As distance shows a horse’s strength, so time reveals a person’s heart.
Everyone at the large kitchen table laughed good-naturedly, including Straker. The sun had set at last, giving way to a leaden, cloud-covered night sky. All eight of them had gathered around the huge slab of moor oak which served as kitchen table. Fire roaring in the range was spreading a welcome warmth into the chill brought on by the early storms.
It was a curious gathering, Straker thought, quietly observing the people sitting around the table, which was laden with a multitude of dishes. Since coming to live in England he had learned that there were many ways to prepare mutton, but the sheer number of differently tasting dishes the cook had prepared from what he had been told had been two ewes on the hoof the day before they arrived was topping that with ease. Apart from mutton there was an almost as large variety of fish, some seafood and a comparatively small amount of vegetables to choose from.
Everyone was digging into the food, a long day spent working hard outside or riding in the fresh air had given them all a hearty appetite. He found himself sampling quite more of the dishes than he normally would have done, which gave him an excuse to stay silent and keep observing.
As he had thought Eric and Ragnar were a married couple. They had told Foster quite openly so, when he had asked. Straker did not know whether that had been an attempt at getting Ragnar off his back or whether the colonel was genuinely interested. Foster showed no sign of distaste, nor any of attraction either. That was different for Jordis. The young woman had explained that she was the sister of the farm’s owner, which meant she had to be sister of the chief of the Icelandic secret service.
No one had owned up to being that so far, or knowing where he was, indeed by now Straker’s ears were tuned to how they all evaded speaking about the CSS: Over the past hours it had become clear that even though the mysterious chief allegedly was not available, everything regarding their trip was as efficiently arranged as if he had been there commanding everyone. Horses had been chosen and shoed, provisions packed, detailed weather reports and maps provided, maps which right now were on the table and available to all participants. Everything was proceeding as smoothly as if directly supervised, with questions being magically answered and problems seen to. The latter facts had confounded even him.
Jordis preferred flirting with Foster to answering any of his careful questions about her brother. It did not help that Foster was smashed enough to turn a blind eye on Straker’s attempts. At least they now knew that Jordis was not part of the expedition, nor the middleaged couple of Helge, the blacksmith and foreman of the farm, and Stine the cook. The slight woman who had worked as lad during the day quite possibly might take care of the horses on their trip, he thought. That made it five of them.
Ragnar was fingering a Tupperware container, trying to open it against the growing protest of Eric and Helge. Jordis had broken out a flask of what they called “Brennivin”, one of the northern akvavits. Straker had declined immediately, but had watched with interest how small amounts of this spirit were filled into chilled shot glasses and downed with a mighty thump on the heavy oak slab. It had taken four of these drinks to start Ragnar on that container. If he had counted correctly, Foster had had two of these “shots”.
Maybe he imagined it, but he thought there had been a low, deep chuckle from the stablehand to his right, who like everyone else was watching Ragnar’s progress.
“Sheesh, Ragnar,” Eric groaned when his lover peeled a smaller container wrapped tightly in many layers of Saran wrap out of the first one. “We’ve guests! You can’t eat Hakarl with foreigners at the table!”
Everyone except Foster and Straker was laughing this time.
“Think of Stine,” Helge added.
“What is Hakarl?” Foster asked. “Why shouldn’t we see that?”
“Smell it more likely,” Jordis giggled.
“Well?” Foster was biting.
That was why he rarely imbibed, Straker smiled to himself. Out of the corner of his eye he witnessed what seemed to be a similar amusement streaming from the dark-haired horsewoman on his right.
“Hakarl is fermented shark,” Jordis explained. “It has a high ammonia content. It’s an acquired taste. Definitely not for the meek.”
“Smells like stale piss,” Helge grumbled.
“Grows hair on your chest,” Ragnar said with utter conviction. “It’s not for the meek.”
He started to unwrap the inner container, a pungent smell, a bit like strong window cleaning fluid, wafted through the air. With a resigned face Stine opened the kitchen windows, allowing fresh air in.
Inside the container there were strips of meat. Ragnar picked a smallish one, set it onto his plate and cut the outer crust off. Grumbling at him Stine made a successful grab for the container, which she quickly reassembled and hid in one of the kitchen cabinets.
Ragnar had cut the meat into four neat cubes of meat. Beside each he placed a shot glass and filled it with Brennivin.
