Excerpt from The Light Bearer
Book Three of The Western Lands and All That Really Matters series
Copyright © Andrew Einspruch, 2019. All Rights reserved.
The horse lay on his side, eyes rolled back against the midday sun, tongue lolling on the ashen, snow-flecked ground near an active lava flow. He was Nergüi Unbenannt Nimetuseta, khan of the Central Ranges, and his legs twitched, hinting at the swirling sights, sounds, and signs of the Purity. His painted body’s positioning carefully balanced all that was sacred to the Us—proximity to fire and earth, exposure to water and air.
At a respectful distance sat the dream wife, the only human permitted to live among the Us. She’d administered the mixture of vision herbs that connected the horse to the Purity. Now she held space, sitting cross-legged on a blanket, cradling a ready bowl of water.
Next to her, less still, was the new herd rememberer, who gave a small shake of his mane. “Dream Wife, how long until His Alacrity speaks?” he whispered.
The dream wife turned her head to face him as if roused from her own connection to the divine. “The Purity does not see time like the Us, Herd Rememberer. The khan will speak when the khan speaks.”
Hours passed, marked by little. The khan panted and sweated, occasionally swallowing some of the ash, dirt, and snow sticking to his tongue.
Night crept in, and the snow began to settle. The herd rememberer shifted a few weak lengths closer to the warmth of the nearby lava flume, earning a disapproving glare from the dream wife.
The full moon reached the top of the sky and, as if on cue, the khan jolted upright with a loud “Huuuuh!”
Legs scrabbling, he stood, bad leg buckling, sweat dripping from his coat. The dream wife also stood. She walked forward in silence, offering the water bowl. The khan slurped, sluiced, and dribbled, clearing his mouth. She threw her rug over him, knowing the shivers would soon start.
The herd rememberer was unsure whether to stand or stay down, so he didn’t quite do either. His forelegs stretched awkwardly forward, but he did not heave upward.
The khan, his voice thick from his connection to the Purity, said, “We must prepare to receive the Light Bearer.”
“The Light Bearer?” asked the herd rememberer. “Khan Nergüi, I thought you gave no truck to myths.” Too late, he realized his mistake. One never questioned the khan’s pronouncements from the Purity. Plus, the herd rememberer’s role was to remember, not comment. “My apologies, Your Alacrity. Forgive me.”
The khan looked at him. On his forehead, a painted third eye incorporated the white splotch that passed for the khan’s blaze. The fake third eye was supposed to open him up to the Purity, but right now, it seemed to bore into the herd rememberer.
“I do not forgive, Herd Rememberer,” said the khan. “But you are new to your role. This time, and this time only, I will choose to forget.”
“Thank you, Your Alacrity. Your words will be remembered for the Us.”
The khan’s teeth clacked as the shivers began. The dream wife took a cloth from a pocket and wiped away the ochre symbols from the khan’s neck and body.
The khan had seen the light born, but not the Light Bearer. It was clear the bearer was coming. He prayed to all the equine deities that the bearer would be one of the Us. But he knew the ways of the gods, and it was just as likely the Light Bearer would be a horse of the Not Us or an armadillo or a stick insect of the savages. The gods were perverse in their humor—one of the many burdens the Us had to endure, along with harsh boiling lands and sparse grasses.
Then the khan was lost to the fevers that came from being in touch with the Purity.
Seven Bean Soup
Princess Eloise Hydra Gumball III, Future Ruler and Heir to the Western Lands and All That Really Matters, had spent way too much time over the past couple of days thinking about seven bean soup.
She didn’t like seven bean soup. She was fine with pinto beans, adzuki beans, black beans, and guard’s homage beans. But cannellini beans hit her stomach like they were taking revenge. She’d been forced to eat lima beans as a little girl, which ruined them forever, and eating Tears of Çalaht beans just seemed blasphemous.
Thinking about seven bean soup served several useful purposes. First, focusing her attention on an imaginary bowl of hot soup helped divert her attention from the horrific weather she and her companions were riding through. She tried to trick herself into drawing a sense of warmth from the picture in her mind. Second, it kept her from doing physical harm to her champion and best friend, Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk. Jerome sat in front of Eloise on her Equine Designate, Hector de Pferd, his claws wound into Hector’s mane. Jerome also tried to distract himself from the miserable weather, but instead of thinking about soup like a normal person, he hummed “Three Bags of Groats for my Sweetheart.” The events of the previous days, including the death of her uncle, King Doncaster, and her sister Johanna’s decision not to return home with Eloise, had chased the infernal song from her brain. Now Jerome, consciously or not, had planted it back in her mind.
