57 travel 1

“Storm god’s teeth.” Torgood’s incessant whistling drove into my skull, adding to my already overflowing headache.
He gave a small laugh. The world amused him, and although I would normally prefer a companion who had a sunny disposition, I really wanted him to stop.
He dug through his saddle bag and moved his mule closer to mine. He tossed me a floppy hat.
The cool shade of the brim cut out the biting light of the mid-day sun, and my head pounded slightly less. We were half a day out of Oakvale, moving east through the neighboring valleys along the trader’s road. The oak forest had thinned out and we rode mostly among scrub bushes and tall grasses. I couldn’t decide if the drought had hit here or not; the road remained dusty and full of ruts. Wulfgit’s mules didn’t mind. They plodded on. Uncomfortable though my mule was, I was glad not to be walking.
Torgood started to whistle again and then stopped to take a sip of his water skin. He passed my skin to me. I took a long pull.
“Feeling better?”
“Yes,” I started to answer but the water skin reminded me of the morning and that burned me up. “No. What was the weaver’s issue this morning? I’ve never done anything to him.”
Torgood’s snort made me glance at him. He sat like a pile of sticks atop his mule, his long legs sticking out, feet free of the stirrups.
“Do you know something I don’t?”
He laughed out loud at that. “I can assure you of that.” I glared at him and he finally gave an answer, of sorts.
“Noth and you were,” He paused and rubbed his lips, leaving his reins slack on the mules neck. It didn’t seem to notice. “You were courting the same woman.”
“I have never courted a woman in my life.”
His “Ha” made me want to punch him.
“Do you notice,” he said after a while, “that you don’t remember what you should remember?”
“No. How could I remember if I don’t remember it?” Ah logic puzzles, that really made my head pound.
“There’s a stream. Let’s have lunch.” He pulled his mule off the track and we settled in the shade under a small clump of trees. The mules drank from the stream and we filled our skins up river from them.
“You think I should remember something that I don’t.” I tried to get him to talk about it again.
“Right. I know you don’t remember. The thing is, I remember but I couldn’t talk about it before – which I find odd, because, you know, I can talk.”
Yes, a born bard for certain.
“So tell me.”
“I can’t.”
I really wanted to hit him, and found that I had actually picked up a rock. I threw it in the stream instead of at his head.
“Maybe when we get further from the village. I have my suspicions. But, maybe you can remember also.” He looked at me, his blue eyes crinkling. “I’m not joking with you, about remembering or not being able to speak of it.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
“Good,” he nodded and ate a piece of cheese.
We finished our lunch in relative quiet and didn’t speak of it again until we’d come to sunset and were looking for a place to camp. We’d passed a few small farms, but nothing offering lodging until tomorrow, when we’d come to a village slightly larger than Oakvale called Scrubplains.

“Can you remember when you met me?” He asked, laying out kindling for our fire. The sun had gone down and we’d found a dip just off the track that provided some shelter from the wind or whatever. I’d pulled out my lamp to give us light to set up camp with.
“Of course. We grew up together – the village kids. You and I used to read your mother’s…” I paused and put down the hunk of cheese I’d been cutting. “You’re Elder Ponmay’s son.”
He gave me a cheery smile. “Yes, you remember.”
“How could I forget that?”
“Exactly my point. What else do you remember?”
I came up with some more recent things we’d done together, like fighting the wildfire, singing in the tavern, drinking and playing dice.
“Your head hurts,” he commended.
It did. “How can you tell?”
“You get a little crinkle between your eyes. Don’t worry, it’ll come back to you. And if it doesn’t and I still can’t tell you, we’ll find someone in Crown City to fix that.”
We ate and settled in to sleep, tired from riding all day, but I couldn’t sleep long after he’d started to snore.
Was there something I didn’t remember? Weaver Noth. Why did he hate me? I reviewed everything I knew about our interactions. As far as I recalled, they’d had been polite. Not friendly, but not outright antagonistic. I don’t remember courting a woman, certainly not as Wulfgit seemed to do it, although I know I’ve known love and remember the physical aspects of it – so I must have. My head gave a warning pound and the old injury on my arm burned. What else didn’t I remember?

