The Cold Eye
PART ONE UNCERTAIN GROUND
There was a well-ordered murmur to the saloon in Flood that evening, some combination of chairs scraping and glassware clinking, laid against the flickerthwack of cards against felt, and the self-assured calls of the dealers. Marie cast her gaze around her domain, confirming that all was well, then moved through the crowd to stand behind the dealer at the main table.
“Gentleman in the far corner wishes to have a word with you when you’re done dealing for the evening.”
She waited until the boss nodded, the barest hint of a chin drop, and moved along to the next table, a smile on her lips, eyes bright and alert. The carmine she’d rubbed on her cheeks had been replaced by the flush of warmth and hard work, the ache of ankle and hip joined by the soreness of elbow and knee. It was entirely possible, Marie thought, that she was finally growing too old for this.
A dry snort behind her gave the boss’s opinion of that, and her smile warmed for a heartbeat.
Still and all, there was no gainsaying she’d earned her aches. Five tables full, and Iktan busy at the bar, her people coming and going in a
well-choreographed dance. She should feel satisfied. She did feel satisfied. It was near impossible for her not to take satisfaction, being who and what she was, when things went well and needs were gratified.
But her ankle and hip ached, and her elbows and knees were sore, and she worked to keep her smile in place as she nodded to strangers and placed warm hands on the shoulders of regulars. The responsibilities of the Devil’s Right Hand were hers: the gathering-in and the granting, ensuring that all who came to him were noted and heard.
“We dance to his tune,” she’d told Izzy. So you put your smile on and left the aches until later.
“Cardsharp at Jack’s table,” Molly said as she passed, her tray filled with empty glasses needing refills or cleaning. “Black-haired gent in the kersey weave. He’s not started cheating yet, but he has a look about him.”
Marie slanted a look in that direction. “Give him one more drink and have Iktan settle his tab,” she said. Cardsharps came regular, either to see the devil deal cards or to test themselves on his table. She’d seen the boss spend all evening with one, the two of them grinning like a pair of schoolboys as the stakes grew higher and the cheats wilder, all other games abandoned until they ended with a bottle between them after hours, talking until dawn. But to come with intent to cheat others . . . The devil ran an honest game, and an honest house, and she’d sweep out any who tried different.
In the end, the cardsharp went quietly, with a rueful grin that might have amused another woman. Marie forgot him before the door’d snicked shut on his heels, busy with her responsibilities until the last flickerthwack of cards was laid to rest, the last bootheel sounding on hardwood, and all that was left was the whisper of slippers and the sighs of bodies loosed from jumps and hair down from knots in the rooms upstairs. The boss disappeared into his private office, and Iktan whistled soundlessly as he cleaned the last of the glassware and stocked up for the night, the kitchen silent and dark.
She would say the quiet voice startled her, save she’d been expecting it for at least a week now. Rosa: the others had likely elected her, from the way she shuffled forward, hesitant and determined in her night-wrapper, arms crossed against her bosom.
Marie placed her glass of whiskey down on the bar, hearing the glass clink wetly on the hardwood and watching with amusement as Iktan lifted the glass to swipe under it with his cloth, replacing the glass more quietly.
“Have you . . . have you heard anything from Izzy, recent? I was just wondering; she’s been gone so long, and so sudden . . .”
Overnight, Rosa meant. One evening the girl was among them, clearing drinks and smiling at the players, one of a handful of girls under the boss’s protection. One evening she was there, and the next dawn she was gone. “On the devil’s business,” they’d been told, and nothing more. Because if they needed to be told, they had no need to know.
None of them had seen the quiet depths to that one girl, the hunger they lacked; none had understood the skill they thought could be learned, and not simply trained when it appeared.
“She’ll be home to us soon,” Marie said, and her smile was all that was comforting and sincere, even as she wondered if she lied.
Isobel had been riding alone for three days, two to her destination and one heading back, when she first heard the whisper.
She reined the mare in, listening. In the months since they’d left Flood, she’d learned to sit relaxed in the saddle, aware now of the grass and rocks under Uvnee’s hooves, the distant, steady chitter of insects and the calls of birds, the rustle of the breeze coming cool from the northwest, and the clear, quiet hum of the Road ahead of and below her. But this was something new.
They’d been skirting the western edge of the Territory for weeks, the bare rock and hints of snow on the high jagged peaks to her left still strange to her prairie-born eyes, but she could sense nothing wrong
here, could hear no alarm in the breeze or the birds, see no cause for her skin to prickle or the pit of her stomach to tighten.
Another might have dismissed the whisper as discomfort, sweat and dirt itching her skin. Despite the brim of her hat shading her eyes, her jacket rolled and tied to the back of her saddle, the early summer sun was strong, leaving the fabric of her skirt and blouse damp with sweat. But Isobel née Lacoyo Távora was no longer the green girl she’d been, newly made Devil’s Hand, with no idea of what that was or what it meant.
And Isobel had heard whispers before. Not a voice, not a word, but a sensation, curling not within her ears but inside her bones, and it rarely brought pleasant news. But always before, Gabriel had been with her, his steady presence a comfort, his experience a guide. That was why the boss had chosen him, to mentor her while she learned.
She was alone now, Gabriel waiting back at camp, a day’s ride on.
The whisper came again, skitter-cool under her skin, scraping and pulling her, until she nearly swayed in the saddle.
Two days’ ride out, two days’ ride back. She dared not divert her course. If she was late returning, Gabriel would worry.
Isobel stiffened her spine against that thought. She was the Devil’s Hand, his proxy in the Territory, and her Bargain did not allow her to ignore a call for aid, no matter its source. She licked her lips, rubbed her left palm, with its black-lined sigil, against her skirt, and adjusted the brim of her hat, and when she spoke, her voice was firm.
The whisper yanked her forward, knees pressing Uvnee off the trail they’d been following, hooves clattering on rock, up over a long, narrow rise northwest of where she’d meant to be, the tug-tug-tug a steady ache until they crested the rise and could see what waited for them.
A sudden shock of wrongness flashed in her bones and rocked her back into her saddle, making her reach instinctively for the long knife sheathed above her knee. But even as she did so, Isobel knew that the wrongness was not a threat to her, and nothing a knife could defend against.
Uvnee shifted, clearly wanting to be gone. Isobel calmed the mare and forced herself to study the scene below her, nostrils flaring to catch the hint of anything more than decay in the air, her ears alert to noise from above or behind. But she was, save for Uvnee, alone.
Alone, save for the buzzards who lifted their heads to study the newcomers as she rode closer, and then, once it was clear she had no interest in chasing them from their meal, dropped bald heads to their grisly business once more.
Corpses. Hillocks of flesh, draped across the grass, white bones showing through here and there where the buzzards and foxes had already been.
She felt bile rise in her throat. Not at the sight or smell of dead flesh—any delicacy she’d been born with had been extinguished, if not from her years living under the devil’s roof, then certainly in the past months of riding the Road?—but from the sheer waste of it all. The buffalo carcasses had been shorn of their hides and horns, but the flesh had been left on the bone, rotting under the sun.
Anger did not replace the disgust but fitted itself alongside, curling along her spine, making her head dizzy. This was wrong, it snarled. This was wrongness.
“What a blasted waste.”
Isobel’s knife was ready in her hand even as Uvnee spooked sideways, her hooves scraping against stone. The man who had spoken did not react to the threat, his gaze resting on the piles of flesh below them. He was slight-built, dressed in a rider’s long oilcloth coat, worn brown boots on his feet, and a battered hat on his head, the skin of his face and hands sun-brown and spotted.
She knew him, although she had never seen him before.
He met her gaze then, the lines of his face etched around a thin mouth, and stone-grey eyes deep-set under the shadow of his hat’s brim. A Jack. Men—and some women—who’d sat down at the devil’s table
and wagered more than they could afford to lose. Sworn for seven times seven and seven again, to serve the boss until their debt was cleared.
“Even dumb beasts are given mercy denied me,” he went on, returning his gaze to the scene below.
She glanced at the slaughtered remains. “You call that mercy?”
“I felt their death, felt them return to the wind and bones.” He flexed his fingers, the knuckles crackling loud in the silence between them. “The quiet of death is a dream, and I am not allowed to sleep.” He exhaled, as though summoning words, before she could speak in turn. “Will you kill me, Hand?”
She knew, the way she knew what he was, that he had not served his term. And he knew, even as he asked, what her answer must be.
She realized she was still holding the knife in her hand, and slipped it back into its sheath. “Did you see who did this?”
The Jack shook his head. He had no cause to lie, even if he’d dared. “I felt it. A day back, p’raps more. It drew me, same as it drew you.” The lines in his face pulled taut. “That much power, he resents it being gone.”
The near-insult to the boss offended her, but something thrummed under her skin before she could rebuke him, shimmering along her bones to pool hot and sharp in the palm of her left hand. She didn’t bother to look down, merely stretching her fingers as though they had cramped. The sigil etched in her palm pulsed once in response and then subsided, leaving her cold despite the sun still high overhead.
“All right,” she told the mark, the sensation, the anger. “All right. I know.”
Had it been their deaths the whisper warned of? The buffalo were no obligation of the devil’s, no matter what the Jack said. The Territory’s medicine was none of his concern or handling. But there was no arguing with the sigil: it demanded her attention, demanded her action.
“May I have your leave to go, Hand?”
She nodded; she had no use for him here.
