HALF HORSE BOOK 1 CHAPTER 3
CHAPTER 3... A BAD BARGAIN
Frozen for a moment by the suddenness of the sound, Sierra heard Pobey's voice rise above the squealing of a quinolan, the jingle of harness buckles and the clatter of hoofs on stone. At first the man seemed to be giving loud commands then they changed to incoherent yells of fright. Nicoy began to run. He followed close behind her to the door of the grooming room.
The scene that met their gaze, when they looked in, was as bad as it sounded- the old groom was lying on the floor entangled in a mesh of ropes and harness, one hand gripping the edge of the grooming platform, the other raised over his head to protect it from what appeared to be a frenzied attack by a large, grey horse who was screaming and hitting out blindly at everything around him, scattering brushes, pots of cream and jars of oil.
Nicoy gave a cry of horror and dashed to the man’s defence, fending off the horse with one hand as she sought to pull away pieces of harness with the other.
“I'm all right, Nicoy,” Pobey said. “I'm all right. It's not as bad as it looks. Grab the grey. He's only frightened.”
Sierra realised that he was right. The horse wasn't attacking- he was waving his arms wildly as he tried to divest himself of some pieces of harness that were tangled around his head and shoulders. He was terrified and in danger of not only hurting the woman and the old man, but also himself. Sierra could see his hoofs slipping on the spilled oil. If he made one more step backwards there was a very good chance he would fall and break a limb. Even if two legged horses weren’t shot if they broke a leg, he was certain it was not a pleasant thing to have happen.
Without a thought for the danger to himself he dashed into the room and lunged toward the grey horse. Ignoring Nicoy’s command to get away he wrapped his arms around the horse’s chest and pressed him back toward the bench that ran along the long wall.
“It’s all right,” he said as the horse bumped against the bench, lost his balance and sat down with a thud. Sierra peeled away the pieces of harness that seemed to be causing him such distress. “See, it’s gone now. It’s all right. Take it easy.”
To his relief- and probably Nicoy’s too- the grey calmed down immediately and stopped waving his arms.
“Good job,” Nicoy said, “Now quickly, step back from him. I don’t want you hurt.”
Sierra gave the grey a nod of reassurance and moved away.
“He’s only frightened,” Pobey repeated as he accepted a hand from Nicoy and got to his feet. “Don’t be angry with him. It’s my fault. Something about this stuff set him off. If I’d known I wouldn’t have asked him to hold it.”
“What were you doing with it in the first place?” Nicoy asked. “You weren’t trying to put it on him were you?”
“No,” the man said scornfully. “It should have been thrown out years ago. It was on top of the cupboard along with a box of stiff brushes. I needed something stiffer than our usual brushes for his tangled coat. It was like trying to brush felt. The old harness was in the way. I handed it down to him. I was going to ask him to put it out into the courtyard so that I could get rid of it later. The next moment he went wild- howling and flinging his arms about like a dimong in a windstorm. He knocked my legs out from under me. The chair went one way and I went the other. The harness went up in the air and came down on top of us, and... well... you saw the result.”
“Yes,” Nicoy said fixing a steady gaze on Rignoh. “And a bigger mess I hope never to see again.”
Rignoh's ears drooped, his head and shoulders drooped and his tail dragged in the dust. He looked so much like a little boy with his hand caught in the lolly jar that Sierra could not suppress a wicker of mirth. Pobey also smiled as he looked at Rignoh. When his gaze met Sierra’s they both began to laugh.
Nicoy was annoyed.
“This is not funny,” she said, giving them a stern look. Her words only served to make them laugh all the more. “This is nothing to laugh about,” she repeated but her own mouth threatened to turn her into a liar when she had to purse it to stop a smile from breaking out. To hide it she turned to make an inspection of the cause of the trouble.
The grey bargain was still sitting on the wall bench. He still looked frightened but his ears were no longer back. They had come forward as he began to show an interest in what was going on. She felt a moment of sympathy for him but kept her expression serious as she looked him up and down. He was a strong looking horse, with a thick mane and tail both spoilt by having been haphazardly cut at some time. His dark eyes were bright though still wary. She wondered what kind of job he’d had before he became a work horse. Not a racer, he was too heavy for it, though he looked as if he could be quite fast if he cared to be. It was possible he'd been a jump racer; certainly he was built for the rigours of that demanding sport.
As she walked towards him she was pleased to note that although he put his ears back he didn't flatten them to his skull the way Rignoh did when he was angry or frightened. Poor Rignoh. No wonder he could never resist getting a bargain horse who looked half way decent. He'd been one himself, she recalled. Thoje had bought him, along with Cresta because the two refused to be separated. She thought she was getting a real bargain with two horses for the price of one, but she soon found him to be so hopelessly bad tempered and wild that she regretted her purchase and had been about to send them both back to oku when Nicoy stepped in.
Promising the pair they would not be permanently parted and could see each other every day, she'd taken Rignoh to Tara Hi and with much love and patience- and a lot of humour- had won him over. Out of a useless, unwanted horse she had obtained a lively, loyal and reasonably trustworthy servant.
Looking round she saw him engaged in conversation with Sierra. His ears and head were up and he looked as ready for mischief as ever. There was a good chance he had already forgotten she was angry with him. That was typical of quinolans- they forgave and forgot very quickly. It made dealing with them a delight sometimes; at other times, an exercise in teeth-grinding frustration. She took the master key from the rack and removed the grey’s headstrap. He did not flinch or show any sign of anger but he did treat her to a sullen glare when she asked for his name. With a shrug she tugged on his arm to get him up off the bench then gently pushed him in the direction of the other two horses.
