Deliverance

Johnny Libenzon
24 min readMay 13, 2023
Even when the physical form is chained, the spirit stays in open rebellion.

What the wind forgets, the sea remembers.

Two figures are fleeing through the autumn landscape, their shadows just skirting the ground. One is a beast of burden, a horse with a name it has not understood until this moment, while the other is a man — a boy, really, who is learning the meaning of hope. And lack thereof.

“One grieving mother is the same as two…” the boy whispers in another lapse of brief madness, the pain of the arrow in his gut giving way to addled thoughts. He is limp in the saddle, face pressed against the mare’s mane. “Names fall from the lips of those too far away to know what they are saying. The wind takes their words, twists them into prayers, bringing them higher, up and up… but the higher they go, the less they become themselves, until… until…”

Until the wind forgets. He’s said this several times over the past hour, as the foliage behind them has turned from dead trees into the brilliant forest hues of the season. His body shakes in the saddle each time the horse’s hooves hit the dirt.

The boy’s name is Callus. He hit his growth spurt four winters ago, and to the pride of his mother, grew to be a sturdy six-feet in height. He has grown a cunning beard at such a young age, like his father and his father’s father before him. He is strong and muscular, as befitting a soldier of the Seahorse Cavalry of a nation known as Pilon, whose citizens thrive off the smell of salt brine and take pride in hauling more fish in their city-state alone than half the Nirnossi Republic could muster with all their ships and sailors.

His bleeding has lessened, but the arrow remains stuck fast. It waits for its victim to shift due to the horse’s movements so it can wreak new havoc on his insides. Callus of Lesser Pilon knows this. He is painfully aware that despite the fact that no new blood flows over his ruined jerkin, what is occuring inside his body is a different story.

The horse that is carrying him through the forest is a chestnut-hued mare, of thoroughbred Pilonian Broadfoot stock with a thick black mane. She had been Callus’ from the day he had received his insignia, standard and cavalry sword. She had carried the boy through training exercise after training exercise. She took him back home to his mother when he went on leave, and acted as a source of warmth when he was forced to sleep out in the woods during a particularly grueling ride back to the warcamp mere days ago.

Her name is Deliverance. She does not understand it, of course, but today she is trying to make good on the promise of her name.

“Delivera… ah, mother named you that…” Callus whispers out, dry lips desperately forming words against all reason. He then laughs, coughs, and retches. As if there was anything left in his gut in the first place.

His dark hair is matted against his scalp from yesterday’s rain, and a patch has been torn off by a thrown spear that had narrowly missed his cranium — it is clearly visible due to the ripping wind pushing his hair back against his scalp, dried blood forming a dark patch. His skin, once tanned bronze, is now pale with fever.

The battle had been short and decisive, as ambushes often are. Though both forces were roughly equal in number, the Sundari 9th Infantry Group, which is nicknamed the ‘Daylight Wraiths’, had gotten the drop on the 2nd Pilonian Armored Cavalry, which had no nickname then and never will. The casualties were great, with Callus’ own sergeant among them. The young private had been thinking of dying to the last with the other horsemen, had briefly considered charging into the fray and going out in a blaze of glory. When Deliverance had reared her head in fear, his first instinct was to yank sharply on her reins and bring her back into line, his sword at the ready and heart filled with the might of the sea.

He hadn’t charged. The sword remains clean. Callus had pulled on the reins and fled, for the sake of his mother… and himself.

“They hang deserters… the Capital does… bleeding them a little, just off the coast near Quella Rock,” says Callus. “Just low enough to entice the sharks. While… while your legs work, you go up, up! Kick up and away so they don’t get you! Hunger… hunger gets you first, though. Then exhaustion.”

He closes his bloodshot eyes. A shudder passes through his body.

“Then the sharks.”

Deliverance was raised foremost for her speed and her endurance. She had outpaced most of the others in training, even defeating Goldspeed, the commander’s stallion. She was also just as hardy as she was quick, holding her rider’s weight in the saddle easily for hours on end, and for a good quarter-hour without getting winded even when at a gallop.

She is getting tired. It had been too long since they’d left the site of the battle, and her powerful body, trained for speed and endurance and war, was beginning to betray her.

