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33: The Hardest Lesson

It was still morning when Bags and Kat found us where we waited in a copse of pale, slender trees on the southern edge of town. Elena slept in the spotty shade, while I watched the two approach on horseback, Bags’ toothless grin stretching his face while Kat scowled less fiercely than usual. Behind their horses followed three others, two in full tack, the other loaded with bulging packs. I nudged Elena awake and she sat up with a sudden jerk, her eyes wide, a gasp caught in her throat. “They’re back,” I said, softly. She let out a ragged sigh and pushed her hair out of her weary eyes. “Good,” she said, not really hearing me, but then she looked up and her expression changed.

I had been skeptical of Bags’ ability to talk the overtaxed garrison out of their animals and supplies, but he had been confident. Rightly so, it seemed. His only requirement had been that I was nowhere to be seen. “Can’t give them anyone to appeal to,” he said, but what he really meant was that my face doesn’t stir fear in the hearts of men. It is easy to say no to me. Perhaps that is why I so rarely ask for permission.

The two dismounted and introduced Elena and me to the animals. I am no expert on horses, but I thought Bags had done well. He had selected the largest one for himself, a bay that looked like it might get feisty if a rider weren’t careful. Katherine’s horse was smaller, a dark-colored mare whose ears were constantly swiveling toward the slightest sound. Either alert or skittish, if there was even a difference. The other two saddled horses were definitely more on the “plodder” end of the scale, and that was fine with me.

Bags helped me up onto my mount and adjusted the stirrups. “How’s that?” he asked, as if I might have an opinion. My horse was an overweight roan, long in the tooth, hoping only to snatch another bite of grass before being asked to perform its next task. We would get along fine.

Elena made no attempt to conceal her delight at the piebald that was to be her transportation. “He’s beautiful!” she exclaimed. I thought that was somewhat an exaggeration; one of the horse’s eyes was filmy and it was favoring one of its front legs. Its ribs showed, and I wondered who had been caring for the creature. Not the military, I was sure; they would not waste an asset that way. It would have ended up in the mess hall rather than wasting away.

Bags saw my expression. “Stole that one,” he said. “Needed stealing. We’ll get him back in shape.”

“Commandeered,” Kat corrected. “We had the legal authority.”

“I had to punch the man a couple of times,” Bags pointed out.

“You didn’t have to, you wanted to,” Katherine replied archly. “It was wholly unnecessary.”

“I don’t like it when people hurt horses,” Bags said to Elena with a wink. “So the punching actually was necessary.” Elena grinned.

I shifted in the saddle and winced, discovering new ways to be uncomfortable after the last few days of abuse. I felt Kat and Bags looking at me. I turned to Kat and she said, “You said you knew a place.”

I did know a place. One thing about my family, we are prepared. It is an unavoidable consequence of our business that sometimes we need to disappear, to hunker down somewhere quiet and lick our wounds, while those who hunt us lose interest and turn to the next crisis. We rarely outrun our pursuit, we outlast it. My family calls these places ‘holes’, and they are a precious resource. But once an outsider has seen one, it is worthless. It is impossible to say how long the hole at Rock Fork had been operating; to recon that would require keeping records. But it had been operating as far back as anyone I knew could remember, and long before that. I was about to destroy it.

Before you run to a map looking for a place called Rock Fork, save yourself the trouble. That is a name known only to the Wanderers. And now a few others. You will not encounter any of my family there anymore.

“It’s about two days by horse,” I said. “Maybe a little more. It depends whether Elena’s nag slows us down even more than I will.”

“Gorowir won’t be slowing us down,” Elena said, and I laughed at the name. Gorowir is a steed of legend, the mount of mighty Gorotuk, slayer of seven kings. Gorowir and his master now run free in the heavens, but the legends live and grow on Earth. Gorotuk may have slain a few monarchs, but he’s also said to have planted his seed anywhere it might find purchase and a variety of other places as well. Gorowir was perhaps even more prolific, so that now almost every horse in the world claims some of the mighty stallion’s blood. The stories get bawdy, and Gorowir’s conquests were not always equine, so it was no surprise Elena was familiar with the name.

“Yes, he will slow us down,” Bags said, gently. “And if out of pride you push him too hard, you might kill him. His leg’s hurt but not broken, and gentle walking and a full belly will help him heal. But you can’t rush him.”

“And do not wish him better,” Katherine said.

Elena looked stung and turned to me for support. “But—”

“Kat’s right,” I said. “We’re not ready to fight again. You can’t wish the horse better, you can’t wish me better. They will find us if you do.”

Elena drew in on herself, stung by my tone. I tried to soften a bit. “This is the first lesson of being a Wanderer,” I said. “And it’s the last lesson. And it’s the hardest lesson. But it’s what makes us who we are. Always, always do the smart thing. No matter how much it hurts.” I did not add no matter how much it hurts others. She would learn that part of the lesson soon enough. “You do the smart thing so you will still be around to fix the rest later.”

She looked down and scratched her horse on the neck. Gorowir seemed to enjoy that, lifting his head and leaning into it. She scratched harder. “I’ll try,” she said.

“Good,” Kat said. “Because if you don’t, we’re probably all going to die. Even noble Gorowir.”

Elena scowled at Katherine, her complexion darkening. “Let’s just go,” she said.

I agreed. “South,” I said. “Today we just follow the main road. The farther we get from Brewer’s Ford the happier I’ll be.”

South we traveled, watchful and wary, and trees gave way to an endless sea of grass, save for a band of thick-trunked willow and alder that hugged the banks of the river. Birds drifted high overhead. I had passed through this landscape before, but never before had I feared the sky.

For most of the day Katherine took the lead, scowling in every direction at once. Bags kept Elena and me close, a mother hen trying to keep her chicks under her wings. I might have been irritated if I hadn’t been so tired.

Early in the afternoon we moved to the verge of the road as a squad of 22 heavy cavalry in the King’s own colors thundered north, horses lathered and men grim-faced. Later we made way for 131 foot soldiers escorting four wagons overflowing with bundles. Relief for a garrison that didn’t exist anymore. I was impressed at the speed of the response, though. It spoke of preparedness, and a commander not afraid to make a decision.

I scowled and considered the logistics more carefully. Brewer’s Ford was the anchor of the supply network in this area. It was simply not possible that word had traveled so many miles south to reach Howton, the next large military presence along the river, and that a response of this size had already covered most of the distance back. The relief wagons had been dispatched before the disaster had even happened.

I imagined a column heading north, cavalry, foot, and wagons. A messenger heading south finds them with the news of the disaster and the cavalry put spurs to mounts while the relief column plods on. It fit with what I had seen. Which meant that someone had known trouble was coming to Brewer’s Ford, but hadn’t told the garrison there.

I squinted up at the sun and let my fat horse follow the road. The sun stared back down at me, heating my face. What did it see from up there? Was it angry that it had been used as a weapon? Or did it delight in its newfound power?

I looked back down, leaving streaks across my vision. I blinked a few times, squeezing my eyes shut. The cavalry would reach Brewer’s Ford, and find Baldwin in charge. He would tell them about the thing in the well, if they didn’t know about it already. He would tell them who now bore it. The horsemen would turn around and find us, either to escort us to the king or to take the thing for themselves. Only then did it occur to me that I could have stopped them and given them the godfucked bundle. At the time I had wanted nothing more than to not be noticed by them, a habit of instinct and long training.

But if we just stayed on our path, the soldiers would catch up with us, probably tomorrow if they got fresh mounts, and I would be unburdened of the thing from the well, and any obligation I still had with Baldwin. I would be free again, to take Elena and introduce her to my family. To her family.