|FirstSearch's hooves slipped and clopped over mossy rocks along the
path down the valley floor. Reynard had made himself comfortable in the
left-hand pouch of Conan's saddlebags. He rode with black forepaws hanging
over the edge, sharp ears and long whiskers twitching nervously.
They passed more fascinated crowds gathered round CAM images: an iguana
climbing onto a towel-covered shelf in front of a window, a view from a
mountain, a view of only sky--all with no apparent meaning. The crowds
took no notice of the white stallion or his passengers.
Reynard whined softly. Conan turned impatiently and demanded, "If you
know where we are, then tell me."
"Not to alarm you...oh, wait. What's that?,"
Conan glared at him, then followed his worried gaze. Ahead of them,
a large sign proclaimed "Adopt!" Beneath it, a crowd oohed and aahed and
giggled at an image Conan could not see. Drawing closer, he glimpsed a
series of five peaked-roof doghouses, then a small puppy with large green
eyes and a coat the color of pea soup happily chasing after a red ball.
It was obviously only an image, for aside from the puppy's unnatural coloration,
the ball bounced off the artificial borders. Still, the crowd was entranced.
Reynard shook his head and sighed.
"Dogz," said Reynard, "that settles it. We are in the Valley of Shadows.
A place of seeming. Very tricky."
"'Snares and shadows'," Conan said softly.
"Just part of a poem. Still these shadows seem harmless enough."
"Oh, yes. Right you are. The harmlessness is but a seeming, too, for
when the shadows of the Web become more interesting than reality...." He
finished his sentence with a shudder, tucked his head back in the saddlebag
and pulled the flap over.
On they rode. No breaks appeared in the valley walls as the sun started
to set behind the mountain. Suddenly, a figure stepped from the shadows
into their path, causing FirstSearch to rear and startling Reynard from
his nap. Conan's hand went to his sword, but stopped when he looked at
the man who stood before them.
He was dressed in a ragged, cowled robe and straw sandals. A circle
of scraggly, blonde hair ringed his bald head and combined with his weathered
face and stooped posture to make any guess at his age impossible. His walking
stick bore a large sign saying "Y2K is coming; the end of the world is
"Stop!" the man cried in a voice that was stronger than Conan expected.
"You must listen to me. We must take action before it is too late."
Before Conan could reply, two men riding black horses appeared from
behind a large rock to confront them. They were dressed all in black except
for the gold "S" embroidered on their tunics.
"The Wizard's guard!" Reynard squeaked, hiding himself again in the
One of the guardsmen expertly bumped his horse into the man with the
sign, knocking him face down on the ground. "Reality bites the dust," he
said. They both laughed at the joke. Conan did not.
"By what right do you assault unarmed travelers," Conan demanded, his
hand resting by the hilt of his sword.
"These prophets of doom offend the law of the land by preaching their
calendar-based catastrophe theories. And they disturb our guests," said
the second guard. "I hope you have not been troubled."
The first guard had dismounted and picked up the fallen staff, knocking
the man down again when he tried feebly to grasp for it. As he began to
rip up the sign, Conan turned FirstSearch and wrenched the staff away,
knocking the guard off his feet. He then swung quickly around and used
it to unseat his companion.
"No," said Conan, as he reached down to help the fallen prophet to his
feet, "it is not his behavior that disturbs me."
Suddenly, from behind the same rock came a thunder of hoof beats.
© 1997, by Hadley V. Baxendale