Ardenai lay on the pile of rags and straw which served for a bed, shivering convulsively, his breath coming in short, rattling gasps like a fish out of water, and the woman looking down at him was utterly disgusted. She leaned into the man who was with her and whispered something which made him giggle, then her ugly, lantern-jawed face twisted into a sneer, and her milky eyes turned angrily on the mine superintendent.
“Thatcher, you brought me in here for this?”
Her voice was neither male nor female, and despite his terror, Gideon was fascinated. She was an unnatural Aranean cross of some kind, and looked more like a spider than any being he had ever seen. Her eyes were those of an insect, and she clicked her teeth when she spoke, as if she were hungry. She’d been here for nearly an hour; he’d heard her cackling and hissing in Thatcher’s office. And then they’d come out here, where Gideon had been trying vainly to ease Ardenai’s labored breathing. The day before, sitting him up had helped. Today, it did not. The dripping wet conditions in the mine had finally gotten him, and no amount of threatening, kicking, lashing … could get him back on his feet. He was dying, and now … here was this … creature, and the creature with her, a big, dark fellow with vacant eyes and a grimy headband wrapped around his long, greasy hair, who kept looking his way, and rubbing his palms down his sides as though he were aroused. This was a negotiation, apparently, for the Firstlord’s … services. From slavery to slavery, but if it would get him out of the mine, his lungs might clear, and they would again have a fighting chance….
“I want a man to ride, not bury. You told me he had a little water in his lungs. He’s drowning. Show me something else. What about this sweet little boy right here?”
“You’re making a mistake,” the supervisor said. “The big one looks rough, and he sounds rough, but he is … put together, and I absolutely guarantee you he’s coming into heat. He’s got a lot of Equi blood, too. Here, let me show you …” he made to draw blood with his fist, and the female’s hand stopped him.
“You stupid pile of sheep shit! I suppose if I were buying oranges from you, you’d squeeze them to a pulp to show me how juicy they are, wouldn’t you?”
Thatcher chuckled as though it were a compliment. “Now now, Sweetie, look at him. Look at those legs. Look at the size of those hands and the length of those fingers, hm? And see here, this little bit of yellow creeping into the whites of his eyes? That’ll be bright gold in a week, I guarantee you. Come on, girls, the water in his lungs is just condensation from being in the mine shaft on the carts. I didn’t realize he was getting so bad until yesterday.”
Not quite true. Thatcher had been locked in a battle of wills with the man since day one. Letting him get sicker and weaker was just another way to try controlling him, and it had worked … too well. Now he was stuck with damaged goods he’d sunk a lot of money into. The powers that be, would not be pleased. “Obviously he’s no good to me any longer, but I’ll make you a deal on him if you’ll get him out of here tonight.”
“You’ll give me a deal, hm?” she smirked, kneeling beside Ardenai to peer at him by the flickering torchlight. Overseers were coming tomorrow morning, and she knew it. Thatcher could see by the look on her ugly face that the bitch going to squeeze hell out of him on this.
Ardenai’s eyes kept her at bay for a few moments, then closed with exhaustion and near-asphyxiation. Slowly, starting at his thighs, she ran her hands over his body, into his trousers, under his tunic, and she licked her lips and breathed faster. “Mmmmm, maybe, yes,” she crooned. “I like the way you feel, and I have something to give you, that will make you like the way I feel, too!” She screeched with laughter. Her hands stroked his cheeks, and sensuously she pushed the hair back off his forehead. Like an animal, she licked his face and his ears and lips, and her right hand moved restlessly near his genitals. “You are coming in, aren’t you, old boy?” she whispered, and her breath was heavy as she leaned almost into his face.
Ardenai’s arms came up in a lightening quick motion and the woman fell back into the arms of her snickering companion, who bent down and kissed her open mouth. The superintendent leveled a savage kick at Ardenai’s groin, but it never landed. Gideon rolled off the mat where he’d been squatting, grabbed Thatcher’s foot, and flipped him, yelping with disbelief, to sprawl with a satisfying thud some distance away. The Declivian crouched next to Ardenai, ready for a last effort in the face of insurmountable odds.
The Firstlord dragged himself up to stand against the wall, Gideon rose to support him, and they faced their tormentors. Thatcher jumped up and started forward, but the female caught his arm.
“Show me a stud and then ruin him before I can pay for him? I think I’ll take him home and ruin him myself.”
“Good choice,” Thatcher smiled, and relaxed his forward motion. Her companion whispered something to her, giggled, and pointed at Gideon. “You don’t want that one. He’s branded front and back. He’s been into some bad shit. I’m surprised they didn’t cut his prick off.”
Grimy Headband spoke for the first time, and his voice was thick as mud. “Maybe I’ll just cut it off myself. He probably deserves it.”
All the color ran out of Gideon’s face, and he stepped closer to Ardenai. “No …” it was a whispered groan. “Oh no … El’Shadai, they’re going to mutilate us.” Suddenly, he felt weak all over, like he was going to vomit.
“We would like them both,” the female said, licking her lips. “We’ll … share.”
“NO!” Gideon cried, and lunged for her throat. If he was going to die, he was going to die on his own terms. The superintendent’s fist caught him in the jaw and he fell to the floor.
“I don’t know about Reed. He’s a good worker. He’ll cost you,” Thatcher said, looking down and rubbing his fist.
