by Maria Leel
Title: Only Kidding
Chapters: 2 (so far)
Spoilers: None as yet
Date Posted: March 2004
Author: Maria Leel
Credits: Dedicated to Tyg, who asked for it and supplied the first line. Also dedicated to anyone else who is curious about goats.
Disclaimers: Storm’s world, not mine. I’m just playing in it and I promise to leave it nice and tidy when I leave… well, tidyish…
“What do you mean you incepted a goat?” Lulan shrieked at the recalcitrant harling standing before him. Olney was seven years old, just a few months shy of his feybraiha and looking increasingly as if he would never live to see it. The way things were going, Lulan would strangle him first.
Olney had always been a difficult child. Tall, gangly with buckteeth, with a mop of unruly hair and disturbingly intense eyes, what he lacked in good looks he more than made up for in sheer curiosity. The walls of his sleeping chamber were festooned in collections of every kind of bug and beetle. Olney had collected each and every one, individually stuck a pin through them and mounted them on felt covered boards. The wooden surfaces of his desk and dressing table were barely visible under the numerous fossils, bones and skulls that Olney had discovered on his frequent forays into the surrounding countryside.
The collection nearly drove Lulan to distraction. Naturally tidy, he abhorred clutter but reasoned that if it were contained within Olney’s chamber at least he could shut the door on it. Out of sight, out of mind. Lulan had been obliged to put his foot down when Olney’s interest in the natural world had escalated into keeping live animals. For a while a corner of the cellar had been given over to Olney’s personal zoo – snakes, spiders and scorpions. But following the escape of several specimens at particularly embarrassing moments, most notably at a dinner party of high-ranking hara, the zoo had had to go.
Lulan had breathed a sigh of relief as that particular phase had passed by. But the relief was short lived. In preparation for his forthcoming feybraiha, Olney was undergoing instruction from the local Tirtha. A third-generation har, both Lulan and his chesna, Hendred, were pure-born. Olney had become fascinated by the whole concept of inception. He talked about it incessantly, demanded to see the inception scar of every har that was not pure-born and then subjected them to a lengthy third degree about what the process involved.
Lulan took a deep breath and counted to ten.
“Olney,” he said in as calm a voice as he could manage. “Tell me exactly what you’re talking about. What do you mean – you’ve incepted a goat?” Olney raised his eyes to his hostling.
“I just wanted to see what it was like.” he said, “It all sounded so interesting. So I borrowed Nishka’s baby goat and fed him some of my blood. But I’m worried. Now he’s acting really funny.”
“When – when did you do this?” Lulan asked.
“This morning.” said Olney, “But I’m really worried. Can you come and see?”
They hurried out of the house to a nearby barn where Olney had left the results of his latest experiment. The baby goat was a pathetic sight. Sprawled in the hay with a matted coat, eyes glassy with fever, the goat kid was feebly attempting to rise. Lulan ran a hand over the kid’s head. The goat kid bleated at him weakly and fell over.
“What’s the matter with him?” asked Olney.
“Oh, you ridiculous child.” sighed Lulan, “You’ve poisoned him. Don’t you know that Wraeththu blood can be toxic? He’s probably going to die.”
“You’ve got to help him!” cried Olney desperately.
“Olney, I’m not sure I can. This is beyond me.” Lulan took his harling’s hand, anticipating the storm that was about to break.
“But we can’t just let him die.” Olney said shakily, “There must be someone who can help him. What about that human that keeps goats near Lemarath?”
Lulan had to admit that Olney had a point. It was a good two hours ride to Lemarath, but they had to try. Lulan left Olney to organise the horse and trap whilst he hastily left a note for Hendred and collected a blanket for the baby goat.
He had driven Anatha, their horse, hard with Olney sitting beside him on the trap cradling the baby goat, wrapped in a blanket, on his lap. The rooftops of Lemarath were now in view but they still had another couple of miles drive into the forest to reach their destination.
After a while the road went up a steep incline and turned sharply onto a plateau half way up the hillside, then the road continued steeply up the wooded hill. Just off the road, nestled comfortably on the plateau, was a large barn surrounded by a ramshackle fence. Lulan pulled the trap to a halt. He jumped down, allowing Anatha the freedom to graze at the side of the road, knowing that he would not wander far, then turned to help Olney and his bundle descend.
