Heart and Hooves: An Urban Fantasy
by AJ

Chapter 7

When I woke up the next morning, it seemed like any other morning for a minute, and then suddenly the events of yesterday crashed into my mind. Instead of getting up to put on my sweats and wander downstairs like I had been going to do, I lay back into the warmth of the down comforter and thought about all of it for a time, not really trying to make sense of it, just wandering among the memories that I had lived through.

The common experience that bound them all was pretty obvious. They all loved other men, and found that it was unacceptable to the societies they lived in. I had lived the memories of Ibn bringing Abduraman - who would later change his name to Ralph after the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula by the christians - to knowledge of his inner self. Brutal lessons, but Ralph had long ago let the shame he'd felt over the rape of his mind and body go, knowing that harboring such would only poison him further.

And poor Slider! Jesus, to be cast out like that, and he hadn't even done anything with this guy he fell in love with. I realized, as I lay there, that it had been Slider's crisis that was the catalyst for creating their relationship, but that it was not his need that kept them together. With support and caring from the other two, Slider had recovered and become the third, balancing leg of the group. How would the family balance when Dubhain and I were added in?

And suddenly, I stopped. I needed to take another look at that thought. When, not if. It came to me, in that moment, that I had already decided. I didn't need three days to think about it. These guys, as Dubhain had said, were guys that I could live with. I had never really wanted anyone else around for more than a night in the last many years, since that day I stood on the dock in Leschi, staring out over the gray-green water of the lake, and taking my clothes off so they wouldn't get wet. And now, I wanted it. I wanted to be family, like they were.

What the hell was I thinking? I didn't even know if they wanted me, or not. Maybe they were disgusted by me...but as I looked back over the memories I had lived, I was pretty sure they weren't disgusted. I remembered the odd look on each of their faces, and though I didn't know what it was, it didn't look like a bad thing. Dubhain wasn't saying anything either way, just lending me the quiet support I always felt from him when we weren't talking. How would they accommodate the two of us, with our odd habits and unexpected conversations? I smiled, imagining Ralph's face when I told him that we would need a pool in the backyard.

I lay my head back on the pillows and closed my eyes. Thinking is harder work than it should be, you know. Just as I was slipping away, I heard the rumble of Dubhain's voice for the first time that day. I was so close to sleep that I wasn't sure what he said, but it sounded like "Not two. One." It didn't make any sense, and I fell off the edge into sleep right at that moment.

I woke up again in the mid-afternoon. I lay there in bed and listened to the silence of the house. Ralph would be upstairs sleeping, and Sandy could be out in the yard, gardening. He seemed to like grubbing about with plants and dirt, for some reason. My stomach was grumbling about how many hours it had been since I filled it, so I got up, pulled on a pair of sweats from the little chest of drawers that Sandy had filled with clothes for me, and wandered out of my room and down the stairs to the main floor. I figured with all the food we'd had last night, there must be some left overs I could scrounge.

As I walked into the kitchen, I glanced out the window to see what kind of day it was. The window overlooked the front garden, and then out over Aloha street at the front of the house. I was so busy taking a look at the weather that I didn't notice at first that there were two people standing just outside the front gate, looking up at the house like tourists on their first day in the city. When it finally registered that they were there, I felt a shock of recognition go right through my whole body. I stared, unable to believe my eyes. It was my foster parents, from all those years ago! What the hell were they doing here, right outside the house? I wanted to hide and ignore them, but I also wanted to go out and explain, let them know that I wasn't dead, as they must have thought. With hardly a thought, I darted to the front door and peered out through the little glass portal in the solid oak. Yes, it was them! They'd hardly changed at all. I knew I had to go out and talk to them. Maybe they wouldn't recognize me, and I could just chat with them for a bit. Or something.

Hardly stopping to think, I grabbed Sandy's leather coat that hung on a peg by the door, and hurried out to see the two of them. They seemed to be admiring the house, pointing out the details to each other and talking quietly. As I came out the door, I saw them both look at me, and they started to move away. I walked briskly up the walk to the gate and looked both ways along the street, pretending I was looking for someone. The two of them had paused, and looked like they were about to speak to me, so I looked up and down the street for another second. Sure enough, the woman who had been my foster-mom smiled at me.

"Excuse me, do you live in this house? We were just commenting on how much we admired it."

I smiled back at her warmly. She had always been so sweet to me when I was in her care, and the memory of her had always been something I clung to in the darker periods of my life. I tried to keep my voice casual and light. I didn't want to give myself away.

"Well, my friends own the place. I'm a house guest at the moment. Would you like to step inside the gate for a tour of the garden?"

Smiling, my former foster dad demurred. "Oh no, we couldn't. I'm sure you've got things to do, and we don't want to take up your time like that."

