Book Review: The Great Transition

Campbell, Bruce M. S. The Great Transition: Climate, Disease, and Society in the Late Medieval World. (Cambridge University Press, 2016.) Kindle Edition

Everyone knows that Europe, and parts of the rest of the world, went to H-ll in a handbasket in the 1300s, and didn’t really regain its footing until the Renaissance. Why? The Black Death. Oh, and the Hundred Years War. Then we added “lousy weather.” It turns out that a whole lot of things were going wrong for Western Civilization, and the Black Death was the final straw.

Bruce Campbell brings together climatology, commercial and economic history, diplomatic history, genetics, and epidemiology to explain why the 1100s-1200s in some ways set up the economic and population stress that were already in place before 1300. The Great European Famine, then the waves of the Black Death, were only the most visible part of the depression in progress. He makes a compelling case for looking back to the late 1200s for the start of the “Terrible Fourteenth Century.” Worse, the stagnant population and economy that followed the Black Death lasted until almost 1500.

Historians have done a lot of work on the Black Death, and on the Hundred Years war between the French and English monarchs. In the 20th century, environmental historians began studying the climate downturn that began in the 1300s and didn’t really end until 1850 or so. As it turns out, the bad weather all over the northern hemisphere played a role in the eruption of a new strain of Yrsenia Pestis and its transmission west. That part might be familiar to readers, although Campbell goes into the genetics of Y. pestis to confirm that indeed, the Black Death was that very bug and not something else.

However, much of the book looks at the economic and demographic conditions of Western Europe (England, the Low Countries, northern Italy). The population was growing thanks to a combination of new technologies, a stable weather pattern that lasted for several centuries, and the greater ease of trade which allowed for moving food-stuffs as well as goods. The open routes east (relatively open) enhanced access to luxury goods, but also turned into a siphon for European silver and gold. If that silver ever ran low, or the trade routes became choked by changes in the Islamic world, trouble might begin. This was the era of the Champaign Fairs, the birth of banking, and increasing stress on the population as subdividing land reached its limits. People pushed into marginal areas, growing mostly grains. Land was scarce, labor very cheap, and nutrition starting to decline.

By 1300, Campbell argues, the system was at a tipping point. Silver had gotten very scarce and even re-opening mines didn’t help. Too many people needed land. Several nobles and the king of France ended the agreements to protect merchants going to the great fairs, and trade began to slow. The loss of the Crusader kingdoms in the Levant and the rise of the Ottomans strangled Italian trade with Asia. Only silver could make up the currency for Asia, and silver had become scarce, depressing trade even farther. And then the weather went bad. Three wet years badly hurt western European grain output. Next came a cattle and sheep disease that eliminated up to 70% of the livestock. The females that survived were less fertile. Without cattle, there was no traction for plowing or heavy transport. Without sheep, no wool for clothing. Famine swept Europe. The Wars of Edward I, II, and III didn’t help England or Scotland. Or France and the Low Countries. And we all know what happened in 1346-52. The second wave of the Black Death, a decade after the first one, killed many of the children born in the interval, as well as killing people who had escaped the first round. Stormy, unpredictable weather continued for the rest of the century. Trade grew more difficult, and only the Low Countries seemed able to do more than just hang in there.

Campbell’s use of economic records is solid. It’s some of the best work I’ve read in quite a while, and he is careful to show what we can’t know as well as what we can infer. I admit, I skimmed some of the genetics of Y. pestis, because he’s preaching to the choir in my case. It is a useful antidote to some of the odder theories about the Black Death. What I really liked was his pulling together so many different disciplines to give a much more complete picture of the 1200s-1500. I’d never thought about how the European diet changed after the Black Death. It was colder, with fewer people, so grain was less important than wool (for more layers of clothing). Sheep became more important, and meat took up a larger percentage of the European diet. The population didn’t grow again until the late 1400s, when the Black Death really faded out, so people earned more and opted to work less. Urban areas grew more slowly, forcing industry to become more rural. The “green and pleasant land” of small English cities and rural-centered life was actually a result of the Black Death and all that surrounded it, not England just being England.

I recommend this book to historians of the Middle Ages, economic historians, and people with a little knowledge of the period who want more. It’s not a straight narrative history like A Distant Mirror but it’s not statistics and documents like Ole Benedictow, The Black Death.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book with my own money for my own use, and received no remuneration fronm the author or publisher for this review.


Travel Back Then: Who Did, Who Didn’t, Why?

Medieval and earlier people didn’t travel. Unless they did. But it wasn’t far. Unless it was half-way around the world and back, perhaps several times. Or they were always traveling. Being able to move around was a symbol of power, unless it was a sign of poverty – voluntary or otherwise.

