A Light From Within
To read Chapter One, click here.
(Learn more at horsestalker.com.)
BY ROBERT DIGITALE
They tramped for two hours until they came to the edge of a long canyon that blocked their path. Roj slipped the black loops of the horsehair rope over his shoulder and led the descent down the wall of the cliff. The handholds were wet and the men had to take extra care not to slip. At length, they dropped off a ledge and passed through brush into a dry wash that ran along the bottom of the canyon. The old man drew near and pointed at the sky. A new storm front was advancing on them, its blackened clouds spitting flame and bellowing thunder. Dark sheets of rain painted the sky. Quickly the old man took the lead, springing up a steep bank and into a thicket beneath a cliff of crumbled rock and scrub brush.
Noli grabbed Roj’s arm. “Let him climb,” he said, nodding to the hermit. “Here’s our chance to escape.”
Roj turned back toward the canyon wall they had just climbed down. “Where would we go, Noli? It’ll soon be dark. We can’t find our horses before sundown. And you yourself said we can’t escape these mountains without them. That old man knows this. Now that we have traveled far from his cave, he may let us run away. Out here he’ll survive, but without him we’ll perish. No, we’ve got to stay under his wing. He’s MuKierin, Noli. He speaks the tongue of the old ones. He would never desert two horse hunters, not if we stick close to him.”
The three men scaled the second cliff, even as rainwater streamed down its broken face. Roj thought their guide surprisingly agile for his age. Before long the younger men were panting. “We need to rest,” Noli complained. “We’re horse hunters, not acrobats.”
“At the top,” the old man replied from above. “There be places to hide from the sky fire. Come quickly, MuKierin! Make for safety!”
The men climbed by bracing their feet against exposed rock while their hands clung to ledges and scrub brush. Roj looked up along the top of the canyon. Far away he spied a dead tree trunk with two great limbs spread like a man reaching for the sky. Suddenly, lightning struck it and snapped off a limb, sending the great branch into a blazing free-fall down the canyon. A blast of thunder tore at their ears as the remainder of the trunk erupted in flames. “Save us, Kierin!” Roj yelled wildly. “Save us, Stone Woman!” In great fear, the younger men strained for the top.
Once there, they found the old man anxiously motioning them to follow. They raced downhill among boulders and brush. Behind them the thunder cracked and roared, pulsing in strange rhythms that made each silence almost as scary as the next eruption. At length, the old MuKierin stopped beside a boulder with a ledge that offered protection. The three crawled beneath it and curled against each other as the storm slammed into the mountain. Roj and Noli covered their ears and cowered. The ground, the air and even the rock seemed to rumble mightily. Lightning flashed around the hilltop and the smell of fire hung near, even through the rain. At last, the storm passed. Only then did Roj notice the old man’s hand upon his shoulder, firm and steady.
“The storm be good,” he said. “Stay here, Strange One. I be back soon.”
Noli and Roj twisted onto their backs and ran wet sleeves across damp faces. “Why does he keep calling you Strange One?” Noli demanded.
“I think his mind is playing tricks on him, making him think I’m somebody else. I told him how I had tracked the stallion and how I throw a rope with my left hand. Then he called me strange and said he knew that I would come to him someday. He said he’d heard it from the people who will give us refuge.”
Noli’s temper flared. “Now I know he’s mad. You should have told me all this back at the cave, before he took our horses. I had my papa’s sword on that packhorse. I could have grabbed that blade and fought our way out of this.”
Roj frowned. “Noli, you always want to fight your way out of trouble. But I was hoping there might be another way. You can call me a boy and a fool, but I didn’t want this old man’s blood on our hands.”
“Well, the time for a tussle has passed,” Noli said with resignation in his voice. “Our horses have run to who knows where and the night is coming soon. We have no choice now but to go with him. But if we ever make it out of here alive, I plan to tell our kinsmen that bandits robbed us. It sounds less humiliating than to tell them that we let some mad hermit turn our horses loose on a mountainside.”
Roj shrugged and wiped wet fingers against the grainy earth. “Well, you must admit that he has put us under his wing, sky fire and all. He wants our company no more than we want his. But here he is trudging along with us. He’s either going to slay us or become a lifelong friend.”
“Yes, he’s MuKierin. I’ll give him that much. He shakes his sword at us, but he does his duty to the Clan. His mama taught him to look after his own kind.”
The rain turned to a light shower. Roj felt cramped beneath the ledge so he crawled out and stretched his legs. He climbed a small knoll in order to get a better look at the ridges around him. At first he saw only shrub-studded slopes and gray boulders. But within a few moments he spotted a strange light glowing in the notch of a distant canyon. The light didn’t flicker like a flame. Instead it seemed to grow steadily brighter, a golden beam spreading wider and higher from within the gorge. Roj felt his chest start to tingle, then the feeling reached his fingers and his lips. He scanned for signs of such phenomena on other hilltops, but saw none. He turned back and once more felt a thrill at beholding such brightness. “What are you?” he asked aloud. “Who are you?” The thought came to him that he must make his way to the light and let it wash over him. He began to feel almost weightless, as if with three or four immense strides he could make his way across the great expanse and immerse himself in the golden glow. But gravity returned to his body as the sky convulsed with lightning. Four great bolts struck in rapid succession around the blazing canyon. The golden light remained a few moments longer and then went out.
Roj stood transfixed, waiting to see whether the wondrous sight would reappear. The hermit soon returned and climbed the knoll. Roj called to him, “Kinsman, I saw a great light in the distance, shining brighter than daybreak. And a string of lightning bolts struck all around it. Did you see it?”
The old man sighed. “Once, long ago. Only once.”
Roj tingled unexplainably at the words. “Well, let’s go that way. Let’s make for that light.”
