WHO WILL RIDE THE SPIRIT HORSE?
by Adrian Simmons
The Clathan brothers caught a spirit horse from the Otherworld after the last of the big summer storms. They came upon it in the wooded area, down by where the old stone wall that marked the end of their property ran into Uske Beck. They came upon it while the beck flowed swollen from the rains and the horse’s mane stood on end with tiny bolts of lightning snapping out of it.
A spirit horse hadn’t been seen in those parts– the wide valley Uskedale two days ride to any of the more important towns in the land– for nearly three generations. Word had filtered into Uskedale and its few tiny villages that most of the rest of the Kingdom even doubted the Otherworld existed.
The brothers captured it without really thinking much about what they might do with the creature once they had it. Of course, the only thing a spirit horse was good for was to ride in a heavy storm into the thunderclouds and back into the Otherworld. Some of the greatest heroes had done just that. Some of the greatest tales centered around such a journey.
“What should we do with it, then?” Dulnal asked his elder brother, after they had tied it in the barn.
“‘Spose we should wait for the next big storm,” Onnul said. “Then, one of us rides it. Like in the old tales.”
It was later, after their hair had settled back down and the excitement had worn off and the day’s chores were done, that Dulnal brought up: “Which one of us? The beast’s back is a bit small and bony. Mostly mane and tail and spite. How do we choose?”
Both brothers were full-grown men, used to the slow and deliberate life of farmers. Onnul, older and broader, drummed his fingers on the table. There were still hints of light streaming through the windows, and the lanterns were lit bathing their small house in mellow dusty light.
Onnul finally shrugged. “Been thinking of that myself. I could go, but Marjin and I are ‘sposed to be married next spring. And we’ve had two good years of harvest, and the wolves have left the sheep alone and…”
Dulnal nodded. Wondering for a moment if he should say it, but then said it anyway: “And things have been pretty good since Pa died.”
Onnul’s drumming started then he stopped and he nodded. “Yeah. Things been pretty good.”
The older brother looked over at his sibling, “Dulnal, I’m not… I’m not saying you should take it ’cause I want to be rid of you. Things gonna be a lot harder here without you. Have to hire some lads from Inilmon and the place won’t be the same.”
“Have to hire some lads from Inilmon anyway,” Dulnal said, “we got so much hay to stack. And I’ve been thinking of the old tales. Otherworld’s a dangerous place. Not that I’m afraid or anything.”
He held up a hand, “Stacks of hay and healthy sheep on the one hand,” then he held up the other, “one-eyed giants and riddle contests on t’ other.”
“Could take the musket,” Onnul said. They had one, their father’s from the war they were both lucky enough to have missed.
“Could,” Dulnal agreed, trying to remember if there were any stories where people had taken muskets to the Otherworld. Not recalling any, he shrugged, “Don’t know how much good it would do. Giants. And that iron-feathered flock of magpies.”
And that was the crux of it. Neither brother was a hero, in the classical sense. They were farmers, and of recent times, fairly successful ones, and with a little more luck soon to be very successful. The house was big, big enough for both brothers, and Onnul’s new wife, and some lads from the village. And Dulnal wasn’t without prospects himself, when it came to the lasses. But his heart didn’t run roots so deep as his older brother’s did, and he just hadn’t asked anyone yet. Maybe after the next harvest.
After three days, the Clathan brothers decided that neither of them really wanted to light off to the Otherworld and likely end up eaten by a griffon, or being permanently disfigured in a goblin nose-breaking-contest. In fact, by now they were grumbling no small amount about the spirit horse. Honestly, they would have traded it for another good stretch of wolf-free time, or continued peace between the lands of Urronas and Soltania, or even maybe a decent crop of sweet-red onions– the secret of growing them had departed this world with their dear mother and they had no luck with them.
They started at the Black Bear Inn. Inside was blacker than any bear could hope to be, dark wood stained darker with smoke and time. But the Bear was one of the best places to go if you wanted to talk business. They tried, none-too-smoothly, to transition the conversations from broken harnesses and splitting-hoof disease to: “Found a spirit horse. Thinking about selling it. Or trading.”
