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.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Midsummer Hunt

Skender and Shadow had a rough Saturday night.

He found the home farm in mild uproar when he arrived the next morning.  His eldest sister swept toward him, her silver and iron-tipped wooden staff in one hand and a very full basket of fresh eggs in the other. “Shadow was right to request support,” she informed him, then handed him the basket. He took it, walking beside her with great care. He had no desire to drop any of the eggs. Neither spoke more until he’d left the fragile burden in the great kitchen for the other women to deal with. Mistress Cimbrissa handed him a large mug of strong coffee and a plate of breads, cheese, and meats. He retreated to the dining room. Even he and Skender bowed to the ladies when they were minded to work. Cimbrissa would probably make her tonics taste even fouler if he got in her way. The windows stood open, allowing the cool morning breeze to trickle in. The air felt as if a weather change lurked behind the mountains, perhaps.

“How bad?” he asked his eldest sister after she washed her hands and joined him.

His brother’s voice answered. “Very bad. We lost one.” Arthur rose as Skender limped into the room. “Shadow alone could have dealt with it, perhaps, but not well. Sit, eat.” Corava bustled in, gave her husband coffee, food, and an irritated look, then hurried away. She’d probably scolded Skender at least once already. Perhaps. His brother drank the coffee, then continued, “An idiot sorcerer who decided that midsummer would be a good time to try blood-path magic and a summoning.” A bite of cheese and bread, then, “And tapping the power the coven raised for themselves, or trying to.”

Arthur tried to imagine managing three spells at once. Silver could do it, perhaps the Goth sorcerer called Uncle Leopard, but none others save Shadow himself. “What collapsed on whom?” he inquired.

His sister took a long breath. “The summoning, the blood-path spells, Shadow’s patience, and the gate. Or so we felt. The gate backlashed.”

He closed his eyes, acknowledged the pain and the memory, and set them aside. He opened his eyes and ate more. “Who did we lose?”

“Georg.” Skender sounded tired. “Foolish mistake, tried to take the abyssal entity without looking for other presences.” His face hardened. “The other thing watched, then attacked, and a nosferitau circled in owl form, distracting the coven. They recovered and finished their rituals without incident—for them, not for us.” He drank more coffee. “Shadow could have dealt with things on his own, but only if the coven interrupted their work.” He left the rest unsaid.

Arthur and their sister both nodded. A mage or sorcerer could shift spells far more quickly than a coven, even a strong coven well-prepared for trouble and used to working together. The risk of backlash or secondary effects grew very, very high. The men finished eating. “We will feast Georg on the next new moon,” his brother said at last.

That was the proper time, and allowed Georg’s parents and those close to him to mourn in peace. Since the July Fourth plans had already been made, and everyone looked forward to the day and night, the delay fit well.

Skender leaned forward, arms resting on the heavy table. “The nosferitau. Can you deal with it?”

Arthur weighed his words with great care, balancing confidence with the memory of his and his partner’s last encounter with the cursed undead. “With Silver’s aid I can, yes. I believe that the older burial place is the true abode of the primary nosferitau, and the consecrated ground contains the secondary.” He contemplated his coffee cup. “I’m concerned about a third nosferitau, young in power. Or,” he met Skender’s eyes once more, then looked to their sister. “Or something else in the guise of a nosferitau. Thus Silver assisting me.” He did not mention the lone Hunter.

Skender sensed his omission, perhaps. Or felt the weather change and remained restless from the Hunt. “I should come with you.”

“No.” Both men turned to their sister. She shook her head as well as making the hand-sign of refusal. Her white-clouded eyes bored into Arthur, then turned to his older brother. “No, Hunters must stay here. Remember, the nosferitau knows of us. It might not know of Silver. And she is born to this land in a way that we,” a sweep of the hand, “are not, not yet, save for the little one, Deborah Judith.” She frowned, thin lips tight, grey eyebrows drawing down to shade her eyes. Her other hand played with her silver medallion.

“I am his Hunting partner.” Anger warred with caution in Skender’s voice.

