Last, reckless hope. That is all that kept Leinos standing in a driving rain staring into the spiraling mouth of the Ravery. The blurry opening grew larger by the moment. Yesterday, the portal had been no more than obscure myth. Today, terrifying truth. At his shoulder, his lifelong friend, Pheeso, who hated rain, gawked at the mysterious threshold, his lips set in a thin line and his face bloodless.
Two strides farther on, third-degree sage Vraz and high crone Sebira gazed at the yawning maw of the Ravery with fascination, not fear. Soon, they would dive into it. Or through it. No one knew for certain what it held or where it led. They risked everything on very slim chance. The downpour slicked the crone’s thin white hair against her head. Rain splashed off Vraz’s already bare crown. Sebira waved her arms through the air, coaxing the Ravery open. Tiny flames shot between her fingers and the vortex.
“If this is the mouth,” Vraz shouted over thunder and wind, “there is no escaping an exit through its ass.”
The comment did nothing to calm the pounding in Leinos’s head. Wherever they landed, Sebira intended to keep the portal open while Vraz searched that other place for the one they desperately needed. The high crone made vague references to a dream, a message received, and the certainty they would find the Horsecaller on the other side.
Leinos clapped a hand on the sage’s soaked shoulder. “Someone has to be first,” he said. “And when it spits you back out here, you will bring a Horsecaller. You will be heroes.”
If the Ravery returned them, Leinos thought. If the murky legends were true. If, indeed, the Ravery was a gate, and one that worked both ways.
It had to be.
Pheeso backed away. “Maybe this is the ass end,” he said. “But I am too pissing old to stand in a cold deluge waiting for a deranged sage and a mad crone to make up their minds.”
“Our minds are made, old man,” Sebira said. “The Horsecaller is there. We merely await the Ravery. It fully opens only at the height of the storm.”
With a grunt, Pheeso pulled the sodden hood of his cloak farther over his eyes, leaned against the broad trunk of a tree, and feigned sleep.
Blue light crackled through the clearing, and a clap of thunder nearly knocked them off their feet. Leinos held his ground and watched the Ravery swirl faster, sparks appearing at the center.
The familiar scents of wet dirt, wool, and leather were swept aside by a fusty combination of burning hair and rotten eggs. The storm darkened the morning to an unnatural green dusk, but he could still see the Ravery’s edges growing larger, obliterating the sheer rock face behind it.
The sage’s head barely reached Leinos’s chest but Vraz stood stave straight, facing the unknown. He was old, but it was hard to tell with sages. And Sebira? Ancient. The last of the living to know a horse. Her eyes gleamed with excitement. Cirq would never be able to repay them for what they were about to attempt.
“It is not too late to say no,” Leinos said.
Vraz’s shoulders hitched almost imperceptibly beneath his cloak. “You have already tried everything else,” he said. “Your exact words were, ‘it is our only hope.’”
True, not that Leinos needed reminding. If they failed, Cirq ceased to exist. He held Vraz’s intense gaze a moment, then nodded and stepped back.
Sebira stretched her hands toward the center of the spiral and get sucked in like spit going down the drain. Vraz grabbed the hem of her cloak and followed. The Ravery shrank on a watery whoosh and snapped shut with a hiss. Leinos and Pheeso jumped.
The thunder and wind stopped, and the clouds tore away. They were left standing in silence.
Lauren Gallagher dumped a wheelbarrow full of manure and studied the sky. Wind shredded the remaining clouds, and bright sunshine lit autumn’s wet leaves like a million tiny mirrors. The storm had been brief and intense. Nothing like fall in New England. Taking a deep breath of the crisp, newly washed air, she whispered a brief prayer of thanks. The busy training stable was closed, and its owner, her brother Steven, took the day to visit their mother in the nursing home. Lauren had the place—and the horses—to herself.
