The Riders of the King's Own

Week Nineteen
Inel

If I have this figured right, there are nine more days of travel, and we’re home again. Tonight we’re spending in Ni-Okina, where the people keep looking at us expectantly, as though we’re going to do something impressive for them. Ulkar tells me this is because four of the other swordsmen did some training here on the way up. How he remembers that, I have no idea. Something to do with being a country boy at heart, I’d imagine.

Tomorrow night will be Ni-Lokua, where the archers and Kurae successfully fed the whole town for the evening. Something tells me that won’t be happening this time. In stark contrast to their normal behaviour, the archers have groaned every time Kurae’s told them to hunt something for dinner, even though archery has to be the least physically demanding of all our weapons. That, and Kurae would rather leave any excess poultry for the people to cook themselves than cook for thirty-odd again.

The next night will be Ni-Mytaa, then the final six or seven days to cross the desert, and we’re home. Nine days.

Somehow, the closer the prospect of resting becomes, the more exhausted we become. Even though we haven’t done anything but sit on horseback for a week and a half now, I feel more worn out now than I did for most of the actual mission. That said, I was lying in a Silronan healing house for the better part of six weeks of said mission with a broken leg, but that’s not to say I didn’t get my fair share of battle.

Which brings something else to my attention; my leg’s hurting. It’s going to rain tonight.

There is no better weather forecaster than a broken leg. I have no idea how it happens, but in the same way that ants run around hours before the first puffy white cloud has appeared on the horizon, my leg just starts throbbing around where I first broke it. That was on the mission before the one we’ve just completed, so I hope this isn’t going to become a tradition.

Naturally I was blamed for our first night out under the stars, not warning everyone it was going to rain when I clearly knew, but the thing is, I didn’t. I mean, my leg was hurting, but I’d almost forgotten about that warning sign since it had been hurting every day since we’d set foot in Kazin. I wouldn’t say I got used to it exactly—it’s physically impossible to get used to pain—but I did forget the main reason why it was hurting, which was of course the onset of rain. That, coupled with the fact that I’d just broken it again, meant I just thought it was hurting because of the recent break.

I’m still being blamed though, and I have to keep looking over my shoulder and checking where all the stallions are, making sure none of their riders are going to “forget” that my Coconut is the sexiest mare in the herd, and come charging after me.

I am getting the feeling that Coconut isn’t quite so innocent to their charms as I had first imagined though.

Mongrel went out of control today, though I saw him coming before Nol realised what was going on. Or so he says, anyway.

I nudged Coconut forward slightly, using Fleck and Ulkar as a shield, knowing full well what Mongrel was intending. Sure enough, the great brute of a stallion bolted forwards, roughly shoved Fleck out of the way and charged after Coconut.

Coconut didn’t need any prompting. She was off like an arrow, head flat down and hurtling along with incredible speed, the same kind of speed I got out of Spirit before she got too old for it. I’m sure that whoever was writing our cross over the border mentioned which gorgeous little mare won this most prestigious of races.

So of course, Coconut was able to easily out run the stallion, much as he didn’t like to admit it. We charged down-river quite a ways before Mongrel eventually gave up. Nol says it was because he managed to rein him in, but I highly doubt that. Whenever I glanced back, he was slipping further and further behind, then finally realised he’d never catch my lovely little mare, and backed off, snorting haughtily.

Coconut, for her part, almost managed to look smug as we waited there for the rest of the Own to catch up. Her head was held high, and she snorted and flattened her ears every time Mongrel made the slightest hint of a move towards her. Could the mongrel have finally met his match?

Probably not, but it will be interesting to see how things develop with Coconut’s addition to the Own herd. All the other guys keep saying “Poor girl, not the best way to be welcomed to the ranks,” but I have an inkling that she quite enjoys being chased, knowing she can outrun all three of them.

If she ends up winning me more border crossings, then I’m happy.

