This would be their first night under the open stars again. Now that they were on their way back to the Illyth, Rick could hardly contain himself. He was anxious to hone his skill with the sword even more and hoped he merited being placed in Fourth Cycle. Though if he really was honest with himself, he thought as he checked the saddle on Emanuella’s gray mare Squall and finally on his own as yet unnamed mare, he was most interested in learning to throw those knives with some measure of proficiency.
Satisfied, he nodded at the stable boy and tossed him a copper. The boy had done nothing, of course, other than feed and water the horses overnight, but Rick hated to make the lad feel as though he didn’t trust him. He just preferred to see some things done himself. He brushed remnants of saddle leather off on his tunic and stopped to stomp the dirt from his boots before he re-entered the Golden Coin. The next time he’d be in Tillabeth, he’d be on his way to –
A large man stalked past him, shouldering him aside. Rick staggered against the wall, off balance. Glaring briefly behind him at the richly attired man and his attendant who had rudely demanded passage, Rick wisely said nothing and shook the other boot free of stable muck.
“I’ll take that one, that one, and…. Why not. That gray one looks as if she’ll do. Now, boy!” the man’s voice boomed.
Rick’s hand on the doorknob faltered and he turned. The stable hand, all of eleven Cycles, was intimidated into opening a horse’s stall with a shaking hand. Rick stared. Dar’s stallion was being led out.
He walked up quietly and leaned against a stable beam. “And what’s this about?”
The man turned at Rick’s voice. He was sturdily built and compact, easily Rick’s height, with dark red hair and cold blue eyes. A sharply curved scar traversed his left cheek, giving Rick pause for thought on its reception. The man’s eyes narrowed as he peered down his nose imperiously at Rick. “Nothing of your concern, peasant.” He wore a crimson tunic embroidered with a badge that bore a coat of arms, but he turned too quickly in a dismissive gesture for Rick to identify it.
Rick took a deep breath and wished he had kyor’rishtan to call for assistance. Where was Gabriella when you needed her?
“Well, my friend, since I am neither a peasant nor are these your horses, I think it is my concern.” Stars in the sky, what was he getting himself into?
The large man turned again, as if surprised to see him, in the way a man is surprised to see a fly he thought to have effectively waved away.
He took Rick in, from boots to tunic. “Peasant or not, such horses are not in your possession and I suggest you take your leave before I decide to take your insolence in hand.” He snapped at the stable boy, who had stopped to goggle at this exchange, to hasten about his job.
Rick ground his teeth but kept his expression calm, almost mocking. The man was perhaps four or five years his senior and Rick would wager he was no highborn, not with a badge on his chest. A mere soldier. He hoped his sword was loose in his scabbard, should it come to such an end. Seconds could be lost to a stuck sword, and those seconds might be his life.
“As a matter of fact, friend, those horses do belong to me. I just purchased them at Spring Market. And I’ll thank you for not stealing them as a common horse thief might.” Rick felt a rivulet of sweat trickle down his neck into his tunic. Now he’d done it.
The man’s attendant gaped, his mouth open as he turned slowly to see the soldier. The soldier’s face flushed darkly. “I am claiming these horses for the Riders of Rumeth and you will be duly recompensed as my sovereign sees fit!”
“No. You won’t,” replied Rick quietly but firmly.
“You would refuse a Rider of Rumeth!” The Rider flushed even darker, wholly incensed now.
Rick took a breath and put as much condescension in his voice as he felt fear. “Let me explain the finer points of property ownership. I bought and paid for these horses not two days ago, my friend, and I intend to keep them. You have not offered so much as a sterling of their worth, nor even a by-your-leave. Further, your sovereign hasn’t such a far reach that even he can intimidate me into giving up my horses to the likes of you some thousands of leagues away.”
Rick was quite amazed at the confidence he heard in his voice - if the man didn’t run him through, he’d have to challenge Emanuella for resident actor.
The soldier’s eyes narrowed as he said slyly, “The City Magistrate may see it differently, my arrogant friend. You’ll be swinging within the mark!”
Rick shrugged. “Promises make fools happy,” he said sadly, as the soldier strode past Rick, his attendant in tow. As soon as the man disappeared into the inn, leaving him alone, Rick banged his head on the beam. “Idiot!”
“We’ve been trying to tell you that, you’re just now catching on?”
Fiorra. Rick rushed over to her and grabbed her hands. Her smile faded as she perceived his urgency. “Rick, what –”
“We’ve got to get out of here. I’m about to be hung!”
