The Horse Freak
Roan reared in his horse, watching Jova as she clambered over the stalagmites in the damp cave. He did not move to help. The child would need to learn how to rely on her own strength, just as he had.
“Where are we now?” asked Jova, her voice echoing with the steady drip of water.
“In a cave the templemen are calling the Teeth of the Abyss,” said Roan. “One of many. The zealots shun it as a place for devil-spawn.”
“So why are we in it?”
“For the same reason they avoid it, I suppose,” said Roan.
Jova laughed, although Roan did not know why. He supposed she was just a happy girl. And yet, she insisted that her blindness was recent. Roan could only have dreamed of that kind of strength after his accident.
Stel tossed her head, prancing. Her hooves clipped hollowly on the stone floor of the cave, and Roan saw Jova perk up out of the corner of his eye. She turned her head from side to side at the sound, looking with her ears and not her eyes.
Jova stood straight, and clicked, turning her head slowly as the sound echoed off the walls. Roan nodded in approval. He hadn’t needed to remind her, that time.
“A good place to practice,” he said.
The blind girl scratched at her cheek, under the blindfold. “It echoes too much. It’s confusing.”
“The echoes are being loud and thus you are being able to hear better, no?”
“Says you,” said Jova. “Why don’t you try it? Have you ever done this yourself, before?”
The scars around Roan’s face stretched as he smirked. Truthfully, he couldn’t say he had. “No,” he said. “But I learned the method of teaching from one of the best.” He left it at that.
“Was your teacher another of your Hag Gar Gan shamans?”
“No,” said Roan, simply. He didn’t elaborate. His hand drifted to the badge pinning his cloak to his shoulders: painted wood, depicting a single cloud drifting across a crescent moon. Easy enough to destroy, should he need to, although he doubted it would come to that anytime soon.
“Now what?” asked Jova, standing so far back in the dark of the cave that Roan could barely see her.
“Now you walk back,” said Roan.
He could hear Jova stamping her foot. “What? What’s the point of that?”
“Without touching anything.”
“Oh.” Jova paused. “What if I stab myself on one of those rock things?”
“That would count as touching something.”
Stel shifted again, and Roan had to channel through the tabula to take away her fear. His vision swam for a moment, but when he was done Stel was calm and still. “Follow the sounds from here if you must,” he said. “And go slowly. I care less about speed and more about you not making mistakes.”
It was a simple exercise, and one Roan was confident he could guide Jova through, but he had to admit it would have been easier if he had the freedom to do it alone.
“What if she hurts herself?” whispered the woman, Anjan, as Jova made her way through the maze of stalagmites, clicking periodically to reorient herself. The girl’s arms were stiff against her sides, as she shuffled awkwardly towards them.
“Then she will learn to be more careful next time,” said Roan. He watched the darkness as Jova approached. Demon-spawn he was not worried about, but wolfbats and pale fall toads infested the caves. “If you will speak, speak louder. It will help her find the entrance.”
Anjan looked away, her brow furrowed. Roan’s gaze drifted to her hands, formed into fists, and kept a hand on Stel’s tabula, just in case. “But…”
“But I need a worker who can navigate my stables without crawling on the floor,” said Roan. From the way Anjan flinched, he could tell he had been too harsh.
“Yes…sir,” said Anjan. She still wouldn’t look at him. “I need to check back on Mo. Just…just make sure she stays safe. Please?”
“I will,” said Roan. He clicked his tongue and made Stel stamp her hooves so that Jova could hear, and paused. “Anjan?”
The woman paused as she made to climb out of the rim of the cave, back into the steaming jungles of the Moscon. “Yes? Sir?”
“I trust you have not told her?” said Roan, and this time he was the one to whisper.
Anjan looked Roan up and down, and said, slowly, “No. I haven’t. Neither has Ell. Like I said, mister Roan, we do appreciate all that you’ve done for us.”
“Hmm.” Roan looked over his shoulder at Anjan. He did not like how the woman seemed to affect a false personality around him. “Do you find me loathsome?” he asked, after a prolonged silence.
Anjan opened her mouth, and hesitated. She met his eyes. “No, sir.”
