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A Mare in the Wind

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The snow-white mare’s hooves pounded against the moist soil, the wind whipping through her mane. Jenivyr Vayne balanced in the saddle atop the mare’s back, a smile broadly spread across her face. She had one hand gripping the reins tightly enough to turn her knuckles white while the other hand kept her new hat from blowing off her head. She imagined what her father would say and pretended to laugh in his face.

Here in the headlands, no one could tell her no. They couldn’t stop her from enjoying life when she was atop a horse, running like the wind. Where was she going? Officially, she had an appointment to keep with some lordling she was allegedly courting. In reality, she as going where the landscape told her to. She drifted here and there as the wished. The tension in the reins -- the feeling like at any moment she might slip and fly away – it was the best feeling in the world.

Then a jolt brought her back to her senses. Her heart skipped a beat as the mare stumbled. “Silkie! Whoa, girl!” She pulled up on the reins, eventually getting through to the horse that stopping would be a good idea. Jenivyr let out a long breath when they finally slowed to a trot. “Now what in the hell was that for? You’re supposed to be good at galloping through tough terrain!”

The mare snorted in reply, beginning to walk in a circle as if to give her rider a piece of her mind. Jenny giggled and patted the horse’s neck. “Alright, I admit that was a bit harder than usual. I’ll give you some extra apples when we get home. Now what made you trip up back there?”

She clicked her tongue and the mare started up a trot again. The rider inspected the area closely. The day was cloudy and the light was fading in the west, but Jenivyr’s eyes had always been sharp. She had no trouble spotting the issue. A woman, half-buried in the mud. She was dark of skin, yet looked unhealthily pale as though the blood had drained from her body. Thick, black curls caked in mud and dry blood covered her face. She outfit was so badly torn it was impossible to tell what quality it had been.

Jenivyr gasped a leapt off her horse. “Light!” she exclaimed, “Are you alright, miss?” She knelt beside the woman, took off her riding glove, and felt for a pulse. A faint beat drummed against her fingers. “Can you hear me?”

She brushed the hair out of the woman’s face and saw a flash of green, but it faded so fast she wondered if she had imagined it. The wounded woman’s face was covered in burns and scars, making her look gnarled like an old oak, but her dark eyes still held a shimmer of life before they shut. The woman slumped over, unconscious.

“Shit, shit, SHIT!” Jenivyr said, feeling panic wash over her. She was alone out here, having left home too quickly for anyone to follow her. How far had she ridden? Glancing about, she thought she recognized the general area. She was at least an hour’s ride from home, and the clouds were growing darker. A distant rumble punctuated the likelihood of a storm passing over.

And then there was the tracks. She saw them now, nearly hidden in the dark soil. Hoofprints. People had ridden this way. Ridden the woman down, in fact. Her body must have been pummeled in a dozen places, but miraculously she was still alive. The tracks were fresh. Could those people circle back around and finish the job?

Jenivyr shook her head and took a steadying breath. Worrying about those things wouldn’t help this woman. Steeling herself, she carefully lifted her with one hand beneath her neck and another tucked about her center of mass. It was rather shapely, she noticed. Okay, maybe not the best time to be paying attention to such things…

The woman was light enough that Jenivyr could get her up into the mare’s saddle, though she winced at the awkward position the woman was forced to lay in. Jenivyr climbed up and said, “Let’s go, Silkie!” The horse responded immediately, taking off at a quick pace. Jenivyr directed Silkie towards the rocky landscape to the east, where she would find cover from the incoming rain.

All the while, she watched the dying woman in her saddle. Who are you? What is your story?

Can I save you?

The rain began to fall.

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Raindrops fell from the porous cave ceiling in time with Jenivyr’s galloping heart. The woman’s breathing had become ragged as she’d dug into her saddle for her emergency medical supplies. “Please, hold on!” she begged the woman. “I swear I’ll save you!”

Not bothering to tie Silkie up, she hurried to kneel beside the woman, lying on Jen’s hastily splayed-out bedroll. Thunder boomed in the distance, setting the mare to nickering nervously. Jenivyr’s hands fumbled against the kit’s clasp before getting it open. Father, I’ll never complain about your insistence on putting medical kits everywhere ever again. She took up a pair of scissors and sheared the torn-up clothes from the woman’s body. Heart skipped a beat twice: first, when she saw just how battered the woman was, and second when she took in just how beautiful she was.

