Elfwood is the worlds largest SciFi & Fantasy community.
- 151350 members, 2 online now.
- 16866 site visitors the last 24 hours.
|Translation for mods:|
Hura! Hura! Angahar sheva-da! - Butcher, butcher, come and see
Sabella woke up a little later than usual the next morning, properly refreshed; Cail had crankily insisted on her sleeping in their bed this time, and promised to poke her if she rolled on one of his injured arms. Of course he was still asleep when she opened her eyes, but the morning was full-light rather than just after dawn.
Bat was curled up in the small of her back. When she moved him onto the side-table and stood up to get dressed, he flapped over and landed on her shoulder.
He’s scared, she thought.
When she went downstairs, the dining room was empty. Muffled voices were coming from the parlour again – many more than before. It was always the way for people in the country. When they were afraid, they flocked to the counsel and protection of the butcher.
She didn’t listen at the keyhole this time. She knocked boldly and waited for them to let her in.
The parlour was full; two dozen townsfolk had all squeezed onto couches, chairs and even the hearth-rug. All were wearing bits of iron – horseshoes in particular abounded – and half of them had guns.
“Sabella,” said Hwenal, towering over the crowd at the back of the room, his tone neither welcoming nor forbidding.
“I hope I’m not intruding,” she lied for all the abruptly silent faces. “I want to know what’s going on, if you’ll let me. I was born in Mellenmin.” It was a strange, lame-sounding addendum, but she said it.
The air seemed to boil with all the things people were afraid to say in front of Hwenal. Sabella ignored it.
“No-one else has died,” said Illa, closing the door behind Sabella in a pointed she’s staying sort of gesture, “but there have been all kinds of other things going on. Every horse in the town, so far as we know, has been killed. Livestock in the farms across the river, too – dozens of them. A few hundred more have stampeded and run off … we hope. Did you hear the dogs again last night?”
Still no-one else spoke or added information. Their eyes were fixed on the leathery brown shape of Bat, crouching on her shoulder. For once she wished he’d assert a bit more of his natural independence again.
“I was pretty tired,” she said.
“Well, take our word for it, then – there were dogs baying in the streets again. But the hunters who went out yesterday found nothing all day up around Butcher’s Fence and Bramble Ridge. They saw nothing, but they weren’t attacked either, thank goodness.”
“If it’s a night-fae, you know it’ll be stone while the sun’s up,” Sabella pointed out.
Her hypothesis from last night jumped back to her. It was far from complete or conclusive, but suddenly she wanted to have something useful to say – anything to fend off the scouring of all those stares. “I know you’re fixed on the dogs and some sort of elaborate explanation, Illy, but I think simple is best. Why else would all these things only happen at night? I think when C-… when my dragon Misfired, it must have put some magic back into a dormant night fae somehow. Are there any standing stones near the slaughter-yard? Ones that used to be fae, by local tradition?”
There was a little bit of murmuring.
“Well … of course, Bell,” said Illa after a moment. “Almost every stone up there’s supposed to be a dead night fae. They died at Butcher’s Fence, remember.”
“Perhaps one of them wasn’t dead.”
“If it wasn’t before, it will be soon,” a dark-set man declared grimly. “I say we get every sledge in the town and smash every damned stone on the ridge!”
“Before dark,” Hwenal warned, but like the other men in the room, there was a sudden hunger for action in his eyes. “It will take weeks, but –”
“Us? No ‘us’, butcher,” interrupted another dark-haired townsman. Sabella recognised his voice from the previous day. “Crey died because his house adjoined his shop and they fae knew what he was. If it finds out what you are and where you live, you’ll die too.”
“How?” demanded Hwenal. “How would it know unless I returned to the slaughter-yard? How would it know anything of what’s going on in the daylight if it’s truly a night fae? No. I’m coming with you and I won’t be given orders today.”
A loud argument began – on all sides except Hwenal’s, at least. Sabella smoothed Bat’s head as he dipped it near her face, giddy with the relief of redeeming a little of her mistake.
Suddenly the door flew open, throwing her off to one side and almost to her knees. Another man came staggering into the room behind her, wild-eyed and breathless. “Hura! Hura! Angahar sheva-da!”
All conversation in the room dissolved into the old Corrigain dialect as the hysterical man – an old man – staggered through the crowd, grabbing at Hwenal’s forearms in supplication. Illa listened intently, clearly trying to pick up the thread of it with what little she’d learned.
“Horses,” she muttered as the ranting went on. “He keeps saying ‘horses’. More dead?”
The old man blurted out one last frantic phrase, and abruptly there was a move on for the door – townsfolk were getting to their feet with horrified, disbelieving looks on their faces. Rather than dodge the press, both Illa and Sabella went with the flow, letting themselves be ushered through the house with the rest.
Towards the front of the house a horrible sound could be heard coming from outside – the shrill, strident screaming of a horse, terror and pain that spoke with dreadful eloquence even across species. Sabella began to regret the decision not to dodge the crowd, not wanting to see some poor animal tortured by a fae, but by then it was too late.
Outside, a terrified-looking pair of young men gripped the reins of a steady but nervous draughthorse, hitched to a float. It wasn’t the harnessed horse that was screaming. The sound was coming from inside the float, echoing tinnily inside the walls.
