Riding: The art of keeping a horse between you and the ground.
In the end Straker had decided to use a local airline rather than expose one of their own machines on a flight to Reykjavik. Thus it had been Iceland Air which had taken them to Keflavík International Airport.
Now Paul Foster and he were sitting in a small charter plane bound for east-coast Egilsstadir Airport. If schedules were kept as promised, an agent would pick them up there and drive them down to Seydisfjordur.
Foster was soundly asleep, as he had been on the flight up from Heathrow. Straker envied the younger man that ability. Instead of getting what most likely was the last real rest for a fortnight he was looking at the evaluation reports Alec and Ford had assembled on the meshing hub, the scant data they had gotten from Halldirsdottir and a set of topographic maps and satellite photos of the mountain range and the area they would have to travel that Colonel Lake had compiled.
He had finally understood why the hub could be reached only on foot or by horse: there were no roads, lots of terrain riddled with small brooks and streams, there were waterfalls and wide lakes. A lot of that area was strewn with boulders and rocks large enough to act like tank traps. The mountains themselves appeared to be shrouded in low clouds or fog most of the time. International aeronautical maps charted the whole stretch of land as being of the highest habitual danger level for any kind of aircraft, both for landing and flyover. He wondered whether UFOs experienced a positive effect from the constant drizzle and humidity.
It would be a strenuous venture. To say he was not daunted by the prospect would have been a lie. However, his sores had healed completely after two further visits to Doug Jackson. Taking the doctor’s advice he had explained what he needed to be able to do and the lessons which had resulted from that clarification had been much less of an ordeal. On the last day he had mastered a trail ride at a moderate pace with Redcliff, and much to his surprise he had even enjoyed it.
With open admiration Ragnar watched his commanding officer stalk the silver dapple mare. Of barely more height and substance than a slender 13-year-old Unnar did not have the brawn to convince the nimble Icelandic ponies with weight or size. She was fast, though, and many a recalcitrant horse discovered that this harmless looking woman could drop halters on them as if it were indeed child’s play.
She wore mud-coloured jodhpurs, the ubiquitous Icelandic hand-knit sweater and sturdy boots reaching up to mid-calf. The heavy clothing looked incongruous on her delicate frame, but he knew that she preferred these to anything more elegant. Which was a shame.
At 56 she was at the height of her personal beauty, he thought. She looked like one of the hidden fairie-people, her full waist-length dark hair shiny like a raven’s wing, barely touched with silver at the temples, her face wise, feline and refined. Long, regular hours of riding and exercise teaching martial arts to field agents had given her movements of effortless grace and a hard, resilient body.
Ragnar had trouble understanding heterosexual men. If he had been into women, Unnur would not have been safe from him, boss or not. But to the best of his knowledge she had not found another relationship after her husband had been killed a couple of years ago. There may or may not have been casual encounters, but if there were she had been so secretive about those that even he as her secretary and co-tenant had not noticed.
There were six of them living on the large former horsefarm just outside town. Apart from Eric Andrisson, colleague, lover and husband of two years, there were Unnur’s younger sister Jordis and the middle-aged couple of farmhands who did most of the menial work on the farm, Helge Gundarsson and Stine Bjoerkdottir. The buildings could easily have housed a dozen more inhabitants. The place had once been a cooperative run by several families, of which only Unnur’s late husband had remained in the end. She had given up most of the land and nowadays just kept a small herd of horses, additionally boarding again as many for government and agency employees of the area.
Eric had taken the Range Rover to collect the film producer and his staff from Egilsstadir’s air strip. That left Unnur, Jordis and him to decide on which horses to use and catch them. Helge was heating up the forge to the side of the paddocks, all horses would need shoeing. The delicious fumes wafting over from the kitchen told him that Stine also was up early, baking and cooking. They had slaughtered two young ewes the day before, some of the meat would go into their provisions.
He hollered with the rest of the onlookers when Unnur at last outwitted the wily mare and dropped the rope-halter over her nose, leading her from the herd to the paddock. Ragnar jumped off the paddock gate, his turn now.
Straker looked at his watch for the fourth time. There were few things he hated more than unpunctuality. By now he had drunk what must have been a whole pot of coffee in the grubby cafeteria and he could feel his temper beginning to snap.
Their plane had landed two hours earlier in this godforsaken spot on the edge of just about nowhere. The cafeteria’s panorama terrace overlooked empty, windswept grassland, looking bleak and cold in the constant drizzle. There were no other passengers around. Going by the surreptitious glances they were treated to the staff wanted to close down for the day. He could see there was no further plane due. The sole reason the service building still was open and lit was their presence.
