She was there when he was born.
Those were fuzzy, uncertain hours, spent getting to know things—his awkward legs, his mother, the world itself. Throughout it all, she was a presence, indistinct at first but constant and gradually clearer. Her scent and her voice, offering calm to both himself and his mother, expressing happiness, joy, love.
He didn’t, at first, glean any meaning from the things she said while she brushed and caressed him. Their voices were different, the rhythmic sounds musical but not immediately significant. That came quickly, though. Not the words, but what lay behind them. First as an expression of feelings, and over time, more abstract concepts.
The meaning of words came to him over time, over days and months. In those first hours in the barn, though, there was just the sound of voices washing over him, and the comprehension of something meaningful in them as his mind and senses cleared and grew accustomed to existing.
It would be a while yet before he comprehended human speech as they did, but by the time the master of the house came to see him, he could at least interpret the sense of what was being said.
To the newborn foal, this second human presence was a cause of startlement and then fascination; it was like and yet so unlike the one already there, who had helped him into the world. His mother, though, whickered a tired greeting, showing that this person was known and trusted.
“I’m sorry I missed it, Yvette,” the man said quietly, coming to stand in the door to the stall. “It seems you did well, though. Any complications?”
“It was a very smooth birth, monsieur,” she replied, and even when not talking to him, her voice conveyed happiness to the new foal’s ears. “One of the easiest I’ve seen; Laurette was a champion. Of course, he is hardly her first. Neither gave me a moment’s trouble.”
“Still, I’m sorry you had to do it alone. I would have sent Gaspar to help had I known; we would have managed the gelding fine without him…”
“Ah, but would-haves are no use even when things have gone badly, Monsieur Marchand! It all turned out splendidly, so why borrow trouble?”
“Well said,” he replied with a warmth and amusement in his voice that soothed the foal’s curiosity. He was not as gentle a presence as she was, this man, but already he understood why his mother and the girl approved of him. “And what a serious little fellow he is! I never saw a newborn so…focused. Look at him watching us. Almost as if he followed the conversation…”
Something in his voice, now, carried an undercurrent of faint warning. The colt stopped swiveling his ears about and focused fully on the man, trying to understand. He was not quite following their words, but only the gist of it, the emotion behind them.
“Ah… And his color!” Her voice, now, had a slight strain as well, but a different one; not warning, but sensing and responding to the man’s uncertainty. The gaiety in it was slightly forced, all of a sudden. “I thought old Garmond was the sire. Could someone have jumped a fence? He did not get that gray from Laurette…”
“Not gray, Yvette. Look at him, he is a pure white.”
“But…he will darken, no? Like the silver destriers…”
“But he is no charger. Even so young and gangly, you can see it in his build. He’s a draft horse like his parents. See his coat? Not even the faintest dappling. No, he won’t grow to become a gray. You know, Yvette, we Glassians are not the first people to dwell in the Highlands, and the herds we brought are not the first steeds. Once in a while, some of the old blood peeks through. I have seen it before. I know you must recall that untameable filly that old crook Chauvingon tried to unload on us three years ago. Silver as the full moon, like this boy.”
“But monsieur,” she said in gentle, almost reproving disbelief. “That was clearly a racing breed! I remember her, a lithe little thing. One can almost see how that happened. How could there be unicorn blood in a line of draft horses? The creatures are as much deer as horse! Laurette here would kill one simply by stepping on him.”
“Just as they are as much magic as flesh,” he said, and there was a smile in his voice. The foal’s ears twitched furiously as he tried to follow the subtle currents of unfamiliar emotion, so new and strange. “Who can say? For now, we will have to watch and see. Fae blood is unpredictable, Yvette. Perhaps nothing will come of it but his unusual color, or perhaps… Unusual abilities in any creature can be trouble.”
“We will watch and see,” the man repeated. “And hope for nothing. He could show us something truly remarkable, but if this fellow has surprises for us, they are more likely to cause problems.”
“Monsieur,” she said, and the sudden hesitant nervousness in her made the foal fix his attention fully on her. “You don’t think… That is, I have worked with Laurette since—”
“Now, stop that line of thought,” the man said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Did you give birth to him? Because that is the only way blood can be contagious, Yvette. Elves have been part of life in the Highlands since before our people first came here, and you know you are far from the only half-blood who works with the herds. I never heard of a foal being changed by association like that. And if it had happened, I assure you I would have heard of it. This is life up here, that is all. It is an old land and we a young people upon it, compared to the tribes; mysteries crop up here and there. That is part of what makes me love our home.”
