the manhattan exiles
the house on the creek
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“Did you think you were the only one wants me dead?” the Beast asked, sharp teeth bared in a grin. Blood spattered his face and hair; his trousers and coat remained spotless.
Corbin swallowed back bile.
“I hadn’t given it much thought,” he admitted, eyeing the three fallen men in their bailey side-long. “Did you have to tear them to pieces?”
The Beast shrugged. His yellow eyes gleamed as he considered the splatter of gore across fountain, gate, and garden. Then he wrinkled his nose.
“Messy, but efficient. They came to kill me, Red, and I’ve better things to do than play the victim. Clean this up, will you?”
“No,” replied Corbin, crossing his arms over his chest. He wasn’t a stranger to blood or bared muscle and organ; he’d butchered his fair share of game. But it wasn’t fresh-killed venison steaming in the bailey; those were human intestines hanging from the lowest garden branches.
The Beast sighed. “They’re not from Littleton,” he said. “No one you know. Mercenaries, likely, sent by the Huntsman.”
Blood stained the demon’s bowed mouth. He licked it away with a delicate swipe of pink tongue. Corbin shuddered and swallowed hard to keep from loosing a late breakfast of tea and scones.
“The Huntsman,” the Beast confirmed. “He sends a group or three every spring, as soon as the passes clear. He wants my head for his trophy wall, you see. I believe it’s a matter of over-inflated ego. And stupidity. As it’s not by sword or fire I’ll die, but by – “
“Shut up,” Corbin interrupted. “I’m going back to bed. Get rid of this.” He waved a hand, hated that his fingers shook. “It’s horrific. Monstrous. Murder.”
He hid in his room under a mountain of soft quilts until sunset. When the brightly colored nesting birds returned through his broken window and settled for the night on his armoire, the Beast came with them, only properly through the chamber door.
“It’s not murder if it’s self-defense,” he said, climbing onto the mattress, sitting cross-legged by Corbin’s tatty pillow. “I didn’t track those men down because I was desirous of a snack, Corbin. They breached my gate, attacked me.“
Corbin groaned, and rolled his head on the pillow. He cracked his eyelids, squinting up at his friend. The Beast was clean again, his dark hair braided back. He smelled of yeast and baking, and Corbin wished he wasn’t so beautiful, limned pink against the setting sun.
“You should have sent them away,” Corbin said. “Frightened them or bribed them, as you did Belle, let your wolves chase them back through the forest to wheresoever they came. You didn’t need to strip their flesh from their bones with your fingernails.”
“I promise you, they meant to do the same to me.” The Beast studied his hands. “I can’t show my enemies mercy, Corbin. The softer I appear, the more will coming hunting the Manor Beast and his legendary treasure.” He sighed, and petted the tip of Corbin’s nose with his thumb. “A few good spring massacres and they leave me alone until first thaw comes again.”
Corbin jerked away, burrowed further under the quilts.
“Go away,” he said.
The Beast sighed again, and patted Corbin’s back through the bedding. The mattress squeaked as he hopped off, then hesitated.
“Have you yet killed your first man, Corbin?” he asked.
“Go away,” Corbin repeated, thumping a fist into his pillow, and this time the Beast complied.
Spring passed in sinuous, sleepy days. The Beast’s dead garden refused to bloom, but the forest past the Manor gates teamed with life and color. Four more parties of foolish men and women came hunting the Beast. The demon youth killed them all without hesitation or apparent relish. A knot settled in Corbin’s stomach, and wouldn’t be soothed by food or drink or sleep. He took to walking this nerves out beneath the forest canopy, spending most of his days wandering away from the Manor, shadowed always by one or more of the Beast’s watchful wolves.
He spoke to the Beast little if at all.
Corbin returned earlier than usual one afternoon, legs made leaden by the heat of approaching summer, still stepping so lightly across sticks and grass that he heard the voices long before he laid eyes on the Manor. He slowed, holding his breath, and reached automatically for his sword.
“Leave here.” Corbin recognized the Beast’s flat, bored tones. “Tell your master to give up the hunt. He’ll not have my head, nor any other piece of me. This game has grown tedious; there’s no pleasure left in it.”
Corbin slipped from the forest, pressed his spine against tree bark, safe in the edge of shadow. The Beast, standing casually outside the unlocked bailey gate, a clutch of summer herbs in his hand, didn’t appear to see him. Neither did the squat, muscle-bound man who held a glittering dirk against the demon’s slender throat.
