It’s amazing what you can find in an old barn if you take a few minutes to poke around. Hand scythes, bag balm, a handful of ancient eggshell-white electric fence insulators, a litter of kittens, a mysterious apparatus that looks like something from Dr. Frankenstein’s lab but is probably only parts from a milking machine, all sorts of stuff. Grace hefts the two wooden yokes over her shoulder and loops all the harness bits she’s found around her neck. No clue whatsoever if any of it will prove to be useful.
Trust Penelope to know these things. She exclaims over the tangled mess of leather and picks it apart in minutes flat. The bigger yoke fits over Jack the Bull’s neck like it was made for him, and the smaller fits Hal just fine. Penelope matches up long pieces of leather and buckles them together so quickly that it’s dizzying. Grace just tries to stay out of the way, murmuring comforting things to the two were zoomorphs who stand side-by-side.
The big bull with the curving horns and the red-brown pelt stands under the yoke like he was made to do it, swishing his tail lazily and dozing. But the deep bay stallion isn’t nearly as sanguine; he rolls his eyes at the boiling clouds that are just starting to shred apart. Horses just seem more skittish than cattle, so Grace stands at Hal’s shoulder, stroking his dark pelt and blowing softly into his nostrils. After a bit he slings his head over her shoulder and rubs his head on her shirt. She moves her hand to scratch behind his ears and at the notch of his throat, leaning into his neck as he whickers softly. She knows that there are some places that they can never reach on their own. Better to do that than look too long at the demoralized-looking trees around them, or the odd things smashed into the branches.
Ruby Gerritson is shifting a backpack full of first-aid supplies around on her back when Drin and Emma come out of Pen’s house.
“We’re coming as well,” the Aussie announces. “We packed ropes and water we got from some of the folks who drove in. Do you have lights and batteries?” It makes sense that they would come to try and find Dance. They must be frantic. But it only shows in the flat, clipped way that Emma talks.
Drin isn’t moving as if he’s hurrying, although he must want to. He walks up at a relaxed pace and presents his flat open palm to the bull, and then to the horse. Hal sniffs, snorts out air, shakes his head, and then bumps his nose at Drin, pushing. Drin gives a crooked smile. Apparently they both want to get moving!
The fresh air tastes so different from the fetid, fear-laced humidity inside the house that it almost makes Grace giddy. Penelope seems to think so too, because she picks up the reins she’s rigged and snaps them against the hindquarters of their team as if they were mere animals. They turn to look back at her with nearly identical incredulity, and Penelope starts to giggle. Grace catches Emma’s eye and both women smile — the creaky, hissing noises of Penelope’s laughter is oddly infectious.
They move off at a brisk pace. The two weres don’t seem to have any problem finding the choicest footing, and those on two feet are content to follow their example. Penelope is a surprise. She’s can’t be nearly as old as Grace thought she was, the way she’s steaming along. Ruby hangs back every now and again to raise her face to the wind and stare into the ravaged forest, then she lopes back up to the group, grim-faced.
“Problems?” Drin asks finally.
“Oui,” she replies, “ever’ once in a while, I get dis wave of bug stink. Dere’s more of dem out here den I’ve ever smelled in my life. I’m not happy, cher.”
“Can you estimate how many?” Drin shoots back. “Approximate position, or even direction?”
“Dey’s comin’ uphill, inland, I tink.” She shrugs. “De water washes everyting away, I can’t tell, really.” She snorts, clearing her nostrils like a big dog. “I’ll let you know if I smell anyting comin’ in close.”
Drin nods gravely, extends his hand to assist the small red-haired woman over a fallen tree. She grunts her thanks; the pack has unbalanced her quite a bit. They’re all feeling the extra weight. Everyone is carrying something — there are no provisions for attachments on the makeshift harness. Besides, Grace is a bit afraid that one or both of the weres might bolt if something lurches out of the forest. They’re men, not animals, but that prey animal flight instinct has to be buried pretty deep in these forms. Best not to take chances. Besides, they’re likely to be doing heavy pulling, if they find somebody who needs ambulance-type help. They’re incredibly lucky having Penelope along to lash branches together for something like a travois, too. Penelope could build something strong enough to carry Dance’s weight, or that of other large weres, if needs must.
Ruby’s head snaps up, and she stares into the sky with a puzzled look on her face. Hal snorts and tosses his head, and both he and the bull turn in the same direction. Grace can’t see a thing, but they obviously have.
A soft sound of amazement comes from Drin’s mouth, and Emma breathes a word. “Bees.”
There is a ribbon of buzzing gold in the air, leading off into the forest.
