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Authors: Mary H. Herbert

Dark Horse

BOOK: Dark Horse
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Gabria paused and leaned wearily against her walking staff. She could not go on much longer like this. Her ankle ached from a bad fal and her shoulders were rubbed raw by the unaccustomed pack. The wind, which blew cold from the icy passes of the mountains, cut through her woolen cloak and chilled her to the bone. She had not eaten since fleeing from her home at Corin Treld two days before.

The girl sat down on a rock and threw her pack to the ground. There was some dried meat and trail bread in the old pack, but Gabria had no idea how much longer she would have to walk and food was difficult to find on the plains this early in the spring. It was better to save her rations until she was desperate. At any rate, she had no desire for food now. Her body was too numb with grief and despair.

Gabria wearily examined her boots. The soles were almost worn through from the sharp shale she had struggled over.

Ragged boots, the sign of an exile. Her breath suddenly caught in her throat and, for a moment, she nearly surrendered to the anguish that tore at her resolve like starving vultures. No! she cried silently. I cannot weep. Not yet.

Gabria pounded her knee with her fist while her other hand convulsively gripped the short sword at her belt. Her body trembled violently as she fought to regain control of her despair. There was no time for grief now. Nor did she have the Strength to waste on self-pity. Her family and her clan had been massacred at their winter camp at Corin Treld. She was the only one left to claim their weir-geld, recompense for the blood of her family that stained the grass of their home. She would seek her revenge and then she could weep.

Gabria closed her mind to all but her grim resolve. It was the only way she could survive. It gave her a strength and a purpose in the face of a debilitating loneliness and fear. She was an exile now and therefore dead to her people unless another clan accepted her. She was a wanderer and an untouchable. Somehow, she had to find a clan that would take her in. Somehow, she would claim her vengeance.

Slowly her trembling eased and the emotions that threatened to devour her were forced into a deep prison. She remembered that her father had once told her that strong emotions were a power to be harnessed and used like a weapon. She stood up and smiled a feral grimace, like the snarl of a wolf.

To the north, the direction from which she had come, a line of clouds lay along the horizon. It seemed to her that a pall of smoke still hung over her home.

"My grief for you will be used, Father,” Gabria said aloud.

"Our enemy will die." Out of habit, she reached up to brush a strand of flaxen hair out of her face, only to touch the rough-cut stubble on her head. The girl sighed, remembering the pain she had felt when she had cut her hair and burned it with the bodies of her four brothers, including her twin, Gabran. Her brothers had been so proud of her long, thick hair. But she gave it to them as a gift of mourning and in return she took her twin's identity.

His clothes now covered her body and his weapons were in her hand. She would no longer be a girl.

For the sake of survival, she would become a boy, Gabran.

It was clan law that no woman could claim weir-geld alone; she had to be championed by a male member of her family. To make matters worse for Gabria, the clans usually did not accept an exiled woman unless she was of exceptional beauty or talent. Gabria knew she had little chance of being accepted on her own merits. On the other hand, she was slim and strong and had been raised with four boisterous boys who often forgot she was only a girl. With luck and careful attention, she thought she could pass wel enough as a boy. The deception could bring her death, but it could also give her a greater chance for survival and revenge.

Ignoring the jab of pain in her ankle, Gabria shouldered her pack once more and limped southward across the hillside. She was in the Hornguard, the low, barren foothills that lay like a crumpled robe at the foot of the Darkhorn Mountains. Somewhere in one of the sheltered val eys to the south, she hoped to find the Khulinin, her mother's clan, led by Lord Savaric. She hoped her kinship with the Khulinin would overcome the stigma of exile. Gabria prayed it would, for even driven by the strength of her desire for revenge, she knew she would not be able to go far. The Khulinin were stil many days distant and either her twisted ankle or her food would fail long before she could find another clan.

Gabria hurried on, forcing her legs to move. It was almost twilight and she wanted to find shelter before dark.

Then, above the wind, she heard the howling of wolves.

Hungry and insistent, the cries sang through the dusk like wild music. Gabria shuddered and gripped her staff tighter as the feral hunting calls sounded again. The wolves were not after her, she realized. They were upwind of her and deeper in the hills. Still, that was too close. Alone and virtually defenseless against a pack, Gabria had no desire to meet the vicious marauders. She stopped and listened, fol owing the progress of the hunt.

The howling continued for several minutes. The animals were moving south, running parallel to her.

Then the cries grew louder, for whatever the wolves were chasing seemed to be trying to reach the open ground of the plains. Gabria tensed and her eyes searched the hil s for the approaching pack. But the howling stopped abruptly, and the wolves broke into yowls of glee and triumph. The girl sighed with relief. The wolves had caught their prey and would not hunt again for a while.

She was about to move on when she heard another sound that froze her heart: the enraged squeal of an embattled horse.

"Oh, Mother of Al ," she breathed. "No!" Before she could consider her choices, she limped toward the sound even as the echoes faded. The howling burst out, sharp with rage and frustration. Gabria ran faster, forcing her sore legs to navigate the rugged, brush-covered hillsides, while the pain stabbed through her ankle and the heavy pack slammed against her back. She knew it was utterly stupid to think of challenging a pack of killers for their chosen prey, but this prey was different. Horses were special to her, to all her people. They were the very existence of the clans, the chosen of the goddess, Amara, and the children of the plains. No clansman ever turned his back on a horse, no matter what the danger.

The yowling abruptly increased and the horse's screams took on a note of fury and desperation.

Gabria pushed on until her breath came in ragged gasps and her legs were heavy with pain. For a moment, she despaired reaching the stricken horse before it was brought down. The sounds became louder, but the distance seemed so much greater than she had expected. She dropped her pack, then pul ed off her cloak and wrapped it around her arm as she ran.