Their neighbors, good solid farmers cut from the same timber as themselves, were rightfully dubious:
“How many pints have you had, Dulnal?”
“Hitting the fire-water, Onnul?”
“You boys need to get to town more.”
But when Onnul took a few strands of the horse’s mane, rubbed it between his hands, and set it on the table to writhe and spark, well, the room got powerful quiet. The farmers drank deep from their flagons watching and thinking and trying to remember how many of the old stories ended well.
Big Alunn pushed his way to their table, nodding to both brothers. “You found a spirit horse? Why don’t you ride it into the Otherworld yourselves?”
“Crops are good and the sheep are-” Onnul began.
“I’d RIDE that damn thing out of Uske valley at the first storm,” Alunn said, grinning and showing his big square teeth. “Otherworld wouldn’t know what hit it, if it were me.”
“You want to trade for-“
“Yessir. Giants, goblins, the Five Spectres, I’d outwit and outfight them all. Take my three pistols. That’s what I’d do, alright.”
Little Ronnal, who was never far from Big Alunn, pulled up a bench and sat at the table. “Don’t listen to his fool-talk. You boys should trade that horse to a real man. Why, I’d go and harvest the elder wheat and get me one of those Otherworld maidens for a wife. Maybe two, if there was a lot of elder wheat.”
“One of those Otherworld maidens would eat you for breakfast,” Big Alunn said. “And I’d cross the basilisk fields and get me some of that First Kingdom gold. Come back here and buy me three wives.”
Dulnal interrupted- “Best offer, lads.”
“You really have one?” Little Ronnal asked, looking at the now-still horsehairs on the table. “You have one and you’re not going to ride it yourselves?”
“That’s what we said,” Onnul answered.
“You can come to the house,” Dulnal added. “See it for yourself.”
Although Big Alunn and Little Ronnal talked long into the night of the great things they’d do in the Otherworld, and from there back to this world, they never walked the three miles to the Clathan brothers’ farm to look at the spirit horse, much less haggle on it.
Unfortunately, many other people DID come by the Clathan brother’s farm to look at the spirit horse; arriving sweaty and thirsty. The brothers were busy, as were all farmers during the summer months, but they dutifully showed the animal to the curious.
It was smaller than most people thought, and feistier, and sure enough, when it got riled up, its hair would stand on end and the air would smell light and strange and little sparks would arc between the animal’s hooves and the ground.
People looked, and some asked questions, but nobody wanted to make an offer.
“I’ll give you my six black goats for your spirit horse, Dulnal,” Osmunnd said. “The long-haired curly ones, too. Make no mistake. It’s a good offer.”
Their meeting was, like most meetings, most serious meetings between farmers that didn’t happen at the Black Bear, held at a drystone wall.
Dulnal leaned against the wall, regarding his neighbor. The field behind Osmunnd turned to a tiny strip of woods and then Red Talon Fell rose up behind them. The late day sun seemed to shine straight into the fell’s sides. Goats, regular white and black ones, were out on the hill, as were the dogs that kept an eye on them.
It was a nice offer, but not a good offer.
“Those goats are a lot of trouble. Catch the split-hoof all the time. And they’re all males. I’d have to trade something to Old Smithal; he has the only female.”
“He’d give a good price for them,” Osmunnd said, “he’s made me fair prices for them in the past.”
Old Smithal was clever, shrewd even. And any price he offered for anything, and especially from someone like Osmunnd, was only just-barely fair.
Still, Osmunnd was making an offer, and willing to haggle, so Dulnal leaned on one side of the wall, Osmunnd on the other, and they haggled a bit.
Finally, Dulnal’s curiosity got the better of him. “What are you going to do in the Otherworld, Osmunnd?”
Osmunnd, thin and pointy, looked surprised. “Make my fortune, of course. What else are you going to do there? Get me some of that pale gold, harvest some of that elder wheat, like Invil the Great did.”
Dulnal nodded. Invil was, in addition to being lucky and strong, very clever. Osmunnd was not very clever. Which is why men like Old Smithal fleeced him constantly.
