That’s right. It’s not a flash fiction. It’s not a poem. It’s not a preview. It’s a full-fledged short story!
The White Rider
Feet pattered quickly along the dirt path. It was a natural path, worn into the land. At times it grew as narrow as one foot beside another. Other times it grew wide enough to permit a carriage drawn by four thoroughbred horses. It was a wild trail; its shape was akin to a slithering snake, dodging boulders and winding through the tall grass.
This was not a path that been consciously shaped and paved. This was no Illyssian road, built by the high kings with hairs like precious metals and flowing light- shimmering copper, glistening gold, and sparkling silver- long gone. This was a peasant’s path, a shepherd’s path.
The age of empires had passed and now was little more than a half-remembered dream. This was the day of little kingdoms and littler kings. It was the era of violence and division; it was the time of harsh men and harsher blades. This was the Age of War.
The young girl who fled down the twisting, wild path knew little of history, empires, or kings and cared less. She lived an existence that could only be described as simple- though it was far from being without peril. The fear in her eyes- green flaked with brown, like trees at autumn’s dawn and summer’s end- attested to this, as did the beads of sweat upon her brow.
She wore a simple dress, sewn from the rough and simple materials available to and favored by farmers and their kin. It was an olive green, the colour of soft moss, and it was patched with an even rougher material of earthy brown. Around her shoulders was draped a thick cloak made of tougher material than the dress. It was a dusky grey, like the fur of the donkey her neighbors owned.
Her hair, which had not felt the touch of a brush that day and was full of wild twists and curls, fell behind her as she ran. It was unwashed and rough- much like her attire- and the colour of hay or dry grass.
She gave little thought to her appearance. At the moment, her thoughts were only of survival.
Behind her on that dusty trail in the plains of Canderas were two men, their dark-haired horses kicking up a cloud of dust with each powerful movement. It would not do to call them knights or soldiers. These were men without discipline or allegiance. They waged war upon their own authority and no other’s. These were the rough men of the wilds.
Some called them outlaws. Others called them raiders.
They were men of the woods; they were men of pine and oak. They were hunters and scavengers. These were men whose homes had no walls and whose roofs were green leaves and distant stars.
Some of the outlaws of Canderas were good men- noble and pure of heart. They had forsaken the towns, castles, and kings to live in the wilds and feel a primeval freedom others had forgotten.
The men chasing the girl were not men like these.
These men were men of violence and savagery. They stole, fought, and killed for survival and sport alike.
Chasing the girl was sport.
The girl dashed across a small bridge of aged planks that ran over a small river now run dry. Rough boards creaked in protest under her feet but stood firm. She made a silent prayer in thanks that they had not fallen under her feet- and a second for deliverance from the two riders, clothed in brown and leather-helmed, who dashed across the bridge scarcely a minute after she did.
Oh please, she cried in silence and exhaustion, if any gods or spirits hear my plea- save me.
It was a prayer her mother had taught her when she was young. It was as old as it was simple. It was perhaps less a prayer and more a desperate cry for help- any help.
Now ahead of her trees loomed, shooting up from grassy ground like giants- mighty and firm, their branches drawing close together above the path. Ahead was an endless expanse of grey-brown trees beset by pastel-green moss and leaves that cast darks shadows on the ground.
There were many who feared the woods, for in such places, traces of old magic still dwelt and lurked in shadows- magic both wondrous and sinister.
The girl clutched the small token that hung around her neck on a piece of tough twine. It was iron, fashioned into the shape of a miniature horseshoe. They said that iron would kill any spirits who had not protected themselves by clothing themselves in the living flesh of another and that the touch of iron felt like burning fire to elves. Besides, she feared what lay ahead far less than she feared what was behind.
She ran fearlessly into the shadows of the forest. Her pursuers were close behind and gaining quickly. She knew she couldn’t outrun them for long.
The forest echoed with the sound of hooves upon dirt and leaves. Her pursuers rode single file now. There was no other way to make it between the trees.
The girl could feel exhaustion creeping up on her as swift as the raiders. Her throat felt rough and dry; her legs felt as heavy as sandbags, growing harder and harder to lift. Her feet were sore and bleeding, stinging each time they struck the earth. Her sides felt like they had daggers in them and she was sure her lungs were empty.
She knew she couldn’t slow down. She knew she couldn’t stop. She knew with absolute certainty that she had to push on.
She had to run faster. She had to run harder. She had to run until her feet were raw and her lungs had burst.
She knew that, but she couldn’t help herself.
She stumbled- slowed- and then stopped. The path rose up to meet her, the earth embracing her, warm and soft as any bed. The twilight darkness seemed to dance around her eyes as she made her prayer once more. This time she spoke it aloud- with ragged breath and through dry, sore lips.
