Mrs. Poleon looked at the body on the bed, then lifted her own hands and stared down at them. She looked around the room. She stared at Trella, who met her gaze and nodded slightly to her late mistress. “Go in peace,” she offered. Mrs. Poleon nodded back resignedly, turned away, took a step, and vanished.
Trella stared at the eastern wall of the bedroom. The dark tunnel had not really opened there, but that was the impression that lingered. No one had come to meet Mrs. Poleon, immortal or ex-mortal, but maybe they would show up further on. The rare ones who came back sometimes said they did.
“Travel well,” she continued to the wall. “Don’t come back.”
She studied the body closely. You grew so used to bodies being alive, you could fool yourself into thinking you saw breath. But there was none.
She went to the parlor and stood in front of the phone. It was an old one, tethered to the wall, black and shiny, with a rotary dial. It was still far too modern to her. Well, a few hot meals paid to that gremlin had fixed that. And it had used up the stew Mrs. Poleon had thought too spicy, and the wine that “looked common,” whatever the hell that had meant, and the perfectly good rolls she simply didn’t want. Though maybe that had been the illness.
Anyway. The phone. “Call the baron,” she told it. A few moments later, it rang. She picked it up and held it gingerly to her ear.
“Baron Dubosc’s residence,” a young woman’s voice answered. “This is the reeve.”
“Return and we return,” Trella said.
There was a tiny pause while the reeve realized what she was talking to. “Keep faith and so do we,” she answered. Now the conversation between species could continue properly.
“Elizabeth Alice Odile Poleon is dead,” Trella told her.
“... Oh! I– Is this an emergency?”
“No. All very natural and routine for you lot.” She heard clicking noises. Probably the reeve was using computery things. Trella had seen them on the telly, and the gremlin had used one, but Mrs. Poleon had never had one.
“Who am I addressing?”
“You can call me Trella. I do for Mrs. Poleon. Well, I did. But I know nothing about laying out bodies or funerals or like that.” Mortality was not in her line. “Better get someone over soon. It’s warm and all. I’m not stickin’ around for that, and someone unSundered might notice.” Not futtlin’ likely, though, she reflected, given that Bett Poleon had just about hung out a shingle reading “Professional Recluse” these last several years.
“The priest and the sexton will be there within a couple of hours,” the reeve replied.
“Good,” she said, and replaced the handset. “Bye,” she added as an afterthought.
She looked around the parlor. All proper. A good job. Those flowers could stand replacing, though. But who for? She removed the wilting flowers, went to the kitchen, and left them in the bin. The kitchen was all proper, too. Mrs. Poleon’s last leftovers were in the fridge and everything was clean.
There was no longer anything required of her.
I will neither work nor stampen,” she sang softly to herself.
“Here’s a cloak and here’s a hood.
Ye’ll get nay mair o’ brownie’s good.”
But the words hooked in no spell, there had been no cloak and no hood, and she wasn’t even Scottish. Mrs. Poleon had liked to call her a “lutin” when she referred to her at all. What did “stampen” even mean?
She stood in the kitchen door and surveyed the immaculate garden.
No, there were no more magic strings. She could stay or go as she chose, now. Why stay? Well, it was hard to walk away from a job you had been doing for so long. And so well! And she was curious to see who the next resident of the cottage would be. Maybe they would appreciate her work. Maybe they would be nicer.
Meanwhile, this priest and sexton definitely didn’t need her, and the garden gate beckoned. It had been over a week since she passed through it. She stepped out, shutting the kitchen door behind her. For the first time in a very long time, there was absolutely no one in the house.
She turned her coat. A fox trotted through the garden, expertly flipped the catch on the gate, and padded into the woods beyond.
The horse trailer arrived before anyone else. Charliehorse emerged, thanked the driver, and bade him goodbye. As the trailer purred away down the road, he looked around.
Aunt Bett's was a pretty little cottage, with flowers and a pair of shading oaks in front, the fenced kitchen garden in back, and bits of lawn on either side. Beyond the kitchen garden lay some forest. If you were perceptive but unSundered, you might wonder about the gate in the fence, leading “nowhere,” but Charliehorse merely nodded to himself.
The cottage roof was slate, not thatch. The stone walls were smartly whitewashed, and a bit of porch over the front door had slender, fluted columns. The total impression was that the house was a Georgian-style gatekeeper’s cottage.
But the grand country house and estate that would match such a structure were not in evidence. Instead, there was a country road with a hedgerow on the far side from the house. Down the road, you would run into more cottages and finally into the village of Dimble Abbots. On the far side of Dimble Abbots, on another country road, stood the neighboring houses of the Arlingway and Darneley families, where Charliehorse had grown up, before he had joined the Dedicated Cavalry and become “Charliehorse.”
Not far at all. Which made it a little odd that he had been to Aunt Bett's house so seldom. Not odd if you knew Aunt Bett, though.
There, in the little patch of lawn outside the garden fence, was the grave. Charlie approached. The thudding of his hooves broke the silence; he softened his tread. The grave appeared empty. No doubt, just below the soil lay the body. No coffin. Grand Normans buried their dead in simple clothes and a shroud, no more, and without preservation. The sexton had done what was needful and left the rest until the family could be gathered for the graveside ceremony.
Charlie heard the sound of an approaching car. He had a glamoured neckerchief that would make him look like a man on horseback, and should have had it ready, but there was no time now. He stepped off the lawn, into the shrubbery at the edge of the wood, and crouched down. The car slowed, pulled off in front of the cottage, and disgorged the priest and the sexton, both in their formals. Since it was safe, Charlie stood.
A moment too late, he realized what a surprise he must be. The two new arrivals stared open-mouthed. They saw a large young man rising out of the braken, wearing a dark bushy beard and a cowboy hat. But as he kept rising, they saw the body of a dark bay horse.
The sheer surprise on their faces altered, and Charliehorse realized that, for a pleasant change, he was being stared at in wonder, not astonishment, alarm, or disgust. (And back at the base, of course, he was a commonplace sight.) He smiled. “Sorry to startle you,” he told them.
“Quite all right. Quite all right,” said the priest—Father Lantin, Charlie remembered, a slim, gray-haired man in black clericals, wearing the fleur-de-lis cross of the Avignese Church, in blue enamel and gold, as a pin on his lapel. He came over, hand extended, smiling up at Charlie, still wondering. “Charles Arlingway? Lucille Arlingway’s boy?”
Charlie’s smile broadened. “Yes sir, she raised me. But I’m a Darneley,” he corrected as they shook. “Aunt Lu was my mother’s aunt, Aunt Bett’s sister.”
“Ah, yes,” said Lantin. “But I did remember that it was Lucille’s boy that, ah...” Decided to get transformed and so kicked up a fuss in his family. How to phrase that?
“Enlisted in the Dedicated Cavalry,” Charliehorse finished for him. He sharpened the smile. “Time and change happen to us all,” he paraphrased from Ecclesiastes.
“Indeed! And this is Glen Remsey, our sexton.” Charlie shook hands with a younger, sturdier man in black suit and tie, wearing boots and carrying a pair of gardening gloves tucked in his back pocket.
Charlie felt Remsey and Lantin were bursting with questions, but then three more cars drove up. Charlie started to retreat again, but recognized them and watched as his family got out, all in their soberest clothes.
“Charles!” cried his sister Lily. She ran over and hugged him around the waist. He knelt so they could hug properly, then collected hugs from his sister Iris and his cousin Alex. Aunt Constance kissed him on the cheek. Uncle Nathan shook his hand. More relatives milled about.
Some greeted him, some did not. His parents greeted the priest then took up position near the grave, never glancing his way. Uncle Marc glared at him outright, backed up by Aunt Eleanor’s sour expression. “You call that suitable for a funeral?” he challenged.
Charliehorse wore a bright red jacket with white piping, and his stetson was a vivid blue. It matched the light blanket over his equine back, which bore the arms of Grand Normandy on each side. His hooves had been polished, his tail combed, his coat brushed, and his beard trimmed; and the quick sojourn in the bushes had done no harm.
“This is dress uniform, Uncle Marc,” he answered. “It’s what military wear on formal occasions. And there’s this.” He indicated a wide black band on his right arm. Uncle Marc snorted.
“How did you even get here?” demanded Aunt Eleanor.
“Cavalry trailer, of course. Available at eight hours’ notice.”
Once greetings were done, everyone assembled around the grave and the service proper began. Charliehorse stood at the edge of the group and joined in the prayers softly. Standing at the edge was a little tricky, because everyone else seemed to want to stand at the edge, too.
He studied the proxemics of the situation. There were Lantin and Remsey. Their jobs put them at the graveside. Almost two meters away from the grave stood his mother and father, their backs to him. Of course she did not want to look at Charliehorse, and his father would go along. His mother was the nearest to a fan of Aunt Bett that the family could offer. Further out stood the rest of the family, a scattering of Arlingways and Darneleys, almost too far away, as if wanting to dissociate themselves from the burial. From the deceased. Only there was no “as if” about it.
Arlingways and Darneleys but no Poleons. When the family had arrived, Charliehorse had seen everyone peer about for any newly revealed Poleons, but there had been none.
In particular, there had been no Mr. Dieter Poleon, Uncle Dieter, Aunt Bett's husband, who had failed to come back from a business trip in 2005.
Lantin read the twenty-third Psalm and ended with “Give her eternal peace, Lord, and let everlasting light shine on her.” Silently, hesitantly, Charliehorse’s mother took a pinch of earth from the pile beside the grave and dropped it in. Other family members followed. Charlie, Lily, and Alex, having stood furtherst away, were the last.
“Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei,” Charliehorse murmured as he dropped in his handful. “I’m sure she would have preferred Latin,” he said in an aside to his sisters and cousin. Iris pursed her lips, Lily raised her eyebrows, but they all nodded.
“What now?” Uncle Nathan asked Father Lantin.
“We should–” began the priest, but a high, sharp voice interrupted: “Return and we return.”
Everyone turned toward the sound and saw a fox perched on the fence post by the garden gate. Everyone knew, by family lore, that this must be Trella, even if they had never seen her before. “Keep faith and so do we,” came a ragged chorus from most of the family.
“I don’t know much about funerals,” the fox said, “but I know there’s a reception afterward, or there can be. Come in.” She jumped down into the garden and disappeared from view.
Everyone stared at everyone else, heard no objections, and started through the gate. Only Remsey, the sexton, turned away and started shoveling. “Come in as soon as you’re finished, Glen,” Lantin told him. “You were invited too.” Remsey nodded.
Charliehorse knew he had also been invited, but wondered how far to take it. The cottage rooms were small. He had felt cramped the last time he was here, a few years back, even though he had been fully human then. He hesitated at the kitchen door. Maybe sit in the garden and look in through a window? But, “You, too,” Trella piped from somewhere, so he took off his hat, ducked, and followed Iris in. He exhaled to fit his horse ribs through the door. His hips left horse hair on the doorframe.
The kitchen looked exactly as he recalled it, though he had last seen it from more than a foot nearer the floor. Any evidence of preparation for the reception had already been cleaned away. Of course.
The dining room had been rearranged for a buffet brunch. Tables had been moved to the side of the room and stocked with food. People were going to eat off little side tables or with plates on their knees, those who had conventional knees. But there was also a clear space by one wall, with a braided rug on the floor. Charlie recognized his seat. He moved slowly and carefully through the room and settled down, looking about the room as he did so.
Almost everyone was staring at him, or at least glancing. The only exceptions were his parents, who were turned away, engaging Father Lantin. Lantin was glancing from them to Charliehorse and back.
Charliehorse caught himself trying to avoid people’s eyes, trying to look blank and unengaged. This would not do. It was the kind of thing he had done before he was changed. He had not become a stallion to be timid.
With deliberation, he smiled back at Lantin and looked around the room, tallying his family. Not all of them were here. His cousins Bev and Julia were in Calais and London respectively; his brother Oliver was in Durham. Too far to come on the short notice required of Grand Norman funerals. That still left seventeen.
He turned his attention to the food. He sat next to a table bearing a silver tray of dark brown muffins. They were good. What else was on offer? he wondered, and how was he going to get it? He looked around but listening told him more than looking:
“Gooseberry fool! Oh, I love gooseberry fool!”
