He took the cup of hot tea the old man offered him gratefully, hoping only to shake the chill from his bones as he drank. He had covered forty miles on foot that day, and had trudged the last seven through gathering mist as the late October day settled into dusk. The old man’s hut had been a welcome sight, finally, as the warm light from the window reached through the fog to beckon him. He decided to accept the old man’s offer of hospitality. It never occurred to him to question the willingness of a vulnerable old man to accept a stranger under his roof for the night – and without references, at that!
The old man had only nodded as his guest took off his shirt, at the tattoo on his left shoulder. It was a rearing black cat – one of the big cats, maybe a tiger, but not completely identifiable – ready to charge. It covered eleven inches of his skin from the top of the round muscle of his shoulder to the ripple at the beginning of the bicep. The young man knew that it was impressive, along with the size of his muscular frame, and had been ready to answer the usual questions. But to his surprise, the old man had said nothing, only nodding as he looked at it. No matter. He gave an inward shrug and settled down to finish his tea as the old man prepared to share his evening meal with him.
After supper was over and the dishes cleared away, the old man sat down with him, eager for the opportunity to tell his life story. “It must get pretty lonely,” the unlikely guest thought, “the old bird probably hasn’t seen anyone else in months!” He resolved to let the old man ramble, as old men were fond of doing. There was more tea, which he sipped thoughtfully as he listened.
Gradually, he couldn’t listen as well as before. The words slipped by him, carrying whole ideas with them, which made no sense whatever to the story the old man was telling. Then the story itself was lot. He knew that he was falling asleep. This was not surprising, after the day’s exertions. He didn’t fight it.
The old man stopped talking for a moment, reached over and lifted one of the stranger’s eyelids. The tea had done its work. Good. Time to begin.
* * * *
He awoke some time around noon. The sun was high, and he was lying on the ground out in the open in the middle of the plain he had crossed the previous evening in the gathering mist. At least, he hoped it had been the previous evening! The old man and his hut were nowhere to be seen.
He looked around quickly. His clothes were near him, arranged as he had left them on the floor of the hut, only there was no hut around them.
He stood suddenly, and cursed himself for having been so eager to accept the old man’s offer. He had a blinding headache and was consumed with thirst. Apparently the old man had given him a sedative of some kind. He wondered how long he had been unconscious. Also, where was the hut? The old man’s disappearance was not by itself out of the ordinary. But the vanished hut definitely gave away its sorcerous nature.
At the realization as he dressed himself, that he had been the victim of some kind of sorcery, the stranger again felt a chill, in spite of the warm sun. What had the old man done to him?
Then, as he bent to put on his boots, he knew. The stretch pulled fresh surface wounds at the small of his back – no doubt the result of some bizarre occult ritual. So, he had been cicatrized – marked up permanently on the skin. The process was not unlike tattooing. He knew what to expect – for a few days the area would be red and raw, scabs would form, then itch and fall off. Then he would have permanent marks on his back that he couldn’t even see. Maybe it was an actual tattoo – the old man hadn’t commented on the ones he already had. The cat wasn’t the only one, and the old man had seen them all as he undressed. There were also: a parrot on the right shoulder, an eagle on one forearm and a bear across his chest. The old man had noticed them all without saying a word. Damn!
The young man muttered curses as he finished dressing; cursing his thirst, the headache and the weariness that had made it so easy to drop his guard.
Then as he straightened up, he noticed the small wineskin beside his boots. Had the old man left it for him? And how could he drink whatever was in it – was he supposed to take for granted that it would quench his thirst – after his experience with the tea? What kind of fool did the old buzzard think he was, anyway?
His throat ached as he eyed the bottle. How cruel was the old man capable of being? Did he intend to finish off his young dupe this time? Or maybe it was more tea and the old man planned to come back and make more cuts on him? Maybe he wanted to sacrifice him to some bloodthirsty god. No, thanks.
The young man marched away from the skin. After he had taken several steps, willing the headache into a corner of his awareness, he had a sudden inspiration. He would retrieve the flask and keep it. Maybe he would run into the old man again, and could use the flask and its contents against him before a judge. Yes, that was the intelligent thing to do.
He strode purposefully back to the bottle. As he picked it up, he ached for it again, desperately longing for relief from his tormenting thirst. Forcing himself to put the bottle in his pack without looking at it again, he started on his way, resuming his march across the plain. He had to get on with his quest.
The old man was a minor distraction – he intended to deal with shortly if he ever saw him again, but he would not let the old man or anything else deter him from his purpose. Somewhere, in one of these small enclaves in this wild country, he was sure someone lived who would be able to give him some answers – and he had to find that person even if it took his whole life to do it.
* * * *
The sun was directly overhead, beating down on the lonely traveler unmercifully. He knew he wasn’t making good time – not the kind of time he’d made the day before, anyway. At least, he hoped it was only yesterday when he’d covered such a long stretch. It had to have been. From the strength of his limbs, he knew he hadn’t been “out” that long.
He was in a foul mood as he walked. His head ached, his throat was parched and raw, and his back wounds chafed against his shirt and the waist band of his pants. He was in great condition for a forced march in the open under the glaring noonday sun. He knew he should sit and rest through the head of the day, but he wasn’t about to. He had to keep going in hopes of discovering a stream over the next ridge. He looked into the distance, judging the ridge to be about eight to ten miles away. He hoped it wasn’t any further than that.
In his peripheral vision, he spied movement. Without turning and possibly alarming whatever it was, he studied it by focusing his attention on it, keeping his eyes straight ahead. It was animal movement in the brush. What could be out here in this open plain – small game, maybe a rabbit? No, the movements were too large. Must be some kind of dog – a wild dog or a wolf. “Great,” he thought, “That’s all I need. The rest of the pack can’t be far away.”
He continued on without slackening his pace. Better not let the dog or wolf think he was slowing down from weakness. But he was growing weaker, with every step. His headache and thirst grew steadily over the afternoon as he continued walking. He knew he couldn’t go on much longer this way.
Finally he stopped to estimate distance again. His vision blurred then and he had to wait for it to clear. He looked up to the sky and saw buzzards circling overhead.
“Oh, give me a break!” he groaned. What had happened to this country, he wondered. “Buzzards don’t belong this far east!” he thought, “There must have been one hell of a disruption in climate or something, to change local animal life like that.” Or maybe it was a change in food supply? That was more likely. Still, he knew that the carrion birds in this part of the country were supposed to be crows, not buzzards!
