Petals of the Rose
Of Fight and Flight
Rajah had wandered off from the caravan a ways. He was supremely dissatisfied, and had the urge to test the limits of his ability to escape his employer. He’d been talking himself up, convincing himself that if he just stuck to his guns and walked away, with conviction, that it would allow him to get far enough to fulfill the exit clause. Just one glimpse of the world, just one car horn, and he’d be home free.
Then why was he still standing at this log that had fallen across the path? Some part of him acknowledged that if he took one step further, jumped that log and kept going, he’d be walking away forever on the deal he made. And something was tugging him backward with a power he dared not fight. This wasn’t the way to get free, and he knew it. A vision kept playing itself in his head of the oathbreakers and forsworn whose skins hung from the parapets of the Emperor’s palace. Amongst faeriekind, nothing was worse than a broken word.
With regret, Rajah turned and trudged back to his post in the caravan. Squawk, the second-in-command to Quentin and a gruesome creature with drooling oversized lips, leered at him. “Back so soon?” He offered the hob a low growl and fell back into pace behind one of the many wagons. Squawk scampered off, giggling insanely to himself.
In the wagon Rajah walked behind, a tarpaulin covered a rusted steel cage. Inside was something dark and deadly, some beast of the hedge that Rajah had never gotten a proper look at. But he had heard several of the hobs call it “the cat” when talking about moving it. If it was a cat, maybe he could convince it to help him.
“Hey, Buddy.” Rajah rapped a knuckle on the bars of the cage. As he did, he reached out with the power of the Wyrd, the force of faerie magic, and used an ancient agreement with the forces of fang and talon to translate his words into a form that any feline could understand. “You want to go free, right?”
Something stomped around in a circle inside the cage. A single eye glowed back at him through a hole in the tarp. “More than anything,” it growled.
“Why don’t you and me make that happen?”
“I’m listening.” A hot breath hit Rajah in the face, sickly sweet.
“When’s the last time you ate?”
“They don’t feed me enough in here.”
“If I can get you out of there, how about you take a bite out of all of those guys?”
“I’ll make you a deal. I let you out, you can devour anyone and anything in this caravan except me. Sound good?”
“It is agreed. Now release me!”
Rajah had set this deal up hoping to find a reason and a method to employ it. But the urgency the beast carried in its words was both a threat and a promise of violence to come. He couldn’t do it yet. And the hob driver of this wagon was eyeing him suspiciously from over the tarp.
“Soon. Soon, cousin.” He moved away, looking for something that could help him accomplish his escape. The lock on the cage was a shining black metal, probably enchanted. Squawk kept the keys on the back of his belt. Claiming them would be a risky move.
Sauntering faster so that he could walk up behind Squawk, he tried to see how close he could get. At several yards away, his hackles rose slightly as Squawk gripped his keys suddenly and convulsively, spinning his head around and glaring at Rajah. “What do you want?”
Rajah thought fast. “Hey, chill, man. I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I argued with the boss earlier. I figure he’s still sore at me and maybe if you can just tell him I said so, it smooth things over. I trust you guys, you been good to me, and I should’na made waves the way I did.”
“That’s… good. I guess. Whatever. I’ll tell him” Squawk turned around and kept walking, buying the lie, barely. Rajah backed off. It seemed as though just snatching the key and freeing the beast from its cage was out.
He heard a distant voice call his name.
The interminable wandering through the hedge reached an end when the path led them out to a sudden cliff edge. A narrow ledge moved both directions along the cliff. Unerringly, Porsche checked her directions and set off along the ledge. It had grown easy to follow the flavor of the sweet nothing. This place wasn’t so bad, anyway. The occasional screech or groan in the distance was unsettling, but their passage through the hedge hadn’t been interrupted by anything more dangerous than a falling leaf.
Several minutes of walking later, boredom set in. She’d kept the image of Rajah in her mind. Or at least the idea of him. She remembered a big man, whiskers, a striped tail, and a supreme sense of honor. It hadn’t led her astray, as far as she could tell. But now she was walking a straight line, with no decisions to make. The cliff next to them dropped into a deep, dark chasm, and across the chasm, a distance of ten or more yards, the hedge continued, slightly lower than where they were. It gave her a shiver to look over that edge.
The most disconcerting thing about this place was that there were still occasionally sounds of earthly things in the distance. It would be one thing to accept the fantastical nature of it, but when one peeked through the hedge, minding the spiny vines, one could see a restaurant kitchen and hear the industrial dishwasher. Beyond the wall might rise the corner of a normal brick building, half choked with foliage. Here or there, the pathway was pavement, including road stripes, criss-crossing and disappearing. The mix of magical and mundane was maddening.
Porsche was startled to realize that she’d been thinking so hard about this that she’d forgotten to keep Rajah in mind. She could no longer feel the sweet nothing on her tongue, and its sweet taste was a memory. Shit.
Trying not to panic, she kept up the pace. There weren’t any turns anyway, so it’s not like she was going the wrong way. She crossed her fingers and prayed that something would come to her before she had to make another decision. This was very bad, and she’d let her friends down if they found out.
