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KINDRED RITES by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel is from Book View Cafe.

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"...we are all Death's pupils, we practitioners—
students of the great healer."

When magic broke free in my blood, I chose to follow our ancient family path and become a practitioner. I'm learning to heal, and to protect innocents. I dip into minds, stalk vampires, and set wards by the light of the moon. I can hear the children of the night calling.

But there are other families...and other paths. Families with twisted ambitions and frightening powers. On the frontier, folk whisper that one clan is the most dangerous of all.

Chief among those dark sorcerers is a man known as the Keeper of Souls.

And now he wants to keep mine.

Excerpt from KINDRED RITES

      Unlike folks across the sea, we did not exchange gifts on St. Nicholas's Day -- we received too few gifts to do that. Christmas in our community was family and church. Christmas Eve we had supper and leftover cake with our evening tea, and Papa read to us from the Book of Luke. What presents there were would come after church and dinner the next day, in honor of Christ’s birth.

      Days were short in the winter, and the solstice was just past. This meant the boys were going to bed early. Even Josh did not stay up long -- he had handled all the livestock himself that day, plus run Momma’s errands in Sun-Return, and he was tired.

      I was tired, after standing in the kitchen most of the day. It felt good to sit on a cushion before a roaring fire and sip tea without an audience. The poltergeist had been very quiet since the dancing sprigs of holly. We’d heard footsteps upstairs while eating supper, but that was it.

      It was very nice to sit in the living room without the scraps of fabric attacking me.

      Marta was working on a square of her latest quilt, called Fish Tails for its sharp edges. She really liked working triangles, and this pattern was a challenge -- it took eight colors. Since the scrap bag was full, she’d decided to deplete it a bit. I was still addled by her design, which was much more complicated than the Irish Chain I was doing. Marta was piecing the overall coverlet in her head from the center out, so that in case she ran out of a few remnants, the blocks would gradually change color.

      "Ready for a lesson?" Marta said suddenly.

      I blinked, surprised by the question. "Tonight?"

      Marta lifted her head to meet my gaze; a half smile flitted across her lips. "No time like the present," she offered, tugging her thread back through. "Between fetches and poltergeists, I think it is time for you to learn the first of the major arcana."

      Suddenly I was wide awake, and there was an ache in my chest, like I couldn’t catch my breath. Between fetches and poltergeists, I’d been feeling a bit ragged, truth to tell. I wasn’t sure I was ready just then for any more surprises.

      "Christmas Eve?" I clarified. Marta had conducted a ritual on the solstice a few days past, but as a neophyte, I had not actively participated. Christmas was also a good time for ceremonies?

      Marta looked amused. "’Tis said that ghosts walk on Christmas Eve. Can you think of a more appropriate -- or safer -- time to look beyond the borders of our world?"

      "Ghosts?" Well, now...spirits were interesting. I straightened up.

      "Actually," Marta began, pinning her needle in place and setting aside her square, "the first major arcana you must learn is how to call upon Death." Turning to smile at me, she added, "Nothing else is truly frightening after you have faced Death."

      I just stared at her, a sinking feeling in the hollow of my stomach. "Death isn’t really a person, is it? I thought that was just poetry, in the Bible...."

      "Death is a spirit," Marta said softly, her hands folding in her lap. "Some claim it is Azrael, the angel of death. Most people never see Death -- or never know it is Death they see at the last. Death can wear many faces -- Death can be anyone you have ever loved or known who has gone beyond. The face chosen is usually whomever the failing person wants most to see. And so the dying are comforted as they step over into the next life."

      The angel of death. Lord and Lady, these were deep waters now. "Do we find those people over there?" I finally whispered.

      "We may. Death is ambiguous when answering questions about the other side of life." Marta looked a little evasive herself.

      "Death will answer questions?"

      Marta nodded as she stood up. "That is why a practitioner calls upon Death, to ask questions. But it is not done lightly. You do not ask Death anything that can be answered by anyone or anything else. You have to work at the answers -- Death does not make things simple."

      As she started for the kitchen Marta added, "And you never, ever ask about your own death. That is the one question Death will not answer."

      Rising to my feet, I threw the big pillow over on the pile and started after her. "What are you going to ask Death?"

      "This is the only time that you call upon Death when you have no questions. When you begin learning the major arcana, you must introduce yourself to Death." Looking back at me as she lit a single taper from the kitchen fire, Marta went on: "All apprentices learn this spell first. Once you have cast it, Death will know your call, and may choose to answer you."

      I thought about it, and shivered. "May choose?"

