When the colonists first came to Sydney they brought everything they thought they would need. They brought labour — in the form of the convicts — they brought their sheep and their cattle and their guns and their ideas. They brought death and destruction to the Kooris and called it education.
They also brought their spirits.
To be wild in the old country was impossible. In the far north of Scotland, where the moors and the cold kept out all but the most foolish of settlers, a few pockets of the old spirits stayed, but every year civilisation came closer and every year they became more crowded and frightened. So when the humans started pushing out towards uncharted territories, it was only natural that the more adventurous of the spirits did the same.
Easier by far to be a spirit in the wild in a country where the people were spread thin.
They started going missing just as the rain came. Disappointing, that such good fortune — steady, unseasonable rain in the middle of a drought that most thought was the will of God — should come coupled with the disappearance of so many good workers.
“Mankin’s only been gone a few days,” Will Cuddon said to his father. Both men were sitting on the verandah of the main farmhouse, looking out at the misting rain that had been continually falling for weeks. Mal Cuddon nursed a mug of his wife’s home brew, but had taken only a few sips.
Good for the crops and the grass, this rain. Rain like they’d used to have in the old country, Mal’s father would have said. Mal had lived in Sydney all his life, and rain for him came in quick short bursts that soaked clothing and made fields into lakes, not this light mist that settled in your bones and your heart and made you think it would never be bright again.
Rain was a blessing in this country, not a curse, something to be celebrated, but even Will, with his dull senses, knew there was something wrong.
“Mankin’s not the type to run off with a native woman,” Mal said. “He’s not missing. He’s dead.”
His son eyed him. Mal could be harsh sometimes, but he generally avoided absolutes.
“Are you sure, Father?”
Mal took a long pull of his beer. “Yes.”
The drovers talked about the wild horses whenever they got together in groups, of course. There were legends about brumbies that could run for days, faster than the wind. In reality of course, they were mangy beasts, half-starved and sick from snake bites. Hardly worth the effort of chasing them down. A horse was expensive, though, and the thought of simply picking a colt from a herd without forking over half your wages was tempting for a young drover hard on his luck. Sometimes a bloke would catch one. Sometimes the horse would survive to be a good worker.
Most often they were untameable.
Will Cuddon had never had to bother, of course. His father’s wealth and his sister’s sense and their extra talents meant that he had his pick of the breeders whenever he needed a new beast. They took care of their animals, the Cuddons.
Three drover disappearances in so many months. It wasn’t so unusual. The colony was still a dangerous place, even close on a hundred years after it was first established. The new settlers who came found it harsh and unforgiving and complained bitterly about everything from the weather to the wildlife. People died.
It was when they found the blood and the liver, by the side of the billabong, that they came to Mal to ask for help.
Mal sent Saoirse and Will to check it out. Will knew why Saoirse was there, and he also knew why he was there with her. On her own, Saoirse could muster cattle as well as any man on the estate. On her own, Saoirse helped birth nearly all their calves, and worked in the fields more hours than Mal most days.
The men treated her well enough and never got on her wrong side, but there were forms to be upheld, and Will, as the eldest boy, had expectations to fulfil. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered, when he knew as well as anyone that in the end Saoirse would inherit. She was the eldest, and she would be head of the Cuddon farm. Saoirse told him he was stupid and that she would need him even if they did manage to wrangle getting the farm put into her name. “And if you think I’m going to marry one of your blockhead idiots and churn out babies you’ve got another thing going, Will. This is your farm and mine, no reason why we can’t share.”
Will wasn’t sure. Will didn’t know if he could stand to live in his sister’s shadow, always looked to second instead of first.
At the edge of the billabong, though, he privately admitted to himself that he was glad of his sister’s solid presence. She knelt by the soggy red pool of blood, the organ torn from flesh and left to float like some obscene water plant. The violence that had been done here was otherworldly. There was a reason the drovers had come to Mal Cuddon and not Reverend Peters.
Will did not have the talent, and couldn’t feel anything untoward around them. The men who had brought them here, though, were clustered together like frightened children under a spreading gum, steady drips of water soaking them as they watched his sister crouching in the mud. Perhaps Will was just stubborn, or perhaps he had an immunity to these feelings. Maybe that was what made him so useful to his sister.
Saoirse crouched for several minutes, examining the remains. Mankin’s gear was still beside the billabong, his swag and his billy over the long-dead fire. There was no sign of his clothes though, just the liver and the blood. When she stood up, her face was grim.
