by Azure Arther
The nightmare slurped the last drop of fear just as the man died. The essence was bitter, full of regret and sadness and the terror of not reaching the heights one had planned. It wasn’t his best meal, but the nightmare was eating just to eat at this point. He placed one hoof on the man’s head and pressed, tentatively at first, then with all the weight of a full grown pegasus. Heavy.
There was a satisfying crunch and the nightmare moved on. No necromancy would bring his enemies back to life. No god would return a favorite warrior to battle. The nightmare left nothing. He was the stallion of dread, the harbinger of fright. He was—
“Bernie!” a voice called from farther away, drawing the nightmare’s attention. He looked around the cluttered battlefield, where he and the girl had killed her enemies. His enemies now. Dead men lay in the grass, across each other, some caught in mid-run, others with sword in their hand. All of them wore the emblazoned livery of the king, but they were not soldiers. The wagon that had carried the mercenaries was on its side, its horses having run from—
“Bernie? Abernathy.” The girl’s voice was impatient as usual, laced with urgency, entitlement, no fear. The nightmare sighed and turned towards her. He tossed his mane, and flowed across the shadows on the ground, silken, pitch, a soft rustle that strikes fear in the middle of the night, when sleep has just barely claimed its due.
“Bernie!” Kyra was in front of him now. Her black leather pants glistened in places, someone else’s blood, but she was unharmed. There was no need for her to call him so urgently. She craned her neck to look up at him and stomped one foot.
“I know you heard me,” Kyra said. Abernathy chuffed her braids and spread his wings. Kyra rolled her eyes.
“Bernie…tone it down. Look.” She held up her hands. Nestled between her long, brown fingers was a kitten. The tiny beast hissed and recoiled in fear, spitting and scratching at Kyra until she let it go. It raced off.
“I just spent five minutes coaxing it from under the barn, Bern!” Kyra groaned.
Abernathy tapped one hoof on the ground and looked meaningfully at the bodies.
“Yes, I already took everything of value.”
He lay one ear back and clicked his teeth at her.
“Fine.” Kyra stomped over to the bodies, doing one last check. She was tiny in comparison to the corpses, and even though she was still a child, Abernathy knew she would not be much larger when she was fully grown. She found a few rings and a missed change purse, a belt buckle that could be sold, two good pairs of leather boots to be traded. Abernathy pressed his nose to a particularly warm cloak and coughed. Kyra frowned when he stared at her.
“Ugh. Then I have to wash it.”
Abernathy nodded his large head in agreement.
“You know all this stuff has to go on your back, right?”
Abernathy lowered his front legs, carefully bowing so that Kyra could load the bags on. She looked around the farm before anxiously looking back at him. “Do you think I should let the farm family know it’s okay to come out?’
Abernathy bared his teeth and Kyra nodded. “Okay.”
The nightmare whinnied softly, and Kyra nodded again. She climbed on his back and with a running leap, Abernathy shot into the sky, his wings unfurling. He felt the air, cold here, colder there, and finally, a warm updraft allowed him to glide. The magic that hid him from the humans would hide Kyra too. She bundled into the woolen cloak that smelled of man, lay across his neck, and went to sleep.
* * *
It was Kyra who named him. She was a small human at the time but had been with him for several of her human years at that point. For much of their first years together, she had called him “horse,” “Blackie,” “Wings,” and other things, but finally, she had decided he needed an actual and permanent name. Abernathy disagreed.
“You need a name,” she had indicated, her words careful and clipped, in the way speakers of foreign languages tend to overenunciate. Abernathy had given her speech in a dream, several dreams, many nights of patient fostering of human language that he had stolen from others. She spoke many of their dialects now, knew how to cook, how to maid to another human who felt they were superior to other humans, which wasn’t possible, and how to do a myriad of other things. Sometimes they were fanciful ideas, and others were necessary requirements, like how to bind a wound, and what herbs would keep it from festering.
But names. Names were a thing that made no sense to Abernathy. He was a nightmare and nightmares were all the same, until they weren’t.
