Dark-maned and wary, he waits. Crows creak on the edge of the moor, cotton-grass sways by the small tarns. The world is not as asleep as it should be. He is iron-shod and ready. Three nights he has been coming here, while the no-longer-child turns and murmurs in her bed. In the mornings she wonders why he is tired, and blames the grass, or the fodder from the high meadow. She grooms him, and whispers in his twitching ear. It matters—her concern, her…love. Another thing he would never admit.
They say that he was born under an Elder Sign, changed in some way. They don’t know, they only guess. They guess about most things because he is unique. He remembers drawing breath, a choke of fluid, and the gentle hands of a child. He understands their theories of bonding and imprinting, but he doesn’t care. He chose what happened and why. He chose because the child held something different.
And now he waits, because old things are moving, and the world grows cold.
Chitter. Whispering down the past-ways, they slide through choices and out of the half-world, onto the bleak moor, snapping at each other’s sides and mouthing foulness. Hungry for failure and hopelessness, thirsty for small pains. The Children of Angles and Corners are loose, and they must play…
He is an edifice, four pillars of taut muscle. There are some slivers of darkness the girl should not have to face. She is courageous, and true. When the nightjacks skittered from Whateley Wood, she took her father’s gun and showed them why they should leave. She argued with blasphemies, and took fire to certain shadows beneath the stones. But when the half-world opens, even he takes care.
Froth blew from his wide nostrils that first night in the barn, lit by storm-lantern and worried faces. Iridescent, blood-scented froth. There was thunder, somewhere, and a wind that tore at loose planking. The lantern swayed on its chain, rain spattered them from the open door. An auspicious night for some.
“I shall call you Mr. Bubbles,” she said as she wiped his nostrils, his twitching limbs. “My first pony.”
Even then he could have killed her with a single kick. It had occurred to him, in the early years. Her affection was a burden, a kind of debt he owed her. Or it should have been. Instead he felt an uncomfortable warmth when she groomed him, a shudder in his massive heart when she was at risk. Humanity did things that were inconvenient. Her humanity, of course, not his.
Those days were strange, all blankets and currying-brushes. This field not that field, and a halter. When he tore the stake from the ground and shredded the halter rope, they got the message. Here, yes, and staying for a while but never tied here, never bound. She saw that, though her parents were less sure. Patting his muzzle, she threw the rope far away, opened every gate.
“This is your home, boy,” she whispered.
Clinging to the cotton-grass, claws wrapped round stalks and stems, narrow heads lifting. Out of the half-world to play, soft pipes and changelings, curdled milk and blood on the bedsheets. The Children of Angles and Corners, as alike to the fey of folktales as a cleaver to a butter knife…
He considers the world, and the half-world that is coming. These are bale-fire nights. More than the low moon lights the crags, flushing wings that should not beat from the burned heather. A dead fox stirs, unable to rest, its white bones gleaming in the tough grass. The owls do not call.
He knows these times, and is here because there are certain matters he never shares with the girl. Sandra. This is a confluence of wrong places, the place she calls their home. A more sensible people would have fled, but these are Wolds-folk, centuries rooted. He has tried to explain it to her, but she has something called spirit, pluck. An old virtue, which stops her from seeing the worst, even when it claws at her face.
“Don’t worry, boy. We’ll see to it.”
And they did, mostly. But one day they might not, and he doubts that he will be the first to fall. Which worries him. Occasionally.
He moves, a careful matter of one hoof then another, testing uneven ground. There are rabbit-ways and sheep trails, gullies where the wash from the crags makes iron-brown streams. Small beaches line the gullies, the glitter of fine sand by moon and stars.
Something calls out from the rocks above, and his ears lift, twitch. This is their time of sport. It isn’t his first encounter, not that the girl knows the half of it. They come to test and tease and feed. They slide through nowhere and into the world of people—soft, confused, stupid people. He has little love for humanity some days, but even less for the ones who come to prey on them.
And there is Sandra. Clear-eyed and best of breed. If they touch her, he will spread them, their thin limbs and their coppery blood, across an acre, a thousand acres of this land. He will break them in ways they cannot comprehend…
His own blood pounds at the thought, raising the red. He steps more quickly, wary of warrens and pits. For all his strength, a fetlock is a fetlock, easily caught in soft earth and twisted. The moor rises here in folds, beginning its broad journey to the horizon. There are spatters of light below and behind him, the farmhouse and then the village itself. His protectorate, by association. That’s how the girl seems to see it, anyway.
Their music is a scrape on glass, a lost child’s wail, forced through throats that do not quite exist. Their limbs twitch without sinews and bend where there are no joints. They see farmsteads and the flesh within, flesh that dances when plucked. Fat where they are lean, sweetmeats for their soured tongues…
A stretch of heather in purple fullness, lingering honey on the air, and he picks up his pace. They haven’t seen him yet, because they long too much to slip into outhouses and worry the hens, set the dogs to running. There are memories and monstrosities in Whateley Wood far more dangerous than these, but they know their place, for the greater part. Even the nightjacks. Those who come tonight are older than most monsters, a land-memory for the northern Wolds.
By a peat-stained tarn, he gets their measure. The Children of Angles and Corners, many in number and fell with purpose. Wire-thin, heads held high above the heather. They stare at the village below as they creep across the moor, rustling the reeds. In the cold, gathering night they pause now and then to hiss at rabbits, or their companions. Even their own are prey, if they weaken.
And now they do see him. A few of those heads, almost triangular, turn. Scornful eyes regard him. A horse, a pony, a beast. Blind to their presence, surely, and elsewise powerless when the folk of the half-world come calling. Hoof and horn mean nothing to them. They turn back to snarl in pettiness, clambering one upon the other to be in the advance. Over rill and bracken, plucking ticks and beetles from the undergrowth, licking out the softness inside with tongues like blinded snakes.
