1-7 Escape from Darkness

1-7 Escape from Darkness

Fauna loved the stars. She also loved the graveyard receptionist’s shift at the front desk at Westwind. It had proven too off-schedule for most people before her, but she cherished it. Her nocturnal nature allowed her to appreciate the quiet of the evening and lack of foot traffic without feeling lonely throughout her shift. And best of all were the times when it was utterly still, so completely quiet she could sit just outside the office in a reclining bench, sketching the positions of the stars and making notes of their movements in her diary. With very few visitors between midnight and 8:00 am, she was free to do this nearly all her shift while staying within earshot of the resort’s switchboard.

She had just come back out after bundling up against the deep cold setting in just before dawn when she heard the clip-clop of horse hooves against the granite walkway behind her.

‘Are they crazy?’ she thought in disgust. ‘It’s freezing outside! This is no time to be riding – ’ Setting her diary aside, she turned to find a rider slumped in the saddle upon a breathtakingly beautiful black horse with a silver mane matching the metalwork of its saddle trappings. Her eyes widened as the horse stopped in front of the building, nickering for Fauna’s attention, the hapless human starting to slide off its back.

“By the heavens!” she exclaimed, grabbing the man and trying her best to keep him from falling too hard to the cold stones as he descended. Grunting and groaning, she used all her bodyweight to tilt him back up against the horse. The rider moaned, semi-conscious.

“Can you walk?” she asked urgently. “You hear me? Mister?” The receptionist carefully pushed his nodding head up and gasped, recognizing him. “Mr. Solare?”

“Are you sure it’s the owner, Fauna?” an employee in medical whites asked skeptically as he came into reception, followed by another with a stretcher. His question died on his lips as he clearly saw the face of the haggard man slumped in a chair across from the switchboard desk. He and a nurse quickened their pace to the two. The doctor drew a small pocket light from his coat and shined it into the man’s right eye, then the left. “Mr. Solare? What happened?”

“I told you it was him,” the receptionist scolded. “Why would I make up stories? It’s not like I’m bored.”

“Sorry,” the doctor apologized as the nurse took Young Jim’s pulse. The herbalist tried to tell them something, but his throat was parched and he couldn’t make his voice work.

“My Goddess, he looks like he’s aged 10 years!” Fauna breathed, now getting a better look at his face. The once-smooth, fresh skin was now careworn, wrinkles starting to set in where none had been before. She and the doctor traded stunned looks, not even being able to guess at what trauma the resort owner had experienced to cause such a terrible thing to happen.

“His hands are like ice,” the nurse noted. “He must have been riding for hours.”

“At least. The nearest town isn’t very close in any direction.” The doctor handed him his stethoscope and went to the phone. “Vitals,” he ordered. “I’m calling ahead.” He punched up a number, turning his attention to the receiver when someone answered on the other end. “It’s Doctor Colton. We’ve got an emergency here at reception. I’m bringing a patient in. He’s hypothermic. Yes. Yes, we’ll need you to turn the heat down. Body temperature to start. See you in five.” He hung up and looked at the two employees. “Give me the stats while we’re en route. Let’s get him loaded.”

Bundling him up in blankets taken from the building’s emergency supply room, the three were able to get Jim as comfortable as was possible on the stretcher. Fauna shivered in the chilly pre-dawn hours, but now not so much from cold as from fear for their beloved owner. “I’ll try calling his daughter,” she told the medical personnel. “Though she might be at the shop in town picking up supplies by now if she didn’t last night.”

Colton looked up, surprised, from where he was assisting strapping Jim into the gurney. “This early?”

Fauna shrugged. “She likes to get an early start and it’s a long drive up here.”

“That might work to our advantage,” the doctor told her.

“How?”

“I want to get Jim stabilized as much as possible so we have some good news to tell her,” he explained. “It won’t due her making that long drive being upset and worried the entire time.” He paused, adding, “And for other reasons,” he mumbled to himself.