Confused yet?

Most people, especially serfs and others in a state of villainage (meaning legally bound in some way to a place or person, but not owned outright) only went as far as they had to. Perhaps they might go to a small market, or a fair if it was within walking distance and they got permission. Travel was not easy, and hospitality varied a great deal. There are still people today in Britain and Europe who have not gone more than 30-60 miles from their place of birth, and they are quite happy with that. There are some people who are descended from the people who lived in that same area several thousand years ago, which also suggests that folks didn’t wander or mix all that often.

Religious pilgrimages did encourage travel, perhaps as far as Rome or Jerusalem. Often it was to a closer site, like Canterbury, or Cologne, or St. Ives, or Santiago Campostella, or St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Most pilgrims traveled in a group for safety as well as company. How dangerous were the roads? Again, it varied. If you were traveling on business to the Champaign Fairs in the 1000s-1100s and a little later, it was very safe, because a lot of powerful people benefited from the trade and taxes. If you were well-armed but not wealthy looking, or if you were obviously poor and devout, you’d probably be left alone. That left a lot of people who might be the target of thieves, nobles looking for labor, nobles and others looking for ransom and tax money, and the occasional homicidal maniac (like the guy in France who was a mass murderer. People said he was a werewolf. Nah.)

The Holy Roman Emperors and a few other nobles traveled constantly, because they had to. There were no capital cities, unless you counted Rome and Constantinople. After 1066, London grew in importance, as did Paris, but the capital was where the monarch or ruling noble happened to be. Charlemagne was all over the place on the European mainland, as were his successors. I joke that certain medieval figures were “high mileage” but it was literally true. Otto I and Otto II criss-crossed northern Europe and swung down into Italy a few times. Frederick Barbarossa was all over the map, north and south of the Alps, playing whack-a-mole with Moors, frisky nobles (Henry of Saxony), the occasional pope … They also had the infrastructure to support their perigrinations, something normal people lacked unless you were going on a very well known pilgrimage route.

Merchants and raiders, or merchant raiders (aka Vikings) got around. They had to. By the late 1200s, some were moving less because of the development of banking and letters of credit, but goods still had to be moved and sold. The Hansa merchants always traveled, even after the Italians settled down a little. The Vikings? Oh boy did the young men get around. A few of the women, too. Their victims also saw a lot of the world, although not of their own free well. Going from Norway to Ireland to the Byzantine Empire then up the Black Sea and Dnieper to Kiev thence to the Baltic wasn’t rare. One former Varangian Guard ended up in a remote valley in Austria. I’d love to know his story. Perhaps he had a hot temper and needed to relocate often. Or maybe he had an itchy foot. Or perhaps he made a religious vow and became a sort of hermit in the middle of nowhere. All were possible. Merchants tended to cluster together for business reasons, and a Hansa trader or Italian merchant working the Champaign Fairs had a network of inns, confraternity connections, and other places to stay and rest.

Then you have “that one guy,” the dude who never quite settled down. These are the ones that seem like normal blokes until you find out “oh, yes, his parish record says he went to Jerusalem twice.” Or she, in a few very rare occasions. Or they go wander off here there and everywhere and come back with stories and a little money and some interesting skills. Or they are found a thousand miles from home, per isotope studies, leaving everyone to wonder how he got there. There’s always been a part of the western European population that has to go see what’s over the next hill.

I’ve been talking about men. Why? Because very few women traveled. That wasn’t their job. Some noblewomen moved around for marriages, taking a few servants with them. Some unusual individuals, like Dam Margery Kempe, got around. It was not safe, and often laws required women not to go farther than X distance from their home parish unless they had special permission from their family, their overlord, and their parish priest. Noble women who joined the church were a partial exception, but all scholars I’ve read insist that only because of their male relatives’ power did the church women have any authority. I should add, these are all books about France, Britain, and the Rhineland. The eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire was a rather different story, based on German-language works, but I could well be missing something there.

So it is true that medieval people rarely traveled. It is also true that medieval people traveled all over the place for faith, for war, for business, for personal reasons, for all of the above at once. We can make some general assumptions, but there’s always an exception.

Saint George’s Day

By the western church calendar, today is the feast of St. George. He’s the patron saint of the military, and of England and Catalonia. The George Cross is part of the Union Jack flag, although today celebrating the feast in England is sometimes considered suspect, unless it is a purely religions and private veneration.