The Jack’s boot heels scraped stone underfoot, heavier than Gabriel’s
steps, the movement of a man accustomed to walking, not riding, two steps, five, and then gone. And then it was only her, and the buzzards, and the silent heaps of scraped bone and rotting flesh. And the pulse of demand in her left hand.
Isobel could not fix this, could not erase the insult given, and from the smell of the bodies, the killers were long gone, and she was no tracker, to follow and find them.
Gabriel could have done it, most likely. But Gabriel wasn’t with her. Five days back, they’d ridden into La Ramée, only to learn that a post rider had collapsed off his horse, near death with dysentery and not yet recovered, his post undelivered.
Gabriel had volunteered to take the packet on to the next waystation. “It’s good you be seen doing things like this,” he’d told her. “Solving problems that aren’t life-shaking, give ’em confidence the devil’s looking after them, even way out here.”
Isobel was reasonable certain that the Left Hand hadn’t been meant to ride as a post-rider, but she’d a letter of her own to send back to the boss, anyhow. Two birds with one stone, Marie would say, and Isobel was aware she’d a strong streak of the practical in her.
Practical, and aware of the burden of duty and obligations. Something had drawn her here, just as it had the Jack. Unlike him, she was not constrained to wait on specific orders.
Isobel slid off Uvnee’s back, her boots crunching lightly on the dry grass, and tucked the reins up, then walked closer, trusting the mare to stay where she was. Up close?—closer than Isobel had ever been to one of the beasts, living, and closer than she’d ever thought to be?—their size was even more impressive. She counted seven bodies, although the churned-up grass indicated that there had been a few more. Four were full-grown, three were calves, smaller than ponies, their pelts sparse and untouched, their thick skulls broken by the bullets that killed them.
Isobel had seen a great herd only once, but the wonder of it lingered in her own bones, the way it had caught at her, stilled her heart and
breath with the drumming of thousands of hooves, holding her captive until the beasts had moved on. Buffalo did not merely live within the Territory; they were part of it, the power flowing from the earth into their hearts and returning through the pounding of their hooves, much as water found its way through stone.
That much power, he resents it being gone. “He” being the boss. But the buffalo were no part of him, no obligation of his, any more than the wind or the rain or . . . or magicians. Their medicine was not one the boss could touch or use. Why would it concern him?
The sigil in her palm pulsed again, the deep black lines stinging as though she’d grasped a handful of berry-bramble. She flexed her fingers, telling it to wait, to be patient.
Gabriel had told her that buffalo hunts began with offerings to appease the spirits of those killed, that every part of the animal was used, that waste would offer insult and ensure that none of the beasts gave of themselves to those hunters again. Buffalo pelts were prized, but so too were the meat, the horns, the tail, the bones . . . not left to bloat and rot under the sun.
This . . . this was nothing short of desecration. The word came from nowhere, the taste of it like ashes and dry bread on her tongue, and the bile churned again.
The ground needed to be cleansed.
Isobel went back to the mare and rummaged in her saddlebag, her questing fingers resting briefly on her journal, the leather binding worn soft at the corners now, before pulling out a winter apple, slightly mushy but still edible, and a handful of loose salt, crumbled from the stick no Rider went without. Almost an afterthought, she reached for the canteen slung over the saddle, hearing the water slosh inside, then went back to where the bodies lay.
The buzzards shifted as she approached, moving away but refusing to relinquish their meal entirely. She placed the apple on the ground, drawing a half-circle of salt around it, then splashed some of the water, soaking the grass where blood had dried. Salt to cleanse, and offerings
of grazing and water to appease. There should be smoke, and a better offering, but this was all she had.
“I’m sorry,” she said to them, her gaze touching on each beast in turn, memorizing their shapes, even their smells. “You should have been better honored, in your death. I—” She hesitated, unwilling to promise a thing she was not certain she could perform. “I will carry your memory with me. I will honor your gifts, although they did not come to me.”
She couldn’t promise any more, not faithfully. But as the words left her mouth, one of the buzzards lifted its bald head and swiveled its neck to look directly at her, and a burning chill touched her face, even as the sting in her palm faded.
Something had heard her, and accepted her promise.
Isobel made camp that night soon after the sun fell below the horizon, stopping only when it became clear she would not reach the Road before full dark.
The stars were bright, the low moon waxing crescent, and Isobel paused while burying the remains of her dinner to appreciate the way their light echoed against the darkness, silent counterpoint to the occasional howls and hoots rising from the land.
She had been raised under a roof, and the first few nights on the Road, the vast open space had unnerved her beyond the telling, the sweep of stars brighter than any lamp, the sheer emptiness of the land a weight pressing her down into the ground until she could barely breathe.
Slowly, over weeks, that sensation had faded, until the open air became familiar as walls and windows, the light of the stars and the passage of the moon the only comfort she needed, the emptiness filled with the less-subtle noises of the night, the howl and barks of predators, the flutter of wings as soothing as the sound of slippers in the hallway.
But that night, she missed Gabriel, his low voice telling stories of how Badger pulled first man from stone, or Buffalo created the plains, or teaching her to identify an animal by the flick of its tail, or a plant
by the turn of its leaves. She missed the sound of his breathing as he slept across the fire from her, the snort and mumble when he dreamed. She missed the collective sighing and grumbling of his horse, Steady, and Flatfoot the mule when they were picketed together with Uvnee.
Even the Jack would have been welcome company, simply to feel another person nearby.
“Foolishness,” she told herself, startling a stripetail that had crept close to see if she’d left scraps for it to scavenge. She kicked the ground to discourage it, and it fled.
Unwilling to sleep just yet, Isobel took her journal out, wetted her pencil, and wrote down what she had seen, how many bodies and how they had been butchered, what had been taken and what had been left, and a description of the hollow where she’d found them, the shape of the hills from where she’d stood. The boss might want to know. More, she had promised to remember.
When she slipped the journal back into her pack, her hand touched something else, not cloth, that crinkled under her fingers. She’d almost forgotten about the letters. Two waxed envelopes had been at the postal drop, one addressed to a Matthew Smith someplace called Tallahatchie, and one . . .
And one for Gabriel. The envelope had been battered at the edges as though it had traveled a long way, but his name was written in clear script on the dun-colored envelope. Master Gabriel Kasun.
You didn’t meddle in another’s business in the Territory. You didn’t ask questions you’d no need the answers to. She left the envelopes where they were, refusing to indulge any curiosity in who might be writing to her mentor, and lay down, pulling the blanket more closely around her shoulders. Sooner she slept, sooner she’d be on her way again, sooner she wouldn’t be alone.
Isobel couldn’t move. Nothing bound her, nothing held her down,
but she could not convince her limbs to lift, a soft indolence encasing her as securely as if she were swaddled like an infant.
The voice was insistent, the shape of it poking, prodding. “I am awake,” she tried to tell it, then realized that she wasn’t. She was dreaming, and the voice needed her to wake.
Her eyes opened, the stickiness on her eyelashes evidence that she had been asleep for several hours. The belly-rounded sliver of the moon was sinking, the stars beginning to fade, and she estimated, groggily, that it was a few hours before sunrise. The coalstone glimmered faintly within its circle of rocks, and she could hear Uvnee shifting, but it was a peaceful, sleepy shift; whatever had woken Isobel had not disturbed the mare or roused her to defense.
What had woken her?
Gut feeling made Isobel turn her head away from the coalstone, scanning the dark air next to her for the shadow of a snake, its tongue flickering secrets; a native stepping quietly through the night; a demon lurking, intent on mischief. But there was nothing there save grass. Nothing came visiting tonight.
You must go.
Her bedroll was packed away and the coalstone cooled before Isobel realized she had been directed to do so. She paused, drawing a sharp, shocked breath. An owl called twice in the darkness, and she waited, half-expecting a third call that never came. If an owl called three times in the night, it meant medicine was being worked. Two calls, it merely hunted unsuspecting mice.
Beyond that, there was only an echoing silence, the night creatures stilling, the dawn birds not yet singing.
An empty space in the world, through which other voices could be heard.
It did not feel the same as what had drawn her to the slaughtered buffalo. That had been a feeling, a pressure, a pull. This was . . . like the
boss, when he used a particular tone, but nothing at all of that warm, familiar voice. There was nothing human in this at all, and it would not be refused.
Isobel finished breaking her simple camp, waking Uvnee and replacing her blanket and saddle with a soft apology. “We’ll make up breakfast later,” she said as she mounted. “We need to be on our way now.”
The sigil in her palm remained cool in her skin, the black lines invisible in the darkness, and yet she knew the way she knew things now that the whispering voice was a summons she could not refuse.
Was it about the buffalo? The spirits of the dead lingered until they were laid to rest, protected. Did the spirits of animals do the same? She had made a promise . . . Was she now being driven to satisfy it?
“Boss?” She knew he couldn’t hear her. The devil might have long ears, but there were none that long, to cover the breadth of the Territory; she was months from home, and he had more to do than listen for her.
Uvnee snorted, her warm breath almost visible in the chill air, and turned her head to nip at Isobel’s skirt, as though asking why she’d been woken and saddled if they weren’t going to go anywhere. Isobel patted the mare’s neck with the hand not holding the reins, reassured by the solid warmth of muscle and flesh. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
She buttoned her jacket and tucked the fabric of her skirts under her legs, then gave the mare the signal to move forward, both of them keeping their eyes on the grass in front of them: traveling in the dark was always dangerous, and the grass could hide any of a dozen threats, from gopher holes to snakes, to ground suddenly wet and slippery from a hidden creek.
