Back | Next


Mercedes Lackey

"The Damnyankees got the Devil with 'em."

Seth Carpenter generally didn't pay a lot of attention to the women when they gossiped around the fireplace of a night. Men didn't bother with that kind of palaver. Maybe he was only thirteen, but he was a Man, by gum, because Pappy had put him in charge of the place when he went off fighting the Damnyankees.

Except Pappy hadn't done so good. He hadn't been gone a month, when his stuff come back with a scrawled "We regrets to inform you, Miz Carpenter" note that the preacher had read to Mam a week later. Not that she didn't already know when the stuff come back . . . didn't take words on paper to tell her what'd happened.

So now Seth was in charge, permanent like. Mam hadn't liked it much, but he'd made some changes. Ground didn't get plowed and stock tended by itself, and he didn't see any good reason why his sisters couldn't shed some petticoats, tie up their skirts, and put a hand to it too. Yep, and pick up Seth's old squirrel rifle (he used Pappy's now) and learn to shoot something for the pot.

"Someone will see their legs!"

That was a laugh. Even if they weren't living in a holler so small it didn't even have a name, who would see them legs but God and other womenfolk? And he didn't reckon God cared.

Girls didn't care either. In fact, he reckoned Cassie fair relished being shut of them petticoats, the way she frisked around. They'd got through the summer and fall pretty good, better'n most, had a good harvest—and that was another change Seth had made. Army had taken Pappy, so he figgered they'd paid the Army 'bout all they owed. Talked Mam around to that notion too, though, mind, it hadn't taken much talking. Most of the harvest went into hiding, and so did the stock. And when collectors came around looking, there weren't much to take away.

Butchering hadn't been easy, but by then, Mam had come around to the notion that there were times when womenfolk needed to do things as weren't proper. So when time came to do the winter hunting and butchering, she'd been right there, looking a fair sight thinner without all that cloth flapping around. So they'd got the farm pig done and smoked up, and he'd got a wild sow too; pure luck, that was, she was in the larder now. Traded the rest of the pigs for what Mam didn't do—and for white flour and gunpowder. Took down some geese and ducks in passage, smoked them. With winter here and frost on the ground of a morning, he was working now on his stalking gear, because deer cost a bullet apiece, and he didn't reckon on wasting any.

With winter solid, there was time for visiting, though, which, what with Seth and the girls all chopping wood, meant that as the Carpenter hearth was the coziest, and the Carpenter larder seemed a little better stocked than most, seems the womenfolk turned up here more often than not.

Well, Seth didn't mind. There was always a big pot of black-eyed peas with a hambone in it, plenty of johnnycake, and truth to tell, the women did come in handy. Didn't mind helping Mam out before everybody settled to jabber. Did some sewing and the like for her. Had a quilting bee. Pretty handy.

Except when they started turning their tongues to stuff like this.

"Damnyankees don't need no Devil t' get up t' deviltry," he said sourly. "And anyrate, what you worried 'bout? They ain't never comin' here. Even if they could find us, they ain't nothin' here wuth their time."

"They's a holler full of womenfolk, all alone!" began one of the hens, starting that hysterical hencackle that'd get all the rest of the coop going.

"They's a holler full of womenfolk as can pick up they skirts and scoot in the woods, an' nobody never gonna find us unless we wants t'be found!" said Cassie, cutting right through the palaver to the heart of it. "We got hidey-holes already, right an' tight an' cozy. Seth he'ped us. An' if you ain't, then you're durn fools!"

"Cassie!" said Mam, aghast. "Don't speak unless you're spoke to!"

"No, she's right, Mam," said Seth, taking up his duty as The Man. He looked around at the half-shocked, half-frightened faces of the other women. "Jest 'cause I don't b'lieve the Damnyankees is comin' here, don't mean I don't think we oughta be ready. We cain't fight 'em, so we gotta hide. They come here, they gonna find the house, with nothin' in it but a kettle o' beans, 'nuff provisions for a week, mebbe, few clothes, and nothin' else. Got the stock in hidin', got the food in hidin', an' got hidey-holes all over them hills. An' if'n you-all haven't done the same, you oughta. Right, Cassie?"

