The Riders of the King's Own

Week Ten
Haenel

Nyan rana yn Haenel, di nyan yn Maralu.

I’m still not used to saying that. I’ve only been a Maralu for three seasons, and I didn’t get in the way most of these guys did. I didn’t beat anyone; just the previous General died on the mission, so I got in by default, basically. It doesn’t help that on my first mission, I’m essentially back where I started, riding in a trader’s caravan.

Not quite what I had expected, but then not much has been. I’d been expecting to stay at an inn every night, since we’ve got the coin for it, but then of course we’d never catch any bandits. More than half of them, I think, have come through nightly ambushes.

In the same vein, I’d expected to actually be able to sleep for the full night, bar when I was on watch. Whenever I came up here with Papa to trade, keeping watch at night was more a case of if anyone should attack; with the Own it’s a case of when. I know now, at least, why we always paid attention to the warnings of bandits, and took the longer journey to Llayad when Kazin was too dangerous.

I’d also expected it to be deadly serious the entire time, like the night before we crossed the border, but even after that attack from the Kazinians on black horses, the guys were much the same as when we’re in Ni-Yana. More injured, obviously, but the blade archers were still pelting things, everyone was still berating Highness for his cooking endeavours and Anganur and Mural still wanted to single-handedly taken on the whole of the Kazinian army. Or at least the Silronan army.

My finger’s healed, thankfully. Still a bit stiff, and I can’t fully bend or straighten it, and it’ll be forever bent slightly sideways, but at least I can use it relatively comfortably now.

To judge by journeys I’ve made in the past, we’ll probably be back in Silrona in three weeks or so, by which point the guys there should be healed enough to at least look for another horse for Inel, maybe even leave.

We’re having to pass through the Houses too, since it’s impossible to avoid them in a caravan. I must admit, one of the most exciting bits about coming to Silrona the first time with the Own was skirting around the Houses, because until now, I haven’t been able to. Horses can make it through the trees, while caravans can’t, and of course even if we could have manoeuvred the thing through, Papa and I wouldn’t have been able to fight off all the archers in the forest on our own. They used to be a huge threat, but now they barely rate as an inconvenience to our archers.

I still feel like a little kid, sneaking off at night to meet with his girlfriend, while his parents are sleeping. The knowledge that you’re doing something wrong in their eyes, but it’s so, so right in yours.

Before we actually got to the House of Small Donations though, the twelve of us got out of the wagons so the family could pass through without having to pay for us as well. A few dozen Llayan animal pelts are far cheaper to get into Kazin than a dozen Maralu, as I’ve already learnt. I almost choked when we went through the House of Welcoming Gifts coming in. No wonder we skip around them!

So, we skirted around the House of Small Donations on foot, which was a bit of a novelty. Nice to stretch the legs after being cramped up in the caravan, if nothing else. I’m sure we had more archers coming after us, too. Maybe because they figured we were less of a threat since we weren’t on horses, maybe because it just took longer to go around. Maybe we were noisier than usual, I don’t know.

When we met back up with the caravan again, they were looking vaguely flustered. Apparently they’d been asked questions about us. The Kazinian authorities are evidently displeased with the way we’ve been bumping off half their army in our wanderings, (which is entirely not our fault, I might add—if they stayed out of our way, or rather out of range of our archers, then they wouldn’t have to worry), and now they’re out looking for us.

If they’ve done anything to the horses stabled back in Essa, I’ll be even more displeased than they are. I shouldn’t think so though. The inn keeper there knows he’s going to be getting a silver piece per horse for every day they’re there, and not a single copper if we come back to find the place horseless. Still a bit nervous about them though. I’ve only had Shadow since the end of last Winter.

The merchants seem to be more nervous for their own well-being. The Kazinians know we’re travelling with a caravan, and there can’t be all that many Raykinian caravans in Silrona right now. The merchants are apparently accustomed to fending off bandits, but the army tends to overlook them because they give the kingdom taxes, which in turn keeps their own taxes down lower.

