Onyx and Ivory – Mindee Arnett

OUT HERE, DARKNESS MEANT DEATH. Kate Brighton urged her weary horse ever faster as night crept over the land of Rime. The gelding labored with the pace already, his pants like whipcracks in the air, and his shoulders and neck lathered with foamy white stripes. But they couldn’t stop, and they couldn’t slow down. They had to make it inside the city before the gates closed. How much farther? Kate thought for the hundredth time, Farhold still nowhere in sight. The road wound between hills too tall to see beyond, the shadows deep and dark. The swaths of everweeps spilling down the slopes toward them were already drawing their petals closed, while the moon with its pale silvery ring peeked over the crest of the hills to the east like a watchful eye in the bruised face of the sky. “Come on, Pip,” Kate whispered. She stood in the stirrups as she rode, her legs burning from the effort to keep her weight off the horse’s back. After so many hours in the saddle, her muscles felt like wood gone to rot. Pip’s sleek ears twitched at the sound of her voice, but his pace remained the same. He had no more speed to give. It was more than fatigue. Even without her magic, Kate could sense the horse’s pain in the way his neck dipped whenever his left foreleg struck the ground.

When she reached out with her abilities, though, Kate felt the pain as if it were her own, a hot throb running up from the base of the hoof. What must’ve started as a tiny fracture had only spread and worsened on their long journey. Fear clutched at Kate’s heart. If the bone shatters . She cut the thought off before it could grow roots and spread. The guilt was harder to keep at bay, though. If only they’d stayed a bit longer in the Relay tower, where she and Pip had spent the night on their return journey from Marared, a city more than fifty miles to the east. Another Relay rider would’ve come along to help them. The royal courier service of Rime kept strict protocols about searching for riders who failed to return with the mail they carried. Most riders who went missing were assumed killed by the nightdrakes that roamed the surface of Rime after sunset.

The creatures ruled the night in this land, devouring any human or horse they could find. The only safety was behind the fortified walls of the cities and Relay towers or a magist wardstone barrier. But she hadn’t sensed the injury. Pip had left the tower sound, if a little sluggish from the previous day’s ride. Then halfway to Farhold—snap. The foot went from fine to on fire. At once Kate had dismounted and wrapped the leg with the cloth bandage she kept in her saddlebag. She wanted to stay put, fearing further damage, but they had to press on. She’d slowed their pace in an effort to keep it from worsening, but that too had been a mistake—one they were paying for now with this hellish race against the encroaching darkness. If she just had the power to halt the sun in its descent .

but only Caro could do that, and she doubted the sky god was listening. “We’re almost there,” Kate said, struggling to convey the complex idea to the horse. Although her gift allowed her to touch the minds of animals, and to even influence their behavior, making them understand wasn’t easy. Horses didn’t think in words and ideas but in images and feelings, a language much harder to speak in. Still, for a few seconds she sensed something like relief from Pip, his steps a little lighter, his head a little higher. Then the road began to climb upward, and the horse fell out of the gallop into a trot. Kate resisted pushing him back into a run; Pip needed to catch his breath, and daylight still lingered, if only by a single brushstroke of pink on the sky ahead. Farhold can’t be much farther, she hoped. They’d been in the hills that formed the city’s eastern border for more than an hour now. But this was only her second time taking this route, and she couldn’t be certain.

The Marared route, with its lengthy distance and taxing pace, was reserved for veterans, and Kate had only just made three years as a Relay rider for Farhold. Nevertheless, her instinct proved true. When they finally crested the hill, she spotted Farhold’s towering stone wall less than a mile ahead. In the deepening darkness, the wardstones set in the embrasures at the top of the wall glowed bright as starlight. The magic inside each stone served a single purpose: to repel the nightdrake packs. No one knew where or how the drakes passed from under the earth to the surface, but they always appeared at dark and terrorized until dawn. Kate ran her gaze over the cornfields on either side of the road, which started at the base of the hill and stretched all the way to the city. The green stalks, high as Pip’s knees, swayed in the breeze, making gentle whish-whish sounds. At least, Kate prayed it was the breeze. In the weak light, the stalks offered enough cover for the nightdrake scouts to venture out without fear of being burned by the sun.

The smaller, more timid drakes of the pack, scouts always appeared first to spy for prey. With teeth like knives and claws like razors, a single scout could bring down a horse with little effort. The drakes came in every size. Some small as pigs, others large as horses. All of them deadly. The path ahead appeared clear for now, and she allowed Pip to slow to a walk as they descended the hill, the pressure in his hoof too great for anything faster. Each step sent needling pain through both horse and rider. Kate wanted to withdraw from it, the agony making her dizzy, but she didn’t dare. Sharing the pain with Pip was the only way he would endure this final stretch. The horse had great heart, but even the strongest spirit couldn’t push a broken body forever.

