"Chooser of the Slain"

Chapter 5: Hengist's News

- Ali. –

Flying…bright light…so fast…

- Ali, wake up. –

But there hadn't been anyone in the column with her…

"Hmm…what?"

Ali felt the sleepy feeling fall away as she stepped out of her dreams and into reality: a reality that was chilly and slightly damp, with crunchy leaves below and above her several pairs of bright, blinking eyes…

Eyes?

Memory returned. She was in the middle of Taranis Forest, lying curled up on the leafy, hard ground, and there were several horses surrounding her, gazing down at her with wondering eyes.

Ali blinked and sat up, wincing as her back complained loudly and obnoxiously about how it had slept the night before. More than one of the bodies attached to those staring eyes jumped backward at her sudden movement, one going so far back he tripped over his hind legs and sprawled for a few seconds before he regained his balance. The rest of the circle surrounding Ali remained vividly focused on her, as if she was a TV show that just couldn't be stopped watching.

Ali blinked again, and rubbed her neck, which seemed to be filing a complaint against its sleeping arrangements.

"Someone rang?" she asked half-jokingly, feeling rather slow and lackluster.

The circle appeared to have not understood her.

Bemused, Ali was just wondering if she would have to resort to sign language or charades when Raptora appeared out of the trees.

"Raptora!" exclaimed Ali, as if she hadn't seen her for years.

- Ali! - replied Raptora in kind. – Did you sleep all right? –

Ali considered telling her the truth, that her back felt like a herd of horses had walked on it (not that that was entirely out of the question) and decided against it, opting instead for a quick smile and an untruthful, would-be reassuring "Fine."

Eyeing her, the gray mare seemed to be considering something of her own, but out of respect for Ali's obvious pain, simply said – Well, that's good. –

Looking around, Ali tried to catch the eye of one of the horses that had woken her up.

"Did someone want me?" she asked, unsure if they did actually talk. "I heard my name when I was waking up…"

Raptora swished her tail. – Undoubtedly, – she said, seemingly amused. – You appear to have some entertainment value. – She cast an eye over the horses, who had retreated several yards away and were trying to look like they weren't listening.

I wonder if this how I have to wake up every morning, thought Ali, and shook her head.

Raptora made that funny, snorting laugh sound, and Ali realized she had picked up on her thought. She blushed.

- Don't worry about it. – Raptora said equably. – Now, I actually do need to talk with these…fine young fillies and colts…- She headed over to their circle, leaving Ali to pick the leaves out of her hair and wonder if the fact that fillies and colts were young horses had anything to do with her unusual way of waking up.

She was just picking a caterpillar off her shoulder with some disgust when Raptora returned after her brief conference with the group of fillies and colts. Upon her exit, the other horses took off at a trot into the woods, every one of them risking a glance backwards and consequently running headlong into various low-hanging branches.

Raptora ignored them. – We've been summoned, Ali, - she said dryly. -Hengist wishes to speak with us. –

Trying to stifle groans, Ali stiffly got to her feet, brushing dirt from her hopelessly filthy pants. Needles danced throughout her legs, but she shook them out and walked over to Raptora.

"Did he find anything?" she asked, suddenly remembering the conversation from the night before. "Or anyone?"

If horses had human shoulders, Raptora would have been shrugging as she turned to lead the way out of the clearing. – I don't know. – she replied. – He summons us. I, a lowly herd member, wouldn't think of questioning my leader's ways. – Her voice was very dry.

Muttering about sarcastic horses and power-hungry herd leaders who withheld information, Ali followed her out.

After weaving and stumbling through an impossible number of trees, (noting Raptora's ease in traversing the forest a little grumpily) Ali found herself in yet another clearing amongst the thick trees and branches. Hengist occupied it, along with Raiden and two more unidentified horses, who watched her and Raptora's entrance with interest. In the brighter light, she saw that Hengist was even more imposing, the slivers of sun catching on his chestnut coat and throwing off dashes of light. A second look at Raiden explained why she'd had trouble seeing him upon their first meeting: he was pitch-black in color, no markings of any sort to separate him from darkness.

As soon as Raptora and Ali had properly greeted the herd leader, Hengist wasted no time in explaining his summoning.

- We've found something. –

Upon these simple words, Ali felt blood fly to her face as she alternated between intense, unbearable excitement and a certain, pessimistic dread. She was so caught up in her emotions that she almost missed the rest of Hengist's message.

- There is a gathering of some sort on the east side of the springs. There appears to be more than one human, and they seem…unusual, as you are. –

"Gee, thanks," muttered Ali.

