There's a break in the narrative here, because the intervening chunk is rougher than usual and I suspect it needs a lot more kicking. When we rejoin our heroes, they're starting down the road to Anuket City. Relations, never great to begin with, have broken down completely. Caliban is surlier than ever, Brenner takes much delight in poking his emotional wounds, Slate is in a kind of fatalistic fugue, and Learned Edmund, a scholar of the Many-Armed God, has joined them and is not at all happy about traveling with three criminals, particularly with a woman in charge. (He's a raging misogynist, which has been done to death, but in this case will hopefully be redeemed by the fact that he's ultimately a far more decent person than any of the other characters. That's the plan, anyway.)
None of which is terribly important, because the real point of this section is to address yet another glaring oversight common to fantasy novels--namely that hardly anyone in a medival city below a certain socioeconomic class would know how to ride a horse.
They gathered in the courtyard outside the guardkeep at an unholy hour just after dawn. There was a horse for each of them, already saddled. The Learned Edmund had two mules in addition to his horse, laden with obscure, lumpy baggage, and there was an extra pack mule with supplies. Caliban was wearing the white cloak.
“You really don’t have to wear that,” Slate murmured. “Brenner’s just being an ass.”
He shrugged. “It’ll be grey by the time we’re out of the city anyway.”
The Captain of the Guard had come out to see them off, probably fearing that if he didn’t, he’d come out later to find one of them standing atop the corpses of the other three, brandishing a severed head in each hand. Not that that’s an unreasonable fear at this point. I’ll put my money on Brenner, with Caliban at an outside chance. I just hope I get a shot at the Learned Edmund first.
She eyed a spot between the scholar’s shoulder blades longingly. He’d apparently decided that the knight was the only person he was going to talk to. Brenner found this a relief. Slate just found it obnoxious.
A groom handed her the reins to a horse, and vanished before she could say something like “What the heck am I supposed to do with this?”
Caliban went over and spoke to the Captain quietly for a moment. They both vanished inside the building.
Slate looked at her horse. It was large and brown and had a black nose. It glanced at her, then gazed off in the distance in glum resignation.
Her mother had arranged for riding lessons for her approximately a thousand years ago, because courtesans catering to the nobility were catering to the mounted nobility, and sometimes you needed to go out for a ride with a patron. Whatever her faults, Slate’s mother had certainly done her best to groom her daughter for a better life, which had involved endless rounds of lessons. As a result, Slate could dance reasonably well, read beautifully, and play the harp badly.
It didn’t come up a lot in the city. You called carriages, or you walked, but you never rode anywhere. When she left the city, she went by stage. She hadn’t actually been on a horse since she was eleven.
Slate rubbed her damp palms on her trousers and gazed up.
There was certainly a lot of horse there.
Slate had remembered that horses had been very, very large when she was a girl, but she had secretly hoped that this was because she had been so small by comparison. Unfortunately, either horses had grown or she hadn’t.
Caliban re-emerged, wearing an undyed tabard over his armor. There was no device on it. The Captain of the Guard was behind him, looking more unhappy than usual, and judging by the way the paladin was stalking away, the Captain had managed to offend him somehow.
Granted, that’s not a hard thing to do. I’m amazed he’s even talking to me after last night.
Slate tried to get a foot into the stirrup, just about managed it, and then realized immediately that the stirrups were so long that it was only going to get her partway up the horse, and she’d have to scrabble at the thing’s back like she was climbing a wall.
Would it stand for that? How patient was a horse, anyway?
She tried again. It took a step to the side once she had a foot in the stirrup, sending her hopping after it with her legs at an angle that she hadn’t achieved in recent memory.
God, I hate being short.
She looked around to see how everyone else was doing. Caliban, naturally, was sitting on his horse looking ready to pose for an illuminated manuscript. Brenner, who had never been on a horse in his life, had taken out his dagger and was showing it meaningfully to his mount. The horse did not look impressed.
