Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone

Fletcher began to suspect his husband was cheating on him when Brady started to come home late at night, smelling of smoke and tasting of another man.  Fletcher would embrace Brady at night, and he could smell the scent on him.  Brady worked as a banker downtown, while Fletcher worked in a small bookstore in a brand new shopping center, where he worked more normal eight hour days with only the occasional evening.

The shopping center itself was made from glass and steel, a cathedral to the Big Box stores and brands.  The bookstore was different–it was small and tucked away behind the escalators, with piles of books stacked on top of each other on the floor and on the shelves.  There were no windows and the owner kept the lights dim, contrasting it sharply with the brightly-lit mall outside.

The shopping center had its own temple with shrines dedicated to each of the thirteen gods.  Fletcher went one day after work in order to ask Toskagee for guidance, but the line to pray before the shrine was long because it was the week before Valentine’s Day.  The temple was a glass atrium; the cold winter sun shone through the roof and walls, and small birds fluttered between the trees.  The shrines were surrounded by bright plants and offerings.

All of theme except for Tekamthi.  Her shrine was sparse and empty, set off to the side.  A small fire burned in a copper pot, flanked on both sides by small piles of bones.  Few people ever sought Tekamthi’s blessings because no one wanted war or death.  Fletcher frowned, and despite himself, he stepped out of line and walked over to her shrine.  He looked up at the statue carved from glassy black obsidian; her wings were spread behind her and she held her Kentucky rifle above her head.  He felt something strange in his gut, as if someone was tying it into a knot.

Fletcher turned away from the statue and left the temple.


Fletcher was organizing boxes of old books in the back when he found a strange title, The Love of Blood by someone named Orlando Hull.  The cover was some black, pink and white abstract design, and he didn’t recognize the title or the author.  It wasn’t a large book (perhaps a hundred pages at most), and Fletcher felt the urge to read it.  He took it home that night.  Brady hadn’t called, but Fletcher wasn’t surprised anymore when Brady didn’t come home on time.

The Love of Blood was a spell book, covering spells for both Tekamthi and Toskagee, the goddess of war and the goddess of love–it was an interesting combination, but it made sense to Fletcher.  Scorned lovers often became violent, looking for retribution.  Fletcher wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.  He just wanted his husband back.  He had trouble remembering the last time the two of them had had a proper conversation.

Brady came back late at night, but had fallen asleep on the couch, which surprised Fletcher.  “I didn’t hear you come in,” he said.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” Brady said.

“I would have been fine with that,” Fletcher said.  “We haven’t had a lot time to talk lately.”

“I’m sorry.  Work’s been crazy.”

“I love you.”

“I’ll see you tonight,” Brady said before leaving for the day.

Fletcher put away Brady’s clothes before going to work.  He didn’t like the way the clothes smelled, but there was nothing he could do about it now.  At lunch, he visited the temple again; instead of getting in line to see Toskagee, he sat in front of Tekamthi’s shrine with a copy of The Love of Blood in his lap.  He felt the same twisting feeling in his gut; it was a cold, icy grip that was holding onto him, but this time, he didn’t run.

He was actually beginning to like looking at the shrine.


Fletcher tried to schedule a date night for the two of them on Friday, but Brady had to cancel.  Work, he said.  On a Friday night?  That was the final straw.  Fletcher ordered Chinese delivery, and stared at The Love of Blood all night.  Fletcher licked his lips and wiped his palms on his pants.  He just wanted his husband back.

Fletcher wasn’t scheduled to work on Saturday, but he went to the shopping center.  It was warm for a February, and the air conditioner inside the mall was working overtime.  The lines to see Toskagee had grown during the weekend, but Fletcher ignored them.  He sat in front of the statue, pressed his hands together and prayed.  He just wanted his husband back, so he dropped the fetish into the fire.  He’d made it from blood, hair and scraps of clothes.  It caught fire and disappeared into the flame.


There was a woman waiting for Fletcher when he returned home.  She was lying on a living room sofa, reading Orlando Hull’s The Love of Blood.  She had pale skin and long, pale red hair, and when she looked at him, he froze.  Her eyes were red irises on black sclera with diamond-shaped pupils.  She was a goddess in red robes and black armor.  It took Fletcher a moment to identify her as Onthaneequay, the daughter of Tekamthi and Toskagee and the goddess of scorned lovers.

