1-11 Trouble Comes to Westwind, Part 1
As the door to Old Jim’s cabin shut quietly behind her, Serena Solare took a deep breath, ending in a sigh that didn’t quite banish all the tension in her body. She wished it had. Were it that easy to dismiss.
More and more, her father’s presence and their discussions were becoming less and less easy. The pain of Loki’s loss cast a shadow over their relationship – and like the moon that crossed over the face of the sun, her time with Loki and how he had changed both him and herself, blotting out her old life, brought in something new yet so old it was more a part of her than the sun had been all her life.
All this life…
The herbalist took the path away from her father’s bungalow, back down towards the deeper parts of the resort grounds. Soon the soft sounds of Westwind’s babbling brook came to her sensitive ears, as did the fresh, cleansing smell of the river and the nocturnal dragonflies awakened by the end of day and the cool of the night.
Steeling herself, Serena parted the last of the overhanging ferns sheltering the river bridge from her view. There it stood before her, its ancient, wood frame covered in moss and promises. Within her body, Luna stirred as the all too vivid memory of Loki caused the light to play tricks in her mother’s eyes. As she approached with unsure footsteps, even her groin trembled in remembered passion. Her lover had insisted that their first attempt at conceiving Luna be here, in the deepest parts of the night, Serena’s shift down, exposing her breasts to the cool shock of water droplets from the river as he took her from behind. Never had she imagined such passion existed as the Lord of House Whoticore had given her that night. On their third final and successful attempt at conception, there was even a vague memory of them enrobed in silvered moonlight, floating over the river, but of course, that had been impossible…
“Are you sure you’re up to this, brother?”
Erik Whoticore sighed wearily but nodded. “I must be,” he replied as they rode the final leg towards Westwind. “Nightmist will end me if I leave him another night’s time.”
Narik grunted a laugh. “That I believe.” He adjusted his mount’s direction as the path widened, sped him up just enough to ride side-by-side with Erik. “But that’s not what I mean. What if we run into Serena Solare?”
The new House Head looked towards the western horizon, unable to see the sun, but knowing from the deepening color of the sky that its reign over this day was nearly done. “She will have retired with the diurnal dragonflies, and yet I have to seek her out, tell her of her father’s fate at our hands.” His head bowed with the pain of the thought, then he looked to his taller, stronger brother. “I’m not sure I have the words, Narik, or the strength to do this. That vision took so much out of me.” Taking a deep swig of water from a canteen tied to his saddle, he shuddered. “And I keep seeing her face at the pronouncement at the trial, father and her reaching for each other as they dragged him away. I – I hadn’t expected her to fall apart like that. From relief it was over yes, but not from longing for him.”
Narik nodded. “Yeah, all his other conquests were glad to see the last of him once his pheromones cleared their heads, but not her. Why was she so different from them, I wonder…” he trailed off, then looked into Erik’s dark eyes. “She loved him, but she didn’t want to move to Mountainville to be with him. She was so awkward when father brought her home to introduce her. She told Sari – “
“She had her work, her resort, her father. She was as out of place there as we are in the day’s sunlight.” Erik shook his head. “I get the feeling things were much more complicated between them. He never gave any of the others our mother’s moon ring, but he gave it to her.”
“And it accepted her,” Narik recalled. “Whocate’s ring, passed from Brandon Whoticore to Whocate herself. And it stayed with Lady Serena even after father’s death. That never made sense to me. It should have come back to you, back to our side of the bloodline when you received his power upon his passing.” He shook his head. “In its history, it has always returned to our House. Why stay with her this time?”
Erik grunted. “I think it knows this is the end of the line as much as we do, Narik.” He frowned. “Though if she is carrying a boy, maybe it’s meant to be his now. We just don’t know.” He thought about how their father had pulled him aside the last night he was a free man, told Erik of Serena’s two miscarriages, that he would give her a child this time and die in the process. Not ‘maybe’ die, but die. He had been deadly serious and no one had believed him at the time. Especially not Erik.
