Brill could not know for sure, but he was in fact correct in guessing that Shane, the Stallion and their former mules were no longer up on top of the cliff. After Brill had spotted Dark Star, the stallion urged Shane on his way around the shoulder of the mountain. They maintained an easy but steady ascent and they were long gone leaving Brill and Crandle to lick their wounds far below.
The mules were rested enough after the arduous climb up the rock slide and ready to go anywhere as long as it was with the stallion and not the two bad men. Being an old war horse, Dark Star could run all day in full battle gear so he was always ready to go for a run when unencumbered. Not being a big fan of walking, Shane mounted up and they started up the draw that lead to the summit, another 8,000 feet above their heads still. Even from that lofty elevation Shane thought it must be the tallest mountain in the entire world
The slope from there on up was fairly easy compared to the climb up the bluff. But the increasing altitude meant less oxygen in the air so the going went slower and slower as the day wore on but onward and upward they climbed higher and higher. The pace was plodding and slow but not so slow that they didn’t make it to the summit just as the sun was setting over the western horizon.
Shane sat high on Dark Star’s back looking northward across the expanse of the Thieron Mountain range across the tops of a seemingly endless marching of upthrust granite spires that stretched out before them as far as his eye could see. Looking back to the south down along the piedmont and the foothills to the South, Shane could make out the village of Northam. Further on lay the thick green shag carpet that demarcated Mayrewood, and somewhere lost in the distance was his family home where at that very moment Shane’s parents were wringing information out of Tayvian who could not sit down for a week after an intense interrogation that involved his parents as well.
“Look, Star I can see my house from here.” He told the stallion who snorted in reply. He could not see that far off into the misty distance across which Kilcairn lay of course, but the horse knew what the lad meant just the same. It was a most spectacular view that much was certain.
“Well I guess I’d better hurry up and get a fire going while I still have light to see by.” Shane said as he dismounted, and set to work making camp.
The sunset painted the Western sky splashing great and fantastic pastel swaths of yellow, orange and red that blazed like fire across the sky as the Sun dropped slowly into the distant sea. Blazing rays of light tinted the snowy mountain peaks in the distance a lighter shade to match and the purple majesty of the Theiron Mountains in such glory was a soul-stirring thing to see.
“There sure are a lot of other mountains we have to cross yet aren’t there?” Shane said, pointing with one hand toward the mountains that still lay in their path. The stallion nodded his head vigorously and nickered in agreement. They did indeed have a long way to go.
They were well above the timberline at 13,700 feet but Shane had calculated from experience that their pace would put them there by nightfall. He had wisely gathered up an ample supply of dry firewood and loaded it on Ginny and Vanna, who were always more than willing to help any human who would scratch them behind their ears.
“Just in case” he had told the stallion, who knew from long experience, how quickly the weather could turn on you above the treeline. He agreed with the kid heartily. To Ginny and Vanna the old dried out wood was no burden at all and they didn’t mind the large amount that he tied to their backs.
While the horses went down the other side, minus their saddles and packs of course, to graze in a grassy rift not far below the summit, Shane pitched his tent and got a cheerful blaze burning within a ring of stones As the sunset reached it’s peak he was toasting bread and cheese balls on the point of a sharpened stick for supper.
Shane ate dinner sitting on top of a great rock formation that made up the peak of the mountain. His lofty perch offered him an unobstructed view in all four directions. Six directions if you count up, and down.
To the south he could see the lights of Northam where the torches were all lit an and the night watch had been set. To the west he could see only the faintest residual glow from the setting sun. Looking East, Shane could see the golden yellow top of the waxing moon as it peered above the rim of the Earth to see if the stars were awake yet is what his Mother used to tell him when she would sit in the side of his bed and make up stories about dragons, knights of great honor and valor who conquered them and the great castles they lived and died in.
He was already able to see because of the altitude at which he sat. To the North all that was visible in the dark were white snow capped mountain peaks that stood between him and Darvonshire.
