the ironhorse sanctuary: chapter 4
Stray spent the morning looking over all the papers that Declan gave him, with growing apprehension. There was so much reading to do, and he wasn’t very good at it. Some of the math was moderately easy. Other parts were more complicated, and some Stray couldn’t comprehend at all. He did the math first, solving the problems that he could, but had to leave half of them uncompleted. As for Declan’s book, there were just too many words for Stray to even hope to get through both the chapters Declan wanted him to read.
He decided to skip the first chapter. Declan said it was just a review of what they’d already told him, and had only assigned him homework on the second chapter. He took it back to the room he was staying in and poured over it for the next few hours.
Stray wasn’t illiterate. He just had trouble stringing a lot of words together. If it was just one word, he could sound it out in his mind easily enough. The same for if it was a couple words he was presented with, like what could fit onto a sign. Long sentences and paragraphs made his mind start to spin, and when paragraphs were strung together to fill whole pages, his brain shut down and refused to process them. Being faced with multiple pages always overwhelmed him, and left him feeling stupid and lost. He tried to read them though – he really did – but by noon, when Thomas came to get him for lunch, he was too frustrated to think straight.
“Are you all right?” Thomas asked as he assembled some sandwiches for them. “You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine,” Stray said, hanging back out of reflex.
“Declan didn’t assign you anything too ridiculous, did he?” Thomas asked.
“He gave me his word that he’d take tutoring you seriously. When he makes a promise, he usually keeps it, but it never hurts to double check on what he’s up to,” Thomas said. He handed Stray a plate with a sandwich and some chips on it, and motioned him toward the kitchen table. “So what has he had you doing?”
“Some math,” Stray told him. “I don’t get all of it.”
“I don’t think he expected you to. He told me he was trying to gage what you already know, so he knows where to start teaching you,” Thomas said.
“Also, some stuff about the Eldritch,” Stray said. “Stuff he wrote.”
“He’s been threatening to put his notes together in book form for awhile now,” Thomas said with a smile. “How are you finding it?”
“Hard to understand,” Stray answered honestly.
“I can help you, if you want,” Thomas offered. “What parts?”
Stray regarded Thomas with only a little bit of suspicion. His initial impression of the man had been that he was kind, and so far Thomas had done nothing to prove that wrong, but Stray hadn’t even known him a week yet.
He knew less about Thomas and Beatrice than he did about Declan and Blaire, but from what he’d gathered, Thomas was something of an administrator for the Ironhorse Sanctuary. Beatrice was the one officially in charge, but Thomas seemed to be the one who really was. He seemed to know more about what was really going on than Beatrice too, both with the kids they were supposed to be responsible for, and the Eldritch they were supposed to be at odds with.
That thought gave Stray an idea, but he knew he’d have to be very careful in employing it – Thomas was used to being manipulated by Declan, after all, and Declan was doubtlessly much better at it than Stray.
“The common defenses against the Eldritch,” Stray said carefully, “I don’t . . . no, never mind. I’ll figure it out.”
Thomas gave a soft laugh. “Not likely. There’s really no rhyme or reason for why most of them work. What it seems to come down to in the end is tradition, unexplained power, or poison.”
Stray didn’t have to fake his confusion, and belatedly started to wonder if this had been a good idea, but Thomas saw his baffled gaze and took pity on him.
“Like the iron horseshoes we have above every window, for example,” Thomas said. “Iron is poisonous to most Eldritch, but only if they come in contact with it – or some of them if they come too near it. The ones who are weak against it, have a sort of sixth sense for iron, so they always know if there’s any present, in any significant quantity. But unless it’s touching them, or they’re surrounded by a lot of it, it doesn’t actually hurt them. They can walk over railroad tracks, or into steel framed buildings, so there’s no logical reason why they shouldn’t be able to walk through a doorway with a horseshoe above it. In that case, it’s more tradition that stops them. I know it doesn’t make any sense. Not everything does where the Eldritch are concerned.”
“Oh.” Stray made a mental note about iron horse shoes over doors being a common defense against them. That was one of the ten he needed for his homework. “Could you tell me about some of the others? Please?”
Thomas, it turned out, was happy to. He didn’t seem at all suspicious, and gave Stray more examples than he needed. For the next hour he listened as Thomas went over various ways that the Ironhorse Sanctuary was protected by seemingly mundane decorations and talismans, that really shouldn’t have provided any protection against anything, but somehow did. There turned out to be a whole lot more of them than Stray had even thought existed. The hardwood floors of the sanctuary were made of rowan wood which, like iron, was poisonous to most fae. The grounds were planted, or would be planted later in the spring, with herbs and flowers like vervain, rosemary, angelica, and bracken, which repelled the Eldritch. Other plants with those same or similar properties, like evergreens, holly, ivy, and mistletoe, had been dried and turned into wreaths that were on the walls inside, and acorns were placed on the window sills. By the time he was finished, Stray had more than enough examples to give Declan.
He spent the afternoon exploring the sanctuary – something he hadn’t really gotten the chance to do yet. Declan had warned him against going into the cellar or attic, and though normally anywhere he was told not to go would have been the first place he checked out as soon as he knew he wasn’t being watched, this time it really didn’t seem like a good idea. Who knew what kind of dangerous crap a place like the Ironhorse Sanctuary kept around?
