But, before the perfect path came the bright-blooded one I’d walked up to this point. I found that trail again, and began to walk away from Reggie and Deacon. “Come with me,” I said, without looking back. “We’re going back into town. I’ll tell you the story on the way.”
They stood there, motionless for a long moment.
Then, Deacon raised a trembling hand like he was a kid in school asking to take a pee.
“Fine, I fumed dramatically. I waved a hand as if dismissing another curse. I’d planned on letting them talk again a while later, further down the road — to disrupt their ability to figure out what I’d do next, since I’d just told them to be silent until after the story. “But fine — fine. You may both speak — …”
Reggie opened his mouth.
” … — respectfully,” I added. I sighed, again dramatically. I tried to keep my tone just slightly theatrical. “I suppose it’s impossible for mortals to even manage walking unless their mouths are running.”
“Why are we going back into town?” I heard Deacon ask.
Reggie made a vague hissing sound I assumed was meant for Deacon.
I looked away from them and resumed walking. But I could hear both of them start to follow behind me.
I headed up the opposite incline from where we’d been standing. “Because your presence here has disrupted the ritual. Your auras. You’ve ruined everything, and I’m going to have to try to make the best of it. But you’re involved now.”
“What’s ‘auras?'” Deacon asked, huffing as he climbed up over the edge of the depression.
Another hiss from Reggie, behind him. I could hear him coming up and out of the depression, too.
“Auras are like energy around your body. Witches can see auras,” I said.
“What’s my auras look like?” Deacon asked. He was right behind me now.
I heard a sound that might have been Reggie punching Deacon.
“Ow!” Deacon’s whimper was a pathetic little whisper he tried to bury under his heavy breathing.
“Yours is green,” I said. I lied. I picked it because of the pale green light that emanated from the Prince of Death. The glow of their blood was not an aura, though. I couldn’t see auras. But I could see the glow of blood, and all blood just glowed gold to me now, whether inside a body or out. Inspiration came to me again. “It means you’re a healer. In time, you’ll learn to use that green aura as a shield against the powers of death.”
“Ooh,” Deacon said.
“And your friend, Reggie — his is red.” The color of the Princess of War. “It means he’s a soldier. A warrior.” Likewise entirely made-up, though. Based on the Princess of War.
“Heh.” Reggie sounded pleased.
“But what matters is — you’ve damaged the ritual. Irrevocably. You’ll need to be part of it now. You’re involved.”
“But we didn’t do anything,” Reggie protested. “We were just hanging out.”
“Don’t mistake my charity for permitting insolence, Reggie Peak,” I snapped back. I heard Deacon make a little gasping sound. “Neither of you understand a damned thing about the balance of nature. That’s clear to me now. You both have a lot to learn.”
“Prove it,” Reggie said.
I stopped walking and turned around. “What?”
Deacon was already scrambling to take a few steps sideways, away from Reggie. I decided to gamble on him; I thought that his fear might have already led to some degree of loyalty to me, where I could tell that Reggie was still chafing under my efforts to manipulate them.
Reggie, hands on his hips, stared defiantly at me. ‘I said ‘prove it.'”
“You want me to curse you again?” I asked. “You’re not eager to live or learn. This is why witches can’t teach mortals anything.”
A tremor of fear cut through Reggie, but he did what he could to hide it. “Yeah. Prove it.”
I took two steps back toward Reggie. “That I’m a witch?” I asked him, lowering my voice, as if I’m suddenly concerned that — even here — that someone might overhear us.
He stood his ground.
“That your world is burning, even now?” I decided to mix some of the truth in with the lie. “That, beneath all this, you’re pissing yourself scared right now?”
Reggie remained steadfast.
“I can see every beat of your heart, Reggie Peak.”
Reggie’s heartbeat quickened, but his posture remained the same.
“I can see what you’ve lost,” I tried. Then, an experimental variation: “Who you’ve lost.” I had no idea what this might be. It was a bluff.
Reggie’s posture remained unchanged, but he began to blink more rapidly. I realized I had something.