This is the statue I did NOT get to see when I was in Lübeck, Germany in 2017. It is St. George doing in a very sincere dragon indeed! It is a copy of a statue in Sweden, carved by and artist from Lübeck. Source:

St. George is one of those saints that lacks firm written sources, and is considered a wee bit suspect by the Roman Catholic Church. He remains popular in the Eastern Orthodox churches, and in the Church of England (or at least with followers of the Church of England.) There’s also a city in Utah named for him, which makes me giggle a bit. He’s not exactly the same sort of Saint as the Saints, Latter-day, who founded the town.

I want a copy for my church, but I don’t think the decorating committee would agree. Or the fire marshal. From:–330381322638029098/

St. George is thought to have been martyred on April 23, AD 303. He was born in what is now western Turkey, and since his father was a Roman soldier, he had to go into the army (like St. Martin of Tours, and several others.) The official version of the story is that he was martyred for refusing to make the sacrifices required by Diocletian’s anti-Christian edicts. There are no dragons in the official version. Alas.

The popular version is that George was in northern Libya, where a dragon had moved in, taken over a spring, and was killing the locals, their livestock, and everything else in the area. Various young ladies were offered to the dragon in hopes of appeasing it. George arrived and said that he, with the help of G-d, would deal with the beast. He did, did not ask to marry the young lady of the day, but instead preached the Gospel and converted the people.

In some versions of the story, he killed a dragon in England as well, thus he is the patron of England, as St. Andrew is the patron of Scotland and St. David (Dawi Sant) protects Wales. (Before George it was St. Edmund the Martyr.)

There was a much more elaborate, highly unofficial version, of the story of St. George that I have only heard and seen once, and that was in a chapel in a castle in the Czech Republic. It is much more detailed, with further adventures, and includes George being killed three times and coming back to life twice. I can guess why that version does not appear in church art or the semi-official depictions of the saint.

St. George also appears as a character in the winter pantomimes (Pantos) in England. Some folklorists see him as a stand-in for the Green Knight, the Oak King, the symbol of summer, killed by the Holly King/winter.

Excellent Herbs Had our Fathers of Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Snippet: Glen Coe II

And now for the trail . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Snippet: Glen Coe I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Snippet: Port of Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Fast twitching whiskers tickled his ear.

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

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

Also a good point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Snippet: YGTBSM Edition

In which our heroes behold the next-to-last thing they want to see.

“Got it. I contain, then wait for your assessment.” That made good sense, and wasn’t too far from the 767th’s own procedures. Power flared again. Harp muttered something unflattering in Pashto. “Concur. From the green area ahead and right?”

Eyes fixed on the road, Harp nodded. “Affirm. I really hope we don’t have to deal with casualties.”

“No joke,” Tik-Tik sighed from his carrier. “Defender, sunset’s not until 1930, twilight 1954 to 2030.”

The blessings and curse of northern latitudes. “Got it.” They wouldn’t have much in the way of shadow power to draw from. Although, given the regional history, the nocturnal power flows here might be too exciting by half.

They’d stopped at a light, and Harp turned to study him. “You’re shadow workers?”

“Affirm. Trained by Shadow and Ears.”

Harp’s shoulders relaxed. “Thanks be to Danaa. That makes it easier. I worked with them in Southwest Asia a few years ago.” He shifted the car back into gear as a third pop of magic flared ahead. “A lot of sensitives are going to want to have words with yon eejit.”

“Concur.” Mike concentrated on recalling what he knew about wide area shielding and containment, while trying not to grip the lovely grey leather interior too tightly. Harp drove like a local who had spent too much time in Italy, meaning like a lunatic by Mike’s standards.

They turned onto a parkway that wound through trees before emerging on black volcanic rock and lush green grass. “Welcome to Arthur’s Seat Park,” read the sign in the parking lot. A stream of people rushed past them, going anywhere but into the nature area. “Not a good sign,” Tik-Tik observed as he got settled onto Mike’s shoulder.

“No.” Harp closed and locked his door. “Head up that way.” He pointed toward bare basalt pillars. “I can talk to the authorities if we have to.”

“Good.” Mike took off at a jog-trot. He glanced back to see Harp, and a police car where the Rolls had parked. That explains why no one honked at us. Harp caught up with them, then passed, stretching his legs.

The soldiers rounded the rocks of the geology park and skidded to a stop. “Blessed St. George!” Mike’s jaw dropped as he stared at a blunt-muzzled monstrosity in black and crimson. He went to one knee, fingers on the soil. Tik-Tik flowed down to the ground. He called power from Tik-Tik and himself, sending a shield out, around the giant beast. Ebony and dull crimson plates shifted, and black wings spread to half cover the cloud-swept sky. The dragon threw its head back in a silent roar and clawed the sky, revealing liquid scarlet fire flowing between the plates. The beast turned burning scarlet and gold eyes on them. “I thought those didn’t exist,” Mike managed to gasp, trying to gather his wits.

