The Riders of the King's Own

Week Twenty
Melraan

Just once Iíd like to make it across this desert without any complications. As Iím sure Inelís told you all, Kaen broke his arm falling off the stallion, which has meant more horse-shuffling. Heís back on his placid little Storm, which moves Kurae over to the almost-as-placid Sugar, and Emonís been thrown on Charcoalís back. Emon, quite rightly, is convinced heís going to have a bone broken by the time heís off the horse in Ni-Yana; after all, Charcoal has already put two arms out of commission, why not a third? Weíll see how he goes, though.

But thatís not all, oh no. This morning we were actually ambushed. In Raykin. Not by Kazinians, of course, but I woke to the sounds of annoyed groans and a muffled ďYouíre jokingĒ from Nol. Opening my eyes I found I was staring down the shaft of a desert manís spear. If that had happened in Kazin, I would have just snatched my sword from its sheath and skewered the guy, but I havenít been in that mindset for just about three weeks now, so a disbelieving groan was about all I could manage.

It turns out that we had inadvertently camped in their territory, the penalty for which was death. Which means that yes, we have been killed.

Every one of us.

Dead.

Including me.

How ironic that we should die on home soil, barely three days from our final destination, by the hands of none other than our own kingdomís people. Go figure.

While the desert people were informing us all of our fate, we had the chance to wake up a bit more and at least get back a bit of the killer instinct thatís kept us alive every time weíve been to Kazin. There was some invisible cue that we all know but canít quite describe, which caused us to simultaneously snatch the spears and yank them from our aggressorsí grip, dump them on the ground and take out our own respective weapons. We probably stood up at some point there, too.

And so we live, who would have seen that coming?

Nimay apologised solemnly for impeding on their territory and explained that we hadnít taken anything and werenít planning to, all without words. None that I could hear, anyway. Iím certain there was some telepathic conversation going on there, but sheís being obtuse again. Is desert magic really that strong that you can talk with your mind with it?

In any case, that was a wake up call I thought weíd done away with three weeks ago. Apparently not.

And so, weíre back in the saddle again. Day after tomorrow, weíll be back in Ni-Yana. Letís see how many bones we can break by then.

Ah, the final night before weíre home. This is when the most important aspect of the mission is brought up, when the men are separated from the small mammals, and the womanís thrown in there somewhere too!

Ladies and gentlemen, the final scores! Which we call the kill count, but thatís probably not appropriate language here, so for you lot, itís the final scores. There are different ways we do this, since, as I said last time, itís always going to be an archer who wins, so the rest of us have our own competitions.

For us most fabulous of red shirts, Rumal won, as per usual, with an even fifty. I was equal third with Emon, on thirty-seven, but Nimay only beat us by one.

For the blue shirts, Gylepi was a not particularly shock winner, considering our lead archer had a broken arm or incredibly weak arm for most of the mission. So Gylepi ended on eighty-seven. See what I mean? Archers get more than twice as many as the rest of us. Selfish creatures.

For the orange and purple shirts, Kaen won with fifty-nine, which is a good thing really. Heís a sore loser, much as heíd hate me for saying so.

What does this all mean? The short of it is that Rumal, Gylepi and Kaen, the winners from each group, each shout the rest of us a round at the Golden Thrai when we get back to Ni-Yana tomorrow.

Tomorrow. High and holy blood of the goddesses, we arrive home tomorrow. Iíve been waiting the better part of five months to be able to say that, and now I actually can, it hardly seems real.

This time tomorrow, weíll be at the ĎThrai. Linís blood, I can just about taste the Liquid Sunset.

Hoo boy, what a day.

The first half of it was pretty ordinary, just walking through the desert until the Ra-Lin came into view, which then begun the eternal debate thatís as old as the Ownódo we just go through the gorge from where it opens up, or do we take the time to wander over to the top of the cliff and stare at Ni-Yana for a bit, then go back down the gorge. It takes an extra three hours for that view, but it really is worth it. Everyone in Ni-Yana, I implore you to go up that cliff, either through the gorge or just climbing the cliff itself. It truly is the most staggering of views.

