BBy the gods of land, sea, and sky, and by all of the creatures on this continent we cannot yet name, why did the Land choose deer? George Peryton stared openly at the doe-woman as she filled his glass for the third ale of the evening. The tavernkeeper watched him with large brown eyes that were nevertheless eerily human. Had she been born that way, or was she one of the growing numbers of newcomers to Seaborne who willingly gave up their humanity to live here?
The seedy tavern suited George's dark mood. The cheap ale had a bitter aftertaste, but he wanted all he could afford. Ruined. All our work... two years of sweat. And poor Benjamin... His old friend and now-former business partner had come to the city two years ago, and perhaps like the doe-woman who owned the tavern, had forgone his human form for a chance at prosperity. The Virgin Lands had much to offer, provided you were willing to surrender your humanity to it.
George fingered the brass globe amulet around his neck. Contained inside was a small measure of soil from Kalerand, bespelled to keep the Land from noticing him. Without it he would have joined Benjamin the moment he stepped off the Town Dock, unable to return home to his family. Worse, all who separated themselves from the Land became true animals outright the moment they stepped on Kalerand soil. The amulet was the cheapest George could afford, lasting one month. The inns on the Town Dock were all too expensive for a neophyte merchant. Perhaps, after their cargo had brought in the expected thousand percent profit...
Dreams, George. Silly ambitions. Dashed to bits. Whether it was pirates or the Solerans, the result was the same. The merchant ship that held their precious cargo had been stolen. Taken in the dead of night right from under the crew, who had awoken on the Land's native soil with the natural result. In Seaborne the colonists were deer who walked on two legs. But for its own inscrutable reasons, the Land had made each Colony different. New Warwick, the just to the south, were wolfmen. Those to the north in Yarmouth were bears. And there were others. Fourteen colonies, all stricken. "Claimed by the Land," as they said.
Every colony, over fifteen hundred leagues north to south, from every kingdom on the Continent, had suffered the same fate. Most nations had simply abandoned their transformed citizens; but George's home country of Kalerand, and their chief rivals from Solera, had reestablished contact and trading relations with many of their "Lost Colonies". There was simply too much profit to be had, too many new materials and ingredients the magecrafters found useful that could only be found here, across over a thousand leagues of ocean. The Land was saturated with magic.
And possessed a mind of Her own.
George looked around the room. Examples of beastmen from every Colony were present in the tavern. An elk, a magpie half the size of a man, and an odd, squat creature with a black mask and a ringed tail some called a "masked dog", were playing cards in one corner. The magpie lacked hands, so was holding a contraption in his beak that held his cards. In another was a huge rabbit, a squirrel with an enormously bushy tail, and a gray fox, apparently haggling over some business arrangements. Like the deer of Seaborne, all were an oddly aesthetic blending of human and animal. It's a menagerie in here, George thought, already feeling a slight buzz from the ale.
Just as he finished the mug, swallowing it in three gulps, another was slid next to him. He looked up and found another pair of eyes--this time a deep blue. They belonged to another doe-woman, and seemed even more human than the tavernkeeper's. Blue was an unusual color among the deermen, with shades of brown being the norm. These eyes were magnetic, drawing all his attention like a fisherman's net. And there was what George thought of as a warm smile on her animal face. "Would you like some more?" she asked in a sweet voice.
The human nodded. It was a little unseemly to accept drink from a strange woman, but George wasn't in a condition to worry about propriety. "My thanks, Miss." She watched him as he drank, a little more slowly this time. Her eyes twinkled with a sort of longing and fascination. George shifted a little uncomfortably under their hungry gaze. "I do thank you, Miss," he said, voice slightly slurred. "But..."
"Forgive me, sir," she said in her sweet, sweet voice. "It's just been a long time since I saw a human face." The body it was attached to was just as pretty. Like the rest of the beastmen in Seaborne, her clothing was slightly dated, and she wore less than her human counterparts. Her hoofed feet were bare, as shoes were impractical, though the hem of her skirt was down to her "ankles". "Another?"
George accepted her offer, reaching for his moneybelt. "Oh, no sir, please," she said. "Just seeing your face is payment enough."
Somehow she ended up sitting in George's lap. His thoughts felt like they were enveloped in a thick wool blanket, as if the ale had suddenly become stronger. Her weight was very slight, certainly no more than a human girl's. The long, rust-colored fur that covered her shoulders came level with George's eyes, and she gave off a sweet musky odor. She draped one arm about his neck, giving him a face full of bosom. "Such a pity..." she said.
"Piii.... pity?" George slurred. His skin felt odd, and a headache was forming at two points just over his ears.
The young doe's eyes twinkled just as the lights in mine were blown out like a candle after another gulp. "At least you'll be ha..."
Mud, muck, and stink. George's fragile consciousness floated on a sea of pain the size of the turbulent Northern Ocean, sinking any attempts to bring his thoughts together. Arms and legs were distant provinces that flailed about, but through the whole mess was the unmistakable feeling of mud clinging everywhere... and odder sensation of isolation. No feeling of bare skin at all. The magnitude of his headache was only matched by a sort of ponderousness. As if someone had put a very heavy hat on his head.
His tongue tasted like soiled linen and every tiny noise of the awakening seaport seemed horribly magnified. Of all the hangovers George had ever had, this was the worst. On top of everything else, something was terribly wrong with his body. He rolled his head around slowly, only to have it pulled down to one side by the weight upon it, burying his nose in the mud that stank sharply of horse manure and worse. He groaned and lay there, unable to stir himself further.
After an undetermined period of time, there was an authoritative voice from above. "Get him up," it boomed. He was grabbed... somewhere. His head was wrenched upright, and another pair of strong hands grasped his shoulders and jerked him violently to his feet. It was all he could do to keep his head upright. The center of gravity was somewhere above his eyes. The voice continued. "Public drunkenness. If it's a first offense, you'll have two hours in the stocks."
"Wait..." George's eyes blinked open, jolted at the pronounced sentence. What they saw was a fractured view of the world and a long, rust-colored mass blocking his forward vision. For a moment he stared down at the nose that had somehow ended up so far away. But he wasn't given time to grasp the sensations. "Sir, please. I was robbed."
The deer-man had a set of thick-beamed antlers with eight normal points, but off to one side on his left was a single dropped tine. The antlers had been polished to bone white, their tips sharpened as was fashionable. He was dressed in a deceptively plain waistcoat and shortened trousers that cut off above their high ankles, and wore the official insignia of the Magistrate on his collar. Tucked under one arm was a tricorn hat. These deer men did not often wear hats, but it was still fashionable to carry them. The magistrate tilted his head. "Were you? By whom, pray tell?"
"Blue-eyed doe, sir," George replied. "She stole my amulet and my moneybelt."
"Blue eyes, you say?" the magistrate repeated. "I believe I know the culprit... but the fact remains that public drunkenness is punishable with two hours in the stocks. Bring him along."
The hangover prevented George from fully grasping what had happened. Even strong drink had never done this to him. She magicked me! His tongue flicked out to lick his nose. And she stole my amulet... And all that implied. All the strange, distorted sensations.
There was no going home. This was home.
"Hold him here for a moment, men," said the magistrate. He knocked on the tavern door. After a few minutes waiting, the tavern's owner opened it. The magistrate then muttered something directly in the doe's far ear. She invited him inside.
There was no sympathy from either of the two strongarms holding him. They were silent as statues, with swollen necks and very thick antlers that gave them a burly look. Just the sight of them intimidated George, making him feel somehow inadequate. But as the effects of the hangover started to fade, he could finally make an account of what the Land had done to him. It was clear he had one thing to be thankful for.
Benjamin said it wasn't entirely unheard of for the Land to change a man's sex, if there were too many bucks. In that, he felt Fortune's smile upon him. "It was a rough year. It always is for newcomers. You'd have to experience it for yourself," Benjamin had said. George hadn't pressed his friend for more detailed information. When he'd first arrived in Seaborne only a few childhood memories from the deer-man had convinced him that it was indeed Benjamin. Now...
He stared down at his feet, then wiggled the soot-black cloven hooves they now were. "She even stole my boots..."
One of his captors snorted and seemingly became animated. "She only did it because shoes fetch a decent price here with humans. We don't need 'em. Nobody else cares."
The magistrate exited the tavern and stood before George. There was a touch of compassion in his voice. "The tavernkeeper corroborates your story. But she didn't know your amulet had been stolen." He sighed. "But the law is the law. You still have to spend your time in the stocks, mister..?"
"George Peryton. I was planning to take ship this morning..."
"Pity, but I'm sure you can make the best of it. I'll see to it that the culprit is caught," the magistrate repeated. "She's a newcomer, also." He cleared his throat. "Once you've served your time, come to the Newcomers' House so we can enter your name in the tax rolls. Now, bring him along, men."
Just walking was a difficult chore. His legs bent differently, and more than once he stumbled and would have fallen if it wasn't for the strong grip of his captors. It was all he could do to keep his head balanced straight ahead. His neck felt like a long, thin pipe. And the astonishing complexity of smells threatened to pull apart what little coherent thought he had.
Seaborne was a busy town of ten thousand. During the years they were cut off from Kalerand the Colonies had developed a very close trading relationship with one another. What some colonies lacked, others could provide. The town was mostly deer-people, but like the tavern, every colony except one was represented. The most southern colony was populated by lizards who insisted they were "dragons". While they had resumed contact with the Crown, repeated attempts to reopen trade from the more northern colonies had been violently rebuffed.
The stocks were located in King's Square, the busiest part of the town where all would see him. A few were already occupied, and George noticed that two of the bucks were missing points, and a third had half an antler sawn off. "You're fortunate," the magistrate said, "and take this as a lesson. On repeated offenses, we'll saw off your points if you've shed your velvet. So if you wish to stay in your cups, do it off the streets."
The stocks locked hands and feet in front of him, adding insult to injury. But clothes ill-suited for his new physique made the experience much less comfortable. There was understandably no provision for the tail he could feel squirming under his trousers. And the material itself was much too hot over the coat of fur he now wore. The deer-people wore a much lighter fabric. Though they paid lip service to the fashions from back home, woolens were almost unknown here. So he panted and tried to think about nothing much.
Then a young fawn pelted him with rotten cabbage. Another, an apple long past its prime that lodged itself on one of his points, dripping down into his eye until he shook it off. The others in the stocks with him were still too drunk to notice being pelted with rotten food. George could only wrinkle his nose and wait for his time to come to an end...
Then he saw Benjamin pass by seemingly in a hurry, down towards the Town Dock. George nearly called out to him, but held back. The two had had a rather heated argument before he'd stormed off to find a tavern. Before they'd gotten word of the stolen ship, they'd had another argument over insurance fees. Resentment still smoldered. They would have had enough, if Ben had been willing to endure a little hardship. After all, beastmen could eat exactly what the four-legged creatures they resembled could.
He's in a hurry, George thought as the distinctive antlers vanished in the crowd. He sighed, attempting to find a more comfortable way to sit with his restricted tail. My tail. Gyah... The very thought made his head throb. It was one thing to see an old friend utterly changed. It was quite another to experience it yourself. The only reason why George hadn't been the one to come west in the first place was his wife and children. George felt pale. What am I going to tell Margeret? Then there was the matter of the investors.
More to the point, how was he going to get his family over here? Not only was he in arrears by nearly five hundred pounds, but there had been ten left in his moneybelt. There was not a farthing to his name now. And when the investors found out they would take everything, then Margaret and the children would end up in the poor house.
But would they come for him? It wasn't unheard of. But the Northern Ocean was becoming more and more difficult to navigate as the seasons turned closer to winter. Not even the most powerful windstones could make headway against the storms and strong eddy currents. It would be at least spring before they could take any action.
Time enough, perhaps... but the dregs of the hangover prevented any plans from taking shape. He stared at his furred arms, wiggled his black-nailed fingers, and stared down his new muzzle. All this... Ben didn't realize just how animal he was now. George had kept his peace, not wishing to bring the subject up. Ben wasn't the man he used to be. He was... different. The Land had changed him.
The so-called "Virgin Lands" were exactly that. When the first explorers had discovered the two new continents they had found no evidence of human habitation. There were strange animals aplenty, but that was it. Not even any beastmen of any kind. And the Land had waited for nearly seventy years before claiming the Colonies, for its own inscrutable reasons.
When the Crown reinstated contact thirty-five years later, they found a place at once alien and familiar. The colonists had maintained normalcy as much as possible, waiting for the day when the Crown would return. Now, forty more years later, the Colonies provided an outlet for an overpopulated kingdom. The Crown even encouraged emigration, knowing that anyone who left had to stay there permanently. Beyond an amulet similar to what George had worn, there was no possibility of return.
A little over an hour into George's sentence, Ben reappeared. His distinctive antlers resembled a splayed hand, with the "thumbs" as the brow tines. He seemed very dismayed, ears flicking with agitation. His eyes swept over George and the others in the stocks, but then he moved closer. After a lick of his nose, the nostrils pulsed. Then he looked directly at George, and dismay turned to contrition. "George..." he said. "How... When the captain said you hadn't returned I became concerned. High tide is just an hour away. I knew you'd stormed out, but I wanted..."
"'But' what?" George replied. "I have nothing more to say, Ben. It's moot. I can't rightly remember why we argued. Everything's gone. All of it."
The younger man ground his teeth in that odd cud-chewing motion. "I came to offer my apology. But if you don't want it..."
George looked at him, and could tell he was sincere. There was something about his smell, in the tilt of his head and ears. "No. I do, Ben. Really. This is hardly your fault."
"You went into debt for us," Ben continued. "The ship... that was your ship! And your wife, your children! Gods, George..."
"Tut. Enough of that, please. It's all moot, now." George sighed. "But unless they find the culprit..."
"Blue-eyed doe?" Ben asked. "It's all over town by now. This isn't the first time she's done this. They'll catch her--again. And they'll fine her--again."
"No talking with the prisoners!" the guard, a wolfman, growled.
George walked unsteadily beside his younger friend as they left the newly built Newcomers' House, after George's release from the stocks. His neck ached and he smelled of mud and rotten vegetables. A bath would be nice, he reflected. Though getting the dirt and worse out of his fur was going to be a difficult and rather odd chore indeed.
Benjamin was three years George's younger. With no family, no money to invest, and nothing to lose, he had opted to become their Factor in Seaborne. The Virgin Lands were more than lucrative. There was so much remaining to be discovered, so many magical creatures, ores, and plants, that whole guilds of wizards had relocated here soon after the Colonies were founded. Though money was a strong incentive, until very recently few wanted to emigrate. The older man was officially a citizen of Seaborne now. "I still feel hung over," George complained.
"The change feels like very strong drink," Ben said. "You'll feel this way for days, I'm afraid. And then there's... hrm..."
"There's what, Ben?"
"You're in for many surprises I can't rightly explain," Ben said. "We're not human by any stretch of the imagination, my friend. But it doesn't settle in all at once. There's a very good reason why you didn't hear from me for nearly a year. And you're unfortunate enough to arrive just as the Rut is starting. We normally only take newcomers in the springtime."
Ben's frank admission after being so evasive for three weeks did give George pause for thought. And the way he spoke. It was if he'd accepted what he was now wholeheartedly. George opted to change the subject. "Frankly, I'm more worried about the investors dragging me back to Kalerand."
"I had to let most of the staff go," Ben informed. They walked slowly through the city. Seaborne was built on a leaf-shaped peninsula that extended into the middle of a fine harbor. A natural place for a city, though the narrow Neck that connected it to the mainland frequently flooded on the higher tides. Ben's house was located at the sparsely populated West End of town, where land was cheap.
"I thought you were going into business for yourself?" George asked.
"Guns or no guns, it's too dangerous for just one buck to go out on his own. Therefore I kept Thomas on."
"The one who smells like onions."
"I don't follow."
"It's all he eats. The wizard, George. He's a little... odd... even as wizards go, but he can always find what we need. And he's got a good inventory of protective spells."
They finally arrived at Benjamin's two room cottage, near the small cove that had been closed off to run tidal mills. His house servant opened the door. The young buck had a small pair of forked antlers, and couldn't have been older then seventeen. George noticed how the strong smell of herbs clung to him, over and above the tang of musk that pervaded the cottage. The young deer-man was an indentured servant, working off three years in exchange for passage here. "Ah... should I prepare another breakfast, sir?"
George shook his head. "No... gods, no. My stomach feels like it would turn itself inside out."
"Something soothing, Michael," Ben said. "He should have something in him. He's a newcomer, and he didn't plan on it."
The older buck's ears flicked back. "I can't eat."
"You should," Ben replied firmly. "You have a different stomach now. It needs food, and the change takes a lot out of you. Please, I know what I'm talking about." George opened his mouth. "And these are magic herbs," Ben continued. "Tea, some light greens, and toast will do you good."
George felt his sense of humor return just a little. "Yes, mother."
The younger buck smiled weakly. "We're lucky, you and I. Every man who becomes a citizen is. That doe who stole from you? She wasn't. Last spring she arrived with her whole family--as a husband to someone. The marriage was naturally dissolved, of course. But she's been a troublemaker ever since. There are enough females here now that it doesn't happen frequently, but... well... it could've happened to either of us. At least it's not like the early days."
The image of the doe's fascinating blue eyes was still lodged in George's mind. "Surely you're joking. I heard a few silly rumors. But I never put any stock in them."
"We don't noise it about. The Crown rigorously controlled emigration when the Virgin Lands were discovered, remember. Strictly business for most of fifty years. There were far more men than women in the Land claimed the colony. So the balance was restored." The cottage felt like a furnace even with every window open. Ben himself had stripped down to the bare minimum of dress. The loose clothing looked comfortable. But George said nothing, and endured the discomfort.
"But if I'm going to mother you," Ben continued, "then you should get out of those woolens. You can borrow my spare shirt and breeches until you can afford your own again. We don't bother with waistcoats among ourselves."
Through most of their lives, George had always been the teacher, the protector of his younger, poorer friend. The turnabout came as a shock. Benjamin's family had deep links with George's, going back to when they'd been servants. But moderate prosperity and a more upwardly mobile culture had enabled them to strike out on their own. Until a bad investment by Ben's father had forced them back into service. Then George had smelled opportunity in the Virgin Lands. Any cross-ocean trade was difficult and costly to get into. Stout ships with large windstones were needed to cross the Northern Ocean, no matter the season. And the insurance fees could bankrupt a new merchant. The company on the Town Dock had demanded far more than either man could pay after operating in the red for two years.
George still had one more ship, though it sat in a drydock. She'd been inexpensive, but still needed extensive refitting. There was no chance of sending her over for the spring run. In fact, the investors would likely take her anyway.
The servant placed a bowl of lukewarm tea in front of George as he pondered the next step. "How am I supposed to drink this?"
Ben demonstrated, lapping up his own share. The older buck hadn't really watched his friend eat and drink before. Now, he had to imitate him. He felt like a child. "Hold your breath," Ben instructed after a demonstration, licking the fragrant tea from his nose and lips. "The first time I got tea up my nose."
After a coughing fit from accidentally doing just what Ben wanted him to avoid, George finally drank it down. The tea had a surprisingly sweet aftertaste and worked almost immediately. The roiling storm in his stomach calmed to just a few shrinking rogue waves. As he took his first bites of greens and toast, there was a knock on the heavy oaken door.
The magistrate stood in the threshold. Next to him was the doe who had so abruptly changed his life. George sprang to his feet, ears laid back, and he tilted his head forwards. "You..."
There were two more bucks with him. Only their presence kept him from hitting the doe. One held the blue-eyed doe's arm firmly. The other was carrying George's moneybelt. "Mr. Peryton," said the magistrate, "the culprit has been caught, as you can see, and a fine levied. You said you had ten pounds in your moneybelt?" George nodded. "The fine amounts to twice what she stole from you. Half goes to the city, the other to you. The fact that she can pay it outright, I think, is to your benefit."
"Why isn't she in prison?" asked George. >> "We have no prisons in Seaborne," the magistrate informed. "But we will have the Town Wizard place her under a watch spell. The only other thing the judge demanded of her was a formal apology." She was pushed forwards, almost into the house. "As you were ordered, Miss Baker."
"Why?" George snarled.
She seemed torn, even anguished. "I didn't see how I could lose. You'd either be very... very handsome. Or I would have a sister. The last few months have been... well... jarring at the very least. I can't entirely control myself. You can't know how strange it is." Her eyes filled with tears and she sniffled. "I'm truly sorry, Mr. Peryton."
There was a sweet scent George couldn't identify. If the doe had looked pretty to him as a human, she was nearly irresistible now. The fact that she had once been a man seemed insignificant, even unimportant. But beauty did little to mollify his anger. "I've heard enough. Take her away, please."
"Our apologies for interrupting your meal," the magistrate said. He turned to leave, then paused. "Keep in mind what I said about your next offense, if you please."
George sat down at Ben's tiny table, mindful to keep his tail out of the way. He set the moneybelt and the bag full of his share of the fine aside. "I'd better compose a letter to Margaret..." And another to the investors. At least they couldn't immediately get him here.
Benjamin coughed. "George..."
"There's a very good reason why you didn't get a letter in my own hand for so long. But it's best you find out for yourself. I'll fetch you some paper and a quill."
Writing instruments and stationary were duly brought. At first, the real chore was trying to find something to say to his wife before he even started writing. How do I break this to her? Hells, do I even convince her to join me here? On the whole, he opted not to. Not this time, at least. It was going to take many letters before she'd even think of bringing the children here. Margaret was rather more independent than most men he knew preferred. It would take time, eloquence, and a lot of ink.
Then he tried to write a simple salutation, awkwardly gripping the quill pen with his altered hand.
It was as if a wall had been built in his head.
The words were there. He knew exactly what he wanted to say. But he no longer knew how to put them on the page. He might have been scribbling absolute nonsense. With growing panic, he asked Ben if he had any books. "I have a copy of my last letter to you," he said. "Here."
Gibberish. Complete and utter nonsense. He didn't even recognize the shape of any letters. "What... why can't I..."