“They don’t. My uncle is going to be so pissed.” Harp pulled magic hard, so hard Mike felt it. “Duck!” A fireball raced past his ear and slammed into the beast. It absorbed the magic, or so it felt. “Oh [censored], I was afraid of that.” He sounded resigned. “I ‘censored] hate [censored] Mondays.”

Yep, he’s a Marine NCO a tiny bit of Mike’s mind whispered. The rest of his brain screamed at him to get behind concealment and Do Something. Tik-Tik bounced up and down like a long, furry ping-pong ball. Sorcery magic touched with something exotic passed from Harp along the ground, toward the looming monster. Mike didn’t try to follow the flow. The dragon raised one enormous stony red and black foot and slammed it into the ground. Mike imagined he could feel the ground vibrate. “Continue to shield?”

“Affirm. It’s a summoning that warped itself to match the ground. You’re on an old volcano. Some feckin’ eejit’s gon ‘t feel my fist, he is.” The Irish accent thickened, then stopped. “Vertical dispersal. I’ll undercut the pattern from here. Once that,” he waved at the dragon, “goes away, we’ll sort out the caster.”

“Do it, do it, before it burns someone or us or calls something bigger, do it do it.” Tik-Tik moved to stand across Mike’s feet, leaning on his shins. Mike drew more power and thickened the shield, tapering it in at the base, then up to channel any more eruptions away from the park and the city. Beside them, Harp murmured a rhythmic phrase. He repeated it as he clasped his hands and extended his arms, as if shooting a pistol. Green and gold power touched with bits of fire dove under the source of the magic, then spread. Harp unclasped his hands and spread them, palms up, lifting the magic up from the ground. The dragon shape collapsed. Mike grabbed the overflow, sending it to Tik-Tik.

“Ground it, Defender,” Harp ordered. “The stones want it.”

What the—? Never mind. The land absorbed the magic like a sponge, dispersing it harmlessly. Mike shifted all flow from Tik-Tik and into the old volcano.

Harp jerked his head down and clapped his hands together. His magic returned to him. He caught it and pulled it into two foci. “That’s done. You can lower the shield Defender, Tik-Tik.”

“Wilco.” Once he’d pulled the power back into himself and Tik-Tik, Mike said, “The prone individual is our problem?”

“Not for much longer. I hear the Garda approaching. But for the moment, yes. I promise, I won’t hurt him too much.” Harp started toward the flattened figure. Mike and Tik-Tik came along. “Her,” Harp corrected. The woman sat up, then leaned forward and lost her lunch. “Glad I won’t have her headache.”

“No shit.” Mike’s head pulsed once with the memory of his last bad overstrain reaction. “Tik-Tik and I will need food soon.”

“No problem. I’ve got recharge supplies in the car.” Harp stopped and folded his arms. He glared at the woman, and at the remains of the pattern burned into the grass. “Do you see what I see in the grass?”

Mike ignored the magic worker in favor of studying the pattern. Tik-Tik went closer, sniffing and twitching. He pointed to a half-visible shape. Mike circled to see that part better. Tik-Tik patted the dirt. “Boss, there’s no undershield. Remember what Al said two days ago?”

“Don’t want undershield for cthonic summoning,” the woman groaned. She sounded like Mike had felt after the fight in Houska. “Wanted an earth spirit.”

“Oh, ye got one,” Harp said. He glanced back, then moved to his right as a pair of police officers stormed up. “Good evening, sirs. Summoning that went wrong.”

The shorter of the two man—Ford per his name badge—scowled. “Who start—” He caught himself as he took in the woman on all fours. “Black Annie. Again.” He sounded resigned. “What devil inspired you this time?”

She leaned back so that she sat on her knees. She pushed dark brown hair back from her round face. “It’s not the Devil. It’s my rightful money I’m searching for, and you know it!”

The taller officer—Armstrong—looked at Mike and Rich, then came over to study the pattern. “That explains the dragon. Did you and your Familiar undercut the pattern?”

Mike shook his head, as did Rich. “No, sir. I shielded, then dealt with collapse and overspill as that gent undercut the pattern. He knows that area better than Rich and I do.” Carl had his ID out and was speaking quietly with Officer Ford.

“Good work.” Armstrong extended his hand, and they shook. “We’re part of the magic side of the Edinburgh Police. Got a call about uncontained power eruption in the park, followed by reports of the volcano’s dragon waking.”

Rich shook all over. “There’s not a dragon here, is there, sir?”

“No, but two novels and a local music video describe one, and you know how that works. May I see your ID, sirs?” Officer Armstrong shook his head as he photographed the pattern. “That’s Annie’s work, clear as day.”

