Lena’s not your typical animal trainer. And when she and her unicorn partner, Steve, decide to enter a fight, it’s definitely not your typical fight….
This short story was acquired for Tor.com by Henry Holt editor Noa Wheeler.
The warehouse air burned along my skin after the crisp snap of the outside weather. The new warmth didn’t make me loosen my jacket. Warm or not, I wasn’t going to get too comfortable. I kept walking, scanning the milling group, searching for the sign-in spot, knowing that I’d stop feeling the chill in a minute. Sometimes the arenas aren’t heated, or air-conditioned, but apparently this one had enough income to tend to these things. Of course, the combatants fight better if they’re warm, so I suppose the heat is in the management’s own self-interest.
A skinny reed of a man with a whiteboard sat at a table in the middle of the room, pointedly ignoring everyone. I cleared my throat to get his attention. He kept writing for a moment, and then, without looking up, said, “Name?”
“Lena,” I said.
He grabbed a list to his left and scanned. Finally, he made eye contact.
“You with Phantom?”
I nodded, shoving my hands into my pockets. I had to do my best not to laugh. I was supposed to be a cold-hearted handler, which means no giggling. But seriously, “Phantom”? Only in Steve’s dreams.
The man frowned at his sheet. “And Phantom is a Unicornis, correct?”
Again, I nodded.
“Are you sure he’s going to fight?” He looked skeptical.
I kept my gaze on him, solid and heavy. With some people, you don’t even have to glare.
“Because sometimes, they refuse,” he continued.
“Phantom will fight.” He always does.
“Good. You won’t get paid if he doesn’t.” He checked something off on the form and put it away. “Go around to the side entrance. Phantom will be in prep stall B. Please follow the instructions there, or he won’t be allowed to fight. Keep him away from the other combatants. If there’s any trouble, he won’t fight. The judge will check you”—he glanced at the sports watch on his wrist—“in about half an hour. Your fighter ain’t ready, he don’t fight. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” What I wanted to say was “Maybe you should repeat it one more time in case I didn’t quite get it, genius.” Steve would be so proud of me for holding my tongue.
The man glared at me, I think searching for sarcasm in the “sir.” Then he jerked his head toward the door. “Go.”
My boot made a loud squeak as I turned on my heel and went back to the trailer for “Phantom.”
Phantom is a stage name. The name Steve isn’t intimidating, nor does it sound like the kind of name a unicorn should have. Or at least the kind of name that people think a unicorn should have. Unicorns pick their own names, and I’d love to see someone go up to Steve and tell him he chose poorly. I, for one, would think twice about it.
The trailer we travel in is banged up on the outside, and I can barely see anything through the exterior slats. It desperately needs some paint. A nice new trailer would stick out at the fights, so we keep it looking dingy. The inside, however, is plush, and I took out the divider between us so that we could listen to audio books and music together on long drives. We fight over radio stations a lot.
Steve prefers to be covered for transport. A thin blanket keeps him warm and blocks out everything but his eyes, nose, horn, and the lower half of his legs. What can be seen, I’ve blackened with shoe polish. His coloring will cause a stir, and I like to leave the upset until the last minute.
On our way from the trailer, we passed a yowie manacled to the back of a truck. Its stench was instantly recognizable. If you left the most fetid, nasty gym clothes to fester in a closed, hot locker for a summer with a dead swamp rat, you might get close to the smell of a yowie. They’re sort of like a rabid, vicious, no-neck cousin to Bigfoot, except they’re completely brainless. Not too surprisingly, everyone was giving it a wide berth.
Steve and I were met at the back entrance by two bored-looking thugs acting as guards. The cops were paid to look the other way, but that didn’t mean guards weren’t needed in case undesirables showed up. Taking a good look at them, I decided that the thugs probably judged desirability by wallet size alone. Steve snorted in agreement. He didn’t think much of the hired muscle, either. I felt Steve’s mental presence in my head—it’s warm and bright like sunshine and for a second, I could smell springtime and flowers.
The first time Steve spoke in my mind, I thought I had a tumor. It’s like a full body hallucination—you smell and feel things that aren’t really there. This time Steve was informing me that the guards, like most humans, have minds like open cesspools. He doesn’t think much of people. Can’t say I blame him. Unicorns are champions of nature and man spends his time destroying it, so yeah, we’re not exactly in Steve’s top five favorite things. I’m pretty sure we’re right behind fungus on his list. The sunshine in my head told me I was exaggerating, and I rested a hand on Steve’s shoulder, letting him know I appreciated him, too.
