© 2013 Iscah

Horse Feathers

by Iscah

Author's Note: This is a weekly serial that finished in April of 2014 and is now available in full on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited. (Paperback coming later in 2016.) It is the second story in a four story set which starts with The Girl With No Name and work as prequels to my novel Seventh Night, now available in ebook and hardback format. You can read the stories independently, but they are intended to be read as a set. Though the styles vary, they contain some of the same locations and secondary characters, so there's an extra layer if you read them in sequence.

If you found your way here from my website, welcome to FictionPress. This a place for writers to share their original fiction and help each other improve. Many of the early reviews on this story were made based on earlier drafts. Those have been replaced with a few sample chapters.

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CHAPTER 1

"A real sorceress?" the boy asked. He was a shabby little stableboy with patched clothes and the smell of horses, but his pale blue eyes were bright and curious. His hair was dirty blond in color, but he was as clean as a stableboy could be after his morning chores, which implied someone cared for him. He stood on the bottom rail of the thick wooden fence and leaned over the top for a better look at the resting traveler.

"Aye, lad," said the traveler, whose clothes were more colorful and less tattered though a bit dusty and faded from his long journey on foot. "She lives in the Gourlin Desert. Dead centered between Gourlin and Cordance, just south of Paradox."

The boy's name was Phillip, and Phillip grinned skeptically. "And she grants wishes?"

"For a price," said the traveler, whose name never came up. He was a tall man, though he was sitting now, making use of the thin shade cast by one of the trees growing along the fence line. His brown hair fell limply from beneath his beaked hat to lie against his shoulders. "Rumor is she heals things that no doctor can fathom."

The day was bright and clear; the sun had traveled to the west but sat high above the horizon. On the traveler's side of the fence stretched a long, stone road wide enough for two wagons to pass side by side. On the boy's side there was a large, grassy field with a few grazing unicorn mares. Past the paddock stood the stables complex, which was a three-wing structure of no small consequence, and beyond that were fields, paddocks, and horses as far as the eye could see.

"She could be rich," the eleven year old reflected, looking down the road. "Why doesn't she live in the city?"

The traveler shrugged. His age never came up either, though he was at least as old as the boy's father. "Maybe she doesn't like people bothering her."

"Maybe you have to earn your wish," Phillip mused and climbed up to balance on the fence post. He grasped the air like a sword hilt and slashed it about. "Like a quest from an adventure story."

"Didn't hear nothing like that," the traveler said, adjusting his pack. "If I went to see her, I'd go with a big pile of gold."

"What would she do with gold in the desert?" Phillip asked curiously.

"Maybe buy a better plot of land," laughed the traveler. "Goodbye, lad. I best be on my way."

"Bye," Phillip said. He hopped down off the fence and ran back inside the stables. He jogged down the rows of stalls until he found a lean, bearded man in the process of mucking one out. "Hey, Father, you'll never guess what I heard."

"Did you finish your chores?" his father asked, not looking up as he continued to shovel.

"Yes," Phillip said with the tired tone of a youth who had answered the same question over and over with the same answer. "Don't you want to hear what the traveler told me?"

Phillip's father sniffed and moved another shovelful into the wheelbarrow.

"He said there's a sorceress in the Gourlin Desert who can heal sick people better than the doctors."

"You can't believe everything people tell you," his father said in the tired tone of a parent who had dispensed the same advice over and over.

"I know," Phillip said, digging at the ground with his toe. "But I'm sure people tell the truth some of the time, and I think I'd really like to meet a sorceress."

"Only fools fall for conjurors' tricks," the stablehand told his son. He was not an old man, but he had the tired eyes of one, eyes that held the same shape as his son's but lacked their sparkle. His hair, both on his head and face, was a dark blond and fell stiff and straight. He placed the last shovelful in the small manure wagon and rolled it to the next stall. "Only magic you'll find in this world comes from the flute and the lute."

