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The horses sprinted through the winding streets of Teimsfeld. Sweat dripped down my arms and neck in small rivulets. I looked over my shoulder again and again. I could practically feel the men chasing us.
"We need to ditch the carriage; they'll recognize it," Logan said, breaking me out of my thoughts.
"Can we afford the time?"
"We must. They know what we're driving. Plus, a royal carriage is easy to track. Most people will notice one of the king's coaches. And we can't take it on a mountain road anyway."
"And where are we to get horses?"
"A public stable or we'll just steal them!"
I scoffed, but he cut me off. "Stealing a few horses will be the least of our worries soon. Fuchs is bound to deploy hundreds of soldiers to find us. We're to have murdered the second most important man in the kingdom. The people will rally to find us."
He was right of course. I began looking about for a stables. Although we passed many riders, none were in a pair. The streets flashed by and curses from pedestrians called after us. It was insane. We had little idea of where to go. Logan just steered us towards the looming mountains, and our chosen streets ran nearer to the shadowy peaks. After a time, the houses began to thin, and the occasional plot of open land began to appear. Then small farms dotted our path, and finally, we were free of the city. To my astonishment, we'd seen no pursuit as of yet.
At last, Logan let out a shout and pointed. On our right, three horses stood saddled next to a small farmhouse. Without a moment to lose, my friend swung the reins about, careening our carriage off the road and onto the small path leading to the house. Clods of dirt flying about us, Logan wrestled the team of horses to a halt and leapt down from the carriage. I followed, adjusting my uniform.
At our approach, the farmer and two men, who looked to be hired hands, stepped outside, gawking. "G-good afternoon sirs," stuttered the farmer, his brows furrowed. "What b-brings you here?"
Logan waved a hand. "There's no time for that. We need your horses in the king's name. Are they fresh? Are they reliable mounts?"
The man's face went through a series of emotions. I could glimpse terror, resentment, and confusion all pass before his eyes. "But of course. W-we'd just saddled them for a tour of the fields. They'll serve f-finely."
"Very well," I said. "His Majesty the king thanks you and will send payment later. If our compatriots follow, we are going ahead to the east." I figured I'd at least attempt to throw off pursuit. They'd likely never believe our diversion, but it was a start.
"One last thing. Where is the mountain road to Luden?" asked Logan.
"Didn't your friend just say you was headin' east? Why do you need the L-luden road then?"
Logan exploded. "Because a personal guard to the king just bloody asked you, miserable peasant! Tell us!"
The poor farmer quailed before the onslaught. "Yes, good sir. I was only wondering. That path's straight north. In fact, if you just keep going the way you were heading, this road will lead onto the Luden pass. You can't miss it."
Without another word, we threw our legs into the saddle, mounting with ease. They were indeed good horses, and I was surprised at the quality. Poor farmers generally didn't possess such mounts, but with a prayer of thanks for good fortune, I put it from my mind. Spurring the beasts, we launched back down the road, leaving the unfortunate farmer in a veil of dust. I hoped ill wouldn't befall him. The man had no concept of regicide or political machinations; he was only a simple worker.
Speeding onwards, we passed farm carts, trotting ponies, and walking peasants, all bearing farming tools. In spite of our race, the ride was pleasant. The smell of fresh air and the dark odor of tilled earth filled our noses as the scenes passed by. Amidst the sunlight and gentle breeze, I tried not to dwell on Jacob. All the same, images of his back, covered by a blanket of blood with worried monks swarming about continued to fill my mind. Driving those thoughts away, I forced myself to concentrate.
Breathing deeply, I urged the horse onwards, propelling it faster with my own fervor. If we failed to stop Fuchs' man, our lives and the country we rode through would be forfeit. Riktenburg would slip back into the mire of corruption and social order, a disease infesting much of the rest of Europe. With each footfall of the animal beneath me, I thought of begging widows, and the poor we glimpsed on the streets of Paris. Philip and Martin were enlightened, just men. One had already fallen for his egalitarian ideas. We couldn't, we mustn't let the other twin die.
Nearby, Logan's horse galloped neck and neck with mine, its rider stone-faced and frowning in concentration. We'd kill our animals if we kept this pace up for too long, but it was imperative to recover as much distance while we were still on the plains before the mountains. All the same, the ground around us began sloping upwards little by little. Boulders began dotting the nearby fields, and the farmland turned to wild forests of dark trees.
