Raven Mocker

 

This is an upcoming standalone contemporary fantasy, where the old legends and spirits of southeast Turtle Island are set against those of the Scottish borderlands.

Oh, and there’s a kickass grandmother as hero, too.

——–

“The auld magician’s hideaway.” Or so the estate agent had told her.

Yet, upon first prospect, it sought to prove no magic remained in the world.

The tower resembled more a broken, grey tooth than any mighty bastion. Crumbling and moss-ridden, set into the side of a hill, covered head-high with brambles and footed with overgrown bracken… still, like most ruins, it had a presence. One that begged exploration: Come see, come see.

Jo stayed right where she was and crossed her arms, squinting upward. No more magic in the world, if there ever was, her father had always said, only stories of it left, and ruins in the old country.

Her father’s people, at least, still had ruins to honour.

Come see, come see.

She shielded her eyes with one hand. How was it an overcast day could make her long for the sunglasses she’d left in the cottage?

A third storey iron grating creaked in the breeze, covering what had been the window to the magician’s chamber. The rotting wood door, still hanging on by virtue of one huge and battered hinge, had once thwarted several determined Templars. The yew tree, now a wild maze of twisty branches, had been planted by some long-ago woman in memory of a child who’d been taken by the fairies.

Or so the tales went.

A quirk of brow warring with the equal quirk of lip, Jo contemplated that door. Likely a crowbar would shift it. Taking one step, then two and three, to weave her way around a crumbled stone wall and…

“Hoy!”

The shout made her jump just as she reached out to touch the door.

“I’d not be going there, lad!”

Well, all right, she was dressed in an oversized jacket, braid hanging beneath her jacket and legs all lanky in trousers, but really? Lad?

The voice, already loud, ramped up louder. Closer. “Hoy, you listening? ’Tis dangerous, that auld wreck!”

No disagreement there. With a sigh, Jo turned away from the ‘auld wreck’.

“Ent you listening, lad? You’re not supposed to be here, and… faith! What’s the likes of you doing here, snooping about? Clear off!”

This last as Jo finally turned to acknowledge the approaching fury, who wielded a big stick and growled a wealth of syllables like something from one of Pokni’s tales. She contemplated the knife in her boot but didn’t reach for it, instead gave a shrug. “I live here.”

This halted the fury in his muck-booted tracks. And once stopped, he wasn’t so furious, after all. Merely a ginger-whiskered elder wielding a walking stick, his tweed jacket and cap straight from The Quiet Man—one of Jo’s favourites despite Pokni growling that John Wayne was no more than white man’s arrogance packaged in a little-dick Stetson. But Pokni would always watch it with her, complete with hilarious anecdotes about Jo’s great-grandfather being an extra in The Searchers, one who’d watched his companions teach said Mr. Wayne phrases that didn’t mean “Goodbye, friends!” No, not by a long shot.

The elder’s cap was no Stetson, and covered what seemed more curly ginger. Hard to tell—the sun was starting to set, turning everything the colour of a fox’s back.

“You. Live here.” The old man eyed Jo, then the ancient, tumble-down stone motte to which Jo was, obviously and by his lights, too close. Neither did he lower his stave.

Neither was Jo in Ireland, but the borderlands of Scotland, exploring the twenty-acre horse farm her father’s brother had inexplicably bequeathed her.

“Yep. We drove straight from Edinburgh yesterday. Got lost twice even with the sat-nav. Country roads are the same all over, huh?” She kept her voice quiet, soothing the old man akin to one of the horses waiting in the stables and paddocks uphill. Conditioning was hard to shake—but perhaps this shouldn’t be shaken. Elders were oft contrary and opinionated as hell, but the life they’d lived deserved respect.

“‘We’?” This elder fair oozed suspicion and affront. No doubt the ancestors who’d given him that border lilt had also put that piss and iron in his spine: Gerrout an’ keep out, Yanks and damned English.

Jo could sympathise. “Yep. Me and Po… erm, my grandmother.”

“You and your gramma.” His repetitions could have been annoying, but that lovely accent disarmed her, brine to sweet. “Live here.”