“Soooo,” Ragnar drawled. “Who’s man enough to eat with me?”
Jordis speared a cube with her knife, also taking one of the glasses. She looked at the rest of them grinning like a Cheshire cat. Ragnar impaled his cube on a toothpick, holding it up for everyone to see.
Straker started to breathe through his mouth, the fumes from the fermented fish being hard to take. Whatever hopes he had had that Foster would not swallow the bait were dashed when Foster picked up one of the cubes with an idly stabbing fork.
Ragnar was the first to swallow his, chasing it down immediately with the whole content of the shotglass. Jordis followed, emulating him to a tee.
Foster carefully sniffed the meat from the end of his outstretched arm. Everyone was doubled over with laughter, especially when he allowed his disgust to show openly on his face. Then Foster’s steel surfaced. Pinching his nose shut he gulped the piece of meat down quickly and did not breathe again until he had also swallowed the akvavit.
Straker smiled to himself, drunk or not drunk, Foster was calculable. A glance to the right revealed that the stablehand had left the table. Unnoticed by the others he also got up and went outside.
The air was cool and laden with moisture, strong gusts of wind played along the longhouse. It felt good being outside and alone. He breathed in deeply.
In spite of the clouds and the late time it was not entirely dark. After a few moments of adapting to it, he could see the guesthouse to the left and the stables with the paddocks straight ahead. He had read of the phenomenon called “White Nights”, but nothing had prepared him for the eery atmosphere he was witnessing now.
He quietly walked down to the stables, moving without a sound. As he drew closer he could hear the restless stallion, pacing, making small distressed noises. Leaning against the fence was the slight, darkhaired woman who had handled him earlier, watching him, as still as the horse was restless.
He pulled up right beside her, impassive, quiescent, sharing the moment of observation.
The stallion walked around the perimeter of the paddock, forcing air through his nostrils loudly. Every few yards he stopped, threw his head and neck up high, staring into the far distance.
At long last Straker turned to face her. He smiled, acknowledging her with a minute inclination of his head, and smoothly walked back to the guesthouse.
Unnur watched him fade into the shadows between the buildings. Her lips curled.
There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.
The Icelandic low just off the eastern shore had taken a respite and given them a glorious, brilliant morning. There was an undercurrent of suppressed excitement in the air, fed by the jingling of the metal bits and pieces of the tack, the slap of saddle leathers being adjusted, horses snorting and stamping their hooves, the low voices of people knowing what they were doing and working in tune with each other.
Not even 0500 yet, he saw, glancing at his watch. It felt curious to belong, yet that of all things was how Straker felt. He was saddling his bay mare, tying down his sleeping roll and saddlebags just as Eric had shown him. A larger piebald gelding was tied to the fence beside Bilgya, wearing a halter only. According to Ragnar they were taking along two horses per rider, to change every other day, and of course the packhorses which carried their equipment and provisions. Straker cast an apprehensive glance at the cases containing their electronics, strapped to the backs of two geldings further down the caravan.
Pulling the fresh air in deeply he stretched, his gaze wandering down the line of horses and people. To his left Foster straightened up from cleaning the hooves of the sorrel he would be riding.
“So where is their big boss now?” Foster asked in a low voice. He had weathered the drinking bout quite well, although Straker could have done without the smell or the snore he had brought to their room last night, when he finally got there.
Arms comfortably wrapped around his ribcage, he pointed his chin towards the enclosure near the forge, where the slight, darkhaired woman was slipping a snaffle bit between the stallion’s teeth. Foster blinked, opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it. Straker gave a low chuckle.
“When did you figure that one out?” Foster moved to his side, his voice barely more than a whisper.
“Last night,” Straker answered, “when I realized she was sizing us up the way I did myself.”
Both men watched Jordis walk towards them, carrying a bundle in her arms. She nodded at her sister, when she passed her and fetched up right in front of them. Shaking out a pair of oilskins she held them against Straker, undecided which one would fit him better.
“Unnur says you had better have some along”, she explained to him, yet looking at Foster with laughter in her eyes instead.
“Whose clothes are these, exactly?” Straker took what appeared to be the roomier coat and tried it on, then stowed it in a saddlebag. “I’ll take this one.”
“Told you,” Jordis answered. “Brother-in-law.”
