Today’s First Chapter is from The Traveler by my friend Lisa Williamson. This is a terrific story, do yourself a favour and check it out.
Edana is the finest courier in the Six kingdoms. With her black stallion Midnight, she has built a reputation. But a robbery attempt and cursed blade turn her world upside down.
Now fighting for her life, Edana must rely on unexpected friends and kind-hearted strangers who introduce Magic and Prophecy into her life. Tales of elves, dwarves and elementals are proving true.
Is Edana really who they say she is? Can she really bring closure to an ages old tragedy? Or will events that took place before her birth doom her and all who love her to utter destruction?
Riding through the storm, Edana sighed as the shelter finally came in sight. She had been riding for hours in the massive storm. The crash of the thunder had become just background noise to her. As her horse stumbled to a halt, she pulled her mind together and with great effort looked around. They had stopped in front of the first travel shelter she had seen in days. It was one of a series of small buildings scattered along the old grand highway or should have been. Most had been left to the elements, falling to ruins that had barely a single wall to set a tent against. With an effort of will she unclasped the hand holding the reins, her fingers were white from the cold. She pushed back her heavy, wet hair with a shaking hand and sighed wearily. “This is a good enough place. Time to rest.”
With a groan she leaned to the side and slid off the animal’s back. Landing in a heap on the ground, she lay panting. “We traveled too long this time, boy.”
The horse put his head down and nudged her, whickering. She reached up and grabbed his halter and the horse pulled his head back, helping her stand. “Thanks, boy,” she murmured. Leaning against his warm bulk, she surveyed the shelter. From here it looked solid. That was to be hoped for, as the weather outside was abysmal. She slowly put one foot in front of the other and led her horse toward the front door. The stables were off to the side but she did not think she could make it there and back to the shelter, she was so tired. Pushing open the door she headed inside.
The shelter was black as sin inside but she knew that lamps were kept just inside these shelters and she groped around until she felt the cool metal of a traveler’s lamp. Picking it up she shook it gently to see if it had any oil inside. There was a satisfying splash, so she fumbled in her pockets and pulled out her striker. It took three tries but she finally got it lit.
The lamp threw out a pool of golden light across half the room. The travel shelter consisted of one great room with a fire pit in the center. She could see a neat pile of firewood to the left and large wooden chests along the right. A smile crossed her weary face as she opened one and saw it was filled with dried goods. Whoever was in charge of this stretch of the old highway was following the rules perfectly.
She turned as her big companion nickered. “What? Oh, sorry, boy. Let’s get that saddle off you right now.” She worked the water-soaked leather through the buckle and slid the saddle off. She looked about and then saw the saddle stand off to the side. “They really know how to stock a shelter in these parts.” She struggled with the heavy saddle and placed it on the stand. Then she turned back to her mount.
He was a beautiful beast, more than a normal saddle horse. He came out of bloodlines that had been specially crafted for endurance and brains. That he was easy on the eye was a surprise. Most of the foals thrown by his dam were of a muddy brown with intelligent eyes and a sturdy body, but the stud that had mounted her had been one of surpassing beauty. It was thought that since he was not of the same breed that the colt would be a cull. She had convinced the owner of the dam to let her take him off his hands, sight unseen. Now she held the ownership of one of the smartest horses ever bred.
He looked at her for a moment and then nickered. He knew that he had worked hard and that his mistress was tired, but he also knew from experience that the human would take care of his needs before her own. He was more intelligent than even she knew, more than could be expected of a four-footed kindred. The stallion that had mounted the mare that was his dam was not really a horse. He was something out of legend and though he had spent all of his life with this young woman he knew just what he was.
Edana dug through her saddlebags till she pulled out the currycomb, brush and a big rag. She wiped down the massive body, being sure to get her mount as dry as she could. She did not want the fine animal cramping with the cold or getting a cough. When she finished getting him dry she moved to start a fire. “I’ll finish grooming you as soon as I get a mash started, boy.” Edana never noticed that she talked to her horse like he was another person. She spent so much time alone that it had become second nature. As the fire caught, she added a few pieces of wood slowly, making sure that she did not snuff out the building flame.
Sitting back on her heels for a moment she sighed. The heat felt so good. She had not realized how cold she had become. Somewhere on the road she had just become automation, urging Midnight on toward the comfort she knew was ahead. Now she could feel the cramp of returning circulation and winced but continued getting food prepared for them both.
She stood and then picking up the brush, started to groom Midnight’s side with large sweeping motions. They both started to relax as she did so. The motion was almost hypnotic to Edana. She had always loved grooming Midnight. He was such a pleasure. Though he gave the groomers at her various stops trouble, she never had a moment of it from him in the four years they had been traveling on the road. Many times she had been told she should have him gelded, that a tiny woman like herself should not trust a full stallion but she refused. It would have been more than a crime to injure such a fine specimen of horse. She had occasionally thought about putting him out to stud but he had either been too young or just not interested in the mares offered.
