Saturday, 11 January 2020 12:26

Horse-Master By Maureen Bowden

Horse-Master By Maureen BowdenJane, heiress of Moorcroft Grange, climbed the ancient beech tree in the overgrown hedge in an attempt to rescue Harriet, the stable-boy’s cat. She crawled along the branch on which Harriet was balancing. It snapped. The cat yowled, leaped out of the tree and fled back to the stables. Jane and the branch crashed into the hedge.

She pulled herself to her feet and looked around. The estate gardens had become an uncultivated meadow. Wild flowers: buttercup, cowslip and yarrow invaded the long grass with bursts of colour. The grange itself was a burned-out ruin standing stark as bare bones against the red and gold sunset.

A white mare trotted towards her and nuzzled her neck. She heard no words, but the horse thrust a thought into her mind “Who are you? Where do you come from?”

“My name’s Jane,” she said, “How can I hear your thoughts?”

“Why shouldn’t you hear them? What’s a Jane? I don’t know that sound.”

She must be hallucinating, of course. Maybe she hit her head when she fell, knocked herself out and was imagining this. Whatever. Go with the flow. “It means precious gift.” She said, remembering her mother telling her the meaning of her name ten years ago, on her seventh birthday, a few days before running off with an astrophysicist and out of her life forever. Obviously she wasn’t precious enough.

The mare responded, “Bit of a mouthful. I’ll call you Gift. My name is Little Girl. Not very appropriate, I know, but it’s what Horse-Master called me when I was a foal.”

 “Who’s Horse-Master?”

Little Girl bent her front legs. “Climb on my back. I’ll take you to him.” Jane settled herself on the mare’s back, entangled her fingers in her mane and hung on as she galloped through the meadow.

“You didn’t tell me where you were from,” Little Girl said.

“I’m from here but last time I saw it this was a garden and the house hadn’t burned down.”

“How long ago did you last see it?”

“About ten minutes.” The mare didn’t reply but Jane sensed her puzzlement.

Beyond the meadow they reached a village. The rows of cottages appeared to be constructed from timber and mud. She had expected the fantasy world, or whatever it was, to be similar to her own, but this version of the twenty-first century resembled a medieval settlement. Crops were growing in an adjoining field. A flock of sheep and a herd of horses were grazing in another, which also contained a stable block. There were no fences around the fields. A black stallion looked up as they approached and galloped towards them.

Little Girl introduced them. “Gift, this is Guardian. Horse-Master is his rider. Guardian, this is Gift. She is from another world.”

Guardian spoke in her mind. “Greetings, Gift. As Little Girl has accepted you as her rider, I regard you as a friend.”

She had not been aware that the mare had accepted her as anything other than a curiosity, but she had no time to consider the implications. The villagers were gathering around them. Adults and children wore leggings and belted tunics made from wool, and boots made from animal hide. Their hair was held back from their faces in tight braids.

A young man emerged from the gathering, stepped towards her and patted Little Girl’s neck. The mare looked into his eyes. Jane guessed she was talking to him. This must be Horse-Master. He was tall and slim but muscular, and his auburn braids hung to his waist. She looked at his face and caught her breath. It was identical to that of her only friend, the Grange’s stable-boy, known as Red. There were superficial differences, of course. Red’s wild auburn curls looked as if he‘d cut them with a kitchen knife, and he usually wore faded jeans and a tee shirt bearing the logo, ‘Eye Candy’.

Horse-Master said, “Little Girl tells me your name is Gift but she is confused about where you come from.”

“So am I, “Jane said. “This world is like mine in some ways but changed in others.”

“Where is your world?”

“Beyond the Grange, on the other side of the hedge. I fell through some kind of portal.”

He reached out and helped her to climb down from Little Girl’s back. “Tell me about the other side of the hedge.  Is it a good place?”

“No.” She pointed to the ruin visible on the horizon. “That was my family home. In my world I saved it from burning down when I was a child. Maybe I should have let it burn. My father is a dim-witted lout with the imagination of an earthworm.”

“Your imagination appears to be well developed.”

She ignored his hint of incredulity. “I probably inherited it from my mother. She reads a lot.”

“Where is your mother?”

“I’ve no idea. After she left us my father started having wild parties. His friends scared me. I would hide in my room and lock the door while they drank themselves senseless.”

“So how did you stop the fire?”

