Black Dog

By: Rachel Neumeier


1




With one fingertip, Natividad drew a pentagram on the window of the bus. It glimmered faintly, nearly invisible, light against light: protection against danger and the dark and all shadowed things.

Well, almost all. Some, anyway.

The glass of the window was cold enough to numb the tip of her finger. The cold was always a shock; she somehow never expected it, even after all these days of travel. It was cold inside the bus, but she knew it was much colder outside. Of course winter temperatures here fell way below zero, but she hadn’t guessed what that would be like. She hadn’t known that air could be so cold it actually hurt to breathe. She knew it now.

The countryside framed by her pentagram’s pale glimmer was as foreign and comfortless as the cold. The mountains themselves were almost familiar, but Natividad recognized nothing else in this high northern country to which she and her brothers had come. Driven by enemies behind and hope ahead… though now that they were here, this didn’t look much like a country of hope. But they had had nowhere else to go. No other choices.

Natividad glanced surreptitiously sideways, reassuring herself that, even in this cold and unfamiliar country, her brothers hadn’t changed.

Her twin, Miguel, in the seat next to her, was reading a newspaper he’d scrounged somewhere. That was certainly ordinary. He turned the pages carefully in a vain attempt to avoid irritating Alejandro. Across the aisle, Alejandro was staring out the opposite window, pretending not to be annoyed by the rustling pages. Natividad saw the tension in his shoulders and back and knew how hard his dark shadow pressed him. Despite everything she could do to help her older brother, his temper, always close to the surface, had been strained hard – not only by the terror and rage and grief so recently past, but by the unavoidable awareness that they were running into danger almost greater than they’d escaped.

All the strangers on the bus didn’t help, either. All along, wanting no one behind them, Alejandro had insisted that they sit together in the rear of the bus. Though it was nice to sit in the front so you could get off faster when the bus stopped, sitting in the back was alright if it helped Alejandro keep his shadow under tight control. Even if it was harder to get a good view of the road. Natividad looked out her window again. She could still see the pentagram she’d drawn, though by now it would be completely invisible to ordinary human sight.

Out there in the cold, mountains rose against the sky, white and gray and black: snow and naked trees and granite and the sky above all… The sky itself was different here, crystalline and transparent, seeming farther away than any Mexican sky. The sun seemed smaller here, too, than the one that burned across the dry mountains of Nuevo León: this sun poured out not heat, but a cold brilliant luminescence that the endless snow reflected back into the sky, until the whole world seemed made of light.

Beside Natividad, Miguel leaned sideways to look past her, curious to see what had caught her attention.

“Nothing,” Natividad said in English. She had insisted on speaking nothing but English since they had crossed the Rio Bravo. Miguel and even Alejandro had looked back across the river, toward the home they were leaving behind. She had not. She wanted to leave everything behind: all the grief and the terrible memories – let the dead past drown in that river; she would walk into another country and another life and never look back.

“It’s not nothing,” her twin answered. “It’s the Northeast Kingdom. It’s Dimilioc.” His wave took in all the land east and north of the highway.

“Just like all the other mountains,” said Natividad, deliberately flippant. But Miguel was right, and she knew it mattered. Since St Johnsbury, all the land to the east was Dimilioc territory. She said, “I bet the road out of Newport is paved with yellow bricks.”

Miguel grinned. “Except the road is lined with wolves instead of lions and tigers and bears, Dorothy.”

Natividad gave him a raised-eyebrow look. “‘Dorothy?’ Are you kidding? I’m the witch.”

“The good witch or–” Miguel stopped, though, as Alejandro gave them both a look. Alejandro did not like jokes about Dimilioc or about the part of Vermont that Americans called the Northeast Kingdom – almost a quarter of the state. Natividad knew why. Americans might be joking when they called this part of Vermont a “kingdom”, but she knew that there was too much truth to that joke for it to be funny. Dimilioc really was a kind of independent kingdom, with Grayson Lanning its king – and everyone knew he did not like stray black dogs. They were all nervous, but Alejandro had more reason to be afraid than Miguel and far more reason than Natividad. Fear always strained his control. Natividad ducked her head apologetically.

“Newport,” Alejandro said, his tone curt.

It was. Natividad had not even noticed the exit signs, but the bus was slowing for the turn off the highway. Newport: the town where all the bus routes finally ran out. Just visible past Alejandro’s shoulder, Lake Memphremagog glittered in late afternoon light. Natividad liked the lake – at least, she liked its name. It had pizzazz. She stretched to catch another glimpse of it, but then the bus turned away from the lake and rolled into the station and she lost sight of the bright water.

Newport was the town closest to Dimilioc that did not actually fall within the borders of the Northeast Kingdom. It was smaller than Natividad had expected. Clean, neat, pretty – all the towns this far north seemed to be clean and neat and pretty. Maybe that was the snow lying over everything, hiding all evidence of clutter and untidiness until the spring thaw should uncover it. If there was a thaw. Or a spring. It was hard to believe any spring could thaw this frozen country. As she got off the bus, Natividad pulled the hood of her coat up around her face and tried to pretend she was warm.

“You must get out of the cold,” Alejandro said abruptly. He closed one long hand around Natividad’s arm, collected Miguel with a glance, and led them across the street toward the hotel on the opposite corner. He scanned the streets warily as they moved, scenting the cold air for possible enemies.

Natividad made no effort to calm her brother. She hoped and believed they’d left all their enemies behind them – even Vonhausel would not dare intrude on Dimilioc territory – but they were intruding here, so how could Alejandro be calm? She didn’t argue about the hotel, either. It looked alright. It looked like it might be expensive. But everything in Newport was probably expensive, and her brother needed to feel like he was in control, and they would only be there one night, after all.

Miguel heaved their pack up over his shoulder and hurried to catch up. “We need to find a car–” he began.

“Not today,” snapped Alejandro. “It gets dark too early here. You can’t go alone to look at cars, and Natividad is tired and cold and needs to rest.”

Miguel, catching Alejandro’s tone and not needing Natividad’s warning glance, said meekly, “Maybe tonight I can find a newspaper with ads. Then I can figure out which cars we should look at tomorrow.” Alejandro nodded curtly, not much interested.

The hotel was expensive, but they only needed one room. They got a room with two beds, but Alejandro wouldn’t sleep, of course – certainly not after dark. He stretched out on his stomach on the bed nearer the door, on top of the bedspread, his chin propped up on his hands, his eyes open and watchful.

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