Preview

The Usurper’s Crown — Chapter One

Sand Island, Wisconsin, 1872

The bed frame creaked, and Ingrid Loftfield instantly opened her eyes.  Moonlight streamed in through the mended curtains laying a silver skin across the room’s sparse furnishings.  It was more than enough to show Ingrid the silhouette of her sister Grace climbing out of their sagging bed.  Unblinking, Grace rounded the bed’s foot.  Ingrid held her breath.  Grace’s hand strayed out to pick up her knitted shawl from where it hung on the post, but her eyes did not turn to see what her hand did.  All her attention remained fixed on the bedroom door as she padded across the bare boards and out into the hall.

Ingrid kicked back the quilt and jumped to her feet.  She pulled off her nightgown to reveal her dark skirt and work shirt.  Her jaw firmly set, she bent down to stuff her feet into her worn boots.

Tonight she would find out what ailed her sister.

“She just wants a good shaking,” their brother Leo had announced.

“You’re too free with the girl.” Papa had glowered Mama.  “You should not let her go galloping across to Bayfield whenever she pleases.  It’s some man, you see if it isn’t.”

“You must watch her, Ingrid,” Mama had whispered in the back kitchen as she banked the fire for the night.  “The Devil’s finally got to her.”

Devil or man, I will have my answer.  Stepping as lightly as she could, Ingrid followed Grace into the hallway.  Her sister was already down the stairs.  Grace did not look back once as she slipped soundlessly out the front door.

Ingrid herself was halfway down the stairs when a floorboard creaked behind her.  Ingrid twisted to see back over her shoulder.  Her mother stood at the top of the stairs, a candle in her hand, and her face pale with some emotion Ingrid found she could not name.

“What is it, Mother?” she heard Papa’s gravely voice call.

“Nothing,” Mama called back.  “Nothing at all.”

Ingrid swallowed hard, and hurried out after her sister into the chill of the late-spring night.  The brisk wind smelled of pine resin and the ever-present cold of Lake Superior.  Grace all but flew down the footpath toward the rutted track that served as Eastbay’s main road.  Gathering up her hems, Ingrid followed, her teeth gritted until they ached.

Tonight we put a stop to this.

The settlement of Eastbay popped up here and there out of Sand Island’s wilderness like a cluster of spring mushrooms.  It called itself a town, but it was little more than a scattering of dwellings connected by meandering dirt paths.  Despite the fat, full moon that lit the night, the houses seemed blind and distant.  Even the forge squatted darkly back in the woods.  The trees loomed large and all the night noises — the rustling, hooting, rushing sounds — filled in all the empty spaces, leaving Ingrid with the unaccustomed sensation of being a trespasser.  This is not your place, the whole world seemed to say to her.  Go back to your bed until the daylight comes.  Leave her to us.

But Grace hurried on before her, a pale ghost in her flannel nightdress, and Ingrid could not even think of turning back.  Mama was trusting her to find out what was happening, and to do it quickly.  If Papa found out Grace had gone out of sight of the house, unaccompanied, at night, Grace’s life would be made unbearable, whatever the reason turned out to be.

Grace’s illness had begun in May, just as the island’s short, late spring was beginning to warm toward summer.  Grace had been across on the mainland in Bayfield, earning a little extra by doing for Mrs. Hofstetter who had just been delivered of twins.  Papa had objected to her going, but Grace had simply faced him with her sunny smile and said — “Well, Papa you can lock me in the shed if you choose, but unless you do, I’m going.”

Grace could do that.  Grace could smile, and laugh, and glide her way through any storm of shouts or tears.  Sometimes it was maddening, but most of the time Ingrid clung to her sister like a sailor clinging to a lifeline.  She willingly shouldered Grace’s share of the work around house and field so that Grace might go to Bayfield.  So that Grace might keep that easy smile.

Then, a squall had come up, suddenly, as they would in the spring, and Everett Lederle had burst into the back kitchen to tell Ingrid he had seen a great, gray wave swamp the small tug carrying Grace back home.

Ingrid had run then too, her skirts hiked about her knees so she could keep pace with her father and brother, sprinting through the driving rain down to the bay to help launch the boats and bend her back to row against the waves toward where the tug had last been sighted.

Lake Superior was the provider for everyone on the island, but it was also their mutual enemy .  No one would be left to its mercy while there was any chance she might be saved.

They pulled Frank and Todd Johanssen out of the frigid, grasping waters, but although they strained their eyes and shouted until their voices were hoarse, there was no sign of Grace.

Ingrid was blind with tears and rain when her father ordered them back to shore.  Shaking, she’d climbed over the gunwale onto the sand, brushing aside all the hands that reached out to help.  She would have to be steady when they told the little ones.  Fiercely, she’d knuckled the water from her eyes, just in time to see a white shape burst from the gray lake.  Leo saw it as well and threw himself into the water, grasping Grace by her shoulders before she could disappear beneath the surface again.  Amid the cheers of their neighbors, Leo had dragged Grace shivering to the shore.  Coats and oilskins had been thrown over her, and her family had led her home to a bright fire and a warm, dry bed.

She’d been sick for a time after that, to no one’s surprise.  Mama had tended her with mustard baths for her feet and strong tea for her stomach.  After three weeks, though, Papa began to ask what could possibly still ail the girl, and Mama urged Grace to come to the breakfast table.  Leo and Papa frowned, sure she must be better by now, and equally sure she was lazing.  But Ingrid looked at Grace’s pale cheeks, and saw how listlessly she picked at her porridge, and knew in the depth of her heart something was still wrong.

The color in Grace’s cheeks did not return, nor did the saucy light that used to dance in her eyes.  Instead, her skin remained as white as if she had just been pulled from the lake.  If left to herself, she would stand at the front window gazing across the tiny, weed-choked yard.  Mama or Ingrid could nag or cajole her into lending a hand with the work, but they found they had to keep a sharp eye on her, or her mind would drift and the copper tub for the laundry would be overturned, or on baking day the fire would be built so unevenly the loaves came out charred lumps.