“Don’t look so surprised,” Onthaneequay said, standing up.  “You were the one who called me here.”

“What did you do?” Fletcher asked.  He was surprised at how abrupt he was with a goddess.

“The question, is,” Onthaneequay folded her hands in front of her, “what did you do?”

Fletcher was shaking and he felt his knees go week.  Onthaneequay remained where she was standing, a small smile on her face.  There was a tapping on the window and Onthaneequay walked over to open it.  A small creature came in, a grotesque mane of feathers the size of a cat.

The phone began to ring.  “I just wanted my husband back.”

“You should answer that,” Onthaneequay said.  The creature climbed onto her shoulder and pecked at her ear.

“I never wanted this.”

The phone continued to ring.

“Answer the phone,” Onthaneequay said.

Fletcher picked up the phone.  “Hello…yes, this is me…oh, where…are you sure…I, I don’t know…I can…thank you.”

“Well?” Onthaneequay asked as Fletcher hung up the phone.

“Brady…Brady died.  Car accident.”  He looked up at Onthaneequay, his fists clenched in rage.  “I never asked for this.  I didn’t want this.”

“My mothers may have created humans, but I don’t think we’ll ever truly understand our creations.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Onthaneequay shrugged and turned to leave.  She stopped and looked over his shoulder at him.  “He wasn’t being unfaithful.”

Fletcher stared at her.  “Wh-wh-what?”

“He was working late for overtime pay.”

“But…why?  What for?”

“I only know what I know.”

Onthaneequay left through the back door.  Fletcher collapsed and began to sob.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. VII

I ride north for the Lumpong Agency, and it takes me most of two days to reach it from Carbonate.  It would take several more days for me to ride to Nanung, the seat of the Agency, but I don’t need to go that far.  Just far enough to see my uncle.

The land becomes flat and arid once I leave Tochopa National Forest.  The forests become flat scrubland that stretch for miles in every direction.  I can’t see a tree no matter which direction I look.  The only vegetation are low lying shrubs and bushes.  It’s also hot.  Almost unbearably hot.  I wear nothing but a simple desert robe that covers me but doesn’t smother me.

There are faded signs warning me about that I’m about to enter the Lumpong Agency.  I’m stopped by an agency ranger less than five minutes across the border.  I show him my papers and explain to him who I want to see.

“Who is he to you?” the ranger asks.

“He’s my uncle,” I say.  “My mother’s brother.”

“Your father?”

“Miqad al-Chokik.”

The ranger looks surprised.

“He doesn’t talk about me often, does he?”

The ranger shakes his head.  An oddly human gesture.  “But then again, he has plenty of children as it is.”  The ranger returns my papers to me.  “I’ll take you to see Thabit.”

I nod my head.  There’s no point in arguing so I follow him.  The ranger attempts to make conversation with me, but I offer few answers.  I’m not much interested in conversation as my mind is occupied with thoughts of my uncle and my father.

Sanapong is built on top of a steep hill.  A few old mud huts are built at the base behind a sagging barbed wire fence.  Newer looking trailer homes sat higher up on the hill towards the peak.  Adults are passed out on front stoops, either from drugs or alcohol.  I avert my eyes, unwilling to see it for what it is.  Children run out to run around the horses.  They’re dressed in dirty rags.

“Why aren’t they in school?” I ask.

“School had to shut down.  No money.”

Thabit ibn Sasah lives in a trailer near the summit.  We’re met by a broad shouldered orc who’s scowling at me.  I recognize him as my brother, Dilal.

“Odima,” he says, still scowling.

“I’m here to see our uncle.”

“Our uncle?  After what you did to our father?”

“If you’ll notice, brother,” I say, “I’m here to see our uncle, not our father.”

“What is this about?”

“We’re family.  Do I need a reason?”

Dilal glares at me before finally relenting.  “Follow me,” he says.

I follow him inside the trailer, carrying my sack with me.  Dust dances in sunlight shining in through the windows.  The top half of the walls are covered in faded wallpaper and then lower half are covered by wood paneling.  The furniture is old and torn.  A group of children sit in the living room, watching static-filled I Love Lucy reruns on the television while drinking Coke from glass bottles and eating falafel.

Uncle Thabit is in the back bedroom.  His skin is sallow and sagging.  The room smells like rosewater.  Thabit opens his eyes and looks at me.  “I thought I wouldn’t see ghosts until I was actually dead,” he says.  “Hamah, is that you?”

