An Emissary of the King

To read Chapter One, click here.

(Learn more at horsestalker.com.)

BY ROBERT DIGITALE

From the figure came a voice so vibrant that it sounded as if it could be heard for miles around. “You may come forward, MuKierin.”

Roj’s eyes bulged, and he whispered, “That’s a woman speaking to us.” He shouted back with a voice that in comparison seemed almost a rasping croak, “Was it you that the old man brought us to meet?”

“Yes.”

Noli shouted next, “Can you prove it?”

“No. But if I were one of the evil ones, you would now be my captives. Instead, I will let you stay or come as you wish. It is for you to choose.”

“Are the bad ones hunting for us?” Noli asked her.

“Yes.”

“And is there a bad one just over the hill back there?”

“Yes.”

Noli whispered, “Save us, Stone Woman.”

“I say we go to the woman,” said Roj. “Or do you want to go back and see if she’s telling the truth?”

The two men walked forward side by side. Their eyes squinted and their ears strained for any sounds of danger. They drew near and beheld the darkened shape of this stranger, a woman of their height with long curls and a flowing white gown. She didn’t appear to have a weapon.

“Very good, MuKierin,” she said. “You have chosen wisely. Now, we must go quickly.”

She turned to leave, but Noli pleaded, “Wait. Woman, who are you?”

“I am the one who saved you. Please come.”

“But what keeps that bad one back there from rushing up and killing us?”

“He is afraid. His fear holds him back from us.”

“Is he afraid of you or me?”

“Truly he does not fear you, MuKierin. But now we must move quickly. Let us stay quiet until we reach shelter.” With that, she set off. The two horsemen hurried behind her down the mountain.

For nearly an hour the woman led them downhill beneath a night sky where the clouds had given way to reveal stars beyond number. Along the skyline, Roj could see little but the occasional silhouette of a small tree atop the ridge above them. The trio came at last to the bottom of a hill. On they hiked along a dry streambed that wound down to a spot where the slopes seemed to press in on either side. Soon they spotted a faint light that shone forth from a cave. On they strode toward the light.

Inside, the cave was illuminated by twin silver candelabra, each with three tapered candles. Between the glowing candles sat a plain, drop-leaf writing desk with a straight-back chair sitting atop a small woven rug of many colors. A white quill pen stood in a holder atop the desk. Roj found the items strange for their setting, but he was quickly drawn away from them by his desire to take his first good look at the woman. She had auburn tresses, large green eyes, a straight nose and sculpted cheeks. His eyes were drawn to hers, which signaled to him kindness and grace. The more Roj saw her, the more he found it hard to look away from her. His brother-in-law noticed this, and it irritated him.

“Let us meet your kinsmen, lady?” Noli demanded. “Please take us to your headman.”

“For now I am alone,” she replied, looking straight into his eyes.

“Alone, you say? How is it that a woman can be safe alone in these mountains?”

“Watch and see. But I tell you that for now you are safe in my keeping.”

“Did you tell that old hermit that this boy here would need a rescuer one day?”

“Why do you ask such a question?”

“I ask because that old man called this boy, my wife’s brother, a ‘Strange One.’ And he said he’d been waiting for him. Did you put such thoughts in his head?”

“Why did the old one call him ‘Strange One?’”

“Because the boy throws with his left hand!”

“Also,” Roj interrupted, “I told him that I had tracked a Spotted Stallion.”

“Indeed,” she said, her voice rising. “And is this true?”

“Yes, lady, I tracked the stallion for over two days. And I got close to him this morning, but my horse had no strength for a fight. And then I met the hermit.”

“So young you are,” the lady said, surprised. “So young and yet you have tracked a prince of the wild ones. Indeed, you have a great gift if you can follow such a creature.”

“Well,” said Noli, “it was I who knew to set the boy out front as our tracker. But answer me. Did you tell the hermit that the boy would need a rescuer?”

“My people promised the old one that we would care for any MuKierin that he brought to us. You are the first, and he risked his life to save you. That does make you strange, both you and this man.”

Roj smiled when she said the word “man.” But Noli frowned at her answer. “Lady, this day we lost our horses and all our possessions. We have been ruined, and for what? Tell us about these evil ones. Why don’t we know about them or about you?”

