After the tumult of that day, he did not have a restful night, even when safely tucked away in his stall. Uneasy and alert, listening to the sounds of wind around the barn and the other horses sleeping within, Silver was not awakened when the barn door opened a crack, admitting a figure carrying a lamp. Nor was he surprised.
He was surprised, a little, at who it was.
Raoul was cloaked against the night’s chill, but lowered his hood once he had the barn door shut. In addition to the half-shuttered lantern in his hand, he wore a rapier belted at his waist, its hilt visible beneath the cloak and the tip of its scabbard protruding tellingly from below. He crossed single-mindedly to Silver’s stall, and there paused, holding up the lamp. Simply regarding the horse with his eyes narrowed in apparent thought.
Silver watched him right back, ears alert, and not moving by so much as a swish of his tail.
“How much do you understand?” Raoul finally asked in a quiet tone.
Silver whickered at him softly.
The young man shook his head. “Old blood. Hell if I know what that even means. Even father just mutters when I press him on it. He was always too interested in elvish nonsense. That’s the cause of half his problems.” He broke off, drawing a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh. “By Ryneas and his paintbrush, don’t you think I would have blooded that vicious, unhinged cow of a woman and hurled her across the yard if it would have helped Yvette? It’s not as if I am famed for my restraint, you know. It’s only made things worse. She may lose her position here. Father could only protect her by blaming you. Do you understand any of this?”
Silver lowered his head.
“I’m explaining family politics to a horse,” Raoul muttered. “Well, I guess being as mad as the old man is as good a start as any on taking the place over when he passes on.”
Silver nickered again, as quietly as he could.
“They’re selling you,” Raoul said abruptly. “To those Shaathists, as they asked. For now, Yvette isn’t going to lose her home or her position, but you had better believe Amelie is after her with a vengeance. I don’t know what the future will bring.”
Jerking up, Silver neighed angrily, even hopping his front hooves off the ground in agitation.
“Omnu’s sweet breath, you really do…” Raoul stopped, set the lantern down on the edge of the stall door, and reached up to lay a hand on Silver’s nose. The horse calmed, for the moment, swiveling his ears forward again and watching him. “Hell. I’ve no right to blame you for losing your temper. In truth, I might have been the one to strike the hag; you were just closer. But now, here we are. We have to protect Yvette. No one else is going to.”
Silver snorted once, loudly, and bobbed his head up and down. He pawed at the ground with one hoof for emphasis.
“Here’s how we’re going to,” Raoul said grimly. “You are going to be gone, and I am going to become the focus of everyone’s outrage around here. You’re leaving this ranch, tonight. It’s off to the wilds with you, where maybe that old blood can be of some use. I’m sorry, but you can’t say goodbye to Yvette.”
Silver whinnied in protest.
“You can’t,” Raoul insisted. “Do you hear me? If it’s even suspected she had anything to do with this, that’s it for her. She’s asleep in her quarters, and the other grooms will be able to attest she never left, I’ve seen to that. It has to be me who lets you out. An act of spite that’ll make me the target of Amelie’s venom for once. Silver, I will protect Yvette. This isn’t the end, I promise you. Even if it means I have to put steel through that old bag, I will not let my sister be harmed.”
Dancing back and forth in agitation, Silver whinnied a soft plea.
“This is the only thing we can do,” Raoul said. “Maybe someday, you can come home. But for now, this is the only way. Can you… Do you understand?”
Slowly, he lowered his head again, and let out a soft snort of defeat. Raoul stroked his forehead, running his fingers through that overhanging lock of his mane. Just the way she always did.
The boy retreated suddenly, removing the lantern, and crossed back to the entrance, where he opened one of the barn’s front doors.
“I’ve opened the north gate enough for you to get through,” he said, coming back to Silver’s stall. “…what am I doing? I’ve gone utterly insane, you’re a horse.” Pausing to growl at himself, he shook his head vigorously. “Ugh. If you’re more than a dumb beast, this is the time to prove it, Silver. The north gate. For Yvette. Try to take care of yourself out there. This is going to hurt her enough; I dearly hope she will get to see you again someday.”