“What is the matter with you, Grace?”  Ingrid finally demanded in exasperation.

“I don’t know,” said Grace, tears brimming in her dimmed eyes.  “I don’t know.”

Ingrid hugged her sister hard then, and let the matter drop.

After another two weeks of this, over even Papa’s grim objections, Mama summoned the doctor from Bayfield.  He could find no crack in Grace’s skull, nor any irregularity in her eyes, heart, or breath.  Nor did he find what Ingrid suspected was the greatest fear — that Grace was with child.  He simply counseled patience and packed up his black bag.

But that same night, Grace began walking in her sleep.  They found her first in the front room kneeling on the horsehair settee and staring out the window.  On the next night, she was standing in the front yard, staring hungrily at the closed gate.  On the next, she was halfway down the track toward the bay, for all Mama had locked and barred the doors for the night.  When they questioned Grace afterwards, she could give no answer, no hint of a reason for her behavior.  In fact, she stopped talking at all.  During the day, she would not get out of bed unless lifted bodily.  She would not eat.  Only Ingrid sleeping in a chair before the front door kept her inside at night.

It was desperation that had made Ingrid decide to follow Grace instead of barring her way tonight.  Papa was talking about sending Grace away, and Mama’s tears told Ingrid that she would wail about such action, but she would not stop it.  Mama’s tears only came when she was not going to take any other step.

Now, the darkness itself seemed to part for Grace’s effortless, hurrying feet.  All the purpose that had drained from her during the daylight had returned and even when she took a sharp right turn off the road, her gait was sure and unhesitating.  Ingrid was left to stump behind her, blessing the full moon and cursing the brambles and tree branches snatching at her hems and elbows.

Where are you going?  Ingrid thought, torn between frustration at her sister’s silent purpose, and fear that her noise would wake Grace from her trance at any moment.  If Grace woke, she might simply return to her stupor, leaving Ingrid still without answers.  Much further and you’ll be in the lake.

Indeed, the shore was in sight.  Lake Superior spread out black and silver below the gentle rise which Grace had climbed.  Ingrid ducked behind a wild blueberry bush, catching her breath and narrowing her eyes suspiciously.  Grace, if this truly is because you are meeting some fisherman, it’s not Leo you’ll be getting your shaking from.

The water was calm tonight, Ingrid noted.  The moonlight highlighted only the barest ripples in the night-darkened water.  She could just hear the sound of water lapping at the stones under the whisper of the wind through the trees.  Grace paused for a moment on the top of the short bluff.  In the light of the moon and a million stars, Ingrid saw her sister scan the shore, searching for she knew not what.

Then, Grace began to run, down the slope, right down to the narrow strip of sand at the water’s edge.  Ingrid peered between the branches of the spindly shrub that sheltered her and watched Grace kneel beside what appeared to be a large stone.

“I came.”  Grace’s voice drifted up to Ingrid on the chill, steady wind blowing off the Lake.  “I promised I would.”

“Cold,” answered a shivery man’s voice.  “So cold.”

Ingrid shot up to her full height, uncertain which of the two on the shore she was going to murder first.  But even her sudden motion and all the noise of it did not cause Grace to turn her attention from the man beside her.  While Ingrid stormed down the hill, every fiber in her tight with fury, Grace just took off her shawl and draped it across the man’s shoulders.

“Is that better?” asked Grace.

The man was little more than a collation of indistinct planes and angles in the moonlight, but Ingrid saw him reach out one hand to pull the shawl more tightly around himself.  “I never dreamed it would be so cold.”

“Let me help you,” urged Grace.

Which was all Ingrid could take.

“Grace Hulda Loftfield, what do you think you’re doing!”  She shouted as she strode onto the sand.

The sound of her full name seemed finally to reach Grace.  She tore her attention from the man.  Ingrid planted herself before her sister, hands on hips.  Grace stood slowly, her own hands dangling at her sides.

“Ingrid…” she breathed weakly, as if the strength that had brought her here had all flowed away.

“The whole family has been in an uproar for weeks!” cried Ingrid, flinging her arms wide.  “I thought you were ill, and all the while you were just waiting to sneak out for to meet some man!  Papa will thrash you within an inch of your life!”  Ingrid rounded on the man.  “As for you, Sir…” and her voice froze in her throat.

The man had also stood up.  He was sopping wet.  Water dripped from the bedraggled ends of his curling hair.  It ran in rivulets down his naked shoulders and his sodden canvas trousers to puddle around his bare feet.  Grace’s shawl clung to his shoulders, soaking up quarts of water.  His chest was so sunken that Ingrid could see his ribs.

But it was not this that robbed her of her voice, nor was it even his hollow eyes or his gray skin.  It was the silver sand behind him.  Ingrid could see Grace’s moonlit shadow spreading clearly across that sand.  Beside her, the man cast no shadow at all.

“What are you?”  Ingrid croaked.  “Grace, come here.”  She stretched out her hand.  “Come away.”

“Ingrid…” said Grace, but she did not move.  She just swayed in place.

“No,” said the man, whatever he was.  He knotted the end of Grace’s shawl in his grey fingers.  “Don’t leave me, Grace.  I beg you.”

“Come here, Grace,” ordered Ingrid, fear and dawning comprehension giving her voice strength.  “Now!”

Grace slumped her shoulders.  “I can’t.”

The drowned man — against all reason, Ingrid knew that was what he was — clutched Grace’s shawl even tighter.  “You promised you would help me.  You promised you would not leave me here.”

“I won’t.”  Grace lifted her foot to take a step toward the drowned man, but Ingrid dodged between them.