“They turn the sea against you out at Quella Rock… I’ve heard they even throw extra bait, get the sharks excited,” says Callus. His voice then shifts, from addled despair to a more muted form of longing. “The sea… The oceans, the rivers… lifeblood of Bodakh, spirit of the earth…”

They have left the forest. Now rider and horse ride across the Wet Plains of the Middle-West, likely named by sarcastic cartographers considering how utterly dry the terrain is. But the pair think themselves to be in luck for a moment, or rather Callus has a brief burst of clarity go through his mind when he sees the Plains: There are wellsprings in this cold landscape of dead grass and naught much else. They would simply need to find them.

Water. He needs water.

The trees are far away now, and what is left is the vast empty horizon. It is not night yet, and so the stars have not come out to play, but Callus knows his time is running out. When the sun sets entirely, that will be the end. Deliverance’s sight is poorer than her kin when the light is low, owing to some ‘misalignment of crystals’ in her iris’, or so said a traveling optomo… something in the war-camp once. She would trip over her hooves and land both of them in a ditch before long.

The boy had been optimistic before about finding help and surviving to see the next day. Now, without water or shelter or medicine or others to help him, Callus was finally giving in to the final step of his despair: Utter, hopeless oblivion.

Regret seeps into his mind, festering like a wound. He thinks of his own father, a man that had died scarcely six summers after Callus himself was born. A father whose legacy of tactical brilliance and martial prowess haunts his eldest son even now. Callus’ mother was unlikely to have realized just how deep her son’s desire to prove himself had embedded into his core, but it was there. A low, mocking voice at the back of his head. And what was once kept well contained in his skull now begins to drip past his lips.

“My father… and his fathers before him… men of the blade. Killing men.”

The deer carcass they pass by stinks of death. The pungent odor of its decay resembles rotting meat that had been thrown unceremoniously into the mud. It lays about, half-decomposed, near the flattened grass masquerading as a road. Deliverance passes by, the mare throwing her head back at the rank smell assaulting her nostrils. In the saddle, Callus groans painfully from the jerking movement of the horse, but masters himself again out of sheer instinct, tightening his grip on her mane. Enough to keep still, not enough to cause harm.

“I wanted to be a fisherman…” Says Callus. He can almost hear them — stout, trout, salmon, bass, beam, snapper. The unique sounds they each make when pulled from the water. The way they thrash under the light of the sun. “But you wouldn’t let me, Father. You said ‘nay’ to the fishing rod, yet ‘aye’ to the spear. I never wanted to kill anyone.”

He laughs, despite himself. A dry, mirthless laugh, dripping with disdain as it climbs out from his core, up through his esophagus, and is spat out like black bile curling in his stomach. And yet he seems more sober than ever.

“Well, now I never will. Seems they’ve killed me instead.”

His eyes are wild.

“They’ve killed your son, and he’ll be dying alone.”

An ominous gurgle begins to reverberate from the boy’s chest. For a moment, Callus looks as if he is about to spill the contents of his stomach again. Then he breathes in deep and, just like how the First Lance of the 2nd Pilonian Armored Cavalry had taught him, calms his inner being. He strokes Deliverance’s mane with shaking fingers as the mare’s hair flows wildly in the wind. His expression softens.

“No, not alone.” Callus whispers, laying his cheek to Deliverance’s neck. “Not alone.”

Hours later, they find a wellspring. The wellspring itself is unimpressive. What legends often describe as a substantive source of life in an otherwise desolate landscape, much like those mystical Oasis’ one might find in the sands of the Umbaran Deserts, the wellspring resembles a village well in size and absence of splendor. It simply lacks any brick walls, and is instead surrounded by compacted dirt.

The water inside is not clean by any stretch of the word, but drinkable. And right now, the only thing delaying Callus’ passage into the afterlife.

It took great effort for him to climb off of Deliverance, but he had been conserving his strength. The good thing about the arrow was that while the steel head remains lodged in his body, he can still move around to some degree; the platemail he wore keeps the arrow relatively stable as he moves around. Though of course this means removing it would be equally difficult, but that was the price the Cavalry paid for better defensive capabilities. Or so they thought, for this arrow was smaller and sharper than the arrows the Sundari had used in the past, and had been fired not by longbows but smaller wooden contraptions.