“No, uncle, it’s me, Odima.”

Thabit closes his eyes.  “I must be in hell.”

“I’m not dead, not matter how much you wish I was.”

“What do you want, child?” Thabit asks.

“I’ve come to discuss the future of our people.”

Thabit begins to laugh, but it quickly turns into a racking cough.  He wipes spittle and phlegm from his lips.  “Our people?  You mean the people you abandoned.”

“I never abandoned my people.”

“You live and work with the Autumn-Men.  They’re dead leaves.  Why do you care?”

“Because they’re our future, whether you want to admit it or not.”

“Have you become a rot-eater?” Dilal asks.

I try not to rise to the bait.  I drop the bag I’m carrying on the floor, and it makes a loud bang.

“What’s that?” Dilal asks.

“Two hundred pounds of copper bars.  They’re mining metal from the ground from our land.  This is our future.”

“What’s your point?” Thabit asks.

“The future is here,” I say.  “We can’t fight it, but we can forge our space in it.”

“A space?  Have you found your space, child?  Do they accept you as one of their own?”

I open my mouth to say something, but stop because I realize that I can’t argue with my uncle.

“Where did you get all this copper?” Dilal asks.

“I stole it,” I answer.

“Stole it?”

“You accuse me of being a rot-eater, but I’m the only one trying to make my place in their world.”

“By killing them?” Thabit asks.

“By keeping the balance,” I answer.

“You are not keeping any balance,” Thabit said.  “Leave my presence, child.  I never want to see you.  You have your dead leaves to play with.”

“I am repaying the money that I–”

“I said be gone!  Leave!  As far as I’m concerned, we no longer share any blood!”

I clench my fists and bite my tongue.  Without saying a word, I turn and march out of the trailer, slamming the door behind me.

“Odima!” Dilal calls after me as I mount my horse.

I don’t acknowledge him.

“Father will know you’ve returned,” Dilal says.

“I don’t care,” I say, pointing my horses back south towards Carbonate.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. VI

The Carbonate Manor Lodge was built on the woody hills overlooking the town below.  It’s a blocky building made mostly from local stone and timber, and is hidden away behind rows of pine trees.  The main dining room’s a large, high-ceilinged room with floor to ceiling windows and native designs and tapestries hanging from the stone walls.

Senator Vance Cabrera sat at a corner table, his face covered in flickering shadows from the candles that lit the dining room as the serving staff took the plates away.  Hershel Friedgen watched the Senator nervously.  The dinner had gone well enough, but the conversation had remained stilted and had only danced around the intended topic at best.

“This is a lovely town you have here, Mr. Friedgen,” Senator Cabrera said, nodding towards the window.  Carbonate was lit up for the evening, just visible between the pine branches.

“Thank you, Senator,” Friedgen said.  “Carbonate is always welcoming to guests such as yourself.”

Cabrera reached into his pocket for a silver box.  He pulled out a cigar and clipped the cap.  A waiter suddenly appeared with a lighter, and Cabrera puffed on the cigar.  “I assume the biggest industry here is tourism.”

“It is,” Friedgen said, nodding his head.  “But we’re looking to change that.”

“Copper and timber,” Cabrera said.

“Copper, yes.”

“But not timber?”

“All our trees are locked up in national forests.”

Cabrera puffed on the cigar and blew the smoke out of his nose.  “Are you not even aware of what national forests are for?”

Friedgen shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Senator, but I’m not sure.”

A waiter placed a tray of biscotti on the table, and a glass of Vin Santo dessert wine.  “All those hundreds of years back on Old Earth, President Roosevelt wanted to preserve America’s forestland for future use.”  Cabrera dipped a biscotti into the Vin Santo and took a bite of it.  “He didn’t want to protect the trees for protections sake.  He wanted to create a reserve of trees for use to be logged later.  It takes a long time to grow a tree.”  Cabrera rested his cigar in an ashtray.  “But what of the copper?”

“What of it?”

“I believe there were promises made of a shipment of copper.”

Friedgen cleared his throat and looked down.  Vance Cabrera was the chair of the powerful Committee on Public Lands in the Redstone Circuit Senate.  His hair was grey and slicked back and his skin orange from a fake tan.  “There were issues.”


“I sent a shipment of 6,000 pounds of copper to Samawa last month, but it was taken by raiders.”

