Monday, March 5, 2012

Handmaidens of Petra: Fogor Island

“Go left!” Jasna shouted, over the ringing of hooves on cobblestones. “Left!” She reached up and hauled on the reins. The warhorse veered to the left, off the stretch of the Market Way they’d been galloping.
“Let go!” the young man called. “Are you trying to get us killed? This isn’t the way they went. We’re going to lose them!” The horse thundered down an alley barely wide enough for it to fit.

“Those men are from Glantri,” the girl said. “Foreigners. They don’t know this town any better than you do. I know a shortcut. Go right here. Right!”
The young man didn’t need help this time, and the horse rounded onto another broad avenue that was clear of people.
“Temple Way,” Jasna said. “Nobody ever goes to temple this early on Loshdain. Now make this horse go faster!”
The young man dug his heels into the horse’s flanks, it stretched to a full gallop.
“Fifth alley down, take another right. “No faster than a trot.”
“They were four or five blocks ahead of us. We need to--”
“We need to listen to someone who knows their way around this town. Do you? Does the horse? No? Then who does that leave?”
The young man sighed.
 “Why, yes, that does leave me,” Jasna said. “Now turn here. You nearly missed it.”
“Are you always this grumpy? Or is it that phase of the moon?”
Jasna ground her knuckles into the young man’s ribs.
They emerged from the alleyway at a trot, on the western edge of the market square. The Glantrians struggled to weave their mounts through the throng of carts and foot traffic crowding the Southway Road.
“You see?” Jasna said. “Now we just need to--”
“I know what to do,” the young man said, and he guided the horse with a few tugs of the reins and nudges with his knees.
They paced the foreigners along the western edge of the market, checking their progress down the long lanes of stalls.
“Hey!” one of the merchants shouted. “Hey, you can’t bring that beast through here!”
The shouting drew the attention of one of the Glantrians, who motioned to the others. Two crossbows swung up.
The young man kicked the warhorse hard in the flanks, and it rose up, steel-shod hooves flashing.
The merchants cried out, diving into their stalls as crossbow bolts shattered against the paving stones.
“What are you doing?” Jasna shouted.
Rather than running either way to evade, the young man charged up the lane of stalls, as the boltmen hauled at the bowstrings.
He leaned to the side, snatching up a long post holding up a canopy, calling apologies over his shoulder. He clasped the end of the post between his arm and ribs, the tip wobbling as it projecting past the snout of the charging warhorse.
“You are not going to tilt them!” Jasna called.
“On my mark, lean front with all your weight,” the young man said, his voice nearly lost amidst the cries of vendors and ringing of hooves.
“Stop this horse! I will not-- did you call me fat?”
“Lean!” the young man called, and half-rose in the stirrups. 
Jasna leaned as far forward as she dared, and it felt as if the makeshift lance struck a brick wall. There were screams a plenty, and a gurgling cry, nearly drowned out by the whinnying of horses.
“Hold on!”
“As if I had any choice!” Jasna could barely hear herself over the ringing in her ears.
The warhorse had continued on, down the lane of stalls opposite the Southway road.   Through the stars wavering in her vision, Jasna saw shocked expression after expression flash by. The horse slowed, and the young man guided it around the next opening between lanes. He hissed as Jasna tightened her grip. She made to slip her leg over the horse’s rump, but a hand tightened on her wrists.
“Oh, no you don’t. We’ve still got three more to catch.”
The horse’s pace picked up, and then they turned onto the Southway Road. The fleeing thieves had cleared long swathes of the street, and the young man took full advantage of the open space.
“Your hurt!” Jasna said. Her arm was getting damp, the stain soaking into her tunic sleeve a deep red.
“My brother’s done worse to me on the training field,” the young man said. His words came out short, clipped, each breath a sharp intake. He wasn’t riding nearly as smoothly as he had been before the charge.
The Glantrians veered off to the right, onto the North Bridge Road.
“Hold on to your teeth,” the young man gritted. The warhorse leapt a low hedgerow and then another as he cut through a private garden. They gained another half-block on the men.
They thundered over the arch of stone and timber that spanned the waterway between the mainland and Fogor Island. Docks flashed by, and then the buildings to either side abruptly closed in, with barely enough room for two to ride abreast. The bright gray of the overcast morning dimmed to something closer to twilight in the wooden canyons of the buildings. They zigged and zagged, turning right, then left, then right again. Twice, Jasna nearly swallowed her tongue as they barely squeezed between an oncoming cart and the walls of buildings badly in need of paint. Or knocking down.
They rounded another corner, the young man brought the warhorse up short, nearly sitting the beast down in order to avoid smashing into the high stone wall. He turned the horse in a tight circle, to find the Glantrian with the crossbow covering them from a side-street. The two others sat opposite, bare swords across their knees. 
