Abyss & Apex : January-February 2004: My Kingdom

MY KINGDOM Illustration

My Kingdom

by Hannah Wolf Bowen


I used to have a house.  Now I had a Kingmambo daughter, a wish and a prayer, half a dozen horses and an invitation to race them at Carterhaugh Park.  Quite possibly, I had no future; I was at Carterhaugh because I at least had a past.

I’d almost forgotten how it was to live on the backside, eating every meal in the track kitchen, wedging a cot into the tack room to sleep at night.  I’d been here before, as a child with my father, as an adult before I’d tried to shift from racing sleek Thoroughbreds to breeding and raising them, before my father had died, and my good money-making racehorse the same; before I’d sold the farm and the house, claimed a few cheap runners and rogues to go along with the Kingmambo filly called Cast A Spell, promising daughter of a top-flight stallion, and made my way back to the track.

The horses and I had been to Hawthorne, to Arlington Park; we’d been to the Fair Grounds in Louisiana and enjoyed some modest success.  Now we’d come back to Carterhaugh, for all that my father had told me to stay well clear, for all that the railbirds muttered that this track was special, that no one who went to Carterhaugh came back quite the same.  Or maybe that was why.  My father was dead, my good Burning Bright the same, and there was something very appealing about the idea of spending time at a track where no horse ever broke down, or so the legend claimed.

I woke to darkness and equine well-being, to the scents of horse and leather, sweet hay, the sharp minty bite of liniment.  One horse stomped and snorted, another sighed, and through the still moments in between came a light little ringing of bells.

Bells?

I tugged sneakers onto bare feet, grabbed a sweatshirt from where I’d tossed it over a saddle, and padded out into the shedrow.

Stalls to my right, open air to my left, cool and breezy against my skin.  The filly sprawled flat-out in the nearest stall, dreaming of fast colts and finish lines.  My other horses, my project horses, dozed in the stalls beyond her.  The son of Dynaformer, well-bred but incorrigible, down as well, though he surely spent his nights in scheming.  Beside him, my only client’s filly, too skittish to relax for a good night’s sleep, and the grand old gelding in possession of no pedigree and less raw talent, but a rare love of running hard.

And at the far end of the motley string, Tizroyal, on his feet with head over his stall guard, watching down the aisle.  Not a handsome head, that one–too long, too coarse.  But the lanky grey had courage and that common head became lovely when just long enough to place him on the right side of a photo finish.  I paused by Tizroyal’s stall, but the grey had never been a friendly horse.  He stood with ears pricked and head cocked towards the track and after a moment I listened as well.

Trainers sometimes avoided the usual early-morning gallops and worked horses under cover of darkness, slipping past the official clockers and the betting public.  Even so.  I glanced at my watch–midnight–and couldn’t help thinking this seemed a little extreme, dashing slim-legged Thoroughbreds over invisible footing.

I crept towards the track, past silent dormitories and a sleeping night watchman, and took up a position at the rail on the turn, stared into the gloom for the source of the bells that rang in rhythm with hoofbeats on springy turf.  My eyes adjusted, recognized vague shapes.

They burst into my field of vision, a blaze-faced bay and a liver chestnut racing upsides into the turn, the chestnut a neck in front.  I’d missed the workout itself, then; they had passed the finish several strides back and now galloped out, high-headed, still wanting to run.  The bay’s rider shook a fist in the air and laughed as if he’d just won the Derby; the other was grim-faced, head low.  Bells shivered sound from the horses’ bridles and the chestnut flattened his ears, tossed his head at the sound.

Bells?

The running horses slowed, halted, turned back to wait.  Others appeared from the darkness–curiouser and curiouser, a dozen parading horses and riders, belled.  There she was, the owner I knew only as the Lady, tall and stately and somehow world-weary astride a dark mare, her assistant beside her on a chocolate bay, the rest of her staff riding behind.  They rode to meet the blowing bay and sweat-slick chestnut and led those into the turn as I blinked and blinked again, shook my head wondering if I was really awake.

A horse stopped by the rail, stood quiet.  I startled, stepped back, abandoned the idea of ducking from sight as I looked up and found the rider looking back.  Thomas Lane, leading jockey here five of the last six meets, and not only because the Lady kept him stocked with live mounts, blue of blood and fleet of foot.  Lane had soft hands on the reins and a soft heart, at least for a Thoroughbred racehorse.