Ardenai had stood quietly so far, watching their movements and biding his time. Now he bunched himself together, but in the half second he needed to propel himself forward, those ugly, milky eyes had found him. She laughed, fired from the hip, and Ardenai slammed back into the wall, a dart as big as his thumb emptying itself into his mid-section. He stood there, glaring until his eyes lost their focus. She jerked the dart out of his gut and he pitched forward into the straw.
“Equuan mongrels” she snorted. “I just love Equuan mongrels. All the sexual ability of Equuans, and none of the brains.”
“Well, now he’s ruined for damned sure,” Thatcher growled. “OK, they’re yours.”
Gideon was dragged to his feet and forced to help carry Ardenai outside. A buckboard half loaded with sacks of grain was standing by, a second man on a spotted horse holding the team. Four of the tunnel bosses lounged against the side of the building, conversing in the shadows; Gideon could see the flash of their teeth as they laughed.
As though he were another sack of barley, they dumped the Firstlord into the buckboard. The female fished a bag from under the wagon seat, reached in, and removed a hypodermic syringe. This one, she emptied into Ardenai’s chest muscle, to make sure he stayed as sweet as he was, she cackled. The Declivian, they tied to a back wheel. Both men stayed outside, and the female went in with Thatcher. Gideon could tell by her body language that part of the bargain would be sex with her if Thatcher wanted it.
Gideon stood there and fought the urge to weep. He was terrified, and beside himself with despair. And Ardenai, always ready to squeeze his arm and tell him to take courage, Ardenai lay crumpled and pale as death in the moonlight. How far they had come together, for this. Even these last days, when Ardenai had stumbled, groaning under the lash and the weight of the ore carts, he’d managed a nod and a wink for Gideon. Now….
“I … don’t think he’s breathing,” the boy said, and as he tasted salt at the corners of his mouth, he realized he was crying after all. “It’s so cold I can see my breath, and I can’t see his.”
The man leaning against the wagon and looking in the window turned and looked at Gideon instead. He saw the tears and his mouth opened, then shut again. “Don’t expect me to kiss those away,” he said after a pause, and held his hand close to Ardenai’s nose and mouth. “He’s breathing. He’s all right. Just shut up.” The man turned around and went back to staring in the window.
A few minutes later that apparition of a woman reappeared, half drunk, laughing, hanging on Thatcher’s arm. How he could stand her Gideon could only guess. She was leering and hideous, and her frowsy white hair drifted like dirty cobwebs about her face. “Well, don’t burn ‘em out too fast, girls,” Thatcher laughed. “When you do, come on back. I always have a good selection. Maybe get you a High Equi in his Dragonhorse cycle, hm?”
“Pay you double for one of those,” the woman hooted, climbed onto the buckboard seat, and spoke to the horses. “Oh … oops, oops, better not do that,” she giggled, and jerked a thumb toward Gideon, whose hands were dangerously near the bottom of the wheel by that point. Thatcher roared with appreciative laughter. The man on the spotted horse cut Gideon’s ropes, told him to get in the wagon, and got back on his horse. Again she spoke to the team and they rattled off at a trot into the chilly darkness.
Gideon half-lifted Ardenai in his arms and straightened him to lie more comfortably. He was frighteningly limp, and he didn’t respond to Gideon’s voice, but at least the man was alive. Next problem, how to keep him that way. How to get away from these … people … with a man too sick to walk. Gideon looked up and there were two big men on horseback, watching every move he made.
He rubbed his forearms, trying to get warm, and looked around to see what he could put over Ardenai. The man on the spotted horse caught his eye and pointed. “At the front of the wagon, in a sack,” he said.
Gideon stretched out and found a sack that felt different than the others. He straightened up and pulled it into his lap, and from it slipped a beautiful wool sleeping robe. He looked questioningly at Spotted Horse, who nodded. “Thank you,” he said, and tucked the blanket around Ardenai. Soft, warm, purest white it was, and Gideon couldn’t help thinking how really ironic it was that something so … princely, should wrap the highest of Equi princes who was now worse than a slave, who would probably die mutilated, dishonored, and no one would know who he was until they hacked him up for burial, or burned him, or threw him out for the dogs to tear up, and those armbands became apparent. He sat back and sighed.
“Keep him warm and comfortable,” the man on the white horse said – Dirty Headband – the one who wanted Gideon. The boy’s fists knotted, but he didn’t lunge for the man. Not yet. Not until Ardenai regained consciousness, or he figured out how to overpower all three of these people, none of whom seemed helpless.
“If you’re cold, there’s another robe,” the female said, twisting on the seat. “Should be in about the same place.”
Warmth was strength, the boy decided. He thanked her and found it. It was wonderfully soft, and beckoned him to sleep. Concerned that he would succumb to it, he let the robe drop behind him in the wagon, and turned his attention to the Firstlord. It had been over an hour, and the man hadn’t moved a muscle. Gideon rubbed his shoulder and spoke quietly to him, trying to bring him around.
“Let him sleep. He’ll need it,” said Dirty Headband.
“So you can have him?” the boy exclaimed angrily – and something snapped. “NO! I DON’T THINK SO!” he cried, and as he yelled he lunged, and the startled man went off his horse with Gideon on top of him. Gideon’s fist came back, hands grabbed the sides of his head, and he awoke wrapped in his woolen robe in the wagon next to Ardenai.
