By KC Ball
Wet and dingy snow, gray as the sky from which it fell, lay thick upon everything and a fitful wind plucked at Tate’s parka and leggings. She paid no heed. It was miserable business for so late in the season, but Jolene had dragged her through worse, over their years together.
“Not fit weather for man nor beast,” Jolene would say, wading through drifts piled above Tate’s waist. “But you and I aren’t either one, are we, Little Girl?”
The wind eased for the moment and a regular shape, off to her left, caught Tate’s attention. She took a step into the tree line, away from the creek she followed, thumbing the hammer of her pistol as she moved.
An oblong sign, bright white letters upon vivid green, nested in winter-brittled weeds next to a foot bridge. If the sign could be believed, the village of Providence lay just the other side of the bridge.
Tate eased the straps of her pack and holstered the pistol. Growing darkness obscured the far bank of the creek, but the bridge remained clear enough. It appeared substantial, well- tended and inviting, but so did the bowl of a pitcher plant. Tate had no intention of playing fly.
“Weigh the risk,” Tate said, whispering into the wind. In her mind, she could hear Jolene murmur those three words with her, for they had been the first of Jolene’s Laws.
Tate might be a child of the chaos in which the world still lingered, like a dog wallowing in its own mess, but Jolene had grown up in civilized times. She managed to survive Collapse, rescue five-year-old Tate and thrive for another twenty-five years because she remained faithful to her laws.
“You’re a lucky little girl I found you grubbing in those ruins,” Jolene had said, as she stirred the coals of their first campfire together. “Don’t get used to it. Never count on luck.”
That was the Second Law. There were others. Jolene had been a patient, persistent teacher. Tate took her lessons to heart.
As she grew, caution became Tate’s religion, Jolene’s Laws the word of God. Tate shed no tears the day Jolene died, eleven weeks past now, because tears were forbidden by the Eighth Law. What’s done is done.
Tate considered the words of the sign, as clean-edged and bright as if painted yesterday.
Jolene’s imagined whisper offered counsel. Something don’t set right, Little Girl. Scuttlers wouldn’t stay long enough to put up signs. Scavengers won’t bother.
Tate nodded and tightened the pack straps. She eased to the edge of the creek, avoiding the bridge, worked her way down the embankment and over the narrow run of water, stepping from one slicked rock to another. Providence might be a tempting trap, but Tate decided she would accept the risk. She had been without company since Jolene’s death and she had a taste for the sound and smell and feel of someone other than herself.
Even so, she would be careful.
The storm blew itself to pieces moments after Tate walked away from the far bank and the sky cleared, revealing a sliver of moon and the spread of stars. Tate pushed through snow-thick undergrowth and came upon a low rise of land.
From the far side, smoke trickled away into the clear night sky. The wind breathed upon wind chimes, then changed direction and Tate caught the scent of burning pine. The heady aroma of beans and salted pork hung there, too.
She topped the rise, taking care not to slip or to be seen in silhouette, and came upon a cluster of cottages with slate roofs and stone chimneys. Around them, yards and gardens were traced beneath the snow.
Never trust neat and tidy, Little Girl.
Tate nodded. The houses and gardens felt less than real, more like canvas false fronts set up by vagabond buskers for their shows. Tate caught the flicker of light and movement off glass; then like a mirage in the southern desert, it was gone.
Even so, her nose had not betrayed her. Tate saw that the flickering glow she had mistaken for lamplight was the reflection of a campfire upon the windows. An old woman sat beside the fire at the verge of the village green, stirring the contents of a small pot hung over the flames. Beyond the light, Tate could see shadowed grave markers. Row upon row.
There’s magic here.
Tate shivered at that notion. She and Jolene had come upon a witch or two in their time together.
She eased forward, ready to bolt, but the Laws did say that it was better to see for yourself than not to know. The old woman looked up, without surprise, when Tate step into the flickering light and moved to within two long strides of the fire.
“Hello,” Tate said. Her hand rested near the pistol.
The old woman offered no challenge but held on to a scattergun cradled across her lap. Tate moved away from the line of fire. The weapon had seen better days but was still a threat.
“Hello,” the old woman said.
“You alone?” Tate asked.
The old woman inclined her head toward the grave markers.
“All gone but me.”
