Gold afternoon sunlight dappled through the trees, falling in bright blotches across the backs of the laden horses on the edge of the forest. The dun pack horse beneath her snorted and pawed through tough beach grass, seeking the tender shoots near the earth. Jack gave the animal a little lead but pulled him back before he could wander too far. The beast stayed where she held him but she let his let his head drop, taking the reins with him and craned his neck out further and munched. If she hadn’t been watching the skyline so intently she would have smirked at its determination.
“We heading out?” one of the militiamen behind her called.
Not turning, Jack hummed low in her throat. Out on the horizon, the graceful keel of the Moorglade slid across the top of the grass, her pale green sails flung out to the side. Squinting against the brightness, she thought of how far out ahead Riddick would run and sought him there. A dark flash amid the green with the tow rope a slash of white connecting it to the ship. The Moorglade flew faster and faster across the grass and her belly tightened, knowing that if Riddick made a single misjudgement, his spine would be broken beneath the metal blade of the ship’s keel.
Only when she saw Riddick swing gracefully up onto the deck did she turn back to answer the man that had called out. “Now we head out.”
Pulling up the nose of her horse, she moved first past Shazza and then Duncan, who both fell in behind her, Shazza riding close on her right hand side. The trail wove its way deeper into the forest and dappled sunshine made way for the occasional ray of soft light that cut through the canopy, making pools of light in the half-dark. The air cooled and the smell of pine and the earthy duff underfoot mixed with the scent of horse.
The trail ahead was clear for as far as she could see but she closed her eyes and listened, letting the muffled sounds of hoof beats fade into the background and reaching out further. Birdsong fell around them as they moved through the trees, the birds themselves unseen. Small animals scurried out of the way of their passage, iridescent eyes peering out beneath the foliage, watching them carefully. Other than those she rode with, there was no other, no sense of danger, no tightening in her belly or pull at the nape of her neck to tell her that there was some threat to be attended to.
Only then did she turn back, taking in Shazza and Duncan. Shazza rode comfortably on the back of the pack horse, the reins loosely in one hand and a long spear held casually in the other. The powerful crossbows carried by the other militiamen were something that she had never gotten accustomed to, no matter the practice, and she had settled for a weapon she had proven able to wield with skill. The spear was constructed of the strong green wood that had been used to craft the Moorglade and the gliders. Its intricate damascene tip had come from the Moorglade’s weaponry and, when they were in the ley lines, sparked with its same strange blue fire.
There was no way to know if it had been the spear that Shazza had used to bring down the Company ship but it wouldn’t surprise Jack if it had been. It was something that Riddick had made for her in their first year on Trieste 9, something he had in fact given to her nearly a year to the date that he had given her the bone knife from the hammerhead planet. Like so many things between she and Shazza regarding Riddick, they didn’t talk about his anniversary gifts, in case he stopped that as well.
Unlike Shazza, Duncan had taken easily to the crossbows and, in recent years, had shown to prefer its silent killing power over the rudimentary rifles that the militiamen carried. In any case, he had run out of ammunition for his military grade rifle years ago and being unarmed wasn’t acceptable to him. The bow hung within reach of his right arm and she knew that he could raise, load, and fire accurately with the same fluid ease that she could raise a blade.
In dark brown clothing, the three militiamen that fell in just behind Duncan blended into the forest easily and if they were not on horseback, they could disappear into the trees as surely as she could. They were well armed, she knew, having seen them before they set out. Unlike Duncan and Shazza, their weapons were not in hand although she had no doubt that they would be ready to fight at a moments’ notice.
Taking up the rear was a hard-faced Mark Hammersmith. Seeing the long bladed knife he kept in reach, Jack shared a nod with him. Duncan had said that he could be relied upon if there was trouble with the others and the fact that he had settled in behind the militiamen signaled his intention to do so. While she wasn’t ready to rest easy on that score, it was still a good thing to know.
The scan of her line complete, Jack turned to the trail ahead. They were moving deeper into the forest and, free from the fierce winds off the sea, the trees grew taller, closer together. The path narrowed and the light dimmed to a perpetual twilight. Sure footed, the pack horses dropped their heads and plodded on, picking their way down the well worn centre rut in single file.
