The hovel was only barely visible in the moonlight, appearing to cant to one side in a grove of ancient oaks. The shack didn’t have any windows, but thin lines of light outlined the doorway.
A lingering trail of smoke faded into the night above the roof.
Someone appeared to be home.
And if Carter “Arrow” Heth was told rightly, the occupant was an Appalachian warlock – a sorcerer unmatched anywhere in Virginia as far as ability and practice of the occult were concerned. Carter looked to his son, Mason, who stood just a few feet away. The face of the younger man was masked in shadow, allowing the affirmation that Carter sought to elude him.
Between the father and son, the cold clay of the daughter was draped over the back of an old pony. Sarah Heth had died two days earlier from fever, seeming to ruin the fortunes of her family in the process. Carter and Mason had brought the shrouded corpse of the young woman six miles into the Virginia wilds on the back of this played out Connemara as a last resort.
Before her death, Sarah was betrothed to Zechariah Collins, who owned a wealthy indigo plantation near Suffolk. Collins had met Sarah during the war and became shamelessly smitten with the country lass. The Collins plantation survived the Yankees unharmed, and, when Lee surrendered, Collins made clear his intention to take the simple but gorgeous Sarah Heth as his wife.
Sarah traveled home to invite her folk to Suffolk for the wedding, despite the initial reservations of her father. Virginia was in turmoil, and Carter Heth was just pleased to have his daughter back in Clarksville. However, Zechariah Collins was not a man to be denied. He sent word that, in exchange for Sarah’s hand in marriage, he would make a comfortable place on the Collins plantations for her father.
Although the war had taken everything from Carter Heth but his children, such an offer was simply too good to pass.
Of course, that was before Sarah was struck down by a fever the day before the Heths were to set out for Suffolk. The ensuing sorrow and desperation had brought Carter and Mason Heth to the warlock. Carter Heth didn’t believe in magic, and the nickname he earned during the war spoke to his sensibilities. He was Carter “Straight as an Arrow” Heth, and old “Arrow” gave no second thought to any hogwash.
Just outside the hovel, Carter and Mason lifted the body from the pony and lowered their loved one to the ground. Mason tied the pony to one of the gnarled oaks, and Carter rapped his knuckles on the timber door.
There was no response.
Carter knocked again, this time more forcefully.
Mason looked to his father and shrugged. The younger Heth stepped forward to try his hand.
The door unexpectedly creaked inward, releasing a plume of steam.
A thin, ghostly voice emerged just behind these cloudy vapors.
“How may I help you?”
Carter waved a hand in front of his face, attempting to clear the odd fog that materialized from within the shack.
“A friend told me that you know your way with the dead,” Carter said confidently.
“Your friend is not mistaken,” the voice replied, “depending on the circumstances.”
“My name is Carter Heth. I’m from Clarksville. I need help with my daughter.”
“Come in,” the voice directed, and the door seemed to collapse inward.
Carter gestured to his son, and the pair lifted the dead Sarah over the threshold.
The hovel was very small and dark. A spindly fire crackled with life in a stone hearth. The floor consisted of a few flagstones. The walls were adorned with shelves, displaying all manner of vials, apparatuses, and the remains of small animals.
Carter and Mason lowered Sarah to the floor and closed the tattered door.
The warlock was apparently absent. The Heths were uneasy, but Carter had not lied when he said that a good friend suggested the services of this particular recluse.
The door shuttered open behind the Heths, revealing a slender man carrying several scraps of wood. A long, dark cloak covered his entire body. His hair was short and the color of coal. Round pearl eyes dominated a face covered with stubble.
“So often the cold death of winter robs spring of the promise of life,” the warlock said coolly. His spoke with a thick brogue.
The Heths moved aside as the warlock walked through the doorway and toward the hearth.
“I hope you won’t mind if I tend the fire,” the warlock said without paying either man or the accompanying corpse much mind.
Carter waited a moment before starting to tell his tale. He desired that the warlock revive his daughter. He offered the warlock a sack of coins, which he pulled from his coat and dropped onto the stone floor.
The warlock turned from the fire and lifted the sack.
“I sold my land,” Carter explained. “That’s all I’ve got.”
The warlock stood and the sack seemed to disappear within his cloak. He rubbed his hands over his face in contemplation.
“Move the body before the flames,” the warlock directed.
Carter and Mason did as instructed and then stepped back. The warlock knelt down beside the corpse of Sarah Heth and chanted a few words before placing a hand on the girl’s covered face.
Carter leaned close to his son.
“What the hell is he saying?”
“I’m not certain.”
The warlock continued his strange speech. He placed his right hand on Sarah’s chest and brought his left hand to his forehead.
“I wouldn’t know.”
Pulling back the shroud, the warlock dropped his head down and pressed an ear against Sarah’s bare chest. He was clearly listening for a heartbeat.
Carter’s hopes briefly soared, only to crash suddenly when the warlock replaced the shroud and quickly stood.
“The girl is dead,” the warlock said softly.
“She must be buried. There is consecrated land near to this place.”
“What?” Carter asked and stepped forward forcefully. “Is that part of the ritual?”
“What the hell am I paying you for?”
“Last rites,” the warlock said flatly. “You told me she’s been dead for two days. She is certainly dead. The body must be buried.”
The warlock produced a spade from one corner of the hovel.
“I want her alive!” Carter demanded.
“That’s not possible,” the warlock replied, “but I’ll see to the burial myself. That’s the least I could do considering the fee.”
“I want her alive!”
“Your daughter is with God,” the warlock replied coolly.
Carter was incensed that the warlock – a practitioner of the dark arts – dared to reference the Heavenly Father.
“I want every last guinea back that you took from me!” Carter shouted as his battlefield passions immediately reignited. He reached back for his son and pulled the young man forward as if a charge was in order. The enemy might as well have been Grant or Sherman.
The warlock gracefully spun toward his attackers. The spade was gone, replaced by a serrated dagger from within his cloak. Without hesitation, one of the warlock’s skeletal hands wrapped firmly around Mason’s neck, stopping father and son in their tracks.
“You paid for my help,” the warlock said calmly, offering a faint smile.
Carter Heth didn’t respond. He found his eyes were trained on the dagger that seemed directed at his own heart.
“I find the Heth children look strikingly similar,” the warlock offered. “I can’t raise the dead, but I can help the living.”
The warlock now directed the dagger toward Mason Heth.
Carter found his mouth go dry at the apparent suggestion. He prudently pushed his lower lip over the upper counterpart.
This was no hogwash.
This was a matter-of-fact suggestion that could get the Heths to the indigo fields of Suffolk.
Mason Heth turned a stark white.
The warlock angled the dagger downward.
“We won’t even need a spell – just prayer and some very careful stitching.”