“Dammit, Jen! Get a grip!” She tossed the scissors aside and took up the vial of antibiotic medicine, quickly applying it to every open wound in sight. The worst by far as the gash on the woman’s ribs. Recalling her anatomy training, Jenivyr recognized it as the bottom of the woman’s left lung. That would explain the difficulty breathing.

Once every wound was treated for infection, Jenivyr moved on to the lung wound. If the lung was punctured, the rapid breathing was bound to collapse it eventually. Jenivyr produced a hollow needle from the kit and carefully chose a spot. She’d practiced this treatment on a pig carcass but doing it to a live human was entirely different. Do it, or she’ll die, she told herself.

She pierced the woman’s chest and twisted the needle until blood shot out the handle, spraying her in the face. The woman gasped, then slowly steadied her breathing. Jenivyr noticed that her eyes were open again.

“Um, hi,” she said, smiling nervously. “My name is Jenivyr. I found you out there all by yourself. But I’m here to help you now, okay?” She withdrew the needle and traded it for a bottle of red liquid. “I have something for you to drink. It’s a potion my father made. Top-notch stuff. Well, it’s not brandy or anything, but it’ll make you feel a whole lot better.”

The woman nodded slowly. Jenivyr smiled. She slid up to the woman’s head and gently leaned it back. The woman opened her mouth, chin trembling. With great care, Jen poured the red liquid. Before long, color returned to the woman’s fine mahogany skin. Just as quickly, she fell back to sleep.

Jenivyr took a deep breath. The immediate danger was past, but now she had a lot of work to do to get the wounds stitched and bound. Rain pounded outside as she worked, nimble hands passing a needle and thread through each wound. When she began to fish for a roll of bandages, a sudden flash of light and subsequent BOOM rattled the entire cave.

Silkie tossed her head, screaming. She tried to rear up but lacked the room, which made her panic even more. Jenivyr gasped as the horse bolted out into the night. “No! Come back, girl!” She began to run after the horse, but paused and glanced back at the naked woman, stitched-up like an old doll and shivering in her sleep.

“I promise I’ll be right back,” Jenivyr said, then turned and ran out into the storm.

The wind buffeted her, causing her riding cap to flap angrily against her back. She felt for her hat but winced when she found her head bare. When had she lost it? She was in for a tongue-lashing from Matron Thalia whenever she managed to get home.

Silkie was running about wildly, whinnying at the top of her lungs. Jenivyr sprinted with the wind to follow, managing to slip ahead of the horse. She held up her hands and called out, “WHOA! STOP, SILKIE!”

The mare stopped running and shifted in place, still rolling her eyes at the booming thunder. Jenivyr took the reins and stroked Silkie’s nose. “There, there. Shh, it’s ok,” she said gently. Her voice soothed the mare to the point where a nearby boom only rattled her slightly. Jenivyr led the horse back towards the safety of the outcropping but halted when she saw a figure in the distance.

It was the silhouette of a knight in full plate armor atop a horse carrying a polearm and a shield. The wicked crescent-shaped blade at the end of his weapon shimmered hazily. A flash of lightning gave Jenivyr a glimpse of a band of riders trotting up alongside the first. None was as heavily armored, but each was menacing and eerie.

Trembling, Jenivyr yanked Silkie’s reins and ran to the rocks, thankful that the horse followed without needing a verbal command. Did they see me? Are they going to ride me down like they did that woman?

Once she reached the safety of the outcropping, she waited to listen for their thundering hoofbeats, but with the storm she couldn’t have distinguished it from the rain anyway. She covered her mouth to keep her breaths quiet, too afraid they might somehow hear her. Silkie nickered softly beside her.

“Jenivyr…Vayne,” a voice whispered from behind her. Jenny shrieked and pulled her hunting knife from its sheath, whirling about into a defensive stance. She paused when she saw the woman, hugging herself as she shivered violently. She seemed barely conscious yet stared at Jen with pleading eyes. “It is…them…isn’t it? The riders.”

Jenivyr glanced out at the rain, knife still in hand. “Yes,” she answered. “Whoever they are, I guess they must have been the ones who did this to you. I hope – I think they’re gone.”

“Then…please…fire. I…cannot feel anything…but the cold.”