They made their way through the unsteady gate into the front garden. No one appeared to be around, the barn stood silently. As they followed the path to the back of the barn, past a pen full of lazy hens, they could hear loud, tuneless singing coming from the end of the garden.
“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside,
Oh I do like to be beside the sea…
Oh I do like to stroll along the prom, prom, prom,
Where the brass band plays tiddly-om-pom-pom!”
The woman had probably never seen the sea in her life, nor had any clue as to what a brass band was. She just liked the song and went at it with gusto.
She had chosen this fine spring afternoon to plant up her potato patch. There they found her placing fine examples of sprouting potatoes into a trench of freshly dug earth. She continued humming tunelessly as she placed the last potato in the trench. Still with her back to them, she straightened up, rubbing the soil from her hands and asked,
“What can I do for you, tiahaara?”
Then she turned around. Olney and Lulan exchanged glances. She was spooky.
Although average height for a human, alongside a naturally taller har she looked like a child. There was not a great difference between her and Olney. She was dressed in a simple brown woollen dress with a sizeable apron of rough linen tied around her waist. The weak April sun glanced off her dark, red tinged hair and focussed on a certain shrewdness within her hazel eyes.
“So how can I help you?” she repeated.
It was Olney who found his voice first.
“My baby goat’s sick,” he said, thrusting the bundle forward.”Can you help him?”
The woman twitched back a corner of the blanket and looked at the goat. Then she looked hard at Olney. She gestured with her head.
“Bring him up to the house and I’ll take a proper look.” She strode swiftly past them up the garden towards the barn. It was as much as Lulan could do to keep up with her. Olney had to run.
The barn was home to an odd combination of functions – part barn, part storage space and part living quarters. The walls were covered with multi-tiered shelves on which stood bottles and bottles of every kind of wine you cold think of and jars and jars of every kind of preserve. Rhubarb wine nudged shoulders with plum chutney whilst elderberry port stood beside red currant jelly. Strings of onions, garlic and drying herbs hung from every beam. At one end of the barn a platform had been built forming an upper storey that housed the human’s sleeping quarters and was reached by a stepladder. Beneath the sleeping platform was an enormous kitchen complete with an equally enormous range and table. At the other end of the barn were a couple of stalls. A listless grey and white nanny goat peered disinterestedly at them as they entered the barn, then looked away again.
The woman spread a tarpaulin on one end of the table and gestured for Olney to place the goat kid there. She quickly stripped off the blanket and set to work checking the kid over.
“This is one sick goat you have here.” she decided. “What happened to it?”
It fell to Lulan to explain the cause of the goat’s predicament. At the mention of the word “inception” the human’s eyebrows rocketed up to her hairline.
“Bugger me!” she said, expressively.
She looked at Olney. “I’ll do my best for this little one and I’m going to need your help,” then slowly, “But you must promise me never to do anything like this again.”
“You’ll have your own changes to go through soon enough without you messing around with nature. Oh, and when you get home you need to tell that Tirtha of yours to give you a lesson in basic anatomy. This little goat ain’t no he… she’s a she!”
She had put them to work straight away. Olney had been set to fill and watch the kettle, Lulan had been given a list of herbs to collect from the garden whilst the woman placed her hands over the goat and hummed quietly to herself.
They steeped herbs in boiling water to make a healing tea: chamomile to soothe the pain, bring down the fever and promote restful sleep; thyme to combat the toxic effects of the Wraeththu blood; basil to reduce and calm spasms; honey to give strength. When the tea had cooled sufficiently, it was strained and placed in a feeding bottle. The woman supported the goat’s head whilst Olney attempted to feed it. After a few false starts the baby goat got the idea and began to suck greedily.
“She’s a fighter this one.” the woman approved.”She’s strong too – so she might just pull through.”
The goat kid finished the bottle and wanted more. So they gave her more. By the end of the second bottle, the soporific effects of the chamomile had begun to take effect. Now much calmer and less feverish, the kid dozed off in her blanket.
“Herbal tea is part of the answer,” said the woman, “but TLC is just as important and I think I’ve got just the thing.” She pointed at the listless nanny goat at the other end of the barn.
“That there is Sonia. She’s a great mother but always takes it hard when her kids have to be sold. She gave me a lovely buck in the autumn but I’ve no use for another billy here so he’s gone to the Hambrells on the other side of Lemarath. Now she’s giving me the worst case of empty nest syndrome I’ve ever seen. If we can just get her to accept this little one, it’ll increase the kid’s chances of survival and cheer up Sonia no end.”