“We may never know,” he declared, then, seeing the end of the trailhead, the lush growth of Westwind encroaching on both sides and the stable buildings beyond, felt relief as a new wave of crushing thirst and weakness overcame him…
“The scrying will play tricks on you,” a deep, masculine voice warned her.
Serena closed her eyes against the shimmering, shifting image that appeared to her from the river below, from the voice that came at once from the waters and inside her own head. She answered now as she had then, when the two of them had stood in this very same spot many months ago.
“Then how is it reliable?”
Lord Loki’s soft laughter surprised her. He had been a good teacher, but unpredictable in his methods and replies. She literally never knew whether he would chastise or praise her from one moment to the next. She had raised a white-plumed feather fan, fanning herself with a few quick strokes – a sure sign she was irritated by his mirth.
It only made him laugh harder.
Turning away, she ignored him and raised a new question. “And you are amused by what, Son of Acheron?”
The herbalist shivered from the touch on her arms by his gloved hands as he bookended her in between them. The memory was so vivid, so real that now, so much later, it still made the hairs stand on end all across her upper arms.
“By you, Soul of Lethe,” he purred, his lips capturing her ear as he bent to nibble her. “You exhibit your father’s rigidly logical patterns of thought and yet also Lethe’s gullibility. You wield that fan as if you were of aristocratic blood and knew it. As if you had lived with its rules and etiquette all your life. And we both know that’s a lie.” The nibbling grew more erotic. “I can see why Acheron was drawn to his sister, challenge though she was to hold.”
Lowering the hand holding the fan back then, but now empty, Serena moved away. The words of the past again found themselves on her lips. “Need I ask the question again so that I may receive my answer before you cloud my head with your scent?”
“It is not meant to be ‘reliable’,” he told her. “It is meant to be introspective, to turn your vision inwards to scan the outward possibilities.” His voice dropped back into a more serious tone. “You fight the lesson, ‘daughter.”
Again the fan fluttered at a rapid pace. “Turn inward to see the outward? That makes no sense.”
“Of course it doesn’t. Not yet,” he rumbled. “You are struggling through the veil of ignorance you father had raised you with your entire life – a veil born in the physical world.”
Her eyes blazed with anger as she turned to face him. “He is a good man – “
“ – a man afraid,” Loki rolled his eyes, disgusted.
“Afraid for his children, yes, of course!” she countered defensively.
“To teach them fear, to keep them in fear so they live in fear is the legacy of a selfish coward,” he countered back. “Our child will not be subjected to any such fate.”
The herbalist banished the vision upon Westwind’s waters with her will and the magicks her now-dead lover had taught her. Sighing, she shuddered from the chill of the coming darkness’s sudden drop in temperature upon the landscape and turned away. “I daresay you no longer have a say in her fate, my love,” she declared softly to the universe as she backtracked the way she came, back towards the employee bungalows.
Her chill deepened as she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. It felt like someone was watching her walk away even though she knew she was alone. The feeling lessened, but remained like a nagging itch even after the river bridge was obscured behind the deep foliage the herbalist left behind her. She welcomed the sight of the main path branching back into hers, its lights larger, now the brighter white that marked them for tourists more than those who dwelt on the property year-round.
Serena knew that one day she would leave this darker part of the resort when it came time to give birth and take care of her infant daughter. Perhaps one day she would bring her back to this spot and the bridge…perhaps even show her the place of her conception…see if her little one would be able to discern the face of her father within the gently flowing currents of Westwind. Once upon a time, during her years before meeting Loki Whoticore, such thoughts of witchcraft never entered Serena’s mind. Now, she knew with an unfailing certainty that Luna’s destiny was as much that forbidden path as had been her own love for the mortal enemy of the Solare branch’s bloodline.
Drawing her shawl closer around her as the chill of night increased, Serena wondered if –
– the clip-clop of horse hooves from up ahead interrupted her reverie. She came alert, even though briefly confused as to what foolish equestrian would bring his mount out at this late hour. It was possible though not probable that it was a rider who had gotten turned around and wandered off the horse trails. They were, however, clearly marked and horses were not permitted this far into the resort’s boundaries for the safety of the guests, employees and residents, so it was very unlikely this was an accident.