“Leave her alone!” she cried.  Now that she stood before the ghost, she felt the cold.  It rolled off him in waves and bit straight into Ingrid’s bones.  It was a cold beyond winter, beyond ice, beyond the waters of Lake Superior.  It froze her blood in her veins and threatened to reach through to her soul.  Ingrid staggered backwards, trying to push Grace more fully behind her.  Then, because she could think nothing else that might help, she began — “Our father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

At the sound of the prayer, the drowned man’s face twisted into a horrible scowl and a light came into the hollows of his eyes that filled Ingrid’s heart with fresh fear.

“No!”  shouted the ghost, and his voice was like the winds of a winter storm.  “There is no God where I am!  He left me there in the dark but I will not stay!  I will not stay!”

Ingrid snatched at Grace’s hand and turned to run, but her sister might have been a block of marble for all Ingrid could shift her.  The ghost now gripped Grace’s shawl in both fists.  “She promised,” he said grimly.

“I did.” Grace’s voice was as pale as her cheeks.  “I promised.  Under the water.”

“She’s mine.”  The ghost slid closer.

“No.”  Ingrid stepped back between them, trying to stiffen her spine against the all-consuming cold.  “Jesus, Joseph, and Mother Mary, help me.  You shall not have her.”

“She’s mine by her own promise.  We made a bargain.  No name can keep her from me.”

The ghost reached out and Ingrid pressed back against her unmoving, unmovable sister.  Her heart beat in wild terror at the idea that the apparition and all the cold he carried might reach straight through her and engulf Grace as if Ingrid were not even there.

A flash of movement caught Ingrid’s eye.  A fresh shadow dashed headlong down the beach.  Moonlight glinted on metal as the new shape leapt forward.  Ingrid opened her mouth to scream as the knife blade came down.  With all her strength she threw herself backwards, knocking Grace to the sand.  The ghost’s cold rushed over them, and for a time, Ingrid knew nothing more.

#

Ingrid woke to the scent and sound of a fire.  She lay on her side, her back against the bracken covered slope that led to the shore.  A smoky blaze smelling of pine and moldering driftwood burned on the sand and a man’s form sat beside it.  Stiff with cold and damp, Ingrid pushed herself upright immediately.  As she did, she saw Grace, also lying on her side, her fair head pillowed by her own arm.

Ignoring the man, Ingrid crawled to her sister, laying an anxious hand on Grace’s throat.  Fresh relief washed through her as she felt the warmth of Grace’s skin, the beat of her heart, and the slow draw of her breath.  Only then did Ingrid lift her eyes to meet the gaze of the man beside them.

The moon had set, so she had only the fire to see him by.  The resinous, red-gold light showed her a lined face with a hawk nose and deep set eyes.  She could not make out their color.  The hair swept back under his fisherman’s cap was a dark gold, and his hands, although tanned, showed themselves to be surprisingly long fingered and delicate as he reached for a fresh piece of driftwood.  He broke the branch easily in two before tossing it onto the small fire and raising a fresh shower of sparks.

Ingrid was suddenly extremely conscious that she was rumpled, and half-covered in sand.  In the next heartbeat, she cursed herself for such ridiculous vanity, especially at such a moment.

“Thank you for your help and company, Sir.”  Ingrid attempted to gather her composure and her manners.  “My sister has not been well, and…” she dropped her gaze to the fire, intending to find some sort of lie to explain how two young women came to be out on the shore after dark.  As she did, she saw the scraps of knitting among the ashes of the fire, and realized that they belonged to Grace’s shawl.

The man followed her gaze with his own.  He gave a tight smile that was at once amused and grim.  Before Ingrid could recover herself, he asked, “How long has this haunt plagued your sister?”

Ingrid opened her mouth and closed it again.  She had absolutely no desire to speak of this to a total stranger.  In truth, she had no desire to even remember it.  She felt her mind scrabbling for rational explanations.  She knew she could give in to them quite easily.  There had been tricks of shadow and moonlight.  Grace was simply more ill than anyone had realized.  She needed the doctor again.  She needed a rest.  That was all.

The only problem with any of those thoughts was that Ingrid knew they were all lies.

“About two months,” she made herself say.  “Why did you burn her shawl?”

“The ghost touched it,” said the man as if it were the simplest reason in the world.  “If it was not destroyed, it could be used as a talisman against her.”

Ingrid felt her throat tighten.  “Grace touched the… ghost.”  Say it.  Call it what it is.  It is ridiculous.  It is impossible.  It is also the truth.

The man nodded, all trace of the smile gone from his face.  “I thought she might have.”

Ingrid brushed Grace’s hair back from her cheek.  Grace did not stir at all, even as Ingrid stroked her shoulder and arm.  “Will she be all right now?”

“No,” said the man matter of factly.  “I am afraid after this she will be much worse.”

The answer sent a stab of anger through Ingrid, but she suppressed it.  “What must be done, then?”

The man turned his eyes from her, back toward the flames.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I wish very much that I did.”

“I see.”

They sat in silence for a moment.  The man appeared to be ready to stare calmly into the fire until Kingdom Come, but Ingrid felt no such composure.  Part of her was frightened and angry about this stranger and his pronouncements.  Part of her was already shivering from imaginings of what Papa and Leo would do if Grace were caught out.  Then there would be the scenes with Mama, and then if Grace got much sicker… Mama might not send for the doctor again, not after last time.

Yet another part of her was still reeling with disbelief at all that had happened, and desperately seeking a way to deny it, but, here she was, and in the slowly dying night, and here was Grace unconscious beside her.  She knew a hundred ghost stories, of course.  She had entertained all her siblings as they were growing up with stories of drowned men, sunken ships, strange lights, and seers who predicted disaster.  She’d heard the men speak of mystic dreams, and of the Indians with their hosts of goblins, the Windego, the Bear Walker and Nanabush.  These were part of her world, like Lake Superior surrounding her island home, but not this, this, thing that laid claim to her sister.

