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Aneirin and Dassais
A bitterly cold wind tugged at the branches of the towering maples as gray clouds, promising more rain, rose from the horizon and blanketed the entire sky. The small, weather-beaten clapboard cabin sitting at the foot of the mountain didn’t seem able to withstand the gale. The heavy wooden door cracked open and the figure of a young man carefully slid outside. He was soon followed by a shorter figure that seemed to have hardened to the harsh spring climate of Glennwood from years of exposure. The two carefully made their way across the slippery, muddy path across the barnyard and then entered the barn. As Aneirin led the mare out of her stall, a loud clanking sounded throughout the sturdy building.
“Sounds like we’re visiting the farrier while we’re in town today.” Farmer Grae pointed out while he heaved and shoved the heavy farm wagon into the middle of the barn. Aneirin quickly picked up Rosie’s hoof. One of her shoes was a little loose. A few pounds with the hammer temporarily fixed the loose nail.
After harnessing the horse to the farm wagon, they picked their way out into the barnyard. Rosie’s hooves sank into the mud, making loud sucking sounds. Halfway across the yard, the wheels, clogged with mud, jerked to a halt. Rosie vainly tried to pull the wagon out.
“We have to get out of the wagon.” Farmer Grae jumped out of the wagon into the mud. Aneirin followed. The sludge rose up to mid-calf. With less weight in the wagon, Rosie was able to dislodge the wheels. After many stops and starts, they finally clattered out onto the solid road. Aneirin and Farmer Grae climbed back into the wagon.
As they rode along in silence, Aneirin’s thought roamed back to his first memories. Farmer Grae had been very bitter and sad when Aneirin was younger. After a while, the farmer had seemed to put aside his bitterness and gave more attention to raising Aneirin. For his tenth birthday, Aneirin had received a yearling. This gift was joyfully received, but was also confusing. Farmer Grae didn’t love horses like Aneirin did. Farmer Grae was the only father he remembered, but he knew Farmer Grae wasn’t his real father. He knew in his heart that his real father would have loved horses like he did. He’d also wondered if he had a mother and where she was, if he had one. He’d pressed these questions at Farmer Grae many times before, but he’d never received a straight answer. Just, “You’ll understand later.” This answer always had frustrated him. Why didn’t Farmer Grae just tell him the truth? After a while, he’d given up trying. His horse, Rosie, then became his best friend. When Farmer Grae’s old gelding died, Rosie became the new farm horse. Now that he was nearing his twenty- fourth birthday, Aneirin hoped Farmer Gray would decide it was time to open up and tell him the truth about his parents.
As Rosie plodded into town, Aneirin and Farmer Grae quickly finished up deciding where each would go. Aneirin was to buy Rosie’s new bridle and then he needed to haul the heavy feed and seed sacks to the wagon. Famer Gray was to take Rose to the farrier and run a few small errands. Aneirin would meet him back at the inn to go home.
After tying Rosie at the inn, Aneirin hurried toward the center of Glennwood. Four large buildings made of roughly hewn wood sat on one side of the road. Four more buildings, which were small houses, belonged to the other side of the road. As Aneirin approached the stables, he noticed a slim girl leading a pure white mare towards a small path running between two houses, and into the forest. She was wearing a long purple dress with a wide skirt, and long open sleeves; over which, she wore a dark purple cloak with gold trim. But the girl’s attire was not what Aneirin noticed the most. She was glancing about, as if she were afraid of someone or something following her. She led the horse onto the path and disappeared from view. Aneirin wondered who the girl was. He would ask the stable master. He knew everyone in this little village. Aneirin turned back to the stables, stopped in the doorway, and then stepped inside. On his left and right were stalls running down each wall. He breathed in the welcoming scent of horses and leather tack and moved down the aisle. Horses stared at him over their stall doors. He drifted over to one of the stalls and stopped to run his hand caressingly down the face of a black gelding.
“Are you in need of another horse?” Domingo exited a large room at the end of the row and ambled over to stand beside Aneirin.
“No. Rosie needs a new bridle. ” Aneirin glanced up at the tall, muscular man standing next to him. “Who… who’s the girl that owns a beautiful white mare?” Aneirin looked down.
“Um… that’s Lodamir Fillindyl’s daughter, Kierra. Now, about that bridle, come with me.” Domingo turned and walked quickly down the row and entered the large room full of tack, brushes, and other supplies. As the mixed scents of rope, wood, and tanned leather hit his nostrils, Aneirin wondered why Domingo didn’t want to talk about Kierra and her father. Domingo loved to talk. He would converse with just about anybody he came across about anything that came to mind.