He sat up, rubbing at two exquisitely tender points just in front of his ears, and the man on the white horse nodded graciously and flashed him a disconcertingly well-kept smile. “Very commendable try,” he said, and his voice sounded lighter, “but never leave an Equi’s hands free. We can kill you instantly with our hands, as well as render you unconscious, and it takes no strength, only skill.”
“I’ll remember that next time,” Gideon muttered.
The man’s mouth turned down in appraisal, much as Ardenai’s did. “Next time? You’re going to try that stunt again?” he asked.
Gideon’s head came up and his eyes glittered in the moonlight. “Count on it,” he said. “Until he is free, and I am free, I will keep right on trying. I have nothing to lose. The only friend I’ve ever had is lying here, terrifyingly close to death. If he dies, the purpose he gave me dies. I have nothing to lose.”
The female turned the wagon off the road and stopped, shielded further in the darkness by spreading trees. She swung around again on the wagon seat and asked, “Tarpan, are we being followed?”
“I think not,” said the man on the spotted horse. He trotted back up the road a few hundred feet, got off, removed the headband he’d been wearing, and put his ear to the ground. After a long minute he got up and remounted his horse, but he did not replace the headband, and even by moonlight, even at that distance, Gideon could see the Equi ears. They really were Equi. Dirty Headband had told the truth. “We are clear,” he said, jogging back. “They didn’t follow us this time.”
“Good. We are who we say we are, then. And you, Gideon, are not a prisoner,” she said, and her voice had become less strident. “You are free to go with our thanks. Teal, give Gideon your horse. Take the reins of the wagon so I can get in back with the Firstlord.”
“As you wish,” he said, and swung to the ground, proffering the horse’s reins to a boy too shocked to take them.
“Teal? Master Teal? What’s going on here?” Gideon gasped. “How do you know my name? I’m not about to go off and leave him! Who the hell are you people?”
“Easy!” the woman laughed. She coughed, reached behind her ears, and with a deft movement the lantern jaw was gone. “Dratted thing,” she muttered, climbing over the seat. “I know your name because Ardenai told me your name when he told me to bring you along tonight.”
Gideon just stared at her, open mouthed in disbelief. Teal retrieved his reins, remounted his horse, and trotted off up the road, chuckling quietly to himself.
“We have frightened you, haven’t we? I’m sorry,” she said gently. “Tarpan, keep watch over there somewhere, just to make sure.” She waved an arm toward higher ground, then took a pouch from beneath the wagon seat, and sat down with it between her legs. Into it went the jaw, and the sagging throat with its mechanical voice, and a face which had been disproportionate and ugly gained symmetry in the soft light. She tilted her head forward, opened her palm, lifted gently at each eyelid, and two huge, almond shaped eyes blinked at Gideon from behind their milky facade. She peeled back the white wig to reveal a thick braid of shining hair, dropped the wig in the bag, took a cloth, and began rubbing at the garish makeup. “Under here somewhere, is the Captain of Ardenai’s Horse Guard,” she smiled, and brushed her right hand over her left. “Ahimsa, I wish thee peace, Gideon. I’m Abeyan Ah’riodin Luna. Call me Io.”
Gideon sagged against the side of the wagon and buried his face in his trembling hands, trying not to burst into tears of relief. They had made it. They were safe. He felt almost weightless for a minute or two while Io politely looked at other things. “Why is Ardenai … so still?” he managed at last.
“I’m sure he’s just sleeping, but we’ll check for your peace of mind,” Io said. She knelt beside him, laid the back of her hand against his cheek, and bent close to say his name. “Ardenai, Beloved, are you still with us?”
He moved his head, swallowed, and in a few moments his eyes flickered open. “Io,” he whispered, and his eyes closed again.
“Ardi, Gideon is worried that you’re dying on him. Please wake up for a minute.” She touched his temple with her fingers, and his eyes came open. He looked up at her and smiled. She bent, kissed his forehead, and pushed the hair away from his eyes.
“And you,” he managed, voice rusty from disuse, “What have you done with the girl of my dreams?”
“The pouncy blonde? I put her in the sack, where she likes best to be.”
“Even the laugh?” Ardenai said sadly. “I was especially fond of the laugh.”
“That was my witch costume from Macbeth. Did you recognize her? I did the whole character, just for you.” She stroked his face, smiled at him, and Ardenai reached up to rub her cheek with his battered knuckles. “You’re a mess,” she whispered, catching his hand and kissing the fingers. “Gideon, say hello.”
The boy leaned forward and looked down at Ardenai. “Are you all right, Firstlord?”
“Much better, thanks to the medication Io gave me. And you? Thatcher gave you quite a wallop.”
“It was worth it to see him land on his ass,” Gideon snickered. He pursed his lips, and placed a hand on the Equi’s shoulder. “Thank you for getting me out of there, both of you. Thank you, so much!”
“You are most welcome,” Io smiled. “I’m sorry things had to get so … sexual. I had to be able to touch Ardenai in order to communicate. And you, Dragonhorse, please forgive both the intrusion, and the reference to your condition.”
“There is no need to apologize,” he sighed. “I am sure it is the desire of every stodgy scholar, no matter how carefully he may hide it, to be sold as a … stud.” He snickered, patted Io’s arm, and his eyes closed again. “Besides which, I happen to know you loved it, you shameless pouncer.”
“I did,” she giggled. “I admit it. How long since you’ve really slept?”
