I was poking around on the computer and stumbled across this short story that I originally wrote for a contest, although I ended up submitting a totally different one. I thought I'd put this one up (I highly doubt it'll ever see publication elsewhere) and then later this week I'll put up the one I actually submitted. This one is a bit longer than the one that got used, as I forsook this one after writing it and never went back to crop word count. Anyway, without further ado, I give you THE NIGHT WIND:
I came awake quickly, with a start, the way new mothers often do. It was the sort of jerk where part of you knows good and well that something is going on before the rest of you is really awake. The room was pitch dark but one side of the window shade was crooked, allowing a silver shard of moonlight to streak inside and bounce all over the place garishly.
Heaving a sigh I wallowed in the blankets, looking inward, trying to figure if a dream had stirred me, or something real. My head was empty of any imagery or sensation, but I couldn’t settle again. The air was frigid, I always kept the heat on the lowest setting. Normally, I enjoyed nestling in the warmth of the bed and then popping out into the cold room in the morning. It was bothersome though, during midnight bathroom runs. Or times like now, when I was faced with the annoying feeling that something wasn’t right and I had to abandon my warm blankets to find out what.
Daring partial exposure, I stretched out one arm and fetched the glass from the nightstand. Wrong glass. I gagged on warm, watered-down scotch, and then spilled the last of it in the bed with me. Cursing, I gave up that glass to the folds of the bedcovers and retrieved the water that I’d been after from the start. It was crisp and did much to make up for the spilled mess. More awake, I peered around the room through the tangle of moonlight and shadow, still at odds.
A draftsmen's table stood against the wall across from the foot of the bed, piled high with paper and cans of brushes and bottles of rubber cement. There was a smaller table to one side of it, even more laden with all manner of art supplies. On the other side was a bookcase, beside that, layers and layers of paintings canvases, boards and prints were propped against the wall. It was the same under the window. The area opposite the window was a closet which currently vomited clothing and shoes into the floor before it. All the other walls had bookcases, all of them stuffed with books, with more books piled on top of them. That was why I always had ground floor apartments. I’d fall through the ceiling otherwise.
I looked back to the closet. It was large, yawning black even in the dark of the room, and its constant spew of clothing seemed to reach farther than usual. The longer I looked, the less like a closet and clothing it seemed, until the realization settled cold in my stomach that something was there. Not in the closet, but in front of it. Something big. Huge. Two spots glittered amber-gold and then blinked.
I had blindly assumed that they were buttons on something, reflecting moonlight from the window. I was wrong. The eyes blinked again and I began to discern a shape behind them. It seemed too large to be there, and yet it was. Wide set eyes, long face, immense mass. The eyes were predatory but the body was familiar in shape, sleek, but huge. Suddenly, the golden eyes shifted, turning, and a lance of black shadow as long as I was tall appeared in profile, jutting away from the long horse-like head.
“Well?” The voice rippled through me, made my skin draw tight under its deep melody.
I lay where I was in the bed, holding my breath and staring. There was a sheath knife under my pillow, another one right by my left hand. I always had a knife close by. But I didn’t need a knife, and I wasn’t keeping still because I was afraid of being attacked. I was keeping still because I was afraid that if I moved, he would melt away and disappear, afraid that I’d wake up and he wouldn’t be real. Across from me, the creature turned back, his horn again blending into a dark point on his forehead.
“Say something.” He sounded like stones shifting in deep water. It made my insides vibrate. He also sounded impatient, anxious.
“I’m, I can’t,” I managed to strangle out after another moment.
“Stop fighting the obvious and the shock will fade more quickly.” He advised drily. “I am standing here.”
“I know you are.” I retorted weakly, but my eyes kept trying to turn him into clothing or shadows, despite how the rest of me sensed his presence.
“Believing is seeing, so they say.” He said. “So you already know that I’m real.”
“I know.” I repeated, still weak. I slowly, creakily, sat up, still wrapped in blankets. “I can’t breath.”
“I’m sorry.” He stepped forward, lowering his great head in an apologetic expression. “There isn’t an easy way for us to meet someone.” He came to the side of the bed, which hardly reached above his knees.
His massive neck stretched over me, ropes of silky hair tickling my face and whispering across the blankets. His legs were as thick as my waist where they joined his body. His chest was as broad as the doorway. He lowered his long head even further, one huge golden eye gazing at me from beneath a tangle of forelock. The heavy bone of his forehead, gnarled at the base of his horn, shone in the shreds of moonlight. The horn itself was twisted and looked alive, like a tree branch of some sort, smooth and worn on the raised parts of the twist, black while at the same time transparent, like darkened glass.
“You’ve always known we existed.” He accused, not unkindly. “You’ve always waited to see us.”