With her nerves on edge, Kate kept her eyes on the fields, flinching at each twitch of the stalks. She retrieved the bow tied to the back of her saddle and held it crossways over her lap. The quiver on her back contained twelve arrows, half of them fashioned with ordinary steel tips and the other half bearing tips enchanted with mage magic, same as the wardstones. Piercing a nightdrake’s hide was no easy task—only arrows imbued with mage magic could do it from a distance. Pistols could as well, but they fired a single shot, which made them next to worthless against a pack. The remaining drakes would be on the shooter before she had time to reload. Kate closed her legs around Pip’s sides, asking for more speed. He snorted and tossed his head in protest, the bit jangling in his mouth. She couldn’t blame him; the pain was more tolerable at this pace. For a second, she considered letting him stay at the walk, but then two sounds reached her ears.

The first was the clang of Farhold’s evening bell, calling for the gates to close. The second was the distinctive screech of a nightdrake from somewhere behind them. Both had the same effect. Digging her heels into Pip’s side, Kate sent him a vision of an attacking drake. The horse had no trouble understanding the concept this time, and he charged into the gallop. Turning in the saddle, Kate spotted a pair of bright, glistening eyes peering out from the stalks just behind them. The scout gave chase, flanking them on the left but staying hidden beneath the cover of the corn. For now. With her heart thrumming, Kate grabbed an arrow, nocked it, and loosed it, all in the span of a second. She missed, but it didn’t matter.

Scouts spooked easily, and it backed off. But there would be others. There always were. Turning back around, Kate heard the wind shriek in her ears even louder than the bell. Ahead she saw the teams of oxen hitched to the insides of the gates, pulling them closed. “Wait!” she shouted. “Wait!” Once the gates closed, they wouldn’t reopen until dawn—not for one lowly Relay rider. There was another way into the city, through the hidden mage door, but only mage magic could find and open it. Hers was wilder magic, outlawed and secret and good only for influencing animals. If the men driving the oxen heard her, they didn’t respond.

She urged Pip even faster, but the horse was failing by the second as the pain in his foreleg spread. She heard the rustle of corn behind her, louder than before. In the distance, the rest of the pack began to screech, closing in. Kate spied the Farhold guards waiting atop the wall with arrows nocked to repel the beasts should they approach the gate before it closed. Come on, Pip. Gritting her teeth, Kate closed her eyes and went deeper into the horse’s mind until she found the very center of him, his essence. All animals possessed it—a glowing brightness like a burning candle that she could see and feel only through the eye of her mind and the magic that gave it sight. She found the brightness and wrapped her magic around it, shielding the horse from the pain. She took that pain into herself instead, gasping at the sensation. The ploy worked, and the horse shot ahead, his strides lengthening.

Moments later they charged through the narrow space between the gates and into the safety of Farhold. The gates thudded closed, sealing them in. Kate resisted the impulse to let go of the horse’s mind, fearing what the shock would do to him. She eased back on the reins and brought him to a halt. Then she slid from the saddle and slowly withdrew her magic. Immediately the horse began to tremble, struggling to stay upright with only three legs able to bear weight now. Ignoring the curious looks from the Farhold guards, Kate led the horse forward, one slow, hobbling step at a time. The Relay house wasn’t far from the eastern gate, but it was like miles to poor Pip. Now that she’d withdrawn from his mind, he bore the pain in full, but she couldn’t risk maintaining the connection. There were magists in Farhold, same as in every city in Rime, and all of them carried enchanted stones designed to detect wilder magic.

If they ever discovered what she could do, she would face imprisonment and execution, a fate she feared for more reasons than the obvious. Not that she would even be able to use her magic much longer today, with true night descending. Wilder magic worked only during the day. Like the everweeps on the hills outside, the power closed up inside her and would remain dormant until dawn. Still, Kate did what she could to help the horse. Halting him, she removed both saddle and mailbag, slinging them over her shoulder despite the weight and her own weariness. She tried to find comfort in knowing that at least they’d made it into the city, but she couldn’t stop the tears stinging her eyes. She had done this. Broken this horse to save her own life. By the time they arrived at the Relay house, the ringed moon had risen high overhead, drenching the cobbled street below in silver light.

Irri, the goddess whose nightly charge it was to spin that shining orb, was hard at work. Kate wished for darkness, if only to hide her guilt. The iron gates into the stable stood closed and barred from the inside. She started to shout for entry when the door into the main house opened and a young man stepped out. “You’re late, Traitor Kate,” Cort Allgood said in a mocking, jovial tone. Kate ignored him. He used the name far too often for it to bother her like it once had. A grin twisted Cort’s lips. “We thought you died. Even started making bets on it.

