The lumes were interesting. Shaped like a tiger, they were green with black stripes. Zeke had discovered the large muscular animals were docile and loved to be scratched behind the ears. They were apparently excellent dray animals, for it seemed most of the villagers had at least a pair. The zorses were beautiful. Much like horses back home, except these were smaller with longer hair. The zorse master at the stable assured him they were strong and fast. The tigers were more tame.
He tried not to stare at the blackness growing to the north. He understood now Bru wasn’t going to help him get home. At least no time soon. He spent many hours in her library looking for a spell that would help him return home. From time to time his brain would remind him there is no such thing as magic. Then he thought about how he got here, and he started to believe in it again. He had to believe it. He was here; and it was most definitely not San Francisco. He tried every day to wrap his head around the idea of a magical world, and each day it did seem a bit easier. His exposure was constant; Bru was trying to teach him if only he would put his mind to it. He often sat up at night reading books by the firelight.
They toured the garden every morning, Bruhana quizzing him the names of each plant, where you can find it in the wild, and its uses. Sometimes they would take cuttings of various herbs and flowers and take them into the kitchen to study concoctions, decoctions, potions, lotions, unguents and mixtures. Each night they reviewed the lesson of the day.
It wasn’t very long before Zeke knew the names of all the plants in the garden and yard and they began to take hikes into the nearby hills collecting grasses, seeds, minerals, and small animals. Zeke found he really enjoyed the long trips away from the tiny cottage, especially as spring blossomed into summer. Bru taught him to hunt kibbles, which seemed to fit the niche squirrels filled in Zeke’s world, and bits, quick rabbit-like animals with long legs, large pink or purple pointy ears and silver gray fur. She taught him how to dress a carcass and the best way to cook each cut. He learned how to tan the tiny hides and make them into mittens and gloves for sale or trade. He had just begun to learn about cloak pockets when the first disaster hit.
The week started out normally with the usual number of people coming to see Bru. Then the trickle became a bunch and a bunch became a mob. And just a few days before their scheduled departure, the day came when Zeke looked out at a small sea of red eyes and redder running noses.
When the last patient left, it was near dark.
“That must have been a quarter of the town in here today.”
The next day was the same with what seemed like of the rest of the town marching through Bru’s front room and leaving through the back door, a continuous flow of villagers. This time there were still three people to see when the sun was nearly down.
“You sure you won’t stay?” Bru asked Johan Habor who had come with his two children in their wagon.
“Thankee, no, mistress. The sun is just setting. There is light yet, and we’ve not far to go.” He gathered his children, and the medicine Bru had given him and left.
Zeke stood on the step and looked at the animal pulling the wagon. It looked a bit like a lion with green tiger stripes. He pretended it was a trick of the light, and that it was perfectly normal to have a green tiger-lion pull your wagon.
Johan lifted his children into the back of the wagon and climbed into the driver’s seat. The sky was turning orange, red, and pink below darkening clouds. He shook the reins, the lume pulled, and the creaky wheels began to turn. Zeke and Bru stood in the yard and watched as the wagon headed down the low hill where it was quickly swallowed by the thickening mist, the only sound the creaking of the wheels. When he heard the howl of what sounded like wolves he realized he stood alone in the dooryard and he quickly went inside and latched the door.
Zeke nearly jumped through the thatched roof when he heard the shriek as it came echoing harshly down the canyon. Bru came into the room with a lantern. “Get outside,” she said, and tossed him a stick.
Before he could ask why, he was hit by the flying stick and it clattered to the floor. Bru turned her eyes bright. “You dropped it.”
“You threw it at me without warning.”
“It is filled with magic. You must treat it with great care.”
“Then you shouldn’t throw it.”
Just then a second shriek rent the air. Louder and closer than the first, like a tornado blowing into a canyon. “What is it?” Zeke asked. The howls were coming closer and the hairs on his neck stood up.
Bru didn’t bother explaining, she just pointed to the door and said, “You must go outside.”
“Outside?” he squeaked, and was surprised and embarrassed that the sound had come from him, but so far he was happy not to have pissed himself. “You have magic locks.”
“It is not enough! Someone has to keep the rakes busy while I work. Now go!”
