September 14, 2013

KES, 96

 

NINETY SIX

I was back in the cab with the door slammed shut, the lock-button pounded down and the key turned violently in the ignition without wasting any time guessing what might have set Sid off.  The starter motor went BLAH and Merry gargled to life.

We would have lurched instantly down the road.  I had let the handbrake off with a jerk that only just didn’t dislocate my shoulder and had thudded Merry into gear.

Except that there was something in the way.  Someone.  Someone on a horse in the way.  A large horse.  A large someone.   Who was not, I thought a little hysterically, wearing a modern safety-certified riding helmet.

Even without Sid giving me her view of the situation I wouldn’t have thought this large dark person on a large dark horse looked friendly.  And Sid was still black, not gold, and in need of serious remedial hair care and I was still wearing my beat-up black leather jacket with the frayed cuffs and no burgundy velvet in sight.

The horse bowed its neck in response to some signal from its rider and turned sideways—broadside to where Merry stood vibrating, either from the tremor of his engine or the quaking of his driver.  Or possibly the bouncing-around of the tall black dog not quite well enough tied to the passenger seat belt.

The horse turned toward us again and began walking.  I think I may have whined.  Merry’s cab was heave-yourself-up-from-ground-level high, but the horse was going to be able to look me in the eye as it came nearer.  What happens when a twenty-five-hundred pound horse collides with a five-thousand-pound old-fashioned real-steel pick-up truck?  I doubted it would be good for either of us so Merry and I continued to stand and tremble.  And Sid continued to bark.  The horse’s head, its thick forelock tucked under the browband but a long sweep of mane falling down its neck, seemed to fill the windshield before it turned aside just enough to walk past us.  This was much to be preferred to its climbing the fender, walking up the hood and onto the roof—I didn’t think even Merry’s real steel was up to the weight—which I had briefly feared it was going to.

But it was worse than that.  When I looked forward again—having torn my gaze away from the horse and its rider brushing by so near that if I’d put a hand out the driver’s window I would have touched them—there were more dark riders on dark horses behind the first one.  I couldn’t see how many of them there were:  they were a sort of cloudy seethe in the darkness.  I could almost—almost—tell myself that it was some trick of moonlight and shadow.  But moonlight and shadow doesn’t have legs and heads and tails and riders and saddles.  A horse at the edge of the mob tossed its head.  There’s nothing but a horse tossing its head that looks like a horse tossing its head, especially when there are reins involved, and the rider reaches forward and puts a hand on the horse’s crest for a moment.   The bubble of hysteria rising from my chest was getting so big and breath-blocking I put my hands on my throat as if I could squeeze it away.  And I know I whined then—or moaned—because I could feel the vibration against the palms of my hands.  The only things here that are really real, I thought wildly, are my own hands on my own throat, and my barking dog.

The other horses and riders began following the first one—past Sid and Merry and me.  The moon was behind them:  their faces were all in shadow although any of them who cared to could probably see white-as-a-bleached-sheet me through the windshield.  I saw the occasional moonlit glint of brown:  not all the horses were black, nor all the riders’ clothing.  There might have been the thud of hooves and the creak of tack, but Sid was making too much noise.  I wanted to tell her to shut up—I wanted to be able to hear if my ears agreed with what my eyes were telling me—and then again I didn’t want to.  Sid clearly thought there was something going on:  wasn’t that enough?

It took a century or two for all the riders to file by.  There might have been twenty of them.  There might have been two hundred.  Sid was starting to sound hoarse.  The last one was a little behind the next-to-last.  Sid stopped barking for a moment as if waiting for him—all the riders were all either big guys or amazingly big amazons—to get close enough to be worth it.

I’m sure I heard a jingle of bit-rings.  I’m even surer I heard the saddle creak as this last rider turned his head and deliberately looked down into the window at me.

I recognised him.  He was—or he was the identical twin to—Murac, a mercenary Flowerhair knew.  Flowerhair had never decided if he was a good guy or not.  Neither had I.

He touched two gauntleted fingers to his forehead as he looked at me.  The moonlight, for a fraction of a second, lit him clearly.  The look on his face might have been irony.

And then he was gone.

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