The Native Star: Chapter One

Ashes of Amour

Lost Pine, California
Wednesday, April 23, 1876

When the sun’s first rays touched the tops of the pines in the creek hollow, Emily Edwards shivered as if thin pink and gold fingers were creeping stealthily up her spine.

She hid for a moment under her quilt, chewing on her lip. The instructions in Pap’s grimoire said the words had to be spoken at first light. No use dawdling over it.

Snatching the little blue and red calico spell bag from the pine table beside her bed, she squeezed her eyes shut and whispered:

My decision is firm,
My will is strong
Let this spell bind him
All his life long.

It was done. The Ashes of Amour were finished.

Emily threw off her covers, sending a pair of raggedy cats into grumpy flight. The chill morning air had a crisp, pitchy smell that mingled with the fragrance of the dried flowers and herbs that hung from the rafters. She tucked the little bag of ashes into a pouch she wore around her neck then dressed quickly, gray wool over scratchy underwear, thick knitted socks over icy toes. Then it was time to face the not-inconsiderable task of brushing and braiding her hair.

Emily’s chestnut-colored hair was thick and shiny as silk floss—an extraordinary female endowment. But like most female endowments, it was generally more trouble than it was worth. In particular, it possessed a prodigious ability to tangle—a perverse genius that could be thwarted only by keeping it tightly braided at all times.

But the grimoire had indicated that the Witch must wear nothing knotted or tied or sewn or fastened while working the spell. That meant unbraided and naked. At midnight. In April. In the Sierra Nevada mountains.

She had built a small fire, over which she’d burned the ingredients in a small brass cauldron, but the spell’s directions hadn’t allowed her to linger by it; she had to complete an intricate series of steps and turns and rhymes around the fire as the ingredients crumbled to a potent ash guaranteed to compel the eternal love of anyone who touched it. By the time she’d gotten back to the cabin, she’d been so cold that all she could do was dive under her quilt and hope that some tonsorial miracle would greet her on the morrow.

Sighing her regret that no such miracle had occurred, she picked up her boxwood comb and began picking the snarls out from the ends.

This was not a good start to what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life.

By the time her accustomed plaits were tickling the backs of her knees, the sun was well up. She climbed down from the attic loft quietly so as not to wake Pap, who was snoring in the iron bedstead by the banked fire, blanketed by a half-dozen purring cats. Pap had been her adoptive father for twenty years and Lost Pine’s charm maker for twice that, and all of those years had been filled with hard work. Since fever took his eyesight last summer, the work that had been Pap’s livelihood—gathering plants, compounding salves, charming buildings, reading fortunes—had fallen to Emily. She was glad to do it.

She went to the table where items were collected in a willow basket: brushes and pots of milk paint, sticks of charcoal and a platter-size slab of white oak. The oak had been edged and planed by Dag Hansen, the most prosperous lumberman in Lost Pine, who had commissioned a protective hex plaque for the topmost eave of his big new timber shed. Taking the basket, she stole quietly from the cabin.

Her foot was on the threshhold when a vivid flash of rust-red caught her eye. A robin, the first of spring, flew from where it had been perched on the sill of the small front window. She watched it vanish into the top of a blue spruce.

A robin on the windowsill—an omen of true love. That seemed encouraging. But less so the question it begged: true love for whom?

Not you. The robin’s call drifted down from the spruce’s crown. Not you.

Tucking the basket under her arm, Emily walked quickly, as if she could outrun the sound. But it followed her, high and piercing:

Not you.

On a grassy swale overlooking the main road from Dutch Flat to Lost Pine, where the rapidly rising sun was bright and hot in the cloudless sky, Emily set herself down to work.

She laid the slab of oak on her lap and looked at it for a long time. It showed the signs of Dag Hansen’s strong, industrious hands. He was a good man. A good, kind, trusting man.

He’d make a wonderful husband.

She opened the pots of milk paint. Reaching into the silk pouch she wore around her neck, she took out the little bag of ashes and put a generous pinch into each pot.

Then she dipped a horsehair brush into the yellow and began dabbing carefully at the oak, muttering rhyming incantations as she laid the bright color onto the wood. She focused her intentions, concentrating on prosperity and happiness, goodwill and success, love and (Heaven help her) fertility.

She focused closely on her work, so deeply engrossed that when an echoing “hey there” came up from the road, she almost knocked over the pot of red. Shading her eyes with a paint-stained hand, she noticed how high the sun had climbed.

“Hey, Em Edwards!”