When he looked in the fifth direction, which just happened to be down, Shane could not see anything on the Northern slopes of the mountain below them. But looking down the Southern side over to the West he was able to see a tiny yellow dot from a fire that was right about where the road he had been on was located. Before his horse had gone and eaten a bunch of loco weed that is. He intuitive knew that was the King’s Highway. The only easy route through these treacherous mountains.
The route they were obviously not going to be taking thanks to Dark Star he reminded himself with a resigned sigh that was more incredulity at the fickleness of fate than exasperation because he trusted the stallion implicitly.
When he looked down the majesty of the view from such a dizzying height made the greatest impression of all. Shane took one look and then he had to lay back on top of his rock with his head pillowed in his cupped hands and stare at the dazzling display in the night sky overhead.
The Milky Way was splashed in twilinkling splendor all across the sky and to Shane it looked as though a billion brilliant diamonds had been flung from the celestial paint brush of The Creator to land like droplets of living fire on a pitch black canvas as big as forever and then some.
Each droplet shimmered with cold, distant fire that burned in hues of blue, green, red and white. As Shane watched spellbound by the light show in the Heavens a meteor shower began bombarding the Earth’s atmosphere. Streaks of multi-colored fire crossing the sky overhead marked their final moments as the fragments of rock burned up at over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and fell harmlessly to the Earth. Most of it rained softly down as cinders and ash and landed unnoticed..
The night was so peaceful and still, the temperature was so agreeable and mild that Shane fell asleep without realizing it. He awoke just after sunrise the next morning, and at first he thought it must still be night time because it was dark when he opened his eyes. But then he realized that it was only dark because somebody, or some horse rather, had dropped his blanket over his head while he was sleeping. When he exposed his face to the early morning chill, and saw the tiny droplets of frost that had collected on his blanket, he was grateful to the animal that had placed it there. Even if it was certifiably insane.
Looking around him now, Shane found the stallion and his two newly devoted followers Ginny and Vanna standing huddled together over his campfire. During the night it had burned itself down to a cold thin wisp of smoke that was barely a wisp at all. All three of the animals were covered with a silver rime made up of billions of tiny beads of dew that made them look like spirit horses as they moved slowly about, grazing in the early morning mists.
“Good morning Star. And top of the morning to you ladies .” Shane said sleepily but cheerfully. Dark Star tossed his head in greeting and nickered in reply. He was speaking for himself and the two mules who, not being enchanted themselves, were unable to understand what the human was saying unless it was saying giddyup, whoa or you stupid mule which the boy never had said. They were not really sure what to make of him but they thought he seemed nice enough for a biped and said as much to the stallion. They spent much of their grazing time alternately watching him and trying to make heads or tails of him.
There is something special about making breakfast in the clean mountain air that makes it so refreshing and unique. Shane got a fire going and cooked himself a hot breakfast of porridge, warmed up biscuits softened with a pat of butter, and some blackberry preserves that he had found in Vanna’s pack. He added several thick slices of bacon and ate it sandwiched in between the biscuits. A cup of strong, hot tea got his blood warmed up and then he was wide awake and raring to hit the trail such as it was..
By the time Shane repacked all of the saddles, the sun had burned all the mists away and the silvery dew was quickly drying from their coats. As they emerged from the shadows and into the morning sunshine, streams of thin white mist rose from the horses backs as they strode back into camp at a leisurely pace.
He mounted Dark Star and turned him toward the south. Toward his hometown and his only home and the only family and friends he had ever known in all of his 14 years on Earth. It was all far below him, and many leagues behind him now and the weight of it all sat heavily upon his narrow young shoulders just then. Shane wondered if he would ever see his mother and father, or Tayvian, or the twins again. Just then, feeling a little bit melancholy, and not just a little bit homesick Shane remembered a poem he had heard once that had stuck with him. It came into his mind just then and he recited it aloud to the valley below from memory.
” Life is a journey; that we all must take; one some will embrace; and others forsake. Wherever roam; whether near or far, whenever you find yourself, that’s where you are. Fly to thy dreams, and let thy heart roam, but each road you travel’s the one that leads home.”
