The Pooka reflected later, as he stood harnessed in bit and bridle and tied to one of the corral posts, that perhaps the humans were taking his little pranking spree a little more seriously than he did.
It was his nature, that was all. A little mischief here, a bit of mayhem there… Immortality tended to be very dull unless one made an effort to entertain oneself.
How much harm was it to stir up the livestock once in a while? Those fat show-ponies needed exercise anyway, or they’d be too round to fit through the barn doors, and who cared if the cattle spooked a bit? A few broken fences and some trampled crops, and one would think he had burned down a temple to the Thirteen Gods, the way people reacted.
High strung, that’s what they were. No sense of humor. Couldn’t take a joke.
Kolrantin would fit in perfectly here.
He had not given the humans enough credit this time around. Usually they were so slow and stupid that they only realized something was happening after he had come and gone and the goats were already halfway through demolishing the vegetable garden. This time, though…
The first night, he had loosed the horses from the livery stable and taken them for a healthy run through the surrounding woods. They would all come home (eventually) and probably feel worlds better for the exercise.
The second night, he had herded the pigs into the winehall. That had been a fun night. He had not known pigs could get drunk, much less that they were such lively drunks. Oh, he wished he had been able to stick around to see the people’s faces after that one…
But the third night, he had miscalculated.
It was going to be his grand finale, the last big bang before he set off for the next town in need of his services. Seeing as Bydwin was a cattle town, it seemed only fitting that he let the cattle have a tour of the place. It simply wasn’t fair that they be stuck on the outskirts in those nasty crowded pens, was it?
He had not thought that there would be a mavin in town who knew enough of the Arts to bind a scion, much less that such a mavin would be one of the cowhands camped on the city outskirts.
The Pooka had ghosted toward the first of the cattle pens, prepared to work his own special talent upon the latches and to call the cows to stampede… and he had awoken the next morning, stiff, cold, and aching, with a leather bridle upon his head and a bit within his mouth.
To add insult to injury, the bit was made of black iron – not the brittle stuff humans normally used in their smithing, but black iron, the horrible, icy kind that bound magic, – and the fierce burn of it against his mouth and tongue continued unabated even now, three days after his initial capture. He wondered if he would ever get free with his tongue intact. There were scions who bore scars from black iron even hundreds of years afterwards. The Pooka was among the eldest of the scions, but still… How embarassing, to have a scar across the top of one’s tongue.
His brethren would say he used that particular appendage too much anyway.
The massive black horse jerked his head once more against the rope that secured the bridle to the corral post. There was a faint hope within him that some time the rope would snap, and he would be free to escape, inasmuch as a spirit could escape without use of his magic. Travel through the Mists would be impossible with that infernal bit in his mouth, as would shifting himself through the shadow-plane. That would mean walking. Lots of walking.
The Pooka hated walking.
Yet another group of wide-eyed children clamored over to stare at him between the corral slats. They giggled and whispered, and one particularly enterprising young boy started pelting the scion’s flanks with tiny clods of dirt. The Pooka shifted as far away as the rope allowed, but the boy merely repositioned himself closer and resumed his play. The Pooka twitched with every stinging impact, his ears pinned back against his head, and he growled as no mortal horse was able, a deep, gravelly rumble, as he bared long, yellowed teeth.
“Hey, now! You kids get away from there!”
The Pooka’s head jerked up in surprise at the sudden shout. A woman ran toward the corral, skirts bunched up in one hand, eyes wide.
“Get away! Go home! Leave him alone, do you hear me? Tommy, Bettany, Leelas, I said go home!”
The children scattered, shrieking and cackling like a flock of magpies, but not before the boy threw one last dirt clod at the Pooka’s hindquarters.
“Tommy Fargus, I saw that!”
Running still, the woman plucked something from a pouch upon her belt and held it before her. The tiny object flared white, and a flicker of that light leapt forward and snapped across the child’s backside like a thread-thin whip. The boy yelped, clutching his rear, and fled.
The woman stumbled to a halt at the fence, puffing and red-cheeked, her once-neat braid in disarray. She watched with narrowed eyes as the children disappeared behind the general store, and she merely stood for a long moment, drawing deep breaths and glowering.
“Qui-hi-hite a show,” whickered the Pooka, his voice thick around the metal bit. The woman jumped and turned wide eyes upon him.
He noted the tiny bubbles of amber within her green irises with interest.
“My Lord,” she said, still breathless. “My Lord Pooka, what are you doing here?”