It was just like him to focus on the details of the animals around him at a time like this. He was in desperate circumstances now, and knew it. He was too weak to fight either the dog pack or the buzzards. He was too strong to lie down and let them come in for him. He had the bottle.
He took the wineskin out of his pack and looked at it. His throat ached for it again. Maybe it was poison. If so, then the dogs and the birds would also be poisoned by it. He uncorked the bottle and took a long drink.
It was a long, satisfying drink of wonderfully refreshing water, lightly flavored with lemon and unidentifiable herbs, an exotic drink for that part of the country in the present season. Where had the old man got hold of lemons, and whatever else? He didn’t question anymore, but continued to drink, until he had had his fill. There was some left in the bottle when he corked it and put it back in his pack.
He suddenly noticed that his headache had vanished with his thirst. He looked around him, taking in his surroundings – they hadn’t changed, thank God! – and measured his distance again. Another mile or two and he would be at the ridge. He had made lousy time.
But he felt confident that would change. He felt his strength returning to his limbs. Blessed relief, why had he waited to long to try the bottle? He knew damn well why. He still had to find the old man and give him his due for treating him the way he had – even though he had turned kindly, probably out of remorse. No matter, he was still PO’ed and he intended to make the old man realize it. But for now, on with the march.
The dog accompanied him as he continued his march to the next town. He continued on his way, feeling much better after the drink from the mysterious flask, and covering ground at his previous day’s pace. He felt good. He was aware of the dog’s movements in the brush about thirty paces away on his right. The dog was gradually moving closer. No matter. He felt strong enough now to do whatever he might have to do.
After a few more miles, the dog was ten paces away, or within calling distance. He decided to risk a greeting.
“Hey, dog,” he said, then whistled. The dog’s tail wagged a short, tentative answer. Now that the man could see him, the dog looked like he could have been someone’s family mutt, once. But, the young man noted, he wasn’t acting like a lost domestic pup. Rather, he seemed to know the ground and how to navigate it, as if this open plain were his home territory. Wild dogs could be more dangerous even than wolves, the young man knew. Still, this one seemed to remember living with people.
The dog edged still closer while continuing to nose the ground in front of him straight ahead. The man tried again.
“Hey, pup!” he said, with another whistle. The dog turned his head to look at him. Encouraged, the man said, “Come on, boy!” and slapped his thigh. The dog then lowered his head, and wagging his tail tentatively, came in closer to the man directly. He stopped just outside petting range, and settled into a jog to keep pace with the man’s stride. He was coming along.
The man continued his march. “OK, be that way,” he said to the dog. He breathed easier, knowing that the dog still remembered people enough to want them more for company than for food. He now had a buddy.
“So, what’s your name, boy?” the man asked, making conversation. He had been on the road a long time, with no one to talk to. The dog’s tail wagged his answer. He continued to sniff the ground as they walked. “Well,” said the man, “You can call me Duke, OK?” More tail wagging, lasting longer this time. They were getting acquainted.
“I’ll bet you want to know what’s been going on around here lately,” the young man continued saying to the dog. “Well, so do I. You’ve seen all the weird weather we’ve had, and the new animals that aren’t supposed to be here. You know something’s up, don’t you, boy?” The dog wagged his tail during the pauses. The man continued. “Well, I’m going to the next town to see if anyone there knows anything about this. I’m gonna get to the bottom of this. You coming with me? Huh?” At this, the dog came in closer and allowed himself to be patted on the head. The tail was wagging faster and stronger than it ever had.
They stopped when they crossed the ridge. From the slant of the light, Duke knew that evening was coming on them fast. The air was cooling rapidly, resuming the normal temperature for that time of year. “Now, that’s more like it,” Duke thought. He noted that, as usual, the odd unseasonal heat subsided at dusk instead of lingering into the evening as it would during the summer months. The weird weather had a definite pattern. It lasted only during the daylight hours, as if whatever caused it were not operative at night. The country they were in was in drought. Normally, the plain they had crossed would have been covered with green grass, or wheat or corn planted by some farmer. Now, the grass and weeds – mostly weeds – covering it were dry and coarse from the baking heat the area had experienced since June. Fire danger was high during the day, relieved only at night when the weather changed.
The stress of the weather changes was also taking its toll on the area. Many of the small animals – the squirrels and chipmunks, the rabbits and gophers – could not be seen with anywhere near their usual frequency. Duke feared they were becoming extinct, due to the ecological stress and the depredations of the coyotes and buzzards he had seen with alarming frequency. He presumed they were being lured in from the desert by the availability of the small game made accessible by the encroachment of the desert into the previously rich and fertile farmland of the Midwest. “God,” he thought, “What must the rest of the country be like by now?”
Once over the ridge, Duke could see that they were approaching a small village. He could see eight or ten houses around one crossroad, with three or four small pickup trucks in evidence. He heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe he would find welcome for the night in a town that size without having to worry about being sorced while he slept. He judged the town to be another mile or two away. They would reach it by nightfall. Good. He was pleased to realize that he was hungry.
* * * *
The first house he came to was actually a camper shell on the back of a pickup truck. He walked around the pickup first, then after seeing no one, tried a knock at the door of the camper.
He heard some scurrying and muttering, then the door opened and a black housecat leaped out at him. The cat bounced off his chest and disappeared into the weeds before Duke could react. The dog turned his head to follow the cat with his eyes, but passed up the chase in favor of staying with his new “people”. Duke thought that was odd, but didn’t remark on it.
No one else came out the camper door. Duke waited a moment, then peered in. The light was very dim, and he could barely make out a shape in the back of the camper. Then a lamp was lit. A woman looked up from a low table and smiled.
“Won’t you come in?” she invited. “And bring your dog with you, OK?”
Duke hadn’t realized the dog was visible from inside the camper. He looked at the woman again, remembering to remain on guard. Was anything wrong with her? He studied her face for clues. He judged her to be somewhere between forty and seventy – he was a bad judge of age. There was some gray in her hair, mostly at the temples. The rest of it was smoky colored, probably black or dark brown. There were fine lines at her eyes and mouth that probably deepened whenever she laughed. Her skin was medium tan. Her eyes were direct and wide open, and there was a small smile that promised to widen without warning at any time. That was all he could see from the doorway. He decided to take the risk and stepped in, calling the dog with him.
