Nika stumbled into the Big Barn, listing badly to the right from the drag of the gold. If she didn’t know she’d regret it, she’d drop the damn bag and just take a handful of the stuff. But she’d brought it this far, all she had to do now was haul the heavy load down towards the far end of the barn, where the horse she wanted should be.
She fixed her eyes on that distant stall, ignoring the calls of the horses even though they made her heart hurt. Stablehands weren’t immune to the illness, and most of them were gone, lost to the Blue Death like the rest of the Dominion. She knew at least two were still alive and working, but two people to care for hundreds of horses couldn’t do a very good job. The horses were bored, lonely, hungry, and the stable smelled worse than it should have. Flies buzzed everywhere.
But she made it. Plodding deliberately down the center aisle, Nika remained focused on the single horse she wanted. It wasn’t hers. Her horse was in here too, and she’d use it gladly as a pack horse. The gelding was a decent one, but nothing special.
She felt a tiny hint of desire for the lovely golden parade horse used by the Prince of Eagles, but passed it by. Beautiful coloring, absolutely perfect conformation, and not a brain in its perfect head. They’d gone ahead and gelded the horse a couple years back, when the young stud couldn’t figure out which end of the mare was meant for breeding. Pity, it would’ve been nice to see if the beauty would pass to the next generation, but mares had definite ideas about what to do with a stud that tried to mount her front half, usually involving teeth.
No, the horse she wanted, now hanging his head over the rope used to keep horses in place when the stablehands didn’t want to mess with the heavy stall doors, was a soft dapple grey. Not as flashy, no, but large and well-made, with speed to spare and enough endurance to outlast most horses currently alive. He’d belonged to Nika’s superior and good friend. Her own horse was six stalls away, a nondescript red chestnut named Berry. He could match Wraith in size, but not much else, and for some reason she’d never much cared for the gelding. The grey, on the other hand…
“Hey, Wraith,” she panted, dropping her bag with a clunk. The horse let out a shrill whicker and thumped her chest with his nose. “Watch over this, will you? I’ll be back.”
She scratched behind the horse’s ears, then moved far more easily towards the tack room.
What a mess.
Not her problem, though. She felt bad for the stablehands, but they’d figure it out. Maybe they’d find some helpers.
Sure. In this city where the dead outnumbered the living by far.
Nika paused for a moment, one hand on a sturdy field saddle, to let the bleakness wash over her, make her feel horrible, and then go away. Because she meant to leave, damn it, and that meant none of this was her problem. Not one little bit.
Field saddle. Pack saddle. Bridles. Halters. Blankets, brushes and hoof picks.
Methodically Nika worked her way through the tack room, recovering from the heavy workout as she did so. She piled her chosen gear in the middle of the floor, then started hauling it out and getting the horses ready.
One thing certain, this business of striking out on her own and making a new life for herself would get her back in shape in no time at all.