Angola Marce died when she was twenty three and came back to life a week later. It would've been sooner, but she had died in the mountains, and it took forever for Gran and me to find her body.
When she came coughing back to life on her kitchen table, surrounded by her brothers, parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and Gran and me, she said that she had to leave her baby back in the dark. Nobody knew she'd been carrying a baby with her; if we did, then me and Gran might've been able to save him, too. But then again, maybe not. A week dead in the snow isn't good for half-made babies. Angola would get better, eventually, but maybe the baby wouldn'tve been able to. I guess we won't know now.
When the deed was done and Angola asleep in her bed, Mr. Marce gave Gran a stiff bow and me a basket of vegetables and eggs to carry home. He wouldn't be part of the mob that burned Gran later, but he'd lock his door that night so we had to keep running. I don't think I'll forgive him for that.
* * * * *
The trouble all started when the preacher man came to Annis.
He rode into the village on a rickety cart pulled by a horse whose body was gray but whose mane and tail were the purest white. That alone was enough for him to get attention because the village was too poor for horses; we all made do with donkeys or oxen for the people who worked in the field.
I didn't know he was a preacher when he first showed up. He stopped by our little cottage on the way to the village proper and asked for directions.
"Just keep following the road," I said to him from my side of the gate. I pointed towards Annis. His horse blinked at me slowly and blew air from its nose. I stared, awestruck. I'd never seen a horse before, and I'd had no idea they were so big.
He tipped his big hat, thanked me politely, then rode off.
"Itinerant minister," Gran said from the doorway behind me. Her arms were crossed, and her eyes were on the slowly shrinking figure of the man in the distance.
"That's what the man was. A wandering preacher." She sniffed. "Bunch of troublemakers, if you ask me, but I've met one or two of the good ones, for all that they're insane."
I frowned. The man hadn't seemed insane. . .
"What do we do?" I said.
"Nothing. He'll be gone in a week once he thinks everyone's gotten a good dose of religion. That's what they do. They never stick around."
And she turned and went back to the house. I watched the little dot on the road fade farther and farther away until there was nothing there.
* * * * *
Contrary to what Gran believed, the preacher man did not go away. At night he slept where people would let him-- in his cart, provided it wasn't parked anywhere inconvenient. Sometimes on the porches of people who'd liked what he'd had to say. Then, later, they let him sleep in their donkey stables, then in their houses. During the day, he'd stand out on the street corners and preach about his God and his prophets and the Jesus man, which I had heard of before, but had never given much thought.
People ate it up. They were wary at first, but Preacher Miles put into his sermons a combination of compassion and accusation that had people desperately wanting to be forgiven. They loved being told how terrible they were, just so that they could be doubly assured that God loved them enough to forgive them
They were insane. Gran and I watched, sometimes, when we went into town for supplies.
"They're acting like loonies," I said. "What's he done to them?"
"Nothing," Gran said. The crowd started to clear and everyone went back to what they were doing. Well, most everyone. Gran and I still watched them all from our spot on front of Millie Tavenworth's diner, and a handful of people who'd been standing around listening to the preacher man went over to where he was sitting on his box and unpacking his lunch.
"What're they doing now?" I asked.
"Asking questions, I bet. Or complimenting him on the sermon. Eventually they'll start telling him their troubles and asking the poor sod for advice." Gran sipped her tea with her pinky finger daintily extended.
I did likewise.
"You feel sorry for him?" I said.
She gently placed her cup on the wooden table. "I feel sorry for anyone who goes into that line of work. Either they see the world bigger than we do or they see it small, and both ways cause trouble. Too big and the little bits of real life doesn't matter. Too small and the world becomes full of rules and fences."
I watched the preacher man as he appeared to listen to what Old Mister Davenport had to say and I wondered which kind he was. "Still think he'll leave?" I said.
"Positive." Gran said without a hint of doubt. "He's gotten cozier than most, but he'll be off to save some other poor souls once he's certain we've all gotten some religion. It's in his blood."
We finished out teas and were on our way out when the preacher man started up his second sermon of the day.
