The mare kept pitching and throwing her body from side to side, but she couldn’t get her hind legs under her. Her breath came in labored grunts.
I grabbed her mane as if we were on the trail together. “Up! Come on, that’s the way! Get up, damn you!”
Then my eyes focused on her taut, rounded belly, the way her muscles wouldn’t work right, and the green-flecked slime dripping from her jaws. The trefoil leaves of ropeweed.
I fell to my knees at her side. Her body was hot like a stove, fighting the poison.
Ay Mother, it’s no use. An hour, maybe, for a strong horse like her. Ten minutes for a man. Better, far better, it should have been me.
She was the finest horse I’d ever owned, she’d been with me clear across Laurea and the Ridge, she’d never balked at anything I asked of her, and what man could say the same?
I remembered how she was when I bought her, bridled but not saddled, nose up in the sky, hip bones like knives, oozing scars all around her mouth. I paid the horse-trader his price and he took it. I walked up to the
mare, slid my hand along her sweating neck, dropped my forearm knife into it
and slit through the headstall straps.
You can come with me now, I promised her. Or I’ll take you back to the Border and set you free.
The mare had tossed her head, ears pricked, eyes never leaving me. I turned away and felt her muscles tense just before my fingers slipped from her. I didn’t look back, not even when I stopped to slide the gate latch open. There she was, nose at my shoulder. I took a handful of her mane and she came with me, silk and shadow.
My fingers were still laced in the coarse, gray-frosted hairs. I couldn’t get them loose.
She stopped struggling to get up now, forelegs bent in front of her, head high, breathing as hard and deep as if she’d just galloped halfway across Laurea. She had heart, this mare, but the ropeweed already had her. There was no hope, except that the end would be quick.
Ropeweed. Mother-of-us-all, ropeweed!
“What the hell?” Etch and the boy. I couldn’t read their faces.
“What’s wrong with her?” Terris asked.
“It’s ropeweed. My fault…” I couldn’t hear my voice–did I whisper or shout those damning words?
Etch whirled, turning his broad, tight-muscled back, and for an instant I thought he was too sickened to look at me.
“Water!” he bellowed at Terris. “All of it–and a couple of blankets! Now!”
Terris took off for the camp faster than he’d ever run in his life.
“Have you got any anneth?” Etch asked.
Anneth was the root of a plant, frost-loving and pale orange, ground into a fine powder and used to prevent deep cuts from closing too soon and festering underneath. It was a thing no knife fighter could afford to be without.
I pulled away from him, wanting to scream, Get away, so she can die in peace.
He grabbed my shoulders, his fingers digging deep into my flesh, and forced my eyes to meet his again. “Give me your knife, then get the anneth.”
My knife. I touched the hilt, warmed by my body heat as if it were a living part of me. There was never been a moment since I’d strapped it on that it had not been worth my life. But the mare’s life was at stake now, seeping away with each straining breath. Her proud head bent, chin almost touching the ground.
I slipped the knife from its sheath, reversed it, and handed it hilt-first to this man I barely knew, then sprinted for the camp and the anneth. I ripped open my saddlebags and clawed through the layers of clothing, bandages, medicines, for the little alabaster jar of pale orange powder.
By the time I raced back, the mare had lost the strength to keep her head up. In the few minutes I was gone, she’d stretched out flat, legs extended as if she were already dead. Only the quick light ripples along her ribs told me otherwise.
Etch crouched beside the mare’s head, crooning to her. My long-knife lay on the matted grass beside him, the tip of the blade dripping red. He’d cut an opening in her windpipe and was holding the lips apart with his fingers.
“Anneth and water,” he said. “Make a thick paste. Hurry.”
Terris shoved a waterskin at me. I unscrewed the anneth jar, dribbled in a little water and mixed it with my fingers. It felt gritty.
“Now smear it all around the opening here.”
I knelt beside him, tucking one shoulder underneath his so I could reach the mare. Blood and thick, sticky mucus coated my fingers as I slathered on the paste. An instant after he drew his hands away, the exposed tissues frothed up with the gluey coating. Only the hole cut by Etch and now prevented from closing by my anneth kept her alive.
But not for long–no horse could breathe properly lying flat on its side, not for any length of time, and the pressure of the mare’s stretched-tight abdomen on her diaphragm cut her air supply even further.
“Wet her down,” Etch said, pouring the skin over her rounded side. “Don’t know why ropeweed brings a fever. Asked a vet once, he didn’t know either.”
“I thought there was no cure for ropeweed poisoning,” said Terris.
“That’s what I thought, too. But I saw a midwife once use anneth like that on a neighbor kid with diphtheria. Said she managed to save ’em once in a while, unless the fever got too high.”
I lifted my head. Etch and Terris were pouring the last of the water over the mare’s dappled hide. I watched her breathing, not normal yet, but slower and deeper.
Deborah J. Ross writes and edits fantasy and science fiction. She’s a former SFWA Secretary and member of Book View Café. Her short fiction has appeared in F & SF, Asimov’s, Star Wars: Tales From Jabba’s Palace, Realms of Fantasy, Sword & Sorceress, and various other anthologies and magazines. Her most recent books include the Darkover novel, The Children of Kings (with Marion Zimmer Bradley); Lambda Literary Award Finalist Collaborators, an occupation-and-resistance story with a gender-fluid alien race (as Deborah Wheeler); and The Seven-Petaled Shield, an epic fantasy trilogy.