Three: Riding for Life

            The darkness swallowed them up as the two rode away as fast as the horses could take them. Anarisia glanced over her shoulder once more as they reached the top of a hill, watching the lights of the manor disappear as they rode away.

            They were left in a dark, windswept world, only the gently-waving grasses of the plain to keep them company. Clouds had been driven over the moon, obscuring its light and threatening to pour rain upon the prairie. A cold wind accompanied the clouds, driving the grass and a few bits of rubbish hither and thither with it.

            Anarisia tugged her cloak’s hood up above her face, bowed her shoulders against the wind, and rode after Kel, keeping pace with him for the sake of her life.

            The ride quickly became nothing but a series of feelings in her memory—sore muscles, cold wind, the rain that began as the world lightened around them, heralding a hidden morning, all conspired to make Anarisia as miserable as possible. Rain trickled down her arms, soaking her sleeves, her waterlogged cloak and pack became twice as heavy as they had been before, and her hands became cramped, frozen around her reins.

            Kel seemed immune to these happenings. Apparently, they were problems only mere mortals could be bothered by—he was something more, a man of steel that rode straight-backed through the rain, single-minded intent written on his face. He had a mission, and would fulfill that mission to the best of his ability.

            Anarisia wasn’t quite sure if the intensity of their ride was part of his mission or not. Knowing her father, it might very well have been, but she’d hoped that Delveè, at least, would have had the good sense to instruct him to stop once in awhile. As it was, he seemed set on reaching Gelt within the week, given how quickly he was pushing their horses. Anarisia felt as if she would fall from her saddle, into the slippery morass of grass and mud that squelched at their horses’ hooves.

            Finally, Kel glanced back and seemed to realize that his young mistress was in no condition to keep going. With noontide approaching, despite the low light, he steered them toward a village that was naught by a smudge on the horizon.

            Anarisia didn’t know where they were. They might have still been on Fengol lands, or they may have passed out of her father’s holdings long before. Everything had blended together into an unsteady, chill fog and she couldn’t keep any of it straight in her head. When she urged her horse up beside Kel’s and tried to ask him, she found that her lips were stiff and cold, and she could barely move them.

            “We’ll be to the village soon miss,” he said, incorrectly interpreting her desire to speak. She didn’t have the willpower, nor even the capability, to contradict him. Thankfully, the lights and smoke of the distant village steadily grew ahead of them. Anarisia clung to these symptoms of civilization like they were a lifeboat, the only thing keeping her from drowning in the tempest they rode through.

            They passed through the first outlying farms without being observed, the houses of the peasants sealed against the rain, the farmers clustered under their roofs, hoping the rain wouldn’t ruin their freshly-planted crops. A crack of light shone from a half-open window, a burst of gay laughter flooding out of it. Anarisia ducked her head at the sound of it, feeling cut off from such a scene. She had spoken enough with peasants to know that nobility were rarely welcome in their homes—it was not that they did not appreciate what their lords did for them, it was simply that, in the midst of providing for the man’s needs, they didn’t want him to impose any more upon them.

            She felt alien, all at once, riding along the muddy road, as if she were imposing upon something precious and fragile, something that would break at the slightest brush of her fingers. This was their world and, for one fleeting moment, she had the odd impulse to keep riding, to leave these people in peace, to not bother their simple lives with her own problems.

            But Kel was already pulling his horse up in front of the largest building in the village. The bottom was somewhat normal—wattle and daub held the walls together, though it seemed to lean at an odd angle. The top floor, however, looked as if it had been dropped down onto the bottom half from a stupendous height, because it had squashed in the bottom and it leaned crazily, jutting out over the right, where it was held up only by some miracle involving wooden rods and rope. A pole jutted out above the door, parallel to the ground, from which hung a sloppily-painted sign that looked as if it was supposed to represent a man with a sword against the backdrop of a bed and soup tureen.

            Kel had swung down from his horse and gone to rap on the door of the inn, hopefully to summon a friendly keeper who would be willing to come out in the rain and put their horses up. Anarisia tried to dismount, but found that her every muscle was stiff, practically frozen into place. Her attention was distracted by the opening of the inn door. A few terse words were exchanged between Kel and the unseen innkeeper, then Kel turned and came over to her horse.

            He held his arms up to her, and she managed to swing her legs around and let him help her down. The ground was even muddier than she’d thought, sucking at her boots and the hem of her skirt as if it would never let go. Her legs almost buckled beneath her when Kel set her down, and he caught with her one arm. “Do you need to be carried, m’lady?” he asked.

            “No, I’m fine,” she murmured, finding her footing and rather unsteadily taking a step away from him, the mud sucking at her feet. The door of the inn slammed shut as Kel took her arm, helping across the slushy yard, and a little boy came trotting out, a coat held over his head. He nabbed the reins of the horses from Kel, then quickly tugged the animals toward a half-hidden gate that was hunched under the leaning second story.

            Kel let Anarisia go into the dim interior of the inn before him. The bottom floor seemed to serve as a tavern; tobacco smoke writhed through the closed-in room, creating a skim of grey along the ceiling that mingled with the smoke from the drafty fireplace. The effect darkened the room even further, and the crowded nature of the room didn’t help matters. It was hot, an almost unwelcome change from the weather outside, and it stank of sour sick and food from meals long past. Long trestle tables filled the center of the room, their wooden surfaces covered with dark rings caused by hundreds of ale mugs.

            Several eyes turned to them as they entered, examining with the chill abandon of the settled for the newcomer. Anarisia shrank back into the shelter of Kel’s shadow, barely resisting the urge to reach out and grab a handful of his cloak to further reassure herself of her safety. He, on the other hand, seemed hardly to notice the roughness of his surroundings. He strode across the uneven wooden floor, his gait firm as he settled into a bowed slump, sitting as naturally on his frame as his upright demeanor usually did.