On the road, a pair of heavy bays stood in front of a stout buckboard. It was Mr. Orta, the delivery agent for the Wells, Fargo & Company express office in Dutch Flat. She waved, set her work aside, and hurried down, glad to stretch her stiff legs.

“I thought it was you,” he said, pushing his cap back. “What are you up to?”

“I’m painting a hex for Dag Hansen’s new shed.” Emily was aware of a high tense note in her voice. For goodness’ sake, it sounded like she was confessing to a shooting! She licked her lips and continued. “They’re putting it up this afternoon.”

“Folks say he’ll have the narrow-gauge track laid into Dutch Flat before summer, and you folks won’t have to wait for me to haul deliveries up to you.” He gave her a sly look. “I suppose there’ll be a dance later?”

“I suppose,” Emily said, not wanting to talk about Dag and dancing. She craned her neck to see what else Mr. Orta had in his buckboard. Two huge crates, half covered with canvas.

“Who are those for?” She pointed.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” he chuckled. “But I guess it can’t do no harm to a sturdy young Witch like you. One’s for that easterner, that fellow Stanton. The other’s a bunch of separate deliveries from Baugh’s Patent Magicks—an order in it for almost everyone up here, it seems.”

Emily looked at the crates more closely. Sure enough, one was marked with the distinctive blue logo of Baugh’s Patent Magicks—a saucy genie rising out of a bottle in a cloud of smoke.

A whole carton of Baugh’s. Emily felt like spitting in the dust.

“I don’t suppose I could talk you into dumping that crate into a ditch and pretending it never came?” Emily gave Mr. Orta a winsome, slightly desperate smile.

Mr. Orta chuckled awkwardly. They were, after all, joking about her livelihood.

“Sorry, Em.” He scratched the back of his head. “I guess times change. Anyway, you need a ride? I can get you closer to Hansen’s place than you are now.”

“No, thank you,” she said, entertaining the dramatic notion that she’d rather walk than ride in a buckboard with a carton of Baugh’s Patent Magicks. “I have to go see about Pap’s lunch.”

Mr. Orta slapped the lines and clucked to the horses. Whistling, he disappeared beyond the bend, and Emily climbed the hill to gather up her paints. The hex she’d painted had dried nicely in the warm sun. She ran her fingers over the bright rough surface. She’d done it up neat, but the plaque was . . . rustic. Not shiny and precise like a hex of baked enamel from Baugh’s Patent Magicks would be.

Damn that Baugh, whoever he was! After looking to make sure Mr. Orta was gone, she did spit in the dust, and muttered a curse, too. But her curses seemed to be of little avail when it came to Baugh’s.

Over the past year, more and more folks had taken to buying patent magic from Baugh’s. Advertised in colorful chromolithographed catalogues, the products came in shiny pasteboard boxes stamped with gold foil and lined with blood-red tissue paper. They made Emily’s hand-sewn charm bundles and home-brewed potions look shoddy and questionable by comparison. And business had suffered for it.

The past winter had been the worst. Paying Pap’s doctor had left them short on cash-money, and as the hungry snow months had closed around them, Emily had watched Pap’s cheeks grow hollow, his collarbones grow sharp, and his spirit grow tired. She’d gotten them through on mangy possums and stringy jackrabbits, but having to watch him starve . . . starve! After forty years of hard, honest work! It wasn’t fair. Something had to be done.

And that something was Dag Hansen.

It seemed the perfect solution. All she had to do was get him to marry her, and Pap could live in comfort and plenty. And she was no cheat; she’d take on the job of being a pleasant and loyal wife just as she’d taken on Pap’s magical work. It was just trading one job for another.

But how to catch the prosperous lumberman? Her twenty-fifth birthday was a half year gone, which made her a pretty shelf-worn item. So she’d turned to Pap’s grimoire for help, and she’d gone to the Hanging Oak, and she’d danced naked in the light of the full moon, and she’d made the Ashes of Amour.

Tucking her paints away, she put the hex plaque in the willow basket and didn’t look at it again.

“I only want what’s best for everyone,” she muttered to herself. “And if you’re going to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs . . . ”

Then she stopped and pressed her lips together, resolving not to think about what she’d have to break to make a marriage.

She climbed back up Moody Ridge to Pap’s cabin, walking fast as she could, making her legs burn. The exertion felt good. Loose wisps of hair tangled around her lips and ears; she pushed them back with annoyance. The chickens in the front yard welcomed her with low chuckles; she scattered the lazy biddies with a swing of the basket.

