Lo! Krisnavn lives to become the king. But will Glania now pass her test? If she passes she yet has a chance to become a markiste (her dream). But if she fails? Perhaps then Demekn will have his dream . . . Read on
Megovis stood apart. This was no longer his concern. He was there only to watch. Still, it was the first time he’d seen the combined forces amassed: the new Alisalm Regiment of Alisime seamen together with the Saramequai horsemen, all gathered together in orderly fashion in the square before the barracks gate. It was heart-moving to see. When all were present Biadret addressed them.
“To work off the excesses of these past few days,” he explained, “we’re setting you markons and seamen . . . ah, but not the markistes and the horsemasters—a race around the Alisalm bounds.” This predictably brought calls of dissent, some verging on gross disobedience.
Ganros held up his hands. “I agree. As I told Captain Horsemaster Biadret.”
“But I thought we’d gone back to the original plan,” Biadret acted it out.
Ganros comically rolled his eyes.
“Fine, fine, fine,” Biadret allowed, “we’ll reduce it; make it only the bounds of Ancients Land.”
But that still brought calls of complaint. Did they know the distance? Megovis did, it wasn’t that many moons since he and Eblan Detah, Biadret and Krisn had ridden it.
Again, Ganros held up his hands. “No. Hush. What Captain Horsemaster Biadret meant to say is to run to the start of the bounds of Ancients Land. From here to South Rivergate.”
The markons nodded at that, nudging each other. That would be easy. “Are we to race our horses against the Alsime riverboats?” asked one.
“No.” Ganros acted bemused as if that was a new notion. “No, you won’t work off that excess by riding your horses. No, both seamen and horsemen will be running on foot.”
That brought more calls of complaint. This was a race, but what hope had the horsemen against the Alsime? The horsemen weren’t used to running on foot.
“Oh, and our Alsime are? I’d say they’re more used to walking on water. No, we reckon you’ll be evenly matched,” Biadret told them.
“As a spur,” Ganros added, “as a helpful goad for those less than eager, there’ll be a prize for the winner. Dancing Light, one of my own bred horses. And the first ten to the post will be exempt all building-duties this winter’s half.” Both were valuable prizes. With the rest of Clan Querkan expected early next summer, this winter would be spent in clearing land and raising houses.
“You’ll sweat with running, even with this cold wind,” Biadret told them. “So you’re to strip to breeches and shirts. And before you’ve gone far you’re going to thirst—thirst till it’s nigh unbearable. So make sure you’ve a full bladder slung over your shoulder.”
“Where are we running? From where to where?” asked one of the slightly older markons.
Ganros exaggerated a sigh. “We ought to have set a prize for those who listen. You will start down by the wharf. And you will run until you come to South Rivergate station. Oh, and I almost forgot. Glania, honorary markon? You’re to run with them.”
“You have till we horsemasters have eaten to find your bladders and fill them, strip off those cloaks and bands, and get yourselves down to the wharf,” Biadret told them.
And Glania . . . You’re to run with them, Megovis repeated the words in his head. So that was the plan. This race was her test. No one had told him, the meeting to arrange it held without him. He fell in step beside Ganros. While still a length from the command room his belly began growling at the smell of freshly baked bread. Their breakfast awaited. Linkess had prepared it.
“How did she take it?” Krisnavn asked as soon as the door was shut.
“Quite well,” said Ganros. “Wouldn’t you say, Biadret?”
“A moment of shock on her young face.”
Ganros chuckled, hands rubbed together. “No way will she finish that course, let alone win the race.”
“No shame in that,” Megovis growled. “And she won’t be alone. What markon can run so far? They haven’t our training. No, I reckon all ten winners will be Alsime.”
“And did you tell her by what criteria she’ll pass?”
“They didn’t even tell her this is the test.” Megovis thought that unfair.
