Like a bird frozen before a serpent’s gaze, Elise stared up at the dreadful visage of the Horseman. As he sat hunched over on his giant steed, silhouetted against the light of the morning sun, he had the appearance of a demonic butcher, clad in a blood-stained hauberk with mud and blood ornamenting his curled-toed boots and long, silken tunic.
Atop his head rested a battered nasal helm, similar to those worn by Spledourish knights, but lacking all the pomp and pageantry. Its red, rusted surface heightened the man’s grim appearance. Behind the rust and steel were set dark, almond-shaped eyes. Black like the bottomless abyss of a wishing well, they stared back at her. She refused to take another step off the dock towards the dark warrior.
“My lady.” Her handmaiden shook her shoulder. “My lady, this is Gan.” The Horseman bowed his head ever so slightly at the mention of his name. “He is one of your lordship’s most trusted knights. He will be your escort to the capital.”
“Surely, you jest. I cannot ride on that monster of a horse. If I were to fall off, I would crack my head open.”
“Have no fear, my lady. I have been assured by the envoy that Gan is the most capable of all the riders. He will make certain that no danger will befall you.”
“No, Mirra” Elise retorted, “I shall ride in the carriage with you and the rest of my retinue.”
“My lady, it will be far too dangerous for you. Should we encounter insurgents on the road, they will take you hostage. You do not want to miss your wedding day because you are stuck in some dank, mouldy dungeon, do you? This is the safest way.”
“Then maybe we should just call this wedding off. Why should we be travelling under such circumstances?” Elise paused for a moment as her head sank in desperation. “I wish I were back at Agenour.”
“Please, don’t let these things wear you down. One day you will be queen of all of Splendour, and the whole kingdom will look to you for guidance. You must be strong for everyone, and that begins now.” Mirra gave the young girl a quick hug. “Come now, let’s get you up onto that horse. We are already set to arrive much later than expected. We must hurry along.”
“You are awfully pushy today, Mirra.”
“My lady, there are people waiting on you,” she replied sternly. “Now, Tomas, Jakub, help her ladyship up, please.” At her beckoning, two men, who had been busy loading luggage and supplies onto the nearby carriage, dropped what they were doing and walked over.
Elise’s heart began to race as Mirra pushed her forward towards the giant animal. The beast stood half a pole taller than her at the shoulder, and seemed better fit to carry Ogres rather than Men. She contemplated running back towards the boat, but the two retainers stepped forth and carefully lifted her onto the rear of the steed. The mount shuffled over a few steps under the newfound weight, sending a couple of flutters through Elise’s heart. She instinctively grasped onto the Horseman’s back, then quickly pulled away, repulsed by the stench of horse sweat that emanated from his clothes.
“Ho,” the Horsemen sternly called to the horse, calming it back down.
“I don’t think this is safe. Get me back down from here,” Elise pleaded to her attendants once more.
“Have no fear my lady. Remember, you must be strong for everyone. We will not be too far behind you. You will be in the arms of your betrothed by late afternoon. I am sure I will see you soon. Goddesses watch over you.” Mirra waved and quickly turned, heading off to join the rest of the group.
The Horseman gave the steed a slight nudge with his heel, and it quickly trotted away from the dock. Elise sighed as she saw the rest of her luggage and servants loaded into the carriage. The small boat that had brought her to the Isle of Koventry was already pulling out of the tiny harbour and headed back south towards the mainland. She longed to be aboard it once more, despite how terribly sea sick she had become during the short voyage.
Mirra’s mention of her future as queen was weighing heavily on Elise’s mind. She had been betrothed to Davros, the prince of Splendour, in order to secure an alliance with her father, whose bountiful wealth and military might was needed in order to deal with a recent insurgency. After her wedding, the two nations would be bound to one another. Her father would then send his troops across the sea and help purge the land of any threats to the crown. In the end, she knew she was no queen, just a bargaining tool. A tear slowly rolled down her cheek and she turned her attention to the road ahead in an attempt to clear her mind.
The small village in which they had disembarked was rather quaint. The road was lined with simple wooden buildings which soon gave way to large pastures full of cattle and vast fields of swaying grain. The horse clopped loudly along the road for a short while before the Horseman led it off onto a smaller dirt path that cut across the open farmland. Elise, admittedly, did feel some relief being off the main road and breathing the fresh country air, though the odour of her escort did ruin the pleasant breeze. She decided to ignore it as best she could and hoped the journey would end quickly.