She cast her mind back to the night that still haunted her dreams. “When they stopped shouting and started snoring I would come downstairs. That’s how I found the lighted cigarette that one of them had dropped, setting fire to the curtains. I threw water on them before the flames spread. I burned myself.”  She rolled up her jacket sleeve and showed him the livid scar on her forearm.

His voice softened. “If what you say is true, in this world you must have stayed in your room and died with the rest of them. I remember a child living there when my father was the Horse-Master and served the Lord of the manor.”

“So there was another me in this world? Could I take her place? I don’t want to go back. I was scared and miserable there.”

“If you wish to stay we’ll make you welcome, but there are dangers here. You may change your mind.”

“What dangers?”

“Night is coming. We will speak tomorrow. I’ll take you to Healer. She has beds in her shelter for the sick and injured. She will give you a place to sleep.”

Little Girl said, “Go with him. You can trust the people here. I’ll come for you after we have slept.”

Horse-Master led her to the largest building in the village. “Wait here,” he said as he approached the door. She sat and leaned against the timber wall. Weariness overcame her and she drifted into sleep.

She awoke in a comfortable bed in a shuttered room. A woman who must have been about her mother’s age entered the room. “Good morning, Gift. My name is Healer. Horse-Master told me your strange story.” Healer opened the shutters and the morning sun flooded the sparsely furnished room.

Jane said, “I expected to wake up back in the Grange and find that this world had been a dream.”

“Are you disappointed?”

“No. I’m relieved.”

“May I see your scar?”

She showed Healer her forearm, realising that someone had undressed her. “Who removed my clothes?”

“I did. I apologise if that offends you, but they were torn and dirty. I will clean and repair them. In the meantime I will provide you with clothing.” She looked at the scar. “Does it trouble you?”

“Not much. Sometimes it itches.”

“I have ointment that will soften the damaged skin and reduce the discolouration. It will not heal completely but it will look better and it won’t itch.”

“Thank you, and I’m not offended by your removing my clothes. It was the hygienic thing to do.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes, I’m starving.”

Healer laughed. “How the young exaggerate.”  She pointed to the door to an adjoining room. “The washroom and toilet facilities are there. I will leave clothing on your bed. When you have bathed and dressed we will eat.”

After using the washroom she found a tunic, leggings and a jar of ointment on her bed. Her trainers, which had been cleaned, stood on the floor. She smoothed the ointment over her scar. It felt cool and soothing, and smelled of new-mown summer grass.

She dressed, opened the bedroom door and followed the aroma of fresh baked bread to the kitchen. The table contained bread rolls, assorted cheeses, spreads that she didn’t recognise, a pot of something resembling coffee, and a bowl of fruit.

“Sit and eat,” Healer said, “and tell me about your mother.”

Between mouthfuls Jane said, “Not much to tell. I haven’t seen her for ten years. My father said she ran off with an old boyfriend. They’d studied astrophysics together at University and he’d been writing to her.”

“Did you believe your father?”

“Why would he lie? It didn’t matter who she’d run off with. All that mattered was she was gone.”

Healer sat beside her and poured them both a cup of what might have been coffee. “I want to tell you something, Gift. I had a daughter in this world who looked a lot like you. She died when the Grange burned down. She was seven years old.”

Jane felt a tingle down her spine. “Why was she at the Grange?”

“The Lord was her father.” She sipped her drink, and continued. “I had become an inconvenience to him so he bribed a bandit from the hill tribes to ambush and murder me while I was out riding. The ruffian took great pleasure in telling me this before he beat me senseless and left me to die.”

Jane felt as if the world was spinning out of control. None of this should have anything to do with her but she felt that it did. She said, “How did you survive?”

“Horse-Master’s father, who was Horse-Master at that time, found me and took me to his home. His wife was Healer then. They nursed me back to health, but while I lay close to death the Grange burned down and when I recovered I learned that my child had perished in the fire, along with the Lord and his wild friends.”

Jane couldn’t remember her mother’s face, but now she seemed to see more clearly, and she recognised her in Healer’s eyes. “Was I your child, in this world?”

“I believe you were, and your father killed me in your world.”

“My mother didn’t abandon me?”

“No. If she was me she wouldn’t have done that.”

Jane felt an anger that she had carried for more than half her life, finally lift. She threw herself into Healer’s arms and they wept.

“Finish your breakfast,” Healer said. “Your horse will be here soon, to take you to Horse-Master.”

When Little Girl arrived she said to Jane, “You look happy.”

