Disclaimer: Everything relating to the world of Velgarth, and the kingdom of Valdemar, is the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey. Original characters, the plot line and the general outbreaks of strange belong to etcetera-cat.
Notes: Alternatively, this story could be titled A Non-Reflected Graphical Representation of a Conic Section in Perceivable Four Dimensional Space-Time. But that’s not really as snappy, is it?
Complete dry pet food not available – Hallucinatory animals that have a thing about stalking – Do horses know semaphore? – When dyheli attack – Somewhere in the countryside – A novel use for chainmail
The random pharmaceutical experience had moved itself (and Michael) to the next level. Shortly after the giant killer (anything that big and carnivorous blatantly didn’t eat Eukanuba for breakfast) wolf and Mumble-sneeze had left, one of the men wearing the really convincing costumes showed up again and— by dint of much gesturing— got Michael to stand up and walk out of the glazed door that made up part of the exterior wall of the room.
Michael had done as the man had pantomimed, mainly because he had the strong belief that obeying the person with the sword was a good way to continue living. And now he was standing outside in what appeared to be some strange cross between a Victorian English kitchen garden and an abandoned hot house.
At least this was an improvement on hallucinating gruel. In fact; Michael had actually cautiously tasted some of said gruel and had come to the sad conclusion that his imagination completely bombed when it came to imagining tastes.
It’s pretty good at smells though, frowning faintly, Michael looked around the garden he was currently standing in. The man with the sword had thankfully disappeared as suddenly as he’d appeared, and the young American felt much more comfortable now that there was no longer someone with two and a half foot of sharp steel standing behind him. Even if this was all a dream.
Now what am I supposed to do?
The neatly trimmed looking border didn’t seem to have any answers. Nor did the velvet-like green lawn, or the fantastical looking woody creepers that were in the process of completely covering the brick walls of the garden.
Great. Just marvellous. Something awful is going to spring over a wall, or leap out from underground and probably beat me to death with my own chewed-off leg any moment now, Michael thought sourly, crossing his arms uncomfortably over his chest in a protective gesture. Or worse; there’ll be more gruel.
Any further wondering, and the opportunity to explore the closed in garden, was cut off by the appearance of— oh I don’t believe this!— the crazy white horse that had been harassing Michael before. The white horse, in fact, that had shown up at the very beginning of this whole thing, and seemed determined to stalk Michael until he woke up.
This time, it’d bought backup as well.
Michael froze and gained an uneasy expression. The stalker-horse was easy enough to spot; it had a large bruise right between its eyes, and Michael had a brief moment of pride that his pitching skills hadn’t completely atrophied. In addition, there were also two other white horses. Both of them were larger than the stalker-horse and Michael got the impression that they were older.
One of the horses was giving him an extremely jaundiced look. Michael wasn’t entirely sure how something like a horse managed to have a facial expression that said, quite so clearly, you really were the last in a long line of shitty things that I didn’t need happening today. Because that was crazy thinking, right? Horses— animals in general— didn’t have facial expressions like people did, right?
There is absolutely no need to go around anthropomorphising hallucinatory animals! Michael told himself fiercely.
The third horse just glowed like a really cheap special effect, circa 1974.
And there was a fourth animal. Michael groaned. Apparently his hallucinations were now spreading to encompass the fauna of the African sub-continent as well. It looked like some kind of gazelle. But taller. And like it’d taken a lot of steroids recently. And then fallen in a peroxide bath.
A large pair of angiotribes, myself and Ralph have an imminent appointment with each other, we really do.
Not surprisingly, the gazelle was staring at him too. Michael felt like he was in some bizarre parody of a zoo, where he was the exhibit.
Pissed off horse turned its attention to stalker-horse, who side-stepped and dipped its head. Special effects horse and steroid gazelle joined pissed off horse in focusing on stalker-horse.
Stalker-horse looked like it was pouting, in the same almost way that had Michael thinking that all four of the animals were having a conversation.
Stop anthropomorphising the animals, Michael!
Tightening his arms around his chest, Michael managed to produce a fairly good glare. Stalker horse moved towards him a few steps, caught sight of his expression and stopped.
It looked back over its shoulder at other two horses and the gazelle and sighed loudly. Flattening its ears, stalker horse began walking towards Michael again, picking its way across the short cropped grass with unnerving silence. Given the uncompromising expressions that the gazelle and the other two horses were sporting; not a surprising act.
Michael didn’t want the horse coming closer to him (who knew how many different ways it might injure him?) and he retreated a few steps, trainers crunching on the fine gravel that made up the path. “Don’t you dare—“ he said, more for his own reassurance than out of any believe that the damn creature would understand him.
And that’s the crazy talk again. Animals can’t understand language, remember? Standing in the middle of this garden, being stalked by a horse (and its friends), it was surprisingly hard to remember that fact.
Stalker-horse stopped just in front of Michael and looked at him. It had the strangest coloured blue eyes that he’d ever seen; not that he was exactly the expert on horses or anything.
