Excerpt from The Highlands Tunnel

Chapter 17: “The Rider”

A vigorous wind swept across the meadow, and all fell silent in the blast. Like water on the stovetop, murmurs streamed from the Laochs in breathy excitement. They looked at one another and grinned—the starry- eyed females held each other’s arms. The musicians had stopped playing minutes ago, but the hoof beats took on a song of their own.

Here he comes.

This thought overtook all others in Harrison’s head. The idea seized him by force—as though it hadn’t really come from his mind at all.

What am I talking about? he asked himself, surprised. I don’t know who it is!

Nevertheless, he was coming.

It’s him, his thoughts persisted. He—the . . . I don’t know who, but it’s Him.

The whispering had reached a higher pitch, and Harrison was aware that somebody had started to sing. There were no words but a high trilling. Then another joined in . . . and another and another . . . until all the Laochs comprised an unearthly choir. Not one sang the same ballad, but they sang nonetheless, and it all blended melodically. The animals, too. It was euphoric. Even the ground came alive—the rocks, the trees. Every thing was singing.

Harrison looked at Wheeler, who grinned back at him, and then he turned his gaze back in the direction from which the galloping was heard—it was coming from the woods.

The anthem grew louder. It hurt his ears, but Harrison didn’t mind. He wanted to shout along with them. Although the galloping sound became so loud that it seemed to come from all sides—from inside even—his eyes stayed focused on the point where the forest met the clearing.

And he came. On a black horse.

When the pair surfaced, Harrison was confused about whether he had been anticipating the horse or the man. Maybe both. Either way, it was him—the hero.

There were no words—and yet too many words—to describe them.

“It’s him,” Maggie said, voicing Harrison’s conclusion. She sounded surer of who he was.

The Rider swung down from the horse’s back and wrapped his arms around its neck, while it turned its head to rest on his shoulder. He was tall, but not like the Laochs. And he was handsome, but not like Aubrey—not perfect. It was a rugged beauty.

He was indeed a man! A human. Real, flesh and blood humanity. Like Harrison. His form didn’t diminish the supernatural about him, however. He definitely possessed the magic . . . but he was from the Practice World, too, and that was comforting and intriguing.

The Rider turned away and let the partygoers tend to the horse, which they did with great ceremony and affection.

“Maggie,” the man whispered with the ghost of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

Maggie shrieked and took off to meet him, bolting past the giants. She almost didn’t make it. Once in his shadow, she started to collapse, but the Rider captured her in his arms and kissed her forehead before setting her back on her feet. Her eyes squeezed shut, as though she had been waiting for that kiss her whole life and didn’t want it to be over so soon.

Gripping her arms, he spoke to her with such gentleness and sincerity that Harrison felt his face flush.

“What am I going to do with you, chica? Hmmm?” He looked at her adoringly, clearly savoring the moment as much as Maggie.

“Do you want to meet him?” Juda asked. Wheeler nodded eagerly.

Harrison’s breath caught in his throat when he realized that the man was making his way through the crowd toward them. With an arm around Maggie’s shoulders, the Rider grinned and walked toward the brothers. Harrison saw that the girl’s face was wet with tears.

The Rider wore a blue collared shirt with a gray pinstriped, buttoned vest but no boots—his feet were bare, like all the others. His look mixed the cowboy with piratical details. His hair was longish, and it stuck out from under a colonial tricorn hat. He sported a growth of stubble on his face and leather bands that tied around his wrists.

“Wheeler. Harrison.” He smiled and looked at each boy in turn. His eyes were a silvery gray-brown. Like the last fallen leaf of autumn, with a smudge of its former green.

“Do I know you?” Harrison asked.

“Do you know me?” he turned the question on him.

“I think so, yeah.”

He nodded, enthusiastic for being recognized. “You can call me Brother.”

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