“This sesame chicken is Chinese take-away.”
“Breaded mushrooms. D’you think they’re all right? They look ... wild.” “Oh, they must be! Why not?” “It’s just that, well, hardly anything poisons them.” “She cooked it for us, and she knows her stuff! There! You watch me for signs of falling over.”
“These aren’t crêpes. They’re moo shi. What’s this stuffing?” “Diced apples and sour cream.”
“I don’t recognize this silver.”
“Try the apple cobbler.”
“This is bilberry pie.”
“I remember these napkins. They’re from Ireland.”
“Mulberry tarts. Apple tarts. Plum tarts. Blackberry tarts. When did she have time to do all this?” “You ask that about a brownie?”
“Look at all these tiny eggs!”
“And this is?” “Crispy fried shelf fungus.”
“What kind of jelly is this?” “Rowanberry. And this is apple butter.”
“She’s stuffed these fortune cookies with something.”
“What’s in the third samovar?” “Says acorn tea. I never knew Aunt Bett had all these samovars.”
Charliehorse took another nibble of muffin. Tea, acorn or regular, would go well with it, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to cross the room to get it, scattering relatives before him like leaves before an autumn gale.
He didn’t have to. At that moment, Lily came up to him with a plate stacked with food, a tea cup nestled against some biscuits. Alex appeared with a second plate, piled twice as high.
“Oh, now, this is too–”
Alex cut him off: “We're just trying to scale up.”
“There's plenty. Just look around,” Lily said.
“Well, at least share with me.” They shared. Alex pulled up a chair, Lily sat on Charlie, and they put the plates on a nearby table.
“What are those muffins?” Lily asked.
"Acorn with berries," Charlie answered. “She's done a lot with acorns. There's the tea, and bread, and shelled, glazed acorns. Probably other stuff.”
“Did Aunt Bett like forest food?” Lily asked, doubtfully.
Charlie had heard a lot about Aunt Bett, having been raised by Aunt Lu, Bett’s sister. “No! She didn’t trust it. Was afraid it was dirty or poisonous.” He savored another bite of acorn muffin. “I bet Trella has been waiting years to bust out these recipes.”
“She’s been waiting years to cook anything, I should think,” said Aunt Constance, who had been standing near and now turned to join in. “These last few years, Bett was living on take-away.”
“Like the moo shi crêpes?” asked Alex.
“Oh, no. Hated Chinese food. And Indian, and Thai.”
“So that lets out the Happy Wok,” Alex inferred. This was the only oriental restaurant in Dimble Abbots, a tiny establishment run by one versatile Pakistani.
“She had four restaurants in Lefgate that she liked,” Constance told them. “Well, two or three at any given time. Then one would use too much pepper or forget to leave the capers out of the salad or something, and she’d drop it and forgive one of the others.”
“All that way?” Lily asked. “For take-away? Every day?”
“Take-away only after she left off driving. And more like every other day or every third, with leftovers in between. But she did put a lot of miles on her car, in her driving days. Then she paid to have it delivered. Had to change her list of restaurants, which I heard was a sore trial.”
“How did she afford it?” asked Alex.
“She didn’t do anything else,” Constance answered.
“I thought she was all about trading in antiques and occultics,” said Lily.
Charlie looked around the room. Eggshell white walls, with moulding and sills a careful three shades more beige. Furniture from the eighteenth century or looking like it—dark woods carved in delicate, spindly forms that had made him nervous enough when he had been a hulking teenaged boy in mid-growth spurt. “Not that one!” Aunt Bett had commanded, pointing from one chair to another. “This one’s sturdier.” And that was more than a thousand pounds ago.
One rack of shelves contained hand-painted egg cups. Another displayed Venetian glass paperweights. Constellations of silhouettes and cameos decked the walls. The table next to him had a display case built under it, containing drolleries: a ceramic mug shaped like a frog, a brown glass bottle shaped like a fish, a toy bank looking like Punch & Judy.
“Antiques, yes,” he said. “But I don’t see a lot of occultics.”
“Said the mythical beast,” returned Alex.
“I don’t count. I was transformed by magic, but I’m not doing any. I can barely feel out spells.”
“I think I feel something in this print,” said Lily, pointing over her head to a hand-tinted print of a landscape. She rose from Charlie’s back and took it down. She looked at it for a moment, then gazed into nowhere. “I think there’s a charm on it that keeps the colors from fading.” She passed it to Alex, who ran a hand over it, not touching. He nodded, then passed it to Charlie, who stared through it, rather than at it.
“There’s a little charm there,” he agreed, “but I can’t tell what it does. You’re ahead of me on analysis, sweets.” He returned the picture to Lily.
“You’d never have dared take that down when Bett was alive,” Aunt Constance remarked.
“Certainly not,” Lily agreed. “Not unless she told me to. But title has passed.”
“To...?” asked Alex.
“I suppose–” Constance began.
“Dieter,” said Uncle Marc, joining the conversation as Constance had, by turning around. Constance pursed her lips at the interruption but nodded.
Lily sat back down on her brother, earning her a glassy glance of disapproval from Marc, and said, “I thought he was dead.”
“Not as of ten months ago,” Marc told her. “He sent back some papers Bett asked him to sign, and she passed them on for us to file.” The young people understood “us” to mean their parents’ generation of the family.
“So they’re separated,” Alex inferred.
“Very,” Constance said. “But we get paperwork from him three or four times a year. Ten months was a long gap, but I suppose Bett didn’t get around to much business correspondence in her decline.”
“I wonder if he knows she’s dead,” said Charliehorse.
“Excellent question,” said Constance. Marc gave him a short glare, apparently for daring to speak at all.
Charlie and Constance had spoken into one of those chance lulls that happen in small groups. Hearing them, Father Lantin said, “Ah!” and tapped his tea cup with his spoon to ring for attention.
“I have one more bit of official business,” he told the family. “You need to know that Mrs. Poleon died intestate, without a will, so far as we know. As Mr. Arlingway has just pointed out, this means her property passes to her husband Dieter Poleon, if he is still alive. He would be ninety-six. But apparently he made it to ninety-five.
“I gather he and Mrs. Poleon were estranged, but he should still be notified, both because of the inheritance and out of basic decency.”
Uncle Marc harrumphed. “There’s the rub. We don’t know how to contact him. Bett did all the contacting,”
“A few months ago,” said Uncle Nathan, “when it was clear she was declining, I asked her about contacting Dieter. She just gave me this sour look and said nothing.” He sighed. “We must just search for contact information. And, of course, put out public notices.”
Marc grunted again. “We need an inventory, too. Dieter won’t last much longer, if he’s alive at all, and there’s no telling what kind of will he’s made. If we make an inventory now, and swear out an affidavit, it could save trouble later.”
Constance sighed. “People can get very twisty about inheritance,” she said. The rest of the senior generation agreed.
The junior generation spoke up, in the person of Charliehorse. “I’ll do it,” he said. “Start it, at least.” Everyone stared at him. Even his parents forgot to not look.
“You can barely stuff yourself into these rooms,” Marc objected.
“Barely, but I can,” Charlie answered. “I’ve had practice. Stuffing lessons.” He shrugged. “I don’t sleep much, so I can work through the night. It’s something useful I can do. Potentia pro servientes, you know.” This was the motto of the Dedicated Cavalry: “Strength for service.”
“Well... well, good,” said Uncle Marc, groping for words other than “Thank you.”
Uncle Nathan said it instead: “Thank you, Charles. It’s very–” He paused, interrupted by Charlie’s mother murmuring something to him. “Really, Eveline! You could just as well ask him your–” But she had turned away. Charlie had watched her face closely, but she had refused eye-contact.
Nathan sighed and said, “Your mother asks for you to look for a framed sampler, letters and numbers and the Lord’s Prayer in French. I know the one she means.”
“She gave it to Bett as a Christmas present,” Constance added, “and she’s always wondered what she did with it.”
Charlie’s mother had opened a minor floodgate with her request. Relatives gathered round him to ask for reports on various items:
Iris asked after a doll house containing, along with furniture, a doll house for the dolls.
Constance wanted to know if he found a set of Mexican silverware.
This reminded Aunt Eleanor to ask after a turquoise and silver necklace from the American southwest.
Almost shyly, Marc asked Charlie to say if he found a DVD set of interviews with crafter mages.
His father actually spoke to Charlie face to face long enough to ask after a portrait of Geoffrey IV.
And there had been a set of apostle spoons, and a hand-painted deck of cards, and a small Swiss gargoyle.
Charliehorse began to wonder how he would find any of these articles amid the stuff accumulated by an old woman of ninety plus, who had made her living trading luxury items. None of these people wanted the items back; they wanted to know if Bett had kept them. All (save the doll house) had been gifts, none of them heard of again. Charlie obediently recorded all of them in his phone.
After a few minutes, the requests trailed off and, after thanking him, people drifted back to their conversations, mostly about Aunt Bett, of course.
“Did she travel much?” asked Lily. “I mean, antiques or occultics, this stuff comes from all over. Did she ever go out of zone?”
Charliehorse thought back on Aunt Lu's anecdotes. “I don’t think she ever set foot out of Britain. Mm. She might have gone to Ireland or France a couple of times. But she was terrified of air travel—once, she refused to set foot on a plane, just parked on the runway. She wasn’t supposed to fly in it, just pick up something and leave. But no.”
“She had a lot of phobias,” Aunt Constance reflected. “Acrophobia. Claustrophobia. Germs. Doctors. (Bad combination.) Crowds.”
“Us?” asked Alex.
“I ... don’t ... think so,” Constance answered carefully. “Not afraid. Disappointed, of course. She was disappointed in Marc for marrying Eleanor, and in Eveline for marrying your father, Charles, and about Lucille not marrying at all, and in Nathan for marrying me, though since he was no relation, I never saw what business... Well, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum.”
“Why?” demanded Alex, who had been looking increasingly nettled as his mother went through Bett’s list of disappointments. “Why ‘speak nothing but good of the dead’?”
“There are two possible reasons,” Charliehorse answered quietly, “one nice, one less so. The nice one is we should not speak against the dead because they cannot answer. The other one is that one should not give the dead reason to break with custom and come back to answer.”
They were all ghost-sensitive. Everyone glanced around the room, but Bett put in no appearance.
“I wonder if she’s disappointed with the afterlife,” mused Lily.
“Uncle Dieter must have been a big disappointment,” Charliehorse mused back.
“From the start,” Constance agreed. “She didn’t even like his name. Said it didn’t sound Grand Norman. His parents were refugees from Valkyrstein. I don’t recall if he was born before it went under or as a Grand Norman.”
“Why did she marry him, then?” asked Lily.
“He loved her—don’t ask me why—and proposed. And I think she knew that there were not many fish in the sea for her.”
“Did she love him?” Lily asked.
“I think so. I suppose so. Remember, she was your grandparents’ generation, not mine. And Aunt Lu’s.” And they all looked at Charliehorse.
He stared back. “Aunt Lu did not discuss her sister’s marriage with her niece’s son. She never even told me why Dieter went away.”
“Bett never said, either,” Constance answered. “I know she was always nagging him.”
“Well,” said Alex, “I suppose that, eventually, he was too big a disappointment. And, as every kid knows, ‘disappointing’ is code for ‘infuriating.’” He smiled sweetly at his mother. She smiled grimly back.
“Excuse me.” It was Father Lantin. “Were you discussing Mrs. Poleon?” They all nodded. “I’ve been trying to hunt up information to compose a little eulogy for her. Can you suggest anything?” He was trying to squelch a plaintive note in his voice. He must not have got much from Marc, Eleanor, Iris, or the others. And he must have noticed there were no tears.
Charliehorse suddenly felt himself cast in the role of judge. He did not care for it. Slowly, he answered, “She ... was highly educated. Knew all about art. Western art. Nineteenth century and back. Especially enchanted.”
Constance picked up on this: “She had superb taste. And leveraged it into her career. And, when she was young, women didn’t usually have careers, not even Grand Normans.”
Lantin nodded. “And her personality? Her virtues?”
Charliehorse and his family exchanged helpless glances. “She could be very candid,” Charlie said.
