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...and of those who call her Home

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* * *
Brni sits on the ridge overlooking the town. It's been neglected, this place, like so much in this world. He knows. He's done his share.

There are still hints of life around the old town. To his left, smoke rises graceful over an old cottage; to his right, the calls and laughter of farmhands taking advantage of the unseasonable warmth. Still, in the town itself, shutters rattle loose on their hinges in the wind, doors as well. Crumpled newspaper flutters through the empty streets, swirls into sudden, angry dust devils. Brni shakes his head. There had been so much promise.

But then, promises were made to be broken, right? Just pretty lies, is all.

A rustle in the bushes, and a large, white dog bursts out, dashing madly across the clearing and disappearing back into the woods again. Brni can't help but smile at her obvious joy. Then, with a grimace, he adjusts his sling and makes his way carefully down the hill and into town.

Its been some years, and the weather's been unkind. Painted signs stand faded and peeling, doors hang askew. A few buildings show signs of settling: cracked foundations and porches a-slant. The railing around the saloon has fallen, though the posts still stand, as does the hitching post. My saloon, he thinks, then amends: The saloon I built, no longer mine. The door stands open.

The wind whips suddenly as he moves to enter, slamming the door shut in front of him. He mutters under his breath and pulls the door open. Inside, a thick layer of dust covers everything. The skeleton of an old evergreen tree stands in the corner in a sea of brown needles. Faded decorations dangle from bare branches, or lie broken amidst the needles. Instruments lay abandoned on the stage, guitar strings rusted and broken, drum heads dried and cracked. Memories.

Brni walks past it all and makes his way up the stairs to his room above the bar. He arranges a kerchief and a stick on the bed; a hobo's luggage, but there isn't much here he'll be taking with him. Slowly, he sorts through everything. Two piles. One to take with him. One to leave behind.

He stares at them a long while, these scraps of memories, of hopes, of dreams. Of broken promises. And he moves them from one pile to the other, back and forth. And when he leaves, two piles remain on the bed, the kerchief still laid out, ready, unused.

Downstairs, behind the bar, he wipes the dust from a glass, and from a bottle of vodka. He fumbles a pill-box from his pocket, pops a percocet into his mouth and washes it down with vodka, then fills the glass to the brim.

When he leaves, the wind blows the door shut behind him with a fury that splinters wood.

"Yeah," Brni says. "I heard you the first time."

He adjusts his sling and wishes briefly for the rest of the bottle, but no, he doesn't even want that. He brushes the hair out of his face and sets out on the long and long overdue journey home.
* * *

             Spent the morning indulging in one of my favorite pastimes, running in the woods. The day's slight warming after many weeks of hard freeze has triggered a sleepy stirring in the forest and released a banquet of rich smells. I had to pause often to investigate the comings and goings of various creatures. 

            Found two dens tucked away on the slopes of the big hill to the west. Sniffed for a long time at the entrance to the fox den but no one came out. Spent less time at the groundhog den as they were hibernating and the ground is too frozen to dig. 

            The smell of smoke and food caught my attention as I traveled in the far north woods. No one lives out that far so naturally I felt compelled to investigate. I was surprised to discover that some human had moved into the abandoned hut near the old sluice boxes on the upper stream. The human smell was everywhere and the person had spent time repairing the weather damaged portion of roof not protected by the overhanging hill. As I circled the hut from the safety of the trees I picked up the scent of magic and noted a repeating and somewhat hypnotic pattern of lines scratched in the dirt, each line carefully overlaid with dark ash. Watching where I stepped, I surveyed the extent of the spell drawn in the earth. The lines surrounded the cabin and extended into the woods beyond. It appeared to be a Summoning. The question is, for what?

            Normally I give spells and their casters a wide berth but this one captured my curiosity. Avoiding the spell lines on the ground, I moved closer to peer in the windows. The cabin looked cozy and warm and a woman was stirring a wonderful smelling meaty stew over the fire. A teapot warmed on the hearth by her feet and she was singing a haunting song in some strange language. The rest of the room was tidy and inviting. I noticed there were two wide bowls on the table ready to receive food. Apparently the lady was expecting a guest. 

