Edition 29: A Pitying of Turtle Doves by Lila Bowen
Nettie Lonesome follows her senses to a small town, to accidentally embroil herself in family politics and pettiness. Lila Bowen brings us into a world of fantastic intrigue, navigated as only a skin-walking vulture can. -SY
A story set in the world of The Shadow
A bird’s sinister shadow sweeps over a small town nestled between jagged mountains, rippling over neatly painted buildings and swept porches and a dusty thoroughfare. The bird has passed a dozen such goddamn towns, shiny as eggs in rough nests, but it hasn’t stopped a single time. Until now.
Something down there must’ve caught its eye.
Circling widely, the ungainly critter lands in a dirty yard by a clothesline. It’s not quite a vulture but close, ugly as sin with a bald head and a great mass of twisted tissue where one eye should be. It doubles over, quivers, and…becomes a girl just as rough and ugly as the bird. She goes by the name Nettie Lonesome, most of the time. Lanky and rib-bone thin, frizzy black hair thick with grime. She coughs into a hand, then quickly covers her chest, looking about shiftily to see if anyone noticed. Within moments, she’s stolen a faded shirt and pants off the line, slipping into them like a fish sliding back into the water. They’re fit for a child, and her bony ankles and wrists show, but at least she’s covered. At least she looks like a boy again.
The yard she’s in is empty, aside from a judgey cat watching from the shade under an old bucket, so she turns slowly in a circle, eyes closed. Feeling.
There. A few houses over, something makes her stomach wobble. It’s almost like a terrible but irresistible stench, this feeling that draws her to trouble. She’s not too fond of her destiny as the legendary Shadow, but she knows well enough that if she doesn’t take care of the business that calls her, she’ll just feel worse. And so, even though she’d rather lollop back into the sky where she has no feelings, no destiny, no requirements other than something nice and dead to eat, she washes her face off in a trough and stalks into the town, looking for the source of her unease.
It’s a mighty nice town, considering. The buildings are mostly straight, the paint is pretty as Easter eggs, and the horses don’t look too skinny. Nettie has no idea where she might be, but the orange dirt and mountains suggest it’s somewhere north, maybe Durango or New Azteca. As she moseys up the thoroughfare, barefoot and feeling mighty small, folks stop and stare, but not too rudely. More inquisitive-like. All the heavily laden horses tied up outside the saloon and inns suggest it’s a mining town, or near enough to mines to welcome whatever scraggly coots decide to stop in and spend their gold. They’re used to folk like her, folks who roll in like tumbleweeds and roll right back out.
The wobble in her belly leads her to the biggest, fanciest house. Of course. She catches a glimpse of herself in a shiny glass window and snarls. At least her brown skin blends in with the dirt she’s collected. But she can’t quite knock on the door. What’s she supposed to say?
Howdy there, folks. I’m a skinwalking monster, and I reckon you got some monster trouble yourself, so if you could just tell me what needs to die, I’d be glad to stab it in the heart and turn it into a pile of sand?
Nope, that wouldn’t do at all.
She knocks on the door before she can stop herself.
Footsteps creak within, and the door opens to reveal maybe the prettiest human woman Nettie’s ever seen. She’s a bit past her prime but well kept as a China doll, her waist just as tiny as a toothpick.
“Can I help you?” the woman asks coldly, barely containing a sneer.
Nettie wishes she had a hat to hold, or at least use to cover up her chest.
“Well, ma’am. I’m a Durango Ranger with the Las Moras Company, separated from my crew in a fight. I heard y’all might be having some trouble in the area?”
Nettie’s skin crawls as the woman considers. Now, if the woman knows anything about monsters and magic, she’ll know that the Durango Rangers exist to protect humans from them. But if the woman doesn’t know monsters exist, which most folks don’t, she’ll probably point Nettie along to the sheriff and have her help rough up the drunks.
Finally, the woman nods. “It’s my stepdaughter,” she says. “She needs to die.”
They discuss it over tea, which tastes terrible. Nettie perches on the edge of a chair far too fine for a vulture and sips scalding, sour liquid from a dainty teacup.