The crowd from Hwenal’s parlour all rushed outside, making their way single-file through the overgrown garden. And what Sabella saw next stayed with her right up until the day she died.
Sobbing, the old man lowered the back door of the float. As daylight sliced inside, it highlighted the screaming muzzle of an unusually snub-nosed roan, ears back and sweat beading on its neck.
Below the neck were the limbs of a man – warped, to be sure, with ugly bulges in the bone, a distended chest and crooked, horselike legs clearly incapable of supporting the body’s weight. But they were humanoid. They had belonged to a living human being, right up until the magic had crumpled it together with the horse like two clay figurines.
He had been Reshaped.
“Oh, sweet iron,” whispered Illa, groping for Sabella’s arm and grabbing hold, hiding her eyes.
Sabella didn’t answer. She couldn’t. And she couldn’t be there any more. Tearing her arm from her sister’s grip, she fled back into the house and ran upstairs, hurling herself under the covers next to Cail and refusing to move.
The horse-man, as Sabella heard later, was the old man’s oldest son. He had gone out into the fields with his gun after he’d heard their horses screaming. The gun was still in the horse-float, in fact, found by the old man beside his boy.
They shot the old man’s son with the same gun that afternoon. No-one ever knew whether the son was aware of it, or whether it had just been a horse’s panicked brain in that warped horse-skull.
* * * * *
Cail woke again late the following morning, presented again with the unfamiliar sight of his fiancée lying next to him, and felt a sleepy mixture of confusion and annoyance chase away his initial pleasure. The entire household had been acting strangely for days. Yesterday had been the worst – when Sabella had come flying in, weeping waterfalls and clutching at him, refusing to explain what had upset her so horribly.
Everything was frustrating to Cail. His hearing was much better – the shrill, ever-present ringing had subsided over the previous couple of days – but things still sounded unnaturally thick, fuzzy, like an echo through a neighbour’s thin wall. His cuts were healing, but they stung while they healed, and his bruises let him know all about it whenever he tried to move around too ambitiously.
And now Sabella was behaving strangely. Not just Sabella, either – when Illa had brought them lunch yesterday, she’d dodged all his questions with furtive, even frightened flicks of her eyes. And when he’d gone downstairs to dinner last night, coaxing Sabella down with him, Hwenal had come in with filthy overalls and blistered hands, but explained it away as repairs to the slaughter-yard.
Even Bat was acting weird. It was nothing for the little dragon to disappear for days on end, but here he was again this morning, curled up tightly beside Sabella.
“Bell,” Cail said. He could see she was awake, picking at the lace of her pillowcase, laying in as she never did in the mornings.
“Good morning,” she said in a small voice. It was so soft that he only saw her lips move.
He reached out, ignoring the sting of his arm, and turned her face towards him. “Bell. This has to stop.”
She shook her head in his light grip. “It won’t.”
“I’m fine, Bell. I’m all right. I’m not going to break into bits if you tell me a bit of bad news.”
She smiled. He couldn’t quite tell whether it was an angry smile or a sad smile; it certainly wasn’t a happy one. Then she sat up, reaching for the notepad on the side-table.
There is a fae on the loose in Little Corrigan, she wrote, perhaps not wanting to say it out loud.
Cail read the words, then looked at her face, bewildered.
It’s a night fae, she wrote. Then her pencil became a blur, an outpouring of barely legible fear. Everyone in town is going around smashing up boulders. They’ve sent messengers up towards Arcan City to bring in the Army but they have to run on foot because all of the horses in town have been killed and people are being killed at night and there are no dogs any more except for the ones that
The pencil froze there, helpless. Cail took it from her quivering hand and put an arm around her, trying to work out what in hell his response should be.
‘Really? Are you sure?’ was patently stupid. Country folk might be notoriously hysterical when it came to seeing fae in every tree, but this was pretty elaborate and purposeless for an attempted hoax. He didn’t consider exaggeration from Sabella, either. She tended to go the other way, if anything.
“How?” he asked instead.
Her lips shaped the word Misfire.
Cail frowned. “How?” he repeated.
“I think … I think the discharge of magic reenergised a nearby, dormant night fae.”
“Reenergised? How do you mean?”
“Stop asking all these questions! I don’t know, Cail!”
“It’s just that Ancaladis’s hill has all those boulders in the bush too,” he qualified, “and students routinely set off little Misfires all the time, don’t they? Though I guess the keyword is ‘little’. And the locals in Loria might just be making up stories for interesting rocks like all the others do, rather than telling real fae stories …”
Sabella didn’t respond.
“On the other hand, I always thought that the only time night fae ever stay stone after sundown is when they’re dead. Never heard of them being ‘dormant’. And if it were just sleeping, why wouldn’t it wake up and wander around until four hundred years had passed it by?”
“It’s a night fae!” she snapped. “It only goes around killing people at night and it didn’t come for us after we woke it up, so it’s a bloody night fae! It’s our fault, Cail! Deal with it!”
“Well, I know it’s probably our fault,” he replied calmly. “The Misfire is the only variable in this whole ‘no-fae-running-around-before-now’ equation –”
“Don’t talk about all this like that! You haven’t seen what it’s doing to people, Cail!”