Suddenly the sounds ceased. Gabria faltered when she lost the guidance of the cries. She stopped and listened again, trying to locate the attack. The wind whistled around her, carrying the smell of an old winter as the hil s dimmed in the approaching night. Beyond the grasslands, the full moon was rising.

"Oh, Mother," Gabria gasped. "Where are they?" As if in answer to her plea, another furious squeal came out of the growing darkness and the howling rose in response. This time, the sounds were quite close, perhaps in the next valley. Breathing a silent prayer of thanks, Gabria broke into a run. She topped one hil , plunged into a val ey, and toiled up the next slope. At the crest she stopped and peered down the hill.

The land at her feet sheered off into a deep gul y between three hil s, where several run-offs emptied into a bowl-like depression. After the last thaw, melted snow had gathered in the center, creating a pool of mud and standing water rimmed with Ice.

In the midst of the pool, now churned to a filthy mire, stood a huge horse, very angry and very much alive. Gabria's eyes widened in astonishment and excitement when she recognized the animal. It was a
the greatest of al the horse breeds. They were the legendary steeds of the ancient magic-wielders, and, even though their masters had been destroyed by hate and jealousy, the horses themselves were revered above al others. Their numbers were few and wild, and when they deigned to be ridden, they only accepted the men of the clans. It was said that the first Hunnuli was sired by a storm on the first mare of the world; a streak of lightning was left indelibly printed on their descendants'

shoulders to prove it.

Gabria had never seen one of these magnificent animals before, but there was no mistaking this was a Hunnuli. Even in the twilight, Gabria could see the jagged white streak that marked the black hide at its shoulder. She simply could not believe one of those horses had been brought to bay by eight or nine wolves.

She moved behind a scrub pine to where she could see without being detected. The wolves were stil there, slinking around the edge of the mire and keeping their distance from the wicked teeth of the horse. The horse itself was obviously exhausted, and steam rose from its heaving flanks.

Suddenly the Hunnuli lunged, squealing in fury as it tried to lash out at a sneaking wolf. The girl knew then why the horse had not run, for it was trapped in the clinging mud. Its back legs were sunk to the haunches in the freezing mire and its front legs pawed desperately for purchase on the slippery edge of the pool. It could only use its teeth to fight the wolves for fear of sinking deeper into the mud.

The horse settled back warily and snorted. Two wolves then made a feint for the horse's head to draw its attention while a third leaped from behind to slash at the unprotected tendons in the horse's back legs.

Gabria screamed and the horse whipped its head around and slammed the leaping wolf into the mire. Like a snake, the Hunnuli flung back and snapped viciously at the other two beasts. One wolf screeched in agony and fell back with its leg hanging in bloody splinters. The second was more successful. It caught the horse by the neck and left a gaping slash dangerously close to the Jugular. The other wolves yipped and snarled.

Gabria's mouth went dry and her legs were shaking. She wished fervently for her bow and some arrows to bring down the wolves, but the bow lay in the ashes of her tent, and she did not trust her skill with the sword that hung by her side. Al she had was her staff. She hefted it and swal owed hard. If she waited to think any longer, all would be lost. The horse was weakening rapidly and the wolves were growing bolder.

With a wild yel , the girl sprinted down the slope, lurching on her injured ankle. The wolves whirled in surprise to face this new threat and the horse neighed another chal enge. Before the hunters realized their -danger, Gabria was upon them, swinging her staff like a scythe. The wolves snapped and lunged at her, and she fought them back with a strength born of desperation. One wolf fel , its back broken.

Another lay whimpering with smashed ribs. A third leaped away and was caught by the teeth of the great horse, which flung it high in the air. Using her cloak as a guard for her arm and her staff like a double-edged sword, Gabria drove the wolves away from the pool. At the foot of the enclosing hills, they broke and ran.

Gabria watched them disappear over the rim of the hil , then she turned to gaze with some surprise at the bodies lying in the gul y. Something seemed to snap inside her and she sagged on her staff, feeling utterly exhausted and aching from head to toe. She stood there for a while, panting for breath, sweating and trembling with dizziness.

The girl glanced blearily at the wild horse and wondered what to do next. The big animal stood immobile and watched her quietly. She was relieved to see its ears were swiveled toward her rather than flattened on its head. The horse seemed to realize she was not an enemy.

The evening had dimmed to night and the full moon swelled above the plains; its silver light flooded into the gul y and gleamed on the standing water. Gabria limped to the edge of the mud hole and sat down to rest while she studied the horse. Even mired in the mud, she could see the animal was enormous. It probably stood about eighteen hands at the shoulder, and Gabria mental y cringed at the thought of moving such a massive animal out of its trap. Yet she obviously could not leave the Hunnuli.

The wolves could return and the horse was in no condition to free itself. Somehow she would have to devise a way to free it. But how? She had no tools, no rope, and very little strength. Of course, its size gave the Hunnuli incredible power, but if it struggled too much against the heavy mud it would wear itself into deadly exhaustion.

The girl shook her head. At least the horse did not appear to be sinking deeper. Gabria hoped that meant the ground was frozen below the mud and would support the horse through the night. There was nothing more she could do now. She was too weary, beyond thought and beyond effort, to do anything else that night.

Gabria stood up, feeling slightly better, and walked slowly around the pool. She stared at the horse, her face wrinkled in a frown. There was something odd about this horse that she could not quite discern in the moonlight. Its glossy black hide was filthy with muck, and blood oozed from the gash on its neck, making a slick rivulet down its withers. But the blood was not the problem. There was something else. . .

BOOK: Dark Horse
9.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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