Wild Country – Anne Bishop

jana Paniccia followed the gravel paths through the memorial park. There were no cemeteries on the continent of Thaisia, no individual gravestones, no family mausoleums unless you were very rich. Cities couldn’t afford to waste land on the dead when the living needed every acre that they were grudgingly permitted to lease from the terra indigene who ruled the continent. Who ruled the world. They had smashed and torn that harsh truth into humans around the world, and only fools or the blindly optimistic thought there was any chance of things going back to the way they had been before the Humans First and Last movement had started the war against the terra indigene here in Thaisia and in Cel-Romano on the other side of the Atlantik Ocean. Instead of gaining anything from the war, humans had lost ground—literally. Cities had been destroyed or were no longer under human control. People were running to anyplace they thought could provide safety, thinking that the larger cities were less vulnerable to what the Others could do. In that, too, humans were wrong. The destruction of so much of Toland, a large human-controlled city on the East Coast, should have taught people that much. But this wasn’t a day to think about those things. Jana found the large flower bed with the tall granite marker in the center. There were no graveyards, no gravestones, in Thaisia, but there were memorial parks full of flower beds and small ponds, with benches positioned so the living could visit with the dead. She looked down the double column of names carved into the granite until she found the two she’d come to see. Martha Chase.

Wilbur Chase. The foster parents who had taken her from the foundling home and raised her as their own. There hadn’t been even a birth certificate left with her when the Universal Temple priests had found her on the temple doorstep. Just a printed note with her name and birth date. All bodies were cremated and the ashes mixed with the soil in these flower beds, the names carved on the granite the only acknowledgment of who was there. Martha had loved growing flowers, and Pops had always tended a small vegetable garden in their backyard. She was the one who had no skill with the soil, no matter how hard she tried. She knew a rose from a daisy, understood the difference between annual and perennial, and, most of the time, had dug up weeds instead of flowers when she tried to help Martha tidy the beds. You have other talents, Pops used to say with a laugh. Other talents.

Gods, she hoped so. They had died in a car accident just a week after she’d been accepted into the police academy—one of only three women to be accepted. She’d spent the first few months struggling with her classwork and the hostility of her classmates while traveling from Hubb NE to a village near the Addirondak Mountains to meet with the Chases’ attorney and take care of her foster parents’ estate. There wasn’t much. Martha and Pops had never been interested in things, but the sale of the house and furnishings was enough to pay off the school loans she’d taken out to attend a community college while she tried to get accepted into the police academy. It was enough to pay for the academy and living expenses. She’d been frugal, but if she didn’t get a job soon … “Hey, Martha,” Jana said softly after looking around to make sure she was alone. “Hey, Pops.” She sat on the bench, her hands folded in her lap. “I graduated from the academy.

The only woman who stuck it out. Martha, you always said I was stubborn, and I guess you were right. I have a meeting with the academy administrator next week. Hopefully it will be about a job offer. The gods know, every human community needs cops right now, and everyone else in my class has already been hired by towns in the Northeast Region, which lost officers last month because of the war. But I know there are positions that haven’t been filled yet because no one wants to take a job in a village stuck in the middle of the wild country. They say that’s just delayed suicide. Maybe they’re right, but I’d take that chance.” She looked at the flowers growing in the bed and wished she could remember the names of some of them. “I came to say good-bye.

It’s getting harder and harder to purchase a bus ticket, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back here again. And if I’m hired —when I’m hired—I may be leaving in a hurry.” She paused. “Thanks for everything. When I get to wherever I’m going, I’ll light a candle in remembrance.” Jana hurried through the park, gauging that she had just enough time to reach the bus stop near the park gates and catch the bus back to Hubb NE. She hoped that by this time next week she’d be heading to another town to do the only job she’d ever wanted to do. “I CHAPTER 2 Windsday, Sumor 25 quit.” Tolya Sanguinati studied Jesse Walker as they faced each other over the counter in Bennett’s general store. The look in her eyes made him think of the lightning that sometimes filled the sky in this part of Thaisia.