A powerful whinny broke the silence before Serena saw the horse and something told her it sounded so familiar it could only be Night Mist. She was proven correct when she turned the corner and saw the large beast standing on the walkway, stopped as if waiting for her.
The resort owner stopped herself several feet away. She cocked her head at him in confusion. “Night Mist? How did you get out?”
The coal-black horse snorted, shaking his head defiantly.
Serena reared back herself slightly. “Yes, I know no gate can hold you. But why venture out without a rider – wait – “ She approached him slowly. “Where’s – has Erik come for you yet? I should have expected him here by now.”
Mist shook his head up and down as if to say “Yes”, but something in the gesture seemed uneasy.
Serena reached out to him as she came closer, intently watching his body language. “Erik is here?” she repeated quietly, calmly.
The horse brayed, stomping the ground. Somehow, in a way the human didn’t consciously understand, she knew what the great beast was trying to say.
He was agitated and as such, the woman did not venture too close, though she kept her hands outstretched to him. “But not with you?”
Another snort, more clopping.
“He’s – he’s in trouble?” she asked.
The words got a strong reaction from the mighty steed, who reared up on his back legs, the fronts waving through the air between them. It was a quick gesture, but unmistakable. He calmed slightly when he sensed Serena’s sudden understanding and stress reaction as it mirrored his own.
“You always know when the children are in trouble, ” a voice said softly in Serena’s ear as she followed Night Mist. The herbalist was so startled by it, she stopped suddenly. Night Mist too stopped, knickering in acknowledgment of the voice as well before realizing no one was there.
The woman’s voice sounded as if it had come from the direction of the river as it paralleled their path. “Hello?” Serena greeted, stepping closer to the edge of the walkway, next to the stream. A quick look around their surroundings confirmed no one else was there with her and Night Mist. “No, she smiled to herself. “of course not,” she chuckled, moving back to the safety of the center of the path.
It was slower going than Night Mist was used to since Serena was a mere month away from having Luna, but some inborn instinct told him not to push the human because of her condition. It didn’t stop him, however, from snorting his impatience with their progress. Serena merely smiled, understanding her companion’s frustration as it mirrored her own.
She let him lead the way, and predictably, it was in the direction of the stables, but he veered off before reaching them, heading towards the five trails that led into them instead.
Mist’s nostrils flared and he broke into a trot. An instant later, Serena heard a male’s voice as the horse disappeared behind some trees. “Mist? Hello, you beast. We’ve got a problem here, but I guess you already sensed that.”
The herbalist heard another two horses greeting Mist, then their bulks appearing first through the brush, with one rider slumped over in his saddle and another walking his mount.
The moon was dark tonight, so the traveler still walking carried a lamp that obscured his features to Serena, but she was fairly certain from his large frame and deep voice, so like his father’s, that she knew who it was.
The man stopped, as did the horses. The unconscious rider stirred, uneasily, the herbalist briefly thought.
“Lady Serena. Yes. Am I glad to see you!” the younger Whoticore replied, leaving the horses. He eagerly approached her and bowed. “Please, can you help us? My brother is ill!”
Serena immediately shifted into healing mode. “Yes, of course,” she replied, approaching without hesitation.
Erik moaned, semi-conscious. While she was concentrating on him, she raised a hand to stop Narik from speaking. He stayed silent, surprised she had known he was going to speak when she wasn’t even looking at him.
“He has some strange, disturbing energy about his aura, Narik,” she said, looking at him in concern. “It’s almost,” she paused, scanning her vast knowledge and vocabulary for how to describe it. “ – almost – “ she looked back up to him almost in fear. “ – corrosive!”
“Yes, that would be, well, accurate, Lady Serena,” he admitted. An unpleasant thought hit him. “You may, now that I think of it, not want to touch him, at least not directly. Especially since you are with child.”