“I married the mayor several years ago after his first wife died. I felt certain that I could take his young daughter into hand, turn her into a mannerly girl and marry her off well. But she’s headstrong. Troublesome.” The woman, who said her name is Margaret, sips her tea, and her eyes meet Nettie’s. “Dangerous.”
“Is she a monster?” Nettie asks.
The woman’s smile is patronizing, which Nettie hates. “I think so, but I don’t know what sort. Her father doesn’t know about magic. But I have my ways.”
Margaret stands and sashays to a silken drapery hung on the wall. She delicately moves it aside to show a simple but oddly clean and bright oval mirror in a gilt frame.
“Magic mirror on the wall, who is this creature who’s come to call?”
To Nettie’s surprise and horror, the mirror flickers through images from her past life: a tiny baby alone in the desert, an unhappy little girl in pigtails, the night she slew her first vampire in the barn, and, more recently, Nettie riding with the Rangers in her cowboy duds.
“This creature has many names, my queen. Nettie Lonesome is not what she seems,” the mirror says in a deep man’s voice that reminds Nettie of a revival preacher or some kind of showman. Nettie deeply distrusts showmen, and she doesn’t feel so warm toward magical objects, neither.
Margaret smiles a beautiful, evil smile. “Good. Now show her Bianca.”
The image of Nettie shifts and becomes everything Nettie isn’t. This girl is beautiful beyond measure, her skin creamy white and her lips red as roses and her hair as black as a cursed horse at midnight. She looks unbearably sweet but with a slight twist of the lips that suggests she might have a sense of fun, possibly even a brain.
“This is my stepdaughter, Bianca. The vile creature is at the market now, but she’ll be home soon. I want her dead. I won’t rest until I have her sand in a jar.”
“You want me,” Nettie says slowly, “to just go kill this girl in the middle of town? In broad daylight?”
Margaret flicks her fingers. “That’s not mine to say. Do it however it needs doing. It would be better for us both if it was in private. Folks watch the mayor’s family, and the fools love her. But you’ll be rewarded handsomely, and I could see fit to write a letter of recommendation to your Ranger superiors. This is what you-all do, isn’t it? Rid the world of dangerous creatures?”
“Only if they’ve done something wrong.”
“I couldn’t begin to list this girl’s sins.”
Nettie stands, cocks her head. “I’ll talk to her, at least. If my gut tells me she needs to go, rest assured she’ll be gone.”
Margaret’s smile is a beam of sunshine in a twister. “You’re a good girl, Nettie.”
Nettie sighs. She prefers it when the world thinks she’s a man, and she doesn’t think she’s good, either way. But she’ll go talk to this Bianca, and if her belly wobbles and the Shadow guides her arm, she’ll kill her.
“I’m going to need boots and a weapon, ma’am,” she says.
Margaret’s smile grows even brighter. “Of course you do, my huntsman.”
In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, Nettie is back on the street wearing the mayor’s old work boots, a few sizes too big, and carrying a bowie knife slung around her waist. She’d prefer a nice set of repeating pistols, but she’s handy enough with a knife. Quieter, too. That’s what Margaret wants. For Bianca to die, all tidy, nothing left but sand.
The general store isn’t too far down, and Nettie swings open the door with her chin up and her spine straight, ready for a fight. What she finds is Bianca in a fancy yellow dress, as pretty as she was in the mirror. The girl is laughing lightly, holding a tiny baby in a long white gown.
“Who’s a beauty?” Bianca says in a voice like birdsong. “You are, little one. Oh, my, yes.”
The proud but exhausted mother stands beside her, looking gratified to have someone else share her burden for a moment.
“Go on and shop,” Bianca says. “I’ll hold her. I think she likes me.”
“Everyone does,” the woman says, taking her basket with a fond smile.
Bianca looks up just then and sees Nettie standing there, shedding dirt on the well-swept floor and utterly unsure of what to do. That wobble the Shadow gets—it’s there. But Nettie doesn’t feel the urge to kill this girl. And she can tell Bianca’s not a monster. So what the Sam Hill is she supposed to do?
“Howdy, miss,” Nettie says, tipping her borrowed hat. “Fine day, ain’t it?”
