(This is the next part of my NaNovel that I’ve been adding to every so often these past 10 days. Immediately follows the preceding post.)
They picked their way over rooftops and walls to where their horses lay in wait in the woods beyond the borders of the hall. Sprinting to their mounts, the two renegades lept into the saddle, dug their heels into their horse’s sides and made a swift getaway. As soon as they made their way to the main road, the race was on. Gideon and Jaster tore through the night like the Hunters themselves were at their heels. They drove their poor horses until froth came from their nostrils and their eyes rolled with wild exhaustion.
In the small hours of the morning, they sped past the border of the capitol province and entered a small village. Coming to an inn maintained by a friend of a friend, Gideon and Jaster trotted up to the stables and traded their stallions for the finest, freshest horses there. And so they passed the night, galloping over leagues and exchanging their exhausted steeds for fresh mounts when necessary, dropping a few gold pieces to smooth the difference when a groom was particularly attached to his steeds or doubtful of the quality of Gideon’s.
Dawn broke over the Western Wood. As they traveled northwards, the foliage became thicker as the dense woods gradually shifted from beech and aspen to fir and pines, whose close-knit branches interwove and held back the lightening sky. The thundering hooves along forest paths created a rhythm that went round and round in Jaster’s head until he knew neither time nor space, until all he had ever felt was the pounding beat and all he had ever seen was tree, tree, rock, tree, village, tree, stream, tree, new horse, tree.
And so on for the next day as the sun set and rose once more. They stopped only to barter for fresh horses and to refill their water skins. Jaster felt his eyes glaze over and the path blurred as he fell into a state of waking sleep, only to be jolted awake by shockingly cold water splashing up from a stream or the angry tug of a branch grasping at his cloak as he passed. Gideon, however, seemed driven with an energy and focus incomprehensible, never sleeping, never slowing for a moment as he led the eastward charge. As they came closer to the Wild, the trees drew closer and closer and the path faded away as the terrain became yet more unfriendly.
Exchanging their lithe horses for sturdier mounts, they passed the last outpost and clung to the outskirts of the Wild just enough to avoid the border patrol, but not so far as to be entirely impassable for the horses.
At last, as the sun began to descend once more and they came to the northern edge of the Wild, they brought their resilient steeds to a halt on a sheltered ledge overlooking a small farming village. A thick blanket of clouds hung heavy over the village, breaking only near the horizon where gentle streams of gold trickled through to brush the earth with sweeping strokes of orange and red. Gideon inhaled deeply, his lips curving upwards slightly as he took in the sight. Before long, the smile faded and his even voice broke the silence as he declared that they would have to wait until nightfall to proceed unquestioned.
Stiff and jumpy from so long in the saddle, Jaster volunteered to go forage for provisions despite the lumpy pouch of hardtack at his side. He had tried to ignore the rumble of hunger as long as he could to avoid stomaching the stale bread. He swore sometimes that Gideon must have an iron gut to subsist on such tasteless biscuit.
His taut muscles began to relax as he wandered through the trees. Before long, Jaster located a patch of early blackberries amongst the bracken. They were still purpling and made him pucker slightly at the taste, but with a lingering sweetness enticed him to pick several handfuls and gently tuck them into his parcel of food.
Retracing his steps through the woods, nibbling at the berries here and there, Jaster made his way back to the clearing where he’d left Gideon tending to the horses. It was still dim in the clearing, as any fire they kindled could easily be seen in the valley- and the reason they were coming in at night was to mask the direction from which they approached. Small villages like the one that lay below them clung tightly to the old myths about the Wild. If they broke through the trees at full gallop, they might be perceived as dangerous at best and phantoms at the worst.
Their mountain steeds grazed on some sweetgrass to the side of the clearing, while Gideon himself was sitting motionless against the base of a tree. For one terrible moment, the lingering fear of pursuing Hunters and Western men blazed to life and Jaster rushed forwards..
only to see Gideon sleeping soundly, head tucked against his chest. He had a knife and a branch in hand and appeared to have been preparing some kind of torch when the fatigue of three nights of no sleep crashed over him in a wave.
Embarrassed at his moment of panic, Jaster considered nudging his friend awake and then thought better of it. He had managed to rest in the saddle, but Gideon had led the charge eastward the entire time. They had a few hours yet. Might as well let the man sleep for now.
A chilly breeze picked up from the north as night fell, pushing back the clouds to reveal the ghostly gray glow of twilight. At last, even that glow faded away and it was well and truly dark.
Jaster stood and stretched his shoulders, making his way over to waken Gideon so they could pick up the trail once more. Just as he approached, he heard a shuddering gasp and saw his friend’s form jerk as his eyes flew open.
Narrowing his eyes in concern, Jaster cocked his head. “You alright, mate?”
Gideon appeared to be reorienting himself, but after a moment Jaster heard his unsteady reply, “I suppose. For how long did I sleep?”
“Not more than two and a half, perhaps three hours.”
