I’m a week late. My allergies acted up and I decided to spend the time resting, rather than pushing myself to write something that probably wouldn’t have been very good and would have to be rewritten.
Some ret-conning happened. (Again, alpha draft.) Weird stuff no longer happens on a full moon but four times a year during a solistice or equinox. Mainly I needed this adjustment for time, to get people where the needed to be.
The greenhouse had seen better days. In truth, all of the Marechal estate had seen better days, years and decades. A patch work of glass paneling, some old world and some newer comprised the structure. Well, that was generous because wood boards replaced broken glass and the greenhouse had slightly more patches than actual glass.
Still, it was warm enough and allowed enough sunlight to grow food stuff all year long. Solenne commandeered a few raised beds for herbs, because while she preferred to forage, demand for essential ingredients outstripped local resources.
Normally work soothed her. The manual tasks allowed her mind to pick through problems, but today her thoughts spiralled.
Everything was odd and nothing fit properly.
Solenne wished she had more eloquent words to explain the sense of restless unease in her gut. Miles stayed for a few days for observation and Luis would not leave his bedside. Godwin announced he would devise a trap to capture the beast once and for all. She only saw her father at mealtimes and never for long, which frustrated her to no end. Mr. Parkell had broken his leg badly fleeing the house and now had a fever. Charlotte would not leave his bedside, despite the appalling way he had treated her at the dance.
Three months had elapsed since the attack that took her father’s eye, and she summoned Alek. They had three months to plan, and they had been woefully unprepared. They had another three months to devise a new plan, but she feared Godwin would try for more of the same.
They had been lucky to escape with as few injuries as they did. The beast had already been in their home.
Had licked her.
Next time they might not escape so lightly.
As for Alek, he scarpered off to Founding the next morning, answering none of the questions he promised to address. He left a week ago on Colonel Chambers’s errand and had yet to send word. Solenne’s worry increased with each passing day and no one seemed remotely curious about his unusual hair growth during the solstice, his claws, fangs, or that he kissed her.
Her spade dug into the raised planting bed, turning over the soil with more force than strictly necessary.
In the days since the solstice, she kept herself occupied. Godwin completely ignored the serious repairs the house required in favor of tinkering with his trap. Luis was no better, obsessed with devising a stronger weapon to use against the beast.
More of the same.
So that left her to be the responsible adult and to take care of what needed seeing to. The glazier from the village repairs the window in exchange for three jars of honey from their beehives.
Solenne didn’t know whether to be humiliated at having to barter for basic repairs or insulted at the exorbitant fee. Beggars could not be choosers, but she did not appreciate being reminded so cooly of that fact.
The spade plunged in the dirt, hacking away at a particularly tenacious root. Besides the entire household acting out of character, no one would discuss the events of the solstice, like they all took a vow of silence. Travers walked away the last time she broached the subject. So Solenne was in the greenhouse, working her frustration out by prepping a bed for wolfsbane seedlings because her stocks were low, because the man she loved was a werewolf.
No, she detested that superstitious term from the old world. She had used terms such as beast and creature her entire life and never thought twice. Now they felt dehumanizing. In the two centuries since humans arrived on Nexus, they should have developed a better vocabulary for the mutations that some of the population suffered.
She thought of Tristan—filled with sawdust, dressed in faded finery, and left in a corner in the library—and went cold imagining the same fate befalling Alek. Whatever happened to Tristan, he remained a person and deserved respect. Beast and creature were worse terms for his particular condition than werewolf.
Fine. Werewolf. The man she loved for as long as she could remember was a werewolf and no one would talk about it.
She gently tapped the spade’s edge against the wood frame, knocking away dirt. Then she gritted her teeth and gave a choked scream, bashing the spade with all her might. She did not kneel like a lady, but squatted. The old frame groaned, wobbling because the rusty nails holding it together were nothing but powder and that was no one more blasted thing she could not fix. Then, as if by spite, the wood handle on the spade separated from the blade. The blade sailed across the greenhouse. Stunned, she fell backwards onto her bottom.
Annoyed at her defeat by gravity and old tools, she gave a kick to the wood frame.
“I think you killed it,” Luis said.
“Be quiet. You’re ruining a perfectly good sulk.” She tossed the useless wooden handle away.
“What are we sulking about?” Luis set down his satchel, fetched the pieces of the broken tool, then joined her on the ground. He leaned back on his elbow and tilted his face towards the glass ceiling. A season’s worth of dust clouded the surface, despite the steady rain. “This place really is falling apart, isn’t it? Tell me about this bee in your bonnet.”
