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He woke, gradually, and felt his Sunday morning migraine shining in a halo, and he knew this would be a biggy, and oh he was due, as it had probably been more than six weeks since his last sick headache. He pressed his fingers between his eyes and tried to push his brains back into his skull. Oh yeah, this would be bad. He needed to get out of bed, slowly, and go and make coffee, and he needed to take about three aspirin, now, before the halo turned into a full-scale meltdown. These quiet, grinding visitors had been plaguing him since he was about eighteen years of age, and had become such regular sucky guests in his life that he sensed their arrival, usually several hours in advance, sometimes a whole day before they actually showed up on his doorstep. And it must be Sunday, because they always poked their noses through the door on Sunday. Whatever the psychology of these headaches was all about— probably just to kick the week off, so right, so perfectly—and if this was a bad enough migraine, he probably would still be too shaky tomorrow morning to head into work, oh but the bastards would love that one. Missing another day. Hopefully, he’d lose this latest in a long line of terrible jobs; they’d find the proper way to lay him off without any repercussions to themselves. Just include him with a bunch of other losers who were primed and ready to be jobless, again.
Keeping his eyes closed, Stacey sat up in bed, his palms over his eyes, and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Coffee, oh but he needed coffee, and it wasn’t the caffeine his entire being cried out for, but the deep magic of the coffee itself, its heat, its aroma, its flavor. He stood and staggered, keeping his eyes closed, because light was not a good friend when a Sunday migraine visited, light and migraines should be kept well apart from each other, like warring inlaws, and he placed his hand on his dresser to stabilize his swaying posture—only there was no dresser, and he crashed over on his side, his head punching the rough-wood wall.
Despite the halo circling his head like the rings of Saturn, Stacey opened his eyes, and what the hell? He slapped a hand on the log near his face. He moved his fingers in the deep grooves of the textured wood. It was beautiful, the wood, and seemed to glow with a light all its own—a light that seared his poor, poor eyeballs.
And it finally came to him, his life, in rich memory that seemed to swell his head near to bursting. This was another world. There was no job on Monday morning, good night, there probably wasn’t even a Monday morning in this world, every day was probably Sunday, or Big Day of Sun, or whatever they called it here, and reality—or whatever this world was—crashed into him again, like a terrible wave on a rocky beach.
Stacey burst into tears. He flexed his fists and punched the rough log, three times, with both his fists, but at least he couldn’t take a full swing and smash his knuckles, because that’s probably what he would have done if he were standing, just punch away, left, right, left, right, and beat himself into a bloody pulp against this world, this High Vale.
Everything was gone. His whole world was gone. All the people in his world. There was no job. There was no apartment.
And he stopped crying. It was like someone threw the switch at the waterworks.
Thank God! There was no Monday morning job! What in the world was he crying about? He never fit into that other world. He had always been a stranger there, in that cold, crazy world. He was the odd fish in that place (the one odd fish amidst the lobsters and crabs), that place that crashed down in crystal shards about him. That place erased by the tolling of a monster bell.
He was free. Stacey Colton was free, thank God, Lord Almighty, he was free at last!
Stacey Colton rolled onto his back on what felt like a thick carpet, some kind of old-fashioned weave carpet, and the room spun above him, all dark wood, and he remembered, everything, it all swelled inside his brain and his poor mind felt like it was melting, but suddenly he didn’t care, not about the loss of an entire world, because he was in a new world, and he didn’t have to worry about the turn-off notices, or the cable bill, or his sad little yellow car.
“I’m free,” Wolf said, voice dry and throat phlegmy. He reminded himself that he was now Wolf, not Stacey—new world, new name, that was the ticket. And hey, his migraines—would he be allowed to have migraines in this world? After all, his asthma seemed to be gone! Perhaps this headache wouldn’t turn sick, and deeply amber. Maybe he was just dehydrated, and needed water, and coffee, oh hell, there better be coffee in this world—he never had the chance to ask Six.
Stacey pushed himself to a sitting position and his head swam. No, this definitely felt like an oncoming sick headache, so he would have to find some coffee, and fast, or whatever passed for coffee in High Vale.
