EXCERPT: Heart of Briar

Heart of Briar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Jan left the building, the bright blue sky and crisp autumn wind felt like a betrayal. It should be darker, rain clouds scudding across the sky, thunder booming through the sky, people scurrying for cover, not strolling along like they didn’t have a single trauma in their lives.

She stood on the street, and thought about going to his office, demanding someone tell her something.  The thought of the fuss that would make, probably get her escorted off-campus, certainly make it harder for Tyler to get his job back, if – when – he came back…  She thought briefly about going into one of the bars that lined downtown, catering to students and professionals, and tying a few on, but booze had never been her thing.

No.  The only thing to do was go back home.

The bus came, eventually, and she got on, paying her fare and finding a seat toward the back, where fewer people sat, automatically. The last thing she wanted right now was some wannabe Romeo in her space. Or any human being, actually. She wasn’t sure she could be civil to anyone, just then

Sitting down, she shoved the fare card into the side pocket of her pack, and her fingers touched the keys she’d put there, the cool smooth texture of the Hello Kitty keychain.  She’d left the keys, but the keychain was hers, damn it.

Tyler hadn’t just run off with some cyberslut, he’d left his job, too. That still didn’t make any sense to her. It wasn’t like he had piles of cash hanging around, that he could quit like that. Or did he?  What did she really know about him, anyway?

Jan pulled her hand out of the pack, and pressed her hand against her stomach, instead, trying to calm the knot there. There was a feeling like she wanted to throw up, even though she knew there wasn’t anything in her stomach to chuck. Nerves and anger. She had never been very good with either.  Conflict wasn’t her thing.

“Let it go.  He’s not your problem,” she told herself, her voice an unexpected, oddly unfamiliar noise, hard and mean. “Tyler Wash is no longer ever again your problem.”

“Problem is, you’re his only chance.”

“What?”  She twisted in her seat, knocking the pack to the ground. The person who had spoken sat down next to her, way too far into her personal space, then reached down and picked up the pack, handing it to her. She took it, numbly, barely even noting what she was doing.

“He has been taken. And you are his only chance to return.”

Those words, like the security guy’s, didn’t make sense at first. Unlike earlier, they didn’t resolve into anything that did make sense.

The man –his dark blue hoodie up, but not quite enough to hide some kind of deformity around his nose, shaggy dark hair obscuring his eyes– made a strangled, frustrated sort of noise. “Listen to me. You must listen, and hear. Your leman needs your help.”

“My…what?”  She just sat there and stared at the speaker, her earlier anger washed away by the certainty that she should not be talking to this man, and an equal certainty that, if she tried to move, her feet wouldn’t support her.

He growled once, as though annoyed with her denseness. “Your lover. He has been taken.”

The words were in English, and they still made no sense. She shook her head, and leaned away, as though that would be enough to make this crazy person go away.  She’d been told, ever since she moved into the city, that crazies would come right up to you, but she’d never had it happen to her before.  It wasn’t like this was New York, or Chicago….Of all the days, though, it seemed inevitable that it would happen today.

The next growl was definitely one of exasperation, and he raised his head to look directly at her, swiping some of the hair away from his face. His nose was too thick, almost more a muzzle than a nose, and his eyes — they were dark, but they looked almost red under the bus lights. Was he wearing contacts?  A mask?  It wasn’t anywhere near Halloween yet, but -.

“Woman, you must listen,” he insisted, and she started to get pissed off.

“I don’t have to do anything, buddy.  Back off.”  She should have started carrying mace, or a whistle, or something.  Not that she’d ever have the nerve to use it – she was more likely to apologize to a mugger than fight back.  But still, this guy was giving her all the bad creeps.

“I told you that was the wrong approach,” another voice said, even as someone sat down heavily in the seat on the other side of her.

Jan swiveled around, feeling her body shrink in on itself, frozen sensation of fear intensified. She might not have been city-raised, but she knew better than to let two strangers bracket her like that, so close.

The second stranger put his hand on her arm, gently. “It’s okay.”

What?  She almost laughed.  None of this was okay, not at all. Jan stared at the hand, not sure why she hadn’t knocked it off, gotten up and found somewhere else to sit. It was a normal hand, skin smooth and scattered with fine brown hairs, the nails painted black but well-groomed, and when she looked up his face was just as ordinary, wide-set brown eyes in a long, sort of blocky face. Easier to look at him than the other man, with his odd face and disconcerting eyes, even if it was a mask, and why was he wearing a mask?