Once I got Steve into his stall, I removed his leg warmers. The action was robotic, habit. My eyes wandered as I went through the motions. There were a few dozen stalls in the kennels, most of them full. Steel and reinforced concrete on all sides. There were heavy doors on them, each with a lock. I didn’t use my lock. Evenly spaced drains marked the floors, as did dents and scorch marks—evidence of creatures that got out of control. All the concrete on the walls was painted white, everything built in an easy-to-wash kind of way. I patted Steve on the flank. The gentle slap sounded odd in the stall.
I leaned in and breathed his scent, my hands scratching along the bottom of his jaw. I pushed my mind into his, wondering not for the first time if my presence was unpleasant to him. Steve may be sunshine and springtime, fresh grass and butterflies, but I’m the sound of creaking leather, the smell of sweat and blood. I’m battle cries, death rattles, and the light touch of a swan’s feather. Steve nudged me back into reality. We don’t have to do this, I reminded him. We can simply break the locks, free the creatures, and walk away.
Only we couldn’t. It’s too easy to just buy a new lock.
So I got on with it.
The stall we were in was long, rectangular, each side covered with posters, flyers, and a large red-and-white instructional sign. I didn’t need to read it to know that it said no weapons, no interfering, and no poison. That was why I pulled off Steve’s blanket. Each animal got a thorough bath before the fights began. The judge would come and check his coat for poison, his hooves for weapons, sharpening, and any illegal advantages. The shower seemed ridiculous to me. Poison wouldn’t last on Steve’s coat. Unicorns and poisons just don’t mix.
I yanked off his hood and heard a small gasp. Steve flicked his muzzle, motioning me to turn around. A scrawny teenager with a broom stood in front of the stall, goggling.
“I’ve . . . wow.” He paused to swallow and flushed a little when he caught my look. “Sorry, it’s just that we don’t get many like him, and never white ones.”
Of course not. White means purity. And there wasn’t much purity in this building. I couldn’t help a small smile. “You wanna touch him?”
The kid’s eyes went wide and he started to reach out, but pulled his hand back. I noticed a thin, puckered scar snaking up his arm. He followed my eyes and tugged his sleeve a little, self-conscious. “Nemean lion,” he said.
The kid was lucky he still had an arm, and a body to go with it. The thought must have registered on my face because he got a little defensive.
“It was a just a baby,” he said, “and it was so cute. How was I supposed to know—?”
“That he was a sweet little fuzzball of death?” I asked. “Look around.” I gestured to the stables, the scorch marks, and the hydra three stalls down that was trying to chew through his chains. Even with seven heads, he couldn’t manage it. “Assume everything can tear off your face, and you’ll be okay.” I handed him a currycomb and waved toward Steve. “But this one won’t bite you.” I grabbed another brush and started on the opposite side. Cute baby Nemean lions. Geez, who was this kid? Steve snorted and leaned into me. I knew what he meant. It’s always surprising where innocence hides. You can even find it in a place like this.
The kid paused in his brushing to trace a couple of the raised scars down Steve’s side. “He’s fought before?”
“A few times,” I said. More times than I could count.
“I thought they were hard to damage?” he said.
“They are.” I went back to brushing.
Most people won’t use unicorns to fight. Too unpredictable. Too independent. You don’t rule a unicorn—you’re a partner at best. And the people who do use them to fight don’t have white ones. They train them like you train dogs for a cage match. Get them young, young as you can. Starve them. Beat them. Slip blood into their milk. Give them a taste for it. Keep them hungry and angry all the time. Pervert them until they don’t know which way is up anymore. That’s how you make a unicorn, a natural pacifist, a fighter. Of course the taint shows up in their coats. The few I have seen fight have been black, red, brown, gray—anything but white.
But there is another way. Find one that thinks the way that you do. That sometimes fighting is right. Necessary. That bloodshed is the only possible method to make people learn the hard lessons. Meld with them until you don’t know if you’re getting them on your side or if they’re getting you onto theirs. A strange, violent harmony. Sunshine glinting off a slashing blade. The creak of leather armor in springtime.
Steve nudged into my thoughts to let me know that I would make a terrible poet.
