Read an Excerpt
The Finest Choice
1 · Alone Together
The world was born perfect, my mother told me. But the people crawling across its rocky surface and navigating its seas are, for the most part, flawed~avaricious, needful, prideful, never satisfied. Still, there are some among them worthy of salvation, she claimed. And for these the Finest Creations are intended.
~Nimblegait, first foal of the Old Mare
The horse was the color of wet clay, with a slightly lighter blaze running from between his ears to just short of his black muzzle. He had a coarse mane and tail as dark as the mud puddles he was tromping through, and he had none of the attractive feathering around his legs that most of the horses from the north displayed. Called a suffolk-punch, or simply a punch, he was considered an “old breed,” who traced his line back more than a thousand years and had been used primarily for farming and hauling timber.
His sturdy legs looked overly short for his massive body and powerful quarters. He had a large head with kind, expressive eyes; a thick, muscular neck; and a deep, broad chest that was crisscrossed with cuts from a flock of birds he’d fought off.
He was not a pretty horse, not compared to the magnificent mares and stallions that were warm and dry in the royal stables on the palace grounds in Nadir—where he’d been staying until yesterday. But he was a strong creature, and despite being terribly weary, he continued to plod through the marshy land many miles south of where Meven Montoll was about to be crowned King of Galmier.
Meven’s sister sat astride the punch’s wide back, leaning against his neck. Kalantha had fought sleep all of last night and this morning. It had only recently claimed her. She slept soundly now, despite the rain that fell gently, and so the punch chose what appeared to be the most level course, keeping his gait slow and regular now so she wouldn’t be disturbed.
Though cold, the rain felt good against the punch’s hide and gave him something to listen to. It rat-a-tat-tatted softly against the branches and oak leaves and downed logs he navigated around. It echoed faintly when it thrummed against puddles that dotted the ground as far as he could see. There were few paths to follow where the water didn’t come up above his hooves. The horse gathered it had been raining on and off here for many days, the ground too saturated to soak up any more water.
The punch had been traveling with the girl since late the previous evening. At first he galloped, trying to get her far away from the palace as quickly as possible. He didn’t slow until after well more than an hour, when his sides ached from the effort and when the woods thickened and knobby, exposed roots threatened to trip him and spill her.
A normal horse would have needed rest before now. But the punch wasn’t truly a horse—though no person native to this land would see him as anything but. He was called a Finest creation, sculpted by the good powers of Paard-Peran. His kind was charged with secretly guiding and guarding the Fallen Favorites—the select few people who possessed some inner spark that would lead them, and thereby perhaps some of their fellows, to salvation.
“Rue?” The girl on his back stirred. “Where are we, Rue?” She was the Fallen Favorite he was destined to protect. That this slight girl of twelve years could have any impact on the world seemed doubtful … but the Finest was not one to question his mission.
“The sky’s awfully dark, Rue, for this time of the day. I think it’s going to keep raining forever.” She yawned and stuffed her hand against her mouth, shook her head and tipped her face up into the rain. The canopy was denser here, with tall pines, and with plenty of oaks that kept their leaves this late into the fall. And so the rain that made it to the forest floor seemed to bleed slowly from the sky. It grayed the air in front of her and the punch, making it look like they were passing through a veil of smoke.
As she glanced around, she saw a small hawk drop from a branch high overhead and dive on something hiding in a patch of stunted evergreens. Claws outstretched, beak open, its black eyes were as shiny as fresh ink and were fixed on whatever was making the needles of the spreading ground cover quiver. The hawk’s movement and sudden cry startled a flock of bluebirds that flew from the cover of a nearby willow, scattering and throwing bits of color into Kalantha’s view. She focused on one small bird in particular. It was puffed up and angry-looking, and had settled on a low branch directly ahead, scolding the hawk and Kalantha and the punch for disturbing it. A moment later it flew off, still scolding. The hawk climbed and disappeared in the canopy, a large ground squirrel skewered on its talons.
Kalantha shuddered. “Birds worry me, Rue.”
Since she was awake, the punch picked up his pace, managing to find his way around submerged roots when the water deepened to his knees.
“Aren’t you tired, Rue? You must be tired. We should stop so you can rest.”
He came to a stretch of ground that felt comfortably spongy beneath his hooves, but for the most part was devoid of standing water. He galloped across it, mud and grass flying up behind him. Then he slowed when he reached thin clumps of birch trees at the edge of a large stand of black walnuts.
“Do you know where we are, Rue?” She twined her fingers in his mane and clamped her legs tighter when he vaulted over a fallen river birch and edged deeper into the thickening woods.
Safe, the punch told her finally. We are safe, Kalantha. And we are thankfully away from the assassin-birds and your brother, Meven. He cannot reach you here. We are to the south in the forest, where the trees cut the cold and the rain. And we are near the river. I can smell it.
“I can, too,” she said, yawning again. “It smells good.”
Yes it does, Kalantha.
“Maybe we should go to the river, Rue. I don’t think we’d get lost if we followed the river.”
I would like that.
The punch’s Finest name was Gallant-Stallion. Like other Finest creations that traveled Paard-Peran, he was also given a human name. Meven named him Rue some time ago, referring to him as an ugly, rueful-looking horse. Gallant-Stallion hadn’t liked the connotation then, but he didn’t mind the name when Kalantha used it. “Rooooo,” she pronounced it, the word sounding like a beautiful purr that reminded him of a songbird’s sweet call.
