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Horse Fair

He starts to stink who outstays his welcome
In another's hall

When the Imperial cavalry got back to the Oasis they found the gate shut. After a few arrows from the walls, one of the riders noticed that what was flying above was no longer the gold banner of the Empire. They withdrew out of range to consider the matter.

The gate opened. A man on foot came out, right hand raised and empty, waited. More deliberation before a cavalry officer dismounted, came to meet him.

"'Fore you and your friends try to get this place back, come in and look around. Six hundred cats, two hundred Westkin. Bows, behind walls. Water. Rather not kill horses if I don't have to. Or men."

When he got back to the cavalry, the rest of the command group gathered around him.

"Not a chance. They have near as many men as we have, maybe more. Mostly cats. We could make a grand charge and die gloriously, but it'll be outside the walls. We can't siege; they have water, we don't."

"We could send a courier back to base for help."

"By the time he got there we'd mostly be dead. Same thing the other direction."

There was a long pause before someone asked the obvious question.

"What terms are they offering?"

"They get horses, armor, gear. We swear not to fight outside the Empire or against Harald or his allies till we're ransomed—leave a few officers as hostages. We get wagons, water—enough to get us home on foot. One horse for a courier to base to tell them to send supplies and more water to meet us."

"Once we give them everything and march north, what's to keep them from coming after? At least now we have armor."

"Die from an arrow in the ribs, die of thirst, not much difference. Besides, it's Harald."

One of the other officers spoke:

"Buddy of mine was in the army he smashed east of the mountains two, three years ago. They surrendered on terms. He got home alive. I say yes."

They set off the next morning, a long column of men on foot, two wagons. The last were scarcely out of sight when the first group of nomads arrived and set up camp—half a dozen riders, Bear clan pennon. Harald went out to meet them, exchange courtesies. By noon, they had been joined by parties from three other clans, each with its own small camp outside the walls.

Konstantin, shaky but on his feet, watched from the wall, tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Nomads on foot were wandering through the herd of captured horses, looking at them, occasionally leading one away from the water troughs to join a small herd next to one of the camps.

"What's going on?"

The cat who had helped him up the stairs looked blank. Konstantin tried again, this time, slowly and carefully, in the speech of the plains.

"What are they doing?"

The cat grinned: "Biggest horse market plains ever saw."

As the day passed, more buyers appeared. Over one camp Konstantin noticed a Raven pennon. Later, having accepted Harald's invitation to join him for the evening meal, he asked about it.

"I thought the Ravens were on our side."

"Far as I know they are. Doesn't keep them from buying; can always fight us tomorrow. Emperor's gold as good as anyone else's."

He reached into his pouch, looked at the gold coin in his palm.

"Better. His face on a coin, full weight. Best money I know."

By the next morning the captured horses and their buyers were gone. Where they had been, most of Harald's army—four cacades of cats, a hundred or so nomads, a dozen hostages—formed up outside the gate. Before he left, Harald took a minute to say good-bye to Konstantin.

"Enjoyed your hospitality, stay any longer get a bit thirsty." He gestured at the swimming pool, partly refilled during the past weeks, now again almost empty.

"Leaving one cacade to hold the place. Four or five speak Tengu, most everyone some plainstalk; you and your people, ones that didn't go home with the cavalry, be all right. Rest of us back south to see what Artos has been up to. Wife's brother, friends, keeping an eye on him, but you never know. Time you've healed, fighting all over, everyone home. Come visit; promise I won't shoot you. Top of Mainvale. Wife brews the best beer in the vales."

Three days later, Harald would have settled for the worst. Better yet, water. The wagons, sent south the night before they left, carried one day's water, the hidden barrels, left behind for the final dash to the Oasis, a second. What had accumulated in the collection points along the cliff since they came north made a scant third. Thirsty men, thirsty horses.

Niall called back from the head of the column, angled right off the road. The sun down, they kept going; the full moon gave light enough to see the broad trail of tracks marking the route they had followed coming north. Harald moved up the column, talking quietly with the men.

"Think this is bad; ever hear Conor's story, his trip south?"

No one had.

"Well dry. Waterhole dry. Filled a cup from his skin, time he had it to his lips cup was dry too."

"How'd he make it back alive?"

"Drank straight from the water skin. Skin empty, started to rain. Rained so hard, riverbed flooded, washed him back to the foot of Mainvale. His story, not mine. Night we captured a wagon loaded with wine barrels."

One of the hostages looked blank; Harald repeated the story in Tengu.

Past midnight Niall stopped, pointed. Harald signaled the weary column to a halt.

A wooden pole slanting up from the ground marked the buried cache. Harald took one of the water skins, filled his bowl.

"Little farther, lady mine, all the water you want."

The mare emptied the bowl; he filled it again. Again.

By the time the moon went down they were in sight of the river, by dawn across it.

So was Artos.

 

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Framed