Those Who Dwell in the Thorns



Catherine has always done what is right and proper. She married a wealthy man she hardly knew because it was expected of her. She too had certain expectations about her life. She wanted to be a good wife, to manage his household and someday bear his children. That all changed when she and her husband, Edward, are attacked on their way to their home, Thornwood Manor. They are saved by her husband’s gardener, the mysterious Mr. Thorn. After the attack, only Catherine and Mr. Thorn seem to remember anything about it. In fact, he seems to know a lot about Catherine, though they have never met before. Catherine would rather look the other way and pretend she does not see people disappearing or that she feels an inexplicable draw to the shrouded woods behind her new home. When Catherine is confronted with the past she would rather forget, she must realize that a normal life was never something that was meant for her.

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Chapter One:

The coach lurched, and Catherine grasped the edge of her seat, white knuckled. Across from her, Edward, her husband, startled awake and blinked at her, bleary eyed. He drew back the curtains on the coach door. Gray mist melted into the dark night outside the coach window.

“I cannot see a thing past this mist. Though I am certain we are nearly there.” He eased back in his seat and smiled at her.

“I am glad,” she replied.

The coach continued to jostle and threw its occupants about the compartment. One particularly tumultuous movement flung Catherine across the space and into her husband’s lap. She blushed crimson before muttering an apology under her breath and quickly returned to her side of the compartment to study the closed curtain. She hoped he would not think her forward for falling into his lap in such an undignified fashion.

As the lurching motion subsided, it became readily apparent they had stopped. The horses screeched, and the thud of their hooves as they pawed the ground replaced the creak of the carriage wheels.

“Why have we stopped?” Edward mused aloud.

Catherine, thinking her added commentary would be unwanted, remained silent.

An animal howl echoed outside that sent gooseflesh rising along Catherine’s arms. She squeaked in alarm before clamping a hand over her mouth to stop the offending noise. The creature howled once more. Catherine shuddered. Growing up close to town had not prepared her for the wilds of country living.

“I am going to speak with the driver.” Edward reached for the door handle. He seemed unafraid of the baying creatures of the night.

Catherine reached for him, thinking to stop him; who knew what kind of terrible things could be lurking out in that mist. Propriety, however, dictated that she obey her husband and not try to command him on their second day of marriage. She let her husband step out of the coach. Her hand fell limply in her lap. The mist from outside blew into the coach, and a chill crept up her spine. I should call out to him, she thought. There is no need to speak with the coachmen. I am certain everything is fine.

Yet another howl ripped through the night air, this time accompanied by a scream of terror. Catherine’s heart beat in her chest, and she pressed her knuckles to her mouth to suppress her startled cry.

Silence hung heavy on the air.

“Edward?” she called.

Something sniffed around the door. She caught only the barest glimpse of an indiscernible shape through the mist before it disappeared from view. Catherine scooted along the seat and towards the door.

“Edward, say something.”

A moan echoed from within the mist. Catherine stood hunched over in the door to the coach, squinting into the darkness, one ear cocked for the howling creature.

The coach rocked, and Catherine fumbled, losing her balance. She grasped the doorway for support and found it wet. She pulled her hand away, and a thick, dark liquid covered it. As if she had summoned it, the mist parted, and a gibbous moon shone down on her, illuminating the red blood. Catherine screamed and fell backwards onto the floor of the coach. She stared at the blood on her hand. Why is there blood? Oh God, please tell me this is a nightmare. She hastily wiped the warm liquid onto the jacket Edward had left draped over the coach seat. Was that Edward’s blood?

An accompanying howl greeted her shouts, and she backed further into the carriage, fearing the howling creature and the owner of the blood alike. The creature, however, had other plans, and the carriage began to rattle and shake. The creature’s heavy breathing just on the other side of the carriage wall that Catherine had her back up against sent her heart racing. In a rash and foolish decision, she fled the carriage, hoping the mist would hide her from the creature’s attentions.

She managed only a few panicked feet before stumbling and falling. She rose to her knees. A giving substance met her grasping hands, and she prayed silently that it was not what she feared.

Despite great hesitance, she looked down at the profile of the footman, his throat opened and skin peeled back.

Too terrified to scream, she scuttled away from the corpse. All sound seemed lodged in her throat.

A flash of shadow in the night drew her eye, and she watched a lumbering figure move through the mist. The gait of it was humanoid but hunched forward, its hands almost dragging upon the ground. The clouds moved in front of the moon, blocking her view just as the creature let out a guttural howl.

I will be next! she thought.

Without seeing it, she could sense the creature pacing her, circling, waiting for the kill. Too late she realized she should never have left the relative safety of the carriage. Dear god, help me. She prayed.

The crunch of footsteps on the gravel alerted her to its presence, and she twirled to face the creature. Like a rabbit before the fox, she stood entranced by the beast. The figure loomed closer, seemingly losing some of its grandeur before it stumbled forward out of the mist, and she raised her hands to protect herself.

It collapsed beside her, the gravel crunched beneath it, and Catherine opened her eyes to see Edward lying face down. He seemed whole but for a tear on his sleeve and a long gash beneath it.

