Warning: Suspense, Violence
‘I’m hungry,’ Kasha pouts.
‘Go catch a mouse, then,’ Jake grins, flicking his dæmon’s nose. The pine marten hisses playfully at him, claws pricking his shoulder.
‘You have cake. I know you do.’
Jake rolls his eyes before digging in his satchel for the chunk of raisin sponge smothered in icing. Kasha purrs with delight, her eyes gleaming as he crumbles it up for her. All around them traders roar their wares as customers haggle over price, the evening market overflowing with spices, sizzling meat and colourful fabrics. Plenty of dæmons; dogs trotting at their owners’ feet, hawks and ravens perched on shoulders, even bejewelled hummingbirds flutter in a splash of emerald greens and peacock blues.
Having licked up the last few crumbs, Kasha curls around his shoulders with a contented purr, her lustrous red-gold fur warming his throat like the finest winter scarf. Jake’s stomach growls at the wafting scent of roast beef. Close by, a line of steaming pies like Queen’s guards on parade. The brawny stall-owner parcels up a fresh pasty in wax paper. His arms corded with muscle, a wicked carving knife gleaming at his belt. His pit-bull dæmon dozes at his feet.
Kasha nuzzles into his chin. ‘Pleeease?’
Jake snorts and pulls out a shiny silver shilling. ‘You’re insatiable.’
Kasha licks his ear. ‘Ooh, fancy words now. Someone’s a scholar, eh?’
‘Piss off.’ He chews happily as he walks, the pie filling almost scorching his tongue but too rich and peppery to resist. The beef and flaky pastry warms his belly like glowing coals, Kasha busy demolishing the crust with relish. Eventually the market stalls thin out as they emerge into a broad swathe of park, tall sprawling oaks surrounding a wide space of lush grass dotted with wooden benches. Jake settles under a tree, Kasha’s tinkling laugh warming him as she flows off his shoulder to skitter up the trunk. Her silky auburn fur flashes in the sunset; he feels her wild joy at running so freely, her giddy excitement at the scent of scratching beetles and chittering grey squirrels in the upper branches. It’s always been the pair of them, thick as thieves. Close enough that Jake never feels that painful tug, still terrifying after all these years. Mostly Kasha stays curled up in the satchel he carries, but he still feels a cold shiver of fear whenever she ventures too far. This is the first chance she’s had to really roam free in weeks.
‘Finally,’ she smirks sometime later, perching on his shoulder in the gathering dusk. Jake strokes her back as she shivers with pleasure. The creamy patch at her throat, round dark eyes and sleek red-gold fur – she’s beautiful, full of sinuous grace and cunning. When they were younger, they’d argue about what shapes she loved; Jake had wanted a fierce bird like an eagle or hawk, but she’d always favoured mammals, quick darting creatures with claws and teeth. For several long weeks she’d even been a mouse, almost tricking him into dreading she’d settle that way forever.
Not yet, though. Not for another three blessed years.
They’re threading back through the market when Kasha nips his ear. ‘Watch out. We’ve got company.’
His neck prickles. ‘Where?’
‘Behind us,’ she growls. ‘Coming through the market – no, further left. See ’em?’ He kneels, pretending to inspect the strap’s buckle as he sneaks a glance into the stalls. Two muscular hatchet-faced men in sludge-grey tunics shoulder their way through the crowd. Truncheons on their belts. Sinewy Doberman dæmons lope at their heels like shadows. On their lapels: the blood-red badge of Blackwood Institute.
Icy fear crawls through Jake’s gut. No no no. He swallows down the splintered memories of that nightmarish prison, the children dragged away screaming into the darkness, and afterward the placid smiles of the doctors. Just a little cut, they’d soothe, one little cut and you’ll be free of Dust forever…
Sharp claws prick Jake’s arm, jolting him back hard into the present. His eyes snap open to see Kasha bristling.
