Just FYI, in my head he speaks with the voice of Ricardo Montalban

“Um… hello,” said Felda, cautiously.

“This morning, I am walking,” the cat-headed man said conversationally, “and seeing something interesting. Do you know what it is I am seeing?”

“Um… no?” said Felda.

“No,” he said. “And why should you?” He dropped lithely to the ground beside her, then bowed. “I am forgetting to introduce myself. I am called Twill.”

“Ah,” said Felda. She took a step back and laid a hand on Brom’s flank. The man didn’t seem dangerous, but…

He looked up at her–he was very slightly shorter than she. “I see I am confusing you. I know; it is the first thing everyone always asks: ‘Like the fabric?’ The answer is yes. My parent hears the word long-ago and thinks it is sounding, errmm…” He searched for words. “Romantic. Exotic? From the faraway west.”

“Is that really the first thing everyone asks?” asked Felda.

“No,” he admitted. “Sometimes, I am saying it before they can ask, so instead they are asking something else.”

“Why are you a cat?” Felda blurted.

“Yes, that is what they are asking.”

“Sorry,” said Felda.

“No-no,” Twill answered, shaking his head. “Men having the heads of cats is not common. It is natural to be curious.”

“Oh, okay,” said Felda. “So… why do you have the head of a cat?”

He smiled, showing sharp-looking fangs, and said nothing.

“Um,” said Felda. “So. Yes. Uh, I think I had best be on my way. Gotta keep moving, you know?”

She backed away from him slowly. Despite how small and slim he was, that sword and the whipcord muscles of his arms were more than enough to worry her, even before fangs came into the equation.

“Please, at least wait until I am telling you what it is I am seeing, no?” he protested.

Felda paused. She was out of reach of his sword, and the dirt underfoot was fairly loose. She felt into the threads–yes, she would be able to throw a cloud of it in his face the moment he reached for his sword. “What did you see?”

“I am seeing a strange rock in the middle of a field. A person and a bull is coming out, and it collapses. It is strange to me. Who is this person? Why are they with a bull that does not act like a bull? What sort of bull neither eats nor drinks? And why does the person have the face of one who is trying not to be sad and afraid? And I am thinking I am knowing the answers to these questions.”

Felda took a long step back, Brom moving with her. She had never attacked someone with magic before, but it was starting to look like she had no choice.

Twill stepped forward, his white-gloved hands in front of him, palms spread and facing her. “I am not being an enemy, child,” he said. “You and your dragonchild are belonging to you. Who you run from, why, these do not matter to me. What sort of person am I being, if I am seeing a child running and not helping?”

Felda paused. “Who are you, really?” she asked.

“I am telling you the truth,” he answered. “My parent is naming me Twill. Many years ago I am deciding to walk to other side of world. In a year, two, I am finishing, and then maybe going back or doing something new.”

“Why?” asked Felda. “Who are you running from?”

“The same reason everyone is doing everything. It is seeming like a good idea at the time.” He looked contemplative for a moment. “I am thinking, but I do not think I am running from anyone today. Most who are chasing me do not like walking as far as I am walking.”

Felda looked him over again. No pack, no belt pouches, no pockets–maybe money hidden in his boots? But most likely, no money and no supplies, so how did he eat?

“What do you do?” she asked. “Other than walking?”

“If I see someone and am wishing to help, I am helping. Mostly I am finding those with power, and teaching them what power is for.”

What it’s for? Felda mouthed the phrase silently. Does he mean… is there some purpose my teachers never taught? “Can–” she paused. “I’m not saying I trust you or that you can come closer. I’m just asking, can you teach me?”

It was Twill’s turn to pause. “No one is ever asking for lesson before.” He considered, then brightened. “Yes, I think I can!”

Almost faster than she could see, and definitely far faster than she could react, his bright, needle-thin sword was in his hand. That same swift smooth motion somehow became a lunge, and then his sword was in her chest.

It hurt.

Then it was dark.

Skipping ahead…

I am still very much stuck on how to make Felda’s training and family life non-boring. So I’m going to jump ahead a bit. In this scene, Felda has just left home, with no idea when or if she will ever return. She is in breach of contract and on the run from the Guild, who intend to repossess Brom. 