The townspeople of Ni-Lokua were looking hopeful when we arrived this evening, but unfortunately for them, there weren’t geyas hanging from every saddle this time. That, and it was Nol’s turn to cook. As we were unsaddling the horses, and probably looking worse for wear while doing so, somebody actually had the nerve to ask Kurae if he was cooking again for them tonight.

Kurae put one hand on his hip (and would have done the other arm, except of course that it was in a sling) and fixed the kid with the steeliest of glares, Nimay-esque in nature. Sane people would flee instantly. Insane people would wave, and then flee. This kid stood there in eternal hope.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“How long since we were here last?” Kurae asked, in that kind of calm before the storm voice that everyone knows, except the kid, apparently.

He frowned in genuine thought, counting on his fingers. “Four months,” he said at last.

“And where have we been for those four months?”

“Kazin!” the kid yelled eagerly. The time when we’re returning from a mission is the time when it’s easiest to forget that people consider such missions the easiest job in the kingdom. Romanticised beyond all belief and recognition, so that none of the original mission remains.

Kurae forgets this more than anyone, and being Kurae, takes it as a personal insult. So he cuffed the kid on the side of the head, who then burst into tears and ran off to tell his mama what the mean swordsman did.

Just as we were leaving the horses, the kid returned with his burly and intimidating father, who was looking about ready to pick a fight (just a tip: not the wisest thing to do with any of us, but especially Kurae). The red-eyed kid pointed out our dear swordsman, and instantly I could see something change in the father’s expression as he eyed the sling. He didn’t know whether to be angry with his son or the swordsman who’d cuffed him.

“I’m sure this can be solved nice and easily,” the father said, not quite addressing Kurae but rather the whole lot of us. “What’s on the menu tonight, then?” This one he did direct at our top chef.

Kurae turned to Nol, eyebrows raised and the faintest of smirks on his face.

“Chicken soup.”

Sheer class.

Ni-Lokua was not impressed with their chicken soup. Good to see Nol hasn’t lost his touch, then. We, on the other hand, had the much safer option of boiled eggs again, for which I am eternally grateful. I have to admit, there was a brief second there when I thought he was going to make chicken soup for the lot of us.

Really though, Kurae merely did them a service last time, because the archers happened to get over-excited with their geya shooting. He didn’t even charge them. I’m not sure if this has crossed anybody’s mind before, but feeding entire townships isn’t in our job description. We have enough problems feeding ourselves.

This is really when Ulkar’s obsessions with pointing out that every tiny little town along the Ra-Lin is different really rings true. For the love of the goddesses, the man has a broken collarbone, and they’re expecting this one-off thing to become a tradition with their town and their town only! Just… no. I had respect for these people on the way through last time, when they helped us pluck geya, but now I’ve completely lost it.

Gylepi left them a nice little “Look what we already do for you” speech, which mainly consisted of listing all the injuries we’d sustained on the mission, plus a few of the choice ones from other missions. He’s been absolutely ropable all day, and just as he was starting to calm down a bit, Ni-Mytaa appeared on the horizon and he was off again, making wild assumptions about how that entire city would want us to cook for them, too.

Gylepi’s great when he’s on the road, but he tends to get a bit carried away once we’re in the bigger cities again. I mean, I can understand where he’s coming from, but there are better ways of dealing with being a public figure. I think it’ll be good to head off to the seclusion of the desert for the next week or so, just to calm him back down again.

Ni-Mytaa welcomed us with the same vigour as you’d expect from Ni-Yana, but rather than line the Main Road, they line the river banks to see us in. The kids all run up to the horses and trail along after us as we enter, which for me is always fun, but I could constantly hear Gylepi muttering somewhere behind me.

The people, for us at least, are quite different to those in Ni-Yana. Ni-Yana tends to be more relaxed when we’re there. There’s a great celebration when we come back, but once we go through the palace gates, life returns to normal for them all. We live there, so they know they’ll see us around at some point. If all else fails, go to the ‘Thrai and there’s bound to be two or three of us there at any one time.

