This week's post is by L. E. Erickson, author of Crowmakers.
1: The River Rising
Kellen Ward huddled beneath the leaf-heavy branches of an oak. The other three members of the Crowmaker scouting party crouched close enough that she nearly brushed knees with them.
"If they catch on we're out here, they'll try to lure us out. Nobody's gonna be stupid enough to fall for any shit."
William Jennett, whip thin and blond-headed, paused and planted his forearms on his thighs and leaned forward. He fixed icy blue eyes on Johnny Rawle.
Kellen hid a smile. This was serious business. Nothing was supposed to be funny right now.
"Nobody." Jennett's voice rasped like frayed rope against chafed skin.
Rawle scowled in response to Jennett's emphasis, creases rippling across his round face. Kellen didn't figure Rawle to be much younger than she was, but when you counted in the expressive face beneath the mop of brown hair and his overabundance of naivete, he was mostly an overgrown boy.
The fourth Crowmaker of their party only grunted at Jennett's admonition. Viktor Kalvis was a fair sight older than the rest of them, with lines of hard living etched across his typically-dour face and thinning blond hair. Add in Kellen's slighter build and chopped-short hair bristling around her softer face, and there wasn't much alike about them.
Except one thing. Despite their differences, all four of them wore the same uniform, white linen shirts and coarse gray linen pants with muslin hunting frocks a shade darker. Their gray uniforms and black hats merged into one over-sized shadow within the shadows.
They wore the uniforms easily by now. Kellen had grown so accustomed to the slanted black lines etched in v-shaped slashes across the Crowmakers' faces that she often struggled to remember what any of them had looked like before, without the tattoos. The only time she thought much of it anymore was when catching sight of her own reflection reminded her that those same tattoos criss-crossed her face, too.
Jennett kept his voice down, although Kellen wasn't sure their voices would carry anyhow. The Kentucky forest south of the Ohio River was more dense than anything Kellen could have imagined before the Crowmakers had left Philadelphia. Branches laced together like fat fingers overhead, blocking most of the meager light--but somehow none of the rain. Undergrowth snatched at her uniform jacket and tripped her feet. Sometimes the air smelled warm, like earth. Others it reeked of rotting vegetation.
And they couldn't use the paths, of course. Those belonged to the renegade Cherokee responsible for the attacks that had brought the Crowmakers here.
The Cherokee were also why the Crowmakers kept their voices low. Nervousness wrapped its fingers around Kellen's throat.
Don't need to be scared. Not anymore.
Over their heads, just above the treetops, four Crows circled tirelessly. Made of metal that was blacker than black and carried by massive wings, they were held in place by mental tethers. Kellen's felt like an irregular tug in the back of her brain. The sensation wasn't entirely comfortable, but she'd gotten used to it. If nothing else, it reminded her that she was strong now. No more need to run and hide from trouble if it came her way.
The part where they went looking for trouble, though--that she was still adjusting to.
"Perhaps we send a single Crow only, to check their position. This might lessen the chances of being noticed."
Kalvis's Lithuanian accent stilted his words and turned them formal. No smile tilted his mouth or crinkled the corners of his eyes. The deep lines carved in those places had to have come from too much frowning. He looked even rougher with two days of dark blonde stubble marring his usually clean-shaven jaw.
"I'm getting to it, old man." But the hard edge had gone from Jennett's voice, replaced by a mildness Kellen read as respect. Maybe even affection.
Kalvis's only reply was a grunt. No wasting words, not him. And although he included both Jennett and Rawle in his acknowledging nod, he didn't so much as glance toward Kellen. Nothing new there. She thought where Kalvis was concerned, she might be invisible.
Gnats swarmed Kellen's face, drawn by the sweat beading her brow. She squinted to keep them from her eyes and resisted the urge to fan her face. You couldn't hit the little bastards, and they'd only come back as soon as you stopped swatting them away. She hated to wish for rain, because it had been ever-present all this long summer, dripping from leaves and hat brims and down collars, inspiring the plants to overgrown, over-green heights. Between the rain and the humidity it left behind, Kellen couldn't remember the last time she'd been really, truly dry. But at least the rain discouraged the bugs.
Kellen snapped her head up and peered through the cloud of gnats at Jennett. "Yeah?"
Probably she should have called Jennett "sir" or something like it. He was in charge of their little squad, after all. But if her failing bothered Jennett, he didn't show it.
"We're gonna go high and have a look at the banks of that creek just to the west. You know what to look for?"
Hot-tempered and crass as he could be, Jennett looked Kellen in the eye and talked to her like she was just another person. Just another soldier. The whole reason for keeping her hair chopped short was to encourage the men to forget she wasn't just another one of them. With Jennett, she thought maybe it wouldn't have mattered, that even with long hair and something more girlish than a Crowmaker's uniform, he might still look her in the eye.
Which was funny, because the man could sure be a complete ass when he wanted to.
"Anyplace that looks like a crossing." Picking out where a trail came out of the woods on one side and went back in on the other wasn't anywhere near as easy as all that, of course. But it was an answer to Jennett's question.
