PodCastle 622: Spoken For

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

Spoken For

by Evan Kennedy

Twenty-five years after the magic came back, Auden’s wife got turned to stone.

It was the dog’s fault. A cockatrice had been wandering Harlan County for the past few weeks, ever since some damn fool two towns over let a cock’s egg hatch instead of chucking it backwards over the roof. Auden and Ellaree had dealt with a ’trice before, though, and they knew all the new-time tricks. Usually when monsters were about, they’d lock up the goats and chickens, and then stay inside with the curtains pulled ’til the beast passed them by. But this time they couldn’t find the dog, and Ellaree went back out to look for it. Auden tried to stop her, observed she didn’t have a lick of sense, risking her life for some mutt. But she grinned, told him she loved that mutt, and he didn’t know a thing about love, then she went out anyway.

She always was hammer-headed, that woman. It was what he loved about her.

Auden didn’t go after her. He remembered the dragon-wards they’d taught him in the army, but that was twenty years ago. He wasn’t some wizard who could sweet-talk a ’trice. His brother Ty even told him as much when Auden turned up the next day with Ellaree under a sheet in the wagon, board-stiff and glassy eyed.

“Y’can’t blame yourself,” Ty said, awkward in the face of his brother’s grief. Auden nodded, but his ham and okra grew cold on the table as he stared out at the cloth-covered shape in the wagon. You learn to stick together when you’re the only Black kids in the county, so he and Ty were always close, but this was something he couldn’t talk about, even with family.

“Be obliged if you could look after the animals while I’m away. Might be a spell.”

“Gonna go see the shaman?” Ty ventured. Auden frowned and lifted one hand to pull at his beard, but his eyes never left the window.

“Reckon so.”

Five years after the magic came back, Auden Rune-Shot returned from the war.

He’d been so young before, just a stupid kid who lied about his age so they’d let him slay dragons. Pop named him James, for the apostle, and mama called him Auden, for the poet, so when they died in the rift that destroyed Nashville, Jimmy put his name on the line at the recruiter’s office in Lexington, James Auden Clay, with a flourish and went off to make their deaths mean something. But war changes skinny boys from Appalachia, and not just in their bodies. The new times wore away at names somehow, and in any case, the boys in the 8th Mounted Division all got nicknames.

You had to be a bit touched to want to be an echinemon rider, but they were still just kids fresh off the Xbox, and half of them were dead inside a year.

The kid from Appalachia found he was better prepared than most. His old man pulled him off the computer every other weekend to go hunting and fishing and camping, and while Jimmy was on his phone the whole time, he still learned a thing or two. Hunting dragons wasn’t so different from boars once you got past the scales and the teeth and the fire.

Most of the 8th wanted to dance with the wyrms, the way an echinemon did, swaying and striking like a giant mongoose. The boys figured they’d take up their swords and do the same, but Jimmy was an old-timey kind of guy and knew he’d be useless with a sword. The drones and the cruise missiles were long dead, true, but the older stuff still worked, and getting a rifle to fire wasn’t too hard as long as you learned to mind your manners with the spirits.

So Jimmy was patient. He would take the high ground, just like Pop taught him, then lie down, check the wind, and whisper some sweet-talking. Finally, he’d exhale and put a rune-carved bullet right through the monster’s eye.

They never saw him coming, thanks to his ’kinna’s sharp nose for dragon-flesh, and his sweet-talking was good enough that the gun never jammed. The 8th tangled with gray wyrms that could teleport through fog, and gecko-patterned swamp wyrms that swam in earth like a fish in water, and huge acid-spitting black wyrms with their six unblinking compound eyes, and Jimmy shot them all the same. He killed more dragons than anybody they knew, and before too long, sweet little Jimmy Clay from Kentucky had a new name.