“I’m not sure anymore. Eighteen, twenty days, I think. Ever since we crash landed ….” He trailed off with a gurgling sigh.
“This act was just a little too good, Ardi. You let your lungs get too much water in them, and you’re genuinely sick.”
“It was hard to focus in there, and I had to make him realize I was useless. It was a risk.”
“Well, you’ve taken your last for a while,” she said. She injected him again for the water in his lungs, and let him rest.
She sat close beside him for some minutes, her palm cupping the curve of his temple. “My precious one,” she whispered. “My precious old friend.”
She turned abruptly, as though remembering Gideon was there, and said, “He’s too tired to eat, but I can offer you something. Hot cider, and … whatever else is in here. Hot vegetable soup in this thermal keep. Flat-wraps. Cucumbers sliced with tomatoes, I think this is. Best thing ever to come from Terren, tomatoes. Sandwiches of some kind, but Ah’nora made them so whatever they are, they’re delicious … here’s some fruit, and sweets, and these crackers rest well in an empty stomach. Are you hungry?”
Gideon nodded. He was famished. At the smell of the food all he wanted to do was grab as much of it as he could and start shoving it in his mouth. But that … was another lifetime. This food, was not going to disappear into someone else’s gullet, or be snatched away as a joke. And, he reminded himself, a man who could read and write, needed to be clean.
“I’ve been hungry for so long, I’ve forgotten what it’s like not to be,” he said, trying to chuckle and seem nonchalant. “I do wish … I could wash my hands and face, though. I’m so filthy.” Io showed him a water bucket and a small pot of clotted-soap, offered him the towel she’d used to remove her makeup, and then settled him in the wagon with more food than he’d seen in many long days.
While they were eating Teal cantered up the road and swung gracefully off his horse and into the buckboard to snag a piece of fruit. He sat down, took a few bites, and handed the rest to his horse. “Gideon,” he said, “Please forgive me for … acting the way I did tonight. I did not enjoy it. But we’ve established a facade with these mine people that we wish to keep in place for the time being, and it was a necessary part of that. Again, I apologize.” He leaned his back against the side of the wagon and rested his hand on Ardenai’s thigh, giving him a gentle rub as he spoke.
“Fair trade for the asinine way I carried on tonight. I guess I looked pretty foolish.”
“In trying to protect a man that we are all pledged to die for? You think you looked foolish? No, Gideon,” Teal replied, and there was fondness in his tone, “you did not appear at all foolish.”
Io smiled. “Ardenai told me, ‘Do not leave without the boy beside me. Gideon is my friend. I owe him my life, and if you must kill to protect him, do so.’ Equi don’t say that very often.”
“He told you all that?” Gideon blushed, head shaking in amazement. “When?”
“In the time I spent touching his face with my hands and my tongue. The High Equi like Teal and Ardenai don’t have to touch you at all, luckily, because Teal picked up information that I missed.”
“Hence the kiss,” Teal added with a wink. “Ordinarily I don’t kiss strange women.”
“I’m not very empathic,” Io grumped, “especially not here for some reason, and Ardi wasn’t exactly conscious. These two can contact you from halfway around the planet and talk to you like we’re talking now, but not me.” She gave herself a little shake that might have been the evening chill, and looked at Gideon. “Are either of you injured in any other way?”
“I don’t really think so. At least I’m not. Ardenai hasn’t been so lucky. He has a couple of really nasty whip cuts on his back and neck, and … Thatcher kept kicking him in the small of his back.” Gideon’s eyes narrowed and again he saw Thatcher going over backwards. “He had a badly infected knife wound, but that, Doctor Keats and Captain Josephus got squared away.”
“Knife wound?” Io winced, and looked at the sleeping Equi lord. “Well, I’m sure this will all come out in time. Right now I think you should bed down next to Ardenai. Share the warmth and get some sleep. We have many hours yet to travel.”
Gideon nodded and thanked her for supper, “…and everything else.” Then he stripped off the foul smelling tunic, snugged that princely robe up over his shoulders, buried his nose like a fox for warmth, and fell into a deep, exhausted slumber.
He awoke to the sounds and the sunshine of a morning that was well under way. He could smell grass, and trees, and faintly, horses. He sat up rubbing his eyes and feeling extremely stiff and groggy. At that point he became aware that they were no longer moving, hadn’t been for some time, apparently. The buckboard was unhitched and parked in the shade of a huge Calumet sycamore, and Gideon was alone. No Io. No Ardenai.
For a queasy instant Gideon was cold with the fear that it had all been a dream. That what had vanished had never been there, nor had he. He glanced around, half expecting to see Squire Fidel coming to yell at him for being asleep on the job. Then a screen door closed, and from the rambling white two-story house to his left, Io appeared – at least from the size of the ears in comparison to the rest of the body he assumed it was Io. The light last night hadn’t been the best.
“Good morning!” she called, and walked toward him, her sandaled feet raising small puffs of dust as she crossed to the wagon. “I hope you’re not offended that we left you there, but you insisted it’s where you wanted to be … to get the smell of the mines out of your nose, you said. How do you feel?” She squinted up at him, smiling, hands shoved in the pockets of her sleeveless white robe, and Gideon, enchanted by the elfin image, laughed before he could catch himself.
