This is the 11th story in a series. Click here to read all parts from the beginning.

I stomped through the slush on my way back toward Ira’s cabin, mentally rehearsing how I would demand that he explain his sorcery. Distracting me from my thoughts, the cheerful trilling that I had taken for alien birdsong sounded again, much closer. I glanced to my right and saw a bird perched on a snowy branch. It resembled a cardinal, but it was larger; and the song I’d just heard did not sound at all like a cardinal’s distinctive notes. Whatever the differences might have been, the bird’s bright red feathers reminded me of holiday cards and winter travels.

(Image credit: The Graphics Fairy)

This wasn’t a trip to a vacation resort, my grumpy subconscious informed me again. When I saw Ira standing in the doorway holding up a white fur coat, however, it did almost look as if I had acquired my own personal Sasquatch valet. Scraps of fur littered the dusty wooden floor under the table where he’d been cutting the coat down to my size.

For a moment, I hesitated, wondering if he might have put an enchantment on the coat. Common sense told me it was much more likely he just didn’t want me to freeze, given my obvious lack of both winter clothing and furry skin. Besides, I wasn’t interested in freezing; so I held out my arms and let Ira put the coat on me. It came to my ankles, comfortably warm, with no weird magical effects—or at least, none that I could notice.

“The coat belonged to my mother,” Ira said in a soft tone, looking past me toward the forest. “She has been dead for three winters now.”

I bit back the complaint I’d been going to make about sorcery, not wanting to sound like an ungrateful jerk.

“I’m sorry, Ira.”

“She was gathering mushrooms on a misty autumn day, and a warhagalla got her.” Turning to look inside for a moment, he gestured toward the big pelt on the floor by the fireplace. “They don’t often range this close to the mountains. Even wild animals can feel the curse.”

I couldn’t feel anything but the warmth of the fur coat, honestly. The bird didn’t seem perturbed either, to judge from the happy chirping. I glanced in its direction and was surprised to find it sitting motionless on the branch, with its beak closed. What other creature, I wondered, might be doing the singing?

Then the bird opened its beak and produced a screech so hideous that my first impulse was to cover my ears. I wasn’t sure if Ira might consider that rude, so I kept my hands at my sides. But evidently, he wasn’t a great fan of the noise either. A stone from his well-aimed slingshot hit the bird right in the middle of the chest, knocking it into the snow.

Without a pause, the angelic singing continued. I saw something moving behind the tree, and then a large flying rat came into view, its mouth wide open as it warbled. Its fur was a silvery gray, and its ears and wings were a rosy pink. A large tail curled over its back.

I didn’t have time for more than a quick glance before another stone flew.

“Hey,” I complained, as the rat thudded to the ground. “I’m sort of a tourist here, you know. Couldn’t you let me discover the wildlife before you start killing it?”

Looking perplexed, Ira was silent for a long time as he tried to sort out my meaning. Finally, he gave a practical answer.

“You’ll be glad enough of the meat when it’s time for dinner.”

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