Free from my nurse and my Lord mother’s demand to learn needle work, I hurried to my room and changed into riding gear. In the stables, I saddled Dawn, my uhlans, as the stable master eyed me.
“And where are you going?”
His eyebrow rose. “Spring is coming. Who are you going with?”
“No one. I want to get out of the castle and breathe the cold air.”
He watched as I fastened my bow to the saddle and my spear. “A lot of gear for a ride.”
I wagged my eyebrows back at him. “You never know what you’ll run into.”
“Hmm,” was his response. “I’ll send Ben with you.”
Ben was his son. He was a good companion. “Sure. Where is he?”
The stable master whistled and Ben hurried through the stable door. “Papa?”
“Saddle up and go with Lady Zung.”
Ben gave me a quick wink as he hurried to saddle his mount. I noticed he packed weapons as well. The same age, fourteen, we learned to hunt together and I was glad to have him along.
We rode out. His father called out behind us. “Be careful. The ice is melting.”
I waved and kicked Dawn into a cantor as we reached the gate.
Two hours later we were at the lake. I knew that the wisent herded on the other side. I guided Dawn down the bank.
“Don’t, Yunki. We don’t know if the ice will hold.”
I sniffed. “It’s too early for the lake to melt.” I kept moving down the bank.
“Lady Zung!” His tone was sharp and he only called me Lady Zung when the adults were around or I was being particularly dense.
I sighed and turned in the saddle. “The melt has only just started, Ben. The ice is going to be four feet thick.”
“Do you know where they cut last?”
I had to stop and think. Where was the last place the men had cut ice? I shrugged. “Don’t know. It’ll be obvious.”
Ben shook his head. “Better not. I know you’re after a wisent. But let’s just hunt for a gulate instead. There are bound to be beds around here. Look,” he pointed at the lake edge. “You can see a thin line of water.”
He was right but I really wanted a wisent before their thick winter pelt started to shed. “Then you hunt for gulate. Summer will last three years. I’m going for a wisent.” I kicked Dawn in the ribs and dashed down the bank and onto the lake. I ignored the faint cracking of ice as I guided her straight across. I could hear Ben behind me and I grinned.
Dawn’s large feet were secure on the ice but I didn’t push her. No sense risking a slip and having her break a leg. I eyed the lake in front of us. It looked completely safe. As we neared the center, Ben four lengths behind me, I heard the ice crack. A loud snap that made Dawn’s head toss.
I tried to get Dawn to back up but more cracking made her dance. Then we were both in the water, the uhlans thrashing all six legs and shoving me into the sharp ice as she tried to climb out.
“Hold on!” Ben was off of his mount and pulling rope from his pack.
“Get Dawn first.”
“Don’t be stupid! She’s made for the cold.”
“So am I.” I argued with him but he was right. Even as cold-adapted as we were, the icy water was having an effect.
He tossed a loop to me and despite Dawn’s struggles, she had her two front legs up on thick ice now, I could grab the rope and pull it over my head and arms. “Ready,” I called.
Ben finished fastening the other end to his saddle and began to back up his uhlans. “Hang on.”
I kicked hard, trying to generate some lift but my fur boots and leggings were already soggy. The edge jabbed into my chest. I could feel the force break a rib and I cried out in pain.
“What?” Ben called.
“Nothing. Keep pulling.” I gasped and did my best to slide up the edge with a wave Dawn caused as she got a third leg up onto the ice.
Dripping, I slid up just as Dawn crawled out of the water. The air caused icicles to form as the water dripped from her. She shook, sending a spray of water over me and Ben as he hurried to me.
“Let’s get you back to shore.” He helped me to my feet. As I grabbed my rib cage he brought Dawn over. “I should build a fire.”
“I’m fine. Let’s just head home.”
“In wet furs?” He looked at me as though the top of my head had just fallen off.
I started to shiver. The water had gotten to my skin. Ice was forming on my coat. My boots were already solid ice. “It’s only two hours.”
“You’ll be dead and then your Lord father will kill me. Don’t be stupid.”
In the end, I gave in and probably as well. Ben left me at a huge fire, Dawn standing as close to it as she could, and rode home for dry clothes. My oldest brother came back with him. He laughed as he dismounted. “So, little sister. Spring is coming.”
I just rolled my eyes.