"I had to relearn how to read and write," Ben informed. "No, that isn't quite the right explanation. I had to remind myself how to do it. We haven't lost those skills. But our minds have been altered. It's as if the Land has forcibly evicted us from our old houses and tossed everything willy-nilly into a new one. It's as chaotic as the hells. You just have to keep opening doors to all these new rooms to find what you're looking for. Until then, I'm willing to help you through all this. If you wish, I can take dictation."
Shaken, frustrated, and upset, George reluctantly handed over the pen. What else was in store?
"Um... sixteen... plus ten... gods..." George felt his twitchy ears flush. As a child of seven he had struggled to grasp even simple arithmetic. Piled on the table was the remaining Company capital: pounds, shillings, and pence in various denominations. Pounds had the most silver content, while shillings were mostly baser metals with only a tiny portion of silver. Unfortunately all he could say at this point was that he had "a lot of shillings", "a few pence" and "not so many pounds." He sighed deeply.
Early morning sunlight slanted through the east-facing window of the room that doubled as kitchen and living space. George rubbed his bulging, bleary eyes, then ran the palms of his hands down his long muzzle. Yesterday he'd barely noticed his new body's oddities. Now, after a sleepless night, all was spread out before him. Trying to focus on anything directly in front was an exercise in frustration. His vision only overlapped a little bit, and even then depth perception was only adequate. Most frustrating, anything that moved in the corner of his eye demanded immediate attention. How could he possibly concentrate on anything for more than half a minute?
Ben's servant had already left, having taken what he hoped amounted to five shillings for some necessities. He had taken his time and painstakingly counted them out. Counting George could do. But adding twenty and ten, for instance, baffled him. To his credit, Michael had made no comment. He'd simply taken the money and left. Later, he planned on finding a tailor for a new suit of clothes.
His old friend had also gone. While George had struggled to sleep, Ben had left well before dawn. Whatever mysterious thing he was doing he wasn't finished yet. In fact, even Michael had been up before dawn proper. He'd gone to tend the garden in the gray, and surprisingly bright, light of false dawn.
Grunting in frustration, Ben returned just as George gave up. The younger buck seemed unconcerned. "Don't worry, accounting skills go the way of everything else for a while. You'll get them back," he assured. "Did you sleep at all?" By his tone of voice he already knew the answer.
"You have some kind of vermin in your thatch. My ears twitch at every little noise! And I still hear things moving around," said George. "I think I smell mice, or maybe rats. And fleas. And gods know what else. I can't identify a quarter of what I can smell. I can't calm myself enough to sleep." George gestured at the roof. "And they're still nibbling up there. I can't stand this!" George's ears twitched, he reached up to hold them still.
"It all becomes normal, eventually," Ben said with a smirk. "We Kalerandish are stout, adaptable folk." He sat down across from George. Nearly the entire tabletop was covered in coins. "How about a lesson, then?"
They discussed their next step even as George practiced his basic math skills. In total, they had just over forty pounds. About as much as a skilled artisan might make in one year in Kalerand. "A decent nest egg," Ben said.
"This is going to require some careful budgeting. We'll be forced to buy cargo space on outgoing ships in the spring, and that doesn't come cheap. As for employees, you had a good setup before. But we'll need at least two more foragers for harvesting, preferably more." George said. "And we're going to have to work through winter. We need something substantially profitable to show the investors."
"That rules out windstone ore. Too heavy. We'll have to check with the Wizards' Guild, and the Alchemists. They always have some blanket orders. After losing our ship they won't want to contract with us."
"Surely they'll give us the benefit of the doubt. It was hardly our fault..." George said, scooping the coins off the table and putting them into a strongbox.
"Most of it, no. But if we'd paid the insurance fees, even in part, then we wouldn't be in such dire straits," Ben pointed out. "Anyway, I visited the Town Dock before returning. They're scrambling to protect their ships and cargoes now. The insurance companies doubled their rates overnight."
"We can't just sit here and do nothing," George said with a snort.
"It's the Rut, George. There's a good reason why things are winding down. Who can think of business at this time of year?"
The older buck tilted his head. "What do you mean by that?"
Benjamin tilted his head forward in kind. "You have ten points and a very symmetrical set of antlers. The does are going to be all over you, and married or not, your wife is a thousand leagues away. We're deer, George. I don't know what else to say except you're going to experience it for yourself, as I did. Marriage means little when you have a ready-smelling doe in front of you." He leaned back in his chair. The temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees. "Then there's the matter of you and I."
"Well?" George grunted.
The younger buck gestured at his own distinctive antlers. He had ten points himself, but the beams were distorted so that the tines were actually rather short, giving them a vague resemblance to the palm of a human hand. Rather like a moose, in fact. "We're equals, if you haven't noticed. Very soon we won't be able to stand each other." Ben cleared his throat, and visibly got a hold of himself. "Especially if we get wind of a doe." He folded his ears back, and George noticed for the first time that his friend's neck looked a little swollen. "You're a little behind me, but not by much. Newcomers are usually behind the curve."
It took a few seconds before the meaning and plain sincerity of Ben's words to sink in. He wanted to wring that blue-eyed doe's neck! Once more he wondered why her punishment hadn't been more severe. "We'd better get as much work done as we can before we get too belligerent to care."
As ships departed for their final runs to Kalerand, most of the humans on the Town Dock were going with them, making the place seem more and more deserted. More than two dozen oceangoing vessels still rode at anchor, but those would be gone within a fortnight. The Town Dock had few permanent residents, and Benjamin explained that humans were not permitted to leave town during the Rut proper. George added that piece of information to the curious facts he was accumulating. Some things Ben had been telling him were still frustratingly vague, as he usually left it at "you'll simply experience it for yourself."
Like the rest of the colonists, the original contingent of wizards had been changed. Nearly a century of working with the Land's natural magic had splintered them off from the way their fellows did magic in the Old Lands. "And they've been very... prolific," Ben explained. "As a consequence we have a lot more magecrafters than a community our size back home."
"Stop being so mysterious," George complained. "Just what do you mean by that?"
Ben looked around to make sure there weren't any humans in earshot. "Our wizards aren't celibate. Neither are our priests. Oh, they try. But... pardon me a moment." There were trees planted everywhere in town, seemingly at random. Ben leaned forward, then rubbed the knobby base of his antlers against the already scraped bark. There was a "10" on a sign nailed into the tree. "You can add your mark, if you like."
"What in the name of Ahern's Harp did you do?"
"Smell it. It's for ten-pointers like ourselves. Then add your mark if you wish. You'll find you know how."
George disliked being pushed. Benjamin seemed fixated on throwing him headfirst into everything. "Just go on with what you were saying."
The younger buck pulled George into an alley. "I honestly can't tell you much. Not here. But think a moment, will you? The Colonies were isolated for a good thirty five years before the Crown reestablished contact. Two generations of beastmen who knew of life no other way. And it's been two generations more since then, George. Over seventy years in total of effectively being on our own. And it's not just us. It's every other Colony, too. I don't have to tell you about the so-called 'dragons'. They're the most extreme of all of us.
"I wish I could elaborate more precisely than 'we're different'. We're not human, even newcomers, and it affects every aspect of how we live. You've been here long enough to really see the truth of that. Hells, George, you know there's still a lot of controversy over how to treat us, even after forty years! They don't like us in Kalerand. We're barely tolerated and nothing more. And the moment we touch their soil, we become true animals anyway."
"The only thing that made the Crown return here was the tax revenues, no matter what the magecraft guilds say," George mused aloud. The tax was on merchants who imported raw materials from the Virgin Lands. But with thousand percent profits being common, they could tax ten percent and still leave the traders with a hefty profit. It had been a burden the two had been quite willing to bear, though the company Charter had been extremely costly.
Nearly seventy-five years. Generations of beastmen being born, living, and dying who never saw a human in their lives and didn't even know how they behaved. For the first time George noticed how the does congregated in tight groups of no more than six. They walked together, and were very chatty in town. Like the bucks, they wore a simplified version of the fashions in Kalerand, though a few years out of date. But no headwear beyond the odd coif. Hats interfered with the movements of their ears. George found himself curling his upper lip, trapping the air in his nose. But he didn't find what he was looking for--whatever that was.
"None of them are in season yet," Ben added, after a lip-curl of his own. "Lucky for us." He gestured at the tree with his muzzle. "Why not leave your mark so they know you're about? I think I can stand some competition."
George relented, and after a few reluctant scrapes, they continued on their way.
Though most of the traders and other businessmen left for home, the Wizards' and Alchemists' Guilds kept human representatives on the Town Dock all year. Magecrafters of all types were naturally the most interested in the Virgin Lands. Before being Claimed, the Colonies had sent back new discoveries practically monthly, in huge amounts, for over five decades. Ores, live and preserved animals, herbs, and oddities. Naturally there were materials that magecrafters started using that they could no longer do without.
And there were always new discoveries, though not as valuable as the known, there was the potential.
Humans who had lived in the Colony longer than a year always smelled better than temporary residents. What cows the deer-people kept were intended for trade with the meat eaters, who couldn't raise enough of them for their own needs. So meat was at a premium in the Colony, though not unknown. Out of deferment for their hosts, most long term residents simply became vegetarian. George quickly found he could smell who wasn't.
The human wizard was festooned in an elaborate silk robe that dragged on the floor behind him. Instead of the moon and stars that common folk thought magecrafters wore all the time, this one had a complex pattern of geometric figures in gold wire. A close-cropped iron gray beard and hair also went against the grain. He recognized Benjamin right away, but when George was re-introduced the wizard only nodded. "Rumor flies as quickly here as back home. Perhaps quicker, with those ears," he said. He pursed his lips. "I imagine I'm not as unhappy about the piracy as you. But the cargo was valuable to my brethren back home. The market seems nearly insatiable for burnroot these days."
Unfortunately burnroot was only ripe for harvest in midsummer, a season long past. Both bucks knew that any they collected now wouldn't have any potency. "Are there any winter items we could collect?" asked George.
The wizard looked down his nose, then thoughtfully scratched his beard. "You people don't work very well in winter, I've noticed. Lethargic. The wolves down south do better and they don't have to worry about being eaten. Still..."
"What? Is there something special?" George asked.
"I hesitate to ask, but I'll pay you for it up front."
More mysteries. "I can't agree unless you tell us what it is."
"We've been dealing with the wolves, catamounts, and foxes for bringing in magically-charged creatures we require. They're perfect hunters, of course. But this quarry eludes them so often I'm wondering if you can do a better job. It's intelligent, and won't expect someone like you to hold the gun." The wizard shrugged. "We'll give you one hundred pounds up front, more upon delivery, depending on a few conditions."
"One hundred pounds?" Ben gasped. "What is this creature?"
"And what are the conditions?" George added. The wizard had effectively masked his scent, which was rather disconcerting. And the room itself smelled sharply of pepper. In the brief time since his transformation he realized he'd been using it to read the moods of others. In that light, the wizard seemed rude.
"A hundred pounds," the wizard repeated. "More, if you find one with an intact horn more than a cubit long. Broken ones lose most of their magic, you see. But the horn is a bonus, since you're most likely to catch either the very old or very young. Mature creatures are shockingly quick for their size. Shall I contract you for at least one pelt?"
"Only one," George said. "And I'm sure you have a list of items we can collect as we find?"
The middle-aged wizard smiled. "Yes, yes I do. But bear in mind there will be a penalty if you don't bring in the quarry. We are, in effect, funding your expedition, after all. And I'm taking an awful risk by asking you in the first place."
Ben seemed alarmed as they left the guildhouse. He pulled George aside as they left the building. "Are you crazy? We're not hunters! We have no absolutely no instinct for it. This is foolhardy at best, and a deadly mistake at worst! On top of all this, you're going to be in no condition..."
"Ben, I can't think of just myself," George replied. "A hundred pounds! I can send half home with my letter and keep the investors off my family's back until the spring cargo! How can I possibly pass this up?"
The younger buck snorted angrily. "We'll end up indentured if we fail, if we're fortunate. If you want my opinion..."
"I've already heard it," George interrupted, tilting his head forwards. "Thank you. If I'm being foolhardy, so be it. Fifty pounds is enough to hire the best shots in the area with enough for your share left over. Certainly people have to defend themselves from all manner of creatures around here."
But Ben was not convinced. He gritted his teeth. "You're on your own, George. This is insane. I'll work on the list he gave us, but the hunt is yours and yours alone."
Autumn was devoid of most of the cues George was accustomed to. He felt it deep in his bones as the air turned chilly and the ground was covered with frost in the mornings. Leaves started turning fiery shades of orange, red, and gold that had an unexpected vibrance. He found his mind drifting to the does who strolled the muddy streets in smaller groups. He often chided himself and felt guilty over his wandering eyes--and nose. I'm a married man. This is adultery...
But his mind inevitably drifted to thoughts of women that weren't his wife; they started invading his dreams in numerous and interesting ways. Whenever a doe passed by his window, guilt would be shoved aside for a while, only to come back in force once her scent had dissipated. It made focusing on relearning his hidden skills difficult at best, nearly impossible at worst. Finally he couldn't stand it any more. From his observations there were only a few watched over by their husbands. Most of the time they stayed in their little groups of other does and their children.
"It's a bit... ah... complicated," Ben said. "We do have a sort of de facto marriage, legally. But it's... well... it's complicated."
"You know how I feel when you get mysterious like this," George said with an irritated snort. Their friendship had cooled somewhat since their argument, though they still lived together, George was unsure just how much longer that would last. "Out with it."
The younger buck sighed. "Then I'll be blunt, for once. Once our velvet comes off most does become fair game. You find a doe, you court her, and defend her from all comers. Though she does have some choice in the matter. If a stag comes along with a larger rack, all isn't lost. A battle of wits is just as powerful as pure brute strength. Many does want someone smart as well as handsome.
"When she comes into season you'll know it. It'll smell like nothing you can imagine. If your mutual feelings run deep, then you can become her year-mate after a little Temple ceremony. If she wants you again the next year, wonderful and you renew the contract. That's the closest thing we have to marriage."
George stared, trying to absorb this. "My wife... the Church..."
"Neither have to find out. Especially the Kalerand Church. Your wife will have to adjust the same way once you get her over here."
"You mean 'if'." Margaret was rather headstrong. There was no ordering her around. George loved her, but it would take a well-reasoned argument to convince her. Once he regained his ability to compose well.
The two pricked their ears as a commotion rippled outside. "A ship?" Ben said, picking it up only a second before George did. "No... ships! But it's too late for... This doesn't make sense!"
Both left for the Town Dock, where people from all parts of town were gathering. The remaining merchants and their ships had gone three days before, leaving only a couple dozen humans when the Dock could house up to three hundred. The well-built structure half-filled one of the coves, and was magically protected against storms and high water. In the early days after the Crown had reestablished contact they realized that sailors who remained onboard their ships stayed human. But the Town Dock's inns were expensive, and the brass amulets were cheap, which explained why George had stayed at an inn inside the city proper. Similar Docks had been constructed at various ports in Kalerand, as the same rules applied to visiting colonists.
Visible from shore were two warships bedecked with multicolored pennons and flags, making a show of their arrival on a beautiful, if slightly chilly, day. The first was one of the largest the town had ever seen, with twenty five gunports just on one side. A Kalerand Navy fourth-rater. The ship that followed had sixteen on a side, a frigate. Both ships looked slightly the worse for wear, with a couple broken spars and frayed rigging. The Northern Ocean had given them a battering.
The smaller warship flew the red cross flag of the Church.
The Town Dock was so packed the two couldn't get close. So like hundreds of others they found a place to stand and wait. Rumors rippled through the crowd, both excited and worried. Speculation ran rampant, ranging from the mundane to the outlandish. "They've sent them to fight the pirates!" said one, which annoyed George no end. Where were they a fortnight ago? And besides, the Crown couldn't possibly have responded so quickly. Even with the wind at their backs and with a good windstone, the best time any ship had ever made was two weeks. Far more common was four or five. With sails alone it would take nearly ten.
What worried the crowd more was the Church flag. George had already gathered that worship here was hardly orthodox. He had found out that Benjamin had been going to morning worship at one of the numerous temples. There was one major, and quite natural, addition to the service.
The Land was alive, they said, and perhaps deserved worship equal to the Lord. But whether it belonged in the pantheon of the Old World was a matter of debate. For the Church had simply absorbed the local gods as it expanded over the centuries, placing them according to the role the Lord Decreed for them. Ahern, Kalerand's ancient harp-strumming chief god, was among them. But where did the Land fit in the scheme of things? Had the Lord created it, or was it a thing unto itself?
During the services George attended, the sermons often spoke of the importance of caring for the Land, lest it lash out once more and make the colonists into true animals. Wasn't that what happened to the eagles down south? Aloof, highly territorial among themselves, and even more isolationist than the dragons. A whole colony of giant birds only distinguishable from their natural counterparts by their size. Nobody even knew if they could talk. If the magpies knew, they weren't telling.
The Colonies attracted few zealots to begin with, as few of them wanted to lose their humanity. In Kalerand they looked down at emigrants. But to George's knowledge they also didn't care much that the Colonies themselves existed, though they reaped the benefits of new magic like everyone else. So the Church flag was understandably a nervous mystery. There was a lot of hoof-stamping over it.
Another ripple of rumor flowed through the crowd, making George very impatient. But he had never seen--nor smelled--so many deer-people in one place before. Tall and short, fat and thin, with varying ear sizes and facial markings. Over half the bucks had their antlers polished and sharpened. George himself had opted not to follow the fashion, leaving his ten points with the rustic look. A few had even decorated their antlers in various clever ways, especially the smaller ones. They did draw the eye, though George could only imagine how they looked to females.
Some of the more stubborn even wore the wigs and tricorn hats that were so popular in Kalerand. They looked very odd indeed, trying to appear as human as possible.
Eventually the crowd parted, and to both bucks' shock and surprise, came a small detachment of a dozen red-coated soldiers with rifles over their shoulders. They marched as if it was a processional. All had silver spheres around their necks that were visibly etched with complicated runes. George recognized them as six-month amulets. The murmurs of the crowd grew louder when the saw who followed.
First was a man dressed in old fashioned royal red and gold livery. He carried the kingdom's flag: three gold griffins on a white background with the diagonal red crossjack. Then one man carrying a trumpet, and behind him, three men wearing gold-and-crystal amulets. The most powerful the wizards had ever devised, reputed to last one year, or even longer. Two men were richly dressed in fine suits of clothes. Red woolen waistcoats with brown overcoats, fine leather shoes, and odd tight trousers. They wore a small coat of arms on their jackets that neither buck recognized.
The last man was dressed in the white robes of the Church. But unlike almost every other bishop George had seen back home, his robes were severely plain rather the ornate gold-embroidered vestments George was more familiar with. The tension in the crowd grew. Tails bobbed nervously. What was going on?
The procession ended at the Crown House, where Seaborne's selectmen had been hastily called. George knew that the city council disbanded during the Rut and could only be recalled in a time of emergency. It was another frustrating hour before the eldest selectman appeared in the balcony overlooking the square. "We have a new Royal Governor!" he announced in a voice that carried to the farthest corners of the square. George couldn't help but notice that he had sixteen points. "Sir Charles Talbot will execute his duties for a minimum of one year. However, he will not be joining the newcomers!" There was an audible mumble of surprise. "Nevertheless, we will welcome him!"
Despite the doubts, there were equally loud murmurs of assent. There had been nearly two thousand newcomers to Seaborne alone in the past year. Almost every colony was seeing similar levels of immigration. The colony and the Crown were offering three hundred acres of free land, provided the emigrant was bringing his whole family and could pay for their passage. Even indentured servants who couldn't pay their own way were given a hundred acres of their own once their period of service was up.
But the Colonies had been self governing for a very long time. Just how much control would Sir Talbot actually exercise? And staying human? Yet there was a wary acceptance from the crowd. They were thrilled to still be subjects of the growing Kalerand Empire. Decades of increasingly active trade with the mother country had resulted in steady economic growth, and imported manufactured goods that they could not produce themselves.
This man would have a chance. But perhaps only one. The colonists had an wide streak of independence, and George wondered just how well control by an obvious outsider would be tolerated in the long run.
"Must you chew your cud so loudly?" Across the table, George glared at Benjamin. "I can hardly hear myself think!"
"Me?" the younger buck scoffed. "You sound like a thunderstorm!"
An iciness hung in the air between them that was physical as well as personal. It didn't take much to for one to get on the other's nerves any more. In fact, the verbal sparring over every little irritation quite often became physical, though not with the violence that characterized a fight over a doe. It was very clear to both of them that they were evenly matched, despite George's inexperience with his form. He was a little larger and had better reflexes. Whenever a doe passed by what warmth remained between them would freeze again and they would very nearly get into a staredown.
Benjamin had explained those in their more lucid periods. Hackles up, ears pinned back, head held low, antlers forward. Exactly like their four-legged cousins, except the stance could preclude a verbal duel as much as a battle of antlers. Often both at the same time.
Michael seemed very calm. The two elder bucks considered him almost a non-entity, and he went about his work with due diligence and a hint of amusement at his employers. The root cellar was well-stocked with winter supplies, the cottage clean. The only flaw was that the fire had gone out in the night. George had awoken to see his breath steaming out of his nostrils and frost coating some surfaces in the room. With his thick fur coat he barely felt the cold, but a few choice words with the servant were enough to send Michael with tail flagging to rebank the fire.
George glared at the remains of breakfast in front of him. "Acorn bread, acorn soup. Honeyed and roasted acorns. Raw acorns. Acorn pie. And countless other recipes. I'm sick of acorns!"
"Already? You're going to be eating them all winter," Ben replied. "We're trying to save money, and that means we can't eat like kings."
In truth, George was just trying to find something to complain about, and he knew it. There was more than just the so-called "food of the gods" in the root cellar. Suddenly he realized he had to go for a while, but not without finding an excuse. "I'd better start looking for marksmen and trackers, if I'm going to have any hope of finding that 'unicorn'."