Slowly, he climbed to his feet, using the grooves between logs as handholds. How long had he been out, anyway? It felt like immeasurable hours. He had truly conked out, one for the record books. He wouldn’t be surprised if a full twenty-four hours had passed. He remembered no dreams, nor waking every few hours to use the restroom. His last memory was of entering this bedroom and seeing the bed. He looked down and felt his clothes, yep, the same old-fashioned pirate shirt, the same breeches, the same bare feet—
—no! Not the same feet. He flexed his toes, and they felt young. And his left big toe, it was hale and whole, not a kink in it. Oh boy, he didn’t have early gout, not in High Vale, that was another incredible thing. His toe didn’t hurt. It was young, pre-gout, like in his boxing days. He checked the backs of his hands, and they were clean and white, with nary an age-spot showing. His hands should be spotted with deep freckles, dark liver spots—come on, he was only thirty-five years of age, but his hands had aged fast, probably due to genetics, but High Vale didn’t seem to care so much about genetics, not such a very much. Yes, he felt young, and it felt good, all of the decrepit signs of leaving youth to depart into the land of middle age—it was all gone. With his incredible body, he felt he must be twenty-five years old again, the prime of his life. The prime of his new life.
Was he actually weeping at the thought of all the old things being gone?
He remembered the kid. Wolf looked to the other side of the room and took in the neatly made bed. There was no sign that Jack had ever been here, no knapsack, bow and arrows. So Jack was out and about, probably exploring this new world. To Jack, this was probably like summer camp. At seventeen years of age, the kid wouldn’t need to worry about migraines, gout, asthma, liver spots, or even bills. Maybe he never would.
Wolf inhaled, deeply. The air felt good, even locked inside a small room. It smelled of cedar, or some other fragrant wood.
He pulled open the guestroom door and poked his head into the dark hallway. Everything was quiet. He seemed to be completely alone in this monster mansion made of logs. He glanced down at his bare feet. Glancing back, he saw his snakeboots neatly standing at attention at the foot of his bed. He went back, snatched the boots, and sat down again on the edge of the bed. Maybe he should lie back down? Did he really want to go out into this new world and witness all the evidence of this medieval fantasy-game dream park?
But the thought of discovering coffee made him don his boots. Ooh, yeah, now that felt good. It was like slipping into old friends. The boots were warm and soft, and he didn’t remember them being this supple. In his boots, he felt better, almost ready to face the new world. He felt armored, in fact, he was armored, still wearing his MMA gloves and the supple arm sleeve on his right arm, what was it called. A bracer! Wow, what a way to sleep. He stood again, and felt a little better, not quite so sick, not at all so defeated.
Hey, come on, defeated? In a short period of time he had choked out a behemoth serpent, and clunked a giant in the forehead—he snatched up his black shillelagh, good old stick! He twirled it once. Yes, that’s where it belonged, smack in your left hand. He tapped the tip of the walking stick upon the wood floor. What a nice blondewood knob in his hand, a little hardwood globe that fitted his left palm perfectly. Yes, he’d cracked a giant, right in the forehead. And then without hardly a breath he’d gone on to gobsmack a few dragon warriors. Defeated? No, he was a victor. In this new world he was a new man. Finally, a man of action, not some drudge at a desk, eternally dotting the i’s in a sea of red tape, crossing the t’s of mountain of paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork.
Stacey almost trotted into the hallway. He was young. He had a black shillelagh!
And it struck him. Yes! His sense of smell was on high alert.
Oh yes, the aroma of coffee!
He followed his nose.
He was in a different part of the house, going down a back staircase, narrow, it must be a servant’s stairs, imported here from probably Downton Abbey. His boots whispered on the shiny dark stairs. At the bottom of the stairs he found himself in a broad hallway with many doors—servants’ quarters? For a manor this size, there must be a whole lot of servants in service. But why was it so quiet? At the opposite end of the short hall was a broad set of steps leading up into light—well, he would just have to brave the light, because he smelled coffee, stronger, and it was almost a stink, like a family of skunks just squirting up the landscape, and it smelled glorious. He hurried across to the steps and mounted, his head aching as he rose into a bright kitchen illuminated by skylights and windows, and he placed his hand at his forehead, shielding his eyes.
His eyes caught movement, and he inhaled, because there was an immense—being—working at a vast sink, apparently washing leafy-green vegetables, moving the greens from the left side, on a sideboard, into the sink, scrubbing and rinsing, and then piling the greens in a vast pile of glistening vegetables, Wolf recognized carrots, immense carrots, garishly orange, and mushrooms, peppers in reds and yellows and orange, and fat onions, cloves of garlic, and a twisted hand of ginger that was as big as a basketball. He wasn’t much of a salad guy, but this produce looked good, it was actually appetizing.
