The Herd Lord
a novella by
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The Herd Lord is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Story copyright owned by Beth Hudson
Cover illustration "Herd Lord" © 2011 by Mitchell Davidson Bentley
Cover design by Atomic Fly Studios
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To my boys, Dylan, David, and Alex Wheeler, who inspire me every day
To Nigel & Susan Ray, Jason Hooton, Charlotte Uteg, Jared Seaman, Steve Todd, and Andy Wheeler, who helped me immeasurably by critiquing my work and forcing me to my limits
And to Eleanor Ray, without whom I could not have written this story
The Herd Lord
Morning light poured through the enormous windows of the Great Hall, illuminating the pageantry and splendor of the centaur court. Niesha trotted a circuit around the room, making sure that the servants were attentive and that guests and nobles alike lacked nothing she could provide. Her tail twitched nervously; as wife to Iffrix, the Herd Lord, and as chatelaine of the palace, it was Niesha's duty to manage and see to the comfort of those in her domain. No one would want for amenities as long as Niesha was lady in the centaur homeland.
A headache had settled in her temples and over her eyes. As she passed through the hall, she took a quick tally of those present. Most were centaurs, as few other races lived in the homeland, but there was a sprinkling of foreign ambassadors and visitors from nearby countries. In times of peace, this court was filled with life, laughter, and the confidence that the long traditions of their people were unassailable. Now a stillness, like the drop of pressure before a storm, had settled on the entire homeland.
There was good reason for the difference. In three days time, Iffrix would leave for war against the encroachment of the barbaric esch people. The esch were fierce conquerors, and those who came under their rule fared badly. Their depredations had spilled onto the edges of centaur lands, and Iffrix wanted to stop them now, to prevent a possible full-scale invasion. Even now, members of the centaur guard studded the palace with their thick presence, distinguishable by their brown and gold livery, the war braids in their hair and tails, and the forest of heavy spears they held. It was a sobering reminder of the enemy threat.
Niesha fingered the hem of her tunic and shuffled her hooves on the flagstones as she considered what must be done before the army left: a small dinner tonight to finalize plans; a feast for the entire court in two nights; and a ceremonial transfer of wardship from Iffrix to Niesha. Niesha enjoyed social occasions, but these she did not relish, since she was responsible for even the smallest details. Iffrix must be sent off in proper style, and in the centaur court, proper style could be very elaborate indeed.
In fact, the vibrancy and color of the court could be overwhelming. Niesha glanced around at the crowd while she rubbed the bridge of her nose. Centaurs, both stallions and mares, common and noble, wore their hair in elaborate braided styles; Niesha's own was plaited into a coil on her head. Clothing and adornment were equally elaborate, with shirts of silk, linen, and beautifully woven wool in jewel-hued blues and greens, brilliant reds, and deep golds. Many garments were stitched with silver or gold thread, and blankets of the finest silk or gleaming satin displayed ornate designs. Earrings, dangling faceted gems and precious metals, glinted from the lobes of mares and stallions alike, and large, bold torcs blossomed into intricate shapes and patterns.
In three days, the court's number would be cut in half; Niesha wondered which of them would not be back. Shaking her head from side to side, she tried to dislodge the fear that had settled in her the moment she had learned of Iffrix's departure.
Trying to keep her expression placid, Niesha quickly scanned for her husband, as if his presence were a talisman against the besetting dread. She caught sight of him almost immediately. Iffrix strode through the vast hall, brushing flanks with courtiers and commoners alike, spreading his allure throughout the court; unlike the two-legged peoples who lived in surrounding lands, he had no seat of honor to separate him from his people. Large and strong, but graceful, his hair was a glossy, thick brown with a tendency to curl, and his gleaming brown coat held just a hint of red.
But that was not what made him so attractive; it was impossible to be near him without feeling the fascination of his presence. Every centaur within his scope understood, with an instinct bred deep in blood and bones, that Iffrix was the exemplar of everything great about their race. It was no surprise that most of the mares were a little bit in love with him. Niesha could hardly blame them; even now, she knew she had won the homeland's most precious prize.
Iffrix was responsible, not simply for those centaurs who lived in the homeland, but for their entire race. He was a high centaur, one of the nobility and guardians who had been set in their places by the four elemental gods at the beginning of the world. There were only a few high centaurs; the family numbered thirty-one, including Iffrix and Niesha's three children. On their backs rested the welfare of all their people.
Niesha threaded her way through a small knot of noblewomen to where her husband stood, deep in discussion with his brother Vellis and two young stallions, one of whom sported multiple braids, gathered and tied so that they would fountain from the top of his head, with a similar style of gathered plaits in his tail. "It doesn't matter," Iffrix said in a serious tone. "The choice lies with her, not with either of you. If you don't want her rejecting you both, you need to stop fighting, and let her make the choice."
Niesha smiled wryly. It seemed to be a question of hotheaded stallions after the same filly; such situations were common among the younger men before they settled down. She left them to their speech, knowing that her contribution was unnecessary. Looking around the hall, she saw Lady Mirwyn standing before a window, and headed toward her.
Lady Mirwyn was a high aelin, as Iffrix was a high centaur; both peoples were of the small number of firstborn races which the gods had created at the world's beginning. Mirwyn was very tall for a two-legged woman, and slender, with a shimmering cascade of black hair, and violet eyes that perfectly matched the silken dress she wore.
