The Riders of the King's Own

Week Eighteen
Ulkar

Sun! Blue sky, and sun! A horizon, and nothing between it and me except red sand, spinifex, and SUN! Thank you, Aeia, thank you, thank you, thank you!

Even night time seems warm now, just because there’s genuine promise of heat at the end of it. Heat that comes from the sun. Oh, goddesses’ blood how I’ve missed the sun. The Ni-Horians were teasing us about how we look as pale as the Kazinians, because we haven’t seen sun in so long. We’re not quite that bad, but there’s a noticeable difference between us an every other Raykinian we’ve seen since we got back. The greyness of Kazin’s landscape has worn off on us, but now, with the vibrant blue sky and contrasting rusty red sand, we can get colour back. Dust off the grey and brown dirt and mud of Kazin and replace it with good, wholesome Raykinian red. And then wash it all off when we’re back in Ni-Yana.

Ooh, that sounds good. Just the mere thought of a nice warm, relaxing bath back at the palace is enough to untie a few knots in the shoulder blades and melt any remaining ice cubes in the toes.

No matter how many times we go to Kazin, the prospect of returning home never grows dull. I’m lucky in that it happens three times for me—once when we cross the border from Kazin to Raykin, once when we pass through my old home in Ni-Linalaa, and then again when we get back to Ni-Yana.

Incidentally, we’ll be back in Ni-Linalaa before the week’s out. How did I end up covering exactly the same stretch of journey as I did last time, only in reverse? If I were more paranoid, I’d swear someone planned that, though I can’t imagine why. The whole lot of them make fun of me for gushing about my village, but as I said on the way up, you wish you had my roots.

But we’re not there yet, so I’ll restrain myself for the moment.

Last night was our first night under the stars in months. I could probably work out exactly how many days, but I’m not that finicky. Anyway, our first night of complete and utter peace and, dare I say it, silence. There’s just something magical about the peace and silence of a desert night. In Kazin, there are always noises happening. If it’s not the deafening sound of hail ripping any remaining leaves on the trees to shreds, it’s a pack of wolves howling out the night, or someone’s pet dog yapping for an hour, or some night creature scratching around in the underbrush, or a Kazinian bandit creeping up as silently as the cracking twigs will allow. At least there are no mosquitoes to worry about in Winter. They’re the most annoying of the lot.

In the desert, there’s nothing. Maybe a gentle breeze wafting through the spinifex, or a nocturnal creature scuttling over the sand, but that’s it. And of course there’s no need to put up tents either, because what are the chances of rain falling in the Raykinian desert?

Obviously higher than we thought, because we got dumped on about three hours before dawn. Apparently Lin had to properly welcome us home, too. Nothing says “Goddess of water” like a good bucket of water dumped on your head with no prior warning.

The whole lot of us woke with a start and either swore profusely at the rain, or groaned and hid under the blanket. Everyone else in the general vicinity of the rain was probably dancing with delight. We must be the only ones in the entire kingdom who’d curse rain. Maybe the traders do too, but at least they get to sleep in covered wagons. Thank you, Lin, but we’ve had more than enough rain to last us through the year, if it’s all the same to you.

Of course, being Raykinian rain, it was gone and the sky was starry again within the hour, but it meant we would have had to sleep on sopping wet, cold ground, while we’re dripping wet and shivering at the same time. That would figure, wouldn’t it?

In the end we decided that it was too close to dawn to bother trying to get back to sleep again, much less now that our bedding was suitably drenched, so we just saddled up and started riding.

This rude and early awakening meant we weren’t in the best of moods upon arriving in Ni-Karila this evening. I, having cheered up on account of the sun, apologised profusely to the residents for the apparent sullenness of my colleagues, since nobody else was going to. They’re not grumpy, just tired and worn out. Most of them shrugged it off in a “fair enough” kind of way; others had that look a lot of Ni-Yana people have, a casual roll of the eyes that says, “Pfft, typical Own riders.” Because apparently the last three months have been a nice little romp in the daisies, and we should all be bouncy and happy every second of the day.

That look always gets up my nose, but I try to ignore that. I know what we’ve done and that we deserve what we get paid for it, so I just look the other way. The less restrained guys, which is most of them, can’t ignore it so easily, and tend to challenge them, either with a lot of shouting or some form of combat.