‘Don’t exactly blend in,’ she thought. It wasn’t perfect, but the situation was what it was. Alone, she could disappear into the forest, slipping through the trees, off the path, and no one would ever know that she had been there, but she wasn’t alone. That would be a hard thing to get used to, not being alone. For the seven years that she had hunted and trained with Riddick, they had worked so well with each other that out in the field, it became hard to tell where Riddick ended and where she began.
Being so at one with another’s movements and actions, she didn’t have to think much about how to work with anyone other than Riddick and she believed that it was for this reason that Riddick pressed that she train with Duncan. The two men were similar in many ways. Their presence and the authority they commanded without so much as a word, backed up by the iron will to act, made them both born leaders. Although Jack believed that Duncan was more born to lead than Riddick, if only because Riddick never wanted it, preferring to be left alone.
Although Jack could be alone, had trained to be alone without help of any kind, she wouldn’t say that she preferred it. When she had run from her situation as a young girl, she had wanted the hurt to stop but she hadn’t wanted to be alone. Even then, when the opportunity to be with others had arisen on the hammerhead planet, she had chosen to be with Shazza. And later with Riddick. If anything, she had chosen Riddick first, at first sight. Jack B Badd from that moment on. Even then, she had chosen to be with someone else, even if it was just one other person.
So unlike Riddick, she didn’t like to be alone. And she wasn’t alone. She snorted quietly, thinking about how Duncan had set her up to take the lead of the particular mission they were on. Even on the off chance that she did want solitude, there wasn’t much of a chance of that happening with both Duncan and Riddick pressing her to take her place as a leader.
Up ahead, the trail forked with one branch heading off to the left and a second, less travelled branch continuing to follow the contour of the shore. As they hadn’t spoken about which route to take beforehand, Jack trotted ahead and blocked the left hand trail with the body of her horse and pointed first at Duncan and then down the seaward trail. A quick nod and Duncan held his hand up to keep the other riders back before he spurred his mount toward the narrower trail. Small rocks clattered and tumbled down a small incline and then the tail of Duncan’s horse disappeared from sight.
Pulling a blade from its sheath, Jack turned in her saddle so that she could both watch for Duncan’s return and keep the line in sight at the same time. In front of her, Shazza had the spear raised up to her shoulder, its long tip pointing out towards the trail where Duncan had gone, the reins of the horse tucked beneath her, leaving her hands free should she need them. Behind her, one of the militiamen slipped off his horse without a sound and moved up to the trail head, crossbow out and waiting silently. The other two also had theirs raised. At the back of the line, Hammersmith walked his horse backward into the trees and if Jack hadn’t spent seven years hunting with Riddick, she would have never seen him at all.
‘Nice,’ she thought, as her horse tossed its head and shuffled in place, anxious to be moving. Giving the animal a pat on the side of its neck, she brought its head up and pulled it in a tight circle, heading back along the line until she had circled where Hammersmith and his horse had once stood. Other than shifting slightly to make room for her, none of the others moved from their places and the air was silent, even the horses stilled, only their tails flicking against their sides.
The whisper of wood pulled from a sheath had Jack glance across to where Hammersmith had disappeared into the forest. A glint of light fell on the chain first and then the morningstar. Instinctively her belly tightened but Hammersmith wasn’t watching her; his regard halved between the trail head and the three militiamen. It made sense to her that if there was to be trouble, it would come from those that had issue with her leadership and that now, away from Riddick at least, might choose to do something about it. Jack didn’t put much thought into wondering what Hammersmith would do if he was called upon to act against them; it was clear that he would act and Duncan put much stock in his ability which only raised him in her eyes. Riddick would have eliminated the threat, she knew. He would have said that it wasn’t worth the risk to always wonder whether a guy would kill you in your sleep. While Duncan had no issue with killing, she knew that he would handle it differently. It was in that spirit that she nudged her horse forward and motioned to Hammersmith, palm down. Another subtle nod and he lowered the weapon, the deadly weight of the morningstar swinging ever so slightly below the horse’s belly.
It wasn’t so much a matter of trust as it was a matter of trust for now. She would do things Duncan’s way until she had to do things Riddick’s way. Her way. With that in mind, she spurred the horse forward on the right hand side of the trail, making a full circle around her group and passing slowly alongside the two horsed militiamen. Close enough that her boot brushed and caught their attention. It pleased her that, aside from the briefest of glances, neither took their eyes from the trail head; their weapons never wavered. Still, she made a point to not cross in front of them but remained at the side, her drawn weapon tucked against her forearm as Riddick had taught her.