Inside, brightly colored bottles shone on the windowsills and the bones of powerful animals dangled from braids of dyed red string. Scrolls of old vellum and parchment were rolled in stacks, ready to have spells writ upon them with eagle quills in ink of blood red or black gall. Pap’s most important tools hung above the stone fireplace: the ceremonial dagger that he called an athame, and his purple charm cap. Pap himself sat in front of a hugely roaring fire, wrapped in a bright wool trade blanket. As usual, he was surrounded by cats. Most regarded Emily with boredom, but one or two bumped their soft heads against her legs as she came in.

“Em’s back!” Pap smiled a greeting. A barn fire in Pap’s youth had left the right side of his face a cobweb of shining pink scars. When he smiled, his face crumpled like crepe fabric.

There was the sound of movement in the cooking part of the room (while it was screened by a sheet hung from the ceiling, it could hardly be called a kitchen), and Mrs. Lyman poked her head out.

“I made your Pap some lunch, and brought some fresh cornbread and a dried-apple pie.” Mrs. Lyman, a mining widow with no fewer than ten grown children, lived on the place about a mile over. Pap had once cured her of recurrent warts on her hands, and she had been devoted to the old man ever since. “I thought you’d go straight over to Dag Hansen’s. I reckon he’s the only man in Lost Pine can make you forget about your poor ol’ Pap.”

Emily flushed, and not just from the heat of the room.

“There’s not any man in the world who could make me forget Pap.” Emily gave his shoulder a squeeze as she carried her paintbrushes to the table to wash. She poured water into a bowl and began working the almost-dried color from the horsehair. “But if you’ve already eaten . . .”

“I’ve eaten,” Pap said. “And Mrs. Lyman’s going to stay and read to me.”

“From Lady’s Repository,” Mrs. Lyman added, her tone suggesting that Emily was missing a treat. She had settled into a chair by the fire and already had the magazine spread across her lap.

Emily, however, was heartily glad that she would miss a night of Lady’s Repository. It was a magazine that jumbled articles of an improving nature (often subtitled, quite annoyingly, “A Warning to Young Ladies,”) with sickly sweet tales of love and romance. Emily much preferred it when Mrs. Lyman read from one of her mail-order subscription novels; at least they could be counted on to feature a clever mystery-solving Witch or the grand magical doings of eminent European Warlocks.

“Go on to your dance, Em.” Pap’s voice was gentle. “You deserve a little fun.”

“Or you can stay and listen for a while,” Mrs. Lyman tapped a luridly colored illustration on cheap newsprint. “Listen to this one I been saving out . . . a real juicy one! ‘Her Tragic Mistake’ . . .”

“No thanks,” Emily blurted, letting the brushes drop with a clatter. “I guess I had better get a move on.”

After bolting up the ladder to her garret, Emily sat on the edge of her bed for a moment, closing her eyes and trying to swallow down her hard-thudding heart. Then, flinging open her trunk, she dragged out a vibrant spring calico that had been packed away since fall. She gave it a hard mean shake. She debated whether to forgo her long underwear; the dress would look better without the red flannel showing at the ankles and wrists. But if she shed the flannels, Mrs. Lyman would certainly notice and nag poor Pap about it all night. And after all, what did it matter? Dag was going to fall in love with her anyway.

What a depressing thought.

Well, at least she could spare Pap the aggravation. She left the flannels on, then she slid the dress over her head and did up the blackened bone buttons. Smoothing the fabric over her hips, she then bent to retrieve an embossed morocco case from under her bed. From it, she withdrew two long, heavy hair sticks of beautifully engraved silver-one of the few inheritances from her mother. She twisted her heavy braids on top of her head and stabbed them through with the sticks. Regarding herself in her bit of cracked mirror, she rubbed stray streaks of paint from her face with a wetted thumb, then nodded soberly. At the very least, falling in love with her would not be a downright embarrassment.

Since she’d be walking home late, and she knew from recent experience just how cold April nights in the Sierras could get, she threw on her big buffalo coat before shimmying down the loft ladder.

She took Pap’s big leather charm satchel from its place next to the door and slung it over her shoulder. When Pap had been younger, he’d carried it with him everywhere like a badge of office—and since she’d assumed most of his responsibilities, she never went without it either. She tucked Dag’s painted hex into the satchel and pulled down the flap.

