“Oh, the poor thing,” Red-Beard said in mock sorrow.
“We wouldn’t want that horse to feel neglected, now would we?” Ariga said, grinning.
“I’ll sacrifice myself to make him feel happy, then,” Red-Beard said. “Sometimes I’m so noble that I just can’t stand myself.”
“I’ve noticed that. Now, you want to be certain that your foot’s firmly in place in the stirrup before you mount. If that foot slips out, you’ll wind up face-down on the ground, and the horse will run off and leave you behind.”
“Let’s try it and see what happens,” Red-Beard said. He took hold of the saddle, jammed his foot into the stirrup, and hauled himself up onto the horse’s back. “It’s sort of awkward, isn’t it?” he said.
“You’ll get smoother with practice.”
“How do I persuade him to start walking?”
“Nudge his sides with your heels—gently right at first. You want him to walk. If you thump his sides too hard, he’ll run.”
“How do I tell him that I want him to stop?”
“Pull back on the reins. He knows what that means.”
“All right. Let’s give it a try and see what happens.”
Red-Beard fell off the horse a few times, but by the end of the day he’d grown more proficient, and if the horse wasn’t running too fast, he managed to stay in the saddle.
“It’s going to take a few more days to get all of the men off those ships,” Ariga told Red-Beard, “so you’ll have time to practice and grow more proficient.”
“Does this horse have a name?”
“I think he’s called ‘Seven,’” Ariga replied. “His original owner was very interested in dice games, and seven’s very important when you’re playing dice.”
“I wouldn’t know about that, but I’ll take your word for it,” Red-Beard said. He patted his horse on the neck. “You’re a good boy, Seven,” he said. “Why don’t you go rest your feet for a while, and I’ll go rest my bottom.” He looked at Ariga. “Does it get any easier on your backside as time goes by?”
“There are some ways you’ll develop in time to keep from bouncing up and down so much. Right at first, though, you’ll probably eat most of your meals standing up. Seven will get you to where you want to go quite a bit faster than your feet will, and your feet won’t hurt at the end of the day.”
“But my bottom will, I take it.”
Ariga shrugged. “Nothing comes free, Red-Beard.”
The deep forest on the Tonthakan side of the mountain range bothered all of the Malavi quite a bit. “We aren’t used to seeing trees that big, Red-Beard,” Ariga said. “The trees down in our part of the world aren’t nearly so tall, and they have leaves that fall off when winter arrives.”
“The trees up here in Dahlaine’s territory are probably the biggest ones in the whole world,” Red-Beard agreed, nudging Seven along with his heels. “I always thought that the trees in Zelana’s Domain were the biggest, but they don’t even come close to these monsters. A tree that’s three hundred feet tall gives a man something to think about, doesn’t it? Can you imagine how old those things are?”
“They seem to be aging quite well, though,” Ariga added. “Their limbs aren’t turning grey, and they don’t seem to need canes to keep them standing upright.”
“I don’t think trees get old, Ariga,” Red-Beard said. “If nothing goes wrong—a forest fire or a windstorm—they’ll just stand there forever. If we looked around, we could probably find a tree up here that’s a million years old—give or take a month or two.”
“Very funny, Red-Beard.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” Red-Beard said. “Wait!” he hissed.
“Deer on up ahead. Let’s find out if I can shoot arrows when I’m sitting on old Seven here.” He carefully took up his bow and pulled an arrow out of his quiver. “Stay right here,” he whispered. “I don’t think this will take too long.” He lightly nudged Seven with his heels and the weary old horse plodded forward toward the deer that was feeding on a low bush.
The deer raised his head, his ears flickering a bit. Then he went back to eating.
Red-Beard took aim and loosed his arrow.
The arrow took the deer high in his neck, and the deer staggered off a few yards and then collapsed.
“Meat in the pot!” Red-Beard shouted triumphantly.
Ariga rode forward. “You’re very good with your bow, Red-Beard,” he said.
“Lots of practice, my friend,” Red-Beard said. “Now you’ll be able to taste real meat. Venison’s richer than beef, and a meal of deer meat will keep you going. I don’t want to offend you, Ariga, but beef is a little bland, you know.”
“It’s never bothered me all that much,” Ariga said, “and the Trogites pay good money for cow meat.”
“Trogites will eat almost anything,” Red-Beard said, sliding out of his saddle with a knife in his hand. “I’ll dress this one out and then sort of snoop around and see if I can find any others nearby. We’re coming up on feeding-time here in the woods.”
“You don’t have to tell Red-Beard that I said this,” Ariga told his friend Ekial, “but that deer meat didn’t set too well with me.”
“It was just a bit gamey, wasn’t it?” Ekial agreed. “I definitely prefer beef, but let’s not make an issue of it. We don’t want to offend Red-Beard if we can avoid it.”
They rode on up into the mountains that stood to the east of the Tonthakan country, and Ariga was somewhat awed by these rugged peaks. This wouldn’t be a good place to fight a war on horseback.
When they reached the summit, however, Ariga and the other Malavi stared off to the east at what was probably the most beautiful meadowland any of them had ever seen. It stretched unbroken from the east side of the mountains to the far horizon, almost like a golden sea. “Now that is our kind of country, isn’t it, Ekial?” Ariga said to his friend.
“Truly,” Ekial agreed in an awed voice. “We could raise cows by the millions out there.”
They rode on down the east slope of the mountains, and there was a native of the region waiting for them in the shade of a small grove of trees.