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: Subjective description and objective description are two completely different things. This is— remarkably— relevant.
A state of hunger – A different kind of seeing – Daydreaming in the evening – An omen, an argument and a sword
The rain pattered continuously down from clouds that would have been visible as thick and brooding, if it hadn’t already been well past dusk. As it was, a cloying, clammy blanket of night way laid over everything, increasing the impression that Lower Reillin was all on its own in the middle of nowhere.
In the partly-roofed over stable yard of the Black Sheep inn, the darling known (somewhat predictably and entirely ironically) as Rabbit was eyeing up the two rough-coated horses that were still harnessed up to the overly grand looking coach that Mistress had… acquired… back in Keyold, three days previously.
Rabbit was hungry. All it had had to eat in the past week had been the remains of one of Mistress’s spells back in Keyold, and the less appetising parts of the flock of sheep that the darlings had found on the hills the day before yesterday. Rabbit was pretty much at the bottom of the darling hierarchy; as well as being the smallest of the darlings, it was also— comparatively— the slowest and oldest.
It wasn’t age that made it slower than the others, however, it was more that Mistress had been relatively inexperienced when she’d made it. Her technique— and her willingness to try more extreme meldings and matchings— had meant that the newer darlings were faster, somewhat better put together and, of course, could fly.
In the case of all but Stripe, the flying was definitely along the lines of after a fashion, but they were still faster than Rabbit.
Rabbit blinked as the wind changed direction for a moment, lashing cold droplets of water into his face, and grumbled quietly to itself. The horses snorted and made an abortive attempt to curvette sideways; hampered by the fact that they were tangled in the coach harness and consequently bumping into each other.
Wrinkling its scarred nose, Rabbit showed its teeth in a hiss and sidled across the yard, before insinuating itself through the cracked ajar door leading to the kitchen. Pausing to sniff at the air; something in a pot over the crumbling kitchen cook-fire was burning, Rabbit twitched and scratched at a chewed-looking ear with a clawed foot, then resumed its lurching gait across the kitchen and into the main taproom. Although perfectly capable of walking on two legs only, Rabbit more often adopted the four-or-three legged movement as it meant it could get closer to the ground; and therefore skulk and stalk more efficiently.
The taproom was dimly lit by a couple of glass lanterns and the air was laced with the sharp copper-tang of fresh blood and the tingle of magic. Rabbit whined to itself, the faint pangs of hunger the rich, saliva inducing smell invoked also reminded it of the pain of what happened when Mistress was… displeased.
Speaking of Mistress— she was standing near the centre of the room, her arms spread wide, corner-of-the-eye-visible strands of red-brown and burnt orange energy crawling up her legs and cloak, making glow-in-the-dark spider-web patterns on the fabric. The energy strands were originating from a pile of damp something that was lying within a precisely marked out chalk circle on the warped wooden floor of the inn.
The glow from the lanterns and the magic energy was enough to reflect a curve— that started off white, then changed to brown, and finally black— on a small, round object that was lying to one side of the pile. A thin squiggle of red trailed from one side of the object and up onto the lumpy shape at one end of the pile.
It had hair.
The hair was singed in places; the faint smell underscored the metal-tones of blood and magic thick on the air.
Mistress said something and the energy bunched around her outstretched hands, throwing strange shadows over the walls, before spinning out like gossamer threads to caress the frame of the closed front door, outlining it in a weave-work of dull reds and orange and making the door itself vanish behind a wavering curtain of sparkles and squiggles.
Rabbit followed the example of the other two darlings in the room at the moment— Stripe, who was staring at Rabbit from beneath the tattered overhang of the hooded cloak it was wearing, and Twitch, who was ignoring everything in favour of preening its mottled plumage. Loping forwards a few steps, Rabbit squinted as the brightening light from the doorway glared and flashed from highly polished chainmail, and pawed at its eyes.
Sitting at a table to one side, huddled up as if trying to avoid noticed, was Not-Mistress-not-prey. She was carefully cleaning Mistress’s knives with a damp cloth.
