Vignette 1

The Agaesi. The dragon knights of Hesperia. The name invokes awe, wonder, and sometimes fear into the hearts of all those who hear it, high lords as much as commoners. They are a relic out of history, surviving since the Time of Gods and Magic and ever with rumours circling about them. They possess strange powers, yet no one outside their order knows what these gifts are or where they come from. The Agaesi are a mystery, as much an apparition as men in the flesh.

We are trained to handle things beyond the comprehension of most people. And then there’s me, with my unique instruction and experience with the underhanded intrigues of court politics. I have been taught how to face things that would drive a normal person mad.

But I wasn’t sure how to handle this.

“These are the ones we always recommend to your order, Sir,” the horse master said, gesturing at the animals emerging to graze in the paddock. Spring had just turned, but you wouldn’t know it from the snow the horses trudged through, the beasts cloaked as surely as the man standing beside me and their breath steaming on the air. The lake kept much of the storms that buried the plains to the east away from here, but that was cold comfort on a day like this.

Hah. Cold comfort indeed. I thought about sharing that one with the horse master, but decided otherwise.

Bags of supplies and provisions weighing down my shoulders, I stared at the horses as they filed out of the stable. Riding horses. These breeds were a cut above the beasts of burden plentiful throughout the kingdom, bred for both endurance and gait and favoured mounts of the nobility for hawking.

That’s right. The Agaesi, wielders of fearsome power since forgotten antiquity, ride ladies’ horses.

War horses would be wasted on us, if we even wanted them. The Agaesi don’t fight mounted and so don’t train with horses. They are used strictly–and begrudgingly–for traveling, so what the dragon knights need are mounts that are easy to ride, and they don’t care what other people think of what type of horse they sit upon. Not that I care, either, though unlike the rest of the Agaesi, I interact with the ladies who compete for these horses. Of course, by the time I return to Misengrad, any teasing I might endure will be quickly overshadowed by the success of my mission, or…

Well, I vowed to the captain and to myself that I won’t be coming back a failure. In any case, I’m far from needing to worry about that. The real problem is which horse do I choose? That bay horse looks a little larger than the others, but does that mean it’s stronger or only that it’s heavier? Should I be looking for a mare, a stallion, or a gelded male? Or should I just accept the ignorance all of my fellows hold on this subject and just pick a colour I like?

The horse master seemed neither surprised nor put out by my indecision. The Agaesi always use animals from this breeder, so likely he was used to our inexperience with horse-hunting. He took a few steps to the side and gestured at a lithe grey creature. “This filly here, Sir, she’s one of the best jumpers of the lot. She’s a good pick for going ‘cross the wilderness. Or that palomino back there is a good one. We got lucky with him, his sire was Exogen, the horse that won His Grace’s chariot race a few years back. The Countess of Ormstead let us breed him and he’s got all the energy of his sire.”

Both fine choices, I guess, though probably all of them are. Maybe I should be asking which one would be the easiest to care for. I didn’t figure they needed more than some good grazing grounds and a source of water until I spoke to my mother last night. She used to watch the grooms in the stables when she was a girl and said they did all sorts of strange rituals with the horses, things that have to be done daily. Sounds like a hassle. I hope it’s worth it. Probably every other Agaesi who has come to this ranch has felt the same way.

A distant flash of copper caught my eye. I looked between the riding horses to the far side of the paddock and suddenly couldn’t turn away. Another stable hand led a stallion on a rope halter across the enclosure toward a separate corral. It was an enormous destrier, taller than its handler at the shoulders and thick with muscle. Its mane and tail were long and wavy, the latter almost touching the ground, and similar tufts of hair hung off the backs of its hooves. Narrow hooves, not the large ones of a cart horse, though the size of the beast would have fooled me. The stallion pranced and pulled at its lead, nostrils flaring probably from the scent of the mares released into the paddock for my perusal.

It looked precisely like the breed of warhorse coveted by the richest of lords–only this one’s coat was a dark reddish brown, like burnished copper. Then I realized that it was being led toward a corral where several other animals, mostly cart horses, stood tethered together and ready to lead out from the ranch. A heavily laden wagon waited outside the corral, already hitched with two more cart horses.

“Sir?”

I nodded toward the destrier. “What about that one?”

From the corner of my eye, I could see an incredulous look cross the horse master’s face. “That one? No, Sir, you don’t want that one. That one’s a mistake.”

I looked at him. “A mistake?”

“The colour, Sir. That breed is supposed to be black.”

I had mingled with nobility enough to know that this was an irreconcilable defect and no one of status in their right mind, and even some who were out of it, would be caught dead riding a horse that didn’t conform to the breed standards. I never understood that quirk. Isn’t the point of a horse to ride it?