He tilted his head, dropped one ear to the side, and fixed her with a thoroughly disgusted look.
“What do you thi-hi-hink?”
She stared. She could not help herself. The being before her, harnessed like a mortal work-horse, was a spirit of legends. He stood handspans taller than the largest horses of Bydwin, his coat swirled black and gray, his mane and tail billowing and pale, but he was unnaturally lean – his legs were too long and his head too small and his eyes gleamed yellow as any cat’s.
There were books about him at the University. The Pooka. The Pooka, the one and only, the infamous, one of the eldest scions, a child of the Mists, the shape-shifter, the Storm-Horse, a Lord of the Mists…
Abruptly realizing that the scion was eyeing her intently, she ducked her head and bobbed an awkward curtsy.
“I beg your pardon, but… I certainly never expected to meet you. Here. Like… this.”
She eyed the bridle as though it were a rattlesnake poised to strike.
Someone had bridled the Pooka. With black iron, no less – she could feel the icy chill of the metal even from this distance. Someone had bridled the Pooka.
Oh, sweet Va, Bydwin was doomed.
“To be frank, this was quite unexpe-he-hected for me as well. You are this town’s ma-ha-haven?”
“Yes, My Lord. I am Sera Bramwyn.”
“Perha-ha-haps you would do me the greatest of fa-ha-havors, then, Sera Bramwyn, and remove this… contra-ha-haption?” He tossed his head and tugged against the rope once more.
“Who bound you?”
“Ho-ho-how should I know? You’re the maven he-he-here. Relea-hea-hease me.”
“If… If I did release you, would you leave… peaceably?”
She gnawed her lower lip. “You would swear? Upon the Va?”
“I never swea-hea-hear.”
“I’ve read about you. I know what you did to Byran Borknas and the town of Cervalla. He struck you with a stone because you were worrying his sheep. You set fire to the town… burned him alive.”
Dark lashes swept down over the yellow eyes, half-veiling them.
“Tha-ha-hat was a long time ago.”
“I am sworn to protect this town and its people. I can’t release you unless you swear not to harm them.”
“Then we shall bo-ho-hoth be disappointed.”
It was getting on to midafternoon and the winehall was deserted of all but its owner and employees, awaiting the evening rush. Carnas Thacker sat at his favorite table in the back corner – near the hearth for warmth in the winter, strategically placed so that he could see all the happenings in his establishment at any time. He was just settling in to test the latest brew brought from Tauren Creek when the door swung open with a squeal of abused hinges, and the local witcher woman, do-gooder extraordinaire, Sera Bramwyn, burst inside in a flurry of skirts and self-righteousness.
She hesitated a brief moment, her eyes darting around the room, before she spotted him in the shadows and made for him with all the looming threat of a gathering thunderstorm.
“Carnas Thacker, just what kind of fool are you?” she demanded.
Very deliberately, Carnas raised his glass to his lips and took a drink. He examined the taste, swirling the liquid around his mouth, and savored the growing expression of fury on the woman’s face. He had not seen eye-to-eye with Miss Bramwyn since she had first arrived in Bydwin to become their new witcher – and a perpetual pain in his hind parts.
He set his glass down and met her gaze.
“May I help you, Miss Bramwyn?”
“Yes! You can tell me what sort of brain-fever made you think harnessing an elder scion – with black iron – was ever a good idea!”
Carnas frowned at her, taking a moment to decipher the tangle of words, before abruptly remembering the black beast he had acquired the previous evening.
“You came in here to scream at me for buyin’ up an eido? Of course it’s a good idea – that one’s gold on the hoof.”
The woman jabbed one finger toward the back of the winehall, in the direction of the stables and the attached corral. Her cheeks were red and her hair in disarray, and when she spoke, the words came fast and forceful.
“That’s no eidolon! That’s a scion – one of the eldest scions! You have the Pooka chained to a corral post like a common cow-pony, and you’re in here talking about how to make a profit? You should be at Temple praying to each and every one of the Thirteen that he leaves Bydwin with even a single building standing after he’s free!”
“What’re you on about?” Carnas narrowed his eyes at her, glass of beer raised halfway to his mouth. “What’s a Pooka?”
“The Pooka. He’s not an eidolon, not some Mist-changed common horse. He’s a scion, an ancient spirit born from the Mists itself. He’s older than the Purification, for Va’s sake!”
“Would you stop yellin’ at me already? It don’t matter what it is ‘cause it ain’t never gettin’ loose. The witcher said that bridle’d hold it ‘til Endsday.”