The first new thing Felda learned about being an outlaw was that it was vastly less interesting than the books made it out to be. There was a great deal more walking across stubbly wheat fields and a great deal less cutting through dense bracken in dark forests, for starters. At one point in the afternoon, she saw a man a couple of hundred yards away and froze in panic. He waved, then went back to loading his wagon with bales of hay. Most likely not a steely-eyed, stone-hearted Peacekeeper who would, together with his cruel hawk bondling, pursue her relentlessly across the countryside for years, never listening to or caring about her explanations of innocence and extenuating circumstance, then. 
Come dark, she found herself in a fallow field on some strange farm. “I’d better makes us some shelter,” she told Brom. She closed her eyes, concentrated, felt the threads of Earth beneath her. She  felt Brom’s strength flow into her and down into the soil. She knelt, laid a hand on it, gathering threads together, then slowly stood, pulling them upwards. A mound of soil rose, hollow and open at one end, about eight feet long and tall as Felda. 
“Hold it there, Brom,” she said, and he snorted in response. 
Now came the hard part. She reached into the weave of the soil, and bit by bit, carefully, unravelled the threads and spun them together into thicker, courser cords. After about a half hour of work, she opened her eyes. The mound was now a dome of thin but solid gray stone, big enough for the two of them to shelter in. 
“Thanks, Brom,” she said, and gave him a scratch between the ears. Then, exhausted by walking and magic both, she ducked through the dome’s opening, Brom close beside her. She lay back against him, closed her eyes, and was asleep immediately. 
The next day was rather more interesting. 
It began more or less predictably. Felda woke and stepped out into a bright, clear morning. The sun was warm, but a breeze out of the south held just a hint of autumn chill working its way inexorably north. She stretched, then opened one of the packs she’d loaded on Brom’s back. Breakfast was cold meat pie and water, hardly the big, varied, hearty breakfast her father used to–
Breakfast was adequate. It was time to start walking. 
Ignoring the hot, dense feeling behind her eyes, Felda laid a hand on the dome. Destruction is always easier than creation; in a matter of minutes, the rock collapsed into soil once more. 
“What do you think, Brom?” Felda asked. “Should I enrich the soil as payment?”
Brom said nothing. 
“Yeah, you’re right. Have to keep moving. Let’s go!”
She walked off, Brom trailing her. The hills ahead looked no closer than yesterday, let alone the mountains that loomed above them, but she could make out trees between her and them, scattered at first and then growing denser the farther away she looked, until they blended bluely up into the hills. 
“Maybe we’ll get those dark forests after all,” she remarked to Brom as they walked. By late afternoon they were on the fringes of a wood that extended out from the hills like a long finger pointing home. 
“No such place,” muttered Felda, and skirted the forest, walking gloomily under the eaves of its branches with her head down. 
“Hello,” said a calm, friendly, heavily accented voice from above her.

Felda leaped straight up, then again sideways as soon as she touched the ground. She spun toward the trees and looked up.

The man sitting in a branch was decidedly unusual. He wore a sleeveless belted tunic, leggings, boots, and a hooded cloak, though the hood was thrown back. This was not particularly unusual; they were quite fine, but very travel-stained and had been frequently patched, but that was not in itself hugely odd. The sword hanging from his belt was a little unusual, quite a bit thinner than most swords Felda had seen, but then she’d not seen particularly many swords and from her reading knew there were quite a few types.

His accent was odd–it was both very heavy and not at all one that Felda had heard before–but that merely meant he was from far away, which fit with his clothes. Same with his red-brown complexion–not something she’d seen before, but it fit with the accent and the clothes–he was simply foreign, not unusual.

No, the unusual part was that he had the head of a cat.

Pulling a thread

Onwards with Felda!