Thoroughly exasperated Straker got up and started pacing the length of the room, bouncing on the balls of his feet, hands clasped behind his back.
“Keep your shirt on”, Foster said. Straker turned, his gaze following where Foster pointed with his chin. A mud-spattered jeep had pulled up in front of the glass wall separating the cafeteria from its terrace. The man who got out of it quickly pulled up the hood of his oilskins and dashed towards the entrance.
Eric Andrisson was a burly, fair-skinned, fair-haired man in his late twenties sporting a bristly, full beard which must have been non-regulation even in the Icelandic military. He did not bother to shake himself, a small puddle rapidly collecting where he stood.
He knew he was late, something which he tried to avoid when foreigners were involved. Few of those not living on an island permanently affected by freak weather paired with whatever little tricks a volcanically and geographically active landscape could throw at you grasped that being on time was a matter of chance, not application. The waves of exasperation emanating from one of the visitors proved that point.
Eric gave them a quick once-over, the annoyed one was blonde enough to have passed as indigenous, slim and quietly elegant, apparently brain to the second arrival’s pronounced hunky brawn and dark-haired charm. Now, that one looked beddable enough even for Ragnar’s fickle taste, Eric thought and hid a smile neither man would have understood.
“Mr. Straker? Mr. Foster? Welcome on Iceland,” he said and extended a friendly hand. “I’m very sorry you had to wait.” Both men had a firm grip, Eric watched the blonde one dismissing his earlier vexation with a smooth gesture.
“I hope you have wet weather clothing with you,” he continued cheerfully, while he led them through the steady drizzle to the jeep. “Seems we’ll get a few early autumn storms this year.”
He did not miss the resigned look which passed from Straker to Foster. They climbed into the car, while he stowed their luggage in the trunk.
“Will the weather adversely affect our trip to the meshing hub?” Straker asked, buckling himself into the passenger seat.
Eric shrugged. “Not really, unless we get a bad deep low pressure cyclone we should be fine,” he said. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. And the boss is picking our horses right now, so you can be sure they’ll be up to it.”
“But we won’t leave before tomorrow?” Straker asked.
“That’s right,” Eric nodded. “The horses will be shoed today, the irons will have to settle until tomorrow. Anyway, it would be too late to start out today by the time we reach the farm.”
The jeep hurtled at good speed over a single-lane road in need of a thorough makeover, the countryside flat and forbidding, except for occasional rocks and large boulders strewn about, as if a giant had played them like marbles.
Straker observed with growing apprehension that they headed straight for one of these boulders, a chunk of rock the size of a truck, instinctively sitting up straighter expecting impact. At the last moment the jeep swerved around the boulder, following a turn in the road which clearly had been built to accommodate it.
Foster, who had been just as astounded, whipped around to have a last good look at the sharp bend.
“What was that?” he asked.
“A boulder.” Eric answered.
“Yes, I saw that,” Foster continued. “Why does the road go around it?”
Eric smothered a smile. “Well, it can’t go through it now, can it?”
“Sure, nothing a few pounds of Semtex wouldn’t solve,” Foster said, still puzzled. “Or a powerful caterpillar.”
“Oh no,” Eric said. “That would anger the elves. Or possibly one of the trolls. Can’t have that. The road would be a mess of accidents and mishaps then. I think I remember reading in the newspaper that this one houses a troll and that the troll didn’t agree with moving it. So they built that bend.”
He was explaining this with such an air of seriosity, that Straker was unable to tell whether they were being had or not. He decided he did not want to call the bluff and kept looking straight ahead, bland and polite expression firmly anchored on his face.
Eric cracked a small smile. Foreigners. They never understood.
The farm rang with the music of Helge striking the hot iron in the age-old rhythm of all farriers. Unnur was holding up the off fore of one of the geldings she intended for the visitors. There were four more riding horses and the stallion to be shod.
The farrier approached with the hot iron and pressed it against the hoof. Horn sizzled, the pungent billows of dense smoke enveloped her. Not that anything but a long shower would get the stench out of her hair and off her skin.
Ragnar whistled. He had been sitting on the fence near her, watching them work. Unnur straightened: the approaching jeep was quite visible even up in the Fjord, slowly winding down the road towards the town. Of course it would branch off towards the farm before reaching the outskirts of Seydisfjordur.
Her secretary looked at her pointedly. Unnur smiled and shook her head. There was an almost imperceptible change in those present. Long used to Unnur’s occasional whims the others acknowledged her decision. Ragnar knew Eric would have no trouble noticing. He slid off the fence to avert Stine.