58 leaving

The unhappy dreams from the night clung to me as I packed my rucksack. Clothes, including my one fancy tunic for going to see the Grand Council; a small toolkit with needle, thread, pen, ink, sharpening stone; and a blanket went in first. I’d dreamed the elders had tied me to the wildfire memorial and set my hair on fire and that Jeslynn dumped Tiria’s magic vase over my head and the fire went out. I got free from the ropes and ran into a burning building to find a child, then the building dropped on me. Then the dream repeated, only each time the magic vase spilled out its contents a little less liquid came out and it took me longer to get free from the ropes. I never found the child. A very frustrating, disturbing dream. I put Tiria’s things on top, including the now rolled up map and the vase – wrapped in a pillowcase. I decided to keep the flowers in it – not knowing if the flowers were a part of its magic or not. The ever-burning lamp I also wrapped in a pillowcase and tied to the outside of my pack. At least we wouldn’t be stumbling around in the dark.
Wulfgit waited outside for us, his mules saddled. He handed me some sweet grain.
“They like treats,” he commented and left abruptly.
Torgood appeared out of the predawn gloom, whistling and carrying a stick with a sack tied to the end. He seemed like some sort of avatar for a moment, the dimness at his back causing a slim outline of light around his tall body. Jeslynn handed me a bag of food, a full wine skin, and an empty water skin.
“Som’s waiting for you at Tiria’s well. You can fill up there.”
The lamplight showed me the dark circles under her eyes. Torgood greeted her formally. She nodded back to him stiffly.
“Gestin…” she paused and didn’t finish.
I gave her a hug and she clung to me for a moment.
“Som said he’d help when he could with the tavern. Wulfgit too. You’ll be okay.”
“I know.” She let me go and stood back on the tavern steps, wiped her cheeks. “You be careful. Come back.” Torgood nodded and I said I’d be back.
We rode the reluctant mules through the village, noting that some houses were lit while most were dark. No one else came out to see us pass. We crossed Som’s field, now empty of cows and dusty, and found Tiria’s cottage. A lone lantern sat on the garden wall near the well, showing the drastic changes that had occurred.
The walls, although still whitewashed, showed stains and the roof looked like it had fallen in in parts. All of the pretty plants had died, their flowers shriveled. The garden had dried weeds in it. It looked like no one had been there for years, instead of a week.
I got off, gathered my water skin and Torgood’s.
“Get away from there,” a voice growled and a man rose up from behind the well, brandishing a sharp-looking pitchfork. Weaver Noth.
I stepped back, hands in the air.
“You’re not welcome to this water.”
“Is Torgood welcome to it?” I asked, “He’s not done anything wrong that I know of.”
Weaver Noth chewed on that idea for a moment and then nodded. Torgood got off his mule and I handed him the water skins.
“Not your skin.”
“They’re both his – I was just holding on to it.”
Weaver Noth grunted.
Torgood took the skins and filled them with water. He grinned at me as he tied both skins to his mule.
“Now get out of here.” Weaver Noth waved his weapon at me again. My mule jerked its head out of the way and I scrambled to get on its back.
“Hey now – what’s going on?” Som said as he dismounted from his own mule.
“Nothing, Farmer Som. I was just seeking these two off.”
The first rays of dawn showed Som’s frown.
“That’s not what it looked like.”
“It’s nothing,” I said and turned my mule to go. Torgood put his mule between mine and the upset weaver.
“Thank you for taking care of my sister,” I added, looking back.
“Good luck, Gestin.” Som raised his hand in farewell.
I hoped his wish stuck.

59 (break)

There are actually 50 days left until The Change. I don’t feel like writing today but here I am because that’s what writers do. They write. Duh.
Torgood and Gestin have stuff going on but it’s back-brain stuff, so I’m going to let that percolate for a while.
So today’s writing prompt from Writer’s Digest and this day in history from the History Channel

Your old villain quit over creative differences, so you’ve put yourself in charge of hiring a new villain for your novel. What questions do you ask? What does the new villain’s resume say? Write this scene as if it were a job interview.

Body of Lindberg baby found

My assistant showed the man in and gestured to the seat in front of me. I sat upon my thrown, a cushy leather-bound recliner – currently un-reclined, and regarded the man/semi-man/monster.
“What are you?” I asked. That hadn’t been my first question but it just popped out. The man’s face seemed mostly normal, other than the tendril of glowing purple tattoo that crawled up his neck and circled his jutting chin like a strange circle-style goatee. The place between his brows seemed scabby and slightly off colored compared to the rest of the dark skin of his face.
He smiled, showing me gnarly shark teeth and the scabby part opened up, showing me a predator eye with its vertical slit.
I glanced at the sheet my assistant had left me.
“It says you are a phasepest, Mr. Anming Long. How does that help me?”
He pulled out a red gem from his pant-suit pocket and held it up. The gem pulsed and I heard his words in my head.
“Oh, that is helpful.” I said in response. I glanced at my sheet again.
“It says here that you kidnapped a child during the 1930s and framed a German immigrant for it. Pretty ingenious. Why did you kill the child?”
His gem blinked a few times and I blinked with it.
“Really. Lindbergh’s child was a flower angel?” I tapped my wrist and my assistant’s voice responded, “Yes, master?”
“What happened related to flowers in 1932?”
“Walt Disney put out its first film called Flowers and Trees.”
I turned back to Mr. Long. “You tried to stop that with the Lindbergh baby. Inventive. Congratulations, you have the job.”

