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Excerpt from Wild Hunt

Excerpt from the Wild Hunt by Gail Z. Martin

 

“I fear the bones are haunted.” The old woman fingered her rosary and looked down. “I hope I’ve done the right thing coming here, but I don’t know where else to go.”

My partner, Dietger, reached over to pat her hand, and smiled reassuringly. “We’ll do whatever we can to help,” he replied. “Go ahead and drink your tea; it’ll take away the chill.”

April in Antwerp could be cold, at least if you were mortal. I’d been dead for a hundred years—undead—and I still hadn’t gotten used to the lack of body heat. It was one of the things I missed the most about being mortal, other than the taste of food, and being able to go out into the sunlight without catching on fire.

“Isn’t that true, Sorren?” Dietger said, with a tone that let me know he’d caught me woolgathering. “I was just reassuring Mevr. Geerts that she made the right decision to trust us with her concern over the odd relic that traveling monk brought to the city.”

Ah, the traveling monk, I thought, grateful that Dietger had framed the question in a way to help me recover. “Absolutely,” I said. “You’d be surprised how many times we encounter old objects that have a darker past than the present owner realizes.”

That was putting it mildly. Vanities, the antique and curio shop Dietger inherited from his father, was much more than it appeared, part of an underground alliance to remove dangerous magical and supernatural items from circulation. And it sounded like this relic was going to turn into a job for us.

“If Father Verhelst found out that I’d come here, I might lose my position,” she said, shifting in her chair. She was a plump woman in her sixth decade, and a lifetime of hard work showed in her calloused hands and careworn face. I’d overheard her tell Dietger that she was the housekeeper at St. Walpurgis Church’s rectory, which explained her concern over seeking us out. While Vanities’ role in keeping Antwerp safe from dark magic wasn’t exactly well-known outside select company, I doubted the Church would look fondly on our activities, or on my existence, for that matter.

“I assure you, we’ll handle this discreetly,” Dietger promised. He was in his mid-twenties, and I guessed he looked just as his late father, Carel, would have looked when he was that age. Light brown hair, cold blue eyes, and a pleasantly earnest manner befitting a respectable young shopkeeper.

The old woman drew her shawl around her. “Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I’ve heard the bones rattle in the reliquary that strange monk brought, and once, when I was passing by, I heard a voice laughing. It was a nasty kind of laugh, and it made my blood run cold.”

“Tell me more about the traveling monk,” Dietger prodded gently, and held out the tray of shortbread to Mevr. Geerts. Dietger and our guest were nearest the fireplace in the cramped little office behind the store. I purposely sat further back, partly in shadow, the better to avoid questions on my pallor, and my cold, cold skin.

“He arrived at the beginning of March,” she replied. “We hadn’t received any letters to arrange the visit; he just showed up one day, along with that box.” Mevr. Geerts hadn’t sworn, but I was quite sure from her tone that she really meant “that damned box.”

“Is that unusual?” Dietger was listening attentively, and I knew he was leaving it to me to assess our “client” with my sharper-than-mortal vampire senses.

“Unexpected visits?” She chuckled. “Not entirely. St. Walpurgis is an old church, with a long history. We get the occasional scholar, the pilgrims who come to ask our saint for healing, that sort of thing. But to have someone show up with a relic and claim to have bones from our saint’s body, that’s very unusual.” She shivered and sipped her tea. “Suspicious, even.”

I could hear the old woman’s heart beating faster than usual, smell the scent of fear, and could see the sheen of sweat on her forehead. Her hands shook a bit, I was willing to bet, more from emotion than palsy. She was afraid, and I was certain it went well beyond being discovered chatting with the owner of an antique shop.

“Do you have other relics from St. Walpurga?” Dietger asked, with that charming smile that made every woman over a certain age treat him like their beloved son. Even when I was alive, I never evoked that response, not even from my own mother. I’d been in my late twenties when I’d been turned, so I would always appear young, though I was now a centenarian. Dark blond hair, wiry build, and average-looking features made me forgettable, not a bad thing back when I was a jewel thief. My eyes were the only thing remarkable about me, blue-gray eyes the color of the sea when a storm is coming. I turned my gaze back to Mevr. Geerts in time to see her shake her head vigorously.

“No, and that was the first thing that made me suspicious of Friar Jansen,” she said. She looked up, and met my gaze. If she had any suspicions that I was more than I appeared, she wasn’t frightened of me, yet a traveling monk made her nervous? I was increasingly curious.

“Why?” Dietger probed.

Mevr. Geerts looked surprised. “Our saint’s bones are supposed to be in Eichstatt,” she responded. “Surely you’ve heard the story, how her body was buried on a rock ledge, and the stones weep a healing oil?”

I’d never been very religious even before I was turned, and even so, I thought I’d heard the legend somewhere. Dietger, too, nodded although I’d have bet that he was indulging the woman.

“I’ve never heard tell that the saint’s bones were scattered,” Mevr. Geerts went on with a scandalized tone. “Such a thing has happened, of course, to other saints, but not to Saint Walpurga. So I wondered right away just whose bones were in the reliquary, and why Friar Jansen happened to have them.”