The stock of her gun, a new acquisition in La Ramée, rubbed against her leg, but its presence gave her little comfort. Gabriel was the sureshot of the two of them. She could hit things most times out of ten, but not always, and she’d never yet had to shoot at a thing that went on two legs.
Only a fool would be riding before dawn, alone, driven by a whisper in the dark. But her life was not her own. She kept riding, north and west of where she’d planned to go, farther away from the campsite where
Gabriel was waiting, until the sky began to shift from black to purple, and from purple to streaky red ahead of the sun.
It was full dawn when Isobel rode over yet another low, undulating hill and saw a narrow river cutting through the shallow valley below, the outline of a small farmstead a little ways uphill from it, on the other side. Her destination?
No answer came, either by whisper or sigil-burn.
There were three buildings set in a grassy clearing: two square, low-roofed houses and a barn set around a trampled-down center. Beyond that, there was what looked like an icehouse, half-hidden under the turf, the buildings weathered from both winter’s wind and summer’s sun, doors shut and windows shuttered.
Cautiously, she rode Uvnee into the creek, the water splashing at her boots, soaking the mare’s legs, Isobel’s gaze slipping from right to left and then back again, waiting for . . . something, anything, to appear or attack.
Halfway across, she felt the warding, a dozen prickly slaps against her chest and arms, making her fingers spasm on the reins before the prickling faded and disappeared. The wards had recognized her—or, more likely, the devil’s sigil she carried?—and named her friend and welcome. Isobel’s muscles eased slightly, but she remained alert. There was still no movement she could see, no cows lowing or the enthusiastic he-hon of pigs to be heard, and no one had yet come out to greet her. Was there illness here, as at Widder Creek, or had the farmstead been abandoned under threat?
Uvnee heaved herself out of the creek and up the slight bank, coming to a pause when Isobel eased the reins back, still cautious, still waiting.
Illness or violence. She had been called for nothing else yet.
The knife in the darkness. That was what the boss had called her. Maria was the Right Hand, the open hand. The Left was forever curled around a weapon.
Her right hand rested on the hilt of her knife, the butt of her blunderbuss hard against her thigh, and she calculated how quickly
she could reach for the silver in her pocket if she needed it. But those musings were cut off when a woman exited one of the low houses, turning to face the newcomer, and the morning sunlight showed that the woman was native.
Isobel felt a momentary pang of uncertainty: had she given offense by riding in, uninvited? The warding had recognized her, but she had only been in a few native encampments before, and always with Gabriel at her side.
The woman called out then, saying something in a language Isobel did not know. She shook her head, lifting her right hand to her left breast and then out, ending with her palm to the sky, thumb and index finger extended, then swept her hand, fingers extended, to the right. She thought—hoped?—that was the sign for not understanding, that she was doing it right, that they didn’t use another gesture, that she hadn’t just said something terribly rude.
Gabriel would have known.
The woman gave her another glance, then, in clear but halting Spanish, said, “Tu monta temprano, y solo.”
“Lo siento si me ofender,” Isobel said, sliding down from Uvnee’s back, to put herself on equal ground. “Mi nombre es Isobel de Flood. La mano de Diablo.”
Marie had taught them that formality and politeness could head off problems before they became problems. She had been speaking of bar fights, but Isobel saw no reason it wouldn’t hold here, too. The warding had recognized the sigil, but that did not mean this woman would, did not mean that she was welcome.
She studied the woman anxiously, looking for some sign of recognition or acknowledgment. There were strands of silver in her black hair, and lines around her eyes and mouth, cutting deeply into the skin there. She was older than she appeared, far older than Isobel herself, but not elderly.
“I am Jumping-Up Duck,” the woman said, still in Spanish, studying Isobel in turn. “Why have you come here now, Hand?”
That was a fair question, if awkward to answer. She fell back on a question of her own. “Is all well here?”
“Yes. Of course.” The woman’s face was calm, her mouth solemn, but Isobel knew a lie, no matter how well someone hid it behind a smile or a steady look.
But people lied all the time. Some did it to hide the truth, some because they weren’t ready to speak the truth yet, some because they didn’t know the truth yet. The why was what the boss had taught her to discern.
So. She did not think anger lay behind this lie. Isobel breathed, listened. Worry, she thought. And . . . unnerved. Something unnerved the woman, and she felt she could not, dare not speak of it. What, and why?
Isobel tried to remember everything Gabriel had told her, trying to remember the few exchanges she’d had with women in the native villages they’d visited. Few, too few; she’d relied on Gabriel too much. But still, this was no different from what she had done at the saloon, convincing people to trust her, drawing the truth out so that it could be dealt with.
“Another day, I would have nodded and left it be,” she said, leaning against Uvnee and petting the mare’s soft nose, making herself seem gentler, easier to speak with, one woman to another. “I would have nodded and perhaps let someone else dig into the root of your sorrow, thinking it none of my business. But the Master of the Territory sent me in his name.”
She was bluffing. But Isobel had been raised in a saloon, seen the best bluff against the best and fold. She knew what she was about.
A heartbeat, then another, and the woman shook her head, although the edges of her lips turned up in what might have been a smile, if there wasn’t such worry underneath. “You will join us for morning meal?”
The invitation was an admission. Isobel kept her satisfaction tight inside, and said only, “It would be my honor.”
No sooner had she accepted the invitation than the door of the nearest cabin opened, and another woman came out, followed by a man, and after them, a tumble of children and two skinny, rough-coated dogs, all wildly excited not by the appearance of another person but by her horse.
“They know better than to get within kicking distance,” Duck said, although it wasn’t clear if she was referring to the children or the dogs or both.
“Hello,” the second woman said in English, pushing the children away. “I’m Elizabet.” Isobel realized she was staring, and stammered out a greeting. Elizabet was pale-skinned, with hair paler blond than any Isobel had ever seen, the man with her a square, burly knot with the same pale skin and paler hair. “This is Karl,” Elizabet said, and he nodded once. “Halla.”
As though a signal had been given, three more people emerged from the other building, walking over to join them.
“This is Margot, my sister”—Elizabet brought the other woman over with a familial arm around her waist—“and her husband Four Wolves, and his brother, Catches in Teeth.”
Isobel had caught up with her surprise enough to greet them politely. The brothers shared Duck’s round face and prominent cheekbones, and wore attire similar to Karl’s: long cloth pants and low boots under sleeveless tunics that showed off muscular arms. The women all wore long-sleeved shifts, the deerskin decorated with red and blue beads at the shoulder and hem, unadorned moccasins on their feet.
“This is Isobel,” Duck said. “She joins us for breakfast.”
As simple as that, as though it were perfectly ordinary for a stranger, a woman to ride up. Or perhaps, because it was so isolated, they welcomed any visitor without question?
After the wardings vouched for them, at least.
“I will stable your horse?” Karl asked, and Isobel offered him the reins without hesitation: they had welcomed her in hospitality, and it would give insult if she doubted it. Karl led the mare off to the stable,
the pack of children and dogs following at his heels. He walked with a slight limp, she noticed, barely visible, favoring his right knee as though he had taken a blow there, hard enough to linger.
“Come,” Elizabet said, and in a matter of moments, the women had set up a long plank table, with roughhewn chairs beside it, while the children settled with their plates on the ground, rough-and-tumble like puppies. Duck’s husband, a silent shadow of a man Duck referred to only as “my man,” joined them, bringing bowls of what smelled like maple porridge and warm meat that made Isobel’s stomach rumble rudely.
He laughed at her, although he made no noise and his smile showed no teeth, and shoveled a larger portion onto her plate.
She could almost hear Gabriel’s voice in the back of her ear, advising her: hospitality, and then the devil’s business.
The food was excellent—far better than anything she or Gabriel had managed, but Isobel found herself distracted by her companions. Not the four natives—although their hair and skin were darker, they reminded her of Iktan, the old bartender in Flood. It was the whites who distracted her: Elizabet and Margot’s skin was the faded white of oft-washed linens, and their eyes were the pale blue of sageflowers. Karl’s were only a shade deeper blue, his eyebrows bleached nearly white by the sun.
Elizabet noticed her staring, but when Isobel blushed, ducking her head, the woman only laughed, not unkindly. “When I first saw Four Wolves,” she told Isabel with a wink, “I thought he was covered in mud, and tried to scrape it off.” She placed one hand on her husband’s arm, a smile turned up at him. “It’s a wonder he kept us.”
He snorted but patted her hand with his own, still eating.
“You’re curious,” Elizabet went on. “How we came to be here, such an oddling group.”
Isobel would not have asked but would not deny her curiosity, either.
Margot had a deeper voice than her sister, and spoke so quietly Isobel had to strain to hear her. “Our parents came to the American
country, thinking to give us a better chance, but it . . . did not suit.” Her shoulders lifted in a faint shrug, although there was a bitter wistfulness about her that said she did care, still, very much. “And then one day Elizabet spoke with a gospel sharp who rode through our town, and he told of us a place across the river, a wild land, god’s land, where we could have purpose. To save the savages.” Her laugh carried that same bitter wistfulness.
