THE LONE RIDER
DAWN’S irresistible rays of light cast their beauty upon the dewy rooftops of Lower Mire. All the excitement of the previous day had melted into serene bindings of duty – the mid-summer tending of farmlands awaited all the early risers on this bright day. All but those chosen few.
Fenn Eaeldred rose from his warm bed, only to be greeted by the cool draft of his small room. He knew the day would get much warmer by the time he set out for Ernvale with Horsfall. Casting his eyes beyond the window of his room, he could see the sun slowly rising past the peak of Ealdefaeder in the east. There lay Upper Mire in the shadows of the old mountain. He had not visited their neighbours by Ealdefaeder for many years. As a matter of fact, he recalled being in their village only once as a young boy. Fenn knew he had several cousins and relatives who dwelled in the ancient village – even older than Lower Mire – that had stood in the same spot for centuries. There seemed to be a drift that had formed between the people of Lower and their distant relatives in Upper. Fenn remembered asking his uncles about it many years ago, as a child, but recalled the indifferent and muted responses he had received. Resolved to discover the origins of the hushed behaviour, he decided to ask his father about it. Ignatius pulled his son aside that day and spoke sternly:
“Listen here Fenn. Our family left the peeks of Ealdefaeder many years ago, before you were born. Once we lived together with the Eaeldreds and people of Upper Mire in harmony, each kin holding a bond stronger than this here mountain. We were one. There came a time when our bond was tested, tried to its very limit.” Fenn nodded quietly. “When a person goes through a hardship such as that, there comes a moment when difficult decisions are made and, once made, you must live with the consequences – whatever they may be. Until that time comes for you, and it will come, I want you to think of our cousins by Ealdefaeder with respect and a good heart. You understand boy?”
Fenn never broached the topic again. He did not fully comprehend his father’s words at the time, but knew it was not his place to question them. Perhaps one day he would ask again.
Shortly after the rising of the sun, Fenn heard Horsfall’s voice outside his window, chattering away with his sister Rhoda just by the gate. She had gone to draw water from the well nearby and encountered the vibrant youth on her way back. His cheery disposition made Fenn smile and he called out to him to help him carry outside the supplies they would need for their journey.
The Eaeldred home was bustling with activity from corner to corner. Ignatius was gathering some wood for the supplies, while Beryl set the table for a hearty breakfast. Rhoda was busily bundling up as much food as Fenn and Horsfall would need for their two-day stretch to Ernvale. By the time breakfast was concluded and all the supplies gathered outside, the quiet rumbling of an approaching horse-drawn cart could be heard coming from the far end of the main dirt road.
Steadily pulling the cart while making his way to the front gate was the loyal horse that belonged to Ignatius and the family. His name was Scéam. Once, many years ago, in the full bloom of his youth, Ignatius rode Scéam’s father, Celeritas. Both horses were pale gray, and where the older horse was once renowned for his speed, the younger was known for his strength and courage. Guiding him on top of the cart was a silent form of a man. A quiet watcher, yet he possessed a rather large and strong form. Very little hair remained on his head, but something told Fenn that the man did not regard personal appearance as slightly important. He wore a loose brown hooded tunic which he would cover his head with on warm sunny days to protect his heavily bearded face. Emotionless he seemed at times, but Fenn had seen him slightly grin on the odd occasion.
The man’s name was Alden Ewart. He was an old friend of his father’s – Fenn knew that much. He did not know where Alden came from – no mention was ever made of it – but Fenn gathered that he was born in Lower Mire, or at least in a village nearby. Ignatius always entrusted Alden with the safety of his son during these infrequent travels outside of the village. They had an unspoken bond and deep trust which Fenn saw the moment he met the man when he was a young child. Like old comrades, they showed immense respect for each other. Ignatius would always welcome Alden into their home with open arms, offering food and drink aplenty. Although Alden spoke very little, his father would regularly lead the conversation, telling tales of olden days, while steady Alden would nod his head in approval, brandishing the smallest of grins every so often.