She nodded. He noticed then, as if he hadn't seen her before, that she was getting pretty, with her corn-gold hair and her bright blue eyes.

Now, maybe if there had been other men here, or even another boy Seth's age, someone would have started talking about "coward's ways" and "standing and fighting for what's ours." But there weren't any other men, and in the past six-eight months, he'd come to learn that women—once you'd gotten 'em past all that "proper" and "womanly" nonsense—were a lot more practical than men.

So— "How'd you hide the stock?" asked one and "What kinda hidey-holes?" asked another, and pretty soon Cassie and Mam and Delia and Rose were telling the other womenfolk how to spread their provisions around, keep 'em safe from varmints, how to look for places where, if you had to and the Damnyankees burned the cabin down out of spite, you could live out the winter all right.

He had to watch 'em—catch 'em sharp when he thought one or another of 'em was going to say "Oh, you can share—" or "I'll just show you—" because you start telling and showing one woman and pretty soon all of 'em knew where something was, and even if they was honest, being women, they couldn't help but spill it out and there went your stash or your hidey-hole.

Some of 'em started on about it being too much trouble to take your stuff out of the larder and hide it everywhere. It was harder work, true, keeping things going with the provisions hidden all over the place—you had to go out every few days to get the next couple of days' supplies. Meaning Seth; he was the woodswise one, and he was careful to make sure nothing bigger nor a bluejay was spying on him. But since he was hunting anyway, every day, he'd made it part of his hunting round. And true enough, it had been hard to build varmint-proof shelters for the stock out in the woods, harder to go from shelter to shelter to tend the stock, but—they only had one mule, and if he got took, it would be bad. Chickens, now, they were Cassie's special chore, and he reckoned she pretty well liked to go where he'd put 'em. And pigs were doing all right.

So if they could do it, so could everybody else. No need to go offer to share.

"Hidey-holes ain't gonna help you when the Devil rides up out from under Stormytop." It was that same, dour-face biddy that had spoke up the first time. New face in the last couple weeks; somebody's cousin, come here from some bigger town, place where they called thesselves a town. Hadn't liked her when she'd been introduced, didn't like her now. She squinted her eyes at him, and frowned. "Devil, he's got him a pack o' Hounds o' Hell, an he's got him a posse o' Ghost Riders. They kin sniff you out wherever you are."

"Oh, yeah?" Seth said, thoroughly tired of this by now. "An' what'd you know about it?"

"Seth!" said Mam, scandalized. "Manners!"

"I seen 'im," said the dour-face woman, squinting harder. "I seen 'im, with my own eyes. He come up outa the ground, with his purty face an' his black heart an' his black horse with eyes like fire. I didn' see the pack, but I heerd it, under the ground, bayin'. An' I wasn't stickin' around to see if they come up. I hightailed it outa there. Good thing, too, 'cause next day, there weren't nothin' left of Cook Spinney but burned-out cabins."

Shocked silence. Into which Seth snorted.

"So there, you jest said it, you ran, an' you got out," he declared. "Devil or man, you jest hightail it into them woods and find you a hidey-hole, and there you be. 'Sides, you give me a good reason why the Devil'd bother with a place as hasn't even got a name when there's better pickin's anywhere else?"

That was plain good sense and it calmed them right down again.

Even though he didn't believe it himself. Because he knew about that Devil, or one like it. He'd heard about it from someone he trusted. It was the business about the horse with the eyes of fire and the pack baying underground that had told him the fool woman was speaking the truth. And he knew one thing more.

That Devil was looking for a special kind of person. A person like his sister Cassie. If he got within a certain range of her, he'd know she was there, and he'd come a-looking for her.

So when the gibble-gabble womenfolk had cleared out, and before the family went off to bed—he slept on the hearth and all the girls piled in the big bed with Mam now; it'd comforted all of 'em after Pappy was gone—he made like a big yawn and said, "Mam, I reckon I need t'be gone all day t'morrow, an I reckon on takin' Cassie with me."