“I know all the old tales,” Osmunnd said. “All the old tricks. Nothing in the Otherworld that I can’t handle. I can watch the clouds when I pass through the valley of the basilisk, and silver scythes don’t seem that hard to come by in those parts, so the elder wheat shouldn’t be that much of a problem. I know all the riddles, and how to blind a cyclops.”
“Invil the Great sacrificed an eye in an eye-gouging contest to blind the cyclops. You willing to gouge out your own eye?”
Osmunnd rolled his eyes. “You’re getting it wrong. He stabbed the cyclops with a dagger.”
Dulnal nodded. Yes, of course. Good old rock-stupid Osmunnd. What was it about a dumb man that made him talk to everyone else like they had just fallen off a turnip wagon?
“Well,” Dulnal said, backing away from the wall. “I’ve got to get on to the turnips. I’ll talk to my brother about your offer.”
“Might as well give him a rope to hang himself with,” Onnul said. “He’d be dead within a week-”
Dulnal shook his head, “Or turned to stone-”
“Or smothered in the living bog-”
“Or captured by the goblins within a day.”
“And lord knows that we don’t want the denizens of the Otherworld to think we’re all as dumb as Osmunnd.” Onnul shrugged, dug his spoon into his stew. “I guess he got tired of waiting for another war to start, had to seek his fortune another way.”
It was a long, late day. Lights from the lanterns lit up the tiny kitchen, mixing with the orange blaze of the fire spilling from the main room’s fireplace.
Dulnal was already thinking past their idiot neighbor. “So far, we’ve had braggarts who’ve not even showed up to make an offer and now a fool with a bad offer. How many fools are we going to listen to?”
The next fool was named Runnyan. Onnul had always disliked Runnyan. Not because he was a fool, not in the same way that Osmunnd was. Runnyan was a fool because he hated the town of Inilmon and he let everybody know it, and then wasn’t smart enough to leave.
He’d get drunk at the pub, then complain about life in Uskedale. About the monotony of it, about settling for something and someplace so petty and mundane. But, unlike Osmunnd, who was just dumb enough to be waiting for something to happen to make his fortune, Runnyan never left, never planned to leave, and as near as anybody could tell, seemed happiest when deriding his neighbors for living in peace and quiet.
“I’ll give you twenty gold krowns for the spirit horse.”
Onnul took a long drink of his mug. People were watching, the small crowd at the Robin and Rat–Runnyan tended to get in fights at the Black Bear. The onlookers here would talk… How Onnul hated the talk! About his “new friend” Runnyan- things like that. Things that he did if anybody talked to Runnyan too long at the pub.
“Where’d you get twenty?”
Runnyan’s gray eyes darted about. “Been saving. Been working on the harvest and the planting, for five years. Can sell that little house of mine.”
“It isn’t yours. Doesn’t your cousin live there?”
“I can talk him into selling it.”
“You can’t talk anybody except Osmunnd into leaving Uskedale. Maybe you and he should buy some normal horses and ride off to somewhere with more opportunities.”
“Listen, Onnul, I’ve wanted out of Uskedale my whole life. But I’m not going to leave here just to end up in another farm village the next valley over, or penniless in one of the towns.”
“Gold krowns are gold krowns, if they’re here or in the court at Red Havens,” Onnul said. “And even if you did have twenty, I still wouldn’t sell it to you.”
The brothers stewed about it while they boiled that night’s stew. So far they had one offer from someone who would fail, one from someone they wished would fail. And twenty krowns was a lot. And they doubted that Runnyan could talk his cousin into selling the house and that he had any more than three or four gold krowns in his possession now. They kept their heads down. There could be more offers.
“Dulnal,” Imilsk asked one early fall day as he was harnessing up the horse, “do you still have that spirit horse?”
Dulnal could tell she was serious because she whispered it.
“Yep. We still got it.”
“I’d like to make an offer on it.”
Imilsk was married to Harrond, a very successful farmer, further south in the valley. With three more good years, he and his brother might be almost as well established as he was. And Harrond was shrewd; he never moved unless he saw an opportunity for profit.
“What does Harrond want with it? Bored with being a successful farmer?”
