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Short Stories - A Horse Tale
A HORSE TALE
by JM Barnes
Havor Shieldson was a bard of no small talent. His parents were nobles who had spared no expense for his tutorship at the academy. By the time he turned seventeen he’d learned all he could there and now that he was twenty two he spent most of his time traveling from town to town and from inn to inn. His parents surely hadn’t envisioned this sort of lifestyle for their baby boy but there was little they could do or say to quell his lust for learning. Or for that matter his insatiable lust for life.
At times his noble lineage proved too obvious and he would become a target for those looking to make a few extra coins. Thankfully he had learned from several stalwarts the art of the rapier. Self defense was no crime and a rapier not truly a killing blade. He’d avoided both jails and dungeons simply by avoiding actually harming anyone. Poke a hole here or there and even the largest oaf was prone to back off and seek easier prey elsewhere.
This bard was no man’s prey, but a woman’s? That was another matter entirely. He was a handsome young man with pale blonde hair and regal blue eyes. Though not overly broad or tall he was in excellent shape. He stayed lean and solid while making his rounds across the countryside. So far he’d avoided commitment as well as impregnating any of his one night flings. That alone had been a blessing since he didn’t see himself settling down until he was at least thirty. His parents were both energetic and aged quite well so he was sure he wouldn’t be called upon for many, many years to fill his father’s shoes. Until then there was adventure aplenty to be had, and soon, he knew by the hardening stares of the men in the current common room of note, he would have to move on.
This particular common room was a warm and welcoming place. Well, at least it had been for the first week. Now, it was becoming cold and rather unwelcoming.
Havor could see while playing his harp and singing for the pleasure of the audience that something might be in store for him when this night was over. He’d already bedded two fine sisters of one large, sword wielding local hero and now that man and his not so merry band seemed to be discussing his impending punishment.
There was nothing he could do now to avoid this coming confrontation. To leave the inn would mean being surrounded in the dark. Better to stay inside and fight where the hearth fire was alight and wenches might plead for his life. At least the friendly barkeep, no, wait.
So much for the friendly barkeep.
The man had just come over and patted the local hero on his shoulder and laughed uncomfortably hard. That was not good. It was getting late. Perhaps if he pretended to be very drunk and stumbled back up to his room they would leave him be out of pity.
He finished yet another long tune to moderate applause and began to rub at his face and eyes. Well before he was accustomed to retiring he began to gather his things, the few coins his talents had attracted, and headed for the stairs. He could see the local hero stand up and head his way.
“Ho there, Bard!” The man called out, his strong voice causing Havor to wince reflexively.
“A moment, good Bard, the night is early! Join my brothers and I for a drink!”
The man didn’t sound threatening but it was likely he took the noble born Bard to be naïve. Havor raised a hand shakily and waved the man back.
“No, no, feeling a bit under the weather, my good man.”
The man grabbed his raised wrist in a steel grip.
“Nonsense, old Jaruvam has cures aplenty behind that bar, surely he can fix you right up. Besides, I want to make you a proposition.” The man planted his feet. He outweighed Havor by a healthy cask of ale at least. Rather than struggling against that grip he showed no resistance and allowed himself to be led back to the two tables where the man’s comrades were seated.
They hurrahed as he sat down and clapped him hard on his back. Before he could utter a word the local hero said, “Now, lads, he hasn’t yet agreed to anything. Let’s get him a drink and I can tell our tale. Then, he can decide.”
All at once the six dangerous looking men called for the barkeep. “An ale!” And before he knew it Havor had a fresh cup set before him.
The hero held out his hand. “My name is Avalorn and mine was the first family to settle these wooded lands and call them home. Its name, Drieth, is the name of my forefather’s father. Thus it has ever been my duty to uphold the law hereabouts and to make sure that all who live here are treated fairly.”
Havor felt a little better knowing this man was the local law, but then worse when he remembered bedding his two sisters.
As if reading the Bard’s mind Avalorn placed a hand upon his shoulder and said, “Now, you needn’t fear my vengeance over those girls who claim to be my sisters. I could see it in your eyes when I approached you. You see, they are not my sisters by blood.”
Havor met Avalorn’s eyes for the first time then. “By blood?”
“That’s correct. I saved their lives a decade past when they were but children, though I could not save their parents. Once they came of age they were able to do as they pleased.”