Dinner that night was a quiet affair, at least for Felda. She sat in the eye of a cyclone of noise and activity, picking at her food while her mind flowed down the threads connecting her to Brom. Felda supposed it should have been disorienting, seeing and feeling through two minds at once, but she found it surprisingly easy. So while Lal told off the twins–fifteen and full of what Felda’s mother called “barley” and Felda called “being obnoxious little brothers”–for slipping some of their greens onto her plate, and Felda’s sisters Lem and Hanni (eleven and eight, clever and ever-conspiring) chattered rapidly and loudly to one another, Felda slipped away to relax with Brom, even while her body remained at the table.

She could see the stars through his eyes, tiny points of light and color just starting to come out on the east side of the sky. Below them were the mountains, small and dark purple against the darker-purple sky. Somewhere between here and there, Felda knew, were the Blightlands, where the realms of the Dark One had been before the Great War. She liked that they were there–anywhere associated with that many capital letters had to be an interesting neighbor. But they were too flat and low to be visible over the gently rolling hills of southeastern Toftor, and perhaps that was for the best, given the stories.

When she was younger, Felda had tried to imagine it. From her books she had an idea of what war was like back in the olden-times. She could picture the long lines of sword and archer crashing into each other while bondlings tore through them like puppies scattering beetles. She could envision great spells lashing through the air above the armies, fire and lightning exploding. Where her imagination failed, however, was the end of the war. All twelve dragons on the field at once, eleven against one, all the energies of creation imploding against an entire kingdom. A people, a language, a realm, snuffed out in a moment.

The said the Dark One survived, or came back, and lurked around the edges of the world, scheming still. Felda believed it. Everyone knew you couldn’t kill a dragon for very long. Even eleven other dragons probably couldn’t do it for all the centuries since. She was less sure about the stories of his bargains, that he could appear to humans and offer them contracts, his power for their servitude. That made for too good a story to be real.

She finished her food, then asked to be excused. Her mother grunted a reply, then returned to arguing with the twins, while her father attempted to deal with a sudden barrage of questions about whatever it was the girls had gotten in their heads. 
Felda walked outside into the cloudless, moonless night. The last of the sky was fading into darkness now. She looked up at the stars and felt the earth extending just as far beneath her feet. 
She would, she realized, never be able to explain, to anyone in her family, any of what she experienced that day. 
She looked at herself with Brom’s eyes. She had the same straight, thick dark hair as her mother, the same dark eyes with little flecks of lighter brown as her father. Everyone in the family–practically everyone she knew, except Lal and Laal–had the same red-brown skin and oval faces, and like the rest of her family she was tall and wiry. To look at, she was one of them, sister to her brothers and sisters, daughter to her parents. She could walk down to the village and talk to countless cousins and old friends of her parents and children of those old friends. 
But none of them would ever understand what she felt when she felt down into the earth and looked up into the sky. 
She felt something wet and cool in her palm, and a rush of hot air over her fingers. Brom nuzzled her hand, and without looking she ruffled his fur. 
Well, almost none of them. It was getting late. She went back into the house to go to sleep.

Picking up where we left off…

Yes, after all that I realized that the best thing to do with Felda is pick up where I left off.

By late afternoon, Felda was able to follow the threads through Brom and into the ground. There was a vast and shimmering web of threads of every size extending forever in every direction, and now that she could see it–or feel it, or hear it, the sensation was somewhere in between all three–she couldn’t understand how she had never noticed it before.

Everything was different, new, and yet sensible in ways it had never been before. The soil beneath her feet was a dense mesh of incredibly fine and delicate threads, each thinner than the thinnest sewing thread, intertwined with something she couldn’t see. Whatever it was, the threads supported it, fed it, nourished it–“Oh,” she said.

Elmun grinned. “Yes. Those are roots.”

Felda nodded and felt deeper, following the threads down. She had expected some abrupt end to them, where farm-tilled soil ended and rock began, but there was no such boundary to be found. The threads gradually thickened, her family’s work atop her father’s family’s atop his mother’s family’s atop centuries upon centuries of their ancestors working the land, shimmering living threads of soil that slowly thickened and coarsened until Felda found herself down among the rock, huge inflexible bands that were the stone. And yet, at the same time, they were still the same threads as the soil, just woven in a different pattern.

