The Horse Mistress: Book 1 — Read Ch. 5-6 Below!
Chapter 5: New Friends and New Roles
I WET MY DRY LIPS and whistled again.
A moment later, Kekenu came charging into sight, his pinto coat a bright contrast against the green grass.
“Kekenu is here! They must be close!” I shouted to the nearest boy, before dismounting and leading Andoc’s horse forward to meet the little gelding.
Kekenu bounded to a stop a few feet away from me, snorting and tossing his head. When he calmed, I motioned him forward the last few steps and fed him a piece of dried apple. By this time, several of the lads had converged on us.
“Here,” I said, handing Andoc’s horse off to one of them. “Take Andoc’s gelding. We’ll let Kekenu lead us back to the rest of the herd.”
I grabbed a length of thin rope from my saddlebag and tied it in a loop around the base of Kekenu’s neck—since I was letting the little horse choose his own path, I didn’t need anything fancier than a simple neck rope for control. Facing his flank and grabbing a hank of mane in my left hand, I bounded forward a step and vaulted up onto his low back, scooting my hips sideways with a little jerk to center myself. A quick head count showed that all of the others had joined us.
“Follow me!” I called, and urged Kekenu into motion with a squeeze of my calves.
The little horse surged forward eagerly, one ear flicked back until it became obvious that I did not have a destination in mind. He cantered around in a broad arc until we were headed back in the direction he’d come from, the others keeping pace behind us. The horse’s muscles bunched and released rhythmically between my thighs as I balanced on his broad, familiar back, one hand still wrapped in the gelding’s generous mane. The rain was coming down more steadily now.
After only a few minutes, we crested a small hill and there, laid out below us, was the herd. I breathed a sigh of relief. The horses—nearly a hundred of them—looked up at the disturbance as we approached. My eyes scanned them eagerly. They were moving around too much to get a proper head count, but my attention was drawn to a creamy white yearling. Cassira—the pale colt’s dam—was standing nearby, keeping watch over a small, white bundle on the ground. The tiny creature stirred from its slumber and stumbled awkwardly to its feet on long, uncoordinated legs, shaking its little head in consternation before making straight for its mother’s udder and drinking greedily. Another tiny piece of the tension curled inside me eased at the sight.
“Volya’s mare foaled sometime earlier today,” I called, pointing down at the spindly white figure. “We’ll have to take it slowly on the way back. Everyone, skirt around to the north and let’s drive them on to Draebard. Nice and easy, mind.”
The boys ranged around the herd, giving the nervous animals a wide berth. I nodded in satisfaction as Dalon and Tenibral eased up to the front, leading the way. Both were mounted on mares that were relatively high in the herd’s pecking order, and when the rest of us started putting pressure on the horses from behind, they easily followed the two mares’ lead without panicking and running. I settled myself near the back, where I could watch for stragglers and keep an eye on the newborn foal trotting easily next to Cassira on its gangly legs.
The rain increased to a steady patter—not a downpour, but enough to soak through clothing and run down the backs of our necks in a chilly, unpleasant trickle. It took nearly twice as long to get back as it had to go out, and tempers were short by the time we finally reached the familiar track leading to the pens. The sky was fading from slate gray to black when the last horse trotted through the gate, eager to get to the feed Favian had laid out for them. We unsaddled the riding horses quickly and turned them loose as well.
I wavered for a moment before deciding to separate Cassira and her new foal from the others. No doubt the foal would be fine with the herd it had been born into earlier in the day, but in the small pen with the run-in shed, the pair could get out of the chilly spring rain and sleep somewhere dry.
Cassira pinned her ears and charged at me when I approached with the halter, only to come to a surprised halt as the end of the lead rope snapped stingingly across her chest.
“Yes, you’re a very fierce mama,” I told her, “but it’s getting late, and I’m tired and cold. Now hush and come here.”
The horse flung her head up and down twice, subsiding as I approached and fed her a piece of the now rather damp and spongy dried apple from my pocket. I slipped the halter on and, with a glance to ensure the foal was following, led the pair into the second pen where a pile of hay was waiting in the shed. Upon her release, Cassira went straight for her feed. I relaxed against the wall under the overhang, staying completely still as the tiny, pale foal approached and began to sniff at my wet clothing and skin.
I was losing the light, but I stayed there for a little while anyway. Eventually the young horse gained enough confidence to let me run my hands over its shoulder and back, scratching lightly until I found an itchy place that had it twisting its little head and neck into funny contortions with ecstasy. Its white coat seemed to glow with a faint, ghostly light in the encroaching darkness.
The boys had finished putting everything away and readying the pens for nighttime when I left and closed the gate behind me. They were gathered under the eaves of the storage building, talking quietly when I approached.
“Well done, all of you,” I told them. “This has been a terrible day for Draebard, but each of you has done Jorun proud. Go dry off and get something to eat. Try to get some rest and I’ll see you back here in the morning.”
When everyone had dispersed, muttering unenthusiastically as they went, I let myself slump back against the rough wooden wall. The events of the day seemed to crash over me like a wave, leaving me exhausted and making the pounding in my already sore head even worse. A shiver wracked me, and I realized with sudden clarity that I was freezing beneath my wet clothing in the evening chill.