Their sister slid her hand sideways like a knife blade. “So is Silver. And you are injured, Skender my brother. As well as stubborn as the stones of the Old Land’s mountains.”

Arthur eased to his feet and retreated to the kitchen long enough to get more coffee. He hid on the rear porch of the big house. He had no desire to taste the rest of that piece of his elder sister’s mind, thank you! Half a cup later, Skender joined him. “Coward,” his brother growled.

“Just so.” More than once he and Shadow had commiserated about women as forces of nature. “Shadow and Silver’s faith shares our difficulty, oh my brother. None dare challenge the Ladies’ Society once they have determined on a course of action.”

A tired snort greeted his words. “Shadow does not realize that he is blessed to have married an orphaned only child.” Laughter, perhaps, under the statement.

Arthur sipped the rest of his coffee. He had crossed paths with the child’s birth mother once. He had understood at that moment why the child had chosen the Streets. “No, he does not. He never met Silver’s dam.”

Silence. “I do not like you Hunting without me.” Silence. “Go wary, little brother.”

How else did he go? Arthur bowed his head and acknowledged the command and warning. He left his cup in the place for such things, then retreated to the small chapel. He bowed to the Presence and the Great God, then knelt and considered matters. At last he rose, bowed once more, and departed. He checked his weapons. After assisting Master Itzak with restocking the Hunters’ armory, he called Silver, once he knew that she would be home from her own worship.

“Sir?”

“We Hunt tonight. Meet me at ten PM, at the old mile marker on the Sauberfeld Road. Another Hunter may join us.”

“Ten PM, old marker on Sauberfeld Road, yes, sir.” A murmur in the background. “Shadow says that the coven is very, very grateful for the assistance. They know that he had help, but no more than that.”

Would Skender ask blood payment? No, that would be Georg’s family, and they might not, given that it was not the coven who led to the Hunter’s death. “I will tell the others.” He ended the call.

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

Saturday Snippet: Sabbath and Work

Deborah studies the land.

Deborah felt a lot more alive the next morning. Again she eased into the hen-house, not moving past the door until the biddies settled once more. Two dozen or so hens roosted in the solid building, built to be coyote, fox, and hawk proof. And skunk proof, although Rosie Jones probably could get in if she really wanted to. It didn’t smell very good, but bird poop and really fresh eggs never did. Deborah drew a little magic from inside and whispered, “Ruhe sanft, meinen Hänchen,” rest quiet, my hens. Soft clucks greeted the spell. Deborah worked quickly. Never herky-jerky but smooth and calm, just like shooting, She gently eased the eggs out from under the hens. If one acted upset, she moved on, then came back. They always settled by the time she returned. Task done, she lifted the spell, pulling magic back into the silver medallion Bunicot had given her.

Aunt Ella blinked a little as Deborah brought in the eggs. “Goodness, Deborah! You’re up early. Did you have trouble sleeping?”

“No, ma’am. I’m just a morning person.” Her mother had teased her once about being a changeling, and how some farm family still puzzled over how they’d produced a night-loving daughter.

Uncle Andy smiled from where he sat at the end of the big kitchen table. “Garry must grumble about you and sunrises.”

She smiled back. Gentle teasing was OK. “Yes, sir. He and Mom keep wondering what they did wrong. Uncle Rodney just laughs at them.”

Her uncle and aunt laughed too, quietly. “Mother always wondered how she could have a night-owl in a family of larks,” Uncle Andy told her. He winked. “Some of us weren’t allowed to be night-owls, even if we wanted to be.”

“Since you’re up, Deborah, could you please take this to Corey? He’s the older man working in the horse barn.” Aunt Ella nodded to a fancy insulated dish carrier. “He prefers to eat on his own when we have a crowd.”

“Yes, ma’am. We met yesterday.” Deborah picked up the well-filled carrier and hurried out before the adults could ask. Breakfast always tasted better hot, especially eggs. Cold eggs didn’t like her, unless they were deviled eggs or in a green salad.

