State of the Author, September ’21

Short version: less frazzled than last week.

Longer version:

The short story for the next Tales Around the Supper Table anthology is done. I’m going to give it another once-over, now that it has “rested,” and send it off to the editor. That collection should be *taps wood* out later this fall.

I got the draft of White Gold and Empire done last weekend. It needs major revision before it goes to the alpha readers, mostly to get the “voice” unified across the book. Keep in mind, I started it in the fall of ’19, then set it aside, so it needs to be smoothed out, and one big plot thread tucked away.

I have the plot for another Merchant book sketched out. I’m going to work on it for NaNoWriMo (November). The tentative title is City, Priest, and Empire, and it is set at the end of the Great Cold. It appears that I can’t really do a good Merchant world book unless I am immersed in Central Europe stuff, either being there or doing a lot of heavy research for something else. *shrug* #WriterWorldProblems

The stories for Familiar Paths are well underway, and I hope to have those done by the end of October, for a December release.

I know how the next Elect story will go, it is a matter of clearing space in my head to work on it, now that the reference book I needed has arrived. The main character is Paulus, and the female lead doesn’t have a name yet. She’s an environmental science major with more Grand Plans than sense, at least until reality, ahem, bites.

Day Job is rather calm for the moment this term, as usually happens. Spring is when things tend to go rodeo.

Thursday Tidbit: A Hunter’s Lair

Arthur’s evening, when he’s not Hunting (or filling orders, or cursing software, or . . .)

Kssss! Blade slid across gleaming blade. Skender pressed the attack, using his greater strength to force Arthur back. He bared his teeth and twisted, then ducked to the side and feinted with his left hand. A deep snarl greeted his evasion and Skender swung hard. Too hard. Arthur leaped, then shoved his brother’s shoulder as he came down. The blow caught Skender at full extension and off balance, unable to regain his footing. Thud, he landed on his face in the soft dirt of the practice ring. Arthur staggered, caught himself, spun, and came up on guard. Red haze filled his vision.

“Break! Break now!” two voices commanded. Ladislu and one of the Healers, Arthur’s younger sister, ordered the halt. Arthur saluted and sheathed his sword. He breathed slowly, pulling the still-warm, humid air into his lungs. He exhaled fury and adrenaline both with the breath as he calmed mind and body. Murmurs rose from the younger Hunters. He turned to face them. Silence, and two stepped back, away from him. Arkady swallowed loudly, face pale. Perhaps he would cease pushing his seniors for the next while.

He turned back to face his older brother. Skender rolled to a seated position. “Damn it, Boianti. Too much time you spend with that lemur. You are half become one.” No malice in the malediction, perhaps a touch of humor. Skender accepted Ladislu’s extended hand, regained his feet, and kept his weapon. Ladislu sketched a bow and backed out of the ring. Skender saluted both judge and opponent, then slid his blade into the sheath hanging between his shoulders. He breathed hard, beads of sweat making his forehead shine in the dim light from the lamps in the now-empty barn.

“Point to Boianti,” Ladislu declared. “But that was a true desperation counter, sir.” The faintest hint of disapproval colored his dispassionate tone.

Arthur nodded only sufficient to be seen by the judge. He turned to face the younger Hunters once more. “What result should that move be used against many of the beasts we hunt?” he asked.

Quiet. He heard Skender—no, felt Skender—moving to stand at his left shoulder. Georg shifted his weight, then said, “Sir, it might catch you in air, impale you should it posses claws or digits of sufficient length and strength?”

“Correct.”

“A second beast, concealed, could catch you as you land, sir?” Tadeuz spoke with greater confidence. He had survived an ambush, but not without a scars.

“Also correct.” He waited.

Rendor spoke from the pool of darkness where he and several other inactive Hunters stood. “Sir, a magic user could cast a spell to catch and hold you as you descended, or to tangle you as you touched ground.” We,” he gestured to the Hunters, “do not always consider magic literally under our feet. Shadow, the big redhead, Silver would all do the like.”

“As would the sorcerer called Spots,” Skender growled. “Here, at this moment, we Hunt no known magic users. That is . . . not always so.”

Arthur inclined his head in agreement. “Exactly so. The Terrible Hunt.” He let the others nod or snarl. “Strong magic aided us. Come the future?” Hunters Hunted against magic users, more often than not. So had it always been. The pups needed to learn that, or die.

Rendor bowed, left the shadows, and approached the ring. “Florian,” he called.

Florian grinned, teeth full bared, bowed with an extravagant flourish, and joined his elder in the ring. Nikolai, Florian’s Hunting partner, rolled his eyes and whispered, “Lady of Night, lend me patience,” sufficiently loud for all to hear. Florian ignored the jibe as he and Rendor saluted the judge, then each other. Skender stalked to the left. He passed behind the judge to stand as secondary watcher. Skender’s fingers flicked the pattern of dismissal. Arthur acknowledged the command and departed for the main house. He smiled to himself, once clear of the other Hunters. He had not bested his brother for several years.

Soft summer stars shimmered above him. The waning moon slept yet, her light hidden by the gently rolling land. A bat fluttered past and avoided him with an adroit tumble. The child bemoaned her inability to enjoy nights as she had once done. He inhaled. Warm, life-rich summer night smells flowed around him. The usual night sounds of the home farm filled his ears. “Who-hoo!” He froze, one foot on the lowest step of the main house.

“How-hoo!”

He drew the silver dagger from his boot sheath and triggered the shield spell in his signet ring. A faint bitterness tainted the air. Where? He turned, listened, tasted the wind for more hints.

“It passes, Hunter. It lingers not.” His eldest sister spoke from the deep porch surrounding the house.

