Ferdinand spurred Pickle lightly in an attempt to get him up the hill faster. The mule snorted in protest and continued on at the same steady pace.
“Oh, yes,” said Ferdinand, “please do take your time. However, I feel I should remind you, as you take in the stunning vistas of Samport Pass, that we are on the run from both Arturo's men and the Duke's army.”
The scrub-choked path followed a bend in the cliff-side. Pickle slowed and picked his way around it. “Of course, you have nothing to fear. You're just a victim in all this, I suppose? One mule caught up in the schemes of the nefarious Ferdinand: provocateur, ne'er-do-well, and debt-dodger?”
Behind them, Ferdinand could see the distance they'd covered. Frustrating as he was, Pickle had gotten him a long ways today. The path wound down the cleft in the grey mountainside. There were miles of rock, punctuated by tufts of small, hardy plants. Ferdinand whistled nervously. Pickle suddenly pulled up and brayed loudly, nearly sending the rider and his pack over the front of the saddle.
“There's nothing there you stupid brute!”
Pickle remained where he was, swaying his head from side to side. Ferdinand kicked him again and he obligingly returned to his same pace.
“Now I have a mule that is not only slow, but crazy. Excellent.”
The next day was slower, and Ferdinand spent much of it walking. He left the pack on top of Pickle. “You know, I'm supposed to have a steed, in these situations. You wouldn't see Roland crossing the mountains with a smelly mule. Though, if I was a knight, there's no way a horse would be able to carry all that stolen gold, never mind the armour and what have you. We're lucky to have each other, I suppose.”
While Ferdinand was taking a rest, Pickle found a stream with tough little apples growing near it. He pulled them off and nearly swallowed them whole. When Ferdinand came and reached for one, Pickle whinny-brayed and kicked out at the man.
“Eh! You'll need to share. I couldn't fit much food into that bag.” He reached slowly for another one while patting the black mule's neck. This seemed to placate Pickle, though he could have been biding his time until the next attack for all that Ferdinand could see. The animal's glossy eyes were deceptively simple-looking. “You are an insidious grifter, aren't you Pickle?”
The following day, Ferdinand and Pickle crossed the summit of the pass. The trail opened onto a sweeping view of the foothills. “When we get to the village down there,” said Ferdinand, “I'm going to sell you. Did you know that, you poor mongrel? I'm not going to be able to fence silver serving trays off of your back like some peddler.”
“You won't be able to fence any of that,” came a voice from above, “unless you play your part right.”
Ferdinand and Pickle stopped short. The man perched on the rocks above them had a crossbow trained on them. Ferdinand knew it had to be one of Arturo's thugs, probably a local judging by how fast he'd made it up here. There was a daring and adventurous way to solve this, and a safe and simple one. Ferdinand looked to his mule and recalled that he was not a knight, and Pickle was not a warhorse.
“Ferdinand made it through Samport Pass with nothing but his ugly face, some of the Duke's gold, and a mule named Pickle. I swear the bastard can't even screw up when he tries.”
“They say Ferdinand's mule can fly. But he had to promise his soul to the devil before it would show him the trick. I heard it from Pepe, who bought some of his gold rings. 'No choice,' Ferdinand had said, 'if I didn't do it, I'd have died up there.'”
“You can't go by what Ferdinand says, but apparently he had to dump half of what he stole back in the pass when he was attacked. He said he would have dumped the whole thing but the mule insisted on its own share.”
Ferdinand was leaving the small town in the foothills with Pickle on a lead behind him. He talked over his shoulder while the wind shook the soft trees. The land around them was bursting with green compared to the trails they'd walked a few days before. “Thanks again,” he said, “I hope you don't mind the embellishments. Don't tell anyone the truth and I won't add the part about you slipping on that one slope. Shameful for a mule, really.”