“You’re beginning to get it, aren’t you?” asked Elmun.

“It’s all one thread, isn’t it?” Felda answered. “Bent back and forth who knows how many times, woven with itself to make a strong rope or a light cloth, but still the same thread.”

Elmun grinned. “Congratulations,” he said. “And welcome.”

Felda’s head was still spinning hours after her training ended–much too soon for her taste, but there were chores to be done. The work of the farm could not stop just because Felda was discovering the true underlying reality of the earth itself, and on a late summer afternoon there was plenty of work for her entire family and more. Felda herself spent most of the afternoon picking squash and peppers with Lal and Laal, a pair of migrant workers who had been spending their summers helping Felda’s family since before her parents married.

It was hard to focus when she could feel the earth thrumming beneath her feet, power and joy just waiting for her to figure out how to tap it. Brom’s eyes sparkled as he followed her through the rows of vegetables, carrying large baskets that Felda and the two old women filled with deep green zucchinis, bright yellow squash, and cheery red sweet peppers. Those last were Felda’s favorite, but too exotic and precious for the family to keep for themselves very often. Still, every time she did get one, she was very glad her father had imported the seeds from far-away Wanneth.

She bent to pull some squash from the vine and paused, reaching down to touch the earth. It was barely noticeable, but she could feel just a hint of thread, finer even than in the soil, too fine almost to see, running up through the plant itself. Or at least, she thought she could–it was so faint she couldn’t be sure she wasn’t imagining it. She needed to ask Elmun–

“Oi, girl, enough lollygagging!” snapped Laal, just a trace of a Keiokarnan accent adding music to the otherwise harsh tones. “You lovesick again? It’s not that skinny Guild boy, is it?”

“Always her and the skinny boys,” commented Lal from the other side of the row. “Give me a man with some meat.”

“Really?” asked Laal. “First I’ve heard of anyone giving you a man at all.”

The old ladies laughed, and Felda shook her head. “No, just woolgathering. Training was… interesting.”

“Bah,” said Lal. “This magic of yours. Had a cousin who went in for magic when I was a little one. Went off to the wars so they’d give him a bondling, and we never saw him again. That’s magic for you.”

“Not that I begrudge the help!” Laal patted Brom, tiny black hand against huge black flank. “Glad we don’t have to carry the baskets back and forth when they fill.”

“I’m not going to be in any war,” Felda assured them. Adventures in the mountains of the south or the vast unexplored oceans of the north, sure. But war? No, I’m glad being a bondling doesn’t mean you have to be a warrior anymore. I don’t want to see any wars. “There’s never been a war here, not for hundreds of years.”

“Ah, the old bat knows that,” said Laal. “It’s why we came here in the first place, get away from all the wars up north.”

“There’ll be a war someday,” said Lal gloomily. “Always is, sooner or later. And then do you think they’ll let the girl with the big strong bull stay at home?”

“Don’t frighten the girl! There’s no reason for a war, there’s no one to fight down here. Blightlands on one side, her own countrymen on the other, and nothing else for a hundred miles.” Laal smiled at Felda. “Just ignore her, child.”

“If it isn’t war, it’ll be something else,” Lal said, applying decades of practice in ignoring her wife. “You’ve got power now, girl. People will be looking to use it for you.”

Felda laughed. “You mean like you two using Brom to carry the baskets?” she teased.

Lal merely harrumphed, and they continued working until the sun sat fat and red on the horizon.

Felda 2.0

I have decided to rather massively alter the setting of the story from which the first two Fiction Friday installments derived. This is what Felda’s first scene has become as a consequence of that change.

It took three sentences for Felda to decide she didn’t like the woman from the Guild. The first was when Felda, responding to her mother’s call, came downstairs to the kitchen to see her parents, tired, worried, older than she’d ever seen them, sitting at the table with a tall, elegantly dressed woman with unsettlingly clean nails.