She planted her fists upon her hips. “You notice that the witcher in question did not stick around for long after he handed the Pooka over, hm? Do you wonder why that is, especially when the outfit he signed on with is still here waiting to sell? The man is probably in Solisayena by now and heading farther away as we speak!”
“Probably had business,” said Carnas, but he was frowning now, and his brow was furrowed as what she said sunk in. Carnas knew all about the seedier kinds of people, the ones who looked out for themselves first and saw each situation in terms of how much money they could make from it; he was one of them himself.
“Carnas, you have to understand: what you have in that corral out back is something that you can not control. The eldest scions are beings so powerful that the only ones who could master them are the Vatarii or the Thirteen themselves.”
“So, what? You want me to just let it go?”
“I… Oh, Va, I don’t know.” As abruptly as she had entered, she deflated, outrage vanishing to be replaced with weariness and worry. She pressed one hand to the side of her face and sunk into one of the rickety wooden chairs. “Carnas, I don’t know what to do. If you set him free, he will take his revenge. He’ll trample Bydwin to the ground – he’s done it before, and for lesser insults.”
“Then we keep it,” said Carnas.
“No! Carnas, that bridle won’t hold forever. There’s no such thing as a fullproof ward. All it will take is the briefest moment where the black iron isn’t in contact with his flesh, and he’ll be free to do as he wills.”
“And when he’s freed, he’ll come straight back to Bydwin!”
“Well, Gods dammit, woman, what do you want me to do?” Carnas slammed his cup down with enough force to crack it, and then he cursed as liquid dribbled out onto the table. He swiped it away with his free hand. “Let it go, don’t let it go, keep it, don’t keep it – will you make up your damned mind?”
“I don’t know what to do,” she said.
“Don’t do anything. I’ve got a group lined up to buy it already – they’ll be here by tomorrow, and then we won’t have to worry anymore.”
“You can’t sell him!”
“It’s none of your business in the first place. Eido or no eido, that thing’ll be gone before the week’s out, and you can do somethin’ else with your time rather than comin’ in here and botherin’ me. Now either buy a drink or get out.”
The riders arrived at dawn, and Sera watched them from the front porch of her shop.
Trust Carnas to find outlaws for his business transactions.
The leader bore that lean, wary, yet arrogant look of a wolf too familiar with the ways of humans. He rode a kharron – a common eidolon, a horse or deer-like creature changed by the Mists – of high quality. It bore the characteristic horns of kharrons, arching up and back from its skull, and when it crabstepped, snapping at the bit, fangs flashed in the place of blunt herbivore teeth.
Riding behind and to either side of the first man were two more men, blond and of similar features, possibly brothers, these mounted upon horses of good stock. All three men wore gunbelts, and one of the blond men had a rifle in its scabbard attached to his saddle.
I’m going to kill Carnas, she thought.
The University had posted her here to ensure the safety of the town. Bydwin’s location near a natural Gate made it a magnet for every wild eido and demon birthed by the Mists, and it was all she could do, even during quiet times, to ensure that the town was not overrun by maddened creatures desperate for the aura that leaked from the Gate. Normally, this meant setting wards and occasionally tracking down a stray eido to banish it.
On days like this, it meant dearly regretting her Oath to never use her abilities to harm humans.
Checking that her pouch of spellstones was secure on her belt, sticking her fingers inside to check that all six were warm, charged with energy, she set off across the street, following distantly behind the three riders as they made their way to the corral behind the winehall.
If only, the Pooka thought, that infuriating man would move just a few inches nearer…
He shifted his weight, half-raising one rear hoof in contemplation. His legs were long, and after centuries, his aim was extraordinary. If the man made the mistake of even shifting slightly nearer, the Pooka was certain he could manage a solid hit on the man’s chin.
He abandoned that oh-so-tempting thought at the sound of approaching hooves – for a moment, he dared hope for rescue – but his expectations and his ears drooped at the sight of the approaching group.
Even if no one else in this dismal, backwater town knew him for what he was – the sorceress aside, obviously – the kharron knew, and it was not happy. The rider cursed, yanking forcefully on the reins as the eidolon reared and bellowed, eyes wide and nostrils flared.
“Gods damn you!” The man spat out curses in Bok, Imperial, and Anglese with familiar ease and impressive artistry. The Pooka noted several to add to his own repertoire, not one to pass up an opportunity to learn new things to infuriate his fellows. “Settle! Settle!”