“Who are you?” she made herself ask the man.  She had to root herself in the here and now.  She could not let the coming daylight lull her into disbelief.

“My name is Avan.”

The name struck a chord with Ingrid.  She had heard it from her father and Leo.  He was a new man, come up for the fishing season.  He was good with the boats.  That brief statement from Papa was like a soliloquy of praise coming from another man.  Leo had thought he was a Finn, although he had been vague about his origins.  Papa had gone out with him two or three times now.

The realization should have been reassuring, but it was not.

“What brought you out so late?” asked Ingrid.

“Luck,” he said, poking at the ashes with a long stick, tucking the remains of Grace’s shawl deeper into the coals.  “I could not sleep for too much thinking.  I walked along the shore, and I saw you and your sister, and the ghost.”  He paused, watching the sparks and smoke rise from the damp wood.  “That was brave, what you did.  It should have worked, but I fear your sister has given this dead man too much.”

“But you were able to drive him, it, off.  I saw a knife.”

“You did.”  Avan reached inside his coat, and pulled out a short bladed knife that glinted dully in the firelight.  Ingrid stared, for she had never seen such a thing.  The dark blade was not all of a piece.  Instead, it was three separate strips of metal, braided together and twisted into a wicked looking point.

“The blade is cold iron,” he said.  “Such is supposed to have power over spirits and haunts.  I was glad…”  he broke off the sentence, and began it again.  “I was glad to find out such sayings were true.”

“And is the haunt gone then?”

“Only for tonight.  The iron tore your sister’s shawl, which was holding him here despite your calling her and the holy names you invoked.  But he himself is not injured, nor could he be by such means.”  Avan looked at the blade with an expression of regret, and then tucked it back into his jacket.

“And how did you come to know so much?”

“I was well taught as a boy.”

Which was no answer, and Ingrid saw in his face that he was clearly aware of the fact.

Before she could ask another question, Grace stirred under her hand.  She gasped once, sharply, as if in pain, and her eyelids flew open.

“Where…” Grace pushed herself upright.  Ingrid expected her next words to be “am I?”  Instead, Grace stared wildly toward the lake.  “Where is he?”

Ingrid knelt down in front of her sister, putting her body between Grace and the water as she had put herself between Grace and the ghost.  “Who is he?”  She demanded, grasping her sister’s shoulders.  “What has he done to you?”

Grace’s eyes searched Ingrid’s face without recognition for a long, painful moment.  “He is cold,” she said.  She spoke slowly, dragging each word from somewhere deep inside her.  “He saved me.  I would have drowned, but he freed me from the water.  I promised I would not leave him alone under there.”

“Ask her if he told her his name.”

Ingrid started, almost letting go of Grace.  For a moment she had forgotten Avan.  She frowned at him.

He had laid his stick across his knees.  “She will not be able to hear me.  She is too far gone to hear any but those of her own blood.”

Ingrid nodded once, as if she understood what was happening.  She tried to catch Grace’s gaze again, but Grace was stared over her shoulder, searching for the ghost.  Ingrid grasped her sister’s chin as if she were still a child, and pulled it back down so that Grace would be forced to look at her.

“Grace, what is his name?”

Again, that heart-breaking pause while Grace came at least a small ways back to herself.  “I don’t know.  I just know I promised.  He’s alone.  It’s so cold.”

Grace began to tremble, and Ingrid’s determination to find immediate answers melted away.  She wrapped her arms around Grace’s shoulder.  “This is no good.  I have to get her home.  Our family will be…frantic.”

“Yes.”  Avan stood, still keeping hold of the stick.  “Can you manage her?”

“Since she was in diapers,” replied Ingrid.  She stood, keeping a firm grip on Grace’s shoulders.  Grace struggled briefly, which Ingrid found she expected from the way Grace’s gaze would not leave the shore.  But, Grace seemed to lack the will to fight for long, and sagged against Ingrid’s chest.  “Although I wish this were as simple,” Ingrid breathed.

Ingrid found herself grateful that Avan pretended he did not hear that.

Avan let Ingrid lead the way, holding tight to Grace and pulling her forward one staggering step at a time.  The further they moved from shore, the weaker Grace seemed to become until Ingrid found herself supporting her sister’s entire weight.  She looked toward Avan, intending to ask for help, but then she saw the way he walked, stiff and alert, his arms are ready at his side, clutching the stick the way he had clutched the knife.  He walked like a soldier, she thought, as if he was expecting in ambush.  Perhaps he was.  The thought of that sent a fresh thrill of fear through her, and Ingrid kept her mouth closed.

She had no choice but to stick to the road, although dawn was turning the sky silvery gray and soon the men and boys would come trooping down the rutted track to the bay and the boats.  They already thought Grace struck down by madness.  They would stare, and they would talk.

Well, the devil take them if they do.  Ingrid found she felt far more worried about what she would tell their family.  It was already too late to disguise the disappearance.  If she told what had really happened, Mama would insist on a priest.  Under the circumstances, there could be worse ideas.  Papa, though… What would Papa think?  He had been raised a strict Lutheran, and it came out of him at odd times.  There would be words with Leo, no matter what happened.  And what on earth would they tell the little ones?

“You must persuade your family not to try to send her away,” said Avan, as if reading Ingrid’s thoughts.

“Why not?  She’s not safe…”

“I fear no boat with her aboard would make it across the lake.”

Ingrid felt her cheeks go pale.  The words “is that possible?”  hovered on the tip of her tongue.  Of course it was possible.  If all the other things that had happened tonight were possible, so was this.

“But you don’t know,” she said, cradling Grace’s lolling head closer against her shoulder.

“I know she’s being called.  I know that in a moment of fearing for her life she bound herself to a dead man.  I know that he will not let go that bond easily, and that he is restless under the water.”

“Then what are we to do?  We cannot surrender her to this… thing.”