He bowed to her and returned weapon and shield to their proper places. “It watches.” He climbed the steps and joined her.

She nodded, then gazed into the night with white-clouded eyes. What did she see? “It watches and waits. It is canny, and old.” She turned to him. “That concerns me.”

He opened the house’s main door for her, then followed her through. A shield closed behind them as the door latch touched the plate. “I shall wash, then join you,” he said. He did not care to eat while smelling of dirt and sweat.

“Yes.”

[snip]

Food, his eldest sister, and Raj and Corava awaited him in the small dining room. “Eat, please,” his sister ordered. “We have already dined, including you, small mistress.” She shook a warning finger at the Pallas cat. Raj gave her a look of feline hauteur and remained in the chair, head well above the top of the table. Arthur ignored the determined stare and served himself. He murmured his thanks, then sat and ate.

[SNIP]

“Before you inquire, that is not Charles the Bold Bird in the stew.” His eldest sister’s irritation drew a curious look. “Skender knows better than to go into the poultry yard without performing the proper rituals.”

Again, he smiled at his brother’s expense. “Indeed. All know that monarchs demand the honors due their dignity and rank.” And due their very sharp spurs and beak! “I confess, I still savor the memory of Tay and Rodney fleeing in panic from Charles’ wrath.”

He sipped the dry summer white wine, blended with a hint of sweet apple juice. His thoughts returned to the Hunt. “The undead. A full Hunt at the dark of the moon?” Which would also be midsummer night, he realized. Would the two balance?

Corava turned her hands in a gesture of uncertainty. “Something else shifts, sir, and we . . . are not certain which is a greater threat.”

Alas, that matched what Tay had said the day before. Perhaps the two would meet and destroy each other? No, such never happened in his world. Use one evil to track the other? No, but . . . “Imperotessa, could Wings track the undead in owl form?” He would have Silver request Wings’ assistance, should it prove possible.

The large cat’s golden brown eyes narrowed, and her long whiskers tipped back as did her ears. He heard the swish of her tail. “It is possible, Pisicagheara, but only should she find the nosferitau with eye first, then her mage and Silver help track the ill presence. Wings recovers from a hard working, and might refuse.” Her tone implied likely refusal.

“Thank you.” He stood. “And thank you.” He bowed to his sister, and then to his sister-by-marriage.

“You are welcome. May the Lady watch you this night.” His sister locked eyes with him. “Go wary, brother. We know not the second presence.”

He inclined toward her once more. “Wary shall I go.”

He heard the other Hunters dispersing as he descended the steps behind the house. Where could he rest? Not on clan land. Like as not one of the two creatures of darkness had begun to track him. Not the concealed place in the warehouse, either, not tonight. One of the pups would challenge him, or think to take him by surprise. Arkady, mayhap, or one of the others who still did not truly realize the price of failure. Four years had passed since he or Skender had blooded a fellow Hunter outside of formal training. Fifteen, perhaps, since either had killed a fellow Hunter. The youngsters grew overbold.

He studied the stars and tasted the wind’s scent as he prowled through the shadows. A hint of river, so faint as to be almost unnoticeable, caressed him. “Thank You, Lady of Night.” He started the nondescript dark sedan and drove with care down the faint tertiary path away from the home farm. It required him to open and close a half-hidden gate. The hinges resisted, then protested as they complied. Someone had failed to do his duty to ensure that the gate could be opened. Someone would regret that carelessness.

Arthur drove slowly once he reached the edge of the bluffs over the river, upstream of the city. The valley below grew rugged and narrowed, with a half-dry, marshy side-channel for part of the run. No one had cared to settle the flood and miasma prone stretch. Now the land belonged to River and Devon Counties, preserved for nature. No one knew of the old mine—or perhaps quarry—tucked into the bluff. He had found it by accident, then found its secret and took both as signs, with gratitude.

He parked in a secluded opening and listened. Only the proper night sounds came to his ears. A small animal hurried about its business, and the breeze whispered in the heavy summer leaves. The air smelled cleaner despite the heat-miasma rising from the bar, muddy places below. Arthur nodded to himself and crept down a small, twisting animal trail. The narrow way descended below the crest of the bluff, hidden by the heavy canopy and thick trees. A skunk had expressed pungent displeasure, nose-searing displeasure. Raccoon scat and half-eaten sumac buds littered the ground. Deer had nipped tender shoots here and there. All appeared well, for the moment.

He waited several minutes before he eased down the slope to the old mine. Or perhaps quarry, but the work stopped where a coal seam faded into the bluff. Nothing moved or appeared to have changed, so he ventured into the darkness. Unlike the spring cavern, this remained dry. Animals avoided it, for reasons he did not quite understand. The floor sloped up, climbing a few feet as he walked, bowing lower as the tunnel progressed. Not sand but fine stone covered the floor, smoother than the sandy stone and not as gritty to the touch. The passage widened once more, allowing him almost to stand. The tunnel seemed to stop, save that it turned hard to the right. Air moved, warm in summer, cool in winter. That had reassured him—a second way out existed, even if it would take much work to find and use.

Over time he had cached a few things here, weapons, food, other necessities. All wise Hunters did such, if they could. None knew when friend might become foe, alliances shift, and the Hunters become hunted. Better to prepare for dangerous times then to die for lack of a place of refuge. Arthur brushed off the stone bench left by the long-forgotten miners and spread an old, dirt-brown blanket across the cool, tight-grained stone. He could sleep on bare stone, had done so in the past, but preferred not to save of necessity. He removed his boots and set them and his knives within easy reach. He lay down and composed himself for rest. “Great God be with me, if it is Your will,” he whispered as he closed his eyes. “Lady of Night, watch over Your servant and protect me if it is Your will.” He slowed his breathing and relaxed tired muscles. Rest came easily.  

