The Horse Mistress: Book 1 — Read Ch. 3-4 Below!

Chapter 3: Secrets Revealed

MY BLOOD RAN COLD at the three simple words, even as Senovo opened anguished eyes, straightening away from his friend’s support. I was suddenly, painfully aware that, like Senovo, I was naked under the rough blanket covering me.

Oh, gods. They knew. They knew my secret.

Something of my horror must have shown on my face, because Andoc raised a hand, as one might do when faced with a wild, unpredictable animal.

“I apologize,” he said. “You were unconscious and there was blood soaking your breeches. I thought you’d been wounded in an exceptionally unfortunate place. I had no way of knowing it was moon blood.”

“You had no right!” I said, struggling upright on the straw-stuffed palliasse with the blanket clutched around me.

Andoc raised his eyebrows. “Well, I suppose next time I’ll know to leave you bleeding in the street, in that case. Live and learn.” The hint of humor in his voice set my blood boiling.

“You could at least have kept it to yourself instead of spilling my secret to the very next person you saw,” I snapped. “Now both of you know!”

“I knew already, Carivel,” Senovo said, sounding exhausted but looking somewhat more composed than before. Andoc’s attention immediately returned to the priest. He dipped a rag in the bowl of water resting on the table next to the bed, and started wiping at the blood on Senovo’s face with a sure touch.

“How could you know?” I asked derisively. “No one knew!”

“The wolf smelled the blood on you earlier,” said Senovo, gently moving Andoc’s hand away and taking the rag to finish cleaning off his face himself.

“The… wolf?” I asked stupidly. The wolf that I had bruised over one eye with a rock. Just like the bruise now darkening Senovo’s face. The wolf that tore out a man’s throat, getting blood all over its mouth and jaw. Saving my life.

“Consider it an exchange,” Senovo said. “A secret for a secret.”

“You’re a shape-shifter?” I asked, completely taken aback. People who could transform themselves into animals were incredibly rare, and almost always rose quickly through the ranks of the priesthood to become powerful religious figures. “But… you’re a priest. Why keep such a power secret?”

“Because I can’t control it. Because it makes me a killer.”

“Bullshit,” Andoc said matter-of-factly. “I’m a killer. You’re a mild-mannered religious man who happens to turn into a wolf sometimes.”

Senovo’s brows drew together, a furrow of anger forming between them. “I think there’s at least one man lying in the street with his throat ripped out who would beg to differ with you… if he weren’t already dead.”

“Pfft. He was an enemy soldier. I’d’ve killed him myself, if I’d been here,” said Andoc in a dismissive tone.

“You aren’t a priest,” Senovo replied.

“I imagine Carivel here is plenty relieved that he’s dead, by a priest’s hand or not,” Andoc countered.

“Yes and no,” I said cautiously, looking between the two of them. “I’m not dead, but my life here may be as good as over, regardless. Does anybody else know? About me, I mean?”

“Not as far as I’m aware,” Senovo said.

Andoc shrugged. “I certainly haven’t told anyone. Who you choose to be makes no difference to me.”

“Well, it makes a very big difference to me!” I flared. “The horses are my life, and women aren’t allowed to work with them! Speaking of which, if I ever see you yank on your gelding’s mouth again like you did this morning, I’ll have Jorun confiscate your bridle and make you use a hackamore until you learn to ride properly!”

Shouting at him felt good. I resolved to do it more often. Too bad the only effect it had was to make his lips quirk as if he were holding back a smile.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” he said. “As for the other thing—the gods and religious law and such—that’s more Senovo’s area than mine.”

Almost against my will, my eyes moved back to the young priest, expecting to see some form of censure for my years of heresy.

“Yes, it’s all terribly shocking,” he said, sounding tired but not, in point of fact, terribly shocked. “Really, it’s amazing that your female presence hasn’t decimated the herd over the past few years since you arrived. How odd that it is, in fact, thriving under your care—larger and of better quality than it has ever been. It’s utterly inexplicable.”

It was obvious that I was being teased.

“You’re not a very good priest,” I said, my eyes narrowed in anger.

“I know,” Senovo agreed readily. “Not only am I a killer, I also question the gods’ wisdom when it doesn’t make logical sense. High Priest Rhystel would be appalled if he found out I’d been blessed with the power to shift.”

“I still say you should tell him sometime, just to see the look on his face,” Andoc said.

“So, basically,” I said, trying to get the conversation back on track, “if I don’t tell anyone you’re a shifter, you and Andoc won’t tell anyone that I was born female?”

“If you want to look at it that way,” Senovo said, not unkindly. “In fact, I have more sympathy and understanding than you might suspect for the disharmony between how one perceives oneself and what is hanging—or not hanging—between one’s legs.”