The kid reluctantly handed me the currycomb. “I better get back to work,” he said.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Jonah,” he said.
“Jonah, how long you been working here?”
“A couple of months,” he said.
He said it nonchalantly, like he couldn’t be bothered to know how long exactly, but I had a feeling that in the back of his brain, Jonah had been tallying the exact minutes. Six months, probably. Six months and I bet he’d still try to pet a Nemean lion. That long in the muck and Jonah continued to believe in good. I could see it in his eyes, even if Steve hadn’t let me know. The kid looked like cannon fodder to me. Steve snorted again—his version of a laugh.
“Why here?” I asked.
“Dad’s dead. Mom has to stay home a lot with my little sister.”
He looked about fourteen, maybe fifteen. Too young to get more than a few hours at a crap job that underpaid him. Too young to get a job to pay the rent and put food on the table.
“Pay that good?” I asked.
He gave me a shy smile, ducking his head back down to look at his broom. “Beats mowing lawns,” he said, pushing his shaggy brown hair out of his eyes.
Yeah, I wanted to say, but the lawn never tries to eat you. I couldn’t handle it. I grabbed my wallet and took out all the cash I had, which was just shy of three hundred dollars. “Do me a favor, Jonah?”
The scrawny kid looked up from his sweeping. “Sure,” he said.
He didn’t even ask what the favor might be. Definitely cannon fodder. I shoved the money into his hand a little harder than I meant to. “Take the rest of the day off, kid. Please.”
His eyes bugged a little at the money. “I can’t—”
“Yes, you can,” I said.
“My boss . . .”
Should be beaten for hiring a kid, but I kept that to myself. Most of these places hired kids. I never got used to it, though. I fingered one of the long scars down Steve’s withers. “Just tell them your mom’s sick or something, okay?”
Jonah nodded and shoved the money into his pocket. He shuffled nervously on his feet for a minute, seeming unsure as to which way to go. Finally, he leaned his broom against the wall, nodded, and walked out the door.
Steve turned his head toward me and shoved my chin with his muzzle. I leaned my face against the soft velvet for a minute, and then went back to brushing him.
By the time the judge came around, Steve had been brushed, washed, and was ready to go. When he’s clean like that he damn near glows. Unicorns have been regarded as symbols of purity, innocence, and good for so long that it’s hard to shake it from your mind. As I pulled Steve in front of the judge, those were the words that came to mind. Steve is eighteen hands of purity, just not the kind they’re thinking of. Justice can be pure, too.
People also associate purity with words like feminine and dainty, but Steve is about as dainty as a tank. If you put a saddle and armor on him, he could be a war horse. A hoof came down gently on my foot. I hadn’t been paying attention and I’d missed what the judge said.
“He’s a beaut,” the judge repeated. The judge was pale and a little sweaty despite the weather outside. He smelled sour, like he had an aversion to water except for the ice in his highball. He didn’t offer me a name, and I wasn’t surprised. The judge continued to run his hands over and through Steve’s mane, coat, and hooves. He found nothing but scars. I could tell he was surprised that Steve had fought before, though he tried to hide it. He took one solid look at my unicorn. Finally, he nodded at me. “Never thought I’d see the day. A white unicorn.” He rested a gentle hand on my partner, and for a split second I could see behind the judge’s mask. Regret nestled there. Longing. A yearning for something he thought was long gone or not possible. Then the moment was gone and the mask came back.
“You’ll fight in the third round,” the judge said. “Good luck.” He started to walk away, but looked back over his shoulder. “Pity,” he mumbled. I wanted to ask him why, out of every competitor here, Steve was the pity. Because of what he symbolizes? Steve started to walk back into the stall, and I followed him. Pity. What a useless emotion when you don’t act on it. Pity is supposed to trigger compassion. The judge had forgotten that. But we’d show him. We’d show him you’re supposed to stand up, not walk away.
We always did.
I went in early to watch. The fights were held in the main room of the warehouse, which resembled an airplane hangar. Taking up most of the space was a chain-link domed monstrosity of a cage sitting in the middle. Chainlink may not seem like much of a deterrent, but the fencing was magic and warded. I could see it, even if the crowd couldn’t. I didn’t really think it mattered. The animals were too beaten down and trained to even consider escape on their own.
