The Myth Hunters
“I’ll talk to you before then, Dad. And I’ll call on Christmas.”
As if it was some kind of negotiation.
“All right, Sara. You take care.” Halliwell wanted to say he loved her but the words were spoken so rarely that to speak them would be awkward, and he’d had enough of awkward tonight.
He thumbed off the phone and set it on the mantel as he went by on his way to the recliner. The chair creaked beneath him and he settled in comfortably, understanding without conscious choice that he would fall asleep there, as he did almost every night, before moving to the bedroom sometime in the wee hours of the morning.
The numbness had seemed to abate while he spoke to Sara but it was waiting for him the moment he relaxed. The whiskey and the horror of Alice St. John both set quietly and diligently to work on him. He stared at the television again, attempting to make sense of what was on the screen. Highlights of the biggest news stories of the day flashed by. The top of the hour, then.
He let himself read the crawl at the bottom of the screen. The little snippets of news— of entertainment and sports and politics— were always fascinating to him in the way they painted a picture of the American worldview. Which often led him to contemplate what sorts of things would be enormous news in other countries but did not even make it to the footnote of the crawl across the bottom of the screen of a twenty-four-hour news channel.
His eyes ached, staring at the screen. He felt the exhaustion of the day begin to slide into the pleasant sluggishness that preceded sleep. The chair was home to him, in so many ways. Halliwell was reading but only half aware of what he read on the crawl. Something about the governor of New Jersey. A bit about the estate of late actor Marlon Brando.
And then this:
FRENCH AND US AUTHORITIES SEEKING CONNECTIONS IN PARIS, SAN FRANCISCO MUTILATION MURDERS, VICTIMS BLINDED IN KILLINGS POLICE CALL “IDENTICAL”— AP
Halliwell sat up.
* * *
They snuck into the village of Bromfield under the cover of night. Even at first glance, however, Oliver thought the word village was understating things. They had traveled east along the Truce Road for several hours, beginning at dusk, and when they came in sight of the place Oliver at first thought they had somehow gotten onto the wrong road, for this was a village of cottages and shops. Oil lamps lined the Truce Road where it ran through Bromfield, and light flickered inside several of the small homes along several narrower streets that intersected it, striking off to north and south for parts unknown.
Once in sight of the village, they left the road and moved as surreptitiously as possible across grassy fields, taking cover where they could in copses of trees. In the distance, the moon and starlight showed several farms to the north of the village and a silver line of water that wound its way amongst the farmland, not quite a river but more than a stream.
Frost led the way. Ever since the injuries the demon Aerico had inflicted upon him, he had been unsettlingly silent. Conversely, the normally quiet Kitsune had taken to traveling beside Oliver and engaging in conversation that seemed designed to educate him more about this world without making him feel too ignorant. He was used to her mischievous side, but this gentle guidance was a facet of her that he had not expected.
Her cloak rippled around her, catching the moonlight, as they followed the winter man far out of the way so that they could come up to a stone cottage at the edge of Bromfield from the rear. Oliver heard someone playing the violin inside, a sweet and lilting sound that surprised him in this setting, but soothed him as well.
They moved along behind the homes on the north side of the Truce Road, most of which had healthy gardens growing. In some of the cottages they could see people going about their evening, enjoying dessert or playing parlor games. In one house, which seemed to be lined with books, a man with thick black hair and a long face sat in a high-backed chair, reading. It made Oliver think of home, and he felt a twinge of melancholy. He envied that man the peace that came from a comfortable chair and an old book.
“Oliver,” Kitsune whispered, her breath warm in his ear, her fur cloak brushing his hand. He turned to her and her jade eyes were wide and sincere. “Do not tarry. We may have friends here, but certainly some of the people will be tempted by the reward Aerico spoke of.”
He nodded and pulled himself away from the back of that cottage. Kitsune started after Frost, who had moved on without them and was now two cottages ahead. She reached back a moment as if to take his hand and Oliver blinked in surprise. Her hand was gone as though it had never been there, lost inside her cloak, and he wondered if she had merely been stretching, or gesturing, or if he had not seen it at all.
