Title: Whipstitch (Prologue & Chapter One)
Fandom: Heralds of Valdemar
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Angst
Characters: Companion Snow, Xia, Abby Tarhill
Disclaimer: Valdemar and concepts belong to Mercedes Lackey; this fic and original characters belong to their author.
Summary: He wakes up in the forest, alone and lost in the night, with only a stray cat for company: and to top it all off, he has no idea who he is! Now Snow has a long journey ahead of him if he wants to figure out his real identity and learn the cause of his amnesia. But hey, at least Abby and Xia have his back... right?
Crystal eyes blinked open suddenly, pupils dilating sharply as they attempted to focus through the blackness of midnight.
A split second later, a white body attempted to heave to its feet—wobbled, knees buckling, and fell down once more, only to try once again. And again. And again. The fourth time his legs stayed under him. He rested a moment then, until his legs stopped threatening to give out on him again. And once he felt sure of himself, he took a few tentative steps forward, hooves soft and nearly silent on the forest floor.
It was more than simply dark out—it was black as pitch, the sky, moon and stars obscured by the canopy of trees above him.
The darkness wasn't that much of a worry, though, as he was sure that even if it was daytime he would not have been able to tell where he was—only that he was in a forest somewhere, lost and alone—and, he realized with a start, no clue whatsoever who he was.
The worrying fact was that he simply didn't remember anything before a few moment prior when he had woken up.
He shifted uneasily, restlessly, ears swivelling back and forth to take in all the sounds around him: the rustle of leaves in the easy breeze, the far-off hoot of an owl, the soft, fluttering sounds of a bat flying overhead. He could recognize them all, but none of them were of any particular familiarity.
Then there were the soft, barely audible footfalls, muffled in the grass behind him. White ears snapped back and he whirled quickly, sapphire eyes wide but unable to see who—or what—was coming up on him.
Something small and soft rubbed along the lower part of his front left leg. He froze at the feeling—but then carefully lowered his head until his nose touched lightly against whatever-it-was. Oh. A cat. The tiny creature continued rubbing against him, and after a moment he could hear a soft, rumbling purr. Somehow it was comforting. He relaxed a little, lipping at the nape of the cat's neck lightly before straightening again to survey his surroundings.
As before, he could see nothing beyond the night.
:Well,: He told the cat, and blew a breath out of his nose quietly. :I guess we're both lost, aren't we?:
Chapter One: Rise
While not knowing who he was beyond just troubling, somehow things seemed a little less bleak once the sun rose beyond the trees and the forest was filled with light—shadowed and faded, filtered through the canopy above him, but at least he could see.
The cat remained with him in the daylight, too. She—somehow he knew it was a "she" and not a "he"—was an orange tabby, scruffy, with part of her tail missing and a tattered left ear. Both the injuries were obviously old and healed over, causing no pain and not hindering her at all. Besides the scars, she seemed healthy, though slim and wiry—obviously not someone's pet. This was a stray cat, feral, a hunter. She probably made her home in the woods he found himself lost in. And for some reason that he didn't understand she had decided he made a good companion.
Currently she was curled up beside him, tucked against his side and fast asleep. He watched her breathing in and out, trying to decide if he should stand and disturb her or not before finally reaching to prod her with his nose, attempting to wake her gently. It was either that or simply stand with no notice and send her tumbling head-over-rump through the grass.
:Come on.: The gentle nudging did little to move her. She simply sighed and tucked her head under one of her paws. :Hey. I'm trying to wake you up here, cat.:
The thought was abrupt and made him pause, tilting his head in consideration. Somehow it seemed to fit. And it was better than simply calling her "cat".
:Come on, Xia. Time to get up. I have to get going.:
This time the little beast stirred, lifting her head to look at him before very pointedly yawning in his direction. He snorted at that, then watched her stand and stretch slowly, her back end and stubby tail rising and her front paws kneading the ground in front of her. Once she was done that, she arched her back slightly, then sat down again and turned surprisingly blue eyes back to him, almost curiously.
:Thank you.: He waited another split second to make sure she was sufficiently out of the way, then stood and gave himself a good shake to get rid of any stray bits of grass or leaves that might have gotten stuck to his coat while he had been resting.
Now that he was standing, though, he paused again to quietly survey the area. Trees, trees and more trees. His eyes flitted upward to the foliage above him. Dust motes floated through what daylight was filtering through to the ground below, but no matter how hard he squinted he couldn't tell which direction the sun was moving, and even if he had been able to, he didn't know which way he should be going in the first place.
A light rub of whiskers at his ankle. He sighed and looked down at Xia.
:Just pick a direction, huh?: Then a soft, half-amused nicker. :Yeah, you're probably right. Not like I can get any more lost than I already am.:
He shrugged, a ripple of silver hide, then nudged Xia out of the way and started walking—he didn't make it far before he realized the little cat was trailing along behind him, footsteps nearly silent, barely audible but there nonetheless. His ears flicked at the sound and he paused, craning his neck to look behind himself. When he stopped, Xia did as well—and tilted her head a little, seeming curious why he had stopped walking.
:Hey. Stay. You live here, yeah? Go back home like a good kitty.:
Orange ears went back. Xia twitched her whiskers and sat down, still looking at him innocently.