She was crying again. Sabella didn’t usually cry much. He remembered being faintly disgruntled on the day he’d proposed their engagement and she’d failed to shed the traditional happy tears.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Come on, let’s get up. I’d like to go help with all the rock-smashing, if that’s what people are doing.”
He couldn’t hear her answer clearly – her voice had dropped to a murmur again – but could guess it contained some reference to his arms. “I’ll carry drinks or mop brows or something. Or use a little chisel. Something. You know. Let’s go.”
It took Cail until the afternoon to persuade her, but they did go in the end, even though Sabella seemed far from enthusiastic and Illa obliquely demurred, warning that there ‘wouldn’t be much to do’. It was a tough walk – not as circuitous or brutal as Illa’s chosen route the other day, certainly, but gruelling. The road south and east towards the slaughterhouse was easy; the way to Bramble Ridge was not. They had to climb the same rocky slope they’d descended with such difficulty on Illa’s tour, the trail leading up the ridge behind the slaughter-yard.
There was no warm welcome when they finally made it, either. Amongst the huge jarrahs and the bristling walls of blackberries, the heavy sounds of sledges echoed steadily, very much reminiscent of a chain-gang of working criminals. Men from town were swinging at every larger stone in sight, leaving them only when they lay split or largely shattered. Women from town moved around with sickles and even old household swords, trying to chop away some of the blackberries to reveal boulders hiding beneath.
“I don’t think the fae would run back and hide under all the blackberries every morning,” Cail muttered to Sabella.
“It might,” she replied, seeming oddly upset. “They used to, sometimes. Don’t say anything.”
It was only when he tried to talk to one of the men that Cail understood Sabella’s distress. The hostility in the man’s face was rather plain as he told them – still swinging his hammer uninterrupted – that there was really nothing for them to help with here, and they should probably just go. He didn’t specify where, but Cail suspected that ‘to hell’ figured in his thoughts.
“Where’s the butcher?” Cail asked finally.
“Working,” the man replied, jerking his head in an unhelpfully vague direction, and ignored them from that point on.
“Let’s just go,” urged Sabella as Cail doggedly set off through the trees. “They don’t want us here, Cail. Let’s just go.”
“You can go. I’m not.”
It took a long time to track Hwenal down, more by accident than by assistance. The big butcher was swinging his sledge with a vengeance in the middle of a tumble of large stones, splitting the rock in fierce, broad swings around his body.
Cail stood and watched for a moment before going to talk to him. It occurred to Cail, as the sledge kept pounding down, that a lot of these stones really must be dead night fae if the tale of Butcher’s Fence was true – and that meant in turn that these were old, old corpses, in essence, being broken in half.
He was still watching, sad and suddenly hesitant, when Hwenal caught sight of him and Sabella standing there, hefting his sledge back down to ground. “Kincail. Sabella. Is there something wrong?”
“No, nothing wrong,” replied Cail. “We just came to see if there’s some way we can help.”
Hwenal wiped at the sweat on his face. “That is good of you, but it’s not necessary. There are only so many hammers and sickles, and neither of you should be swinging them.”
Something seemed to dig under Cail’s skin. “Why?”
“Why?” He blinked. “Because you are guests, Kincail, and because you are injured. Where is Illa?”
“She’s still at home,” Sabella said quietly. “She already told us there’d be nothing to do. Come on, Cail.”
“You can’t tell me there’s nothing to do here, Hwenal,” replied Cail, ignoring her pull on his arm. “Even for me.”
For a few seconds the butcher said nothing, keeping a very level and very knowing stare on Cail’s face. At last, still leaning on his sledge, he said, “It’s difficult to sit and do nothing in times like these. I do know that. And I’m very much aware that you feel responsible. But nothing that I could ask you to do now would be genuinely useful, Kincail. There’s only about an hour of safe daylight left in any case. Do you truly want to help, or do you just want to feel better about what’s happened?”
“I want to help, Hwenal,” Cail retorted angrily.
Hwenal nodded. “That’s good. Go home, then.”
Cail stood there for a moment, his jaw set, but there was no malice or hidden recrimination in the butcher’s level gaze. At last he turned, responding to Sabella’s increasingly annoyed tugs on his arm, and started walking with her back through the forest.
They walked in silence back to the slaughter-yard, slipping and climbing back down the rocky slope from the Butcher’s Fence. A few townsfolk had set to work on those stones, too.
They had almost passed the slaughterhouse by when Cail finally stopped in the road and looked back, trying to digest a bit of his frustration.
“They’ll take care of it, Cail,” Sabella insisted, catching hold of Bat by the tail as he tried to flap off for a magic feed at the slaughter-yard. Illumi had started to cheep hopefully, too. “This’ll be put right in the end. It’s not your fault, you know.”
“But what happened, exactly?” he asked, glaring at the slaughterhouse. “It doesn’t make sense to me. I want to have a look.”
“It doesn’t matter exactly what happened. We know we disturbed a fae with the Misfire somehow. All that really matters is that the people in Little Corrigan are going to break the fae’s stone – eventually – and that’ll be that.”