You cost me more than a few valens.” Clenching her teeth, Kate adjusted the mail pouch across her shoulder. Of all the people to be here now, why did it have to be him? The gods must hate me. “Open the gate. Pip is lame.” Cort examined the horse, cocking his head so that his blond curls bounced foppishly. Instead of his usual Relay rider uniform he wore a green tunic over breeches and tall black boots. The sight of his dapper appearance made Kate regret her own state of disarray. She smoothed down the front of her soiled tunic and brushed back raven-black hair from her face, where it had escaped the neat braid she’d plaited this morning. “That horse isn’t lame,” Cort said, finishing his examination.

“He’s good as dead.” Kate’s hands balled into fists around the reins. “Open the gate.” “How’d he get like that anyway?” Cort cocked his head in the other direction, his curls doing another ridiculous bounce. “You ride him off a cliff? Could’ve sworn they trained us not to do that.” Turning to the gate, Kate opened her mouth to shout for someone else but stopped as Cort made a quick retreat. A moment later he appeared on the other side of the gate and swung it open. “Come on, Pip. Just a little farther.” Kate tugged the horse forward.

“Poor thing.” Cort slapped the gelding on the rump, making him flinch. “But that’s what happens when you’re forced to carry a traitor.” Cort touched a mocking finger to his chin. “How does the Relay Rider’s Vow go again, Traitor Kate? The part about protecting the horse at all costs?” She kept walking, head up and lips sealed, but her blood heated with every word he spoke. She had reason to hate Cort Allgood. He was the one who had first discovered who she really was: Kate Brighton of Norgard. Daughter of Hale Brighton, the man who tried to kill the high king of Rime. The traitor’s daughter. After her father was executed for his crimes, she’d come to Farhold hoping to escape her past, to start over with a new life and a new name.

For the first ten months she’d managed it, but then Cort had seen an illustration of her in the Royal Gazette, a new monthly newspaper published by the royal court and sent to all the city-states that formed the kingdom of Rime. The story that accompanied the illustration marked the one-year anniversary of Hale Brighton’s attack on the king. Within days of its publication the anonymous Relay rider Kate Miller became Kate Brighton once more. She was lucky not to have been dismissed from the position. “Then again, Traitor Kate,” Cort said, catching up with her, “if you had kept the vow, you would’ve ruined your reputation.” He paused, frowning. “You know, I’ve always wondered why it is your father did it. None of the stories ever say. Do you know why he did it?” Kate ignored his question as well as the same one that echoed deep inside her. No, she didn’t know.

She never would. The dead tell no truths, as the priests were fond of saying. Spying a stable boy ahead, Kate waved him down. “Fetch Master Lewis.” The boy looked set to argue, then changed his mind when he saw Pip stumble sideways, struggling to maintain his awkward three-legged balance. While the boy made a dash for the foreman’s quarters, Kate continued on, guiding Pip toward the eastern stable. Cort started to follow her, another cutting remark on his lips, but someone shouted his name from across the way. He shouted back a response, then turned and addressed Kate. “Well, I’m off, Traitor Kate. Good luck saving that doomed horse.

” “Shut up,” Kate said, her hold on her temper finally slipping. “He’s not doomed.” Cort barked a triumphant laugh. “I’d say let’s make a wager on it, but there’s no sport in a fixed game.” He winked, then turned and jaunted off without another word. I hope you choke on your own spit, Cort Allgood, she thought after him. By the time Kate managed to get Pip inside the stable, the foreman had arrived. Small and lean as a tree branch, Deacon Lewis looked fit enough to still outride any of the riders in his charge, despite his years. Short-cropped black hair, tinged with silver, framed his angular face, his brown skin leathered with age. He was intimidating on a normal day, but in this moment, Kate could barely bring herself to look at him for fear of his judgment.

Over and over again, she ran her hands down the front of her tunic, trying to make it lie flat, trying to give herself the shield a good appearance could bring. At first, he stood examining the horse from a few feet away, acknowledging Kate with a glance. Then he came forward and ran his hand down Pip’s injured leg. The gelding hopped sideways, protesting the touch. Sighing, Deacon let go of the leg and straightened up. “I’ll summon a healer,” he said, and his doubtful tone felt like a punch to Kate’s gut. “I might be able to mend the bone,” the magist healer said sometime later. “But I doubt he’ll ever be sound for hard work again.” He straightened from his hunched position and smoothed his green robes, the mark of his order. The magestone he’d used to diagnose the horse’s injury remained fastened around Pip’s pastern on a piece of leather.

