Short Story Honourable Mention - November 2013

Steph Minns - The Flight Of Horses

Enna Owa of the West Sea folk walked quietly into the great hall, the hem of her skirt trailing dry rushes along the beaten earth floor. Women were already busy around the massive hearth, setting pots and kettles to boil, raking ashes to rekindle the fire for another day’s cooking. She nodded politely to them as she passed and they gave the customary salute reserved for the high born. She was, after all, the betrothed of their Lord. What they thought of her, a foreigner from a land they’d never seen, she could not tell.

Enna had warmed to Lord Hlann since her arrival. Patient and good-humoured when she struggled to speak his tongue, faltering at times over her words, he’d asked her opinion on political matters, something she was not used to from a man. His narrow, angular face, framed by the long raven-black hair peculiar to his people, would not be considered ideal among her kind but was pleasant, roughly handsome, and he had a certain charm and a boyish smile that had drawn her into liking him more by the day. Her mother had assured her the word was he was a fair ruler, popular among his folk, and the Wooded Isle was rich in resources, good timber and fertile soil.

It had been arranged she stay here four months with her chaperone and if, at the end of the term, the match was agreeable then the betrothal would take place. At sixteen years of age she should be spoken for by now and so he was to become hers on the Winter Solstice, just two weeks away.

 

* * *

 

“This is such a dreary place,” Skerry moaned.

Enna had to admit she secretly agreed with her chaperone as she looked around at the dark timber buildings of the fortress, drab compared to her airy stone halls back home. 

“Are you sure you have no doubts over this match? There is still time to withdraw.”

Enna hesitated before answering, fumbling with the cord that held her braids atop her head in order to avoid Skerry’s shrewd, penetrating gaze. She often wondered if the older widow had some second sight that allowed her to read a soul’s innermost thoughts.

“Lord Hlann is a good man,” she replied carefully. “This will bind our families and lands together which can only be a good thing.”

“But do you think you can love him?”

A sinking feeling of dismay and misery clawed Enna’s belly. She barely knew him and how could she know if she would love him in the future? She’d been pushed to this by family duty.

“Perhaps in time,” she smiled brightly for Skerry’s benefit and turned back into the rooms they shared in the guests’ lodge.

Although it had been made cosy with tapestries and eider feather mattresses it still seemed quite unadorned and bleak to her eyes and was always busy, noisy, smoky from the two huge open fireplaces and countless rush lights and candles. Feeling suddenly suffocated, she grabbed up her winter cloak.

“I’m going riding,” she announced.

“Alone? My Lady, there are all manner of beasts roaming the wood, some I’ve heard standing as tall as a man and quite able to tear one apart.”

Enna dismissed the woman’s fears with a wave of her hand.

“I’ll be fine. I have my daggers.”

She strode quickly to the stables, knowing Skerry would not offer to accompany her but would beg one of the Lord’s guards to do so instead. Hoping she’d be away before her chaperone managed to find someone willing, she saddled her black mare and urged her into a gallop down the grassy slope beyond the fort. The woods ahead looked menacing, stark trees pointing like withered fingers through the drizzling rain, but Enna had no fear. Instead she felt relief at being alone with her thoughts. Yes, she admitted to herself, she did have doubts about this match and becoming High Lady of this strange, cold, grey land, but she was tied into the bond now. Rivulets of rain joined the tears slipping down her face as she thought miserably on friends and family far away, of familiar things soon to be lost forever.

 

* * *

 

Several times she’d seen Lord Hlann ride out alone late into the night on his favourite stallion, a big grey. She would watch him leave from her lodgings in the guest quarters, cantering across the fields and down the slope to the woods below the fortress. The lodge, being on the edge of the camp and atop a hill, afforded her a good view of folk coming and going. She had asked one of the warrior’s wives about this, but the lady had laughed and told her not to worry, he wasn’t visiting a lover, just his horses. At night, alone, she’d pressed, to do what? But the lady had clamped shut like a stiff gate after that, so she’d asked no more.

