Authors: Kristen Britain
Tags: #Speculative Fiction
Green Rider by Kristen Britain
The granite was cold and rough against the gray-cloaked man's palms. It was good, solid granite, from the bones of the earth itself. He traced barely perceptible seams between the huge blocks of the wall. It was the seams, he believed, that held the key. The key to the wall's destruction.
The wall towered above him to some unknown height. It was many feet thick, and it followed Sacoridia's southern border for hundreds of miles, from the
in the west. It protected Sacoridia and the rest of the lands from
, which in the common means
The wall had endured for a thousand years. It had been built after the Long War at the turn of the First Age. For a thousand years, the denizens of the dark forest had grown restless, had festered, trapped behind the wall.
Now the Gray One must call on them and end their exile. He would bring these nightmares back into the daylit world. He would bring them slowly. Slowly at first.
The wall was bound with such deep magic that it prickled his hands. The magic was ancient and powerful, even for the works of those long-ago humans. Today humans understood none of it. They knew little of what their ancestors had been capable of. Nor did they know what they, the citizens of present-day Sacoridia, were still capable of.
A good thing.
He brushed the layers of magic with his mind. Magic had been melded into each block of granite from the moment it was quarried, through its cutting, finishing, and placement. The mortar had been inlaid with strengthening spells not only to ensure that the wall stood for all time, but to prevent magic from breaking it.
Oh, the spell songs the stonecutters must have sung as they hammered drills into the rock and refined the mortar mixture. The wall was magnificent, really. A great accomplishment that had taken generations of humans to complete. A pity it must be destroyed.
The Gray One smiled beneath the shadows of his hood. He would return the world to a state it hadn't known since before the Long War, far beyond the First Age, a time lost to memory; a time when humans lived in primitive bands that stalked herd beasts and game. There had been no kings back then, no countries, no organized religions. Just superstition and darkness. During the Black Ages, as that long-ago time was now called, they had had a better understanding of magic than they did today.
The Gray One looked up. The pink clouds of dawn were fading, and birds squabbled in the trees. His collaborators would be growing impatient for his return. He supposed they had every right to be impatient: they were mortal.
He closed his eyes and shielded himself. He began to follow songs of quarrymen and stonecutters wrought in a tongue modern Sacoridians would not recognize. The music sprang from the earth's bones; it wove strands of resistance, barriers, and containment.
The echoes of hammers wielded by stonecutters centuries ago clamored in the Gray One's head. The blows jarred him, rang deep in his mind. He gritted his teeth against the pain and probed deeper.
Men and women sang in unison. Their song intensified as his thoughts rippled along the seams. He caught the harmony of their ancient voices, allowed the cadence of the hammers to invade his mind, and he sang with them.
His body swayed to the rhythm, and dripped with perspiration. But his body was a distant thing now, an afterthought, for his mind was deep within the granite. He flowed within the pink feldspar and crystalline quartz, within the pepper flecks of hornblende. He felt powerful enough to withstand the Ages, untouched by the weathering forces of nature. He could endure anything. But he must surpass this power. He must become stronger than even the granite to break the wall.
His voice found its own harmony running counter to the rhythm within the wall.
All great things must fall
, he sang.
Sing with me, follow me
Far away, his forefinger tapped the new rhythm on the wall. It wasn't enough yet to disturb the hundreds of hammers, but it helped create discord. But did he detect uncertainty in the song? Did some of the hammers lose the rhythm?
A splintering akin to the spring cracking of lake ice scattered his thoughts. He lost his bearing. The song and rhythm faded, his solidarity with the wall wavered.
His body absorbed his mind like a sponge. The force sent him flailing backward, stunned and unwieldy in his corporeal form. When he remembered how to use his legs and arms, he inspected his handiwork.
Yes, yes, yes! A hairline fracture in the mortar. The wound would grow, and he could come back and break the D'Yer Wall!
Now he must return to the camp where the humans awaited him. Cracking the wall had sapped a great deal of his energy—there was barely enough left to transport him. He would be in bad shape for the rest of the day, but the soldiers would be impatient to hunt down the Green Rider.
Soon he would be done with this intrigue the humans so valued, but for now, it served his purpose.
As he slung the longbow and quiver of black arrows over his shoulder, he felt someone's gaze upon him. He looked wildly about but saw only an owl roosting on a branch above. It blinked, extinguishing its moon eyes, and twisted its head away, as owls do.
