For your reading entertainment, the first chapter of WHITE HOUND, publishing soon.
The snow fell in a perfect white sheet from a sky of frosty gray. A deep and calming quiet filled the forest, all sound muffled by the snow. An occasional breeze sent errant flakes dancing in wild gyrations, the pines and evergreens wore lacy shawls, and across the flank of the spiny mountain range a herd of elk moved in slow majesty. It was like something out of a Christmas card, or a painting by Bob Ross.
I would have given it all away for five minutes on a Tahitian beach.
Every part of my body felt like ice. I trudged through knee-high snow beneath the pines, each branch loaded with cold frozen water and just waiting for the right moment to fall on my head. My legs burned with exhaustion, my lungs ached for air, and my nose ran like a faucet.
I stopped and leaned against a tree to keep from falling into a snowbank. My companion looked back at me with eyes as white as ice; I managed to keep from sticking my tongue out at her. “Just need a minute to adjust my gloves. And scarf. And boots. And re-evaluate my life.”
The Black Hare didn’t seem to buy my explanation but at least she didn’t move on without me. She sat, hunched down and with her ears flat against her head, and stared at me.
I pointed at the smooth and untouched surface of the snow around the Hare. “You’re not having to walk through this, so you can just keep your opinions to yourself.” The Hare blinked slowly and looked away. I let the tree take all my weight as I waited for my racing heart to slow down.
In the month-and-a-half that I’d been out of the hospital I’d fallen back into my sedentary lifestyle. Consequently, the results of my hard work around Irene’s house had quickly disappeared. This past week, it’d seemed, my luck had run out. Irene had been almost pleasant as I’d healed from the burns, scrapes, cuts, and other injuries I’d sustained in my battle with an Aspect, but five days ago she’d put me back to work earning my keep. My half-hearted attempts to get out of doing anything had been met with a steely gaze that shut me up fast.
At least the work in the greenhouse had kept me warm…and in close contact with moly.
Then, this morning, the Hare had shown up for the first time since I’d left the hospital. The knowledge that I’d not yet fulfilled the requirements, whatever they may be, of the geas that bound me to the Hare was disheartening, to say the least.
Still, following the Black Hare had gotten me out of Irene’s scope for a while.
Now, as I adjusted my scarf around my cold face and pulled my knit cap down lower, I began to think longingly of vacuuming the carpet in Irene’s parlor. Her ancient machine made the job take way more time than it should but at least I’d be warm. I sighed and pushed away from the tree. “Ok, let’s go.” I said to the Hare, and followed where she led.
Five minutes later we’d reached a granite outcropping. There were a multitude of these through the forests here, ranging from two or three small rocks to massive knobs of stone thrusting up from the Wyoming soil. This grouping was about normal for this high up; pinkish-grey granite forms, each twice my height or more, tumbled together as if they’d been thrown aside by a giant. The Hare disappeared behind the outcropping and I trailed behind her. A low-hanging spruce branch retaliated to my intrusion by dumping snow on my head.
My cursing died in my throat as I saw to what the Black Hare had lead me. I was bound to death, chained by a geas to an avatar of death – the Hare. She took me to places where someone had died badly, whether in pain or fear or slow, crushing agony. The stain left by a bad death tainted the earth, spread like a cancer, and distorted everything it touched. It was our job, the Black Hare and I, to clean away that stain.
And this had been a very bad death.
A young man, in his twenties perhaps, lay lifeless before me. Judging by his clothes and the equipment scattered around him he had been hiking the forest, maybe camping out beneath the winter stars. To me it looked as if he had come across these rocks and the appeal to climb over them had been too much to deny. He had slipped, or lost his grip, or just simply lost his concentration – whichever it was, it had led to a fall.
The fall might not have killed him, but the boulder as big as my head that followed him down had done the job, landing on his midsection and pinning him to the ground. Gouges in the earth marked the young man’s struggles to free himself. The black, frozen blood congealed on his chin and chest spoke to the futility of it all.
