A Horse of Course

by Gina Marie Wylie

Copyright© 2011 by Gina Marie Wylie

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.

Tags: Fiction  

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.

The first month wasn't too bad. He was traveling through settled lands and the people were as interested in someone from the Eastern Ocean as he was in them. Then one day, in late summer, he'd come to a small village perched on a small bluff, with a bubbling stream that boiled down the bluff and headed east.

The village of Edge was just that, he was told. There was a bight of the sea that came close to shore, but the water was shallow and the currents from east and west met there, in a welter of waves and chop. Three miles to the northwest was the last farm before the desert. Ships never put into Edge. At Edge you had two choices: the desert or the settled lands.

The locals were blunt. "It's not possible to carry enough food and water to get two horses and a man across the desert at this time of the year. If you load down one horse heavily, travel slowly until it drops dead, then hustle with what you've got left, you might just possibly survive. The horses won't."

"It's three hundred miles!" Tiva had told them. "Six days! I have ten days food and water!"

They'd all smiled knowingly. "Captain, the desert isn't nice. You won't travel as fast as you expect, and your beasts won't be as strong as you think. Try to keep both of them alive and you'll all die. Sacrifice both horses and maybe, just maybe, you'll live. Three months, Captain. Stay here for three months, and then you'll be able to ride the distance easily."

"I'm supposed to be in Eilantra before the First Wheel of Fall."

They shook their heads and told him he was as good as dead if he tried to go west. It wasn't something that was in him; he knew it was a weakness, but he wasn't about to assume that he couldn't keep himself and his horses alive for just six days.

It had turned out much different than what he'd expected, far more akin to what the local farmers had warned him about. Three days from the village the horse he'd been riding went lame. He'd cursed and put just a few jacks of water on the beast, then had walked instead of rode.

On the fifth day the lamed horse was dead when he woke. He loaded only the remaining water on the surviving horse, and walked even faster, not trying to ride. He, Tiva, had run three hundred miles in six days, once upon a time!

Except it was too hot to run -- it was nearly too hot to walk. It was even too hot to walk fast. On the eleventh day he gave the last few drips of water to the horse; by that time there was no food, and no more water for either of them.

Shortly after dawn the next day he led the horse up to a ridgeline, and paused at the top. Ahead, several miles away, was a green line indicating a watercourse. The horse had lifted its head, smelling the water.

It had jerked the reins from his hands and galloped forward, desperate to drink. It had managed perhaps a dozen steps when it sprawled, dead.

He'd walked up to it, shaking his head. "All you had to do was walk, you great stupid beast! A few minutes more and you'd have been drinking and still alive. Instead, you're dead. Horses are the dumbest beasts in the world!"

The local farmers were duly impressed by someone who survived the desert and didn't think that losing two horses was anything unusual.

A few days later he reached Eilantra, walking now. He paid a copper wheel to an innkeeper for a room to himself and slept for two days before going to see if Earl Widon had arrived.

It was a hard lesson for Tiva. If he'd sold the horses before heading for Eilantra, he'd have had enough to pay for his sea passage. He'd have arrived with the Earl, safe and sound, without his horses. By trying to keep them, he'd lost them both and nearly lost everything.

He was much quieter than his usual self that evening, as he sat in Earl Widon's hall, at the Earl's table, sharing a meal with the Earl and his retainers.

In a way, it was good. It was the casual camaraderie of soldiers, what he'd known for nearly a decade. It was comforting, at least. It was about the only thing that was comforting that evening.

"I admire a man who doesn't waste time, Captain Tiva," the Earl told him. "You nearly beat me, and you saved a lot of money in the process!"

Tiva shrugged. "A little cheaper, unless you were a horse, in which case it was as expensive as it gets."

The earl reached out and dropped a silver wheel on the table next to Tiva. "As promised, another silver wheel."

"Thank you, sir!"

"And your timing is most auspicious! I have been levied of a half dozen guards for the Duke's Court later in the week. You will command them, stationed at the duke's left hand. A simple dagger thrust..."

The earl's eyes had glittered like poison nuggets. "Our duke is old and senile; he listens to whoever lied to him last. Loyal nobles cannot get fair justice at his court! It is time we did something about this!"