“I think…you’re very reasonable, sir. It’s good that you’ve found someone who…someone like her. I think, in your position, I would have done the same.” Anjan sighed. “I just wish it didn’t have to be Jova.”
“I apologize,” said Roan. He looked down. How much of that was a lie? All of it, none of it? Roan could never tell.
“May I go now, sir?”
“Yes,” said Roan. “Be careful. You are more than capable, but the world can be a dangerous place for someone who does not know how to defend herself.” He looked out at Jova, and clicked his tongue again for Stel to move.
He heard echoing footsteps behind him. One advantage of the Teeth, Roan had found, was that despite the near total darkness within, it was impossible for someone to sneak up on him.
“Roan,” said Anjan, and her voice rose. “We appreciate it. Whatever else you have planned for my- for Jova, thank you, but we don’t need it.”
Roan smiled. “So this is your voice when you speak truth. I prefer it.”
“Roan, please. Whatever plans you have, leave Jova out.”
“She burns to prove herself,” said Roan. He looked at Anjan, at the wild woman with her wide shoulders and angry face. “She submits to our authority but she is reckless when she thinks no one is looking. And I am sorry to say this, Anjan, but not even the Ladies Four will always be looking.”
Anjan almost looked like she was going to tear Roan off his mount right there in the cave. “You have no right to tell me how to raise my-.”
Roan glared at Anjan, and saw in her eyes barely restrained fury. “Why should it matter to you?” said Anjan, through gritted teeth.
He considered saying he needed an able employee, again, or perhaps that it was his duty as a man to give his charity. But, in the end, those would not be true. “I am selfish,” he said, simply.
Anjan looked away, her hunt apparently forgotten.
“I cannot teach her, but I know men who will, men whose faith in the Four is strong,” said Roan, turning away as well. “I will inform you if a decision is made.”
Anjan bristled. She stood next to him, breathing through her nose, as Jova approached.
“How’d I do?” asked Jova, a wide smile on her face. She did not quite look at Roan as she spoke, but he did not mind.
“You did great, Jova,” said Anjan, her voice warm. Stel tossed her head as a bit of Roan’s irritation leaked through to her, but Roan decided to let Anjan handle the praise. It was more effective, that way. He was not particularly good at it.
Jova grinned as Anjan took her hand, and then the wild woman looked at Roan. “We’ll come back later,” she said. “Let’s go check on Ell, huh?”
“But we walked all this way! Roan, is that it?” asked Jova, looking straight ahead.
Roan, to her side, nudged Stel forward. “I am not having the right to detain you if you wish to leave,” he said, and he met Anjan’s gaze.
Jova pursed her lips. “Alright,” she said. “But we’ll come back, promise?”
“I promise,” said Anjan, as she led Jova out of the cave. “Watch your step, now, it’s a bit tricky.”
Roan let them walk ahead before he followed, ducking his head to avoid hitting his head on the hanging stalactites as Stel climbed out of the cave.
The sentinel statues of the Ladies were still visible from the Teeth, and the jungle path was so trodden by the drunk and the foolhardy that it was not hard to find the main road again. Roan whispered a small thanks to the Lady Summer for sun and fresh air, and to the Lady Fall for showing them the path.
The sun made Roan sweat, and he could hear and feel Stel’s labored breathing. He rubbed her neck, as a silent means of encouragement.
As ever, the road was flooded with both pilgrims approaching the Temple and pilgrims leaving it. Anjan and Jova were already a far ways up ahead; Roan had to navigate around the pedestrians as he sped Stel up to a trot to keep up.
Once, he had, though, he rode a polite distance behind them.
Jova talked animatedly with Anjan, who smiled and laughed at all the right times. Roan watched from behind, his face betraying no emotion. In the end, what right did he have? The pontiffs spoke often of how two men could do the same thing, and for one it could be virtue while for the other it was sin. What was charity if it was done only for his own self-interest?
From the moment he had approached the blind girl sitting in the doorway, he had known he was indulging himself. Roan’s brow furrowed. It was weakness, not strength. True charity would have been to help one who could see and judge him, all of him.
Roan rolled his shoulders, sore from riding. One would think he’d be used to it by now, but Roan promised himself he could dismount and rest once they reached his hut at the compound. He blinked and shook his head. Idle thoughts, too, he would reserve for home.