“Are you sure it’s OK to have the dog in here?” he asked, “I mean, I saw your cat …”
“He’s just out for the night. The dog won’t bother him at all.” She reassured him. “Now,” she continued, “what can I do for you?”
“Actually, I’m passing through the area,” he began, “And now, I’m just ready to stop for the night. Maybe you can tell me where in town I might get a room?”
She looked at the table for a moment. Then she said “I’ll show you to the place when you’re ready. For now, how about some supper?” Without waiting for an answer, she went past him out the door. Once outside, she lit the camp stove and placed on it a pot that had been hanging by the handle from a clothesline. Duke watched from the doorway, and noted with satisfaction that she was doing all the normal activities of a woman camping. Good. At least he didn’t have to worry about her hoodoo-ing him when his back was turned. The rest of the world was apparently as sane as it ever was.
He followed her out the door and she indicated a canvas chair for him to sit on. The dog stayed in the doorway, contented. Duke noted the dog’s calm, thinking how handy it was that he had managed to befriend him. His new traveling companion could be put to good use reading strangers.
“So, what’s your name?” the woman asked over her shoulder. The concoction on the stove was starting to smell good. It was probably some kind of stew. She was only using one pot, and throwing things in while it simmered.
“You can call me Duke,” he said. “What are you making?”
Facing the stove she smiled. So, the hungry young man didn’t want to give out his real name. Well, maybe it didn’t suit him anyway. “Oh, I don’t know yet,” she said in answer to his question. “I’ll decide what to call it when it’s done.”
He smiled at that. She cooked like the matron at the Child Care Center he remembered. He had no recollection of parents, only the nuns and various other adults responsible for the institution where he’d grown up. It wasn’t one of the orphanages he’d heard about, like they had in the years before the Winter – it had grown into being some time after that. Originally, the church and hospital people had banded together and pooled their resources immediately after the great war that had caused the Winter. The survivors had come to the hospitals and churches for aid and comfort, and the nuns and nurses ended up starting a permanent shelter for the children who had lost their families. It had grown into an institution over the years, so that by the time Duke had arrived, it also included a school, library, playground and cemetery.
Duke looked up suddenly, realizing that he had forgotten to make conversation for a moment. He wondered if the woman had said anything. After spending so much time alone, he had grown accustomed to the habit of some people to talk most of the time about nothing. He knew that other people often considered him strange for his silences and he hoped he hadn’t offended the woman inadvertently by not paying attention to something she’d said.
She had brought the food to him, handing him the bowl and spoon wordlessly. She got her own portion and headed for the door again, looking back at him and smiling. Apparently he hadn’t done anything unexpected. Good. He followed her into the camper.
They ate at the low table, sitting on cushions. The stew was excellent, and of course his hunger made it taste even better, he knew. He ate in silence, and her cooking was complimented by it. Her private little smile was in evidence even as she ate. When he had emptied his bowl, he sat back.
“More?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yes, please,” he said. “And, do you have anything to drink?”
“shall I make some tea?” she asked
“Uh, no thanks,” he said quickly. “I think I’ll pass on tea tonight. Do you have any water?”
“How about some more of this stuff?” she asked, pulling a wineskin out from behind a tapestry. He looked at her. She opened the bottle and offered it to him. He took it and, still watching her, took an experimental whiff. Her eyes were black, he noticed, and in the lamplight they shone. The stuff in the wineskin was very familiar to him. It was the same elixir he had discovered in the wineskin he had found that noon. He drank eagerly. When he had finished, he sat back.
“So,” he said, when he finally decided to speak. “Tell me about yourself.”
“What specifically do you want to know?” she asked. Her smile had deepened and her eyes had a mischievous glint. Now she was beautiful. He hadn’t noticed it before. He still couldn’t tell her age, though. All he knew was that she was considerably older than his twenty-five years.
“Who are you?” he blurted.
“For now, why don’t you just call me the tipsy,” she said. “That’s what everyone else calls me when they send for me to set a bone or deliver a baby. And, yes, I’m the one to left the bottle for you. The water has herbs in it that counteract the sedative hangover you had. You can also drink it when you aren’t sick – it’s just good for a body all the time! Is there any left in the bottle I gave you?”
He checked and found the bottle in his pack. He uncorked and found it full to the rim. He looked at her again.
She chuckled softly. Then she said, “Yes, when you put it away with some left over, the next time you open it, it’s full.”
What was she trying to pull? Duke had had about enough of magic for one day. But she knew something about the old man, he was sure, and he had to play along with her to find out about him. So he was stuck. At least, she wasn’t apparently hostile, like the old man. Unless she was in it with him – playing a game of “Good Guy, Bad Guy” …
Duke put the wineskin away. He looked around the inside of the camper. The walls were covered with tapestries and scarves depicting animals and highly stylized plants. They all showed scenes of abundance, just before harvest. There were unlikely combinations of animals – lions, cattle, sheep, squirrels and chipmunks along with skunks, weasels, tigers, solves and every bird he could remember hearing about, all apparently hanging out together. The dominant colors were rose and gold, and rich shades of blue and green. They were beautiful. He turned back to the Gypsy.
“Tell me about the old man,” he said.
“The old man,” she began, “is the cause of the recent upset in the natural order of things. He lacks balance, I’m afraid. He’s insane now, and very powerful.”
“He can’t be powerful enough to change the weather, can he?” Duke asked. Before the Winter, there had apparently been very little magic or sorcery. People had laughed at it then. But ever since the Winter, some individuals had shown evidence of special abilities and developed them. Even so, tampering with the weather was beyond the most powerful sorcerers Duke knew. If the old man had been able to develop to that level, and was insane on top of it, then he was nobody to mess with.
The Gypsy only nodded. Yes, it was true, according to her. The old man was able to manipulate the weather.
“But he does have limits,” she said. “When the sun goes down, the earth naturally cools – even in the desert. He needs the sun in order to completely dessicate the land, as he wants. And even he can’t stop the Earth’s rotation.
“Not yet, anyway,” Duke commented. “But why does he want to dry out the whole world?”
“Because he hates us,” the Gypsy said. “He hates people in general, and he thinks that without us, the world will be a better place. He also loves the desert to an unhealthy degree. He hates life.”
“But there’s life in the desert,” Duke pointed out.