60 travel

The Thing had ended and most people went home to assess their food and water stores. Som said that his well still had water, as did Tiria’s, and that all were welcome to it. Woodman Arne and the butcher said they would search for water in the forest and bring home extra meat if the community needed. Elder Cosank suggested visiting the valley to our west to see if that community was having the same problem.
“You’re sending them to talk to the neighbors?” Torgood asked Elder Ponmay as we went back to the tavern. We would not be serving food tonight since it’s harder to cook without water.
“I’d send you but you’re going to Crown City,” the elder answered.
Torgood snorted and held the door open for her.
“Gestin, you should get your pack and find some good shoes.”
“We’re walking? You’re making me walk to Crown City? Ugh.” Torgood flopped onto a chair and moodily chewed on his thumb.
“No, you’ll ride if you can find someone to loan you a beast, but it is best to be prepared.”
“I’ll loan them my mules,” the butcher offered.
The elder nodded and he went off to get them ready. We would be leaving, she informed us, at dawn.
“It should take you eight days, maybe ten, to get there, and a day to stay, and then eight or ten to get back, so pack what you think you’ll need.” She sat at the table across from Torgood and accepted the cider that Jeslynn brought her. I lit the tavern’s lanterns and sat down instead offering to make the group food. A band of pain had settled across my eyes and I truly just wanted the day to be over.
Som stood at the big table and leafed through the papers that had come from the small chest.
“Do you think one of these will tell us who Tiria’s relatives are?”
“That is my hope.”
He looked at her, papers in his hand, and waited.
“I cannot read them,” she added a moment later. “The words swirl like small fish every time I try. Maybe Gestin will have more luck.”
Som looked at them and blinked his eyes a few times and handed them to me.
The papers were cool and firm in my hand, not dry and cracking as I had expected them to be. They seemed to be made out of similar material to the two books. I took them over to the corner where I’d hung the ever-burning lamp so that I could see them better. As I got within it’s halo of light, the words became clear.
“Letters,” I said, reading. “Mostly. Who is Angestirian?”
I looked up to see the group – Som, Jeslynn, Torgood, and Elder Ponmay – looking at me all with the same semi-annoyed look on their faces.
“The only name in the letter is Angestirian.”
“I’ve no idea,” Jeslynn said.
“What else does it say?” The elder prompted. I read on. It seemed to be from a female someone to Tiria, I assumed. “The writer rambles on about her flower garden and new husband and asks after Angestirian. She offered her hospitality should they ever want to visit.” I looked for an address, but there wasn’t one.
The elder nodded decisively. “Take it with you, since you can read it. Maybe someone in Crown City will know this Angestirian person.”
I moved out of the light of the lamp and the words started to swim again. I moved back in, and they cleared up. I moved out again, and they swam. Torgood moved over and looked over my shoulder, and then took the letter out of my hand to do his own test.
“Ha. We should take the lamp with us,” he said. I nodded.
“What if the drought has spread to the other communities? Or the whole kingdom?” Jeslynn stood behind the bar, a towel twisted in her hands.
“I am certain the other communities would send someone here to check on us, just as we are sending someone to check on them,” the elder replied.
“What if the Grand Council won’t hear them? What then?”
“They will be heard, Jeslynn. The Grand Council will know what to do.”
Elder Ponmay seemed very confident that this drought could be fixed by man, but I had my doubts. How could man fix a drought? I looked at the flower vase. Except by magic?
“What if they don’t find anyone who knows Tiria in Crown City? It is a big city.”
Elder Ponmay shook her head. “I recall her saying or someone saying that she came from there. Gestin will find someone. That much the gods have shown me.”
Som shot her a look. “So they have spoken to you.”
“Mere snippets of dreams. Very odd.”
“But what if…” Jeslynn started to ask.
“‘Ifs are like wisps. The more you chase them the further away they stay,’ as my mother used to say,” I said.
“Have you ever seen a wisp?” My sister demanded.
“Sure, they live in Coalfen swamp,” I answered, not taking my eyes from the papers I was trying to figure out.
“Gestin.” She had to say it twice. I realized the others were looking at me again.
“What?” She looked like she wanted to hit me.
“Where in the snowy underworld is Coalfen swamp?”
I opened my mouth to answer and then stopped. I had no idea. “Maybe I read it.”
“Maybe you read it,” she repeated.
“I’m taking the vase,” I said, putting the papers down and picking up the crockery. Its flowers were still bright and fresh. I sniffed them.
A small gasp from Jeslynn made me look at her.
“You ass,” she hissed and burst into tears and ran upstairs.
“Jeslynn?” I made to go after her, but Elder Ponmay’s hand on my arm stopped me.
“I’ll go,” Som said and headed up the stairs.
“You could have asked about taking her vase instead of just stating it,” Torgood said.
“This vase keeps things fresh. See?” I said in explanation. I took out the flowers and watched them wither on my hand and then put them back in the vase and watched them come back to life.
“Whoa,” Torgood said. Elder Ponmay took the vase and experimented with the flowers and dumping the non-existent water out.
“Yes, take the vase, and the map. Take it all. You might need it,” Elder Ponmay said and went upstairs to help Som with my sister.