“I have to go now. Gwanee will miss his race if I delay much longer. Rignoh, why don't you show Sierra the swimming pool. Take nameless with you and see if you can get him to relax. I'll sort out this mess when I get back.” She turned to the man. “Pobey, are you sure you’re all right?”
Sierra heard the groom assuring the woman that he was fine as he went with Rignoh and the grey, across the courtyard to the path which led to the pool.
It was not, as he had imagined, an oblong pool surrounded by tiles, but a curved shape surrounded by rocks and lawn with small streams trickling into it from sources hidden among the foliage. It even a small island in the middle. If not for the smooth stone slabs on its sides and bottom he would have mistaken it for a natural lake. Rignoh shed his harness in a flurry of purple leather and jumped into the water, leaving the other two standing on the bank. The grey horse sat down. Sierra felt the sting of the yellow sun on the black fur of his head and looked longingly at the water, but sat down beside the grey.
“What upset you back there?” he asked. “Can you tell me?” The horse looked at him with scorn in his eyes and in the twist of his lips.
“You wouldn't understand,” he said in a deep, vibrant voice. “Especially you- a pampered, prized black. I'll bet you've never wanted for anything in your life.”
Sierra said “Hah!” so loudly the grey jumped. More softly he went on: “Where I came from, having black hair was neither rare nor prized. I was not wanted by my only relative, I was untrained and I moved from job to job for some time before I found a place to stay and the one and only person who ever cared anything about me.”
“Where did you come from?”
“From the southern jungles.”
“What's there? I didn't think anyone lived that far down.”
“I was a wildie.”
“Rama don't have jobs!”
“My kind did,” Sierra said, feeling uncomfortable and thinking he must try to get hold of a map of this country and some books on culture and history so he could understand it better.
The grey looked sullen and stubborn for a moment and Sierra thought he might not want to talk any more, but it seemed that his curiosity overcame his hostility. His ears came forward again and his expression relaxed as he asked: “How did you get here? Why did you leave your home?”
“I travelled... various ways. A tame horse joined our herd and told me about Rynn. I thought I'd try out city life for a change.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Only a day. I came last night. I'm as new to this place as you are.”
“Do you like it?” the grey asked, his twitching ears betraying his nervousness. Before Sierra could reply he snorted and answered his own question. “But of course you would. You're valuable. They'll treat you well.”
“Rignoh's not particularly valuable,” Sierra remarked, “yet he seems happy enough.” He nodded toward the brown horse obviously enjoying himself as he splashed in the pool. The horse nodded thoughtfully.
“That's true. He kept telling me how happy he was here and how I'd be happy too. And the woman didn't punish him for buying me.”
Sierra laughed. “I think she might have felt like it for a while,” he said then shook his head. “But no, I don't think she would. She seems like a very reasonable woman.” He stuck out his hand. “My name’s Sierra. What’s yours?”
The grey horse took his hand shyly and gave it a squeeze of greeting. “Recan Dan,” he said. He sucked in a deep sigh. “I’ve been a proper pest, haven't I?”
“I'd say so. You made a real mess of the grooming room. And I'm a bit annoyed about that because I helped to clean it up last night. What made you go off like that?”
Dan sighed. “It was the harness. When he handed it to me, all I could think was that he was going to put it on me. I tried to tell him but he ignored me. I think he was just too busy looking for the brushes, but at the time I didn’t stop to think, I just panicked. See this scar?” He indicated a long, furless ridge on one leg. “I was in an accident while I was harnessed to a whap.”
“Pobey could see you were scared of something. I’m sure he wouldn’t have put you into a harness if you didn’t want it.”
Dan nodded. “I realise that now, but I’ve met many people who wouldn't care how I felt, no matter what I explained. I thought this place would be like all the rest. But I can see now that it’s not. Nicoy, was gentle with me, in spite of what I'd done, and so was Pobey.”
Sierra gave his head an emphatic nod. “They are nice people. Don't worry, I'm sure you'll be happy here.”
Dan looked at him with sorrow in his brown eyes. “No I won't. After that performance, your owner wouldn't want me to stay.”
The black horse considered for a moment. “I wouldn't blame Nicoy for wanting to send you back; but I think if you went and apologised to Pobey, and got him on your side before Nicoy gets back, you could be lucky. She's short one work horse; so I think if you promise to behave and work hard she'd be very willing to give you a chance. And I'll speak for you too, for whatever good it will do.” Though he had a feeling a gold harnesser could wield a lot of power in a stable he didn't know how much notice Nicoy would take of him. The grey horse nodded and said softly:
“Thank you. I will do as you say and try my best.”
“Good. That's all anybody can ask of you. Now come on, let's go for a swim.”
Stripping off their harness they ran to the pool and jumped in.
The pool was shallow and Sierra soon discovered why; quinolans were atrocious swimmers. Even he, in his new body, felt awkward in the water. After a little experimenting he found he could dive as well as ever and get his arms to perform well, but there was no way he could get his legs to co-operate. When he tried to kick they seemed to go in all the wrong directions. He kept crashing his hoofs together and accidentally thumped the other horses a couple of times.
“Will you stop that!” Rignoh complained. “What are you trying to do?”
“Swim,” Sierra replied grimly.
“Quinolans can't swim.”
After some time of thrashing about without getting anywhere, Sierra was prepared to believe him. It was only when he let his legs hang behind and concentrated on his arm strokes that he was able to swim with anything like his usual speed. Rignoh and Dan were amazed at the way he was able to move smoothly through the water and declared he must be half fish. He offered to teach them how to swim the same way, but they laughed, said they'd never be able to learn and went on with their own awkward version of the dog paddle.
