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Just An Ordinary Valley

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The people of the Geisel valley are quite used to its little quirks, and they wouldn't want strangers to feel troubled.

"Oh, yes, the halfhorses," they'll say. "Proud folks, but in truth quite sweet-natured. We sell them milk and hides, since they can't even bear to slaughter cattle. Don't worry about them!" And they laugh it away.

"Yes, it can be a strange feeling walking in through the Sisters," they'll say. "Strange pressure! Must be from how the massive stones will keep cold, even on a warm summer's day."

"Oh, those aren't wolf tracks!" they'll say. "A house in the next village over has the biggest black dog you'll ever see – whose is it, again? I forget if I ever found out. It must have leapt across here, where the tracks end so suddenly..."

But there are things, as well, they do not talk of to those from the outside. It's just what the valley is like, but others would not understand.

For instance: the blacksmith in Ahorn has a pet rooster. And what of it? A beautiful black bird, it is. But he's had the same rooster for decennia now, and his father had one just like it. In his cups he says his ancestor got it from a little man with goat legs. But then, is that any stranger than horse legs?

For instance: they know not to go out to the swamps when the dark of autumn nights cloaks hiding monsters. They know whose restless spirit wanders at the edges of the landroad, still stalking passers-by and not knowing he himself has passed on.

For instance: the little boys in Ränkebrau tell each other where not to go swimming, because there's something lurking in the deepest end of the stream pool in the river that closes its jaws 'round an unwary leg, even in the middle of bright day. Some of them have scars from it, dark on skin or white in fur, and they don't tell their parents how they got them.

And it's said if you stand in the crossroads north of Wacholderstein at midnight, you'll hear hoofsteps coming, and you'll know who it is approaching. Count the steps to one hundred, and he'll be there for your soul. Everyone knows someone who went to the crossroads by midnight and swears they heard the hoofsteps; but no one knows anyone who counted all the way before fleeing.

 

But that's always been so.

Stranger things happen eventually, though it's a long time before they know it.

The first time they see a family of refugees pass by, the father with antlers and the mother on two cloven hooves, they cross themselves. And then talk to each other in hushed voices, chastising themselves: do not some of their own neighbours walk on hooves...? Respectable people, too.

Not many travellers used to come through the valley, and not many do now. New faces are always a sight to stir curiosity. What of it if each new face looks just a little more different?

There are new things they tell each other now. For instance: not to take a turn to the west from the crossroads by the baron's castle. It's the road from Adlerdorf but it's not a road to: those who turn to it do not return. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that this was the old road to the Sisters and out of the valley. They set up a sign saying DEFUNCT ROAD. That's all outsiders need to know.

And: as the villagers in Adlerdorf and Ränkebrau and Wacholderstein have hooves, so do those from the outside have horns. Or snake eyes. Or ears like wolves'.

 

And so one slow and quiet evening there sits a young man in Two By Four, a glad traveller slurping his bowl of soup and chatting to the old waiter. The harvest looks to be coming in strong, he says. The weather was so fine for walking today. The people in this valley are "so interestingly marred..."

"Marred?" asks old Heinrich.

"Yes..." The young man gestures at him. "Those strange flat claws you all seem to have."

Heinrich looks at his own hands, then lets his gaze glide to the young man's fingers. Each of them ends in a claw like a dog's.

He is very quiet now.