One of his cohorts smiled then and said, “Aye, and do as they pleased they have.” That brought a round of raucous laughter that Avalorn didn’t even try to quell.
“Yes, it’s true. They’ve had their fun and I could be no angrier at you than any of these fools who call themselves my friends.”
So, there it was. Havor’s perceived conquest had been revealed for what it was. In truth, he had been the conquest. He truly relaxed then and took a deep breath to steady his sword hand and asked, “So what is it I can help you with then, good Avalorn?”
Avalorn’s smile faded as he sat down before him. He leaned in closer and took a steadying breath of his own. Havor had a sudden feeling of dread and an icy chill went down his spine.
The front door suddenly opened and slammed hard against the wall. All eyes looked to see what sort of disheveled traveler came in at such an hour, but there was nothing disheveled about this man. He wore the most expensive finery noble coins could purchase and beneath his clothes was perhaps the finest and most supple suit of chain link armor Havor had ever seen. At his waist rested a pair of matching swords, a rapier and a broadsword. The man’s cloak was dark green and bulging from beneath it was a very exquisite lute. Upon its neck and every surface were polished images of wild horses. It was more than beautiful. It was a work of art unlike any other. The man was also very handsome with striking blue eyes and shoulder length pale blonde hair. As he walked into the common room his fine leather boots neither creaked nor made a sound as he trod upon the hard packed earthen floor. He looked directly at Havor and nodded solemnly. Then his face lit up in a smile that left the bard feeling like he’d just missed the punch line of a very obvious joke.
Avalorn’s face lost all its color as he stood up and faced the newcomer. Each one of his loud companions had fallen strangely silent. Everyone in the place had stopped what they were doing, even the ever busy barkeep. They appeared as if they were trapped in some invisible spell. Then the newcomer spoke.
“What do we have here, Avalorn?” His eyes never left Havor’s face.
Avalorn seemed nervous. “Just a traveling Bard is all. He was just saying this was his last day in Drieth.”
Havor looked at Avalorn’s back then. He was almost positive he’d said no such thing. The newcomer shook his head. “Now that would be a pity. Especially considering I’ve only just returned.” He approached Havor then and Avalorn stepped aside.
Placing a strong hand upon his shoulder the newcomer struck a dramatic pose, sparing not even a glance at the men crowded around him at the table.
“Surely, good Bard, you’ve kindness enough to stay one more night. I have traveled far and wide only to return empty handed and exhausted from my self imposed trials. I am something of a Bard myself and I would enjoy sharing a tale and song. What say you?”
Havor really didn’t have to think about, he simply replied, “Of course.” It didn’t seem at all natural to just acquiesce when he’d already made up his mind that it was time to leave, but the stranger’s presence brought a sense of peace to his senses. He knew he was no longer in danger from Avalorn and his cronies and Bards were wont to exchange songs whenever they crossed paths anyway.
So he kept repeating to himself as soon later he was marching up to his room, drunk from ale and mentally rehearsing over and over his best songs and tales. He was looking forward now to the next day when he would hear that lovely lute. He was also very interested in what tales…that’s odd. As his head hit the pillow Havor realized he’d never gotten the man’s name. Why was that? Was he not listening? No, he was rapt with attention as soon as the man arrived. Same as everyone else.
Then why hadn’t the fellow introduced himself properly? Etiquette demanded a proper introduction between friendly strangers, especially between Bards. There was an unspoken brotherhood, not shared by others but well understood by Bards. Well, no matter. Surely all the mysteries would be unveiled on the morrow. Sleep was Havor’s concern now. If not for all the hollering and stomping around in the common room below he would have already been snoring into oblivion. Sleep did come soon enough and though it was a good, restful slumber it was not unscathed by nightmares.
When Havor awoke the next morning he told himself the dreams had been the result of too much ale. How else could he explain the visions of horror that filled his mind even now?
There had been a herd of wild horses stampeding through town. They were panicked. Rushing to and fro but seemingly confined from leaving as each time they reached the dirt road leading out of town they were blocked by an unseen barrier. Lacerations crisscrossed their hides. Blood dripped down to their hooves. Looking out of windows and standing on lofty balconies overlooking the streets the townsfolk looked on and enjoyed the spectacle. They smiled as the terrified animals raced past and sipped from dainty cups, as if nothing were amiss. Havor felt the animal’s confusion and terror. In his dream he wept for them and begged the gods for their release.