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

Thursday Tidbit: Arthur and . . .

Drak, I give in. Here’s the start of the answer to your question.

He considered the matter, then pushed his chair back from the desk and stood. The child hummed to the music as she counted the books, confirming his earlier tally, less the recently sold. Tay, her Familiar, napped under the sales counter. The lemur likely communed with the other Familiars as he slept. No customers disturbed the moment. Not that he objected to their trade—far from it!—but a moment for Hunter matters was needful. The child wore a simple black blouse and skirt, appropriate for the sticky heat that filled Riverton, trapped in the river valley. She moved with gentle grace, despite her plaints of clumsiness. He watched, smiling a little, then brushed through the bead curtain. The soft clatter warned the child of his presence. She turned and dipped a small curtsy. He acknowledged the honor, then said, “Silver, what know you of,” he caught the word, changed it, “vampires?”

She too hesitated before speaking. Slowly, with care, she ventured, “Ah, they are the cursed undead. True vampires, not,” she waved the inventory list at the books. “They are not romantic, or tragic heroes, or especially attractive unless they try to be.” The child swallowed. “Ah, you don’t want one in the neighborhood. I think, perhaps, sir, staking or beheading one will destroy it?”

He caught himself before he frowned. Why did she sound fearful? Had she encountered one? He set the thought aside for now. “Correct, although there are other ways to destroy a nosferitau, or strigoi or moroi as others term them.” She released the tension in her shoulders and hands. Should he speak of the observation? Yes. “I ask, Mrs. Lestrang, because the younger Hunters and a woman of the clan report finding signs of a nosferitau. It is hoped that only one lurks, but the sign had faded in the recent dampness.”

The child’s crooked smile echoed his own feelings regarding the recent rains. “Master Saldovado, if this is damp, I fear to imagine wet.” She sobered. “Should I pass the news to Master Lestrang?”

“Yes.” Half-familiar cords came from the speakers above their heads. The child gulped, her right hand moving to touch her silver St. Michael medallion. He too listened. “Prince of the Night” by Stygian Black. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not. The dark shimmer of the door chime ended the conversation, and he returned to the office. The sooner he resumed cross-checking the customs fees with the charged prices for imported goods, the sooner the chore would be finished.

When Corava Istrate, his sister-by-marriage, and her Familiar arrived that afternoon, she said, “Unchi Art’ur, an owl called twice, then twice more as the youngest Hunters trained. Your nume fiiu said that the call matched not the owls known to this land. Imperotessa reports that Wings pursued her prey elsewhere.” Corava frowned, reaching to touch her grey head scarf. She had yet to remove it before starting work. “The other magic workers have not looked for traces.”

Once the sun rose, traces would burn away, were they in full sun. “Thank you. I have warned Silver that a nosferitau moves.” How did he know? He frowned to himself and held that thought for later. “Please help her with the inventory.”

Corava’s Familiar, Raj, the over-size Pallas cat, took Corava’s place in the doorway.

“Something moves,” Raj said, golden-brown eyes intent on his. “The other Familiars and their mages sense ill presences. Shadow told Beaker.” She sighed. “Much would be simpler could Beaker act freely, or Letters came into his full gifts.”

“Hmm.” Perhaps that explained his own certainty. “Should we, the Hunters, go seeking?”

Tay, the magic-whitened lemur, joined Raj. She looked to the lemur. He sat and lifted his forefeet, as if he were a pan-scale. “Find the ill, or one of them.” He lowered his left paw. “Wear yourselves out and yet face a second foe.” The right paw descended until both paws balanced once again.

He nodded. The possible gain and possible risk balanced. He need not act just yet. “We watch and wait. A false track is worse than no track.”

Orange eyes held his. “Indeed, Hunter-born.”

Irritation erupted in the shop. “What? No, they didn’t— Tay!”

“Raj, you bad cat!”

The Familiars slapped paws and bolted, no doubt seeking refuge among the boxes in the far corner of the workroom. He kept his eyes on the bare, cream-painted wall until he mastered his amusement. The small masters truly were a law unto themselves. Should he arise and see what mischief had transpired? No. Better to pretend ignorance, as he did with so many other matters. He returned his attention to the pending import tariff changes for media and books. They had been left unaltered for half a decade. Someone had felt the need to rectify that oversight, alas.

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

Saturday Snippet Two: A Quiet Haven

So, Margaret Ball over at MGC gets the credit/blame for this proto-story, and Cedar kicked it from idea into words-on-screen. It is in the Familiar-verse.

Martha heard the usual pattern of soft taps on the back door. He had a key, but never came in without warning her in some way. She dried her hands on the dishtowel and opened the door. “Enter and be welcome.”

He bowed. “Thank you.” He wiped his feet carefully on the mat, then handed her the brown cloth tote bag that he carried. “You might want to freeze it.”

“Thank you. There’s hot tea, cinnamon apple, if you would like some.” She peeked in the bag as he closed and locked the door. Fresh meat, probably venison or wild pig, not poultry. She did not ask, just as she did not ask about other things. “I have some spare freezer bags.” Martha busied herself bagging the meat and tucking it into the big chest freezer in the garage. He would be fixing the tea the way he preferred it, and sitting in the living room chair that she considered his.

Indeed, when she returned, he’d gently shooed Bauxite off of the chair. The black cat sulked as only cats could, back to both of them, soaking up the heat from the woodstove. He’d also added a small log before sitting. Martha sat as well and picked up her needlework, pinning more of a quilt top together. The blue and cream fabric comforted her eyes. After several minutes of quiet, he opened his eyes. She asked, “How are you?”