Learned Edmund was checking the packs on his mules. He looked over at her and then away, suppressing a sneer. Slate gritted her teeth and reached for the saddle. She’d bloody well climb the horse with a grappling hook if that’s what it took.
This would be much easier if horses came with rain gutters.
Before she could make another abortive attempt at mounting, Caliban dismounted and appeared on the other side of the horse, doing something to the complicated welter of snaps and buckles that she vaguely recalled was “tack.” Slate figured that it was probably too much to hope that he was lowering a ladder.
He came around the other side, ducking under the horse’s head with a murmured word, and did the same something, which, glory be, involved shortening the stirrups.
While that will undoubtedly be much more comfortable once I’m on the horse, I still don’t know how I’m going to get up there in the first place…
The knight finished what he was doing, turned to her, and dropped to one knee as if he was offering fealty. Slate recoiled, then saw that he was actually offering her his interlaced hands as a mounting block.
“Ohthankyougod,” she said, stepping into his hands.
“Not a god, just a knight,” he muttered, then belied his irritated tone by waiting patiently while she used his shoulder as a stepladder and ascended the heights of Mt. Equine.
Slate might have been inclined to suspect something other than chivalry—after all, a lot of men might enjoy being climbed on by a woman—but he then went over and did the exact same thing for Brenner.
This was quite a sight. Learned Edmund stopped even pretending to pay attention to the mules.
The assassin eventually got into the saddle, and Caliban—looking distinctly the worse for wear, and with boot prints crossing his new tabard—went back to his own horse.
“Is the circus ready to leave town, then?” asked Learned Edmund.
They rode out.
Twelve hours later, Slate was praying for the sweet release of death.
Her legs felt like…like…possibly there weren’t words in the language for what they felt like.
They had been riding for hours. They left the city, the suburbs, the fields. They crossed several bridges. They passed more fields. Trees swept in from the sides and swept out again. Farmers went past in carts. Brenner clung to his mare like grim death, and with much the same expression.
Caliban tried to talk to her once or twice, either to tell her that he’d forgiven her for what she’d said last night, or to tell her that he’d never forgive her for what she’d said last night. Slate bounced along in the saddle, sneezing, and had to ask him to repeat himself so many times that he gave up. The knight-champion rode ahead and talked to Learned Edmund instead. Apparently the two religious types had found something in common.
Well, the one despises women and the other one killed a whole bunch of ‘em. Maybe that’s a conversation starter.
This would have annoyed Slate, but she had other things to worry about, like whether her legs were going to fall off.
Fortunately, her horse seemed inclined to follow the other horses, or steering would have been an issue.
She was covered in sweat, and dust stuck to the sweat, and made a thin layer of grey grime that covered her from head to toe. Everyone else was also the same vague dust color. Caliban’s cloak had gone dingy grey practically before they were out of the city.
She would have found that amusing if she’d had the strength.
She discovered that whoever had packed her horse had thoughtfully included a waterskin. She aimed a stream of water into her mouth. It tasted like ambrosia.
How would you know? You’ve never had ambrosia.
It couldn’t be better than this.
Hours passed, like a kidney stone.
Slate stopped thinking, stopped feeling anything. It was easier to do that. If she wasn’t there, she wasn’t feeling the horrible chafe against her thighs, the ache in her hip joints, the dryness of her eyes and nose and tongue. She went away inside her head for awhile, in a kind of meditative misery.
There was nothing but the horse. There had never been anything but the horse. Possibly she had been born on a horse. She was undoubtedly going to die on one.
When she came back, it was because Caliban was tapping her on the knee and saying, “You going to get down, or are you posing for an equestrian statue?”
“Huh?” She looked around. They were at a ferry station on one side of the Highmelt River, a little town of a few small houses, a tradehouse, and a stable. Judging by the light, it was early evening. They seemed to be in the stable yard of the tradehouse. “Are we crossing?”
“Not tonight. We’re stopping here.”
He waited. She looked at him. Surely he’s not waiting for me to get down from this thing.