61 Thing

Things got chaotic after that, with loud discussions of my guilt or not, my history or lack of it, my actions or lack of them. Jeslynn crawled on top the bar and reached over to grip my shoulder as I slumped under the pressure.
Som burst in the door, shouting for Jeslynn.
People hushed and moved out of his way.
“What the blazes is going on here? Jeslynn, are you okay?”
She nodded, her hand not leaving my shoulder. “They want to burn him.”
“What? No, no one said that,” Elder Ponmay spoke up and thumped her staff on the ground. “Let’s have some order here.”
I rubbed my face and then linked my fingers with my sister’s.
Elder Cosank explained what the elder council had come to determine.
“You can’t decide this man’s fate yet,” Som said when the elder finished. “It should be decided – whether he leaves, or stays, or whatever – with the entire village. I call for a Thing.”
Others made noises of agreement.
The elders exchanged looks and all nodded.
“Go ring the bell. We’ll have a Thing,” Elder Cosank told Som. He nodded, gave us an encouraging wave, and ran out.
The village bell, attached to the well’s pulley, rang out a moment later.
I flinched. It had run a few times too many this past week.

By that evening, the 47 villagers making up the populace of Oakvale – including the oldest of 66 (Som’s grandmother) and the youngest (Weaver Noth’s daughter of three months) – had gathered in the village square.
Elder Ponmay had me sit on the platform raised over the now dry well, positioned so that everyone could see me. She then joined the arch of people standing in front of me. Torgood, who had the best and loudest voice, read from the official Thing manifest.
“We are gathered here together to discuss the incidents of sudden drought and strange transforming of items into ash and Gestin Hospitlar’s possible connection to the incidents.”
I opened my mouth to say something about that but Elder Ponmay shook her head at me. I waited.
“I have the talking stick here and pass it first to Elder Inveer’s hands, as he contends that the accused has somehow caused these incidents. Goodwife Tiria’s involvement in these incidents is not being examined.”
I bit my lip to keep from commenting on that. I felt Tiria’s witch-y-ness or lack of it had everything to do with the incidents. I caught Wulfgit’s look from across the square. He rolled his eyes.
Elder Inveer stepped forward and took the smooth cudgel and swung it in an arc so that it whooshed near me. Torgood and I ducked back and he smiled.
He tapped the stick against his boot and began at a point that I didn’t expect.
“Gestin’s injury during the wildfire of last year caused him grave distress and muddled his thinking. It is for that reason that we’ve…” He paused and got a strange look on his face, and then he started choking. Torgood jumped up from where he was leaning against the platform and pounded him on the back. Jeslynn came forward with a pitcher of our very dear beer and poured him a small sip, despite the fact that drinking beer was prohibited during the Thing.
He waved her away and opened his mouth to say on, and coughed again.
He passed the talking stick to Weaver Noth.
“I’ve got nothing personal against the hospitlar. He makes a fine beer. However, since he made his statement at the funeral, things have gotten bad here in the valley. The gods are angry or we’re under a curse. I’m not saying it’s Gestin’s fault.”
“It’s not,” someone called from the crowd.
“It is,” someone else called.
Elder Ponmay pounded her staff on the cobbles and Weaver Noth raised the talking stick. People quieted down.
“Although it is.” He quickly passed the stick to the next person.
“Gestin should move,” Weaver Noth’s wife said, leaning the stick against her hip and bouncing her child on the other. She nudged the stick to the next person.
“Gestin should stay, and since he’s smart, he should help us figure this out,” Dasta said and passed the stick on.
The statements went on in the same manner for the rest of the Thing. No one wanted to delve too deeply into the strangeness or explain how I could have caused it.
Elder Ponmay received the talking stick finally, and offered it to Torgood, who passed. She walked to the empty space in front of me and considered the stout piece of smooth wood in her hand.
“No one has said it, but I will. These are uncanny days. I am not accusing anyone of witchcraft and I cannot say what the gods are feeling. I and the other elders have not had any prophetic dreams regarding the drought – as we did when the wildfire happened last year. Until such time, we will keep dreaming.”
Elder Cosank nodded. Elder Inveer’s mouth set into a thin line.
“Here’s what we’re going to do while we wait for direction from the gods: Gestin will travel to Crown City to report our troubles to the Grand Council. Torgood will travel with him.”
Torgood’s “What?” echoed Jeslynn’s. I had no words.

