Bian -15- The Black and The Gray

Somewhere, tall horses pursue a runaway bride in a land called...

by Erin Halfelven


Chapter 15 - The Black and The Gray

We’d been riding through rain and gathering dark for two or three hours and people were lighting torches in tin-capped baskets beside the entrance of the weghus. The light spilled onto a sign beside the door, a goose in flight which was kind of a neat visual play on words since weghus was pronounced way-goose.

Or not. I blinked. Goose in Bloddish was ganza. Still, I caught Lillakatye grinning at the sign, too, reminding me again that I needed to talk to her about… where she was from, and maybe when? But we had never yet been alone together so it would have to wait.

Rotgar opened the door, a massive thing that I was not sure that I could have shifted an inch in my now puny body. He held the door for all of us and I entered, feeling a bit put upon by his courtesy. “Welcome to the Wild Goose,” he said.

The outside of the building was made of heavy, dressed timbers painted an earthy red and the boardwalk around it was a greasy gray from time and traffic. I sort of expected the inside to be more of the same but instead it was paneled in some lighter wood and the floor was golden oak with straw thrown around on it. A high ceiling above us had been painted to look like blue sky and white clouds. Colorful images right on the paneling covered about half of the walls. Some of them illustrated the saga of Henrik Blodde and some various god-tales.

I heard Kilda sniff when she noticed a prominent one showing Ti-Waw losing his hand battling Fenrir Vulffenmaw but she sighed in sad pleasure at another that showed Baldur with his breast pierced by the mistletoe. I marveled a bit at the skill on display but my mood was not improved by realizing that Gus Gallant would not have recognized either scene, traditional as they were in Bloddeland.

“Niffel den Hela,” I muttered but even my curses came out in Bloddish. Hell’s Ice, I thought in English, but it was still something that did not belong to my own time, place and person. I gnawed on my lip and tried not to let it make me crazy.

I looked around as Zenner lead us toward a table and benches. Two large fireplaces made the place warm and reasonably well-lit with added candles and lamps in dark corners. Sturdy tables were scattered around with people sitting at them on benches. No chairs, I noted. Some of the tables were round but most were rectangular, about eight foot long and three feet wide.

The smell of woodsmoke permeated the air with additional notes of beeswax, food, ale and sweat with hints of wine and the herbs mixed with the straw on the floor.

Zenner found us one of the smaller round tables and I sat with Kilda on a bench. Everyone else was opening their coats and pushing back their cowls and I did likewise, the warmth in the room pleasant on my face. Kilda took my hands and began undoing my gloves. It astonished me so much that I let her.

It made me think of something else. “Orme Zenner, you should see if you can find a pair of gloves for yourself. I saw that your hands were cold on the trek.” Orme was like mister, indicating a respectable person of no particular rank.

He shrugged. “I’ll find a better pair in Lundenna than I would be able to get here. I’ve been cold before and doubt not that I shall be again in this wet and frozen northland.”

Rotgar grinned. “Have you never been to Yorvik? Or worse, my father’s lands in Proits. Now, there you will learn what it is to be chilled.” A subtle joke there, the world for chilled and the word for killed sound the same in Bloddish. “You should have said something, I have a pair of work gloves you can wear.”

“Tanka-du,” said Zenner. “That will do for the rest of the evening’s ride.”

“We are to go on to the city, tonight?” asked Lillakatye.

“I’d like to get Lennakin inside at least the outer gate where she will be safe from being snatched back by her kinfolk.”

Lennakin would be me. I disliked being referred to by diminutives but somehow when Rotgar did so it seemed less objectionable. I glared at him on general principles anyway.

A wench —yes, that was the word for her job— came to ask us if we wanted food or drink. She wore something that reminded me of the St. Pauli Girl or maybe it was just the size of her chest. Zenner waggled his eyebrows at her and Rotgar couldn’t stop grinning as he ordered bread, cheese, butter and hot cider for all of us.

“I’m surprised they didn’t ask for milk,” Kilda muttered and Lillakatye snorted as daintily as someone her size could.

I forgave the wench for her endowments when she brought a large loaf of hot fresh bread, a round of cheese, a tub of butter and mugs of steaming spiced cider. It cost a penny for each of us and a half-penny for the table. I had decided that a penny (or fennik) was about $5 in American money so that did not seem too expensive. And she refilled all our cups for another penny, later.

The hot bread tasted wonderful and the cider had a refreshing herbiness to it that kept it from being too sweet. “New cedar fronds,” said Kilda, picking one out to show me. Whatever, it was delicious and the butter and cheese were good, too. Everyone ate and drank and seemed to be enjoying it.

Somewhere in there, the two guys began discussing horses. They agreed that we had fine choices of animals for our escape. Rotgar’s own brute was a warhorse, trained to fight just like its rider. Why anyone would name a big, sleek, brown, dangerous animal Groddikin, which meant Froggie, I had no idea.

Lillakatye was riding her own horse, too; a lighter animal but also trained for war. A red horse with black mane and tail, her Nessager had a more sensible if still humorous moniker; it meant Naysayer. I rolled my eyes and Lillakatye grinned when I heard the name.