“Yes,” the word came out in a low uneven murmur, difficult and forced after a lifetime of silence. “Why now?” That was a scratchy little whisper too. I meant my age. A thirty-two year old woman was hardly what people pictured when they thought of innocent maidens.
“The world is so full of humans, and their emotions and ambitions. Their ways, their selfish single-mindedness is suffocating. It is difficult to find purity anymore. Innocence is such a fine and fey scent to track and the stench of the overwhelming majority is wont to obliterate the evidence of you as if to spite the fact that they have not yet overtaken you.” He let out a gusty sigh that washed warm breath over me, banishing the chill of the room and intoxicating me with its sweet odor.
“But I’ve found you now.” He added pointedly, rumbled possessively deep in his great chest. The sound was akin to a growl.
“Do you have a name?” My hands itched to reach out and touch him, explore the contours of his face, the details of which were still hidden from my human eyes by the darkness.
He laughed at that and the sound was like music of a natural birth, like seed pods rustling in a breeze and the chattering of song birds, mellowed by the gurgling of water over moss covered stones.
“I am the shadow under fallen logs, the glimmer on a ravens wing, the cry of a dying rabbit. I am why the willows weep, and where the water goes when the creeks run dry in high summer. I am the creature that swallows the moon when She flees the sky each month, the place from which the hunting folk make berth. I am the Night Wind, the deepest shade and the darkest dream. Do I frighten you?” He turned his great head to directly face me, close, his harvest moon eyes predatory, his horn of darkened glass almost brushing my hair as it passed above my head. There was a malevolence in the velvet of his coat, hidden in the torrents of his breath.
“No.” This close I could see the sheen of his eyes, an almost metallic glimmer within the orbs. “I’m not afraid of you.”
“I knew you would not be.” He was satisfied, smug even.
“What do you want with me?” I stared into his eyes, trying to learn more about him just by staring, trying to see his intent.
“To protect you.” The Night Wind answered softly, but there was a sort of posturing undertone, that possessive note again. “To guard you always.” He gave another growling purr.
“Oh,” I couldn’t think of an intelligent way to respond to this announcement. Visions of his immense form trailing behind me at the grocery flashed through my mind.
“If I offered to take you away with me, would you go?” He asked, his voice still beautiful, but suddenly somehow unmoved, and impartial, unimpassioned, distant.
I hesitated to answer, but it was a lie, that little pause, a dark, weak little lie. I would leave with the Night Wind and not glance back, not once. There would be nothing behind me anyway, a life half attempted. Unfinished paintings and unattended affairs, half a bottle of scotch and strangers that I’d known all my life. It was true that I had some good friends and adored my nieces and nephews. But close as they were to me, they were miles away. It was like loving daydreams, on a plane of existence that I could never quite adopt as my own. I’d stood on this cusp all my years, sat in this doorway and had never known how to pass through it.
“Yes,” I said, but the Night Wind had known from the instant I paused that I would go with him.
His visage softened with delight and he quivered all over as if in excitement, his tail lashing against my closet doors. When I gave him a spoken answer, he tossed his magnificent head and made a sound somewhere between a stallion’s bugle and a wolf’s howl, ghostly and haunting and full of triumph.
“Come then.” He stepped back from the bed. “Will you come now?”
Wordlessly I climbed out of the bed. I stumbled from the trailing blankets and into the curve of his massive neck, enveloped by thousands of strands of silken black mane, supported by the stoney breadth of his massive chest. My arms would hardly have reached around his neck and I simply pressed myself tight to him. The long muscles of his neck curved around my left side, the beard of his chin brushing my right leg where he curled around me. His hide was slick and soft, but as impermeable as plate armor I knew, despite its warmth under my fingers.
I stayed there against him until my heart had stopped pounding and I could breath normally again, and then I reluctantly stood back. I couldn’t bear to completely let go of him, however, and kept one hand tangled in the ropes of his ebony mane. The Night Wind remained docile beside me, as tender as new growth and as dangerous as black ice.
We went outside, both of us fitting through doorways and halls that were logically too narrow to permit our passage. Outside it was cold, frost shimmering on the ill-kept grass in the silver of the moon. The chill couldn’t touch me now though, not while I was with the Night Wind. The breeze picked up, stirring the trees, tossing the clouds across the sky. But it did not touch me. It turned all around the place where I stood, rustling the bushes. But it could not touch me.
“Will you still come with me?” The Night Wind sucked the color from the very air. Even the blackest, deepest shadows seemed grey next to him, and yet there was a glimmer within him where the moonlight shone through.
“Of course.” I snorted, almost indignant. I dipped my toes into the pool of black feathering that fell from near his foreleg, spreading over the ground like left-behind spider silk.
“Hold out your hand.” He instructed and when I did so, he lowered his great head. Slowly, an onyx tear welled in the corner of his golden eye, sliding from it to drop into my hand. Rather than splashing, it solidified into a sphere of smokey glass, not unlike his horn.