Despite being a dangerous predator—far more dangerous than the humans here appreciated—that look made him wary. “You can’t quit.” “Oh, yes, I can.” He took a step back and considered. It was tempting to point out that, since she didn’t actually work for him, she couldn’t, technically, quit. But Jesse Walker was the unofficial leader of Prairie Gold, a small Intuit town located at the southern end of the Elder Hills. As such, she was his most important human ally. He couldn’t afford to lose her knowledge or cooperation, so it probably wasn’t a good idea to point out anything. Erebus Sanguinati, the leader of all the Sanguinati on the continent of Thaisia, had told him to take over Bennett after all the humans had been slaughtered by Namid’s teeth and claws. The town had a train station that serviced all the ranches in the area, as well as Prairie Gold.

That made it an important place that the Elders would no longer allow humans to control because, under human control, the trains that traveled back and forth across the land had brought enemies to this part of Thaisia. Had brought death to the Wolfgard and other shifters. Every place inhabited by humans was in turmoil right now because no one knew how many of those places had survived. With quick communication between regions severed by the Elders’ destroying the telephone lines and tearing down the mobile phone towers all along the regional boundaries, e-mail and phones of any kind were useful only within a region. But even within a region, no one really knew whether a phone went unanswered because someone wasn’t in the office at that moment or because there was no one left in that town to answer it. But the rest of the Midwest Region wasn’t his problem. Right now, his problem was the slim, middle-aged, gray-haired woman who had been helping him prioritize the tasks necessary to keep the train station open and to deal with urgent things like spoiling food and pets that had been left in residences. Until he traveled to Prairie Gold to be Grandfather Erebus’s eyes and ears, Tolya had lived his whole life in Toland, one of the largest cities on the entire continent. He’d had the most extensive human-centric education available to the terra indigene and had been among the Sanguinati who monitored the television newscasts and the newspapers as a way of keeping an eye on what the duplicitous humans might be planning. And he’d been among the Sanguinati who had actual contact and dealings with government officials and businessmen.

But those meetings had been formal, official, devoid of personal contact and feelings beyond the loathing each side felt for the other. Nothing in his education or years of experience had prepared him to deal with messy, daily interaction with humans who had no interest in being formal, official, or devoid of personal contact. Even his previous interactions with this woman while he helped her and the other residents of Prairie Gold prepare to hold out against humans trying to cut them off from supplies hadn’t prepared him to deal with her now. “Why?” he finally asked. “Because you’re not listening,” Jesse Walker snapped. “I listen to everything you say,” Tolya countered. Her right hand clamped around her left wrist. Jesse Walker was an Intuit, a kind of human who had a heightened sensitivity to the world, and her people had feelings about everything from animals to weather to sensing if someone was lying. Each Intuit didn’t have feelings about everything—their minds would break under that kind of strain—but each developed a sensitivity that matched who they were or the work they did. For Jesse Walker, it was people, and an aching left wrist was her tell that something about a situation made her uneasy—and the more severe the ache, the more dire the situation.

“I have listened,” Tolya said again. “But perhaps I’m not understanding?” He watched her anger fade. Her right hand still cuffed her left wrist, but the hold was looser now. He wondered if her wrist would be bruised. “What are we doing here?” Jesse Walker asked. “Are we just cleaning up what will become a ghost town with a few people manning the train station or are we doing something more?” An important question. Looking at her, Tolya realized his answer would do more than decide the fate of this town. It would ripple throughout Thaisia in the same way that Simon Wolfgard’s decision to hire Meg Corbyn had started ripples that were part of the reason he was here in this town trying to figure out this woman. If Simon were standing here right now, Tolya would cheerfully snap the Wolf’s neck. Then again, if he tried to be fair, Simon hadn’t known that taking in one stray human female would end up with the terra indigene trying to help—and even protect—packs of humans.