Metal bleachers flanked the dome, each one full to bursting with people you would never expect to see on a cheap metal seat in a warehouse. Let’s just say that if you went looking under those bleachers for loose change you’d probably come back with handfuls of hundred dollar bills. For these guys, that was loose change.
There were a few people here and there in cheap jeans and threadbare jackets, their watches knockoffs of Rolexes, their phones last year’s models. Faces like mine. Trainers.
The first fight was a nonfatal win, harpy versus manticore. The harpy strutted around, her sharp talons clicking against the concrete, her filthy feathers rustling, muck-encrusted breasts hanging down to her scrawny bird knees. Her eyes were mad and she foamed from her mouth, screeching insults from a twisted maw. The manticore paced, his lion body smooth and feline, looking graceful despite the incongruous man-head that stared the harpy down. The harpy looked like she was going to lose, but in the last second she hamstrung one of the manticore’s back legs. The combatants weren’t allowed outside weapons, but teeth and claws didn’t count. The harpy used her own talons to slice into the manticore’s flesh and tear muscle. The wound would probably get infected. I’ve seen what harpy nails look like. Odds were heavy that, even though neither creature died in the bout, there would be a delayed fatality.
The second match featured a minotaur and a wepwawet. The minotaur loomed over the wepwawet, who was tall for a human, which was the majority of his body—except humans don’t have the head of a jackal. I’d never seen a wepwawet up close. In the ring they were even more rare than creatures like Steve. The jackal-headed creatures were supposed to be sacred to the god Anubis. They were guides to the underworld, protectors, not fighters. Like unicorns.
The minotaur moved slowly on muscle-bound legs. Its upper body was wide, like a bull on steroids. The minotaur kept charging, but then the wepwawet would just sidestep, duck, all defensive moves. His body language said calm, his muscles relaxed and loose. Like I said, they’re rare, so my experience was nonexistent, but everything was telling me that the wepwawet wasn’t into the fight. Unlike the minotaur, the wepwawet was clothed, but only in some sort of golden skirt and two rude copper bracelets. The skirt swayed and moved with him, almost a part of him. The bracelets glinted dully. They weren’t his; I knew that with an odd certainty. The wepwawet would never be so crude.
The minotaur began to wheeze. Must have taken a lot of energy to move that bulk around, and the prolonged fighting began to wear it down. After a few minutes, the wepwawet seemed to take pity, and in a blur he struck down the minotaur. The jackal refused to take the kill but left the minotaur bleeding on the floor, unconscious.
As he left, I swear he looked at me—right in my eyes, down to the dusty corners of my being. I couldn’t pull away. The jackal had large black pupils and glowing golden irises that for some reason made me think of how Steve had seemed to glow earlier. In Egyptian mythos, the wepwawet leads souls down into the underworld. He throws the discarded souls onto a giant scale. If your essence is as light as the feather that rests in the other balance, you go to the afterlife. If not, he feeds you to a giant hippolike creature. I forget what it’s called. I just know that you don’t want it to eat you. Or your essence.
Finally the wepwawet blinked and kept walking. I stood still for another beat, stuck in that frozen moment you get sometimes when confronted with something amazing and beautiful. When I came back to myself, I wondered what the wepwawet had seen in me—whether or not my soul was hippo food.
The audience milled impatiently while I went to get Steve. Two nonfatal matches back to back struck me as a rare event, and the crowd began to get bloodthirsty. They’d get their fill. Steve never disappointed.
The murmuring died as we walked in. For a blink, there was nothing but glorious silence. Then a swell of voices broke out, crashing into me as I walked by. Gasps, whispers, outright shouts—a few people even stood. I concentrated on the crisp bite of Steve’s hooves on the concrete as we walked into the cage.
In the other corner, a chained waheela snarled at us. Waheelas are usually found in Alaska or Canada, anywhere remote and cold. We were about twenty minutes outside of Chicago. Not really their prime habitat. They look like a polar bear and an arctic wolf had a baby. Long, white coats, broad, flat heads, and the bulk of a bear, but the rest of them is all wolf. This one had been shaved, and the collar around his neck looked like it had been there for a while. Waheelas were loners, and avoided confrontation unless they were hungry. Like most animals, they don’t fight for sport. But this one looked like he had been kept hungry for a long time. The owner standing next to him looked pretty well fed, though.
The whistle blew, the chains were dropped, and I stepped away from Steve to make my way quickly out of the cage. The waheela’s owner was gone long before the chains hit the ground.