‘Focus!’ she hisses. ‘They don’t know we’re here! Let’s sneak off!’
He creeps through the shadows, Kasha slinking at his heels. A gloomy alley yawns before them, a jumble of rotten boards and slimy brick wall.
‘Up,’ Kasha whispers. ‘Hide somewhere high!’ Jake knows she’s right; hunters don’t look up. He’ll be safe if he’s high up. Hidden from view. And then they’ll leave. And then he won’t be dragged back behind the towering stone walls and hosed with saltwater whenever the guards get bored-
He clambers up the next section of broken wall onto a low roof overlooking the alley. The dull squelch of jackboots behind them, the muffled growling of the Pinschers. Closer. Closer…
‘Here,’ Kasha crouches by a kitchen vent. She hasn’t been anything larger than a dog for months, but now she rears up as a sleek leopard, smacking the vent open with a huge paw. She lifts him gently, like a mother with her cub, then stuffs him not-so-gently inside.’Keep your stupid gob shut for five minutes,’ she hisses, and transforms back into a marten.
He crawls backwards into the narrow vent. Feel it pressing in against him on all sides, scraping against his skin as he wriggles deeper. He knows he should be panicking, feeling trapped, but instead he feels safe. If he can barely fit, then those chumps certainly can’t. He presses his cheek against the cool metal floor and remembers how his mother used to wrap him up in bed whenever he was sick. You gotta sweat a fever out, she’d say, and then nearly smother him in blankets. Being in the vent feels just like that. Warm. Snug. Safe.
Kasha growls softly, her claws scraping the metal. He tucks her against his chest, but the vent is too cramped for proper cuddling.
‘You need to be smaller,’ he whispers, spitting out tufty brown hairs.
‘Why don’t you?’ she snaps, but changes into a mouse. He shivers as she crawls inside his shirt.
‘You suck! Stop it!’
‘Never.’ She skitters over his stomach as he bites down a helpless giggle. Heavy footsteps make them both freeze.
‘Where the fuck is he?’
Jake stays still, counting his heartbeats. One slow breath, then another. Just like shooting arrows at the circus, he thinks. Just slow down. He could fall asleep, probably. No one would know they were here. Calm. Quiet. Hidden.
Kasha crawls out of his collar and pads silently to the mouth of the vent as a marten. Jake cranes forward, watching the hunters prowl below them. They won’t find him. Idiots like them never look up. He feels a giddy rush of relief; he’s safe, actually safe.
Eventually, the wardens shrug at each other before stomping out of view, their snuffling Pinschers leading the way.
‘You ain’t gunna change again, are you?’ he whispers.
Kasha scampers back to nuzzle under his hand, his fingers curling into her silky warmth. ‘Why would I wanna change? I can see better than your eyes ever could, and I can climb.’ And she’s small; she can hide anywhere, in the darkest shadows. You can’t hurt what you can’t find.
Jake wonders if she might have chosen something else if he hadn’t crawled inside the vent, but then she promptly nuzzles inside his shirt to give him fifteen birthday nibbles, plus one for luck. ‘Gerroff,’ he hisses, swatting at her. Laughing, she dances out of reach, weaving around him as her claws patter against the metal.
‘Can’t catch me,’ she teases, her voice so light with happiness that he smiles despite their situation. ‘No one can catch us here.’
One minute. Two.
‘Now, d’you reckon?’
She sniffs the air, her night-sharp eyes narrowed. ‘Looks clear…c’mon, let’s hustle!’ He lifts the grate for her to crawl through, then wriggles out after her. She hops to the filthy earthen floor as he eases down onto a barrel shrouded with oilcloth…
Only to stub his foot against a metal bucket in the shadows, sending it clattering to the dirt. The baying of hounds slices through the night.
‘There he is!’