“You expect me to believe that?” Cabrera asked.

“I have death certificates and witnesses to that effect,” Friedgen said.  “I’ve been unable to collect enough capital to dig for more.”

“You expect me to finance my own bribe?  I always thought it was a metaphor when they said you clod eaters had dirt in your head.”  Cabrera laughed.  “It won’t be needed anyway.”

Friedgen frowned.  “What do you mean, Senator?”

“I have sources back in D.C. telling me that Hawatama and the other territories are this close to being admitted as states.”  Cabrera picked up the cigar and puffed on it.  “When they do it, they’re going to cut the dirt states from the orbital circuit.”

“And makes us your own circuit?”

“What else would they do?”

“Then maybe I should try talking to a U.S. Senator, then.”

Cabrera laughed again.  “You might as well pray to Meshigumee for rain.  You’ll have as much success with her as you would with attempting to bribe a U.S. Senator.”

“I don’t have much other recourse, do I?”

“If the geologists are correct, this is the single largest source of copper on this entire world.”  Cabrera reached into his pocket and produced a business card.  “Here is the name of an investment banking firm on Bisbee.  It’s not exactly WalkerWeld or Lehman Brothers, but it has the funds and discretion for a project like this.”

Friedgen took the card and nodded his head.  “That still doesn’t solve the problem of not having the necessary permits or licenses.”

“That part will come later,” Cabrera said.  “You’ll just need to be patient and wait for the circuit split.”

“That could take years.”

“The copper isn’t going anywhere, now is it?”

“I suppose not,” Friedgen said, shaking his head.

Cabrera picked up another biscotti and dunked it in the Vin Santo.  “As they say, Friedgen,” he said, “it takes money to make money.”

Meeting the Sphinx

I parked my silver travel trailer at the edge of the RV park, as far from the national park’s main lodge as I could.  The park rangers had been careful to warn me about the dangers that came with the park’s heat and dryness.  I was an old hand at this.  I wouldn’t stray far from my base.  I’d carry plenty of water with me.

The dried lake bed stretched out from horizon to horizon.  Front to back, left to right.  In the far distance was the ridges of the Diablo Mesa.  I would leave early in the morning and keep to the edges of the dried lake until I found some degree of shade.  I’d stop, rest and draw whatever I saw.  It was repetitive, but it was relaxing.

There was a sphinx.  They weren’t uncommon in these parts, and I’d been told to stay away from them.  I watched in silence.  Browned skin of her head and chest gave way to the tawny fur of a lion’s body.  Wings spread back from her shoulders.  Jet black hair that shined.  I was transfixed and spent several days sketching her.

Some days later, the sphinx approached me.  She approached me in her glory, towering over me like a monster from some ancient childhood nightmare.  The light of Saturn glimmered off the gold she wore.  There was gold in her hair and on her ears.  Bands of gold, jade and lapis lazuli encircled her neck.

“I see you,” the sphinx said.

“And I see you too.”

The sphinx sat down on her haunches.

“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” I said.

“Yet here we are.”

“Here we are.”

The sphinx nodded her head.

My face was burnt red and was covered in sweat.  I held up my sketchpad to show the sphinx what I’d been drawing.

“That’s me,” the sphinx said.  A statement, not a question.

“It is.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m sketching life.”

“Life?  There is little life here.”

“I sketch what I see.”

“You’re trespassing.”

“This is public land.”

“I don’t recognize your government.”

“A sovereign citizen type, huh?” I asked.

The sphinx furrowed her brows.

“Sorry, bad joke.”  I wiped the sweat from my forehead.  “I can leave if you’d like.”

The sphinx studied me for several agonizing moments.  She stood up and shook her head.  Without answering me, she began to walk away, across the dried lake bed.

“What’s your name?” I called.

The sphinx remained silent, eventually becoming a distant figure marred by the waves of heat that rose from the ground.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. V

A naturalist named McClendon hired me as a guide, to take him through the Tochopa National Forest north of east of Carbonate.  Gundy didn’t want me to go by myself.  This McClendon was a stranger and Gundy wasn’t certain that he trusted him.  I reassured him that I could handle myself.

McClendon is a professor at some school I’d never heard of on a planet I’d never heard of.  He is a human with glasses and a golden beard.  Like all Autumn-Men, he is tall and slender, with long limbs and soft features.