Bianca laughs and makes faces for the baby. “Most days are. You just passing through for the gold mines?”
Nettie’s fingers land on the knife. It would’ve been so much easier if this girl truly had been a monster.
“Just passing through,” she agrees. Bianca stares at her curiously for a moment, and Nettie heaves a sigh and says, “Might I have a word in private? It’s concerning your stepmother.”
Bianca’s fine face falls, and she looks like a dog called to heel. She nods, delivers the baby back to her mama, and steps outside. Nettie follows her into an alley, and they edge between two tied horses twitching their tails.
“What does she want now?” Bianca asks, her voice rough and her cheeks sweetly pink with rage. “I swear, that woman won’t rest until she sees me married off to a damn fool or dead. So which one is this about?”
Nettie clears her throat and looks down. “Well, let’s just say she didn’t give me this big ass knife to marry you. Got any idea why she thinks you’re a…” Does the girl know? About skinwalkers and vampires and chupacabras and magic mirrors? “A threat?”
Leaning back against the blue building, Bianca looks like the kind of painting they’d hang in an uptown boarding house, or maybe a government building. “She’s always hated me. She sent me away to boarding school, and when I came back, she just got meaner. Wants me gone, but Papa says I don’t have to marry a man I don’t love. And I haven’t found a man I could abide. I didn’t know she was desperate enough to have me killed, though.” She glances down at the knife. “You’re not going to do it, are you?”
Nettie takes her hand off the knife. “Course not. I don’t just kill innocent women in the street.”
“Then what happens? If I go back home, she’ll kill me herself. I just know it. Papa won’t believe me that she’s evil.”
A small chuckle from Nettie as she remembers the siren she had to kill to save her entire company of ensorcelled Rangers. “Yeah, well, men will ignore a lot of darkness if it wears a pretty face.” When Bianca looks at her strangely, too closely, she shifts her hat down. “But I reckon it would be better if you went somewhere else. Can you ride?”
Bianca nods. “My mare is in Papa’s stable, downtown.”
“Where’s the closest town?”
“Owensville, to the southeast, I suppose. It’s a mining town. Best smiths in the area.”
Nettie chews on that for a moment. “You ever heard of Burlesville?”
The girl shakes her head in confusion.
“Let’s just say I got a hunch about who we’ll find there. Take me to your stable, and I’ll get your mare saddled, and we’ll get you the hell out of here.”
“But what about my Papa? What about my things?”
Nettie gives her a dead-eye stare. “Girl, your stepmama wants you dead. What do you have in that frilly house that’s worth dying for?”
With a shudder, Bianca nods. “You’re right. Let’s go.”
They ride double, for all that it’s uncomfortable for everyone. Killing monsters won’t get you hanged in Durango but stealing horses will, especially when your skin isn’t white as snow. They wait until the sun is on its way down and take off wearing old rain cloaks borrowed from pegs in the stable. No one stops them. No one inquires. They’re soon outside the town proper and galloping like hell. Nettie looks back from the mare’s bouncing rump, expecting to see Margaret flying toward them like a demon, but the sky and the ground are empty. The mare is a fast little thing, white as her rider’s skin, and Nettie is glad to see the dust coat her until she’s a cozy and forgettable red. A few hours later, the town of Owensville rises up from the desert. Nettie knows by her wobbling belly that this town, as she’d supposed, is a monster town. Just what they need.
They trot down the main thoroughfare, and Nettie sees several lights shining gold onto the street.
“Which one’s the inn?” she asks.
Bianca points. “This one is called The Gold Nugget, and that one is The Silver Spur, and further on, there’s The Copper Coin.”
Nettie steers the horse toward the last one, figuring that folks on the run without money don’t need to go begging at a place named after gold. When Bianca pushes back her hood on the doorstep, the master of the house just about staggers. Nettie wonders what Bianca sees when she looks at him, because Nettie sees a dwarf: short, as wide as he is tall, ruggedly made with a beard down to his belly button and eyes of flashing black stone.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you, sir,” Bianca says, eyes and voice cast low, “but my folks died on the trail. Do you have any gentle work I could do to earn room and board?”
