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The story that the nighthorse riders told was that the Winchester boy--the youngest one, Sam--he ran off some years after the big avalanche on the north side of Lamarcke. Story was they'd all got caught up in it--John Winchester, Sam, and the older boy, Dean. And Mary Winchester, well, she died in it. Preachers claimed it was John Winchester's fault, just like they claimed nighthorses were demons, but riders knew better. *Wind*, sent Rock, Winchester's vicious old stud, but a wind that was black and tainted. Nobody said "rogue nighthorse", but some folks thought it, and then thought *calm water* until the ambient quieted again.

It was a few years after that when Sam Winchester came down to Sagan, riding in the cab of one of Marty Grant's lumber trucks, carrying all his gear in one leather satchel and not saying a word about the mountain or his family.

But that was years past, now. Riders didn't really forget about him, but they let him fade away: he stayed on the townsfolks' side of the riders' gate, working in the library. On occasion he'd come out to meet with Bobby Singer or Nita Patterson, old partners of his parents', and there'd be a ripple in the ambient. *Wind, snow, blood, grief* filtering from horse to horse, unsettling riders. Nothing sharp, nothing clear, and then it would settle again. Sam Winchester knew how to keep his mind to himself, as much as any nighthorse rider did, and more than some.

Story was, north side of Lamarcke was a chancy place to be, in the best of times. Those times were long gone, and only the Winchesters were willing to ride that north road, shortest route up to Curie, but ugly. No phone lines on that route, no trucks, just the narrow twisting trail only riders used. Only Winchester riders, and John Winchester took that evil trail every chance he got, hunting--riders said--for the rogue that killed his partner.

That was the story they told. As far as anyone knew, it might even be true.

 

***

 

The weather was changing; the warmth of a day in autumn had cooled to a chilly night, with no clouds to hide the moons overhead. Sam pulled the door closed behind himself and sank down on the steps, staring sightlessly at the constellation Jess called the Bookbinder, which was climbing the sky across the lane. As he sat, an image skittered across his brain, the same one that had roused him from sleep--cold and blood and screaming--but then it was gone again, just as fast.

Sam shivered and pulled his shirt tighter around his body, wishing the dreams away, knowing they wouldn't go so easily.

It wasn't cold, not really, nothing to compete with his memory of two meters of snow and a wind cutting like the edge of a knife on exposed skin. Sam sighed and pushed the recollection away. Three years, and you would have thought the memories would have faded with his cold tolerance.

Jess was still sleeping inside, warm in the nest of blankets. If Sam went back inside, he could curl into the bedding with her, let her loom-calloused hands run over his skin...

The memory of cold came back again, this time a vivid image of rocks and snow, just a flash, before the hillside trembled and moved. At the same time, a shadow peeled away from the alleyway, and took two fast steps onto the porch.

Later, Sam couldn't even remember moving. He blocked the reaching arm--blocked it blindly without even coming to his feet, and struck back with his free fist before the deflect had finished. Then the figure was stepping in, inside Sam's reach, and the next swing ended with Sam sprawling out into the street, road grit grinding through his shirt and sleep trousers.

Dust was up his nose and in his eyes, and there was a warm weight on his chest, and why was he seeing a mountainside of boulders sliding and falling through fresh powder, throwing snow in the air and bouncing against a blue sky...

--Oh--

"Dean!"

The man sitting on his chest grinned at him, as something soft and damp snuffled Sam's hair from behind, snorting softly. *Sam*

Sam reached up a hand to swat at it, sending *quit it* by reflex. There was a second, louder snort, but the snuffling stopped, and Dean grinned again.

"Glad to see you haven't completely lost your touch, Sammy."

Dean caught Sam's hand and hauled both of them up to their feet. Behind Sam, a burly nighthorse stood, glossy in the moonlight, with his clawed toes digging into the dirt lane. Bold as could be, as though there wasn't a solid wall around Sagan, and a gate to keep the nighthorses safely away from the shopkeepers.

*Sam*, sent the nighthorse again, and shoved forward to sniffle at Sam's face and chest. *SamandDean, SamandDeanandCrash, SamandDeanandCrash*

"Geddoff him, you big lug," Dean said, slapping Crash on the neck. *Sam and Dean in house, talking* Dean sent, followed by *Crash in street, Crash waiting*.

*SamandDeanandCrash on mountain*, Crash sent back, and Dean pulled at one pointed nighthorse ear before saying out loud, "Need to talk to you, little brother."

*No*, Sam sent, *door slamming shut*. "Not in the house. I can't--there's--"

"Sam?" Jessica's voice called from the doorway, clutching her robe to her neck, her features lost against the backlight. "Sam, is that you--Sam, it's a nighthorse!" Her voice filled with fear, the fear of a good church-going townswoman who'd never been more than a stone's-throw from the city walls.

Crash's head came up and he snorted, carrying a wave of *pretty girl* and *Sam's girl* and *confusion* from Dean. Sam put his hand out, shoving against Crash to distract the nighthorse. Dean was just as fast, covering himself with *quiet water, sandstream bed, quiet water*.

"Jess, it's okay. It's just my--" He paused, caught, and into the break Crash poured *smallSam, Dean, Crash, all in snow, all on road, Crash carrying Dean and small Sam* all painted over with affection and the taint of human regret. Sam swallowed, focused his eyes on the light in the doorway and forced out, "It's an old friend. I'll be just a minute."

Jess looked dubious, and confused, but stepped back and shut the door. As if the door could keep Crash from picking up her thoughts and broadcasting them to Sam and Dean if he wanted to.

Sam swung back around. "Dean--"

"Sam, Dad's gone missing."

"Since when is that news?"

"Since he didn't come back! I looked, Sam, I swear--" *cold firepit, strangers passing, empty road, woods thick with fall leaves, empty road* "He never made the meet-up, and no one's seen him or Rock. I need your help, Sam."

"I'm done, Dean, done. I have a job here, I have a life, I have *Jess*" --He hadn't meant to say it, not like that, and the flash of grief across Dean's face made Sam's gut twist. "I'm not a rider, Dean. I'm not part of that, not any more."

*Sam at campfire, Sam walking the road, Sam with rifle* It was fast, too fast, and the images made Sam dizzy. Dean was upset, was letting more slip in five minutes than he had the last year that Sam had been with the other Winchesters. And these were Dean's images, Dean's thoughts--his and Crash's--and the contrast between Dean's recollection and Sam's was giving Sam a headache.

Dean must have caught a taste of the pain, because he stopped sending and dropped back into words. "You know Dad, Sam, and Rock knows you. I need your help, I can't do this alone."

You have Crash, Sam thought, and knew the thought was laced with bitterness even as it formed. "Yes, you can."

Dean shook his head. *DeanandCrashandSam* "I don't want to."