Eloise pulled her travel cloak tighter, trying to keep the slashing winter rain from soaking her any more. She patted her pocket and felt the Çalahtist rosary beads given to her by her handmaid, Odmilla. She sometimes used them to keep the nudges and itches of her habits at bay, but there was enough going on that she didn’t need them at the moment. Something to be grateful for.
Careful not to lose balance or “accidentally” knock her champion’s bushy tail and groat-humming ways off his perch, she twisted her torso left, then right, easing the stiffness from spending days on horseback hunched against the elements.
It was only supposed to be a week’s journey from Castle Blotch at Stained Rock along the main road through the Half Kingdom to the Adequate Wall of the Realms. Castle de Brague and her own warm bed were another six-ish days beyond, weather permitting.
The problem was, the weather was not permitting. Not at all.
The weather was, in fact, acting like a petulant child whose parents had forgotten its birthday, then produced a moldy kumquat as a gift. This moldy kumquat weather made Eloise wish she had a weak magic for staying warm. But that’s not how weak magic worked—for starters, you didn’t choose a weak magic. You either had it or you didn’t. And in the great scheme of things, a weak magic for keeping warm might not be the best choice. Then again, neither was her own weak magic for throwing things.
Weak magic was stupid, Eloise thought, not for the first time.
Eloise, Jerome, Hector, her guard Lorch Lacksneck, and his Guard Horse, the Nameless One, had been on the road for almost four days, covering little more than two days’ worth of the distance they would have in less kumquatty weather.
The person in highest spirits was Kïïït, the scullery mare they had brought along to haul the cart containing the sock. Kïïït was irrepressibly cheerful. She had never been more than a few hours’ travel from Stained Rock, so every moment was a revelation. Normally chatty, Kïïït had been almost silent on the journey, overwhelmed by the newness of every tree, moss, rock formation, and bend in the road.
The “sock” that Kïïït carted was actually Turpentine Snotearrow McCcoonnch, late the jester of Castle Blotch and usurper of the Half Kingdom’s throne. None of them spoke of Turpy by name, and “the sock” referred to the way he was tied up, chained, and had his movements restricted by a sack. Eloise suspected he was the most comfortable among them. Yes, he was shackled, which made it inconvenient when his bodily requirements had to be accommodated (thank Çalaht Lorch was willing to oversee all that). But Turpy was settled in a comfortable spot in the cart and wrapped snug against the crummy weather. That freed him up to focus all of his attention on sending out hateful glares, which he directed at anyone who strayed into his eyeline.
Eloise couldn’t wait to deliver him into custody at home. Her mother, Queen Eloise Hydra Gumball II, could work out what justice needed to be meted out. There were plenty of transgressions to choose from: plying the late King Doncaster with prattleweed to make him suggestible, plotting to overthrow a realm, conspiracy to kidnap, forgery, inadequate personal hygiene, using weak magic to nefarious ends (Turpy, a longwalker, had used that weak magic to stay ahead of Eloise’s search party and led them astray for weeks), false ascension to a throne, inadequate jestering—the list went on and on.
Eloise also hoped her mother would be able to tell her what to do with the Star of Whatever, the magical stone she’d recovered from deep within the Purple Haze. She’d ended the spell that the Star of Whatever amplified—the spell that sustained the lavender-colored, luminescent mist that sucked away all magic and life. But even with the spell ended, the Purple Haze remained, and its effects would be felt for centuries. Eloise suspected the stone in the sturdy little box strapped to her hip contained an incredible amount of magic and life force. And surely if she had to carry the most dangerous object in all the realms, the least the weather could do was cooperate.
The thing that bothered Eloise most about going home was the prospect of explaining to her mother why she had failed to bring her fraternal twin sister with her. They had sent messengers ahead to explain their circumstances and let their mother and father know that Doncaster was dead and buried. Johanna had stayed behind to help stabilize the running of the Half Kingdom, where there was no clear successor. She’d even confided that she might put her hand up to be queen. If anyone could pull that off, it was Johanna.
But Eloise had left Castle de Brague with her mother’s last words echoing in her head: “Make sure you return with your sister, not without.” That wasn’t happening, and Eloise wasn’t looking forward to the conversation. Perhaps the queen would understand.