62 accusations

By the next day, almost a week since Tiria’s body had been found, most of her belongings had turned to dust, including the majority of my – rather the – books and the stuffed chair. The only things that remained intact were the map, the hanging lamp we found in the reading area, the small chest, and Jeslynn’s flower vase. The Elders asked everyone to return the items, in whatever shape they were, to the village center. The ashes they piled by the wildfire memorial – which seemed fitting to me – and the intact items they put in the tavern.
“Something seem odd to you about the lamp and the flowers?” I asked Jeslynn, as I polished the bar and occasionally pondered the pile on the big table. She didn’t answer or pause in her sweeping.
“Do you?”
“No Gestin, they don’t seem odd.” The village well had dried up and so had her patience with me.
“Did you put new flowers in your vase?”
“No.” She stomped off to the kitchen.
I went over to the table and pulled the flowers out of the vase and tilted it up to see inside. I didn’t see any liquid. I almost turned the vase upside down, but stopped – thinking of our now water deprived state. I grabbed a pint glass instead and attempted to pour the water – for what else would you put in a vase to keep flowers fresh? – into. Nothing came out.
The flowers, lying on the table, started to shrivel, so I put them back in the vase. They perked up at once.
Magic?
The lamp which had been burning in the house a week ago still burned brightly, shining on the empty space where the empty bookshelf used to be. Only two books remained. The texture of the leather bindings felt wrong and the interior pages reflected the light as no normal paper made out of cattail fluff, sawdust, and tree bark all mashed together did. The ink did not spread out and the writing appeared unnaturally uniform. Whomever the scribe had been, he or she was very precise. I couldn’t read the language, although some words had a familiar shape to them. The books gave me a headache.
I returned to examining the lamp. I lifted the globe and tried to blow out the wick. Although the flame bent to the wind of my breath, it did not extinguish. I got a bar towel and wetting it with my spittle, attempted to squeeze the flame out. The flame popped back up, burning as brightly as ever.
Looking around to ensure that Jeslynn hadn’t returned, I tried to light the towel on fire. It wouldn’t catch or get warm even. I ran my finger through the flame quickly and then more slowly. Only a slight tingle, as if my hand had gone to sleep.
Magic. Had to be.
I heard the front door open and I put the lamp down quickly.
The three elders and several others, mostly men, came in, grim faced.
“Beer all around?” I asked, moving to go behind the bar. Weaver Noth stepped in front of me, blocking my passage. Jeslynn came out of the kitchen.
“What’s going on?” she asked Elder Ponmay.
Torgood, who must have come in the back door, stood in front of the exit to the kitchen, his arms crossed.
Elder Inveer started to speak, his whiny voice quavering. Elder Ponmay stopped him.
“No, let me. He’ll take it better from me.” She put her hand on my shoulder and bade me to sit on my own bar stool.
“Gestin, do you still believe Tiria was a witch?”
I looked at the faces around me. Most were frowning, some looked angry, and one or two looked sad. I glanced at Jeslynn and she made a small gesture with her hand, indicating that I should answer.
“I…” I looked at the table with the possible magic items. Wulfgit’s words of encouragement returned to me: speak your mind. I straightened my shoulders. “Yes, I believe she was a witch.”
Elder Ponmay sighed and shook her head.
“We are starting to agree with you.”
Weaver Noth jerked his shoulder at this and the elder held up her hand to forestall whatever he was about to say. “Or something similar. We believe this drought and the strange disintegration of Tiria’s things are a direct response to your disrespect.”
“What? Disrespect can’t cause a drought, otherwise we’d all have starved long ago.”
“The weather gods are not happy with you,” Woodsman Arne, a normally taciturn man, said from the back of the group.
“Disrespect that you show at every turn,” Elder Cosank pointed out.
“Sorry. It’s been a trying time for all of us.” I gave a little bow in his direction.
He glowered at me.
“We believe you caused this trouble, son.” Elder Ponmay patted my arm.
I looked to Jeslynn to back me up and she bit her lip, twisting a bar towel between her fingers. I looked back at the elder. “You’re joking.”
She shook her head.
“No, Gestin Hospitlar,” Elder Inveer said, “we aren’t. We want you to break this spell…”
“We want you out of town,” Weaver Noth added.
“…that you caused to happen. Either by being a witch yourself or by your rudeness,” Elder Inveer raised his voice to be heard over the rumblings of the other men.
I would have fallen if I hadn’t already been sitting.
“I’m not a witch.”