Abernathy shook his head when she stated he needed one. She had already been named Kyra when they met. He assumed her parents provided her with the name. She did not need to name him, as well.
“Yes, you do. I am Kyra and this is my noble steed, the nightmare, does have a fancy ring to it. I agree with that.” Kyra was braiding her hair, sitting in the warm stable-like cave they called home. Half of the fluffy cloud of black, shiny strands stood up and out, coiled in places, straight in others, but the rest was deftly folding into neat cornrows. She changed her and, unfortunately, Abernathy’s hair often. “But you need a name I can call you, one that isn’t anyone’s but mine.”
Abernathy had shaken his head again, adding a firm stomp, an agitated tail swish, and a heavy snort, but Kyra had stood firm. “I’m going to call you Abernathy, like the great sage. Bernie for short.”
Thus, he acquired the name, and accepted it, as he accepted everything else that Kyra chose.
* * *
Abernathy paced when they landed outside Unan, and the marketplace Kyra was only allowed to go to thrice a year. They lived too close for people to see them too often. He tossed his head twice. The midafternoon sun provided excellent shadows for them to hide in, yet she insisted on entering the sunlight, to cross the field of bright green, into the town.
“I’ll be careful.” Kyra said, sliding from his back, her voice soothing, with a slight note of impatience, as usual. “I’m always careful.”
Abernathy shimmered to shadow, translucent, unseen by the regular human eye. Kyra glared at him.
“No. I don’t need you kicking down stalls and trampling people just because a vendor haggles too hard.”
Abernathy snorted and stomped a foot.
“You did too.”
He turned his head. It had only happened once.
“Just… stay here, Bernie, okay? I’ll be alright.” Kyra patted down the pockets of her pants, checked the weapons holster at her side, and hefted the bag. She called back as she walked away, “In and out. I’m going to grab some sugar and apples for you, some wool to make socks, and some brine for our salted meat. Winter is coming. Oh! And no overhead either! I’m fine.”
Abernathy watched from the trees as she crossed the meadow, a small hunter with her goods, as noble a carriage as any royal. He whinnied softly as she walked away and tossed his head. Kyra was nothing more than a foal in many ways, a child in comparison to the youngest of nightmares. And humans were cruel.
The nightmare pawed the ground and paced for what felt like hours, but Kyra didn’t return. Finally, he shimmered completely, spread his wings, and launched into the air above the marketplace. She wouldn’t know if he had been overhead. He wouldn’t dive into the middle of the market this time. He wouldn’t upset Kyra. He wouldn’t act like an irrational horse. He was a nightmare. Nightmares were not irrational.
But he couldn’t see through the tents and stalls and poking his head through the fabrics was exhausting and felt silly. He landed and crept through Unan. It could have been one of any of the larger towns that Abernathy and Kyra had been through. Low cottages with neat paint and yards sprawled across the grounds before the town wall with smaller and more squalid lodging just along the interior, in the shadows of the bricks that protected the city. Farther in were small houses, minor shops, leading to gardens and larger houses, a tavern, an inn. Past that was the town square, the marketplace.
People shivered as he passed; babies cried; small children watched him with wide eyes. One woman clutched her chest, her breath coming in gasps. “I need to get him to make sure the baby is alright.” A man stared at his partner with suspicion in his eyes. “You’re cheating me, aren’t you?” The marketplace dissolved into bickering and fear at his presence. He moved quickly, drawing in his influence as best he could, the power that made him a nightmare allowing him to walk through people if he chose, but Kyra told him not to do that. It made humans feel like someone had walked over their grave, or as if Death himself had touched them.
He whinnied low and waited. Only Kyra would hear him. He flicked his ears forward, listening. To the sides, listening. Back, when he didn’t hear her. He breathed in deep, checking for her scent. Kyra smelled like shadows and spice, human and horse. Kyra smelled like—
“Abernathy?” she hissed and the nightmare froze. Kyra was behind him, but she didn’t smell very much like Kyra. “I told you to wait.”
He turned to look at her. Her braids were coiled on top of her head, and she wore a gown. She had bathed.
