It did not take long to disseminate the knowledge of the horses. Several villages were nearby, the fields almost touching, a necessity given the harsh conditions of their lives. Giving the knowledge of horses entailed Wlvn laying his hands on a lot of heads. The men were always grateful. With horses and knowledge, their hunting range would be increased ten-fold, and that alone might be enough to keep the winter plague at bay.
With horses beneath them, it did not take long to capture more. Some were trained to be ridden while others were trained to pull the plow or wagon. Wlvn got to select the riders and separate them from the work horses, though every village often had more than one able student, quick to learn. The people gave Wlvn the name, God of the Horses, and people began to treat him like one of the gods, whether he liked the name, or protested, or not.
The villagers agreed to keep this knowledge as far away from the helpers as possible. The villagers all agreed to keep their horses in the fields away from all well-worn paths, but as the days wore on into summer, people became animated about the possibilities for the future. Men, who had lived their whole lives without the slightest glimpse of hope, now became excited about the future. One man even had the courage to dream the impossible.
“Perhaps we might pay back the helpers for their cruelty and flee to a place beyond the reach of the dome altogether,” he said.
“There is no place beyond the dome.” A different man gave the crushing response.
“Then we will have to destroy the dome.” A third man spoke. He thought he was being realistic, though no one mentioned the Titan, or the immortal in residence, or the fact that the helpers had airships that could rain down fire from the sky. Wlvn did not imagine the fire cared if the man walked on foot or rode on horseback, but he held his tongue. Nothing he could say would deter men from dreaming, and he knew these dreaming men had never dared to dream before in their whole lives.
In the end, Wlvn got proved right. The secret of the horses lasted until the next harvest. Then, more than one idiot hitched his horse to his wagon to haul in his grain. Wlvn felt glad that at least no one proved so terminally foolish as to ride to the center of the universe. To Wlvn’s surprise, there did not seem to be much reaction from the dome. As one man described it, “The immortal convinced both the helpers and the Lord of All to let the men keep their horses. He said, “Consider the increase that may come from this new beast of burden the wretched have found for themselves.” You can be sure he meant to increase their take. He also said that the Lord of All should get horse meat off his mind. I suspect the Lord was thinking of his supper.” The man snickered.
Wlvn and his father were shocked at the man’s brash words. Just six months earlier, no one would have dared speak of the Lord of All with such disrespect.
Early one spring, the spring of Wlvn’s eighteenth year he whistled for his best stallion and took off across fields. He raced around the stubborn drifts of snow and through the trees just to see how far he could get. Thred, the horse, seemed more than willing to get into a good run, being an energetic three-year-old. Wlvn considered his horse’s name. It was the first horse among them all that the Princess called, “beautiful,” and she should know. She had been virtually raised on the back of a horse. Thred meant “beautiful” or “beauty,” but still, Wlvn could hardly call to his horse without thinking of his friend, or rather, Flern’s friend, Thrud. The language had degraded by Flern’s time, but Thrud still meant beautiful. Vinnu meant flower. Elluin meant little one. Pinn was a tough one, but it probably meant a gift, where in another time and place, the Storyteller suggested that it might mean “Gift of Grace.” Flern meant doe a deer, a female deer. To avoid singing, Wlvn imagined the grace and speed of his beast; but then he could not help envisioning Flern staked out on some guy’s dinner platter with an apple in her mouth. Would it be Strawhead Trell, Fat Fritt or Tird? Wlvn laughed as he heard, or imagined in his mind, the distant sound of a “Grrr.”
Wlvn turned his mind to his own prospects. He was not interested in any of the girls he knew, and though he supposed any unmarried young woman in the nearest dozen villages would have been overjoyed to be the wife of the God of the Horses, he found none of them especially attractive and imagined there might not be a brain among them all. True, Flern was known to say that Trell, Fritt and Tird shared a single brain. “They take turns using it.” Wlvn heard her say. But there it was. It bothered him and her. Whoever they ended up with simply had to be able to carry on a conversation. Wlvn wondered briefly if that would be the case in every life he lived.
Wlvn rode, prepared to camp out in the night. He honestly wanted to see how far he could get in a single day so he kept to a straight line as well as he could. He rode away from the center of the universe, and he did not stop until poor Thred became all breathless and sweating. Wlvn leapt from the back of his horse, not because he had seen something in the lowering sun that turned the sky red in front of him but a bit off to the left, and not because the land appeared any different up ahead, but because of something he saw in the dirt. It looked like a strip of dirt all along the ground where no grass grew, and it made a line in both directions for as far as Wlvn could see, perhaps curving just a little in the distance to suggest a circle.
