In which a young man flees death, and finds himself in the gentle care of a l friend.
Ryder bounced uncomfortably on the back of his red chestnut mare. The thin fabric saddle was the only thing separating his rump from the bony back of his horse, and he could already feel bruises forming from hours of unstopped riding. A deer path was all that ran beneath them, the grass dead and browned after years of being trodden by various animals of prey. Ryder’s forehead was caked with dry sweat, his black, shoulder length hair clinging string- like to his head, while his underarms and chest were wet with built up perspiration.
The rolling gait of his horse forced the saddlebags into odd positions, them and their contents slapping rhythmically into the small of Ryder’s back, and digging into his thick winter cloak, adding tears to where they already existed. His birch wood guitar thumped into his horse’s rear, previous merry tunes seeming to still emanate from the frayed strings themselves, last night’s fiasco at the inn still ringing in his ears.
The crisp weather bit into his thoughts, wearing raw his already red cheeks, the brisk breeze sweeping his horse’s mane and tail up into the air, characteristically. Ryder looked around him at the barren landscape, felling oddly naked in the wide expanse of fields. Patches of farming land rolled away over round- topped hills, not a tree staining the countryside as far as he could see. In winter, no spot of color marred the greyish coloring of country, and Ryder’s eyes felt no relief from the strain of staring at boring grey.
The horse panted exhaustedly, and Ryder, feeling his pain, pulled slightly on the worn reigns, slowing his horse to a swift walk. Ryder collapsed forward onto the horse’s neck, his night of riding tiring him to point of deep sleep. He kept his eyelids barely open, sweat dripping down his nose, and hanging there like icicles. He made no effort to wipe it, though, only slightly staying awake, as his horse continued his meandering walk, Ryder slumped on his neck.
He stared dreamily at the trampled path beneath them, his eyes unconsciously following random lines in the ground, tracing blades of grass. Surprised, he found himself dozing off, his eyelids drooping slowly, but sat up, to prevent himself sleeping. His eyelids sagged excessively, drooping monotonously to cover his eyes, but he strained to keep them open, shoving his hood off, so as better to remain awake from the mere brisk cold.
The change of temperature jolted him, and he sat upright, however wearily with his newfound strength, ready for the long ride before them.
Just then, his horse froze in place, ears back, flat against his head.
Ryder surveyed the surroundings. The land was as empty as ever, only a small thicket of trees breaking the stretch of rolling hillsides. He could see no danger. He kicked the side of his horse, urging him forward with little patience left to spare.
The horse remained rooted to the spot.
A lone rider appeared on the peak of the hill in front of them, his night black horse silhouetted against the blank sky like a strikingly blue flower in the midst of a green forest. The rider was cloaked in a deep, forest green long coat that would have blended splendidly into most other surroundings, his hood pulled up over his head, masking his features in shadow. In his hand he held a plain longbow. A red veined arrow was knocked casually on it, pointed at its mark.
Ryder yanked hard on the reigns, pulling his horse into a full semicircle, to face the other direction. Then he sent his horde into a mad run, daring not to look back.
He heard hooves pounding in pursuit, but focused only on the path in front of them. And thought only one thought.
How on earth did he find me?
The pursuing rider’s horse loosed a shrill whinny that reverberated off the inside of Ryder’s head, his ears pounding with the excess of the noise. Ryder winced.
He headed for the grove of trees he had sighted in the distance, his own horse’s hooves slapping onto the well- trodden ground. He dug his spurs sparingly into the horse’s soft stomach, urging him into a faster gallop, while the tall grass flew by beside him, a whirlwind of colors. Brown and green of earth was all he discerned of the ground, and blue with fleeting white streaks of the sky.
His hair fanned out behind him, his hood flapping. He stood in the stirrups, shoving his hands up the horse’s neck, his callused hands feeling the coarse hair of the horse’s mane, and gripping to hold stationary, not wanting to spook his horse with unnecessary bouncing around.
They flew by their surroundings and soon were upon the trees. Shade enveloped them as they passed under the cover of the trees, and the scent of ever-alive pine trees filled Ryder’s nostrils. He slowed his horse momentarily and glanced back to see the rider still in continuous approach, then pushed his lively filly back to rushing, pausing not once again to look back.
Without hesitation, he ducked his horse off the trail, disappearing into the vegetation.
* * *
The hooded rider cursed silently. He could see no sign of the boy, or his horse. He eased his warhorse slowly forward into the grove, looking for signs of life. But nothing moved. The ease at which the boy had evaded him disquieted him, made him uneasy, but nonetheless, he moved onward, though with utmost caution.