I knew I wouldn’t feel right leaving the horses unguarded tonight, but it would be safe enough to return to my tiny hut at the edge of town for a few minutes to get some dry clothing and a rain cloak. Forcing myself upright, I trudged through the cold rain along the muddy road until my familiar door loomed out of the dark. I paused a few steps from the entrance in surprise. Candlelight was shining through the single small window.
“Who’s there?” I snapped, yanking open the door.
Inside, Andoc looked up at me mildly from where he’d been lounging on the edge of my bed, eating a hunk of flatbread spread with soft cheese.
“Sorry,” he said around a mouthful, pausing to swallow before he continued. “When I saw the rest of Jorun’s boys were back, I thought you might want something to eat. Brought you that.”
He indicated the rest of the bread and cheese with a jerk of his chin, the simple repast sitting on my rickety little table.
“Oh,” I said, at a loss for anything more intelligent. “Thanks.”
“You staying with the horses tonight?” he asked, taking another large bite.
“Yes,” I said, and set myself to spreading cheese on my own portion of bread. “Where’s Senovo?”
“Still with the high priest. Reston and Crenelo are there, as well. The poor boys are distraught, as you might imagine.”
Tears threatened to rise up and choke me. I fought them down with a harsh swallow.
“How is Rhystel?” I made myself ask.
Andoc shrugged. “His wounds are serious, and he’s an old man. It’s not good.”
“How many died, altogether?” I asked, not at all sure I wanted the answer.
“Thirty-eight, that we’ve been able to find,” Andoc said. “Another twenty-three badly injured.”
“Gods,” I said faintly.
“The remaining elders are meeting in the morning to discuss our retaliation,” Andoc said. “I assume you got all the horses back safe?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Tell Volya that he has his white foal, if you get a chance. It seems strong and healthy. I don’t know yet if it’s a colt or filly.”
“He’ll be glad to hear that, at least.”
I nodded, finishing the slab of bread. Another shiver wracked me.
“You’re soaked,” Andoc said with a frown. “You should change clothes and warm up before you go back. Do you want me to leave?”
“Please,” I whispered, numb from more than the cold.
Andoc nodded and left, laying a hand on my shoulder briefly as he did so. I stripped out of my wet clothing and ran a threadbare towel over my body before donning a spare set of buckskin trousers and a tunic. Distantly, I noted that my moon bleeding seemed to have finally stopped. After donning a tattered rain cloak, I returned to the horse pens and curled up on a pile of hay in the storage building, where I would hear any disturbance coming from outside.
Burying my head in my arms, I let the tears come.
* * *
The following morning dawned gray and chill, but at least the rain had stopped during the night. My headache was duller, though still very much present. My eyes were red and swollen. With a sigh, I unwrapped the dirty bandage from my head, using the stained linen to gingerly brush off the remaining poultice, which had dried into a flaky mess over the bruise on my temple. The boys would be here soon, and I probably looked like a pile of two-day-old manure at this point.
Dragging myself outside, I walked straight to the nearest horse trough and dunked my head in the cold water, scrubbing at my face and hair until I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. When I emerged, I didn’t feel better, exactly… but I did feel more awake. The lads began to trickle in a few minutes later, most of them looking like they’d had nights not much better than my own. Dalon and two of his mates were the last to arrive.
“We need to check the horses for injuries this morning,” I told them when everyone had assembled. “The herd was in a full blown stampede when I drove them off. It’s likely there are some cuts and bruises.”
“I still say you’re not automatically the one in charge, like you seem to think you are,” Dalon said from the back.
“Carivel was right about the horses being in the foothills, though, wasn’t he?” young Favian piped up before I could think of a suitable response. “If we’d followed what you said, we wouldn’t have got the horses back before dark yesterday.”
“An’ he was Jorun’s assistant, everyone knows that,” Lundis added. “Who else would be in charge now?”
I put up a hand to quiet them. “Regardless of who’s in charge, we all know what needs to be done,” I said. “The horses need to be checked over and taken out to the spring pastures—under supervision, this time. The pens need mucking out, and we need to haul the manure to the vegetable plots for fertilizer. Dalon, are we at least agreed on that?”
“‘Course,” Dalon said. “Everyone here knows that.”
“Then it hardly matters who says it,” I said. “So, we’ll all go through and check for injuries. Who was slated to take the herd out today?”
“Me, Kerney, and Lundis,” said Varin, one of Dalon’s hangers-on.
“Fine. The rest of us will clean the pens and take a break at lunchtime,” I said.
There was a bit of muttering, but no one argued. We moved through the herd, smearing salve on scrapes and cuts; checking for heat in swollen limbs. All told, the horses had fared well during their brief, unplanned foray into the wilderness. While the lads in charge of taking the horses out to graze readied their mounts, I beckoned to Favian. The boy was one of the youngest here, but he already showed a great deal of promise with the animals. When he reached me, I gestured to the pen where Cassira and the white foal were lazing in the corner.
“Come with me, Favian,” I said. “We need to check the foal and work on getting it tame.”
I was pleased to see his pale face light up for the first time since the attack at the prospect of getting to work with the valuable white foal. I handed him a length of soft rope and reminded him to keep an eye on the mare as we entered. The young horse was nursing when we approached. Cassira pinned her ears and pawed with one front foot, but did not move otherwise.
