Nasty charged out of the centre of the line aiming for the figure with the plumed helmet; his first kick with both forehooves ripped the carcass from its frame and knocked it almost a full horse-length away. The frame was wide enough that Nasty could just follow and he snaked through and landed on the carcass with all four feet. The armour shrieked and burst as the body inside pulped.
“Sting! Archer! Kill!”
The young mare squealed and attacked the dummy that had a bow and quiver tied to it. Her shrieking joined Nasty’s as they began to dismember their named enemies.
The other three whinnied and danced in place impatiently, restive. “You can’t let only two have all the fun,” Sukala said just behind him. He inclined his head toward her. JiaKlem cheeped from her shoulder, distressed for his boy.
“You’re right.” Ili raised his gauntlets and clashed them again. “Equus! Kill!”
The horses lunged for the dummies, pounding, kicking and snapping, each one targeting the closest carcass to them and their shod hooves rang as they smashed the armoured pigs into armoured paste upon the ring floor, screaming.
Killer deliberately picked up a remnant of his target, a torso, in his teeth and dragged it over in front of the candidates; in front of the four who had ridden him, in fact, Ili noticed. He stood on the bloody thing, grabbed it in his teeth and jerked his head up, tearing it in half, before shaking his head like a dog, sending gobbets of meat flying from the broken armour to spray across the wall below the contestants.
Ili watched their faces, as the horses gleefully destroyed the dummies, pulling them apart into smaller and smaller pieces. He knew they’d successfully ridden the plain steeplechase on Killer. Shiafas Boriren, Aitzas, was pale, gloved fist clenched on the railing before him as Killer raged below. “Those aren’t horses,” Ili heard him say quietly to his neighbour. “Those are monsters.”
“Equus. Cease assail.” The five horses stopped where they were, head down, nosing the rags of pigs and remnants of armour, all around them.
“Gentlesers, Seras, Serin and Serinas,” Ili finished stripping off the sweaty padding, gingerly rolling his shoulders. “These are the most common of the ‘special training’ commands that the Mahid horse know. I will certainly not reveal all of the secrets of their training. But as you can see, one needs to bond with them, play with them. Once we get these five cooled down and cleaned up I am proposing a series of games of hide and seek, five challengers, five horses. I declare these five horses the first team. Challengers, the Mahid horse teams will do their best to find you.”
First Amitzas stood up. “Very enlightening for everyone, Coronet. I suggest that we repair to some light refreshment on the roof until the ring can be reset, before this challenge begins.” There were a number of pale faces among the challengers, both men and women, but some merely looked eager and excited.
“Thank you Grandfather.” I forgot about that. I figured everybody would just sit.
“Equines, stand down.”
They all came over for their attention and he ignored the smears of blood on their faces, the bits of meat stuck in their forelocks. He scratched and petted and fed them all honey drops. Over their twitching ears, as the roof doors were pulled open, he could see Boriren speaking rather urgently to First Ilesias, who was as blank as Ili had ever seen. He grinned and dug into his pocket again.
“So, you think you cleaned out your spider?” Sukala reached to pet Viper and pick a chunk of pig-skin out of her mane. Jia slid over and latched onto Ili's shoulder, slapping Killer's nose smartly with the ends of his tentacles when he nuzzled him too firmly.
“I think so. If not, I’m sure that Killer is going to have a good time hunting him down during their games of hide and seek.”
“You’re making sure that those hiding are matched with the horses they rode?” She smiled.
“Nice idea. Your horses are getting a vote on who protects you! Hello, Tanifas! Have you seen these horses do this before?” He stood, with a pair of the new sleeve puppies at his heels and a strange Haian girl standing behind him. She had her hands firmly wrapped around herself, eyes white all the way around.
“No, I hadn’t. You see, Tirchaer? Gentle as kittens!" He reached out to pet Nasty, who was closest and she actually squeaked. "Excellent work, Ilesias!”
He looked at her, dismissed her trembling and shrugged at Tanifas.“Aw, thanks. I sort of remember from the Mahid teaching Minis, but they weren’t doing all this stuff. 2nd Amitzas wasn’t a horseman. I had to get Irefas to find an ancient old okas horse-boy who knew this stuff. Eosas had retired out of the city before the war and was living all the way up in Isienna. There’s books too in the Mahid archive but they’re kind of not very helpful.”
Boriren was heading to the door leading out of the stables and kennels. “Good riddance,” Ili said under his breath, one hand on his horse's shoulder. “If you hurt my Killer.”