Neither Shyan, Fassn, nor Cang can understand the horse — but Abia can. She slips under the porous surface of reality and swims slowly beneath. To her ears, the horse speaks her own mother tongue, with a fluency and clarity of expression rare even for native speakers.
The horse is casually surprised to speak with a person, but maintains his composure.
“Friend horse,” Abia says, as her teammates watch helplessly on. “Praytell, know you the destination of your former stable-mate? His companion has swindled us with the help of dread sorcery. We would be most appreciative for any aid you may see fit to bestow.”
The horse whinnies, looks about to his other stabled cousins. “He went off with her, just another horse, following a person’s command.”
Abia nods. The horse continues. “The one with the funny hat whipped the poor bastard, and hooked him up to a wagon, carrying a bunch of crates.”
Abia relays the word “crates” to her friends. They lean in, as though that might help them understand.
“And where were they destined?” Abia asked.
“She said something about Almery.”
The colour drains from Abia’s face at the mention of that dread place. “Are you sure,” she asks, swallowing hard against a newfound stone in her throat, “she said Almery?”
Cang’s first into the stable, vaulting as he does through two open windows and under the stablehand’s legs.
All the same he’s too late; the alchemist is gone. The door’s swinging open, and a fresh, steaming pile greets him as he skids to a stop. He curses, startling the other horses.
Shyan grabs the stablehand’s collar. “When’d she leave? The alchemist?”
“The laddy with the funny hat?”
“Yes, yes, her!”
“Just a moment ago, and I’m thinkin’ now she mighta snuck out on her bill.” He scratches his head. “She a friend of yours?”
Abia greets the remaining horses with a gentle wave. A soft smile creeps across her lips, and she begins to hum. Her eyes flash and go black, glassy, but she blinks and moves as normal.
She speaks in her mother tongue, addressing the horse stabled next to the alchemist’s empty space. All the animals watch her intently, and for the rest of the team, and the stablehand looking on, the air feels tangibly thick with energy.
The horse responds.
“She ain’t no regular,” the innkeeper says, before giving the team a contemptuous, appraising look. “We get lots of weirdo-types coming through.”
“Then surely she’s staying at the inn?” Shyan asks.
“Give us her name!” Fassn shouts, his wings beating furiously.
The innkeeper shakes his head. “Paid only for food and drink, plus the stabling of her mount and all.”
“Maybe we can catch her,” Shyan says. “Abia, let’s go. Guys, give the good man your pennies.”
Cang fires the stink-eye at Shyan but she hurries away before she sees. He begrudgingly flips his last penny to the innkeeper, who catches it easily. He turns to Fassn, expectant.
“Uh,” he says. “I lost mine.”
“You,” the innkeeper snarls, “Owe me money.” He points the cleaver at them. “Pay me!”
Shyan takes a supplicatory step towards him. “You see, sir, we were robbed–“
“Boo bloody hoo,” he replies. “After years of longing, tonight, I finally knew what love was.” He grunts. “Really knew. And now you mongrels wanna rip out on me? Take the food from my babies’ mouths? You could be so cruel?”
Cang clears his throat. “Sir, my colleague speaks truth. We have no wealth to share.”
“A penny each’s all we got,” Fassn says. He feels at his pockets. “Wait, where’s mine?”
“Tell us where to find this alchemist,” Shyan says. “And you’ll get what’s owed, and more.”
Dejected and nigh-penniless, the team sneaks out on their bill. They find that it’s rather easy to do when not lugging crates along. Cang finds that, despite the hassle, he misses them — but he misses the value they represented much more.
“We must find that witch,” he says.
Abia glares at him. He throws it right back. “I did not join this band of merry marauders to give my meagre wealth away to some charlatan. As a charlatan myself, I deserve at least as much!”
“Keep your voices down,” Shyan says.
Fassn throws a glance toward the inn. “We should keep moving,” he says.
He scarcely gets the words out before the door’s thrown open and an angry innkeeper wielding a cleaver emerges into the night, his face contorted with rage.