The main herd of horses ran free in the valley and woods, Enna understood, and Lord Hlann was a renowned horse breeder, she’d learned. Tonight a full moon sailed a glittering winter sky and she was restless. Unable to sleep, she pulled on boots and a furred cloak and stepped outside the lodge for fresh air. There she stood lost in thought, gazing at the moon-dipped landscape.

Two men were walking away from the encampment, strolling casually down the slope beyond the gates. Too far away to make out their talk she, nonetheless, recognised them both, Lord Hlann and Sir Arrant of one of the high born families of these people. Her Lord she knew from his gait and distinctive wolfskin cloak, the fur pattern of light and dark patches obvious even at a distance. Arrant, tall, curling blond hair falling onto his shoulders, was a handsome catch and a ladies favourite. She’d not liked him on first meeting, finding him perhaps a little too confident to the point of arrogance. But as she’d grown to know him these past weeks she now suspected the loud exterior belied a young man who perhaps felt a little out of his depth here among the bustle of court life. Lord Hlann had confided Arrant had only arrived last autumn from outlying lands and his family were considered near destitute, though well born. That, she’d understood, was why her Lord had invited him to join the court, out of a sense of duty and compassion. Now she watched curiously as Arrant strolled privately with her betrothed. They vanished among the trees and Enna wondered what they were discussing. Perhaps, she mused, his upcoming nuptials or the things men only talk about with other men.

She was about to turn back into the smoky hall when two horses burst whinnying from the trees below. Intrigued, she watched them dance elegantly across the slope under the moonlight before kicking up their heels to burst into a full gallop, calling to each other. They moved as one, powerful muscles rippling under satin skin, manes and tails streaming and foaming in the wind they created for themselves. One was as black as the night, supple, taut. The other’s colour she could not make out under the moonlight but it was pale, possibly dun-coloured or roan. They seemed to dance and tease each other, joyous in their playful freedom.

When they came to a snorting stop to face one another, Enna was sure this was some sort of mating ritual. She’d witnessed animals rutting enough times, pigs, dogs, cows in fields and farmyards, but this was something almost magical between these two beautiful horses and she stayed to watch. They blew gently into each other’s faces, breaths misting and mingling on the frosty air, nuzzling, almost kissing. Then the black stallion mounted the paler horse and they entwined. The pale mare stood trembling as though in ecstasy, and the black stallion gently bit her neck as he vented his passion, thrusting his manhood deep into her, his long mane drifted to caress his mate’s back as he spent himself.

After the coupling they trotted slowly together back into the trees. She stood awhile longer, enjoying the silence and solitude, and then Lord Hlann and Sir Arrant emerged not far from where the wild horses had vanished. They were walking close together, the Lord’s arm slung casually across Arrant’s shoulders. Enna watched them climb the slope and noted how alike they were in their movements, as the horses had been, moving as one.

* * *

 

Two days after this, an odd thing happened. The Lord and some of his warriors had been hunting boar for the table and had returned muddy but jubilant. Enna had seen them ride in and went to greet the party in the courtyard, secretly wishing she could have accompanied them. Racing on horseback, leaping streams, appealed to her far more than the ladylike pursuits her mother insisted she should concentrate on. Lord Hlann turned from his sweating horse to welcome her.

“My Lady, how was your morning? Ours was profitable.”

He stripped off his soaked shirt to splash himself with water from a nearby rain barrel. They’d not lain together as custom forbade it until after the wedding so this was the first chance she’d had to see at least part of his naked body. His torso was taut, well-honed, but he had a birthmark on his left breast, like a bruise the shape of a hoof print. It had been partly disguised by a spiralling tattoo, but was still unmistakable. Enna started to ask about the boar but the moment was lost when a man servant appeared with an ale jug and a clean shirt. Lord Hlann turned to take the shirt and Enna saw the servant’s face stiffen as he also spied the mark. As the Lord of the Wooded Isle walked away, the man quickly made a private sign with his hand as though to ward off some hex.

