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The Horsewoman's Tale

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It's April, and muddy, and all the birds in the trees are singing nonstop about sex. She's only dimly aware of this, little hearts battering too-quick and full of suicidally eager blood as their owners sing their lungs out, but it's enough to give her a headache that lingers once they've reached their resting place for the night. It won't be her first time sleeping in the saddle; it's as cozy as she's ever known, and it lets her keep watch on the horses without the difficulties that accompanied getting back into the saddle for their morning departure. The stable is perfumed mostly with horses and associated byproducts (anyone who rhapsodizes about anywhere four-legged animals reside smelling primarily of fresh hay and honest sweat is a fool, or else only steps foot inside such places to berate the stable-boys) but it's well enough for their purposes, and Kicker and Vanguard are both settling in with palpable relief.

Ystin is preparing to bed down on the straw by spreading his cloak out and removing precisely nothing except his hood; he's checked and rechecked the sharpness of his sword a good four times already. He seems a little flustered without the full armor to which he is accustomed; in a saffron-yellow quilted jupon and mail coat he makes a fully convincing boy-knight but he doesn't wear his own insignia and his shining helm and breastplate are safely stowed with the holy sisters who've commissioned this adventure of them. (Many of whom had seemed quite taken with the young champion.)

"It doesn't sit well with me -- the problem with pilgrimages is that there's too many damned pilgrims. It taxes the horses, and they have to stop every half-mile so someone can relieve themselves or buy a vial of the Blessed Virgin's breast milk from some po-faced stranger by the roadside. It's unnecessary."

"Vows have their uses," he says simply, combing his hair out with his fingers and tying it up again.

"You seldom see poor people on these little outings, have you noticed? Country people. They keep well to themselves instead of mucking about with vows and badges and shrines. Getting there is like traveling with sheep, except sheep have a better idea of where they're going."

She regrets this once she's said it -- she's encountered some perfectly nice, biddable sheep in the course of her life's journey-- but it makes Sir Ystin's little dark brows knit with perplexity. He talks rather less of Camelot in these days, but something about a company of dissimilar companions has a marrow-deep appeal to him and there's no use arguing with him about it. The more time she spends in the company of humans, the more glad she is to be able to return to her wild life when she pleases, and to participate in two-legged society only as much as it pleases her; Ystin can't revisit those glorious years outside of whatever glimpses dog his prophetic nightmares, and it galls him a little. His calling requires him to go among mortal men and women, even if it can't guarantee he'll like it.

"I think there's something admirable about it," the Shining Knight says, after a moment's thought that seems wholly out of character for him. "They venture forth in gratitude, or in pursuit of justice, or expiation, having set aside their differences of degree; they're a sworn company now, and I have more trust in oaths than I have in people. At the absolute least they're not rioting or swinging a sword at the Infidel."

Which would have made things powerfully uncomfortable for Al-Jabr, to be sure, who according to Sir Ystin is sitting close to the fireplace with a mug of well-water scratching diagrams of arcs and chords on the hearthstone with a burned twig. His habits are a careful old man's habits now; you'd never catch him sleeping in the stables, even if he'd once been as hardy as they were. Out of all of them, his face most shows his age, and he'd much rather be in his harmonious city than tramping through the April mud of a God-forsaken island nation. There might well be murmurs still about the presence of a gray-bearded Saracen among Christian pilgrims, but he's good at keeping a low profile in Christian lands and the hostelry is not so well appointed that they can afford to sniff at the wrong manner of man's money. There's been no more than murmuring about bold, beardless Ystin; he's loud-mouthed and half-pagan anyway and emphatically Welsh, but he's somewhat less conspicuous for being among the strangest band of travelers ever to dislodge themselves from Southwark.

"You won't be riding behind the dodgy eunuch and his leman, with the flatulent horse; they've been cooing at one another the whole way here, and he's thinking very loudly about how much he'd love to throw them off into the next ditch, and about how good the prioress' mare looks from behind. You might also recall that at least one of these pious, charitable individuals is a murderer or murderess. Please tell me there's dinner in this for me and you aren't reserving that for Vanguard."

There has not yet been much made of the presence of Vanguard, though horse and rider have gotten some covetous looks from the destrier-mounted demographic and she could swear one of them extemporized some verses on the subject of winged steeds as they passed a few miles back. She rustles her wing-feathers a little, disgruntledly, at the mention of her name.

"Meat and wine," he says, rising quickly to bring her the dish and cup that had laid half-forgotten on a workbench, "and bread." His absent-mindedness as regards food might be a hold-over from his time as one of the undead, or a side effect of centuries of immortality prior to that, but it's more mildly irksome than anything. Ystin likes a pint, a pie, and a fistfight as much as any of their old crew, but he seldom seems to have an appetite until they're in the heat of the adventure, and the adventure has scarcely begun for them.

The Horsewoman's bow and arrows, freshly fletched, were as well-covered as could be among their scant baggage; the knight's yeoman carries his bow with him as bold as he pleases, but as far as the party was concerned Sarah is the daughter of a dyer made good, seeking to fulfill a vow made in her youth so that she might marry. The obvious explanation for participation in a pilgrimage, the expectation of a miraculous healing for her legs, is a mite more uncomfortable than she'd care to pursue, and as she fully expects to receive no spiritual benefit whatsoever from traveling undercover in pursuit of stolen relics and the identity of a murderer. They might not even make it to Canterbury, if they're lucky, and can haul the offender off to the wronged Abbess by the ear, or in the worst-case scenario, sling their perforated corpse over the back of one of their horses and make a break for it. Sarah has little patience for this kind of game.

The Horsewoman pats Kicker's neck in answer to a small complaint about when he'll be fed next, and reaches to take the bowl.

"Thank you. What other news from the inn, then? Any likely suspects?"

"They're planning on having a tale-telling contest, not that any of them are any good at it," Ystin says with the bruised loftiness of one whose standards were set long ago by Cymric warrior-bards and to whom everything since that does not concern wars or quests sounds newfangled and thoroughly inane. "We depart in the morning. They're harmless now, until the next drunken brawl over occupational pride, but tensions might rise the longer we're on the road. If our killer had accomplices, there might be friction."

(Friction may well be a tender subject for Ystin right now after so much riding; how he can find neck-to-toe scale armor more comfortable than plain cloth is mysterious, even if the former is plainly enchanted. The Horsewoman couldn't be persuaded to ride crosswise in the saddle in skirts for the ransom of a thousand relics. A tawny Moor, a woman riding astride in chausses, and ... well, Ystin had proven himself to be a multitude of fine things over the past centuries.)

"What's the possibility of you getting in and searching the baggage?"

"Slim to nil; we'd be better off waiting until nightfall on the road. I suspect the ringleader might be rather put out if we go poking through their valuables before he does."

"Do we even know what shape the relic shirt will be in? Suppose it's been cut into pieces, or stuffed into amulets to keep jealous husbands at bay; I can't imagine the nuns will be pleased to have it back if it's in shreds."

"It belongs with the abbey of St. Richardis," Ystin says, with a more familiar kind of conviction. "In whatever form it should take. Our aim is to recover it without bloodshed. Or with minimal bloodshed, if that can't be managed." A smile plays across his face.

She leans forward in her saddle, making sure her legs are in the right places and rubbing at her bleary eyes. "We ride tomorrow, then. Keep an eye out for anything crooked."

Ystin settles against the straw, yawning a little. "We ride tomorrow. I'm sure one of us can think of a story to tell."