Crash drifted closer, nuzzled at Sam's elbow. *DeanandCrashandSam* Sam couldn't help himself: he put a hand up and scratched behind Crash's ear, in that spot where he always got itchy.

Damn it.

"I have to be back in a week."

 

***

 

A week, Sam gave him: seven days, or his job at the library would be gone when he came back. And he'd promised Jess, too: I gotta do this, but I'll be back in time, I promise. It wasn't just the job: Jess's dad was a trucker and he was due back in town in a week. Jess was making dinner, a special dinner, softening the cranky old man up so Jess could break their news. She didn't need his permission, she was of age; but she wasn't a rider, and she was going to take Sam's name, in a proper churching. For that, she wanted her father.

Sam wasn't telling Dean any of this, though: just that he had to be back in a week.

"Week's not enough time, Sammy," said Dean, tightening the straps on Sam's pack, as if he didn't trust Sam to be able to prepare for the wild. As if Sam were a townsman--but I am, now.

"It's all you get," said Sam, stolidly, and didn't say anything else.

Dean flicked him a sideways glance, then shrugged and stood up. "Fine, but no bitching about the pace, then. It's a good two-day ride to Brin." And Sam without a mount. Sam winced away from that; it still hurt.

"Yeah, whatever," said Sam. He followed Dean outside, closing the door softly on the cozy bedroom with the blankets Jess had woven herself. Maybe this would be okay. It was just a week, after all.

"It'll be okay," said Sam to Jess on the porch, her warm body wrapped in his arms. She was tall enough that her head just fit under his chin. "You won't even know I'm gone."

She snorted into his collar. "I'll be cold." Then she pulled her head back. "Listen to me--it's dangerous out there. Be careful." She didn't say, Come back soon, because she knew he meant to.

He kissed her again, and then Jess went inside and closed the door against the cold before Dean and Sam even reached the corner of the lane. She never liked to say good-bye, thought it was bad luck.

"We could use the radio, you know? Or the telephone," Sam suggested, settling his pack on his shoulders. He didn't have a rifle: the revolver would have to do. As would the coat he'd bought last winter when he couldn't make his old one last any longer. At least it wasn't a town coat, soft cloth and ribbons: it was heavy leather, lined and pocketed, meant for the High Wild.

"Yeah, like Dad's gonna be on the radio," scoffed Dean, leading the way down the street. He'd left his gear with Crash, now safely in the dens on the other side of the rider's gate, and come to breakfast with Sam and Jess. He was even mostly polite, Sam had to grant that; didn't even give Jess the eye--well, more than three or four times.

Sam swung wide around the corner of Good Franco's chicken coop, and nodded to Mrs. Franco on her doorstep. "I know, Dean, that's not what I meant." Riders didn't use radios: something about them, the field they gave off, probably, attracted creatures. Vermin. Too many of them, more than a nighthorse could scare off. Nobody remembered the name of the rider who'd headed up to Lamarcke with a radio, but everyone knew the story of his last transmission. "But the camp-boss at Lamarcke's got a radio, someone might know where he is."

"You think I didn't ask?" Dean's shoulders stiffened. "Nobody's seen him, Sammy."

The rider's gate came into view at the end of Long Street. Sam could feel his back tightening as he began to be aware of the ambient, the way that emotion didn't just stay inside his own head but got picked up and broadcast by the horses. It was early yet, and the ambient was still pretty quiet, just mild *hunger* and *biscuits* and *itchy*. And then there was Crash: *baconSamandDeanandCrashandbacon*.

More than one hundred riders made their home at Sagan, living in the ring of quarters on the perimeter of town, and it felt like half of them were in the quadrangle to see Sam walk past. Five years ago, Sam would have known most of them, and their horses' names too; now he felt like an outsider, a townsman despite the coat and his good boots. He worked in the library, slept in a bed, went to church (though he didn't agree with two thirds of what Preacher Nguyen said). He propped himself against the porch railing while Dean ducked inside the barracks for his gear. They would get Crash from the dens close to the outside gate, where the nighthorses' sendings were kept as far from the townsfolk as possible.

And then they would be out on the road, Dean riding and Sam walking behind, as if the past three years had never happened at all.

 

***

 

Sammy was faster than he was when he ran away; somewhere along the way he'd finally grown into those beanpole legs of his. He was better at keeping up with Crash and Dean, and didn't even bitch about the distance until he took off his boots at the fire their first night out and Dean got a look at his feet.

"Shit, Sammy, why didn't you say something?" Dean pulled the small medkit from his bag and moved to unroll it, but Sam shook his head and put out his hand, lips pursed.

"I'm okay, I'll do it."

Dean rolled his eyes, sending *squalling calf, digging its heels in*, but tossed the kit over.

Sam caught it easily and sent *mother chicken clucking clucking*, which made Crash lift his head from where he was resting at the edge of the firelight.

*Chicken?* Crash didn't love chicken near as much as bacon, but it was still meat. All nighthorses loved bacon--it was the best thing humans brought with them when they arrived, according to the nighthorses--but Crash was even more obsessive than most. Not that Dean minded: he liked bacon fine, and it kept better on the trail than fresh meat did, anyway.

They were camped more than halfway to Brin, in a stand of greentrees just off the road, and the ambient was so calm it made Dean twitchy. Critters didn't like Brin much, it was true--the chemicals from the factories kept them away. But usually there was something on this road, even if just a will-o-wisp for Crash to scare off.

He was pretty sure Sammy hadn't noticed, though. Kid was taller--when did that happen?--and stronger than when he left. Solider, too; wasn't a kid anymore, really. But he didn't know the wild anymore, not even this soft wild, this quiet country in between the towns, where you were never more than a couple hours' ride from a radio.

Dean sat with his back to the fire, not watching as Sam cleaned and wrapped his blisters, listening to Crash snort and snuffle his way back to a doze. Dad hadn't ever been willing to go to Sagan, after Sammy left and the word came back up the mountain where he was. Which didn't mean Dad didn't know how he did--Dad made sure of that, asking after Sam from Ellen, Bobby, and Nita every time they met up. But he always made them promise not to tell that he asked.

The fire crackled, spitting; Dean twisted around and tossed a twig into the center of the flames, watched it flare up. "Why'd you leave?" he asked, suddenly.

Sam was bent forward over his feet, far enough Dean couldn't see his face behind the shaggy hair. But his shoulders stiffened. *Snow crashed down a mountainside, boulders bouncing in silence* Crash stirred, and then settled again.

"Go to sleep, Dean," said Sam, without looking up. "I'll take first watch."

Sammy was gangling and young, all elbows and knees, angry all the time. Sammy played hide-the-bacon with Crash, could even settle Rock down some days. Sammy got in Dad's face and argued with him when Dad took Dean off on a convoy and left Sam in quarters, in Curie and Hawking and Lamarcke. (Never Zettel, though: they never went back to Zettel after Mom died.) And then Sammy was gone when they came back to Lamarcke, and Dan Elkins had to tell them how Sammy had gone down to Sagan with the last convoy of the season.