He smiled, revealing teeth a little sharper than most people’s. “I’m well. Just tired.” The smile faded. “Ah, may I stay the night? And tomorrow as well, perhaps? The storm will be here sooner than I’d anticipated.”

She considered her schedule, and the weather. No one would be coming to visit that she knew of. The plumber and the propane delivery man had both stopped in that morning. “Yes, you may. The bed in the guest room has clean sheets, and the plumber cleaned out the line in the bathroom.” She rotated the fabric and considered the seam allowances. “Tree roots in the line, as you would expect.”

“They do have a knack,” he replied, smiling again. “Thank you. I don’t want to impose.”

He never imposed, not even the night he’d first appeared, half-dead and badly injured, in her kitchen garden.

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

Saturday Snippet: Master and his House

Art and Meister Gruenewald return to the Old Lizard’s lair.

Two days later, Art waited at Meister Gruenewald’s shoulder as the sorcerer of shadow worked a complicated spell. A layered series of shields and defenses unlocked, and they passed through a plain iron-bound wooden door. The defenses closed behind them, then the door thumped shut. M.G. relaxed, as much as he ever did. “Go,” he ordered. “We will discuss matters in the morning.”

Art bowed and went. The small, rugged fortress sat tucked against a south-facing slope in the highlands of the Black Forest. The building’s roots went back at least to the Romans, probably long before if Art understood the archaeology correctly. The dense, thick stone walls trapped the cold and never warmed, no matter how hot summer might be. Nor did they chill any farther during the winter. Or so Art’s dad said. Art enjoyed the coolness as he plodded up the stone steps to his room. Meister Gruenewald had worked him hard on that last day in Slovakia, and Master Pytor had tossed in a few surprises of his own. Since he remained among the living, Art assumed that he’d passed. “Yeah, I can see why Dad and Mike like having the Atlantic between them and their teacher.” He dumped his travel bag on the heavy wood and leather chair beside the table in his room and flopped onto the bed for a moment. Traveling by second-class economy train wore him out, in part because of holding an illusion for the entire trip.

With a grumble and groan, Art rolled into a sitting position, then stood. “Hot shower. All else follows.” Just how M.G. managed to evade utility bills, especially gas and electricity bills, remained a closely guarded secret and one Art preferred not to know. He appreciated the American-style shower, however. Washed, dried, and dressed in warmer clothes, Art descended to the ground floor and strolled to the dining room.

Szymon nodded and gestured to the food-laden table. Art touched his forehead with two fingers in a sort of salute and grabbed a plate. M.G. ate when he needed to, whenever that might be, as did his students. Food remained available and plentiful, in part because everyone chipped in as best they could. Over half of Art’s fellowship had gone into the communal food pool. Since M.G. provided housing and access to research materials, Art was not going to complain at all. He helped himself to pork stew, fresh peas and baby onions, Spanish rice with shrimp, and something in a white sauce that looked French. Nope, Scandinavian, or so his taste buds suggested as the flavor of smoked salted fish filled his mouth. Everything served could be kept warm over small heaters augmented by magic. Only M.G. could have gotten away with that kind of waste of power. Or was it a waste? Not to M.G. Art ate and let his brain rest.

“The journey?” the solid Polish sorcerer inquired.

“Mostly quiet, sir. We shared the car with a university hiking club on their way home.”

Szymon gave him a knowing smile. “Hiking club.”

Mouth full, Art just nodded. The young men had obviously enjoyed refreshing themselves with the regional beers during and after their hikes. Several had acted determined to continue enjoying the outing, loudly and with much song. Not in tune or entirely comprehensible, but enthusiastic and cheerful, thanks be. They reminded Art of some of the guys in the grad-student dorm back in Riverton, except the Germans held their beer a lot better. Well, they’d had more experience, and didn’t drink to get plastered, unlike that one dude down the hall.

Edite sagged into the chair beside Art. The Portuguese sorceress flopped against the high back of the chair and imitated a deceased heroine of a Portuguese fado. Art raised his eyebrows but otherwise ignored the drama in favor of eating. Edite straightened up and sniffed. “The new book in the library. It refuses to cooperate with me.”

Szymon finished his rice and asked, “The bestiary or the grimoire?”

“Grimoire.” She braced on the arms of the chair and stood, then went to get food.

Art ate more and looked a question at M.G.’s current assistant. Szymon lifted his empty hand off the top of the pale wooden table and turned it palm up in a shrug of sorts. “It is supposed to be from a Polish collection originally, then looted and taken to Berlin, and from there to Paris before being sold as an incunabula. Half of it is a manuscript, and whoever wrote down their spells and potions should have hired a proper clerk.”

Which meant no doubt that M.G. would want Art to tackle it. Art asked, “Any theme in particular, sir, or just a general personal collection?”

“General personal, although there are a lot of what appear to be transformation spells in it. Many are repetitions of the printed text, but two of the others seem unique. The book was sold as a treatise on were-transformations.”

Oh no. Art’s meal turned into a lump of lead in his gut. He finished his glass of mineral water and said, “A woman named Claudia visited Chlotilda and Pytor, seeking information on plants that could ease transformation spells. She acted wary of Meister Gruenewald.”

“How curious,” Edite said as she set her plate down. She sat, murmured a prayer, then picked up her fork. “Marija ball-called from Krakow, warning about rumors of someone experimenting with transformations. Only of animals into other animals, thus far. She didn’t have any further details. Heike and Walburga sent the warning to Marija. The pair were called to deal with something in Silesia. Marija didn’t have details of that encounter yet, either.” Edite waved her left hand with frustration as she began devouring the rice and shrimp. “Needs more pepper,” she pronounced, then ate more.

