Comrade, Where’s My Horse?

A nugget of wisdom: Don’t ride your horse drunk.

It began like any Sundaine, lazy and uneventful. I was alone again. But I had my regular spot performing at the Roaring Beast Tavern, and I had my vegetable patch out back, and I had my horse, so I was happy…so I told myself.

By midday, the lie had run its course, and bitter reality reasserted itself. I was a monumental failure. I wasn’t even the best bard in Hock Town! And while I had onions, garlic and potatoes, I had eaten alone every night for the past year. And while I had a horse, Spitfire…I only ever rode him to Hock Town, a few miles east of my farm, to tell tales at the Roaring Beast; a few miles I should probably have walked anyway, considering my expanding midriff.

Needless to say, when I heard an unexpected knock at my front door, my neck snapped around so fast that it clicked. Massaging out the pain, I undid the latches, and swung the door open.

There stood my two best friends, Horace Jorman and Duvasti Orland.

It was like someone had upended a bucket of polar ice over my head.

You see, I had cut Horace and Duvasti out of my life, like gangrenous flesh, many years ago. They had been nothing but mooches, I had concluded, after a lifetime of camaraderie and good times. I had been far more concerned with my dwindling supply of ale, wine and meat than I had been with the company of such basal human necessities as friends. Pshaw! Friends…They were a dead weight, an obstacle in my solitary journey to the upper echelon of legendary bards.

I had chosen to live in stark denial of the fallacy of my notions for months, years even. I sang every night, tales of hero’s and great deeds of valor, as my heart secretly sank at every mention of comrades, or friends. Hero’s in the stories always had comrades…I had actively culled mine. So my words rang hollow. The more I sang, the more I felt like…a fake. An imposter. I craved real adventure, real life, something to bring back the spark that had made me a great storyteller in my youth. But my friends were gone. What quest could there be without comrades?

Yet…there they stood, smiling at me through my doorway like no time had passed at all. Duvasti was stunning as ever, with her lotus eyes and shining black hair, dressed in an outrageous emerald green dress that left her long, supple legs bare. Horace lumbered at her shoulder, his eyes downcast, his cheeks flushed, a counterpoint to his strong jaw, rugged cheekbones and his imposing black-leather coat.

“Duvasti! Horace!” I said.

“Incaran!” Duvasti cried, diving into my arms.

“You’re back?” I said. Duvasti had left the country six years ago. However, I had been hard-pressed to avoid the constant stream of news regarding her exploits in the Edrun theatre scene. That was another reason I had cut my friends off, though I wouldn’t have admitted it. Not just Duvasti, but Qyzard and Congor, and a host of others, all for the sin of outperforming and outclassing me.

“I just got back!” she said, beaming. “I had to come see you. And I ran into Horace on the way-”

“Is that right?” I said, raising an eyebrow at Horace, who blushed pink.

“Alright, so maybe I went and dragged him out of his house,” admitted Duvasti.

Horace and I lived a mere mile apart, on opposite sides of the hill to the west of my farm. In our youth, we had spent countless afternoons together, dueling with sticks and smoking on the sly. Yet we never saw each other anymore. It was the strangest thing. It was the only friendship I hadn’t consciously ended.

“Hi,” said Horace, his eyes flickering up for a moment.

“Hi, Horace,” I said, a slow grin spreading over my face. The expression must have been contagious since Horace grinned back like a daft fool.

“So are you going to break out the liquor,” demanded Duvasti, “Or are we going to stand here with our dicks in our hands?”

A flash of selfishness froze my mind for an instant. Words like moocher and free-loader bounced around in my head. Then, it was like everything was wiped away by a surging tide.

A single feeling remained, and it filled my heart like a swan song as I gazed upon the faces of my friends. I wanted to be with them, to spend time with them, to laugh, and drink, and waste my life with them.

“Of course,” I said. “I’ve got Ale, Zandoran Wine and some fresh bacon.”