The Gypsy nodded. “Yes, in the desert of the high Sierras, there is some life. But even that life can be extinguished. You know about the wide stretches of land that cannot support any life at all – the Sahara, for one, and the arid dustbowl of our own North American desert, which has grown since the Winter.”
“The old man,” the Gypsy continued as they cleaned up the remains of dinner together, “originally fell in love with the desert and the life he found there. He craved solitude after a normal life crisis, like the kind people had before the Winter. It may have been a divorce, or burnout from his job, something that happened to people at predictable times in their lives. Then the Winter came after the bomb. No one knows how the old man survived – he hasn’t been close enough to anyone since then to talk about it. But after the Winter, when so many people were discovering their new talents, he of course discovered his. He talks to animals in his mind – just as you do…”
At this, Duke looked at her closely. “You mean,” he said, “not everybody calls animals this way?”
The Gypsy nodded. “How many people do you know, who could make friends with a feral dog on the first day of acquaintance?”
Duke thought about that for a moment. He had always taken for granted his special ability with animals. He thought it odd that some people were afraid of them, especially of dogs they didn’t know. He watched his new friend as the animal rested on the floor with a full belly. He looked just like any loyal Fido duke had ever encountered before. His paws moved repetitively, making the motions of running as he dreamed, probably about the day they’d just had. Duke smiled.
“Anyway,” the Gypsy went on, “no one knows just what the crisis was that slowly worked on the old man’s brain, but he ended up very hostile and reclusive. Someone must have hurt him terribly, and what he did afterward was retreat from the world with his own thoughts, instead of seeking comfort from other people. He became paranoid, and now he blames people in general for all the problems in the world – the bomb and the loss of the previous civilization and probably for his own crisis, too. He has decided that he would be a lot happier if there were no other people on the planet. He may even be suicidal and plan to kill himself once he wipes out the rest of life on the planet. Who knows?”
I have a feeling you do, thought duke. He was sure the Gypsy wasn’t telling him everything. But she seemed decent enough and was probably motivated by a basic respect for life – a respect that included the rights of others to go their own way unmolested. That much, Duke had managed to pick up from her conversation. However, he wasn’t at all sure the Gypsy had the correct information, as he hadn’t confirmed her story with anyone else in the town yet. He reminded himself to remain on guard. Did she want him to confront the old man for her own reasons?
Duke studied her, as she sat opposite him. One thing he knew he ha to guard against was being pitted against someone else by a far-from-disinterested third party. He wondered if she had ever been married. Could she be a runaway wife (the old man’s)? Duke knew he didn’t have enough information to accept the Gypsy’s story at face value. He made up his mind to find the old man and hear him out before deciding what to do with him. But there was one question remaining.
“What about the tattoo the old man gave me?” Duke asked. “Do you know anything about that?”
The Gypsy’s eyes widened for a moment, and she sucked in her breath sharply before answering. When she did, her voice was calm. “The tattoo on your back is of a mythical creature – I forget the name of it – but I know it was a great bird of antiquity, associated with destruction. I wish he hadn’t done that to you.”
“And that’s all you can tell me? Thanks, Lady, you’re a big help!” Duke snorted in disgust. He hated riddles, and he hated having only half the story. He was really getting tired of the Gypsy now.
The Gypsy lowered her eyes and nodded. She looked tired. I’m sorry I can’t tell you any more right now,” she said, “but I don’t remember much from my education before the war – especially when it comes to myths and legends. I wish I did. Maybe I’ll see it in a dream – as I often do, when I set my mind to remember something and my subconscious goes to work on it – and then I’ll have more for you.
“Well,” said Duke by way of apology for his outburst, “you said it’s a myth, right? At least it isn’t a real bird. And how bad can a tattoo be?”
The Gypsy didn’t answer, but only looked into the flame of the lamp on the table, apparently lost in her own thoughts.
* * * *
The Gypsy picked up a wool blanket and stepped out into the cool night. It was time to begin her nightly reclamation of the earth, and she knew that before the night was over, she would be glad to have the blanket.
She walked from the camper into the meadow adjacent to the town. When she found the right spot, she lay on her back on the ground, keeping the blanket beside her and turning her face to the stars. She closed her eyes and began the slow, deep breathing which would clear her mind to search for the sound she needed.
Then she heard the singing. She listened, concentrating on the sound until it became the only thing in her awareness and caught the melody. In her concentration, she was gradually able to understand the meaning of the song, as the earthworms below her sang in their tunnels, a timeless, unceasing song of the life they knew. She began to sing with them.
Then she changed keys and sang toward the great oceans to either side of the North American land mass. She called to the great telepathic mammals in the Atlantic and Pacific, the whales and dolphins. Finally, she heard an answer as the Gray Whales of the Pacific picked up the song, followed by the Sperm Whales of the Atlantic. Then the night was crowded with voices as the chorus was joined by other whales in both oceans, rolling first from one side to the other, and back again across the continent.
The Orcas charged recklessly into the celebration, calling the dolphins to join in. They did, and couldn’t resist adding their own playfulness to the lyrics, as their turn came to carry the verse.
And there were lyrics. The Gypsy engaged the whales and dolphins because not only were they reservoirs of tremendous physical energy, and thus able to sustain the song long enough to work the spell; but also because they are so intelligent that she hardly had to translate the song as it came from the earthworms beneath her. The great mammals could understand the song, practically swallowing it whole, owing to their empathy with all the warm-blooded creatures who lived on the land.
The celebration when on for several hours, until the Gypsy felt herself tiring and had to begin the leave-taking ritual. She first released the dolphins, who tied to cajole her into staying a little while longer. Then their cousins, the Orcas, took their leave. Then she said good-night, and good morning to the whales, one by one. The last was a great-grandmother Gray Whale one hundred miles off the coast of central California, who gave the longest good-bye verse, as the Gypsy faced back into consciousness.
She opened her eyes and looked up at the stars. By their position she knew that the night was almost over. In another hour it would be dawn. She shivered, as she realized that the night was as cold as a late October night was supposed to be. She clutched the blanket and wrapped it around her. In a few moments, she knew her body would warm the air between it and her, keeping her warm for the walk back to the camper. She wondered if her guest had heard the singing. Probably not, as he had been sleeping soundly when she left.