Today, however, we decided to just get home. Kurae and Kaen were the ones who eventually decided it for us. I wouldnít have minded either way.

So into the little valley we went, which slowly closed over to form the gorge, so that we had to ride single-file most of the way. We let the horses cool off a bit in the water, too, which they very much enjoyed.

And then suddenly, the gorge bursts open, and Ni-Yanaís suddenly just there. Now that is a sight for sore eyes. No matter whatís been going on for the weeks and months before, suddenly having Ni-Yana right there in front of us, easily within grasp, is enough for the sorest and most depressed person to whoop with joy. The nationís capital has never looked so sweet.

This of course starts an impromptu horse race, at the end of which nobody knows or cares who wins. Itís just for the feeling of the wind on your faceówarm, dry, desert wind, I might addóand the sound of hoof beats against the sand, which have a distinctly softer, more welcoming sound than the harsher sound on stone or hard-packed earth, or the floppy, dead sound in mud.

I heard Gylepi, shouting against the wind at one point. ďSomeoneís using our target!Ē

Nol returned with something about ďForth Company bastards,Ē but when I turned around, they were both grinning and laughing their heads off. I think theyíre relishing the idea of getting their makeshift archery range back. They probably would have shot over there mid-race and planted a few arrows in the target to show them how itís done, except that the targetís on the other side of the river.

And then comes the bit that everyone in Ni-Yana knows; we come home.

It never fails to amaze me how quickly word travels in this city. It canít be more than ten minutes between when we burst out of the gorge and when we start clattering over the bridge, and yet in that time, the entire city knows weíre there and lines the Main Road in wait.

Itís the most incredible welcome home. Iíve been a member of the Own for about eight years and eleven missions now, but that welcome home never fails to put a grin on my face.

Actually, no, I lie. The return from the last mission was scary. Everyone was absolutely silent, staring at the empty saddle of General Rauís horse. But weíre not thinking about that mission for the moment.

Every available vantage point is taken. There are people hanging from the palms lining the street, squashed up on rooftops, dangling from ladders halfway between the ground and said rooftops. Iíve even seen people sitting on camels to try and get a glimpse. Itís absolutely incredible, and I can kind of see why Garuk gets a bit nervous. For me though, and just about everyone else, itís the most fun part of the mission.

Charcoal naturally has to take the lead, trying to make himself look as important as he can, even though heís successfully broken two bones this mission. Nimay though, being the General, manages to get in a more prominent spot, even though she is slightly behind the stallion. In fact, sheís wedged between twoóCharcoal and Mongrel. Iím always baffled by the ease with which Nol reasserts himself as crown prince, despite the fact that heís done nothing princely for the better part of five months.

The rest of us just herd anywhere, though I have to hold Fleet back from tearing up and down the street like a mad thing.

When we round the corner into the main stretch, the guy that stands up in the stirrups yelling like a complete idiotÖ thatíd be me. I canít help it! I just get caught up in the moment. Five thousand other people are cheering, why should we have to restrain ourselves?

The urge at that point to just bolt for the palace gates is so incredibly strong, more so since my horse is wanting to do the same. The gates are so open and welcoming. You can just see all the stable hands milling around inside, waiting for us to come through so they can start tending the animals that make their job worthwhile.

Somehow though, we make it to the palace courtyard at a nice leisurely pace. Majestyís never waiting there for usóhe knows as well as we do that the last thing we want to engage in at that moment is pleasantries with the king. Instead we just dismount as the gates close behind us, then wander off to do whatever. Lying down on the cobblestones would probably do the trick, but there are sweeter pleasures inside the palace walls than cobbles.

Ah yes. Dismount.

Emon had one leg swung over Charcoalís back when the bastard of a stallion decided to rear in triumphant victory at the accomplished mission. Emon was sent flying and then half-lying on the ground, half with one foot still twisted in the stirrup. Never get a stallion, kiddies, theyíll harm not only you, but also anyone else who has to ride him when you get harmed.