“Mmmmm…” said Horace.

We settled into the living room, Horace dwarfing the lounge chair, as Duvasti and I squeezed onto my ancient patchwork sofa. Keen as I was to divulge the thousand thoughts and stories I had been forced to stow away in the absence of friends, I was far more curious about what they had been up to. About what was going on in the rest of Ducon, and the other kingdoms, beyond the sleepy backwaters of Hock Town. I was desperate for anything, anything real from beyond the confines of my drudgery.

As they spoke, Duvasti with animated exclamations, and Horace in halting insertions that dripped humility, I was enraptured. Soon the conversation crackled and roared like a vivacious flame. The expulsion of loneliness felt much like an exorcism. I certainly felt like a demon had left my body, cheer and good-humor replacing bitterness, brooding and melancholy. And as night fell, I remember thinking that I hadn’t been happy in a very long time.

Hours went by in what felt like heartbeats and I found myself out in the middle of a field somewhere, far from home, with Horace and Duvasti. I was drunk as a monk at the Festival of Revelry, holding Spitfire’s reins in one hand, while in the other I clutched a brimming mug of Ale.

I remember acting on impulse and crying out at the moon with my arms upraised, like a bloody teenager, and feeling awfully good about it. However, nightfall also meant that the dream, the alternate reality of company and laughter, faced an imminent end.

My friends would go back to their lives, embracing the world and moving on. I would go back to wallowing my nights away at the Roaring Beast, performing before the same set of drunks every night.

“Are you…” I gulped, unable to meet Duvasti’s eye. “Are you…leaving Hock Town soon?”

“In a week,” she said, slurring her words slightly.

“And you Horace?” I said. “When are you leaving for Zandor?”

“The Ivory Squad drafts fresh recruits in six weeks,” he said, grinning. He’d been grinning ever since the Ale had first touched his lips.

I didn’t have the nerve to ask if I would see them again before they left Hock Town and the Kingdom of Decon behind.

“Mind if I ride Spitfire?” said Duvasti, brushing back her dark hair. “I’m too drunk to walk all the way back to your farm.”

I froze. If you hail from Cho or Reshald, or some other back of beyond, lawless land of anarchy, you might not be familiar with the Riding Laws of the Allied Kingdoms, which make it a criminal offense to ride under the influence of alcohol. I did though, and it made me very nervous. However, Duvasti had just implied that…

“Er…you’re coming back to my farm?” I said.

“Yeah, I thought I’d spend the night,” she said, like it was perfectly obvious. Her dark, lotus eyes glittered in the moonlight.

I swallowed, and nodded. It took everything I had to quell the urge to tell Duvasti how beautiful I thought she was. Breaking the law certainly didn’t seem like an issue anymore. She mounted the great white beast, and Spitfire snorted, blowing his long silver mane out of his eyes. I guided Spitfire by the reins, and we made our way into Dusket forest, the canopy speckling the moonlight so it shone down in patches. Otherwise, it was pitch dark.

Midway down the forest path, a light suddenly appeared, illuminating my worst nightmare.

A squadron of Ducon’s Imperial Legionaries.

The roadblock was practically a military fortification, consisting of a score of soldiers, led by no fewer than three Mages, all of whom were officers. I couldn’t believe our misfortune. Dusket forest lay at the intersection of three Kingdoms, including Ducon, which meant that no one really had jurisdiction, which meant there were never any lawmen. It was why we had chosen the forest road in the first place.

Apparently the Allied Kingdoms had worked out that little legal snag.

Captain Eyvin, the stocky, big-breasted woman in command, introduced herself in loud, authoritative tones. The Captain held one hand up over her head, flames licking at her fist, bathing our patch of forest in an orange glow.

She took in our party, her expression gruff, and accusing.

“You, on the horse. Get off,” she pronounced, pointing at Duvasti with her flaming hand.