But it was the being at the sink that held his attention, four-hundred pounds of pink—hog, or boar—the biggest pig he’d ever seen, or hoped to imagine. Standing upright, naked save for a vast apron about its belly, six feet tall in its bare split-hooves, meaty with round shoulders, and bristling hairs jutting crazy from his thick neck. But it was not a pig, not exactly, but more a man-pig, with hands that looked crude and hoof-like, and what he could see of its face as it turned from side to side, moving the veggies through the rinse, looked like an old man wearing large metal spectacles on tiny, round piggy eyes. It was oinking as it labored.
Not oinking, not exactly, but short weeeing chirps—it must be singing! Weeeee! Weeeee!
Gripping his shillelagh, Wolf moved quietly into the kitchen, working his way as quietly as possible to the left, circling about to get a better look at the pigman as it worked at the sink.
Then, the pigman started, and slowly, slowly turned its vast, round head to look at Wolf.
Wolf stared at the pig. The pig stared at Wolf.
“Oooh! Oh ho!” the pigman snorted—it actually sounded just like a pig would sound, rooting through a garden. “So de wolfman has magically awakened, eet’s you, ees eet nut, de man I’ve heard so mooch about?”
Wolf giggled, because the pigman was talking to him, actually talking, and speaking in a heavily accented tongue that sounded somewhat German, or was it Russian? The accent was thick, and almost familiar, like someone doing an accent, to be funny. And it was funny, it was hilarious. And despite himself, he couldn’t help but imagine the great pig head with an apple jutting from its mouth—but that was unkind, for this appeared to a most civilized oinker.
“Um. Hello?” Wolf said, realizing he had half-lifted his shillelagh. The pigman was staring at his weapon. Wolf lowered the black club so that it was again a walking stick. He shouldn’t be so amazed, after all, he’d already met and befriended a talking wolf (and where in the world was Wolf the wolf?). A talking pigman with an Eastern European accent shouldn’t surprise him, not such a very much.
“Nice to meet you, Sleeping Beauty,” the pigman chuffed. “I am Olaff, de head chef.”
Oh laugh? Oh, yeah, Olaff, but wasn’t that Scandinavian?
“Ah,” Wolf said, haltingly, “yes, nice to meet you, Olaff. I am Wolf.”
The pigman—weeee’ed—and Wolf realized he must be laughing. He laughed, as well.
“The peeeeg and de voooof!” the head chef grunt-oinked. The pig and the wolf. “You must be hungry, no?”
“No,” Wolf said, nodding his head in assent, and then corrected himself, “I mean yes, yes, I’m hungry. But I was really sniffing out the coffee.”
“Oh but jes, de Master of de house must have hees coffee, he said you vould vant some, eets right there, een the seelver pot,” the pigman oinked, and Wolf took a few moments to properly interpret what he must have just said. He had a rolling, sing-song rhythm to his speech, reminding Wolf of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s friendly accent, from the actor’s early days, around the time of the movie Commando.
“Thank God,” he said, moving to the great silver pot, which perched on a squat tripod contraption, with a fat candle burning beneath it.
He seized a heavy mug from a collection of mugs all sitting upside down, and he flipped it over and poured a dark, fragrant brew into the mug. The coffee came out of the silver pot, black and thick—it was not thin and light brown like tea, but black. Ooh, yeah, this was strong coffee.
Wolf smelled it, his nose right at the top of the mug, but oh yes, that smelled good, it was coffee, and he finally allowed himself to sip at the brew, and yes, it was coffee, yes, it was really coffee, strong, and good—but it was unlike any coffee he had ever quaffed in his life—it was like, really, the stuff he had been guzzling his entire life was just a pale imitation of this deep, deep drink. He closed his eyes and drank, it was hot, yes, but his mouth was accustomed to drinking hot coffee, and this was not as hot as coffee warmed over electricity, but it still scalded his mouth, and his eyes flooded with tears.
“Goot?” the pigman grunted. “Dere ees cream, and cinnamon, chock-oh-lott, and whatever else the Master vants.”
Wolf hardly heard the pigman. His eyes were closed, his head back, and he got to the bottom of the mug, and didn’t mind at all when thick dregs of coffee ground entered his mouth; he swallowed these as well, gratefully.
He plunked the mug down, probably a little too hard. He wasn’t used to the vitality of his new body, all his new strength, and he would need to remind himself to be careful, or he might be pulling doorknobs off and punching coffee mugs through thick wooden tables!