When he finished reciting the poem, Dark Star whinnied and tossed his head in approval as the whinny echoed down the mountainside.
“You like that poem Star?” Shane asked and the stallion nodded his head once but only slightly “I made that one up myself you know?” Shane said. But the stallion knew better. He turned and gave Shane the old hairy eyeball, snorted through his wide nostrils and shook his head slowly.
“Okay fine so I didn’t make it up myself. Who cares?” Shane said as he took one last look towards Kilcairn. It was still long lost in the silvery blanket of mist that still lay upon the land far below over the hills and far away. With a heavy sigh and a deep ache of fear and longing in his heart Shane turned the black stallion to the North, towards his destiny which lay far ahead of them. Leaning forward Shane touched his heels lightly to Star’s sides, chucked twice at him and they began the long descent to the bottom of the mountain.
Going down, thank you ever so much to a sometimes cruel and unforgiving mistress called gravity, is so much easier than going up a mountain, and it goes much quicker too. By noon they were in a high sloping valley that rolled down all the way to the foot of the first mountain.
Shane stopped to eat lunch and to let the horses get some water from a rill flowing out from amongst the rocks. “Are we going to join back up with the road anytime soon Star, or do you mean to take us across all of these mountains?” he asked the stallion who was munching on some grass nearby. The contrary old warhorse pretended not to hear him.
“Does that mean you’re not going to tell me?” Shane wondered. Again the stallion ignored him. He could not tell, Shane about the two men who were after them anyway and his horse sense told him that Brill, and Crandle would not give up as easily as he had hoped they would. Even after he had given them the slip in Spirit Horse Canyon, Dark Star knew he could take care of those two humans if they did cross their path again so he chose to let the matter pass. At least for the time being.
After Shane split one of Brill’s apples between Ginny and Vanna and split one with Star, he remounted and they continued on their way to the bottom of the long valley.
Brill and Crandle in the meantime, were busy making their way North along the road in the hopes of heading Shane off somewhere up ahead. They were still on foot, but now they were resupplied with food, and amply so.
The fire that Shane had seen from atop the mountain the night before had been the campfire of a lone traveler from a small township called Brenton 25 leagues to the east. Brill and Crandle had also seen his fire and saw that he was alone so they robbed him of his purse and nearly all of his food. The poor fellow had been traveling on foot or they would have helped themselves to a fresh mount or two at his expense as well.
Brill had forced Crandle to march all night except for a short nap that they split between them. One man slept for an hour while the other watched. The road that they were on wound it’s way up through a low pass and then curved to the east around the shoulder of the next mountain before it continued north up another mountain. One with a long sloping grade that would take them through a narrow defile that topped out on a lower peak.
The upper peak of that mountain was a nearly impassable jumble of massive rocks and sheer cliff faces that would take them at least three days to go around. Brill knew the boy would have to head for the pass.
The maps of the day called it Gallows Gap, and that was where he hoped to head Shane off and settle accounts with him. What Brill failed to take into account however was that he and Crandle were not only outsmarted by at least two to one, they were also out numbered two to one physically as well.
Nor did he realize that his adversary was an enchanted war horse with a large stallions typical cantankerous disposition, keen senses, and a rotten attitude towards anyone that he took a disliking to. He had taken an instant disliking to Brill and Crandle and his opinion was not going to improve.
By traveling the road on foot they should be able to trap him inside the narrows where he would not be able to escape. Or so they thought.
Shane and the horses began the long climb up the next mountain at 3 o’clock in the afternoonn so the boy decided to stop for the night in a draw that had everything they needed in a camping spot. Graze, water, and firewood a plenty that he could gather up for just in case they had to spend another night above the timberline. And it appeared to Shane that they probably would. The mountain that they were slowly ascending now was over 1,000 feet lower than the previous one.
It would take them longer to climb without tiring the smaller horses out needlessly and it would be much colder up there that night too. He just hoped that they would get back to the road some time soon. But the black stallion went whichever direction that he chose to and no other, he was pretty much along for the ride whether he liked it or not anyway. Walking was definitely out of the question.