He unlatched and swung the stall door open, standing aside. Raoul opened his mouth to speak, but Silver exploded past him, charging straight up the aisle for the open barn door.
He erupted out into the night, letting out a whinny of dismay, but did not slacken his pace, wheeling around to gallop north across the grounds, toward the gate. He could not slow; if he didn’t do this now, he would hesitate and it would all be over.
Behind him, a voice was raised in a shout; he couldn’t tell if it was Raoul’s. Silver ignored it, putting his head down and thundering toward the ranch’s only egress to the north. The Highlands spread out beyond, wild and untouched, full of who knew what dangers and wonders.
At first he thought Raoul had tricked him, but no—the gate was ajar. Not enough to admit him, but he cantered nearly to a stop to avoid crashing painfully into it, using his weight to nudge it open enough to pass through.
And then he was beyond the fence, outside of his home, and charged off into the northern wilds as fast as his powerful legs could carry him. For the first time, he was truly, completely free.
He had never imagined he could feel so alone.
It wasn’t all that hard to get by, he quickly discovered. There was grazing aplenty—not as good as the oats and hay his human friends furnished for him, much less the occasional apple or strawberry, but Silver did not go hungry. Nor was water hard to come by. At this time of year, it wasn’t even frozen yet. That should not be a problem when it was; he knew from experience that his hooves could break ice more than a foot thick, at need.
No one followed him from the ranch, though he had to have left a distinctive trail. He could barely imagine what was going on back there. He tried not to, as that only led to thinking about Yvette. And Marchand, and all the others who had been part of his entire life till now, but mostly of Yvette. She had always been there for him.
But this was for her. He understood Raoul. This was painful for everyone, but life was not perfect. This was all they could do to protect her.
He wandered, veering away from his home, along the long moors the stretched away toward the north, gently climbing in altitude as they drifted into even higher lands. The north itself was walled off by the distant peaks which had been a barrier to that part of the sky since he had first stepped out of the barn, but there was far more land between the ranch and those mountains than Silver had ever appreciated. He had ample room to put distance between himself and home, and they did not seem to come any closer.
On the second day, he was set upon by a pack of wolves, and made short work of that. They seemed to expect him to run, and were very confused when he stood his ground, watching them circle and ignoring their growling and snapping. They became less confused when he finally retaliated, but after he had broken two of their backs beneath his hooves, they decided to go seek an easier meal.
He didn’t know what other dangers lurked up here, but if that was the worst of it, the humans had exaggerated the ruthlessness of the Highlands in their stories. Silver had a suspicion, though, that he had only begun to learn what this harsh land could throw at him. Once in a while, when the wind shifted, that thing drifted upon it again. A scent that he couldn’t place, but which was wrong in a way that made him stop wherever he was, head up and swiveling to find the threat.
It never materialized, but it was out there. Nothing which smelled like that could be good.
Above all, he missed his home. The horses he knew, the people he knew, the dogs and cats. Chickens barely had enough personality to be interesting; they weren’t his friends, but even their familiar presence would have been good. He missed sleeping in the barn, his blanket and good food provided for him by caring hands.
Mostly, he missed her. So much that sometimes he stopped where he was, bucking and heaving, punishing the very earth with his mighty hooves and bellowing his despair at the sky.
Neither earth nor sky showed him any pity.
Only three nights in, he found them. Or they found him.
Silver didn’t sleep well, out in the open. Keenly aware of the vulnerability as he was, every little thing made him raise his head. He caught naps during the day, when the light was better and no wolves howled in the distance, but nights were bad times out on the moors.
It only grew worse as that smell came more and more frequently. Until, by that third night, it seemed to come every other gust of wind. It was definitely from the north…but not just that anymore. It was making him constantly anxious, even more than his situation itself.