He is soft spoken too.  This is his first time to the Tochopa National Forest, but he has read about it.  He marvels at the trees and the plants.  We must stop every so often so that he can collect samples, take pictures with his bulky Kodak camera or for him to make quick charcoal sketches.

“I’m a naturalist,” he explains as we start again.  “I specialize in evolutionary biology and biogeography.”

I have to admit that I am unfamiliar with those words, and McClendon simply smiles.  “I study the process that created biological organisms and their distribution across worlds.”

I nod my head.

McClendon talks frequently.  Sometimes I understand him, sometimes I don’t.  I keep my eyes open, looking for any threats.  Mountain lions often don’t come down from the Black Hills into the forests, but it’s not unknown–and we are skirting the edge of the Lumpong Agency.

The Tochopa National Forest is covered in all different sorts of pines.  There are Hawatama ponderosas–tall and narrow with dark red bark.  Then there are the smaller Tochopa pinyon pines–shorter and broader, with branches spreading up to twenty feet across.  Short grass and squat sagebrush cover the ground alongside discarded needles and pinecones.

McClendon is red faced and drenched in sweat.  We stop under a pine tree to rest and eat some lunch.  He says a few jokes and I laugh politely.

We finally set up camp in the evening.  We haven’t gotten far, but McClendon seems impressed with the progress.  He spends an hour cataloguing everything he’s seen and collected before joining me for dinner.  A cold chill settles in and I shiver reflexively.

McClendon clears his throat and he says he’ll offer me money.  I’m confused and his faces turns red.  After a few moments, I understand and I decline.

The second day is much of the same.  If McClendon is upset, he doesn’t show it.  He talks to me about the flora and fauna.  I nod politely and smile.  He enjoys it.  When we set up camp for the second night, he again offers me money.  It’s more money this time, but again, I decline it.

The third day is much of the same.  After setting up camp but before McClendon can say anything, I push him to the ground and start pulling off his clothes.

I may be many things, but I’m not a whore.

McClendon’s hands are soft and gentle, and his beard tickles me.  I’ve long since learned that there’s not much difference between a human male and an orcish male physically, so there’s no surprises.  We finish and lie together next to the fire.

“Have you ever been to space?” McClendon asks me.

I shake my head.  I haven’t.

“I’ve studied more than a dozen worlds, and I’ve studied dozens of biospheres,” McClendon says.  “What I should have studied were the orcs.”

The orcs?

“There’s been orcs on every world I’ve visited.”

I sit up and stare down at him, confused as to what he means.

“You don’t know?  There are orcs everywhere, all across the cluster.  Thousands and thousands of tribes and ethnic groups, and billions and billions of you.”

I had trouble comprehending that.  It is difficult for me to imagine life outside of the northern Hawatama Territory, let alone the stars beyond.

“Not all of them live on the agencies or reservations.  Most have assimilated into society at large.”

I look away from McClendon and into the fire, my mind swirling.  I am having troubling understanding the concept.  Orcs elsewhere?  Orcs not living on the edge?

“Washington doesn’t trust Muslims.  Haven’t since that Mahdi Revolt back in ’17, not that I blame them.”

McClendon places a cold hand on my back and I lay down again, unable to still my mind.

In the morning, I feel McClendon pressed against my back and I oblige him before we set out again.  My mind is elsewhere.  I can hear McClendon talking at me about trees and other worlds he’s been to, but all I can think of are other orcs on other worlds.  Orcs that didn’t have to live on reservations.

I am paying enough attention to see the saber cat in the distance.  The large cat stands on a small hill about two or three miles from us.  I tell McClendon to stop and I whisper that there’s a saber cat.  His eyes grow wide and the color leaves his face.  I tell him not to worry.

I unsling my hunting rifle, hold it in the crook of my arm and watch.  The saber cat is a large animal that weighs almost a thousand pounds with jaws powerful enough to tear a man in half.  It descends the hill and begins to approach us.  I raise the rifle and fire off one, two shots.  I shot above the saber cat’s head, just close enough to scare it away.

McClendon let out a sigh and put a hand on my shoulder.  “Thank you.”

I nod my head.

That night, we repeat the same thing we’d done the night before.  McClendon’s gentleness surprises me, but I don’t dislike it.  He points out the constellations as we lie in each other’s arms.  The sky looks like a black cloth that someone had poked little holes in.  He points somewhere on the southern horizon, just above a rise of trees.