Benjamin watched impassively as George started packing his things into a cloth sack. He had few possessions. Hoof pick, body comb, two suits of clothes, re-learning materials for writing and arithmetic, and his moneybelt with ten pounds in it. The rest was in the strongbox under a floorboard. The older buck gathered what remaining good feelings he had for Benjamin, knowing that the source of his anger was his burning blood. "Good luck," he said. "Perhaps you'll find... one... this year."
Ben's expression softened, his larger ears coming forwards a little. "And you. I still think what you're doing is foolhardy, but you've always taken much greater risks than I." George opened the door to leave, when Benjamin cleared his throat. The older buck turned his black-rimmed ears back a little to listen. "By the by," Ben said, "I can't help you find the best marksmen, but I know who might be able to. The magpies are in love with information of all types. They'll part with it for something shiny."
With the arrival of the Royal Governor and the Rut at very nearly the same time, the character of the colony had changed. While the smaller of the two naval vessels was now patrolling a few hundred miles of coastline from New Warwick to Yarmouth, the larger one had moored in the harbor and most of its three hundred-member crew had practically taken over the Town Dock. But there was a problem with sailors, and after a dozen who had snuck off at night ended up becoming new Seaborne citizens, the captain said that the he would put any more sailors who did in irons and send them back to Kalerand. Without any magical protection.
One of the town's selectmen had the audacity to say they would be fine additions to the Crown Forest in their animal state.
There were no more new deer-men, but sailors being sailors, they did avail themselves to the services of does of loose moral character without forgetting the all-important month-amulets. George wondered if one of those was the blue-eyed doe. She had to be making money somehow. But the addition of the rowdy sailors had also made brawls with the already short-tempered, Rut-aggravated bucks a matter of inevitability.
Whatever occurred, George wouldn't be in town to see it. His admittedly cursory investigations had made him conclude that the best marksmen weren't to be found in the city. So he decided to walk inland, making good time down Seaborne Neck to where it connected with the mainland. The tide was coming in, so he had to dodge wavelets that flowed over what passed for a road. Perhaps one of these days someone would build a decent causeway. I should find a horse for hire. Otherwise I'm going to be walking all season, he thought, shifting the weight on his back. For his own defense he had bought a shortsword, which he knew he could use, a dagger, and a flintlock pistol. The deer-people were hardly an ideal community. There were thieves and troublemakers, like everywhere else.
Real wolves and other creatures who would also cheerfully make a meal of him. But unlike his four-legged cousins, George had hands. Three fingers and a thumb were very powerful tools. They built empires, carved civilization out of wilderness; and if the rumors George had heard had any truth to them at all, had shot off the ears and tails of a couple score of wolfmen soon after the Colonies were Claimed.
Fallen leaves swirled around George's cloven hooves. The land in this area still bore the scars of the fifty years when the colonists had been human. They were understandably more careful what they took from the Land now. The trees here were shorter than George had seen inland. The road was barely worthy of the name, marked only by wagon wheel ruts and hoofprints, both of horses and deer-people. George shivered a little as he passed through the remains of the fort that had once been at the base of the Neck. The city had a certain combination of smells--mostly bad--but now that he was outside, in clearer air, he became aware of new ones.
It wasn't the chilly mid-October air that made him shiver. For all his bravado, there was nobody on the road, and he only had a vague idea where he was going. He flicked his tail nervously, ears twisting forward and back. He paused to sniff the air after a lick of his nose. The wind tore showers of leaves off the half-bare trees in a cacophony of creaking branches, ruffled his fur, and pulled suspicious odors from his nostrils before he could name them. But with the sky darkening and the wind turning from north to west, he decided that he'd chosen a rather inopportune moment to leave the cottage. There was a coastal storm coming. Ben had described them in fine detail, and this bore all the signs. I should find shelter. I think there's a town...
Hard to believe that only six weeks since he had arrived on his ship to both inspect Benjamin's side of the business and load it with the first cargo. If that doe hadn't removed his amulet he would have been back home by now, and likely trying to explain himself to the Company shareholders and investors. He was the one ultimately responsible for how their money was spent. Such ventures were risky, especially when starting out. And if he had returned home the investors would have taken every farthing he had. Assuming the ship with the money and letters made it back, Margaret and the children wouldn't be threatened until summer. Even if he couldn't find and kill a unicorn, the materials Ben was collecting would probably repay the hundred pounds several times over and convince the investors they could try again.
The nearest settlement to Seaborne was a little town by the name of Whitetree, for the massive white-barked oak that sat in the center of the village green. There were several inns here of varying quality. It was a model town even more than Seaborne was, intended to give human merchants a "taste of colonial life" without taking them into the deep woods. In point of fact, no human had been more than fifteen miles into the hinterlands since the colonies were Claimed. Somewhere nearby was their hired wizard. George resolved to find him after the storm blew over.
There was more activity in the village. People were shuttering their windows in preparation for the storm. The first raindrops began to spatter in the dirt as George hurried for the first inn at hand. An elderly doe standing in the doorway waved him in. "You're in luck, sir!" she called. "We do have room for you."
"Much obliged," George replied. "Rates?"
"Sixpence a night, and that includes a meal for one such as you. Newcomer's special."
The buck stared. "How could..?"
The matronly doe smiled. There was no malice in her voice. "Only a newcomer would be so foolish to start out just before a storm like this, though I can take a guess at why you did. I can smell your friend on you. Tenner, is he?" The rain started coming down harder. George followed as she beckoned him inside.
Tallow candles and a roaring fire cast an orange, flickering light. To human eyes it would've been barely adequate. But to the deer-people it was easy to read by. The main room of the inn was sparsely populated and had the greasy smell of a place humans stayed often. George couldn't find a chair that had accommodations for his tail, so he opted to sit at the bar. The only others inside were three bucks--two eight-pointers and a younger six all sitting by themselves--and five does grazing on a bowl of acorns, chatting away in quiet, cheerful voices. The pleasant sweetness of their scents took the edge off the otherwise reeking space.
"Would you like a meal?" the innkeeper asked. "We have everything from a ha'penny beer to even some wine all the way from Altria. But for you I think I can take off half." Outside, the wind had picked up even more, rattling the shutters with increasing force. "Possibly more. This is our thin time of year."
"You don't have to make such accommodations for me," George replied.
The old doe practically glowed. "I insist, for a handsome one as yourself." There was a quiet giggling from the table. "Quiet, you girls!"
From outside, over and above the wind, came a splatter, and the sound of scrambling feet. Seconds later came a knock on the door that sounded odd, and a squawking voice. "Ho the inn! Can't you let a poor, soaked bird inside?"
"Open the door, Elizabeth," the old doe ordered. "Ann must be soaked. Silly bird."
Not only soaked, but covered in mud and manure from what was probably a rough landing in the quickening wind. Her long tail feathers were a mess, and the rest of her was in little better condition. The innkeeper watched the giant black-and-white bird in bemusement. The magpie cocked her head. Her voice was androgynous, and if George hadn't heard her name he couldn't have told the difference.
"Don't say it, Mary. I know I'm a damned fool for flying in this weather. But I almost made it to Seaborne." Around the four-foot magpie's chest was a series of brown leather straps, and attached to them, three different satchels. Message tubes were affixed to her feet. It wasn't the first time George had seen one up close. They were essentially massively oversized versions of magpies with a vaguely more human body shape. The top of her head would come up to Geroge's waist. Since they lacked hands, their splayed avian feet were dexterous enough to compensate for some tasks. They had wonderful vision, and were reportedly exploring the Continent for the Crown. Benjamin had smartly hired one as a scout for herbs and other plants that couldn't be cultivated. The bird bobbed her head as she walked, folding her wings. "Season's finally over, eh?"
"Not as early this year," the innkeeper informed. "There were at least a dozen more ships this time. And every human clamoring for the comforts of home."
George looked around. The furniture had obviously been imported from Kalerand, and in the latest style. The inn was of much higher quality than he had first thought. Place like this should cost at least a couple shillings a night, he thought. But considering how smitten she apparently was with him, he wondered if it was honest to stay and take advantage.
The magpie shuffled along the floor with a half-hopping gait. One of the five does at the table spread a linen sheet around her perch while she started to preen her feathers vigorously. Nobody except him paid the bird any attention, as if this happened all the time. At least the process gave him something else to focus on than the adoration of an elderly doe. He wondered if he should ask the magpie about marksmen. Though the idea of a woman doing such work felt uncomfortable.
"Wishing you'd settled in Hull instead?" the magpie said, looking up from her preening. "You didn't have to come to Seaborne, you know. And the flying..."
"This is jarring enough," George replied. "And I didn't plan on this in the first place."
"I see," the bird said evenly. Her expression was nigh unreadable, and whatever scent she had was covered by her dirty feathers. "Well, I hope you're making the best of it, mister?"
"Peryton," the buck replied. "In fact, I'm looking for some information, and a friend told me I should ask one of you magpies."
The bird brightened. "Really? My rates are very reasonable. If I can't find the information I know someone who can."
"But I'm far too exhausted to talk business," she said, punctuating her fatigue with a yawn. "Tomorrow, perhaps. Now if you'll excuse me, Mr. Peryton, I'm going to roost." She hopped off the perch and headed for the hallway that apparently led to the floor-level rooms.
At the dismissal, George nodded and turned his attention to the three bucks sitting at different long tables in the large room, sizing them up. The two eight-pointers seemed amazingly tolerant of one another. They looked back at him calmly at his glaring, far more than they had right to be. One eight-pointer spoke. "Get him, Jason."
"I can smell it," replied the other. "Why do we have to humor newcomers when they act like fourlegs?"
"Because the Land desires it so, boys," the innkeeper replied sternly.
"Yes, mother." The long-suffering expression on their faces said all.
"Don't talk to me in that tone of voice, young stags! If it wasn't for the Land I wouldn't have even been your mother! Ungrateful..." The elderly doe shook her head. "By the Harp, I treasure you all, but my if you aren't a trial..." The innkeeper stopped midsentence. "Oh, my. Sarah. Pardon me, children." She hurried into the kitchen.
George became aware of a sweet smell at the same time he heard a voice from the kitchen. "Is it time, dear?" came the innkeeper's concerned voice. "I can smell it, so there's no use lying."
"I feel sick," replied a familiar voice. "I really don't want to do this... why can't I have one of the potions you give your girls?"
"Because they're not of age, Sarah. You know you don't have that excuse. Simply accept that this is the Land's purpose for you and all will be well." There was an icy pause. This appeared to have been a long-running argument between them. "I've done my best for you. I am an example to you that you can be happy if you accept your lot. This is why they placed you with me in the first place. Now, there's a very handsome stag out there right now. I know you can smell him. He can certainly smell you. My boys know you're off limits. He's a newcomer like yourself. Go to him and fulfill your womanly duty."
The last sentence was half a command and half a plea. But George felt a growing certainty. Storm or no storm, he grasped his carry-sack to get up and find another in. But the blue-eyed doe entered before he could move more than a few inches. She seemed dazed, and didn't recognize him at first sight.
Their eyes met. Only the overriding sweetness of her scent prevented him from snapping. All he could do was stare at her loveliness, torn between two very different emotions. Anger reluctantly won out, and he advanced to strike her on the muzzle. The innkeeper rushed to place herself between them. "What do you think you're doing?"
George groped for words through a cloud of rage. "If it wasn't for her I would be home by now! Gods, madam. She stole my amulet hoping I'd end up like her!"
"She has done some questionable things," the innkeeper admitted. Behind George, the three bucks had risen and were closing in behind. "But she was used as the Land's instrument! You were meant to stay here as she was meant to be a doe! Just as I was. You see? These are all my children."
George stared incredulously. His stomachs felt twisted around each other as the innkeeper's words hit him like a warhammer. He had encountered his fair share of zealots in his time. But finding one here was unexpected. However, given the nature of the place where he found himself, there was at least a tiny possibility that she was right. "Madam," he said through clenched teeth. "I have a wife and children."
"Human wife. Human children. Thousands of miles away," the innkeeper said, eyes twinkling. "Treat Sarah with the respect and adoration that you would her. Even if she protests right now, the fire in her blood in yours will change that. You newcomers are always the most susceptible to such things."
Sarah sighed deeply and folded her arms under her plain bodice, as if hugging herself. "You're not the only one with a wife and family, Mr. Peryton. At least you have the potential of seeing yours again."
He couldn't take his eyes off of her. That simple statement doused his anger. Slowly, he lowered himself down onto a bench. "I'd... I'd probably be in the poorhouse in Kalerand if you hadn't done what you did," he admitted, shaking. His anger still smoldered, but it was no longer uncontrollable. "I have a chance for prosperity I mightn't have had otherwise, now." He lip-curled, reflexively. Now that his anger had nearly gone the blue-eyed doe's readiness was taking his thoughts apart like uncarded wool.
"Don't you see?" the innkeeper said in a tone of voice George had always heard from a priest. "You were meant to be here. The Lord Creator and the Land acting together.
"Elizabeth!" the old doe ordered with a snap of her fingers. One of her youngest daughters sprang to her feet. "Prepare a room for them."
George stared up at the ceiling as best he could, but his left eye kept drifting back to Sarah's peaceful, sleeping figure beside him. She was on her side, muzzle resting on his chest, and had cuddled against him so that her soft bosom pressed warmly against his lower torso. His arm was wrapped around her possessively. Dawn light filtering through the slatted shutters lit the room in a soft, golden glow illuminating lanes of dust floating in the air. The nor'easter had spent itself in the night, and brought with what was probably a beautiful morning.
The odor of her Heat was strong but dissipating, and the sharp fragrance of sex remained. His memories were foggy, but he was certain what had happened. Both of them were still naked, as the Land had made them, resting on a large bed absent of blankets. What happened? he asked himself. We were so against doing that... that zealot's will. What happened? He remembered an hour of uncomfortable silence, then some talk, then... a change in the air. A perfume like the sweetest honey that had mutually stirred their passion. His memories from then on were unreliable at best, filled with sound-scents and strong emotion.
The doe shifted in her sleep, her breathing quickened, and her blue eyes slowly opened. She lay there for a few seconds, seemingly content, her ears moving languidly, before she noticed he was awake. With a deep sigh, she separated herself from him and sat up. Her lovely figure moved in hypnotic ways so that he had to shut his eyes tight again. "Am I that hard to look upon?" she asked with a hint of concern.
"No," he replied. "Just the opposite. I'm just trying to keep myself under control. But to be honest I'm still too tired for a repeat performance anyway."
"Good. So open your eyes. Look at me and tell me what you see."
The pleading note in her voice made him obey. He propped himself up by the elbows and had his first coherent look at her nudity. She sat with her legs folded beneath her. The Land had kept most human features on doe-women's torsos, for some reason. She had firm, full breasts, a relatively narrow waist, and perfect hips. Her round tummy and large thighs bespoke of a body prepared for winter, while her thick fur coat made her look a little plumper than she really was. She wasn't obese, but certainly pleasantly filled out. "A woman," he said, not sure what she wanted to hear but feeling like he should be honest with her and with himself. "A lovely one at that."
She didn't seem upset with him. Instead, she just rested one of her hands on her belly then looked up at the sky in supplication. After muttering what was probably a prayer, she regained her composure. "She was right. Damn her. She kept insisting I couldn't go against my nature. Mary says the Land changed her utterly. I suppose I can hardly disagree with her, now." There was complete resignation in her voice.
George noticed there were new divots in the headboard above his antlers. Apparently they'd been quite active. "I'm sorry if I forced this on you."
"You can't go against yours, either." Sarah chuckled ruefully. "Besides, if I hadn't wanted you, I would've hit you over the head with that." She gestured with her muzzle at the silver candlestick on the bed table. It looked like it could fell an ox. "I would be lying to myself if I said it didn't feel... right." She paused a moment, scratching her white-furred belly. "What I want to know is how you feel about this."
"I didn't need this complication, to be honest," he replied. Truth be told, adultery wasn't as severely punished back home as it used to be. Most of the time the magistrates looked the other way. But he would have to face Margaret's wrath at the very least. "But there's no way to send a message to my wife until after Spring Equinox. I suppose I have time to think about it."
"Speaking of complications," she said, again rubbing her belly. "I never thought I'd have to deal with this one--at least, before." Again, she didn't sound upset. In fact, she didn't seem unhappy at possibly being pregnant. Quite the opposite. There was a sort of motherly desire and a hint of fascination in her voice.
The ten-point buck felt his ears grow hot. "I... I suppose I can send you some money, if you do have a child..." He felt, if not love, than deep satisfaction. Was the Land rewarding him for obeying it? Or was it just his imagination? "It would be proper..." he stammered.
"Proper and traditional, yes. But no need, considering what I did to you. I'll have to depend on Mary for guidance, unfortunately," Sarah said. "I just hope I can face her this morning without wringing her neck!"
They dressed slowly, but in silence. She couldn't take her adoring eyes off him, and for a moment he felt resentment boil up again. When he had put on his waistcoat he finally said what was on his mind. "Why did you do it? Do this to me, I mean. And my friend says you've done it more than once?"
Sarah sighed. "Loneliness. I... I hate to say it, but it would've been nice to have another sex changer like myself who wasn't Mary. You know I'm the first newcomer this happened to in three years? The Colony was two thirds men when it was Claimed, Mr. Peryton. The Land corrected that imbalance, but it still happens every now and again. Slightly more men come here than women. What records the city has from that period show that not one victim killed herself, and the bucks accepted them. That's how strong this is. The Land changes your very soul. It just takes a while to accept Its judgment."
The buck stared at her. "I can't even imagine what it's like for you. In fact, I'd rather not think about it."
The blue-eyed doe paused in her dressing. She fumbled with the ties of her bodice. "You don't have to. This is my burden to bear, and I've caused you enough grief." She tried to tie the front again and snorted in frustration. "But if you wouldn't mind, I would like some help with my petticoats."
Breakfast consisted of toasted acorn bread slathered with butter, and oat porridge sweetened with maple syrup. George ate slowly, savoring every bite and the rich smells that accompanied it, while he waited for the magpie to make good on her word. Turning his mind to business again gave him some comfort, but he was well aware that the Rut had barely gotten started and there were many more does he was likely to come across who hadn't come into their Heat yet. But he couldn't believe that all commerce stopped for this. The innkeeper's three sons seemed far more in control of themselves than he. George disliked the way they smirked at him, but they were properly deferent to the ten-pointer, or "tenner" as they referred to him.
To her credit, the innkeeper didn't say a word. Instead she put on airs, exuding an insufferable smugness that infuriated the new buck more than any overt gloating would have. It took all his willpower to leave the issue at peace.
When the magpie came out of her room, she nodded to acknowledge his presence, then started eating her own breakfast. A huge bowl full of unhulled grain and what looked like dried insects. Finally, after fifteen minutes of spreading mess around, she seemed ready to talk business. The messenger bird listened to his proposal intently, then cocked her head. "You're hunting unicorns? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?"
"The wizard provided enough information, I thought," George replied.
The black-and-white bird cackled, then shook her head. "These aren't like Old World unicorns, my naïve friend. Those are just white horses with sparkly horns. Our unicorns are twice their size, have paws instead of hooves, and can stand on their hind legs. And they can only be found at least fifty miles inland. When humans arrived they had no fear, you see. And when the wizards discovered that horn of theirs is pure concentrated magic, they killed them all within easy reach. And that same horn? The magic in it makes mature ones move faster than even the swiftest horse.
"I don't think any of the meat-eaters catch more than one every few years. Takes a whole pack days to tire one out enough to corner it. They didn't know enough to be afraid of humans, but they sure know what a wolf or a fox smells like."
"I'm committed. And I'm willing to pay you reasonably to find marksmen among my new people, here." George jingled the coins in his moneybelt.
"I have to admit, you do have a better chance than the wolves." The magpie licked her long black beak. "They won't expect you to be a threat. Best marksmen are down near the Warwick border. They'll have the kind of guns you need. I can spread the word at about six towns who know and trust me, but you'll have to follow up and convince them yourself. Two shillings a town."
George tried to remain impassive. He tried to do the math in his head, and hoped he was doing it right. "That seems rather expensive. Can we say one and four pence?"
"One and ten."
"One and six and a ha'penny, and that's my final offer."
"Done," the bird said after a short pause. She mantled her wings a little, turning her head left and right so she saw him first in one eye, then the other. "But don't expect any response for a couple of fortnights, and be prepared for a couple of does to sign up. Just fill me in on the details of how much you're paying them and I'll get to it once I've delivered my messages to Seaborne."
Tantalizing scents flowed from the kitchen where Sarah was working. As he completed his dealings with the magpie and paid for the room, she came out carrying a package wrapped in paper that smelled of rosemary and other, less familiar herbs. George looked askance. "Travel bread, and some other things," she said. "They'll keep you from getting ill. I'm told we're just as susceptible to deer diseases, so there's some herbs they eat in there that repel ticks and malodorous airs."
"Thank you, Miss Baker," he said. He took one last look at her beauty, just to see if he felt anything deeper for her. There was a connection, but it felt tenuous at best. "I'll take my leave, then."
Two days after the storm, Benjamin Greene watched out his window while workers repaired the mill. His own cottage had sustained some damage in the blow, but nothing Michael couldn't fix. The young buck had come as a jack-of-all-trades, able to repair thatch, make meals, act as a manservant, and basically do whatever Ben required of him. He was, in fact, a distant cousin recommended by a trusted family member. The letter that came with him had said that the young man had practically leapt at the opportunity to emigrate, knowing full well what would happen to him. The Company had paid for his passage in exchange for his indenture. Curiously, there was even a certain family resemblance in the wide white markings around his eyes.
Before Michael, Ben had employed a number of young native bucks, but he always had the feeling he was being laughed at behind his back. There was a sort of smugness, an arrogance, towards newcomers from many younger native-born. They didn't understand humans very well, and newcomers never quite fit in, no matter how long they'd lived here. Newcomers' children, on the other hand, didn't suffer the same aloofness from their native peers.