      Marta smiled and went into the stillroom. "When Death is invited, Death may choose whether to come." Her voice grew lower as she continued. "The only way to guarantee Death’s arrival is to kill something. Soldiers do it all the time but rarely see Death passing by. However, if a practitioner kills to demand Death’s presence, it changes the relationship."

      "Changes?" I hesitated at the doorway of the still room. Relationship?

      Marta returned to the kitchen holding the candle and her carpetbag of wands, wards and beeswax candles. "Death is a friend to a practitioner, Allie," she said solemnly. "Death is the last, great healer, who takes away the pain we cannot ease. It’s not Death people really fear -- it is suffering. Death will answer specific questions concerning healing." She stopped before me, her expression grave, if you’ll pardon the word. "Once you shed innocent blood to summon Death, you are no longer perceived as a healer. You become...something else. You become an enigma to watch, and perhaps a danger, a black sorcerer."

      "Death no longer trusts you?" I asked slowly, watching her eyes.

      Her brows lifted slightly, and she said, "Perhaps. I try not to attach emotions or attributes to Death. Death is not human, and helps us for obscure motives. Death never volunteers information -- but Death always answers." Setting down the bag on the table, she began to take out things. "Sometimes the answer is no," she added.

      "Is Death male or female?" I asked quickly, more to hear someone speak than to know the answer...which was a good thing, because Marta was done answering questions.

      "Both, and neither. Get your coat." As I looked at her in surprise, she said, "We do not need ritual robes for this ceremony. Just fire and water, tobacco, blood, and honesty."

      I was halfway into my coat before I realized Marta had said blood.

      Might as well have not bothered with the coat. No mere sheepskin was going to warm my body, much less my soul.

      Not this Christmas Eve.


      Marta had disappeared earlier in the afternoon, and had been gone much longer than a visit to the outhouse would require. I’d wondered where she was, but had not asked -- practitioners sometimes need solitude, and prying is the worst form of rudeness.

      Now the evidence of her sojourn outside lay before me. In the clearing behind the barn the snow had been scraped down to the ground in a circle about nine feet across. A small cone of wood was carefully placed in the center, ready to be lit. Marta had not changed into her shapeless purple silk gown or let her hair down. Tossed over her shoulder was a small leather bag. In oiled leather boots, woolen gloves, and a sheepskin coat covering her wool dress down to her boot tops, she seemed a strange figure to be staging a major ritual. Her only visible tool was a warming pan carrying a couple of live coals.

      As we arrived at the scraped circle, Marta reached into the bag and pulled out her athame, the black-handled knife all practitioners use. She made a slashing motion on the east side of the area, and gestured for me to enter the shoveled ring. Following me inside, she gestured once again with the athame, and I felt a snapping sensation thrum against my left side. Apparently Marta had set wards earlier, when she created the circle. It looked shoveled, but who knew? Maybe she had cleared it with magic.

      "The ward is not necessary once the circle is drawn, but a ward is a good precaution when you have the time and strength to create it," Marta told me, sliding her knife into its sheath.

      "Why isn’t it necessary?" Might as well ask now, before things got busy.

      "A good question, but I can’t tell you why. All I know is, when the circle has been drawn and closed and Death called into it, negative influences shun the area."

      So...even demons feared Death?

      Pulling her metal goblet from her bag, Marta set it at her feet and then heaped snow into it. When the cup was overflowing, Marta touched the warming pan to the metal bowl. As the snow melted she continued heaping the goblet, until it was nearly full.

      "You’re not going to pull water out of the air?" I finally asked. I’d seen her do that very thing more than once -- three nights earlier, in fact, for the solstice.

      Marta shook her head, a gesture barely visible in the eternal twilight of a winter night. "That is a major form of magic, one you cannot yet do yourself. This is your ritual. Also, the air is too dry." Standing, she gestured for me to approach the center, and then poured the coals over the cone of dry wood.

      A little encouragement from breath and tinder, and the wood caught fire easily. It was a fragrant blaze -- there were oak, apple, and a sliver of resinous pine or cedar. Once the fire was burning brightly, Marta turned toward me and offered her knife to my left hand.
      I hadn’t even seen her pull the athame back out....

      "This is almost the only ritual a practitioner performs that requires blood. It demands the blood of the person casting the circle -- you. Take the knife and just prick the index finger on your right hand. You need a drop of blood in the goblet. That also provides your salt for purification."

      Oh, my...I could not believe what I was doing on Christmas Eve. Would Momma send Papa to look for us, or would they be mumchance about our absence? Would they even notice we were missing from our beds?

      Standing there shivering, I knew full well that there was no getting out of this ritual. Marta was an adept, a fully trained practitioner. She could stay out in the cold for days without ill effect. My toes would freeze off long before she agreed to go back inside.