He sat with hands light on the reins of a grey horse so pale as to be nearly colorless.  I’d met him briefly, visiting my father when he’d still raced here, hadn’t realized he knew I existed, but he nodded acknowledgement now, touched two fingers to the brim of his cap.  I was spared a response; she had paused by the gallop boys, now glanced over her shoulder and called to Lane.  He slumped in the saddle, legged his mount forward and away.  I shivered and bolted back to the shedrow, spent the night restlessly not quite asleep.

bell

I woke again before the sun, resigned to walk the horses for another day.  I had no rider here, no one to gallop them in the mornings or race them in the afternoon.  It wouldn’t hurt them just to walk, but without some work — and soon — they’d spiral out of condition.  “Just today,” I told myself.  “That’s the truth, just one more day.”  I stumbled out into the shedrow and paused, frowning at Thomas Lane, seated cross-legged on a tack trunk with the filly hanging her head in his lap.

“Hello?”

The filly spooked at the sound and shot back into her stall.  Lane turned grey eyes on me, half-smile gracing his face.  He was a rider and that was how I remembered him, sweat and kicked-up mud decorating his clothes, bright hair mussed by the helmet.  Now he was clean and neat, too perfect for even so civil a racetrack as Carterhaugh.  He peered into the tack room, then gravely at me.  “You didn’t always live at the track.”

I blinked, shook my head to clear it.  “I used to have a house.”

He waited, those fine pale eyes intent, and I filled the silence.  “I used to have a house,” I repeated, gazing past him to the reproachful filly.  “I sold it.  Now I have a Kingmambo.”

His eyes lit up; he stood and moved a step closer.  “Here?”

“Behind you.”

“May I?”  He didn’t wait for an answer, ducked right into the filly’s stall.  “Good shoulder,” he said, as if talking to himself.  “Good legs.”  Then, laughing, “Hey, sweetie.”  He stepped back out.  “Good mind, too.  What’s her name?”

“Cast A Spell.  She’s out of that Seattle Slew mare you rode for my father, once.”

He’d raised an eyebrow at the name, relaxed now.  “Must have been a nice house.”

“It was.  And I used to have Burning Bright, too.”  I paused, coughed.  “I need to get these horses out.  Something I can do for you?”

“I need rides,” he said simply, and turned to pick something up from the tack trunk.  “Here.  I bring gifts.”

I took the rose carefully, stared at it for a long moment.  Lane cleared his throat.

“Traditional.  You know.”

I didn’t, exactly, but it seemed a Carterhaugh thing to do.  I handed it back, just as carefully.  “I’d ride you, Lane, but I can’t afford you.”

“Beggars and choosers.”

“That,” I said mildly, “isn’t the way to endear yourself to me.”

Lane grinned, brief and brilliant.  “Not you.  The Lady, she’s sacked me.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing.  She’s got a new lad, and this is my seventh season.”  He spoke earnest, wide-eyed, as if that explained things.

“Someone else would give you horses.  Or somewhere else, another track.”

“Everyone already has a contract–can’t break a contract here.  They’ll only ride me on second horses.  And I can’t go anywhere else.  And I want to ride for you.”

Too easy.  Too good to be true.

“Meg.  Please.”

I stared at him.  Handsome Thomas Lane, really too tall to be a jockey, with the velvet-petaled rose in his hands and the filly stretching her neat head over her stall guard to lip at his shoulder.  I turned away.  “Throw a saddle on the grey in the last stall, then.  I’ll see you at the track.”

Lane rode as if he’d been born to the saddle, as if he was something not quite human, sat relaxed and loose with reins slack.  Tizroyal had always been a strong-willed sort, and independent, not difficult to ride, but near-impossible to coax to his best.  It was the only reason I’d been able to afford him: he was a dead-game campaigner of the sort that trainers loved, but he was lazy and clever, and his last set of connections had tired of trying to inspire him.  In Lane’s hands he sulked for a moment, pinned his ears and balked, then heaved a sigh and stepped out, willing.

They broke off half a mile from the wire, swept through the turn and into the stretch.  The grey’s whole body seemed to drop a hand’s breadth as he leveled out and accelerated, neck pumping in rhythm with his rider’s hands.  I hit my stopwatch, whistled, shook my head.  “I think he likes you,” I called as they returned at a long-striding trot.  “That horse, he doesn’t like being told what to do.”

“It’s knowing what he wants to do,” Lane said softly.  “And staying out of his way while he does it.  That’s all it takes to keep him happy.”