Mrs. Lyman wagged a finger at Emily. “Now, if it gets too late, you stay in town at Annie Bargett’s, or walk home with one of my girls.” She leaned toward Pap conspiratorially. “Things just aren’t safe anymore! Why, I heard tell of the most awful spate of Aberrancies outside of Sacramento. Mrs. Foster’s boy, Harlan, he was just telling me the other day . . .”

Emily slipped out of the cabin quietly, smiling to herself. Mrs. Lyman loved to talk about the Aberrancies—”the horrible, slavering monstrosities that roamed the wilderness in vast numbers; terrifying beasts of native legend that beggared description and made strong men blanch and tremble” (in the words of a true-to-life account from Men’s Adventure Monthly). In fact, Emily felt certain that Mrs. Lyman would be positively tickled if she could actually encounter one of the semimythical terrors. But while Emily had often heard talk about the Aberrancies that bothered the trains, she’d never seen one, and would be willing to swear that she never would.

You never will now, anyway, she told herself. For you’ve set yourself to become a good wife. And good wives don’t have much to do with slavering monstrosities.

Emily was surprised at how disappointing this thought was, but she lifted her chin resolutely. She’d take disappointment over starvation any day.

Following the well-worn trail that led from the cabin, Emily headed down the ridge toward Lost Pine, Dag Hansen, and her future.

Dag Hansen’s new timber shed was being raised near the planned terminus of the narrow-gauge railroad tracks he was having laid into Dutch Flat. He’d managed to build half of the side line the past summer. This year he intended to finish the job and bring prosperity to Lost Pine. The way he said “prosperity,” with such delicious anticipation and pride, made it seem as though he were talking about an actual person, a big jolly fellow with luxurious face whiskers and gold-capped teeth.

Over the past decade, prosperity had been no stranger to Dag Hansen. He’d made good money selling his timber to the railroads companies. The new side line would allow him to send moss-covered logs down from the slopes of Moody Ridge to the mills in Dutch Flat year-round.

Emily followed the ringing of hammers and the rasping of saws. There wasn’t much to Lost Pine—a small saloon, a smaller general store, a few diminutive homes, and the silver-gray buildings of the old timber camp. The shed was being raised at the edge of the settlement, in a big sunny clearing. The smell of fresh-cut fir hung in the air, and the clean new wood gleamed golden in the warm afternoon light. The walls had been raised already, and Dag and his men were nailing up sturdy crossbeams.

Dag was large and sturdy, with cornsilk hair and elk-brown eyes, a deeply tanned face and a strong brown throat. He’d unbuttoned his shirt against the heat of the day, and the sweat filming his bare arms and powerful chest made him seem to glisten. All in all, he wasn’t exceptionally difficult to look at. A perfect target for a designing Witch.

She’d known him since they were children. He had been a unique specimen of boyhood—one who did not find it great fun to do painful things to her long braids—and had grown into a sturdy, kind hearted man. Not an overly deep thinker, but an excellent lumberman.

When Dag saw her, he laid down his hammer and hurried over.

“Hey, Em!” he said, slightly breathless. He gestured to the shed proudly. “What do you think? We’ve made some progress, eh?”

Emily made herself smile.

“I painted your hex,” she said. With trembling hands, she drew the oak plaque from the satchel. Dag pushed his hat back with his thumb and smiled broadly—a smile of real pleasure. A good, kind, honest smile.

The smile almost made Emily lose her nerve. She couldn’t go through with it, she just couldn’t!

Then what happens next winter? a hard, determined part of her whispered. What happens next time Pap gets sick and there’s no money for medicine?

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Emily thrust the hex plaque at Dag. He took it in his big dirt-stained hands, bringing it up to admire it.

“That is fine!” he said. “Much nicer than one of those tin jobs from Baugh’s . . .” Then he paused, scrutinizing her work more closely, as if he’d found a flaw. A strange look came over his face-an abrupt, yawning discontent. He blinked in slight confusion. He looked at Emily, and there was something expectant in his eyes, as if he’d suddenly remembered that she had come to tell him a secret, or deliver a large sum of money.

“That’ll keep your lumber safe from wandering spirits, baneful curses, fire, and most varieties of . . . rot.” Emily choked over the last word, her throat suddenly dry. But Dag didn’t say anything, just looked at her with odd expectancy.

“You sure look pretty today,” he murmured. “Is that a new dress?”

“I put away my winter clothes.” Emily felt strangely shy. “I figured it was warm enough.”

“You look fine,” Dag said. “Really . . . fine. You . . . ah . . . stayin’ for the dance later?”

“I guess,” she said.