“No.”  Avan hung his head and was silent for a long moment.  Ingrid could not see his face well in the morning shadows, but she felt he was reaching some decision.  “Give me a day.  I will find an answer.”

Ingrid looked down at her fainting sister.  It wrenched at her heart to see Grace so worn down, and in such a way.  Mama had spoken softly of her fear that Grace’s boisterous nature might lead her astray, but this…

At the same time she distrusted the stranger.  There should be a priest, there should be a doctor… but then again it was Avan who had banished the ghost.

“Ingrid?  Ingrid!”

Papa’s harsh voice called from the morning shadows, followed quickly by the sound of heavy boots pounding the dirt road.

“I will do what I can,” she breathed quickly.

Papa, Leo, pale Mama, and what seemed like all the men of Eastbay poured up the road.

“Och, Gott!” Papa cried, seeing Grace collapsed against Ingrid’s shoulder.  He swept his second daughter up in his strong arms as if she weighed nothing at all.  Mama laid her hands on Grace’s brow.

“No fever, but her breath’s so shallow…”

“What happened, Ingrid?” demanded Leo.  “What did you see?”

Ingrid glanced at Avan, and she shouldn’t have.  Leo saw, and Leo, of course, jumped to the wrong conclusion.  “What’ve you to do with this?” he demanded, stalking up to Avan.

Avan looked down at Leo, and for one of the few times in her life, Ingrid saw her brother looking spindly.  “Your elder sister found your younger on the shore near the bay.  She enlisted my help to bring her safe home.”

“If we find Grace’s been meddled with…”

“Leo!” thundered Papa.  “Enough.  Excuse him, Avan.”

Leo did not appear to wish to be excused, but he did keep his mouth shut.

“There’s nothing to excuse.”  Avan held his hand out, and waited.  Leo, glowering still, shook it, and the tension in the air eased a little.

“What are you fools standing about in the damp for?” demanded Mama with unusual brusqueness.  “Is she not sick enough for you?  Get inside, get inside, and you as well, Miss Ingrid.”  Mama also had a hard glare for Avan, but it was plain to Ingrid it was not Grace she thought he might wish to meddle with.

Under the eyes of their neighbors, the Loftfields turned for home.  Offers of assistance came, and were rebuffed by Mama and Papa.

“Thank you for your help, Mr. Avan,” said Ingrid, careful not to look back at him as she followed her parents and brothers.  She realized absurdly that she did not know for certain if Avan was his Christian name, or his family name.  One more small mystery of this long, strange night.

As they neared the yard, Grace moaned and stirred in her father’s arms.  When they were all inside the front room, Papa set her on her feet and Grace stood, swaying in place.

“Take her upstairs, Mother,” said Papa softly.

“I’ll do it.”  Ingrid moved forward.

“No, you will not.”  Papa’s cold words stopped her in her tracks.

Mama, her eyes already brimming with tears, took Grace’s elbow.  Grace offered no resistance as she was led away, but Ingrid thought she saw her sister’s eyes flicker back, looking for her, pleading for help.

Ingrid swallowed and faced her father and brother.  They were both square men, fair-skinned and auburn-haired, as she was.  Hard men, shaped by labor and by the expectation of hard work and hard weather for the rest of their lives.  The stubble on Papa’s chin had gone gray, and his hands were thick with years of calluses.

Ingrid stiffened her spine, ready for whatever might come.  It was then she saw the eyes of her two littlest sisters and their young brother peeping through the door to the back kitchen.

“Well there’s a fine thing,” she said.  “All of you listening at doors when there’s work to be done.  The kindling is not gathering itself, nor are the hens going to give up their eggs without asking.”

“Out into the yard, all of you,” added Poppa without taking his eyes off Ingrid.

The door swung shut as the children retreated.

“Now then, Miss,” began Papa.  “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I thought to see where Grace was trying to go,” replied Ingrid steadily, folding her hands in front herself like a child saying a lesson.

“You thought!”  snorted Leo.  “You thought to humiliate us in front of all our neighbors.  There won’t be a man on the boats not asking me when you and Grace can come out again.”

“Such a trial for you,” snapped Ingrid.  “I am so sorry that your sister’s illness has brought you to such grief.”

Leo took a step forward.  “If she were ill, I would grieve.  But she is either shamming, or she is mad, and you had to make sure the whole of Eastbay knew it.”

Ingrid did not even blink.  “The whole of Eastbay does know it!  What do we think we’re hiding in here?  They’d help us if we let them, but no, we have to stay shut up in our house and deny our neighbors concern.”

“That’s enough,” Papa’s dragged the words out through gritted teeth.  “You will tell me which of you the man Avan has to answer for.”

Ingrid said nothing.  She had known the question would come, but now that it hung in the air, anger sealed her mouth.

Is that all you think of us?  Of her?  Is that what you think of any woman who smiles?

“Answer your father.”  Mama stood at the foot of the stairs.  She wore her black hair pulled into a severe bun, and at the moment her bright blue eyes were dim with disappointment and resignation.  She had been an Irish beauty once, Ingrid was sure of it.  What had happened?  In her heart, she believed she knew, but she had never been able to speak the words aloud.

“Answer him!”  Mama clenched her fists.  “Or has the devil taken your tongue as well?”

Ingrid forced her chin up.  She had only two choices now, she could either lie, or she could tell the ludicrous truth.

“It was a ghost,” Ingrid said.  “Grace is haunted.”

Leo threw up his hands.  “God in heaven!”  He cried to the ceiling.  “Are all the women in this family mad?”

“You asked what happened, and I’ve told you,” answered Ingrid, calmly and firmly.  “You can call me mad, or possessed, or any other name your stubborn mind can conjure up, Leonard Loftfield.  It changes nothing, so you may as well save your breath.”