And so, sent to the capable hands of the palace healing house, was not only a broken arm and broken collarbone, but a twisted ankle and concussion. Ulkar and I helped Emon over there, and the archers joined us with the communal presents for the healers that weíd bought for them in Kazin.

They were most grateful for the alcoholic beverages, since theyíd run out of their own disinfectants yesterday and hadnít had time today to go and get some more. The three wood-carved horses have been placed on the bench at the back of the healing house, with the herb plants giving them a nice Kazinian-esque forest backdrop.

They canít believe that all these injuries were in fact the result of one horse, one of our horses, no less, but such is life.

With our walking wounded in safe hands, that left the rest of us free to relax in the best ways possible.

Number one, bath.

This isnít to say we havenít bathed for the last five months, thatís just a horrible prospect. The thing is, baths in Kazin are a lot smaller. They say room enough for one, but thatís only if youíre sitting up. They have enough water up there to have a bath each, you see. Since thereís only one person using it though, you have to inform the innkeeper several hours before you have one so they can warm the water up. Naturally, most of us forget to do this, so we end up in a cold, cramped bath.

So then we get back to Raykin, finding that none of the towns actually have baths public or no, so we bathe in the Ra-Lin. One step up from Kazin, since itís not cramped anymore, but itís still a bit cool, especially in Ni-Horia, where the waterís come straight off the mountains.

Ni-Mytaa is the only hot bath we have for the entire journey, and even that was a week ago. Baths in the desert arenít particularly easy to come by.

So being back in the big, hot baths of Ni-Yana is absolutely fabulous.

There are the main public baths closer to the centre of the city, but everyone who works at the palace uses the palace baths. This is mostly the army, who need one straight after training, but the staff use them as well. For the rest of today, however, we own those baths. Thereís even someone on guard outside to stop anyone else coming in. Itís the little touches I like.

Sinking into that steaming, sun- and fire-warmed water is the most beautiful, relaxing feeling in the world. The water just leeches away all those aches and pains and melts any lingering sense of chill left over from the ice of Kazin. I never know how long Iím in that water for, but Iím certain I drift off to sleep at some point. Somehow, that bath makes it all worthwhile.

The only difference between the palace baths and the public ones are the sizeóthe palace is slightly smaller, since not as many people use it at onceóand there are massage rooms off to the side. Unquestionably the best perk of the job, and you donít have to even be in the Own to use the massage rooms, just work at the palace.

Now that is where you want to drift off to sleep. I envy the man who has one of those women for a wife. Theyíre able top untie any knots in neck, shoulders, back, legs and arms, even if you werenít aware of when you lay down. Which is scary, considering I feel like I ache all over when I go in, then they find somewhere else thatís aching. Itís near impossible to force yourself to move even just a finger afterwards, let alone stand up. Itís so incredibly relaxing.

During that time, our uniforms are washed, dried and ironed for us, and fresh casuals that we left with them before we left are ready for us to change into. Either the laundry cleans clothes incredibly quickly, or weíre in those baths for a very, very long time. Probably a combination of the two.

Stepping out again, after finally washing all the battle sweat and grime away, having all the knots untied and changing into clean, comfortable clothes, makes me feel like a changed man. There are still aches, and my arms and legs still feel like theyíre a thread away from dropping off, since even the best masseuse canít completely eliminate pain, but itís so incredibly different to mere hours ago, when we were sweaty and dusty, traipsing into the baths.

So incredible is the transformation that thereís no need for immediate sleep. Instead, the fifteen of us head for our favourite watering hole, the Golden Thrai, server of the best alcohol in Thylaeth. Itís not the strongest, but blood of the goddesses, who needs it that way? Nothing beats a perfectly poured Liquid Sunset.

Tomorrow we have the official welcome home from Majesty when we give him our final report, but for all intensive purposes, itís mission accomplished. Thank Lin for that.

Week 19      Final Report