She looked around the horse barn. Where was Corey? After a few seconds she heard work sounds from the room with the tack and other horse gear. She coughed and scuffed a little as she got closer to the tack room. Corey met her at the doorway. She checked her shields, then held out the dish carrier. “Aunt Ella sent this, sir.”

“Thank you.” He slid his hand under the carrier. She let go of the handles once she felt the weight lift out of her hand. He took the food and moved it into the tack room, then came back. “Do you remember how to clean tack?”

Deborah tried to recall. Something about using leather soap, and being really careful with the blankets and pads. “Not well, sir,” she admitted. “Don’t let the blankets or saddle pads touch the ground, and really check them for things that might poke or rub, that much I do remember.”

Corey studied her again. He wore a fancier western shirt with pearl snaps, and clean, dark jeans. “Good. Tomorrow, after your chores, come help me here.” He tipped his head back toward the tack room.

“After my chores, help you here, yes, sir.” He really did remind her of Bunicot’s brother!

“Good.” He disappeared into the tack room again, and she hurried back to the main house. Her aunt had hot water for herbal tea, and Deborah wanted a large mug.

Even on the ranch, they tried to honor the Sabbath as much as possible. Uncle Andy and Uncle Nathan led family worship, and some of the older cousins who were elders assisted. They all gathered in the arbor near a pool in the creek. She noticed Corey standing behind the last row of cousins. Shouldn’t he be with the other adults? She shrugged to herself. He might be on snake patrol, like the uncles did when everyone went swimming or on rides. Snakes in the field were good. Rattlesnakes where people might step on them or sit on them weren’t so good. The wind made the cottonwood and desert oak leaves mutter and slap. The air smelled a little wet, and more dusty and hot, like the rocks around the creek. A few cloud seeds floated very high in the deep blue sky.

Uncle Andy talked about how God always led people to good places, if the people let Him. Some people preferred to ignore God, or disobey him, like the Lamanites, and even the children of Israel, sometimes. “Remember, in Genesis, God made the world and called it good.” Uncle Andy waved at the land around them, hard and beautiful. “People make a place good or bad.”

“Good for what?” Cousin Amos hissed just in front of her. “Putting holes in you is all.”

Well, if he hadn’t decided that he knew better than the adults did about cholla, it wasn’t the plant’s fault, Deborah sniffed silently, behind shields. That plant even looked like it wanted to fight someone. Sort of like centipedes and scorpions. Snakes she liked. Snaky bugs with hundreds of legs? No thank you!

Some people had chores after worship, others read or did quiet things while the ladies and some of the older girls, like Deborah, made dinner. Supper would be leftovers from dinner, if anyone wanted them. Deborah chopped things for salad, then helped Aunt Jo carry gelled salads and things from the big coolers and the house chest freezer to the tables. “I bet you’d fit in there,” a nasty voice drawled from behind her as she reached in to get the table ice.

“Don’t, Zeke.” She closed the heavy lid and started to walk past him.

“Why not? You’re small enough.”

She dodged and slipped well past him before he had a change to do more than smirk.

After dinner, she heard Uncle Jake, Aunt Jo’s husband, say that he wanted a nap. Deborah hurried to her loft, grabbed a hat and put on sunscreen, then visited the washroom before her uncle fell asleep. She found a walking stick in the big bucket of them by the door on the house verandah, and started out. She stayed within sight of the ranch house, but far enough way to have a little quiet. A few buzzards and a golden eagle circled on the rising afternoon air. The baby clouds had grown up, and a few looked as if they wanted to turn grey. Could you cut yourself on the cloud edges? They looked sharp enough, hard clouds in a hard sky over a hard land.

Deborah climbed up the little trail the crossed the creek. She kept to the center of the trail, well away from the rabbit brush, yucca, Mormon tea, and thickets of other bristly plants. Snakes liked to nap in the shade, and she didn’t want to get stuck by a thorn, either. Cousin Brigham had once said that the name for yucca came from the sound made by the first person to back into one. Deborah giggled a little, then stopped and turned to look down at the ranch house.

