On a Night When the Moons Were Not In the Sky
By Jeff Baker
The night was dark; racing clouds blotting out the stars. Zoras was grateful for the shifting starlight and for the fact that he knew the ancient road he was walking so well. He shifted the heavy bag on his shoulders and took a deep breath, thinking of his pallet of straw in the building behind his Master’s kitchen. He would be there before dawn and might have time for what food could be spared and grab a few hours of sleep before beginning the daily trudge to the city with whatever his Master wished to exchange for goods they needed. That is, if Zelia, the Prime of the Kitchen would not call him useless and deny him bread and cheese for interrupting her slumber.
He smiled to himself; he feared the wrath of the Kitchen Prime more than that of his Master. He allowed himself a sip of the water from the jug at his belt and sighed as a cool breeze passed over him on the otherwise humid night. He glanced up at the sky and breathed a silent prayer to Zavid and Zannic, who were, after all, the patrons of slaves, such as he had been all his life. He trudged on, grateful for a strong body and the knife in his tunic (which he was not supposed to have.)
After a while, he saw a dim figure in the starlight on the road ahead. It came closer and Zoras felt to make sure the forbidden knife was still there. Zoras stared; the figure was tall, bulky and, he realized, not human. As he came even closer, he realized it was a horse. A horse without a rider. If Zoras could somehow capture the horse, his trip would be easier. But his Master would not even allow him a cart to push on his daily foray to the city. But something was wrong; in the dark, even with the starlight, he should not be able to see the horse so clearly, but the horse was as clear in the dark as if all three moons had been in the sky illuminating it.
The horse stopped right in front of Zoras and he stopped as well. The horse eyed him sternly and breathed out a cloud of vapor, without a sound. The young slave realized he had not heard the sound of the horse’s hooves and that the nightbirds and even the wind had grown silent, All Zoras could hear was his own breathing. It was then he realized: he was in the presence of one of the Horse Lords, who watched over horses and were to be heeded and feared when they interacted with men.
Zoras set his burden on the ground and stood there quaking. He considered bowing and getting on his knees, but he did not. He had known twenty-three summer Festivals, but had never been in the presence of such power.
The horse did not speak audibly, but Zoras heard a voice in his head.
Zoras of Almatha Farm, in service to Almatha the Lesser, heed my words.
Zoras had never heard his Master referred to as “the Lesser,” but he said nothing.
Zoras, your ancestor Eraht was among the defeated and enslaved from the Battle of Ua on the Hoocho Plain. In the ensuing millennia your sires have served as the pack animals for those whose luck deemed them to be free and Masters. None of your fellows have harmed or misused any of the Horses we watch over, even as they, as you, have faced abuse and servitude.
Zoras did not even know his Father’s name, let alone his last free ancestor. He rubbed the identifying bands of servitude tattooed on his bicep. The voice of the Horse Lord went on.
One hundred paces from this spot is an offshoot road leading in the direction of the rising moons. Travel in that direction and avoid Amaltha Farm, for all who are there at dawn this day will surely die, and you with them.
The Horse Lord breathed out another cloud of vapor and stepped off the road, indicating that Zoras should pass. He bowed and shouldered his burden and walked past the Horse Lord, glimpsing the offshoot road ahead in the starlight. Then he stopped for a moment as he found his voice.
“Great Master of Horses, who knows what will come, tell me, will I…”
He had turned, but where the Horse Lord had stood was only darkness.
“Will I ever be free?” Zoras breathed to the empty air. He turned back, listening to the nightbird’s cries, heading for the offshoot road, the rising moons and whatever destiny lay ahead of him.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Another story taking place on my World of Three Moons. The Horse Lords and Zavid and Zannic showed up in my story “Wild Horses,” February 20, 2017.