That was Sammy; but Dean wasn't sure who this broad and quiet man was, who lived in town and slept in a bed and had a book in his pack. And who didn't want to be a rider.

That was the real crime, to Dean, that was what made Sam unrecognizeable. How could a Winchester not want to be a rider?

 

***

 

Mom's hair was long and silky, even in the harshest winters when there was no hot water to wash with and all four of them had chilblains from splitting wood to burn. Three nighthorses--and one of them pregnant--in a cabin were plenty warm, but you couldn't cook potatoes on a horse's heat.

They'd never have left Zettel if Dolores and Manny weren't there to guard the village. But they were, and there'd been no trouble, but it had been a long hard winter and Dad wanted to get them down early to Sagan. There was a convoy he and Mom had meant to ride, while Dean stayed with Sam in Zettel. Except Frost's pregnancy put an end to that; so they were all together that day on the road, Dad breaking trail with Rock while the rest of them struggled along behind.

Sam doesn't think about it when he can help it. And after growing up with nighthorses, he's damn good at controlling his thoughts. But he can't control his dreams.

Rock's a big horse, his prints in the snow as wide across as Sam's splayed hands. But even he's having a hard time pushing through the drifts on the Lamarcke-Curie road, the way it's piled in the lee of some of the turnings. It is spring and the air is warming, but not warm: Sam can hear the water trickling around them, running under the snow beneath their feet, dripping off the ledges above the road.

The ambient's pretty quiet, just the usual undercurrent of cranky from Rock, Crash happily bouncing around Dean, trying to get *bacon* from Dean's pockets even though he knows damn well there isn't any there, and Dean swearing and slapping at him, and Frost picking her way with surprising delicacy, given her girth, ears always pricked towards Mom walking beside her. Dad hasn't said anything out loud yet, but they know the foal's a colt, and Sam tries not to think *mine* too often or too loud. He knows better: horse picks its rider.

And sometimes, too, he thinks about what it must be like to live in Mendel or Watson, one of the cities where people don't even think about the ambient, where there are books and art and trade and the world is bigger than the twelve miles from Walton to Perry. He's careful about those thoughts, though: they confuse the horses, and he's scared of what Dad'll say.

The last dogleg on this stretch of the hill swings under a fifty-foot ledge, lowering with snow. About a mile past that is a shelter, which should be stocked because Dean and Dad supplied it last fall before first snow fell. But something's not right; Rock stops at the same time Dad lifts his hand off Rock's neck. Rock is *suspicious*. Frost lifts her head, nostrils flaring; Mom turns, eyes scanning the trees, sliding her rifle down off her shoulder.

"What is it?" says Sam. He can't pick anything up except Rock and Frost's unease, echoed by his parents'. Crash stamps a few times, and Dean sends *calm water, still water* to quiet him.

Dad shakes his head. *Quiet*, he sends, checking the rifle in his hands. *Dean with shotgun,* he adds. *SamandDeanandCrash together*

"Not a fucking babysitter," mutters Dean, but he pumps the shotgun, the sound surprisingly loud, although any echoes are muffled by the wet snow.

*Dark hungry* hits the ambient, and Rock snorts, startling. His ears are back, tail whipping past Dad's face. There's a sound in the trees: a muffled crash. Sam spins around, clumsy in his snow gear, wishing he had a rifle too. He's not big enough, yet, Dad says. Maybe next year, Sammy.

Frost is jittery now, turning in place, pushing against Mom, *protecting* her.

*Spook-bear* sends Dean, but he's unsure; Crash is *scared*, and Sam's never seen Crash be scared, not of anything. Rock's sending out a wave of *rage*, *mine my herd mine* that if it were sound would be bouncing off the cliff face, destabilizing the snow.

"Boys," says Dad. "Want you up here."

"Yessir," says Sam, and stomps forward, passing Mom, who gives him a pat on the shoulder--cold fingers brushing his neck--as he goes by. Dean follows, Crash close at his side, eyes white and tail thrashing nervously. Dad's shut down; he's letting nothing into the ambient, and Sam wonders if he'll ever have that kind of control. Mom's nervous, but not scared; *solid Dad, tough Rock, protective Mom* she sends, full of reassurance. Mom and Dad and Frost and Rock can take care of anything.

"This thing's behind us," says Dad, nodding uphill, at their tracks, darker grey against the snow, disappearing into the trees. "Your mother will follow you, I'll hang back, see if I can get a shot at it. You two head straight for the shelter, don't stop."

"Dad--" starts Dean, already protesting; but *DeanandSamandCrash going* sends Dad. *DeanandCrash protecting Sammy.* *Worry* is there, too, and that scares Sam more than anything else. Nothing worries John Winchester: he's solid and consistent and reliable as the earth itself. His horse is a mean bastard, but John Winchester's an easy-going man, so long as you don't cross him. *Worried* is not something he's ever been, that Sam can recall.

"We're going," Sam says, tugging on Dean's sleeve.

They don't make it to the shelter.

Past the switchback, on the downhill side, the snow's just as wet but less deep, and they're moving faster, Sam slipping along behind Dean, looking backwards when he can. He can't see anything up there, just Mom, coming around the curve about a hundred yards behind them. She walks cautiously, head moving as she checks one side and the next, rifle barrel swinging easily.

"There it is," grunts Dean, meaning the shelter, and Sam turns his head forward--as the ambient explodes. *Mary Frost run* he hears, *blood*, and *hunger*--and that last is not his Dad.

There's three gunshots, one on top of another, the booming roar of Dad's rifle smashing against the cliff. Dad's *terrified* and there's *blood*, Rock is *hurt* and *something is coming*--

"Mom--" Dean's already spinning around, leaping onto Crash's back, the both of them leaping forward. They drive up the hill, snow flying. Ignoring Dad's express orders.

Mom stops, pulling the rifle up, but Frost wants to *run*, and she jostles her as something comes out of the air--not from the road, but out of the trees, launched from head-height on a rider, and Mom falls. Goes down under it, the rifle firing.

*Mom* sends Dean, Frost is *fighting* but it's huge and *black* and there's *blood* and Dean is still seventy yards away. *Mom!*

Sam screams as he runs, floundering behind Dean and Crash up the slope that seemed so shallow coming down. The snow ahead is red, everything is *red*, Frost is sending *blood Mary rage* and there's a roaring in his ears. "Mom!" he howls.

He's sobbing when Crash cannons back into him, Dean on his back. "Sammy, run!"

Sam looks past Dean, past Crash, past the red stains on the snow, to see the mountain falling.

