Keri

 

The weather showed that the joys of travelling in late autumn were greatly overrated.

Considering that nobody sane opted to travel in late autumn if they could at all avoid it because it was the absolutely worst time of year to be on the road, that went some way to show how truly abysmal the water had been the past half day.

Rain that was not sleet, but that by all rights should have been, being driven by a freezing cold gusty wind that just could not decide which direction exactly it would blow from, and thus always found a way to get past a cloak, no matter how tightly wrapped it was. Added to that icy mud that was ankle-deep in the best of places, much deeper than that in the corners of the forest road. Corners of which there were many due to the trees making a straight path impossible. And of course the trees had become so soaked with rain that they dropped fat freezing drops on the heads of everybody and everything passing underneath them. Adding yet more numbing cold water that found its way inside the clothes of any foolish traveler.

Keri knew she was not smart, even foolish, for being outside in this weather. And more, she knew it was her own fault, but she still liberally cursed the forest, the weather and all the events that had led up to her being here. She even spent time to invent entirely new curses, if only to distract herself from being even more miserable.

She had dismounted her horse hours ago to keep him from floundering, and was now leading him by hand through the aforementioned mud. Mud that only grew deeper and stickier every dozen steps, and was now close to stealing her boots from her. Which would really put a crown on the worst day she could remember.

The only bright side to the entire day, and it was a slim brightness that was increasingly hard to hold on to, was that if her memory was correct there was a camp ground not far from the crossroads she’d passed three hours ago. Half an hour of casual riding in less awful conditions. The campground was big enough that it boasted a small inn.
The forest road was too narrow to be used by the big trade caravans, but it was for exactly that reason popular with those who did not want to take the King’s road that bypassed the forest entirely and instead meandered through the hill country to the city of Hillstead, down the Merskear valley to Garnford, and then up the steep Oxen Lament road to the city of Glivenr. A journey taking up to two weeks instead of the two days through the highland Black Forest.

Keri tormented herself with images of a roaring fire, it might be just early enough in the cold season that the innkeeper had decided to get one started, and a hot meal. A mulled wine or a hot cider also just might be possible if the stores had been replenished in the inn.
‘Only a little further now’ she told herself. Again. She also murmured words of encouragement to her exhausted horse, who even if he did not understand a thing of what she said still perked up his soggy ears at the sound of her familiar voice. If she’d had any treat left she would have given him something, the poor beast had endured more this day than she had any right to ask of him.

Pulling her foot out of the mud with so much effort now that she actually had to seek support from her horse Keri felt like crying. It was the exhaustion she knew and past experience with the state allowed her to fight past the urge. Her horse had similar difficulty fighting himself free, but thankfully did not feel the need to lean on her in doing so.
Somehow the two of them had slogged along the road and reached another turn of the path without realising.

That the road was also sloping down considerably at this point was distinctly unwelcome news. It meant that the mud was even deeper on this stretch and covered by small pools of frothing water. Those she had to avoid or she could find herself waist deep in mud, and worse, if her horse got stuck that deep in a mud hole, she would lose him. There was no way she could help him get himself free, and he would die of exposure long before the weather cleared and the ground dried out enough from him to scramble out of a pit.

Keri picked her way carefully, sticking to the edge of the forest as much as possible to find what semi-solid ground she could find. Her horse did not like it, and Keri tried not to think of how much she disliked the forest itself. If they were to get past this small valley and across the brook in its middle, she had to swallow her dislike, and the feeling that the forest did not want her anywhere near itself. The Black Forest had always had a bad name like this. Not exactly alive, not like the Greater Witchwood far to the east beyond the boundaries of the kingdom was rumoured to be, but in some way aware and expressing a strong desire to be left alone. The undergrowth would not move easily for anybody attempting to leave the road, and would be even more obstructive in allowing somebody to return should they manage to stray off the path.