“But the gospel sharp’s mission was . . . well.” Elizabet shrugged as well, hers a loose movement of one shoulder, and Isobel caught a glimpse of faint red scarring along her neck, like the burn from a rope. “There was strife. Four Wolves brought us here, and here we stay.”
Strife enough to drive the five of them from away from all their people, enough to bring Duck and her husband, of some unknown relation, with them. Isobel would ask no further, save one thing she needed to know. “This sharp. Does he have a name?”
Catches in Teeth answered her. “None that is spoken now.”
The tribe he’d given offense to had dealt with him on their own, then. Isobel nodded and let it go.
“And here you . . . farm?” Her voice lifted, making it a question, although there were no fields to be seen, save a small garden patch between the houses.
“We hunt,” Catches in Teeth said. “Enough to keep us. We welcome those who travel between the villages and the sacred lake. We keep the agreement here”—and his voice was like a rumble of thunder on a clear day, low, but sharp and clear. “Better than most.”
Isobel’s gaze went to his, but there was nothing in his eyes to suggest deeper meaning in his words. The Agreement had been made with long-gone tribal elders, back when the grandparents of Jumping-Up Duck’s grandparents had been young, to keep balance between natives and outsiders looking to make the Territory their home as well. Did he mean to say that there were those here who did not abide?
Uncertainty fluttered within Isobel’s stomach again. How was she to proceed? Were these folk settlers, to be held to the devil’s management?
Or were they a tribal campment, outside of it? Was she the Hand here or visitor without authority?
In her silence, the conversation moved on, speaking of the next structure they hoped to finish before winter came around again, to house Karl and, eventually, the older boys.
Isobel let the words wash over her, hearing without listening, watching without looking too directly at anything. Native folk won’t tell you anything straight on, the boss used to say. At least not to us, but they’ll tell you what you need to know, if you only just wait on them; be patient. But there were winds here she could not quite catch, in who spoke of what and who did not. Native and settler, their edges overlapping, blurring. She was missing something, something important.
And so Isobel listened, watched, and waited, until the last battered tin spoon scraped the bottom of the last wooden bowl, and the children had been sorted and sent off to the creek to wash the food from their hands and faces. The women cleared the dishes away, while the men and Isobel remained at the table, Catches in Teeth taking a small, bright blade out of his pocket and resuming work on what looked to become a flute, the others simply resting after the meal. The scratch-scratch-scratch of Catches in Teeth’s knife would be soothing under other circumstances, but she could feel his gaze on her, judging and considering, and she was aware that her weapons were with Uvnee’s tack, too far away to do her any good.
When enough time had gone by to satisfy that they were all perfectly capable of going all day without speaking if they chose to, Isobel lifted her shoulders and placed her hands on the table, her left hand resting with the palm up, the sigil formed there clearly visible. And then she waited a little while more, until Duck’s husband laughed, a dry cackle.
“Why are you here?” Four Wolves asked.
“You know what I am.” They did not deny it. “I was woken this morning by a need for me to be here, a reason for me to be here, although I
do not know what that reason or need may be yet. Something worries you. You may speak to me of it, or not. That is your choice.”
Isobel let the words rest between them and waited. Patience. They would choose to trust her, or they would not, and she could do nothing more.
A child laughed down by the creek. There was the scratch-scratch-scratch of the knife against wood. Beyond that, beneath that, there was silence that carried its own noise within it, the weight of breathing, of thinking, of strong emotion not yet ready to speak.
Briefly, she thought of Farron, the magician who had spoken merely to fill the air with noise, who had blathered as though afraid of the silence, and then disappeared into the silence without warning without farewell. Distracted a moment, she hoped he was all right, wherever he was.
“The bones sorrow.” Jumping-Up Duck’s voice was thin and quiet as she rejoined them at the table. “They sorrow, and we suffer.”
“Jumping-Up Duck worries too much.” Four Wolves’ words were dismissive, but her sense of him did not match his words; where Duck sorrowed, he was afraid. His brother remained impassive, quick, steady flicks of his blade hollowing and smoothing the tiny flute.
The two other women had also returned, reclaiming their seats without speaking. Margot’s jaw was clenched, her blue eyes clouded with worry; Elizabet’s were a calmer stillness.
“Jumping-Up Duck is my wife and wise.” Her husband hadn’t spoken before, and Isobel now understood why: like his laugh, his voice was a harsh, ugly scratch, breath forced out of a throat that did not wish to speak. She lowered her gaze and continued waiting.
“She says the devil’s hand will rest upon us, shelter against what comes.”
Isobel licked her lips once, and decided that yes, that had been a question. Apprehension shivered through her, cold prickles of doubt that made her bowels clench and her upper lip sweat. What was coming? The Spanish king had set loose a spellwork on the Territory months before. She and Gabriel had dealt with one creature that came of that;
Gabriel was still recovering from the wounds he had taken, and she?—
No. She forced her emotions down, her thumb stroking the silver ring on her littlest finger, the surface fresh-polished, untarnished. She’d faced plague and monsters and Spanish monks who hated her, had forced a spell-creature into obedience with the Territory. If this was more illness from the spell’s influence, she would recognize it. All she had to do was look.
Isobel left her hands resting on the table, feeling the roughhewn surface against her skin. She only intended to skim the surface, fingers trailing over dust, a leaf floating on water, skin held up for the breeze to brush past it. Isobel held herself back, resisting the deep call of the bones to simply breathe in the power that pooled and grew at even the faintest of crossroads, the soft-worn path between the buildings where feet trod each and every day. If anything of ill intent lingered, she would feel it.
But nothing lingered at all, no power at all beyond the wards she already sensed. Something had come through here already and swept the crossroads clean.
Isobel had been gone four days now. Not that Gabriel was counting, he told himself as he splashed water on his face, willing it to chase away the night’s unease. It was only because there wasn’t much else to do, short of re-sort their supplies, groom his horse and mule until they tried to nip at him in irritation, and wait for his strength to come back.
Gabriel was tired of waiting.
He reached for his boots, checking to make sure nothing had crawled into them overnight, then put them on. Their usual stop-a-night austerity had expanded over the days he’d been trapped there, clothing hung to dry over a series of mostly-flat rocks, Steady’s bridle taken apart for a thorough cleaning and not yet reassembled, the area where the animals had been grazing hoof-worn, the pit a ways off where he’d been burying his refuse marked by raw earth mounded over it.
He stretched his legs out, sitting by the banked fire while waiting for the coffee to boil, and pulled off his shirt, poked gingerly at the scabbing on his ribs. Some of it crumbled off, flaking away and leaving a pale red seam on the flesh underneath, but the rest still clung firmly to his skin, the wound beneath not yet entirely healed. He’d told Isobel it looked worse than it had been, but it had looked bad enough. Thankfully, nothing had taken infection, likely due to the efforts of the Spanish monk rather than the cleanliness of the monster claws that had inflicted the wounds.
He rubbed two fingers over the thickest of the scabs, and winced. The otter-beast—the massive otter-beast, he corrected himself—had scored three strips across his ribs and one on his face, and despite his assurances to Isobel, he knew full well he was lucky not to be dead.
He did not feel lucky, constrained to camp while she went off, blithely promising not to find any trouble along the way.
He laughed, and if the noise was bitter, there was no one there to tell. Isobel née Lacoyo Távora of Flood. The Devil’s Left Hand. The weight and the might of the devil, Master of the Territory. Finding trouble? Isobel was trouble. But she was also a sixteen-year-old girl who was supposed to be under his mentorship and protection, not go off riding on her own because he was too weak to ride with her.
If you don’t accept it gracefully, I’ll tie you to a post while you sleep. That would be difficult to explain to any riders who came by, wouldn’t it?
“Brassy child,” he muttered at the memory, rubbing his hands over his face, feeling the other still-healing scar, running against his cheekbone, scratch at his palm. His own fault for teaching her to tie knots, and to praise her for learning them so well. The fact that she had been right about his need to rest made it no less irritating to bear.
“Ho the campment!”
Gabriel was injured, but he could still move swiftly at need; by the time the speaker had come into sight, he’d gotten to his feet, his long knife loose in its sheath and the flintlock in clear sight and within arm’s reach, if still unloaded.
The stranger was scrawny and trail-rough, his long coat stained, his hat a crushed, battered thing more crown than brim, and Gabriel would be damned if he could find a single weapon on the man, overt or hidden.
That did not mean he was unarmed, nor harmless—but he lacked the hair-prickling sense about him of a magician, either. Gabriel was thankful for small blessings. One magician in his experience had been one more than he’d ever wished for.
“Ho the Road,” he called back in return, when the stranger paused a decent distance away, careful of the lines Gabriel had marked in the grass when he made camp. “What brings you to this turn?” They were on no true Road, merely a wide path leading from La Ramée to nowhere, and little cause for a rider to be passing through, much less one on foot. And he did not have the look of a man who had lost his cattle: his knees were straight, his shoulders curved, and his hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his coat rather than hanging loose and visible.
“I’ve nowhere else to be until my master whistles my call,” the man said. “And so nowhere seemed a good place to be.”
Not a magician, no, but that did not mean the man was not mad. Still, madness alone was no reason to refuse hospitality. “Enter and be welcome at our fire.”
“The offer is as good as the action,” he responded, ignoring the fact that the fire was barely large enough to heat the kettle over it, not much welcome at all. Keeping to tradition and ritual was safer than not, on the Road: ritual became such for a reason, and most of those reasons for a traveler’s safe-keeping.