“Yes, monsieur,” she said with subtle relief. The foal nickered at her in concern and stepped over to bump his head against her, earning a laugh and caresses along his neck in return. It was good, how easily he could soothe her unease. It had troubled him, sensing such unhappiness in this warm, golden presence.
“At any rate, you have a new friend! But we should let him and mama rest, for now.”
“Of course, monsieur.” He nickered in disappointment as she stepped away, but his mother had come over by then and began nudging him into the corner, surrounding him with her own presence, and that was good, too. “Don’t worry, little Silver, we will see you again soon.”
His home was a sprawling ranch in what they called the Highlands, the reaches which rose above the rest of Glassiere in both latitude and altitude. Mountain peaks rose around them, most rounded by eons of weather, punctuating endless swaths of moors and valleys. Many of these were left uncultivated; the Marchand ranch occupied a long heath not far distant from the pass which led down to the country’s warmer southern reaches. It was not good country to farm, and got worse the farther in one traveled. Much of the Highlands was unexplored by the Glassians and left to the bands of elves who had dwelled there since time immemorial. Most of the Glassian activity in the northern provinces was in mining and quarrying. The Marchands contributed to these ventures by raising the hardy, powerful Grand Coeur breed of draft horses which performed most of the actual labor.
It naturally took time for Silver to understand these facts. His comprehension grew faster once he realized that he understood things differently than the other horses, and stopped turning to them for explanations. His kind were more alive in some ways; they seemed to feel and experience things more keenly than the humans, but they actually comprehended little. Horses were more sensitive, and thus more erratic; humans by comparison thought deeply and carefully, and yet seemed blind to so many subtleties. He, somehow, stood somewhere between them.
As he grew, his peculiarity did not go unnoticed. The other animals on the ranch were not bothered by him—in fact, the smaller ones, cats and dogs and birds, seemed to seek out his company more than other horses. The humans took note of him, though, and over time he learned to be more careful and subtle about the behaviors that seemed to make them nervous. They did not like it when he stood, watching and listening to their conversations as intently as they did. There was a period when it seemed his fate might be uncertain, whispers about the “fae-touched” horse and what hazards he might portend.
As he grew old enough to begin training with harness and saddle, though, they faded and appreciation grew in their stead. There were many actual dangers in the Highlands to distract people from imagined ones, and Silver’s uniquely unflappable nature proved an asset. Grand Coeur were a steady breed to begin with, but he was especially calm and careful, observing and responding rather than panicking at the unexpected. It got to the point that the younger boys began making a game of trying to spook him. After the fourth time Yvette went at them with a riding crop, Monsieur Marchand himself stepped in and ordered that the pestering be stopped.
She was by far his favorite of the grooms. None of those who worked with Marchand’s horses mistreated them—indeed, the master did not employ anyone who did not actively love his horses. Silver’s relationship with Yvette, though, was special. She had helped bring him into the world, and it was always to her that he returned, whenever he could. Her care of the others in the herd was never lessened, but he sensed that she, too, felt a unique attachment to him.
And it was largely by listening to her that he pieced together the web of relationships among humans which governed the ranch. The key had been understanding how she was linked to the young man who so often visited the barn and kept her company during her duties, the son of the master himself.
“There are times when I want to hurl that woman off the roof!” he exclaimed during one such visit which proved particularly informative to Silver, pacing up and down in the aisle between stalls.
“Please don’t do that,” Yvette replied without much enthusiasm. Her tone was amused; this was an old threat and not a serious one. “If you think she is difficult now…”
“I don’t know why you are so blasé about the old bat,” he retorted. “It’s you she was trying to get Father to send away!”
“When he starts listening,” Yvette said calmly, “I’ll worry. Please calm yourself, Raoul, you make the horses nervous when you prance around like that.”
Silver snorted quietly in disagreement, and she paused in brushing his neck to ruffle his forelock affectionately. True, the other horses did pick up on human agitation—some of them—but everyone else in the barn at that hour was nose-deep in their feedbags.