In time we came to the mountain highway. In contrast to the dusty road we'd just left, this highway was well paved. Large cobblestones, fitted with grooves to lessen erosion, lined the way. What's more, traffic became thicker. Merchants, their wares piled upon rickety carts, filled the road. Other travelers meandered along on foot, their staffs clinking on the stones. Small herds of animals plodded along, their herders cursing the other travelers. Never slackening, our horses galloped through this new mass of people. We refused to pause, causing some to throw themselves out of our way. We ran onwards.
The traffic thinned as we moved further and further up the road. It snaked along through the surrounding trees, an ever climbing forest. Crows screeched their calls through the branches, and the press of the woods bore down on us. Eventually, we slackened our pace, preserving our horses. Trotting along, we came suddenly into a swirling cloud of mist. Ethereal and lonely, the cloud wafted through the forest. I could taste the air, moist and flowing like a spring. All told, the writhing mist felt like death.
"Spooky, isn't it?" I leaned over to Logan. He nodded silently but refused to comment, absorbed in the fog about us. I settled back into my saddle then, letting the silence fall once more.
For what seemed like hours, we wandered through this mist. We passed very few people now, our pace having left the afternoon crowds behind. Alone together, we wound upwards along the path through the forest. Eventually even the trees disappeared. Rocky crags replaced them, and I hugged my jacket tighter about me, clapping my hands. Snow clung to certain rocks about us, and the paving on the highway grew more shoddy and worn. It hadn't been replaced in recent decades. All the while, the mist stayed with us.
We wandered, back and forth, along the twisting path. Occasionally, small rocks would roll down the cliffs around us and clatter onto the highway. While quite wide for a mountain road, the path would have been slow and treacherous for a carriage. I was thankful we'd left that behind.
The road finally began drifting downwards through the curtain of fog. We'd not descended more than an hour before I heard cattle's lowing ahead. Trees had started to appear again, but the fog was still as thick as ever. The sun was beginning to set, and the light was fading even further. As we rounded another curve in the highway, we saw them. A small herd of cattle, all identically white, appeared suddenly out of the mist. Their handlers walked behind, keeping the animals in line. The sight was ordinary until a slight breeze blew a pocket of clarity in the fog.
Just ahead of the cattle, a man trotted along. On his back was the distinctive black uniform of the palace royal guard.
"There he is!" hissed Logan. By this point, I was un-holstering my revolver, determined not to let him escape. We spurred our horses on faster, racing towards the cattle.
"Courtier!" cried Logan into the wind. The man ahead suddenly stopped and turned his horse about, confusion evident upon his face. Seeing our uniforms, a smile splayed across his lips. But even as those teeth parted, the face froze in shock, in recognition. Without a word, he wheeled his mount around and tore o
ff through the mist.
Behind him, we were among the cattle now. "Move, damn you!" I shouted. The poor animals knew no better and plodded along despite our plight. Raising my weapon, I pulled the trigger, shooting the pistol into the air. At the clap, the animals balked and stampeded. Without care for the unlucky handlers, we raced through the now terrified herd. Dashing onwards, we kicked our horses into a full gallop, running pell-mell through the mist and over the scattered stones. Dangerous as it was, we couldn't wait for better visibility. The race was on.
The path curved this way and that. In the chaos we threw our horses around the bends, dodging traffic. Ahead, cries of anger and shock filled the mist. Apparently our prey was facing the same problems. Birds alighted from surrounding trees at our passing. Left and right we passed walkers, animals, and carts. Nothing slowed us. Tearing through the forest, we panted, our horses foaming at the exertion. Sparks flew from the mount's cobbled feet. Flecks of sweat flew off their flanks. The horses' feet hit the ground and rose, touched and lifted, flying down the path. We'd see occasional, fleeting glimpse of the messenger; his animal was being pushed to its limit as well.
Then all at once the road opened before us. The highway leveled out, and the mist cleared to reveal a magnificent view. Rolling fields opened their arms, gathering in the sunlight. Birds soared overhead, and the haunting images of the misted, winding mountain pass were forgotten in the summertime visage before us. Past the fields and just ahead, countless buildings formed a city, obviously Luden.
Towards this goal, the three of us galloped. Beneath me, I could feel the horse trembling. The effort was extraordinary. For his part, the Courtier ahead continued to glance over his shoulder, panic evident on his face. Although we were closing the distance, it was still too long for a pistol shot. I worried that if we couldn't catch the man before the city, he'd escape in the unfamiliar streets. Logan must've been feeling the same, because even as it panted for ragged breath, he again kicked his mount, driving it onward. The wind whistled past us in our race, tossing our hair about us in a blur. We'd long ago lost the shakos to our uniforms.
