During the day, dappled green and gold
sunlight played around the graves in Conall's cemetery. Cool, quiet woodland
bordered three broad, gated sections, tree branches overreaching a tall iron
fence, vines growing through and around scrolled-iron bars. He kept the
tombstones clean and neat, scraped the moss from the mausoleums, and trimmed
the worst of the overgrowth. He'd never clear away all the natural brush,
however. It gave his cemetery a breath of quiet serenity.
Today, though, a thorny growth of
brambles breached a little too far onto the grounds, creeping up toward an
ancient pair of gray headstones. The inscriptions on those two stones had long
eroded away, but Conall devoted an entire afternoon one spring, years ago, to
deciphering and re-engraving the names of two young children, twins. Shyla sat
behind him on another marker, swinging her little legs back and forth and
watching him. He hadn't ever chided her for sitting on the graves. He'd didn't see
any harm in it.
The bramble clung stubbornly to the
trellis of an old mausoleum gate stuck in the ground, and Conall spat out an
oath as he lost his grip. It sprang back to its anchor, scoring his palms with
"How did the blasted thing creep so
far in like this?" he growled, shooting an icy glower at the dark, gnarled
creepers. He hadn't been by this corner of the graveyard in several days, but,
still, he'd never have missed an intruder this overrun.
"It wasn't so bad yesterday,"
Shyla offered in a thoughtful tone. She leaned forward from her perch to
inspect the bush. "I came by here to have a picnic under the willow."
"Well, it didn't sprout into a
monstrous weed overnight," Conall grunted as he seized another branch and
strove to untangle it.
Shyla cocked her head like a curious
bird and swung her legs again. Though sitting on the graves had never been
taboo, she still carefully avoided kicking the stone with her heels.
"Maybe the woman caused it to
spring up. She could have been a witch, I suppose."
Conall paused and shut his eyes, quietly
reminding himself to be patient.
He'd never been a fanciful or
superstitious man, not by nature. He saw his graveyard as a simple thing, the
community burial ground, and he tended it in dutiful respect. His daughter, on
the other hand, precocious little creature, continually pondered the stories
and secrets of its inhabitants. This wasn't the first time she'd taken up
interest in one or another personality buried here, talking about witches or
fantastic creatures hiding in the small surrounding wood.
course, he'd always tell himself, she's a child. Children are imaginative.
Lately, though, he worried about it
more. At her age, such nonsense became less charming and more...weird.
"It's almost lunchtime," he
grunted as he finally pried an arm of gnarling limb away. Tossing it aside, he
wiped his brow. "Shall we go in?"
Shyla hopped off the grave, smoothing
out her overalls, and nodded.
"Goodbye Luke, Lucia," she
said, giving a tiny bob of a curtsy to each of the little graves. "We'll
come back later to cut away the rest of it."
About a year ago, Shyla had decided the
twins buried here had drowned in the river, clinging to one another as the
current overtook them. She'd spent some weeks pondering aloud if they'd run
away from home to escape an evil stepmother, or if they'd been following
fairies through the woods and become lost. Conall frowned to himself as she
turned away from their graves and started skipping back to the house ahead of
He sighed, rubbing at the back of his
damp neck. Even in the shade, the day had grown outrageously hot. He carefully
arranged his heavy toolbox and set it aside, by the mausoleum, before following
his daughter up toward the house. He wanted a cold splash of water from the
backyard pump, and then the cool interior of his kitchen. Most days he began
work in the cemetery at dawn, and today he'd risen with the sun as normal. He'd
earned the midday break. Before he came back, he'd set Shyla to her own chores.
It'd do her good to get out of the old boneyard for a while.
Limping up the hillside to the higher,
newer areas of the grounds, he didn't notice Richard Trask waiting at the
cemetery gates, until the other man called out to him. Trask, a slight bit
paunchy, took shelter from the sun under a broad oak tree, and the shadows had
hidden him for a moment. Now, as he came toward Conall, waving, the
groundskeeper crossed his arms over his chest and nodded a welcome.
"Alderman," he greeted.
"Hot as all blazes out, isn't
it?" Trask said cheerfully. "How's the leg?"
"About the same as ever," Con
replied. "Course, it hurts worse in the cold."
"And how are you and your
Conall glanced up toward the house.
"Well enough. What brings you by?"
Trask paused before answering. Conall
recognized the usual wariness his neighbors all appeared to suffer when
visiting him in the graveyard. Tossing a quick glance over his shoulder, he
followed Trask's gaze to the statue at the center of the main ring of
Maya. Conall's stone angel.
Frustration pricked at the back of his
neck. He'd always been sure the neighbors' discomfort had something to do with her.
"Well?" he asked Trask.
"What brings you so far out of town, Alderman?"
"Father Frederick wanted to invite
you to lunch," Trask said. "I had an errand to run over at the
Dillons' farm so I told him I'd pass on the message."
Father Frederick was the local priest
and quite possibly Conall's one "friend" in the small village of
Whitetail Knoll. Conall nodded to Alderman Trask. "Thanks for passin' it
along. I'll be there," he said.
Trask owned the tavern where Father Fred
most often liked to meet. Before he turned away, his gaze flickered up to
"How's the girl, then?"
"She's fine," Conall grated.
He tried not to betray the annoyance it gave him when others asked about Shyla
too much. They never hid their doubt very well, as though he would be incapable
of raising a child on his own. Everyone knew Shyla wasn't really his daughter.
They believed her to be his niece instead, taken in when his sister died giving
birth. He let them think so. Their nosy disdain would be even worse if they
found out Con had no sister, and in fact, no kin left at all. He and Shyla were
not even distantly related.
Trask caught the brusque tone, and his expression
"Will you be bringing her along
tonight?" he asked. "The wife'll have a dinner ready for her, if you
Conall considered and then bobbed his
"Right then," Trask said. An
awkward silence settled between them, until the alderman tipped his cap and
added, "We'll serve at sundown. Don't be late."
He watched Trask leave, thinking maybe
he'd been a bit uncharitable. His temper might be shorter than normal thanks to
the bramble and his stinging palms.
He turned and spent a long moment eyeing
What was it
about her that always spooked others away?