The bright blue metal roof on the main house stood out against the red and brown rocks and dirt. The red horse barn with its brown roof fit in, sort of, as did the little loft-house. A group of cousins splashed in the creek, and others sat in the porch of the big house, reading or talking. A few people did chores, including the girls and boy assigned to help with the milk cows, or “milch” cows as Uncle Nathan called them. Those cows stayed near the house. The beef cows wandered around the ranch. The white-painted chicken houses and the chicken pen looked sort of right. She heard a soft whisper over her head, and glanced up. The sun glinted for an instant off of an airliner waaaayyyyy above her. Two white cloud trails streamed from the plane, then vanished. A hint of storm top looked as if it was coming from the west. Deborah crouched and touched the ground, easing her shields open.

Dry and old, so very old. The dirt came from old rocks on older rocks and had been here for a very long time. It made her want to sneeze, sort of. A shield of some kind arced over the home place. She didn’t try to learn more. Instead she just felt the land, trying to get a sense of things. Everything felt good, pretty much. At least nothing jumped out, not like that one icky spot north of the clan’s lands in the hills that Mistress Cimbrissa and Mrs. Schmidt both said to stay away from. “Like not poking something that’s rotting?” she’d asked.

“Exactly. If it’s not bothering you, don’t bother it,” Mrs. Schmidt had stated. Her Familiars had nodded in unison.

Wait, what was that? Something shifted, bounced along to the west of the ranch. It felt a little like the Coyote she’d met two mornings before, except not quite. But Coyotes could play tricks on people, everyone knew that. Deborah raised her shields and pulled her magic closer to herself. A soft grumbling growl sounded from the north, a little rumble.

“Craw! Craw!” The largest raven she’d seen in a while circled over her, then soared on. Ravens made the crows back home look tiny. The first time she’d seen a ranch raven, she’d almost panicked until her brother Art explained that these were real ravens, not transformations like poor Cousin Corava. Deborah blinked, then pushed her hat back and looked to the north.

A heavy stream of rain, blue-grey, swept down over the crimson and grey-cream mesas. A cool puff of air, heavy with desert rose and moisture, brushed her face and made the bushes around her rattle a little. A tongue of lightning flashed down. Another rumble followed, this one louder. “Thunderbird hunts,” she whispered, then turned and hurried down the trail. She trotted with great care, slowing to a crawl almost as she eased down the slope to the creek. If she turned an ankle or knee on the loose rock and dirt, she’d hurt. And she’d get teased, and have to do house chores all the time.

“Something chasing you?” Cousin Brigham called from beside the creek. He sounded worried.

“Storm coming. I don’t want to be the highest thing on the mesa.”

Uncle Andy blew a small whistle and waved his arm. He held a red shop-rag in one hand. “Out of the water, for now. Storm coming,” he hollered. “Thank you, Deborah.”

A wave of cold air washed over them, and Deborah joined the small stampede to the ranch house porch. Gush! Cold rain rumbled down, and lightening danced on the mesa. She made herself flat against the wall of the sturdy stone and wood house. The storm belonged, it fit the place, but it still spooked her a little. Things traveled in storms, her dad had warned her, things as old as people, almost as old as the land itself. They belonged. She didn’t, not quite. The storm passed as fast as it arrived, leaving damp diamonds glittering on the plants and puddles here and there. The puddles dried quickly, except for that one place. Deborah had learned about that from Hiram, who had almost lost a sneaker forever. They’d never gotten all the red off of his shoes, and their mom had threatened Hi with a dire fate of some kind. Mom had never specified which fate, but she never needed to, either!  

Roads, Home, and Wanderers

The first time I heard Marta Keen’s song “Homeward Bound,” a defense contractor had made a video of US service men and women about those who were out and would come home again and used that as the background music. This was 2003 or so. Ever since then, the song always takes my breath a little. I’ve used it as inspiration for several scenes. It is not the only song that makes me wonder about people who are away and turning toward home, or looking for home.

