Wagging Tongues Will - Part XXVII

It had only been a scant ten minutes since he had passed beneath the city gates, but Thulin still felt as if Krabbe’s hand was gripped about his middle, crushing his belly. His horse’s hooves thundered along the cobblestone road as he rode through the small houses that dotted the lane heading eastward. They were mostly small, quaint affairs, wood and windows aged and grimy with dirt and snow. Leafless elms and oaks stood between them, sometimes flanking them, threatening to devour those simple homes. Naked branches hung from overhead, their tendrils reaching downwards to pluck at unwanted trespassers should they dare trod near those antiquated homes.

Thulin continued to ride through the fantastic scenery, his eyes having only one goal, the road stretching ever on before him. He knew that his hand had been taken by that dark clad man, but his only hope was that he could not be claimed as Marin and Kaleas had if he were far enough away. And so he drove his bay mare at a gallop, feverishly whipping her sides every few minutes to spur a little more speed from her muscles in the bone cold air. Few travelled the road with him, only a few startled farmers and one wagon bringing goods into the city for trade. He paid them no mind though.

The houses dwindled, growing further and further apart on that snow-laden landscape. Only isolated farms dotted the rolling hills that rose higher and higher as he continued inland. Most of the trees were free of leaves, though a few pine were nestled in copses amongst their leafless brethren. The cobblestones also gave out only a few miles from the city of Ellcaran, returning to a simple dirt highway. A slight dusting of snow covered the dirt, muffling the thunder of his horse’s hooves.

The day was growing darker the further and further Thulin travelled. And his bay mare was growing stiffer as they continued. Some tenuous slivers of thought began to intrude on the feverish workings of his mind, assuring him that it would be perfectly acceptable to allow her a bit of a rest. Or perhaps, concern that he’d left all of the supplies to care for his steed back in Ellcaran. What good would a starved horse be to him then? Yet as those thoughts crept into his consciousness, fear filled his heart, a terror the likes of which he’d never known before in his life. And he struck the crop upon the mare’s flanks even harder then.

He piled recrimination after recrimination upon his head as he rode. After Marin had fled back to the Inn that day, he’d thought something might be wrong, but dismissed it as a simple illness. Yet when Kaleas suffered from his terrible nightmares, and then appeared completely at ease the next morning, he’d known that there was a danger in those cards, but not one that he could identify. Yet he’d gone ahead and played anyway, thinking that perhaps he could have beaten Krabbe at his own game. But both Kaleas and Marin had worked to insure that his hand would be given to that dark clad man! They had betrayed Thulin to that man, showing that somehow, their allegiance was now his.

Why had he kept playing, Thulin wondered to himself, but could find no answer. Was it his overconfidence in his ability at cards that led him down that dangerous road? Or was it his refusal to admit that he could be in danger as well? No answer was forthcoming. Clearly, it was his own failings that had led to this mad escape that was certain to fail. Glancing up at the dark horizon to the East, he could not help but see the churning clouds brewing in the distance. There was nothing good for him in that direction, they seemed to be saying.

He tensed and cried out in agony, trying to wrest his mind back from those pervasive thoughts. He whipped his mare several more times, bringing out a new burst of speed. Her hooves trampled through the freshly laid snow, pounding with the beat of his heart through those timeless woods, past the occasional decrepit farmhouse, and into the more secretive world beyond the reach of mankind.

Thulin’s eyes darted to the forest that was slowly growing closer to the road the further he travelled. In the shifting branches he saw the vaguest of suggestions, sometimes of a face, and other times of a scene. The face was always the same – that dark clad man’s smiling countenance. So too, the scene always carried with it the same feeling – his inability to be true to his own needs. He demonstrated that by continuing to play that game after all. What sense did he actually have?

Wincing, tears began to fill his eyes as he rushed into that snow-swept land. The wind chilled his flesh to the point of stinging. His lips felt as if they were cracking, and the taste of blood was upon his tongue. He reached back to strike the crop once more against the bay mare’s flanks, but he stopped. If he continued to rush forward in this manner, he would eventually kill her. Was he so desperate that he would kill this innocent beast? What was he running from anyway? From that black clad man’s power? Was it really such a terrible thing, given how foolish his own decisions had been?