“Effing bloody hell, there they are,” Emma whispers, and then she and Drin are hugging one another, and trying to walk forward very fast at the same time, and the packs they’re wearing make it awkward. They laugh a little as they collide, and then Emma reaches out to Grace and then she and Grace are hugging, and they’re all crying. Emma keeps saying, “Fucking hell,” over and over, but nobody reminds her she’s doing it.
Ruby just grins wide, all her teeth showing, and she pats the bull on the flank. “Oui, Jack, dere’s your five bucks flyin’ away! You still de skeptic, you?”
The bull just snorts and flaps his ears, like a rude comment.
“Jack Prewitt, you promised me, dis work, you gonna give your grandfader-in-law Marquis a whole CD full of diff’rent versions of dat waltz he likes, aintcha?” Ruby says, grinning again.
The bull gives a hollow moan, as if they’ve poked him in a soft place, and they all laugh.
“So what kind of present should we get Lucas, who helped us with his ssssweet honeybee idea?” says Penelope, pointing upward.
“Something he’s been wanting a long time,” Emma says firmly.
Grace says, “A viola, of course.” She grins slantwise at Emma and Drin. “He gets obsessive about his music things, you know. I need to harness that and put it to good use.”
Emma rolls her eyes. “Like we wouldn’t know one single thing about that damn OCD music thing.”
“Why do you think I mention it? I need someone to commiserate with.”
“You are lucky!” Penelope says to Emma. She grins at Grace. “You could be the mother of a drummer.” There’s a twinkle in her eyes.
“She’s right,” Drin says, making a face.
“Of course she is,” Emma says briskly. “She’s one of the Wyerd Sisters. Well, what are you looking at? That’s what everybody calls them.”
Hal gives that same hollow noise that Jack gave earlier, and that makes Penelope laugh even harder than the rest of them.
“It’s wonderful, really, having so much music in your life,” Grace says, very softly.
“Some of it the same thing, done over and over nineteen million times!” Emma says, and wipes her eyes fiercely.
“Wal, dat explain why Dance and Marquis will get along, no?” Ruby says, grinning, and she pats the bull.
The bull moans again.
Penelope pokes him with a sharp bony finger. “Quitsss your fussing, you! I like the Blue Danube.” She begins to hum it under her breath.
Grace swears she sees Hal smirk.
Abruptly, Ruby drops into a half-crouch. She makes two odd coughing barks, then snarls “Shit.”
“Down,” Drin says in a loud clear voice that instantly has all of them down as low as they can get.
Grace covers her ears, startled. She’s never heard a voice like that from anybody before. It does strange things to her brain, and even stranger things to her insides. Her brain didn’t even seem to get the command to drop, but here she was, face down in the mud. Straight from the ears to the muscles, it seems.
Even Hal and Jack, in their harness, against all beast instincts, are down on their bellies, heads flat on the ground. Hal’s nostrils are flared wide as scoops, sucking in air frantically for scent. He shifts, poking at Grace with his nose, and she crawls over closer to him, behind the shelter of a tree trunk. Hal lips at her hair, and she pats him. He has grass on his breath.
Silence, for a long three minutes. Grace can hear herself counting softly. Nothing moves except the wind.
And then it all happens so fast she can barely see what it is.
There’s gunfire, lots of it, and bone-colored sharp things like crabs leaping by, and giant pale stalky legs are scissoring the air past her head, and Ruby is firing what sounds like a revolver, and there is greenish gloop smoking on the tree bark near her staring eyes, and Hal grabs her shirt collar in his teeth and hauls her back. Her fingers curl into his long, coarse mane.
“You got them all, Cesar? Aaron?” Ruby says then.
“Yeah,” says a soft voice about ten feet away.
Grace twitches. She can’t see anything in the shredded mess of wilted foliage where the voice came from.
“Thanks,” Drin says.
“Any time,” says Aaron’s voice, from the other side.
“You knew they were guarding us?” Emma says then.
“Yeah,” says Drin, amused. “They need Penelope’s guidance through Pen’s security.”
There’s the noise of a very loud smack from his direction, a minor yelp, and Emma’s voice muttering something fiercely.
Hal pulls his lips back from his teeth as if he’s wincing in sympathy. The collar of Grace’s shirt is suddenly quite a bit looser.
“We got babes in the woods, hey, what can we do?” Aaron’s voice says then.
“All right, folks, stop where you are, wait,” Cesar says, and vanishes into the woods again.
“Damn, they’re good,” Emma says, adjusting her pack straps.