“Not a ghost town,” he said carefully. “Bennett is no longer a human-controlled town, but that doesn’t mean it has to decay.” “Or that its workers are transient?” “They aren’t meant to be transient. Some of the young humans who have come here don’t feel this is the right place. They came for adventure … or something.” “They came for opportunities,” Jesse Walker countered. “They came because their home communities in the Northeast Region are crowded and it’s hard to find work, hard to learn a skill. And many of them left home for the adventure. But they also left what they knew because, suddenly, there are a lot of empty human places in the Midwest and Northwest. I have the feeling that there won’t be any new human places.

Not for a long time. Not in Thaisia. Humans made too many mistakes over the past few months for the terra indigene to tolerate us anyplace we aren’t already established. So if the empty places aren’t reinhabited now, they’ll fade away.” “I don’t think the Elders will allow humans to move back into those empty places,” Tolya said. “Not alone, no. But there are terra indigene and Intuits working together here to take care of animals and make decisions about the food in the houses. And there’s a lot more that needs to be done. Decisions have to be made about every single thing in every single residence.” “I can’t do that,” he protested.

“Neither can I. That’s why you need more than strong young men who will happily eat all the ice cream and cookies they find in the empty residences but don’t know what to do with the medicines. And whether those Elders of yours were justified in killing everyone in Bennett, those people may still have family somewhere who would appreciate having the personal effects. Having young men with a lot of energy and strong backs is great, but you also need skilled labor and professionals if you want this to be a viable town. Why can’t we create a place where terra indigene and Intuits and Simple Life folk and other kinds of humans can live and work together? Learn from each other. I got the impression that the Lakeside Courtyard and the Intuits in Ferryman’s Landing were trying to do exactly that—build a new community that had room for everyone.” “Dangerous.” Tolya looked out the big front window of Bennett’s general store. “If the wrong kind of human comes here …” “I know. No one can afford to make a mistake.

” “Then how do you suggest we get these new citizens?” They heard the clip-clop of a horse coming down the street. Barbara Ellen Debany, their pet caretaker and almost-vet, waved at them as she passed the store. “Same way you got her,” Jesse Walker said, smiling as she released her left wrist long enough to return the wave. “Have someone else screen the candidates before they get here, and then you make the final decision about who you want living in this town.” She took a folded piece of paper out of the back pocket of her jeans and handed it to him. “Ideally, those are the professions and skills you should have in Bennett for starters.” Tolya unfolded the paper. His eyebrows rose as he studied the list. Then he looked at Jesse Walker. “Anyone from Prairie Gold who might want to fill a position?” “Kelley Burch.

His skills are wasted in Prairie Gold, and there is a jewelry store here that needs someone to run it—and Kelley would have a better chance of selling some of his own designs, whether he sells them in Bennett or sends them on to someplace back east to sell on consignment. I’m going down to Prairie Gold tomorrow. I’ll talk to him then.” “You want to spend time in your own store.” She nodded. “I need to be home for a couple of days.” “I’ll get this list out as quickly as I can.” The Elders weren’t allowing the telephone and V telegraph lines between the regions to be restored except under special circumstances. He could call or e-mail Jackson Wolfgard, who lived in Sweetwater, a settlement in the Northwest, but reaching Lakeside in the Northeast Region required extra time and effort. As he left the store, he looked at the Intuit woman and wondered if Jesse Walker would come back and continue to help him.

Then he noticed that she was no longer holding her left wrist—and he breathed a sigh of relief. * * * irgil Wolfgard stood next to a tree near the south end of the town square and watched the human female and the blue horse walk toward him. The wind was in the wrong direction to carry his scent to the horse, which was meandering across the paved street toward the grass in the square, and the female seemed too preoccupied with something that wasn’t right in front of her to control the horse or notice the predator who was watching her. Not noticing was dangerous, something the female should have learned while she was still a puppy. He stepped away from the tree, putting himself right in front of the horse. The horse snorted and planted its feet, causing the female to grab the saddle horn for balance. “Easy, Rowan, easy,” she said. Then she gave Virgil a wary look. “Sheriff.” “Barbara Ellen.

