Chelsea pulled up to the sprawling compound, her heart pounding. She’d grown used to the contradictions of Central Washington. The intense heat of the day countered by the equally cold nights. The bare, brown mountains next to the lush green orchards along the river.
So, the hedge doctor’s house wasn’t a complete surprise. One story, but sprawling, probably built in stages and added to according to the family’s needs. Some parts sat unfinished, with tarps covering continuing work. The finished walls were a beautifully sculpted stucco and the wood that lined the doors and wide windows a gorgeous, lustrous gold.
The rock of the wall that lined the property had obviously come out of the yard, if such a word would be used to describe the flat plain of tan dirt that sat in front of the house, but a few flashes of green promised something lush out back.
She pulled her car between the others on the dirt road, killed the engine, and rubbed at her dog’s ears. “C’mon Bent.” A certain reluctance danced through her, and for once it wasn’t her dislike of crowds and strangers.
She and Bentley exited the car. His ease as he sniffed at the fence and rocks relaxed her a little bit. She trusted Bentley’s instincts far more than her own.
The door to the house opened. A young girl, maybe fourteen or fifteen, grinned at her. “Dad and the others are in the back.”
“Thanks.” Chelsea ignored the unspoken invitation to walk through the house and cut around back. A few weathered picnic tables held only a handful of hunters, one a woman barely older than the girl who had greeted her out front.
Tiny, much shorter than Chelsea’s five-foot-seven, with pale blond, nearly white hair, and skin to match, she bounced to her feet, squealing, “A dog!”
Bentley hurried over, tail waving. The three people sitting with her all crowded around the giant mutt, cooing and petting him. Bentley preened and strutted, presenting his itchiest spots to the group.
Chelsea found a chuckle. “You never see a dog before?”
The tiny woman caught her eye. “He’s huge.”
Smiling, Chelsea wandered over to them. “You wouldn’t believe how much he eats.”
The group of them laughed as they covertly studied her. Chelsea forced down her paranoia. Hunters were hunters. Besides, she was just as curious about this group. None of them had been at the meeting yesterday.
Beside the tiny pale woman, sat a young man, about the same age as Chelsea, maybe even as young as the other woman. He sported a dark red buzz cut and deep blue eyes. The third person was an older woman, maybe in her thirties, with light brown skin and pale, pale blue eyes.
The red-haired man stood; a hand outstretched. “I’m James.”
“Chelsea.” She folded her arms.
James’s grin never faded and whatever unease he felt at her avoided handshake didn’t show his posture. “You from around here?”
She shook her head.
“Me either.” He glanced towards the mountains. “The scenery is super impressive.”
Chelsea nodded. Something about this man tripped every trigger she had in regard to doubting people. He was nice and normal and personable, but there was just something off about him and his group.
James stood, relaxed and open, not even a specter of unease about him as he rolled up his long sleeves. “It’s much warmer here than I would have suspected for spring in the mountains.” The freckled skin under his sleeves caught her attention. Intricate black tattoos ran up both arms. One, what seemed to be a ghost trying to fight its way out of his arm, enthralled her. Without thinking, she reached out and grabbed his wrist, pulling him closer.
The lines were clean, cleaner than any tattoo she had ever seen before. “The details and proportions on this… amazing.”
James chuckled. “I’ll let my artist know. She’ll appreciate someone noticing,”
The tiny, pale woman laughed, her fingers still caressing Bentley. “Someone to talk art with? Ronnie will want a phone number and address!” She left Bentley, pushing up her own sleeves. “Wanna see mine?”
The older woman cleared her throat. “Yvonne.”
The pale woman ignored her and thrust out her arm. She also had a ghost, as well as lit candle, a butterfly, and an eye with multiple pupils.
Chelsea traced the ink, raising goosebumps. “These are really beautiful. Would your artist do one for me?”
Yvonne cackled. “Well…”
The older woman sighed. “Our artist is extremely exclusive, but I’ll put in a good word for you.” She stood. “I’m Marena.”
“Chelsea Childling.” She put her hands in her pockets, forestalling any sort of handshake. “I thought we were having a meeting?”
James grinned, wide and friendly. “Hedge doctors have their own schedules and time frames.”
“I heard that.” David exited the house, carrying a pitcher of lemonade. His daughter followed with a cheese platter. “And while I appreciate your help in this matter, the clearances are time consuming.”
Marena’s jaw tightened, but she smiled immediately. “We’re always glad to help.”