“I’m Gabriel,” he said as the man stepped carefully over the soot-marked line. No cattle, no companions, just the man and his pack as battered as himself.
“Jack,” the man said, and Gabriel’s hand stuttered as he secured the knife in its sheath, remnants of a dream surfacing.
He stood in the middle of a creek, the water rushing over his ankles, blood-warm and filled with long, slender fish glinting silver and green in schools thick enough to look solid. He bent to scoop one out, holding it gently in cupped
hands, and it looked back at him with eyes too human, set ’round with scales.
“The net comes for us all,” the fish told him. “The only question is who eats you.”
Not every dream was sent to tell him something; only a fool would think that, and fools died early and often in the Territory. But the morning’s unease splashed over him anew nonetheless, and his thumb pushed the sheath’s clasp out of the way for easier drawing, should it be necessary after all.
But he’d already invited the man in; there was no help for it but to brazen his way through.
“I’ve breakfast, if you’re hungry.”
The man shook his head. “Wouldn’t say no to some coffee if you have it, though.” His smile showed teeth yellowed but flat, and when he removed his hat, his gaze stayed steady on Gabriel, no flickering motion to indicate someone watching or traps—or waiting for someone coming in from the other side. But Gabriel had met men in his time who could smile and shake your hand without ever hinting at the knife aimed at your gut, and he fetched the other mug from his kit without turning his back on the newcomer, hospitality be damned.
The handful of silver half-coins weighted his pocket, but he wasn’t so rude as to check them now, to see if they’d tarnished in the man’s company, and the silver buckle at his boot shone the same as it had the night before. Odds were the man was just a Road loner, sheer coincidence his name triggered a memory of the night’s dream.
Jack took the coffee, drained half the cup without care for its heat. Or, for that matter, its taste: it was yesterday’s grinds, down to the dregs and gone bitter beyond any sweetener’s fixing. If Isobel had been here, she would have made him toss it and start fresh. But she wasn’t: four days, and a day late in returning.
The net comes for us all.
“You’ve his hand on you,” Jack said, finishing the coffee and handing him back the empty tin cup.
Beg pardon?” The stranger might be good at hiding his intent, but Gabriel had played cards at the devil’s own table, not to mention with a handful of would-be Eastern politicians. His own face showed nothing he did not wish it to.
“Like calls to like,” Jack said, and now his mouth twisted in either bitterness or humor. “I could smell it on you, like a whore’s perfume.”
Not a name, Jack. A title. No wonder the man had refused food and not cared for the taste of the coffee; a Jack tasted none of those things, not so long as he was under the devil’s jurisdiction.
But a Jack was also no threat to him.
No threat, but possibly a warning.
“You come down the north trail,” he said, turning to place the cup down and pour himself another dose. “Might you have encountered someone else along the way?”
The Jack did not linger long after that, and Gabriel did not make pretense at regret.
The effort of repacking their belongings onto the mule and throwing the saddle on the gelding left him sweaty, but his knees held and his ribs didn’t hurt, so Gabriel decided he would be fine to ride.
And even if he wasn’t, he would have anyway, after what little the Jack had told him.
Thankfully, Steady lived up to his name, standing patiently while he hauled back into the saddle.
“Just like falling off a log,” Gabriel said to him. “But let’s not rush into any gallops, all right?”
Only a fool or a cavalryman galloped at night, on unfamiliar terrain, and only a fool of a cavalryman would do so while injured. Only a fool would travel before they were ready, too, but Gabriel couldn’t wait any longer.
If Isobel had found trouble, he needed to find her.
When he’d offered to mentor the sharp-eyed saloon girl if she’d
the itch to see more of the Territory than the walls of her saloon or the borders of her small town, Gabriel hadn’t known that that slip of a girl was destined to be the Devil’s Hand. He hadn’t known what that meant, what it would drag him into.
Truth, he regretted none of it, not the offer, nor the fact that when Isobel herself turned him down, the devil had said yes. But the irony was not lost on him: he’d made the offer for free, only to have the devil tell him to name his price. To have the devil owe you a debt was a powerful thing, but Gabriel intended to never collect on it. He couldn’t afford to collect on it. To collect would be to accept, to accept would be to bind himself, and that was the thing he could not, would not do.
Not if he was to remain himself, avoid a fate too similar to the Jack’s.
There was a deeper irony in the threads that bound him now, his dream less portent than common sense. If he concentrated, he could feel the slow trickle of water in the creek, low in the summer dryness but still enough for watering the animals, for him to wash and water without concern. As usual, it wanted to heal him, to slough off the scabs and seal the skin, and he couldn’t any more than he could take the devil’s payout. Couldn’t let the water-sense in that deep, so close to his bones.
He’d learned the hard way that what the Territory claims, it keeps. But he would not let it own him. Isobel might yield under the forces reshaping her, yield to the devil’s plans, whatever they were, but he could not. He would not.
And if the water’s rush felt like a quiet chuckle in his ear, mocking his thoughts, Gabriel’d had years to learn how to ignore it.
He looked up at the sky: a few stretched clouds overhead, scraping around the distant peaks and fading into pale blue. The ground was soft under his boots, the grass rough-edged, and the air smelled green and dry.
Good riding weather.
The sun warm on his shoulders, he slanted his hat so the brim cast shade over his eyes, then pointed Steady north and west. The ground was a series of sloping and rising hills, the footing firm, and he rested the reins against the gelding’s neck and sank deeper into the saddle,
trusting the beast’s common sense to keep them at a slow, easy walk. The mule kept alongside, longer ears twitching, occasionally moving faster and then looking back with an almost-human impatience.
“I know you like her more’n you do me,” Gabriel told the mule. “No need to rub it in.”
Steady snorted and ducked his head, likely pure coincidence, but Gabriel slapped the solid flesh once, lightly, in mock reproach. “Don’t you sass me none neither. We rode for years without her or that mare; a few days apart won’t break your hearts.”
Now that they were moving again, the knot of tension that had gripped him eased somewhat. Isobel had common sense, a dependable sense of direction, and a solid mare who could outrun anything shy of a storm. And the skies were clear, so weather wasn’t a worry. She knew how to handle a demon, and to speak polite to a native, and if she ran into a bear or a ghost cat . . . well, she had become a better shot since he’d gotten her the buccaneer’s musket that fit her hands better, and this far into warmer weather, any predators would be well fed and lazy.
In all likelihood, she’d been delayed a bit dealing with the corpses, and they would cross paths soon enough.
And if not? If she had lost her way in the rising hills and narrow meadows, so unlike the wide-open plains she’d been raised on, despite having taught her how to find the Road underfoot?
Well, there was a reason he’d allowed her to ride off alone: he had a trick up his sleeve to find her.
It was difficult to relax entirely into the saddle with his ribs still sore, but he had enough trust in Steady’s nature that his body eased a little more and his breathing slowed until only years of experience kept him upright in the saddle. It wasn’t quite like sleeping, or even dozing, but his thoughts quieted and his eyes shut, letting other senses take over. First, feel. The sway of Steady underneath him, the feel of the reins through his fingers, leather worn smooth, and the press of his legs against the saddle, the weight of his bootheels in the stirrups.
Then sound. The syncopated clop of eight hooves on grass and dirt
and occasional stone. The breath of wind against his skin, passing over the rise and fall of the folded hills. Birdsong, and the buzzing clatter of insects, and the distant wow-ooo-wow of a coyote pack greeting each other. Only coyote, no wolves, and his fingers eased away from the stock of his flintlock where it was strapped near his saddle. There wasn’t much risk of a coyote being fool enough to attack a man on horseback, not in summer, when easier prey abounded. In winter, it would have been a different story. But in winter, he’d never have let her go out on her own.
He hushed his own thoughts, blanking them under the quiet sound of water. Smell came last: First, the ever-present, soothingly familiar smell of horse and leather and human sweat. Then the tang of sagebrush and green pine, and the faint tickle of maidenflower. And under that, once his entire self lay open and waiting, came the scent of water, from the quicksilver lightness of the creeks to the slower, stone-wet deepness below. The ability to dowse: his medicine, his curse, the thing tying him to the Territory, marking him as one of its own, finding water as easily as he could find the Road.
And then, going deeper still, finding the feel of specific water. The water warmed by familiar scent, the warmth of her body shaping it, the exhale of her breath scenting it.
Years and lives ago, he had spent time with a band of Hochunk, regaining his health, regaining his strength, when all he could do was listen to stories. There had been an old man once among them, one story claimed, who could find a single person lost in the Underworlds by the scent of their spit. Gabriel, who mocked no story, did not believe such a thing was possible. But this . . . this he thought he could do, after months of sharing canteens and coffee and the dampness of morning air with her. Enough to ensure he could find her like a freshwater spring in a dry plain.
“Hey, Iz,” he said, pitching his voice as though to carry just a little ways away, as though she were still riding next to him. “Whatever trouble you’ve found, just hold tight. We’re coming.”
Isobel was flummoxed. Everything she had been taught, all the things she had learned, told her that it was not possible for the land to be barren of power. Water flowed, wind breathed, people moved, and therefore power was.
Kneeling by the table without explanation, she placed her left palm down on the ground, sinking inside herself in that way she never could explain to Gabriel, opening herself to whatever the Territory wanted to tell her.
