The Hero And The Crown Part One Chapter 9
SHE HAD ALMOST enough of the herb she had been worrying about. After dithering awhile and muttering to herself she decided to go ahead and make as much ointment as she had ingredients for, and fetch more tomorrow. It was a messy business, and her mind would keep jumping away from the necessary meticulousness; and she knocked over a pile of axe handles and was too impatient to pile them up again and so spent several hours tripping over them and stubbing her toes and using language she had picked up while listening to the sofor, and the thotor, who were even more colorful. Once she was hopping around on one foot and yelling epithets when her other foot was knocked out from under her as well by a treacherous rear assault from a fresh brigade of rolling lumber, and she fell and bit her tongue. This chastened her sufficiently that she finished her task without further incident.
She stared at the greasy unpleasant-looking mess in the shallow trough before her and thought, Well, so what do I do now? Build a fire and jump in? The only fireplaces big enough are all in heavily used rooms of the castle. Maybe a bonfire isn’t such a bad idea after all; but it will have to be far enough away that no one will come looking for the source of the smoke.
Meanwhile she did have enough of the kenet to fireproof both hands, and she made a small fire in the middle of the shed floor (out of broken axe handles) and held both hands, trembling slightly, in its heart – and nothing happened. The next day she went to fetch more herbs.
She decided at once that she would have to leave the City to try her bonfire; and she decided just as quickly that she had to take Talat. Kisha would be worse than a nuisance under such circumstances; at very least she would find the bonfire excuse enough to break either her halter rope or her neck in a declared panic attempt to bolt back toward the City.
Teka, however, did not like this plan at all. Teka was willing to accept that Aerin was a good rider, and might be permitted to leave the City alone for a few hours on her pony; but that she should want to go alone, overnight, with that vicious stallion – such an idea she was not willing to entertain. First she declared that Talat was too lame to go on such a journey; and when Aerin, annoyed, tried to convince her otherwise, Teka changed her ground and said that he was dangerous and Aerin couldn’t be certain of her ability to control him. Aerin was ready to weep with rage, and after several weeks of this (she having meanwhile made vast quantities of her kenet and almost set her hair on fire trying to test its effectiveness on various small bits of her anatomy), Teka had to realize that there was more to this than whim.
“You may go if your father says you may,” she said at last, heavily. “Talat is still his horse, and he has a right to decide what his future should be. I – I think he will be proud of what you’ve done with him.”
Aerin knew how much it cost Teka to say so, and her anger ebbed away and she felt ashamed of herself.
“The journey itself – I do not like it. It is not proper” – and here a smile touched the corners of Teka’s sad mouth – “but you will always be unusual, as your mother was, and she traveled alone as she chose, nor did your father ever try to hinder her. You are a woman grown, and past needing a nursemaid to judge your plans. If your father says you may go – well, then.”
Aerin went off and began to worry about how best to approach her father. She had known she would have to ask his permission at some point, but she had wanted to get Teka on her side first, and had misjudged how alarming the horse-shy Teka would find a war-stallion like Talat, even an elderly, rehabilitated, and good-natured war-stallion. Aerin’s own attitude toward Talat hadn’t been rational for years.
She brooded for days after Teka had withdrawn from the field of combat; but she brooded not only about how to tackle her father, but also about what, precisely, she was setting out to do. Test the fire-repellent properties of her discovery. Toward killing dragons. Did she realty want to kill dragons? Yes. Why? Pause. To be doing something. To be doing something better than anyone else was doing it.
She caught her father one day at breakfast, between ministers with tactical problems and councilors with strategic ones. His face lit up when he saw her, and she made an embarrassed mental note to seek him out more often; he was not a man who had ever been able to enter into a child’s games, but she might have noticed before this how wistfully he looked at her. But for perhaps the first time she was recognizing that wistfulness for what it was, the awkwardness of a father’s love for a daughter he doesn’t know how to talk to, not shame for what Aerin was, or could or could not do.
