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Story 4

Brad Simor

 

Bradley H. Sinor has had his short stories published in numerous science fiction, fantasy and horror anthologies such as The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Tales of the Shadowmen, Volume 6 Grand Guignol, Ring of Fire II and the Grantville Gazette. Three collections of his short fiction have been released by Yard Dog Press, Dark and Stormy Nights, In The Shadows, and Playing with Secrets (along with stories by his wife Sue Sinor.) His newest collection of stories, Echoes From the Darkness, is from Arctic Wolf Press. His non-fiction work has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies.

You know Christmas ends on December 26, "The Huntsman" doesn't show up in a University town for the Great Hunt on Twelfth Night, and that dog howling down the street isn't a Hellhound. Prepare to have your notion of reality seriously bent courtesy of Brad Sinor's "Season Finale".

 

SEASON FINALE

By

Bradley H. Sinor

 

 

I hadnít walked more than a half-dozen steps into the convenience store before the clerk noticed me. Of course noticing customers was part of her job, but this time it was something special, watching her head turn around quickly, her eyes large with surprise.

To be perfectly honest, I would have been a little bit disappointed if she hadnít been startled. After all, how often, even in a university town the size of Norman, Oklahoma, do you see a guy dressed in medieval garb, hooded cape, fur-lined leather vest and chain mail, come walking out of a cold January night?

Not that the girl, who looked to be about 20 and was wearing a blue smock with the storeís name on it, had anything to say about looking unusual. The pink and green dyed hair and nose ring were probably not listed in the storeís employee manual. If this little mom-and-pop place had one.

"Something I can help you with?" she asked.

"No thanks, "I said.

The store wasnít that big. I could find what I needed without a problem. I mean, how difficult is it to hide the chips and the French bread? I grabbed what I needed, along with a six-pack of Pepsi. There would probably be plenty of the things I liked to drink at the party, but I didnít want to take a chance.

As I turned to head towards the counter, I heard the buzz that announced the front door opening. That sound could easily get very annoying, though I imagined that after awhile you learned to screen it out. The new customer was a lean man, dressed in an overcoat, a scarf wrapped around his neck, and a pipe emitting smoke from cherry tobacco, held between tightly clenched teeth.

"So, arenít you a little late or are you just really, really getting a jump on things?" the girl asked when I set my stuff down.

"No, I donít think Iím late," I said, with a quick glance at the big Coors clock behind the counter. My watch was in the belt pouch hanging around my waist and a bit hard to get to. It was only a quarter past nine. The party would just be getting started.

"Well, if youíre dressed like that for Halloween, then I would say that youíre about a couple of months late. If itís for that Medieval Fair, itís not supposed to roll around until April, and the last time I looked it was still January," she said.

"January sixth, to be precise," said the man with the pipe, putting a loaf of bread down in front of him and gathering up a newspaper from the nearby rack.

I waited until he was heading out the door, to the accompaniment of the same annoying buzzing that had announced his entrance, before I said, "Who was that masked man?"

"Was he really here at all? Or did we just imagine him," the girl chimed in. "So whatís so special about January 6th?"

"Itís called Twelfth Night. Have you ever heard that old song ĎThe 12 Days of Christmasí"?

"Yeah, my grandmother used to love to sing it at the holidays. All about turtledoves, peacocks and a bunch of dorky lords a leaping and stuff like that, isnít it?"

"Sort of," I said. "In medieval times they actually stretched out the celebration of Christmas over 12 days, starting on December 25 and ending on January 6. Thatís where the name Twelfth Night came from. It was the night of the biggest celebration.

"I belong to a local medieval reenactment group. Every year we hold a big blowout party on or as close as we can get to the sixth of January. This year itís on a weekend so we actually get to celebrate it on the right day."

"Wild, man. So do all the women come and run around like tavern wenches or damsels in distress?" asked the girl. She began putting my purchases into a big brown paper sack "Thatíll be eight fifty."

