“It’s a two-day ride!” Shinvar called back from her saddle.
We flew up the hill. Bent low in my saddle, I was treated to a lashing by my horse’s mane. Not something I’d had to experience when helmeted. Now with head bare I had to squint against that and the rush of wind in my face.
“Two days!” Shinvar repeated.
She rode like a demoness. I would always trail second in this race. Full gallop, pummelling cobbles, as we ate up the winding road climbing Royal Hill all the way to the town’s back yard. Where the mansions ended, the foothills of the Ursine Massif began.
We would not be able to maintain the hard pace on those mountain trails, but Shinvar meant to cover this early stretch in close to no time at all. She would allow our steeds to breathe, I was sure, where the air began to thin.
I lost all sight of the battle down in the town. Save for jostled glimpses between buildings and then it was only of figures milling in the light of the burning barricade. Flames and fury. So far and fleeting that it was easy to forget there were men and women down there.
All I could see for certain was that the fires reached higher, a fluttering orange curtain. And beyond it, perhaps half-fashioned by hope as well as imagination, the dark and seething mass of the enemy slowly turning to retreat from the heat.
Temporary respite for our knights and other defenders. But any respite was a chance to exhale. I joined them in that small celebration, sending my sigh back down the hill, over the rooftops to my brave comrades in arms.
All the while riding on and up, chasing as close as I could behind Shinvar. My own mount almost nose to tail with her horse, but my muscles told of how hard I had worked to gain that little ground. There was no actual race. No need to draw level. And I was content to ride in Shinvar’s shadow.
Ahead the road met the unguarded gate. More of a marker really, paired columns of stone to signify where the town ended and the wilds began.
Our horses broke out onto the rough-beaten path. To our left, a railway line climbed towards the nearest of the mines. To our right, the hill rolled away in a rugged cascade, tumbling into a deep valley. A turbulent river carved its way through a zigzagging canyon, taking out its torment on the rocks that tried to fence it in and guide its course towards the town. From this distance above it was a silent, troubled thing beating against the path laid out for it by destiny. Raging against fate which, it occurred to me, was perhaps all we were doing.
Back there in the streets, it had seemed so.
The Orkans, the enemy, perhaps they were the inexorable march of history. Perhaps it was their turn. Their turn to scar the earth, to build their ugly structures atop the rubble of ours. To bury our lives and our achievements under whatever passed for civilisation in their brutish, beastly eyes. Conquest and conflict was all I knew the Orkan race for. But I had – thankfully – never seen them win. Who could say what they might build with their victory? Who could tell what Orkans might aspire to with no humans or other races to spurn and oppose them?
Whatever architecture or art they might work on the world, it was not in their nature to brook any sharing. If they won, none of us would live to witness their brand of wonders. Their world, the one they marched and battled to forge, was a realm devoid of humanity. A realm devoid of all others, in fact. As unknowable as all the heavens and hells conceived by the living. To explore it, one must die. Like seeking an answer to that age-old question: if we fall in a dream, do we die if we strike the bottom?
It was a question that blew readily into my mind, like the whiplash breezes pestering my face, gusting up from the river valley. So very far below.
Shinvar eased up on the pace and I slowed my horse to move in step with hers.
She glanced aft along the trail, where our mounts’ hooves had scuffed the ashen dirt and kicked up loose stones. But otherwise there was nothing in our wake. Not even much sight of the town past the rocks and desolate shoulders of hill.
Shinvar nudged her horse into a left turn. The animal obediently picked its way up the slope. I reined mine to follow. They danced carefully up the incline, shale sliding under hoof.
We reached the rails and began to ride the track leading to one of the mines that riddled these mountains. I wondered if Shinvar meant for us to journey through the tunnels.
But I kept my wonderings to myself.
Shinvar set the course. And unlike the river, I made no motion to fight it.
[To Be Continued…]