Hot, hard anger showed plain on Mama’s face.  She was going to start yelling in Irish and Papa would bellow back in German and Ingrid would have to shout at them both, or retreat with the little ones out back, when what she wanted was to go up to check on Grace.

But Mama did not yell.  She just collapsed on the reed-bottomed rocker beside the fire, and hid her face in her apron.  “Mother Mary, help your daughter,” she whispered.  “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help your child.”

“That’s enough of that, Bridget Loftfield.” Papa walked up to Ingrid, and all at once, Ingrid was a little girl again and she had to work hard not to shrink in on herself.  “I’ve thought many things about my children, but I never thought you would be the liar.”

“You also can call me what you want.  I’ve told you the truth.”

They stared at each other, neither one blinking, and Ingrid refusing to flinch.  Behind them, she was aware of Mama in the rocker, her hands covering her face.  Mama believed, and that was something.  Surely that was something.

At last, Papa turned away.  “Get into the kitchen.  There’s work to be done.  Leo, it’s time we were gone.”

Ingrid turned and marched into the back kitchen.  Once there, she gripped the edge of the table so hard she felt that it must break off in her fingers.  She listened to the tramp of the men’s boots as they marched out the front door.  There was no other sound from inside the house, except the faint squeak of the rocker where Mama sat and wept her useless tears.

For a long moment, Ingrid let her anger burn.  Then, at last, she willed it out of her, willed it through her hands down into the wood of the table, anything to get away from her.  It did her no good.  It was as useless as Mama’s tears.  She had to think.  She had to decide what to do.

A knock on the lintel made her jump.  Her hand pressed against her chest, she looked up to see Everett Lederle standing at the threshold.

“Hello, Everett.”

“Hello, Ingrid,” he said, pulling off the battered, blue cap he’d worn since he’d come back from the war.  “I heard Grace had a rough night.  I wanted to see if there was anything I could do.”

Hard labor and time had worked their way with Everett, like they had the men of her family, but with him it was different.  Him, they had polished, like a stone on the shore, making him strong, patient, willing to let all the world flow around him and ever able to wait.  He was certainly willing to wait for her.  Everett loved her.  She saw it in every look and heard it in every word.  The shame of it was, she found herself unable to return that love.

“No, I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done at present,” she told him.  “But I thank you for stopping in.”

“I’m glad to, Ingrid, you know that.”

And she looked at him, earnest, steady, strong and thoughtful, and for her lack of love of him she felt suddenly, deeply sorry.  “I do know, Everett, and as I said, I thank you for it.”

He waited a long moment for her to say something else, but she had no more words for him, at least, she had none he truly wanted to hear.  But perhaps, after all, there was something he could do.

“Everett, there may be something.”  I should not do this.  I should not use him so. It will give him false hope.  Ingrid could not love.  To love would mean to leave Grace to be worn down by the burden of caring for their hard family.  She’d thought of it, of course, she’d thought of it a hundred times.  Everett would at least take her to another house, but to promise him love when she felt none, that would be so much worse than what she did now.  “I need you to speak with the fisherman Avan tomorrow.  I need to know if he has any message or news for me.  He knows what ails Grace, and I would know if there was… news.”

She saw the curiosity in Everett’s face, and she saw disappointment.  He did not want to be running errands to another man for her.  But he said nothing of that.  “If that will help, that’s what I’ll do.”

For a moment, Ingrid thought to squeeze his hand in gratitude.  But no, she knew how he would take that, and he would take wrongly.  “It will.  Thank you, Everett.”

Everett nodded, put his cap back on his dark head and stepped away across the yard.  He was too late to catch the boats going out.  He had lost himself today’s work to come here to her.

Why do I not love him?  Ingrid closed her eyes, and there in her private darkness, she saw Avan in the firelight, and she saw his long, graceful hands.  Swiftly, she opened her eyes again, and went upstairs to Grace.

Grace lay still as a corpse under the faded quilts, her unbound hair spread out on the pillow showing the snarls the night wind had teased into it.  Her eyes were opened, but Ingrid had no idea what she saw.

Ingrid sat on the edge of the bed and picked up the comb that lay on the chest.  Slowly, gently, she began to run it through her sister’s hair, singing softly.

“Hushaby, don’t you cry.

“Go to sleep, STET little baby.

“When you wake, you shall have,

“All the pretty little horses.”

“Ingrid?”  Grace’s voice was little more than a whisper.

“Yes, Grace.  I’m here.”

“I didn’t mean to… I was under the water.  It was so heavy, I was so tired.  I was afraid I would drown.  My lungs were freezing.  He held me.  He told me he would keep me safe.  I cried to go home.  He said I could, but that I must promise to come back.  He was so lonely.  I promised.”  She caused, and her chest heaved in a silent sob.  “I don’t want to go, Ingrid.”

“You will not go.”  Ingrid gently teased out one more snarl.   “I promise.”

“He calls me.  He calls me by my promise and he is never quiet.  I didn’t know before, but I do now, and he calls…”

Ingrid gripped her sister’s shoulder.  “Do not listen to him, Grace.  He had no right to bind you so.  You must not listen.”

“So cold.”

Ingrid bit her lip to hear how much her sister sounded like the ghost. She wrapped her arms around Grace and held her close, rocking gently back and forth.  “He will not have you, sister.  I swear by God in Heaven he will not have you.”

###

Avanasy watched Ingrid Loftfield fall into step with her family, her back straight, and her hands gathering up her hems to keep them out of the way of her long, swinging stride.  Her auburn hair had come loose during her night’s adventures, and fell in dark curls down the back of her neck.

“Well, well, the one that got away, eh?”  A hand slapped him hard on the shoulder.  He turned his eyes from Ingrid to see Roman Thorfeld, a bony, blue-eyed man grinning at him, showing all his tobacco-stained teeth.  Avanasy cursed himself for staring too long.