After they gave their statements and got snacks, the trio adjourned to the pub. Mike raised his pint. “To quiet evenings?”

“To quiet. Slainte.” Carl took a long pull from his pint of stout. “I needed that. My uncle’s going to be irked.”

Rich, halfway through a fried potato wedge, licked his chops. “Your uncle doesn’t like dragons?”

“He doesn’t like people who call up dragon-like things. It’s a very long story, but he had to deal with someone who insisted on summoning very, very nasty abyssal and worse entities, then claiming that he’d proven that dragons existed.”

Mike savored another swig of his local ale. “I can see why that would leave a bad taste in his mouth.” He leaned back against the booth, making space as the waitress set down two very full bowls of cullen skink. “So, you wanted to ask about Mrs. Langtree’s recent paintings?”

Carl perked up. “Oh, yes. She’s still taking commissions?”

“Yes. She’s cut back recently because of a little health scare. It wasn’t anything really serious, but she and her business manager and her husband agreed that taking fewer cover commissions and portrait orders would be wise.”

They talked art and sales until the rest of supper arrived. Then all three tore into their meals, savoring shepherd’s pie, a Scots Burger with mixed beef and mutton topped with bacon and a fried egg, and one of the thickest plain burger patties Mike had seen. ‘The cook must think you’re cute,” he observed as Rich gobbled the meat.

“How can he eat all—?” Carl caught himself. “Never mind. I saw how much Rodney eats. And worse. What he eats.”

Mike sorted words as he had another fork full of shepherd’s pie. “I think they send any extra to a remote storage place or something. I don’t want to know. Civilization probably doesn’t need to know, either.”

“In Rodney’s case, I agree with you on both counts.” Carl took bite of burger. “Ah, since you’re new to Edinburgh. There’s an unspoken rule among the esoteric community—the real workers, not the wand-wavers—to avoid serious magic on both Arthur’s Seat and the volcanic formation under the castle and Royal Mile. Shielding, a little illusion, checking old things for possible curses and so on, those are all fine. But no major workings unless you have no choice.”

“What about that shielded area at the history museum?” Rich asked, then resumed devouring. Half the patty had vanished already. Mike used his fork to scoot the rest closer to the edge of the plate.

Carl sat back and had a sip of his pint. “That’s so shielded you could probably hold every spell challenge or duel in NATA history there all at once and no one would notice. Some archaeology stuff needs, ah, special care and defusing.”

“No s—,” Mike caught himself. “Kidding. You ever have to deal with some of the finds from the Carpathians and Danube Basin, or Mesopotamia?”

“Mesopotamia. Zero out of five stars, not only wouldn’t recommend but won’t do it again without half the rest of my crew assisting.” His scowl shifted to a little smile and he winked. “Besides, I found a doc who will swear on a stack of whatever book you want that ancient artifacts give you hives, fallen arches, and Nebuchadnezzar’s Revenge.”

He felt Rich’s disapproving glower. Mike grinned anyway. “Sounds good to me. How many times have you let the smoke out of your electrical system?”

“Only once. It’s not an MG, remember?” Talk returned to harmless topics, like beers, cars, and American football, the latter leading to a glower from a passing fellow customer.

 After they finished, and Mike paid, he asked, “If you don’t mind, why Harp?”

Carl smiled. “Comes from my other other job.” He began humming, and sang in a warm tenor, “Come by the hills to the land where fancy is free.” As he did, misty green hills appeared, and the scent of fresh sea air replaced city smells. The scene faded.

A bard. I’ve heard of them, but never met one. “Thanks. I hope we cross paths again with less excitement.”

“Agree on both counts.” They shook, then half-embraced. “Go Navy.”

“Sod off,” Mike replied. “Army all the way.”

Rich sighed as loudly as he could, “Boys, no fighting over religion.” The trio went their separate ways. Mike thought fondly of a third pint, then shook his head. He was meeting Alyssa at eight the next morning for the long-by-British-standards drive to Oban.

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

Saturday Snippet: A Quiet Visit In . . .

Mike is enjoying the sights in Edinburgh. The Scotland one, not the Texas one.

Two days later, Mike strolled along the street, headed for the ice-cream shop in the Grassmarket neighborhood at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. The line out the door made it easy to find. Luciphera wouldn’t be able to get away until the next day, so he and Rich were playing tourist. It was nice to be in a place where he didn’t get second looks. The very comfortable tweed jacket that he’d found in an upscale used clothing shop also helped. The tailor in the shop next door had been a bit puzzled by the request to reinforce the shooting patches on the shoulders. Then Rich appeared. The gent had gotten the work done in record time, and now the pair blended in much better. Rich shifted in his carrier, then hissed, “Lookatthat, look at the painting!” Mike slowed and peered into the window of the Goth and dark-things shop on the corner of the Grassmarket. “You know that painting.”