He was powerful, and strong, and he required giants—bring me giants! Oops, but don’t ever say that out loud again! Because the last time he’d uttered those words, a rather large and long snake appeared.
Finally, he opened his eyes.
“Yes,” he breathed. “Goot! I mean, good, very good.”
In fact, the sick headache halo was gone. It was just flat-out gone. He felt wonderful.
He poured himself another mug, and this time added some thick, clotted cream from another silver decanter, and he shook some cinnamon into the swirling dark whirlpools at the top of the mug.
“Do you have any ginger powder?” Wolf asked.
The pigman grunt-squealed with laughter.
“Yuust like de young master, Jack!” the pigman snorted.
“Yes,” Wolf said, “just like Jack. The young master is the culprit who got me into the habit!”
“Eets een the leetle shaker,” Olaff the pigman squealed.
Wolf added the ginger, and sipped, and oh yes, that was the best.
“Don’t you be forgetting the honey, as vell,” Olaff reminded him.
“Yes, honey, that’s right!” Wolf said, turning the small honeypot over his mug, allowing a long, amber-colored dollop to stretch into his mug. He used a wooden spoon to mix his coffee concoction, and when he sampled it, he felt almost transported, lifted right up out of his boots.
Oh but that really hit the spot. Yes, High Vale was a good place, because real coffee existed here, and he would never have to drink that pale imitation, not again, not that coffee from the—real world—it was what he almost thought, ah hell, who was he kidding, he did think it. But High Vale was now his real world, and he must make the best of it, and with coffee like this, with boots like this on his feet, and this clean air, hey, he would never complain again. He felt very fortunate, no, more—provident; no, he felt...blessed, yes, that’s what he felt. Blessed. High Vale was the real world, and where he had spent thirty-five years of his life?
“Hongry?” Olaff chortled. “Your food ees on the leetle table, een the nook.”
“Thank you, thank you so much,” Wolf said, refilling his mug, adding more cinnamon and ginger, and honey, and he took his mug to the “small” table in the “nook.” The small table was probably fifteen feet long, four feet wide, with as many chairs as that vast space allowed (Wolf didn’t count, but he thought there must be about ten heavy wooden chairs spaced around the table). It was funny to call this room a nook, because his whole apartment could have easily fit inside this forty-foot room with its twelve-foot high ceiling.
He pulled out a chair and sat down behind the silvery platter. He wasn’t sure what he was going to find under the platter, but he would eat it, and he would gobble up every single bite with gratitude and relish, even if it was...meat. There would be no factory-farming in this world, no concentration-camp animals, no antibiotics in every bite. He sipped at his coffee, taking it slower (this was already his third cup), but he was hungry; no, he was starving. Was his last bite of food that stupid fruit hanging off that stupid tree with that stupid snake? He didn’t know how long ago that was, but it seemed like weeks.
He lifted away the platter and set it aside, his eyes locked on the feast on the plate beneath. Mounds of scrambled eggs, a fat bread roll dripping with gobs of the thickest butter he had ever seen, plus little cakes of crispy potatoes, and what looked like half a dozen glazed—asparagus—stalks? That was kind of weird, wasn’t it, asparagus? He exhaled, and had not until that moment realized he’d been holding his breath. Thankfully, there was no meat. Oh, he would have eaten it, yes, but he was thankful that the dilemma had passed, because sure, he knew it would taste good, meat, especially in this world where everything was organic, but he was not ready yet to relinquish his idealistic principles from that other world.
He dug in. The eggs were amazing, and the bread, oh the bread—each bite brought tears to his eyes—and the potato cakes were crispy and succulent. Gorging himself, he realized that even as the coffee was much better than anything he had tasted before, it was as if this food was the first real food he had placed in his mouth, over his entire life. He felt lightheaded, and yet, more powerful and more satisfied than he had ever felt before. This was eating, and he complimented each bite of food with a slurp of coffee. He didn’t even notice when Olaff (or it could have been anyone, really, even the Queen of England) replenished his coffee, and placed a carafe and a brimming glass of what must be orange juice at his elbow—it must be orange juice, although it just looked a little too orange to be real. What was it, Tang?
He seized the glass and sipped a little of the juice. Ooh, now that was orange juice, but it also had the sour hint of lemon, thick with pulp. It was sweet, but sour as hell, and he liked it. He guzzled the glass, emptying the contents, and released an extremely loud and satisfying belch. He glanced nervously about, but apparently, he was alone. No need for niceties. And he still felt extremely hungry.
