Jesse pretended to himself that he'd never tried to run away the night before, while he had breakfast with the others, then helped collapse the tent and stow everything back into backpacks and bags. In less time than he expected, there was little sign that they'd ever been there, only the well-buried fire ring and the flattened circle where the tent had been, not much else. He wondered how fast the grass would recover and spring back, hiding even those traces.
As it turned out, there was a dark green van parked on a narrow little road not too far away. The back of the van was entirely empty except for thick green carpeting on the floor and up the sides, with a few rings peeking through the carpet here and there. Everything was piled in the very back and then tied with silky-looking rope through the rings to keep it from shifting, which left the centre of the van for Deanna and Jesse and Flynn to sit in.
It seemed like an odd thing to do to a van, but on the other hand, there was enough padding under the carpet beneath him that someone could sleep in here easily, and you could probably pack either a lot of friends or a lot of groceries and stuff in here.
The house that Bane pulled up in front of was, well, it would be pretty big in the city, but seemed about average around here, from what he'd seen on the drive. It was all red brick, and seemed to have a lot of windows.
As Bane shut the van off and Deanna slid the side door open, the front door of the house opened. The young woman who emerged was tall like Deanna, but very slim; platinum blonde hair, almost silvery in the sunlight, fell absolutely straight to about jaw length and then turned into a cascade of loose waves from there to her elbows, completely unconfined as far as he could see—and it wasn't bleached, even her lashes were almost invisibly pale. Her skin was probably pretty light naturally, but it was somewhat tanned—less than evenly, he could see lighter areas where her cherry-red tank-top showed off territory that had previously been covered by short sleeves. She looked fragile and cool and aristocratic, and unlike Deanna, he could imagine her easily dressed as a princess, or maybe a queen or high priestess or something—weighing someone's fate, calm and impassive.
The impression shattered completely when she smiled. There was nothing cold at all about that. “Welcome home! Oh, hello.”
“Cynthia, Jesse,” Deanna said. “Jesse, this is Cynthia. Cynthi, we met Jesse while we were camping and he needs a place to stay for a few more days or so.”
Cynthia nodded. “Hi, Jesse. Sure, not a problem. We don't have any extra beds, but the couch is comfy and the kitchen's always full of food. Make yourself at home.”
Jesse managed a rather shy greeting, completely at a loss to explain why he found her so intimidating. After all, she was acting welcoming enough.
She also helped with bringing everything inside, demolishing the idea that she was in any way fragile. Those smooth slender limbs showed surprising muscle tensing under the surface when she added her own hands to theirs. She was the one who took charge, and even Bane obeyed her directions without hesitation. Everything was piled neatly at one side of the living room, to be sorted through properly later. Then Cynthia sent them off to shower, while she drove Deanna and Flynn home.
“Is there going to be enough hot water for three showers?” Jesse asked doubtfully.
“You shower first,” Kevin suggested. “I'll go last. I don't mind if there's no hot water left at this time of the year.”
Jesse considered protesting, then thought of how good a hot shower would feel, and decided to take Kevin up on the offer.
It felt every bit as heavenly as he'd expected. He fought the temptation to simply stand under the hot running water, and got himself clean and presentable as quickly as he could. Flynn had left him another fresh set of shorts and T-shirt, and once he was finished and dressed, he felt almost human again.
The sheer ordinariness of the rest of the day, other than his dozing off periodically and no one reacting to it at all, was almost surreal in itself. He made himself as useful as he could between naps, helping with the laundry and general cleaning up, and tried to ignore how good it felt to both be accepted and to be thanked.
The thought surfaced at moments, though: what was it that had trapped him in the campsite last night?
* * *
“You sure you'll be okay alone?” Kevin asked, scooping up his bag of books.
“Why wouldn't I be?” Jesse asked, trying to cover exasperation with patience and sure he was failing. “You'll be late if you keep standing here asking dumb questions.”
Cynthia, Bane, and Deanna were already waiting outside, with the van. Kevin sighed.
“You're right. Have fun. We'll be back about three.”