Their nervousness is making me a bit edgy too. The other guys have barely reacted to this news at all, (except Emon of course, but he’s a pessimist) since Kazin’s apparently not organised enough to get together a large enough group to knock us all off, unhorsed and three members down or no. If all else fails, I suppose four of us could ride the camels. They’re not trained for war though, so I’m not sure that they’d be much of an advantage.

I really want Shadow back now. This doesn’t feel right. I know I’m not experienced enough to say either way, but I don’t like the idea of going against organised Kazinian warriors without a steed. It really doesn’t sit right.

Still, I guess we’ll see if my fears are unfounded over the next few weeks, won’t we?

We learnt something very important last night. The boys were having a dagger toss contest with a few of our guys (they abjectly refused to go against Kaen or Yoryl though. Smart boys), and as Melraan was pouring himself a glass of that potato liqueur, Elli, the boys’ mother, snatched the bottle away and pointed it at him accusingly.

“You’re drinking it wrong,” she said sternly.

Melraan looked despondently into his glass, wondering how you could really go wrong with a glass of booze.

“This is that potato stuff, right?” Elli went on, looking at the label, “You’re not supposed to drink it straight; it’s not beer! You’re supposed to mix it with something. Fruit juice, usually orange juice.”

As she went back to the caravan to rummage around for some orange juice, potato liqueur bottle still in hand, the rest of us kind of looked at each other, then settled for staring accusingly at Kurae and me. Kurae because he’s the chef, me because I’ve been coming to Kazin probably longer than they have, and have been mingling with the people more, being a merchant’s son and everything. We’re supposed to know these things.

Not my fault I’m not well-versed in Kazinian booze! Papa and I always packed a keg or two of beer before we left Ni-Horia, so we never had to deal with their idea of liquor and pubs.

Elli finally reappeared, with her sons still snickering, and filled the remainder of Melraan’s glass with orange juice. “There you go,” she said purposefully, and would probably have put her hands on her hips were they not filled with bottles, “It’s called a cocktail. They barely drink any of their liquor straight, that’s why it’s all so strong.”

Melraan swilled the glass and had a sip, fully aware that the rest of us were staring at him, awaiting the verdict. Finally he shrugged. “Still no Liquid Sunset, but it’s better than it was.”

Elli laughed. “Most of us only dream of Liquid Sunset, dear. It’s the best you’ll get in these parts.”

So there’s the secret of Kazinian booze. Raykinian booze is still better though, without question.

One of the great things about playing I Spy is that it relieves boredom, to some extent, but at the same time it keeps you alert, because even when you’re peering into the trees looking for that elusive something beginning with Y, your eyes may just happen to fall on a bandit camp in there somewhere. We found another one yesterday by way of I Spy, and caught another group before they could ambush us around the campfire that evening.

The boys seemed quite excited by the evening ambush, I think because they were able to actually see the pinpoint accuracy they’ve heard so much about. They had complained to us earlier because of our skills with blade archery, disappointed that only six of the initial twelve daggers that were thrown were fatal.

I honestly couldn’t care less. We’re on a mission. We’re not trying to impress the general public, just get the thing done.

Today during I Spy, it wasn’t so much what was seen, but what was heard: the clattering of hooves, maybe thirty horses in all.

Ordinarily we would barely have thought twice about it, but we’re unhorsed and three members down, and that weighs a lot on your mind.

Still, the General opted to attack them, since they’d undoubtedly want to look in the wagons anyway, and at least if we were ready when they appeared, we had some sort of an advantage.

So we climbed out of the wagon and got into an abbreviated formation. Swordies still up the front, projectiles still at the back. We told the merchants to watch behind us for any other attacks, but of course it’s impossible to place full trust in civilians. They’re always going to watch the ensuing battle ahead of looking out for potential danger.

Before anyone says anything: no, we’re not completely lost without steeds. A man on horseback is not completely unreachable to one on foot, it just complicates things. We have plans for when we’re horseless, both for when it’s the whole of the Own and when it’s maybe one or two members. We’ve trained for such a situation before, though probably not as much as we could have, so we weren’t completely unprepared. A little more nervous perhaps than usual, but not completely at a loss.

