Vixenscratch

Short stories and serials by Alexandra Herakai

Trial by Fire

The sound of running feet woke Myen; the sting of smoke in her nose forced her wide awake. Exhausted, she’d gone to bed still mostly dressed, so pulling on her vest, cloak and boots wasn’t a huge waste of time before she left her rented room and followed the trickle of people making their way down the stairs of the old inn building and filing outside to the courtyard with its cobble stones. Flames reached greedily towards the night sky from the thatched roof of the stable building, and she spotted her Steed outside, the mare’s tack miraculously in place and not in any way marred by the fire, herding other horses away from the burning building.

She could not, however, see her travelling companion anywhere.

“Socks!” she cried, struggling to make herself heard above the roar of the flames and the noise from the crowd. People were forming a line, passing buckets from the old well and using the water to soak anything the fire might spread to, and several of the horses had been seized by their owners or stable hands.

Another horse came rushing out of the stable, almost turned around, and was met by Crocus’s flattened ears and bared teeth. A voice, lacking some of the vocal range of sounds most humans were capable of, bellowed from inside the burning building. “Get moving, you miserable nag!” Another horse appeared through the curtain of flames, caught by a bystander before it could change its mind.

She knew that voice, though it sounded rougher than she would have liked. “Socks!”

The Paladin ran towards the stable now, pushed through the crowd, the only thought in her head to get to her companion. Then her progress was abruptly halted as someone, something, seized hold of her shirt. She twisted around, glaring at her Steed.

“We have to get Socks out!”

Crocus snorted, nudged her Paladin towards the last horse that had come out of the stable. She had to press her eyes shut to attempt to suppress the tears that rose in them, told herself it was the smoke. Then she waved her arms and shouted at the horse, helping her Steed herd it towards the people who had the equipment to properly restrain it.

It seemed like an eternity until the horses stopped coming out of the stable, and according to the stablehands all creatures that had stayed there, aside from Socks, were accounted for. For a while, they waited, hoping the centaur hybrid would emerge on his own, and then, in the space between one heartbeat and the next, Myen was on Crocus’s back and the Steed was diving into the flames. Behind them, there was a loud crack, and something fell, sending sparks and embers dancing through the scorchingly hot air. The Paladin leaned low over her mount’s neck, felt the mare hold her head down towards the cleaner, cooler air near the floor, and trusted the Steed would find their goal.

The flames towards the back of the stable were less violent, and the air seemed cooler. The sound of running water was just barely audible over the raging inferno around and above them, and if Crocus hadn’t stopped to nudge him, Myen would have missed Socks entirely, as his coat more or less matched the color of the smoke.

She dismounted, ran the few steps up to him, and wrapped her arms around him. The half-centaur was kneeling, partially supporting himself with one hand braced against the whitewashed wall, and his breathing was labored. He’d somehow managed to load packs onto his equine lower body, and had spread a soaked blanket across them, which was rapidly drying, and though the relative lack of soot around his nostrils hinted that he’d had them covered, he’d dropped the rag he’d used to do so.

She prayed for as long as she dared, felt his breathing ease a little, and clenched his free hand around Crocus’s tail.

“Come now,” she whispered in his ear, pushing him to get him to rise up. “We need to get out. You got all the horses, now it’s your turn.”

Her companion still seemed disoriented, though he followed the Steed when she started making her way outside, holding on to the milky-white tinsel of her tail. Myen walked behind him, pushing him gently but firmly every time his steps seemed to falter. Her own lungs were starting to protest, painfully, to all the hot air and smoke she’d breathed in, but she forced it out of mind. If she was feeling that bad, how might then Socks feel?

The main entrance, where they’d gotten in, was blocked off by a smoldering support beam that had fallen across it. She wanted to call for the people outside to remove it, or try to put it out, or anything, but she didn’t dare waste the air. Then, before she could think of a solution, Socks beat her to it, rousing from his confused state to push Crocus aside and, to the stench of burned hair and flesh, half lift, half shoulder the blockage out of the way.

The three of them stumbled rather than walked onto the courtyard, wheezing. Only then did Myen, eyes watering and stinging, properly see the blanket spread across the packs her companion was wearing. Where not stained by soot and smoke, it was the same bright saffron as her own clothes and the blanket her Steed was wearing.

When she started praying, she could feel Socks praying with her.



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