s a fool, trying to play Burgundy and the Capetians against each other.”

“He’ll find out how the mouse felt between the millstones at this rate,” Serjeant Jean muttered. Nods and rude gestures of agreement followed his words.

“Och,” Gaston said. He glanced sideways, out of the empty window, then returned his attention to the others. “Anyone had trouble with the peasants or miners yet?”

Head shakes and shrugs. Arnauld relaxed a little. It would come, once the first daughter got the big belly, or someone helped himself too generously to the new wine. It always did. “Keep it that way, at least until we show enough of them that we’re not like the others. Bjorn, look at the northern approach. Gaston, take Jean’s men and some others and trace the western trails and find as many of the mines as you can. We need to know more than ‘there are no roads there’.” He didn’t doubt the countess’ word, but things changed, and no miner would allow a woman not of his family near the workings. At least they hadn’t farther east.

Karl nodded, then asked, “Captain, have you heard anything more about Burgundy trying to push his claims?”

Arnauld shook his head. “Not heard a word. But that doesn’t mean he’s not. The emperor’s dealing with the eastern Saxons. Again.” Eye rolls and sighs greeted his words.

Karl bared his teeth. Several of the other officers made rude signs at him, or threw the Horns his way. He repaid in kind. Like Bjorn, he came from a believing family, but that didn’t stop him from acting like a wild Saxon when he got drunk.

“Enough.” They stopped. “The emperor might return to Aachen for the feast of Christmas, or he may choose to stay in the east. Is there anything else? We get paid in five days. Come to the keep to collect for your men and yourselves. Gaston, I’ll hold yours until you come back.” The taller man shrugged. “Unless you want to take copper to the mines?”

Chuckles met his offer. “No thank you, Captain. I’ve got enough from our first pay bag to keep the men happy. Oh, Serjeant Henk wants his horse to fall off a cliff.”

“Only if he goes with it.” It was one of the finest mounts in the company, and Henk knew better. “If someone wants to trade, even trade, let them.”

More chuckles. “Yes, sir.”

“St. George be with you.” Arnauld stood and the others straightened up or stood as well. “Dismissed.” They filed out of the crumbling building. Once it had been a fine house, built of stone and wood. Now owls and badgers denned in the few remaining rafters and under the floor. Why had no one stripped it of wood and stone, or reused it? Arnauld wondered, but would not ask, not in these lands.

Gaston waited outside the door, watching as the others left. “Yes?”

The Aquitanian hesitated, then asked, “Sir, will you marry the Seigneuresse? The men are already placing wagers.” Arnauld’s second in command leaned away.

“No. That would bring Bar, Burgundy, Lorraine, and a dozen others down on our heads, Luxembourg as well. And the emperor. No.”

Gaston nodded. His shoulders lost their stiffness. “That’s what I told them, sir. And the Capetians would probably claim the land as well, or claim the right to charge a fee for the marriage.”

As foolish as the current claimant to the throne of West Francia seemed? Probably. “He would, and then the emperor would step in. I do not care to see if we can fend off four armies at once.”

“By God’s wounds, no, Captain!” They parted ways. Arnauld rode back to the keep with his guards, weighing things. Most of the men assumed that he was a widower, or had kept a leman while they served with the imperial forces. He snorted, but quietly. He’d be dead if he’d tried that. If he couldn’t chance losing control of his “patrimony” to strong drink, how in the names of all the saints could he keep himself in check during passion? No. There was no hell deep or hot enough for his sire.

That night, while on guard duty, Arnauld considered all that he had seen of the Seigneuresse and her lands. She had a man’s soul and will in a woman’s body. She knew the strengths and weaknesses of all around her, and of herself as well. Her people respected her, far more than some lords he’d had the displeasure of working for. That unlamented count from Swabia … Should not have been murdered, but Arnauld certainly understood why a man might kill the treacherous skinflint. The count had made Dives seem like a model of generosity and hospitality. The Seigneuresse, however … She was a noble a man could trust and serve with honor. Arnauld stared at the moonlight bathing the land around the keep and made his decision.

The next day that the countess held formal court, he attended alone. The Wolf’s Paws had no business that needed the seigneuresse’s attention. Comtessa Leonie acknowledged his presence, and he took up a watching guard position at her right hand, behind the green-canopied seat of honor. He had attended before, in order to learn more about her court and how she governed the d’Vosges lands.  He clasped his hands on his wide sword belt, in part to keep them from trembling. Would she accept his homage?

The last petitioner departed. Arnauld took a very deep breath and moved to stand where she could see him clearly, and cleared his throat. The countess acknowledged him and beckoned him forward. He rested one hand on his sword hilt as he walked to stand before her. He saluted. “Yes, Captain?”

The words fought him, then broke free. “Gracious lady, I wish to pledge fealty past our contract.”

She startled, one slender, strong hand going to her throat and the chain of power that rested there. Then she nodded. “I will accept such a pledge, if it is made without compulsion and in full knowledge of what is offered and asked.”

A good condition, and a wise one. He went to one knee. “No man or woman compels me, gracious lady, and I know the duties and price of vassalage.” He drew his sword and held it out on open hands.

She removed her gloves, then stood and walked to him. She slid her right hand under the hilt and lifted the heavy weapon as if it were her distaff or another light tool. He swallowed, then said, “I, Arnauld Ambrose d’Loup swear allegiance and obedience to you, Comtessa Leonie Seigneuresse d’Vosges, my liege, St. George and St. Michael as my witnesses.”

She lifted the weapon higher. Silver and red flowed down the blade before she lowered it once more. “I, Leonie, Seigneuresse d’Vosges, accept your allegiance and obedience as vassal, Arnauld Ambrose d’Loup. In turn I swear to protect, advise, and support you in honor and body, so long as you remain in my service, or until all oaths are rescinded.” She tapped his right shoulder with the flat of the blade, then reversed it and held it in both hands. She inclined toward him. He took the sword, kissed the relic in the pommel crossing, and sheathed it once more.