            I left the window and began sniffing around the cabin. I could only detect her scent, my scent and the overall scent of magic. It would seem her mysterious visitor had not visited the cabin recently.   I was surprised to see that the cabin's inhabitant had left the front door slightly ajar. Certainly an injudicious oversight this far into the wild realms.  While I don't hunt man, there are those of my kind who do.

            Thinking to alert her, I let out a quiet "woof" and nudged the door open. Not wanting to frighten the poor creature, I immediately adopted a friendly, non-threatening demeanor, panting happily and wagging my tail like an idiot. To my surprise, she merely looked up, smiled and continued to sing. She seemed pleased to see me. She didn't seem inclined to close the door and I was reluctant to leave her vulnerable to predators so I moved a bit closer to the fire, relaxing and gazing into the flickering flames as the music spun through my head. 

            I startled awake when the music stopped. When had I dozed off? I stood and looked pointedly at the door. She didn't seem particularly concerned and made no move to leave the fire. Instead, she smiled at me with obvious delight and began ladling the stew into the bowls. 

            Ah, time to go. The guest is due to arrive, I thought. To my surprise, she placed one of the bowls next to the fire and gestured for me to help myself. Now I'm not one to generally take food from strangers - aw, who am I kidding, I'll take food from just about anyone. I didn't need a second invitation. The stew smelled fantastic and in no time, I was wolfing it down and hoping there would be seconds. 

            When I came up for air, she was nibbling daintily at her own bowl of food and smiling at me like I had just done something wonderful. I felt strangely proud, inordinately delighted that I had pleased her.  

            There were lines on the floor in the cabin. They seemed to be a continuation of the spell lines etched in the ground outside. These were delicately scratched into the soft wood of the floor and they radiated out from the woman's seat by the fire. I could feel the gentle pulse of magic in the air. Unknown magic is generally dangerous, but this felt oddly soothing. I couldn't help but like this woman with her delicious food, beautiful song and welcoming smile. 

            She patted a soft rug by her feet, clearly inviting me to lie down. I wanted to, but it was well past noon and it would soon be feeding time for the cows down at the farm. This was always a great occasion to ride in the truck. Besides, something about the spell lines on the floor was bothering me.  

            Moving to the door, I woofed and stared pointedly at it, hoping she'd get the message that she needed to close the darn thing after I was gone. I knew she probably wouldn't and that I should stay to keep her safe, but - hey, TRUCK. Duh. 

            As I turned away, she spoke for the first time; her voice was soft and sad. "Please stay. I need you."

            I looked back at her. She seemed calm, but there was a nervous tension behind her eyes and her hands were clasped too tightly in her lap. I wanted to stay, to protect her, to see her beautiful eyes light up as she smiled at me, but there was something more to this and I needed some time to think. I stared at her for a long moment.

            "Please," she whispered.

            I woofed a quiet apology and left the spellbound cabin behind, carefully picking my way through the ashy lines until I was clear of them. 

            I headed east into hill country for several miles. Once I was certain I wasn't being followed, I turned south toward the farm. Hard earned lessons have taught me that one can't be too careful when dealing with witches.

            I had to run hard the last few miles to make it to the farm before the truck left for the fields. The hay was loaded and the truck's engine was running, but the tailgate still down as I burst from the woods. Hurtling the fence, I bolted across the yard and vaulted into the back of the truck skidding to a stop in the mound of fragrant, dusty, wonderful hay. I rolled in the hay for several minutes because it smelled great and made me happy.

            I spent the rest of the day making my rounds. I barked down the rabbit burrow near the dormant, winterlocked garden. Waded into the stream and drank until I felt like I would burst.   I visited each animal on the farm, sniffing them carefully and, when all seemed well, trading gossip with them. The chickens and horses are always experiencing all kinds of drama. Maybe if they got off the farm more, they'd be less prone to angst. Of course, the chickens probably wouldn't last more than a few hours in the real world. 

            I stayed up as late as I possibly could, telling myself that I wasn't tired. I stared at the stars in the frozen night sky for hours; watched Mars creep over the horizon to gleam pinkly against the black. Finally, too exhausted to stay awake, I curled up in the barn and failed to not dream about the little cabin in the woods.


