February 2008 Volume Two Issue Two
Retinue - Adrian Simmons
Wind blew cold on the playground on the day I put an end to Doyle Ramirez's habit of beating the crap out of me. I don't know what month it happened in, just that it was cold. If Miss Strayne hadn't been watching, I probably never would have lifted a finger.
She was our substitute teacher, and she was the kind of woman you felt compelled to do things for. I swung wild punches at Doyle -- crazy chaotic blows. She seemed to like it.
I got in trouble. I always got in trouble whenever Doyle picked on me. I don't know why he never got in trouble. The principal called my parents and they were very disappointed in me. Mom especially. I felt bad that I let my mom down, but that went away when I remembered the way Miss Strayne had smiled down on me after the fight.
My mom told me never to take rides with strangers, but on the last day of my suspension my mom didn't show up and Miss Strayne asked me if I wanted to go with her. And she had a motorcycle.
I knew from the first call that Bobby McDanial's case was going to be a big, freakish, pain in the butt. A Jane Doe walks into a school, assumes the role of teacher, a bully is taken to the hospital and gets thirty-two stitches in his face, and a mother swears she brought her little angel home. And that little angel, Bobby, is gone. A case that had no leads -- no fingerprints, no evidence, nobody even had a description of Miss 'Strayne'.
Bad things happen to little kids. They get taken by ex-husbands and estranged wives, or picked at random to satisfy some nut's unsavory whim, and some slight few just seem to fall off the planet. I spent a lot of work time and a lot of overtime on this case and learned a lot about things I'd rather have remained ignorant of. I never found much on Bobby but I did find that, although he wasn't the last kid to up and disappear like that, he was one of the first of a new trend.
It wasn't just a motorcycle, it was a chopper, a big yellow one. It roared like a lion and she would let me drive it sometimes. Sometimes we'd pull off the road and then the chopper would turn into a big horse and we'd ride through places that I could never find on any map. It sure didn't look like Iowa.
She was busy, that much I know, that much I learned. And thorough. But she had a pattern: there was always a test, somebody did something outrageous, and then off he or she and this mysterious woman went. Neat, concise. Others, I came to know, were not so neat.
It was in Sharnell, Texas that I first even considered the idea that there might be others, others besides Strayne. Cops down there didn't really keep track of all the border skippers and runaways. There were whole families of Mexican migrant workers up and vanishing.
Iowa didn't have monsters. No great hairy brutes with cruel talons at the end of too-long arms.
A beautiful summer day. I don't know what month, just that it was a perfect day to put your body between your mistress and the beasts that threatened her. After the rumble Miss Strayne found somebody else to groom her horse and change her oil. I got a sword and a necklace of talons and swore to never leave her side. She smiled down on me like the sun and laughed her long merry laugh and we were off again.
If you look closely at such things, at those tiny few people who just disappear without a trace, you'll notice that there are spikes in the trend. 1834 was a hell of year, at least for the sloppy ones. So was 1976.
I had gotten big: I remember looking at my reflection as we crossed the Mirror Lake on a moonless winter's night. I was almost as tall as Miss Strayne now and much, much, stronger. "A good thing," she told me, "for its purposes." I watched my reflection dwindle as the boat unfurled its wings and took to the sky. The caer of Mirror Lake could not defend against a fleet upon the water as well as in the air. Glorious. She fought for the glory and we fought for her. It went as Miss Strayne had promised it would.
In time I learned that it wasn't profitable to try to track the disappearances anymore; you got more results for your work if you concentrated on the re-appearances. Spend a lot of time on the phone but it's worth it. I'm a cop and the Rip-Vans don't tell me much. Maybe they say where it was they were, what part of the country, sometimes they had a description of their abductor. They never like to talk about it because it never makes any sense, not even to them, much less to anyone else. But I'm a cop, and those little bits of information were more valuable than gold.
I'm not the only one asking questions, either. Some others had caught on. Looking back, it was nice to know I wasn't the only one looking at the world in a new light anymore. I have a process, though, slow and methodical; it's what I do. No matter how bizarre my reasons for investigating, I was always slow and methodical. The others I met seemed to rely on instinct more than anything else. We didn't get along, their fanaticism didn't get me any closer to finding Bobby McDanials.