“You know . . . you know, ah . . .” Dag’s stammering made Emily wince. Usually, he was as direct as a hammer. “This is . . . ah . . . this is just the beginning. Once the track is completed, then Lost Pine will really be on the map.” He twisted the oak around in his hands. “What I mean to say is, I plan to make real things happen here. I’ll be doing more building . . . probably a new house. A big house, nothing but the best.”

“Oh?” Emily felt slightly dizzy, as if her entire torso had been inflated with cold air.

“A family house.” He blushed and looked away. “Anyhow, the thing is . . . I’ll need more hex paintings like this one here.” He looked at it. “Such a pretty job. You’re so—” he stopped. “Anyway, maybe tonight, we could go off walking and . . . and talk. Talk about . . .”

“Sure, Dag.” Emily gave him a bright smile. She punched down the feeling of sickness in her stomach and covered it with steely resolve. She wasn’t about to lead him on a coy chase. She’d made her bed, and now she’d . . . well, maybe that wasn’t the right metaphor.

Or maybe it was exactly the right one.

She took Dag’s hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze.

“I’ll look forward to it,” she said.

Dag’s eyes widened with elation. He took two dizzy steps backward, grabbed his hammer with a fumbling hand, and shimmied up the skeleton of a wall, all the way up to the roof eaves. He nailed the plaque to the topmost beam, then gave a loud whoop that echoed off the mountains high above.

Dag’s men shouted at him and laughed. Emily turned away quickly, blushing. She hurried off the granite-bouldered main road toward the timber-camp kitchen to help the women with the food. It seemed the thing to do.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of biscuit rolling, china washing, chicken frying, and child chasing. By the time the platters of steaming food had been carried down to the new shed and set out on a long trestle table and the lanterns had been lit and someone had pulled out an accordion to commence the dancing, Emily was exhausted and slightly numb.

Stars glittered down through the fresh hewn beams of the yet-unfinished roof. The night air held winter’s frosty memory, but the lively music and the large bonfire in the yard—not to mention the mugs of hard cider and the frequent nips of whiskey-kept everyone pleasantly warm.

Dag wasn’t about to let anyone else dance with Emily, so she was in his arms all the way from the waltz to the schottische and on past that to the cheat-and-swing. He kept pulling her closer. After a couple hours of his hands resting heavy on her back, his chest pressed against hers, his lips getting closer and closer to her face, Emily felt flushed and anxious. Pushing itching wisps of hair back behind her ears, she evaded Dag’s invitation to jig-and-reel and slipped out the back to in search of calmer air.

Outside, she paused under the hanging lantern, leaned against the fragrant new wood, and closed her eyes. Through the siding boards she could feel the pulse of noise and conversation, and it was like another heartbeat. A new heartbeat that would become her own, over time. She’d seen the robin on her windowsill, the omen of true love. She liked Dag Hansen an awful lot. She’d get used to his hands. She’d fall in love with him eventually, sure as spring followed winter. Pap would be provided for, time would pass, and this would become her life.

And it would be just fine.

She was still trying to convince herself of this when she heard the soft clanking of metal on metal coming from a ways off in the darkness. Reaching up, she unhooked the lantern and held it before her as she took a few steps forward.

“Who’s there?” But then, the lantern’s light illuminated the clatter, and an answer became unnecessary.

He was an angular gentleman, tall and extremely lank, hardly more than a wired-together aggregation of very large bones. He wore a dark suit of a cut too fine to have come from Lost Pine, or Dutch Flat, or even Sacramento for that matter. His name was Dreadnought Stanton.

Emily let out a sigh and prepared to be annoyed. For when it came to being annoying, Dreadnought Stanton never disappointed.

He was a Warlock, and the manner in which he typically declared this left the distinct impression that the word must be spelled in strictly capital letters. He was a Warlock, a member of a lofty brotherhood whose kind ran factories, advised ancient monarchs, and were appointed to cabinet posts in Washington, D.C.; doers of great deeds who turned the tides of war and vanquished monsters; superior men who shored up the underpinnings of reality and other extremely splendid and eye-popping things.

Dreadnought Stanton was a Warlock, and during his tenure in Lost Pine, he seemed never to tire of reminding people of that fact.

Emily was similarly fond of wondering (aloud) what such a fabulously powerful being was doing in a backwater like Lost Pine. The answer? Having studied at a prestigious institute in New York, he was on some kind of humanitarian mission to bring the light of modern magical method to the nation’s dimmest corners. And because Pap and Emily were the only ones in this particular dim corner with any interest in magic, he’d focused his attentions on them.