At last, weary and waterlogged they climbed onto the grassy bank to lie in the sun.
“What do you think I'll have to do... if I stay?” Recan Dan asked. “Not pull a whap I hope.”
“Not if you put up the same fuss you did today,” Rignoh replied, having heard the reason for the grey's upset in the grooming room. “Besides there's no need. I don't mind the single whap and Cresta and I always go together in the double. You're too tall to make a good team mate for me anyway. You've been a work horse before... that's what you're supposed to be... you must know what sort of work to expect.”
“Yes... no... I've never worked in a racing stable before.”
“Oh, is that what's worrying you?” Rignoh sat up facing Dan. “It's not much different to anywhere else. We have to pick up entry forms and racing schedules every week from all the tracks; we help with the training; go with the racers to the track to look after their gear. We help the cook and the groom, do a bit of gardening, sometimes take harness to be mended, help with the laundry, take messages to other stables. Sometimes we have to take care of stupid, new horses from oku.”
Recan Dan swatted at the brown horse with one powerful arm but his lazy swipe was far too slow to catch the little, brown workhorse unawares. He jumped back and sat out of reach higher up the bank.
“If you think I'm stupid,” Dan said, “then you're stupid too, because you picked me.” His ears wig-wagged in a quinolan gesture indicating puzzlement. “Why did you pick me?”
Rignoh's thoughts went back to the moment in oku when he stood beside the bargain line and saw this tall solid grey, looking so proud and out of place among the other lean faced, mean spirited bargains. Though he looked uncouth on the surface he could sense quality beneath and a spirit as yet unbroken. He could not have walked away from him if his life had depended on it.
To Dan he tossed his mane and said airily: “Oh you looked big enough to do the work and dumb enough for me to order about. With Rochey away, I'm the senior work horse you see; so you have to do as I tell you.” He frowned, moved back down the bank and sat looking seriously into Dan's face. “But you're not dumb, are you?” he asked. “You're smart and well bred. What in the Red Hills were you doing in the bargain line? They're not usually so blind at oku they can't see the quality in a horse like you... even under all that grey wire you call hair.”
“Thank you!” Dan replied sarcastically, then gave his head and neck a wriggle. “But you're right, I do look a mess. I deliberately let myself go for weeks, trying to look as scruffy as I could. I'd been told it was possible to escape from the room where they keep the bargain line overnight. By making myself as unpleasant as possible I managed to convince an official I couldn't be sold in the usual manner. She had me sent to the bargain line. Before I could do anything about escaping, a silly looking brown horse came along and bought me.”
Rignoh gave a strangled laugh. He didn't know whether to be uproariously amused by the way he'd thwarted Dan's plan, or ashamed because he'd interfered. “Where would you have gone if you'd managed to get out?”
Dan's manner grew suddenly cool. “There was someone waiting for me,” he said. His tone told them he didn’t want to say any more.
Rignoh wisely changed the subject. “I don't know about you two, but I'm hungry. I'm going back to the house to get something to eat. Coming?”
Sierra wasn’t hungry but followed along with the other two. To avoid the grooming room and any work Pobey might find for him to do, Rignoh announced that he was going to the side door to get into the house, but Dan wanted to make his apologies to Pobey so he said to go on without him. Sierra decided to stay with Dan. They entered the grooming room together.
Pobey had cleaned up the worst of the mess and was happy to sit and rest for a while as Recan Dan told him his story and said that he was sincerely sorry for any fright and pain he’d caused. Accepting the apology with a nod, the man got up and pulled the grey across to the grooming stool.
“Nicoy’s a good natured girl; I’m sure she’d be happy to let you stay once I explain it all to her. Now then, let's see what sort of a horse we have here under all this fur and neglect.”
Over the next two hours the groom put all his skill into making Dan look like a proud quinolan instead of a poor, broken down bargain. First he stripped off his old sirat and when Rignoh reappeared, happily munching a handful of biscuits, sent him off to get a clean one. He then soaped the grey from head to hoofs and scrubbed till he turned white with foam. Satisfied he'd loosened all the dirt he splashed him down with clear water and dried him with a large towel. Dan endured it all with quiet patience.
When he was dry Pobey took the clippers at last and trimmed off all the overgrown fur. The remainder he brushed until it gleamed. He cut Dan's mane and tail and clipped away the long hair on his fetlocks then as a final touch, he sanded, rubbed and polished his hoofs till they gleamed like marble. When he'd finished and Dan had been dressed in a new sirat and a set of blue harness he stepped back to admire his work.
“You wouldn't know he was the same horse,” he said and the others had to agree. Dan really did look splendid but the grooming room was a mess yet again. Rignoh began tidying but Pobey stopped him. “Don’t worry about it for now. Nicoy will be back soon with Gwanee and that pest will have worked himself into a lather that I’ll have to deal with and that will make a mess of the room again, so I may as well add that mess to this and clean it all up later.” He waved his hand. “Let’s go into the courtyard and sit for a while. It’s cooler there.”
As they walked out into the courtyard they met Porrel the creamy, coming from the house carrying a large container of drink and some glasses. Seeing the group, he paused to chat.
“I saw Zaras training Dumbray over on the jump track this morning. You should see him. He's the fastest thing on two legs. I'll bet my hoofs and hide he'll win the Race of the Year this year. Don't you think so Pobey?”
“He's fast, I agree, but don't go betting a hair of your lovely hide just yet Porrel. And don't think for a moment that just because Dumbray runs under the Tara Hi name a win by him will reflect well on us. He belongs to Zaras. She'll make very sure she gets all the credit. And when she wins she'll take her horse and leave us without so much as a thank you.”