“Colt or filly?” I asked Favian, who worked his way around until he could get a peek under the foal’s flapping tail.
“It’s a colt!” he said. “Just like last year’s!”
“Volya will be pleased,” I said. “Looks like he’s got his white chariot team after all.”
Under my watchful eye, Favian approached Cassira’s head and scratched it until she stopped fussing. When the mare was relaxed, he moved back to run his hands over the oblivious foal’s haunches as it nursed. I directed him to stroke down the colt’s legs and lift them one at a time while it continued its single-minded pursuit of milk, accustoming the youngster to having its feet handled.
When the colt’s stomach was full, it craned around, startling in place comically as it truly noticed Favian for the first time. Before long, though, the boy found the same itchy spot I’d discovered last night and scratched it, sending the foal into paroxysms of pleasure.
“That’s enough for this morning,” I said when the little horse seemed in danger of tipping over in its attempts to lean harder against the scratching fingers. “Always leave them wanting more, Favian.”
Favian grinned over at me, yesterday’s trauma momentarily banished in the joy of befriending the young animal. I clapped him companionably on the shoulder as he rejoined me. The two of us left the pen to join the others, grabbing shovels and pushcarts along the way. Meanwhile, Varin, Kerney, and Lundis herded most of the rest of the horses out to graze, leaving a few behind in case anyone in the village needed transportation.
The familiar routine of cleaning the pens was soothing, and the morning passed quietly enough. It was nearing lunchtime when a boy from the village ran up, calling for me.
“I’m here,” I answered, putting my shovel aside.
The child only came up to my waist, but he puffed up self-importantly as he delivered his message. “Chief Volya requests your presence in the meeting house right away, Horse Master Carivel!”
My first reaction at being addressed in such a way was shock, but I’ll admit I was not above feeling a twinge of satisfaction at seeing Dalon’s discomfiture. I could practically feel the disgust radiating from him.
“I’ll be there momentarily,” I told the boy. After a second’s thought, I caught Dalon’s eye. “Would you mind organizing the lads when they get back from lunch? I’m not sure what the chief needs me for, or how long I’ll be.”
Dalon watched me warily, but he merely said. “Yeah, all right. I’ll set them to cleaning the saddles and bridles from yesterday. They need tallow rubbed on them after being in the rain.”
“Good idea,” I said. “Thank you.”
He stared at me for a few more seconds, but didn’t add anything else as I turned and headed toward the village meeting hall.
When I arrived, it appeared that the meeting was breaking up. People were leaving, but as I stuck my head inside, Andoc immediately noticed me and waved me over to where he was speaking with Volya.
“Carivel,” Volya greeted. “Thank you for coming so quickly—I’m sure you must be busy. I have a task for you. I’m sending Andoc and Senovo to talk with the Mereni, in hopes of gaining their military support against those spineless Alyrion bastards who attacked us.”
I blinked. That was an interesting bit of news. People in Draebard looked down on the Mereni to the extent that they would barely even talk about them or acknowledge their existence. But what did a potential alliance with our neighbors to the east have to do with me?
“Andoc suggested that you go with them,” Volya continued. “The Mereni respect good horse trainers, and he seems to think you would be uniquely suited to dealing with them.”
Andoc was looking at me, one eyebrow raised slightly as if in challenge, and I felt the sudden irrational urge to wipe that cocky expression off his face with my fist. My mouth was open. I closed it, and swallowed twice.
“If you think I would be of help, I’m happy to do whatever I can,” I managed.
“Good lad,” said Volya. “The Mereni village is two days’ ride. You’ll leave in the morning. This evening, we will be holding a funeral ceremony for those who died.”
Suddenly, the grief hit me afresh, like a sharp blow to the sternum, and it was all I could do to nod and say, “Of course.” Volya clapped a hand on my shoulder and excused himself, leaving me alone with Andoc and my churning emotions.
“Why?” I asked cautiously, looking up at him.
His smug expression had faded at the mention of the funeral ceremony. “The Mereni really do have respect for horse tamers and trainers,” he said. “As for the rest, well, you’ll understand when we get there. Now, have you eaten at all since I brought you food last night?”
It took a few moments more than it should have to think back. “No,” I said eventually.
“My surprise knows no bounds.” Apparently, neither did his sarcasm. I frowned as he continued. “Very well, you’re coming with me to deliver lunch to Senovo and help make sure he eats it. Let’s go.”
It had taken no time at all for Gretya’s daughters to throw themselves into taking over her business with the single-mindedness of people who were trying to keep grief at bay. I watched in something of a daze as Andoc charmed an extra portion from the girls, and I returned the teary hug that Limdya offered me, patting her somewhat awkwardly on the back. Andoc and I made our way to the temple barracks, laden with fruit, cheese, and cold meat. While I was familiar with the building’s location, I’d never really had cause to spend much time there. It was the largest structure in the settlement, decorated with carved stone and beaten metal representing the various deities.
