Urkhart paused near the summit of the hill. The late afternoon sun cast a long, looming shadow on the ground before him, exaggerating his half-ogre, half-human shape into something startling. The shadow, at least, did not look weary.
In the distance, hooves pounded on the hard baked clay of the road. Someone was approaching.
Maybe he’ll be able to tell me how to get to Reveefton, thought Urkhart, turning swiftly and squinting into the low sun to watch the rider’s approach. The hills were a labyrinth of tracks and pathways and he was beginning to think he had lost his way. He had hoped to reach the town by nightfall, but it was already sunset and he had no idea how far it was.
He withdrew from the edge of the track as the rider thundered up the hill, clouds of dust rising in the wake of his sweating, labouring horse. The horseman himself didn’t look much better. Though he rode with the careless ease of long practice, he was clearly very tired, his body hunched forward and swaying in the saddle.
Urkhart stepped from the shadows when the rider was almost upon him.
“Excuse me!” he called politely, his voice resonating like a gravel landslide.
The horse shied violently and reared. Urkhart was probably the first half-ogre it had ever seen. It snorted angrily, spraying Urkhart with foam from its flaring nostrils.
“Careful, you fool!” shouted the rider. “You could have been killed!” He steadied his jostling horse with a soothing hand, seemingly unable to take his eyes from Urkhart’s forehead horns and the shock of blue hair springing from the top of his podgy head. Ogres were seldom seen in this country, and half-ogres were an almost unheard-of rarity.
Urkhart found the horseman equally perturbing. A smell of burning hung about him and his cloak drifted in tattered, blackened shreds.
Looks like he’s been sitting too close to the campfire, thought Urkhart, noting the frazzled eyebrows and soot-smudged face.
“Is this some kind of hold-up?” snapped the rider. “I don’t have time for this!”
“No, no! I only want to know the way—”
The rider shook his head impatiently. “Can’t stop! I’m a King’s Messenger, and I’m already late.”
“Wait!” cried Urkhart, raising a calloused, black-nailed hand, but the horseman was already drawing up his reins.
“Sorry, friend. I’d love to stop and chat but the Great King will have my guts for the ‘gators if I don’t get there soon.” He saluted briskly and kicked his horse forward.
“Thanks for your help,” muttered Urkhart, annoyed that the rider had not stopped to listen. “How am I ever going to find my way to Reveefton now?”
Lifting his bag, he trudged along behind the King’s Messenger, watching him canter about two hundred yards towards the brow of the hill and then pause, looking down over the edge.
“What’s he doing?” wondered Urkhart and then started running as he saw him abruptly turn the horse’s head and plunge over the edge of the ridge.
“Look out!” Fearing the rider had met with an accident, Urkhart raced up the hill, moving much quicker than his heavy bulk would seem to allow. When the half-ogre reached the spot, however, he saw that another narrower and steeper track branched off there, descending in a zigzag towards the valley bottom.
The wide sweep of the valley opened before him, grassy and golden in the evening sun. The shining thread of a river flowed through the centre, dividing the patchwork of fields on the valley floor. In the middle lay a haphazard collection of houses and buildings clustered around a rocky spur. A shining white palace rested on the spur, gleaming like an elegant swan amongst a bevy of ducks.
The road he had been following meandered its way along the ridge and down a gentle slope towards the valley floor. However, the narrow path the rider had taken was an obvious short cut.
I guess he showed me the way after all, thought Urkhart, watching the distant horseman pick his way deftly down the steep track. That must be Reveefton. I wonder why he was in such a hurry to get there.
Dusk was approaching fast, as if trying to deny Urkhart enough light to descend to the town below. He lay on the grassy slope and took a drink from his water flask. The spot was sheltered and thick with scrubby-looking furze bushes.
He figured that he had walked about fifteen leagues that day, and nearly that far each day for a week or more. All in all, he thought, trying to calculate the total distance and giving up, that’s a very long way.
I could do worse than spend the night here, he decided. He was used to sleeping out of doors and the weather was mild. He pulled some fruit and bread from his worn leather rucksack and began his supper. Tomorrow, he would spend his few coins on what food they could buy before looking for work. He had heard that Reveefton attracted all sorts of people, and all kinds of employment could be found there.
They must accept me, he thought with the self confidence that all unemployed persons briefly have before they encounter the labour market. After all, there’s no going home. I have no home now.