Archive for January 2016

Things Seen (installment 5 of Dark Horses   Leave a comment

i’m really butthurt at myself for taking so long to write this. i guess it’s a small sliver that i’m sneaking it in before year’s end, although of course my plan was to have the entire thing written before the end of 2015.

sigh.

i suck.

but now at least i’m more than halfway. and i’m seeing lots of places to revise, rewire and reconfigger before it goes to Dver for publishing prep, but i have to resist the siren song of procrastination disguised as ‘editing’ and just finish writing the dang thing.

khairete

suz

 

IMG_2029

Things Seen

Kiri sighs and shifts the pack again, trying to ease the ache in her shoulders. The sun is hovering above the line of western hills, and it is bright and hot, and she is tired. They have been walking for several days without any clear destination or goal, and the pressure is building like a looming thunderhead.
‘Let me retie that for you,’ says Lykeios, reaching for one of the straps binding her pack to her back, but she slaps his hand away crossly.
‘Leave it. I’ll fix it when we stop.’
‘You’re heaving and sighing like a seal. If it’s uncomfortable, it’s stupid not to fix it. Or do you like heaving and sighing?’
‘I’d like to make some progress without finding excuses to stop every time a cloud passes over the sun’s face. What’s stupid is wandering along like we’re on a picnic. Or do you like dawdling like a broody sheep?’
‘We’re wandering because you say there’s a cave we have to find, but you don’t know where, or how far, or what direction, or what we’re going to find when we get there. Maybe if you tell me just what it is you’ve got us out here seeking we could actually make march along with some purpose instead of all this girlish vagueness.’
Kiri whirls and glares at him. He stands his ground and glares back. After a moment she sighs again and drops her gaze. ‘I know I’m being vague. I’m sorry. But it’s not something I can easily explain. You heard what I told my parents. There’s really not much more I can add. I’m not trying to keep you in the dark. It’s just so hard to express.’
But Lykeios does not stop glaring at her. ‘I’m a bard. I work with words. You could try, and if it’s not clear, you could keep trying. You’re worse than a mumbling mantis breathing sacred smoke and talking gibberish. At least a diviner wouldn’t have me stalking the hills when danger is afoot, and slapping me for trying to be of help.’
Kiri’s mouth twitches. ‘Words don’t fix everything. And sometimes you can use a good slap.’
His gaze finally relaxes, and he almost smiles. ‘So can you. But I’m too scared of your father to do it, even if you deserve it.’
Her face hardens again. ‘Deserve or no, I don’t need my father to keep me safe from the likes of you.’
‘Your father sent me out here with you to keep you safe from worse than me,’ he shoots back. ‘And if it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t have been allowed to make this crazy trek. So you can knock off threatening me with fists or knives, okay?’
Her sudden grin takes his breath away. ‘Okay.’ And she turns from him, and begins trudging up the rocky hillside again, pebbles skittering away from her goatskin boots.
The dusk has dissolved into damp darkness when they finally halt, and make their simple camp by starlight. They have not encountered any game that day, and make their meal of hard waybread baked with fat and a little meat. Lykeios mixes water into wine in a bowl and hands it to Kiri as she sits back with a sigh into her blankets.
‘Tell me again why we’re not searching the mountains near Kephalos and Eleni’s cave. Isn’t that where you encountered this- situation? I don’t understand why you feel we shouldn’t start at the beginning.’
Lykeios cannot see her face in the dark, but he hears the uncertainty in her voice. ‘I’ve been up that mountain a hundred times since then, and many hundreds more before. I tell you, the path that led me into the mountain cave isn’t there. I’ve looked for it. Wherever that cave is, it’s not something you can get to the same way you find other places. But I’m sure I can find it again. I’m sure She’ll let me. At least, I think so.’ Her voice quavers. ‘I don’t know what else to do. We’ve got to find Her.’