 “The Isle people are said to be odd,” her cousin had warned her before she’d sailed. “Just be careful of their dark magics. They have a blood-line, it’s said, that is not fully human but comes from demon seed.”

She’d not had a chance to question her cousin further so had put it aside as just a fable, another story that grew with the whispering around the hearth after dark. But her curiosity was now stirred by the servant’s odd reaction.

 

* * *

 

Snow had started to fall again outside, big flakes that danced like falling swans down from a burst pillowcase, dusting the fields and making lacework of tree branches and hedges. Enna judged it was mid afternoon as she saddled her black mare. She’d slipped away from the women’s sewing circle, tired of endless questions about her family and her life back home. The conversation had churned up memories of all those happy precious times of her childhood, things now to be left far behind as she entered the daunting phase of womanhood and marriage. Studious not to attract attention (the last thing she wanted was a gaggle of the ladies or one of her Lord’s guards offering to accompany her) she fled for the forest, her skirts bundled up into a knot in front of the saddle so she could ride easier. Enna was nothing if not a practical and straight-forward lass and she was curious to see something.

The previous night, she’d sat out under the moon and again had seen the black horse and his consort running together on the slopes. This time they did not mate but pranced, reared, chased one another, whinnying their pleasure at each other’s company as they kicked up flurries of snow. Did they do this for sheer joy at being alive, she’d wondered? She’d watched them for a while, enjoying their grace and speed, even envying them such simple lives, before they’d fled back into the woods again, wild dancing spirits that answered to no-one.

But why are they always alone, away from the main herd? She thought now as she rode. She knew enough of the nature of horses to know this was unusual. Today she was determined to find Lord Hlann’s herd and identify the lovely pale horse, maybe ask if she could be gifted the foal of the union she’d witnessed. It would surely be a fine animal, glorious to ride.

She found the horses, moving slowly about five miles away in a clearing, picking what greenery they could from bushes between drifts of snow. They watched nervously as she rode around and among them, the scent of the unfamiliar black mare disturbing them. But try as she might she could not find a pale mare or a black stallion. Most of the horses were bays and chestnuts, with a few grey dapples among them such as her future husband rode. Disappointed, she turned back, mindful it was growing dark and people would be fretting after her.

Enna arrived back to find the great hall being readied for a feast in honour of the local woodland God, Hernos. In the excitement of thinking about the horses she’d completely forgotten about this. In nine days it would be her wedding feast on the Winter Solstice so she supposed this night would give her some notion of what to expect from these people’s ideas of entertainment and hospitality. The hall was bustling with servants bringing in benches, extra candles and evergreen boughs to decorate the walls. Enna smiled quietly to herself as she walked past Sir Arrant slumped asleep over a table near the back of the hall. His blond hair had fallen away from his neck to reveal the fading bruise of a bite mark.

So drinking and carousing has already started, Enna thought, and passionate trysts. Passionate trysts she had no personal experience of, but she’d listened wide-eyed many times to the tales of her older sisters.

Aware of eyes upon her, she turned to find a troll-like little man standing some feet away, dressed in an entertainers’ costume. Stepping forward at her greeting, he hissed under his breath.

“Lady, please take this. It will let you see our Lord as he really is. Put it to your eye and use it as a window.”

He pressed a clear stone into her palm and she was about to ask him what he meant by it but he walked quickly away, casting nervous glances about him. Looking back at her once, he tapped a finger to his left eye. Then she lost sight of him among the bustling servants.

Enna examined the stone. It was the size of a ladies belt-buckle, crystal clear and polished smooth. On closer inspection under the candlelight she could pick out veins of silvery blue running through it. Puzzled, she slipped it into her belt purse and decided she’d keep this to herself.

Back at the lodge she let Skerry fuss over her dresses, picking an ochre wool outfit. She took little interest, preferring her plain wool skirt and riding leggings to any finery with fancy stitching. Eventually she was ready, her chestnut hair brushed to a sheen and prettily braided with beads and copper hoops.

“You have to look your best for him,” Skerry urged her, “make something of yourself.”

