The four horsemen ride tonight. The bell clanged the call pattern a quarter-hour ago.
Each of the riders was a perfect, still line in their beds, counting, but ready to fall asleep when the clanging was done, until the end of the sequence. Then, they were upright within a breath, shirts pulled over their heads in two, boots on in three. They moved out the door, silent, focused in a way that still felt a little like sleep if dreams could have ever been that sharp.
The night air is crisp, clinging coldly to cheeks and knuckles. The horses are restless when they wake. They shy away from the flash of the bit in the dark, and throw their heads at the feel of the chilled leather saddles. Waiting in the stable feels wrong, but the riders can’t leave until the scribe’s apprentice runs down with the four identical slips of paper. They won’t be ready to go until the messages are hidden, two in coat linings, one in the brim of a hat, one wrapped tight inside a hair stick. Then, they will ride.
One of the riders will probably be caught.
Even split onto different roads, they’re too conspicuous, riding flat-out in the dark. Hooves hit dirt and echo. Shoulders hit branches, branches crack, leaves hiss. Strangers hear what riders spend hours wishing they won’t. But if the message stays hidden, the rider will stay alive. They’ll see daylight.
One of the riders is likely to be thrown.
There are too many other things in the dark. Crawling things. Biting things. Stones that catch light like something sharp. Pits just the right size to catch a horse’s hoof. Maybe the tumble will only steal time… but bones seem to break more easily in the cold grip of midnight.
One of the riders will get lost.
The world spins the wrong way at night, and the trees like to hide the stars. They’ve ridden these roads since they were children, but in a rush, memory likes to take its time. Someone will go too far, or not far enough, or just run a circle while time itself seems to tighten on them and sunrise feels like an anvil falling on their chest.
And one of them will make it through.
He’ll clatter into the castle courtyard on the other side, waking the watch and stirring a frenzy out of the gentle quiet of the near-morning. The message will disappear in trusted hands, taking it up to the Lord’s chamber. And the rider will miss most of what follows, hiding in the castle kitchens to eat what they can before they drop into sleep. When they wake, the ride will feel like part of another dream, like sleep-walking with more purpose than usual…
Valta balls her fists around her reins again, one finger at a time, waiting. Her blood is warm under her skin, rushing at her sudden wakefulness. It feels wrong to be holding still. Heels and toes flat against the ground, she watches the others as she wraps and unwraps her hands.
Wim is brushing his horse’s forehead, whispering things that Valta can’t hear, in a language she probably can’t understand. He likes to say pretty things to calm himself.
Sarit is braiding her long blonde hair, catches Valta’s eye and smiles. Her fingers are quick and careful now, but when she finishes, she’ll put a four strand braid into her horse’s mane, and take her time to twist all the luck she can into it.
Eiyan is smiling too, like he always does, as if he doesn’t know what else to do with his face.
And Valta would like to be praying, but she must be too tired. Her thoughts keep jumbling, begging Fate for absurd things like broken legs and echoing stones. Wrong turns and strangers in dark cloaks coming from all sides. Wolves and sunrises that sour her stomach under the weight of her coat. Strange things, each one a twisted promise that at least one of the others makes it through safe and whole.
Eiyan turns his smile toward her.
Sarit ties off her braid after twisting one section an extra time.
Wim leans his forehead between his horse’s eyes.
Valta wraps her hands a little tighter and wishes for narrow pits and cracking branches.