“Hello, Felda,” she said brightly. That was the first sentence. Felda didn’t like this complete stranger knowing her name. It made her wonder what was written in the sheaf of papers on the table in front of the woman. 
The second sentence was the one the woman didn’t say: “Pleased to meet you,” perhaps, or something that started “My name is.”
“Ms. Ansfel is from the Guild,” Felda’s mother said. 
“I already talked to the Guild recruiter,” Felda answered. “I said no.”
Ms. Ansfel laughed. That didn’t count as a sentence, but nonetheless it contributed. People who laughed at things that weren’t jokes were, in Felda’s opinion, nearly as bad as people who didn’t laugh at all. 
“Oh, I’m not a recruiter,” said Ms. Ansfel. That was the third sentence, and it was the way she said “recruiter” that did it. Felda could easily imagine her saying “farmer” in the same way. “I’m a field contract specialist in our agricultural services and land management division. I’m here to talk to your parents about joining us.”
If Felda hadn’t already decided she disliked the woman, that last sentence alone would have done it. “We won’t sell,” she said firmly. “This land’s been ours since–“
“Since it was granted to your great-grandfather by the Feudal Reparations Act, yes,” the woman interrupted. “Your father told me. Though I suppose that would make it your great-great-grandfather. And before that your family worked these very fields as vassals of the  Carl of Whatever for umpteen centuries, I’m sure. We’re not interested in taking you from your land, believe me. The Crafters’ Guild has always been strongly in favor of local businesses staying under local management.”
“Then what are you here for?” asked Felda. She glanced at her parents. They were being unusually quiet. Felda was 16, an adult for a full three weeks now, so she appreciated them including her in whatever decision this was, but why weren’t they saying anything?
“I’m here to offer you an opportunity,” Ms. Ansfel explained. “You recently performed your coming-of-age examinations, I believe. According to the Academy’s records, you scored a 3.4 for Earth affinity on the Antonella scale. That’s borderline mage-level, did you know that? Do sit down, girl, you’re putting a crick in my neck.”
“Yes, the recruiter told me.” Felda sat, though privately she minded not in the least if the Guildswoman got a crick. “I don’t want to be a mage.”
“No, I can see that from the recruiter’s report.” Ms. Anfeld winked in what, Felda assumed, she probably thought was a conspiratorial manner. Felda’s dislike advanced rapidly in the direction of hate. “And I can’t blame you. Between you and me, the folk in the magic division are a stodgy bunch of old men. Plus it’s years of training before you start casting the simplest spells.”
“Are you ever going to answer the question?” asked Felda’s mother. 
Ms. Ansfel simpered. “Of course, my dear.” She inserted one gloves hand into a satchel slung over the back of her chair and smoothly removed something, which she set lightly on the table. “Don’t touch, please,” she warned. 
Felda stared. The object was shaped like an egg, but far bigger than any chicken or goose egg she’d ever seen. It was about eight inches long, five wide at the widest, and the pale orange-brown of fired, unglazed pottery. 
“Is that what I think it is?” she asked. 
“Indeed,” said the Guildswoman. “A dragon egg. We are prepared to offer it to you, Felda.”
Felda put a hand to her mouth. “–to me?”  A dragon’s egg. A dragon’s egg! She could be a bondswoman, a performer of miracles–
“Benefits are greatest with threes and fours, of course. On average, someone like Felda should expect an effective combined Antonella score of five and a half, though of course that would cover direct manipulation only…”
As the woman chattered on, Felda glanced at her parents and was relieved to see that, at least to judge by their glazed eyes, they understood as muh as she did. 
“What do you want from us in return?” her father finally asked. 
“Well, first, let me ask you a question, Herr Landsman. Do you know who the largest agricultural producer and distributer in the world is?”
Felda’s father’s eyes narrowed. “You’re about to tell me it’s the Crafters’ Guild, I suppose.”
The woman shook her head. “No! It’s the Healers, of all people! Even though we make most of the tools, they grow more than us by a huge margin. Honestly, Healers growing food, can you imagine?”
She smiled broadly at Felda’s family. Seeing no response, she continued, “Obviously, the Guild would like to be more competitive in this sector, and while we’ve had some success leveraging our vertical advantage, we’ve also been developing techniques for Earth-affiliated farming. That is what we want–for you, your family, your farm to join us as a test bed for the efficacy of our new techniques.”