Her heart was racing, but her brain felt like sludge, unable to understand what it was seeing, unable to react the way she knew she should, to make them leave her alone.

“Please,” the second stranger said, his voice smooth and soothing. “We want to help Tyler, too.”

They knew Tyler’s name. They knew Tyler. Somehow. She clutched at that thought. Had they followed her from his apartment?  They thought something had happened to him, too. Had that bitch…

“Who are you?”

She had almost asked what are you, but resisted at the last instant; if she looked she’d stare, if she stared she’d have to acknowledge that it wasn’t a mask, probably, and it wasn’t polite to stare at people with disabilities, anyway.

“Friends. If you’ll have us.”

Something about the smooth guy’s words was too smooth. Jan’s instincts jangled again, the anger and panic mixing with her natural caution, almost overwhelming her desire to not make a fuss.  She slid her arm out from under his hold, thankful he didn’t resist. “I’m choosy about my friends,” she said.

“Huh. She’s smarter than she looks,” the first one said.

She turned to glare at him, and he grinned at her, that nose, yes it looked like a muzzle and the jaw hung open showing sharp teeth and a red tongue visible. Not a mask. She shuddered and looked away – then looked back and stared at him, politeness be damned, this once.

They locked gazes as her heart went thump-THUMP thump-THUMP a dozen times, and the bus swerved around corners, hitting one of the inevitable potholes and making everyone bounce in their plastic seats, but she refused to let herself look away from that awful red gaze until he blinked, and looked away first.

“Satisfied?”  The guy with the black nails wasn’t talking to her, but his companion.

Hoodie-guy shook his head.  “No. But it’s not like we’ve got any choice, is there?”

The squabble, a clear continuation of some longer debate, didn’t make Jan feel better – especially since the suggestion had been made that she somehow might not have been acceptable. Bad enough she’d just been cheated on by the love of her life, now this crap?

She could make a bolt for it – they didn’t seem to be violent, but you couldn’t always tell right?  Only they were both bigger than she was, and looked like they were in shape; two against one, there was no way she could get away if they tried to hold her. Jan looked toward the front of the bus, to see if anyone was sitting nearby who might be willing to help her get away if things got ugly. The old man with the shopping bag on his lap looked at her uncomprehendingly, and the two girls sitting further down were too busy giggling with each other. The others were too far away; they didn’t notice anything was wrong.

The black-nailed man put his hand on her sleeve again, and she shivered a little under his intent gaze. Having a guy look at you like that, like he wanted to carry you away somewhere…  Her skin prickled in warning. Black Nails might look more normal than his companion, but he gave off seriously weird vibes, too.

No. She was not going to fall for any creepy stalker maybe-rapists, maybe-cannibal tricks or mind-games. “Look, I don’t know what the hell game you’re playing, or what this has to do with Tyler, who by the way is a bastard and you can tell him that next time you see his skanky ass, but-“

Black Nails interrupted her. “Is there somewhere we can go, somewhere, private, to talk?”

“Are you kidding me?  I’m not going off anywhere private with you two,” she said, her voice rising enough that people might have taken notice, if they weren’t all carefully not paying attention.

“Oh for the love of Pete… “  Hoodie-guy slapped his hands down on his knees, the noise making her jump slightly. “Listen, we don’t have time for this. There’s no way we weren’t noticed, following you, and-“

The bus went over a particularly bad pothole, and jolted them out of their seats. Something scraped along the bottom of the bus, making both guys flinch.  Jan tried to use the distraction to get up, get away, but Black Nails grabbed her again, hauling her back,  pulling her toward the back exit.

“We have to go now,” he said.

“What?”  She tried to free herself, but his grip was painfully strong. Should she scream?  Would the bus driver help her?  There were reports of drivers who didn’t do anything, even when someone screamed, but those had to be urban legends, right?  Stuff that only happened in big cities, not here, not-

“Off the bus, now!”  Black Nails sounded worried, suddenly, and that scared her all over again, although she couldn’t have said why.  The bogeyman of my enemy is still a bogeyman?

