Horses were the most unreliable, most unfortunate creatures ever to walk the Earth. And yet, Ricardo was immensely sad that his was gone. He and his pretty tamed Mustang mare, Bandita, had been back and forth across the west for six years, and now she’d taken a bad step—a hole, a sharp rock, he hadn’t been able to figure out which—fallen down a hillside, and broken not one but two legs. Traveling on horseback through the Rockies at night, accidents happened.
Dabir and I shrouded the Syrian in his saddle blanket and spent a few hours digging a hole for him in that lonely land. He had been the last of our companions. Bandits and desertion and, finally, illness, had whittled our numbers down from the score of warriors and porters with whom we had begun our journey so that only we two were left. We finished the burial and our prayers and stood to contemplate the high scrubby brown hills that stretched before and behind us.
Merrinvale was a town that needed witches. Most places do—witches, after all, are the ones who make sure the small and large magics work. Things like the rising of bread and the turning of the seasons and safe passage through birth and death, all the work of witches. Some places accept this, and so they welcome their witches the same as they welcome any others and life moves in harmony. Merrinvale was not one such place.
It didn’t take them long to find a name for us; almost as soon as they knew it was women inside the rickety biplanes they couldn’t catch, the Germans called us witches. It was because of the sounds our idling planes made from the ground, the story went, as if the German soldiers had spent a lot of time with brooms and knew what they sounded like, engineless and gliding fifty feet above them in the dark. (The wires holding the wings in place made the whistle.)
When Parsh returned home and found that his father’s calf had been stolen, and stolen by none other than the King of the very Stonak kingdom who had been slaughtering priests for decades, he did not hesitate. He took up his axe and set out on the road that led to Stonak City. He did not stop to think of the consequences of what he was about to do, nor of the odds against him. For while a priest caste’s disciplined meditation and learning compel him to consider carefully before embarking upon any venture, a Stonak’s very nature is predicated on swift reflexes and instinct.
The great sage Jamarg was absorbed in his meditation when the calm of his hermitage was disturbed by the thunder of a thousand hooves. Frowning at being disturbed from his meditation, he rose and went to see why mounted men had come to this remote place. His wife Rukunyi was hurrying back from the river, bearing a heavy earthen pot filled with fresh water. Her face glowed with excitement. “It must be my father,” she said to Jamarg.
Het had eaten nothing for weeks but bony, gape-mawed fish—some of them full of neurotoxin. She’d had to alter herself so she could metabolize it safely, which had taken some doing. So when she ripped out the walsel’s throat and its blood spurted red onto the twilit ice, she stared, salivary glands aching, stomach growling. She didn’t wait to butcher her catch but sank her teeth into skin and fat and muscle, tearing a chunk away from its huge shoulder.
Witchcraft is a gift. Imelda would wave her steel spoon at Mercer and insist on this as he measured ingredients for her, whether she was boiling potions or a pot of farfalle pasta. Watch the salt, a teaspoon only, never pour too much. Don’t overheat the sauce. Bottle the hawks’ gizzards separate from the basilisks’. Never half-ass a gift, Mercy. Her perpetual imperative. Mercer is alone now. His hands are unsteady—they’ve shaken like a drunkard’s since they held Imelda as she passed—and he is no witch.
Once upon a time, in another part of now, there was a girl. She was graceful and talented and pretty as dawn—though no more than she ought to be—and she was lucky enough to be the daughter of a very minor king, rich but provincial, with few real responsibilities. She was delighted with life, and with her own way of living in it. She loved stories, and music, and most especially, painting. She loved to create small strange worlds on paper and had set up a gallery in several rooms of her home for her art: the royal version of the family refrigerator.
I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in their secret places a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it mean their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you so you’ll know that this tale I tell you is true, just as it happened and just as it was told to me, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth. The name I’m called is Dusty Boots, I come from the valley of Erwhile, and I am in love with a girl that I can never have.