Tuesday Tidbit: When Duties Collide

Halwende discovers that even god magic takes work, and his father disapproves of his son’s tardiness.

“Blessed be Valdher, Lady of the Forest,” Maltaria and her assistant chanted.

Halwende and the others bowed to the small carving of Valdher. “Blessed be the Lady of the Forest,” they replied.

“Blessed be She who gives wood and game.”

“Blessed be the Lady of Game.”

For once, Halwende paid close attention to what the priestess said, and to how she said it. She pitched her voice . . . lower, but also to carry more easily even in the chapel. It didn’t echo the way Valdher’s voice had, but it differed from Maltaria’s speaking voice. Yet she wasn’t speaking for the goddess, either.

Since the day wasn’t a great feast, the service did not last too long. “Praise and thanks we give for Your bounty and Your protection on Your servants, hunters and leaders alike,” the priestess intoned. That was different, but appropriate.

“We give thanks and praise,” came the ragged echo.

Once formal worship ended, everyone save Maltaria herself and Halwende departed. He bowed once more to the Lady of the Forest and waited as the priestess, joined by an assistant, put out the lamps on the altar and those on either side of the statue. The figure looked the same as She had in the forest, except that here, Her eyes stared past Her worshipers, into the distance, and looked green-black, not full of forests. He shivered again and made Her sign.

“So.” Maltaria clapped her hands once. “Here is as good a place to work as any, and if we are interrupted, well, the keep had best be on fire, or under water.” She smiled, and he relaxed.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She studied him, then pointed to the floor. “Sit.” She sat as well on the smooth, clean wood. “How many years have you? Fifteen?”

He tried to recall. He’d been born on the turning of autumn, twenty years after the end of the Great Cold, so that meant . . . “Yes, ma’am. Almost sixteen.”

“So you are of legal age and proper discernment. That might make things easier.” She sighed and rested her staff across her folded legs. “Or perhaps not. Close your eyes and concentrate on relaxing your muscles.”

He closed his eyes and looked inside, then started making his shoulders, neck, and other things let go of their grip. He breathed slowly, as if he sat in hiding, waiting for game, or for an enemy warrior. The green-brown glow inside himself grew brighter as his muscles loosened.

“Ah.” The priestess spoke quietly, her words like wind in the forest. “Good. Very good. Keep your eyes closed and look outward, look for light that matches what is inside you, and tell me what you see.”

How—? Halwende breathed in, smelling the scent like needle-leaf of the incense in the chapel. As he breathed out, he looked out as well, looking for a glow the same as his. One he found very close indeed, Maltaria, strong and clear, like a good spring of water. He looked farther, pushing a little, and found two others of Valdher in the rooms behind the chapel. “I see you, ma’am, and two in the preparation rooms, and,” he sought farther. “I see a red-gold glow across the courtyard and down, two blue and brown lights near father’s private office, and—.” Is that really? “Ah, glowing black near where the men slaughter kine and schaef?”

“Very good. Look inward again, please, then open your outer eyes.”

It felt good to rest his gaze inside. He did for a few heartbeats, then opened his eyes. He saw carved branches arching over his head, polished wood in light and dark brown, touched here and there with green of leaves. The ceiling, he stared up at the ceiling. How strange. He blinked a few times and tried to sit.

“Hold this.” The end of her staff appeared above him. He grasped just below the ornately carved wooden cervi head, and used that to help pull himself upright. She was strong. He knew that, and stared at his legs for a moment, then met her eyes. She smiled, and her one eyebrow rose a little. “You have very strong magic. And you will probably have a headache soon. Besides the one about to be inflicted upon us.”

Huh? Oh no.

Maltaria raised one hand. “Kneel in devotion, Halwende, and give thanks for your life, and for the Lady’s mercy. And don’t tense, or the headache will be worse,” she warned, getting to her feet with the aid of the staff.

“Yes, ma’am.” He shifted to his knees and sort of crawled to the proper place for such things. He knelt and began reciting a prayer of thanks. His back and the back of his neck crawled.

“Where is he?” came a bellow from the corridor. “What do you mean he never left the chapel?” It sounded like am ovstrala’s bellow when the males fought for the does. “I ordered him to attend me!”

Halwende’s shoulders tensed in anticipation of a blow. Instead Maltaria spoke in her “worship voice.” “He attended to—and is attending to—giving thanks to the Lady of the Forest for sparing his life and those of your servants, Lord Hal.” Calm and relaxed, she sounded in full control of herself. Unlike his grace.

“What mean you?” The anger remained, but not so loud as before. “The young fool endangered Pol as well as himself, by coming in so late.”

A soft thump, wood on wood. “Were you told of the two einar in mating fury that attacked the cart and those with it, your grace?”

“Yes, and that was no excuse.” Lord Hal bit each word short, snapping them.

“And that your heir ordered his men to leave him behind, lest they be endangered as well should his arrows miss? They did as commanded.” The priestess’s words came smoothly and quietly. “And that he then brought in the healthy einar for your table, after granting mercy to one that ailed? Carrying the einar by himself, on his shoulders?”

“That I did not know. But he must obey me.” The words came slower, still angry.

“I’m certain that he will, your grace, after his devotions. He has been here since worship began.”

Heavy boots stomped on the floor outside the chapel. “Send him to me when he finishes.” The boots departed.

Lady of the Forest, thank You for life given and taken, for mercy given. Thank You for the bounty of the woods and the wilds, Valdher of the Forest. He recited silently. A tiny ache had begun in the back of his head, as well as at his temples. He needed to eat, and to rest, if he could.

Softer footfalls approached. “Lady grant me patience, as fast as Your grace permits.” A light sigh whispered above his head. Halwende finished and stood. He bowed to the statue, and turned to the priestess. Maltaria gave him a stern look. “Attend to your father, then get food. You pushed your magic farther than you should have, but I wanted to see what you would do. Now I know, and we will build from there.” She raised her hand and made Valdher’s Antlers. “Go with the blessing of the Lady of the Forest, younger brother.”

He bowed again. “Thanks for the blessing.”

He took the longer route to his father’s meeting hall. The keep, one of the first built after the ice and snows began retreating north, could be navigated easily, provided one already knew where he needed to go. A few servants hurried past on errands. The first of the harvest had begun arriving, and the women and some men busied themselves in the still room, kitchens, and storage rooms. The time for preserving meat had not yet arrived, but it would come with the first true cold. Hills and the western ridge sheltered the Valke lands from some storms, but not from true winter. He shivered a little, recalling his grandmother’s stories of the Great Cold, when Sneelah had been the only deity to rule the north.

Halwende heard voices from the meeting chamber and stopped short of the door. ” . . . and that’s all from the Kalman farm, your grace,” the chief steward said. His voice always reminded Halwende of an eigris, the long-legged, sharp-voiced wading birds that stalked the marshes, spearing fish and other things. The steward stood easily as tall as Duke Hal, perhaps taller when he stood straight. He stooped most of the time, round shouldered, eyes on the ground ahead of his feet, or on the record books and papers of his trade.

“Hmm.” His father’s voice rumbled. “Very well. You are dismissed.”

“Your grace.” A soft thump as the big record book closed, and light steps approached the door. Halwende stayed clear of the steward’s path. The man walked like an eigris, long, steady strides that only looked slow.

After he assured himself that he heard no more voices, Halwende gathered his nerves and entered his father’s hall. A small fire burned in the hearth near the duke’s chair of office, a sturdy, dark seat upholstered in grey, with a high back that bore carvings of real and legendary beasts, topped by a valke in flight. The chair dominated the room, just as Duke Hal dominated the Valke lands. More than once Halwende had wondered if even the Great Northern Emperor had a stronger presence than his father. He’d never seen the emperor, so he had no way to know. His father loomed, a man’s man, a warrior among warriors. He stood a head taller than Halwende, broad-shoulders, with heavy legs. Duke Hal, one year from entering his fifth decade, looked younger, aside from the bulge over his belt. His hair remained dark, unlike many of the ruling dukes.

“What excuse this time, boy?”

Halwende bowed, then straightened. “None, your grace.”

A storm cloud lowered over his father’s face, his skin turning darker brown. “You are a fool, twice a fool, for hunting so late in the day. Pol is too old, too important, to be forced to sleep in the open outside the walls.”

So why did he leave the walls? He did not provide aid, he just paced me. As he had so often, Halwende said, “Yes, your grace.”

“And you left your near-ruined garments for the servants to deal with.”

“Yes, your grace.” His aching head kept him from anger at the unjust words.

His father stared at him, then barked, “I have arranged a betrothal. You will be wed to Malita of Kamsicht when she comes of age in three years. The emperor chose your brother’s betrothed as his own, so I had to find a replacement. Kamsicht will do.”

Who? Oh, the girl with the mines and no brothers. “Thank you, your grace.”

Duke Hal stared at him again, eyes narrow. “What were you doing for so long in the chapel?”

“Giving thanks for the successful hunt, your grace, and for your servants returning uninjured.” Do I dare? Yes. “I felt it wise to make good on my promise to Valdher sooner rather than later.”

Fingers drummed on the wide arm of the ducal chair. The cloud of anger lifted, just a little. “Very well. That I will accept. Two einar charged?”

“Yes, your grace, the healthy one that I brought in, and one that had an injury. The injured boar ailed, smelled of dead flesh, so I left it for the eaters of the dead.” For a moment he saw again the enraged einar, mouth open, racing toward him. The vision faded as his head pounded.

His father stood. Halwende backed to the side, out of the duke’s way. “Well, you did one thing properly. And Pol was uninjured. Don’t hunt so late in the future.”

Halwende bowed. “Yes, your grace.”

“Go.”

He went, and grabbed whatever remained on the table outside the kitchen for the servants and those who could not sit for the meal. Something in bread, and sauce-soaked trencher bread. He grabbed a fist-sized lump. He hesitated, then drew his knife and cut a trencher in two and took half of it as well. When he became duke, should he live that long, he would never, ever eat trencher unless it was a time of true dearth. When his mother yet lived, they’d only eaten trencher at the end of spring, when the stored food ran low but the fresh had yet to arrive, and then always with greens and young meat to ease the sting. Duke Hal gave it to his servants and sons even at harvest.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: A Priest’s Duties

Halwende is recovering from overdoing things just a wee bit.

His legs ached, burned. He bit his tongue to keep from groaning. Instead he stretched a finger-length at a time, as slowly as he could. The heavy, rough blanket scratched. It also covered his privates, another reason not to leap from the bed.

“My lord Halwende,” Eticho said with a tired sigh. “There are easier ways to draw attention to your hunting skills.” The healer-mage and priest of Rella snorted a little. “Not as dramatic, to be sure, my lord, but easier on you and on the rest of us.”