A night of them, a wash of them to remind the village what elf-shot once meant. They will thrill to the ways old folk shudder and sigh, brittle-boned and crack-jointed. They will feed on the moans of a babe too young to know why it hurts, and the sobbing of the bereaved. It has been a long time, and the Children must play…
He stamps on the soft earth, his breath a storm-cloud. Are there too many of them? For a moment he remembers the girl’s picture-books, strewn across the barn as she read to him when she was small. Lords and ladies, fine robes for the fey folk on their white horses, and bells jingling from every halter. Fairy mounds and courts of soft laughter. She coloured in one of the pictures.
“Look, Mr. Bubbles.” Her blond hair fell across her eyes, and she giggled. “A fairy king.”
And here they are with eyes of curdled milk, with tiny, needle teeth, a tumbling procession of hate and need. Crawling and leaping down off the moor, slit-nostrils quivering at the stink of tarmac as they come to the road. They spit and moan, but then they are on it and eager.
“Wouldn’t if I were you.”
His words come from deep lungs, carrying on the cold air and wreathed in mist. The spike-limbed mass before him pauses. A beast sees them. A beast has spoken.
“Horsey,” hisses one of the Children, no more than twenty yards from him. “Clever horsey, learns the fat-things’ words.”
Their laughter is vinegar at his lips, sharp on his tongue. The girl does not know what her “pony” can sense, because he never tells her. He can taste her love, even now, and her loyalty. This is how he lives, how he survives pony shows, and village fetes. Ribbons in his hair, and half the prizes because they worry what might happen if he doesn’t get that bright rosette. It makes her happy.
“Not your place, this.” He tosses his head, mane black and wild, ribbon-free. “Best go back.”
Laughter and menace, because they are the Children of Angles and Corners, and this is merely a beast with a trick or two. Nothing to them, for they have claws that shred, and they see no harm in practice…
He rears, tail swishing, and the red comes to him. She does not like these times, the girl, but she is not here and these things are. Born under an Elder Sign, fearless and far-sighted—and keen for the fight. He has always been like this.
They surge, a dozen, two dozen, chitter and claw as they come for him. If there is a fragment of sense in one or two of them—and there may be—it says that this animal, this pony, shows no sign of fleeing the half-world’s hunger. And if they are a wrongness in human lands, then what is this that charges them, drumming the ground with its great hooves? The earth, which is not their earth, thunders under his coming and the first of them, out from the pack, is…
Cold iron, a horseshoe the size of two men’s hands, slams into a narrow skull and makes it eggshell, broken eggshell. And another. Rear and kick, and he is in the middle of them. Their claws catch, drawing blood from his hide, but the cold iron drives down, shattering limbs, opening cramped chests. The Children of Angles and Corners shriek and caper, slashing out at him, and blood pours from one of his nostrils, spraying hot on their cold skins.
He takes a slicing cut to one side of his chest but wheels round and kills another of them with a backward kick that makes two of it. They pull back a yard, two yards, but no more. He is the core of battle, a blackness waiting to be washed by a grey tide.
“Go!” he says, hooves planted four-square, ready. “Not your place!”
They hiss encouragement, each to the other. He sees them creep, always encircling, and wonders how strong is strong. It must be done, though.
The first blast splits the waiting. The second one tears the twisted legs from one of the Children on the edge of the pack. Iron shot, and the thud-click of a pump-action shotgun. Hate-filled and hateful, the Children run, all small plans and malice abandoned. They cry and crawl, drive themselves into stands of bracken. They call to the half-world, and the half-world answers, opening for them.
Chitter. Slithering and weeping anger they run for the past-ways, to swear vengeance and tear their own wounded as they go, knowing failure. Leaving the moors. The Children of Angles and Corners flee from a black-maned, iron-hooved monster…and another.
He snorts up blood, and turns to her. A slim girl with blond plaits and an old combat jacket thrown over her shoulders, she peers into the darkness.
“Why did you come out here without me? And what were those creatures?” Sharp words. He hears anger; he tastes concern—and love. She comes closer, the gun in one hand and pointed always towards the moor.
“Oh. You’re bleeding, boy!” With her free hand she pulls a torch and a cloth from her shoulder-bag and examines him, tutting and dabbing at some of his wounds.
“Had worse.” A sharp response. She fusses too much.
“Poor Mr. Bubbles. We must get you straight back to the barn, and cleaned up.”
He turns his head to the moor, watching the flickers she cannot see as the Children return to the half-world. She slaps his flank, demanding attention.
“Right now, if you please!”
The red has gone. He whinnies, lowers his head and follows the girl down to the farmhouse without argument. Far away, a dead fox settles and remembers how to sleep.
He is her first pony. She will never need another.
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Story copyright © 2016 by John Linwood Grant
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Gregory St. John
John Linwood Grant lives in Yorkshire with a pack of lurchers and a beard. He may also have a family. He has an obsession with dark Edwardian tales, such as his period novella A Study in Grey, but he also explores contemporary and folk horror. Recently published stories feature subjects ranging from madness in period Virginia to questions about the monsters we ourselves become. His unusual website greydogtales.com explores weird fiction, weird art, and even weirder lurchers.
Gregory St. John is an artist and fiction writer living in Gainesville, Florida. If he is not painting or sculpting, tending to his gardens and chickens, studying history and science, reading while walking his four dogs, cooking, or building something, he is hard at work at the family perfume business, Solstice Scents. He is currently drafting his first novel and editing a collection of his short stories titled The Short and Curlies, featuring “The Presence of Hell,” “Servant of Stone,” “A Helping Hand,” and “The Dare.”