Wolf sampled the asparagus, and hey, but it was good; no, it was great. Crispy. He really had to apply his strong teeth to nip each bite. But it was tangy, and stringy, and he didn’t know if it was mostly the honey-glaze on each vegetable stalk, but this was the tastiest veggie he had ever met. Before he knew it, the asparagus was gone, which made him think about the terrible, funky smell he’d be producing soon, and that made him consider the fact that he hadn’t had a bowel movement, nor relieved himself, not once since he had arrived in High Vale. That would be something, if they somehow worked out a way so that all the food and fluid just got used up, without waste product. He could go for that. No more farting. No body odor.
That would really be a fantasy world, wouldn’t it?
But a few sudden signals from his body informed him that he would indeed be requiring the use of the, ahem, the facilities? Yes, and soon. What would he call it? The hole in the ground? And would he be cleaning up with...leaves? Grass?
He glanced over his shoulder at the pigman, who was indeed watching him. He smiled.
“Um, uh, Olaff?”
“Master would like more of de food? More coffee? More orange?”
Wolf glanced at the carafe, which was empty.
“No, but thank you, it was wonderful, but,” he said, hesitating. Did they just go out back? Or did they actually have rooms designated for the, let’s say...emptying of the bowels? “Bathroom? Restroom?” Could he actually say: “Can you direct me toward the nearest toilet, and fast?!”
Apparently, he didn’t need to say anything more.
“Oh, you need de crapper! That ees een the next room, just that way,” Olaff said, pointing his hoofy hand toward the opposite end of the nook.
Wolf rose and moved slowly toward the other end of the room, keeping himself calm, and yet clamping down as tightly as possible on his sphincter. Had thinking the thought brought the demanding requirement? Because suddenly, it felt like the world was ending. Again. And it would be a very messy end (in more ways than one), indeed, at least if he was not vigilant.
“Remember to vash your hands!” Olaff called out to him as he passed through the door, now walking like a man with a slippery fishbowl clamped between his thighs.
He found a small door and poked his head into the little chamber, and nearly laughed. But he maintained, he maintained—he didn’t want to be bursting into laughter at a moment like this, because bursting into laughter just might cause other burstings.
But the absurdity of what was before him, come on! They had to be kidding.
A stump seemed to be growing from the floor, and a thick green bush conveniently grew right next to the stump, and there appeared to be a knot of wood covering the stump. He hurriedly lifted the knot, and there was a hollowed out bowl, conveniently full of clean water. How in the world did they try and justify this? What, they organically grew their toilets in High Vale?
There was no time for arguing. He didn’t even look for toilet paper to line the “seat.” He sat. And voided. Boy did he void. And relieved. There seemed no end to the relief. Yes, he emptied his guts, tapped his kidneys, drained the vein, and sang that pock-pock-pocking deep song from the other end, the nether regions, until finally he had to spread his thighs and look into the “bowl.”
He started. It almost gave him the willies, because it was as if he were looking into a mouth, replete with swinging uvula, that little punching bag thing, only this was the size of his head, and it appeared to be swallowing, this great mouth he was sitting on. Okay, that was okay, it was just the way things worked here, right? Kind of organically. He glanced about and discovered no sign of toilet paper, only that suspicious leafy bush, growing there right next to the stump.
“Ah hell, why not,” he murmured, and plucked a leaf. Immediately he was suffused with the scent of mint, and pine needles, it actually smelled wonderful. Oh well, here goes.
He tried the leaves. No, he didn’t taste them, but applied them where it seemed most appropriate, and hey, there was no scratch of toilet paper, but a certain dampness, ooh, hey, that kind of felt good. He dropped the leaf into the stump and the mouth again complied with its terrible business. Kind of cool, actually. He plucked another leaf and applied it liberally. Again the aroma of pine and mint—was it peppermint? The aroma surrounded him. What a system. And hey, but he felt clean, truly butt clean.
