Wendel Carter loved puttering around the garden in the spring, setting down the mulch, planting flowers out front and vegetables in the back, fertilizing and trimming and setting out stones to keep the grass at bay; not that he grew much grass in the middle of nowhere, Georgia. Still, it was therapy. It kept him from thinking. He knew school politics were bad from his years of teaching, but he never imagined how bad they could get until he accepted the position of Superintendent of Schools for the Browning School System, sadly referred to locally as the BS Schools. That thought made him dig a little deeper.
Gardening was therapy for another reason as well. He paused long enough to wipe the sweat from his graying brow and take a long look at the empty house beside the brook. He tried not to think about it, either. He noticed that the white picket fence out front needed painting, as did the porch on the side of the house. He turned his eyes to consider the little apartment above the garage where his mother used to live before she passed. It needed work as well, but then none of that mattered. It was the emptiness of the house and the emptiness he felt inside that claimed him and drove him to seek solace among the shrubs and flowers. Sandra had been a good wife. He could not have complained on that score, and Missy, his sixteen-year-old daughter had been the beat of his heart. It still choked his throat and made tears well up into his eyes to think that the drunk, driving on the wrong side of the interstate, not only survived the wreck, but only got slapped on the wrist for killing a family – for destroying Wendel’s life and surely shredding his heart. Wendel Carter shook his head and drove his spade into the hard red clay that pretended to be soil. “That was four years ago.” He told himself. “Let it go, man.” He tried to let it go, but he still had a few tears left.
Arosa stepped through the little shimmering hole in the air, holding tight to the sleeping three-year-old whose head snuggled into her shoulder The little scamp was mumbling, but not squirming too badly which was good because Arosa had to hold on to her baby with one hand while her other hand grasped the hand of her faithful retainer, Barten-Cur. The old man’s eyes were wide; fascinated with the prospect of the completely new and unknown world they were entering. He noticed it was three hours before dawn in both places and Arosa knew there was not much to be seen in the dark, but she could not help smiling for the child-like innocence and wonder shown on the face of her retainer; because Barten-Cur’s fascination was truly that of a child, and in that respect he was much like Lila, her sleeping baby. Her father used to say that the man was as loyal as a hunting dog, and almost as smart. Still, he was a powerful man of magic. It had taken both of them and some considerable sweat to open the hole between the worlds.
“My Lady.” Barten-Cur spoke softly as if afraid to disturb the child, or perhaps afraid to make their presence known in this new world of wonder. “You must let me look around first. There is no telling what may be lurking in the shadows. There may be dragons or wolves or mandibar, or even dragons!”
Arosa smiled again. “Look here,” she said, letting go of his hand to place hers on Lila’s back, to comfort the sleeping, dreaming child. They watched the hole they had made slowly close. Soon, it was hardly bigger than a child’s ball, and then a woman’s ring and at last it completely disappeared. “We go together.” Arosa told her manservant. “But you may keep your blade ready just in case.”
Barten-Cur grinned with what teeth he had. He was not usually permitted to carry sharp weapons. Arosa, meanwhile, was straining her other senses as well as she could. To be sure, she was very tired from the ordeal of opening the hole between the worlds, but she was fairly sure she could smell manure, and it smelled like ordinary enough cows. There was a stream nearby, and she imagined they might do worse than following it.
“This is farm country, my Lady.” Barten-Cur confirmed; but Arosa was not sure if that was a good thing. On the one hand, the closeness of people spoke against the nearness of wolves or other predators, but then men could be the worst predators of all when they wanted to be. She imagined they would find out soon enough if these people were friendly to strangers, or not.