 

***

 

The coffee was Dean's usual brew: dangerously strong, dark as the night had been. Sam grimaced but swallowed it down; after sitting up half the night keeping watch--not to mention the dreams--he needed the coffee to get him moving. He hadn't missed this part of life on the trail, the way you never let your guard down. He dug a boot into the dirt, eyed the sky and hills around them suspiciously before returning to his coffee. They were on the tail-end of autumn, and so far the weather was good, but storms could race down from the mountains with no warning this late in the year. They'd be lucky to get out of this without snow, much less rain.

Dean, chewing on a biscuit, tossed a strip of bacon to Crash, who snapped it out of the air.

"You're overfeeding him, you know that, don't you?"

Dean looked up from the frying pan, another strip of bacon dangling from the fork. "Huh?" Beside him, Crash nudged at Dean's elbow, throwing his head up when Dean elbowed back at the nighthorse.

Sam sighed and carefully formed an image in his head: *Crash fat, Crash with fat rolls on his neck and legs, fat Crash stuck in the snow with only his ears sticking out*

Crash snorted. *Cowpats. Sam with cowpats on head* The nighthorse nudged at Dean's elbow again, and Dean flicked the fork to the side, so the bacon flew across the clearing in a high arc.

Crash dove after it like a--like an avalanche, Sam thought, a blur of big, fast-moving nighthorse, all scrambling legs and shining black hide. *Bacon*, thought Crash, and the ambient was flooded with the smell of fried pork and the queer wideset vision of nighthorses as Crash tracked the falling slice. Sam staggered and almost fell, caught up beside himself in the sending.

*Bacon*, the horse thought again, as his jaws closed on the treat.

*Fat horse*, Sam thought.

"Hey!"

"He is." Crash came dancing back, ears pricked and full of himself. *Smart horse, clever horse, fast horse. Slow Sam. Slow Sam with cowpats.*

"Don't pay any attention to him, Crash, he doesn't understand." Crash buried his nose in Dean's armpit.

*Dean giving bacon*, was Crash's thought. *Sam giving bacon. SamandDeanandCrashandbacon. Sam giving bacon.*

Sam rubbed at his face. "He really hasn't changed, has he?"

 

***

 

Despite Sam's misgivings, the weather looked like it would continue to hold; it was chilly but mostly clear, the blue sky tarnished only by wisps of cloud, when Dean kicked the ashes of the fire apart and swung himself up onto Crash's back. *SamandDeanandCrash* sent Crash happily, and Sam couldn't help but pick up on the nighthorse's good mood.

Sam walked on the verge of the road to avoid the rutted tracks left by convoys loaded with grain, wool, and foodstuffs headed for Brin, and then returned to Sagan with equipment, chemicals, and books. He swung along easily this morning, his blisters cushioned by soft pads from Dean's kit, the sun even warming his shoulders somewhat. Ahead, Crash's tail flicked back and forth in time with his rolling stride, Dean swaying easily with him, rifle balanced across his lap.

If this were what rider life was like--but it wasn't.

It was cold and hunger, fear in the ambient and roiling your stomach when out on the trail, and dark days in the barracks alone with semi-strangers, trying to stay out from underfoot. Suspicious villagers and hard-faced preachers who turned aside from a skinny riders' son on the street. Being left alone for days, or with a brother resentful of babysitting duty while Dad went out, again and again.

And always, always, it was hard, angry *grief*, like a heavy coat over everything, blotting out the sun and the warmth. Loss that spilled out into anger, heated confrontations in quarters that upset the horses and pissed off other riders. Bobby Singer, camp-boss up in Curie, had chased them out of the barracks with a shotgun at least once.

A shadow blocked the sun. "Damn it, Sammy, cut it out!"

Sam jumped; Dean and Crash were just a few feet in front of him, Crash bouncing on his toes, sending *anxiety* and *falling rocks*. Dean swatted Sam's hat off.

*Calm water, green grass* sent Dean, to Crash and to Sam. *Calm water*

You couldn't get lost in your thoughts, not with nighthorses around; it was more than stupid, it was dangerous. Sam gritted his teeth and swallowed back the anger, and the memories. *Green grass in the sun,* he pictured.

When Dean swung Crash around again to lead the way, the ambient was calm again, but Sam heard him over the hiss of Crash's tail. "It wasn't that bad."

Not for him, maybe.

The day wore on toward noon, and slowly Dean and Crash drew ahead. Crash had an easy stride, but Sam just wasn't as fast as a nighthorse, especially not these days. He was out of condition, living safe inside town walls. Twice, Dean stopped and waited for Sam as Crash rolled on the autumn-dry grass. The second time, Sam took out the last of the sandwiches Jess had made, and shared it with Dean, savoring the cheese and meat although the bread was stale and crumbling.

"Ready? Just another few k," said Dean, rolling to his feet with a smooth grace Sam wouldn't let himself envy. The ambient was quiet, the local vermin held at bay by Crash's presence. Also, this was a commonly-traveled road; it was possible doowallies and other spooks kept their distance.

Sam watched the hills around them as he walked, their autumn-brown grass dotted with darker brush and trees. In the spring, riders would escort parties into these hills to scout for herbs and such, but mostly this land was left empty. It was too far from the towns to be safely farmed, and there were no ores or rich stands of trees to be exploited. Riders hunted here sometimes, and sold skins to tanners--Sam's coat was goblin-cat, warmer than cow-leather--but only in the winter, when there was no convoy-work to be had.

Ahead, the road had curved, and Dean and Crash were out of sight. Sam quickened his steps: it wasn't safe to let them get too far ahead.

Jess didn't like his coat much, wanted him to have something more "appropriate", she said, for church on Sundays and dinner with her father. She was sure he was going to take over for Frank Moore when the old librarian retired, and when he did, Sam would have to dress like a respectable townsman, husband and--

Sam came around the curve and found himself in the middle of a copse of trees, their leaves red and yellow on the edges. The road was nowhere in sight. How had he come here?

*Sam*

That was a voice he knew, but it wasn't Dean's. Something flickered, a glimpse of white in the woods, between two trees, a fall of blonde hair. "Jess?"

He shook his head. It couldn't... he knew it wasn't. Jess was in Sagan, safe at home. But it sounded like her, calling for him from the work-room when she needed help moving the loom. *Sam!* He followed her, feet crunching on fallen leaves, dying grass. She moved away from him, slipping behind trees as he followed, drawing away until he found himself in a small clearing, barely the size of his bedroom in Sagan.

And then Jess was gone; the confusion dropped away like a window opening. Jess wasn't there, couldn't be there. He'd been tricked, teased off the road and into the bush by spooks sending visions, tricking his feet and his mind until Dean and Crash were too far away to save him. A wave of *hunger* hit him, flooding his mouth with saliva. Sam staggered. The wood spun around him, his vision splintering into a dozen glimpses of tree-man-tree-man-creature, as though he'd been yanked out of his own head and spread among the dying brush and withered leaves. Sendings, dozens of sendings: he had to be surrounded by spooks.