“And that’s Old Earth,” he says.  I’ve heard that phrase used before, but had never given it much thought.  “That’s where we came from.”


“Humans at least.”

I nod my head.

The next day is warmer, but we’re turning south to loop back to Carbonate.  We pass a spring, and I see movement, so we stop to investigate.  There’s a young woman with blue-green skin bathing naked.  A nymph.  It’d been years since I’d seen one this far north.  McClendon is staring at her, and I feel a wave of jealousy run through me.

We can’t stay here, so I pull McClendon back onto his horse and we continue on our way.

The last few days continue as the rest.  We ride during the day, with McClendon collecting samples and pictures–I know he’s taken a few pictures of me, but I allow him.  We lay with each other during the night, and McClendon’s attitude changes.  He talks less about the world and more about him.  He tells me about his life, what he’s done and what he hopes to do.  I have this strange feeling in the pit of my stomach that I can’t explain.  I say little, still acting the part of the savage.

We return to Carbonate a week after setting out.  McClendon hadn’t said much for the past few hours, and he bids me a hesitant farewell.  He checks into a room at the Roadside Inn while he waits for his train.  I take the mustangs back to the stables before turning to my own room in the Roadside Inn, which is on the first floor next to the lobby.

I shower to wash the dirt and grime off me.  After I’m done, I begin to dress but I’m interrupted by my room phone.  It’s McClendon.  He wants to see me again to talk.  I agree and go up to his room on the third floor.  It’s the standard one room motel room.  There’s a painting of seashore hanging above the bed.  I have never understood that choice.

McClendon kisses me on the mouth, and I’m surprised at how forward he is since he’d never kissed me when we were out on the trail.  “I want you to have this,” he says, presenting me with a choker made from turquoise, silver and ivory.  I hesitate to accept it, but I relent and let him put it around my neck.  “I want you to come with me.”


“I’m leaving for Samawa tomorrow, and next week I’m taking a PanAm clipper for the shores of the Salt Sea.”

That’s on the other side of Redstone.

“I want you to come with me.  I need you.  And after that, I’m going back to Odysseus.”

I don’t know how to answer this.  He’s asking me to leave my home, leave my people, leave my world.  Can I?  He’s spent the past week filling my mind with stories of other worlds where orcs are more accepted.  Could I even believe him?  I need to think.

McClendon pulls me onto the bed and we make love for what seems like hours.  His skin his softer and smells sweater after a shower.  He’s more passionate and earnest now.  After he finishes inside me, he leans down and whispers, “I love you.”

Once he falls asleep, I sneak out of the room.  I go to the stables to get some mustangs and head back out.  I don’t want to be in town when he wakes up.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. I

The wind blows through the canyon and into the cracks and holes, whistling.  The valley walls are red, but become paler the higher they go.  The upper bands aren’t even visible under the squat pine trees that cover the top of the buttes.  I sit cross-legged in a small indention of a butte, a ponderosa pine shading me.  Al Rescha is setting behind me, the glare from the red dwarf shielding me from being spotted.

My legs had gone numb hours ago, but I couldn’t move.  I’m a hunter stalking my prey.

The valley is still.  The only sound is the whistling of the wind and the only movement are the ponderosas waving back forth in the wind.  There are no birds, and lizards and snakes are not known for their singing.

The Huvasu River cuts through the bottom of the canyon, but this high up, I can’t hear the roar of the rapids.  A narrow mule trail runs down the valley, a terrifying maze of hairpin turns and switchbacks.

There’s movement down below.  I raise my rifle and look down the scope.  There’s a mule train making its way down the canyon.  A dozen mules tied together and loaded down with unmarked wooden boxes.  I count seven guards.  Some are walking in front of or behind the mule train.  Other are riding the mules.  They can’t walk beside the mules because the trail is too narrow.

I pick my targets.  I’ll start with the back and work my way forward.  I squeeze the trigger and the rifle kicks.  The gunshot echoes across the canyon and the mules panic.  I shift targets and squeeze again.

Loki Goodfellow

Meshigumee stepped out of the arch, her bare feet crunching the snow under her and sending a jolt of cold through her.  “Blast you, you fiend,” she said, her words turning into a cloud in front of her.  Her arch had appeared in the middle of a forest; she was surrounded by tall, narrow pine trees that formed an overlapping canopy above her, while smaller junipers and spruces were gathered close to the forest floor.  Despite that, snow was falling from the grey sky.  The snow had already accumulated heavily, with drifts almost as tall as she was.

