Books

Wild Country

Wild Country

Ace
March 2019
Hardcover, ebook, and audio book (download and on CDs)



Cover design:
Adam Auerbach

available as audio bookavailable as ebook

 



EXCERPT

Copyright © 2019 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.
(Suggested reading age: 15 years and older.)


A year from now, it would be called the Great Predation—those terrifying days when the Elementals and the Elders, the terra indigene who are Namid’s teeth and claws, came out of the wild country and brutally thinned the human herds in Thaisia. In some cases, they wiped out the entire population of human towns in the Northwest and Midwest in retaliation for the slaughter of the Wolfgard and other forms of shifters who had kept watch over the human places.

Now, with death still fresh in everyone’s minds, terra indigene and humans alike want to claim those empty places, especially the places of strategic importance.

Bennett is one of those places—and the Elders are staying nearby, waiting for the humans to make another mistake.

Waiting for them to make the last mistake.

dingbat

 

Chapter 1

Windsday, Sumor 25

 

Jana Paniccia followed the gravel paths through the memorial park. There were no cemeteries on the continent of Thaisia, no individual gravestones, no family mausoleums unless you were very rich. Cities couldn’t afford to waste land on the dead when the living needed every acre that they were grudgingly permitted to lease from the terra indigene who ruled the continent.

Who ruled the world. They had smashed and torn that harsh truth into humans around the world, and only fools or the blindly optimistic thought there was any chance of things going back to the way they had been before the Humans First and Last movement had started the war against the terra indigene here in Thaisia and in Cel-Romano on the other side of the Atlantik Ocean.

Instead of gaining anything from the war, humans had lost ground—literally. Cities had been destroyed or were no longer under human control. People were running to anyplace they thought could provide safety, thinking that the larger cities were less vulnerable to what the Others could do.

In that, too, humans were wrong. The destruction of so much of Toland, a large human-controlled city on the East Coast,should have taught people that much.

But this wasn’t a day to think about those things.

Jana found the large flower bed with the tall granite marker in the center.

There were no graveyards, no gravestones, in Thaisia, but there were memorial parks full of flower beds and small ponds, with benches positioned so the living could visit with the dead. She looked down the double column of names carved into the granite until she found the two she’d come to see. Martha Chase. Wilbur Chase. The foster parents who had taken her from the foundling home and raised her as their own. There hadn’t been even a birth certificate left with her when the Universal Temple priests had found her on the temple doorstep. Just a printed note with her name and birth date.

All bodies were cremated and the ashes mixed with the soil in these flower beds, the names carved on the granite the only acknowledgment of who was there. Martha had loved growing flowers, and Pops had always tended a small vegetable garden in their backyard. She was the one who had no skill with the soil, no matter how hard she tried. She knew a rose from a daisy, understood the difference between annual and perennial, and, most of the time, had dug up weeds instead of flowers when she tried to help Martha tidy the beds.

You have other talents, Pops used to say with a laugh.

Other talents. Gods, she hoped so.

They had died in a car accident just a week after she’d been accepted into the police academy—one of only three women to be accepted. She’d spent the first few months struggling with her classwork and the hostility of her classmates while traveling from Hubb NE to a village near the Addirondak Mountains to meet with the Chases’ attorney and take care of her foster parents’ estate. There wasn’t much. Martha and Pops had never been interested in things, but the sale of the house and furnishings was enough to pay off the school loans she’d taken out to attend a community college while she tried to be accepted into the police academy. It was enough to pay for the academy and living expenses. She’d been frugal, but if she didn’t get a job soon . . .

“Hey, Martha,” Jana said softly after looking around to make sure she was alone. “Hey, Pops.” She sat on the bench, her hands folded in her lap. “I graduated from the academy. The only woman who stuck it out. Martha, you always said I was stubborn, and I guess you were right. I have a meeting with the academy administrator next week. Hopefully it will be about a job offer. The gods know, every human community needs cops right now, and everyone else in my class has already been hired by towns in the Northeast Region who lost officers last month because of the war. But I know there are positions that haven’t been filled yet because no one wants to take a job in a village stuck in the middle of the wild country. They say that’s just delayed suicide. Maybe they’re right, but I’d take that chance.”