Andoc stopped at the door, offering a perfunctory obeisance to the gods, and I followed suit. Inside, it seemed far too quiet and empty. An effort had been made to clean up the damage and, presumably, the blood. All of the priests’ bodies had been removed to the green with the others, but the building still seemed more like a crypt than a place where people lived. I shivered, unable to help myself. Toward the end of the long, narrow structure, we heard the faint sound of voices and followed them. Andoc cleared his throat as we approached, and Senovo looked up from the chair he was occupying next to High Priest Rhystel’s low pallet.
“Greetings,” Andoc said, “We come bearing food, and news.”
“Ah,” said the High Priest in a weak voice, “Andoc. Perhaps you can convince young Senovo here to stop hovering for an hour or two and go get some rest. Oh, hello, Carivel.”
“Hello,” I said, trying to smile and failing miserably.
“I’ve given up trying to get the stubborn bastard to do anything he doesn’t want to, Elder Brother. Perhaps between us, we can at least get these two to eat, though,” Andoc said, shocking me a bit with his informality. Elder Brother and Little Brother were terms the priests used with each other, based on their comparative rank. I had never heard someone outside of the priesthood address any of them in such a way, much less the High Priest.
The old man huffed a soft breath of pained laughter. “Indeed, my boy. Indeed.”
Rhystel was deathly pale. His upper body was swathed with bandages, soaked through with blood under his right shoulder. One of the invading soldiers must have run him through and left him, thinking him dead. The blood loss itself was bad enough for someone of the High Priest’s advanced years, but if infection set in it would all be over very quickly.
Andoc set his burden of food on a low table nearby, and motioned me to do the same. “Eat,” he said firmly. I picked up a slice of meat without argument and started eating. Andoc spread another slice with cheese, rolled it up, and handed it to Senovo, who had remained silent throughout.
“Are you able to eat anything, Elder Brother?” Andoc asked.
“That depends. Are those fresh lindanberries I smell?” Rhystel asked.
“They are,” Andoc replied, and gathered a small handful.
“The healer said you were only to have broth,” Senovo said, his voice rusty as if he had not used it for a while.
Rhystel smiled up at him kindly. “If this is to be my last season on earth, I would like to enjoy the lindanberries while I have a chance, Little Brother.”
Senovo subsided, but his expression was distraught. I ached for him, and for the loss of my own mentor.
“And what brings you here, Carivel?” Rhystel asked.
I forced myself to meet his eyes, trying once again to smile. “I seem to be acting as a pack horse for the most part, High Priest. Though, speaking of horses, you might be interested to know that Volya’s mare foaled a second white colt yesterday.”
“Ah, that’s a good omen,” said the old man, pausing to let Andoc feed him a berry.
“Senovo,” Andoc said, “you, Carivel, and I are to ride out to the Mereni village tomorrow morning. Volya wants to forge an alliance with them against the troops at the Alyrion outpost.”
“Really?” Senovo said with a faint frown, showing the first stirrings of interest. “The Mereni? That’s… unusual.”
“Well, well,” the High Priest said. “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, I suppose. Now, if the three of you are finished eating, please go away for a while and let an old eunuch get some rest. Senovo, you have a ceremony to prepare for, I believe.”
I suddenly realized that Senovo would, by necessity, be performing the funeral rites this evening. It seemed his desire to remain a figure lurking in the background was not destined to be. He looked as though the very thought made him nauseous, but he allowed Andoc to usher him away nonetheless. I set myself to tidying away the remains of the food.
“Shall I leave these for you, High Priest?” I asked, indicating the small bowl of berries.
“Please,” he said, and I set them next to him, within easy reach of his good arm. “Carivel,” he continued, his eyes closing and his voice sounding suddenly far away, “this is important. Don’t be afraid to seize opportunity when it comes your way. The gods place doors in front of us; it is up to us to walk through them.”
I stilled, trying to make sense of his words. “Thank you, High Priest Rhystel,” I said eventually. “I’ll try to remember.”
Distracted, I left Andoc trying to get Senovo to rest, and returned to the pens. It was not yet mid-afternoon, so I busied myself with the others, oiling leather that had gotten wet in the rain the previous day to prevent it from stiffening and cracking. When the boys tending the herd drove them back to the pens at dinnertime, I gathered everyone to inform them of the funeral, and my impending absence.
“Dalon,” I said, “you will be in charge while I’m gone. Favian, you will assist him. I would also like you to continue taming Cassira’s foal, Favian.”
Dalon appeared stuck between irritation and smug pride; Favian looked surprised, but pleased. I dismissed everyone to go about their business, and returned to my hut in hopes of girding myself for the funeral ceremony in a couple of hours.
Chapter 6: Saying Goodbye
THE ENTIRE VILLAGE turned out at dusk, gathering on the village green. A pyre had been laid at some point during the day. I had to suppress a shudder at the sight of the bodies wrapped in shrouds and resting on the pile of stacked wood; I’d never seen a funeral fire so large, and I never wanted to again. I had intended to find a place near the back, where I could remain inconspicuous in case my emotions overcame me, but, to my surprise, Volya caught my eye and motioned me forward to where the elders and warriors were arrayed at the front.
With another shock, I realized that I was a person of importance now. The Horse Master of Draebard. The thought circled my mind like a carrion vulture, refusing to settle. Almost against my own will, I slotted myself next to Andoc—a familiar face amongst a sea of intimidating elders. He wrapped an arm around my shoulders and squeezed for a moment before letting go; it was all I could do not to abandon my tight control and sag against him.