The next morning the Gypsy served tea with breakfast, and this time Duke accepted it, laughing. He had felt fine upon awakening, and was eager to get on his way. After breakfast, the Gypsy gave him another wineskin, in addition to the one he already had. This one had medicine, she told him, in case he might need it for something specific. The lemon and herb water was for general well-being. He gave her a hug, then called the dog and started on his way into town to find the old man.
The Gypsy watched him go. She knew he hadn’t been pleased with only getting half the story about the Roc on his back. The Gypsy knew that the bird itself was not evil, but the old man’s purpose in tattooing it on him was. There was one ritual the Gypsy knew about that used the Roc as a terrible bird of destruction. It called for a victim to receive the tattoo, then to be sacrificed in a horrible five-hour torture, after which the Roc would appear and do the bidding of the sorcerer. The Gypsy had not wanted to tell Duke about the ritual because she wanted him to remain confident when he found the old man. She knew the old man planned to use Duke that way; as she had know it immediately upon seeing the tattoo when she found him in his drugged sleep. However, she had a plan that would ensure another outcome – and she intended for Duke, as well as the rest of the earth, to survive the old man’s attack.
The old man had talked once about the Roc ritual, in the early days she he had followed her, trying to impress and woo her. The Gypsy smiled grimly as she recalled the old man’s interest, twenty-seven years before, in her power and her beautyu. He had, at first, tried conventional means to win her over. When she didn’t give in, he had proceeded to hound her, alternatively pleading and demanding that she join forces with him. She had been too busy with the recovery efforts immediately after the Winter and was too involved in supporting life to give serious consideration to his schemes, at first. Then his hostility became apparent as he finally resorted to threatening her life, in his frustration.
She had fled then and remained underground, thinking it prudent to stay out of sight of her adversary. She had also stopped giving out her name as she continued her work, preferring the title: “The Gypsy”. Life was simpler that way, as she had her privacy and her freedom to do as she pleased.
She hadn’t told Duke about her earlier acquaintance with the old man. He probably wouldn’t have believed her if she had maintained her innocence in spite of his advances, and insisted that she hadn’t led him on. The Gypsy had learned the hard way that people in general were quick to presume her guilty in a conflict with a man. She didn’t feel like defending her honor anymore.
She was tired, and lay down on her mattress to have a nap before Duke was likely to encounter the old man and to need her.
* * * *
The first thing Duke resolved to do on arrival in town was stop in to the general store to look around. He didn’t intend to buy anything, but wanted instead to find out about the place and the people as unobtrusively as possible. This he hoped to do by just hanging around.
Unfortunately from the looks of things, the town wasn’t too receptive to strangers. There was no boarding house or hotel of any kind, and tyeh locals had a queer way of turning around and heading in the other direction when they saw him. He began to wonder if the old man had changed something else about his appearance. Duke wasn’t used to frightening small children with his looks. He passed by an old pickup truck and looked at himself in the reflection from the dusty windows. He saw the same familiar face looking back at him, and he breathes easier. But, why the skittishness of the people? He puzzled over this as he walked through the streets.
He spotted a tavern on the other side of the road and resolved to come back to it, after another tour of the town. He had to kill some time and rconnoite the layout of the town some more before going into a bar. As he walked, he realized that he had not seen all of the town on the first walk through. There were streets where he hadn’t remembered them before, and alleys criss-crossed them in unfamiliar patterns. If it hadn’t been broad daylight, Duke would have sworn the town was growing and shifting each time his back was turned. He went over and over the streets in the center of town, trying to get a sense of direction from landmarks. It took him a long time to get it right.
Finally he came back to the street with the tavern. He crossed toward it, and as he did, a little girl of about nine or ten years old met hjim in the middle of the street, stopped dead in her tracks and took off to her left. She disappeared inside one of the houses. Duke just shook his head. He told the dog to lie down and wait for him, and went into the tavern.
Once inside, Duke paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the light change. When he could see again, five or six men were turning toward the bar with studied casualness. “Why do I suddenly feel like I’m in an old western movie?” Duke thought. He amused himself further by walking slowly toward the bar with an exaggerated swagger, complete with heavier-than-average footsteps. If the locals wanted to treat him like an outlaw, the least he could do was oblige them by playing the part.
Duke sat down on one of the barstools – by now it was somewhere around two in the afternoon – and ordered a beer. He didn’t intend to drink it – he was too wary to allow himself to get impaired in strange surroundings – but he had to have something in his hands that would look normal. The bartender brought it without a word, and resumed washing glasses.
Dukes figured he’d sit for about a half hour before he tried to get into a conversation with the locals. He’d let them get used to his being there, then casually start up. In the meantime, he would get all the information he could from the conversations he would overhear.
That was going to be tough. The locals weren’t saying anything. They were very wary, maintaining uncomfortable silence in the presence of the stranger. Duke thought this was odd, as he never had trouble putting people at ease and making them forget he was there. This time it wasn’t working. Duke quelled a growing urge to fidget. The minutes dragged by interminably. Duke began to sweat.
Suddenly there was a commotion at the door, and six burly young men strode into the tavern. Duke didn’t like the looks of them. One of them, their apparent spolesman, walked up to Duke; who stood, and the two of them were eye to eye. Duke noticed this, and marveled at it. Not many other people reached his size.
“I think you better come with us,” the Hell’s Angels reject found his mouth and spoke.
“I don’t wanna,” Duke answered.
“Look, mister, we don’t want no trouble!” the spokesman warned. “This is a public place, right? You don’t wanna start no fights in here!” At this, he glared meaningfully toward the bar. The local men took the hint and crept away, leaving Duke alone with the thugs. The bartender was nowhere to be seen, but by this time, the dog had wedged himself between his “people” and the hoods.
“No trouble, huh?” Duke returned. “Is that why you brought your baby sisters along?” Duke knew he should be sexist, but he also knew the hoodlums would be, and would consider themselves properly insulted by what he’d said. He muttered a prayer for the Gypsy’s forgiveness as he dodged the spokesman’s first punch.
Duke held them off pretty well, with the dog keeping two of them at bay in a corner. Of course, they totally trashed the bar, but you can’t have a war without some casualties. At least this time, the dead and wounded were tables and chairs. The thugs were also wounded, mostly by each other. Duke had a way of observing their posture and movements, and knowing what they were going to do next, before they were in position. All he had to do was dodge and duck. They tried to surround him, and just when they thought they had him, he slipped out of the way and they connected with each other. They were getting pretty well bruised and sore, and mad as hell. The two in the corner were busy trying to get past the dog, who was also dancing away from their kicks. They were no match for the fury of the snarling beast in front of them, all snapping, foaming jaws.