“That long? You should have woken me at least an hour ago!” Gideon snapped, rising to his feet quickly.
His ire rising, Jaster frowned. “I thought you needed your rest after making a gallop for three days straight.”
Gideon made an exasperated sound and shrugged his cloak onto his shoulders, moving to his horse’s side. “And we still have a long way to go yet. This information is absolutely vital; if we’re going to prevent open war, we can’t delay for anything. I thought you understood that.”
A bitter reply rose in Jaster’s throat and was on the tip of his tongue before his companion turned his head into the light and he noticed for the first time the lines of tension, terror, and exhaustion etched into a face yet too young to bear such burdens. In a moment of gained perspective, his anger deflated. He tucked the parcel of food into one of Gideon’s saddlebags and turned, readying his own horse and stepping up into the saddle gingerly.
“I do understand, mate. But if you’re too tired to tell one trail from another in the dark, or if you’re incomprehensible once we get there, no one will trust the news anyways.”
Gideon was quiet a moment as he swung himself onto his horse and they began to pick their way down the mountainside.
“There are some blackberries in that packet in your saddlebags. You should have some – keep up your strength.” Jaster said after a pause broken only by the rustle of leaves and breaking of twigs under strong hooves.
“Thank you.” Gideon replied, turning about in his saddle to face him. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you, Jaster. I’m sorry. You’ve got a good deal more sense than I do at times.”
“Don’t mention it.” Jaster responded. The silence between them eased and his friend smiled gratefully, turning back around in the saddle and settling in for the descent.
The rest of the ride was uneventful as they carefully and quietly made their way off the mountain, slipping silently from the shadow of the Wild into the village.
Circling around wide, they entered from the east and located an inn where they exchanged their mounts for the only horses their – a smallish pair of pokey farm horses with shaggy gray coats. The innkeep was glad to gain a pair of sturdy mountain horses, and they were glad to be rid of their last tie to the West.
Saddling quickly, they left the village at a decent trot and as soon as they hit the high road leading to Barrow, the capital of the southernmost province, they burst into full gallop.
With renewed desire to make up time lost, they drove their steeds north. The horses took a few miles to loosen their muscles from so long poking back and forth in the tiny village, but at last they remembered their speed and began to press forwards, snorting with excitement at each new turn and testing limits they hadn’t known they had.
The enthusiasm of their mounts gave Gideon a fresh burst of vigor as he led the charge. They raced against the dawn, man and equine, tearing across the Northern countryside and tracing the foothills and passing around larger towns, trying to avoid becoming too visible.
At last, in the first town they came to that Gideon knew they possessed allies in, they stopped at a counter-revolutionary friendly stable and requested their finest chargers. It wasn’t a great trade, but when Gideon presented his pin as a Friend of the Fallen and presented the passphrase on urgent business, the stablemaster woke two of his hired men: one to help him ready the chargers and the other to take the next-fastest horse he owned to send the signal to the headquarters in Barrow.
While Gideon oversaw the horses, patting their necks with affectionate familiarity, a bleary-eyed child came out to see what the noise was about. A rather frumpy woman, the stablemaster’s wife, swathed in her dressing robe came out after the child. When she heard who the visitors were she disappeared for a few minutes, only to reappear at Jaster’s side, pressing a packet of cheese and dried rabbit into his hands and murmuring her best wishes.
Stunned, Jaster examined a woman whom he had never met and whose loyalties could easily have herself, her husband and child thrown in jail or executed. He looked at the wrinkled face of a wife, a mother, and a businesswoman. And he knew what courage was.
Jaster thanked her.
And they were off once more. The victuals helped some and their horses were experienced distance runners, but now Gideon and Jaster laboured under the pressing weight of exhaustion that came from three nights without sleep and crossing the continent in two and a half days on 24 different horses with little water and less food. They were spent.
Gideon appeared to be forcing himself awake through sheer willpower. His jaw, stubbled with about a weeks growth from their impromptu flight to the West, was set firmly in grim determination.
Jaster, on the other horse, was on the border of passing out, guiding his charger to follow Gideon’s at all costs. He tried to force his eyes open, but every few minutes he convinced himself that he could function just as well with half-lidded eyes, or through just the barest slits. Then a particular jolt from his horse would cause him to remember himself and he would jerk upright in the saddle, heart pounding, only to slouch down slowly a few minutes later and start the cycle again.
The sun rose high in the afternoon sky as they entered Barrow. Their charger’s hooves clattered against the cobbled stones of the city streets. The Southern headquarters of the counter-revolutionaries was located in an ancient monastery seated atop a hill overlooking the rest of the city. The monastery was encircled by slums that had sprung up around one of the few places of mercy within a city run by officials who, in all likelihood, could not physically care less about the poor and needy of the city.
The Rebel government of Barrow exerted much of their time and tax money to maintain their control over the southernmost capital and through it, the province. But the more they ignored the needs of the people in favour of keeping their power over them, the more their fragile hold on the people slipped away. Hence the strong presence of the counter-revolutionaries in Barrow.