The Crooked Cane was at the outer eastern fringes of the town of Moonville, in the more disreputable sections. Sometimes, when the fog in the valley was especially thick and on the move, it would blanket the tavern, obscuring it from eyes of all but the tavernbugs on the ground and the occasional polecat who wandered into town only this far.
On a particular, nearly full-mooned night, before midnight, a darkly-cloaked woman came through the thick fog, the tavern her destination. She paused to get her bearings, throwing her hood back for a better view of the area around her.
An owl screeched a short distance away. The woman turned towards the sound. She smiled, setting down her medical pack.
“Lazy bird,” she said to the snowy owl perched on the lamppost next to the street corner. Her tone was gently chiding and teasing. “Do you want a ride the rest of the way to the MoonFlower fields?”
The owl spread its wings for show, then drew them back against her body. She chittered something to the woman.
“No?” the woman asked, taking her bag back in hand and going over to the lamppost. “Then what is it, Bianca?”
The bird turned her head slightly and stretched her neck out, ruffling her coat. Several pure white, downy under feathers floated down.
The woman watched them fall, settling against her dark hair like feathered jewels. She turned in the direction Bianca was looking in and saw the tavern.
“Oh,” a smile tugged at her lips. “Once again I am reminded that your eyesight is better than mine. This errand should be uneventful and quick and then we’ll be on our way to the fields.”
With that, she left her companion and proceeded to the bar.
While she was not a frequenter of bars, she seemed somehow to still fit in, clad was she as in black. Most souls who came here desired the same goal – to blend in with the background and nurse their troubles away over a stiff drink or two. Tonight was like any other – quiet, uneventful and promised her a quick drop off of her package as she had told her feathered companion.
At least that was the assumption she was under. Never could she have been more wrong about an impression in her entire life.
She stood at the door for a moment, searching for the owner. Just as she spotted him, he disappeared into the back. Curling her lip at her bad timing, she, however, spied his son at the bar and went there instead.
He was an older, gruffer-looking male in his late 30s who had been punched in the nose a little too often, exaggerating a once nicely-sculpted nose into its present shape. It was a wonder who would have had the gumption to do that to the 6-foot, 4-inch tall, 300 lb plus man, making her wonder if their head was still attached to their body.
“Luna!” he said warmly, his mean facade fading into a smile.
“Hello, Tank,” she greeted, setting her bag on a barstool next to her.
“Dad said you’d be dropping off Serena’s package for his liver stimulants.”
“Glad to do it,” the herbalist replied, pulling a wrapped package out of her bag and handing it to him. She grinned. “We would rather see him take ours then try the same thing with any quantity of alcohol in this place.”
Tank smiled in return, exposing a wreck of a mouth full of missing and damaged teeth. “Ah…he could, but it wouldn’t be delivered by your beautiful mother if he did.” He looked over to the door and shouted, ‘Hey! Number Two. Over here!”
“Aww…and here I go and blow it for him by coming instead of mom. That does explain why he only orders a week’s worth of medication at a time.”
“Of course…more visits,” the burly barkeep agreed. Tank looked over at the door again. “Hey…Nimrod!” he yelled again.
Luna looked over to the door. A male even larger than Tank (if that were possible) was laughing and chatting with another meaty-sized looking man. Nimrod cringed and looked over towards the bar.
She looked back at Tank. “‘Number Two’?” she repeated.
“Yeah…” he replied, then laughed. “Hey…Wickersham!”
“Yeah?” came a response from a dark booth at the back of the bar.
Tank looked over at the booth. “Not you, Wombat.” Then back to the door. “Get yur keister over here!”
Luna looked back at the dark booth. “Wombat?” then back to the refrigerator-sized guy making his way over to the bar. Her eyebrow crept up. “The Wickersham Brothers?”
Luna shook her head and ‘tsk’d’. “A bouncer? Your father is asking for trouble.”
Tank grunted. “Yeah. That’s what I told him at first.” He leaned close to Luna and whispered, “Nimrod’s the easier going of the two, believe it or not.”
As Nimrod made his way over to the bar, Luna watched him. Unlike Tank, the Wickersham was quite trim and toned, with none of the jiggling belly their patient’s son had spending too much time behind a bar counter all night. Of course, Tank never had to spend his time running from the police as she had heard was the favorite past time of the two trouble-making brothers. What had her mother said about their reputation? Officer Callihan (another of their patients) said the force never had to worry about their night shift staying trim as long as the Wickershams were breathing. The two had an endless supply of new and unique ways of evading the police and keeping Moonville’s finest running all over the Cantoo Nine township.
“I suppose if you kept them busy, they wouldn’t get into as much trouble,” she observed aloud. Something occurred to the herbalist then. “Oh…Callihan asked your dad for a favor, didn’t he?”
Tank smiled wickedly. “They’ve been here two weeks – haven’t torn the place up yet,” he replied. Nimrod came up to them and grinned. He looked at the larger man and returned the grin. “Give ’em time, tho. We’ve been lucky.”