“Who you’ve lost,” I say again. “Never admitting you were at fault for that loss. By what you’ve done. Spirits saw what you did. You’ve angered them by — …” I lost the thought.
Reggie bit his lip. And then his eyes looked suddenly haunted.
I couldn’t hide a tight smile. I knew that his reaction meant I’d found where I need to go with my words. “… — defiling this world.” It was vague enough to allow Reggie to think whatever he wanted.
Reggie’s expression darkened, then. A ferocious anger.
“Ms. Leek, please-!” I was interrupted by that blubbering, unfinished thought Deacon said out-loud. I even gave him time to finish it, but he didn’t say anything.
And that’s when I realized what I needed to do. When everything was solved.
I struck Reggie then, a hard slap across the face with my right hand, hard enough to make his legs buckle a little. ‘My right, good hand beats for Bellbrun,’ I thought to myself.
Reggie began crying.
I could see out of the corner of my eye that Deacon looked like he was about to make a break for it. So much for my presumption of unearned loyalty. “I wouldn’t, Deacon. I have friends in the woods. You might meet them before you could get back home. Or, they might just follow you. They are hungry enough that a family would be preferable to one fat little boy.”
Deacon Ripp went still, tears welling in his eyes.
I focused on Reggie again. “I struck you because Deacon spoke out of turn, Reggie. And, if you speak out of turn, I will strike him. Or call my friends.” Inspiration came back to me. “You are joined by destiny tonight,” I said. “It’s happened countless times, in the old stories of my people. This makes you responsible for each other — when one of you does wrong, then pain will surely befall the other.”
There was a long, silent moment after that. In that moment, I contemplated the power that the horses had given me, and how I might use it on Reggie Peak. But I decided to go in a different direction. “It doesn’t have to be violent, though. It can be … pleasurable. It is up to you, but we must establish this tonight. There isn’t time for your … chicanery.”
Another long silence followed.
Neither boy moved or spoke.
I tried to stand as tall as I could. “Good. Then, we’ll begin.” I began to walk away from them again, motioning for them to follow.
That time, they began walking behind me almost immediately.
My plan had worked; it had just taken two tries to get around their natural defenses. “All right,” I said. “Let’s really begin, this time. First — don’t call me Ms. Leek.”
“Okay,” I heard Reggie say.
“If I’m going to actually try and help you both — instead of harming you — you need to both know me better than that.”
“What should we call you?” I heard Deacon ask.
My first name is Hilda. Do you know what the name Hilda means?”
“Is it ‘hills?'” Deacon asked, weakly.
“It’s a German word,” I tell them. I begin leading them down the glowing golden path back toward town that I know only I can see — the path of blood. “It’s a common name in my family.” The path we were on wasn’t the most direct route, but I felt compelled to follow it out of the woods as I brought these two children along. “It comes from Hild. She was one of the Valkyrie.”
“The what?” Reggie sounded baffled.
“They’re like opera ladies,” Deacon murmured toward Reggie, probably thinking he was being quiet enough that I couldn’t hear.
“You’ve got the right idea, Deacon,” I called back toward him. “But we’re not just opera ladies. You see, the Valkyrie are very, very real. What you see in the operas — that’s just a mortal understanding of who we are … and what we do.”
“And what do you supposedly do?” Reggie asked.
“We walk between the worlds of the living and the dead. That’s what I was doing in the woods tonight. I’m a Valkyrie.”
“Like with flying horses and lightning and spears.” It was Deacon’s turn to sound incredulous.
I feigned laughter. “Nothing like that. Don’t be silly. The Valkyrie are a sect of witches. Mortals came up with the lightning and flying horses. Our magic — real magic — is harder to see than that.” I stopped and turned to look at the two boys, for effect. “When you came into the woods tonight, you walked into our ritual. I told you that much. But what I didn’t tell you … is that you put one foot each into the realm of the dead.”
They both looked more frightened than I’d seen them that night.
I turned back around and resumed walking. “Valkyrie have protected people with Germanic blood for centuries.” I was making it up as I went, but I was pleased with my creativity. “Drodden was settled by Germans. You know that much, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Deacon answered.