“I was just thinkin’ about her poor sister,” he said mildly, falling into the low speech the fishermen favored.  “Gone right out of her head, I figger.”

Ja, ja,” Thorfeld, like a number of the men grown up on the shores of Lake Superior seemed to speak a blend of three or four different languages.  He was not a vicious man, just of a coarse upbringing, and now he shook his head heavily.  “‘S a shame too.  They’re good people, the Loftfields.  ‘S a sorry shame.”

“And we’re doin’ nuthin’ ‘tall for ’em by standin’ here,” announced Elias Ilkka, a squat, dark Finnishman, tough as tarred rope and the nominal leader of the itinerant fisherman who clung to the shore of Sand Island.  “Let’s get to it, boys.”

The men voiced their agreement in their various tongues, and trooped to the docks in a mass.  Avanasy stayed with them.  It was not what he wanted, but he feared that if he begged off, it would direct more talk at the Loftfields and plenty of that already swirled around him.  Every incident, every encounter or interaction, especially involving the unfortunate Grace, was remembered, kicked over, examined and improved upon.  It went on all through the day, even out on the grey waters with the sharp wind pouring over them and all the work of rope, sail, net and the great loads of silver-blue fish to attend to.  Omens for the misbegotten voyage were remembered, and Grace’s wild ways.  Her mother was a Catholic, it was said repeatedly, with many a sagacious nod, and her sister at twenty-three showed no signs of marrying, even with Everett Lederle hanging about her door like a hungry dog.

With all this talk, all of it relishing, all of it wrong, Avanasy found it hard to lose himself in the work, as he usually did.  By the time they came in at late afternoon, it was all he could do to make himself help with sluicing the decks and hanging the nets up to dry.  As soon as he was able he retreated to the shack on the shore where he lived amidst a cluster of other fishers, each in their own summer dwelling.  Come winter they would all head across to the mainland and turn to timbering for the season.

Come winter, what will you do?  Avanasy dropped into his rough chair and stared at the banked coals in his tin stove.

After a time, he got up, poked the fire to life, put the remainder of the morning coffee on to heat, and lit his pipe with a splinter.  He’d acquired the habit of both the brew and the bowl shortly after coming here, observing them to be the norm for the men around him, and he had to admit he found them both pleasant enough, if harsh.  Like the back-breaking work on the boats, there was a rough enjoyment to be had in them, along with the singing, the gossip, the drink and the wild beauty of the islands.  He’d thought himself content.  Not comfortable, to be sure, and there were days when the easy familiarity of his fellow fishers could still slap up hard against his pride.  But content.  Content enough.

Until last night.

He’d lied when he told Ingrid he’d been awake for too much thinking.  He’d woken because he’d felt a change in the air.  Something unchancy, Roman Thorfeld would have called it, and that was as good a word as any.  He’d felt such things before in this world on the far shore of the Land of Death and Spirit, but those sensations had been fleeting, momentary brushes with whatever spirit powers this world held.  He’d felt nothing so strong and so steady since he’d left Isavalta.  All his blood sang in his veins at the touch of power, real power, and he’d gone to meet it like a lover.

There he’d found Ingrid Loftfield facing down a dead man, and about to die herself for it.

He hadn’t even thought.  He’d drawn his knife, and charged.  Thankfully, the ghost had with him something of the living world it was using as an anchor, or else Avanasy would have done little more with his blade than annoyed it.

Not that the burning of that shawl has driven it off for more than one night.  Avanasy sucked on the stem of his pipe, noticing only absently that its fire had gone out.

He had not worked any magic since three days after he landed here.  He’d woven himself a simple spell of understanding that he might speak with the people who now surrounded him.  At least, it should have been simple, requiring that he take pains and be precise in his workings, yes, but otherwise it should have been of no great moment.  But the effort of it had laid him low for almost a whole day.  Among the many strangenesses of this world was this truth — that the magic was buried deep in the fabric of soul and soil and it would be coaxed out only with great reluctance.  So, Avanasy had abandoned the work of magic for the work of fishing.  It had seemed no great sacrifice.  He had believed that exile and Medeoan’s turning away had left him with little desire to continue as a sorcerer.

But then had come that touch of the other world last night, the brush of power, and he’d woken hungry for it.  No, ravenous.  It could have been anything, any monster, any trickster, anything at all, and if Ingrid and Grace had not been there to bring his other instincts into play, he might have done anything at all to keep it by him, to feel that touch of power that his blood so missed.

“I spent my life telling Medeoan she could not change what she was,” he murmured to the fire.  “It seems I did not listen to my own good teachings.”

And I have given my word to help, he chewed on the stem of the pipe.  He did not move to relight it.  What did his word mean here?  The word of an fisherman?  The word of Avan?  Nothing.  He was no one in this place, with neither reputation nor honor to guard, and better off so.  Power, and the revelation of power could endanger him, forcing him further away into this world.

And the next time a power finds you?  How much worse will it be next time?

Avanasy sighed.  He removed his pipe from his mouth, knocked it out against the edge of the tin can he kept for the purpose, and stood.  In the corner of his shack waited a heavy wooden chest which he kept locked with an iron lock, and which he now opened with an iron key he wore on a thong around his neck.

Inside lay his old clothes and boots, wrapped in oiled brown paper he’d purchased after his arrival, along with some gold stored up against emergency, and three silken scarves, woven with his own hands, each of them tied with a different knot.[1]

Avanasy chose the blue scarf, and tucked it into the pocket of his coat.  After locking the chest again, he turned to consider the contents of his cabin.  He really should have wine for this, but there was none.  He set some fresh coffee on to brew, wrapped up a packet of tobacco and his spare pipe, and set out some bread and smoked fish on the least battered of his tin plates.  Rough fare, but the best hospitality he had, and that was what would count.