Don’t settle, thought the Pooka. He rumbled a soft whicker and fixed his attention firmly on the kharron. When the eidolon’s eyes caught his own, he half-reared and screamed in response, long and eerie and echoing.
The bridle spoiled the effect somewhat, to the Pooka’s annoyance, but the kharron went mad.
The eidolon went one way, the man another, and the two horses following reared and shrieked in fear, their own riders wrestling desperately to bring their mounts under control. The first rider struck the ground and rolled, fetching up against the corral post near the Pooka’s hooves, and the kharron disappeared in a thunder of hooves, fleeing the way it had come.
Cursing and flailing, the downed rider scrambled to his hands and knees, his curses reaching new, epic heights, to the Pooka’s delight.
Yep, he thought. I’ve still got it.
Carnas was beginning to rethink his grand scheme of selling the eido.
One: because Sera Bramwyn might be a perpetual pain in his hind end and the moral equivalent of a kick to the jaw, but she was a trained maven, and she had a nasty habit of being right all the time. (Things had been much simpler before she had arrived.)
Two: because he had thought on the conversation from the previous day, and his tallies of Risks vs. Gains were not stacking up the same as they had when he had first bought the eido.
And three: because he had had his fair share of dealing with eidos, both as purchaser and seller, and there was something damn wrong with this one’s eyes.
Those eyes, yellow as a cat’s – yellow as a sorcerer’s at the height of power, yellow as Bramwyn’s when she was in a full temper – eyed the fallen form of Kris Melkof with a definite gleam of dark amusement, and the creature laughed.
The sound was some mix between a horse’s whicker and a deep chuckle, but it was a laugh, and damn it, why is that woman always right?
Melkof rolled to his feet, slapping the dirt from his clothes with violent motions, snarling. The two men riding with him had brought their horses back to all fours, though both mounts still jittered, white showing around their eyes, sweat patching their coats.
“What the hell are you waiting for?” Melkof barked. “Get after it!”
Both men nodded, but one was quicker, turning his horse and setting off at a brisk canter, tossing a quick, “Aye, boss!” over his shoulder. The man who remained snorted and warily eyed the black probably-not-an-eidolon-damn-it.
And then Melkoff reached for his belt, unhooking the horsewhip coiled there. He unfurled it with a practiced flick of his wrist, sending the frayed tip slithering through the dust like a roused serpent.
“Hey, now.” Carnas eyed the whip with a definite feeling of Not Good. “Do what you like, but do it after the sale, got it?” When Melkoff glared in response, he added, “Can’t have you marking up the merchandise.”
The not-an-eido snorted, pinning its ears back and shifting its weight. Carnas took a judicious step back, gauging the reach of those long legs, and then took another step back just to be on the safe side.
“Better be worth it,” snarled Melkoff, coiling the whip once more and clambering over the fence. Carnas almost cautioned him as to the eido’s uncanny reach and accuracy, but he bit down on the impulse, and Melkoff seemed wary enough. The older man gave the eido a generous berth as he walked around to join Carnas.
The eido craned its head around to watch the stranger’s progress, ears canted back and eyes narrowed. It shifted its hind legs in a slow, thoughtful motion, half-raising one leg and flexing it as though gauging the odds of landing a hit.
Carnas took another step back.
“Eighty,” said Melkoff.
“I’ll give you eighty.”
“We agreed on one-fifty.”
“You said it was saddle-worthy. Ain’t settin’ my ass on that thing ‘less it’s hobbled and muzzled.”
“It’s bound.” Carnas gestured at the creature’s head. “Bridle alone is worth seventy for the spellwork, and there’s the saddle to match. Long as you’ve got hold of the reins…”
“That’s no damn eido and you know it. You’re sellin’ me dynamite with the fuse already lit. Eighty.”
Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it!
The eido fixed those yellow eyes on him, the Mist-glow behind the pupil radiant in the early morning gloom, and it growled at him, low and dark and deadly, a noise that seemed to make the ground beneath his boots tremble.
That Not Good feeling wasn’t going away.
“Sir? If I could have a moment of your time…”
Carnas turned his head away and cringed. He knew that voice.
Melkoff hawked and spat off to one side, one hand pulling a fold of Duality currency from some hidden pocket of his coat. He barely glanced at the woman easing nearer to the corral. “And who are you?”
Carnas noted the distinct greenish-pale cast to Sera’s skin, her freckles standing out in stark relief. He wondered if she was going to be ill, and then he wondered whether he should saddle his horse and head out for a vacation in a suitably distant clime, because if the town witcher – the woman who faced down demons on a weekly basis – looked ready to upchuck, then something was definitely wrong.
