"Down. Down into the bush, child."
She hesitated, seemed scared, seemed unsure of this command of his. It was the sudden change of mood. That was why, but there was no time for explaining. His arms on her shoulders, he forced her down and then himself dropped to the dirt. She whimpered against him and he placed his palm over her mouth.
The hooves padded ever closer, slowing as they did. He grimaced severely and the tears were not far off. The familiarity pained him. He was not here with this special child but a different place far off. He was with his daughter sixteen seasons previous. They were hiding just inside a treeline from the horsemen, watching them burn a countryman and his crop. The burning man had housed them for three days, had given them bread and milk in exchange for small favors of labour. He had only brought his daughter into the woods because she would not go it alone to relieve herself. Through the branches and leaves they watched the countryman burn and scream, beg for the horsemen to pierce his heart.
The approaching horseman brought him back to the brambles on the hill by the ocean. The child must have been making a racket. He wiped his eyes quickly then rose slowly. Into view, and so in the other's view he went, came a horseman donned in tarnished armour and atop a horse donned in similar armour. The horseman winced at the sudden appearance, tugged his horse's reins, and then studied the two from the bottom of the hill.
The sky was now blue, horizon to horizon, and the child stood in Abbott's westward shadow. The ocean behind them, calm and uninterested in their infinitesimal struggle, respired slowly as it had forever before and will forever after.
"I have lost my map and my bearings days ago. I hope we have not trespassed."
"You have not. From where do you come?"
"Tatu, in the South, sir. We aim to find a vagrancy camp said to be just inland of the North shore. I have items to barter with them."
The horseman looked to the sack at Abbott's feet. Under the armour was near-total shadow, the sun behind him and the horse; his eyes and expression mysterious. "What have you?"
"Two blades, rice, seeds of corn."
The horseman said nothing. It was as if he was waiting for more. "And some fragments of bison skin. In her sack," he added, nodding at the girl, wishing now that they would not be searched, for certainly a lie about carrying fragments of bison skin would be reason enough for the horseman to have a much, much closer look at them.
The horseman remained quiet a moment longer. "Fragments of bison skin," he said, as if to himself. After another moment of silence, he added: "For what?"
"To make gloves, sir. Winter will be upon us soon. I will sell to you the lot of them save two for some directions."
"She your daughter?"
He had almost forgot of the child. She was not far behind him, staying as quiet as he had hoped of her.
"No, sir. Not her. I had a daughter, once. She was lost to me long ago. This one I hope to raise into a woman for bartering."
The horseman dismounted in one swift movement. His armor jangled and rasped against itself as he removed his helmet to reveal a youthful face; smooth but for several thin scars across his cheek and neck. He approached. The urge to do something was great, but what could be done?
The horseman bent in front of the girl and put a gentle finger tenderly onto her cheek. All of the restraint Abbott could muster was barely enough not to strike the man from her.
"Why wait?" The horseman stood and then from his horse's saddlebag retrieved a handful of coin. " I will give ten drachma for her today."
Abbott eyed the gold. He nodded, as if interested, and then said, "Double that and she is yours."
"Double it? You want twenty for a mere girl? She is too young for anything useful."
"Twenty. As a woman she might bring me forty. I will still be losing money."
"You will spend even more on raising her into a woman."
Abbott only stared for a while and so did the horseman. Their eyes locked in a silent struggle for gold or for truth or for any number of things; it did not really matter. Eventually, it was the horseman who broke their gaze and began walking to his horse.
"Old man, you are crazy." The horseman donned his helmet, and mounted. "The camp you seek has been destroyed."
"Destroyed?" He did his best imitation of confusion and disappointment.
"Destroyed. Turn back to Tatu is my advice. You may find someone to barter with on the journey."
They locked eyes again.
"If you see a girl of the age of your own but with light hair instead, take her and bring her with you to Tatu. We have a man stationed there. Ask any where to find him. What am I saying? You are from Tatu. You know where to find him. He will pay you much for her."
Abbott looked to the child. She had light hair, indeed she did, but it had become sodden with dirt and mud in that blessedly filthy hole of the previous night. He nodded to the horseman, who then turned the horse away from them. And then he turned it back again as if he had forgotten something. Abbott again could not see his eyes but the horseman's head did not move; he could have been looking anywhere. This is it, Abbott thought. He has been playing tricks all along. He knows.
"I will take those bison skins," the horseman said.
"The bison skins?"
"Yes. You said you would sell them to me for directions. I have a woman to make gloves of them."
"You did not give directions to me."
"I told you of the camp's destruction, saved you much time."
"I am grateful, but those bison skins will be my livelihood. I can fetch a fair price for them."
"I saved you from wasting your time and now you are wasting mine. You waste time like it was free."
"Time is something we all have, sir."
"Each man has limited time for their disposal and anything limited comes at a cost. Your bison skins will compensate for what I have lost. Do not inconvenience me, old man. It is nothing for me to kill you and take them."
Abbott nodded. He turned, avoided looking into the child's eyes as he crouched to her canvas sack. She knew as well as he they had no bison skins. Would she know of their coming doom? Would he see it, the naked fear of it, in her eyes as he had seen it in his daughter's the moment she stepped on the twig and saw the horsemen had turned their heads to the sound?
He picked up the sack and began walking toward the horseman. He wished the horseman had been nearer. Inside of the child's bag was a blade. A small one, but a blade. He could throw it; although, he knew nothing of throwing knives. But what other option? The horseman was armored and he could not reach the opening at the eyes.
He reached the horse's side and put his hand into the bag. He withdrew it quickly and in the same motion threw the knife. It clinked sharply on the horseman's head; did no damage. The horseman winced and fell off his horse, and the horse went wild.
It reared up, enormous in its height; its head came between Abbott and the late morning sun. It came down onto him with its front legs. The blow knocked him hard enough that he seemed to be one moment standing and the next laying in the dirt.
He lifted his head; and when had it become so heavy? He saw the horse, already distant, galloping away. The horseman lay on his back; his helmet was dented inward too far. Too far for their to be a man's head inside. He was not moving, and would never again.
The sky began to dim as if the wind had taken to the sun the way it might take to a candle, and then, a moment later, the world faded into black.