“Bloody snow,” Meshigumee muttered.  Why couldn’t Loki have picked a more hospitable location for her sphere?

Meshigumee stopped when she saw the saber cat blocking her path.  The saber cat’s long teeth were yellowed and glinted in the moonlight, and its fur was grey with darker stripes, though the tips of its muzzle, ears and feet were almost black.

“Why hello there,” Meshigumee said, folding her hands in front of her.  The saber cat was the largest Meshigumee had ever seen, with its shoulders reaching almost to Meshigumee’s chest.  “Where’s your mother?”

The saber cat stared at Meshigumee with its unblinking blue eyes.

“I am Meshigumee, the All-Mother of the Great Waters of the World.  I’m presuming that you’re, Sunjkothi the World Eater.  I am wishing to speak with your mother, Loki Goodfellow.”

Sunjkothi’s breath fogged in front of her nostrils.  Without a sound, she turned and began to walk away.  After a few steps, she stopped and turned her head to look at Meshigumee.  Meshigumee took several steps forward, and Sunjkothi kept walking, leading Meshigumee deeper and deeper into the forest.  After several long minutes, Meshigumee saw a faint light ahead of them.  As they drew closer, she saw that it was a fire underneath a massive ash tree that was at least two or three chains tall, and despite the season, it still had its leaves.

The fire had been built in a small clearing underneath the wide expanse of the ash tree’s leaves.  Meshigumee saw that there were several bodies hanging from the lower branches.  Their clothing was old and tattered, and each one had a bag pulled over their heads.  She looked up, and sitting in the branches were scores–hundreds, maybe–of albino barn owls with feathers as white as snow and eyes as red as blood.

Djidwewin, messengers of Loki Goodfellow.

“I almost didn’t see you approaching,” a voice said from above.

Meshigumee looked up and saw a large, red eye staring down at her.  She subconsciously smoothed out the folds of her robe; the fabric was white with pale silver scrollwork and runes stitched into it, while the tips of the long sleeves and the hem gathered around her feet were black.  “Hello, Loki Goodfellow,” Meshigumee said.  “It’s been too long since we’ve spoken.  I wish to speak with you as an equal.”

“An equal, heh?” Loki asked.  “How many millennia has it taken for you to admit that?”

Meshigumee bit her tongue to stop herself from trading barbs with Loki.

“You want something from me, don’t you?  Heh, can’t be helped, I suppose.”

Loki jumped down from her perch somewhere in the tree and landed in front of Meshigumee.  She was half a hand taller than Meshigumee, but was slender and willowy–almost as if a stiff breeze could know her over.  One eye was red, while the other was hidden by an eye patch, which covered angry scar tissue.  She dressed as a mortal would: leather jacket, plaid shirt, ripped jeans and heavy boots.

“Here we are, as equals,” Loki Goodfellow said, smirking.  Sunjkothi walked around Loki and curled up next to the fire.  “Have you come here to extend an apology to me?”

Meshigumee’s eyes narrowed.  “An apology?  What…” she stopped herself and shook her head.  “What has happened has happened, and it cannot be changed.”

“Heh, convenient for you to say,” Loki said.

“I see you’ve been in the mortal realm,” Meshigumee said.

“They, at least, accept me for who I am.”  Loki brushed some of her green hair behind her pointed ears.  “Why did you come all the way here, Meshigumee?  It’s not an easy trip from the highest spheres of the heavens all the way down here.”

“I wanted to see you,” Meshigumee said.

Loki barked laughter.  “How many millennia has it been since you threw me out?  How many millennia has it been since you last laid eyes upon me?”

“Our sisters still suspect me.”

Our sisters?  Our sisters?  You speak to me of our sisters?”

Meshigumee looked down.  Perhaps coming here had been a mistake.
Loki stood up and rubbed her hands together.  “Out of all of them, you were the only one who ever gave me the time of day.”

“My sisters might feel differently, but I always thought you were one of us.”

Loki stared at the fire but didn’t say anything.  Sunjkothi looked up at Meshigumee, regarding her with cold, blue eyes.

“You’re familiar with Captain Stormalong, aren’t you?” Loki asked.

Meshigumee nodded her head.