Frost had paused behind a cottage larger than those they’d already passed. The moonshine glinted off a thousand angles on his icy form as though he wore a constellation of tiny stars, and Oliver worried, not for the first time, that it would be the presence of the winter man that led to their discovery. But as he considered it he realized it was a foolish concern. He was Jack Frost, after all, and had spent centuries moving through the winter landscape of Oliver’s world, avoiding the eyes of the curious.
The winter man beckoned to them.
Oliver and Kitsune hurried to join him, moving swiftly behind a cottage whose owner had a pair of cherry trees in the backyard. The reminder of their terrible morning was unwelcome, and Oliver shuddered as he passed the trees. He had put his parka back on and the shotgun case slung over his shoulder made a kind of shushing noise, scraping across the jacket as he ran.
Kitsune, as always, moved in total silence.
Even before they reached Frost, Oliver heard the slow clap of horses’ hooves out on the Truce Road. They came up beside the winter man and peered around the corner of the cottage to see a wagon passing by, but the beasts yoked to it were not horses at all. Their bodies were similar to a horse’s, but each had a head like a giant eagle, and what appeared to be wings pinned at their sides. A man sat on the wagon’s seat, but he was larger than any man Oliver had ever seen. Not a giant by the standards of this world, but huge just the same. The back of the wagon was loaded with barrels, and atop one of them sprawled a dark, twisted-looking creature, a goblin or something very like it. From this distance— and, Oliver suspected, perhaps even upon closer examination— it was impossible to discern the goblin’s gender. It was dressed in ragged clothing, hairless, and its skin was a sickly green that glistened in the lamplight out on the street.
The cart rattled by and Oliver turned to Kitsune, so many questions in his mind. She placed a finger to his lips to hush him, giving a little shake of her head. A little friction spark jumped at the contact but he did not flinch. For a moment he only stared at her and then he pulled himself away, wondering at the way she so easily derailed his thoughts. Her beauty was captivating, but he did not think that was the explanation. Nor was her mythical nature the sole reason, he thought. There was something else.
Laughter came from out on the Truce Road. A trio of seemingly ordinary people came sauntering down the street with an easy camaraderie, a man and two women. Their clothing was old-fashioned but, Oliver was pleased to see, not entirely archaic. The man wore blue jeans and heavy boots with a thick jacket of the sort his mother had always called a “peacoat” and which had been popularized by sailors in the navies of countries around the world. Dark blue wool.
The parka would have to go, but Oliver thought perhaps it wouldn’t be as difficult to blend in here as he’d thought.
When the road was clear again Frost gestured for them to follow and continued on. They passed behind another small cottage and then came to a two-story house with a sloping roof that had several small dormers, little windows like eyes set in to what was probably the attic.
The house was dark.
The structure beside it was alive with light and music. From the drone of voices that came from within and the laughter, Oliver felt sure it was a pub or bar.
“The Wayside Inn,” Kitsune whispered, as if she’d read his mind. Her breath was warm and moist, close by his ear.
Frost stared at the Inn for a few seconds, then glanced at the house behind which they huddled. When he faced them at last, one corner of his mouth lifted in a kind of smile and his brow crinkled with amusement.
“Soon the bar will close. Guests of the Inn will go up to their rooms, but others are already beginning to leave. We must hope to find a man on his own, perhaps one who has had too much to drink. At the least we must have a shirt and coat, for such things are roughly made here and factory-made things will draw attention. If we can find shoes and trousers that fit you, Oliver, so much the better.”
“You’re enjoying this,” Oliver whispered in amazement, but also with relief. Frost had been so quiet and grim all through the night that this was a welcome change.
“It’s a beautiful night, and at the moment no one is trying to kill us,” the winter man replied.
Kitsune lowered her hood, silken hair framing her face. One of her eyebrows arched. “You know, I could go in and lure a man outside, alone. We are hunted in secret, you and I. There is no reward for our death or capture, only for Oliver’s. I have been here before. Travelers always pass through on the way to Perinthia.”