“I’ll see if I can get Master Lestrang’s recipe for curry,” Art threatened. “Even his Familiar is scared of it.”

Szymon pretended to cast a ward over the food table. “I ate one of Master Lestrang’s curries. One. I have not yet recovered.”

What would they do if they met his dad’s chili? Breathe fire, then flee, probably. Art gnawed on a slice of bread before using it to mop up the last of the stew in his bowl. The Europeans gave him slightly bothered looks, as if worried that his barbaric ways might be contagious. They’d never been hungry. He had.

Art slept very well that night. He dreamed just before dawn, and woke up shivering. He sat, head in hands, until the last shreds of the dream receded. “Ugh. How can I dream a reaction headache? That’s not right.” He didn’t say fair, lest the karma bus make a detour his direction. Bits of the fight with the crazy sorceress who had held Aunt Corava in raven form had blended into the story of the twit who tried to turn herself into a jaguar. Art had been on the edge of that mess, mostly holding a shield as Naphtha and Ink disassembled the spell after Gears and Conqueror had tracked the chick down. What had she been thinking, to cast a spell that required a spoken key to end? Art hadn’t lingered to find out. Not with a test to proctor at eight the next morning!

“I don’t like transformations,” he grumbled as he got ready to face the day. A quick glance out the window showed tatters of grey cloud snagging the higher peaks to the south, and misty rain moving in from the west. At least it would break the heat wave everyone complained about. Art ate a hearty and solitary breakfast, then went to the small weapons room and practiced again with blade and spell shield. Thus exercised and fed, he girded his mental loins and braved the archive.

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

Saturday Snippet: Like Grandfather, Like Grandson

Thomas Arthur “Art” Chan-Lestrang learned more from his father and grandfather than makes someone comfortable . . . A conversation about herbs and transformations had been going on as Art starts breakfast.

Arthur bit into the heavy bread. The sourness balanced the fat in the wonderful, fresh butter. Yeah, he’d miss some European breakfast foods. Not the German jelly-filled giant doughnut holes, though. Krapfen just did not play well with his insides. As he chewed, he considered intoxicating plants and working magic. How could you concentrate while under alkyloid influence? Poorly, probably, although some of the synthetic marijuana compounds did unlock whatever in the human nervous system corresponded with sensitivity to magical energies. But not working magic, at least not thus far that he’d ever heard of. Street drugs could enhance magic already present, or unlock a sensitivity, but not confer the ability to work magic. That he’d heard of, Art made himself add. Belladonna, the nightshades, aconite, henbane, fungi, Jimson weed, datura, they all messed with your perceptions. Or killed you. He snorted a little to himself.

Mistress Chlotilda must have heard him. She looked his direction and asked, “Something amusing, Mister Lestrang?”

“There’s a joke about certain mushrooms being so filling that one will feed a man for the rest of his life. Fly agaric and death’s head amanita being two of those, ma’am.”

The Austrian herbalist frowned deeply. “I do not find that amusing. Too many people die from misidentifying mushrooms.”

Karina shrugged and helped herself to the soft cheese. “I’ve told the joke as a caution, Mistress Chlotilda. Some students remember the lesson better with dark humor, when appropriate.” She took two buns to go with the cheese. “Claudia’s questions . . . They puzzle me. All that she seeks is either common information or legendary. There is no quick, easy way to work transformation spells and hold them for extended periods.”

The little hairs on Art’s neck started to rise. Meister Gruenewald had entered the room and paused by the door. He glanced around, and sat, facing Art. Mistress Chlotilda stopped her own meal and fixed a plate for M.G., then brought him both coffee and tea. M.G. too looked concerned, brilliant green eyes narrowing, thin lips turning down in a distinct frown. Art asked, “Ah, sir, did Henk mention our encounter with Claudia, if she is the same woman Mistress Chlotilda refers to?”

Meister Gruenewald’s left hand curved into the Clan’s negation gesture. He followed it with “later.” Art nodded and returned to his repast. He’d added a little cream to the tea, just to keep it from sending his pulse into the stratosphere. Master Pytor had made the tea to his liking, as black as Art’s dad’s wardrobe. The brew would probably float the battleship Potemkin. Art sipped, waited for a count of ten, and then drank. Between the cream and having already eaten most of his breakfast, he should be safe. Master Pytor’s tea seemed to be stronger than Cuban coffee, according to the responses of the people who drank it without paying attention. Meister Gruenewald had warned Art. Henk hadn’t been so fortunate.

That afternoon, Art pled research needs and retreated to the library with notepad, pens, and pencils. He found two books about “lost Slavic magical traditions” from the early 1900s and settled in to work. Compared to some of the post-SEE materials he’d read, they weren’t too exciting, but the authors’ inclination to pan-Slavism made him wince a little. At least Master Pytor didn’t incline that way. Being a sorcerer probably played a large role, since pan-Slavism had tied to closely to the Russian Orthodox Church. Pytor favored the Greek Rite Catholic for good reason. “At least the author’s not trying to rehabilitate Chernobog,” Art muttered under his breath as he took more notes. He knew just enough about the creatures that some neo-Pagans treated as Chernobog to run the other direction and call for back-up.

By the time for supper, Art had sufficient foundation material that he could sketch out the journal article. He leaned back in the chair and considered his outline. “Yes,” he whispered. Start with a reminder about focusing on Romantic perceptions of Slavic magic instead of actual practice at the time, then work forward to the SEE, then jump to current Christian and neo-Pagan practices. He drummed his fingertips on the top of the heavy mahogany desk and stared at the sliver of daylight leaking through the heavy curtains. Should he include a sub-section on regional variations, or save that for a separate article? The latter might work better, since he would likely have more than sufficient textual and observational material for two articles. He scribbled a margin note and got ready to stand.

