His hair blown back in the wind, the thunder of hooves on the broad open tundra, racing flat-out to where the sky kissed the ground in the dizzying distance. To someone born and raised in the mountains, the featureless plain was disorienting and despite having lived here now for half a year, Durban still struggled with the odd mix of wonder and uneasiness it provoked. He let out a whoop as his pony reached the lonely, stunted tree that marked the turning point of the race. Well ahead of his rival, he pulled his mount around almost on the spot, forcing it back on its haunches briefly, before releasing it to spring forward, back the way they had just come.
Now the horizon before him was not empty because the skyline was broken by the city of Keran. Standing proud, in bold-cut silhouette, buildings in all shades of brown and yellow mud-brick against a sky turning from grey to pink as the red sun slid down. The low-rise two or three storey houses were dominated to one side by the proud stone towers of the fortress citadel and to the other by the dual-domed spaceport which crouched like an alien on its edge of the city.
The other rider in this race, shouted a curse as Durban galloped past, flattened along the neck of his mount. Durban raised one hand in an insulting gesture and laughed as his fleet-footed pony galloped back to the start line.
He was standing beside the pony, loosening its girth when the other rider arrived, mount blown. That one was the better of the two beasts and in an even race would have won, but the bearded man who rode it was twice the bulk of Durban. He dismounted shaking his head and uncinched the saddle before leaving the pony to pull at the terse grass.
“Aye, well you won fair and square and I’m a man of my word. But don’t think I like it.”
Durban felt a glow of delight and could not keep the smile from spreading over his face.
“You’ll take me then?”
The other man wiped the back of his hand over his forehead, letting his breath out in a sigh. Then he closed the space between them and put his arms around Durban, holding him close for a moment, his cheek turned to rest on Durban’s hair.
“I’d not take anyone I cared for to the ‘City and I’d for certain and more not take you. I should never have agreed to your wager. I would never have if I’d not been so bloody drunk — ” he broke off and Durban looked up to see the bearded face set in a grim expression. His own smile faded a little and he reached out a hand to caress the back of the older man’s neck, running fingers through the shoulder length hair that was flecked here and there with grey.
“I’d say I’m sorry,” Durban told him, “but I’m not. I really want this — need this. I have to get away from here.”
“But why the bloody ‘City? They’ll eat someone like you alive and spit out the pips. Have you looked in the mirror recently? You — you look like a little girl, you are just too bloody young and innocent, you…”
Durban silenced the words by pulling the other man’s face gently down to meet his own for a kiss.