Chapter 5: The Road to Swapport
Ava pushed Roxie as fast as the animal could willfully go. The little horse seemed to sense the urgency in her prodding and trotted along faster than usual. With a dagger tied to her calf under her pant leg and a sword at her side on the bench, a dreadful angst accompanied Ava as she made her way across rugged terrain. Her squeaking cart was not built to go as fast as she was urging Roxie to advance. Ava couldn’t bring herself to be cruel to the dear old pony. Roxie had been a wedding present to her from her mother. She was running hard enough to generate a breeze that bounced her flaxen mane on the wind. The bleak grayness all around them felt like an eternal sorrow. Ava could feel the weight of it pressing down on her. It seemed to grow heavier the further she went; even Roxie seemed to have to push her way through it.
She could barely make out the line of trees ahead through the gloom. Her eyes felt heavy after endless hours of peering at the somber nothingness wrapped in lifeless hues, lulled into lethargy by the repetitious squeaks of her rickety cart. Jagged boulders protruded here and there along the sparse road. All at once, a screech from above caused her to see without looking up, an enormous fowl swoop down from the gray sky. She leapt off the rolling wagon as Roxie bucked and bounced. Fear of danger made Ava react before she even knew what she had done. Somehow she managed to hide herself under the cart that had not fully come to a stop. Wild braying pierced her ears along with the triumphant squall of the fiend devouring her poor Roxie, who tried to kick and thrash her way out of the reins and the grip of the merciless beast.
Ava remained motionless when the cart came to a sudden stop, horrified by the sound of the terrible feast this cruel creature enjoyed at the expense of her beloved Jutland mare, who had been more like a pet than a work animal. She knew that she could do nothing to save her from the savage beast. Through tears and her own heart beating in her ears, she heard a whiz and a thud, followed by a second and third. The fowl kicked over the wooden cart, exposing Ava’s position with an angry squawk. She took no notice of the arrows jutting from the side of the monster. She instinctively looked about for cover, ignoring the whirlwind moving toward her. The angry cries of the fowl followed Ava as she ran to the nearest boulder in the hopes of wedging herself underneath a cavity in the rock. She turned to look back, running still to the safety of the rock and saw the whirlwind become a man hurling a spear into the wounded fowl, which fell to the ground in a thunderous clap. She ran on and slid under the crevice that offered her little shelter before she could comprehend that the danger had already passed.
Through blurred vision, she saw the man approach her. The deafening beat of her heart still pounding in her ears prevented her from hearing his words.
“It’s over. You’re going to be all right,” he seemed to be saying. He was extending his hand to her, to help her out from under the cleft in the rock.
She stared at his outreached hand, trying to reconcile the last few moments. She looked into kind blue eyes and heard a gentle voice saying, “Take my hand. Let me help you.”
Reaching out her trembling hand, it was met with a strong and calloused grip, which gently and firmly supported her crawl from beneath the rock.
“Are you injured?”
His words floated past her. Ava was shaking from head to foot. She tried to speak, but no sound came from her lips. Her feet seemed unable to move. She felt her legs give way. She was falling.
The man caught her before she could hit her head on the rock and sat her down. Her shoulder seemed to be on fire. Wincing, she fixed her gaze on the kind eyes, as everything else seemed to be spinning around uncontrollably.
“Can you tell me your name? Can you say anything at all?”
“Ava,” she slurred.
He offered her his canteen, but her hands trembled so violently that she couldn’t grasp it. He held it to her lips as she sipped cold water that tasted like the sweet water near the cave.
“Ava,” he said, “my name is Archereus. You’re going to be all right. Your shoulder looks like it might have been knocked out of joint. Are you in pain?”
Slowly, she looked down at her shoulder, which she then realized was the source of stabbing pain. She tried to straighten it. Fire shot through her whole right side; she winced in agony.
“It’s dislocated,” he said as he carefully felt its position over her sleeve. “I can reset it, but it will hurt like the devil,” she heard him say over the pounding in her ears.