“The whole smash-every-stone idea is built on cards, Sabella,” retorted Cail irritably. “We may not understand much about magical dynamics, but I just can’t see how a Misfire’s going to reanimate a dead fae. I don’t even think it was all that huge a Misfire – not compared to the ones where buildings get flattened and all that. I want to take a look.”
“Fine, look,” snapped Sabella. “It’s bloody pointless, but I’m not going to change your mind, am I?”
Cail didn’t rise to the bait. Instead he walked on to the slaughterhouse door – the lock broken under some heavy blow – and went inside.
Under different circumstances it might have been very dark in the shuttered building, but the angry fae intruder had torn several shutters from the windows altogether. Every horseshoe had been snatched off the wall and hurled on the floor; every charm, every sprig of wattle had been torn down with it.
Cail shook his head as he moved through the empty rooms, uneasy. There was so much iron here – knives, the furnace, the blunt black meat-hooks dangling from the ceiling, the residual blood soaked into the old floor. Perhaps a clever and powerful fae might still have been able to work some magic here, but it was more likely that the intruder had ripped everything down by hand.
Everything about the chaos seemed to cry rage.
Wasting no more time in the gloomy slaughterhouse – even without a rampaging fae, it was no tourist attraction – Cail went out into the slaughter-yard.
A good look at the wreckage outside was enough to make his heart start thumping heavily in his chest. Small pieces of concrete were scattered around like hail; the open gape in the middle was like a mouth with recurving metal fangs, ripped wide enough to fit his head and deep enough to fit his whole body, standing. To have escaped death after that explosion …
Illumi’s peeping had reached fever-pitch, so close to so much magic. Even with slightly fuzzy hearing it was giving him a headache. Exasperated, he took her out of his shirt and let her happily crawl around the rim of the trench, searching for a good spot to sit and feed.
Footsteps rattled and crunched across the debris-strewn yard behind him as he got down on hands and knees, peering mesmerised into the deep, narrow concrete wound.
“Big enough Misfire for you?” asked Sabella acridly. She sounded anxious.
“Not near as big as some Misfires,” he insisted. “I still don’t know about the whole reenergising theory.”
“Well, until you come up with – Lumi, Lumi, catch her!”
As Sabella’s voice leaped up the octaves, Cail grabbed reflexively at the ground beside him – but too late. With a trailing, glassy shriek, Illumi’s opalescent body was swallowed into the shadows of the hole.
Cail plunged his arm in after his dragon, snatching down into the hole in blind hopes of catching her. The lunge dislodged some more crumbling concrete – small pieces, but not by little Lumi’s standards – so he pulled back in fear, calling down the hole for her instead.
After a moment, a steady, plaintive stream of peeps began to peal up from the hole, the same morning cry she started whenever she woke and couldn’t find him.
“Oh, Lumi,” he groaned, leaning over to try to catch sight of her. The smell of the trench was sour and foul. “Bell, stop leaning in, you’re in my light! Where are you, Lumi?”
“She’s climbing over that big chunk down there. Right there! Use your eyes!”
Cail hovered over the tear in the concrete, staring doggedly into the gloom, and finally spotted a paler shape scrabbling at one end of the trench. “I see her. Oh, hell, how am I going to get her out?”
“At least she didn’t hurt herself in the fall.” Sabella moved away for a moment, then came back with one of the wire brooms from the other day. “Try this. See if she’ll climb on it.”
“The head’s too big. And all that metal’s in the way.”
“Would you just try it?”
He grabbed the broom and tried to fit it in the hole, angling the broom-head a dozen different ways. Finally he pulled it out and snapped, “It’s not working. The stick just gets stuck on the bits of metal sticking out of the concrete.”
“Look, just move it … no, from the other … oh, give it here!”
She took the broom back and hunkered down on the other side of the narrow trench, trying to feed the broom-head down at an angle which wouldn’t leave the stick trapped in the projecting metal. It almost fit a few times, but the snags deeper down in the trench kept catching it. Cail watched anxiously as little tumbles of dirt kept raining down into the trench, making Illumi’s stream of cries shriller.
“Pull it out for a second, Bell. I think something’s going to give.”
“I’m trying. If I could pull it out easily, I’d have been able to get it in easily –”
A sudden shower of debris tumbled down from one of the trench walls, freezing them both in horror as it all went clanking down. But Lumi’s cheeps carried on uninterrupted, mournful and anxious as before.
In mutual silence, Cail looked on while Sabella slowly started to extricate the broom again. When she finally had it out, she dropped it on the ground and got off her hands and knees, sitting down properly with a dark frown.
“Is there a bit of wood or something we could fit down there?” she asked finally. “A smaller broom?”
“I only saw that wire-brush stuff when we were all clearing the yard, but it’s worth a look.” Cail put his hands on the ground to push himself up, but she forestalled him with a shake of her head and went to fetch something herself.
Cail eyed the filthy, fallen broom, probing at his freshly stinging arms and trying to remember if he’d seen any smaller brooms the other day. They’d already demolished Hwenal’s yard, so why not the rest of his stuff?
It was a bit of a guilty thought, so Cail picked up the broom and gently started tapping out the dirt that had been wedged into the bent wire bristles.