A faint change in the air warned him. Art slid forward, out of the chair and under the solid desk, drawing his dagger as he moved. Thunk-thud. The projectile hit the wall and landed on the parquet floor without rolling. Art slithered as best he could out from under the desk, blade in hand and ready to stab or slash. “Gee, Art, someone would think you were paranoid.”

Art didn’t bother replying. He rose from his crouch, scowling as Joey smirked at him. The other American sorcerer spread empty-seeming hands. Art kept silent, watching, waiting for the next attack. The smirk spread into an arrogant grin. Joey tossed a ball of shifting light up and down in his right hand. Art shifted his weight to the side oh-so-slightly as a lean shadow glided up behind the sorcerer. The misty form eased closer. As it extended one arm, Art lunged to the side. Joey hurled magic, then choked as Draku yanked him backwards, hard, his walking stick across the young man’s throat. Art pulled power from his medallion and neutralized the spell before the library’s defenses reacted.

“Do not use magic in the library, Iosef Matiavich,” Draku hissed. “You violate neutral ground.”

Art slid the dagger into the sheath hidden in the small of his back, under his jacket. He collected his research materials and returned the books to their proper places. He had used cardstock markers to show the correct slots among the ranks of titles and tomes. He ignored a quiet choking sound, followed by the soft thump of someone sitting firmly on the floor.

Gaaaasp. Wheeeeeeze. Gaaaaaasp.

Art turned and bowed to Meister Gruenewald.

His teacher beckoned with one talon-like digit. Art tucked his papers and tools into his satchel. He stepped around the lump of now-panting sorcerer and followed M. G. into the corridor. The older sorcerer said, “After supper, we discuss your observation of the morning.”

“Yes, sir.” Art followed M.G. to supper. Sausages, the local version of sauerkraut, potato dumplings, and German celery salad awaited them.

[SNIP]

The next morning, before breakfast, Art concentrated on holding a stand-away shield around himself while working with the side-sword and his dagger. It took no more power than his standard shields, but additional concentration. As he parried his invisible attacker, something made his brain itch, sort of. He drew more power from his medallion and whipped around to take a low guard stance.

Bamp. Hard-cored power hit his shield. Art grounded it, then snarled, “Murus speculus,” and flipped his defenses into a focused mirror-shield as a second pop of magic hit him. The spell bounced and smote its caster.

“Hey! What was that for? I was just kidding,” Joey protested. “Chill, Art.”

Art drew himself up and imagined what his grandfather would look like if he were so disturbed. Apparently it worked, because Joey gulped and backed away. “Just kidding, I said.” He licked his lips and glanced to the shadows of the practice courtyard. Someone moved in Art’s peripheral vision, eased into a doorway and out of sight.

“You know the rules, sir,” Art growled. “No challenges, no attacks. This is a place for learning, not for trouble.” Joey should know after two weeks here.

“Mister Lestrang is correct,” a Russian-accented voice grated from the opposite side of the practice courtyard. Master Pytor loomed out of the long morning shadows. Art dropped his defenses and saluted with the sword. Pytor acknowledge the salute. “Mister Lestrang, you are dismissed.”

“Yes, sir.” Art inclined in a slight bow and made himself scarce. Joey had messed in the wrong mess-kit, as Uncle Rodney would say. Art cleaned the sword and put it back in the rack, checked his dagger as well, and went to get ready for breakfast.

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

Owl, or Vampiress?

The painting is “The Owl” by Valentine Cameron Prinsep.

Pure pre-Raphaelite, of course, but that’s not what caught my eye when I saw this on the cover of a catalogue. You see, in the Balkans and a few other places, owls are associated with vampires. Not bats, although bats abide in the same places as (fiction) vampires and everyone knows that Dracula can turn into a bat or multiple bats. At least, movie producers do, based on what I’ve seen. The Latin “strix” (screech owl) became the Romanian strigoi, meaning a vampyric ghost. The term is also a nod to the Greek fear of owls as a form of the bird of ill omen that accompanies witches and other evil-doers.

When you start digging into the actual folklore of Transylvanian vampires, and Balkan vampires in general, the more often you notice that owls are connected with the undead. Also, a person with red hair is automatically suspect. He or she may well be predestined to become a vampire, the same as if he or she had been born on an inauspicious day. It doesn’t matter if the man becomes a priest and lives a saintly life – the odds are strong that his body will leave the grave and steal the lives of his relatives. Better to sneak back to the cemetery, stake the corpse and behead it, or cut out the heart and behead the body, then destroy the heart. (This still happens in some places, even though it is illegal. What’s a few months in prison compared to saving the life of a family member?)

So when I saw the painting, my first thought was “Is she a witch, or a vampire, or was the artist just playing with Greek mythology?” Probably the latter, since Prinsep was a member of the pre-Raphaelite school of painters.

If Arthur and the other Hunters saw the painting? They’d suspect vampire. Had the giant raven that bothered Riverton been an over large owl, the Hunters would have dealt with it post haste.

The Hunters use strigoi, morioi, and nosfiertu to differentiate between different types of vampyric entity. At least, they do in the Old Land. The Hunter clan near Riverton doesn’t worry so much about the nice distinctions, because among other things, they don’t encounter the succubus-like form of cursed undead.