Felda’s mother frowned. “It sounds like you want to… experiment here.”

Ms. Ansfel laughed yet again. “Oh, don’t worry. We’re not talking about… legless cows or vampire squash or whatever you’re imagining. We’re talking about the things Felda here could do, post-augmentation–and the augmentation itself is of course time-honored and tested, lifebonding is as old as time, as I’m sure you know.”

“What… I would be able to do?” asked Felda. Despite herself, and despite Ms.Ansfel, she couldn’t help but imagine the new abilities she might gain. Floating great boulders with a gesture? Shattering mighty city walls with a glance? Bending rods like they were made of licorice?

“Imagine, if you will,” Ms. Anselm intoned, turning slowly back and forth between Felda’s pareants, “an entire field plowed in a day. Imagine never needing to rotate crops, because your daughter can turn the tired old soil young and new in a matter of days. Plus a lifetime guarantee that you–whichever of you you decide–will always be manager of every aspect of this farm, that the other, Felda, and all your other children will have guaranteed employment at competitive rates of pay, though of course the children’s hours will be limited until they turn 16…” she looked down at her papers. “Ah yes, and a quite sizeable discount on all equipment, seed, and feed purchased from us.” 

“And in return you get our farm,” Felda’s father said coldly. 
“Well, perhaps in an abstract, paperwork sense. We’re more interested in seeing how well it works, and of course in making money. But you will all receive good salaries, and continue to live and work where your ancestors did, without needing to fear a bad harvest wiping you out or a greedy banker foreclosing.” Ms Ansfel consulted the papers again. 
“No deal,” Felda’s father said firmly. 
“But papa–” Felda began. 
“He’s right,” said Felda’s mother. “It’s our farm. Doesn’t matter what they offer, it ain’t worth giving ’em our farm.” She gazed sternly at Ms. Ansfel and lowered her voice to a murmur so only Felda could hear. “Don’t be fooled by her pretty talk. This woman’s a snake.”
Felda started to answer that of course she could tell what Ms. Ansfel was, but dragon’s egg, but the woman spoke before she could. 
“Ah, here we are!” she said brightly, pulling out a sheet from the middle of the stack. She shook her head at it and tsked gently. “Twelve hundred gil in debt, I see.” 
“How do you know that?” demanded Felda’s father, looking slightly purple. 
“And you’ve missed your payments for the last four months.” Ms. Ansfel shook her head sadly. 
“Old Greta would never–“
“Apologies, Frau Landsman. I suppose it is quite rude of me to interrupt, but I am afraid Ms. Hofstedter does not actually have a say. It’s quite hard out there for an indepent local bank these days, I’m afraid, and the Bank of Frogshackle found itself in dire need of funds. So when we approached them seeking to purchase certain securities, well…”
“I don’t understand,” said Felda’s father. “Our loan is with them, how–“
Ms. Ansfel smiled genuinely for the first time, and Felda, who had been torn between rising hatred for the woman and fantasies of being able to walk through stone found she suddenly had a new factor to consider: fear.

“As of last week, I’m afraid the Bank of Frogshackle merely administers your loan. We own it. So I’m afraid the choice isn’t actually a matter of whether you want to keep your farm or share it with us. It’s a matter of losing your farm or sharing it with us.” At the horrified stare of all the Landsmans, her smile widened slightly. “Snakelike of me, perhaps, but business is business, and we do very much want to expand our farming operations. Come now!” She slid a clipped-together set of papers out of the pile in front of her and across the table toward them. “It’s not a bad deal at all. You’ll be more productive and make more money than you ever did as a tichy little mama-and-papa farm. You’ll be on the cutting edge!”