* * *
onto the darkling twilight, the dumpy little crone hears a soft whicker and an even softer sigh. Setting aside Mistress Hekitty, who was trying without success to nurse in the crook of the little crone's elbow (being a determined sort of cat, and not quite ready to wean at only a year and a half old), she steps to the doorway in time to see Westlin Wind slide from her weary roan mare. Opening her arms, she gatheres the equally weary girl into her arms and smooths her rumpled hair back from her face.~

Ah, then, A lanna, ye've come home again, have you? It's only the two of us just now, almost as it was in the very beginning, so many long years ago. Well...Us and yon pussycats and the odd (verra odd) Rattie or two. Come in, then, and be verra verra welcome indeed. I've water on the boil, and the pot all hotted for the brewing. I can add two measures of tea as well as one, and I've a new blend here that will add heart to the body, and bone to the soul, and you've a look as if ye could use both, and sorely. Come then...

~With a whisper and a nod, she calls a shadow from the side of the cottage, and the tired mare is stripped of her gear, and follows willingly to the rear of the cottage, where a shed stands ready with clear, cool water and fragrant hay. This is, after all, Shadowchase House, and the Shadows and Shades there are the Crone's to command, tho tis seldom indeed that she does so where others might see it. However, this is her own Gaoth an Iar, home again, and if she canna be trusted, there is naught to be trusted left in this world.

Leading the reeling-tired girl (and for all she is a woman grown, to the Crone she is and always will be nobbut the young girl the Crone first knew) into the cottage, she keeps up a soft murmuring whose words have no meaning but whose tone is universal. She seats her tired visitor in a deep old wingbacked chair drawn up before the fire and tends to the tea with deft hands that belie her age. Setting the tea tray, she carries it to the sitting area, and curls up on the worn but oh so comfortable sofa beside the chair.

They sit for a while in silence, sipping the rich brew, taking comfort from fire and tea and each other's company. Finally, the little Crone breaks the silence.~

So, A lanna, did ye want to speak of it, or no? Tis all up to you, and no feelings bruised however.

~Westie lifts eyes that brim to the little Crone, and whispers, "Oh, Aunty Ban, it's all gone awry. And I don't know where to start now!" Somehow, she is out of the chair, and onto the sofa, burrowing in for comfort. The Crone's arms enfold her as a mother's might, and she rocks and sings an old, old song in a voice that is still true and sweet~


Oh ro soon shall I see them;
Oh he ro see them oh see them.
Oh ro soon shall I see them the
mist covered mountains of home.

There shall I visit the place of my birth
And they'll give me a welcome the warmest on earth
All so loving and kind full of music and mirth,
In the sweet sounding language of home.

Oh ro soon shall I see them;
Oh he ro see them oh see them.
Oh ro soon shall I see them the
mist covered mountains of home.

There shall I gaze on the mountains again,
On the fields and the woods and the burns and the glens,
Away 'mong the corries beyond human ken
In the haunts of the deer I will roam

Oh ro soon shall I see them;
Oh he ro see them oh see them.
Oh ro soon shall I see them the
mist covered mountains of home.

Hail to the mountains with summits of blue,
To the glens with their meadows of sunshine and dew.
To the women and men ever constant and true,
Ever ready to welcome one home.
* * *
Westie sits, framed in an open window of a covered bridge that spans a gurgling stream, feeling rather lost. Thinking that she doesn't even know the landscape here anymore. Doesn't know where the once-familiar paths will lead. Yes, she knows the village is in that direction, and that the full moon is rising over the mountain lake (no, not a tarn, a LAKE) there, but that's about the extent of it. It's an odd feeling. No panic, no despair, just odd.

In the darkening sky above the lake she sees a crowd of crows heading for their roost. They pass silently overhead, not even one caw in her direction. More oddness. "Silent and still, even in flight," she thinks. "Like me." She sighs, slips from her window-perch and whistles softly. Hoofbeats echo up to the rafters of the bridge, and Westie's roan nickers softly as she crosses the wooden planks. Westie buries her face in the roan's neck and breathes deeply. "Let's go home," she murmurs.