“Oh, forgive me!” he said quickly, then realized she wouldn’t know why he was laughing anyway, and turned a deep, uncomfortable scarlet. “I … uh … I feel like I’ve been asleep for a week. What day is it?”
“Not quite a week. You fell asleep just before daybreak, so … a day, a night, and part of a morning. Today is Drasterigyre.” She noted the bemused look and rattled on in an animated fashion. “It’s the one day of the week for which Terrenes and Declivians have no equivalent. See, we have eight days in our week. Hormigyre is like your Moonday, or Monday, Humilgyre is Tuesday, then we throw in an extra day because of the way our year is set up – three hundred and eighty-four days, because it takes us that long to spin around our sun … forty-eight weeks of equal length, and six seasons of sixty-four days each. We don’t use months, though we do refer to them occasionally, for the sake of outsiders. We use seasons, and half-season turns.” She stopped with an apologetic wave of her hand and laughed. “Why I’m telling you all this, I haven’t a clue. I’ve been around Ardenai Teacher too long, I suppose. You’d probably really like to get out of there and head for the nearest lavage. Either you’re really dehydrated, or you’ve got a really big bladder. Sorry. Again I apologize. I just envy people with big bladders. Anyway ….”
Gideon was still fighting the urge to laugh like a loon. Her bright hair was not really red, not really blonde, but almost … no, exactly … the color of a fresh, ripe peach, and blended perfectly with her flawless complexion. Her voice was soft and had bells in it. An easy voice to listen to. She was absolutely beautiful, and even on a morning that mingled many pleasant fragrances, he could catch hers. Still, he didn’t think that would be the best thing to mention. It sounded … predatory. That thought sobered him up. He straightened his face and threw himself into the lesson, hoping she hadn’t felt his unspoken admiration. That was not his place. Not his place at all. “We touched on some of this over the … months …would that be a season and a half? … of our journey, but I’ll have to hear it a few times to get it. The other days of the week are, Scoligyre, Hyphogyre, Hoplegyre, Hesychgyre … that one’s hard for me to say … and Hiergyre, right?”
“Very good!” she laughed. She had beautiful teeth.
“I like that they mean things, like, Hople is a horse’s hoof in the ancient language, and Hoplegyre is the day horses were traditionally shod.”
“And gyre means to spin … the length of time it takes Equus to rotate once on its axis. The teacher did spend time with thee, lucky man.”
Gideon sobered. “How is Ardenai? I should be with him.”
“He’s being cared for,” she replied. “He certainly looks much better than he did. Come on out of there and I’ll take you inside. You can get your hair trimmed up if you want, have a bath and some food, and go back to sleep in any order you’d like.”
“Food is definitely first,” Gideon said, hopping down to walk beside her. He realized he was naked from the waist up, and brought his arms around himself in a self-conscious motion. “Let me get my tunic,” he said, and made to go back for it.
“Please, don’t,” she grinned, wrinkling her nose. “We’ll get you a robe when we get to the house.” He nodded his thanks and as he continued walking he watched her from the corner of his eye, trying not to be obvious. Delicate without being fragile. Taller than he’d suspected she’d be – much taller than the few Papilli he’d seen, though not tall for an Equi. Still …
“You might as well spit it out,” she said, opening the screen door onto the long, wide back porch. “You’ll just laugh every time you see me, and we’ll never get on to anything else. And no, I don’t think it’s predatory on your part to be curious.”
“And … you do it, too,” he chuckled. He stepped onto the porch, turned, and smiled apologetically. “You, are not what I expected you to be, that’s all.”
“Not surprising,” she replied. She gestured toward a large basin with a hand pump, a plate of scrubbing-sand, and a formidable pot of foaming rosemary. “You can wash up here for the time being. I’ll go get you a robe. And leave your boots over there with the others. We don’t wear work boots in the house as a rule. Lavage is that door just to our left.”
Gideon visited the lavage, then scrubbed his face, and whatever else he could reach on himself from the waist up, and felt slightly more presentable. He dropped his ragged trousers on the floor, scrubbed his legs and feet, put on the robe Io had draped over a chair for him, and went in the direction she’d pointed out as the kitchen.
It was huge, redolent with spice as though something delectable and fruity was baking, and empty except for Io. “Sit anywhere,” she said, and he plopped into the chair nearest her at the long mahogany table. “Tea? Cinnamon and orange.”
He nodded, thanking her as she set it in front of him. “I hope I haven’t got our relationship off on the wrong foot by offending you,” he said. “I didn’t mean my comment to be negative. I come from a planet backward enough that we tend to deal in stereotypes. Ardenai’s personal body guard being considerably larger than ‘my little Io,’ of whom he speaks with such fondness. Since I hadn’t actually put those two opposites together in my head, I expected someone big and burly, and older, and … ah ….”
“Dignified? Equi? Both? I’m sure you didn’t expect someone who looks like she was found under a caulis leaf where the flickernicks danced, hm?”
“Oh …” he said, starting to lie. Then, because he was Gideon, he paused instead, and shook his mane of pale hair and laughed. “No. I did not expect a fairy princess. But I am not disappointed to have found one. I’m just surprised that Ardenai never actually … described you very well.”
Io laughed, a sound fragile as wind chimes. “Oh,” she gasped, and wiped her bright blue eyes. “Ardenai isn’t much into seeing his precious students become adults, Gideon, even when they look as though they have. He would have a terrible time describing me.”