There was much more debate, and reading of the contract, and demands to know what certain passages meant, but Felda knew her family had no choice, and soon her parents came to admit it, too. Even the horror of being trapped by this snake of a woman, however, could not entirely dampen her excitement. She knew that by the end of the evening she would be a bondswoman, a somebody, a force to be reckoned with. The snake kept talking about revolutionizing farming, but Felda could see so much more than that. She saw adventures in high mountains and deep deserts, great battles with wicked sorcerers, most of whom looked quite a bit like Ms. Ansfel, the bustle of the great cities and the cries of dragons. She’d never dared seriously imagine being anything other than a farmer, and other than farming, the only other thing she’d ever been good at was reading–and who wanted to be a scholar, shut indoors all day? Being a weak mage would be no better–she knew what kind of work that would mean, sitting at the end of some factory line and casting the same spell of sharpening or strengthening a hundred and fifty times a day.

She wanted that egg like she’d never wanted anything, more than the temporary farmhand she’d spent half of last year lusting after, more than the one volume of Tales of the Nine Realms she didn’t have. So Ms. Ansfel was a hateful, malicious woman–all Felda needed was that egg, and she could squash her! She’d like to see anyone try to take her home once she had power like that.

“Very well,” said Ms. Ansfel at last, putting away the finally signed papers and standing. “This is yours, child.”

Felda held out both hands, vibrating slightly, and the woman put the clay egg in her hands. It was cool, and prickled slightly.

No, more than slightly. It prickled a lot. Stung, actually, and it was growing hotter by the moment. With a shout, Felda dropped the burning egg, or tried to, but it was stuck fast to her hands. Felda fell to her knees, unable to take her eyes off the glowing egg as agony spread up her arms. Cracks began to spread across the surface of the egg, which shone so brightly it hurt, but not nearly as much as the twin columns of fire marching up her arms. The pain reached her shoulders, spread in and downward, swirled together in her heart, before it exploded outwards to encompass everything, her entire being. Dimly she knew she was lying on her side, but it was hard to tell, because the room kept jerking wildly about.

“Stop,” she whispered, to the room, to the pain, to the wild pounding of her heart, but it went on and on. The egg was breaking apart, crumbling, seeping into her hands. She couldn’t see through the red-fire haze that filled the universe, but she could feel it, chunks of dull throbbing agony passing up her arms to punctuate the fire. Was someone screaming?

The lumps were nearly to her heart. She knew she was dying, and welcomed it. What was death but the end of pain? But of course that was absurd, there had always been pain, would always be pain, and death would bring no relief–and then they were in her heart, and she felt it skip one beat, then two, an entirely new kind of agony, a squeezing

Felda woke.

She was lying on the kitchen floor, and every part of her hurt. From where she lay she could see her parents, their eyes filled with concern and fear, but for some reason they were keeping back. “Mama?” she asked, her voice dry and cracked and weak. “Papa?”

“Baby,” her mother whispered, tears in her eyes. “You’re awake! It’s been nearly an hour…” But she came no closer.

Felda took a deep, shuddering breath.

Something large above and behind her did as well.

Felda let her breath out. So did it, warm and wet across her shoulders. It had been there the whole time, she realized. She just hadn’t noticed its breathing before because–she gasped. It whuffed.

Because it was breathing in perfect synchronicity with her.

Slowly, painfully, she rolled over. A great black nose came into view first, then a proud head, great curving horns and enormous eyes, the same brown as Felda’s own. A massive body, short fur the color of rich black soil, powerful legs, strong gray hooves as sharp and hard as flints.

The great bull–her bondling!–lowered its head and nuzzled her. Its nose was warm and cold all at once, like a dog’s but bigger. Gratefully, Felda wrapped her arms around its neck and pulled herself to her feet. “Mama, papa, there’s no need to be afraid,” she said, smiling. “I want you to meet Varick.”

It was good, she thought. They had been caught by the Guild and that woman, yes, but this was worth it. They would still work the farm, sell their crops, buy seed and tools. Her brothers and sisters would go to school and do their chores. The only changes would be no more worrying about money, and Varick. Her Varick. She dug her fingers into his hide and inhaled his smell of sweat and clean, rich earth and growing things. It was more than worth it, she decided, and eventually the rest of the family would understand that as well.

And she was right; within a year even her mother had to admit that they were better off as Guild farmers.

It would be another four years after that before they all came to understand exactly how they had been swindled.