The horse knows the way back to the village, so Westie closes her eyes, her head arching back as she rides, breathing in the night air. She catches the scents of night-blooming jasmine, of the sweet stands of pine at the base of the mountain, of the night phlox that grows along the village gate. She smells nicotiana and woodsmoke and smiles as the horse slows to a stop, opening her eyes in front of Shadowchase. The front door is open, and light spills invitingly out onto the porch. Inside, she can hear Ban softly singing an old, lilting tune. She kisses the top of the horse's head and slips to the ground. "You dinna think I should go home quite yet, then? I suppose a cup of tea would do me good..."
* * *
And firmly believing that this place is NOT as dead as it seems, the dumply little crone scurries down the street from the shop where she has been engaged in candle making and rat and cat tending, and various other things needed to bring her own shop alive again towards her long-neglected cottage. Turning onto the familiar lane, and reading the hand-carved name at the corner, it seems to her that even the name of her lane, "Unicorn Dance," holds a majikal promise for tomorrow. She doesn't slow at all, but follows each lovely twist and turn, peering into familiar woods at ferns and trees still a-blossom, and wee small violets peeking out of emerald green grass on the verge of the path. Finally, she spies her own place, her refuge from a cold mundanity, Shadowchase. The garden is a bit overgrown and in need of tending, and there is a LONG time's of dust to clear away, but the sheds are sound and the firewood dry, and the cottage itself is still shipshape save for a bit of cleaning. Not even the little crone's beloved books have suffered from the damp. She sets to work with a will and a broom, first lighting fires in kitchen, bedchamber and sittingroom against the damp, and by the time the sun begins to lower, her home sparkles and there is a rich stew simmering on the stovetop, along with water for tea. The cats and rats have found favorite spots, and made themselves quite at home with fresh water, cheese, seed and kibbles close at hand. Music softly fills the air, and the little crone sighs in contentment. A bit of company would be quite welcome, but she is well-able to live on her own in this place.
* * *
* * *
A figure emerges. Quite out of season with the world, but quite in season with herself, a dumpy little crone with flyaway hair steps onto the quiet, sleeping village streets. She looks about at the detrius left from the winter, branches still down, leaves in doorways, and she thinks to herself, "Now, there's some as would think this a dead or dying place, but there's some as would know that this place can never die at all, at all. It is my home, after all, and while one person keeps it in their heart and mind, it will go on forever. HOWEVER...my shop is in sad disrepair, and I've no done my part to keep this place vital, no I haven't. So there'll be no pointing of fingers, nor murmurings of blame, not on my watch, there will not be. Come along, children. We have work to do."

As she moves forward, two shadows hug her heels. One is a lovely tabby cat with tiger gold eyes, and the other is a darkling tortoiseshell with moss green eyes. Oddly, and amusingly, each of the kitties is ridden by a rattie, and all seem quite content with the arrangement. She and her entourage scamper along the roadway towards a small shop with a peeling sign that proclaims "Light a Single Candle" in scaborous gilt lettering, hanging by one rust chain from an ornate and rusting scrollwork support. The windows are glazed as much with dirt as with glass, and the once-pristine doorway is filled with the dead leaves of two seasons' absence. The once-neat window boxes are filled with weeds, although some of the heartier perinnials have begun to push their way into the spring sunshine and make soft promises to riot if given just a bit of care and love. Care and love...tis all that's needed here to put all right. And the little crone has that in aplenty to spend here. Not only on her own shop, but on the entire village. If she has to do it alone, so be it, she will. One dark doorway at a time. This is her home, and she is back in it.

She unlatches the door and opens it, wrinkling her nose at the dust and damp. Both cats and the ratties sneeze and give her a disgusted look. "I know, Loves, I know, I've let it come to a rare old pass, but naught a bit of elbow grease won't repair. Let me find that broom, and get these windows opened and a bit of air moving, and the doors, think on, and we'll be on the way. But first things first..." Grabbing a couple of cushions out of a chair, she takes them out and briskly beats them together, raising clouds of dust, then takes them back in. "There you go, Loves. A place for you to nap till I can get this place in order again. Now, it's coolish today, and I think we can stand a bit of a fire in the fireplace and the stove, just to knock off the damp and chill a bit. There's tea and tinned milk and a bit of tuna in my pack, so lunch is taken care of, and we'll see after that."