“No,” Ganros said around a mouth full of cold meat, remains of the celebratory feast. “Let her believe she has to win to get in. We’d ask more of her if she were a markiste. Give her a taste of it, then see if she still wants it.”
“Did you say of the ten?” Krisnavn asked them.
Biadret shrugged. “We said of duties exempted. They don’t need to know we’re looking for markistes.”
“We’re short on command,” Krisnavn said, suddenly impatient with him.
“We know,” Biadret said, pacifying. “You’re soon to be king and you can’t be king and commander too. We know that.”
“But with Megovis due to return to the Dal come winter’s end, that leaves just you two to be commander and captain-horsemaster. You’ll need at least one more captain, and I’d say two more. That means training-up at least two markistes to horsemasters, then training enough markons to replace—.”
“We will train them?” Ganros cut in. “What happened to sending them to the Dal?”
“No.” Both Megovis and Krisnavn answered together.
“No,” Krisnavn said, “we don’t involve Uissid Urinod. Not in anything, not anymore. Megovis here will take a message, come the season, to Uissids Huat and Zrone, see if they’ll come here when required. Agreed, Megovis?”
“I’m not sure of returning. But I’ll take the message no matter.”
“Good. So, at least one markiste—though preferably two. And with Tamesen off to Liënershi we’ll need a seaman, too, to be trained to captain. But you know all this; that’s why I set you the task of devising the test. It’s you who’ll have command of my young troublesome cousin. You want it said that you favour her?”
“None will say that,” Ganros said. “There’ll be no complaints.”
“We’ve made it so none will question,” Biadret assured him, barely containing his grin. “We’ve made it impossible for her to win.”
“The offered prize of a horse was inspired,” Megovis said to turn the talk from Biadret’s gloat. It was a greater prize than their own weight in gold. Only the horsemasters bred Regiment horses and the herds were small.
“That was given to get the Alsime moving,” Ganros said. “These latest recruits . . . I swear they don’t know when I say to jump, I mean them to jump.”
Squeezed amongst so many, Megovis could only see Glania by her bright hair. That wharf-side track was too narrow to take so many. And of course everyone wanted to be at the front. Megovis saw Ganros trying to push a way through.
“You!” Ganros pointed to a markon, hollowed eyes, sallow skin. Ailing with something; he shouldn’t have been there. “You. And you.” Ganros pulled two more men out of the crush. None looked fit to participate. “We’ve still a need of guards at that gate. Off you go. If you reckon yourself a winner, then you’re free to exchange that duty with someone wanting to shirk. Otherwise . . . . next time, hey?”
Ganros waited. The men were slow to move, their shoulders slumped as they made their way back up the barracks.
“This is a contest,” Ganros reminded the remainder. As if it were needed when they all were shuffling foot to foot, keen to be off. “All men of our Alisalm Regiment, right? But for this day—and this day only—you’re to forget about that. Same as you forget that the runners beside you, behind you, in front, are your usual braid-mates—your friends—your trusted co-warriors. Today, every man and woman who’s running here is running alone. You remember that. They don’t care about you, you don’t care about them. You see someone lame? Red faced, gasping? It could be your mate from you child-days. But you stop to help them and you can forget about winning the race. You hear me?”
Their shouts must have deafened Ganros, standing as he was in their midst. And Megovis knew why the talk. It was aimed at Glania. He wanted no one to stop and help her when she started to lag.
Ganros eased out of the crush, and nodded to Biadret who had climbed a tree just ahead of them. Biadret let drop the white linen rag. They were off.
“You see that?” Ganros called to Megovis when the last had left the mud-trodden track. “First off, she’s that keen. But she won’t keep it up. She’s not a rutting Regiment horse.”
Megovis wanted to be at South Rivergate when the winner arrived. Bu he and Ganros were still held at the back of the runners, and that only halfway along the course. It wasn’t their horses’ fault. Initially bred by Uissid Zrone on the grasslands north of Dal Usast, the Regiment breed had been chosen by the horsemasters for its speed and endurance. No, it was how to get ahead of the runners. They’d tried riding through the trackless woodland but that hadn’t helped. While the runners followed the flat riverside path the horses had to strain up the hills and skid and slip their way down. But those hills soon would give way to the southern plain. Then, so Megovis hoped, they’d be able to make good time.