Duvasti gulped and stepped down. We all tried to appear as sober as we could manage. It didn’t help that Horace was still grinning.

“Have you been drinking tonight, ma’am?” said Captain Eywin.

Now, Duvasti was a phenomenal actress. One of the best in the Allied Kingdoms. But she also had a phenomenal amount of liquor pumping through her system. Within seconds, the Captain was grimacing, and I knew the game was up.

Another one of the Mages stepped up. This one was apparently a Douser. His hand glowed white, as he placed it before Duvasti’s mouth. He told her to exhale, and she did, frowning. The pure white glow coming from the mages arm slowly turned purple, like ink spreading through milk.

The Captain’s eye’s narrowed.

“Take them,” she said.

The third Mage stepped in behind me and yanked my arms back. Suddenly, I found I couldn’t pull my arms apart, like they were bound in iron chains. Horace cried out, soon finding himself in the same predicament.

“Alright,” I cried. “Alright, look, so she’s drunk. That’s why she’s riding the horse, see? I was leading it, so there was no problem!”

“You’re drunk too,” said the Captain.

“Yes, well, er…can’t we work this out,” I ventured. “Some other way? You know?”

The Captain’s flame burned brighter, somehow casting her eyes into deeper darkness.

“Are you trying to bribe me?”

I swallowed.

“Did you know that a hundred people have died in the past year alone, because of reckless fools like you galloping around, drunk as sailors?”

“We’re sorry?” I said, shrugging.

That’s all I remember from that evening, except for a vague memory of a fiery fist soaring at my temple, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye.

The next thing I knew, I was blinking away bleariness, my head splitting with a spectacular headache, in a dark cell somewhere.  Horace and Duvasti shared my cell, Horace sitting cross-legged against the wall, and Duvasti pacing back and forth.

“Wha—where–” I babbled.

“We’re in the Garrison dungeons,” said Duvasti.

“Shit,” I said. I patted my pockets, and found to my relief that I still had my coin purse. “What about-”

“They took the horse,” whispered Horace. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t stop them.”

I groaned.

“Don’t worry, Incaran,” said Duvasti. “I’ll get us out of this.”

I just couldn’t see how. “Are we going to get a trial?” I asked. “Or is it…straight to the chopping block?”

Duvasti giggled. “Riding under the influence isn’t a capital offence, you idiot!”

“Oh,” I said. Apparently I wasn’t quite the scholar of Allied Law that I had imagined.

“We could go to prison for a long, long time though,” said Horace.

“I said,” intoned Duvasti, ceasing her pacing for the first time. “I’ll handle it.”

As were herded before the Hock Town Courthouse by Imperial Legionaries, along with the other dubious characters that had been detained the previous evening, I felt my confidence in Duvasti’s assertions fading fast. It didn’t help that the judge, a Mage of Truth by the name of Jamus Giandolo, didn’t arrive until well past midday, by which time the baking Decon sun had driven our gaggle of alcoholics to dehydration. Many didn’t make it to their hearing at all.

When our gang was finally dragged before Judge Giandolo, my heart jumped up into my throat. Somehow, I was sure this man could smell a farce a mile away. Duvasti couldn’t fool a Mage of Truth. Could she?

“Which one of you is…Incaran Wiquer?” the judge inquired.

I raised a trembling hand.

“Do you wave the right to retain counsel?” he demanded.

“No, he does not, your lordship!” pronounced Duvasti, with such force that I jumped a little. “Barrister Duvasti Orland, your lordship. I shall represent him.”

The Mage raised an eyebrow. Then he nodded for her to proceed.

I couldn’t believe it. The only way Duvasti could have put that lie about being a Barrister over on a Mage of Truth…was if she really believed what she was saying! The girl was unbelievable, a true method actor! She hadn’t been pacing in that cell because she had been nervous…she had been getting into character!