Perversely, the mix of accusation and incredulity merely kindled more respect for this arsy, fox-haired grandfather. Jo offered up another smile and shrug. “Looks like we do now.”

The stave slowly, if surely, began to lower. “You’re American.”

Well, true enough; an Oklahoma accent didn’t quite sound right echoing up against that medieval tower. “That I am. Bob’s my uncle.”

Amazingly, the old man snorted up a laugh. “Is it, then?”

“What?” Grandfather Fox was obviously and also a little dotty. “No, really. Uncle Bob, Robert Buchanan, was my father’s brother.”

The laughter stilled and the thick, gingery-yellow brows knitted even more beneath the cap—though Jo would have thought that impossible. “You’re Rab’s niece? Her as is comin’”—his nose gave a sideways twitch and he corrected—“as has come with her gramma from the colonies?”

Yeah, well, and wouldn’t her gramma have a few words to say about the colonies? Jo settled for a slight slide of eye and offered a wry smile. “I suppose I don’t look much like my uncle.”

Browner. Even when pokni wasn’t here, she was.

The rez kids liked to say I wasn’t brown enough, Jo answered, silent and wry.

Well, kids can be stupid, oke?

The old man’s face twitched as if he’d heard. “Aye, and my apologies, Miss, but there’s been strange doings in these airts since your uncle died. People wanderin’ where they oughtn’t. A lot of Pakkies moved in down t’Hobkirk and they’ve been wandering about, curious about the auld folly. Not t’ mention that bunch of skivin’ tinkers who tried to park on yer uncle’s fields, bold as brass.”

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. Tinkers she knew, but skivin? And… “Did you just say Pocky? Like the candy?”

The elder’s cheeks pinked even more—which was saying something. “I’m sorry, shouldn’t’ve said it so; milady Kate would have at me. Says me auld prejudices show ower aft. But times was different when I was growin’, y’see? Hard to shake. I meant such as comes from Pakistan or the like. I’ve seen a few light-eyed fellers from there, but… now I recollect, Rab’s brother married a Red Indian, aye?”

Red Indian. It mightn’t have been out of place in an old Monty Python skit—but that was nearly fifty years ago, and Grandfather Fox’s auld prejudices were showing. Again. “My mom’s Choctaw and Cherokee, if that’s what you mean. The green eyes could be from either side.”

As the old man peered closer, a scraggle-toothed smile lit his face. “They are, aren’t they? A lovely pea green! So you’re Willow Jane Buchanan.” He tossed the stave onto one shoulder and held out a hand. “I’m Stuart Cameron.”

She recognised his name. “You’re the one the estate agent told me was seeing to the animals.”

“Aye. ‘Til things was settled, like.”

Reaching out, Jo let the thick, callused fingers slide into her own. Small and perhaps annoying, but mighty, this Stuart. At least he wasn’t one of those hand squeezers, though after years of controlling overexcited colts and fillies at the track, she could damn-well squeeze right back. “Please call me Jo. Jane is, well, Jane. And Willow just sounds like I had hippie parents.” Which she had, but…

“Now, lass, Willow’s a powerful good tree to be born ‘neath. And Jane’s a fair name, though considerin’ the history hereabouts ‘tis not one I’d live nigh Old Magic Mike’s tower and use, to be sure—”

“Magic… Mike?”

“The auld wizard as used to hide out in yon tower once… but pardon me ways, I’m bletherin’ again. Welcome to you, Miss Jo! Ye’re gey early, and… Have you seen the horses, then? I was on m’ way to turn ’em out.”

He seemed anxious to change the subject, so Jo played along. “I peeked in last night. I was heading that way.”

#

The house was… odd.

It was also neglected. Robert Buchanan had possessed neither wife nor family to properly see to it. Dust had settled, crusting in the cracks. Mice had taken over the lower cabinets. The wooden floors needed a good scrubbing.

And old. Older by far than anything in the States—but then, no surprise there, where history lied and remnants of it had been scattered, or torn down, or pawned. Centuries of memory obliterated, dug up, paved over. Though even here they found their kings interred beneath parking lots.