“Well, we Leeks came along right with the first settlement. To protect the children of Drodden.” It wasn’t true, any of it. My family had moved to Drodden in August of 1967, when the commute back and forth for TK Wanderlad had gotten to be a problem for MOTHER and FATHER. But it helped the story. “Of course, records don’t show that,” I added as an afterthought. “We’ve kept it mostly a secret up to this generation. But — now you know the secret.”
“If it’s such a big secret, why would you tell us?” Reggie asked.
“I told you — you’re involved. Keeping it a secret from you two now would likely end with you two dead.” I stopped walking, as if I was trying to figure out where to go next. I could see the path, but I wanted them to have a moment to absorb what I’d just told them. “You’ve disrupted the harmony of these woods with your actions,” I said, still not looking at them.
They’d both come to a stop behind me, I could tell. Their breathing was anxious, both of theirs. There were whispers; they’d gotten careful enough that — even with my heightened perceptions — I hadn’t been able to hear every word they’d exchanged.
I longed to turn and look at them, to see the glowing blood coursing through them. I could almost taste their anxiety. But I began walking again, instead, without looking back. “Which is why I can’t show you the depths of my powers beyond what little I can muster. Not now. It will be a while before I’ll be strong enough again to make things happen that would convince you. But that’ll come, if you live that long.” I resumed walking. “And trust me, you want to come along.”
“What was your ritual all about?” Reggie asked.
I’d prepared an answer for this. “Keeping the shadows of the dead away from your bedrooms,” I told them, walking faster. I wanted them more out-of-breath than they were as they kept up with me. They needed to be worried.
“What?” Deacon had asked, scratchy-voiced I’d known right then that I had him — at least to some degree.
“There are times when the world of the living and the world of the dead … sort of crash into each other. A lot of people think that’s Halloween. But it’s not. That’s just mortal-talk. It’s actually … July. It happens now. In the summer. On the 4th of July, in fact.”
“All the fireworks,” I heard Deacon whisper loudly to Reggie.
“Shut the fuck up,” Reggie snapped.
“Ow!” Deacon whimpered; I could tell Reggie had punched or elbowed him or something.
I ignored their brief exchange and continued: “When you came here, into the woods tonight, you stepped a little bit into the lands of the dead. Because — in order to contain and combat them — we Leeks designate one of our own to perform a ritual that’s meant to protect the children of Drodden for another 365 days. But you interrupted it.”
“Shit,” Deacon said.
I stopped again and turned to face them both once more. “Which is why there will be … consequences. But you’ll both be fine if you do what I tell you.” It was then that I deliberately changed my tone. Keeping them off-guard and confused was essential. “And — make no mistake here: I want you both to be fine. It’s my job to protect you. It’s why I’m here in Drodden, still.” I gestured widely to either side of me. “Don’t you think someone like me would rather be somewhere else? Like California?”
“Well, I mean — …” Reggie didn’t finish his statement.
“Of course, I would,” I finished for him. “But my destiny is here — not in California. Just as you two are destined to help me, now. So no harm comes to either you or your friends.”
“What do you want us to do?” Reggie asked, suspiciously.
“I’m just getting to that,” I tell them. I turn and keep walking. “Over this time — 365 crucial days — you both will see … strange things happening. That much can’t be helped. It’s too late to avoid that much.”
“Like what?” Reggie asked, uncertainly.
“Like … little things. Coincidences. Sounds you can’t explain. Not up-front things. You’ve drawn the notice of the dead. They’ll be watching for you both. But they won’t be able to pass through fully into this world to hurt you, once I’m done. Not yet, anyway.”
“So they’re gonna haunt us?” Deacon asked, with another little squeak to his voice.
“Not haunted, no,” I told him. “That’s not how it works.”
“What kind of things, though?” Reggie asked, more urgently this time.
“Noises at night. Creaky floorboards upstairs, when nobody’s up there. The usual stuff. Like haunted house stuff. You’ll know it when it happens. But you don’t need to be afraid. I’m going to protect you both. You just need to be vigilant, for yourself and others.”
“What others?” Reggie asked.