Halwende sat, with great care and much wincing, keeping one hand on the blanket. He leaned forward then straightened again. Everything moved as it should, and hurt as if he’d been used as a target by beginning staff-fighters. “Master Eticho, I assure you, I have no desire to repeat that particular experience. Einar are not light beasts. Nor are cervi.”

“Drink this. It tastes terrible. It will finish lifting the burning-stem sap from your blood, as well as restoring the balance of your nature.”

Thus warned, Halwende accepted the mug and drained it in one go. Indeed, the healer spoke no falsehoods. Halwende’s guts churned and threatened to reject the bitter, liver-ish brew. “Is there a rule that healers are forbidden to make good-tasting medicines, sir?”

A snort, and the older man folded his arms, studying his patient. “There is, for those that might cause craving for more. Some of the black-bulb-laced pain-killers must be made unpalatable. Some tinctures as well, to prevent over use, or using the doses too quickly.”

Well, he’d always wondered, and now he knew.

“And you will want to put on clothes, because our sister Maltaria, Valdher’s speaker, is coming to meet with you before you emerge from my clutches.” Eticho snorted and shook his head. His bald patch shone a little in the light from the tiny window, that bit not covered by his soft, dull-red skullcap. He leaned forward and squeezed Halwende’s shoulder. “My brother, you have a hard, but blessed, road ahead of you. You can always come to one of us for support and soul-counsel, should you need it.”

How does he—? He does, so the others do. Blessed Lady, I hope Father doesn’t know yet. Once Eticho turned his back, Halwende eased out from under the blanket and dressed in clean clothes. Well, the others remained blood-stiffened and unwearable until he dealt with them. He’d gotten dressed, and had raked the flop of brown hair out of his face by the time Maltaria, priestess of Valdher, swept into the small room. Halwende went to one knee.

“Rise, little brother,” Maltaria said. “Then sit, before you fall over. I’ve half a mind to chase you and your father both around the walls, beating you with my staff for prideful folly, but our Lady acted first, at least in your case.” She sat as well and folded her arms, looking at him. Before he could start to squirm, she nodded once, then sat back against the high-backed, leather-padded chair. “You need to learn to control your magic better, as in to use it, instead of ignoring it and wishing it would go away, Halwende.” Her stern expression softened. “Little brother, most of us are not chosen as, let me say, directly as you were. Don’t worry if you feel off balance for a day or so. Having Valdher speak to you and through you is never easy, although it comes more easily with time and experience.”

The sympathy in her hard blue eyes drew the question he feared to ask. “How should I tell his grace, my father?”

“Not alone. And not until you are more certain about how to balance being a priest and being a ruling noble.” Maltaria frowned a little. “Pol told me about the hunt. Why did you order him and his assistant to run?”

He wanted to lie. He didn’t dare, not here, not now. He looked at the floor and the toes of his shoes. “Because if the einar hurt or killed them—” He heard his voice rising in pitch as he lost control, and stopped. He took a deep breath, and said, “Because I’d rather be killed by the einar than endure what his grace, my father would do and say if Pol were injured because of me.” What Duke Hal had said after the ambush— He glanced back up at the priestess.

Maltaria’s face darkened like a storm cloud racing from the north. “Were you not the heir, I would order you, senior priest to junior, to go on retreat away from here in order to study and meditate so that you could better discern Valdher’s desires for your vocation. I can’t.” Eyes narrowed, she exhaled a long sigh. “What I can do is order you to attend worship daily, and stay after to train your magic, since you are not doing that to my satisfaction.” She winked. “Because you did promise to attend worship in thanks for a successful hunt, did you not?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Relief washed over him. Even Duke Hal hesitated before challenging the priests of the gods, especially Valdher and the Scavenger. Well, no one with two still-working bits in his brain challenged the Scavenger.

The hunt. “Ma’am, the Lady said— She called me priest, and pathfinder.”

The senior priestess’ remaining eyebrow rose to the edge of her green and cream headcover. “Did She? That . . . ah. That explains the vision.” She spoke to herself more than to him, but he felt better even so. Maltaria nodded once and stood. “No, stay seated. I have a possible idea, but meditation and prayer are still needed.” She skewered him with a firm look. “Yes?”

He gulped. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good, little brother. Worship tomorrow, then we work. Do not speak of this to your father, not yet. The hunt, yes, but not your new vocation.”

Eticho returned with food. “Start with this, my lord. You are suffering the same as if you over-worked your magic skills, as well as extreme physical exertion.” He folded his arms and watched Halwende start to eat. “Do you know how much that cervi weighed? Or the einar?”

Halwende swallowed and looked up at the healer. “A lot, sir. A lot more by the time I got here.” He pointed down with his knife tip, then returned to eating.

“The cervi was eighty pfund. The einar weighed almost a hundred. You shouldn’t have made it back to the keep with that on your shoulders.” Eticho shook his head. “Some day, you will regret having been young, unstoppable, and determined.”

He regretted the last two already, but Halwende kept that to himself as he devoured meat, cheese, and heavy bread under minced, pickled vegetables.

“And drink all of that,” Eticho ordered, pointing to the small pitcher. “If you get bladder rocks, the pain will be worse than you want to imagine. And that’s before they leave.”

Halwende did cross his legs upon hearing that. No thank you! He drank the water with mint.

Only when he finished did Eticho wave toward the door. “Go take care of what you need to. Come back here if you feel any pain in your low back or guts, you hear me? You have not passed water since last night.”

“Yes, sir.” He felt like a child again, almost. Halwende slunk out. What did he need to do first? Clean his hunting clothes. That first, before his grace berated him for not caring for his belongings properly.

Indeed, he went to his chamber and found Odo, his personal servant, frowning at his hunting boots. “My lord, these need to be dealt with.”

“Yes, they do, and I will, now that Master Eticho and Valdher’s speaker have given me leave to resume my duties.” He wanted to snarl, but he felt too tired. Odo reported to the chief steward, who reported to Duke Hal. What point in snarling when his father would just . . . do something, even if he was the heir now? “I’ll see to them.”

Halwende gathered tunic, jerkin, trews, and boots, along with a few other things, and carried the lot down to the wash troughs. Since it was not wash-day, he had no fear of disturbing Mistress Kai or her women. He started with the tunic, jerkin, and trews, brushing off the dirt and anything else brushable. Then be plugged the end of the trough and went to the pump. A bucket waited. He pumped cold water into the wooden bucket, then hauled it to the trough. Two buckets should do for the moment. He dipped the material into the trough, swished it back and forth, and waited for it to soften in the water. He’d broken clothes before through impatience.

As he’d feared, it took a great deal of work until the dried blood, hair, and dirt released its hold on the fabric and leather. His shoulders hurt as much as they had the night before by the time he finished. Sitting and working on his boots, getting the fat back into the seams, came as a relief. While he was close to the pump, he drank as much water as he could hold. He hung the garments in the proper places to dry. The boots he took back to his chamber. First, he washed himself, as much as was seemly.

“His Grace wishes you to call on him tomorrow, following morning worship,” Odo informed him later that evening.

Thank You, Lady of the Forests. Should he tell Odo why he would be late? No. Either way his father would likely berate him for something. Better to be late with a solid reason than to anger the priests. And their patrons, especially now. “Thank you. I will do as he commands,” after I do as the Lady of the Forests commands. Halwende drank more water. He’d added water to his supper wine. His father had ordered the meal sent to his quarters, or perhaps the healer had informed his father that he needed more time to recover from the previous day. Either way, he ate in peace.

He’d rather eat at a fire out in the field, hunting or patrolling the Valke lands. Why did his brother have to be the one killed in the ambush? Because he’d been the one to ignore the signs of people passing through earlier, and had walked into the trap. Halwende caught himself before he snarled at the memory. It would do no good. Edwacer had died, leaving Halwende as the only male heir, unless his father decided to replace him with Cousin Otto. Halwende finished the last of the water, visited the jakes, then prepared for sleep. It might come easily, for once.

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

Saturday Snippet: The Lone Hunter’s Territory

The Lone Hunter does some digging for Martha (and himself).

“That’s an unusual name, sir,” the librarian behind the reference desk at the Devon County library observed, her tone cautious yet curious. She returned his ID. “Jude Tainuit. Is it French?”

He smiled, careful not to bare his teeth. “No, ma’am. Tainuit is, well, Austrian or Hungarian, depending on who had won most recently.” Or Austrian again, or Romanian, or Ukrainian, or . . . “Mother said that our ancestors ended up traveling with the Moravians in the early 1700s.”

She smiled, light green eyes bright behind the brown frames of her reading glasses. “Ah. That makes perfect sense, Mr. Tainuit. Have you talked to Mrs. McMurdo, the new head of the county genealogy society? She’s very interested in . . .” When she finished with his card and getting his books, he knew more about the president of the society than he really needed. Or perhaps not. Now he knew better how to avoid her.

He found a quiet corner where he could see two exits and settled in to read. He preferred to go elsewhere, but his current abode lacked amenities such as good light for reading. And people might notice a light where it ought not be. They tended to look closely at such things, this time of year. He wasn’t ready for that, not yet. Not until he confirmed some legal niceties. Jude paged through the state property codes, then found what he sought. “Adverse possession, that’s the term now,” he murmured, then began to read and take notes.

Twenty-one years of acting as owner, without challenge by the actual owner, allowed someone to claim land. Jude snorted. Three more years, then and the field would belong to Martha. She’d discovered the extra property by accident, and he’d offered to look into the question. If she cared for the ground and paid taxes, then it should be hers. And if she claimed all of the old Jantzen ground, well, he’d have an excellent place for his own shelter, one closer than his other lairs.

Things had been easier before computers. Not simpler, no, but easier, he sighed under his breath as he finished making notes. Likewise earning a living, especially for one like him. One good thing about the latest changes to the state’s labor laws—they encouraged people to pay cash for day labor without asking questions. He liked cash. When used wisely, it bought an identity, one that those in authority had accepted at face value thus far. That might change, or it might not. Jude stood with a slight wince. Unpadded wooden chairs did not agree with him.  He returned the books to the reference desk, and departed with his notes. He’d checked his small, black leather rucksack in the lockers for such things, and collected that on his way out the door. He trotted down the steps of the stone building and strode down the sidewalk, head up, a slight smile on his face. A few people nodded back, or smiled in return. He moved as if on an errand, just another harmless pedestrian. People assumed what they wanted to assume and in his case it was true. Mostly.

He cut into the park. The shade smelled of pine and hot elms, and fresh-cut grass. His eyes welcomed the shadows. Early September felt determined to hold onto its heat with both hands, so to speak. Once he reached the far, “wild” end of the park, he hopped the waist-high wooden fence. The town had yet to replace the still-sturdy old white fence with the deer-proof ten-foot tall fence they’d raised taxes for. He preferred low fences, but his gardens and vehicles were not the ones imperiled by the deer. Since the park flowed into part of a state forest preserve, deer came and went at will. So too did what hunted deer, especially in winter.