” Virgil looked at her companion. “Horse.” His brother, Kane, who was in Wolf form, joined them, causing Rowan to snort again. Barbara Ellen gave Kane a wobbly smile.“Deputy Wolfgard.” Virgil held up a small red collar. She took it and read the tag attached to the collar. “Fluffy,” she said sadly. “She was a nice cat.” “We didn’t eat it,” Virgil said, anticipating the question she didn’t dare ask.

“Too much fur and not enough meat.” “Not much of an epitaph for poor Fluffy.” Maybe not, but that wasn’t important. He and Kane hadn’t killed the cat, but something had torn the animal apart. Not for food. For fun. And that something wasn’t any form of terra indigene. “The horse was paying attention,” Virgil said. All right, the horse was more interested in reaching the grass, but it did notice him first.“You were not.

Why?” “I was thinking about some stuff,” she replied. He didn’t ask what she was thinking about. He just stared. “But I should pay attention when I’m riding,” she added. “Yes.” Virgil stepped aside. So did Kane. Barbara Ellen pressed her legs against Rowan’s sides—and grabbed the saddle horn when the gelding bolted out of reach of the two Wolves. Virgil shook his head as he watched her reestablish dominance and slow the horse to a walk. he told Kane, using the terra indigene form of communication.

The only good human was a dead human. He hadn’t thought much of that species before the Humans First and Last movement had attacked the Wolfgard. He thought far less of them after those humans slaughtered his pack, leaving him and Kane the only survivors because they’d been ranging ahead of the pack, looking for game. They’d come running back when they heard the guns, but by the time they arrived, the pack was dead or dying, and the humans were gone. They’d followed the trail of the trucks until scent markers made by Namid’s teeth and claws crossed the trail. Not willing to tangle with the Elders, he and Kane had returned to the small wooden den the pack had used to store items useful to those who could take human form. After packing the little they could carry in Wolf form, they had headed away from what had been their home territory, looking for humans to kill. Instead, they ended up in Bennett, where the Elders had erased the enemy and yet were allowing those creatures to return. He’d never seen one of the Sanguinati until he’d met Tolya, who had been given the task of making sure the wrong kind of humans didn’t try to reclaim the place. But for that, Tolya needed humans as well as many forms of terra indigene.

And he needed enforcers who were strong enough and feared enough that humans would follow rules and not become troublesome. That was how Virgil ended up the town’s dominant enforcer, with Kane being the second enforcer. He didn’t know anything about human law, hadn’t spent much time around actual humans until now. But if one of the two-legged threats caused trouble, he knew how to stop them dead in their tracks. And blood in the street would be a good reminder to the rest of them of why they should behave. And then there were the two-legs like Barbara Ellen he felt reluctantly compelled to protect. He walked along the edge of the town square, which served as a park surrounded by the town’s original business district. A natural spring was the reason for the grass and trees—was the reason the town had been built there. The spring had been semicontained by human-made barriers, but the water still bubbled out of the ground, providing drinking water for everything with fur or feathers—and humans too. When he came abreast of the general store, he stopped and waited for Tolya to cross the street and join him.

“Was there a problem with Barbara Ellen?” Tolya asked. Virgil cocked his head. “Why do we call her that? The humans call her Barb.” “Barbara Ellen sounds dignified. I’m hoping she’ll grow into the name, like a puppy grows into its big feet.” “Huh.” That made sense, except … “She’s young but she’s an adult, not a pup. Do you really think she’ll grow into a dignified name?” “I am hopeful.” Tolya’s dry tone made Virgil smile. Barbara Ellen Debany had ties to the Lakeside Courtyard because her brother was a police officer who worked directly with Simon Wolfgard.

That made her special among the humans who were in Bennett. And being special meant he had the task of trying to keep her out of trouble. Which made him think of the way she tended to want to befriend any and every critter. “Are there any Snakegard here?” he asked. “A couple of Rattlers arrived last week. Why?”

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