I walked toward both of them and knelt down. “Hold still. There’s one thing I can do, at least. And you’re receptive now — so, it’s time …” I remember thinking how short they were. I slowly reached out and placed one hand on the heart of either of them, my palms laid out on their bare chests.
They didn’t pull away.
“Feel the warmth of my hands. Feel my power coming into you.” I closed my eyes. I lowered my head, kneeling there, holding still for a long moment. I thought of the rituals in TK Wanderlad. When I next spoke, I tried to sound like I was making a grand invocation: “Oh, great and mighty spirits of these woods — protect Reggie Peak and Deacon Ripp, for they are now part of a trio out to do good. Protect this trio so that we might restore balance to these woods, the very balance that we have so carelessly undone. So that we might do good where wrong has until now prevailed. Let them feel the warmth of your presence and let their blood not spill lest they will it.” I pulled my hands away and stood back up.
They had goosebumps, both of them. I knew I had them both.
“That’s a simple protection spell.” I brought my hand to my forehead, feigning weakness. “And … it’s taken a lot out of me, but it will keep you both safe from even rudimentary supernatural harm until I can do another proper one.” I reached over and put both my hands on a willow tree. “I’ll be fine in a moment, once I draw strength from the woods.” I lowered my head, pantomiming that I was absorbing energy from the tree, massaging the bark with my fingertips. “But if you tell people — then the protection spell will be broken, and I won’t be able to make another. You mustn’t risk it. You must keep this secret, at least until I can draw the strength to properly protect you both.”
“We could just — we could tell someone,” Reggie protested.
I realized we were at a critical moment, and so I change tactics again. “Yes — you could — but that would mean great harm to me and to my family.”
“I– …” Reggie didn’t complete that statement, either.
I try to sound as tired as I can, still leaning against the willow tree. “You know what, Reggie? You could tell. I can’t really stop you. I’ve told you all this in confidence, in a vulnerable moment that you both caused me to have to suffer. I’ve put the last of my strength into managing a protection spell for you.” I pretend quiet, joyless laughter. “You’ve put me in a situation where I have no choice but to do all this. I have no choice but to put my trust in you both. You’ve both stepped into a much bigger world. I can show you how much bigger, and teach you. But that’s up to you.” And I remember thinking in that moment, as I said these things, that — if they told — the worst that would happen would be that I’d get into trouble a little bit for playing a trick on some kids. But if I was successful, I’d have gained something very important to me. Something precious. Something I could use toward the promises I had made to the horses. So I lowered my forehead to the tree. “Do what you need to do. I’m sure you know what happens to witches when mortals don’t understand them.”
Almost instantly, Deacon came forward, tears in his eyes. I felt his hand on my back. “I won’t let anyone hurt you,” Deacon said. “I’ll protect you.”
“Thank you,” I said, trying to make it sound like I was choking back sobs.
Then, I felt another hand on my back — Reggie’s, of course. “We’ll do what we can to help,” he said. “What do we need to do?”
“You will be my protectors and my guardians over the next 365 days,” I told them both. “And, during that time, I will teach you how to do that job.”
“And then what?” Deacon asked.
“And then we will perform tonight’s ritual again, together. And you’ll be free of your obligation, if you choose.”
“What do you mean, if we choose?” Reggie asked.
I lifted up and turned around, taking each of their hands before they could pull away fully. I wrapped my fingers around their wrists with either hand. “Because once you see the world of the dead, there’s no going back to how things were. Some people try to walk away and deny it. But most can’t. Your very lives have now changed, forever. Whether you walk away from that is up to you. But I don’t think that’s either of your destinies. I see other paths for you both.” And I meant every word. And as I guided them back to town, and dropped them off at their respective houses, I whispered to each of them in turn that theirs was a great destiny. I implied to each that their destiny was greater, but I left it unsaid. It was something I knew both of them wanted to hear. They didn’t trust me yet. But they would; victory over them would come slowly. But it would come; I knew that I would have them both walking the paths of blood within a year or two. But I had more to do before I could plan for either my future or theirs. And a path I had to walk, myself. A path of blood, yes, but also of fire.