The Riders of the King's Own

Week Sixteen
Gylepi

A week.

Dear General Nimay has given us a single, solitary week to get back to the border. From here, it normally takes us about a day under two, and the weather’s usually considerably more favourable, too. Sure, draw the straight line distance on a map from here to the border, and we’d be able to cover that ground quite easily in a week in Raykin, but this isn’t Raykin.

Straight line distances are thrown to the wind here. It’s impossible to go more than twenty paces in a straight line without hitting a tree. There are mountains to go around, rivers to follow until you reach a bridge that hasn’t been washed away by floodwaters, and of course mud is much harder for horses to run through than firm-packed sand.

Horses aren’t invincible, either. They need to eat, to rest… There’s no way they can go at a full gallop, which is essentially what we’d be asking, for a full week. And in this cold and wet, their legs will lock up at some point.

Now, I want to be back with this strange new phenomenon called “sunlight” as much as any of us, but even Ulkar agrees that there’s no way we can make it in a week.

Still, Nimay’s adamant, so a week it shall be.

As a result, today we did a lot of running. She woke us all up a good hour before dawn and would have made us skip breakfast as well, but we managed to convince her that skipping breakfast for a week would gain us a sum total of half an hour at most. So instead we forced breakfast down in about two minutes, (Kazinian journey bread. Like normal bread that went stale a month ago), rolled up the tents in three minutes, tacked the horses in five and were back on the road within ten minutes of waking up.

I can think of so many things I’d rather be doing an hour before the sun rises. Sleeping is involved in most of these things.

But no, we were hurtling through the Kazinian wilderness, squinting through foggy darkness and praying to the goddesses that the horses had better eyesight than we did. We didn’t completely torture the horses. I hope. We only did about ten minutes of hard galloping before slowing to a steady canter, walked them a bit, and gave them regular breaks to graze.

Dizzy hates me for it though. The poor guy’s been snorting at me at every opportunity and refuses to believe me when I tell him that it’s purely Nimay’s fault.

As promised, it wasn’t until well into the night that we finally reined in. We probably would have gone further, but it was just impossible to see further than the horse’s ears in front of us. The innkeeper was understandably annoyed when the fifteen of us traipsed in, dripping and muddy, and woke him from an undoubtedly cosy bed to feed not only us, but our horses as well, who we insisted were to be given the best feed they had in this village for them.

All in all, I think we did actually achieve our goal today. It would normally have taken us about two days to travel that distance. There’s no way the horses can keep that pace for a whole week though. If nothing else, Dizzy and the other two stallions are going to start rebelling by tomorrow. You only really ever have a tentative grasp of control over a stallion; once you tell them to repeatedly do something they don’t want to do, they’re going to let you know about it.

Day two, more of the same. The roads are uncharacteristically deserted, but it’s hardly surprising. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be out in this kind of weather either. No wagon would move through this mud, and no General could force his troops out without the risk of being killed by said troops. General of the Own excepted, of course. We’re not really into the whole mutiny thing. Clever negotiating usually works well enough, and failing that, whining. I know, mature, aren’t we?

As predicted, the horses are getting more and more annoyed with us, the stallions especially. Mongrel even bucked to try and throw Nol off when we remounted after lunch, which isn’t something he’s done for a couple of years. He bites, snorts, kicks, lifts his front leg threateningly and even rears occasionally, but he’s not bucked for a long time.

I can only hope his displays won’t give Dizzy ideas.

I’m not sure we can control these three for too much longer. Even though we’ve been staying at inns and therefore giving them the best care and feed they could possibly get, they’re completely ignoring it.

Mongrel has successfully thrown Nol off three times today. He reared up at him this morning and just barely missed connecting hoof with head. I can tell you now, a horse’s hooves are considerably more solid than a camel’s feet. Haenel cracked a rib when he was kicked in the chest, so a blow to the skull is likely to be fatal.

Charcoal very nearly unhorsed Kurae this morning too, rearing violently, and Dizzy kicked me in the gut while I was saddling him. It knocked the wind out of me, and I’ve already got an ugly bruise forming there, but I can live with that much.