I laid a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. "As for the women in our group, they come as whatever they want, and party with the best of them. By the way, my name is Conner, Conner McManus. Whatís your name?"

She arched her head slightly, as if giving me the once over. "Nikita. Before you ask, no Iím not Russian. I just like the name, and yes, I picked it."

"Works for me," I said. In the medieval group we all picked out medieval- sounding names and went by them. "Think maybe you would like to go to the Twelfth night party with me? I can come get you when you get off. Itíll be going on all night."

"Donít bother coming back to get me," said Nikita, a note of finality in her voice. I had expected her to say "no". This girl didnít strike me as being too interested in things medieval. Hey, it wasnít the first time I had been turned down for a date, and it certainly wouldnít be the last. "Well, maybe another time."

Nikita pulled her smock off and tossed it on the floor. She twisted the key in the lock of the register, then pulled it out and dropped it down a small slot in the back of the counter. Grabbing an army surplus field jacket from a peg on the wall, she slipped it on.

"Why come back later since Iím going with you now?"

# # #

"I didnít really like that place anyway," Nikita said. "Iíd been planning on quitting on Monday. It was boring. The guy who owns the place was such a grouch; besides, I think he wanted to screw me."

Nikita spat on the floor as she talked about the storeowner, which didnít bother me a bit. I knew that guy, and her description pretty well summed things up. Besides, it was her floor, in her apartment, and she could do anything she wanted.

The Twelfth Night party was set in a converted church a few blocks from the convenience store. I knew from past experience that there was virtually no parking in front of the place, so I had left my van in a lot behind one of the University Administration buildings just a couple of blocks away.

Nikita had been insistent that we stop by her apartment so she could change clothes. Since it was only a block or so out of the way, I didnít see any need in retrieving my van.

"It wonít take that long. Not to mention that you said yourself the party was going to go on all night."

"Well, Mílady," I said, "Far be it from me to deny you the chance to get all gussied up."

"Look, if you Ďre going to start sounding like Lord Billy-Bob Clampett I may just have to kick you where the chain mail donít shine," she said.

"Actually," I mused, "the place youíre talking about probably gets pretty shiny. You know, all that rubbing against a saddle and what not."

Nikita didnít say a word, just produced a key and opened the door. Her apartment was the top half of a two-story house. From the mailboxes, it looked like the bottom floor had been cut up into two apartments.

Not that the three rooms -- kitchen, living room and bathroom -- were all that big. A large mattress filled one end of the living room. The only other furniture was a table, some scrounged kitchen chairs and a bookcase made from bricks and boards.

Nikita murmured something before she disappeared into the bathroom, which apparently doubled as a closet, since I could see some clothes hanging from the wall.

I walked over to her bookcase and scanned the titles. Most were fantasy, Tolkien, Howard, de Camp, and Drake, with a few horror titles thrown in, as well. I felt a sense of relief when it occurred to me that there wasnít a romance title in the bunch. Not that I had a problem with a girl who read romances, mind you.

Peeking out from a small niche between the bricks and the wall was another book.

It crossed my mind that this might be her diary. I considered for a moment just leaving it and respecting her privacy, but prurient curiosity won and I pulled the slim volume out where I could see it.

It was the size of a paperback book and was bound in worn leather. I flipped through a couple of pages. The paper felt like old, old parchment. There was neat, precise writing inside, broken up every couple of pages by drawings done in such fine detail that it was scary to think they had come from a human hand.

Iím not sure when it occurred to me that it wasnít written in English, but rather Latin. It had been a half dozen years since my last Latin class, the result of an attempt at a Catholic education by my parents, so I had forgotten most of it. But here and there I did recognize a few words. There was something about hounds, and it looked like the word "hunt" reoccurred a number of times.

"Curious and curiouser," I muttered.

"So is there more to this Twelfth Night thing than just a last-night-of-Christmas party?" asked Nikita.

I shoved the book back into its hiding place.

