Ruby of the West

There are scourge mates, of course. Yes, many scourge mates. All manner of vile vermin. The Tallowmen have their stories, sure, but a hundred to one you won’t hear them. Not here and not from them. I’m afraid the West Wind carried off the last breath of the old guard long before it gave you your first. One day when I return, I will take you to the village library, but for now, all I can offer you is my own tale. It’s long overdue, I’ll admit, and a letter is a poor substitute. But you’re almost twelve now. It’ll be your turn soon enough. Autumn if I had to guess. Ruby hasn’t the words for it, and she wouldn’t tell it straight if she did. That’s one thing that separates the boon mates from the scourge mates: humility. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

A lot is about to change for you. Good or ill, time will tell. It’ll start when the West Wind visits the homestead with a heavy tempest. Mine was a blizzard, but then my call came in wintertime. Fear will be first on your mind, but know that the Wind never harms, only hurts. The snow was so deep that for three days, we couldn’t hardly open the door. At last, when the clouds gave heed to the sun and the Stead River ran high, I made my leave. Your grandpa supplied me a week’s provisions along with the family axe, which will soon be yours, and a windpaper for good luck, as is tradition. Attached to this letter is the very same windpaper, in the case you have need to turn aright a wind gone foul. 

I followed the Wind past the Yule Valley and into Lack Forest. There, it stopped. Believe me when I say I wish it didn’t. You know well as I how unforgiving that land is, not to mention the corruption that was seeded there in the time of Lord Remsing. But, alas, the Wind blows as the Wind wishes.

After my prayers, I took to felling every tree in a fifty pace radius. The hickory trees sufficed for lumber (and not a few replacement axe handles); however, foraging was all but impossible. The first month I lived off of cottontail and badger, until the ground thawed and life crawled out from crack and crag. That’s when she came.

I was laying the last few ground beams on my foundation piers when something arrested my efforts. The normal clap of my mallet sounded different to my ears somehow. Thinking I had hit hollow wood, I landed a few more test strokes. It wasn’t the wood. It wasn’t the mallet either. It was everything else. The forest itself had gone quiet. Completely quiet. My work sounded like a singular rock tumbling down an abandoned mine shaft. Then I felt eyes on me. Inhuman eyes, to be sure, though not entirely feral either. I knew neither how many nor from which direction, though I could sense whatever or whoever it was watching with all the acuity of a predator. Yet there was an unshakable intelligence to them as well. My stomach tightened, and everything went cold. The wood was dark at the time, it being around dusk, and my fire only reached so far, leaving a wall of darkness between me and the forestline. Thinking it perhaps a lowman or tribe of halfwolves, I reached for my axe. I can still feel the way it trembled in my numb, uncertain fingers. Mute terror hung in the rapidly thinning air.

“Step into my camp, and my blade will cool your blood. Remain in the dark, and suffer the curse of the Eastern Wind,” I shouted into the void, strong as my lungs allowed, though naked vulnerability put an unwanted tremble in every syllable.

For a time, nothing happened. Panting for breath, I called out again. 

“If meal you seek, I have none to give. If it is I you desire, then come with your best for I know not surrender nor will mercy stay my hand.”

The insidious presence was growing stronger by the minute. My bones could sense it if my eyes could not. With ears strained against the blackness, I listened for a reply, for any sign of life. But none came. Not that night and not the next.

It was on the third day thereafter that the everwatchful eyes finally met my own. She came to me in my sleep, in a dream too real to be a dream. I was surrounded by nameless and faceless children at play, and though my heart swelled as never before, I couldn’t say why. I couldn’t even be sure I was me, if you know my meaning. All I understood was that the cabin sheltering us was built with hands that had held the warmth of a boon mate. I looked from floor to rafters in search of her. Somewhere in my hunt, my slumbering eyes turned to waking, and I found they rested on a cat, though for all her intensity, she might well have been a panther. Sitting erect, eyes parallel my own, she looked as a marble statue, though brimming with life and vitality. From that close distance, I could see my own reflection in her large, green eyes. If I could ever be named beautiful, it was then, in those eyes.