Mike did indeed. “No kidding. I wonder how much it’s worth now?” He couldn’t see a price tag. It wasn’t actually a painting, but a limited edition Langtree print, one of a run of twenty-five. It was one of Mrs. Langtree’s dark landscapes, featuring a ferocious purple and black dragon with blazing yellow eyes. It loomed over a hellscape of black stones and dying plants. Charred, sharp stones littered the land around the creature. The sky burned red and orange behind the beast, the last light of a dying sun on a dead land. What might have been the bones of another dragon or other monster just barely appeared in the foreground, half-hidden by the rocks. “That’s . . . That’s one of her not-exactly-imaginary works, as I recall.” I am so glad I don’t have her knack for seeing into other planes, St. George and St. Basil be thanked.

A neatly dressed man about his own age had stopped to look as well. “I think it is. My uncle mentioned a place a lot like that, once.” He turned to Mike and studied him. “You know Mrs. Langtree?”

Mike studied the stranger in turn. Something about him . . . “Yes. My dad’s her business manager.”

“Huh.” The man shifted one of his two shopping bags, freeing up his right hand, and cast a small illusion of the US Marine Corps – Special Operations/Sea-Witch insignia.

Mike replied with the 767th’s flaming sword cross.

The stranger smiled. “Carl.”

Mike extended his right hand. “Mike.” They shook. He opened the top of the carrier and said, “My Familiar, Rich.” The mongoose bobbed his head up and down very fast. The Marine blinked hard, then shrugged. “Before you ask, no, there are no normal Familiars.”

A knowing smile appeared on Carl’s face. “No shit. My uncle still laughs when he remembers meeting Master Tay for the first time.”

“I can imagine. He’s rather . . . memorable.” Should I be scared?

An emphatic nod greeted his words. “He is indeed.” The brown haired man hesitated. “You said that Mrs. Langtree’s business manager is your father.”

“Yes. It’s complicated.”

Carl glanced left and right, then found what he was looking for. “Sorry. Needed to find the clock. I don’t wear a watch and my phone’s not on me at the moment. Do you have plans for supper?”

“Not yet. I was going to try a pub an associate recommended.”

“I need to finish two more errands for my uncle. You want to meet at the Cutty Sark at six? Its’s on the north side of the Royal Mile, down the slope. I’d like to know more about Mrs. Langtree’s other recent works, if you don’t mind?”

Mike glanced at his Familiar. Rich nodded, and said, “Sounds good. Cutty Sark at six, just art business, no business business.”

“Dude, you make it sound like I work for the Mafia.” Mike rolled his eyes.

Carl started laughing, head back, guffaws filling the Grassmarket. “Oh aye, ye have nae’ idea.” A hint of Irish lilt touched his voice before he recovered.

Mike got his ice cream. It was as good as advertised. Then he wandered up the back ways from the old hay and fodder market at the base of Edinburgh Castle’s promontory. Rich napped. They relaxed a little at their bed and breakfast and Mike checked his e-mail. He shook his head at one from Uncle Leopard, Taylor Wilmington, his adopted father. “Shoshana’s gallery show went very well, but now Dad wants to turn the property tax assessor into a salamander. He’s pretty sure no one would object if the transformation was open-ended based on apology and repentance.”

A loud sigh came from Rich’s nest. “Can’t do that unless he deserves it and at least four other magic workers agree.”

“Silver and Phillip, that new young sorcerer, agree.” He read a little farther. “Dad’s irked at Eluvite’s distributer. Again. They won’t release until the North America tour starts.”

Rich sat up. “That’s next February! That’s mean, really mean, no fair, not fair, seriously no fair.”

“No joke.” Mike replied as much as he could to the e-mail, then sat back. “Should I tell him about Poison Glen’s pop-up concert?”

“You want to die of spell-choke via internet?” Rich wasn’t entirely kidding. “He’ll ask Shadow to tell Master Sergeant Kim that you need to do more hand-to-hand training.”

Good point. He’d gone up against Uncle Leopard at the dojo. Once. He’d lost. Military training and size did not make up for experience and treachery. Especially treachery. Won’t mention Krakow, either. Dad would fly over just to fuss at me for not inviting him. He’d be past peeved.

“I wonder if this is the only pub open today,” Mike half-asked as they got close to the Cutty Sark. Carl waited outside the door, being harmless. Mike strolled under the sign, showing a tattered shirt blowing in the wind. I thought the Cutty Sark was a ship. Wait, what’s

Wham! A surge of powerful, undirected magic washed over them. Mike ducked and Carl spun to the left, looking down the street.