"Won't you join us, sisters?" He called over the heads of the small crowd around him.
"No thanks, son," Gran called back. "We've got real work to do!" and we hurried away before we could see if he was smiling or not.
* * * * *
It was a few weeks later, when summer was just starting to cool down and Gran and I were getting ready to go visit the cemetery when the preacher man came to us. He sauntered over to the gate while Gran was inside getting the baskets. His floppy hat shaded most of his face and made him look like a skinny mushroom.
"Hello there," he said, folding his arms and leaning on the gate. "And what're you up to?"
He seemed friendly, so I told him. "We're gonna go to the cemetery."
I think he must have thought I was joking. He chuckled and gestured to the shovels I was holding on to. "And what're you going to do with those?"
It was my turn to think he was joking. What else did he think shovels in a cemetery were for? "Going to dig people up!"
He stopped smiling then. The smile was still on his face, mind, but he wasn't putting any warmth into it anymore; it had just froze there. "You shouldn't joke about such things," he said.
"I'm not joking," I said. I stabbed the shovel into the ground so it stuck by itself in a way I thought looked impressive. "Mrs. Dreaver can't find her memory chest and Mr. Dreaver was the one to move it when they built the new house. Her daughter Angela's getting arrived and they need the wedding dress, but nobody can find the chest."
"What does that have to do with grave digging?" He looked half-fascinated and half-confused. I sighed because I didn't think anyone could be so thick.
"Because me. Dreaver's been dead for two years. So Gran and I gotta go dig him up, get his skull to tell us where he moved the chest, then tell Mrs. Dreaver so Angela can get married in her dress."
Gran walked out of the cottage then. The preacher man said, "Your girl's got wild notions about grave robbing, and if you had any sense you'd beat her straight."
"They're not notions!" I said. "Gran, tell him about the Dreavers!"
Gran shushed me and bobbed her head to the preacher man. "I'll see to her, Reverend,"
"Quiet, girl," she snapped. "I'll see to her, Reverend," she said again.
The preacher man nodded stiffly and tipped his hat to us. "Good day, madam," he said. And he and his horse went trotting back into town.
"Gran!" I said. "What was all that about?"
"Those kind don't care for what we get up to," she said. "Easier to let them think they have it their way." She plucked the shovel up from where it stood in the ground. "Now come on. The wedding is in three days and Angela is having fits."
* * * * *
It's not hard talking to the dead if you know how to do it right. It wasn't the first time Gran and I had to make a call on the dead, so we knew the cemetery fairly well and found Dreaver's body in good time. We dug him up fairly quick too, though really it was mostly me who did that since Gran said her back was giving her trouble. We didn't need to dig up the whole body, just the head.
The spirit of a thing is tied to the skull. Even after the spirit is long gone, you can use the skull to talk to the spirit. I hacked the head off with the shovel head (which wasn't too messy since he's been stewing for two years and had gotten all the squishiness dried out of him) and pulled him out by his hair. Gran and I got a little fire started and she boiled the skull on the big iron pot we brought. Once the flesh was soft and easy to peel off, I scraped it off with a little silver knife. Since all we needed to do was talk to the spirit instead of bringing it back to earth, we didn't bother with the rest of the ritual and skipped straight to painting a few signs on the skull to let it talk.
"Dreaver?" Gran said, holding the skull in her hands, a little ways away from her face so she was looking it in the eye sockets. "Gerald Dreaver?"
There was no answer. She scowled and shook the skull.
"Gerald Dreaver you wake up this instant! This is Agatha Vise and I've got a bone to pick with you!"
The skull didn't change in any way I could see, but suddenly the air around it felt frizzy, like before a storm, and my hair started to fray out from the static. The skull was occupied.
"Well what is it?" Mr. Dreaver's voice said, coming from the skull but sounding like it came from everywhere.
"Moira's memory chest. Where's you put it, you old coot?"
"Good to hear from you too, Aggie. The chest? why does she need that old thing? Not like there's anything in it but old linens-"
"Angela's getting married and they need the dress," I said.