“No game, this,” the man said in a thick accent. Foreign, Corbin decided, in strange, heavy mail, black tattoos decorating dark skin. “This is livelihood, and you are very valuable.”
The Beast’s fine, dark brows rose to his hairline. His yellow eyes sparked.
“Worth that much, am I? Huntsman must be growing desperate, or suffering wide-spread embarrassment. I’ve plenty of gold myself, you know. I’ll pay you to leave me be.”
The mercenary laughed. “Fool,” he scoffed. “I’d but take your gold and kill you anyway.”
“Yes,” the demon said, and then he looked straight at Corbin. “I thought you might. Here, then, let’s get it over – ah!”
The gasp was pain and surprise, as the tattooed man’s knife sliced the Beast’s throat, and red blood burst. The Beast dropped his herbs, collapsed back against the gate, pressed trembling fingers against the wound.
“Magic knife,” the mercenary laughed again. “Charmed by witches. You’re stupid, the others were stupid, I am not.”
The little knife rose again, a shining arc, but Corbin cut the man down before the blade could fall. The strange armor caught at his sword, sticking, and Corbin had to throw his entire weight into the cut, using the ground as leverage.
The man groaned, and fell, taking Corbin’s sword with him. Blood bubbled from his nose and mouth. He twitched, coughing, but didn’t rise.
Corbin wheeled and caught the Beast where he stood clinging with one hand to the gate, patting desperately at the smiling cut with his other.
“Are you – ?”
The Beast shook his head, eyes wide and startled.
“Hurts,” he admitted, a whisper. “It will heal. They always do. He was right.” Dark lashes fluttered as the demon glanced over Corbin’s shoulder at the mercenary. “I was stupid.” He breathed low, leaned hard against Corbin. “I should have ripped him to bits immediately. Chatting him. Up. Was a mistake. Don’t know why I. Bothered.”
Corbin scooped the Beast up, stepped over the dying man, shoved the gate open with his knee. He put the demon to bed on the old sofa in the library, cleaned blood from his friend’s face and throat as best he could, watched in disbelief as the deep wound sealed itself without scarring.
Then he went back to the edge of the forest and retrieved his sword from the dead man’s back. The blade grated against bone, and already the corpse was beginning to smell ripe. Corbin swallowed away sickness, and wiped moisture from his nose and eyes with the back of his sleeve.
He cleaned his sword against the grass and took it with him into the library, where he laid it across his knees as he sat on the floor against the sofa. He rested his head back against the Beast’s thigh, and closed his eyes.
The Beast slept past moonrise, and then woke with a start. Corbin stirred.
“He was your first,” the demon said, voice like rough stone. “Did you vomit, after? Did you weep?”
“No,” Corbin replied. “Did you…did you know…was that purposeful?”
“Was it a lesson taught?” The Beast said, gentle. “No. But it worked out rather well for me. Point made?”
“Yes,” Corbin said, staring at the cracks and stains in the library ceiling. “Point made.”
Congratulations to D.M. Pulley, winner of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. I can’t wait to see THE DEAD KEY in print!
I’m embarrassingly late to this, but:
Amazon has announced the Five ABNA Finalists. Please go and read the excerpts and vote. You have only until July 21st, all of the excerpts are wonderful, and the authors appreciate every input and attention.
As we speak, the original CORBIN AND THE BEAST ficlet is in the edit stage at Reuts. Reading through that little twisted fairy tale made me miss these two boys, so I threw together a short domestic scene.
I still do plan to give Corbin and his Beast their own full-length story. If all goes as I hope I’d like to jot up their manuscript between SUMMER and the third Exiles volume.
Until then, you can find bits and pieces of their story here, under their very own category. And don’t forget to look for them in the short story anthology coming soon from Reuts.
Corbin was hanging a whitetail doe from the rafters of an unused bed chamber when the Beast shouted. Corbin jerked in surprise, wobbling on his unsteady perch, nearly dropping the rope he’d finally managed to loop around a thick beam. The rope slipped, and the doe’s back legs jigged briefly against the floor.
“God’s balls!” Corbin snapped. The chair he’d used for elevation wobbled on delicate spindles. The doe wasn’t quite heavier than Corbin, but it was a close match. Corbin fought for balance, hauling hard on the rope. His shoulders pulled uncomfortable, but the chair stopped rocking and the rope scraped back along the beam, winching the carcass into the air.