One more stall, and she could ride. This was her favorite time, after a downpour, when all the wood’s colors stood out in vivid relief, and the earth smelled of freshly sliced mushrooms. Pindar enjoyed a good gallop, and Steven had said the stallion needed work, his way of asking her to put the horse through his paces. Steven didn’t get along with the quirky gray, but Lauren loved him, even if he could be unpredictable.
She sifted through the last stall’s bedding, tossing manure and wet wood shavings into the wheelbarrow, and wondered for the umpteenth time how she—an indifferent scholar—had ended up writing computer code, and Steven—brilliant in college—got to play with horses all day.
Then she remembered her husband, Darren. Her ex-husband as of this morning. Who she had fallen in love with long before she knew what love was, and who didn’t like horses. An accountant who’d crunched more than numbers with his young assistant. She’d found him working late. In the conference room. On the conference room table with his assistant. Such a tired old story.
She didn’t like the feeling thoughts of him conjured up—as if she’d been punched in the gut. Especially today, when she should be celebrating a new beginning.
She stabbed the pitchfork into the bedding with more force than necessary flinging horse poop around the stall, making more work for herself. But that was okay, because she loved being with the horses, loved everything to do with them, including flinging horse poop. For that, she was thankful. Thankful that when her marriage fell apart, it made sense to also leave the firm where they both worked. To walk away from the pain.
Darren was Hydracode—the kind where one fix results in two more bugs. The kind that can’t be fixed and should be rewritten. She, on the other hand, was a Reality 100 failure—a program that does exactly what is asked, but when deployed, it turns out the original problem was misunderstood. A completely useless program.
No more. She’d ditched the unfixable code and was in the process of rewriting her own program.
The prospect of being in her late forties, single, and jobless had worried her at first. Then, she’d rediscovered horses and riding. She’d always helped Steven with his web presence. Now, she worked for him full time. Suddenly, she hadn’t minded being single again. Except for sleeping on his couch. She loved him and even got along with her sister-in-law and enjoyed their very loud children, but she needed to get her own place, and she would, as soon as she could afford it.
Life had become predictable again. No more surprises.
She tilted the last barrowful down the hillside. That’s when she saw the odd man striding out of the woods. Odd, if only because he’d obviously been walking in the storm. He wore a long, hooded cloak. The shiny cloth reminded her of a school of fish with their multi-hued scales, moving together as a unit, turning and banking, bright one moment and fading in the depths the next.
As he gained the base of the hill, he pushed back his hood, shook out long, gray hair, and laughed.
She tried to think if she’d ever seen him at the place where her mother lived. There were a few there who’d lost touch with reality. But he didn’t look familiar. An unsettling feeling crept up the back of her neck, like a damp fingertip tracing her spine.
She left the wheelbarrow and sprinted to the barn to call the police, but he slipped in front of her before she could enter the office.
“You.” Celery green eyes stared from under bushy black brows.
Impossible to cover so much ground so quickly. Her heartbeat kicked up and she went cold. “How’d you do that?”
“You,” he said again, not accusing, but as if in recognition and with a hint of surprise.
She took a step back. Why, on the one day she was here alone? She smiled in an effort to look harmless. But not helpless—she still held the pitchfork. “We’re closed. If you come back tomorrow, my brother will help you. Actually, he’s just on the other side of the barn,” she lied.
His pale eyes and how he looked too happy to be soaking wet made her nervous. He smelled like a combination of the worst greasy spoon and a wet dog. Jack, the barn’s resident black Labrador, chose that moment to trot around the corner. The big dog came to her side and pushed his nose under her free hand. He looked at the stranger curiously, but didn’t growl. That made her feel a little better.
The stranger stared at the dog with wide eyes, shifting his walking stick into both hands. His cloak lifted on a breeze she didn’t feel. Jack wagged his tail. She trusted Jack, but after the old man flew up the hill like that—okay, she hadn’t seen him fly, but how else?
She went into the office, making sure Jack followed, but letting the screen door slam in the man’s face, acutely aware he could have stopped her. The stick he carried was taller than both of them and tipped with a metal point. The hands that gripped it were gnarled with age, but not frail.
