If Wishes Were Horses
by Amber Ray
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
We could see the lights of the road crew ahead of us racing around like fireflies. The shouts of the company man carried easily on the night air as he bellowed himself hoarse. Men with buckets of salt and ashes ran past us, heading for the top of the pass.
Henry’s eyes were fixed now on the notch of the pass where the lights were gathering, his lips moving as he talked to something past my hearing. Henry stumbled in the snow, tripping over rocks he couldn’t see with magic fogging his eyes. I hauled him back onto his feet and steered him through the snow and gravel, the night wind pushing at my back.
I snatched up a bucket of salt in case anyone asked where we were going. None of the men spared a glance for us, the smell of disaster in the making was too strong. I broke past the swarms of men, the workers in their rough winter clothes and the Company mages with their fine furs.
I towed Henry in his daze up the track as if I were one of the Iron Horse engines, and he were my freight. I could hear his ragged breathing match my own while I puffed and panted my way up the line. Something urgent screamed in the back of my head that time was close, close, close. We had to go faster, danger was so near. I could feel magic from Henry climbing up my arm, hot and tasting of iron.
I panted my way up the line into a circle of torches. The rail workers were in tight gangs, throwing the grit and salt onto the tracks, trying to spell away the ice. I could hear one of the Gandy-Mages having a screaming row with a Company man.
“’Tis ice on the track from the pass to the camp! Ye had ter have the line come in under yer fine budget, and that meant a steep line to manage it! The wind’s picking up and a storm’s setting in. The whole of the line could ice up!”
The Company man grabbed at his useless little bowler hat as the wind tried to make off with it. “It’s your job and mine if the engine isn’t in camp by morning!”
“Better we both lose ’em than bring the Iron Horse through the pass. She’ll jump the line for sure if we get any more ice!”
“The spells’ll hold!” The Company bean-counter shouted back. “We’ve got enough de-ice spells on the line to cook a polar bear! Now get ready or get out of the way; this is going to happen now!” The Gandy-Mage stepped back and the Company man waved his lantern over his head, giving the “All-ahead” signal.
The men standing around the tracks stopped their castings- and salt-throwing. The only sounds were the quickening wind and the pops and hisses of torches and lanterns.
Henry and I clutched hands, our eyes fixed on the pass and the ring of firefly lights there.
From the pass, the engineer blew the whistle. A grizzled old man to our left pulled his muffler down off his whiskers. “They gonna do it. By Thunder and Jove, they’re for cert pulling this crazy stunt!”
Now the sound of the far-off engine reflecting off the rock walls of the pass reached our ears. Not a single foot crunched in the snow and gravel bed of the line.
The whistle shrieked again, an incantation against disaster. The chuff-chuff of the engine straining up the track was louder, the Iron Horse still straining up lines that hadn’t gotten the brunt of the frosted wind. Henry’s eyes shone like moonlight fog and ice in the darkness. “The engine is still on clear track.” I nodded. “That part of the pass ain’t been hit by the storm.”
“It’s not afraid yet.” Henry’s hand was ice in mine. “It only sees clear track ahead for now.”
The sound of the whistle was triumphant as the locomotive crested the pass and came down through the protected lee of some sharp-toothed crags. The Company man whooped and waved his fists triumphantly in the air. “There! You lot see that? It’s doing just fine! The Iron Horse’ll be in camp in an hour, and it’s bonuses for everyone all round!”
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The angry wind slapped him full in the face, finally snatching away his ridiculous little hat. Then we heard the first note of danger in the whistle’s cry. The even blasts of the anti-ice spell the engineer was blowing suddenly faltered. The Iron Horse jumped and shuddered on the line, not so much propelling itself forward as threatening to slip. Henry’s hand tightened on mine, and I suddenly saw the engine coming into a circle of torchlight.
I looked at the twin windows and cowcatcher face of the locomotive. I felt a tingle travel up my arm from Henry’s hand when more of his magic spilled into me. I saw the engine blur, then shift. Now a monstrous, iron-gray horse galloped down the line, its eyes lantern-bright, and its hooves wreathed with the smoke made by small fires set by the sparks they kicked up.
The Iron Horse reared and plunged, smelling danger on the line. The Line was too steep, too cold. Ice beckoned and the Horse flung itself backwards, screaming.
“She’s going over! She’s gonna run away!” Someone shrieked. The men gathered around us began running in all directions, trying to run from the path the engine would take when it plunged down the pass. The track bed became a storm of confusion. Men were running everywhere, lanterns and torches flying and scattering light drunkenly over the mad scene.
Henry stepped forwards and his hand slid from mine. He gazed up at the panicked Iron Horse as it plunged down the line hoof-brakes screaming like damned souls. He drew a deep breath, then plunged forwards, snatching a lantern from a bundled-up fireman.
As Henry began to run up the mountainside, I saw a haze gather round him as if a burning fog was boiling round his thin body. The haze brightened, and I saw him lunge forward, picking up speed and then, with a bound, he began to run over the snow that would have blocked his path. He swept towards the panicked Iron Horse like a comet, fire streaming from the lantern.
The Iron Horse screamed again. Without Henry’s magic flowing into me, I couldn’t make it out as clear, nor hear its voice in my head. The Iron Horse swung from locomotive to horse and back again, mostly wreathed in driving snow from the gathering storm and boiling ice from the rails. I plunged after Henry, desperate to help somehow.