It went beyond the cleansing she had felt: this little settlement had no connections to anything. There was no well-trod Road here, no familiar pull of the bone-deep ribbon that connected the Territory. Nothing.
Three times she tried skin to dirt, sending herself as deep as she dared, opening as far as she dared without Gabriel to watch over her, among strangers, however kind.
Nothing. Worse than silence: an emptiness where silence might be, a hollow unfilled, unfillable, driving her out and back into herself.
Fingers clenched, jaw tight enough to ache, Isobel was uncertain how much time had gone, save they all still waited, the men looking away, the women staring, near rude but so hesitantly hopeful, she could not take offense. Not for the first time, she wondered why the boss had sent her out so woefully unprepared?—and how she was supposed to function once her time with Gabriel was done and he moved on.
“Something happened here,” she said. “Tell me.”
They all looked at Duck, who merely shook her head and lowered her gaze to her hands twined together in her lap. Isobel felt a snap of impatience: how was she to help if they would not tell her? Was this yet another test? Was she supposed to know?
The tension stretched, filling the air until it became hard to breathe, Isobel’s
impatience becoming a thing she could feel, knocking at her bones. The older woman was their leader, they would not say anything if she would not. And Isobel could do nothing if they did not speak.
“Jumping-Up Duck. Please.”
“The ground rumbled,” the woman said finally, not looking up from her hands, rough-skinned knuckles clenched tight.
“A quake?” They were not common in Flood, but they happened, and the boss had said that the ground had once rocked hard enough, farther west, that those who lived there told stories of it a hundred years later, of ground crumbling and waters rising, and those who could not run, died.
“Jordskalv,” Karl said. “As though waves underfoot, on a ship, in solid ground. Three times yesterday, one after another.”
Isobel, trying to read him, thought his expression was less worry and more irritation at the world not behaving itself.
“The land shakes often to the west of here,” Four Wolves said. “Where the ground steams and ancient spirits rest. If the dwellers-below are restless enough to stretch their hands this far . . . they are best left alone. It is nothing we need worry about. We have done nothing to offend.”
There was utter certainty in his body: whatever was happening, he did not think it a threat, and he was tired of repeating himself.
Isobel remembered Ree, after the boss had told that story of the great quake, his fingers stroking the jagged ink that ran, blue against black, from wrist to elbow. “The deep bones ache,” he’d said then. “They stretch and wake, then go back to sleep. Best to let them be.”
“This is not the rumble of birthing,” Jumping-Up Duck told Four Wolves, scowling. “It is a rumble of pain.”
Four Wolves opened his mouth to argue with her, then closed his mouth and lowered his gaze, as though she had cowed him.
The sisters glanced sideways at each other, then each shook their head.
“The earth shook,” Elizabet said. “I was sleeping, the first time, but awake for the others. It was . . . disturbing. The children cried.”
They were the most upset,” Margot added. “But they could not tell us why.”
Isobel thought that the ground shaking needed no more reason than that to upset them, but simply nodded. “Three quakes, one after another. How long apart?”
“The first when the quarter-moon was bright,” Catches in Teeth said. “The second soon after, and the third well after sunrise. We stayed in the lodge for the first. When we came out . . .” He looked distressed, his gaze flicking to the barn where Uvnee was stabled. “We had goats, not many, but enough to give milk, meat. They all fled. Only the dogs remained.”
“The earth is in pain,” Duck said, as though Catches in Teeth’s words had opened something within her. “Pain that does not care the cause, only to find something within reach to hurt in turn.” She was looking at the children as she spoke, five of them, comfortable in bare skin and clouts, their hair reddish black in the sunlight as they played with the dogs in the grass.
They should have been living with a tribe, or a village, or in a city back East, Isobel thought. Not here, isolated, alone, with parents who seemed as helpless as babes themselves. And yet there was something in her that envied them, born to nothing less than the plains and mountains, the four winds above and the bones below.
She had been born on a farmstead somewhere. Luck and her parents’ foolishness brought her to Flood, to the devil’s house, to become his Hand. But for that . . . what would she have become?
Isobel felt something stir at that thought, slow and deep. The sigil on her palm remained cool, but her fingers closed over it nonetheless, and her right hand crossed over to rub at the silver ring on her finger. Power, building somewhere, rising to that thought. This place might have been cleansed, but the Devil’s Hand carried power within too.
Show me, she asked it, remembering the feel of the boss’s hand on her shoulder, his voice in her ears, the comforting smell of his cologne and the unlit cigars he carried but never smoked. She closed her eyes
to chase them, suddenly dizzy with the sensation of layer after layer like an onion under her hands, forever unpeeling until there was nothing left but tears.
Stone tears, white with heat, deep in the center of it all, and a molten whisper tracing burning scars along her skin, under her skin, searing her bones with words she could not understand. A story, and a warning, and something else beyond, below the silence, beyond the emptiness, seething like a pot overboiling, odorous as a blacksmith’s forge.
This is not for you, it warned.
She clung to it nonetheless, searing the skin of her nonexistent hands, charring her bones into dust, ignoring the pain that rattled her like venom surging in her veins, until it snapped sharply and thrust her through the cooling mantle of dirt, back to the surface, into her own bones and skin.
Forcing her eyes open, Isobel focused on the people in front of her, their faces anxious and drawn, the dirt-streaked children stilled in the games, watching their adults watching her.
The boss had said the left hand was the quick knife, the cold eye. Gabriel had told her she was the devil’s silver, cast down on the road to find danger, find it and clear it.
She only knew that if there was pain, if there was danger, she needed to find the cause and end it. But the source was not here.
The boss hadn’t explained anything to her, hadn’t taught her how to do anything. She didn’t know what it was she did, only that she could do it. It wasn’t enough.
It was all she had.
Isobel stood from the table, circling around the children, and came to a patch of ground where the grass had worn thin, the dirt a dry red crumble underneath. She could feel the others watching her still, although they turned their faces away now, unwilling to be rude. It made something between her shoulder blades itch, not the way that told her a demon was watching but something else, more immediate, and more disturbing. She ignored it.
If something was making the ground move, logic said it would be in the ground. Something that pushed her away. Ree and Molly had told stories of spirits who lived in the world below, but Isobel had only ever felt the bones, the deep-set stones the world rested upon.
Isobel looked at the sigil in her palm, thick and fine lines twisted in the doubled circle within a circle. Burnt into her mare’s tack, drawn in her own skin. As Hand, she was nothing but an extension of the devil’s will, and the Territory did not answer to him.
But she was also a rider, thanks to Gabriel’s mentorship, and the Road that looped through the Territory could not hide from a rider once they learned to find it.
She reached, feeling the familiar rush, unlike a crossroads in that its power flowed rather than being trapped, diminishing and refilling rather than building until it burst. Southward, where she’d been, felt the strongest; the hills rising grey-brown to the east were fainter, but she could feel them, something pulsing at their heart, neither welcoming nor forbidding, simply there, healthy and full.
West lay the northern edge of the Mother’s Knife, the farthest edge of the Territory. Northwest, Gabriel had told her, were hills and forests bordering the Wilds, trees as old as the devil, deep springs hotter than the mid-day sun.
She felt nothing to the northwest.
Isobel tilted her head, listening harder. I’m here, she thought, sending the thought as widely as she could, stretching herself out rather than deep, thought-fingers stroking the skin of the earth the way she would Uvnee’s hide, testing for uncertainty, sending reassurance and control. . . .
Silence. No, not silence. Denial. A refusal.
this is not for you.
Isobel withdrew, found herself within her own body again, testing the limits of flesh. Her throat was sore, her back aching, and her lips were cracked and dry as though she’d been riding all day without water.
The Road had refused her. Isobel rubbed at her arms, feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the fact that she’d taken off her jacket, or
the clouds that slipped across the mid-morning sky. She didn’t understand, didn’t understand anything.
She needed to talk to Gabriel.
“Drink.” Margot held a wooden cup to her lips, and Isobel drank, unquestioning. Honey-water, sweet and cold.
“Slowly. A sip at a time.”
Isobel knew that, her hands coming up to wrap around the cup, the sides smooth against her skin, almost too smooth to hold.
“I’m all right.”
Margot’s blue eyes studied her, and Isobel thought that this woman would have done well in the Saloon, would have gained the boss’s approval.
“You need to rest. Come,” and she tried to lead Isobel to the nearest cabin, but Isobel pulled back. “I’d rather be outside.”
Margot sent one of the older children to fetch Isobel’s pack, helped her make camp on a flat patch of ground distant enough that she could breathe, but still within the wards, then let her be. The others had disappeared, back inside or elsewhere. Margot was kind, they had all been kind, but they did not trust her entirely.
“Not everyone welcomes the reminder that they live at the devil’s sufferance,” Gabriel had said once. He had been speaking of the folk who settled in Patch Junction, but she supposed some tribes resented him too. The agreement their elders had made however many generations ago bound them as tightly as it did new-come settlers. And those caught between, like these children, given the comfort of neither tribe nor town yet bound by both.
If this place was not safe for them, where would they go?
Isobel took a deep breath, then exhaled, her hands moving in a
familiar pattern as she groomed Uvnee’s hide. The mare’s coat was dry and clean of mud and road dust, but Isobel kept running the flat brush over her flanks, letting her other hand trail across the warm horseflesh in reassurance?—although to reassure whom, she wasn’t quite sure?—until the long, coarse brown strands of the mare’s tail were untangled and smooth. Isobel briefly considered braiding them like her own hair before admitting defeat. Hoof to ears, the mare was spotless.