It glowed bright red, pulsing like a heartbeat. Kate stared at the green robe, frustrated that she couldn’t read his expression behind the mask he wore and despising his matter-of-fact tone. All magists wore masks, the cut and coverage of them signifying rank. This one’s covered his whole face, marking him a master, the very best of his order— and the most expensive. “How much?” Deacon said, his face as expressionless as the magist’s. Nevertheless, the way he kept rubbing his fingers along the four scars on his left forearm betrayed his concern. The scars ran so deep, they made the muscles beneath look permanently twisted in a cramp. There weren’t many riders who survived a nightdrake attack, but Deacon had come through two in his long years with the Relay. “Seventy valens,” the magist said. A wrench went through Kate’s stomach.

That was nearly as much as it would cost to replace the horse, and she knew what Deacon’s answer would be. Forgetting her position, Kate touched Deacon’s arm. “Please, Master Lewis, let me pay for it. If you hold back my wages this month and the next, maybe—” Deacon brushed her off and raised a hand for silence. He turned to the green robe. “Thank you for your services. We’ll pass on further treatment.” The green nodded, then stooped to untie the piece of leather around Pip’s injured foot. The glow in the magestone faded the moment it was removed. Once the green robe had gone, Kate wheeled on Deacon, unable to stay silent a moment longer.

“Please reconsider. Please. I’ll do anything. I’ll give up a month’s salary. I’ll do extra rides for free, muck out the stables for the next year. Anything. Please, Master Lewis.” Deacon turned to Kate, meeting her gaze for the first time, it seemed. “I’m sorry, Kate, but I can’t let you.” “But, sir .

” Tears burned in her eyes, making her cheeks flush. If she didn’t stop speaking she wouldn’t be able to hold them back. “He’s a good horse, and it’s my fault. I didn’t mean—” “Hush now. There’s no place for such foolishness here.” Deacon folded his arms, fingers worrying at his scars again. “I know he’s your favorite, but Pip’s a working horse and only as good as his legs. If he were a mare, it would be a different story, but a lame gelding is worth more dead than alive.” “But, sir, given time he could be sound again. He’s still young.

If you just let me buy him, then maybe—” “I said no, and that’s final.” Deacon glared down at her now, his dark eyes sharp enough to cut. “How would you feed him? Where would you keep him? He can’t stay here, and don’t tell me you’re paid so handsomely that you can afford to be wasteful with your coin, because I know better. No, I won’t let you sacrifice for nothing.” Kate flinched at every point he made, each harsh truth laid bare. He was right. She couldn’t afford the coin, and a part of her even understood the practicality of his reasoning. Saving a lame horse was more than pointless—it was wasted space, a great selfishness in a city already overfull with humans and animals both. There wasn’t room for anything that didn’t serve a purpose. Even the elderly and infirm were encouraged by the priests and priestesses to give their lives in sacrifice to the gods.

But the rest of her had touched Pip’s very essence, had caressed his soul with her magic. That part couldn’t bear the idea of his death. A piece of her would die with him. But she couldn’t tell Deacon any of that, not in a way that he would understand and accept. Although Deacon always treated her fairly, even after he learned who she really was, he wouldn’t tolerate her wilder magic if he ever found out. Wilders were outlaws, subject to the Inquisition. Sagging in defeat, Kate swallowed. “Yes, sir.” She reached for Pip’s lead. He was her charge, and it was her responsibility to take him to the slaughterhouse.

She’d never had to take a horse there before, and her fingers shook as she untied the rope. Deacon took the lead from her, his expression softening. “Go home, Kate. I’ll see it done.” Kate looked up at him, torn between what she knew she ought to do and what she wanted to do. But in the end, she couldn’t refuse his kind offer, the escape too welcome, too easy a path to choose any other. She turned to Pip and ran a hand over his sleek neck, wishing she could touch his mind one more time, to give him the peace he deserved. He leaned into her touch, burying his muzzle in her belly. She stroked his nose for a moment, whispered good-bye into one velvety ear, then turned and walked away. Shame and regret dogged each step she took on the way to her rented room, a few miles from the Relay house.

Cort’s taunts echoed in her mind, taking on weight. It was true—as a Relay rider, she had vowed to always bring Pip back safely, to hold his life equal to her own. But she had broken that vow tonight, an act of betrayal as sure as any other. Have I become my father? Did oath breaking run in her blood? She was so much like him. Even her magic was inherited from him. Hale Brighton had been master of horse to the high king, a position he’d earned with the help of his secret, forbidden gift. He’d been the king’s friend and liegeman, and yet he had tried to kill him. Kate didn’t know why, but there was no denying her father’s guilt. Just as there’s no denying mine. Traitor’s daughter.

Traitor Kate. Once again, she had lived up to her name.

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