After Shane had curried all three horses, he ate a hot dinner, curled up in his blankets, and in five minutes he was sound asleep, snoring to beat the band. Dark Star told the mules to stand guard then he excused himself from Ginny and Vanna’s company and ran off into the night, towards the road.
Running free now without any encumbrances the stallion’s ground eating pace and long legged stride allowed him time to catch up to Brill and Crandle by 9 o’clock that night. The waxing moon was half full and sitting high overhead by then, but the tall pine trees that lined the sides of the road threw deep, dark shadows across it that allowed the coal black horse to follow very closely behind them and listen in on their conversation to see if he could learn anything about their plans.
He had been following them for quite some time but all they did the whole time was argue incessantly about whether they were going to stop soon to rest or not. Dark Star was just about ready to go back to his camp when Crandle asked Brill, “Are you sure this trap is going to work Brill?” His big ears perked up then. ^..^
“Of course I’m sure chowder head.” Brill growled “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Crandle thought about that for a minute or two before he said “Well it’s just that I’ve been wondering about something, Brill. What if the boy goes around Gallows Gap instead of going through it?”
“He won’t do that.” Brill said dismissively.
“Well, why not? I mean, he has to already know that somebody, namely us two is after him, right? Why else would he climb out the back of Spirit Horse Canyon like he did?” Crandle wondered.
“I don’t know why, I guess you might have a point there, but, nobody in their right mind is going to try to go around Gallows Gap when it’s so much easier to go through it. When he does, then we’ll get him and take what we have coming to us. Trust me Crandle we will get what we have coming to us, even if it’s the last thing we ever do,” Brill vowed.
So they were planning to ambush Shane inside the pass through Gallows Gap were they? Dark Star thought, we would just see about that.
”Stop!” Crandle said suddenly and put his arm out, stopping Brill in his tracks. “Listen!”
“Listen to what, the bloody grass growing? I don’t hear anything !” Brill said after he had been listening for a minute or so.
“You didn’t hear it, Brill?
“No!” Brill snapped “Hear what?”
“I could have sworn that I just heard a horse walking behind us.” Crandle explained.
“A horse?! Brill cried “Have you finally lost your tiny mind Crandle?”
“ No, Brill, it’s the truth I swear it! I heard what sounded like footsteps of a horse. Like it was following us or something!” Crandle insisted.
“Well, do you see a horse following us? Because if you do I sure wish you would point it out to me so that I can see it too.” Brill sneered.
“Maybe it was that black stallion that took off with our mules. We wouldn’t be able to see him in this darkness,” Crandle offered, but Brill was buying none of it.
“What?!” he finally shouted as his patience reached its limit. “Are you daft, man? Why would that stupid horse come all this way just to follow us down this road you buffoon?!” he roared.
“I don’t know. But…,” Crandle began to say only to get cut short again by Brill.
“Shut up and get to walking before I tear off your leg and beat you even more senseless with it!” he screamed as he turned and stalked off down the road without waiting for his partner.
As Crandle stood there staring into the inky darkness of the moon shadows a large black shape detached itself from a pool of black and reared up on it’s hind legs not more than 15 feet away from him. The stallions giagantic black hooves flashed in the moonlight before he dropped back down, wheeled around and walked slowly and casually away to the south without making a sound.
“Brill! Brill! “ Crandle hollered “Brill! The stallion! The stallion.! He is here!”
Brill who was by then well up ahead, yelled back “I said I don’t want to hear about no bloody stupid horse so shut your cake hole and come on!”
“But Brill… I…”
“Shut up Crandle!” Brill warned “Or I swear I’ll feed your carcass to the buzzards by hand tomorrow!”
“But…but… he was just here.” Crandle said in a tiny voice as he watched the black stallion disappear into the darkness out of hthe range of his night vision.
“He was listening to us, Brill.” He said, but no one was listening to him, Brill had walked away. “Wait for me!” he cried as he turned and ran after Brill who was already well out of sight. The black stallion had spooked him bad. Crandle didn’t care what Brill said, that horse was definitely up to no good, and he didn’t like it at all. No, sir, not a bit.