I’m not sure how long we stared at each other like that, but by degrees, I became aware of the morning hue giving way to a brilliant midday radiance. By it, I took in her full beauty.  Her regal, black hair, curled in all the right spots. Her slender frame, firm yet fluid. Her soft, pink ears set like a crown atop her head. And her eyes. Yes, those terrible, lovely, Windborn eyes. 

She must have sensed my willingness to stare into those eyes until we both starved to death because it was her that eventually made the first move. To my abject dismay, it was a move in exactly the wrong direction. At least, so it appeared to me. She rounded the corner of my foundation, her tail slipping out of sight like a bad magic trick.

I tried to call after her but found that absolutely nothing in my life had come close to informing me the proper thing to say at a moment like this. Dumbfounded, I stumbled to my feet.

My mouth was so dry, all I could croak was, “Wait.”

She didn’t. Not for a moment. And I didn’t blame her. The only things I think of were the awful threats I had accosted her with over the last three days. They played in my head on repeat, every moment me recalling another worse than the one before it. I had altogether forgotten the possibility of a mate. Dismissed it like Dad dismissed Bell after she broke her leg jumping over her stall. Why would I get a mate? And why a boon mate? And why that boon mate?

If anything, I deserved a scourge mate. Someone to really make my life hell, you know? This is well before you came along, but I was a real piece of work as a young lad. Chasing the goats into all nature of troubles. Burnt down a crop or two. I’ll be damned if I didn’t even shoot ol’ Farmer Gus thinking him a deer once. Grandpa’ll tell you.

Anyway, there it was. There she was. A real live boon mate.

I had heard the stories. Just as I heard stories of scourge mates, the ones that help build a house only to suck all the marrow from it before the last shingle is set. Thing is, I thought all the boon mates had died off with the Tallowmen, back when homes were more castle than cabin and life was rich with good favor. The Breath of the West blew strong in those days. So strong the Tallowmen used it to carry a whispered prayer from the Singing Dens to Mount Gallenview. So strong you could sail against the Eastern Sea at high tide without a mast. Strong enough to put wings on a cow… or so they said.

And now, out of nowhere, the first boon mate in damn near a century turns up at my bedraggled shed? For a while and a half, I thought the whole thing was a dream, vanishing tail and all. But Ruby was too real, too solid, to be contained in the dream realm. A creature like that doesn’t afford you the luxury of denying their existence. I couldn’t wait to tell your grandpa. That is, if I didn’t starve to death first.

Exactly as the old stories go, the next I saw her, she was walking off into the woods at the hour I least expected her. So famished was I at the time that I thought her possibly a food-crazed hallucination. A mirage in the barren desert of Lack Forest. I followed anyway. If my mind was gone, the least I could do was follow my stomach.

Would you believe she led me on for not a step short of seven miles? I must have stumbled over every East-ridden root and stone trying to keep sight of that elusive tail. I remember it disappearing behind this tree or that shrub and thinking, “Great, now I’m starving and lost.” But every time, it would reappear, as if to taunt me into submission. Well, it worked. By the time she stopped, I felt as though I was tethered to her by the neck. And good thing too. She had led me right to a watering hole, complete with a waterfall and a flat boulder on which to lay my clothes.

Feeling not a little self-conscious, I peeled the sweat-soaked rags from my body—as much as decency would allow, mind you—and waded deep into the pond. The cool, crystal water lapping against my aching muscles was worth a week’s respite. I watched in amazement as layer after layer of dirt and grime sloughed off my skin, revealing a tone long forgotten. Plunging my face underwater, the rhythms of the earth hummed in my ears a song sweeter than honey. Oh, to have sprouted gills and stayed there for all eternity.

Back on the surface, Ruby was hard at work, if you could describe anything she did as “hard.” In reality, the splashes that interrupted my meditation were from her effortlessly pawing fish out of the water onto the rocky shore. Rainbow trout, five in all, each weighing as much as my axe and equally shiny. I threaded them through a stick thicker than my thumb, collected some nearby blackberries, and waited for her directive.

With the slightest hint of a feline smile, she slung gracefully round and headed in the direction we came. But she took her time now, sauntering only a few paces in front of me as if daring me to watch the sway of her hips. It was a wonder I didn’t walk straight into a tree because watch I did. It was hypnotic, dizzying even, though can one really be considered discombobulated if they are brought into nearer and nearer focus of the that which orients them?