The creamy shrugged. “At least we'll be rid of her.” He lifted the container. “They're waiting for this over at the track. I suppose I'd better go.”
As his hoofbeats faded they heard the sound of a trysh on the drive. Tryshes, Sierra had discovered, were hovercraft-like vehicles which Zammorans used for transport. They ranged in size from little, one-person models through two seater and family models, all the way up to big vehicles called 'betes'- which was a contraction of the Zammoran words for 'large, load carrying trysh'.
They heard Nicoy's voice, then Gwanee's, then the pair came round the row of bushes on the corner of the house and burst into the courtyard. The young racer was side stepping and prancing in a fit of high spirits. His legs were plastered with mud and his mane was a tangle of grass, mud and leaves. Nicoy turned him over to Pobey with apologies and the explanation: “Came in third, then got into a fight with the winner and was disqualified. I was so embarrassed I didn't even go back to the racers' rooms to get cleaned up. Give me a moment to catch my breath then I'll come and help you.” She collapsed onto the low wall looking dishevelled and tired.
A second later she perked up as a beautiful horse caught her eye. Nicoy could always be revived by the sight of a beautiful quinolan. “Hello. Where did you come from?” The horse was a sleek grey, dressed in a neutral, grey sirat with blue harness. He wore no headstrap but like a visitor greeting the owner of friends, he stepped up to her and bowed his head briefly.
“My name is Recan Dan,” he said in a deep, pleasant voice with the accent of a good education in the way he pronounced his words.
“Are you...?” She was going to ask if he was visiting one of her horses but as she looked at his face she suddenly recognised it. “The grey,” she said. “Rignoh's bargain! Sing Amran's praise! What a transformation. You really are a fine horse.” Pleased and surprised she looked him over and remarked that Pobey had done an excellent job. “Of course,” she added, “he had quality material to work with. You don't look as if you were bred to be a workhorse.”
“I was bred at Gentra's Ki Verrin stable.”
Nicoy was impressed and Rignoh raised his eyebrows for Ki Verrin was known as the country's top jump-racer stable.
“Why aren't you racing? What happened? I see you bear a number of scars- were you in an accident?”
Recan Dan nodded and knowing, now, that this woman would be sympathetic, he told his story.
He had been the most promising young jump-racer in the stable. He'd undergone basic training and won several small races on Gentra's Fourth Track. His trainer had been very pleased with his progress and had been training him for a special race on the Third Track which would make him a full time racer, when a jealous horse told a new cook he was a work horse. In spite of his protests and the fact that he wore a trainee's pink sirat, he was harnessed to a whap and sent out to buy groceries. Puzzled by the traffic and unfamiliar with the whap he soon got into trouble in the city and collided with a massive transporter. Both his legs had been broken in the accident.
His owner decided he would never be a useful member of the stable again and against the recommendations of the trainer had sold him to a friend. The friend kept him a while but lost interest in trying to rehabilitate a broken jump-racer and sold him to someone else as a work horse. From there he went to several more jobs and homes and finally to oku. By then his legs had healed but he was too old for anyone to consider training him as a racer. So he had remained a work horse, going from job to job, place to place until he finally found himself in Rynn City's oku.
“You've had a hard life,” Nicoy said. “But it will get better from now on. I assume your accident was the cause of the upset this morning?”
Dan nodded, looking thoroughly ashamed. He told her about his fear and that he had apologised to the groom for his actions. “If you'd give me a second chance, I promise to behave and give you good service.”
“I'm sure you will,” Nicoy said softly. “Welcome to Tara Hi.”
When she went inside the three horses moved out of the sun to the shade of a nearby tree. Rignoh was just settling himself on the grass when he heard Nicoy call his name. The tone in her voice meant she'd call only once and he knew he should run to obey her, but he was reluctant to leave Sierra and Dan alone. He'd grown to feel the black horse was his personal responsibility and it caused a pang of jealousy to see him turn to someone else. He knew he was not a fit companion for a gold harnesser and would not have minded so much if Sierra had made friends with one of the racers, but it upset him to think he might lose his friend to another work horse, even if that horse had originally come from the famous Ki Verrin stables. He thought he might try to engineer a friendship between Sierra and Riban Ben as he scampered toward the house to answer his owner's summons. Dan and Sierra saw him go.
“They must be having trouble with the colt,” Dan remarked, sitting down on the grass. “He looked like quite a bother.”
“From what I've seen of him, he is,” Sierra replied. They made a strange pair as they sat beneath the tree on a small grassy rise overlooking the courtyard; a stranger from a distant star who already felt at home, and a bad bargain who had turned out to be a rather good buy.
Zimwah the yellow sun was blood red on the horizon when Rignoh returned from the house Leaning on the trunk of the tree he made a gusty sigh as he looked down at Sierra and Dan.
“I’m going to strangle Gwanee one day, I really am. What a monster. He wouldn't do a thing Pobey or Nicoy told him; hopped about when he was supposed to be standing still, sat down when he was supposed to move, knocked everything over. There was water, soap and polish all over the floor. And he squealed and complained the whole time. I don’t know how Pobey tolerates him. I wouldn't groom him... I'd ram the brush down his throat!”
“And get your hand bitten off for your trouble,” Sierra suggested. Rignoh nodded agreement.
“He would too. He's bad tempered, lazy and a liar. Just now I heard him talking to some of the other horses. He said he should be the new gold harnesser because his mother was the last one, but he's being cheated out of it because you told Nicoy terrible lies about him so you could get it instead. I know it's not true, but the others don't know much about you yet. Some of them could actually believe him.”