The woman fetched an old towel from the wooden clotheshorse in the corner. She took it over to Sonia’s stall and rubbed the goat vigorously. Sonia bleated her disgust and huffily stalked over to the far side of the stall.
“Oh, cheer up you miserable old bat!” muttered the woman. “You’ve got work to do.”
She brought the towel back to the table, discarded the blanket and gently rubbed Sonia’s scent over the baby goat. Once satisfied, she gathered up the kid and carried her gently over to Sonia’s stall.
The kid whickered slightly in her sleep, feebly objecting to the disturbance. Sonia was still sulking with her back to everyone when the human lay the kid down behind her. She poked Sonia playfully in the back, “Come on,” she said, and stepped out of the stall.
Sonia turned to glare balefully at her, then noticed the kid. A puzzled look crossed Sonia’s face. She bleated softly and stood up, lowering her head to sniff the new little bundle sharing her stall. She sniffed the kid from nose to tail, nudging her and bleating softly. She eventually got a response; the kid raised her head, bleated faintly and went back to sleep.
Sonia settled down in satisfaction and proceeded to slowly wash the kid’s ears. The kid responded to the soothing rhythm of Sonia’s ministrations and snuggled closer to her adopted mother. The woman led them back to the table, removed the tarpaulin, poured them each a glass of wine – a small one for Olney, and invited them to sit down.
Lulan and Olney suddenly realised how tired they were. By this time it was already early evening and they were also getting hungry. The woman heated up some soup form a huge cauldron on the range, serving it with thick slices of bread. The thick, root vegetable soup was filling and the distinct ginger overtones made it doubly warming. They completed their meal with slabs of apple cake washed down with another glass of wine.
“So, will the little goat kid be alright?” ventured Olney.
The woman rubbed her eyes. “Well, she’s not out of the woods yet. The next couple of days are going to be tough going. If this proceeds as an inception usually does, the change should be complete within 48 hours.”
She sighed, “Until then, she’s going to experience waves of fever and bouts of convulsions. If, that is, it proceeds as an inception usually does. We just don’t know do we? No-one, as far as I’m aware, has ever tried to incept a goat before.”
“Do you need us to stay?” asked Lulan, worried suddenly about Hendred at home.
“No. Sonia and I can take it from here. It won’t be the first time I’ve nursed a sick animal… I’ve got ways of doing things. I work better on my own. I thought it important for Olney to play a part in putting things right though. Important for him to try caring for something. Tell me,” she turned to Olney, have you ever had a pet?”
“I had a zoo once,” said Olney, brightening.
The woman rolled her eyes. “Why doesn’t that surprise me!” she snorted. “I mean have you ever raised an animal, grown to love it?”
Olney looked confused and shook his head.
“Well, if your hostling here is agreeable, I’ve a kitten who needs a home. Would you like to raise him?”
Olney’s eyes went wide as dinner plates, he looked beseechingly at Lulan.
Lulan made a pantomime of considering the offer.
After a few “Are you sure you’re responsible enough?” and “Will you really take care of him?” questions, Olney looked at the point of exploding. Lulan relented and agreed that he could take the kitten home. Olney bounced in his chair with excitement and had to be hastily hushed by the other two in case he woke the sleeping goat kid.
They found an old box and lined it with the blanket. The woman went out and returned carrying a large, boisterous kitten with haphazard black and white markings. Olney fell in love on the spot.
“He’s a handful, so he should keep you out of trouble.” she remarked. On cue the kitten demonstrated his reluctance to get into the box by shoving a claw tipped paw out to each of the four corners. After a quick game of push-me-pull-you, the kitten was secured safely inside.
Seated on the trap once more Lulan gathered up the reins. Olney, beside him, clutched the box tightly and looked down at the woman.
“Can we come and see the little goat when she’s better?” he begged.
“Of course, if she survives – I’ll send word to you one way or the other. In the meantime, you make sure you look after that little bundle there.”
Olney promised. Lulan thanked the woman and was about to offer something in payment but a certain warning look in her eye stalled him.
The woman watched them make their way slowly down the hill. She ran a hand through her hair and inhaled deeply. She was, she knew, in for a long, hard couple of days.
To be continued…