“What? You’re joking.”
“No. That man in red you just saw inside?”
“The rude one who ran into me? What a – ”
“Yes, yes, he wants me hung. He’s a Rider of Rumeth, he wanted to take our horses, and I told him he couldn’t, I guess he’s not used to rejection and now he’s going to the City Magistrate to get me hung! Tell Gabriella and the others to get down here and let’s go!”
Fiorra turned to leave.
“No!” Rick caught her wrist. She looked at him, annoyed. He tapped his head. “With this.”
Within moments Ander flew through the door and began chanting at him. Rick stared at him for a moment and glanced at Fiorra. “What’s he doing?”
“Sh. He’s enchanting you. Oh!” She smiled suddenly.
“Shut up and get the horses out of their stalls. You,” Ander called. A wide-eyed stable boy emerged from an empty stall. “Do you have family here?”
“Do you like your job here?”
The boy shrugged. “’S’okay. The roof leaks a bit, and the master gets a bit drunk. But I like the horses an’ the iros.”
Ander held out to him a purse and before the boy’s astonished eyes dropped a small handful of coppers and three sterlings in it, more money than the boy would have amassed in several Cycles. “If you take the road north, you’ll find yourself in Terruth City. There are finer inns there and better prospects for a boy like you. Keep the coppers for eating on until you find another job and the sterlings you hide away to get something special of your own some day. Put it inside your trousers, so no one will think you stole it, and guard it well. Now go, and not a word about what happened in here. I’ll know if you say anything to anyone. Carefully now, don’t look suspicious. Good luck to you.” He patted the boy on the shoulder. The boy’s eyes were as big as they could be, but he needed no further urging. He turned and trotted out the back door of the stable.
Rick, impressed with the handling of the stable boy, wanted nevertheless to know why Emanuella and Dar were having a hard time keeping straight faces.
“What did you turn me into!” he hissed suddenly to Ander. He looked down at himself and saw only himself, but Fiorra had giggled outright several times.
Ander allowed himself a tight grin. “You remember that serving wench from The Pearl in Velvet?”
Rick’s stomach hit the ground as his mouth fell open. “You didn’t.”
Ander shrugged. “She was the first person who came to mind. I think I did pretty well under pressure, don’t you?” He looked around at the others, who had all broken into grins and chuckles. Rick grabbed Ander by the neck of the tunic.
Gabriella. Rick groaned and let Ander go. “Have we picked up a new companion?” She permitted herself a small smile before she turned to busy herself with the horses. Abruptly, Squall became a swaybacked dun-colored mare of advanced age. Emanuella herself became an old grandmother, wizened and wrapped in a gray woolen shawl, since she herself was also remarkable with her exotic Kin’keska looks. She scowled, realizing the Illusion that had taken place.
Dar’s horse became a tired old plow horse, though Dar himself looked nothing like a farmer. Fiorra’s horse became an iro, much like Rasha, whom they had traded to Javversten with the other iros they’d brought to the Market. Gabriella’s horse became an iro as well, and Ander’s became a dapple gray about to foal. The wagon, which Rick had already loaded this morning with the supplies they’d purchased in Terruth City, became a small ramshackle cart that she told Dar to hitch to his stallion. For a small distance, he would be able to haul it alone. Gabriella looked then at Ander.
“Would you like to complete the look, since you began it?” she asked, looking at Rick with a mocking smile.
Ander looked at Rick’s mare. He took a deep breath and began incanting. Obviously, he was not as quick at Illusions as Gabriella was yet, but if everyone’s reactions were anything to go by, he was certainly as good at them. And then his lovely little chestnut mare became a mule. Rick’s eyes narrowed as he clambered atop his beast. He supposed he deserved this.
They arranged to leave two by twos, with Dar bringing up the rear, a halfmark separating their departure from Tillabeth’s West Gate. Rick passed by a store window and discovered that Ander was indeed growing quite proficient at his trade. His blonde hair was artfully arranged so that it framed his pink face and his blue eyes all but invited an amorous tryst. His creamy shoulders were exposed to advantage above full breasts that threatened to tumble out of his garish red dress with each plod of his horse – or should he say mule. He endured the knowing looks of the men and women of Tillabeth with sour distaste and vowed anew to throttle Ander for his choice in Illusions.
By the time Rick passed through the West Gate, a score of Rumeth Riders had galloped past him and back, assuredly relaying his description with the orders to detain him as well as any horses that fit the description of those seen in the stable that morning. The Gate Guards leered at him and the one on the left made a suggestive gesture with his tongue.