He had worried nobody would understand him back in Harlan County, but he found the new times had worked their magic on Appalachia too. His brother, Ty, for one thing, wasn’t the plump little twelve-year-old he’d left behind with his grandparents but a gangly teenager going to dances and mooning over girls. Auden wanted to skip the Welcome Home Heroes shindig, but Ty insisted, and that’s where he first saw Ellaree Golden-Hair.

She’d been Ellaree Chatham when he left, a willowy kid, shy and quiet behind a tangled mass of blonde hair. She was only sixteen now, but the new times were working for her already. She’d grown up and filled out, and she could talk circles around the boys. When she combed out her tangles, her hair shone like the sun, and by the time they started calling her Golden-Hair, she was already on her way to being the prettiest girl in Lexington.

Ty noticed Auden staring at her and laughed. “That’s Ellaree of the Golden Hair. Ain’t she a fine piece o’ creation?”

Auden gave him a sidelong glare, but Ty rattled on with a younger brother’s shamelessness. “Ain’t no harm in lookin’. Every boy in the state’s in love with Ellaree. But,” and here he gave a mournful sigh. “She’s off limits. Already spoken for.” When Auden asked who, Ty said it was some city boy from Richmond, come over the mountains to make rifles for the war and richer than the gods.

Auden asked Ellaree for a dance, and she accepted. Plenty of boys asked her to dance that night, but none were quite so dashing or handsome as the dark man in the cavalry fatigues, because once you’d gone toe-to-toe with a charging ice wyrm and put a bullet through its neck-gills, a little thing like an engagement wasn’t going to stop you.

He’d met her fiancé that night too. Fulton Gunmaker was tall and pale and clean-shaven, where Auden was short and dark and bearded, and he carried himself like a guy who had never considered how to kill a dragon. Even so, the gunmaker was an impressive man, even before you figured in the fact that he was only twenty-three and already owned half of Richmond. And of course, it didn’t hurt that he was white. Here in this new-time world it would been nice to believe that didn’t matter, but later on more than a few people would whisper behind their hands when they saw Ella Golden-Hair being courted by a Black man.

Fulton and Auden shook hands with the decorum of two Southern gentlemen who are about to calmly remove their coats before shooting each other in the heart.

Twenty-five years after the magic came back, Auden went to see the shaman.

The old wizard lived on the island on the other side of Kentenia Bay, and sunlight glinted off the water in the old gorge as Auden hefted his wife’s stone body into the rowboat. He winced as he straightened, stretching his back, and heard his spine crack as he regarded the bay, trying to remember how many years it had been since the sea came to Harlan County. The valley had once been deep and wide and all lit up with the red-gold of autumn, but the men who could remember those days were few and far between, he knew. It made him feel tired. His Pawpaw had been over twice the age Auden was now before he kicked the bucket, but that was back in the old times. Maybe these days forty-one was when you started being an old man.

It was a short journey, but the island’s bank was steep and slick with leaves. The carmine-streaked wakerobins grasped at his legs with their fingery petals, murmuring toneless flower-songs, and his toes went numb. It took Auden twenty minutes to disembark with Ellaree on his back, and another hour to scale the carved-earth stair to the shaman’s cabin, but the upshot was that the shaman heard him coming and had the workbench cleared off.

The portly man in the camouflage bandana examined Ellaree over his mirrored sunglasses, grease-stained fingers probing at her marble face, while Auden stood by feeling antsy and trying not to show it.

“Now, y’gotta be honest with me here, you try any o’ them herbal rituals before you came to me?” the shaman asked, fixing Auden with his permanently dilated left eye. “Mandrake, peony, any o’ that?”

Auden shook his head. “No. Just snowdrop tea and some low wards.”