            This familiar stance seemed to pacify the others in the common room, because most of them turned back to their mugs and conversations, apparently deciding that they belonged there, odd as their appearance was. Oddly enough, being under a roof made Anarisia feel even more bedraggled and mussed than she had before—she was suddenly quite aware of her soaking dress, of her straggling hair that had come out of its plaited bun, and of the generally tired air that hung about her like a blanket.

            Kel slouched beside her up to the bar, a surface just as dirty and scarred as the tables. The keeper stood behind it, a hulking peasant whose neck seemed to have been made for a turtle. His eyes squinted from one face to the next, as if he were examining every facet of their being. “Bed?” he asked, gazing distastefully at Anarisia’s wet cloak. “Mind ya’ don’t get any o’ that damp into it. I’ve got problems aplenty without that, too.”

            “A bed,” Kel answered curtly, ignoring the man’s further directions. “And dinner as well.”

            The keeper grumbled, coming around the bar to lead them toward a set of rickety stairs. Kel motioned Anarisia before him, and she hesitantly climbed up the stairs between the two. They shook under her feet, and the railing felt thin and brittle under her hand. The stairs opened into a narrow, low-ceiled hall that stretched beyond them into an interminable distance, darkness seeming to radiate from the hidden end like a cloud. Smoke from the lower level had infected this area as well, staining the walls and ceiling a dark brown color.

            A door was flung open before them, and the keeper grunted something about dinner before brushing past them and stumping back downstairs, much more willing to spend time skulking behind his dirty bar than catering to his guests. Kel entered the room first, hand clenched on the hilt of his sword, and he waved her in after peeking inside the cupboard and twitching aside the ratty curtains to make sure the shutters were latched.

            The room was small, and Anarisia regarded it as though in a dream. It was sparsely furnished, nothing but a small cupboard, a narrow bed, and a low shelf that served for a buffet, crowded into it. She shut the door behind her, unwilling to have the smoky air of the hall wafting in. Kel turned to face her, once again standing like the soldier he was.

            “I am sorry it is not better appointed, m’lady,” he said.

            “This will do,” she answered quietly. She glanced down at the bed beside her with more horror than she’d intended; it was far narrower than any she’d ever seen, the blankets thin and smudged with dirt here and there, as if they hadn’t been washed in quite awhile. Trying to suppress a shudder of revulsion, she looked back up to her guard. “It’s only for a night, after all.”

            Kel solemnly blinked at her, and for a moment he reminded her of her father’s large, faithful dog that had been accustomed to following him about like a four-legged shadow, tongue lolling out of his mouth, forever ready to bring joy to his master. But then any similarity was dashed away as he gave a jerky nod. “Still, m’lady. A Lady of Fengol should be in better quarters. I apologize.”

            “Really, Captain, it’s fine,” Anarisia said, naming him by his title and giving him a tiny smile. “I’ll survive, I promise you.”

            He still looked askance, but he didn’t quarrel with her about it. “I’ll sleep outside the door tonight, m’lady. No one shall get past me, I promise you.”

            “Thank you,” she said, dropping her pack onto the floor and sinking down onto the bed. She reached up to unclasp the brooch on her cloak, letting it fall behind her. He sketched a short bow.

            “I’ll leave you, m’lady. I’ll have the woman knock when she brings your dinner.”

            “Thank you,” Anarisia said thankfully, already contemplating a change of dress. The soldier left and she opened her pack, rifling through it. Fortunately, the leather had been well-oiled, and the contents were dry. She found a spare overdress inside and quickly changed, hanging her sodden garment over the end of the bedstead to dry. Her hand brushed against her mother’s necklace as she dressed, and she curled her fist about it for a moment, feeling the warmth of it in her hand.

            Feeling better, she went on a quick foray round the room, peeking into the cupboard and finding a stool inside it. It was a rather rickety piece of furniture, barely sturdy enough to hold her weight, but it was better than nothing. She sat down, her knees nearly against her chest, staring into space as her mind tried to catch up to all that had happened.

            She was far from home, miles and miles away. By this time, Jel had quite possibly reached the Manor and was most likely in the process of taking it. There would be little resistance; the Manor had not been built for a siege, but for quiet country life. There were few soldiers under her father’s command, the result of a steady, quiet man assuming the best of less quiet men.

            Hot tears came to her eyes and she buried her face in her hands, trying to stifle the sobs that broke from her chest. She cried for her father, for the mother she’d barely known, for Keely and Delveè…for all the haunts of her childhood, the people she’d loved.

            A knock at the door jarred her from her cry and she hurriedly sat up, wiping her eyes dry and trying to compose herself. “Come in,” she called out in a shaky voice, turning to hide her face.

            An unknown woman bustled in. She was heavy-set, but so obviously the wife of the thuggish keeper, they must have been made for one another. Her face was red, her gray hair stringy and falling out around it. But there was a jovial, matronly smile on her face, and as she set a bowl of stew and a plate of thick, brown bread down on the shelf, she gave Anarisia a pat on the shoulder. “It prob’ly ain’t my place, miss, but thing’s’ll come right, you wait and see.”

“Thank you,” Anarisia said, sincerely grateful for the unexpected words of comfort.

            The keeper woman nodded and left her alone. Anarisia caught a glimpse of Kel outside, holding a thick slice of bread that had nearly disappeared as he ate. A small smile tugged at her lips despite her frame of mind. She sat down on the stool again, dismally reaching out to the bread. Before long, she’d once again lost herself in thought.

The End

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