He tried to shake the images loose as he groggily walked downstairs then outside to the privy. Once he’d relieved himself he went back inside hoping the barkeep had started breakfast. When he asked, the rough looking man guffawed and replied, “Breakfast? You’ve slept through the morning and afternoon, good Bard. It is near time for supper now.”
He was startled. Too much ale was not so uncommon an event. He’d never lost an entire day before. He leaned against the bar and looked the barkeep in the eye.
“That stranger, is he…”
“He’s no stranger here, Bard”
“Fine. That man, did he say anything? Leave word for me to meet him?”
“His name, lad, is Bjorn Trollskinner and he did tell me to let you know he would be back to talk with you around nightfall.”
Havor relaxed and waited for supper. At least he wouldn’t have long to wait.
The barkeep once again proved he was worth his weight in salt and provided a meal worthy of a nobleman’s son. Though he didn’t likely suspect this particular Bard had any noble blood.
When nightfall arrived Havor looked around the common room in near shock. He’d been in this tiny town of Drieth for two weeks and he’d never seen a slow night like this. Not a single person had come for a meal or even more surprisingly ale. More wounding to his nobleman’s pride though was the fact that no one had come to hear him play. He shrugged it off when a heady mug of mead was placed before him on the bar. There was nothing stopping him from enjoying himself. He took one preparatory sip before the door slammed open and shut. He winced both times. The barkeep didn’t stay around to exchange pleasantries. He looked toward the door and flew into the kitchen. A strong hand slapped the Bard on the back and he knew who it was without turning.
“Sorry, I was preoccupied with a pair of lady friends, Havor.” Bjorn said as he sat down beside him.
Havor didn’t respond. Instead he took another sip from his cup. Had Bjorn said “A pair of lady friends?” That sounded too familiar. He was disciplined enough not to show any outward reaction to that, but inside he was squirming. He felt both disgusted and guilty that he’d bedded the two women who it seemed had bedded every man in town and probably every passing stranger.
The barkeep stormed in and poured Bjorn a cup and stormed back out, not even looking up at his patrons. Bjorn never said a word to the man and didn’t reach for his cup.
“So, Havor, let us discuss our secrets.” Bjorn said.
Havor couldn’t suppress a sudden chill. He could still hear horses screaming in his mind.
“Secrets? I have songs to share, Bjorn, but little in the way of secrets.”
“Truly? Then share your songs with me and I shall share my secrets with you, agreed?”
Havor only nodded, picked up his cup and moved over to a table. There he unpacked his harp and checked its tuning. It was a professionally crafted piece so it rarely needed tuning at all. Bjorn also prepared his finely crafted instrument and looked on as the master harpist began to play.
Havor finally felt at peace. It was a rare feeling of serenity he only achieved while playing or just after a good roll under the covers with a willing lass.
“This first tune I’ll show you I learned from a traveler named Balyon the swift. He said he came by it while eavesdropping on some Egyptian musicians. He had to convert it from woodwind instruments to strings and he said that if ever an Egyptian were to hear a foreigner play it they would not rest until they saw him dead.”
Bjorn slapped his thigh and laughed. “I thought you didn’t have any secrets!”
“Except for the musical sort, of course.” He replied with a nod.
As he played on he could see that Bjorn was intrigued. Very astutely the slightly older man found the appropriate notes and a rhythm to go along with Havor’s melody. After playing through the tune two more times Bjorn had it down and they were playing it together. Then Havor began to sing. He’d added his own lyrics since old Balyon hadn’t provided any. It was a tune about a wanderer who had grown old on the road and by the time he returned to his homeland everyone he knew had either moved away or passed on. Its sad subject matter went well with the haunting foreign melody. When the song was done Bjorn seemed very satisfied.
“That piece is worthy of a master Bard. That must be your best.”
Havor considered for a moment. “It is truly my favorite, though I’ll leave the audience to decide which my best is.”
“Well said, well said. Now, let me show you a tune I learned about five years ago while I was passing through southern France. I’d just lost my closest companion to brigands and so I commemorated his life through this song.”
Bjorn began to play and Havor instantly recognized his deft fingers for a natural musician’s digits. The man was what master Bards referred to jealously as gifted. He played through his song once, cutting short the chorus’s and looked askance toward Havor. As Bjorn started from the beginning once more he did his best to fill in the background. When Bjorn began to sing he nearly lost his concentration, fumbled through the first chorus, but then regained his composure. The lyrics struck a chord in him instantly, the first verse more than the rest.
