The question was posed on Twitter.
It was a question that required an answer.
An Empty Road
Down the wind flailed into the Two Rivers, into a tangled forest, and beat at the horse drawing a cart down the rock-strewn track. The two men walking beside her tried to tug their second skins around them against the gusts of wind while holding their weapons close, nearly failing at both. Bela, the shaggy brown mare, treated the howling of the rising wind with the equanimity she treated the soft creak of the cart’s axle. Things to be endured until the job was done. No birds sang in the forest, no squirrels chittered from a branch. Spring was late this year, but that, too, could be endured. The road to the village was well known. The sights and smells of the forest, familiar.
The older of the men touched her flank now and again, as though Bela had any interest in stopping before the work was finished. She could ignore that annoyance too. She had a trick she’d learned as a foal from her mother. Imagine a valley of clover, her mother instructed, at the cusp of spring. Then imagine the sun. Allow sunlight to flood the valley, and feel the new shoots break through winter’s bracken, green and juicy. Live in that valley of the mind, even as one’s body does its work, and anything could be endured. The trick had served Bela well these past years.
But something was wrong today. The younger man was skittish, as he often was, and even the older smelled… wary. But there was something else. The smell of another horse, but wrong somehow. There, but not there. An odor remembered from a dream. There was another stench as well, neither man nor horse, but foul beyond anything Bela had ever scented. And suddenly, it was gone. As though the wind had abruptly shifted, which it had not.
The shadows evaporated like mist, and Shaidar found his hooves on a rock-strewn track in a forest whose branches remained untouched by spring. Patches of snow persisted in the shade, and the air was delightfully crisp. Such a change from the hot, blighted land where he was usually penned. The black stallion’s ears turned forward and he resisted the urge to snort. Shaidar’s rider would tolerate no sound while it hunted. The creature on his back hunted more desperately, of late, and used its shadow-trails to range far from their usual grounds. The rider was never pleasant, but Shaidar could feel frustration coming off it like waves of heat.
Shaidar’s nostrils flared. Somewhere ahead of them there was a mare–beautiful, by her scent. There were men as well. Could these be his rider’s prey? Shaidar entertained the daydream that the men and his rider would kill each other, leaving him and the mare to greet the spring in these cool woods with neither burdens nor riders. An impossible dream, certainly, but one that made him quicken his trot.