“Tell the men,” she said to Will, “To stay away from water.”
Will cocked an eyebrow, indicating the rain that still misted down. “Hard,” he said.
“Running water. Billabongs. Creeks. They’re all overflowing at the moment. Under no circumstances are they to approach any wild brumbies. No matter how they look. Make something up if you have to, but any idiot that tries to catch a wild horse out here is going to end up exactly like Mankin.”
“He’s dead then?”
“Brother, you can’t walk around without a liver. Mankin especially couldn’t.” She sighed and stood up, running a hand through her hair and replacing her hat. The rain made everything glisten, and water was beginning to seep into Will’s boots. The men who had brought them here were muttering amongst themselves and Saoirse gave him a look.
“I’m going,” he said. “How I’m going to convince them to stay away from wild horses and water is another question.”
“Use your charm,” Saoirse said, moving to her mare and swinging into the saddle. Will sighed.
Makelesi Cuddon served the joint of lamb with stewed vegetables to her five children, jaw set in anger. Will’s mother was from the islands, mistaken for a native woman by the local villagers out of spite, despite that she had landed the best catch in Sydney. There were whispers about her fidelity, whispers about the parentage of her eldest child (although Saoirse, with her red hair and massive build, was far more the picture of her father than any of the other four) and whispers that she was any number of things.
The township would be scared out of their wits to know that not Makelesi, but Mal was the one who had magic. Dependable, generationally wealthy Mal, who was not governor, but could be, had he any interest in anything other than the care of his cattle and his men and his children.
Will’s twin, Bridget, ushered the younger children in to sit at the table, giving her brother a look as she did so. “The men are mumbling that you’re trying to catch the horse yourself, brother,” she said.
Will rolled his eyes at Saoirse. “I told you this wouldn’t settle easily, Sisi,” he said. Saoirse spooned stew into her mouth, winced as Makelesi whacked her elbow off the table.
“They’re idiots,” she said. “We’re going to have to go out and find it before it kills again.”
“Not while the children are at the table, Sisi,” Makelesi said, eyeing the boys, twelve and eight respectively, covered in mud from playing outside in the rain.
“Sorry Tina,” Saoirse said, using the island word for mother she only used when she was cowed.
Makelesi was pretty much the only one who could cow Sisi.
“Kills what, Sisi?” Hugo had started shovelling stew into his small mouth as soon as he sat. Will noticed that his mother didn’t bother to try to get the small boy’s elbows off the table first. Younger children were to be indulged, it was Tina’s way.
He was sometimes nostalgic for the days when he could sit at the table mud covered and rude.
Mal came in, knocking mud off his boots at the doorway and sat at the table. He made a halfhearted attempt at getting the boys to stop gulping their food so fast they made themselves sick, and had a few quiet words with his wife.
“Will, Sisi, I’m going to need you outside straight after dinner,” he said.
His sister gave him a look and Will gave her a look right back.
On the verandah, Mal looked out over the fields and the line of trees that marked the woods where the thing had killed.
“Do you know what it is, Father?”
Sisi stood with her arms crossed over her chest, grim faced. “It’s a pooka,” she said.
“What’s a pooka?” Will said.
Saoirse sucked in a breath. “Water spirit. It takes the form of a horse, most of the time. This rain is its doing, then?” she directed the last question to their father.
Will raised an eyebrow. “How did it get here?”
“Same way we did,” Mal said, matching his daughter’s grim tone. “We knew some of the spirits would make their way here. I hate to think what the ship it travelled on was like, when it arrived. There were a few where most of the crew died. One last year where all the cattle did as well.”
Four months on a ship with an angry, hungry spirit. The decks would have run with blood. Will shuddered. “How do we kill it?”
“If it’s a minor pooka, Saoirse should be able to deal with it,” Mal said.
“If it’s not?”
Mal looked at his son. “Then we have trouble.”
“So I’m to be the bait, then, Sister,” Will said.
“I don’t look stupid enough to be tempting,” Saoirse said.
They were tracking the last known location of the pooka, Saoirse using what magic she could in the rain, while Will sat on the back of his horse and was miserable. Constant wet had started to get everyone down — the spiders and snakes had started to infiltrate the house. Tina was complaining that she hadn’t had to cope with mould like this in her platform house on Samoa. “You close yourselves up, lock away the world and make all other creatures invaders!”
