It started with that idiot horse.
A horse who licked my whole face with a really gross tongue, then stuck his nose next to my head and gave an ear-splitting whinny!
Sitting beneath a pine tree and reading a book, I was minding my own business when he deafened me as effectively as if he'd whacked me up alongside the head with a board.
At that point in time, I could have cared less about horses. In fact, I never thought of them at all, other than as giant poop factories, but there was no way I could ignore this horse.
That seemed to be what the animal had in mind because it walked out from behind the tree and looked me over with a smug glint in its eyes as if I were the inferior creature and not it.
"Pet food!" I yelled to scare it away. "Hay burner! Fleabag! Glue factory!" Because he'd stunned my hearing, my voice sounded a million miles away.
It cocked a reddish eye at me in amusement. As far as I was a judge of horseflesh, it appeared to be a stallion and an exceptionally fine one although I certainly wasn't going to tell him that.
His coat was a sleek jet black and the tail was held proudly aloft. It was a horse that seemed both uncommonly large and uncommonly elegant.
"You're a thoroughbred," I said as my hearing began to return. "You've escaped from the race track. Well, I'm not going to take you back so don't worry about it. Just go away."
The horse sniffed as if insulted. "First of all, I am not a mere thoroughbred. I am a Morethanthoroughlybred. Second, I've come to take you back, not other way around."
I stared at the horse in astonishment, not only because it spoke but for reasons I couldn't fathom, a talking horse seemed a perfectly normal event to me.
"Me? Take me back where?" I asked when I recovered my wits.
"To where you've always wanted to go, Lorelei."
"Where's that?" I asked. "And how did you know my name?"
"To wherever it is that I happen to be," the horse said with an arrogant toss of its head.
"Why in the world would I want to be anywhere that you were?"
"Because," it said with complete assurance, "I am Godolphin, and wherever I stand is, without a doubt, the most interesting and exciting place in the world."
"Or the universe," it added.
"Oh, I'm sure that's true," I said in the most acid tone I could manage while thinking, Exactly like some boys at school, he's full of himself and hot air.
This thought startled me because I couldn't remember the name of the school or of any of the boys in it. It was all too maddening so I settled for glaring at the stallion as a grave expression settled on his handsome but obnoxious face.
"Well, what are you so serious about?" I demanded. "Did you realize all of a sudden how ridiculous you are?"
Godolphin snorted. "I am never ridiculous. There is another reason you should come with me."
"That's funny. I can't think of a single one."
"Sarah who?" I asked, annoyed at this horse's habit of speaking in riddles.
"Your best friend."
"I don't have a best friend named Sarah."
"Well, I'm very sorry about that," I said, "but I don't know her."
Godolphin lowered his head, stared intently at me and asked, "You don't remember her?"
"Why should I?"
The stallion muttered half to himself and half to me, "It's already gone too far."
"I'll agree with that statement," I said. "I'm sitting here peacefully, reading my book, when I'm interrupted by a talking horse-which is impossible, of course-who's got a big head and a rude manner. It's not in the nature of things to go this way."
I swear the stallion smiled as he said, "Sometimes the nature of things is not what is seems.
"What do you mean?"
He nodded at the dog-eared volume lying in my lap. "What are you reading?"
"What's the book about?"
"What do you mean, what is it about?"
"Tell me what it means," he said.
To my astonishment, I drew a blank. I didn't have a clue as to what was on the pages.
"I thought so," Godolphin said. "There's something terribly amiss here. Twelve-year-old girls don't read German philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer. Nobody else does, either. German philosophers are, by nature, unreadable. Plus, he hated women; therefore, young girls don't read books by men who dislike females. Finally, and this is most important, Schopenhauer was a pessimist. Do you know what that means?"
"Of course," I said. "It's someone who believes things will always go wrong instead of right."
"Good answer. In Schopenhauer's case, however, it doesn't go far enough. He believed that the world is fundamentally evil. Do you believe that, Lorelei?"
"No, evil things happen, but the world itself isn't evil. Life is good. At least, I think it is."
I wasn't so sure at the moment--about anything. "How long have I been sitting under this tree? And where am I?"
Godolphin looked satisfied. "Those are questions you should be asking. As to how long you've been here, the answer is too long, much too long. Events have been moving without you. As to where you are, well, the answer is miles from home. Six hundred, to be exact. You're in the Black Hills sitting beneath a lodgepole pine on a place called Harney Peak."
"Where's home?" I asked.
It was Godolphin's turn for astonishment. "Worse than I thought! Worse, worse, and worse."
"Why do you say that?"
He turned a grave eye on me. "Everyone who has a home always remembers it. Always."
"Then why don't I?"
The stallion took a deep breath as if reluctant to tell me.
"Do you remember anything?" he asked.
"No," I said. "And stop stalling. Whatever it is, it can't be all that bad."
Godolphin laughed. "There's spirit in you, yet. Good. We'll need it."
"Stop stalling," I said again.
"There is a man..." he began, stopped and then started again. "A man. That's the only way I can describe him, although he's more than a man--and less, much less. Like Schopenhauer, he believes that the world is fundamentally evil, but there's a big difference between Schopenhauer and Quashnik."
"That's his name--Quashnik?" I asked. "What a stupid name!"
"Don't interrupt," the stallion said. "I need to get this story out."
I ignored his order and asked, "What's the difference between the two?"
"Schopenhauer believed the world is fundamentally evil, but he was not happy about it. Quashnik not only believes the world is fundamentally evil, but believes it isn't evil enough! He's delighted at the prospect of helping things head in that direction."
"Is he one of those people who wants the world to come to an end?" I asked, hoping I wasn't going to be asked to head off some final catastrophe. I was pretty sure I wouldn't be up to preventing the end of the world.
"No," he said. "Why would he want that? It would spoil his fun. No, he wants the world to go on forever--on his terms. If he gets his way, it would be torture without end for all of us. In fact, he's already started the process."
I looked around. Everything seemed pretty normal, and I told Godolphin so.
"Quashnik is not your run-of-the-mill villain," he said. "He's subtle, and he has a sense of humor. You've already seen it."
"I have? Where?"
"That book," he said. "For most people, reading German philosophers for five minutes is a form of exquisite torture. If I hadn't come along, you could have been reading Schopenhauer for the rest of eternity or at least until Quashnik thought up something worse."
I read a couple of lines in the book--really read them--and saw what the stallion meant. I struggled through this sentence: "Every will is a will towards something, has an object, and end of its willing; what then is the final end, or towards what is that will striving that is exhibited to us as the being-in-itself of the world?"
"Good grief!" I said, then when I thought about reading that stuff for all eternity, I said it with considerably more feeling. "Good grief!"
"See?" Godolphin said. "Although he looks like a simple hired hand--he was hired to help out around the stables--think of Quashnik as an evil magician with an unlimited bag of tricks. He can torture you big, or he can torture you small, or he can do both at the same time."
"But why does he want to do this?"
The stallion's head drooped. "That may be the worst thing of all, Lorelei. He has no reason for doing it. He simply does it. He's amoral."
"He's a person who has no sense of right or wrong. Absolutely none. He hasn't got a clue about principles or moral or rules of civilized behavior. There's one thing you can count on with Quashnik--sooner or later, he will try to hurt you."
I shuddered. "He sounds awful."