He plodded along, concentrating on placing his hooves carefully; it would be easy to trip in the darkness. But sleep wasn’t an option. The menacing night itself, that unearthly stink…and especially, the dilemma it posed. He couldn’t go back south, toward the ranch; he had to stay away to protect Yvette. On the other hand, he definitely could not go north. Whatever was making that smell, he needed to head away from it, not toward.
Silver had compromised, and that day begun making his way west, toward the sunset, simply because the hills looked somewhat lower in that direction. Now, after dark, his plodded that way still, just for something to do to keep his mind off the danger and his loneliness.
They moved so quietly he didn’t notice them until he was quite close, scarcely a hundred yards away, despite there being nothing between them but a stretch of open moor. He stopped, jerking his head up and snorting in surprise, ears swiveling.
Their procession was moving steadily south, on a course that would lead past the ranch—toward Glassiere proper. Altogether, they were like smaller, oddly distorted versions of the life he knew. People, and horses, only…not. They were strangely thin people, garbed in sleek clothing unlike the thickly warm coats and cloaks the Glassians wore against the Highland climate. And those horses… No, they weren’t horses. Every one as white as he, built almost like deer, each with a single horn sprouting from its forehead.
They’d seen him first, obviously; two- and four-legged alike, their heads swiveled to watch him as they passed. They did not slow, however, nor seem alarmed by his presence. He couldn’t feel alarmed by theirs, either. The smell of them was quite unfamiliar, but it was… Silver had no basis for comparison. He had the thought, though, that they smelled somehow opposite whatever vile thing it was the wind had been trying to warm him about. They smelled like something fundamentally, inexplicably, good.
And so when one broke off to approach him, he stood his ground, watching with alertness but not alarm.
The elf’s walk seemed to be almost a glide, as if he barely deigned to respect the shape of the ground. Projecting calm, he came up to Silver, raising one hand as he drew close, and brought it to rest gently against the horse’s nose. Silver’s nostrils flared, taking in his scent, but he did not protest.
“I see you,” the elf said. He did not speak Glassian, and in a way it catapulted Silver back to his earliest days as a foal, absorbing intent and meaning behind two-legged speech without knowing specific words. This language, though, seemed to convey those meanings more clearly. Or perhaps, it was some other gift of the elf. He still liked the sound of Glassian more, but at least he could understand. “What a story you must have, my friend.”
The elf bent, reaching for Silver’s leg in much the way the farrier did. Obligingly, he lifted a hoof, and the man ran long fingers over his iron shoe before releasing him.
“You came from the ranch,” he said. “Are you Monsieur Marchand’s mysterious old blooded stallion? I wonder what has brought you here. There is great danger rising. Have the humans been destroyed? But no, you would be running away from the evil, not toward…”
He stepped forward, closing his eyes, and leaned his forehead against Silver’s.
Magic was something with which he had no direct experience. He had barely heard of it; his humans spoke of such things, from time to time, but it was nothing to do with the ranch. This, then, was his first brush with the shaman’s art. It was surprising, to say the least, but not threatening.
Meaning bloomed in his mind, expression clearer than words could convey. He knew the elf, felt and saw him in a startling new way. And the elf knew him, just the same.
He touched upon Silver’s loneliness and worry, and sympathy came from him in turn. It was a purer speech, and imprecise for that; they shared feelings, not words or even images. But while the elf doubtless did not acquire the full story in every detail, he grasped the gist.
“Wise,” he whispered aloud. “And brave. But friend, be wary. You head toward danger.”
Gently, accompanying the threatening sensations with a firmly reassuring presence of his own, the elf shared with him what was happening. Danger, corruption, fire, slaughter. Trees and whole groves burned, poison spreading through the very ground. Evil people practicing their horrid arts. Creatures that did not belong in this world. In the north, rising. More and more, and spreading.
The elves were leaving their lands, taking the desperate (for them) step of moving to join the humans. They had to stand together against this.