“And, as I said earlier,” Andoc added, “I don’t particularly care if you’ve got a prick or a cunt. I rather like you, regardless. You’ve got courage. I respect that.”

Senovo sighed. “You’ve missed your calling as a poet, my friend. You have such a way with words.”

Could it really be that simple? Agree to keep each other’s secrets, and go on as if nothing had happened?

“You have nothing to fear from me, Senovo,” I said cautiously. “If we’re agreed that neither of these revelations ever took place, then I’m in your debt. You saved my life last night.”

“I’m glad something good came of it, in that case,” Senovo said.

“Sorry about the rock,” I added, gesturing to his bruised face.

“Don’t mention it,” he said, and Andoc snorted.

I suddenly realized that in my horror at being discovered, I’d completely forgotten to ask about the battle. “What… happened, exactly, last night? After I lost consciousness, I mean.”

The way Andoc’s face went abruptly grim and angry made my heart sink in my chest. I looked to Senovo, who shook his head.

“I only shifted back a few minutes before you woke up,” he said.

“I didn’t want to leave you two alone for long, so I don’t know details yet,” Andoc said. “It’s not good, though. If you’re both well enough, we should probably go help outside.”

Senovo nodded agreement, and gave his face a final scrub with the rag. Andoc looked at me questioningly.

“Where are my clothes?” I asked.

“On the stool,” he said, indicating the rough wooden seat near the mattress where I was sitting.

Senovo stood, unbothered by his own nakedness as he reached for the robes Andoc handed him and shrugged them on. I tried not to stare, feeling a blush crawl up my face, which deepened further when I caught Andoc watching me. The two of them left the hut to give me privacy, and I dressed as quickly as I could. My breeches were still stiff with the rusty stain of dried moon blood, but in the aftermath of a battle no one would question it. I had to pause occasionally to regain my balance as my injured head swam, but I became steadier the more I moved around. The headache was phenomenal, however.

Andoc’s hut was close to the north edge of the village, and when I exited the sturdy structure, things didn’t seem too bad at first. Andoc and Senovo were waiting for me outside, and Andoc led the way toward the center of the settlement, where I had tried to take on armed soldiers with a horsewhip earlier. I shivered slightly. By all rights, I should be dead.

The smell of stale smoke grew more noticeable the further we went. When we turned a corner into the village green that served as a central meeting place, I stumbled to a halt, my breath catching in my throat. People were carrying bodies onto the green, laying them out in neat rows. Bodies that I recognized.

How utterly, utterly stupid of me not to have understood until now that people I knew had been killed. I thought back to the flames—to the chaos and the screaming. Of course people had died. Of course they had. I suddenly felt ill, and very, very young.

A hand grasped my upper arm in a steadying grip.

“Come,” said Senovo, still looking pale though his voice had regained its usual even timbre. “Let us go see what we can do to help.”

I nodded, a feeling of numbness washing over me. Andoc had already attracted Volya’s attention and was speaking to him as we approached.

“How many dead?” Andoc asked.

“They’ve found two dozen so far,” Volya replied, looking as if he’d aged twenty years overnight. “There are still several houses and other buildings that need to be searched, though.” The chief looked to Senovo, and I felt the priest’s hand tighten reflexively on my arm for an instant before he deliberately removed it. “Senovo, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. They attacked the priests and acolytes in the temple barracks.”

Beside me, Senovo sucked in an audible breath. Andoc looked at him with worried eyes.

“High Priest Rhystel?” Senovo asked, and I could hear the strain behind the carefully level voice.

“Gravely injured,” Volya said. The anger that had been lurking behind the old chief’s expression came to the forefront. “They left him for dead. Healer Sagdea is with him.”

“I should go to him,” Senovo said, sounding distant. He blinked, recalling himself to the present conversation. “And… the others in the barracks?”

“All killed, except for two of the younger acolytes,” Volya said. “Reston hid in a storage chest during the attack, and Crenelo was visiting a friend elsewhere in the village. Those vicious Alyrion bastards think they can break us by attacking our religion. If they had their way, we’d all be worshipping their thrice-damned deity. Damick, or Damock, or whatever it is they call it.”

Senovo nodded his understanding, that same look of distance returning to his eyes. I was debating internally whether to steady him with a hand on his arm as he had done for me when Volya addressed me directly.

“Carivel. Dalon reports that all of the horses are gone. I think we have to assume that they were stolen by the invaders,” he said.

“No!” I said quickly, shaking my head. “No, I was watching your mare last night when I heard the fighting. Once I saw what was going on, I let the horses out of the pens and drove them toward the summer pastures and the foothills.”

Volya looked surprised, but pleased. “Is that so? That’s the first piece of good news I’ve heard today. Well done, lad. That was quick thinking.”

“It was nothing,” I said, uncomfortable with the praise in the midst of such terrible circumstances. “We’ll have to go round them up again as soon as possible, though, and it’s a large area to search. Where is Jorun?”