And she never missed a beat. Her performance was flawless. She had the judge sufficiently hoodwinked that I wager she could have conned him into believing she was his own daughter. Yet she managed the entire thing without ever explicitly citing a word of Allied Law.

An hour later, my eyes glazed from the sheer impossibility of the situation, I exited the courtroom proper with my friends, freedom papers in hand. I babbled my thanks to a blushing Duvasti. When we returned to the Imperial Garrison stables to retrieve Spitfire, however, we were greeted by the most insufferable groom in Ducon.

He was a snotty fellow, barely a few years past puberty, with proper delusions of grandeur. Several of my fellow inmates were in line ahead of me, all of whom the groom seemed to delight in tormenting. He barely deigned to glance at me as I spoke and he perused his logbook with a listlessness that suggested he was paid extra for tardiness.

“So…where’s my horse?” I demanded, unable to contain the hint of frustration in my voice.

He looked up.

“Who knows?” he said, his lip curling. “Says here it was moved last night.”

“Moved?” I cried. “Moved where?”

“Well,” said the groom with relish. “Says here a Legionary rode it to Risecard last night.”

“Risecard? That’s in spitting Zandor!” I said.

“Yep.”

“Why was my horse sent to Zandor?” I demanded.

“Maybe there wasn’t room in the stables here,” said the groom, picking his nose. “Or maybe…I don’t have to tell you jack, criminal!”

“Whatever,” I said. “So it’s in Risecard? You’re sure?”

“Was last night…who knows where it is now, eh?”

The clerk’s laughter rang in my ears as I ran, desperate and directionless. Horace and Duvasti followed close behind.

“Incaran, I’m sorry,” said Duvasti.

“Me too,” yelled Horace.

“Not your fault,” I said over my shoulder.

It was my fault, I thought. My fault for trusting them again. For indulging in friends again, and forgetting the lessons I had paid so dearly to learn. Friends only ever yielded trouble, and cost me money I didn’t have. Now I had lost my horse.

The Decon beaurcracy was notoriously corrupt, and the war in the north had made horses a valuable commodity in the Allied Kingdoms. It was obvious that this was their attempt to sell my horse out from under me. If I didn’t get to Risecard, fast, I knew there was little or no hope that I would ever see Spitfire again.

When I had finally gathered my wits, I spent all the money I had left to rent a horse at the Hock Town Relay, and galloped to Risecard. It was a six-hour ride, on a good day. To my surprise, however, I found that my friends were riding right behind me. It made my heart soar for an instant.

“They will abandon you, in the end,” whispered the jaded part of me. “You will see.”

Still, they kept pace with me the whole way. The rolling hills gave way to the evergreens of Weland’s Grove, before we passed the border into the vast plains of Zandor, and the town of Risecard finally came into sight. The Imperial Legion outpost was located on the east edge of town. I made straight for it.

However, as I rode past the Garrison’s stable, I couldn’t spot Spitfire. The groom didn’t know anything about a white stallion either. I had to speak with whoever was in charge of the Garrison. Maybe there was still a chance…

Inside the Garrison barracks, I followed some of other offenders I recognized from the Hock Town courthouse into a practice yard, where still more familiar faces were gathered. All eyes were on a huge man who stood on an elevated platform, speaking in sonorous tones that reminded me of the Omax Monastery preachers. He had a greying beard, trimmed to perfection and dark, oily hair slicked back. His features were sharp, his eyes ever so slightly slanted and his cheekbones high, marking him as a Zandoran.

“…Hural nidrania?” he was saying, when we arrived. “Mershalle vi hackenzha? To escape? Well, ezcape may seem easy, boyz and girlz, but…Du heratalia partanza!”

Most of that had been Zandoran. I would learn from my fellow felons that the man on the platform was Commander Locke, of the Zandoran Royal Guard. He was in Risecard for an inspection, and had taken it upon himself to educate us alcoholics on the dangers of dependence, and addiction.