The halls of Caer Scáthán Loch strained beneath the colors of the great tribes. The banners fluttered as we celebrated our victory long into the spring. Rigohn Strayne was a hero and I was one as well. We stopped our wandering and the life I knew of open fields and tireless travel was replaced by bright walls and high battlements, silver and copper and gold spun and hung from the standards. It gladdened me to see Miss Strayne treated like the queen she was by her own kind. No, not queen. Not yet.
The old legends say that when the Fey would exchange their children for one from a mortal's family, the changeling child could be identified by the fact that it ate as much as five or even ten men; it was also usually stupid and lazy. I read somewhere else that these myths originated in agricultural societies to justify infanticide of unwanted or retarded children.
Neither option is very pleasant, but I've developed a little bit of a different take on the stories. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but I'd developed a good picture of not just Strayne's modus operandi, but the process in general. Crazy, sure, but when I investigate something, no matter how outlandish the impetus, I keep my techniques clean.
I don't know a lot about the Fey, but I'm pretty sure that they're not the hardest working bunch of people you'd ever meet. Why break your back in toil when you can just as easily take the fruits of another's labor? The changeling was implanted to help his masters get food, clothing -- basic materials that these beings, these things, find too mundane to mess with. One changeling rounding up enough food to feed ten cohorts. And why stop at food? Take their cars, and their houses even, and if your master is feeling particularly horny maybe he'll send you off to fetch someone's daughter to satisfy his lust.
It's hard to take that first step, from detective to witch-hunter. I didn't like it, shook my head a dozen times, but I'm a cop, I follow leads, I follow them wherever they take me. It makes a lot more sense now.
In time the standard of my Lady's tribe was not the highest banner in the Caer. Through hook and crook and methods most foul the halls became decked with the red and gold, not the copper and green, and we found ourselves subject to a new Lord. No blood was spilled in his coup, but oh, if it had been... We did not like him at all, and I think he disliked us. He had mortals too, but none like my Lady had, none like me.
He gave me no gifts of armor or weapons for defense of his lands, and treated those I had been given as a waste. Cooks and servants and groomsmen he thought were the best services of our kind.
Miss Strayne soothed my anger and gave me wise council. Was being her champion not enough? And a champion to others as well; our new Lord's servants and groomsmen looked at me with pride. They would look at me and the fire of a hero's life would burn in their eyes for a time.
Just how many of them there might be I don't know. Maybe I never will, maybe it is better that way. I got as far as Colorado then Strayne just disappeared. I went back to Iowa and found his parents still locked in their legal battle with the school. I don't think they even wanted to listen to me... I guess that hoping to get their boy back was too much of a... well... Strayne. Better to invest time and money on getting their revenge on the system that had let a strange woman come in and take him. Sometimes I wanted to sit and tell them just how strange a woman she really was.
There was a bondmaid. A mortal. Her eyes were always upon me, her smile always at her lips when I came by. As the horns sang to announce our return, even as I rode beside my Lady, my thoughts always fled to my new love. Through the swirling colors of the court I would seek her out, a bit of chestnut brown, a Little Thorn among the blossoms of spring and burning leaves of fall. So opposite of my lady and yet dragons I would have fought for her, and glories I would trade for a few more moments in her arms.
I worried Miss Strayne would grow angry, think me foolish, or even become jealous. She was a little jealous, and that was maybe the greatest reward she ever gave me.
My affection was returned tenfold, in the long cold nights in the mountains both the flame of my loyalty to my Mistress and the memories of my lady's embrace warmed me as the dawn.
I kept a running log of the possible candidates for 'taken servants' of the Fey. Sometimes I would get leads about them, sometimes not. Most police departments tape interviews and questionings anymore... this makes things a lot harder. So far I've done all of this on the level, but I can't play by the rules anymore. They've beaten the system, made an art of it I sometimes think.
Witch-hunter, I hate that term, I hate to think of what I may do, what I may have to do, to get the answers I want, to free the slaves of the hidden kingdoms.
I was a good cop, maybe they'll remember me for that.