Her travels so far had been plagued by one delay after another. They had originally planned to sail straight to Koventry, but just before their departure, word reached them that the rebellion had formed a blockade of warships at the entrance to the capital’s bay and heavily patrolled the waters around the city itself. The insurgents had no hope of actually taking the city, but rather aimed to keep any boats from entering or leaving. So, it was decided she and her retinue would land on the eastern shores, in the lands of House Khan, who would escort them to the bay. From there they would take a small boat onto the Isle of Koventry, and travel by carriage and horseback the rest of the way to the city itself. House Khan would send their Horsemen riders ahead to ensure their safety on the last leg of the trip. Now, bouncing on the haunches of the massive war horse, she wished for nothing more than her journey’s end.
Yet, besides her discomfort, the ride was going well enough. Around midday, the Horseman brought the steed to a halt at a small pond. “We will rest here for a moment,” he told the young maiden as he helped her dismount. Gan unstrapped a water skin from the saddle and let the animal go freely to drink and graze. He then took a seat under the shade of a nearby tree and removed his helmet. Elise could now see his face was covered in a myriad of scars, each one a testament to a death narrowly averted.
His people were often considered an oddity, and judging by Gan’s overall dark and grim appearance, she now understood why. He seemed a warrior out of place in a land that held chivalry and pageantry above a true fighter’s mettle. Though she had heard many tales of the Horsemen, and read books on their poetic myths, she had never been around any, their presence being much rarer in Agenour for the last century.
Mesmerised, she watched him closely as he uncorked the leather bladder and drank deeply. The white liquid held within dribbled down his chin and long goatee. As he lowered the skin, he gave a satisfied sigh, and proceeded to pat his beard dry with the bottom of his tunic. Elise could not help but giggle at the sight of a grown man drinking as if he were a child. Gan finally realised he was being watched. With a smirk he held out the skin to her. “Would you like some kumis?”
“What is it?”
“Kumis is life; it is nourishment. It makes your inner self most joyful, but can intoxicate weaker heads.” Elise remained quiet with a confused look scrawled across her face. “It is fermented mare’s milk,” he clarified with a chuckle.
“No, thank you, that does not sound very appealing.” Elise nearly gagged at the thought. The Horseman chuckled and continued to enjoy his beverage. After a while sitting in silence, and with the loneliness creeping upon her once more, she decided to make conversation with her mysterious protector. “How long have you served my husband… or soon to be husband, that is?”
“Since childhood, my lady.” He paused for a moment, as if in contemplation, before continuing. “Since the day I became a man, I was a knight. I am at home in the saddle, with a blade in my hand. Since the hour I could stand, I learned to ride and fight; the horse became my legs; the sword became my arms. Since the moment of my birth, my life was pledged to the crown of Splendour. I will ride below its banners into the endless night.”
Elise thought the words seemed familiar, though she was not sure if it was a vow recited by knights, or her vague recollection of Horsemen poetry. “Do you all serve the crown? Your people, I mean.”
Gan shook his head. “My people live throughout the Archipelago. Many travel the lands by caravan, and never stay in one place more than a season or two.”
“But not you?”
“No, tribes like mine are forever in servitude to the crown, or the houses that serve it.”
“I see. And do all of you ride such imposing horses?”
“Aye, since leaving the Last Night our forefathers have bred horses for war. They are sure-footed and will never abandon a rider in the midst of battle.”
“They certainly look impressive. What is this one’s name?” Elise pointed to the grazing stallion.
The Horseman gave out a quick laugh at the question. “He has no name.”
“You have not named your horse?”
“No. A horse’s soul should never be bound to this world by an earthly name. They live beyond our own realm and we’ve no right to sever their ties with the Eternal.”
“I see. I have never heard of a horse having a soul before. Do your people follow the Goddesses?”
“Yes.” The Horseman smiled as if he had been asked a silly question by a child. “We make offerings to them all, but Umbria is our true matron.”
“I’ve never known many folks to revere Umbria. Most seem to worship her out of necessity, especially here in Splendour. I have even heard of some cultures that fear her.”