The shaman looked at him for a moment longer, trying to gauge his honesty, then nodded grimly as he went back to the body. “Good. Those are the scary ones. And they don’t work anyhow. Gotta leave curses to professionals. The mandrake’ll whisper to you, so you gotta be careful or you’ll go touched. And can’t go messin’ with peony, or we’ll have worse than ’trice runnin’ around these mountains. Saw a case ’bout twenty years back, old boy down Chattanooga way ate some peony. You believe that? It called up daemon, o’course. Tore out through his left eye, poor bastard.” Auden nodded, mesmerized by the wobble of the old wizard’s beard, while his mind raged. The shaman was babbling old war stories while his Ellaree lay there frozen on the table. Then he realized he’d missed something.


“I said, y’ain’t gotta look so down. You just hafta kiss her. There’s magic in a soul mate kiss, heavy stuff. She’ll be good as new.”

Auden swallowed. Yesterday he had slept next to her all night, trying to warm her, feeling her night-cooled marble skin scratch at his arms. The True Love’s Kiss was the first thing he tried, on her forehead and cheeks and mouth, desperate to soothe away the terror in her eyes.

“I already tried,” he said, like ripping off a band-aid.

The shaman’s eyebrows went up. “. . . you are her husband, ain’t ya?”

“I am,” Auden said.

“Didn’t have nothin’ on your lips?”

Auden felt his mouth tighten. “No.”

“Y’sure you got full mouth contact?” the shaman asked. “Full coverage? The placement can be hard when their mouths are—”

“I’m sure,” Auden snapped.

There was a long moment, then Auden asked, “What does that mean?”

The shaman took a deep breath, then let it out. Then his mouth crooked sideways, apologetic. “It means y’ain’t her true love.”

Six years after the magic came back, Auden and Ellaree had their first kiss.

He started writing her letters in the months after they met. The courier came to Lexington once a week to deliver goods to the open-air markets lining I-75, and each time he dropped off another thick envelope. Ellaree found them filled with thrilling war stories, playful flirtation, and gentle wit, and soon she looked forward to them.

She wrote back, laughing and cajoling and fighting, asking question after question. He claimed he loved her, but she scoffed, saying that he might know how to kill dragons but clearly knew nothing about love.

She would reread them while stretched across the bed with her golden hair streaming out around her, face flushed and heart pounding as she read about how much he wanted her. She told herself she should throw the letters out, but it was sexy and it was dangerous, and each Friday when she rose before the sun, reading his words alone in the darkness felt like the most romantic thing in the world.

He came to see her at midwinter. She danced with other men, but she felt his gaze on her the whole time, and when she went upstairs to the powder room, he followed. When he kissed her, she twined her arms about his neck and kissed him back, pressing her body against him. Fulton was a nice man, but she was seventeen, and no one had ever kissed her this way, this completely, as if they were trying to disappear into her. She felt his hands on her body, and she gasped, her mind racing, feeling sure they were going to do all the things he wrote in his letters, and that’s when Fulton walked in.

The day the magic came back, Fulton Applebaum was an eighteen-year-old factory line worker from Carytown on a night shift at the foundry.

There was an odd folding of the air, a slip-sliding lurch like a penny on the tracks of the world, and that was that. The manager emerged from his office to complain that the internet was down and found his workers gaping out the front window at dryads emerging from trees in the parking lot medians. Fulton pressed against the window, craning his neck to get a better view of the twenty-foot tall jackal-headed man tromping through the parking lot with screaming ghostly figures chained to his belt.

People began pulling out their phones, waving them aloft and uttering strangled cries when they couldn’t find a signal. Fulton held down the power button of his old Nokia, whispering please, please, please, and as he wished, he felt wings flutter past his left shoulder, and his left eye gave the ghost of an ache. Then he heard a voice in his head saying, Well, since y’asked so nicely, sugar, and his mind flooded with words in some unknown language. He spoke them aloud, and instantly his phone flickered to life with a cheerful bleep. He had full bars and no one to call.

While his coworkers went home to check on their families, Fulton jogged down to the museum, broke the plate-glass door with his elbow, and headed for the military history wing. He hauled weapons out to the back lot by the armful, trying to ignore the black lightning forking past swirling purple rifts in the sky.