She looked at the flowers growing in the bed and wished she could remember the names of some of them. “I came to say good-bye. It’s getting harder and harder to purchase a bus ticket, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back here again. And if I’m hired—when I’m hired—I may be leaving in a hurry.” She paused. “Thanks for everything. When I get to wherever I’m going, I’ll light a candle in remembrance.”

Jana hurried through the park, gauging that she had just enough time to reach the bus stop near the park gates and catch the bus back to Hubb NE. Hopefully by this time next week she’d be heading to another town to do the only job she’d ever wanted.

 

Chapter 2

Windsday, Sumor 25

 

“I quit.”

Tolya Sanguinati studied Jesse Walker as they faced each other over the counter in Bennett’s general store. The look in her eyes made him think of the lightning that sometimes filled the sky in this part of Thaisia. Despite being a dangerous predator—far more dangerous than the humans here appreciated—that look made him wary. “You can’t quit.”

“Oh, yes, I can.”

He took a step back and considered. It was tempting to point out that, since she didn’t actually work for him, she couldn’t, technically, quit. But Jesse Walker was the unofficial leader of Prairie Gold, a small Intuit town located at the southern end of the Elder Hills. As such, she was his most important human ally. He couldn’t afford to lose her knowledge or cooperation, so it probably wasn’t a good idea to point out anything.

Erebus Sanguinati, the leader of all the Sanguinati on the continent of Thaisia, had told him to take over Bennett after all the humans had been slaughtered by Namid’s teeth and claws. The town had a train station that serviced all the ranches in the area, as well as Prairie Gold. That made it an important place that the Elders would no longer allow humans to control because, under human control, the trains that traveled back and forth across the land had brought enemies to this part of Thaisia. Had brought death to the Wolfgard and other shifters.

Every place inhabited by humans was in turmoil right now because no one knew how many of those places had survived. With quick communication between regions severed by the Elders destroying the telephone lines and tearing down the mobile phone towers all along the regional boundaries, e-mail and phones of any kind were useful only within a region. But even within a region, no one really knew if a phone went unanswered because someone wasn’t in the office at that moment or because there was no one left in that town to answer it.

But the rest of the Midwest Region wasn’t his problem. Right now, his problem was the slim, middle-aged, gray-haired woman who had been helping him prioritize the tasks necessary to keep the train station open and deal with urgent things like spoiling food and pets that had been left in residences.

Until he traveled to Prairie Gold to be Grandfather Erebus’s eyes and ears, Tolya had lived his whole life in Toland, one of the largest cities on the entire continent. He’d had the most extensive human-centric education available to the terra indigene and had been among the Sanguinati who monitored the television newscasts and the newspapers as a way of keeping an eye on what the duplicitous humans might be planning. And he’d been among the Sanguinati who had actual contact and dealings with government officials and businessmen. But those meetings had been formal, official, devoid of personal contact and feelings beyond the loathing each side felt for the other.

Nothing in his education or years of experience had prepared him to deal with messy, daily interaction with humans who had no interest in being formal, official, or devoid of personal contact. Even his previous interactions with this woman while he helped her and the other residents of Prairie Gold prepare to hold out against humans trying to cut them off from supplies hadn’t prepared him to deal with her now.

“Why?” he finally asked.

“Because you’re not listening,” Jesse Walker snapped.

“I listen to everything you say,” Tolya countered.

Her right hand clamped around her left wrist.

Jesse Walker was an Intuit, a kind of human who had a heightened sensitivity to the world, and her people had feelings about everything from animals to weather to sensing if someone was lying. Each Intuit didn’t have feelings about everything—their minds would break under that kind of strain—but each developed a sensitivity that matched who they were or the work they did. For Jesse Walker, it was people, and an aching left wrist was her tell that something about a situation made her uneasy—and the more severe the ache, the more dire the situation.