She smiled at him, and he gave her a cup of malak, and pushed the bun tray and the saha jam toward her. “Father,” she said through crumbs, “do you know I have been riding Talat?”
He looked at her thoughtfully. Hornmar had brought him this information some months back, adding that Talat had looked like pining away and dying before Aerin took him over. Arlbeth had wished that she might bring him the story herself; the sort of fears Teka had did not occur to him.
“Yes,” he said. “And I would have guessed something was up sooner or later when you stopped nagging me to get rid of Kisha and find you a real horse.”
Aerin had the grace to blush. “It’s been … quite a while. I didn’t think about what I was doing at first.”
Arlbeth was smiling. “I should like to see you ride him.”
Aerin swallowed. “You … would?”
“Er – soon?”
“As it pleases you, Aerin-sol,” he said gravely.
She nodded wordlessly.
She nodded again, picked up a second bun and looked at it.
“I have guessed that there is some purpose to your joining me at breakfast,” Arlbeth said, as she showed no sign of breaking the silence, “a purpose beyond telling me of something that has been going on for years without your troubling me with it. It has perhaps to do further with Talat?”
She looked up, startled.
“We kings do develop a certain ability to recognize objects under our noses. Well?”
“I should like to ride Talat out of the City. A day’s ride out – sleep overnight, outside. Come back the next day.” She was sorry about the bun, now; it made her mouth dry.
“Ah. I recommend you go east and south – you might follow the Tsa, which will provide you with water as well as preventing you from getting lost.”
“The river? Yes. I’d thought – I’d already thought of that.” Her fingers were crumbling the rest of the bun to tiny bits.
“Good for you. I assume you planned to go soon?”
“I – yes. You mean you’ll let me?”
“Let you? Of course. There’s little within a day’s ride of the City that will harm you.” Momentarily his face hardened. Time had once been, before the loss of the Crown, that any sword drawn in anger within many miles of the City would rebound on the air, twist out of its wielder’s hands, and fall to the earth. “Talat will take care of you. He took excellent care of me.”
“Yes. Yes, he will.” She stood up, looked at the mess on (and around) her plate, looked at her father. “Thank you.”
He smiled. “I will see you tomorrow. Mid-afternoon.”
She nodded, gave him a stricken smile, and fled. One of the hafor appeared to remove her plate and brush the crumbs away.
Aerin was early at Talat’s pasture the next morning. She groomed him till her arms ached, and he loved every minute of it; he preferred being fussed over even to eating.
Maybe she should hang a bridle on him. She’d mended the cut rein on his old bridle the night before, and brought it with her today. But when she offered the bit to him – he who had so eagerly seized it two years before, knowing that it meant he would be really ridden again – he looked at it and then at her with obvious bewilderment, and hurt feelings. He suffered her to lift the bar into his mouth and pull the straps over his ears, but he stood with his head drooping unhappily.
“All right” she said, and ripped the thing off him again, and dropped it on the ground, and picked up the little piece of padded cloth that passed for a saddle and dropped it on his back. He twisted his head around and nibbled the hem of her tunic, rolling his eye at her to see if she was really angry. When she didn’t knock his face away he was reassured, and waited patiently while she arranged and rearranged the royal breastplate to her liking.
Arlbeth came before she expected him. Talat had felt the tension in her as soon as she mounted, but he had cheered her into a good mood again by being himself, and they were weaving nonchalantly around several tall young trees at a canter when she noticed Arlbeth standing on the far side of the stream that ran through the meadow. They forded the water and then halted, and Arlbeth gave them the salute of a soldier to his sovereign, and she blushed.
He nodded at Talat’s bare head. “I’m not sure this would be such a good idea with another horse, but with him …” He paused and looked thoughtful, and Aerin held her breath for fear he would ask her how it had begun, for she hadn’t decided what to tell him. He said only: “It could be useful to have no reins to handle; but I’m not sure even our best horses are up to such a level of training.” His eyes then dropped to Aerin’s feet. “That’s a very pretty way to ride, with your legs wrapped around his belly, but the first pike that came along would knock you right out of the saddle.”