He tested them all, taking notes on his phone about functioning technology and word pronunciation. The invisible creature stayed with him, her laughing-bell voice lilting in his head, and within a few hours he had a budding grimoire on his cell phone.

Once he was satisfied, he headed back to the foundry, fired up the line, and worked through the night. Two days later, Fulton drove down East Broad Street with a pallet of flintlock rifles in his uncle’s old pickup. He wouldn’t accept paper money, but after two days in the new-time world people were more than willing to barter for a working gun, and when he was finished, his truck bed was stacked high with bottled water, canned food, toiletries, medicine, batteries, gasoline, tools, and first aid.

Three weeks later, when Fulton’s old boss came to check on the factory, he found two burly men armed with rune-carved muskets and dilated eyes guarding the front door. Fulton ushered the man into his office and cut him a deal that let him stay on as a junior partner.

Two years later, Fulton the gunmaker was the richest man in Virginia. But money and power wasn’t much good if you didn’t have anybody to spend it on, so when Fulton met Ellaree with the golden hair, he knew she was the love of his life.

The night he found her kissing another man, he didn’t shout or curse or make a scene. He simply asked if she loved him.

“I . . . don’t think I know anything about love,” she admitted.

Fulton’s brows knitted. Another man might have given his opinion on love, and she might have believed it, because he was her fiancé, and despite everything, she was still only seventeen.

But instead, Fulton took her hands, and when he spoke, his voice was even and earnest, if a little firm.

“I don’t want you to love me ’cuz I said so. I want you to know for yourself. I just know I love you. And if you can love me too, I’m gonna marry you.”

She looked into his eyes, and then she kissed him, completely, as if she were trying to disappear into him.

Twenty-five years after the magic came back, Auden loaded Ellaree’s body in the wagon and set off for Richmond.

He considered taking the pickup truck, but it didn’t run like it used to, and the older he got the less the spirits loved him. They were fickle. And besides, revving an internal combustion engine in an enchanted forest was a good way to get you eviscerated by some vengeful fae god.

When he’d been a young man, the mountain passes hadn’t been safe, but there had been less to worry about. The 8th Mounted Division zigzagged the Appalachians a hundred times chasing dragons around, and they feared neither gods nor monsters, but they were also badass gun-toting warlocks astride toothy weasels the size of cars. Auden was an old man now, maybe, and more than once he wondered if the world itself was bigger than it had been when he was twenty-one and riding to Richmond to stop a wedding.

A hag followed him for the first few days, her skinless body flitting between trees in his peripheral vision, but he slept with a mason jar by his mouth so she couldn’t steal his breath, and eventually she gave up. In the ruins of Abingdon, he encountered a shadowboy and spent a nerve-wracking evening hiding on a roof and muttering words he disbelieved to confuse the scent of his soul. At night he would lie awake staring into the darkness as the duende lobbed pebbles over his wards, chattering in faerie falsetto Spanish and laughing uproariously when they scored a hit. There were rumors the bird-goddess Camulatz, who ate the heads of the first people, was nesting in the Appalachians these days, but thankfully he didn’t see any sign of her. By the time he made it to Richmond, over two weeks had passed, not counting the time he made eye-contact with a chaneque and spent three days wandering in the jungle-out-of-time, his head filled with the murdered creature’s guttural Nahuatl wails.

He was worn thin when he pulled the wagon up to the gunmaker’s mansion and, with his stomach turning, trudged up the wide front steps to knock on the door.

Seven years after the magic came back, Auden told Ellaree she couldn’t get married, because he was in love with her.

He rode three hard days from Harlan and arrived that very morning. By the time he made it to the church, she was already decked out in her white dress, and if anyone still doubted she was the prettiest girl in Kentucky — and maybe Virginia too — they couldn’t doubt it any longer. She was radiant on her wedding day. She even looked beautiful when she was angry, mouth agape as she watched Auden clamber through the dressing-room window.