“Cast A Spell’s supposed to run next week,” I replied.  “She could stand a work.”

The filly blew out well, came back to the barn better, looked best of all in the moments before before her race.  The other trainers stood in the center of the saddling ring, watching their charges circle ‘round, but then, the other trainers had grooms and hot-walkers tending their horse, and those horses seemed too placid, disinterested.  I paced at the filly’s side, one hand on the lead shank, the other on her glossy dark shoulder, steadying.  She moved with head high and ears hard-pricked, step long and certain, alert, unafraid.

“Whoa,” I told her, and, “Easy,” and gave Lane a leg-up into the saddle.  “She looks good,” I added, as he adjusted the reins.  He glanced down at me, smoothed a hand along her neck.

“She is good, Meggie.”

I nodded, stepped back and let them go to join the lead ponies and the other two-year-olds.  Run well, I thought at her, Run well and come back safe.  Please, please, come back safe.

When friends had asked why I was bound for Carterhaugh, I’d muttered explanations about the tradition and the beauty of the backside, about the honor of running there: the stewards had refused stalls to better-known and better-respected trainers, to every outsider with no family connection to the track–as far as I knew, my horses had been the only ones to ship in for this season.  Privately, I had one reason more.  The track was a throwback, last stronghold of the marathoner and the weight-carrier, an echo of the good old days and the way that racing had never been, the way that so many racetrackers wished it still was.  I didn’t hold with most of the legends, wasn’t sure I believed that the modern Thoroughbred was infinitely more fragile than his ancestors, but I clung to one old myth: I had never known a horse to break down on the Carterhaugh turf.

Cast A Spell was caught off-guard and spooked in the starting gate, jumped sideways and stood on her hind legs as the other horses broke in a rush.  My hands went white-knuckled on the railing.  She skittered out of the gate, dashing to make up the lengths she’d lost.  Lane wrapped up on the filly, taking a firm hold and tucking her mid-pack until the top of the stretch, where she exploded beneath him, swung wide around the tiring speedsters and bounded under the wire a length in front, ears cheerfully pricked.  I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, caught it again as he slid from her back in the winner’s circle and bent to run a hand down one fragile foreleg.

“Lane?” I paused in patting and praising the filly, stepped close to his side.  “Thomas?”  His first name sat oddly on my tongue; I couldn’t remember ever having used it alone.

“She broke bad…rapped herself…there.”  He circled the scrape with one finger, lost hair and hide as the filly stomped her hoof, annoyed.  “She wanted to run.  Would have made her fight, if I’d tried to pull her up.”

My stomach knotted and throat closed off; I dropped to my knees to study her leg.  Broken-down racehorses, my own Burning Bright…  I rocked back on my heels after a moment, smiled relief.  “That’ll heal.”  The rap might have startled another young horse, but the filly had found her nerve and looked more full of herself than frightened.  If anyone was spooked, it was Lane with his closed-off face and worried eyes.  I touched his arm, awkward.  “It’s fine.  She’s fine.”

He shook his head and muttered under his breath that sounded a bit like “luck” and “finished now.”  Then, “I’ve got a few others to ride.”

“Go.”

“I’ll come by later.  To see her.”

“She’s fine.”

He shook his head, stubborn.  “I’ll come by.”

“Lane, go.”

He went, back stiff and glancing over his shoulder at Cast A Spell.  I turned back to the filly, now nuzzling at my shoulder.  “Come on, now.  Want to go home?”  She did, pranced alongside the whole way back to the shedrow, neck bowed and knowing that she owned this track.

I traveled countless laps around the shedrow with her, rationing out water to the hot and hard-run horse, hosed dirt from her wound and walked her cool with a bright bandage against her dark hide.  Then I left her to rest and relax in her stall, made my way back to the track to watch the last few races.  Lane rode a cold-eyed dark gelding, another with a clownish face, always the second horse of an entry, did well with them, a second and a close-up fourth.  The Lady dominated the day, though, as was to be expected.  Her horses were placid, oddly quiet beside the filly’s arrogance; the Lady herself smiled the way women smile before a camera, seemed somehow bored with the whole affair even as she kissed and caressed her winners.  I turned away, bored myself, as the entries for the last race paraded onto the track, and wondered if Lane felt as grim as he looked beneath the brim of his cap.