:I go. You stay. Good girl.:
Having said his piece, he turned back around and started walking again, at which point he learned that Xia was stubborn—which, he vaguely thought, was kind of an all-encompassing statement when it came to cats of all kinds. Glancing back briefly, he watched Xia follow along behind him—loping to keep up with his much larger strides—and, after another moment's consideration, resigned himself to her company.
Maybe, he thought, she was associating him with people and hoped by following him that she might find a warm hearth to sleep by and a bowl of milk each evening. But that didn't make very much sense, as he wasn't human himself and she had no way of knowing if or when he might encounter people in the future.
And all that just brought up even more questions about his identity, because he knew he wasn't human—that much was obvious—but still couldn't remember his own name, his life, or what he actually was. All he did know was that a very succinct voice in the back of his head was telling him firmly that he was not. A. Horse.
Considering what he could see and feel about himself, that statement was questionable, though, because he certainly felt like a horse, from his hooves to his nose, his mane to his tail and the niggling craving for sweet grass and clover that was starting to make his stomach growl. Saying he wasn't a horse was like saying the sky wasn't blue, the grass wasn't green or that Xia wasn't a cat. Obviously there was some kind of confusion in the recesses of his mind, which he decided was probably in some way related to the entire amnesia debacle.
The scent of burning wood brought him out of his thoughts with a jolt and he lifted his nose to the wind, sniffing experimentally.
Fire, to his way of thinking, meant one of two things: either someone was nearby—or the forest was ablaze. If it was the first scenario, he could go and find the person responsible and, hopefully, get their help. If it was the second, then the last direction he wanted to go was toward the flames. The question was: how was he supposed to tell—
Xia ran past him at that moment, practically bolting toward the source of the smoke-smell.
He was still for a few breaths as he considered this before breaking into a trot to follow after her. After all, this was likely her forest, her home, so she would be much more familiar with the sights, sounds and scents around them than he was. She could probably tell whether the smoke was a good sign or a bad one—and considering that she was currently running toward it, he had to assume it was the prior of those two options.
Besides which, it somehow didn't seem like enough smoke to be a full-blown forest fire.
In the end, though, he found himself trusting the scruffy cat's judgement (perhaps against the better of his own.) So he continued following along behind her as she ran, struggling to keep up as she darted in and out of the underbrush, between trees and over fallen limbs with the kind of grace only a feline could possess. He was barely able to keep her in his sight at times as he pushed and forced his way through the thick bushes and trees that she skirted so easily. In the end, something of his size and bulk really wasn't meant for such tight quarters.
Thankfully, the push-pull half-run was over quickly. After only a few short minutes, he shoved through yet another thicket of bushes—snorted when his tail got caught on a wayward branch—and then half-stumbled out into a clearing.
Catching himself in time to avoid a face-first meeting with the ground, he shook his head, mane flying, then looked back toward his rear end, where his tail was still tangled up in the foliage. Twisting a little, he tried to pull it out—and was met with limited success. Irritated, he pulled harder—then gave a little half-buck, strictly out of annoyance, when that didn't help either.
"Heh. Got yerself caught up there, did you?"
The voice came out of nowhere and startled him so much that he actually jumped a little. Distracted from his tail for the time being, he snorted and brought his head around quickly.
Across the clearing, seated next to a small campfire, was a middle-aged man. He was watching him with a glint of humour in his eyes, smiling to himself as if he found the Not Horse and his current predicament to be funny. All he got for his amusement was a glare that could have singed the hair right off his head.
"Well," The man brushed his hands on his trousers, then stood slowly without taking his eyes away from the scene before him. "Not often someone sees somethin' as pretty as you are, is it?" Even as he was speaking, he was reaching to his side—and soon his hand came back up, this time with a rope clasped in his fingers. "Yeh… handsome boy, aren't you?"
An unimpressed look levelled on him from bright sapphire eyes, but with his tail still caught up in the bushes behind him, he couldn't really do much else, even as the man approached him, one hand held out in a placating gesture and murmuring quiet, generic reassurances under his breath.
"Good boy. There's a boy. What a good horse. Too bad yer owner lost track of you," and then; "you'll fetch a pretty penny at the market…"
He froze at that—and glared daggers even as the rope was tossed and looped easily around his neck. :I. Am. Not. A. Horse!: And he certainly wasn't going to be taken to a market and sold like one. :Get off!:
There was barely any time to even register the surprise on the man's face before he half-jumped forward, ripping his tail free—he left a handful of white hair behind, still caught in the bushes—and yanking the rope from the man's hand at the same time. Then he was off to the other side of the clearing like a shot—just a blur of silver and white.
By the fire, Xia had her head pushed into an old camping pot and was licking up the remnants of whatever had last been cooked in it as if the entire scene around her wasn't even happening. He gave her a glare, too, just for good measure, then backed up some more when the man began to take slow steps toward him again. The stupid human just couldn't take oh hell no for an answer, apparently, as he was already trying to reach for the end of the rope once more.
Tossing his head, he flicked the rope away, then snorted again, turned his back and disappeared into the forest once more. Behind him, the man swore loudly—and Xia finally seemed to notice something was going on, for she abandoned the pot in the blink of an eye and quickly bounded after him into the woods.