“You don’t know anything about love, Auden.”

He was undeterred, though his blue jeans were still askew from scaling the drainpipe. “I’ve always loved you. I ain’t stopped thinking about you in two years. I rode here to win you back!”

“And that’s what you think love is? Climbing mountains?” She threw up her hands. “I’m not a woman to you. I’m a dragon you wanna slay.”

Auden was angry now too. She could see he hadn’t expected this to be so hard. He was still the soldier, the ’kinna rider, bursting in to save the day. He hadn’t considered that she might not need saving. “Well whatta you think love is?” he said.

She was ready for this, though. She’d been thinking about it for months, like practicing in the bathroom mirror. Her chin tipped up. “It’s stability! Contentment! It’s deciding what you want your life to be and finding it!”

But he was closer now, and she faltered. The war had worked countless wards for quietus and stillness into his body, and nowadays it was somehow hard to see him moving. Abruptly he was right before her, magnetic with his nearness. “You don’t want me to be your life?”

That gave her pause because she hadn’t thought of it in those terms. Maybe you couldn’t think of everything when you were just eighteen, but she realized she didn’t want him to go away. He was still Auden, her Auden, sexy and brave and wild, and abruptly she couldn’t remember what she’d spent the last year telling herself. He saw her pause, and he was closer, so close she could feel his heat. He whispered, “You are everything I want my life to be,” and that was that.

Twenty-five years after the magic came back, Auden knocked on the door of the gunmaker’s mansion.

He expected a squire or handmaiden, but no one came. He thought about turning back, but there was nowhere else to look, and his Ella was in the wagon, screaming in stone, so he knocked again.

Still no one came, so he tried the knob and found it unlocked. The lights were off in the foyer, but Auden hadn’t passed over the Appalachians to run from the dark. He went inside.

He could hear voices, but nobody answered when he called, so he loosened his sabre in its scabbard and did some sweet-talking, feeling his free hand drag with the weight of magic. But when he stalked across the entry hall on moccasin feet and made it to the den, he saw no dragon to slay, only the gunmaker lying back in a voluminous La-Z-Boy in front of the TV. The massive screen was tilted askew, its cord snaking across the floor to a raw wire tangled in the carpet. Spirit-lights flickered behind the screen, and their odd inhuman phonemes drifted through the room like a left-hand language of men.

“I know you’re there,” the gunmaker drawled, but Auden didn’t reply because he could make out the TV now and could see it was his wife, or close to it: Ellaree Golden-Hair before the strands of gray and the laugh lines. Spirits could try to copy faces, but they were thought-beasts, and to them one man’s skin was as good as another. They needed specific instructions to pull off a fax this good. Auden thought her eyes were too far apart, her smile a tad too wide, but otherwise the gunmaker had captured his wife’s likeness perfectly, recalling the angles of her face and the curve of her hip. Auden decided not to dwell on it, then dwelt on it all the same.

“She left me,” the gunmaker was saying. “If you’re lookin’ for Connie, she don’t live here no more. The kids neither.”

Auden found his voice, tearing his eyes away from the spirit-fax of his wife on the screen. “Not here t’see Connie,” he rasped, and he wondered when his voice had started sounding so tired, and so old.

The gunmaker arched his back, craning against the Naugahyde to examine Auden upside down. Then his eyes widened, and he spun, stumbling to his feet, an empty mug falling from the side table and shattering on the floor. “S’that you, Auden?”

Auden nodded, finding himself unable to meet the gunmaker’s eye. “Hiya, Fulton.”

“What’re you doin’ here?” Auden expected the man to slur and stumble like a drunk, but he could sense now that this wasn’t the case, for the gunmaker was focused, sharp, his twitching fingers teasing Auden’s heart apart at the seams, and there was no color in his left eye.