“On his first voyage on his clipper, the Courser, the ship was attacked by a kraken.  Captain Stormalong, being the giant he was, fought the kraken, and eventually defeated it by tying its tentacles together.  Rather than killing the creature, he took pity on it and let it live, but he trapped it in Davy Jones’ Locker.

“Sometime later, Captain Stormalong was enlisted by President Lincoln to capture Confederate blockade runners.  Desperately short on ships and men, Captain Stormalong decided that he needed help from former enemies such as the kraken.  So Captain Stormalong released the kraken from Davy Jones’ Locker with the understanding that the kraken would attack Confederate blockade runners.  But the kraken had spent years in that watery prison, smarting at what Captain Stormalong had done to him, so when he was released, he grappled with Captain Stormalong and drug him to the ocean’s depth, where the two of them remain to this day.”

“That’s not a very funny joke,” Meshigumee said.

“It wasn’t meant to be a joke,” Loki said.  She started towards Meshigumee, who flinched and took a step back.  Loki laughed.  “It’s just a story, presumable one you’re familiar with.”

Meshigumee took a few moments to compose herself.  “Yes, I’m quite familiar with the tales of Captain Stormalong.”

Loki looked about to say something, but she stopped.  She looked up at the branches of the ash tree and remained silent.  The bodies hanging from the branches swayed back and forth as a light breeze blew through the forest.  Snow had accumulated on their shoulders and hooded heads.  Not even Chilhowee paraded the corpses of the dead and the damned in her sphere.

“They’re me,” Loki said, still staring up at the branches.  “Forms and shapes I’ve taken in my life.”

“An odd way of storing them.”

“It’s convenient and they’re always in reach.”

“I suppose they would be.”  Meshigumee reached into one of her sleeves and pulled out a small package wrapped in wax paper.  “I brought an offering, of sorts.”

Loki looked down and raised an eyebrow.  “An offering?”

“Apple fritters, made from the apples picked from the groves of Hissipaska,” Meshigumee said.

Loki took the package and opened it.  Inside were a dozen apple fritters, still warm from the hot oil.  “Did she know you were taking the apples to give to me?”

“What Hissipaska doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” Meshigumee shrugged.

Loki took one of the fritters and bit into it.  Steam and heat was rising from the fried dough in the cold air.

“Well…?” Meshigumee asked.

“What are you asking for?” Loki asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Meshigumee, the All-Mother of the Great Waters of the World, would not come to my lowly sphere to ply me with fried dough simply because she wanted to chit chat,” Loki said.  She finished the fritter and licked the grease from her fingers.  “As much as I appreciate the offering, I sense that there’s some ulterior motive behind it.”

Loki turned around and knelt down next to a pack that was leaning against the tree.  She placed the package inside the pack, and Meshigumee remained silent.

“Well?” Loki asked, looking over her shoulder at Meshigumee.

“I want you to remember who stood up for you.”

“A little late, don’t you think?”

“I’m sorry for the delay, but it is difficult for me to get away.”

“I’m sure it is,” Loki said.  She stood up and slung the pack across her shoulders.  “I hold no ill will or spite in my heart for you or your sisters, nor do I hold any particular love.  It is what it is.”  She took several long steps towards Meshigumee, standing chest to chest with her.  Meshigumee wasn’t used to be looking down upon as Tekamthi was her only sister taller than she was.  “What is done is done, and what will come will come.  There is nothing any of us can do to stop that.”

“We’re gods,” Meshigumee said.

“But as with the mortals below us, we are bound to the whims and wills of Fate.”  Loki leaned down and whispered into Meshigumee’s ear.  “You know my place in things as well as I do, and I would encourage you to not anger Fate.  She is quite a fickle woman.”

“You would be an expert in such things,” Meshigumee said.

Loki’s laugh was loud and warm in Meshigumee’s ear.  “Yes, I believe I would.”  Loki stepped back, grinning.  “Take care, Meshigumee.  I don’t know when our paths will cross again, but I do hope that it will be soon.”

Loki walked around Meshigumee and into the shadows of the trees.  Sunjkothi stood up and walked after Loki, giving Meshigumee one last look with her blue eyes.  The two of them disappeared into the forest, leaving Meshigumee alone.  She raised her eyes and saw the scores of albino owls above her.  Loki’s eyes and ears…and messengers.

Meshigumee shook her head and held in a sigh.  Loki Goodfellow would come around, eventually.