The rest of the house, he’d been assured, was perfectly safe for all non-Eldritch. Stray had already seen the library, the kitchen, and the living room, but now he had the chance to see all the rest of what was there. There was a room that seemed to be devoted to the overflow from the library, with stacks and stacks of books piled on the floor, and against the walls, though there were no shelves. Another room seemed to be a second, smaller living room. Then there was one that seemed to be a big dining room, even though so far they’d taken all their meals in the kitchen, and at the back of the house there was a section of the wrap around porch that had been converted into a greenhouse.
Upstairs there were over a dozen rooms that were almost identical to the one he was staying in, each with a single, quilt covered bed with a trunk at the foot of it, and a simple wooden stand beside the head of the bed, with a pottery carafe set on it. Stray guessed they were for other hunters when they came to visit, as Declan had mentioned. Then there were about half a dozen rooms, beside Blaire’s and Declan’s that looked lived in, or at least had personal touches – posters and photo collages on the walls, shelves full of knick knacks, and extra blankets on the beds. Some of them looked like they belonged to teenagers. The clothes that were in the closets supported that, when Stray checked.
He wasn’t snooping, per say. He was merely getting the lay of the house. Stray had learned long ago that it paid to know where all the exits and a few good bolt holes were.
He quickly came to the conclusion that the Ironhorse Sanctuary was definitely the most unique house he’d ever stayed in, for any amount of time. All the protective decorations and precautions against the Eldritch were only part of it. The way it and its furnishings were built, and how there were so many old, archaic things right alongside gleaming modern stuff contributed to it as well.
Like in the kitchen. There was a huge, ancient looking fireplace at one end, with a bunch of cast iron pots and pans hanging from the bricks above it, while on the opposite side there was a stainless steel oven, other appliances, like a refrigerator and microwave, and a magnetic knife holder on the wall. The kitchen table was an ancient thing, made of intricately carved wood, with six heavy wooden chairs set around it, but pushed up against the wall, not too far away, was an island cart, made of metal and topped with ceramic tiles. There were a couple spinning bar stools by it.
There were contradictions like that all over the sanctuary – a set of shelves made out of an old, split open wine barrel in the living room, on which rested a phone charging jack. A table in the library that was made out of books, and had a laptop set up on it. Stray kind of liked the oddity of it – he couldn’t help but find it amusing.
Just before 4:00 he hastily scribbled a list of ten of the things Thomas said were protecting the sanctuary. Then he waited for Declan and Blaire to return. At 5:00 he was still waiting.
Beatrice, who had spent almost the whole day in her office, came out around quarter after, a suspicious and annoyed look on her face. “Where are they?” she asked Stray in her crisp British accent, when she found him waiting in the kitchen.
“Not back yet,” Stray said, wary of her tone.
Beatrice made a disgusted sound. “Declan . . .”
“He said they had to go grocery shopping,” Stray said in Declan’s defense, hoping that would placate her a bit.
“It doesn’t take them two hours to get groceries,” Beatrice snapped. “Especially not in Rusted Hill.”
Stray had no more excuses to offer, and even if he had, he wasn’t sure how far it was safe to push Beatrice. Out of everyone in the house, he knew the least about her. She was very stern, potentially dangerous, in her mid-twenties, and had dark blonde hair, gray eyes, violent tendencies, and daddy issues . . . and that was about everything Stray had learned about her. He wasn’t going to risk making her even angrier than she already was now.
“Those two are up to something,” Beatrice ground out. “Again. The only question is, are you in on it?”
Stray took a step back, ducking his head slightly, ready to bolt.
Something flickered in Beatrice’s eyes and she gave a resigned sigh. “Probably not,” she answered her own question. “You’ve only just got here.”
He gave a slight nod.
“You hungry?” Beatrice asked.
Beatrice sighed again. “You don’t have to be scared of me, you know. I’m not going to skin you alive or anything.”
“Okay,” Stray said, and tried to sound like he meant it.
Beatrice went to the refrigerator and rifled through it. “I’ll get something started. Declan can cook later this week.”
Stray wasn’t sure if she expected him to say something or not. After a slight hesitation, he decided to voice a question. “Is he really as bad a cook as Blaire says?”
That startled Beatrice into laughing – and she had a surprisingly nice laugh. “No. He’s actually not. He makes some pretty wild stuff, and he rarely makes the same dinner twice, but nothing he’s made has ever turned out horrible.”
“Oh. That’s good,” Stray said, shifting awkwardly.
“He makes good breakfasts,” Beatrice said when the silence started to stretch out between them. “Usually on the weekends, or if they have a holiday from school, and such. He’s very good with breakfast food. Even Blaire can’t find anything to complain about when he cooks breakfast.”
“They must be really good then,” Stray said. “Er . . . what does he make?”
“Just about any breakfast food you can imagine – pancakes, French toast, eggs cooked any way you name. When he puts his mind to something, he usually does a bang up job of it,” Beatrice said, “which is why it’s worrying that he’s plotting something now.”
“How do you know he’s plotting something?” Stray asked. “He could just be running late.”
“He’s Declan. He’s always plotting something,” Beatrice said. “Hopefully this time I’ll find out what before he starts stirring up anymore trouble in fae mounds.”