Saturday, 15 October 2011

Oak Tree

   The sun hung low in the sky, promising barely an hour more light before the night set in. Already a thin sheet of frost covered the grass - the horses' hooves crunched through it as they trod. The smaller horse, a young bay, seemed nervous, stepping lightly and skittishly over this unfamiliar surface. The two riders sat slouched on their mounts. Ahead, a lone oak tree silhouetted itself against the orange sun, its negative burning onto the riders eyes every time they blinked. It had been a long day.
   "I married her because my parents said we were a good match," protested the rider on the left.
   "You married her because she had a nice rack and a pretty smile," replied the one on the right.
   They continued in silence. A minute passed.
   "That may be true. But I wouldn't have got the confidence to ask her to marry me if my parents hadn't convinced me we were a good match."
   "You wouldn't have got the confidence to marry her if your parents hadn't forced you to?" He laughed, briefly sitting up straight in his saddle. The tired horse below barely seemed to notice.
   "Something like that." He paused. "Artley?"
   "What is it, friend?" replied Artley.
   "I think I made a mistake."
   "Oh, I know you made a mistake. I knew that from the moment I met her. The way you cowered when she moved. Duncan, you're wearing the trousers but she is the man in that marriage."
   "I'm not weak."
   "No, you're just her bitch." He laughed again.
   "It's not funny."
   "Duncan, you are the finest man I know. You are a great leader, a fine example to my children, you are noble and upright, you perfect bastard. And the best bit of all is that you realise none of it. But you're also a numpty when it comes to women. It's your only weakness and it utterly baffles me. But thank the gods you have a weakness." He smiled gently, the kind of smile only lifelong friends understand.
   "Thanks, I think," conceded Duncan, and sat up slightly straight himself. His horse, the skittish bay, settled with him and began to tread more confidently. "My back hurts, I can't wait to - " The silence of the early evening was rent sharply apart by the hiss of a crossbow bolt. It was audible for barely a second before thudding thickly into the bay horse's flank. The horse screamed, rearing up and to the side, its injured back leg unable to take the weight of both horse and rider. The mount crashed to the ground, crossbow bolt jutting grotesquely from its buttock.
   "Gods! Artley, I'm pinned." The horse squirmed on the floor, screaming and trapping Duncan beneath. "Shit. Ow! Artley, if you ever loved me, get me out from under this horse."
   "Shut up." Artley jumped off his mount and knelt to the ground. He shielded his eyes with his hands, peering into the setting sun. "Hard to tell where they are. We can't see them if they're in the sun ahead or the dark behind." The bay horse whinnied once more, but then fell silent. Artley looked down, expecting to see Duncan trapped beneath a dead horse. Instead, the trapped man ran his fingers through the horse's main, whispering sweetly. Artley shook his head. "Amazing."
   Another crossbow bolt whipped through the air, slicing through Artley's cloak. The uninjured horse felt it too, bucking, tearing the reins from Artley's gloved hands and sprinting back the way they'd came.
   "Shitballsfuck! That was close." With no horse to hold, he dropped to the ground and crawled to Duncan, putting his arms under the other man's shoulders. "Ready?" Not waiting for a reply, Artley heaved as best he could from his awkward position, and pulled Duncan out from the now alarmingly peaceful horse. "You ok?"
   "I just got crushed by my own horse, of course I'm not ok," replied Duncan.
   "Apart from your pride, I mean?"
   "Then yes, I'm fine. Bruised but fine."
   A third bolt thudded into the bay horse's neck. The unfortunate horse gurgled its last few breaths as crimson blood bubbled out of the wound, spilling onto the white, frosty floor.
   "Oh for - Stop killing my horse!" shouted Duncan. His words hung in the silent air for a moment, unsure of their recipient.
   "First the horse, then you!" came a reply.
   "Arsehole. Who kills a horse?" Duncan asked quietly, but again to no-one in particular.
   "Dunc, it's time to move," whispered Artley. "Chances are they can't see us - " A fourth cross bolt hit the now dead horse, "They just know where we last were. Stay quiet, stay low, and head for that oak tree ahead."
   "That oak tree must be four hundred metres. I'm not crawling four hundred metres, Artley."
   "You could run and die, or crawl and live. Come on Duncan, you don't need me to tell you that."
Duncan replied meekly. "True. But its cold and these are new pantaloons and to be honest I just hate crawling." A fifth crossbow bolt snapped into the cold dirt four inches from his head. Duncan raised his eyebrows. "Wow."
   "Wow indeed. You'll get used to crawling, don't worry. Just pretend it's your wife with the crossbow. You wouldn't want to give her the satisfaction of killing you, would you now?"
   "In some ways, friend, she already has.'