12-A Wager

“Ayglos,” I prodded my brother. “Wake up.”

The gray of dawn was spilling into the shadowy places of the woods: I’d slept longer than I intended and we really need to hurry if we were to return before Namal worried. Gabe was on watch, and watching me curiously as I poked my older brother until he opened his eyes and gave me an evil look. “I need your help, come on,” I persisted.

Ayglos sat up and stretched. “What’s going on?” he looked around at our sleeping companions.

“Quill can’t walk like we did yesterday—his leg needs rest!”

“Yes, so? We also need an army and perhaps the help of the Engla.” Ayglos’ voice was thick with sleep and irritation.

I made face, “Quill’s problem is much more easily addressed.”

“Oh?” Ayglos squeezed both hands against his face, as if he were physically pushing his weariness back inside.

I nodded. “Horses.”

Ayglos split his fingers and peered out at me is if he were checking to see if I were serious. “And where are we getting horses?” he asked slowly.

“There are a number of horse farms surrounding Gillenwater.” Obviously. I might have been enjoying his consternation.

“Many of which provide horses to Hirhel,” he replied.

“That hardly matters—it’s not like they have a choice.” I leaned closer, “I have a plan.”

Ayglos lowered his hands and considered me for a moment. “Alright,” he relented. “This had better not take long.”

I didn’t even try to hide my grin as we gathered ourselves up and told Gabe we would be back soon. The circus hand touched his head in salute as we left. Ayglos began to jog and I picked up pace to keep up. “I hope you know of a farm nearby.”

“I do.” I had noticed plenty of horse farms on the journey with the caravan yesterday. Once we dropped out of the forested parts we should have our pick.

“So what’s your plan, exactly?” asked my brother.

“Well, every farm has to have a couple horses they would like to get rid of. We’ll take them off their hands.”

“Are we borrowing or stealing? Because unless you’ve been picking pockets all day we certainly aren’t buying anything.”

“Even if I had, whatever I could afford might need to be carried more than Quill does!”

Ayglos snorted. “Very likely so.”

He fell silent and we jogged down the road to the sounds of birds greeting the sun. Ayglos’s morning preference for solitude and quiet outweighed his desire to know my plan. I didn’t mind. It was a tenuous plan, full of risks. I only hoped the first farm we found would have suitable horses.

We came to a stone wall topped with wood beams. I remembered seeing a large herd in this field yesterday when we came through with the caravan. In a moment we came to a break in the fence line and a narrow lane leading in between the fields. I led the way off the main road and down the lane. The gray morning mist was getting lighter and the landscape was shifting to a rich green. We kept up our jog. This was either a proper road, or a very large farm, I decided. Finally we saw buildings on our left. Corrals, a barn—perhaps a manor house behind that. Another break in the fence gave another narrow lane, this one leading straight to the farm.

We could see people bustling about the barn. Ayglos slowed. “Plan?”

“We’re pilgrims,” I told him, “We’ve been robbed, and one of our number was injured. We lost our pack horse. We need a horse.”

“And they’re supposed to just give it to us?” Ayglos slowed to a walk, admirably restraining the irritation in his voice.

“No. Remember I’m taking the ones they don’t want.”

He looked at me for a second and then understood. “Oh…great.” He sighed, but we kept walking.

“I’ve done it before,” I added. A little hurt by his lack of enthusiasm.

Ayglos grunted. “That’s why we’re not turning around.”

When we got close to the barn a wiry older man came out to meet us. “You’d best be moving on unless you’re looking for hard work with nearly no pay,” he announced when we were in earshot. “We don’t give handouts.”

“We’re not here for handouts,” replied Ayglos—dropping his grumpy morning manner like a cloak in spring. “We have a proposition.”

“Don’t take threats, neither,” said the older man, squinting as we approached. His hair was gray and as wiry as the rest of him. His worn breeches and scuffed boots said that he spent a great deal of time on horseback.

“No threats,” Ayglos held out his hands, palms up, as we came the last few feet to the Head Groom—he could be no one else.

The Head Groom sized us up. “Well, out with it.”

“We are pilgrims,” began Ayglos.

“I can see that,” cut in the groom drily.

“—and we were robbed on the road,” continued Ayglos, unshaken, “out pack horse was stolen and one of our companions was injured.”

“I told you we don’t give handouts,” retorted the groom.

“Our companion cannot make the journey on foot, so we are in search of a horse,” finished Ayglos, ignoring the interruption. “We cannot afford to pay, and know well the value of a beast so we do not ask for charity.”

The Head Groom squinted harder at us. Since we’d ruled out threats and charity, what else was left?

I spoke, “So we’ll place a wager: If I can tame your most difficult horse within an hour, it belongs to me. If I cannot, we leave you in peace.”

The Head Groom laughed, “You can’t be serious.”

Ayglos crossed his arms. “Are you going to take the wager or not?”

Laughter drained from the groom’s face, leaving astonishment, then cynicism. He pointed at me, “If you get hurt or killed, your blood is on your own head.” He turned on his heel and headed into the barn. “Come on,” he cackled, “I gotta see this.”

Both Ayglos and I drew deep breaths as we followed the groom into the barn. I appreciated that my brother said nothing. Having done it before didn’t mean I could do it again with whatever monster the groom had boxed up back here. But I had to try.

*

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