“I have listened,” Tolya said again. “But perhaps I’m not understanding?”

He watched her anger fade. Her right hand still cuffed her left wrist, but the hold was looser now. He wondered if her wrist would be bruised.

“What are we doing here?” Jesse Walker asked. “Are we just cleaning up what will become a ghost town with a few people manning the train station or are we doing something more?”

An important question. Looking at her, Tolya realized his answer would do more than decide the fate of this town. It would ripple throughout Thaisia in the same way that Simon Wolfgard’s decision to hire Meg Corbyn had started ripples that were part of the reason he was here in this town trying to figure out this woman.

If Simon were standing here right now, Tolya would cheerfully snap the Wolf’s neck. Then again, if he tried to be fair, Simon hadn’t known that taking in one stray human female would end up with the terra indigene trying to help—and even protect—packs of humans.

“Not a ghost town,” he said carefully. “Bennett is no longer a human-controlled town, but that doesn’t mean it has to decay.”

“Or that its workers are transient?”

“They aren’t meant to be transient. Some of the young humans who have come here don’t feel this is the right place. They came for adventure . . .or something.”

“They came for opportunities,” Jesse Walker countered. “They came because their home communities in the Northeast Region are crowded and it’s hard to find work, hard to learn a skill. And many of them left home for the adventure. But they also left what they knew because, suddenly, there are a lot of empty human places in the Midwest and Northwest. I have the feeling that there won’t be any new human places. Not for a long time. Not in Thaisia. Humans made too many mistakes over the past few months for the terra indigene to tolerate us anyplace we aren’t already established. So if the empty places aren’t reinhabited now, they’ll fade away.”

“I don’t think the Elders will allow humans to move back into those empty places,” Tolya said.

“Not alone, no. But there are terra indigene and Intuits working together here to take care of animals and make decisions about the food in the houses. And there’s a lot more that needs to be done. Decisions have to be made about every single thing in every single residence.”

“I can’t do that,” he protested.

“Neither can I. That’s why you need more than strong young men who will happily eat all the ice cream and cookies they find in the empty residences but don’t know what to do with the medicines. And whether those Elders of yours were justified in killing everyone in Bennett, those people may still have family somewhere who would appreciate having the personal effects. Having young men with a lot of energy and strong backs is great, but you also need skilled labor and professionals if you want this to be a viable town. Why can’t we create a place where terra indigene and Intuits and Simple Life folk and other kinds of humans can live and work together? Learn from each other. I got the impression that the Lakeside Courtyard and the Intuits in Ferryman’s Landing were trying to do exactly that—build a new community that had room for everyone.”

“Dangerous.” Tolya looked out the big front window of Bennett’s general store. “If the wrong kind of human comes here . . .”

“I know. No one can afford to make a mistake.”

“Then how do you suggest we get these new citizens?”

They heard the clip-clop of a horse coming down the street. Barbara Ellen Debany, their pet caretaker and almost-vet, waved at them as she passed the store.

“Same way you got her,” Jesse Walker said, smiling as she released her left wrist long enough to return the wave. “Have someone else screen the candidates before they get here, and then you make the final decision about who you want living in this town.” She took a folded piece of paper out of the back pocket of her jeans and handed it to him. “Ideally, those are the professions and skills you should have in Bennett for starters.”

Tolya unfolded the paper. His eyebrows rose as he studied the list. Then he looked at Jesse Walker. “Anyone from Prairie Gold who might want to fill a position?”

“Kelley Burch. His skills are wasted in Prairie Gold, and there is a jewelry store here that needs someone to run it—and Kelley would have a better chance of selling some of his own designs, whether he sells them in Bennett or sends them on to someplace back east to sell on consignment. I’m going down to Prairie Gold tomorrow. I’ll talk to him then.”

“You want to spend time in your own store.”

She nodded. “I need to be home for a couple of days.”