The trio continued on along that ledge for what seemed like hours. Porsche was beginning to lose her cool. Her eyes quested along the ledge for some opening, some relief from the monotony of this straight and narrow path. It was narrower and narrower, and she started to really worry. The wall was even looming up on the right. She felt as though any moment the plants would collapse on her and either cut her to ribbons, or knock her into the abyss below. Her eyes darted down into the darkness, then up to look across the way. Surely she couldn’t jump that distance.
Then she caught movement. In the distance, about a football field away, there were wagons traveling along some sort of road that rose above the rest of the hedge. The short creatures driving the wagons and walking with them didn’t have to fight their way through the twists and turns, or rely on tricksome magic to find their way where they were going. Lucky bums, whoever they were.
Among the rambling carts and carriages, her eyes picked out a shape that was taller. If she wasn’t crazy, and who knew, she might just be, it was a man. Hope filled her. Pollock’s breath caught as the narrow ledge seemed to sprout a wider stretch around them, returning to about the size it had been.
Porsche didn’t know if that was Rajah, not from this distance, but hell, it wasn’t like she could do anything else. She’d broken the spell on the trifle and wandering aimlessly wasn’t going to help. She raised her hands to her mouth to amplify her voice and called loudly, “Rajah!”
Pollock and Shade looked at her like she was crazy. Polly’s finger was raised in a warning, and she shushed Porsche angrily. Porsche shrugged. “Hey, it’s not like they can get to us over here if it isn’t him.”
Ahead, the hedge rustled, and a short, cloaked figure pushed its way through the wall. A being four feet tall with a giant mask covering its face and body bore a spear in its intestinal pink hands. The grimace of the mask suggested no good intent. Maybe she spoke too soon.
One of the blessings of being bestial was that Rajah could call upon the magic of the great cats of yore to gain incredible vision. He peered over the tops of the hedgerows. There seemed to be a gap, and then on a cliffside opposite, three people were standing there. One was a girl with icy white skin and dark hair, another was a hairless gargoyle in a turtleneck, and the third a vibrant splash of color shaped like a girl in a jacket and jeans. They seemed awfully familiar. As he watched, a fourth creature, a hobgoblin in a giant mask, rushed them with a spear. The girl of ice, whose name might have been Porsche, leapt straight over the thing as it charged her, spear point ahead. It began to stab at her as she agilely dodged backward, leading it away from her defenseless friends.
What Rajah noticed more than anything was her outfit. The girl wore a cheerleading outfit, which could not be mistaken for anything else. Normal humans clothes. From earth. From America. America! He was free of his contract. But if he was free, there was nothing to stop the temperamental hobs from coming after him. He’d need something to cover his escape.
Porsche spun and turned, fighting for her life against the malignant hobgoblin. She punched and kicked it several times, but its mask seemed to be made of wood or some other durable material and it was not phased by her attacks. Shade shied back, trying to fight the urge to run away. He and Pollock had clung to each other when the thing charged them, and now they were helpless to fight it as Porsche did.
He admired her prowess in keeping its attention on herself and not her friends. She seemed to have called upon magic that sheathed her in ever more layers of frigid ice, protecting her from its swift stabs and darting slashes with the spear tip.
Taking a rock from the ground in hand, he struck a balance between courage and cowardice, heaving the stone at the creature fighting Porsche. Emboldened by his action, Polly also took up rocks. They took turns heaving them at the back of the thing, trying to distract it, to injure it, to give Porsche some assistance in fighting it off. They even scored several hits, one of which seemed to have cracked it squarely in the back of the head, but it still remained potently focused on slaying the teenager.
Rajah leapt off the highway and into the hedgerows, rolling to his feet. Behind him, his handiwork came to fruition. Moments before, he’d allowed the caravan to pass him by until he was at the wagon and the cage. He’d apologized to the creature for the way he had to do this, then taken a mighty swipe at the wagon wheel, obliterating it and causing the fae beasts of burden pulling the load to bray in alarm and veer toward the edge of the highway.
The sound of the crash as the wagon exploded onto the hedge below was loud. The roar of triumphant rage that followed was deafening. Rajah poured on speed, taking off into the hedge’s maze in the direction he’d seen those people. The sounds of hobs crying out and screaming in distress grew ever more distant, and the pleasure he took in revenge upon them was a joy. He wove his way through the brush, accepting the nicks and scratches of the unforgiving walls as the necessary pains of freedom. But worse than the pain was the draining effect he felt as those same thorns drank away his magical power, stolen in recompense for his speed.
Vaulting clear over some obstacles and dodging others, he drew near the place where he’d seen the people on the cliff. As he did, he slowed to a loping trot, mindful that his every step could carry danger now that he was not traveling in the comparative safety of the caravan. Then he stopped, abruptly coming to a chasm. As he did, and looked up to the pathway on the other side, he saw the frosted cheerleader deliver a spinning kick to her assailant, sending it screaming over the edge. Walking to the lip to ensure its demise, she spied him and smiled.