Changeling Teaser

I keep trying to write a novel. I’ve done it before (but not published, and the manuscript is long since gone). I’m trying again, so here’s a teaser of what I’ve got so far, like the first couple of pages of something else you get at the end of an e-book.

It poured. I shrank back under the eaves, desperately trying to avoid the torrential rain and the cold stone. I failed on both counts. Blustering winds drove the rain in at an angle. I cast a wary eye around, but very few people were out in the wintry weather. I counted my blessings that I was no further south, and did not have to weather the blizzards they got near the mountains. Through the roar of the rain, I heard the approach of hooves and the rattle of a carriage. I steeled myself and leapt out into the rain to greet the driver.

“G’day mister, stable yer horse for ya?” I said, in my best imitation of the local stable-hands.

He grunted an affirmative as his passengers ran for the cover of the doorway. The driver flicked a coin at me and turned to go inside.

I eyed the horse, then reached hesitantly for the bridle; he was a large stallion, and it looked like he was a temperamental beast. He proved me right by immediately moving to tread on my foot, which I quickly moved out of the way.

“Oh no you don’t.” I muttered, grabbing his bridle firmly. “Come on, stables.”

I led him to round to the coach house and unhitched the carriage, then proceeded to the stables, all the time wary of his front hooves. To his credit, he at least had the good sense to go straight into his stall. I closed the gate behind him, then climbed up the wall as I’d seen the younger stable-hands do. Rather than opening and closing gates all the time to keep the horses in, and risking being trodden on, they ran about many of their errands on top of the walls that separated the stalls. I made my awkward way across to the hay rack on hands and feet. There was no way I was going to approach this fellow from behind.

Tucking into the hay, he didn’t seem at all concerned about my presence on the wall next to him. I sat down with my legs hanging over the edge.

“Right then, horse, shall we get that tack off you?” I asked softly. No response.

I slowly lowered myself down into the stall and waited to see his reaction. Everything seemed fine. I glanced over the tack, remembering where it all went, counting the holes so I knew what buckled where. I didn’t have a clue about horses, but I had to be able to get him ready to go again in the morning. By watching the stable-hands, I’d gleaned enough knowledge to know how to feed, water, and clean him.

I removed the tack and hung it up as I’d observed, then set about rubbing him with a handful of hay. He made a couple more attempts to tread on my toes again, but he had a habit of moving his foot a little before he raised it to tread on me. Job done and broken toes avoided, I congratulated myself. Now for the hard part. I leaned over the wall for a hoof pick and circled round to his front. I touched his shoulder gently. He eyed me with suspicion. Slowly, I ran my hand down his leg to his ankle. Still nothing. I watched his face, and was sure those dark eyes were laughing at me. I had one trick left to try. I slid my hand down his leg again, this time leaning my shoulder into his. Up popped the foot, and at the same time, he leaned. I buckled, letting the foot go and dodging back to the wall. Was that a chuckle? I sighed.

“Alright, look, I know messing with stable-hands is probably your favourite game. I’m not a stable-hand, though. I’m just trying to make an honest ring and this is my first try.” I said.

He looked at me with something I was certain was amusement. I approached again and stroked down his shoulder. This time, I was ready, and when he started to lean, I shoved back with all my strength. I picked the hoof as quickly as I could, dislodging some of the mud, then gave him his foot back and retreated to the wall to regain my strength. I continued this in-and-out dance, cleaning a small amount of dirt each time, until all four feet were clean. That done, I hopped over the wall to fetch him something to eat.

As long as I looked competent, the locals would assume I was with the travellers, who would in turn assume I was employed by the inn. I got paid, the horse got tended to, and I might even get a ride to the next stop along the way, if I gained the favour of the driver. I grabbed a carrot for myself and some oats for the horse, then climbed up into the hay loft to sleep.

The morning dawned bright and cold, forcing me out of my hay nest simply to warm up by moving. I checked that the horse had enough to eat and drink, and then went over the tack, making sure I remembered where it all went, and that it wasn’t tangled. It was all fine, until I touched some metal part that I hadn’t previously noticed. I was suddenly lost in a whirl of feelings. I crouched down as my head swam. There were flashes of frightening steely implements and the crack of a leather whip. Horses and sweat and whinnies. I tried to take deep breaths, but a rising sense of panic overwhelmed me. Panting, I dropped my head into my hands and waited for it all to pass.

It did eventually pass, and I hauled myself up against the stall wall, carefully avoiding the decorative piece of metal. Whoever owned that bit of tack, or had in the past, must not have been a very nice person. At least not as far as the horses were concerned. A name was echoing in my head as I clung to the post between stalls.

“Kerri?” I whispered. The horse looked round at me. “Is that your name, Kerri?” He swished his tail and turned back to the hay rack.

It was then that one of the regular hands ran in. Spotting me, he nodded and said “They want the carriage brought ’round.” I nodded and grabbed the tack, careful to avoid touching the decoration, and started manoeuvring it over Kerri. I managed everything else, but the trouble arose when I tried to get him to take the bit.

“You must be new at this.” commented the boy, who I hadn’t realised was leaning on the stable door, watching me.

“Yes, I am.” I admitted, attempting a neutral kind of accent that might have been from somewhere nearby, but not too nearby.

“Here, look,” he said, hopping over the gate and coming to Kerri’s head. “put your thumb in there. He doesn’t have teeth there, and just push his mouth a little.” He demonstrated, sliding the bit in smoothly as Kerri opened his mouth.

“Thanks!” I beamed, sliding the bridle on the rest of the way and fastening the buckles.

I led Kerri out to the coach house, and hitched the carriage up under the watchful eye of the stable bow, who managed to stand to one side and appear to be looking at something else entirely while he whispered instructions out of the corner of his mouth. I was glad that he did, as there were a few more people around now, and despite doing my best to remember how everything worked, I had forgotten most of it. As I left for the front of the inn, I tipped my hat to him. He smiled and nodded back, then busied himself with his duties.

The driver was waiting when I led Kerri to the front. He cast an eye over the tack and nodded to me, apparently satisfied, and reached into his pocket for another coin.

“If it’s all t’same t’you mister, I’d appreciate a ride on to the next stop as much as coin.” I said, accent firmly back in place.

He nodded as he climbed up into the driver’s seat, then gestured for me to join him. I hopped up and we waited patiently for the passengers. I hadn’t paid any attention before, but this time I watched with veiled interest as the passengers came out of the inn. They looked quite wealthy, at least by my standards, and I wondered at the fact that they didn’t have more staff travelling with them. Old money, I assumed, middle class, but either running out or very thrifty with their coin.

Luckily for me, the driver didn’t seem interested in conversation, and we passed a reasonably pleasant – if drizzly – day politely ignoring each other. There wasn’t much to see between the inn at Greengages and the next stop at Shireford, so when a fork in the road brought a caravan of wagons onto the road ahead of us, they caught my interest immediately. They were brightly painted in the style of the old Nomads, but worn and faded. The Nomads had suffered great losses during the last Inquisition, as suspicions of witchcraft and harbouring Changelings ran riot. The soldiers of the Inquisition had tracked them down to their summer camp, and executed hundreds. I wrinkled my nose at the thought of the Inquisition and huddled down in my seat a little.

The wagons were practically antiques now. I had never seen so many at the same time. I wondered what kind of people might live in them. Who would travel in a group and use Nomad wagons? It would be risky, even such a long time after the last Inquisition. Actually, especially such a long time after the last Inquisition. Tensions were rising again, people were starting to blame bad weather and failed crops on the “Fae Threat”, and the world was feeling increasingly unsafe for someone of my… talents.

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