“Oh please, if any gods or spirits hear my plea,” she whispered and could hear the weakness in her voice, “save me!”
“No one can hear you.”
The first rider dismounted his horse and walked towards her. She could barely see him. “No one’s listening.”
She tried to rise, to run, to fight, to do something, but she couldn’t. She didn’t have the strength.
The other rider grabbed her by her arms and lifted her up into the air. She cried out and felt tears stream down her face.
“Quiet!” the raider snapped.
He stepped closer- too close. She tried to pull back, but couldn’t. She was stuck there, hanging in midair like a scarecrow. His hand slashed out, striking her hard across the cheek. She bit her tongue to stop herself from crying.
“Any more trouble and you get worse,” the raider said.
The raider grabbed ahold of her token of iron- her little horseshoe- and tore it off her neck, snapping it off the twine. He held it up before her eyes.
“You think something like this will protect you?” he asked. “A little piece of iron?”
He threw it to the ground and stamped it into the earth.
“There’s worse than elves in these woods,” he hissed. “There’s us.”
Then the girl saw something through her darkening vision, moving slowly through the trees- a pale shape, white as fresh-fallen snow. It passed between bushes and tree trunks, obscured from view. She couldn’t see what it was, but she could see it was moving closer. It strode gently across the ground. Its hooves- and she could see now that they were hooves- touched the forest floor so softly that they made no noise.
“What are you looking at?” the raider who wasn’t holding her asked, turning his head. He saw nothing but trees and more trees- an endless mass of browns and greens.
The horses whinnied loudly- then turned and fled, moving as swiftly as they could back down the path they had come into the forest by.
The girl’s captor released her as both he and his comrade raced after their horses. The girl fell to the ground, forgotten. With their most important possessions threatened, the raiders had no time for toys.
Relieved of their burden and with a head start, it was no contest for the horses to outpace their former riders. Moved by a supernatural fear, they were soon gone from sight, leaving behind only a lingering cloud of dust and a trail of hoof marks in the soft earth.
As the sound of hooves faded into the distance, all became deathly quiet. Then there came a sound from behind them and the girl, her face in the dirt, smiled softly. The raiders turned.
There upon a patch of moss, lit only by the dwindling twilight, stood a white horse.
It was a magnificent horse, pale as the moon and with a mighty mane of hair. It was as far above the horses that had fled as a lion was above a kitten. Its dark eyes bore into the raiders with a terrible fury.
Its rider was no less fearsome.
He would have stood six feet tall upon his own two feet and was taller in his saddle. His clothes consisted of a long white tunic, trousers of mail, and a travelling cloak that draped over him like the robes of a king. There was scarcely any dirt upon his attire.
His face was concealed beneath a magnificent helm- cylindrical, tall, and with a narrow eye slit through which nothing could be seen but darkness. Gloves of fabric and metal covered his hands from the tips of his fingers to past his wrist. The raiders could not see an inch of his flesh, nor a trace of his eyes.
For a moment, all was still. It was a surreal sort of quiet- like a dream. But this was no dream.
The two raiders looked at each other and then drew their weapons. The girl winced as she saw them- short, cruel, rusted blades that seemed crafted solely to kill slowly and with a maximum of pain.
The White Rider looked at both of them in silence. Then he reached beneath the folds of his cloak and produced a mighty sword of steel that shone brightly even in the dim twilight woods. He grasped it with both hands, holding it rigid and vertical. He looked almost like a chess piece or a statue.
Still astride his horse, he made no further move. He waited.
The two raiders glanced nervously at one another, uncertain of what to do. Their fingers fidgeted; their daggers wavered.
Still the White Rider stood firm. He was as unmoving as a mountain and as unrelenting as a mighty river.
At last, the two raiders charged together, crying loudly their warrior’s calls, designed to distract or frighten their foes.
The White Rider was neither distracted nor frightened.
He swung his blade twice- and only twice. Both moves were precise and measured. The sharp and clean steel slashed through the air. He then returned it to its scabbard. He would have no more need of it.
The girl gazed up at him, but her gaze wavered as darkness seemed to creep in on all sides. The last thing she saw was the rider dismounting his horse and moving slowly towards her, his armored hand reaching down towards her.
It was dark now- a deep darkness broken only by the light of the moon and the stars scattered through the sky. Those stars were the only witnesses as a white horse and rider traversed a narrow, winding path through fields of long and wild grass. They trundled along slowly, with no great haste.
