Harbinger

They rode into the dusty settlement in near-silence, the hoofbeats of their mounts muffled by the caked layer of sediment upon the dirt road's surface. Four shadows moved steadily and purposefully towards the small hamlet, their respective forms barely discernable under the veil of darkness that sat heavily atop the land this auspicious eve.

What struck the boy as odd was the speed at which they rode in. The four moved quickly, yet quietly and efficiently, horses at a near gallop as they approached the drinking establishment's rear entrance. The sounds of carousing bar patrons flowed out into the street from inside the inn, emphasizing their hushed arrival that much more.

Their silence was deafening. Not a word uttered, not a sword rattling in its scabbard, and nary a stray hoofbeat echoing off the rough-hewn walls of the surrounding buildings.

And so he sat, curious as ever, perched precariously above the eaves of the farmhouse. The boy gazed westward as the four figures dismounted at the town's ramshackle, disused inn. His eyes were fixed on the spectacle below; strangers in the town were not uncommon, but the moonlit arrival of these four seemed somehow, inexplicably portentous.

A frenzied whinny shattered the calm of the midsummer night as the tallest of the four reined in, rising gracefully from the saddle, and in a single motion vaulted to the ground in the lee of the building. His steed ducked its head briefly, then reared, forelegs rising high into the air before settling back down with a pair of heavy thunks a moment later. The first rider's hand shot out, soothing the stallion; the boy couldn't quite make out the cooed words, but something passed between man and beast, the warhorse immediately calmed.

The final three riders remained mounted, however, as the first strode purposefully into the rear entry of the humble establishment. A seemingly stifling black cloak with a raised collar obscured the man's features, just as the others were shrouded by similar garments. A heavy yew bow was slung across his broad shoulders, though the boy noted no quiver to accompany it. A wide-brimmed black hat completed his attire, this unlike his companions, whose hoods were drawn loosely over hanging heads.

The boy watched attentively as the man reached the entrance, easily pulling the thick oak door open with a gloved hand. Light washed over him momentarily, illuminating the scene briefly and giving the boy the opportunity to glance back at the rest of the riders.

A shiver of excitement ran up the boy's spine as he noted that each of the riders sat astride a different coloured horse.

The first, gleaming white in the light of the inn, waited patiently for its master to return.

The second, its dull coat a bloody red, carried a man who held a greatsword stretched across his knees, as if anticipating battle. A hand shot out of the cloak's sleeve, gently caressing the blade from hilt to wickedly sharp tip.

The third had a coat as dark as night. It stood unmoving, tail swishing lightly, as its rider toyed lightly with a metallic device that swung jauntily from side to side between nimble fingers.

The fourth and final animal looked pale, ragged, and emaciated. Its rider was also armed, though not as heavily, the pommel of a sword displayed pointedly at his left hip.

As the boy's gaze took in the fourth horseman's form, the figure's cloaked head turned slightly in his direction. He gasped as a skeletal hand lifted and pointed vaguely towards him, then lowered. A moment passed, and then within the hood, two fiery orbs flared bright in the darkness for just a moment before fading into the night.

The boy would have sworn that it was all his imagination, if not for the feeling that afflicted him at that precise moment, nearly robbing him of his balance on the rooftop. It was as if a band of hot iron had tightened ever-so-briefly around his thin chest before disappearing just as quickly into the aether.

Searing pain ignited on his upper right shoulder blade, vanishing seconds later and leaving only a dull ache.

The boy reached back tentatively, fearful, not quite knowing what he would find, though keenly aware that it was something life-altering.

The End

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