“Too bad,” Tate said. The old woman shrugged. She stood and Tate took a step backward, put her hand upon the pistol butt.
“Jolene?” she said, before she could bite her tongue.
Of course not. Jolene had died and no magic in the world could bring her back. Tate knew that as fact, but the way old woman put one hand behind her back as she stood, the way she tilted her head to study Tate and ran her tongue over her lips as if in anticipation, was so much like Jolene. So much. Tate shook the notion away.
“Can I sit?” she asked. She didn’t care for the way that sounded. Too much like begging. “I got meat and bread.”
“Go ahead; sit,” the old woman replied.
Tate shrugged out of her pack, settling it across the fire from the stump that was the old woman’s camp seat, never taking her eyes away from the old woman.
“I’m Tate,” she said.
The old woman didn’t reply. Instead, she returned to the stump and stuck a spoon into the small pot that bubbled over the fire. Tate dropped to her knees and dug smoked venison and a cloth-wrapped slab of cornbread from her pack, then busied herself dividing the food.
“Here,” the old woman said.
She had poured beans from the pot onto two camp plates and now held both before her, offering Tate her pick. Tate did the same with the venison and cornbread, and then waited for the old woman to take first taste before digging into the beans. They were spiced just the way she liked.
“Good,” she said, after a time. “Grow them yourself?”
“Plant them in the spring,” the old woman said. “Can them in the fall.”
When both had their fill, and the gear was clean and stowed away, the old woman dug a steel flask from the bag beside her stump. She unscrewed the top and tilted the flask toward Tate.
“Better days,” she said, by way of a toast, then took a long swig and passed the steel across the fire.
Tate jerked her hand away as a crackling spark arced between them. The old woman ignored it, still holding out the flask, and so Tate reached for it again. There was no second spark. She sniffed the heady aroma and licked the rim. Whiskey. She swallowed a slug and shivered as the alcohol took hold.
“Good stuff,” she said, as she returned the flask. “You brew that, too?”
“No.” The old woman downed another swallow.
“Been here long?” Tate asked.
“Long enough,” the old woman replied.
She handed over the flask again, then kicked off her ragged camp shoes and burrowed into a mound of blankets.
“Bank the fire, whether you stay or move on,” she said.
Her voice muffled by blankets, only her eyes visible, she squirmed about inside her nest of blankets. As she rolled away from Tate, and muttered to herself for a time before she was still.
Tate watched it all from the other side of the fire, wrapped in her own blankets. Now and again, she took a sip of the whiskey.
Don’t fall asleep here.
Tate jerked upright. How much of the old woman’s whiskey had she swallowed? She hefted the flask. Funny, it still felt full. She tried to stand but couldn’t seem to get both feet beneath her at the same time.
Don’t fall asleep here!
Tate tried again and made it to her knees before tumbling back into her blankets. As she struggled to right herself, she glanced across the fire at the old woman’s still form. That hadn’t gone well. When she crossed the creek, she had hoped to find company, someone who talked more than the old woman.
Now, Tate wasn’t certain what more she could have contributed if the conversation had been more energetic. She had been alone too long. That had to change.
Tate took another pull from the steel flask. She tucked it into her pack, pulled a blanket over her head and fell away into sleep, ignoring Jolene’s insistent whispers.
Her sleep was troubling, filled with strange dreams. A kick to the ribs awakened her. Her thoughts remained fuzzy, her reflexes still slowed by the whiskey. The morning sunlight burned at her eyes. She realized, with a start, that she had broken the Fourth Law. Never sleep in the open.
Now you’ve done it, Little Girl!
Another kick, this time harder. What was the old woman up to?
Tate rolled toward the blow, reaching for her pistol. Gone. She stared into the barrels of a scattershot, but her first thoughts of betrayal disappeared when she saw the weapon. Almost new from the look of it and it rested in the hands of a bearded man.
“Don’t move,” he said.
Tate lie still, more in response to her surprise than to his command. Other folks gathered around the bearded man, men and women and older children, and no sign of the old woman. No trace of a fire, either. Instead, a large tree, winter dormant but alive, stood where the old woman had sat atop a stump. The gravestones were gone, too.
“Mind telling us who you are?” the man asked.
Tell him what he wants to hear!
“My name’s Tate,” she said. “I’m just looking for supplies and some company; I’ll work for both.”