"Sammy!" Dean's voice, in the distance--unless it wasn't, the way that first voice couldn't be Jess. There was a rustle in the shrubs, muffled hissing; the vermin were right there, ready to attack.

Humans caught out by vermin, without nighthorses around--they died. Sometimes they went mad, first. Humans weren't meant to be here, said the preachers. You had to stay inside walls to be safe, to be untouched.

Dad said--what had Dad said to do?

Stay with the horses, you hear me, son? Stay with Rock and Crash. No matter what.

"Little late for that, Dad." He said that out loud?

Sam was out of range of the horses, couldn't see the road. Where was Dad--no, Dad was gone, where were Crash and Dean? Fumbling the gun out of its holster, he pushed his way into the brush, trying to find his way downhill. Tripped, and then again, the fractured vision from the spooks catching his feet in roots he hadn't seen, walking him into trees that had been three feet to the left.

He was going to die out here. The fear rose up, fighting with the *hunger* that still pounded at him, the noise of dozens of minds, as the vermin gathered closer.

The pistol was sweaty in his hand. He couldn't hope to shoot them all, but he could try.

Stupid, stupid.

He found himself angry, suddenly, his mind clearing with a wash of rage. Angry at himself, for a junior's mistake, falling out of range of Crash's protection, following the sendings off the trail. Angry at the vermin, for using Jess' image against him--as though they were thinking creatures, as though they could touch her.

They wouldn't touch her; he wouldn't let them.

He slammed doors in his mind, locking her face away. Ignoring all those years of training, to keep his mind locked down, emotions controlled, he instead let his anger rise, thinking only of *guns* and *blood* and *death*. Pictured a goblin-cat eviscerated by Rock, when it had tried to attack a winter-camp of loggers. Knowing that without a nighthorse to broadcast for him, it was meaningless effort. No human could hold out for long in the open, not against numbers. It was too easy to get lost, to lose yourself in the madness. Everyone knew the stories.

But he let the rage fill him anyway, as he cocked the weapon and fired a shot into the bushes, at the invisible enemy. *Sam killing vermin*, he sent, felt it echo in the ambient.

The roar of the gunshot filled the air, echoed in the trees and bounced off the hillside. Sam braced himself against a sapling, feeling it flex behind him as he waited for the vermin--doowallies, lorrieloos, maybe even a goblin-cat--to attack. He crouched against the tree, bark catching against the bedroll on his back, breathing hard. The pistol was heavy in his hand as he waited. And waited. His breath puffed white into the air.

Nothing happened.

A leaf dropped from above and fell slowly, zig-zagging from left to right, catching once on the end of a branch, tilting over sideways and continuing its slow descent to earth. In all that time, the only thing Sam heard was the wind overhead, rustling thin leaves against each other. He felt only anger and fear, and the echoes of the gunshot had completely died away when he realized that the only voice in his head was his own.

The vermin were gone.

"Sammy!" Dean's voice, not in his head, and closer than before, down the slope Sam had been following. He pushed away from the tree and followed his brother's voice, shaking and stumbling.

*AngryCrash*

"Dean!" Sam shouted, and pushed through one last screen of brush to trip over rutted tracks on the edge of the road. "I'm here!"

*Relief* flooded the ambient, and Sam couldn't tell if it was from him or Dean, but to his face, Dean was simply angry.

"What the hell, Sammy! Are you trying to get yourself killed?" It would have been a more convincing performance if Dean hadn't let slip, *Don't wanna tell Dad I lost Sammy too--*

Crash wasn't nearly as conflicted; he snorted slime over the front of Sam's coat, threatened *Crash stomp* against the vermin that had scared Sam, and then began nudging Sam forward with his nose. *CrashandSamandDean*, he sent.

"I was--" Sam stopped, breathing hard. His mind was still spinning, still scared, which was unsettling Crash. He pulled himself together, closed his eyes, thinking *calm, green grass*. Locking down again, forcing it all back. "I got lost, I'm okay."

"Fuck," Dean said. *Still water.* "I--let's just get moving. We can still make Brin gates by sunset."

"Right," said Sam, and settled the pack on his shoulders for a fast push to shelter.

 

****

 

Brin didn't have a riders' camp, just a one-kilometer-wide circle of land around the town walls spotted with stinking piles of chemical waste. No need for nighthorses when no vermin would come within range of the town, the way the earth itself was poisoned. Some of the more toxic dumps were fenced or signed, but most weren't; smart folks stuck to the roads going in and out of Brin.

Dean didn't much like Brin-town, anyway: the ambient was empty there, and the lack of a camp or other rider-related amenities made it unfriendly. But Crash was happy enough so long as he got his bacon. When they'd settled, Sam and Dean left him in the den for visiting riders near the town gates and walked the stone streets into the business district.

It was just another town, with shops and offices, homes and markets--but Dean could feel his back tightening, the farther they got from Crash. Dean wasn't a lowland rider, he rode the High Wild, and there a rider rarely moved more than a hundred yards from his mount. You relied on the ambient for communication and protection--it warned you when someone was lying, when something was coming. Strolling down this market street as bakers closed their shops, without a nighthorse in range, was like walking naked and unarmed. Not that Dean was going to let on, the way Sammy looked so comfortable.

When Sam had come down from the mountains to Sagan, he must have been nervous, but he'd never had a nighthorse of his own, he'd not relied on his mount the way Dean did on Crash. And after his stupid stunt this afternoon, it was obvious he was a long way from being ready to handle the wild on his own.

"This the place?" Sam asked, as they came to a stop outside a formidable building, all black stone and a glossy wooden door. Merrill and Sons Banking, it said in block letters carved deep above the doorway.

"Yeah," said Dean, but didn't move. He hated places like this, even more than he hated towns without nighthorses.

"All right," Sam said, after a moment, and pushed on the door. Dean followed him in, into a large, dimly-lit room with a floor the same glossy black stone as the outside. A large desk faced the door, attended by a trim girl in a red jacket. Her hair was bundled in a complicated way on the top of her head.

"Can I help you, sir?" she asked, as Sam approached.

Sam smiled earnestly. "Yes, does John Winchester have an account here?"

A brief smile from the girl, patronizing. "I'm afraid we don't give out--"

"The other name on the account is mine," interrupted Dean. "Dean Winchester. Dad opened the account seven years ago, put my name on it three years back." He ignored the look Sam gave him, and handed her the passbook Dad had insisted he carry, not that Dean ever looked at it. Money wasn't much use except when they were wintering-over or needed supplies, not that they had much to spare; but Dad had always saved what he could. Few riders had more savings than would see them through a winter: their pay for contracts covered food, ammunition, and sometimes a new coat. And only town riders owned more than they could carry slung across a nighthorse's back.