“How soon do you need it?”
Domingo’s question pulled Aneirin from his thoughts.
“We must have it before we return to the farm.”
The man promised he would have it done in a couple hours. After he paid for the tack, Aneirin turned and left the small tack store, pausing in the aisle long enough to pat the gelding again. He then made his way to the feed and seed store. The smell of ground corn and fresh hay caught his nostrils. He quickly thought over what Farmer Grae had related to him on the ride to town. We need… a bag of corn seed, a bag of hay seed, and a bag of wheat seed… Also, a bag of feed for Rosie. As he walked to the counter, he couldn’t help but think that there was something else he needed as well. Of course! Farmer Grae had urged him to buy a new pair of boots. My boots are just fine! And then he looked down at his feet. He had tied and patched several holes in his worn-out shoes. He toes still poked out, anyway. Then again, maybe I do need new boots. Aneirin walked to the counter and told the man what he needed. After paying for the seed and boots, Aneirin hefted the purchase and carried them the short distance to the wagon. He quickly plopped them on the plank wood bed.
Aneirin entered the blacksmith’s shop. The loud clanking and banging in the back of the shop told Aneirin that the farrier was still working on Rosie. When he arrived at the back, he noticed that Farmer Grae had already left on his personal errands. What is he up to? The thought had quickly entered his brain, but he pushed it out just as fast. He had no right to pry into Farmer Grae’s personal affairs. He then checked on the farrier’s work. Apparently, the man was replacing all of Rosie’s shoes. The one loose shoe was a small sign to a larger problem; all the shoes had at least one nail that had been dangerously worn down from not getting replaced often enough. The farrier was only half done with the shoes, so Aneirin decided to go visit his friend, Jacko, at the inn where he worked. The inn was full of merry travelers eating, drinking, and telling tales of adventure. Aneirin slowly made his way to a table in the corner of the room where Jacko sat watching the revelers. His friend shifted his lanky body as he looked up at Aneirin approaching.
“How’s Farmer Grae?” Jacko inquired.
“He’s fine, but stubborn as usual. He’s been fixing the holes in the roof of the barn and he won’t let me help. I’ve tried to get him to rest several times, but he would have none of it. Just said that he had to get it done at once and that he didn’t need any help……” Aneirin paused, running a hand through his short, dark hair. “He told me I had enough work to do with the fields and animals.” Footsteps clunked on the floorboards behind him. He looked up. The innkeeper stopped at their table.
“Would ya need anythin’, Aneirin, ma boy? Or mebe good ole Farmer Grae?” Berto breathed his sour breath in Aneirin’s face, slurring his words together as if he had been drinking too much of his own brew.
“No thank you. We have plenty of time to get home before supper.”
“Alrighty, then.” The heavy-set man lumbered back to the stifling kitchen.
Out of the corner of his eye, Aneirin caught a glimpse of a new beautiful painting hanging on the wall. Dark clouds rolled across an angry sky. A large black horse galloped over grassy hills; the grass shimmering as if wet. He asked Jacko about it, but the blond-haired boy didn’t know what it was. As Aneirin turned to go, a tall, cloaked figured stepped out of the shadows.
“I can tell about the picture, son.” The man’s voice was deep and mysteriously quiet. An air of excitement and expectancy settled over the room. Aneirin motioned to the man to sit with him at a table in the corner. The man slowly made his way over to the table and folded himself into a chair.
“It all began a couple years back, at a small farm in the country. It was a terrible night. Lightning streaked across the blacked horizon. You could hardly hear the young mare’s cries as thunder groaned and rolled in the ever-darkening clouds. It had been a long pregnancy and now her labor was a struggle. A large black colt was born. The largeness of the foal was too hard on the poor mother. She died just after, leaving the couple to clean up the foal. Providing for a colt without its mother took a lot of money, but the farmer and his wife didn’t mind. They tended the orphaned animal. Soon, though, they came into a lot of trouble. Weeds choked out their cash crop. Their best milk cow stopped producing and they lost their favorite dog. At the end of the year, the poor farmer sighed in relief that it was over, but it wasn’t. The worst was soon to come. The farmer’s wife became very ill. The poor man had no money to pay the apothecary, so he tried his hand at finding herbs. Finding a few he recognized, the farmer fed his wife tea, but it didn’t help much. She needed fresh food, but there was no hope of that. Because the fields had become waste, and he had no money, she was unable to get any better. She slowly sank. A year later, the woman died.
