Somewhere, the road itself casts shadows in a land called...
by Erin Halfelven
Chapter 17 - Shadows on the Road
The half-hearted rain continued to come down, some times in a falling mist, occasionally in brief transparent sheets. It only added to the cold and darkness but my lynx coat kept me warm and dry. I saw that Zenner had got himself a pair of gloves and so we all were as comfortable as we could be on a cold, rainy night in March in Merrie Olde Bloddeland.
Once we got away from the torchlight around the weghus and the little village surrounding it, it got darker. Very dark. But a curious thing became evident. The road, the old Remish-built highway hundreds of years old glowed in the darkness. Not brightly, it didn’t amount to more light than a full moon but you could see the way and the horses had no trouble staying on it. The soft silvery light lit everything from below, making strange shadows on faces that changed shapes as the horses did their fast walk.
I wondered how this light worked. It might be magic, since I knew for a fact that magic did exist in this world, but it didn’t have to be. There were natural minerals that would glow in the dark, releasing energy that they had stored in daylight. Perhaps the road had simply been made of something similar. Not just the roadbed glowed but also the curbs, walkways and gutters, and the culverts and drains, too; anything made of the ancient stone.
In a few places, pillars were topped with baskets that seemed to be made of iron, like the ones back at the weghus that had held torches. But there were no torches burning, the eerie light from the stone was the only illumination under the clouds.
“The brightstone will show us our path for another hour or two and there will be the watchfires of the road wardens on the last leg,” Rotgar was telling Zenner. “The dangerous part will be after the sunlight caught in the stone fades and before we reach the second weghus. Then it will be darker than dark and we will have to trust that the horses can see better than we can.”
Valto spoke up. “I will lead during that part, The Black in sooth sees very well in the dark.”
I forgot about the strange lighting while I listened to the talk of tactics and movement. Lillakatye and the men continued discussing our plans, leaving Kilda and I to worry. The two hired men brought up the rear, leading our pack horses. The Gray followed his brother closely without a lead.
I tried to distract myself from the military talk by considering the other parts of our situation. We had few supplies but we did not need many. I did wonder a bit what exactly the packhorses were carrying. I had packed very little but one of the horses was carrying the duffel containing the rest of my uptime stuff.
Thinking of that, I put my hand inside my coat and into the slit in my gown to the pocket holding the baby Glock. I couldn’t keep my hand there – I would get soaked, holding my coat open that way – and drawing the weapon would be possible but very awkward. It might take me as long as half a minute to get the gun out.
But with any luck at all, I wouldn’t need it, would I? I wished we had had time to put the gun in a pocket of the outer coat, instead of in the inner gown. If wishes were horse, I thought, but they would be fine wishes, for sure, if they were as excellent as Valto’s pair.
All the horses seemed refreshed from their half-hour rest in the warm stables and with a snack of oats and dried apples the grooms had fed them. We stayed in a fairly tight group and kept to a medium-fast walk that ate up the distance quickly. According to Rotgar, it was only a bit more than two leagues, six miles, to the next weghus but then two and a half leagues to the second one. At least, I thought we were making good speed.
After only a mile, though, Rotgar dropped out of the lead to ride beside me. “Honig is the slowest horse in the train,” he said. “She has not the long legs of my Froggie, or the racking gait of the Easterlings, nor can she pace like Katye’s mount.” Nessager was the pacing horse’s name, a pun that worked better in English: Naysayer.
“Um,” I said.
“Even the packhorses are faster at a walk,” he said. “Do you think you could ride The Gray? Else, we are going to have to go at a jog for as long as the road gives us enough light to do so. That will tire the horses more quickly, and the riders, too.”
“We’re not going to leave Honig behind,” I protested.
“Neg, never,” he said. “Without a rider, she will be able to keep up.”
So, in moments, I sat in the special lightweight racing saddle atop the tall Easterling horse, almost a foot further from the ground than on my hardly-more-than-a-pony sweet Honig. I didn’t like it much but The Gray was steady and accepted me riding him with less notice than a dog with a flea on his rump. The lean barrel of the taller horse was hardly wider than Honig’s and so my seat was comfortable if higher than I liked.
“Now when I steal you back, sesukin,” said Valto, riding beside me, “you’ll be able to outrun your friends.” But he grinned to show that he was only half-serious. I didn’t like him calling me sesukin, though; it meant little sister and I didn’t want to be reminded of who everyone thought I was. I stuck my tongue out at him again and he laughed.