Personally, that’s the last thing I’d want to do. I’m not even going to lift my sword for the next month or so, let alone challenge someone with it.

Instead, I’m going to sleep. In a tent tonight, though the chances of it raining tonight are even slimmer than last night. A few of the guys, notably the more lazy of them, have chosen to risk a night under the stars, but I like to be safe. I noticed that Haenel checked the ground thoroughly before pitching his tent this time, so he’s learnt from his snake bite when we were in Ni-Horia on the way up. Fast learner, that Haenel.

As predicted, not a spot of rain, so all the guys who didn’t have to take down and wrap up their tents this morning were predictably smug as they swung up into their saddles before we’d finished stuffing said tents back into the saddle bags. I would like to have seen their faces if we’d been dumped on a second night in a row, but alas, it wasn’t to be.

We’re staying in that ghost town again tonight, meaning no need to put up tents, so Lin can send down as much rain as she feels like.

The day was a typical day of riding through the desert, complete with Nol shrieking and dancing over the other side of the town in the evening because he’d seen a snake. Not a thrai this time. In fact, it was a white-crowned shingleback, which I’ve just checked is the same snake Haenel was bitten by in Ni-Horia. Remember? The snake that doesn’t have an antivenom because there’s no need for one since it’s almost completely harmless? That one.

Consequently, nobody chopped its head off to scare any unsuspecting Kazinian House cooks, and have the tail turned into a belt. There’s nothing impressive in having that snake for a belt. It did remind Kaen of his thrai belt that’s waiting for him in Ni-Mytaa though.

So instead of killing the poor creature, Nimay caught it and chased Nol with it for a few minutes, which was even more brilliant than seeing him belt off after spotting the thrai. Nothing puts a warrior prince in his place like a relatively harmless snake. I can’t help but think there’s some sort of irony in that, after what the archers did to the blade archers last time we were here.

She did eventually let the snake go, though I’m sure it had been sufficiently traumatised by that point, poor thing. It’s probably been slithering as far away from this formerly nice, quiet ghost town as it possibly can, and the place will give it little serpentine nightmares for years to come. Or so I assume.

Ni-Linalaa tomorrow!

I’m so lucky, being the first of us to see my family again. Well, parents and siblings, at least. Wife and kids I don’t see until everyone else does in Ni-Yana.

My sister, Kala, is still happily running the pub, still with Papa doing his best to bark orders from the sidelines, orders which still go almost entirely ignored.

There is a difference though: my brother-in-law, Aery, is helping at the pub now instead of working on the farms as most of the village does, because Kala has now got a distinct belly on her. I’m going to be an uncle! Finally! I’ll do my best to be back up here for that day, but I have a sinking feeling that the next mission is going to come up too quickly for that. I didn’t tell her that though. I really hope I can be here for her.

Mama also asked us quite innocently how the honey went down. We exchanged briefly puzzled looks, then as the recollection of feather-covered blade archers slowly crept back into our minds, the two purple shirts shuffled off muttering, the blue shirts sniggered, and the rest of us shook our heads, grinning wryly.

After stabling and unsaddling the horses, we spent what little remained of the afternoon at the pub, whereupon Aery immediately started quizzing us on Kazin. Talk soon turned to Kazinian pubs, or what passes for them in Kazin, and finally, Kazinian booze. He was most disappointed to find we didn’t have any Kazinian beer on us, no matter how much we told him that he could dipper some water out of the Ra-Lin and still create the proper effect.

We let him taste a bit of our disinfectant though, otherwise known as rose petal liqueur. Unfortunately though, he was assuming it would be as pathetically weak as the beer of that nation, when it is in fact twice as potent as your average Liquid Sunset. Even frequenters of the Golden Thrai say a Liquid Sunset is too strong for them, our dear General being one of them, and it’s common knowledge, I should hope, that 'Thrai patrons have among the strongest stomachs in Raykin. Country towns like Ni-Linalaa… not so much. This rose petal stuff is lethal.

However, since we’d been living on the stuff for the last three months and knew how to drink it, we kind of neglected to mention this to him.

Aery poured himself a glass and downed half of it in one, which he then coughed up and stared at me accusingly.

“You said it was weak as ditchwater!”