He passed through the gates and breathed deep. Moscoleon smelled of incense and roasting peppers. He looked up at the great ziggurat, and for a moment he saw the great pyramids of Hak Mat Do again.
“Jova! Anjan! What are you doing here?” asked Ell. Jova took his outstretched hand and hugged him around the waist.
“It’s a holy day, after all,” said Anjan, sparing one glance back at Roan. “We thought we’d spend it with you.”
“With me and not the fine strapping lord?” said Ell. He, too, met Roan’s eyes, but Roan did not speak or move. “Well, I am flattered. Let me finish up these last few errands and I’ll be right with you.”
“Come on, it’s an open temple,” said Anjan, pulling Jova away. “Let’s have a look around where Ell works. The pontiff won’t mind.”
Jova nodded. She turned and waved, in the wrong direction. “Goodbye, mister Roan!”
Roan watched her go. He didn’t wave back, or say goodbye, or move at all. He just looked back up to the Sun Altar, but the illusion of the pyramids had been dispelled.
Roan sighed. The idle thoughts would have to be waiting for quite some time. Home, for him, was a long way off.
He clicked his tongue and directed Stel back towards the compound.
The ride was slow. Roan kept to the back roads, to better avoid the crowds. He told himself he had grown used to their questioning and sometimes revolted stares, that the expressions on their face no longer bothered him. He told himself that, at least.
Stel nickered as they squeezed their way through a cramped alley, and Roan traced her tabula and whispered into her ear. He closed his eyes, his head swimming. Every day, the commands grew harder. He knew he should have stopped, let both Stel and himself rest for a day or two, but he couldn’t. He had places to go, even if Stel was getting older.
He scratched the back of her neck. They were both getting older.
It was only when he returned to the compound did he notice his stomach rumbling. Roan closed his eyes. There wasn’t enough food to make a decent meal at the hut, and buying more would mean going back, out, into the crowds. Roan gripped his saddle tight. He was too tired for that.
He sniffed, and smelled freshly baked bread from the pontiff’s chambers. He sighed. “Come, Stel,” he said. “Let us go where the life is taking us.”
He walked in.
Zain did not look particularly surprised to see him. The winter pontiff and owner of the tenement bustled about, preparing flatbread in a stone oven. He gave only Roan only a cursory glance as he and the horse entered.
Roan coughed. “Does the afternoon find you well?”
“Well enough.” Zain scraped minced bell peppers and tomatoes into a bubbling stew and stirred. “Would you like to eat?” Before Roan could answer, Zain said, “In the name of the Lady Winter, I insist.”
“Thank you, brother,” said Roan. He did not get off his horse.
“Only those who have been sworn to the House of Winter may call me that,” said Zain, reproachfully, holding his hand over the tattoos on his chest.
“Have we not sworn deeper bonds, brother?” asked Roan.
Zain pursed his lips. “The Walkers are of men, by men. The Houses of the Ladies are more than that.”
Roan said nothing. He unclipped his cloak and looked at the badge of the crescent moon in his hand. This secrecy he could obliterate in a second, but Zain’s faith was etched onto his skin. Of the two, the truth of which was deeper could not be denied.
“Would you sit with me, then, Roan?”
The rider nodded. He shuffled awkwardly, trying to unfasten the various belts and buckles that kept him strapped to the saddle. Stel pranced, and Roan had to snap at her to calm down, unable to reach for her tabula.
Zain rose to help, but Roan waved him off. It was something he had to do alone.
“Crippled in body but whole of soul,” said the pontiff, and he undid the last strap despite Roan’s protests. Roan glared at him, but Zain’s gaze was cool and soft. “There is no shame in accepting help, even if you do not need it.”
Roan closed his eyes. This was true. He did his best to relax, although his limbs were still stiff as Zain picked him up and carried him to the table.
The stumps that were his legs dangled uselessly underneath him.
“Go, Stel,” he said, gesturing outside as Zain set him on the wooden seat. “Water and food, go on.”
The horse left at a leisurely pace, head hanging.
Roan hauled his legs over so he could sit in the seat proper as Zain walked around to sit opposite him. The pontiff put his hands together and closed his eyes. After a pause, Roan did likewise.