It’s not five minutes before the girl is given the attic and set to cook and clean for the seven bachelor tenants of the boarding house. The feller in charge, an apothecary everybody calls Doc, looks like he’s staring at a dream come true.
“I swear, miss, you’re the answer to my prayers. With my wife visiting her sister back home, we’ve been living on bad gruel, and the kitchen’s in an awful way. My medicines have fallen by the wayside. Your help will be most welcome, and not a lad in this town will ever lay a hand on you. My condolences on your family, but I hope, with time, you might look on us as friends.”
Bianca is soon whistling a merry song as she begins a chicken stew. The sound is so pretty that little birds line up on the window sash to sing along, finches and wrens and fat gray doves. Nettie sits down at the table to rest her aching rump, eats a piece of bread and butter, and falls into a jittery nap. By the time supper is bubbling, six more dwarf fellers tumble in the door, covered in powdery white rock dust, just as bewitched and solicitous as Doc. Feeling that Bianca is in good hands and beyond babysitting, Nettie stands to go.
“You gonna be okay here?” Nettie asks the girl.
Bianca smiles. “Folks to care for and nobody hating me? I’ll miss my Papa, but it’s a good enough place for now. What will you tell my stepmother?”
Nettie watches the dwarves take turns washing the white dust off their faces as they sing a song about mining.
“I got an idea,” she says.
“That took long enough,” Margaret gripes when she opens the door to find Nettie standing again on her porch first thing the next morning, Bianca’s mare safely stowed in her stall.
“Most thorough work does,” Nettie snaps back, too exhausted to feign politeness.
“And were you successful?”
Nettie gives a lazy smile and whips the cover off the jar in her hand. It’s chock full of glittering white sand.
“I was. Took me some time, but she went easy. You were right. Monster, through and through.”
Margaret’s pretty face lights up, and she reaches for the jar with slender fingers. She holds it up to the light, untwists the top, dips in a finger, pops it in her mouth to roll it around with her tongue. Nettie has never tasted the sand left behind when a monster dies, but she figures murderdust can’t taste too fine. She can only hope that Margaret doesn’t know what it tastes like, either.
“You’ve done well, fine huntsman,” Margaret says. “Wait here.”
She disappears with the jar and reappears without it, holding a small clinking sack and a crisp envelope with fine, spidery writing on it that Nettie can’t read.
“Give this to your superior, and you will surely be rewarded,” Margaret says. “And keep the gold for yourself. I’m sure you understand that you’ll need to disappear before anyone starts asking questions about my poor, missing stepdaughter.”
She raises her eyebrows, and Nettie nods. Like she’d want to stay even if she wasn’t the main suspect in the case of the mayor’s missing daughter.
“Thank you kindly, ma’am.” Nettie tips her hat, slips the gold and the envelope inside her tucked-in shirt, and walks away.
But her stomach’s still wobbling.
Her work ain’t done.
Nettie uses some of the gold to buy a subpar horse and a too-small saddle and trots the nag back out to Owensville. The ponderous thing won’t gallop, and she stays off the main road just in case someone comes looking for her. The trip takes a good bit of time, but she’s not about to turn around and go back the way she came. Bianca’s fine, fleet-footed mare could make the journey in a matter of hours, but Nettie is exhausted and her horse is horrible. She’s afraid to turn back into the bird; what if she forgets her duty and just keeps flying? Her human body is a chore. She stops to eat from the tins she bought at the general store and slice up a jackrabbit over a grubby fire, and then sleeps through the rest of the day and the next night. All the excitement was too much after her weeks as a careless creature of the sky.
When she wakes up at dawn the next morning, it still takes her until evening to reach Owensville. The horse is blowing air, his lips frothing, his walk stumbling. Nettie names him Meat and calls him such several times, hoping the threat will move him along. But when she ties him up outside The Copper Coin, she knows right away something’s wrong. Her belly’s wobbling like crazy, and the sounds from within the boarding house sound less like cheerful whistling and more like sobbing. The eaves are lined with doves, cooing mournfully as if their hearts are broke.
