The Lone Rider
The forest was far quieter than one would expect of a forest. Nearly silent, it was, save for the occasional crack of a dry, dead tree trunk which, like all the others, was a deep brown bordering on black. The air felt thick as if something were hanging over the land trying to squeeze the life out of it. To the casual onlooker it had been successful. Even in the short springtime the leaves that did sprout from the branches emerged brown and crispy hanging on to their parent tree for a few short days. Even the dawn of new life seemed to be hopeless. Despite the midday hour the land was dark. It seemed as if the sun had not pierced through the thick layer of steel grey clouds in many lifetimes.
The silence of the afternoon was broken abruptly as a lone rider flashed through the forest on his speckled white horse. He tore through the woods dodging trees and limbs that seemed to be reaching to knock him from his mount or block his path. Passing through the woods at great speed he left in his wake fluttering flocks of the dead leaves that eternally covered the forest floor, their pale browns and blonds contrasting with the near blackness of the trees from which they fell. The brittle branches that reached for him were snapped and broken but many tried desperately to cling to his mottled brown cloak while others scratched the skin of his exposed face.
Following the rider, at not so great a distance, were six other riders clad in shimmering copper colored armor. For every cruel branch that attempted to disrupt the lone rider’s path there were an equal number that parted to allow the passage of the six. Even the dark woods seemed to be aiding them in their pursuit. Each time the six would catch a new glimpse of the lone rider he would turn sharply behind a hill or veer to the left or the right past a dense stand of trees never allowing them more than a moment’s sight of him, yet they pushed on undeterred.
After some time the lone rider found himself passing over a flat stretch of ground atop a short cliff barely more than a man’s height. At the end of the cliff, before the narrow trail turned back to the west he urged his horse to the left as it slid down the embankment on its hind legs. Without a pause he doubled back and found the small cave he was searching for.
Standing in the cave comforting a large ebony horse was an older man whose weathered features had seen untold years.
“Did you get her?” The older man asked hurriedly.
“Yes, she is safe, but what of the others? There are so many more.” The rider said revealing a small child from beneath his cloak and handing her to the older man.
As the two spoke the thunder of the six riders’ horses was beginning to fill their ears and shake the ground. The older man silently looked into the frightened eyes of the child and put his finger to his lips. Without an order the six passed over the small cave and came to a halt. The heavy breathing of their horses overpowered every other sound in the forest less the sound of the pounding heartbeats of the lone rider and the older man in their own ears.
“You go and take the child.” The lone rider said with unshakeable determination to the older man.
“What of you?” The older man replied.
“I will make sure you make it with her. You lead and I will follow.”
With no further talk the older man mounted his horse with the child and the two erupted from the cave in the opposite direction from the six riders. They had scarcely breeched the mouth of the cave when the six reacted and took up the pursuit once more. Though the sixes horses were weary there was a fire in their eyes and they were driven forward by some unseen force. After a league they were only a few paces behind the lone rider and were beginning to draw their wicked looking blades from their sheaths. With one final push the lone rider drew near to the old man and with the same determination as before looked into his eyes.
“Keep going.” He said, “Do not stop.” With that he reached to his side and grasped the ivory hilt of his sword. Drawing out the thin, curved blade there seemed to be a new light surrounding them as he pulled back on the reigns bringing his mount up on his two back legs. The six riders slid to a halt before the lone rider.
“If you want them, you will have to pass through me.” The lone rider said defiantly.
“If that is your wish, so be it. We will have you and the child.” Replied one of the riders wickedly.
The old man continued to charge through the dark woods with the child seated in front of him clasped to his chest with one arm. As he rode on tears began to well up in the corners of his eyes and descend slowly down his cheeks. After a short while he breathed a sigh of great relief as he saw the bridge leading over a broad river to his homeland. The sun was setting over the bridge and the sky was clear, burning with the last rays of sunlight. As he crossed the bridge the air became crisper and the heaviness disappeared. Even the clouds that blanketed the forest ceased at the river. Coming to the peak of the bridge the old man stopped and turned his horse to look back to where he had come from. As he turned he saw that the dark clouds were darker still in one small circle above the woods. Just then one flash of lightning split the sky over the wood and a crash of thunder jolted the man and the child.
“It has happened.” The old man said as he looked down with tears streaming down his face and kissing the child on the top of the head he said quietly, “You are safe now…and free.”
The next morning the old man returned to the bridge. Strangely, the clouds that were darker the day before had turned into a small patch that was, ever so slightly, lighter. With a slight squeeze of his legs he told his horse to continue forward and he descended the bridge into the dark wood. At first the forest was as dark and dead as ever before but as he traveled onward toward the place where he last saw the lone rider there were hints of life. Some of the once dry and lifeless trees had one or two green leaves on them and the once sinister crack of the trees had turned to a groan as if they were growing again.
Reaching the clearing where the two had parted the day before the old man’s throat became tight and his lip quivered as he saw the bloodstained cloak of the lone rider. His sword was driven deeply into the ground and the ivory hilt was charred as if by fire. Without the slightest pause he continued on, his horse padding quietly through the forest.