"Dean Winchester," the woman repeated, and opened a large ledger bound in black. "Yes," she said finally; but her brow creased, and she turned several more pages, tracing her finger across an entry. "Please wait a moment." She got up and went to one of the other desks, returning after a few minutes' conversation with an older man in a dark suit.

"Mister Winchester," the woman said. "I am afraid there has been a change in the status of your account."

An ugly feeling settled in Dean's stomach. "What? You got our money, we gave it to you last year. It's still there, right?"

"Yes, it's still there," she reassured him. "It's just that ... well, John Winchester took his name off the account. He put all the funds here in your name."

 

***

 

"I don't get it, Sammy!"

Sam had wanted to get a sit-down dinner; Dean had wanted to get back to Crash. They'd compromised with a stop at a butcher for a couple of steaks, and talking the bartender at The Green Cob into selling them a bottle of whiskey. So now the steaks were sizzling over the stove in the riders' hostel, while Dean threw back another shot of the whiskey. The hostel was empty but for them, sparsely equipped with castoff furniture and chipped plateware--and for all that, still better supplied than most shelters in the mountains. Dean didn't seem to mind the place, although Sam had scrubbed the frying pan twice before he was willing to use it. Crash didn't care, either: he was happily absorbed in a mash of grain, chopped carrots, and ham, in the den at the end of the building. Not far enough away to give Sam any privacy, though.

"I don't either," Sam said. The only explanation he could think of was that Dad thought he was going to die, and he buried that thought fast in *steaks smell good*, going to *give Crash water*, to which Dean gave a skeptical snort. Sam was out of the habit of hiding things from anyone, much less his brother.

He lingered in the den, scratching Crash behind the ear. The horse was in good condition, despite what Sam had said earlier: strong and glossy, teeth and claws sharp and even. Dean took good care of him. *Crash protect Dean,* corrected Crash, sleepily. *SamandDeanandCrash.*

Sam grinned and turned back to the bunkroom, and then stopped at a disturbance at the outside door. *Horses,* sent Crash, ears perking, and turned his head to see who was coming in.

Two women entered, followed by their horses: a big mare, nearly as tall as Crash, and a lighter-colored filly behind her, with a long glossy mane. "Hey," said the first woman, who looked vaguely familiar. She pulled off her gloves and stuffed them in her belt. "There room?" Her mare stuck her head over the woman's shoulder and snorted at Crash. *Bacon?*

"Sure," said Sam, stepping out of Crash's den and out of the way. "Plenty of beds. This is Crash," he said, and flushed when the woman replied dryly, "I know. And since that's Crash, I figure you must be Sam, since you're sure as hell not Dean."

"Ellen!" said Dean, from behind Sam. "Long time." When the younger of the two woman folded her arms across her chest and raised her chin at him, Dean nodded to her with a patently insincere smile. "Hey, Jo."

"Hey, Dean," said Jo, equally awkwardly. She was young, maybe Sam's age, and pretty, with a long blonde braid. She turned to Sam and gave him a bright smile, startling by contrast. "I'm Jo," she said, "and these are Grey and Whiskey."

The two mares were settling into the den, snuffling at Crash and scratching at the bedding the way Sam remembered Frost doing when he was a kid. The mares and Crash were apparently aquainted, if not quite friendly: the ambient was mellow with *food* and *itchy spot*.

"Whiskey?" Sam repeated, in some surprise. Without even thinking about it, he leaned over to scratch Crash behind the ear.

*Brown water over stones* was the image he got in response from Ellen. "Looked like Whiskey to me," she said with a shrug. "Speaking of which--"

"We've got a bottle," said Dean. "Happy to share." Standard in shelters on the trail, to share supplies.

"Thanks," Ellen said, slinging her bags over her shoulder. "Been on the road all day, I'm not in the mood to deal with townsmen. No offense, Sam," she added, as she squeezed past him into the barracks doorway.

"None taken," said Sam, blinking, and followed her in.

Ellen made great biscuits, it turned out, and even made enough to share. "That was great," said Dean, picking at a bit of gristle in his teeth. "Dad can't make biscuits for shit."

"Learned that," said Ellen. "I came down from Lamarcke with him last month, and damned if that man didn't get by on nothing but beans and bacon."

"Last month?" Sam sat up, leaning forward in the battered old armchair the Brin city council felt appropriate furniture for the riders' hostel. "You saw Dad last month?"

"Uh-huh, we escorted the last timber convoy down to Sagan." Ellen paused, bottle suspended over her glass. "Why?" She looked from Sam to Dean, brown eyes sharpening.

Dean tossed a brick of coal into the stove and closed the door with a clang. "He's missing. Was supposed to meet me three weeks ago, hasn't shown up."

"He never came to Sagan," said Jo, with a glance at Ellen, who had turned out to be her mother. "I'd have heard."

Sam was sure of that: Dad and Rock had a habit of unsettling the ambient. If he'd come to Sagan, Sam would have heard about it.

"Well, I don't know where he is now, but Bobby Singer might know." Ellen finished pouring, leaned over to give Dean and Sam each another two fingers. When Jo pointedly tilted her glass, Ellen gave her a single finger, and capped the bottle.

"Bobby was in Lamarcke stocking up," she went on. "John talked to Bobby just before we left camp that last day, and after that there was no dealing with the man, somewhere he had to be. But we committed to that convoy, couldn't just leave them--there weren't any free riders in camp, and Franklin had to get those trucks down. So John came, stayed with it until we hit the bottom of the grade, and then he just disappeared. Forfeited half his pay, and I'll put a month's worth of feed on it that Franklin never takes him on again."

Dean had locked down: even with three horses a few rooms away, Sam couldn't feel anything in the ambient from his brother. "What did Bobby say to him?" Dean asked, not looking up from his whiskey.

"Damned if I know," said Ellen, and tossed back her shot. "But we all know it had to be something about that rogue, that's all your father cares about." *John Winchester on his big black stud, riding into the trees under a bright blue autumn sky* "But he never let on where he was going. Sorry, boys. I'd help if I could--if I hear anything, I'll be sure to let you know." With a weary sigh, she picked up her saddlebags and crossed to the door to the bunkrooms. "C'mon, Jo, we need to hit the road early."

Jo shrugged at both Winchesters as she followed her mother. "We're wintering-over in Sagan," she said, very obviously not looking at Dean. "If, you know..."

"Joanna Beth!" Ellen snapped from the other room, and Jo rolled her eyes before disappearing through the doorway.

"See ya," offered Sam as the door closed behind them. "She likes you," he pointed out with unnecessary earnestness to his brother, who muttered something foul and poured another glass of whiskey. Sam grinned; teasing Dean about girls was always fun, since Dean had complicated rules about which girls he would sleep with and which were better avoided; Jo seemed to be in the "avoid" category. Given all the teasing Dean had subjected him to as a kid, Sam felt it was his fraternal duty to pay Dean back at every opportunity.