After lapping up his morning tea, Ben looked at the wizard's want-list again. There were about fifteen items, but many of them were rare, and in amounts that seemed unrealistic by far. He wasn't looking to fill an entire packet ship's hold. The whole order amounted to much less than a hundredweight. But those few items had the potential for massive profit. Two pounds of snow flowers. Two pounds? Those things only grow in deep winter with at least three feet of snow on top of them! I don't even know what most of these things are supposed to be used for. The many branches of modern wizardry used the same components for vastly different things. "I should probably go see Thomas," he said, thinking of his hired native wizard. "He'll know better..."
"You certain, sir?" said Michael as he tended some porridge in a small caldron hanging over the fire. He had a tenor voice that still cracked at times. He was rake-thin and coming into maturity rather late. His muzzle was visibly shorter and more steeply-sloped. If he had been a fourlegs buck he'd be a yearling. "I've met some wizards and he seems a little eccentric."
Ben snorted. "Did I ask for your opinion?"
The four-point buck cowered, shrinking back. "I'm sorry, sir..."
"It's okay," Ben said quickly. "This is my third Rut and I'm still not used to it."
"Well sir, this is my first and I feel like uprooting trees sometimes!"
They both shared a chuckle, which pulled some of the tension out of the room. "But really," the young buck continued, "there were times when I thought you and Master Peryton were going to start sparring with each other. And I'm not talking play-fights."
Hollow clatters of antlers-against-antlers were often heard from the now-open windows. The white-tailed species they resembled didn't collect harems like elk, so there were plenty of disputes among the lower ranks. The sweet smell of the First Heat was slowly coming into play as most does experienced it within a week of one another. If it hadn't been for the storm Ben would've been on the prowl, himself. But the Company's dire financial straits was cooling his ardor in a way he didn't think possible. Unlike his first two years, he now considered it viable to actually get work done in the midst of the most turbulent time of the year. Some things just couldn't wait.
At least three quarters of the list wouldn't be ready for the foragers until the first snows fell. For the other items he'd have to visit some farms and see if all of the autumn crop was spoken for. Two weren't even proper plants, but a fungi. ¬He had time to waste, and amorous ambitions to fulfill. Three Heats, he thought. Time enough to sow wild oats of my own. Maybe even find a year-mate...
Ben left his mark in all his normal places about town. Scent came first, advertising "I'm here" to any prospective does. His many rivals of course tried to obliterate his marks, so they required constant renewal and the occasional staredown if he met one at the same time a doe was looking on. This was what took so much time from day-to-day activities like commerce. If Ben spent too much time minding the business, there would be little chance of winning a wife.
The First Heat passed without any females professing interest in him, and left an unknown number for the Second. The problem was that the only way to know which were now with child was to wait and see who came into readiness the next time. However, the number still dropped significantly as some paired off as year-mates or entered into longer term relationships. The competition thus grew fiercer, and took on different forms.
Two weeks after George left to find his marksmen, Ben entered the South Meeting House to attend a debate between two of the higher-ranking bucks in the community. There were some who considered fighting with antlers "vulgar and barbaric". Instead, they debated a topic chosen by the object of their courting. The debates were open to the public. When Ben arrived one afternoon when the temperature was barely above the freezing mark, the galleries were nearly full.
There were two levels in the Meeting House. The pews in front of the raised lectern where the debaters would speak, and the balconies above. Bucks were required to sit up and away from the debaters, while the does took the pews. As Ben jostled the lower-ranked bucks for a better seat, the general murmuring of the crowed increased to a nearly intolerable volume, as if everybody was suddenly talking at once. He folded his ears back and looked down into the pews. Just entering through the double doors at the rear were the Royal Governor and the Archbishop. They were accompanied by two unarmed soldiers, who took up positions at the rear of the hall. All the humans were in heavy woolens against the cold. "What are they doing here?" grumbled an eighter next to Ben. "They're not welcome."
"We can't very well throw them out," replied another. "Let them sit and watch. Perhaps they're here to learn."
The Master of Ceremonies was in fact an old and respected doe dressed in her finest gown. "Greetings to all," she said, speaking in clear tones that broke through the quieting crowd. "Your eminence and Sir Talbot, you're about to witness one of our fine traditions established by our formerly human forebears. We are not animals. However, nor are we quite human. The debates you will see are among the most civilized forms of winning a wife, for it is her who will decide the victor of her affections. And it should be noted that such contests are not decided by how many points the buck has, but the sharpness of his wits. Now, Goodman Hart, and Goodman Wallace, if you would come forward. Miss Tanner, please take your seat as judge."
The named doe sat in a chair in front of the front pews, equally between the two debaters. Each buck--a tenner, and an eighter--took his place. Ben recognized both of them. They were of some standing in the city, both having served terms as selectmen, and successful businessmen themselves. Their potential wife faced the crowd. "The subject is: Why has the Crown sent a Royal Governor at this time? His presence was not requested, and although we are loyal subjects of the Queen, we governed ourselves even before this Land made us Her own. Clearly, they thought our need important enough to risk life and limb to cross the tempest-tossed Northern Ocean. They might have easily been sunk. So, why is he here, and should he be in the first place?"
Someone had probably tipped off the two human authorities. An angry look on his face, Sir Talbot started to rise, only to be stopped by the Archbishop putting a strong hand firmly on his shoulder. The crowd remained silent, straining to hear whatever the churchman whispered into his ear. But there was nothing they could hear. The Royal Governor sunk back into the pew stone-faced, stinking of anger and resentment. But he remained silent. The Archbishop remained calm, clearly not upset at all. In fact, he appeared quite interested.
The Archbishop, whose name Benjamin could not recall, was even more of an unknown quantity than the Royal Governor. He had gone to the city's main temple and into near seclusion from the day of his arrival. But for the moment, Ben was very grateful the man was there.
It was going to be a very interesting debate.
A few days later Ben was once more going over the Company's finances as snow fell outside. The fire warmed the room enough to keep their breath from puffing into clouds and the ink from freezing. It was just past dawn, and the softly falling flakes had covered everything outside the window in a patina of white. Micheal had never seen snow this early before. They were small, dry flakes that presaged a heavier snowfall in the afternoon. He watched it fall between sips of hot tea. "You said the harbor freezes over?"
"It's usually icebound by Solstice. The selectmen do sometimes keep it open with magic if need be. But that's a lot of burnroot they'd rather send back to Kalerand. Things become rather isolated around here in deep winter." He dipped the quill pen and added up more figures, subtracted from others, trying to come to a number that didn't end up in the red. Winter foragers were expensive in terms of wages, and he needed at least a dozen to get anything done. What's more, the snow meant he'd have to hire them within the next few days if he was to be prepared. The bears were splendid last summer... but no... they get even more lethargic than we do. Some of them even hibernate. That left the masked dogs, with their sensitive hands. The wolves were always there... he'd hire a few of them for protection from the huge four-leggers that lived in the hinterland, though he wondered if they were entirely trustworthy.
Someone knocked on the door. This was a polite, exact knock of exactly five taps, as if by a drummer. Michael buttoned up his tunic and opened the door. He looked upon a human in a blue-and-white naval uniform. "May I ask who is calling?"
The young human seemed wide-eyed and nervous, as if he had never been into town before and had only seen deer-people from afar. He certainly wasn't any older than Michael. "Captain Gray wishes to bid your Master... uh... Master Benjamin Greene that he come to the Town Dock immediately. There is some news regarding his vessel and the pirates who stole her. Sir."
Ben set the quill pen back into the inkwell immediately. "Tell your captain I'll be along momentarily, lad."
"Very good, sir. I shall..." the blonde midshipman broke off, and then stared so more. "Sir... if I may ask..."
"Ask what?" Ben grunted.
"I know it's not my place, but. Why would you do something so... so... abominable to yourself?"
Ben pinned his ears back. "You're right. It's not your place. Run along, lad."
The midshipman retreated.
Putting on his better suit, including the closely-cut, knee-length blue coat, Ben made sure he looked his best. If the captain's attitude was anything like the midshipman's, he was in for a difficult talk.
Captain Gray seemed young for a captain, but he was every bit the spit-and-polish commander in Her Majesty's Navy. His sea-blue uniform had a great deal of gold trim, and he wore a white powdered wig beneath his hat. He wore a single gold epaulet on his right shoulder. They met at one of the inns next to where his warship was moored. "Master Greene, I presume?" He smiled a little at Ben's nod. "Splendid. I must admit you all look alike to me. But I digress. I have some wonderful news for you. One of your messenger birds from down south arrived last night. The HMS Eagle was on patrol off of Gent and found your little packet ship."
"I'm sorry sir, but 'found' doesn't sound ideal. What kind of condition is she in?" Gent was more or less the southernmost colony. Only the "dragons" were further south. Between Gent and the dragons was Kalerand's remaining Lost Colony. They were now huge eagles and were even more isolationist than the reptiles, though they didn't seem to care if anyone entered their territory. They simply didn't talk to anybody--if they could talk. But nor did they threaten interlopers unless one of their nests were approached.
The captain's expression turned guarded. "Well, you know the Solerans. Always stealing our ships because they don't know how to build them tough enough for Northern Ocean waters. We believe that some of their colonists became some sort of waterborne creature that facilitated the theft." He shrugged. "I'm afraid your ship was heavily damaged. It was necessary to turn cannon on her. But she's still seaworthy--sturdy craft for a civilian vessel, I must say--and a crew will bring her back north to you before your harbor freezes over."
A glimmer of hope formed in Ben's eyes. "And the cargo?"
"Ah, that's where the situation worsens, I'm afraid," Captain Gray replied. He explained how the smuggling operation worked. Since Kalerandish ships were far better built than their own, due to the trees that grew there, Soleran pirates stole them at every opportunity. Since one of their colonies apparently became some sort of waterborne creature the ship thefts were easily accomplished, just never as far north as Seaborne before. The cargo was mostly gone, sold to some Altrian smuggler the pirates had met in the calmer waters of the Southern Seas. "I'm afraid we have to confiscate the remaining cargo. Evidence, you understand. You can petition the Crown for reimbursement through the Royal Governor, but don't expect quick action."
"Thank you, Captain," Ben replied. The explanation got his mind turning. Soleran pirates meeting Altrian smugglers? That would give some good reasons why his father's business in Altria had failed so unexpectedly. Difficult to compete with a black market in goods from the Virgin Lands undercutting his prices. But the whole idea smacked of hypocrisy. Altria had officially disowned its Colonies, and considered what had happened so abhorrent they'd even stricken any mention from their history.
"You should know there's an Altrian coming northwards with your ship," Captain Gray added. "A horse-man. Damned Solerans kidnapped him right off his farm to translate. Apparently he's decided to try and reach his kingdom's old Colonies north of Yarmouth. Can't imagine what kind of reception he'll receive. All three fired cannon at us."
Along the convoluted coastline were numerous small harbors. What port facilities there were in Mystic consisted of a few small wharves that extended out into a wide bay barely protected from the ocean swell. Mystic was nearly a hundred miles from Seaborne and existed on a strange, fuzzy borderland where even members of a single household had ended up different either wolves or deer, depending on which side of the house they slept on. But this was where the magpie had directed George to. A line of six tiny towns along a riverbank and a dozen leagues of road.
While the wharf seemed a little ill-kept, the village George strolled into was in good repair. The two-story houses were painted brown, white, or yellow, the sides covered in shingles in a style unfamiliar to him. His entry caused a stir. Muzzles stuck out of windows, bucks and does alike paused in their winter preparations and repairs from storm damage. Children--dozens of them--stopped playing. He wondered if Ann had gotten here before him. The voyage had taken a day and a half against the current.
To his shock and dismay, clothing seemed more like a suggestion to these people. The majority of the bucks went bare-chested, and even the does seemed to have lost all sense of modesty, with only a wide strip of material around their chests that passed for a bodice, and shorter skirts. George took a moment to straighten his brown waistcoat and breeches.
Finally, an elderly buck with a degenerate pair of antlers and several notches in his ears limped towards him. "You'd be Goodman Peryton, then?" he quavered. "Aye, I'm sure of it. We haven't have a newcomer in these parts for five years." The old buck gestured vaguely towards the New Warwick side of the river. "They fear the wolves, you see. We don't."
"That's good," George replied. "I'm looking for fearlessness."
The gray-muzzle tilted his head and his friendly tone turned on its tail. "Aye, so we understand. But ye won't find any youngsters foolish enough to follow the likes of you here! I suggest ye move on, or go back where ye came from." He snorted, but did not get into a staredown. Instead he backed off and walked away with his tail flicking in anger.
Out of the corner of one eye the ten-pointer watched a doe stroll towards him. He moved one ear forward so he couldn't see her--but he sure could smell her. "Don't mind him," she said in a coy voice that oozed her obvious Heat. "Too old to compete for any of us. Now, the magpie was a little vague. I'm Matron of this village, so you can discuss your needs with me."
"Pardon, miss. But 'Matron'?" George asked. He was trying to avoid breathing too deeply. Even over the rankness of the cattle-trading town the lilting fragrance of does in their First Heat of the season tickled his mind in guilty ways. If the wind had been from her direction, and if the whole town hadn't smelled of cows, he couldn't have contained himself.
"It means she speaks for the town, newcomer," came a new voice out of sight from inside a house. It was deep and very masculine, with an obvious note of possessiveness about it. The buck the voice was attached to showed himself a few moments after. Like many others, he was bare-chested and only wore breeches; his white-furred chest shone with health. He had a swollen tree-trunk neck, and his upper arms and chest rippled beneath his fur. Crowning all of it were twelve nearly symmetrical points. "And she's spoken for, if you follow what I'm sayin'."
George thought she didn't think so. But he wrenched his mind back to business. "I'm not here for does. I have a wife in Kalerand..."
"Business, then," the twelve-point stag said, the angle of his ears declaring the subject forever closed. "Ann said you were looking for marksmen, but she didn't say what for. Now, explain yourself or you'll be walking back to Seaborne."
A crowd gathered as George explained what he needed them for. They were mostly older bucks, with antlers as large as the one who claimed the Matron as his own. She, along with a few other does with authoritative looks to them, listened intently. When he was finished, the Matron chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "Your friend Benjamin is partly right," she said. "We're not hunters by nature, but by necessity. It takes a great deal of discipline to overcome the urge to flag you tail and flee. After that, learning how to shoot is a secondary skill. Especially with our muskets."
The Matron's stag extended his hand. "John Hale," he said, a hint of challenge in his voice. George reluctantly took it, and found Hale had a strong grip that belied the thin forearms all deer-people had. Most of their muscles were bunched up in the upper arms. "Sixpence a day, you say?"
"I'm not sure I like this," the Matron said. "This isn't hunting for protection, John. The Land Claimed us for a reason and I don't think it wise to provoke It again. But I don't have the authority to say you can't go."
"I'm not hiring anyone without seeing some demonstration of marksmanship," George interjected. "If these unicorns can do half of what the Wizards' Guild says they can you'll need to hit a target at extreme distance with incredible accuracy. It's best not to get close to these creatures."
By the light in his eyes George had grabbed the larger buck's interest. "Aye, so it's unicorns, then? I'll give you your demonstration. Follow me, Mister Peryton."
George felt like a child compared to this man. He couldn't tell how old John Hale was, but he strode through the village as if he owned the place. Perhaps he did, after a fashion. He was the Matron's "husband" and perhaps had a seat on their Council. Hale led him, with several dozen villagefolk following them, towards an area in a field set up for target practice. A younger six-point buck came out of the back door of the house carrying what at first appeared to be simply a musket with a long barrel. A powder horn and ammunition pouch were slung around his shoulders. "Thank you, Matthew," Hale said as he took the proffered weapon.
Hale started loading the weapon. "The wolves respect us, see," he said. "We sort of kept them from going completely feral, I think. At least that's what the elders say. I'm not completely sure I believe it. We're all rational beings, after all." He poured a measured amount of powder down the barrel that came up to his shoulder. He then took out a musket ball--and George noticed that it wasn't round. It was sort of oblong with a flat end. He rammed it down flat end first, the wadding after. From what George could see, the barrel had a series of grooves inside with a clockwise twist.
Then George noticed something else. The striker was missing something, and was an odd shape. "No flint?"
"We have a mage-smith," the twelver-pointer explained. "Just flip this little toggle here and the set-spell activates. Gives a little spark when you pull the trigger. Don't need to worry about wet powder as much. Now, watch."
Across the wheat field were four straw targets. The first at a hundred paces, the second twice as far, the third at three hundred--and a fourth all the way at three hundred. Hale flipped what he called a "safety" switch on the breech of the gun, then place the barrel on a unipod to help steady it, keeping his head at an angle so he could look down the sight. Taking his time for careful aim, he fired. The report made George's tail stand on end. "Gods..."
There was a little puff of dust from the bull's-eye, dead center.
Hale chuckled as he reloaded. "Your average human musket can hit something accurately about that far. Just watch."
For the second and third shots George also saw telltale puffs of dust dead center. But the last one was too far away. Hale took two shots, just to show off. George got to dislike the arrogance. "Check each one," he said. "Especially the last."
"How could you possibly hit anything at five hundred paces?" George scoffed.
"Just go and look. I'll wait," Hale said. He started cleaning out the barrel.
As George walked out to examine the targets, he recalled a new word Hale had said. Just what was a mage-smith? It sounded like some sort of artificer. Those were wizards trained to imbue things with magic, and they did indeed work with tiny forges. But they were more like jewelers, for the most part. They provided the wealthy, merchants and gentry alike with all sorts of magical or clockwork toys. They did overlap a little with the alchemists, but few of them would lower themselves to work with common materials like iron. Besides, wasn't iron supposed to reject magic? Perhaps that "mage-smith" had used brass in the barrel, George thought.
He finally reached the farthest target, and examined it closely. There were three white concentric rings painted on the burlap. And there were, to George's shock and astonishment, two holes. One shot had hit the first outer ring that might have disabled the beast. The other would have found the unicorn's heart.
"You won't have as easy a time upriver as here in Mystic, Mister Peryton," Hale informed, pouring a bowl of cider for his new employer. After George had returned from the farthest target, Hale's manner had immediately changed from thinly veiled challenge into that of a genial host. He had invited George into his house, which he apparently shared with the village's Matron. "Fact, you'd be better off bringing me with you at the very least. They don't like newcomers much."
George thought about this after a few laps of cider to fortify him. He felt like he was in the twelver's shadow. Every instinct told him not to make any challenging moves, despite the Matron's clear interest in him. "Why is that?"
"No easy way to say this, but not everybody agreed with the cityfolk when they got back in with the Crown. They ain't ever seen newcomers there, either. And the farther you get from the city--I saw how you looked at us--the less human they are, really. Don't hardly wear clothes, even. Barely have houses." Hale made a distasteful expression. "There's rumors the worst of 'em even take union with fourlegs."
The idea of rejecting civilization like that seemed abhorrent to George. "Um... Ann didn't mention..."
"She wouldn't, 'cause you didn't ask. The birds don't give away what they know for free! Now, do you want me to come along or not?" Hale's eyes were green, George noticed. Another odd shade. His fur was a relatively dark rust, with a large white throat patch. "That is, if you want my rifle."
"Is that what you call it?" George said. Reason warred with the newcomer instincts imprinted on his mind. He wanted to reject it, because he knew if he hired Hale the more muscular stag would immediately take over the whole expedition. Reason won out, for once. "Yes... yes, I think you'll do well."
"'Wonderful!" Hale replied. "I haven't had a challenge like this since I was a young buck." He leaned forward a little. "But there's just one thing before we shake on it."
Hale folded his ears back. "Once we're inland, once we're all packed up, you defer to me. I realize it's your money, Mister Peryton, but you don't know this Land. I do. And if you want to stay alive, let alone have a chance of finding this beast, you'll let me lead. At sixpence a day, 'tis a bargain. I lead, you follow, and you learn. If you find a couple other marksmen, they follow me, also. Frankly, I think you'll only get one more."
The newcomer's first impulse was to stand up, shout a refusal, and storm out. His muscles tensed for a moment, but a supreme effort of control prevented him from ruining what was possibly his only chance of finding exactly what he needed. Still, he considered this for long minutes, the stubborn part not wanting to give over control of something so important to a person he barely knew. "Do you have any other proof of your hunting skills?"
The Matron snorted and rolled her eyes.
Hale chuckled. "Elizabeth doesn't approve of my younger days. But aye, I have proof positive. Pardon me a minute." He rose from the table and headed up the stairs, then returned a half minute later, carrying something wrapped in black velvet. Sitting down again, he unwrapped the item. George stared. It was about the length of his index finger, pearly white, a single straight spike that came to a sharp point. It seemed to glimmer slightly in the light. "I shot a unicorn foal when I was a sixer," Hale explained. "About a dozen leagues inland from here. Wolves got the mother."
"Damned fool nearly got himself killed!" the Matron scoffed. "But he had to prove himself to that wolf-friend of his!"
The twelver smiled, eyes bright with the memory. "Hey, it proved to the pack of 'em that their side of the stories are true, Eliza. Besides, it was the first time I didn't high-tail it. And the foals are as canny as their elders!"
"You've convinced me," George said. "Why didn't you sell this to the wizards?"
"We gave 'em the hides and the mother's horn. But this is a keepsake. A trophy. I don't care how much it's worth. Now, since I've been on one of these long hunts before, why don't we go over what we need tonight and we can go upriver tomorrow?"
There was nothing George could do but agree.
Since the arrival of the Archbishop the temple services had taken on a more traditional format. The Liturgy of the Church demanded that one's worship belonged first to the Lord Creator and his Sacrificed Son, and only second to local gods. But the Land's changes to the colonists changed things. Soothsayers and priests devoted a great deal of time to reading the Land's desires. Those who claimed a more direct link with the Land itself felt a sort of inspiration--the so-called Breath of the Land. But it was still a growing theology, and there was much debate among the priesthood over why the Land had done what it did.
The Land itself was silent on the matter, they said.