“Like the time she told us she hated small children,” said Alex.
“De mortuis,” his mother murmured.
“Of course, none of us were small children by then,” Alex offered.
Lily smiled coldly. “Though we could all make the inference.” She met Constance’s eyes. Constance sighed.
“She was undoubtedly having a bad day,” Charlie said.
Alex nodded. “Yes, yelling and stamping around.”
It was Lantin’s turn to sigh. “I understand that she was a disagreeable old woman. But we are all imperfect, yet we are all children of God. And she has died. The final vulnerability exposed to the final risk. Is there no kind way we can mark this?”
Charliehorse felt a blush of shame heat his face. He glanced up and saw the same for the others. “Sir,” he ventured, “perhaps a eulogy isn’t the way to do that marking. If you try it, everyone will just be thinking, ‘He didn’t know her.’”
“I did not,” Lantin admitted. “Do you know if she was even Avignese? Or any other kind of Catholic?”
“That’s how she was raised,” said Constance, “but early on she switched to Asseverant. Otherwise, she’d have died in hospital, instead of alone.”
“There was Trella,” Lily reminded her.
“What did she die of?” Charliehorse asked.
“Heart failure,” Lantin answered. “We brought Dr. Mundy yesterday, to pronounce. He’d been expecting it.”
“It was all we could do to get her to take his prescriptions,” said Constance.
“Well,” said Lantin, “perhaps a psalm instead of a eulogy. Perhaps the nineteenth?”
“Which one is that?” asked Alex.
“‘The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.’
One of my favorites.” He smiled at Lantin, who smiled back and withdrew.
“Mark with kindness,” muttered Alex. “Coming here at all was kindness. I came all worked up to be sorry for the old– for her, but then we started actually talking about her.”
“But Father Lantin’s right,” his mother said.
“Oh, I’m sure.”
Then Lantin called for attention, thanked them for coming, recited the psalm, pronounced a final blessing on Aunt Bett’s soul, and left with the sexton. The family munched on the buffet for a while, chatting less and less about Bett, and started to drift out. Constance and Nathan made sure Charlie was coming over tomorrow.
Finally! He was alone and could stand without looming over someone, stretch without bumping someone. He rose.
“No, you don’t,” said a sharp voice, and Trella stepped out from behind a chair that could not properly have concealed her. Not a fox this time, but a tiny wisp of a woman, little more than knee-high for Charlie, in an orange-brown dress under a white apron. “You sit down and get a proper feed.”
She strode briskly around the tables, loading up a tray as she went. “I’ve tended horses in my time, and you may be a big ’un but you’ve lost flesh, I can see. Anyway, that pretty jacket hangs loose on you. Bet your aunt saw that, whether she said anything or not.”
“I’ll feed gladly, ma’am,” he told her, “but I’d rather eat standing.”
“Well, that’s horsey enough. Fine. Wine to wash it down?”
“I’d like that acorn tea.”
After a few plates, in which Trella joined him, he said, “Now, ma’am, this may sound strange but not when you think about it. Do you have some garden shears and a blender?”
“Yes. What for?”
“I want to make mulch. Grass stew. I need to feed horsewise as well as manwise, if you see what I mean.”
“Ha! I do. But why stew it?”
“Because I don’t have horse teeth.”
She nodded, left the room, and returned almost immediately with a pair of garden shears for him and kitchen shears for herself. The garden shears had been freshly washed. Following her, Charlie squeezed through the kitchen, into the back garden, and through the gate. They passed an agreeable few minutes at the edge of the woods, clipping weeds. Trella clipped five times as much as Charlie.
“About a quarter bale,” she judged. “That’ll do for a start. Now, you get some air and light, and I’ll get this ... mulched for you. Don’t go far. But first: How do you cook good mulch?”
“Chop it short and boil it long,” Charliehorse answered promptly.
“And for flavoring?”
Charlie gave a tired grimace. “Clover or timothy is good if you’ve got it, but we didn’t. The main thing is to get it down.”
“Huh. I’ll throw in some apple juice.” She vanished into the kitchen with a wad of grass as big as herself.
Charlie turned to examine the gate. A faint path ran from it, into brush and then into new-looking woods. Beyond that loomed older forest. He paced along the path thoughtfully, remembering something. It would be a long way in, though.
No, it wasn’t. It would have been long for a little boy’s legs, not for his current set. Here they were, a convenient few yards from the house: apple trees, explaining Trella’s reference to apple juice just now, not to mention the apple jelly, apple butter, chopped apple filling, and so on, that had figured in the buffet.
The trees were interspersed with brush and saplings now, but that would be no barrier to a tiny woman, or a fox. They weren’t any barrier to a creature big enough to shove them aside easily, either. He reared, extending one foreleg to touch a trunk for balance, thrusting his head into the branches.
Little green apples, this summer’s crop a-growing, free of rusts and insect bites. The leaves were glossy, too, and here and there were marks of pruning.
He came down on all fours, then sank lower, to sit on the ground. Now his head was child-high—an older child. He had been smaller still when he had last been here, the ground cleared for human passage, the gnarled branches high enough but not too high, inviting climbing. It had been sunny and warm, like today, and Uncle Dieter had come to fetch him.
Where was Uncle Dieter now? Did he still live?
A brisk, metallic ringing—as, for instance, someone rapping a pot with a ladle—summoned him back to the fence.
In the time that had passed, he would have been unable to bring water to a boil, much less stew the mulch. He, but not Trella.
“You’ve kept up the orchard,” he said, smiling as she passed him a big silver spoon. She had a large pot of hot mulch balanced on a fence post. He held it by one handle as he ate. It was the consistency of oatmeal and tasted pleasantly of apple.
“’Course I did. Why not? And still get mushrooms and nuts and berries delivered regular.”
“But Aunt Bett wouldn’t eat them.”
“I did. I do. And cook ’em up and give ’em out in trade.”
Charlie nodded as he ate, interested but not surprised to learn that a brisk fairy economy played through the house. So that was how Trella had kept herself occupied in the last years, with an old lady who did nothing but watch telly and eat take-out. “This is the best mulch I’ve ever had,” he told her. “You were the first fay I ever heard about, as an individual. Though I never saw you before today.”
“No need,” she answered. “But I saw you. Once in a while. Last time, I remember, was when your Aunt Lu died. You come over in a car with your young aunt and uncle to pick Bett up. You was two-legged then.”
“That was the last time I saw Aunt Bett. Her face looked like stone and she hardly said anything. Did she ever cry over Aunt Lu?”
“Some, later. But what you been doin’ to turn half horse and then wear yourself out like this?”
So Charliehorse explained about joining the Dedicated Cavalry, which meant being transformed this way, so as to be strong and tough and fast. And this was to go off and explore for the King, which he had been doing, on Gevurah.
“It’s another zone. A big one on the Road to the Sun. A whole world, a harsh one, mostly desert. We were trying to get from Fort Sekhmet in the Azores Mountains to the Mid-Atlantics—trying to cross the East Mid-Atlantic Basin. Got three quarters of the way and had to turn back. It was rougher going than we expected. Hoped. But we got a lot of good mapping in!”
“That makes you look proud. Good.”
“Thanks. We’ll get there next time! We know more, and we left supply caches. But it was tough, yes. We were all ordered on recuperative leave. That’s why I was hanging about the base when word came Aunt Bett had died. If she’d died a week ago, I would have been out of zone.”
“It was a near thing. So what did you hear about me ‘as an individual’?”
“That there was a brownie over at Aunt Bett’s house, called Trella, who did the cooking and cleaning. That we were to be extra-polite if we ever met you.” He peered at her over a spoonful of mulch. “And, when I was older, I learned that, even though this place is smaller than either of our two houses on the other side of town, you make it the most desirable residence.” It was Trella’s turn to look proud.
Charlie looked at her over the spoon again. “And what did you hear about me?” he asked.
“Well, you never came over again, so there weren’t occasion for comment, much. And she never talked to me about such stuff, just about domestic things, you might say—changes of routine. But one time, your mum come over and wailed about it, about you goin’ off to ‘be a monster.’ Your aunt still didn’t say much, but she threw the word ‘fool’ around—both for you and for your mum. That was about it. Couldn’t really make out what they were talkin’ about. Had to go look up ‘centaur’ in the dictionary. Why’d they have to spell it with a C?”
Charliehorse took the question as rhetorical and just nodded. “About what I expected. Well.” He addressed himself to the pot of mulch and soon had it empty. Then he stared about the noontide garden—a tempting place to loiter, but he had made a promise. “Now I should get to work on this inventory.”
Trella nodded and jumped off the fence. Then she was no longer in evidence. Charliehorse stepped over the gate as much as walked through it and took the pot and utensils into the kitchen. He wormed his way back to the dining room, where his braid rug was still in place.
He lay back down on it, took out his phone and began. The table with the cabinet of drolleries, there at his elbow, seemed a natural place to start. There were the frog mug, fish bottle, and Punch & Judy bank, but there were more things further in.
He took the first three objects out, placing each on top of the table, and noting it on his phone. Then, groping carefully, he fetched out what appeared to be a large greeting card. On inspection, it turned out to be a cardboard puppet theater. One sheet was the framing stage; the sheet behind showed a city street of some past century. In between were tucked the “puppets,” strips of cardboard with the characters printed on them: Punch, Judy, the Baby, the Policeman, the Crocodile, and so on—even one for the string of sausages. The style looked very old, but the condition was fresh.
Next out was a more 3-D version of the same thing: a little crocheted box for a theater, and a collection of five felt finger-puppets: Punch, Judy with baby, the Policeman, the Devil, and Toby the Dog. A short string of oval brown beads were the sausages. Again, it looked very old but very fresh.
The finger puppets were scaled for children, but they would fit on Charlie’s little finger. On a whim, he slid Punch on his left one.
Very faintly, as if far away, he heard a high voice. It spoke one phrase and stopped. He held the finger up to his ear but heard nothing. Experimentally, he took the finger puppet off, then put it on again. “That’s the way to do it!” proclaimed the far voice, a little louder now, but then he was holding his hand up to his face.
A mage friend had told Charlie he had the potential to be a mage himself, but so far he could only do a little detecting. And he had to deliberately ‘look’ for enchantment; magic did not thrust itself into his awareness, as would sound. So he now deliberately examined the finger puppet for magic. A bit, of course. He let himself consider the spell for a while. Very faded, never major, running on minuscule amounts of the wearer’s (Charlie’s) vis. But rather elaborate. Maybe more complex than he could read. Could an experienced operator have been able to ‘play’ all the stock phrases of all the puppets?
A very high-quality magical toy. And, he suspected, very old but magically preserved or restored.
He re-examined the bank and the cardboard theater. The bank was just metal, and even had flaking in the paint, but the cardboard toy carried the faintest whiff or tingle of preservative magic.
Was there anything else? More groping produced a tiny object, a postage-stamp-sized bit of wood with a lens-like cross-section and a hole through it. There was a foot of string tied to it.
Moved by a vague memory, Charlie did some web-searching with his phone and determined the thing was a “swozzle.” A Punch puppeteer held it inside his mouth and spoke through it to give Punch his signature kazoo-like voice. The string was in case you swallowed it.
Charlie regarded the object with a certain misgiving, but surely germophobic Aunt Bett would have had it cleaned. Wouldn’t she? Please?
Returning from the kitchen after washing his hands, Charliehorse reminded himself he was the King’s big brave battle stallion and reached into the cabinet again to see if there was anything else.
Only a button. It was the size of a shirt button, white, with a blue spot on it and a black dot in the middle of the spot. Charlie recognized it at once as a little ward. That would explain, he realized, why Lily could feel the faint magic on the picture but nothing from the table.
This was also why Lily hadn’t noticed many occultics among the antiques. After all, enchanting an item increased its value many times. Prudent to hide that. But he was doing an inventory. “Trella?” he asked the air.
“Yes?” Trella walked out from behind a curtain.
He showed her the ward. “Are there a lot of these around the house?”
She nodded. “A good many.”
“I bet you know where they all are.”
“’Course. Dusted ’em every week for ever-so-many.”
“Do you know what they’re hiding?”
“No. Knew she wanted ’em hid, so I left it that way.”