“You’re not in battle most of the time,” Aerin said boldly, “and you could build a special war saddle with a high pommel and cantle.”
Arlbeth laughed, and Aerin decided that they had passed their test. “I can see he likes your new way.”
Aerin grinned. “Pick up the bridle and show it to him.”
Arlbeth did, and Talat laid back his ears and turned his head away. But when Arlbeth dropped it, Talat turned back and thrust his nose into the breast of his old master, and Arlbeth stroked him and murmured something Aerin could not hear.
Talat did not like the fire ointment at all. He pranced and sidled and slithered out of reach and flared his nostrils and snorted, little rolling huff-huff-huffs, when she tried to rub it on him. “It smells like herbs!” she said, exasperated; “And it will probably do your coat good; it’s just like the oil Hornmar put on you to make you gleam.”
He continued to sidle, and Aerin said through clenched teeth: “I’ll tie you up if you’re not good.” But Talat, after several days of being chased, step by step and sidle by sidle, around his pasture, decided that his new master was in earnest; and the next time Aerin ran him up against the fence, instead of eluding her again, he stood still and let his doom overtake him.
They went on their overnight journey a fortnight after Arlbeth had watched them work together, by which time Talat had permitted Aerin – sometimes with more grace than other times – to rub her yellow grease all over him. Aerin hoped it would be a warm night since most of what looked like a roll of blankets hung behind her saddle was a sausage-shaped skin of kenet.
They started before dawn had turned to day, and Aerin pushed Talat along fairly briskly, that they might still have several hours of daylight left when they made camp. There was a trail beside the little river, wide enough for a horse but too narrow for wagons, and this they followed; Aerin wished to be close to a large quantity of water when she tried her experiment; and not getting lost was an added benefit.
She made camp not long after noon. She unrolled the bundle that had looked like bedding and first removed the leather tunic and leggings she’d made for herself and let soak in a shallow basin of the yellow ointment for the last several weeks. She’d tried setting fire to her suit yesterday, and the fire, however vigorous it was as a torch, had gone out instantly when it touched a greasy sleeve. The suit wasn’t very comfortable to wear; it was too sloppy and sloshy, and as she bound up her hair and stuffed it into a greasy helmet she thought with dread of washing the stuff off herself afterward.
She built up a big bonfire, and then smeared kenet over her face, and last pulled on her gauntlets. She stood by the flames, now leaping up over her head, and listened to her heart beating too quickly. She crept into the fire like a reluctant swimmer into cold water; first a hand, then a foot. Then she took a deep breath, hoped that her eyelashes were greasy enough, and stepped directly into the flame.
Talat came up to the edge of the fire and snorted anxiously. The fire was pleasantly warm – pleasantly. It tapped at her face and hands with cheerful friendliness and the best of good will; it murmured and snapped in her ears; it wrapped its flames around her like the arms of a lover.
She leaped out of the fire and gasped for breath.
She turned back again and looked at the fire. Yes, it was a real fire; it burned on, unconcerned, although her booted feet had disarranged it somewhat.
Talat thrust a worried nose into her neck. “Your turn,” she said. “Little do you know.”
Little did he know indeed, and this was the part that worried her the most. Talat was not going to walk into a bonfire and stand there till she told him to come out again. She’d already figured out that for her future dragon-slaying purposes, since dragons were pretty small, Talat could get away with just his chest and legs and belly protected. But she would prefer to find out now – and to let him know – that the yellow stuff he objected to did have an important use.
She reached up to feel her eyelashes and was relieved to discover that they were still there. Talat was blowing at her anxiously – she realized, light-headedly, that in some odd way she now smelted of fire – and when she swept up a handful of kenet he eluded her so positively that for a bad moment she thought she might have to walk home. But he let her approach him finally and, after most of his front half was yellowish and shiny, permitted her to lead him back to the fire.
And he stood unmoving when she picked up a flaming branch and walked toward him. And still stood when she held the branch low before him and let little flames lick at his knees.
Kenet worked on horses too.