I flee in the dark.
As a fox pursued by hounds I tear through the woods, leaping from boulder to fallen log, tunnelling through brambles and daunting walls of spiny gorse. My fur is matted and torn as my instinct to survive pushes me into perilous places.
The baying of my pursuers tells me they are near.
Fangs and jaws snap at the empty spaces where my scent lingers, betraying my passage. Their tongues loll in anticipation of the taste of my blood.
The breath that sucks and blows through my throat is as ragged as the frenzied beat of my heart.
Through the dense forest floor, down a steep ravine I plunge, coming to a sudden stop at the edge of a precipice.
I look down into the pooling waters of a mountain stream. To leap could mean to die . . . yet to linger would make that death a certainty. The hounds careen through the undergrowth towards me.
My hind legs coil, readying for the leap…
As Tarmel had predicted, Illiom woke up late. The slant of the light seeping past the shuttered windows confirmed it the moment she opened her eyes.
She stretched and yawned, then yielded once more to a languor. There was no reason to rush – she could sleep on.
Later, lying in that delicious space between wakefulness and sleep, she remembered the dream and awoke completely.
She dressed and opened the window.
Iod’s light painted the walls of the buildings across the square in dazzling brilliance. The sky above the red and ochre rooftops was pale and washed out, waylaid by the heat and robbed of all deeper tones.
Illiom left her room and wandered about the inn, looking for the Rider. She found him in the stables, scraping the hoof of one of her attacker’s horses.
“Dreams of being chased are said by some to be sacred,” he offered when she told him about her dream.
There had seemed little that was sacred in the terror she had felt.
“Tell me more.”
This was not the first dream that had haunted her in the last few days, but it was the first that she remembered clearly, and the first she had mentioned to the Rider.
“Well, there is the fact that Iod chases Sudra across the sky...”
“…and never catches her,” Illiom interjected. “Yes, even I know that one, but that tale changes with the teller. The Brotherhood say it is Iod who does the chasing, yet the Daughters insist that he is the one being chased. In any case, whoever is chasing whom, that is hardly a hunt. No one gets eaten in the end.”
Tarmel looked dubious.
“Maybe,” he said. “Although I have heard it said that if one were to ever catch the other, the world would end.” He shrugged to indicate his indifference. “But there are other stories involving chases, and maybe they come closer to your dream. They are the tales of the hunt.”
“I have not heard of those.”
“I am not surprised, few people have. The tales are told by the Danee. The hunt is crucial to the tribe’s survival and, as the story goes, the hunted and the hunter play a game that is repeated throughout time. The hunted offers herself in sacrifice so that the hunter may survive. To the Danee way of seeing things, it is the hunted who has the power because she willingly gives her life, thereby assuring the survival of the other.”
“She?” Illiom asked, pointedly.
“She or he, it matters not.”
“Oh, I am sure it matters to the one who dies,” she pointed out, her tone tart.
Tarmel passed his hands through his hair, laughing.
The gesture caught Illiom’s attention and she took his right hand, turning it to look at the palm.
“It is still white,” she said with wonder. “Exactly like it was when the stone passed into me.”
She looked up, startled by her own words.
“Passed into you?” Tarmel echoed.
“Well ... I do not know if that is what actually happened...” She felt suddenly cautious, as if she was treading on thin ice. “That was how it felt at the time. The stone ignited when I touched it, sent fire and ice crawling up my arm and then just ... ceased to exist.”
She released his hand.
Tarmel looked at his palm and frowned.
“I tried to wash it clean last night,” he said with a shrug. “It made no difference. I suppose it will wear off in time.”
When Tarmel had finished grooming and checking over all the horses, they returned to the common room and convinced the innkeeper to supply them with a late breakfast. Afterwards, they strolled down the hill and into Atund, looking for supplies.
They had missed market day by two days, so they had to ask the locals where they could procure what Tarmel wanted. It meant walking to some of the outlying farmhouses for most things, but in the end, Tarmel had most of his requirements. Back in town, they stopped to eat potato cakes and drink hot spicy tea at a lone vendor’s cart, and Illiom had her hair tidied by a dour street barber.
Illiom’s stiffness had subsided considerably so she was able to enjoy listening to Tarmel’s deft haggling over prices, and the unhurried pace that he set.
Even so, Iod was once again low in the west when they climbed the hill towards The Friendly Gander.
Mindful of the days’ riding that awaited her, Illiom retired almost immediately after the evening meal. She left the Rider with the innkeeper in the common room, drinking ale and discussing matters she had no interest in.
Dawn found the two already in the saddle, wending their way down the hill through the still empty streets of Atund. With no obstacles to slow them, they soon left the eastern outskirts of the town behind.
Illiom looked ahead to the northeast, where the reassuring outline of the Blacktear Ranges jutted skyward.
She felt heartened, knowing that their path would take them through those mountains before veering finally towards their destination.
Atund vanished behind them, swallowed from sight by the dense woodland that crowded the road. They rode a long, straight stretch that engulfed them like an endless green tunnel, the trees linking arms overhead to hide sky and sun from their view.
After a while Tarmel glanced back at her. “How are your legs?” Illiom smiled.
“Better today, not as painful; but I will let you know if that changes.”
“Good, because today I will teach you to trot.”
The smile immediately vanished from Illiom’s face.
Tarmel looked at her kindly.
“Do not worry, Illiom. This will give you two riding styles to choose from so that when you tire of one, you can switch to the other. You will learn fast, I am sure, and once you do you will really start to enjoy riding.”
He proceeded to instruct her, patiently explaining each aspect of trotting and what it involved, in detail.