The Archbishop himself had hardly shown his face since his arrival, having secreted himself in the High Temple. The Royal Governor didn't worry the deer-people half as much as the scrutiny of the Church. They had, so Ben had discovered, discarded large portions of the Liturgy that no longer fit their altered circumstances. In fact, what parts had been ignored differed significantly between Colonies. Consequently, for the deer-people the old crime of adultery only applied in circumstances where there were longer-term contract marriages. After all, if a doe chose someone else, it was purely the fault of the buck who lost her. The Church strongly disapproved of divorce, only granting it in rare circumstances, but in Seaborne the practice had little significance.
Four days after the Second Heat, Ben watched as his year-mate Elizabeth assisted Michael with the morning meal. It had all happened with astonishing speed. In the lull between the Heats, the palmate-antlered buck had hired foragers and gone out to find the two types of fungus on the wizard's want-list. The first one had been relatively simple. There was a luminous type that thrived in the chilly autumn conditions, giving off heat as well as light to draw in its prey. The second type had given him trouble, only growing buried under fallen leaves in certain places, so he had asked around in a small village for advice. Elizabeth had known exactly what he wanted.
In a multitude of ways.
Her musk was tinted with honeysuckle and lavender. She watched him with one bright eye as she prepared a honey-sweetened acorn porridge. Michael was a little unhappy for the intrusion into his space, but was otherwise willing to refocus on keeping the century-old cottage in repair. Ben watched her around the young buck, feeling possessive and making sure Michael kept the lip-curling to himself.
"The Archbishop is supposed to give a sermon this morning," Michael said.
"Where did you hear that?" Ben asked. Sabbathday services would not begin for an hour yet. When the High Temple bells pealed the call to worship, they would leave the cottage.
Since his hands were busy, Michael raised and lowered his ears in a shrug. "I hear all sorts of rumors running errands, sir. I normally don't put much stock in them, but this one has a ring of truth. Wonder if he's going to pass some kind of judgment." The younger buck's discomfort was plain. By no means did every newcomer give up their old beliefs. It had taken Ben over a year to come around. He'd had to feel the Land's Breath for himself before he believed.
"It wouldn't surprise me if there was a schism," Elizabeth added. She was native-born, herself. The indifference in her voice was clear. "Love, I fail to see why this concerns you so much. The Land keeps us, nourishes us, took us in. Even after all the things we did to harm Her. And there's nothing they can do to us from so far away."
"Except excommunicate us," Ben mused unhappily. "That would be about the limit. The Church isn't so intent on pursuing 'heresy' since the Lord's Commandment two hundred years ago."
The Commandment to "go forth and increase thy knowledge of the World" had, in an instant, begun the Age of Advancement. The wealth of the Church had been turned to science and researches into magic, resulting an odd melding of the two that culminated in the windstones that propelled ships faster than sails alone. When Ben had left Kalerand there were rumors that someone had rediscovered some ancient scroll that described how to harness steam. It was truly an amazing time to be living in the World.
But the Commandment hadn't fully liberalized the Church. There was, in fact, an increasing current against the rapid progress being made and the secularizing of society in general. They suggested that perhaps we were going more quickly than the Lord intended. There remained powerful conservative elements within the Church who considered the Colonies an abomination, their inhabitants soulless monsters. The result of unholy intercourse between men and beasts. Altria had disowned its Colonies for just that reason. There were even rumors that there had been an abortive Crusade against its own Colonies a decade after they had been Claimed. Whatever came of it, nobody in Kalerand knew; and the Altrians weren't talking.
Temple bells rang, and the trio left the cottage. Half a foot of snow was on the ground, and from the air temperature it wasn't going to melt anytime soon. Ben took his year-mate's elbow as Michael followed behind, dressed in their best and most conservative clothing. Not everyone was coming to the traditional Sabbathday mass. The native priests had determined a daily dawn mass that celebrated the Land's awakening was more appropriate. As long as at least one mass was attended during the week, a citizen's religious obligations were met. Those who didn't ended up in the stocks, or fined.
The High Temple, only able to hold a thousand at the very most, could hardly take in the whole of Seaborne's ten times that number. But someone had apparently thought of that. The sermon was to be held outdoors on the temple steps. A lectern had already been set up, while the multitude of deer-people gathered before it. As always, rumor dashed through the milling crowd. Just what was the Archbishop going to preach?
The Royal Governor was conspicuous by his absence.
The holy man's appearance silenced the crowd. From their vantage point, a third of the way back, the Archbishop was dressed in his normal austere white vestments. He wore the red cap of his office, and looked out at his congregation with what seemed like a great deal of anticipation. Finally, the temple bells rang once more. A cloud of steam from the breath of the assembled puffed in clouds into the subfreezing air. Normally, the mass opened with a reading from the Liturgy. A recounting of the deeds of Sacrificed Son in an ancient language few understood. But instead of opening the Holy Book, he simply removed his spectacles and looked out at the crowd as if he was an embarrassed parent caught in a lie by his children.
"The Church has ignored the Colonies for decades," he began in a vibrant, clear voice that could probably be heard in every corner of the city. "But that time is over. The Patriarch decreed that we cannot ignore our wayward flocks. But in keeping with the last Commandment of the Lord Creator, we have not passed judgment. The Virgin Lands are alive. Magic infuses every rock and tree, every creature, and yea, even our own Colonists. You are a part of the Land now. And most of you are natives in your own right.
"You are the very embodiment of the new knowledge the Creator commanded us to seek out.
"I have spent much of my time here reading the writings of your priests. I have observed your rites and rituals, though I do not yet understand them fully. But I have gathered that you no longer put the Lord Creator in His traditional place." There was an intake of breath in the crowd. But the Archbishop's choice of words struck Ben as interesting. He hadn't said "rightful" or "proper". "Some in Kalerand consider the Colonies to be godless, inhabited by mere animals pretending to be human. A product of Darkness. They err, sadly, exactly like the Altrians in that regard. And like them, at the very least, they desire all contact cut off. I have concluded that this would be ruinous, and possibly blasphemous. Your souls are not in danger of being damned to Darkness.
"As we hear His voice through our old gods, the Land also speaks. I have spent much time in meditation, trying to hear it. But I cannot." He wrapped his fingers around the golden amulet hanging from his neck. "The Patriarch has sent me to listen to this voice. This Breath, as you call it. But I have concluded there is only one way I can perform this holy task."
The Archbishop must have used magic, for the chain around his neck would have had a lock on the back, preventing its removal by accident or from malice. He gave a little tug, and the chain broke like it was merely yarn. He dropped it in front of the lectern on the temple steps, where it was a golden glint in the snow.
As a rule, newcomers had their transformations in the private rooms of the Newcomers' House. The experience was not something for public viewing. It was awkward at the very least, debilitating for hours at the most as the post-change "hangover" had varying effects. The priests behind the Archbishop rushed up to him as he staggered and gripped the lectern, determined not to fall over. The effect on the holy man had been almost instantaneous, his face telescoping forwards while his antlers erupted above his blooming ears. Most of the crowd, including Michael, respectfully averted their eyes. Ben was entranced.
It took less than a minute for the human features to distort into a cervine muzzle. The gripping fingers around the lectern, nails turning black and thick, while the native-born priests supported their prelate. "We should carry you inside, your eminence," one said.
"Nuu..." the holy man slurred. He took a moment to gather his bearings, his large ears whirring in confusion. "No. Don't... not... the Liturgy..." His voice was different, less sonorous, more nasal. As he struggled with his freshly changed mouth, bleats and grunts occasionally escaped his lips.
"Father Bourne will complete the service, your eminence," the eight-point priest insisted. "You must recover. You will not be able to read..."
The priest's large eyes reopened. "Read? I don't need the Book and nor should you! If you insist on supporting me, fine. But I must complete the mass."
With a belligerent tone of voice like that--shades of the Rut, surely--the cowed priest let him go. The Archbishop raised his twelve points up high, and then closed his eyes. He stood there for a few minutes, ears a-twitch, nostrils pulsing, before he spoke again, dredging every word purely from memory. "Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Terra Nova..."
The cannon of the HMS Eagle had not been kind to the Company's merchantman. There was little left of the mainmast, but there was enough of the foremast to give steerage with the jury-rigged sails. A sad state of affairs, Ben reflected. On one hand, he was pleased to have the ship back. On the other, she was certainly unable to cross the Northern Ocean now. By the look of things she had barely made it up the coast.
The two-masted bark had been commissioned specially for the Company the year Ben had left for Seaborne. At nearly 200 tons the Morning Tide was larger than most of her type, but not big enough to merit three masts. Her windstone was of the middling variety, able to propel her along at three knots even when the wind goddess stilled her breath. Where George hadn't spared expense--and wisely as far as Ben was concerned--was her hull. She had been holed nearly at the waterline, but remained afloat with the help of a canvas patch. There were only dents in the wood elsewhere. A great deal of credit went to the crew of the Eagle, who had sprung to her rescue before she took on too much water.
On the morning of her arrival, just a day after the Archbishop removed his amulet, Ben was finalizing the contracts with the dozen foragers he had hired. He and his year-mate rushed out to the Town Dock to see the ship. The Morning Tide seemed the much the worse for wear, as if her brief time with the Soleran pirates had aged her a decade.
Captain Gray had graciously met them dockside. The harbor was already starting to freeze over. Brash ice glittered in the water, and sheets were forming around the shoreline and the pilings of the Town Dock. A sharp musk, reminding Ben of some kind of weasel, was obvious from the ship. And there were other scents, unfamiliar to Ben. There were more than just the human crew on board. The crewmen were just finishing tying up the ship to the bollards. "Midshipman Hawthorne!" Captain Gray shouted. "How fare the prisoners?"
"Ripe, sir!" the young man replied, wrinkling his nose. A dozen marines were boarding the merchantman. "And there's our passenger. He's upset we can't take him all the way to his kingdom's colonies, I think. I don't speak enough Altrian to understand what he's saying, sir."
Ben wondered if he should say something. In the five years his family had spent in Bellefleur he had learned the language quite fluently. But after the abject failure of the family business he wasn't sure he ever wanted to speak it again.
"Send the Altrian down," the Captain ordered. "I'll find someone to tell him he'll have to find some other way north. Perhaps he'll be willing to part with some information, also." The midshipman saluted, then vanished below decks. Gray brushed an imagined speck of dirt off his uniform as they waited. Overcast skies made it a dreary morning. All the leaves had fallen, and Ben was already feeling the short-temperedness the Rut caused winding down even as the third and final Heat approached. His antlers would shed before Winter Solstice. As he watched the ship, a pair of equine ears peaked over the gunwales.
The Altrian seemed a little more a horse than Ben was a deer. He had a pot-belly, but didn't appear fat. A fully equine head, a white face, pink lips, and a short chestnut mane was offset by the intelligence in his flashing blue eyes. He possessed four thick-nailed fingers and large hands that sported some feathering around his wrists, a feature shared by his hoofs. The way his lower back curved so that his hips were near the horizontal in should have caused great discomfort. He wore a pair of canvas breeches that were likely borrowed. Even with his own shaggy winter coat he seemed to shiver in the cold. His chest and thighs seemed thickly muscled , almost like a draft horse, and his hide a was a mottled with large, irregular chestnut-and-white patches. His likewise-colored tail flicked when he walked.
The Altrian noticed Captain Gray, and quickened his pace off the merchant vessel, jumping from ship to wharf. Without giving Ben a single glance, he started in with a list of complaints in an odd dialect the buck had never heard before. The horse-man's ears were back and he snorted his words through his flaring nostrils. Captain Gray just stood there, giving no sign of offense while the diatribe continued for several minutes.
Despite the odd dialect, sprinkled with a few equine sounds, Ben understood most every word. While the Altrian wasn't making any outright demands to be taken further north, he was understandably concerned how he would survive the winter without his home herd. Apparently he thought the Kalerand Navy owed him something. "The Solerans took me against my will!" he said. "Stole me away from home and herd! And my own human countrymen threatened to geld me!"
"My good... man," Gray said, looking into the equine beastman's intelligent eyes as if to remind himself this wasn't an animal. "I can't understand a word you're saying."
Neither could the Altrian comprehend the Captain. But the horse-man finally noticed Ben standing next to him. The buck must have somehow given away that he understood his language. "Sir, are you the owner of this ship? Please..." He straightened up a little, and dropped the indignant tone to his voice. The horse-man looked at Ben up and down, nostrils flaring, as if seeing and smelling him for the first time. "The fact of the matter, stag, is that I have far more in common with you than my former mother country. The ill feelings between Altria and her former Colonies are genuine. So hear me out, please. I have information about the Solerans that could be of great value to you and yours."
"Seems he's taken to you, Mr. Greene," Captain Gray said. "Can you translate?"
"I can," Ben replied, "but I prefer not to."
"Then I must make the request on behalf of the Crown. We know comparatively little about the southern Altrian Colonies. Perhaps we can make it worth your while? A pound for your services?"
Ben hesitated for a moment, then opened his mouth to refuse, when his wife tugged on his elbow. Elizabeth had two lines of dark fur above her eyes, which gave the impression of human eyebrows. She had explained them as a sort of "throwback" to her human ancestors, and could in fact indicate some expression with them. At the moment they were furrowed with concern. "Love, I think he deserves some compassion. He did not ask to come here, and in fact had no choice at all. Remember the Land that binds us together, even if Altria itself has disowned them."
"They're hypocrites. The lot of them," Ben replied.
"You don't even know him," she pointed out. "Compassion, Benjamin. Please. If anything, blame the Solerans. Besides, a pound is a pound."
The buck sighed. "Fine. You've made your point." He looked at the human captain. "I consent, Captain Gray. Where do we begin?"
With a pair of Marines acting as guards, they followed Captain Gray to his inn, passing another along the way. There was a great deal of activity around the ruins of a couple of taverns. As the Rut peaked with the Second Heat, the brawl Ben had been expecting happened. One tavern on the Dock had nearly burned down, and the interior of the one next to it had been destroyed. The brawl had resulted in three crewman deaths from goring, a number of serious injuries, and a further dozen transformed when it overflowed into the city proper. There had been no deaths among the bucks, but those responsible for the killing the humans were due to be hanged within the week. Additionally, the Royal Governor had outlawed sharpened antlers, though under protest of the selectmen.
Looking around as if he'd never seen a city quite like it, the horse-man tried to keep from gawking. Whenever a horse came close he would whicker at them, as if expecting a response. To the astonishment of all, he sometimes received one. "You treat your animals better than the Solerans do us," he said.
They entered the inn and found a small room dominated by a large table. One soldier stood inside the door, while the Altrian took a seat in front of Benjamin and Captain Gray across the table. A young midshipman was also called in to record the conversation. Elizabeth found a chair and sat behind her year-mate, hooking a supportive hand around his elbow.
"First thing's first," Captain Gray said. "Ask his name, and the circumstances of his kidnapping. I should also like to know the present disposition and location of his Colony. But especially whatever the Solerans have been doing lately."
The horse-man hesitated, after Ben translated, the indignance returning in force. He snorted. "Before I answer anything, I would prefer a meal," he announced. "My captors haven't fed me correctly for weeks, and your countrymen allowed the barest rations."
The captain of the warship chuckled. "He's nobility."
"How did you come to that conclusion?" Ben asked.
"I come from aristocracy myself, Mr. Greene. I've met so many stuffed shirts in my time I recognize the signs. I believe the Altrian nobility sent second and third sons to make their fortunes here. Useless lot, really. But it seems they managed to survive despite themselves." The young Captain sighed, then signaled the guard. He ordered the Marine to have the innkeeper bring a meal fit for a noble horse. "I'm afraid we're not going to get anything out of him unless he's pampered a little. Perhaps he even deserves it after what he's been through."
The horse-man did become more personable once he had some food in him. He introduced himself as Sir Louis d'Elchingen, descendent of the original Viceroy. "Unfortunately my ancestors were rather feckless. Gold, silver, gemstones; they wanted anything they could pry easily out of the earth," he explained. "The Viceroy is in fact my great-great-grandmother. Our Lord asked the Land to punish our greed and hubris, and She responded by making the majority into mares. Our countrymen fared badly compared to you and yours. I have no idea how long your Colonies suffered after the Punishment, but you have clearly some through it stronger than you were. Our sins must have been far more severe."
Ben just let him talk, translating for Captain Gray, who listened intently. Nouvelle Lumière, a "mere collection of huts in a stockade", was located on the delta of what Louis claimed was the widest, longest river on the Continent. Gray only nodded, as if he knew about the river already. "To survive we had to change," the horse-man said. He shrugged. "Some say we were changed by the Land in order to be redeemed, rather than as punishment. But things did settle down after twenty years or so. We have a population of a few tens of thousands.
"But the fact that I am here before you shows the desperate state of our affairs. We became peaceful farmers, and cannot defend ourselves against modern weapons. We have a few ancient brass cannon and arquebuses, but that's it. Recently the Soleran colonists started using a new type of musket that outranges our best archers." He smiled grimly. "We created a very good imitation of the longbow. The one your countrymen slaughtered our knighthood with a few centuries ago. We're certainly strong enough to draw it, as you can see."
Gray considered this for a few minutes. His brows furrowed. "What, no wizards? What about your magecrafters?"
The horse-man shrunk back, as if ashamed. "Our Altrian kin always considered magic one step from Darkness. They were all killed in the chaos after the Punishment. We thought it was them, at first. Their sin, not ours. How wrong we were, as we suffered greatly without them. We have a few clever hedge wizards, but nobody able to defend against Soleran combat magic. At the moment, our best defense is the Land Herself."
The interrogation went on for hours, covering a multitude of subjects, many of which left Ben feeling outraged at the Solerans. The midshipman had to ask for more paper several times. When the subject of the rumored Crusade came up, the horse-man's expression darkened. "Ah. Our beloved mother country. Blessed Altria. Bah! Good riddance! The crusaders joined us the moment they stormed ashore."
He sighed deeply. "We're still not completely ignored, mind you. The hypocrites send us a few dozen exiles every year in vessels that only make it by the Creator's grace. We welcome them with open arms, most of the time." Louis paused. "Are we finished?"
Gray nodded. "I believe so. At least, for this session. We may need more, Sir Louis. This information is valuable. Maybe I can persuade the Royal Governor to compensate you for it. Perhaps we can figure out how to get you to your northern Colonies?"
The chestnut horse-man tossed his mane. "Yes! That... would be wonderful. Indeed. They must know what's happening to us." He paused. "What manner of compensation?"
"I can offer room and board for the winter, at least. More may not be possible. However... I'll see what I can do. Altria may have abandoned you, Louis, but the Queen has a strong an interest in keeping Lumière from being overrun by Soleran filth." Gray seemed sincere.
Louis chewed on his thick lower lip for a moment, one tubular ear flicking. "Perhaps, Captain. But you'll forgive me for my skepticism. The only reason I tell you these things now is we seem to have a common foe, and these extraordinary circumstances. The few ships we've obtained are not very seaworthy, and we've explored little beyond the Great River." He shivered a little. "Is it always so cold here?"
All thought the translation, Ben had found himself warming to the horse-man, just a little. "Winter's not even begun," the buck added. "The snow will get much deeper."
"Ah. In that case, I had better take what your Royal Governor offers me, yes?"
Gray nodded, and once more thanked Sir Louis for his candor. He dismissed himself, then walked away muttering. "Slavery! I can't believe they'd stoop so low... it's against..." The door shut behind him.
This left Ben and his wife alone with Sir Louis. The buck rose to leave, but Elizabeth tugged on his arm. "Did he really say that the Solerans were enslaving his people?"
Ben looked at the horse-man. It was a miracle he hadn't been injured when the Eagle had fired upon the merchantman. He had described being beaten by the Solerans--some of which were some kind of weasel--and the Altrian smugglers. Perhaps his pride kept him from showing it. Sir Louis picked at the remains of his meal, grateful for every bite.
>> It didn't matter that the wolf-man was friendly. It didn't matter that he was visibly concerned for the two bucks. All that mattered to George were those sharp canine teeth and clawed fingers. Before they left the twelver insisted that he introduce George to his distant lupine cousin William Hale on the New Warwick side of the river, explaining that he needed to borrow some tools he lacked for the hunting expedition. "You're crazy, John," he said. "When you came with us ten years ago it took a whole pack nearly a month to hunt those down. And that was summer."
"And you're the one who invited me along, Will," the green-eyed buck pointed out. "I'm no stranger to hunting. There's a lot of money in this."
"You're not in it for the money, you glory hound," the dark gray wolf-man replied. "You're going to get you and your employer killed."
Hale sighed. "If you're not going to loan me your spare skinning kit..."
"No, I'll get it. You're still my cousin, though I still think you're being a damned fool over this," William replied. The lupine beastman sighed and entered his house.
"You okay?" Hale asked George, who was trying to keep from trembling too much. The strong lupine musk wasn't the tough part. It was the metallic scent of blood and rancid, rotting meat that pervaded the area around the houses. It wasn't just cattle they ate. No. He could smell hints of what he was sure was venison. He wanted to jump back into the rowboat and head right across. Hale looked at him levelly. "How's the ear?"
"Itchy as all hell," George replied, grateful for any change of subject. His left ear had some kind of rash that caused it to itch and turned the skin black. He also had the urge to lick the ears of any other deer-man he met. Sometime during the Second Heat he had met a doe with "Black Ear" and had gotten it in just that manner. The ear felt hot, and wasn't as responsive as it should be. And the rash smelled. "How long's this supposed to last?"
"Another fortnight. Local Healer's still looking for something to cure it. 'Til then you'll endure. It's not serious, just bothersome. Ah, here he is."
William carried a thin case about a foot square on a side. The polished oak carried the strong smell of old blood and meat, making George shy away. "If by some miracle you do succeed, I'd appreciate it if you could bring me some meat," John's lupine cousin said. "Five pounds, maybe. More if you can spare the room. It'd be a shame to let it go to waste." William lolled his tongue. "You had a bite or two, John, if you recall."
John swallowed and seemed to turn green beneath his fur. "And I was sick for days after. But aye, I'll bring ye some meat if ye can provide some preservatives. The cold'll help, but some will spoil anyway."
"Fair enough." Ford put his paw-like hand on George's shoulder. "Just don't do anything foolish. It's just the four of you out there. I hope Mr. Peryton is handy with a gun, because you'll need to be even more alert than you folk normally are. Will you take some advice, at least?"