“Ah, bluidy hell,” the Marine snarled. “We need to deal with that.”

“Affirm. Working name Defender and Tik-Tik.” He sent out a little magic. “Source is 085 degrees, roughly three clicks?”

“Affirm. Car’s this way. Working name Harp.” Carl strode briskly to the east, then cut north. They wound down from the long ridge where the castle and palace held sway, down to a parking area. “The old Rolls,” Carl called over his shoulder. “Yes, I updated the starter and such.” He sounded defensive.

Mike shrugged and remembered to get in on the wrong side. He plunked Rich’s carrier into the foot well. “Depending on what we find, do you want me to contain or deal?”

Harp started the car and cast an illusion of some kind on it. He backed with great care out of the tight slot, and merged with traffic. “Contain, in case it’s native. I don’t think it was, but if it is, I’ve dealt with that before. Sometimes you just have to let it vent and try to limit the damage.” He shook his head, then made a rude gesture below the window in the general direction of a delivery truck. “He’s not supposed to be here until after midnight, even on Monday. If its native, I’ll do a secondary containment around yours. I’m pretty rested and charged.”

“Got it. I contain, then wait for your assessment.” That made good sense, and wasn’t too far from the 767th’s own procedures. Power flared again. Harp muttered something unflattering in Pashto. “Concur. From the green area ahead and right?”

Eyes fixed on the road, Harp nodded. “Affirm. I really hope we don’t have to deal with casualties.”

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

For those wondering, the goth shop and the ice cream shop exist, and are where described in the Grassmarket.

Saturday Snippet: Talking Shop and Tea

Mike, Rich, and Allister talk a little shop.

The next day, Mike found lots of things for Rich to explore, dig, and turn over, all of them well away from the poultry runs. Rich’s mage helped Allister, sort of. “How did they survive?” Mike asked as he held the gate open. Even scattering some food and casting a ‘come here it’s safe’ charm on the open gate hadn’t convinced the sheep to move until Allister started to shoo them. “They are so stupid.”

“They’re docile, mostly edible, give wool, and not as dangerous as cattle? And not as sneaky as goats,” Allister added, closing the gate behind the last sheep. “Some of the old breeds have better survival instincts, but I’ve never heard of any sheep that won’t try to get through the fence to eat the verge.” He pointed to the grass in the space between wall and road.

“Sheep don’t climb trees,” Rich added from atop the little bit of stone wall beside the gate. A black-faced ewe peered up at him. He peered back.

Baaaaaaaah. With that declaration, the ewe trotted off to rejoin the others. The humans shrugged.

“Like hedges,” Rich declared, bouncing in place. “Hedges have nests, and eggs, and lizards, and snakes. I love snakes, snaky snakes!”

Allister tapped the side of his head with one finger, eyebrows raised. Mike both nodded and shrugged. “They’re not all like him, Familiars that is. The wallaby over in Germany is rather quiet and very civilized.” Spooky pale and funny looking in those sweaters she wears, but quiet. Meister Gruenewald had wondered about the source of Walburga’s divination skills, but then he wondered about the source of everything magic related.

“There’s a mage in in Herefordshire with a hedgehog Familiar. Land-reader and water-worker, keeps an eye on the south bit of Offa’s Dike.” The sorcerer shook his head. “I’ve heard that the Dike was quieter before the Spell Eruption Event.” He gave Mike a puzzled look, then led mage and Familiar back toward the house and farm yard. “Truth, I’m a wee bit surprised we don’t have more excitement here. Not complainin’ mind, just surprised.”

Mike shrugged the Rich-free shoulder. “I’ve been told that, oh, half the places known for magic now had back before the S. E. E. I wonder if there was something back then, but it was so weak that no one noticed it, or no one was strong enough to try to tap it. The really bad places—” He shrugged again, then navigated the stile over the fence, leaving the pasture for the edge of a wheat field. The men skirted the knee-high grain and climbed another stile. This pasture didn’t have sheep at the moment. Instead, a neighbor’s tan and white dairy cows blinked placidly at them as they ruminated. Mike nodded at one especially sleepy-looking individual “She reminds me of someone.”

Allister chuckled. “Aye. The clerk at Sand Central, the one that never saw anything, never heard anything, and never did anything?”

“She’s the one.” None of the soldiers could figure out what exactly her job was supposed to be, unless it was to keep the chair from floating or rolling away.

“You still plannin’ on Edinburgh tomorrow?”

Mike nodded, then opened the gate into the farm yard for them. “Yes. A friend from Ft. Campbell is working there, and we’re going to go to the west coast and play tourist for a few days. She has a car.”

“She.” A knowing smile and lift of sandy-blond eyebrows met his words.