He and Rotgar seemed to be in a good mood with each other and I found out that before making this adjustment in our riding order, Rotgar had taken Valto’s oath that he would not try to abduct me before passing through the gates of Lundenna. Otherwise, I would be on the even taller Froggie and Rotgar would ride The Gray.
But no one was easy with the idea of my mounting a knight’s stallion charger, least of all me. Neither Alenna nor I had ever been a terrifically skilled horse person, though both of us could ride well enough. Also the big horse would yield better to another male than to a female rider. Riding a charger took strength and, well, balls. And I didn’t have those things anymore. If Froggie took a notion to run away with me, I would not be able to stop him and would have to depend on his training to obey when Rotgar commanded.
The Gray on the other hand was trained as a racing mount and was a gelding with less ego to be a trial and, according to Valto, the Easterling horses were accustomed to young boys and girls as riders in their native lands where apparently everyone rode $400,000 horses. Like some of those High Schools in Los Angeles where the seniors drove their Ferrari’s and Bugatti’s to class. A light touch would actually be preferred in controlling such a mount.
And riding The Gray did feel like driving a sports car. I could feel the lean sinuosity of muscles moving under the leather and felt of the saddle against my thighs. It had a curiously sensuous excitement to it and I knew that The Gray wanted to run, loved to run. My face felt hot and I hoped that no one could see me blush in the darkness and the rain. It felt like my cheeks were glowing brighter than the road, though and I pulled the hood of my coat around my features.
What a glorious animal to ride, with a smooth gait that rocked gently in turn to each corner. Before I knew it, I had slipped into a riding trance, almost dozing in the saddle. We on the leading animals were covering ground at more than six miles an hour without ever breaking into a trot or canter.
I could hear the pack horses and the hired lances change to a jog now and then as they began to fall behind. And ahead of me Zenner’s mare huffed and puffed like a steam engine while Kilda’s did the same behind; they were having trouble and would tire before any of the other horses. Kilda could switch off onto Honig to rest her horse for short periods but Zenner had no such option.
I tried not to worry about it; Rotgar and Valto would take care of any problems I knew. Perhaps they would trade the tired or slower horses at the next weghus, I thought. The torches and outside fires lit up buildings just ahead of us already. But no, when we reached the village and roadhouse, we rode on through with only a short conversation between Rotgar and a guard on the weghus gate.
“Riding through to Lundenna?” the guard asked.
“Aye,” said Rotgar.
“Ware thieves,” said the guard. “A bit over a league ahead, in a dell, trees a mickel to each side.”
“Tanka-du,” said Rotgar.
“Crossbows!” called the guard after us.
“Skaite,” muttered Valto. “Damned Remish new-work.”
“No,” said Zenner. “We made-after crossbows from the Farsani, southeast of Yezbuul. Same people we got stirrups from. The Hellenoi had both of them, too, much good it did them when the Yezite tide washed over Hellas.” Hellas was Greece, I remembered that from somewhere. Who were the Yezites? Turks? I wasn’t sure but I thought the Turks came much later. Later… later than what?
Rotgar snorted. “Henrik Blodde brought stirrups with him from Geatasland. I don’t know where they got them, not from the Farsani, so far to the south.”
“Happen from the Easterlings, they may have made them first. Grand horsemen,” Valto said, patting the neck of The Black.
Lillakatye spoke up. “The Easterlings got stirrups from people even further east. Made-new by the Hann in Gathe. I think the Hann made-first the crossbow, too.”
No one spoke for a moment then Rotgar asked, “How do you know that? I’ve been further east than anyone here, to Proits and Lugan, and I’ve never heard of the Hann.”
Lillakatye made a noise, then added, “War knowledge is a sending from the gods, betimes.”
I almost turned to look at her which is when I realized I had been riding for sometime with my eyes closed, and yet – I could see the sly expression Lillakatye had used more than once when she said something that didn’t fit with who she was supposed to be. In fact, I could see everyone’s expression, including my own.
My face, Alenna’s face, wore a look of calm concentration, like someone thinking about a chess move. Despite the hood pulled around my ears to keep out the rain and cold, I could see every detail of my features, as if in strong moonlight. Colors were washed out or non-existent but it was the same face I had seen on the girl in the fountain back in Los Perdidos, and on the girl in the mirror back in Moleena.
Rotgar was frowning, Valto looked into the distance alertly, Zenner scanned one side of the road, Kilda was looking at my back with concern, Lang and Cordle looked bored and sleepy.
Then there was another face, of someone I didn’t know.
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