“Would you mind gathering them all up, so I can do my inventory properly? We can put them all back later, if that looks like a good idea.”
“No problem.” Trella returned behind the curtain. Charliehorse started a list of all the chairs and tables in the room. He had the measure of Trella’s speed, now, so he wasn’t surprised when she returned before he had got far. “Here y’go,” she said, putting a cereal bowl on the table. It held a generous handful of ward buttons. “And you’ll find your list-makin’ a lot more interestin’ now.”
“I’m sure. Thank you.” He pulled a handkerchief out of the pocket of his jacket and draped it over the bowl. He wasn’t sure how far the combined effect of the wards would reach, or if they would combine at all, but he knew “blindfolding” them would turn them off. He rose to his feet. “I like being interested. Let’s tackle the magic stuff first.”
As the day wore on, Charliehorse noticed he found more magical items in the more private parts of the house, so by mid-afternoon he had worked his way up the stairs and into the bedroom.
The few dressers and tables, like the ones downstairs, were spindly and dark, more than usually laden with ornaments. The walls bore many pictures. The bed, a four-poster—neatly made by Trella no doubt—stood ready for the next occupant.
On the bedside table stood a lamp and next to it lay a pair of glasses, a book, a pen, and a knife. Knife? A big one, too, and bare. Well, an old woman alone at night... Could she count on Trella for help? Where did Trella go at night?
He approached and looked, but did not touch. He had his “eye well in” for detecting magic now, and the knife was clearly enchanted. It was ten inches long, with a broad blade and a curved point, like a Bowie knife. But the handle was metal and ended in a walnut-sized metal ball.
There was an inscription on the handle. He looked closer and saw it was Tengwar, elvish script. The inscription was Sindarin: Pedo mellon. Pedo goth.
“Goth?” he wondered, and accidentally said it aloud.
The knife reared up on its spherical pommel, which buzzed against the wood of the table in an angry vibration.
Charlie reared. He didn’t crack his head on the ceiling only because it was already nearly in contact and there was no room for a run-up. There were crashing noises behind him and he realized he had backed and knocked over some furniture.
The knife buzzed along the table and jumped off. The buzzing continued, muffled by the thin rug. Then the knife approached in a series of hops, a gap in the buzz with each hop. Charlie danced back, feeling more furniture rattle and tangle around his rear legs.
Something landed on his rump and pushed off. Then, with a thump, a fox landed between him and the knife. She snarled at the knife, lunged, backed off. She hopped to one side and repeated the feint. She snarled again, a cat-like noise, and backed toward Charlie’s forelegs. The knife tracked her, rotating to point, hopping forward, swiping back and forth. It hopped and landed directly in front of her. One hop would take it into her neck.
Charliehorse grabbed up the fox by her scruff and barked, “Mellon!”
The knife dropped, inert.
Charlie found he was tightly hugging a shivering fox. When he could trust his voice, he said, “I gather you never saw that in action before.”
“Never,” said the fox into his left ear. She stopped shivering and shifted around. He loosened his embrace and, with a thump, Trella landed on the floor in human form.
She approached the knife with no hesitation, picked it up, and slammed it back down on the bedside table. With foxy-snarl noises, she muttered something in Wentle.
She had not expected Charlie to understand but, with shaky laughter in his voice, he said, “Gotta say, that has to reflect on my ancestry, too.”
She ignored this and turned to scold: “Don’t you know better than to go around readin’ stuff on ’chanted things—readin’ aloud?” The snarl hadn’t left her voice.
“I know, I know. It was dumb. I’m sorry. Thank you.”
“Dunno I did any good. Thanks for grabbin’ me.” Charlie nodded.
They stood silent for a while, letting their breathing steady. Then Charliehorse began picking his hind legs out of the jumble of chairs and end-tables. Trella moved in to help. “Nothin’ broke,” she announced. “Some scrapes. I can fix those.”
“How nice,” said Charlie distantly.
“Yeah, not like losin’ a hoof or a paw.” She glared at the knife on the table.
They had just restored order when they heard the door open downstairs. “Hello-ooo? Chaa-arles?” It was Lily. “Hey, Charliehorse!” called Alex, humor in his voice.
“Upstairs!” he bellowed. “Bedroom!”
His sister and cousin continued talking as they worked their way up. “We got tired listening to everybody talk about Aunt Bett,” said Lily. “Very depressing.”
“Boring, too,” said Alex. “What have you been doing here?”
“Yes, there are all these little tingles of magic now.”
“We thought you must be bored, all alone here, and...”
They reached the bedroom door and found Charliehorse, parked out, typing on his phone, Trella sitting sideways on his back as on a bench. “We ain’t been bored,” Trella said.
“And I wasn’t alone,” said Charlie. “But thank you for coming. It’s been very interesting.” He told them about the knife.
Cautiously, they approached the table and looked. “‘Say friend. Say foe,’” Alex translated.
“And, like an idiot, I said ‘foe,’” said Charliehorse. “Would you like a demonstration? I think it’s safe.”
“Okay,” said Lily, taking two big steps back from the table.
“Goth,” said Charlie. The knife stood and buzzed.
“Mellon,” said Lily. The knife fell. “Quick and simple,” she said through a tight mouth. “But the spell itself must be quite complex, to come up with fight moves, and to know who to attack and who to defend. Or maybe just who not to attack. It didn’t have anyone to defend.”
“A subject for further research,” said Charlie. “But it fits with other things we’ve found.”
“What have you found?” Lily asked.
“Let me give you the tour. I don’t care much about staying in this room.” He ducked his head and started out the door. Trella jumped off and then wasn’t to be seen. He was starting to get used to it; he wondered if she had dodged in and out of the day with Aunt Bett, too. He did not remember seeing her at all during his rare visits.
Out in the hall, he backed toward the stairs and called out to them. “See the landscape paintings? It’s hard to see in the daylight, but if you put them in your shadow—which I grant is easier for me—you see they shine. The painting are of daylight scenes, and they hold the light levels. Must make nice nightlights. And they’re on the upper floor, away from unSundered visitors.”
“If she ever had any,” Alex remarked, studying a view of sunlit heather hills. “I wonder what Lantin and the sexton made of that knife?”
“It would have been off while they were there,” Lily said.
“Yeah, but what’s a little old lady doing with a whacking great knife by her bed?”
Charlie shrugged. “They’d suppose it was for security. That’s what I supposed, even before I triggered it.” He pointed at the next door down. “Take a look in there.” Once they were in there, Charlie entered as far as his horse shoulders. “Look at these paintings.”
The room was a study, with a roll-top desk and two large bookcases. The walls were crowded with paintings, and the air tingled with magic.
“3-D!” exclaimed Alex. Coming through the door, you came face to face with a white-wigged gentleman of the eighteenth century. The texture of his skin and clothes was composed of brush strokes, but he appeared solid, round.
“I’m glad he’s not more realistic,” said Lily. “He’d be like a waxwork. I hate those.”
“There’s more,” said Charliehorse. “Every painting in here is either 3-D or self-illuminating. There’s a little landscape over there with the trees blowing in the wind.”
Alex examined a 3-D still-life of silverware and fruit on a table. “This stuff must be worth a lot,” he remarked. “I mean, take original art, a lot of it antique, then multiply by five or ten because of the enchantment...”
“There was a big fashion for this 3-D stuff around 1900,” Lily remarked. “Sundered collectors still want it. The biggest collection is in the Skryté Muzeum in Prague. This might be the second biggest.”
“There’s more,” said Charliehorse. He took another step in, leaned over, and lifted the cover of the roll-top desk. “The last few years, this got used for storage, not office work, I think. It’s full of receipts and notes and letters. Something very important might be among them, but I’ll let the heir sort them, whoever that turns out to be. I did note this. And this.”
He pulled out a mirror, oval, six inches high, with a short handle. Next, he pulled out a music box, a squat cylinder of brush-finished metal on elegant, gilded, curly legs. He pulled a knob, and a toy gazebo came up. A waltz tinkled and, inside the gazebo, a pair of tiny figures turned, thumbnail high, delicately enameled.
“The music box has no way to wind it,” Charlie pointed out. “It just goes. Forever. As long as someone with a scrap of vis is nearby, I suppose. Now look in the mirror.”
Alex picked it up and looked, then passed it to Lily. She looked too. “Seems normal,” she said, “but I feel the charm.”
“Now look at me in it.”
Lily obeyed and stood with her back to Charlie, looking in the mirror. She then pulled in a breath and held it. She motioned Alex to come to her side. They saw a horse, big and brown, standing in the doorway.
“Now flip it over and do it again.” The horse’s mouth moved in the mirror.
They obeyed again, looked again, and saw Charles, but not Charliehorse: a tall, burly man in red jacket and blue trousers, standing in the doorway, bipedal in the conventional manner.
“That’s interesting,” Alex said.
“Isn’t it?” said Charliehorse. “Trella had to show me how it worked. She reflects as a fox or a little woman or a brown-and-white jackdaw.”
“I wonder what, exactly, it’s reflecting,” said Lily.
“Another topic for further research,” said Charlie. “And there’s this.” He opened the center drawer and drew out a flat box of dark wood. “Before I open it,” he told his relatives, “I want you two to scope out the charm.” He laid it on the desk.
Alex picked the box up, brushed his fingers over it, then cocked his head, considering. “Not hugely powerful. Old, lifetimes. Aggressive, attacking. Not a trap, I think, but a weapon. Human-made. The guy enjoyed making it. I don’t think I’d like him.”
“Or her?” asked Lily, taking it from him. He shrugged. She looked at or through it. “There’s more than one spell here. Seven. I don’t get time and race data like you do, cuz, or the mood stuff. But, yes, out to harm. Seven different ways. But weapons, not traps. Unless the caster is too tricky for me. (Anyway, I suppose you already looked.) The ... start of each spell is the same, but the ending is different. Like, you pull the trigger on any gun but what comes out could be a bullet or a laser or– Did you say they had dust guns on Hod?”
“Sand guns, yes. And they show up on Gevurah, too. And Yesod does steam guns. Okay, very informative. Take a look.”
Lily opened the box. Alex looked over her shoulder. “Huh,” he said. “It’d look like dinnerware, if it weren’t all knives.”
It was all knives: seven nearly identical knives with slender blades and ivory handles, long enough to carve steaks though no one thought that was their purpose. “More Sindarin,” said Lily. Each blade bore Tengwar calligraphy.
“Not gonna pronounce any of it,” Charliehorse assured them. “They may be what made me a touch blasé about the one in the bedroom. But read.”
“I don’t think there’s any invocations,” said Lily, but read silently before translating, “Strength, wit, speed, skill, sleep, vis, luck.”
“I suspect,” said Charliehorse, “that, on top of normal damage, each knife damages the virtue it names. The strength knife weakens you, and so on. Or do you think it transfers the virtue to the holder?”
With awful insouciance, Lily picked up the strength knife and examined it, holding the blade far too close to her eyes for Charlie’s comfort. Therefore she did not see her huge brother tense and hold exactly still. “I don’t think so,” she said after a few seconds. “It’s tricky, but not that tricky, I don’t believe.”
Alex picked up the wit knife. (Charlie briefly shut his eyes and fired off a prayer. He only knew the damned things were enchanted; he had to trust their superior perception to catch any additional dangers.) “Yeah, there’s hate here, or a pleasure in aggression, but no rapacity, no greed.” He put it back and Lily followed suit. (Charlie resumed breathing.) “Futtlin’ things.”
“Someone just decided to get fancy with a bleeding knife,” Lily said dismissively.
“Where did you hear about bleeding knives?” her big brother demanded.
She grinned. “The Barfield Academy for Sundered Young Ladies has a variegated clientele. And faculty.”
“Okay, I’ll play straight man,” said Alex. “What’s a bleeding knife?”
Lily looked at Charlie, who made an “after you” gesture. “They make the wound bleed extra, is all.”
Alex nodded. “Anything else?” he asked, looking around the study.
“Not that I detected,” said Charlie. “Other than some preservative spells, I suppose, like the one Lily noticed this morning. There are lots of those.” He backed out the door and continued backing down the hall. “Come down to the kitchen. We collected some interesting stuff down there.” He then backed down the stairs, somewhat like a man coming down a ladder.