“Edward,” she shook him, “wake up.” It went against her every instinct to command her husband in such a way, but the will to survive superseded propriety in this case.

He mumbled something she could not make out because the creature howled again. Its stumbling gait thundered around them, crunching the gravel on the road. She whipped her head around, catching brief snatches of the creature, the gleam of a yellow eye and a human-like hand covered entirely in fur.

Catherine tried to urge Edward to his feet, but he moved as if he’d had too many spirits.

“The monster,” he moaned as he leaned on Catherine’s shoulder. “Father warned me, but I never listened.”

Catherine paid no mind to his ravings because the creature drew closer. She cast about for a place to escape. The carriage was not far, and if she could just get Edward inside, perhaps they could stave off the monster’s attacks until someone came to their rescue. But who will save us? she thought desperately.

She tugged at her fumbling husband. He fell to his knees and collapsed to the ground, unconscious. The creature brushed past them in the mist, and she felt the bristled fur along her hand. The rattle of the creature’s breath crept over her skin. She looked down at Edward, thinking to abandon him or prepare to die together. The pale light coming from the light behind the clouds silhouetted the creature as it loped away before turning back and stalking closer to them.

It is playing with us, she realized. It tilted its head back, howling once more, and Catherine closed her eyes. If the monster had enough time to taunt them, then there was no way to escape. She slumped to the ground in defeat. A sharp yelp of pain surprised her, however, and she opened her eyes.

A second figure stood between Catherine, Edward and the monster. He twirled a staff in front of him as he and the monster sidestepped one another.

The new figure jabbed at the monster with his staff while skirting a swipe of the human-like appendages, which glinted with elongated nails. The creature snarled and lunged for the man, for it was clear he was a man. He twirled away from the creature like a dancer she had once seen at a show in town.

The monster snarled, revealing a row of pointed teeth. Catherine tried not to imagine those teeth tearing into her flesh and devouring her. The man continued to sidestep in front of Catherine and Edward. The monster launched itself at him, and he spun away and struck the monster on the back. It lost its balance and skidded on the gravel of the road.

It landed with all its appendages on the ground, back arched and teeth bared. The monster roared, and it seemed to echo inside her skull. The man spread his legs in a defensive stance and prepared for the monster’s attack. As it had done before, the animal lunged towards him, this time he did not move out of its path. They met and the force of the impact threw the man backwards by a few feet, though he did not lose his balance. He pushed the creature back, and it landed on its legs in a crouch as if preparing for another assault.

The man, seemingly tired of games, struck the creature first. The blows landed in quick succession to its abdomen, the head and the ribs. The creature reared back and roared once more, but Catherine almost imagined she heard defeat in its tone and not challenge. Sure enough, it eyed the man and then tilted its head as if hearing some silent message. It snarled in their direction before backing up and disappearing into the mist.

Catherine watched it disappear but could hardly believe her eyes. The howl sounded in the distance, and she allowed herself to relax by a measure. Their savior turned his attention back to Edward and her. He walked over to them, the stick slung over his shoulder. His shirt appeared unruffled and his person untaxed by the exertion. The moon chose once more to illuminate the scene and revealed a slender man with long, dark hair pulled into a tail at the base of his neck. His olive skin was exotic to her eye, and a pearl-drop earring glinted at his left earlobe.

The moon illuminated his features, and he grinned rakishly. Catherine lowered her gaze, thinking it improper to stare and hoping he had not seen her surveying him.

“Miss, are you injured?” he asked, kneeling beside her and the unconscious Edward.

“Fine, thank you.” She bit her lip. Now that they were in no immediate danger, she felt unsure and embarrassed. Before this gypsy, for that is what she assumed him to be, arrived, she had been thinking of abandoning her husband to the beast.

“That’s good and him?” He motioned towards Edward as if reading her thoughts.

She could not help but note the fluid way in which he moved. How can you admire this stranger when your husband lay unconscious!

“I believe he is fine. Though, we should seek medical aid. But the coachman and footman—” Her stomach constricted upon realizing, and she could not finish her sentence. It did not seem to matter, however, because the gypsy man was gazing into the mist, and she feared the creature had returned.

“They’ll come for you soon, but you should be safe here for now.”

Not normally one to speak out of turn, she could not help but do so, given the circumstances. “Should we not go for help immediately? My husband is injured, and those men are—dead.”

“You’ll be safer here,” he repeated, “haven’t you heard the old saying: you should never go travelling on the night of a Thorn Dwellers’ moon?”

She furrowed her brows and tried to say she had never heard such a thing, but a strange wooziness had overcome her.

“Time to sleep now, miss, and you’ll feel much better.”

The stranger grew fuzzy as Catherine struggled to keep her eyes open. Now was hardly the time for a nap. Edward needed medical attention, and that monster could still be skulking about.

“I should not, I—” She yawned, and the stranger kneeled beside her once more, peering at her. He had dark liquid eyes that reminded her of twin forest pools.

“You’re stronger than I thought you would be. This spell is supposed to be instantaneous. But I guess it’s no surprise, really.”

She framed another question, her mouth circling preparing the syllables, but all that came out was a yawn, and the cloak of sleep enveloped her.

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