He nickered at her softly and placed his head on her shoulder. She reached up to pat his nose and sighed. “Now you’re gonna have me looking like I’m talking to myself.”
Around them, the marketplace had reached a fever pitch of fear and one group of men had begun to argue loudly.
“Fly, Bernie. I’ll be there in a second.”
Abernathy huffed, pressed his hooves into the cobblestones, and leaped into the sky. Kyra looked up at him, her brown eyes solemn. She looked presentable, Abernathy noticed. The cream dress she wore complemented her brown skin, and she had a basket on her arm.
* * *
He found Kyra on a dark and stormy night, the best kind of night, when shadows feed well, and children huddle in their beds, when burly human men sneak glances over their shoulders. The herd Abernathy traveled with was feeding at a castle. Nightmares were known for their work with sleep and dreams, but they fed on fear, and fear could be found in many places. There were always nightmares at the healers, the apothecary, and definitely hanging around during conflict and hostilities.
The castle was in chaos, a civil dispute turned battle turned war. There had been a coup. People were dying, and the herd was eating well. Battles were waged in all corners of the palace, but victory was very clearly going to be with those who were taking over. One king or another. Someone’s cousin, someone else’s third stepbrother five times removed. Abernathy hadn’t cared. He flit through the walls, spreading a miasma of fear and defeat, feeding on the run for the joy of running. He tore through stone, his shape flashing in and out of solidity. A meld here, a solid there. Through a bed here, destroy a tapestry there. He was having fun.
Until he burst into a grain storage, and almost trampled a very small, elaborately dressed, obvious princess, crying over a dead maid. She had looked right at Abernathy, no fear coming from her, just solemn, red-rimmed brown eyes. Her hands clenched and unclenched into tiny fists. He had been startled by her. She wasn’t the first human to see him; Some could, a touch of the sight, a bit of fae blood generations removed, a magic object, but she was definitely one of the few to not lose her mind at the sight, to not be so overcome with terror that she tore her eyes out or her hair or banged her head on the floor, the wall, a sharp object. She walked over to him, tilting her head back, small fists on her hips as she bent her spine to look up, up, up at him.
Her face was heart-shaped, with a tiny, pointed chin, round cheeks and bowed lips. She touched his leg and leaned to the side to look at his back half. He followed her gaze and huffed. He was halfway in and halfway out the wall. With a snort, the nightmare walked completely into the room.
“I need to get away before they find me. Can you help me?”
He could have ignored her. He should have ignored her, but it was at that moment soldiers burst into the room, and the before-he-was-named Abernathy bared his teeth in rage. He raised up on his back legs and trampled the three men before they had a chance to recognize what was happening. When he finished, he turned to look at the tiny child. Her elaborate clothing was splattered with blood.
“Thank you.” Even the girl’s voice was even small. What did he know of small humans? But more voices sounded in the corridors.
“Find the princess.”
“First General says he stabbed her maid before she went through a secret passageway. They can’t be out of the palace.”
“She’s the only heir left.”
“Please?” the girl whispered, and the nightmare sighed. He leaned over, folding his front legs, and tilted a wing down for her to climb up. When she was on his back, he focused, shimmered, and enveloped them both in his magic.
* * *
“I told you to stay.” Kyra was angry, pacing. She huffed and stomped a foot.
Abernathy stared at her with placid eyes.
“You made things so much worse. I was trying to get some gossip. I needed to— Ugh.”
Abernathy nudged his nose into one of the bags Kyra had tossed. He gently closed his teeth on the gown and tugged it out of the bag.
“Stop, Bernie!” Kyra rushed to his side, wresting the gown away from him. Her voice was defensive. “I just wanted a bath. You make better barter when you’re not dressed like a ragamuffin scavenger.”
Abernathy tilted his head and chuffed. Kyra glared at him. He stomped a foot.
“Fine. I just wanted to be clean.”
Abernathy turned his head.
“Don’t act like that, Bern.”
He flattened his ears and lifted a hind leg off the ground.