Erik shivered from the deepening cold around them, which was peculiar as he was well dressed against it. It added to the herbalist’s sense that the young man was worse off than her first impressions were imparting to her.
Seeing this, Serena made a quick decision. “We have to get him to the medical center and quickly!”
Narik nodded, regaining the reigns of both their horses. As he passed Night Mist, the horse sniffed at Erik, then bared his teeth, rearing back, snorting.
The humans looked at each other in surprise. “Night?” the Whoticore spoke up. “What’s wrong, boy? You know Erik.”
Night shook his head and whinnied, sounding concerned for the ill human. He backed away, seeking refuge at Serena’s side, but at the same time, shielding her from Erik and his mount.
“I’ve never seen him back away from anything,” Narik told Serena in wonder. “Ever!”
“He senses the illness in your brother,” she declared, drawing her shawl closer around her. “We should hurry. First to the stables. I will send a runner to get a stretcher from there.” She guided Loki’s horse ahead of them, leading the way.
They arrived quickly at the stables, Serena directing the night watchman to fetch Dr. Colton. This is getting to be a habit of this place I do not like as of late, she mused to herself, shaking her head.
With Night Mist safely back in his pen and the other Whoticore horses housed for the evening, the herbalist and Narik accompanied the doctor, his assistant and Erik back to the medical facility. The short trip was accompanied by silence, all concerned for the strange illness of the young man in their care.
Once there, everyone donned masks and gloves, Serena and Colton getting their charge settled into an observation room. The doctor took Erik’s vitals, his assistant writing everything down in a chart, then departing for a moment to an equipment cabinet, coming back with a bottle of saline, tubing and a needle. The assistant drew their patient’s shirt sleeve up on his left arm, not bothering to remove his shirt or gloves for the moment as Erik’s need for fluid was so critical. As both medics then worked to get the i.v. in place, the doctor spoke up.
“So, Mr. Whoticore,” Colton addressed the large, pacing man with them. “when did this ailment begin?”
“Hmmm?” he looked up at the doctor and Serena, shifting his thoughts from his immediate concern for Erik to think back. “He was fine the majority of our ride here. He had not begun to fall ill until the last mile or so.”
“His condition has been brewing for weeks from the look of it,” the doctor told both him and the herbalist. “He is profoundly dehydrated. His may be the worst case I have ever seen!”
“‘Dehydrated?’” echoed Narik. “That’s nonsense. He’s taken water the same as he always has, more in fact. I would have seen something of this before now. I’ve been at the mansion for the better part of a month, helping with father’s affairs.”
“I don’t understand either, Barry,” Serena addressed the physician as they moved their conversation out of earshot of their patient. “How in the known provinces could such a case of dehydration as severe as you describe go so long undetected?”
“I don’t know, but it should have killed him long before now,” Colton shook his head. He looked back at the Whoticore, clearly puzzled. “It’s as if he had been in a desert for weeks – a state no human could survive.”
His words struck Narik like a physical blow. His demeanor changed so abruptly, Serena noticed it right away even from behind his mask. “Narik?” she asked gently.
The younger brother hesitated, knowing to explain Erik’s desperate thirst he would have to also explain the circumstances of Serena’s father’s death and the hellish vision that quickly followed, plunging his sibling into a nightmare world that mirrored the lifelessness the doctor seemed to be hinting was somehow now physically manifesting.
“I – uh,” Narik fumbled, searching for words. “Erik was unusually thirsty last night.” He looked to Serena. “There was an accident involving a ritual, a vision with Lady Sarilayna,” he explained carefully.
The Solaran female nodded, looking to the physician. “In that case, there may not be an easy explanation, doctor. We will trust you to treat the dehydration for now while I discuss this accident further with our guest.”
“As you wish,” Colton agreed, glad to be spared any strange explanations that were more mystical than physical based. He nodded to her, then to Narik and went back to Erik’s side, giving further instructions to his assistant.