Hengist chose to ignore this remark. – We've arranged for you to go to their site, with some escorts, and Raptora, if she so wishes. If they prove to not be who you are looking for, we will bring you back here. -

Ali hadn't considered the option that they might not be her friends. Still, she couldn't quite contain the hope that Hengist's news had brought her. She flung her arms around his strong neck and hugged him.

"Thanks for everything!"

Hengist tossed his head and peered down at this tiny human girl who was clinging to him, apparently at a loss.

-You're…very welcome. Now, you do not want to waste too much time…-

Laughing, Ali released his neck and went to stand by Raptora, who nuzzled her, her mental voice emanating amusement.

-I will be glad to accompany her, Hengist- the mare said.

-Good. - Sounding relieved that Ali had gotten off his neck, the stallion look at the other two horses in the clearing. – Zefyr and Echaid will escort you. – Their names mentioned, the two looked up and nodded their heads, one pawing the ground as he did so. – I wish you luck, Horsa-Maninder. Safe journey, Raptora, Zefyr, Echaid. –

With that, Hengist made his exit, Raiden at his heels, leaving the three horses and human alone in the clearing.

-Well, then. – said Raptora, to break the silence that followed Hengist's disappearance. – Shall we be off? –

Zefyr, a handsome, compact bay, replied, - We shall. It should not take too long to get there, but we do not want to be out beyond sunset, so we should hurry. –

Echaid agreed. – Raptora, if you'll carry the girl, Zefyr and I will lead the way. – His mental voice, almost nasal in sound and filled with barely-contained wariness, didn't sound like it belonged with his beautiful dark-brown coat. Ali frowned: she hadn't thought there would be a horse she'd dislike, but Echaid didn't seem particularly thrilled to be here.

Zefyr snorted and stamped his hoof. – Let's be off, then, - he advised.

Something painful seemed to contract in Ali's throat. All this time, she had convinced herself that she was the only one who had traveled here, not letting herself hope another human had come through, despite what she had told Hengist. But upon hearing the herd leader's news, and actually being on their way, Ali felt her pent-up emotions shift dangerously from side to side.

If Raptora noticed a distinct mistiness in Ali's eyes as the girl climbed onto her back and they set off, following Zefyr and Echaid, she didn't mention it.

Riding in the soft glow of light that filtered through the thick trees, wide awake, was quite a different experience from being perched atop Raptora's back in the dark, nearly asleep. Ali gave the ground only the smallest of glances as they twisted and turned throughout the forest before closing her eyes and curling up on her mount's neck, heartily wishing for a nice, safe saddle. She also prayed that Raptora would never feel the need to go faster than a walk: it seemed like it would be slightly akin to riding a roller coaster without being strapped in.

Hours passed, with the only break in time coming when the horses and Ali stopped for drinks of water. Ali alternated between counting Raptora's hoof beats and trying not to think grim thoughts about her upcoming meeting. She also listened to her stomach growl, like a small animal in her intestines, and made a mental note to ask Raptora what she could eat in this place, besides grass and bark.

It was in the middle of counting Raptora's ten thousandth hoof beat that she felt the mare stop, and knew they were there. Ali opened her eyes and sat up.

Zefyr and Echaid were spread out in front of them, eyes fixed on a bit of color that shone through the trees before them, ears twitching towards the sound of voices carrying through the air.

This was it. Ali drew a deep breath and carefully slipped off Raptora. Patting the mare on the neck absentmindedly, she started forward.

-Wait! – Zefyr stepped in front of her, halting her progress. – I will take you up. Hengist would be displeased if he knew I let you just walk into a group of humans. –

"I'm a human, " protested Ali. " Besides, what if they aren't my friends? They might catch you!"

-A chance I will have to take, I think, - Zefyr said firmly. – I do not want Hengist on my back for the next twenty years because I let you go alone. – He started off towards the color and voices.

Well, there's no arguing with that, Ali thought wryly, and followed the horse in. Without her noticing, Raptora came after them, staying well behind Ali, but within eyeshot.

Cautiously, Zefyr proceeded closer to the gathering, Ali close on his heels. Tree by tree they advanced, until they were able to hear the conversation of the people there. Holding her breath, Ali listened as hard as she could, hoping, praying, willing her friends to be there.

"But what will I do without deodorant?" someone wailed, sounding on the verge of a mid-life crisis.

Something seemed to explode within Ali upon those words, and she felt like she had swallowed a balloon. There was no mistaking that voice. Laughing almost hysterically, she abandoned her companion, leaving Zefyr staring incredulously behind her as she ran towards the group.

A few trees and logs put away effortlessly, and Ali was in the clearing, sprinting towards the people occupying it. Screams and half-articulated words punctuated her arrival, but she hardly even noticed as she flew towards Lara and buried her face in her sister's shoulder.