“The farmer went into mourning. He went to bed and didn’t rise. After his grief lifted a little, he thought about the past year. Why would he have so many troubles? He rose and went to the barn to care for the animals. The black colt had grown. He was now a stallion. He pawed and danced in his stall. The animal had become harder and harder to care for while the farmer’s wife was sick. The poor man couldn’t help feeling this animal was to blame for his troubles. Ever since this black horse was born, he’d had nothing but trouble. ‘This horse has caused my troubles!’ the man thought. He quickly decided what he was going to do. He was going to turn the horse out. It could care for itself. He almost ran to the horse’s stall. The devil horse heard him coming and screamed at him. Hooves pounded on the door and clanked on the stall floor. It was a good thing that both doors were closed; otherwise he could’ve been hurt very badly. The Farmer pulled the doors open at once and hid behind them. The horse immediately bolted and galloped out of the barn. The farmer was glad to be rid of the monster. His troubles ended, then. The next year, his cash crop was the biggest he’d ever seen. He found a new dog, and he was able to buy a new dairy cow.
“Meanwhile, the black horse roamed over the country. Some said that he galloped with a white mare at his side. Every person he met up with had troubles, the most common one; death. Sometime, the white mare was separated from him. No one knows where this black horse is now. Almost everyone is afraid of him. It is said that only one person is able to tame the beast. That person must be a boy that has not known to do evil yet. There are hunters out there looking for this horse. I believe they follow a leader, but I do not know his name. They do not believe there is such a boy. They call him Dassais, the killer horse. They intend to kill him, but have not found him yet. I hope they do not find him.”
By the time the cloaked man had finished his tale, everyone in the inn was listening. Even the cook, Berto, was listening. Aneirin slowly stood out of his chair and walked over to the painting. He stared at it a moment, hesitating, then turned halfway round.
“Do you really believe that story? That the horse is a killer and no one but one person can tame him?” Aneirin glanced back over his shoulder at the man for an answer.
“Of course I believe it!” He shouted. With a rustle of his cloak, the man stood to his feet. “I intend to find these evil men so that I may stop them. If you wish to join me, I am renting the third room upstairs for the next two weeks. Come, but only if you are certain.” Without making a noise, he turned and vanished out the door.
Aneirin sat and thought for a good while, he didn’t know exactly how long. Jacko soon touched him on the shoulder. He looked up. The sky was darkening. Farmer Grae was probably wondering where he was. He quickly hurried to the waiting wagon.
The mysterious tale told back at the inn ran through Aneirin’s head as they trudged home. Is the story even true? He wondered. Suddenly, a thought came to him. In part of the story, there was a white horse as well and didn’t he see a white mare in the village just a little while ago? Maybe there was some truth to the tale after all.
As they fixed up a small supper, Aneirin was silent. Farmer Grae seemed to sense his mood.
“What’s going on with you, boy?” The man turned in his seat at the reins to look Aneirin in the eyes. “You barely said two words together the whole ride. And now you’re acting as though you’re alone.”
“I don’t know. I heard a strange story at the inn. It seems so believable, but also not.”
Aneirin relaxed in his seat, the crackling fire warming him through. As he and Farmer Grae ate, he related the mysterious tale he’d heard earlier. He didn’t know if Farmer Grae would believe the legend; he wasn’t sure if he himself even believed it yet. As the man listened, he sat motionless and silent. When the story was over, he leaned back in his chair and swallowed the last of his stew. Farmer Grae gazed into Aneirin’s eyes.
“Do you believe it, son?” There didn’t seem to be a question in the old man’s tone. He seemed almost to say, “What is there to not believe?” Aneirin shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Are there portions of the tale that are true, and some not? Are there parts that the man has left out? He had to answer him. Farmer Grae was like a father; he expected an answer.
“To tell the truth, I don’t know what to believe.” He looked away. Farmer Grae leaned closer.
“Well, you better figure it out soon, son.”