“That always looks so odd,” Alex remarked.
“But it’s easier,” answered Charliehorse. “The weight’s on the back legs.”
He led them into the kitchen, where a number of objects lay on the central table and Trella sat on a counter.
“Trella wants to make sure you don’t miss this,” Charlie said, holding up one find.
It was a figure on a base, about eight inches high. Base and figure were both of wrought iron, and there was a plain spike planted in the middle of the base. The figure bore a knife as a sword and was poised, it seemed, to attack the spike. Its painted face wore long, up-turned mustaches, a dab of goatee, and a maniacal grin.
“Is he a soldier or a clown?” asked Lily. The figure wore a tall, brimless, cylindrical hat, a short vest, baggy pants, and boots with tiny spurs painted on the heels. Hat and vest were orange, undershirt white, pants purple, and all festooned with brilliant green braiding.
“A soldier,” Charlie answered. “A zouave.” The word rhymed with ‘suave.’ “That’s a style of light infantry, famous for their gaudy dress uniforms.” He smiled, lopsided, and swept his free hand down his crimson jacket and back to the deep blue saddle cloth. “Uncle Marc may think this unsuitable for a funeral, but it could have been worse.”
Trella chuckled. “Only used it four or five times, but I kept it up there–” She pointed to a shelf. “–for show.”
“It’s an apple peeler,” Charlie explained. He put it down on the table. On cue, Trella popped an apple on it and turned a crank. The zouave brought his sword to bear on the apple. After one turn, he changed angles with a click and peeled another band off. After a few such turns, he clicked back into arms-ready and the apple was peeled save for a few flecks.
“Cute,” said Alex.
Lily nodded. “But not magical.”
“Nor is it,” agreed Charlie. “But I don’t think it’s of our Earth, either. I think it’s from Hod. The clockwork is so good, and it just looks Hodian to me. In any case, it illustrates the, ah, theme we’ve been discovering.”
“The cutty-cutty stabby-stabby thing,” said Alex. “Y’know, I wasn’t over here a lot, as a kid, but I was some, and I don’t recall anything like this.”
“Me either,” said Lily, and Charlie said, “Nor me. Maybe she hid her ... interest, knowing it would raise eyebrows. Think of all the things she could hide here, by herself.” His eyes strayed over the rest of the table.
“Maybe it was growing,” suggested Lily, “and wasn’t there when we were kids, or was slight.” She also studied the other objects: two flat wooden boxes, a dark plank of wood, and a stack of small silver-gray books.
“She didn’t have to be alone,” grumbled Alex. “I remember the folks were always inviting her over. ‘Come over for Christmas.’ ‘Come for this birthday.’ ‘This kid’s getting confirmed.’ But she hardly ever came. If she did, she left soon, kinda too soon for politeness. They– We gave up.”
“I’m trying not to be too judgey about the knives,” said Charliehorse. “After all, I carry a cavalry sabre and a canteen knife every day when I’m in the field.”
“You’re a soldier,” Alex countered.
“Or I was trying,” Charlie continued. “But then I found this stuff. And that nasty little surprise upstairs.” He shoved one of the flat boxes across the table with his fingertips.
Taking the hint, Alex flipped it open with one finger. “’Nother knife. And little glass jars.”
The knife was strapped to the inside of the box, broadbladed, with a leather-wrapped handle. A row of tiny glass jars sat in roughly worked niches under another strap. It all looked sturdy and practical and not at all like Aunt Bett’s usually refined style.
“I know this one is from out-zone,” said Charlie. “In the military, we just call them ‘Gevurah knives.’ Of course, Gevurah is a whole world, with many cultures, but these knives happen to come from the culture near our base at Gevurah-Set, so Captain Fletcher included them in a useful lecture on Things to Watch Out For on Gevurah. See the grooves near the edge? You rub in the poison of your choice, as a paste. Wearing gloves, I should think. Hence the little glass jars: cobra venom, krait venom, black widow venom, box jelly venom (imported from out-zone, very expensive), and a local anesthetic to mix with others so the target doesn't feel the cut. No magic to it, but can you tell if it’s been used? Recently?” He shoved the box toward Alex.
Alex, to Charlie’s relief, did not venture to pick the knife up. He picked up the whole box and held it for a while. “So far, I’m best at the history of enchanted things,” he cautioned. “But yeah, this has been used. Not at all recently. Um. Not anciently, either.”
“Well. Inconclusive. Here’s the last one.” And Charliehorse pushed across the other box, thinner, darker, polished.
Alex flipped it open. “Knives. What a surprise.” On red velvet lay two thin, curved knives, crossing each other. “Magic here, for sure.” He tilted his head and seemed to listen.
“Meta-magic,” said Lily. “Magic about magic. Something here for juggling power.”
“Wow,” Alex said softly. “These stink of adrenalin. Stress. Trauma. And willpower, resolution. Buckets of it.” He looked up and met Charlie’s eyes. “Austerity knives.”
Charlie nodded. “Thought so. If you’re sure, I’m sure. I get a whiff of the feeling, too, and I recognize the style. Give yourself a few good cuts—they can be shallow ones—and jack your supply of vis way up. Look carefully at the blades. Where they join the handles.” Alex and Lily each picked one up and looked, not seeming to hear Charlie repeat “Carefully” in a tense mutter.
“Blood,” said Lily. “Tiny remnants of blood stains. Something black and grainy, anyway Do you really think–”
Charlie said, “I can’t help thinking that, if they were just for display, they’d be thoroughly cleaned.”
Alex glanced out the kitchen window, to the new grave. “I suppose she might have scars on her arms or something.”
“We are not digging her up!” Lily asserted.
“Moving quickly on,” said Charliehorse, “guess what this is.” He presented them with the plank of wood. It was about two feet long and ten inches wide. Carved in intaglio was the figure of a smiling man, in an almost cartoon-like style, wearing a wide-brimmed hat with plume and the poufy sleeves and trousers of the seventeenth century.
Alex moved to touch it and withdrew before making contact, puzzled. Lily did touch it, did not withdraw, and said, “It’s a bit greasy.”
Alex reached out again, did touch this time, and said, “Warm. It’s supposed to be warm, or hot. But it isn’t. There’s...”
“A mold!” said Lily triumphantly. “A big cookie mold!”
“Right!” Trella confirmed. “Gingerbread men. Big ones. We had it hanging on the wall over there, for decoration.” Her face clouded. “But we won’t now. I won’t.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Lily.
“There was a button ward on it,” said Charlie, “on the back, held on with a bit of putty. When it came off, we both felt something. What do you two think it is?”
They brooded over it for a couple of minutes, then gave up. “It’s a very slight enchantment,” said Lily. “And it’s on something slight. It’s ... faint, dim.”
“It’s old. It’s sad,” said Alex and stopped.
Charliehorse sighed. “It’s haunted. A bit.” He sighed again. “We’re all ghost-sensitive, but I think I have more acquaintance with ghosts than you two. I’ve worked with astral projectors and ghost hunters. And I researched it. When Aunt Lu died.”
“Did she ever–?” began Lily.
“No. Don’t worry.” Hauntings were rarely happy things. “But you know me. I couldn’t help thinking about it, so I studied it. I think this is the least kind of ghost. Not an unhoused soul. Not an astral image. Not even an energy residue. It’s just ... a hole in the world where someone used to be. It’s really the commonest kind of ghost, but the hardest to notice, and they don’t last long. The world moves on,” he said, his voice going a little hard. “The bit of magic here is holding the hole open.”
“Whose hole?” Lily asked or wondered.
“Well, the obvious candidate is Uncle Dieter,” said Alex
“But he’s been signing papers,” objected Lily. “He might be alive. Probably is.”
“But all anyone ever sees are the signed papers,” countered Alex.
“But these are important papers,” said Lily. “Big checks and contracts and such. There’ll be forgery tests.”
“Maybe that’s what she keeps the ghost for.”
Lily looked to Charliehorse. “Can a ghost like this, that’s just a– a hole, sign papers?”
Charlie shrugged. “By itself, no. With a lot of magical help, well, what is not possible?”
Lily waved her hand dismissively. “Aunt Bett didn’t have that kind of skill. She had all these enchanted things, but no significant skill, no more than us.” She rounded on Alex preemptively. “And don’t say she was hiding it. Skill like that would take years, decades to develop. She wasn’t a recluse long enough to hide that.” Alex nodded quickly.
“Is this necromancy?” he asked Charliehorse, nodding at the haunted cookie mold. “Legally? I’d rather not have a witch in the family, even if she’s dead now.”
Charliehorse furrowed his brows. “I’m not sure. Kenotic ghosts, as they’re called, or shuetu, or gap-ghosts, are not really ghosts at all, or so some argue. After all, there’s no soul involved.”
“It’s at least dabbling,” Lily declared.
“Well, yes,” Charlie admitted, “but we don’t know that Aunt Bett cast the spell. Still, she was good at making use of magical instruments.” He looked at the gingerbread mold and mused. “One might make a gingerbread man and eat it. That might give one a temporary copy of the deceased’s memories. Or skills, like handwriting.”
Lily and Alex both made disgusted faces, but Trella said, “She didn’t. All she did for cookin’ was toast bread, and I’d know if she’d been doing any cookin’ on the sly.”
“Well, did you ever see Dieter about, in any form?” Charlie asked.
“Not since he scarpered.”
Lily took a deep breath. “There’s this girl at Barfield. Her family were Sundered just a few years ago, so she didn’t grow up with it. She sometimes says, ‘I feel like I’ve stepped into a fairy tale.’ Now I feel like I’ve stepping into a mystery novel. Are we seriously considering that Aunt Bett might have murdered her husband and used his ghost to forge papers?”
No one said anything. In particular, no one said, “Of course not.”
“The truth is,” said Charliehorse, “we didn’t know her very well. Not even my mother. And we knew her less and less in recent years. Well! Here are the books.” He shoved the ghostly cookie mold aside and replaced it with the stack of books. They were small and thick, with silver-gray covers but no titles except for a year written on the front of each.
“They’re diaries or journals. She must have bought then all in a batch. They’re organized by the calendar, each with 366 pages but no days of the week marked, so you can use them in any year.”
“You’ve been reading her diaries?” asked Lily dubiously.
Charliehorse gave her a short glare. “Lily, we were just wondering if she was a witch or a murderer. Post mortem privacy fades next to that. Anyway, maybe you’ll find something to exonerate her.”
“All of you, the family. You can go through it at your leisure. But it ought to go fairly fast, from the bit I skimmed. Most pages are like this.” He held out a book opened at random. The left page read:
Alex picked up a book. “Yeah, let’s find something more interesting.” A little riffling produced:
Pkgs from Ebr., J, K-O’P
Checks to E.L., H.H.
“Huh. C’mon, you can do better than that, Aunt Bett,” Alex said. Charlie, Lily, and Trella all picked up books and riffled.
Charliehorse picked out the volume for 2017 and started through. Soon enough, he found what he was looking for:
Raw and windy, 5˚
Eveline burst in wailing about her Chas. signed up with
Dedicated Cavalry. Going on about horse-monsters.
Told her nothing to be done, put it behind her.
“And so she did,” he murmured. He was about to show the entry to Lily and Alex when Trella chuckled triumphantly.
“Look at this!” she said and held out a book:
Warm & fair, 24˚
Had Dieter out for papers.
“And she snuck him in when I was out. Look at the date; it’s a cross-quarter day. I allus take them and quarter days off, along with Sundays and soulcake days.”
Charlie nodded. “Had him ‘out’?” he wondered.
“You know,” Alex gibed. “Unpacked him, dusted him off.
“Took him out to lunch, surely,” Lily said.
More selective checks of quarter days and cross-quarter days garnered more repetitions of “Had Dieter out” varied with “Had Dieter over,” sometimes without amplification, usually “to sign things” or “for papers.”
“So the scarpering was very incomplete,” Alex noted.
“I wonder when was the last time,” said Lily. “It could be a clue, and he is the heir.”
“Of all these knives,” Alex muttered.
“There’s one of these books on her bedside,” Trella said. “You could check.”
