Chapter One: High Magic on the High Plains
I reckoned I’d seen my share of strangeness in that terrible war between the states, but I never imagined the things I’d witness in my journeys out west. Steam locomotives racing along endless steel tracks may make travel faster from one destination to another, dear reader, but true adventure still lies in the empty expanse between.
One time I met a sorceress on the number 4 coach heading west from St Louis along the Oregon trail to Fort Laramie. Circumstances had left me in need of a hasty departure and I chose not to ask too many questions on the nature of my benefactor, a supposed woman of means traveling alone.
There were four of us crammed into the narrow carriage when it finally departed, with the last minute addition of two coarse looking men. One was an oversized fellow with mean eyes and sour disposition; the other, a slim unshaven man who nervously laughed at odd moments. The driver signaled us by slapping the side of the coach and we barely had time to brace ourselves as we lurched forward with a crack of a whip.
We sat in silence for hours on end, bouncing around so much that my backside ached despite the thin padding my jacket afforded from the hard wooden seat. I took stock of our solitary lady traveler with a dark green cloak wrapped protectively around her lovely frame and long scarlet tresses, the color of a fine wine in candlelight, loosely braided down the back. She noticed my gaze and smiled back.
“Dost thou wish to ask something of me, Mr. …?
“Lucian, Ma’am. Begging your forgiveness, but I find myself at a loss as to what manner of business could force a lady of your stature to risk traveling alone through untamed country such as this. Some one ahead in California called for you, a husband perhaps?”
She laughed behind a lace gloved hand, her eyes mocking me. “Not I, of a surety. ‘Tis far too much effort to properly educate one and I fear my business will wait not. And what of ye, Mr. Lucian? Would ye be riding to or from your destiny?”
I glanced at our companions, who despite the rough terrain we traveled, managed to nap. “A bit of both, I reckon. Behind us is the war, or what’s left of it; and ahead of us, who but the almighty can say?”
“My, my, Mr. Lucian. Long time ere such clever words I’ve heard. Pray gift me more.”
My cheeks grew warm and I turned away from her emerald eyes. “I must beg your leave, ma’am. Words seem to have escaped me for the moment.”
“Pity,” she sighed and produced a delicate fan with a flourish from within the folds of her cape. I continued to stare out at the oceans of prairie from the coach’s tiny window, desperately trying to think of something else to say to this captivating beauty and before long found myself drifting asleep to the sound of her fan flapping like the wings of a songbird against the bars of its cage.
Our journey westward was punctuated by the occasional stop to water the animals or tend to more personal matters. During these respites, our coach driver took aim at the local wildlife while his spindly assistant stood ready to retrieve the fallen game for our evening meal.
The two ruffians entertained themselves by wagering on the driver’s marksmanship, with the Lady and myself declining to join. This proved to be a wise choice, since the sack of fresh kill proved too meager to stave off our hunger when we finally stopped to make camp for the night. Tempers flared as complaints turned to accusations and I stepped in to broker peace among the party members to no avail.
“Bí i do thost, glórach páistí,” cried a voice from within the coach. The lady emerged and clapped her hands sharply together. Whether from the shock of her appearance or the commanding tone, everyone grew silent.
“’Tis better,” she announced and stepped down from the coach with a sigh. I couldn’t be sure if she was referring to the quiet or the feel of earth beneath her bare feet.
“Mr. Fisher. When first I approached ye and procured your guarantee for safe passage, ‘twas with the understanding that ye might take on other passengers, only inconvenience me not. I trust that ye still desire to honor yon agreement?”
“Of course, Madame,” the driver hastily answered while clutching his dusty hat nervously in both hands. “And my aim with this here rifle is true enough, but for my shoulder’s aching bad lately on account of that Injun arrowhead still lodged in there…”
He rubbed the troublesome spot for effect, but she dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
“I bid ye halt your words. To keep civil tongues, I shall fetch some thing of substance for our meal.” She picked up a stray branch as the others gathered around and began to trace an intricate pattern onto a bare patch of dirt nearby.
“Oh, this is swell,” said the louder of our two companions, who pushed aside the smaller man to confront the driver. “Are we all gonna stand around and watch the funny talkin’ dame scribble some purty pictures? If so, then I’m a taking a couple of those squirrels for my supper and the rest of you can fend for yourselves.”
The driver hesitated and then tossed the burlap sack down at the man’s feet. “Watch yer tongue, Clay. You’ve got no clew what you’re dealing with here.”
“L.l.l..look!” said the young assistant, pointing towards a patch of trees not too far away. From out of the shadows came a solitary hesitant figure. A fair sized doe walked towards us as if it were set to beg for dinner scraps like a hound. I reckon it had never seen the likes of us before and decided we were harmless; a foolhardy choice it would not live to regret.
All present, the driver included, stood in amazement as the creature continued right up to the woman and her strange drawing. Had it not been so bizarre a vision, I’m sure one of us, the driver perhaps, would have taken up arms and shot the beast.
The deer sniffed her hand, ears twitching this way and that with nary a trace of fear. She bent down and whispered to the deer, who I swear nodded back. Then without warning, the creature’s eyes rolled back and it fell to the ground, as dead as my aunt Nelly.
“Gather wood and prepare this noble sacrifice, Mr. Fisher. Fresh water lies off to ye right. I’ll take my leave of ye until nightfall.
Then the lady walked towards the woods where the deer first appeared, her dress flowing smoothly around her like a cloud of smoke with nary a tangle in the tall grasses.
“You heard Madame La Fey,” the driver barked. “Let’s get this animal dressed and cooking before she returns, and only those that help will get a share, I’ll promise you that.”
“Where d’ya think she’s off ta?” the short one asked. Clay swung the sack at the man’s chest and pulled a wicked looking blade from his belt. “Don’t just stand there flapping your jaws, Bill. Looks like we’ll be dining on juicy venison steaks tonight!”
Chapter 2: Campfire Confessions