He held his hands up, palms together. She put hers around his and met his eyes. Something prickled around his hands—her magic? She said “By my life and honor, I swear to uphold the laws of God and men, and to protect Arnauld my vassal, to provide defense should he be attacked, and to defend his honor should any man question it without due cause. May the Lord strike me if I break my word.”

He stared into the bright green depths of her gaze as he slipped his hands out of hers, then placed them around hers. “By my life and honor, I swear to uphold the laws of God and men, and to serve and protect Comtessa Seigneuresse Leonie my liege, to answer her call in time of need and to defend her lands and honor with my sword and body. May God strike me if I break my word.” He had seen others swear, but had never dared to speak the words for himself before.

Father Bernardo, her household priest, stepped forward. “Seen, heard, and witnessed by all present, and by the Lord. May the Lord hear and seal these vows, and give strength and wisdom to those who swear them. Amen.”


Arnauld released the countess’ hands. She stepped back, pulled her gloves on once again, and sat. “You may rise, Captain d’Loup.” He stood and bowed to his seigneuresse.

Tuesday Tidbit: Continuing the Tour

Arnauld and his officers learn more about the land and its lady.

Comtessa Leoni turned her horse once more and rode ahead. Arnauld touched a heel to Gepard’s flank. The gelding hopped forward, probably out of spite, shaking his rider’s bones before he settled into a tolerable gait. “Your dam was an addlepated donkey’s illegitimate daughter,” Arnauld grumbled. The horse did not deny the accusation. They crossed a true ford, knee-deep on the heavy horse. The road climbed up a long slope away from the small river, leaving the forest behind for pasture. To the south, he saw fields of wheat and other grain.

A handful of birds flushed up from some bushes beside the road, startling the countess’ horse. He reared. She rode through the surprise, and through the kick that followed his return to the ground. “Are you finished?” she inquired. The gelding’s back humped. “No.” She kicked the horse into faster motion, got ahead of the soldiers, and cued the horse. It rose into a full battle kick, lashing out with iron-shod hoofs, then kicking out while still in the air. Anyone crowding the horse would catch a face full of hoof and iron. Arnauld smiled. Appreciative calls and noises rose from behind him as the other men voiced their approval. The countess was not a cloistered, soft noblewoman. Her maid frowned mightily at the display of horsemanship.

The road turned due west, as she had said it would. More fields spread out in the shelter of the ridges, although the mountains never opened too far. “This is the easiest of the d’Vosges lands,” Comtessa Leoni said. “And the most common approach for armies. The Romans, Visigoths, all come through here.” She pointed one gloved hand at the brown and tan stump of a tower on the edge of the ridge, where the river cut through the mountains. “That’s the third danger. It is favored by the villages’ magic workers for their arts, and three times during my lord’s rule men went up there to survey the land or investigate a fire and failed to return. In one case, a few scraps of flesh and separated bone were all that remained. Avoid it.”

“Yes, Seigneuresse. The other side also has a watch point?” Arnauld studied the land. He’d put a second watch point at the base of the ridge, to control the river, but on which side?

“Yes, better concealed. It is manned now, shepherds and others who act as watchers. If you choose to have men there, don’t eat the sheep.” He heard steel in her voice and nodded. Let others assume that shepherds and farmers couldn’t hurt trained soldiers. He knew better. He leaned a little and rubbed the scar on his leg, left by a scythe-blade. He’d been very, very fortunate to keep the leg.

The sun grew warm as the noon passed. The dappled shade of the common woods near the village came as a welcome change as they rode south once more. That would change soon enough. A handful of the other Wolf’s Paws saw them and saluted. He returned the gesture, as did the Seigneuresse. They stopped at the small inn. Arnauld dismounted and assisted Comtessa Leoni as her maid watched with wary eyes. As soon as the Seigneuresse stood on both feet, he stepped well away. The maid nodded once, sharply. If she thought him so foolish as to risk losing the Wolf’s Paws’ only chance to settle, she did not understand the men of war. Or perhaps she did.

They ate a quiet dinner. No word had been sent ahead, yet a proper meal with meat roasted and boiled, cheeses, good bread, and other dishes awaited them. Had she used her magic to inform the innkeeper? Arnauld kept his question to himself. He drank a little beer, then some watered wine. He dared not lose control of himself. Several of the young women acting as serving girls made eyes at the other men. Bjorn made the gesture for watching, and Arnauld acknowledged it. Things would go no farther than sheep’s-eyes and light flirting. Now was not the time or place.

“Seigneuresse, a question,” he asked once the countess had finished most of her second course.

“Yes, Captain?”

“You said that this is the easiest of your lands. What of roads in from the west?” There had to be at least one, for the mines at the far edge of the mountains.

She shook her head, then sipped watered wine. “There are none. Trails, and sheep-tracks through the mountains to the summer pastures, but no roads. The miners make such trails as they need, and report to my castellan what timber they use. Yes,” she said, raising one fine hand. “I have others check the reports.”

“Thank you. That explains much.” And it made his task easier, perhaps. One route from the northwest, well known, and one from the south that wagons could only barely pass, then the eastern way, those he would have to defend. He, Gaston, Bjorn, and Karl would have to see the western side for themselves, find places to watch and prepare. He drank more watered wine. It was a good vintage, a bit tart but good for warm days. He preferred beer, but the local brews seemed strong for southern beers.

They rode back to the keep without any further surprises. No one in the village had a dispute to be settled, so they departed after the meal. Arnauld let Bjorn ride ahead, and he took tail, eating a little dust. The more he saw of the land and its ruler, the more he like the place. Seigneuresse Leoni would be a good lord to follow.