Then, Duke got serious. He had to get violent himself, in order to keep control of the fight and stop it. So, still turning and shifting, practically dancing around his opponents, he took them out one by one. Finally, all six of the brutes were lying on the floor, amid the debris of the bar – the splintered furniture and shattered glass.
Duke had broken a sweat, of course, and carefully stepped over the pile of hoods to the bar. The dog followed him, watching curiously. He took his beer in his left hand, raised it to his lips and suddenly the dog was whining desperately at him, sitting in front of his feet, pawing his boots, eyes pleading. Duke lowered the bottle and said, “I know you’re thirsty too, dog, but I’m going first.” So saying, he again raised the bottle to his lips and drank deeply.
Then, as the floor rushed up to meet him, he cussed himself out for again drinking the old man’s potion.
* * * *
The Gypsy awoke at one-thirty that afternoon. She felt refreshed, but slow, so she brewed a pot of tea and sat at her table to finish waking up. Her black tomcat had returned and was making a fuss outside the door of the camper, so she called him. The door opened, and he hopped inside, then watched as the door closed behind him. He purred his satisfaction audibly from across the small room, and slowly wandered toward the table.
“Well, hello to you,” the Gypsy said, reaching to pet him. “And how’s little Dandelion doing today? How’s little Dandy – little Randy-Candy-Dandy today?” The Gypsy knew the cat loved her ridiculous baby-talk names for him. Dandelion purred loudly, leaning into her hand as she stroked behind his ears. He narrowed his amber lion’s eyes to slits to let the Gypsy know how much he liked being petted.
The Gypsy poured herself a cup of the tea and settled back on her cushion to savor it. The steam swirled around the surface of the liquid as she raised the cup to her lips.
Suddenly the scene in the cup captured the Gypsy’s attention. Duke was there, apparently in a saloon scene from one of those old western movies, except this one was in color. Nothing happened at first, and the Gypsy thought it was simply an interesting tableau. All at once, six big mean-looking men entered and walked up to Duke. By this time, Duke had stood up. Then, as Duke said something to one of the men, suddenly the Gypsy lost the vision. She found herself looking again at a simple cup of tea.
The Gypsy set the cup down and stared into it, concentrating, trying for another glimpse at what was happening to Duke. She had learned early not to dismiss the visions that came to her spontaneously. They were not dreams or subconscious games to show her how things might be – they represented what was happening here and ow; situations she could do something about. But this one had been interrupted, and that disturbed her. They usually didn’t come to her fragmented or distorted. She could trust them to tell her everything she needed to know about a situation. This was odd. Could the old man be interfering?
The tea cup cleared again, and she saw Duke. He was dancing around the group of men, who were apparently trying to fight with him. Duke seemed to be handling things well. He knocked them all out, then went over to the bar to rest. He picked up a bottle and raised it to drink.
“No!” the Gypsy heard herself scream; but it was too late. Duke drank. Then she saw him fall. Damn! What a dunce!
Well, apparently it was time to get back to work. The Gypsy sighed and gathered her materials. It was going to be a long afternoon.
* * * *
When Duke came to his senses, he had the sedataive hangover he remembered from the day before. “Oh, joy!” he thought. “Just what I need.” He raised himself painfully on his elbows on the stone floor of a high-ceilinged room.
Fighting dizziness, he looked around. The walls were of the same gray stone, unadorned. There was a long, narrow window on one wall that was probably four inches wide and ran from floor to ceiling, that let in just enough light to enable one to see. Duke wouldn’t have wanted to read a book in that light. There was a huge fireplace, with a small pile of coals smoldering in the center of it. In front of that, there was a long table, with a hooded figure standing before it with its back to Duke. Duke couldn’t see what the figure was doing, or what was on the table.
Suddenly, Duke was roughly pulled to his feet. Then his feet were off the floor, as the two tallest ruffians from the bar held his arms and faced the hooded figure. The dizziness swept over Duke again, and he knew he was too weak to fight the goons, so he just hung there. His headache was monstrous and threatened to make him sick.
The hooded figure turned around and duke recognized the old man. It figured. Duke didn’t say anything, but only waited, as the old man eyed him for a long moment. Finally, the sorcerer nodded, and the hoods turned Duke around to face the other wall.
Duke felt his back being prodded, no doubt by the old man. The fingernails were sharp, and they scratched as the inspection continued for several minutes on the red and raw fresh tattoo. Duke willed himself not to flinch. He concentrated on his headache instead.
Finally the inspection was over. Duke was carried to the far wall, where the goons lashed him to a wrought-iron grating that covered the rough stone. They bound his arms more tightly than his legs; just above the elbows, and also under his right shoulder. His left shoulder was exposed, showing the cat tattoo. Duke wondered why. The iron was cold, and the ropes were tight. Duke knew his limbs would soon be rendered useless from lack of circulation, if he had to stay tied up that way. The hoodlums withdrew into a corner and began a game of mumbly-peg with their knives.
“So, my fine young man,” the old sorcerer said, when he finally spoke. “We meet again.”
“Do you have to be so dramatic about it?” Duke asked. “I mean, it wasn’t that good…”
The old man ignored Duke’s wisecrack for the moment. In due time, the fresh young man would lose his jaunty swagger.
“You won’t be so full of yourself in a little while,” the old man said. “You’ll have plenty of time to regret your foolishness once the festivities begin.”
“Let me guess,” Duke said. “I’m going to be the main course at a cannibal feast, right? Well, I told you – I’m not that tasty…”
At this, the old man turned his back on Duke and returned to the table. He paged through a huge tome for several minutes, then turned again to face the wall where Duke hung.
The old sorcerer clapped his hands twice over his head, and muttered some gibberish that was inaudible from where Duke waited. The sedative headache had apparently reduced Duke’s normally acute hearing. He could hear the goons in their corner, growing loud, then subsiding in a predictable rhythm, with the game. But he couldn’t make out what they or the old man were saying.
“There,” said the old man. “This should keep your mind occupied and your tongue silent!”
“Now what?” Duke thought. He heard scurrying and muttering that seemed to come from inside the wall. Then, through a crack in the mortar beside him to his left, a thin stream of gray mist issued. It smelled like swamp gas, and Duke wished he could hold his nose. His eyes watered, and he blinked to clear them.