She gave him a sharpish look. "And fer what call?"

He blinked at her, slow and steady, and said, "'Cause some tall tales got some truth in 'em."

She went white, but nodded. "Stop an' do them chickens on the way, then."

It wasn't on the way, but he would. Because he was going to go see the Spirit Woman, and Mam knew it.

And Mam knew that the Spirit Woman had the Power. Because Seth was the only one of the family who hadn't grieved over Pappy. He'd already done his grieving, because the Spirit Woman had told him Pappy wasn't coming back. That wasn't all the Spirit Woman had told him over the years, but he didn't tell most of it to Mam.

He'd come across her when he was seven or eight. Or she'd come across him. Other folk had seen her, but she'd never talked to anyone but him, except to trade with 'em, not like conversation. They tended to keep shut of her; she scared most of 'em, with her long white dresses on a wraith-thin body, her white hair down to her ankles, but a smooth face like a young girl. Not a pretty face—too sharp-featured for pretty. People assumed she was white, but Seth had always reckoned her for Injun; she had the look, he thought, and Injuns were supposed to be good with spirits. She had a funny way of talking, too—you'd say it was high-falutin', except she had no airs about her, just this feeling that she knew so much she couldn't help soundin' like a fancy schoolmarm. And she acted kind of like she just took everything in and weighed it all alike without judging it.

She lived all by her lonesome in the swamp; Mam said she'd been there thirty, forty years. She'd come to a house to trade, now and then; always knew you had what she wanted, always had something you wanted or needed, so folks welcomed her for that. Otherwise, she kept herself to herself. Never came to church, but spoke respectful to the preacher, and he said she knew her Bible and spoke well of her, and that was enough for most folks.

But she took a shine to Seth, and he to her. So she told him things, and he acted on 'em, and the fact was, when he did, things came out all right. Well, except for things he couldn't change, like Pappy never coming home.

Early on, she'd showed him the way through the swamp to her little cabin. Fact is, she was the one who'd told him to hide the provisions and find hidey-holes for everybody. "Soldiers are probably not going to come—but there is a single thread in the weave-to-come that shows them in your hollow. So if they do arrive, be ready, leave just enough in the cabin that they'll take it and not burn the place. And if you hear about a man on a coal-black horse with eyes of flame, or about people hearing dogs howl underground, you come to me quick. And bring Cassie. She has something he wants."

* * *

Come morning, he and Cassie were both up before anybody but Mam; she didn't rightly sleep all that good anymore, but there weren't anything he could do about that. She put johnnycake and bacon and drippin's inside both of 'em, and sent 'em off into the dawn and a light frost. Seth greeted the frost with a grin of pleasure, though Cassie made a face. Hard ground would mean they would leave no tracks.

"Where we goin', Seth?" Cassie asked him. She was dressed as he thought proper for the weather, a skirt over a pair of Pappy's old trousers, her feet in four pairs of stockings stuffed into his old boots, Granddaddy's coat, and Seth's old hat tied down on her head with a knitted muffler. Smart girl, Cassie. Sixteen now, and not a bit feather-witted. No whining about there not bein' any boys around for courtin' like some of the others in the holler did. Not to be helped, anyway. Families ran to girls around their holler, for some reason, an' anyway, all the menfolk that could've followed the drum when the Damnyankees got onto Georgia clay. There was a couple old men, the rest were all little boys, no older'n ten, and with a damnsight less sense than Seth'd had at their age.

Afore the War, girls hereabouts had gone off to stay with kinfolk when they was old enough, so's to find a young man. Now, well, it seemed safer stayin' home.

"We're goin' to Spirit Woman," he said, and though her eyes got round, she looked more pleased than scared. "She to'd me that when I heerd tell of a man on a coal-black horse with eyes of fire I was to take you to her. I dunno no more'n that."

"She knows all kind of witchery, they say," Cassie replied, thoughtfully, sticking her bare hands into her armpits to keep them warm. "You reckon she might teach me?"