“I am. I feel as if I’ve come home.”

“Yes, you were meant to come here. I needed a rider but I hadn’t found the right one. When I met you I knew I should choose you. All things that are meant to happen will happen. Now you must tell me my true name.”

Jane knew what it must be. “You are White Lady.”

“It has a good sound. Call me Lady. It’s short. I like short.”

“So do I. You are Lady. I am Gift.”

Horse Master was waiting at his door. He beckoned her inside. A large ginger tomcat lay curled at the foot of his bed. Apart from his gender he bore a resemblance to Harriet. She was not surprised. The cat opened one yellow eye, glared at her, closed it again and began to snore. Horse-Master laughed. “Meet Home-Maker. He must like you or he would have hissed and leaped at your throat.”

“How reassuring.”

“Please sit. We must talk.”

He was occupying the only chair so she sat on the bed, keeping a wary eye on Home-Maker.

“Are you determined to stay here?”

“Yes, I am Gift now. I can never go back. My father is insisting that I should marry one of his drunken friends.”

“What does marry mean?”

“To mate with him.”

“Your mate should be your choice. Why is it your father’s concern?”

“His friend is rich. My father is in debt. He will expect his son-in-law to pay his creditors.”

“He wants to sell you?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what he wants.”

“It’s good that you came here. At first I believed you were soft in the head and you had imagined your other world. Now I no longer believe that.”

“I thought I was imagining this world. I hope I am not.”

“You are not. You must meet the other riders. We defend our village from the raiders.”

“Which raiders?”

“The villages in this valley each have their own horses and riders to protect them from the bandits who come down from the hills at dawn to steal their sheep for food and their children to keep as slaves. The people take turns as overnight watchers. They blow a horn to alert the riders of the bandits’ approach.”

“How do you fight them?”

“Our horses are faster and more intelligent than their wild ponies and we are skilled archers.”

This was one more indication that she was meant to be here, “I’m an archer,” she said. “My friend, Red, taught me. Archery is his hobby. That means something he does for pleasure.  I became more skilful than him, but he is a better rider than I’ll ever be.”

Lady was listening from the open doorway. “All you have to do is make sure you don’t fall off. I’ll do the rest.”

Gift ran to her and hugged her neck, then turned back the Horse-Master. “If I’m to stay here I must have a place in your society. May I join you when the raiders come?”

“Yes, but stay close to me and don’t try to be a hero. We must ask Archer-Master to make you a bow. Now, tell me about Red. Is he Horse-Master in the other world?”

Her father called him the stable-boy, but he was much more than that. “Yes,” she said, “and he looks like you.”

#

The villages helped her to build her cottage and taught her how to make clothing from sheep’s wool. Horse-Master was impressed by her archery skills. She was accepted and it felt good.

The first time the watcher’s horn woke her at dawn she felt sick with fear, but this was her chance to prove herself and she was determined not to fail.

Lady was waiting outside her cottage. The riders gathered, with Horse-Master at their head. She stayed close to him, as he had instructed, and they rode to deflect the raggle-taggle mob of wild-haired, leather clad bandits, pouring down the hillside, whooping and screeching. She kept in mind that one of them could have been the fiend that almost killed Healer. It strengthened her resolve.

The sheep scattered in panic. One of the bandits reached an outlying cottage, and broke down the door. He leaped from his pony’s back, ran inside and emerged with a small, screaming boy. The bandit attempted to escape but Guardian was too fast for him and Horse-Master caught him up.  Gift took aim. Her arrow hit the bandit’s shoulder. He lurched from the pony’s back. Horse-Master reached out and caught the child before he fell under the pounding hooves.

The bandits retreated to their lair with nothing but a couple of stolen sheep. Gift had demonstrated her worth.

#

The next two years were the happiest of her life. Only one thing marred her contentment. Lady understood. “You wish to mate with Horse-Master.”

“Yes. What can I do?”

“Tell him, of course.”

“I can’t do that. I’m afraid he’d reject me.”

“Why would he do that?”

“He might not care for me as much as I care for him.”

“He does. Guardian told me, but if you want him to speak about it first, stop worrying and wait until he does. Humans do complicate things.”

Gift tried to believe, as Lady did, that everything that was meant to happen will happen. That may have been true but it didn’t happen in the way that they expected.

