All material contained here is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.
Song Suggestion: Stormy Night by Brandon Fiechter
Tomas forced himself to stand still, telling himself that, no matter what, they stood their best chances in the circle; if the iron didn’t turn The Grim Hunt, which was bearing down on them, then, certainly the talisman of its shape would, for horseshoes were a ward against all evil.
The pounding hoofbeats drew near. Nico turned so they were back to back, though what fight they could hope to offer, Tomas didn’t know. The cloud that covered the moon broke apart just enough to let a sliver of light through. Tomas felt his heart sink; the dark mass coming swiftly toward them, heaving like a sea of shadows, was not something out of a children’s story. The light was not strong enough to show Tomas the faces of the riders and he was glad for that; there was something horrible about them, a suggestion of something tattered and torn like bits of cloth used too often and too carelessly.
Unbidden, Tomas remembered a stag he and Nico had found the spring before. The unfortunate creature had lain beneath the winter snows so long that there was no meat left upon it, only a hide which had rotted away in places to let the bones, stark and white, shine through. He felt that the Hunt might look like that, naught but bones and dry, rotted flesh that had split and torn with the long ages of being undead. The moon went back behind the cloud and Tomas was thankful. The dark crowd of riders was swiftly coming closer and he thought that to see them too clearly might invite madness.
The dense cluster split apart as it came to the ring and for a few moments, Tomas thought they were actually safe after all and who cared if it was the iron or the shape of the horseshoes or the bell Nico was clutching that clanked out a tuneless, unpretty melody. He wasn’t trying to ring it properly, but his terrified shaking was doing it for him.
The swirling mass of snorting horses and tattered cloaks came around the circle, stepping close to the horseshoes. The beasts the men rode might have been very like ordinary war horses, standing tall and wide, but they weren’t. The stink coming off them spoke of predators, not grass fed animals. Their eyes burned with a rotten, green light, and, as they champed at their bits, their sharp teeth could be seen.
“Night mares,” Nico said, his voice trembling. “They’re riding night mares.”
In all the years Tomas had known him, Nicolas had never truly been scared. Be it his size, his ability to win a fight, or his intelligence, he just never seemed too concerned about much of anything. But now he was scared right down to the core and that made Tomas understand how much trouble they were really in.
He was probably the only person who knew about the nightmares Nicolas had suffered when he was younger; the animals The Huntsmen rode were named aptly, for they carried terrors with them wherever they went and it was said that, if they stared at you too long, your worst fears would come to life around you and haunt you for the rest of your days.
Tomas could still remember the story his father had told him one night, during a Grim Moon that was long past, the tale of how the night mares had come to be. He could remember it almost perfectly; it was a rare and wonderful occasion when his father stayed sober and would sit with him to tell him stories. This one had been one of his favorites.
In the beginning, before anything had gotten a proper start, Kyne, the first god, had given to Aine, the goddess meant to be his mate, a horse known as the Aioshee. That stallion was so swift that none could catch him, not even Kyne, and more fierce than all the warriors ever born. He was made out of all the light that existed, and, in him, all things of light were born. But the universe must be in balance. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow it casts. When Kyne used all the light of the sun, the stars, and the moon to give to Aine her horse, there was also a shadow born beneath the stallion’s hooves. The night mare. Kyne might have destroyed her, but he knew what she was and that her birth was as important as that of the Aioshee. They were meant to be mates, as he and Aine were. So the night mare was not destroyed. The first ordinary horses were born between these two and, like all things, the Dorchashee was not without her light while the Aioshee had his own, small darkness and they created between them perfect balance. Whenever the moon runs across the sun, they meet and it is an event to be honored. Sometimes, the Aioshee are born from the light, like their father, the first of them, and, with them, come the shadows.
Tomas looked up at the animals, his heart beating too hard; for all that they were terrible, there was something beautiful as well; they were were proof that not all he had heard about the gods was just, as his father often said, the desperate hopes of mortals that there was more to life than just what could be seen. The horses stamped so that a smoky fog hung always around them and they snorted out plumes of black smoke. They recoiled from the iron, for they did not like the taste of the air around it, but it could no more hold them back than a slender bit of straw; they were made before iron and it held no power over them. He knew these things the same way both he and Nicolas knew that they were night mares and not some other wicked creature.
For a few seconds, the only sounds were the creaking of saddles and the clatter of spears. Between the horses, deep in the fog, there were things that looked like giant hounds, but moved as though they were part of the fog. Then, the largest of the riders swung down. His booted feet hit the cobbles with a clatter and a thud. He was tall and thick across the chest and there was, despite everything, a regal sort of bearing in his movements. If the long sword gripped in his right hand had been planted in the ground, Tomas would have had to look up to see the hilt. The man’s cloak looked like the dense, heavy fur of a bear, matted and filthy. The scent of it wafted over him and he fought not to retch; it smelled as though it had been torn from a rotting corpse and never properly cleaned.
The man reached out for Tomas, his hand a pale, decomposed thing with too little flesh to cover the naked, white bone. Tomas was frozen in place, unable to cry out of back away. He thought he heard the hoofbeats from before, the ones that were there without being there at all. His mind, so overwhelmed with terror that it had become calm, told him it was because he was hearing the echoes of something that was in the Between. Then he saw that the horsemen were turning to look at something. A curious breeze blew past them, far too warm for a night so close to winter and smelling of those musty, dark places in the forest where none ever dared to tread. Now there were hoofbeats, ones that rang out with the weight and solidity of any ordinary horse.
The Huntsmen began to move, parting slowly, heads twisting to look at something else. Now Tomas could hear the smart click of hooves on the cobbles moving closer. A figure was coming on a giant, black horse that was taller and bigger, even, than the nightmares. The creature’s eyes were burning red and his silken coat glistened as though mirroring starlight. Otherlight, Tomas’ father would have called it. The giant beast could easily have pulled the plows in the fields, which had to be tethered to teams of six oxen, and though it moved gracefully, there was a weight about it which made it seem more real than all the horses Tomas had ever seen before in his life.
The rider was no less terrifying than the host of dead men watching him; he had no head. In one hand he held a sword. In the other, the silver lantern which spread a pool of pale, blue light over the riders. Tomas wished at once that it didn’t; the men did not look right. Not even a little. There were torn cheeks exposing teeth and bare, white bone peeking out of blackened, withered flesh, and missing eyes. But that Tomas could have accepted. There was something twisted about them, something so subtle that Tomas could not quite say what it was, but it made his knees shake and screams lodge their sharp edges in his throat. The headless rider came to the circle of iron and his beast snorted and reared, obviously hating the iron wholly. The rider dropped down and came to stand between Tomas and the Huntsmen.