Silver neighed in agitation, stomping a hoof, and related firmly the conversation he had overheard between Marchand, the Captain, the Huntsmen and the Squire.
Surprise came from the shaman at the clarity of those words, followed by gratitude for the information shared.
“So they do live, and are taking action,” he whispered. “Not all, but some. That is the way of humans. There are always the stupid and destructive, and always the brave and stalwart. We must find the right kind. Thank you, friend, for the warning.”
He gave a warning in kind, now that he knew Silver could make sense of words.
It took some further work to express exactly what that meant, but Silver got the message. When he did, he jerked back, rearing up and whinnying in sudden fear. Not for himself—for his home. For Yvette. For what was coming.
“They have already passed to the east,” the elf warned as Silver wheeled away, raising his voice. “Be wary! Warn your people if you can, but do not let them surprise you! They are coming!”
Heedless of the danger, Silver galloped through the dark, making directly for home. It was no longer due south; he knew the direction unerringly, and his course had brought him miles to the west of it. The Marchand ranch was more east than south now, and it was that way that he ran.
Silver forgot fatigue and suppressed fear. He had to keep going. Had to reach her. The urgency heightened swiftly to desperation.
Because now, as the elf had warned, the foul smell of demons was in front of him.
Everything was too late, and it all turned to disaster.
He didn’t make it all the way home to the ranch. Heading straight there, he made it a day’s travel before finding them. Yvette had eventually come in search of him…too late. Raoul had gone after her, and arrived too late. Silver was the last there; he came upon them on a long moor just a few miles northwest of the ranch, only barely in time to do anything at all. Too late to do enough.
The smell of the demons had become an omnipresent stink; he had even seen several in passing, creatures which moved in weird ways and resembled nothing he had ever seen. He ignored them, and some ignored him. Some had tried to chase him, but Silver outdistanced them quickly. After his frantic all-night journey, he arrived tired, but what he found sent a spike of pure, desperate adrenaline through him that spurred him on.
He could smell the evil of them before he heard the battle, and the sound of carnage reached him before he came in sight of them. By the time he was close enough to see, he could smell them, the familiar scents of Raoul and Yvette, even through the demon stench and the frightening tang on the air of blood.
Rounding a copse of stunted trees, he found the scene of the confrontation just as the familiar scream of Cannelle, Raoul’s mare, ripped through the air. The thing that had torn at her throat was quickly dispatched by his rapier even as she fell, but there were more of them. Different kinds—things that were almost like dogs, and almost like spiders, and almost like birds. Things designed by someone who enjoyed mocking everything that was beautiful in nature.
Silver bellowed a challenge, charging straight at the group. One of the long lizard-dog beasts turned and scuttled right at him; he came down on it with his full weight on his front hooves, just as he had those wolves. It was not nearly so fragile, but it was slower, and still no match for the force he brought down on it. He left the dying monster and thundered toward the others.
Raoul was bleeding heavily, slashing and stabbing with his rapier as quickly as he could but unable to move as rapidly as fencing technique demanded with a leg injured. He had slain several demons already, but the rest smelled weakness and were quickly losing respect for the whirling steel which had felled several of their companions.
Silver hit them like a landslide, stomping through the cluster of spidery things as he would a low thicket and reducing most of them to smears and fragments. It cost him, though; at least two seized his legs and scuttled up his frame, piercing in multiple places with claws and fangs. He screamed in fury, bucking and thrashing to hurl them off, but they clung tenaciously, working their way up toward his neck. And before he could even finish dealing with that, one of the flying things landed right behind his head, the beating of its wings all but deafening him.
And then Raoul was there, spearing the bird-demon with his sword and flinging it contemptuously aside. He slashed one of the spiders off, and seized the other bodily with his free hand, hurling it away.
Silver wheeled and charged past him to crush the other lizard-dog monster as it came at Raoul from behind. The man was nearly immobilized, but Silver cantered in a circle around him, crushing demons under his hooves and wheeling back close when one tried to jump onto him to be ripped apart by Raoul’s sword.
