Rose for a Thorn

“He was your friend, wasn’t he?” Keelath asked into the quiet. The cavalry had finally stopped, the quel’dorei dismounting and untacking their horses in subdued silence. They gave Keelath a few odd glances as they went about the chore, but the black courser had nickered and dug its hoof at the ground in response to anyone looking like they wanted to ask. It seemed to communicate some message only the horsemen understood. They accepted Keelath without a word from then on, not bothering him, though one came over to help him with the girth’s unbuckling.

He was surprised to find the courser wasn’t a pure black as he brushed it out, but instead a deep ruby-brown, darkening to true black around its knees and nose. There were a few white hairs in the crest of its black mane as well, like an old scar. It guided Keelath through the grooming process, shoving his brushes into the right strokes with pushes of its muzzle. Its breath was hot and moist, its nose soft and tickly with long whiskers.

The courser said nothing in response to his question, as Keelath had half expected, only letting out a south whicker and glancing at the path they had taken out of the trolls’ death trap. It stared that way for a moment, and Keelath had the funny feeling it had understood him and was thinking of its old master. It then breathed out a sigh and shoved his hand away from the sensitive whorl of backwards fur near the point of its hip. “Pardon,” said Keelath, correcting his strokes, and it nickered at him.

The cavalry rested for the rest of the day, then retacked the coursers and began heading west. They didn’t mount up this time, and indeed Keelath’s courser wheeled its hocks around in obvious threat when he tried. The other riders glanced at him, and one told him dourly they walked to save their steeds’ strength, for there was no knowing if they would meet more trolls on the way back to the front lines of the quel’dorei forces.

They also told him his courser’s name, Rosen, and its rank.

“The horse has a rank?” Keelath asked, mystified.

They laughed, telling him the courser knew more about its business than he did.

Keelath pursed his lips and changed the subject. “I suppose I would be the sergeant of the Gladerunners now,” he said softly, naming his old unit, “if any of them had survived.”

“Better for you they didn’t,” said one of the others, walking at the head of a courser colored chestnut-red with a golden mane and tail. “It causes ever too many politics these days to transfer across forces, but the coursers are so picky.” His horse gave a whicker that Keelath swore was a laugh.

“I am a baron at Dawnmist,” he said. “Does that, too, not matter among your ranks?”

The master of the chestnut shrugged, and another, leading a gray, spoke up. “Rosen is one of the highers of the herd hierarchy, so I expect its similar enough to whatever rank your baron’s title grants you.”

Keelath glanced at Rosen, and it seemed the courser’s eye glinted with smug satisfaction. “And how do coursers decide their ranks?”

The chestnut laughed again. “The usual way,” said its master. “Through battle and through women!”

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