He jerked his head around, startled. "Why? What d'you wanta learn witchery for?"

"Good witchery," she amended. "I dunno. Jest seems it'd be useful, like."

"Better not let Preacher or Mam hear you talkin' like that," he replied. "I don't care, 'cause Spirit Woman never did no body no harm that I ever saw, but Preacher don't hold with witchery, and Mam holds by the Preacher."

She wrinkled her nose with scorn. "Think I dunno that? I got more sense'n that!"

Secretly, he was pleased. He didn't see where it would hurt Cassie any, and she was right, it might help. She'd always been the kind to keep herself to herself, so she'd keep her mouth shut about it.

They tended the chickens, then doubled back, confusing the trail behind them with brush he tied to their coats, as well as with bundles of hay he tied over their shoes so they weren't making human-type footprints. He was taking no chances. Not when the family's survival hung on so narrow a margin of error.

He felt more relaxed when they got past the edge of the swamp. No one came here, and even if they did, they'd have to know the safe way in. It wasn't something you could follow, exactly. Part of it involved jumping from hummock to hummock of springy grass that didn't take tracks, didn't hold a scent, and didn't stay pressed down for long. One hummock looked pretty much like another, but jump to the wrong one and you'd end up on a path that would dead-end somewhere you didn't want to be.

The swamp wasn't less dangerous in winter; maybe it was more dangerous. If you fell in and got soaked, you might could die of cold before you could get somewhere you could make a fire to warm up and dry yourself out.

Cassie was as sure-footed as a goat though, and he had no fears for her. He just took the path and depended on her to follow; she hiked her skirts up above her knees and tied them there and did just that.

Deep in the swamp, so far in that you could stand on the place and holler for all you were worth and nobody on the edge'd hear you, was Spirit Woman's house. It was no cabin; it was a real plank house, though it was up on legs to keep it clear of the water. She had something like a porch built all around it, and she was standing there watching as they came into view. Seth wasn't at all surprised; she was there every time he came to call. Maybe she heard him coming, maybe the birds in the swamp told her with their calls; maybe she had some other ways of knowing he was on the way. He'd never bothered to figure it out.

He clambered up the ladder and Cassie followed, quiet, her eyes wide and round. "So. You've heard something of the man on the coal-black horse with eyes of flame," she said, without so much as a "how'dye do." "I feared as much. Come inside."

The house had a real, proper door too, that fit tight in the frame, and not a skin nor a piece of burlap hanging down in from the top. Seth eyed it askance, as he always did. He couldn't for the life of him imagine how this lot had gotten lugged through the swamp, leave alone built here. Inside it was as neat as a pin, though the stuff that was lodged there wasn't the kind of thing you'd look for in the houses of people he knew. There were bunches of dried plants hanging upside-down from the ceiling, shelves of brown bottles full of some sort of liquid, brown pottery jars with handwritten labels, and more odd paraphernalia than he could name. And he knew from experience that the critters perched—and hidden—in every nook and cranny were not stuffed.

Cassie took it all in avidly. Spirit Woman settled them both in cane rocking chairs beside the very cheerful fire burning on the hearth, and handed them thick pottery mugs of tea.

A cat jumped right into Cassie's lap. That was all right, but he expected her to jump and shriek when an owl flew right down out of the rafters to land on the back of her chair.

She didn't, and it was his turn to feel his eyes go round.

Spirit Woman just smiled, thinly. "And we don't tell our little brother everything, do we, missy?"

Cassie sniffed. "He already thinks he knows ev'rything, so why should I tell him?"

Spirit Woman turned to Seth. "This is what the Dark Man wants. The maiden that sings the birds out of the trees, and the wild things into her hand. The girl that whispers a melody under her breath, and a quarrel is quickly mended. The child that is wise enough to hide what she is from the time she can toddle. He will know her when he sees her, and if he comes near enough, he will scent her out, just as I did." She settled back in her chair, and steepled her hands together. "If he has come near enough that rumors of him have reached you, then he draws near enough to catch a tantalizing hint of her. Now. What do you intend to do about this?"