"I know," the boy said without conviction. "There's a meeting tonight. I thought I might head for Ellsworth before it gets too dark."

"And after the meeting?"

"I'm sure someone from the estate will be there. I'll walk home with them."

After a moment of quiet shoveling, Phillip's father said, "All right."

Phillip took a half step and paused. "If you'd like to come, I'll help you finish up."

His father shook his head, and Phillip swallowed his disappointment. "This may be your last meeting, so go on," his father said.

"But why?!" Phillip demanded. His father merely gave him a look, so he choked down his indignation too. Not wanting the permission rescinded, he dragged his feet out of the stables and across the paddock to the fence and the stone road. By the time he had climbed over the fence, his spirits had improved. He smiled and began to run down the road to Ellsworth.

It was about a six-mile walk and would pass faster if he kept up the run, but Phillip took a leisurely pace. The world was his school, and this was his chance to learn from it. He studied everything. The plants, the animals, the stones, and the sky all fell under his examination, but he liked it best when he crossed paths with travelers. Travelers told stories and answered questions about faraway places.

If there were no travelers on the road, then he was always sure to find some at the inn. His father held back most of his small wage, but he gave Phillip a portion of it to spend as he pleased. Dinner at the inn was one of the boy's few indulgences.

Travelers headed for the capital usually left in the mornings, meaning Phillip only met a few locals heading home on the road that afternoon. He greeted all of them with a simple, "Hello". He had a terrible memory for names but a great one for details, which bemused his father.

It might have been because names did not teach him much beyond themselves. He liked information he could fit together with other information, things that were just as important far away as they were in the here and now. That's what he liked best about the meetings. They explained for him how things fit together: the big things on a grand scale and why all the little stuff was important to it.

No one took much notice of him when he reached the inn. Rich clients and strangers always took priority in such places, but Phillip did not mind. He was here for the strangers. The inn's dining hall was a modest-sized establishment. Ellsworth was a modest sized town, and most of the locals ate their meals at home or at the pub on the square.

He looked for an empty spot where he thought he might hear the best conversation and ordered a salad with vinegar, bread, and barley tea when the serving girl took note of him. She was a pleasant girl of eighteen who liked to ruffle Phillip's hair when she dropped off his meal. He had questioned her as much as any traveler, and on the rare quiet nights, she would sit and talk to him.

At this day's end, however, the inn was busy and abuzz with conversation. A group who had traveled all the way from Netheriaden was jabbering in the Eastern Mountain tongue. Phillip could only make out half of what they said, but he found the sounds entrancing. "Gyl! We wanv my woyne!" one of the men called to the serving girl, who smiled as though she found it delightful to be commanded so brusquely.

Smiles mean a better chance for tips, she had confided to Phillip on one of those slow evenings. He could remember her words perfectly and grinned as though she had just said them again like a private joke between them.

"Whav chu likin' av, bae?"

"I like how you talk," Phillip said with his bright grin.

"Lath, haf gide eayf on 'im," the man laughed, and his companions with him. They gave him no more trouble for eavesdropping. Phillip chewed quickly through his salad while he listened. The conversation itself, at least what he could make out of it, was fairly mundane. But he was sorting out the sounds so, if he ever traveled to Netheriaden, he could understand what was said to him.

With a last bite and swallow, he hopped off his chair and hurried to the town hall just as the sun dipped below the horizon.

Phillip squeezed inside the large meeting space as darkness fell outside. Many of the other attendees had already settled on the benches, but some were still milling in behind him. There were plenty of empty seats, no need to crowd together when they had the whole hall. Phillip found a seat on the front row. The teacher, for that was his profession by day as well as night, had already begun his discourse. He was a dark-haired man somewhere near thirty, a little younger than Phillip's father, and his eyes still shone with delight and fervor.

"At the core of every great religion is a code of conduct. You and I have no more control over the nature of the unseen than we do over the rising of the sun and the moon, but conduct—Morality—this is within the domain of man. Therefore it is with conduct that our responsibility lies. We have laws and kings to govern society. They determine the rules of our public conduct, but who rules our private lives if not ourselves? When society sours, the leaders are blamed, but who is to blame when we sour?