“‘Lucky’?” Nimrod repeated, smiling. Unlike Tank, Nimrod still had a full set of rather well-maintained teeth, a testament to the fact he was much smarter in a brawl than the tavern proprietor.
“Number Two, this is Luna Solare, Serena’s daughter. The herbalists?”
Luna opened her cape, feeling warm being in from the cold for so long. She tossed a section back over her shoulder. What this exposed of her and her attire – a black peasant top blouse softly gathered and laced, trimmed in silver, caught the attention of the other Wickersham in the booth. He focused on her, squinting for a better look through the hazy smoke in the bar.
Always on the prowl to size up an easy mark, or a pocket to pick, he found neither presented itself in the woman. Normally he would have looked away and gone back to his glass, but Wombat found himself still looking, fascinated by what a mixture of worlds she seemed to be just from what she was wearing.
She appeared as old-style, goth and modern all rolled into one. The peasant top, cape for warmth and soft black leather calf boots were a throwback to another, older time. And he did a double-take at the small copper sickle slung from a hip belt next to a long, sheathed dagger and of all things – a cellphone.
Then he caught sight of the leather shoulder pad and matching studded armband and his eyebrows raised questioningly. Coupling all that with her smooth, pale skin, graceful movements and liquid black eyes, and the Wickersham brother found himself utterly fascinated, unable to tear his gaze away from her.
Nimrod turned his friendly gaze to Luna. He had clear, pleasant brown eyes. “A healer? Like Serena?”
“Like, but…different,” Luna smiled. She barely came up to his chin and from the size of his biceps she suspected he could lift her with one arm, but instead of it intimidating her, she strangely felt safe in his presence.
“Mom’s never taken us to an herbalist,” Nimrod said. “We always see Dr. Whocares.”
“It’s not for everyone. Luna perked up. “Dr. Whocares, you say? He’s our physician as well.”
Number Two laughed. “A healer needing a physician?”
She nodded. “It happens…even to us.” After hearing all the rumors about how rough and antisocial the Wickershams were, Nimrod was surprising her with his warm, easy manner. “So, tell me, why ‘Number Two’?”
He grinned. “Oh, that’s easy. I was born second and mom had trouble telling us apart, so she put toe tags on us.” Tank snickered, having heard this story before. “She got a couple from the meat merchant, you know, those tags that say…”
“’…Now serving Number One’ Ah…makes sense,” she agreed, unable to help smiling herself.
“Number Two, can you find dad?” Tank asked him. “Tell him his meds are here, and to give you a check for ’em.”
“Sure thing,” he said, turning to go. He paused, looking back, staring into Luna’s eyes. Her mirth died down and she sighed inwardly, knowing what was coming. “Your eyes are really – ” he began slowly, studying them.
” – black, I know.”
“Interesting,” Nimrod mildly corrected without being mean at all about it. “They’re – pretty.” He went off towards the back.
“Thanks,” Luna said, wonder in her voice. She had heard every possible negative, uncomplimentary description (mostly behind her back), but NEVER had anyone called them ‘pretty’!
Tank smiled and cleared his throat, startling the herbalist. She hadn’t realized how long she’d been staring at the door Nimrod had disappeared through. Finally he broke out in laughter. “Ah…hahahaha! You’re slipping, Wombat. Your brother’s charmed this one first – and without even trying!”
“He isn’t living up to his reputation,” Luna replied thoughtfully. “I find that – interesting.”
“You’re charmed,” Tank teased. He looked past her. “And this one’s not easily impressed, y’know, Wombat?”
She heard Nimrod’s brother get up and come up behind her. “So I’ve ‘eard,” he agreed. “Well, she just hasn’t met the right man, then,” Number One said smoothly, running a finger along her bare arm. She looked down at the uninvited digit. If there was one thing Luna hated more than a pickup line, it was being touched by the deliverer of said line without her consent. She contemplated several methods of removing the offending digit…all painful. “‘Ave you, luv?”
“I still haven’t,” she replied steadily, turning around, giving the Wickersham the first look at her black, depthless eyes. Their lack of color, ringed with white, had not prepared him for their deep, soulless beauty and he couldn’t suppress an inwardly taken breath at their sight so close up. Somehow, this time, Luna didn’t mind that they disturbed yet another person she had just met.
The apothecary looked Wombat up and down, appraising his lean, yet well-built form, his spiky golden hair and the bluest eyes she had ever seen. Despite him being quite a handsome specimen, she let her cool comment stand without change of expression or comment, turning back to Number Two as he came up to her.
“Here’s your check, Miss Luna,” Nimrod smiled, handing it to her.
She smiled back at him. She took one of Bianca’s downy feathers from her shoulder and balanced it on the tip of her long, sharp-nailed finger. With a breath, she gently blew it into his face.
It landed on the tip of Nimrod’s nose, balancing perfectly on its quill tip. He went cross-eyed for a moment, fascinated by her uncanny aim. She smiled at him.
He laughed, pleased at the trick.
Flipping the other side of her cape over her other shoulder, Luna ignored Wombat as he appraised her tall, slender form, much like she had done to him. His reaction told her he had not been expecting her to be what he considered so desirable, which was puzzling. Usually, the denizens of bars weren’t picky about the females they tried to pick up.