“Nicely done,” she said quietly, patting the neck of the nearest militiaman’s horse as she watched Duncan appear at the head of the trail, giving the all clear.
“No problem,” the man said, cracking an easy smile as he eased back the tension on his crossbow, putting it at rest against his thigh. The two horsed men shifted over on the trail as their third rejoined them and then they were on the move again, edging carefully down the trail head until the ground levelled out again.
Once Jack had room to move, she held her horse back until Hammersmith passed her by, at which point she swung around the back of his horse and came up on his other side, resting a hand on his shoulder briefly. “Thanks,” she said, quietly so that it didn’t travel.
He said nothing, just another of his quiet nods. Like Riddick and the other men in her life, she took more from it than what would be said aloud. Returning the nod, she pressed her heels against the side of her horse and retook her place at the front of the line.
“What’s it look like up there?” she asked as she passed came alongside Duncan.
“Clear ground. A few trees, sparse once we get past this first bit,” he said as he motioned to the trail ahead. “That goes on for at least a couple of miles. Heavier forest across from us.”
“Good. I’d like to make some good time and get back under the cover of deeper forest before night falls.”
“We’ve got a little less than an hour,” Shazza said as she held a hand up to the horizon, measuring the distance before the sun disappeared below the sea.
“That’s in ground with no shade. It’s going to get darker even faster in here and the horses don’t like it.” Once they had moved down the trail and clearer ground was in sight, she turned her horse neatly in place, Jack held up her hand and stopped the line. “We need to be out of this clearing before nightfall; we can make camp for the night on the other side.” Blade in hand, Jack pointed across the sparse forest, into a deeper knot of trees. “Spread out. There’s enough space between these trees that we should make some good time.” Remaining where she was, Jack watched as the militiamen fanned out between the tall slender trees, with Hammersmith taking up the furthest position. Shazza remained at her side and Duncan held the position closest to the sea. “Move!”
As one they set out. The pack horses were heavily laden and didn’t move as fast as she’d like but they made good time. Shadows fell in bars across the backs of the horses and only by looking ahead to the forest beyond could she keep from being mesmerized by the quickly moving patterns. The sun blazed bright orange as it touched the sea as though it fought for its last light. The air cooled suddenly as orange became red and then a fiery pink blaze and the dark of the forest rose up from the ground like something alive.
The horses nickered and fussed at the dimming light and Jack tightened the reins, bringing the beast below her to a trot. It would be slower but kinder. Frightened horses would take time to settle and it was easier to walk a short while in the dark. “Ease up,” she called down the line, looking to her left to catch the militiamen. They had already slowed and, as night fell, two of them slipped off the beasts’ backs and walked ahead, leading the animals.
Leaning forward, Jack patted the animal’s neck and muttered something soothing in as deep a voice as she could manage. “Trail’s ahead, follow me,” she called out quietly, listening for the others to fall in line. The canopy folded over them, swallowing them up as the last blaze of sunset’s light winked out against the sea and then they were in darkness again.
Alone on the deck of the Moorglade, Riddick leaned heavily into the warm wood of the railing. The setting sun’s last rays brightened to an intense white light in his altered vision even behind the goggles, and he opened them only periodically. As scents changed he would glance briefly, as long as it wasn’t sunward. Watching as some small animal raced against time for the safety of a burrow or an explosion of black feathers as a crane broke free from beneath the ship’s keel, racing low to the grass in the bow wake.
The grassland extended as far as he could see, both in front and to the left of him. The ship flew over the grass but in the expanse, it felt like nothing. Like they could fly forever and never see another thing. The river ran alongside the right of them. Silver light winked off the surface and seemed to dance in the air just above. It was a mirage, a trick of the light, but he watched anyway.
Watched the water and the forest beyond and thought about Jack. The horses had disappeared into the trees but he had continued to watch the area for any signs of activity. Not that there was much that he could really do if anyone were to follow Jack and the others. In the time it would take the Moorglade to slow and take the turn, sending them back toward Sunhillow, any pursuers would be lost. Or dealt with by Jack.
‘Woman can handle herself just fine.’
From very early on, he had looked at Jack and felt what she was beneath. It had been like looking in a mirror. There was little doubt in his mind that she could easily take care of anything that threatened them. It wasn’t her safety that had him out on the deck suffering through bright light he could barely stand. It was something else. At that thought, he made a face, shook his head and stiff-armed himself away from the railing.