Frost nodded. “Yes, that would certainly make it—”
His eyes narrowed and he stared beyond them, back the way they had come. Kitsune frowned as she sniffed the air, suddenly alert, but the wind was blowing from the east and Frost was looking west. Oliver’s mouth went dry as he spun around, memories of the Falconer and the Kirata flashing across his mind.
But it was only a man. He stood perhaps fifteen feet away in the night shadow of the house, where the moonlight could not reach him. An enormous swell of laughter came from within the Wayside Inn, and someone began to play thunderous, roadhouse piano, badly out of tune. The sound of the Inn’s door creaking open and banging shut came to them from out in front. Someone called good night to a companion and the reply was more bark than words.
Throughout all of this, Oliver, Kitsune, and Frost only stared at the man. Kitsune growled, low in her chest.
“You know,” the man said from the night shadow. “Before indulging in assault and robbery, you might consider borrowing what you came to steal.”
The man’s tone was bemused, but Oliver’s heart was hammering in his chest. Discovery would destroy their plans. It could even cost them their lives.
“Show yourself,” Frost commanded.
“As you like, sir.” Without hesitation or fear the man approached them. When he came into the moonlight Oliver saw that it was the man with the thick, shaggy black hair and long face he had seen through the window several houses back. The man whose cottage was full of books.
His accent was British and his features showed little emotion, save for his eyes, which were alight in that pale face. If anything, he seemed merely curious, studying both of the Borderkind and then focusing on Oliver’s parka and the shotgun case over his shoulder.
“Kill him,” Kitsune snarled.
Oliver flinched, darting his gaze toward her. “Wait a second.”
“Oh, no need for that, love, surely,” said the man unhappily. “What sort of reward is that for a Samaritan only looking to do his good deed for the day?”
Frost looked first at Kitsune and then Oliver before taking a step nearer the man. To his credit, the Englishman did not appear frightened.
“We’ve heard far too much talk of rewards today. What sort of reward is it that you seek?”
How the man could ignore the ominous presence of the winter man looming so close, Oliver did not know. Yet instead of addressing Frost, or even Kitsune, he directed his reply at the only other human in that gathering.
“No reward, truly. My old mum raised me right, didn’t she? But in exchange for more suitable clothes and a cup of tea by the fire, I confess I’d dearly like to have word of home. Most of the Lost Ones don’t like to admit it, but I miss it. Too many years have passed since I saw the other side of the Veil.”
He nodded politely to Frost but stepped around him and held his hand out.
“Oliver Larch, at your service.”
* * *
Larch was as good as his word. Once he had them all safely ensconced within his little cottage with the curtains drawn and the fire stoked high, he set out a tea tray for Oliver and Kitsune. Frost did not partake. There were scones as well, and though they were not fresh, smeared with raspberry jam they were still delicious. Oliver had not expected to be hungry after the largesse of the Harvest gods, but the jam persuaded him.
While the two Olivers talked, Frost wandered the cottage, quietly perusing some of the books on the shelves that lined the walls, picking up a small framed photograph from a writing desk in the corner and then a jar of ink Larch used for writing.
Oliver barely paid attention to the winter man’s seeming disinterest. It had startled him, somewhat, not only to find a man willing to help them in this place where so many seemed determined to kill him, but also to have that man share his own name. He could not escape the idea that here was an Oliver who had found himself in this place and made a home for himself amongst myth and legend, a simple life that was both extraordinary and entirely unremarkable. Oliver and Oliver.
When all of this was through— providing he managed to remove the order of execution that had been sworn against him— he wondered if he might actually stay here. The idea quickened his breath, like that of a little boy dreaming of running away to join the circus. Yet this was no dream. It was his reality.
Kitsune sat on the floor by the fireplace, legs curled under her, but her jade eyes were alert and she listened to every word the two men exchanged.
Larch knew many people who had been the forgotten of their societies, who had slipped through the cracks. Homeless people and runaway teenagers whose parents were glad to see them go. But far more often, he claimed, there were incidents like his own. On a clear night in the fall of 1973, sixteen-year-old Oliver Larch had heard voices outside his window, beneath an ash tree that had always made his eyes itch when the wind blew just right. When he went outside to investigate, he saw someone behind the tree and called out to them. Receiving no answer, he went around the other side of the tree . . .