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The next morning, after breakfasting off of more fresh berries and dried fruit and some rather stale bread Ivan had taken from the caravan, I looked down over the edge of the ledge and out onto the steppe below us.
“I think we could be down there by this evening, if we’re lucky,” I said.
“Really? And if we’re not?”
“If we’re not, I think we could be down there by midday,” I said. “Perhaps sooner.”
Ivan peered over the edge too. “It is steep,” he agreed. “But it could be worse.”
“We could be trying to climb up it.”
“Good point,” I said. “That would be unpleasant in this sun. And at least this way, if we plunge to our deaths, we’ll be making progress, not backtracking.”
“I should go first,” he said.
“No, I should go first,” I argued. “I have more experience in these things. And Zlata’s the better horse.”
“Really? How do you have more experience in these things? Do you have a lot of cliffs on the steppe?”
“No. But…” I thought quickly, “I have done a lot more riding than you.”
“On flat ground.”
“And I suppose the riverlands are just full of steep mountainsides?”
“More than the steppe. We used to race up and down the riverbanks on our ponies every day when I was a boy.”
“It’s not the same thing!”
“It’s closer than anything you’ll find on the steppe. Besides, the more important person, the person less likely to fall, should go second. That way, if I slip and lose control, I won’t take you with me.”
“The calmer, more experienced person, the one less likely to make rash mistakes, should be the one to first and scout out the way,” I countered.
“Well that rules you out, Valya,” he said with a grin.
I gave him a sour look. “I am not foolishly reckless,” I said.
He grinned some more. “No? Tell me you’re not secretly thinking about jumping off this ledge and flying all the down to the steppe right now.”
“Well…not as an actual plan, no. More as a fantasy. I wouldn’t actually do anything risky in real life. And that’s a nasty cough you’ve got there.”
“It must be the dust.” His shoulders were shaking with suppressed laughter, but after a moment he pulled himself together and, straightening up and forcing his face into some semblance of order, he said, “Why don’t we take turns, all right? And if either of us sees anything really dangerous, we’ll stop and talk about it before we start down.”
“Fine,” I said.
“Fine,” I said again.
He gave me a surprised look. “You’re going to let me? Just like that?”
“Just like that,” I told him. “After all, you are, in fact, correct.”
I rolled my eyes. “You are. And it will be good for you to practice leading for a bit.”
“You’re not a little boy any more, Vanya. You’re a man grown. And down there”—I gestured down to the steppe spread out below us—“we expect our men to know how to lead, when the time calls for it. So lead the way. Just…stop if you come to something tricky.”
“Why? So that you can tell me what to do?”
“No, so I can tell myself what to do. You’re right: I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’ll need to have a good long think before I attempt anything too difficult.”
“Oh. Well, in that case…are we ready?”
“Let’s do it.”
“Um, well…let’s. And…does Zlata kick?”
“Only about seventeen times a day. As we have all had ample opportunity to discover.”
He shook his head. “These high-blooded steppe horses…I don’t know why you prize them so, I really don’t.”
“Because they can run all day and all night on no food or water, if they have to. And because they enjoy trampling our enemies as much as we do. And because they’re beautiful.”
“They’re kind of slab-sided, if you ask me,” said Ivan, giving Zlata a sideways look through narrowed eyes.
“It helps with the running all day and all night,” I told him. “Now, are we going to hang around here all day, or are we going to go down? Or do you need me to lead the way after all?”
“No. But what I was going to say was that we should walk down on foot. Behind our horses. That way, we’re not burdening them, and if they stumble, we’re less likely to go down with them. But if Zlata kicks…”
“I’ll risk it,” I said.
He raised his brows at me.
“She doesn’t normally kick me,” I said defensively. “And it’s a good idea. Let’s go.”
And so, as soon as we had unknotted and reknotted our reins so that we could still hold them while standing behind our horses, we went over the lip of the ledge and started down.
At first it wasn’t so bad. It was steep, yes, very steep, but the footing was solid and we were able to pick our way down reasonably easily, especially once we got back into the trees, which helped direct us and gave us something to catch hold of if we lost our balance. We made our way slowly but surely downwards, stopping occasionally to catch our breath and take advantage of whatever streams and berry and nut patches we passed. When, around midday, we came to another clear place and could see the route before us, the steppe was appreciably closer than it had been in the morning.
“You see?” I said. “We’ll be down there on flat ground by evening.”
“Ye-es,” said Ivan, looking down at the path below us, which had a nasty, gravelly look to it.
The gravel and loose rock made things more difficult and slowed us down more, except for where they sped us up. Several times both we and the horses went down and slid on our hocks (for the horses) or the seats of our trousers (for us) for many yards before we were able to regain our footing.
“We’ll make it,” I told Ivan after one particularly nasty slide that had left him with doubled over and gasping for breath, with blood running down both his arms from skinning his elbows and palms. “Do you want me to heal that?”
“No!” He forced himself straight. “I don’t want you to spend any more of yourself than you need to. You need to keep all your strength.”
“So do you.”
“I’ll be fine! It’s just”—he looked over the side of the path—“it’s just one more steep drop, and then we’ll be down into the foothills. It’s almost over.”
I looked over the side of the path too. It was indeed almost over. Unfortunately, this last bit was a nasty sideways traverse across a lot of loose rock.
“Do you want me to go first?” I asked.
“No. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t like the look of that path. Sideways is more dangerous than straight down. The horses are much more likely to fall and roll.”
“I know. We’ll be careful. And we have to get down anyway, whether we go first or last. It’s too dangerous for you to try to pass me here on this ledge. Let’s just…let’s just stay well spaced out, shall we?”
“I don’t want not to be able to catch you if I need to.”
“And I don’t want to drag you over the edge. We need to be well spaced out.”
We argued over it a bit more, but in the end I had to agree, since Ivan was going to be hanging on tightly to Svetlyak’s tail, so he was only likely to slip and fall if Svetlyak did, and there was nothing I could do to pull them back in that case. So I stood and waited while they began picking their way down the slope, following only when they were several yards ahead of me.
At first it went well. From time to time I would stop to survey the path and our progress, and I could see that we were getting closer and closer to the bottom, closer and closer to the edge…closer and closer to the edge…
“Vanya!” I called out. “The edge! Is there a drop…”
Just then Svetlyak, whose sweat-covered sides were heaving with exhaustion, stumbled and started to slide in the loose gravel.
“Let go!” I screamed. But before the words had finished leaving my mouth, they both had gone over the edge.
Before the plan had even reached conscious thought, I had thrown the reins over Zlata’s back, darted past her, come to the edge, and was peering over it fearfully…
“Oh thank the gods,” I said. It was hardly higher than head height. The path led right along it before turning suddenly going over it a little ways further along, where the ledge had descended to no more than waist height. Vanya and Svetlyak were both lying on the soft ground below.
“Vanya!” I called. “Vanya, are you all right?”
He groaned without moving. Svetlyak got his front feet under him and, with enormous effort, shoved himself upright, where he stood, trembling from exhaustion and favoring his left fore…I would have to heal him for sure… “Ivan!” I shouted. “Vanya!!”
He groaned again but still didn’t rise. I looked back. Zlata had followed me down the path and was now standing behind me. I looked below me again. Ivan was still lying there on the ground at the bottom of the ledge, moving, thank the gods, but feebly, as if he couldn’t get his arms and legs to work right.
“Meet me at the bottom,” I told Zlata, and jumped.