“I’ll get this list out as quickly as I can.” The Elders weren’t allowing the telephone and telegraph lines between the regions to be restored except under special circumstances. He could call or e-mail Jackson Wolfgard, who lived in Sweetwater, a settlement in the Northwest, but reaching Lakeside in the Northeast Region required extra time and effort.

As he left the store, he looked at the Intuit woman and wondered if Jesse Walker would come back and continue to help him. Then he noticed that she was no longer holding her left wrist—and he breathed a sigh of relief.

dingbat

 

Virgil Wolfgard stood next to a tree near the south end of the town square and watched the human female and the blue horse walk toward him. The wind was in the wrong direction to carry his scent to the horse, which was meandering across the paved street toward the grass in the square, and the female seemed too preoccupied with something that wasn’t right in front of her to control the horse or notice the predator who was watching her.

Not noticing was dangerous, something the female should have learned while she was still a puppy.

He stepped away from the tree, putting himself right in front of the horse.

The horse snorted and planted its feet, causing the female to grab the saddle horn for balance.

“Easy, Rowan, easy,” she said. Then she gave Virgil a wary look. “Sheriff.”

“Barbara Ellen.” Virgil looked at her companion. “Horse.”

His brother, Kane, who was in Wolf form, joined them, causing Rowan to snort again.

Barbara Ellen gave Kane a wobbly smile. “Deputy Wolfgard.”

Virgil held up a small red collar. She took it and read the tag attached to the collar. “Fluffy,” she said sadly. “She was a nice cat.”

“We didn’t eat it,” Virgil said, anticipating the question she didn’t dare ask. “Too much fur and not enough meat.”

“Not much of an epitaph for poor Fluffy.”

Maybe not, but that wasn’t important. He and Kane hadn’t killed the cat, but something had torn the animal apart. Not for food. For fun.

And that something wasn’t any form of terra indigene.

“The horse was paying attention,” Virgil said. All right, the horse was more interested in reaching the grass, but it did notice him first. “You were not. Why?”

“I was thinking about some stuff,” she replied.

He didn’t ask what she was thinking about. He just stared.

“But I should pay attention when I’m riding,” she added.

“Yes.” Virgil stepped aside. So did Kane.

Barbara Ellen pressed her legs against Rowan’s sides—and grabbed the saddle horn when the gelding bolted out of reach of the two Wolves.

Virgil shook his head as he watched her reestablish dominance and slow the horse to a walk. <Follow her,> he told Kane, using the terra indigene form of communication. <Make sure she doesn’t fall off.>

The only good human was a dead human. He hadn’t thought much of that species before the Humans First and Last movement had attacked the Wolfgard. He thought far less of them after those humans slaughtered his pack, leaving him and Kane the only survivors because they’d been ranging ahead of the pack, looking for game. They’d come running back when they heard the guns, but by the time they arrived, the pack was dead or dying, and the humans were gone.

They’d followed the trail of the trucks until scent markers made by Namid’s teeth and claws crossed the trail. Not willing to tangle with the Elders, he and Kane had returned to the small wooden den the pack had used to store items useful to those who could take human form. After packing the little they could carry in Wolf form, they had headed away from what had been their home territory, looking for humans to kill.

Instead, they ended up in Bennett, where the Elders had erased the enemy and yet were allowing those creatures to return.

He’d never seen one of the Sanguinati until he’d met Tolya, who had been given the task of making sure the wrong kind of humans didn’t try to reclaim the place. But for that, Tolya needed humans as well as many forms of terra indigene. And he needed enforcers who were strong enough and feared enough that humans would follow rules and not become troublesome.

That was how Virgil ended up the town’s dominant enforcer, with Kane being the second enforcer. He didn’t know anything about human law, hadn’t spent much time around actual humans until now. But if one of the two-legged threats caused trouble, he knew how to stop them dead in their tracks. And blood in the street would be a good reminder to the rest of them of why they should behave.

And then there were the two-legs like Barbara Ellen he felt reluctantly compelled to protect.