“I would not,” came a voice that was not much more than a very loud whisper, and a creature… a huge lizard, or an enormous snake … and so hideous that Gideon spilled his tea, appeared in the kitchen. Gideon caught the towel which Io threw him, and hastily blotted up the spill. The reptile, whatever it was, graciously ignored him and moved over to Io, swaying along on what must have been legs of some kind with feet attached. Gideon could hear claws clicking on the hardwood floor as he moved. The creature stopped behind Io and stroked the tips of her ears with his tendril-like fingers. “Hass thee ever sseen earss like thesse?” he asked. “Ssee, they come nearly to the top of her pretty head. Equi babiess have I delivered many ccenturiess, and never one with earss and eyess sso big and feet sso ssmall.” His long, serpent’s tongue flickered briefly against Io’s neck, and she smiled and gave him a squeeze.
The creature turned then, and with yellow, hooded eyes he studied the young humanoid. “As long as thee iss being offenssive thiss morning, why not get me out of the way as well? Animal, vegetable, or mineral? I’ll give thee two guessess.”
“Gideon, this is Pythos, the Firstlord’s personal physician. Pythos, quit teasing Gideon and tell us how Ardenai is. Would you like another breakfast? Ah’nora said I could putter around in her kitchen for a while. Actually, I’ll offer you an early lunch instead.” She gave Gideon an apologetic bit of a smile. “I do better with lunches than I do with breakfasts. But this will be good, I promise.”
“Iss there anything interessting in the trapss?”
“I have three toads under a pot in the garden,” Io began, but she caught the look on Gideon’s face and burst into peals of laughter. “I’m sorry. I’m no good at this. Ardenai can keep a straight face, but I just can’t. How is our lord this fine morning?”
“Ssleeping,” Pythos hissed, and his eyes narrowed to glittering gold slits.
“And?” Io persisted, intent on Gideon’s lunch. She couldn’t see the serpent’s expression, but it was terrifying Gideon. He wanted to run like hell and hide somewhere, and he gripped the bottom of his chair with both hands to hold himself in place.
“And what? He iss bathed, and that ridiculouss, unccivilized beard iss gone. His woundsss are dresssed. Thosse thingss which were cossmetic, have been reverssed. He hass hiss preciouss earss back, which pleassed him no end. He iss ssleeping … ssleeping away the pain. What more doess thee want?”
“Pythos, what’s wrong?” Io asked, setting a bowl of salad and a plate of sandwiches in front of Gideon. “The creamy green fruit in the sandwiches we call verdanbutter. The juicy red fruit is tomatoes. I think I gave you some of those the other night. Wonderful together. Try it.” She went over to the physician, and put a comforting arm around him. “Is there something you’re not telling us?”
He stepped back from her embrace and glared at the both of them. “Nothing I have not told thee for yearss before thiss! I hate being forcced to help my children make war! You,” he said, and his eyes, full of tears and anger, found Gideon. “Who beat my friend in ssuch a manner?”
The color ebbed from Gideon’s face, and he dropped his sandwich before the first bite got to his mouth. “Thatcher,” he said quietly.
“Truly, Sir … El’Shadai, what if it wasn’t male? … Truly, I do not know. If there was a reason beyond jealousy of a better man, and pure malice, I didn’t see it.”
“Did thee try to sstop it?” the physician demanded.
“I … I couldn’t,” Gideon choked. “I was chained to another ore cart.”
Pythos was quiet a few moments, and the glare in his eyes began to dim. “He hass been scourged,” he said softly and with infinite sadness. “Did thee know that? Ardenai Morning Star, Firstlord of Equus, gentlest of souls, has been beaten with a horsse-whip – bloodied and sscarred with a horsse-whip. The Equi do not use horsse-whipss even on horssess.”
Gideon sat, staring into his drink, not knowing where his eyes should be, aware that they’d spilled over and that his nose was running, but not wanting to acknowledge it by blowing or wiping or … what, he didn’t know. He was at a total loss. He glanced up, and into the haunting eyes of the serpent. He sighed, put down the mug of tea, and with a slight gesture from Io, sacrificed the towel she had tossed him to his ridiculous face. “I wish … at least it could have been me instead,” he said. “Someone more common. Someone already scarred. As it was, Ardenai’s lungs got full of water from the humidity, and he couldn’t breathe well enough to pull the ore carts. I guess it started out as a ploy, but it got away from him, I know it did. He kept passing out … and the tunnel boss kept hitting him. I am sorry. I wish I could have done something. I was just praying that the whip … didn’t … slash open his arms. What would have become of him if they’d known who he was?”
“Alwayss ssomething to be grateful for,” the doctor replied. He turned and left the room, his long, emerald green robes just brushing the hardwood floor.
“Can I get you anything else?” Io asked, but what was there hadn’t been touched, and she gave him an apologetic smile. “I … we … didn’t mean to ruin your lunch.”
Gideon’s eyes had followed Pythos out of the room, and they stayed on the empty doorway. “Is he upset because there’s something wrong with Ardenai, or because there’s something wrong with what we’re doing?”
“Both. We took Ardenai out of the wagon yesterday, and carried him inside, and Pythos just … took Ardenai in his arms like a baby and waded into the pools with him, and bathed him … and Ardi never woke up. And all the time he was bathing him, with every cut and bruise he found, Pythos wept.”
“I suppose Ardenai does look pretty bad – especially to those of you who knew him before. I mean, he looks bad enough to me.”