Jennett nodded. "With a little luck, there'll be a big enough encampment that we can't miss spotting the Reds."
"Wouldn't it be better luck if there wasn't so many of them?" Rawle's voice wavered. Kellen thought about reaching over and punching his arm, but that would qualify as the something stupid Jennett had been talking about.
"You are an awful big boy to be such a little chicken-shit, Rawle." Jennett's gaze shifted to Kalvis. "Me and Ward are reaching out--two of us, so we can watch each other's backs up there. Kalvis and Rawle, you're watching our backs down here. Last thing we need is any scouts sneaking up on our asses while we're in the Crows."
Kalvis's nod was solemn, and his face showed nothing of whether he agreed or disagreed with Jennett's plan. Rawle nodded too, and maybe he was trying to look stoic, but his eyes were so big that the whites showed. His right hand drifted to the Ellis .36 on his hip, and he brushed his fingers across the holster like a preacher might touch the crucifix on his chest for reassurance.
Jennett fixed Rawle with a hard look. "Just make sure if you shoot somebody, it's a Red and not one of us."
Kellen might have been tempted to smile again, but her own nerves were jangling now.
Jennett turned his icy eyes on Kellen. "Circle wide until you're high enough they can't tell we ain't real birds. If you have to come down for a closer look, circle wide again until you're buzzing the treetops. We ain't showing 'em what we got if we don't have to."
The Crow was waiting. Kellen couldn't see it with her own eyes, through the thatch of interleaved branches overhead, couldn't see the midnight-black surface that reflected no light or the eyes drilled into the sides of its triangular head that glowed faintly silver.
But it was up there. The tug in Kellen's mind never let her forget that it was. And it may have been only a hunk of metal--a well-crafted one, but just a hunk of metal. But it exuded a sense of vitality that crawled along Kellen's skin like a hot wind. Sometimes she forgot it wasn't a living, separate creature from her.
Kellen probed at that ever-present tug in her mind until she found a buzzing awareness just beneath. She took a bracing breath and reached for that awareness, the link between herself and the Crow. It was like being drenched in freezing water and welcomed home, all at the same time, unsettling and yet somehow right.
When the link had steadied, she shifted her thoughts around just so and let the balance of her consciousness change. Her vision blurred, but she relaxed into it instead of fighting it. After a few seconds, the blurring cleared.
Kellen saw through the Crow's eyes. She looped to the east and to the south, wide spirals as the Crow climbed gradually higher. From the air, forested hills turned a hundred shades of green, from palest foam to emerald to near-black, a quilt of gem-like patches flowing into a seamless sea. The only sense Kellen could truly use with the Crow was sight, but its vision was so clear that she swore she could feel the wind whipping past, hear its roar, smell its bright breath.
Kellen didn't actually fly--her feet were still planted firmly on the ground far below--but that didn't stop her stomach from lurching and dropping. If this wasn't flying, then it was as close as she could get. She knew Kalvis and Rawle's Crows were still below, markers above the trees where her physical body remained. She caught sight of Jennett's Crow now and then, hard black wings against a flat blue sky, rising on a similar circular path as her own.
They weren't going anywhere, and neither were the Cherokee they were looking for, if they were really there. For a few seconds, Kellen let herself forget about Jennett and Kalvis and Rawle and Indians, and just soared.
"Should be high enough." Jennett's voice was low but perfectly clear. He was, after all, standing only inches away from her, far down in the forest below. Unlike the Crow, she had ears and they worked just fine. "Let's start easing west."
The thrill in Kellen's throat didn't have to do entirely with the sensation of flight. Just nerves, that's all. She didn't say a thing out loud. Rawle might be all right with Jennett calling him a chicken-shit, but Kellen couldn't afford to have accusations like that stuck to her.
They didn't fly directly to the west. Even though from the ground the Crows would be little more than specks, any unnatural movement might draw attention. Kellen kept up the lazy, swooping circles she'd used to gain the sky but let the Crow wander further west while tightening the eastern edge of its movements.
The Ohio River appeared a few miles to the north, glittering like broken glass in the rare sunlight. To the northwest, the sky had grown an all-too-familiar shade of dark and gray. The first lazy rumblings of thunder would start soon.
At least the rain will chase off the gnats, she reminded herself.
Far below, a more slender branch of water ran like a silver thread between the green and green and more green squares of a quilt.
"I see the creek," Kellen said into the darkness surrounding her physical body. As she spoke, she held everything else carefully the same inside her head. No jiggles of the link between her and the Crow.
"Follow it south," came Jennett's reply from the same darkness. "I'll trace it north to the Ohio."
Kellen tipped her Crow's wings and banked to the south.
The creek wound through the forest far beneath the Crow's wings, in some places thinning so that the trees on opposite banks reached across and hid it from view, only to widen again further along. It winked as it vanished and reappeared and vanished again, like it was mocking Kellen's chances of getting it to give up any secrets.