The woman raised an eyebrow but didn’t ask what those reasons were. Colton had been the one to confirm Serena’s suspicions about her pregnancy, but due to her string of prior miscarriages, she had asked him to remain silent until she began to show – if the baby’s gestation lasted that long. Now with this bad news, he feared even more for his patient’s delicate condition, knowing such an upset could easily cause the woman to suffer yet another lost chance at having a child.

“Okay,” Fauna agreed, nodding. “I’ll hold off calling until you have some good news for her.”

“Yes, hopefully, she’ll be on the road by then and we won’t have to worry about upsetting her until she’s safely here.” The doctor and nurse hitched up the gurney and left for the spa baths.

It was said in the five provinces that Westwind was as healing as it was beautiful and fortunately for Young Jim, it was more than just legend. The mineral bath waters worked their gentle magic, but since they were gentle, it also meant they took their time and so it was several hours before the Solaran House Head regained enough of his consciousness to communicate with the doctor and nurse that had brought him there. With only a lantern, a compass and a horse trail poorly picked out in the weak moonlight, the opinion of all present was that it was a miracle Jim had made it there and made it alive. What little horse riding Jim had done had served him well.

What didn’t serve him well, however, was his memory. He recalled next to nothing about the trip to the resort, even which province he had come from. His memory of the time before that was even worse, the hypothermia leaving him with amnesia reinforced by his mind’s denial of his time in captivity at the Whoticore mansion.

All he could remember was seeing who he thought was Serena, but not where. This alone gave cause for everyone to conclude he had come from Moonville, but why they had not come up to the resort together was still a mystery.

The doctor insisted on keeping Jim in the hospital building under observation until his daughter arrived – a wait of yet another three hours still. Jim grumbled, but was convinced it was prudent when his attempts to get up proved how profoundly weak and exhausted he was. Dehydration had also been a big issue, but at the rate, his body was taking in i.v. fluids, it was considered a problem well under control.

Try as he might, he could not stay awake and so was fast asleep when his daughter arrived.

Serena Solare was a tall, stately woman of fair skin and tumbled golden tresses barely held in check with old-style hairpins and ribbons that cascaded down to the small of her back. Her eyes, an almost unnaturally clear, brilliant green, gazed sadly through the observation room at her father as he soaked in the mineral baths, his back to her. Dr. Colton and the staff had just started another immersion treatment minutes before she had arrived and didn’t want to risk him being chilled if she went in and brought a draft with her. Understanding, his daughter had seen the sense in waiting to talk to him until after the procedure was done.

“And you’re certain he didn’t say where he was going?” the doctor asked her as he had come back in from making his early morning rounds of the ward.

Serena shook her head. “No, he was almost secretive about it. He said merely that he would be out of town for a few days taking care of some pressing matters and if he were later than last night, he would meet me here.”

“‘Out of town,’” Colton repeated. “But which province?”

Fauna shifted uneasily, something the doctor caught. “What is it, Fauna?”

“Well, I think he was in Mountainville,” she spoke up.

That caught the herbalist’s attention. “What makes you say that, Fauna?” Serena asked.

“The horse he rode in on,” she replied. “When I took him to the livery stable, it took me and a stable hand to get the saddle off him, it was so heavy and he was so tall! We looked it over for a clue as to what had happened, where they’d been.” She looked down, hesitating. “I’ve seen him before. He’s such a massive animal, gorgeous coal-black Clydesdale with a silver mane and those piercing eyes.”

Serena put a hand to her mouth. “Is it – “ she began to ask.

“We think so, Ms. Serena,” the receptionist nodded. “There’s none other like him in the provinces.”

“The saddle, did you find a – a brand upon the leather of – “

“A triple dragonfly?” Fauna nodded again. “Yes, ma’am. He’s from House Whoticore.”

“More than that,” Serena breathed. “It’s Nightmist!”

“‘Nightmist?’” Colton asked.

“Lord Loki’s horse,” the herbalist said quietly.

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