I muttered breathlessly, holding it up between two fingers. “Hold it tightly while we travel, and when I tell you to, take it into your mouth and bite it.” The Night Wind said. “No wait!” He growled when I moved as if to do it right then. “Until you bite it, you may change your mind and remain here.”
“I’ll wait.” I relented. “But I want to go with you.”
“Then up onto my back with you.” He curled his great head around, lowering it so that his beard whispered against the brittle stalks of grass. There was a note of amusement in his tone. “Step upon my horn and I shall boost you.”
It didn’t occur to me to argue. I couldn’t gain his back without help and the spiral of his horn was thicker than my arm. It might look like a twist of dark spun glass, but it would never shatter. Hiking the tail of my gown up I raised my left foot and carefully placed it as instructed, curling my toes around the gnarled, twisting beam. The dark pearl of his tear I clutched in one hand carefully. The Night Wind lifted his head and I slid up his side, swinging my right leg forward so that as my hips cleared his back, I landed atop him, my right leg dropping down along his neck and shoulder on the proper side.
“I should not be surprised that in all the worlds you are but one.” The Night Wind murmured beneath me, his voice of shifting river stones reverberating up through me.
He stood there a moment, his head craned round as it was, predatory golden eye taking me in, his beard fluttering over the top of my near foot.
“An eternity consolidated into on breath. That is how you make me feel.” He informed me.
“My whole life has been a string of moments stretched into eternities waiting for this one instant.” I retorted with a grin, his tear held firm against my chest. “I’m still waiting for you to fade away and leave me here to wake up in the yard tomorrow morning alone.”
He laughed. The noise bellowed through the cold air, booming like a thunderclap against the stillness. The Night Wind reared, striking at the stars and his ebony strands of mane whipped wildly, sliding over me in fey caresses while his tail cut the night air and cracked like breaking ice. He sat low on his great haunches, settling against the earth, cloven hooves furrowing into the ground and then leapt forward into a gallop.
I was but a child on his back and yet my legs found the curve of his girth without effort. My thighs fit the slope of his withers perfectly. Our surroundings became trivial, then inconsequential. His hooves fractured the pavement with each footfall, but the pavement became dark earth, dried and wretched and weak to the presence that trod upon it. Onward we went, outstripping even the moonlight’s reach as we traveled through the darkness.
The Night Wind’s immense mass stretched and lengthened, his strides encompassing meadows and entire forests. When we came to a vast mountain range gauging the horizon with its jagged peaks, he sprang from cliff to ledge to summit as easily as a cat might jump to a windowsill. From the mountains breathtaking crown the Night Wind leapt skyward, plowing through cloud banks and splashing across sodden thunderheads.
At first, I clung with my free hand to the ropes of mane that flowed all around me, anchoring myself against the great curving muscle of his arched neck. I was afraid that I would fall and be left behind. Eventually though, I was overtaken by the sheer ecstasy of the ride. Leaning forward along his neck, I gazed down and gasped to find only stars beneath us, swirling amidst the tireless black pillars of the Night Wind’s feathered legs.
And then the air around us grew brittle and the winds against my exposed skin calloused. The Night Wind plummeted from our glittering pathway to land in the drab greens and crumbling browns of an ancient wood. Wheeling on his powerful hindquarters he turned to face the way we had come. Piercingly brilliant flashes of white hot light bloomed in the shadows, shifting and tearing through the soft darkness to form shapes that were not entirely unlike the Night Wind.
Shocked and horrified, I regained my fistfuls of mane, my skin prickling beneath the silver, brazen gazes of the creatures before us. Under me, the Night Wind swung his haunches, breaking my line of sight with the back if his head, his twisting spire reaching towards the sky like a menacing lance.
“What do they want?” I whispered, feeling exposed and scrutinized. Dropping my right hand, which held his tear, I put it behind my back.
“You.” He turned his head around to fix me with a golden eye. “You didn’t think it would be as easy as all that, did you?”
“I don’t understand.” The pit in my stomach became a hollow, yawning hole. “What do they want with me?”
“To protect you, in their own way.” He answered. “To keep you as you were, sheltered and, in their eyes, safe.”
“But,” I considered this, although my first reaction was aversion to the garish entities. I rolled the tear against my fingers. “I want to go on with you.”
“They cannot stop you if that is what you truly desire.” The Night Wind said, his river stone voice gentle and serious. “But if you waver, they will tear you from me and I will not be able to stop them.”
“What are they?” I loosened my hips, settling myself lower on him, turning my knees outward, bare toes pointed to the ground so that I could hook my heels beneath the curves of his immense sides.
“They are absolute light. Utter good. The best intentions. They seek the safety of all, through gentle guidance.” He said. His dangerous golden eyes shimmered, his lips peeling up to reveal long curved canine teeth and a grim, strange smile. “And I? I am everything else.”