Again, there was no physical change in the skull, but the air around it suddenly went very still. "She what?" said the voice. "To who? No wait, it's that Wesley boy, right?"
"Wes Turner, yes," Gran said.
"Well color me surprised! I can't believe it. They're finally tying the knot." The voice started off soft and shocked, but grew louder, with a hysterical edge. "About time! You know those two have been making eyes at each other since they were sprouts. I remember this one time when Angie was seven-"
"The chest, Gerald," Gran said firmly. "We're on a schedule."
"The chest? Well it's in the attic."
"It's not? Should be. Didja try behind the bureau? I think I put a cloth over it to keep it clean..."
"No, Gerald. We all looked. It's not in the attic."
The skull waffled. "Oh. Uh. Maybe that was the old house. Ah... Did you try the cellar?"
In the end it took a good hour for Gran to walk the late Mr. Dreaver through the entire moving process until he remembered that he'd put the chest in the outer shed where it (under a protective layer of cloth, he insisted) was being used as a makeshift shelf to hold up the chicken feed barrels.
We thanked Dreaver and Gran washed away the markings on the skull with water, and Dreaver quietly grumbled his way back to the afterlife.
"Give them all my love," he said, his voice growing faint. "Tell Moira I'm sorry for the trouble. And tell that Turner boy to be good to my little girl."
His voice dwindled away to nothing, and Gran and I were alone. We sat in silence for a moment, just in case there was anything left of Dreaver around. There wasn't. So we got up and put the skull back with the rest of him. I buried him as best I could, and Gran called to the air three burning balls of witchlight. They floated around us and led the way home.
The next day, we told Mrs. Dreaver and the soon-to-be Mrs. Turner where the chest was and helped them dig it out. After that was a flurry of activity as Angela, Mrs. Dreaver, and Gran (who was a fine hand at sewing) all hurried together to alter the dress until it fit Angela (who was a fair shade smaller than her mother had been at her wedding). But that part I wasn't there for; I'm terrible at needle work, so Gran sent me home to feed the hens.
They did invite us to the wedding. It was nice, as far as weddings went. The preacher man showed up and made a speech, but we didn't pay him any mind, and Angela looked wonderful in her mother's dress.
* * * * *
A couple weeks after the Dreaver wedding, Gran and I went to town to make our rounds. Our rounds mostly include delivering poultices, potions, ointments, and any other medicine Gran and I can cook up to people either in town or on the way. We had some more cough syrup for Tansy and her kids who'd all caught colds last week, a willow bark infusion for Mrs. Wilkins whose husband had a fever, some ointment for Mr. Miller's achey scar-- that sort of thing. People paid what they could and what they could was usually favors or food.
We'd only been there a few hours, and I was already loaded up with baskets full of vegetables (from Tansy) and salted meat (which was a real treat from Mr. Wilkins) and a patched cloak from the Miller's, who had noticed mine was getting ratty.
Sometime around lunch, we went to Mrs. Barella's cake shop, like we always did. Gran was friends with the owner, and we stopped by the shop every time we went to town. I always got two vanilla pastries and Gran always got an almond coffee cake. People smiled at us when we entered- they were the usual ladies sitting at the tables eating little frosted pastries made to look like flowers.
Gran went to the counter and the first thing out of Mrs. Barella's mouth was, "Reverend Miles has been talking about you."
"So let him talk," said Gran with a shrug. "Talking's free."
"Yeah, but I don't like some of the stuff he's been saying." Mrs. Barella slid a bottle of cider across the counter, and Gran took a swig. "So he's spreading rumors about me?" she said once she had done. She passed the bottle to me, and I took a drink.
"It's not like that. It's just- he never mentions your name, but he talks about magic and everyone knows he means you."
"A'course he does," Gran said. "Aimery and I are the only witches worth half a darn this side of the country." She patted me on the back. I finished drinking and put the bottle back on the counter, my mouth burning from the spice.
"He's going to be gone soon, right?" I said.
"Maybe," Mrs. Barella said. "But there's talks of them building a church. I really think he means to stay."