As twilight deepened, the eerie sound of drums broke the near-silence. From the direction of the temple, torches flared into life two at a time along the edge of the main road through the village, coming ever closer. As they approached the green, I could see the surviving acolytes, Reston and Crenelo, lighting the torches in tandem before moving on to the next pair, and the next, and the next. Behind them, Senovo followed with measured steps. Where he had been slumped and weary earlier at the temple barracks as he watched over the High Priest, he now stood straight-backed, his chin high. His eyes were lined with the kohl that had first drawn my attention and admiration when I moved to the village three years ago.
He was, in a word, beautiful.
When the last of the torches arrayed in front of the pyre were lit, sending curls of greasy smoke into the night air, Senovo raised the ceremonial bowl he was carrying high over his head.
“Mighty Deresta, She-Who-Burns,” he began, his sonorous voice carrying easily across the green. “Goddess of sunlight. Goddess of immolation. Tonight your children stand before you in grief. We commend our many dead to your purifying caress, that their ashes might return to feed the earth, and their souls might return to the sky, carried upon your smoke.”
“Ever shall it be so,” chanted the crowd, as one.
Senovo lowered the bowl, balancing it in one hand. He moved to the end of the long pyre and dipped the fingers of the other hand into the sacred oil within, flicking a few drops on the first shrouded figure.
“Wyarra,” he said. “Wife of Denuto. Beloved mother and sister.” He moved slowly to the next body, flicking more oil. “Cuscan. Mighty warrior. Protector of Draebard even unto death.” The next shroud was heartbreakingly small. “Monis. Treasured son and source of great joy… ”
Taking his time, Senovo continued around the pyre at a stately pace, his voice never faltering as he recited the names and associations of the dead. Sounds of grief and weeping swelled at some of the names, as bereaved friends and family members were embraced and comforted by those around them. Many of the names belonged to Senovo’s fellow priests. Eventually, he reached the final two figures.
“Gretya. Mother and provider not only to her beloved daughters, but to all the village.”
Grief swelled in my chest as I remembered a gap-toothed smile and the smell of good food, distributed with love and care. Senovo moved to the final shroud, flicking oil over it.
“Jorun,” Senovo said. “Horse Master of Draebard. Caretaker of the herd. Mentor and father to his apprentices.”
A choked sound forced its way up from my chest, and I felt suddenly dizzy. Before I could properly begin to panic about making a scene, a strong hand settled on the small of my back. Rested there, quietly. I glanced up through burning eyes at Andoc standing next to me, but he was facing straight ahead, his face a mask.
Senovo turned back to the crowd. “Deresta, accept your faithful children into your embrace. Return them to the earth and sky from whence they came.”
“Ever shall it be so,” I whispered with the rest of those present, my voice breaking.
The two acolytes circled the pyre, lighting the wood at intervals with a whoosh of climbing flames. Within moments, the whole thing was ablaze. It would burn all night.
“Go in peace,” Senovo said. “Celebrate the lives that return to the gods this evening. Blessings be upon you all.”
He swept into a low bow, rising a moment later. I was not the only one to notice the slight sway of weariness—covered quickly—as Senovo straightened. Beside me, I felt Andoc tense.
“He didn’t rest at all, did he?” I asked quietly. “You should go to him.”
“I will, once he gets back to the temple barracks.” Andoc’s hand was still resting on my back. “Will you come?”
I chewed the inside of my lip, surprised by the question, and the offer inherent in it. But… no. The horses needed watching, and I would not distract the two of them from their grief with my own.
“No, I need to return to guard the horses,” I said. “I’ll meet you at the pens at first light for our journey.”
“Very well,” he replied, his hand falling away. I tried not to miss it. “We’ll see you in the morning, then.” He paused. “I’ll talk to Volya about setting a night guard on the pens. Should have thought of that earlier, actually.”
“We’ve all been distracted,” I said. “It’s a good idea, though.”
The gathering was already breaking up as people retreated to grieve in private. I lost myself in the dispersing crowd, heading back to my hut to prepare a bedroll and other supplies for the morning. A bit of stale bread and cheese still sat on my table from the supper Andoc had brought me the previous evening, and I forced myself to eat it even though my stomach felt queasy with fatigue and grief. I thought of the people gathered in groups throughout the village, toasting the dead with flagons of wine and ale. Reminiscing. Supporting each other.
Suddenly I felt very cold and alone.
You don’t have to be, said a little voice in my head. It was true. I could probably go to the temple barracks right now, to join Senovo and Andoc. What was it High Priest Rhystel had told me about the gods putting doors in front of us?
I stood there for several moments staring at the wall, thinking. Eventually, I shouldered my traveling pack with a sigh and headed for the horse pens.
* * *
My tears that night burned themselves out more quickly than on the previous night, and I slept in fits and starts, waking at every tiny noise. When the first hint of dawn appeared in the east, I felt more fatigued than when I’d curled up in the hay hours ago; my eyes were red and itchy. Another dunk in the horse trough revived me somewhat, but I cringed at the thought of two full days in the saddle. It was no comfort whatsoever that Senovo was probably even worse off than I was.
