“After Magda dresses you then you can go to the public bath house on the east side of the camp,” Mother Hella said. “I’d rather no one saw you in townsy clothes, not with the priests looking for you. Our own people know we’re protecting you, but there are lots of people who will be watching us until we leave. Some have never gotten over their prejudice about us, believing us to be thieves and whores. Never the less, such public bathing houses are set up all along our trading routes and maintained by the Five Families.” Studying me a minute, she said, “I’ll have Magda do your hair and makeup too. I emptied out one of the cupboards behind you so you can put your things in there. The key is in the lock.”
“That was thoughtful of you,” I said, looking behind me. “When did you do that?”
“Not long after you fell asleep,” she said. “It was bothering my mind until I did it, since we don’t want your non traveler belongings laying around for others to find. Now, get up and put your blanket and sleep pads back where you got them, and I’ll be outside seeing to breakfast.”
The whole time she had been talking she was dressing herself, now she slipped past me and out of the caravan while I got up and did as she had instructed. Magda arrived a few minutes later, raven haired and blue eyed and dressed in flamboyant colors. She had me stripped quickly and re dressed before I could form a protest over such vibrant colors, and then I was following her through the lightening darkness to the public bath house where I washed up and sat patiently as she painted my face. When she was finished I barely recognized myself in the mirror.
“Beautiful,” Magda said, beaming as she stood beside me in the reflection. “Now no one but one of us would be able to tell you weren’t born of us. Come, let’s get back so we can eat and pack. We’ll be moving by the time the sun begins to rise.” She paused though, and studied me, not my reflection. “I know what you are, healer. Please be good to my people.”
“I would never knowingly do anything to harm them or allow them to be harmed,” I stated honestly.
“I hope you are right, healer, or else I may have to curse you with something very bad.”
Shrugging, I said, “Curses are easy to dismantle and clear away, Magda. It would be better for you to threaten turning me over to the priests if you want to punish me. That is something I can’t clean.”
Laughing suddenly, she said, “Mother Hella warned me you wouldn’t be afraid of curses, but I had to try, just so you know how serious I am.”
Smiling back, I said, “I understand, and believe me, I will do my very best to honor your people and your ways.”
“Good, now come, we don’t have much time,” she said, gathering her things and I followed behind her. “Watch how I walk and talk, healer, so you don’t give yourself away with your talking.”
“You need to start calling me Annie,” I pointed out, “or you’ll give me away by what you call me.”
“True,” she said, smiling. “Annie. It’s a good name. Now come. There’s a lot to do before we move out.”
We hadn’t gone very far when I saw three men holding the halter ropes of a young horse that was rearing and fighting against their directions. All I could see of it was his white face and chest and four white legs but the rest of him blended into the darkness until he turned. I gasped, stopping to stare at the flowing white of mane and tail and the thick feathering on his lower legs.
“Oh, Magda, he’s beautiful,” I whispered.
“He’s a demon child,” she stated, frowning. “Vanner horses aren’t supposed to be that wild and excitable. I’m afraid they may have to geld him to keep those genes from being passed on, which is a shame since Dabber’s Old Man doesn’t throw off many stud colts.”
“I see nothing wrong with him,” I said. “He looks magnificent and perfect in every way.”
“We can’t afford to keep horses, especially stallions, which aren’t easily handled,” Magda pointed out. “They can harm people as well as wreck the caravans. If he doesn’t settle down soon, then Mother Hella will order the men to geld him and maybe even sell him.”
“He’s in pain,” I said, tilting my head as I tried to focus on what the young stallion was feeling. “His right fore hoof is sending sharp pain up his leg when it touches the ground. Magda, could you ask them to check it out before someone hurts the other?”
“I’ll tell them to look,” she answered, frowning, “but this isn’t the first time he’s acted like that.”
Magda called out to them, telling them what I had told her, and all three men reached out and pulled the young horse down, which caused him to raise that right hoof. Then one of the men grabbed that leg and pulled it up so he could check it. We all saw him draw a knife from his belt before he bent over the hoof. As soon as he dropped the leg the young stallion calmed down and nickered before he reached out and nuzzled his rescuer on the arm.
All of them, including Magda turned to stare at me as I let out a deep sigh, but I just smiled and continued back towards Mother Hella’s caravan.
As we wove our way in that direction, I found myself fascinated with all the beautiful horses. One thing I noticed was they came in three different sizes, some small enough they fit nicely in the harness of children’s carts, while others were large and solid enough to pull the heaviest caravans without strain. Between these two were those bred for riding, but all three sizes shared the same shape and many had the same colors, although there were a few nearly all white and others a golden red to break up the masses of black and white mares and stallions.
They were all magnificent as far as I could tell, although I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t be asked to ride any of them, since I had never been up on a horse’s back before.
Magda left me back at the caravan, heading off to do her own work, while I headed over to the cooking fire where Mother Hella was just beginning to dish up the food for everyone.