George hoped that he would, but Hale shook his head. "I appreciate the offer, Will, but I have enough experience on the hunt."
The wolf-man's ears swiveled doubtfully, and there was deep concern in his golden eyes, but Ford just nodded. "May the Land grant you success. You'll need Her blessing as well as the Lord Creator's, I fear."
As they rowed back across the Mystic River, Hale muttered to himself. "Damned wolves... coddled whenever we so much as set hoof in the wilderness... not helpless... just as good..."
"If I may ask," George said when they reached the other side. His curiosity itched as much as his ear. "What happened between us and the wolves?" His curiosity itched.
Hale's ears twitched in thought as he shipped the oars and tied up the rowboat. "Nobody knows, exactly. Just untrustworthy tales no better than legends. All we know for sure is that we ended up with an unlikely friendship. They credit us with keeping them from going the way of the eagles--and they claim that they saved us from the real wolves and bears out there. Don't ask me how, because I haven't the foggiest. I think it's 'cause we're all still family along the river, here. Will and me have a common ancestor."
So much for that, thought George, following Hale off the dock.
The other two members of their hunting party were not actually deer. The third was a young magpie who would act as a scout, and unfortunately was only available for a mere fortnight. The magpies were very expensive, but it was he who could scout the area for both unicorns and predators. The fourth was George's real find. A journeyman wizard from the Colony of Harwick who was an elk-man. He was a hand taller than Hale, and his antlers were far larger than either of theirs. At four pence a day, he was a bargain, especially compared to the very expensive rate of ten pence for the magpie. Both were meeting them at a village ten leagues up river. From there they would enter the real wilderness, as few people lived more than fifty miles from the coast.
Hale pointed out that George needed more target practice before they left, though he was reluctant to return to the rifle range. The Matron and several other townsfolk inevitably showed up and gave him scornful looks. Hale's choice had cost him his year-mate, though apparently not that much status in the eyes of his community. George had spent nearly a month with Hale, learning to shoot, as well as some wilderness survival skills. The training regimen, the twelver explained, was more than necessary. It would save his life.
That is, unless he trusted Hale enough to bring back the quarry on his own. George seriously considered it for a time, but found he could not let something so important go without his being there. If Hale and the others simply vanished never to be heard from again, he'd never forgive himself.
Two days later they were at the edge of the wilderness. The village of Stratford was surrounded by a stout stockade. Inside were a couple dozen houses, the villagers watching them with wary interest. The village itself was making its final winter preparations. Incredibly, the streets were clear of snow. A large granite monolith sat in the exact middle of the stockade, covered in angular runes. A magical shimmer was visible in the air above the stockade in the shape of a peaked dome. When they arrived they found their humanoid elk wizard, who went by the name of Benton Sawyer, examining the stone. Like many of the villagers, he wore only a loincloth. "Have the components I requested?" the dark-brown elk-man asked, not looking up from the mica-flecked granite. He seemed well educated for someone who spent to much time in the hinterland.
Hale insisted that they walk, but they had hired four pack horses to carry all their gear, food, and other necessities. Rations were going to be supplemented with what the twelver called "winter forage", insisting they take advantage of their ability to eat like the fourlegs did. George found a satchel on the third horse and brought it over to the wizard, who finally looked up from the stone. The elk-man's relatively smaller ears flicked in approval. "Wonderful, Master Peryton. I hope they didn't cost you too much."
"I sent to my Company wizard for them," Peryton explained. "Just a few pence for the shipment. What are they for?"
"It'll keep the wolves and bears from scenting us. Very simple. Standard for wilderness expeditions for people like us." The bull elk took the satchel, then went back to examining the stone. "Amazing work of artifice, this. It won't matter if there's ten feet of snow outside the stockade. The village will be clear and dry. Quite civilized. Must have taken their wizard years to complete."
George stared at the stone, his business sense itching. "Can it be duplicated?"
Sawyer's ears flicked, and he smiled. He scratched the shaggy, darker brown fur on his long neck. "I see we think alike. I believe the rune structures are similar to the ones that protect Seaborne's Town Dock from high seas. But you'd need to be a Master Wizard to decipher all this. Not really where my talents lie. Yet." He looked all the equipment secured to the horses' backs. "Looks like you're well prepared, Goodman Hale."
In addition to three rifles, there were two more mundane flintlock muskets, three pistols, and two more hunting bows with several quivers of arrows. The bows had been wrapped in oilcloth to keep them dry. "Where's the damned bird?" Hale said irritably. The twelver had been in a foul mood ever since they had left Mystic. It seemed he'd lost some enthusiasm for the expedition when he realized that his wife chose somebody else. Now only a successful hunt would vindicate him. "We shouldn't lose more time than we absolutely have to. The weather will be against us, the longer we stay here."
"We'll have to wait for him," George insisted.
"We can't tarry here too long, Mr. Peryton," the wizard pointed out. "The weather during this season changes at the Land's whim. We have good weather now and I don't recommend it be wasted."
George scratched the pedicles at the base of his antlers. "I want to give him two days, Benton. After then, we'll go. He's too important to leave behind."
From stem to stern, the Morning Tide was given a thorough inspection by her former carpenter. Most of the merchantman's transformed crew had remained in Seaborne. There were still coastal traders that went from north to south, and most of the men couldn't read anyway. After a brief period of acclimation they had returned to their jobs less than a month later, though some found other work.
Ben waited on the main deck of the ship with some impatience, and a measure of disgust. The Soleran crew had actually been a mix from two of their colonies. Most of them were minks. But the others resembled a hoofed creature with shaggy hair and features that resembled a camel's. Within five weeks they had somehow returned to their colonies with the ship, taken Sir Louis, then returned northward to meet the Altrian smugglers. And somehow, with all that open water, they had encountered one of the warships sent to the patrol the Colonies, and was recaptured still seaworthy.
Well, barely seaworthy. The ship's carpenter, who unlike his fellows hadn't had any points sawn off, seemed less than optimistic. "Her gunnels're peppered with holes from the grapeshot, Master Greene. You've seen the hole to starboard from the cannon. Those Navy blokes did a fine job fixing her up, but it's still only a temporary fix. Most of the rigging was shot to ribbons, the masts are a lost cause, and there's a notch in her keelson I can't rightly explain. Don't ask me what the hell those Solerans did to her." The carpenter's ears folded back in anger. "There's four feet of water in the well, and we've had to use those expensive magic pumps just to keep her afloat. They have no idea how to treat a lady!"
"What will she take to repair?" Ben asked, anticipating the answer. According to George the merchantman had cost over two thousand pounds, most of which had actually been his own money. He had sold a great deal of his family's valuables to get in on this trade. The fact that after all of that he only owed 500 pounds to his investors was a testament to his business acumen.
"'Bout six hundred pounds, maybe. And I'm being low. Her hull's sound, but I can't tell what hidden damage there is until she's in the slip."
"I see..." Ben replied. He sighed deeply. This just wasn't going well.
A few minutes later, Ben wandered back towards his cottage, lost in thought. At first he thought having the ship back was an asset. Now it was a clear liability. There was no way they could afford to repair her without borrowing hundreds of pounds at high interest against her future cargo, to say nothing of what a crew's wages would cost. While the merchantman technically belonged to the Company, he still thought of it as George's. But his partner wasn't here. From his last letter he would be off into the hinterland by now, and Ben had to admit, how likely was it that he would return? Yet to assume he wouldn't was presumptive. How could he make this decision? There was no way to pay for the repair of the Morning Tide. He barely had enough to cover expenses as it was!
But if he sold the ship... No. He couldn't sell it! It was George's pride and joy!
He smelled Sir Louis before he saw him. The familiar scent was distinctive in the city. Since the interrogation, the humanoid horse was often lurking in the corners of Ben's vision. He found it somewhat irritating, but since Ben was the only one who could understand his language, not really surprising. Louis now sported a threadbare greatcoat over his shaggy chestnut hide to protect him from the cold.
"A word, please?" Sir Louis said, breath huffing from his large nostrils from the exertion to catch up.
Ben gestured for him to follow. Sir Louis walked beside. "No luck finding work?" the buck asked.
"Your language is hard on the ears," he replied. "I don't grasp the basics yet. And I can't make myself understood well with gestures. I feel like when they look at me they see just a horse. I suppose I might as well whinny for all they know what I'm saying."
The buck was taken aback. He flicked his ears in puzzlement. "Are you asking for my help?"
"I suppose I must." The white-faced horse-man sighed. "I dearly miss my home farm, Master Greene."
"Your every need catered to?" Ben replied without thinking.
Louis laid his ears back, taking offense. "My people work very hard, Master Greene. I was plowing the fields when the pirates took me. There aren't enough of us to do all the chores required to feed our growing city; it was a job I had to do on my own."
"My apologies," Ben said quickly. "What type of work would you prefer? I do know a few people..."
He might have known people, but there was nobody willing to hire the horse-man. Even after a few astonishing demonstrations of how well he communicated with horses, none offered him a job, even after Ben told a much shortened version of his story. He was a foreigner. The language barrier could not be overcome.
So Ben found himself in a strange predicament. He went over some figures in his head, and came up with number that while not satisfactory, wouldn't bankrupt them either. As they reached the door of the cottage he finished explaining to Sir Louis exactly what he needed him to do. "We'll be spending a fortnight at a time foraging for what we need," the buck explained. "I can offer you four pence a day. It won't be much, but you might be able to feed yourself until your next job. Fodder isn't too expensive. The only question I have for you is if you're good with a sword or a gun."
Sir Louis ran his thick-nailed fingers through his chestnut-and-white mane, thinking. "I don't see how I can refuse. When do you leave?"
"It behooves us to leave before the snow becomes too deep. Three days." They reached Ben's cottage. "Won't you come in for tea?"
Dry, freezing air bit George's nostrils in tiny pinpricks, as the falling snowflakes dusted the top of his muzzle and remained there, unmelting. With Hale and the pack horses blazing the trail, the threesome slogged through the steady snowfall that would doubtless only worsen as the day progressed. There was very little wind so far, and the flakes were steadily creating a monochromatic landscape. Already the snow weighed heavily on the evergreens, bending the branches and treetops down towards the ground. "Why haven't we made camp yet?" George wondered aloud. "This is only going to get worse. I'm a newcomer and I can tell that."
"Pity your magpie didn't show up," Benton snorted. His dark brown fur stood out in the thickening snowfall. Every once in a while he would have to shake the wet, accumulating snow off his back. "And what in Darkness is Hale doing? Hey!" he bellowed to the buck in the lead, "we need to stop right now to make camp!"
"I know where we are!" Hale insisted. He pointed at a medium-sized tree, where the bark had been scraped away. "Smell that? I swear it's the same uncle from ten years ago!"
"I don't care what you smell!" Benton replied sharply. "We need a fire, food, and rest in that order. So find a camp site."
Hale came to a stop, then slogged back through hock-deep snow to confront Benton. "I know what I'm doing!"
"Even the animals aren't moving, you fool," Benton argued. Hale was so intent on keeping them moving he started to try and staredown the elk. To his credit, Benton ignored it. "Take a look around you! We aren't going to find the damned unicorn in this!" Clumps of snow fell off the trees at the volume of Benton's voice.
The twelver clenched his teeth and backed down. "Of course... you're right. I think I saw a likely spot about a quarter mile back."
They made camp on the lee side of a large boulder, taking shelter from a quickening wind. For the tenth time George cursed that thieving magpie. The buck had given him two days advance wages. The loss of twenty pence was nothing to sneeze at, given his current financial state. What made things worse was that even basic arithmetic still seemed to slip through his fingers. Books and other valuables had been left behind in Mystic, and he was reluctant to bring up the subject with Benton, knowing the tutoring would cost him more.
The fourlegs had gathered into areas of stamped down snow called "yards", and Hale led the group back towards one that would be their campsite. In his time away from civilization, George had come to know the normal deer better. Their mannerisms were understandable, as if they were speaking a different dialect of Kalerandish. Though George thought it odd that John and Benton referred to their four-legged likenesses as "aunts" and "uncles". But after some thought, he came up with a reason why. The fourlegs and the deermen resembled one another enough that George sometimes wondered if anything could come out of a mating between the two.
George had reluctantly posed the question one night around the fire. The answer was brusque and sharp. Such an act was considered the worst form of incest. There were laws against it, with stiff penalties.
The journeyman wizard used a bit of magic to melt the snow behind the boulder. Normally this would have turned the ground beneath to mud, but a sprinkling of some burnroot powder dried the soil. Hale cut some branches and set up their tent, making a lean-to against the boulder. A final dose of magic dried the wood, and they soon had a fire burning despite the snowfall, though it sizzled and hissed from the melting flakes. Through the whole process Hale said not a word, but his irritation and impatience was obvious. "The same uncle after ten years, John?" Benton said calmly as porridge boiled in a pot. "You know they're lucky if they see seven winters. It can't possibly..."
"I know what I smell," Hale insisted. "We're in almost the right place. And if it's not the same uncle, it's one of his kin."
"Have you sensed anything, Benton?" George asked. "Any--what did you call them--whispers from the Land?"
"Plenty of wolves, bears, and cougars," the wizard replied. "We're lucky there's a lot of aunts and uncles around here to distract them. And my potions help also, of course."
The elk's eyes flashed a smile. "Glowbird nests. You should see them during mating season. They light up the sky with their courtship flights! But they've gone south by now." Sawyer listed signs of a half dozen animals that used magic in some way nearby, birds and mammals. Unfortunately, none of them were in season, or had migrated to warmer climes. George knew of some of them. Glowbird plumes were terribly popular, both in terms of fashion and for lanterns in the homes of the rich. And unlike the phoenix from the Old World, these did not burn themselves to ash.
Once Hale settled the horses, the porridge was served, supplemented with a bitter cedar needles and whatever acorns they could find. It was a filling, if awful-tasting meal. The trio sat as close to the fire as they could without getting too much into the snowfall. The silence beyond their campsite was punctuated with the occasional complaining squirrel, and even that was muffled by the flakes. "This'll be waist deep by morning," Benton said. "We've gone far enough north that..."
"I know where we are!" Hale insisted.
"As I was saying," the elk continued calmly in his deep baritone. He dusted some snow off his dark brown muzzle. "We're nearly far enough north that it'll be easier to go directly back to Seaborne. I'll give you this much, John, you've managed to cover a lot of ground in three weeks. Why, we've hardly stopped to do any serious hunting."
"We'll hunt from here. This is the right place. I know you're skeptical, but by the gods, I know I'm right. Give me five days, that's all I ask. And if I don't find unicorn sign in two, we'll pull up camp and head east a piece. Agreeable?"
"Aye," Benton replied, after some hesitation. "What about you, Master Peryton?"
Over the past few days the lethargy the guild wizard had mentioned seemed to come up and bite him. Not only that, but one antler was starting to rock a little on its pedicle. Everything seemed to be collapsing around him. The expedition dragged on and on, and had been surprisingly uneventful. Even the bear- and wolf-sign they had found had been at least a week old. About the only thing that had kept him from becoming too bored was watching the real deer. In his idle thoughts as they marched, between Hale's admonishments to stay alert, he wondered just what they thought of their two-legged cousins. He hadn't found the courage to broach the subject with Hale yet, not with the twelver's sour mood.
"You insisted I follow your lead," George reminded. Ice was already crusting the porridge in the wooden bowl. He set it next to the fire to warm up again. "So I am."
"You need to pay more attention to the world around you," Benton said.
George gestured at his ears. "You mean I'm not already?"
"You walk between us because we notice you drifting off," Hale said. "Our animal wariness can only carry us so far. Our human side tends to get in the way. And..." Without warning, in midsentence, one of Hale's antlers dropped off. "Oh. What timing."
He reached up and grabbed the remaining antler, which was also clearly loose. "And this one's not ready to go yet." The older buck gave George a look. There was no animosity in it. Indeed, as the weeks had passed since the Second Heat their tempers had become more and more difficult to provoke. Aside from Hale's frustration and intense focus on finding the quarry, his demeanor had become much more pleasant. "It's sort of like losing a tooth. It'll hurt for a moment, then come off. If yer lucky you'll catch it before it hits the ground. Good omen for next year, if ye can."
Hale normally took first watch, but in this storm it was dangerous to remain outside. Inside the large tent was a bubble of slightly warmer air that allowed them to shake the snow out of their clothes and hang them up to dry. Out of the wind, fur alone was more than enough to keep them warm. A single lantern provided light and heat. While the one-antlered guide remained awake, Benton and George made themselves comfortable and fell asleep.
George awoke the next morning feeling literally lightheaded. Before he opened his eyes he reached up and encountered a, round scabbed-over surface where his antlers had been attached. That the event hadn't awoken him was strange. It was supposed to hurt, wasn't it? Instead, the newcomer felt just a very slight sting where he touched where they had been. And when he sat up, sliding his tail out of the way as he rolled, his head rose fast enough to make him feel a dizzy. "Ooof..."
"Pity we missed the Final Heat, no?" came Hale's voice. He sounded a little different. There was a downhearted edge to his voice George had never heard before. And when his head swam into focus, the former twelve-point buck was barely recognizable to look at him. It was like a human shaving off the beard he had worn for years. He held his shed antlers before him as if they were a trophy.
"By the Land's Breath!" came Benton's voice from outside the tent where the fire still flickered. "Don't go all melancholy for past glories. Either of you! Gods..."
Waist-deep snow kept them from leaving camp immediately the next morning. But the world outside wasn't as impassible as George thought it looked. Already the surface sported tracks of footprints from birds, chipmunks, and squirrels. A short distance away something large had forded a path through the snow, plowing it aside. From the lingering scent it left behind, probably a moose, who were better suited for such deep snows.
At their camp sites Hale used a cutting tool to pull down the bitter cedar, always leaving a dozen branches for the hungry fourlegs that populated the yards. Though they wouldn't come too close to the fire, they did seem oddly comforted by the presence of the deermen. George found himself watching with increasing interest.
They invaded his dreams at night, "speaking" in voices on the very edge of understanding, but still foreign. Most of the time the dream-deer ignored him, going about their daily business while he watched, invisible. Until last night he had been content with this, and hadn't expected anything more. But now...
"We're going to do some scouting today," Hale said. "I want to get the lay of the land, and check for sign of our quarry. The snow should actually help us. Unicorns travel in small family groups, most of the time, and they'll plow their way through the deepest drifts. But in order to keep from alerting them to our presence, we're going to have to blend in a little better with our aunts and uncles."
"How are we supposed to do that?" George asked. He was ill at ease with Benton's near-nudity. But his eyes widened as he watched Hale unbutton his shirt and hang it from the tentpoles. When he removed his breeches as well, George turned his back.
Behind him, Hale snorted in disappointment. "Master Peryton, Benton's magic can't hide the scent of civilization that our clothing gives off from these creatures. We can mask it a little, but this is the best and only way to keep hidden. We're safe enough from predators already. And you need to come with me. I expect we'll at least see some obvious unicorn sign. I want to make sure that ye know your money is well spent." He paused to allow that to sink in.
"Okay. I suppose I see your point. But I don't think I need... I mean, it has to be cold."
"Aye, it will be a mite chillier than it was in here last night. There's still some wind. And there's more we need to do to make ourselves inconspicuous. But truth be told, I need a second nose out there. Benton needs to stay here and guard the camp. We can't leave the horses by themselves." He paused again, then sighed. "I'll be outside for a few minutes. If you decide to join me, leave your clothes."
There was something to knowing he was getting his money worth. Not that he didn't trust John Hale, but he hadn't come all this way just to sit in camp while the former twelver put himself in danger. So, ears flaming hot, he undressed until there was only fur between himself and the world. His winter coat was just as thick down below as anywhere else, but the past few days had brought about some worrisome changes. His stones appeared to have vanished up into his body cavity somewhere, so there really wasn't much to show. Even his sheath was covered in fur, and his member tucked inside of that, not even coming out when he needed to piss. I don't think I've ever looked at myself this closely before. Even when I was human. he thought.
"Are you coming or not?" Hale said from outside.
Still feeling ashamed, keeping one hand over his crotch, George exited the tent. The elk wizard had melted and dried an a thirty-foot wide area around the camp. The bare ground seemed to steam a little in the subfreezing air. Clumps of snow were falling from the branches in the weak sunlight, marring the beauty of the whitened landscape. Benton was tending the small fire, while Hale stood off to one side away from the smoke, apparently sniffing the air. He returned, having seen George out of the corner of his eye. "Okay, do your work. Benton?" Hale nudged the elk's shoulder.
The spread-antlered elk shook his head and turned around slowly. "What? Oh, I'm sorry. There's something you two should know. I sense something out there. It feels vaguely lupine, but... well... it's really too far away to really worry about it yet. Maybe fifteen, twenty miles."
"We'll be fine for today, at that distance. Assuming they don't keep coming our way," Hale said thoughtfully. "But no unicorns?"
"You know they're invisible to scrying," Benton replied with some irritation. Not apparently at Hale, but the unicorns. "All the same, don't stay out long. I trust my magic to keep the wolves from smelling you, but it won't help if they see you." The ruffed, darker-brown fur on his neck and chest was standing on end, the look in his eyes slightly glazed. He raised his hands and made a complex gesture in the air. And...
Hale was gone. But in his place stood an antlerless whitetail buck with his facial markings. Frantic, George looked at himself, and found... nothing changed.
The buck squinted. Wait...
Something hovered on the edge of his vision, vanishing when he tried to look at it directly. He thought he saw, out in front of him, the long back of a deer, the movements of its head mirroring his own. "What did you do, Benton?"
"It's an illusion," the elk replied. "Masters can fool all the senses, but I shan't explain right now. As it is, you're lucky you haven't bathed in over a month. You very nearly smell like one of your fourlegs anyway. But it's only going to last a few hours, so you bucks should get going."
"Follow my lead," Hale-the-fourlegs said. Then, he leapt. Once, twice, three times, towards the trail blazed by the moose. The illusion was nearly perfect, except for the clear fact that the jumper only apparently left holes in the snow from his hind legs. The deer-people could jump incredible distances, though George had never attempted himself. He hesitated.