“You don’t understand,” Io said. “Pythos was … created … seven hundred years ago, born seven hundred years ago, Gideon, to care for the Thirteenth Dragonhorse. He delivered each priestess, buried each priestess, delivered Ardenai and cared for him all his life. Mended his childhood scrapes, took care of him when he was sick, delivered Ardenai’s son, Kehailan, cared for Ah’ree before she died. He appeared to be doing it for hundreds of us within the royal gene pool, but Ardenai … was his focus. His reason for living.”
“Well, I am no Pythos, but Ardenai is my reason for living, as well. I don’t suppose that matters to Pythos, though. I saw the way he looked at me.”
“You only think you did,” Io soothed. “What else would please you, besides a good, long bath and some fresh clothing and a soft bed? I do wish you’d eat something. I know you’re upset …”
“I’ll come back here and eat these sandwiches, because they do look delicious. But … I would like to see … the Firstlord. Please. I know he’s sleeping …”
“Let’s go peek. Even Pythos can’t strangle us both at once … I don’t think,” Io said. She led Gideon out of the kitchen, through a large dining room, down a short hall that was mostly glass, and quietly worked the handle on the door at the end. She put her finger to her lips, and peeked into the room, then crooked that same finger at Gideon.
He tiptoed in, smiling. The smile faded as his jaw sagged. Propped up on pillows in the sun-splashed bed, golden armbands shimmering against the pure white of the sheets, was a man Gideon didn’t know. Gone were the savage python tattoos. The tousled mop of brown hair was gone. This man had thick, straight hair that was relentlessly black. This man had no beard to soften his features. He had finely chiseled cheekbones and a face which seemed more angular and somehow more handsome than Grayson’s. His mouth seemed fuller, his neck longer and more slender. This man had elegant, multi-chambered ears, set close against his head.
Gideon took a step closer, looking for anything he could recognize. Io touched his arm, and he pushed her hand aside. Another step, and another, and Ardenai’s head turned on the pillow. He made a soft, sleeping sound which turned into a painful cough, then his eyes flickered open, and Gideon stopped and took a nervous step back, fixed in the green-gold, draconic gaze of a stranger.
He would have turned and run, but his mind filled suddenly with a hundred familiar and reassuring memories: his little computator, the horses, Josephus, long study sessions … and he could hear Ardenai’s voice clearly in his head. Do not be afraid. I told you I would be different…. The clefts in the cheeks turned to delightfully unexpected dimples as Ardenai smiled, and a familiar baritone, now audible, murmured, “Gideon, my friend. How are you?”
“Sorry,” Gideon whispered, “I didn’t mean to wake you, Dragonhorse.”
Ardenai coughed again and shook his head. “It is the waters of Baal-Beeroth which yet wake me,” he replied, “not you.” He rubbed his beardless cheek with the back of his hand and frowned. “Why am I … here … and you are … still … there?” he mumbled, looking around the room, then at Gideon. “How …” He shifted his gaze toward Io. “How … did you find us?”
She was quiet for a moment, and a slight shrug lifted her shoulders. “Truth? We received a message, from whom we do not know, that you had been sold to the mines. Thinking it could do no harm we followed up on it every few days, and here you are. There’s more to it than that, but that’s a quick synopsis.”
Ardenai shifted his head on the pillow, wincing a little as he bumped an ear, and flicked his fingers in capitulation. “A conversation for another time. How long have I been here? Why is Gideon in such a state? Are you seeing to his needs?”
“Yes, Ardenai,” she twinkled. “I’ve fed him, or tried to, but I couldn’t lure him into the bathing pools without seeing you first.”
“Gideon,” Ardenai said, easing partway over onto his side and wincing again, “I’d advise you to take your own bath. Whoever gave me mine nearly flayed me with scrubbing-sand.”
“That, wass I,” hissed a voice from the doorway, and Pythos had reappeared, much to Gideon’s consternation. “Forgive their intrusion, Dragonhorsse. I sshall remove them at oncce.”
“No need. Children will be children. I’m the one who wishes to be removed … from this bed. It’s killing my back.”
“As you wissh,” the physician replied, clicking across the hardwood floor to Ardenai’s side, “I sshall take thee for a nicce bath.”
Ardenai shot him a look and said, “I don’t think so, Physician Pythos.”
“Food, then? Our dear Ah’nora is cooling ssome esspecially nicce azure berry tarts in the kitchen.” He turned and included Gideon in his comment. “Equi, like Equuss Legatum, are crazy about ssweets. Sshall I get thee ssome, Dragonhorsse?”
Ardenai shook his head against the pillow, still looking put upon. “I don’t need a bath, and I just ate, thank you though for the offer …”
“Then thee needss to relieve thysself? Good. I was worried that thy kidneyss were sseriously injured. I sstill think they might be. They’re terribly bruised. Sshall I carry thee, or bring thee a jar?”
“Neither. I don’t need …”
“Hatchling,” the physician said, undulating to look him directly in the eye, “if thee doess not need bathing, nor nourishment, nor relief, then thee needss to be assleep.”
“What I need …”
“What thee thinks thee needss, doess not conccern me, Beloved. What I think thee needss, iss what matterss. You may do four things: eat, ssleep, bathe, and pisss. Period.”
Ardenai’s mouth began to twitch at the corners, and he said with great dignity, “Now see here, my good dragon, I, the Great Me, will have you know, am a GOD… more or less.”