* * *

At first Seth had been angry that Spirit Woman hadn't offered to hide Cassie, or to protect her in some way. It hadn't seemed at all fair to him; wasn't she a woman grown, and didn't she have Powers?

But he got over his mad pretty quick. She didn't say so in as many words, but he got the notion that there was something keeping her from helping in that way. Maybe it was because she wasn't strong enough. She didn't say so, but he got the feeling she knew this Dark Man, and she didn't reckon on him getting sight of her again. He could generally tell what people were feeling, though with Spirit Woman he didn't have nearly as much luck as with most. But the more palaver that went on, the more sure he was that she was scared of that Dark Man, real scared, and didn't want to come next or nigh him.

Seth had learned a long time ago that you didn't want to call a grown person on being scared of something. They just denied it, and it either made them angry with you or just plain shut them up. So he didn't call Spirit Woman on this one, because he and Cassie needed to hear what she had to say about the Dark Man—who was, all skepticism aside, sounding more and more like, if not the Devil, certainly a Devil.

He surely had a pack of hellhounds he could call on. And he had a posse of damned souls, what had to ride with him to hunt down whatever he set the hounds on.

"He probably won't call the Hunt on you, though," Spirit Woman said, frowning with concentration. "He's more likely to try and charm you into his hands, and only use the Hunt as a last resort. There's too great a risk that you'd die at the fangs and hands of the Hunt before he could get there, and he wants you, girl. He wants you whole and unhurt."

Well, that was certainly cheerful hearing.

But he had his weaknesses, did the Dark Man. And as Seth and Cassie heard about those, a plan began to form in his mind. Especially when she said that the Dark Man would probably try an indirect approach first, away from the holler, as far from where people lived as he could manage.

Cassie, however, had other things on her mind than just dealing with the Dark Man. When Spirit Woman finally ran out of useful information, Cassie looked her square in the face, and said, "And you'll be teachin' me witchery after. Right?"

To Seth's amusement and Cassie's chagrin, Spirit Woman just shrugged. "There's nothing I can teach you, child, that you can learn. You use what you have already as naturally as breathing. You just keep on as you're going. It'll be slow learning, but that's the best sort."

And not another thing would she say on the subject, which relieved Seth a good bit. He did not particularly want Cassie coming out here into the swamp all the time, because that would for certain sure mark her as suspicious with the neighbors, and what they tolerated in Spirit Woman they would not countenance in Cassie. But on top of that, he needed all the hands he could muster just to make sure things kept going as well as they had when Pappy was still alive, and he couldn't spare her. Galivanting around with Spirit Woman half the day would make it hard to get all the chores done, come spring.

"You're as armed as I can make you," Spirit Woman said decisively. "And I cannot see the future around you, so the rest is up to you."

Seth gave her a sour look, but he said nothing. It seemed a hard thing to him that this grown woman, who presumably had some sort of witch-power, should leave a boy and a half-growed girl to fend for themselves against a Devil. But he knew better than to protest. Things were what they were, and he'd learned by now that protesting never changed them.

Instead, he got to his feet, made a polite farewell—because if he and Cassie made it through this thing, or if the Devil never came here at all, he'd want to keep up his acquaintance with Spirit Woman—and he pulled a reluctant Cassie away.

By this time, it was well after noon. Spirit Woman had fed them—she was never behindhand with her hospitality, at least—but there were still chores to do, and a short time to do them in.

Seth knew when he got home, there was going to be a good long thinking spell in front of him, too.

If that Devil came here, he and Cassie were going to have to be smart, clever, and lucky. The first two he could control, and as for the third, well, he reckoned the Carpenter family was about overdue for some good luck they didn't have to make for themselves.

But it turned out that Cassie hadn't been just sitting there like a frog on a log. She must have been thinking the whole time Spirit Woman had been talking. The moment they got on firm ground and didn't have to think about jumping from hummock to hummock, she pulled on Seth's sleeve.

"I got me some ideas," she said. "'Cause if the Dark Man comes, I ain't gonna sit there and wait fer you to come rescue me."