Will had no sensitivity to magic at all. While his sisters both had the talent from Mal and the boys were too young to have shown any signs, Will and Tina were the only two of the family who were stubbornly, permanently mundane. He told himself he was not jealous, was told by Mal that his inability to work with the forces of nature was not why Saoirse and not Will was likely to inherit the farm, comforted by Tina who regarded her husband’s and her children’s powers as something to be utterly ignored at best and outright mistrusted at worse. In his more honest moments, he acknowledged that there was still jealousy, of course there was. Of the other. Of something not his.
Magic had its uses. Their herds were the healthiest in the region, their meat and milk the best. When a drover was hurt in the muster, Saoirse would bandage the wounds and they would be healthy and free of infection far more quickly than drovers who worked for the other landlords. Their tenant’s farms gave fruit more often, their crops did not fail save in deepest drought.
“You’re angry with me,” Saoirse said as they rode. Her dryskin shone dark and wet in the fading light. They would need to stop soon and make camp.
“Always,” Will said. She laughed and he clenched his teeth.
“Good,” she said. “The pooka will be attracted to strong emotions. When it comes you’ll need to convince it that you want to ride it. Take its attention. I’ll pretend to sleep until it’s time to attack.”
“You’d best be pretending, Sister. I do not wish to end up without a liver.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be dead long before it extracts your organs.”
“How does it kill?”
Getting a fire started in rain was a chore, even with the wood they had kept under their dryskins. Saoirse held up her saddle blanket to stop the worst of the water drenching the kindling while Will used flint and tinder to spark the flame. Fire magic was showy and risky in the bush — usually because it ran the risk of starting bush fires — but in this instance Saoirse was adamant no magic could be used. The pooka would sense magic, and stay away. There was no point in Will being bait if the pooka knew it was a trap.
They drank hot tea in the misting rain, hats pulled low over their eyes as they sat. Saoirse turned a spit roast shoulder of lamb over the fire, the smell of roasting meat supposed to be another lure for the spirit they wished to kill. It was difficult to keep it cooking, the fire spat and hissed and tried to die, and was only kept alight with constant attention.
The muster was still ongoing — herds were being moved to higher ground to escape the floodplain. If the rain continued for much longer it would be just as bad as drought. Cattle could not graze underwater.
They ate, and Saoirse rolled herself up in her swag and pretended to sleep. Will sat under the inadequate tent of his dryskin, poking at the spluttering fire and cursing the luck that gave him a witch for a sister.
When the pooka arrived, Will thought he’d be prepared. A horse, his sister had said. “A very pretty one. He’ll be the best horse you’ve ever seen and he’ll be friendly. You’ll feel like you’re the most important person in the world, you’ll feel like if you touch him he’ll love you forever.”
“You ever seen one of these?” Will asked. His sister had never left the colony.
“Read about them,” she said. “Not much in the way of information about them though, nearly everyone who sees one ends up dead.”
“Who wrote about them then?”
“Da,” she said shortly.
When it came, he’d thought he’d been prepared. He looked up from his tea at a soft sighing sound that should have been the wind, and there it stood. There was something about a beautiful horse — something ineffable and instinctive — that he didn’t think you got unless you’d gone on a muster. The strength and the clean lines, the shagginess of the long, black mane. There was so much power, so much beauty, that Will felt his throat go dry with the kind of want he imagined was only reserved for sex.
He stood up. No stranger to magic, and to the sorts of spells that angry sisters could level at a boy twice their size with a vindictive streak, he nonetheless felt nothing other than an urge to touch — to feel the silkiness of that coat, to touch the dip between shoulder and rump. The horse tossed its head and fixed him with a liquid black eye. Will reached out, tangling fingers in the mane, and the horse took a tentative step forward, blowing steam out of his nostrils.
There were promises in the smell of that breath, promises of power and of prestige. Will Cuddon, if he rode this horse, would be master of the muster, undisputed head of his family, the man he always knew he had the potential to be. Will Cuddon, on the back of this horse, would have more than magic, more than the knowledge and power of his sisters and his father, power that was earned rather than doled out at birth by a chance of blood.
Will’s other hand came up and cupped the horse’s jaw, making the natural soothing sounds any rider would make. The horse gave a small snort, tossing his head a little and shifting to the side. The tread of his hooves on the wet earth made barely any sound and there was a chance — a slight one — that his sister had fallen asleep. There was a chance — a slight one — that she would not be able to stop him from mounting this magnificent creature and taking the things it promised.
He slid his hand down the pooka’s neck, towards the dip in his back, so perfect, slightly damp from the rain, smooth and sleek and smelling of the bush.
