The Riders of the King's Own

Week Seventeen
Emon

I knew I was right to have bad feelings going into this mission. We’ve lost a horse, and I’ve lost count of how many broken bones there have been. Going into Kazin with intent to kill is entirely different to what we normally do. Whether or not it’s worked though, we’ll have to wait and see. I suppose we should really have stayed another month or two, to make absolutely certain that no more bandit groups start up, but Nimay says that’s more what the next mission will be, only with more than just the Own in Kazin.

In any case, they can’t build up that many bandit groups again before we’re back up there with First and Second Company. One or two smaller groups, maybe, but for the most part I think the trading routes will be safe.

We met up with the Ra-Lin again today, in a considerably more impressive form than when we last saw it for Winter Solstice. It’s still a mere shadow of its might once it reaches Ni-Yana, but it nevertheless demands some form of celebration. The momentous meeting of river and road mean that the day after tomorrow, we’ll be seeing white skulls on the horizon.

Every day now, we’re going to pass some landmark—the last small stream to join the Ra-Lin until the border, the last town, the last tree, the last bush, the last House, the last arrow fired, dagger thrown, sword swung (there’ll be about twenty each of them, but we care not), the last drink before real beer… The list goes on. Anything to pass the time and make us feel like we’re getting somewhere.

High and holy blood of the goddesses, I can’t wait to get back there!

Tomorrow. After three months in hostile lands, we’ll finally be back in Raykin. The temptation to just keep going through the night until we get to the border is incredibly strong, but we somehow manage to restrain ourselves each time.

This part of Silrona has, of course, the thickest concentration of Houses in the region, so many that there’s no point in following the road anymore. Instead we follow the river, and unfortunately, the land around it is very uneven, honeycombed with rabbit holes, so that at night, it’s very possible for a horse to step in one and break an ankle.

So, we stay here for the night, with the more familiar Ra-Lin beside us, rolling, grass-covered hills around us and the line of skulls that represents the border but a day’s ride ahead.

The atmosphere around the campfire is the complete opposite of when we cross the border from the other direction. We celebrate our last pathetic Kazinian concoction of fermented potatoes and orange juice, and would probably get drunk on the stuff if there weren’t still the threat of dying tomorrow.

The Kazinians were in fact the ones to remind us of the fact that we were still in their kingdom. Not long after we’d started our celebrations (so long before the alcohol was able to have any effect), Haenel noted calmly that there were shapes moving on the other side of the gully, creeping down the hill towards the Ra-Lin.

“So there is,” Gylepi remarked, then he and the other three archers casually picked up their bows, shot blindly (or so it appeared to me) into the dark, and that was that.

That’s another reason why we can’t stand Kazin. Most of the place is so thick with trees that you can’t see who’s creeping up on you until they’re on top of you. Once we reach this kind of country again, it’s almost impossible to sneak up on anyone, which is of course just how we like it. We’re not into stealth.

And so our celebrations continued, draining as much of the rose petal liqueur as we could be bothered with and keeping the rest for sterilising wounds, since there was no way we’d be drinking it once we crossed the border back into beer country. Even though it’s still another two days until we get to Ni-Horia, it would be a crime to drink that stuff in Raykin.

A toast then, to our last night of incessant drizzle and stiff, chilling breezes, our last night of vigil and waking up every hour because a twig snapped fifty paces away. Our last night in Kazin.

Never do a line of white skulls look so welcoming as when they’re the only thing standing between you and the warm lands of home.

We had our traditional horse race late in the morning, when it was absolutely pouring with rain and would have otherwise made a very dismal scene. Coconut and Inel won it this time, much to Nol’s annoyance. You’ll remember he and Mongrel won it on the way over. She’s a fast animal, that Coconut, which is going to definitely come in handy for her. The stallions aren’t letting up on her, as Kaen’s been complaining about since he mounted Charcoal last week.

Nimay, I’ve noticed, is looking quietly smug, though Lin knows why. She wanted across the line in a week, not ten days, and Ashburn didn’t exactly sweep the desert with her race to the border. Still, women are a complicated species; it may have nothing to do with the border.

The same as going over in the other direction, there’s no change in landscape or weather when we pass over the line of skulls. The rain didn’t let up until about an hour ago, and the hills are still brown and lifeless. But it’s Raykin, and believe me, that makes all the difference.

An incredible weight that you didn’t realise you’d been carrying for the last three months lifts from your shoulders, and whatever aches and pains that plague every muscle and every joint just melt away. Even if it’s raining and cold as it was when we crossed this morning, it still feels just that little bit warmer.

The goddesses have welcomed us home.

I love Ni-Horians. They welcome us like family who’ve come from downstream, rather than warriors who have come from Lin only knows what arduous battles.

We arrived on their horizon at around lunch time yesterday, and the women of the village apologised profusely that they had no food prepared for us, but if we were patient they’d have a proper banquet organised by evening, complete with that magical amber liquid we’d been craving.

The children started pelting us with questions, especially Kurae. Kurae’s not the most conversational guy at the best of times, so he was particularly short with the children, but they didn’t seem to notice.

“What’d you do to your arm?”

“My horse kicked me.”

The children scrutinised the typically placid Storm disbelievingly. “This one?”