"A church?" Gran said with a frown. "A real one?"
"He's got the plot picked out and everything. Last I heard, he was dealing with masons from the city to bring in stone. The reverend swears up and down that the place will be crawling with workers by next week."
Gran looked down at the counter, lost in thought.
"I suppose this changes things," she said quietly.
"Gran?" I said.
"No matter," she said a little too loudly and a little too cheerfully. "I suppose we'll have to adapt. Times moving on and all. I'm sure we won't get in eachother's way."
"But the sermons--" Mrs. Barella said.
"Nothing but gossip disguised as religion. Someone will have a baby or there will be a marriage and he'll forget all about us."
"I don't know--" Mrs. Barella started.
"Nonsense. It'll be fine. Come along, Aimery. We've got work to do."
I followed dutifully after.
* * * * *
Diana Miller was four years old and one of the cutest kids I'd ever met. I had been too young then to help with her birth, but I had sat outside the door while Gran had worked, and I was the second person outside the birthing room to see her after her father had a look at her. Whenever we went to town, Gran would stop by the Miller's place for gossip and snacks and to give Mr. Miller some salve for the achey scar on his arm where he'd got it half-stuck in the grinder once.
Diana was shy around new people-- often times all strangers ever saw of her was a pair of brown eyes peeking at them from behind her mother's skirts-- but she was quick to smile if she'd known you for more than a few days, and the light gleamed off her yellow-brown curls and made her look like a little angel.
The summer the preacher man came to us, Diana and her older brothers were playing by the river. It's a mystery now why a log sturdy enough to allow four older boys to cross collapsed under the weight of a little slip like Diana. She fell in and was dead before they pulled her out, but nobody really knew that.
They screamed for help and her da scooped her up and he and her ma got on their one horse and didn't stop riding until they'd found us in town, making deliveries. Gran tried. Everyone had tried. But Diana was so small, and her lungs and heart were so small, nothing we did could help. She was dead, and unlike Angola who'd had the sense to let her spirit hang around long enough to resurrect her, Diana was going to stay dead.
The preacher man showed up after and right there on the street said a prayer for her and her family. They thanked him though he never lifted a finger to help, and when they buried her the next day, he was the one who spoke at her funeral even though Gran and I were the ones who'd done the night vigil and had stayed with her body until dawn to keep spirits away.
It didn't matter, though. Nothing mattered much for us that week Diana died.
* * * * *
Things all changed after the Millers lost Diana. Now when Gran and I went to town, people gave us funny looks. They still dealt with us, but they wouldn't chat like they used to, or if they did, the conversation was stilted and awkward.
When we went to the cake shop, everyone inside looked at us, and then hastily looked away. By now Gran was fed up. She went straight to the counter where Mrs. Barella was and said, "Maggie, what has gotten in to people lately? Everyone in town is acting like we have the plague!"
She'd said it in a mock-quiet way that gave the impression of secrecy, but was loud enough for everyone to hear. She spared a quick glare around the room, waiting for someone to comment.
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Barella said, loading our usual cakes into a little bag for us. She kept her eyes down. "It's just- after Diana everyone's jumpy. And the Preacher's been talking about witchcraft lately and-"
"Oh no, you don't blame us, do you? Maggie, you know me! I'd sooner cut off my own hand than ever hurt Diana! Or any child!"
"I know, Aggie. But-" she risked meeting Gran's eyes.
"Nothing. Nobody thinks you'd do anything on purpose, but what you do- it leaves a mark, you know? It's like a- a dark miasma that follows you around. You taint things."
"Maggie Barella, you don't even know what the word 'miasma' means. Who told you that? No, I already know. It was him, wasn't it?"
"He makes a lot of sense, Aggie."
"I've heard more sense from squealing pigs."
"All the same, Aggie, people believe him."
Mrs. Barella didn't answer.
"Oh," said Gran quietly. "I see how it is."
Mrs. Barella pushed the bag of cakes over the counter.
"No, thank you," said Gran, turning away. "I might accidentally taint them." She grabbed my hand and led us out of the shop.