Imilsk snorted, a very un-lady-like sound. “He doesn’t want it, I do.”
Her voice barely rose above the wind. “By all the gods, that man! You know he’s never made a mistake, don’t you? Of course you do. Everybody does. Not once, not one that he’d admit. Ugh, and his mother is the same way, and she’s got her hooks into my children and they’re turning out the same way. They all take turns telling me how smart they are, and talking to me like I just fell off a passing tinker’s cart. I’ve had enough. More than enough! She doesn’t like my mothering, she can raise them herself! He doesn’t like my cooking, let his mother cook, let him sleep with his mother. Miserable, arrogant bastard!”
Dulnal secured the harness, double-checked it and bit his tongue to keep from bellowing with laughter. It was good to know that he wasn’t the only one that Harrond wore slick with his ceaseless talk. “What’s your offer?”
“I’ve got some silver knives that came to me from my grandmother, and three gold krowns, and six silver prongs.” She leaned over the old horse and whispered, just for Dulnal’s ear: “And my two white thighs, and the look on Harrond face when he wakes up and finds me and his double-barreled musket gone.”
“Imilsk!” he protested. “I’ll have you know that I have no designs on your honor or reputation. And… and my brother-“
“Oh fine, him too then.”
“No! WhatI mean… what I mean to say is that I’ll have to talk to him about it. The price,” and he tipped his hat, “has to be agreeable to both of us.”
She glanced up and down the road. “You won’t tell your brother why I want the horse, will you? Just that I do, and what I’m willing to pay?”
“He’s got no reason to know-”
“Promise me that you won’t tell him, you won’t tell anybody. If this gets back to Harrond… or if people know…”
“You have my word, by the mother that bore me and the shadow that walks with me.”
True to his word, Dunlal waited for his brother to come home, and while he tended the fire to make dinner, told him about Imilsk’s offer without letting on why.
Onnul nodded, and told his brother that Kolln had cornered him outside the pie shop and made him an offer of six gold krowns and a wagonload of coal.
Onnul kept it a secret, as he promised, that Kolln couldn’t bear to watch his son sink into madness anymore.
The brothers watched the sky, watched the weather, waiting for the harvest, waiting for the light to drape just-so in Uskedale to hint at another storm. And the offers kept coming, and the misery; the heavy secret burdens that came from feeling one thing and acting another. And those burdens became theirs because nobody wanted to end up like Runnyan; because in the tiny villages of Uskedale the only thing worse than unhappiness was ever admitting to it.
Colnisk was unhappy because she was at the peak of her youthful beauty, and if she could just get out of here, she knew she could attract a lord.
Munndal was miserable because he had done everything that a farmer could in his life, and was tired of it, and had no time or training for anything else.
Yeenisk was terrified that she’d die in childbirth, like her mother, and her aunt, and so there was no future for her here.
Donnlu, the sawbones, was haunted by every sick child that he couldn’t heal, and every limping farmer whose broken bones he hadn’t set right.
Lonnlud was terrified that his momentary success was just an illusion– that the uncountable variables of a farmer’s life would make a pauper out of him within a handful of years.
Bannilsk was old and her husband had trouble recognizing her, and sometimes seeing her at all, and she didn’t want to die not having ever left Uskedale.
“You love my brother, don’t you?” Dulnal asked.
Marjin shifted her basket of sloe berries and regarded Dulnal with outright suspicion. A handful of blackthorn bushes grew against the drystone wall and two handfuls of hawthorns grew on the other side. A thousand leaf edges hinted at the colors to come as the weather grew colder.
Dulnal’s question had caught his future sister-in-law by surprise. “We’ve got a match, Dulnal-”
“That’s not what I asked.” He leaned in close, whispered so that she would take him seriously. “You have a match, yes. Yes, I know. Everybody knows. But do you like him? Do you want to wake up and look at him every morning? You don’t secretly love someone else and plan on trying to live a lie until your heart dies and-”
“You mean you?”
“No! Well, yes. Me or,” he wrung his hat in his hand, “anyone?”
“What’s gotten into you?”
“You still haven’t answered. Do you even like him?”