Solenne eyed the satchel, heavy with books. She had never known Luis to be a great reader. “Money. Father. You.”
“Alek,” he said in a teasing tone.
“Be quiet.” She wasn’t in the mood for teasing.
“You’re in a foul mood because your intended is a cursed beast.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Because it’s a meanspirited word. I know it’s true. I’m not blind or oblivious.” Once she had Alek snarling in her prescience, at least. There had been signs, not even subtle ones at that.
Luis picked at the pile of discarded weeds, shredding the greenery and scattering dirt over his trousers. “I know you’re not oblivious and I don’t know what other word to use except that one you always say is loaded with superstitious nonsense.”
“Werewolf,” she supplied.
He pointed a finger in her direction and tipped his head in acknowledgement. “I wanted to talk with you about our, um, growly little problem.”
“You saw the, um, blast. Why don’t we have a better word for this? I dislike saying beast–”
“Because of Alek. Because he kissed you.”
Solenne narrowed her eyes. How tiresome. “Yes, because Alek has been in our home for weeks and he’s not a mindless beast, despite what we’ve been taught. If we’re wrong about Alek–”
“What else are we wrong about,” Luis said, finishing her thought.
“An out-of-control creature attacked us. Whatever is going on with Alek, we can not ignore the larger issue.”
Solenne remembered how the creature sniffed her, the feel of it’s hot, disgusting tongue on her skin, and wondered how out-of-control it had truly been. It could have easily gutted her with one swipe of its claws but, instead, seemed to consider its options, for lack of a better description.
“The creature that attacked was old enough to develop immunity to silver,” she said.
“Yes, exactly.” Luis pulled a sheet of folded paper from the front pocket of the bag. “Father wants to devise a trap but once the, um, target is contained, what are you going to do? Poke it with our little knives? Annoy it to death? I have a better idea.” He unfolded the paper and Solenne immediately recognized the handwriting.
“Where did you get this? How dare you destroy her notebook?” She snatched the page of her mother’s faded scrawl.
Tidy lines filled the page, listing known facts. A small illustration sat in the center, distorted by fold lines. Finally, neatly numbered unanswered questions waited at the bottom of the page.
Mindful of the dirty fingerprints she left, she refrained from tracing the lines of the ancient sword. Knowing her mother, the illustration was meant to be based on eyewitness accounts but was most likely a product of Amalie’s imagination. As rigorous as her mother pursued her research, she had a nasty habit of using a handful of facts to paint an entire picture.
“I found it in Father’s study, caught under a desk drawer,” Luis said. “It’s her handwriting, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Solenne agreed.
“We need to find Blackthorn.”
She folded the paper carefully and reluctantly handed it back to her brother. “That’s a legend.”
“The sword is real. Mother thought it was real.”
“A magic sword that can turn vampires and werewolves into a pile of dust? No.”
“Mother believed it was real.” Luis pulled out a worn book from the satchel and flipped open the pages. Carefully, he tucked in the loose page.
Solenne recognized the book immediately, despite believing it destroyed. “Where did you find that? Not tucked behind a bookcase.”
Carefully, she took her mother’s journal from Luis’s hands and flipped through the pages. The ink seemed fresh on the page, as if Amalie had recently set the words on the page. Inky fingerprints and smeared lead pencil smudged the pages. The scent of lavender and ink still clung to the binding.
“Miles had it. He didn’t steal it,” Luis added quickly. “Mama said he could read her old journals and you know. When he thought to return them, Papa had burned her journals, so he kept them safe.”
“Thank him for me. This is a treasure,” she said, holding her mother’s journal like the piece of wonder it was.
“A phrase Mama uses repeatedly is not magic–”
“But a mutation,” Solenne finished. She could almost hear Amalie’s voice.
“Yes. It got me thinking about mutations.” Luis withdrew a stack of books from the satchel.
“When did you become a scholar,” she teased.
His back stiffened. “I read. We just do not share the same interests.”
“My apologies. It was rude of me to interrupt. Please continue.”
“Not if you intend to tease me,” he said. She made a zipper motion over her mouth, which seemed to appease him. “Well, as I said, I thought about the Nexus mutation. There are three varieties: werewolf, vampire, and witch.” He paused. “Please don’t yell at me for using those words.”
“We really need a better lexicon, but one problem at a time.”
“Right. Three mutations.” He held up a hand and ticked off fingers. “A shift in form. A shift in metabolism. A shift in matter. But we only concern ourselves with two of those.”