He walked along the edge of the town square, which served as a park surrounded by the town’s original business district. A natural spring was the reason for the grass and trees—was the reason the town had been built there. The spring had been semicontained by human-made barriers, but the water still bubbled out of the ground, providing drinking water for everything with fur or feathers—and humans too.

When he came abreast of the general store, he stopped and waited for Tolya to cross the street and join him.

“Was there a problem with Barbara Ellen?” Tolya asked.

Virgil cocked his head. “Why do we call her that? The humans call her Barb.”

“Barbara Ellen sounds dignified. I’m hoping she’ll grow into the name, like a puppy grows into its big feet.”

“Huh.” That made sense, except . . . “She’s young but she’s an adult, not a pup. Do you really think she’ll grow into a dignified name?”

“I am hopeful.”

Tolya’s dry tone made Virgil smile. Barbara Ellen Debany had ties to the Lakeside Courtyard because her brother was a police officer who worked directly with Simon Wolfgard. That made her special among the humans who were in Bennett. And being special meant he had the task of trying to keep her out of trouble. Which made him think of the way she tended to want to befriend any and every critter.

“Are there any Snakegard here?” he asked.

“A couple of Rattlers arrived last week. Why?”

“Someone should explain to her about staying away from things that could kill her.” Virgil thought for a moment, then added, “Things that aren’t us.”

“Speaking of things that are not us, Jesse Walker feels we need to bring in more humans to become permanent residents and take over the businesses.”

“More.” Virgil’s lips pulled back in a snarl. “More of them?”

“And more of us. Enough terra indigene to maintain control of this place.” Tolya met Virgil’s eyes. “How would you feel about that? Being around them at all is difficult for you and Kane.”

“I don’t know human law,” Virgil growled. “I know how to kill.” Too often after a day around humans, he wanted to shed this terrible form and howl out his rage before he tore into throats and bellies and left bodies in pieces like . . .like . . .

“There is too much human bounty here for us to abandon this town,” Tolya said quietly. “If we don’t hold onto it, humans will flood in to claim what they can.”

“Just because we hold onto it, you think the enemy won’t find this place?”

“Find it? Yes. Even with the travel restrictions that limit humans migrating between regions, they will find a way to reach this place. Control it?” Tolya shook his head. “The Elders won’t allow that. If the Northwest, Southwest, and Midwest Regions are purged of humans, they’ll be held to the coasts and the towns available to them there.”

“And we’ll have back what was ours in the first place,” Virgil snapped.

“Should a human like Jesse Walker die? She protected the young in the Prairie Gold pack. She’s teaching a young Wolf human skills.”

He liked Jesse Walker, as much as he could like any human. “There will be enough of us to stand against the humans if they turn rabid?”

Tolya nodded. “Enough of us who can work in the shops alongside the humans and be ever watchful—and kill what cannot be allowed to remain among us.”

“We need to find someone who knows human law.”

“Another deputy. I’ll add that request to the list of professionals I’ll send to Lakeside. We’ll see what help Simon and Vlad can provide in the way of humans while we send a message among our own for any who are willing to live near humans.”

They walked up the street together, parting at the building that held the sheriff’s office.

Going into the back, Virgil studied the three cells. Not a lot of space for wrongdoers, but it would have to be enough.

Humans. Couldn’t live with them; couldn’t eat them all.

 

Chapter 3

Thaisday, Sumor 26

 

“Did I do something wrong?” Rachel Wolfgard asked, an anxious whine beneath the words.

“No, honey, you did a great job,” Jesse replied. “I just need time in my own place for a few days.”

“Familiar smells are good.” Rachel’s hands gathered up the skirt of her summer dress and tightened into fists that would, most likely, crease the lightweight material. “I didn’t mark territory in your store, even though it is my store too.”

“Appreciate that. Urine smell in a store selling fresh food tends to put people off their feed.”

“Why? One of the men came in yesterday and made a fart that smelled so bad Shelley Bookman left her shopping and went outside, and when she came back, she asked me to smell the food to make sure it still smelled fresh.”

It took effort not to smile. “Smelled that bad, did it?”