Bjorn sang, “A flagons worth of forgetfulness and the steeds they kept running on, the walls held fast and the spell kept them going, well into the dawn. The townsfolk cheered as the horses reared and blood began to cover them all. As their escape was in sight but for the moonless night then they heeded Trollskinner’s call.”
Havor became so absorbed in the words coming from Bjorn’s lips that he stopped playing altogether. When his harp fell from his lap and clattered on the ground he didn’t even bother to check on its condition. All that mattered was the song, and then he began to change.
^ ^ ^
Targost Fellshaft had finally found his luck. In the tiny town of Drieth there were steeds aplenty and barely a single guard watching over them. It had been a simple matter to skulk about during the darkest morning hours and take the stallion of choice. His only regret was that there hadn’t been proper reins to lead the horse along with, but the one he’d chosen was quite tame. It hadn’t tried to bite or kick him even once. It carried its burden, his horse thieving behind to be exact, without complaint. At times he stopped to allow the creature time to feed but it just turned its nose up at the offering. In the two days he’d been riding west it hadn’t ate once. It was getting weaker to be sure but Targost was confident that when he got to the next town he’d be able to coax some oats down its throat. It had better eat! After all in a weakened state it wasn’t going to demand much of a price at the market.
Targost noted the darkening sky and searched the forest for a good place to make camp. Before long he’d found a sheltered spot wherein he could safely light a fire and keep warm during the chilly autumn night. There was a good stand of brush nearby which he hoped the horse would find enticing and before long he found himself drifting off to sleep.
The horse woke him up. Its nose was in his face and its breath made him blanch in disgust. He nearly struck the beast for the disturbance but then he heard the unmistakable sound of riders nearby. They were coming towards his spot at a cautious pace and there were too many to count. Without dousing the fire he leaped upon his stolen horses back and kicked it into a dead run. Laying low across the beasts thick neck he prayed it could see better than he in the dark of night. He couldn’t hear if they were being followed so he clung tight and prayed to several pagan gods he thought might hear his plea, and then added another prayer for the benefit of covering his rear to the recently popular Christian deity as well.
It was some time later as the forest opened up above him and moonlight streamed through. He took it as a blessing but when he smiled his steed screamed and fell. It landed hard and he somersaulted over its head and landed on the unyielding forest floor. He could hear the steed’s screams as oblivion overtook him but he was only out for a short time. When he awoke he jumped too fast to his feet and had to sit back down. His head ached. The moon shone clear and bright. Targost looked for his fallen steed and wondered if he’d imagined the fall. The horse was nowhere to be found. But then, like a sleeping pale white phantom a nude man lay face first upon the ground.
When Targost turned the man over he guessed immediately the young man must be of noble blood because his grooming was impeccable. No growth was on his cheeks and the clear marks left by shaving were there instead. The man groaned and his arm lifted. Targost took a step back. There was no doubt the young man could probably take him in a tussle so he’d best keep well out of reach. But still there were too many questions that needed answering.
The young man sat up suddenly, shivering from the night’s chill. Beside him on the ground was a pile of items. Clothes, a rapier and boots, and a harp.
“Sir, are you well?” Targost asked.
The man nearly jumped out of his skin and reached instinctively for his sheathed weapon. “Who are you?” He nervously asked.
“My name is Targost Fellshaft. My steed fell about where you were laying. I don’t know where it’s gotten to.”
The man shook his head and struggled to stand and replied, “I’m sorry for your loss, Targost. Courtesy demands I introduce myself as well.” The young man straightened and pulled on his trousers. “I am Havor Shieldson and I do believe I am your missing steed.”
Targost nearly choked at those words. The man must surely be mad. But why else was he lying senseless and naked so far from any civilized place?
“You must have struck your head, lad. Or perhaps you were set upon by brigands during your journey.” Targost picked up Havor’s rapier then and prepared to hand it to him after he got his shirt on. When the weapon was belted he took three steps out of reach, wary for an attack. None came and he began to warm to the obviously confused lad.
“Tell me then, Havor. What are you doing in these woods at this late hour?” Targost asked.
Havor looked back at him with half a smile on his face, reached down for his harp and sat down heavily upon a nearby log. As his fingers became reacquainted with the strings he began to recite a tale Targost could hardly believe.