When he stood and fastened his breeches over his hips he glanced again into the bowl. It was a small pool of clean waters, once again. There wasn’t even a Godzilla roar of bellowing waters. He lowered the knot back into place, and turned to the other stump, this one taller, about at his waist height. Another pool glistened in the hollowed out “sink.” He plunged his hands into the water, which was nicely cool, and then without thinking he grabbed the broad leaf that partially extended above the sink, which proved to be squooshy and a tad slimy. Glancing at his hands he saw they were slicked with what appeared to be soap bubbles, so, shaking his head and giggling, he washed his hands, scrubbing them with his usual obsessive compulsive orderliness, and plunged them into the waters. Again, as in the broad toilet stump, this sink-stump swallowed his soiled waters, and even burped quietly. The sink filled again with clean waters. A thick towel hung next to the sink, so he dried his hands. Neat.
Okay, he admitted it, as silly as it all seemed, he kind of liked it. He almost wanted to go fill his gullet again just so that he could try out the bathroom again, it was almost like a children’s ride at a carnival! Yes, yes, he loved it. At least everything was intuitive. It was not like he had to employ a great deal of imagination to figure out just what was what, and what went where.
He went back to the nook and collected his refilled mug of coffee (perfectly treated with cream, honey, ginger, and cinnamon) and snatched up his shillelagh. A double set of doors led out onto a deck and Wolf took his coffee outside. He patted his vest. Yes, he had really slept in his vest, with the two long daggers under each of his arms—he guessed, a little sadly, that there were no quiet house elves that undressed you while you slept. Or if there were, they hadn’t been doing their job in the guestroom. In the inner pocket of his vest he thankfully found the snakeskin box, the one with his cigars. He’d smoked two, so he should have five left—what a thoughtful snake!
But when he opened the lid he discovered with some wonder that there were again seven dark cigars—more long, thick cheroots, knobby and bumpy—what a system, what a world, it must be magic! He extracted a cigar and placed it in his teeth and squeezed the end, and as before, it ignited. Magic was kind of nice. Still, he missed the whole ritual of firing up a lighter, and warming the end of a cigar; he’d have to see if High Vale offered any kind of rural magic fire producers, kind of like a Bic lighter, or perhaps like a Zippo, one he could conveniently pack in his vest near the snakebox of cigars.
He puffed his cigar and took in the view. The last time he’d been outside the manor, it had been a misty dark night, so he had been unable to admire this view. What a view! The manor was nestled in a close valley of tall, jagged mountains, with a forest of tall trees all about, some of them incredibly tall trees, like sequoias, and majestic pines that seemed a tad too tall to be real. And peering, it seemed he discerned cottages up in the trees, with suspension bridges leading from one platform to the next, treehouses, now that was magical. The lowest dwelling had to be seventy-five feet up in the branches. Magic. Magical. Or enchanting. Everything about High Vale was enchanting. It was just one fine enchantment after the next dazzling enchantment, without end.
He could hear the murmur of a creek or small stream somewhere near, although he couldn’t see any running waters. The sky above looked turquoise, with early morning clouds tinged with pink. He sipped at his cigar and puffed at his coffee, and it was perfect, the coffee and the cigar were perfect complements, with great compliments. The darkwood manor rose up above him in what looked to be three stories, and off farther back on the other side of the great house was what appeared to be a tower going up another three or four floors, but the tower was dwarfed by even the shortest of the trees.
There were cultivated grounds about the manor, with gardeners even now toiling with clippers and wheelbarrows, working with spades. Fine lawns spread about, close to the house, and farther away, perhaps a hundred yards or more away from the manor, a nice thick hedge grew, which looked to be about ten feet high and four feet thick, and though obviously cultivated, the hedge looked wild and somewhat dangerous, with a small painted-white picket fence just removed from the hedge. Quite a setup, no wonder Six was willing to defend this cultivated turf against dragon warriors, and who knew what else lurked out there in the trees beyond the hedge. Despite its beauties, High Vale was also deadly.
From around the manor a horse came charging, a beautiful jet-black animal, all glistening muscle and flashing hooves, streaming tail and mane, and what could only be young Jack clinging like a Plains Indian to its back, riding sans bridle or saddle. Jack was wearing his merry green Robin Hood outfit, the peaked cap pulled low over his face, the long red feather bobbing twelve inches behind his head.
“Jack!” Wolf cried, waving his cigar above his head, slopping some coffee onto the deck.
