Alfar Axeblade sagged in the saddle as his gelding trotted wearily homeward. It wasn't raining at the moment—thank the gods!—but the pastures and paddocks remained soggy sources of spattered mud, and he and his horse were both heartily tired of splashing about in it.
Not that Alfar really begrudged his labors. As one of Lord Warden Edinghas' senior trainers, it was his responsibility to be sure that the home farm's facilities were ready when the horses returned from their winter pastures. Actually, he was quite pleased by what he'd discovered in the course of the day's tour. Of course, he reminded himself, the fact that Warm Springs was one of the holdings which traditionally played host to a herd of coursers over the winter helped. The barns, feedlots, exercise yards, and—for that matter—the farriers, horse leeches, and grooms were kept busy all through the winter, rather than standing idle or simply decamping along with the home farm's studs and mares. So unlike some of the horse farms on the Wind Plain, Warm Springs never shut down, which meant all its myriad bits and pieces were kept running smoothly, all year long.
The unusually early departure of the Warm Springs coursers had produced something of a lull in the home manor's operations, and Alfar had taken full advantage of the opportunity for a final, meticulous inspection. He anticipated Lord Edinghas' approval of his report, and he was looking forward to a long, hot bath before he turned in for his well-earned rest. Perhaps that was why it took him a second or two to rouse from his reverie when his horse suddenly snorted and shied.
Alfar shook his head, automatically answering the gelding's abrupt lunge with a strong hand on the reins and firm, almost instinctive pressure from his knees. He brought the horse around, facing back in the direction of whatever had caused it to shy, and sudden, icy horror flooded through his veins, blotting away his sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as if they had never existed.
He stared at the sight no Sothōii had ever seen. The nightmare sight no Sothōii would ever have wanted to see. And then he was flinging himself from the saddle, slipping and sliding through the mud in his riding boots to catch the exhausted, wounded foal as it collapsed.
* * *
"Toragan!" Edinghas Bardiche, Lord Warden of Warm Springs, whispered in gray-faced horror. He stood bareheaded in the huge stable, watching in disbelief and shock as grooms, trainers, and healers labored frantically. Unlike them, he was not submerged in the frantic effort to save the two worst-wounded foals or the half-blinded, cruelly ripped and torn filly. That meant there was no distraction to divert him from the utter, unthinkable disaster those exhausted, injured coursers represented.
"Only seven?" he said, turning to the man beside him, and his question was a plea to be told that the number was wrong. "Only seven?"
"Five mares and two fillies . . . and eight foals," Alfar Axeblade said grimly. "And two of the mares are bachelors. So five of the foals who got back alive—so far—" there was inexpressible bitterness in the qualifier "—are orphans."
"Phrobus take it, man, there were over forty adult coursers in that herd! Where are all the others?" Edinghas knew there was no way Axeblade could answer his question, but his horror, grief, and fury goaded it out of him anyway.
"Fiendark seize it, Milord, what in Phrobus' name makes you think I know?" Alfar spat back, his own voice riven and harrowed by the same emotions. He glared at his liege lord, shaken to his core by the enormity of the disaster, and Lord Edinghas closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. The lord warden's nostrils flared, and he shook his head, as if trying to shake off the paralysis afflicting his thoughts. Then he opened his eyes again and looked back at Alfar.
"You don't, of course. Not any more than I do," he said heavily. He reached out, resting one hand on the taller man's shoulder, and squeezed. "Forgive me, Alfar. It's my own fear."
"There's naught to forgive, Milord," Alfar replied. He turned his head, looking away from his liege to watch the others work, and his face might have been hammered from cold iron.
"I've had longer to think about it than you have, Milord," he continued after a few seconds, his voice dark and heavy. "There's nothing I know—nothing in nature, leastwise—that could have done this. Those look like bite marks, the sort of thing wolves might have done, but there's no wolf ever born could do that to coursers! And there's not a single stallion—not one. So whatever it was, it pulled them all down—eighteen of them . . . and fifteen mares, seven colts and fillies, and nine foals, as well." He shook his head. "It's not possible, Milord. It can't happen."
"But it has, Alfar." Edinghas' voice was cold and empty, a thing ribbed with grief and despair, but somewhere in its iron belly hatred and rage met and a furnace heat flickered.
"I know it," Alfar grated, then clenched his fists in frustration. "Gods, how I wish we had a wind rider here—just one! Maybe he and his courser could tell us what in all of Fiendark's hells happened out there."
Lord Warden Edinghas nodded, his eyes once again on the tattered, wounded, exhausted survivors of the herd which had departed from Warm Springs barely four days ago. The mares and shivering fillies stood spraddle-legged, heads hanging, as they stared desperately through eyes dark with the echoes of hell at the handful of foals they had somehow gotten back. They watched the humans' ministrations with frantic intensity, yet Edinghas could feel their dreadful exhaustion, sense the hideous battle they'd fought to save even this handful of their children.
He'd never before seen a courser exhausted, he realized. Not in fifty-three years of life and eighteen years as Lord Warden of Warm Springs. Not once. That was bad enough, but he also saw the remembered terror in their eyes, and he knew there was nothing on this earth that could terrify a courser. If only the trembling mares could speak to him!
Alfar was right. They needed a wind rider, and they needed him quickly. And even if they hadn't, this had to be reported. Because, he thought while fresh fear wrapped an icy hand about his throat, if whatever had happened here could happen to one courser herd, then it could happen to others. Or, perhaps even worse, whatever had ravaged them out there on the Wind Plain might follow them here. Might seek to complete the herd's destruction. Whatever it had been, it had been no natural attacker. That much was obvious, but what else could it have been? What monster, what hideous wizardry, could have done this? With no idea of how to answer that question, he had no idea how to fight or stop whatever it was. He didn't even know if it could be stopped from hunting down and killing every victim who had somehow escaped it. But one thing he did know—before Edinghas of Warm Springs saw that happen, he and every armsman he commanded would lie dead, sabers and bows in hand, in a ring around this stable.
"Relhardan!" he snapped, summoning his chief armsman to his side.
"Turn out your men. Every one of them, armed and in full armor! I want the walls manned, and I want a cordon around this stable. Nothing gets into it. -Nothing—" His voice wavered, and he made himself inhale once again to steady it. "Nothing gets to them," he said then, his wavering voice hammered into ice-cold steel, as he waved at the trembling, half-dead coursers. "Nothing!" he hissed.
"Aye, Milord," Sir Relhardan said flatly. "I'll see to it. You've my word for it."
"I know I do," Edinghas said in a voice which was more nearly normal. He clasped arms with Relhardan, and then the armsman was jogging purposefully away, shouting for his subordinates as he went, and Edinghas turned back to Alfar.
"I know you're exhausted, and your horse is, too," he said. "But we must send word to Baron Tellian. Choose the best horse we have—even my own mount. And then ride, Alfar. Ride as you've never ridden before, and tell the Baron everything you've seen."
"Yes, Milord. And you?"
"I'll be right here, in this stable, when you return," Edinghas promised him. "One way or another, I'll be right here."