Part 10

Winter Wheat in the Summer

With an eye on the ground, Kalaena led Tresseur over the pitted, uneven terrain. It wouldn't do for the saddle horse to injure himself in the forest. She would need him later, when Ruadd found their enemy. This current state of circumspection would not last. It never did. Once Ruadd thought he knew the enemy's weakness, he would charge. He always charged. Literally--as in with a couched lance and everything, often leaving his allies in the dust.
Kalaena had been on the receiving end of a lance-charge several times before, so she knew why the cavalier favored them. It was terrifying to behold the weight of man, horse, and steel all focused into a gleaming little spear point.
For the moment, though, the terror was disassembled. Ruadd walked calmly over the roots with one hand on the bridle of Veissan, his courser. The big stallion--eighteen hands at least--tossed his head irritably but made no other complaint. It was a matter of pride for the Knight-Seeker that he could take in unwanted, often violent, horses and teach them patience. It was not uncommon to see a mount of his--a biting, kicking terror on the battlefield--stand tranquil as a pony when Ruadd held up a peasant boy to stroke its muzzle.
Kalaena wished she could be so calm. Outwardly, her face was impassive. Inwardly, she boiled like a cauldron. When her thoughts weren't back at the ship with Kuthaan, they soared into the shadowy unknown and pondered the horrors Daiza might already have encountered.
With her mind on her sister, she forgot to worry about her own safety. Until, that is, Ruadd suddenly stiffened and reached to Veissan's saddle.
She released Tresseur's bridle and took up a fighting stance.
The cavalier drew and readied an enormous battle axe--she would have needed both her hands to hoist it, though Ruadd could do it with one.
She waited and watched: woods, shadows, and horses, in case they scented something.
But they scented nothing. Their ears did not prick, they did not seem any more uneasy than they normally did in this strange forest. They stood and waited, like her.
After a while, the cavalier's arm drooped. Then he put the axe away.
"What was it?"
"Thought the tree ahead of us was going to attack."
She nodded, sheathed her blade and reached for Tresseur's bridle.
He didn't apologize and he didn't have to. Better a dozen false alarms than a single successful ambush.
"Clever, isn't it?" she mused. "Using trees as weapons. Now we'll jump every time the wind blows."
"I doubt Kuthaan shares your admiration for this tactic."
"No, I can't imagine he does."
They fell silent and after a time, the woods gave way to a plain of brittle grass. Copses of trees rose here and there like hunched giants, but otherwise it was a clear way to the fortress from here.
"Do we chance a ride now?" she asked him.
Ruadd considered the gray meadowland. With a bronze hand, he stroked the side of Veissan's face thoughtfully. He cared deeply for his animals. Even in an open meadow, a night-ride was risky.
But delay had risks of its own.
"We ride," he said, turning and vaulting onto the courser without using the stirrup.
Kalaena put on her helmet and, after securing the chinstraps, swung gracefully into the saddle.
Tresseur stomped, impatient to start running, even in the dark. He liked Kalaena, though he belonged to Ruadd. The gelding was the Knight-Seeker's everyday mount, the one he rode on errands to keep Veissan fresh for battle. In times like this, though, speed was more important than preserving the courser's strength, so he loaned him to Kalaena.
They rode through the fields, slow at first, then pushing into a canter. The weeds and grass did not swish merrily as they went--it cracked and broke instead. The sound seemed to depress the horses as much as the riders.
Before long, the dead meadow gave way to cropland. The ground was tilled and furrowed, with muddy culverts running here and there for irrigation. Stunted little shoots poked up in rows, brown and withered--but alive.
"What's this?" Ruadd asked, looking down.
Kalaena dismounted smoothly and examined a plant.
"Winter wheat," she declared.
The Knight-Seeker looked up. The edge of Obergroull was directly overhead.
"This half of the island must get a little light every day. Only a few hours, but enough for crops to grow."
"They use winter wheat because it's accustomed to short days," Kalaena observed, remounting. "The peasants here have adapted, as they always do."
"They shouldn't have to adapt," Ruadd said, snapping his reins.
Veissan charged, throwing up clods of black earth behind him. The cavalier was careful, though, to keep those pounding hooves clear of the precious shoots.
She pushed Tresseur into a trot and caught up with the other two when they paused atop a low tor. A grim stone castle rose in the distance, but it didn't have Ruadd's attention. He looked below instead, to a trim little hamlet of square cottages. They had low roofs with splintering wooden tiles, and their windows were small, designed only to let in a touch of light and nothing else. The doors were all stout and barred. The homes on the perimeter were built so close together they formed a sort of wall or barricade, passable only through a stone archway on the side facing the citadel.
The wind shifted and dogs barked below.
"They smell us."
"Give them a minute to wake everybody up, then we'll go down and have a palaver."
She gazed up at the castle which loomed beyond the village. "I wonder what's in there."
"Hopefully, they'll know," Ruadd said, indicating the hamlet.
Kalaena nodded. Peasants saw things. They might hold some vital intelligence that would unravel the whole fiendish plot.
Of course, they might also be in on the evil, in which case this visit would warn the enemy...
They circled around to the archway.
"Salutations!" Ruadd bellowed at a discreet distance.
It was always a good idea to declare intentions before you were in crossbow range.
Torches glittered on the house-tops next to the stone archway. There wasn't a proper wall, so the serfs used the outer ring of homes as a battlement.
"Who goes there?" they called out to him. "Be thee living or dead?"
"Living!" Kalaena responded without hesitation.
"Friend or foe-man?"
"Friend," she called once more.
"Have you ever heard this dialect?" Ruadd asked in a quiet voice, slowing Veissan down with a gentle tug of the reins.
Kalaena lingered abreast of him while Tresseur pawed the ground, trying to remember if she'd ever heard words pronounced in this way.
"Never," she said at last.
The Knight-Seeker nodded and identified himself to the men on the wall.
"What's your business?" the village spokesman asked. "Are you traders?"
"They've never heard of you," the Swordsister observed, somewhat in awe. "This place really is a backwater."
"Knowledge of my deeds is no measure of civility," Ruadd told her, voice tinged with irritation.
"Whenever you're done being humble--they await your answer."
"I am a fighter for good," Ruadd shouted. "As is my comrade. We have come to--"
"A fighter for good? That is a contradiction in terms!"
"Whoever they are," he observed. "They are wise."

©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.

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