Nero and Fey are two of the stubbornest cows Grandpa ever had, but he tells me every day that I am stronger than them. I think he is teasing me. I am only eight years old.
This morning is quiet with heavy dew. Fey is fighting with me, as usual.
“Don’t need to yank on her teeth so hard, Ramsey.” Grandpa says.
I don’t listen to him. I pull once more, lose my footing and land in the mud. It’s not sticky mud. Not here. We have the nicest mud you ever saw. It’s like falling in Grandma’s custard.
Grandpa laughs. Fey sticks her nose in my face and nudges me, then she pulls her face over to the spray of sod at the edge of the road. And then I see it. Hoof prints. Not cow, but horse. And there are a lot of them.
“Grandpa! There were horses here last night!”
I forget about Fey, gaining my feet and scooting about the road in a squat, careful not to smudge the beautiful prints. We don’t get many horses around here. Actually, we don’t get any horses around here. And these look funny.
“They weren’t wearing shoes.” I tell him, proud that I can tell the difference.
Grandpa is suddenly very sober. He looks down at them and back up at me. I see the worry on his forehead before he says a word. But he doesn’t speak, not for awhile. He keeps looking at the mud. Then he stands up and rubs his chest.
“I know what happened last night.”
“What happened?” I gulp, my chest feeling like I got punched.
“These tracks don’t belong to no rangers. Nor soldiers. These were made by mighty traders from the east. One hundred of them. Gypsies and singers and dancers. They ride unshod, fast like the wind, from north to south.”
“I know, because I’ve seen them. Up close.”
My eyes widen, though I try not to let them. Grandpa has never spoken of this before. But he tells lots of stories.
“Your grandma was once one of them. She wore silks and scarves and rare, spicy perfumes. She carried priceless articles from here to there, aided by her own choice handmaidens, all of them skilled with knives and sabers. They survived wild panthers, deserts, storms, vales full of—”
“Of elfin folk?”
“Aye, elves, and faeries and the like. Yet she stopped in the town where the four roads meet, and she took a liking to me.” He sighs and tousles my hair.
Fey has gotten far into the brush at the edge of the road. I dash in to find her. As I come back, the sun cuts through the mist and floods the road. The mud looks smooth now. I frown, but Grandpa is already leading Nero across to pasture. Fey decides to be nice, and I catch up.
“Grandpa? I hope Grandma taught you how to use a saber.”
His eyes twinkle. “That she did.”
— Rachel O’Laughlin