The brooks one would cross while passing through the forest were particularly dangerous in this sense, as they offered an easy way to leave the relative safety of the path, but no easy way back if one wandered too far off. The road itself was maintained with no small amount of effort, though rumour along its borders had it that it has been generations since the forest last attempted to reclaim the swatch that was cut through it. Perhaps the road had been there so long now that the forest had come to think of as part of itself and defended it as vigorously as it defended its untouched parts.

But in truth nobody knew what had happened here, other than that it must have been magic of the kind that no longer could be found anywhere in the Kingdom or its vassal states and neighboring kingdoms. It also had happened before any human had set foot on these lands, and since barely even myths of previous inhabitants had survived, that must have been a very long time ago indeed. Those who first arrived here had found the forest much as it was today, and had learned to leave it alone. In return the forest left them alone as well.

When she finally finished the treacherous descent Keri rested for a few moments at the banks of the brook. Unlike the rest of the forest road it consisted mostly of decent sized rocks that allowed stable footing to human and horse alike. And if the brook was running swiftly, swollen with muddy water, she remembered that it too was running in a bed consisting mostly of pebbles and small stones worn round by the water.

The stones posed a small hazard to horse shoes perhaps, but the brook was fordable at this place. Not easily fordable under the circumstances, but after probing the water with her walking stick Keri decided that the water would be thigh high at its worst, and not running so swiftly as to pose a risk of dragging her off her feet and taking her with it into the depths of the forest. Still, she tied a length of rope around her waist and the other end around the pommel of her saddle. She also opted to put the horse downstream of her even if that required some awkward maneuvering in the narrow space she had on the river bank. The horse after all was much less likely to be swept off his feet than she was.

Her precautions turned out to be smart as her tentative probing of the water depth was found to be somewhat optimistic. The first step was as unpleasant as she had imagined. Stepping bare feet into water that should by all rights have been frozen almost instantly made her feet numb. Or rather, even number than they already were. By the third step she was in deeper water than her rolled up pants had allowed for. Her pants of course were already wet from the rain but managed to get much colder still. By the time she reached the mid-point of the brook crossing she was in water deeper than her hips and she had serious problems staying upright.

Near the bottom the current was much strong than she had expected and threatened to drag her under every time she lifted her foot to take a step. She had to cling to her horse to keep herself that much above the water with every shuffling step she took, and her horse had to strain against the current in a similar fashion as she did. He, too, moved with great caution but at least had the advantage of having four feet instead of two and relatively narrow legs for his weight.

Clinging together they made it past the deepest point centimeter by centimeter. And as their strength ran out so did the effort it required to stay upright in the water. Until after some time, but in near complete darkness, Keri found herself on the other river bank. Numb with cold she knew that she now had to find that inn very quickly or she would not be found until spring. If her bones would be found at all. Grabbing and unrolling her cloak from where she had tied it to the saddle she wrapped it around herself as protection against the wind. The fabric was too wet to provide any warmth. Then she untied her boots and put them on quickly. She knew that she should have checked her feet for tiny wounds that might get infected, but decided she needed warmth more urgently. She could check and clean her feet sitting next to a fire, but if she stayed here to do that first she might not get up again after cold and exhaustion really set in.

With her numb feet safely in squelching boots she did make time to check the legs and hooves of her horse though. He could after all easily cripple himself and she was not going to find a replacement within days riding distance. Nor had she any intention of losing her beloved horse. He was not one of the semi-mystical talking horses but at times Keri felt like he should have been.

It was hard to tell in the dark, she could only go by feel, but patting down each leg in turn carefully, did not reveal any spot that the horse did not want touched. Checking the hoofs was a bit tricky. If the horse was generally docile, this did not extend to him being truly miserable and he did not like his hoofs handled. Rather than risk getting kicked in the head Keri kept the examination to a cursory one. It really was not that much further to the inn now and she could then check the horse’s feet while she dried him off. There would be better light, and he would be in a much better mood.

“Soon now” she whispered to him “Just up this slope and then around a fallen tree. I promise you will get a hot mash”

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