“Many MuKierin know of them. They are the Dark Brood, the evil ones who belong to Equis. You have heard of Equis?”

“Yes, Equis is a great city that lies far south along the Red River,” Noli said. “They say its rulers do not belong to the Seven Clans. But we have never seen any of their kind. They stay far away from the Clan of the Horse.”

“That is because of the kindness of the King. He has forced the evil ones to stay far from your villages, and to come no closer than these mountains.”

“What king?”

“Have you not heard of the King?”

“Well, some speak of a king. But others say the King only lives in old stories.”

“The Stone Woman knew the King. She told her children to trust the Great King Over the Mountains. Do you know of the Stone Woman?”

“Yes, she is the blessed mother of our clan. But the Stone Woman lived many generations ago. All our people know stories about her, but they’re old stories, like campfire tales.”

“And what of the White Beard? Have you not heard of Him? The White Beard also speaks of the King, and his stories are not old. He is the King’s steward among your people. Among the MuKierin he speaks both to the great and the small.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of this White Beard. They say he’s a hermit who lives in the southern hills near Orres where I grew up. But I’ve never met him, and I don’t know much about him.”

“Then you shall learn of him, and of the King he serves. And one day I hope you will meet him. But tonight I shall provide you a place to rest, and in the morning I shall help you return to your people.”

“Excuse me, lady,” Roj interrupted. “I really do want to learn more about you and your king. But my kinsman and I have hardly eaten anything today. Could you spare us some food?”

The lady smiled broadly. “Indeed, you shall sup before you lie down. Let me make the preparations.”

“Begging your pardon, lady,” said Noli, “my kinsman and I must step outside and care for the things men must care for before they lie down.” The woman nodded and Noli roughly nudged his brother-in-law. They left the cave, striding down a gravel slope until they reached a pair of large boulders.

“Let’s not go too far,” Roj said.

“I may start running and never look back,” Noli replied. “We have escaped the cook’s pot and jumped into the coals.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean something’s funny here. Did you look at that woman? Of course, you did. You scarcely took your eyes off her. Didn’t the old man say he was taking us to someone as fierce as the bad ones? Does she look fierce to you? And why would a woman as downright pretty as that one live here on this mountain, with no man, nobody at all? And why would she rescue foreigners, two dirt-poor horse hunters?”

“Speak for yourself.”

“No, you listen to me,” Noli growled. “Something here smells funny. Look, she’s a foreigner, not a MuKierin. What do we matter to her? Yes, I do think there was a bad one out there tonight, and we heard him running there behind us. But let’s think about this. Would a bad one really be scared of this lone woman? How fierce is she? Could it even be that she’s in some sort of conspiracy with the old man and that bad one? Maybe all three of them want to trick us into going with her. I know it sounds crazy, but we can’t rule it out. I think we’re in big trouble with her.”

“Wait a minute,” Roj protested. “This woman helps us and you start speaking sour words about her. You should be grateful.”

“You be grateful. You can get all mushy brained and witless with your eyes fixed on her pretty face. But I’m scared and I’m trying to keep us alive.”

“I’m scared, too. Being up in these mountains is enough to scare anybody. But I’m worn out. My body cannot take much more tonight. Let’s rest tonight and in the morning we can try to make sense of things.”

“Okay, but we need to keep our eyes on her. Tonight we’ll have to take turns watching her.”

Roj untied and pulled down the front of his trousers. “Not me. I won’t be able to keep my eyes open. If you want to stay awake tonight, you go right ahead. And if that woman wants to rip out my heart while I sleep, she’s welcome to it.”

The men relieved themselves and returned to the cave. There in the amber candlelight, the lady had set two cups of hot tea and a plate of cold biscuits on a low table. The scene made Roj think back to childhood, when his sister Remy made him play with her, two little ones pretending to dine together. Now Roj and Noli knelt at the table, and the woman brought them a plate of deer jerky and raisins. The horse hunters ripped apart the biscuits and stuffed them in their mouths. Roj sipped the tea and nodded his approval to their host. “Lady,” he asked, “what can you tell us about the old hermit?”