“Yeah,” Drin says, shifting his load around. “How are you folks here holding up?”
“We’re good,” Grace says. “Right?” And both Hal and Jack nod.
Aaron reappears. “Let’s go. Suggest you get moving before they start messin’ up Pen’s arrangements. Looks like some of his cute li’l tricks got pretty smooshed around in that li’l wind we had.”
“Oh yes,” Penelope says. “But it is ssstill pointing out at them, so all is ssstill well. It is just where we have to change directionses that I think we must be careful. That is where the wind would push things, aim it toward us on the trail we want, instead of outward.”
Hal grunts, flails a bit as he tries to rise. It’s easier for Grace, and she grasps his bridle by the improvised cheekpieces and helps haul him up. Then it’s Jack’s turn to sort out all four feet and scramble up. Penelope is instantly there, rearranging bits of leather and helping to straighten it out and get the two of them untangled.
Jack takes an uneven wincing step and looks down and scrubs his nose at his leg.
“Stop, let me look,” Grace says sternly. “Give me your foot — I mean your hoof. Now, please. Okay, you’ve got a splinter in the cleft, looks like a bit of bark. Shrapnel. Can you hold still and let me pull it out quick?”
Jack sighs, and lowers his head and gives a lowing noise that clearly means he isn’t happy, but please get on with it.
She tugs, and wishes she had a nice hoof pick. But most of it comes away. “Good, looks like you’ll be okay, we’ll just need to treat it when we get home. I think you’ve got a couple hours at least on it. All right?” She knows how fussy hoofed beasts are about their feet.
Jack tests it, steps out on it, lows again in firm statement they should get moving, and looks at Penelope. Grace scratches Jack at the base of his horns to let him know that she thinks he’s being brave. He groans a little, pushing into her hand, like that itchy spot has been bugging him even worse than a sore foot.
“Right dearsss, it is time for me to start fiddling here and there and you not breathing on me while I am remembering how, you hear me, boys?” Penelope says, walking toward a wall of green.
“Can we stay pretty close, to keep our range ahead of you?” Aaron says.
“Yes, dearsss, but no yellingses and tromplings.” The first thing she does, absurdly, is to go up to a big broken hollow trunk of a tree, reach down in it, and pull up a little silver ball on a cord. She waves it around as if she wants it to look at all of them, speaks to it. “Hello, Ananda, we are going out, can you hear me? The beeses are guiding us, it worked, tell Lucasss his beeses worked!”
There’s a clinking noise from somewhere ahead, as of some heavy metal object shifting.
“What was that?” says Emma.
“That,” says Penelope happily, “is the lock box with the keyses we need. Jusssst up here. Mind the lasers there, Cesar, do not go tripping into those.”
There are dull little tubes attached very low on the heaviest trees, pointed at criss-cross angles across a narrow little hollow of a trail. Jack has to turn his horns and squeeze up against Hal to pull through there, and Grace on one side and Penelope on the other are very careful to make sure their legs and harness do not bang into either the tubes or the trees they’re attached to.
“Now there is the box,” Penelope says. “Can you ssssniff, Ruby, boys, see if bugses have gotten to it first?”
There’s a big solid metal box beside the trail, half buried under broken foliage, about the size of a road storm culvert and just as heavy. A bolt has drawn back on some heavy spring, and the lid is open. The mud stains and algae stains on the outside only prove it was closed throughout the storm.
“On the lid top,” Ruby says. “Dey bugs couldn’t get it open, though.”
Hal grunts in agreement, a horsey huff of breath. Then he reaches his nose down into it, pulls back holding in his teeth a big metal ring full of dangling objects that don’t look at all like keys. He holds it out to Penelope. There is something magical about seeing something so big, so much a horse, doing such amazing unhorselike things.
Penelope just takes the keys from his mouth calmly. “Thank you, dear.”
Penelope takes the metal things off the king ring, leaving others attached, and begins sliding the chrome tubes together in order. They have dabs of color painted on them. When she’s done, she has three different tubes, each composed of parts assembled in the same color order. “Grace, my dear, could you get down there by the hinges? You want to blow each of these into that grill just inside the box. I know it’s awkward.”
Grace kneels down, finds the grill, a flat patch of perforated metal welded into the wall, about the size of her palm. “How long and how loud? Any order?”
“Sssspoken like a musician’s mother!” Penelope says, laughing. “Just a nice blow, about five secondses each, in any order.”
Grace nods, braces one hand, and leans in, and gets the tip of each tube close by the grill. They’re like penny whistles, or flutes; each sounds like a single tube of a panpipe.