Learned Edmund appeared out of the gloom, his arms full of saddlebags. “They’ve got two rooms. There’s enough stable space, though. Barely.”
The face that he was addressing Caliban and not her was not lost on Slate, but she really didn’t care at the moment. Her hip joints appeared to have locked in place like blocks of cement.
“Excellent,” said the paladin, nodding. He turned back up to Slate. “Madam?”
“Get him out of here,” she hissed under her breath.
His eyebrows arched.
Brenner bounced by, stiffly, an expression of frozen horror on his face. He hadn’t gotten down, either, and apparently any attempt to control his horse had failed utterly. The mare smelled food and wanted it and was roaming the yard looking for it.
Learned Edmund looked at Brenner. Brenner smiled horribly at him. The mare made another circuit of the yard.
Slate’s horse sidled as the mare passed. Caliban put his fingers around the stirrup to hold it in place—Slate noticed with mild interest that she couldn’t feel her ankles, and was wretchedly grateful—and turned back to the scholar. “Perhaps, Learned Edmund, you could bespeak us a meal and see when the ferry first runs tomorrow morning?”
The scholar gave all three of them a suspicious glance, as if expecting them to be plotting behind his back, then inclined his head and went inside.
Caliban waited until he was gone, then dove for Brenner’s reins, and managed to catch them. The horse brought up short, and Brenner lurched in the saddle and let out a sound that was just sort of a sob.
“I’ll kill the beast,” the assassin rasped. “I’d cut his throat right now, but I don’t think I can get off if he falls down.”
“It’s a her,” said Caliban.
“You think that’ll stop me, god-boy?”
“Horses are expensive,” said Slate, who knew to the penny how much it cost to house and feed a horse, although she had only a vague notion of what they actually ate.
“Oh. Hmm. Damn.”
The knight got both sets of reins together, and led the horses to a rail, where he tied them up. He turned back, hands on hips. Brenner and Slate stared down at him glumly.
“When did you two learn to ride?”
“Sixteen years ago.”
Caliban put his hands over his face. “We’re going to die.” His voice was surprisingly calm, but it had a hysterical edge to it.
“I’ve been telling you,” said Slate, much aggrieved.
He raked his hands through his hair and muttered something under his breath. Slate wouldn’t swear that it hadn’t been “Ngha, ha, ngha…”
“Okay. Neither of you can get down?”
“Not if I don’t get to kill the horse.”
Caliban stared upward and uttered a particularly vile curse to no one in particular.
“I didn’t think they knew words like that in the temple,” said Brenner, sounding rather pleased despite it all.
The paladin ignored him, squared his shoulders and walked to the side of Slate’s horse. He reached up and caught her around the waist. “Put your arms around my neck.”
She did so, obediently, and he dragged her off the horse and set her on her feet. Her knees buckled immediately, but he’d apparently expected that, and held her up by main force.
Slate found her face pressed into his chest, which smelled very strongly of dust and metal and horse. Chain clinked. She got a powerful whiff of rosemary and sneezed wretchedly.
He sighed—she felt it more than heard it—held her up with one hand, and dug out a handkerchief with the other.
Her knees grudgingly admitted that they could probably hold up on their own now and she stepped away, clutching the handkerchief. “Thangkks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Do I get to do that?” asked Brenner snidely from horseback.
“Yes, actually,” said Caliban, coming around the side of Brenner’s horse.
Slate found that she still had the strength to snicker.
“Aww,” said Brenner, putting his arms around the knight’s neck. “I didn’t know you cared.”
“I really don't.”
The assassin’s knees also buckled when he hit the ground. The knight also held him upright. Slate wondered if he’d worn the same expression of stoic martyrdom when she’d been clinging to him.
He herded them both into the inn, like a sheepdog with a pair of bitter, bow-legged sheep. Twelve hours in the saddle and he’s not even limping. That bastard.
Brenner, fortunately, looked as if he might be permanently crippled. Slate approved of that. If she was miserable, someone else ought to be, too. She felt as if…no, the only metaphors that came to mind were mostly sexual and too disgusting to contemplate. Still.
