Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 159

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Nothing Is Free

They heard the horse’s hooves before they saw her and her rider. A single rider. The stone that surrounded the village meant that it was impossible for anyone armed to sneak up. The sounds echoed over and over. They made approaching strangers seem closer than they were and gave the villagers more than enough time to prepare for most eventualities. It was difficult to raise crops, true, but they’d never been trampled by armies of any stripe. It helped that they had protection, naturally enough. No one was likely to forget about that, but it was often pleasant enough to dream that it wasn’t there.

“Nothing is free,” mused the guard to the soldier, thinking about his charge. His job came with pay. He wasn’t likely to stand out here in the elements for nothing. His job also came with conditions, enough that he often wondered if it was in fact worth the pay. “Not even work.” So far he had failed entirely to draw the man Bulat out from his silence. The guard was used to this. His periodic employment rarely afforded him talkative prisoners. He only worked when there were prisoners and prisoners came infrequently enough. The guard received money regularly regardless. Getting paid for being home was wonderful. Getting paid to stand by suffering always made him uncomfortable. Each and every time he hoped to engage a prisoner and find some common ground. “No wars for you, then? No uncertain loyalties?”

Clip clop. Clip clop. Clip clop.

“Next chance,” announced the guard to the soldier as if the soldier didn’t know that himself already. The rider was not the first to come through and see the guard, the soldier in stocks, and the viciously-learning children in the town square. The guard sighed. He rather preferred it when there were no travelers. This would be the fourth person through and would be the fourth rejection. He didn’t like offering false hope, but there were things he had to say and “Next chance” was one of them.

It is not true that one horse sounds like another. Horses laden with grain walk differently from those trained for battle. Those might be extreme examples, but you get my point. The man on the mare, however, gave very little indication of the kind of person he was by the sound of his horse. A healthy animal, not too burdened, moving quickly but without haste. This rider wasn’t concerned about anything in particular, that was clear. When they emerged into the plaza, the guard straightened up and said to his prisoner, “Head up, now. You know the drill.”

The soldier did not raise his head. The children had scattered to the edges of the square in twos and threes.

“Welcome to you, sir,” called out the guard.

The rider stopped his steed, though one hoof after another continued to paw at the ground as if it were the horse who was hurrying more than the master. The man took in the view and the view took in the man.

He wore a leather shirt the color of old bronze over a dirty tunic, and more of the same covered his legs. His boots seemed to be coming apart at the seams. He rode like someone trained in fighting but there was no obvious weapon of consequence anywhere on his person, only a large dagger hilt, nothing that was good for much more than skinning an animal. His beard testified to his time on the road.

The man looked at the guard and the prisoner. “Is that how you welcome all your visitors?”

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