Wlvn reached down and found a good stone. He threw it past the line, but nothing prevented the stone from following its normal course. At least he knew it could not be some kind of particle screen. Wlvn looked again, and he saw a bird pass right through the space. He thought he might just be imagining things, but the line in the dirt appeared so pronounced, it had to be something. When Wlvn walked up to where he stood only a hand span from the line, he found Thred by his shoulder. He patted the horse’s nose and apologized before pushing his horse’s nose beyond the line. The horse felt nothing, but as Wlvn’s fingers got close, he felt something like an electrical charge run right up his arm. Wlvn withdrew his hand, quickly and told Thred to eat up because it would be a long way home. Thred puffed and went right to grazing on the stubborn grass that survived all winter beneath the snows.
Wlvn tried to put his hand out again, but he felt it tingle and decided not to get any closer, even as something caught his eye. He saw a face in the clouds out near the sun. Wlvn had taught his baby sister, Brmr, to look at the shapes in the clouds, and he got good at picking out all sorts of animals and such, but this seemed more of a face than he had ever seen before. It almost looked like a real face, even before it winked at him. Wlvn felt so shocked at the wink, he fell back and landed hard on his rump. The face puffed its cheeks and began to blow, and when Wlvn felt the wind, he knew it had to be one of the gods. The wind blew strong, and it covered him and Thred, who paused in his munching to draw closer to Wlvn. Wlvn reached up with one hand for the drooping reigns, and Thred helped pull Wlvn to his feet, but at the same time, Wlvn had to use his other arm to cover his face and eyes, because the wind blew leaves, twigs, and plenty of dirt in his direction.
The wind stopped all at once, not at all like a natural wind. When Wlvn looked again, he was not surprised that the face in the clouds had gone. “Strange events,” Wlvn mumbled, as he patted Thred’s nose. Thred puffed again and seemed to nod in agreement.
Wlvn camped in the night, and about two in the morning, he woke when he heard some eerie sounds in the distance. It sounded to him like a baby wailing. Wlvn jumped up when he first heard it. He wanted to find out if it might actually be a baby in distress, but he paused when he realized that the sound came from over the line. He stopped altogether when he heard several babies start wailing at once. He decided then and there that it really did not sound all that much like a baby, and maybe he did not want to know what it was. He threw another log on the fire and went to see Thred. The horses’ eyes widened, and his ears darted back and forth as if listening, intently, yet Thred did not seem to be in a panic at the sound. Wlvn decided that the horse probably did not recognize the sound. Wlvn never heard such a sound before either, so he rubbed his horse’s flank for reassurance and threw yet another log on the fire.
In the morning, Wlvn decided not to test the line. He would save that for another day, and besides, he had to get home. Father, hardly a mother substitute, only had eight-year-old Brmr, not much better, to help. Of course, Strn at thirteen and Gndr at fifteen were completely useless, and Wlvn wondered briefly if he had been as useless as Gndr at fifteen. That thought made him wonder again about Flern and her Gunder. Gunder and Vinnu were married for a whole year by then, and Wlvn wondered how long it would be before Vinnu became pregnant. Meanwhile, Thrud and Kiren were about to marry, and Pinn and Vilder were officially engaged, though as far as Wlvn knew, no one had yet seen them touch. That left Flern, and sadly, Elluin, who looked like she would marry Drud the crud. Wlvn decided that he would like to get his hands on Drud just once to beat him up for a change, and then maybe beat up Bunder as well, just because of the way he looked at him, her—Flern.
Wlvn pulled his ragged cloak up tight against his shoulders. It might have been early spring, perhaps around April first on the Storyteller’s calendar, but it still felt cold in the wind. He rode, mostly without thinking at all, just looking at the trees and grasses, and wondering how long it would be before he saw the buds. With that thought in mind, he rode into the village and found everything changed.
For one, no one could be found at the house. For two, people came up to him and asked where he had been all that time. For three, he found out it was not early spring anymore, but after the fall harvest and only a week away from having to make the trip to the center of the universe. Wlvn felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle, but then he got angry. That god in the cloud had taken advantage of him in a way not strictly lawful. Unfortunately, he still did not know who that god might be, so he was not quite sure who to be mad at. More unfortunately, he got quickly distracted by Brmr who came running up to him for a hug. She arrived in tears, and she said that she and Strn and Gndr had been staying with old man Wlkn for three days, ever since the helpers came. Wlvn looked around, quickly, but Father was nowhere to be seen.