Not for the first time, Caroline Fletcher wondered what she thought she was doing in Scotland.

Looking for the place your grandpa died in the war. Looking after your granddaughter. Only then came the tiny admittance: and following an old dream.

Dream. Nightmare, more like. Caro growled a tiny oath beneath her breath and padded across the kitchen, the wooden floor creaking in time to her steps. She wasn’t over heavy—she’d padding on her long bones to be sure, but not like old Winoma, her aunt out to Bogue Chitto. Naw, the floor was just that old, even more than the panelling carved so fine. Older even than the fat, newly-unpacked iron stewpot now bubbling and steaming atop the stove.

They have cooking pots, Jo had coaxed. They don’t live in mud huts any more than our folks ever lived in tepees.

But they didn’t have this cooking pot, did they? And their new/old house was mostly cob, wasn’t it?—and that mixed of, yes, mud and straw and dung. With well-hewn, dusty panelling here and there. Caro had done her time in a few “mud huts”, knew them as sound dwellings.

Either way, her granddaughter had relented and boxed Caro’s best iron pots with the other necessaries. Like the sweetgrass smouldering in an abalone shell on the counter; the nice customs people at Edinburgh hadn’t caught either of those, buried as they’d been in a box of tee shirts, a few cane baskets, and beadwork. Caro smirked as she gave a quick stir to the stew, and sighed.

Thank the ancestors for online shopping. A decent pow-wow was like to be scarce on this ground.

She took a taste—corn doing the backstroke amidst beef, beans, and a monster mutant of a squash she’d found hiding in the garden yesterday—and nodded approval. It would be ready for lunch. As would the cornbread baking in the huge contrary monster of a cookstove—an Aga, was it?—but conversely enough like to what Caro’s own grandmother had taught her on. Only this one had a back-boiler and four ovens!

The window over the sink flickered with shafts of rising sun, drawing Caro’s gaze out over damp green streaked some gold, mostly grey. Spoon still halfway to her mouth, her eyes narrowed upon the tumbledown stones of the tower an arrow’s flight away. It dwarfed the familiar figure who’d halted there. Caro didn’t like the sight, somehow.

You worry too much, Pokni. As if Jo was right there, chiding.

Caro shrugged and grinned. Small surprise that Jo had stopped on her way to see to the horses. That old wreck of stone had teased her granddaughter’s interest since they’d first heard of it.

You’ll have heard of Aikwood Tower? This one isn’t a fraction as grand, unfortunately, but supposedly has a like connection to the same legend. Michael Scot. With a dubious sniff as her clients had merely tendered blank looks, the estate agent had furthered, The alchemist? Some say he was sorcerer to Queen Elisabeth? The first one, of course. A tap-tap of perfectly-manicured nails across the literal pile of legal papers followed, the agent expressing further regret with I’m afraid it can’t be torn down; it’s a protected artefact. Truly unfortunate, to have such a rotting old monstrosity on the place, and the connection can’t even be proven…

Monstrosity was about right, but not for the reasons the estate agent thought. Such places held too much of the past; too many experiences crowding together unheeded, too many ancestors abandoned.

The sweetgrass smoke gave a sudden, frantic dance. Caro glanced that way, frowning—it wasn’t the first time—and peered about the kitchen.

Drafty place. Old.

Still.

More movement out the window. Caro looked up. Her frown deepened as some old crank in a pancake hat came charging down the hill toward Jo. He was wielding a stick, too. Caro slid out the back door and onto the mud porch. She snatched up her walking staff—ostensibly for the dicky knee, but more useful as defense. She started for her wellies, then hesitated as Jo turned on the old man. He backed up a few steps.

Caro smiled. Raised white or no, her granddaughter took no shit.

And knew her manners, too. Jo spent some time chatting the old man up; in result his demeanour turned less belligerent, more curious. Soon they were conversing instead of challenging, and not long after, began to hike up the poisonously-green rise beyond the tower. Toward the stables.