“I haven’t seen him,” Volya said.

A wave of worry washed over me. I was surprised that it had been Dalon and not the Horse Master himself who found the horses missing. Hopefully the old man hadn’t been injured during the battle.

My thoughts were interrupted by a cry of grief from across the green. All four of us turned to see three of Gretya’s daughters clinging to each other, huddled around the door to Jorun’s sleeping hut. My heart sank.

We hurried across to the little house with its crooked doorframe and cheerful boxes of herbs hanging under the windows. The wail had come from Limdya, who was now weeping loudly into her older sister’s shoulder. Volya murmured quietly to the girls, urging them away from the door so that Andoc, Senovo and I could enter.

Blood painted the walls of the small structure in ugly splashes, and I had to breathe deeply as my head started to spin again. Gretya’s twisted form lay motionless on the bed, her lifeblood staining her linen nightshirt a dull brown around the wound that had pierced her heart. My gaze skittered away from the pitiful sight of the old woman’s body, coming to rest instead on the second figure lying on the floor with a short sword still clasped in one gnarled hand.

Chapter 4: Grief and Loss

A PAINED, ANIMAL NOISE escaped my throat as I recognized Jorun, his familiar face frozen in a grimace of pain and fear. Behind me, I heard Volya groan in dismay.

I was right about him and Gretya, I thought, even as I struggled to draw breath. Jorun’s eyes were open, staring at a point over my left shoulder. I found that I was backing away through the door unsteadily, my legs threatening to buckle beneath me and send me sprawling on the ground. More of the pained noises were emerging from my lips with each strangled breath—I couldn’t seem to stop them.

Hands closed around my arms from either side, supporting me as I continued to stagger backwards, away from the terrible sight.

“That’s right. Come away,” Andoc said from my right shoulder.

“Deep breaths,” Senovo said from my left. “Focus on us.”

I tried, I really did—gasping for air that seemed too thick and stale with smoke from burned huts and burned bodies. I was vaguely aware of the sound of the three newly orphaned sisters weeping a short distance away. Andoc was in front of me now, taking my face in his hands as Senovo kept me upright.

“Breathe now,” Andoc said, forcing me to meet his gaze eye-to-eye. “We will grieve later. You have people relying on you. Carivel, you are the Horse Master now, and Draebard’s horses are running loose in the foothills.”

I stared at him like some kind of simpleton. I was the what? Oh, gods. The old Horse Master was dead, and I was the Horse Master’s assistant. I felt a jolt through my chest like I’d been kicked by a fractious yearling, and air flooded my lungs at last as I sucked in a gasping breath, and another, and another. The fog in my mind cleared slightly, and I tried to focus on the throbbing of the bruise on my temple—grasping at the dull pain like a lifeline.

“That’s it,” Andoc said encouragingly, as Senovo cautiously released his grip and left me to stand unaided.

“But… Jorun,” I said, my eyes drifting over Andoc’s shoulder and toward the crooked doorway. “I should… “

“Volya and I will take care of Jorun and Gretya,” Andoc said, pulling my focus back to him. “You should go find Dalon and whoever else you need to round up the horses. Senovo, go to the temple and see if the healer needs any help with Rhystel.”

I nodded, my face still framed within Andoc’s callused hands, feeling the odd numbness from earlier returning. That same numbness kept me from reacting when Andoc pressed his lips briefly to my bandaged forehead before letting me go. My eyes sought Senovo, who dipped his chin in acknowledgement, his own face pale and haggard as he turned to leave for the temple barracks.

I felt strangely detached from events as I turned to Volya, who had stepped back to give the three of us some privacy.

“I will need use of the horses you and your party were riding,” I said.

He nodded. “Leave one in case we have to get a message out for some reason. The rest are at your disposal.”

I took my leave, barely able to feel my boots against the ground as my feet carried me toward the horse pens without any conscious direction on my part. Thinking about the details of what I would need to recapture the herd was good. It gave me something to focus on, forcing my mind into working again like a rusty wheel on a chariot axle. My own gelding, Kekenu, was loose with the herd. If I could get within whistling distance, he would come to my call, and we could let him lead us back to the others.

By the time I reached the pens, I had the bare outline of a plan. Between the wolf and the battle, the horses had been in a panic last night. They would probably have headed for the perceived safety of the foothills rather than staying in the open pastureland, though they’d likely ventured down to graze today, now that things were quiet. We would look in the valleys at the base of the hills, and work our way out from there if necessary.

Dalon and several of the other boys were clustered around the pens. Some of the younger ones were obviously fighting tears. I would have to lead them. I would have to do for them what Jorun had always done for us, before.