“She is the night sky. To fear her is to fear the dark, the unknown, but Umbria reveals all to those who would seek her celestial wisdom. Her stars guided our people westward across Lavinium. Even now she calls us West, across the sea.”
“Why, what lies beyond the horizon but more water?”
“A promised land full of vast plains. It is said we may ride for days on end and never see a single tree.”
“That sounds more like a cursed land than a paradise. There would be nothing to do, nothing to see. What is so appealing about nothing?”
“Only when one has absolutely nothing, will one truly be free.”
Elise let the words linger in her head for a minute. Something about them rang true to her situation. She had grown up in a royal house; everything she ever wanted was right at her fingertips. Yet, she had no freedom. She was not allowed to learn to ride a horse because it was ill-befitting of a young lady. She was not allowed to read any books but those concerning poetry and philosophy. She did not even have a say in whom she was to marry. Yet, a poor man, with no ties to hold him down, could take up an adventurer's mantle and live a life she could only dream of.
Now, having left all she knew behind her, she wondered if she might find her own freedom, or just another gilded cage from whence to look out at the world. “I think I understand what you mean. If there is nothing to tether you down, then you are as free as any bird. No cages to hold you in. No flock to dictate in which direction you must fly. I must say, I had heard your people were excellent knights, but I had no idea you were such great philosophers as well.”
The Horseman erupted in a bout of laughter, which Elise figured might have been brought on by all the kumis he had consumed more so than her musings. “Come, my lady, let us continue on our journey, before I start philosophising about Baubus or the other forgotten Eastern gods.” He stood up and whistled the horse over to them. He lifted her up onto the saddle with little effort, then hopped up after her with ease, as if he were hopping over a small puddle.
With a quick tug on the reins they trotted off again, the freshly rested horse moving at a much brisker pace than before. They soon cleared the overgrown trail and came upon the main road once more. Ahead, the road disappeared under a dark thicket and Gan brought the horse to a stop as they approached.
“What ever is the matter?” Elise asked with a nervous tone.
“Something… seems off. Perhaps we should avoid the main road altogether.” Gan pulled on the horse’s reins, leading him off the stone thoroughfare when, without warning, several men burst out from the nearby brush all around them. Elise could not make out how many, but she saw several pikes quickly closing in on them.
The Horseman did not delay an instant. From the wooden scabbard hanging on his hip he drew a long falchion, unlike any Elise had seen, with a pronounced curve along the blade. He spurred the horse to a gallop, charging at the nearest foe. As they neared the assailant, the Horseman swatted away the pike, and with a quick flick of the wrist, followed through with a second blow that split the man’s face in two.
The other attackers paused for a moment, shocked at the ease with which the Horseman had dispatched their compatriot. Gan, on the other hand, wasted no time in cleaving through a second and third adversary. Terrified, some of the attackers broke ranks and fled back into the woods. The remainder charged the Horseman once more, pikes hungry for vengeance.
Elise closed her eyes and held on tightly as Gan brought the horse about for one final charge. She could feel the Horseman’s body twist and turn as he swung his mighty sword. The ring of steel as it cleaved through flesh and bone was her only clue as to Gan’s victory. The horse was brought to a stop. Elise opened her eyes, drawn to the cries of a nearby fallen assailant.
On the ground lay a light-skinned Elf, possibly a youth; the blood oozing down his face made it difficult to discern his age. He held onto the bleeding stump that used to be his right arm, and his right eye was unnaturally protruding from his skull. He cried out in both pain and terror. The Horseman jumped off of his mount and stomped over to the dying man.
“I know you are no simple bandit, or you could not afford such fine polearms. You were lying in wait for us. How did you know when and where we would be?” The youth, showing more anger now than terror, remained silent. “You are dying, it will be long and painful. Tell me, and I will ease your suffering. Refuse, and I will make it much worse.”
“Go eat shit, you son of a horse’s ass,” the elf screamed and spat blood at the Horseman’s face. Without any change in expression, Gan calmly wiped the blood from his face, then, like a strike from a cobra, he reached out and plucked the Elf’s protruding eye from its socket.