63 Ding Dong: ash

Elder Ponmay called a council of elders the next morning in the tavern. The three of them, Elder Ponmay, Elder Cosank, and Elder Inveer, sat at a table in the corner and held a whispered conversation that included several looks in my direction. I did my best to ignore them and made Jeslynn serve them breakfast. Many of the other villagers made an excuse to stop in and “have breakfast,” even though most of them didn’t eat and only drank small beer. Soon enough of them sat near the corner table that the conversation naturally spread to them to the whole room.
Elder Ponmay gave me a frustrated look when Weaver Noth declared to all that, in response to something Elder Cosank had whispered to her, the weather gods and the elders could suck rocks if they thought he was going to spend another week weaving up another funeral shawl for some poor sacrificial chicken just to get the creek running again.
“If they wanted privacy, they should have had it in the meadow,” I said softly to Jeslynn.
She fanned herself with her hand. “Too hot in the meadow.”
It seemed hot in the tavern as well. I went to prop the front door open, only to jump out of the way of Beekeeper Helent, who rushed in, a bucket swinging wildly in her hand and screaming for the elders.
Elder Cosank stood up, his tall lanky body towering over the beekeepers trembling frame.
“My peet – it burnt up.”
“Her what?” several people asked.
“Tiria’s memorial item, I think,” Jeslynn said in the sudden quiet.
Elder Cosank took the bucket from her and poked his finger in the bucket. A puff of tan ash plumed out causing him to jerk his head back.
“What was it?”
“My peet.”
Elder Ponmay patted the hysterical woman on the arm. “Yes, dear, but what was the peet? I mean, piece?”
“A basket. I went to put my eggs in it and it just burnt up.”
Elder Ponmay gestured toward me. I had no idea what I could do for the woman. Jeslynn pushed a cider in my hand and I hurried over.
Elder Ponmay sat Helent down and the rest of the room sat, listening.
As Helent sipped her cider and told her tale, a loud crash from outside made most of us jump. I went to look. The butcher’s wagon had lost a wheel. He stood there, hands on hips, cursing. The wagon slowly tipped over, making his mule cry out in surprise and bolt forward. The tongue broke off with a screech and the mule dragged around the square, causing sparks to leap up from the stones. I rushed out to help him catch the creature before it hurt itself.
We unhitched the broken tongue and both looked over at the wagon as it made a strange sucking sound. The entire thing turned into tan ash and puffed into a plume.
Wulfgit made a sign of warding.
Torgood rushed out of the tavern, some books in his hand.
“Gestin, your books…”
They turned to ash before he reached us.

64 (story pause)

54 days until change, which is seven weeks and five days. I’m behind in posting by 10 days. Whatever.
I want to pause in the story to note here (for my own future reference) what I/we did on April 29th.
We went to the Grand Canyon. Whoopee, you say. You’ve been there – what’s the big deal? Yes, I’ve been there. CWB has been there. We both hadn’t been there in a long time.
We purchased a national park pass some point in the past six months – and then we purchased a national parks stamp book. Each national park has a unique ink stamp that can be collected in this book. We figured this would be a good way to remember where we went.
The weekend of April 29th, we stopped by Sunset Crater National Park, where we originally purchased our national parks pass, and got the stamp. Then we went to Wupatki, and got the stamp. Then we drove north on 89 to Cameron and turned left. We stopped at the Navajo Nation’s Little Colorado Gorge Park, which I may have been to before but I didn’t remember it. It was awesome – for you couldn’t see much from the road, so I am sure many travelers just cruise past and miss it. You drive up, park, bypass the sales stalls (there weren’t many happening that morning because it was early, cold, and very windy), and walk to the edge and look down. Way down. Not many tourists, not much happening but you and wind and quiet.
We heard eagles (we think) calling to each other and saw them flying about. I would have said condors, but I don’t know what condors sound like and their heads weren’t bald. Too big to be hawks. So – eagles of some sort – golden perhaps? So cool.
There were two stops there – which we did. We took pictures of course.
Then on to the east entrance of the Grand Canyon. Most people come in the south entrance (north from Flagstaff or Williams), so we were driving against the flow. Our first stop was the Watch Tower, which I’d never been. We walked up to the top, where there are windows (there are windows on each level). The ravens were out flying and playing in the wind, and I got a picture of one that was hovering just at the same height as the window.
It was cloudy that day, so we got a lot of shots of the canyon colors under clouds.
We went to the Tusayan Ruin and Museum, which I don’t remember going to.
We witnessed a bride getting ready to be married at one of the overlooks. She looked like a fairy princess/hippie with flowers in her hair. Lovely, actually. Very nice. CWB said it was too public a venue for a wedding. But you couldn’t beat the view.
We made it about half-way to the south entrance and decided we’d had enough and so we went home. We will be returning though.
An excellent day.

