7.3.19

7- Jimmyed Coffin, Chapter 1 and 2


Jimmyed Coffin
Mudflat Magic Book 7
Chapter 1 and 2
Phoebe Matthews


Chapter 1


August morning, bright sun, you got it, my boyfriend Tarvik and his teenage cousin Nance were up at dawn and off jogging. Cousin Alakar, who is about the same age as Tarvik, was still in bed in the room she shares with Nance. As that gave me a chance to get into the shower before she took it over, I stumbled into the bathroom, showered, and stumbled back out to my bedroom wrapped in a towel, pulled on shorts and tee shirt and went outside to sit on the back steps in the sun.

By the time Tarvik and Nance returned, my hair would be dry and I could dress for work while they fixed breakfast. I would still have an hour before it was time to catch the bus to my morning job downtown where I temp at a bank.

The back garden was recently upgraded from an uncared for patch of grass to a circle of colorful flower and veggie beds with a small yellow brick patio at the center. Tarvik and Roger, our downstairs tenant, had designed it and done all the work. Tarvik refused to tell me why he had chosen such an unusual arrangement. It was a surprise, he said, but why and for what he would not say.

However, whatever the reason for the layout, it was pretty. I did my version of morning exercise by taking a slow walk around the circle and picked a cherry tomato. Delicious. I continued my stroll, admired the marigolds and chrysanthemums, and reached a point by the fence where I stood facing back toward the house.

That was when I noticed the open door to the basement apartment.

The back deck is about a half flight of stairs above the yard and is the width of the kitchen and living room. There is no deck below our bedroom and bathroom windows. Instead, there is a cement staircase in a stairwell, starting at the far corner of the house and leading down a half flight to the basement apartment.

A basement apartment with narrow windows at ceiling height might not be popular with some renters, but our tenant is half troll and he has lived in that apartment for as long as I can remember. Three months ago he went on a trip to the Olympic Peninsula to search for his troll relatives. We had not heard a word from him since. I had tried not to worry and failed.

Was he finally home? I shouted, “Roger!” and ran across the yard and down the stairs. I was barefoot and the stairs were gritty and I didn't care, I was so delighted. Like it or not, he was going to get a big hug.

Roger is huge, seven feet tall at least and a lot bigger around than I can reach, but I would hug as much as I could. I stubbed a toe, didn't stop, kept right on until I reached the bottom of the stairwell.

“Roger?”

I stood outside the open door and called. Roger is very shy. I have known him all my life and it took him years to say more than a few words to me. I didn't want to embarrass him by walking in uninvited.

“Roger?”

It never crossed my mind that anyone other than Roger might be in the apartment. I mean, the whole neighborhood knows a troll has lived in my basement forever, having rented the apartment from my late grandmother when she was young. They know because they have seen him. As he is huge, no one bothers him, and even the dumbest kid in the area would never be dumb enough to trespass.

“Roger?”

I pushed the door further open. Looked in. Called again. His door opens into his kitchen, which is also his sitting room. The only other door is at the far end of the kitchen and leads to his bedroom and bath. There wasn't any sound of running water. I did hear a footstep, or something very like, but I was barefoot and had wet hair dripping in my eyes and I had not had coffee so my thinking was slow.

I kept calling his name, sure he would come out of the bedroom in a minute, and I wondered if he had arrived last night or this morning and did he have any food or should I tell him to come on upstairs for breakfast?

Okay, my brain was damp. I wandered across the kitchen to the refrigerator, opened it, stood staring into its white interior, saw that it was totally empty and the same temperature as the room. I knew he had cleaned it out and turned it off before going on his trip, and as it was still off that meant he either just got home or he came home late last night, too late to bother starting the refrigerator. Was he sleeping in? I wouldn't shock him by going into his bedroom, but I could knock on the bedroom door and tell him Tarvik would be home in a few minutes.

Tarvik and Roger are good friends and he could go in and find out if Roger needed anything.

With all this heavy thinking swirling through my nonfunctioning mind, I closed the refrigerator and started to turn around.

Something slammed into me, hit me hard between the shoulder blades. I lurched forward, hands out to catch myself. And then it hit again, whatever it was, and something hard crashed into the front of my ankle, lifting my foot.

I flew forward and stopped my fall by banging my forehead on the edge of the kitchen counter. I even saw stars. For a few seconds everything went hazy. It would have been more comfortable to pass out. Instead, I slid slowly down, my face pressed against the cabinet doors, my head exploding with pain. My knees smashed into the concrete floor. I doubled over, legs bent under me, forehead on my knees, head shrieking, and I stayed that way, waiting for the pain level to drop.

Someone ran up the cellar stairs, hard shoes running fast, nothing like Roger's slow, heavy tread.

Hoping to dash to the door in time to get a glimpse of my attacker, I tried to stand. Grabbed the edge of the counter and tried to pull myself up. Flunked that. All I accomplished was to rise a few inches and then crash down again on my already bruised knees.

When the pain went from screaming level down to whimpering, I did manage to stand. And almost fell again. Hanging on to the counter and then to a kitchen chair and finally to the doorknob, I made my way out to the stairs and did something halfway between a limp and a crawl until I reached the top stair and that was that. I could not move another inch. I felt warm sticky wetness sliding down my face, touched it, squinted at my fingertips and figured out I was bleeding.

Because I had heard those footsteps running up the stairs, I knew two things. I had been knocked over by a large fist slammed into my back. My left ankle had been kicked out from under me by a shoe. Oh right. I knew a third thing. I knew from the sound of the running that my attacker was a man wearing hard soled shoes.

When I heard Tarvik and Nance come jogging through the back gate, talking to each other, I shouted, “Help!”

Ack. My voice went ricocheting through me and I grabbed at the top of my head to keep it from blowing off. I have to admit that the old 'No pain, no gain' saying is true. The pain of shouting gained me Tarvik who reached me in a nanosecond.

He knelt beside me and made a lot of sympathetic noises between questions I couldn't answer. His voice was a soft murmur in my ear. “My Claire, what happened? Did you fall? You have a cut on your forehead. No, don't try to stand.”

 He may be no taller than me, but unlike skinny weakling me, the guy is solid muscle. With no effort at all, he picked me up and went on murmuring reassurances.

All the reassurance I needed was him there. I felt like a battered wreck but I knew nothing else could harm me, not now, not with his arms around me. He carried me into the house.

After that he and Nance wrapped my aching head in cold cloths and cleaned my wounds while I whimpered the word, “Coffee,” and then added, “Aspirin.”

For an answer I got his cocky grin. It lit his face. Under his mop of blond hair he has a strong face, sky blue eyes, elegant nose made boyish by summer freckles, a square jaw line and a laughing mouth.

“Ah, good, you will survive.” 

If you are ever in an emergency, send for Tarvik and Nance. They settled me on the couch. While Nance phoned the bank to explain why I would not be at my morning job, Tarvik brought me a glass of iced coffee with a straw and pressed it between my hands.

He wiped my forehead with a cold, damp cloth and then he knelt in front of me and held the cloth against the bruises on my knees. And then, carefully and slowly, he washed my bare legs and feet. I hadn't realized how badly I had scraped my legs, crawling up the stairs.

“Tell me what happened, my Claire.”

I did, as best I could remember. “It all happened so quickly. One minute I was calling Roger's name and the next minute someone pushed me so hard I fell and bumped my head.”

“Did you see him? Hear him? Smell anything?”

Oh, Tarvik. He is such a country boy. He can sniff the wind and know when the weather is changing. “No. Nothing. I can't remember anything at all. Except that whoever it was, he was strong and he kicked me with a hard soled shoe. Not a sports shoe. I did hear him running up the stairs. I think it must have been a man. The footsteps sounded like a man. Otherwise it was an Amazon.”

Tarvik looked up at me from where he was sitting on the floor washing my feet. “An Amazon? Like the book company?”

That made me smile in spite of how much my head hurt. “The company is named after a river where giant women lived in the jungle, or something like that.”

“This is a story?”

Tarvik loves stories and any other time I would have gone on line to get the information right and then told him the story. The idea of looking into a computer screen to search the internet made my head ache even more.

“Sort of.”

I must have looked cross-eyed by then because both Nance and Tarvik increased  their fussing, wondering if they should take me to the doctor and asking each other if I might have a concussion.

Alakar, a small, glamorous blonde who shares a room with Nance, wandered out of their bedroom and into the living room and saw me getting all that attention. She walked around the couch, leaned over, looked me in the face and said, “You look awful. What happened?”

“Somebody attacked Claire! Right here in her own house,” Nance said.

