Book 5: Chapter 28 (Wherein An Ungulate Attacks)
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Chapter 28

            My shoulder still ached as Bryndísar took us on a tour of the property.

“What was that about displays of affection having to stop?” I hissed at Heida as we brought up the rear. “Trying to shack up with me isn’t exactly subtle!”

She smirked at me. “I took care of your luggage for you, and you still found a way to complain about it.”

“I just can’t decide if you were trying to tease me or irritate him,” I said.

A kiss to the cheek was her only reply. I took that as a ‘both’. I swear, I’m going to find a way to get her alone. She owes me!

The farmhouse was within easy walking distance of three barns that looked more modern than anything else we’d seen in hours. Well, easy walking distance for those of us without canes. Our host slowed us down, which gave us more time to chat.

            I commented on the newness of the barns that and Bryndísar laughed in response. “Gotta give our hooved children a warm space to sleep when they need it. I swear, my sheep live better than I do.”

            “It sounds like a lovely life,” I said. “Wandering around grazing all day, a little affection now and then, and free rent.”

            “Oh, there’s rent to pay all right. It’ll be mutton for dinner.”

            Heida stuck out her tongue when Bryndísar turned back towards the closest, smallest barn. “I’m so sick of mutton. I was looking forward to never having it again.”

            “It is a bit gamey, isn’t it?” I said.

            “I know a nice recipe,” said Mariko, who was almost, but not quite, touching my other arm. “Usually I use lamb, but the idea should be the same.”

            “Not really, but you’re welcome to try,” said Heida. “We haven’t had it any way but roasted or boiled in years.”

            “What’re you three talking about?” asked Bryndísar.

            “Just that it is so lovely out here,” said Mariko. “The air is so clean.”

            “I’m glad somebody thinks so,” replied Bryndísar. “This one wanted out as soon as she could.”

            “Pabbi, do we have to go into that?” groaned Heida.

            They exchanged a few words in Icelandic before the older man sighed. “Alright, not in front of the others. Anyway, I hope you won’t mind helping out a little bit. We’re a bit shorthanded at the moment.”

             “What happened?” asked Heida. “Did the boys in town raise their rates?”

            “Yes, but that’s because they’re finally worth it. No, they’re busy bringing up twenty-five head of new sheep for us.”

“That’s a lot of new mouths to feed,” I said. “How did you come by them?”

“The League decided to shut down some poor man’s farm out west from here,” he replied.

“Brandur? It has to be, right?”

“Wait, how’d you know that, Skjor?”

I told the pertinent parts of our mission to Brandur’s farm. I decided to leave out the mysterious skeleton; there was nothing solid to report, after all.

“I guess it isn’t that big of an island,” said Bryndísar. “Even if there’s three times as many refugees and foreigners than Icelanders running around these days, we still travel in small circles.”

“I hope that poor man got a good price,” said Mariko. “Being forced out of his land like that is awful.”

Bryndísar flashed the Japanese woman a wry smile. “What, I should starve?” He cut off Mariko mid-protest. “Kidding, kidding; I don’t stiff anyone. Anyway, until the boys have checked out the herd for diseases and brought them home, it’s just us to care for the existing sheep.”

“Rather good timing we arrived when we did, then,” I said. For him, at least.

“Good timing indeed,” said Mariko. “Soren grew up on a farm. He even told us about his favorite sheep, Mackie. I am sure he will be a great help.”

Bryndísar stopped. “Wait, him?”

I gulped. I hadn’t expected my cock and bull story to come up again; it’s the problem of not really having my cover planned in advance. I’d written myself into a corner.

“No way in heck,” said Bryndísar. “Look at his hands, I bet they’re as soft as…” He gave them a squeeze, thankfully with his bad hand. “Hm, you do have some calluses after all. Sorry, you don’t seem the type.”

Because you’re more observant than I’d like. You know a nobledevil when you meet him; thank goodness a sword can make a callus as well as a pitchfork. “You’re half right. It was a small family plot back in England, sir. We had most of the land nationalized out from under us like Brandur, but we kept a couple of sheep. I’m afraid I don’t know much about a larger operation like this.”

“Again with the modesty,” said Heida, gesturing towards the nearest barn, much smaller than the rest. “Anyway, Pabbi, show ‘em your big surprise you always spring on people so we can go back. It’s cold out.”

“I don’t remember raising such a bitter child,” said Bryndísar.

“Trust me, you did; I was there.” The father and daughter both wore smiles that belied their harsh tones.

Bryndísar pulled the barn door open, and I saw what he’d meant about how his hooved children lived. The air that rushed by us was noticeably warmer than even the farmhouse had been. The space was divided up into five straw-lined paddocks on either side, with a space in the middle for feeding and water troughs.

 Bryndísar cursed under his breath, and I quickly saw why. The barn had doors on both ends, and the back was wide open. “Viktor’s out again!”

“What’s a Viktor?” I asked. I dashed to the open barn door, which opened into an enclosed pasturage. My legs really needed to stop playing the hero, even if I was in the best position to fight off any danger. There are two noncombatants, and Heida might freeze up again.

The fencing seemed much higher than I’d seen elsewhere on the farm. It struck me as overkill for the rather stocky sheep running about.

The mystery was solved when I heard a familiar bleating noise. It started off deeper than any sheep on the Enemy’s green earth before ending on a higher, pinched note.

I’m told that mackies looks strange to human eyes, though that’s simply typical human ignorance speaking. In the other world that the Horde sprang from, horses had died out ages ago and been replaced by Macrauchenia infernus. They were everything to the orc tribes of old, and centuries of breeding under their care had given them a multitude of forms.

