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Uncanny Vows

Book #2 of Huntsmen



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About The Book

Following the events of the high-stakes and propulsive Uncanny Times, Rosemary and Aaron Harker, along with their supernatural hound Botherton, have been given a new assignment to investigate…but the Harkers believe it’s a set-up, and there’s something far more ancient and deadly instead.

Rosemary and Aaron Harker have been effectively, unofficially sidelined. There is no way to be certain, but they suspect their superiors know that their report on Brunson was less than complete, that they omitted certain truths. Are they being punished or tested? Neither Aaron nor Rosemary know for certain. It may be simply that they are being given a breather or that no significant hunts have been called in their region. But neither of them believes that.

So, when they are sent to a town just outside of Boston with orders to investigate suspicious activity carefully, the Harkers suspect that it is a test. Particularly since the hunt involves a member of the benefactors, wealthy individuals who donate money to the Huntsmen in exchange for certain special privileges and protections.

If they screw this up…at best, they’ll be out of favor, reduced to a life of minor hunts and “clean up” for other Huntsmen. At worst, they will be removed from the ranks, their stipend gone—and Botheration, their Hound, taken from them.

They can’t afford to screw this up.

But what seems like a simple enough hunt—find the uncanny that attacked a man in his office and sent him into a sleep-like state—soon becomes far more complicated as more seemingly unrelated attacks occur. The Harkers must race to find what is shadowing them, before the uncanny strikes again, and sleep turns into murder—and the Huntsmen decide that they have been compromised beyond repair.

But their quarry may not be the only uncanny in town. Botheration and Aaron both sense something else, something shadowing them. Something old, dangerous…and fey.


Chapter One

WINTER WAS SLOWLY releasing its grip on New Haven. Across the campus, trees budded and bloomed, the midmorning sunlight just warm enough to convince the young men to open their coats and abandon hats, but chill enough that they did not linger, heads down, hands tucked into pockets, brightly colored scarves fluttering. Then the bells tolled eleventh hour, and the graveled paths cleared as though by magic, leaving the campus Green still once again.

At the western edge of the Green, a three-story house filled most of a corner lot. Surrounded by a low stone wall, a small plaque at the entrance announcing that the house was property of the university. It, too, was quiet. The white-trim porch boasted a comfortable-looking quartet of chairs and a low mahogany table, as though waiting for warmer afternoons for chess, or some other decorous pursuit.

Past the front door, however, that quiet gave way to chaos. Chairs had been overturned, rugs shoved aside, and the ornately papered walls had been ripped in places. In the middle of one room, Aaron Harker pivoted, arms windmilling as he tried to keep his balance without losing sight of his prey, a gray-green figure the size of a cat and the shape of a frog, if a frog were to rise up on two feet and scurry like a ferret.

“Stop them,” a familiar, breathless voice called. “Stop them!” His sister Rosemary, across the room, was holding an iron poker in one hand and a broom in the other, looking like a demented version of Lady Liberty guarding not a harbor but the exit out of the room.

Aaron pivoted again and swore. “What the blazes do you think I’m trying to do?”

The imp he’d been struggling to catch slid between his legs, leaving a trail of slime across his boots, and Aaron, lifting one foot out of the mess, pivoted a third time, getting dizzy from his attempts to follow the creature. They’d managed to chivvy the creatures from the upstairs rooms, but evicting them from the building entire had been more of a challenge. There were at least eight that they’d caught sight of, but they hadn’t exactly been able to line them up and count them.

“Slippery little bastards,” he muttered, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead. He’d discarded his jacket and cap across a chair in the parlor, and sweat was making his shirt stick to the small of his back uncomfortably, as though it were deep summer rather than only mid-April.

“Above you!” Rosemary warned, and Aaron looked up to see an imp swinging from the chandelier, screeching insults when it realized it had been spotted. Aaron had just enough time to calculate the likely weight-bearing capabilities of the fixture before the chain gave way, the imp falling with an ear-piercing shriek, followed by the bulk of the chandelier. Clear crystal beads rained down like hail, bouncing and rolling all over the floor.

Aaron threw himself backward just in time, almost tripping over another imp. “Goddamn it.” It had been a long day, starting with an early-morning summons from the provost of the university, and Aaron was tired of playing nice. “Bother, I take it back. Eat them!”

The Molosser hound guarding the staircase gave a sharp bark, the sound resonating throughout the first floor and making the imps shriek again. Botheration let his lower jaw drop in what could almost be considered a grin, sharp white teeth and pink tongue visible, but since Aaron had not given an actual order countermanding the order to guard, he stayed put.

Most uncanny would wet themselves, coming into close quarters with a hound. Imps lacked that level of self-preservation.

“Pbbbttttthhhhtt!” They didn’t have speech, as such, but the meaning was entirely clear, particularly with the gesture the fallen imp made, spoon-fingered hands cupping between its legs before scurrying out of reach. But that movement put it nearer Rosemary and her poker, and she took the opportunity to whack it face-first into the wall.