It was over so abruptly that the silence almost had physical force. They stood, looking around at the carnage and gasping for breath, both streaked with blood and pierced in multiple places. The stink of demon filth hung with tangible weight, though the bodies themselves were even now dissolving away to clumps of charcoal and black ash.
Then he saw her.
Emitting a shrill cry of anguish, Silver dashed to her side, bending his neck to nudge at Yvette with his nose. She made no response. Blood streaked the ground around her, as well as a dozen black smears where demons had fallen. Silver snorted, raised his head to whinny piteously, and ducked back down to desperately nuzzle at her face. He felt no breath upon his nose.
Barely able to use one of his legs, Raoul only reached them seconds later, and fell at her side, dropping his sword. Landing in an ungainly heap, he nonetheless lurched to a semi-kneeling position, and pulled her into his lap. Raoul cradled her close, hunched over her and rocking slowly in place. Silver bent, leaning his forehead against the man’s, just over her still form.
“This is our fault,” Raoul rasped. “I caught up too late. Should have known she would follow you. Of course, she would. Stupid. It was my idea, I as good as killed her…”
Silver didn’t so much as snort. This was his doing as much as Raoul’s. It was true; they should both have known she would come. She had always been there for him. But he hadn’t been for her, at the end.
He wished he could weep the way Raoul did.
There was no telling how long they remained there, holding her, but the long, ululating cry demanded their attention. Man and horse raised their heads, turning to look to the north.
The things practically covered the moor. They were crawling forward, flying through the air… It would be minutes, at most, before they overtook them.
Raoul and Silver looked each other over. Bloodied and exhausted both, there would be no outrunning this.
Resolutely, Raoul lowered Yvette back to the ground, shrugged out of his coat, and draped it over her. Silver nuzzled at her face once last time before it was covered, then stood aside to allow Raoul to retrieve his rapier.
“Well, old man,” he said, his voice hoarse, “here we are. I’ll have to ask to borrow your legs.”
Silver studied him. He had struggled getting back to his feet; the man couldn’t walk, much less run. With a snort, he lowered his front half, kneeling on the cold ground.
Even with a leg useless, Raoul got astride him smoothly; he had ridden horses since he could walk.
Silver stood, carefully, but his rider held his mane with one hand, keeping the other free to wield his sword. He was steadier on Silver’s legs than his own. Together, they turned to face the oncoming monstrosities.
“Then all that remains,” Raoul declared, “is to make sure, when we get to Hell, they already know to fear us!”
Silver pawed the ground once, then tossed his head and surged forward. His bellow of challenge was matched by Raoul’s roar, both of them unified in unrelenting rage.
They slammed into the horde, and everything was blood, pain, and chaos. But the monsters that survived learned something of fear that day.
“Whoah! Easy, boy, take it easy. Your battle’s over now.”
Tossing his head and bucking, he only belatedly calmed, and still pranced in place for a moment, taking stock. He was…he had been…wait, where was he?
It didn’t even look like a place. There was no smell…there was really nothing. It was as if the whole world was made of light. It was serene and gentle, not glaring, but still eerie.
Right in front of him stood a woman she didn’t know, but immediately he couldn’t help liking her. She was pale, with golden hair like Yvette’s, and dressed in some kind of ragged gown that seemed to be stitched together from scraps of armor and various garments, every piece in solid black. And she had wings. Feathered wings. He’d never seen a person with wings before.
But she smiled, and calm approval seemed to radiate from her. The winged woman stroked his nose, grinning up at him.
“There you go,” she said soothingly. “That was a hell of a stand—you have a lot to be proud of. Now, there’s somebody you’ll want to see, I think.”
She stepped aside, and bent to pick up a long scythe which had been thrust blade-first into the ground nearby—an odd sight, as there wasn’t really any ground, but just a point where the omnipresent misty light seemed to coalesce into something hard enough to stand on. But past her, previously hidden by her wings, was Yvette.