Auden swallowed, studying him. If their positions had been reversed, if Ellaree chose Fulton instead, he wondered, would this be him? Or would he have gotten over her and moved on? The answer was like a lead fishing weight hooked in his heart, but he took a deep breath and said what he had to say.

“I need you to kiss my wife.”

Thirteen years after the magic came back, Auden and Ellaree had the worst fight of their lives.

They stopped trying for a baby after the third miscarriage. If it had just been a matter of trying to get pregnant, they could have gone on trying for ages, but they couldn’t stomach the thought of going through nine more soul-crushing months.

The next day Auden flagged down the horseback librarian and found some wards against fertility. He spoke the words alone that night in the shower, cupping his testicles. When the spirits answered, he felt a dull ache, mingled heartbreak and relief, and a kind of horrible guilt. As he sat there under the dribbling water, he was struck by the absurdity of the moment, a ridiculous anticlimax, the hopes and dreams of six years of marriage dashed by Auden in the shower playing with himself.

When he told Ellaree, she just nodded, not looking away from the washing, and he stood next to her taking the dishes and drying them before putting them away in the cupboard. They were close enough that their shoulders were touching, but they didn’t say anything, and Auden could feel the space between them filling up with the three baby girls they lost.

It took another year before he got frustrated enough to confront her with the fact that they never talked anymore.

“What d’you expect me to say?” she snapped, because she was frustrated too, and she didn’t know how to get her husband back.

“Something,” he yelled. “Anything! They’re gone, we gotta move on.”

But bringing up the children was a mistake, because she felt the loss even more secretly than he did, treasured her splinter of pain. She glimpsed their echoes still, a baby’s wail or eye-corner flashes of tiny running forms, and she would still rise from bed to check the empty hallway when she heard tiny shoes patter on the old hardwood.

They yelled at each other, their left pupils stretching wide to slivers of color around empty black holes as they weaved curses through the old house, the despair and pain hanging from every doorframe like translucent streamers, screaming and crying and arguing through the whole day and into the night, and afterwards Auden went to sleep on the couch, feeling angry and sick.

It was almost three in the morning when Ellaree made a ward-knife of her hand and cut through the tangled weave of their hexes, working her way to him. Wordlessly, she wiped the clinging spirits from his body, then slid under his arm and pressed close against his side.

“I’m sorry,” he said after a moment. “I love you.”

“You don’t know a thing about love,” she murmured, but she held him tighter, and for the first time in over a year, she fell asleep in his arms. The next morning, it wasn’t fixed, but somehow the edges weren’t quite so jagged.

Twenty-five years after the magic came back, Auden and the gunmaker stood over Ellaree’s body, frozen on the couch.

“Makes sense,” the gunmaker muttered. He was excited, but Auden had expected as much. Whatever their differences, he and Fulton Gunmaker had never lied about what they wanted, and there was no reason for that to change now. Auden understood what it was like to be in love with Ellaree Golden-Hair. But all the same, it didn’t stop him from feeling the urge to strangle this man who was so deliriously fated to love his wife.

“Is she aware of us? Of what’s goin’ on?” the gunmaker asked, an inventor’s curiosity as poor cover for a lover’s hesitance.

Auden shook his head. “Don’t rightly know. The shaman back in Harlan thought so. Hard to be sure.”

Fulton nodded, his gaze still on Ella’s face. “Best to uh . . . do it quick, then, I s’pose?” He perched on the couch next to her, his face half shadowed from the flickering television.

“Prob’ly so,” Auden managed, his stomach roiling as he watched Fulton lean down between Ellaree’s shielding arms. Then Fulton brushed his lips against hers.

It was immediately obvious it was going to work. All three of them felt it, the spirits felt it, everyone in Glen Allen probably felt it, decades of power and life and True Love released all in one moment. Ellaree’s body stirred, slowly at first, then the stiffness worked from her limbs as her lips responded, deepening the kiss, and her outstretched arms curled down, tightening around his neck, pulling him against her, and he kissed her fiercely as the magic worked through her body, breaking the curse with the purity of his affection, and that’s when Auden left.