"Come on!" Hale said with an impatient snort.
On the first try, George pitched forward and landed facefirst in the snow. He expected the cold to seep into him, remembering the snows of his playful boyhood. Instead it was more like he landed on a slightly chilly feather pillow, except where it touched his nose. He blasted flakes from his nostrils, pulling himself up. Snow clung to chest, back, and flanks, so he shook hard to remove it, then leapt again. He didn't repeat the mishap.
"Passable, for a beginner," Hale demurred. The illusory fourlegs extended a forehoof, and George felt a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Just keep your wits about you, and don't speak after this. From this moment on, we're fourlegs."
Moose and elk trails crisscrossed the deep snow, enabling the two deer to make headway at a decent, if erratic, pace. George quickly realized that he had to imitate Hale's careful movements, and strain with all his senses to detect whatever dangers may lurk beneath the snow-laden evergreens. The fairly dry snow still clung to his fur, however, and oddly refused to melt. He felt encased in warmth despite the crackling of his breath.
The only problem with Benton's illusion was that it did not accumulate the snow that either fluttered down in clouds or fell in clumps off the trees, so both still looked clean. More than once a mass of snow fell right through the illusion. Otherwise, it was perfect. Both "fourlegs" were antlerless, with fluffed-up coats in response to the cold. George looked up into the gray, overcast sky. We're fortunate there's no sun, else it'd be too bright to leave the tent.
George nearly bumped into Hale before he stopped short at the edge of a meadow. Then he stared also. Something large--at least twice the size of a horse--had pushed the snow aside in a wide furrow, as if it was a great ship leaving a wake. Hale shook with excitement, then turned to face George and spoke in a carefully controlled whisper. "See? See this? Do you see it?"
"Yes, I see it," George replied, voice hardly a whisper. "What is it?"
"I was right! They're here! These are unicorn tracks, Master Peryton. There's nothing else that large here! I never thought..."
"Don't stop thinking," the younger buck grumbled. "Should we go back?"
"Darkness, no. These are fresh tracks, my friend. We should follow 'em like good deer. If we're lucky, we'll catch a glimpse. I want you to see your quarry. Follow." The green-eyed buck turned and pushed through the piles of plowed snow.
Are we supposed to be stalking this creature? George asked himself. He tried to imagine it, and found the idea distasteful. But Hale wasn't even making an attempt to sneak and stay hidden like a wolf or a catamount. As before, they walked cautiously, stopping every ten paces or so to take in the world around them, before moving on after a flick of their tails. They weren't the only animals using the trail, either. Other deer used it. And they got very close.
Too close. The musky, rank smell of an animal that pissed on its hocks to scent-mark its territory and only bathed with its tongue made George want to retch, despite not smelling too civilized, himself.
They followed the trail for what seemed like hours, Hale becoming more smug every minute. And then...
There should have been some kind of sound, or noise. Something that large had no right to be so silent. The legendary unicorn of the Old World was nothing like this creature. Its massive head was a combination between a bear and a horse, its straight spike of a horn extended more than a forearm's length from between its eyes. The body was large, bearish, and it stood on pillar-like hind legs to reach up into the cedars to pull down branches with hook-clawed fingers. A long purple tongue roped out to tear the needles off their branches, dropping quite a lot to the ground. There were already deer where the unicorn had lost interest in a fallen branches of a particular tree. Its ears were relatively small, down on either side of its head. The whole body was covered in a dark brown, shaggy fur.
It must be using its magic, George thought, blood pumping in excitement. That's why we can't hear it pull on the branches. By the Harp...
When Hale spun around, George saw iron determination in his green eyes. They practically blazed. The illusory fourlegs stopped right next to George's ear and whispered in a voice that shook. If he had been a wolf, he would have salivated. "I must fetch my rifle. I don't want to waste this God-given opportunity."
Seaborne's High Temple had a singular distinction in the Colonies because it was the first built of stone. Unlike so many other Kalerandish Colonies, the original settlers had been a pious lot. So in order to give thanks they had built a well appointed--if small--High Temple modeled on the one in the capital city of Kingscross. Standing on the icy front steps, breath steaming into the biting winter air, Benjamin looked up at the stained glass windows that must have taken years to create. They were protected from storms by rune-spells that glowed softly at night, and flared like beacons during foul weather. At the moment they were just on the edge of visibility in the midmorning sunlight. The buck hesitated.
Elizabeth put her delicate hand on her husband's shoulder. "What are you waiting for?"
"I haven't needed Counsel in ages," Ben replied. He looked at the ten-point paper mache antlers wired around her jaw to hold them up; they had been modeled on her husband's moose-like set. It was Solstice. Topsy-Turvy Day, when everybody traded places. The world turned upside down. Ben was Michael's servant for the day. And in the Seaborne tradition, since the bucks had lost their antlers, husbands and wives swapped roles as well. While some couples went so far as to dress like their mates, most of the time the false antlers the does wore was enough to symbolize the swap. Being antlerless was more than enough to make Ben feel emasculated. "I hope those aren't too heavy."
"A trifling burden. But a fine rack indeed. I spent all month on them, after all. Now, go in and ask the Lord for His advice. You cannot make this decision alone, but it must be made now." She pushed him gently through the double doors.
The stained glass windows, depicting the life of the Sacrificed Son, had been altered over the years. Some time after being Claimed, they had replaced the entire Rose Window above the altar with a depiction of the event. Between representations of the Land, the Lord, and his Son, were a man and woman half-transformed into deer-people, forming a sort of triad where none seemed more important than the other. The Counsel booths were located in the southern transept. The distance down the nave was a short one. The Temple could hold only five hundred people.
Solstice was a popular holiday for Counsel. But this early the line was short, and most of the priests were doing their duty to make sure it wasn't going slow. Only fifteen minutes passed before an opening, and Ben entered the darkened booth, only to nearly gag. The inside had seen so much use that it overwhelmed his poor nose. Few bathed in winter. "Take your time to settle, my son," came a patient baritone from the other side of the screen.
The purpose of Counsel was that you weren't supposed to seek it often. Beseeching the aid of the Lord Creator and his Sacrificed Son was a last resort. If he was in Kalerand, he would've gone to a soothsayer of Ahern first. But the harp-strumming god was strictly limited to the mother country, in any case.
Ben took a breath and stopped his woolgathering. "Bless me Father, for it has been three years since my last Counsel. I beseech the Counsel of the Lord and His Son, because this choice will have such great consequences I know not the correct course of action."
There was no hesitation from the priest. "The Creator freed us from the tyranny of Fate long ago, my son, for the sake His children's free will. It is His greatest gift. But He infinitely knows what happens at the present moment and into the past, if no longer in the future. Do not undertake this Counsel lightly, but it is ultimately your choice to follow it or not. What choice is before you?"
The troubled buck described the situation in as much detail as he could. The foragers he had hired had collected--just barely--enough to satisfy the Wizards' Guild. But it didn't matter if they made ten thousand pounds off the lot of it. By the time the first spring cargo was ready, the Company would be bankrupt and unable to pay for either insurance or shipping costs. He'd actually have to sell much of what he had gathered to other traders in order to keep operating, which would drop the potential profit to only a thousand pounds. Even if they saw that profit within a month after the cargo was sold, between the repair of the Morning Tide, repaying George's debt to the investors, and the assumed failure of the hunt, a thousand pounds wasn't near enough.
"But if I sold the ship, she's worth at least eight hundred pounds even in her current state, perhaps more," Ben explained. "If I sell her, not only will I not have to pay any more docking and maintenance fees, but we'll have a fine nest egg that will solve all our problems. And a few months later a few thousand pounds from just this small shipment to Kalerand will put us in good graces. We'll even be able to refit another merchantman we own."
"It sounds to me as if you've made this decision already, my son," came the priest's voice through the screen. "Why do you seek Counsel?"
"I don't feel that this vessel is mine to do with as I please, despite being owned by the Company. George would have my head over his mantelpiece! But I don't even know if he still lives..."
"He does," the priest said with divine certainty. "The Land and the Lord watch over him. As for Counsel, the Lord sayeth: Sometimes it is easier to beg pardon than ask permission. Clearly you must act now, or the moment will pass and all will come to ruin. Go see Captain Gray. He is quite impressed with your little ship, as well as you yourself. The Navy will have some use for her."
As he left the Temple, Ben finally placed the voice on the other side of the booth. It was distinctive, but still not often heard in Seaborne. The Archbishop spent a great deal of time meditating, trying to speak to the Land. But Ben had no doubt that on a day like Solstice, with the world turned on its head, that's who was behind the screen.
"They're taunting me," Hale said, poking the fire with a stripped cedar branch. "Every time I bring my rifle, they vanish. But when I'm just scouting, I at least find fresh sign. They're playing with me!" He grunted in frustration, then tossed the green wood into the fire, where it smoked and smelled of burning resin.
For nearly four weeks since the first sighting before Solstice, the hunting buck had searched for the quarry with an intensity that his lupine cousin would have found astonishing. George had to admit, once John Hale set his mind to something there was no changing it. "Perhaps so, John," he said evenly. It was time for an ultimatum. George knew when to admit defeat. "I can only give you two more days. We're getting very low on rations and the forage in this area--"
"Benton can't travel until he's well," Hale pointed out. "Winter Flux's nothing to sneeze at for his folk. Ye'll just have to wait."
"Nevertheless," George replied. "Two days. Then your pay comes to an end. That's it. I'm not risking our lives any more than is necessary."
Hale shrugged, but there was a hardness in his expression. "So I'd better make the most of them." Without another word he started gathering his things. Unlike the scouting trips, he had to wear at least a pistol and ammunition belt, a powder horn, and had his rifle strapped to his back. They had all been rubbed with the musky discharge from the glands on the inside of his hocks, and even urinated on to make them smell more like fourlegs, but there was always the faint stench of the gunpowder. "This would go faster if you could come with me."
The younger buck laid his ears back. "And Benton might get well sooner if you were here to tend his illness. You know a lot more about this disease than I."
The gear-bedecked buck snorted. "He's strong. He'll survive. I'm off."
George watched Hale tread off through the snow-covered wilderness. The weather hadn't been universally cold. A week of temperatures above freezing had compacted and melted the snow down to only an ankle's depth--about a foot on deer-people--but had left a treacherous icy crust. The weather had been unusually dry otherwise, with only a few flurries adding a couple more inches at most.
Until the elk wizard had fallen ill, they had moved camp once per week to keep the unicorns from catching on. But Benton had been seriously sick for nearly eight days, falling in and out of consciousness at the worst of it. At least he was coherent now, if very weak. The main problem was that he couldn't work his magic, and the wolf-repellent spell had worn off a few days before.
They had awoken George with their distant howling under the recent full moon. He had spent the rest of the night unable to rest, between that and Benton's labored breathing. Whatever had kept the Journeyman wizard alive, George wasn't sure if it was his ministrations. The elk-man couldn't keep much food down, though he had taken as much water as George could give him. The only real problem was keeping the sick elk clean. A jury-rigged bedpan was only marginally useful. The stench inside of the tent was nigh unbearable.
All of George's clothes would have suffered the same problem. As a result, since the illness started he had worn nothing but his fur. He spent the majority of his time outside, among the now-docile fourlegs. Every morning Hale left cedar for them, so a few had lost their fear of the fire. They made for interesting company while the former twelver was out on his own. George had learned to pay attention to them for potential danger, for his troubles weren't doing anything for his nerves.
"Can I have some more water?" Benton sighed, smacking dry lips. His voice seemed a little stronger, and to George's delight, it was the first full sentence he had uttered in days. The sickness had made him thin, however. The big elk was no longer so burly. "And I think I am hungry..."
After sipping some broth, Benton seemed more energetic. He then reached up and felt the empty sockets on his pedicles. His antlers had dropped soon after he took ill. He looked at his huge many-pointed antlers, one ear rotating slowly in an expression George knew was deep thought. "I'm going to need my strength fairly quickly," he said. "Do you think you can follow some precise instructions?"
"I can," the whitetail replied.
"Get..." he took a breath, eyes half closed with fatigue. "Get my satchel."
Benton's instructions were very precise. Inside the satchel was what amounted to a portable apothecary shop, with many bottles of strange liquids and small bags of mysterious herbs. Using a balance, some standard weights, and nine separate types of herbs, George had to carefully grind each with a mortar and pestle, weigh them to within a grain, then mix them together into a broth. The last ingredient was a surprise. "Break off about... two inches from one of my antlers and grind it like the rest. You'll need twenty grains worth," he instructed.
The huge antlers reeked of musk. George paused. "Should I clean it first?"
"No," Benton replied. "This is the most important part. My rack means strength and virility. In concert with the rest, this spell is a restorative to health. I'll mend much faster with this than I would otherwise." He seemed upset at something. "What makes this so awful is that I know who I got it from..."
George remembered, also. They hadn't been completely alone in the hinterlands. Another elk-man and his small harem had traveled by their campsite about two weeks before. The passing herd of elk beastmen had enabled them to extend the hunt in the first place, trading for horse fodder, though little else. Of course, it was just as edible for them, but Hale had decreed that the horses were too important to jeopardize. The mysterious group had passed through quickly, heading towards their colony of Harwick just south of New Warwick, but apparently not fast enough for Benton.
The rust-colored buck worked as carefully as he could, hoping he had everything right. He'd had to regrind and measure the herbs a few times, just to make sure. The end result smelled foul. Once it was cool enough to drink, he placed a bowl near Benton's head. The elk lapped slowly until it was gone, then sank back into the bed with a relaxed sigh.
"Er..." George said.
"What?" Benton mumbled, his muzzle resting against the floor.
"You don't feel better already?"
"If you're expecting me to spring up fit as a fiddle, no. The body can't take it. But recovery'll take a few days, instead of a fortnight. You're going to have to do this tomorrow, too. Pity for Hale, eh? Arrogant ass. Now let me sleep." He seemed to fall asleep in only a few seconds, and immediately started an aggressive snoring.
George spent much of his time doing housekeeping chores for the rest of the day. Their remaining supplies were either hung in trees or buried in snow to preserve them. Several times per day George made sure that the squirrels and chipmunks hadn't gnawed their way into their remaining acorns and checked the level of the horse fodder. Unfortunately, despite all his efforts, the animals weren't looking very good. The makeshift stable barely protected them from the elements, and the necessity of keeping them tied up didn't allow them very much exercise. With Benton finally on the mend, George checked on them at noon.
There were only three. Frantic for a moment, George licked his nose and started sniffing around the trampled ground where the gelding had last been. The scent of manure was intense, but mixed within were the foot-musk of John Hale. Two rifles, one pistol, one bow, and two powder horns were missing, along with the bay gelding's share of the fodder. The former tenner knew exactly how quietly the cervine hunter could move. Somehow he had accomplished everything while he was inside the tent with Benton.
George sighed. He's been preparing for this. I'm sure of it. Over the past few days Hale had been busily reorganizing the camp site. And since I've been so focused on Benton...
He reentered the tent and broke the news to Benton, who seemed a little stronger, though extremely fatigued. "He doesn't... care 'bout money," the recovering elk said. "Glory."
"I can't go after him," George said. The only reason why Benton was awake was hunger. A good sign. He had several bowls of thin porridge. "Not with you like this."
"I'd curse you if you did!" the wizard replied, half-jokingly. "But he chose a foolish time to leave. It's dream season. There's forces building the next couple days..." He poured the warm liquid down his throat with a greedy slurp.
"You'll see, tonight." He yawned. "As for our Great Hunter, we'll need to wait before we can go after him. He may be a damned fool, but I don't actually dislike him. There's worse out there than wolves, Master Peryton. And I would not see him eaten. But we're going to need some help, ourselves."
George raised his ears. "What sort of help?"
"We've been shadowed by a pack of wolfmen this whole expedition. They're a discrete fifteen miles behind us, about a day's lope. I'm fairly certain this is John's cousin William he's often spoken of." He yawned again, but was propped up on his elbows. "And be a good chap make another potion, if you please."
Twilight brought worry. It was a waning gibbous moon, only a sliver less than full. There would be plenty of light to see by, much brighter to George's cervine vision. But tonight felt different. The animals were restless. Not just the fourlegs, but the blue jays, cardinals, and other birds that did not migrate. He could hear something digging around under the ice-crusted snowcover. The remaining horses nickered nervously, tossing their heads in their makeshift stable. Even he himself felt it, deep in his bones. Inside the tent he heard Benton tossing and turning, until it stopped. The elk wizard lurched out of the tent, then slumped on a log in front of the fire. His eyes glowed green in reflected firelight.
George stood up in alarm. "You shouldn't be out of bed!"
"I'm fine," he gasped. "I just had to come out here. I feel it. The Land is feeding my powers. Even you should feel something. Here..." With a wave of his hand, the fire went out, leaving them in total darkness.
"Benton!" George exclaimed as the night closed in. But he was shushed into silence. Then he no longer needed telling.
Far above the meadow where the real deer had gathered, was a curtain of green light, covering a quarter of the northern sky. Even the moonlight couldn't dim the spectacle, as it was joined by blue ribbons and red curlicues, twirling about each other in a dance. "The Land sleeps," Benton said in a reverent whisper. "We are privileged to watch Her dream. And this is only the start. You'll..." He jumped to his feet, and nearly pitched forward into the embers. "Oh, by the gods!"
"What is it?" George asked, body tense, ears a-twirl.
From far in the distance, the report of a gunshot that echoed off the walls of the little valley. Following instantly was an angry bellow. It seemed to come from a vague southwest direction. Stunned into silence, every eye, ear, and nose in the meadow was turned to pinpoint it, accompanied with much hoof-stamping. George had never heard anything like it. "He... he didn't!"
"Vainglory!" Benton swore, eyes unfocused. "He did, but he missed! The unicorns aren't even taking any pains to mask themselves. They know I'm here and they want me to sense it. I'll..." he stood, but staggered. "Damn it... I..." he looked at George. "If Fortune smiles, he's just hurt. But it wouldn't surprise me if they ran him through!
"But you're going to have to go get him, Master Peryton. Now. There's real wolves around and I barely have enough power to relight the fire."
"I... I can't leave..."
"I'll be fine here," Benton huffed with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I'm strong enough to build up the flames and make some more porridge. You did exceedingly well with the potion. But I'm otherwise useless. Arm yourself and go find Hale! You're going to have to bring him back to camp, dead or alive."
Weighed down with two pistols, a musket, a long knife, and his short sword, George made no attempt to mask the scent. He added a satchel full of bandages and some pain-dulling ointment the elk mage had brought along. As he finished his preparations, he couldn't stop shaking. Every instinct he possessed told him not to go out there. He wanted to bury himself in a blanket of snow, pull his ears over his eyes, and hide until it all went away.
"A word of warning," Benton said. The fire roared again from a source not entirely attributable to the wood he had piled on. "The dream will not stay skybound. We were Claimed on a night much like this, Mister Peryton. Be watchful, be wary. Trust your instincts, but don't let them overcome your reason. That is the most difficult part of being a newcomer. Remember, we are a part of this Land as much as the fourlegs, and She means us no harm." He snorted. "Though I can't say the same for those unicorns."
"Just watch out for those wolves," George said fretfully. And hope the powder is dry...
The aurora now filled the sky from horizon to horizon, which wasn't so far away in the little river valley where they had made camp. In the final moments before he left, Benton had pointed out which stars to follow so he didn't become lost. However, once he had Hale's scent, the buck would be easy to follow. The hunter always left little scrapes and despots of scent from his forehead along the way. Once George discovered that, he'd find Hale. But he first had to find the start of the trail...
This is no place for civilized men, he thought, tense. The landscape was no winter wonderland. He had to keep to the fourlegs' trails unless he wanted to cut himself from sticking his hooves through the icy crust. This wasn't new, powdery snow. This was old, rotten stuff dangerous to tread on. Though every instinct told him to move quietly, the stuff still made a crunching racket. There were droppings everywhere from deer, elk, foxes, a dozen types of rodents. Moose had dug up huge mounds to find sustenance.
Musket grasped firmly in both hands, George walked stiff and slow. The fire was far behind him now, and the light from the dream above cast an eerie glow over the leafless trees. The taller branches reached thirty feet or more over his head, standing out against the crimson and turquoise curtains above. He sniffed a half dozen scrape sites, no longer used with the end of the Rut, but failed to find Hale's scent. Though worried that he'd gone the wrong direction, he decided to go just a little further.
A gray, loping shape appeared, then vanished. George froze in place, giving his leathery nose a lick, but smelled nothing. Wolves? He grasped the musket tighter. It seemed too short for the wolfmen that were following.
On the next tree, a tall hemlock, he finally found Hale's scent and a lingering horsey odor. It was hours old, but he had come this way. Further on was a telling sign, the same wide trails that unicorns created when they moved through deep snow. The ground was even visible in places where the sun had melted through to the forest floor.
George looked up and saw the sun, the sky a vibrant, literally glowing blue. But... it wasn't the sun! It was as if a yellow aurora had gathered around the moon, for the craters and dark lunar seas were still visible through the translucent mantle. The whole sky seemed to descend. A halo surrounded the bare branches, even the ground gave of a soft white sheen. And then there were leaves...
Verdant foliage, translucent and unreal, covered everything. Ghostly leaves fluttered in a nonexistent breeze, maples, oaks, and chestnut. Blades of grass, forbs, clusters of weeds, sumac, and thick undergrowth. George's stomachs growled despite the fear gripping him.
The Land dreamt of summer.
Motionless, George attempted to get his bearings. The dream had changed the landscape, wavering between translucence and near-solidity. It clung to his fur, making his skin tingle like the air before a thunderstorm. Making matters worse was the illusion didn't quite match the landscape. There were trees where there shouldn't have been any more. There was a broken stump, the fallen maple next to it blackened from a lightning stroke. Only where the landscape didn't quite match the dream could he try to orient himself. But every moment he delayed could mean that Hale end up a wolf's meal.
He pressed on, allowing his nose to lead him.