By the time he had returned from the longhouse the Range Rover had turned into the farm’s driveway, careering along at Eric’s usual maniacal driving speed. Ragnar grinned and felt somewhat sorry for the two strangers. Stine would be heartbroken if they did not do justice to her cooking later.
The jeep pulled up near the guesthouse with a loud crunch of the gravel. Walking towards it Ragnar watched Eric jump out cheerfully, pulling suitcases from the open-bed trunk. The two visitors got out of the car much more deliberately, shaken by the drive.
Going by the old photos he had looked at at headquarters Ragnar identified the older, slighter man, who had been in the passenger seat as Edward Straker. He wore no rain gear and there was something touching about how he straightened his suit jacket in an attempt of steeling himself against what clearly was a totally foreign situation. The other visitor was younger, quite buff and handsome, clad in much more practical clothing with his parka and heavy khaki slacks. His whole demeanour was more casual, but no less self-assured.
Ragnar caught Eric’s eyes. As he had surmised, his lover needed just one moment to take in that Unnur was out at the forge, obscuring herself among the rest of them. It was not the first time that their boss had managed to learn a lot through simple observation in assumed absence. One of the first rules she taught new staff members was to never let on who precisely she was when meeting with outsiders. Few people even realized that the slight woman was more than a farmhand when first meeting her.
He approached the group, extending a hand in greeting towards the fair-haired film executive.
“Mr. Straker,” he said. “Welcome on Vegjurbaer. I’m Ragnar Smillasson, Unnur Halldirsdottir’s assistant. May I show you your accommodation? Maybe you want to refresh yourself, before I take you around?”
A set of bright blue eyes gave him what was a very thorough inspection. There was no mistaking the high level of intelligence in the other man, way more in line with his military career than what he purported now to be.
“Yes please,” Straker answered after a moment. “Thank you!”
Extending a hand towards the guesthouse he allowed the two men to precede him.
It is not enough for a man to know how to ride; he must know how to fall.
Straker cast a brief glance at Foster who was looking proper and competent in well-worn jodhpurs, sturdy stable boots and a weatherproof jacket over a thick Aran sweater. He even already smelled of horse. His own equipment on the other hand was brandnew and did not appear as trustworthy, breeches, knee-high riding boots, a fleece pullover and a skiing jacket.
“Say it out loud”, he addressed Foster.
“You should’ve taken the jodhpurs instead,” Foster complied. “Low boots too.”
“Right,” Straker agreed. “Nothing I can do about it now, is there? Let’s go join them outside. Maybe this Halldirsdottir chap’s finally arrived.”
With a quick glance he checked that all their S.H.A.D.O.-only equipment was ranged inside the temperproof suitcases. Their guest quarters were surprisingly modern, light pine furniture, bright fabrics on the floor and beds, whitewashed walls with beautiful multicoloured hangings decorating them. The beds were soft and comfortable, covered with thick duvets.
Using his satellite phone, with SID scrambling the signal, he had contacted HQ directly after their arrival, averting Alec and Colonel Lake that they had reached the farm and would be making off for the meshing hub the next day. S.H.A.D.O.’s own weather forecast confirmed what Eric had told them, triggering some mirth in Alec. Straker heard the ‘I told you so’ without it having to be said.
Outside he saw that the weather had taken a turn to the better. The evening sun broke through the cloud cover, transforming the Icelandic tundra into a place of magical beauty. The farm provided a magnificent view of the slowly rising fjord with the mountains and ranges at the back, a composition in pale blues, rose and delicate greens touched with gold where the rays of sunshine met with the ground. Foster at his side took a deep, contented breath and gave him a happy smile. Straker could not help answering in kind.
The sounds from the stable area were as old as the hills: the bright tone of iron being forged in double-strokes, the neighing of horses, the hard fall of hooves galloping across grass, the calming chants of the horsemen, the hiss of hot iron in cold water. He felt transported backwards in time, his usually effortless grip on reality slipping in an unexpected manner.
Just as unexpected as his first glimpse of the Icelandic horses that he had taken from the window of the guesthouse. Now, slowly walking towards the milling herd in the paddock, he regarded them at leisure. These horses were smaller than those he had seen at Redcliff’s place. He gave them 13 hands, maybe 14, but not more than that. Yet what they lacked in height, they made up in attitude and speed. He shuddered unvoluntarily as he watched them race the length of the enclosure, heads thrown high, luxuriously full and long manes flying, kicking their heels and bucking freely.