The remainder of the imps, rather than being dismayed, let out another round of rude cheers, sounding remarkably like the brothers of the university fraternity house they had infested.

“That’s enough out of you.” Two hours of this, and Aaron had reached his breaking point. Although he’d been doing his best to avoid touching them until now, Aaron reached down and grabbed the nearest one by the scruff of its slimy neck, punting it toward Rosemary. With the reflexes that made them an effective team, she swung her broom, hitting the imp square in the chest and sending it flying, falling in a crumpled heap by her previous target.

“Two down, six to go,” she said with grim satisfaction, dropping the now-broken broom handle and hefting the poker with both hands. “Who’s next?”

The remaining imps scrambled up the draperies and over furniture, but Rosemary was clearly just as tired of trying to do this peacefully. Within thirty minutes they had subdued the remaining creatures, leaving them groaning in a pile on the parquet floor.

“We asked you to leave quietly,” Aaron reminded the pile. “It didn’t have to be like this.”

From the bottom of the pile, another rude noise sounded.

“They’re imps. I told you asking nicely wasn’t going to work.”

Aaron glanced at his sister, her curls falling from the braid that had been coiled neatly that morning, her face flushed with exertion, then down to where her fingers still gripped the iron poker, and bit back the response he was going to make. Stepping closer, Aaron gently uncurled her fingers where they’d clenched hard enough around the metal bar to turn her knuckles white, taking the poker from her and putting it aside. “You all right?”

“Yes. Of course.” She sounded offended that he’d even asked. “The day a pile of feral imps is anything more than an annoyance, it’s time to retire. Let’s just get them into the box and be done with this.”

On a proper hunt, there would be a body to dispose of, either by burning, burial, or sinking in a deep body of water, ideally one without strong currents. But while imps were a nuisance to civilized folk—or university students—they weren’t particularly dangerous, and their corpses would turn the soil noxious. While meeting with the provost, the Harkers had arranged for a wooden crate lined with flat iron plates to be left by the side of the house. Once they had secured the imps within, an employee of the university would haul them back out into the countryside. Odds were something out there would eat them before too long, which was likely why they’d come into town in the first place.

Their mistake, Huntsmen remedied.

After reclaiming his jacket, Aaron fixed his collar and slicked his hair back before replacing his cap. There was nothing to be done about the sweat, but from a distance, he looked respectable once again.

Taking the coal shovel from the fireplace, he used it to lift the first of the knocked-out imps, gingerly carrying it out the front door to where the box waited, half-hidden by the thick trunk of an elm tree. Unpainted wood, half as tall as Aaron and twice as wide, the stenciled lettering on the box’s sides suggested an earlier incarnation, but it didn’t need to be pretty to be effective.

It took several trips to clear the house, even with Rosemary disdaining the use of the shovel and merely dragging them out, one in each fist. Each body made a wet, hollow noise as it thumped against the others, and several of them twitched faintly but otherwise remained knocked out. The iron plates couldn’t kill them, not merely by contact, but they did enough damage to keep them docile for a while. Hopefully, long enough for them to be dumped somewhere far away.

When the last of the pile had been deposited, Aaron let the lid drop shut a final time, the iron latch falling into place with a satisfying clank.

“And good riddance,” Rosemary said. “We should do one more tour of the house, but I suspect they all came out to play once you threatened to set it on fire. Which, by the way, and I shouldn’t need to remind you, is never the answer.”

Aaron sniffed at his sleeve, then his hand, and made a face. “Fire might be the only thing that gets this smell out. And the ooze… ugh.”

She clucked her tongue at him. “It’s not that bad.”

“No, it’s worse.”

Rosemary rolled her eyes. “And they say women are too dainty for this work. Fine. I’ll clear; you wash your hands. Bother”—and she called the hound over from where he’d wandered to relieve himself—“guard!”

The hound settled himself a few feet from the box, nose on paws and gaze intent on his target. After using the garden pump to splash the worst off his skin, Aaron leaned against the stone wall and studied his four-legged companion. “A lot of help you were,” he said. “Although I’ll grant you I wouldn’t want them in my teeth, either.”

Bother’s erect ear twitched, acknowledgment that he was being spoken to, but otherwise he did not respond.

Aaron shifted again, his skin twitching. Rosemary could tease him all she liked, but he could still feel the weight of imp ooze. It would take more than a splash of cold water to erase the memory.

“Mr. Harker?”

Knocked from his wistful thoughts of a long hot bath, Aaron’s left hand reached for the bone-handled knife at his hip even as he turned, relaxing only when he saw the two men standing on the other side of the wall. The speaker was the provost, a stern-faced man with a slicked-back mustache that would have better suited a younger man, and a pinched look between his eyes. His suit was now covered by a long black coat, a fashionable derby set on top of his head, and a blue-and-white knit muffler similar to those worn by the students wrapped around his neck, but the sour expression on his face was the same they’d seen in his office a few hours earlier.