” … I do not know,” she said, answering Bjorn’s question. “Roman, yes, and the Gauls before them. It is said that others dwelled here and built the foundations of the keep as well as the ruined tower you saw at the river cut.” She turned her left hand palm up. “The records of the d’Vosges family go back only to 750 or so. Charlemagne took some of their lands, for reasons not written.”

“Thank you, Seigneuresse.” The big northern man sounded thoughtful as he smoothed his beard. “In other places, the fay left traces of power at their old sites, and a few like Frau Pechta remain despite the Church’s ban. The ‘Paws have seen the fay before, but the captain prefers we avoid them.”

“He is wise.” The lady looked to her maid, then straight ahead once more. “The Wild Hunt passes east of us, in the valley of the Rhine and the mountains near there. A few times it has been heard in the d’Vosges lands, during the octave of Christmas, but not seen.”

Bjorn turned in his saddle and looked to Arnauld and the others. Arnauld gestured that he’d heard. No man who valued his life lingered or looked when he heard the sound of the Wild Hunt. Especially if Frau Pechta rode with it!

They’d almost reached the castle when the countess said, “Please hunt the deer, Captain.” Before he fell out of his saddle with surprise, she explained, “I do not hunt deer well, and they have grown too numerous and bold, destroying crops. The miners and peasants hunt as they can, but they have other tasks to do. Take at least a score, females and males, some now and some after harvest.”

“Gladly, Seigneuresse!” Yes, he would happily serve this noble.                                          

After she left them, Arnauld turned to Bjorn. “From this morning. What did you want to say?”

The tall, fair Northman smoothed the beginnings of his winter beard. “The Seigneuresse. I didn’t want her along if we went that far.” He shrugged. “She’s not like other nobles.” Mutters of agreement and nods followed his words as Karl and Gaston saw to their horses.

“No, she’s not.” She might be better, perhaps. “Tomorrow we go the other way. All of us, serjeants too other than Henk. His men need to stay back as support.” And to keep training, which everyone under the sun knew. More nods, and Arnauld turned his attention to Gepard before the gelding took a bite of the stable servant.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: The Wolves Watch

Arnauld and his men get the lay of the land, and some critical warnings.

As the weeks passed, Arnauld and the other officers slowly spread their men out from the keep. The farmers, miners, hunters, and others acted wary, as they should. A free company, even hired by the seigneuresse, was a threat to respectable men and women. Several of the shepherds had made the Cross at Arnauld when his back was turned, or so Gaston told him later. Did they sense something? Some horses seemed to, as did dogs. “Holy lord, forgive me, but I hope my sire is burning in the deepest pit of the lake of fire,” Arnauld murmured to himself as he cleaned his sword and checked the edges.

Two days later, he finished saddling Gepard. He’d called Bjorn, Gaston, and a few others to ride with him. They’d not studied the road north from the keep as they should have, and he needed to fix that. Wood cutters had begun cutting some of the trees closest to the keep, with the countess’ blessing, giving the archers and others clear view of the steep, rugged flank of the ridge. Arnauld did not like that the keep sat below the crest of the ridge, but the cliff on the other side from the keep should protect them from attack from the east. Perhaps.

Gepard snorted and thumped one heavy hoof down onto the dirt. The grey and brown gelding was larger than some horses, and as ugly as a anything Arnauld had seen with four feet. No one had wanted the gelding, or at least none of the nobles had showed interest. The horse tolerated his rider, and had a few surprises of his own. Arnauld mounted. The gelding twitched but didn’t fuss more than usual.

“We’re all here, Captain,” Gaston called.

“And I am coming with you.” Arnauld turned in the saddle to see the Seigneuresse, in a sturdy, plain gown and cloak, sitting astride a well-bred, light brown gelding. She wore trews under her gown, and boots.

He blinked but said nothing as the countess rode up beside him. “I know my lands,” she informed the soldiers. Her maid, riding a smaller gelding, frowned but stayed quiet.

“Indeed, Seigneuresse. I had thought to go north, past the end of the ridge, to the contested stream, then west to the old border fort’s remains.” He sensed Bjorn shifting, and shot him a look. The tall northerner subsided without a word. They’d settle it later—that was the way of the Paws.

“Good. There are three places you need to be wary of. Two can be avoided easily. The third—,” she hesitated, frowning a touch. “Is harder to pass around, as you will see.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Ah. Shall I lead, my lady? For now.”

“Yes. Go slowly for now. The trail will widen after a mile, once we leave the edge of the ridge.”

Arnauld nudged Gepard with his knees, and the sturdy gelding plodded forward. The blocky head rose as the warhorse sniffed the wind, nostrils flaring, then lowered once more. Arnauld gave the horse more rein. The head shook and made the tack jingle. “Quiet.” He slapped the heavy neck. A snort, then Gepard settled and picked up the pace into his usual walk. Chuckles from behind him made Arnauld shake his own head a touch. The others found the gelding’s habits amusing. Their captain’s apparently poor eye for horseflesh was an old joke among the Wolf’s Paws. Arnauld turned his attention to the land around them.

The forest only seemed to stretch to the end of the world. To the east, it disappeared on the edge of the Rhine Valley, consumed by farms and flood meadows. The mountains sheltered the trees and provided fuel and building timber as well as craft timbers and other wood. Oaks, ash, ironwood, beeches, chestnuts wild and otherwise, all vied for control. A few pines stood sentinel on the highest ridges in the Vosges, more on the east side of the Rhine. The fall wind blew among the branches, fluttering the leaves and sighing past on its way east. Deer had browsed here, and boar as well as farm pigs grazed on the beech mast and acorns. Wolves likely prowled, and perhaps the shy wild cats. Someone had cut the brush back away from the trail, but not so far as to leave the riders exposed. He could see into the woods. Arnauld nodded to himself.