By road, Martha’s farm lay four miles west and south of town. As the Hunter traveled, less than three miles. He kept to the edges and woodlands, crossing the road briefly to avoid the Graff farm. Something there troubled the soil and he detoured around the property. He needed to look into the problem, soon. But not until he knew more, and Martha decided about the Jantzen property. He eased along, checking the fences as if he belonged. Since Devon County was his Hunting territory, he did.

The forests and fields drowsed, full of late summer’s bounty. Apple and pear trees drooped, heavy laden with color-brushed fruit. The nut trees too, both wild and tame, bore well, those that had survived the hard winter. Grain flourished. The wheat bowed in the breeze, heavy-headed as it eased closer to ripeness. Maize and kaffir corn—sorghum they called it here—oats and barley too looked strong, at least in this corner of the county. They and River County had been spared the terrible hail that had pounded through in early July and had stripped the lands farther east. He hated hail worse than ice storms and blizzards both. Hail meant that he had to climb onto roofs and fix them. Please, Lady of Night be kind, may I not have to climb a tall ladder again soon. He savored the hot, sleepy afternoon breeze, rich with an intoxicating blend of heavy scents, dusty grain undercut with the tang of a cow byre, hints of apple and the sting of wood smoke. Perhaps harvest would be good this year.

Squeak! Jude glanced to the edge of the Meijer’s cow pasture, near the old hedgerow. A dark-winged hawk labored to climb. It flapped hard as it carried a field mouse into the sky. Jude smiled. Good luck be with the hunters of pests. Hawks and even a few eagles had returned since his youth. Good. Too much prey on the ground led to sickness among the animals, like the deer disaster to the east and northwest.  Predators and prey both waxed fat this season, thanks be to the Great God. He stopped and looked both ways at the edge of the state highway. He listened hard. He stretched his stride as he crossed the four lanes. The highway didn’t have much traffic this time of day, but large trucks and SUVs seemed to view the speed limit as a challenge rather than a restriction.

He stopped at the old property line, looking at Martha’s “extra” field. The true owners had failed to maintain the fence. It had fallen apart and turned into a weed-choked hazard. Martha’s late husband, Sean, had cleared away the remains as part of a county weed-control project and never rebuilt it. He’d rented out the ground, and the renter plowed and planted the entire area. And so it had gone for almost two decades. Jude considered the dark-brown soil at his feet, and the woodlot and orchard—now returning to forest—across the way. He shook his head yet again. His father had filled his ears with stories of fighting over stony patches of farm and forest, back in the Old Land. To have so much land that a family might forget that they owned it? He couldn’t quite believe it even standing here. The ground now served as a hay meadow, since hay prices kept rising. Plus it broke the line of small-grain fields and served as a pest control, at least for some pests.

He let himself into the house. “Mow!” Bauxite stood in the mudroom doorway, yellow eyes intent on him. He double-checked the soles of his shoes for soil, then stepped into the tidy kitchen. “Mrrrew?” Demand shifted to plea as he fetched the black cat’s special little blue china dish and gave her a few drops of cream.

“No more, Miss Bauxite. It will turn your stomach,” he reminded her in his own tongue. The black cat hunted in the house and garage. He still couldn’t quite understand having an animal that didn’t work outside, but Martha liked the cat. He shrugged to himself. He left the notes on the kitchen table and retreated to the guest bedroom. Clean, heated water on demand truly proved the Great God’s love for His children. Five springs in Jude’s Hunting territory gave clean water, but cold, bone numbing and tooth aching cold. He knew them all, plus the remaining public well. That he did not entirely trust for drinking, but for wash water? Quite sound.

He had two hours before Martha returned. He re-checked all the doors and windows, then lay down to rest for an hour. All Hunters caught rest when they could. “Lady of Night, protect Your Hunter if it is Your will,” he murmured. He relaxed and allowed sleep—the little death—to claim him.

“No,” Martha said that evening after supper. She’d read the notes as he washed the dishes. “No one said anything about Sean’s renting out the field, no complaints,” she clarified. “Not while Sean was alive, and none since he died.”

Jude gestured to the notes. “It looks as if, since you farmed and paid taxes on the ground, three more years and it is yours. Should you wish to file a claim, and no one comes forward before then.” He did not push. He wanted her to get the land, but it was not his place to ask.

“And you said that the orchard on the other acres is still bearing?” She took his mug and refilled the tea, then got more for herself.

“Thank you.” He nodded as he cradled the mug. The heat eased the small ache in his weakened hand. “They’re old trees, not grafts. Apples, sweet and cider both.” He smiled a little. “The deer should be well-flavored, as many windfalls as they’ve eaten this past few weeks.” They left the mature trees alone, even winter, something he found odd.

Martha smiled as well, then sipped her tea. She looked a touch like an aging apple tree herself, joints a little knobby from hard work. Her eyes and hearing remained keen. She stooped a tiny bit when she forgot herself. Her face, longer than the usual local shape, had once been beautiful. Traces of that beauty remained, even though age and experience had added character to her visage. Her hair sported more grey than golden brown, now, but with her medium green eyes and slightly tan skin, she shared a resemblance with him. That was enough resemblance for people to accept her claim that he was her brother’s son. Close enough, since they were both children of Adam. She’d coached him with enough small details over the years to satisfy even the old high-sheriff, when he’d asked.

“Three more years,” Martha repeated, her tone thoughtful. “It might be good to claim the ground, if only so the probate’s easier. I shudder to imagine the mare’s nest if whoever inherits the farm—either farm—discovers an extra chunk or a missing chunk.”

He winced along with her. He’d heard horror stories over the years about death settlements and property borders. There were good reasons for a family to hold land in common through trusts. Even as slowly as the inheritances now passed through the Clan, common ownership made sense. Gathering the apples and pears and cleaning the orchard might cement the claim, since Martha already used wood from the old woodlot. Even if she didn’t realize it. He set the thought aside for now and had more tea. He needed to be on the move, soon. The sun had almost set.

“Will you be staying, Jude?” she asked. Nothing more than her usual concern colored her voice. She tidied the notes and slid the pages to the folder with farm business papers and the plat maps in it. The maps had last been re-drawn in the 1960s, at least for this part of the county. Why not more recently? Another puzzle for later.

He shook his head. “No, ma’am. I have early work tomorrow, and need to do some things before it gets too late.” All true, just not how she would take them.

Martha shook her finger at him. “Young man, you need to get a vehicle other than Shank’s mare.” She stood, collected the folder, and left the kitchen. He stood as well, washed his cup, and hurried out. He locked the door behind himself.

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

NOTE: This will be the only excerpt from Familiar Generations One: The Lone Hunter that I will post.

Tuesday Tidbit: Trickster in Trouble

Sometimes even a Coyote gets in over his head.

The next day was for wash, and work around the ranch. After getting the eggs, and helping with the horses and the garden, Deborah sort of dozed in a rocking chair on the porch. She wasn’t sleeping, but she wasn’t entirely alert, either. A breeze tickled her, brushing under her nose. She sniffed, then sniffed again. What was that? Now awake, she inhaled hard. Nothing. She relaxed and shifted to magic, went down the steps, and touched the ground with the tips of her fingers. Oh no!

She hurried back to the barn, where Corey was mending a bridle. He frowned with concentration as he stitched the leather. “Sir?”

He looked up, started to speak, and stopped. He looked toward the north and east. “What do you sense, and where?” He set the tack aside and they went back outside, just to the little wash area.

She crouched again and touched the earth. “That way,” she tipped her head. North this time. It felt . . . She wrinkled her nose, “Sir, it’s like someone was cooking and really messed up, then got distracted and left whatever it was on the stove?” Which made no sense, but she didn’t have the right words.

Corey’s features sharpened. He didn’t go cold like her dad, but intensity surrounded him. “Yes. And it will attract stronger. Get your medicine bag and come.”

What did he mean? She trotted to the little stone house and hurried up the stairs. Recharge bag and travel first-aid kit would have to do. She grabbed a jacket and hat, in case rain came. She managed to balance the load as she hurried down the steps, then raced toward where Corey waited with Uncle Nathan.

“. . . Too close to the house,” Corey – Kaak’ki – was saying as she slid to a stop. He carried a smaller, soft leather bag. “Prayer and shield.”

“Go,” Uncle Nathan ordered. Cousin Brigham stood at his shoulder and nodded. “We’ll shield the homeplace.”

“Sir.” Kaak’ki took the lead. She followed him up the trail across the creek, then turned hard to the left, along the edge of the mesa. She felt dusty, dry, and Church-y magic moving around the house and yard. Kaak’ki slowed and gestured to marks in the dirt. “A Coyote.”

Too-large paw prints, claws out, paralleled the trail, then turned across it. They’d been made since the last rain, she knew. “Yes, sir. He was hanging out the other night, invited me to come look at something. I closed the window and went back to bed.”

“Good.”

They wove through the brush. Ahead she saw some big rocks she’d never really noticed before. They blended into the mesa if you stood on the main trail. The icky magic-smell-sense grew stronger and she wanted to gag. “I think we’re closer, Kaak’ki, or the problem’s worse.”

“Both.” He slowed and she drew even with him as they entered an open, grassy area. “When we stop, shield you and what we find, then be hands. Do not try to Heal until I say. I’ll explain later.”

“Shield me and what we find, don’t use other magic, yes, sir.” He knew something. Was it that bad, like the lady in the wreck the year before? Or was it not attracting predators? Both? He started jogging, and she stretched her legs to keep up, starting to pant. Storm towers glowed, so white that they hurt her eyes as much as staring at the sun did. Hard sky, hard land, hard to breathe, she was soooo out of shape!

“Behind the rock,” Kaak’ki warned, slowing and moving away from a large, dark boulder the size of her uncle’s big pickup. Wrong flared up at her. “Be Thou my battleshield,” she murmured, pulling power from her locket and making a shield between herself and the wrong.

Kaw, kaah! Kaw! A raven called. Kaak’ki gestured toward the sound, and she followed in his tracks between more boulders and large rocks. Cold, wet air slapped at them, trying to shove her hat away. The raven dove ahead of them, a sleek, black dart, then soared up on the wind. Something moaned, as if in pain. They slowed, and Kaak’ki stopped so fast she almost skidded into him. “Oh fu—” He used a lot of the words Uncle Rodney was not allowed to say around nice people, plus a few she didn’t recognize that sounded Asian.