Perhaps she wouldn’t.
“Princess Eloise?” Lorch guided the Nameless One alongside Hector. “This weather is not letting up. I suggest we stop at an inn.”
“What, and miss out on such slow, unpleasant going? I thought you guards were made of steel.”
“There are conditions that induce even steel to rust.”
Eloise smiled. “I have a hankering for soup. Let’s find some.”
“Gubhun Hungh,” said Turpy through his gag. At a nod from Eloise, Jerome hopped from Hector’s back to the cart and freed the prisoner’s mouth. She had noticed Jerome could finally deal with Turpy without lapsing into a brainless frenzy. Perhaps he’d stopped thinking of Turpy as a jester, and instead considered him a usurper, pretender, schemer, or murderer. Whatever it was, it shifted Jerome enough that he could handle him without flying into a squealing, jester-phobic panic.
“Gutrot House. We’re near Stoney Feld. Half a strong length off this road at the next crossing. Left. Gutrot House will have beds and food.” He licked his lips and resumed his baleful stares.
Jerome nodded and replaced the gag. He looked at Eloise. “Gutrot House?”
“I guess,” said Eloise.
Jerome looked at Lorch “Should we trust him?”
“Not at all,” said the guard. “But I don’t know of any alternative, and there aren’t any on the map.”
“Gutrot House it is.” Eloise shrugged. “I hope seven bean soup is not all they have on the menu.”
They made it to Gutrot House following Turpy’s directions, but what they found made them question their decision.
“What do you think, Elodrigo?” asked Jerome. “Would you call it ‘stylishly dilapidated’ or ‘modishly disheveled’?”
Eloise feigned artistic consideration. “You have to admire the daring cants and angles of the structural supports, as well as the wavy, swooping slope of the roof.”
“You always did have a soft spot for ramshackle neo-deconstructed cubby-inspired architecture.”
“Oh, you’re right about that. The more bedraggled and neo-deconstructed, the better.”
The innkeeper was a rotted stump of a woman, whose clot of salt and pepper hair, dearth of teeth, and overall lemon-inspired demeanor all suited the rickety facility she ran. She wore an unflattering galley wench’s outfit, complete with gathered skirt and poufy sleeves. Perhaps it had looked cute on her a few decades previously. She filled the lower half of the doorway, standing there rearranging the grease on her hands with a dishcloth that looked like it was about to start wiping itself free of her. “Yes?”
Lorch dismounted and bowed. “Good evening, Mistress. Have you accommodation this evening, as well as sustenance?”
“Youse want grub and a kip?”
“Mistress, is it? Oh, very fancy. Just call me Old Yelper. Everyone does. Not fair, cause I only yelped that one time, but there you go. Rooms are up the top. I don’t have no proper stables for youse three horses, but there’s a lean-to out the back. Extra for that, but you can use it. Don’t go eating my lawn. Find your own grass.”
“Thank you, Mistress Yelper,” said Lorch.
“Not Mistress. Old. Wasn’t that clear?”
“Sorry. Thank you, Old Yelper.”
“Youse go settle then come get your comestibles soon as you can in the salle à manger. I don’t have all night. I got to be finishing early on account of the gout in my great left toe.” She walked back into the falling-down building, leaving them to it.
Jerome looked at Eloise. “Comestibles? Salle à manger?”
“That’s what she said.”
“I’ll get the sock settled in a room,” said Lorch. “Then dinner.”
“Once you unpack us, Kïïït, the Nameless One, and I will find the lean-to and whatever non-lawn grass might be about,” said Hector. “Enjoy your dinner.”
Eloise’s room was easily half a step better than being outside, but not a full step. The nautical decor was odd, given how far from the sea they were. Perhaps it explained Old Yelper’s galley wench get-up. The walls sported a ship’s wheel, a ringed lifebuoy (which might have a splotch of dried blood on it), and three seascape paintings of surprising skill. Eloise glanced at the bed, flinched, then looked away leaving the horror of it for later contemplation. At least the roof did not leak, although it did seem warped into dangerous, unstable curves.
The “salle à manger” was half a dozen tables curtained off from the kitchen by what looked, at first glance, to be two bedsheets hung from the ceiling. When she got closer, Eloise saw they were sailcloth. Lorch and Jerome were already there, sitting at a table as far from the kitchen as possible. “You’ve left the sock alone?”
“Appropriately secured, Princess,” said Lorch.