They passed through the common room. Slate didn’t really see it. The sheepdog was still herding.
He stopped at last at the foot of the stairs, and gestured to his sheep. “Go up to your rooms, you two. I’ll have them send up trays.”
Slate looked up the stairs. There were quite a lot of them.
I could ask him to carry me. No, that’d be humiliating, and then he’d have to carry Brenner, too.
Actually, that’d almost be worth it. I wonder if he’d do it.
Behind her, the assassin turned away from the stairs and locked his fingers on the edges of the knight’s tabard. Caliban stared down at him, lip curled in something between pity and disgust.
“Send…beer…” Brenner rasped.
The knight pried his fingers loose. “I’ll see what I can do.”
They ascended the stairs like a pair of mountaineers tackling a cliff face.
“My legs will never close again,” she muttered.
“That would be music to my ears if I wasn’t dying,” said Brenner, a step below her.
“Do you think we’ll make it to Anuket City?”
“I don’t think I’ll make it to my room.”
Eventually, of course, they did make it. They got halfway down the hallway,
realized they didn’t know which rooms were theirs, and sagged together against the wall. Slate’s ankles, heretofore numb, started to make their presence known. She didn’t dare sit down, or she’d never stand up again.
“I think I hate him,” said Brenner conversationally, leaning against the wall next to her.
“I’m gettin’ there,” said Slate.
“I could kill him. He’s got to sleep sometime.”
“Then who’d get us off the horses tomorrow?”
Someone came up the hall. It was Learned Edmund, carrying a pack. He stared at them both down his nose.
“Are you two drunk?”
“Soon enough,” said Brenner.
“Do you know which rooms are ours?” asked Slate.
He pointed his thumbs at two opposite doors. Slate pushed herself away from the wall and picked one.
It was tiny. The tradehouse knew they had the monopoly on people waiting overnight for the ferry, and apparently had decided to capitalize on the fact.It had a bed big enough for one person, assuming they slept in fetal position, a basin, a window the size of an arrow slit, and a strip of floor. The bed was ancient, sagging, and would have required a team of skilled carpenters to achieve “decrepit.”
It looked wonderful.
Slate stepped in, shut the door behind her—whatever Learned Edmund had to say, she didn’t want to hear it—and crawled onto the bed. Then she arranged her legs by picking her thighs up with her hands and dropping them into position. Then she leaned back against the headboard and whimpered for a few minutes.
A few minutes later, the door opened. Caliban dropped her bags on the floor, said “I hope you realize I’m a knight, not a valet,” and left. She made an obscene gesture at his back.
Give the man a high horse and he thinks he can ride around on it. I should’ve left him in the cell.
The door opened again. It was Learned Edmund, who was trying not to look at her.
“The innkeeper wants money.”
Slate located her moneypurse and flung it at the scholar’s head. “Give him whatever he wants.”
“Give him whatever he wants, too.”
“Quite.” The scholar curled his lip and took himself off. The door shut.
A quarter of an hour later, someone knocked. Ah. They’re polite. That lets out anyone in our little band. “Come in,” Slate called cautiously.
A serving girl came in, dipped a little curtsy without disturbing anything on her tray, and handed her a wooden bowl of stew and a spoon.
Slate gabbled out something about undying love and large tips and barely restrained herself from planting her face directly into the stew.
The serving girl smiled, showing dimples, curtsied again, and slipped out.
Slate applied herself to the stew. A minute later the door banged open again, and she set the spoon aside and sighed.
It was Caliban again. He was carrying a single glass of wine. Slate’s eyes locked on it like a vulture spotting a carcass.
“With Brenner’s compliments,” he said dryly, handing it into the room. “He put something into it.”
“Was it poison?” she asked hopefully.
“I don’t think so.”
She took a sip, detected the faint machine-oil-and-flowers taste of poppy milk, and took a much larger sip. “Tell Brenner he can have my firstborn.”