She rushed forward and Silver whickered happily, coming to meet her, and then her arms were around his neck. Yvette stroked him, murmuring contentedly. He stood, nuzzling at her and just…being there. This, finally, was good.
Raoul was there, too, sword still in hand. He stood back somewhat, and said nothing, but reached out to stroke Silver’s nose.
The two of them had never been close, but now…there was an understanding between them, at least.
“All right,” the woman with the scythe interjected finally. “It’s time to go. This way, everyone.”
She casually swiped her weapon through the air, and it seemed to carve away part of reality. A doorway opened up, peeling back from the wound she had made in existence and forming into a vague shape made of light. Beyond it, things looked more clear; there was a path leading through a brilliant forest, and ahead in the distance… Silver couldn’t make it out, but he knew it was good.
With an encouraging whicker, he nudged Yvette forward. She and Raoul went first, hand in hand, with him trotting along behind.
“Just a moment,” the valkyrie interjected, placing a hand against his chest. He paused and snorted at her in annoyance. Yvette and Raoul stood right on the threshold and stopped, as well, turning to look. Yvette frowned in consternation. “It’s only for a moment,” the valkyrie assured them all. “You two, come with me. Somebody wants a word with you, Argent. Believe me, this is a particular honor, and the reason you’re with us. We don’t ordinarily bring horses. You’ll want to hear her out before you catch up. Come on.”
He laid his ears back, only belatedly realizing that she wasn’t speaking the language he knew. His name had always been a word, something that meant something; in a different tongue, it was nothing but a sound. It meant nothing but him. He wasn’t sure whether he liked that.
Yvette looked back at him, clearly reluctant, but followed the valkyrie’s urging as though something compelled her to. Argent whickered in protest as she vanished across the doorway.
A hand was laid on his neck.
This presence, despite the abruptness with which it had arrived, somehow calmed him greatly. Something about her…filled the sky. She was there in front of him, a tall woman with waves of dark hair and deep brown eyes, but somehow it was as if he stood within rather than before her.
The way she spoke made the elf’s deepest communication a shallow mockery. There was total union of their thoughts; everything she had to say was expressed in perfect detail, with no words exchanged. It was, in fact, almost as if no thoughts were exchanged. He simply understood, immediately, what she wanted him to.
She was impressed with him, and wanted him to join her horses. She showed him her Hands, a line of paladins stretching back centuries, millennia—hers and those of other gods. It was Avei who kept the stables, who gathered the greatest steeds from across the history of the world, providing mounts for those paladins of every Pantheon god. But with him, in particular, she was very impressed. He was to be a companion only to her own Hands, if he accepted this.
And what would that mean?
Battles, she showed him. Endless struggle. Strife, war, violence beyond imagining. Pain, and in the end, always death. One brave, intrepid woman after another. They fought, until they couldn’t any longer, far past the point where other mortals would have fallen. In the end, they all fell.
Argent snorted in fury and jerked away from her bucking and dancing around. How dare she try to inflict this on him? Was it not enough that he had to see his Yvette fall this way? She wanted him to go through that again? And again, and again? For all eternity? He reared, slashing his hooves menacingly at her face.
Avei reached up to stroke his nose, and looking at her, he could not help calming. Tears glowed in her eyes. The goddess stepped forward, resting her forehead against his own, and showed him.
Those brave, loyal women… It had to be that way. Their duty was too important to forsake, and she simply could not bend the rules of reality enough to save them. But she would never abandon them. They would not fight alone. They would die, but not alone.
Argent lowered his head. Yvette… She had always been there. He had always been with her…except at the end. She had died alone.
He understood. And he decided.
When they turned to pass through the gate together, the goddess’s hand on his neck as she walked by his side, Argent wore the silver armor of the mantle he had accepted. It would never be that way again. For each woman, each warrior, he would be there. As many as it took. No matter how many he must grieve, they would have him by their side. Not one would fall alone.
He had not been there for her, but he would be there for them.