“Not this one,” Raoul grumbled, giving Silver a long look. “Sometimes I think if he could talk, he could run the barn when Gaspar gets too old. Yvette, I wish you would take this more seriously. It’s not a small matter that Father’s wife has it in for you! Sure he knows better than to listen to her now, but given time…”
“Given time,” she said, still calmly grooming Silver, “a lot can change. Who knows? I might manage to get on her good side. After all, it isn’t me she resents, not really. It cannot be pleasant, living with a reminder that one’s husband once carried on with an elf. And while he was married. To your mother, in fact. Do you not see why she finds that threatening? If Monsieur Marchand—”
“Father,” he interrupted. “By Shaath’s fangs, Yvette, you needn’t play the courtier with me. Everyone knows whose daughter you are. There’s no harm in acknowledging it, at least in private.”
“No?” Yvette shook her head, still rubbing Silver down with her back to Raoul. “The Madame’s fondness of me will not increase if anyone gets in that habit, I think.”
He snorted. “Just don’t ask me to deny my own sister. It’s not as if I have any others!”
“I do ask it,” she retorted, turning to give him a look. “Oh, don’t make faces at me, Raoul, not here in the barn when it’s just us. I have always appreciated you for accepting me. But in public, and especially in front of Madame? Please don’t goad her.” She turned back to Silver, pausing in her work, and he bent his neck around to nuzzle comfortingly at her shoulder. “Everyone is so concerned about my blood. About the elf in me, or the Marchand in me, one or the other. Can I not just be Yvette to works with the horses?”
Raoul heaved a sigh. “I’m sorry. I know, I know you’re right. It’s an infuriating habit of yours.”
“Well, don’t be hard on yourself,” she replied mischievously. “You are a man, after all. Just think of all the poor boys with no sisters, and how much trouble they must get themselves in.”
“I really can’t stand her, though,” he grumbled. “What was Father thinking?”
“You know very well. Madame is of noble blood, which if almost the only thing he lacks in comparison to the wealthy families in the south. And she is most lovely.”
“She’s handsome, at best, with two very specific exceptions. It’s a sobering thing, learning that one’s own father can be swayed from all good sense and reason by an unusually nice pair of tits.”
“Raoul!” Yvette failed to keep the mirth out of her voice. “Shame, speaking of your own stepmother so!”
“You know she has a carpet hanging on the wall in their bedroom?”
Yvette paused again, turning to peer inquisitively at him. “A carpet? On the wall? Whatever for?”
“It’s from Calderaas,” Raoul said, rolling his eyes. “Beautiful thing, and probably cost nearly as much as the manor. Never mind that no one sets foot in that room except in the daintiest of slippers. Madame’s treasures cannot be soiled by being used in a remotely functional manner! I don’t know why she or Father thought bringing a woman like that to the Highlands was a good idea.”
“It is a fair question,” Yvette mused, returning to grooming when Silver nudged her again. “Another is why, if you have noticed all this, you wonder how she could feel vulnerable in this place?”
“I don’t wonder,” he said sullenly, “I just don’t care.”
“Yes, you do,” Yvette replied with a smile that could be heard in her voice. “And that is why you’re grumpy now, because it’s harder to see someone you dislike is a person rather than a villain. You’ll be so much happier, Raoul, when you stop fighting against your own decency. Being heartless and rough would not make you any more of a man, I promise, but less of one.”
“You even sound like an elf sometimes,” he complained. “Or an Omnist. I can’t think of anyone else who would try so hard to understand a half-crazed bitter fool of a southern noblewoman who has no business on this ranch and irrationally hates you.”
“I worry so for you, Raoul,” she said softly.
“Me?” His voice was so incredulous that Silver raised his head, swiveling his ears forward to study the young man. “You worry for me?”
“Yes, I do. You are so obsessed with fairness.” She shook her head. “It’s going to lead you into unhappiness, the world being as it is.”
Silver whickered softly at him in agreement. Raoul had opened his mouth to answer Yvette again, but paused, turning a long, speculative look on the horse. Silver regarded him in turn, one ear twitching pensively.
“Sometimes,” he said more quietly, “I think that horse is too clever by half.”