Enna shrugged as someone knocked at the door to say the food was being brought out and they were all to come to the great hall. Hurrying across the snowy courtyard, they found the place ablaze with glittering bronze candle sticks, the bare walls adorned with swathes of tapestry hangings showing hunting scenes and wild, imaginary beasts. Instead of taking a seat at the top table, Enna headed for the musicians’ gallery. 

“Why up there?” her chaperone asked.

“I want to see it from above, take in the sight of all the tables and dresses,” Enna replied. “I’ll be with you again in a moment.”

Really she hoped to catch the little man who’d given her the stone and ask him more about it but the entertainment gallery was empty. This was her second disappointment today and she was about to go down to take her place when a roar of approval from the warriors told her Lord Hlann had walked in.

His black robes set off the silver ornaments he wore, wrought with spiralling designs that flashed in the candle and firelight. From her view in the gallery his angular face was in shadow until he tossed his head back in a laugh, throwing the thick black hair around his shoulders. He seems excited, like a child, Enna thought, will he be like this at our wedding feast? She could see his jaw was freshly shaven which meant he would smell of juniper and cedarwood oil, she knew from experience. How would her wedding night be with him? She wondered. Would he be as big as the breeding stallions she’d seen with their manhood aroused, swollen and growing like trunks of wood as they mounted the poor mare? The prospect filled her with dread. That was a thing she had no experience of. Would she split when he entered her? Would there be blood and pain?

She pushed those thoughts quickly aside and took the stone from her purse. What had the entertainer meant by ‘see him as he really is’? It must be some clever trick that made people and things appear differently, like looking at your reflection in a broken piece of mirror, she thought.

Raising it to her right eye, she gazed at the Lord of the Wooded Isle and choked back a shriek. His face had become that of a black stallion, dark nostrils flaring at the end of his long nose. Horse’s ears thrust through his hair and as he laughed, shaking his head, it became the black stallion’s sensual mane. Peering at him through the stone, Enna watched his neck growing, stretching to form the magnificent neck of the fine, proud stallion. How could this be! What dark magic was this?

Shocked, Enna took the stone away from her eye and he appeared as a normal man again, turning to shake the hand of one of his warriors. She knew the man as Briowl. Putting the stone to her eye again to look at Briowl, she expected to see him also twist and shift into some semblance of a horse or some animal but he appeared as he always did, big bearded Briowl. Moving her head a little to the right, still with the stone to her eye, she focussed once more on Lord Hlann. Again his face was somehow misshapen, although oddly still recognisable, and she watched in horror as the horse’s lips moved as he talked. Taking the stone from her eye he once more appeared as a man. Looking through the stone she scanned around the company below. All appeared as they should, the men at arms and the ladies, the serving boys. Until she lit upon Sir Arrant. As she watched, horrified, his pleasant face shifted as though water rippled over it, distorting his image. His features too swam to form the image of a horse, nose lengthening and changing, this time to a pale sandy colour with a white blaze. Arrant’s eyes appeared no longer human but the liquid brown pools of an equine, and his blond locks became a pale mane, his laughing mouth that of a whinnying horse.

Enna thrust the stone back into her belt purse with a shaking hand. So the rumours at my mother’s court are true then, she thought, my cousin warned me of this!

At that moment the Lord looked up as though drawn to do so.

“Dear Lady, come down here and join us.”

He was smiling and beckoning and Enna reluctantly descended, just as the musicians came trampling up the stairs with their instruments. The little man, she noted, was not among them. Taking her place at the head table, she craned her neck in order to see Sir Arrant, sitting near the end of the table. He was talking earnestly to the woman next to him, nothing about him suggesting he was anything other than an earthly man. It was you, Enna thought as things now became clear. Why did I assume it was a mare he coupled with? The bite mark on your neck was not from a lady but my future husband.

“Why were you hiding up in the gallery?” Lord Hllan leant across to ask pleasantly.

“I wished to see the hall as a bird would do, Sir,” Enna tried to smile convincingly, “to admire the decoration on the tables.”

“Ah.”