Chelsea nodded. “Same here.”
David looked between the two of them, then gave a shake of his head. “Right. Well, Chelsea, here is the extra hand you all said that you’d need for this job.”
James and Yvonne looked her over with overt curiosity, but Marena sighed. “Are you sure?”
Chelsea opened her mouth to make her goodbyes, but David lifted a hand, forestalling her. “She comes highly recommended from other hedge doctors in Seattle, and a few haunts in South Dakota speak well of her abilities.”
Marena’s eyebrows rose. “That’s fairly impressive. How long have you been hunting?”
Chelsea shrugged, more annoyed than apprehensive at this point. “A little over a year.”
Yvonne giggled. “Not bad for a newbie.”
James rolled his eyes. “Ignore her. She has far less practical experience than you.”
A faint tinge of red stained Yvonne’s face, but she smiled sweetly at James. “And you only have a touch more experience in the field than me… so I guess we’re all fairly new at this.”
“Enough.” Marena’s voice held the tone of a long-suffering older sister. “Or both of you can head home and I’ll grab two others for this… job.”
Who are these people?
David bustled around, serving drinks. “Please everyone, take a seat, get some food.”
Chelsea plopped down at the closest table, and to her annoyance James joined her. She studied his tattoos again for a few moments. “So, like, are you from an old hunting family?”
He chuckled. “One of the oldest.”
Yvonne snorted a laugh at the table next to them. “You aren’t kidding.”
“Are you two related?”
They both laughed, but it was Marena who answered. “We’re all related, though very distantly.” She sounded perfectly pleasant, but James and Yvonne both turned beet red.
What the hell is going on?
David finally settled himself with a drink. “I have an old friend coming in, a specialist in this sort of thing. We need people who are discreet, and who aren’t afraid of the dangerous work. We want to put the Guardian back to sleep.”
Chelsea sat up. “Guardian? Like the giant trees on the coast?”
David nodded. “Yes. Though obviously, this “troll” is a mountain Guardian and not a forest spirit.”
Marena’s voice held some approval. “You’ve dealt with a forest Guardian?”
Chelsea crossed her arms over her chest. “Fucker almost killed me. I only got away because another group was already hunting it.”
David’s face paled. “Hunting it? Did they kill it?”
Chelsea nodded. “I didn’t see, but they had chain saws.”
The old hedge doctor closed his eyes. “I’m going to have to speak to my colleagues in Seattle. Guardians… they need care not to be hunted.”
“Care?” Chelsea swallowed her belligerence. “It tried to kill me.”
David nodded, as did the other hunters. “It was protecting its forest.”
James stepped between Chelsea and the doctor. “I can’t imagine how terrifying an attacking Guardian might have been, but they aren’t evil. They are forces of nature that protect.”
“A shame and indictment of our modern world.” David shook his head. “Once seeing a Guardian would have been an honor. But the spirits of the land, water, and air have become hostile in this modern age.” He reached out a placating hand. “So, we would rather put this one back to sleep than kill it. W- we- Hedge doctors, and their families, protect, we don’t destroy.”
His daughter gave a giggle. “Well, most of us.”
David shot the girl a stern look. “Speaking of, why don’t you call our cousins in Seattle about that forest Guardian.”
The girl huffed and stomped her way into the house. Chelsea studied the strange mix of apprehension and contrived innocence the rest of the group exuded. It was very obvious that everybody here, but here was well aware of what the girl meant, and that not one of them wanted to discuss it.
Fuck it. What do I care?
She perched on the edge of a picnic table; arms folded. “So, what, exactly, are we doing about this pissed off force of nature?”
Marena rubbed at her temples. “There are… ways to soothe it. While the other freelancers keep the rampaging to a minimum, we’re going to… put it back to sleep.”
Chelsea felt her eyebrows rising despite her desire to keep her cool. “How?”
Yvonne opened her mouth, but James spoke quickly, overtaking her. “That’s the part where we rely on your sense of discretion.”
The desire to drive away ran through her, but Chelsea swallowed it. “Fine.”
James smiled, warm and somehow utterly disingenuous. “I’ll text you our next meeting spot some time tomorrow.”
There was no good reply to that, so Chelsea didn’t say anything.
David cleared his throat. “Eat up, eat up.”
The other three hunters filled their plates and chatted about hunts. Chelsea had no appetite.
This wasn’t a planning session. They were assessing me.
This job was getting worse by the minute.
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