At this point we decided to buy a bag of apples to try and mellow them slightly. It worked well enough on Dizzy and Charcoal for us to mount them, but Mongrel was just not playing. I don’t know how he ended up getting on that horse’s back in the end, but it didn’t last long—he was off again after not much more than an hour.

Some of the mares and geldings have started voicing their complaints too, though the most vicious they’ve gotten so far is to nip at their riders without actually making contact, or raise a hind hoof in warning.

I hate doing this to them. We’ve only just gotten them back after a month without them, and suddenly we’re telling them to completely exhaust themselves for an indefinite amount of time and for no apparent reason. I don’t blame them for giving their opinion on the matter. If there was a way to tell them that it was so we could get back to warmth and sun faster… they would probably still rebel.

I’m going to go and find Nol and Kurae. The horses need a rest, even if it means just walking all day instead of intermittently galloping and cantering. We’re not doing this again.

Initially, our argument last night was met with disdain and not much else. Nimay’s always been hounding us to geld our animals even when she wasn’t General, and is firmly of the mind that whatever those stallions do to us, we brought it on ourselves. This morning, however, several things happened to change her mind.

First off, it snowed quite heavily last night, so there’s a covering of ankle-deep snow over everything now. Flakes were still falling, albeit lightly, when we got up this morning. For the first hour or so after sunrise, it looks quite beautiful. It’s a beauty I take the time to appreciate, simply because it’ll be nothing short of a complete annoyance within the hour.

Everything is completely white, except the dark, leafless tree branches and dark, wood-constructed houses. It’s a stunning contrast. It makes everything look clean as well—all the mud and other muck is covered over with a clean white canvas, as though the whole kingdom is starting anew. Watching snow fall is particularly peaceful. Unlike any other form of precipitation, it’s completely silent, and seems to even dull every other sound around. I assume this is because it’s too cold for anything, animal or human, to be out doing anything.

The problem though, is that first hour of sunlight, weak and cloud-covered though it is, is just enough to melt the snow, but not enough so that it stays melted. Instead, it freezes again to form mushy ice. Ice is hard enough to just walk on, let alone careen over at a full gallop. It’s also impossible to see any potholes or rocks that a horse might trip over.

I think by this point, Nimay was already rethinking her plan, but something else happened that undeniably clinched it.

Kurae broke his collarbone. Charcoal reared up on him again this morning, and this time he did fall off, landing heavily on his shoulder. He said he could actually hear the bone crack, too, so I think it’s pretty definite that it’s broken and not just badly bruised or something. He’s got a makeshift sling now, but controlling an irritated stallion is hard enough with two hands, let alone just the one, so there’s no way he’s going to be able to ride him until it’s healed.

Instead, he’s swapped mounts with Kaen. Storm, (named for his grey coat, not his temperament), is the most mild-mannered horse amongst our little herd, and Kaen says he hasn’t done anything more than snort and flick his tail over the past couple of days. Even so, Kurae wouldn’t be able to gallop with his arm in a sling and his shoulder in a lot of pain, so that’s put an end to all hopes of being in Raykin by the end of the week.

Kaen was also the most likely non-stallion rider to control Charcoal (except maybe Anganur, but he wouldn’t give up his mare), and so far he hasn’t done too badly. Once the stallions realised they weren’t being made to go any faster than a walk today, they all calmed down a bit. We briefly tried to urge them into a canter towards the end of the day, but Dizzy flattened his ears against his head and snorted heavily at the idea, making it clear I was lucky to be getting a walk out of him, let alone hoping for something faster.

Kurae, I think, is quietly jealous of Kaen for having such a compliant horse. At the moment, at least. Charcoal’s normally pretty good, as is Dizzy, but this has brought out the worst in them. Despite that, I still prefer a horse with personality. Not quite as much personality as Mongrel, but more than Storm. He’s more a means of transportation than an animal. He’s also the slowest of all fifteen horses, always last in the race to the border, so I’ll stick with Dizzy.