“No, no, I don't think so.” A new voice joined the conversation. Sierra looked up to see Coh, the trainer mare, climbing the rise from the courtyard. The setting sun caused her purple sirat to glow a vivid magenta. “The horses have more intelligence than that Rignoh. They've been listening to Gwanee's lies for years; they know better than to take much notice of them. Besides, we all know why Sierra got the gold harness. True blacks are often given high positions simply because of their rarity and value.”
“The horses may know it,” Rignoh replied, “but it won't make them accept Sierra or respect him. Only a great racer will command the respect of other racers in a stable. Sierra will already have a battle to overcome that without Gwanee adding to his worries.”
Coh nodded, looking surprised by Rignoh's sudden display of intelligence. “Yes, that's true, except we can all see that Sierra will be a great racer.” She waved a hand. “Never mind that now. I came to tell you that the meal is ready.”
“Already?” Rignoh asked. “When I was in the kitchen just a while ago Yob was still cutting up the tarrip. It couldn’t have cooked so fast.”
The mare shrugged. “Perhaps she’s decided that it’s healthier for us if it’s half raw.” She walked away and Rignoh began to follow, Sierra and Dan not far behind him.
“What's the food like here?” the grey horse asked.
“Very good,” Rignoh said. “We tease Yob a lot but she is a good cook.”
They met Nicoy in the entrance to the dining room. When she walked in there was a mad scatter as horses dashed back to their proper places. She showed Dan and Sierra where they could sit at the long, wooden table, then walked out through a doorway to the kitchen. Sierra looked round. He'd glimpsed the room earlier that day when Nicoy showed him around the house but now he could take the time to study it.
It was a large room situated at the front of the house with big windows opening onto a view of garden and trees. Like the rest of the house its walls were made of smooth, white stone with boxes of bitwarn vine attached close to the wooden ceiling. The flowers were open and beginning to glow as evening approached but their soft, yellow light could not compete with the glorious red of sunset. It flooded the dining room, brushing all surfaces with a ruddy glow and glinting off the trophies on display along one wall. Above the collection of polished metal was a curtain of winner's sashes. Tipping his head sideways, Sierra read some of the names printed on them. Gwana's name appeared many times. He wondered what had happened to her.
He was caught by surprise when a plate landed in front of him and a voice behind him said, “Eat up little horse. Then you tell me if a wildie eats better than the horses Yob cooks for.” Sierra turned to look at a tall woman of generous dimensions with a radiant, dimpled smile on her face.
“I'm sure they don't” he said, hoping it was the polite thing to say. Yob's smile turned into a grin which showed her strong teeth and obscured her eyes for a few seconds.
“Hah! Good. I like you little one,” she declared and gave him a pat on one shoulder before returning to the kitchen.
Nicoy and Cresta came in with armfuls of bowls which they deposited at intervals along the table. Some contained small round biscuits, some were full of nuts and some contained vegetables that resembled bright pink carrots. Sierra turned his attention to the plate before him. It was made of brown, glazed earthenware, rectangular in shape but divided internally into three triangles, making it look a bit like a tv dinner to his eyes. The larger, middle section was filled with vegetable pieces and nutty tasting lumps. In one smaller section was something resembling corn kernels in parsley sauce and in the other, several slices of thin, dark bread. The only eating utensil provided was a slender two-pronged fork with which the other horses were deftly spearing the pieces of vegetable.
By the time he'd finished the contents of the main dish, alternately frowning and smiling as he struck new tastes, Rignoh was half way through the other contents of the dish, daintily scooping up the golden kernels on slivers of bread. Sierra longed to ask questions, but as no-one else was talking he thought he should keep quiet too. To his embarrassment he was the last to finish and Cresta stood behind him, tapping his hoof on the floor as he waited to collect his plate.
Yob gathered up the rest of the plates and bore them away to the kitchen. The clatter as they were dumped somewhere caused Nicoy to wince. She waved a hand to catch Sierra’s attention. Pointing to a small, two colour brown filly on her side of the table she said to him:
“This is Jinda. Remember, I said I would introduce you later. She had a race today.”
Unsure of the proper protocol, Sierra half rose from his seat and made a quick bow of his head in her direction. She giggled, nodded back and said “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.” She had a remarkably deep, husky voice, surprising for one so small and slight he thought.
She was almost the same colour as Lyla, with body fur of the coppery colour he had come to think of as 'Rignoh's brown' and a mane and tail of a light, yellowish brown. Jinda's mane and tail were a shade lighter than Lyla's. Both fillies were pleasant to look at, with clear, pink skin, dark eyes and well formed, red lips, but somehow Jinda impressed as being merely pretty while Lyla impacted on male senses as beautiful. However,
there was a twinkle in the little filly's eyes and a certain twitch to the corners of her lips that made Sierra suspect she had a devastatingly attractive personality.
Smiling as she held his gaze with her own, she reached across the table to help herself to some nuts and one of the 'pink carrots'. All around, other horses were doing the same. Rignoh had gathered three little piles in front of himself and was taking one bite from each with mechanical precision. Sierra helped himself to some of each of the items. The nuts were crisp and sweet and the pink carrots tasted like herby cucumbers, but the little biscuits were very salty with a vaguely musty taste which he did not fancy. When Nicoy told Rignoh to go and get the warl he was pleased, because he recognised it as the name of the lilac coloured drink he'd had earlier that day. When it arrived he had two glasses of it and after that felt full and satisfied.
“What do we do now?” he asked Rignoh.
“Pass the rebassos,” the brown horse replied.
“How do you do that?”
Rignoh stopped chewing to look at him in surprise. After a moment he said- indicating a bowl of pink carrots by Sierra's elbow: “Those are rebassos, could you pass them to me please?”