"Yes, as a matter of fact. There are some cultures that considered the time between Samhain, thatís Halloween, and the end of Christmas to be a Season of Misrule, where everything got flipped on its head. The peasants could be kings, and the rich act as servants. That sort of thing."

"Cool," she said, stepping out of the bathroom. Nikita had replaced her jeans and tee shirt with a long, black sheath dress, a chain mail belt and dagger riding on her hip.

"So, will I fit in with your medieval crowd?" she asked.

Okay, so the pink and green hair wasnít exactly what you would have seen on the dance floor in the halls of Richard the Lionhearted, but everything else worked for me. She walked up to the edge of the bed, just in front of me. "Well?" she asked.

I bowed, took her hand and kissed the back of it.

"I ought to let you know that there are a few of the people I usually hang with who would say that gesture alone would suggest you were gay and would want to beat the crap out of you."

"Thatís their problem." Three years army special forces and ten years of martial arts training were enough to let me know I could handle most anything. "As for my sexual orientation, thatís none of their business, either."

"We can discuss that part in more detail later." She touched the edge of the bed with her foot. "But right now, mílord. I believe you promised to take me to a party."

"Indeed I did."

The roar of a motorcycle just below the apartment window seemed to shake the very foundations of the building. A moment later the sound was gone and replaced by the baying of a dog.

Nikita went stiff, the color draining out of her face, her grip on my arm tightening to the point of cutting off circulation.

"Whatís the matter?" I said.

"That,Ö that dog. I donít like dogs. I never have."

I went over to the window and looked around. There was nothing there, just a couple of trash cans, an empty packing crate and signs left over from a garage sale. I wasnít sure just what I had been expecting, the vicious glowing specter of the Hound of the Baskervilles or what.

"Itís okay," I said, gently. "If you want, we donít have to walk to the party. I can go get my van and come get you here."

"No, no. ItÖit was nothing," she said. "Just put it down to my being frightened by a Chihuahua with an attitude when I was a little girl."

"If youíre sure."

"Trust me; the last place I want to be tonight is by myself."

# # #

Anyone who happened to drive past the old church that night, or any other night, for that matter, would have not paid much attention to it. All they would have seen would have been a red brick building, bracketed by heavy bushes, with a huge, round stained glass window above the door.

The place hadnít actually been a church for over ten years. Five years ago friends of mine, Al and Kathy Jennings, had bought it and begun to convert it into their dream home. The results had been spectacular enough to merit an appearance on a national television series devoted to unusual homes.

As we walked in, I recognized most of the people who were already there and had a pretty good idea of who would come drifting in over the next few hours. Some were friends of long standing, others people who I knew by name but had barely even spoken to.

The place was not huge, but it felt like it. There was a single downstairs room with kitchen in the back, while an upstairs balcony wrapped around the second floor, hiding the familyís private quarters. Everywhere there hung banners carrying household and personal badges, vines that wrapped around the stained glass windows, and an assortment of weapons and musical instruments on the walls.

Nikita and I deposited the items I had bought on the buffet table near the kitchen door. There was food of all sorts, from what passed for traditional medieval dishes to things that had the distinct look of having come from local fast food places.

"Your friends here sure know how to lay out a spread," said Nikita.

"Oh, yes. There are some very, very good cooks here tonight. You will not go home hungry," I said. "But just be glad that one cook didnít bring anything."

"Just who would that be?"

"Me."

"And just why is that a good thing, then, that you didnít cook?" she asked.

"Less chance of fatalities," I laughed. "Iím honest enough to admit that Iím not a very good cook."

I filled up two pewter mugs with hot apple cider and passed one to Nikita. She sniffed it, and then took a hesitant swallow.

"Donít worry; I didnít spike it with anything. Although there is a whole selection of much stronger drinks available, should you desire one."

"Donít worry, mílord, you donít have to get me drunk to have your way with me. If I choose to let you," Nikita said.

"Iíll remember that."