We made it back in time for me to start a fire and spit the fish overtop. I imagine the smell must have carried for miles because it was strong enough to imbue my lumber with the mouth-watering memory for two weeks after. Side by side, Ruby and I shared our meal. Her nibbling, me scarfing. Everything she did was so refined you might mistake her for constantly polishing a tiara. When we were through, she licked her paw pads and mosied over to her corner of the skeleton cabin to bathe in the sun. The way she curled up, melting into the floorboards, told me everything I needed to know. This was no longer my cabin. These were her royal chambers. And I a trespassing vagrant most chariably maintained in the Queens good graces.

As any good boon mate—and she was the best—her presence greatly expedited the remainder of the build. And gone were the old blueprints, drawn in the sand outside my tent. She had trampled all over those the day she arrived. No, instead, I followed her new, ambitious design. It was easier than expected too. Certainly more comfortable.

From the first, I had trouble with leaks in my temporary tent shelter and now my cabin walls also. It was only after a particularly heavy spring rain that I realized she had remedied the problem with bits of chewed up bark mixed with willow sap. She had used her dexterous paws to fill the tiniest of cracks that, not only could I not reach, I could hardly spy.

And, another time, I was stymied by mud and debris filling the holes I had burrowed and wedges I had chiseled into my intersecting crossbeams. Even my measurement markings were incessantly lost under all the dirt. Without my asking, she made a carpet of leaves and moss across the whole camp. She further impressed me by fashioning a hand broom out of pine needles with which I could dust my work surfaces and scrub my instruments.

Her aide never ended: She killed a beaver and used its lard to protect my axe head from rust. My muscles received soothing massages from her supple paws each and every night. Never was a meal neglected or a cup dry in her presence. And I need not mention how the camp was rid of thieving rodents within a fortnight of her inhabitance. 

She so amended the construction process and life in general that what ought to have taken a team of four men a year to construct, I had whittled away in a mere eight month’s time. The result: a two bedroom home with a basement, a study, a barn, and an outhouse, all furnished with the finest luxuries a man could ask for. I’m not ashamed to admit that I even allowed Ruby to decorate the walls with paintings she had hand—or, paw—painted with woad and madder dyes on birch bark, the very same that now hang above your bed and outside your closet. The place seemed alive with her in it, breathed in and out with her coming and going as if she carried with her the Western Wind itself. Bless the West, together, we built the best home in all Oaken Land.

But, our home was a home, not a fortress. No, not a fortress at all. The cabin was hardly a season old when it happened. Eve of the second moon from first frost, if memory serves. Asleep under our freshly tanned bear hide, Ruby curled at my feet, I was jarred awake by sixteen needle claws penetrating deep into my calves. I tried to scream, but it caught in my throat at the sight of her warning eyes, glowing green in the dark. Not all men are so lucky. Some receive deadeye animals for mates, if any at all. It makes communication close to impossible. Imagine reading the mind of a rat or a falcon. But Ruby, her eyes could tell a tale longer than this letter with a single glance. In that moment, I saw the thrice-accursed horn of the East in her eyes. Like I said; lucky.

I leapt from the bed as silently as I could. I had a moment’s choice: my axe or the bow I made in the fall. Clutching the latter in my right hand, I used the left to sling the quiver over my shoulder and knock an arrow held half at draw. Ruby was poised to lunge, the picture of war, but a stiff hand told her stay put. She obeyed.

I moved from the bedroom to the living room, arrow at the ready. I lit a lantern. My first mistake. A choir of shrieks the pitch of torture hollowed my chest. Lowmen

I blew out the light with what breath I had left. Immediately, I regretted it. The darkness closed in like a noose. So did the howling, distant and unidirectional at first, now close and from all sides. Two score at least, I thought.

“Into the basement, Ruby!” I demanded, louder than intended. My second mistake.

The whisper of matted paws was immediately drown out by more blood-thirsty screams, their savagery redoubled by the sound of a human voice. Scraping and clawing resounded into the cabin like a thousand hoes on gravel. I aimed my bow at a height of seven feet—chest level for a lowman—furtively moving from wall to wall. Eleven arrows in my quiver and the West knows how many half-starved lowmen surrounding the place.