He sits in silence for a few minutes. Then, ‘Kiri, I believe you. But I don’t think this is going to work. We’ve got to make a better plan. We can’t just wander around and hope that a Goddess whose name we don’t even know so we can offer Her prayers will guide us in. It’s not just the danger out here, although the Gods know that’s enough to daunt a mighty warrior let alone a bard and goatherd. But the more time that passes, the less likely we are to find any of the children alive, if indeed there’s any hope of it now. And your people are terrified for you. We can’t keep them waiting forever for word, even if it’s bad news.’
The silence from across the little fire goes on for so long that he wonders if she has fallen asleep. Then she sets the wine bowl down with a decisive thump. Her voice is firm and cool. ‘I don’t know how I know, Lykeios, but this is what I have to do. I’ll walk until She’s ready to bring me to her. And if She doesn’t- well, I’ll go home. But there’s no strategy to lay out, and nothing else to be done. Just keep walking in the mountains.’ An edge creeps into her voice. ‘You don’t have to come with me. Go make a plan, and see how well it works.’
Fire leaps into Lykeios’ face, and a hot reply gets caught behind his teeth. He wrestles it down his gullet, and turns from the fire without another word and pulls his blankets over him. The fire dies down to a moody glow, and soon the only sound is steady breathing.
The stars wheel overhead.
Rhythmic thudding makes the ground under the thin blankets jump. Without volition Kiri and Lykeios stretch their hands out to each other and clasp them over the now-cool ashes. They do not look through the darkness at each other. Their eyes strain to pierce the cool night air, as the hammerblows continue to fall, louder and louder. A cold breeze picks up, damp and smelling of salt, disturbing in the arid mountains. Kiri’s hair blows across her face and clings in sticky strings. Lykeios feels his stomach begin to churn alarmingly.
A deeper blackness bulks against the sky to the southwest, blotting out the stars. A ragged mane lifts on the wet wind. A pair of green eyes gleam. A terrible trumpet rings out, and the black stallion rears, front hooves raking the stars out of the sky and scattering them into dust. Kiri and Lykeios let go each other’s hands to clap them over their own ears. The huge shape takes a few steps closer to them, then halts and lowers its triangular head, ears flat against the thick neck. The eyes bore into them. Just as Kiri is about to scream from the pressure of the gaze, the stallion breaks the connection, and turns away, the hindquarters like moving boulders, hooves the size of the round shields of mountain archers slamming into the earth as it moves back the way it came. But before it disappears over the ridge, it turns back once more, glaring, and its nostrils flare into a snort so loud it hurts their heads.
And then it is gone. And the next thing they know they are stirring in the dawnlight, and their bleary eyes blink at the scattered white ash of the fire.
Lykeios lifts his gaze to meet Kiri’s, wincing at the exhausted red-rimmed look of her. He reaches for her, then realizes that they are too far apart to touch.
‘Wait- how did we…….?’ he falters, and falls to silence.
‘It was a dream,’ she whispers back.
‘No. It can’t have been. You remember it too, I can see you can. We can’t have had the same dream.’
‘It was a dream,’ she insists, her voice rising. ‘But it was a true dream.’
He stares at her. ‘You’ve seen it before. That thing. That horse. Was it a horse?’
Her glassy gaze falters and drops. ‘Yes,’ she whispers. ‘Yes, I’ve seen him before. I don’t know what he is, but I’m so afraid of him.’ She looks up again, and her tired eyes lock onto his. ‘This is what I’ve been looking for. We have to follow him.’
He stares at her, aghast. ‘Follow him? That nightmare beast that just wrecked any future prospects for peaceful sleep in this lifetime! Are you mad?’
Her long, tangled hair hides her face. ‘No. Maybe.’ With a deep, shuddering sigh that wracks Lykeios’s heart she pushes her hair back, then hauls herself to her feet, giving him a disconcerting glimpse of what she will look like as an old woman. ‘I have enough mint and marjoram to make us some tea, and there’s a little bread left. We should make a point of gathering more herbs, and hunting, as we go. Will you stir up the fire?’
And that is how Lykeios found himself a short while later, his belly warmed with the light breakfast, following Kiri over the crest of the mountain, and down toward the plain below, heading southwest.