The lads were starting to arrive as I straightened my rumpled clothing, cursing myself for having forgotten to remove my breast bindings last night. The leather itched horribly, but there was nothing to be done about it now. On a positive note, I was pleased to see Dalon arriving with the very first group—it seemed he was taking his role as the temporary leader seriously. We exchanged wary nods, and I left him to it.
Making my way to the large pen, I grabbed a couple of halters, catching Andoc’s long-suffering gelding and a steady, reliable gray mare for Senovo to ride. Kekenu followed along behind us, chewing on a mouthful of hay as he walked. It was soothing to go through the familiar routine of grooming and saddling the horses. With a small flash of vindictive pleasure, I fastened a rope hackamore around Andoc’s horse’s head, rather than a bitted bridle.
After all, I was the Horse Master now.
The sun was just breaking over the horizon when Andoc and Senovo appeared. They came over and stowed their bedrolls and saddlebags, tying them into place snugly behind the horses’ saddles. Andoc reached into one of his bags and handed me a parchment-wrapped pastry drizzled with honey and chopped nuts.
“Because apparently you don’t eat unless I feed you,” he said. As I eagerly bit into the treat, his eyes were caught by the rope hackamore on his horse’s head, and he turned back to me with a raised eyebrow. “Really?”
I gave him a sharp smile in reply.
“She did warn you, you know,” Senovo said, looking about as pale and exhausted as I had thought he would.
Within fifteen minutes, the three of us were riding out of town on the eastern road, heading toward the territory of our mysterious, much-reviled neighbors.
“So,” I said when the silence threatened to become oppressive, “what exactly makes me so uniquely suited to negotiating with the Mereni?”
Andoc smiled across at me. “I told you. They respect horse tamers.”
“Andoc,” Senovo said, shooting his companion a quelling look.
“What? They do.” Andoc’s smile gained a faintly secretive edge. “And as for the rest of it, can you blame me for wanting Carivel to see it firsthand?”
Senovo shook his head in disgust and caught my eye. “The Mereni have some fundamentally different views about things that tend not to sit well with most other Eburosi.”
“Good thing Carivel’s not most Eburosi,” Andoc said.
“I am right here, you know,” I grumbled. “Fine. Keep your secrets, both of you.”
Conversation as we rode was sporadic. Both Senovo and I were still laboring under a cloud of grief, not to mention lack of sleep. I was starting to wonder if Andoc ever showed weakness, or if he always maintained such a disgustingly high level of competence and equanimity. Though, to be fair, he hadn’t lost anyone as close to him as Senovo and I had. At least, I didn’t think he had.
Predictably, Andoc called a halt and forced us to eat lunch as the sun reached its zenith in the sky. The chill of the past couple of days had given way to sunny warmth, and we hobbled the horses to let them graze while we sat propped up against tree trunks at the edge of a little clearing, drinking watered wine and eating dried fruit and jerky.
“You two could nap for a while if you like,” Andoc said, a few minutes after we’d finished the food and drink.
I forced my eyes open, not having realized they’d closed. Across from me, Senovo rolled his head back and forth against his tree trunk, a lazy negative.
“No,” he said. “It’s fine.”
“We should keep moving,” I agreed. “We’ll sleep tonight when it’s too dark to travel.”
Andoc shrugged, as if it was of no matter to him either way. We repacked the horses and continued on. Kekenu was a reassuring, steady presence underneath me. I gained occasional flashes of amusement as Andoc wrestled with his simple rope reins, muttering under his breath. Senovo was a pale and silent figure at my side.
The landscape changed gradually into something unfamiliar. I had never been this far east of Draebard, my own wanderings having taken place to the north of the village I now called home. The east was craggier, with exposed rocks jutting through the ochre-colored soil. Streams were plentiful and fast moving, and we crossed one river that was wider than Draebard’s village green and came up to the horses’ bellies at the deepest point.
Senovo was looking positively haggard and I was starting to doze off in my saddle when the sun finally slipped below the horizon.
“We should make camp,” I said after jerking awake for the dozenth time in the last hour or so.
“And here I was, waiting for you to slip right off of your horse’s back before you decided it was time to stop,” Andoc said.
I glared at him, raising an eyebrow in my best haughty manner. “Nonsense. A Horse Master is perfectly capable of riding and sleeping at the same time.” I blinked as I realized what I’d just said. “Gods. That’s going to take a whole lot of getting used to.”
“I know the feeling,” Senovo said softly—the first words he’d uttered in hours.
We found a likely looking spot at the base of a large boulder set beside a small stream and puttered around, gathering scrub wood and caring for the horses. Senovo sprinkled some powder from a pouch on the kindling and struck a spark, which immediately set the pile to flaming brightly.
“Trade secret,” he murmured in response to my impressed noise, feeding larger wood to the flames until the campfire was burning merrily in the deepening dark.
With our bedrolls arranged around the fire and our responsibilities for the day complete, we passed around food and drink, leaning against the seats of our saddles on the ground. The three of us filled our cups with a deep red vintage from a wineskin that Andoc provided. I couldn’t suppress a cough as it burned down my throat, shockingly strong.
“Yup—I brought along the good stuff,” he said, his smile flashing teeth. “You can thank me later.”
