I never would have thought that a stretch of land could say, Go away, you’re not wanted here, but I get the message loud and clear.
I click my tongue, and Jareth breaks into a trot.
There’s a cottage up ahead, and over the sound of Jareth’s clopping hooves I hear a deep voice raised in a shout. Then a high-pitched scream. I clench the reins, drawing Jareth back to a walk, and peer through overgrown bushes to a crumbled and untidy house.
A side door flies open, and a girl with a long, straw-colored plait and a blue sundress dashes outside. She’s barefoot, and she races across the muddy yard and disappears into the stable. Barely a second later, a pale gray horse bursts out into the sunshine, the girl astride its back. Her eyes are wild and she’s clinging to the horse’s mane. For a moment I’m certain she’s going to fall off, because the horse wears no bridle or saddle, but as she races out of the front gate she’s more than secure atop the animal’s back. She gallops straight past me and up the road.
A middle-aged man in a stained T-shirt and with a grizzled gray beard stumbles out the front door, holding a shotgun and yelling at the top of his lungs, “Come back here, you lazy bitch!”
The girl and her horse are already a hundred yards up the road and moving fast.
Realizing he’s too late, the man heads for the stables, still clutching the shotgun. When he heaves down a saddle, the gun catches on the railings and it almost topples him.
I clench my knees around Jareth’s middle. “Yah!”
My horse transitions from walk into a gallop, and we race along the road toward the girl. She’s a gray and blue speck on the road ahead, but Jareth is a much bigger, more powerful horse, and soon we’re closing on her. We must sound like thunder bearing down on her.
The laneway curves and the girl disappears from view. When we round the bend, I see her standing up on the horse’s back while it canters, and my mouth falls open in surprise. She’s as sure-footed as Elke and Anouk are on their horses under the big top. The girl holds herself steady for a moment, arms spread, and then vaults up to catch the branch of a tree. She scrambles onto it and disappears into the leaves. The gray horse slows, and at the girl’s whistle it trots away from her hiding place and is hidden among the trees.
I walk Jareth just off the road and wait.
A few minutes later, there’s another whistle. Jareth’s ears swivel toward it as my head turns. Back trots the gray horse and the girl slithers onto its back, all bare legs and wisps of blonde hair.
“Miss,” I call quietly.
The girl tenses and turns frightened eyes on me. She spies Jareth and me standing in the shadows, and tenses to flee.
“Your father is saddling up a horse, and he’s carrying a shotgun. Do you have someplace to go?”
The girl stares at us, frozen with indecision. When I don’t move she relaxes slightly, and her eyes travel over me. “You’re from the circus that passed by a few hours ago.”
I look down at myself. My clothes are plain enough. Black shirt, black jeans, dusty black boots, black jacket. Jareth’s saddle and bridle are decorated with the same gold and crimson trim as the wagons. Even without Jareth I find myself drawing stares when I enter towns and villages, as if people can sense there’s something unusual about me. I’m weathered by the elements and my black hair is down to my collar. I haven’t seen a proper bed or the inside of a house in five months. Maybe it shows.
“Yes,” I say.
She looks longingly up the road in the direction the circus has passed.
I swing my leg over the saddle and slide to the ground. “Dismount and walk a little into the woods with me. We should get out of sight of the road.”
The girl bites her lip, unsure whether she can trust this stranger. As I pat Jareth’s neck, he nuzzles my shirt with his velvet lip. Affectionate, but also curious about whether I’m carrying any sugar cubes.
“Your horse likes you,” the girl says.
I stroke Jareth’s nose. “I like him.”
She leaps lightly down from her horse, as if Jareth’s judge of character is good enough for her. We head into the woods, the girl walking easily over the leaf litter and bracken with bare feet, as if she’s done this dozens of times before. She’s petite and slender, barely coming up to my shoulder, but she possesses wiry strength. Her arms in her short sleeves are well defined, and her legs are muscular. I wonder who taught her acrobatics.
I draw Jareth to a stop in a little clearing, and the girl turns to me. She hasn’t led her horse. It’s followed her, as obedient as a dog.
“The circus was in the field on the other side of the village last night,” she tells me, her eyes flickering over my face.
I nod. Tonight, it will be in another village further south, and in a few weeks more it will be a hundred miles away. We’re crisscrossing our way down the country all summer and will turn back as the season changes.
“Can I come with you?” she asks suddenly. Her fingers are threading through the horse’s mane, tight and anxious. “I can look after horses. I’ve grown up with them all my life. I can be useful.”
She doesn’t seem to know she might be good enough on her horse to perform. As well as being strong and athletic, she’s beautiful, with high cheekbones and wide-spaced, sparkling blue eyes. The only mar to her beauty is a nasty swelling beneath her left eye, which is rapidly turning black.
“How old are you?”
She glances furtively at me, and then away again. “Nineteen.”
“How old are you really?”
“Did he give you that?” I ask, nodding at the angry purple bruise beneath her eye.
The girl tenses. Other people have asked her this, and if she tells the truth, he’ll hit her again. I wonder if that’s why she’s learned to run and hide. I clench Jareth’s leather reins in my fist. “I won’t let him—”
There’s a crashing sound up ahead in the woods, and the gray horse tenses. A furious male voice echoes through the trees. It’s all too much for the horse, and she suddenly rears and bolts.
“Dandelion!” the girl cries in anguish. She puts two fingers in her mouth and whistles, but this time the horse doesn’t obey. Horses sense evil, and Dandelion seems like she wants to put as much distance between herself and this girl’s father as possible.
I can see the man now, mounted on a bay horse and fighting his way through the underbrush to get to us. The girl wraps her arms around her shaking body and starts to cry. She doesn’t even try to run. It’s like she’s got nowhere to run to.
I put my foot into a stirrup and swing up onto Jareth. I reach down my hand for her. “Come on.”
The despair in the girl’s eyes changes to elation. Gasping in relief, she clutches my hand and I pull her up behind me.
The man sees us, and roars and raises his shotgun, but we’re out of range. I watch him for a moment, committing his face to memory. Letting him see me, too, the man who’s taking his daughter.
I want him to see me.
Then I wheel Jareth around. We canter though the woods, my horse finding natural paths through the trees. Friesians were bred to be warhorses, and while they’re big and strong enough to carry a knight in full armor, they’re also swift and sure-footed.
“I thought you were going to leave me behind,” the girl gasps, wrapping her arms around my waist and holding on. We emerge from the trees onto a laneway, and I turn Jareth southwards and urge him into a gallop.
“What’s your name?” I call over the sound of Jareth’s thundering hooves. That clumsy bastard will still be fighting his way through the bracken.
Ryah. What a pretty name. I look down at her small hands encircling my waist.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“Cale. Cale Hearn of Meriful’s Traveling Circus.” Cale Hearn who’s just snatched a teenage girl right from under her father’s nose. I wonder if this is kidnapping. I wonder if he’ll send the police after me or arrive to take her back himself. He’s welcome to fucking try.
Ryah nestles closer and rests her cheek against my back. “Pleased to meet you, Cale Hearn of Meriful’s Traveling Circus. Thank you for helping me run away.”
I find myself smiling as we thunder down the road. “My pleasure, Ryah.”