“Is that the only thing wrong with it?” I asked.

The horse master stared at me, trying to gauge whether the question was borne of stupidity or if I was actually sizing up the horse. It was clear he was concerned it was the latter, though I kept my expression unreadable. He decided on ignorance, but there was a note of suspicion in his voice. “That’s all that needs to be, Sir. As a breed, that horse is worthless. A mistake, and anyone will think so.”

I glanced at the riding horses milling about near the stable. Docile, reliable, easy to handle. Yet I couldn’t help being drawn back to the chestnut stallion. A mistake. Unwelcome to the ones who breeded him.

My mind must have been as easy to read as the horse master’s, for he narrowed his eyes and began to say, “Sir, you’re not thinking of–”

“I’ll take that one.”

The horse master’s expression was hard. “I’m not selling you that horse, Sir. It’d look bad on the entire stable.”

I winked. “So just don’t tell people you sold it to me.”

He gestured toward the horses nearer by. “The duke has tendered for one of the palfreys, the money has already been–”

“I will pay you the difference.” I fixed my gaze on him. “Personally.”

His expression darkened further. Dedicated man. I could appreciate that. He wasn’t even interested in recovering his losses from a failed breeding. Of course, if the duke or the captain of the Agaesi suspected that he sold me a poor horse, he could lose his contract. And he thought me mad. Wouldn’t be the first.

“Sir, that’s a bad horse for you. He rides rough and doesn’t have the endurance you need.”

I’m sure I’ve heard that before. “He’s built to carry a knight in armour, isn’t he?”

“Through a crowd of other knights whose heads he’s kicking in, not for gallivanting across the countryside. He won’t work for you, Sir, plain truth.”

Now that sounded rehearsed. I must not be the first Agaesi to favour a warhorse. I suppose I can’t be surprised. Who wouldn’t like showing the image of the knight in shining armour astride his grand destrier? More importantly, though, this is an angle the horse master might relent on. All I have to do is give him the excuse to let me prove him right. “I have some experience with horses. I’m sure I can manage him.”

He folded his arms. “Show me.”

Like a charm. I didn’t let the victory show, however. Still had to see if I could ride the animal. “Very well.” Dropping my bags, I hurried around the enclosure as the stallion was tethered to the other cart horses.

Up close, the stallion was even more magnificent than it looked from a distance. Enormous, muscular, poised, it was the finest animal I’d had the opportunity to see. And this horse was being tossed out like moldy bread because it was the wrong colour. I only wish I could tell the horse master what I really thought about that.

As I approached, the stallion turned its head to stare straight at me, ears pricked forward. I smiled and held out my hand. “Hey there, big fella. You want to go for a ride?” The chestnut cautiously lowered its nose to my hand as I came within reach. I lowered my voice as it sniffed at my fingers. “It’s alright. I know how it feels to be rejected by the people who bred you.”

I don’t know if that had any impact on the animal, but it let me untie its tether and lead it back into the paddock.

The horse master was right, the destrier was a terrible ride. The first thing it did after I mounted it was take me straight over to the nearest food trough, and after I finally convinced it to push into a canter, I nearly fell off from the jolt of its gait. It barely moved forward ten feet before stopping again while I regained my balance.

The horse master shook his head as he leaned against the fence, arms folded across his barrel chest. “You see, Sir? You should pick one of the palfreys.” He glanced wistfully toward the wagon leading the team of cart horses diminishing in the distance.

I have to admit, I was having second thoughts as I struggled to make the horse trot again. You’re an idiot, part of me said as I fought to get the stallion to respond to my commands. Just take a riding horse. It was a lifetime of training as a dragon knight saying that, the part of me I really should have listened to.

As I continued riding the chestnut around the paddock, however, it became more responsive and I began to move with it. And I didn’t want to get down, despite the growing discomfort in my rear. What can I say? After riding him around for a few minutes, I didn’t just want a beast of burden. Maybe it was selfish of me–on more than one level–but this was the only companionship I would have on the journey.

The horse master still didn’t want to let me leave with his ‘mistake’ but I managed to persuade him. I don’t like pulling rank, but it was clear nothing else was going to change his mind. I still gave him more than his asking price for the destrier. No sense in leaving a bad taste with the exclusive supplier of mounts for my order.

It was two more hours before I got out of the stable, as the horse master picked out a saddle and bridle, the smith re-shod the stallion, and the grooms showed me how to brush its coat, comb its mane and tail, pick out its hooves, and how to otherwise care for my new horse. Tedious work, but it seemed less bothersome when I looked into the big, dark eyes of that horse.

“I know just what I’m going to call you,” I said as I finally led the horse away from the ranch. The stallion nickered and nosed my hand. “Your new name is Brenadier.”

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