“Pass it back,” I said when I’d regained control of my voice, motioning for the skin and topping up my clay traveling cup when Senovo handed it to me.
Two cups later, I was feeling positively mellow, and maybe even a bit fuzzy around the edges. So were my companions, if their relaxed slouches were anything to go by. I frowned as my pleasant lassitude was interrupted by discomfort when I changed position. Scratching self-consciously at my midriff—trying to ease the itchiness of my bindings—I had a sudden thought.
“Hang on,” I said. “I just realized that you both know my deep, dark secret already. Stay here for a minute. I’m going to go take off the wrap that I use to bind my chest.”
Andoc smiled his cocky, albeit slightly drunk smile from across the fire. “Ah… don’t be shy, Carivel—I’ve seen it all before, and Senovo here is a religious man. Not to mention a eunuch.”
I ignored the little thrill that ran up my spine at his words in favor of offering him a rude hand gesture I’d learned from Dalon and his friends. When Senovo snorted softly in amusement, I counted it a victory. The firelight didn’t quite extend to the creek bed, so I walked to the edge of the water to remove my tunic. The bindings had been on for far too long. Taking them off felt wonderful, even though my skin tingled and ached when the blood flow returned.
The humid evening was still warm enough that I dipped my tunic in the running water and used it to scrub at my face, arms, and torso before rinsing it out and donning it again. The damp material was clammy against my skin, raising gooseflesh and hardening my nipples to painful points before my body heat warmed it. Gathering up the discarded soft leather strips into a loose roll, I returned to the fire. I stuffed the bindings in my saddlebag with a faint flush of embarrassment, and gratefully accepted more of the strong wine.
“It’s frankly rather amazing to me that you’ve been hiding something like this successfully for three years,” Andoc said once I’d settled down again and taken a deep draught. “I mean—how did you piss?”
Senovo choked on his wine. I leaned back, giving the question all the careful consideration of the fairly drunk.
“Privately,” I replied after a weighty pause.
Andoc laughed aloud, and I let myself appreciate the fine lines crinkling around the corners of his mouth and eyes in the firelight. “Yes,” he said, “I imagine that would be the most prudent approach.”
Senovo cleared his throat. “This is, of course, from my own personal curiosity, and not something you need to answer if you don’t care to, Carivel. But, if you could wake tomorrow with the body of a young man… would you?”
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. Some days, it seemed to be all I could think about, if I were being truthful. And yet…
“Maybe?” I said. “I think so. Most of the time, anyway. Even as a small child, I didn’t really feel like a girl all that often.”
“But you are attracted to men, yes?” Senovo probed gently.
“And eunuchs,” Andoc added. I was surprised to see that his teasing smile had faded, leaving him serious.
I couldn’t control the flush that stained my cheeks, but despite my drunkenness I was acutely aware that I was in the presence of the only two people in the world with whom I could discuss my life openly.
“Yes,” I said. The wine gave me the courage to meet Senovo’s eyes and add, “but only the beautiful ones with kind souls and eloquent eyes.”
“Ah,” Andoc said with a fond look at the young priest next to him, “she has the measure of you, my friend.” He frowned, and looked back to me. “Oh… there’s a thought. Would you rather we still referred to you as ‘he,’ Carivel? In private, I mean.”
When I opened my mouth to reply, a choked noise that sounded suspiciously close to a sob came out instead. My right hand flew to my mouth to keep anything else from escaping. The wine, I thought. It’s the wine, and the grief. I forced myself to breathe deeply and slowly, not looking at the others as they straightened slightly in concern. I was more thankful than I could say that neither of them tried to approach me in that moment. I think I would have shattered and blown away like a dried puff-flower in the wind at the first kind touch.
“Sorry. I’m sorry,” I said when my voice was finally back under my control. “No one has ever given me that choice before.”
In twenty-three-and-a-half years, not a single person ever let me choose.
The two men across from me relaxed slightly, letting me feel out the words as I spoke them.
“In a perfect world,” I started slowly, “I would have been born a boy. I would have grown up desiring girls; married and had children.” Andoc and Senovo shared a look I couldn’t decipher. I wasn’t sure it was about me at all. “This isn’t a perfect world, though. I don’t know what I am. I desire men. My body is a woman’s. My mind is mostly a man’s, I think. But I still liked it when you called me ‘she.’ I think ’she’ feels like a kind of freedom to me, after hiding the truth for so long. It will never happen of course, but ideally, I would like it if I didn’t have to hide my female body from anyone. If they all knew that I was born a ’she,’ but they didn’t care that I dressed like a man and cared for the horses and lusted after other men.”
It was the most I had ever said out loud about my unfortunate position in my entire life. I worried at my lower lip with my teeth and looked up to meet my companions’ eyes.
“That seems an understandable wish,” Senovo said easily.
“Very well,” said Andoc. “In private, you shall be our good friend, Horse Mistress Carivel, who happens to think and act like a man most of the time, but who lusts uncontrollably after other attractive men. And eunuchs, of course. Personally, I’d love to hear more details about that last part.”
The cocky smile had returned. I still wanted to punch it off his face, but between the wine and the soul baring, there was some danger that the punch would be the prelude to an attempt to jump on him and kiss him senseless.