Michael stared at it, and it stared back at him, then twitched one ear and twisted its head around to look uncertainly at the Three Stooges on the far side of the garden. Pissed off horse tossed its head and snorted loudly and, if Michael didn’t know better, he would have sworn that the gazelle was laughing.
Except that animals didn’t laugh. In the same way that they didn’t talk, act intelligent, understand language, or have proper facial expressions… right?
Stalker-horse laid its ears back and returned its attention to Michael. One ear flicked upright, then the second.
Do horses know semaphore?
Michael watched the horse warily, his arms still crossed defensively across his chest. He was still unprepared, however, for what it did next; which was to step forwards and quickly nudge his face with its nose.
Its wet, slimy nose.
“What the Hell?” Michael jumped backwards, pushing himself away from the crazy horse, before lashing out with one of his arms. Thankfully, the angle of his attack meant that he didn’t stick his hand into the horse’s mouth (and subsequently get it bitten off), but instead backhanded it across its nose.
“Ow!” Michael stumbled backwards and clutched at his abused (and stalker-horse abusing) right hand; who knew that a horse’s nose would be that bony?
Stalker-horse expressed a similar sentiment, leaping backwards and emitting a high-pitched squeal of pained surprise.
For a moment, Michael was mortally scared that the stupid creature would brain him with its hooves, but then the fear gave way to anger— what kind of self satisfying hallucination was this supposed to be? Taking in a deep breath, he shouted, “It’s your own bloody fault you slobbering great big pile of walking dog food!”
Stalker horse trumpeted and shook its head violently from side to side.
“Just being a horse does not make you a mustang; and especially not the kind of bloody Mustang that I want to be dreaming about!” Michael drew a breath, his head was beginning to ache in a strange fashion, “and don’t get me started about the piss poor excuse for food that whatever part of my subconscious that you’re supposed to be representing has lumbered me with!”
The strange ache seemed to have an audible component; a sort of not-quite-there buzzing filled his ears as the strange pressing sensation intensified. What was he shouting about? A bit of repetition seemed to be in order. “I was supposed to be assisting in a triple bypass—“
Michael didn’t even have time to register that he was losing consciousness before a split-second of migraine inducing visual disturbance joined in with the buzzing pressure and metamorphosed into solid blackness.
It was a miserable night; the wind was driving an unseasonably cold summer rainstorm over the hills and the air was chilly and damp. Guldin Takmenas, owner of The Black Sheep inn grumbled to himself as he stared out at the gloomy evening from the open kitchen door of his establishment.
The weather had closed in to the extent that he could hardly make out the mountainous landscape that predominated in northern Menmellith, except for when the occasional sheet of lightning flickered half-heartedly across the sky. As well as hiding the surrounding area from view, the foul weather had also drastically reduced the number of people that should be sitting in the Black Sheep’s main tap room.
Thunder growled damply around the hills and Guldin shoved the kitchen door shut with a muttered imprecation. It was going to be a slow night. The locals (The Black Sheep was built at one end of the village of Lower Reillin; a place that owed its existence entirely to the trade road that bisected it) were probably at home, wisely curled up in front of blazing fires, and there was little chance of any travellers being out and about still at this time.
Any sensible travellers— those that wanted to continuing existing in a capacity that included breathing and autonomous voluntary movement as options— would have consulted with a Weather Watcher before setting out along the trade road. Although the route provided a vital link between the capital city, Keyold, and the countries to the north, including Valdemar, it also passed through some of the most treacherous hill country that Menmellith had to offer.
As well as the bandits that said treacherous hill country had to offer.
The roving bandits were the reason that The Black Sheep wouldn’t be visited by any non sensible travellers.
Guldin nodded to his wife, the cook, who was sitting next to the banked fire, her feet up and a mug of something warm in one hand, and traipsed back through to the ‘public’ half of the inn. The tap room was completely deserted. Sighing, Guldin toed one of the rough wooden chairs that served as part of the mismatched furniture and slouched on it. It looked by being a very slow night—
Except that the innkeeper could hear the clattering sounds of a carriage drawing up in front of the stables that sprouted from the left side of the inn. Not only that; the sounds of several horses; nervous snorts and whinnies, and a commanding voice, that sounded female.
Guldin added all of that up in his head, and came up with an answer of daft highborn who wouldn’t know reason if it bit her on the tail, something that could also be quantified as money. Maybe tonight wasn’t going to be a complete washout.
“Seera!” Guldin levered himself to his feet and bellowed in the direction of the kitchen. “Git the fire stoked an’ some bread warmin’ in’t oven!”
Seera’s reply was muffled by the walls. It included the words ‘goat’ and ‘shut’, however.
“An’ stop drinkin’ all the mulled wine!” Guldin shouted back. Guldin and Seera’s marriage was full of… colour.
Any reply Seera may have made (possibly involving goats, but maybe not), was drowned out by the sudden clatter of the main door that led to the stable yard as it burst open and two figures swathed in rain-soaked clothing bundled through the door. The wind howled behind them, and Guldin could hear the unseen horses in the yard still kicking up a fuss. Maybe they’d run into a pack of wolves on the road and were still spooked, or something.