Seth heaved a mighty sigh of relief at that, because—well, because you never did know exactly what a girl was going to take into her head to think. And though Cassie had never shown any evidence in the past that she was the kind of critter that reckoned she needed cosseting, once a girl started looking womanly—which Cassie did, certain-sure—you just didn't know what notions she was going to take up.

"Well then," he said. "We don't want Mam to get next or nigh this business, so let's get it settled afore we get home."

* * *

"Plan" was a little too elaborate a word for what he and Cassie came up with. Having a "plan" implied that they had some idea of when and where this Dark Man was going to show, and were going to be able to take the high ground against him in advance. In fact, they didn't even know if he was coming, much less when and where. All they could really do was to arm themselves with what their own limited resources would afford, and stick fairly close together.

And Cassie could stop singing, or even humming under her breath. Because that, evidently, was what was going to bring the Dark Man down on them. Cassie, according to Spirit Woman, had a power, and it came out through music. Spirit Woman called it "shine," which was news to Seth, since he'd always thought that "shine" was what the men used to make in their stills in the woods, before corn got too dear to waste on liquor-making. Whatever, that was what the Dark Man was after, and that was why he wanted Cassie unhurt.

So as long as Cassie wasn't singing, the Dark Man might not even know she was there. One small problem, of course, was that everyone in the holler knew that Cassie had a way of easing hurts, mending quarrels, lifting the black despair that made ropes and knives and cold, cold rivers look so attractive to a woman who looked ahead and saw nothing more in her life but loneliness, bitter hard work, and pain. . . .

And Cassie couldn't help but want to make those things better. Especially the black despair. Because suicide was a terrible sin, but worse yet was leaving behind a passel of raggedy kids to bring themselves up alone. And every home in the holler already had all the mouths it could possibly feed.

So she couldn't quit her singing altogether. And Seth just couldn't harden his heart enough to yell at her for it. And so, they waited.

No further news, either of Damnyankees or the Dark Man, came to the holler. The Preacher, a circuit-rider who only made it in once in every four Sundays, had nothing of note to tell. Not that he would have spread any tales of a Devil serving the Damnyankees; preaching about the Devil in Hell where his proper place was, now that was one thing and rightly following the Lord's Way, but telling tales of a Devil on a black horse in the here and now, well, that was superstitious and gossip, and the Lord allegedly abhorred both superstition and gossip together.

Seth began, cautiously, to hope. After all, they were back of beyond of nowhere; they might have been on the moon for all that the world ever dropped by to say howdy. Even when the menfolks had been here, it had been the holler that went out to the world, not the world that came to the holler.

But he didn't relax his vigilance, and neither did Cassie. They were never more than fifty yards apart at all times, even if he had to take her with him when hunting. Turned out that wasn't so bad; she was a help when he got game, and company when he didn't.

And besides—when she was with him, at least he knew for sure she wasn't singing.

Any other times—well, all bets were off. Because as the winter wore on, and things got harder for everyone, it seemed there were more and more temptations for her to use what she had.

* * *

Seth had thought that at least, if the Dark Man actually came, he'd have some warning. Thought? No, he'd been sure, as sure as he'd ever been about anything.

But when it happened, there was no sign whatsoever, so it was a blamed good thing that he'd insisted that Cassie never be far away from him from the moment that Spirit Woman had told them about the Dark Man.

Of course, "not far" was relative.

He was in a blind, overlooking a deer trail, waiting with Pappy's rifle; Cassie was well out of scenting-range behind him though still within earshot, patiently waiting until he got too frozen with cold to sit there anymore, or until he got a deer. Whichever came first. She had some confounded womanly stuff to do with her, in a basket. Mending or knitting or some such, whatever she would have done if she'd been with Mam. It was a nuisance, but what was he to do? He daren't leave her at home, and there was too much to do for her not to tote it. And anyway, the basket was useful. . . .