He shook his head, squeezing the tears from his eyes, feeling their icy touch running across his cheeks. No, he could not let such thoughts cloud his judgement, flawed as it may be. It was still his judgement after all. Yet he still could not use the crop upon his steed, and so, as the minutes continued to trickle by, the mare realised that she could slow down her pace from a dead run to a simple gallop, and then to a measured canter. All the while Thulin sat atop her back, one hand firmly clutched around the reins as if frozen in place.

He remained in his dazed state for quite some time, even as the mare slowed to a simple trot, walking only because it was easier than stopping. Thulin breathed heavily as he watched that distant horizon that wound its way up into the hills, the woods thickening all around, only the occasional farm breaking the tree-line. The leafless shapes clawed at him, tightening about, blocking his passage further east he was certain. If he continued, there was little doubt in his mind that they would tear him limb from limb in their vegetative fury. He heaved as the terror filled his chest, slumping forward in the saddle. He rested his head against the mare’s mane, his cheeks shivering in his agony. Thulin knew he would succumb to hypothermia if he did not find shelter soon.

A distant sound began to drum against his ears then as the mare continued her slow walk along the winding road. Thulin could not bring himself to ponder what it might be though, the simple rhythm just repeating over and over again in his mind, drowning out all other thoughts. Given that his thoughts had turned to the inevitability of his servitude to Krabbe, and a diminishing sense of fear about that eventuality, he was glad to have something else to take its place. But as the beats began to grow closer, their sound more distinctive, that fear began to swell once more. For the sound that he heard was the sound of a horse’s hooves, a horse galloping as quickly as it could.

He snapped his head up at that, blinking back the tears that wished to flow. Staring back westward, he could see another rider making their way quickly down that winding road. He could not make out any details of the rider, but in his heart he knew that it was either the dark clad man, or one of his servants. With renewed vigour, he struck the crop against the mare’s flanks, kicking her sides as well, spurring her back into a run. Her body appeared to ache with protest, but run she did, making her way through the snow-laded road, disregarding aught but the path before her.

Thulin felt his heart pounding in fear, but a strangely subdued one, as if some outside force were sucking that fear away. He tried to hold onto his anxiety, but he found his mind drawing to an unnatural calm, one from which he feared there would be no escape. The sound of his pursuer’s hoof beats rang loudly in his ears though, even louder than his mare’s own steps. And despite his best efforts to push the mare faster and faster, his pursuer was growing inexorably closer.

And then, as the mare crested a small rise, the unthinkable happened. The layer of snow obscured a depression of rocks in the road, and when the mare set her front hoof within it, she fell forward, breaking her front leg instantly. Thulin was thrown from her back, landing in a heap amidst the snow drifts that had accumulated along that winding thoroughfare. The mare cried out in pain as she tried to stand, but found that she could not, blood spilling from her leg as the shattered bone cut through her flesh.

Thulin pulled himself from the snow drift, shivering even more now as the cold seeped through his clothes. With ashen face, he saw the lame horse struggling to stand, and felt his heart tear in that moment. His foolish decisions had made that mare lame, leaving her fit for nothing at all. He had been her death. His stomach rose into his throat, threatening to retch, but he managed to push it back down. The sound of hoofbeats was growing louder down the road. Glancing about madly, he pondered what he could do. The road continued on through the leafless trees, winding down through the hills as it moved inland. The trees themselves collected in a thick forest, forbidding in their morbid aspect and clawing limbs.

He had little choice, as he would be quickly overcome if he stayed upon the road. And so he ran through the snow, his trail visible to any. He was into the trees, ducking and weaving amongst them, even as the low lying branches reached out and grasped at his clothes and face, scratching him in his terrible flight. He pushed on though, undeterred by their resistance. Somehow in the dark of that wood he could be safe, but that steady and firm voice, so sure of its place in the world, continued to assure him that it was a fruitless effort.

