I thought about Ailadas’s advice and went to find out a number of things. The treasury for my eventual re-taking of the Empire was in 2nd Amitzas’s care and I had not seen it since we had last moved. It was a pair of box panniers that would fit on one horse.
I wandered ‘aimlessly’, making mental notes. The horses were being brought into the caverns at night since the door had been forced all the way open, and they were kept in a side corridor. I wondered at the people who had built this warren of rooms as part of the cavern complex and if they had used it when the ruin up on the hill fell.
When I went out to the horses, Ilesias insisted on coming with me and I took him, telling Kaita that perhaps she should have a few minutes of Jitz herself. “Can I ride your horse, Minis? Can I? Can I? Can I?”
“You can and you may.”
Rather than have the Mahid tack my horse, I inquired where the tack was and we went to get it ourselves. My plans were getting more and more complex... How to get tack for the horses out of the caves?
I was starting to think longingly of my slaughtering Mahid dream. That would be so much simpler, if I could do it.
Ilesias carried the bridle out for me and I took the pad and saddle. I was able to sling it on my back with one hand and still catch up the reins trailing behind my little brother before they got stepped on. “Whoa, horse!” He giggled but stopped and we re-arranged his grip so nothing trailed or tangled.
“Ilesias, here’s a horse catching trick the Mahid don’t know. I read about it in one of my books and it works.” There weren’t many sweets at all but Kaita and Binshala had accidentally found a way to make honey drops, by almost burning a sauce. The treacly sauce had hardened when it cooled and when broken was a good candy.
I had some of the bits in my hand and all of a sudden, the nasty, hobbled animals who would run from you unless caught or tied, were suddenly hopping up to be petted, pretending to be cute little house-donkeys, waggling their ears and slobbering and pushing their noses out, begging for the sweetness I held. Just like teaching a donkey to roller skate. Start with food.
They got their chips of honey and I sent them off with a slap on their shoulders, except for mine who got another piece of candy. He moaned in a way that made Ilesias giggle and as he stood, eyes half closed I stroked up over his cheeks and scratched under his mane where he was always itchy apparently. He pushed his forehead against my chest and leaned. “Heya, Nasty. How are you, you horrible brute, hmmm?”
The horse probably had an elegant name, having come from Mahid stocks, on a piece of paper somewhere in the bowels of the Marble Palace -- or knowing Mahid, just a number. But I and Ilesias called him Nasty Brute, even though he wasn’t so bad once the punitive bits were no longer scarring his mouth.
Ilesias’s legs were still not long enough for him to have stirrups yet but he was as comfortable up in the saddle as if he were a burr stuck on. I still lead Nasty, though. I had terrible images of the horse spooking and my little brother falling, so I was a boring big brother and wouldn’t let him loose, no matter what he yelled.
It was a good thing that Binshala was up and moving on her own again. 2nd Amitzas chose now to move us again, just as I had worked out my first plan to get away from the Mahid, throwing all of my ideas straight into the garderobe hole.
We moved even before Jitzmitthra was over, so as to get through Two Kills Pass without much worry of encountering anyone else. 2nd Amitzas ordered that if we were to meet anyone in the pass they would be provided with a swift accident in the mountains; it was tricky enough that we had to cross in daylight and we were at risk of being seen.
Nasty was sure-footed for a horse but I wished we had mules instead on the narrowest parts. Even now, in summer, the highest mountains around us were snow-capped and I wondered at 2nd Amitzas’s choice of moving us further north again, higher again. I was so sick of being cold.
Why is it that bards and novels never mention saddle-sores? Or why do they make rocks falling away into the abyss, from your horse’s hooves brave and romantic rather than just gut-wrenching? I imagine that tale tellers really don’t want to mention gut upsets, mountain sickness, chilblains and squatting over shallow holes dug in the ground. Or the smell of armour if you are wearing it every day. That I almost didn’t notice any more.
It took three days of hard riding to get through Two Kills, with camps high in the pass itself. Binshala’s lips were blue and she shook even with furs wrapped around herself. 2nd Amitzas was coldly furious when I told him she needed to rest more often. I insisted she use one of my feather quilts when we stopped.
I'd sat down next to her on the trail. Gannara had used some of the wood we had packed, to start a small fire and there was heated broth. I put a cup of it into her hands and she huddled around it. Ailadas was on her other side. “You look after yourself, nurse.”
She smiled at me. “Of course, Spark of the Sun’s Ray. One needs one’s nurse for his comfort alone, hmmm? That is the only reason the Spark is so solicitous?” Her voice was wheezing and came hard but she still smiled.
“Oh yes. Of course.” I looked at her fine, delicate features, pale, thin eyebrows, blue veins standing under pale skin, pulsing fast. There were dark circles under her eyes and she could barely hold the cup. She looked insubstantial, sitting swaddled in the quilt, worn. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “You shouldn’t have been forced into the wilderness.”
“Nonsense!” She hissed back at me, as suddenly fierce. “This one is honoured and has been honoured. Discomfort is merely something to be ignored to be with this one’s charge!”
I shook my head at her, pretending to recoil. “Oh, of course! Of course, my nurse!” I grinned at her and she smiled back. I just wished her body were as strong as her spirit. A woman. She kept amazing me. And Ailadas just sat, offering her his quiet support. She leaned against him surreptitiously.
She’ll feel better once we are off the heights. Gannara snuffed the tiny fire and buried it a handful of scree or two from the ledge, more pebbles than dirt, and came to sit on my other side. The four of us sat, the edge above thousand man-heights drop approximately my own height away from my toes.
The wind howled below, through an all but impassable thicket of green pines, deadfall and rocks fallen from our height or higher. The stone showed hundreds of years of flash-water levels marching up the stone walls below, overlaid on the flexed and twisted ropes of rock veins. The wind puffing up from below brought a welcome warmth and scent of pine. I wonder if this is what flyers see? Birds flying below one’s toes?
The horses stood, heads down mostly, either nervous or resting or both. I prayed to my ancestors that none of them stumble and take someone else with them. The call came from the head. “Mount. We will reach the turn-around before dark.”
We’d better. I think I’m finding out why the vast bulk of the traffic uses the tunnel. Though it’s not likely we meet an eighteen rigged beer wagon up here and have to back up for them.