Ni-Mytaa, on the other hand, knows we’re only going to be there for the rest of that day and the night, until we come through again on another mission. As such, they tend to kind of swamp us. It’s great, getting recognition, but it makes it pretty impossible to actually do anything, which is a problem considering we’re going to be in the desert for the next week or so, and so we need to buy some supplies, fill up every available water skin, all that kind of stuff. The only thing that makes this job just the faintest bit easier is the fact that the markets are much more empty in the late afternoon, when we arrived, than they are in the morning.

We have the rest of that afternoon pretty much to ourselves. Kaen and Yoryl disappeared to pick up Kaen’s thrai-skin belt, which he’s incredibly pleased with. I must say, I wouldn’t mind one myself, actually. I can’t say I’m willing to go looking for a thrai with which to make one though.

Emon we haven’t seen since we lost him in the crowds, but he knows where we’re staying so we won’t have lost him completely. I believe he’s belatedly celebrating his honey’s birthday. Eventually, he’ll get her to move to Ni-Yana. Maybe. We can only hope.

Kurae’s nipped into the main healing house in the city to have his shoulder checked out, make sure that’s healing properly, which he says it is. The healers reckon he can probably take the sling off in two or three weeks, but that he should go by how he’s feeling at the time.

The rest of us have had a combination of buying flatbread, filling up water skins, drinking and sleeping. Mostly the latter two, because it’s quite a trek trough the desert. It is Winter this time though, so we’ll be travelling by daylight, and sleeping when it’s absolutely freezing instead of feeling like we’re on a rotisserie grill. I’m not sure which is more uncomfortable, to be honest, though I suppose since we’ve almost grown used to freezing temperatures now, I’ll take that one. Ease ourselves back into the warmth more gently.

Up again this morning well before dawn, hoping to avoid as many people swamping us as possible. It worked for the most part. We weren’t noticed until we were on the bridge back over the Ra-Lin. Ni-Mytaans, you’re lovely people, but there are just too many of you.

And so, with the city back beyond the horizon again, we’re back in seclusion. There’s not even the river for company now, which is always a bit of a scare, no matter how many times Nimay’s desert magic has taken us safely through the desert. I’m just a bit sceptical about putting my trust in something I can’t even see, and until we’d crossed the desert the first time, I didn’t even believe existed. We’re yet to have any disasters out here though, and even if we were to run out of water at some point, I have full confidence that Nimay would be able to find more for us, but I still don’t feel entirely comfortable. Old theories die hard, it would appear.

In the meantime, I’m just going to lie back and look up at the stars.

…Or not. My leg’s started hurting again. This’ll be the third time since we got back, and the second this week. Where in Lin’s sweet name is all this rain coming from? Oh wait, I just answered my own question there. It’s still bizarre though.

I skipped two days, but they weren’t momentous, so you didn’t miss anything. It rained, then it didn’t, sand and spinifex has passed by, we spotted a desert tribe on the horizon yesterday and a few wild niras snuffling around as they do, and that’s it.

Today, on the other hand… We’re halfway across the desert, right at the point of no return, with three days at most left to travel before we get back to Ni-Yana. I think Kaen had been getting a bit complacent with Charcoal—he is, after all, much more accustomed to a horse that would walk off a cliff if he told it to.

Basically, he lost control of Charcoal, who bolted after Coconut again, and as Kaen was trying to rein him in, Charcoal instead rebelled, reared, threw the blade archer off and broke his arm. Well done, Kaen.

In all honesty though, it was an accident waiting to happen. Kaen doesn’t really know how to control a horse, since his own doesn’t need it. Whether this goes into the injury report or not, I have no idea. I guess we’re technically still on the mission, but that had nothing to do with the Kazinians. We’ll let the General handle that one.

Three days, and we’re home.

Week 18      Week 20