by Serena W Sorrell

Having decided on the location for the night’s plan Janus tried her best to look like a lost and confused child. This was not at all difficult she found, for at the very least she was very confused. She looked up the road which lead to the next seaside town, back toward the village she’d already visited once that morning, and then she stared for a while at the road leading over the hills inland. But never once did she look toward the mountains. The Monastery of the Black Iris was nestled in those mountains, and though Janus knew the way she certainly did not wish for anyone watching her to know that was her actual destination. Finally, after much sighing and mumbling to herself Janus wandered back toward the village she’d come from.

Visiting a town twice in one day yielded little in the way of food or drink, but that too Janus had foreseen. She had to look at her wit’s end and weakened. She had to draw them to her, and the best way to do that was to make herself seem as vulnerable as possible. She left the town with only two hard crusts as the sun began to set. By the time she returned to the fork in the road (and more importantly, the tree, the boulder, and the hole) the sun was all but disappeared and stars dappled the sky. It was time to put her plan in motion. And so Janus sat upon the boulder, facing the fork in the road. She nibbled a crust as she stared as contemplatively as she could at both roads, as if deliberating in her grief what the wide world might hold for an orphaned waif such as herself. As the sky slipped into sleep Janus turned herself on the boulder. Her back was unguarded. She heaved a sigh. A rustle in the wind, and then a rustle not wind borne. A rustling made by the one who was tracking her. There was a flurry of quick, almost silent, steps and the sound of a leap. Janus slid off the boulder, onto the small ledge no wider than her as her stalker sailed overhead. Their mark now gone gravity dictated their path and that was down, into the dark hole. Janus rolled away from the pit lest they reach out and pull her down too. Her sword was out before she stood and she faced the maw of darkness.

But there was no one there. No murderous face staring at her. No one scrambling to escape a little girl’s trick. There was something in the hole. Janus was sure of that much. Something down there was scratching and clawing and jumping, but whatever it was it could not jump high enough to escape the hole. Had her mother’s killers trained some beast to finish their work rather than chase a little girl themselves? But then what sort of murderous beast would get stuck in a hole just higher than an adult’s waist? Still, there was no doubt this had been the one watching her and following her for that niggling sensation of being observed balled up in the back of her head had at last stretched and left her in peace. Janus sat on the ground behind the boulder. Her legs pulled close to her body quite certain whatever was in the hole was staying there and she was in no immediate danger now. She slept in dream addled spurts, while Triv’s sword never left Janus’s tight grip.

Dawn woke Janus before the morning birds had a chance. Hoping that whatever had been in the hole last night had remained there (and was asleep still) Janus peered into the trap. Curled up sleeping was a creature the size of a tomcat, but the angle of it and the dim light made it difficult to see much else. Janus dropped a pebble down the hole to wake the creature, which startled at the sound more than she had intended. Large hazel eyes now stared at Janus from beneath two tall ears and a pair of ivory antlers. Janus was in a staring competition with a jackalope. It didn’t seem to be a very murderous jackalope at all. Its rabbit nose twitched and it scratched behind its left ear all without taking its eyes off Janus. She could sell it. It certainly would not be too difficult to capture the beast as it was, though the antlers did seem sharp. But with the gold she made from the animal she would be able to live comfortably all her life. It was well known that jackalopes were as rare an animal as a unicorn or dragon, rarer perhaps. A part of the horned rabbit would go for a hefty sum. Janus would prefer to keep it whole, unless it gave her too much trouble. The creature’s ears twitched as if sensing the fate Janus was planning for it.

Unbidden, her mother’s words came to her. A jackalope was as unusual as an animal could come. It would certainly belong in a menagerie. Mayhaps it was not in pact with Triv’s murderers but instead meant to lead Janus to the rest of the menagerie, or the skeleton, or the locket, or whatever it was she was meant to find. There was nothing to do but question her captive. Janus had never felt more daft than when she opened her mouth to speak to the jackalope. It took her more than one try to get a word out.

“Where is the locket that holds the menagerie skeleton?”

Embarrassment dyed her crimson. Janus swore the jackalope rolled its eyes in shared embarrassment. Then it opened its mouth, short teeth showing from behind its fuzzy mouth. For half a second Janus expected it to answer. And for another half a second the thing looked aghast that it had not. It stamped its foot on the ground as if out of utter frustration. Janus decided she felt infinitely more daft than she had moments ago. She had expected the thing to talk. Even if it was a jackalope that was beyond childhood fantasy. And yet, the animal still stared at her. Its eyes flicked to the sword Janus held, still sheathed, as she had leaned over the hole to question the rabbit.

“I have no intention of killing you, if that is your worry.”

Again silence, though again the jackalope stamped a foot.

“I suppose I could get you out of there at the very least. So long as you keep your antlers to yourself that is.”

For all the world Janus believed she saw the jackalope nod to her demand. Janus shook the silliness from her mind and slid into the hole with the sheathed sword ever in hand. The hole was deep enough it all but swallowed her up, but she had already been in and out of the pit several times the day before to test its depth. Janus propped the sword against the dirt wall and reached out a cupped hand to the jackalope with a bit of yesterday’s dried crust as a peace offering. The jackalope bypassed her completely and instead raced for the sword. Or more precisely the scabbard. Hard antlers rammed against the bulging bit of metal at the top of the scabbard, just under the cross guard. Slivers of silver dusted the dirt as the sword toppled over. The deal was off if the beast insisted upon ruining her mother’s sword. Janus scrambled after the jackalope and grabbed for its haunches only to receive a hard kick to the chest. Janus was knocked on her bum and reached for the prone sword behind her. Her hand fell on the scabbard. The scabbard that was now open.