      Lord and Lady, my mind was spinning like a windmill. Sighing, I held up the silver knife to my right hand, thought about something else, and let the sharp tip slide across the surface of my first finger. The pain registered immediately, and by firelight I could see a dark drop welling up.

      "Shake it into the goblet," Marta instructed. I did as she asked.

      "Now take the knife, dip it in the water and stir, preferably clockwise, three times." Solemnly I did so. "You are ready to draw your circle. Start east, as always, and end there, drawing an unbroken line with the water. You keep dipping the blade into the water to refresh the line. When in doubt, you can pour the circle, gently, so it doesn’t roll away."

      Stifling a sigh, I moved to the edge of the cleared snow and began drawing my circle. "What if I run out of water?" I said haltingly.

      "You may stop, melt more snow, and put more blood into it," Marta said simply.

      Ask a foolish question...

      I did not run out of water, I’m glad to say. I had a complete line circling the cleared area, although I could not tell by firelight if my ritual was complete. Marta solved that for me -- she muttered a few words, and a faint red glow, like foxfire, was visible, as if I’d made the circle with live coals.

      "Now the inner circle?" I said, looking over at Marta. At her nod, I backed up a step and made another complete circle within the first.

      Then I ran out of water and had to heap the goblet once more. It’s always more painful to get blood out of a cut when the slice has started to close, but I managed. Marta told me what to write between the rings -- the names of the angels who are said to guard all who petition for their help. Raphael protected from the east, Michael from the south, Gabriel the west, and Uriel from the north. Between the names I drew crosses. Then, I turned back to my teacher.

      "And... ?" I prompted.

      "Only those names and the cross," Marta replied.

      I looked down at the circle I’d drawn, and then back at Marta. Suddenly I felt hot inside, flame searing down my veins. "This is all?" Marta nodded. "And we’re protected?" Marta nodded again.

      Didn’t seem like enough to protect from Death. But maybe that was the point -- there was no protection.

      "Black magicians and black witches do not draw circles of this type," Marta said quietly. "They certainly do not call upon angels for protection from demons -- they call upon the dark god, Satan, who has ruled the amoral and vile since the dawn of time, to protect them from his servants."

      Anything I might have said seemed wasted breath, so I simply nodded.

      "Remember, this is not a summoning."

      I thought about it a moment. "So the forms used to call upon spirits don’t really hold?"

      Marta smiled and her fingers brushed my cheek. "You can’t threaten Death with the wrath of angels, my dear -- remember that some say Death is an angel. You are appealing to a force. It’s not a prayer --Death cannot create life, it is not one of the powers that be. You are offering up an invitation to a spirit."

      Her last words gave me a clue. Marta must have seen the change in my face, because she held up a finger to stop me from speaking. "There is one last thing you need." Reaching back into her pouch, Marta pulled out a tiny leather bag. "Open your hand." When I did so, she took out a hefty pinch of a dried and crumbled plant and placed it on my palm. "Death can always be found in the coiling smoke of burning tobacco. I suspect that’s part of why the Indians respect it and call it sacred. Toss this into the fire before you begin. You will end by flicking the rest of the goblet water into the blaze."

      I closed my fingers over the flakes of tobacco to keep any errant breeze from stealing them. Glancing quickly at the flames in the center of the ritual circle, I thought of one last question: "What name do I use to speak with Death?"

      Again Marta smiled that sudden, twisted smile that only echoed her usual expression. "You may use the earthly name your parents gave you, or the Craft name we selected on the equinox -- although you have had good luck using no name. Your calling must ring like a solitary bell, its voice known to all."

      She was reminding me that I’d actually had the nerve to call on the mother goddess without identifying myself, back when we were trying to lay that ghost. It was almost enough to make me grumble. I knew I was to use my Craft name in invocations -- I didn’t know I was to use it when praying.

      I’d had my first magic name three months, since the equinox, and had yet to use it. Time to break it in...

      Suddenly I was warm all over, almost too warm for my heavy coat. I undid the big horn toggles and let the garment hang loose. Then I turned to face the bright fire. Inhaling deeply, I took about a third of the crushed tobacco and tossed it into the flames.

      The familiar smell of burning tobacco filled my nostrils. It seemed stronger than what Papa used, more biting. As the smoke rose into the cloudy sky I managed to swallow once, and then said, "I call upon you, Azrael, great healer of the ages, most compassionate of spirits, who knows all that we are and might ever be. I, Alfreda Alethia, come before you to announce my intention and offer you my service. I was born a healer, and now learn all the mysteries you have yet revealed, to better practice my calling."