She peered over his shoulder and cast a hard shield around herself and the half-man, half-canine writhing beside a dying fire. Large patches bare skin glowed red, like a really bad sunburn, and hanks of tan and black brindled hair lay on the ground. Messed-up magic smell sent her stomach churning. Kaak’ki said something in a different language, hard words that fit the hard land. The Coyote moaned, then answered in the same speech. Tears left black tracks down his face and muzzle. “Patruyeh, stay on this side of the fire. Hold the shield,” Kaak’ki ordered.

“Yes, sir.” She knelt by the Coyote and drew more magic through her locket, weaving a stronger shield around them. Her cousin opened the flap on his leather satchel and removed a fan made of sleek, black feathers, along with a bundle of herbs. He used a lighter to ignite the herbs, then began chanting, and fanning the smoke over the fire on the ground. The smoke flowed under the bad magic stench and lifted it, breaking whatever it was. Magic, dry but flowing, sweet like the scent of desert rose bushes just before a good rain, swirled around her and the Coyote, replacing the bad magic. The Coyote lay quiet, still whimpering and weeping.  

Thunder rolled, hard and steady. Kaak’ki ended his chant and set the half-consumed herb-bundle on the ground to finish releasing its smoke. He knelt on the other side of the Coyote and waved magic over the trickster with the black feather fan. “Kaw!” She almost jumped to the moon as a raven cawed in her ear, then landed beside Kaak’ki. “Burn cream,” he ordered, his voice changing, sort of.

“Burn cream,” she repeated, looking in the first-aid bag. Deep magic moved. She didn’t dare glance to see what was going on. Instead she found two tubes of cream, one expired but only just, and some sterile wipes and the burn-dressings-in-a-pouch, if they needed them. She also got a bottle of water out of her recharge bag. The magic settled, and she looked up.

Kaak’ki had shifted. His hair carried a sheen of black, black like a raven’s feathers. Bird eyes overshadowed man eyes, and his blunt fingers carried a claw-like seeming, almost scaly, like a bird’s feet. Of the flying bird she saw no trace. He opened his mouth, and a harsher voice, but still his, spoke. “Clean the burns you can see. I hold him still. Do not Heal.”

“Yes, sir.” She’d taken two first aid classes, she could do this. Deborah pulled on a pair of gloves and concentrated on treating the raw, glowing crimson skin, wiping it as gently as she could with a bit of bandage and then the cream after dripping water on the burns to clean them. Kaak’ki immobilized the Coyote. She locked the trickster’s moans out of her ears and mind, working hard not to Heal, not to ease his pain. Holding the shield took so much energy! Thunder pounded around them, and she smelled ozone, lighting close, too close? Light faded as the storm drew closer.

“Give me the medicine and bandages,” Kaak’ki ordered when she finished her first task. She handed them to him and glanced away, shivering. She untied the jacket from around her waist and pulled it on. She should have taken off the gloves! Too late. “Shield, Patruyeh, shield and hide us!” Deborah called everything she had from the locket, then spun more magic from inside herself as something heavy, so heavy, and old, and cold, thundered with the storm. She eased away from the Coyote and risked peeking around the rock.

A tall, white-clad woman strode in the storm! She wore a pale, loose leather dress with beadwork on the shoulders and sleeves, and thick black braids hung behind her. Power, ancient and so far outside Deborah’s ken as to be terrifying, walked with the woman. A huge form paced the woman through the clouds, shaggy and strong, with an enormous hump on its shoulders. Each time the woman and the buffalo stepped, thunder shook the land. Deborah ducked behind the rock and cowered. White Buffalo Woman! No wonder her dad and Ears had been terrified of her. Anyone sane should be. Please, Lord, please may she keep going, please may the Coyote not have done something to tick her off, please; please may the Thunderbird’s talons not strike them, please! Cold wind from the storm tore at her, threw dust into her eyes, trying to distract her. She focused on the shield, holding the shield, being invisible and small, part of the land, part of the dust and soil and plants, rooted like soap-root and chamisal.

How long they hid, she could not say. “Patruyeh, lower the shields, please,” Kaak’ki croaked at last. He’d been chanting quietly as he tended to the Coyote. She drew some of the power, not all of it, back into herself and into her locket. Food. She stripped off the gloves and grabbed chocolate and more water, and jerky, out of the bag. She offered part of the jerky to Kaak’ki. He took it, then said, “I have water.”

Should she? Would it break a rule? “Sir, may this gentleman,” she nodded to the bandaged Coyote. “May he have some jerky and water?”

Kaak’ki, tipped his head to the side, like a curious bird. “Yes.”

“Sir?” Deborah offered the Coyote some meat. He took it, chewing slowly. Then she held the water so he could sip it. Pouring it into his muzzle might not be a good idea. She devoured the chocolate, then gnawed on the jerky and drank her own water. Sunlight poured down on them, a blessing. She tidied up, packing the unused ointment in the bag and getting out a smaller plastic bag to hold the garbage. As she did, the dusty power moved again. When she finished and lifted her head, Kaak’ki sat still, a raven beside him. The bird clicked its beak twice, then launched into the air. She shivered.

“We go,” the raven-warrior said. He sounded terribly tired.

The Coyote managed to sit up, whimpering a little as he did. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Help given, help repaid, should you be in need.”

Deborah bowed to him from where she knelt, then somehow staggered to her feet and collected her things. She and Corey left the Coyote and plodded back toward the ranch house. The air smelled sweet and healthy, pure and proper.

Aunt Ella and Cousin Brigham met them at the edge of the mesa, with more food and drinks, and walking sticks for balance. “Nathan said that you’d been exhausted,” her aunt said. “Eat, then drink this.” The yellow sports-drink had never tasted to good. Her aunt helped her, and Brigham helped Corey as they picked their way down the slope. “The others are cleaning up after the storm. No hail, but the wind made a mess of the laundry.” Aunt Ella sounded peeved.

The next day, Uncle Nathan went riding with her to where they’d found the cheat grass. It wasn’t far from the trail up to the pine-topped ridge, now that she looked closely. “Go call your dad. I’ll start on this, then you can help.”

“Yes, sir.” She went up the trail until she got a few bars on her phone. She stopped beside a tree and started shaking again, like she’d shaken the night before.

” . . . Uncle Nathan says not to talk about it. Corey’s still exhausted, Dad. Should he be?”

A long silence from the other end of the line, then her father sighed, a very long sigh. “Yes. Cousin Corey and I have talked about,” another long pause, “military things. That’s how he knows my working name, and what I am. I can’t explain it, Lovie, but I think you need to help him with the barn chores tomorrow. He’s older than he looks, and doesn’t recover as fast as he used to.”

“Yes, sir.” That fit what she’d guessed earlier that morning. She’d even helped clean two of the stalls for him before Corey told her to get breakfast.

“Tell him that you spoke to me, and that Shadow says good job.” A shorter pause, “Lovie, you did exactly the right thing. I’m very proud of you, so very proud of you.”

Tears filled her eyes, and she hugged herself. “Thank you, Dad. I love you.”

“I love you too, and you’d better go help Uncle Nathan, before he asks you to start helping him dig up the cheat as well as just killing it.” She heard a little laughter in his voice.

She made a face. “Yes, sir.”

“We’ll talk more when you get home. Now shoo.”

She stuck her tongue out at the phone. “Yes, sir. Bye.”

“Bye.” Silence. She turned off the phone and hurried down to where her uncle worked. At least shadow-mages and Hunters got to finish things, she grumbled a little. Healers never got a rest! A little something nudged her. Did she want to have to talk to things like White Buffalo Woman? “That would be a nopity nope,” she whispered, mimicking Master Tay.

She stayed close to the barn the next day, cleaning tack, drinking lots of water and a little can of soda, and making sure that Corey rested. “Sir, Shadow says good job.”

He stared past her, looking into the distance and the years, the way Bunicot and her dad did. His chest expanded as he inhaled, and the carved black raven-in-flight on his necklace seemed to lift a little, then settle as he breathed out. “Thank you.” After several minutes he returned from his memories. “And thank you. Are you going to ask the Coyote for any favors?” He winked and smiled.

She shook her head so hard her braid thumped her nose. “No, sir. I’d be afraid to ask for anything. He is a Coyote, after all.” She turned the saddle in her lap, reached for the soapy rag, and said, “I don’t think any Healer can cure that.” She dared to wink back.

Laughter, warm, healing laughter, filled the barn to overflowing.

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

Saturday Snippet: Einar and Intervention

A hunter becomes hunted, and haunted.

The men sped their steps as much as safe. Einar ate anything—plant, animal, alive and otherwise—and tended to attack first, ask names later. Running attracted attention, especially when the males were in mating fury. The hunters eased to the right, away from the einar boar, still on the trail to the cart. Could the ovsta pull the cart, and three men in it? No. Halwende glanced up at the trees around them. Too straight to climb, no low branches in easy reach, the old forest provided no refuge. The smell grew stronger. Ahead he could see the other servant, and the cart. The ovsta snorted, pawing the ground. She smelled danger as well.

Halwende heaved the cervi into the cart, turned and reached for his bow. Blood pounded in his ears as he nocked an arrow. Pol and his helper got the cart moving. “My lord,” Pol started.

Skerweeeee! Not one but two einar raced toward them, both bleeding from a mating battle.

“Run, now!” Halwende commanded, sighting, drawing, and loosing his first shot. It hit, and the einar stumbled. The second one slowed too, enough time for Halwende to nock a second arrow. “Damn it, run!” Small red eyes over a large, blood-red mouth laden with dagger-sharp teeth, heavy shoulders rising to a ridge, the second einar charged straight for him. Valdher have mercy! Halwende aimed for the chest and released the arrow.

Wind swirled around him, full of the sound of leaves and rushing waters and creaking wood. Arrow and einer hung in the air, motionless in mid-flight and mid-stride. Before his mind could understand Halwende heard a voice, a woman’s voice, filling the world. All the beauty and danger of the forests echoed in her words. “Halwende Valke, I claim you for my own, priest and pathfinder and magic worker.” The power in her words drove him to his knees, then prostrate on the dirt and grass of the clearing. “You are my servant, my priest, my speaker.”

He cowered, shaking at the weight of her presence. No, Her presence, because Valdher spoke, Valdher of the Forests, Lady of the forested wilds, Lady of the Hunt. He dared not refuse, not here, not now.

“Speak, my servant.” The command could not be denied.

“M-m-my Lady, great Lady, I know not what to say.” He dared not say otherwise.

“Look at Me.”

Shaking like trees in the winter storms, Halwende dared to look up. A woman clad in green and brown stood beside the motionless einar. She wore brown boots, sturdy but fine with green embroidery on the leather. Dark green trews tucked into the boots, under a knee-length skirt of green and brown. A belted tunic embroidered with trees and animals and a hooded cloak, brown like tree-bark, covered her shoulders. He dared not look into Her eyes. No man could look at a goddess and live.