Suiting action to words, she set to work with a will, starting top and working to bottom with dust cloth and damp rag and polishing compound and broom until the front room shines. "I know, children...I could have witched it faster, but there is something satisfying about this work, as well as a bit of atonement. I'll keep my witching for the heavy work in the storerooms, thank you very much. THAT might be a bit beyond me. That, and the carpentry. I think I might have a bit of a hard time coming by a carpenter here just now. BUT...the store is fresh and clean, as is our living space, and there's food in the cupboard again, so we're set. Not much in the way of neighbors just yet, but I'm hopeful. Yes, I'm hopeful. And you four are better company than many a two-footed creature I've met, by a long shot."

She settles in by the fire with a new book she's been wanting to read in her hands, and plans tomorrow, when she must begin making candles and replacing stock. No, there's noone to buy or barter just yet, but...one doesn't worry about the lack of mature crops when one is just planting the seeds yet again...With the ratties chirring gently on her shoulders and the cats purring gently on her lap, the Dumpy Little Crone of Crone Corner is finally ready to call herself "back at home."
* * *
Warm-white walls, the plaster sometimes cracked and fallen to show the brick behind it. Bela smiles when she sees them, considers taking a tiny hammer and paint scraper to other parts of the plaster, hunting for more brick. Then thinks, maybe better to let the building distress itself. Distress. De-stress. When she'd turned up on the doorstep at Skin Deep, Bela had been stressed and distressed. Fucking angry, to be frank. And then a whirlwind of familiar strangers had swept her up and danced her about her transplant-home like a leaf or a plastic bag. And it was alright. She felt like a freshly whitewashed wall--clean and bright, and a little caustic.

Sunlight through the windows, all glazed again, and either crystal-clear or freckled merrily with paint. How she loved the windows in this building, and the dust motes through the light. The quiet song of floorboards as she crossed the room. The drops of paint gleaming roundly against the grey-brown grain. You beautiful imperfect thing.

Tattoo, she had come for; paint, she found. Got to know a person more than I'm known before you'll let them put a needle to you. Bela thought. Right and proper. So instead of ink under flesh, she'd been keeping herself awake with paint on leather, on cloth, on canvas, on paper. On any damn thing she could put hands on. Henna-red diamonds and dots on all the doorframes, eyes to watch. Green and gold wheat-stalks up the second-floor's cupboards, may they never be empty. Paisleys and spirals in blue, maroon, violet, emerald, turquoise on tables and chairs--speak, listen, entwine, understand. A spotless and otherwise-Spartan place, echoing.

Well, you do it to yourself, you know. Spend enough time rattling around in your own skull, you'll clean it like an ant, came the whisper in the back of Bela's mind.

You're right, she answered it, I should get out.

Fuck "should". Do it or don't.

Bela nodded, and snagged a knapsack.

)O(

"Pack your cranebag with the things you'll need on your journey," I remember reading somewhere. Only the journey in question, there, was one inside the soul. So I--occasionally literal, dense I--wasn't wholly clear on how physical supplies not consumed by one's own flesh could be of use in dreamspace. Shall I set it beside me as I lie in my cave and wander? I can walk away from my purse in a restaurant; what odds I'd forget to dream it with me There? So do I pack the bag in the vision, instead? No guarantees, there, either--dreamspace and my memory are flightly things. When is a book not a book? When you reach into your bag for it and find a grass snake. My luck. But what if it's the grass snake you need more than the book? comes my little voice's quick reply, and part of me nods, true. And part of me wonders when it will quit pounding me about the shoulders with "you already have all you need within you. You always have." Probably when I actually manage to pull THAT out of the bag, shaped like an apple, and eat it.

I stow an apple, cold and green, in one of my knapsack's pockets. Then stop, follow the wordless whim, and stuff three more in behind it. You never know when you'll need to share. Honey goes in too, and I smile at someone else's memory of a leather bag full of tea and honey. Tea. Bags of tea into a handleless tin cup, and we'll pass it around if it's the only one.

We? Now wait a minute...

No, don't. Keep packing; you'll find you want these things, out there, and you'll wish you'd brought them.

Alright, fine. Change of clothes while we're at it? A shirt and socks, a towel. The towel between the clothing and the honey. You never know. What else?