Jenivyr frowned. “I don’t think I could make a fire with what we have. No tinder and nothing dry. And all of my clothes are soaked through.” She quickly hitched Silkie to a jut of rock and approached the woman. She helped tuck her into the bedroll, which was thankfully dry inside.

The woman’s teeth chattered violently. “I…think I am dying,” she said, her voice little louder than a breath.

Jenivyr felt torn up inside. She felt so helpless, sitting there as the woman’s life ebbed away. Tears blinded her. “I—I’m so sorry…I’m worthless. My own father knows it, even if he won’t tell me. He sent me to the middle of nowhere so I couldn’t embarrass him. If he were here, he’d know what to do. But it had to be me. It’s a sick, cruel joke!”

The woman’s hand reached for Jenivyr’s. “No…not worthless. At least…I’m not alone.”

Jenivyr took the hand and squeezed it. “Can you tell me your name?” she said, stifling a sob.

The woman’s eyes closed again, a weak shiver racking through her. “Deirdre,” she whispered.

“Deirdre. That’s a beautiful name. It suits you.” Jenivyr choked out a laugh. “Oh, look at me. Even now, I can’t help but make a poor attempt at flirting. I’m sorry.”

Deirdre replied, “You…like women?”

“Yes. People like me aren’t widely talked about among nobles. That sort of thing is usually reserved for extramarital affairs. But I can’t seem to hold onto a courtship for longer than a week, anyway. Men don’t take me seriously.” She looked down at her fancy men’s hunting clothes and sighed. “It’s pretty clear why, is it not?”

Deirdre’s eyes flickered open. Her thumb rubbed Jenivyr’s dripping hand gently. “I bet…they’re just jealous.”

Jen managed a smile. “You’re just saying that.”

“I’m dying. What reason do I have…to lie?” She offered Jenivyr a tired smile. “As far as I’m concerned…you’re ten times greater…than any knight. Any self-proclaimed…hero.”

Jenivyr’s heart sank again. “If I was a real hero, I could have saved you.”

“Perhaps…there is a way.”

Jenivyr perked up. “What do you mean?”

“I…have some magical knowledge.” Deirdre’s eyes flashed at Silkie. “How attached are you…to the horse?”

Jenivyr blinked. “Um…what kind of magic are you talking about?”

“The kind…that can save my life. All you must do…is sacrifice the horse. Slit its throat over me. The blood and soul…will do the rest. Please. It’s my last…chance.”

Jenivyr gashed her teeth, heart pounding again. She’s…a blood mage! One of those warlocks like from the war stories! She looked down at the hand still entwined with her own. But she’s also a person. A human being. What is that compared to the life of one horse?

She set Deirdre’s hand down gently and stood. She approached Silkie, guilt tugging at her gut. She stroked the mare’s nose and received a gentle nudge in return. But Silkie never hurt anyone. She’s not guilty of any crime…how can I think to kill her so unfairly?

“Jenivyr…please, hurry.” Deirdre’s voice seemed as thin as a veil now. Wispy as a ghostly hand on her face. She gripped the hilt of her knife, pulling the mare over to where the dying woman lay.

“I’m sorry, girl,” she said. Her eyes were full of tears as she drew the blade across the horse’s throat. The strength of her arm surprised and horrified her. Silkie moaned and spasmed as blood spurted from her neck. She kept twitching for a full minute until the light finally dimmed in her eyes.

Jenivyr stared at what she had done, feeling numb inside. The knife fell from her hand, making a dull clatter. Rain fell outside and thunder boomed, but this time the horse did not give her nervous answer. A deep revulsion crawled up Jenivyr’s throat.

She almost didn’t notice the crimson and fel-green lights dancing about Deirdre’s body. The woman chanted something in a language Jen had never heard before. Her voice was deep and forceful with a power a dying woman shouldn’t have had. She convulsed much as Silkie had, the lights flowing into her like falls of blood and fire. And then it went dark and silent save for a gentle green glow from the woman’s eyes. Deirdre drew in a deep breath and exhaled, sounding satisfied as one finishing a fine wine.

“Thank you, Jenivyr,” the warlock said. The dull green light faded slowly as her eyes crept closed. “I owe you my life.” She seemed to fall asleep then.

Jenivyr spent the rest of the night huddled against the rocky wall, soaked with rain and blood.

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