Tate held her breath as he studied her for a time. Then he lowered his weapon and extended his right hand to help her climb to her feet. As she did so, he glanced at a heavy-set woman at one end of the semi-circle of people.
“You see, Gracie,” he said. “She’s just a loner, looking for food and a chance to be around good folk like us.”
“If you say so, David,” Gracie said.
“Go on,” he said. “Tell Old Maggie she can stop chanting.”
He’s got a witch!
Tate discovered that she was still holding her breath. She sucked in air, as David shooed the others away with his hands.
“Go on, all of you,” he said. “Back to work.”
They left without another glance. Tate had become old news. David gathered up her back pack, handed it to her.
“You can stay,” he said. “If you don’t make trouble.”
“I understand,” Tate said.
Of course she understood. The folks here might think the place belonged to them, but Tate could see that wasn’t so. David owned Providence. He turned away, expecting her to follow.
“You can bed down in the meeting hall,” he said. “It’s not much, but it’s warmer than where you slept last night.”
Run, Little Girl. Leave right now!
Tate shook her head, not even mindful that it was the first time she had chosen to ignore Jolene’s Laws.
“Not just yet,” she said, whispering.
Gracie returned with food minutes after David left and stayed to nibble.
“You always welcome strangers like this?” Tate asked. She was gnawing on a link of fried sausage, her fourth.
“David likes you,” Gracie said. “That’s enough for me.” She pushed a small pottery crock toward Tate.
“Try a dab of this mustard on that sausage.”
Tate dipped the remains of the sausage link into the crock and popped it into her mouth. Two more followed in five quick bites. She had never tasted the like of it.
Don’t get used to it. Can’t stay long in one place.
Tate focused on Gracie’s words, trying to ignore Jolene’s whispers.
“We were in a bad way here until he showed up,” Gracie said. She patted away the mustard on her chin with a twist of cloth. “David saved us all.”
She took up a forkful of scrambled eggs and studied Tate as she chewed. Tate had seen that look once, summer before last, when she came upon a mama brown bear with two new cubs.
“Don’t you ever hurt him, you hear me?” Gracie said.
The biddy is in love with him.
Tate couldn’t imagine how she could hurt David, wouldn’t be here long enough to even begin, but she held her tongue. That was one of the Laws, too. Don’t talk back to magic.
Gracie had made it clear, when she walked into the meeting hall, that she was an elder of the women’s circle and had a Knack for the Wiccan arts. Old Maggie had more than that.
“She’s got a big Talent,” Gracie said. “She struck down a drunken drover, dead in his tracks, when he tried to have his way with the McGinnis girl two years ago.”
Gracie hesitated, then added. “She was fixing to do the same to you this morning, if you had turned out to be up to no good.”
All the townsfolk of Providence were as friendly as Gracie. In the days that followed, all of the women and most of the men came by to chat; Old Maggie dropped by on the third day. She was a little bit of a woman with deep blue eyes, white hair and an easy smile.
“Could I show you something, Ma’am?” Tate asked.
Old Maggie waved the honorific away. “What is it you want to show me?”
Don’t show her!
Tate pulled the flask from her pack and hand it to the old woman, flinching in anticipation of a spark. There was none. Old Maggie turned the flask about in her hands, studying it with her fingers, as much as with her eyes.
“Where’d you get this?” she asked.
Lie to her!
“Someone gave it to me to keep.” Close enough. Old Maggie studied her for a time.
“You got yourself a powerful piece of magic, Child,” she said. “It’s an accumulator. I’ve seen them before but never held one this powerful.”
“What’s an accumulator?”
“It stores up a magical charge, fills up, you might say, until there’s enough. Then it discharges, triggers the spell.”
“What sort of spell?”
“Can’t say, can’t even tell you how long it might take to recharge, not ‘til I study it. Can I keep it for a time?”
Tate waved one hand at her ear, as if shooing a fly away.
“Yes,” She said. “For as long as you need.”
Tate soon found there were other sorts of magic afoot in Providence. During the fortnight she slept in the meeting hall, she discovered that her first impression of David had been correct. He did own the place. Everyone in the village deferred to him and Gracie was his biggest fan.
“He’s the most natural leader I ever seen,” Gracie said, between bites of bread slathered in butter and jam. She had brought breakfast around again.
