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Chapter Nine

The Horsemen of Painoct

The cart bumped and rocked as it ventured along what was left of the path, passing through overgrown trees that stretched out and away from the edge of the river bank. Low foliage would scratch and scrape along the top of the canopy and often it was that I saw through the closed curtain that Father would move in his seat to keep from being brushed by the branches. The river was nearly invisible now. In fact, you would not have known it existed except for the strident sound of its fierce flow.

The rain continued to fall and Father was becoming soaked from the spattering ground water being kicked up by the horses’ hooves as well as the drenched, overgrown forest that had moved in to take its place on the road. The horses grunted and snorted as they lost footing in the near flooded pathway.

Mother had awakened Madeline. With one hand on the floor of the cart she balanced herself and with the other she held Madeline close. I sat in the center with my back to the bags and boxes. I laid the woolen blanket against me, and because of the distinct size and shape of its contents, it nearly covered me completely.

Mother closed her eyes and pulled Madeline close. Mother’s head rested on Madeline’s and both swayed lazily with the jostling of the cart. And then we heard a sound. Perhaps you are familiar with the sound of an approaching storm. Within the pattering of the rain that so often precedes, you hear a distant roll of thunder that carefully breaks the silence and retreats back into the sound of the rain. The sound we heard began as such, but did not fade. Instead, it brewed in strength and soon became recognizable as the quaking sound of a swiftly approaching cavalry. The ground shook and the cart trembled with the growing intensity. We hadn’t traveled very far from the point of our first encounter with the horseman so for this company to have arrived so quickly is to assume an eagerness on their part that I was quite fearful to greet.

“Be still!” Father called back. “I will intercede for us.” He stopped the cart just as the mass of horsemen poured out from between the forest trees and through the underbrush like a swarm of hornets intent on attack. The flooded path thrashed violently around them creating a blinding mist of earth and water as they charged toward us. Upon reaching our pitiful wagon, they encircled and pressed inward. Father sat quietly and waited for his time to speak. I could see through the curtain that one horseman in particular, clad in a studded brigandine that glistened as the rain trickled across its surface, approached through the ranks of men. His horse was gigantic, a marvelously painted steed cloaked in an exquisite bard of plate. With sword in hand, the horseman drew close to the wagon and spoke.

“It has been many seasons since we’ve been pleasured with a visit from the likes of you. How is it that a holy man has wandered so far from the safety of the road to Ghihland? Are you lost, brother,” he asked and leaned in, “or do you seek to meet death this fine, rainy day in Ganchimi?”

“I desire safe passage through the fields,” Father said steadily, “in order that I may cross the river at Painoct.” The horseman gave a hearty laugh and called over his shoulder to his fellows,

“The wheedlers of Ghihland once again rely upon our skills in bridge-building!” Turning back and raising his sword to Father’s chin he asked in a growl, “Why is it that you must cross today and not wait for the river to quiet?”

“I have urgent business in the borough of Rathland that serves the whole of the kingdom.”

“That is nothing to me!” The horseman retorted, “I am not of this kingdom and I serve no king in Ganchimi.”

“Then I beg of you, good sir, to ignore this lone traveler and to allow me to pass. I have no quarrels with the Painocts. They are of brave and splendid bloodlines that reach back to ancient days. I mean only to pass without offense.”

“And by what name pray tell am I to call this foolish one before me seeking my gracious consent?” A ripple of laughter moved through the crowd of horsemen. I’d never heard anyone call Father a fool. To hear such words sparked anger within me. My Father was no fool and certainly did not deserve such ridicule at the hands of a cruel offender.

“I am Christof, Caretaker of the Nefton Woods.”

Looking a bit surprised, the horseman laughed again, “There is a Vasior in the Nefton Woods that lives at the hands of a Caretaker? You haven’t succeeded in killing it yet? If this is true, you should turn back and see to your duties before another comes along in your absence.”

“What I say is the truth, and it is urgent that I travel to the borough at Rathland to gather the Assembly. I cannot be hindered by your unbelief.”

“Watch your tongue, Caretaker, for it is dangerous to take such a tone with the likes of me. I am fashioned from the bloodline of the Painocts.”

“I mean you no disrespect, good sir, but the news I bear is of great consequence and I must be diligent in my task.”

“But safe passage in Painoct is quite costly, holy man.”

“Give name to your price,” Father said and opened his satchel. He looked as though he was preparing for payment (though he told me much later that he knew that would not have worked).

“Let us discover what you have to offer that may be hidden within your wagon.” And with that, one of the horsemen that had encircled the cart sheared the side of the canopy with his dagger causing it to fall near the wheels, exposing the three of us in the rear among the supplies.

“What have we here?” the lead horseman bantered. “What precious cargo you must be carrying.”

“This is my humble family,” Father interrupted. “They are of no concern.” The horseman circled around and looked in to examine us. Mother quietly instructed Madeline not to meet eyes with him. Both lowered their faces and looked to the floor of the cart. I, however, did not. I clutched tightly to the woolen blanket and its cargo and looked up at the horseman. The rain was misting into the cart and so it was difficult to see. I narrowed my eyes and looked askance (and I must say that it fit my disposition for I was angry at the horseman’s words to Father). The horseman sheathed his sword and spoke in a soft tone.