The earl dropped two gold wheels on the table, atop the single silver wheel from before. "And you will have earned these, and two more just like them once you've accomplished the deed. You will become the captain of my scouts."

Tiva smiled thinly. "I don't want to sound ungrateful, Earl. Not for this fine food, not for the silver coin as promised, nor for the promise of a post. But I wish to become a noble, Lord Earl -- not kill them."

Tiva pushed the pile of coins back towards the Earl.

"You weren't so sensitive about killing nobles in our short ignoble war!"

"Sir, they came at us with their army and we went with ours after them. It was as fair as such things get."

Tiva could see the hostile glances at him around the table. Still, he waved at the coins. "I am a circumspect man, Lord Earl; my tongue doesn't wag. I will take my leave of you, return to my inn and be headed further west tomorrow at first light. You'll never see or hear from me again."

The earl's face lit with an evil smile. "I think not!" The earl waved at the men around them. "Bind him!"

Tiva wasn't surprised. Instead, he grabbed the earl's tunic and jerked the other back away from the table, a meat knife going to the earl's throat.

"Call them off!" Tiva commanded loudly. The earl laughed, and Tiva pressed harder with the knife, bringing a drop of blood. "Call them off!"

The expression on the earl's face was, for the first time, concerned. "Do what he says!"

Tiva backed out of the room, dragging the earl, using him as a shield between himself and the earl's retainers.

Outside, Tiva paused on the other side of a horse trough. "Earl Widon, I told you, I'm a circumspect man. I'm going to leave you now. Faith, I know how little regard men such as you hold for the truth, but sir, if I was that sort of man, you'd lie dead in the dust just now, your blood spilling from your slit throat.

"Don't you or your men come after me. If you do that, why, I'm going to remember what happened here tonight, and then I will come for you. You won't like that at all."

Tiva waved the lead retainer back into the hall, then gave the earl a push, enough to send the man sprawling in the dirt. Before the earl could turn around, Tiva was gone.

Back at his inn, Tiva wasted no time. He threw his few possessions in his bag, snagged his saber, and then scrawled a short note for the innkeeper: "Duty has called, and I'm thinking I should return east. I'm sorry I didn't stay as long as I promised, but here are some additional coppers for your trouble. Tiva, captain of scouts."

He was out the door in less than three minutes, heading into the night.

Tiva shook his head, returning from where he'd been, to where he was, staring around him in the waning light as the clouds overhead came in solid ranks. There was a haystack not far and he walked quickly towards it.

There was no light visible in the small cottage that wasn't very far away. The night was quite dark. Tiva studied the haystack. "I've come six or eight miles from the town and hopefully they'll think I went east, not southwest."

He chuckled. "When I was boy, I thought it was a lot of fun to spend the night in fresh hay.

"A lot has changed since then."

He held onto his saber and bag, and burrowed into the hay, vanishing as if he'd never existed.

Tiva was a man of simple tastes, simple wants and desires. Which meant he slept late the next morning.

His first hint that things weren't as they should be was a loud voice not far off calling, "Maybe the witch is in one of the haystacks! Search them!"

There was a chorus of voices, all saying the same thing: "Kill the witch!"

Tiva awoke instantly, one hand going to his saber, the other finding his bag.

Then came a loud "kerchunk!" of a pitchfork hitting the haystack and penetrating deeply.

Tiva jumped out of the haystack with considerably alacrity.

"Who are you?" someone from the crowd demanded.

Tiva looked around. There were about twenty farmers around him, all waving sundry and various farm implements, from pitchforks, hay rakes and the like. All were sharp, he had no doubt.

"Tiva, Captain of Scouts. I was bound for Eilantra when my horse died. Now I've come this far and I decided to spend the night in this fine stack of hay."

"Where's the witch?" the spokesmen of the farmers demanded.

"I don't believe in witches," Tiva said, trying to calm the man down. "Witches are bogeymen our fathers used to scare us as little boys. There are no such things!"

The farmers had been milling around, but several of them had been looking at the haystack. One of them suddenly called, "There! There she is! There's the witch!"