As they turned in for the night, the winds and rain beat upon the rickety old cabin. Screams and wails, mingled with angry and terrified neighs, flew about as they slept. A horrible dream came to Aneirin. The horse was here and Farmer Grey is too still. I try to wake him, but it is of no use! Farmer Grey is dead! He started awake. The wild gale had ceased. All was silent except for the farmer’s soft snores. The boy sighed with relief. He lay back down, but was unable to return to sleep. After a long while, he rose and stepped outside. A soft breeze brushed his face as he ambled over to the barn, and stepped inside. Rosie lifted her head and quietly nickered at him. He ran a hand over her coarse coat. The old mare always comforted him when he was sad or scared. As he stooped to gather a handful of hay, a slight noise outside the door caused him to pause in his motion. Hooves crunched on the gravel and something snuffled in the cracks of the plank wood door. He stiffened and listened carefully. Soon, it seemed something startled the horse because the noise stilled. Then he heard hooves again, galloping off into the night. He fed the hay in his hand to Rosie, who now lay in the sawdust. Slipping quietly out the door, he examined a large set of hoof prints left imprinted in the softened dirt. Following, he soon approached Glennwood forest at the edge of the property. He crept in, very much intrigued. All was eerily quiet. Moonlight filtered through the leaves, spearing beams of light through the inky blackness of the wood. He silently crept forward. Fresh hoof prints mussed the moistened carpet of leaves. The legendary horse was immediately nearby. A cool breeze whispered through the leaves, creating chills that raced up and down his spine. He continued walking. Suddenly, the sound of cracking and snapping twigs stopped him in his tracks. A large animal was walking towards him. It drew closer and closer. Aneirin’s heartbeat sounded in his ears as he quickly crouched behind a large maple. As soon as the noise had started, it ceased. He peered around the tree. A large horse, black as ebony, stood just a few feet from his hiding spot. Steam wisped upward off its wet body. When he shifted his weight to get a better view, the horse heard him. The animal’s ears snapped forward and its whole body stiffened. Aneirin rose from behind the tree so the horse could see him. It wheeled as if to run, but stopped. Turning around, it faced him again. Aneirin didn’t know how long they stared at each other. Then, the horse stepped forward. Aneirin held out his hand. The movement caused the horse to stop. Soon, it reached out its head. When its whiskers brushed his finger tips, it jumped back, screamed, and galloped away further into the Glennwood forest. Aneirin sighed and then returned to the cabin; asleep the instant his head hit the pillow.
The next morning broke clear and fresh, the night before seeming to Aneirin as no more than a strange dream. Maybe it was just a dream… But as he lifted branches away from the barn door, he glimpsed an unmistakable set of large hoof prints in the soft earth.
Heavy footfalls sounded in the wide hall as two men, wearing cloaks of dark wool, gathered in the council room. Thick, scarlet curtains shrouded the room into semi darkness. A long mahogany table stretched out into the middle of the room. Lathier glanced sideways at Darund; they both wondered why their leader had called them in the middle of directing the hunters’ archery practice. The steps halted and a tall door at one end of the room slowly creaked open, spilling a beam of light onto the polished wood floor. Hugo Ghalis entered, carrying a large candlestick. His dark hood covered most of his face, leaving just his shadowed chin visible.
“It is time move out.” His deep voice hung in the heavy atmosphere. “The lookouts have sighted the white mare at a small castle. Dassais must be near that place. We will travel across the plains to the western mountains of Glennwood in two days.”
“Sir, the hunters will not be ready for at least two more weeks!” Lathier wondered what his master was thinking. How could they be ready in two days?
“You have been training these men for the last month! Surely, they should be ready.”
“These men you picked from the mountains are good, really good. But none of them had any experience with a bow. They were all farmers. It will take a while to train them.” Darund felt like he was explaining to a brick wall. Nothing was getting through to Ghalis.
“You have one week. Anyone not ready by then will be required to hold the horses while we fight.”
Turning, Hugo Ghalis slipped out of the room and the door shut quickly with a decided click.
An arrow whizzed through the air and found its mark buried in the center of a small target. Lathier lowered his bow and turned to the hunter standing near him.
“That is how it must be done!” He reiterated, “EVERY TIME!” Taking a deep breath, he looked over the group of men. Darund stood at his right shoulder. He quickly reiterated what the master had required of them the night before.
“Ghalis has demanded that we be ready in only one week.”
A loud disgruntled murmur spread through the hunters. The one standing nearest to Lathier voiced his frustration.
“How are we to achieve that amount of accuracy in just one week! We have barely started!”
“We are doubling our practice time every day by three hours, or until you can get it right! Now, every man to his bow. We have practicing to do!”
Lathier and Darund circled around the men to watch the arrows shudder past the targets. The sorry sight of poor performance made them grimace. How in the world were they to improve so much in so little time?