He studied her through the wire panel, like she was an insect, like he could see inside her.
Without taking her eyes off him, Lauren kept hold of the pitchfork, cradled the phone against her shoulder, and reached for the coffee pot. If necessary, she would throw the hot liquid in his face. Why she felt so threatened by him, she couldn’t say.
His cloak shifted from orange to red to gold like flames licking the inside of a blacksmith’s forge. It captivated her, and for some reason, she didn’t dial 911. He smiled kindly. She instantly relaxed, feeling as if she’d known him her whole life. No, that wasn’t right. If he could get up the hill as fast as he had, could he manipulate her thoughts?
“You have nothing to fear from me,” he said, his voice rolling into her like hot cocoa on a winter’s day. “I am Vraz. Can you show me a horse?”
No accent she could place, but an odd lilt. Something was off. Lauren put the phone in its cradle and poured a cup of coffee, glad to see her hand shook only a little. With a breath, she steadied herself. She’d had years of experience concealing her true feelings.
“You want to buy a horse?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. And a rider to go with it.”
She stifled a bubble of nervous laughter. “We don’t sell riders.”
“Ah. Just a horse, then.”
No joking with this guy. Lauren put her coffee down and took a steadying breath. “What sort of horse are you looking for? Pleasure or competition?”
The bushy brows pushed together as if he’d never considered it. “Courageous,” he said. “Strong. A leader. One who listens well and gathers others to him.”
Sounded more like qualities to seek in a job applicant than a mount. She sipped her coffee and thought of Pindar. He was strong and courageous, if a bit reckless at times. She’d never been able to resist him, and they communicated well. She hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it was true.
Steven would like nothing better than to sell the gray. She should have bought him for herself long ago. But Darren didn’t like horses and the divorce had left her short of funds. Another of the little surprises she’d discovered in the wake of the sinking ship of her marriage. Her ex had spent much of their savings entertaining his girlfriend. Her brother would let her pay for the horse over time, but he needed an influx of cash, too. Badly. The six-year-old stallion, Pindar, was his most valuable asset.
She left the office and walked down the barn aisle toward Pindar’s paddock, Jack padding along beside her. Steven would never forgive her when he heard they’d had a customer, and she hadn’t shown the gray.
“Is this horse for yourself, or are you looking on someone else’s behalf?”
“Not for me, no.”
“For a child?” A stallion wouldn’t be an appropriate mount for the inexperienced.
“Certainly not,” he said as if she’d suggested the moon were pink.
She hesitated at his incredulous tone. “Okay, well, I can show you what we have, and if you see any prospects you like, then you’ll bring the person who’ll be riding the horse, right?”
A momentary pause, then, “Of course.”
They stopped just inside the back barn doors. Lauren watched Pindar cropping grass at the far end of his enclosure. Sunlight glinted off contours of sleek muscles beneath his smoky coat. She’d turned him out after the storm, so he was dry. He stamped a foot, bringing attention to his perfectly clean limbs. A little thrill tingled through her. He’d been a steady friend all through her crappy marriage and messy divorce. The one who always listened and made her laugh.
Could she part with him?
She looked at Mr. Vraz. “What’s your budget?”
He’d been gazing out at the horses in the paddocks and pastures with a look of wonder and delight. “They are all so beautiful,” he said, his tone wistful.
Beneath the strange cloak—she itched to pinch a hunk of it—his loose dark green leggings and matching shirt looked like they were made of felted wool. Small wonder he smelled like a wet dog. Suede boots reached to mid-calf. A wide leather strap crossed from shoulder to hip and supported a messenger-style pack. All looked hand made and expensive. And the walking stick—quarterstaff—that’s what it was, judging by the rest of his getup. He could have stepped out of the local Renaissance fair. If it were May instead of October.
“Budget?” he asked.
“Yes. What can you afford?”
He dipped his chin to his chest as if this were the deepest question he’d ever pondered, then looked her steadily in the eye.
“My life would not be too much.”