Just then two men with lutes, a woman with a harp and a couple of drummers who had set up in one corner of the room began to play.

It occurred to me that if two hours ago someone had told Nikita she would be listening to Celtic music, and hopefully enjoying it, she would have likely not believed it. After three songs I noticed her mouthing the words, almost in sync with the musicians.

Several couples had moved out into the center of the room, clearing away a couch and a couple of chairs, and begun to organize a group dance. I touched Nikita on the shoulder.

"Would d you care to dance?"

"Iím not sure," she hesitated. "This is a bit far from a rave or a mosh pit. I think I can pick up the steps if I watch for a few minutes. Then, if youíre still interestedÖ"

"I stand ready for you, mílady."

I heard my name called from the back of the room. Standing in the door to the kitchen was the owner of the house, Al Jennings, or, as he was known in the group, Jon de Vitte. I knew him for three years by that name, and when I learned his real name, it just never seemed to fit him, at least in my mind.

"Jon! How come you let them keep conning you into hosting this little shindig year after year?"

"Hey, you know me, Iím an easy mark. Kathy just smiles sweetly and I give in, despite my best intentions. Look, can you give me a hand? I need some help to bring in a table from the garage. Iím seriously thinking that we are going to need it."

The garage was a separate building, about thirty feet from the main house, as solidly built out of heavy red brick as the church itself. The whole back yard was wrapped in the same sort of bushes that wound around the front. There were several leafless trees whose bare limbs hung like specters in the moonlight, marking the path to the garage.

Normally, the porch and backyard would have been full of people indulging in a tribute to the nicotine demon. This time there were just Jon and me, along with the cold and the full moon.

We had just swung the garage door closed when the sound of dogs howling filled the night, echoing off the building and the trees. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. I had an eerie feeling of dťjŗ vu, times a hundred.

The same way it had happened at Nikitaís apartment, the sound was suddenly gone, leaving a loud silence in its wake. Jon and I just looked at each other, neither of us seeming to want to say anything.

Finally a grin rolled across his face and Jon said, "So who let the dogs out?"

"Or who chased them back in?" I asked. "I think the technical term for that little bit wasÖjust plain weird."

"I love it when you talk dirty," laughed Jon.

I was about to grab my end of the table when I looked back toward the alley gate. Someone stood there, a tall man, dressed in leather jacket and black leather riding chaps. I thought I caught a glimpse of a motorcycle behind him. I couldnít see his face; it was too dark.

I assumed it was just someone arriving late and coming in the back way. No doubt he had his change of clothing in saddlebags on the cycle. I couldnít have turned my head for more than a second, but when I looked back, he was gone.

The roaring of motorcycles filled the backyard for a few seconds and then faded in the distance.

"What was that term you used earlier? Just plain weird?" said Jon. "I donít know if that qualifies, but itís close."

"Yeah," I grabbed up my end of the table, and we headed back inside.

# # #

Finding Nikita wasnít too hard. The house wasnít that big, no matter what it felt like. She had moved away from the area where the dancing was going on to talk to another woman whom it took me a second or two to recognize. This was an old friend, Lady Serina de Lyman, who in the real world answered to the name Serina Smith. She wore a long, crimson Italian Renaissance dress that looked like it had been designed for her.

"Lady Serina? I might have known. It looks like I came back just in time. I suspect t that you two ladies have been plotting and planning."

"Of course we have, Conner," laughed Serina. "And you are to be the victim of all our plans. I would suggest that you be on your best behavior. Iíve been telling Nikita all about you, every nasty little detail."

"Oh, boy, Iím in deep trouble," I said. Actually, Serina could tell her a lot about me, things I would prefer didnít get around. Our families had been friends for years, and we had known each other since sixth grade. "As I suspected, Lady Serina, you are being a very bad influence on this innocent newcomer to our gathering."

"Mílord," she said with a sly smile. "I do my best to be a bad influence, wherever I can. Now, if you will excuse me. I must go forth to spread chaos and terror in my path."