He threw his things into the wagon, wadding the tarp and stuffing it under the seat with shaking hands, and he was so blinded by tears that he had to grope for the reins. He barely managed to whistle to the horse between wracking sobs, and they moved off along the cracked asphalt towards the long, deadly journey back to Harlan, trailing spirit-slaves of despair on long chains.

He went a hundred yards before he heard Ellaree calling his name. He turned in his seat, one hand covering his mouth, and he could see her sprinting after him, her ratty blue hoodie flapping behind her as she ran. He jerked the horse to a stop and struggled down from the wagon, tears streaming down his face, and then she was in his arms, holding him too tight, and her voice whispered in his ear, “Auden, honey, my Auden, you saved me, oh God, you saved me . . .” He bit his lip so hard he feared it might bleed.

After a moment, Auden gathered his strength and pulled away. She was looking up at him, her eyes shining, and she touched his face, smoothing away tears. “Oh, honey, what’s wrong? Where are you going?”

“F-Fulton. He . . .” Auden swallowed hard, speaking through hitching breaths. “He . . . loves you. More . . .” he gritted his teeth, screwing his eyes shut so he wouldn’t have to see how beautiful she was, because this was the last time he would ever see her, and it hurt too much to say, but he said it anyway. “More than I do. You should b-be with him. You . . . always shoulda . . . shoulda been with him.”

There was a pause, and when he opened his eyes again, her gaze scalded him. “Maybe so. But you’re my husband. I told him that. He understands.”

Auden shook his head, feeling more tears rising in his throat. “No. No, no, no. I can’t hold you back f-from your destiny. Not anymore.” He gritted his teeth. “The way we met . . . the way I seduced you? The kids? Oh, God, our baby girls . . .” and she winced at this, but he barreled on, reckless. “It was a sign, it was all a sign. I was gettin’ punished. And what about Fulton? You saw how he is!” He pulled back from her again, farther this time. “He loves you.”

She stood there for a long moment, frowning at him. Then she crossed her arms. “All these years, and you still don’t know a thing about love.”

Auden blinked. “What?”

“That’s still what you think love is! You and Fulton both! Whoever cares the best wins! If you follow the rules and say the right things at all the right times, that you can earn it.” She was moving towards him now, reaching up to cup his cheeks, and he was powerless to stop her. “What about what I want?”

“You . . . you want Fulton. He’s your . . .” Auden swallowed. “He’s your true love. You woulda been happier with him. Better off.”

She shook her head, giving him that half-smile. “I could have been happy with Fulton, but that doesn’t matter now.” She pressed closer to him, her elbows bending against his chest as she moved into his arms, and he held her, instinctive. “I chose you, Auden,” she said. “I told you the day you climbed through that church window, it’s about choosing to love someone, no matter what. I’m not gonna let some magic tell me who I hafta be with. You don’t hafta be good enough for me. Don’t hafta slay any dragons, climb any mountains. Just . . . love me. The best you know how. ’Cuz that’s how I love you.”

He swallowed hard, looking down at his wife, at the way her eyes searched his face, and he kissed her then, long and slow and gentle. They stood there for a long time before they mounted the wagon and set off back towards Harlan County.

On the way home they were ensnared by the bird-goddess Camulatz, who ate the heads of the first people, and she tried to have them sacrificed in the ziggurat atop Mount Rogers but found she had to let them go instead because even her obsidian teeth turned aside blunted on the skin of those touched by true love.

About the Author

Evan Kennedy

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Evan Kennedy is an Alabama native who reads so many fantasy novels that it took him twice as long as normal to earn his PhD in Psychology. He has been previously published in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine and Daily Science Fiction. He lives in Alabama with his wife and his passive-aggressive rescue dog.

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About the Narrator

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.

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