The one with the messed-up face had already pulled the yellow cord that called for a stop, and the bus driver was jockeying through traffic to pull to the side at the end of the next block, even as she was being yanked toward the exit.

“What are you- no!”  She finally pulled away, drawing breath to scream, when Hoodie-guy glanced at the back of the bus, and swore. Jan couldn’t help herself, she looked too. The bus jolted again, there was another shrieking noise underneath, like the bus had run over something sharp, and metal.  Then the metal floor buckled once, twisting weirdly, like it was melting. The old man stared at it, then looked away, and Jan wondered if she were hallucinating…except the guys hauling her out kept looking back, worried, too, hands flat against the door, waiting for the bus to stop so they could get out.

“What is-“ she started to ask, about to pull herself loose from their grip and tell the bus driver something was wrong, when the floor buckled one last time, and something shoved its way through, a long arm with small fingers, skin the grey-white of old bread streaked with mold, stretching as though to grab at whatever rested above.

Right where she would have been sitting.

Suddenly, getting off the bus seemed like a damn good idea.

The hand sank down below the metal again, the fingers creeping around the opening, as though searching for something.  Or someone.

“Off,” Black Nails said, and with a shove from behind, they were out, even before the bus had come to a stop, and the three of them were standing on the street. “Keep moving,” he said, and pulled her forward, away from the curb. “Don’t look back.”

Jan felt her chest clench, and grabbed her inhaler out of her pack, even as they walked too quickly for her comfort. “What…what was that?”

The other one, the one with the snout, answered. “A turncoat.”

“A what?”  Her fingers curled around her inhaler and she took a hit from it, feeling her chest ease slightly.

“A –“  He growled, and this time it was a definite growl, the skin on her arms pricking again with goose bumps. “There’s no time, now. They’ll figure out we’re gone in a minute: we have to get you somewhere safe.”

“But…the others on the bus…”  Jan waved her free hand vaguely back at the street.  “We can’t just-”

“Once you’re gone, it’ll leave too.  The damage will be blamed on metal fatigue, or something.  Worry about yourself, not them!”

“Where did we leave the truck?” Black Nails asked.

“Down there, back in town, a couple-five blocks.”  They switched direction, walking too fast, almost dragging Jan between them. She looked over her shoulder and saw that the bus was out of sight; had whatever that was broken through, were they on the bus right now?  Or were they right, had it left, was it after them?

“What the hell is a turncoat?  And who the hell are you?  And where is Tyler?”  Jan’s usual tolerance had taken a hard blow today, and she wasn’t the most patient of people even on a good day. But this… this was beyond enough. She coughed, and then, despite the inhaler, started to wheeze.

“I need to sit down,” she told them.

She must have looked as bad as she felt, because they swung around and plunked her onto a bench in the Green, away from the inevitable gaggle of teenagers hanging around the fountain.  She bent over, and tried to calm down, waiting for it to pass.

“You okay?” Black Nails asked.

“Stupid question,” Hoodie-guy snapped.

“No, I’ll be okay.”  She was able to speak, and her chest was starting to ease, now that she’d stopped moving.

Black Nails sat down next to her while Hoodie-guy prowled back and forth, clearly looking for…something.  His gaze flickered everywhere, the nervous energy pouring off him, just like it did Tyler when he was wound up by an idea.

His nerves got on her nerves, which were already ragged, and she wished that she had something heavy to throw at him, to make him stop pacing like that.

Black Nails tried to take her hand again, but she pulled away, and glared at him, horrified to feel hot tears prickling in her eyes. She rubbed the heel of her hands against her jeans, hard, trying to drive the tears away.

“I swear, tell me now or I’m gone.”  She didn’t care about Tyler. She didn’t. But that thing on the bus…. “What the hell was that, on the bus?” she asked again.

“Turncoats. They’re…”  Black Nails hesitated. “They’re rooting for the ones who took your leman, they want to prevent you from rescuing him. They will do anything to ensure that – and the easiest way to do that is for you to…”

“Die.”  The growl was back. Hoodie-guy stood in front of them, his hands fisted on his hips, and scowled. Not at her, Jan noted, but the other man. “If you’re too delicate to tell her, I will. They’ll catch her and tear her apart and eat her for good measure. They’ve always liked human meat.”