With a silent “Oh.” Sierra passed them across.
“What do we do now?” Rignoh repeated. “Nothing much. We usually have the rest of the day off unless Nicoy wants us for something special. She works in her office or visits Thoje at night. Most of the horses read or play in their rooms or go out.”
“Where do they go?”
“To parties, to other stables to visit friends, home to see families, to the city, to night races, night beechna, entertainment centres.”
“What are you going to do tonight?”
Rignoh shrugged. “I hadn't made any plans. Cresta and I usually go into Rynn and walk around looking at things.”
“Could I come?”
“Yes, you're welcome. But we'd better ask Nicoy first. She might want you for some reason.” He slid free of the table and stretched his legs.
Nicoy had left the dining room before them. She was in her study scratching through a box of papers when they came to the door. “Come in,” she said when she saw them. “Have you finished eating? What can I do for you?”
“We want to know if you need Sierra for anything tonight.”
“No, Zaras is home tonight so I'll have to delay testing him till tomorrow. Were you planning to go out somewhere?”
“Ah...” the woman said slowly. “Sierra. I know you're probably anxious to see the city and I don't like to tell my horses what they may or may not do in their free time, but for this once will you forgive me if I say no?”
“You must have your reasons.”
“I do and I'll tell you what they are. First, Rynn is not really a safe place at night for any horse, but ten times more so for a rare, high quality horse like yourself. You'd be much safer in the city in daylight. Second, the papers haven't yet learned of your existence. Stay here at Tara Hi a while and let me break the news gently otherwise we'll have half the city out here wanting to see you.”
“Oh yes, it's terrible once the papers consider you worth writing about,” Rignoh said. “There were always writers and reporters out here after news about Gwana. It'll be even worse with you.”
“Rignoh's right and I don't think I could take it just yet,” Nicoy said. Putting aside some books she perched with one leg on the edge of her desk. “So will you stay home tonight for me please?” Sierra nodded but Rignoh was not to be done out of his chance to show the black horse around.
“Could we go for a run along the ridge instead?” he asked. “We wouldn't meet anyone up there. And if we go no farther than the watchtower, nobody would even see us.”
“Watchtower!” Nicoy said as if she had just thought of something and dived from the desk to a bookcase. Taking out a book she began to flip through its pages. “Yes, yes, you can go for a run on the ridge. That should be safe enough. Don't stay out too long, and make sure you go no farther than the tower...” The horses were making their way out of the office even as she spoke. “And help Yob in the kitchen before you go!”
“Both of us?” Sierra asked. Rignoh shook his mane.
“No, she meant me. But don't worry, I won't be long. Yob soon gets tired of tripping over me and sends me out of the kitchen.” Mimicking the big woman's stance and tone he said: “This job I can do better without silly horses under my elbows.” He grinned and reverted to normal. “You go on to the grooming room; I'll meet you there.”
Most of the other horses had the same idea about going out that night and as Nicoy required that all her horses be groomed before appearing in public, Pobey was very busy. He finished brushing Porrel, put a headstrap on him and sent him on his way with a gentle slap. Then he turned to Sierra. “Would you like to be groomed next? Your rank entitles you to it.”
Sierra shook his head, embarrassed. Never before in his life had he been singled out for special treatment and he could not easily accept it. “No, thank you. I'm not in any hurry.”
Pushing his way through the crowd he went out into the back courtyard and sat on one of the wall benches. It was pleasant there in the twilight, with the day's warmth seeping out of the stones of the back wall, the sounds of happy, chattering horses all about and Butcha, the moon, rising full and golden over the tree tops. After a while Burra came and sat alongside him.
“How do you like it here so far?” he asked.
“It's very pleasant; but then I haven't done a scrap of work.”
“Enjoy it while you can. You'll know you've been working once Nicoy and Thoje start on your training.”
“Is it hard?”
“Yes, but if you're a racer at heart you'll enjoy it.”
Lyla walked up to them. Carefully avoiding catching Sierra's eye she said to the trainer, “I'm sorry to interrupt your conversation like this Burra, but could you tell me where Coh is? I'd like to go to a party in Rynn but I know Thoje wouldn't let me go alone. I thought perhaps Coh would like to...” Burra interrupted with a laugh.
“Coh is in our room, where she usually is at this time of the night. I should really let you go and ask her, I'm sure she'd be as amused by your request as I am.” Turning to the black horse Burra explained, “Coh hasn't had to escort Lyla to a party since she was a foal. She's dropping hints that she'd like you to take her.”
Lyla clenched her fists and closed her eyes as she turned away from them. They could almost feel her burning with embarrassment. When she turned back she said cheerfully, “I hate you Burra, but you're right as usual. Well, Sierra, would you like to go? I have to go home now and ask permission from Thoje, but I don't think she'd refuse.”
“I’d love to go with you, but Nicoy asked me to stay away from Rynn, and out of the public eye for a while... at least until she's had the chance to break the news about me to the papers.”
Lyla moaned. “Of course. I should have realised. Well, what about tomorrow; it's a free day and I'm going to do a bit of practice here at home; would you care to join me?”
“Yes, I would. What time?”
“I'll let you know. I'm not sure what time I'll feel like getting up tomorrow. There's Moryee; she might like to go to the party. See you tomorrow.” As she trotted away Rignoh squeezed out of the crush in the grooming room doorway.
“Oof!” he commented. “I've known more personal space in the sales at oku. If they're going to Rynn why don't they go instead of hanging about here?” He looked at Sierra. “Are you ready?”