In comparison, the man next to him was an expressionless shadow in brown, a short coat and uniform with its polished black buttons up and down, and buffed black shoes underneath, immediately identifying him as a member of the Messenger Service. The service seemed to choose their employees based on unremarkableness; Aaron suspected that even if he stared for an hour, ten minutes later he wouldn’t be able to recall the shape of the face under the cap or the color of his skin.

“Mr. Harker,” the provost said again, clearly annoyed that Aaron had not responded already. Aaron was thankful Rosemary was still inside; beyond the fact that the man had summoned them like tradespeople, the provost clearly had little use for women, and Rosemary had no use for men who had little use for women.

Aaron nodded once, waiting; he saw no need to confirm that he was, yes, still Mr. Harker.

“It’s done?” the provost asked, his tone somehow managing to be both hopeful and disdainful. In response, Aaron nodded toward the box, even as something within thumped once, weakly, and then fell silent. Then some mischief took over his tongue, and he said, “You should warn your boys about leaving food out. You never know what’s going to come to dinner.”

If possible, the provost’s scowl deepened.

And then, because if he was going to be treated like a tradesman, he might as well act like one, Aaron said, “You have our fee?”

There was a moment where Aaron thought he might have pushed too far, but the provost reached inside his coat and withdrew a slender brown envelope, which he handed to Aaron over the wall.

There was a temptation to brush his hand against the man’s sleeve, to see if he would jump back in polite horror, but the weight of the messenger waiting made Aaron simply take the envelope, slipping it into his own coat pocket.

Huntsmen worked for the greater good of humanity. But they had bills to pay, too.

The transaction completed, the provost wasted no time departing, acknowledging neither Aaron nor the messenger beyond a brusque nod.

Both men watched him leave, then the messenger turned back to Aaron.

“Aaron Harker?”

“That’s me,” he agreed. Unlike the provost, the messenger had reason to confirm his identity.

The man handed him an envelope of his own. This one was a simple cream-colored envelope, sealed with a delicate bronze drop of wax pressed with a plain signet. Despite its travel, the corners were undented, the paper itself unmarked, as though other letters had been afraid to touch it.

Orders from the Circle, in Boston.

There was a bitter irony somewhere, Aaron was certain, that now was the moment the Circle chose to resume contact. Not that there was a rule against Huntsmen working directly for anyone, thankfully. The stipend they received from the Circle covered the basics, but not much beyond that, and while the Harkers did not live extravagantly, there were books and wine and new shoes to be acquired on a regular basis, and Botheration was not inexpensive to feed.

And there had been no official hunts coming their way for several months now, which had meant a smaller stipend.

No hunts, no communication at all. Because of Brunson. Not that anyone would say so. But the Harkers had grown up knowing that they were slightly beyond the pale, knowing that they had to prove themselves more than others, and he knew, even if Rosemary wouldn’t admit it, that they were being censured.

And yet, there was no way the Circle could know what had really happened in Brunson. Their report had been clear: an uncanny had murdered three people, and a fourth had died during the hunt, of causes unknown. All truth. Simply not… all the truth.

Sensing Aaron’s mood, Bother chose that moment to stand up, drawing attention to himself. The messenger, to give him credit, didn’t flinch at the approach of the massive beast but stood his ground, his gaze fixed on the human, not hound.

Aaron rubbed a thumb across the wax seal, though not hard enough break it. “Are you supposed to wait for a response?”

“I was not requested to do so, Mr. Harker.”

“Fine.” Aaron tucked the letter into his pocket, equally careful not to crease it, and pulled a quarter coin from the other pocket, offering it to the man. “Thank you.”

When Rosemary reappeared a few minutes later, her own attire and appearance repaired, both Aaron and Bother had their attention fixed on the imp box, only the envelopes heavy in his pocket proof anyone else had been there at all.

She stepped off the porch steps and stopped. “What happened?”

He couldn’t resist. “Why do you think anything happened?”

She just stared, hands on her hips, until he relented, pulling the envelopes out to show her.

“Finally,” she said, exhaling her relief, stepping forward to reach not for the envelope with their pay, but the one with their new assignment. He pulled it out of her reach just as her fingers touched it and, when she scowled at him, tilted his head to indicate the two burly workmen approaching from the Green, a heavy handcart pulled behind them.

“It can wait until we’re home,” he said.

About The Author

Photograph by Elsa M. Ruiz

Laura Anne Gilman is the author of the Locus bestsellers Silver on the Road and The Cold Eye, the popular Cosa Nostradamus books (the Retrievers and Paranormal Scene Investigations urban fantasy series), and the Nebula Award–nominated The Vineart War trilogy. Her first story collection is Dragon Virus, and she continues to write and sell short fiction in a variety of genres. Follow her at @LAGilman or

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Saga Press (November 28, 2023)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534415966

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“The follow-up to Uncanny Times continues to build Gilman’s delightful world. Fans of gaslamp fantasy, Sherlock Holmes, and wry siblings should take a look.”

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