“Too bad,” I told him instead. “First, tell me more about yourselves. It’s only fair. Andoc, how did you come to be a warrior of Draebard? Senovo, how did you become a priest?”
“First?” Andoc echoed. “So there’s a chance we might get to hear about your uncontrollable lust afterward?” I glared at him drunkenly. “Fine, fine,” he continued with a huff. “There’s not much to tell, in my case. I come from Venzor, in the northeast. My father died after falling off our roof when I was thirteen. The idiot was trying to fix a leak during a thunderstorm, of all things. My mother is still alive, as far as I know. I try to visit her at least once a year.”
“What brought you to Draebard?” I asked.
Andoc shrugged. “I wanted to be a warrior, but everyone in my village still saw me as the pale, sickly lad I’d been as a child. When I was sixteen, I came here for a fresh start and apprenticed myself to Volya. That’s pretty much it, really. Senovo’s story is far more interesting than mine, to be honest, though I’m not sure how much of it he’ll care to share.”
I looked to Senovo with renewed interest.
“How much do you know of initiation into the priesthood?” Senovo asked quietly, his eyes on the wine in his cup.
“Just what everyone knows, I suppose,” I replied, intrigued. “You have to choose to become a eunuch, giving up your ability to sire children so that you can act as a neutral party during rites of fertility and so forth. It always seemed like a huge sacrifice to make, to me at least. Though I suppose some priests do end up becoming very powerful people.”
“A slightly simplistic view, but essentially correct,” Senovo allowed.
I looked at him shrewdly. “You don’t want power, though. You said as much.”
“Definitely not,” Senovo replied.
“So why choose to become a eunuch? I’ve always thought that must be a horrible thing to go through.”
“I didn’t,” he said.
“You… didn’t?” Perhaps it was the wine addling my wits, but that didn’t make any sense. I told him as much.
Senovo’s eyes grew distant. “I was born south of here. Far to the south, in fact. Things are different there.” Andoc, who had become very quiet, eased closer until his shoulder was brushing the priest’s as he continued. “My family was extremely poor. My grandfather had gone deeply into debt with the moneylenders. My mother and father were still trying to escape from under it, while also feeding me and my five older brothers and sisters. I’m afraid I was a rather difficult boy. Wild. Always escaping my chores and disappearing into the woods on my own—“
“It was the wolf in you,” Andoc said.
“Perhaps. Whatever the case, the year of my seventh birthday, the harvest was even worse than usual. In their desperation, my parents decided to sell me to the priest’s guild.”
I drew in a sharp breath. “Your parents sold you? A child? How was that even allowed?”
Senovo lifted one shoulder and let it fall, staring into the fire. “It’s just the way things are in the south. In certain circumstances, people can become commodities. I was in service to the guild for ten years, and hated every minute of it. When I reached the age of seventeen, I received the honor of initiation. Even though it meant I would no longer be a slave, it was not an honor I desired in the least, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, my opinion in the matter was not consulted.”
“That’s terrible,” I said, barely able to wrap my mind around such a thing. “I think that may be the most terrible thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Four of them held me down,” Senovo continued, and his eyes were very far away now. Andoc’s arm came up across the priest’s shoulders, gripping him lightly as Senovo continued in a flat voice. “They forced a thick leather strap into my mouth so I wouldn’t bite through my own tongue. When I was completely restrained, the high priest crushed my scrotum between two lengths of oak board with a heavy mallet.”
“He deserved to die for that,” Andoc said, and I got the impression it wasn’t the first time he’d spoken the words.
Senovo continued as if he had not heard. “The shock and pain caused me to shift into the form of the wolf for the first time in my life. I savaged the priests holding me down, ripped open the high priest’s stomach, and escaped from the temple into the wildlands beyond. When I changed back, days later, I was alone and naked, in excruciating agony. I crawled to the nearest road and told the first farmer who passed that I’d been attacked and robbed by bandits. When I’d recovered enough to travel, I started walking north and didn’t stop until I reached a land where they didn’t buy and sell children. Somewhere no one knew me—where I could start over. Of course, my options for making a livelihood at that point were fairly, shall we say, narrow. You see the result before you now.”
The silence stretched for several moments.
“I’m deeply sorry,” I said eventually. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked in the first place, but I’m honored that you would share something so personal with me, nonetheless. You have my word that your story will travel no further.”
“A secret for a secret,” Senovo said, echoing his words from yesterday. He turned to Andoc, his level voice never wavering. “Tonight will be bad, my friend. Don’t let me change.”
Andoc nodded and pressed a kiss to Senovo’s forehead. Senovo closed his eyes and leaned into the contact for a moment before pulling back, wrapping himself in his bedroll, and turning his back to the fire. A few minutes later he was fast asleep.
“Don’t be afraid of anything you see or hear tonight,” Andoc said. “Senovo is far more frightened of the wolf than you or I have cause to be.”
“The wolf saved my life,” I said. “I don’t fear it.”
Andoc nodded. His faint smile was sad. “Of course you don’t. Good night, Horse Mistress Carivel. Things will look better in the light of morning.”
“Good night, Andoc,” I replied. “Take care of him tonight.”
“I always do.”