As the lady had said, the trail eased down from the height toward the end of the ridge. Ahead, the trail along the ridge faded into a footpath that led to a small, blocky stump of stone tower, half-hidden in the trees. That would be the strong point guarding the stream cut, or should be. The riding trail eased down toward the valley. Soon, two horses could easily fit abreast on the soft dirt of the track. The countess nudged her gelding forward and joined him. “There are other ways to the castle, but this is the best known from the north. It is not suited to wagons, as you will see.”

“Ah.” Indeed, the path steepened, and grew stony. He let Gepard slow and pick his way. Comtessa Leoni’s horse snorted but showed no other signs of trouble. “Can one leave the trail, Seigneuresse?”

“Oh yes.” She bared her teeth and pointed with her left hand. “You will then drop at least twenty feet into a narrow stream edged in stone. I do not recommend it. To the east, you will find a cliff that is more crumbly than it first seems.”

He nodded, smiling a little. “Thank you. That is good to know.” He had not planned on riding into the woods, but others might be so inclined, or directed. A good place for an ambush, in other words. He noted the location and tucked it away for the future.

“Stop here,” the countess ordered a quarter mile farther on. He reined Gepard to a halt. “Look to the west, up the slope across the valley. What do you see?”

He rose a little and stared through the trees. “A clearing, flat? With pale stones?” They seemed fog-blurred. He made the Cross.

“A wise precaution, captain. The White Ladies disport themselves there on nights without moon. A few have seen them in moonlight, but they are weaker for the competition.”

Behind them Gaston made a puzzled sound, then asked, “Seigneuresse, the white ladies truly dwell here?”

“Not dwell, no, at least not that I can be sure. They dance there, and lure men and some women. Any man who cannot match their tastes in manners and courtly dance suffers a cruel end. Even a Byzantine courtier would find himself exhausted early in the game, and meet an unhappy fate. Avoid the place. No magic can cleanse it. The first priests to serve here banished the White Ladies, but they eventually returned.” She shrugged, left hand turned palm up. “Some things are greater than we are, for now.”

Arnauld glanced back. The men nodded agreement as they muttered. They’d seen what Frau Pechta did to someone who failed to show her due reverence. At least he’d died quickly, what was left of him. Arnauld faced north once more. “We are warned. The land is not what it seems.”

She shook her head and nudged her mount into motion. “No. It is a good land, and very wealthy under the right hands, but it is not easy, not like the soft fields to the west and south.” Her mouth twisted a little. “My late husband chose me for my dower and my magic, because the land demands someone who can read the magic here.” The moment passed. “It is said that the Romans preferred the eastern side of the river for more reasons than just the hot springs and baths.”

He chuckled. “Given the fight Caesar had in Gaul, his successors probably preferred not to have to labor so hard in the future.”

“Indeed, Captain. Southerners prefer not to work if they can avoid it.”

Neither did any man, but that was neither here nor there. Arnauld watched the land as the valley grew wider. They splashed through a good, solid ford. The small river rose almost to Gepard’s back when it flooded, if the grass and branches trapped in the rocks and limbs on the bank spoke truly. He smelled forest scents, and a hint of dark wood smoke, a charcoal burner’s fire. That went with the mines and blacksmith in the village. Gepard shook his head again.

The sun had reached midday when they came within sight of the northern edge of the Vosges counts’ lands. “This is the second place of danger,” the countess said. The horse road turned west and entered a large meadow, easily a league across, perhaps. The road narrowed, and the earth turned dark brown. Something about it made Arnauld itch, for lack of a better word. “What do you not see?”

What an odd question. He studied the land and thought. “Ah, sheep and cattle, gracious lady. No livestock, no houses, no fence or watch post.” He breathed deeply, sniffing the air. Something . . .  brimstone, that was it. Brimstone and sourness. “This is not a pasture,” he said.

“No. I must go first. Keep directly behind me, no matter what you think you see.” She spoke more loudly. “If any lose sight of me, dismount and look for red stakes, waist high. Stay between them.”

Thus warned, Arnauld held Gepard back. Only when the countess had ridden ahead past kicking range did he follow. As they moved forward, the road seemed to sink beneath him. Gepard swished his tail and tossed his head, uncomfortable. What—? Arnauld checked Gepard for an instant and glanced down. Water oozed up around the large hoofs, and he could see wood in the water. A trackway! He kneed the gelding back into motion. No wonder they were to stay on the trail. Now he saw the warning stakes, half-hidden in the reeds and cattails. They rode through a bog, a man-swallowing bog. Who would put a road through here? Only a fool, or someone who knew more about the land than he did yet.

“Captain, there’s something bad in the hills up there,” Bjorn called. “I don’t know what, but it’s as dangerous in its own way as this.”

“We’re warned,” he called back, then turned all his attention to memorizing the path. By night this would be deadly, which meant they needed to learn it in detail now, and perhaps find a way to mark it for themselves.

Once all had passed safely over the trackway, Comtessa Leoni turned her gelding around and faced them. “The swamp and thing on the hillside are the second danger. Of the two, the presence in the hills is worse for life and soul.” The men growled. She nodded her agreement, as did her maid. “It is said that the Romans tried to go around the bog. Their way follows the east side of the ridge, then cuts back to the south.”

Long, difficult for wagons, and unusual for Roman roads, or so it sounded. Arnauld nodded. He looked over his shoulder. The other men frowned, and Bjorn had a thoughtful look in his pale blue eyes. “Captain, Seigneuresse, is there a watch-point over the old road?”

She nodded once more. “Yes, there is. You will be able to see it once the road widens again, near the shoulder of the hill.”

The north-man bowed in his saddle. “Thank you, Seigneuresse.”

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

Saturday Snippet: The Lady and the Wolves

Arnauld d’Loup and his lieutenants study Comtessa Leoni’s lands. With a little help.