Apparently the youth could not hear him over the racing wind and dashing hooves. Then another horse, this one dappled black and white, charged from around the manner, in hot pursuit, and on this fine beast rode a woman, with great gobs of golden hair flying straight out behind her. Wolf placed the cigar back in his teeth and studied the woman as she flashed past. She looked somewhat familiar, although he couldn’t place her, or her fine body—she was dressed in pale buckskins, the leather fringe in long strings, all of them blowing straight out in the wind of the racing horse. The pale leather almost looked like spandex, it was so shiny, and tight. Wow, that was some really, really tight leather. Wolf swallowed hard, wow, there were women in High Vale, that was a pretty good thing, wasn’t it? He gulped his coffee and splashed his cheeks. He coughed and wiped his face with the backs of his hands.
A stairway led down from the deck and Wolf set his empty coffee mug on the deck railing and hurried down the stairs. Puffing his cigar like a chimney he jogged around the manor, his boots lightly tapping the cobblestone pathway, and emerged around to the front of the great house, and paused, his breath stolen away. Because it was quite a view, the front yard of the High Vale manor. The house was on a tall mound, and out before was a sweeping valley, with a river, a far way off, with pastures and fruit trees, and small cottages dotting the landscape. A distant mountain range swept impossibly up into the blue sky in a purple tidal wave.
Two stone dragons stood facing the lowlands—Wolf must have been fighting very near those statues and had never seen them in the mist. He glanced back at the great house, looking at the great doors and vast deck that looked something like an old whaling ship and remembered knocking the warriors back, and Six grappling with the giant, Jack dancing about like an elf on the railing, courageously training his bow upon the hundred or so warriors pressing in. How long ago did that all happen? Last night? No, it seemed like weeks ago.
He looked again outward and watched the two horses kicking up dust as they raced down the hillock into the pastures below. He wondered about the woman with the flying hair—had Jack already met a girl? Was that his lady fair racing him below? If so, he was a lucky kid, because that was some woman. Even seeing her at a distance stirred Wolf deeply.
His last girlfriend had been months ago, in another time and world, and things had not worked out well with them. She had been a heavy pot smoker, among other things, and the Stacey of that world grew weary of her always attempting to sneak pork into his food, always wanting to argue about the health and wonders of marijuana, and why real men drank whiskey, and lots of it, and how Hillary Clinton would save the world. They had strung out their relationship for about six months, and she did have quite the little body, but lots and lots of sex just did not answer the deeper needs he felt. Okay, that part helped.
He had always been the fool, looking for love in the usual wrong places. A friend of a friend had set them up, and he almost began to wonder what she was doing now, in the world, but he stopped himself from remembering where those thoughts would always lead, to a world falling into jagged pieces, the ground shaking, and the iron tolling of the great bell of the apocalypse.
“Hail! And well met, Stacey!” a deep voice boomed, and from around the other side of the great house came Six, the Lord Meren Dulance of High Vale, with the most beautiful woman on his arm that Wolf had ever seen, a vision in flowing white. Galadriel, was Wolf’s first thought, because the woman was tall, and pale, and very blonde, with cascades of hair hanging down about her, all the way to her calves!
“Six!” Wolf boomed in return, walking to meet them, but Six ran forward and caught him up in a great hug, swinging him off his feet, laughing. “We were so worried about you! You’ve been out, dead to the world for two whole days! We couldn’t even get your vest off you, let alone your breeches, or those silly gloves. You have got to be one of the heaviest sleepers I’ve ever known!”
“Two days,” Wolf said, with disbelief. Could he really have slept that long?
“Meet my lady,” said Six, extending his big hand to the tall woman, but not releasing Wolf from his embrace. “This is my wife, the Lady Varrashallaine. Varra, this is the man who saved us, and saved everything, Stacey! Oh, sorry, he’s Wolf. Wolf, this is Varra.”
Wolf, awed by her beauty, put out a hand to take one of her hands, but she knelt before him and seized his hand, and kissed his hand, repeatedly, kissing each of his fingers in turn.
“Thank you for saving my dear husband,” she breathed between kisses.
“Oh no, hey, hey, it’s okay, it was nothing,” Wolf said, embarrassed, but unable, despite himself, to look away from studying her fine features, the golden eyebrows, the high, pale cheekbones, and some of the fullest lips he had ever seen in his life. And he thought of the rapers—okay, sorry, the rapists—and he was very glad that Six had brought him here.
“Varra, Varra,” Six chided, finally releasing Wolf and lifting his wife from her knees.
But she was weeping now, and hid her face in her hands.
“Oh husband, oh husband,” she whispered, leaning against Six, and Wolf saw now that not only was she ethereally beautiful, but she was also obviously very ill.