“No man save my priests. Meet My eyes, Halwende, priest and pathfinder.”

He looked. Deep green brown eyes that held every forest in creation locked with his. He could not glance away. Ageless, wild, terrible, beautiful, full of life and death intertwined, Her gaze took away his breath and thought. Nothing existed save those eyes.

She drew closer and extended one brown-gloved hand, touched his forehead. “I mark you as mine, until I release you.” He prostrated himself once more as she stepped backwards, toward the frozen einar. She sighed. “Little one, I grant you mercy.” She plucked the arrow out of the air and jammed it into the beast’s eye, into the brain, the impossible shot. Wind roared, leaves swirled from above and below. Halwende covered his eyes.

When he looked again, two dead einar lay in the clearing, the second only two man-lengths from him. “Th-th-thank You, great Lady, Lady of the Wilds, thank You,” he chanted, shaking so hard his teeth rattled. Silence, not even the sound of the cart, came to his ears, then the first of the normal sounds of the forest. Bird song, leaves rustling and slapping in the wind, proper sounds in this part of the forest. He smelled sun-warmed dirt, metallic blood, flesh-rot, and his own fear.

At last he made himself move. Two dead einar waited for him. He inspected both beasts, and sighed a little. The first one, the one he’d shot, should be edible if soaked to get the anger-taste out of the meat. The second one? No. “Thank You, Lady, for Your mercy,” he whispered as he saw the oozing green and black wound beside the beast’s sack. Only mating fury had kept it moving, the pain must have been so terrible. Halwende did not cross his own legs, but he wanted to. No wonder Valdher had granted the boar a clean death. Halwende considered the arrow, driven so deep that only half the shaft remained visible, and shook his head. It stayed there. Someone else could remove it. Instead he grabbed the creature’s forelegs and pulled it well clear of the trail and the clearing, onto some rocks where the scavengers could dine in peace.

“I’m going to sleep outside the walls, I think.” With a groan and a sigh, Halwende drew his hunting knife and set to work cleaning the good einar and considering how to carry it. If he’d brought his full hunting kit, he’d have a drag-sack as well as other things, but he did not. He’d be washing his jerkin and tunic himself. His father did not allow his children to impose on the washer women when blood and other things fouled hunting clothes. If he weren’t so tired, he’d hate his father. Instead he heaved the beast onto his shoulders, staggered to his feet, and began trudging toward the keep.

#

Pol and two others met him just before he came into sight of the keep, as the sun touched the edge of the ridge to the southwest. “My lor’ hurry.”

Go to the Scavenger and take my father’s rules with you. Halwende slogged forward, ignoring the servants as he plodded. His legs ached, his shoulders burned, and it was all he could do to keep his eyes open so he could see the ground ahead of his boot toes.

They crossed the outer gate as the watch called the first warning. Halwende didn’t bother to answer. He made it as far as the stones of the inner courtyard, then staggered, eased to his knees, and rolled the einar onto the ground. He stretched out beside it, too exhausted to move.

“And I do not care what Lord Hal said,” a woman’s voice snapped. “You, you, and you two over there, get that litter and carry Halwende to the healer’s quarters. Now!”

He opened his eyes and saw Valdher Herself. No, not the goddess, Her speaker, the priestess, pointing with her staff. Valdher Herself did not have the mole on Her cheek, or the pink scars and a missing eyebrow from fighting a wild fire three summers before. He closed his eyes again and slept.

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

Thursday Tidbit: Marriage Arrangements

This is from the next Merchant book, tentatively called City, Priest, and Empire. Halwende meets his bride to be. Neither are excited about the arranged match.

Aedit matched her picture, to his mild surprise. Hair the red-brown of his hunting boots hung in a thick braid over her shoulder. Dark green eyes met his. An expression of polite interest raised thick red eyebrows and curved up the ends of her small mouth. The shape of her face tapered to a nice chin. She wore a soft brown over-tunic embroidered in dark gold, a fine white shirt, and black-brown skirt. Her shoes—not slippers—were sensible leather. He approved.

She spoke. “Your Grace, I do not love you.”

That he had not expected. His anger flashed, then faded as she continued. “You are not who I wished to marry, nor was I give a choice in the matter.”

Well, she was honest. So was he. “Then already we agree and share something. I was betrothed to Malita of Kamsicht. The emperor broke the betrothal.” He folded his arms and shrugged a little as her eyes opened wide and her eyebrows rose halfway up her high forehead. “At least you are as depicted.”

Surprise flashed into irritation. “Really.”

“Really. I had feared to find you more like a schaef in features.”

Aedit went still, perhaps not even breathing. “I— You— That—!” She spun on her toes, stormed to the end of the chamber, then stomped back. “If you want me to hate you, it won’t work.”

“No, I want you to be tolerable, to have healthy sons, and to not abuse the servants.” Or abuse him, but he could fix that easily if he needed to.

She mastered her temper as he watched. “Very well, I too want a tolerable man who will provide me with steady roof and board, and healthy children.”

“Good.” Love was for tales and common folk. He could almost feel her escort’s eyes staring holes in him. He glanced at the matron. Her face resembled the sun seen through forest-fire smoke, so red it glowed.  Was she expecting sweet words and flattery? He wasn’t in the mood. He extended his right hand to Aedit. “Shall we confirm the bargain?”

She glanced at her matron, then back at him, and smiled. Aedit extended a lightly callused, sturdy hand with clean, if slightly stained, fingers and nails. They touched palms, “I call fair dealings,” she announced.

 A choked, angry voice squeaked, “Fair dealings, seen and witnessed.” The matron stood, “My lady, you are— This is not proper!”

“No, Agtha, it is full and proper. Contract made and agreed to. This marriage is a business matter, not a love ballad.” She folded her arms. “I prefer honesty to sweet words from a bitter heart.”

Oh, he remained bitter, but not at her. To be bitter at her made as much sense as beating an untrained ovstrala for not answering voice commands.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: The Pines of Utah

Something passes by in the night.

The next afternoon, her legs felt wobbly again, and her head wanted to burst from all the new plants in it. They had found a little cheat grass, and Corey had marked it with brilliant neon blue spray paint. “Easy to spot. Pink and orange blend in.” She’d looked from a distance, and yes, the blue jumped up and down, so to speak.

Everyone else returned from the rafting trip as she sagged down from the bunkhouse to go help Aunt Jo with supper. “Hey, Debo, how come you didn’t come?” Amos demanded.

“I don’t swim well,” she said. She did OK in a pool or pond. Running water messed with her head, as she’d discovered on her last visit to the ranch.

“Coward.” He grinned, black hair sticking out all over.

“Yes, I am. I’m afraid of what Uncle Andy would say after he had to pull me back into the boat the fourth time.” She ran to the kitchen in the big house as fast as her legs would condescend to allow. It was a good thing she’d brought some of the arnica salve she and Mrs. Schmidt had made.

Supper was fancy beans, cornbread with bacon in it, sausages grilled on a grill behind the house, and three kinds of slaw or cold salad, and hot potato salad. Deborah let the others go first. There’d be plenty left, and there was. “I don’t like that. It looks icky,” Amy announced, quietly, pointing to the pea salad on Deborah’s plate. The peas were olive-green, not raw-pea green. Deborah shrugged and ate. She wasn’t a big mayo fan, but food was food. And the salad contrasted with the hot potato salad in a good way. The vinegar on the potatoes cut the creamy of the pea salad.

They played board games and dominos that night. Did any of the cousins play table-top games like she did? Maybe some of the military ones. She didn’t ask. The dominos clattered softly, and the younger kids started to fade by eight. She made it until nine, then excused herself and went to bed.

What was that? She sat up in the darkness, listening hard. A sound . . . it fit, but it didn’t. She crept to the window and lifted the sash. Quiet, the night quiet of the ranch, filled her ears. Hard stars glared down, and the waxing moon. Skitter skitter. Silence. Skitter skitter like claws on stone. She looked at the rocks above the ranch yard. There! She shifted to magic sight as she shielded. A very large, low-slung, dog-like shape sort of glowed against the darkness as it trotted away, then stopped. The Coyote. Yellow eyes laughed at her, and she saw the same tongue-lolling laugh as Uncle Rodney had. The Coyote beckoned to her. She leaned a little farther out the window, then caught herself. Oh no he didn’t! She didn’t have her parents’ night sight, or the Hunters’, and she didn’t know what might be out there. She shook her head, locked her shields, and closed the window. She visited the washroom, then went back to sleep.

The next day Deborah joined the others on a hike. It felt good to climb and walk, even with the heavy water bag on her back. They found a bull snake taking a shade break in the shadow of some rocks. Cousin Brigham winked, put one finger over his lips, and said, “Shhhh. No step on snek.” She giggled and tip-toed past the sleeping reptile. The snake lived here, and ate mice and things. Besides, even she knew better than to stick her hand into holes, or tip over rocks just to see what might be under them.

They stopped on the top of the ridge southwest of the ranch. Pine trees stood like the teeth of a comb, dark green and heavy with sap. The air smelled hot and piney, almost too heavy with scent. Sone of the others got closer to the trees. She hung out in the shade but away from the sticky, drippy bark. Suzie plopped down beside her. “Oof.” She flipped a long, dark-brown braid around so it hung over her shoulder. “I like the mountains better.”

“The Rockies, or the ones back east?” Deborah still wasn’t entirely sure about calling the Catskills mountains, but she didn’t make the naming rules.

“Rockies. The real mountains, you know, with snow and glaciers and bears?”

They had bears back home, but they weren’t as big as the grizzlies out west. Well, they weren’t supposed to be, she added quickly, lest karma hear her and her parents or Bunicot had to deal with a giant bear, or a were-bear.

Zeke landed with a thud on her other side. “You work magic?”

“I don’t,” Suzie sniffed. Then she sniffed again. “Ah-, ah-, kcheeewwwww. Snifffff. Sorry.”

“Gesundheit,” Deborah said.

Zeke peered at Deborah, eyebrows pulled down toward his nose. “You. I heard Uncle Nathan tell Uncle Andy that you’re like your dad, and work magic.”

Was he accusing her? “Not like Dad, no. He’s a mage, and he and Uncle Rodney do magic together.” She wasn’t lying.

“So Uncle Nathan lied?”

Oh great. She didn’t roll her eyes, but she wanted to. “No. I’m a very, very weak sorceress. I don’t do much magic, just use herbs to make stomach-ache tea, that kind of thing.”

“Kitchen witch,” Suzie announced and nodded once. “That’s OK. That’s staying within the home-sphere.”

Aunt Jo clapped her hands, getting all of their attention. “If you have your phones, and need to call home, this is the place. There’s cell reception up here, but it’s pretty weak.”