Arnauld de Loup bowed. “Then we accept your offer, Comtessa. We will stay and defend your lands, per the contract offered.” Food, shelter, arms, a little coin, and permission to wed if any of the local women and their families agreed—it was far better than their last contracts.

“Good. A drink to seal the bargain.” She snapped her fingers, and her servants began handing out cups of watered wine. That was, it had best be watered, so early in the day was it. Arnauld accepted a plain pottery cup. The seigneuresse drank from fine silver, silver probably mined on the d’Vosges lands. Once all the officers had cups, she raised hers. “To the Wolf’s Paws.”

“The Paws,” the men chorused, then drank. They would give the men their pay-share later, after Arnauld and the other officers signed the contract. She’d sent a copy the month before, seeking them out just as they ended their time with the emperor’s forces on the Burgundian border. The Duke of Burgundy was supposed to be a vassal of the emperor, but he sometimes forgot. 

As they drank, Arnauld studied his new employer. Comtessa Leoni stood taller than he by a head or so, tall and shapely but not lean. She wore dark blue and brown, simple but fine stuffs with red and orange embroidery, and a widow’s cap under her delicate linen veil. A silver and copper chain hung around her neck, the flat links supporting a dark red stone. The chain showed her to be a powerful magic worker, something that explained why she had been able to hold the lands after her husband’s death. She lacked an heir, which explained why she had approached the Paws. Three maids and two old men acted as guards and escorts. The young men— They mined, farmed, or slept underground awaiting the Lord’s return. War had taken too many, and Seigneuresse Leoni needed men, men who could fight. Arnauld let the taste of the wine roll over his tongue before he swallowed. Heavy but not too bitter. Unwatered it might be too much, as most reds from this part of the Frankish lands seemed to be.

Once they finished, and signed or marked the contract, the countess said, “Captain, I would that you and two of your lieutenants came with me to my workroom, to see the borders of the d’Vosges lands.” She touched the pendant on her chain. “I lack the strength to show more than three.”

He caught the meaning. “Certainly, Seigneuresse. Bjorn Najalson and Gaston de Akize.” They could tell Karl Von Saxe, Jean Niger, and the others. He turned to the other officers, “Unless you prefer someone else?”

Head-shakes answered. Karl frowned a little, but did not object. It likely had more to do with the open use of magic than not being included.

Arnauld turned his attention back to the countess. “Gaston, Bjorn, and me, Seigneuresse.”

Fair, red-gold eyebrows rose, but she said nothing.  Servants took the empty wine cups. Comtessa Leoni gestured, and the three followed her out of the great hall, down a long corridor, then up the steps of the south tower. The keep had been well maintained, and a few hangings draped the walls between arrow-slits and one glass window. The window faced the inner courtyard, of course. The steps turned opposite what he’d expected, and Arnauld almost tripped.

“Left-handed, Captain,” Bjorn said. He smiled and mimicked drawing his sword. For once he had room to move.

Arnauld nodded, then climbed. The white-painted walls bore a few pictures of saints and hunting scenes. Two servants accompanied the countess, as did her senior maid. The countess unlocked a door and they entered. The servants bowed and returned to the flat area outside the chamber.

Four long tables stood along the walls at the four directions, between the arrow-slits, and a fifth table stood in the center of a circle marked on the floor. A book, containers of strange things, a piece of unicorn horn, and metal things littered the tables. He noted a sword and dagger, both small enough for a boy or a woman. Arnauld glanced out the openings, as did his lieutenants. He pursed his lips. The trees came closer than he preferred. Perhaps there was a reason. He would have to see for himself.

“Here, Captain,” the countess commanded. Arnauld turned and joined her and the others at the center table. A clear globe of glass, perhaps as large as his two hands held with the tips together, rested atop a carved wooden stand. He stared, eyes wide, as mist swirled inside the glass, grey and as thick as the fogs of sea. “You see it as it should be,” she told them. She studied the sphere, then removed her gloves and held her bare hands on either side of the wooden stand, as if she cradled the glass without touching it.

The mist swirled, then took a different form and color. “You see as an eagle sees,” the countess said. Bjorn and Gaston made the Cross. Arnauld leaned forward, watching as green and grey grew solid. “The river border, on the southern edge.” Fields, river forest, and marshes spread to the east of the tall ridge he’d seen as they rode in from the Rhine. The river flowed north, a series of curves and bends that extended north and south as far as the eye could see. The ridge moved, no, the eagle moved to the west. It made him feel almost dizzy.

Comtessa d’Vosges said, “The keep.” Sturdy brown and reddish-tan stone sat on the flat shoulder of a different ridge. The land dropped quickly to the south and west, less steeply to the north. The eagle turned north, following a trail to pastures and meadow, then a stream that grew to a small river. “This is the difficulty at present, Captain. The duke of Bar claims that his lands extend south of this river and mountain. The duke of Burgundy and count of Burgundy also claim lands west of the mountains. The king in Paris too claims suzerainty over these lands, but the d’Vosges family has always looked to the emperor, since Karl the Great.”

The three men nodded. “In the last division, these lands went to the empire, or so we were told, Seigneuresse.” Gaston frowned as he studied the glass. “That has not changed?”

“Not in the time of my husband, his father, or his father, when the last heir of Charlemagne’s blood sat on the throne of Rome.” She lowered her hands and mist filled the glass sphere once more. “Given that the king in Paris also claims all of Burgundy and the southern lands held by the Moors—?” She turned one hand palm up, and half-smiled as she left the rest unspoken.

Arnauld inclined toward her. “Indeed, Seigneuresse.” The mines of the Vosges produced silver, lead, and copper, all highly sought after. The lands also had good sheep, timber and charcoal, and a few other things.