* * *
Ryder patted the horse’s neck soothingly, willing her to remain still and silent. The horse inhaled and exhaled deeply, her sides and chest heaving.
“Shh, girl,” Ryder told the filly, “Shh, Flicker. Easy girl.”
Flicker listened, her body relaxing, seemingly transformed from her previous tense self. Ryder looked through a small part in the branches, the hooded rider passing right before them, yet oblivious to them simply remaining there. Then the rider passed out of the grove and Ryder relaxed slightly, keeping an eye on where the rider had exited, on the chance he return.
All remained still in the grove. Ryder’s shoulders slumped. He walked Flicker slowly from their cover; her ears flat back against her head. She obeyed hesitantly, Ryder’s heels digging into her stomach. When they came to the line of the end of the tree cover, she froze. Ryder, agitated, urged her on, cursing under his breath.
“C’mon you stupid mule,” he told her.
Her ears were still flat against her head.
Ryder dismounted, pulling Flicker’s reigns over her head as he went. He would walk her out of the grove if he had to.
* * *
The hooded rider waited just beyond the sight line of the boy. The shadows cast by pines hid him in inky blackness. His warhorse stood stock still, tail sweeping behind it in small circles to ward off flies. He could see the boy now, leading his horse out of their hiding place. The adolescent was looking the other direction, his back to the hooded man.
The man drew his bowstring taut, taking aim, and let the arrow do its job.
Ryder was thrown to the ground by his horse. His face planted itself squarely in a pile of mud. He stood up, fuming, just as, with a solid thwack something collided with the tree trunk in front of him. Surprised, Ryder examined it. A red veined arrow was embedded in the bark. Ryder swallowed. And turned around…
To face a hooded rider.
He turned to Flicker’s saddle, placed his foot in the stirrup and, eyes wide, mounted. Flicker took off without invitation, hooves pounding on the trail.
The rider marveled at the boy. It took great skill to escape a trained killer. The rider stroked his chin, thoughtfully. He would have to pursue the boy, that was for sure. And he would have to be swift about it.
Leryn thumped the empty ale glass down on the worn wood of the bar surface. The bartender looked at her with wide eyes, and then glanced at the glass.
“How much, Clyde?” She asked the man.
“One copper, m’lady,” he replied gruffly. He watched eagerly as she reached into the pocket of her deep green greatcoat and pulled out a copper, accompanied by an iron piece, and set them down on the bar.
“Thank you ma’am,” said Clyde, a genuine gratitude in his voice. Apparently his employers were not very generous in his salary.
“Thank you, Clyde,” she said to the bartender, smiling.
Leryn rose from the black stained wooden stool she had been sitting on, her sore muscles aching with protest, and the floor creaking accordingly as the old floorboards moaned under her weight. She strode across the musty smelling common room of the inn, the warmth of the hearth creeping to all parts of her body, seeping into her boots. She looked longingly at the small crowd clustered in overstuffed armchairs around the fire, mugs of tea cupped in some of their hands, some laughing uproariously at jokes, while a minstrel strummed a fiddle in a corner, the tune spun by him creeping it’s way into Leryn’s head. She sighed, making for the staircase at the far end of the common room.
Heads turned as she passed, her clunking boots interrupting the hearty merriment going on around her, but as she entered the cover of the stairwell, she heard the muffled voices of drunks continue to speak in their sluggish manner, unchanged, unless slightly more hushed. Leryn blew a strand of hair out of her face, remarking on the quietness of shoes in these parts.
She heard footsteps behind her, and turned to see a slender man dressed in a flowing robe, an Elvin native no doubt, striding up to her, his features set. His pale blonde hair flowed behind him majestically, his attire changing color constantly as it shimmied around his slight form. He stopped in front of her, and addressed her quietly, his voice sounding not unlike water over stones. “M’lady,” he said, Leryn wished everyone would stop calling her that, “A young man came through earlier, looking for you. I told him you were out, and that he should come back later, and he would find you in room sixteen. He agreed, and I told him that I was called Remi, and he could find me in the kitchens if needed.” Leryn nodded, and turned away to leave. The man made no objection, simply letting her go.
She made her way slowly up the staircase pondering who would have sought her out in these desolate parts. The walls seemed to close in around her as she rose higher and higher in the old inn. Next time she was in town, she’d have to find better accommodations in which to stay. She remarked on the old woven rug that let out tiny puffs of dust as she went. Aged paintings hung lopsidedly on the walls, their contents nearly invisible to her in the limited candlelight. Merry faces stared back at her; their mouths open in silent laughter. She wondered who the people had been.