So, assuming horses didn’t feel pain or exhaustion and could live quite happily on sunlight and air, then Nimay’s idea might have worked—we did cover as much ground over those three days that we would have otherwise done in six—but alas, horses aren’t invincible. Pity that. It could’ve worked.

I can’t help but wonder: how would a camel have fared in the same situation? The stubborn things would probably just sit there and refuse to stand up, let alone run for us. They wouldn’t try to kill us though, I think I can be sure of that. It’s been too long since I rode a camel. I have no idea what they’re like anymore. I just remember them being stubborn.

Raykin’s only a week away now. And by that I mean a normal-paced week. There’s not going to be any more galloping in Kazin, apart from our traditional race to the boundary. By that point, it’ll be impossible to stop them running.

As predicted, the clouds already seemed lighter by the end of today, and the trees have started thinning considerably. It’s incredible, the transformation once we start leaving the mountains behind. One week and there’ll not be a tree in sight. Two weeks and it’ll be nothing but nice red sands dotted with spinifex and clear blue sky dotted with puffy, non-threatening white clouds.

In the meantime, clearer weather means the Silronan army’s back out on patrol, though they’re generally not so thick in the southern part of the region. There was only one group, of twenty or so, on the road today that we had to deal with. We may have had one swordie sitting on the sidelines for that one, but then, Haenel’s been out of action until last week anyway.

The Kazinians fell pretty easily, anyway, despite the fact that my fingers have been frozen beyond the point of pain, making it awkward to pull a bow, to say the least. I think that may have been their problem as well.

Which brings me to another point: gloves. Everyone in the Own has a pair of gloves made from lamb’s skin, with a layer of wool to keep their fingers as warm as possible. The fingers of these gloves are the thickness of a good-sized sausage. They really only work if the gloves and fingers are warm to begin with, but since we’ve been sleeping indoors, with the gloves on the mantelpiece above the fire overnight, that problem’s solved.

Everyone in the Own has a pair, except us poor archers. We have a pair of thin leather gloves, enough to keep the chill wind off but nothing more. Archery is a profession of hair’s breadths. If something, like fingers the size of sausages, shifts the arrow’s position by a hair’s breadth when released, that can mean a difference of a foot or more once it reaches the target. The difference between hitting windpipe and whistling past the ear. A difference of life and death, really.

We tested a while ago, before Nol joined the Own, which provided the most hindrance—fingers numb beyond the point of pain, or fingers the size of sausages—and despite how much we tried to rig the results in favour of the gloves, it was quite obvious that we’d have to get rid of them. Ah, the sacrifices we make for our profession.

With a sword, pike or throwing knife, the difference in performance isn’t nearly so apparent. It may mean a slightly weaker grip on the hilt, but on the whole, gloves don’t hinder them too much. Lucky bastards.

Kaen forgot today that he was supposed to be keeping his new steed away from Coconut. So used to his mild-mannered little gelding, poor guy.

I was first alerted to the situation when I noticed Charcoal wasn’t taking the lead as he so loves to. Instead he was kind of hovering on the sidelines, so Kaen thought he had control as he picked off casuarina nuts from the overhanging tree branches by the side of the road.

Charcoal isn’t a stupid animal. Both Nol and I, so accustomed as we are to stallions and their ways, noticed as he slowly edged closer and closer to the unsuspecting mare, but there was no way either of us were going to say anything.

Not to Kaen, anyway. We told Murali and Garuk though, oh yes. The war between archers of bow and those of blade still rages. Far be it from us to silence such a battle.

Once Charcoal was in position, he lunged forward with an excited neigh, and Coconut bolted before anyone other than the four of us had any idea what was going on.

I know, it was a terrible thing to do to poor Coconut and Inel, but seeing Kaen yanking the reins in a desperate attempt to stop his completely out-of-control mount… It was absolutely priceless. I could not have done it better myself.

The phrase “Make that Aeia-damned horse less sexy!” will live forever.

Week 15      Week 17