Elise turned and emptied her stomach as the youth’s horrifying cries rang out. She closed her eyes and covered her ears as the Horseman went to work extracting information. Elise thought of home. She wished to be nestled safely in her old bed, far from Splendour and its cruel killers. She was not sure how long she was lost in her thoughts, but Gan’s climb back onto the saddle shook her from her daze. The newfound silence told her the Elf was no longer among the living. The Horseman spurred the horse and they began to gallop away from the slaughter.
As they passed the youth’s remains, she could not resist but to glance down. His head was bloodier than before, but through the blood she could see that his nose and ears were now missing. She felt her stomach churn again and quickly turned away. “Did he say anything?” she asked in a trembling voice, eager to get the gruesome sight out of her mind.
“Aye.” The Horseman’s voice remained as calm as ever. “You have been betrayed. We will stay off the roads until we get closer to Koventry. It will be a longer ride, but your safety is my primary concern.”
“What? Who would betray me, and why?”
“The Elf said it was your handmaiden.”
“Mirra? No, it can’t be. He must have been lying.” Elise was beyond shocked.
“She was likely very well paid.”
“I cannot believe that she would do that. I couldn’t possibly be worth that much.”
“Do not doubt yourself, my lady,” Gan spoke in a reassuring manner. “Without your marriage, your father will not come to the King’s assistance. Most likely, they would hold you hostage until he recognizes the rebel’s claim to the throne. You are the Crown’s sole salvation.”
Elise remained silent. Like a relentless hurricane, a thousand thoughts swirled around her worry-stricken mind as they trotted along over the quiet, peaceful hills on the outskirts of Koventry.
Judging by the low-hanging position of the sun in the sky, Elise could tell that she and the Horseman had been greatly delayed by their run-in with the insurgents. She was beginning to worry they might not arrive until after dark when they rode over a towering hill, and Koventry finally came into view. Spread out before them like a colourful mosaic, lay the capital city. Along the coast, dozens of wooden docks reached out into the water like a palisade floating on its side. On the western end, hundreds of houses spilled out over the outer walls, like wine overflowing from a chalice.
Beyond the island, hundreds more houses sat over the water, suspended on stilts or built upon boats in massive flotillas. Several small boats made their way around the many docks and piers, but further out at sea, Elise saw a legion of warships, circling like vultures. These were the insurgency’s ships, patrolling the blockade formed around Koventry.
She found it funny. The capital city seemed as peaceful as could be, and she imagined the citizens going about their daily business, unmoved by the threat that loomed just beyond the crashing waves. It would not have been the first time the city had faced such danger. She knew the insurgency had no hope of conquering Koventry itself. It was too safe, too large. In fact, it was much larger than she had imagined, and much older too. The architecture changed as the buildings grew higher, with lower levels that harkened to a long forgotten time.
“I have never seen such a city,” she thought out loud.
“Yes, it is the greatest city on the Archipelago, rivalled only by the capital of Sidh. Of course, Ork architecture pales in comparison to the splendour of Splendour.”
Elise smirked at his pun. “Have you travelled much through the Ork homelands?”
“Not much, my lady. Only briefly when I was a youth. When the Orks were having uprisings of their own, many of my people were hired out as mercenaries to help quell the threat. I do not remember much from that time.”
“Surely you remember something. How did the war end?”
“With a lot of spilled blood,” he responded bluntly.
“Not quite what I was hoping to hear. I wish there was an easier way to quell this cursed rebellion.”
“Perhaps when you are queen, you will find a way.”
“I doubt it very much. My most trusted lady in waiting has betrayed me. What a terrible queen I will be.” She let her head hang low, succumbing to her doubts.
The horseman spun around to face her, his well-like eyes staring deep into her soul.“A queen is not defined by the people who follow her, but by the way she leads them. When the time comes, you will find a way.”
“Thank you for your trust, though I do not feel I have earned it.”
“My people know the importance of faith. If we did not trust in our Ugdans to lead us, we would stray from Umbrias path.”
“What is an Ugdan, a general?” she questioned
“No, a wise woman… a shamaness, I believe is the word in your tongue. She knows the old secrets; she reads the stars.”
“I wonder if she could guide me. Most times I feel so lost.”
“Once you are settled in, if you wish, I can take you to her.”