It was not an uncommon sentiment on the ranch. By and large, Silver was met with approval, as he refrained from causing trouble for anyone and in fact made himself most useful. He required very little training in the sense that most young horses received it; once he understood what it was his human fellows wanted him to do, he saw no reason not to comply, and after observing the comings and goings on the ranch he generally knew their intent before they got around to trying it on him. It seemed fair, to his mind. Humans provided horses with food, shelter, and care, and horses worked to support the ranch so that providence remained possible. Silver pulled carts, carried people, and performed all the requisite chores without complaint, and with the uncanny (to his two-legged friends) ability to follow verbal directions as precisely as the stablehands did.
It made some people uneasy, but Highlanders were practical people. If the big, strangely perceptive white horse was going to make himself useful instead of making trouble, he was welcome.
He continued to watch and learn, trying to understand the relationships between people the way they did. Silver didn’t much like Raoul, but not in the sense of having anything against him. The young man simply had a large personality and a quick temper, which occasionally made the other horses nervous and grated on Silver’s patience. Likewise, Raoul found him eerie, but never had reason to complain about his behavior. They didn’t favor each other’s company, but avoided any situation that might lead to true animosity. Silver had the distinct impression that the boy was further unnerved by the mere fact of a horse who could reflect such an unspoken understanding so well. But aside from all that, Raoul was very fond (and protective) of Yvette, which caused Silver to approve of him in principle, no matter how annoying he might be. That, too, was mutual.
He appreciated the young man enough, at least, that he gradually absorbed Raoul’s dim opinion of his father’s new wife, whom Silver rarely saw in person. That fact alone did not endear Madame Marchand to him. She preferred to stay indoors, wilted at the comfortable, healthy smell of the stables, and appeared to dislike even dirt. Silver was accustomed to hard-working, cheerful humans who held up in the Highlands’ harsh climate with aplomb and appreciated the rugged beauty of the world. The lady of the ranch seemed as weird and inexplicable to Silver as he did to some of the other ranch hands.
Life was not perfect, but growing up surrounded by people and animals who never expected it to be, Silver absorbed their outlook. Life was good, dangers and discomforts and all. The land was beautiful, even if it was cold and provided scant food. There was a lot of love on the Marchand ranch; Monsieur Marchand himself cared deeply for his horses, for his people, and for his Highlands, and consistently employed those who shared his values, even if he apparently had different priorities when it came to marriage. It was a good place.
But something began to creep up on the ranch, starting not long before Silver was two years old. He might have been the first to sense it; he seemed to pick up on things as intuitively as the other horses and consider them as logically as the humans, and at first was not sure whether the little things he noticed amounted to anything. The odd, acrid smells that came so faintly sometimes when the wind was from the north, the increasing preponderance of wolves coming down from the mountains. Uneasy looks and whispers from humans, rumors circulating between them of something dangerous in the Highlands, repeated sometimes in his presence. He dismissed these things at first, but not forever. Over time, they only grew. Even Yvette tended to frown more often, and seemed to seek out his company for comfort even more than she had when he was a foal.
On the other hand, the Madame stayed even more in the house, which was fine with Silver and everybody whose opinion he cared about.
Eventually, Marchand himself decided to act.
The excitement which hung over the ranch like a thick fog was threaded through with unease, and that did not make the preparations any easier. Even Silver felt skittish, though he restrained himself; the rest of the animals did not have his forbearance and were mostly an impediment rather than an asset that morning. The dogs raced around frantically, as did chickens; not one of the barn cats had been seen all morning, having hidden themselves away as if they sensed a storm coming. The horses were affected, as well, all of them prancing about nervously and spooking at the slightest little thing. Despite the usually stoic temperament of the Grand Couer draft breed, on that day not a one of them seemed able to perform the simplest tasks without the constant supervision of a groom—of whom there were far less than horses, which made for general slowdowns and disorder which caused the mood of the ranch’s human population to further deteriorate.
Fortunately, there wasn’t a great deal to be done that required the contributions of the horses. The Marchand estate was preparing an event, that much was clear, and one of a kind unprecedented in Silver’s experience. People were setting up a large pavilion and smaller tents, and laying preparations for a great outdoor feast. Most of this demanded opposable thumbs and as such the skittish horses had largely been safely tucked away in the barn; even stolid old Laurette had balked at the ranch’s familiar dogs as she pulled in the last wagon of provisions. There were the great wooden tables to be pulled out of the storehouse, though, too large for people to carry and so hauled by horse on skids. Logs had to be brought from the woods to form the three huge bonfires being prepared, and barrels of ale moved en masse from the manor house’s cellar to the feast grounds in its broad front lawn.