Those had proved in tiptop shape the previous evening, the horses within sleek and well-fed. Caro’s dismay at the house had turned approving as they’d made a quick, flashlight-aided recce of the barns. A man who took better care of his dependants than himself was indeed a man. She would have liked to have met Robert Buchanan.

But then they wouldn’t have this place. It wasn’t home, but it was lovely. Caro peered about her, took in a deep breath of soft-damp air, and sighed.

Beyond the tower was a small valley with a stream—a burn, Caro reminded herself of the vernacular—that meandered on upwards and into a stretch of woodland. The latter had just become visible, fog rising to cling in the treetops. Wet and lush, edging to the west nigh to the river, birds spread across the cropped expanse between house and tower, soaring in and out, fluttering amidst a cluster of grazing sheep.

Yet it couldn’t halt the shiver that chased Caro’s spine, or the longing wish for the blanket tossed over the couch. Lumberjack shirt and sweat pants weren’t enough to cut the morning’s chill. Casting an eye over the grey skies, she noted a few rose-gold slats from the east. Still, those clouds looked to be staying.

Toenails clicked across the wooden porch. Taking another mist-laden breath, Caro patted her hip and met the collie’s soft eyes as he reared up to have his ears fondled.

If this was another of Buchanan’s left-behind dependants, he’d been wandering for a while. Jo had found him skulking about the porch, his piebald fur in desperate need of a comb and his washboard ribcage suggesting he’d missed more than a few meals. The latter in particular had prompted Jo into a back and forth game of ‘you can’t catch me’; several cans of Spam had sealed that deal pretty quick.

They’d named him Bohpoli—after the little spirit people from the southeastern forests where Caro had been raised—and the collie was indeed little and sinewy, with the lithe reflexes of a top herder. Or a weasel, Caro considered. He wagged his whole body, back and forth, and poured over the ground like the rising mists.

“How you haven’t mildewed with all this wet is beyond me,” she told the dog, roughing his tricolour coat. “That’s all it’s done since we landed in the city, rain. Or whatever you call this thick wet that isn’t really rain. Worse than summers in Neshoba County.”

Nudging his nose against her hip, Bohpoli dropped to all fours and trotted to the door, expectant.

“Oh, no. Not ‘til we worm you.”

Bohpoli glowered, but stayed where he was.

“And fleas, mind. I won’t have fleas in this house, or ticks.” Nudging the collie aside with her calf, Caro half opened the door, asked, “Do they have ticks here?”

Bohpoli didn’t answer, clearly disgruntled.

The soup aroma escaped past the door, heavy and delicious. Caro slid an eye back up the hill, then nodded to herself. No doubt Jo would invite the old crank for lunch. “Stew and cornbread’ll sugar his salt, all right…”

Her voice warbled as Bohpoli abruptly spun and charged across the porch. He stopped at the edge just as sudden, the thick fur lifting on his shoulders, ears pricked and gaze intent upon…

That tower.

Caro frowned, attention riveted surely as the dog’s. Not the tower, but more the silence. Sudden, uncharacteristic, heavy; even the birds had gone quiet. The sheep who’d moments before been busy nibbling the green were clumped in a close group beside a bush. Caro looked up, expecting a hawk, but no. The sky, too, had emptied itself of anything but looming clouds. The old tower hunkered quiet, wreathed in green and grey.

Bohpoli whined into the stillness, lifted his head.

Caro saw it, then. Not at the tower but past the thick grove of trees to an uphill stretch of plain, where wind swept the thick, tough grass in tens of directions at once. A dark shape detached itself from the trees, covering the grassy plain with capable, long strides. Bohpoli whined again, more welcome than warning. For a half a breath Caro thought he meant to follow the person, and that was as curious as the silence of the forest; collies usually claimed only one human as theirs, or one family.

Unless it was old Bob’s spirit, rambling his home.

“We’ll take care of things,” Caro murmured, against the moist air. “You’ve no cause to worry. You trusted Jana with what you left behind, and she’ll do right by it.”

As if in answer, brilliance spilled over the hill, a shaft of sun fingering the tower’s edge. Caro blinked…

And there was nothing there.

#

RAVEN MOCKER — Coming November 2023 from Forest Path Books