The creature let loose a throat-rattling howl and the temperature dropped. Ice formed on the floor around him and began to spread out. Steve gave a disdainful snort and put his horn against the frozen floor. Soon there were puddles instead of ice. That was a new trick, even to me.
The waheela hurled himself at Steve, causing a horrific crash as the two tumbled into the side of the cage. Both of them righted themselves, but the wolf-creature seemed groggy. He blinked a few times, tilting his head at Steve like he was listening, his features relaxing and losing some of their frenzied look. Then the thing went down, as they say, like a ton of fuzzy bricks.
The crowd roared. The fight had been too short. No bloodshed. Was the thing even dead? I could only hear random snippets through all the yelling, but I got the gist of things. Both the well-fed owner and I were motioned back into the cage. The man made sure I went first, proving that chivalry is indeed dead. I’d like to say he ran to the waheela’s side out of concern, but instead he walked slowly over and kicked him. I hovered at the cage door, making the attendant keep it open.
Even though I’d been paying attention, I barely caught the movement. A quick blur, a spray of blood, too fast for the waheela’s owner to even scream. He just suddenly had no leg. Or I should say his leg was suddenly elsewhere. It hit the ground with a wet thud a split second later. Then the waheela pounced, and I could no longer see his handler. Blood poured and splattered, but by the time it hit concrete, it was freezing into patterns, like hoarfrost on a window. It was kind of pretty.
I hadn’t been inside the waheela’s head when Steve tapped him in the arena—that was Steve’s power, not mine—but I can imagine how it had gone. There had been a first time for me, too. Had to be a shock for a cold-based creature’s head to suddenly be filled with that springtime mind. Still, he hadn’t argued. He’d thrown the fight like Steve suggested. They didn’t always. Occasionally a creature had been so beaten down and abused that its mind was broken and all it knew was the fight. That’s why Steve had scars. And that was why we kept going to these fights. Someone had to stick up for the little guy. Sooner or later, the promoters had to give up, right? Either that, or we’d eventually run out of promoters. Steve and I would see to that.
The crowd panicked and swirled, some running for the exits, some yelling at the bloodshed, happy they’d finally seen something die. Handlers, animals, what did the spectators care? In their minds, I guess it was the same.
The attendant tried to slam the door, but I stubbornly held it open, like a human doorstop. Steve came charging out, a brilliant blur. I sidestepped, grabbed onto his mane, and swung up—a movement worn smooth with practice. Steve plowed through the crowd, scattering people in his wake. I reached back and moved my ponytail aside so I could get down the back of my jacket. The metal was warm to the touch as I yanked the bronze rod from its harness. My fingers found the slight depressions and I squeezed until the ends extended, the metal sliding out with a hiss. I raised my spear above my head and screamed my battle cry. Funny thing about these matches—they pat down the creatures, but they never, ever checked the handlers.
Another battle cry tore from my throat, and I heard answering cries from the kennels. The air crackled around me, and I knew if I looked at myself I’d see my mother’s blessing crystallize in a bronze circlet on my brow, my jacket morphing into a cape of swan feathers. Steve’s mind met mine. Sunshine and green fields.The iron tang of bloodshed and the reek of sweat. I grinned like a mad thing. Steve reared and I laughed at both of us showing off.
The people in front of us screamed and tried to flee, but we ignored them and crushed our way back to the kennels.
Some idiot tried to block us. As he held one arm out, the other clutching a box of betting slips, I recognized the reedy-looking man from check-in. The two security guards from earlier flanked him, clearly pissed that they hadn’t caught my weapon. Pissed turned to terrified as we charged them. Even the guards figured out that the two of them versus an angry chick with a nine-foot barbed spear perched on eighteen hands of unicorn fury was a no-contest fight. The check-in guy stood his ground. I stabbed past him, dragging the barbed edge against the side of his thigh as I pulled back. He collapsed, dropping the betting slips in his hurry to cover the wound. It would hurt like hell, but he wouldn’t bleed out into his own personal paper blizzard as long as he sought medical attention. It was probably more than he deserved.
We swung past the cages, Steve slowing his gallop as I leaned down and started slicing locks. I freed the hydra, two centaurs, a chimera, three hellhounds, a woozy minotaur, and what might or might not have been a chupacabra. After that, I stopped paying attention and just started opening doors.