In fact, when an owl lingers in the wrong place, Arthur gets . . . concerned. When Arthur grows concerned, Lelia and Tay start reaching for silver, holy water, strong coffee, and headache powders. Not necessarily in that order. Because it’s going to be a looooong night.

Saturday Snippet: Academics and Magic

A Familiars tidbit. Art is finishing an accelerated PhD in Slavic Studies and Comparative Linguistics. Just . . . not the way his advisor thinks he is.

After supper, Art excused himself while the others had coffee and liqueurs. He’d gotten drunk once, just to see what it was like. It wasn’t worth the next morning’s headache and sour stomach. Instead he went out and walked through the flower garden. Mistress Chlotilda had threatened hellfire, brimstone, and weeding the gravel walks on anyone who got into the herb garden right now, lest magic contaminate her herbs. Flowers seemed safer. Art stretched his shoulders and just wandered, letting his mind and magic sort of float.

He needed to write at least one article about something Germanic or Slavic. That had been the agreement for the fellowship stipend he’d used to get plane tickets to come to Germany. Well, Slovakia at the moment, not far from the Polish border, but officially Germany. It couldn’t be about magic as magic, and besides, Meister Gruenewald didn’t exist. Maybe a comparative history of post-Romantic neo-Pagan magic concepts and linguistics as compared to actual post-SEE Slavic magic vocabulary? A lot of the actual magic seemed defensive, up to the level of multi-worker broad-area shields that made his head ache just imagining. Given the history of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech lands, and so on, defensive made sense. Current work also broke hard from the neo-Pagan Slavic stuff, 19th Century or otherwise, probably because so much of that assumed that Russian traditions were the only “pure” Slavic traditions. Art stopped at the end of the path, turned around, and stretched a little, back to the garden wall. If he did the paper, he could write it in English first, then translate it into Polish or Croatian and send both of them out to journals. His dissertation advisor would be happy, the department chair would be happy, and the dean would be happier.

Art locked the idea into his memory and turned right, following the garden wall. That had been one of the stranger conversations he’d had with his dad. “If he has a first name, I’ve never heard or seen it,” his dad had replied when Art asked. He’d been filling out the funding request from the Slavic Studies Consortium, and needed a host name. “Why do you need it?”

Art had showed him the form. His dad had shaken his head. “No. I’ll contact him, warn him that you are looking into visiting Germany. Don’t be surprised if you get an invitation to apply for a different program, but M.G. doesn’t exist.”

“M.G. doesn’t exist.” Art had blinked a few times. “You and Mike were beat up by an imaginary sorcerer of shadow?”

Uncle Rodney had laughed. The kit fox had wagged his tail as his mage glared at him. “Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”

“No crazier than a lot of my world,” Art had grumbled. The first choice for the economic history slot had turned out to be certifiable, literally. He was now getting professional treatment.

Art’s dad had cleared his throat. “Meister Gruenewald is a real person, and exists. However, he has no official records, never answers census forms, doesn’t pay taxes and doesn’t get any benefits, either. The magic-using bits of the US military knows about him, and I’m sure the Bundeswehr and a few others do as well, but not officially. How he managed it is so far above my pay grade that I don’t even worry about it. That’s his business.”

“Since the Hunter clans have been actively not existing since the arrival of the proto-Indo-European speakers in Europe, it may be instinctive by now,” Rodney had added.

As Art thought about it now, in the cool of the shadows filling the flower garden, most magic workers probably lived on the border between secrecy and official existence. He’d been surprised by how many of the older magic users in Riverton stayed well clear of any public notice. It was harder for the mages, because of their Familiars, but good grief, he’d been shocked at the number of shielded people he observed just those few times that he’d helped Deborah and Cousin Dumitra at the Farmers’ Market. But then, Riverton was also unusual in how many magic workers of all levels it seemed to attract. Maybe Cousin Rendor was right, and there really was something in the water that attracted sensitives and others.

The warm, tranquil scents of the garden made him drowsy. Art stifled a yawn and turned his steps toward the bulk of the building. He didn’t have a reaction headache yet, but would if he didn’t get to bed soon. The long twilight tricked him. It should be eight or so, not almost ten thirty. Plus he’d been casting spells or studying since eight that morning. How did his parents do it? Not easily, even with being shadow mages. How did he do it, when he had to Hunt, then teach a class at eight the next morning? He’d managed it thus far, somehow. But not tonight, thanks be to God.

Henk came in just after Art finished getting ready for bed. “Do all Americans not drink liqueurs?” Henk inquired.

“No, although we don’t drink as many as Europeans do. I just never developed a taste for them, or for beer.” His dad admitted that he had, when he was just starting in the Army. As he thought about it, a lot of kids Art knew who had grown up in strict or very sheltered families had gone a little wild when they left home. Art added, “You’ve never had the misfortune to try any of the big US beer brands, have you?”

Henk thought about it. He shook his head. “No. None of them export, do they?”

“They can’t because of the rules over here about what’s beer and what’s not beer. They don’t taste anything like European beers. I think it goes back to when alcohol was banned in the US, and big-brand beer never recovered.”

The Dutchman frowned, then nodded. “That makes sense. Lose the tradition and what comes after doesn’t match.” He ducked into the bathroom — literally. Henk stood over two meters tall. The castle’s doorways averaged just under two meters, as Art had discovered when he met one of the many below-average ones.

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

A Dragon by Any Other Name?

Ah, Meister Gruenewald, that amazing, infuriating, arrogant, brilliant . . . [No, Rodney, I can’t use that adjective on this blog. Or that other thing, either.] Sorcerer of shadow. Scholar of magic and other things. Master teacher. Whose most amazing power might be that of official non-existence. As André tells Art, Meister Gruenewald has no first name and no official existence. As far as the German and other governments know, he’s a pink unicorn. The military knows, but not the official bureaucracy. How he manages that is probably the greatest mystery of all.