Like Alakar, Nance is a small blonde. Unlike Alakar, Nance is a round-faced, freckled teenager and as loving and helpful as they come. Both of them are Tarvik's cousins but not sisters. They are from opposite sides of his family and not related to each other.

“An attacker came in our house?”

“Into Roger's apartment,” I said.

“Poor you,” Alakar said. “If everyone is through in the bathroom, I will take my shower now.”

As you can imagine, I love having cheerful little Nance as a housemate. Alakar not so much. The two of them work with a tutor at the Neighborhood Center mornings and then do manicures at the local nail shop in the afternoons. After they finished dressing, Nance offered to stay home with me.  I told her I was feeling much better, really, and she followed Alakar out the door. There was nothing more she could do for me. What I needed was time for the aspirin to kick in.

Tarvik continued to fuss around me, brought me more iced coffee, filled a wash cloth with the rest of the ice, handed it to me and told me to hold it against the bump on my head.

“Is it a big bump?”

“No, but it will be if you don't keep ice on it.”

He fussed for the next half hour, which was fine because when Tarvik fusses, he also massages me, my shoulders and arms, my hands, and ends up at my feet. He has the most amazing touch.

Later, when I assured him I would survive, he said, “I should check the basement apartment, if you promise to remain here on the couch, my Claire.”

For once I didn't argue.

“Whoever hit me did it to keep me from getting a look at him. But why? Roger wouldn't have anything in his apartment worth stealing, would he?”

Tarvik arranged pillows around me and helped me stretch out on the couch and if I sound like a baby, that is exactly how weak I felt.

It took Tarvik less than five minutes to go through the apartment and come back to report.

“Roger's bedroom is overturned, dresser drawers pulled out, closet searched, even the medicine cabinet in his bathroom was emptied. The clothes are on the floor and the medicine cabinet items are in the sink.”

“The kitchen was neat when I went in.”

“You must have interrupted a searcher.”

A corner of the washcloth hung down in front of one of my eyes. I lifted the cloth, with its fistful of ice cubes, and peered at him. Ice is good for bumps, I guess, but it also made my forehead ache.

“Aargh. This is too cold. Now what?”

My blond hunk took the ice pack from me and grinned at me. “Now you eat breakfast.”

I started to shake my head. Bad idea. “I don't think I can keep anything down.”

“Plain toast. It settles the stomach. I am going to stay home with you.”

So I nibbled dry toast and sipped iced coffee through a straw and watched dull television while Tarvik went back to the basement apartment to clean it. He came back to check me every few minutes, like he thought I was no better than the ice cubes and would melt away.

“How is it going?”

“Fine. As long as I am in Roger's apartment, I am going ahead and mopping the floors and making up his bed with clean sheets and do we have extra towels? His are worn thin. Claire, should I start his refrigerator? What if he comes home at night and is hungry? There should be food in his freezer.”

That was too much to think about with a cranky head. I said I would think about it tomorrow.

By midmorning I felt well enough to be bored with lying on the couch. I even almost felt like a person. What was more important, it was time for Tarvik to start preparing lunch for the noon crowd at the Neighborhood Center where he works full time and I work afternoons.

“I am not leaving you here alone, my Claire. Shall I take you to a neighbor's house? Or, if you feel up to it, you can go to the Center with me.”

As both options sounded deadly dull, sitting around doing nothing like some child needing a babysitter, I protested. He argued, afraid the attacker might return. I caved. Another bump on my head would be more than I could handle in one morning.

“Tell you what, boyfriend, I do have an errand I need to take care of soon. Might as well get it over with today.”

While I changed into fresh jeans and shirt, Tarvik fastened the basement door with a chain and padlock.

Getting up and dressed was a better idea than I had thought it would be. By the time Tarvik returned, I felt almost human. An aching human but one capable of walking by herself.

The errand I had been putting off was a visit to Sergei Brown. Tarvik walked with me to Sergei's house. We all live in walking distance from each other in Mudflat, maybe because most of us live in small homes on small lots. The sizes match our incomes. Not a lot of demand for McMansions here.

“You are not to go home alone, my Claire.”

“I won't. When I finish with Sergei, I will come straight to the Center.”

 Tarvik kissed me goodbye and jogged off toward the Center and its big shiny kitchen. I walked slowly through the opening in Sergei Brown's hedge and up the curved walkway to his house and toward my less pleasant task.

If there was someone out there who wanted to break into my house and attack me again, he would have to wait his turn. Sergei Brown, resident mage, is always a problem, and getting mugged is a major problem, but I had a bigger problem to solve than either of them which made Sergei nothing more than an irritation.

Tarvik’s twenty-first birthday is almost here. If you know me at all, you know I promised him, absolutely, positively, we would be married on his birthday. Does that sound like I don’t want to marry him? Wrong! Of course I do and there are about a kajillion problems that need to be dealt with, as any bridal magazine can tell you, and if you add the problem of delaying a wedding by a few days on the day of the wedding, I have yet to see an article in one of those magazines that offers a solution.

The deal is this. Roger promised he would be back in time for our wedding, which is scheduled to take place on Tarvik's birthday, and Tarvik believes him. But what if Roger doesn't get here?

The only reason I mention the wedding is so you will understand why I had other things than Sergei Brown on my mind when I limped up the stairs to his front porch. However, I had promised Madeline I would call on him and that was that. If I didn’t, she would. Her arthritis has been acting up lately and I do what I can to lighten her work load.

Sergei's house is whatever he wants it to be on the outside. When he is in control of his illusion spells he makes the house appear to be one story tall with chipped gray paint and a sagging porch. Even the shrubbery looks exhausted, with drooping branches and faded leaves. Most of the time his spells hold. Inside the house the situation is harder to maintain. It has something to do with the generations of ghosts existing in the walls. They are seldom visible.

In their worst moments the ghosts whirl through the first floor resembling dust storms, with an occasional glimpse of an arm or leg or transparent face. Most of the time they cannot be seen. My cousin Jimmy, who is sensitive to ghosts, hears them and therefore never enters Sergei's house unless Sergei sends for him and Jimmy cannot think of an excuse to refuse. He cannot say a flat no, not to Sergei Brown, Mudflat's only living mage.

If you are new to Mudflat, by now you have probably guessed that Mudflat is a Seattle neighborhood where old magic lives, passed down through the generations on a hit or miss basis. The neighborhood cuts through other districts, and the names of the districts can be found on any Seattle map. But not the name Mudflat. It is known only to Mudflat families.

 Sergei has middling strong magic. The other Mudflat residents have no magic at all or have weak magic, and weak magic can attract outsiders with stronger magic and yeah, we know better than to let that happen.

I stop by frequently to call on Sergei for a number of reasons. My most common reason is to get information from him that no one else can give me. I am one of Sergei's least favorite people, possibly because I ask too many questions and treat him like the sneaky little old man he is.

Today I wasn't looking for information. I was looking for an extra donation for the Neighborhood Center. I had promised Madeline, the Center's manager, I would try. She had already tried to phone him. After five days of unanswered calls, she hand wrote a request to Sergei. Usually she at least gets a “Maybe later” answer. This time she had not heard back from him at all.

I rapped on the door with my knuckles. No one answered. At any other house I would presume the tenant was out. Sergei is never out. He is as close to a hermit as is possible without moving to a mountain cave, which may be why he avoids answering the door.

Not much of a surprise, really. Sergei has been dragged  into a bunch of problems that I gotta confess are partly my fault. Haul a hermit out of his comfort zone and there are bound to be stress issues. Every time I see him he seems to me to be regressing, you know, hiding away, avoiding everyone, that kind of stuff.

He phones when he believes he is in dire need of my help, which usually means he needs me to look up information on a computer. He never phones any other time and I don't expect him to. Thing is this, he used to talk in a normal tone. Now when he phones, he whispers, like he thinks Homeland Security has his phone bugged. Even asks if I am answering on a 'safe' phone and what the heck is that? Who would be bored enough to bug my phone? My calls are from my housemates to let me know they will be home late, or from a friend who wants horoscope advice about her lovelife. Anyone is welcome to listen in.

I grabbed the metal knocker on Sergei's front door and banged loudly. Still no reply. Then I rang the bell repeatedly.

Caught between Sergei and Madeline, who is a closet witch, I do not ask for explanations. They have their own mysterious ways of dealing with each other. I respect Madeline but never waste the effort on the mage.

 My next act was the one that usually gives me more answers than Sergei. I leaned against the porch railing. It shivered under my hands.

“He is home but not responding to anyone. Gotcha,” I said.