Callus had never seen a ‘crossbow’ before. He’d only heard that they were more commonly used by other nations across the sea. But he’d bet anything that it was those arrow-slinging machines that decimated his unit.

The boy props himself up against the dirt well. He drinks greedily, water spilling from his palm from the violent jitters hitting his body. Despite the shaking and the muddy taste of the water, he manages to get a few good gulps in. He gasps at the pain. His throat had been so dry that wetting it caused what he could only describe as a hollow burn all along his spine. Callus didn’t understand what it was, but at least he isn’t going to die of thirst.

Deliverance stands nearby. The horse chews thoughtfully on a tuft of long grass that had survived the arid temperatures through the moisture that had imbued the soil with life. She watches Callus with her big, warm brown eyes, but she does not understand what she is seeing.

Behind those eyes, inside Deliverance’s mind, the thoughts within consist simply of grass and water and the hot sun and the pleasantness of the strong wind and the flies she is swatting away with her tail. Little else mattered to her, anyway. There was no comprehension yet that her rider, the only human she let ride her in peace or war, is going to die. Such things were binary for a horse; dead, or not dead. ‘Going to die? Dying?’ There was little a horse could do with the concept, and so it paid no attention to it.

Callus coughs violently, hacking up phlegm and clotting blood. Deliverance feels something, but cannot put a word to it.

Sadness comes in many forms.

It is now the dead of night. Callus is asleep, holding on longer than he’d originally believed he could. Deliverance stands, guarded, on the beaten path that acted as a makeshift road through this godless place. She is entirely still.

Across green pastures covered in invasive dandelions that are far removed from the dead earth of the Wet Plains, standing stark against the moonlight, there stand horses. They radiate pride, bodies built strong through the eternal marathon of life, which involves the chasing of predators and the running of prey. Judging by the fact that there stand two-dozen of these noble beasts, only a few of which are smaller and still calfs, it is clear that even the mounts of the 2nd Pilonian Armored Cavalry could not hope to compete with the sheer necessity for endurance and haste that world-hardened horses like these possess.

Except… these could not be horses, reasons Deliverance. They do not have saddles upon their backs. How could they possibly be horses, free in the wilderness where camps and stables do not exist, without saddles? A horse could not leave its place without a saddle and still be a horse. It is… unthinkable.

One of the horse-things-that-cannot-be-horses, larger than the rest and bearing gray-black markings on its face likely caused by a wolf’s jaws, breaks away from the group on the grass and makes its way towards Deliverance. Deliverance raises her head, ears perked.

The scarred horse-thing does not come too close. It stops some distance away and watches Deliverance with hooded eyes, then snorts. It whips its tail and turns its head towards the rest of the group, then back towards Deliverance again. It takes a moment for Deliverance to understand that the scarred horse-thing is offering an invitation. It takes less than a moment more for Deliverance to neigh back her opinion regarding such an invitation.

The scarred horse-thing snorts, then heads back towards the others without further comment. It is not dejected or disappointed, but rather more… amused.

Deliverance does not move from her spot until all of the horse-things have left, and she cannot see nor smell their presence anymore. She isn’t quite sure why she didn’t simply leave herself, instead waiting for them to disappear first. Perhaps some part of her is considering thoughts that are entirely foreign for one of her upbringing.

Eventually, she begins to gallop again. The wind does its best to keep up. For the first time since the battle, a half-awake and delirious Callus wonders if he is truly going to make it.

“Everyone dies someday, Deliverance.”

Callus is on his back, the armor somewhat softening the otherwise uncomfortable feeling of laying on the low rock formation that had calcified on the hillside. He sees gentle clouds drifting lazily through the sky. The breeze had changed, carrying with it the spores of dandelions and the wafting herbal smells of wildflowers and what must have been clover honey. He hears the river nearby. Water gurgles in glottal ripples, urging pike and perch along the stream. A small herd of deer drinks from its clear surface. They barely make a sound.

