Chapter 5: New Friends and New Roles

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I WET MY DRY LIPS and whistled again.

A moment later, Kekenu came charging into sight, his pinto coat a bright contrast against the green grass.

"Kekenu is here! They must be close!" I shouted to the nearest boy, before dismounting and leading Andoc's horse forward to meet the little gelding.

Kekenu bounded to a stop a few feet away from me, snorting and tossing his head. When he calmed, I motioned him forward the last few steps and fed him a piece of dried apple. By this time, several of the lads had converged on us.

"Here," I said, handing Andoc's horse off to one of them. "Take Andoc's gelding. We'll let Kekenu lead us back to the rest of the herd."

I grabbed a length of thin rope from my saddlebag and tied it in a loop around the base of Kekenu's neck—since I was letting the little horse choose his own path, I didn't need anything fancier than a simple neck rope for control. Facing his flank and grabbing a hank of mane in my left hand, I bounded forward a step and vaulted up onto his low back, scooting my hips sideways with a little jerk to center myself. A quick head count showed that all of the others had joined us.

"Follow me!" I called, and urged Kekenu into motion with a squeeze of my calves.

The little horse surged forward eagerly, one ear flicked back until it became obvious that I did not have a destination in mind. He cantered around in a broad arc until we were headed back in the direction he'd come from, the others keeping pace behind us. The horse's muscles bunched and released rhythmically between my thighs as I balanced on his broad, familiar back, one hand still wrapped in the gelding's generous mane. The rain was coming down more steadily now.

After only a few minutes, we crested a small hill and there, laid out below us, was the herd. I breathed a sigh of relief. The horses—nearly a hundred of them—looked up at the disturbance as we approached. My eyes scanned them eagerly. They were moving around too much to get a proper head count, but my attention was drawn to a creamy white yearling. Cassira—the pale colt's dam—was standing nearby, keeping watch over a small, white bundle on the ground. The tiny creature stirred from its slumber and stumbled awkwardly to its feet on long, uncoordinated legs, shaking its little head in consternation before making straight for its mother's udder and drinking greedily. Another tiny piece of the tension curled inside me eased at the sight.

"Volya's mare foaled sometime earlier today," I called, pointing down at the spindly white figure. "We'll have to take it slowly on the way back. Everyone, skirt around to the north and let's drive them on to Draebard. Nice and easy, mind."

The boys ranged around the herd, giving the nervous animals a wide berth. I nodded in satisfaction as Dalon and Tenibral eased up to the front, leading the way. Both were mounted on mares that were relatively high in the herd's pecking order, and when the rest of us started putting pressure on the horses from behind, they easily followed the two mares' lead without panicking and running. I settled myself near the back, where I could watch for stragglers and keep an eye on the newborn foal trotting easily next to Cassira on its gangly legs.

The rain increased to a steady patter—not a downpour, but enough to soak through clothing and run down the backs of our necks in a chilly, unpleasant trickle. It took nearly twice as long to get back as it had to go out, and tempers were short by the time we finally reached the familiar track leading to the pens. The sky was fading from slate gray to black when the last horse trotted through the gate, eager to get to the feed Favian had laid out for them. We unsaddled the riding horses quickly and turned them loose as well.

I wavered for a moment before deciding to separate Cassira and her new foal from the others. No doubt the foal would be fine with the herd it had been born into earlier in the day, but in the small pen with the run-in shed, the pair could get out of the chilly spring rain and sleep somewhere dry.

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