Sergei's house did another shiver. If it is angry with me, it tries to toss me off the porch. And why has a house decided to communicate with me? I have no idea. Nobody else's house gives me this reaction, not even my own house. On the other hand, Sergei is Mudflat's last mage, the other two having died recently, and he has wound so much magic into his walls hoping to make them impenetrable, he has apparently given them a life of their own.

He denies this. Of course he does. In the almost twenty-four years he has known me, which is my entire life to date, he has called me Miss Carmody, never Claire. The fact that his house makes nice with me does not please him. Truth is, he can cast all the spells he wants, toss them around at his house and ghosts, and both house and ghosts are capable of ignoring him.

“Okay,” I told the porch and gave its railing a friendly pat, “I won't waste any more courtesy.” Marching to the door, I kicked it.

At the same moment, Sergei turned the knob.

The door flew open so fast I had only one foot under me, the foot with the bruised ankle. The other was still raised to kick the door again.

I dove through the doorway, came down hard on the foot that had been raised to kick, and sprawled on the floor. Never one to worry about dignity, I sat there and brushed dust from the front of my jeans and rubbed at both ankles because now both of them ached.

“Nice to see you, too,” I growled.

Sergei is small and gray, always wearing the same baggy cardigan. As I had slid into the center of the entry when I fell, he had to shuffle around me in his carpet slippers to plant himself between me and the rest of the house. And what was that about?

The entry hall is two stories high. Stairs to a second floor are right there, solid hardwood stairs in a circular staircase curving up one side of the entry, easy to see and giving the lie to the one story exterior illusion.

“Miss Carmody,” he squeaked. “I am extremely busy.”

And extremely anxious to keep me out. Yeah, I got that message.

But why? Had to be something he did not want me to know about. I looked around. The place looked its usual mess, toppled stacks of books in every empty space, dust everywhere. In the best of times the ghosts in his house remain silent and out of sight. When they are feeling negative, they can override some of his spells and remove the dust illusions. This appeared to be one of their quiet days.

Looking up at him from where I sat on the floor, I said, “Fine. This won't take more than three minutes. A couple of water pipes are leaking upstairs at the Center and a bunch of building inspectors tromped around poking holes in the walls and this is the conclusion. Some of the plumbing can be repaired and some needs to be replaced. Estimated cost is forty thousand.”

The Neighborhood Center is housed in an old three story deserted school building that the Mudflat council was able to buy years ago for next to nothing because the building was in such poor shape. Since then it has been patch, patch, patch to keep it up to code for public use.

Of course Sergei knew where this conversation was going. To stall, he bent down and peered at me over the rims of his reading glasses. “You have a lump on your forehead, Miss Carmody. Do you know that?”

“If you want more, I can show you my bruised knees and bandaged ankle. The other ankle hasn't yet started to turn purple, but give it a while.”

“No, no! I believe you. Is that why you are here? I know almost nothing about healing.”

“You know why I am here, Sergei. Madeline wrote you a letter and you never answered her.”

“Did she? What did she say?”

“Exactly what I just told you and I gave you that information in less than a minute, so if you can write a check for forty thousand dollars in two minutes, I will be within my promised time limit.”

“Forty thousand? You want it all from me?”

“Unless you want to phone someone else to share the cost.”

Sergei never phones anyone if he can avoid it. And we both know he is one of the few people in the neighborhood who has more than fifty cents to spare, although neither of us said so. Mages are always rich, I don't know why.

Lots of people in Mudflat have magic, not as much as Sergei, but still. For reasons I have never understood, none of them profit from it. The witches all work other jobs, one at the mortuary, a couple at a nearby hospital, and the older ones live on their Social Security.

The other money belongs to neighbors who got passed by when the magic was added to the family genes. There is a creep named Avery Calus who stays rich from owning apartment buildings that would shame a tenement landlord. He keeps his wealth well hidden. Only a death threat gets any contributions from him. As I am a skinny, five and a half foot tall woman, if I made a death threat I would get laughed at. Also, I am a pacifist so there goes that method.

Another rich creep is Darryl Decko who is a total con man and at the moment, not in town. Neither Avery nor Darryl are worth the effort of asking for donations, though heaven knows I have been idiot enough to try in the past.

My own inherited pinch of magic has never earned me enough to quit my office jobs. A few people buy me lunch to pay for a horoscope reading because my inherited magic increases the accuracy of my predictions. As for my ability to bond with a house, I can't think of any way to make money out of having a mage's house have a crush on me.

While Sergei's eyes skidded back and forth and his brain whirled, I continued to enlighten him. “If we do not get the plumbing fixed, the health department will shut us down and we will need a large residence to replace the Center. We could turn your front room into a cafeteria, I suppose, and put the day nursery in your bedroom. You could move upstairs and have that space to yourself. Except in the winter when we try to bring homeless people inside. Your office would work as is for the Center, although we would have to box your books and store them somewhere, and ...”

Sergei Brown works hard to imitate invisibility. He surrounds his yard with a laurel hedge, which is real, sort of, and the house itself with shaggy, dusty shrubs. They and the cobwebs over the windows are mostly illusion. At one time he lost his magic and that's when we all got a glimpse of what was which. That tragedy didn't last long and now the place is back to its usual exterior illusion of a small house.

He shuffled past me, his carpet slippers slapping noisily on the wood floor, and pushed open the door to his office.

“Miss Carmody, I am very busy. What is this thing you do at the bank that moves money through the electric wires?”

I stood up and followed him across the high entry with its large chandelier and its staircase circling up to that second story that cannot be seen from the outside. He led the way into his sanctuary. The office is lined with bookcases full of leather bound books from the dark ages, or maybe older than that.

“Electronic transfer, Sergei? Is that what you mean?”

He settled behind his desk and peered into the top drawer. “What information do you need to do that?”

“We can keep this simple. Sign a check and I can deposit it. Are you good for forty thou?” Of course he was, but it seemed courteous to ask.

Most the help at the Neighborhood Center is volunteer. The paid employees are often folks the Center is trying to rehab. When that is successful, they go off to better jobs. If they backslide, well, once again they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The Center has a day nursery and a senior center. There are volunteer counselors who help with everything from finding low-cost housing to refereeing marital disputes. There are activity rooms for the unemployable and a cafeteria for anyone who needs it.

Sergei peered at me over his reading glasses. I knew what he was thinking. If he failed to ante up the money I might make good my threat and be lining up all the people who use the Center daily, including the kiddies in the day nursery, and marching them to his house.

It is so nice to have someone so terrified of you, he actually believes you will do the impossible. There is no way the health department would approve his house for either day care or for a cafeteria.

He held out the check. I leaned across the desk to take it from him and got a glimpse into the desk’s open drawer. It was full to the top with what looked like sealed, stamped, and unopened envelopes, but not the long business size envelopes that bills come in. These envelopes were mostly square and in a variety of colors. The addresses were hand written.

“Are you having a birthday?” I asked.

“A birthday? Why would you think that?” He pushed the drawer closed.

“Yeah, well, none of my business but it looks like you have a drawer filled with birthday cards.”

“The cards. Oh. No, Miss Carmody, they are Christmas and New Year's cards.”

In August? Unopened? “Um, do you mind if I ask why?”

“Why what? Miss Carmody, you said that if I gave you the check, you would leave.”

“Right. I am on my way.” I tucked the check in my pocket and headed across the entryway. Being slightly weak willed and extremely snoopy, I didn't get far before curiosity slowed me. “If those cards are from last year, why are they still unopened?”

How many people send greeting cards to a hermit? Is there a polite way to ask?

“They are not from last year.” He hurried past me and opened the front door to encourage me to leave. “They are from several years past. I thought about burning them. However, one or two may include messages I should read.”

There was no way I could leave with that little mystery hanging in the air. I stopped in the doorway. Was it some sort of religious hang-up? I know Sergei dabbles in black magic, not because he wants to harm anyone. His deal is accomplishment. He wants to raise his magic to its most powerful level for the satisfaction of doing so. It's a mage thing.

Because of that black magic obsession, which he would deny if asked so why ask, he maybe has a fear of angels and brotherly love and all those other things mentioned in Christmas cards.

“You don't like Christmas, huh?”

“I have nothing against Christmas.”

Last year I had trooped around with some of the neighbors knocking on doors and singing carols, as usual to raise money for the Center. Everyone gave a few dollars to help pay for the holiday dinners for the needy. Sergei had opened his door to hand us a fairly generous envelope of cash, then closed the door quickly to shut out the cold. When I remembered that, I could see in my mind the wreath on his front door. It had definitely had a big red bow. Would he put up decorations if he disliked Christmas?

“Then why don't you open the cards?”