There were worse ways to go than this, reasons Callus. In fact, he figures he should be grateful that he is strangely lucid enough to understand what is happening, in these final moments.

“Humanity, and other species, have used horses since… I don’t know, since we started giving meaning to time. Everyone assumes that horses and humans have been inseparable since we first forged weapons and learned how to kill one another,” says Callus through his cracked lips. A thumb, partially numb at this point, touches the feather fletchings on the arrow’s nock.

“When I first got you, you were…”

He pauses to cough, violently. Blood spit coats his lower lip.

“You were… so small, and soft, as a foal. And so curious, but in a tender way. Like you knew that one day, all the fields and plains you saw from outside the stables were places you’d one day feel under your hoofprints. And even though there was nothing out there but grass and mud, that didn’t make it any less new and… important.”

Deliverance is listening, in her own way, despite being preoccupied by a tuft of grass that had stubbornly decided to grow from between two fallen slabs of rock. The sadness permeating every word her rider is saying is not going unnoticed by her, but horses have a sort of optimism that people lack. Especially those with the confidence that they can outrun any opponent — even death itself.

“I think, for you, the fields are my sea,” he continues. “On the surface, the waters of our world are seemingly the same for leagues around. But it is what’s underneath that matters. It is what’s underneath that people work so hard to discover, hard enough that the dirt that nourishes us is considered only a stepping stone to get out there, where the salmon and the eels and the Merfolk and Gorgons and Kraken of legend might live. Our inventions, our ships, allow us access to a world otherwise unreachable by man.”

Callus blinks. He can’t feel his eyelids anymore.

“Do you see the earth in the same way? With your hooves, your speed and your endurance, is the world a smaller place? Are you aware that for you, the great mountain ranges and towering marvels of nature are mere days away, when a human like myself would take weeks to reach them?”

Deliverance snorts, though seemingly not in response to her rider’s words. Pollen from the flowers tickled her nostrils. A bee had been careless here recently.

“I saw those wild horses from before, when you might’ve thought I was still dreaming. I didn’t say anything, but I saw. And I think… I think I was afraid. Afraid that you’d run after them and forget about me, bleeding out in the saddle, to chase your own freedom. Gods, freedom — a dead word. A murdered word. We throw it around so easily when we don’t know what it even means to be free.

“You could have been free, Deliverance. Had you been born to a mare that lived beyond walls instead of trapped behind them, you could have been free. Were you born with some physical deformity, a clef foot perhaps, you would have been set loose into the wild to die. The breeding farms in Pilon, whether Lesser or Greater, do not euthanize imperfect foals, and so many die in the woodlands, but some survive. I’ve heard some survive. Those that do are free.

“And even now, with freedom within your grasp, you’re here. Waiting until I pull on the leather straps again and you can feel my weight on your back. But my strength is gone, Deliverance. Soon I’ll be gone. And then you’ll be…”

Callus’ throat is dry. The last word does not come — not because he is dead, though he will be soon, but because he needs a moment to draw on what saliva remains in his throat. It is barely enough lubricant to ensure words can still pass through his lips.

“Deliverance, you… you need…”

Something desperate overcomes his being. A flash of dark energy, clambering up from inside his fading soul. An urgency he has not felt since the arrow first found its way past his skin.

“You need to go! You need… don’t stay, you should — ”

Callus has heard the tales of dogs and horses staying by their masters days or weeks after death, not knowing what to do with themselves after their original calling was fulfilled.

“You should… get away! Away, damn it, away!”

He won’t allow that to happen to her.

“Off with you, Deliverance! Listen to me, I am your… I…”

Callus’ voice is so, so weak. He sees that Deliverance, while noticing the desperation in his voice, makes no real effort to respond. She is too preoccupied with the grass. Perhaps she knows there is little else to do when he is like this except wait for the shouting to stop.

“The sea is… likely a six-days ride away,” He finally says, “and I don’t believe that trip makes much sense. Still, rivers… rivers often flow into the sea, right? That’s what mother told me, that every river goes into a sea… where the sharks will take you into the depths, into the Kingdom of the White Shells, and you can sleep in beds made from the pearls of the old gods…”

He is growing quiet. The cicadas could overshadow his words with their buzzing. They do not, perhaps out of respect.