Zeke jumped when Bru released the door from its spell and it popped open, and then closed he was outside on the stoop. Staring into the darkness, hugging the door at his back. The wind had blown away much of the mist and the two moons were full behind scudding clouds. He thought he saw a wagon in the road, but it was too far away to be sure. The howls started again, and Zeke did his best to become one with the door. “Let me in!” He pounded on the door. He watched as dark shadows take form as they came up the hill. Large shadows against the bright white light of the full moons on the fog. He pressed his back to the cottage door and thought about being invisible as the wolf-shapes neared. Wolves. Really big ones. No. These were built like hyenas and their coats seemed to suck light from the sky they were so black. What had Bru called them? Rakes?
The shadows drifted in and out of his line of sight. Taller than wolves, four legs, shorter in front, fire bright eyes, and a long snout. A wolf-hyena the size of a Shetland pony. When it opened its mouth he could see rows of teeth fit for the biggest great white shark. Zeke squeezed his eyes shut and imagined he was part of the door. He concentrated on being the door. Thought of himself as being inert as the wood. He felt a strange twisting in his belly, and he looked down and saw the doorknob sticking out of his belly. He felt rooted and solid and still held the stick Bru had given him. An odd calmness came over him and he felt in control. The wind began to roar, a freight train roaring up the valley. Trees began to topple, and great branches flew through the air.
Zeke concentrated on being the door as first one large black shape approached, followed by three more. Eight pair of red-gold eyes stared back at him. Mouths open showing all their teeth. Rakes. Four of them. Zeke lamented. No doubt with poisonous saliva delivered by all those shark-teeth. The four slunk closer to the door, their muzzles lathered and lowered. He could feel the low rumble from their throats. The grass sizzled with each drop of the beast’s saliva, confirming Zeke’s fear. One moved and he flailed with the stick. It stepped back growling, hair up. Two others approached and Zeke countered with a stab. They approached again, and again he drove them off with a swing of his staff. Suddenly, one of them leaped toward him and Zeke swung the stick high, crashing down on the rake’s head. Sparks flew and the other rakes drew back again, growling and snarling. And so it went on through the night. Howling rakes, screaming wind, and a blackness that started to block out the first moon.
Three new shapes emerged from the mist. Two legged, hunched and smelly. He nearly gagged at the scent of them; something like burned skunk. He tried to prepare himself for whatever was to come next. He discovered if he dragged the stick against the ground more sparks flew, flashing red, yellow and blue, and kept the rakes well back. The other shadows did not move, but Zeke could feel eyes on him. He was wet with sweat and his arms trembled, before it finally grew lighter and the wind dropped. The rakes slunk away into ditches and woods, disappearing into the shadows. The moons were setting and the dark cloud withdrew somewhat from the sky, but seemed closer than the day before.
Relieved, Zeke turned the knob at his belly, opened the cottage door and stepped into the main room easily. “What the hell do you mean to leave me outside with those things all night,” was what he was going to say, but he found Bru asleep on the sofa, her stick still in her hands. The little tables were strewn with bottles and potions. A shiny purple dust was everywhere, even on Bru. Zeke covered her with a blanket, then made a Do Not Disturb sign for the door, and went to his room to lie down.
He was awakened by the loud sounds of a growing crowd around the cottage. He opened his eyes to see three faces peering in his window curiously. He sat up and closed his shutters, unwittingly closing the shutters throughout the house. The loud snap made him jump, and woke Bru up. She looked about confused for a moment to find herself on the couch, but suddenly wide awake and aware, she jumped up when she heard the crowd outside.
“Open the door, we have patients.”
“But we’ve been up all night,” Zeke pointed out hopefully.
“There may be more than stuffy noses today. That was a fierce wind last night.”
“It was more than just wind.”
“Yes, but the villagers need not know. Not a word about rakes.” She smoothed her hair and dress and looked relatively rested and not in the least disheveled. “You too,” she said, pointing at Zeke, and he too looked and felt rested and less like he’d been up all night pretending to be a door, and trying hard not to become a meal for things that screamed in the night.
“It’s about time,” said the first woman through the door. She looked around. “Ain’t my Johan here?”
Bruhana’s stomach dropped. “No. He went home last night.”
“The sun was setting. I asked him to stay, but he said since home was near, he felt safe enough.”