Lathier threw his saddle on the rack and tramped through the barn with Darund. The deadline was looming and they were no closer to achieving their goal. The hunters’ small cabins near the stables loomed ahead of them in the dusk. Maybe they would accept the new idea Lathier and Darund had thought of while talking in the barn.
Hugo Ghalis paced in the spacious room. As usual, the heavy scarlet curtains, used in every room in the castle, were closed. Only candles gave the room its dismal lighting. His angry pace continued for hours. Why must he wait? The devil horse was right where Ghalis wanted him, yet the hunters had more time! Why did he give in and offer another week? They needed to leave tomorrow! Why, the ride to Glennwood would take almost two weeks! Dassais would be gone by the time they finally got there! Ghalis stopped and slammed his fist on his sturdy desk! The loud noise carried out into the hall and startled the servant passing by the room. He stared at the door for a minute, but then hurried away. He didn’t dare enter when Ghalis was in one of his moods. It was dangerous just to be summoned when Ghalis was in a mood. Imagine what would happen if he entered without permission? The servant shuddered while just thinking about it.
Lathier and Darund entered the largest cabin. The hunters were all gathered, loudly discussing their new orders. It took great effort for Lathier and Darund to quiet the men. Once the noise subsided, though, they introduced their brilliant idea. The men listened intently. All were focused. Grins broke out amongst the men as the plan unfolded. Excitement rippled through them all. They would act in the morning. In six days, they would present themselves to Ghalis, completely ready for his mission.
Ghalis paced into the night, his mind racing furiously! Why couldn’t Lathier and Darund train the men fast enough? Wasn’t a month long enough? Yes, the men had been cold to a bow. But his men were really good. The hunters should be ready by now. Glancing out the curtained window, he glimpsed candlelight just going out in the hunters’ cabins. What were they doing awake at this hour of night? He quickly started for the door. He had to find out. The heavy door opened just as his hand wrapped around the handle. Lathier and Darund entered and then started when they saw their master. He seemed to glare at them from under his dark hood.
“What are you up to?” Ghalis hissed through his teeth.
Both men quickly spoke at once. “We were securing the barn. We are having a heavy storm tonight. We didn’t want the wind to break open the door and frighten the horses.”
The answer seemed to pacify Hugo. He calmed, but kept up a stern demeanor.
“Well, you should have thought of that earlier so you didn’t wake the entire castle with all your noise!”
Ghalis turned and vanished up the dark stone stairway into the inky black interior of the castle. Lathier and Darund had come up with their plan just in time! Ghalis was growing unbearably impatient to get after that black horse, Dassais. They hoped the young boy hadn’t found him yet. Once that happened, the mission would be compromised because of a certain factor not told whenever the tale was related. The boy would almost instantly know how to fight very well. At least it was just a boy, though. At man would be a lot more dangerous to approach. Fortunately, the hunters would be ready on time, thanks to the brilliant plan.
Lathier and Darund kept the hunters training away from the castle. They did not want Ghalis to find out what they were doing. The hunters wanted to surprise him with their new found skill. Behind the cabins, arrows started whizzing through the air and actually hit their targets! Improvement in aim and precision grew rapidly. The plan worked! The trees provided a certain amount of cover. It was fortunate for them that the weather was stormy. They were able to keep up their excuse that the barn needed securing. Hopefully the weather wouldn’t let up because then Ghalis would then become suspicious.
The morning of the deadline arrived. Hugo Ghalis had sent word that the hunters were to be ready to ride that afternoon. He was ready. And nothing was going to hold him back anymore, not even if only three of them were able to leave. He straightened his hood and then descended the stairway. Lathier and Darund met him at the door. They were standing, waiting, and ready.
“Show me the men.” Ghalis commanded. Lathier and Darund opened the door and stepped out into the morning sunshine. The hunters stood in a line, bow hung down at their sides. Ghalis stepped toward the men.
“Aim! Fire!” He shouted at the hunters. With quick precision, the hunters all lifted their weapons and fired at a single target. All the arrows whizzed into the center mark. Ghalis nodded to Lathier and Darund. They would leave at once.
Hooves clattered on the gravel as the hunters saddled their horses. The animals seemed to sense the excitement in the air. They danced all over the yard causing the preparations for the ride to become a slight hassle. Finally, all the horses were ready. Once mounted, the men looked to Hugo Ghalis for instruction.
“We ride west! We will travel until we cannot see another step before we stop for the night. We have no time to lose! Let’s ride!”