“Come on back, yendra, and I’ll give you something better to ride!” They laughed raucously. Rick burned with the need to flatten their noses as he glared at them over his shoulder, but an unobtrusive clearing of the throat from Fiorra a few paces back reminded him to hold his tongue.
Finally, Rick reached the lake they had camped next to on their way to Tillabeth which they had hastily agreed this morning as a good place to turn off and head east to the Illyth. He nudged his surprised mare off the road and walked her to the lake to let her drink while he waited for Fiorra to catch up. Stretching, he relaxed a little and glared at his reflection in the water as he filled his waterskin.
“What convinced you to do such a thing! Those were Riders of Rumeth!” Gabriella wanted to know. She had saved the accounting for until they were all safe and together, though the dread building up in him had somehow made it worse.
“He was going to take our horses!” he replied angrily in defense.
“Horses can be replaced,” she growled.
“But he has no right to come in and just take people’s horses. He’s not even in Rumeth. He says his king is going to pay us for them, but I doubt that ever happens! You know how much paperwork that would entail? How many good, honest people have come out to their stables and found their horses gone and some poor stable hand has to say, ‘A Rider of Rumeth took it.’ How many people can afford to buy a new horse? How many people are ever compensated for their loss? And why is everyone so afraid of these stupid Riders? Rumeth is just one country in an entire Land. People everywhere are supposed to bow down to these Riders? I’ll wager Rumethians don’t bow down to Pendymyonon’s soldiers, nor give them horses when they want fresh ones!” Rick stopped and took a breath. He braced himself for the tongue lashing he now knew was coming. His cursed mouth got him in the most foul predicaments.
Gabriella leaned against the wagon, now free of its shabby Illusion, and studied him for a moment. He glared back at her defiantly. What else did he have to lose?
Finally, she said, “This sense of – justice – you must learn to outgrow it. You have brought it with you from whence you came. It does not exist here as such. Believing in such an idealistic form of justice will bring you nothing but pain. And trouble,” she added, a faint smile touched her lips.
Rick would not accept this. “So I should just allow people to walk all over me, have their way with me, steal my belongings, kill my loved ones, because there is no justice anyway,” he snarled.
“Have a care,” Gabriella warned him, her green eyes dangerous.
Rick swung his blazing gaze to the ground, not wishing to provoke her.
“Understand that there is justice – simply not to the extent to which you are accustomed. You must blend the idealism of your old land with the reality of your new one. Think on it.”
They broke for camp as soon as they reached the forest line of the Illyth, though there was still another mark of travel time left in the day. Dar’s stallion had pulled a heavy load alone and deserved a good rest, as did Gabriella and Ander, who had used up a fair amount of their resources on multiple Illusions. Emanuella, who had missed her zary’andu fiercely, was even now in his company, hunting tonight’s dinner together, after a touching and, he suspected, tearful reunion. Fiorra was off in a patch of sunlight categorizing her new herb collection while Gabriella and Ander both napped, replenishing their energy stores. Which left him chopping vegetables for the stew. Stew was an appropriate dish for tonight’s repast, he thought miserably, since he was still seething over the whole situation.
Dar sat down next to him. “Stop sulking.” He handed him a small tankard of the cider they’d brought back from Terruth City. He accepted it wordlessly and took a few gulps. Dar picked up some carrots and started cutting them up. After a while, he said, “You know, for what it’s worth, I thought what you did was great. I wish I’d been there to see it.”
“Thank you, brother.” Rick paused and wondered what the scene would have looked like to a spectator’s eyes. He related the brief encounter to Dar, leaving nothing out.
Dar grinned widely. “So you told him to go hang himself and he decided to have you hung instead.” He chuckled.
Rick relaxed a little and grinned back. “A mouth is a terrible thing to waste.”
Dar smiled at the gibe, then sobered. “You really should be careful. It’s a whole new game here. Running your mouth here will get you in more trouble here than it did before. Hung, in fact. But you know that now.”
Rick lifted his eyebrows in a tell-me-about-it gesture and he nodded. “I consider myself warned.” He clanked tankards with Dar’s. He wouldn’t soon forget the image he’d had of himself swinging from the end of a rope in the gallows of Tillabeth Square as the Rumeth Rider had stomped out of the stable.
This marked the second occasion he’d danced with Death and lived to tell about it. He had barely been in this Land a full Cycle. And he was not a dancing man.