She tipped the Crow's wings and kept looping further south, anyhow. Her nose reminded her that she stood somewhere in the forest to the east--none of them had bathed in a while, but Kellen could hardly complain about the men stinking when she didn't smell any sweeter. And with the day heating up now, the sweet earthy forest smell was giving way to the stink of molding leaves.
Still, every once in a while, Kellen swore she caught a hint of the brisk, sun-scented air the Crow flew through.
"Anything?" Beyond Jennett's voice, Kellen caught the sound of the other two men breathing: the brisk whistling that meant Rawle was all worked up and breathing through his mouth like an over-excited kid, and the steady, near-silent sound of Kalvis giving every bit of his attention to the task assigned to him.
Down below Kellen's Crow, the creek wound and winked and the forest spread out, unbroken. In the skies around the Crow, real birds wheeled and swooped.
"Nothing," Kellen replied.
"Not a bad thing," Rawle murmured.
The creek vanished into the trees. When it came out again, Kellen caught hints of loamy brown at its edges, maybe where the banks sloped on either side.
Then movement further west caught Kellen's attention. She squinted before she realized it wouldn't do her a bit of good. Crows didn't squint.
"Smoke," was what she said out loud. "This might be the crossing. And I think I see smoke."
"Keep circling. I'm coming your way."
"Shit." Rawle's whisper was more of a hiss. "You hear that?"
"Quiet, John." Kalvis's voice was as steady as ever. But there was a sense of listening to it that crept up Kellen's spine and turned the dank darkness surrounding her physical body suddenly unbearable.
I can't see. What's happening? I can't see!
She forced a deep breath in and then out again, reassured that she could feel the sensation of her lungs filling and emptying even though her sight was high overhead and a mile or more to the west. All she had to do was keep breathing. All she had to do was check back in with her own eyes and find out for sure what was going on.
Carefully, Kellen shifted things around in her head again--a little less pressure here, a little more there, like jimmying the lengths of a knot so that they fell into place just where she wanted them. With a dizzying little rush, but one Kellen was ready for since it was always the same, the sight of rolling green faded--not entirely, but until the forest she saw through the Crow turned hazy shades of grayed-out green that overlapped instead of obscuring her own vision.
Through her own eyes, Kellen could see the forest pressing close around her, not in sharp focus but well enough to see that Rawle stood with his head lifted, like a deer scenting trouble on the wind. His hand was on the butt of his .36.
But he hadn't drawn it yet. Neither had Kalvis, who faced the opposite direction and scanned the surrounding trees. Jennett remained where he'd been last time Kellen had seen him, the full-back tilt of his head and half closed eyes indicating that he was still fully with his Crow.
"Ward?" Jennett's mouth moved, but nothing else.
"Still here." She eased her mind back toward her Crow--not all the way, but more than the halfway here, halfway there she now held. There was no way to measure what she was doing. She had to remember how it felt, the exact balance of pressure and no pressure in just the right places inside her head. Like letting go and holding on, all at the same time.
The shadow-image of the forest below brightened from dull gray to ghostly green. There were the traces of white smoke lingering above the treetops, now behind the Crow's wingtips and dwindling. Kellen tilted the Crow's wings and started a slow loop to come around toward it again.
Through the flowing landscape of silver-thread creek and deep green, the images of Rawle and Kalvis and Jennett remained. No one had drawn a gun yet, and Rawle's squeaky panic-breath had eased some. That was good.
Kellen's Crow bobbed. Wobbled.
A thread of panic trickled up Kellen's spine. She sucked in a breath and made herself hold it a second. Ignoring the instinct to surge back into the Crow, she reached a little further out through that link in her mind--gently, calmly--and adjusted the Crow's wings.
The Crow steadied.
"Everything all right, Ward?"
Jennett had heard her gasp, of course. Through the half-solid image of unfurling forest beneath the Crow's wings, Kellen saw that Kalvis and Rawle had both turned to look at her.
The Crow banked steadily in a wide arc, heading back toward the smoke and the probable creek crossing.
"Yeah. I'm good." She made herself sound like she meant it. She did mean it. Everything was fine.
A whispering laugh burbled up from beside Kellen--no. Behind? The back of her neck tingled. The phantom voice reminded Kellen of rushing water and rising wind.
Her Crow lurched. Kellen spun around. She was dimly aware that the shadow-images of Rawle and Kalvis drew their .36s.
No one. Nothing was behind her.
Through the Crow's eyes, the green of the forest grew abruptly brighter and larger.
Falling. The Crow is falling.
Jennett's voice, but distant and distorted. Dizziness clutched at Kellen.
The dizziness blocked her from that place in her mind that linked to her Crow. She reached desperately, trying to find the Crow again.
Through the Crow's eyes, the forest spun closer.
Reach harder. Oh God, help me.
That place in Kellen's mind where the Crow was flickered. She grabbed at the link, threw herself into it like someone trying to save a drowning man.
See more of L. E. Erickson's work at https://crowmakers.wordpress.com