She pulled her gloves back on. Bjorn nodded, as if he had expected the action. The soldiers followed her out of the work room. She closed the door. Arnauld sensed something run around the door, perhaps. They did not linger. The countess dismissed them once they returned to the main audience chamber and collected their men’s pay.

Once out in the warm September sun, Arnauld turned to Bjorn. “What saw you?” he asked.

The big north-man bared tusk-like teeth in a smile behind his pale beard. “The gloves keep her power in, like the animal-callers in the north. It is a powerful magic, but one that can overwhelm body and soul.” The smile faded. “At least it can for those who call down the great ice bears and northern wolves.”

“Huh.” Gaston blinked, then shrugged. “If we see ice bears, it’s time to stop drinking.”

“Aye that!” The broad smile returned, and a large, calloused hand slapped the Aquitanian on the shoulder. “Or throw the steersman out of the boat to the bears.”

Arnauld smiled even as he shivered inside. He’d seen the hide of one of those bears. He did not want to fight anyone who took that power for his own in battle. Bjorn was deadly enough when he went bear-mad. And that had nothing to do with finding quarters for the rest of the Wolf’s Paws and paying them before they decided to pay themselves with someone else’s wine or ale.

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

Saturday Snippet: From”Rigi’s Wedding.”

This comes at the end of the (thus far unfinished) story. First, the inspiration for the scene.

The lyrics are nodded to in the story. This arrangement was made specifically for choir. Because most voices don’t have the range of the fiddle, the melody flows from soprano to tenor to baritone and back up.

The next waltz dated as far back as Rigi could guess. And it was one that seemed to be played at almost every military-sponsored dance Rigi had attended, although admittedly her sampling was not exactly large. Many of the younger couples left the floor, and all of the older pairs moved onto it. Uncle Eb and Aunt Kay, Rigi’s parents, Tomás’s parents, and others all began turning to the slow music.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really understood it before,” Tomás said quietly, so quietly that Rigi almost didn’t hear him. His eyes looked distant and sad, for some reason. When Rigi looked at the dancers, she realized that tears had begun running down Aunt Kay’s face, and Uncle Eb had pulled her closer, even though she seemed to be smiling. Her mother too looked as if she were about to weep, and Mrs. Prananda as well. Then Rigi remembered the words to “Ashokan Farewell,” words she’d only heard once or twice, words about leaving and dancing and parting perhaps forever. She shivered. Tomás pulled her closer, holding her as if he would never, ever let her go.

She’d assumed that Mrs. Prananda and Aunt Kay had been metaphorical when they talked about waiting and being ready to hear bad news. Oh no. How many times had General Prananda and his men departed, leaving their wives and families to wait, leaning on memories and hope and faith? Even more for Aunt Kay, even though she’d been at Uncle Eb’s side some of the time, or so Rigi had guessed over the years. Even her mother, who had married Mr. Bernardi while he was still in the Reserves. And now, with the new threat from the stars? Would she and Tomás be parted? Of course they would, that was part of being a military wife, but parted forever? The alien intruders had come close on the Night of Falling Birds, too close, despite what the Navy accomplished.

“No, my lady,” Tomás whispered. “I’m here. I will always be with you,” he touched her chest with his fingertips, “Here.” He caressed her cheek. “And here,” he tapped the side of her head, just below the bridal crown. “Always and ever.” They kissed again, and she rested her head on his shoulder as they watched the dancers circle. The last notes sounded and Uncle Eb pulled Aunt Kay very close indeed, kissing her. Rigi’s father lifted a tear from her mother’s face, and Rigi glanced away from Gen. and Mrs. Prananda, who had forgotten that there were other people in the room.

(C) 2021, 2023, Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

Saturday Snippet: Games and Fools

Art keeps one eye on the food and one on the gamers.

Art pretended to be disappointed. Clyde had already vanished in a food-ward direction. “Thank you. I’ll try to help keep chaos down to the usual level.”

Kim glanced over her shoulder, then leaned closer. “Thanks. Something about Sue’s giving me bad vibes, but she’s sober and not acting odd or anything.” The chemistry PhD student shivered. She came from a family of sensitives, Art remembered. Her grandfather had been a shaman or similar in South Korea.

“I’ll keep my eyes and ears open.” Kim had helped him with some academic messes in the past, and he owed her. “Dancing on the patio?”

She smiled and pointed that way as the doorbell rang. Art scooted out of the way. He glanced in the gaming room as he passed. Three tables had been set up. One held a board game and he smiled. Two Econ MAs had already started debating real-estate values. Luke, a history PhD candidate, ran a second game. He smiled and gave Art a thumb’s up from behind his GM screen. He’d stick to book spells. Art returned the gesture and made his way to food. It ranged from chips-n-dip to fancy home made ethnic goodies. He got a half-dozen sample nibbles of the “interesting” dishes and drifted out to the large patio. He shared the familial unfondness for crowded places.

The white stuff tasted “beany” in a good way. One bite of minced beef with harissa cleared his sinuses, eyes, and probably curled his hair. Garlic-rich hummus and pita pieces helped. Clyde reappeared and gave him a concerned look. “Ahmed made screaming beef,” Art squeaked, then cleared his throat. “Blue and white dish, spoon with fruit on the handle.”

“Yesssss!” Clyde headed for the kitchen, returning with a laden plate. None of the other grad students could remember the name of the dish, so “screaming beef” it was. “I love this stuff.” Clyde ate a large fork-full.

“I hope you and my dad never start trading recipes.” Art soothed his still-smoldering tongue with a bite of creamy, rich flan.

Clyde stopped devouring long enough to suggest, “Introduce him to Dr. Hashmi-the-Engineer,” then plunged into the beef-n-peppers once more.

Stomach padded for the moment, Art found a can of fancy flavored water then tried to decide what to do. A ‘pop’ of magic from behind him, followed by slightly raised voices, got his attention. He made his way back into the main house.