Sierra got up, said goodnight to Burra and followed Rignoh back to the grooming room. The crowd in the doorway had finally departed, leaving Pobey alone. Rignoh asked to have their headstraps on. “We don’t need to be groomed,” he added. “We’re only going for a run along the top of the ridge.”
Pobey knew that he should enforce Nicoy’s rule and make the horse stand still for at least a token brushing, but the truth was, he was tired and glad of the chance to avoid the job. He put headstraps on the two horses and was shooing them out the door when Nicoy came in asking for Recan Dan.
Pobey waved a hand toward the stable saying he'd had the horses take him across to find a room. “He hasn't come back, so I guess he must still be there.” When Nicoy told Rignoh to run and get him, the brown horse started to protest but caught a warning glare from his owner and stamped out muttering about half the night being gone.
The woman meanwhile, turned to Sierra. “I've just been reading the new rule book,” she said, “and it seems I have to supply you with a personal guard. Do you think you could stand having Dan follow you everywhere?”
“I guess so.”
“I've decided to try Dan as your guard because he's a big, strong horse, reasonably intelligent and doesn't chatter too much. Try him for a week. At the end of that time tell me what you think and we'll decide whether or not to give him the job on a permanent basis. I bought him as a work horse but he's really too good to be wasted as a domestic worker and I think we can manage till Rochey gets back.”
When Rignoh and Dan arrived she repeated her words, adding: “I considered you for the job, Rignoh, as you seem to get on so well with Sierra, but you’re experienced in racing matters and are more valuable to me as an assistant.” The horse glowed with such pleasure she refrained from adding that she thought he was too scatterbrained and talkative to be much good as a guard anyway. “So it's settled. For a week at least, Dan, you'll act as Sierra's personal guard. Do you have any idea what would be expected of you?”
Dan nodded. “Yes. I worked as a personal guard once.”
“Excellent! You are a parcel of surprises.” Taking a third headstrap from the rack she put it on Dan then shooed the trio from the room.
Sierra and Rignoh walked down the front path, enjoying the pleasant coolness of the evening air. Dan trailed behind looking a little bewildered. “Where are we going?”
The brown horse gave him a jaundiced look. “We were going for a run along the ridge. Where are you going?”
“With you I guess. Nicoy put a headstrap on me and shoved me out the door too. I suppose she wants me to start being a guard straight away.”
Rignoh was annoyed at having Dan added to his planned excursion but could see no way of getting rid of him. “All right,” he said ungraciously, “I suppose you'd better come.”
Not wanting his evening spoilt by a pair of grumpy horses, Sierra tried to take their minds off each other by suggesting a gallop. He went up on the tips of his hoofs, ready to try out the running ability of this new body, but Rignoh grabbed his arm.
“No, don't. We aren't allowed to gallop on the paths. It's been one of Nicoy's strictest rules since Gwana was killed.” He would have left it at that but Sierra and Dan both looked at him, waiting for more information, so he went on. “Gwana used to gallop everywhere. She was fast and she loved racing... even on her own. One evening she galloped down here and straight out onto the highway, just as a big trysh was passing.”
“Mm,” Dan moaned in sympathy. “I know how that feels.”
“You were lucky, you survived. Nicoy was very upset. So now we aren't allowed to gallop along here.”
Reaching the end of the path they paused for a moment under the big stone arch, thinking sombre thoughts about the death of the mare. Then regaining some of their earlier enthusiasm from the sight of the jungle before them, they trotted across the highway and followed Rignoh through the trees to where a slope of crumbling pink-gold stone studded with bushes marked the edge of the ridge.
“It's a hard climb to the top,” he warned. “But once we get up there it's flat and we can follow the ridge all the way to the city.”
They began to climb the crumbly slope, almost on hands and knees most of the time, grabbing at bushes to aid their progress. Rignoh was spread eagled on the grass, staring up at the stars when Sierra reached the top. The black horse looked up too and wondered if one of those stars was the sun he had been born under. What was John doing now? How far had he progressed with the opening of the space tunnel? He was probably working feverishly- worried sick about him. The thought made him feel guilty; especially as he was in no real danger and was in fact enjoying himself. He was making a silent promise to contact his friend at the earliest opportunity, when Dan arrived. The grey horse puffed loudly as he tried to catch his breath.
“Sheb's whiskers! Isn't there an easier way to the top?”
“Back there,” Rignoh said, pointing south. “A place called The Ramp; but it's too far away.” He got up. “Come on, let's go. The cliffs get taller as you go north, and the city is built against them. The view at night is marvellous. We can gallop now if you like.” With a flick of his tail he began to gallop. The others sprang to follow.
Sierra was immediately surprised by their speed and his own and delighted with the way he was able to fly over the grassy ground with so little effort. He enjoyed the feel of the wind whipping the mane off his neck and the powerful galloping action which came naturally to him. His breathing was relaxed and easy. He ran and ran and even when his friends stopped from sheer exhaustion he felt he could run to the ends of Zammar- wherever they might be. Reaching a large rock he sat down to wait for the others to catch up. While he waited he looked about.
The valley below was a confusion of jungle, gardens and homes all welded together under the metal blanket of moonlight. He glanced up at Butcha, glowing full and bright in the dark sky. A large bird flew overhead, its wings making no sound to mar the stillness of the night. He pricked his ears and listened intently. At first he heard nothing; then gradually the silence broke into its component parts and he heard the rustling of the wind through the grass, the creaking of the trees, the hum of insects and the sound of voices from a house built hard against the foot of the ridge.
“Do you still think you can't run fast?” Rignoh asked as he and Dan plodded out of the dark. The multifarious sounds of night melted back into solid silence.
