The Freak Horse
The big guy flicked his tail, watching. The boy hadn’t moved all morning. He lay in the dusty dark, curled up and eyes closed. The big guy flicked his tail again. The boy should have been out, in the open air, in the sunlight, free and moving.
Something jostled past his leg, and the camelopard snorted. He didn’t like this place. There were too many moving things crammed into one space.
The big guy shook his head to ward off the gathering flygnats. He nudged the boy with his snout, but still he did not move. Worrisome.
“Shoo! Go on! Out of the way, you dumb animal!”
The big guy looked down at the man and snorted, but stepped out of the way nonetheless. He didn’t want to cause any trouble.
He rumbled, the sound vibrating from his chest, so low that it seemed to shake his whole neck. None of the humans reacted, although a chained elephantbear snarled at the sound. The big guy was calling for friends. For people like him.
The crowded streets drowned him out, and the camelopard was left to stand in the cramped alley over a boy who would not get up.
It had not been like this in the grasslands. The boy’s essence burnt hot; the big guy could feel its touch even when the boy laid prone, but when the boy lent him strength…
When the boy lent him strength, the big guy felt he could stand as tall as clouds.
The big guy ruminated. The cud lodged in his throat on the way up, but with an annoyed cough he spat it up and chewed on it thoughtfully. He looked down at the boy. It wasn’t sickness. It couldn’t have been, not when his essence flared so. Something else in him had broken.
The big guy bent to nudge the boy with his snout again. If he did something enough times, the camelopard had realized over the years, it was bound to work eventually.
The boy did not stir.
“Hey! Move!” shouted another voice, and the big guy looked back to see another man, waving his arms to get the camelopard’s attention. “Go!” The man jumped up and down and yelled a little, as if he could scare the big guy off.
The big guy shuffled around and bent to look down at the man. His nostrils flared, and he widened his stance as his neck stiffened.
The man walked away rather quickly after that.
A painful twinge came from the big guy’s side as he stood straight again. The cold one had only scratched him, but the area around the scratch had become swollen and numb. It annoyed the big guy to no end. He had barely been able to sleep because of it, and between that and the intensity of running last night, he felt so exhausted his knees might collapse under him.
The big guy swallowed his cud and glared at the walls next to him. If he stretched his neck he could look over the rim, but all the same the fact that they were both taller than him and not made of food was annoying.
His tongue rasped over tombstone teeth as he digested his meal for a second time, and he rumbled. For however long it had lasted, he had been the cold one’s herd-mate and shared food with him, but that was over now. The big guy didn’t mind much. Having a herd wasn’t all he had dreamed it would be.
The camelopard’s gaze flicked over to the boy, who he did not consider so much as a herd-mate but rather as a detachable part of his body. Like a fifth leg. Or perhaps a very talkative tail.
The big guy ruminated some more.
Finding food had been easy enough back home. They simply walked until they saw it, and then they ate it, and they moved on. Here in the clay place, with so many moving bodies around him, it was going to be a bit trickier.
The camelopard’s tongue scraped his gums, like a mouthful of sand. He bleated once, to let the boy know he was going, and strode out of the alley. Someone screamed as he stepped over a human’s head, but the big guy thought little of it. Hopefully the boy would feel better by the time he was done grazing.
He looked down as he walked. He had to, if he wanted to avoid stepping on people. The big guy put every foot in front of him with slow purpose, watching with hooded eyes as men scurried past like antflies. The big guy blinked, trying to avoid the light of the dusty morning sun. There weren’t as many people on the street, just cloaked men setting up their colorful shelters.
The big guy eyed one stall from above. He smelled crisp onions and cool lettuce, hidden under the shade. He bent down to bite…
“Shoo! Back off!” A shorn plank hit the big guy squarely in the face, and the camelopard backed away, bellowing. “Go back home, you dumb brute!”
“Animals running out of the stables…” he heard the man mutter as he walked away. “This whole city’s gone to shit.”
The camelopard rumbled, but no one heard. His stomach felt empty and his side still hurt.
He came across a plaza- not the plaza, but a plaza nonetheless. A stone bearded man stood on this fountain, his expression stern, but the fountain was the same: dry. The big guy stared at the dust gathering in the corners and snorted. A couple fall sparrows fluttered away as he approached. He glared at them as they rose over his head, and snorted. Annoying.