Lord Burando, red and gold, was a fool and a coward. To strike at me through the woman I love, while I was yet away with my Mistress fighting the unending tide of spirits at his borders. The Society of the Fourteen Bravest had risen from their long slumber and turned their ancient eyes to the lands of the Ever Young. Waves of hatred driven upon a sea of ghosts; they broke against us as eagles screamed in the sky as the living and dead counted coup against each other.
With eight of the Bravest defeated, I begged my Mistress to understand that I could not let Burando get away with the abuse he had committed, that I had to leave. I had to respond. She had no anger, no words of reprimand, her eyes sparkled and she laughed the laugh that cuts the wind, and kissed me on the forehead.
Burando was the greatest swordsman in the land, but he feared the iron swords, as do all the Ever Young, and my Mistress had seen to it that our dispute would be settled with cold blades. I fought with anger and passion and his fear made him hesitate. It was a brief duel.
My mistress and my Lady are avenged. Caer Scáthán Loch is ours again.
Colorado, they were there, a whole nest of them. That much I got out of her before she was committed. I set to work, not alone this time, but with allies. Some of the Rip-Vans had memories, waking nightmares of their captivity; some wanted to fill the great gaping holes in their souls and their lives, some needed to prove to themselves that they weren't mad. It had been a risk contacting them, a risk that so far has paid off.
Colorado State park rangers found the body, mislabeling it as another unknown homicide. They concluded he was cut up in one of the outlandish 'live action games' that were sweeping through college campuses at the time.
But these weren't random hacks or slashes. A pro did this, somebody who really knew what they were doing- one cut to the inside of the knee to take him down and one thrust right through the chest to kill him. Probably happened in the blink of an eye. They twisted it too, just a little turn of blade. Motherfucker.
We identified him as Tony Burando, missing since his 10th birthday. I wonder what Fey-lord he crossed to earn such a fate?
I had six positive ID's on Bobby McDanials, two on Strayne. I hoped I could get to him before he found himself on the wrong end of somebody's wrath.
Mistress Strayne was happy for a time, as Ardh Rigohn of Caer Scáthán Loch. But time worried at her, and plots tightened about her. Against these things I was little help. She grew bitter and easily angered, I lived in fear that one day her anger would turn to me. But the fire giants came first. They escaped from the mountains and the deep earth, took form and burned across the lands of the six tribes. And the dead, from the Buffalo Robes, even from the horseless ages, came with them.
Such foes have not been seen in this age, and the high lords dropped all arguments so they could deal with the scourge. My Mistress threw her head back and laughed to her council and the horns blew and the call to war was sounded. They were a mighty host, the tribes gathered in all their glory- the summer spirits and the winter Fey side by side, spoiling for battle.
But who would lead them into the fire, lead the Ever Young into the grip of waking dead? To give them courage, they decided to place at their head one who was doomed to death- a mortal to conquer their fear.
They roared my name into the wall of smoke and howling faces, and I led them into the flames.
I found Bobby MacDanials. That's who the dental records said it was. There were seven bodies; I don't know how many others we'll never find. Sometimes the magic is so subtle... the rangers and fire-fighters just shrug, 'thrill-seekers' or 'hikers' or some 'frat-boy prank'. Nobody seems to be able to concentrate on it long enough to get any answers, nobody wonders too much about how the horses got there, or why they didn't have packs or supplies or their cars never turned up. They were all male; Strayne wasn't one of the dead. Bitch.
Was this Bobby's reward, to be casually disposed of in an inferno in the middle of a forest along with all the rest of the unwanted help? I think on that sometimes. Too much really, I should find another way to occupy my time.
I've gotten pretty good at finding them now, the stolen children of mortals. Amy Thorton is one: disappeared her third semester of college. She's back now, a little disoriented but alive. She has a son, a boy whose origins she can't place. He is the light of her life, the only tangible thing to come out of the void of six lost years.
The last time I talked to her, he was eating her out of house and home.
- END -
Adrian Simmons is a writer/internet celebrity (http://youtube.com/watch?v=OPmYbP0F4Zw). His nonfiction litters the already cluttered corners of many speculative fiction websites. "Retinue" is short, sweet, and dear to his heart. Has been known to teach Taekwondo, and to backpack through the badlands of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and New Mexico . Rumors abound that he has done free-lance game design for White Wolf Games and taught Rob Zombie to drink Irish whiskey on the inhale. He was warned all this would happen.