The crackle of magic wedged between him and the pooka like lightning and Will gave a shout as he jumped back. The pooka screamed and spun, horse form dissolving, in its place a naked man, hair long and black and matted with weeds.
“Witch!” it cried.
Will staggered back, all temptation wiped from him, his heart pounding in his chest as his sister calmly stepped forward. “Your name or I kill you, spirit,” she said softly.
Will could not see the magic that held it in place, he did not have the skill. All he could see was the wrath of his sister.
It spat a stone out of its mouth, holding it as it snarled at them. “Kill me then,” it said.
Saoirse shrugged and made a gesture with her hand. The pooka screamed, but Will, who was watching his face, narrowed his eyes.
If this was a regular pooka, his father had said, then Saoirse would have no trouble making good on her threat. If this were a regular pooka, she would kill it and the drovers’ would cease disappearing, the rains would lift and they could go about their lives.
Will did not have the power, but he was familiar with lies and deceit, and his mundane senses told him that this one was not simply going to let his sister destroy it.
“Sister, be careful,” he said. Saoirse’s eyes slid to him, for a brief moment, enough for the spirit to crow in triumph and leap towards her.
She went down under him in some ridiculous parody of a lover’s embrace, his long dripping black hair spreading out like snakes to wrap around her body. Will didn’t hesitate, but pulled a knife from his belt, leaping onto the back of the spirit and yanking its head to bare its throat.
He pressed the iron blade of the knife to the creature’s throat and felt it go still. “Your name,” Will panted. “Or I kill you, spirit.”
It let out a long dark, shuddering laugh and almost too late, Will realised what it was doing as the body underneath him began to shift and change and he was on its back and he had done precisely what Saoirse and his father had warned him against and there was no way he was getting out of this alive, he would be drowned and eaten and Makelesi would have nothing but a bloody liver to bury of her oldest son.
“Kill it, Will,” Saoirse gasped.
He acted. The body under his hands was half man, half horse, but the knife was still pressed against its neck. Will did not hesitate, he plunged it deep into where the artery would be and wrenched from side to side, hoping that even in this half-state it was still vulnerable to such a wound. Blood spurted and the pooka gave a gurgling, desperate scream, throwing Will off him with frightening strength, and lunging back towards Saoirse.
Will took out his pistol and shot it. The spirit was a disgusting, twisting monster now, blood dripping from its wounds, all trace of the beauty it had displayed as both horse and man stripped away. On the ground, Saoirse threw up a hand and said a word and the spirit flew backwards, slamming into the ground. It struggled, twitching, letting out noises that were half horse half man, just like itself.
“I am not the last of my kind,” it spat. “More will come.”
Saoirse drew her own knife and knelt beside the pooka. “If you give me your name, you will live,” she said. “Those who come will be under your care. After all, you were the first. Does that not appeal? To rule over your kind in exchange for peace with ours?”
“I will not be bound as a servant to you,” it said weakly. “I will not be crushed like you have crushed those who came before us. This is not your land.”
“It is not yours either,” Saoirse said. She stabbed it again, through the heart this time, speaking more words of power under her breath. The body thrashed and caught fire, flames spitting and hissing in the damp air. Saoirse was unaffected by them, despite Will feeling the heat of them on his skin.
The flames flared up, then collapsed, leaving nothing but a pile of ash where the spirit had been. Saoirse stood, dusting her knees, just as the rain went from light mist to a driving, pelting downpour.
Will, still breathing heavily, looked at his sister for a long moment.
She looked up at him, blood on her cheek, her hair wild with twigs and leaves, and she smiled, the rare smile usually only directed at their young siblings, or at the successful birthing of a calf. It was the smile she used to give to him, when they’d been the two biggest children, running and laughing through the fields, mock fighting with swords. Before the magic came, before she was given the weight of responsibility and secrecy that had given their father grey hairs before his time.
“Thank you, Brother,” she said. “I could not have done it without you.”
Will looked down and nodded, smiling. That was the point, in the end, wasn’t it? That she could do so much, but still needed him.
That was family. That was important.
“No, you couldn’t,” he said.
Imogen is a 38 year old mother of two from Sydney, Australia, who has spent the last three years studying, parenting, gaming, blogging and writing in pretty much equal amounts. Her fiction has appeared in Aurealis, The Colored Lens and on Toasted Cake. Other works can be found at her website imogenwrites.tumblr.com or you can support her on Patreon: patreon.com/imogenwrites.
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