“AJ…”

Jan latched onto one word out of all that. “Human?  What do you mean…”

“Of all the moon-washed idiocies… we don’t have time for this.”  The one called AJ reached up and pushed his hoodie back. “Human. You. Not us.”

Not a monobrow. Not a misshaped nose. This close and clear there was no denying that it was a real muzzle, short but obvious, with the jaw hinged oddly, coarse dark hair overrunning what would have been a hairline to trace down to the end of his nose. Round dark eyes set too far back stared at her, waiting for her reaction. Not red, but she thought they would glow in firelight, a bright, dancing red.  Like a wolf’s.

She stared, and then turned to the other man, studying him more carefully. He looked human. Face normal, if a little long to be attractive, and his hair was a neck-length tousle of black that a supermodel might have longed for. The right number of fingers and limbs, his skin tone normal for someone who was maybe Indian or South American, she thought, even as a part of her brain shrieked run, you idiot, run!

“No,” he said, his voice still silky-smooth and soothing, his hands taking hers between them, holding her still. “I’m not human either.”

She jerked her hands away, and tried to stand up, but they had her effectively trapped. She should have listened to her gut, back on the bus, she should run, she should scream…but she didn’t.

Her heart raced, but her mind was oddly clear.  Or maybe she’d gone into hysteria already, and this was what being crazy felt like.

She’d stared down muzzle-boy – AJ – once already. That memory gave her just enough courage to ask again, “And that thing under the bus… it wasn’t not human either.”  She had known that already. Mostly. Guessed it, at least, even if she hadn’t let herself acknowledge the insanity of it.

“Gnome,” he said. “Nasty little bastards, all teeth and greed.”

“Gnomes.”  All right, then. “And Tyler?  He’s been taken, you said. By…”

“Not by us, or ours,” AJ said. He watched her carefully, not the staring contest of before, but cautious, judging. “Our enemies. Yours now, too.”

“This is a joke, right?  Tyler set this whole thing up. That’s some kind of costume – a good one, you got me, but the joke’s over.”  She looked between them, shaking her head. “Is this being filmed?  Cause it’s not funny any more and there’s no way I hell I’m going to sign any kind of release form for you to use the footage. And Ty’s still a shit for pulling this.”

AJ growled again. “For pity’s sake, Martin, you show her.”

“Me?”  Black Nails sounded …worried?

AJ had pulled his hoodie back up, and looked up at the sky, like that was supposed to mean something. “I can’t, you idiot.”

“And you want me to-” He – Martin, Jan reminded herself – waved his hands, the black-painted fingernails catching light and sparkling slightly.

“We’re running out of time. And so is her Tyler. Come on, you swishtailed wuss. I know damn well you can control yourself when you want to.”

Martin sighed, and heaved himself off the bench and – there wasn’t any warning, just a drawn-out groan and the sound of things crackling, the sound you’d hear when you stretched after sitting for too long, bones protesting and muscles stretching and the urge to close her eyes as though water was pressing against them, swimming underwater, and when she opened them again, Martin was gone.

And a solidly-muscled pony, russet-coated with a black mane cropped short, was regarding her with deep brown eyes that were disturbingly familiar.

Jan had been the normal horse-mad kid, but that stage had worn off years ago.  Still, she couldn’t help but reach up to touch that nose, then slide her hand along the side of its neck.  The pony lowered its head and turned slightly, as though inviting her to continue.  Without meaning to, she found herself standing by its side, contemplating how difficult it would be to tangle her fingers in that stiff brush of a mane and haul herself onto its back.

AJ let out a harsh, rude growl. “Martin, stop that. I swear, we should have left you behind, if that’s how you’re going to behave.”

The pony shook its head and whickered, and Jan stepped back, the spell broken.

She stared at it, and then at AJ, who was suddenly, bizarrely, the lesser of two weirdnesses. “That’s… oh my god.”

“No, just Martin.”  AJ still sounded disgusted. “Don’t get on his back. He really can’t help himself then, and we need you intact.”

“What?”

“We’re – oh, so help me, swish-tail, if you relieve yourself here, I’m going to pretend I don’t know you. Go do your business elsewhere if you can’t wait.”