“I still can't tell. I might be fast compared to you two, but you won't be running in the Race of the Year...” The instant the words left his mouth, Sierra could have bitten his tongue. Once again he’d said too much. This time, Rignoh was not asleep and he was not the fool he pretended to be. Dan was no sort of fool at all; it would not take either of them long to work out what he meant.
“Will you be in it?” Dan asked. Sierra flicked a worried glance at Rignoh. The brown horse smiled in reassurance.
“Don't worry; I've already guessed that’s what Nicoy has in mind for you, and you can't keep secrets from a personal guard. We won't tell any of the others.”
Looking back at Dan Sierra said in answer to his question, “Yes, I'll be running in the Big Race. That is, of course, if I come up to Nicoy's expectations. She might change her mind after she's tested me.”
“I doubt it,” Rignoh said. “Not once she sees your style. You're what they call a 'flyer'.”
“I am? Why?”
“It's that light, funny way you have of galloping... it's called a flying gallop. It's fairly rare and any horse who can do it usually turns out to be a very fast racer. No, I don't think Nicoy will be disappointed with you at all.”
“When do you think my training might begin?”
“As soon after your test for speed as possible I would think.”
They talked about racing and training as they walked toward the city.
Finally it lay before them, a mass of bright lights, deep shadows, tall spires and sprawling blocks of houses all laced together by a network of elevated roads and walkways. It nestled comfortably in a huge, round valley at the foot of a half circle of towering cliffs. From their vantage point they could see most of the city mapped out below them. Rignoh and Dan began pointing out things of interest.
“There's the First Track. They've got night racing on tonight by the look of it. There's the Second Track. No night racing there. There's Central Supply- that's where we do most of our shopping.”
“See that double row of lights right across the middle of the city? That's the Fountain Way. You find all sorts of entertainments there at night.”
“There's the Nexun- that big pile of blocks and shapes that looks like a small mountain. It's an amazing place to visit. I got lost there once.”
“There's oku,” Dan said gloomily, pointing to a group of big, light coloured buildings surrounded by garden, not far from the foot of the cliff where they were standing.
“Is it very bad there?” Sierra asked, expecting to hear stories of harsh treatment. Instead, both horses shook their heads, their expressions showing faint puzzlement.
“No, not really. They treat you well enough. At least, they always did when I was there.”
“Me too. I was treated better at oku than in some of the houses and stables where I've lived. You get good food, a bed of your own, grooming twice a week. It's the waiting that's the worst part. You see your friends go out and you wonder if you'll be next and where you'll go and what it'll be like.”
“And how soon you'll be back. It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't been there. There's a feeling about the place. And it's not nice to know you're there because no-one wants you.”
“There's Mo Char,” Rignoh said to change the subject. “See out there on the edge of the city? It's another racing stable, a famous one. Nicoy used to live next door to it till she bought Tara Hi. You'll meet some of their racers once you get going. They haven't got a runner in the Big Race this year though.”
Close by them, on top of the ridge was a large stone structure- a square tower on a slightly larger base. Sierra guessed it to be the Watchtower Rignoh had mentioned and wondered why they were not allowed to go beyond it. Its brooding, menacing appearance made him feel it radiated vibrations of past tragedy and present danger. When he asked his friends about it he expected to hear tales of wars, or even of the supernatural.
Once again he was wrong. Rignoh spared it the merest glance and said, “The Watchtower? Oh that's just for lookouts in the Storm Season. They keep an eye on Teal Waters for storms building up and send a warning to the city to anyone holding an open air event. We're not allowed to go beyond it tonight because there are houses up on top of the ridge farther on and someone might see you.” He looked at the black horse with an expression of surprise when he began to laugh. Dan asked him what he found so funny.
“Just the way my imagination was working overtime,” Sierra confessed. “I thought the tower might have a warlike function. Do you ever have wars here?”
“Not much round here,” Dan replied, “unless you want to count the quinolan uprising or the fishermen’s war down along the coast, but there is a war on in Cantella at the moment.”
“Jon's there,” Rignoh commented, naming Nicoy's husband to be.
Before Sierra could ask more about the war, the brown horse exclaimed: “Oh look! They've lit the Nexun light!” The horses all turned to look at the brilliant blue, chemical light which had flared into existence on top of the rambling complex of buildings in the western sector of the city.
They stayed for a long while, pointing things out to each other. It was quite late when a chill wind arose forcing them to head for home. The walk back seemed longer and colder than the outward trip had been and it was with grateful sighs that they collapsed onto the bench in the grooming room. Pobey heaved himself out of his chair in the corner to remove their headstraps. He felt their manes and shook his head.
“Tangled as wildie's tails. I really should comb it out, but I'm too tired. I'll do it tomorrow. Go to your rooms now. Goodnight.” He shuffled back to his chair and picked up the magazine he'd been reading. It was called Racing World Sierra noticed.
Either they were the only ones in or everyone else was asleep because the stable seemed deserted when they went in. Dan had been given a room not far from the one Rignoh and Sierra shared. As they paused at its door the brown horse asked if he had everything he needed.
“For tonight, yes, thank you,” the grey replied.
Rignoh and Sierra went on to their own room. They covered the pots of bitwarn vine as soon as they walked in, undressed in the dark and slid into their respective beds.
“Free day tomorrow,” Rignoh said but found himself talking to a sleeping quinolan.
If you have read these three chapters and enjoyed them and would like more I would love to hear from you. I can be talked into sending you chapters or of you would rather read the whole thing and not have to wait it will be available in paperback form from a print on demand publisher. I haven't decided yet, which one I will use.
Send me an email and we can talk about it!
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