She was unsure if he believed her so she made idle chat about how good the venison and the spit roast pig looked, helping herself to slices from the platter although she had no real appetite for any of this now. She was trapped, alone among strangers in a foreign land. And what was to come? She shuddered as she thought again of what she’d seen and glanced down the table at Skerry, who had witnessed none of it. Had she imagined it? Was it general knowledge among the court that their Lord was a shape-shifting fey but his people kept the secret, accepting him as he was? She argued with herself that she had been given no reason to fear this man or his people. Indeed, they had been nothing but welcoming and kind to her, but what if the picture she had seen so far were only the image on the surface of a pool? What lurked in the waters below, waiting for its time to emerge? After the wedding, when her belly would swell with child sooner or later, what would she give birth to? A monster, a half-horse abomination touched by the hand of fey-magic?

Feeling sick to her stomach now, she looked despairingly around the noisy hall. Apart from her chaperone, there was no-one here she could turn to or trust. Would she even be allowed to leave?

“Are you unwell, dear? You look pale and have barely touched your food.”

Lord Hlann looked at her with concern and covered her hand with his own. The large gold and garnet ring on his first finger scratched her and, glancing down, a sudden thought struck Enna. She had jewels, and they could buy a passage back across the sea to safety.

“No, I feel a little feverish. Would you excuse me my Lord? I think I’d like to lie down.”

His smile was gracious.

“Of course. If you need, send word to the kitchen for a milk broth. That may help you settle.”

 

* * *

 

Enna wasted no time. With everyone at the feast, the way was clear for her escape. She quickly changed into her leggings and winter cloak, rolled up a spare shift, skirt and tunic in the quilt from her bed. Spare boots too and the jewellery she’d been gifted by her future husband also went into the pack. She didn’t dare wait to tell Skerry what had happened. The chaperone would insist on seeing through the stone for herself and this would only delay her fleeing. If she left now she wouldn’t be discovered missing until the early hours hopefully. Then it would be assumed she had gone out for air, maybe wandered off in a fever of sickness, and had become lost in the woods.

Entering the dark stable with just a small lamp to guide her, the sight of her black mare made her catch her breath. Raising the stone to her eye she was relieved to see the mare was just that, an ordinary horse. The gate guard tonight was in the hall, drinking with his fellows, and she was grateful for the snow that muffled her horse’s footfalls. All the while her heart was banging a drum. Between her goal and here would be wolves, no doubt robbers on the road. She would be hungry as she’d had no chance to steal food from the kitchen. Glancing back just once at the great hall, ablaze with laughter and candlelight spilling from the open doorway, she swung her mare onto the track that wound through the woods. Wild horses watched her curiously from among the silent trees, nostrils quivering.

The snow sparkled under the starlight and it was bitterly cold. Mindful that it was hazardous underfoot, Enna didn’t push the pace above a fast trot in the darkness. Snow flurries falling from branches above dusted her hood and she pushed on, her relief increasing with each mile put between her and that place. As she turned onto the road that led to the coast she almost whooped out loud. It was one long straight road to the sea now, the only road and the way she’d arrived. The harbour would be full of ships, and there would be one at least that would be crossing the West Sea, back to her homeland. Just two days ride to the coast, she thought, I’ll be on a ship before they work out where I’ve gone.

The going was better here and she pushed the mare into a canter, her soul soaring and the snow already covering her tracks.

*****

About The Author

Steph Minns has been a keen reader, writer and artist since childhood. Her professional career has been pretty varied. Originally trained in countryside conservation and horticulture after finishing school, she taught gardening skills to people with learning disabilities on several charity projects. She then went on to work for Epping Forest Council parks department as a gardener and worked as a groundskeeper in Bristol.
In her late-20's, after completing various courses in graphics and digital media studies, she worked for several years in web and print design, specializing in the not-for-profit/charity sector. Steph works part-time now for the Forestry Commission and spends her spare time writing. She has had short stories published by AlfieDog and Vagabondage Press. You can find out more details at her website stephminns.weebly.com.