One of the cloaked and hooded figures— both of their faces were hidden— had on livery of some description; a fine looking black trimmed red jacket and Guldin did a hasty recalculation and up scaled the inn’s prices in his head. Anyone who had footmen and was out in this weather deserved to be fleeced. And wasn’t this sheep country, after all?
The figures stepped into the room— Guldin couldn’t help but notice that the one with the red jacket visible under its cloak was… not precisely limping… but was walking as if there was something wrong with one of its legs. Further speculation was stopped by the arrival in the doorway of two more figures. The shorter one just had to be the noble; her cloak hood was fur lined and—
Guldin froze, his eyes wide with surprise as the noble shrugged her cloak back from her shoulders, revealing what she was wearing underneath. Or rather, what she wasn’t wearing underneath, because what she was wearing was very little indeed. And it appeared to be made almost entirely of chainmail. The five percent of Guldin’s brain that wasn’t busy either heading southwards (in more than one way), or starting to get really bad feelings about this, noticed that the chainmail appeared to be gold washed.
That five percent also noticed the second, slightly taller figure standing behind the... very definitely a female… who must be some kind of servant. Certainly, her clothes (which actually existed in a meaningful fashion) were plain and non-descript and her face was entirely unremarkable and wouldn’t have looked amiss atop the shoulders of any common Menmellith peasant.
The woman in the… interesting… outfit swept her gaze around the deserted tap room, then fixed her attention on Guldin. Her eyes were a dark, almost black colour and her expression was several degrees below freezing. One perfect black eyebrow arched slightly as a slight smile tugged at the woman’s lips.
Guldin’s very bad feelings were getting stronger by the second.
“Uh… good evening…?” Guldin managed in a voice that cracked slightly on the last word. His attention was caught by the… man?... in the red jacket, who was hunkered down on the floor almost like an animal. Guldin could feel himself being watched and he swallowed nervously. With a somewhat sick feeling, the innkeeper suddenly noticed that the clothes worn by red-jacket, and the other one, were ill fitting and tattered; almost as if they’d been scavenged and then worn regardless of whether they fitted or not.
The tattered edges looked like claw marks, and there were faded rusty-brown stains around them.
“I think we will stay here for tonight—“ the shorter woman spoke, breaking the silence, and strode into the room to drape herself carelessly over one of the benches. “I am the Lady Enyivika,” the faint smirk flashed into existence once more, “—and I have a servant called Dupe.”
Guldin’s wide eyes flicked to the plain-clad woman who was still standing. She had a slightly blank and distracted expression on her face.
“You, however,” The woman in the chainmail leaned forwards with a faint jingling, “may call me Mistress. Call through whoever is in the kitchen.”
Guldin swallowed; his throat had gone dry with fear and he was trying to keep track of the four strangers in the room. The two hooded figures were now pacing around the perimeter of the room, making strange snuffling and clicking sounds. “There’s— ah— no-one here but me—“ Guldin faltered. Hopefully Seera would have the good sense to slip out the kitchen door and run to the town for the guard.
The woman— Enyivika, narrowed her eyes. “You are lying to me,” she said. “I don’t like it when people lie to me— get it—“ That last command was directed at the figure with the red jacket, who darted across the room and through the door to the kitchen.
There was silence for a moment, during which the peasant woman (the servant called Dupe?) took a seat, her attention still seemingly partly elsewhere, and then a high pitched scream rent the air.
“Seera!” Guldin started towards the kitchen, but froze when the second hooded figure appeared in front of him. He hadn’t even seen the thing move. It hissed at him and Guldin backed off a few steps. From this close up, he could see the lamplight reflecting in the creatures eyes. They weren’t human eyes.
A series of bumps and a dragging sound announced red-jacket’s return from the kitchen; Guldin’s wife apparently unconscious and being dragged feet first behind it.
Guldin stared in numb horror; whatever kind of fight Seera had put up had pulled off the creature’s cloak and he could see it clearly for the first time.
Slitted cat-eyes glared at Guldin from underneath a heavy, beetling brow and a chewed and tattered looking pair of rabbit ears; long incisor teeth, stained and caked with what could only be blood were visible as the creature hissed loudly at Guldin. A forked lizard-tongue tasted at the air briefly, and the hands that gripped Seera’s ankles hard enough to surely leave bruises were clawed and covered in dull grey and brown scales.
Without the anonymity of the cloak, it was obvious that the creature’s odd walking gait was due to its hind leg structure, which resembled that of a four-footed creature, not a human. The wolf-like feet visible beneath the torn-off ends of the leather breeches the creature approximately wore— claws scouring at the wooden floor as the creature shifted its weight from foot to foot— confirmed this.
The faint sound of chainmail moving and scraping along wood dragged Guldin’s attention back to the lady.
“Of course, when I said lady,” she said absently, toying with a small black knife that Guldin couldn’t figure where she’d produced it from, “what I actually meant was Adept mage…” the tinkling laugh that Enyivika produced chilled Guldin to the bone. “I think you can probably guess the rest… shall we have some fun?”
Guldin could hear the horses screaming outside.
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