Something up ahead makes that same clonking noise as this box did. Penelope turns to Jack, and nods, and the bull gets a horn under the lid, and flips it closed. They can all hear the hollow thunk as some lock latches automatically.
“Perfect! Grace, keep those, we will need them again,” Penelope exclaims, hurrying ahead.
Grace frowns. If they have another skirmish like the last one, she wants no chance of losing the little tubes when she’s falling in the dirt. But the pockets in her shorts are too shallow to trust. Emma smiles at her, and holds out a little silver carabiner clip she’s taken off her backpack.
Grace thanks her and loops the little ring-ends on the tubes onto the clip, which she threads onto the reasonably sturdy strap of her tank top.
It’s hard to keep the shakes at bay as she gazes around at the torn, bullet-chewed trees and the spatters of green ichor ahead of them. Then she feels a warm wet slobbering touch on the back of her neck, making her squirm. Hal licks her hair and her hand and down her arm. Little bits of grass tickle her skin. She looks at him, wiping away horse-slobbers of fondness, and sees him grinning at her, horse fashion. He is, she can tell. Then he puts his nose down into the small of her back, and pushes.
He practically shoves her along, marching her so fast–and dragging Jack in harness along with him–that neither of them have any chance to spook at the green-stained heaps of what used to be people, thrown down here and there, bug parts broken in jagged pale shards by the bullets. Some of them have been picked up and dragged off the trail and dumped again, clearing the way for the team, but they don’t see any of that cleanup job being done ahead of them by Cesar or Aaron as they hike around bends and twists in the trail. Penelope is ahead of them, talking now and then, singing something to herself and smacking her hands on the trees, hitting thick knots and dark scars and spots painted on the trunks as she walks.
Then they see her pale dandelion fluff of hair stop, and she’s standing staring up at a giant circle of torn roots taller than she is. “Well, how rude!” Penelope exclaims, “I liked that tree, you know! I hate losing old friendses.”
There’s a massive hole torn in the canopy overhead too, where the tree has gone down. It hasn’t disrupted the next large metal box installation nearby, though. Well, that’s a piece of undeserved luck.
Cesar and Aaron have disappeared. Ruby is standing at the back, gun out, gazing back the way they just came.
Penelope looks around overhead, squinting at the lines she tied up through the heavier, more solid trees. She appears to be checking how they held up through the storm, in spite of the tree going down. “Well, not ssso bad, not so bad as it could be,” she says. “But we have my old tree friend here blocking our path to the road. We are going to take a shortcut, dearieses, I told Cesar and Aaron what to do to go on ahead and check the trail. But we do need you to open the next box. Blow into this box the same way, my dear, any order.”
She’s just done that–and Penelope has retrieved another key ring that dangles odd metal objects–when they hear the sound of the guns again. Hal grunts, and they all hurry into the narrower trail behind Penelope.
“Not to worry,” Aaron says then, popping up in front of Penelope at a bend. “Just clearing away some more bugs. They seem to be wandering around lost, some of them blown half to bits. Not as many as that last group.”
Penelope holds up the ring she’s just retrieved. “You know how to use a laser key to signal a minefield? Any three, any order, but once you start, use the same ones in the same order. Look for the little mirrors. You should get a high-frequency whine if it’s working. Don’t go into the minefield until you hear that.”
“Got it,” Aaron says, and takes the ring.
“Christ,” says Cesar’s voice up ahead. “Where do civvies get this stuff? We didn’t have gear that good when we were–“ and their voices fade as they move further forward.
Hal shoves Grace in the middle of her back a little gentler than before, and it almost makes her hiccup in surprise. She’s shocked out of taking high, shallow, rapid breaths. Hal is reminding her to breathe more deeply.
She turns, ruffles his forelock, strokes his ears, and finds herself suffering a thrum of lust that is strong enough to blur her vision. She wants to lean up against a tree right then and have him plunging into her, just as he is. He whickers, snorfles her shirt, and pushes her again.
But everybody knows something is going on, because Jack the bull lifts his head, nostrils flared, and snorts down his nose with a staring gesture of surprise. Then he shakes his head and looks straight ahead, and pulls Hal along a little faster. Grace’s face goes flaming hot, until she sees a heaped body thrown down by the trail, mostly in pieces. Then she gulps, and hugs herself, and keeps walking faster, stepping over broken saplings.
She’s just helped Jack sort his feet through a tangle of four-inch broken branches when Hal gives a warning snort of air down her neck. She looks up.
Somebody up ahead is singing in a light, high tenor that carries beautifully through the trees.
from googledocs collaboration…