At our speed, the transition between countryside and city was instantaneous. No sooner had we entered the streets than our horses began dodging the walking residents of Luden. Curses flew all around, but we paid them no heed. The Courtier rose in his saddle, screaming to part the crowd before his galloping horse. We followed in his wake, curious eyes boring down on us.
"Move!" shouted Logan as a small boy stumbled into the street in pursuit of a ball. His knees shaking and eyes bulging, the little fellow only stood there as we threw our horses around him. More walkers were dispelled when Logan raised his pistol and shot into the air. Like the cattle earlier, the people parted then. Sparks continued to fly from shod hooves, and my thighs quivered with the quaking breaths of the animal beneath me.
As one, the horses flew through the final movement of their ballet. As one, we men knew nothing but the chase. As one, the six beings flew around a final corner in the winding streets of Luden.
At the station before us, a single, small locomotive puffed steam into the air.
Even as we reached the platform, reining in our horses amid a shower of grit, the engine began to move. Ahead of us, the Courtier kicked off his horse. The animal had collapsed to the ground, its legs buckling and mouth flecking blood.
Our enemy sprinted towards the train, his boots sliding along the smoothed wooden platform. In his haste, he sent elegant women sprawling to the ground. He shoved through a crowd of men, sending their cindery cigars into the air. Piled suitcases were kicked, and a general chaos took over as our prey neared his goal.
By this point we'd left our own dying horses behind. Logan and I raced, our sore feet running in tandem. We too flung bystanders from our path. Just ahead, the Courtier reached the slowly accelerating train. Raising a long arm, he grabbed the rail and started hoisting himself onto the car.
Without thinking, I lifted my revolver and snapped off a shot.
Around us, people screamed in terror, bolted from the platform, or simply threw themselves prostrate to avoid the madmen. I lost all sight of the messenger in the maelstrom of panic. Finally, the way was clear once more. The Courtier had been dragged along by the train for a few feet before he fell once more to the platform. His arms lay outstretched, as if in supplication. One leg dangled sickly off the platform's ledge as the train rolled past.
In a daze, I walked over towards my victim. A single bubbling hole adorned his grisly neck, pulsing, pulsing. Gingerly, I flipped the man over. Looking into his broken eyes, the horror of hubris overtook me once more. In less than a week, I'd stolen the life from three men. I'd been my own god. The empty husks of their bodies were my doing, and these three would never laugh, or cry, or love again. I had done that, and the self-loathing hit me like a blow.
A rough hand shook me then, my thoughts shattering like a humbled truth. His voice a forced whisper, Logan murmured into my ear. "Nathaniel. Get on the train. Now."
My eyes blinking slowly, my breath caught, I glanced up at my friend. He wasn't looking at me. He craned his head over his shoulder, looking at something. I turned to see, but my vision was so clouded, I couldn't make anything out. The stench of flesh filled my nostrils and I needed to vomit. Drops of sweat coated my hands, and the blood pulsed through my head like an opened spring. Between the throbbing, I heard something. For a moment, I couldn't identify it. Then the sounds warped into voices. Angry, shouting voices.
"There they are, officer!"
"That's the murderer!"
Logan grabbed me then, physically lifting me to my feet. "On the train!" he shouted into my face. I blinked stupidly.
"On the train!" he bellowed again, slapping me hard across the face. As I continued to stand, the world pressing down on me, my friend looped his arms under my shoulders. He spun me around, lifting me in the same motion. Without pause, he hurled me onto the entry stairs of a passing car.
My face hit cold iron. I snapped back to alertness. Swinging about, I saw the platform filling with angry men, uniformed policemen leading the charge. Logan was running alongside the train, brandishing his pistol at anyone who came near.
"Stop or we'll shoot!" the voices cried. Actions followed words, and Logan ducked as the shots whistled about him.
Stumbling to keep pace with the train, Logan ran pell-mell, his frame shaking in exertion. Watching the scene, I realized the danger. Even as he leapt the short distance between the train and the platform, others were preparing to try the same. My pulse still throbbing, I leaned out of the train, grasping the stair rail for support. Swinging my revolver around, I fired off a few rounds, hoping to dispel the pursuit. Bullets flying about them, the police and the mob decided catching us wasn't worth dying for. They dropped off their chase and let the train slip away from the platform. A few turned to regard the dead messenger, but most simply stared in wonder as our locomotive gathered speed and rolled into the Riktian countryside.
Back to The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy book
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