"Lady Niesha," she said. Her voice was calm but musical. "It's a lovely morning, is it not?"
"Very," Niesha said warmly. Niesha had known the aelin woman all her life. Aelenin did not age like centaurs did; in the thirty years Lady Mirwyn had resided in the homeland, she had shown no sign of change. Mirwyn was a powerful mage, and a good friend to the centaurs; over the years she had assisted them with her magic in everything from divination to defense. Niesha was relieved that Mirwyn would remain when Iffrix and the young stallions went to war.
"I have a proposition to put to you and Lord Iffrix," Mirwyn said. "I have been thinking of how to help you all during this trying time, and I think I have an idea."
Niesha breathed out slowly. "Perhaps it's foolish," she said, "but I worry so much about my ability to keep the homeland safe. Iffrix doesn't doubt me, but anything you can do to help will make me much easier in mind." She twitched her tail from side to side. "There is so much I take for granted, and so much I just don't know. I can't tell you how much it means that you—"
With surprise, she heard the catch in her own voice, and realized that she was perilously close to crying. She was not used to being so emotional, but she was also not used to the idea of taking the care of the homeland on her shoulders. She knew that she was levelheaded, and that she could assist Iffrix in his decisions, but now those decisions would be hers.
Mirwyn politely waited as Niesha cleared her throat and tried to gain some composure. The aelin woman had a gift of the sort of stillness that made Niesha feel supported, not embarrassed.
As smoothly as if she had not noticed Niesha's lapse, Mirwyn continued, "My proposition is this. I cannot protect the entirety of the homeland; there are simply too many of your people, as well as the few of other races that dwell here. But with Lord Iffrix away your people are vulnerable, and the ones responsible for their welfare are the most at risk." The faintest of lines appeared between her brows. "What I can do is to protect Lord Iffrix's blood kin, by binding them together into a powerful protective spell. As long as the high centaurs remain, your people will be guarded—no matter what happens to the Herd Lord." She shook her head slightly. "I am sorry, Niesha, for speaking so bluntly, but you know it is possible that Lord Iffrix will not return. I don't want to ill-wish him, but facts must be faced."
Niesha nodded; Mirwyn was right. Even more important than protecting the homeland, it was important to protect the centaur race, and the high centaurs carried that burden. Mirwyn's assistance would, in turn, support them, and make Niesha's task easier. "No," said Niesha, "you're right." She closed her eyes briefly, praying to Coran, god of the earth, that her husband would return home safely. "I am deeply in your debt. All of us are."
"I am glad if I can help." Mirwyn glanced across the hall at Iffrix.
Niesha followed her gaze. Iffrix was now speaking in an isolated corner with a small bay stallion whose plaited blond hair contrasted starkly with the rich blue tunic he wore. The bay stamped and twitched so much that Niesha felt nervous herself. Iffrix tried not to intimidate, but some of their people became shy when faced with their high race. Niesha smiled to herself, wondering how this fellow would react if he saw Iffrix in one of the Herd Lord's more impish moods.
Iffrix turned away briefly, gesturing toward the center of the hall. As he did, the other stallion leaned toward Iffrix, making a sweeping gesture with his hand. Niesha caught a flash of silver, and suddenly saw that the bay wielded a long knife which he thrust upward at Iffrix's lower heart. She hurtled toward him, knowing that she could not possibly reach them before the attack cut into her husband's chest.
Time seemed to slow as she watched: she cried out in horror. Iffrix pivoted and threw out his hands to block the blow, but Niesha could tell it would be too late. Her pulse thudded in her ears and throat.
Abruptly, a sourceless blue-white light lit the room, leaving a brilliant afterimage in Niesha's vision. The bay shrieked and dropped the knife, which fell to the floor with a strangely soft thump; he clutched a suddenly contracted hand to his body. Niesha stared in shock at the fallen knife, which was already fading from white-hot to glowing cherry red, while the wooden hilt flindered into ash.
Two of Iffrix's personal guards bulled into the bay, knocking him off his feet, while a third came from the side to grab and twist the stallion's wrist. Iffrix himself stepped back, clearly shaken, but obviously ready to defend himself.
Calmly, Mirwyn walked into the corner and picked up the blade as if it had cooled, though Niesha could still see smoldering in the blade's metal. Mirwyn examined the knife, and a very small pucker appeared between her eyebrows. "Are you scratched, my lord?" she asked.
Niesha halted, suddenly realizing who had saved Iffrix. In the aftermath of the attack, she began to tremble, and her knees shook; she forced them to stiffen. Her coat began to twitch uncontrollably, from the tops of her upper shoulders all the way down to her flanks and buttocks. Her breath felt short and shallow.
Several more of the Herd Lord's guards were appearing in the hall to usher the innocent out, and to form protective rings around Iffrix and Niesha.
"He didn't touch me." Iffrix's voice was steady.
Mirwyn nodded. "Good. The blade is poisoned." She turned her attention to it for a moment, holding it straight in front of her. As Niesha watched, it melted and dripped onto the floor, where it puddled and cooled almost instantly.
All pages Copyright© 2012-2017 by Beth Hudson Wheeler and Eleanor C. Ray