“I saw Jack race by on a black horse,” he said, awkwardly attempting to divert their attention.
“Here he comes now,” said Six, smiling, his face rosy with delight. He was the very picture of a hale lord, condescending to enjoy his underlings.
And here came the black horse, just in the now, racing up the hillock toward the manor. Wolf stepped away from the other two, smiling, as Jack came leaping from the horse and almost torpedoed into his arms, knocking them both back so that they sprawled in the rich grasses of the lawn.
“Stacey! Stacey!” Jack cried, laughing, “you’re awake! You’re finally awake!”
“Yes,” Wolf laughed, tussling with him, “I’m awake, although it feels like I’ve been out of it for weeks, not days.”
“Guess who’s here!” Jack cried, climbing to his feet and pulling Wolf up with him.
“Joshua and Michael? Are they here?” Stacey said, looking about, expecting to see the tall, bearded giant, and the small man on canes.
“No, not them,” Jack said, his smile faltering. “Six thinks they never came through. He thought there were only two of us, and that’s what the portal was set for, but he’s got rangers out looking for them, you know, in case they did make it, and are lost somewhere in High Vale.”
The other horse, the dappled black and white, came forward now, cresting the hill, with the young woman with all the hair, in her tight shiny buckskins.
Wolf stared at her and she stared at him, but he couldn’t quite place her. He obviously knew her, but was unable to produce the proper memory. She threw herself lithely from the horse and came running to him and hurtled into his arms, hugging him fiercely.
“Look at you! Look at you!” she cried, tears running down her cheeks. She was beautiful, and familiar, but Wolf still did not know her. She buried herself in his chest and he felt her weeping, her shoulder shaking. He held her, stroking her back and her hair, and looked with confusion to Jack.
“It’s her!” the young man cried. “It’s her! The Lady Ghost!”
Wolf started, and he remembered, the brief interlude in the alley, and then even more briefly in the back of Joshua’s big red pickup truck. The girl with the invisible tablet, the one doing the bizarre sign language in the air. Sandy?
Then she put back her head and grabbed him around the neck and pulled his head down, and she kissed him—she really kissed him, hard, right on the mouth—and she breathed into him, her mouth clamping on his, and then she shoved him roughly back, away.
“Don’t kiss me! What is your problem, Stacey! You just don’t change, do you?” she shoved him again, in the chest, and wow, she was strong; he actually stumbled back a few steps.
“What the?” he murmured, dazed, both by the kiss and then the rough shove. Was she insane?
But she had whirled away from him and dashed to her dappled horse, and somehow swung herself up to the animal’s back without aid of saddle or bridle—she was a bareback rider, just like Jack—and she kicked her heels into the horse and swung it about, rearing, and then they were gone in a thunder of hooves. Wolf watched her form, receding, noticing the tall pale boots, tight, rising on her shapely legs above her knees.
“Don’t worry,” Jack said, “she still a little confused. She thought we were dead, can you believe it? And for some reason she’s got very bizarre ideas about you, Stacey. She thinks you’re some famous playboy, seducing women right and left!”
Wolf laughed. He threw back his head and roared laughter.
“Me? A playboy?” he said, wiping his eyes, his laughter finally abating, at least somewhat. A few giggles managed to work their way up his throat.
“Pugilist!” Six cried, shaking a fist in the air.
“Pugilist!” Varra whispered, lifting a white hand in a loose fist.
“Pugilist!” Jack cried, loudest of all, smiling hugely.
“Pugilist Playboy,” Wolf said, grinning at them.
He noticed that Six was standing somewhat protectively in front of his wife, probably in case the playboy allegations proved to be true. But Wolf had never, absolutely never, been even remotely tempted to mess with a married woman. Hell, he was such an inept clod with women, more than three or four dates would usually pass before he even came close to physical advances, and then it was always the woman who had to initiate any manner of deeper physical intimacy. He had no idea how Seven had gotten that kind of idea about him. Stacey, in the other world, he was the one always getting hurt by selfish women, women who knew something about cheating.
“How in the world does she even come to be here?” he puzzled, looking into Jack’s eyes.
“She and Six are friends, ain’t that a humdinger of a coincidence?”
Yes, that certainly was a humdinger of a coincidence. Seemingly, all part of the plan. But what was the plan, and who, ultimately was pulling all these strings? Who was orchestrating the puppet dance?
At the edge of the great hedge, far away from them, a little face watched the group before the big house. And a little girl giggled.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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