“To an oversized anchor,” added Jerome. “That might or might not fall on him.”
Old Yelper pushed her way between the two sails, carrying a slab of flat wood and a piece of coal to write with. “What do youse want for your grub?”
“I have an inclination toward soup,” said Eloise.
“This is a brothel,” said Old Yelper.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A brothel. Brothel. Don’t you know what a brothel is?”
“I, uh… Yes.”
“So you know what you can order in a brothel, right?”
“I’m not sure…”
“Broths. I only serve broths. No soups. I got potato broth. Leek broth. Carrot broth. Potato and leek broth. Leek and potato broth. Potato and carrot broth. Carrot and potato broth. Leek and carrot broth. Carrot and leek broth. Potato, leek, and carrot broth. Leek, potato, and carrot broth. And carrot, leek, and potato broth. Broths. On account of this being a brothel.”
“I see,” said Eloise.
“In that case,” said Jerome, “I’d like the carrot, potato, and leek broth.”
“Sorry. Out of that one. But the carrot, leek, and potato broth is to be recommended. Youse might like it. Or not. All the same to me. Hurry up. My great left toe is a’gouting.”
“I’ll have the potato, leek, and carrot broth,” said Eloise.
“Leek, potato and carrot for me,” said Lorch.
“Carrot, potato, and leek,” said Jerome.
“Out of that. I told youse that already. Youse ever been thrown out of a brothel before?”
“No,” said Jerome.
“First time for everything, matey, you keep being cheeky with me. Now, youse gonna order or what?”
“Uh… Carrot and potato broth,” said Jerome. “With a side of leek broth. And if you can pour the leek broth into the carrot and potato broth, that would be great.”
“That would ruin the carrot and potato broth. Why would I do that?”
“I believe that was an attempt at a witticism, Mistress Old Yelper,” said Eloise. “That will be the last one. He’ll have what I’m having.”
“Potato, leek, and carrot it is. Youse want hardtack with that? A coin extra all together.”
“Sure,” said Eloise. “Hardtack for all of us.”
A few minutes later, they were slurping warmth and nourishment. Surprisingly, the leek, potato and carrot broth was distinct from the potato, leek, and carrot. Hungry from the day’s riding, they all had second helpings, dunking the hardtack in the broth to render it edible.
When they were done, Jerome sat back, his tail curled around him, content. “I think I would have to leave a positive Yelper review. That was as good a broth as you’ll find anywhere.”
Old Yelper appeared again from the kitchen. “Youse all having dessert?”
Jerome perked up. “What do you have?”
“Sweet carrot broth.”
His whiskers drooped. “Anything else?”
“Sweet leek broth. Sweet potato broth. To be clear with youse, that’s not made from sweet potatoes or anything yam-like. Normal potatoes, but cooked into a sweet broth.”
“Anything not in the broth department?”
“What did I tell youse earlier?”
“That this is a brothel.”
“Too right. So, youse having dessert or not?”
“I’m sure it’s delicious,” said Eloise. “But I’m full.”
“Me too, Mistress Old Yelper.”
“Youse can wash up your dishes in that pail. I’ve got to go elevate my gout toe.” Then she turned and hobbled through a side door. She closed it behind her and a chair scuffed, then there was a grunt as she sat, and a loud sigh of relief. Then they heard, “For the love of Çalaht, I thought youse was gonna fall off.”
Jerome wrinkled his nose, and whispered, “Did she just talk to her great left toe?”
“I’m not sure I need that much detail about our hostess’s life,” said Lorch.
“And we’re supposed to wash our own dishes?” said Jerome. “What sort of inn is this?”
“It won’t be hard, and I’m too tired to argue,” said Eloise. “Let’s get on with it.”
Dishes done, they lit candles and found their way back to their rooms. “I’ll take first shift outside the princess’s door,” Lorch said to Jerome.
“OK, but wake me so you can get some sleep as well.”
“We’ll see how I go.”
“Then let me go first, and you can…”
They negotiated this every night. It was even more complicated when they slept rough, as Hector, the Nameless One, and Kïïït joined in the haggling. Eloise yawned a “good night” and closed the door, ready for a few hours’ rest.
Eloise looked at the bed, a rickety shambles of slung rope and stained ticking. Her habits twitched and itched. If she wasn’t so tired, there’d be no way she’d consider putting herself anywhere close to the thing. She rather sit on the floor and lean against a wall. Or sleep outside. Eloise flipped the mattress over, but the other side was worse. Ugh, she thought. Just ugh.