Dean glared. *Sam falling in the latrine*

*Dean with cowpats on head* sent Sam back, and grinning, reached for the bottle.

 

***

 

Dean tried to telephone Bobby from Brin, but the first storm had come in and the lines were down--probably wouldn't be back up until spring. There was nothing for it but to go home; Sam wasn't about to head up to Lamarcke, four days' ride in good weather, just to question Bobby Singer, who had probably already gone back up to Curie anyway. They had no idea where Dad was, no word on where to even start looking. Questioning their usual suppliers in Brin only revealed that Dad had been here, a month ago, and then left town. Nobody recalled which direction he was heading, nor had anyone asked.

Sagan's gates were locked when they got back, long past dark. They started late because Dean wanted to load up on supplies--ammunition was cheaper in Brin than Sagan--and camped cold in a dell off the road. On the second day, they pushed through past sunset, risking it in open ground, reckoning Crash was strong enough to protect them. Also, the weather was turning: even Sam could smell it in the wind, that sharp edge of something, maybe even snow, coming down from the mountain. They didn't want to get caught out in it.

They stuck close together and the ambient was quiet nearly all the way; it was only as they neared Sagan that Sam began to pick up disturbances.

"Something out there?" he suggested softly to Dean on one of their breaks. Crash bolted back the dried meat Dean tossed him, his ears twitching. He'd been nervous for the last hour, but sending nothing more than *wind-tossed branches, shadows in grass*. Useless.

Dean drained his canteen and hooked it back on his pack. "Dunno," he said, and stood, stretching. He moved easily, as if unconcerned, but he kept his rifle near at hand, and when he swung up onto Crash, he tossed Sam the shotgun first, and then an extra packet of shells.

Sam caught them in the air despite the darkness and dropped the shells into his pocket. His legs felt leaden and heavy: he wasn't used to the long hikes anymore, but it didn't matter. He was nearly home.

The ambient got jumpier, though, and it wasn't just Crash. Something coming from Sagan, Sam realized, as they crested the ridge above the river. Cross the ford, and it was just a kilometer up the valley to the town, tucked into the protection of the hillside. *Shadows* sent Crash, and skittered sideways down the trail, Dean thumping his shoulders irritably. *Wind, shadows*; and it was echoed faintly, at a distance.

"Shit," said Sam. "So far out?"

Dean just grunted, and settled his weight further over Crash's shoulders. *Sam running*, he sent, and they ran. It was dark, but two moons were up, giving enough light to see the track, if not much more until they were close to the walls.

The ambient got more clouded, more confused, more *scared*, as they got closer, but they were at the gates themselves before Sam could hear the uproar with his ears. Flashes of *darkness, shadows* everywhere in the ambient; *something moving, shadows*. They had to hammer on the gates for at least half a minute before someone came to open them, holding a lamp high to shine on their faces. It was Nita Patterson, thankfully, and she'd known both of them since before they could walk. Crash was jittery, reached a long neck out and snapped at Nita; Dean slapped his nose.

"What is it?" Sam gasped as they slipped through, trying to shut it out, but it was like trying to close a door in the face of a easterly on the mountain; couldn't be done. *Shadows, fear*, and now Crash was broadcasting it too, sending it on, making Sam and Dean jumpy. It was overriding his exhaustion-dulled nerves, making him clutch at the shotgun, his hands sweaty.

"Don't know," Nita said, her eyes wide. "Nothing I've heard before, nor Sparkles." Despite the hour, the yard was full of activity, at least a dozen horses and riders moving about, men talking on the steps of the bunkhouse.

*Calm*, thought Sam, and picked it up from Dean as well: *still water*, trying to calm Crash. They didn't need to add to the strain in the ambient. Crash didn't exactly settle, but he stopped dancing quite so much, and his tail's whipping eased into a steady back and forth beat, slapping against Dean's coat on each count.

"Dean--" said Sam, as they approached the dens. "I gotta go, Jess will be worried."

Dean's shoulders hunched under the sheepskin coat; Sam couldn't see his face. "Yeah."

Fuck. Sam grimaced; at some point in the last five years either Dean had become far more open than Sam remembered, or--more likely--Sam had figured out how to read his older brother's emotions much more reliably. "When you get Crash settled," Sam offered, carefully not looking at Dean, "why don't you come over? Get you something to eat that isn't charred over a fire..."

Come on, he thought. Just because they hadn't found Dad--just because Dad had taken off on Dean, following some twisty path only his mind could fathom--didn't mean they couldn't do this. He wondered if this was the only way Dean could have come to him, using Dad as a blind, hiding how much it mattered that Sam help him.

Sam was eighteen when he left them, too old to be walking, still. He'd given up on a horse of his own after Mom died, and between the nightmares and Dad's fixated intransigence, he'd thought there was nothing to keep him out there. Whatever it was that killed Mom was gone, and Sam wasn't spending the rest of his life living out of a pack and eating burned bacon around a guttering fire, wearing through his boots every season. He hadn't thought too much about his brother, channeling all his resentment into anger at his father, letting that drive him down out of the mountains.

"Dean?" Sam let a little bit of his regret for that shade his voice. "Jess is a great cook, you know, she'll love to have you." Now that she knows who you are, he amended wryly. *Warm fire, soup and coffee, Jess laughing* he sent.

Dean rested a hand on Crash's neck, shrugging. "Yeah, okay," he said, letting nothing into the ambient. He took the shotgun from Sam without another word.

*Bacon?* sent Crash hopefully.

Sam laughed and struck out across the yard, nodding at the riders he knew, trying not to let the tension in the ambient get to him. Just wind-devils, and maybe a filly over-reacting, her rider not there to cool her down, spreading the upset in the night air.

It was better on the other side of the gate; Sagan's streets were quiet at this hour, the noise and upset of the riders' yard dying away behind him as Sam walked. There were lights behind windows, giving just enough light to walk by. It was cool enough most shutters were closed and the tapping of his bootheels on cobblestone echoed off the adobe and wood walls of the shops and houses. He cut through the market square, empty at this hour but for some trash leftover from the end-of-week shopping, the wind sending scraps of paper and a broken wicker basket skittering across the ground.

He could still hear the disquiet in the ambient; it didn't die away the way he expected it to as he left the yard behind. It should have died away, though: they were too far from the horses. Something was wrong. And there was something particular in the ambient, now; something familiar. Something that made him cold. *Hunger* came through, *dark pines, swaying*. This wasn't like the vermin on the road to Brin; this was something else. Sam swallowed hard, suddenly tasting bile.

*Blood on snow*

Stronger, now. Not from the horses; whatever this was, it wasn't the nighthorses a quarter of a mile away in the yard.

*Hunger*

It was inside the walls.