My third and worst mistake.

The dining room window was positioned just above the stairs to the basement. Why I didn’t go there first I will never know. I sprinted to the place with a yell to rival their own. The creature’s contorted face poured blood from where my windowrail’s defense spears had pierced him. A gaunt arm stretched drum-tight with salamander skin reached through the window to pull its owner through, but the beast made it no farther than that. My arrow flew true, disappearing into his eye and out the back of his bald head. It slumped over with a lifeless groan, impaling its chest on the defense spears. His gangly corpse made it even more difficult for the others to clamor through. Arrow after arrow, they dropped like wheat under a sickle. Frustrated, they began using their alligator-like jaws to tear away limbs and chunks of flesh from the corpse barring their entry. Out of arrows, I took the opportunity to double back for my axe. Something stopped me, though. It was Ruby. I could hear her half-purring, half-yowling in the basement. Thinking a lowman had gotten hold of her, I sprinted down the stairs in a panic. She was perched atop the cellar shelves, staring at one of her paintings. Only, I soon realized it wasn’t a painting at all. Ruby decorated and redecorated such that I had long given up trying to recognize which wall art was where. But this wall art was not art. At least, not only art. It was your grandfather’s windpaper and… I had to rub my eyes. Inexplicably, the slip was raging against the pin that held it to the wall as if a tornado had been loosed right there in the basement.

Ruby never took her eyes from it. Abandoning all ideas of axes and lowmen, I plucked the pin from the wall. Like a warrior hornet, the paper tore through the air, up the stairs and out of sight. Then a gust of wind slammed against the cabin, splintering its shutters and sending shivers down its frame.

The shrieking ceased. The clawing too. All I could hear was the gentle whistle of wind in the trees, their leafless branches carrying a tune more pleasant to the ears than the Oaken Land Anthem. I recognized it at once as the hymn I sang as a boy, In the West I Rest.

Lo, come ye Western man,

Come out from whence ye hide.

Thy storm has yet began,

‘Tis time to shed thy pride.

To flee or to follow,

A compass save for three.

Thy home yet is hollow,

May she fill it with glee.

But hark the day is nigh,

Spy devil in the nest.

Where have ye fowl to fly?

Yes, in the West I rest.

Tears welled in my eyes as I sang along, watching Ruby’s blur all the while, tail waving praise, unending praise. Her purring multiplied beyond that of rolling thunder, and the cabin swayed with the wind, growing in power with every passing lyric. As sure as Western weather, we sang that song over and over. And over. And over again. Yet, never did it grow tired or fade in glory. Not in the least. Every iteration built on the preceding like a crescendo of crescendos, each stumbling and tumbling over the other to reach higher and higher apogees of splendor.

Somewhere in the midst of our chanting, Ruby had crawled into my arms, both of us now one. I had unknowingly and perhaps unwillingly—rather, other-willingly—taken her to the front yard, not a trace of the lowman assault in sight. The morning sun was fresh and generous that day. The kind of sun that beacons every creature to, “Come, drink,” not just with light, but with warmth, pulsating heat crashing like waves over skin and fur.

We sat there with faces and hearts turned Westward, wind placidly weaving through Ruby’s black, curled hair, until the windpaper floated noiselessly into my lap. As you might well have guessed from his retellings, it had traveled to Grandpa’s house in that time, letting him know that I had survived my Wind trail. That my faith and my mate got me through. That a house was waiting to be filled with glee. That he was welcome to join.

We went inside, Ruby and I, to prepare for his coming. He arrived four days later and brought with him Uncle Ferris with his scourge mate, Uncle Vern, Uncle Blare, Cousin Lance, and Cousin Gabriel with his scourge mate. There was much rejoicing on that night, as I am sure there will be when you settle into your own home, West willing, with a mate, a boon mate, at your side.

Well, that is my story. In season, that’s all it will be. But for now, it is our hope and home. May the sun set kindly on it until such time as I walk her halls again.

Please give Ruby my love, for without her, you would not be. Nor would I, truth be told. I dare say none in the West would be much of anything without mates like her. She is more precious than her name makes room for. Pray—pray very hard, my son—that the West blesses you with one such as her.


Your loving father Jacob

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