* * * * * *
It is four days later when Lykeios and Kiri crest a particularly challenging ridge to find the ground falling away under their feet, and a shining slab of gleaming, shimmering light spreading before them, far away to the barely discernible horizon. Kiri’s breath catches in her throat. Words desert her.
Lykeios feels her wonder without tearing his eyes from the moving humps and valleys of green, deep blue and cloud-white. ‘Io, Poseidon,’ he breathes, and a seagull screams overhead.
‘Is it……it must be the sea,’ whispers Kiri. ‘I didn’t know………’
‘Yes,’ he whispers back, not knowing why he whispers. ‘I’ve seen it before. But never from a vantage this high. I didn’t know it was so vast.’
They stand for a time that seems endless, and like no time at all. The afternoon sun ducks behind an errant cloud, and the undulating cloak goes dark and forbidding. Kiri shivers.
‘It’s wonderful. But it terrifies me. Why are we here?’
Lykeios smiles at her. ‘Because you said we needed to be here. Now what?’
She watches the sea below as the sun slides back into the blue, and the water brightens, seeming to laugh with relief. ‘We go on, I guess. What else is there?’
Their gazes lock. Then with one accord they begin to pick their way down the crumbling scree, grasping at tough little spiny shrubs as they make their descent toward a tangle of fig, olive, laurel and pine trees that separates the steep hills from the gleaming white crescent where the waves break and murmur.
The fresh breeze that cooled them on the heights becomes tangled in the rocks and stubborn, stunted trees of the slopes, and they are both sticky, sweaty and scratched as they work their way down the last stretch of mountain into the verge of the band of forest.
Lykeios lands hard on a shelf of stone at the bottom of the slope, swears briefly, then glances guiltily up the hill behind him with an apology poised on his lips. Before it can fly free, he is knocked off his feet by a flying girl who chuffs a surprised ‘Oof!’ then bounces lightly back on her feet.
‘Sorry,’ she offers breathlessly, along with her hand. He gazes at it bleakly for a moment before taking it and allowing her to haul him to his feet. He winces as he stands upright, bends over to massage an ankle.
‘You’re heavier than you look,’ he tells her, half expecting a sharp reply. But she twinkles at him.
‘And you’re softer than you look. Are you hurt? Did I do that, or was it that ungraceful shuffle down the last few feet?’
His mouth quirks for a second in spite of himself. ‘It was steep, and I’m tired. And I wasn’t expecting an assault from on high.’ He tries a tentative step, winces, and sits heavily on a boulder under an olive tree so ancient and gnarled that it hunches over the stone like a crone over a cauldron. ‘I don’t think it’s too bad. But I’m going to bind it. Give me a minute.’
‘I’ve got it,’ says Kiri briskly, whipping out a strip of coarsely woven cloth from her pack. A quick practiced glance around the rocky debris at the foot of the hill and the forest stretching to the northeast, and she pounces on a clump of comfrey and some moss from a fallen log. Before he can ask why she has packed his bruised ankle, wound the strip expertly around it, and tied it firmly into place.
‘There you are, my lad. No more lazing! On your feet and let’s see if we can make our way to the beach before nightfall. I want to see the ocean up close before the end of the day.’
He is working out an appropriately scathing retort when a quavering cry, sodden with inexpressible sorrow, freezes them in place.
The westering sun darkens although no cloud has crossed its face. Without speaking a word they both suddenly remember why they are here, and what they followed to reach this place.
Face gone abruptly ashen, Kiri hands Lykeios his stick and his bundle and helps him to stand. The woods have fallen silent at the cry. Even the insects are hushed. They stand for a moment, the olive branches swaying ever so slightly over their heads, and in the silence a rhythmic whisper, muted yet somehow enormous, like the soft breathing of a distant dragon. Eyes wide, Kiri whispers, ‘What is that? I’ve never heard anything like that before?’
Also whispering, Lykeios replies, ‘It’s the sea. We must be getting close. But that doesn’t explain that cry.’
Her eyes lift to his. They are swimming with fear. ‘Oh, Lykeios. What are we doing? This is mad. I don’t want to see this. I don’t want to know. Let’s leave. Let’s go home, right now. This was a crazy idea. Let’s get out of here, right now.’
His hand comes up, almost without volition, and cups her face. He watches a teardrop tremble on her lower lashes, caught like a drop of dew on a spider web, shimmering prisms of color. ‘We can’t stop now.’ His fingers move a little, feeling her swallow. ‘You know we can’t turn back now.’
The tears still shimmer unshed in her eyes, and the fear is still there. But her jaw firms under his fingers. She takes a deep breath, and her hand covers his, squeezes.
