© 2013 Kay Iscah

Horse Feathers

by Kay Iscah

Author's Note: This is a weekly serial and 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. While I strive to make these chapters as error free as possible, due to the weekly schedule, they're not as well edited as things I put out for sale. I love to have typos pointed out and suggestions made. The plot is fairly set, but the telling may be refined and chapter breaks shuffled later on. Actually, I guarantee you I'll reshuffle the chapters breaks after the story is finished. Currently I strive for 1500 to 2000 words per week, which is a bit short for the story style but realistic for my writing schedule.

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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. He stood on the bottom rail of the thick wooden fence and leaned over the top for a better look at the resting traveler. 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.

"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," the traveler said, 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 still 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. On the far side of the paddock stood the stables complex, which was a three-wing structure of no small consequence, and beyond that 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 said the same thing 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 and set his feet on the road, 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 beside 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 Netheriaden 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.

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End Note: 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.

Thanks to Autumn Desiree, Lorain Wentworth, and Gorilla0132 for typo spotting. Also thanks to a mysterious editor I know only as Rebecca at this point. Her comments were delivered to me via a mutual friend.