Something fell with the dirt and went clink.
At first, apart from the odd noise, Cail might have thought it a broken bit of twig. But when he picked it up and brushed off a bit more dirt, something reddish crumbled into his fingers. The thing was an iron nail, rusted fragile with age.
He thought about the sound of the debris Sabella had just knocked into the hole, and an old, famous bit of lore began to circle around his thoughts. Putting the nail aside and making sure Lumi was still scrabbling around the other end of the trench, he gingerly reached his arm down inside again.
The dirt beneath the two-foot slab of concrete was the same dark loam as the nearby ridge, coarse and crumbly. Cail’s fingers smoothed carefully over the trench walls, feeling around the uneven surface. Little, hissing showers of dirt snaked away from his touch, and a few more pieces of concrete skittered down into the hole.
He sat up, dusting off his hand. Then he peered down into the hole again, more carefully. Two feet of concrete; another three to four of the dark loam.
Or was it all loam? It might have been easier to see when the sun was higher, but Cail thought he could pick an unusual, discoloured seam about five feet down.
Sabella came out with a mop just as Cail started moving around the gash in the yard, staring into it intently. “She moving?”
“No, she’s still trying to hop at the wall, poor darling,” he replied. “I’m trying to get a proper look down there.”
“It’s getting hard at this hour.” Bell looked anxiously at the sky. “Quick, we’ve got to get her out.”
She knelt down and fed the mop-head down vertically into the trench. “Lumi! Ooh, what’s that big white thing? Climb on, darling! Come on!”
Lumi’s peeps became panicked squeaks.
“No, Lumi, climb on it! It’s not going to hurt you!”
Dirt and debris rustled quietly down below as Illumi fled from the mop, shrilling every time Sabella moved it.
Cail took the mop before Sabella could start trying to bat Lumi’s backside with it. “Look, just hold it still for a moment, Bell. –Lumi! It’s me, baby! Come back up here to me, gorgeous!”
But Lumi wouldn’t go near the mop. It didn’t matter how Cail held it, nor did it make a difference when he tried jiggling it in friendly fashion under her nose – the mop spooked the dragon, and she wasn’t having any of it.
“You should have made her with a brain!” Sabella snapped, snatching back the mop for another try. “Lumi! Stop being silly! Get on the damn mop!”
“Oh, that’s going to work!”
They both had a few more short-tempered tries. Finally, Sabella was the last to give up, withdrawing the mop and laying it across her knees.
“What are we going to do, Cail?” she asked, anger gone now that anxiety was so much stronger. She wasn’t looking at him – her eyes were on the sky again, and they were frightened. “It’s not long to sunset. We can’t be out here.”
Cail knotted his fingers in his hair, trying not to pull his stitches. “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”
“I know it’s horrible … but we might have to leave her out the night, Cail.”
“I’m not doing that,” he replied flatly. “She’d die. She’d fret herself into a panic and die. It’s cruel.”
“She might not,” said Sabella, but there was enough doubt in her voice to make her shake her head, even without his response. “No, you’re right, that’s no good. What will we do, then? We have to come up with something fast …”
“So stop talking about it and just think.” Cail dug his fingers a bit harder into his scalp, wishing he could reach in and pull the answers from his brain. The broom was no good. The mop was no good.
“What can we do to the mop to make it less scary?” asked Sabella, lifting the mop-head for a keen stare. “Apart from clean off the dirt and rust?”
Cail dropped his hands from his hair. “So it was iron.”
“There’s a seam of iron in the ground – well, iron things. You could see it properly if the sun were higher. It’s about five feet down.”
Sabella looked away from the mop-head, her lips suddenly white. “Here. They sealed it under here.”
“Old-style,” agreed Cail soberly. “Dug a hole, threw the fae in the ground, threw a pile of iron things in on top and covered it all up. I bet we’d find a load of horseshoes down there if we looked.”
“Heaven and hell.” She put the mop down. “So the Misfire didn’t ‘reanimate some rock’ or anything so stupid.”
“You still have to be right about it being a night fae, Bell,” Cail pointed out. “And if they find its stone form around here and smash it, they’ll kill it sure enough.”
“I guess so. Anyway, it’s not important now. The mop. We need to think about getting Lumi on the damn mop.”
They tried everything. Cail pulled out hair and put it in amongst the woolly strands of the mop-head; Lumi ran away. Cail tied one of his socks around the mop-handle; Lumi still ran away. Where Sabella would probably have cracked the obvious joke once upon a time, now she said nothing, eyes darting again and again to the failing light of the sky.
“Go back to the house, Bell,” Cail urged, starting to feel the first twinges of honest fear himself. “Go on. I’ll be along.”
“Shut up and try your hanky,” she returned, her gaze not shifting from the horizon.
But none of it was working, and at last Cail knew that nothing would work to make Lumi trust the mop. The sky was now glorious, dusky orange. He had never been less pleased to watch a sunset.
“I should never have taken her out of my damn shirt!” he burst out, throwing down the mop in despair. “Bell, please, you need to go back to the house –”
“Your shirt!” she cried, grabbing at his top buttons and unfastening them herself. “We’ll tie the sleeves, we’ll make a sling of it! Hurry!”
