A Horse of Course


Tags: Fiction, .

Desc: Fantasy Story: It's a heroic thing to save a young woman from being burned as a witch; more so when you know there aren't any such things. Maybe even a noble thing. It's embarrassing to find that your assumptions are just as wrong as those who wanted to burn the witch.

Tiva walked on through the night, his path lit by occasional breaks in the clouds. He was in his mid-twenties and walked with easy confidence through the farm fields that surrounded him. His eyes were as dark the night, a wayward hank of his brown hair hung over his right eye, making him look raffish at times. Other times he looked like a mischievous schoolboy.

He wore dark leather boots that came up to mid-calf, dark green pants and a jerkin that was a lighter green. There was a saber hilt visible over his right shoulder, and a bag slung over his left shoulder. He wore a beret with a large feather sticking gaily into the air.

He was humming a ditty to himself in his head, but singing aloud ... he didn't sing nearly as well as he could hum in his mind.

"What ho! The life of a mercenary! A feather in my cap, a sword on my back and leagues under my feet! Oh, life is sweet! Nothing is ordinary!"

The clouds covered the night sky and all was dark. He stumbled on a rock and cursed. "Damn! Come on clouds! Make up your mind! Come and I'll find a haystack to spend the night! Go and I'll put even more leagues beneath my feet this night!"

For a moment a larger than usual break occurred in the sky and a giant pinwheel galaxy was visible, shedding light on the land.

Clouds started moving to cover the Wheel of Stars and the light dimmed. "Ah, like asking for the moon!" Tiva said in the age-old lament of his people.

He looked around and saw a modest cottage sitting in front of a copse of trees, two piles of hay neatly stacked close by.

The night turned black again and he whispered to himself, "Hasty exits, my father told me, are the mark of bad planning or poor execution! Still, sometimes things just happen!"

Tiva laughed, remembering how it had started.

Had it started at the beginning or the end of the recent unpleasantness in the princedom of Coor? He'd taken Prince Gerrold's colors against a usurping cousin. Tiva was a rarity in those parts, a skilled light cavalryman, and an officer on top of it.

He'd done well in the early scouting and skirmishing and had been assigned to the Prince's son, Prince William, as the captain of the prince's scouts. It was a grander sounding title than the actuality, as he commanded scarce a dozen men, but they had worked well together and they had done what they'd been told, each and every time they'd gone out, which most of the scouts hadn't.

Then came the day the prince had insisted that he, himself, had to go with Tiva and his men, to see if it was really true, that the usurper and two thousand men were marching towards Coor itself. There were twenty-eight thousand infantry and nearly five thousand cavalrymen waiting to welcome the usurper to Coor -- it seemed insane.

Of course, it wasn't much smarter for the eldest son of the Prince to go riding that far forward, either.

Half a dozen men had come at them out of a thick clump of brush, charging Tiva, the prince and two of the prince's guards. One of the guards had seen the long spears speeding at him and put his spurs to his horse, riding away at top speed. The second guard had cursed, drawn his sword and flung himself on the nearest shaft.

Tiva, on the other hand, backed his horse, grabbed the reins of the prince's horse like some school rider and backed his horse up another half dozen quick steps. One of the men stuck Tiva's horse with his spear, but Tiva had plenty of time to get down. He'd quickly shown the six men that cavalry troopers from far to the east were taught from the first day to fight afoot. Five minutes later, Tiva's sword arm was tired and the six men lay bleeding along the track.

Receiving word of the attack on his son, the Prince and his personal guard had rushed forward and were stunned to find the prince alive and well and his enemies dead.

There were fine words of praise for Tiva's prowess with his saber and for his bravery, which were followed by promises of great rewards at the end of the campaign.

Instead, things came to a sudden stop when a wild boar sprang from some bushes, spooked the usurper's horse, and the usurper was thrown off. Unlike Tiva and Prince William, the fates weren't kind to the usurper, who died instantly of a broken neck.

Abruptly reason returned to the column and they scattered to the four winds, and a campaign that was supposed to last one or two fighting seasons hadn't even gotten as far as the first Wheel of Summer of the first season.

Two weeks later the scouts were mustered in front of Prince William. The prince told them that he and his father thanked each of them for their service, but they were no longer needed. They were paid off on the spot and set on their way.