“The Lady Summer bless us, we give you thanks. May we be strong, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” Roan repeated.
Zain split the flatbread and gave half to Roan. He dribbled the bell pepper and tomato sauce over it liberally, although Roan eschewed it. Even after all these years, he still could not stomach Moscoleon food.
“You know what I find most distasteful about summer?” said Zain.
Roan looked up but did not answer.
“As it is a time of bounty, so it is a time of strife. Of fighting, of competition, of anger. But winter? Winter is a time of scarcity. In winter, the only bounty we may find is within each other. Eat, Roan.”
Roan took a small bite. Zain’s hands around his sides had made his stomach clench, and for some reason it would not relax.
“How is the girl?” asked Zain, after a long silence.
Roan raised an eyebrow. “Why do you take an interest?”
“Because you take an interest. Because you no longer wash or shave, but every morning, afternoon, and night, you make sure the girl has a hot meal waiting for her. Because you are a specter of the man I once knew. The Lady Winter asks us to give,” said Zain, kindly. “But never to take. Not even from ourselves.”
“Is this truth?” asked Roan. “It seems an unlikely one. How can there be giving if no one will take it?”
“Give to the world,” said Zain. “For all the world’s possessions are yours, and all yours its.”
“Even in a world of strangers?”
“That is the only way.”
“What of me?” Roan had to grip the edges of the seat to keep from slipping as he leaned forward. “You give me your hospitality and yet I am no stranger to you.”
“That is because I am mortal, and have more than one allegiance,” said Zain. He tapped the crescent moons embroidered on his sleeve. “Brother.”
Roan drummed his fingers on the table. His thighs shifted and he felt the rest of his legs twitch even though they weren’t there.
“She wants to learn how to fight,” said Roan.
“I am telling her I will not teach her.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you will.”
Zain rolled his eyes. “If you are that interested in the girl’s security, hire a marble soldier and let it be done with.”
Roan grit his teeth. “You haven’t even given me a chance to discuss this.”
“That’s because there’s nothing to discuss,” snapped Zain. “Zealotry is a choice you cannot make for her. She must do it, through her faith, and her faith alone.”
“I have lied as the snakerat does to protect my secret. I am selfish. I am not proud of it,” said Roan. “I have seen that I have hurt her and I must be making amends in any way I can. She is strong. She learns quickly. And if the Ladies Four were to bless a blind girl with the ability to fight as well as any other man-.”
“If that were the case, Roan, I would be amazed to see it,” said Zain. He pushed his plate away, having apparently lost his appetite. “Your faith wavers, friend. You hold onto it only when it suits you. And, worst of all, you know it.” Zain rubbed the bridge of his nose. “What are you trying so desperately to prove, Roan?”
Before he knew it, Roan’s fist slammed onto the table. It shook, and Roan felt a sudden impulse to stand, but of course he couldn’t.
“That this is Moscoleon!” he shouted. “The city of miracles! Where a man with no tongue can sing again, where a girl with no eyes can see again, and where I with no legs can run again.”
“Calm yourself, Rho Hat Pan.”
Breathing through his nostrils, Roan looked away. “That is no longer my name.”
“Is it not? If you have thrown away the name, why are you so desperate to cling to everything else that man once was?” Zain’s voice rose until it boomed. “You call yourself Roan, but you are still Rho Hat Pan. You thirst, if not for blood, then glory. Chase not forgotten dreams, friend. The war is over. Let the dead rest.”
Roan nodded, touching the badge on his cloak. “Yes,” he muttered. It was truth. It was for the best. “Let the dead rest.”
Zain slumped. He coughed. “If you like, I could help you-.”
“No,” said Roan. He slid his almost untouched plate back to the pontiff. “Thank you for the meal.”
He turned away, and tried not to look at Zain as he whistled for Stel. He hauled himself onto his horse and struggled to swing his legs over her back. He knew the truth. The truth was his shield. He was not afraid of it.
But, at times like these, as Roan kicked like a toddler to get into position, he was ashamed of its weight.
Posted on October 10, 2013, in Chapter 2 (Hide & Seek), The Horse Freak and tagged adventure, Anjan, creative writing, Ell, fantasy, Jova, Mo, novel, original characters, Roan, Stel, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing, Zain. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.