Tate became a reluctant supporter, too. David was fair-minded in every dispute he was called upon to settle and gentle every time he took the time to listen to a child’s needs. But there was a darker side to David, as well. Three days after Tate arrived; members of the watch brought in two Scuttlers caught trying to stealing a cow. David put them in shackles beneath the big tree on the green.
“Willie. Mr. Peterman. Tate,” He said, calling to the first three people he saw. “Tell folks it’s a town meeting.”
Be the boss’s little dog. Get him his witnesses.
Tate ignored Jolene’s voice and turned to spread the word.
You’re falling for him, too! Stupid little girl!
“Shut up!” Tate said, too loud. Tom Peterman glanced at her, one eyebrow raised, then hurried off.
For the first time since Jolene died, Tate wondered if those imagined whispers were signs that she had gone insane, for no matter how she tried, they wouldn’t go away.
“Let it be, Jolene,” she whispered, as she ran. “Please just let me be!”
Tate was not surprised when every man, woman and child, dropped what they were doing to answer the summons. When they were all gathered around the tree, on the snow-covered green, David threw two nooses over the biggest limb.
“You fellows got anything to say?” he asked.
The men stood, shivering in their chains. Neither wore enough for the weather.
“We was hungry,” the bigger man said.
“That’s no excuse,” David said. “If you had come to us, we would’ve feed you.” He turned to the assembly.
“Anyone have anything to offer in their defense?” he asked.
No one said a word, but neither did they look away from the two men or the tree with its ropes.
“All right,” David said. “For your crimes, I sentence you both to hang by the neck until dead.”
He hoisted the two Scuttlers from the ground, one at a time without asking for assistance, and left them to swing in the wind. Just after dark, Tate watch from the meeting hall as David cut down the bodies and buried them himself.
Ten days after Tate arrived in Providence, David asked her to handle security for a work crew headed out the next morning to quarry stone for wall repairs. She agreed.
Two wagons shuttled what was dug from the ground back and forth to the village. At midday, David and Gracie drove up with the lunch wagon. He stayed to help until work was finished, near to sundown. As the crew walked back to Providence behind the last wagonload, David fell into step beside Tate.
“You handled yourself well today,” he said.
Tate waved away the compliment but her pulse quickened. “Didn’t do anything. Just stood and watched.”
“No,” he said. “You were ready to handle trouble.”
“It’s what I was trained to do,” she said.
“Were you a cop before things collapsed?”
Tate knew what a cop was, Jolene had told her stories, and so she laughed. How old did David think she was?
“Did I say something funny?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “You just surprised me.”
He laughed, too. “So, a woman of mystery. I like that.”
He studied her for a time, as they walked. “What did you do?”
Lie to him!
“I don’t like talking about that,” Tate said.
There was a shout up ahead and the wagon driver responded. Providence was just ahead.
“Tell you what,” David said. “Come to my place for dinner tonight. We can finish this conversation.”
“Can you cook?” Tate asked
“Almost as good as Gracie.”
“Will I have to tell you all my secrets?”
“Only if you want to.” David grinned.
When Tate knocked at his door, she wore a dress Gracie had altered for her. She had spent almost an hour in the bathhouse, too, scrubbing away the grime of the road.
David hadn’t lied, he was a good cook. Over the meal, he asked questions about what he called her ‘mysterious past’. She offered ambiguous answers, figured it was a game he wanted to play. Tate was good at games, once she knew the rules. She and Jolene had played a lot to pass the time. And so, she and David sat up late, talking and laughing. When it was time to sleep, neither suggested she should leave.
The next day, David brought her things to his cabin and for six months it was their cabin. David never asked for details of Tate’s past again.
She came to feel that she had known Providence and David for every moment of her life. She could think of nothing she wanted so much as to stay, but Jolene would not allow it.
Her whispers gnawed at Tate day and night, calling disaster down upon her, so that Tate felt it pressing in upon her like the crumbling walls of an old well. She mumbled to herself without pause when she was alone, could not find sleep for more than a few hours at a stretch and all but stopped eating.
That last bothered Gracie most of all.
“You got to eat,” Gracie said, after Tate pushed away her plate at lunch one day. Gracie was almost to tears. “If you don’t eat, you’ll die!”