Rachel nodded. “My eyes watered.”

“Which man?” It hadn’t escaped her notice that the juvenile Wolf had not named the bad-mannered lout. “It wasn’t Tobias, was it?” If it was her son, she’d be having a few words with him.

“No,” Rachel replied quickly. “Tobias wouldn’t do anything that smelled that bad.”

No longer able to hide her smile, Jesse turned toward the canned goods that filled the shelves along one wall. It sounded like Rachel had a little crush on Tobias. She was too young for him, of course, just as he was too old for her—not to mention her being a terra indigene Wolf and him being a human.

Then her boy walked into the store.

“Howdy, Rachel,” Tobias said. “That dress looks nice on you.”

“Thank you, Tobias. I am wearing the underpants and undershirt too because that is what females should wear beneath the clothing that is seen.” Rachel looked at Jesse. “And I have learned how to wash them. Ellen Garcia taught me while you were away.”

“That’s good,” Jesse replied, studying the way Tobias blushed but gave no other sign that underclothes weren’t something usually discussed with the other gender.

Not a crush on her son, Jesse decided as she watched the two of them. This was a very innocent younger sister revealing things to her older brother.

It made sense. With the exception of the nanny, all the adults in the Prairie Gold pack had been slaughtered by members of the Humans First and Last movement. Heeding Tolya Sanguinati’s warning, she and the rest of the women in Prairie Gold had gathered up the children, human and Other, and headed into the Elder Hills to a spot where they would be safe from human killers.

Now the terra indigene settlement had a new leader, Morgan Wolfgard, and a new enforcer, Chase Wolfgard. Along with the Grizzly Wyatt Beargard they were the main contacts between the Intuits and the terra indigene—including the Elders who lived in, and protected, the hills.

Rachel continued to travel from the terra indigene settlement and work in Walker’s General Store, under Jesse’s supervision and on her own during the days when Jesse was in Bennett helping to sort things out there. Morgan and Chase weren’t happy about their lone juvenile female being surrounded by humans, but their allowing Rachel to be in town was the strongest indication that they were trying to get along with the humans who lived in their territory.

And Morgan and Chase didn’t scare her half as much as Virgil Wolfgard, Bennett’s new sheriff.

They needed workers in Bennett. They needed people to resettle the town. More than that, they needed someone Virgil would trust enough that he wouldn’t look at every human as the enemy.

“Did you come in for supplies?” Rachel asked. “I could make up a box of supplies like cans of beans and coffee and—”

Jesse watched the back of Rachel’s dress swish as the young Wolf lost control of the human form enough to regain her tail, which was wagging to indicate her eagerness to help. Fortunately, the girl was facing Tobias so he didn’t notice.

“Ellen is coming in for supplies tomorrow. I’m here to talk to my mother,” Tobias replied.

“Okay.”

When he didn’t say anything, Jesse looked at Rachel. “Honey, why don’t you finish stocking the shelves. Tobias, you come on to the back room with me.”

A little whine, followed by a human-sounding sigh. Understandable that Rachel felt anxious anytime she was excluded, but the girl needed to learn that sometimes other people needed privacy and not everything was shared by the whole pack, however “pack” was defined.

“You look tired, son.” Jesse pressed her hand against one side of Tobias’s face.

“We’re all putting in longer hours.” Tobias leaned against the wall. “Too few men for the amount of land we’re trying to cover and the cattle we’re trying to keep track of.”

“There might be relief coming.”

“If they can sit a horse, I’ll hire them. Gods, even if they can’t sit a horse, I’ll hire them.”

“Don’t set your sights too low. I think I’ve convinced Tolya Sanguinati that we need more people if he doesn’t want Bennett to turn into a ghost town.”

“You think he’ll agree?”

“I think he will. But we’ll need to be careful, watchful.” Her right hand closed over her left wrist. “We need the people. We need to keep the town alive. But what is good for us won’t be the only thing getting off the train.”


Lake SilenceLake Silence, in paperback February 2019