The chamber door slammed open, rattling the walls, the floorboards, and Corbin’s chair. The Beast launched himself over the threshold, all but thrumming in excitement, long black hair flowing loose, festooned with cobwebs and dust.
“Corbin!” he said, bouncing on his toes like a over-stimulated child. “Didn’t you hear me call?”
Corbin bent his knees, anchoring the rope with his right hand, feeding out slack with his left. He tossed a second loop over the beam, then tied a quick hunter’s knot. The doe on her tether swayed idly, but she would keep.
The Beast paused mid-bounce. He narrowed yellow eyes at carcass, patrician nose wrinkling.
“Dinner for several se’enights, once she’s hung long enough for proper butchering.” Corbin wiped the palms of his hands on his trousers, and hopped to the floor. “Found her just this morning, killed in a dwarf-trap, poor thing. Not dead long, and only a little gnawed. She’ll do.”
“Ugh.” The demon youth folded his hands behind his back. His velvet coat was spotless as usual, untouched by the grime marring his face and hair. “Must you string it up in here?”
Corbin glanced around the chamber at peeling wall-paper, moth-eaten linens, and disintegrating furniture. He shrugged.
“Closest room to the front stairs, and its the perfect temperature. Weather’s cold enough she might do in the bailey, but I don’t trust your wolves to let her be.”
The Beast pulled a face. “This was the Queen’s suite, once, you know.”
“Really? It looks the same as all the others. Which Queen would that be?”
“How would I know?” The Beast shifted impatiently. He waved a long-fingered hand. “Never mind. Corbin, I need you.”
“Right.” Smothering a sigh, Corbin plucked his hunting pack from the floor, and slung it over a shoulder. “What is it now?”
In spite of unfeigned irritation, Corbin felt a flicker of interest. He’d had the past few winter days to himself, the Beast disappeared in his own chamber behind locked doors, as the demon was occasionally wont to do. Corbin knew better than to disturb his friend when those doors were latched tight; the sounds and smells seeping beneath the jamb were repulsive enough to give him nightmares for a year.
“What’s happened? Is there news from Littleton?”
“No. Not that.” The Beast stopped halfway through the door, glanced back over his shoulder at the doe. “It’s not going to…drip…on my floors…or anything similar?”
Corbin placed the flat of his hand between his friend’s shoulder blades, and shoved, none too gently.
“Because the rest of your floors are so clean? I’ve seen the bones in the ball room, remember?”
It was a long-standing contention, but this time the Beast didn’t rise to the bait. Instead his yellow eyes lit with an emotion that could only be joy. Corbin felt a surge of affection at that glimpse of uncommon warmth. He grinned.
“What is it, monster?” he demanded again. “What’s happened?”
The Beast was bouncing again. Corbin couldn’t quite contain a snort of amusement. The demon tended toward sulk and temper rather than joy, and Corbin had lately begun to hoard any small bit of contentment as dearly as the Beast had once hoarded gold.
“I’ve found it! Finally found it.” The Beast grabbed Corbin by the cuff of his sleeve, and pulled him down the corridor toward the curving grand stairway. “I thought it was lost, and it nearly was, buried beneath an atrocious mid-nineteenth-century sofa, and it’s broken, but just bent, really, and I know you can fix it, Corbin. You were so handy with my fountain.”
There were leaves on the steps, because the Beast routinely forgot to close the Manor door. The Beast hopped over the debris. His hand had somehow slid from Corbin’s sleeve, his fingers somehow become tangled in Corbin’s own. Corbin felt a lurch of dismay or lust or both at the realization, but he couldn’t bring himself to pull away.
They both ducked flags of spider-web trailing from the old chandelier above. Corbin sighed.
“We should clean that, don’t you think? There are a few saplings out back I’ve got my eye on for making a ladder.”
“Or I could witch you weightless,” the Beast said, tugging Corbin to a halt at the foot of the staircase. “Later. Right now: look.” He released Corbin’s hand, pointing.
Corbin frowned, puzzled. He squatted next to his friend on the marble floor, squinted suspiciously at the Beast’s small treasure. At first glance it didn’t appear very impressive: a wide metal flower blooming from a rectangular wooden box.
