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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (35 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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It sounded horrible to Darrin, like slavery, and he said so. Harczos nodded. “You are not wrong. But the people seem no different from the queen’s other drones. Perhaps they even entered into the relationship voluntarily, long ago? Or perhaps their minds are controlled. I don’t know. I only know the honey is delicious, and it seems like a very implausible place, so I visit it as often as I can, since it could disappear at any time.” He pointed. “There, the city’s towers.” The spires were dark and oddly organic-looking, with twisted curves rather than mathematical angles. Harczos inhaled, then frowned. “It’s odd. Usually, I can smell the flowers from the fruit trees by now, but all I smell is . . . smoke?”

They emerged from the trees with the city before them, into a field of stumps littered by the ashes of bonfires. “Something terrible has happened here,” Harczos said.

“What’s that white thing over there?” Darrin asked, pointing. They walked around the burned field, and the glimpse of white that Darrin had seen was revealed as a huge patchwork pavilion, opaque in places, mesh in others, erected on the outskirts of the city’s lumpy buildings.

“That cloth, it looks like it’s made of beekeeper uniforms,” Harczos said. “But where are the people who should be wearing them? Where are the bees? They should be buzzing everywhere, the sound should be as constant as the sea,but . . .” He went still, and touched Darrin’s arm. “Bears. There are bears approaching.” Darrin saw them, ambling brown shapes in the streets of the city, coming toward them. “We’d better go,” Harczos said, grimmer than Darrin had ever heard him before. They turned back the way they’d come, and there were more bears moving silently out of the trees, blocking their way. There were people in among the bears, naked, armed with spears and hoes and axes and hedge clippers. Once they had Harczos and Darrin hemmed in, they stopped moving, and stared at them, bear and human alike, expressionless and patient.

“If they attack us, and we are separated when we escape, we should meet again at the bridge to the land of the dead,” Harczos said. “You have travelled widely enough now that if you find yourself in a strange place, you should be able to reach some familiar area in a few days.”

“Okay,” Darrin said, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He knew he was immortal, that if the bears attacked him the briarpatch would whisk him away to safety, but he didn’t really
believe
it. It was hard to shake a lifetime of reasonable fears.

“She comes!” shouted one of the bear-people, and the other people cheered, while the bears roared. Darrin looked back at the pavilion, and the flaps in front were pulled apart by bear people. Three bears emerged, the one in the lead an enormous grizzly, with a woman riding on its back, her hands sunk into the fur around its neck. Her unbound hair blew in the breeze behind her, and Darrin knew who it was even before she got close enough to prove him right.

“Echo,” he said when she reached him. The bear she rode cocked its head at him. Echo leaned forward, looking down on Darrin and Harczos. She wore a crown woven of twigs and white flowers, and her chrome shotgun hung across her back on a homemade strap.

“Hey, lover,” she said. “I like the beard. Who’s your friend?”

“His name is Harczos.”

“Oh, really? Ismael told me about you. You guys used to be butt-buddies, right?”

Harczos frowned. “We were lovers for a time, yes.”

Darrin glanced at him, surprised. Harczos had left out that detail of their relationship.

“But ol’ Izzy screwed you over, am I right?”

Harczos nodded.

“Well, hell, then. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and shit. Guys,” she said to the bear people, “you can take off. I’ve got these two covered.” The bears and bear people wandered away, except for the one Echo was riding. She looked back down at them. “You want to come in, have a seat, eat some honey?”

“Ah,” Harczos said. “What happened to the people of this city?”

Echo shrugged. “Victims of conquest, you know how it is. After the bears here made me their queen, I got sick of the living-in-caves thing
real
quick. This was the first city we found, and I figured, hey, bears like honey. Besides, it was a fucked up situation, people made into slaves for the queen bee, she was like something out of that movie
Aliens
. . .” Echo shook her head. “I was hoping to make the beekeeper guys into bears, but when my boys killed the queen bee, all the bees and beekeepers died too. Some kind of enforced loyalty thing. Wish I could manage that trick. Anyway, we made a big tent out of the beekeeper outfits, because it’s hot inside those buildings. You want to come in?”

“Echo,” Darrin said carefully. “The last time I saw you, you tried to shoot me.”

