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«Haven of Darkness», E.C Tubb

Chapter One

 

Delusia came unexpectedly so that she continued riding towards the north, forgetting the passage of time in the stimulating conversation with Charles. He looked well as he rode easily at her side, his clothes the same as she remembered him wearing when, shortly after they had first met, he had attended her on a hunt. The bag had been negligible; some vermin tossed aside on the homeward journey, but the pleasure had been great. They had wandered, hands touching, talking of a variety of things with a irresistible torrent of words. Normally shy she had found a release in his presence while he, perhaps amused at her young eager attention, had relaxed the guard he usually wore.

Now, riding close to her side, he was the same suave, charming man she had known when little more than a girl. A long time ago now and she had known him when he looked other than he did at the moment. There had been lines tracing the smooth curve of his cheek and a sagging of the flesh beneath the chin. The old, familiar manner had become crusted with accumulated layers of distrust and, when he had finally died, killed in some stupid quarrel, he had resembled an old and tired man rather than the youth she chose to remember.

"Charles!" She lifted her whip and pointed ahead to where a narrow cleft showed in the bleak wall of the Iron Mountains. "That gulley, you see it? The first to reach it claims a forfeit. Go!"

A childish game and one she hadn't played for years now and she had a moment's wonder as to why she should choose to play it now. A return to her youth, perhaps, her childhood? The fiction of a happier time? If so she knew better, for her childhood had not been happy and the things it contained were best forgotten.

Leaning forward, heels drumming, she concentrated on the race. Beneath her she could feel the surge and pulse of muscle as her mount sent iron-shod hooves against the bare rock of the foothills. In her nostrils she could smell the odors of sweat and hair, of leather and oil, catch too the sensual scent of the beast; a mare close to seasonal heat-had that scent triggered her own femininity?

The drumming of the hooves softened as they hit a film of drifted soil; grains carried by the winds and trapped in the shelter of the cleft. Dull echoes rose to be caught and reflected by the soaring walls of either side. Before them shadows lay dense, sombre banks of thickening darkness which hid what lay beyond and seemed to hide the hint of movement.

Abruptly the mare came to a halt, raring, forelegs rising, eyes rolling, foam dropping from bared teeth and muzzle. A move which almost threw her, would have thrown her had she not been about to check the forward motion of the animal.

"Steady, girl! Steady!"

Charles, of course, had vanished, but she thought nothing of him as she ran her hands over the head and muzzle of the frightened beast, soothing the animal with words and touch. And the mare had reason to be afraid. She had ridden too long and wandered too far and now it was dangerously close to night. Looking up she saw the edges of the gulley framing a strip of purple sky palely flecked with the ghosts of stars. The suns were invisible, coming into view only when she had left the mountains and begun the journey home.

They were lower than she had thought and she cursed the delusia which had robbed her of elementary caution. Already the day was dying, the light diffused, the air holding a metallic taint, but with luck, she decided, she could just about make it. If it hadn't been for the stupid race with Charles she would have had no doubt but now, literally, it was a matter of life and death.

"Go!" She snapped to the mare. "Run for your life now, girl. Run!"

She helped, easing the stirrups, loosening the reins, placing her weight so as to help and not to hamper the rhythm of the animal. There was little more she could do. To have halted and removed the saddle would have lost time and the saving of weight was not as important as it would seem. The beast was accustomed to the saddle and she was not skilled in bare-backed riding.

"Move, girl! Move!"

It was no time to be gentle. The spurs she wore more for decoration than for actual use dug into the heaving flanks, the sting of the whip accentuating their message of urgency. Beneath her she felt the animal bound, fresh life sent to tiring muscles, the stride lengthening a little now they had reached flatter ground. Behind them the bulk of the mountains began to shrink as the ground streamed past around and below. The speed of their passage created a wind which thrummed against her face and caught her hair, tearing it free from the golden clasps which held it, fanning the thick, black tresses and sending them to stream like a silken pennant from the rounded contour of her head.

"On!" she urged. "On, girl! On!"


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