"The nerve of it!" she said once we were well away from the shop. "Can you believe it?"
"I can't," I said honestly. Mrs. Barella and Gran had been friends for years.
"This nonsense has to stop. I'm going to find that Miles and give him what for--"
"Mrs. Vise?" said a voice behind us. A freckle-faced boy a little older than me came up to Gran. He looked nervous, and peeked over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching him speak to us.
"Hi, Will," I said, a little snottily. I'd known Will Whitaker all my life and even he was treating us like he was ashamed to be near us.
He nodded at me with a weak smile and said to Gran, "Mrs. Vise? We need your help. Dad's having fits again."
Gran straightened up. "Is he alone? Where's your mother?"
"She's at the Miller's house. He's not alone, my uncles are with him, but they need his medicine."
Gran pulled up her sleeves. "Aimery, head home. I'll meet you back at the cottage."
"But Gran, I can help-"
She glared at me without a word and I stopped talking. I knew she was right, though I didn't want to admit it; last time Dale Whitaker had one of his fits, he'd sent his wife through a wall and broke his arm punching trees.
They went off together, leaving me in the street.
There was nothing else for it. I turned and started for home
* * * * *
I was almost out of town when Johnny Vericker caught up with me.
"Aimery!" he shouted, red-faced.
"What?" I said. Johnny was small and loud and barely six years old. I peered around. "Where's your brother?" If Johnny was here, then his older brother David was nearby, too.
"Our dog," Johnny said. "Our puppy."
"What about her?"
"She ate something bad and now she's sick." His eyes were starting to water and his nose beginning to clog up. "Please come help."
The bad mood brought by Mrs. Barella and Will vanished. Johnny wasn't peeking over his shoulder, ashamed to be near me. Johnny just wanted help. I uncrossed my arms and took his hand. "Lead the way," I said.
He took me down the road and behind his father's butcher shop where David was sitting with the tan scrap of fur I recognized as their new dog.
"She ate something," David said. "Her belly's all swollen--"
"That dog is dead," I said. "She's not breathing."
"You can fix her though, right?" Johnny said.
My head started to ache. "This is the third time,," I said. "First the bird, then the cat--"
"Those weren't our faults!" David said. "Please fix her."
"Fine," I said. "Move over, David."
He did and I sat down next to the dog. I'm not as good at raising the dead as Gran is. She can have something as small and simple as a puppy up and going in a matter of minutes, but for me it takes a lot of effort and warm up. I'm better with dealing with just the spirits of things instead of the bodies, and a true resurrection needs both spirit and body both.
I don't know how long I was there, working on the dog, but it must've been some time. I was nearly finished and just about to have the little dog up and at 'em when someone behind me grabbed my arm and jerked me right out of the spell.
"Heathen!" Revered Miles shouted. "Unrighteous witch! Blasphemous snake!" He dragged me away from the dog and whirled me around. "What's the meaning of this, child?"
I looked around. David and Johnny were nowhere to be seen. "I w-was raising the dog."
He slapped me. Then he slapped me again on the other cheek. He grabbed my by my hair and walked me over to a couple standing nearby. "Where is her grandmother? Where is Agatha Vise?"
"With the Whitaker's," the woman stammered out. I recognized her as Branna Kinley, who bought plants from Gran to ease her monthlies. I wanted to ask for help, but I think I was too shocked to do anything. No one had ever slapped me before. Certainly not a grown man.
He dragged me along and I didn't realize where we were going until the pillory was right on us. We only had one, right in the center of town. I screamed and tried to bite him, but he had my hair and my arm in a grip like a vise. A crowd was beginning to gather.
"Let me go!" I said.
"No," he said, shaking me.
"Reverend Miles!" roared a voice behind us. He turned and I turned with him and saw the crowd part to let Gran through.
"Reverend Miles what are you doing to my granddaughter?"
"What should've been done long ago. The girl is getting up to mischief and in a bad way."
"What did she do?" Gran said.
"She was trying to raise the dead."
"It was a dog!" I said. "Johnny asked me to!"