What did I do this past weekend? I house sat for a coworker who has two small dogs – a Boston Terrier and a Chihuahua mix. CWB helped me on Friday through Sunday, which was nice because the Boston Terrier had to be in someone’s lap the entire time. Her motto, I imagine, was “Let no lap be un-sat-upon.” The house, although lovely, had the feeling of a hotel. All of the furnishings and decorations were well coordinated and very Homes and Gardens. So we developed a story. Two alien social anthropologists transform themselves into dogs and create human replicants to be their ‘owners’ so that they can examine human interactions with canine species. They have a home that is almost right, but a touch too perfect. The replicants act as normal humans, but are controlled by the dog/alien anthropologists. They go on vacation, as normal people would, and a house sitter and her boyfriend come in. They slowly come to realize that the dogs and the house are not quite right.
Stuff happens.
One possible ending: The aliens realize they like being dogs – getting treats and pets and being basically spoiled – so they ditch the human replicants and go with the real humans to be real dogs – and somehow thwart their alien race’s intent to take over the earth (or study them or whatever their raison d’etre was).

They were cute dogs but it was a weekend of CCI (canine coitus interruptus)

65

Life returned to normal in a day or two. Som and Wulfgit seemed to be hanging about the bar more often, I noticed. Torgood also, but Torgood seemed more interested in the books than my sister. My sister treated all with her usual kindness. I implored the weather gods to keep my sister from choosing the Butcher. Som, I guess, would be an okay brother by marriage – but it seemed odd since we’d grown up – Som and Dasta and Jeslynn and I – together. I wouldn’t want to marry my sister, love her though I did. I couldn’t imagine my friend wanting to either. Marriage wasn’t on my horizon at all.
The books held no secrets that I could tell, although one or two seemed to have come from far-off lands as indicated by their strange names and stranger construction. Tiria, ‘my witch,’ as Wulfgit had teased, still remained a mystery to me though. No one seemed to know about her before she’d married Dorn the Miller. I didn’t remember the child she’d had, but Jeslynn, whose ability to gather insignificant data about the valley and community we lived in never stopped amazing me, said she’d heard it had been a girl child and perhaps something had been wrong with it.
“Wrong how?”
She shrugged. “Why don’t you ask Som?”
I almost said, in perfect brotherly form, “No, why don’t you ask him?” but stopped myself. No need to fan any fires, as my mother used to say.
“Okay, I will.”
Som came in, just after sunset. He appeared to have stopped to clean up, for he didn’t have the normal odor of cow manure floating about him. Jeslynn greeted him cheerfully and offered him either the fool pie – still on the menu despite my trying to change it – or a steak. For some reason, the Butcher had blessed us with the gift of choice cuts of meat, which probably came from Som’s cows. My fellow men did odd things to impress women.
Som took the steak. I poured him a pint and tried to figure out how to ask nosy questions about a subject I was sorely tired of.
Jeslynn noticed my hesitation and asked for me.
“Gestin wants to know what happened to Tiria’s child,” she said in passing, her arms full of trays of food for a table in the corner.
I sighed. Sisters.
Som laughed. “Do ya now? And why would you want to take an interest in that sad tale at this late hour?” Of course he said that just as the Elder came in. She favored me with a glower and sat down the bar from us.
“I’m trying to mend my ways. What happened to Tiria’s child?”
Som shrugged. “I don’t know. Died shortly after birth – maybe a few months.”
“What was wrong with it?”
Wulfgit came in, a handful of flowering weeds.
“Here, Jes-girl, I brought you some flowers for yer vase.” He thrust them toward Jeslynn, who recoiled.
“Those are nettles, Wulfgit. I break out in sores when I get near those.”
“What?” he looked at the weeds in his hand. “That’s not what I picked. I swear to you. Som, Elder, tell me you see purple asters.” He shoved his hand at each in turn. Som leaned away and the Elder kindly stopped him flinging his arm about and examined the weeds.
“I regret to say, Butcher Wulfgit, these are nettles – and quite dead. Have you been drinking?” She looked into his face.
“No, Elder. I swear that too. I just got back from the pond – ah, meant to tell you about that. The pond’s near dried up.”
Jeslynn pointed to me to get the nettles away from the man.
“Beekeeper Helent reported her well was pulling nothing but mud today. Som, how’s your well?”
Som shook his head. “I have water, Elder.”
I got the nettles and tossed them out the back for the chickens. I checked the tavern’s well – which also served as the well for the town square.
I dropped the bucket down and the rope went nearly to the end before I heard a splash.