“I would like that very much. Your people seem very interesting. I would love to meet more of them, and maybe they will have some answers for me,” Elise paused for a moment, feeling uncertain about the future. She decided to shake the thoughts from her mind. “Well, enough of my worries. Why don’t you tell me more of the Orks? What was the most interesting thing you saw there?”
“Truth be told,” Gan continued, “I do not remember much. I do remember their land was cold and harsh, like the Orks themselves. Their buildings were made of a rough stone, and stacked high into the air, decorated with large, wooden horns at the top. Most places seemed quaint, but the grandeur of their capital, that still stands out in my mind. As well as the great fortress of Castle Rock, built on the slopes of an old volca…”
Suddenly an arrow ripped into the Horseman’s shoulder, startling the horse. As it reared up in surprise, Elise nearly fell from the saddle, but Gan grabbed hold of her before she could slip off. He spurred the horse to full speed towards the safety of a nearby thicket. They could hear shouting closing in on them from all directions. They had been tracked down. As they neared the tree line another arrow flew into the Horseman's body and he fell off the mount. Elise panicked, gripping onto the saddle for dear life, but the great war horse ran into the cover of the trees and stopped, turning around to look back at its fallen rider. Gan was up in an instant, though, and ran to safety just as a small volley of arrows landed behind him with murderous intent.
“Are you ok my lady?” he called to her as he stumbled through the brush. “Did they hit you?”
“No, I am fine. Are you wounded?”
“Yes,” he grunted through gritted teeth as he pried an arrow free and examined its bloodied head. “These are Dwarfin bodkin arrows, excellent at penetrating armour. They must have a few Dwarf archers amongst their ranks.” He leaned against a tree and caught his breath. With a loud grunt, he removed the second arrow from his shoulder. “It would seem they have found what was left of the Elf and his comrades. They are out for blood now.”
He straightened himself, a grim expression etched across his face. “They will be upon us in an instant, but their arrows will do no good in these thick woods. You must take shelter. Here, I need you to hide up in the trees.” With no further words, he walked over to the horse and stood up in the stirrups. With ease he lifted her high over his head and she grabbed hold of the tree limbs.
He then tapped the horse on the rear, and it trotted away. From the scabbard at his hip, he drew his massive falchion. He wasted no time as the first attacker burst through the underbrush. In the blink of an eye, Gan’s sword flashed high into the air, and the foe’s head went flying free of its body. He calmly stepped aside as the dead man tumbled past.
Another attacker came rushing in, a Dwarf this time, with a small axe and a round shield. Gan deflected a few blows before kicking the shield back against the Dwarf, sending the shorter man flying to the ground. In an instant, the Horseman was atop him, the falchion chopping away at the Dwarf’s unarmoured face. Blood filled the air, decorating Gan’s tunic with even more crimson stains.
Two more of the ambushers rushed in, but their lightly armoured bodies were soon cleaved in two. Elise fully understood why she had been so terrified of the Horseman when she first met him. He truly was like a demon set loose on the world. She watched him cut down five more men before the remainder ran off to regroup, now fully aware they had not trapped a simple soldier, but rather cornered a vicious lion.
“Quickly, my lady, we must get you free of here,” he called out to her. With a whistle, the horse came riding back and Gan jumped up on the stirrup to help her down once more. Elise was shocked to see how much blood covered his body, and a sinking feeling came over her as she realised a lot of it was his own. “My lady, I cannot ride. You will have to make the rest of the journey yourself.”
“But I am not a capable rider, nor do I know the way. And I cannot just leave you behind. Climb on, I will help you stay in the saddle.”
“There will be more insurgents upon us soon. I will hold them back whilst you escape.” Ignoring her pleas, he stepped down and took hold of the horse by its face. “Well, my old friend, it seems this was our final ride. Take her to safety, let Umbria guide the way.” With those words he slapped the horse on the rear, and it bolted through the woods.
As Elise looked back through tear-filled eyes, she saw a large band rush in on the Horseman, and though many fell before his mighty blade, he was soon overcome. She turned away and let the tears flow freely. Yet before she had cleared the woods, arrows began to whistle past her. Some were caught in the branches and tree trunks, but two managed to find the broadsides of the stallion. It nearly faltered but stayed true to its task at hand.
