Chapter 4: Grief and Loss

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Dalon and several of the other boys were clustered around the pens. Some of the younger ones were obviously fighting tears. I would have to lead them. I would have to do for them what Jorun had always done for us, before.

"Come here, all of you," I said loudly as I approached. The lads looked up in surprise, and I continued as they grudgingly gathered around. "The horses are loose somewhere in the vicinity of the foothills. We need to go get them."

"Why do you think they're in the foothills?" Dalon asked in open challenge. "I reckon the soldiers stole 'em all during the raid."

"I know they're in the foothills because I'm the one who let them out of the pens and drove them in that direction last night, so the soldiers couldn't get them," I said, and a murmur went around the group. "Now, we need to get them back before they wander too far."

"Where's Jorun?" asked a young boy named Favian.

My stomach churned, and it was as if I was listening to someone else speaking as I answered, "Jorun is dead."

There were several gasps and cries of denial. Favian burst into tears, and his friend Lundis put an awkward arm around him. Jorun had been like a father to many of these boys. I allowed the expressions of shock and grief to continue for several seconds before speaking up again.

"Jorun died bravely, with a sword in his hand," I said eventually, raising my voice enough to be heard. "We owe it to him to do our jobs and make him proud. Draebard's strength lies with its warriors and its horses. Our warriors drove off a cowardly and dishonorable attack last night, saving the village from complete destruction. It's up to us to get back our horses so those same warriors can descend on our new enemy with a swarm of battle chariots and destroy them utterly."

The boys were all quiet now—looking at me. Looking to me, though Dalon and a few others wore sour expressions. I wondered with an odd sort of detached panic how I was ever going to live up to Jorun's memory.

"Now," I said, "get all of the horses from Volya's riding party saddled except for the gray mare with the scar on her shoulder. We'll head out as soon as we can. Favian, I want you and Lundis to stay here in case Chief Volya needs to send out a message. Favian will ready the pens with feed and water for our return, and Lundis, you will check in periodically with Volya in case he needs you to act as a courier."

There was a split second of silence—just long enough for panic to thread through the pall of numbness hanging over me and start crawling up my spine—but then the little crowd broke up and started to carry out my instructions. Releasing a quiet breath of relief, I went to gather extra ropes, halters, and whips, along with a pocketful of dried apples.

Half an hour later, ten of us rode out along the track leading north away from the village. The chaotic hoof prints left by the herd's headlong flight were still visible on the dusty road beneath us. The foothills were more than an hour away on horseback, and our little group was largely silent at first. As our horses' hooves ate up the distance, though, Dalon could no longer contain his disagreement with my plan.

"We should have started searching close to the village and worked our way out. There's no reason to start looking so far away," he said, pitching his voice for those riding closest to him. Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—my hearing was excellent.

"The horses were panicked by the commotion and the smell of burning," I said evenly. "They will have sought shelter and safety in the hills."

"Maybe they did and maybe they didn't," Dalon said. "I guess we'll find out, won't we?"

It was already midday. If I was wrong and the horses were far away from the hills somewhere, we would lose the light before we could find them. It would have been all too easy to start second-guessing myself, which was exactly what Dalon wanted, I suspected. The fact remained though—I knew horses. After I fled the village of my birth and my mother's bitter anger over what she saw as my failings, I wandered the wildlands for weeks, tracking herds of native Eburosi ponies for days at a time to learn about their behavior. I had been drawn to horses my whole life—their strength, their speed and power. When I could no longer trust myself to endure the vicious words and even more vicious beatings doled out by the woman who'd given birth to me, I decided to flee my home and find out for myself if someone with the body of a woman could control the spirits of horses.

I succeeded, and it was that success which gave me the idea to start somewhere new, living as a man. My own little black and white gelding came from one of those wildland herds I'd followed. Working on foot, I had tamed him away from his herd-mates as a yearling after he'd been weakened by an ugly leg injury. Gaining his trust had taken nearly a week and was one of my proudest accomplishments, second only to attaining my position as Jorun's assistant. Thinking of Jorun made my chest start aching, so I tore my mind away from that train of thought. The point was, I knew horses. And I knew that Draebard's herd would be close to the foothills.

"Spread out," I called as we finally approached the gently sloping valleys south of the hills. "Stay within shouting distance of each other and call out if you see anything."

Clouds were moving in from the southwest, blocking out the afternoon sun. It would rain before the evening was over. I eased Andoc's gelding away from the others, silently cursing the animal's hard mouth, along with Andoc's hard hands that had made it that way. The bay gelding shook his head in annoyance, but eventually peeled away from his herd mates obediently. Keeping to the ridge tops, I stood in the stirrups, craning around to scan the waves of green grass swept by the wind.

Every few minutes, I let out a shrill whistle, in hopes that Kekenu was within hearing distance. The other boys shouted reports back and forth as they searched. For almost two hours we continued in that manner, the lads growing progressively more impatient and sullen. A brisk wind blew a handful of spattered raindrops against my face just as I heard the distant hoof beats of a single horse approaching. 

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