“You already told me that. Twice.” At least.
“Catch you later.”
“I'm not going anywhere.”
Jesse watched from the door while Kevin slid the side door of the van open and ducked agilely inside. In a moment they were gone.
He couldn't quite believe that they'd been naive enough to trust him in the house alone. Not that he intended to take anything, not after that weird experience the other night. But maybe he could find out a little. Information was a kind of power, after all, and feeling less powerless would be an enormous relief.
And information would be all the more welcome given the general strangeness around here. The evening after they'd come back to the house from the campsite, he'd been—gently, tactfully, but quite unequivocally—evicted from the living room for over an hour. Flynn's explanation was that it was a sort of spiritual thing that they typically did once a week, and that it was complicated to explain and the details would probably not interest him. Being asked not to interrupt them for that long seemed fair enough, all things considered, but he'd peeked from the kitchen while grabbing a drink. To him, it had looked like some sort of group meditation, the five of them in a circle on the living room floor close enough to hold hands, no one moving or talking at all. As religious stuff went, it probably beat a lot of lectures on what to do, but it was nonetheless odd.
He prowled the house, room by room, careful to return everything to its former place.
The kitchen was very ordinary, until he took a closer look in the cupboard that had neat hand-labelled bottles of spices. In front were ordinary things, like oregano and basil and savory. In behind those were many odder-looking jars of dried plants he didn't recognize the names of. Vervain? What was that? St. John's Wort? Sounded real appetizing. Lemon balm? Why would anyone without a cat bottle catnip? Or bottle willow leaves, for that matter? Hawthorn, red clover flowers, something labelled pansy that looked like small dry purple, white and yellow flowers. That was interesting, and not how he'd always used the word. Wolfsbane, which for some reason he thought was poisonous.
Maybe they were into making brews, or poisoning people, or something. Or expecting an invasion of werewolves.
Yeah, sure, Jess. Get a grip on yourself.
There was nothing else of note in the kitchen, that he could find, nor in the laundry room past the kitchen.
The dining room... he checked the cabinet, glanced briefly through the obviously old china. It was actually rather pretty, white with a border of green and gold and red leaves like a wreath.
Somewhat surprisingly, there was nothing of obvious interest in the living room. It was an ordinary kind of place, a couch, two chairs that matched each other but not the couch, a coffee table and two end tables that didn't match in any combination, a stand that held TV and VCR and the movie collection, a new-looking computer on a desk in the corner farthest from the window. All on worn wall-to-wall carpet, one wall almost entirely taken by what he thought was called a bay window. Dominant colours all earth-tones, greens and browns and greys and the russet of the carpet, which suited the plants hung in the window and in corners and standing absolutely anywhere they were unlikely to be tripped over. About the most unusual thing here was the collection of silky, lightweight blankets thrown over the backs of the couch and chairs, and they were most often in vivid primary and fiery colours instead. He knew they were warmer than they should have been, since they'd been abundant at the campsite and he'd been sleeping here on the couch under one of them; he also knew that they made his skin tingle faintly, in a not unpleasant way. They reminded him of stuff he'd seen around Shaine's, but he'd never felt that tingling before.
Where next? The basement was half utility room, half Deanna's irregularly-occupied bedroom, all green and russet and brown, plus a half-bath; he decided to go upstairs first.
He expected nothing in the bathroom, and other than a few hand-labelled bottles of what appeared to be bath oils, it didn't disappoint him. The oils smelled rather pleasant, actually, nothing musky or perfumy that irritated his sensitive nose at all.
Bane's room was, like Bane, utterly practical and organized. Bed, dresser, a small table beside the bed, a bookcase with glass doors, that was it. Jesse searched drawers quickly, found only clothes; searched the bookcase, found only ordinary books, mostly horror and fantasy and at least half a dozen on wolves and others that looked like the kinds of things he recalled from English classes.