The hooves grew closer and closer until they slowed and stopped all together, along the road that he had just fled. A familiar voice then cried out, “Thulin! Wait!” It was Marin, once a friend of his, but now just another servant of that dark clad man come to press him into service as well. The crunch of boots through snow came, as the younger man took up pursuit through the trees. Thulin realised belatedly that he’d stopped to simply listen, and then pressed forward again, moving down a slow incline as he ducked and wove through piles of snow and trees that pressed closer and closer together.

“Thulin, please!” Marin cried again, the snapping of branches coming to his ears. “We just want to help!” Thulin found his heart leaping with sudden delight at those words. But the delight quickly gave way to terror, for he knew far too well what sort of help his partner wished to give him. Help in returning to Krabbe, and being made into another of his slaves. How that was possible he could not know, some terrible secret lurking within the cards themselves. But he had no idea how that could have been possible.

The trees before him grew tighter, twisted, and more malicious in their manner of blocking his path. Behind him they appeared open, and inviting, practically clear. But before him they grew closer together, the passages between the trunks of the trees so narrow he wondered how any life at all could possibly flourish in these woods. He pushed himself between two trunks so close together that he was touching both with his chest, while the branches clawed and grasped at his arms and shirt, pushing him back out.

Thulin squeezed through though, the darkness filling over him, as the branches overhead reached down to pluck at him and fling him backwards towards the road. He snapped away at them, beating his arms against the ligneous fingers. But his efforts were in vain, as his shirt was caught in so many places that he could no longer extricate himself from the forest’s grasp. No matter how much he pushed forward and away from the road, he could not break free. But then, when he tried to take a step back, all of the branches suddenly came free, and he could move once more. His terror pounding firmly in his heart, he pushed forward again, but was once more ensnared by those trees.

“Thulin!” Marin called, much closer this time. Thulin chanced a look backwards, and could see something moving not too far behind him through the wood. His shuddered in his fright, pulling himself downwards, squeezing a few inches more into those thick lifeless trees, beneath even the lowest of their branches. Yet the trunks were so thick, they nearly grew together, and he felt as if he were crushing himself with each new inch he managed to reach.

And then, he heard the snapping of branches just behind him, and Marin was upon him at last. “Thulin! Please, come back to us!” The man grabbed his legs, trying to pull him free of the forest’s grasp, but Thulin kicked as best he could screaming out his fears. But Marin’s grip was firm, and he was soon pulled back from the trees he’d entangled himself within. The face of his friend was perfectly at ease, filled with concern for him. It was so calming, that he could feel the vestiges of his fear dwindling away at that, though try as he might to hold onto them.

“Come back with me, please, Thulin. Our master is worried about you,” Marin said simply then, gesturing with one hand towards the road.

It proved to be a poor choice of words on Marin’s part, as that fear that had almost completely vanished from Thulin’s heart was given a new burst of life. He jumped up to his feet then and tried to run off again through the trees, but in his blind fright he smacked his head against a branch and fell backwards into the thick snow carpeting the ground between the trees. The last thing Thulin could remember feeling before he passed out was the arms of his friend slipping beneath his shoulders to drag him back to the road. And the last thought he had before the silence of the night claimed him was that he would belong now to Krabbe.

Marin dragged the body of his fellow merchant from the leafless trees. The trees themselves were rather thinly spread this close to the road, though for some reason, Thulin had insisted on tangling himself within the branches before finally smashing his head against the trunk of one particularly loathsome specimen. He was relieved to see all that would come of it would be an unsightly bruise. After all, Master Krabbe would not look so kindly upon him returning with an injured Thulin.

He finally managed to get his arms beneath Thulin’s middle, and hoisted him high onto his shoulder. Trudging heavily out through the snow, he could see both his own charger, and the bay mare that Thulin had been riding. The mare was idly brushing her snout through the snow, giving away no indication as to why his companion had felt compelled to leap from her back. She was in perfect health, though she did appear a bit tired from her running. Approaching her steadily, he rested Thulin across her back. She eyed him strangely, but did not object.

After securing his friend in place, he took the mare’s lead and tied it to his own charger’s reins. Climbing once more into the saddle, he set both horses off at a slow trot. It would be past dusk by the time he returned to Ellcaran at this rate, but he knew that his master would be happy to see him. The very thought of making his master happy filled him with euphoric delight.

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