As the coffee finished, he went outside and laid a fire on the sand, lighting it with kindling of pine needles and splintered driftwood.  The night was silent, except for the noises of wind and water.  The other huts were dark, the men within them snoring loudly in their sleep.  Avanasy laid his offerings out on the far side of the blaze and drew the scarf from his pocket.  He spat on the knot and breathed across it, and tossed the scarf into the fire.

For a moment the fire burned bright blue, and a shower of sapphire sparks rose from the flames, then it shone red, and then white, but gradually, the pure white light faded, and the fire glowed golden again, as if it were nothing more than a blaze of driftwood.  Avan sat down on a stone, and waited.

The moon had worked its way another inch up the dome of the sky when the rabbit came hopping down the beach.  It’s round black eyes reflected the firelight as it advanced, hopping tentatively forward a few inches at a time, pausing to sniff the air.  At last, it sat up on its haunches, combing its ears and twitching its whiskers.

Avanasy stood, and reveranced in his best courtly manner to the creature.

“I would be honored, Sir, on this chill night, if you would join me at my fire, and share my poor fare.”

The rabbit cocked its head to one side, considering.  Then it hopped up to the plate bearing the smoked fish and bread.  It used its teeth to drag one scrap of bread off the plate, and began to eat.  It ate all that bread, and the next piece, and the next, and then all the fish.

Then, it ate the plate.

Avanasy held himself very still.  The rabbit advanced on the tobacco snuffling it eagerly, drew a leaf out and ate that, and the paper it was wrapped in, and the pipe.  Still, Avanasy did not blink, although he could not hold back some regret that he was about to lose his coffee pot.  The rabbit stuffed its face into the coffee mug and drank it dry, swallowing the cup whole when it was finished.  It knocked over the pot with one blow of its paw and crawled half-way inside, guzzling up the hot brew.

Then, to Avanasy’s mild surprise, it withdrew its head, and sat up again on its haunches.  And it was no longer a rabbit.  Instead, it was a fat little man with copper skin and black hair bound in thongs hanging down his past shoulders. His ears were as long as his hair, and the lobes dangled down to his chest.  His face was merry, and he smelled of sweat, tobacco, and coffee.

He belched loudly, the force of it shaking his long earlobes and making his round belly bounce.  “You’re a long way from home, I think, Magician,” he said.

Avanasy bowed his head in acknowledgment.  “I am, Sir.”

“And why have you come so far to set out such a feast for Nanabush, eh?” He leaned forward.  “Must want something, eh?”

Again, Avanasy bowed.  “I have heard it said it is ever the way with us.”

“Ha!  Too true.  Now, let me see if I can guess what ails you.”  Nanabush tugged at one pendulous earlobe.  “There’s a ghost, and there’s a girl, and she’s a fool and he’s a bigger one, and you’re the biggest fool of three.”

Avanasy said nothing.

Nanabush spat in the fire.  “Knots and bindings, nets and weavings, that’s your business, and you want Nanabush to tell how to get yourself untangled.”

“Is there a way within my power to remove the haunting from the Loftfield family?”

“Nets and knots with you,” said Nanabush, picking up the coffee pot and squinting inside with one round eye to inspect the bottom for more liquid.  “Always nets and knots.  Poor, tangled, magician.

Avanasy reminded himself of the absolute need for patience.  “I believe I have had dealings with a relation of yours.  She is Queen of the lokai, the fox spirits, in my homeland.”

“The Vixen.  Yes.”  Nanabush held the spout of the coffee pot over his wide open mouth and let the last drop of liquid fall in.  “She speaks of you.”  He smacked his lips loudly and belched again.

“Of your courtesy, tender her my best respect.”

Nanabush stuffed his fist into the coffee pot, running one fat finger down along the bottom.  “She says if you stay here you will live longer.”

“I thank you for that news.”

“Poor tangled magician.”  Nanabush sucked on his finger thoughtfully.  “You fish.  I’ve seen you.”

Avanasy bowed.  “It allows me to earn my keep.”

“And it is not that different from shore to shore?”

“No, but one must know the waters.”

Nanabush raised his finger to make his point.  “And the fish themselves.”

He was getting close to an answer.  Avanasy could feel it, but he must not appear too eager.  “I have heard, Sir, that you know the waters and the fish better than any.”

“Ha!  It’s true, it’s true.”  Nanabush tapped his finger on the edge of the coffee pot.  “These waters are deep, and they’re dark.  Many a soul is lost down there looking for the fish.”

“So I have heard,” said Avanasy gravely.

“But it’s not just the soul that one must find.”  Nanabush shook his head, his earlobes flapping and flopping against his chest.  “No.  It’s the bones.  The bones of the fish that must be found and warmed.  Bones bind as tight as any net.”

“There is great wisdom in what you say.”

“Ha!  You will profit from listening to Nanabush.”  He shook his ears, tossing his lobes over his shoulders.  “But others listen too.  And others know things.  The fish know that the dark of the moon is the time for fishermen, and they know that is the time for catching little fish, as well as big fish.”

“Things do not so much differ from shore to shore.”

“Not as much as some might think.”  Nanabush contemplated the coffee pot one more time, then dropped it onto the sand and kicked it across to Avanasy.  “Nets and knots.  Stay clear of the bindings and you’ll live longer.”  His eyes twinkled.  “Unless, of course, it is the bindings and their undoing that save your life.”

Then there was only the rabbit, hieing itself fast across the sand and disappearing into the brush.  Then, there was only Avanasy and his fire, and his empty coffee pot.

Avanasy picked up the pot.  Well now he knew.  Perhaps he knew too much.  That was the risk of calling upon the spirits.  He knew he could save Grace Loftfield.  He had to raise the bones of the ghost at the dark of the moon, the very night the ghost would call Grace to him for the final, fatal time.

But, he also knew that should he ever return to Isavalta he would die.  Unless, of course, he should live.

Nets and knots.  Poor tangled magician.

Share

Return to The Usurper’s Crown

Purchase