“Because Nicotiana has not yet perfected a spell. There is nothing I can do. It requires a witch skill.”

As the door moved toward me, with Sergei behind it and pushing, I backed onto the porch. The door slammed in my face.

The porch floor shivered beneath my feet.

“You know him better than I do. Has he always been like that?”

This time the porch refused to communicate with me. Sergei would have been proud of its silence, not that he ever admits his porch is capable of bonding, and is that a jealousy thing? Does he suspect his house likes me more than it likes him? Is that why he never calls me by my first name?

Huh. Lots of dumb stuff to think about. The check was more important. I walked to the Center to tell Madeline that we now had money for the plumbing repairs.

As I turned a corner I was surprised to see one of those humongous moving vans blocking the street. Well, the van was no surprise. I see those things everywhere. The surprise was the moving men carrying a long table between them as they entered the Zerkle house.

Julian Zerkle. Late mage. He died last April and left the house to a great nephew who lives in another state. The nephew flew into Seattle, spent a day talking to the lawyer and then headed back to the airport. Soon after, the place was listed by a realtor and has stood empty since.

 The economy might be half the reason. The other half is the house itself. It is a big old gray stucco set back on the lot and hidden behind a tall hedge.

 I was in it once, the night the mage died. The place had smelled of a combination of dust and mold. The furniture dated back to medieval times, oh, okay, maybe only to the late 1800s, but anyway, everything needed regluing, refinishing, reupholstering. A junk dealer bought most of it. Zack Zacklin, who grew up in Mudflat, bought the books for his downtown bookstore.

And then the realty office took over. They sent in cleaners, trimmed the bushes, and arranged the few sturdy pieces of furniture the junk dealer had not wanted to pay for. I know that because Madeline went to one of the realtors' open houses and told me about it. After a couple open houses, they gave up. No amount of cleaning could hide the obvious age of plumbing and electric wiring and roof, stuff that might pass inspection and then break down and need expensive repairs in the next couple years.

When I reached the Center I did as I had promised, swung through the kitchen to say hello to Tarvik so he would know I had arrived safely. Of course I had. Not for a second did I think my attacker would try again, jumping out from behind a tree and grabbing me in broad daylight. I did not think I was ever the target. I was an obstacle between a house breaker and the door and he had not wanted me to see him and be able to identify him.
==========================
Jimmyed Coffin, Mudflat Magic Book 7





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4.2.19

1- Tyrant Trouble, Chapters 1 and 2


  

Tyrant Trouble
Mudflat Magic Book 1
Chapter 1 and 2

Chapter 1 
Flattened against the wood fence, I smelled the alley dumpster odors and tried not to puke. Can’t do it silently. And if he heard me, he'd find me and then I would be dead, stinking a lot worse than the dumpster.

“Claire? Claire honey? I want to talk to you, Claire. That's all, just talk.”

Yeah, and right after we talk and I tell you no, I do not have the information you want, you slit my throat, right, fella? I'm not stupid. Oh, maybe I am or I wouldn't be hiding in an alley with the likes of Dork tracking me down. Okay, so his name isn't Dork, it's Darryl, but it might as well be Dork. Dork the cheat, Dork the con man, Dork the liar, or, if I go Goth, Dork the Destroyer, because that's what he wants to do to me.

Stupid doesn't even cover my case. He'd been all charm and flash, fancy restaurants, tickets to a country western concert, jeez, even roses, can you believe it? Roses, delivered in a white van with a mushy note attached.

He had been really charming me with a two-week pursuit, until he leaned over the table of a dimly lit booth in a way too pricey restaurant and said, “I need you to make me a chart.”

“Sure,” I said, not giving a second thought to that request.

I work parttime at a bank, and I also work at the Mudflat Neighborhood Center to support myself. Astrology is a skill I learned from my grandmother. It earns me a little extra pocket money.

I was wearing an almost-there black dress, killer heels, and I'd even had a friend twist my long dark hair into a style that scraped it back behind my ears to show off my dangly earrings. Okay, so only the shoes were mine, bought at a discount store, and the dress and earrings were borrowed. Glamour, that's me. I was looking way too good to think clearly.

 “Do you have a birth certificate handy?”

Everybody knows their own date of birth, but most folks don't have a clue as to the hour and minute, very important, and an amazing number don't even know the latitude and longitude because they presume they were born in the town where their parents lived at the time. Nah. Not nowadays, maybe not in the past hundred years for all I know.

Most people get born in a maternity wing of a city hospital anywhere from across the street to hundreds of miles from their home address. And, oh yes, that makes a difference.

Except not to Darryl. “Not that kind of chart, honey. I know you're so good at charts, you give career advice, marriage advice, and you're bang on right.”

Odd. He knew what I did, of course, but this was the first time he questioned me about it and, honestly, I thought he wasn't interested. So how did he know all that? Right. We grew up in the same small neighborhood.

“Umm, so if you don't want a horoscope, what do you want, Darryl?”

“Numbers. Scores. Winners. For sports events, honey. Seahawks, UDub games, whatever you come up with.”

Ho-kay. This took thinking. I leaned back in the booth and made a big deal of sipping my wine, buttering a roll, carving a narrow strip of the salmon filet. Score and winners? For one game? For one office pool bet? Wake up, stupid Claire, look at where you're dining, look at his beautifully tailored clothes, salon styled hair, and was that a Rolex? I'd been thinking it was one of those knock-off imitations, but whoa. Maybe not.

“You can do that, can't you,” he said and it wasn't a question.

“Uh, I don't know. I never have.”

“Not yet, but you can, right, with whatever information you need. I can get birth date info on players and coaches, franchise times, the minute the ink soaked into a contract, whatever you need.”

“I do horoscopes for people,” I muttered.

“Yes, fine, do the players. Figure it from there. Scores are best, but win-loss is good, if that's all you can do. Not that I think it is. Jimmy told me you tipped him on some stocks, the exact date they'd peak and the price.”

More butter on the potato, until it ran in hot yellow streams around the plate, more peas tucked into the mash I was stirring up inside those salted potato skins, more carefully carved salmon, a top-off on my wine glass, and not one swallow of anything making it to my mouth.

Jimmy. Right. I never did financial stuff, way too tricky, sure to backfire, but Jimmy had been in a bind with foreclosure breathing down his whatever, and he was a cousin and family and all that and I made a bad mistake, gave him this stock tip based on a string of math formulas and hit it right on.

“That was a one shot thing,” I said and looked up and met Darryl's gaze, hoping I'd see something there that said this was nothing more than a casual suggestion.

I knew when I said it I'd been lying to myself. Every tightened muscle of his expression gave him away.

Then the glossy con man smile. “It's really important to me, honey, and I know you can do it. For me.”

Man, had I heard that line before.

I did a lot of fast talking, made a few vague promises. And as soon as we'd done the kiss goodnight thing and I'd shooed him out and closed my front door, I grabbed my phone and called that rotten Jimmy.

He did a lot of throat clearing, the bum.

“You're the one who introduced me to Darryl!” I shouted. “You set me up! You know I don't do gambles, never have, never will. I've turned down enough offers. You know that!”

“Darryl can be persuasive,” Jimmy whimpered.

Was that how he'd got so far down in the hole, and, now that I thought about it, what did I know about Darryl except that his younger brother still lived in my neighborhood? Darryl had been in high school when I was in grade school. Now he lived in a classier part of Seattle and our paths hadn't crossed until my lying cousin introduced him to me and told me he worked for some perfectly respectable Seattle business, something to do with cruise ships.

 “What do cruise ships have to do with betting? Does he deal blackjack to tourists or something?”

“I wish,” Jimmy said.

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“Uh Claire, I don't think I want to talk on the phone.”

When I told him which of his body parts I was going to remove, he said, “Meet me tomorrow, lunch at McDonald's, the one down by the ferry dock.”

McDonald's? Right, definitely my budget level, although I had forgotten that in the past two weeks of Darryl wining and dining and strewing rose petals in my path. Two weeks. Constant attention. Very few kisses. No tries to hit on me. And I'd thought he was very proper, very gentlemanly, when all the time he was very unreal and I do hate that too-good-to-be-true cliché.

I knew Darryl's brother, knew he was scum, but I really try not to judge people by their relatives because do I want to be judged by Jimmy's behavior?

I headed for my computer and was up so late googling Darryl that there wasn't any point going to bed. Amazing how much is out there and how much is hidden, but I collected enough information to make some guesses.

By dawn's annoying light I showered, dressed, headed for the bank where I temp cashier and asked a loan officer how to run credit checks.

“Thinking about promotion, Carmody?”

“Can't hurt to learn.”