Gallant-Stallion angled toward the river. The Sprawling River’s tendrils spread like the outstretched fingers of a hand through Galmier and the country to the south. Gallant-Stallion considered the river the best feature of the country, shiny and musical, and following it south was as good as anything to do right now. The river might keep him from becoming completely lost in these woods.
The sky was turning from gray to green with the onset of afternoon. It was the shade willow leaves take on toward the end of their lives before yellowing and dropping. And its hue hinted that the rains would worsen. A storm was definitely coming, the Finest knew, and the rain that had been falling on and off throughout the day had simply been a prelude.
Gallant-Stallion could smell the water thick in the swollen clouds, the scents of the river and wet tree bark, and sodden fallen leaves and mud and creatures that had drowned and were starting to rot. The river was the most favorable smell, so he brought it to the fore.
Soon he reached a bloated tributary. Small bushes were completely submerged along the banks, and the water was well up the trunks of hickories and maples. Something prickled at him as he watched a catfish circle around the base of a pin oak and then dive deeper out of sight. He set his ears forward.
What? he wondered. What bothers me? Something I smell? Something I smell and cannot put a name to? It is nothing I hear. There was the faint rustle of oak leaves, stirred by the falling rain and a slight breeze. The flutter of wings … this unnerved him for a moment, but then the sound ceased. It had been only one bird, and not an especially large one. There was the river, sloshing at its muddy banks, wearing away at the earth in an effort to grow wider still. Across the river he could see a road, precariously close to the far bank and looking like a glistening snake weaving amid the stark outlines of birches and honey locusts.
Kalantha slipped from his back and carefully edged toward the water, barely avoiding a tangle of holly. Branches caught at her tunic, and she roughly tugged it free. The clothes were worn and dirty and had belonged to a boy in Nadir’s poor quarter. She stole them to replace worse ones she’d been wearing, and had felt bad for it. “But my other clothes were falling apart. I needed these,” she’d told Gallant-Stallion yesterday, finding it necessary to justify her thievery to someone.
He watched her cup her hands to drink. Those threadbare clothes were not keeping her warm now, he was certain, and she shouldn’t spend another cold, rainy night in them. That would mean finding people who might help her.
After several moments, Gallant-Stallion let the scent of the river fade to the back of his mind, and he tried to stop worrying about his charge. He thought that perhaps he indeed smelled something that was disquieting, something only vaguely familiar. But he still couldn’t put a name or an image to it, and now the wind was shifting and he lost whatever it was. He knew it wasn’t birds, he’d well committed their various scents to his memory. And so after several more moments he forced himself to relax a little. He stepped forward and dipped his head.
So thirsty. The water so good. He’d traveled so far without stopping.
“I want to go as far south as we can possibly go, Rue.” Kalantha was staring across the river, eyes fixed on something far beyond the trees and the opposite bank. “All the way to the Namidir Ocean, I think. Someplace where my brother will never find me. Someplace where … oh, Rue, he’s the only family I have.”
She dropped to her knees and cried then, silently, her shoulders shaking slightly as if she didn’t have the energy to grieve properly and forcefully. “My uncle the king, dead to some horrible sickness. My cousin the Prince, dead. Dead to those birds. Dead. Dead. Meven … Meven. I’m all alone, Rue,” she sobbed. “There’s no one left.”
Gallant-Stallion watched her. He knew she was an orphan, her parents having died when she was three. She’d been raised at the High Keep Temple, she and Meven wards of Bishop DeNogaret.
He’d met her and Meven and his Finest mentor, Steadfast, less than two years past when they all traveled with Prince Edan on the way to his royal wedding. It was to be a festive time, but Steadfast and the Prince and his entourage were slain by a band of avian assassins, and Gallant-Stallion was barely able to get Kalantha and Meven to safety.
“I shouldn’t have gone to Nadir, Rue,” Kalantha was saying. “I should’ve known my brother would agree with the Bishop, that he would send me to Dea Fortress. Maybe the Fortress is not so bad. And maybe I would’ve liked it, a religious life. But there are only strangers there. I want it to be my choice.”
Bending over the edge of the engorged river, fingers stirring the water, there wasn’t enough light to clearly see her reflection, just a shadowy distorted image. “He’ll be all right, Meven will. He’ll be the King of Galmier before sundown, Rue. I bet it will be a beautiful ceremony. And I bet there will be music and cakes. Lots of sweet treats. I wish I could have seen it.” She stirred her image away. “He has soldiers, Rue, and he’ll be safe. The birds won’t be able to get him. He’ll be royal and warm and full. And there’ll be none of those wonderful things for me.” She paused and rubbed at her eyes. “I don’t have anyone.”
Gallant-Stallion knew it wasn’t like her to give up and wallow in pity. He’d seen her at her best—determined and stubborn and unwilling to give in or give up. Still, she was only twelve, and she was a child, he reminded himself. But she wasn’t childlike. She was just tired now, worn out physically and emotionally. She was cold and drenched and filled with despair. Let her cry, he told himself.
And in spite of what she said, she wasn’t alone. Gallant-Stallion was with her.
Copyright © 2005 by Jean Rabe