I was working on the story, or perhaps “extended scene” “Haven of Rest,” about Martha, the widowed herb-wife, and the Hunter who calls himself Jude. Why I even started the piece, I have no idea, but I had a recording by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the baritone Bryn Terfel that includes “Homeward Bound.” It may be my favorite version of that song, although their pure choral version is also very good. That song also inspired a scene in one of the Cat books, where Rada assures Joschka that she will always try to return to him. She can’t promise that she will come home, they both know that. But she will try.

The theme of the ones who go out and the ones who wait runs through most of my stories, I think because it has been true for so much of human life. Men hunted, or went out and traded, or went to war, or explored. Women stayed at home, tended the home place, managed the business and household, raised children, and waited. It’s a theme that appears in music as far back as ballads go. “Shenandoah” is probably the first one that I learned, the capstan shanty. It has been arranged by almost everyone, it seems, which suggests that it speaks to a lot of people. Gregorian’s setting of the Dire Straits song “Brothers in Arms” kicked off detail in a scene in an earlier Cat novel, since what came to mind didn’t really work for Rada or her associates, but needed to go into a story. It also finds a place in the fragment “Donald McGillivray,” which may or may not ever become a full-fledged story.

When I was younger, I tended to wander a fair amount. Which collided hard with my need to nest, to have a place to come back to. In the fall, when the weather changes, I get that itch again, the urge to roam, to head west to see what’s over the horizon. Stan Rogers’ “The Giant” hints that perhaps it’s in my blood, one of those things that never quite leaves those of us with proto-Indo-European in our veins. But I also heartily agree with the lyrics of Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home.” Away and back, away and back, wandering and finding my own place and way, but still thinking of what I left, perhaps wondering where I went astray (if I did), it’s a pattern found in stories back to The Odyssey and earlier.

Young men go out, viking, or raiding, or exploring, getting it out of their systems and returning to be stable men of the community. Some older men go out as well, called by “Something lost beyond the ranges/ Something lost and waiting, Go!” as Kipling put it. Or called to protect what remains at home.

The lone Hunter isn’t Arthur 2.0, or André. Jude is more bookish, not quite a nerd but bordering on it for clan versions of bookish. He’s pretty well balanced emotionally, for someone who intended to die—perhaps—and failed. Arthur fought with every atom of his being to live, if only to spite those who wanted him dead. Jude likes baking, and does it very well. But Jude is in exile, not entirely self imposed, and has his own challenges. He’s alone, and that could well be his death.

Until he risks his life—perhaps—to warn Arthur about a nosferitau . . . And sets one foot on what might be the long road home.

Saturday Snippet: Deborah and the Barn

Deborah is visiting the Priesterson ranch. She’s already met a local . . . perhaps. She’s between her freshman and sophomore years in high school.

A few birds began chirping, sleepy sounding. That reminded her. Deborah found the basket for eggs and gathered the morning’s bounty. She carried the warm eggs to the kitchen and set them in the proper bowl, helpfully labeled “New Eggs here.” The basket went  on the floor under the shelf with a down-pointing arrow and “egg basket.” Other containers and drawers also bore notes, telling the new arrivals where to find what they all needed for their various chores. Deborah washed her hands, then went back outside. False dawn faded the stars even more, leaving only Venus and a few others in the pale grey sky. She lowered her shield a whisker and crouched, fingers brushing the hard-trodden soil of the ranch yard.

The shielded person she’d felt the day before belonged. That person also moved in the horse barn. Should she? It might be rude not to, now that a Coyote had introduced himself. A tiny hint of breeze tickled her neck under her ponytail, chilly and dry. They never had wind so dry and dusty back home. She walked quietly, moving across the yard like a Hunter. She stopped in the open doorway of the horse barn and waited.

A figure with iron-grey hair pulled back in a thick braid tossed a pail of water into a stall, then chased the water into a drain with a big broom. The broom made wet, scratchy sounds across the hard floor. He stopped his work and turned toward her.

“May I help, sir?” she called quietly. “I’ve done my morning chore already.”