Cail ripped off his shirt, bursting off the lower buttons in a pattering shower, and tied up the sleeves. There was no way to fasten it securely to the mop-handle, so instead he lay down and reached his arms as far into the trench as he could, feeling the shirt-sling dangle just an inch or two above the bottom. His arms hurt like hell, but the more of his smell in the trench, the better.
“Lumi! Darling! Come here, baby!”
He couldn’t see her, but he could hear her anxious peeps come down a tone or two. Something nudged the sling.
“Get in, darling! Please! Come up here to me!”
He lay there for an aching eternity, one cheek pressed against the concrete, listening and straining to feel for the drop of a small body into the shirt.
“Lumi!” he begged. “For heaven’s sake, get in!”
Sabella’s hand squeezed his shoulder painfully. The light was leaving.
There were a few more nudges and tugs on the shirt. One of them felt like a chew. Then there was a pull under his fingers that didn’t release – and the sustained weight of a small dragon set the sling lightly swinging.
Cail started hauling the shirt back up, his heart almost failing when he felt Lumi start up a panicked struggle. “So help me, Lumi, if you jump out I’ll drop a snake down there!” he yelled out.
He almost tore his arm open again on a jutting bit of metal, but with a final barrage of swearing he yanked the shirt out of the hole, complete with dragon, and seized her firmly in one hand.
Sabella helped him up off the concrete. Then they both rushed out of the slaughter-yard, through the dark slaughterhouse and out onto the road.
Somewhere up on the ridge dogs began baying, high voices climbing to sky.
Cail was in poor shape at the best of times, so the flight back to Hwenal’s house was really more of a jog. Nightfall – which arrived before they’d even turned off the slaughterhouse road – didn’t help matters. The twilight was still enough to see the rooftops of Little Corrigan, black on purple-blue, but the haziness of the advancing shadows made stepping in potholes and stumbling over stones an hazard.
The belling of the hounds followed them through the streets. By the time they rounded the corner onto Hwenal’s street, the sound echoed all around like hunger given voice – and on both sides of the road, frightened shutters were slamming over windows.
“No, don’t stop!” snapped Sabella as Cail grabbed at a fence and leaned against it for a moment, gasping and dragging in a moment’s extra breath.
“Don’t waste your breath, either!”
She grabbed at his arm, pulling him on, and suddenly the first of the dogs came around the corner, less than two hundred metres away. The sight of it gave Cail the last flash of adrenaline he needed to run with her.
It wasn’t a dog at all. Not any more.
Hwenal’s gate was only another hundred metres down the road, but even so, it was almost too far to reach. Perhaps if real dogs had been chasing them, the race might have been futile – but the dozen creatures rounding the corner were something else. Something had made a cruel mess of them, blending two, three, even four individual animals together like so much dough, dragging out double- and triple-headed monsters from the morass – things with legs dangling from their backs, some sprouting tails from their mouths, one of them covered in teeth instead of fur. Cail had been taught never to mix living with living, to treat everything he made with mercy and respect. But there was no mercy here. The hands that had Reshaped these dogs had hated.
Sabella and Cail both vaulted Hwenal’s low fence, crashing through Illa’s lavender and hurling themselves at the front door. It opened at Sabella’s first pounding on the door; she literally fell inside with Cail, scrambling to cross the threshold.
As Cail got himself far enough inside to grab the door, just as the first once-dogs were scrabbling at the gate, he saw a very different creature standing on the garden path. It had the shape of a real dog – a huge hound like the animals that hunters bred, all muscle, more wolf than a wolf. Its coat was glossy black. And its eyes, which quickly dissolved all other detail as irrelevant, were two hellish, sooty-red pits of light … a literal glow, not figurative, bathing its heavy muzzle and the path at its feet.
Cail slammed the door on the nightmare vision, gasping back his breath as Illa grabbed hold of Sabella and dragged her to her feet.
“Did you not see Adronn’s boy yesterday?” the older sister shouted. “Have you gone completely city idiot in just five years?”
“My dragon fell down a hole, Illa,” Cail said breathlessly, climbing up with the help of the wall. His mind’s eye still refused to look away from the monster outside. “I had to get her out.”
“Listen to the noise outside! Look at those things!” Illa released Sabella with a groan of fear, twitching aside the front curtains. “The whole Wild Hunt’s standing at my door … oh, heaven and hell …”
“That’s not the Wild Hunt, Illa. The Wild Hunt is dead and gone.”
Hwenal came out into the front room, sloughing an overcoat that seemed to indicate he’d been about to go outside. Cail began to recognise one of the layers of Illa’s anger. “And if the fae and Faeborn outside weren’t bound by the old terms of the Truce-By-Wattle, they’d have entered the house by now. Let me see.”
The burly butcher went to the window – Illa already had the curtains open – and looked out for a moment, his sober face more solemn than ever. “I only see Reshaped dogs.”
“There was another one,” said Cail nervously. “Big and black, with red eyes.”
“Then perhaps that was the fae.” He looked steadily at Cail and Sabella, his expression making it clear that all his calming dismissals were not meant to excuse them. “No doubt it thinks it has found the butcher and his house.”