“True, the more you understand, the wider your job opportunities, though in your case, I don't see you as advancement material.”

Okay, so by the end of any working day my very long hair has escaped the clasp and is sticking out in odd directions, as well as trailing down my face. For some reason, my shirts never stay tucked in and it's good I work in the computer room, because my pantyhose are always full of holes and runs, and, even as I stood there talking to him, I wiggled my foot a little too hard and the four-inch heel snapped out from under my left shoe.

We both knew I was employed because they had three women gone on maternity leave and the bank was desperate and I did have experience. Glowing references, no, but my resume verified that I was honest and did not make mistakes, and when the unemployment numbers drop, what's a human resources department to do?

He gave in, showed me how to pull up credit reports, and I didn't bother to tell him that once I am pointed in the right direction, I am wicked good on a computer. Anyone who has ever downloaded an astrology program and then checked for errors knows what I mean.

I found so much to worry about, I didn't need more from Jimmy so I stood him up. Served him right. A forty minute lunch hour later on the computer and I knew I was dead.

It started that night, the string of phone calls, first wheedling, then threats, because Darryl wasn't just doing a little sideline betting, or even planning something as straight forward as knocking off one of the Indian reservation casinos. Oh no.

Did I mention that I live in Mudflat, not a place that shows up on any Seattle map. It's more like a mindset. The city is divided into numerous neighborhoods, each with a name, and the names do appear on maps and in conversation, but Mudflat is a winding trail of blocks of property that cut through several neighborhoods and is considered off limits by those who know. Because Mudflat is where old magic lives.

It's where I grew up. It's why my horoscope predictions are right-on. There's no big magic in my family's genes, just glimmers and traces that give a boost to anything esoteric in our lives. It's why I limit advice to career, romance, health, safe stuff, and even when I can see a clear answer, I always couch it in vague terms.

People think the “meet-a-tall-dark-stranger-someday” line is a cover-up for faking. Nope. Just the reverse.

I could say, “You'll be running off with your best friend's husband on the second Tuesday of next June,” but what for? How would that help anybody? Instead I say, “You may be tempted to betray a friend, all in the name of love, but you're a good person and will make the right decision.”

And I cross my fingers and know darn well that on the second Tuesday of next June, her friend is going to be crying her eyes out. Or buying a gun.

That's how good I am, except I can never read my own future, which is why I was now being stalked by a wizard's brother who planned to put me in the middle of a bad deal going down, some kind of national gambling ring, and for sure I would end up dead or in jail, which is the same thing, right?

I was absolutely not going to help him. First, he was into felony territory. Second, he'd up the demands until I was so twisted in the net of lies, I'd never get my life back. And third, there's not much you can't figure out with the help of a horoscope, a computer and access to news files, and his brother the wizard was sometimes a very bad dude.

Which is why, when my sort of buddy, Roman, said he and a couple of friends were heading over to the Olympic peninsula on a camping trip, I said, “Wow! I love camping!”

Yeah, like I even go in the backyard to pull weeds. Sorry, I live in the heart of tree-hugger country, but give me city traffic and smog to breathe any time. Still, it was a small lie which earned me an invitation. Skip town for a week, spend boring camping time thinking up another destination and, who knew, I could be out of town for maybe a month or so, at which point my credit card would do the spontaneous combustion thing.

With any luck, Darryl would give up on me and move on to his next scam.

Really good plan, really bad timing, because at somewhere around midnight I was stuffing stuff into my backpack when I heard Darryl's car pull up outside. I left the lights burning and ducked out the back door, cut across the small yard, rolled over the wood fence and did a dive into the alley, landing on my hands and knees. I tore the knee (both the denim one and the flesh one), grabbed my pack and started to hobble away.

That's when I heard the gate scrape open and I wedged myself behind the dumpster.

Darryl shouted, “Claire? Honey?”

He moved slowly down the alley, peering into shadows, while I tried not to breathe. Looking behind the dumpster apparently wasn't on his list of possibilities because he moved past me and I saw the reason instinct had sent me running. He was carrying a roll of duct tape. Somehow I didn't think he'd stopped by to repair my leaking gutters.

Fortunately he was a spoiled brat and lacked fortitude. Those of us who are self-supporting know how to hang in there, which this time meant staying stuffed behind the dumpster until boredom sent Darryl back through my yard to his BMW.

When I heard the engine purr, I slipped through the gate and back into my yard but I didn't go near the house. I went to a back corner of the garden, crouched down on damp earth between the fence and an overgrown bush, and waited.

And kept right on waiting. No one expected me anywhere until morning. I made the right choice because next thing I knew, the car came purring down the alley, its headlights chasing the dark away from hidey corners.

He drove through twice, then stopped, got out, came through my back gate and circled the house, went up the back steps to the kitchen door, tried the knob. Knocked. Pounded.

Keep it up, Billy Goat Gruff, I thought. Wake up the troll under the bridge.

A really big weird dude rented the basement apartment in my house and he worked nights, so maybe he wasn't home. I hoped he was and hoped Darryl woke him up in a bad mood. Far as I knew, the troll was nonviolent, but he did not look nonviolent.

Darryl pulled out his cellphone, punched in a number and said, “Not here. Yes, probably. Light's on so she must be coming back. I'll swing by first thing in the morning.”

I spent another hour feeling the damp spread across my ass and soak its way up through my jeans, with the only distraction the burning in my knee. By the time I decided to move, I was almost too stiff to unfold. Then, very quietly, cautiously, I slipped back to the alley, stayed in the shadows, made my way to the street and headed out on a five mile hike to Roman's house.

Buses don't run in Mudflat after evening commute.

Okay, I made it before sunrise, much to everyone's amazement, got stuck in the middle of the backseat of Roman's old car between a couple who were mad at each other, and curled my damp self around my damp backpack and went to sleep.

I wish I could sing the joys of camping but it was far worse than I had imagined. It took us about four hours, what with a ferry ride and two bridges, to reach the Olympic Mountains, which are centered on a peninsula and surrounded by a narrow band of flat land and beaches and saltwater and the whole thing stretches west to the Pacific Ocean where there's a line of windswept beaches and a rain forest, and some people actually think of it as vacationland. Tourists love misery.

We didn't go that far. Quick geography lesson here: the Olympic Mountains are a fairly spectacular cluster, high and pointy and snow-topped most of the year. A few roads go up the edges to lookout areas. The best known is Hurricane Ridge.

The roads do not cut through the range because it isn't as though anyone needs to shortcut across a peninsula at the end of the world. So the center is kept wild, though I guess naturalists prefer words like pristine, which means no paving. Nothing that goes putt-putt or vroom-vroom is allowed to enter. It is open past the road's end and the ranger stations on a permission basis to the sort of folks who hike where there is no trail. The permission thing is required. I guess the park service gets really tired of searching for lost hikers.

Around the outer edges, on the lower slopes, there are picnic areas and camp grounds and that's where we ended up, sleeping in stupid canvas bags on bare dirt while the rain dripped slowly on our soggy cocoons.

The others warmed themselves with some slightly illegal and some highly illegal substances. The food supply ran out and the liquor was nonstop.

Sick of the lot of them, I took advantage of the first sunny day. I peeled out of my wet jeans and sweat shirt and switched into tee shirt, shorts, sandals, tucked my pony tail through the back strap of my baseball cap, and shouldered my pack, which contained very little but I didn't trust any of them to stay out of it if I left it. I was down to my last clean tee shirt.

While Roman and the others stretched out on the ground and on the picnic table, snoring themselves into oblivion and sunburns, I decided to find the road and see if I could possibly hitch a ride to somewhere, anywhere. My credit card was good for a motel room, a hot shower and food and oh yes, please, black coffee before I died from caffeine withdrawal.

The one small flaw in my plan was my lack of any sense of direction. I was absolutely sure that if I took a shortcut it would get me to the road in twenty minutes, forty tops.

After three hours of pushing my way through thickening undergrowth, all I'd found were a few prickly berry bushes. I dug out my Swiss army knife, one of those great red things that someone once gave me and I never expected to use, and managed to cut off a small spray. The berries looked ripe but were hard and sour. My arms and legs were crisscrossed with scratches. I tucked the knife through the belt on my shorts and then stumbled into a shallow stream to cool my burning feet.

A stream had to go somewhere, right, and I was beginning to suspect I'd been walking in circles. So I stayed in the stream and waded through the knee-deep cool water until weariness slowed my pace to a full stop.

Every inch of me, from my knees up, itched with sweat. I took off my hat, stuffed it into my pack, and ducked down into the stream until its coolness soaked through my clothes to my skin, then stood and bent over and managed to get my long hair and sticky scalp thoroughly wet.