Dark eyes in a dark, reddish-tan face studied her. “Yes. Broom’s in the open room. Main aisle.”

“Yes sir.” He spoke like Bunicot’s big brother, as if he feared running out of words. She found the room full of cleaning things, wiggled a heavy push-broom out of its clamp on the wall, and swept. Several horses left their breakfasts to study her. She concentrated on being quiet and smooth. Uncle Nathan didn’t like people upsetting his animals. She chased dust and a few bits of this and that back out into the yard, then did it again, down the other side of the aisle. The horses returned to eating, except for a big, heavy-headed black and white spotted horse who sniffed at her head as she passed. She stopped and let him sniff again, then offered him her hand. He sniffed, then snorted onto her palm. Warm lips and prickly whiskers brushed her palm.

“Huh. Stroke his nose.” She did as told, boggling a little at how small her hand seemed. The short, soft black and white hair felt warm under her fingers. “Huh.” The head lifted and the big horse backed away. “Are you Shadow’s child?”

“Yes, sir.” How did he know her father’s working name?

The man carried the same sense as her dad, and Mr. Radescu, and one of the Hunters. He watched everything without watching, and stood very straight. He carried a waiting stillness along with his shields. The man wore a denim shirt and work jeans with a few stains. Something hung from a coal-black cord around his neck. Whatever it was hid inside the man’s shirt. He stood taller than her, but shorter than her uncles, and a lot sturdier. “You’re quiet,” he stated. “You can help.”

Deborah sensed that she’d been given a privilege. “Thank you, sir.”

“Call me Corey. Finish and go get food.”

“Corey. Yes sir.” He returned to his work and she finished sweeping. She wrestled the broom back into its clamp, and did not hit herself in the head. Task done, she hurried to the small house, washed her hands and face, and joined the flow of sleepy cousins drifting to the main house.

She spent the rest of the day re-learning where everything was, and what to stay away from. Unlike her brother Hiram, she had no interest in trying to drive one of the big trucks or a tractor. The garden and poultry runs held more interest. And fewer cousin and aunts and uncles. She wasn’t as winded as she’d been yesterday, but she still felt very tired by supper time. After supper, she approached her oldest uncle, who ran the ranch. “Uncle Nathan, I still feel tired and a little light-headed, May I be excused?”

He frowned, looking a little like her dad, then nodded. “Yes, you may.” One of the younger cousins, Zeke, started to laugh at her. Uncle Nathan wagged his finger. “No. Some people need more time to acclimate than others. Better to go easy now then get sick.”

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Sibling Collision

Boianti and Skender agree to disagree. [NOTE: I will not post any more excerpts from White Gold of Empire. I am beginning revisions and will be asking for volunteer beta readers.]

That night Arthur passed the word to his brother, and showed him the maps. Skender paced the length of the gathering barn twice before speaking. “I do not care for this.” Arthur waited, still and calm. Something more than just the undead irritated the senior Hunter. A bat fluttered out the large open doorway. Perhaps it would devour the mosquitoes plaguing the lowlands and starting to pester the home farm as well. “Two. Two unclean things move. One of the covens, the one that works near the Bauer farm, asked Shadow to guard their midsummer working. They fear something in the darkness, even on the turning of summer.”

“Perhaps because of the turning.” Arthur turned his left hand palm up. “From longer to shorter, and a new moon. They follow Wicca, as Ink at the print shop does.” He disagreed, but he saw no grounds to impose beliefs on the erring, so long as they erred on the side of the Light and peace.

“Perhaps. I care not for it.” Skender paced once again, then drew close indeed to his brother. He spoke so quietly Arthur almost could not hear. “Corava may be with child.”

“Ah.” Nothing more need be said, should be said. To do so risked the life of mother and child-to-be. 

Skender stepped clear once more. “Shadow asks that a few Hunters assist him watching over the coven. He . . . has never requested such in the past.” Skender rubbed the lower half of his face, squarer and stronger than Arthur’s own. “I am inclined to agree.”