The Gray One had nothing to fear from an owl preoccupied with its early morning hunt. He spread his arms wide to begin the summoning. They trembled from the effort of having cracked the wall. "Come to me, O mortal spirits. You are mine to hold, bound to me in this world. Walk with me now and take me where I must go."
He willed them to him, and they couldn't resist his call. A host of spirits, like a watery blur, gathered around him. Some sat mounted on horses, others stood afoot. Among them were soldiers, old men, women, and children. Ordinary citizens stood beside knights. Beggars huddled next to nobility. All were impaled with two black arrows each.
"By the arrows of
Vane, I command you to walk with me now. We will walk on the quick time roads of the dead."
Karigan G'ladheon awakened to the chitter of waxwings and chickadees. Mourning doves cooed and jays defended their territories with raucous song and fluttering wings. Above her, the sky opened up like an expansive dusky canopy that winked with stars. The moon hung low in the west.
Karigan groaned. She lay at the edge of a fallow farmer's field, behind a hedgerow, and her back wasn't taking it well.
She pushed damp hair away from her brow. Everything was wet with dew and her clothes stuck to her like a cold and clammy second skin. She remembered aloud why she was here.
"To get away from Selium."
Her own voice startled her. Aside from the birds, the countryside was wide open and empty and silent. There would be no tolling of Morningtide Bell here, nor the familiar creaking of floorboards as her fellow students moved around in her old dormitory building preparing for a day of classes.
She stood up and shivered in the chill spring air. Indeed, she was "away" from Selium, and would get farther away still before the day was done. She gathered her blanket and things, stuffed them into her pack, stepped over the hedgerow, and started walking. She carried little more than a hunk of bread, some cheese, a change of clothes, and some jewelry that had belonged to her mother—the only objects precious enough to her to carry away. All the rest had been left in the dormitory in her haste to leave Selium.
She walked briskly to stave off the chill, the gravel of the road crunching beneath her boots. The rising sun, with its bands of orange and gold, drew her east.
As she walked, the glistening grasses of farm fields transformed into thick stands of fir and spruce blotting out the newly risen sun and darkening the road.
This was the edge of the Green Cloak she entered, an immense wood that grew thick and wild in the heart of Sacoridia. Its more tame borders marched in snatches and thickets right down to the shores of Ullem Bay and the foothills of the Wingsong Mountains. The bulk of the wood was dense and unbroken, save for villages and towns that made islands of themselves in its interior, and the occasional woods road that, from an eagle's view, she thought, must cut through it like a scar.
Such roads were often in conflict with their surroundings. It didn't take much for saplings to start growing in the middle of woods roads and winter blow downs to topple across them, eventually obscuring the least used. A carpet of rusty pine needles softened Karigan's footfalls and gave this road an abandoned look, though it was the main thoroughfare leading into Selium from points east.
Karigan walked till her stomach growled. She sought out a warm patch of sun surrounded by solid, cold shade, and washed down chunks of bread and cheese with handfuls of water from a gurgling stream next to the road. It wasn't the choicest water, but it would have to do.
Afterward, she splashed cold water on her face. She felt altogether bedraggled after just one night on the road, and she longed for the hot baths and full meals the school served up.
"Don't tell me I miss it…" She glanced over her shoulder as if the entire campus, with its templelike academic buildings looming over the city from atop its hill, might pop into view.
It was curious how a night on the road made yesterday's events seem somehow less significant, less hurtful. Karigan half-turned, gazing back down the road which, within a day's walk, ended at the school. Her hands tightened into balls and she clenched her jaw. She would show the dean.
Kick me out of school, will you? Let's see how you like confronting my father
. She grinned, imagining her father, his expression livid, towering over a shrinking Dean Geyer.
Then her shoulders sagged and her grin faltered. It was no good. She had no control over her father. What if he agreed with the dean that her punishment was just?
She kicked the ground and pebbles skittered across the road. Gods,
what a mess
. She hoped to reach Corsa before the dean's letter did, so she could tell her father her side of the story first. Either way, she would be in deep trouble. Maybe she ought to hire herself out on a merchant barge and stay away for good. After all, that's what her father had done when he was a boy.
She jammed her hands into her pockets, and with head bowed, ambled along the rutted road at a reluctant pace.
She startled a baby squirrel sitting on an old lightning-racked stump. It pipped and squealed, its tail abristle. It stamped in place, then darted from one edge of the stump to the other, as if too frightened to decide which way to go.