The pony – Martin – gave an offended snort, and the crunchy-snapping noise made her close her eyes, and when she was able to open them again, he looked human again.

Looked. Wasn’t.

Jan thought she might pass out.

 

The next thing she knew, she was sitting on the bench again, with Martin on her left and AJ pacing again, looking up and down the street and occasionally stopping to scowl into the gutters. Keeping guard against those…things from the bus, she guessed. Or whatever else was about to come bursting through the sidewalk, or popping out of a mailbox.  As insane as it all had to be, as insane as she had to be, somehow Jan couldn’t doubt it, not any of it. Not after Martin had done…what he had done, and not with the memory of those moldy-looking fingers reaching up to where she had been sitting, forcing their way through metal to get to her…

“They’ve always liked human meat.” 

  Neither of her two rescuers were exactly knights in shining armor, but they had to be better than that.

“No knight, but the steed,” she said, and a slightly hysterical giggle escaped her. Shock. She was in shock.

“What?  Oh. No.”  Martin smiled, picking up the joke. “A sense of humor, that’s good. You’re going to need it. “

As unnerving as the transformation had been, she still felt herself lean toward him, moving like a flower to follow the sun. AJ was unnerving, and dangerous. He… AJ said Martin was dangerous, but instead she felt comforted. Protected.  Safe.

That was insane. Not human. Hello, not human!

A were-pony?  Jan closed her yes, shook herself slightly, opened her eyes again.  Martin was still there, watching her.

Jan had always been a practical sort: she worked with what she could see. There was no way to believe – no way to convince herself to believe that this was a hoax or a prank, not any more.  She had seen Martin change form. She had seen AJ’s face, heard him growl, a noise that couldn’t have come from a human throat.  She had seen…something tear through the bottom of a city bus like it was cardboard.

God, she hoped everyone on the bus was okay.  There hadn’t been any sirens or screaming, so she had to believe her two rescuers – captors – were right, that it had abandoned the uptown bus the moment they left….except that meant that thing was looking for them.

Why?  What had she been yanked into?

“Okay.”  She breathed in and out once, evenly, the way her doctor had taught her, calming her body, telling it to relax and stand down, and sat straight-backed on the bench, watching a squirrel balancing on the bike rack opposite them, nibbling at something. “Not human.”

Martin nodded once, approvingly, and she heard a muffled snort coming from AJ, that they both ignored.

“You know Tyler, you said something had taken him…. Something like those turncoats?”  The thought made her cringe inside, maybe hurting him, maybe….oh God.

“No.”  Martin shook his head this time, the thick black hair falling over his eyes exactly the same way it had done in his other form.   Somehow, that small detail made it make more sense, in her brain.  “Not them. We could have stopped them, if that were it. Or, we could have tried to stop them, anyway. They’re just… turncoats.”  The way he said the word made it sound like a curse.  “They’ve sold out their own kind.”

“You… your kind…?”  She made a gesture that was meant to indicate him and AJ, who was pacing again, but instead came out as a wimpy hand-circle.

“Us, and you.”  AJ’s muzzle twitched.   “Look, there’s natural folk, you humans, and us, the supernaturals.  That’s… there are different species, all scattered around the world.  Some you’ve heard of, some you haven’t, some don’t come out much any more.  Mostly we get along because we ignore each other.  And humans like to pretend we don’t exist, at all.  It’s better that way.  Safer.”

Safer.  Jan wondered if used the word the same way she did.  None of it mattered; she only wanted to know one thing.  “What happened to Ty?”

“Your leman… he’s….” Martin stopped and considered her, as though gauging how much more she could take. ‘Not much’ was the answer, she suspected, but she’d do it, she’d deal with it.  Her hand slipped down to touch her inhaler, reassurance, even though she didn’t need it just them.

“We didn’t know about him specifically” AJ said, his pacing taking him away and then back to stand in front of Jan. “We were tracking the preter, found her in time to see your leman being taken, two nights ago.  We were too late to interfere, but we backtracked from there, found his wallet, and waited outside his apartment, to see who would show up. Two days, we waited!”  He sounded annoyed.  “We were just about to give up when-”

Jan wouldn’t let herself be distracted. “Who. Took. Him?”

Martin sighed. “For lack of a more useful term…. Elves.”

 

— © 2013 Laura Anne Gilman

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