As he passed through the forest the old man heard the quiet song of birds and the rustle of other woodland creatures and as he drew closer to the cave there were more and more. When he arrived at the clearing around the cave the old man was greeted by a beam of sunlight cutting through the thick cover of clouds. The air that had once been so oppressive was filled with the scent of green leaves and was carried on the softest of breezes. Nearly every tree in the clearing was bursting with new life and the branches were shaking off their deadness. The old man stretched his arms out to his sides and turning his head skyward he took a deep breath saying, “This is wonderful!”
“Sir…what is wonderful?” came a small voice. The old man immediately looked down to see a small child emerging from behind one of the larger trees nearby.
“Oh, my child, this is wonderful.” The old man said dismounting his horse and motioning to all around him. “Tell me, where did you come from?”
“Well, we were in the mines and yesterday, all of a sudden, our bonds were loosed. None of us understood what was happening until a man came and told us we were free and that we should come and meet him here.” The young man said motioning to several other children of all sorts that were coming into the clearing.
“Yes, yes, it is true. Oh how wonderful.” The old man said kneeling down in front of the child and taking the small hands his tears of sadness were turning to tears of joy. The old man was gathering more and more of the children in his arms in the most loving embrace when a blinding light shone from the cave. It only lasted for a moment, longer than the blink of an eye but less than two. Then the lone rider came forth and as he did a strong wind blew through the trees like a cheering crowd before their king. He was dressed in the finest and purest linen and his emerald green eyes were as deep and clear as the tropical sea. There was no visible mark on his skin which was as smooth as hand spun silk.
“My son!” The old man exclaimed overwhelmed by joy. He took the first child by the hand and rushed over to the lone rider and took him into his arms with all the love that the world had to offer.
“Children, this is my son. Is he the man that you saw yesterday?” The old man asked. They all nodded their heads in affirmation.
“Yes it is, but he did not look exactly like this.” One of the young girls added, her brow crinkling with confusion. “He was much dirtier. His shirt was torn almost from his body and he had an awful wound in his side.”
“Was it like this?” The lone rider asked lifting his linen tunic to reveal a scar that ran from the bottom of his ribs across the front of his stomach. All of the children’s eyes grew wide with wonder as they began to understand bits and pieces of all that was happening. The one young girl who looked so confused reached her hand out timidly and touched the scar.
“It is alright.” The lone rider said. With her hand still on his wound she looked up into his welcoming eyes and threw her arms around his waist and began to weep.
“Thank you sir!” The young girl said through her tears. The lone rider placed his hands around the girl’s back embracing her in a warm, indescribably peaceful hug. He looked into his father’s eyes and when they met they both nodded their heads in unspoken understanding.
“There is so much to do!” The old man said breaking the silence and wiping the tears from his cheeks with his sleeve. “We must get going.” He looked around the clearing taking in each and every one of the children in his mind. Finally, his eyes stopped on two young boys that were seated on the forest floor leaning up against a tree. Both of them had legs that were badly broken and had only been crudely bandaged. One’s face was terribly bruised and the other’s nose looked as if it had been broken several times and he carried a purple ring around his right eye. One of the other children noticed the old man staring at the two boys.
“Sir, it was all we could do to get them here this morning. Both of them have broken legs and have been beaten terribly.”
“Thank you for bringing them here. I know it wasn’t easy for you and they will come with us today.” The old man said never taking his gaze off of the two boys.
“Where are you going? Can’t we come too?” One of the girls asked.
“Not today child, but soon. They will come with us to their new home in our land, the land from which you all came, but I need the rest of you to stay for now.” The old man said.
“But…but, we want to go with you. This place is awful and we may wind up back in the mines.” One of the girls said with tears beginning to well up in her eyes.
“I know, I know and you will come to us at the right time. For now, there is work to do. You have to go and tell the others that they are free. My son only came to a few of you yesterday so think of all the others who are free but they do not know it yet. You will have to go back to the mines but, understand this; you will never have to be a slave again the way you were before.” The old man said.
“Do we have to bring them here?” Another child asked.
“Not any longer.” The lone rider said. “From this day forward you will take life with you into this dead land. What you see here in this clearing is only the beginning.”
With that the lone rider and his father went to the two broken boys and helped them to their feet. Both winced in pain as they tried to put their weight on their feet. The old man helped one of the boys onto his faithful horse while the other one looked around wondering how all four of them were going to ride the one horse. The lone rider let out a quick whistle and from the cave emerged his own horse, no longer speckled but pure white. He pranced over to his master and without a command knelt before the boy who looked up, with mouth agape, at the lone rider who was smiling back at him.
“Remember my children, go and tell the others about their freedom. Take life into this dark and dead land, and look for the lone rider on the white horse to return for you.” The old man instructed turning his horse to leave the clearing. “Never fear, you will not be abandoned, he will come…he will come.”