“Who precisely?” Straker canted his head in question. This was no need-to-know thing, but for some reason he felt he ought to be aware of who had worn these clothes before him.
“Harkon,” she said after a pause. “Unnur’s husband. He’s been dead 8 years this summer.” The last part followed almost as an afterthought, and reluctantly.
“I see,” he said.
Ragnar came riding along the lined up horses, already two of the spare mounts in tow.
“Yo! Jordis!” He hollered. Jordis turned towards the piebald behind Straker, untied him and threw Ragnar the end of the rope. She then turned on her heels, danced over to Foster and kissed him soundly.
“Come back safely”, she told Foster, then ran back to the longhouse.
“The girl can’t help it,” he mumbled and quickly busied himself again with his horse.
Straker could see that Eric had mounted as well, leading another four horses, as if there had been some unheard summons he had missed. He turned towards the stallion’s paddock and saw that there had been: Unnur was sitting on her silver dapple mare, hauling the recalcitrant black unceremoniously along.
Seeing that Foster behind him also already was up on his horse, he quickly mounted, slipped his feet into the broad Icelandic stirrups and gathered the reins. The mare needed little encouragement from him, the horses started out onto the dirt track with brisk enthusiasm.
The sounds, the breeze from the sea, the wind in his hair, the motion of the horse, the brilliant light and open landscape – it suddenly got to him all at the same time. Straker felt his heart expand, a blissful well-being unfolding within his usually so self-contained frame. He started breathing deep, regular breaths and could sense an equanimity settling upon him that he had not dreamed of possessing. Regardless of what was in the future, this would stay with him forever, a voice deep inside told him.
So far it had gone better than she had feared.
Their weakest link, Straker, was holding up well. Unnur half twisted around in the saddle to do a quick check on him, as she had been doing since they had set off. The slender man had found his rhythm with the old mare, either standing the trot or moving along with her in a short, soft canter. Unnur was thankful to whoever had taught him not to hang onto the reins, the single worst beginner’s fault to cope with on such a trail.
It had been rather more unsettling to see him in Harkon’s riding clothes than she had thought. Not that their colouring had been the same. Harkon’s hair had been black as well, coupled with hazel eyes. They had always joked that there must have been the same Black Irish pirates among their ancestors. Nor were their basic personalities of the same kind, Harkon had been open, humourous and carefree, not brooding and laden with an angst she sensed in Straker, which she could not fathom.
However, the slim frame, those narrow hips and wide shoulders, the flat trim flesh and the easy movements, those were very similar. Just as the shock of curls, now that Straker had given up on slicking down his hair, and the keen intelligence.
An hour on the track they had set the spare horses free, except for the stallion whom she was still leading. Hrafn had calmed down, matching her mare’s free-flowing toelt smoothly. The unfettered horses stayed alongside on their own, used to being part of a travel group. The weather had held and they had been making good headway. They would be reaching their lunchtime stopover in about an hour. Before that she had to do some talking.
She sheered out of the line and handed Eric the stallion’s reins when he passed her. Curbing her mare she waited until Straker drew even, then had her horse fall in step close beside his. She had to give it to the man, he not only had rather quickly become aware of who she was, he also had left her to stew so gracefully that she could not build a grudge.
Going by what she had learned through Harkon, and if he headed the kind of organisation that her husband had told her about to be founded, for the reasons he had suspected, there was the possibility that Straker not just risked all their lives by working on the hub, but also exposed Iceland in general to prolonged efforts at taking out the network he was using. In this case she wanted to be one hundred percent sure that it was worth the cost.
She waited, saying nothing, showing none of her thoughts. Instead she observed how he got along with the bay and tried to discern any signs of discomfort in him.
“How could you lose three field agents without noticing?” He asked at last, looking at her from under hooded eyes.
“To understand that, you have to understand Iceland.” she said.
“And I don’t?” He made an impatient gesture with his hand. “Procedures… ”
“Procedures are not necessarily Icelandic,” Unnur interrupted him, pleased to generate an angry flash of his blue eyes.
She sighed. “You need to appreciate how the minds and souls of people here work. Yes, this may be inconvenient sometimes, but it so happens, and not exactly rarely, that people vanish for a while.”
The reproachful look he gave her was self-explaining. She could not help but laugh out loud at his utter incomprehension. Not just of ‘people’, such as secret service agents, who simply stayed off work without leave, but also of a CSS who tolerated that.