“It didn’t follow us all the way from the slaughter-yard,” Cail insisted. “There’s nothing to say it knows that we came from there.”
“Then it has seen the fae magic you carry with you – the dragons – and it’s curious. Or angry. The result is the same. There’s a watch on this house now, and we’re in danger.”
Something hit the window, making even the butcher draw back. It fluttered there for a moment, flicking swift wings up against the glass.
“Bat!” exclaimed Sabella, half in relief and half in dismay.
Hwenal closed the curtains, much to their shared horror. His voice was soft. “Do you know the Truce-By-Wattle?”
“Of course we know it,” Sabella replied swiftly, sounding stung.
“Good. From now on, the words ‘come’ and ‘in’ must not be spoken, nor any similar invitation. We must not give the fae accidental permission to cross this threshold. And we must not open the door, nor the windows, to any knocking.”
“My dragon –”
“I am sorry, Sabella. All windows and doors stay closed until daybreak. I doubt the fae will have any interest in your pet.”
Sabella didn’t argue, but her blue eyes gleamed with the anguish of it. They could still hear Bat fluttering and batting his head against the window like some giant moth.
“Hwenal, if we just cracked the window, in silence –” Cail began.
“Kincail,” replied Hwenal soberly, “even if the butcher’s word means nothing to you, is it possible that what you saw outside wasn’t enough to make you abandon all risks?”
Cail pursed his lips, unhappy, but Illa caught his elbow. “Hot water in the cistern. Go and wash, both of you. Now.”
And that was, apparently, the end of the argument. He could still see the unhappiness in Sabella’s face, though, and resolved to keep an eye on her.
After a stinging but incredibly refreshing bath downstairs, Cail bandaged up his nastier cuts with fresh gauze and walked into the dining room with the delightfully floating feeling of the newly washed. Hwenal, Illa and Sabella were waiting – she’d claimed the first bath, of course – and they went at their plates almost the moment Cail sat down.
“I wish there were some way of knowing which stone becomes the fae,” said Hwenal. Cail could see why; the butcher’s hands were red with blisters after the day’s sledging. “We tried some of the old divinations today – scattering wattle, pouring water down the hill – but it seems they’re only made-up stories.”
“The ancestors weren’t perfect,” replied Illa. “They could’ve made an itemised list of all the stones in town, for a start.” She smiled, but very, very wanly, and the joke was flat.
“We found something at the slaughter-yard,” said Cail. “Well … found something out. We were looking at the hold we tore in your concrete again, Hwenal, and down in the earth under the concrete, there seemed to be a layer of rusty iron.”
He might as well have hit the butcher in the face. Hwenal drew back in his chair and went white, his lips thinning almost with schoolboy shame.
“The fae was in keeping under my yard?” he asked softly.
“It seems so.” Cail paused, made uncomfortable by that towering shame in his face. “I’d say it was there long before the concrete was ever laid down, Hwenal. It’d have to be.”
“How do the butchers forget the fae?” Hwenal dropped his fork on his plate, shaking his head. “If the butchers forget, how can anyone else be expected to remember? How can anyone expect to be kept safe?”
“These things get lost over generations –”
“No, they don’t! Not here!”
“Bear,” said Illa gently, laying a hand on his arm, “the ancestors weren’t perfect. Even the butcher’s ancestors. And no-one expects them to be.”
“That’s the reason. That’s why we pour the blood in the yard and leave it overnight. It’s all – it was all to keep the fae good and buried under iron.” Hwenal shook his head again, bitter.
“Nothing really changes, Hwenal,” said Cail awkwardly. “I’m still the city born fool who let it out. It was nothing to do with you or your ancestors. In fact I’d say it’s a bloody miracle they kept that thing contained for so many centuries. There wasn’t even concrete when they started, for heaven’s sake.”
Hwenal wouldn’t stop shaking his head. The rest of the meal was spent in silence. Sabella, Cail noticed, hadn’t said a word yet anyway.
As holidays and interim honeymoons went, this had definitely become a world-beater. Cail put an arm around Bell as they walked upstairs to their room, kissing her lightly on the cheek. “Hey. Don’t worry, Bell. Bat’s the clever one, remember? It’s only Lumi who’d forget to breathe if I weren’t here to remind her.”
“He shouldn’t have to be out there,” replied Sabella stonily, unsmiling, and he could see the red-eyed hound sitting malevolent in her thoughts.
Cail privately tweaked his caution levels up one more notch, but nodded and kissed her again. Even without the clamouring howls outside, louder than ever before, he could already feel that tonight’s sleep would not be a good one.
It was pitch-black when he opened his eyes. Predicable nightmares had run him through bristling jarrah-forest on a hopeless search for Sabella, shouting her name with a red-eyed monster on his heels.
He remembered with a waking shock that he’d meant to keep an eye on her.
At first, when he reached out to her side of the bed and felt only warm bedclothes, the panic stabbed him like a knife in the gut. Then he forced himself to be calm. She often got up in the night for a drink, particularly when she was upset. That was where she had gone.
Cail climbed out of bed, throwing on his thick dressing-gown, and padded softly past sleeping Lumi’s box. The old floorboards gave muted squeaks as he closed the door behind him and carefully walked the corridor.