The old serpent hissed with delight, and gave the Firstlord a fond caress with his long tongue. “That iss what Adamus thought, and then … there I wass. I am going to take thy young friend for a thorough oncce-over, and I wissh thee to ssleep. If thee iss extra nicce, I will take thee to the gardenss for a bit thiss evening.”
“To please thee,” Ardenai grinned, and relaxed while Pythos stroked him back to slumber.
Gideon, who had tingled with panic at the thought of any sort of once-over, much less a thorough one, was padfooting backward toward the door when the snake’s eyes fixed on him. “My beloved ssleeps again. It iss thy turn, man-child,” he said. He glided out as soundlessly as he had come in, and made an unmistakable beckoning gesture in Gideon’s direction. The boy took a deep breath, shot a glance at Io, and obediently followed Pythos.
As he walked in silence beside the old physician, Gideon became aware that this house was built like a great wheel, with a central hub and short spokes ending in large, many sided rooms, or complexes of rooms. He hadn’t seen enough of it yet to be sure which it was. Maybe a little of each, he thought, looking curiously around. Pythos glanced down at him and said aloud, “A little of each. Octagonss. An eight ssided ccentral complex, with eight more octagonss fanning out from it. It iss what we call an Equi ssunbursst. Much of Equi architecture, and many Equi homess, Including Ardenaiss’ own, are designed in a ssimilar but ssimpler pattern. They conssider it a form of worsship … a prayer of thankss each day to Eladeuss for the ssun which warmss our worldss and growss our cropss.”
There was not another soul in the large atrium in which the bathing and soaking pools resided, but the lavish sunshine, and the call of many birds made it a most welcoming spot. As though Gideon were again speaking aloud the physician said, “We will not be dissturbed. I have requessted it.”
“We … you … that is, I …” Gideon stammered, not sure whether he was alarmed, or grateful. What he was most aware of, was that he was with an extremely powerful alien creature of whom he knew nothing. When he thought about it, he was more than a little afraid of what might happen next. He opened his mouth to say so, but the physician was already speaking.
“I sshall be mosst anxiousss to hear what Ardenai Firsstlord thinkss of thee, as oppossed to how he feelss about thee. It iss my impresssion that thee iss either running amok at the mouth, or tongue-tied. Yet thy thoughtss are most luccid. Perhapss thee sshould sstop trying to verbalize anything, and usse telepathy. Thee already ssends exsstremely well. All thee needss now, iss to learn to recceive, yess?”
He hissed softly in what Gideon assumed was laughter and continued. “I believe thee iss attempting to assk me if thee iss to take thy clothess off, and if we are going to go into that pool together. The ansswer to both quesstionss, iss yess. Thee may drop thy robe right there, and I sshall drop mine …” he proceeded to do so, “right here. Iss thee uncomfortable?”
“Extremely,” Gideon gulped. He could feel his face blazing with more than the sunlight coming in through the glass.
“An accceptable responsse,” the snake hissed. “Thee may be as embarrasssed as thee needss to be, as long as thee obeyss me while doing sso.”
Gideon stood frozen with indecision, and the old physician’s tongue flicked suddenly along the side of his face. Gideon had seen him do that to Ardenai, and to Io, and it looked … sticky, somehow, like dog kisses or fly paper … like something one tolerated. It was not. It was one of the most gentle, expressive caresses he had ever received. He felt love, understanding, acceptance … and unwavering firmness. The fear in him melted away in an instant. “What thee was, thee iss no more,” the snake said quietly. “Today, thou art become a princcce of the Great Housse of Equuss.”
The boy said nothing. His jaw hinges failed, and he stood, gawping like an idiot, aware of his open mouth, unable to do one thing about it. “Uhhhhh ….” he managed at length. A herculean effort given his state of mind.
“Becausse Ardenai Firsstlord of Equuss wisshes it,” Pythos replied. “And that iss all the ansswer anyone needss. He hass chossen thee. Perhapss, one day, he will tell thee sso. In the meantime, thee needss to realize … little princccess do what their Firstlordss, and their Firstlord’ss physicianss … wissh them to do to be healthy and ssweet ssmelling, and to have golden eyess rather than brown. Come along.”
Gideon wasn’t sure whether it was his wish or the Physician’s that his robe be removed, but he found himself naked, following Pythos into the warm depths of the pool.
“It wass mosst interessting,” the doctor was saying, coiled sinuously beside Ardenai, who was lying on his back in the grass, gazing up at the night sky. “I told the boy he did not have to bear thosse brandss even another hour, that I could concceal them for now, and remove them when we reach Equuss, and he ssaid … he needed to think, lesst in hiss hasste to be a princcce, he forget how it felt … to be … a sslave.”
“Because more are slaves than princes?” Ardenai asked, rolling his head in his palms to look at the physician.
“Becausse more are sslaves than princess,” Pythos echoed quietly in affirmation, and they went back to gazing up at the brilliant stars of the Calumet night.
Although this is the final chapter in the “Day The City Shook” serial, this is just the foreshadowing of the rest of Ardenai’s amazing adventures in Equus and beyond in the Dragonhorse Rising universe. To learn more (and to find out how to get the next novel in this series when it becomes available), go to: http://www.dragonhorserising.com . (You can also follow us on the Dragonhorse Rising Facebook page.)