A quick glance at Foster showed unadulterated delight in the younger man’s face whose gaze was riveted on what obviously was a stallion, black as a crow, rearing and pounding the ground in anger, not giving an inch opposite one of the stablehands who was trying to catch him. The stallion threw his head in an arc, then snaked forwards in what looked like an attempt at biting. That was all the slight human in front of him needed, from nowhere a halter appeared and settled in a graceful movement on the stallion’s head. Ears laid back, neck thrown into the air he stalked stiffly after what Straker now realized was a short, delicate woman. She tied him up near the forge and lifted a leg for the farrier to work on, nimbly evading the horse’s continued attempts to bite her.
“Hi there”, Ragnar said, falling in step beside Straker. “That’s Hrafn. He hates strangers. He’s Dagur Stilgarsson’s horse. When he appeared at the other end of the fjord, and tried to abduct mares from the farms there, we knew something must have happened to Dagur. That’s when we sent you that report.”
“Why is he being shod then?” Straker asked, carefully keeping a distance between the horse and himself.
“He’ll need new shoes to make it up there. If Dagur is alive and injured, he’ll want his horse to ride home on,” Ragnar explained. “If he is dead we will turn him loose on the plain beyond the mountain range. Dagur would’ve wanted that. ”
Straker just looked at him, this was not the answer he had expected.
“Do you want to see the horses the boss has chosen for you?” Ragnar asked and had both their attention. Straker and Foster fell in step behind him as he walked to the much smaller paddock on the other side of the blacksmithing pit.
They were unaware of being closely watched.
Unnur did not make the mistake others would have made. That this Edward Straker was quite completely out of his waters on a farm, that he wore the wrong set of clothes telling everyone that he knew little to nothing about trail-riding, all that was no reason for her to discount him. Quite on the contrary. Instead there was something speaking loudly about the easy deference Straker was awarded from the aggressively virile young man at his side, about Straker’s calm acceptance of a for him most likely untenable situation and about his hooded interest in everything surrounding him. The man was drinking in information much the same way she did.
The meshing hub’s capacities alone sized up the kind of organisation the man must be heading. Few knew just how encompassing the network was which that hub controlled on a purely technical level. She did, it had been her former husband who had designed and built the station. Knowing that, she had been astonished to discover that the CoC of such an organisation was so young.
She placed Straker still this side of forty, remembering how vague the reports she had read had been regarding his age. That on top of that he was of an incongruous beauty for a military man made her smile rather than underestimate him. She had been puzzled by the rigidly slicked down helmet he had turned his hair into, wondering why he rejected his good looks when she first spotted him. However, the humid Icelandic weather was spelling this out for her now. The slight drizzle had dissolved the constraining hair gel enough to turn the austere hairstyle into a fluffy, feathery bob of white-blond curls softly caressing Straker’s angelic face. Unnur had to concede, had she looked that harmless and cherubic, she also would have tried to add some severity.
From the way the man moved around the horses Ragnar showed them, she could tell that he had little more than a beginner’s knowledge. Where Foster was confident and boldly enjoying himself, Straker’s movements were tentative and cautious. She had chosen the calmest, most easygoing of her ponies for them, but even though, they all had zest and temperament. In a snap-decision she motioned her sister to her side.
“Quite a pair, uh?” Jordis said, also watching their guests closely. Knowing her sister, Unnur caught the undercurrent telling her that Foster would have to watch out. Jordis had a thing going for dark-haired muscular types.
“Harkon’s riding stuff should fit goldilocks, he had the same size and built,” Unnur said. “They need to try out the horses and he can’t go on the ride in what he wears anyway.”
“You sure about this?” Her sister looked doubtful. Unnur smiled and nodded. Her soul had let her husband go many years ago. She just did not advertise that to anyone, not even her sister.
“Of course,” she said. “Make it your suggestion, please.”
She wondered how long it would take Straker to realize that she was whom he was waiting for. The amount of patience and graciousness in reaction to a frustrating experience was a tell, just as the ability to deduct from what was in evidence and how someone dealt with the results.
Settling Hrafn’s hindfoot on her upper thigh so that Helge could trim the hoof, she kept watching the two men. Foster already was saddling the sorrel gelding he would start out on tomorrow. She dismissed him, seeing he was competent enough to be no problem on the ride.
Straker on the other hand was approaching the small bay mare Ragnar had caught for him with such an amount of caution, that Unnur began to wonder, whether he would be able to just stay up on her. She observed him placing both of his slender hands on the mare’s neck in a gesture calming more likely himself than the horse.