But Corbin knew better than to trust his eyes. It was likely as not the flower could suddenly expand and swallow him entire, or sprout metal tentacles and drag him down to the very depths of Hell.
“It’s a phonograph,” the Beast snorted, when Corbin didn’t speak. “It records music. Music and voices. And mimics the sound back.”
“Ah,” Corbin nodded wisely. “Magic, then.”
“No,” the Beast laughed. He sounded a little off, a little desperate. Corbin stared at him. The Beast stared back.
“It’s science,” the demon explained. On his knees, he bent over the ‘phonograph’, caressed the metal flower, then tapped a shiny cylinder. “This, this roll, there’s music etched upon it. Set the roll to motion and the stylus vibrates, turning etchings into sound.”
“Yes?” Corbin prompted.
“Can’t you see?” his friend snarled, shifting from starry-eyed to petulant in a heartbeat. “Didn’t I say. The stylus is bent. It won’t work. I need you to fix it, Corbin. Make yourself useful, for once.”
Corbin ignored the implied insult. He was growing used the demon’s mood-swings, God help him.
“We have music,” he reminded the Beast. “The harpsichord, remember? I play it, you dance. Endlessly.”
“Yes, yes.” The Beast tugged on the ends of his own hair in apparent frustration. “But I’ve gotten weary of dancing alone, Corbin. I want more. I want to dance with you.”
“I can’t dance,” Corbin said, carefully bland. “I know farming, and hunting, and swordsmanship; not the Rufty Tufty.”
“I’ll teach you,” the Beast returned, quick as a snake. “Fix my phonograph. And we’ll dance.”
Corbin glared. The Beast glared back. Then his mouth soften, and those yellow eyes grew wide.
“Please,” he said.
Corbin’s heart turned over behind his ribs. He sighed, then nodded.
“But tomorrow,” he cautioned, “we’re fixing the chandelier. Right?”
“Right,” the Beast echoed, distracted, bent once again over the music-maker. “After we dance, Corbin. After we dance.”
Bran was too well schooled to let horror mark his expression, but he wasn’t entirely impassive. Siobahn noted the flexing of his jaw, and the flush of blood along the stitched seam in his skull.
“There are kids – ” He stopped, and cleared his throat. “There are people on the other side of the hill, Siobahn. Families on the grass.”
Families on the grass. Siobahn remembered Winter and Summer playing in the park as children, catching snowflakes on their tongues and eyelashes. She shook her head, chasing the old sentiment away.
She allowed her eyes to widen, gave the detective the full force of her disdain.
“What’s a point made unless it etches the heart?” she asked, gently. “Bring your naive horror back to Katherine Grey, Detective, and remind her I’ve little left to lose.”
Bran turned and ran. Siobahn saw the moment the human almost put his foot into the dark stain. He recalled himself just in time, foot hovering an inch above the ground, then dodged his own death and sprinted along the concrete path instead. A safer choice, but far too indirect. Olmstead and Vaux’s rolling pastoral was meant for gentle rambling, and not urban warfare.
“He’s too late,” the Troubadour said without inflection. It watched Bran disappear behind the blackened hill.
“Hope springs eternal,” Siobahn quoted, mocking.
The Troubadour bowed. “So it does.”
“M’lady,” Morris interrupted. His protective bubble continued to pulse around Siobahn; his concentration unshaken. “If I may ask, what now?”
“Now we return home,” Siobahn said. She heard the distant wail of sirens. Someone mortal had phoned for help. “Dispel your Cant, Morris. I’m in no danger. This particular tool is tuned to royal blood.”
“My lady,” Morris protested, swallowing hard. “I haven’t your confidence. Even the finest sword cuts both ways.”
Siobahn squashed a twitch of impatience. She hadn’t time for fools. But Morris was like a wolf puppy, so eager to test his growing fangs.
“Bind it if you like,” she allowed, because it was easier than arguing, and she could see the flash of blue and red lanterns over the hill. “But not on my account. The Troubadour is loyal to my desires as my own left hand. Am I not correct?”
The Troubadour bowed again, meeting Siobahn’s stare, ignoring the loop of green fire Morris conjured around its wrists, fairy manacles.
“I am ever at your disposal,” replied the monster. It smiled, gathering black miasma about its heels and shoulders like a cloak. “Lead on, Highness. I’m eager for a proper home. It’s been far too long.”
- SUMMER, The Manhattan Exiles