“Let me try again,” she said. “I don’t – I didn’t – supervise the servicing of that meshing hub. That was Dagur’s charge. There are – were – seven technicians and Dagur himself who shared the job, from stations spread across the whole island. I get to see a yearly report. How the group arrives at it, is their and only their responsibility.”
When Straker was about to interject she waved him to silence.
“This is solitary, cold and often really miserable work,” she continued. “The distances here are daunting, and there are times when neither landlines nor mobiles work. Usually bad news spread fast inspite of that, so it would not be extraordinary for such a group to compile their progress report at the end of the year, and react only to the extraordinary in between. Such as someone reported missing for instance.”
Straker drew a deep breath, about to comment. Again she waved him silent. He finally ceded to her resolute style, this was getting interesting.
“I checked.” Something in her tone had him pay close attention. “The first three agents, those who never reported back in, were all single. Now, that’s not in itself noteworthy, except that all of them had been in solid relationships until roughly a year ago, when suddenly their partners left them. You see, no one missed them. No one reported their absence. In a harsh country like ours, that is an absolute rarity. Yet it happened four times, for Dagur’s wife also dumped him. Dagur, we wouldn’t have known about him either if his horse hadn’t shown up in a civilized area.”
“About these partners,” Straker said at last. “Were they interrogated? What did they say? Has a physician, or a psychiatrist seen them?”
Unnur shook her head with a rueful smile.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Straker,” she answered. “We aren’t the CIA. I’m also not the boss of some ultrasecret anti-alien defense organisation, like you.”
She was looking straight into his face saying that, there was no time for dissimulation. And she had dropped the bomb so perfectly, that she now reaped its fruits: oh yes, that was what he was and where he came from alright! She almost felt sorry for him now, the shock playing across his features was a bad one.
“No, Edward,” she said, her voice soft. “You don’t have to shoot me. I’ve known this for more than a decade and no one is the wiser. Harkon, my husband, designed the hub. He worked under a very gung-ho American general. His name was Henderson and he had to provide information that, for a man as intelligent as my husband was, was enough to lead to the right conclusions.”
Normally the easy horseplay and camaraderie going on around the fireplace of their overnight stop would have been something to observe and, at times, to envy, because he usually was not part of it.
He was not part of it tonight either, even though he sat closer to the centre of merriment than he would have allowed himself on a training outing with S.H.A.D.O. staff. Straker always had been a firm believer in that closeness bred contempt and allowed very few people to come near him, in every way. The ease with which the Icelanders had accepted Foster into their circle showed him that there would have been room for him as well, if he had chosen to occupy it.
However, even just observing the rest of the group was overshadowed by what Unnur had so casually said this morning.
He tossed the last peeled tuber into the pot between his feet. Ragnar had dug up a bucket full earlier upon arrival, and placed them near the fire for anyone willing enough to peel them. It was work he at least knew how to do around the camp, so he had quietly pulled the bucket close and made the chore his. He got up and suspended the pot over the fire, poured more water into it, added salt and the wild chives he had found and minced. Mutton was slowly coming to a boil in another pot, a stack of bowls already resting on a flat stone beside the fire.
Unnur baffled him. He had watched the woman joke with Foster and Ragnar about the rotten shark they had eaten the evening before, relating to both men in an easy way he could not help envying. Much like with Alec, the people she led wanted to submit to her decisions. Yet she was the chief in command. By all means he would have thought that this distanced her as much from them as it distanced him from his subordinates.
“Don’t you drink coffee where you come from?” Startled he looked up. She extended a mug of coffee towards him. He took it and sipped, thankful for the warmth. The coffee had the kick of a mule, was unsweetened and pitchblack. Both his eyebrows vanished into his bangs.
“Everyone at S.H.A.D.O. drinks coffee!”
“S.H.A.D.O.?” She asked. “Is that the official name?”
He could not believe it: this was the second time that she had made him look like a damn fool! It was as if she was leading him around by a ring in his nose. He pressed his lips together, as if that would suck back in words he should not have uttered.
It did not occur to him, that she might have had the simple advantage of being the older, and more experienced in these games, and that she had no scruples about using this advantage to what she thought was the best of her people and land.
Near the fire the others had begun distributing the evening meal. Straker did not feel particularly hungry all of a sudden.