The last cage contained the wepwawet. Steve slowed to a walk, and I slid off his back. The wepwawet stood, head high, stately gold eyes drifting from me to Steve. He dipped his chin toward the unicorn, who mimicked the movement back. I twisted my spear and broke the lock.
The wepwawet walked casually toward us, out of his cage.
I watched every movement, my spear gripped tightly in my right hand as I wiped a bead of what was either sweat or blood off my cheek. You’d be surprised how similar those two substances can be.
He stopped in front of me. That is a fine weapon.
The words floated into my head like music, the tone a bass roar from an orchestra. I grinned and held the spear up to him on the flats of my palms. “It’s celestial,” I said.
Valkyrie? He made it a question.
I shook my head. “Only half,” I said, “on my mother’s side.”
And your father?
“A mechanic from Rhode Island.”
His tongue lolled out. It made him look like he was laughing at me.
“What will you do now?” I asked.
He extended his bronzed hands, palms up, toward my spear. If I may?
I handed it over to him, and with a ringing clang, he struck the barbed blade against the cuffs on each of his wrists. They fell to the floor, charred and ruined. Satisfied, he handed the blade back to me.
I’d been right. They weren’t his.
They were restrictive. He reached out and a void appeared—an oval of blackness in space. He reached into the void, and when he pulled his arm back out he was holding a nasty looking scimitar. Then he repeated the motion and pulled out another. One for each hand. He gave them an experimental heft.
He saluted me with one of the scimitars. Now, his voice whispered in my mind, you will have to excuse me. I have many to lead into the underworld. Not all of my fellow prisoners have fled. Some have stayed to seek their revenge upon their owners. I cannot say that I blame them. He lowered his arms to his sides, the tips of the blades in his hands almost kissing the concrete. I am in your debt, and I will never forget it. If you ever need a favor, you call for Ed.
He didn’t tell me how to call him. I guess I would just have to scream “Ed” into the night and hope something happened. I watched him as he exited the kennel. I should have asked him to give me a leg up before he left. Metal bit into my hands as I climbed one of the kennel doors and clambered onto Steve’s back. It’s harder to get up at a dead stop, especially wearing a cape made of swan feathers. It’s just as difficult to climb a kennel door with a spear in your hand. Sometimes my heritage is a pain in the butt. I leaned into Steve, tired. With the adrenaline gone, I didn’t have much left in me.
Steve began to walk out, leaving the screams behind us. Perhaps the fights would die down for a while. But they’d start up again. I knew I’d have to keep my ear to the ground, listen to see if the survivors talked. No one would believe the few who did. A white unicorn that fought? A fairytale. A rumor. The after effects of a head injury. Anything but the truth. We hadn’t had any problems so far, but I’d keep a close eye on the rumor mill anyway and see what whispers evolved.
That was the thing about humans. They found it so easy to discard the implausible and the unbelievable. People ignored anything that made them uncomfortable. A forgetful, ungrateful race that looked at unicorns and saw purity, and looked at me and saw the weakness they thought inherent in my sex. Gone is the memory of the unicorn as the protector of the forest, the guardian of the weak and innocent. Vanished are the warrior women of antiquity. The furies. The morrigan. The valkyries. Violence was in our blood, but humans have forgotten all that.
Steve and I together, we created balance. We just did it vigilante-style. Hey, it had worked so far.
I kept my spear out, holding it loosely at my side. I trusted Steve not to jolt me off his back. A soft padding sound came from behind me. We both turned our heads and discovered the waheela trotting behind us. Some of his white fuzz was matted with blood and dirt. He paused, then sat, looking like a patient wolf. A mutant patient wolf.
I looked at Steve. If a look could be a shrug, that’s what he gave me.
“You wanna come with us?” I asked.
The waheela stood, and I swear his tail wagged. It’s a little less friendly when the wagger is encrusted in his former owner’s blood.
The bushes next to me rustled then, and the waheela’s head snapped in that direction, but he didn’t growl. Jonah stepped out of the bush, his hands shaking as they held onto a flimsy blue jacket. I had to give him some credit, though—his voice only shook a little as he asked me if it was safe to be in the open.
“I told you to go home,” I said.
“I forgot my jacket.”
“You could have bought a new jacket.”