The only trouble was…I didn’t speak Zandoran, and neither did Horace or Duvasti. So we were forced to nod along through the lecture like dullards. Commander Locke only occasionally slipped in phrases of accented Deconean, punctuating each such occasion with an insufferable smile that he seemed to imagine was gracious.

Finally, we were all lined up and brought onto the platform, one by one, for a personal confrontation with the Commander. He would ask questions, and based on the reply, one of two things would happen. Either he would clap the offender on the shoulder (always eliciting a broad smile from the convict), or he would duel them.

When I say duel, I mean several people left the platform with broken bones, and some of them, I was quite certain, were unlikely to recover from the experience. None of the fights were even close. The Commander mowed down the alcoholics (most of whom were probably battling withdrawal) like a farmer at harvest.

I broke out in a cold sweat. In what seemed like no time at all, before I had a chance to confer with Duvasti or Horace, I found myself face to face with the enormous Commander.

“Izt nidrania huztavar?” he asked, his eyes hard.

I knew precisely two words of Zandoran at the time. ‘Ozt’, which meant ‘yes’, and ‘Hun’ which meant asshole. I chose to say, “Ozt.”

Wrong answer. The Commander’s expression darkened.

“Look, I just want my horse!” I exclaimed.

“You dizplay blatant dizregard for your crimez,” snarled the Commander, “And you demand your horze on top of it?”

“No, I just don’t speak-”

“Silence!” he roared.

He then proceeded to spit several enraged Zandoran phrases at me. He seized me by the shoulders and repeated a particular phrase a couple of times. He seemed to interpret my silence badly, and he drew back his mighty fist to strike. I cowered, rooted to the spot, eyes wide, praying he spared my face.

“Wait!”

I looked around to find Horace, pale faced, with his arms upraised. Even amongst the gathered crowd, Horace stood out with his imposing proportions.

“Commander,” squeaked Horace. “By Zandoran Law…I invoke the right to champion Incaran!”

“You will fight me in his stead?” said the Commander, surprised.

“Yes,” said Horace, setting his jaw in a determined expression.

I had little idea what was going on, but I was far too shocked at Horace’s outburst to care. Horace was the shyest man I knew. For him to throw down the gauntlet for me, before a crowd…I simply couldn’t understand it. Yet as he scrambled onto the platform, to stand between the Commander and me, there wasn’t a shred of doubt left in him.

“I commend your courage in invoking the Right of Championship,” said Commander Locke. “But that will buy you no sympathy in our contest.”

“If I cannot hold my own against any ordinary opponent” said Horace, “I have no business joining the Ivory Guard.”

“The Ivory Guard?” said the Commander, his brows shooting up. “It appears…I have misjudged you…Very well, should you best me, your comrade’s crimes are forgiven.”

He shot me a glance, and I hastened off the platform, to stand beside Duvasti. She looked terrified too. She seized me arm for reassurance, which was nice but the action also fueled my anxiety to new heights. I could smell her perfume.

“But you were already cleared by the court!” whispered Duvasti.

“Oh, er…” I stammered, snapping out of my amorous reverie. “I…er…I don’t think Commander Locke really cares about courts. This seems like a matter…between men.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Duvasti snapped.

“Search me,” I replied, honestly.

The Commander and Horace began to circle one another, and a hush descended over the gathered alcoholics. It was clear to all who bore witness that this bout wasn’t like the others.

And then they collided, like titans out of the legends. Neither of them wielded any magic, yet I could swear I felt the shockwave emanating from their impact. When they began to fight in earnest, it wasn’t like anything in the storybooks. It wasn’t neat, or elegant. It was savage, like wild beasts facing off in the wild, each blow echoing through the practice yard.

Horace was slightly taller and broader than the Commander, but Locke seemed Horace’s equal in terms of brute strength. But as soon as Horace closed in and began to wrestle, the face of the fight mutated.