“I’m Sera Bramwyn, sir. I’m the town maven, and… I really must advise you against this.”
“Yes, sir. As you’ve guessed, this is not an… ordinary eidolon.” Her eyes flicked to the black creature for a moment before returning. “It’s dangerous. If you would allow me the time, I could contact the Arbiters – they would be able to… remove it.”
“It’s a freckin’ scion, woman. Of course it’s dangerous.”
The not-an-eido snorted, ears pricking as it stood tall, craning its neck to peer back at the two men.
And if Carnas had thought Sera looked pale before… she looked positively translucent now.
“You know?” she whispered.
Carnas glanced at Melkoff out of the corner of his eye. His focus was more for the bills slowly flip-flip-flipping off of that wad of money, but he saw the man’s lips twist in a smirk.
“I’ve live in the Edgelands since before the last Tide, girl. You think I don’t know a godling when I see it?”
He pulled off the agreed-upon seventy and handed it to Carnas, who counted it (naturally) before securing it in his pocket.
Melkoff turned that smirk fully toward Bramwyn.
“And it’s mine, now.”
And with one quick, practiced motion, he once more pulled the coiled horsewhip from his belt.
The Pooka grunted as the girth strap was cinched tight, and he snarled, baring his teeth, when the blond human kicked him in the belly – as though the Pooka were some stupid common horse to use tricks like holding his breath to keep the saddle from being properly tightened!
But the Melkoff human had a hold of the reins, holding his head firmly forward, and damn the mavin that had bespelled the bridle in the first place. Obedience spells covered the thing like seed ticks on a wild pig, cold enough to burn and itching incessantly. He turned his glare back to Melkoff, his ears pinned back against his head, but Melkoff smiled.
“You know what this is, don’t you?” The human flicked one wrist, allowing the length of the horsewhip to coil across the ground in a serpentine curve. The Pooka’s eyes followed it. “Yes,” murmured the man, “that’s what I thought.”
The blond man finished with the saddle, giving it one last shake to double-check its soundness, and then he scrambled back to his own mount with alacrity, climbing the corral fence with speed that a squirrel would envy. The Pooka listened to him go with half an ear, his attention still caught on the whip.
Even at this distance, he could feel the prickling cold of the black iron barbs at its tip.
He thought of ancient days, when humans feared him as a god and left offerings outside their doors to placate him. He thought of crops blighted with sickness after a less-than-perfect offering was given, of animals driven mad when he sensed wards against him set upon a property, of men trampled beneath his hooves for daring attempt to capture him.
So long ago.
The witcher-woman’s voice came faintly from further down the street, speaking to the wine-seller – she was a fair distance away, but her strident tones cut through the early morning quiet like an Arbiter’s blade.
“—out of your mind, you can’t sell him—”
“Already done, woman, damn it. Get on—”
“—whip him, Carnas, did you see—”
“You’re going to get us all killed!”
The town was beginning to rouse, more noises joining the chorus of faint birdsong – people moving about in buildings, the distant murmur of voices, the squeak of water pumps being primed. It was so sickeningly domestic.
The handle of the whip was abruptly pressed hard against his snout, and he reared back, checked by the grip Melkoff had on the reins.
“Not paying attention, I see,” murmured the man. “I can fix that.”
The whip rustled across the dirt again. With the barest flick of his wrist, the man sent it coiling in a lazy arch to lick against the Pooka’s legs, and he shied away from the cold bite of the iron with a grunt.
“I know you can understand me,” said Melkoff. “Poor little godling. Here’s the way it’s going to be, aye? I’m going to ride you, and you’re going to obey everything I say, and perhaps if you’re really, really well-behaved, we’ll remove that saddle in a year or two. Pact?”
The Pooka growled, baring his teeth and wishing desperately that the man might lose his grip on the reins for a moment and allow him even that small opening to bite or kick.
But Melkoff merely smiled, keeping his hold upon the reins as he walked to one side and, in one easy motion, pulled himself into the saddle.
The weight upon his back was wrong, wrong, wrong, and the man yanked upon the reins, pulling his head forcefully sideways. The prick of spurs along his sides was too much, and he squealed and thrashed, snapping at air. The man goaded him again, and commanded “Forward” and the compulsion came flickering through the saddle and bridle, spells eating into his flesh like living puppet strings burrowing in and taking hold.
He moved forward.
“Very good,” murmured Melkoff. “Very good indeed.”