So he watched the trail for the little signs of a deer moving in the distance, and listened for what the crows and jaybirds were telling each other, and waited. The trouble was, if he recollected right, she had this habit of singing to herself over her work. And if she forgot—

The jays began to scream bloody blue murder. And he got—a feeling. A real bad feeling. An urgent bad feeling!

Before he knew what he was about, he found himself scrambling on hands and knees through the brush, heading back to where he'd left Cassie.

Too late—

The Dark Man was already there ahead of him.

He saw the figure just in time, and burrowed back under cover of the brushwood before—he hoped—the Dark Man saw him. And as shivers played up and down his spine, Seth knew why that durn fool woman had been so spooked at the sight of him.

The black horse, if horse it truly was, stood too quiet-like to be natural. Didn't even seem to breathe, truth to tell, and yes, it had red eyes that glowed like a couple of coals. But it was the rider that sent chills all through Seth.

The rider was dressed all in black, too, boots to hat, the little kepi-hat that both sides wore—but this one didn't have any insignia on it, and there was no mistaking the color for Damnyankee blue, no, this was black, blacker than black. Like the rest of the stranger's clothing, it swallowed up light, it was so black. Black boots, not shiny, no—black trousers—black swallowtail coat, like the Preacher's—black shirt. Black hair, too, thick, straight hair that was too long for any man Seth knew, more like an Indian's, it was so long, but his face, his hands, they were pale, pale, so pale they were almost a watery blue-white, like skimmed milk. His eyes—well, they might've been green, but a green so dark it was near-black.

Oh, those eyes! Cassie was purely, plainly caught up in those eyes, and couldn't look away. She was frozen where she sat, there on a fallen tree, the mending fallen into her lap, her mouth a little open.

Seth felt his hands clenched on Pappy's rifle so hard they ached. But he knew better than to take a shot at the Dark Man. Spirit Woman had warned him that he'd just turn a lead bullet back on the shooter, and now that he'd seen the fellow, Seth was disinclined to test that point. For there was a kind of halo of shadow around the man, like the black rainbow that sometimes formed around the moon in winter.

"Girl," said the Dark Man, amusement in his cold, cold voice. "You fight me."

Cassie just raised her chin and stared at him. So she wasn't completely helpless!

"Do not," the Dark Man continued. "You have no hope. Yield to me, and you will discover that I am not a bad master."

A stab of alarm went through Seth; and somewhere inside him a part of himself yelled "Liar!" For the Dark Man was lying; Seth knew that, and not just because Spirit Woman had warned them.

Then again, he always had known when someone was telling him the truth.

Cassie shook her head, ever so slightly. Her mouth formed the word "no," even though nothing came out.

"You task me, girl," the Dark Man said, irritation starting to creep into his tone. He wasn't amused anymore. "Come here."

Cassie's chin jutted, and though she was shaking like a reed in a high wind, she didn't move.

"Must I come down to take you?"

Cassie just stared. Seth held his breath. If she—

The Dark Man dismounted, and stretched out his hand, palm up, toward her, then crooked it into a claw, and pulled. Cassie paled, swayed a little—but stayed where she was.

The Dark Man snarled, and with impatience radiating off him like heat, he strode to Cassie and bent down to grab her wrist and drag her to her feet.

But the instant before his fingers touched her wrist, she had snatched Mam's second-best cast-iron fry-pan out from under her skirt and whanged him upside the head with it.

And Seth dropped the rifle like it was red-hot and exploded out of the bushes.

Now, Spirit Woman had said that the Dark Man was "vulnerable to Cold Iron," but Seth hadn't rightly understood just what that meant until the moment when fry-pan met skull. There was a kind of explosion, except there was no sound—but something went off like a cannon that's been fired one too many times, and the Dark Man went staggering backward, hands clasped to his head, howling in pain. Now Cassie jumped to her feet and held up the fry-pan between them to fend the Dark Man off.

But by that point, Seth had jumped the stranger, and had the loop of baling wire he'd kept in his pocket around the Dark Man's neck.