“Come here, all of you,” I said loudly as I approached. The lads looked up in surprise, and I continued as they grudgingly gathered around. “The horses are loose somewhere in the vicinity of the foothills. We need to go get them.”

“Why do you think they’re in the foothills?” Dalon asked in open challenge. “I reckon the soldiers stole ‘em all during the raid.”

“I know they’re in the foothills because I’m the one who let them out of the pens and drove them in that direction last night, so the soldiers couldn’t get them,” I said, and a murmur went around the group. “Now, we need to get them back before they wander too far.”

“Where’s Jorun?” asked a young boy named Favian.

My stomach churned, and it was as if I was listening to someone else speaking as I answered, “Jorun is dead.”

There were several gasps and cries of denial. Favian burst into tears, and his friend Lundis put an awkward arm around him. Jorun had been like a father to many of these boys. I allowed the expressions of shock and grief to continue for several seconds before speaking up again.

“Jorun died bravely, with a sword in his hand,” I said eventually, raising my voice enough to be heard. “We owe it to him to do our jobs and make him proud. Draebard’s strength lies with its warriors and its horses. Our warriors drove off a cowardly and dishonorable attack last night, saving the village from complete destruction. It’s up to us to get back our horses so those same warriors can descend on our new enemy with a swarm of battle chariots and destroy them utterly.”

The boys were all quiet now—looking at me. Looking to me, though Dalon and a few others wore sour expressions. I wondered with an odd sort of detached panic how I was ever going to live up to Jorun’s memory.

“Now,” I said, “get all of the horses from Volya’s riding party saddled except for the gray mare with the scar on her shoulder. We’ll head out as soon as we can. Favian, I want you and Lundis to stay here in case Chief Volya needs to send out a message. Favian will ready the pens with feed and water for our return, and Lundis, you will check in periodically with Volya in case he needs you to act as a courier.”

There was a split second of silence—just long enough for panic to thread through the pall of numbness hanging over me and start crawling up my spine—but then the little crowd broke up and started to carry out my instructions. Releasing a quiet breath of relief, I went to gather extra ropes, halters, and whips, along with a pocketful of dried apples.

Half an hour later, ten of us rode out along the track leading north away from the village. The chaotic hoof prints left by the herd’s headlong flight were still visible on the dusty road beneath us. The foothills were more than an hour away on horseback, and our little group was largely silent at first. As our horses’ hooves ate up the distance, though, Dalon could no longer contain his disagreement with my plan.

“We should have started searching close to the village and worked our way out. There’s no reason to start looking so far away,” he said, pitching his voice for those riding closest to him. Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—my hearing was excellent.

“The horses were panicked by the commotion and the smell of burning,” I said evenly. “They will have sought shelter and safety in the hills.”

“Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t,” Dalon said. “I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?”

It was already midday. If I was wrong and the horses were far away from the hills somewhere, we would lose the light before we could find them. It would have been all too easy to start second-guessing myself, which was exactly what Dalon wanted, I suspected. The fact remained though—I knew horses. After I fled the village of my birth and my mother’s bitter anger over what she saw as my failings, I wandered the wildlands for weeks, tracking herds of native Eburosi ponies for days at a time to learn about their behavior. I had been drawn to horses my whole life—their strength, their speed and power. When I could no longer trust myself to endure the vicious words and even more vicious beatings doled out by the woman who’d given birth to me, I decided to flee my home and find out for myself if someone with the body of a woman could control the spirits of horses.

I succeeded, and it was that success which gave me the idea to start somewhere new, living as a man. My own little black and white gelding came from one of those wildland herds I’d followed. Working on foot, I had tamed him away from his herd-mates as a yearling after he’d been weakened by an ugly leg injury. Gaining his trust had taken nearly a week and was one of my proudest accomplishments, second only to attaining my position as Jorun’s assistant. Thinking of Jorun made my chest start aching, so I tore my mind away from that train of thought. The point was, I knew horses. And I knew that Draebard’s herd would be close to the foothills.

“Spread out,” I called as we finally approached the gently sloping valleys south of the hills. “Stay within shouting distance of each other and call out if you see anything.”

Clouds were moving in from the southwest, blocking out the afternoon sun. It would rain before the evening was over. I eased Andoc’s gelding away from the others, silently cursing the animal’s hard mouth, along with Andoc’s hard hands that had made it that way. The bay gelding shook his head in annoyance, but eventually peeled away from his herd mates obediently. Keeping to the ridge tops, I stood in the stirrups, craning around to scan the waves of green grass swept by the wind.

Every few minutes, I let out a shrill whistle, in hopes that Kekenu was within hearing distance. The other boys shouted reports back and forth as they searched. For almost two hours we continued in that manner, the lads growing progressively more impatient and sullen. A brisk wind blew a handful of spattered raindrops against my face just as I heard the distant hoof beats of a single horse approaching.

Continue to Chapter 5-6

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