Blood of the Earth (Soulwood #1)


by Faith Hunter

ONE

Edgy and not sure why, I carried the basket of laundry off the back porch. I hung my T-shirts and overalls on the front line of my old-fashioned solar clothes dryer, two long skirts on the outer line, and what my mama called my intimate attire on the line between, where no one could see them from the driveway. I didn’t want another visit by Brother Ephraim or Elder Ebenezer about my wanton ways. Or even another courting attempt from Joshua Purdy. Or worse, a visit from Ernest Jackson Jr., the preacher. So far I’d kept him out of my house, but there would come a time when he’d bring help and try to force his way in. It was getting tiresome having to chase churchmen off my land at the business end of a shotgun, and at some point God’s Cloud of Glory Church would bring enough reinforcements that I couldn’t stand against them. It was a battle I was preparing for, one I knew I’d likely lose, but I would go down fighting, one way or another.

The breeze freshened, sending my wet skirts rippling as if alive, on the line where they hung. Red, gold, and brown leaves skittered across the three acres of newly cut grass. Branches overhead cracked, clacked, and groaned with the wind, leaves rustling as if whispering some dread tiding. The chill fall air had been perfect for birdsong; squirrels had been racing up and down the trees, stealing nuts and hiding them for the coming winter. I’d seen a big black bear this morning, chewing on nuts and acorns, halfway up the hill.

Standing in the cool breeze, I studied my woods, listening, feeling, tasting the unease that had prickled at my flesh for the last few months, ever since Jane Yellowrock had come visiting and turned my life upside down. She was the one responsible for the repeated recent visits by the churchmen. The Cherokee vampire hunter was the one who had brought all the changes, even if it wasn’t intentional. She had come hunting a missing vampire and, because she was good at her job—maybe the best ever—she had succeeded. She had also managed to save more than a hundred children from God’s Cloud.

Maybe it had been worth it all—helping all the children—but I was the one paying the price, not her. She was long gone and I was alone in the fight for my life. Even the woods knew things were different.

Sunlight dappled the earth; cabbages, gourds, pumpkins, and winter squash were bursting with color in the garden. A muscadine vine running up the nearest tree, tangling in the branches, was dropping the last of the ripe fruit. I smelled my wood fire on the air, and hints of that apple-crisp chill that meant a change of seasons, the sliding toward a hard, cold autumn. I tilted my head, listening to the wind, smelling the breeze, feeling the forest through the soles of my bare feet. There was no one on my property except the wild critters, creatures who belonged on Soulwood land, nothing else that I could sense. But the hundred fifty acres of woods bordering the flatland around the house, up the steep hill and down into the gorge, had been whispering all day. Something was not right.

In the distance, I heard a crow call a warning, sharp with distress. The squirrels ducked into hiding, suddenly invisible. The feral cat I had been feeding darted under the shrubs, her black head and multicolored body fading into the shadows. The trees murmured restlessly.

I didn’t know what it meant, but I listened anyway. I always listened to my woods, and the gnawing, whispering sense of danger, injury, damage was like sandpaper abrading my skin, making me jumpy, disturbing my sleep, even if I didn’t know what it was.

I reached out to it, to the woods, reached with my mind, with my magic. Silently I asked it, What? What is it?

There was no answer. There never was. But as if the forest knew that it had my attention, the wind died and the whispering leaves fell still. I caught my breath at the strange hush, not daring even to blink. But nothing happened. No sound, no movement. After an uncomfortable length of time, I lifted the empty wash basket and stepped away from the clotheslines, turning and turning, my feet on the cool grass, looking up and inward, but I could sense no direct threat, despite the chill bumps rising on my skin. What? I asked. An eerie fear grew in me, racing up my spine like spiders with sharp, tiny claws. Something was coming. Something that reminded me of Jane, but subtly different. Something was coming that might hurt me. Again. My woods knew.

From down the hill I heard the sound of a vehicle climbing the mountain’s narrow, single-lane, rutted road. It wasn’t the clang of Ebenezer’s rattletrap Ford truck, or the steady drone of Joshua’s newer, Toyota long-bed. It wasn’t the high-pitched motor of a hunter’s all-terrain vehicle. It was a car, straining up the twisty Deer Creek mountain.

My house was the last one, just below the crest of the hill. The wind whooshed down again, icy and cutting, a downdraft that bowed the trees. They swayed in the wind, branches scrubbing. Sighing. Muttering, too low to hear.

It could be a customer making the drive to Soulwood for my teas or veggies or herbal mixes. Or it could be some kind of conflict. The woods said it was the latter. I trusted my woods.

I raced back inside my house, dropping the empty basket, placing John’s old single-shot, bolt-action shotgun near the refrigerator under a pile of folded blankets. His lever-action carbine .30-30 Winchester went near the front window. I shoved the small Smith & Wesson .32 into the bib of my coveralls, hoping I didn’t shoot myself if I had to draw it fast. I picked up the double-barrel break-action shotgun and checked the ammo. Both barrels held three-inch shells. The contact area of the latch was worn and needed to be replaced, but at close range I wasn’t going to miss. I might dislocate my shoulder, but if I hit them, the trespassers would be a while in healing too.

I debated for a second on switching out the standard shot shells for salt or birdshot, but the woods’ disharmony seemed to be growing, a particular and abrasive itch under my skin. I snapped the gun closed and pulled back my long hair into an elastic to keep it out of my way.

Peeking out the blinds, I saw a four-door sedan coming to a stop beside John’s old Chevy C10 truck. Two people inside, a man and a woman. Strangers, I thought. Not from God’s Cloud of Glory, the church I’d grown up in. Not a local vehicle. And no dogs anymore to check them out for me with noses and senses humans no longer had. Just three small graves at the edge of the woods and a month of grief buried with them.

A man stepped out of the driver’s side, black-haired, dark-eyed. Maybe Cherokee or Creek if he was a mountain native, though his features didn’t seem tribal. I’d never seen a Frenchman or a Spaniard, so maybe from one of those Mediterranean countries. He was tall, maybe six feet, but not dressed like a farmer. More citified, in black pants, starched shirt, tie, and jacket. He had a cell phone in his pocket, sticking out just a little. Western boots, old and well cared for. There was something about the way he moved, feline and graceful. Not a farmer or a God’s Cloud preacher. Not enough bulk for the first one, not enough righteous determination in his expression or bearing for the other. But something said he wasn’t a customer here to buy my herbal teas or fresh vegetables.