"If she needs to be disciplined, then I will be the one to do it," Gran said. "Unhand her now. please."
She said please, but it didn't sound like she was asking. It sounded like a command. The preacher man held on harder, digging his nails into my skin.
"I know what you two get into,": he said. "It's ungodly, and I won't stand for it. You're not fit to have her, and I won't let you corrupt this little girl any further than you already have--"
Gran backhanded him, right there. "Don't you dare call me unfit," Gran said, her voice low and full of fire. "Don't you dare tell me how to raise my girl."
The preacher man let go of me in his shock. His nose was bleeding. He touched the blood above his lip and looked at it like he'd never seen his own blood before. I ran over to Gran.
"Come on," Aimery," she said, pulling me away. "We're going home."
The crowd parted to let us go, and nobody said a thing.
* * * * *
For the next few months, the preacher man didn't bother us. It appeared that Reverend Miles was too consumed with building his church to worry about us, which was fine by Gran and I. Fewer and fewer people called for our services, and those that did treated us stiffly.
"They'll come around," Gran said more than once.
All the same, we rarely went into town and focused instead on our own business: caring for the hens, goats, and cow, tending the garden, weaving clothes and blankets for winter, harvesting fruit and making preserves-- that sort of useful but numbing work. By late autumn, Gran and I were as ready as we would ever be for winter, and Reverend Miles' church was complete. That was when he made his move.
He came to our house with the constable, the mayor, and what looked like half the town.
"Aimery," Gran said, "take your bag and go hide in the woods."
"Agatha Vise," he called out. "We have a bone to pick."
"We do," Gran said, stepping outside. "What's the meaning of this, Miles? What are all of you doing here?"
"Agatha Vise, I hereby accuse you of witchcraft."
"And I accuse you of breathing!" Gran said. "What of it?"
"The law is clear--"
"What law? There isn't any law out here-"
"I charge you of murder and the death of Diana Miller."
"I charge you with necromancy and dark magic."
"Do you deny it?"
"Yes! I never hurt Diana, and my magic isn't dark."
"I charge you with crimes against the church." He turned to the crowd. "This creature has brought great tragedy and misfortune upon you all-"
"Liar! He's lying! He's-- let go of me! Get off me!"
They dragged her out into the middle of the crowd, and I couldn't see her any more.
"Where is the girl?" I heard the preacher man say.
"Inside, I think," said someone.
"Bring her out, too."
"Don't you dare!" Gran shrieked. "Aimery, run!"
And I did.
They chased me through the woods like a pack of wild dogs. I knew the place better than any of them, and that's the only reason they didn't catch me sooner. I ran them around: in hills, into streams, across deer paths, then I doubled back to the main road and ran for the homes of people on the way to town. People like the Millers and Marces whose faces I hadn't seen in the crowd. Their doors were locked.
They caught me just past the river where Diana died, and half of them had a mind to drown me in it there and then, but the preacher had wanted me alive, so they dragged me kicking and screaming into town. Gran was tied to a post in the middle of the square, and people were piling wood around her. Other people were crowded around the edges, watching.
"Aimery Vise," Miles said to me. "You still have a chance. You're a child, and The Lord more easily forgives children."
I screamed for him to stop. He turned away and took a torch handed to him.
They burned Gran to death and made me watch.
* * * * *
When it was done, they locked me in a room at the newly built church, hoping that I would learn my lesson if I was stuck under the watchful eyes of the statue of Jesus Miles had ordered special from the city. Instead I took a stone jar from my bag and smashed one of the pretty glass windows and ran back to our cottage. They'd burned that down, too. There was nothing left but charcoal and ash. I picked through it anyway, looking for anything of use. There wasn't much, but what I did find, I put in the tool bag I had brought with me before the fire.
As I did, I tried to think.
I had to think. I had to be calm-
But Gran is dead
They did it! They killed her!
She's not coming back.