“Let us take a walk,” suggested Serena, motioning towards the doors.
After disposing of their protective attire, Narik accompanied Serena out of the building and onto the grounds, his mind awhirl with worry about Erik and how to explain to the herbalist what had happened. As preoccupied as he was, however, he did notice that his host stuck to the well-paved paths in the more public areas of the resort, most likely to prevent a fall that could be detrimental to her and the child.
She was quite large by now and a quick calculation by the Whoticore male made him realize she was in her last month of gestation with his half-sibling. Idly his mind wandered to how it would be having an infant around again – especially a female. It was something that had never happened in their bloodline since the first daughter of Whocate, Lethe, 80 generations previous to him and Erik.
Aware out of the corner of his eye that she had stopped walking, he brought his attention back to the present. She was looking at him, smiling. “Hmm?” he grunted, catching her gaze.
“You are so like him,” Serena explained in a soft, pleasant voice. Her hand ventured to touch his face, his cheek, the jaw, then drifted back to her throat. “Not just in body and look, but in those wonderful, quiet, introspective moments I would catch him in.”
That brought a smile to his lips. “He wouldn’t like people seeing him like that,” Narik remembered. “He always wanted everyone to think he was always thinking, planning…sizing people up.”
His companion’s smile widened. “I know. He was always so – “ she searched briefly for the right word. “ – intentional. He would scan a room full of people in an instant, seeking out those of the most influence,” she looked down. “Those useful to him.”
His own smile dropped a little. “Or those important to him, in other ways,” he offered. He didn’t want her to think his father had sought her out just because she had been a useful tool in his agendas.
Even though, in a small way, it was probably the truth.
“He did love you, Lady Serena. I know he did,” Narik added. “He spoke often of you.”
“But not of the plans for our future,” Serena resumed walking. Narik followed. “He knew there was no future for us, after we did a joint water scrye, before Luna’s conception. That is why after he introduced me to your house, he never pursued bringing me back with him.” She stopped at a railing along the edge of Westwind river. “His thoughts turned towards a different direction then, how to keep us safe after he was gone.” Her voice cracked slightly, but she regained her composure and gracefully masked the internal pain that threatened to overwhelm her. She gazed back to her companion, smiling once again, though Narik could see the sadness behind her eyes. “Even though I only met your family so briefly, I feel now like you are my sons as well. I am concerned about Erik. This is a most disturbing thing that has invaded him.” She shook her head. “To be at once so debilitating and corrosive at the same time.” He saw something else pass over her face, in her eyes. Some realization the chaos of their arrival had not allowed her to see before.
Serena turned to Narik. “It is not of this world, is it, Narik.”
He pulled his lip in, lowering his eyes. “No,” he admitted. “No it – it isn’t.” His eyes traveled back up to hers. “And I don’t know how to help him.”
A distant look crossed over the herbalist. “It is deadly, I sensed that much, but as the doctor worked on him, I also felt – sensed something else…something…familiar…” her voice trailed off.
The Whoticore was glad she wasn’t focused on him as his reaction to her was of concern, of fear that she would recognize something in the hellish circumstances Erik had described finding himself in in Plainsville. He swallowed uneasily.
Coming back to the present, Serena refocused on Narik. “Did Eric impart to you the details of the vision?”
“I – it was – intense. Horrible!” he fumbled, shaking his head. “I’m not sure I remember it all. Erik was so sick and shaken at the time, it was all we could do to calm him down.”
Laying a hand on his meaty forearm, she nodded. “All right then. Try to remember. Do your best.” She rose from the wooden bench with determination. “We should check on your brother’s condition,” she recommended. “We know that merely rehydrating his body will not be sufficient against this evil maleficence that has claimed him. I would like to speak to Sarlayna to gain more insight into her interpretation of the timing and meaning of Whocate’s message to her. I might try a water scrye to see if I can connect with her more quickly than sending a messenger to your House.”
Relieved that the herbalist had not pressed him, Narik nodded eagerly and rose to follow her back to the medical center.
End of Part 1