A second later the farmer fastened his hand on an ankle visible in the hay stack and dragged a girl out into the light of day, not six feet from where Tiva had been hiding.

The girl was eighteen or so, a little heavier than Tiva liked. She had a long, narrow face, with reddish-brown hair and brown eyes, and nearly as tall as he was.

On each side of her face, wisps of hair had been carefully braided and were tied off at the bottom with small blue ribbons. She was wearing a plain brown tunic top, and buckskin pants the same color. She was fighting to break the farmer's grasp, first on her leg, then on her arm.

Without warning the farmer slugged the girl in the face, stunning her. The girl sank to her knees, shaking her head groggily.

"Here, there!" Tiva commanded. "You stop!"

Instead, the crowd broke out into a chant. "Kill the witch! Burn the witch! Kill her!"

The farmers were waving their farm implements and started moving towards the girl. "Stop, I say!" Tiva commanded and drew his saber, swinging it in a glittering arc.

"Kill the witch! Burn the witch! Death to witches!" the crowd yelled shrilly, although they were no longer advancing.

Tiva dipped down and lifted up the girl. "Are you a witch?" he asked.

She shook her head, without speaking, staring at him with fear and panic in her eyes.

"I didn't think so!" Tiva said with certainty.

A rock flew at him from out of the crowd. Tiva dodged it, and twirled the saber in a deadly circle. "You people! Stop! Get a grip!"

The first farmer lowered his pitchfork and lunged at Tiva with it. Tiva sighed, and then did a fancy dido with the saber, slicing the man's wrist, making him drop the weapon, screaming in pain, his arm red with blood.

"Stop, I say!" Tiva commanded them. The blood and scream checked the crowd for a moment. Tiva tugged the girl, heading for the nearby cottage. "I sure hope they're friendlier in the cottage!"

"It's my cott," the girl replied, speaking for the first time.

"Sounds friendly enough," Tiva told her, as they went through the door. "More so than your neighbors."

"I'm not a witch," the girl told him.

"Like I said, I didn't think so," Tiva told her. He looked around after barring the door. Rocks started slamming into the outside of the door. The cottage had a main room with a table and a cast iron stove to one side, in the other direction was an alcove with a curtain, a bed visible. Everything was carefully tended and pin-neat.

"The problem is," Tiva told her, after more rocks slammed into the door, "that you have to convince your neighbors. When will your parents come home?"

She lifted her chin. "My father died a year ago of a fever. Last month my mother took the cart and the plow horse off to Eilantra to sell vegetables. She never came back."

Tiva stared at her for a second, debating asking her one last question. A rock shattered the window in the kitchen and rolled across the floor towards them.

"Tenant or free?" Tiva asked her, ending his mental debate.

She lifted her chin. "Freehold. The Duke granted it to my father for his service in the war."

"You don't have any other relatives?" Tiva asked.

The girl shook her head. "My father saved the Duke's life in the war. My father met my mother there, in the Far West. When he came back here, the Duke gave them this farm."

More and more rocks are slamming into the door; more rocks come through the kitchen window.

"It's time to go, girl," Tiva said gently. "Is there a back door?"

She shook her head, but pointed to a window over the bed. "Just that."

"Grab the one thing that means the most to you in the world and lets go."

A burning brand flew through the window and into the kitchen. "Hurry!" he called to her, as he hastily tossed the brand back outside.

She grabbed a bag in the kitchen, ignoring the next burning brand to fly through the broken window, and threw in some apples and a couple of small loaves of bread in the bag. In the alcove she picked up an ornately carved wooden box from a dresser. She opened the window and poked her head around. "It looks clear."

"Don't wait! Pretty soon one of them will realize that if he has a backside, so does your cott!"

The girl climbed out the window, and Tiva quickly followed her. The two of them sprinted for the trees just a few feet behind the cottage. They kept running well past it was clear that no one was following them.

Tiva turned and looked back, and then his jaw dropped. There were three pillars of smoke behind them. "They burned the hay? They burned the cott? Madness! Sheer madness! Instead of stealing a freehold, they'll get nothing but a tenancy! How is that better than what they had?"

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