“Oh, don’t be mad.” Kyra was silent before she finally spoke, her voice quiet and contemplative. “I just wanted to see what it felt like, okay? I’ve been with you since I was four. I’m seventeen, Abernathy, and we rarely ever talk to humans, and I saw that shop, and the lady was so nice…”
Abernathy whinnied, a bit shrill, and lowered his hind leg. He kept his ears flat and leaned over to snap his teeth near her face.
“Yes, she could have been an enemy, and I know that, but I don’t think so, Bernie.”
Abernathy blew out all the air in his lungs and unfurled his wings, raising them high and lowering them in a sharp snap.
“True. Surprises happen.” Kyra shrugged. “I would’ve been okay, Bern.”
Abernathy neighed, shrill and high-pitched.
“I said I’d be careful! I was careful!” Kyra stuffed the gown back into the bag and tossed them on Abernathy’s back. He bucked and knocked them off. “Oh, it’s like that, huh?”
Abernathy bared his teeth at her.
“Fine. I’ll walk home.” She picked the bags up, slung them over her shoulder and took off walking. Abernathy followed, seething. They hadn’t gotten far before he looked back, studying the trail Kyra left through the woods. He would need to remind her of nature walking when she slept. He caught up to her and bumped her shoulder with his and almost knocked her down. Kyra laughed.
“I win.” She affectionately rubbed the side of his face. “No more silent treatment.”
Abernathy blew his breath, a quick flap of his lips and Kyra giggled. She tossed the bags up and climbed on his back. He immediately vaulted into the sky, but his gaze remained down, watching the woods and the way they moved, as if someone were following a careful path through the trees. As if someone was following Kyra.
* * *
It wasn’t like Abernathy didn’t understand Kyra’s need for human company. Sometimes he left her to run with the herd. He couldn’t stay with them anymore, not with Kyra in tow. She wouldn’t have fared well in the shadow barn the nightmares lived in, fed, and served by a myriad of creatures who would consider Kyra a tasty morsel. But Abernathy could fend for himself, unlike the small human he fostered.
She frustrated him, but the annoying feeling in his chest, the thing called worry that he had never had before, that frustrated him even more. Which was why, while Kyra slept the day sleep, Abernathy paced the gloom outside their cave.
No humans had ever reached their hiding place. It was bathed in shadows, reinforced by Abernathy’s urine, the entrance hidden from sight. Yet, a human came. Abernathy could smell him, hear him, long before he broke the clearing. He was strong, younger than the usual mercenary. He smelled of spice, somewhat like Kyra, and had the same rich brown color of her skin. His hair was thick black ropes the size of Kyra’s thumb, neatly tied back with a leather thong. He smelled faintly of apprehension, nothing like the usual human who neared his presence.
Abernathy pushed the scent of fear out and tilted his head, waiting for the man, boy really, not as young as Kyra, but not much older, to quake with trepidation. He didn’t.
“A—” The boy cleared his throat and looked around the clearing. He didn’t appear to see the entrance, but he obviously knew they were there. “Abernathy, sir?”
Abernathy paused. He looked back into the cave, at Kyra’s sleeping spot. She was sitting up, her brown eyes wide in the darkness. She hunched her shoulders and tossed her head at him. Abernathy stomped, shimmered, and stepped from the shadow of the door.
He silently walked towards the stranger and flared his wings before allowing the shimmer to fall. The boy gasped but didn’t run. Fear wafted from him in waves, but it wasn’t fear at the sight of Abernathy. The stranger bowed and Abernathy lowered his wings, curious.
“Hello, Abernathy, sir.” The boy cleared his throat and held up a fist of hemlock flowers. Only Kyra knew what a delight they were to him. “Hello, sir. I, sir. I—”
Abernathy stared at the boy.
“He wants to know if he can come with us.” Kyra said from behind and above them. The boy made a soft noise of protest. Both males looked up at her, standing on the ledge above the clearing. “Or, and Bernie, just hear me out, maybe I can stay in Unan.”
Abernathy bared his teeth at the boy and raised a hind leg. Kyra scrambled down to throw herself in front of the stranger.
“This is Jonah. We’ve been friends for years.”