Two other draft horses were handling the firewood logs, which woodsmen had been out felling for the last two days, each of them requiring the patient guidance of a groom—and those were the two steadiest of the ranch’s herd, after Silver. That left him, the only one among them who seemed able to put his head down and focus, to do everything else. Fortunately, the barrels didn’t have to go far and the tables were not unduly heavy. Even more fortunately, he was interested enough in the various goings-on that he did not mind the tumult.
Most fortunately still, Yvette was in charge of him, as usual. Her presence calmed him, as his did her.
Strange new people were trickling in from the road while preparations were underway, and joining the master and his wife in a slowly increasing knot of conversation out in front of the manor. Silver watched them in passing, not really needing Yvette’s gentle encouragements to keep on task, but appreciating her nonetheless.
He always watched, and always listened, but their jobs did not bring them close to the discussion; it seemed he wouldn’t learn what was actually going on until he had pieced it together from the grooms’ gossip after the fact.
Or so he assumed, until one of the newcomers approached him directly.
Silver had just dragged the last big table into place and was standing patiently while Yvette detached him from it and two burly ranch hands tilted the thing to slide the skids out from beneath. Facing the other way, she did not notice the strange man making a beeline for them, but Silver did.
He was human, but something about him was…different.
His attire, for certain: the man wore a bushy beard, where most Glassian men preferred to be clean-shaven, and rough leather clothes surmounted by a bearskin serving as a cloak. He carried a longbow and had a quiver and hatchet belted on. Silver could not quite place what it was about this man that was so distinctively unlike the people he knew, though. Something in his scent…in the set of his eyes. He couldn’t decide if it was good or threatening.
For whatever reason, immediately upon spying Silver, he had detached himself from the mismatched group of other humans and come straight to him. He slowed, though, as the horse laid his ears back, his body language shifting subtly but distinctly to express no threat. And yet, while most people would gently soothe an uncertain horse they were approaching, the man remained silent. Silver stood, watching him, as he gradually drew closer, one ear twitching uncertainly.
Slowly, the man in the fur drew to a stop within reach of him. The horse watched, wary, but unmoving. Slowly, he raised a hand, reaching to lay it upon Silver’s nose.
“Ah!” Yvette had finished unbuckling the harness and noticed the newcomer’s arrival. “Your pardon, monsieur, but we are working. This must be finished…”
“It appears to be finished, mademoiselle,” he replied. “What a magnificent creature. I wonder, do you appreciate what you have, here?”
“I appreciate Silver very much, monsieur,” she said evenly, and Silver laid his ears all the way back, picking up on her unfriendliness. Yvette stepped up beside him, placing a hand upon his neck and staring the man down. “As do we all.”
The man simply regarded her impassively, then shifted his eyes to study the horse again. Now that he was not moving, it occurred to Silver what was making him edgy about this person: he behaved like a cat about to pounce. The slow approach, the utter stillness, the absolute attention he gave. No one stared that fixedly unless they were about to do something aggressive.
He snorted once in displeasure.
To his surprise, the man bowed to him. Then, turning back to Yvette, spoke again. “I have not brought gold in quantity, but I am willing to trade. What goods has your master need of, that he might bargain for? My lodge can offer furs, medicines for man and beast alike, and crafted weapons. We will be sure to offer fair value for this horse.”
“Your pardon, monsieur,” Yvette repeated in a low tone of clear warning. “Silver is not for sale.”
“Ah.” He tilted his head back, regarding her down his nose. “But that is up to Monsieur Marchand, is it not?”
Her displeasure radiated from her like the warmth of a fire, and Silver had the very distinct impression that the man could sense it as clearly as he, despite the composure of her expression.
Very deliberately, he lowered his head, bringing his eyes down to the level of the man’s, and emitted a loud snort. Then pawed heavily at the dirt with one of his enormous hooves.
Carefully, the man eased back, and bowed to him again. “Come, girl. Let us discuss this matter with your master.”