Rich sighed as loudly as a mongoose could sigh. “Only friends. Frustrating, only friends, she’s nice, has a job, cute, knows military, only friends.” Profound disappointment filled his voice, and he drooped.

Mike set him down on the ground beside a bush, then stood and stretched, twisting back and forth. “Friends. Alyssa McMasters.”

“Has a job? Does it have benefits, pension, all that?” Allister grinned.

Mike elbowed him, carefully. “Yes, probably, and yes. No, I will not introduce you unless you promise to behave.”

“Well, sod that, then.” Allister tossed a rude gesture in his direction. “Da needs me to pick up some parts in town, so I’ll drop you off at the station.”

“Thanks.” The afternoon sun felt good. The little breeze brought the smell of cut grass. The upwind neighbor had mowed a hay meadow the day before, and a small tractor trundled back and forth, pulling a set of spinning wire wheels that flipped the grass into the air so it could dry into hay. Mike looked around, then lowered his voice, “Question. Did you ever sort out that charm you were fighting with down south?”

Allister nodded, and led the way to a small stone and wood outbuilding beside the sheep barn. He unlocked the door. Rich raced over and almost slid into the wooden door. He stopped so hard he left furrows in the dirt. Both men shook their heads. Allister waved his hand, opening a shield, and they went in. The sorcerer closed the shield behind them but left the door open. “Mum will know we’re here, but won’t come in. Da doesn’t come in. He tolerates magic, but he had a bad meetin’ with a witch when he was a lad.”

“Makes sense.” Mike folded his arms as Rich sniffed under everything.

Allister opened the shutters and pulled a small green book with padded covers off a shelf. He set it in a circle on the battered wooden table under the window. He turned pages, then moved a ribbon onto a page and stepped back toward the door. “There. The last two lines of the triggering cantrip. The missing vowels are i and a,” he added before Mike could ask.

Rich thumped against Mike’s shin. Mike lifted him onto the table, then read, careful not to complete the spell. “What— That,” he backed up and ran a finger under the lines of text. Celedon’s got beautiful handwriting. Damn. Mike straightened up. “The elements should self cancel. Unless you overweight it toward the fire component, and then you introduce at least three other problems?”

Celedon nodded. “Spot on. Defender, it took me two months to sort out the balance. As a cantrip it’s unstable, almost lethally so. And draws far too much power, I think because of how it ties into the intention-seeking bit in the third line.” He reached inside his collar and drew out a guinea coin on a long chain. He waved the focus back and forth. “If you cast a pattern first, if the pattern includes the glyph tico as the bridging aspect, if you are smooth and fast enough to catch the instability before it pulls everything apart while you link the cantrip into the pattern, then it works.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head, eyes half-closed. “Which is why I told command to ram it up their collective arse.”

“No shit,” Tik-Tik said. He patted the book with his silver-bleached forefoot. “That’s too unstable to use for anything besides a horrible warning, or maaaaaybe a teaching exercise. Maybe.”

“I wouldn’t even do that,” Celedon replied. “I’m not fast enough to catch it, I don’t think even Stilton’s fast enough. I’m sure as bloody hell not strong enough to ground out that, split shields, and redirect the overspill at the same time.”

Tik-Tik nodded, tail fluffed. “We’re not. Maybe once, but we’d have to know to expect it. Shadow and Ears probably could, probably. Silver and Rings have the power but not the speed.”


Mike closed the book. “Shadow’s wife. She’s stronger than he is, scary as shit when she gets mad. I though he was kidding about abyssal beasts wetting themselves when she showed up. He wasn’t.”

Celedon mouthed something in Turkish both appropriate and profane. “I’m warned. She military?”

“Nope. Civilian, grew up hard, knife fighter, fights dirty, real dirty. Cooks really, really well, makes me eggs, round eggs, soft eggy eggs!”

Mike scooped up his Familiar and moved clear as Allister put the book back. “I like your workroom.” He glanced down at the floor. “What did you use for the casting circle?”

“Aluminium. Old beer tins. Cheap, neutral, and they hold a foundation surprisingly well.” Allister crooked his little finger, and a shield base shimmered into existence, celadon green with brown flecks. The sorcerer flexed his fingers and the shield faded again. “It grounds well too. I’m a little surprised we don’t make portable training circles from it, but it might be too easy to bend.”

Steps on gravel grew closer. Allister dropped the shield on the door and turned. “Your Mum’s got tea ready.” Ian frowned.

“Sorry, Da. Lost track of time.”

Mike followed the Douglas men across the farmyard. Magic might be different, language might be different, but an irritated mother needed no translation! A farm wife herbalist. I’d be careful, too.

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