Janus turned away from her foe and there, inside a shallow cleft, hugged to the scabbard’s interior by three golden clasps was a skeleton key. Janus retrieved the key, no longer than her thumb. She looked from it to the jackalope who seemed supremely smug as Janus gawped at the skeleton key. The locket and the skeleton…her mother had not meant a piece of jewelry and bones at all but the sword’s scabbard locket and the skeleton key it held. This sword. This locket. This skeleton. Triv had meant the bloody sword the whole time. If her mother’s useless last words had led her so astray about the locket just how wrong was she about the menagerie? At least Janus had enough foresight to grab the damned thing. All at once, from frustration, anger, or the grief she had been ignoring, Janus began to cry. They were silent tears, but the warm saltiness of them reminded her of home—and that reminded her of Triv.

A warm lump sat on her lap and drew her attention away from misunderstandings, failures, and sorrows. The jackalope had taken post upon her and watched her. Janus wiped the tears and pain away. And the jackalope suffered her patting its forelock with a look of only mild indignation. Whatever the jackalope was it had known half the answer to her mother’s last words. Perhaps it knew the rest. She had never even considered the scabbard locket and felt all the more ashamed that she had required the jackalope’s help. She let out a heavy sigh and the jackalope hopped off her.

“Thank you. For the key…and the comforting. I promise not to eat or sell you, though I quite imagine you would escape me before I tried either. You must also know what the menagerie is. Am I right?”

At this assumption the jackalope stamped. Janus took that to mean she was indeed correct, which was a heartening thought at least.

“Well, I still have no idea what this opens, and I had planned to go to the Monastery of the Black Iris. Is that where I ought to be going?”

Again the only answer was a stomp.

“A yes it is then. Very well, Jackalope; if you will travel with me I would appreciate any guidance you can offer. You seem to understand my mother’s words far better than I did in any course.

This time the jackalope did not stamp. It did nothing at all but twitch its nose at the air once and then stood stiller than stone. Janus worried a moment this meant her plea was to be refused. Then the rhythm of hooves drummed their direction from the village Janus had visited. A chill danced along her spine and through her ears. Janus tucked herself down lower into the hole. It seemed the jackalope was of the same thought and the two of them flattened themselves to the earth as low as they could. The riders stopped at the fork. The horses pawed at the dirt.

“Well, Mercury?”

The horses silenced at the voice. It was not loud, but it sounded like the sort of voice which enjoyed inflicting pain. And it sounded impatient.

“Well what?”

The second rider had a hard, sharp voice like an ink quill scratched over paper though the ink had long ago run out. It was ready to stab, but pointed none of its ire at the first rider. It simply aimed its intent at the air, the earth, the world.

“Which way did the whelp go?”

“If you wanted a tracker you should have brought a hound. Captain.”

The address was said as an afterthought and Janus thought she heard the squelch of leather reins being squeezed in hands that could strangle a young girl in less than a minute.

“Alas, I have brought you. Perhaps you should dismount and shift into one.”

It was clear by the man’s tone that he had not made a request or suggestion. Yet the other one, Mercury, scoffed with a rasp of a laugh like knives cutting one another.

“You would have a dragon become a dog?”

“I would have my quartermaster follow orders. And, yes, to find Triv’s brat and my sword I would have you turn into a slug if it would be of use.”

There was a long silence. Janus dared not breathe. She wanted to see the riders for the one called Captain must be her father, and her mother’s murderer. Her father alive. Her father orchestrated Triv’s murder. How much of Janus’s life was unknown to her because of secrets her mother had kept while she lived and after?

“What are you doing?”

Her father’s voice cut like daggers through flesh. And Mercury replied, their inky voice thrummed closer than before.

“I smell gold.”

Janus’s eyes flicked to the small gold hooks that had held the skeleton key in place, each clasp smaller than the nail of her smallest finger. Hooves came closer.

“You idiot dragon. All you can do is smell gold. That and your ability to change form are the only reasons you still live. And if you wish to live another day you will find the sword.”

Her father never raised his voice as he threatened Mercury, but it chilled the air with promises of slow and tortuous pain until one would beg for the mercy of death. Mercury too, heard the death in his voice, for the horse backed away from the tree and boulder—away from Janus, the jackalope, and the sword they sought.

“The brat passed through that town yesterday, twice. We know what she is wearing and that she travels alone, which means none of that bothersome crew have found her. You take the inland road and if she has gone that way, catch her, transform back, and fly toward the sea road for me. If you do not find her by dawn you had better pray to the nine seas I have.”

Not another word was exchanged between Mercury and the Captain, her father. His instructions and threat had left no room for misunderstanding, and the riders departed. One along each road. Roads Janus would like to be very far from as soon as she could be. She pried the gold clasps out of the scabbard’s locket and left them in the dirt. She would not chance being sniffed out for the gold, enough to buy her a warm bed and meals for a week was far more likely to get her throat slit. In silence she put the jackalope in her pack, who obliged her in their dire situation. Janus pulled herself out of the hole and made sure she saw no one on the horizon. Sword in hand, jackalope on her back, and key tied round her neck Janus made a trail across the grassy hills for the mountains. She only hoped answers, and not more questions, would be waiting there.

(part one) (part three) (part four) (the end)

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