Kurae jerked his head in Charcoal’s direction. “That one,” he muttered, and the stallion obligingly reared as if on cue, still with Kaen on his back. That got the kids chattering to each other for a while.

In the meantime, the fifteen of us just died for a few hours. The miraculous blessing of the goddesses that we received upon crossing the border doesn’t last for particularly long, and the side effects are that when the blessing wears off, the aches and pains come back with great force.

Suddenly, the realisation that we’ve been gone for three whole months without having been let up for a single hour of the entire mission, hits full in the face. It’s not just fatigue anymore, but complete and utter exhaustion. No longer merely aches, but bitter throbs thumping at every joint. Limbs feel as though lead weights have been attached to them, and each tiny scrape from blades and arrowheads is amplified a hundred fold.

Laying down in a bed offered freely by the people of Ni-Horia after a mission is far more relaxing than the softest feather bed in Ni-Yana, believe me. Lying back and listening to all the activity outside, activity that we’re not involved in, is just a brilliant feeling. Of course, the odd small head peeps in occasionally, but we’re never disturbed until evening falls and our celebratory banquet is prepared.

Barbeque roasted geya and smoked nira has never tasted so good as when you’ve not had it for a full season. Kurae in particular loves it, because it’s the first decent meal he’s had that he hasn’t had to cook himself. He insists that food always tastes better when someone else cooks it.

By this point, the Ni-Horians, children and adults alike, are absolutely bursting with questions. They’ve kept quiet while we rested, but now they want to know.

Of course, the last thing we want to do when faced with such fantastic food and beer is to relive the Autumn again, but it’s the least we can do for them. As I said, they welcome us like family. When anyone else in Raykin would try and charge us double what they normally would for such a meal, the Ni-Horians insist that we keep our coin for ourselves. They can see from looking at our faces—and Kurae’s sling—part of what we’ve done, and they can see that we deserve what coin we get. Bless them.

The first questions were, naturally, about Kurae’s sling. He’s been fussed over the most since we arrived, which he’s been obviously embarrassed about. He kept glancing in Inel’s direction, knowing that the pikeman had gone through far worse than he had. Had it happened to any other man but Inel, he probably would be feeling a tad bitter about the fuss Kurae’s broken collar bone was receiving, when his broken leg and the loss of his horse received none, but Inel’s not that type. After all, how could they know unless he told them?

And so, all through dinner, stories are told of the more dramatic parts of our journey, embellished, of course. The stories are told by the more extroverted of us, and the rest of us are too exhausted and hungry to bother correcting any of the minor details, which will of course have blown entirely out of proportion by the time we reach Ni-Yana. I’ve already noticed that Yoryl fell from a good ten feet higher than he actually did. He’ll have fallen two hundred feet before long.

Eventually the children are sent to bed, and exhaustion hits again, so every one of us falls silent, having finished eating long ago. I could almost have fallen asleep right in the chair, and I was only just conscious of a pair of hands gripping each arm and dragging me to bed. I was gone before I was properly settled. Where those people slept that night, I wouldn’t have any idea, but I thanked them wholeheartedly before we left again this morning.

Such a welcome home, and yet we won’t properly be there for another month.

When the real Raykin appears in front of you, it’s the most amazing sight in the whole of Thylaeth. Standing on the last hilltop with the bright red desert opening out before you, tinted with gold by the sun which has just started setting, but not so far as to rob the sky of its vivid blue. It’s simply breathtaking.

Haenel, our new recruit, has been to Kazin before when he helped his merchant father, but even he breathed a quiet “Wow” at the sight. We can’t help but stand on that hilltop for a few minutes, just soaking in the now undeniable truth that we’re finally back in Raykin, with no more threats of nightly ambushes, and most importantly, no more cold.

The coldest Raykinian night can’t compare to the frigid heights of the Kazinian mountains, where we’ve been up until only two weeks ago. In actual fact, the phrase “dead of Winter” when spoken by a Raykinian never fails to make me giggle. Raykin truly has no ideas of a real dead of Winter.

Sun, sand and sky. Having that as a welcome is one of the simplest pleasures that makes the past three months all worthwhile. Of course, I might well be talking differently had I suffered more serious injuries on the mission, but as it stands, I couldn’t be happier right now. I can actually see the stars! I haven’t seen the stars in three months! I know I keep saying this, but I don’t think I can really say it enough.

It’s a hard concept to grasp, being in a completely foreign land, with foreign weather, foreign language, foreign landscape, foreign enemies and dangers, for three months. That’s a full season. The whole of Autumn. A quarter of the year. It plays on your mind after a while. And then of course there are the two months tacked onto the ends in the time it takes to get to and from the border. That’s almost half the year that we’re away from home.

Half a year of every year of our service as riders for the King’s Own.

As we’ve been emphasising through every page documenting this mission, there are reasons why we’re the highest paid people in the kingdom, and there are reasons why we do apparently nothing for the other half of the year.

At least the Ni-Horians can partly understand, since they see us just a day after we’ve crossed the border, when we’re at our most exhausted. Hopefully the rest of the kingdom will understand as well once they’ve read this thing. Even if all it achieves is to have bartenders stop trying to overcharge us for beer, then I’ll be happy.

Not likely, but a man can dream.

Week 16      Week 18