Let me say here than I don't know which of us was most surprised.



CHAPTER 2

“Do not touch your knife. Turn slowly,” a voice behind me said.

I stiffened, my arms raised. The voice that spoke was soft, the words barely audible, his accent nothing I recognized.

Park ranger? What, had they already arrested Roman and crew and had come looking for me? I did a quick think and started readying a sobbing explanation about how I barely knew them and was shocked, absolutely shocked, to discover they had brought along booze and drugs on what I had thought was to be a commune with nature. That sounded right. I turned slowly as commanded, my arms above my head.

And then I looked up at my captor.

He was young, still closer to boy than man, looked about college freshman age. Beneath a thick mass of yellow hair was a knockout face, sky blue eyes, wide mouth and square jaw, thick neck. His skin was sunburned beneath a scattering of freckles on his shoulders.

“Who are you, girl?” he whispered.

His question snapped my mind back to my situation. Who was I, indeed? How long since I had been asked that question?

“Hail, Conan the Barbarian,” I said because although he looked nothing like the film version, was much better looking, actually, he was dressed in a costume Arnold would have envied. Classy outfit, killer boots, tooled leather belt. “What's up? Is there a medieval fair going on?”

“Your name?” he said again.

Okay, I could play games. Let's see, what were the rules? Oh right, wicked sorcerers used people's names to control them, therefore always give an alias.

Something that meant astrologer or fortuneteller? Gypsy Sue? No, something more glamorous, right? Maybe this fair had good food. I'd been to a few and run into cold hot dogs and warm coke but never mind, I could hope.

“Stargazer,” I said and grinned at him.

He did not return my grin. Maybe barbarians aren't supposed to grin and this guy was taking his role-playing way too seriously. “Come toward me slowly. Make no sound. I will not harm you.”

Yeah, I'd heard that one before. Still, out here in the woods with no one else in sight, I figured I'd humor the guy. In his hand he held a heavy broadsword, the kind used by barbarians to slay their enemies in every film I could remember and, unfortunately, it didn't look fake. Probably the edges were dull but still, the thing could leave a hell of a bruise.

He stood above me at the edge of the stream bank, half concealed by brush. After I waded out of the stream and climbed the bank, he reached toward me and plucked my knife from my belt. I'd forgotten all about it, that silly Swiss pocket knife that I had dug out of my pack to use to cut berries. Moving swiftly, he tucked it inside his boot, then hung his sword on his own belt.

“Okay, play time is over, fella. That knife was a gift and I want it back,” I muttered.

He grabbed me and turned me away from him so that he could pull my backpack off of my shoulders. When he let go of me, I turned to face him again and watched in silence as he reached into the pack, felt through the contents.

Big deal, all that remained in my pack was a clean tee shirt, my comb, my toothbrush and my billfold. He glanced at each item, looked puzzled, and then replaced everything except the billfold. He flipped it open and pulled out my credit card.

“I can't believe this!” I stormed. “Muggers in a national forest!”

He slid the card back into the billfold, dropped it back into the pack, then dug into the bottom and came up with the last item, my cellphone.

When he pressed his fingers into the keys, the phone lit up. His eyes went wide and those blond eyebrows practically disappeared into his hairline as he dropped the phone into the damp ferns.

“Hey!” I shouted and a bunch of other words I keep meaning to remove from my vocabulary because honestly, they sound juvenile, but by the time I'd made it through a string of them, I found the phone, picked it up, wiped it off against my shirt front and then thought, why not 9-1-1? If he was a fruitcake, I could use some help here. But when I pressed the keys, the roaming light faded and goodbye battery.

Okay, make the best of it, look at the guy and figure out the best route away.

We were the same height. Oh, that's right. Arnold-style barbarians aren't tall, so maybe that's why this guy picked this costume. Not tall, no, but he seemed much larger than me because he was solid and hard-muscled and if his intentions were unpleasant, I was going to have to count on my wits.

He wore gold arm bands above his elbows and at his wrists, and his fingers were covered with gold rings. Some of the gold almost looked real, although it had to be costume jewelry considering the size of each piece.

His woven vest was open in front and tied with laces that crisscrossed on his chest. More of that nice yellow hair gleamed like sunshine against his bare skin. He wore pants tucked into boots laced to his knees; kind of sexy, really.

“You are from the land beyond the mist,” he said. “How did you come here?”

“I flew over the top of a mountain, us stargazers have invisible wings,” I said, “and landed in your stupid stream.”

My wet shorts and dripping hair itched. To hide my fear, I pulled my long hair forward over my shoulder and slowly twisted it to wring out the water.

He frowned, caught my wrist in a firm grip, and said, “Come with me but make no noise or they will kill you.”

Reason enough to be silent, I decided. What kinds of games were going on here? Some kind of paintball battle? He led me away from the stream along a path through the woods where the trees pressed together and their leaves hid the sun.

“If you cry out, my guards will hear you. I cannot always control them.”

He half dragged me, pulling me along like a child, and his action cleared my mind. He was much stronger than I, but maybe dumber? If I kept my thoughts clear, could I outwit him? It probably depended on who his playmates were and how close it was to dinnertime and the end of the game. My heart calmed its pounding.

“Why do your friends want to kill me?” I asked. “Do they score a point for every limp body? Hey, I can do limp.”

His eyes widened with curiosity.

“I don't care if you live or die, but first I want to speak with you. I know from your dark hair that you are from the outlands. Only once before have outlanders come here and that was long ago and they are gone. You did not come that way. Still, I do not believe you can fly.”

I avoided his stare by looking over his shoulder, and said nothing. His act was way too complicated and he obviously had no plan to step out of character for me. Oh. Maybe this was a really large fair and he thought I was a participant.

“I'm not with the fair,” I said. “If you could just take me to the nearest road, I can thumb a ride.”

His lower lip jutted out. “You must be hungry with nothing to eat but berries. I will give you food if you will tell me how you came here.”

When I didn't answer, because honestly, how had I managed to get this lost, he shrugged and reached into a pouch strung to his belt, an honest-to-God leather pouch, which must have been lined with plastic. Anyway I hoped so, because he pulled out a hunk of cheese and a long brown piece of something or other.

He held them out to me. “Here, eat this.”

The cheese had a pungent odor, but it was food I recognized. I sniffed it, broke a small bit off of a corner and tasted it, not believing myself because probably the bacteria count was off the scale.

“Yes, thanks,” I said and palmed it, figuring I'd drop it in the ferns when he looked away.

Thing is, this guy was creeping me out and it seemed wise to humor him. He stood silently, watching me, then handed me the brown piece, some sort of smoked meat, maybe? I could not guess what to do with it. It felt hard and dry in my hands, and had an unpleasant odor.

“What is this?”

“Dried mutton,” he said.

I handed it back to him. “Thanks, anyway, I'm a vegetarian.”

His eyebrows shot up, wrinkling his forehead. “You are what?”

So we were still game-playing.

I bowed my head and said, “Kind sir, I do not eat meat because I am not a barbarian.”

“What is a barbarian?” he asked.

“You -” I began, then stopped. Whoops? Had I misread the costume? Did he think he was someone in a Shakespearean play, Romeo, MacBeth? Okay, he was Danish blond, but the costume didn't look like any Hamlet I'd ever seen. How far did he want to carry the word play? “Barbarians are wolves, this is the forest and I am Little Red Riding Hood. Now can we move on out of here? Bugs are chewing my hide.”

He nodded. “Soon I will be missed and my guards will search for me. I must return to my camp and you must return with me. Do exactly as I tell you, Stargazer, and I may choose to let you live.”

Again he caught my wrist and I felt the heat and sweat in his hand. Was there something he feared? Certainly not me, not the way he held on to me. He hurried me through the woods until we reached the clearing. In its center stood this humongous horse and who knew they let those things into national forests?

A pseudo-barbarian I could manage, but not a horse.

It threw back its huge head, opened its jaws baring wide yellow teeth, and made a terrible sound. Its long white tail switched around its hind legs. I figured it would rear up and come pounding down on me with its hooves.

“Come along, girl.”

“No!”

He peered into my face, his mouth curled up at the corners, and he laughed. “Are you afraid of my horse?”

“Had a really bad experience once,” I mumbled, not much wanting to elaborate.

I fell off a pony at Woodland Park Zoo when I was about five and everyone laughed at me and to this day I do not consider horses my friends.

“You must ride on my horse,” he said. “He will not hurt you. See? He is as gentle as a lamb.”