Arthur nodded. “It would not be amiss to even the balance with the workers of shadow.” The clan and the shadow workers kept no accounts, but they could not have succeeded in the Terrible Hunt without the shadow mages. No one wanted to be in debt to magic workers.

“Indeed.” Skender folded his arms. “You will not Hunt with us.”

He bared his teeth oh so slightly. “I can link with Shadow.” His brother could not, nor could Raabe work magic for the foreseeable future.

Sheer muscle slammed him into one of the heavy beams supporting the hay loft and roof. The force drove the air from his lungs and brought dust sifting down onto their heads. “Do. Not. Defy. Me.” The dim light from the main house and the stars glinted off steel in his brother’s right hand.

Fire flared in Arthur’s blood. Ice flashed through his veins even faster, and he regained control of himself. He inhaled slowly and tipped his head back, throat bared to the steel. “I refrain from your Hunt.”

The knife returned to its sheath. “You and Silver, reserve. I do not trust the taste in the wind.” With that Skender stalked away.

Arthur remained where he stood, motionless, until he heard naught save night sounds. How long since he had challenged his brother? Before the shop had opened, that much he did recall. He had survived, but recovery had required weeks. His body would not fare so well now. He closed his eyes for the briefest of moments. Movement, now, or the rage would return. It must be cleared from his blood. He bared his teeth. “Your Hunt. Not mine.”

He parked well away from the place of the disturbed graves, on the opposite side of an overgrown woodlot. The current owner no doubt thought that good stewardship equaled neglect. Arthur ghosted through the trees and overgrown brush, scowling at the overly-healthy patches of nettles. Poison ivy waited too, he suspected. A deer hurried away, and he heard the small creatures scuttling and creeping about their own business. Night birds called, and a great-horned owl voiced her opinion of matters. He smelled crushed leaves, and mud, undercut with a tease of wood smoke and cooked meat. A festive summer campfire or bonfire, probably. He shifted his attention down, studying the lower trunks of the trees.

Ah. One trail camera pointed across the faint deer path. He detoured around it. Closer to the graveyard, two very new cameras stared into the night. The scent of plastic and rubber told everything with a nose that man had been in the area. He rolled his eyes, then studied the boxes and smiled. They’d used the kind with easy-to-replace batteries. Easy to remove as well, should someone need to do so. He ghosted closer and studied the top of the closest box. He had only to add a USB link with a small video file, and the cameras would show precisely nothing for as long as needed, should it be needed. He crept in a spiral around the area of interest and found two more cameras, same model, and the one on the gate. It had already developed a problem, or so it seemed. He did not test it. There was no need, not yet.

He could just discern the new grave, and disturbed ground not far from the new one. He touched the beads in his pocket and twisted his vision for an instant. The cemetery remained hallowed, and the consecration had been renewed within the past few years. Thank You, he silently murmured. That eased one fear, perhaps.

Arthur eased away from the cemetery and turned his attention to the field. Clover or another low ground-cover crop covered the heavy soil, except for one patch. There a few sickly plants struggled to hold down the dirt, freshly churned dirt. He started to curse, then caught himself. Lady of Night, St. Michael protector of the Lady, something foul waited under the soil. How could others not smell, taste the corruption in the very air? Perhaps it was good that they could not, so they did not go poking. He did not flee, but he departed with equal care and far greater haste, not stopping until he reached the car. He cleaned his boots, changed them for a different pair, hid the stalking boots in the trunk, then drove away.

Instead of returning to the farm, he parked at one of the scenic overlooks the state had provided for those who insisted at staring into the valley instead of at the road. He stretched, then leaned against the metal of the dark car. Arms folded, Arthur studied the stars, then the glowing spill of Riverton’s lights below. Did he Hunt a mere nosferitau, or something in the guise of a nosferitau? He needed more than Silver, but could he ask? Perhaps the lone Hunter, the only one to remain on his own? Arthur snorted. No, that one had his own tasks. Did Skender even remember that he lived? Probably best not to remind him, not now. The soft night wind caressed his cheek, then murmured on its way. Traffic sounds faded as the stars moved across the sky.

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