When he looked again, the mist had solidified into the hideous shape of a leathery gray gargoyle. It looked like the kind of stone sculpture that decorated old churches before the Winter, as Duke had seen in books. The only difference was that this one moved.
The creature gave a high, cackling laugh when it looked at Duke and stuck out its forked tongue as it approached his shoulder.
“Oh, no,” Duke thought. “What next?”
The gargoyle sank his talons as far into the flesh on Duke’s should as he could without drawing blood, and settled onto its haunches. Then it whispered something barely intelligible into Duke’s ear, punctuating its obscene words with brush of its tongue against the hairs on Duke’s neck. Duke squirmed as far away from the beast as he could in his restraints.
The old man snickered viciously at Duke’s discomfort. “Have fun now, my young friend,” the sorcerer said. “I’ll let Gall-fly entertain you until everything is prepared.” So saying, the hooded figure turned back to the table.
Prepared? What preparations – and for what purpose? Duke was sure the old man would tell him what was happening beforehand – from the conversation so far, he knew his adversary couldn’t resist indulging in dramatics, and could probably be goaded into giving away his purpose. But how to get the old bird talking again so he could be properly baited? Duke wished he could think more clearly, but the hangover just wouldn’t let up. If only he could get to the Gypsy’s wineskin – in his pack! Where was it?
He looked around wildly for the pack. Then he discovered it sitting beside the cold stone fireplace. He turned his eyes away from it quickly. He didn’t want the old man to know the pack was important.
“There will be plenty to see, soon enough,” the sorcerer said. He had apparently caught Duke’s wild look around the room, although he had misinterpreted the purpose. No matter. “When the guest of honor arrives, you’ll wish you couldn’t see everything as it happens!” The old man chortled evilly at his plan. The gargoyle – Gallfly? – let out a lewd cackle, combined with a hiss, at the old man’s laugh. He was hard to ignore, but Duke managed.
“Why don’t you fill me in,” Duke said. “Is this guest of honor someone I’d be honored to meet?”
“You’ll be sorry you asked,” the old man leered. He wasn’t at all sorry.
“Something tells me I’m gonna be sorry, whether you tell me nor not,” Duke said. “So, why don’t you fill me with dread and go ahead and tell me?”
“It’s a secret!” the old man said coyly. “You really wan to know, don’t you?” If his face hadn’t become so sinister, it would have been ridiculous.
“OK, don’t tell me,” Duke said. “I was just bored and wanted to pass the time. Suit yourself.”
This threw the old man into a sulk. He had been enjoying the victim’s interest, ready to tell him all about the tortures planned for him, but only after Duke properly begged for it. The sorcerer pouted for a few moments, muttering to himself as he arranged candles and vials on his table. Duke was starting to hear better.
“You talk just like her. Always laughing and mocking and making fun of me. ‘You take things too seriously!’ All the while she never paid any serious attention to me. She thought I was crazy, she did. Her work was more important. Never could make her understand, make her see my vision. It could have been glorious, her and me and no one else. The new Adam and Eve …”
Duke wondered who the old man was talking about. His former wife? He listened, as the old man muttered some more.
“She didn’t want to take care of me, either. First one, then the other. They’re all alike – just selfish bitches, only out for what they can get from you. They whine and complain, or else they come on all slimy and slithery, to get you to do things for them. But when it comes time to pay the piper, then, boy do they sing a different tune. All of a sudden it’s ‘independence’ this and ‘liberation’ that. All of a sudden they have to do their own thing – to ‘find themselves’. Then, you’re in their way and boy do they change the rules! No more help, no more dinner on the table on time, no more clean bathrooms or laundry, no more mending or ironing, no more smiles or back rubs, or taking care of you when you’re sick – now you’re supposed to do everything for yourself, all of a sudden. They don’t want to do their jobs anymore! And, on top of all this, you’re supposed to take it like a man when they walk out. No scenes, no recriminations, just good-bye and good luck. Well, none of them will ever be able to treat me like that again. I’ll show them!”
Duke wondered at the old man’s tirade for a moment. Obviously, he had been disappointed by a woman some time ago. But why the tantrum? Why was he so concerned about the mundane details of taking care of himself? It wasn’t difficult to meet one’s own needs. That was basic, and anyone could do it. Was that all his woman had been to him – domestic convenience? No wonder she left!
“You don’t know who I’m talking about, do you?” the old man suddenly turned, leering again at Duke.
Duke just waited.
“It’s her, you know. Your friend,” the sorcerer said. “Rosemary Hawthorne.” The old man giggled obscenely in his satisfaction.
“Who?” Duke asked.
The old man was deflated. This brash, reckless young man, the lady’s new favorite (obviously!) didn’t even know her real name! His carefully paced pronouncement had fallen flat. It had had no effect at all on his victim.
He flew into a rage. “It’s HER! Don’t you see?” the old man screamed shrilly. “It’s HER – SHE’s the BITCH!”
* * * *
She placed Dandelion back in his basket bed, which was now on the low table top. “Now you stay there,” she said. “I have a job for you.” This time, he stayed put. He watched as she picked up the candle and read from the book. He wondered what it was this time – he hoped he would get to be fierce on this assignment. Either that, or he would be given something good to eat. But he had a full belly, so he would opt for being fierce…
The dog looked up from where he lay on the floor, mildly curious. He had come running back as soon as his “people” fell, but he didn’t understand what the Gypsy was going to do. However, he knew it was going to be all right. The cat wasn’t worried. As the woman’s voice intoned, the dog laid his head back down and went to sleep.
* * * *
Duke turned his head wearily away from the old man. He didn’t want to hear any more of what the old buzzard had to say. He turned, and found himself eye to eye with Gallfly. Wonderful.
The gargoyle was giggling evilly, enjoying Duke’s discomfort. He breathed foully on the young man, and with his headache and dizziness, Duke almost gagged. This situation was getting old quickly.
Was the Gypsy really the old man’s wife? If she had been, Duke couldn’t really blame her for leaving him. But what had she said about his divorce being the reason for his insanity? Did she really start all this? Was she to blame? His head ached more from the effort of thinking through the fog of the hangover than from the actual pain of sickness. He was terribly slow, and that was the worst of the sedative’s effects. He just couldn’t think.
The old man clapped his hands, startling Duke out of his private thoughts. “Uh oh,” Duke thought. “What’s up with him now?”