“Yeah, but it didn’t work, did it? I’ve moved on. I hope you can too. Bygones and all that. We had some good times, didn’t we?” She dismounted the bear in a smooth motion, patted its flank, and sent it on its way.

“You united the bears?” Harczos said.

“Yup. It’s been pretty great.”

“It’s keeping you entertained, then?” Darrin couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice, even though pissing off Echo could be dangerous.

“It’s doing more than keeping me entertained,” Echo said. “It’s given my life a purpose. And a person needs a purpose like a car needs a driver.”

Darrin frowned. “Arturo said something like that to me once.”

Echo nodded. “I thought it sounded like one of his greatest hits. Good advice, though.”

“Arturo is the man you met, the driver of the Wendigo?” Harczos said. Darrin nodded, and then Harczos shivered, as he always did when the subject of the Wendigo came up, though it was a shiver more of awe than fear. He’d told Darrin stories, myths, and legends about the car, which had not always been a car, and probably would not always remain so. The Wendigo was older than Harczos and Ismael combined. Possibly as old as the whole briarpatch itself. If there
were
gods of the briarpatch, then the Wendigo was probably one of them.

“Arturo helped Echo track me and Ismael down,” said Darrin.

“Only at knifepoint, and gunpoint, later,” Echo said. “And he didn’t know I was going to shoot you, Darrin. He’s kinda dumb, and he’s on one of those big-time hopeless quests, but he liked you.” Echo sounded almost like she was trying to reassure him.

Has Echo become a queen
, Darrin wondered,
or is she just a sociopath pretending to be a queen? Does it even matter?

“After I shot you, and you disappeared, I went after Ismael and we blundered into a bunch of bears. Ismael threw himself at one of them, and it took a swipe at him, so
he
escaped, while I got stuck facing them. I showed them who was boss, and I’ve been boss ever since. Bears are hierarchical creatures, and people are
totally
hierarchical creatures, and these guys are both. They just needed a strong leader.”

“Are you like them?” Harczos asked. “Do you transform?”

“Hell, no,” Echo said. “I’m
me
. I’ve always been me, and I always will be. I don’t need to change into anything else. But we help each other. I still can’t navigate this stupid place on my own, but the bears can, so I ride them where I need to go. Riding a bear’s more comfortable than riding in the Wendigo. That thing had like no shocks. You sure you don’t want some honey?”

“I think we’d better move on,” Darrin said. “Unless that would . . . upset you.”

“I don’t get upset as easily as I used to. You never did anything to wrong me, Darrin. You don’t have to worry. If you run into Ismael, though, tell him I’ve got an army at my back now, and that I
remember
what he did. I’ll find him, sometime, and when I do, he’ll be in trouble. I won’t kill him—I know I can’t. But I can make him wish he was dead, even more than he wishes that
anyway
.”

She smiled. How had he ever thought, even for a moment, blinded by sex and grief, that it was a pretty smile?

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll pass the word along if I see him.” Echo waved and walked off, back toward her pavilion.

“You used to have sex with her?” Harczos said after a moment, and Darrin nodded as Harczos went on. “I used to think the Wendigo was the scariest thing I’d ever heard of in the briarpatch, but she makes me reconsider. We should count ourselves very lucky she isn’t immortal.”

“You’ve got that right.”

10

“I can’t change your mind?” Harczos asked. It was a week or so after they’d encountered Echo, and Darrin had come to a decision. They sat in the back of a wrecked convertible in a junkyard that seemed to stretch for miles in every direction, beneath a sky the colour of old engine grease, lit by a sun as dull as a dirty penny.

“No, I’m going. You sure you won’t come with me?”

Harczos shook his head. “I understand your desire to find Bridget. But I am happy with my travels. There are countless places in the briarpatch I have never seen. You should see them with me.”

“I’ll never be able to get my head straight if I don’t find Bridget. I’ll feel like I’ve shirked my duty. I want to move on with my life, but there’s too much holding me back.” He thought of Bridget, and her attempt to cast off her old life and leap headfirst into the light. She hadn’t been able to let everything go, and neither could he, and Darrin didn’t think that was a bad thing. He hadn’t told Harczos his
other
reason for leaving, because Harczos wouldn’t help him, and might even try to stop him.