A flurry of phone checking ensued. Deborah glanced at hers. No messages, or texts, waited for her. She stowed the thing again. For some reason she didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures here. Her dad had asked her and her brothers not to post pictures of the family on social media, or to chat on-line about the family. It had something to do with the Army, sort of like why he and Mr. Radescu didn’t “talk shop” around her, except to complain about military food and gripe about paperwork and things like that. Since her mom griped about Bunicot griping about paperwork, and Art griped about paperwork at the college, it wasn’t really an Army thing, just an adult thing.

As the others chatted with people or posted stuff, Deborah levered herself to her feet. Something popped and she winced a little, not that it hurt much. She needed to work out more, do more walking as well as sword-fighting stuff. Fencing was fun, but it didn’t work her legs the way riding and hiking did. Did the clan have riding horses? Did she dare to ask? Bunicot might misunderstand, and she’d find a Percheron with a bow on his neck on the front stoop on her birthday! She giggled, then put her hands over her mouth to keep the others from hearing her.

Aunt Jo had heard, and smiled. “Something funny?”

“Oh, I was thinking about someone back home, and how when you ask for things, you need to be careful. Mom says he can get carried away at birthdays.” Except Rainbow, and Amethyst, and her knife were perfect.

Aunt Jo giggled in turn. “Oooooohhh, I worked for someone like that. One of the other ladies in the office mentioned that her son wanted a toy train? Our boss gave him a wonderful, fifty piece set, tracks, train, and all. The engine made steam. Her son was four.”

Deborah smiled and nodded happily. “Like that, yes, ma’am.” Bunicot never went overboard, no matter what her mother said. She’d asked Art and Hi once, and they’d both shrugged. Bunicot gave them guy things, like weapons and ammunition.

After a few minutes to rest and eat snacks, the group trooped back to the ranch. They hadn’t seen any storms coming, but that didn’t mean much. And going back always took longer than going out did. Deborah spotted a few more lizards, and soap root, and Mormon tea, and five other useful or medicinal plants, now that she knew what to look for.

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

Saturday Snippet: Family Matters

Uncle Nathan checks up on Deborah’s parents.

“I want to show her the wild garden,” Corey said.

Her uncle looked down for a few seconds, then looked up again. “Deborah, do you want to go look at plants, and learn what some of them can do? The other kids will be going to the river and rafting tomorrow.”

It was her turn to look down. She kinda wanted to go rafting, but . . . “May I go look at plants instead, sir? Um, Uncle Nathan, I don’t think I want to be around Zeke and Amos and a river. And I don’t swim that well outside of a pool.”

Uncle Nathan reached over and patted her shoulder. “Yes, you may. You’re not the only one staying here. Suzie didn’t bring her special goggles, so she doesn’t want to go on the river. She’d going to help Aunt Jo with a quilt project.”

“Thank you, sir.” She turned to Corey. “Sir.”

Both men nodded. How old was Corey? Older than her uncle? He might be, although some people turned grey sooner than others. Her stomach grumbled, and she blushed. Her uncle patted her shoulder again. “Go get dinner, Deborah. I want to talk with you this afternoon, a little about magic, a little about other things.”

“Yes, sir.” She nodded to Corey and hurried off. Her shoulders hurt a little from the water back-pack, and she felt light-headed. She should have brought a snack, in case she had to work magic. She knew better. Her legs started to wobble and ache by the time she got to the little bunk-house.

A lot of dirt came off her hands and face when she washed up for dinner. “How come she gets to go on a trail ride and we don’t?” Amos didn’t quite whine, but he came close to it. He was fourteen, and should have outgrown that. Deborah concentrated on devouring a sandwich made from bits of leftover meatloaf, home-made pickles, home-grown tomatoes, and something a bit spicy and crispy but chopped that went really well with the meatloaf. She should get the recipe and trade it with the clan cousins.  Really good homemade bread barely held the thick filling together.

“One, she knows how to handle tools,” Uncle Andy told him. “Two, do you want to climb up a windmill tower and work on the bearings, or clean dead stuff out of a pond?”

Amos thought for a moment. Cousin Brigham nudged him, finished his mouthful of dinner, and said, “And clean up after horses, and clean horses, and not get to ride the ATVs?”

“No. Horses bite. Three-wheelers don’t.” Amos reached across the table, grabbed the ketchup, and doused everything on his plate.

No, Deborah thought after another bite. ATV’s just roll over and smash you flat. But they didn’t bite, or kick, or poop on you head, that was true. She took the bowl of slaw, dolloped some onto her plate, and passed it along. Monday was housework day for Aunt Jo and Aunt Ella and the others, so dinner and supper were “what’s left that we need to eat.” Like Saturday at her house, now that she thought about it, especially if both her parents were working.

Deborah tried to help with the dishes. “No, shoo. There’s no room,” Aunt Jo said.  Deborah eased out onto the ranch house’s main porch. Curling up for a nap sounded good, but then Uncle Nathan might worry. And why did he want to talk about magic and plants? She stared at the distance. The red, grey, and brown land matched the hard white clouds. Mesas of white filled the sky, and mesas of red covered the land. So what did that make pine trees? Sticky. She and Hi had spent a lot of time doing their and other kids wash after a hike when Hi had dared everyone to “really hug a tree!” Pine sap did not like to leave clothes. Or hands, or hair.

A little before two, as the first hints of storm flowed down from the west and north, Deborah followed Uncle Nathan into his “office.” It combined storage for paperwork, storage for heirlooms, his desk and a computer, and, a taxidermied bear’s head that always reminded her of a commercial for a dentist’s office, for some reason. And lots of church books, since Uncle Nathan had served as bishop and did other church things. A shotgun hid behind the door, just like her mom and dad had at home. And Bunicot, and Mrs. Schmidt. “Sit, please.”

Deborah found the empty chair and sat. A stack of file folders filled the other chair. Uncle Nathan squeezed around the end of the desk and sat as well. “Corey asked what I knew about your magical training. I don’t know anything.” He smiled. “I can tell that you are shielded, and Garry said that you are very sensitive to intentions?”

She nodded and relaxed. “Yes, sir. I’m a sorceress and healer. I’m learning how to use herbs to help people help themselves, like catnip and other mints for upset stomach, chamomile tea to help relax before sleep, ginger for stomach upset. Nothing of bane, sir. I can feel when people are really angry and upset, focused angry, and I can ‘taste’ nasty magic and nasty places in the land.”

Uncle Nathan relaxed as well. “Good. That’s exactly what I’d hoped to hear. I think you going with Corey, and helping him with chores, is a good idea.” He stared over her head, then met her eyes again. “His story isn’t mine to tell, but he served in the Marines. Dad and Mom, your grandparents, said that something changed in him while he was overseas. He doesn’t get along with many people, so he stays out here. Horses like him, as much as they like anyone.”

Deborah nodded.

“He’s good people, is faithful to the church, and knows the land and water as well as I do, better in some ways.” Uncle Nathan extended his hand and a ball of light appeared, faint and flickering. It wisped away. “I’m a cunning man, sorcerer of a sort, you’d say.”

She nodded again. “Yes, sir. Not everyone has showy gifts. Mine’s a useful, quiet gift.”

“Exactly.” He leaned forward. “How is Garry? When I ask, he says fine, or he jokes about mileage, but how is he, really?”

Oh dear. She thought hard, then said, “Sir, he hurts, always. He doesn’t not hurt, I don’t think. He uses a cane almost all the time, because of his back. Mom’s trying to get him to slow down, especially now that he’s getting military disability pay, but—?” She shrugged.

“That . . . sounds like Garry. He had two speeds growing up. Race, and sleep.”

She nodded again. “Dad sometimes says that Uncle Rodney is the answer to the rest of the family’s prayers—the universe getting even for Dad being the baby of the family.”

Uncle Nathan laughed so hard that he had to wipe tears away. “I shouldn’t laugh,” he took a long breath. “Ah, yes. On a more serious matter. Your mother. Has she joined the church yet?”

Deborah opened her mouth, closed it, though, and tried again. “I think she wants to, sir. Um,” how much could she say without causing problems? “I think, when the bishop retires, she will feel more comfortable accepting baptism and joining the church in full.” After her parents’ last discussion about her mom working magic and the bishop’s interpretation of church teachings about women with magic, Deborah didn’t dare ask. They’d been terse, cool, and painfully formal about the matter, and that was just with each other! She’d hidden in the back seat of the minivan and tried hard to be invisible. “Thomas, Hiram, and I have, and I’m going to do a mission when I’m old enough, if possible.”

His confused frown shifted to a very relieved smile. “Thank you, Deborah Judith. That . . . eases a lot of concerns. I won’t speak of it with anyone, because I know Garry said that he’d leave things up to Lelia, but that is good news.”

“You’re welcome, sir.” She and her brothers wanted Mom to join the church, but her Dad had laid down the law about pushing Mom. Uncle Rodney and Master Tay had backed him up, too.

Uncle Nathan stood. She did as well. “Tomorrow. If the others ask, you are helping Corey check the water again, and looking for noxious weeds and cheatgrass. If you do find cheat, he’ll show you how to mark it so we can get rid of it.”

“Water and weeds, yes, sir.” She drooped a little. “I like visiting the ranch, sir, but I’m glad I don’t have to take care of it, no offense, sir.”

He hugged her around the shoulders. “It’s not easy, but it is very, very rewarding, Deborah. No offense taken!”

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

Tuesday Tidbit: The Hunt

Arthur and Lelia go Hunting.

The peeping frogs sang as he got out of the car. He had parked on a long-neglected county road. The property owners lived in a different state, and the county never quite found time or resources to maintain the road more than once every few years. The pond near the road brimmed full. The owners of the cemetery had visited earlier that evening, before dark, and had checked the trail cameras. He had brought what he needed to blind the cameras without obviously doing so. As soon as the shadows grew long enough, he added the image loops to the cameras, except for the one on the gate. It had failed, completely, and hung forlornly from the sagging metal gate. A weather change thundered to the west, forecast to arrive after one AM. He waved away a mosquito and listened.

“You too? That makes both of us,” the child said. Tay murmured an answer as they appeared in the deep twilight. “I can see why the guys guard that spell so closely.”

“If we need it, we need it. If not, we leave it alone,” the Familiar replied. “Company,” he murmured.

The child stopped and inclined toward Arthur slightly. She carried the bag that held supplies for her Familiar, and wore a practical split skirt and sturdy boots in her customary black. Arthur removed his own bag from the car through the open window. “Take this, be ready.” He handed her a silver-bladed hunting knife.

She hefted it and nodded once, expression cold and hard. He gestured with his head toward the field with the older graves. She nodded again and followed him, staying in his footsteps as they crossed the open ground.

“Ah.”