I spotted Henry way up the line. Was he flying or just running as fast as lightning now? The rails were roaring with the force of the brakes, the steel ringing with stress and rumbling as the Iron Horse panicked and fought the inevitable runaway plunge.
I saw the comet that was Henry reach the Iron Horse and fling the lantern high into the air. The small steel-and-iron lantern tumbled into the air and burst into a tiny sun, lighting up the whole pass.
He held up his hands, shouting something out to the panicking Iron Horse. Through the snow and devil-wind fog, the Iron Horse plunged one more time, then turned its colossal head towards him.
He shouted again, and I could hear his voice echoing down the pass. He was shouting in no mortal language, but I was steeped in rail and line, iron and bolt for so many years that I could feel the knowledge of what he shouted to the engine pass into me. You are all right, the Line is clear. Trust me, trust me, I know the Line, the Way is clear, he sang, his voice like a hammer striking an anvil.
I gulped the cold air of the pass too now and felt a tang in it, a memory of wind on the ocean. Help me, speed me on! I called to the cold air.
The night wind sang back to me. Lost child, lost child, I hear you, I speed you on. Air like iron bands slammed around my ribs, and my feet lost their grip on the pass. I was carried up the Line like a leaf on the wind till I was a hammer’s throw from Henry and the Iron Horse whose lantern eyes lit him up bright as day.
I could hear Henry clearly now. Follow me, listen to my voice. Be calm, be calm. I am here. No harm will come to you, I will keep you from all harm. Your brakes are strong, you are mighty. Your engine burns like a star, and I am here.
The Iron Horse’s whistle screamed with joy. My mage is here. My mage is here! It slammed huge hooves on the line, dancing and clattering on the rails. Master, the Line is cold and steep! Help me! Help me! I cannot grip the rails!
Henry took a deep breath, and I could see the fury of the wind try to push him over, try to throw him down. “NO!” I screamed at the wind. “You let him be! Don’t touch him!”
I looked out at the furious whipping snow and wind and, before I could think, I reached out and grabbed like snatching the tail of a furious cat. I grabbed and held on, my fingers digging into it, shifting my grip till I was holding the wind by the scruff of its neck, not hurting it but holding it like a mama cat holding her kitten.
“Be still, be still,” I sang to it. “Play later, scream all night, race all around and up and down the pass as is your right, but lie down now, rest and be still.”
The wind screamed around us, whipping the men and blinding us all with snow... but then the wind curled up at my feet in the snow and fell still.
Henry blazed in the light of the Iron Horse and his tiny lantern star. He strode onto the rails and laid his hands on the cold steel. Up and down the Line, I could see Gandy-Dance and Hedge mages raise their heads, grab their tools and step into place up and down the rail bed. Henry called out, once... twice... thrice... and lifted the rail.
Up and down the Line, a glow shot down the rails as they rose into the air. The Gandy-Dance mages began to chant, stepping in time and began a work dance. The gravel beds rose too and began twining up the mountainside as if they were following a gently-flowing phantom river.
Bit by bit, the whole track gently rose, every bolt, every spike rising into the air, the iron singing happily. The mages followed, gently shepherding the tracks into a gentler, less dangerous route with their staves.
I could see Henry’s face lit like a star, grinning ear to ear as the overly steep path righted, the crafting song rang true, and the railway found its track down the mountainside like a river of light and iron. The men sang with Henry, their tune joyous and loud as they righted the work they’d done, as magic gave them the strength of titans.
I held the wind and petted it like a kitten. It forgot about lashing and pouncing on the men; I cuddled it to my chest and rubbed it through my hands, scratching and petting it, praising it as it nuzzled and tickled me.
The Iron Horse let out a whistle whoop of glory and stepped onto the path. Good iron, safe and true! it cried like a ringing bell.
“Good iron safe and true!” sang Henry and the rail men. “True and strong is the Line!”
“Safe, safe, safe is the Line!” the Iron Horse sang and began to wend gently down the now curving path, down the mountainside. I am safe upon the Line! Praise be to the Mage of my Line!
The lines of men chorused back to the Iron Horse. “Praise be to the Iron Mage! Praise be to the Line, strong and swift! Hold fast, hold true as the Path of the Line and bless us, the Hands of the Line, makers of the way!”
The Iron Horse sang as it found its pace, its whistle marking the descent down the pass, invoking the protection of the spells laid down in every tie and rail, strengthening and recognizing every element of the Line.
The rail camp was a blaze of light with every man, woman, child and odd spirit pouring out into the streets, dancing and screaming with joy as the Iron Horse shivered one more time, rolling up to the edge of the town only as a massive twin-window, snowplow-fronted locomotive.
The men poured like a river into town, and Henry was the crest of the wave. That wave struck town, Henry riding high on the shoulders of the railway men. The Chinese stepped out of their bunkhouse, were caught up by the dancing men and found themselves carried or pulled alongside Henry’s wave, whiskey bottles leaping into their hands.
I let go of the wind with one last pat, and it squealed up the pass to romp through the craggy rocks and race the stars.
It wasn’t so much that the camp threw Henry a grand party as the party just seemed to bust out of every nook and cranny of town. Every door was thrown wide, every bottle popped open, and every soul and spirit in town danced as the Angel of Death said “Aw, shucks. Gimme a drink!” then passed us by.
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Copyright © 2019 by Amber Ray