They returned to the bedroom, retrieved the book, and then, by unspoken consent, crowded around the fireplace at the other end of the room, away from the knife.
Charlie leafed through. “The pages for the last few days are blank,” he said, and found himself lowering his voice. “Um. Here’s the last entry.”
Alex looked cross at being boxed into sympathizing again. Lily looked sad. She reached for the book, which Charlie surrendered. While she paged back through Bett’s final illness, Charlie looked around the bedroom. What had he missed while distracted by that animated knife?
After examining the bed itself and a bookshelf, he brought his attention back to where they were standing, before a fireplace on the far side of the room. Above the mantle was another 3-D picture, a still life showing a cupboard on a wall, its door ajar, above a wooden table littered with fruits, some peeled, some not.
He went on looking.
“Here’s the last record of Uncle Deiter,” Alex announced. “Back in winter, on a Sunday. ‘Dieter signed papers. Stayed to talk.’ That’s different.”
Charliehorse nodded abstractedly. “This painting is different, too. Very different.”
“Oh?” asked Alex. “How?”
“Several things. It’s big. Lifesized. Too big for where it hangs. And it’s under a glass cover with hinges. But mainly, it’s a 3-D picture that doesn’t feel magic.” He ran his hand along the top of the frame. “No ward button. How’s it warded?” The other three traded looks, but no one offered an answer.
“Look at the knife in the picture,” said Lily, pointing. Of course there was a knife in the picture. On the table, amid the peeled apples and pears, lay a little knife suitable for peeling. “It’s shiny,” Lily continued, “but the color’s off. And it’s more defined. No brushstrokes at all. It looks real.”
Charliehorse reached out to the glass over the picture and gave a sharp, light tap to the edge opposite the hinges. The glass pane swung open.
He reached in. He could reach in. If this had been an “ordinary” 3-D painting, his hand would have stopped at the canvas, with its layer of glamoured paints. This was more.
“Seeming,” muttered Alex. Seemings were magical illusions that bordered on reality. Where glamour could only play with images and sounds, seemings could make changes of appearance that included size and distance. Charlie was reaching into a seeming of painted space.
Charlie picked up the little knife. Yes, it was solid and real, but it still wasn’t normal. He removed it from the imaged space and showed it to the others. The blade was shiny and smooth, but made of wood. And, “Enchanted,” Lily said immediately.
“Now you can tell that,” Charliehorse said. “There’s a ward in the painting somewhere.” He passed the knife to Trella and reached in again. He found he could lift the fruits (which felt like painted canvas) to look under, but there was no amulet or sigil or the like.
He tried the cupboard door. It moved, so he opened it. There were little glass jars that had been half visible before. They did not reflect his incoming hand. On a shelf lay a ward button. Next to it lay a simple brass key, and next to the key lay a small oval frame. With a little fumbling, Charlie got them all in the grip of one hand and took them all out.
“Ah!” exclaimed Lily. “Huh. Right,” said Alex. With the ward removed, the painting now registered as very, very enchanted.
Charlie dropped the ward into his pocket, blinding it. That left him with the key in one hand and the frame in the other. “Now, what have we here?” He handed the key to Lily.
“Not actually enchanted,” she told him. “But it’s been around enchantment a lot. Which we knew.”
He looked at the frame. He had been expecting a picture or silhouette, perhaps of Dieter. Instead, the frame surrounded two panes of glass with an oak leaf between them. The leaf was old and brown, and flakes had broken off. On one pane, etched in neat, tall, letters, were the words Mian Darach.
He frowned. Why frame an oak leaf? What did the engraving mean? He remembered now that darach was Irish for oak. Oh.
With deliberate care, he handed the framed leaf to Alex, who noticed the care and received it cautiously.
“What’s this?” Alex asked. Then, examining the object, “What does Mian Darach mean?”
“I’m looking it up,” said Charlie, busy with his phone. “Mm. Thought so.” He met Alex’s eyes. “‘Oak wish.’”
“Futtle!” said Alex. Lily stared. Trella yipped.
“But it’s not enchanted,” Lily objected.
“No more it is,” agreed Charliehorse. “Anyway, you can see it’s been used up. They stay fresh until then.”
Alex let out his breath. “Good.”
“You don’t want an oak wish?” Charlie asked with a mocking grin.
“I do not. I know the stories about wishes.”
“Thanks. But where the fut–”
“I couldn’t begin to imagine. Well, I can imagine where, but not how.”
“Ireland, of course,” said Lily. “Or Tir na n’Og or somewhere like that. And we also have some idea of who.”
Charliehorse nodded. “The Dagda, the Morrigan, Macha, Aengus. Some big number from the Tuatha.” He gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Oak wishes are usually valued at a full year of nights each. And someone used this one.” He focused on Alex. “Are you game?”
“Sure,” he answered, squaring his shoulders. He then stared at the framed leaf for two long minutes.
Trella hopped to Charlie's back. “He okay?” she asked.
“Just being thorough. He and Lily are taking lessons in this at school. I’m just picking it up as I go along, so they’re well ahead.”
“Yeah, well, you’re busy marching across the Atlantic desert and stuff.”
“Someday,” said Alex, breaking silence, “they’ll teach me the tricks for precise dating. But not yet. The wish was used many years ago, a few decades, but I can’t say more exactly. The wish was founded way long ago, centuries, I suppose, by a fay.”
“Well, I can’t get anything like that off the key,” said Lily. “It’s just been around magic.”
Charlie nodded. “Trade with Trella. Look at the wooden knife.”
Lily obeyed and soon said, “The knife is part of a system of enchantments. It’s meant to be used with some other enchanted things. Fay made.”
“Trella, what can you say about the key?” Charliehorse asked.
“It’s part and parcel of your system,” she told Lily. “They have the same smell comin’ off. Now, gimme a minute.” She rolled the key in her hands, tossed it up and down a few times, then said, “Right. The lock to this key is somewhere in my house. Follow me.”
A few minutes later, they were gathered in the basement. The ceiling forced Charlie into an uncomfortable crouch. The basement was dim and slightly dank, but it was in Trella's care, so it was not dusty or cob-webby, and the contents were neatly laid out.
They were gathered around a small steamer trunk, such as Victorians used on trips abroad. Trella turned the key and Alex opened the lid. Inside were stacked white linen bundles.
“These been moved around not too long ago,” Trella told them. “I can tell. They ain’t settled like they would if they was left for years.”
Each of them removed a bundle and unwrapped it, each to find an article of clothing: Charlie had a 1950s poodle skirt, Lily a striped jacket that looked about a century old, Alex a tie-dyed blouse, and Trella a white turtleneck sweater. Nothing was enchanted.
“This is camouflage,” Charliehorse declared. “Or there’s a hidden significance. Let’s keep going.”
Without unwrapping any more bundles, they worked on emptying the trunk. And, near the bottom, they found a larger bundle, hard and rectangular, wrapped in an oilskin. “Ta-da!” said Alex.
Charliehorse lifted it out and started unwrapping the oilskin. “This wrap is a ward, like the buttons,” he reported as he worked. He uncovered a chest of light wood, about the dimensions of two shoeboxes end to end. Everyone could feel the enchantments within.
When Charlie opened the brass latch, it split lengthwise into equal halves. They looked inside, trying to make sense of what they saw. The chest was packed with white rope, interspersed with palm-sized discs of a yellow metal—brass, bronze, gold, copper, or something more exotic, there was no way to tell in the dim light.
Charliehorse sighed in exasperation. “Let’s take this up to the kitchen and see it in the light.”
They climbed, he clambered and squeezed, and presently they were all back in the kitchen, the chest on the table. In the full light, they could see an inscription on the face, in uncial script: Cruthanna an Dagda.
“The Dagda’s Shapes,” Charliehorse announced after running it through translation. “Name droppers. The Dagda knows his favorite shapes by heart and can do just about anything impromptu. He doesn’t need a box of charms.”
“Maybe these are copies of his favorite shapes, by an admirer,” Lily proposed. “Let’s see how this works.” She reached in and lifted out a rope.
It was thick, soft, and slick, a light beige, finished off with a big and decorative knot at each end, and about a fathom long. It laced through a medallion in the middle, one of the discs. She ran it through her hands; Charlie and Alex joined in.
“I think the rope is raw silk,” said Charliehorse, “and the medallion is bronze.” He examined it. It was a mass of looping Celtic knot-work.
“They showed us something like this in class,” Lily said thoughtfully. “I think it’s a shapeshifting spell. Not glamour. Not seeming. Real shapeshift.”
“For a stag, I think,” said Charlie, and showed them the knotwork design. “Trella?” He presented the rope to her.
“Huh. Never saw it ’chanted up before, just did it. But shapeshift all right. Stag? Could be.”
They pulled out more ropes and examined their medallions. Bear. Eagle. Boar.
“Look!” said Lily, pointing into the half-empty chest. There was a small wooden tab with a pointed outline carved into it. “It’s for this.” She took the little wooden knife and fitted it in.
“Right,” Charlie murmured. “Part of the system. But how does the system work? Trella?”
“No idea. Don’t use a system.”
“Well,” said Lily brightly, “we could experiment.”
Charliehorse looked up from the ropes and met her gaze. “You mean that?”
“Yes, I mean that! One of the many results of your transformation, dear brother, was getting the lot of us thinking and wondering about it. Alex and Iris and I have certainly talked about it together.”
“And Oliver and me,” added Alex. “And Bev.”
“Oliver? And Beverly? Really? She can hardly bear to look at me,” said Charliehorse.
“Well,” admitted Alex, “with Bev, it was in a sort of ‘horror stories around the campfire’ way. But a lot of us are just plain curious. What’s it like?”
Charliehorse waved his arms helplessly. “It can’t really be described. It does not hurt. It’s confusing. Maybe more confusing than any of these transformations, because it breaks homology.”
“‘Homology’?” echoed Alex.
“His body doesn’t map evenly onto a human one,” Lily explained. “Six limbs instead of four. And a tail. If you transform into a boar, your right arm becomes the boar’s right front leg. Where did your front legs come from, Charles? I’ve wondered.”
Charliehorse gazed at his younger sister with interested surprise. She, too, was a natural researcher, apparently. “My arms split,” he answered. He enjoyed the look of consternation on their faces, then turned his attention inward. “Then the bottom one turns into a horse foreleg while the top one stays the same. At the same time, my spine is lengthening and growing a new rib cage, and these new lower arms and shoulders are sliding down my body into position, and a tail shows up somewhere, and the toes go away... I was the last in line for the magic arrow and watched it happen five times to the other guys in my class. And I’ve seen the video of my own transformation.
“And here I am, years later. This is me now. Permanently, barring misadventure. I like being this. I chose it. But it was the strangest, most confusing thing to ever happen to me. So think carefully about experimenting. Especially if we’ve no idea how to reverse it.”
His sister and cousin nodded soberly. But Lily said, “The knife?”
Charlie was silent for a while. “My guess– Just guessing, based on examples I’ve read about– is that you wrap or tie a rope around yourself—or someone else—to change them, then use the knife to change them back. Poke or slice. Don’t know if it would be necessary to draw blood. The thing is, the examples I’m thinking of are just seeming skins. Not true shapeshift, as here.”
“Well, let’s keep unpacking,” said Alex. “Maybe there are instructions in there.” He pulled out a rope and looked at the medallion. “Bull.”
Lily pulled out one. “Fish. Probably a salmon. Magic Celtic fish? Going to be a salmon, not, say, a herring.”
Charlie pulled one out. He puzzled over the semi-abstract pattern for several seconds, then said, “Tree.”
“Tree?” chorused Lily and Alex.
“Look at it.” He displayed the medallion to them.
“Oak tree,” Lily specified. “Look at the leaves. Those are oak leaves, if they aren’t bunches of grapes. And anyway, these here are acorns.”
“Yep, oak tree,” agreed Alex.
Then Lily shuddered. “I’ve always hated the idea of being transformed into a tree. Nothing of you left, just the bare life.”
“It fits the boast on the lid, though,” murmured Charliehorse, running the rope through his fingers. “The Dagda can disguise himself as an oak tree, in which state he’s still entirely the Dagda, and has been known to fight some very surprised foes. I wish I could pick out the spell, but all I get is a faint smudge of the energy, a residue. Here, you try.” He handed the rope to Lily and picked up the one for the boar. “Nothing at all.” He handed it to Alex. “You try.”