Rabbit’s attention was dragged back to Mistress once more when she half-shouted a final word and the room was momentarily washed in a burst of soundless darkness. In its wake the lantern flames flickered within their glass prisons and Rabbit’s attention was drawn to the doorway. Framed within a thin red outline was a perfectly quiet woodland scene.
The angle of the moon, and the residual light of a clear day, was such that a wavering oblong of silvery light fell through the Gate and onto the stained floor of the taproom. A graceful line of liquid droplets that arched out from the chalk circle shone like black diamonds against the dull wood of the floorboard.
Not-Mistress-not-prey glanced up once, her gaze flickering between Mistress and the glowing doorway, before turning her attention back to the knives.
“Rabbit—“ Mistress’s voice; commanding.
Yes— Rabbit paused and crouched down, close to the floor; the proper sign of subservience to show towards those higher up in the pack hierarchy.
One arm extended, pointing towards the glistening pile in the chalk circle. “So that I can see what you do,” the instruction sounded cryptic, but Rabbit had been in this position many times before. Eeling forwards, the darling only raised up its body enough to step over the circle without smudging it in any way— that was a sure way to earn painful retribution from Mistress. Snuffling slightly, Rabbit honed in on the small globe that was now highlighted by moonlight as well as magic. The reflections formed a curved cross on the shiny surface; one line orange-red, the other silvery white.
It popped as Rabbit bit down on it, and the darling could feel the still warm jelly slipping down its throat as the faint salty tingle danced along its tongue.
The tantalising hint of nourishment made the darling’s stomach rumble, and it twitched sideways, stepping backwards over the chalk lines and giving Mistress an expectant look.
“Through there,” Mistress smiled coldly and gestured at the quietly glowing Gate. “You should find something to fill your belly and something to interest me.”
Rabbit looked at the Gate and shook itself slightly, making both ears flop around in a fashion that would have been almost comical in any other circumstances. Yes— Mistress—
“Go, now,” Mistress ordered.
Blinking as light once again reflected off chainmail, Rabbit nodded once, then hop-sidled over to the Gate, paused for a moment to sniff cautiously at the smell of night blooming honeysuckle that was perfuming the air immediately in front of the magic portal, then jumped through.
The forest scene in the doorway seemed to ripple and bunch up as the darling ‘touched’ it and then— and it wasn’t entirely clear how— instead of deforming some invisible barrier, Rabbit was on the other side of the Gate, tangled about with rich honeysuckle scents.
The visual ripples in the ‘picture’ worsened, and then the Gate collapsed, leaving the taproom air full of the scent of drying blood and burning lamp oil.
:Nattan—: Zica flattened her ears and finally halted in the middle of the winding path that led back to the Waystation they were currently staying in. :Nattan, you’ve not been listening to a single word that I’ve said for the past quarter mark—:
The subject of this resigned nagging; Zica’s Chosen, Herald Nattan, didn’t respond in any way. Instead he continued to sit— well, slouch— in the saddle, a dreamy, inattentive expression pasted all over his face. Despite the thick shadows and general lack of moonlight reaching large parts of the path, Zica could clearly see Nattan’s face if she turned her head, and her ears slicked back against her head even more.
:Nattan!: Zica accompanied her aggrieved shout with an almost-buck.
“Argh!” Her Chosen yelped and tipped forwards in the saddle, flinging out both arms to brace himself against the smooth white curve of Zica’s neck. “What the Hells did you do that for?” Nattan demanded in an annoyed tone of voice.
Zica twisted her head around and stared down her nose at Nattan. :You’ve been too busy mooning over Luci to pay any attention to what I’ve been saying for the past quarter mark!: She repeated.
Nattan’s mouth dragged down in a frown. “Ziccy-zaccy, we’re getting married as soon as we get back to Haven,”
Zica rolled her eyes and huffed her sides out in a sigh as she began walking once again. :Believe me, I know, : she complained, :you haven’t talked about anything else this entire Courier run— and stop using that ridiculous nickname, you know I hate it.:
Nattan sighed resettled himself into his habitual there’s nothing important happening slouch. That slouch, as well as irritating the whey out of Zica at certain times— like now— was also the despair of Yisk, the Collegium equitation instructor. Silence descended around the pair as they continued on to the Waystation, located in the woodlands just to the east of the town of Lisle, near the southern border.