When she pushes the door open, she finds seven dwarves caterwauling like hounds. Bianca is laid out on a horsehair couch, as still as death.
“What the Sam Hill happened?” Nettie asks Doc, who’s trying to rip out his beard with his fists. “I was only gone a damn day. What kind of boarding house is this?”
“It wasn’t us!” Doc wails. “We just got back home from the mine and found her laid out by the kitchen window.”
“Who killed her?”
“She ain’t dead! Just…asleep. Won’t wake up. I’ve never seen anything like it. But she smells like dark magic, and this apple was beside her.”
The dwarf holds out an apple as red and rich as Bianca’s lips, one single bite revealing the snow-white flesh within. A tiny black spot in the bite shows the rot deeply concealed. Nettie can smell the poison on it and holds it at arm’s length, considering.
“You fellers seen a real pretty lady hanging about town? Maybe a fancy new horse nobody else could afford? Or a painted wagon?”
The dwarves gather around and shake their heads.
“Well, go look. The apple hasn’t turned brown yet, so it may be she’s still lurking around.”
“Who?” Doc asks.
Nettie looks up, her eyes hard. “Her stepmother, I reckon. The witch.”
Doc looks around at the other fellers and gives ’em a serious sort of nod. Six dwarves take up their pickaxes and shove one another out the door, leaving Nettie with Doc.
“You can’t wake her?” she asks.
“I’m an apothecary, not a wizard.”
“Mind if I try?”
Doc holds out his burned and callused hands. “You can’t hurt much, I guess.”
Nettie starts by calling Bianca’s name, first real quiet and gentle-like and then loud and scary. She taps the girl’s arm, then wiggles it, then takes her by both shoulders and shakes her like a rag doll. With one finger, she hits the girl’s tickle spot, just under her armpit. Nothing seems to have any effect. Bianca’s eyes are still closed, long black lashes throwing shadows on her cheeks. As a last resort, seeming to recall some sort of fairy story about it, she leans in and pecks the girl on the lips.
“Damn, but women are trouble,” she mutters to herself, wishing her stomach would stop wobbling. As if she doesn’t know her work here is unfinished. As if she has any idea how to wake this fool girl and go back to her own life, whatever that is.
“You-all got a wizard around here? Or a witch? Somebody who knows magic?” she finally asks.
“Dwarves don’t do magic,” Doc says stoically. “We don’t need it, typically.”
“Is there anybody else in the town? Maybe passing through? Any other kinds of…well, monsters?”
Doc clears his throat and turns bright red. “Well, some of the ladies down at the saloon in the next town over are…ahem…not human. Not that I would know personally.”
At that, Nettie finally grins. “Let me borrow a fast horse and point me in the right direction. I reckon I know how to fix this. And if you see a real pretty lady hanging around, or anybody unusual and un-dwarflike, you lock ’em in a privy. You hear?”
Nettie is soon on a stout little pony, her boots almost dragging the ground as she gallops along to the next town, much smaller and closer than the one Bianca came from. Closer to the mountains, these towns are wild things, small and dirty and built from nothing to service men who come and go with the gold.
In a few hours, she’s galloping right back. The pony, for all its embarrassing size, has a heart the size of Durango and evenly matches the pace of the sleek mustang riding along beside. Nettie looks up occasionally to check that the whore is still on horseback, but the girl is smiling gleefully, clinging to her saddle like a bramble as if glad for a change of pace. She calls herself Sugar, what with her white-blonde hair, but Nettie reckons that’s as made up as her own name.
They ride back into Owensville before midnight and trot along to The Copper Coin. The windows are lit up, the dwarves standing around Bianca’s body like they’re at a funeral. Someone has stuffed prairie flowers into the girl’s hands, arranged her dress just so. It’s kind of creepy, really.
“This the girl?” Sugar asks.
Nettie nods. “Yep. You take care of her, and I’ll give you all my gold.”
Sugar grins. “Fair enough. You know how this works, right?”
“I don’t, but I’m right interested in finding out. You-all need privacy?”
That earns a laugh. “Honey, I forgot what privacy feels like. You can watch, I guess. You’re already paying me plenty.”