"A man may influence his neighbor through threat or good example, but only has true control, and therefore true responsibility, for his own actions. It is through his actions, his conduct—Morality—that a man betrays his character and his worth. So let us be moral men and women, my friends. Let us make Gourlin a country of moral men through our example and the control of our own actions. For who would you rather do business with? The moral man or the immoral one? Who would you rather marry your daughters and command your sons in battle? And how can we ask others to be moral, if we are not first moral ourselves?

"Self-control is the core of moral behavior. How can we suffer ourselves willingly and in good conscience to give up that control? This is the danger of the corruption of drink: to pollute the body and dull the mind. The loss of control is the loss of one's self. Now I'm sure some of you will say this is only the sin of drunks, and certainly those who drink more and quickly will lose control more and quickly. But having seen what manifests from excess, we must wonder how the alcohol corrupts over time. Surely the man who drinks more poison will die faster but does this mean the man who takes only a little goes undamaged? Or does it rot the body, the mind, the essence of ourselves bit by bit?

"Think, my friends. Where does alcohol come from? It is rot. When our meat rots, when bread rots, we throw it out, lest it pain the stomach. But when drink rots, we're told to gulp it down, to dull our senses and our sense, a slow poison to the mind. Who began this folly?

"Corruption begets corruption. Rot of the barley becomes rot of the mind, becomes rotten behavior. Poor decisions, forgotten promises, misplaced aggressions. How many wives and children suffer from..."

And so it went until sunset, Phillip listened intently and laid these ideas on his map of the world to see how they fit beside his own observations. He was the youngest listener in the audience, probably the only one under the age of twenty. When he had first heard of these meetings and begun attending a few months prior, he had drawn more than a few curious stares. But he was a regular now, and no one paid him any mind. He lingered after the meeting wrapped up. Most people shuffled out in small groups for the walk home, but a few stayed to chat, usually those who lived on the square and had little cause to worry on their short walk home. The teacher disengaged himself from a small cluster of this latter group and smiled at him.

"Hello, Phillip. Glad you could make it," he said and gave every impression of meaning it.

"What about water?" Phillip asked, launching immediately in to counter the teacher's metaphor.

"What about water?" the teacher echoed, with a small grin that said he already had a guess where this was going.

"Well, a man can drown from an excess of water," Phillip said. "Does that mean it's also a corruption?"

The teacher's grin broadened. "If it comes from Middlefort, most certainly," he chuckled.

"But water also comes from the sky. Plants and animals drink the rain, and we eat plants and animals so—"

The teacher waved his hand to cut him off, but not rudely. "It's well thought, Phillip, but you're focusing solely on one facet of morality. Another is that everything has a proper place and time to it. Some actions are appropriate in one situation but not in another. For instance, is it stealing for a man to take fruit from a tree?"

Phillip frowned thoughtfully. "Only if someone else owns the tree."

"And assuming the water you drink is pure and clean rainwater, how does it enter your body?"

"Through the mouth," Phillip said.

"Have you ever seen a man drown by drinking too many cups of water?" the teacher asked. "No, a man only drowns when he takes water through the nose. Then it enters his lungs rather than his stomach, and the damage is done. So the problem is not in the water, but how it is taken."

Phillip shuddered. He had an active imagination, and every word painted a picture for him. To hear about it was like the water closing over his own head. "What about God?" he asked, jumping to an entirely different subject.

Again, the teacher echoed the question.

"If God is in control of everything, isn't God responsible for everything, too?" Phillip asked.

"I can't tell you what to believe about God," the teacher said. "Moralism isn't a religion. You have to seek those sort of answers elsewhere. I will say few things irritate me more than listening to men blame God or the gods or anything else that's handy for their own actions. If they want to blame God for the weather, that's another matter."