“Because those suffering that mutation are—can be dangerous,” she quickly corrected herself. “Alek aside, we know that the, um, newly transformed, often slaughter their own families, sadly.” Many a hunt started in the remains of a home, torn asunder by blood and violence.
“But a witch with the ability to transform matter?” He opened a leather-bound book to a strip of ribbon marking a page.
Looking over his shoulder, Solenne recognized the passage. A written account of an early colonist who transformed water into ice. “That’s a useful trick for the summer, but really. Lead into gold? Water into wine?”
“Liquid into a solid? You don’t see how that could be useful?”
Solenne shook her head. The witch mutation was rare. So rare that she had never seen or even heard of a witch. None seemed to exist in recent memory. “If they were even real, which I doubt.”
Luis shook his head. “The mutations are all about channeling energy from the Nexus, yes? That’s what Mama wrote. The crea—those like Alek have to shift to spend the energy. I’ve never encountered a blood drinker, but plenty of scholars agree that their metabolism consumes itself, giving them an unending hunger and a craving for, um, blood. Their bodies burn themselves up to spend the energy. And witches? They manipulate the energy to transform matter. Organic. Inorganic. That’s useful, Solenne. Don’t you see? Too useful to slaughter.” He handed her book after book, each filled with ribbons to mark significant passages. The bindings positively bulged from his notes. “We’re the witches,” he said.
Solenne sat in disbelief. “Luis, no.”
“Yes! Don’t just dismiss this out of hand. People with the witch mutation were—are—useful. They were recruited to be hunters. Look.” He opened another book, the title worn away on the cloth binding. The book fell open to a familiar page.
The Blackthorn blade.
“Luis, that’s a fairy tale. A story.”
“If the early hunters were witches, they could manipulate matter. Why not channel Nexus energy into weapons? Blackthorn glowed under the moon,” his voice changed as he read from the page. “Crafted by the most skilled weapon smith, and empowered by the hunter, the blade could turn the most vile creature into ash during a Nexus event.” He shut the book. “Empowered, Solenne, by witches. And if it was a focus for Nexus energy, then it makes sense that it was at its most powerful during the solstice or equinox.”
“Luis, you’re talking about a magic sword.”
“It’s not magic, it’s science!” His words echoed in the greenhouse. Clearing his throat, he adjusted his cravat. “This is science. The original settlers may not have had the best vocabulary to describe what they saw, but the other generations did, and they agree. Blackthorn was real. Our family made amazing weapons, the kind we just don’t have anymore.”
Even if the Blackthorn Blade were real, which she highly doubted, Solenne did not understand why it mattered. “Exactly. We don’t have any functional weapons from the original settlers. We’ve got a heap of broken tech that doesn’t work. We need to focus on what we have and what we can do.”
“Mother believed it was real. I’ve read her notes–”
“And it got her killed,” Solenne snapped. Luis may have been too young to remember that day, but she remembered every moment with startling clarity. Amalie attempted to charge the battery of an old pistol with Nexus energy. The battery exploded with a force hard enough to shake the stone house. They found her in her basement workshop, shrapnel buried deep in her heart.
The scent of burnt hair lingers for weeks. The thought of the putrid odor was enough to make her stomach turn.
The color drained from Luis’s face. “Yes, well. It’s not magic, it is science, therefore it is reproducible. I’m certainly not a witch, and I don’t suspect you are, either. Recessive genes, you know. Our best course of action is to find Blackthorn.”
Solenne did her best to keep a neutral express but her foul mood won out. Blackthorn may have been a real sword, perhaps a fine one, but its extraordinary qualities seemed to have grown into the thing of legend of the years. “No. Absolutely not. We do not have the time or the luxury to go on a quest for magic—scientific—sword that’s been lost for generations. We wouldn’t know where to start.”
“We do.” Luis pulled out another book, green leather with gold gilding. Solenne recognized their book of fairy stories. He opened the book to a page featuring a wood carving of a very noble-looking man holding a sword aloft. Blackthorn glowed, if the black lines radiating from the sword were any indication. “Great-grandpapa Charles lost Blackthorn in a battle with Draven in the city in the mountains beyond the West Lands.”
“A century ago.” Their great grandfather had been a notorious gambler and drinker. His many vices heralded the start of the Marechal family’s decline, but no one seemed to remember the way his debt emptied the coffers and brought the estate to the brink of ruin. Everyone fixated on the loss of one probably very fine quality but definitely not magical sword.
“No one ventures far into the West Lands anymore, and no one’s reported defeating Draven. So, when you consider the long life span of a vampire, then Draven could still have the sword,” he said in an excited rush. “Don’t you see?”