A patron came in. While the door was ajar, Bianca screeched outside, trying to get the herbalist’s attention. “I’ll be there in a minute,” Luna called out, rolling her eyes. “Impatient bird!”
The side Number One’s mouth turned up slightly in a lustful smirk. “I hope not,” he shook his head. “I like t’ take me time w’ ‘em.”
Ignoring him, Luna folded the check up and pocketed it in her bodice, regretting her doing it in front of him almost immediately as his eyes flickered down to her movement with rapt appreciation. She gazed at him steadily for a moment, reaching for her medical bag. Behind her, Tank couldn’t stop laughing at Wombat.
“What are you on about?” Number One grumbled at the barkeep as she walked back to the door.
“You two!” he said, gasping. “Nimrod wasn’t even tryin’ to pick her up and he could have had her – easy. And then there’s you – ” Tank jabbed Wombat in the chest. “Never a failure, always the conqueror. Women throw themselves at you. Guess she broke yur perfect winning streak…ah hahahahahaha!”
Tank was treading dangerously close to bruising the Wickersham’s ego permanently. Wombat grabbed the bottle of Jack Daniels sent down the length of the bar into his grip. “She’ll be back!” he said in a mixture of confidence and annoyance at her departure.
The bartender looked at Nimrod, back at Wombat then laughed. “Not a chance, son. She was only making a drop off for dad’s meds. It was on her way tonight.” He looked back at the door. “If there’s one thing that herbal witch ain’t, it’s a barfly! Hahahahaha!”
Luna was taking her time walking to the door. She couldn’t keep from smiling and shaking her head. Normally she would find Tank’s loud, running commentary of the Wickershams courting techniques utterly annoying, but her mood tonight was good enough she found it quite possibly the funniest thing to happen to her in ages.
Unfortunately, with people like Wombat Wickersham, it was never an embarrassment or discouragement. She put her hand on the handle, counting. “One…two…three,” and looked back at the bar.
Wombat was walking towards her. Smiling, she opened the door and stepped out into the fog.
Two seconds later Wombat opened the door, following her out.
There was no trace of her anywhere.
Confused, he looked around, around the corner.
She had vanished.
The Wickersham Brothers walked home after the bar closed and Nimrod’s shift was up. He noticed his brother was unusually quiet…and he wasn’t boisterous and staggering, which meant he hadn’t drunk his usual amount of alcohol for the night.
“What’s the matter, Number One?” he asked kindly, addressing him by their pet titles for each other. When Wombat was moody or feeling down, his brother had found he liked it when Nimrod did this.
“Nuthin,” lied Wombat.
They continued walking. “Well…why wouldn’t she like me?” he asked suddenly, out of the blue. “I’m – interestin’.” He jammed his hands in his pocket. “She called YOU interesting, Nimrod. You were in the back gettin’ the check. You didn’t hear.”
“Oh,” was all he said, smiling, surprised at the compliment. He looked at Wombat who was giving him a look. “Yeah…you’re interesting too, brother,” he agreed.
“Yeah,” Wombat said. “I know. And cool…”
“Yes,” Nimrod agreed. “You’re cool.”
“Way cool,” Number One elaborated.
They fell silent.
“Beautiful,” Wombat sighed. “Those eyes…”
“Uh, sure. You’re – “
“No, Nimrod…her…” corrected Wombat. “Tall and lanky and leggy and…” he sighed again. “beautiful.”
Nimrod just looked at him. His brother had never talked that way before. He turned as they were walking and put a hand on his brother’s forehead.
Wombat batted it away. “What’s up w’ you?” he asked.
“It’s just – you’re never talked like that before,” Nimrod muttered. “I thought mebbe you were running a fever.”
“Well, Brother Number Two, it is a fever, but not that kind of fever,” smirked Wombat.
Nimrod fell silent for a moment. They walked a few more blocks and he noticed Wombat looking around more alertly than usual. “So, uh, you didn’t find her when you ran out?”
“No,” he said, frowning, pulling something out of his pocket. “And I can’t see how I missed ‘er! You saw – I went out an instant after her and she’d just vanished!” He toyed with something in his hand. Brother Number Two looked to see what it was.
It was a small, white feather.
“Where’d you get that, Brother?” asked Nimrod.
“Oh, it was floatin’ down from the sky in front of the tavern, when we left,” Wombat replied.
Wombat eyed him. “Why, Brother?”
“Luna had a couple of those same feathers in her hair when she came in,” he told him.
The Wickershams looked at each other, slowing until they had stopped dead in the middle of the street.
“The roof,” they said in unison.
Number One’s lip curled up, then into a handsome smile. “Oh…I HAVE to ‘ave her now!”
The first look at Luna Solare, the Herbal Witch of Moonville. She’s not your usual herbalist – or pagan, as Wombat Wickersham is quick to find out. Don’t miss a chapter – sign up for exclusive previews of new chapters today for as little as $5.00 on Patreon!