“You, with the angry geist, what is your name?” I remained silent. I looked forward to Father as he opened the curtain and tucked it behind the support.  Father nodded, but gave a look that suggested I needed to be brief.

“Joshua,” I said.

“I’m sure that you do not enjoy my company, do you Joshua?”

“I think you are a cruel man that needs instruction in compassion.” The words seemed to roll from my mouth without thought. They surged from my belly with a fiery tone, and with them, silence draped the mob. The horseman sat up in his saddle and lifted his chest.

“I am Sajon, Peer of the Painoct realm and guardian of the greatest of all Vasior trees in Ganchimi.” Turning his horse around once again to better examine our supplies, he asked, “Is that bravery I hear from your lips or foolishness as with your father?”

“My Father is a great man, beloved by many,” I said softly, but loud enough for Sajon to hear.

“And feared by none,” Sajon added. “You will not pass through the Painoct fields today, nor shall you be allowed to set camp.” He trotted a few feet away and turned back, “And in return for sparing your lives, I shall take your cargo.”

Immediately the men jumped from their horses and began to tear at the cart, breaking open the boxes and scattering our belongings into the rain-soaked forest. Father rushed toward us from his seat but was pulled to the ground and restrained by several men. Mother and Madeline were nabbed from behind and wrestled to the ground screaming. Sajon reached for my woolen blanket, but holding firm, a surge of strength threw my forearm and with great force knocked the armored horseman from his steed. He landed in the flooded pathway with a terrible splash. The others halted and turned to look in disbelief. Embarrassed and drenched, Sajon rose to his feet and pulled his sword.

“No one is too young to die by my blade.”

Pulling the sword and shield from their wrapping, I stood ready. Sajon moved forward to assail but I leapt high above him and landed in the top branches of a tree near the edge of the woods. The eyes of all were now fixed upon me. For a brief moment, Sajon stood glaring in amazement. But it was not long before his pride once again took root and kindled his anger at my insulting blow.

“I know not such wizardry,” he called up to me, “but be certain that I bear it no mind, boy! I will certainly chop down your perch.” And so it was that he tried. Grabbing a battle axe from one of his companions, he moved to the foot of the tree and began to chop. A few others gathered with him and worked to do the same. With each blow, the tremors shook the branches upon which I was standing. Clutching tightly to the sword and shield, I scanned my surroundings and then leapt a great distance across the roadway to another tree near the bank of the river.  The top of the tree gave sway to the weight of my body as I landed, but nevertheless, I found a strong foothold. Sajon ran alone to the base of this tree and began to chop. The others that had assisted him at the previous tree stood silent and watched from below. I swung my sword and sliced through several branches at once, sending them crashing to the forest floor below. Sajon heard them falling and was nimble in his defense. I leapt to another tree and then another and another, each time cutting through larger branches in a single stroke and dropping them onto Sajon’s location below. With astounding agility, he continued to dodge them in pace.

In the distance, not too far up the pathway, I saw a great Bilbar tree rising up above the other trees. Its base was at least the breadth of a sword and would be incredibly difficult for Sajon to chop down. I made the leap, but this time, my footing wasn’t so sure upon its sodden branches and I found myself falling to the earth. Stunned but surprisingly uninjured, I looked up to see Sajon hurrying toward my position.

“Your game is ended,” he said with a heavy breath and drew near to strike. I cast the shield aside, lifted my sword with both hands and sliced through the foundation of the tree (as if the sword was made of fire and the tree of snow). The tree cracked and splintered beneath its weighty momentum. I scrambled to safety as the tree began to tip in our direction. With a look of great fear, Sajon turned to run but was overcome by the upper branches of the tree crashing upon him and pinning him to the ground. Releasing my family from their grip, Sajon’s men ran up the pathway and gathered around the tree.

“Release me!” Sajon cried out, “Release me at once!” Freed from his captors, Father passed through the crowd of horsemen and made his way to the tree. Looking over the scattered prison of branches that held Sajon to the earth, Father spoke sternly.

“Give us your word that you will allow for our safe passage through Painoct. Do this and the boy will set you free.”

“Very well, you have my word,” Sajon said. “Release me and I will guard you through to your destination by my very own horse.” At his word, I carved through the Bilbar branches and released Sajon from its grip. A few of his men rushed forward and helped him to his feet. Wiping the moistened debris from his armor, he glanced toward me.

“You are indeed a brave one, Joshua. What strange magic is it that possess for such feats? How is it that a boy can defy nature and element?” Placing his hand on my shoulder, he dropped to look at the sword, “And what manner of weapon is it that you carry, young one?”

“He is of the Sower,” Father interrupted, “a champion of Ganchimi!”

“Does your father speak the truth, boy?”

“He does,” I said.

“Fetch for this family dry clothing,” Sajon called to his men as he rose to his feet, “and retrieve their belongings. We will secure their passage through Painoct to Rathland.” Turning back to me he continued, “Are you hungry?”

“I am,” I said.

“Very well, young champion. Today you and your family will feast with the bravest soldiers of Painoct.”