“Daelle, save me,” she called out to the heavens, and perhaps the goddess listened, for the horse cleared the thicket and continued towards Koventry at breakneck speed. Behind her, she could still hear shouting. She figured that they must have had some mounted men ready for pursuit. They stayed well within earshot, but never gained any ground on the sprinting steed. After what seemed like the longest ride of her life, she neared the capital, and the shouts faded away.
The horse ploughed past the crowds as it weaved through the city streets, seeming to have an intimate knowledge of Koventry’s layout, until ultimately arriving at the gates of the castle, where its legs finally gave out. It collapsed, sending Elise tumbling to the ground. She was battered, but not injured, and quickly ran over to the horse’s side. It lay there wheezing and grunting, dying in the muddy street.
The tears streamed down Elise’s face once more. “Thank you, thank you for saving my life.” She felt the words were as much for Gan as they were for the horse. All her pent up emotions suddenly erupted free and she bawled and shook uncontrollably as she rubbed the fading steed's face, trying to ease its pain. With a final, weakened grunt, it passed away. “Your soul is free now; I hope you can find Gan in the afterlife. Umbria watch over both of you.”
Suddenly, the castle guards lifted her to her feet, and several members of her retinue came running out to greet her, her betrothed amongst them. In the castle courtyard, she could see the carriage that had carried her things there. It seemed her attendants had made it to the capital before her, and, she suspected, without any intervention from insurgents.
“My lady, you made it.” The young prince took her by the hands. “We had feared the worst. I was preparing to ride out in search of you. Your retinue told me they had passed some dead bodies along the way. What happened?”
“Gan, the horseman, saved my life. We had to travel off the road. The insurgents attacked us. He gave his life to protect mine. We must ride out and retrieve his body; I will not have it be left to the vultures. It lies in a thicket by the large hill in the distance.” She pointed to the horizon, but dizziness overtook her, and she nearly fell. The young prince was quick to catch her.
“We will find him, my lady. I give you my word, but you must rest now. I will have my physicians attend to your bruises. Come, let us get you inside.”
At that moment, her handmaiden, Mirra, came running up, with a look of shock etched across her face. “How did you survive the ambush?”
Elise's heart nearly stopped at the confirmation. It had all been true. “What did you say?” she questioned.
The handmaiden, realising her mistake, bolted away into the town. Seething with anger, Elise found her inner strength, and an authoritative, regal voice she would carry from that moment forward. “Stop that vile wench!” she shouted at the guards. The armoured men quickly gave chase at their future queen’s command.
“My lady,” the prince asked with a bewildered look on his face, “What is going on?”
“I have been betrayed. But I will not stand for it. I will show our people that we will not be defeated by these insurgent dogs.”
Mirra was quickly apprehended and brought to justice. She was eager to point out her co-conspirators in hopes of being set free, but in the coming days, they were all tried and executed. Gan’s body was recovered, and Elise took it to his people’s yurt village on the outskirts of Ligera, House Khan’s capital city. They gave him a hero’s funeral in his people’s tradition, burned upon a massive pyre at his steed’s side.
The Horseman elders were surprised to see her and her royal escort, for though their warriors were prized by the nobility, no king or queen had ever stepped foot in their village. She stayed late talking to them and learning more about their ways. They told her the smoke of the funeral pyre would help the souls of Gan and his horse rise into the heavens to ride in the endless fields of the night sky together. Over the coming weeks, she made several offerings to Umbria at the local temple in hopes that it would help guide their voyage. She also hoped that Gan would understand how much she appreciated his sacrifice.
Meanwhile, the prince and she grew remarkably close, as he was captivated by the way she carried herself, and she was enamoured by the way he respected her. Their marriage proved to be much more than a political act, for the people fell in love with the young couple and the nation grew stronger under their leadership, especially with the king away hunting down the insurgents. Though with the aid of Elise’s father, the insurgency did not last long.
One day, the prince had asked Elise what she would like for a wedding gift. She had insisted that he teach her how to ride, and on her wedding day, he presented her with a beautiful white stallion. It was not as large as a Horseman’s steed but was quite impressive nonetheless.
“What will you name him?” he asked her.
Elise chuckled. “You mustn’t name a horse, silly.”
“Yes. A horse’s soul should never be bound to this world by an earthly name, so that when it dies, it may ride free in the night sky forever.”