Matches and lint. A bottle of water. A small jar of salt. Bread from Jack's, gods, so good.

The pack of cigarettes he'd forgotten in the car.

I stop, staring at the cellophane wrapper, at my shaking hand. I'd found his wallet, there, too, when I was unloading things. A worn leather castoff with two fives and a stranger's business card within. Under the passenger seat. Debris from a previous life. The wallet went into my pocket; I'd needed one and he was done with it. But the cigarettes... Hnh. Hadn't realised those were still here. I peel the hissing plastic away from the box and drop it--and his scent--into the rubbish bin beside me. Watch it drift down, cling to the liner. Tuck the box in between the honey and the salt. Something to clean a wound, something to seal it.

Right.

The shiver's gone from my hand to my spine; I'm cold inside, but ready. And if I'm not ready, I'll figure something out on the way.

It's down the stairs with me and out the door. The crows are wheeling in the sky, their usual evening Krähenmoot. Thing? Moot. I wonder whether I left the third floor windows open for them, then shrug. They survived before the building grew. Blow them a kiss, then, and head for the treeline.

Where shall I put my feet?

Guide me there and safely back again, will you?
* * *
A dumpy llitty crone stretches and looks about, wondering...waiting...
* * *
It is near midnight on a cold, still Winter's evening. Stars shine brightly and wisps of clouds swirl in the night sky, mirroring the twinkling lights and smoking chimneys of a village nestled in a valley below. On the rooftop of one of the buildings a woman sits, wrapped in a warm tartan blanket. She holds a mug of steaming tea between her cupped hands as she stares up at the sky, counting the stars.

The streets below the woman's rooftop perch are quiet and still, blanketed in snow and softly lit by flickering street-lamps. It is an odd village, this. It seems to sleep in the summer and come alive in the winter. But considering its name is "Crone's Corner", maybe that pattern isn't so odd after all. The woman smiles softly to herself. "Seems funny to find myself back here," she thinks. "Perhaps it is time for the village to wake again, at least for a time. That fits the pattern too."

She hears a crash from inside the house, and a head pops out of the dormer window of her attic studio. A sheepish grin flashes below merry eyes, and Arliss says, "I knocked over your easel, but all is well. There wasn't anything on it." He frowns and gives her a look. "Hey! Why wasn't there anything on it?" He climbs out onto the rooftop, and Westie reaches for his hand, helping him up to sit beside her. She rests her head on his shoulder, smiling.

"Guess my muse fell into a sleeping pattern, too," she says. Arliss looks quizzically at her and she shrugs, responding with, "I dunno why the easel is empty. But maybe it won't be for long. I've been think about patterns tonight. Beautiful patterns, like the constellations above us, or the friendships we weave into our lives. But also about habits we fall into, and mistakes we repeat, over and over again. Not all patterns are good ones, even ones that are familiar and much loved. Some are destructive. Some just put us to sleep in the middle of our lives. But patterns can change." She smiles up at the stars, dancing in their own endless patterns of light above her. "Even those that seem fixed forever, like those star-stories above us."

She looks up at his face. "This, I must believe. And perhaps, in that believing, I'll find my muse again. Perhaps she's been there all along, just waiting for me to remember how to see."

Arliss wraps his arm around Westie's shoulders and at that moment a star slides through the sky above them, a silent flash of liquid light. He kisses her hair and murmurs, "Perhaps you are right."
* * *
This town looked more promising by the minute, first there had been tea with the delightful (but swlightly swirly) old lady and now...music! Caeli made sure to thank her hostesses and the children both before excusing herself, saying she'd like to explore a bit further. It was just a matter of finding the correct door, and that wasn't to difficult in a town this size. There it was!
She pushed it open and stopped abruptly when she nearly stepped on the white dog lying near the doorway. She stepped over the dog carefully and shut the door behind her, not wanting to let the cold in with her.

"I'm sorry, I didn't see you at first. You're lovely, though." Crouching down, she offered her hand for inspection. "You look happy, this must be a good place." After the proper introductions had been made, she took the opportunity to snag a cushy chair by the fireplace and turned it so that she could watch the people dancing.

When the music came to an end, it was only natural to applaud. Everyone liked to be appreciated.
* * *
* * *

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