The first time Stanton had ridden up the ridge on his black horse, she’d thought he was a tax collector. Or a census taker, maybe. Someone from as far away from Lost Pine as it was possible to be, at any rate. She’d stared at him until he was close enough to stare back, examining her as one would a peculiar exhibit at the zoo. Only then did she remember that it was the middle of wash day, and she was wearing one of Pap’s shirts soaked to the sleeves, old pants tied at the waist with a rope, and boots crusted with mud.

It was right then that Emily decided she despised him.

Obligingly, Stanton had gone on to give her ample reason to continue doing so. That first visit, he ended up stealing hours of Pap’s valuable nap time with a derisive lecture on how the methods that the old man had used for more than four decades were ludicrously outmoded.

As if Pap needed teaching from a puffed-up pedant with a head too big for his black felt bowler. It made her blood boil. After that, Emily had been downright inhospitable, turning the Warlock away whenever he came riding up on one of his pair of expensive black horses. Then, winter snows had made the cabin nearly inaccessible, and though she and Pap had endured awful hardships, at least they’d been blissfully Warlock-free for almost five months. Now, however, with spring’s return, Mr. Stanton had shown every indication of resuming his assault on Pap’s outdatedness. He’d ridden up to the cabin once already while Emily was out, and had managed to corner Pap with a lecture on something called “new herbalism.” Pap had found it fascinating, and Emily had thought him rather a traitor for thinking so.

“Exactly what are you doing, Mr. Stanton?” Emily asked. The question hardly needed answering, for it was clear that Stanton was rummaging through the tools that the laborers had laid aside.

Stanton glanced up, and even though Emily wore her nicest clothes, he gave her the exact same look he had that first day, when her boots were muddy and her belt made of rope.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said. He returned to his rummaging. “I do hope I haven’t interrupted your hoeing-down.”

“These tools aren’t yours.” Stanton didn’t seem to notice how haughty and disapproving she was trying to sound. He straightened, a hammer in one hand and a crowbar in the other. He gave each a momentary appraisal, then threw back the hammer.

“I received an important shipment today.” He stepped over the tools and pushed past her. “From New York. And I have no means of opening the crate.”

For a moment, Emily considered whistling for Dag and his men and leaving Stanton to his fate. But she’d had enough of toying with men’s fates for one evening.

“Well, I don’t know how things are done in New York,” Emily said, “but in Lost Pine, it’s considered polite to ask before running off with someone else’s things.”

Stanton sighed, and even in the darkness she could see him rolling his eyes.

“Then will you be so kind as to direct me to the owner of this excellent and valuable crowbar, so that I might request the privilege of its usage?” His intonation was extravagant. “Formally, I mean.”

She showed him into the shed, and with a sharp motion, pointed a finger at Dag, who was towering among a group of friends, laughing in a huge voice.

Emily snuck a sideways glance at Stanton, hoping to revel in his discomfiture, but he was already halfway across the room, moving with long, purposeful strides. If only Dag would fly off in an uncharacteristic rage and send the pompous Warlock scurrying! But Dag was singularly unobliging. His men were clustered around him, clapping him on the back and yelling congratulations. Dag looked over at Emily, letting his eyes linger on her for a long time. Emily blushed furiously, heat rising up her throat. At the very least he could have gotten a yes before he started telling everyone!

In his transport of excitement and joviality, Dag didn’t even notice the Warlock standing behind him. Stanton’s throat-clearings went from quietly polite to aggressively cathartic, but were of no avail. He shifted idly from one foot to another until he was distracted by the sight of women bringing in fresh platters of food. His nostrils twitched as he eyed the piles of fried chicken, the heaps of steaming biscuits, the mounded beef cutlets cloaked in cream gravy. Without another look at Dag, he tucked the crowbar under his arm and followed a steaming apple crisp over to the table. Emily watched with indignation as he took a plate and began to pile it high.

She was about to set the Warlock straight when someone raised a cry: “Besim!”

The call was taken up by dozens of voices: “Besim, Besim!” until finally a scrawny old man with scraggling black hair and skin the color of rawhide allowed himself to be pushed to the center of the dirt floor.

“It’s Besim!”

“Hey, Besim!”

“Do us a Cassandra!”

The request echoed, rippling in dozens of different voices: “A Cassandra, a Cassandra!”

Smiling toothlessly, Besim motioned to a young man standing nearby, who had obtained a pint bottle of whiskey and was holding it with eager anticipation. The young man leaped forward, proffering the bottle to Besim.