In the strong arms of the White Rider, protected from the bitter cold of the night by his soft, white cloak, was the girl, her green dress stained by dirt and her hair the colour of hay falling softly about her shoulders.
On her face was a look of deep contentment. It was the kind of contentment reached only in a child’s sleep.
She smiled softly and snuggled closer to the folds of her rescuer’s cloak, her eyes still closed to the black night as the White Rider carried her safely on.
The house stood alone in the middle of wide, scorched fields. It had been crafted from wooden beams with a roof of thatched straw. Now it was a burnt-out wreck, charred black as the night.
Animals roamed freely through the fields, searching for food and eating as they wished. Their pens were no more, shattered by brutal and ruthless force.
They had come with fire and with steel, laying all to waste before them. These raids were not uncommon. The more vicious outlaws were always in need of three things: food, goods, and entertainment. The raids provided all three.
Two people- a man and a woman, both middle-aged with hair a mix of hay and iron- sat upon the doorstep of this burnt-out shell. A blackened doorframe stood over them, stronger and firmer than the walls it had been a part of.
The woman’s head was upon the man’s shoulder. Her half-closed eyes were sore and red from shedding tears until none were left to come. He took her hands in his, trying to give her some comfort.
He had no comfort for himself.
But then he saw the shape upon the horizon. It was little more than a white dot amidst the dark. He thought it looked like an earthbound star, moving steadily towards them.
Then the shape became more distinct- both the shape of the mighty horse and its powerful legs, its elegant neck, its pale flank and the shape of its rider. The White Rider seemed to cast a light all of his own as bright as the moon and the shimmering curtain of stars that blazed in the night sky, though it may simply have been a reflection from the white.
The middle-age farmer rose to his feet. His wife started, her eyes growing wide as she saw the rider coming steadily towards them.
The White Rider didn’t race or charge but neither did he tarry. He simply moved with a quiet, unyielding confidence and constancy.
Within a moment, he had stopped in front of them, towering above. He regarded them through a featureless helm that showed no eyes. A moment passed and then at last, he spoke, in a voice that seemed at once to be distant as the white shores of Marihad, powerful as a roaring tide, ancient as the land itself, and as full of untiring youth and vigor as any young man.
“The raiders struck this place?”
The man nodded, but was unable to speak. He was too tired, too weak- not in flesh but in spirit. What is this man? he asked himself. Why does he care about the raiders? And if he does care, why wasn’t he here when it mattered?
“A young girl went missing.”
The woman spoke, her voice weak from wailing and her eyes welling with fresh tears. “Yes! Our daughter. She- They-”
The White Rider held up a hand and parted his cloak. There in his arms rested their daughter, sleeping as peacefully as ever a child did. He lifted her up and dismounted, placing her in the arms of her father.
He almost stumbled under the weight, but did not. His joy gave strength to his arms and his legs. He spoke, but could not find the words he needed.
“What- How did-”
The White Rider merely bowed his head solemnly. “I am sorry I could not do more.”
With that, he turned and rode off on his horse, off over distant fields and through distant woods. He faded from view like the sun at nightfall, his white cloak vanishing over the dark horizon.
When the girl awoke in the morning, she found that she was still missing her small iron token. She didn’t have another made.
There are many stories people told in Canderas of the White Rider, for this was not his first deed, nor would it be his last. Word of him spread like a creeping moss, moving slowly but relentlessly, engulfing everything by strength and resilience.
They told stories of the mysterious rider on his white horse who never let his face be seen. They told stories of his deeds and of his fight against evil, whatever form it might take. He was protector of the innocent and punisher of the guilty. He was defender of virtue and enemy of avarice. He was the champion of the common people and the avenger of the unjustly slain.
This they knew of him, but of his origins and face, there was nothing but speculation.
Some said that he was a ghost of an innocent slain who returned from the far shores lands beyond death to protect those like himself. Others said that he was an avenging angel, a tool of the gods. It was also said that he was an ancient spirit, a power that had lurked in Canderas since the world was young and man was but a newborn.
Still more said that he was a mantle- a legend and armor passed down from one mortal man to another. Others proclaimed a half-elf, a nigh-immortal who had survived the destruction of most of his kin.
Who he was remained unknown. What he did and what he stood for, however, were things no man could forget.
And on occasions, when twilight hovered softly over the land, a woman would walk through the woods, searching still for a sign of her childhood rescuer. All she ever found was a horseshoe of iron resting deep in rich earth, rusting as the elements worked their decay upon it.
But on some nights, when the moon hung low in the sky, she thought she saw- just for a fleeting moment that was less than a heartbeat- a white horse and rider looking back at her through the thick leaves and hanging branches of the forest…
Then they were gone, like a passing dream.