M.G. is a sorcerer of shadow. Like André and Lelia (and Dr. Melanchton, and Miranda Reddish, and Kit Wilmington) he specializes in dealing with truly nasty, evil abuses of magic, including blood magic. He is stronger at night, although he likely doesn’t notice the boost anymore. He was a strong sorcerer before the Spell Eruption Event, and banking power is so ingrained that even he probably doesn’t know what his limits are. He’s not going to test them. Why should he? It the problem is that bad, he’ll call in other magic workers to assist, saving his reserves for the truly dire end-of-the-world-if-he-doesn’t-act emergency.

M.G. noticed André when André was first stationed in Germany. The raw power André threw around was, ahem, a bit noticeable, something M.G. fixed on their first lesson. The fix left André with a three-pill headache, but he never did that again. Rodney considered it a win, once his mage quit moaning. M.G. also realized that André was a sponge, and far smarter than he came across. Perhaps this was the student M.G. had been waiting for. So M.G. being M.G., he kept pounding information and magic into his student to see if André could take it. He did. By the time of Learnedly Familiar, M.G. considered André as his only real success as a teacher. He had other students who did well, but only André has come close to his innate potential as a magic user, by M.G.’s standards.

Which was why M.G. persuaded André to accept the duties of being the sorcerer’s heir. André is not Draku’s suflit ficu. The spiritual connection isn’t there. Instead Shadow’s role is closer to that of Arthur and the senior Hunter. Shadow is supposed to take over Draku’s work, lead Draku’s students, dispose of or distribute the books in Draku’s collection, and deal with some other pieces of magically dangerous property. Shadow agreed, in part because he assumed he’d be dead in less than a decade, and so it wouldn’t matter. It kept Draku happy, Ears thought it was a good plan, and Shadow wouldn’t be around to worry about it. Except Shadow didn’t die. He found someone to love, who loved him and accepted him as he was, demons and all*. Alas, poor Shadow, now he does have to worry a little about “what if I outlive the old lizard? I’ve got to deal with his [stuff]. Oh [exquisitely pungent invective]!”

M.G. is a puzzle. His personality is so strong that it overwhelms anyone around unless they are ready for him. He’s the most powerful magic worker the clans have ever produced, and even they don’t know exactly which family he belongs to. He keeps his pedigree to himself. Unless he blurs his features and hands, which M.G. does most of the time out of habit, it’s obvious that he’s physically different from the rest of the population. He stands out, even among the clans. The fixed talons, the oddly scaly skin, his physical strength, and his sheer longevity make him very unusual, to put it mildly. Toss in those too-bright green eyes and it’s easy to see why he ended up with the working name of Draku. And why, from the safety of the other side of the Great Sea, under his breath, André calls him “that old lizard.” Not that Draku gives a flip about what anyone thinks of him.

You see, Draku’s father was a zmaj. Draku’s mother was of the Hunter clans, a beautiful young woman who was the object of much interest and desire among the young men of her generation. She and her parents let their guard down once, and Draku’s father, who happened to be the guardian zmaj of that watershed, carried her off as his bride. When she returned to the family, with a son, everyone knew what had happened. They raised Draku as one of their own, and when he came into the power that all sons of zmaji possess, no one blinked too hard.

By now, that is long lost history. Draku owes a lot of his longevity to his maternal heritage and having been a Hunter when he was younger. However, he is mortal, and he is not getting younger. Thus his increasingly insistent efforts to get Shadow to relocate to the Old Land and take over things. Yet, at the same time, Draku is starting to realize that Europe might not be the best place in the future. Too much governmental control, too many watchful eyes, especially in western Europe. Russia is, of course, out of the question, and in fact Draku has been known to use his private resources to help new magic workers escape Russia before the government catches them. Europe needs workers of shadow, but perhaps not a school such as formed around Draku.

If Draku had seen Shadow after the Terrible Hunt, he would have smiled with glee. The eyes. Draku’s eyes do indeed glow a little. That’s power, raw magic made visible. Draku doesn’t use a medallion or his cane or a knife or ring to store magic like the other sorcerers do. He is his focus. He stores magic inside himself. He discovered the twist a century and more ago, and storing power that way is truly second nature. He doesn’t think about it, or even really remember how he does it. It’s like breathing. It’s scary, actually, because of what it’s done to his body even beyond the legacy of his paternity. After the Terrible Hunt, when Silver observes Shadow’s eyes glowing, it’s for a similar reason. Shadow handled so much power, even with Ears to help buffer it, that it’s changed him.** Remember, Shadow still has some of the basic the wiring of a sorcerer, even though he’s primarily a mage. That makes a difference.

So now Draku wants to train Shadow’s son. Draku has high hopes for Letters, and assumes that of course Shadow will send the boy over, and of course Letters will take up his father’s mantle. Because why wouldn’t he? Draku really is that arrogant and entitled. If he were any less powerful or respected, it would have bitten in the rear by now. Or Chlotilda or one of his other students would have taken a leaf from Silver’s book and have whapped him with a frying pan, rolling pin, or something similar. He probably needs it.

*Lelia is why André returned from that near disaster that happened just before Intensely Familiar. He really should have died at least twice during that [mess].

**That magic is helping André, even though no one realizes it. He ought to have a lot more medical problems than he does. Lelia, not having the wiring or the training, doesn’t get that bonus. Knowing her, she’d run screaming from the possibility if offered. Or just shoot whoever made the offer, and ask her suflit talshu for recommendations on where to dispose of the deceased. He has a list.