“Of course I do! He’s a hard-worker, and a gentle nature, and is kind to animals- for a farmer at least.”
“But you wouldn’t trade all that in for someone wealthier, or luckier?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You won’t want to take a spirit horse and ride it to the unknowns of the otherworld just to get away from my brother, or your life with him, or Uskedale?”
“After the war I was glad to get home, glad to get back to Uskedale,” old man Siln said. “But you start to miss it, somehow.”
Onnul nodded, not sure what to say. He didn’t like the old man very much, one of the dwindling number who had fought in the wars up north. He gave fools like Osmunnd ideas and expected a lot from people for what he did.
“Have you ever even been in a fight, Onnul?” Siln said, filling the gap.
“Since you became a man?”
He hated the old man’s tone. No, he hadn’t been in a fight since he turned sixteen. Mostly because he was a big man, and fast, and could make his points with his voice before he used his fists. But that kind of thing never mattered to men like Siln. Just like it didn’t matter to-
“Your Pa would know. He went through it. It’s not like the stories; glory comes later. And you want to be back home, but then home isn’t the same. You’re not the same. The life of a farmer, the spring planting and the fall harvest and all the goes between; it leaves you lacking; it leaves you wanting something. It leaves you wanting to fight.”
“Always a war on somewhere,” Onnul said, with just a little edge. It was the middle of the day and he had a day’s worth of work to do in the light that remained.
Siln shook his grizzled head, “Too old for that now. That’s a pastime for younger men.” He gave Onnul a look, with just a little edge.
What was that supposed to mean? That the old fool expected him to leave his farm and life and go fight for a general he’d never heard of and a king he’d never see? An admonishment that he should have taken the spirit horse already and likely be turned into a tree by now?
“So, are you here to tell war stories, or do you want to make an offer on the spirit horse?”
Old man Siln’s eyes gleamed like embers in the dusty dying light inside the house. Onnul leaned back, his chair creaking. Let the old man fill up the silence again.
“Six gold krowns. And what little silver I can get from my worthless daughter and her worthless husband.”
“That’s not very much,” Onnul said, just like Pa used to.
“I saved your father’s life!” Siln snarled, slamming his palm onto the table.
“That was a long time ago, neighbor.”
“If he were alive, he’d-“
“Get out,” Onnul said, standing.
When the next storm broke, the Clathan brothers ran out to check on the spirit horse, to make sure it was still securely tied in the barn. The darkness between the house and the barn was lit blazing bright by flashes of lightning, bright enough to show the barn door open and swinging hard in the wind. Inside, the dull light of lantern revealed that the ropes that had held the spirit horse had been cut.
Once the November storm had finally blown over, it was easy enough to figure out who took the spirit horse. Thorlinn Tathin was just another farmer’s boy, taller than most, and otherwise nobody that you’d look twice at in Uskedale. Neither of his parents, or any of his family had made an offer on the spirit horse. Nobody claimed to know why he would have done such a thing, being as he was known to be neither particularly clever or daring. And no, no, no he was perfectly happy, his father and mother insisted, never looking each other in the eye.
The years passed in Uskedale, and the Clathan brothers became the butt of many jokes at the Robin and Rat for having lucked into such a remarkable thing as a spirit horse but not having sense or courage or foresight to use it. Onnul finally got good and drunk one night and broke both of Little Ronnal’s thumbs over it. He started off to just break the one, but after he got started he went ahead and broke the other one, just to see if Big Allunn would take care of his little mouthy friend.
By then most of the people who had made an offer for the spirit horse avoided the Clathan brothers anyway: overcome, the brothers supposed, by the shared shame of the knowledge of their misery and the fact they didn’t have sense or courage or foresight to get out of it.
The brothers’ life was good, but hard. They had two of the three good years they needed, then a bad one, then a decent one. Typical farmer’s lives.
They finally sold their house and their farm and most of their livestock. Onnul and his wife Marjin moved two valleys over to Elnudale. Dulnal disappeared with Imilsk and nobody knew where they went, although Harrond swore up and down he knew where they were. Runnyan got good and drunk one night and broke Herrond’s nose at the Black Bull.