Besim drained it in one protracted guzzle.

The room exploded in congratulatory cheers. Coins rained down on Besim, thrown by the men in the crowd. Besim scrambled for these, thrusting them deep into his pockets.

“Regrettably, your lumberman is in no mood to discuss crowbars.” The voice came at Emily’s elbow. It was that insufferable Stanton, crowbar still under his arm and a brimming plate of food in his hand. He used a chicken leg to gesture at Besim. “So who’s this?”

“That’s Besim,” Emily said. She eyed the chicken leg meaningfully. “He’s one of those varmints who shows up whenever there’s free food and liquor to be had.”

Stanton chewed thoughtfully as he watched Besim begin to spin. The old man gained speed as he rotated; bystanders pushed him back to the center whenever he threatened to topple over.

“What the devil is he doing?”

“He’s doing a Cassandra,” Emily muttered. She hated Besim’s Cassandras. The old man had once been a charm maker in Dutch Flat, and in his better days he’d been Pap’s biggest rival for custom. But the rivalry had faded as Besim slid into drunkenness and its concomitant poverty. These days, the only money he got was from his impromptu liquor-lubricated prognostications. These were doubly embarrassing to one of her profession in that while they tended toward the ridiculous, they proved right about half of the time—which was about the same success Pap had with his scrying.

“Fascinating,” Stanton said. “He’s a dervish.”

“What are you talking about?” Emily asked. “Pap always said Besim did Indian magic.”

“Rubbish. That man’s no more an Indian than I am. He’s a Turk. He was a Sufi holy man once, or he studied with one.” Stanton pointed to Besim’s hands. “See how his right palm is turned upward and his left is turned down? Power comes down from Heaven into the right hand and returns down to the earth from the left. All that energy rushing through the dervish’s body supposedly endows him with supernaturally clear insight into the true nature of all existence—past, present and future.” He took another bite of the chicken leg. “I must say, though, the addition of a quart of whiskey tends to undercut the rite’s spiritual element.”

At that moment, Besim fell with a great crash in the middle of the floor, and lay moaning and writhing, holding his gut. Words began slurring out of his mouth.

“Emily . . . Emily Lyakhov.” Emily froze. Besim wasn’t going to Cassandra about her, was he? She didn’t recognize the name Lyakhov, but she didn’t have time to think about it before Besim spoke again. “Emily, you have been doing bad magic.”

A few people turned to look at Emily curiously. She wished she could sink through the floor, except there wasn’t any floor, just dirt. Shut up, Besim, she whispered to herself, clenching her hands tight.

“You have bewitched someone for your own good. Someone who has not asked for it.” Besim spoke with the slurry slyness of a very drunk man, waggling a finger. “You have woven a fine little net, Emily. But it will not catch you what you want . . . ”

Dag stepped forward, his hands balled into fists.

“You quit talking about . . . You just shut up, Besim!” There was odd, hesitant anger in his voice-anger that didn’t know where it came from. “Miss Emily wouldn’t do anything like that, and you know it! That’s not the kind of Cassandra-in’ we want.”

“You get the Cassandra you get, you cow-eyed fool!” Besim flared back. But drunk as he was, he knew which side his bread was buttered on. He fell silent for a moment, staring into space, apparently searching for a more satisfactory message from the ether. When the next message came, however, it was worse than the first.

“The Corpse Switch!” Besim shrieked, his face contorting with sudden horror. “The Corpse Switch up at Old China has failed! The dead . . . the dead will rise from beneath the earth!”

There was a storm of muttering. Emily stared at him, confused and appalled. Besim’s Cassandras were usually lighthearted revelations about which young scapegrace had stolen a pie from which matron’s windowsill. They were never this dire. Corpse Switches controlled the zombie miners that the mine owners bought to work their most dangerous mines-the ones that live men wouldn’t work in for any money. The zombie workers had been paupers, criminals, and other dangerous and unsavory types. Certainly not the sorts one wanted roaming the mountains without the control of a properly sorcelled Corpse Switch.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Besim was crawling across the floor toward Emily. He stopped, kneeling in front of her, clutching the hem of her dress and pressing it to his tear-slicked face.

“The dead have been driven mad, büyüleyici kadin. Driven mad by a blue star.” He looked up at her, eyes glowing like embers. “You must stop them. It is not right … that the dead … should walk the earth …”

Each successive word dropped from Besim’s lips more slowly, and after the last one he slumped at her feet, still and silent. Emily snatched her skirt and stepped back, aware of dozens of silent eyes appraising her. She flushed from throat to scalp.