“Right, empty,” Alex said. “Been empty for a long time. At least a century, I’d guess. Maybe several. But there’s some major spell in there. Just needs to be powered up.”
“This one isn’t quite empty,” Lily agreed, holding the rope with the tree medallion. “But it holds a whacking great transformation spell, too. I’m sure it’s transformation.” She grimaced again and put it back. “Let me try yours,” she said to Alex, reaching out. She verified it bore a big, elaborate spell but was completely drained of vis, of power.
She frowned, then quickly ran her hands over all the ropes. “They’re all drained. All but the tree one, with its leftover whiff.”
“Well,” said Charliehorse, “so much for experimenting, at least for the time being. Transformations take a lot of power. I don’t suppose any of us is carrying more than one night’s vis at the moment.”
He was working to keep the relief out of his voice. He was surprised at how uncomfortable he felt over the idea of Alex, or worse yet Lily, transforming themselves, even as an experiment. Familiar, loved faces annihilated behind muzzles, beaks, bark, even if only temporarily.
All the fights and arguments he had had with his family about his own change would need to be re-examined now that he could better see their point. In particular, had they valued him more than he realized? He felt an ache behind his eyes. If he put his mind to it, he could start weeping. Not now.
Charliehorse picked up the tree rope and studied it closely, this time with his senses. Was it ever so faintly grubbier than the others? Less purely white? He examined the decorative knots at the ends; there did seem to be a little dirt caught in them here and there, tiny flecks.
“Trella,” he asked, “could you examine this? Could you smell it?”
Trella was standing on the edge of the table opposite Charlie. She took a step backward, dropped off, then popped up at Charlie’s elbow as a fox. She sniffed carefully at the tree rope for several seconds, then at the other ropes briefly, then sat back and said, “Well, here’s a thing. Your Aunt Bett’s handled all these ropes, but she handled this one the most, by a lot. And it’s the only rope that smells of your Uncle Dieter.”
They were all in the kitchen garden. Charliehorse had announced, “I have to get outside,” and left another round of horse hair on the door frame as he squeezed out. The others had joined him willingly enough.
Trella, the only one not upset, had brought out a bottle of brandy and some glasses. Alex and Lily accepted shot glasses. Trella offered Charlie a tumbler; he muttered about “blood volume” and accepted it.
He had discussed the bodily changes of transformation with Lily and Alex, but he had not touched on the mental ones. His mind was now and evermore equine as well as human, and he was fighting an urge to bolt—to gallop away down the country road, with no thought to what lay ahead, only for getting away. But neither a war horse nor a soldier nor a wise man can act like that.
Trella observed how her mortal guests worriedly scanned the woods beyond the garden fence. “He ain’t in there,” she told them. “Folks’d notice an oak tree poppin’ in and out.” Trella’s folks, certainly.
“Then where?” demanded Alex. He knocked back his brandy because he’d seen people do that in movies and instantly regretted it. “Did she just tool over to Sherwood and check him out for the day?” he asked in slightly strangulated tones.
“She didn’t drive these last several years,” Trella reminded him. “But the books say she kept on havin’ Dieter over.”
“So he’s somewhere close,” sail Lily. “Trella, can you find him? Dowse for him, the way you found the lock to the key?”
She looked doubtful. “He ain’t mine. And it’s harder if he’s shapeshifted. But I’ll give it a try.” She went back in the house and returned with the tree rope. Holding it by the medallion, she turned in a circle with a considering look on her face, but then shook her head. “Sorry.”
“Now what?” asked Alex.
Charliehorse said thoughtfully, “There can’t be that many oak trees in walking distance for a ninety-year-old woman, if we eliminate the ones in the forest back there.”
“What if it’s a little sapling, or an acorn?” Lily asked.
“I don’t think it will be,” Charlie answered. “Bears? Boars? Stags? They’re styling these shapes after the Dagda’s guises. Unless the whole thing is an exercise in misdirection, this’ll be a nice big tree. Anyway, it’s only reasonable to start with big ones.”
“Hold it,” said Alex. “How could she do this? You said these transformations need a lot of vis, more than all of us have, combined. How could a little old lady do it?”
“She could have a stockpile somewhere,” Lily countered. “Or someone could have owed her.”
“Possible,” agreed Charliehorse. “But we know she had the austerity knives.”
“Ah, right. With traces of blood on them,” Alex recalled.
Lily nodded. “So that’s no problem.”
“There’s the spinney across the road,” said Trella.
They stared at her, confused.
“You was askin’ about oak trees outside the forest. Other side o’the hedgerow, there’s a hay field with a spinney in it. Forest folk don’t go there much—too much unSundered traffic—but we knows about it, and there’s oak trees there.”
“Lead the way!” said Alex, waving toward the road with his empty shot glass.
“Wait!” commanded Charliehorse. “How are you going to know which tree it is? ...he is?”
“Can’t we just try the wooden knife on every oak until one turns into Uncle Dieter?” asked Alex.
“How big is this spinney?” Lily countered.
“We could,” Charlie answered Alex, “but there’s a faster way. We can use that mirror. But the other problem with using the knife is that we don’t have the accumulated power to make the reverse transformation. Remember?”
“Not,” said Lily slowly, “without the austerity knives.”
“Right,” Charliehorse breathed. “This isn’t going to be pleasant.” He finished his brandy and started toward the kitchen door. “Well, we have preparations to make for our little expedition. I can think of a couple of other things to bring as well.”
It was an odd procession crossing the hay field, though only Sundered eyes would chance to see it. First came the great myth-beast, brightly dressed for a funeral in crimson and blue. On his back was a small pack and a vixen, who had shown them the gap in the hedgerow (larger now, since Charlie’s passage). She was not of a mind to romp after mice in the tall grass today, and got an excellent view from atop the pack. Behind, in the grass-wake left by their monster kinsman, trailed a young man and woman, in dark suit and dress far too formal for a hay field. The spinney was on the far side. There was plenty of time to talk.
“Good thing you thought of clothes,” said Lily. There was a bathrobe and a pair of slippers in the bundle on Charlie’s back. For a man. Found at the back of a closet, when they thought to look there.
“Well, my last memory as a human-simple was standing naked in a line with five other naked men, waiting to get shot with a magic arrow. It's a rare transformation that juggles clothes.”
“What about you, Trella?” Alex asked. “Is your dress a seeming, or what?”
Trella snickered. “Ain’t tellin’.”
Lily contemplated the spinney ahead. It looked larger with every step and, of course, the perfect place to hide a tree. “Why did they leave the spinney?” she asked.
“Used to be part of the forest,” Trella answered. “When they cleared the field, it was for pasture at first, so they left the trees for the cows to shelter in. And for pigs, what with the acorns. Plenty of oaks in there.”
“You remember that?” asked Charliehorse. “How long have you ... held that house?”
He knew fays were careless of dates, so he was not surprised when she answered, “Dunno. Before cars and electricity. Moved in with your family. Had to pick. Thought of takin’ those two big houses you live in, but decided I liked this ’un. What do you know about why we take service with a family?”
Charliehorse, facing away from her and the others, raised his eyebrows in private surprise. Fays seldom talked about this. “I’ve heard that it’s a way for you to get Adam’s Mark—full language. Abstract thought.” He paused to dare. “Conscience.”
“But you seem to have all those things.”
“I do. I got my Mark a long time ago.”
“Why did you stay on after getting Marked?” Sometimes, brownies stayed on because they liked their mortal family, or simply because the place was now home. But Charlie had not thought things were so warm between Trella and Aunt Bett.
“I Promised.” And he could hear the capital P. “Not her.” Trella jerked her head back toward the hedgerow, beyond which lay the fresh grave. “Her fourth-great-grandmother. We was great friends.” There was a sigh in the little immortal’s voice, regretting that woman’s mortality. “When she was dyin’, she asked me to look after her family forever. Well, here’s something to remember: if there’s a word that scares fays, it’s ‘forever,’ when you really mean it. I had to tell her I couldn’t dare promise that. But I’d watch for seven generations. And I have. And Miss Bett was seventh.”
“Are you going?” Lily asked sadly.
Trella turned from vixen to woman, the better to smile kindly. “We’ll see. Leastwise, it sounds like I’m wanted.”
“Count on it,” said Charlie. He would not be living with her, but he had her measure now, he thought, and he liked the idea of some of his family under her care.
After a few silent paces, Alex asked, “How did Aunt Bett get a boxful of shapechanging ropes, anyway?”
“Oak wish,” said Charlie briefly. “Remember the used oak-wish leaf? I think she must have used it to get the box. Of course, that just pushes the mystery back one step: where’d she get the oak wish? Maybe Dieter will know.”
He halted. They were at the edge of the spinney. Someone took care of it: there was no belt of brush around the edge. “In we go.”
It was a large spinney, but they could still see the hay field around them when they reached the center. They passed many oak trees along the way, including some saplings at the edge. They would not have been there in 2005, when Dieter vanished. Might they be Charlie's cousins? Step-cousins twice removed or something? Well. Best not pursue that.
Here at the center, Charliehorse reared up by a tree, grasped a branch, and set a foreleg against the trunk. (What if this were Dieter?) Trella clambered up his human back, to his shoulders, and held aloft the shape-revealing mirror. After a few minutes, they moved a few yards and tried again.
They were fourth time lucky. “Got ’im! Got ’im!” Trella declared. She popped down Charlie, man-shoulders to withers to croup, and skittered through the leaf-litter to an oak tree like any other. There, she proudly held up the mirror, about five feet from the trunk.
The mortals gathered round and gazed from tree to mirror and back. In the mirror, they saw a man, old but not as old as Aunt Bett—about middle seventies, certainly not the ninety-six a calendar would say. He was bony, naked, but clad in his white hair and beard, which streamed down to the full natural length. He stared blankly, up into the leaves of the trees. The other trees.
Charliehorse reached out and touched the trunk. “Dieter,” he said, but nothing happened. In the mirror, a big young man in a red and blue uniform put a hand on the old man’s shoulder.
He pulled the wooden knife out of his belt and touched the point to the tree. Nothing happened. Nothing happened when he drew the blade over the bark, nor when he tried again, hard enough to score the bark slightly. “As we thought,” he said heavily. “Lily, please get out the other knives. They’re on the right side.”
Lily reached up into the pack on his back and withdrew the dark box containing the austerity knives. She nailed her brother with her gaze. “Charles,” she said, “you’ve handled swords and knives more than us. I want you to be the one to do the cutting.”
Pain crossed Charlie’s face. “Oh, sweets!”
“She’s right,” insisted Alex. “You said the cuts could be shallow. You’ll be best at insuring that.”
Charliehorse turned nervously, in a tight circle, his hooves churning up leaf litter. “But if I do it for you, that might not count as an austerity. Then we’d have the pain, maybe scars, for nothing! Maybe– Maybe the combined vis of the four of us will be enough.”
“You really think so?” asked Alex. Charlie was silent.
“I wish we had more people,” Lily sighed.
Charlie stiffened. “We do! We’ve at least a dozen more people! Lily, Alex, get back home and get the family out here! And take these damned knives back to the house.”
Charlie was pleasantly surprised. The family showed up in less than an hour and there were no hold-outs. The priest and the sexton were there, too. Nineteen people in dark, formal, respectable clothing, wading through a hay field in the late afternoon sunlight, to meet myth-creatures in the wood about high magic. Nineteen ought to provide plenty of vis.
He hailed them, once they got near the spinney, and soon everyone was gathered around Charliehorse and Trella, by the Dieter-tree.
Everyone wanted to see Dieter through the mirror. While this was going on, Father Lantin closed in with Charlie for a private talk. “When your sister and cousin came with the news,” he said quietly, “people immediately began wondering why your aunt left her husband this way. The charitable assumption is that she was overtaken by her illness faster than expected and could not make provision. Did you find anything to contradict that?”
Charlie thought about the last visit with Dieter. ‘Stayed to talk,’ the journal entry had read. “No, sir. If anything, there’s a hint that assumption is true.”