Her clothes ranked of the day’s built up sweat and horse smell, but their stench was drowned out by the dusty smell of the small inn.
Once at the top of the stairs, she proceeded to her musty room, number sixteen, it’s door covered in peeling robin’s egg blue paint, and pushed open the door, which groaned menacingly, only to find a boy sitting on her bed, his back to her.
She stopped in her tracks, confusion creeping up her face. “Who—“ she began. But then the boy turned.
“Ryder!” She squealed, and ran to hug him. Only then did she notice the grunt that he leased when hugged too tightly, and the pained expression that covered his usually merry face.
His guitar lay on the bed next to him, its strings frayed and broken. Leryn stepped back, looking over him with a critical eye. He looked tired and windswept, his coat torn at the bottom. She took his face between her hands and looked at him worriedly. “What happened to you?” She asked accusatorily. Ryder looked beaten.
“I’m being followed.” Leryn let his face go, and stepped back.
“What--“ Ryder looked like he might cry. That or fall over unconscious right then and there. Leryn swallowed. Ryder began to answer. “Tomorrow.” Leryn said, her face twisted with focus. “Tell me tomorrow.” She helped Ryder to his feet, his weary form hanging limp against her. She put his seemingly lifeless arm around her shoulder, and helped him across the small inn room to the other bed. He sank graciously into the straw mattress, a kind of calm coming over his pained features.
“Tomorrow…” He whispered, his eyes closing, his body sagging into comfort.
Tomorrow, Leryn thought sleepily, He has a lot of explaining to do.
* * * * *
Tomorrow couldn’t seem to come fast enough for Leryn. She woke several times during the night, sweat plastering her forehead, to find nightmares still reverberating through her head Ryder’s snores filling the tiny lodgings. Moonlight bathed the room in an eerie light every time she woke, her coarse blanket a pearly white color.
Once, after hearing men’s rough voices for too many a time whilst they should be sleeping, she rose from her bed, and went to the wash bowl, though it was still the early hours of the morning, sunlight barely creeping over the horizon. A cracked and worn bowl held water for washing, and she dipped in her hands, and splashed her face with cool water, the feel of it sending tremors through her body. Her hair dripping, she looked up into the cracked mirror that shone her sleep- marred reflection back at her. Her deep brown hair curtained her oval face, her tan cheeks still slightly rounded with the chubbiness of childhood years. Her emerald green eyes looked back at her, cutting through herself as she assumed they did everyone else who looked at her. Her thin eyebrows were neutral on her forehead, a thin line of dirt that previously covered her entire face now gone.
She turned to dress, to relieve herself of her nightshirt, when Ryder stirred. Leryn froze uncertainly in her tracks, studying his peaceful expression, his content half- smile, and she now noticed for the very first time that evening that his hair was slightly matted with blood.
Not for the first time that night, she wondered what her closest friend had been up to recently.
Ryder stirred again, flopping over in his thin bed, so that his back was to her now, his cloak ripped and tattered where she assumed that his many saddlebags had slapped repeatedly into his tender back, wearing away at the already thinning cloth. He mumbled something inaudible, and she detected the many layers of emotion that laced that unknown phrase, the noise slightly strained, as if he had a tight constriction in his throat.
She mumbled his name to herself, relishing in the way that it seemed to slide over her tongue, rolling from her lips like a child’s marble, eager for its own freedom. Suddenly, and inexplicably needing, she hurried to his low bedside, and knelt there, the floor cold on the warm material of her nightshirt as her knees came in contact with the aging floorboards.
Leryn grasped Ryder’s shoulder gently, her fingers dancing over the coarse material of his clothes. She ran her hand up and down his right arm, feeling the smooth curves of his muscles, and the small mountains of his various scars, like the ghosts of the cuts that had once resided there.
He moaned again in his sleep, and she cringed at his pained, contorted expression, the way he seemed to quake in his sleep. His eyebrows were twisted uncomfortably on his face, and she rubbed his arm again soothingly, thirsting to relieve him of the pain that swam behind his closed eyes. She hissed at the tearing at her heart, as a tremor racked his body, slithering down his back like a snake, and she reached her hand cautiously around his chest, twining it in his shirt, and burying her face in the soft hollow of his neck, inhaling the sweet scent of perspiration.
Grief was an uncommon feeling to inhabit Leryn’s body, as she rarely felt for anyone but herself. But Ryder was special.