"It's no bother for me. I'm sort of at loose ends today, so..."

Still smiling at the man, I heard the woman say "Oh, my dear god. Is it possible?" Both the man and I turned to her, he out of curiosity and I with a sinking feeling. So much for going unrecognized.

"What is it, Jane? What's the matter?" the man asked, looking a little concerned at her blanched face and the tears starting out of her eyes.

"Erik, don't you recognize him? Don't you see who he is?"

"Who...who is, Jane? What are you talking about?"

"Him, Erik. It's Bryon, little Bryon from all those years ago. It is you, isn't it, Bryon? Oh, how is this possible? We thought you were dead!"

"Oh my god, Jane - you're right. Look, we have to calm down. We don't want to scare him. He probably doesn't even know who we are."

Well, now I was torn. I didn't know whether to play dumb and just act like I didn't know what they hell they were talking about, or own up and maybe come away with some friends, if they wanted that. They had been two of the few people who had ever treated me like they cared in my whole life, and deep down I wanted to know them. After a moment, I decided 'what the hell' and just said, "Yeah, I'm Bryon. I'm sorry for the way I just left you guys back then."

"I can't believe this. Where have you been all this time? We found your note, and then we found your clothes on the dock, and..." Jane was looking at me like she'd just found the holy grail. It made me a little uncomfortable, but I figured there would be a little awkwardness to start with, so I tried to ignore the discomfort and answer the question.

"Well, I've been living here and there, doing a few odd jobs to get by, you know. It's been ok."

"Thank god! It was so hard back then, thinking that we'd failed you somehow, and then Dan cut us off and moved out right after that. It was hard to lose both of you so close together." I could see Erik trying to keep it together, trying to stay calm, but he was losing it too. It was pretty clear, as much as I had learned to read people. He turned away a little, not wanting me to see him cry. I felt so bad, knowing that I was the reason he was crying.

"I'm sorry I didn't come back and tell you I was ok. It just felt better to make a clean break, somehow..."

"Well, never mind that. I'm just so glad we found you again. You've become such a handsome young man, hasn't he, Erik?"

My foster dad's eyes were rimmed with red, but he was looking at me and nodding his head. "You've grown into a fine young man, Bryon. I'm glad to see you looking so well."

"Bryon, we were just on our way to get a little lunch. Perhaps you'd like to join us, so we can sit down and talk? I don't want to pressure you, but this has been so overwhelming, I really need to process

I smiled a little at that. I still remembered her saying things like that about 'processing' things from when I was a little. I'd never known what she meant back then, but I understood now. It sounded like a good idea...we surely had a lot to process.

"Um, ok. I'll need to run in and put on some real clothes, but if you'd like to wait on the porch for a minute, I can run in and change and be right back."

"We'll just wait for you here, Bryon. Hurry though - I can't wait to talk to you."

I nodded and walked swiftly back up the walk to the house, ran up to my little room and threw on a pair of clean jeans, a polo and a pair of sneaks, and was heading back out when I ran into Peter at the bottom of the stairs.

"Where ya going, Bryon? You're not supposed to leave the house, y'know. It's not really safe."

"I know, Peter, but I met up with these friends that I haven't seen in years, and they invited me out to lunch. I really need to talk to 'em, so I'll be back in a little while. It's ok - they're safe."

"I don't think this is a very good idea, Bryon - " But before he could finish the thought, I was out the door and hurrying down the walk toward Jane and Erik. I'll admit I was a little excited - I'd dreamed about this happening more than once, and now here it was.

"Ah, here you are!" Erik exclaimed when I hopped over the gate and onto the sidewalk beside them. "We planned on going to the Canterbury, but I think this calls for something a little more elegant, don't you Jane? How about Bistro Parisienne? It's a little pretentious, but the the food is pretty good." With a broad smile and a quirked eyebrow, he looked at Jane and I, and we were both nodding. "Well, that's that then. To the Bistro!"

With one of them on each side of me, we started off down the street. We'd gone about fifty feet when I turned to talk to Jane and suddenly it felt like the world had collided with the back of my head. I went out with a flash of stars in front of my eyes, and everything got black.

I wasn't out long. That's one thing about being a pooka - there's always one of you that doesn't get knocked out and can wake up the one that does. So when I came to about 5 seconds later, I was justifiably a little confused. I looked up at a grinning Erik, who was busily applying a plastic binder to my wrists like the police use instead of cuffs sometimes, and I felt someone - it had to be Jane - grabbing my ankles and pulling them together to tie them up too. Suddenly my attention was drawn away when something bellowed from just down the street. It sounded really big, and really angry. I hoped it wasn't after me, 'cause I was in deep enough doo without adding whatever was coming.