“At least I never shed blood. Better to die with a light soul, unburdened by darkness. I want to float, after all, not sink. The heaviest souls sink fastest.”

Only now does Callus notice Deliverance coming close again, nuzzling his shoulder with her nostrils. Callus gives a broken smile. He lays his tousled, blood-stained hair against her muzzle. He stares at the clouds, now shaped like small rabbits, against a sky of deep blue. It is said that those who are born in Lesser or Greater Pilon with eyes of a similar hue are destined to live most of their waking hours on the sea. That those with eyes like the sea belong to the sea, and keeping them from it is as foolhardy and unlikely as telling a sparrow to avoid flying from fear of the predators lurking in the night sky.

The light in Callus’ green eyes is fading.

It is strange how one can seemingly tell when another has passed without confirming that they have. When Deliverance raises her head moments later, she knows he is dead even before nudging him with her head in an attempt to prompt a reaction. She knows because when she exhales, the wind that tosses his hair does not cause him to shudder. She knows because his eyes are open, but not moving — Callus was like an owl, eyes darting all over the place, especially when he was thinking. She knows because he is no longer nuzzling her back with his cheek, which he would do when scared, or uncomfortable, or ashamed, or content.

Deliverance does not understand what she is feeling inside her big, big heart. Neither can she comprehend why minutes later, she takes Callus’ cape between her jaws and drags him off the rock and down the hillside. Yet she knows where she is going.

Upon passing a small grove of trees at the base of the hill, a field of wildflowers erupts in the distance, covering the otherwise green landscape with a patchy wave of royal purples and resplendent gold, curving off near the riverbank. It smells like honey again. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful day to leave this world behind.

When Deliverance finally drags her rider’s corpse to the river, she hauls him in with a single jerking motion to ensure the cape doesn’t snag on the branches littering the riverbed. She watches as his body rolls down the muddy bank and falls into the water, the cape wrapping around him like a blanket along the way. His corpse lands with his head up towards the sky. The tears on his face are now indistinguishable from the river droplets.

He does not sink, in spite of his armor, submerged only halfway under the water’s surface. Deliverance watches as the rider once called Callus floats down the stream alongside fallen crabapples and leaves that had been shaken with the morning wind. Despite her knowing him to be dead, as only dead can be and always is, there seems to be a soft smile on his face. It does not take long for her to lose sight of him.

She cries out, the sound carrying across the riverbank, though she does not know why. All she can understand is that something core to her, something that grounded her in this world, is now gone. She would need to either fill this new pit with sand, or learn to live without it.

Three days from now, his body will wash up, still in pristine condition, near a fishing village on the northwestern border of the Nirnossi Republic. They will wonder in fear and awe of how a Pilonian soldier ended up nearly on the other side of the continent, and with a Sundari bolt in him no less, when that war is being waged hundreds of miles to the east. Then will send out scouts. Afterwards, they will debate for hours, in circles, and fear they understand little of the world and the way of things. Eventually they will release his body back into the sea, as is tradition for the dead of Pilon. He will continue floating for some time, before finally sinking under the surface and down into the untold depths below.

What the wind forgets… Well, you know the rest.

Several hours west of where a Pilonian boy was first tossed rolled into the river, there is a crossroads.

It is a pitiful thing; someone paying only loose attention to their surroundings would have dismissed it as a ramshackle wooden sign placed in the road, built for a path that had never been completed. But the keen observer would have realized quickly that there were, in fact, three different paths splitting from this one point.

The first path leads from the wooden mark, dubbed colloquially in this region of the world as a reedguide, to a village that is part of the Nirnossi Republic, a rival of the Sundari, and holds the southern part of the continent. This village, known as Alacra but more often called ‘Lack’ due to self-evident reasons to those that passed by, is admittedly only loosely connected to the Republic. It was through their breeding of horses and tanning of leathers that they have retained any relevance to the world around them thus far.