“I said the beer was weak as ditchwater. That stuff is twice as strong as a Liquid Sunset.”

“What in the name of the goddesses is it?”

“Fermented rose petals.”

As Aery stumbled outside towards the river, Melraan leaned in towards me. “Should’ve started him on the potato stuff.”

And then of course, Raykinians being who we are, the rest of the pub’s patrons wanted to try the stuff. I probably would too, if I hadn’t been sick to death of the stuff by now. Booze twice as strong as a Liquid Sunset! When it’s phrased like that, anything can sound appealing, but that stuff is just bad. It did provide some amusement for the evening though, and of course, Raykinians being who we are drinking contests ensued, regardless as to how revolting the drink was.

I preferred to stick with my beer for the evening though. Getting drunk isn’t worth it unless you’re getting drunk on something that tastes good. Most of the other guys thought the same. We’ve all seen more than enough of rose petal liqueur now, so we were happy enough to let everyone else have fun with it. I’m sure the healers would like to have kept it for disinfectant, but we’ve still got another two bottles for them, so they’re not missing much.

It never fails to amaze me how so much can change in this place between my visits, and yet it stays exactly the same. Olem (the old guy who sold the archers honey) still shakes his head at me as though I’m still the little boy who put ants in his boots, and Mama’s still the gossip she’s always been, there are just a few more grey hairs on her now. Okay, so every one of them is grey. Would you believe she told me to write that? What kind of mother tells her son to let the world know she’s not got a black hair left on her head?

She’s scolding me for lying to the public now. Like I say; nothing has changed, nothing at all. I love this village.

We’ve passed through seven small towns in three days now, and they’re slowly getting bigger. The towns that we literally just passed through without even dismounting gave us that look again, which becomes increasingly more common the closer we get to Ni-Yana, but really, if we stayed overnight at every single town, we wouldn’t get back home for two or three weeks more than it would otherwise take us.

I can hear people in those little towns reading this later on and thinking, “What’s another two or three weeks when you’ve already been gone for more than eighteen by the time you reach us?”

I admit that I do understand this viewpoint—when I was a young boy in Ni-Linalaa, I was incredibly bitter whenever the Own skipped past us. For my first mission when I got in, I was determined to get us all to stop at every town and village, no matter how small, on the way back. Once I actually got to that stage though, there wasn’t a skerrick of energy left in my body. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I had a hot bath and soft, fluffy bed waiting at the end of it.

“Okay,” I thought, “Next time. I’ll have gotten used to the whole mission thing by then, I’ll be able to do it.”

So the next mission came and went, and I was just as exhausted and in as much pain as I had been on my first run back home. The same happened with the next mission, and the one after that, and every mission since. The truth of the matter is that you can never get used to it properly. The concept becomes familiar, but exhaustion and pain are just impossible to get used to. To this day, the only thing driving me on—driving any of us on—is the knowledge of what’s at the end of it.

I know there’ll still be people complaining that they keep getting left out, but there’s really no way to understand it until you put yourself through the same thing. A month of travelling through the desert, followed by anywhere from two to six months of nothing but pain and exhaustion, both physical and mental, pushing yourself to the limit not only every day, but through the night as well, is going to make anyone wish they could be home as soon as possible. If that means skipping over a few towns, then so be it.

Every morning, there’s a strange mixture of wanting to get moving and start eating up the remaining distance nice and quickly, and of just wanting to stay there until you’re recovered enough to even think about tackling that distance.

The mood lifts once we’re back on horseback. The pain and exhaustion’s still there, but we’ve at least gotten over the just-woken-up fatigue.

A week and a half and we’re home. I know, we only just got out of Kazin middle of last week, and it took us four weeks to get up there, but things held us up getting up there. Haenel getting bitten, for one, but that only accounts for… I forget, was it two or three days?

Anyway, the rest of the time is because on the way up, even though we’re awake and injury-free, think about what we have to look forward to at the end of our desert journey. There is very little motivation to keep moving, so we pitch our tents as soon as the sun sets, and wake up again when it rises.

On the way back, as I say, we want to be back as soon as possible, so we ride for a few hours after the sun’s set, and we’re already riding by the time it rises again in the morning.

And so, a week and a half to go. Can’t we just be there now?

Week 17      Week 19