“Aw, come on. It’s just a level one, see?” A young man Art didn’t know waved a page at Luke. “It can’t do anything real.”

“It almost did,” Pedro replied from the other table. “I felt it and blocked it.”

“I felt it,” Luke snapped from behind his screen. “Art?”

“I felt the spell, yes,” Art replied, careful not to say which one. “Stick with what’s in the book, please. None of us want a repeat of the giggling snake mess.”

An older grad student at the board game table waved her tree-of-life pendent at them. Art nodded and she relaxed. She was a member of th Tuesday-night coven, and had been on back-up that night.

Luke cleared his throat. “That’s why made-up spells are prohibited. You’ve got three books to work from. Stick with those, or leave the game, please.”

The girl beside him, Lizzie, rolled her eyes. “Teo, just use a canned spell so we can see what’s waiting up ahead before we die of old age.”

Teo glared at everyone, then snapped, “Fine. I cast ‘far sight’ fifty yards.” He rolled a pair of purple and yellow dice. The colors raise Art’s hackles, but he didn’t sense or see any magic other than Pedro’s shield and the witch’s defenses. Art retreated to the patio again as groans and cheers rose from around the board game, and one of the econ MAs snarled, “Bankrupt, dang it.”

Lord, but he did not want the senior Hunter descending on them over another imaginary-creature-gone wild! Art got some spiced cider and watched as Kellie, one of the history-Eastern Europe MAs tried to pass Dr. Millie’s field sobriety test. “Two X plus three equals eleven. Solve for X.” Doc Millie handed Kellie a small whiteboard with the equation. Kellie, already two-and-a-half sheets into the wind, failed. Kim took the younger student’s keys and added her to the list of people to be driven home.

Art roamed around again and spent a few minutes heckling the folks playing Cat Creator on one of the computer gaming rigs. “Come on, Clyde’s ahead by ten,” he teased Peter Trinh, one of the biology PhDs.

P.T. gave him a rude sign in Vietnamese and muttered, “Quality, not quantity.” He also pointed to Zair. “She’s beating both of us. Not fair.” Zair stuck her tongue out at him and finished her creation, a serval-like feline with a plaid coat. Plaid? Art blinked and peered. Yes, plaid. “That’s just wrong,” P.T. grumbled.

“Wrong but legal,” Clyde declared, then groaned. His cat abruptly dumped its fur and slunk off screen. Apparently, his modification didn’t work. Art eased out of the group and went back downstairs. As he did, he caught sight of Sue. She appeared to be en route to the plant room, so he followed.

Bob Squared still held forth in the corner, giving advice and dreadful warnings about how to navigate the administration. “When it says, ‘Submit within two days of proposed defense date?’ It lies.” He leaned forward. “At least two weeks. You’ve got to have the second draft done and turned in at least two weeks before your proposed date, and the date cleared with everyone on the committee, especially the outside member.”

“But, how can we do all that so close to the end of the semester?” a very young looking grad student protested. “If it says two days, it means two days, right?”

Bob Squared, Art, and several other experienced grad students all shook their heads. Bob took a long swig from his bottle of beer. “No. Two days means two weeks. Two days goes back to when you had submitted the dissertation in paper, gotten it approved, circulated it to the committee already, and the office had assigned a defense date. So two days was enough to confirm everything, in case of illness.” Another swig. “Now that we have to do the work, it’s two weeks.”

“That’s not fair.” The young woman’s whine caused everyone to lean away from her. Art memorized her, just in case he had to deal with her. “Two days should be two days.”

A chorus of snorts greeted her words. “In a just world, yeah, it should be. University’s not a just world,” Sue grumbled. “Listen to Bob and the rest of us. We’ve been burned already. Spare yourself the pain.” Pure cynicism dripped from her voice, joining the disdain in her expression.

Oh great. She’s already in a mood. And what’s with her dress?

Friday Fragment: When Parties Get Wild

This story takes place between “Casting the Die” and Overly Familiar.

“Hey, Art, are you coming?”

Thomas Arthur “Art” Chan looked up from the next-to-last grammar worksheet. “I will once I finish this one.” He’d reserved Mr. Griffin’s paper for last for a reason. If he didn’t take a break from grading, he’d do something regrettable. Like using some of his grandfather’s pungent phrases of disapprobation, which would cause the paint on the office walls to scorch. He’d already muttered more than one Slavic malediction at the undergrads’ papers.

Clyde gave him a thumbs up and returned to his own lair. Art waded back into the fray, fighting the forces of ignorance and bad handwriting. Was it an “i”, a “j”, or an “I’ll put something down and hope Mr. Chan and Dr. Podjauski accept it?” Art compared the word in question to earlier words and marked it incorrect. Mr. De Leon would pass, barely. Art entered the grade, then locked the papers, key, and pens in their drawers. He turned off the computer and triggered the shield spell on both desk and terminal. Better safe than sorry.

Clyde locked his own door as Art shrugged on his jacket. “If one more person writes, ‘Andrew Jackson was a product of his time,’ I will turn on auto-flunk,” the morose historian grumbled under his breath.

“If your grading program has that function, I want to borrow it,” Art muttered back, equally quietly. A passing administrator gave them a sharp look, and Art continued, “Every update takes away a function I like and adds something useless.”

A vehement nod greeted his words. Clyde sighed, “The invisible tool bar. Do not get me started.” The administrator continued past without further signs of suspicion. “Are there any undergrads left in the building? Thanks.” Clyde followed Art out the door.

“Shouldn’t be.” Nor should there be any administrators. It was Friday. Halloween was Monday. The partying had begun on Thursday. “Or parents, either.” Art glanced over his shoulder. “Dr. Ricardo’s working.”