‘She don’t need you holding her damned hand all the time,’ he thought, snorting a little at what Jack would actually do if he tried that, holding her hand through everything. ‘Probably kill me in my fucking sleep.’ It had nothing to do with concern for either Jack or Shazza as both women could handle themselves. Striding across the deck toward the bridge, he knew exactly what the problem was. He missed her, her and Shazza both.
Not for any lack of company. As the Rider, the militiamen of Trieste 9 treated him with respect, if not outright deference, but what the militiamen offered wasn’t real friendship. Riddick knew that, if needed, he could insinuate himself among others, moving amongst people almost as though he was one of them, but he never felt it where it mattered. It never felt real. The two women had been his friends before. Before he was the Rider or a respected leader in a war against the Company. They had been his friends when he had been bitted and chained to a post on a shithole of a planet, about to be food for hammerheads.
Even Theo had come before Trieste 9 and, while they hadn’t started out as friends, Riddick wouldn’t lie to himself and say it wasn’t so. Silently opening the door to the bridge, Riddick slipped inside, with only the muffled click of the latch to give him away. Not that it mattered, as Theo tilted his head ever so slightly at the sound. Merc instincts died hard and while Theo would never have Jack’s skill, the old merc still did a fair job of tracking Riddick. Not that he had to.
“How much farther?” Riddick asked as he came up behind Theo and settled against the greenwood rail that ran just in front of the Moorglade’s wheel, overlooking the expanse of deck beyond. The wood thrummed faintly with the power that ran the ship.
“We’ll have to slow down a bit once it’s full dark just to be on the safe side but I figure we’ll be there by the middle of the day tomorrow, maybe a little later if we make any stops along the way,” Theo said as he ran off the distances in his head. There was a chart unrolled on the table behind him but he didn’t need to look at it any more in order to be sure.
Not moving anything other than his neck, Riddick tilted his head to the side to look over at Theo. Other than a general idea, a direction, there hadn’t been a real need to talk specifics. “And there would be where, exactly?”
“There are a couple of smaller towns along this side of the grasslands but we’re talking what, maybe fifty people tops? If that?” Shaking his head, Theo made a minute correction in the Moorglade’s path, which Riddick felt first beneath his hands as the ship shifted. “No, our best bet is going to see ‘Mother’. It’s the biggest settlement. Bigger, more organized militia,” he counted off on his fingers, bracing the wheel against his elbow, “and there’s the image to think of.”
A deep exhale turned into a quiet growl as Riddick looked out across the span of the deck once more. “Command a lot more authority for anything we gotta do that way, if we got ‘Mother’ on side.” Not that her consent was needed; Riddick knew that the militia would follow his call, no matter what that call was. Still, it was a powerful image to have the ‘Rider’ stand alongside the elderly woman that, even before Old Thomas’ passing, had commanded the respect of so many.
At the wheel, Theo nodded as he made another small course correction, holding the Moorglade to run in the middle of a wide ley line that moved across the grassland. In theory, there was very little need for him to stand at the wheel at all, as the ship would hold true as far as the line ran but Theo stayed. A little more relaxed perhaps but not in any hurry to leave. “She’s important,” Theo finally added. “Not just because she can put a stamp on whatever army we need to raise, but also for Jack.”
“They’ll follow Jack,” Riddick said quietly, with conviction. He knew it because he would. That was something that he hadn’t put a lot of thought into but he knew it was true, that they had reached that point where he would follow her just as she had followed him for years.
“Yeah, some will, no doubt there but there are men here that are going to have a problem following a woman, especially if they haven’t met her. Know her like we do. ‘Mother’ could make that easier.”
“Jack won’t do anything easy,” Riddick said with a short laugh, turning around as Johns came in through the door at the back of the bridge, holding a carafe of strong tea in one hand and three earthenware cups in the other.
“True,” Theo agreed, sharing the laugh as he made space at the wheel for Johns to take his place after taking the tea from him. “But it’s not like we’d have to tell her and if we can find a way to make people follow her…”
“…Then she’s not going to have to force anybody,” Riddick finished for him as he poured a cup of tea and stepped out onto the darkened deck.
© Copyright xxxevilgrinxxx 22 June2010