66 inheritance

That evening at sunset the village gathered again at the tavern to haggle over the belongings of the witch/not witch.
“Is that all?” Jeslynn asked as Wulfgit and I brought in the last item – the stuffed chair. I nodded. Wulfgit made a show of hefting the chair by himself and almost knocked me off my feet in the process. I eyed him askance.
Elder Ponmay had all of the books and the map spread out on the largest of my tables. She looked down her nose at me when I moved closer to check out the contents of the chest, so I moved behind the bar and started to pour drinks. Divvying up belongings always seemed to be a greedy tradition, but I suppose it allowed the community members to have a tangible item to spark, hopefully happy, memories.
My sister and Som’s sister sat at the end of the bar, quietly gossiping. I offered them cider and Dasta favored me with a smile – the first one of the day it seemed.
“Did you know, Gestin,” my sister said in an off-hand manner that didn’t fool me – She wanted something, “that Dasta here is Tiria’s niece?”
Surprised, I almost spilled her cider.
“It’s true,” Dasta said with a toss of her blonde braid, “She was my uncle’s second wife.”
“The miller was your uncle. Oh, I knew that.”
Jeslynn patted my hand, “Yes, you knew that.”
I pulled my hand out of her reach.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, not thinking.
Dasta frowned and almost threw my brew back at me.
“You ass,” Jeslynn hissed.
The Elder cleared her throat.
I apologized, lowering my voice.
They both pretended to be offended for a moment longer, then Jeslynn gestured for me to come closer.
“Did you put new flowers in Tiria’s flower vase?”
“No, why would I do that?”
We kept our voices down because it was bad form to choose before one’s turn, even though everyone did it.
“They look so fresh.”
“You want me to get the vase for you.”
She nodded.
“Why doesn’t Dasta do it? She’s going before either of us.”
The Elder tapped her staff loudly and we collectively hunched our shoulders.
“Dasta is getting The chair.” No need to ask which chair that was. Dasta fluttered her eyelashes at me.
“I’ll think about it.”
They both gifted me wide smiles.

Som called me over and I poured him a beer.
“My sister trying to get you do to something?”
“My sister, rather. I’m sorry Som. I don’t know where my head’s been.”
He shrugged. “It’s okay. We’re all looking for reasons for that fire, I guess. Easier to blame it on a strange old woman than the weather gods.” He leaned in closer. “Do you want me to choose the map for you?”
“Oh gods no, Som. This is your aunt. Get what you want.”
He nodded. “What does your sister want?”
“The flower vase.”
He rubbed his chin for a moment, and opened his mouth to say something when Wulfgit interrupted us.
“Hey Gestin,” he whispered loudly. I glanced at the Elder who rolled her eyes skyward and turned her back on us.
“The lamp we found in the book room. Do you think yer sister would like that?”
“My wha – why?” The sudden questions about my sister’s wants made me edgy.
“It’s been a year. You think she’d like a fox pelt instead?”
My world tilted for a moment and I grabbed the bar. Som handed me his beer and I took a quick sip.
“You want to court my sister?” I sputtered.
“Oh aye, that’s right. Courtin’. I tried to court yer witch, you know, but she died before I could get anywhere. Yer sister’s the only available female of age about these days.”
Oh storm god help me.
I went back behind the bar, refilled Som’s pint, poured one for myself and Wulfgit.
Som gave me a sheepish look. “I was actually going to talk to you about that myself.”
“No. Just no.”
The Elder gave me a sharp look.
I looked over at Jeslynn, chatting with Som’s sister. I doubt she knew about her new ‘most eligible’ status.

Elder Ponmay called for attention and we gathered around.
“Som, you may choose first.”
Som picked his aunt’s gardening tools. Dasta picked The chair, and the rest of us had to wait our turn – as chosen by the Elder. When it came to my turn, I couldn’t decide between the books and the map. I guess I took too long at it, so the Elder made my decision for me.
“As these both are desirable to you, Gestin Hospitlar, yet you had no kind words for the owner, I offer this to you.”
I waited, hoping she wasn’t going to do something rash like make me burn them as a forgiveness offering.
“These books shall belong to the community and reside here in the tavern for all to read at their leisure.”
I could live with that, so I nodded.
“This map shall remain in my possession until such time as you have shown compassion for Tiria.”
Defeated, I nodded and went back to my beer.
The Elder called a few others and then my sister, who got the flower vase after all.