Anger and fear and grief fought for control while I tried desperately to squash them all down and think
Gran was dead. They did it. They killed her. After everything Gran had done for them, they killed her. She'd loved these stupid people and they'd killed her. They-
The thought was clear and calm and colder than a corpse in snow. It pierced through the fog in my mind and said, They did not do this. He did. And I knew it was true. That preacher man had changed them. He'd done something to them and turned them from the kind people who'd given us eggs and honey in return for cold remedies into the clawed monsters who'd killed Gran. They might've been his hands, but he was the brain. He was responsible.
The coldness spread from my chest down to her belly, and then up my neck to her face. The cold was so strong-- I couldn't feel my nose, but I didn't care. The preacher man had to pay.
In the charred black, I saw a glint of metal. I bent down and cleaned it off. It was a knife, the same knife I used to clean skulls.
I grabbed the little knife and went towards the forest.
* * * * *
It took all night to find the wolf. In the end, I had to summon the wolf to come to me. I used the knife to scrape a patch of bark off a tree and drew a picture of a wolf's face onto the wood in blood. I didn't even mind cutting my arm for it; the cold hadn't gotten any better and pain was far, far away. The wolf arrived soon after.
It was huge. I hadn't known how big wolves really were. His fur- he was definitely a he, I could tell without looking; he just had such an overwhelming air of he around him- was red-gray and his eyes were yellow in the witchlight. It was also angry, but I was ready for him.
He leapt for me, unable to resist both the summoning and the smell of blood. I tossed the red sleeping powder into his face. He landed on top of me, but he was dead asleep. It took time to shove him off - he weighed so much!- and it took even longer to kill him. His fur was thick and his skin was tough.
The spirits of things are tied to the skull. Gran taught me that. Even if they go to the beyond, you can still talk to them through the skull. If you know how, you can bring them back.
I scraped all the meat and fur I could off the wolf's skull and dumped the brains into the fire. I tossed the skull itself into a pot of water to boil. When the leftover flesh was soft enough, I finished cleaning it until the skull was as clean as it was going to get.
If I had more time, the process would have taken a good three days of constant care and with another step where the skull would spend six months buried in peat. Instead, I painted on the signs Gran had taught me years ago but hadn't ever used. My eyes burned when I remembered her warning against raising humans who'd been dead too long- you don't know whose house you may be robbing- and I pretended it was from the smoke. Then I tossed the skull into the fire, too. It was too wet to burn fast, but it did make a lot of smoke. I threw a handful of the red root powder and a handful of grave dust into the smoke and shouted out the word of summons.
The smoke rose up, thick and black and smelling like burning hair. Slowly, it took the shape of the wolf. Eyes that had been yellow in life were yellow still, but now they shone with their own inner light rather than the light of the fire. I held out my hand.
For a moment, the smoke wolf stayed still, and I was afraid it wouldn't obey.
"I killed you," I said. "I won. Listen to me. Come here."
It did. It padded forward, black tendrils of smoke trailing from its paws. Together we left the forest.
* * * * *
It happened the next day.
I watched from the hill next to the church. I saw Mary-lee and Branna, two women who used to get special herbs to control birth from Gran and I, enter the church. One of them screamed, I think it was Branna. She ran out a second later, yelling that the preacher man was dead. More people ran off to get help. More people came to look. A crowd gathered. I felt a presence beside me and saw that the wolf specter had returned.
I watched. I watched the women weep and the men look solemn. I watched them take the bits-- the many bits-- of preacher out on a covered stretcher. The blanket they'd covered him with had red-black splotched where the blood soaked through. I watched the mayor make a speech, though I couldn't hear what he said. And around noon or so, I watched them all leave.
I think I still loved them. I felt bad, not because I'd killed the preacher man, but because doing so had hurt them. But it was like a boil that needed lancing. It hurt now, but they'd be better for it. All the same, I knew I couldn't stay. I might've still loved them like Gran had loved them, but they'd kill me if they could. So I turned and went down the hill, across the field, and onto the road. There were other villages. Other towns. Places where I could start fresh and carry on Gran's work. Or maybe not. I could choose.
The wolf specter walked by my side, unseen. I doubted I'd be dispelling him any time soon. Not until I was established somewhere, and maybe not even then. A girl can always use a little extra protection.