Cynthia's room, the master, across the hall. Double waterbed, dresser, a larger open bookcase, a table on one side of the bed, a squarish wooden chest about the same height in the mirror position on the other side. A sturdy large basket near the door, where she could take it easily downstairs, held yarn and knitting needles and sundry mysterious objects; several bags in the closet, beneath her clothes, held more yarn. Only clothes, again, in the dresser, and on it a compact stereo and a collection of cassette tapes, mostly unfamiliar to Jesse. The books were lighter kinds of fantasy, and the rest on things like The Ecology of the Northern Canadian Forests and Mammals of the Canadian Wild, but also meteorology and weather and windmills and wind energy. One entire shelf was poetry. He pulled one at random, and opened it to the page marked. The poem was called “True Thomas” and looked long, the language old.
The drawer of the table held only a small flashlight, a notebook and pencil—the notes, all in a neat, elegant hand, were things like, “Register for class Thursday” and “Pick up milk and eggs” and “Call Naomi”—and stray odds and ends. The chest proved to be locked; a little searching, in Kevin's room in fact, provided a couple of paper clips he straightened while returning. Despite all Shaine's lessons and his own experience, though, he couldn't coax the lock open, and finally gave up before he could leave scratches that would be too obvious.
Kevin's room, on the same side of the hall as Bane's.
The walls were plastered with posters ranging from elves, unicorns, and forest-scenes to Depeche Mode and Queen; the floor was strewn with clothes, books, cassettes, and random objects. A wooden desk covered with books and paper and binders stood in one corner, and a few shelves above and beside bore a heavy load of yet more books; a dresser had ornaments and jewellery scattered on it and hung from the mirror corners. Through an open door he could see a closet piled knee-deep with unidentifiable stuff, clothes hung above in a bright-coloured blur of predominantly strong blues and greens and reds. A fairly expensive compact stereo sat on the floor beside the bed.
He gave up totally on the piles of paper. The books defied any classification, there seemed to be everything under the sun, though the non-fiction leaned towards psychology and related fields, which made sense. Kevin had told him he was starting a four-year program in counselling; well, nobody was perfect. Jesse had to admire some of his taste in music, at least, but it wandered, too, from something called the Pachelbel Canon to a group called Enigma who certainly had some songs with interesting names, through more ordinary rock like Aerosmith and Blondie.
In the bottom of the closet, he found a polished chest of rich dark wood. Carefully, Jesse dragged it out. About a foot tall, and a foot by two across the top.
Locked, but this one he managed to get open without much trouble or much visible trace. He raised the lid, wondering what he'd find.
At first all he saw was a considerable amount of bright-hued silky fabric much like the blankets in the living room. He reached in, found something solid, and pulled it out. The silk hiding it reminded him of water, shimmery blue and green and grey. Carefully, he unwrapped it, found a cup, shaped like a wide-mouthed wine-glass but made of some silvery metal, engraved around the outside with fish and wave-patterns and swans. It was so clean it caught the sunlight and gave the brief illusion that it actually held the golden light like water. He didn't touch it, kept the silk between it and his hands, but even that made his skin tingle intensely.
Feeling something akin to awe, somehow sure that he'd found something very old and special, he returned the cup to its place, and reached for something else.
Concealed by silver-grey and ice-blue and pale gold was a knife like nothing he'd ever seen, the blade something like eight inches long, the hilt wrapped in gold wire and set with a clear red stone on each side. Utterly unable to resist, he lifted it from the silk—the tingling grew stronger—and slid it free of the ornate metal sheath. The blade was shining-bright, he could see himself in it, and looked deadly sharp.
That prickling was getting worse, fast. It escalated sharply, felt like someone lashed him squarely across his shoulder blades; he dropped the knife with a half-strangled cry, and the sensation eased. Without touching it directly again, he re-sheathed it, wrapped it and returned it to the chest, then put the chest back in its place. He hadn't been down to Deanna's room, but that was definitely enough prowling. The skin of his hands felt hot and tight, the muscles of his arms and upper back throbbed a little, and there was a pressure behind his eyes that felt like the beginnings of a headache.
Snooping around here was dangerous. Things bit back.
Still, he definitely had a lot to think about.