Sooner than she realized she had him completely brushed and combed. His sides glowed like obsidian in the firelight and he nudged her with his muzzle. Edana smiled, pulled an apple from her pocket and held it out for him. Midnight lipped it and took small, neat bites from the apple without ever nipping her hand. After he finished he nudged her again, pushing her toward the large barrel near the fire.
Edana chuckled, “Are you trying to tell me to take a bath, m’boyo?”
Midnight nodded his head with a wicker. She shook her head and laughed. “Oh M’boyo, no one would believe me if I told them you answered my questions.” She looked down at herself. “But you are right. I could use a bath.” She moved to the fire and then scooped up the oat mash she had made for him and brought the bucket over, “Now you eat this while I get the wash water set up for me.” She winced at the condition of her travel leathers. “I think I need to do a wash of more than my body. These are filthy.”
Soon she was immersed in a large barrel that had to have been left in the shelter for just that purpose. She sighed as the water she had heated relaxed her tired, aching muscles and then she reached for the bar of soap she had laid nearby. Dunking under the water she worked up lather in her hands and started to wash out the tangled mess of her flame colored hair. Though not of the classic lines preferred around the nations, Edana was a beautiful woman. She never thought so, believing herself to be rather plain. She dressed in men’s clothing, wore her hair bundled under a loose cap and strapped her breasts down. Traveling alone as she did was dangerous enough for a man. A woman was just asking to be set upon and raped if she was discovered.
She had become a bit of a legend in the courier trade. She was totally trustworthy, had never sold out one of her customers or stolen from them. She always delivered her packages on time or as close as humanly possible. After the time she successfully delivered a package to the authorities even though she was near bled white from the wound she had gotten, she was in demand. The fact that the small woman would deliver, no matter the cost to herself had hit a cord with the customers. Though from that day she had made sure to look deeper into her clients. She had not known that the package the Lady Maythia asked her to take to the king’s man in the next town was proof of her husband’s treason. If she had she would have asked a much higher fee.
She awoke at a pressure on her shoulder. With a start she looked about. Just above her shoulder was Midnight. She smiled and rubbed his muzzle. “Did I fall asleep?”
Without watching to see if he nodded she heaved her body up and out of the now cool water. Goosebumps prickled her skin as the water cascaded down. “Brrrr.It is a little chilly yet in here,” she jumped once more as the massive black head bumped her back. She looked back as she stepped out of the water and her eyes widened. Midnight was holding a large towel gently in his teeth. Now that was more than strange. How had the horse known she would need a towel? She grabbed the cloth and dried herself quickly and then slipped into her last set of clean britches and a soft, often patched chemise. She reached out then and caressed Midnight’s cheek. “You are such a smart one, m’love. Such a good boy.” She continued to whisper little endearments to her mount as she set up a bowl of mash for herself and settled down on her bedroll. She fell to and soon the room was filled with the sound of the fire crackling and of one human eating.
Edana finished up and then stretching, she stood. “Time to put you in the stable, my friend.” She smiled as Midnight shook his head. “Now, boyo, I’m sorry but I can not be sleeping in the same room with a man now can I?” She chuckled as she said that. It was not as if she hadn’t shared camps with her big, black horse but the room was small and a horse needed to be stabled at night, no matter how odd a specimen he was. She chuckled and opened the shelter door, motioning for the beast to pass her by. Midnight looked at her for a long moment and then stepped through the door like a prince on his way to court. Edana could not help herself, she laughed. Midnight was better company than many of the men she had met in her life. She slapped his rump and followed him out.
Outside the night had cleared up. The rain had stopped and though the ground was soaking, the air was crisp and clean. Edana took a deep breath and flung out her arms. She loved the nights when the air was like it was now and the sky was so clear that the stars seemed like diamonds scattered across velvet. She tilted her head and watched Midnight move forward. He looked to be in fine shape and she was glad. She had been worried that she had ridden him too hard that night, but he was fine. She walked toward the stable and he came to walk next to her. She rested a hand on his shoulder and softly sighed with happiness. She had never needed to halter him or use a lead rope. He had always walked with her. “You know boyo, I don’t think you need to be in the stable tonight. How about I let you into yon pasture?” She nodded to the fenced in area next to the stable. It was not large but it looked more comfortable than a box stall to both the horse and his mistress. Midnight nodded and whickered his agreement. Edana smiled and walked over and opened the gate. With the sweep of an arm she ushered him in and then shut the gate. “Now be a good boyo, and stay in there.”
Edana turned back toward the shelter after one last pat on Midnight’s nose and then walked off. The sound of the door to the shelter closing and being barred was the only sound in the quiet that had descended over the little clearing. After a few long moments of Midnight staring after his mistress a new sound broke the quiet. It was low, musical laughter and the massive black head turned about to look over his shoulder. There, sitting on the fence, was a being made of starlight and magic. A huge sigh came out of the black body and then it too shimmered in the starlight.
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