Tate was certain that would happen, but not because of hunger. Tate was going to have to leave; even her love for David could not stand against the mounting pressure of Jolene’s whispers. And when she left, a piece of her would perish.
David rested on his side, his right arm thrown across Tate’s stomach. She had never been more aware of his closeness. She could feel his heartbeat, from his wrist laid upon her bare skin, and she listened to the soft snore he swore he did not possess. The bed was full of their smells, commingled into something that was both intoxicating and comforting, but she found no comfort now. She had not slept, of course. That would come after she was away from Providence.
In his sleep, David rolled onto his back, pulling his arm away from her.
Time to go!
Tate was sick to death of Jolene’s whispers but she slid from the bed and pulled her clothing on. Her travel gear waited outside the village. She could avoid the watch, and even if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be questioned. She had become a part of the community, after all.
That thought brought her no comfort. She eased into the kitchen, where she pulled on her boots. Then she scooped a package of bread and sausage from the pantry and turned to leave. David stood in the doorway, sleep rumpled and hairy.
“Were you going to leave without saying goodbye?” he asked.
Tell him yes.
“I figured you’d try to talk me out of it if I told you.”
“Wouldn’t even try,” he said.
“So am I.” He rubbed at the underside of his jaw with the knuckles of his left hand. Watching the familiar gesture almost brought Tate to tears.
“Do one last thing for me, will you?” David asked.
“Stay long enough for us to give you a proper send off?”
“All right,” Tate said. “One more day.”
Just as they had come together to witness her arrival, the folks of Providence gathered in the morning sunshine to see her off. After all the goodbyes, David, Gracie and Old Maggie walked Tate to the bridge. There were tears in Gracie’s eyes as she hugged Tate, and she held on as if they stood in hurricane winds and she would blow away without Tate as an anchor.
“I put a little something in your pack,” she said. “Sausage and cheese and bread. Some of my mustard, too. Just in case you get hungry.”
Get on with it!
Gracie wasn’t the only with a gift. David offered Tate a paper-wrapped parcel. She made to stuff it into her pack, as well, but he wouldn’t have that.
“Open it now,” he said. “It’s from Old Maggie and me.”
So Tate undid the string and paper and found the flask. It wasn’t like new, it never would be again, but the worst of the scratches had been smoothed and the seams repaired. Tate held it in both hands, not knowing what to say.
“Told you first time I seen it, it was an accumulator,” Old Maggie said. “Now I can tell you it’s got some sort of traveling spell cast on it.”
“If you would have stayed, I might have figured out what it did,” she said. “Maybe, when the time’s right, it’ll bring you back to us.” She squeezed Tate’s hand and then stepped away.
“I did the repairs and polishing,” David said. “And it’s full of whiskey. Old Maggie blessed it, says it won’t ever empty.”
Behind him, Old Maggie nodded. A single tear eased its way along the seams of her cheek.
“I read once we leave a part of ourselves in everything we craft,” David said. “Maybe there’s a touch of us in there, with the whiskey.”
Tate stepped toward him then and moved into his arms. They stood together in silence, leaning on each other, and she rested her head against his chest, absorbing the beating of his heart.
Enough! Get a move on.
Tate pushed free. It felt as if a part of her had ripped away.
“I have to go,” she said.
He nodded, not looking away. “Uh huh.”
Without another word, she turned to the south and slipped off into the clear morning light.
Two days later, Tate found burned wagons and dead bodies. The remains of a Scavenger attack. There had been twenty wagons, the bodies were all adult and male. A group of traders. She had never seen or heard of a Scavenger band large enough to do this much damage.
It frightened her, not knowing which direction the Scavengers were headed. An hour later, careful scouting showed her they were headed to the northeast. Toward Providence.
Tate retraced her path; moving with haste, without thought for the Laws. Jolene’s voice shrieked, weaving old webs of control, but Tate’s own voice was louder, calling her to account for leaving David to follow the whispers of a dead woman.
Fourteen hours later, exhausted and near hysteria, she staggered to the top of the rise from which she had first seen Providence. Even as she covered the last few feet, she could smell her failure.
Below her, the village lay in ruin, slate roofs smashed, doors and windows gone and bodies crumpled everywhere. The meeting hall was on fire, and the light from the flames flickered on broken windowpanes.
