The magnificence of a horse can never be understated, especially to someone who has never seen one. The creature bewildered me. Its chestnut velvet coat delighted me. Its dirty, mangled mane enchanted me. So when our captors loaded us onto horses, each of us secured by our own armed guard, I was not frightened exactly. I was amazed.
Our hands were already bound, so I figured fighting back would be futile, but Gia made a valiant effort. I reached out when they loaded Ori onto a spotted horse, separate from mine, but I told him not to give them the satisfaction of seeing him cry. I was tired of crying anyway. Ori impressed me with his obedience, assuming a sullen pout that he stubbornly maintained throughout the journey.
The captors were about half a dozen in all, spread amongst the same number of horses. They were intriguing, rugged, and strong. They rode horses and carried sticks for weapons. Their lips constrained their yellow teeth from falling from their faces. Their yelps, their animal signals, seemed anything but human. They were primitive. They were barbarian. I had little doubt that these were Suprema.
On any other day I would have been terrified. But today I felt that I’d already been spared so many times that my death was overdue. I saw a concentrated tremor on Gia’s brow. She had not yet consigned herself to death. She was looking for weakness, absorbing information the way my father did. I knew she was thinking that if only she jumped of the horse at the next ridge…if she elbowed her guard and ran off…if she built a shelter in the woods…if she collected nuts and berries…then she might escape and survive on her own. I admired her resilience, but I could not think that way. I wanted to free myself and I probably had the strength, but if I ever did escape alone, I would never forgive myself. I had to protect my sister and brother. They were all I had left.
The captors had laughed when they saw that our hands were already bound. The speaker was intelligent; he had pointed his sticks at Ori, and although I had never seen a bow and arrow, I shivered to think of the force it might impart. The other Suprema warriors attacked from the bushes. The youngest seemed smaller than Gia, and the oldest was no more than five years my senior.
Red handprints colored their faces. Only one warrior, whose tall stature and solemn expression indicated his authority, wore a black handprint over the right side of his face. He remained apart from the others, ever stoic. His short commands were quickly obeyed. Even I could tell that his horse, black and young, was the best of the bunch.
At first a young Suprema had attempted to capture my sister, but she overpowered him, and the largest warrior had to come to subdue her. One of his bulky arms fastened around her waist as they rode. When she tried to move, he squeezed her until she quieted.
The arm around my waist was tight and strong, but my Suprema, a muscular warrior at least my age, allowed me to turn my head and even to look in his face. He wore brown cotton pants and a loose cream-colored cotton shirt, just like most of the others. And, like the rest, he maintained a bow across his shoulder and arrows on his back. I saw the hilt of a dagger sticking out from a leather pouch on his side.
But something in his eyes told me that he was different. I only dared to steal quick glances, but he led the horse with certain…tenderness. As I sat entrapped by his warm arms I noticed a comfort in the way he sat. His green eyes pierced me when I glanced into his face, and the corners of his mouth began to softly smile.
As we rode my terror subsided. I didn’t feel frightened anymore. I looked over at Gia, struggling intently against her oversized hunter, but I enjoyed the warmth of my warrior’s arm hugging my waist. My warrior. I liked the way it sounded in my head. Now, for the first time in what seemed like ages, I didn’t feel afraid. I felt safe.
My warrior pulled me close to his body. He leaned his head over my shoulder. “Are you hungry?” he asked softly.
I had been trying not to think about food. My circumstances gave me a lot else to think about, but I hadn’t had a meal since breakfast the morning before. I wondered how Ori hadn’t complained yet. I nodded my head.
My warrior switched hands on the reigns and reached into a pouch on the horse. He handed me a small roll of bread. I held it to my lips with both hands bound and ate in small pieces, allowing the roll to expand in my stomach. I had no idea when I would eat my next meal.
My warrior laughed. “You eat like a little otter!” he exclaimed, smiling. “Are you thirsty, Otter?”
I almost smiled as I drank from his canteen.
I wished to hear his voice again, but we rode the rest of the way in silence. He drove the horse with elegance and grace. My breath caught every time the pace quickened, and my senses jumped when he readjusted his arm.
Gia caught my eye. Her angry confusion soured my cheerfulness. She couldn’t understand how I could find peace amidst this chaos. I didn’t really understand it myself.
Too suddenly the horses leaped from the trees into a huge clearing. If I had been looking for it I never would have found it. Cabins, plants, trees, and cloth seemed to breathe together in this place, slowly and collectively.
The people, on the other hand, pulsed with a strange and primitive vitality. Their eyes widened at our entrance and their hands froze in their work. Immediately the air burst with whoops and yips. Old men and young women, children and men, each cheered in their own way, barking and yelling. One woman started to sing.
“Judd! Mud Judd!” they shouted. “What have you found?”
The warrior with the black handprint dismounted his horse.
“I must talk with the chief,” he said. He turned to the warrior holding my brother. “Eamon, come with me.”