“I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.” The door shut again.
Slate applied herself to wine and the stew. By the time she’d finished, the poppy milk and the alcohol were starting to take effect. Her legs still hurt, but she just didn’t give a damn. They were miles away, clear down at the other end of her body. Who needed ‘em, anyway?
Bless Brenner’s black little heart.
Maybe she wouldn’t bother to undress. Maybe she wouldn’t bother with her shoes. Maybe she’d go to sleep, right here…
The door crashed open again. “Just leave it open, for god’s sake,” she groused, glaring at the ceiling. “I don’t know why I even have a door.”
It was Caliban, yet again. He dropped a bedroll on the floor.
“What’re you doing?” she asked, sitting up. She was pleased to see that her hip joints worked again, although not without complaint.
“I’m sleeping in here.”
“The other room’s the same size as this one. We couldn’t fit two people on the floor unless we stacked them. The stables are full, Brenner’s threatening to put a dagger in the eye of anyone who tries to get him off the bed—and I believe him—and Learned Edmund is apparently afraid that if he sleeps on your floor, your feminine exhalations will cause his genitals to wither and his bowels to turn to water. That’s a direct quote, by the way.”
Slate discovered that she was giggling helplessly into her hands and stopped immediately. It had to be the poppy milk.
“That leaves me. If you need to get up in the middle of the night, try not to step on my head.”
“I suppose we could flip a coin for the bed,” she said, trying to be fair.
He gave her a withering look. “I realize, madam, that you do not think much of my knighthood, but chivalry is not that dead.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, annoyed.
Back to “madam” again. Swear to god, the man’s pricklier than a cactus with a rash.
In the time it took him to strip off his armor, she managed to get a boot off. One boot. The act of bending knee and hip joints to get her foot within range was torture, even with the poppy standing between her and the pain. She pulled the boot off, panted, and dropped it on the floor.
The end of her other foot seemed to be about a mile away. Possibly this was a task better carried out by homing pigeons.
Caliban dumped his armor in the corner, reached out, grabbed her foot and yanked. Hard. The other boot came off. She yelped.
“I’d like to get to bed sometime tonight,” he said testily. Her toes felt skinned.
“I thought you said temple paladins weren’t total bastards.”
“I said most of us weren’t.”
Slate shrugged out of her coat, decided to leave the rest of her clothes on—bugger if he was getting any thrills if he was going to be like that—and got under the covers. He dropped out of sight below the foot of the bed. A minute later, the candle went out.
“You better not snore,” she grumbled into the dark.
“I don’t snore.”
“I gibber in demonic tongues.”
About an hour later, some night-blooming weed opened up and she woke herself up sneezing.
She checked her pockets under the blankets. She knew for a fact that Caliban had handed her a handkerchief earlier. She couldn’t find it. Maybe it was in her coat, which was…somewhere in a pile of armor and saddlebags. Bugger.
Occasionally, in her weaker moments, Slate wondered if her worthless talent for smelling rosemary had been balanced out by a curse that kept her from staying in possession of anything to blow her nose for more than ten minutes.
There are many sensations worse than waking up in the night with your nose overflowing and your sinuses walled up like brick, but she couldn’t think of any at the moment. Slate clutched at her traitorous nose and moaned.
There was a rustle at the foot of the bed.
Something hit her in the face.
It was lightweight, and bounced off her hands. Slate flailed, dropped it, found it again, unfolded it, and discovered it was a small square of cotton fabric.
He’d thrown a handkerchief at her head.
“Thangghks,” she muttered. He didn’t say anything.
Well, it’s an odd sort of chivalry, I suppose, but maybe it’s not completely dead at that.
At some point a few hours after that, when the night was bleakest and blackest, Slate woke up because something by her feet was indeed gibbering in demonic tongues.
(Slate's experience with horses is drawn very much from life, and man, it felt good to get that out of my system. I haven't been on a horse since a lethal six-hour bareback ride in my youth, and y'know, I'm just fine with that.)