The sharp smells of hay, horse manure and liniment greeted the two women as soon as they opened the corral gate to Westwind’s stables. The facility was ancient and had been conveniently located at the northernmost tip of the resort, closest to the five horse trails that led out of the property, one going into each of the still-active provinces. Most visitors to Westwind came by car, but a few avid equestrians made good use of the mountain trails, though each province assisted in paying for a year-round staff to maintain them through the Interprovincial Forestry Division.
Dawn had come and gone, the sun now warming the area enough that several early-morning horse owners had come and taken their mounts out for the day or were in the pens feeding and brushing down their rides. Those whose owners were not on site were still cared for by Westwind’s staff, so no horse was left wanting.
“‘Morning Fauna, Miss Serena,” a burly, apron-clad blacksmith greeted as he walked past them. He stopped short. “Miss Serena?”
Westwind’s owner turned back. “Yes, Forge?”
“That black stallion that came in this morning. He’s got a slight limp and I heard rattling on his front hoof, but he won’t let us near him. Any idea when Lord Loki will come for him? He always handles him while I shod that beast.”
Fauna looked down, wishing he had not asked. Serena sighed. “Loki’s gone, I’m afraid. He passed last night. Nightmist is Lord Erik’s now. And I apologize. I don’t know when he’ll be here, or if indeed he even knows ‘mist was taken last eve.” She paused, then added. “I will send word to his House that ‘Mist is here and safe.”
Forge clucked. “Can’t do much with ‘im without a Whoticore here, Ma’am. He’s a wild one. We can feed ‘im, but he can’t go out on that bad shoe.”
“I am on my way to see him right now,” the herbalist nodded. “Perhaps I can keep him calm so you can do your work.” She smiled, though it was sad. “Let us try, at least.”
The Dark One, as the stable workers and handlers had come to nickname him, was snorting and braying his displeasure at being penned up and left alone when the three humans approached. Fauna waited until the blacksmith was far enough ahead of them she could speak without being overheard. She could no longer hold back what she was feeling. “Miss Serena, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to…”
The herbalist didn’t seem to understand what she was implying at first. She looked at the receptionist curiously. “What? Not help a sad horse who has lost his master and friend? If I can comfort him in order for Forge to get the work done – “
“No, I don’t mean that,” Fauna interrupted her. “Sure, it’s great that you want to help, but, y’know, Erik Whoticore could be here by day’s end to take care of this.”
“And put Nightmist through a further day’s discomfort when who knows how many hours he’s walked on that bad shoe already?” Serena protested. She waved the thought away with a hand. “I won’t hear of it, dear. Why would you suggest I ignore this when I can possibly assist?”
Fauna rolled her eyes. Sometimes – and this was one of those times – her boss could be a little oblivious if something was not pointed out to her directly. And this was a subject she was loathing having to be more blunt about. “I mean, because of – “ she took a shuddering breath. “Loki, because he – “ she couldn’t go on and looked away, cringing.
It took the herbalist another moment to catch on to how hesitant her employee was to broach the subject and why, but then her face lit up with realization. “Oh, so you believe my father’s version of events as well, is that it, Fauna?” she asked gently.
“‘Version of events’?” Fauna’s eyes widened. “Ma’am, they tried and convicted him! He – “
Serena stopped walking, the younger woman following suit. “No,” Serena corrected. “He did not.” She hesitated, but only because she was at a loss for the right words. “It was not rape…not as you understand it, or how I used to understand it…” she trailed off, not in upset, but as if trying to work something out in her own mind about what she was telling Fauna.
“Then why did they sentence him?” Fauna blurted out impulsively. “Why convict him if he didn’t – “
“There were other reasons, dear,” Serena softened, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Lord Loki was a powerful man in Mountainville. Many carried strong grudges against him and his kin. My testimony could not save him from a fate he had spent a lifetime working towards. His time in this world was done.”
“I’m sorry,” the receptionist apologized, tearing up. “I – I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories. I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“I know that,” Serena said softly, smiling. She resumed walking, Fauna following her. “Our relationship was doomed to a painful conclusion from the start, I see that now in hindsight, but what will be gained, well, he thought it worth it in the end.”