If the fellow had reacted poorly to the fry-pan, he plain went crazy over the soft iron wire. And to Seth's amazement, beneath the loop of wire, the skin of the Dark Man's neck began to redden, then blister, as the fellow screamed at the top of his lungs and clawed at the wire, or tried to.

Didn't try for long, though, because every time he got a finger on it, he screamed again, and within a couple of minutes, his hands were blistering and burning too.

Cassie flailed at him with the fry-pan, and the haughty Dark Man stumbled back, still trying to get the wire off his neck, until he tripped over a log and tumbled to the ground.

And as the two youngsters stood over him, the Dark Man, the fiend who had burned whole villages to the ground, was reduced to a whimpering, kneeling, groveling thing, rolling around in the dead leaves, pawing at his neck, and whispering "Take it off! Take it off!"

"You done good, Cassie," Seth said, approaching the creature cautiously.

"He almost got me, Seth," she replied somberly. "He almost got me with them eyes. I felt like a rabbit looking at a fox—'member what Spirit Woman told us!"

"Ayuh, well—you!" he said, poking at the creature with his toe. "You hear me, Dark Man?"

"I—hear—" came the hoarse whisper from behind the curtain of hair.

"I'll take that off, but you swear like I tell you!" He wanted to kill the thing, but Spirit Woman had warned them that killing the Dark Man might make things worse. A lot worse. 'Cause then there'd be the start of a feud, and there were kinfolk of the Dark Man as would set fire to half the state over it. So she told him to tie the fellow up in swearing and oaths he daren't break. "You swear by the High King and the Morrigan, you hear me? You swear you are never gwine to touch, nor harm, nor cause to be harmed, nor hurt, nor mislay, nor mislead, nor set astray, nor cause to be set astray, nor curse, nor cause to be cursed, any of me and my kin to the tenth degree of relatedness?"

"I—swear—by the High King—and the Morrigan—" came the tortured reply.

"And do you swear that your kin to the sixth degree, and your vassals, and your allies, will be bound by that selfsame oath?" The words that Spirit Woman had taught the both of them had a kind of grandness to them, like they came out of the Bible; they made him feel stronger and more sure just by the speaking of them.


"And do you swear by the Names Not To Be Spoken and the Bonds Not To Be Broken that within the same mortal breath and heartbeat that the Cold Iron is taken from you, you will depart this Middle Earth, never to return?" Spirit Woman had said that 'Middle Earth' was the name for here-and-now; in the middle between Hell and Heaven, which seemed right to Seth.

"I—swear—" The voice was the thinnest of whispers now, and Seth hastily said the thing that was supposed to make it all legal—"I do accept your word and bond!"—and pulled the wire loose from the Dark Man's neck—

For a moment, it didn't seem as if he'd gotten it off in time. But then, the Dark Man started to breathe again, and slowly got to his feet.

He looked down at Seth with a face full of impotent wrath. "If I knew who'd taught you that, boy, they'd be dead before the sun rose again," he said, and snapped his fingers. The horse came to life, and trotted over to him.

He mounted, still glowering. "And as for you—"

"You jest hold by your bond," Seth said, tersely. The burns—around the Dark Man's neck, and the side of his face where Cassie had hit him with the pan—were healing and fading before his eyes. "Now, you get! And don't you come back here no more!"

For answer, the Dark Man uttered an inarticulate growl—then put spur to the horse's sides.

The horse reared, and was gone. Just that quickly.

"Dang." Seth dropped the bit of wire, and looked at Cassie. "Mam finds out you got that—"

Cassie shrugged. "She hain't used it for years," she pointed out. "It's too little to cook for more'n two. An' it's s'pposed to come to me in my hope chest anyway."

Seth took a deep breath, and felt himself start to grin. "So, s'ppose I tell your beaus what you really do with it, huh?"

Now Cassie threatened him with it. "You dare, Seth Carpenter," she yelled, as she chased him with it, "You dare—"

Seth laughed, and ran. Come rain, come shine, come Damnyankees, he didn't care. He and Cassie'd beat the Devil. So just at this moment, the way he had it figgered, there weren't much they couldn't do!

Back | Next