As they were just on a routine Courier run, bringing non-sensitive messages for Menmellith and Rethwellan down to the main relay point on the Border itself, Nattan hadn’t thought it necessary to stay over in Lisle itself. Zica hadn’t been too concerned either way… until she’d had to spend two weeks in the solitary company of her Chosen, who was obsessively mooning over his soon-to-be-wife; a Healer called Luci. The mare had nothing against the young Healer; in fact, she and Luci got on rather well, but Nattan’s inability to talk about anything other than the fast approaching wedding had been driving Zica progressively round the bend.
And now there was nothing but a faintly sulky silence, with the prospect of more of the same all night and probably the next day as well. Zica sighed to herself. Companions had it much simpler; something that she most definitely approved of.
The mare was just considering breaking the silence with something that would most definitely not be an apology when—
A feeling like the metaphorical rug of the world had just been yanked from underneath the equally metaphorical feet of the locale; combined with something that felt like having the inside of your head repeatedly smacked with a melting snowball—
Zica stumbled, tripping over her own feet as she briefly lost count of how many legs she actually possessed, then stumbled again as Nattan overbalanced and had to clutch at the pommel of the saddle.
“Zica! It wasn’t funny the first time!” Nattan ground out, flicking the end of the reins clutched in one hand at the back of his Companion’s head.
:Hush!: Zica shook her head and stared around, her eyes flicking from shadowy shape to shadowy shape quickly. :Didn’t you feel that?:
Nattan muttered to himself and theatrically crossed his arms over his chest, before directing an annoyed glare at Zica’s ears. “I didn’t feel anything other than you trying to tip me out of the saddle for the second time in as many moments.” He told her.
:There was— someone opened a— I can feel—: The mare tried unsuccessfully to arrange her thoughts into a coherent thread of Mindspeech as she cast from side to side, sniffing intently at the air. There was something… off… about the night time, now.
“You’re not making any sense, Zica,” Nattan said flatly, “just spit it out, already.”
:I’m trying to—: Zica insisted, :what was that?: She wheeled around abruptly and stared down the path that led towards Lisle. The dusk air was overtly peaceful, the light of the just-risen moon making dappled patterns on the beaten dirt of the path, and a faint smell of honeysuckle perfuming the air.
“What was what—?” Nattan broke off the question and stiffened in the saddle, one hand going to the pommel of his sword.
Both the Herald and the Companion stared off to the left; the direction that the odd clicking sound had come from. Zica became aware, with some unease that the ‘normal’ sounds of the woods at evening had petered out and the pair of them seemed to be at the centre of an expanding ring of deathly silence.
“Zica?” Nattan sounded worried, his legs clamping hard against the Companions sides. His sword made a faint hissing sound as he drew it from the scabbard and brought it up into a defensive position. The failing light caught one edge of it and made it shine brightly.
:I think there’s something ahea—:
There was no warning; one moment Zica was standing, her neck stretched out as she strained to see if a suspicious looking shadow really was moving, and then there was a sudden crushing weight on top of her and Nattan and—
—that was the sound of Nattan’s neck being broken and it echoed inside of Zica’s head and all she could do was whuff out her breath in a pained gasp as agony beyond anything that she’d ever imagined flared outwards from twin points between her eyes and in her chest.
The weight on her back slid sideways— the whole saddle was slipping off, the girth cut by… something?... and Zica managed to stumble forwards a few steps and turn, her ears full of clicking, slobbering sounds.
Nothing could hurt as much as the empty space that should have been Nattan, but that was proved wrong a moment later as Zica managed to focused blurring eyes on the dark shape that was hunched over the crumpled remains of her Chosen and it looked up at her—
—and it twitched battered rabbit ears and raised a lizard foot and bared elongated and bloodstained teeth at her in a menacing hiss—
—and then it leapt for her and the last thing Zica could see was Nattan’s sword, cradled in the thorny embrace of a holly bush by the side of the path.