Nearby, Uncle Marc had been taking his turn with the mirror, but now turned it over to Aunt Eleanor. “Huh. Looks in good enough shape,” he said to the general company, then, to Charlie, “That what he’ll look like when he’s changed back?”
Charlie paused a moment to digest his surprise at a civil question from Uncle Marc. “I think so, sir, if this goes off as planned. You don’t, ah... There’s no difficulty about him inheriting the house?”
Marc waved this away. “You kids are growing up, moving out, starting your own families.” Microscopic pause to look Charlie over. “And careers. What do we need that house for? The two houses we’ve got are already emptying out. Anyway, there’s no disputing his right to it.”
Something relaxed in Charlie that had tightened up before, whenever he had spoken with (or been spoken to by) Marc, ever since he had announced his decision to run off and be a monster, then defiantly stuck by it. Marc could be peppery, and bull-headed, and managing, but Charlie now remembered that he could be fair (by his own lights) and generous.
“Now, you, ma’am,” Marc went on, now to Trella, sitting on Charlie’s back. “Anyone might covet your services. Would you consider taking us on? Or all three houses?”
“(Told you),” Charlie murmured in a soft rumble best heard by someone sitting on him.
She smiled gleefully. “Maybe. Make a nice change, keepin’ busy. Let’s see what happens next.”
What happened next was that, under direction from Charliehorse, everyone joined hands or put hands on shoulders, ending with Charlie holding Trella’s left hand while she held the wooden knife in her right. None of the family were actual mages, at least not yet, and Charlie reasoned that Trella had the greatest skill in pushing and pulling vis.
Using the voice you develop doing survey work on the plains of the Atlantic Basin of Gevurah, he called, “Now, on ‘three,’ everybody push vis, if they can, or at least let Trella pull. One, two, three!”
A flow of vis felt different to different people. For some it would be hot, for others tingling. For Charlie, it was a cool thrill of current. Trella poked with the knife.
Just a moment too late, it occurred to Charlie that he should have warned people of the shock of watching a transformation. Trella’s changes went by too fast to worry about, but his own had been a few seconds of highly surreal freak-out. He remembered watching his five classmates dissolve before him, knowing he was next. Now...
The change to centaur “broke homology.” Here, homology was completely pulverized and swept negligently aside. Bark flushed pale and became skin. Branches softened. Leaves developed mouths and eyes, and sprouted, momentarily, on the ends of fingers. Fortunately, in the same few breaths, the many limbs and digits and features were sliding into one another, combining, sorting themselves out.
Charlie’s mother fainted. She was good at it. His father caught her. He was good at it.
And there stood Dieter, in a patch of churned soil, just as the mirror has showed him. He still stared blankly up at sky and leaf.
“Is he all right?” Lily asked.
“He will be,” Charliehorse assured her. “The problem is, he’s had months of standing around, not thinking.” As he spoke, he reached around and pulled the haunted gingerbread board out of the pack on his back.
“What’s that?” asked Uncle Marc.
“It’s a mold for making gingerbread men, but it’s haunted. By a gap-ghost. My hunch is that it’s Dieter’s. I think that, whenever he would become a tree, he’d leave a hole in the world as he would if he died. A gap-ghost. And Bett kept it for him—a hole for him to fill, a place for him to step back into.”
He started to hold the board up before Dieter, but Father Lantin cleared his throat and said, “His baptismal name is Dieter Hugo Nicholas.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Charliehorse. It was the kind of thing that might help. He held the board up before Dieter’s face with one hand, so he would have to breathe the air in the mold, and placed the other hand over Dieter’s heart. He wondered if this was going to work. “Dieter Hugo Nicholas Poleon, welcome!”
Dieter blinked, looked around, and, by the time Alex had helped him on with the bathrobe, clearly recognized faces as faces. “Oh!” he said, and nothing more for half a minute. Then, “She’s dead, isn’t she?”
Even before Lily could say, “Yes, Uncle Dieter,” he had begun to weep. They were the first tears shed for Aunt Bett.
They led Dieter back across the hay field and the road, to Bett’s grave, where he wept a while. The family either stood silently or murmured trite comforts that no one heard. Then Trella, who had vanished when they started the walk across the hay field, again showed up as a fox on a fence post and announced, “Tea’s on.”
Dieter seemed only mildly surprised by Trella—the same reaction he had had to Charliehorse—and let himself be led into the house. There, Trella had restored the morning buffet, fresh and hot.
Charlie, to minimize traffic problems, made a point of going in early and settling back down on his rug before the others filed in. He left the mirror, the wooden knife, and the gingerbread board, on a coffee table.
But the family paid little attention to the magical instruments, at first. Once Dieter was settled in an armchair, Aunt Constance asked the question of the hour: “Uncle Dieter, why did you get turned into a tree? Several times, by the look of things.”
He sighed. “She wanted it,” quickly amended to, “It’s what we worked out. More and more, everything I did seemed to irritate her. As time went on, we had more and more arguments. Things worked best if we spoke only occasionally. I would go for business trips, and when I was home, I’d go on long walks...”
“Why didn’t you simply separate?” Constance asked.
“She... She still needed me,” the old man said, as though confiding a secret pride.
“For paperwork?” asked Marc. “But she was a good businesswoman herself.”
“Oh, that was just the part you would see, a convenience. She needed to know I was nearby. Hated it when I'd leave on long business trips.”
“Did she distrust you?” Eleanor asked.
“Not at all! She just wanted me available.”
“But not too close,” concluded Constance.
“Well, yes.” He fell silent, and apparently no one wanted to ask about the strange negotiations that led to staying around as an oak tree in a nearby spinney. Available.
Charliehorse thought how Bett had feared both germs and doctors; perhaps both isolation and companionship bothered her, too. Compared to being Aunt Bett, he reflected, being a man and a horse at the same time is a snap.
He also thought how Dieter insisted on sticking with Bett no matter what, even very strange and severe “whats.” Was this admirable? Charlie had had to fight passivity and timidity in himself, and he thought that, in some absolute court of character that Charlie hoped he, himself, would never stand in, Dieter would have to defend himself against the charge of “doormat.” If Bett had needed him, how desperately had he needed her? Well, she had been no doormat; maybe that had been the attraction. And now she was gone.
The conversation moved on to their discovery of Dieter. Apparently, Lily and Alex had rushed in with the bare news, “Aunt Bett turned Uncle Dieter into a tree. We’ve found him, but we need help turning him back.” Charlie was rather proud that his family had turned out to help, in totality, without a lot of further questions, but they wanted answers now.
Charliehorse joined with Lily and Alex in describing their investigations. Trella sometimes popped in to add detail (and Charlie was careful to give her full credit, especially in the matter of the guarding knife), and Uncle Dieter would nod and confirm various things.
Naturally, everyone glanced at the items on the coffee table: the mirror, the wooden knife, and the gingerbread board. Charlie did too, but it now struck him that the board looked ... cold. A misgiving took him.
He rose as unobtrusively as possible (which was not possible at all) and picked up the board. “I’ll just put this back,” he muttered. “Back in the kitchen.” He got a couple of curious looks but no questions, as he edged his way out. The older generation were busy quizzing Dieter about his career with Bett.
By the time he got to the kitchen, he was certain of his suspicion. He was alone there, for the moment. But “Trella?” he said softly to the air.
“What’s up?” she demanded, hopping onto the far side of the kitchen table. She looked down at the board, where he had laid it. “Oh-ho!”
“Looks like the spell’s not off it,” said Charliehorse. “No reason it should be. It’s still catching gap-ghosts. Can you identify this one?”
“No, but we’ve both got the same guess, don’t we? Anyone else spot it?”
“I don’t think so. But I’ve been practicing hard at this sort of thing all day.”
“Right. D’you know what a rowan tree looks like?”
“Go get us a rowan twig.”
Charlie squeezed out of the kitchen as quietly as he could and made his way through the gate, down the forest path. Interesting, he thought, that he and Trella were clearly on the same page about what should be done. But then, she had not at all liked discovering the gingerbread board was haunted.
When he returned with the rowan twig (still with leaves, in case that was wanted), he found Trella, Lily, and Alex watching attentively as Father Lantin concluded a prayer over a tumbler of water: “...ut salubritasm per invocationem sancti Tui nominis expetita, ab omnibus sit impugnationibus defensa. Per Dominum nostrum, amen.” (“...so that healthfulness, through the invocation of Thy holy name, be made secure against all attacks. By our Lord, amen.”)
“Amen,” Charlie and the others echoed.
Lantin looked up from the tumbler of now-holy water and met Charlie’s eyes. “Trella has explained things,” he said.
Alex viewed the re-haunted board with distaste. “A gap for her to step into,” he said.
“Nothing we want to encourage,” Lantin replied.
“I told her not to come back,” Trella grumbled. “But you can’t count on the fresh-dead.”
“They can be unstable,” agreed Lantin, pastor of a Sundered parish.
Charlie handed the twig to Trella, who dipped it in the tumbler, then ran it all over the gingerbread board, as she might run a scrub brush over a pan. At the same time, Charlie could feel she did something with vis, probably pulled it out. In a few seconds, she was done and the board was just a board; gap-ghost and ghost-trapping spell were gone.
Charliehorse filled all his lungs and let out a long, soft sigh. Let her nightmare be done. Let her go somewhere she can heal. Let Dieter alone. In Charlie’s amateur opinion, they weren’t doing each other any good.
“Right,” said Trella, tossing the twig into the bin across the kitchen without looking. “”Now, speakin’ as someone who’s goin’ to be livin’ with Dieter for quite a while, I don’t think he needs to know we just rubbed out a foothold for Bett.”
“Right.” “Yep.” “Agreed.” “Yes.”
“So it’s lucky I had this goin’.” She opened the oven, which breathed yet more heat into the summer evening and revealed an enormous pie. The smell of apples blossomed. “At first, I thought it was shameful to be so behind in my work on this, but it all works out. You lot take this and the plates out, and no one’ll wonder what you’re all doing in here.”
“So you’re staying?” Lily asked.
“You bet. I’m still thinkin’ over your uncle’s offer to take on all three houses. And your great-uncle ain’t fit to be left by hisself. Anyone can see that. But you lot should pitch in, too. Have him over. Come visit.”
“Excellent advice,” agreed Lantin.
Charlie put on oven mitts, bent double, and pulled the pie out of the oven. “I still have lots of questions,” he said. “Where’d they get the oak wish? Did they, in fact, use it to get the shapechanging ropes? Have they ever used any of the other ropes? Who was the previous owner of the ropes, and are they likely to come looking?”
Alex pulled forks out of a drawer. “Do you suppose that wooden knife would restore you? Make you ‘human-simple’ again?”
Charlie gave his cousin a Look. “It’s part of a set. I think it only reverses changes made by the ropes. And changing me back would not be a ‘restoration’ but a regression. If, by some chance, some clever fellow tried it on me and it worked, I would totter back to Ufham on my two slow, weak, inadequate legs and beg Dr. Blackholt for another magic arrow shot. And once I was properly fitted out again, I would come back and handsomely kick the bright lad who inconvenienced me. I like this shape, remember.”
Alex grinned. “Just a theoretical question.”
Lily collected dessert plates, Trella absented herself again, and Father Lantin slipped back to the parlor, trying not to draw attention.
Charlie drew it instead, by entering with the pie held in his oven-mitted hands. Trella showed up with a big cork-board coaster and a cake cutter. Charlie placed the pie, Trella cut it up, and Lily and Alex distributed plates and forks.
They had interrupted a description of the rescue operation—the third and most detailed, Charlie thought, but this time Dieter appeared to be taking it in.
Charlie settled back on his rug, collected his own slice of pie, and found Dieter looking at him. “Charles, isn’t it? Lu’s boy?”
“Dedicated Cavalry, now.”
“Yessir. Joined in 2017. Ah, it’s 2021 now.”
“Yes, they told me. You... You were the one who called me back. Woke me.”
“What was it you said? She always said Ego vocare te.” (“I summon thee.”) “I’d remember it, even though I was dazed when she said it. You said something else. What was it?”
“Welcome, sir. Just welcome.”
Return to Cavalry Cycle
Return to Inkliverse
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2021