      I gulped some air and tossed more of the tobacco into the flames. "In a circle drawn with the wine of life, I ask you to look upon me and listen to my petition, so that you will know me as a healer when I call upon your name." I inhaled once more, to finish my request, but nothing else came out as I realized that someone -- something -- was seated on the other side of the fire.

      In form it was a young man wearing buckskin, his skin the color of fresh ivory, his hair so pale a blond it looked white by firelight. I could not see his eyes, but I knew they would be a pale blue...and that there was a smattering of freckles, like sand, etched across his nose.

      It was a face much like my own, except that my eyes were like Papa’s, as blue as the sky. Fury seized me, and I threw the last of the tobacco at Death -- useless, as it floated into the fire. "How dare you!" I shrieked. "How dare you choose that face! How could you choose it?"

      Death’s expression did not change. "I was not uncalled."

      "I most certainly did not choose my brother! Don’t you have a face of your own?"


      I stood there, suddenly uncertain. Marta had told me the exact truth -- Death answered questions, and no more.

      "Why do you think I chose that face for you?" I asked, my voice quieter.

      "Perhaps because you felt you never properly said good-bye," Death suggested evenly. His -- its -- face did not change expression.

      There was truth in that. My last words with Dolph had been ordinary words, brisk words dismissing a troublesome little sister.

      "I miss you," I said simply. "Someday I’ll forgive you for acting stupid and touching that wolf’s mouth. I know you couldn’t guess it was a werewolf, but still...to toss all your learning out with the wash water just to impress some fool young men -- " I stopped then, knowing I was addressing Death as if it were Dolph. "I loved him."

      Death seemed to waver before my eyes, becoming an image of smoke. My eyes watered in response. When I could see again, Dolph no longer sat across from me. Now it was an elderly woman in a dress with many petticoats, her beautiful shawl held in place with a cameo, her cap trimmed with a wide band of lace. The gaze upon me was sharp. She seemed to be sitting on air, as if an unseen chair were present.

      "Do you understand about the triad yet, Allie?" Her voice was low for a woman’s, almost gravelly, as if she had spent her life speaking through smoke. My great-grandmother had been a great practitioner in her time...she had read a lot of futures in the curl of a smoking fire.

      So...not only could I question Death; Death could question me.

      "I know that I am rooted in life, Gran, and you in death, and that there’s love between us," I told her, reaching up to finger the woven silver necklace at my throat. It, like the bracelets that matched, had once belonged to Great-grandmother Emma. "The triad is always those three things, but what they mean changes like a breath of wind."

      "The meaning never changes, my dear," she said gently, smoothing her full skirt with one hand like she always did, "but which meaning we recognize flickers like sunlight on the face of a pond. It never repeats itself."

      "I’ll do right by you, Gran," I said impulsively. "I’ll learn these things."

      Emma Schell’s sweet smile slipped out. "I know you will, Alfreda Golden-tongue, Veritas. You were born to walk in the Dark on the Other Side. You will bring light wherever you tread."

      I blinked and frowned. Those were not names I remembered from anywhere. "Why do you call me that? It’s not my name."

      "It will be."

      What else was there to say? "When?"

      "Sooner than you think."

      So much for questioning Death. I guessed future names fell into knowing your own future, and such information was hard to find and uncertain.

      It dawned on me that I’d gotten mad at Death and thrown something at it. Death had not responded -- whether from courtesy or because response was not its nature, I did not know.

      Maybe it was time to fold my cards and leave the game. ...

      "I thank you, Azrael, for your courtesy in coming to face me in this circle, and for your answers to questions I did not know I had." Lifting up the goblet, I dipped my hand into it and flicked the blood-tinged water into the flames. "Farewell to you, until we meet again."

      "It will be soon," Death said implacably as it wavered and disappeared like a windblown candle flame.

      I flung the water in an arc of droplets, causing the fire to hiss. Then I turned toward Marta.

      She was not looking at me; she was looking at the spot where Death had been seated. "Well done, Allie," she said softly.

      I would have felt better about the whole thing if she hadn’t been frowning when she spoke. That ended Christmas Eve for me, as at the age of thirteen years I first met Death face-to-face.

      God rest you merry, gentles all, and peace on earth to folk of goodwill.

[The following text is a passage from the novel KINDRED RITES. This text is copyright © 1997, 2014 by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Jonathan Matson, Literary Agent, Harold Matson Company, Inc., Associate: McIntosh, McKee & Dobbs, Inc., 276 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10001 TEL: (212)679-4490, FAX: (212)545-1224, E-mail: hmatsco@aol.com.]


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