Jess. Sam ran. *Dean!* he tried to send, but suddenly it was everywhere, filling his mind: *hunger, blood on snow, taste of fear*.

He was two turnings from the house they rented from Gallivan, tucked into a dead end with a small garden on the side. Sam sprinted, not stopping to drop his pack, the exhaustion fallen away in the desperate need to get to Jess. There wasn't even a handgun in the house: Sam had taken away his knives and his gun and she had nothing to defend herself with. This was Sagan; it was safe. That was the point.

She screamed: Sam heard it, knew it was her. *Blood* was in the ambient, and people began to cry out, but few doors opened. Somewhere a bell rang, and Sam turned the last corner, rebounding off Gallivan's fence and into the court.

Something dark was hunched in the lane: dark, big, heavy shoulders and a shape that matched nothing Sam could name. As Sam lunged forward, scrabbling for the weapon on his hip, it whirled--so fast!--snarling; in the light from his own open front door he saw blood spray and spatter as it moved, drops marking the dusty lane. Sam couldn't fire at it: because when it moved, he saw what it had hidden, another form, pale hair and pale nightclothes and dark blotches staining it and the ground. The creature sprang towards him, moving too fast for the light to cling to it, it seemed. *Hungerwantneed*

Sam fired, and again. The first round hit; he saw it flinch. And then it was moving, even faster, leaping to the eaves of Gallivan's house, up over the rooftree, and gone.

There were shouts and alarms. Sam dropped the gun and staggered forward.

"Oh, god, Jess. No. No!"

If there was anything in the ambient besides *blood* and *grief*, he couldn't hear it.

 

***

 

She didn't linger. Mrs. Gallivan said it was for the best, she was in so much pain, whimpering as Doctor Bowan bandaged her up as best he could. Sam's hands, still bloody, went numb almost at once as he clutched hers, but Jess didn't see him; she couldn't see anything past the pain.

Just before dawn, when Doctor Bowan had long since shaken his head and gone into the other room, there was a commotion at the door, footsteps and men's voices. "Back off!" came Dean's voice, raised and angry, and Sam turned his head to look at the door. That was as long as it took: when Sam looked back at Jess, she was gone.

The animal hadn't touched her face. When they'd laid her in the bed, knowing she would never leave it, they had cleaned her face; now, with the covers drawn up to her neck and her face relaxed at last, she could be sleeping. Sam untangled his hand from hers and touched her face. Her skin felt cold already. She'd lost so much blood, Bowan had said. Nothing he could do. There was blood in her hair, awful clots of it.

Things went a little fuzzy then. Dean was there, hands under his arms, pulling Sam upright. "Aw, hell, Sammy, no," Dean's voice muttering in his ear, Dean's body warm at his back like all those nights in shelters from Curie to Hawking.

"Jess--" Sam croaked, but Mrs. Gallivan was pulling the blanket up to cover her and Dean was towing him out of the room. The bedroom smelled of blood and astringent: the front room of men, sweat, horses and leather.

Dean pushed him down into a chair and pried his fingers apart enough to take a mug. "Drink," Dean ordered, and Sam did. It was the bottle Jess had bought last year, the whiskey they rarely touched. It went down raw and rushed, clearing his head.

There were other people in the room--Gallivan, Chowkowski, Yin: townsmen all, in cloth coats and sober expressions. Yin was the sheriff, Chowkowski was on the town council. But by the door, hat in her hands, was Canthy Pirelli, and she was camp-boss for Sagan-town, responsible for riders' affairs, nighthorse law. She looked stiff and uncomfortable here in the center of town, so far separated from the ambient.

"Winchester," Yin said, and Dean looked around, but it was Sam he was talking to. "We're sorry, son, but we can't wait any longer. We have to ask--did you see what did this?"

Yeah, Sam realized dully, of course they'd be worried. Something came into town and--he clenched his hand around the mug, not looking at Dean. Fear bloomed again, remembered horror on top of fresh grief. But before Dean could start blustering protectively, angering the men and women who did have a right to question, Sam spoke, forcing the words out.

"I saw, sir, but--"

"What did you see?" That was Pirelli, by the door, the shoulders of her leather coat appaloosa-spotted as if she'd just come in from the rain.

Frowning, Sam looked away, at the window reflecting back at him. "It was dark, and it was all so fast. Nothing I recognized." It had looked at him. *hunger, blood on snow, taste of fear*

"Well, how big was it?" said Gallivan, trying to be helpful. "Coulda been a goblin-cat?"

Pirelli shifted her weight, her skeptical eyes flickering across the room. Sam didn't want to contradict his landlord--but Dean didn't have to worry about that. "Ain't been no goblin-cats in Sagan since before my dad was born. Besides, horses know what goblin-cats smell like." Dean managed--barely--not to sound too patronizing.

Gallivan flushed regardless, but stilled at a motion from Yin. "You saw it go, though, son? Which way?"

"Up onto the roof. It was fast. Faster than anything." The room felt close, suddenly; Sam gulped at the whiskey and then coughed as it burned his throat. "Are we... can I--" *hunger, blood on snow, taste of fear*

"You folks done?" Dean's voice was softly belligerent, his feet planted on the unfinished wood boards like he was grown there. "We've got things to do here now."

Yin stared at Dean, face calm but one hand caught casually in his belt. "All right," he said at last, nodding. "We've got enough to go on. But I'll want to talk to you both again, after--" he hesitated, glancing at the closed bedroom door. "After." Sam figured that was as good a distinction as any: there was before and there was after. Used to be before meant before Mom died, before Sam came to Sagan. Now the divider had moved; phases of his life marked in bloody loss.

The men filed out slowly, followed by Pirelli. She paused on the threshold, the grey in her hair picked out by the dawn light in the doorway. "Winchester," she said finally, brusquely, with a nod, and went away. The house was finally quiet, the only sound that of Mrs. Gallivan moving around in the bedroom. Making things ready.

Sam was pretty sure now was the time he was supposed to break down. Instead he looked down at the mug, and kept looking at it as Dean poured another shot of whiskey into it. "Thanks," Sam whispered.

A hand closed onto his shoulder; Dean dropped to a squat next to him. "Sammy, I--" and then Dean's face twisted and he looked away. Wasn't much to be said, really.

No, wait. That was wrong. There was something. "Dean," Sam said. Breathed out. Breathed in. He could keep doing that, he thought, if he concentrated on it. He made himself think about Jess in the yard, blood soaking her nightdress, splattered in the dust. That was better: rage made his head clearer. He tossed back the last of the whiskey.

"I know what it was." I lied to the sheriff and the lead rider. I could tell, I knew right away.

Dean's hand tightened; when Sam glanced sideways he saw Dean's face had gone still, green eyes hard. He knew, too.

But Sam said it anyway. "It's the same thing that killed Mom."