We stood in silence for some time, in a limbo of sorts. The creatures who threatened my newfound happiness were beautiful in a cold, blank way. They were tall and muscular with flowing platinum manes and narrow whipping tails. Their delicate legs and finely shaped heads were lighter of bone than the Night Wind’s, elegant and perfectly balanced, but their pale eyes contained none of his intensity, their visages held none of his feral beauty. And their bodies refracted light with a harsh-edged brilliance, like cut crystal, clear and cruelly empty. In contrast the sensuous velvet lines of the Night Wind’s midnight form were derived of blown glass, filled with endless nuances of shadow.
I could find no sympathy for these strange beings. I could see nothing appealing in them and I felt no connection to them. I could not, would not, suffer myself to bend to the wills of these strange, crystal creatures who stared at me as if I were something to be taken away, not because they cared where I went, but because I was something the Night Wind had.
I was not prepared for the glittering lance that pierced my left breast, nor the one that followed it, stabbing into the right side of my chest. The force of them nearly threw me from the Night Wind’s back, but my left hand was still twined in his long mane, and that anchor held me firm. Grasping at his neck with both hands, I barely resisted the sudden drag of the barbs lodged in my chest. The crystalline shards burned inside me, drawing my strength.
Before I could find the breath to cry out, the Night Wind reared up, dancing forward on his hind legs. He plowed into our adversaries without hesitation, dark cloven hooves flashing, and I could do nothing but hang on, determined not to be taken. The crystal creatures shrieked their anger in high wailing howls, dodging and leaping. They lunged at me with their clear sparkling horns, as if to spear me again.
It was a violent fight, and though I remained astride the Night Wind, the shards in my chest pulled and wrenched me from side to side. I was going to loose my grip, despite that I was determined not to. A clump of the Night Wind’s silken mane tore loose in my right hand. The hair scattered from my fingers, but I hadn’t lost the black pearl of his tear. He had said that he would tell me when to bite it. But until I bit it, I could be kept here.
Before anything else could happen, I shoved the tear-pearl into my mouth. It rolled over my tongue and I caught it between my teeth, biting immediately. The tear shattered into a thousand pieces, releasing sweet cool liquid that drained down my throat. My vision blurred, darkened. Abruptly, a memory from childhood floated into my mind, where I stood in one of the back rooms of my grandfather’s stained glass factory.
A slab of dark glass leaned against one wall, glass so dark that scarcely any light could filter through it. My grandfather had ordered it for a customer, but it had turned out wrong and was going to be thrown away. I had crawled into the gap between it and the wall and stared for hours up into the mirky nether of the too-dark glass, lost in its unnoticed beauty. Now, I was swept into that glass, carried into it on the back of the Night Wind, whose tear sloshed inside me, washing away the hindrance of the daylight worlds with their harsh crystal guardians.
When I opened my eyes, I was still with the Night Wind, and we were standing amidst swirling shadows and slivers of midnight. The empty, crystal creatures stood across from us. They seemed familiar now, their expressions almost human, picking at my brain and begging to be recognized as friends or family or someone who should have been important but wasn’t. They stood, surrounded by shapes of white, hard edged tables and cold metals frames. Between them on a metallic slab lay something that was lately a woman, pale skinned and lifeless.
What a sad creature she seemed, so alone and empty. I ought to know her, I realized, but my head was filled only with the Night Wind. A shadow of film hung between us and that strange and twisted scene, but I twined my fingers into the Night Wind’s mane anyway, just in case the horrible crystal things tried to take me again. I shouldn’t have worried. They stared directly at us, but they saw nothing within the darkness that surrounded us, nothing beyond their own perceptions of what was real.
“Come then, I will show you all of my worlds.” The Night Wind said quietly, his voice of river stones rippling through my spine. “We will travel the shadow ways, we two. We will walk where others fear to tread, in the darkness where the day cannot go.” He shook himself all over, threatening to shiver me right off his back, and then rumbled with laughter. “Do you regret your choice to come with me after the melee it took to free you from them and their clinging?”
“Regret?” I scowled down at his lovely golden eye, one hand drifting to touch the places where the lances had pierced me. There were no marks on my skin now. “I wasn’t happy there, and they had no right to try and keep me there just to make themselves happy.”
He leapt away then, without warning, into the eddies of midnight, dusk and early dawn, leaving behind the garish figures behind us. If I had turned, I would have seen how the people shivered against the sudden chill, how their hair stirred in the sudden wind. I would have seen how they shuddered from the touch of the Night Wind, and how they turned from the darkness and into the light of day, heads bowed with what they could only perceive as loss. But I didn’t turn, I left what little I’d known behind, and embraced what I’d never yet experienced.