Jane and Erik both stopped what they were doing and looked up just in time to see Peter come hurtling over the gate and start down the sidewalk toward us at full speed. And man, could that guy move. I'd always thought he was kinda big and ponderous, but when he needed to get somewhere, he could flat out move.

The second they saw him, the two - who I had figured out by now were not my real foster parents - cut loose with a pair of levin bolts that sizzled as they left their hands and arced out towards Peter like lightning. One he dodged, but the other one winged him on the shoulder, and it broke his stride. He paused and glared at the two of them, reached into his shirt and fished out the pendant, lifted it over his head and suddenly he was not a big, burly guy, but a full on redcap, with a look on his face that would have curdled fresh milk.

The two who had captured me dropped their glamours as well, and suddenly I was laying on the ground at the feet of two goblins, not the foster parents I thought I had found. I closed my eyes in shame - dear gods, I was a sap. All they had to do was play to my little orphan andy fantasies, and they took me like a sleeping pigeon.

Goblins are tough and mean, sort of the thugs of the elder kin.They can use enough magic to make them pretty deadly, in addition to having pretty good hand to hand skills. These two were middling tall, with leathery grey skin and black hair pulled back into topknots at the back of their heads. Their mouths were wide and filled with needle-like teeth. The way they moved it was pretty obvious they had fought together a lot - they were smooth and coordinated, and they took the fight right to Slider. They each pulled a dagger on their way to him, and it was starting to look pretty bad. I wanted to get up and help, but my hands were tied; I didn't have any castable magic, so I'd have to fight hand to hand, and I wasn't much good at it as a guy. Still, I was working my hands in the plastic restraint, trying to get free when the three of them met.

They reached him, and suddenly one of the goblins shrieked horribly. It stopped and stared down at its arm that had been holding the dagger, but which now ended about midway up its forearm. The other piece of it was in Slider's mouth, having been bitten cleanly off. He chewed twice and swallowed, and then spat the dagger out on the ground. The wounded goblin bent forward over his maimed arm, and I could see Slider's mouth opening again with the aim of taking the goblin's head off at the shoulders, when he suddenly grunted in pain and froze, then turned to stare down at his side. The other goblin's dagger was buried to the hilt in the redcap's side, just below his ribs.

"Slider!" I yelled. I'd scrambled to my feet by now and was running to throw myself on the goblin to prevent him from pulling the dagger out and finishing it, but someone else beat me to the punch. A dark aura abruptly sprang into being around the goblin's upper body, it shrieked in agony, and then the lower half of its body fell sideways and landed on the sidewalk. The upper half was completely gone as the dark aura faded and Sandy stepped forward. With a gesture, he froze the remaining, wounded goblin and hurried forward to Slider, who was still crouched and staring at the dagger stuck in his side.

Sandy turned and looked over at me. "Help me get him in the house."

"What about those two?" I gestured at the goblins. He stared at them coldly, then muttered a word and waved at them, and they disappeared.

"Hurry, we've got to get him inside. He needs healing, and quickly. That dagger was spelled." With another quick gesture he freed my hands from the plastic binder, and I jumped forward to help him lift Slider to his feet.

Slider groaned deep in his throat as we moved him, and he'd broken out in a sweat. His face was twisted in a rictus of deepest pain. What the hell was the spell on that dagger?

As if reading my mind, Sandy said "It's an agony spell. It causes massive pain. I'm damping it as best I can, but it's an Unseelie spell and doesn't respond very well to what I can do."

I nodded like I understood, but I didn't have a clue what was going on.

Sandy ignored me after that, talking quietly to Slider and assuring him that all would be well. We dragged him up the sidewalk and into the house, and laid him out on the floor in the entryway.

"What did you do with the goblins?" I asked.

"Sent them back to their master," he replied with some satisfaction in his voice. "It'll give him something to think about before he tries this sort of thing again."

I didn't ask any more questions. Instead, as he worked over Slider and tried to stop the bleeding and hold the spell in check, Sandy asked me one. "Why didn't you change out there? You'd have been able to get out of the binder, and been a lot more help."

Stung a little by this, I answered back a little more hotly than I meant to. "How could I? There was no water."

He looked up at me, clearly surprised. "Water? I hadn't heard that water had anything to do with it."

"I can only change in water. I don't know why...Isn't that just part of being a pooka?"

"Huh," he grunted, and then turned back to what he was doing. It took a while, but finally he was able to unwind the pain spell. The look of relief on Slider's face was very, very good to see, though he hadn't said anything the whole time Sandy was working on it. Once he had that part worked out, the rest was easy. Sandy placed his hand on Slider's side, his fingers spread out all around the entry wound, gripped the dagger with the other hand, and healed the wound as he slipped the knife out. He glanced at me and we both helped the redcap to his feet, and suddenly he hugged Slider tightly.