“Just look at her,” Ganros called back to Megovis. “How’s she doing it?” For every time they caught sight of the runners there was Glania’s fiery-bright head bobbing amongst the front runners.
Ganros was right, she shouldn’t be there. She was limping—nigh hobbling, worse than Megovis had seen her of late. He looked to see who were the other lead runners. It surprised him that most were Alsime, easily identified by their Alisime hats. His eyes tracked back along the runners. Now he could see what was happening. Behind Glania, the runners had formed into a bunch. He grunted disapproval while saying nothing of it to Ganros.
The last third of the course crossed the southern plain. Ganros heeled his horse and was off but Megovis held back. Though he still was in the cover of trees, and couldn’t always see the runners, yet with each new sighting it seemed there was Glania one place ahead. He could see that she sweated, even from this distance, her face as fierce as her flaming hair. Watching her, he had a sense of her agony. She was dragging that leg like a dog was fixed to it, its teeth biting deep. He had seen enough and the diminishing trees soon would expose him. He slapped his boots against Truth Studder’s flanks, and flew the rest of the way.
“Who’s in the lead?” Krisnavn asked as he arrived at the station.
“As expected, mostly Alsime.”
Megovis didn’t want to say it. He looked away.
“Has she fallen?” Krisnavn’s face showed sudden concern. Megovis couldn’t allow that. He shook his head.
“Last I saw she was third from front.”
“Impossible! She’s cheating.” Krisnavn said.
“I’d agree,” Ganros said, now as alarmed as Krisnavn. “Except you tell me how; it’s just not possible.”
Megovis kept what he’d seen to himself. It was that bunch behind her gave it away. It wasn’t her cheating: it was the entire rutting Regiment. The markons were holding back, allowing her through, not pushing past her though any one of them easily could. So she was a Regiment hero, having survived the Massacre to carry word back to the Dal. But it surprised him that the Alsime, too, were conspiring. In admiration of her? They all knew her story.
Clouds blown in from the sea began gathering above them. The day, already shortened by the winter season, faded to twilight. The clouds threatened rain. Megovis thought of the runners lagging behind. But Ganros had already organised a boat to ferry them back to Hill Barracks.
Finally the winners hoved into view. And Glania now was in the lead.
“And I say it again: that’s not possible,” Krisnavn said.
“Oh, she’s limping so badly,” Detah cried. She’d arrived earlier in the day with Krisnavn. Now she was hugging herself as she winced for Glania. Megovis liked that of her.
“Limp?” Krisnavn said, unusually ruffled. “She ought not to stand on that leg, let alone run.”
Yet here she came at a stumbling trot, using that leg she had previously dragged. Though Megovis knew how it had been done, still she deserved to win. Just because Ganros and Biadret didn’t want her under their command. It wasn’t right.
Krisnavn tsked. “Everyone of them should have been here long before now, that’s how it was done.”
“But what’s to do?” Ganros said. “She has won. Though I’m not happy at it, I won’t take it from her.”
“I agree, you can’t do that,” Krisnavn said. “As you can’t be seen to favour her, you can’t be seen to be against her. No, she has won it, and we have to accept her back to the Regiment—but only to finish serving the four.”
Ganros laughed, hands rubbing. “I guess Beli was guiding my voice when I forgot to announce the other prize for the winner.”
Megovis frowned. He did not approve: to remove knowledge of the prize so Glania couldn’t claim it. It would have made her a markiste—if she’d been able to endure the training.
So, it seems Glania is back in the Regiment. So much for Demekn’s chances. But the story isn’t yet done. Anything is possible in the final episode—No Proper Proposal