“What did he tell you?”

“Very little. He called himself a seeker but wouldn’t say much more. And he wouldn’t come with us to meet you.”

“For now I will respect his wishes to keep his ways secret. This seeker desires to live on his own, to be indebted neither to my people nor to the Dark Brood. Even so, he risked his life to bring you to me. Is that not the way of the MuKierin?”

“Yes,” said Roj, “he took us under his wing. We’re in his debt, and now we’re in your debt, too.”

Noli shook his head and set down his cup. “What we are is destitute. What a day we’ve been through. This morning we were drawing close to a Spotted Stallion, a king of horses. In a few more hours we could have put our ropes on him and collected a fortune. Instead, now we’re standing on the edge of ruin. We have nothing. It’s all because we let that crazy hermit turn loose our horses, along with all our possessions. Now we’ll return empty-handed to Kierinswell, if we return at all. If we get out of these mountains, the boy and I could wind up wearing the debtors’ chains.” Wearily Noli arose and walked toward the back of the cave. There he sat down and wrapped a woven blanket around himself.

The lady stared into Roj’s eyes. “Indeed,” she said, “I know of the debtors’ chains. I have seen how the Seven Clans treat their debtors. They sell them into slavery, even their own kinsmen.”

Roj looked down at his half-empty cup of tea. “It’s my fault. The old hermit did let loose our horses. Noli wanted to fight him so we could recapture the animals. But I couldn’t kill the old man, so we lost them.”

“Did you think the seeker meant you good or harm?”

“I knew he didn’t mean us any harm. He was strange, but he did bring us to you, just like he said he would.”

“Then do not regret your choice. Wisely did you trust the seeker, and he did not fail you. Truly I tell you that you would have perished this day if you had not gone with him. Your enemies were tracking you. The rain and lightning held them back for a time, but you would not have escaped them, even if you had kept your horses.”

Roj’s mouth gaped. “That reminds me. This afternoon I saw a wondrous light in another canyon. Noli and the hermit didn’t see it, just me. But the old man knew about it. He said he had seen it once long ago, and he said the fierce ones were fighting there beneath that light.”

“Indeed, the seeker did behold that light many years ago. That day my people tried to save another group of horse hunters. Alas, we found them too late. All had fallen to the Dark Brood. The seeker did not witness their fate, but he saw the light and later he learned of our battle with the enemy.”

“But did the light come from you or these bad ones?”

“The Dark Brood has no such light. No, MuKierin, it was my light of power that you saw this day. With that light, I stood before your pursuer and blocked his way. He was forced to retreat and to take another path. Even so, he came close to overtaking you.”

Roj’s chest once more began to tingle, and he thought back to the great light. “Lady, who are you? How did you come by such a great power?”

“I am one who serves the King. And he has called me to take you under my wing and to help you return to your people. If you are willing, I will go with you and keep you safe.”

“And have you saved other MuKierin?”

“No, you and your kinsman are the first to be rescued on this mountain. All those who came before you perished here. Had the seeker not taken you under his wing, you too would have perished.”

Roj sighed. “Lady, please tell me your name. I’m Rojiston, the son of Aaln of the Stone Fences, but they call me Roj. And that’s Noli, my sister’s husband. Lady, please give me your name.”

“You may call me Healdin. And now I will ask a question of you, Rojiston, son of Aaln. Your kinsman calls you a boy. How much older is he than you?”

“Four years. Lady, don’t judge him by his rough words. He loves my sister and he eagerly took her hand, even though she had only ten silver coins for a dowry. Noli comes from the South Lands near Orres. We met him there last fall while horse hunting with my kinsmen. Noli and Remy soon took each other’s hand. He’s a good husband. He’s even agreed to give up horse hunting in order to learn a trade from my uncle, a candle maker in Kierinswell. Believe me, a horse hunter could hardly make a greater sacrifice.”

Healdin nodded and arose. “We have much to learn of one another, Roj. But now I am weary and you yourself have survived a great test, though not the last test, to be sure. Sleep now and we shall speak again on the morrow.”

Copyright © 2011 by Robert Digitale