But she was exhausted. Despite the nagging of her habits, she resigned herself to a night on the thing.
She barely had her boots off when Jerome’s squeal pierced the air. “You!” he screamed. “What are you doing? Get away from—”
Eloise grabbed her candle and ran for the door. She glimpsed Lorch’s back as he dashed into the other room. “Stop!” he bellowed. There was a thud like a hockey-sacking girder landing a tackle. Eloise reached the doorway and her candle filled the room with flickering light. Half a dozen armed rats faced off against Jerome, swords drawn. Lorch lay across Turpy, who was almost out of his bag and thrashing with all his might.
Weaponless, Eloise reached for a dish full of decorative sand dollars on the dresser. Drawing on her weak magic for throwing, she flicked the dish, sending it and the flat shells flying toward the rats. Two found their targets, knocking them sprawling. They rolled and sprang up, ready again to fight. The dish and the other sand dollars grazed the rest, and the distraction gave Jerome time to charge in, his champion’s sword slashing.
“Retreat!” called the biggest rat. “Run away!” The rats scattered, leaving Turpy behind snarling epithets through his gag.
“Rope!” called Lorch. Eloise tossed him the coil he kept tied to the outside of his pannier, and he re-wrapped the jester’s restraints, then stood and left him to thrash.
“Well done, Jerome, Lorch,” said Eloise. “That was close.”
“Too close, Princess.” Lorch took the candle from her and made sure no threats remained in the room.
“It appears we did not anticipate adequately,” she said.
“Apologies, Princess,” said Lorch. “I should have been more suspicious.”
Jerome sheathed his sword. “If we’d had dessert, they would have succeeded. He’d have escaped.”
“I would not have thought the sock had such allies. Who knows if there are more, or what they’ll try next,” said Eloise. “I think we’re going to need a day-and-night watch.”
“I do not know how we can guard both you and him at the same time,” said Lorch.
“I don’t need guarding.”
“Princess Eloise, please. Have we not covered this—”
“Guard Lorch Lacksneck, I believe I can—”
“Stop it, both of you,” said Jerome. “El, I’m with him. From Old Yelper on down, we don’t know who has what loyalties. Both you and the sock need guarding.”
“Fine. Just fine. But I don’t like what it means.”
“Means? What do you mean, ‘means?’” asked Jerome
“It means we have to be in the same room. All of us.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“You’re right, Princess. It might be best,” said Lorch.
“Please give me a few minutes to prepare myself for bed and then let’s settle for the night. And make sure you wake me when it’s my turn to stand watch.”
“Princess, no,” said Lorch.
“Watch takes a toll, and we don’t want this jaunt home impeded by anyone’s lack of sleep.”
Eloise returned to her room, lamenting the lost privacy. As she finished preparing for bed, she wondered how Turpy had arranged the attempted rescue. Had he done it before they left Stained Rock? Did the rats here at Gutrot House recognize him and form a plan on their own? Was it just opportunistic, or did Turpy have Old Yelper and her resident rats as longtime conspirators? Had he guided them there knowing what lay ahead, or did he just seize the chance? If he’d arranged it once they’d arrived, he’d done it awfully fast.
Bringing Turpy to face justice in the Western Lands and All That Really Matters might not be as simple as she’d expected. The complications were the last thing she needed.
Eloise didn’t sleep much. Turpy thrashed and grunted in his sleep, making noises through his gag. Jerome, as always, snored. Lorch had the practiced quiet of a guard on watch, but he sighed when his thoughts headed in vexing directions.
There were a lot of sighs.
Despite what she’d said, when Lorch tried again to dissuade her from taking a turn at watch, she acquiesced, managing a few hours of fitful rest between bouts of drowsy worry. One thing was clear—Turpy would not go easily to his fate.
Eloise woke at first light, having finally found some sleep. Jerome was on watch and wide awake.
He sat on Turpy’s chest, staring at him.
“What’s going on?” yawned Eloise.
Jerome did not look at her. “Master Turpentine Snotearrow McCcoonnch and I are having a little chat.”
“Oh? What about?”
“It’s been hard to understand what Master Snotearrow McCcoonnch’s contributions have been. The gag is not helping his diction. From what I can tell, most of it has been language I would not use in front of my mother. For my side, I have been speculating on what justice might look like when we get to Castle de Brague. Did you know, Eloise, that I have some familiarity with the castle’s dungeons?”