“What now, Uvnee?” she asked the mare, who merely flicked one reddish-brown ear at her and shifted her weight to lean against Isobel, gentle lips and teeth nipping at the flat of her braid.
For now, she would wait. The boss met those who’d ask him a thing across the card table, took their measure with the way they played. So would she. For what, Isobel wasn’t certain—another quake, she supposed; if the quiet told her nothing, then perhaps an outburst would tell her something.
Or the whispering voice might return and send her on. That thought made her palm twitch: she would happily spend her life without that sensation again. But she had given over control of her life when she made Contract with the devil, even if she hadn’t understood then what it would mean.
Never bargain more than you can afford to give. All she’d had was herself to offer.
And if she did ride on . . . Gabriel had no notion of where she’d gone, what had happened to her. Gabriel also had their supplies, their extra water, the ammunition—everything. All she had were her horse and weapons, trail rations, and an extra set of unmentionables packed in her kit.
And the packet that had been addressed to him and left in the waystation. Isobel allowed herself to admit that more than curiosity weighted the desire to open the letter; she was envious of the letter itself, the connection to someone who thought of him while he was not there.
Not that she expected Marie to write to her, or any of the others at the saloon, since she had not written to any of them. She wasn’t April,
to compose long letters for reading out loud to everyone, after chores were done. What could she say to them; what was she allowed to say?
The Left Hand was the silent knife, not the garrulous one.
In the midst of what Isobel admitted was a bout of unadmirable self-pity, Uvnee suddenly snorted and bucked in alarm, nearly knocking Isobel off her feet.
“What now?” Isobel rested a hand on the mare’s neck to calm her, even as her own heart raced, glanced about for what spooked the mare. There were no trees close enough to hide a threat, nothing overhead in the sky save clouds, and the wind smelled of nothing except sage and?—her thoughts broke off abruptly as the ground underneath them . . .
Flexed was the only word she could think of. It flexed like a snake slithering sideways through the grass, a fish flipping through water, as though the very bones of the earth had gone soft like a pudding.
And then it stopped, leaving her feeling as though she were the one wobbling, not the ground below.
Her breath caught, the skin on her arms prickling in unease.
“That . . . was unpleasant,” she said to Uvnee, who rolled her eyes backward, the whites showing, and flicked her ears, this time as though to agree, but she hadn’t bolted. “Good girl.” Isobel leaned against the mare’s trembling flank, an arm over the crested neck as much for her own support as the mare’s, and tried to calm her breathing. If that had been what the others had felt when they described the ground moving below them, she could not blame them in the slightest for being upset.
Isobel had lived through storms before; she knew that wind and water were unpredictable. But stone and dirt were meant to be solid, dependable. They did not refuse to answer; they did not suddenly move.
Then Uvnee snorted again, half-turning toward the road as though in anticipation. Isobel braced for another quake before realizing that the sound the mare was responding to was hoofbeats.
Jumping-Up Duck’s people did not have horses, and the sound was too deep for it to be their goats returning. Panic turned to planning,
and she turned, trying to gauge the distance between herself and her pack on the ground, the musket and knife still out of reach.
Then the sound came closer, and she recognized the shape of horse and rider, and the long-eared mule following close behind.
Isobel had been trained to stand back, to judge, to observe, but the moment Gabriel dismounted, she rushed at him, flinging her arms around his waist, knocking her jaw against his shoulder. There was a hesitation, his body jerking back, then his arms came over her shoulders and she was surrounded by the smell and feel of familiar.
He didn’t say anything, just let her rest her face against the rough fabric of his coat. She was sure the others had broken off from whatever they were doing, were watching, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. A warm, whiskered muzzle shoved against her leg, and she shifted one hand to dig into the mule’s rough coat, feeling its side shuddering as though they’d been running for too long.
“You were late,” Gabriel scolded her, finally, his voice dry as dust.
She wiggled free, indignant, then rubbed at her face, letting out a faint laugh. “You found me.”
“I found you,” he agreed. The skin around the scar on his face was stubbled, as though he’d had trouble shaving around it, and his dark blue eyes looked more tired than they had before, when she’d left him to rest. Guilt spiked through her, unfamiliar and unwelcome.
He pulled back a little, looking over her shoulder at something, then back at her carefully. “Something’s wrong.”
“I . . . No.” Yes. But she couldn’t explain it, couldn’t add to that exhaustion with things he couldn’t fix. Instead, she gripped him by the sleeve of his jacket, pulling him forward.
“Jumping-Up Duck. This is my mentor, Gabriel Kasun, known as Two Voices.”
The older woman gave Gabriel a thorough once-over, then lifted her gaze to meet his own. He took his hat off and stood quietly, his
hands clasped behind his back, shoulders at ease. Isobel had become so accustomed to him wearing that battered, flat-crowned hat from morning to night, it was a shock to see the sunlight catch on his hair, picking up glints of gold in the dark brown, the edges of it curling over his collar. The claw mark was more visible from the side, where the scar tissue lifted from the tanned skin of his cheek, and she found herself staring at it, then had to shake herself to look away.
“You are welcome” was all the older woman said, then turned away without introducing the others, who had hung back a few paces. Isobel was surprised, but Gabriel didn’t seem offended, instead turning to her, hat still in his hand.
“Let me get the animals settled, and then you can tell me what’s going on, hmmm?”
The gelding and mule were quickly unpacked and picketed to graze with Uvnee, who seemed to have forgotten entirely about the ground moving beneath her hooves. Steady, once he was assured of a picket next to the mare, settled down as well, but the mule remained uneasy, pushing its muzzle back into Isobel’s hand before finally lowering it to graze.
“How did you find me?”
Gabriel hesitated, then dusted the brim of his hat against his thigh. “I had a visitor to camp,” he said. “Lean, dusty fellow.”
Isobel raised her gaze to the sky, seeing only pale blue overhead. “The Jack.”
“He may have mentioned where he saw you last and under what conditions.”
“And you raced out to rescue me?”
“I broke camp to come support you, as is my right and my obligation. So tell me, Isobel Devil’s Hand, what brings us to these forsaken, shaken hills, and what mischief have you found?
Isobel opened her mouth, then shook her head and fetched a low wooden stool from her campment and settled on it, cautiously, half-expecting it to roll out from under her without warning.
Gabriel paced back and forth slowly as she spoke, beginning with the discovery of the buffalo corpses.
Gabriel held a hand to pause her. “Arrows or bullets?”
“Bullets.” She hadn’t thought of it then. “Settlers?”
“Mayhap, may not. Natives’ve been trading for guns since they first caught sight of ’em, same as horses. Stealing ’em, too. And there’re fools on all sides. Did you clean the site?”
“Best I could, yes. But I made a promise to them.”
“To the . . . Iz.” He let the rebuke die unspoken. “Did that promise say you were going to do something right away?”
“. . . No.”
“The dead have time to be patient. Tell me the rest.”
She did, through to the quake they’d felt just as he’d ridden up. He listened without further interruption, although his eyebrows lifted when she told him of the whisper that had woken her, and then again when she spoke of the sensation of being rejected when she tried to reach the Road.
“It’s odd,” he said when she finally ran out of things to say, lapsing into an exhausted silence. “After the past few months, I’d have sworn I’d never utter those words again, but that is . . . indisputably odd. Then again, the hotlands have a reputation that reaches all the way to the Mudwater.”
“The whatlands?” Isobel was certain she’d never heard that name before.
“I told you that past here, the land’s riddled with hot springs?”
She frowned, then nodded, remembering.
“They’re not like the springs we saw down south, where you can dip a toe in, maybe even bathe. These are nasty things: you don’t always know they’re there, until suddenly the skin’s boiled off your bones.” He shoved his hand through his hair, pushing it away from his face, and grinned briefly, without humor. “Or so stories say. I never had cause to ride up there. I don’t know the peoples up there, and the tribes’ve no need of me.”
His services as an advocate, he meant. Gabriel had trained for the law back East, had been riding circuit when they met, doing small services for people as needed ’em, although she’d never quite understood what those things were. Here, if there was an argument that couldn’t be settled, the marshals got involved, and if someone got hurt, or you needed to formalize a thing, then you went before a judge, like she did with her contract. Not so much need for an advocate, but Gabriel didn’t seem to lack for folk to visit everywhere they’d gone.
“You think it’s connected? The quakes, and the . . . the quietness, up that way?”
“Don’t know.” He sat down opposite her, wincing a little as he leaned against his pack, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Might be nothing, might be you just being tired, might be something. But if we’re going up thataway, which it seems we are, we’ll find out ourselves, won’t we?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, the memory of the ground shaking still too near for joking. “You needn’t look so pleased about it,” she muttered. “The ground moved.” The ground moved and the Road was silent, and something had scraped the power from this valley, and who knows how far beyond. And he was looking pleased.
“There’s a story,” Gabriel said, pulling his legs up so he could rest his arms on his knees, what she’d come to think of as his storytelling pose. “There’s a story that comes from before we were here, before the devil claimed dominion from the Mudwater to the Knife, back when there was only the one People, with skins the color of clay and eyes like an autumn storm.”
She snorted at that, and he glared at her until she cast her eyes down in apology so he’d go on.