"It was nice meeting you, Serina," said Nikita. Turning to me she said, "Serina told me that I was a very lucky girl. That you are one of the nicest, most considerate men she has ever known."

"Well, Serina doesnít get around much," I laughed.

"No. Iím beginning to get the idea, Conner Ryan McMannus, and she told me that that is your real name, that you are a man of many facets. I wish I had the time to explore them all. I have a feeling that your walking into the store tonight was one of the better things to happen to me lately.

"Weíll see." I leaned forward and put my hands on Nikitaís shoulders, drawing her closer to me. I could feel a momentís resistance, as if she were unsure. Then as our lips met it was as if she were trying to push herself closer and closer to me, her arms wrapping tight around me. Iíve been kissed before, but nothing like that.

In the back of my mind a little voice as saying, "Man, hold onto this woman."

For a long time the only thing I could feel was the pressure of her lips against mine, and every inch of her body, breasts, legs, hips pressing hard against mine, our hands digging into each other. I could imagine the sort of show that we were putting on for everyone around us. Frankly, right then I didnít give a ratís ass.

Naturally, thatís when everything went wrong, very, very wrong.

The front door to the church blew open, slamming so hard against the wall that it nearly ripped itself free from the metal hinges that were anchored in the brick. There was no way a natural wind would do that. A couple that was standing close to the door barely got out of the way in time.

Two of the largest dogs that I had ever seen, like some mutated crossbreed of a wolfhound and an elephant, stood just inside the doorway. Other dogs surged around them into the church, growling as they went, herding the people back.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jon come out of the kitchen, a very large battleaxe in his hand. Around the room, I didnít have to see to know that swords were being unsheathed and daggers drawn, weapons appearing in the hands of not only men, but women, as well. I had a hunch that more than one person in the room were weighing their chances of reaching their cars where more lethal weapons might be found.

I still had my arm around Nikita. I could feel her muscles tightening with every passing second. "Just wait," I whispered, trying to give her a reassuring squeeze. "There may be a way out of here without anyone getting hurt."

"There isnít," her voice was husky and far away.

The dogs had cleared a corridor into the center of the room. From outside walked a man; dressed in the same black motorcycle leathers as the man I had seen standing at the garden gate. Another half dozen figures followed behind, clad in leather, their faces masked by scarves, goggles and protective helmets. Behind them I caught a glimpse of a line of motorcycles, silently awaiting their ridersí return.

The man came into the center of the room and turned toward Nikita and me. He raised his arm and pointed at her.

"No!" I said pushing her behind me. From all sides armed people took a step forward, ready to fight at my side.

"Conner!" I looked toward the balcony. Someone threw a sword to me. I have no memory of catching it or unsheathing the blade. I just knew that it was in my hand, ready to use.

"Now, I admit that was quite an entrance," I told the man. "But somehow I donít think that you and your friends are welcome at this party."

The stranger stood, unmoving. Then, with slow, precise movements, slipped off the helmet, holding it under his arm, and took off the scarf and goggles. His face was young, not more than thirty, but there was a haunted look in his piercing eyes.

"A brave man," he said. "Willing to fight, to defend this woman, even though he doesnít know what he might be fighting for."

"I suppose youíre prepared to tell me."

The manís gaze shifted to Nikita. That same sad smile I had seen earlier was on her face now. "I am not the one who should do the telling."

"I think, I would prefer to hear it from you," I said. "Are you suggesting you have a claim on her?"

One of the dogs picked that moment to growl and charge me. I swung at it, intended to put my sword as deep into its body as I could. But the dog was just a bit too fast. Instead of connecting with the blade, I had to slam my hand, wrapped around the sword hilt, into the side of the dogís head to keep it from sinking its fangs into me. To say this was like hitting solid steel, and freezing cold steel, at that, would be a pretty good description of how much it hurt.

The dog yowled and was about to wrap his teeth around my arm when the man in front of me spoke a single word. The sound was soft and direct, literally pulling the animal back.