“I hope you’re ready, my young man,” the sorcerer said. “Because it is now time to begin!” Then he muttered some more gibberish, and shouted a command Duke did not recognize.
He didn’t have time to wonder about it though, because at that moment Gallfly began to etch the outline of the cat tattoo on his left shoulder, with one of his talons. Blood welled up in the wake of the claw, in tiny beads following the outline. Duke gritted his teeth to keep from crying out in pain. What was going on now?
Gallfly finished the outline, then proceeded to pull the skin up on the front side of the tattoo. The previous pain had been nothing like this, as the hideous gargoyle peeled back the young man’s skin to expose the raw flesh underneath. Duke felt himself beginning to lose consciousness.
Gallfly had the tattoo completely ripped off and was holding it in his claw, grinning gleefully at Duke, his forked tongue flicking in and out lewdly. Duke’s shoulder burned where the flesh was exposed to the chilly air. Gallfly breathed on the open wound, sending Duke screaming and writhing in agony. Duke felt the warm trickle of blood running down his arm as he watched the gargoyle throw the leathery peel of skin to the floor.
Duke watched as it fell. When it landed, it slid a few inches, leaving a smear of his blood on the floor. Duke knew he was going to faint. He could see the border of his vision glowing bright yellow, and then the center went dar,. Then Gallfly slapped him on the face, his paw wet with Duke’s own blood.
Duke came to, shook his head and tasted blood on his lips. The tattooed skin on the floor caught his attention. He wondered if he could be dreaming within the faint, because the cat tattoo was growing. He opened and closed his eyes several times, and it was still growing. He knew he was not hallucinating, because the hoodlums and Gallfly were watching it too, aghast.
The cat tattoo grew to three times the size of an African lion. When it had finished, it moved – getting into position to spring. The creature’s golden amber eyes narrowed to fighting slits as it bared its fangs and growled deep in its throat. It had turned to face the goons.
The cat made short work of the goons, who tried to alarm the old man, his back toward them at the table. They never had a chance to make a sound – they froze in shock and couldn’t even call out or move until it was too late and the great cat was upon them. He slashed through them with his huge claws and killed them instantly. Then he turned for Gallfly.
The gargoyle hissed and screamed and finally the old man turned around. The sorcerer stared in horror as he took in the scene of carnage the room had become. He watched as his horrible pet was gutted by the terrible cat. He dropped to his knees in shock.
Duke heard thunder, and knew that a storm was coming. That meant the Gypsy was on her way. Good. He had one hell of a story for her.
“NO!” the old man screamed, on his knees and crying his frustration aloud. “No, she can’t do this to me! She can’t…she just can’t!! Ooh, oh noooo…!” He held his head, rocking back and forth, moaning and sobbing.
The cat looked at Duke. He reached up with one paw and clipped the ropes on his legs. Then he cut through the ropes on his arms, all without scratching Duke’s skin. Duke stumbled and fell to his knees. His arms and legs tingled painfully, but after a few seconds, he managed to stagger to his feet. He scrambled to the fireplace, retrieved his pack and took out both wineskins. He found the one for specific medicine and took a long drink from it.
When he took the bottle down from his face, he stood up and looked around. The goons were all in a pile where the cat had left them, and Gallfly was shredded and strewn across the room. Apparently the cat hadn’t thought he’d be too tasty. Where was the cat? He must have disappeared, as he was nowhere to be seen.
The old man had fallen in a fit and was apparently having trouble with his saliva. He was gurgling in his throat. Duke rushed over to him and held him up on his shoulder. Then he realized that his cat tattoo was on his shoulder once again, and there was no pain, no evidence of his previous torture. He turned to the old man.
“Can you hear me?” he asked him. The old man gave no answer, but his tongue only lolled out the side of his mouth. Duke opened one of the man’s eyelids, and the icd blue iris had rolled up under his skull. This was either a dead faint or a stroke.
Duke put the healing wineskin to the old man’s lips, but he couldn’t get him to take a drink. The man simply did not respond. However, Duke did succeed in splashing some of the medicine on the old man’s lips before he gave it up as hopeless.
Duke stood up and corked the medicinal wineskin. He replaced it in his pack and took a drink of the lemon and herb water. Then he repacked that bottle as well. He took the straps off his pack and fastened them around the old man’s chest. He fitted them as a harness, then, to carry the man on his back. He picked up his pack in his hands, and found his way out of the room and out of the stone building, just as lightning struck the roof. The stones crumbled and the whole building collapsed as Duke carried the old man out.
Duke trudged along, making his way back to the Gypsy’s camp, as the cool raion fell, big drops splashing his face. He hoped the old man would be all right.
* * * *
“Well, that was my contribution to the whole thing,” the Gypsy said, pouring another cup of tea for Duke. They were in her camper again, with the old man resting in a tent outside. The air would be good for him, the Gypsy had said, when she set him up for the night. The dog would lie next to him and keep him warm.
“And,” she continued, “You know how Dandelion helped!” The animal in question looked up at them and purred. Then he went back to sleep. “I just have one question,” the Gypsy said. “What did you say to the hood who approached you in the batr?”
“I forget, why?” Duke said.
“Well, my vision was interrupted, and that usually doesn’t happen. I was just curious,” the Gypsy explained.
“Well, let’s see…” Duke paused, trying to remember. “Oh, yeah – you’re not going to like it…”
The Gypsy only raised her eyebrows at him.
He sighed. This wasn’t going to be easy. “I asked him,” Duke began, “why he brought his baby sisters along…” as he said this Duke prepared to duck.
The Gypsy only laughed. She had been around long enough not to get rattled by things like that. “Well, you dummy,” she finally said, “that’s why I couldn’t help you at that moment. You denied my power – the power of the woman …You threw my help back in my face!”
Duke looked up at her gentle scolding. Forgiven? Apparently so. “Then I guess the reason you were able to help me after that was that as soon as I said it, I prayed to God for your forgiveness – I took it back,” he said.
The Gypsy nodded.
The old man died quietly that night in his sleep. They buried him the next morning in the meadow next to town. As they made their way back to the camper, Duke looked toward the ridge. The leaves were falling and winter would come on them soon. He would stay with the Gypsy through the winter, and learn from her about the balance of old and young, male and female, through the cycles of life; while they waited together for the spring. Next year promised to be better.
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