He flicked his tail and moved on.
Dumb brute, dumb animal. Contrary to what those men seemed to believe, the big guy wasn’t dumb. He looked down at the stalls setting up along the street, at the tired nomads stumbling back into the city with bush meat hauled over their backs. He looked down at everything. But if he raised his head just a little…
He saw everything, too.
The river was just ahead, its waters pale and sluggish. The big guy had avoided it for fear of meeting the cold one again, but this stretch of the bank seemed clear. He bent and drank, until his whole throat was full of delicious, cool water. His eyes, watching from the side of his head, looked for danger as he drank, but he saw only a group of human children playing in the mud. It seemed wasteful, to splash around like that.
The big guy rose and licked his nose. Then again, as he looked at the vast stretch of the river flowing before him, there seemed to be water enough to spare.
A red flash on the edge of his vision caught his eye. The big guy squinted. He had to look up to see it, even as it disappeared over the lip of a stone outcropping.
Buildings, then birds, now this. The number of things in this place that were above him was uncomfortably high, which was to say it was more than zero. The big guy strolled towards the road over the river. It made a strange image on the water, as if another road just like it was made for the crossing in a mirror world, but the camelopard walked towards it anyway. He knew a reflection when he saw one.
The only way onto the road was through a shadowed arch, which made the big guy stamp his feet and nicker. His hooded eyes searched for another way on, but the road had only two entrances, also eerie reflections of the other, mirrors upon mirrors.
The big guy bent his neck forward as he walked under the stone arch, feeling his heart speed up slightly as the sky slid out of view. Hunched old men scurried out of his way as he strode forward, ducking back inside the dim, musty doors on either side. When he emerged back into open sunlight, the big guy stretched his neck as far up as he could, shaking his head and whinnying.
His hooves made hollow sounds on the river-road. The big guy’s eyes slid over the crenellations and cobblestones, towards the men with red cloth wrapped around their necks. They were, to his great satisfaction, beneath him now.
He stopped at the center, where the path bent up at its highest. His ears pricked at the low murmur of the men around him, like wind through the grass, but as far as the big guy could tell they weren’t hungry and therefore weren’t a threat. He ignored them, casting his gaze upward instead. The sky was open here, thankfully, although the big guy was starting to prance nervously as he noticed the arches boxing him in on either side.
Where in the city would he find food? In the plains, it had been simple: he just had to look for things that were (nearly) as tall as him. He tried the same thing here, looking towards the fluted, bulb-like roofs of the massive buildings on either side of him. Perhaps there would be food there.
The big guy licked his nose as he strode toward the opposite end of the river. He couldn’t help but notice the rustling, pale slips the men in red were holding. They looked vaguely leafy. The big guy bent, lips peeled back to bite…
“No! No, no! Back, get back! This is very important! You can’t eat this!” shouted the man in a squeaky little voice, trying to hold the parchment out of reach. The big guy, not to be perturbed, snapped eagerly, curious as to why the man would want to hold onto it so much.
With a terrified moan that sounded like the big guy passing wind, the man scurried away with his papers clutched to his chest. The big guy flicked his ears dismissively, and walked on. It was all just trial and error, in the end.
His belly was silent, which worried him. A good, happy rumble meant he was digesting his last meal; if it was quiet, that meant there was nothing left. The big guy passed through the second stone arch, head drooping.
He circled around the great building, snorting and shaking his head. As far as he could tell, there was no way up. Like a cliff in the red lands: insurmountable, untouchable, alien.
The big guy shook his head. He didn’t like thinking about the red lands.
A great crack caught his attention immediately. The camelopard stiffened at once, prepared to make a run for it at the slightest chance that something was on the hunt. Few things had even dared to assault something his size in the plains, but in here, in the stone place, all the rules had changed.
“What do you think of anarchy as a legitimate means of societal organization now, you fucking cunt?” shouted a burly man, kneeling over a smaller male and punching him in the face. The small man’s head rolled on the ground and he mumbled feebly.
The big guy looked around. He couldn’t see the female they were fighting over.
Breathing heavily, the larger man rose, pushing his spectacles up his nose. For a brief moment, the big guy’s eyes widened. He recognized this man.