“Of course. “He’s got two articles to finish before November fifteenth, or he goes on warning from the tenure committee.” Clyde pulled his jacket closer. “Not his fault, but . . .”

“Yeah.” Art nodded with sympathy. He had four published articles and a book chapter already. That was over half the requirement for tenure, and he wasn’t finished with his PhD in Slavic Languages yet. He already had the doctorate in theoretical thaumatology, just not officially. “So, the Green Lemurs are playing at the usual?”

“Them and someone I’ve never heard of before. Gypsy something.”

Art reached out with a little magic as they waited for the light to change. Only the usual flows of power appeared. He upped his shields even so. Accidental magic tended to bobble up this time of year, along with deliberate magic. The light turned green, the walk chirp sounded, and he and Clyde crossed the street. A little breeze teased, hinting that the warm days would end sooner than most people wanted. They’d had a hard freeze already, thanks be. Mosquitoes had been fierce that year.

Hands jammed in his jacket pockets, Clyde asked, “You know anything about that new Polish history reader, the one from Cornell?” He glanced to the left and winced. “That’s expensive.”

“No shit.” A fancy sedan perched in the back of a tow-truck. Someone had parked in the fire access lane for the chemistry building. They would regret that error. “And yes, I’ve seen excerpts of the reader. It’s OK, but you need a solid chronology already for it to work.” He paused as they trotted across the parking lot. “Good to excellent translations, though.”

“Thanks. That’s what I was worried ab—” The roar of a diesel engine drowned him out. The big pickup raced through the lot, clipped the corner, and vanished into the night. The guys shrugged. “Worried about. I’ll stick with what I’m using now.”

Art nodded his agreement. They walked in friendly silence the rest of the way. Art extended his magic a little, more out of habit than actual concern. Yes, Halloween inspired foolishness, but mostly harmless. Mostly. He sensed the usual flows both shadow power and the common streams in the land and air. Elementals tended to avoid the university. A handful of shielded people moved here and there, including Prof. Jacob Renfrew, the herbalist-sorcerer. As normal an evening as ever one encountered around this part of Riverton, in other words. Clyde sniffed the air and nudged Art. They eased away from the hedge and wall beside the dorm yard. It wasn’t entirely pot someone indulged in. Art didn’t bother sighing. My reality is crazy enough without adding chemicals, thanks.

They left campus proper and entered the district of historic homes and student rentals. “Dang, that’s great!” Clyde pointed to a large carved pumpkin that bore a near perfect portrait of the Head of the History Department, down to his reading glasses. Someone had carefully frayed the pumpkin’s stem and managed a passable comb-over. He and Art both paused and bowed to the chairman. A similar portrait of Dean T. Williamson graced the top step of the large house’s porch. A candy cigarette drooped from the pumpkin’s lower lip. “I sense Millie’s hand at work,” Clyde observed, then rang the doorbell.

“Oh yeah. She’s gotten really good.” Millie, or Professor Millicent O’Toole, had taken up carving as a hobby two years ago and had discovered a natural gift. The wicked sense of humor, well, she’d always had that, if rumor and legend were true. She taught math up through calculus and struck terror in the hearts of accounting students and administrators alike. “I wonder who commissioned those?”

“Or if she’s venting?” The door opened and Clyde switched topics. “Haallllllooo, gorgeous!”

“Flattery will get you anywhere,” Kim informed him with a smile, letting both grad students into the house. “Games are there,” she pointed to the next room, “video games in the upstairs den, food’s in the kitchen and dining room, dancing on the back porch, beer fridge’s locked.” She winked. “Unless you are sober enough to do algebra in your head.”

“Madame, you are discriminating against liberal-arts students,” Art intoned, doing his best to mimic Dr. Artemisia-Jones.

“Yes, I am, as is Dr. O’Toole. She’s checking ID for Kyle, Tim, and me. Oh, and Bob Squared’s in the corner of the plant room terrifying the poli-sci grad students.” She closed the door behind them. “So you don’t have to.” Another wink.

Art pretended to be disappointed. Clyde had already vanished in a food-ward direction. “Thank you. I’ll try to help keep chaos down to the usual level.”

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

Wednesday Wee-bit

This is the opening fragment of the next project. The setting is Medieval France, down in the Vosges Mountains, on the edges of the Holy Roman Empire and what was claimed by the kings in Paris. It was inspired by parts of the song “Blind and Frozen” by Beast in Black.

“All of us, Condessa?” Arnauld had not allowed himself to hope for half a decade and more.

Condessa Leonie d’Vosge inclined her head and spread her arms, graceful and welcoming. “But of course. The land needs defenders, experienced men to protect it.” She gestured to herself with one delicate, brown-gloved hand. “I have reached the end of what can be done without strong arms and steel.”

She spoke only the truth—even powerful magic could only so so much. Arnauld respected her honesty. Behind him, the rest of the Wolf’s Paws murmured. He sensed their approval as well. He glanced to Gaston. The lean Aquitanian nodded and gestured “all agree.”

Arnauld de’Loup bowed. “Then we accept your offer, Condessa. We will stay and defend your lands, per the contract offered.” Food, shelter, arms, permission to wed if any of the local women and their families agreed, it was far better than their last contracts.

“Thank you.” She smiled, a smile that welcomed all. “There are quarters here in the fortress, or you may take up residence in the manor village below. The water supply is better there.” The smile turned a touch weary and wry together. “My honored ancestors trusted perhaps a little overmuch to the saints and Virgin to hear their pleas for rain and snow for the cisterns.”

Arnauld considered. The horses needed more water than did men, and dividing their numbers might be wise. “My lady, we will look at the quarters, and the land, and decide which will better serve.” Gaston nodded, as did the other men. The horses had no preference, yet. Although, given the steepness of the road, they might well voice their opinions in a forceful manner indeed come winter!

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