“Back then, the story says, the land was flat, just rolling plains, and you could see from one end to another. But then one day, a child found a hollow log and started to hit it with a stick, and the sound was so pleasing to the spirits that they began to dance. And as they danced the land shook, and as the land shook, it rose, until hills formed, and
then mountains. And that’s why the land isn’t flat anymore.”
Isobel wrinkled her nose. “That’s just a story.”
He shrugged. “It’s an old story, and old stories have truth in ’em somewhere, most of them. This might be nothing to worry about, just the spirits dancing, or the earth shrugging ’cause we’re itching its back. But you were driven here by something, and you’re worried about what you’re reading, then yah, maybe it’s something new or worrisome. So, we poke our noses in and see what bites us.”
She gave his ribs a pointed look. “You haven’t gotten tired of being bitten yet?”
“You volunteer this time, then,” he said, cheerful enough to make her want to bite him.
“Don’t know who we’ll encounter up there,” Gabriel went on, thoughtfully. “Your friends probably splintered off a Shoshone or Cheyenne tribe east of here, maybe some of their kin went farther up mountain, but if so, I don’t speak much of their tongue. Never had need to learn it.” He sounded regretful but resigned. “Don’t suppose you could talk one of these folks into coming with us, as guide?”
Isobel shook her head, finding a thread that was beginning to pull loose on her skirt and trying to poke it back into the weave. The clothes that had been newly stiff when she’d first packed them back at the saloon were soft and faded now; sun and dirt and washing with a poor excuse for soap had left their mark. She should have bought a new skirt and underthings at the mercantile, back at La Ramée, but she’d been distracted by the ill post-rider and Gabriel’s injury.
“They don’t want to leave. This is their home, and I don’t think they’ve anywhere else to go.”
“They’ll defend this past dying,” Gabriel said. “Foolish, but understandable, I suppose.”
Driven by that thought, Isobel reached out once more, bending from the stool to place her palm flat on the ground, trying to sense again what lay just beyond the small valley they were in.
Nothing. She could feel where she was, and where they had been, but the way north was still empty, like an unfinished map fading into blank parchment.
No, not blank, she thought. Scraped clean.
The feeling shuddered through her, made her want to ride for Flood without stopping, spill everything she knew, everything she had seen, everything she feared, and ask the boss to deal with it. He was the Master of the Territory; she was only his Hand, and a poor one at that. The boss might—
She looked up at Gabriel, blinking. “What?”
His eyes were narrowed to slits, his face set in too-stern lines. “You were thinking that you had no idea what to do, bordering on panic, mayhap. That this was beyond your handling. That from the girl who locked horns with a magician, who took on Spaniards, who faced down a spell-born creature, and made them all behave?”
Gabriel was an excellent card player when he chose to be, and his body gave off little he did not want known. But at that moment, he practically shouted derision and disbelief, and Isobel felt her mouth twist into a reluctant smile.
“Not alone, I didn’t,” she said.
“And you’re not alone now. If you’re done being foolish?” he asked, and she huffed at him but nodded. “We’ll need to barter in the morning, if your new friends have provisions available. If there are more quakes, odds are game will be harder to find.”
She made a face. “They had goats, but they all ran off. Dried meat again?”
“I thought you liked it.” He was teasing her now, trying to change the mood, and she let him.
“Not for every meal. My jaws ache”—and she opened and shut them to make the point. “We’ll be able to forage, though? It’s not as though plants can turn tail and run.”
“All the bitterroot and lamb’s-quarter you can eat,” he promised,
knowing full well how much she hated lamb’s-quarter. “And this time of year, odds are we’ll find berries, too. But better to be prepared.” He glanced up across the clearing, studying the tiny garden visible from where they were with a dubious expression, as though not expecting them to have much to share.
“Lamb’s-quarter and soaked beans,” she said, trying to work up some enthusiasm. “Maybe trout?” Fish were limited in how far they could flee, after all. Although her previous attempts at catching trout had been less than successful, so maybe she’d make sure they packed?—
“Oh.” In the shock of everything, she had nearly forgotten. “There was a packet for you.”
She took an obscure pleasure in having surprised him. “At the waystation,” she said, reaching over to pull at her pack, dragging it within reach so she could dig the envelope out and hand it to him. “For you.”
Gabriel had taken the letter from Isobel, his fingers near numb with unhappy surprise, but there’d been no time to open it before several of the children ran up to them, wanting to see the horses, and he’d shoved it into his bag before putting the two youngest on the mule’s back and leading him around in a small circle, while Isobel showed the others how to offer Steady a handful of grass in their open palm until he lowered his head and let them pet him to their heart’s content. And then one of the women came to chase the children away, inviting them to join them for the afternoon meal.
Isobel’s brief telling of their story, as much as she knew of it, had made him curious as to where they came from or why they’d settled here, without kin or tribe, but he pushed his curiosity as far as possible without giving offense, and they merely smiled at him, closed-mouthed, and took another bite of bread, or a drink of water, then turned to someone else and spoke in another language, closing him out until he relented. Isobel was likely correct: wherever they had
been was no longer an option for them.This was all they had left, and they would not let go of it, not even to admit that something was wrong.
Foolishness, he thought, but it wasn’t his call to make.
Gabriel had not exaggerated when he told Isobel he knew nothing of this region; the Territory was massive, and even he could not expect to ride all of it. But listening to them speak a dialect he did not recognize beyond a few shared trade-words was a reminder to pick up Isobel’s language lessons again. English was the preferred trade language, particularly to the east and north, but she couldn’t always count on that. This might not be the only time the Left Hand rode beyond the pale.
Their hosts were more forthcoming after the meal, however. He negotiated for supplies with the one called Four Wolves, who quickly separated him from a handful of half-coins left from what the devil had given him. Four Wolves drove a tight bargain, fully aware that they had no other options, but they both walked away reasonably satisfied.
With all that, it wasn’t until he was curled into his bedroll, the last flickers of a wood fire warming his backside and Isobel asleep nearby, the horses and mule sleeping with their heads lowered together, that he had time to think about the letter Isobel had given him. Or, Gabriel owned, that he couldn’t avoid thinking about it any longer. There were few people who would write to him, and even fewer who would be able to direct a letter so that it would reach him.
Part of him wanted to toss it onto the fire until it was nothing but crumbled ash.
Instead, he slowly reached for his pack, catching the envelope between two fingers and pulling it out. The moon wasn’t quite bright enough to read by, so he pulled the coalstone out as well, pressing it down until it began to glow. Without tinder, it wouldn’t spark a flame but gave off enough light that Gabriel’s eyes were able to make out the lettering on the paper.
Gabriel Kasun, Esquire.
The weight of the honorific pushed at him, reminding him of the
obligations he still carried, that had nothing to do with the girl—the young woman—sleeping on the other side of the fire. The obligations that made him slit open the envelope and pull the enclosed letter out to read rather than set it aflame.
I hesitated sharing this with you, for it seems unlikely that you are in a position to do anything beyond fret over it, and I would not add more to the burden you already bear. And yet, the news offends every instinct I have, all sense of proper behavior. I cannot keep it to myself, else I might say something rash in circles where silence best serves.
Abner Westbrook. Stolid, to outward appearances as plodding as a plow horse, but hiding a mind sharp as a fresh-stropped razor. One of the few true friends Gabriel had made when he went east, and the only one he could say that he had kept.
He was also a junior member of the federal judiciary, with family in much higher positions. If there was a rumor with even a single root in truth, Abner knew of it.
Word comes through reliable voices that our new president has determined the need to send a surveying team across the Mississippi and into the Territory you call home. He names it a ‘Corps of Discovery’ and claims it a simple excursion to survey this new land beyond our known borders. Congress seems set to give him as he requests, for they have dreams of expanding our limits, be it for land or metals or simply the need to plant their names into history.
I know that scouts have come and gone into your Territory without complaint; Congress thinks this a
blanket to cover all sins. I am not so sanguine. And I fear that Jefferson, in his hubris, plans more than he admits.
The letter went on a few paragraphs longer, ending with a hope that the missive found Gabriel well, etc., but he barely skimmed the rest, down to the familiar blotch of ink that Abner claimed was a signature.
Gabriel’s gut tightened, a familiar reaction to unpleasant news. It might simply be curiosity driving Jefferson—the man was well known to have a voracious interest in nearly everything. But the man was president now, and that made him—Gabriel hesitated to say “dangerous,” but certainly a man with far more power than before. And power made men dangerous, no matter their intent.
But what was that power to him? And what did Abner think he, Gabriel, could do about it? He was not the man he’d meant to be, back East. That man had died somewhere mid-crossing, pulled under and drowned.
Across the fire, Isobel rolled over, muttering in her sleep, and Gabriel slowly folded the letter and replaced it in the envelope, then quenched the coalstone with a touch.
Abner worried too early. It was still a matter for Congress to decide, and while Gabriel had only spent a few years on that side of the River, any man with sense knew that approving expenditures on such a scale would not happen overnight. Anything could happen in that time. America’s attention might be directed back across the ocean, away from the west. Congress might decide to withhold approval, use it to control the president, make him dance to their tune. And even if none of that happened, if Jefferson did push the borders, the devil still stood between outside powers and the Territory.
And anyone, within or without the Territory, who dismissed the devil as a threat was a fool who deserved what was handed to them.
And yet, even with that decided, Gabriel was unable to fall asleep, watching the moon fade, until birdsong roused Isobel, and he could pretend to wake.