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Rated: ASR · Fiction · Fantasy · #2187939
So far, this is the opening chapter to a fantasy novel I'm working on in my spare time.
Six silhouetted figures stood in the night, watching as their home burned to the ground. Exhausted and dripping with sweat, they had spent the past hours attempting to minimize the damage. The barn had been saved, and with it all that had been gathered in the recent harvest. The house had caved in and was swiftly being reduced to smoke and ashes. The air was autumn cold, and the sky was a solid mass of darkening clouds.

One of the figures, a stallion, turned to the man beside him and said, “We can all sleep in the barn tonight, but what are you going to do for the winter?”

“I can barter what we have left for everything we would need for a trip to my brother’s farm,” the man replied, “With all that we saved, we should have quite a bit left even after the journey. The land is still ours, so we can come back in the spring to rebuild. My brother can take the three of us in, but his barn is already full I’m afraid.”

The mare next to the stallion spoke next, “That’s fine. We can head east to find my father’s herd. You can count on us to return in the spring.”

The youngest among them, another mare, spoke up, “I was thinking I might go live in Rota.” When they all turned to her with a mix of curiosity and shock she quickly continued, “I’ve been considering it for awhile, and I do have a plan, honest. Uncle Ganzorig owns some stables that he rents out to horses, and it’s right in the middle of the city. I was going to save up enough to pay for the first season’s rent and spend that time looking for a job. If it’s not too much to ask, could I have some of the leftover harvest to pay for the winter season? If I do find a job, I can pay you back in the spring. If not, I’ll return with everyone else to rebuild and I can work off what I owe you.” The man smiled and answered, “I will give you what I can, but only with your parent’s consent.”

The stallion and the older mare looked at one another and back at their daughter for a long moment. Before they could speak, the wife of the farmer intruded with some sage advice, “There is much to think about, and we are all tired. Perhaps it would be best to retire to the barn and let ourselves sleep on the matters at hand.” Gesturing to the young mare’s parents she said, “If the two of you took the first watch of the night, you could have some time to talk privately.”

Agreeing that this was wise, the six of them took to the shelter to rest. Slumber eluded the young mare Maize as she shuffled about on her straw bedding. The scent of smoke was still heavy in the air, though the worries in her head were an even heavier impediment to sleep. She had been raised on stories of a greater world that lay beyond the farm; tales of Giants, Unicorns, talking bees and nasty Grolls. Ever since she learned of Rota, the great city where all creatures lived together in peace, she had dreamt of visiting its busy streets. It would be new, and probably dangerous, but she told herself that if she could make it through the Athon she could make it anywhere.

Her chance to see this wider world lay in the hooves of her parents. She was willing to bet that her mother would be all for it; it was Mexi who had filled her dreaming mind with tall tales after all. It was her father Par who worried her. He had always stiffened his neck at the scent of change and was vocal about his opinion that farming was the only honest work a horse or man could do. Perhaps, now that they had no farm to work on, he would find some leniency in his heart. She tossed about in her stall for many hours until her father came to pass the night-watch off to her. She bid him a good sleep and pushed her way out of a barn door. Grasping the door’s handle with her dexterous mouth, she silently shut it again. She walked up to the crest of the hill from which they had been watching the fire earlier. The clouds still hung over the sky, thick enough to obscure all light from above. The remaining cinders of the homestead were the only luminescent features to be seen. In the shadows of their dim glow, Maize realized that she would miss the humble building.

Not large by most standards, it had been built by Mr. Fymer’s great-grandfather more than ninety years ago. The house had been passed from generation to generation, and the oversized dinner table along with it. She could even now trace in her mind the patterns of all those ancient stains and scratches that had been etched into its surface over the decades. Not all the dents had been ancient though, Maize remembered as she brushed her tongue over her front teeth. When she was three, she had fallen face first into the table and lost her two front-upper baby-teeth. From then on, the scar she’d left in the wood had marked her place at mealtimes. Maize hadn’t seen much of the upstairs, mostly because she had quickly grown too large to squeeze around the tight corner that opened into the staircase. The upper bedrooms were for humans anyways. It was the hearth-room, which took up the whole main level, equipped with the fireplace for cooking, the dining table and the counters stocked with cooking supplies that Maize and her parents were accustomed to.

She would miss the barn as well, she had been born in it after all. Ever since her first night under its sturdy roof, she had spent only 27 nights sleeping elsewhere. Those 27 nights on the Athon run had made her appreciate the security of a roof and walls to keep out the night. They had also taught her how to live without that safety if she needed to. Thoughts of her past journey led her back down a mental path to the adventure she was about to take, or perhaps the adventure she would be denied. She stopped herself from falling into a cycle of worry again and forced herself to think of other things. She wondered about the day she would shed her mortal body and run free with the Great Herd of the Beyond. Her mother had taught that all of Maize’s worries and fears would fall off her like dust when she died, and only her joys would remain as she ran for eternity. Par, of course, was dubious of the old beliefs, but he knew they meant a lot to Maize and he let Mexi teach her because the stories gave her hope. Maize loved that about him.

It was hard to tell how the time had passed without the motion of the moon and stars. However; when the cinders had blackened, and their light had faded completely, Maize decided to turn in for the night. After waking the Fymer's eldest son Esen to take up the last watch, she lay down in her stall. More than 23 hours of wakefulness finally took their toll and Maize was asleep as soon as she closed her eyes.

Then suddenly she was awake. At first, she thought she had simply blinked, but no, that was sunlight spilling in through the crack in the barn doors.

“Good morning hazy horse.” Esen announced from behind Maize as he noticed her head perk up. He was stuffing hand tools into a sack, presumably preparing for the Fymer’s move to their relative’s farm.

“Great Heard, how long have I been out?” Maize asked as she stood up, shaking straw from her flanks.

“The sun’s been up for a couple hours now, Mum’s got some porridge in a pot outside. I’m awful glad that most of the cast iron survived the fire, I don’t fancy eating nothing but apples for the next few days. She’s let the cooking fire die out, so the porridge will be all cold, just the way you like it.”

Maize nodded in appreciation and trotted out the door to get her “breakfast”. It had been months since she had slept in like this. She kicked herself for being lazy while the others were working so hard. She thanked Mrs. Fymer for the porridge and slurped it down as fast as she could. Afterwards, she paced over to where her father and Mr. Fymer were loading the wagons and asked what she could do to help. Her father told her to go help Esen haul tools but mentioned nothing of Rota. For another hour or two she helped to pack, trying to catch a glance or a word from her parents as they worked, but they seemed to be determinedly avoiding the topic of their decision.

Finally, at a moment when both families were all out in the yard, Mr. Fymer stopped what he was doing, looked Par in the eyes and exclaimed, “Oh, come out with it you old tic-meat! Is the filly going to Rota or not?”

Par sighed and threw Mexi a pleading glance. She gave a smug grin and stared back at him expectantly.

“Fine.” he said as Maize’s heart skip a beat. He turned to her and continued, “However, we will accompany you to this city, and if it does not meet our standards, you are coming east with us. No questions asked and no complaints raised. Understand?”

Maize pranced in place as he spoke, barely able to hold herself back from taking off then and there. Summoning all her will power, she stilled herself and replied with barley veiled giddiness.

“Yes, sir!”
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