"You are brave," he said. "Through the years few have been willing to raise a blade to one of our hounds. Usually they simply throw their arms up and hope to die quickly. Yet you fight."

"A man fights when he has to," I said.

"Indeed."

"Perhaps you will understand more about us, and the woman, if you saw my brethren and myself in our traditional forms," he said.

With that, he made a gesture with his hand and everything changed. Neither he nor his companions wore the motorcycle leathers that they had a moment before. Now all were dressed in various forms of medieval clothing, breeches, boots, and capes, their helmets adorned with stag horns, with swords and other weapons hanging at their sides. They pretty well seemed to fit in with the rest of us. Where there had been motorcycles now stood horses.

"Do you know me?" he asked.

"No, but thatís one hell of a trick," I said. "Iíd say The Force is definitely with you."

"I am Ö."

"Prince Wilhelm Vladimir Dagget-Eletsky," said Nikita. "Once the ruler of a province in the Balkans. Now, cursed to ride forth as the Hunt Master for the Wild Hunt."

I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, remembering that book I had found in her apartment. I looked over at Nikita, knowing that I would find her changed. Her black dress was gone, replaced by leather breeches, a tunic, vest and cape. All adorned with chain mail so fine that it was hard to tell the individual links. The green and pink hair was gone, replaced by a whitish-blonde braid that hung down her back.

"This night the Hunt rides forth for one reason alone," he intoned. "We have come to reclaim one of our own."

Nikita placed her hand on my cheek. "Conner, each of the Huntsmen is cursed to ride with the Hunt, instead of moving on to wherever souls go to find peace. I have been a part of this group for more than five hundred years.

"Do you remember how you said earlier that Twelfth Night was the last night of the season of misrule, where the peasants could be kings and everything was reversed? Also during this season the barrier between the worlds is stretched thin, and one of the Hunt can walk among humans again, to taste what it is we are cursed to be reminded of -- all that we have lost."

"This year it was Nikitaís turn," said the Hunt Master.

"No," I said. "Take me instead. Let her live out the time that would have been mine. I will ride at your side for however many eternities is the price to free her soul."

The Hunt Master chuckled. "That cannot be."

Tears rolled down Nikitaís cheeks. "Conner, soon not even you will remember me. It will be as if I was never here. No one at the convenience store, even the grumpy owner, will recall I worked there. If you go to my apartment you will find a couple living there who know nothing of me. That is the price each of the Hunt pays for these few brief days where we walk as human again, the knowledge that no one will remember our time among them. I knew this was the last night of the season that I was free. I did not want to hurt you, but I did not want to recall what was going to happen."

I kissed her again, pulling her to me as tightly as before. When she finally stepped away, I felt like part of my heart had been ripped out.

"If I recall the legends of the Hunt correctly, within limits your magic is strong." I said to the Hunt Master.

"Within limits."

"Then grant me a simple request. Let my memories of Nikita remain mine. Let her ride with you, but know that someone remembers her," I said.

"You are a brave man," he said. He drew his sword, the hounds growling around him, and then touched it against my blade. Very gently he laid a gloved finger against my forehead. "It shall be as you wish. I hope in the years to come you will not regret your choice. Remember Nikita, remember us all, my friend."

I watched as the Hunt left our hall and mounted their horses. One had been brought for Nikita. Then they all disappeared into the night, the hounds running beside them.

I stood on the porch for a long time after they were gone, not really sure what to do.

ĎThere you are," said Serina, handing me a glass of wine. "Donít look so long faced. This is a party. Youíre supposed to be having fun."

"Iím doing my best. I guess Iím not in a party mood right now."

"Maybe I can get you in a better mood, later," she said. "Come on back inside."

"Okay."

"Can I ask you something, Conner?"

"Sure."

"Did something weird happen tonight?"

"No weirder than normal, I would say," I laughed.

"Thatís a relief."

The End

 

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