After a while he caught a whiff... first, a panicked horse, then a metallic tang that could only be blood. He then heard a large, shambling movement somewhere in the distance. He knew he was close, and tried to keep a grip on himself. He decided to risk a shout. "Joooooohn!" he called in a deep voice he knew would carry, cupping his hands next to his muzzle. With no response, he repeated it.
The shambling noise paused. George noticed a dark shape the size of a horse through the trees, just before the dream strengthened and became more opaque. The next few moments were a complete blur. A massive, thunderous rush of feet, an angry bellow, and a streak of pain across his right arm as he was thrown back into a tree, knocking the wind out of him. Dazed, he groaned. Though his fur had cushioned the blow somewhat, his whole body complained and he was momentarily unable to move.
Hot breath, smelling of partially digested foliage, blew into his face. George let out an animalistic grunt, half a groan, then stared into the horse-like muzzle of the unicorn. The shining foot-long horn reflected the dream, making it appear to glow in multicolored light.
Snorting with satisfaction, the creature shambled away.
Though blood streamed down George's left arm, the cut did not appear too deep. The arm was still usable, and the wound was already clotting. It didn't kill me, he thought in bewilderment. Maybe it didn't kill John...
A sleek gray shape loped by. George fumbled for the musket, but it lay broken on the ground. The unicorn had stepped on it, as if it knew what it was for. But he still had his pistols. He drew one, and tried to use his right arm as little as possible. He called out Hale's name again.
A cervine groan, sounding like a strangled bleat. Wasting no time, George bounded through the illusory undergrowth. The cervine hunter lay on his back, clutching his broken right arm. He appeared to be in a great deal of pain, and when he looked in George's direction the buck didn't seem to really see him. George sighed and looked around, wondering what to do next.
There was a howl. Close. Then a trio of shrill responses. Make sure we don't get eaten?
And another set, slightly farther away. The howls echoed through the valley, making it difficult to tell how close they were. The farther group, about a half dozen distinct voices, seemed stronger than the first. Hale stiffened at the second group, then blinked a few times. "Put..." he said, finally seeing George. "Put the g' down."
"Can you move?" George replied, fumbling for the bandages.
"N'," he replied. The snow beneath him glistened red, and for the first time George noticed the apparent hole in the buck's arm. "Not... yet. Ribs 're broke. Gun... down..." he said. Then he passed out.
"How am I supposed to get you out of here?" George grumbled. Upset at Hale for being a damned fool. Upset at himself for taking the Wizard Guild's contract in the first place. "Why the hell do you want me to put my gun down? You're delirious, man!"
His right eye caught the motion. As the dream started to fade, retreating back up into the sky, the real landscape reasserted itself. A world that included a pair of golden eyes reflecting the dream-light. Panicked, and without really aiming, tail standing on end, he raised the pistol and fired. There was a yelp, but George didn't wait to see if the animal had even been hit. Pure bestial terror took over, and he fled...
So terrified, the growling voice of William Hale failed to register. "Are you daft?! That was my ear, damn you!"
"You're lucky, George," Benton said as he prepared the bent surgeon's needle. "All you need are a few stitches. I fear John has an infection that's going to keep us here for a while." The needled threaded, he turned to the smaller buck's bandaged arm. The deep wound still seeped blood, the fur around the slash had been matted with it before the wizard had caused a patch immediately surrounding it to fall out. It was the first time he'd seen his own bare skin in months.
"Bite this," the elk continued, putting a bit of soft wood in his mouth. "I'm conserving my pain-dulling potions for John, so this will hurt."
Agonizing seconds later the deep slash was closed and rebandaged. All told, he'd gotten away with only the cut and some bruised ribs that would be sore for a few weeks. John Hale's arm had been holed, broken in two places, and he had a concussion. He remained unconscious, not moving in a potion-induced healing sleep. And on top of everything else, Benton still wasn't at full strength. But at least they no longer had to worry about fourlegged wolves. John's cousin William had a pack of six wolfmen with him.
"I suggest you formally apologize for shooting Will in the ear," Benton said firmly. "He'll have that notch for the rest of his life, you know."
"Did they have to howl like that?" George retorted. "If they had said something in an intelligible language I mightn't have pulled the trigger!" And they scared all the deer away, he thought. Just when he was starting to understand them, they were gone, forced to find a new yard. One of the deer had had blue eyes.
Part of him wondered how Sarah was getting along.
There was a sharp smell of snow in the air. The weather was turning colder, and the red dawn sky warned of bad weather's return. Soon a deep layer of new snow would cover the meadow. And the fact that Benton said the Land was still dreaming only complicated matters. "It may be weeks before we can move," he explained as he tended the wound. "And you're going to have to go with the wolves and find as much forage as you can before the storm."
Pain or no pain, George nodded. But he left the tent reluctantly, not wanting to face the wolf-people, who had set up their camp in the former deer yard. One large tent, but only three pack horses for all of them. The buck was painfully aware of his wounds, and a part of him still wanted to flee. It took all his willpower just to face them again. One of the two females tended their fire, where meat sizzled over the open flame. The smell made George's stomach tie itself in knots. At least it isn't venison. He could smell William Hale in the tent. The she-wolf outside lolled her tongue in a lupine grin and motioned he should go inside.
"How's John?" Will asked immediately. He sat on the floor, mending some damaged clothing. Seeing someone so fierce doing such a mundane task was rather disarming. He'd risen when George entered. There was small notch on the outer edge of his left ear, already scabbed over. Compared to his packmates, William was dark gray with a pair of lighter "eyebrows". George filled him in. He seemed angry with himself. "I should've brought ye all home a fortnight ago."
"Why didn't you? And why'd you shadow us?"
"I didn't because the damned fool would never have let me hear the end of it," William growled. "He's always accusing us of coddling you folk. Hell, I know ye can take care of yerselves. John's gone on a lot of hunts with me since then. But this? He has a bad habit of letting his pride get in the way of good sense. Ye don't hunt unicorns without at least a dozen men and two wizards." He glared at George. "Newcomer or not, ye ought to have better sense, yerself."
"I'm accustomed to taking risks," George retorted. "Finding investors was a risk. Selling nearly everything I owned to buy the Charter and ships was a risk. Coming here to see things for myself was a risk." One he was still paying for, and would for the rest of his life. His already frayed temper was spiraling out of his control. The buck's hackles rose, ears folded against his neck. "I went into this with open eyes, sir."
"And if your aim had been a little better you would have shot me between the eyes," William growled.
George sighed and tried to look contrite. "I panicked. I'm not used to the way my mind works any more. This... this change was not in my plans. I simply... react. Without thinking. Just standing here..." His tail bobbed nervously.
"You should meet the lupine newcomers," the gray wolfman replied. "They're like cubs, chasing after butterflies and rabbits. But you appear in control of yerself now. Or nearly so."
"I'm sorry I took a shot at you. I would like to make amends, if possible."
The notch-eared wolf looked the newcomer buck up and down, golden eyes full of thought. The uninjured ear moved slowly. If he were human he would be chewing on his lip. "Don't point a gun at me for the rest of this trip, and we'll be fine. Now, we'd better get you that forage before the storm hits. I already have others stocking up our larder..."
Winter had come to an end, and only a few patches of rotten, icy snow hung on in the northern shadows of homes and trees. The locals called it "mud season". The time before much of anything had yet begun to grow. The only plant life were crocus and a few daring marigolds not yet in bloom. But here and there were some blades of grass, and a few maples and oaks were putting out light green buds.
They were delicious. Succulent treats that promised more.
Whitetree was busier than the last time George had been there. A few of the more adventurous--or possibly foolhardy--human merchants had already braved the Northern Ocean to be the very first to market. The inn already had a few boarders. But the innkeeper had given him a wink and a grin when he entered, and told him he'd be charged the same rate as before. Sarah's scent emanated from the kitchen, mixed with the aroma of baking bread that made his stomachs growl. "She's changed a bit since you last saw her," the old doe informed with a self-important smile. She turned to the kitchen. "Sarah!"
The former human man wore an apron over her swollen girth, and her bosom had filled out accordingly. She looked a little plump. Her fur and clothing were dusted in flour, and she didn't notice George at first. One hand rested on her gravid belly, and she made a face. Finally, her nostrils flared as she smelled him. Her ears rotated forwards, and she cocked her head. "Your son is kicking," she said warmly.
"I'll tend to the ovens," Mary said. She bustled off.
They retreated to the room George had rented with the last of his money. Benton and John Hale had been paid for two months' work. But there were other expenses. They hadn't made it all the way back to civilization after John was well enough to travel, having spent the winter in one of the outlying stockaded towns. Lodging had required almost every penny he'd had left, for food them all and medicine for the injured buck's continued recovery.
Once he and Sarah were in private, in the room where they had had their tryst, George finally stammered a reply. "How do you know it's a boy?"
"Only little bucks kick like this, or so I'm told," Sarah replied. There was an odd, motherly glow in her blue eyes. "I'm glad you're back. He'll be due in about six weeks. I hope you'll be there."
George nervously scratched behind his ear, careful to avoid the fuzzy nub of new antler that was already sprouting from the pedicle. The velvet covering was incredibly sensitive.
He wasn't certain why he'd come back to her. Perhaps because something felt unfinished. A duty unfulfilled. Here before him was a woman pregnant with his child. "I... maybe I will be. But I have no idea how I'm going to explain this to my wife."
The pregnant doe shrugged, then winced. "He just kicked me in the kidneys."
He stared at her, and for a moment tried to put himself in her place, and failed. "I can't imagine what you're going through. Truly. But..."
She silenced him by putting her finger on his nose. "Don't apologize. It won't change things." Sarah sat down heavily on the bed. "Now, sir buck, I would like to know what you've been doing since our last meeting." She traced the line of white fur that had grown in over the scar, ears expressing her concern. She seemed pensive. "How did you got this? And you look underfed..."
Words came in a flood, as if a dam had burst. After being separated from his wife for so long, and the isolation and privation he had endured in the winter, a pressure had built to bursting. George needed a female shoulder to cry on, and since Sarah was the one he knew best, he had returned to Whitetree.
Winter had closed in with a vengeance. Four feet of snow and bitter cold that kept them from moving for weeks, even after devising makeshift snowshoes. John Hale's recovery had been slow and Benton had to fight for every step. The older buck's pride had been broken, and for a while George had feared for his life. The injured arm had withered a little, the breaks limiting the range of motion. Only a miracle had kept him from losing the use of his hand. The blood loss and infection had weakened him, magnifying the former twelve-pointer's melancholy.
Since his injury he had never once spoken to George. He'd even said very little to his cousin, whom George had become good friends with. "He couldn't face me in his failure, I think. But I feel responsible for him. So I gave him a bonus before we parted company. They're already headed back south to Mystic."
Sarah turned away. "I... sometimes wonder if this is a punishment for my pride." She rested her hand on her belly. "But I don't know any more. Mary keeps telling me that this is a blessing. A reward. But... oh..."
George perked his ears. "What?"
She took his hand and placed it on her belly. George felt a little kick against his palm. His eyes widened. "I felt that one..."
There was a look of wonder on her face, the motherly glow brightening. "I think I know why Mary thinks as she does. If there's anything that's truly made me a woman, it's this."
He stared at her in confusion. "I though you'd accepted it when we parted."
"That was more for your peace of mind than mine, Mr. Peryton." A good-natured twinkle joined the maternal glow in her sea blue eyes. "Though I'm still a little disappointed the Land decided not to introduce you to the mysteries of womanhood." She poked his chest playfully.
"Why is that?" George asked uneasily.
She shrugged and started picking at his shedding winter coat. "I can't really describe it very well. It's just a feeling that you're missing out. Pity, maybe? But you couldn't have been the father then, now could you? Perhaps it's meant to be."
The buck decided to change the subject to something marginally less uncomfortable. "I don't know how I'm going to face Benjamin. I'm fairly certain he collected everything the Guild wanted, but I'm coming back completely empty-handed. I don't know how I'm going to repay the Guild, let alone..."
Sarah sighed meaningfully. "This begins to sound all too familiar."
George raised his ears. "What?"
"In my old life I was a Master Baker. But things weren't going well and I'd had to borrow heavily from the Guild to stay in business. Now, there's a great deal of money to be made out here. Even for lowly bakers. The Colonies need skilled craftsmen. So I took what money I had left, pulled up stakes, and risked it all by coming here." She looked down at herself, both hands around her belly, and snorted. "It would've only taken me five years to pay the Guild if I'd remained a man. Now, thrice that as a woman. The local Guild revoked my Master status, you see."
He was left speechless. He couldn't really think of the man she had been, never having met her before. But there did seem to be some injustice, there. "Er... no wonder the bread smells so good," he could only stammer.
Her blue eyes glowed with the compliment, despite George's hesitation. "And it tastes just as good on the cudding. Humans don't know what they're missing..."
In addition to small talk, Sarah filled him in on the events he had missed while out in the wilderness. He had sensed the tension in the air upon entering Whitetree. It emanated from human and deer-man alike. The cause were rumors circulating among the first merchant ships that had arrived even before all the harbor ice had melted. They said that the Crown was already at war with Solera, but they weren't telling anybody. They said there had been some sort of naval skirmish off the Altrian coast, involving warships from all three kingdoms. It seemed to involve one of the Kalerandish merchantmen the Soleran pirates had stolen from the southern Colonies over the past year. They said that, when trying to reclaim the vessel, shots were fired, ships sunk...
There was already activity on the Seaborne waterfront. George had seen it in Whitetree. Shipyards, they said. The Crown needed warships, and timber was in short supply in the mother country. The Colonies had trees in abundance.
At the time, and George felt a little guilty for this, was that if he had any money at all, no matter how small, he would invest it in shipyards. It would surely bring in a handsome return in short order.
Instead he spent his last few farthings on a carriage to bring Sarah into Seaborne with him.
Margaret's letter had arrived on one of the first ships from home. But no matter how many times George read it, he couldn't believe what he saw. The investors had descended on his family like a flock of vultures, taking everything of value, even the house, which had more than covered what was owed. Before the fifty pounds had arrived they had been in a poorhouse, Margaret putting her needlework to good use as a seamstress. Some of the silver would be used to survive the winter, but once the storms had passed and the sea calmed, she would use it to buy passage for herself and the children, to join him in Seaborne.
George sighed wearily, worry cutting him to the bone. Another ship had already returned with their handsome profit from Benjamin's efforts. But his family had not yet arrived. Every day he went out to the Town Dock, asking everyone he knew if there was word. But there was a strong possibility that the ship had gone down. It was hardly unusual. Three merchantmen were confirmed sunk and a further four were overdue.
This was the season for newcomers, and they were arriving by the shipload. There would be a housing shortage in the city this year. Humans went in one door of the Newcomers' House, deerpeople another. New bodies, new opportunities.
The Company was back in business, the investors satisfied, and the Wizards' Guild paid off with interest. With some real money to reinvest, George and Benjamin had taken a goodly amount and purchased a larger house in the city's North End. Two full stories, with an attic and proper basement. George shared it with Benjamin's family. His wife had given birth to twins. Two male fawns who were already toddling after only two weeks.
Unlike human children, who cried often, deerfolk babies were eerily quiet, except when their mother was near. Birthing season was upon them, and there were hundreds of keening, bleating fawns in Seaborne. Few slept at night these days. Most fawns were born at the same time. And George had been present at the birth of Sarah's baby.
In the parlor two weeks after, Sarah nursed her little doe. She was still employed at the inn in Whitetree, and worked even harder now that she had a child, carrying the fawn in a sling on her back while she worked the ovens and kneaded dough. George had called her here to talk about the letter once again. But as before, she seemed very unconcerned about Margaret's coming. "The Lord will sort things out," she said. "Perhaps He won't tie them up neat as you please, but they will be resolved somehow."
George flattened his ears reproachfully. Not for the first time he wondered if that sort of arrogance had been even worse when she'd been a man. "I have three children on that ship!"
To her credit, the new mother smelled contrite. "I don't think they've come to harm, George. But things will sort out. Your wife is a reasonable woman, and when she becomes one of us, she will change. As you have."
It was very hard for him to have any strong feelings for Sarah beyond friendship and a sense of duty, though there was some real affection between them. And he loved his daughter. But he doubted anything deeper could ever develop. But this smugness... he wondered if she'd gotten it from being around Mary too much. The old zealot was certainly full of herself.
He made his rounds the next day, first to check on the nearby shipyard where the Morning Tide was being refitted into a sixteen-gun patrol ship. The Crown Navy had purchased more than one of the stout merchantmen to make into the same type of vessel. While he was sad to see her go, George felt some satisfaction that she would be pumping cannonballs into Soleran pirates in the near future.
With high tide on the way, and the arrival of more merchant ships, most of them carrying passengers, George went down to the Newcomers' House. In front of the wide double doors there was a place where families were reunited. It was up to those who already resided in Seaborne to approach their wives and children, of course. George had been here at high tide for weeks.
It was a chilly day for late Spring. Ragged clouds scudded overhead out of the south. It had rained for nearly two days straight, and the harbor smelled worse than usual. Mud and horse manure caked George's cloven black hooves, spats keeping the muck off his lower legs. Ears a-flicking, he scraped them off.
A crowd approached from the far end of the growing Town Dock. The sound of shoes against the planking was distinctive. A heavy, sweaty human smell nearly overwhelmed him.
There was a hint of wolfman-scent.
And there she was.
Their time apart had put some worry lines into Margaret's soft features, framed by the red hair that was nearly a cervine shade already. And for a moment George focused on those new lines. The last few years had been difficult at best. Margaret's drive and ambition had only reinforced George's; a willingness to endure any hardship, risk almost anything, for the promise of wealth and success. He had married a woman with as powerful a drive as he himself possessed. In many ways she was simply a female version of himself. She wore a threadbare blue gown, open to her white petticoats.
Then the wolf-scent intensified, mixed with apprehension. George stared. Walking beside her, toddling along, was a very young cub. His youngest son had just turned three when he'd left for Seaborne. This child was nearly four, and whined as Margaret pulled him along with his paw in her hand. And behind her, wearing a somber black dress...
George broke into a jog and stopped right in front of his wife. Margaret halted, as did the rest of his family. Three children. Four-year old James, the youngest. The cub. Richard, ten, who was carrying some of their things and looked much the same. Last there was Beth, the eldest at twelve. And like her smallest brother, a wolf.
Their ship had been forced south, Margaret explained. Heavily damaged, with only a few shreds of sail left, they had been fortunate in the extreme to reach any port at all, let alone New Warwick. From there they had been forced to find passage on another ship. But this had taken some time. And somehow, while wandering around, young James had run off and stepped off New Warwick's City Dock. Beth had unthinkingly run after him. And neither had been wearing amulets.
"I know I don't normally swear," George said, mindful of the children. "But... shit."
"You should have heard me," Margaret replied, green eyes flashing. "I turned sailors' ears red for five minutes. And I swatted Elizabeth's furry behind!" She sighed. "But not too hard. What are we going to do?"
George only knew one thing. "This... this can't be the first time something like this has happened! I have some friends I can write--wolves. They might be able to foster..."
"I don't want to separate the family again," his wife said firmly. "I don't want two of our children to grow up without a parent who looks like them. I love you with all my heart, George, but by God, I'd feel like I was abandoning them!"
"There have to be precedents," George countered, ears a-whirr. "I've never heard of marriages dissolved because the two were different species." The harried buck rubbed his temples, careful to avoid his soft antlers. "Let's not make any decisions just yet. I'll buy you and Richard an amulet. We may find a better solution in a few days."
He huffed angrily. "And I want a full account of what happened after my first letter arrived last Fall. I want to be fully informed before I write the next letter to the investors. If I remember the terms of the Company Charter correctly, they're going to pay..."
As the family started to settle in, Richard insisted on staying with his father no matter what happened, and neither parent argued. Though he was only ten, the lad had taken up a great deal of responsibility since his father had left. And when he changed, he made a handsome young buck indeed. Both mother and father were both present during the change, and George did his best to guide him through the difficult first days.
But children are resilient. Less than a week later, after his chores and studies were finished, he went off to play with other newcomer children.
Then George came clean and told Margaret about Sarah, and her daughter.
He hadn't been planning to tell Margaret about her until she was settled in New Warwick, but Beth had forced his hand. That lupine nose of hers had picked up Sarah's lingering scent almost immediately. And since she was just as strong-minded as her mother, she had fearlessly delivered an ultimatum with an expression older than her years. If her father didn't tell her mother about this doe before they left, she would. And how would that look? The young shewolf had nearly bared her teeth.
In the end, after hours of confession and outright begging for forgiveness, Margaret wasn't happy. Her icy anger cleared the house, leaving George and his family by themselves. After a while, she was a little mollified. "I've heard stories aboard ship about the... loose way things are here. And you've told me over how this place changes you. I wasn't sure I believed it..." She sighed. "But I've been watching you, and Benjamin, and the children. The differences haven't escaped me."
"We could still send James and Beth to William Hale." George pointed out. "I don't want to lose you, Margaret. We won't be able to have any more children. Sarah..." he stammered.
Her anger flooded back, expression darkening. "She's a mistress. Don't pretend she isn't! And she's the one who did this to you! What were you thinking?"
George's ears drooped. "I wasn't! I had hoped I'd made that clear." He tried to make his expressions understandable to her, since she couldn't smell them. There was a level of sincerity humans couldn't sense. "I don't want to part like this. I want you to understand."
She looked--and smelled--anguished and furious all at once.
The amulet was a cheap one, the same kind George had first bought. It was held around the neck with a weak, thin brass chain. With a quick, fluid motion she reached up and gave it a yank. With a hiss of pain as the chain dug into her neck, the clasp snapped. Then her anger seemed to dissolve, and she gave him the most possessive look he had ever seen. "Do you think I'm going to let her have you?"
Beth put her gray-furred hand on her father's arm as he moved to prevent his wife from dropping it. She lolled her tongue in a lupine smile, warmth and love in her light gold eyes. "James and I will be fine, father. We know who our parents are."
The brass sphere bounced on the floor.
- End -