All she could do was nod.
“Lie down and turn your head the other way.”
He helped her to lie back with much pain. She fought back tears and the urge to cry out.
“Turn your head,” he instructed.
Ava turned her head and braced herself with her eyes squeezed shut. A sudden jolt tore through her shoulder; for a moment, she believed that she was on fire. She felt a snap and heard a scream escape from her lungs and bounce back off the rock before her eyes. The cry echoed in and around the jutting boulders in muffled tones. A quiver reverberated throughout her entire body. Slowly, everything stopped spinning. The man helped her to sit up.
“How does it feel?” he asked, running his hand slowly over her shoulder and arm to inspect his work.
“Numb,” was all she could manage.
“We should move away from here at once. Can you stand?” he asked, offering his hand.
Timidly, she took his hand and accepted the help to rise. Once she seemed steady on her feet, he turned toward the fowl. Placing his thumb and index finger in his mouth, he made a high-pitched whistle. He walked back to the overturned cart to retrieve her sword and satchel. He noticed the mustache on the ground as he brought her belongings to her. He picked it up, as well as her hat a few paces further.
“These are yours, I think,” he said awkwardly, handing the hat and mustache to her.
Putting his hand on her left elbow, he guided her toward the sound of hoof beats galloping toward them. A white horse came ambling out of the gray mist and stood braying before them. He was the most magnificent animal Ava had ever seen.
After securing her belongings with his saddlebags, he helped her to mount the remarkably tall horse; then he mounted behind her with the reins in his hands.
“I believe you were headed south, is that right?”
“Yes,” she answered, “I was on my way to Swapport.”
“But that is not your ultimate destination,” he stated.
“No,” she confessed, puzzled.
A long pause allowed them to focus on the sound of the hoof beats racing south. Ava had never witnessed an animal fly at such a speed.
“Thank you,” Ava said after a few minutes. She wanted to say more, but she wasn’t sure what else to say, or how. She was still feeling embarrassed by her evidently ridiculous disguise.
“You’re welcome, Ava.”
“I believe you gave me your name back there, but— I’m not certain I heard you,” she began.
“Archereus— but you may call me Archer.”
“Archer,” she repeated the name slowly. “Thank you, Archer, for saving my life. You didn’t have to intervene, but you did. I am truly— very grateful.”
“You are truly, very welcome,” he teased with a wry smile she could not see but somehow felt. She realized that trying to pass herself off as a man only made her appear silly, not strategic.
They galloped on in awkward silence, but for the ferocious pace of the horse’s hooves. After a long while, Ava ventured to ask where he came from.
“The east,” he answered.
“Where are you headed?”
“Wherever I’m needed.”
Ava’s mind was flooded with curiosity about this man; however, her diffident nature prevented her from making further inquiries.
“Why are you on your way to Dem?” he pointedly asked.
“I must see something for myself,” she answered, then added, “How do you know I’m going there?”
“I know,” he claimed. “Are you sure you need to see what you think you must see?”
“I must to know for certain.”
They rode on again in silence.
They came with haste to Swapport. Without a word of instruction, Archereus brought Ava to the tent where Furtov traded his wares. He dismounted first and offered her his hand.
Amazed, she asked, “How did we get here so quickly? And how did you know I wanted to come here.”
“I know,” is all he would say.
He exchanged nods with a smiling Furtov, who came out to greet his customers.
“I will see you again, Ava. I am leaving Anani here for you to make your return journey,” he said, stroking his horse and receiving an affectionate nuzzle in return. Turning to look at her gravely, “Be very careful in Dem.”
She allowed herself to look fully at his face for the first time. His gentle blue eyes were set in a handsome, intelligent, and weathered countenance. Yet he possessed a healthy glow in his complexion, unlike any she had ever before encountered.
Then he turned and walked away into the gathering dusk. In the distance a whirlwind suddenly arose toward the east. It was gone almost as soon as it appeared.