Del sat on the hill and picked out constellations. Reilly Creek's lights were bright, washing out the western horizon, but overhead the sky was so clear she felt she could see forever. The half moon overhead lit the landscape in shades of grey.
It was one of those perfect evenings . . . There was even a faint ripple of color. The Aurora? So far south? She glanced left at movement.
The Old Woman was back.
She looked up at Del. "Remember. Stay away from men—you don't want to pick up any of their characteristics. And if they've already merged, well, the confusion and panic, well. They're men. They want someone to blame, someone to punish. It's so easy for them to call a woman a witch, blame her, rape her, beat her." Her head turned to look down the hill at some headlights. "Goodness, how very odd."
"Probably my neighbors." Del edged away from the woman. The headlight backlit some horses and riders. As they turned north, their khaki uniforms showed for a moment. "And the mounted police, heading for their stables up the road."
"Hmm, it's much too busy up here. That will make it dangerous. You should get further from the nexus. I have studied further, this will not be the Grand Alignment. While Jupiter and Saturn have the largest effect, Neptune and Uranus will be off to the side, and alleviate the severity of the merges. None the less, it will be strong, it will stress the fabric of what you consider reality. It will be felt everywhere. But the further from the nexus, the better. Such a pity you are so resistant to the very idea of magic, I hate to see a waste of potential."
"Magic isn't real." No matter what I felt last time, no matter what happened up at the dance . . . the sheep . . . "Nexus? There's a spot where some women dance at the full moon . . . "
"Yes, they are probably drawn to the spot. It's getting strong, as all the worlds wind together for the overlap."
"A brief merge—try to merge with someone as close to yourself as possible. You'll have fewer problems, later."
"I could try to avoid merging at all."
"Umm, tempting, but not always wise."
"There she is, grab the Hag!" A loud male voice from the left, and the thud of horse hooves. These riders were all in black, lower faces masked.
"Run, girl!" The old lady hissed, then bolted down hill.
Del backed away nervously. Dark shadows of horsemen, nearly invisible in the moonlight, trotted toward the old woman. What was going on? Down the hill she could see the other four riders, identifiable by their khaki uniforms. She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled. She was trying for an SOS when the horse charged out of the dark at her. She dodged around a tree and sprinted downhill. The police patrol was turning her way. One of the black riders rode his horse at the old woman. She dodged, but tripped and fell flat. They circled, laughing.
"What are you doing? POLICE!" Del put all of her projection into that last. She ran and grabbed the old lady, intending to yank her to her feet, to keep her off the ground so she wouldn't be trampled. But at a touch Del was sucked forward, and they rolled downhill, reliving all her nightmares as they merged somehow. The riders from below met the riders coming down the hill and in the cursing milling chaos, Del got to her feet and ran. Stiff, tired. Old. She dodged behind a riderless horse. Missy, wondering who these interlopers were. When the old mare touched the first horse, she whipped around sideways, running into, merging into the other animal. The rider dived off his horse to take down a man in khaki. But only one man hit the ground.
"Run!" She told herself. But she was half old and running wasn't going to work.
A man on foot grabbed her by the arm, jerked her roughly around to face him. "What have you done to me Hag?"
"I didn't." She turned enough to add her shoulder width to her reach, tried a heel of hand strike to his neck. She wrenched her arm loose as he jerked back a step.
Another man grabbed her, swung her around to face him. Blond hair gleamed in the starlight. She shifted her weight to kick and he hit her, her blouse ripping and spilling her to the ground. She rolled away from the man and jumped up, but he was grabbing at her again. A horse bolted past and tumbled them. Her head hit the ground and she saw stars, as she tried to scramble away. She whipped up a stun spell, but it bounced. The stress; magic will be unreliable, and the girl doesn't believe, she'll drag any spell down.
"I know how to take your powers away." The man was panicked, horrified, angry.
Her vision darkened, narrowed, as hands tightened on her throat. Two men, wrestling, fighting to stay apart, she thought, tripped over them. They hit the ground and sort of compacted into each other. She grabbed a breath and kicked, hit, tried to scream as the man pinned her wrists. He was too close to kick and she franticly tried to remember what her self-defense class had covered about fighting on the ground. Wrestling holds, leverage. Scratch and gouge. The man was taller, heavier and stronger. She kicked and her legs just tangled with his, and she tried to roll down the hill, and he drove his knee into her pubes bruisingly hard, cursing. Pain shot through her head, and shock as his hand grabbed her crotch, twisted and ripped at her jeans, at the old woman's dress, at cloth that was ripping away. She tried to bite, and he hit her jaw with an elbow. She got a hand free and went for his eyes. He slapped her hand aside. He hauled her to her feet. Shook her.
"Take this curse off. Now!"
Squealing angry horses crashed into them. She was torn away from the man, was sent flying by a hoof hitting her back. She scrambled around behind the fighting stallions, tripped on pants that seemed to be disintegrating, as she fell flat at the base of a small oak. "Hold still." She whispered to herself. "Azo t tna." She was breathing in tiny tight gasps. The cursing and yelling, the confusion . . .
Those poor Russian boys have no idea what is happening. They are frightened, always a bad thing in the powerful. Worse in the young men, of course. Your police are too cautious, they are being lost in the merges.
The horse fight had broken up, the victor was claiming a mare. The men were stumbling around cursing the Hag, trying to catch their horses. One man still mounted, spotted her. Once again the sticky wrench as the old woman forcibly ejected her. The old woman rolled away, got partway to her feet. The horseman drew his sword, swung . . .
And it was all gone.
The horse near her spooked away, the rider grabbing leather, unbalanced by the swing of a sword that no longer existed.