Not long later both men were laughing, tears streaming from their eyes, as they imagined the perplexed state Bjorn Trollskinner must be in after having lost one of his transformed captives to a simple horse thief.
They never heard the men arrive. They were startled by the firm voice of Bjorn.
“Tell me, gentlemen, what is so funny?”
Behind him were Avalorn and his six cronies all with dead serious looks upon their faces. Havor set his harp aside and stood, his hand resting casually upon the hilt of his rapier.
“Bjorn, Avalorn, good to see you both.” Havor said amiably.
Behind him Targost began to step backwards. It didn’t truly matter. Trollskinner’s attention was focused on the Bard.
Bjorn smiled but Avalorn did not. “You have gone far from Drieth, Havor. Time for you to return home with the herd.”
Havor smiled back at the man. “Drieth is not my home, Bjorn, you know that.”
“It is now and you’d best get used to that. You wouldn’t think of challenging me would you, Shieldson?” Bjorn reached down for his own rapier, leaving the matching broadsword sheathed.
Havor drew his own rapier with a flourish. He seemed resolved to meeting his fate. Targost couldn’t help but wonder if he was going to survive this if the Bard was slain. He could run but something kept his feet planted on the ground. It was as if an inner voice was telling him that he must remain. He must know what happened here. If he lived then others must know as well. Gods knew a tale such as this one might make him more than just a common horse thief.
The two men circled one another, rapiers in hand. Behind Bjorn Avalorn drew his own long bladed sword and sneered toward the upstart Havor. Bjorn raced forward to meet the younger man blade to blade and they made such a fast exchange there was no telling if either had struck their mark. Now, Havor had his back to the dangerous looking Avalorn. Targost expected the man to rush forward and take Havor unaware but he didn’t. For just the slightest moment Bjorn seemed discomfited by this but he was forced to fend off Shieldson’s attack before he could say anything about it.
It was when Bjorn Trollskinner had his own back to Avalorn that a sword point erupted from his belly. He looked down at the blade in shock, looked back at Havor accusingly and then fell to the ground, quite dead.
Avalorn stood there from where he’d struck, his sword dripping gore. His men stared speechless behind him. Havor bowed to the man, saluted him with his blade and said, “My thanks, good Avalorn. It seems I owe you my life.”
Avalorn just looked back at the Bard and replied, “You do realize that there is no hope for us now, don’t you? More likely you and all these other lads staring hard at my back are going to hate me more than we all did Bjorn.”
Havor smiled. “I can guess then that we are not free from his curse?”
“No, we are not.”
Targost could not believe his ears. Havor’s tale had been unbelievable and yet here before him was all the proof required.
Avalorn wiped his blade clean on Bjorn’s clothes, took the man’s lute from his pack and handed it to Havor. “Take this as your prize, lad. Of all of us only you have a chance to unravel its magic. Soon, the moon will set and we shall fall back under the spell and none will know of our plight.”
Targost stepped forward then, beaming. “Not so, lord, not so! Targost Fellshaft is aware of your plight and if you all promise not to bite or kick me while I guide you during the day I shall promise to protect and watch over you until a cure can be found.”
One of Avalorn’s men called out, “He’s a filthy horse thief! He’ll sell us as soon as we reach the nearest town.”
Havor smiled then and raise his hand to silence the others as they began to curse the man. “Not so. I have spent some time with this man and I believe he has honor. He will do as he has said. It will not take me long to unravel Bjorn’s spell and then we can all be free. I plan to join Targost then in his journeys so I might tell our tale to all who would hear it. Any of you are welcome to join me.”
Avalorn stepped toward Havor and Torgast then and said, “I will join you, Havor, and so will my men. From this day on we shall be as one and perhaps there are others who may need our aid along the way.” He thrust his sword in the ground, a show of loyalty, and Havor did the same.
^ ^ ^
The next day Targost rode a single steed which galloped ahead of an entire herd. Unbranded wild horses they looked like a brazen company preparing to ransack the countryside. When a town fell in sight the one time horse thief led the horses into the cover of nearby woods and went in for supplies and rumors. He looked for anything and anyone that might aid his friends. He had learned an important lesson about friendship and loyalty right from the horses’ mouths and he felt more important than ever before. He would not let his new friends down, no matter what kindness was offered in exchange. Small coin was no replacement for a trustworthy man and for once he was that man.
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