Somewhere in the Westmark
The sun was well up in the sky by the time Sundance and the colt had finished their mash and Windy had cleaned up the camp. Although she did not plan to change her camping location, experience had taught her that it was better to only have out of her pack what was absolutely necessary, and so the pot was wiped out and stowed, the fire banked once again, and her blankets rolled tightly and tied down to Sundance’s saddle, although the saddle itself was still on the ground. Both horses had rope halters in place of bridles, and Windy picked up the coil of new rope she had acquired for this trip. The trade she made for the rope had cost her dear - a rare old coin she had found in her journeys in the north - but it had a special clasp on the end, and she had it from a blacksmith whose reputation was as solid as the muscles on his shoulders. He claimed that the rope would not fray at the connection, and the hook would not slide out on a whim, but could be released suddenly if you knew the trick.
She had, of course, thought to have him teach her the trick. One of the downsides of doing this beginning training on the open fields was that she had no round pen or anything approaching an enclosed space in which to work with the colt. She would have to rely on this rope and what skill she still had from her father’s teaching, as well as Sundance’s bossiness and herding instinct. She hoped there would be little use for that last, because the stallion did not look inclined to be patient just now.
Start slowly. It was probably the best advice Windy had ever received from her Da. Ignoring Sundance, she approached the colt with the rope slung over her shoulder and across her chest, and brushes in her hands. For weeks she had been letting him become accustomed to grooming and having hands and brushes all over him, particularly around his head and hindquarters. If he was going to be any good in battle, she had to be sure that he would only be aggressive on command and not as a reaction. It would probably save her a few black eyes as well. He shied a bit at the odd sight of the rope, but relaxed quickly when she murmured to him and began brushing. “You’re a trusting soul,” she told him. “I'll say that much for you.” She knew surprisingly little about the colt, but she knew that he should not be comfortable with her touch. She had picked him up about five months ago in the North…
Five Months Ago
Sundance had been glad that they were heading south again. “The Grey Mountains were not as bad as all that,” she told him several times, but it didn’t stop his ears from pricking up as they moved away from the snow and cold, and south to the Anduin River. She had to admit, it was a fine day when she was able to start removing layers of clothing – she could breathe easier with the improved mobility. There was no reason to think that she would be attacked, now, but vigilance was never wasted.
At first she thought it was abandoned. She stopped Sundance at the brow of a hill and looked down on a decrepit farm, bleached by the sun and battered by wind. The snow had just melted from the fields, and there was more mud than grass. It could be a good place to stop for the night, even if there would be no home-cooked meal, and she was riding down when she saw movement. “Looks like we could have company after all,” she murmured.
Her sword was wrapped and hidden, but she loosened the knife at her belt just in case. The source of the movement turned out to be a grizzled old man. “Westu hal,” she called. He stopped and looked at her, leaning on his cane. He raised a hand, but his expression remained sour as she approached.
Since the man posed little threat, she studied her surroundings as she rode up and what she saw raised the hair on the back of her neck and her ire. The buildings were very poorly kept and there was a distinct smell of decay, but either of those things could have been ignored if it were not for the half-starved dog next to the house. Every rib was visible and his eyes were sunk into his head; he stared at his master sullenly, but was visibly shaking. Windy took a steadying breath and resolved to be as polite as possible. Perhaps the man had fallen on hard times and simply needed help.
The man had clearly noticed her perusal of his property. “You best ride on, lass,” he growled before she had even reached him. “I haven’t got time for the likes of you unless you want to take an animal off my hands. Too damn many, no one to help me take care of them.” Windy was tempted to follow his advice, but Sundance stopped without her signal. She tapped her heels to his side, but he wouldn’t budge. “I do apologize, sir,” she answered the man. “But it seems that my horse needs a rest. Could we trouble you for a drink? I would, of course, be glad to help with any small tasks that I can in exchange for the favor.”
The man’s expression soured even more, if that was possible, but Windy gave him no choice and in a short time she had busied herself moving hay and cleaning the stable. It was a dank, dark sort of place and she took one stall at a time, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the light. She was halfway through when she realized that there was one horse left there. When she could finally see him, the anger she had been trying to contain exploded.
Once Windy had coaxed the colt out into the sunlight it was clear that she had been too kind in her assessment of the place. The horse was clearly neglected and underfed, and he was covered with cuts from a whip, with some obvious bruising under his moon-faded coat. All four feet had been hobbled with a rope pulled too tight, and he shied violently from even the most gentle touch.
Leaving the man alive was an exercise in self-restraint, and she considered it justice rather than theft to take the horse with her. She found his papers and breeding charts in the house, dropped two copper coins in the man’s lap – had she hit him? She hoped so – and rode away. The colt bonded with Sundance almost immediately, but it had been weeks before he would let her approach him. The dog had followed them when they left, and she fed him as well as she could but he had been too malnourished for too long and she buried him after two days.
“A bit of loving care and we might find some spirit in you, yet,” she said to the colt as she groomed him now. She took her time brushing him down, deliberately rubbing the rope over his back and legs as she went. She lifted each of his hooves to scrape them out, and briefly coiled the rope around them. Remembering where he had come from, it made sense that he was subdued. It made absolutely no sense, in fact, that he would let her so close so soon. “Trusting soul…” For the first time, he turned to her as if he understood, rubbing his nose against her arm. “I suppose we will be friends, after all.”