There were a dozen horses, now. Loose horses from Bev's pasture and the police horses. The black-and-white bull, backing away from the knot of horses and men. Some cows departing at a rough gallop. Four men. The sky was so clear, the stars so bright she could pick out the Chief of Police. Then the milling of the nervous horses had pull the khaki clad police further down hill, as they caught their mounts.
Leaving her alone. Please, please, leave me alone!
The old woman's spell to be overlooked . . . "Azo t tna." She barely breathed it, holding still behind scrawny tree.
"What the hell was that!" A high pitched voice, full of shock and horror. The only one of the policemen who'd managed to stay mounted.
More babbling. That dim figure was Barclay, just standing there. Blank and silent. Had it been him? No, the man who had attacked her had had blonde hair.
Del stayed still and quiet. She was still breathing in faint gasps, couldn't seem to take a deep breath. It had been so fast, so violent . . . So utterly impossible.
The last thing she wanted was to confront whoever, to . . . what? That hadn't been whichever policeman had merged with that particular bandit any more than she'd been either Del or Nalda. Lost in the Merge. Del remembered the old woman analyzing the men. Russian? Why had the old woman called them Russian? I was some strange blend of witch and . . . whatever I am becoming. I tried to throw a spell at that man! I remember that overlook spell. The words, and what it feels like . . . like a new idea bursting into my mind . . . and flying outward.
"What happened to the old . . . lady?" Barclay finally moved, stumbling over to grab a horse's trailing reins.
Another one, the Chief of Police, snapped around to glare at him. "Was that you, beating her? Raping her!”
"That . . . was someone named Merrick. I . . . didn't have any control. I . . . if there hadn't been so much going on . . . Maybe I could have controlled him. I didn't . . . he didn't actually . . . " His hands were shaking, and he grabbed the horse's saddle as if that was all that was keeping him off the ground.
Oh, god. It was him. Half. Or was he just watching helplessly? She fought an urge to vomit, she didn't want to talk to them, didn't want to talk to anyone.
One of the others, the only blond, was still mounted. "What the hell came over us . . . I was going to kill her. I pulled my sword out to . . . " His hand fumbled at his hip, naked of anything resembling a sword
The Chief's voice overrode the confusion. "Buck up, damn it. I think we'd better get back to town and see if any one else had a problem." He cast a wary glance at the bull, but Maverick had retreated to the side fence; apparently the strange overlap had subdued even him. But the police weren't going to push their luck.
Del lay there panting for a long time, listening to them walk down the hill, let themselves out the gate. A voice carried up the hill. "Felt all queasy for a few minutes there. Hope I'm not coming down with something."
A problem with the food. Drugs. LSD or something. I just hallucinated all that. It just fed on that weird dream.
Del stood up shakily behind the oak. It was a relief to realize what the problem was. She could go to the ER for a blood test, find out what she'd been doped with. She grabbed the tree for support as the nausea finally won. She leaned over and retched. Not much to get rid of on an empty stomach. It wasn't something she'd eaten unless it was really slow acting.
Her blue jeans were falling off. She snatched at them and they ripped. Not just torn, the fabric was disintegrating. Her blouse was a ripped crumbling rag. She pulled the jeans up, but the right leg was trying to flair out like the old woman's dress. The fabric powdered as she tugged at it. Maybe something acidic? A contact poison. There'd been mustard gas in World War One that damaged the lungs. Her short jerky breaths weren't getting any better. She held the scraps of her clothes around her and walked down hill, moving from shadow to shadow, not wanting to be seen. From the shadow of the barn she could hear the horse hooves trotting away. The plowed fields through the valley where her grandfather's house should have been. Like before. What if it isn't drugs? Maybe I'm just insane.
And maybe it's all real.
Del rolled through the sagging wire fence, and hobbled across the yard. She let herself in through the back door and slipped down to the end room without turning on any lights. She stepped into the garage and peeked out the window. Two cars rolled by, the police heading home.
Under the bright lights of the bathroom, she looked awful. Her face was bruised, her hair all over. She was standing crooked; she looked and felt old. She straightened and her back cramped. She peeled off the strange crumbling clothing. With a hand mirror and a few painful contortions she got a good look at the hoof print on her back. Enough to the side to miss the spine, hopefully high enough to miss the kidneys, low enough to miss the ribs. Probably that was why she was breathing shallowly, and felt so shocky. Knocked the wind out of me. Maybe the bull knocked me over? Maybe I hit my head. She felt her head carefully. Two sore spots. Hit my head twice. She rinsed her mouth out, then brushed her teeth. Brushed her hair. Right now she was going to go to bed and pretend she'd only dreamed she was an old lady named Nalda, who was killed by some Russian bully boys who thought she was a witch. Because she wasn't the one who'd been beaten and almost raped. Killed. Was she?
She edged over to the toilet. She was very tender. He grabbed . . . his hand was right there . . . She shed the pajamas and showered. With very hot water. Lots of soap. It's impossible, I was hallucinating, or drugged. That's all. It didn't happen.
She tried to take a deep breath. The muscles of her ribcage seized up. She leaned on the sink and took tiny breaths until they relaxed again. Del studied the face in the mirror. She really couldn't explain what had happened to a doctor. Wasn't about to go to the police.
"Hi. I'm half of the Little Old Lady that the guy that was both you and some blonde Russian rapist attacked last night." She sat down on the floor and tried to take tiny breaths until the hysterics receded. Then she managed a few medium sized breaths. If she needed a doctor, perhaps the hoof shaped bruise on her back would save her from trying to explain the rest of the bruises. Eventually she pulled herself together and walked back to her room. She dressed in her stiffest, heaviest jeans, hiking boots. A long sleeved shirt with lots of buttons.
She looked out the window. A thick forest that shouldn't be there. That faded suddenly and the normal world returned. She laid down on the bed, but she suspected she wasn't going to sleep much.