He glanced back at her. Shadow magic moved and a shield formed around them. Something else also shifted, racing along the fence line. “As illusion to hide us, sir.” He turned his attention back to the barren area ahead of them. The sense of wrongness grew stronger. He stopped well clear of the patch and set his bag down. Silver crouched and did the same, allowing Rings to descend to the ground.

“Ugh,” the lemur said. “It’s old and mean.”

“Yes. It feels like what Naphtha and Blossom described with the hungry ghost.”

Arthur turned so he could see both Silver and the unhallowed place. “What mean you?”

“Anger, age, a desire for revenge, but also something more, sir.” She drew magic and held out her right hand, palm up, eyes narrowed. “Terra voco.”

The ground shifted as he watched. He reached into the bag and removed a wooden stake. A dark form—another Hunter—eased out of the night toward them, then stopped well clear of the troubled place. The lone Hunter watched but did not speak. The child frowned and murmured once more. “The presence remains in the ground, sir, but . . . It is aware and awaits full dark.”

He had feared that, but better to move now than wait for the nosferitau to emerge fully. “Follow and be ready to use the blade I gave you.”

“Sir.”

He removed the folding shovel from the bag and set to work. The lone Hunter slipped closer and gestured, asking for the shovel. Arthur gave it to him and prepared for trouble. The younger Hunter worked quickly but with great care, not throwing dirt. He had only cleared perhaps a foot of earth when the gleam of white cloth and a hand appeared out of the dirt. The scent of bad death filled the summer night, the stench of mortal sin freely chosen. Silver gagged, then swallowed hard as the Hunters cleared more dirt. A man, his body far too well preserved, appeared in the dark, rich soil. He wore a white shirt, black pants, and had fair skin. Lips too full and red, nails grown into claws confirmed the Hunters’ fears. The lone Hunter moved clear, shovel ready to use as a weapon.

Arthur breathed a prayer and rammed the stake into the creature’s ribs. “Aaaarrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiigh!” The shriek pierced the night, near deafening him. He pulled one of the small bottles of night-rich water from the sacred spring and splashed the creature’s face and staring, open eyes. Both Hunters jumped clear as silver white flame engulfed the creature, then dissipated. Only ash remained, and that sank into the ground.

Silver stepped closer, eyes still half-closed. She extended her left hand once more. “Nothing remains here, but the land will not soon recover. A few seasons will be needed to fully heal the soil from the evil.” She backed away.

“The second presence,” Rings warned. He pointed with his silver-white tail. “There.”

The lone Hunter nodded and turned, starting to move toward the cemetery. Arthur hesitated. Something . . . A sticky sweet taste, like a honeysuckle bower in the heat of the day, filled his mouth and nose. Not decay, but a scent that ought not be here. He inhaled to call to the others.

“No you don’t!” He spun in time to see Silver closing with a lithe, shimmering form. The other woman wore a close fitted gown, pale, that emphasized her feminine attributes. She moved with seductive ease, her eyes and smile trying to draw him in. The stranger beckoned with a graceful gesture that promised much. Arthur glanced to the younger Hunter. The man stood still, entranced but not moving toward the second evil creature. Silver hissed, “Both these gents are mine. Find your own date.”

The pale woman shook her head, allowing waist-length, shadowy hair to flow free. Everything a man desired of carnal pleasure could be found in her eyes and smile. Arthur shook his head. What she offered no longer tempted him. The younger Hunter took a step toward the woman, then another. Arthur called, “Silver.”

She extended her left hand toward him, magic flowing from the night through her to him. He caught it, pushed it through his signet and raised the shield spell held there. He took a step back, and another, moving between the other Hunter and the moroiae. The shield could not break her calling, but would weaken it. He needed to get the stake and get to the grave, end this.

The fell spirit glided toward him. “Leave him, them,” Silver commanded.

The spirit turned and opened her mouth, fingers extending into claws, and flowed toward Silver.

Silver bared her teeth and crouched. The moroiae came closer, jaw unhinging! Silver ducked and lunged. Starlight glinted on the silver blade as she rammed the knife up, into the ribcage. “Crap! Lux Arumque.” Light and gold, shadow magic poured into the silver blade. The seduction call failed. Arthur released the shield and raced toward the fight, the younger Hunter just behind him. The female spirit arched her back, mouth open, blackness pouring out. That should not happen! “Nox arcana, nox benedicta,” Silver chanted, forcing more magic into the creature.

“Arrrrreeeeeee!”

“Look away!” Rings called. Arthur ducked, covering his eyes as a silent explosion shook the night. Birds launched into the darkness, and the scent of brimstone and corruption filled the air. Warm wind flowed back in, washing the night with life and goodness. Nighthawks circled, and an enormous owl passed between Hunters and mage, then departed. “Late to the party,” Rings grumbled.

Silver took a long breath, then another. “That wasn’t Wings, that was—” She sat in the clover, then sagged onto her side.

Rings flopped against her, panting. “Bag. Sugar,” he said. “Still holding illusion.”

Arthur found the recharge bag and tossed the little sack of soft candy to the other Hunter. “Give to the Familiar,” he commanded. He pulled the can of sugar cola out of the bag and knelt beside Silver. He eased one arm under her shoulders and lifted her. Too light, she had no flesh or fat on her bones. He held her up and handed her the can. She leaned against him, opened the can, and drank. Her head sank to her breast once more. “What need you?” he demanded.

“Rings. Water, nuts, fruit, sir.”

“No, you.”

She sagged again. “Pisicagheara?” the lone Hunter asked. A bag with chocolate and nuts appeared. “The Familiar recovers.”

“Good.” Arthur gave her the chocolate, then water. After half the chocolate, she rallied and sat on her own. “Remains anything?”

She nodded. “Another cursed presence, as yet not fully ripe, in the cemetery. The new grave. Hurry, please, something’s trying to feed from them and I don’t know when it will come.”

Rings leaned against his mage. Arthur got to his feet and pulled a second stake from the Hunting bag. The younger Hunter nodded and led the way to the cemetery. They moved quickly over the short clover, releasing a sweet, natural scent into the soft air. They jumped the low fence, not bothering with the locked gate. This time, Arthur dug and the other Hunter watched, alert, mouth part open to taste the night better. The soft dirt moved easily, too easily, and Arthur found the lid of the casket only two feet below the ground. “It seeks to walk,” the lone Hunter breathed.

“Yes. I open, you strike.” He used the shovel to pry the lid up. He needn’t have worried. It jerked open as if of its own accord and he leaped back. The younger hunter struck, driving the stake into the heart of a young man too thin and worn for his years. The body sighed and sagged. No blood emerged. Arthur opened a pouch of basil. “Great God, Lady of Night, grant his soul rest.” He tossed the basil onto the body. Green and blue licked the corpse, then faded. No trace of the dried blessed herb remained, and only the proper scent of a body recently dead reached Arthur’s nose. He closed the lid and re-buried the coffin. As he did, a faint trembling passed under his boots. He and the other Hunter moved clear. The earth sagged, and the coffin took its proper depth once more. Dirt flowed into the grave without their aid, and the Hunters knelt, then rose and departed as they had come.

The child remained in the clover meadow. “No. There was something else in there, besides what Pisicagheara described,” she said to Tay.

“Whatever it was, I don’t think you should remove that knife,” he said, sniffing toward the pale, crumpled shape from beside his mage. “She’s really dead now, but that other thing left a bathtub ring.”

A loud sigh. “Did you have to remind me?” She turned to the Hunters and bowed, then stepped clear. “The body is empty, but traces of a second spirit remain. Or not spirit, perhaps, sirs, I do not know.”

Arthur considered the form. “Link to me, of your grace,” he asked, taking the beads from his pocket. She drew her own chaplet from hiding and laced it over her fingers, head bowed. Shadow magic and clan magic flowed together. With his free hand he removed a second bottle of water from his belt pouch and undid the cap. “Lady of Night who blesses the stars, St. Michael, Defender of the Lady, be with this one, of your grace. Great God who knows no evil, be with this one, of Your mercy.” He splashed water over the woman three times. The form shivered, lost its shape, and dissolved into white smoke. Nothing remained save the knife, now twisted, half-melted.

“Amen, Selah, so mote it be,” the lone Hunter said. “Lady of Night, thank You. Holy God who dwells in all that is good, thank You.”

“Amen,” the child and her Familiar replied. She turned to the younger Hunter.

He rose to his feet and approached her. She smiled and extended her right hand. The lone Hunter bowed, took her hand and brushed it with his lips, then released it and straightened. He turned to Arthur. “Sir. I go.”

Arthur nodded, and the other man disappeared into the darkness. The child undid the illusion hiding the field, then busied herself with collecting wrappers, bottles and can, and packing them back into the bag. Arthur drew the touchstone on its chain from the pocket of his waistcoat and let the blue and brown stone hang from his fingers. It showed no evil—nothing remained on the silver. The child fluffed the clover, then helped Tay onto her shoulder. Arthur got his own bag and placed the knife in it for the time being, after hiding the touchstone once more. He offered the child his arm. She took it, and they walked with slow steps to their cars.

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

Saturday Snippet: Cleaning Tack

Ah, the not-so-glorious parts of horse care . . .

The next day, after breakfast, Deborah found her way to the horse barn as the others got helmets and things to go ride three-wheelers ATVs. Corey showed her how to clean the saddle pads and horse blankets, checking them for worn places and stickers. “Don’t let them drag the ground. They find thorns.”

“Yes, sir.” She could believe that. Sort of like how white shirts found tomato sauce, or her mom and dad’s black clothes attracted white and pastel anything. She didn’t really like the fleecy saddle blankets and pads. They really found the hair and dust and things. As she studied one fancy, thick pad, she wondered if anyone had cleaned it since it came home from the shop. Corey left his task and frowned at the pad as well.

“Bring it out here.” She followed him outside, into the sun, and they flipped it over and set it on a wooden hitching rack, upside-down. She pulled her hat brim down to shade her eyes better as she looked over the pad. “Hmm.” His fast, thick and sturdy fingers pulled two small twigs out of the fake wool fleece. “I’ll get the stickers out, then we’ll wash it. Finish the others, please.”

“Yes, sir.” She liked working with him. He reminded her a little of Mrs. Schmidt. They were both self-contained. By the time she finished checking the ordinary blankets and things, and put them away, he’d gotten almost a handful of little sticks and thorny leaf pieces out of the pad. “Did something make a nest, sir?”

He smiled a little. “It tried.” He pumped some water into the metal wash tub, and they worked the pad and rinsed dirt and stuff out of it. Whatever tried to settle in must have been disappointed to hit the mesh under the fake fleece, Deborah giggled to herself. As heavy as the thing felt wet, she could see why Corey didn’t mind the help. They wrestled the pad onto the hitching post to dry, then carried the tub to the garden and carefully poured the water onto some of the vegetables. “Good. Tomorrow we go ride a little, check some water holes. Do you remember how to ride?”