Phillip felt his lip twitch, not entirely satisfied by the answer, but it was something new to ponder. "What about parents? Don't they have control over their children?"

The teacher raised his eyebrow. "Less than you think and even less as you grow," he said. "But they certainly have more than a small share of influence. After all a parent's example is the first a child sees, and his law the first they experience. But a grown man blaming his parents for his actions does not endear him to me either. Does your father control your actions?"

Phillip's frown deepened as he pondered this one. "Influence sure feels like control sometimes," he said after a long pause.

"Indeed, it does," the teacher agreed. "Phillip, why don't you come to school with the other children? You have no idea how much it vexes me that the cleverest boy in the town isn't in my classroom. It reflects poorly on my profession."

Phillip shrugged, both flattered and embarrassed by the compliment. "My father needs me to work," he said.

"Maybe I should talk to him," the teacher said.

"You can try," Phillip said flatly. His father's earlier words about this being his last meeting made him think it unlikely he would give much consideration to what the teacher had to say.

"If he doesn't listen, his employer might," the teacher continued. "The lord of the estate has far more influence over his men than a humble scholar may."

Phillip was not sure whether he liked this idea. He was usually kept out of sight when the nobleman came to inspect his horses and had no real idea of what sort of man he was. The teacher seemed to read his unease. "Don't worry, I'll try your father first. I have no wish to cause him trouble, but I do want you in my classroom."

Phillip smiled at this. It was nice to be wanted somewhere.

"You better run along while you can still find someone to walk with you back to the estate," the teacher advised.

Phillip nodded and ran to the door. The meeting hall was mostly clear now. He paused before exiting and called back. "Do you believe in magic? A traveler today told me about a sorceress who lives in the desert."

"I believe there are a lot of people out there who take advantage of the gullible," the teacher said thoughtfully. "But—" He tipped his head in consideration. "I've never been outside of Gourlin. Perhaps the greater world holds such wonders."

Phillip grinned, far more satisfied with this answer than the last, and hurried out into the town square. The square was lit with a few flickering torches and whatever moonlight was available. Tonight it was a smiling crescent. While the stone road ran beside the stables, there was a dirt road that ran directly north to the center of the estate with the main house and quainter quarters for the field and stablehands. It was much like its own little village but without any shops.

He headed north, keeping his eye on the road, particularly where the buildings cast a shadow, and stepped carefully to avoid any animal droppings that might be left behind. He managed to skip over all the significant piles and hoped he might come across someone heading his way. He had forgotten to check to see if anyone from the estate had come to the meeting, and it bothered him to have not lived up to his word.

As he walked home alone in the dark night, he was more concerned about his father's disapproval than what might be lurking in the shadows. He did not think there was much about him to tempt burglars. The presence of men and number of fences reduced the likelihood of large predators. Still, he picked up the first hefty stick he found as a precaution.

His concern over his father's rebuke proved unwarranted. By the time he reached the row of wooden huts that quartered the stablehands and entered the small room that he shared with his father, the bearded man was already fast asleep on the bottom bunk. Phillip latched the door shut and climbed onto the top bunk, where he fell asleep and dreamed of the greater world.

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End Note: Fictionpress cover art was drawn for this story/character by the artist Kristen Collins back when we were both in highschool. I still love it and am glad to find a way to utilize it, but she'd probably want me to let you know her powers of drawing have enhanced greatly since that time. I've color modified, cropped, and added words to the original drawing in Photoshop to work as a Fictionpress cover.

I've reshuffled chapter breaks, so comments made before September 14th, 2014, may not directly correlate to their chapters.

Thanks to Autumn Desiree, Lorain Wentworth, Gorilla0132, Vladvonbounce, and Erlich for their sharp eyes. Thanks to Bobbie for the suggestions. Thanks to lookingwest for the extensive notes and suggestions and my two betas P.J. and Jordan. Also thanks to a mysterious editor I know only as Rebecca at this point. Her comments were delivered to me via a mutual friend.