“We are done with the playing chase, now, children,” one of the men said, and gestured with his sword for them to dismount.
“This is a fine pickle you’ve gotten us into,” the young man said.
“Me? Look, here, Lord Stableboy, I told you to stop that horse. You should be in this ‘pickle’ as you call it, by yourself. You got me into this.”
“You were chasing armed men. Somebody had to protect you.”
“I’m quite capable of protecting myself,” Jasna sniffed. “You, on the other hand, my Lord Stableboy--”
“Would you stop calling me that?”
“Besides, this is nothing. Why, just a few months ago, I got kidnapped by some crazy kobolds. They at least had the good sense to use chains, not rope.”
Jasna and the young man were bound hand and foot, and had been dropped through a trapdoor onto mouldering bales of hay and burst sacks of some sort of grain.
“So you’re saying kobolds are smarter than our captors?”
“At least they don’t have any ogres. You didn’t see any ogres, did you?”
“Ogres and kobolds are just fairy stories. We’re being held by foreign agents!”
“Foreign?” Jasna asked. “Those men aren’t foreigners. They’re just Glantrians. They’re practically neighbors. And I’m not telling fairy tales. Your cities might be nice and safe, but up here in the mountains, there are kobolds and ogres. And worse.”
“What could possibly be worse than an ogre?” the young man asked.
“Two of them,” Jasna said, her nose wrinkling. “Talk about a smell.”
The young man laughed.
“And what’s so funny?”
“It’s just-- you--” The young man sucked in a breath. “You were serious?”
Jasna nodded.
“You saw two ogres, and lived to tell of it?”
“Three,” the girl said.
The young man burst out laughing again.
Jasna lashed out with her feet, connecting with the his hip, sending the boy rolling from atop the pile of sacks. He flopped onto his back, gasping and spitting hay. “What was that for?”
“Don’t you call me a liar, Lord Stableboy.”
“I didn’t--”
“I’ve seen kobolds and ogres. Trees that walk. Aflame, yet unburnt. Ask anybody, here in town. I helped to save them. Ask the baron himself. He’ll tell you.”
“I’ll do that, first thing, once he rescues us.”
“If you’re hoping to sup with him, you might want to tighten your belt,” Jasna said.
“Well, his guards, then. Surely they would have followed us. They seem quite keen on stamping out trouble.”
“And you caused plenty of that at the marketplace with your lancing, Sir Stableboy.”
“You seem to cause quite a bit of that on your own,” he shot back. “And stop calling me that!”
“And how shall I address his Lordship?”
“Stop that. I’m no lord. Not anymore. Stupid tradition.”
“It is not.”
“It is!”
“And what is wrong with making your own way in the world? At least you have a family to go back to. Eventually.”
The young man sucked in a breath, then let it out, the tension flowing from his shoulders. “Apologies,” he said, the heat gone from his voice.
“I don’t want your pity.”
“I wasn’t--”
“You were,” Jasna said. “Everybody does. Except Silva. She understands.”
“Silva. My sister.”
“But… you said you didn’t--”
“Never mind. It would take too long to explain.”
The boy looked around. “I don’t exactly think we’ll be going anywhere any time soon.”
“That,” the young man said, “is probably the best story I have heard in quite some time.”
Jasna struggled to turn herself around. “It is not a story!”
“Keep your voice down!” the young man hissed. “They’ve stopped moving about up there. I think they’ve gone to sleep.”
The weak sunlight that had been drifting through the slats in the floor had given way to the warm glow of lanterns. Now that light was dim, nearly gone, and touched more with the dim silvery glow of waning Matera,
“This is a fine way to spend the turning of the new year,” Jasna muttered. “Not at all what I’d planned.”
“Yes, you were supposed to’ve had lunch and then afternoon dress shopping at my expense.”
Jasna made a face, barely visible in the gloom. “I already have two dresses, and that’s two too many. Why should I want another one?”
The young man tried to shrug. He sucked in a sharp breath instead. “That’s just-- what girls do.”
“Maybe in Penhalligon, but not at Petra’s Home for the Wayward and Orphaned. Do you know how hard it is to run in a dress?” After a moment’s thought, she said “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”
“Perhaps my sister could give you lessons,” the young man said. “She spends quite a bit of time running from suitors. And chasing a certain knight.” He paused. “Knights, actually. I--” he bit back on a scream.
“What?” Jasna asked.
“Something…. just… crawled over my fingers. And--” he stifled another shriek. “Vanya’s garters, get it away! Get it away!”
Jasna craned her neck. Something hulked in the darkness behind the young man, and she heard the telltale gnashing of small teeth. Or what would have been small teeth, on a regular sized at. Moonlight reflected off two reddish eyes, gleamed off the ends of whiskers nearly as long as Jasna's hands, stretched full.
“You don’t believe in giant rats, do you?”
“Giant what?”
“Rats. The size of dogs?”
The young man made a strangled groan and tried to shimmy away.
“No! Sit still!” Jasna hissed. “It’s probably not hungry enough to eat you, anyway. Sit still and it might loose interest and go away.”
“Might?” the boy’s voice cracked.

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