‘No. Of course not.’ Her gaze shifts into the woods. ‘Which way?’
He turns slowly, eyes searching the trees. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know where that sound came from. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. From the earth itself.’ Kiri stands silent, her wide eyes never leaving his face. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. At first he feels nothing. Then softly, insidiously, he feels a tug in his mind, a very small tug, like a shoot unfurling in the sun. Barely breathing, he allows his head to orient on the subtle signal, and as he moves the feeling strengthens. He opens his eyes into the red sun. ‘This way.’
They move through the trees. The foliage is too thin to dim the dying daylight, but it seems already dusk. Roots rise suddenly to catch even a carefully placed footfall. Twigs twine and poke, aiming for eyes. Kiri cries out as a branch like a tiny talon draws blood from her cheek, but she stifles the sound as soon as it leaves her lips. It seems to make the trees, formerly familiar and friendly, turn toward them with a terrible eagerness. They know the trees cannot really shift more closely to each other, but the feeling of being hemmed in persists.
‘Are you sure?’ Kiri whispers, and her hand creeps into his.
‘Yes,’ he whispers back, warmed despite his fear. It is the first time she has spontaneously touched him. His fingers close on her cold ones, and they both feel momentarily braver.
The woodwalk seems to take hours, or days, but beyond the veil of gloom draping the branches they can still see fire in the sky. At the same moment they realize that the dragon breathing has become louder, insistent. Lykeios glances at the orange and purple beyond the treetops and catches himself wondering wearily if there actually is a dragon dozing outside the bounds of the woods, preparing to stretch and yawn and unfurl enormous wings before launching into the starry sky, perhaps with its belly warmed by two young humans. Then he feels Kiri’s tug on his hand and halts with dismay, gazing with her at the hopeless mat of thick grey spidersilk blocking the already difficult path through the trees.
The mass of strands is not still. It quivers and thrums ceaselessly in the dim light as countless leggy figures, some tiny, some as big as his hand, explore and hunt and build and tear down and reconstruct and wrap and feed. His skin crawls. His hair seems to creep and skitter across his scalp. He can feel Kiri begin to tremble violently.
‘Lykeios, I don’t think we could get through that in broad daylight let alone now with the night so close upon us.’ Her voice shivers with despair.
He looks at her. ‘Can we really go back? Or camp here tonight, and try in the morning?’ He shudders involuntarily at the prospect of sleeping under the night gaze of the hungry trees and the almost subliminal rustling of the webs. He sees his feelings mirrored in her face, her teeth worrying her lower lip as she looks at the silvery glint of the silk before them.
But before she can answer the terrible wavering cry comes again, filling the deep red air, shattering on the sharp branches and drifting down on them like dust. The anguish is unbearable. It lingers long after the sound itself has died away into a trail of soft sobs. The boughs seem drenched in a dew of despair.
Lykeios feels his knees soften, and stiffens them with an effort. Kiri’s hands are clenched over her mouth, eyes like moons above them. A tiny sound, a kitten’s growl, escapes from behind those hands. Moving convulsively she takes her cloak and wraps it tightly around her head and shoulders, leaving only a slit for her eyes. Taking her knife from her pack, she steps forward and begins to slice and hack her way through the skein of silk, spiders raining on and over her.
Lykeios chokes out a prayer, to whom he cannot say. He follows her.
It is impossible for the last flares of the sunset to still enflame the sky when they emerge from the woods, clothes torn, feet bruised, festooned in ragged silk, countless painful lumps rising all over their faces and bodies, scuttling shapes adoring their clothes and hair. And yet the west throbs incarnadine over a jagged arete which falls down into a shadowy bowl in which small horrors are moving.
Kiri steps to the rim of the steep hillside. Below her to the left deep mauve waves break onto the sand, exploding into white foam. She has dreamed her whole life of experiencing her first glimpse of the sea, but neither its majestic roll nor the dragon’s breath roar make the slightest impression on her as she stares below her where scores of figures totter on the grass. Even as she watches, some fall and lie motionless.
They have the bodies of children. But they have the heads of horses.

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Posted January 1, 2016 by suzmuse in Uncategorized