“Not much, sir. Sit tall, weight in the middle, and I remember how to fall off safely if I need to.”

Corey smiled, a big smile, and nodded. “Honest is good.” He made a small wave-like motion with his hand, and she nodded and went to wash her hands and see about dinner.

The next morning, Uncle Nathan met her at the horse barn. “Deborah, what are you doing?” He didn’t sound angry, yet, just not happy.

Corey spoke first. “I asked her to come with me, check the water in the Rocky Creek section. She’s land-minded, has a good eye.”

Her uncle tipped his hat back and really looked at her, almost the way some of the other magic users did. “Hmmm. I wonder. You do have a lot of Grandmother Judith in you. A bit of Dad, too. You can go with Mr. Corey, but be careful, and take a lot of water.”

She nodded. “Yes, sir. Dad—my dad—sent his water back-pack with me, in case we went hiking or something.”

“Did he? Or did Cousin Rodney pester him until he remembered to have you bring it.” Her uncle winked.

She tried to look innocent. The adults both chuckled, and she giggled a little.

Half an hour later, with the sloshy back-pack on her back, she stared up and up at the black and white horse. He looked as tall as the farm house! It would be a long way down if she fell off or had to emergency dismount. “No, you won’t be riding Leopard,” Corey said. She turned and saw him leading a smaller, brown and white horse with calm eyes. “This is Brown.”

“Brown.” She introduced herself, letting the gelding sniff her palm, then puffing gently into his nostrils the way she remembered to do. Brown puffed back, then let her check the cinch. Corey showed her the mounting block, and she used that to get on board. He adjusted the stirrups a little.

[snip]

The brush and spiky plants gave way to grass and the creek valley widened into a flood meadow of sorts. They passed an old beaver dam that explained the meadow. A few red and white Hereford cows stared at them with half-closed eyes as they rode past. The cows chewed their cud and looked thoughtful. Not that cows thought, unless it was thinking up new ways to be stupid and make trouble. She’d heard enough farm stories from the clan cousins, as well as here-cousins and other relatives, to know that. The cows blended in with the reddish-brown rocks around the lush meadow. Pika pika, pika pika! A black and white magpie flapped by. A large hawk or eagle circled far overhead, and a raven flew ahead of them for a few yards, then went about his business. The wind made the ankle-to-knee-high grass shiver.

About the time she needed a break, they stopped at a pond. Deborah hesitated, then remembered—dismount to the left, just like mounting. She eased her right foot free of the stirrup, then the left foot, and swung her leg over the pommel and slid to the ground, not touching the saddle. She landed with a little thump. Brown gave her a puzzled look, then seemed to shrug, if horses could shrug. Her legs felt stiff, but not too sore. She clipped the rope to the halter under Brown’s bridle and led him to the water.

Corey moved quietly, head turning left and right. He stopped every few feet, listening, then moved again. She copied him, slipping almost into magic sight and just reading the land. It looked good, except . . . “Sir?”

He turned.

She nodded to the northwest. “Is there something, um, off that direction? Off like spoiled milk off,” she explained.

“Hmm.” He crouched and touched four fingers to the ground, half-humming as he did. Something passed from him to the land and back, and she raised her shields. “Yes. It has been here a very long time, but it feels stronger.” He stood. “Not today, but it will be checked. Well done.”

She blushed. “Thank you, sir.”

“What do you sense of the water? I’ll hold Brown.”

She passed him the rope and approached the pond. Part natural, part improved, Rocky Creek flowed through a deep place in the stone and spread a little. Someone had narrowed the outlet and smoothed part of the bank so the cows and other animals could come and go without ruining the water. A few minnows darted, silvery flicks above hair-like green water weeds. A water-strider skated over the top of the slow-moving water. Nothing stood out to her normal sight, so she shifted to magic-sight. Healthy, but not as good as it could have been. What was missing? “Um, should there be bigger fish, sir? It feels as if there’s a gap of some kind.”

“Ah.” She backed away from the pond. “Frogs and lizards. A heron visited in May, and ate all the frogs and water lizards. Some will come in from upstream, with the next flood, but nothing now.” He nodded. “We water the horses, and drink some ourselves, then check the next two.”

Before they reached the second water, Deborah reined Brown to a stop. Something . . . to her left, something watched her. Or was it a Something? She raised her shields and drew a little power from her locket, then cast a light shield around Brown as well. He snorted but didn’t fuss. Corey reined Leopard around and returned to her. “To the left, sir.”

A small dust-devil danced across the meadow. Corey’s eyes narrowed, and he chanted something. Leopard side-stepped, then turned to face the ripple in the air. The ripple shrank, solidified, and a sleek, tidy coyote laughed at them, then disappeared into the brush. “That’s not a regular coyote,” she said.

“No. Later.” Leopard reversed within his own length and started trotting. Deborah nudged Brown, and after shaking her teeth loose, remembered how to post the trot. They slowed down when they turned away from the creek to a windmill. [snip]

A dark shadow passed over the water. She looked up to see a raven tip on one wing and bank away, as if leading them. Corey made an interested sound, then took Leopard’s rope. “The third watering place is on the way to the house.”

“Yes, sir.” Grasshoppers buzzed in the grass and brush, big grasshoppers. A few lizards darted here and there, always in a hurry, and she’d seen the back half of a dark snake as it slithered about its business. Small birds twittered, and the wind rustled and clattered through grasses and brush.

“This is good land,” Corey told her as they rode through another grassy, open pasture. “Nothing stays so long that it ruins things, but the land isn’t left to get weedy, either.”

She thought about it. “Like back home, where the woods get rank with nettles and burrs if people don’t cut dead and bug-sick trees, and take care of things?”

“Yes.”

That made good sense. Her dad said that deer and elk and even buffalo had grazed here, and had moved around, not wearing out the land. Sheep could work, too, and cows, if people kept an eye on things. “Ignoring the land doesn’t keep it healthy.”

“No.” Leather creaked as he shifted. “Our family learned that early. Others have not, not yet.”

Our family? “Yes, sir.” What did he mean, our family? Was he one of the cousins? Something her grandfather had once said, something about her namesake, Great-grandmother Judith . . . Oh! Her grandmother had been a Shoshone woman of power, that was it, and that’s why Grandfather Roger was a strong Sensitive. Great-grandmother Judith was also a Sensitive, and maybe a sorceress, but her dad had never said one way or the other. So, Corey was Shoshone, or part Shoshone, and they were cousins. And if she didn’t get her mind back where it needed to be, she’d be flat on her rump in the dust with a long walk back to the ranch house!

The third watering place needed a little help. “Hold,” Corey ordered, handing her Leopard’s rope. She held as he got tools out of the saddlebags and straightened something, then banged the metal case twice. A metal-on-metal squeak, then water started flowing again. “That’ll do for now.” As he put the tools back, she realized that a carbine or other small rifle poked up from a saddle scabbard. Why had she not seen it before, or noticed an illusion hiding it? Deborah chewed on the question a little, then set it to one side, the way her father and Mrs. Schmidt, and Mistress Cimbrissa had taught her.

After Corey finished, Deborah nodded to a clump of yucca-like plants. “Sir, those don’t belong, do they?”

He gave her another thoughtful look from under his hat, then drank from his canteen. “Why not?”

She looked from the plants to the in-ground water tank and back. “Ah, they are the only ones here, in this meadow, and they seem close to the water, closer than other yucca.”

Corey smiled again. “Their ancestors were planted here, when a spring existed over there.” He tipped his head toward some bushes and things, a sage-colored island in a grassy meadow. “They are soap-root. Other useful plants were planted, too, before things Changed.”

Deborah filed the information away. “Soap root. Yes, sir. Thank you.” What did he mean by Changed? When Uncle Rodney and Master Tay spoke with capital letters, it meant something very serious. Or very silly, sometimes, if they were talking about Rich the Mongoose. Corey didn’t seem like the silly kind. He took the rope back, mounted, and they rode at a brisk walk back to the ranch yard. The raven returned, then wheeled up and away once more. More clouds floated above them, a few with grey bellies already.

As they “undressed” the horses and brushed the sweat and other things off of them, Corey said, “The coyote.”

She nodded and walked around Brown’s back end, keeping one hand on the gelding’s rump and staying very close to his legs. He wouldn’t be surprised, or have room to wind-up the kick that way. She remembered watching Cousin Alice almost get a leg broken by surprising a horse from behind. “Yes, sir. Dad said that a clean, well-fed, and tidy coyote’s probably not, um.” How much should she say? “Not the kind of local coyote that sneaks chickens and chases roadrunners.”

“No.” Corey too moved closer, lowering his voice. “The Coyote we saw is a Trickster spirit. They are only deliberately mean if you are rude and mean, or disrespectful. Their tricks can still hurt, though.”

Oh, that made too much sense. She nodded hard. “Yes, sir. When one spoke to me the other morning, I remembered what Dad had said and was very polite.”

She couldn’t quite read the expression on Corey’s face. It wasn’t unhappy, just . . . Deeply thoughtful? He looked the way her father did, or Bunicot, when they thought about something magic and very serious. “What did the Coyote say, Miss Deborah?”

She swallowed hard. “Ah, he said that I was my father’s daughter indeed, and asked if I was my great-great-great-grandmother’s as well.” What was that other bit? “Oh, and he called me a child of a green land. He said, ‘We’ll see, child of a green land, we’ll see,’ and then got onto his back feet and twirled away.”

Corey brushed Leopard a few more times, then turned back to her. “Do you have a use name?”

She nodded. “Patruyeh. It’s the name of a plant.”

He nodded in turn. “Kaak’ki.”

Something . . . It wasn’t just a use name. “Kaak’ki,” she repeated, very quietly, locking it into her memory.

“Good.” After they finished, Corey said, “Well done, today. You like plants and plant knowledge?”

“Yes, sir!” She caught herself. “At least, I like the ones that don’t attack me, or make me itch and hurt.”

Corey tipped his head back and laughed, a full, rich sound. Uncle Nathan had come up close to them, and he too smiled. “Ah, Nathan,” Corey said when he caught his breath. “She sounds just like Cousin Maria.”

Her uncle folded his arms, still smiling. “Deborah learns from other people’s bad experiences. Sort of like her father, except her father then had to try it just once himself, in case he could do whatever it was that the rest of us couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.” A very long sigh followed those words, and Deborah closed her eyes for a moment. Sometimes her dad-as-a-kid sounded a lot like Uncle Rodney. Was that why her dad said that Uncle Rodney was how the universe got even with him for being the youngest kid? She probably shouldn’t ask.

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