“I will visit the bridge to the land of the dead from time to time, so if you’d like to rejoin me, you can find me there. Yes?”

“Okay,” Darrin said. “Do you really think I’ll be able to find the Wendigo?”

“No. But if you give yourself up to the will of the briarpatch, the Wendigo might find
you
, if it so wills. I think it knows everything that happens here.” He got out of the car and lifted the sledgehammer from where it leaned against the rear fender. “Last chance to change your mind.”

“Go for it,” Darrin said. Harczos grunted, lifted the hammer, and swung it at Darrin’s head.

Before the hammer could strike, the briarpatch scooped Darrin up and carried him out of harm’s way.

11

Arturo opened up the Wendigo’s trunk and lifted out a heavy wicker picnic basket. Orville sprawled on a blanket in the sunshine nearby, and Bridget was singing a song about smoking pot, one of the many things she vocally missed about being alive. Arturo slammed the car hood and carried the basket over to the blanket. “Let’s see what the Wendigo provided today,” he said, and opened it up. “Sandwiches.” He unwrapped one portion and sniffed it. “Tuna fish.” He handed it over to Orville. “And bottles of black cherry soda. Unmarked bottles, natch. Courtesy of Wendigo Beverage Imports, I guess.” He frowned. “That’s weird, though. Three bottles of pop, and three sandwiches, instead of just two.”

“That’s just cruel,” Bridget said. “Reminding me I can’t
eat
.”

“The Wendigo ain’t usually that bitchy.” Arturo shrugged and tucked into his lunch. This was a pleasant place, very pastoral—much nicer than the beach where they’d camped a couple of nights ago, beside an ocean the colour of piss. Arturo wondered if this was a field in the real world somewhere, Kansas or something maybe. It was pretty enough, and the sun looked right, so maybe. He settled down, relaxing. He’d been a little wary of travelling with Orville and Bridget initially, but they’d proven themselves good company. Bridget’s brittleness and tension had settled down after a few days, and Arturo’s continuous reminders that Darrin was okay, that he
couldn’t
die, finally sank in, and she seemed to accept that finding him was merely a matter of time. They were seemingly no closer to finding Marjorie
or
Darrin, but Arturo was used to being patient. And the Wendigo provided. When they couldn’t find something to eat, they could always open the trunk and find food. When it rained, they could open the trunk and find raingear. When it was cold, they could open the trunk and find blankets. The things the Wendigo provided had a tendency to disappear if you stopped paying attention to them, but that was okay.

Orville was surprisingly good company too, with a streak of self-deprecating humour, and countless stories of misery and misfortune that he managed to make funny. He was clearly head-over-heels in love with a dead girl, but Arturo could relate. At least Orville got to spend time with Bridget, even if he couldn’t touch her. Things could’ve been worse for all of them. They kept going, and they found hints of Darrin’s passage, occasionally encountering people who claimed to have seen him, often as recently as a few days or weeks ago. But looking for someone in the briarpatch was difficult. You couldn’t ask around and find out what direction they’d been going, because every direction was fractal with possible destinations. Still, Arturo was confident. They’d find him. And, if not, at least looking for him gave a shape and direction to Bridget’s and Orville’s existence, and that was just as important.

Arturo broke out a deck of cards. Orville was a fiend for poker, and Bridget liked playing too. Her manual dexterity wasn’t the greatest when it came to manipulating such small items—“Ever try doing card tricks while wearing boxing gloves?”—so they propped the cards up with a rock where she could see them and nobody else could. He was shuffling when a banging noise erupted from the Wendigo, and they all jumped.

“What the hell?” Arturo muttered, hurrying over to the car. He’d never heard it make a noise like
that
before. The banging was coming from inside the trunk, and Arturo had a horrible vision of some terrible monster jumping out. But, hell, this was the
Wendigo
. Monsters were afraid of
it
. Orville and Bridget joined him, looking down at the trunk, which thumped and shuddered.

“Better open it,” Bridget said.

Arturo nodded. He touched the trunk, and it popped open, without need for a key. Arturo was the key.

Darrin—a tanned Darrin, with a beard—sat up from inside the trunk. “Hey, guys,” he said.

Bridget burst out crying, and Arturo just grinned. “Hey,” he said. “You want a sandwich and a bottle of pop, old buddy?”

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
7.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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