I sank to my knees next to the corpse. His head was tilted toward me, a sheaf of wheat blond hair spilling from under his hat. His skin was paler than the snow, and his body was rigid to my gentle touch.
I looked at the Hare. “Ok, let’s get this over with,” I said. The lonesome howl of a wolf or coyote spilled through the air and the Hare and I froze in identical listening poses. The sound wasn’t repeated, and my companion moved as she always did, from one spot to another in the blink of an eye. She crouched on my shoulder, her presence chillier than the weather around me. I stripped off my gloves and placed my hands flat on the ground. The Hare pressed her head against mine.
The dead man opened his eyes and looked at me.
“You were mistaken.”
It was amazing how three simple words could set my nerves on edge. The old woman’s voice was so calm and mild and sure that I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, that I was indeed sitting at a kitchen table in the house I shared with the old woman.
“I wasn’t mistaken, Irene. That guy was deader than a doornail.”
“You were wrong. Ain’t the first time.” From a face of warm tan skin set with so many wrinkles that it looked liked a dried apple, deep eyes the exact color of wet earth stared at me. There was a blatant challenge in that gaze, and like a stupid fly I dove straight into that sticky web.
“Damn it, he was dead. And then he wasn’t.” I said. My jaw ached, and I realized I’d been grinding my teeth.
The old woman sipped from her coffee mug before she answered. “And what makes you so positive?”
I smiled, not even trying to hide the smugness. “I think I know a little something about death, now. I have, how would you say, an affinity for it?” I leaned back in my chair, crossed my arms, and silently dared Irene to refute that.
She snorted. It was incredible how much incredulity she put in that one noise. “Oh, the girl has one small fight with and Aspect and suddenly she thinks she knows everything.” Her chair screeched over the linoleum as she stood and crossed to the sink. I stared at her broad and solid back, covered in one of her endless multitudes of housedresses, and contemplated throwing my coffee cup at the wild tangle of oak-brown hair on her head.
Irene’s words, however casually she had thrown them at me, still had bite. Abruptly I was no longer in the morning-sun-filled kitchen but instead a fiery wasteland. Around me scorched building crumbled and burning people screamed as claws of flame pierced the night sky. I faced a column of fire, white-hot like the heart of a star, and in that column stood a man. A man I knew, and the Aspect who possessed him.
The slamming of a cabinet door snapped me back to the here and now. My mouth tasted of smoke and burnt flesh; I gulped the dregs of my coffee down to chase it away.
Irene sat back down and slid a plate toward me. Focusing on the steam rising from the croissant, I blinked away the unwanted tears. A jar of golden jam joined the plate, and I smeared jam over the croissant and stuffed half the thing in my mouth. Irene’s gaze was steady on me when I raised my head from my breakfast.
“Irene, that guy was dead. Doubt me if you want, but the Hare led me there. Would she be wrong?” I mumbled through a mouthful of bread.
The old woman’s eyes narrowed in thought. “You got a point there. The Hare is trustworthy.”
“Gee, thanks, Irene.”
“What’d the Hare say about it?”
I shrugged. “You know how it is with a creature of unimaginable power who seems to be a tool of Death. She looked at me, looked at the dead man who wasn’t dead, and vanished.”
Irene chewed on her thumbnail for a moment. I’d noticed that, since she’s stopped smoking a pipe she’d picked up this weird habit. Of course, she only smoked the pipe to remind me of my grandfather, a man I’d loved deeply and then had killed. He’d absolved me of wrong-doing in his death when he’d come to me in a vision while I was fighting the Aspect that wanted to destroy Red Horse River, but I couldn’t excuse myself that easily.
Yeah, my life had been really interesting lately.
Irene jabbed a finger at me. “Now, we don’t know what, exactly, kind of relationship you have with the Hare. Mought be you influence her in some way. Mought be, you’re leading her from her work.”
