"Solstice?" His voice was hoarse, and he blinked, trying to focus . . . on an alarmed horse facing three alligators, mouths open and hissing. He twitched, tried to find some coordination . . . He was sopping wet. Solstice backed up and dropped his head. Damien grabbed a double fist full of wet mane and staggered to his feet as he lifted his head. He let Solstice half-drag him away from the alligators.
He stopped a few hundred feet away, still snorting and alarmed. Damien blinked around the canyon. Was it twilight or pre-dawn? Solstice was still saddled and bridled. He staggered, holding onto his mane, to a lump of rock and managed to get himself up on his back. Solstice seemed to have an idea of where to go, so he let him.
The sky lightened, direct sun hit the cliffs on his left. The mush that was left of his brains slowly decided that it was morning and he was riding north. There were four houses, and a big building with greenhouses attached, and an arch showing the stubble of harvested wheat that Solstice took direct aim for. He stopped at the front door of the Twin Inn and Damien dredged up enough coordination to swing his leg over the horse's back and let go of the saddle. He even managed to stay on his feet. The stairs looked like too much of a challenge, so he staggered to the nearest chair.
"Goodness, you look awful."
He couldn't turn fast enough to see who'd spoken. The high female voice sent quivers of terror down his spine, but the young woman who set a glass of milk down in front of him was a very curvacious and tall red head. Only the round softness of her cheeks and forehead gave away an age that was probably within an year of sixteen. She had a braid of red hair that reached past her waist. "How about some nice bland toast?"
He managed to nod, and got his shaking hands around the glass. It was warm, with honey in it. His body absorbed the sugar straight into his blood stream and the horrible limp weakness faded. He nibbled toast, then tackled the stairs.
He didn't wake until Mihaela led the invasion of his room.
Cordelia felt his forehead. "Cold."
"Yellow said he didn't come down for lunch." Sanda sounded worried. "I'll get some soup."
"Honestly Uncle Damien!" Mihala scolded. "You should have come to us."
"Umm, sorry. Solstice came here and I just sought the nearest chair, then bed."
"Is this just a hangover? You seem awfully low energy . . . What is that bruise! Are those tooth marks?"
"I have a vague memory of Solstice rescuing me from some alligators in Rip Crossing." The livid arc of tooth marks just above his wrist had to be equine, a gator wouldn't have left his arm attached.
"Uncle Damien! Everybody knows not to go to the Rip! Oh, I think Mother is right about men not being able to think once a pretty woman has smiled at them!"
Damien grinned wryly, and let them fuss, and bring him soup, and later a sandwich. And even later, escort him down to diner. After a night of tossing and turning, with serial nightmares associated with turning into a goat and being staked out as alligator bait, he decided that he wasn't going to be able to reconstruct what had really happened and what had been an illusion or a hallucination. His nieces hitched up the horses – he was glad to see that Solstice hadn't wandered far – and escorted him to the barn, through the Corridor to Karista and delivered him to Aunt Andrai personally.
He waited until they were gone before reporting. "I believe I was assaulted, enchanted, raped and almost murdered by a pair of wicked witches."
"You look pathetic enough that I believe you. So. Is our welcome in Ash over?"
"I don't think it was anything official. It was two young witches waylaying me and hauling me off to a private spot near a river full of alligators. The girls think I attended one of what are rumored to be mind-boggling orgies in Rip Crossing. Let's leave it at that, and see who, if anyone, asks after me."
"Hmm. I'll go talk to the girls. I'll tell them to not stir anything up, but to remember who asks after you, so I can speak to them if I get mad enough to go up there again."
"Making sure to emphasize that I got so drunk I couldn't remember much beyond illusions and magic games."
"Are you trying to tempt them to try again, Damien Malder? I think you can't remember much. Period."
Thunderous footfalls heralded the arrival of four five-year olds. Obviously warned to not disturb him, their efforts to be quiet were unsuccessful.
"Daddy!" "Are you alright, Daddy?" "You look awfully Daddy!" and "Uncle Damien's sick! Shhh!" all wove together as the triplets and Vani and Code's youngest daughter all climbed on the couch and or him to reassure themselves of his reality. He hugged all four. The two girls and two boys were inseparable at this age, and only on rare occasions did they split up, even for sleeping.
Heavier footfalls were his business partners, Max and Code. He vaguely thought he must have been on this world too long, to be leaving Vani out. She drove wagons at the height of the season. And whenever anyone was sick or injured or just needed a day off. Very Medieval, not considering the female to be a partner.
Max was more amused than worried. Army buddies expected you to get wasted now and then. Code, on the other hand was his oldest unofficially adopted stray street kid, and was definitely worried.
Max snickered. "Okay, this qualifies for the record of 'how trashed can Damien get.' You look like you pulled the wagon home instead of the horses."
"Ha. I just did it to get some more time off. You think young Tony would like to abandon his pitch fork and drive for a few days?" He heard a whoop from the front stoop and grinned. "Guess so."