The second path leads to a forest, though there is no clear road that leads there. Well, not to those that do not have the eyes to perceive it. It is in those woods that, among the deer and boars and rabbits, entire herds of wild horses are said to roam. One might imagine such a forest to be a natural hunting ground for the nearby Alacrans, eager to get their hands on horses trained by the harsh wilderness, but it was a dangerous place for the untrained. To rear a foal into a powerful steed was one thing, but to try and make such a beast submit to another’s will was another. Far easier to build submission from birth than to try restraining it later. Even when the physical form is chained, the spirit stays in open rebellion.

The third path leads through vast fields of tall grass, though a mare had recently cut a swath through it due to her voracious hunger. Humans are not the only ones to eat out of stress. Said mare had traveled along the length of the river, crossed a bridge made of stones that had either fallen or been forced into place by a traveling warband, waded through the grass, and now appeared near the reedguide, unable to choose between the two paths before her.

Familiar smells greet Deliverance from the first path, likely owing to a merchant that had passed this way of late and left wheel tracks in the mud. The smells of Trade and Civilization; smoke, tobacco, spices, ale, rust. Whether in the war camp or within city walls, such an aroma was seemingly everpresent. But to travel this path meant the lull of familiarity, and the death of a promise.

Meanwhile, the second path is The Unknown — the opportunity to consider a different lot in life. A future that is beyond what she has already known. The chance to expand her horizons and see more of the world, which her rider had described as beautiful yet deadly, charming yet dangerous. She hadn’t understood the words, of course, but that sentiment had been carried through by virtue of his emotional state. And that she had always been able to read.

Minutes pass. The cicadas near the riverbank are present here as well, though these seem more frenetic. It is possible that through their collective buzzing, they seek to drown out conscious thought.

The wind picks up, carrying with it a damp smell. Rain in the east, where Deliverance had come from. She’d made good speed to outpace the approach of dark clouds, but her hesitation here means it may yet catch up to her.

Eventually she continues trotting, with a last look at the woodlands that stretch beyond her imagination, on the path towards the village.

What else can she do? It’s all she has ever known.

Dalia is only twelve years old, but she knows the effect that picking flowers has on the mood of the village of Alacra, also called ‘Lack.’ Despite carnations and daisies having little trade value in this part of the world, the girl wakes up early to pick a basket full of them from the woods anyway. She’s seen the patterns they bring.

See, a few daisies for the blacksmith’s wife, and she’s happier with her job of tallying materials and orders from his clients, as well as assisting him in the forge, which in turn means the blacksmith is happier, which in turn means his clients are happier. In the same way, promising the smaller girls in the village that, should they behave well, they will receive little floral crowns at the end of each week to play with and pretend they are princesses means the mood of the village’s parents — well, those with girls at least — improves, as they find their children to be more well-mannered. Even if it is for material reward.

One might think that someone asked Dalia to do all this as a form of housekeeping, to ensure better cohesion within the village. But they’d be wrong to assume so. Dalia came upon the decision to collect those flowers and distribute them in the way she does for one reason alone: She thought she could help improve the mood in the village, and she does so on her own volition.

On a gray morning, the earth still mucking about after the rain had passed, Dalia is traipsing around the woods to find new flowers. This time, she’d received a request from Relys, one of the younger girls: Dandelions. Despite Dalia’s insistence that dandelions were a weed and not a flower, Relys had complained and cried until Dalia had simply sighed and stated that she’d do the best she could to bring some dandelions back unscathed.

When people saw Dalia leaving for the woods again, they smiled, though some sighed. Dalia was one of the poorest children in the village, and had never even ridden a pony before. Her family owned none, one of only few in the village to do so. They’d find some subtle ways to slip more coin to the girl’s family soon, they all said time and time again. For Dalia, however, such things were of little import; making the children happy was first on her list of interests. Horses were second, and a distant second at that.

Fate, like any horse or flower, consists chiefly of idiosyncrasies.

Dalia was a difficult girl to surprise, but the lack of dandelions in the forest was first among what made this day so odd. She figured finding a hundred of them would be easy, especially with how their yellow centers contrasted against the darker hues of the forest, but no, not even one! She pursed her lips in her frustration, tying her coarse hair into a ponytail as she did when she was especially exasperated.