“No, I didn’t. What sort?”
Jerome turned around to look at Eloise, pointing his back end at Turpy’s face. Turpy jerked trying to shake Jerome off, but the chipmunk held on, ignoring him. “My mother, in her role as Court Seer, sometimes goes down there. One of the long-term residents—a deranged bilby—babbles in a way she finds useful for prognostication. I didn’t like her going on her own, so I accompanied her. As such, I’m familiar with the opportunities that await Master Snotearrow McCcoonnch once he gets there. I wouldn’t call any of them ‘pleasant.’ During our little chat, I shared this insider information. I’m hoping it gives him something to think about.”
“My first inclination was to compare and contrast them to the dungeon amenities one finds elsewhere, like the Sclerotic Wold in The South, as well as those of the Half Kingdom. Master Snotearrow McCcoonnch must have at least a passing knowledge of the Northo dungeons, having thrown people like me in there often enough.”
“Jerome, don’t do this.”
He ignored her and turned back to Turpy. “In the dungeons of the Western Lands and All That Really Matters, Master Snotearrow McCcoonnch won’t find jail chiggers like The South or taunters like here in the Half Kingdom. What he will find depends on the cell he’s given. There’s one that has a drip. It’s almost impossible to find a spot in the cell where the drip does not land on you. Most annoying. There’s another that has a horrific smell. Not a constant smell, but one that blasts the nostrils at unpredictable times so you can’t grow used to it and ignore it.”
“But I have a problem, El.”
“There are a couple of cells that I’m not sure I could choose between. There’s the Grit Cell (not to be confused with the Grits Cell), which has no bed. Just a thick layer of grit—sand, broken bits of shell, small pebbles, that sort of thing. If you’re in there long enough, it gets into every corner of your clothes and body. That one’s pretty good. Then there’s the howler cell. I’m not sure what goes on there because I’ve been too afraid to look. I only know that anyone who’s in there for more than three days starts howling.”
“I mean it, Jerome. Don’t.”
“But I think my favorite is the jingle cell.” He leaned in closer to Turpy’s face. “The jingle cell employs a team of retired heralds. There’s always one outside the dungeon door. They sing advertising jingles over and over and over. It’s insidious. The jingles get lodged in your head. Your thoughts become dominated by inane slogans for Lurid Eddy’s Carriages or Golden Brand Olives. ‘Oy ye, oy ye, oy ye! Lurid Eddie Commands You to Have a Bargain’ or ‘Golden Brand Olives—they’re olive-vacious!’ The heralds only know about eight jingles each. They sing them over and over and over and over and over and over and over until they displace every other possible thought. I hope that’s the one they give him.”
“That will do, Jerome.”
“Yes, Princess Eloise. I think it will.” Jerome walked across Turpy’s face, spat, and left the room.
Breakfast was what Old Yelper called Morning Broth. It had a distinctly carroty, leeky, and potato-y taste. Neither Jerome nor Lorch felt like talking, so they ate in silence.
Lorch purchased stoppered gourds full of broth to take with them, as well as a sack of hardtack. As Eloise wished Old Yelper good luck with her gout-ridden toe, Lorch put the sock in Kïïït’s cart, and minutes later, they were back on the road.
As they rode, Lorch gave the horses the full details of what had happened the night before.
“Goodness me,” said Kïïït. “You were set upon by brigands! It’s like a Biscuit Night campfire story. How exciting!”
“Exciting? Interesting choice of words,” said Jerome. “And I’m not sure I’d call them brigands.”
“Ruffians? Ne’er-do-wells? Goons? Hooligans? I’ve met plenty of those sorts at the Splintered Dray in Stained Rock. I’m used to that type being larger than rats, though. Usually they’re drunk to their withers and brawling over their troughs of fermented hay. Could I call them brutes? Rowdies? Dirty bubbins?”
“Something like that will do,” said Jerome.
“Well, this is much more exciting than a public inn brawl,” she bubbled. “Maybe the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved with. And I wasn’t even there!”
They rode through a crisp, clear morning—a welcome relief after the day before—and made good time despite the badly maintained road. The cart and its contents had to be maneuvered around fallen trees and potholes and through muddy stretches, but it was much easier going compared to the previous days.