Two burly shadows thunder towards them; Kasha screams and launches herself as a fierce leopard at the nearest Pinscher dæmon, bowling him backwards to tangle in his man’s legs. The warden curses and stumbles back, and Jake sprints past into the narrow dark streets. His heart lurches towards the market’s open spaces and freedom, but a crowded marketplace is no rescue; in this maze of twisting shadows they could hide out forever.
They bolt down the alley together. Kasha darts ahead of him in her marten form, shrieking, ‘Right! Right!’
Jake follows her into a back yard as she streaks under the next fence. He heaves himself up and over, splinters pricking his fingertips. Jackboots splash through the mud behind them. He glimpses a gap between a corrugated iron shed and a stack of pallets, and hurls towards it like lightning.
The air hisses behind him; something whips around his ankles and yanks his legs from under him. He crashes face-first into the mud. A three-thronged bolas of thick leather cords wrapped around his ankles.
Jake tears desperately at the tangled cords as Kasha snarls in defiance. Finally ripping free, he rears up with blazing fury –
And freezes, horrified. As if wicked hateful claws had reached deep inside his ribcage and torn his heart out.
One of the wardens lifts Kasha by her neckfur, Kasha twisting and hissing and scratching in his terrible loathsome hands.
The warden is holding her.
Jake collapses against the grimy wall, choked with disgust and sickening fear. Writhing like his innards are being wrenched out with red-hot pincers. He…he’d felt those horrid pawing hands break the Great Taboo…No…Utterly forbidden…Not supposed to touch…Wrong…
But the marten is flailing on her back now, the Pinschers snarling and tearing at her as Jake struggles in vain. Both thugs swarm over him with a net, stinging tarred strings lashing his face and arms. He writhes and sobs, tearing desperately at the net. Cruel barbs snag his hands, ripping at his face. Digging deep. Two big strong brutal men against a boy of fifteen, lashing cords tighter around his head, shoulders, limbs, trapping him in the icy mud. Poor Kasha is pinned in the dirt, mewling as she drags herself towards him, the Pinscher’s jaws sunk deep into her neckfur.
Trapped. Ensnared. Defeated. Done for.
Something streaks out of the darkness, a wet thud and the warden topples sideways, choking blood: a barbed quarrel skewered through his throat. His dæmon howls in terror and bursts into a shower of golden Dust.
A hooded figure explodes out the darkness into the other warden; a wolverine dæmon bowls over the remaining Pinscher in a blur of slashing claws. Bloody fur flies. Fists thump. Men grunt. A knife flashes –
A sickening wet crunch of bone; the wolverine’s jaws locked deep in the Pinscher’s throat. The warden crumples dead into the mud.
Wide-eyed, Jake watches as the wolverine tenderly nuzzles Kasha awake, licking delicately at her ragged wounds. She whimpers in pain as she staggers up on shaky legs, the wolverine nudging her on with his snout.
‘It’s all right,’ he rumbles, his deep voice warm and shockingly gentle for such a wild savage beast. ‘You’re safe now.’
Other shadows loom over Jake, a knife snicks and slices and the prickling net falls away like broken cobwebs. He tears free, sweeping Kasha into his arms. She mewls with relief as he clutches her fiercely to his chest, two hearts beating as one. Every stab of pain from her marten-claws is a searing wash of joy through his veins; two bodies joined in one bright shining soul.
Three hooded men surround him. Two armed with crossbows, their osprey and wildcat keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings. The third lowers his hood as he kneels, palms up and open. Warm brown eyes. Messy black hair.
‘…Jake? It’s Ben Reynolds. Used to give you piggyback rides down Watery Lane, remember? We beat the bricklayers’ kids in the Claybeds last summer, pelted ’em good.’ He grins. ‘Fun times, eh?’
Warm relief floods through Jake’s chest; he cradles Kasha close as Ben helps him up. ‘Better stick with us, laddie. Hush now. Nick, haul them bodies into the shadows. Aidan, watch the street. Let’s get you home.’
© 2019 | Tom Burton