Imagine something rather like a camel, but without the hump. Then stretch out the nose into a shortish trunk, making them look like a tapir on stilts. This one bore a unique coloring, with a white body with black spots like an appaloosa horse, but with a rich, brown head and neck. Suddenly the fence didn’t seem like such overkill; the brute was built like a Clydesdale, and he could stretch his long neck over a fence that was level with my eyes. Back home, we’d call it a Motlhyder, and a purebred like this beast was worth a pound of gold.

Where the devil did he come from?

The creature had been snacking on haybale, but he swung his enormous head about to get a better look at me with its dark eyes. He flapped his short ears and flexed its trunk, which I knew was a sign of curiosity.

“Skjor, stop! I’m the only one Viktor tolerates!”

The ears flattened and he let out an irritated grunt. As if Bryndísar had reminded him, Viktor charged straight at me.

I didn’t have time to cast a spell. Just like out on Brandur’s farm, old habits kicked in. I straightened my back and stretched an open hand towards it. “Haltur!”

Thank Our Father Below the beast had been trained by a rider. Mackies bred for wool or milk wouldn’t have known the command.

Of course, it wasn’t easy for a ton of hooved mammal to stop, and Viktor skidded in the damp soil. He managed the feat, and I added a few ounces of gold to my price estimate. Viktor here was definitely trained well. Some devil must have been upset to lose him.

            Viktor trotted up, wrapping his prehensile trunk around my head. He made the same pinched bleat as before, which was encouraging; he’d been happy to have a snack, and he was happy to see me. I wasn’t quite so overjoyed when he rested his head on my shoulder, but it was marginally better than being trampled. I’d heard that Motlhyders liked having their ears scratched, and Viktor proved to be no exception.

            “Kasasagi!”

            “Soren!”

            The mackie tensed up at the sound of the girls’ voices, but I got his attention by redoubling my efforts. “We’re all friends here.” I whispered a few words of Demonic in his ears, sweet little nothings about how good a boy he was, earning another joyful bleat.

            “Well, I’ll be,” said Heida. “You sure you aren’t a demonkin? You seem to know how to charm this monster.”

            “He might like you better if you didn’t call him a monster,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “They’re simply beasts of burden, like any other. Though, he is an awfully long way from home. Where the dev… dickens did he come from?”

            “The Madagascar campaign,” said Bryndísar, finally catching up with us. “We beat back a Horde landing force, and they left behind a lot of interesting things.”

            Mariko had edged closer; she was always oddly fearless for somebody who wouldn’t fight back. Viktor tensed up again, but allowed her to pet his cheek as long as I kept up my ministrations.

            It struck me as strange that the idiotic ungulate wasn’t afraid of me because it could smell the devil in me. I’m not sure if I should feel embarrassed or flattered.

            Heida held back, and I wasn’t sure if she was more worried about me or the mackie. “No seriously, how’d you know that word? That wasn’t a spell.”

            “When the Horde captured me, they made me work in a mackie stable,” I said. “They were the smaller, sheep-sized ones, though; it made it easier to take a few lumps before I learned how to make them listen.”

            I wasn’t sure that Heida entirely bought the story, but she kept quiet.

            Bryndísar barked a laugh. “Where were you three years ago when I was trying to break him in?”

            Hm, three years ago? Fighting goblin revolutionaries in Spain. “I wouldn’t have been any good back then; I hadn’t ever even seen a mackie before.”

“You keep saying mackie,” said Mariko. “Is that what the devils call a Macrauchenia?” She struggled a bit with the Greek name, and a self-deprecating smile split her face. “I think I may switch to mackie.”

“Certainly a lot easier to say, isn’t it?” I gave Viktor a gentle but firm shove to the chest. “Alright, that’s enough, there’s a good boy.” He followed me like a lost puppy, though I was able to get him back to eating by grabbing him a handful of hay from the bale. He plucked it right out of my grasp with his trunk. “That’s right, you need your lunch, you enormous thing.”

When I turned back towards the group, I was met with looks of complete shock from the Icelanders. “Am I missing something?”

“He doesn’t like anybody. What do you think the ungodly-high fence is for?” demanded Bryndísar. “When I say he tolerates me, I mean I can enter the pen without him attacking right away. He usually lets me clean up his messes and change the water.”

“He’s put three people in the hospital,” said Heida, still eying Viktor warily. She moved to put me between her and the mackie. “If he was a horse, he’d have been put down ages ago.”

“Benefit of being unique,” I said. “If you don’t mind me saying, I don’t know what you expected. Keeping him in this little barn all by his lonesome? It’d drive anybody mad, and they’re herd animals.”

“He didn’t used to be alone,” said Bryndísar. “I used to have a good half-dozen of them.”

I frowned. “Where’d they go?”

“Lost two to worms they caught from the sheep,” he said. “The other three got claimed by some research outfit in Cuba. Viktor’s too ornery, so they let him be my problem.”

“Poor thing,” said Mariko, echoing my own unworthy sentiments. “Wait, how did he get out before?”

“That trunk isn’t just for looks,” said Heida, shivering against my back, and not due to the cold. “He can open a gate by himself, and he keeps figuring out the doors. Pabbi, I thought you were getting new locks?”

“I did, right after you graduated the academy,” he said. “We’re lucky he escaped out the back this time.”

“Bryndísar, I’ll gladly take over for you with Viktor,” I said. “For as long as we’re here, I mean.”

            I couldn’t think of the last time I was so excited about something that risked exposing me. I couldn’t help it, though. Viktor was a piece of home that wasn’t out to end me, which was a comfort in itself. Plus, he was the finest mackie I’d ever been close to. I’ll have to look into getting him a saddle. If I played my cards right, I could even end up being his owner. It’s not like the old man has any real use for him.

            Suddenly, being exiled to the middle of nowhere didn’t quite seem so bad.


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