Solenne snatched the book. She saw a great many things, none of which were flattering for her younger brother. His large frame and stature often tricked her into believing him to be older than eighteen until he started spouting childish nonsense.
Magic swords, indeed.
“Grandpapa Charles was a drunk and a gambler. He lost Blackthorn. Indeed, he lost a great many of our family’s treasures, at the card table,” she said in an even tone that masked her fury. “There is no vampire with a magic sword. To waste our time chasing a bedtime story when we should think about our actual problems would be the height of foolishness.”
“It’s not a bedtime story. It’s real,” he said, voice firm and his chin lifted in stubbornness.
“You should research how to contain an older werewolf and helping Papa devise a trap.” And she needed to plant more wolfsbane because demand exceeded her current supply.
Luis lurched to his feet, grabbing the satchel roughly and causing loose papers and pencils to tumble out. “Pretend all you like that I’m being childish, but we have witch blood in us. You know we do.” Solenne opened her mouth to argue, but he continued. “No. No, I will say my piece. The air hums with Nexus energy. I hear it every day. During an event, I can feel it moving like a river rushing around me. That’s how Papa and I track the creatures. You might not understand because you don’t have the same talent as we do, but it’s a witch mutation. If I can feel the Nexus, then great-great-so-on papa could have infused that energy into a weapon. And you know that our family is resistant to being cursed when we’re bitten.”
“Bite your tongue. I do not want to put that to the test,” she muttered.
“We’re not affected because we already have the witch mutation. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. When all this is over, I will find Blackthorn, and that’s all I have to say about that.” He took a deep breath, then nodded.
“Well, you sound decided to waste your time and energy on a fool’s errand.”
“Do not mock me. I’m serious.” He gathered up his book and stuffed them back into the satchel. “Miles thinks it is a good idea.”
“Then take Miles with you. No doubt he’d be ever so helpful fighting monsters.” Despite her irritation, she had to admit that the blacksmith would be extraordinarily helpful.
“As opposed to what you do? Swing platters?” Luis mocked.
Brimming with frustration, she felt her entire body vibrate with the need to shout or say something spiteful, but she was a well-bred lady and such behavior was unbecoming.
Like it mattered. The only man she wanted suffered an irreversible condition that caused him to grow fur and fangs, and no one would discuss it. Worse still, he was impoverished. Her father would never allow such an unsuitable match and Solenne was of the mind to tell her father to get stuffed because if someone in the family should marry for money, then he could blast well do the deed.
Unable to indulge her need to vent, she chucked a handful of dirt and weeds at him, like a well-bred lady.
Luis stood in shock, his mouth gaping open, so she threw a second handful at him. “Solenne!”
A clump hit him squarely in the face. He sputtered, swiping away dirt from his tongue. His ears went red and Solenne had never seen her brother that angry since he was very young.
Dred washed over her. She went too far. Luis was an even-tempered fellow and hardly spiteful, but he was taller than her and he wanted her to eat a mouthful of dirt in retribution. There was nothing she could do to avoid it.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a rush. “I’m so frustrated and nothing works and everything is hard–”
He hurled a clump of dirt at her. On impact, it scattered into tiny pieces, each one finding its way down the front of her tunic. She spat out pieces of dirt.
“I accept your apology,” Luis said in a magnanimous tone.
Solenne glanced towards a bucket used for watering. It was probably empty, but if the bucket held even an ounce of water–
“Do not,” Luis warned.
“I know what you’re thinking.”
“Are your witchy senses tingling? Can you feel it in the ether?” She wiggled her fingers. While Luis was busy rolling his eyes, she dashed for the watering bucket.
Luis tackled her from behind. Her outstretched hand knocked over the bucket, spilling hardly a drop of water.
On her stomach, Luis sat on her back pinning to the ground. He shoved a hand full of mulch in her face.
It. Was. Disgusting.
Laughing despite herself and sputtering out the debris, she rolled to her back. Grinning like a fool, he grabbed both her wrists. Well, at least he could shove more mulch in her mouth. She raised one hand, reached across with the other, and kicked with all her strength.
“Ow!” Luis lurched away, holding his stomach. “Are you wearing lead-lined boots?”
“A lady never tells.”
“You should have kicked the werewolf.”
Both siblings looked at each other, spattered with dirt and bits of greenery in their hair, and burst into laughter.
“Swing the platter was clever, but my heart nearly stopped. I thought he was going to eat you,” Luis said, brushing away dirt from his shoulders.
“I thought the same,” she confessed.
“Truce?” Luis held out a hand.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
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