He shook his head, his lips pressed tight, and I got it. No way Jonah would spend money that could go to his family when he could just run back in and grab it. Cannon fodder. The kid was lucky he hadn’t been eaten. I shrugged and tapped Steve. We needed to reach our trailer and get going. Then I needed to find a car wash for the waheela to run through. When Steve didn’t move, I looked to see what the holdup was and discovered three pairs of puppy-dog eyes on mine. Oh, no. Hell no. Absolutely not. I glared at Steve, thinking, Traitor. He didn’t feel one speck of guilt over it, either.
Jonah surged forward and then pulled himself back, hesitant. He twisted his jacket in his hands. “I’m good with them,” he said. “I can help out. I’m useful, I promise. I just—I can’t not work. And this place . . .” He trailed off, eyes darting to the side door as a lady wearing a white fur coat came stumbling out. She staggered to the side and vomited, and I could see a pink smear of blood down her back. I didn’t think it was hers. Steve made a “fur is murder” joke in my head and I hit him.
“This place won’t be open any time soon,” Jonah said, his eyes never leaving the woman. “Please.”
“We travel a lot,” I said. “Won’t your family want you home?”
He shook his head quickly. “As long as I send money, they won’t care.”
Jonah and I stared at each other for a good two minutes while Steve and I argued silently. Finally, I broke. “I guess today is our day to pick up strays,” I said, holding out a hand to him. He let out a whoop and ran to us so I could pull him up behind me. He weighed almost nothing. I looked over at the waheela. With his fur so short, I could count his ribs. What a motley crew. A warrior chick and a battle unicorn, now that was an image to inspire fear. But a warrior chick, a unicorn, a half-starved kid, and a mangy mutant dog? Not so much.
Jonah sneezed and I turned. “You okay?”
He blushed. “I’m allergic to feathers.”
“Of course you are,” I said, turning back around as he sneezed again. We finally started heading toward the trailer, away from the now eerily silent warehouse and the vomiting woman. “Allergic. We’re supposed to be badasses, Jonah, walking off into the sunset, the smell of victory in the air. Your sneezing fit is ruining our image.”
“Sorry.” He sniffed. “The sun won’t set for another hour or two anyway.”
“Shut up, Jonah.”
“Do I have to give you back the money?”
“No. And stop talking. Heroes don’t chatter as they ride off into the horizon.”
“Does it always taste like sunshine when the unicorn talks to you?”
“Yes. What did he say?”
“He said what he loves most about you is your stoicism and patience.”
“Steve’s a liar. He’s pathological. That’s the first thing you need to know. Now gimme ten bucks back—I’m going to stop at the first gas station I see and buy some earplugs.” He sniffled. “Make that thirty. You’re getting some allergy medication.”
“Okay. I bet by then it will be sunset and we can drive the trailer into it and then you can have your moment.”
I rolled my eyes, slumping in the saddle as I did. I had this terrible image of us riding into our next fight to a soundtrack of sneezes. Then Steve butted in with his sunshine-mind and reminded me that image wasn’t everything, and it was better than leaving the kid behind. He reminded me that I’d thought of Jonah as cannon fodder earlier in the day. Then he pulled up an image of a scrawny teenager with braces—yours truly—and pushed the word potential at me in bold. Sometimes, he said, they even grow out of their allergies.
I straightened up in my saddle and felt Jonah do the same behind me. That was when it occurred to me that I was a role model now. What a terrifying thought. I glanced down and saw that the waheela had done the same. His spine was a firm line, his head was high, and his steps were light. Well, light for a waheela. Giant frosty paw prints stretched out behind us on the cracked cement.
This isn’t the life I’m used to. Even I could hear the whine in my mental voice.
A chuckle like a warm breeze echoed in my head. You’ll get used to it, Steve said. Then he began to prance the way you see horses in parades do. I think, he said, tossing his mane like a woman in a hair commercial, that you may even grow to like it.
I probably will,I said, but only if you stop acting like a stereotypical teenage girl. We’re warriors, damn it.
And we look good while we’re doing it. He raised his knees even higher, his hooves cutting a staccato rhythm as we went. I rested the butt of my spear on the tip of my shoe, and threw my shoulders out. No sunset, and it smelled more like sweat, horse, and teenage boy than victory, but I could live with that. It wasn’t ideal. But sometimes you’ve just got to go with what you got and make it look good.
“Heads Will Roll” copyright © 2012 by Lish McBride
Art copyright © 2012 by Hannah Christenson