“Shorten your reins; no, not that tightly. Now spur him with your heels and move your hips forward. Do not stoop! Sit up straight, but relaxed. Watch Calm’s shoulder and when it moves forward, rise in the saddle. Tighten your knees a little and push down on your heels. When the shoulder moves back, sit back down. No, not like that! Gently.”
At her first few attempts she found herself bouncing heavily up and down and it took all her concentration just to remain in the saddle. She thought the Rider was taunting her when he commended her for a good attempt.
“When you learn a new thing, mistakes are more than inevitable; they are necessary,” he encouraged. “They tell you what does not work, what needs adjusting.”
He suggested corrections to her posture, when to press down on the stirrups and rise, and how to harmonise with Calm’s movements beneath her. He illustrated this for her and then coaxed her into emulating each demonstration.
Illiom was not sure that she did exactly what he asked of her, but she enjoyed his attentions. It had been too long since she had felt this safe with another of her species.
“Do not look at Calm as you ride. Keep your eyes on the road. As you get to know one another, a trained horse will sense subtle changes in your movements and respond accordingly. Try again.”
She did so, with negligible improvement.
He continued to encourage and praise her at each small success, and she slowly grew more comfortable and confident. She began to envision that she might eventually enjoy the experience and even master it one day.
In this way, they passed the morning: walking, trotting, and occasionally stopping to cover finer points of horsemanship.
Despite her newfound confidence, Illiom still found the ride physically challenging. By midmorning, the pain in her legs and back had returned with a vengeance.
The Rider tried to engage her in conversation but while she welcomed his attempts, Illiom was distracted and found little to contribute. Soon the only topics that held any interest for her were about ways of easing her discomfort and pain.
The day warmed rapidly. Fortunately, the trees offered consistent shelter from Iod’s rays for most of the morning. They encountered few travellers coming towards them, but they did overtake two small trading caravans, both making for Kuon. They were hailed as they passed and responded in kind.
“The Fair of the Harvest Moon is eight days from now,” Tarmel explained. “The roads will get busier, the closer we get to the Keep.”
His words were still fresh in her mind when the road they were on spilled into another and Illiom soon noticed a significant increase in traffic.
“So, what is our next stop?” she asked, as they moved past another group of traders.
“Gallid,” Tarmel answered without looking at her. “We are on the main highway that links Gallid to Atuin, further south. Beyond that there is only Setavan and after that we will have a straight run to Kuon.”
If he had turned to look, Tarmel would have seen the blood drain from her face.
She was silent for a time.
“Is there any way of bypassing Gallid?”
This time the Rider did turn. The question in his eyes found its way into words.
“I suppose anything is possible, but ... why?”
Illiom shook her head and looked away, avoiding both the question and his searching look.
“Well, I was hoping to treat us to a nice little inn I know in Gallid, but if you prefer we can camp somewhere before we reach the town and then bypass it in the morning.”
“Please,” Illiom implored, meeting his eyes at last.
Tarmel noted her distress, and without questioning her further, shrugged and nodded.
“Very well then, that is what we will do.”
It was past the noon hour when the trees gave up their shade and retreated from the road’s edge. Iod began to beam directly down on them and the heat became unpleasant. By the time they came within sight of Gallid they were both exhausted, hot, and covered in dust.
The Rider scouted for a suitable camping site and Illiom gladly slid from Calm’s back as soon as they stopped.
A subtle but unpleasant tang hung in the air, one that Illiom remembered all too well. It brought back memories she had no desire to revisit, of events she would sooner forget.
Later, when Tarmel offered her some wine with their meal, she found herself cradling her cup with both hands, taking comfort from its fire. She drank three cups of the ruby red liquid and retreated to her bedroll as soon as she had finished her meal.
The peaks of the Blacktear Range rose up beyond Gallid. The sky was mottled with a layer of high cloud that resembled a flock of grazing sheep. Seeing the mountains helped Illiom cope with the town’s proximity and enabled her to distance herself from the dread she had felt the previous night.
She was grateful for the ease with which Tarmel had accommodated her wishes, without pressing her to spend the night in town.
Her memories of Gallid were all unpleasant; it was larger and more crowded than Atund and much dirtier. She remembered refuse littering the streets and piling up in the alleys, but worst of all had been the acrid tang of smoke that had seemed inescapable during the few moons she had lived there.
Yet as they circled the outskirts of the town, asking directions as they went, Illiom was appalled to find the stench even worse than she remembered.
She asked the Rider about it.
“Gallid is a smithing town,” he answered lightly. “I suppose it has something to do with that, for I know there are iron and tin mines nearby.”
Illiom placed a fold of her tunic over her mouth and tried to breathe through that.
A little later Tarmel pointed out a group of mounds in an open field.
Smoke oozed from them to drift lazily across their path. It pooled in places and whenever they crossed such a place, the smoke stole all definition and colour from their surroundings.
“Here is the cause of the smell,” he observed. “They are making charcoal; those are mounds of wood which have been covered with turf and then fired.”
Illiom sneezed and scowled.
Yet soon enough the road left the burning mounds behind and, following the contour of the hills, began to climb up into the mountains. Illiom’s mood was correspondingly uplifted.
She was aware of Tarmel looking at her questioningly, but she did not care. She was happy, enjoying the climb, glad to be rising out of the heat of the lowlands.
In the afternoon, the road steepened and turned until they faced the north-west. She turned periodically to look behind at the haze spreading like a mantle over the lower lands, and welcomed the caress of the cooler air upon her cheeks.
They rode until the southern plains had disappeared behind them.