He turned and strode back to the group of people talking. Silver snorted again, disdainfully, and turned his head to bump Yvette with his nose.
To his surprise, she took hold of his reins and, still brimming with tension and unease, led him after. Why was she complying with this strange man whom she so clearly disliked? He plodded along, determined to stick close to Yvette, if nothing else. When he did not understand what was happening, Silver had always found that a safe policy.
Though he had been curious about the discussion underway, even more unhappiness hovered over it like a visible cloud, which did not improve his equanimity as they drew closer. The man who had accosted them stepped up beside another man attired in a similar manner, who also turned a too-intense stare on Silver and Yvette as they came to a stop a few yards away.
“Of course, of course,” an unctuous little man too lightly dressed for the climate was saying to Marchand as they arrived, “but you must understand, Monsieur, without anyone but yourself having seen this elf…”
“I confess it did not occur to me to try putting a leash on him,” Marchand said with strained patience, prompting a grin from his son, who stood at his left. His wife was at his other side, looking generally displeased—even more than she usually did. “The elves are always reclusive; the face that they are bothering to warn us is precisely the thing which makes me believe this situation is dire.”
“Yes, yes, but again, while Lord Gracian holds you in the highest esteem, Monsieur Marchand, it requires more than one man’s—”
“The lodge has also been visited by elves,” the other fur-cloaked man interrupted, his voice flat. “We take the word of the tribes with the utmost seriousness. And in any case, their message only confirmed what we have observed ourselves. There are demons in those mountains, squire. My Huntsmen have slain no less than five khankredahgs this moon, and spotted not only living katzils in the skies but seen and stifled the tainted fire they inflict upon the forest. One or two might be only a warlock in the woods, going mad as they all do. But in this quantity? I tell you, there is evil rising in the north.”
The thin little man pursed his lips. “And I tell you, brother Huntsman, that my lord cannot waste resources chasing rumors. Have you brought evidence? A corpse of one of these slain demons, for example?”
“They turn to charcoal when killed,” another man said, this one in metal armor and carrying a short spear, a sword sheathed at his belt. “Your pardon, Squire Leland, I thought this was common knowledge.”
Raoul grinned more widely at that, and the Squire made an even more displeased face.
“Even the Avenists can see what is happening,” the Huntsman said before Leland could reply. “What more proof do you require?”
“My lord requires some sort of proof, at the very least,” Leland said stiffly. “I don’t suppose you can furnish any, Captain Martin?”
“I have scouts sweeping the area even now,” the soldier said calmly. “But Lord Gracian should be aware that the League of Avei is taking this with the greatest seriousness. Reports have been coming to us for months. Months, monsieur. Time enough for word to travel to Viridill and back. High Commander Seluvid has dispatched two Silver Huntresses and an entire Silver Legion to Glassiere because of this!”
“Women playing soldier,” the Huntsman said disdainfully. “I’m sure that will help tremendously.”
“Exactly,” Squire Leland interjected. “With all respect to Avei and her clergy, Captain, what does your leader in the Tiraan Empire know of this fiefdom that Lord Gracian and the King do not?”
“The only reason the King has not sent forces north,” Raoul said sharply, “is because Gracian keeps assuring him nothing is happening here, despite the ample warning he has received!”
“Raoul,” Marchand said quellingly.
“And he is only being so difficult because his head is—”
“Raoul!” Marchand barked. “If you cannot restrain your tongue, you will excuse yourself!”
“What do you think you are doing?” Madame Marchand demanded abruptly, glaring past the group at Yvette standing nearby. “Do you think this is any place for you? Be about your work, girl!”
“I apologize, Madame,” said the Huntsman who had approached Silver, who seemed to defer to his fellow—at least, he had not joined the discussion till now. “I am at fault; I directed the groom to bring this horse here. Do you see what I do, Brother Renard?”
“I do,” the Huntsman said quietly, gazing at Silver with that same fixed, almost predatory attention. “Magnificent. It has been several years since we have seen the old blood emerge among domestic horses.”
“Yes, Silver is our good luck charm,” Marchand said smoothly, clearly glad to steer the conversation into calmer waters. “A more patient and clever horse I have never had the honor of owning.”
“What would you ask for him, monsieur?” Renard asked, still gazing avidly at Silver.