Dusk came before she gathered the courage to walk those last few paces, stepping over the bodies. She found David, swinging by a noose from the large tree in the commons. Gracie and Old Maggie lay nearby. Horrible things had been done to them. Tate cut David down and sat on the ground beneath the tree, his head cradled in her lap, sipping from the steel flask until the light were gone.
Over the following days, Tate kept busy with details. She buried David and the others in graves dug on the village green. She cleaned the lanes, rebuilt the burned-out bridge, planted the gardens and restored cottages as best she could. When all else was done, she cut the oak tree down to a stump, because she couldn’t stand the sight of it.
She stayed on then, sleeping in the remains of the meeting hall. As she worked, she came around to the notion that David hadn’t been playing a game, that night he teased her about being his mystery woman. Maybe he and the people of Providence had known the world before Collapse. Maybe that winter night, at the fire with the old woman, that spark had sent her tumbling into enchantment, and she had been carried back to a time when the child Tate was off somewhere, still learning Jolene’s Laws.
Who knows what’s possible with magic?
And with that thought she realized who the old woman had been.
Tate sat amidst the ghosts of Providence, nursing a small fire, as she had done every winter’s night for so many years she had lost count.
During those years, she had visitors. Traders, tinkers, wizards, witches, alchemists and adventurers had come and gone. She conducted business with some and sent all on their way, for none had been the one for whom she waited.
This night, she looked up, without surprise, as a young woman walked out of the darkness and approached the fire. Tate made no move to challenge the younger woman, but she retained her grip on David’s old scattergun. The weapon had seen better days. Its stock was wrapped in duct tape, the shoulder strap a frayed piece of rope, but it still worked.
The younger woman stopped short of the fire. “Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” Tate said.
“You alone?” the younger woman asked.
Tate inclined her head toward the grave markers. “All gone but me.”
“Too bad,” the younger woman said.
Tate slipped one hand behind her back for support as she stood, tilted her head to study the younger woman and ran her tongue over her lips. Wetting her whistle, Jolene used to call it.
The younger woman took a step backward, put her hand upon her pistol butt.
“Jolene?” she said.
Tate shrugged away the words. This was the one. There had been and would be magic, after all.
“Can I sit?” the younger woman asked. “I got meat and bread.”
“Go ahead; sit,” Tate said.
Her voice sounded raspy, rusted once more from disuse. The younger woman stared for just a moment, then nodded and shrugged out of her pack, dropping it beside the fire.
“I’m Tate,” the younger woman said.
Tate didn’t bother to answer. There was no hurry now, no need for conversation. She returned to the stump, stirring the small pot until its contents began to bubble, then she poured the hot beans onto two metal camp plates. By the time she was done, the younger woman had dug smoked venison and a cloth-wrapped slab of cornbread from her pack and had divided it into two portions. They shared the food and began to eat.
“Good,” the younger woman said, after a time. “Grow them yourself?”
“Plant them in the spring,” Tate said. “Can them in the fall.”
When both had their fill, Tate dug her flask from the bag beside her stump. She ran her finger over its surface, wondering how many more times it could be restored, how much longer it would continue to fuel the enchantment into which she had fallen. She unscrewed the top and tilted the flask.
“Better days,” she said. She took a swig.
When she passed the open flask, there was a sharp spark that made them both jump, but still the younger woman took the flask and drank. The younger woman sighed, enjoying the bite of the whiskey, and then returned the flask.
“Been here long?” the younger woman asked.
“Long enough,” Tate said.
She downed more whiskey and handed over the flask for the last time. As the younger woman accepted it, Tate sighed. The younger woman was no longer her concern. She had passed the steel and its magic had begun once more.
Without waiting for the return of her property, Tate kicked off her camp shoes and crawled into the sleeping gear already laid out by the fire. She could finish this business now.
“Bank the fire, whether you stay or go,” she said.
Tate pulled a tiny glass vial from between her breasts, where it had hung over her heart for half a lifetime.
“You’ll fall asleep and never wake,” the alchemist said, the day she purchased it.
She removed its stopper, let the liquid trickle into her mouth and felt its bite within seconds. Burrowing in the blankets, she began to murmur the words to an old song she had learned from Jolene so long ago. A lullaby.
A moment later, she was gone.
Note from Kasma's Editors: 'Coward's Steel' was first published in the infamous Writers of the Future 26 Anthology.