“What a pile of nonsense,” Stanton said loudly. “A Corpse Switch can’t fail. They’re made with multiple redundancies at a licensed necromantic factory in Chicago. Which I’ve toured, by the way. They have an unblemished performance record.”

Even this pronouncement did not completely satisfy the unsettled crowd. Dozens of worried eyes turned toward Dag, waiting for his verdict on the matter.

“You think there’s anything in it, Dag?” someone shouted from the back of the room.

“Aw, hell no!” Dag nudged Besim with the toe of his boot. The dervish released a loud, muttering snore. “Besim’s thrown bunk Cassandras before, but that was the bunkest! A blue star in a mine? Not in a blue moon!”

There was uneasy laughter at this weak attempt at humor; Dag clapped the accordion player on the back.

“Let’s have a real cheerful one!” As the music resumed, Dag called over it: “You all heard Mr. Stanton. Corpse Switches don’t fail! So let’s get back to dancing. And for God’s sake, someone drag Besim someplace he can sleep it off!”

A couple of men stepped forward to oblige, and Dag came to Emily’s side, taking her arm and drawing her close. He’d had more than a few cups of apple brandy; she could smell it on his breath as he put his face close to hers.

“I don’t know what got into that old faker tonight,” he said. He wrapped his arms around her waist and gave her a squeeze. “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go have that walk we were talking about.”

“Listen, Dag . . .” Emily pushed back against his embrace. “What if he’s right? What if the Corpse Switch has failed?”

Dag grinned. “C’mon, Emily. Besim’s just never got used to the idea of zombies. He’s been jumpy as a cat since Old China brought ’em in. His imagination just ran away, that’s all.”

“But shouldn’t we go up and check?”

Dag blinked in astonishment.

“Go to Old China now? Five miles straight up? On Besim’s say-so? You must be kidding!”

“No, I’m not.” She tried to speak quietly, but the cheery tune had gotten everyone laughing and talking even louder than before. “If there’s any chance what he’s saying is true—”

“There isn’t.” Dag smiled indulgently. “I mean, he said you’d been doing bad magic, too. There wasn’t no truth in that, was there?”

“That’s not the same,” Emily whispered fiercely, pushing herself from his arms. Dag looked confused. He lifted his big hand in a gesture of dismissal.

“It’s all the same, all hooey.” Dag suddenly looked extremely tired, as if all the drink and dancing had caught up with him at once. “I wish some of these people would clear out so we could go for that walk.”

She chewed on her lip, nervousness making her stomach flutter. Finally, she took a deep breath and smiled.

“You’re right, Dag,” she said. “Listen, I’m going to go help wash up. I’ll come find you later, all right? And we’ll have a walk.”

“Yeah,” Dag said. And then, right there in the middle of everyone, he gave Emily a kiss on the cheek. She shivered, feeling eyes on them all around. She knew this should please her. If they weren’t engaged before, they were as good as now.

But she didn’t feel victorious. She felt nothing but dread, dark and sickening.

Retrieving Pap’s leather pouch from where she had stowed it, she slung it over her shoulder, clinging to the strap like a lifeline.

The fluttering nervousness in her stomach had congealed into sour apprehension. Besim hadn’t thrown a bunk Cassandra. She had been doing bad magic—or at least, he’d think it was bad magic. And if he was right about that . . .

She considered her options. She could tell Dag the truth, that she had bewitched someone, and that by “someone” she meant him. That’d be the end of her professional credibility. She and Pap could be horsewhipped out of Lost Pine, or Dag could bring law against her. Baugh’s Patent Magicks were bad for business, but a turn in the county jail would be an awful lot worse.

Or she could go up to Old China and sort the mess out for herself.

She walked away quickly, the cheerful notes of “Sweet, Sweet Spring” chasing her into the darkness.

5 Responses to THE NATIVE STAR: Chapter One

  1. […] can read the Prologue and Chapter 1 online now! Check back on Friday for an exclusive audio chapter read by M.K. Hobson!   […]

  2. […] the Prologue and Chapter 1 online and listen to Chapter 2 now. Enjoy!    Kingspeaker [39:53m]: Play Now | Play in […]

  3. […] You can read the full chapter, along with the prologue and an audio sample of chapter 2 HERE. […]

  4. […] should have started it by the time this post goes up (since I’m writing it the day before).  Chapter One can be read on the author’s website.  A sequel, The Hidden Goddess, will be released in May […]