Zenner’s mount was borrowed from Borgifu; a gelding and a good strong riding animal but not a warhorse. He had been told that it answered to the name Faerd. Which was sort of like naming a dog Hound; it was another word for horse.

My own mount, barely more than a pony, was named Honig, and she was a dark shade of honey all over. Kilda was riding another loan from Borgifu; Kugellik, a dark yellow horse with a black stripe down its back. The name meant Stick.

The two reddish-brown packhorses were named Hentel and Baery, or maybe they were just called that because those names translated as Fetch and Carry. It would fit with the Bloddish sense of humor to name them that, though.

Rotgar asked Zenner if he had ever seen the two horses Valto had bought from an Easterling trader. “Like no beast you’ve seen in the West. Tall but bony, they seem hardly to have enough meat on them for a pair of sizable goats. They are called The Black and The Gray and if you give either of them a long enough race, it will win it; unless it races against the other.”

“I’ve heard of those two. Valto won a race of twelve leagues, trading off riding one and leading the other, from Moleena to Warburg and back. No one else finished the race for fear of killing their horses trying to match him.” Zenner sounded impressed.

Valto was one of Alenna’s brothers, the second eldest and Adelwalt’s master of arms. He’d lost his wife and children to Viking raiders though I had never heard the details of just how that happened.

“And sadly,” said Rotgar, “both of those wondrous horses are geldings. The Easterlings will not sell their stud animals to anyone going to the West.”

“Aye,” said Zenner. “Can you blame them? Though, I have heard that the Yezite emperor has beasts to match the tall horses, in his southern lands. I know that in Rema’s own southern provinces, beyond the Altadura, there are some stark and swift animals.”

“Pull up your hoods,” said Lillakatye suddenly. “He just walked in the door.”

“Who…?” Zenner began.

“Don’t look. Valto, who else? Pull up your hoods and maybe he won’t spot us.” She did so and motioned me to do likewise.

I resisted turning to look and pulled up the hood of my lynx coat, reflecting that it might not save me from notice. I hadn’t seen anyone else wearing lynx since I had come to this world. I wasn’t exactly afraid of Valto finding us but a shiver went through me, just the same.

“No point in that,” said Rotgar. He stood and called out. “Hey! Valto! Over here. Abt ikka den ikka, hey?” After also then also… roughly, after all that trouble. I wasn’t sure he meant our effort or Valto’s.

I gave up and turned to look. Valto, who except for his clothes and a few scars was a ringer for my old self, stalked across the main room of the weghus. Deputy Gallant could not have looked more like fate come calling on his best day, too nice a fellow. Valto had a much wider streak of hard-ass.

“Brodder,” I said, and I knew I sounded meeker than I had intended. Also, I didn’t know I was going to call him brother until I had done it.

“Swester,” he said. “I’ve come to take you home.” He stopped almost directly behind me.

Zenner and Lillakatye also stood but Kilda took one of my arms in a tight grasp, holding both of us on our seat. Her round chin was knotted with muscle, showing her determination not to give me up.

“Are you going to fight all four of us, Yungvalt Adelson?” Rotgar asked in a mild voice, including Kilda as one of my defenders.

Valto glared impressively.

A burly man in light armor carrying a cudgel more than four feet long suddenly appeared near us. “No fighting in the weghus,” he said quietly. “Sit down and talk it out or go outside the walls of the steading.” He motioned with the big stick. Teddy Roosevelt would have liked him.

“I’ll bite,” I warned Valto when he looked as if he were thinking of grabbing me and making a run for the door.

Lillakatye and Rotgar laughed and even Valto grinned. “Du vilt, ikka,” he said to me. You would, too.

I nodded and Rotgar motioned him to pull up a bench and sit.

Valto took a bench from a nearby table and put it between me and Lillakatye then sat down. His face and clothes were stained and muddy and I remembered that it had been raining almost our whole trip.

After everyone else had sat back down, the serving wench brought Valto a mug of hot cider without anyone asking her to and he drank almost half of it down at once.

“Get warm and make friends,” the bouncer said before leaving. No one asked for a coin so perhaps Valto’s drink was on the house, the weghus, as an investment in keeping the peace.

“Did you ride The Black and The Gray?” Rotgar asked.

“Aye. How far behind you was I?”

“Not an hour,” said Zenner. “When did you leave? You must have got on the road almost at once.”

“An hour or so too late.” He turned to me. “Tahtie is looking for you on the road to Oxford. I told him you would come this way instead.”

I frowned at him. I’d never had a big brother before and I didn’t much like the idea of having one that could predict what I would do.

“You made that trip in half the time we did?” asked Zenner. “Did you kill your horses?”

Valto shook his head. “They’re fine. I set one of the grooms here to walking them to cool down but in this weather, they could have run all day. They like it cold and muddy. I was ready to chase you all the way to Lundenna,” he added, looking at me.

“Lot of good it’s going to do you,” I said. After a moment’s thought, I stuck my tongue out at him. Alenna would have and I didn’t want anyone thinking I might be a doppelganger.

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