Alden Ewart had started coming by their home when Fenn had just turned four years old. He remembered the first occasion vividly. It had been a viciously stormy night in the waning autumn season and Fenn was playing with his baby sister in the kitchen rooms. The clouds had gathered in such intensity, the likes of which he had never seen before or since. Outside, the winds were howling with rage, rattling the sealed windows immensely. However, not even the overbearing sounds of the storm could prevent Fenn from hearing the thunderous gallop of a horse outside, fast approaching. What happened next was difficult for him to remember clearly. He recalled his father Ignatius peering through the window, only to rush out in a hurried blur. There were voices outside, two men shouting loudly amidst the deafening torrent of rain. Within moments, his father came back through the front door, helping what looked like an injured man, fully dressed in armour – his face hidden by the broad shoulders and arms of Ignatius. Fenn quickly glimpsed the faint outline of a wet sword, only to see all before him vanish as his mother rushed over to their aid, swinging the kitchen door shut behind her.
Curiosity reigned in Fenn’s mind that night, but his mother would shed no light on the mysterious visitor from the darkness. The next day his father forbade Fenn from going into the dining hall where he correctly assumed the mysterious man still lay. It was pointless to ask any questions, but Fenn knew that it was important not to disturb the resting figure in the next room. Days would pass and a quiet, somber mood descended on the Eaeldred household. The life of the mysterious visitor was on a knife’s edge. Although he was still very small, Fenn could tell from the quiet and dark faces of his parents that the survival of the man rested in fate’s hand for quite some time.
That all changed one bright morning when Fenn awoke to find the guest room next to his occupied by the strange visitor and the door shut. Ignatius and Beryl had both gone to tend the fields while the young boy’s Grandfather, Roth Eaeldred, watched the children. He was sitting outside by the front gate holding little Rhoda, humming ancient songs to her in the morning breeze when the rising Fenn was overcome with curiosity and inquisitiveness. He remembered slowly approaching the door of the guest room in eager anticipation. The door handle was just within his tiny reach. He turned it.
There, laying peacefully on the guest bed, his eyes shut, was the large form of Alden Ewart. Fenn had never seen a man such as this before. He appeared to be comfortable and very much alive. He had no beard at the time and there were traces of long hair still remaining on his scalp, a gruesome result of some violent affair that had brought him to Lower Mire. Various scars enveloped his body wherever he saw exposed skin - particularly on his arms and legs. His abdomen was carefully and heavily bandaged and wrapped in cloth. Venturing closer, Fenn allowed his eyes to wander to the corner of the room where a pile of polished armour rested, where there was none before. Propped up against the wall in a glistening sheath of steel was a magnificent sword of great size. Staring at it in awe, Fenn suddenly felt very much aware of his own presence in the room. He quickly turned to look at Alden and was met by the calming stare of his gentle green eyes, looking at Fenn ever curiously and very much awake. Silence reigned for a moment before, quite suddenly, Alden smiled at the small boy, his teeth as white as snow. They remained staring at each other in mutual curiosity when Fenn heard the voice of Ignatius calling for him outside. Quickly he spun around and hurried out of the guest room, forgetting to shut the door completely.
That was Fenn’s first meeting with the gentle and loyal Alden Ewart. A week later, the quiet man would leave their home just as suddenly as he came. But that was not the end of his visits. Often he would come and see the family at the change of the seasons or at a particular feast. Later he would accompany them on their travels near and far. And although Ignatius never told Fenn the story behind Alden Ewart’s mysterious and sudden appearance in their lives, he surmised that he had a very good reason not to.
Alden now guided Scéam to stop in front of the main gate. The cart lurched to an abrupt halt. Fenn and Horsfall greeted the large man with excited grins, petting the neck of their beloved horse with affection. Scéam nuzzled Fenn fondly as he stroked the light coloured mane of the charger with happiness.
Ignatius emerged from the house soon after, carrying the last of the supplies. After loading them up on the cart, he pulled Fenn aside for the briefest of moments to have a word with him.
“You be careful on the road Fenn. You know what’s out there on the Asharan route. Listen to Alden – he is your eyes, ears and hand, always. And you watch that Horsfall. He always wanders his way into trouble, one way or another.” The young man nodded sternly.As the sun continued its steady slope of ascendancy in the blue sky, Fenn and Horsfall climbed onto the loaded cart. With parting waves of affection from Ignatius, Beryl and Rhoda, Alden and the two lads set off towards the village square along the main road of Lower Mire. “You take care now Fenn!” His mother shouted, her parting words bringing a loving smile to his face.
To be Continued in Part II...