He walked up to the horse and scratched behind its ears. The horse dropped its head and pressed its nose into the guy's shoulder.

“I'll walk.”

“No. You cannot. You do not understand. If you walk into the camp my men will attack you before I can stop them. No, you must ride on my horse so they will know you are mine.”

“And why should that stop them?”

'You will see. Whatever I say, you must agree with me.”

He dragged me over to the horse and pulled my hand toward it until my fingers touched its nose. It was warm and oddly soft beneath its coarse mat of hair, probably a nice horse, yes, but I still didn't want it as a friend.

“There, Stargazer. He is not wild. His name is Banner and if you speak softly to him, he will love you.”

I managed to say, “Never much wanted to be loved by a horse.” Though, God knows, I'd had a few pigs fall for me.

Before I realized what he had in mind, the guy pressed his hands around my waist and lifted me off my feet as though I was no heavier than a backpack. My whole body went cold with fear when he sat me on the horse. Beneath me it twitched and snorted and I figured it would at any moment rise up and buck me off. Its hot, heavy odor nauseated me. The guy jumped up behind me, stretched his arms around me and caught the reins.

“Hold onto his mane,” he said, and when I did not move, he added, “The hair on his neck.”

“Oh, is that the mane,” I grumbled and considered grabbing the ears.

Oh yeah, don't make jokes around the obviously mentally deranged. Drugs? No, drugs were what was back on the picnic table and none of that crowd was up to jumping onto a tall horse. I grasped the coarse mane in my hands and hoped Banner would not be annoyed. What followed was plain old pain and my mind deserted me.

The horse lurched forward and I bounced and jerked on its back, held there in the circle of strong arms, while we pounded through the forest. Wind blew my hair across my eyes and branches caught at me, but we rushed on, crashing through the trees. The forest blurred around me, green shadows shot with sunlight. I expected at any moment to be thrown to the ground, every bone in my body shattered.

The horse shuddered and stopped. I flew forward against its neck and the boy pulled me back, his hands pressing hard against my ribs.

 When my mind stopped whirling, I looked down at a circle of faces. Their surprise raised all of their pale eyebrows so they looked like copies of each other, all staring with their mouths open, all blond and heavyset and wearing matching costumes. How much time did these folks spend on rehearsing?

“I claim her as my captive,” he said to them, and they all looked at him and they all listened. “Any man who touches her will die.”

Right, and that's the cue to drag me from the horse, beat the kid, tie me to a stake and dance around singing rude songs. Or was that some other sort of gathering? Instead, they backed away from us, still staring but not arguing.

Only one of the men stepped forward and said, “Will you take her to your father?”

“When it pleases me,” he answered.

I said, “Enough's enough, I need aspirin and I need it now.”

Maybe they were all deaf. Or I was suddenly invisible. No one acknowledged my heartrending request.

The man who had spoken shook his head. His hair was sun-streaked blond on the top and underneath it was several shades darker. Did he wear it that way to his day job? “You must take her now. I will travel with you. I cannot guarantee your safety with a captive in your tent.”

“Artur, I am able to care for myself,” the boy said. His voice was low but shook with fury.

“Well enough for you, my prince. If she kills you, it is I who will die a painful death at the hands of your father.”

Okay, a clue, the barbarian was supposed to be a prince of something.

His princely and slightly sweaty arm tightened around me, his ringed fingers digging into my waist. He raised his other hand to hold up his sword.

 “Look at her! She is a priest of the Daughter. Dare you touch her?”

The men leaned toward me and their eyes narrowed. The one called Artur shook his head slowly. In his expression I saw recognition and then fear, but I could not imagine why and it seemed unfair that no one handed me a script. Right after aspirin, I needed a script. Because it hit me then, all the matching makeup and costumes, this had to be a low budget film, probably an entry for an amateur contest.

“I will take her to my tent,” my captor said. “Tomorrow I will take her to Kovat.”

The horse walked slowly through the camp, me and Prince Whatever still stuck on its back.

Between the tents stood a dozen or more gamers or actors and every one of them staring at me. They wore sleeveless leather tunics. The bulging muscles of their arms were banded in metal bracelets and they were a great ad for their favorite gym. Some wore belts covered with metal discs and a few wore silver hoops that looked as though they were passed right through their ear lobes, taking the whole costume craze a bit far.

A stench rose from their sweat soaked bodies that was worse than the smell of the horse, and was that the result of TV reality shows meeting costume fairs? If they wanted a guest lecturer on their program, I could explain about soap and deodorant and I knew a couple of slick methods for removing sweat stains from fabric.

As several of the kids I worked with at the Center were young teens, I knew how to be very firm with this lecture.

Swords hung from their belts and some of them held tall spears. Ribbons of yellow and red fluttered from the spears and from the tops of the tent poles.

My captor slid off the horse, pulled me after him, then caught me before I fell sprawling on the ground. He half-carried, half-dragged me into his tent, one arm around me, his other hand hard on my wrist. While the men watched, a few with their lips pulled back from their teeth in wide frat boy grins, I kept my face quiet. This was the nuttiest bunch I had ever met and until I figured them out, the low profile approach seemed best.

Once the tent flap dropped behind us, I glanced about, saw no one else, and lifting the wrist he still grasped, I bit hard on his hand.

He gasped. I twisted away from him, swung to face him and stared directly into his eyes, my teeth clenched. Until I figured out that group outside, I decided to refrain from kneeing him.

“You are my prisoner! You have no right to bite me!” he cried.

 His face contorted in anger and pain. I suppose I should not have lost control, but he really did look like a little kid cheated in a game of hide-and-seek.

I laughed, then clapped my hands over my mouth.

“Dare you laugh at me?” He stared at the half circle of red marks my teeth left on his skin.

“Well, gosh oh golly, you forgot to tell me the rules,” I snapped back.

“You are my slave. I may treat you as I please. I captured you and that is the law.”

“Oh please. I am no slave, for sure not yours, and you're sounding more like a sexist pig every minute,” I shouted, unable to control my anger.

Yes, yes, I know anger is a weakness, but this guy was rapidly becoming my undoing.

He stared, wide-eyed. “Have you no slaves in the outlands?”

“Okay, fella, define slave.”

“A captive caught fair, from another tribe. A slave must do whatever its master tells it to do.”

“Really bad casting,” I said, “and anyway, I am a priest. You said so.”

“That might work later. For now, you are my slave.”

His tent was the size of a large room and contained a table covered with wooden bowls and flasks of pounded metal. The floor was piled with cushions, blankets, and sheepskins and was one a bearskin? Huh, didn't know those were legal. The tent held no hiding places but at least it separated me from that very smelly crowd outside.

“Tell me what a priest is and who the Daughter is and how I must act and what must I say?” If I could keep him talking, I might think of a shortcut to the final curtain.

He shrugged, moving nearer to me than I liked, but I tried not to act nervous. Weird makes me nervous because it's hard to know where a weird stranger is headed. He was probably harmless, but maybe not. I made myself think of him as Prince, a tad better than thinking of him as The Barbarian.

The typecasting worked because he did look a bit like a short version of a Disney prince, handsome enough if I ignored the frown. His hair looked rather like a dandelion, pale yellow, thick, and tumbled about his forehead and ears, chopped off in jagged layers.

“The Daughter is our guide to the Sun. We have built the Sun a great temple so one day he may find us. She has promised he will come north and we will never more suffer winter,” he said.

“Uh-huh?”

“It has been promised by the Daughter. She came to us with her beloved, and they told us many things. Now they have returned to their father, the Sun, and left us to darkness. We watch at the temple for their returning, knowing they have not forgotten the line of Kovat. They guard us even now and will one day return.”

I had not heard such bad lines since I once heard a crazy neighbor say he could send the ghosts of the dead to Hell and the ghosts would return with messages. Maybe that could be worked into this script.

The role assigned to me was a puzzle. “Why did you say I was a priest?”

He smiled, looking pleased with himself. “I knew my men would believe it.” He caught my chin in his hand and turned my head so that I had to stare into his eyes. “You look enough like the Daughter that I knew they would believe me.”

“Is that why you brought me here? Because I look like whoever plays this Daughter person?”

“It is why I did not kill you when I saw you in the stream.”

Rewind time. I did not like the word kill. At first I thought it was some scorekeeping thing and I can fall over and howl and tremble and then go stiff. I used to do that back in the days of Aliens versus Astronauts on the playground. Something else was going on here. I needed to have “kill” and “dead” defined.

Before I could ask, a man backed into the tent through the flap and turned slowly. He carried in his hands a heavy tray covered with food which he placed on the table. Although he was blond like the others, he was dressed differently, wearing rough wool cloth, and around his ankles were metal bands. A chain ran between them so that he could walk but not run. He bowed to my captor, cast a frightened glance at me, stared at the floor and backed out of the tent.