“No, the light be beautiful but it signals danger. The fierce ones clash beneath its glow. Even so, for us it be a good sign. The sky fire drives back the evil ones, blocking their path to us. The fierce ones who do not eat the people shall prevail. No, we leave the battle to them but we go on to the ground of the promise. Soon enough you will be safe.”
The hermit turned to walk away. Roj remained frozen, longing to better understand what he had just experienced. The old man stopped and turned around, carefully studying his young charge. Noli arose and walked wearily by his brother-in-law. “Come, Strange One,” he called mockingly as he caught up to the hermit. For a moment the two men stood together and silently watched Roj. At length the hermit let his right hand slip down to touch the hilt of his sword. Frowning, Roj reluctantly descended the high ground.
Together the three strode down a gentle slope that led them into a small valley. The hermit seemed less concerned now about being spotted. Soon the rain let up. They pushed on, watching the shrouded sun emerge at last beneath the clouds, then sink below a pink and purple horizon. Roj couldn’t help but notice the evening’s beauty.
The three now walked abreast through a clearing in the brush. Noli asked, “So where has he gone, Roj, that stallion of ours? Do you think you could find him in the morning?”
Roj turned and looked wistfully back along the trail. “No, this rain has washed away all his tracks. He doesn’t need to worry about us anymore.”
“No one will believe us, but we nearly had him,” Noli said. “We nearly caught ourselves a prince of the Dry Lands. Oh, what bad luck we’ve had today. We let a fortune slip through our fingers.”
The old man snorted. “Crazy MuKierin dreams. Crazy. Nobody catches those stallions.”
“One day some lucky MuKierin will,” answered Noli. “And the boy here was on his track for more than two days. He could have been the one.”
The hermit gave them both a sober look. “The boy throws left and tracks stallions. Surely he be a Strange One.” They walked on, and the old man seemed to look far off into the fading daylight. “Be the old horse hunters still filling the little ones’ minds with the stallions?”
“Indeed, they do,” said Noli, “just like when we were boys. Those gray beards still gather the boys around the fire on summer nights and tell their stories. They tell how our forefather Kierin promised that one day a MuKierin will ride a Spotted Stallion out of this desert to a land beside the sea. Then it grows real quiet, and the old ones speak the old words …”
Here the hermit himself interrupted, “Remember me, horse stalker, when you ride beside the shining waters.”
Noli and Roj nodded knowingly. “Remember me, horse stalker,” Noli echoed. “Where did you hear the words, in Kierinswell or in the South Lands near Orres, where I come from?”
The old man sighed, his eyes suddenly downcast. “No questions, now. I give no answers on the mountain.”
They pushed on in the autumn dusk. Pale light reflected off a few hills but most of the land lay shrouded beneath clouds. The light dimmed and the old MuKierin hastened his pace. At length they reached the base of a steep slope of loose rock. The light was so faded now that Roj’s eyes could no longer distinguish one color from another. Their guide halted. “I go no farther,” he said. “Up ahead be the ground of the promise. Go and be safe.”
The young men looked surprised at the sudden talk of parting. “But, kinsman,” said Roj, “why won’t you come with us? Don’t you also want protection from these evil ones?”
“No, boy, I be a seeker to the end. A seeker goes his way alone.” He thrust his hand in his pouch. When he removed it, he held aloft the shiny black stone that he had fashioned earlier that day. To Roj’s delight, he saw the old man had shaped it into a small knife. It was not much longer than a man’s hand, with a rounded grip and a wicked edge. He handed it to Roj and looked him in the eye. “Go on, Strange One. I choose my own path. So be it.”
Roj took the stone blade and hugged his kinsman. Next Noli stepped up and declared, “Old man, I still don’t know what to make of you. You’re a hermit who lets loose other men’s horses. At least, we’re still alive. And if you really did help us escape harm in these hills, then we’re in your debt and we won’t forget it. You are MuKierin. We are MuKierin, too.”
From far away came the sound of rocks sliding over rock. “Go,” the hermit said. “Go quickly. Trouble may be near.”
The two horse hunters stepped forward onto the loosely packed slope, carefully testing the earth as their feet sank into the crushed rock. Roj looked back once and saw the old man disappear into the night. He turned and focused on the climb ahead. He wanted to hurry, but the slope was too steep. Soon his legs were churning and his calves burning. With each step he planted small impressions in the eroding hillside. The two men pushed steadily on, not stopping until they reached the top. Despite the darkness, they could see they had reached a small plateau with a rocky slope above them on their right. On their left, the land seemed to drop off as if it were the edge of a table. Both men sank to one knee and tried to catch their breath. “I hope we’re almost there,” Roj said. “I didn’t like that sound we heard back there.”
Off to their left came a muffled tapping noise. A few moments later the horse hunters recognized the rhythm of feet running. They looked at each other and knew at once that those feet didn’t belong to the old hermit. Whoever it was, whatever it was, the creature was headed fast their way. “Run for it!” Roj hissed. They sprang up and shot across the top of the hill, their ropes swinging wildly in their hands as they ran. Roj led the way, dodging the brush and the ankle-high rocks scattered before them. The two sprinted up to a small dry wash and jumped across it. The brush was low here but the night obscured their vision. They ran for almost two minutes when they spied a figure far ahead of them, standing on either a rock or a patch of raised ground. Roj slowed to a jog, fighting the urge to hunch over and take in more air. Both men gasped for breath but kept moving—their eyes fixed on the figure before them. Roj’s heart beat wildly. No longer could he hear the running feet behind him. Instead, the night had grown still, except for the pained wheezing that rose from each man’s throat. They slowed and stepped cautiously forward until they were less than thirty paces away from the looming shape. There they stopped.
To read Chapter Three, “An Emissary of the King,” click here.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Digitale