Jerome’s needling of Turpy had put thoughts of jingles in the chipmunk’s mind. A few times every hour, for no apparent reason, Jerome would exclaim, “I command you to have a bargain!” or “It’s olive-vacious!” It made Eloise grit her teeth, but she decided it was better than random snatches of That Song. Besides, the weather was nice, so she just did her best to ignore him.
Of all of them, Kïïït was in the best mood. Her smile matched the glorious, blue sky. Kïïït seemed to have recovered from her initial stunned overwhelm, and now let flow a steady commentary on the wonder of everything around her. That is, when she wasn’t chewing. Without slowing down, she ducked her head and nibbled each new grass, sedge, bush, and bracken. It was almost compulsive. Every fescue drew her eye, and every meadow-grass called her name. She’d chomp, taste, and comment on each plant she tried. “Oh! That one was a bit minty.” “How can a grass taste like ginger?” “Bland.” “Bold.” “Boring.” “Delectable.”
Eloise found her delight and enthusiasm infectious. She noted that Kïïït had two main categories of superlatives. If she nibbled something she especially liked, she’d exclaim, “Ain’t that the grass strudel!” If she really didn’t care for a plant, she’d grouse, “That ain’t fit for a turf war.” Her knowledge of species was thin, but her ability to distinguish the taste of one tussock from another was keen.
Hector surprised Eloise with his encyclopedic knowledge of the different plants and their names. He contributed his thoughts on which were the tastiest, which best avoided, and why. “Don’t eat that one,” he said as Kïïït reached for a taste. “It’s serrated tussock. It combines an unpleasant mouth feel with a bitter aftertaste.”
Later, during a break, he showed her a grass growing near a tree. “Try two mouthfuls of squirrel-tail fescue and a nibble of spicy wattle.”
Kïïït smiled and did as he suggested. Her eyes went wide. “Wow.”
“It’s a surprisingly flavorsome mix.”
“That’s the grass strudel! Nameless One, come try this!”
The Nameless One, ever wordless, joined their discussion. Using snorts, sniffs, sneezes, sighs, and foot movements, he made it clear that this time he agreed. He didn’t always, but he often added nuance. Kïïït brought out a side of both Hector and the Nameless One that Eloise had not seen before.
Eloise sat with Jerome and Lorch, eating a snack of fruit and nuts from a muslin pouch. They watched the three equines turn to cropping grass three dozen lengths away. “What do you think of Kïïït?”
“Chats a bit,” said Jerome, nibbling a prune half the size of his head.
“Pot, meet kettle,” said Lorch.
“Oy,” said Jerome.
“I think she’s nice,” said Eloise. “And I think they’re both sweet on her.”
“Eat your prune, Jerro. What’s interesting is there’s no jealousy or tension between them. And she shows no favoritism.”
Across the field, Kïïït bumped the Nameless One gently with her hip and laughed. Her “Ain’t that the grass strudel!” was loud enough for Eloise to hear. It must have been the tenth time she’d said it since they’d wandered off.
Lorch picked a macadamia from the mix. “Perhaps, Princess, this is simply the way of herds.”
“You don’t see them like this when they’re practicing on the parade grounds,” he said. “They seem to want their herd hierarchies.”
“Different context,” said Jerome. “Or maybe on the parade ground our Hector is just a bossy boots who wants his way.”
“Maybe,” said Eloise. “But the interaction between the three of them fascinates me.”
The day passed uneventfully. They rode hard and made good time. When they stopped for a late lunch, they supped on Old Yelper’s broth. It proved surprisingly delicious, even when eaten cold from a hollowed gourd.
Back on the road, what they were doing struck Eloise as rather normal, despite all the not-so-normal that was going on—transporting a criminal, and carrying a massively powerful magical object. Even so, she’d almost had enough. Eloise was AWOL from her duties at Court and had been for weeks. She was grateful for this journey, its diversions, everything she had learned, and the people of all species she had met. But she was ready to get back to the castle, her room, her particular ways, and the simpler life of Court intrigue. This kind of travel covered her in a cloak of unreality. She felt like she was outside of time, because none of the things she normally relied on to mark time’s passage—rituals and routines, the demands of Protocol and the rhythms of daily life—were there. It felt like a displacement.
They slept rough that night, not wanting to risk staying somewhere else where Turpy might have connections. The star-filled night threatened frost, but their fire warmed Eloise. She wrapped herself in blankets and her travel cloak against the chill, and watched the flames cast their hypnotic light. “One could get used to this,” she thought. “Even if one would rather not.”
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