Abernathy stomped his back foot down and walked away into the cave. He nuzzled his head into one of the bags and pulled out the dress, careful not to drag it when he returned. Kyra’s face flushed when she saw what he had brought.
“Fine. Yes. The dress was for Jonah.” She threw her hands up. She snatched the gown and shoved it into Jonah’s arms. Jonah watched their exchange with wonder on his face, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly open. Abernathy snapped his teeth at the boy, causing him to flinch and stumble back.
“Stop, Bernie. It’s not his fault.” Kyra rubbed Abernathy’s chest and wrapped her arms as far around him as she could. “I’m sorry I lied.”
Abernathy chuffed her braids, split in two, down to the middle of her back now, and glared at Jonah over her shoulder.
“I would take care of her, sir.”
Abernathy snorted and Kyra shoved him. “Be nice.”
She lay her head back on his chest and stayed there for a moment before whispering, “I need to be with humans, Bern.”
Abernathy raised his hind leg, slowly, his wings rising at the same time.
“I know you think it isn’t safe, but those mercenaries didn’t even recognize me, Bern.”
Abernathy tossed his head at Jonah.
“He doesn’t even know, Bernie. It’s been thirteen years. We hunt them more than they hunt us. You hunt them, anyway.”
Abernathy considered her words. Kyra had never hunted the king’s men in the way Abernathy had. Once he had decided she was his, he hunted down her enemies with a vengeance, sometimes with a group of nightmares, but often alone. Sometimes with Kyra with him, but often alone. Alone.
Abernathy backed away from Kyra, nodding his head, tucking his wings and ears.
“I’m not leaving you.” Kyra’s eyes glistened with tears. “You can stay here, and I’ll come visit, or you could pretend to be a real horse, or…”
“He can’t stay, Kyra,” Jonah said softly. “I saw what he did at the market. I’ve never heard of a nightmare attaching to a human, but… I’m not surprised.”
The boy smiled at Kyra, and Abernathy saw it, the fierceness that rested in Abernathy’s chest, the need to protect, the worry. Human love.
“I just… I won’t stay if you don’t want me to, Bernie. I’ll stay with you ” Kyra said, the tears beginning to fall. “I’ll stay with you.”
* * *
The nightmare hid in the shadows, watching the burnished light that came from the window of a cottage. He had killed two king’s men on the road, far from here. They could have been coming or going, or not even planning to stop, but he still hunted them, wherever they were, whenever he caught them. They were the only thing in the world that he feared. After they died, he came to check, to see.
Kyra opened the back door and looked out. Her hair was longer now, the braids tumbling into the small of her back, adorned with shells and beads and at least six strands of Abernathy’s hair. Jonah walked up behind her, his arm snaking around her waist and pregnant stomach. The boy had filled out, man now, strong and muscled. At night, Abernathy fed him dreams of battle training, fighting styles, weapons knowledge, and other things he felt he needed to watch the nightmare’s little girl. To watch Kyra.
And the other two.
A child, a little girl of around four, wriggled past her parents to run into the darkness, giggling. She made a beeline for Abernathy. From the doorway, Kyra shook her head.
“Don’t keep her out too late, Bernie.”
“Up, Bern. Up?” The little girl reached, dancing at his side on bare feet, waiting for Abernathy to lower a wing. He did and the child climbed up, grasping tight fists of his mane until she was settled between his wings. She giggled again and Jonah smiled.
Abernathy stepped out of the shadows, a slight rustling, a chill on the wind, a nightmare with a little girl on his back. They were dangerous. He tossed his head and whickered softly at the girl’s parents; then he shimmered and took a running leap for the sky, his gallop into the air punctuated by a child’s high-pitched squeals of glee.
* * *
About the Author
A Flint, MI native and Dallas transplant, Azure Arther has been obsessed with literature since she was a child. She has found that her passion is evenly distributed between writing, teaching and reading books with her son. Her short stories and poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in nearly two dozen publications, including Midnight & Indigo, Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways, and a winning story in Writers of the Future, vol. 38. She is a college professor, a playwright who dabbles in surrealism and fantasy, and a children’s author. Her website is azurearther.com.