13-Hook, Line, and Sinker

Galhara was a coastal city that had never been known for its horses—but I had. From childhood I spent as much time with them as I could, and had been known to do really stupid things like wander off and climb on any horse I met in the field. I did not differentiate between trained or untrained. If I wanted to ride a horse I convinced it to let me—usually with nothing more than a rope and patience. Some horses were easier than others, but they all obliged eventually. I, of course, had no idea this wasn’t normal until I was older and people started petitioning the king to let me to help them with their difficult animals.

The Head Groom’s monster was a spectacle in motion with a glossy black coat and a smart eye. He blustered along, tossing his head and threatening to rear every couple steps, barely restrained by the young groom trying to lead him into the corral. He was a fairly young horse—probably five or six years of age—with a well-shaped, muscular body and natural pride in each floating step. And you got an eyeful, too, because once the groom got him into the corral he pulled free and bolted. The other grooms rushed to close the gate—and the hapless handler climbed over it. Leaving me in the corral with a horse who obviously didn’t want to be around people.

“He was shipped here with a couple other horses because the marquis was looking to add some black to his stock,” explained the Head Groom. “None of the lot came with manners at all. We’ve not saddle broken a single one, on account of their wildness, and he’s the worst of them. He’s snapped quite a number of ropes around here—and nearly some hands, too.”

I nodded, keeping my eyes on the horse. Easy enough to believe. Especially two feet of broken lead rope hanging off the horse’s halter. He tore around the circular paddock with his head up, blowing hard at the people on the fence line. He was trying to ignore me, but kept flicking a curious ear in my direction almost in spite of himself. When the black broke stride I’d flap my arms and he’d pick up pace again. We might spend our hour doing this alone, I thought ruefully. I willed myself to forget about time and focus on the colt. Occasionally I’d dart ahead him to make him change his direction—which he didn’t totally appreciate—but mostly I waited. The black was stubborn and brave—they would be good qualities eventually, but for now they kept him running at a steady pace around and around the pen. I hoped he wouldn’t decide to make a day of it. I would feel the miles before he would, and I was already tired. I thoroughly lost track of time—it was just me and the circling black horse—forever in a contest of authority.

Before I expected it, he dropped his head. His jaw relaxed and his flicking ear settled on me attentively.

“That’s it, I’m not going to hurt you,” abruptly I turned away from him, and waited some more. He stopped running the moment I turned away and I listened to him come up behind me at a cautious walk. After a moment’s consideration, he came close and puffed out a breath by my ear. I swiveled and reached a hand to rub his face. He shuddered, but stayed put.

I took a step away from him and he followed. Hooked. I smiled and took a few more steps. He kept following. I stopped and rubbed his forehead again. He sighed heavily, as if the weight of a thousand fat men was slipping off him. “I’ll call you Hook,” I told him.

He didn’t object.

He didn’t object to the saddle and bridle either, nor the rider—though he gave me some extremely skeptical looks. When I slid off his back, Ayglos and the Head Groom entered the round pen.

The Head Groom looked stunned. “If I didn’t know the horse, and didn’t watch you the whole time, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

I patted Hook. “How long did that take?” I asked, pretty sure it was two or three hours of work—at least—could have been all day for all I knew.

“An hour exactly,” replied Ayglos with a lopsided grin.


The Head Groom wiped his forehead. “Really…” He looked the horse up and down. “I guess he’s yours.”

If we didn’t need a horse so badly, the mourning in the groom’s voice would have persuaded me to give my prize back. But Hook was mine, now. The Groom would have to deal with the wrath of the marquis himself if there was wrath to be had.

I stuffed my hands in my pockets. “Have anyone else I can take off your hands?”

By the time Ayglos and I were headed back up the road I’d claimed two more of the useless money eaters from the farm; an impish donkey I’d dubbed Line, for the dorsal stripe and the cross bar on his back, and an aging draft who at this point simply needed to be named Sinker. I wasn’t sure why the Groom was parting with the draft, but it was easy enough to imagine why he would let go the devilish donkey—I overheard something about unlocking all doors and gates.

I rode Hook, Ayglos rode Sinker, and Line trotted along behind us, gamely keeping up with the larger horses. It was late morning, by now, but hopefully our success would convince the others to forgive us the delay. Particularly Namal.


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.