The insult, implied and overt, did little more than irritate me slightly. Hey, maybe I was getting better at dealing with the old woman. “Whatever, Irene.”
“You weren’t on nothin’ that could’ve clouded your mind, were you?” Irene said.
I heard the unasked question and answered that one. “I don’t drink anymore. You know that.”
“Booze ain’t the only thing’ll make you lit.” she said, and a frisson of fear shot through me. Did she know? Irene was still speaking, and I concentrated on what she was saying.
“He were dead, and then he weren’t. Where’s the boy now?”
I smushed croissant crumbs under my finger. “In the hospital. The police chief was very interested to see that I was involved in yet another strange thing.”
Irene nodded slowly. “Now, I’d be inclined to think this boy was just really cold. You read ‘bout those things happenin’ – some fool gets lost in a blizzard or falls in the drink, and gets so cold they just kinda hibernate.”
“Yeah, I’ve read those click-bait stories. But trust me on this, Irene – this was different. The boulder that fell on that guy was enormous. His internal organs must have been flattened. Hell, it took something like ten men to shift that rock just enough to slide him out.”
“Again, I’d think you’d made a mistake, but if the Black Hare led you there…” she trailed off. I opened my mouth to retort and she waved a hand at me. “Shush for a moment. I need to think.”
I swallowed several witty comebacks and settled for studying the old woman. She was about my height, just over five foot seven. Her skin tone and facial features hinted strongly of a Mediterranean background. Her body was solid, her hair a wild tangle colored in shades of light and dark brown, and her wrinkled face was like a crazed road map. She looked like an eccentric elderly woman, someone you might pass on the street with no more than a sideways glance to make sure she wasn’t going to thrust a church pamphlet in your hand.
Oh, but there was so much more to Irene that than.
She was an Aspect, a reflection of ancient and powerful beings drawn to Earth in the planet’s infancy. The Aspects, born of the celestial power these beings left behind, were shaped and formed by human beliefs. They were the basis for all the various gods and devils, angels and imps, pantheons of mythical beings and kingdoms of divine creatures. However, for all the Aspects’ power they were bound and limited by how the humans defined them in their formation. Not all the Aspects were happy with these man-forged chains; I’d had a run-in with one such Aspect just over a month ago.
I didn’t know which Aspect Irene was. She refused to tell me outright, and while I had my suspicions I was in no hurry to figure it out. There was something to be said for delayed gratification.
Irene shifted in her seat, and I gave her my full attention. When she spoke, gone was the simple speech that she used, I believed, as a disguise. Instead, her words were solemn, weighty, and rang in the quiet of the kitchen. “Red Horse River is a place of magic. It can, and has, attracted Aspects from all over the world. Other things, not as strong as the Aspects but still born of the magic, have come to Red Horse before.”
“Ok. And?” I said.
“This dead man could, possibly, be some sprite or goblin’s idea of a joke. Some passing thing that brought the man back to life, or is actually wearing the man’s skin. It would be wise, I feel, to keep any eye out for anything else strange.” As she finished she brought the full power of her gaze on me.
I nodded. “If I see or find anything weird, I’ll let you know.” Of course, in Red Horse River, ‘weird’ was subjective.
Irene stood. “Now, girl, get on them dishes. Then come out to the greenhouse. Got some plants that need plantin’.” She stumped from the kitchen, and I rose and crossed to the sink.
Wrist-deep in suds, I listened to the noises of Irene moving through the house and then out the back door. When I was sure she was gone I waited a minute more. Pulling my hands from the sink and drying them roughly on my jeans, I retrieved a small plastic baggy from my back pants pocket. Inside the bag were a handful of delicate white flowers on black stems.
I popped a couple of sprigs of the moly in my mouth. Instantly the taste of sunlight and fresh summer air flooded my tongue and sent a wave of sparkling energy through me. It was like the couple of times I’d done ecstasy, but millions of times better.
I washed the dishes on a cloud of good feelings and brightness.