Horace was a pure wizard, wrapping Locke up like a Festival present. Finally, Horace swung in behind the Commander, and grabbed a hold of the Commander’s arm. In seconds, the Commander was in an arm-bar, grunting in pain. Horace grimaced, and wrenched at Locke’s arm. There was a wrenching, popping noise, and the Commander groaned, slapping the ground with his free arm.

Horace relinquished his hold, and stepped back, breathing in great gasps. As the Commander rose to his feet, his expression livid, I realized even though Horace had won the bout… whether or not Locke honored his word was another matter entirely. There was a pause that seemed to last a lifetime. Then Locke sighed and turned to one of the soldiers standing by the edge of the platform. I hadn’t even noticed, but several of the Legionaries had drawn their blades.

“Relax, boys,” said Commander Locke. “And Lieutenant…find out where this man’s horse is.”

It was like a great weight was lifting off my shoulders, and I smiled unabashedly, before Commander Locke’s glare cut my merriment short. Horace, Duvasti and I followed the Lieutenant further into the barracks. He told us to wait outside a small room full of scribes, and disappeared within.

Duvasti gushed over Horace’s remarkable display of nerve and skill out in the courtyard. I wanted to join her in her fervent assertions, but I just couldn’t. That just wasn’t how Horace and I were. Yet when our eyes met, I like to think he knew how grateful I was.

The Lieutenant returned, and something about his expression threw me. With the run of luck I had been having, I should have known my ordeal wasn’t at an end.

“Your horze…” said the Lieutenant, his voice thick with a Zandoran accent and something akin to pity, “Your horze is at the Neverfort.”

The Neverfort…the abode of Lord Caldwin the Sage. Also known as Lord Caldwin the Sadist. Notorious for his cruelty, his love of torture and anguish, and his all consuming lust for control.

“Getting Spitfire back from the Neverfort should be a straightforward matter,” I said morosely, as my friends and I made our way out of the barracks. “All I have to do is sell Lord Caldwin the Sadist a piece of my bloody soul!”

“Don’t panic,” said Dustavi, although I could see the fear writ plain in her eyes.

“Don’t panic,” I exclaimed, pulling at my hair. “Duvasti, they say Lord Caldwin has never, ever done a deed of charity. Ever. Instead, he’s spent his life peeling the fingernails off anyone that’s ever run afoul on a debt! Do you understand what we’re dealing with?”

“We’re with you to the end, Incaran,” said Horace, shrugging. “Even if that means going to the Neverfort.”

“Besides, we have the Order of Release!” said Duvasti, waving the piece of paper that the Lieutenant had handed us as if he was serving a death warrant.

“You want to walk into the Neverfort, armed with a piece of paper?” I demanded.

Duvasti didn’t reply.

The journey to the Neverfort, in the neighboring fiefdom of Tanaka, was long and arduous. We were afforded plenty of opportunity along the way to devise a strategy. We came up with precisely…nothing.

For my part, I was simply in awe of my friends unwavering loyalty. Their obligation to me had ended a long time ago. They had done more than I could have asked for. Yet they rode with me now, into the very maw of oblivion.

The Neverfort appeared in the distance, as we descended the mountains bordering the Tanaka fiefdom. The stronghold was like a granite scar on the landscape. Lifeless grey clouds loomed over the outlying fields, draining all vigor from the landscape.

We rode in anyway. We still didn’t have a plan.

Then, as I rode past the Neverfort stables, I saw him. Spitfire! But something was wrong. He lay slumped against the walls of his stall. Still, the sight of him made hope and resilience bloom anew in my heart.

We rode up to the Manor house, fear and excitement warring with one another. While the Tanaka fiefdom was technically a part of the Allied Kingdoms, everyone knew Lord Caldwin ruled by his own laws. Needless to say, his soldiers weren’t the standard crop either, every one of them a dead-eyed, hulking Battle Mage.