“Silver is not among our wares,” Marchand replied apologetically. “I decided that soon after his birth. One never knows, with…special cases, such as he. Even for so young a horse, he has become indispensable here.”
“I assure you, Monsieur Marchand, we do not regard this as some mere curiosity,” the other Huntsman said. “The old blood is deeply revered among us. You are fond of him, this I can see—as is the girl, here. Such a creature would receive the greatest of care at our lodge.”
“I was under the impression,” Raoul said evenly, “that you Huntsmen disdained the keeping of domestic animals.”
“To be sure,” Renard replied. “That is precisely the issue. This is a spiritual matter, Monsieur Marchand. I mean no insult, but it is troubling to me, very troubling, to see such a beast performing menial labor. Perhaps this is an unusual position from which to treat, compared to the trading to which you are accustomed, but take it as a point of my very great sincerity in this matter. I would offer whatever my lodge is able to furnish in trade to bring Silver back with us.”
A short pause ensued, in which the Squire and the captain both looked annoyed at this digression. The Huntsmen remained focused and unreadable. The Marchand family themselves were a study in contrasts, the master looking thoughtful, his wife increasingly irritated, and Raoul generally uncertain where this whole situation was going. Yvette clung to Silver’s reins as if afraid he would be torn from her grasp; he felt her tension and unease, and it wore heavily on his own equanimity.
“Such as what?” Marchand asked finally.
“Oh, but monsieur!” Yvette burst out, her voice anguished.
“How dare you!” Madame Marchand erupted, with a violence that startled all those present, including Silver, who shifted back a half-step in alarm. She rounded on Yvette, stalking forward with her teeth bared. “You little slattern, sticking your nose into the family’s business! I should have you whipped.”
“Amelie,” Marchand protested, reaching out to grasp her shoulder. “Calm yourself, she meant—”
“And you defend her?” his wife screeched. “After all your— In public! In front of a Squire from the Lord’s own court, you would humiliate me so?”
“She hardly requires your help in doing that, Father,” Raoul observed sardonically.
“Hold your tongue, boy!” Marchand roared, whirling on his son with all the fury he seemed not to dare to unleash on his wife.
Raoul’s remark had a similar effect on Amelie—right down to misdirecting the target of her ensuing rage. She twitched violently, half-turning as if to hurl herself at Raoul. At the last second, though, the madame shifted her weight, lunging straight at Silver and causing him to shy back in alarm.
He was not her goal, however. Yvette had instinctively moved to calm Silver, and so was not positioned to evade or defend herself when Amelie Marchand drew back her full arm and slapped her, hard enough to hurl her to the ground.
Silver bellowed in sheer rage, rearing fully up on his hindquarters and slashing his massive hooves in the air in the madame’s direction. She stumbled back, as suddenly white-faced with terror as she had been with rage seconds before. The entire group scattered, in fact, instinct propelling them away from the fury of such an enormous creature.
Silver slammed back down to earth with a force that shook it, barely missing Amelie and that only because she was continuing to retreat. He followed, though, seizing her by the upper arm in his teeth and tossing his neck. She hardly weighed anything; he hurled her a good four yards.
In the ensuing bedlam, Yvette regained her feet and frantically moved in front of Silver, trying to urge him to calm. Marchand rushed to his wife’s side, as did Captain Martin, while the Huntsmen simply studied Silver from a safe distance and Squire Leland wrung his hands helplessly.
Snorting and still tossing his head in outrage, Silver whinnied in protest against Yvette’s attempts to calm him. Only because she was bodily blocking the way did he refrain from charging again at Amelie, though he surged forward as if to do so and hesitated barely short of knocking his groom down again.
The madame herself screamed, having just lifting her head in time to see this, and tried to scuttle backward across the ground, while her husband vainly tried to get her to be still so he could examine her arm. The sleeve of her dress was already dark with blood where Silver had bitten her.
Strangely, it was Raoul’s calm order which finally cut through his anger, and he stopped tossing his head. The young man stepped in front of him, next to Yvette, and placed his hand on Silver’s nose. The horse snorted at him, but the boy just shook his head.
“Too clever by half,” Raoul said gravely, wrapping an arm around Yvette’s slim shoulders, as much to calm her as the horse. “Oh, I’m afraid you’ve really outsmarted yourself now.”