“Uh, he's joking, right?” I asked.

Prince grinned. “He is a slave who behaves as a slave should.”

“I will carry trays for you, if that's what you want. Only I hope you don't expect me to do the cooking. You wouldn't want to eat it.”

“You cannot prepare food? What can you do?”

“I am a priest of the Daughter, whatever that is,” I said solemnly, hoping to distract him while I considered escape routes.

“Eat your meal. I will go out with my men.”

He sounded annoyed. I hoped he was. If I could manipulate his emotions so easily, that could be useful. I'd offer to rewrite the storyline for these amateurs except more and more I was getting this odd message that they didn't know they were playacting.

After he did a sharp turn on his heel and strode out, leaving me alone in the tent, I wandered over to the table to pick through the food. There were berries and cheese and hunks of whole grain bread and some really dark, bitter beer in a flask. By now I was so hungry, I decided to trust in the beer to defeat the bacteria.

I waited in the tent until a woman entered, dressed much as the male slave, carrying a bowl of water. She, too, was weighted with ankle bands and a chain. She was the first woman I had seen in the camp.

Quickly I asked, “Who are you?”

Her face closed in what honestly resembled fear and I said, “You're good! Hey, are there hidden cameras? You folks making a film?”

She would not speak, stuck with the mute bit, and I gave up for the night. I dropped my pack by the table and pulled out my toothbrush. When I poured water from a flask into a bowl and managed to wash a bit, she looked startled.

“I don't suppose there are showers around here?”

No, but wow, she pointed to this big old crock thing that apparently served as a toilet and I remembered another reason why I hated camping.

My shorts and shirt had dried from my excursions into the stream, but were badly stained with mud and berry juice.

“I can sleep in these, can't make them any worse,” I said, hoping talk about clothing was harmless enough to earn a reply. I even added a smile.

Keeping her gaze lowered, she pointed at the mound of blankets and sheepskins in the corner, then left, backing out as the other slave actor had done.

The room filled up with shadows as the sunlight filtering through the tent faded into night. I was too weary to worry any longer about running away. Tomorrow, when I knew my captor better, I would figure this out. And when I got back to town, I planned on throwing a hissy fit in the middle of the store that sold me my useless cellphone.

 Now I dropped down on the blankets. Beneath my fingers I felt the tight curls of sheep's wool, not the best smelling bed, but it was soft.

Unable to sleep, I stared up into the darkening tent and wished I'd never left the city, wished I'd remembered country air is unhealthy. Wished I knew a quick and permanent way to avoid Darryl. Why me? I muttered over and over to myself, like a chant, because counting sheep while lying on a dusty sheepskin is not at all conducive to sleep.

Through my weary stupor I heard Prince return to the tent. He moved around slowly, walking softly, dropping something on the floor. There was a rattle of metal on wood as though he set a mug on the table. And then his footsteps approached me.

I kept my eyes closed, hoping if he saw me sleeping he would be satisfied I was settled for the night and would go away. I heard his breath as he leaned over me and I stopped breathing.

He dropped down on the bedding beside me, and although he was not actually touching me, I felt the near heat of his body, felt his breath on my face as he leaned close to me. If I had to, I could probably do a little street fighting but in the end he was a lot stronger so my best bet was to figure out which would work with this one, insults or flattery? I tried to remain silent but must have made some small noise.

Far from friends, alone with a guy whose intentions I did not want to think about, my indrawn breath of frustration was loud enough for him to hear. His hard hand clamped over my mouth.

“Cry out and my guards will rush in to slay you,” he whispered.

Perhaps remembering the bite I had given him earlier, he removed his hand. I opened my eyes and stared into his face, which was much too close to mine. In the darkness I could see his light eyes.

Okay, I'd go for distraction first. “Why should men obey a boy?”

“I am not a boy. I am nineteen years, which is as old as you, I think.”

The fear in the slaves' faces had looked awfully convincing and that worried me. And knowing Goldilocks was three years younger than me did not exactly fill me with confidence because it meant he had a whole lot of teen hormones pushing him.

Before I lost my courage, I said, “Go on then, kill me, sweetie, because that's the only way you're going to score.”

He sighed, he actually sighed, and sounded weary of my arguments. Was he regretting that he hadn't just left me in the stream?

“I am not going to harm you, Stargazer.”

Okay, he was stripped to the waist but he'd kept his pants on so maybe I was being unfair to judge him. But why lie down next to me, why not sleep across the tent from me?

As though he read my mind, he said, “I feel safer with you beside me than across the tent.”

He pressed a weight across my throat and from its hard cold touch I knew it was the blade of his broadsword. He settled down beside me, not quite touching me but close enough that I could feel his body heat, saying in a low voice I could barely hear, “If you try to escape, I will cut off your head. Now go to sleep.”

“Pleasant dreams to you, too, fella.”

Sure, he was joking about the beheading thing, but what if his hand slipped? What if I rolled over too quickly? An accident could leave me just as dead.

I lay motionless with the sword across my neck, wondering what I dared do. Was I to spend the rest of this insane fiasco sleeping beneath a sword?

He wasn't noisy, I'll say this for him. His sleep breathing was closer to low humming than snoring. When he moved slightly, I drew in my breath. If he rolled over in his sleep, would his sword slit my throat? How was I supposed to sleep? I turned my head to peer at him through the shadows and whispered, “Could you move the sword?”

He continued to snore softly. As my sight adjusted to the night, I saw the outline of his head. In sleep his face was smooth planes, free of expression and very young, short thick white lashes pressed above the line of cheekbone, his wide mouth open. His face rolled slightly away from me and his pale hair fell back from his ear. Something glittered. I focused on the shine until I could see its shape. In his earlobe he wore a small gold ring.

A pity I had never read his horoscope so I could better judge what to expect of him and how to maneuver around his whims. Now I was more puzzled by the sword on my neck.

Moving very slowly and carefully, I edged upward, steadying the sword with my hand so it would not shift. The blade was wide and heavy and sharpened on both edges. It was definitely capable of doing really messy things to my windpipe. I knew even in his sleep he grasped the hilt.

When I had moved until the blade rested across my shoulders instead of my neck, I stopped, afraid to move more. With the weight off my throat, I could sort of think, and all my thoughts turned to the same question. Now that I had marched myself into an impossible situation, how was I supposed to get out?

My mind grew as heavy as his sword and without meaning to, I fell asleep.

In the morning when I woke he was gone. Another silent woman in slave costume brought me food and water. I washed and changed into my clean shirt and stuffed the dirty one in my backpack. As I was picking through the unappetizing food, sleep-buddy returned to the tent, scooped up my backpack from the floor, grabbed my wrist, and, without a word or even a look at me, dragged me outside to toss me on his horse.

He jumped up behind me, kicked his heels into the horse's sides and we sped out of the camp. The guys who were playing guards were unhappy, with deep scowls and stage whisper muttering.

I had heard the angry voices outside the tent before Prince Whatsit returned from wherever he'd gone, brushed aside the tent flap and stomped toward me.

The guard called Artur, who seemed to be in charge, had argued that he wanted several of his men to ride with us. The prince had hissed at him, sounding rather like an angry cat, threatening the man with dreadful punishments. I did not understand why these grown men were putting up with the kid. Had they drawn lots for casting and he'd lucked out, got to play spoiled ruler?

We crashed through the trees following a stream bed until we were beyond sight and hearing of the camp. Then he pulled on the reins to slow his horse to a walk. Banner shook his head and made odd snorting noises, as did the guy.

Mumbling more to himself than to me, he said, “How dare he speak to me that way. I will have him broken. I will put up with him no longer. I am a man now and within my rights. I will give orders to suit my wishes without some stupid guard forever stopping me.”

“Game's over,” I said. “Or not. But there's no point trying to impress me.”

His fingers grasped my shoulder and he shook me, as though I were the offending guard, saying, “I am their ruler's son, do you understand?”

“Yes, I get that. You're Prince Charming or whatever, which means daddy is a king. That's easy. So where to now?”

“My father is a warlord, not a king. My name is Tarvik. My father's line goes back seven generations. The first son of the line of Kovat is always known as the Garnet Prince.”

“Weird, I mean, not like Shakespeare, not Dungeons and Dragons, oh! Surely I am wrong here, but let me ask. All those blonds, are you supposed to be Vikings? If you are, I don't think you've quite got the costumes right.”

“My father is Kovat the Slayer, the greatest warlord in all the lands.”

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