“A daughter for Equus. A daughter for Equus …” the solemn demand, chanted by a thousand priestesses reverberated in his aching head, punishing his sensitive hearing. The fragrance from the thuribles they swung churned his stomach and blurred his vision in the dim confines. He couldn’t see them, but he could feel their movement as they swayed, taking the ancient structure with it.
Well, here I am, he thought, the consummation of my kind – the male who rises only once in every seven hundred years to lead the people of the Affined Equi Worlds – the Thirteenth Dragonhorse. Me? That’s me? Why is that so funny? It sounded much more plausible and romantic before I found out who it was. I didn’t get to finish my meeting, did I? At least I didn’t have to listen to Ah’ti’s usual diatribe. I wonder what they decided. I don’t even know what time it is, what day it is. I do know I missed my Birthing Day celebration. I was supposed to go sailing with my sire … who, apparently, isn’t my sire. How is that possible? How is any of this … possible? Precious Equus, how can it possibly be me? Why me? I had value doing what I was doing. I love what I do… I did. Maybe I’m having a really vivid dream. I feel like I’ve been hit with a polo mallet. I think I’m going to puke. I want to go home. Home. Oh, that’s right, I promised Mother I’d pick up some things. Where did I put that list ….
Ardi, are you going to pass out?
The voice in his head jarred him. Apparently it was he who swayed, not the building, which would make sense given it was solid Equi alabaster and had withstood a dozen such ceremonies over the last ten thousand years.
I certainly hope not. Not again. He took a half-step back and leaned gingerly against the man who was with him. Thank you for being here with me.
You are most welcome, though I cannot conceive of an honor higher than being here with you at this moment. There was a pause and a mental snicker. That wasn’t supposed to be a pun.
A fading echo of the laughter they’d shared since they were five years old. And now it was gone – all of it. Everything he loved, everything he valued, everything he thought about his place in the world and how he moved through it. Teal, I’m terrified.
Of course you are. You’d be barking mad if you weren’t. I’m terrified and it’s not even happening to me.
Don’t be too sure about that, Ardenai muttered. He allowed himself a sideways glance at the ooze-soaked bandages on his arms, and looked quickly away again. Seeing it only made it hurt more. Some of that must be salve. Had to be. So …the golden armbands of Equus were now his. The stuff of legend. He heard himself groan aloud without meaning to, and an arm came across his back to steady him.
I ask you again ….
No. It’s just the smell of incense and burnt skin … Precious Equus, how do people enjoy cooked flesh?
This time the chuckle was louder.
Focus, Ardi. You’re not going to throw up, are you? That poor girl has enough stress in her life right now without being mounted and then puked on.
Do you know where I’m supposed to be right now? There was both anguish and frustration in the query. I’ll give you a hint. It’s not doing this … thing … to someone I do not know and do not love. As a matter of fact, it’s not doing this at all! I have a life, and this isn’t it. Precious Equus! This is not it!
You, are the Thirteenth Dragonhorse. You are exactly where you were destined to be, at exactly the time you are supposed to be here, came the soothing tenor. What you were, is past. What you are, is the hope of Equus.
No, I’m not the hope of Equus. I’m the tradition of Equus. There’s a distinct difference, Teal. Equus herself is all the hope any of us need. I’m just the wheels on an outmoded, barbaric, unnecessary form of transport.
I doubt High Priestess Ah’krill would agree with you, Dragonhorse.
Could you please not call me that just yet? I truly … There was a long pause. I just wish … I had taken more time to say a proper goodbye this morning. And this young priestess. She’s never been with a man. These things take time. One must be so gentle at first ….
He swayed with exhaustion and Teal stepped to the side so Ardenai could lean more firmly against him without being too obvious.
Remember what Ah’krill said. The girl is a vessel. Into her you are placing the purest get of Equus and the next High Priestess. It is the highest of honors for her to bend under your weight. You do not have to make love to her, just get yourself up, get yourself on her, put a daughter in her belly and dismount. Pretend she’s … Teal stopped the next thought.
Not what I was going to say, Teal chided. Ah’ree is dead, Ardi. You are alive. This might be just the weensy nudge you need to get yourself back in the saddle.
Sorry. I’m just trying to lighten things up a bit. This baby is the second of your duties today. Only one more to go after this.
You mean one more before the lying and the running and the killing begins?
Well, if you’re counting the lying and running as a duty and not an adventure, two more. Hopefully we can keep the killing to a minimum. In any case you’d better save your strength as best you can before Pythos gets his frondy fingers on you.
Don’t say that or I will puke. Everything is in place? The plan is in motion?
Everything is in place. Everybody knows what’s going on. That aspect, you do not have to worry about. This one, you do, and I can’t help you.
Can you explain to me why this is a necessary part of the ceremony? What did they make me drink? It didn’t help the thirst, and my head is splitting, Teal. I wish your wife was here to give me something. My beautiful sister. Sweet Ah’din. I didn’t say goodbye to her this morning. She was out doing something … I don’t know what … maybe out in the garden. Maybe it wasn’t this morning. I didn’t say goodbye. Not to her, not to my parents. Please tell them goodbye for me. If I just had one of Ah’din’s flatwraps … maybe with azure berry jelly ….
Stop torturing yourself, and the whimpering isn’t going to do you any good, either. You are who you are, and what you think about who you are has nothing to do with who you must become. It’s tradition. Everything that has happened to you is tradition. A gong sounded. The chanting stopped. I have to leave for now, Teal said, but I’ll try to find you something soothing to drink and you can sip it while Io and I get you dressed and braid your hair. Oh, since I’m here with you, Landais is manning the portcullis. He says he’ll have Pavil saddled and ready to go. He pressed his lips for a long moment against his companion’s temple. Hold on tight, brother mine. It’s almost over.
Even as it’s just begun, he sighed, and stepped forward toward the parting curtain. Ah’ree, Beloved, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. It is you I will think about. Always you. The chanting began again as the curtain opened. He took another step, and pushed his robes aside.
Check back next week for the next chapter in this exciting serial from the Dragonhorse Rising universe. To learn more about Dragonhorse Rising and the world of the Equi, go to: http://www.dragonhorserising.com . You can also follow them on the Dragonhorse Rising Facebook page.