It was the annoying one from a few days ago.
The man had apparently seen him too. He squinted for a moment, and then rubbed his eyes, and then squinted again. “This is why I shouldn’t go for drinks in the morning,” mumbled the man. The smaller one beside him groaned, and he turned and kicked him in the ribs. “Stay down, you’re still an idiot.”
The man stepped forward and nearly fell over. He wobbled as he found his balance, and when he looked at the big guy again his mouth formed a little circle. “The young master’s jarraf!” said the annoying one. “No wonder, I was beginning to think I needed new glasses.”
The big guy did not relax. He still wasn’t quite sure whether he should run.
The annoying one bowed, and then tripped. “Good morning and felicitations on this serendip…” The man closed his eyes and smacked his lips. “Serendipitous occasion. To what may I owe the pleasure of your company, master jarraf?” He squinted again. “Where is your boy? Did he get that problem with his friend sorted out?” A sudden look of consternation flashed across his face. “He’s not dead, is he?”
The big guy aimed carefully and spat in his face.
“That,” said the annoying man, wiping at his face with the back of his hand. “Could be interpreted in many ways.”
Snorting, the big guy spat again, just to make his point clear.
The man clapped his hands together. “As fascinating as I find you and your, erm, varied forms of communication, master jarraf, I have a morning read I need to finish before they kick me out of the Libraries for, er, kicking him out of the Libraries.” He scratched his nose. “I suppose this is the real reason why I’m an ex-elector.”
He bent over the unconscious one, digging in his satchel. “If you can hold it, everyone else can piss off because it’s yours,” said the man, grinning, pulling out several squares of hard tack. “Enzaa Dey’s philosophy in a sentence.”
The big guy didn’t listen. He was too busy snapping at the biscuits in the man’s hand, which smelled terrible but smelled like food nonetheless.
The man twisted to get out of the way, although he stumbled over his own feet as he did so. The big guy found himself with a mouthful of red cloth, as the man staggered over the unconscious one’s prone body.
The camelopard chewed. It didn’t taste half bad, actually.
“Hey, now!” said the man, grabbing at his cloth, but even with its length the big guy was still too tall for him to reach. The big guy scowled at the annoying man as he leaped and jumped around him. “That’s very precious to me, you can’t eat that!”
The big guy ignored him- that was, until a sudden sharp pain made his knees buckle under him and the camelopard crumpled forward. He held his head up high and out of reach, kicking his legs indiscriminately as the man wrestled with him. “Would you kindly return my fucking scarf?”
Their eyes met for a moment, and the big guy’s gaze flickered to the biscuits in the man’s hand. The man followed the big guy’s eyes, and brightened.
“You want these? Come on, then. Come here, master jarraf,” said the man, waving the tack enticingly in the big guy’s face (or as close as he could get to the big guy’s face, at least).
The camelopard let the cloth slip out of his teeth as he licked up the biscuits. It was too hard to chew, anyway.
“There, now,” said the man. “We’ve reached a compromise like reasonable, erm, men.” He made a face as he picked up the soggy end of his scarf, and cast a forlorn look at the tall stone building. “If I come back tomorrow morning and it takes me another two hours to find Reed’s On Wild Minds, I’m blaming you,” he grumbled, as he made towards the river bank.
The big guy followed, if only because the man had a biscuit or two left and he was still hungry.
The man took off his shoes and rolled his pants up to his knees as he stepped into the water. He seemed intent on not getting his clothes wet, even as he scrubbed his scarf vigorously in the river. The big guy stood by him, enjoying the cool current against his legs.
“Phorro must have had a very different experience from me,” said the man, as he washed out the worst of the big guy’s drool. Personally, the big guy didn’t understand. It all came to be water in the end anyway. “His almanac describes your kind as being placid, gentle, and non-confrontational.”
The big guy stared away, not paying attention. Humans tended to say many things he could safely ignore.
“All better,” said the man, squeezing out the water from his scarf and standing straight to admire it. “I was worried you might have ruined the stitching. See here? This is for my journey into the border villages near Kazakhal. They taught me how to play pipes there. And this, this is for my time in the Seat of the King. Oh, and here- this is when I tried to encourage a little learning among an urchin child’s gang and they near killed me for my trouble.” For some reason, he smiled at that.