So, each of the six swordsmen was handed a second blade courtesy of the projectiles. They rarely use them, and since we’re the only ones who would be going close combat for this one, we really needed two. I ended up with Yoryl’s, which is about the cleanest blade I’ve seen. It looks like it’s about three days old, by the number of scratches that mark, or rather don’t mark its surface. Still, at least he has the decency to keep it sharp, even if he doesn’t ever use it.

As soon as the riders were seen through the trees, the archers let fly so that three of them were down before they rounded the bend, and the archers were firing again. They, along with the blade archers and Anganur, had them down to eleven by the time they got to us, which was much more manageable, but they were still on horses.

Mounting the horses that no longer had riders wasn’t an option, since even if we were to avoid any arrows being shot at us while running over to them or climbing up, the horse wouldn’t accept one of us as a rider in place of its usual master.

I’ll admit, I was briefly tempted to cut down the horses, since it seemed the only way to reach the riders, but that thought died before I’d finished thinking it. It’s not the horse’s fault it was turned into a warhorse instead of ploughing fields or towing trading carts.

So that leaves the riders themselves, which is where the two blades come in. Anyone who’s progressed further than half a year in army training will know how much emphasis is placed on disarming the enemy before killing them. In this case, the primary weapon isn’t so much the blade or arrows in their hand, rather the horse they’re riding. Unhorse them and life becomes just that much easier.

So with one sword, we defend against flying arrows and blades, and with the other we cut at reins, girths, stirrup leathers and anything else that looks like it’s keeping the rider in control of the horse. With any luck, the saddle will start to slip, the rider won’t be able to steer, the horse panics and maybe even rears, and the rider falls off.

That’s the theory. The practical application is not quite so smooth. At such a close range, arrows are much harder to deflect (and I thought I was getting the hang of it, too), and then there’s the matter of the rider’s foot, which almost always kicks out before you’ve had a chance to swing at his various leather straps.

It’s not impossible, but it can be done.

I couldn’t do it. I ended up with Lin knows how many bruises from being kicked down, plus a number of arrow wounds, but I’m glad to say no sword gashes.

In total, three riders fell to swordies—Rumal, Melraan and the General—and the rest were all brought down by projectiles.

Another thing I must admit I hadn’t expected: how much physical pain comes from riding with the Own. Apparently I’d been doing well to have broken no more than my finger, so far, at least, on my first mission. Everyone else, except Emon and Garuk, broke an arm or cracked a rib on their first mission. They were telling me their horror stories on the way up here, when we were still in Raykin.

“It’ll come,” they’ve been telling me, “You can’t escape injury forever.”

I’ve been determined since we first set foot in this kingdom to prove them wrong, as I’m sure they all were on their first missions, but I have a feeling I’ve cracked a rib after that. It could just be a particularly nasty bruise, but this is so much more painful than that. It hurts to breathe, if that’s any indication.

I kept going while there were Kazinians still standing—or riding, rather—but dropped both swords as soon as the merchants started cheering to let us know they’d all been taken care of. Yoryl berated me for dropping his precious sword in the mud, and for the other damage I’d caused to his virtually unmarked blade, but that was to be expected.

Everyone else offered a brief, “You right?” before giving me a hearty slap on the back and demonstrating how to avoid being kicked by a rearing horse. The best way to deal with such things is to joke about them, I think, which is why nobody in Raykin seems to take any of it seriously. Because we don’t ourselves.

It hurts though. High and holy blood of the goddesses, it hurts. Not just a numb throbbing like when you bang your knee on the table, or a painful tingle that happens when you bang your elbow on the door frame. No, this is a sheer, stinging knife blade. Every breath. I’m not going to be picking up my sword for a couple of weeks, I should imagine.

Around the campfire tonight, the boys retold in graphic detail what they’d had the “privilege” of witnessing, especially how I’d broken my rib, which naturally made it flare up all the more.

Only then did anyone admit it was the first time any of us had done this “for real.” Aside from training, nobody’s ever actually attempted to unhorse someone on foot.

Let’s not try it again any time soon.

I need potato liqueur, and I need it straight.

Week 9      Week 11