She could not help a grin when she saw that Jordis’ calling him off came as a relief.
Thankfully Straker fingered the well-worn but freshly washed and pressed clothes, and lifted them to his face in curiosity. They smelled of heather and lavender, the leathers of horse. The offer had been his salvation, he had been intimidated by the idea of going on that long ride in what so obviously were the wrong clothes. Already the act of taking off the narrow, tight boots was a major effort.
The woman had said that these clothes belonged to her late husband-in-law. He wondered where her spouse was. The various ties and relationships of the whole group he and Foster were faced with still perplexed him, though by now he was rather sure that Ragnar and Eric were a pair. The others he could not sort out yet, and there still was no sign of the CSS either. He wondered whether someone was playing power games with him.
The black jodhpurs fit so well that they might have been tailored for him, already worn and creased where they needed to be. He felt at home in them immediately. The same went for the heavy stable boots, which were made as much for walking as for riding. The two hand-knit sweaters in bright hues of blues and emeralds set off with shades of grey and black were items of such stunning artisanship that he was not sure whether he ought to wear them at all. The tiny procession of horses, riders and stags knit into them in repeating patterns told stories like artwork. He ran his fingertips over the motifs in admiration, someone had put a lot of time and love into this.
However, upon seeing a laughing Foster gallop along the pasture fence he quickly shrugged into one of them and headed back to the stables. He did not notice two pairs of eyes following him closely, both disclosing differing shades of shock at how he looked like in clothes which for 8 years no one had worn.
The bay mare was still patiently standing where he had tied her up. She was not big. He believed he could even jump up on her if hard pressed. But unlike the huge gelding he had been riding at Redcliff’s place she reacted immediately to his every move, keeping him constantly in view, her liquid eyes touched with intelligence and interest.
Straker picked up the currycomb and brush he had been given and methodically started to clean her, working from front to rear. Eric dropped a flat saddle onto the topmost fence bar.
“That’s old Bilgya,” he said conversationally. “Very patient, bit of a slow-coach, no toelt, but ideal for novice riders.”
Straker nodded in acknowledgement and put the saddle on her, happy enough when Eric proceeded to help and correct him in a matter-of-fact way whenever he went wrong. Between them they had the mare ready to be ridden within but few moments. Taking a deep breath Straker walked her into the area where Paul Foster was riding side by side with Ragnar doing something looking rather outlandish with their horses. He could not place that gait, it was as fast as trotting, but looked very different, and created quite a racket on the hard-packed dirt road.
Still helpful Eric had accompanied him and now waited, holding fast to the stirrup on the off side and keeping the horse in check by the reins. Straker swung up, almost carried off again the other side, using way too much momentum.
“Whoa,” Eric steadied him with one hand. “You trained on much bigger horses, right?”
Straker swallowed, blushing like a peony.
“Just one,” he answered. “Way bigger.” He felt what had to be a dull, deep red flush suffusing his face. The last time that had happened so prominently he had been sixteen. “I took lessons at a riding school last week…” He trailed off, realizing he was not making it any better.
Eric managed to keep a straight face.
“Your stirrups need lengthening,” he said, helping Straker with it. “Just ride her down the road at a walk, so you get used to the difference in size. Just lean forward a bit, don’t kick her.”
This was very unlike the manege he was used to, and also unlike the forests he had ridden out in. The packed dirt track he looked down did not end, it just led on and on vanishing into the horizon. With some trepidation he pulled a deep breath, willed himself to relax and bent forward, taking some weight out of the saddle. The old mare started off willingly at a fast, brisk walk.
“From any pace, if you want to stop, just say ‘whoa!’ in a loud voice.” Eric carried on, calling after him. “All horses on this farm will immediately stop to a hard stand still then.”
Straker turned his head to look at him, inadvertantly turning the mare around as well. Against the big gelding he had been riding the past week this little horse was like a sportscar compared to a truck.
Ragnar and Foster were circling their horses around an oval track in the infield, the black stallion had been shoed and was being led into a paddock beside the one all the other horses were in.
Well, there was no help for it. He had to find out. Clicking his tongue he urged the mare forward at a pace faster than a walk, heading back towards the other horses. She obliged him with a harsh, snappy trot making his teeth chatter. The gait was far too fast to post, he rose out of the saddle in an attempt to evade new damage. That however must have been the signal to jump off at a canter, as that was what Bilgya did, heading straight for the large pasture holding the rest of the farm’s horses.
Still leaning forwards he yelled ‘Whoa!’.