The big guy’s ears pricked at the last sentence. He looked at the man, the beginning of an idea forming in his head.
The man turned to show his cloth to the big guy. “Every elector’s scarf is different. Our whole lives are on here, and the more we learn the longer they grow.”
The camelopard flicked his tail. He decided.
“Oh, summer burn it all,” swore the man, as the big guy tugged the scarf out of his hands and waded out of the water. “You had to wait until after I cleaned it?”
The big guy splashed out of the river, ignoring him. The scarf clenched firmly in his teeth, he made once more for the bridge. More people were on it, gaping as he passed; skittish with the attention, the big guy galloped across the bridge at breakneck speed, sucking in air through his nostrils. It was harder without the boy, and his side wound was beginning to burn hot and cold all at the same time…
The man could very clearly see him, but the big guy waited at the other end of the bridge just in case. The camelopard wasn’t actually that much faster than men, but humans tired so easily.
When he was confident the man was in following distance, the big guy set off. He had no idea which streets he had to run to return, but the boy’s essence called out to him like a glowing beacon, hot and strong and bright.
It must have taken quite some time, with the distance it had taken him to travel, but to the big guy it felt like no time at all. When he was running, he was free. It was like the plains again, where the hours and minutes mattered less than the days and nights and seasons.
The big guy stopped in front of the alley, dropping the scarf over the boy distastefully. He felt like a common hyenalizard, prancing around with his latest kill in his jaws. It was beneath him, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
“Temperamental, impetuous beast, where are you going?” gasped the man, and he stumbled to a halt in front of him, looking from side to side for his scarf. He found it on the boy, who was curled up and shivering despite the heat of the rising sun. “Oh.”
He went to retrieve his scarf, and immediately the big guy stepped into the alley entrance, blocking the whole path.
“What do you want me to do? I’m no healer! Go back to your friend, let her-.”
The big guy stamped his foot and tossed his head.
The man paused. “So it didn’t work out. I suppose friendship does come after trusting, then,” he said, looking at the boy. “I have nowhere to accommodate him, master jarraf. You took my morning meal, but I’m afraid that’s all you’re going to get. I need the rest for myself.”
The big guy looked towards the scarf in the man’s hands, pointedly.
He considered it for a moment. “Kazakhal?” he muttered. “Seat of the King? The child’s…oh. Well,” he said, shaking his head. “They certainly wouldn’t take a recommendation from me, but if you needed my help in finding them…”
He met the big guy’s eyes. “Are you sure? I cannot emphasize the danger enough.”
The big guy did not move. He stood, resolute.
The man nodded, slowly, and bent to pick the boy up, feeling his forehead as he did so. “He’ll need time to rest,” said the man, as he carried the boy away. “There is no fever, but there is a sickness to him that does not bode well. He must not show weakness in front of them.” He made to walk away, but the big guy shifted into his path.
Their eyes met, again, and after a moment’s hesitation, the man put the boy on the big guy’s back. The boy shifted slightly, woken from his stupor by the movement. The big guy felt the boy’s arms wrap around his neck, and rumbled. All was as it should be.
“There’s a place you can stay,” said the man, beckoning for the big guy to follow. “For a day, maybe two. I’ll- I’ll propose your plan to him when he wakes. The Ladies play life as it comes, I suppose, after that.” He looked back at the camelopard, as they walked on. “I must not have sobered enough if I’m saying this, but you, master jarraf, seem to have more sense than all the electors of the Twin Libraries combined.” He smiled. “I must include that in Phorro’s Almanac, when I return.”
The big guy ignored him. He kept vigil for the boy as they walked, looking out over the whole of the street.
The boy shifted, and spoke, his voice bleary and barely above a whisper. “Do you remember your mommy and daddy?”
The big guy didn’t answer. He didn’t remember, and he didn’t need to. In the end, the big guy reasoned, everyone only had enough room in their lives to love just one other person.
He shifted to make sure the boy was comfortable and walked on, his heart warm and at peace.
Posted on October 6, 2013, in Chapter 2 (Hide & Seek), The Freak Horse and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Chaff, creative writing, fantasy, Hadiss, novel, original characters, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.