And then, among the reeds and fallen branches of the deep woods, underneath the canopies that permitted only sparse rays of light to pass through, she found something far more curious than some weeds that many considered flowers: A horse.

Deliverance had slept the night in the woods. It was the first time since the ambush on the 2nd Pilonian Armored Cavalry that she had slept alone. Her saddle had fallen off since she’d left Callus’ body in the river. She had lost it many miles ago.

And so, Deliverance is no longer a horse. She doesn’t know what she is.

When a girl named Dalia, who had come for dandelions but found instead something far greater, comes close to Deliverance, the horse barely reacts, staring blindly into some unknowable abyss. But when the girl whistles for Deliverance to follow, as she’d seen so many others do in the village, Deliverance can do nothing but obey.

With that command, Deliverance is a horse again.

“You’ve heard the phrase ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,’ I presume?”

“Somethin’ ain’t right about this, Sergeant. It’s too much fate, a horse comin’ just days after we’ve expressed the need of one. The gods’re testing us, taking a horse from its rider and tauntin’ us to challenge — ”

“It doesn’t even have a saddle.”

“To aid in the trick of it!”

“At ease, soldier. We’ll be taking it and that’s that. It isn’t often that you get healthy Pilonian Broadfoot and I’m not about to turn away from good luck when we need it most.”

“I… yes, Sergeant. What d’you want me to do, then?”

“Leave it… her in the stables overnight. Let her eat oats to her fill. We’ll do the fitting for Coesimo tomorrow. Let him know he’ll be back in the saddle in no time.”

“Understood, Sergeant.”

Deliverance doesn’t understand the words that the soldiers are exchanging on the other side of the wooden wall, nor can she see them; the darkness of night means she can observe little beyond the wooden confines of her place in the stables. The other saddleless horse-things on either side of her are asleep, but Deliverance is busy in the through, munching on the oats she’d refused earlier in the day due to some vague sense of pride. Her stomach had eventually gotten the better of her.

What Deliverance does understand is the tone. She knows what it means: She would be a horse again, with a new rider. She would be fitted with a new saddle, perhaps even protective metals shaped to her form like she’d seen worn by the horses of important Pilonian military commanders.

Then she would see her rider die again. She would drag their body to some other river. The cycle would repeat itself, over and over, until she herself is shot with the same wooden barbs as her previous master.

Oats fall from between her teeth as she neighs. It is a low, irritating sound. It would cause displeasure in those around her. It was something a human would have struck her for. But for the horse-things in the stable, those in the throes of sleep, it is a visceral sound, one that was beaten out of them when they were young. A deep, heartbroken cry against the universe.

Deliverance rocks forward as she cries, pushing the wooden gate in front of her… and to her surprise, the gate creaks open, swinging outwards towards the messy oat spills that lined the stable floor. The girl that had led her in here had seemingly forgotten to lock the gate after she’d gone. Deliverance could simply choose to… leave.

Deliverance stares at the gate for some time. Then she looks towards a stack of saddles in the corner of the room, each likely belonging to one of the horse-things… no, horses near her. The gate stares back at her, creaking like an old ghost. Perhaps it is trying to speak through the rhythmic creaking of its rusted hinges.

The next day, when the soldiers return to the stables, they express their satisfaction warmly to the Horsemaster of Alacra, also called Lack, but now clearly deserving to be called by its full name due to the quality stock it had just provided the army of Nirnoss. Their satisfaction is expressed in coin of the silver and gold variety. When Dalia, the Horsemaster’s daughter, sees the coin, she realizes that no flower could ever compare to the beauty of currency. It is so distracting to her that she ignores the soldiers as they walk into the stable, tallying up the horses. On the whole, they are pleased.

All the horses they were originally promised are accounted for. All but — how strange. They were told of twelve specimens, and the stables contained only eleven. The wooden gate to the only empty stall is wide open, and a horse, trained for war, would not leave on its own after such life-long conditioning.

Perhaps they were wrong.

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Johnny Libenzon

Toronto-based aspiring author writing a mix of sci-fi and 'rural fantasy' short stories