After a nerve-wracking encounter with the Chancellor, who looked over the Order of Release with a supercilious smile that never touched his eyes, we were shown into the Grand Hall. There was already a man pleading his case to the Lord. I recognized him as one of the men who had dueled Commander Locke, and lost. He was nursing a broken arm.

“…Mercy, Lord Sage, mercy,” he was saying. “Without that horse, I cannot…survive!”

Lord Caldwin surveyed the man from his throne, his chin perched on his hands. He had a long mane of blonde hair, held back by a glittering black crown.

“Please!” the man continued, falling to his knees. “I know I don’t have an Order of Release but-”

“Say no more,” said Lord Caldwin. The tenor of his voice threw me. It was smooth, mellifluous almost.

The Lord rose, and went to stand before the man on his knees. The latter immediately dropped his gaze, and began to shake with hopeless sobs.

“Of course, I understand the tribulations of a working man,” said Lord Caldwin, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. The man whimpered. “But I am afraid,” continued the Lord, his lips curling downwards, “Understanding yields little mercy in this world.”

Lord Caldwin’s hand glowed, and the kneeling man’s head snapped up. He knew what was coming, but he wasn’t ready to face it. There was naked terror in his eyes now.

The Lord Sadist wasn’t just a Mage. He was an Alchemist. A master of the five elements, who could transmute all reality as though it were as malleable as fresh clay. As Caldwin unleashed his magic upon the poor alcoholic, the man glowed in a sequence of colors, from red through blue, before finally turning black as coal and crumbling to dust at the Lord Sadist’s feet. The smell of ash permeated the air. That, and silence.

Then it was our turn.

The Lord watched us as we stepped forward, his deep blue eyes like instruments of pure malice. I stuttered, stammered, babbled and otherwise blundered through my plea, before I began to choke on my words.

“We have an Order of Release,” said Duvasti, coming to my rescue.

“Yes, but I have a Bill of Sale,” said the Lord, his silky tones like a lullaby.

“It—it is signed by Commander Locke,” countered Horace.

“A member of the Royal Guard of Zandor,” added Duvasti. “One of the Allied Kingdoms.”

She emphasized the last. I held my breath. We had nothing else, no other cards to play. Either a miracle would occur, or far more likely, the Lord Sadist would decide he would keep the horse, and take our heads for good measure.

“Of course,” said Lord Caldwin at last, “I will honor the treaties of our great Alliance. You will have your horse, boy.”

I stammered some kind of automatic thanks, far more intent on getting out of that hall as fast as humanly possible.

“I will fetch him myself,” said Caldwin, and my blood ran cold. “To show my contrition over this misunderstanding.”

He left the hall, some twenty bodyguards in tow. Our trio was left amidst the still sizable force of Caldwin’s soldiers that lined the walls of the Great Hall. Their unanimous stare felt like a solid force. In the interminable wait that followed, the true madness of my venture struck me for the first time since leaving Risecard.

“He must honor the Order,” whispered Duvasti.

I nodded, feeling anything but reassured.

When Lord Caldwin returned, my hackles rose once more. He was smiling broadly. I didn’t think I would appreciate the joke that had put this man in such a good mood.

“Your steed awaits in the Manor yard,” he said, waving an imperious arm.

I stepped forward, warily, my eyes fixed on the Lord the whole way to the double doors, until I was back in the open air. Then I turned to the Manor yard and I felt my stomach lurch.

Spitfire lay on his side, his legs splayed out before of him. I ran to him. He was stiff as a board, his eyes glassy as orbs of onyx, unseeing.

“You might want to check the saddle,” said the Lord Sadist, a definite hint of glee in his tone.

I reached into the saddlebag with a growing sense of dread. Inside, my fingers clutched something soft and moist. Before I had a chance to pull it out, the thing throbbed. I snatched my hand back, aghast as it came away crimson

“You—you cut out his heart?” I wailed.