The dwarves elect not to watch, but Nettie does. The more she learns about monsters, the better she gets at killing them. To her, what happens mostly looks like a kiss.
A long, bloody, vicious kiss.
Some time later, Bianca’s blue eyes pop open. She sits up, the flowers tumbling to the ground and one hand to her bloodstained neck. The dwarves rush in, breathless and holding their hats, their eyes just radiating love for the girl on their horsehair couch.
“What happened?” Bianca asks.
“Somebody poisoned you,” Nettie says.
“My stepmother!” Bianca cries. “It had to be her. She looked like an old woman, but the apple tasted…wrong. And then she laughed and said she was glad to finally see me gone.” Bianca looks down, pink-tinged tears glimmering on her eyelashes. “Nobody’s ever hated me, before her.”
“Well, I got good news and bad news,” Nettie says, tipping her head toward Sugar, who’s mopping herself off from a ewer. “The good news is that your stepmother can’t ever hurt you again. The bad news is that you’re a vampire now. You’ll have to sleep all day and drink blood to survive. Sugar here can tell you more once I’m gone. But we couldn’t wake you up, and it seemed like the best way to keep you…well, kind of alive.”
Bianca stands and inspects her hands as if looking for changes. “But I thought vampires were monsters, just stories to frighten children.”
“They can be,” Sugar says softly. “But the way I see it, being whatever this is means you don’t have to live a life of fear and hunger. You don’t got to marry a man who’ll mistreat you or get slapped by your mama or watch your babies starve.”
Bianca’s mouth drops open. “I can’t have babies? But I always wanted one. Such sweet little things. I like taking care of people.”
Nettie chuckles. “You stick around here, you got seven dwarves to feed, and I reckon they’re quieter than babies, most of the time.”
The dwarves step closer, murmuring sweetly, and Bianca stares at them anew, amazed. “You look different,” she says, but not like that’s necessarily a problem. Before they were men, now they’re dwarves. She’ll be seeing all kinds of monsters, now that she’s one of ’em.
The wobble in Nettie’s belly is gone now, and she feels a sense of rightness, almost as sweet as sleeping on a full belly. She gives Sugar her gold, offers her ratty old nag to the dwarves, and steps outside, ready to chuck off her stolen clothes and fly away from all this tender-hearted foolishness. Something pokes her, and she pulls out Margaret’s note and hands it to Bianca, who reads it and frowns.
“She says you’re a horse thief who should be hanged immediately,” the girl says.
“I figured as much. Fancy writing always means trouble.”
“So where will you go?” Bianca asks with a yawn.
Nettie shrugs. “Wherever my wings take me, I reckon.”
“And what of my stepmother?”
Stepping out of her boots and tossing off her hat, Nettie stops to look out at the glitter of stars. “That’s up to you,” she finally says. “You want to end her, you can. Or you can live a good life and forget about her. It’s your choice, now.”
“My choice.” Bianca smiles, her blood-red eyes now matching her lips, her hair as black as night, and her fangs as white as snow. “I like that.”
Once the girl and the dwarves and Sugar are safely inside, Nettie shucks her clothes and takes to the air. She doesn’t remember much, when she’s a bird, but she’s drawn along the road, back to where a tidy town sleeps by jagged orange mountains. She lands by a clothesline, stalking along behind flapping white sheets lit blue by the moon. On silent tiptoes she slips into the right house, marveling at a town where nobody locks anything, where people this evil can be so trusting. She hurries down the silent hall to a silken drapery hanging in a parlor.
With one hard, swift punch, she destroys the magic mirror before flying away forever.
Revenge, she thinks, is a dish best served warm to a vampire with a grudge.
Lila Bowen is a pseudonym for Delilah S. Dawson, author of the Blud series, the Hit series, Servants of the Storm, Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon and Scorched, and the upcoming Ladycastle comic from Boom! Studios. As Lila Bowen, she writes the Shadow series, starting with Wake of Vultures. She’s the winner of the 2015 Fantasy of the Year Award from RT Book Reviews for Wake of Vultures as well as their 2013 Steampunk Book of the Year Award and May Seal of Excellence for Wicked as She Wants. Find her online at whimsydark.com.