"Damn you, brother, how many times have I told you not to bite off more than you can chew? When are you going to learn to wait a second until I can get there? I can't have your back if you won't wait."

"I was just softening 'em up for ya a little."

"A piece of advice: next time, don't. We take them together, or not at all. Got it?"

Slider looked at his brother and smiled. "Got it. And thanks for helping with the spell - it was kinda sore."

Sandy turned and looked at me then. I was expecting anger, but his eyes were mild. "I'd like your word that you won't leave the house without at least taking one of us with you, Bryon. We are bound by our honor to protect you, and you put us in a very difficult position if you leave by yourself."

I nodded fervently. "For sure, Sandy. With one of you, or not at all. You got it."

"Good. Now, who's hungry? Anybody worked up an appetite from that little exercise?"

Slider looked interested, but I just shook my head. I needed some time alone to process what had just happened.

Nothing more was said about the incident after that. I walked around with my tail between my legs for a day or so, until I figured out that the three of them really didn't blame me for what had happened. I worried constantly, wondering what Braewynn's next move against me would be, but the next two days passed uneventfully.

Exactly seventy two hours after the opening ceremony of the clan binding ritual had happened, we were once again gathered in the parlor around the red circle, this time to confirm our decisions on whether to proceed or not. I was filled with hope and dread, both in anticipation of an affirmative answer. If they chose against me I would be lost, so I wasn't even thinking about that possibility.

The singing in this ritual was four part, because all of us would be involved. I'm not much of a singer, but Sandy had coached me on what I would need to do, so I croaked through my part. Ralph sang his part in a surprisingly strong baritone, and Slider had - as I had expected - a deep basso profundo voice that seemed to extend down right to the bottom of my hearing threshold. Well, ok...not really, but if giant boulders had voices, they might have sounded like he did. I had no idea what the words I sang in the ancient language of the incantation meant exactly, but they seemed to satisfy the requirements.

The circle of runes inside the dark red circle was blue this time, shining deep and pure in the half-light of the parlor. I could see the other three, standing naked and proud at the other quarters of the circle, and I felt like I might faint as I waited for their decision.

"Brothers, we have looked upon this man and seen what he is, and what he has been. Likewise, he has seen us through and through. We have pondered long and hard on what we have seen. Bryon and Dubhain, have you reached a decision? What say you?"

I paused for a moment. My answer here would shape the rest of my life, and there would be no backing away from this, ever. I swallowed hard, forced my anxiety back and made the only answer I could.

"Yes. Dubhain and I would join you in clan binding. We want to be your brothers, to support and defend the clan with all that we are even to our death, if you want us." I felt the depth of affirmation in Dubhain's presence at my back, and knew that he believed I had made the right decision. Again, I heard the chime in my mind as my decision was noted by the spell.

Sandy's voice went on. "And Slider, what is your decision?"

"He's a good boy, Sandy. I like 'im, and I think he could be good for us. I say we take him." Whew, one down and only two more to go. I could feel the sweat beading on my forehead, and my eyes were stinging with it.

"Ralph, have you reached a decision?"

"I have, Sandy. Like Slider, I believe that Bryon is a good man at heart. Even with all that has happened to him, he has never committed an evil act against others, though his care for himself has been less than exemplary. I think he will become a formidable man in time, and I would be there to see it happen. So yes, I agree to his joining the clan."

"I, as well, have come to a decision on this matter. His way has been long and painful to this point, but it has forged in him a strength and will that will bolster our own. I say, be welcome Bryon and Dubhain. You are kin of the Clan of the Red Circle, by word of all its members and by your own decision."

At those words, the blue glyphs on the floor blazed up high and filled the room with light. I closed my eyes, but it was shining inside my head, permeating every particle of my being. A part of me that I had never even known was empty suddenly filled till I felt like I might split open all over the room, and there was such painful pleasure in the feeling that I longed for it to happen. Like a physical touch on my skin, I could feel the others in this new bonding. It was overload, and I felt tears running down my cheeks again. As I stood there and tried to deal with the feeling, I didn't even know that the others had stepped forward until I felt their hands and arms around me, holding me close in that way that I had longed for that night - gods, was it only three days ago? It seemed like a lifetime.

I heard Sandy murmuring somewhere above my head, his voice full of laughter. "Freaks and Fags Forever, brothers. And now we are four...no wait, is it five? I don't know. Any road, haven and hospitality no longer, Bryon - you're one of us."

Dimly I heard Dubhain's voice rumble "Four. We are one, though he knows it not." I was a little puzzled, but I let it go. I'd need to ask about that later, I thought, and then promptly forgot all about it.