There wasn't anything Tiva could say -- his men had been paid as if they'd fought the whole season, so it wasn't as if they were being turned loose penniless. The prince had, though, a surprise for Tiva.

"My father is a niggardly man, Captain Tiva. He told me to give you a horse to replace the one you lost and to give you an extra copper wheel for your trouble, over what we agreed. I value my life a little more than that!"

The prince gestured at two fine horses held by a groom a few feet away. "So, not one horse, but two. And not a copper wheel, but a silver wheel."

"Your father is a careful man," Tiva had told the prince. "I do not fault him for his choices."

Prince William had grinned. "And as a loyal son, I would never dream of such a thing, either. No, this between us, men who've stood side-by-side on the field of battle."

So Tiva had found himself at loose ends, rather unexpectedly. He was a curious man, one who'd long heard fantastic tales of the Far West, and had vowed that one day he'd see the truth of them for himself. He'd come about a quarter of the way across the continent from where he'd been born on the coast of the Eastern Ocean, in the lands of the Great Trees, not far from where has ancestors had arrived in this place.

But that had been more than nine hundred years before. Here and now he found himself suddenly unemployed. He'd gone to the town and found a room in the best local inn. He'd talked quite a bit with his men, now he talked more with merchants and travelers who'd come from further west.

The second evening, he'd been sitting at one end of the main table of the inn commons, eating a bowl of a decent stew with more than sufficient meat and quite a few dumplings as well.

A few feet down the table a nobleman was holding forth, rather loudly. "Who could have imagined it? A war without battles! The usurper dead and buried. What glory is there in this?"

There were a number of growls of agreement from the men near the nobleman. Clearly, Tiva thought, the men were loyal retainers of the nobleman. Idly, Tiva wondered what those seven dead men in that small, nameless glade would have thought about the idea that there had been no fighting and no battles in the war.

"I'm going to return to the West! I could but wish that my problems would solve themselves this easily! That my opponents would fall from their horses!"

He shook his head. Then the nobleman had gestured at Tiva. "Captain Tiva, is it not?"

"Yes, sir. Captain of scouts under Prince William."

"Unemployed now, like the rest of us. I'm the Earl of Widon, an earldom in the Duchy of Eilantra, southwest from here, south of the mountains, which are south of the Kingdom of North." The Kingdom of the North had once been the chief rival of the King of Man; they had fallen upon hard times and the Kingdom was now a snake pit of warring princes, dukes and what not.

Tiva had perked up. Eilantra was a town that figured in many stories. It was considered on the edge of the Far West. "That's supposed to be a long trip," Tiva said mildly.

"Aye! I came over the desert in the winter! It was hell, I tell you! Hell! I'm going to take a ship back, even if it means it's another four hundred miles further."

The earl had stared at Tiva. "You're a very capable man, Captain, aren't you? I heard a lot of good things about you."

"I did my duty to Prince William and his father," Tiva said gallantly.

"Well, I could use a man like you out west, Captain! Tell you what -- if you agree to come to Eilantra and serve me as you did Prince William and his father, I'll give you a silver wheel now, as earnest money, and another when you report to me, if it's before the first Fall turning of the Wheel. Thereafter a silver wheel each month."

That was, to put it mildly, quite a bit of money. A silver wheel was about what he normally commanded for a campaign season. He'd agreed and took the coin Earl Widon offered him, then and there.

They were near the south coast and Tiva asked about passage west. He laughed at the prices he heard for a man and two horses. An earl might be able to afford it -- a captain of cavalry couldn't. However, the description of the desert that lay before Eilantra was daunting.

He spent some time talking to men of the trade caravans that traveled overland, asking about routes and times. He'd reach the worst of the desert at high summer, and the travelers had all shuddered and told him it would be nearly impossible to cross the desert. Wait, he was told, until the fall rains. It could be done then. Better was the winter, and better still, the spring.

Except of course, he'd taken the Earl's money, saying he'd be there before the Fall Turning. It would be a weasel thing to do to go to the Earl and beg a delay in his reporting date. He carefully considered his options, and then decided that he could carry sufficient food and water for himself and both horses.

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