By the time he reached the staircase down to the first floor, his eyes had adjusted to the dark. It was not entirely a good thing – the old paintings and fixtures that Illa so loved seemed to crawl with their lurid beasts in the poor light, alien and horribly alive.
His thoughts were going more and more to the ridiculous. Cail shook them off as he went downstairs.
At the foot of the stairs he paused, looking towards the kitchens. Then he turned the other way and headed for the front of the house instead.
She won’t be here, he told himself. She respects Hwenal too much.
Making his way down the corridors, he entered the foyer and looked around. Sabella wasn’t there. The door wasn’t open. And yet … someone had been here, it seemed. One of the curtains had been pulled aside.
Cail went to the window and looked outside into the jungle of a garden. At some point in the night, the baying of the once-dogs had faded away, and the monstrous pack was nowhere to be seen now. Everything was quiet. He didn’t like this quiet, though.
As Cail stood and looked out for a while, wondering where poor old Bat had holed up for the night, he saw a careful movement off to his right.
It was Sabella, peering up into the eaves.
Cail banged on the window, unsurprised but urgent. Sabella just quickened her search, moving further and further around the eaves and out of his view.
“Blood and iron,” he swore, his subconscious feeding him a rather old-style epithet, and took a quick look around the room. One of Hwenal’s guns stood grimly in the corner, but he hadn’t the slightest idea how to use it. Instead he grabbed an old, iron-shod walking stick and threw the door open, closing it more carefully as he stared around for Sabella. “Bell! Where in hell are you?”
“Over here!” she called back, somewhere from the jasmine-tangle beside the house. “Just a minute! Just wait!”
“We shouldn’t be out here, Bell! Bat will be fine! Come –” Cail broke off before ‘inside’ could pass his lips, gripping his stick a bit tighter and looking around the dark garden. “Let’s go,” he reiterated more carefully.
Bell didn’t answer, and he heard her stubbornly rustle off down the side of the house.
Cail swore to himself and followed, squeezing in amongst the jasmine with every one of his senses screaming at him to get back in the house. Sabella was too obstinate for her own good, some days. As he moved, he managed to keep a simultaneous watch on his back, on Sabella’s and on the eaves overhead. If he could just find Bat quickly, they could all get inside and bloody stay there!
They went right down the front of the big house, searching, and then came up against the side fence, choked under competing jasmine and passionfruit vines. “Bell. It’s no good. In the morni-”
Ignoring him completely, Sabella grabbed hold of the vines and scrambled up and over before he could finish, landing with a crunch of dirt on the side road.
“I hope Hwenal hangs you out with his washing,” threatened Cail, putting his walking stick between his teeth and climbing up in pursuit.
“Shh,” she replied.
He still had one leg astride the fence when something large and leathery hit him in the chest. It was Bat, every inch his namesake tonight, grabbing hold of Cail’s shirt and beating his wings madly at Cail’s chest.
Cail spat his stick over the fence and looked down in surprised relief. “Watch it! I’ve ruined one shirt already this week! - Bell, come and I’ll pull you back over the –”
There was a scream – somehow much further down the road. Cail’s blood ran to ice in his veins.
In one lurch he pushed himself the rest of the way over the fence, snatching up the stick the moment he landed and scrambling to his feet. The road was dark and empty as it cut between the houses, and Sabella’s next scream was already faint with distance.
He ran. Bat let go of his shirt and began a flurrying orbit of his head, making the thin, scratchy sound he only ever made when seriously distressed.
“Bell!” Cail yelled out, feeling the first, panicked tears threatening. “Oh, no, no, no … Bell!”
There was no answer. Cail kept running until his breath had long gone, slumping down in the road with a strangled sob. Bat was still going crazy, flapping and circling and crying his scratchy cry.
He slumped there for a while, gasping through breathless grief, struggling to catch enough breath and hope to start running again. And while he sat there, Bat fell abruptly silent.
Cail lifted his face, stinging with tears, and looked down the road again. It was no longer deserted. A horse stood a hundred metres further down, blacker than the night around it, and the light of its fiery red eyes seared the stars into insignificance.
Fear knotted Cail’s gut, but he didn’t care. He stayed where he was, mindful only of the heavy walking-stick in his hand. He’d strike at the thing for Sabella, one tiny half-revenge, and then let it take him too.
The nightmare horse stood and watched, stood and watched. Then it lifted its sleek, glossy head and loosed not an equine cry, but a human scream – Sabella’s voice.
It hit him like a blessing from hell.
Sabella had not come outside.
In an explosion of hope-gone-terror, Cail lunged back to his feet and started sprinting for the nearest fence with what energy he had left. The dark fae’s hooves started a heavy beat behind him, crunching the dry dirt at every gaining stride.
He had only three attempts to vault a neighbour’s fence before the fiery-eyed horse came thundering alongside. A long, dark arm burst out from the flesh of its flank … and with a despairing yell at the still-distant house, he was snatched up onto its back and into the night.
|Riddles||War of Words|
|Tintauri's Squire (Part IV)||
Lost Sons and Lost Souls
The Queen's Man
|A Night of Souls|