“Not cut,” replied Caldwin. “Transmuted. It’s a far more subtle function, I assure you. But I have delivered your horse, Incaran Wiquer. All of him. I hope this matter is now resolved.”

He left me there, cradling Spitfire. A moment later, Duvasti put her arms around me. Horace simply stood at my side, placing an awkward arm on my shoulder.

Then in a hot flash, I shrugged them both off, and stepped over Spitfire’s carcass. I had to get away from the Neverfort, away from Lord Caldwin.

Away from Horace, and Duvasti, who had cost me Spitfire, my friend.

I walked what felt like miles, before the portcullis passed overhead, and I breathed a sigh. I slowed but kept walking, the grey clouds overhead a stifling presence. Then I whirled, as the thundering of hooves broke the silence. For a mad instant, I was certain Spitfire was about to come bounding out of the gates of the Neverfort.

It wasn’t Spitfire. It was Horace and Duvasti, both riding fine ebony stallions that ran with the liquid grace only ever seen in Zandoran warhorses.

“What the fuck?” I cried.

“No time!” yelled Horace, diving off his horse.

“Take Horace’s steed,” said Duvasti. “Go! Run, now! Caldwin’s men are coming!”

“What—why?”

“We’re with you to the end, Incaran,” growled Horace, seizing me by the scruff of my neck and hoisting me into the saddle of the great, black beast like I were a child. “We’re not going to let Caldwin beat you like this!”

“Take the horse and run,” said Duvasti. “We stole the fastest horses in the stables, by far. Horace and I will lead the soldiers off, give them an easy target to follow. With any luck, you’ll make it.”

“You—you guys, I can’t–”

“Go!” they barked in unison.

Clenching my jaw, I dug my heels into the beast’s flanks, and tore away. The miles peeled away, as my heart thundered in my chest. Finally, when I was sure Caldwin’s men weren’t on my trail, I slowed to a canter.

But as soon as I slowed, every step I took was like another thorn digging into my flesh. I hated myself with every passing moment. What was I doing? How could I just leave them there? A part of me tried to rationalize it. I hadn’t asked them to do what they had done. And yet…they had done it. Duvasti and Horace had both just thrown away bright, lucrative futures, lives I would have given anything to have, so I could have a horse. They hadn’t had a reason. Except that they were my friends.

All those years, alone, bitter, cursing the names of the friends I had so carefully culled from my life in my quest for personal glory. Why? Because despite everything I had done, all the misery and selfishness I had inflicted on my friends, I still believed that if they were really my friends, they would forgive me, and stay with me despite my sins. I had hated them for making something of their own lives, for moving on, for leaving me behind. Without making the slightest effort myself, I decided they were no true friends, if they abandoned me in my most solitary years. The arrogance, the sheer arrogance…Yet they had still come through for me, when I needed them the most.

And what had I done? For all the tales I had told, all the stories I had woven, what had I done? When the adventure I craved presented itself, when real experience with comrades, when a true quest had struck me like a thunderclap…what had I done? Nothing. My friends had come to my rescue. My only contribution had been anxiety, unpleasantness, and resentment.

When things really go wrong, is there anyone more useless than a storyteller?

But what was I supposed to do? Go back and fight the Lord Sadist? My blood went cold at the thought. I wanted to go home. Home…home, where I would be alone again. Alone, with a horse I didn’t really need, eating my dinners by myself.

It was like something clicked inside me, and I knew what I had to do. I rode back to Hock Town, and sold the Zandoran warhorse. It fetched a monstrous price. But I still don’t know if it will be enough.

And this is where I leave you, my dear patrons. Have a drink on me, for I don’t think a few pennies will make much of a difference when I face the Lord Sadist. I know that I probably go to my death. But I also know I really didn’t need that horse.

A small, cynical voice in my head still whispers that even if I do somehow manage to rescue Duvasti and Horace…they will simply leave me again.

But who knows? Maybe, for once, money can buy friends.

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