They caught up with Forge, but not before he had entered Nightmist’s pen, causing the horse to snarl and spit in his direction. “All right, you big, black beast, settle down!” the women could hear the blacksmith scold. “We’ve got to take a look at that shoe and I’ve brought someone you might like a damn sight better than me to keep you company while I do my job!”
“Are you sure this will work?” Fauna asked her employer timidly. She liked horses and he had been cooperative enough when he had brought Young Jim Solare to them, but once his task was done, the Clydesdale now seemed determined to hate everyone else within spitting distance.
“No, I’m not,” Serena replied honestly. “He hated me at first sight, too,” she admitted. “And he nearly bit my father’s hand off on their first meeting. Oh, how he hates him and the feeling was mutual!” she laughed. “‘Mist seems to have a particularly well-developed hatred of my family.”
“Then how did he let your father ride him all the way to Westwind?” Fauna was confused.
“A question I have for father when he is well enough to answer,” the herbalist admitted. “I suspect he found something to mask his scent, perhaps.” She showed no hesitation, heading straight into the pen, her receptionist wide-eyed, staying fearfully behind her boss.
Not wanting to look the beast in the eye, or witness it take a bite out of Serena, Fauna looked away as they walked in. She was surprised when the snarling and stomping stopped almost instantly. Confused, she looked up and into the horse pen, stunned to see Nightmist nodding his head and snorting softly at Serena. The herbalist put her hand out for him to sniff. Accepting the gesture, he scented her, then satisfied, pushed his large snout into her soft hand. “Well, there we are, aren’t we?” she cooed at the large beast. “You remember me, don’t you?”
The receptionist looked to the bemused blacksmith. “I knew Lady Serena had a way with plants, but animals?” Forge shook his head. “He’s done a 180 on his opinion of you, m’lady hasn’t he?” He moved to the horse’s front leg with the problem shoe. Nightmist was still slightly annoyed at his presence and pulled his leg away, grunting unhappily.
Fauna kept out of the way, watching them with fascination. Serena stroked the horse’s snout soothingly. “Now ‘mist, let him take a look. That can’t be comfortable, can it, dear one?” The horse knickered in a way the Westwind employee could have sworn was agreement. He settled as Serena kept his attention away from Forge as the blacksmith pried off the shoe and looked it over.
“Yup, nail’s bent. Probably digging into ‘im,” he told them. “I’ve got the replacement. Won’t take but a moment.”
Serena looked over at Fauna. “It’s all right, dear. He’s fine now.”
Fauna took a step or two towards them, but still hung mostly back. “How’d you do that?” she asked.
The herbalist thought it over. “I’m not sure. He didn’t like me either when Loki first brought me here.” She smiled. “In fact, he didn’t like me at all until, well,” she blushed. “Until ‘mist smelled that Loki had…marked me,” she finished softly, her blush deepening.
The girl stared at the herbalist blankly, not understanding what “marking” was until she saw Serena’s hand stray to her abdomen, then her eyes lit with understanding. Serena’s somber mood returned as she patted Nightmist’s long, stately nose. “You miss him, don’t you, sweetheart?” she sighed. “I wish for your sake I could tell you he is returning. You were both so good for each other. He was a good master, strong and strong-willed. A good match for your great spirit.”
The horse’s nose flared as the human woman spoke gently, scenting over Serena more intently. He made soft grunting noises until he paused at her belly, pushing her hand aside.
“Done,” Forge announced, letting ‘mists’s leg go and getting up, the old, shoe in hand, a nail sticking out of it at a slightly bent angle. He watched along with Fauna as Nightmist scented Serena’s abdomen with quite an interest, nickering softly and very gently bumping her. “Ah, that’s why,” he said in understanding.
“What?” Fauna turned to him.
“Congratulations,” the blacksmith said. “They can tell, you know, that you’re carrying. A female with child, even a non-horse, is sacred to them.”
Fauna cringed, deeply embarrassed. She guessed the news had not gotten to him or the stable proper of how Serena had become with child and especially under what circumstances.
The herbalist took it gracefully, merely smiling slightly and nodding her head. “Thank you. I suppose in a way, Nightmist can sense who her father is,” she placed a hand on her belly again, competing with the horse’s large, cold snout. “I had not even considered that until just now.” The human turned her attention back to the animal. “Don’t worry. I will send word for Lord Erik to attend you. He will be here soon.” Giving Nightmist one last pat, Serena turned and left.