Watcher’s horn sounded as the following dawn broke, and they rode out. It started like any other raid. Most of the bandits attempted to drive the sheep out of their pasture and onto the hillsides where their comrades were waiting to chase them deep into the hills. A few others, more daring, ventured into the village in search of unprotected children. Horse-Master and Gift were driving a group of them away when one of them, bolder than the rest, turned, rode straight at Horse-Master and shot an arrow into his chest. He almost fell from Guardian’s back. Gift could see he was badly hurt, and in her anguish she fired her arrow at the bandit’s heart. He screamed and fell. Lady reached Horse-Master’s side. Gift hung onto him and Guardian carried him steadily back home. A rider rode ahead to alert Healer and she was waiting for them when they reached her door.

Two of the riders carried him into the shelter and laid him on a bed. Healer broke off the arrow’s shaft. “I can’t remove the head,” she said. “It’s punctured his lung.” She grasped Gift’s hand. “I’m so sorry, my child. I’ll give him a potion to dull the pain but there’s nothing more I can do. He doesn’t have much time.”

His voice was no more than a whisper, “Gift, you must go back to your world.”

“No, I belong here with you.”

“I know you do. Listen to me. I’m dying but the horses and the people need me. Go back for Red and bring him here to take my place.”

She couldn’t bare the prospect of losing Horse-Master. He would still be alive in the other world but she didn’t want to think about that now.

“Why would he give up his life to come here?”

“Because he cares for you.”

“What? How can you know that?”

“Because he’s me, and I care for you.”

She couldn’t hold back her tears. “You took your time telling me.”

He tried to laugh, but he coughed up blood. “I’m telling you now. Will you do it for us?”

She nodded, and held him in her arms until his breathing stopped.

The villagers built his funeral pyre and kept it burning for a day and a night. At sunrise they scattered his ashes into the wind.

Gift told Lady she was going back to fetch Red.

“Will he come?” the mare asked.

“Horse-Master said he will.”

She climbed onto Lady’s back. Home-Maker leaped into her arms and settled down in front of her. “It seems we have a passenger,” she said. “Does he understand what I’m going to do?”

She sensed Lady’s amusement. “We know nothing about cats but they know everything about us.”

They rode to the ancient beech that straddled both worlds. Guardian was waiting for them. A look of understanding passed between them. Gift dismounted. “Wait here for me,” she said to the horses and the cat, and then she entered the portal.

The grange was engulfed with flames. The idiots must have done it again, and this time she hadn’t been around to save their lives. A fleet of fire engines stood by while the crew tried in vain to bring the inferno under control.

Red stood watching, with Harriet draped across his shoulders, clinging to his neck.

Jane ran to his side and touched his arm.

He turned to her, and yelled, “Where the heck have you been? I thought that monster had murdered you, just as my father believed he murdered your mother.”

Healer was right. It made sense. She glanced at the burning Grange, “It appears someone may have murdered him. Was he in there?”

Red nodded. “And the usual drunken mob. The Fire Officer said he thinks one of them fell asleep and dropped a lighted cigarette.”

“Were there any survivors?”

“It’s unlikely. They’ve brought out the bodies.”

She looked at the burning stable-block. “Are the horses safe?”

“They’re long gone. I let them out before the flames reached them and told them to head for the hills and join the wild ponies. They’ll have a good life.”

“You told them?”

He grinned, “Call it body language if you like. They understood me, but I don’t suppose you believe that.”

“Oh, I do. Listen to me, Red. Do you trust me?”

“Of course. You’re one of the few humans I do trust.”

“Then come with me.” The fire had spread to the hedge and was drawing near to the beech tree. If it reached the portal how would she and Red pass through? “We must go now. Right now.”

“Go where?”

“I’ll tell you later. Hang on to Harriet and to me.” She grabbed his hand, pulled him towards the burning hedge, and yelled, “Run.”

The flames were licking at the ancient beech when they reached it. She ducked into the hedge and flung herself through the portal, dragging him behind her. They lay, sprawled on the meadow-grass, where Lady and Guardian stood waiting. The two cats sniffed each other with feline aloofness, and Red said, “Where are we?”

Gift picked herself up, and pulled him to his feet. “We’re home.”

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO:Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had 120 stories and poems accepted by paying markets, she was nominated for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize, and Alban Lake have recently published an anthology of her stories entitled 'Whispers of Magic'. She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire. Her husband has set them to traditional melodies and performed them in folk music clubs throughout England and Wales. She loves her family and friends, rock 'n' roll, Shakespeare and cats.

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