The wanderer was not yet old, but she felt so -- old and scarred and bitter. She had seen years of peace, when she was content to stay in libraries and dream within book covers... or find someone who sweetened her hours and stole a little of her stamina, a little of her self-sufficiency. She had seen years of war, when fires bloomed out of what had been cities and the finer shadings of peacetime faded into black. She had ridden in all weathers, sometimes the horse knowing more about where they were going, bloodstains mingling with rain or snow on her clothing. One great love she had had, and loved a little too long and too hard, more the glimpsed potential than what had been truly there. She was well-known, although an exile from her own land; people sought her advice, valued her friendship, desired her good opinion. She had been counsellor to powerful people and sometimes had led her own band of warriors.
But now she was weary.
She had just left the relative comfort of a manor behind her, having discovered that her patience with people was seriously eroded. For someone who had helped put almost all the present princes of the western provinces on their seats, losing lovers and children in the process, daily concerns had paled somewhat. Her ever-increasing courtliness had become a shield, a distancing device.
She had left in the late morning of a calm winter day, and was slowly guiding her horse over the downs. Here and there, a tuft of trees or a clump of rocks embroidered the eggshell-colored sky. A few whiffs of smoke from the widely separated human habitations dispersed lazily in the crisp air.
She was making her way down a dried riverbed, when she discerned another rider at the mouth of the valley. She approached unhurriedly -- friend or foe, there was time.
He was perhaps in his late youth, with very long braided hair of the palest gold -- just like the sun that came hazily through the cloud cover. His face was angular and weathered, with piercing storm grey eyes, matching his worn but clean garments. But the horse was enormous and black, and the weapons rivalled her own in quality and length of use.
"No one should have to travel in winter," he said as she drew up.
"All seasons are the same for wanderers," she replied.
"If you are going westward, I would be glad of company."
She examined him. He withstood the scrutiny motionless; when she nodded, he led his horse beside hers without any more words of explanation. Her own mount became restive; she laid a restraining hand upon him, but said nothing. If the traveller had treachery in mind, she could match him.
They headed downhill, following the sun's path; their shadows went before them, bluish and long. The day passed into afternoon, and eventually, in front of them, the sun engaged in battle. The blood lingered long on the clear horizon.
The stars were distinct when they stopped for the night. A small fire was all their concession to the season; both had often slept on bare ground. She was weary and would have been glad to have slipped into dreaming, but he stayed crosslegged, gazing at the heart of the flame; both manners and common sense required that she keep him company.
"I am a hunter," he said after a long silence, "and a very good one. But my prey tonight is fey and deadly; what would you advise?" And as he raised his eyes to hers, she saw that they were now empty and reflecting the sky, and knew him.
"Well met, Lord," she replied. "I should have known, when my horse shied. Why such excessive courtesy? You could have taken me any moment, in any way."
"And insult your dignity?"
"I wish you hadn't given me the choice... for I am very tired and would fain decline challenge."
She stood up; he followed her. With a small sigh, she donned her weapons. They faced each other at a nearby oval stone plateau, which the glaciers had worn smooth. They bowed deeply, and engaged.
She was the best, even past her prime. But the other's arm was of iron and each of his blows left blood behind, and merciless cold. Under the sliver of the late-rising moon she fought on, and her sword grew blunt; she threw it away and uncoiled her whip, holding the dagger in reserve.
He lowered his own weapon.
"You can stop now; I would be slain were I mortal. Surely honor is fully satisfied."
She smiled and tried her whip against the wind; it was rising, heralding the sunrise.
They continued circling until the stars paled and a band of many colors appeared on the eastern horizon. Her whole body grew numb and her whip fell from her hand. As he raised his sword for the final thrust, she sank her own dagger to the hilt below her rib.
"I lived to see another dawn," she whispered. "It is good that no stone will burden me. I will be able to stargaze; perhaps a tree will grow out of me... and the passing cranes will bring me tidings of the world."
Copyright © 1998 Athena Andreadis
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