His colt warmed up well, displaying a long and easy stride; I rather preferred him to his better-bred entrymate.  I watched perplexed as Lane rode up close beside an outrider, speaking.  The outrider glanced at the colt and shook his head, motioning Lane into the starting gate beside one of the Lady’s horses.  In that one’s irons rode the stone-faced gallop boy from the midnight work, again aboard the liver chestnut.  Lane leaned in as if addressing him; the boy turned his face away.

They were a well-schooled young bunch, quiet in the gate, professional at the break, went hurtling down the backstretch like a field of veteran handicappers.  Lane’s slender bay showed early foot and led the pack into the turn.  Then the ground seemed to crumble beneath him; he scrambled for purchase, found none, tumbled to the dirt.  One colt hurtled him; his entrymate swung sideways; the others galloped wide.

Someone protested, pleaded for the bay to stand; after a moment, I realized that it was me.  I bit down on the words and watched.  Lane shook off the medics and crawled to the horse, laying his weight across the animal’s neck, keeping him down as a vet untangled his limbs.  My sigh was echoed around the track as the bay colt heaved to his feet and trotted a few steps, unsteady but not unsound.  An ugly fall, but wonderfully, magically, impossibly, nothing more: not a breakdown.

“Horses don’t break down at Carterhaugh,” I said aloud, willing it to be true.

bell

The shedrow was quiet when I returned, horses stomping and munching hay in the evening dusk.  I whistled a greeting, frowned when Cast A Spell didn’t shove her head into the aisle.  I moved to the stall door, peered within.  “Hello.”

Lane lifted his head from the filly’s dark shoulder, stepped quickly back.

“Just saying good night.”  He ducked under the stall guard and past me, stood tense with the aisle between us.

“How’s the colt?”

That gave him pause.  He shifted, shivered, glanced down the shedrow.  At last, “Fine.  A little shaken.”

“Thought he broke down,” I said.  “After all that time without it happening even once.”

Lane turned his face away.  “That’s not fair,” he said, very softly.  “And it’s not true.  The luck here, the magic–it runs out, every seven years.  Falls apart.”  He glanced up, not quite meeting my gaze.

“Make more sense,” I commanded, had a sinking sort of feeling.

“Every seven years,” he said again.  “Every time it starts to wear off, the deal she’s made to protect the horses, the track.  It starts to break down–they start to break down, and they have to build it up again…

“I was here, the last time it happened.  I’d just started riding for herShe gave me this big grey Subtle Snake horse, a stakes winner, sound as a dollar.”  He paused, gazed past me down the shedrow.  Half a dozen horses hung their heads in the aisle, but only two appeared to be listening: Cast A Spell with her interested eyes, Tizroyal with his common head and oversized ears.  A grey himself, though aged to nearly white.

“And?” I pressed, though I thought I knew.

Lane shrugged.  “And nothing.  He broke down on the front end, nearly took the rest of the field with him.  First horse to break down here in most of a decade.”

“And the only one since.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.  “Yeah.”

The shedrow was still, not even a breeze, only the sound of a horse sloshing his water bucket.  Lane cleared his throat.  “The Snake was sound, Meg.  He’d never been lame a day in his life.”  There was hurt in his voice, in his eyes; he looked worried and very young.  I touched his shoulder and tried his name out again.

“Thomas.  I’m sorry.”

“I could have hurt that colt, today.  Could have hurt one of the others on the track.”  He stretched a hand towards Cast A Spell and produced a peppermint for her to crunch.  “Could have hurt this one and then you’d be out a house and a Kingmambo both.”

“A house.”  I nodded, stroking the filly’s question mark blaze.  “About that house.”

He waited, attentive, as I swallowed hard.

“Do you remember Burning Bright?  First project horse I ever had, and he stayed racing with my father when I left the track.  Not real fancy, not well-bred…I couldn’t afford better.  But he sure could run.  Gave me everything he had.”

Lane nodded.  “Little chestnut.  Nice horse.  Stakes horse.”

Little chestnut, chunky and cheeky, hard to beat at the sprint distances, at least on the circuit we’d raced.  Flame-colored, brilliant as his name.  “Small stakes,” I agreed.  “I should have known better.  Can’t count on anything in racing, but he never let me down.  I sent the Slew mare to Kingmambo.  I thought I’d keep it all, if Burning Bright could just keep winning.  I trained him, I kept him on the track, I broke him down.  They couldn’t save him.”

“Oh, Meggie.”

I shook my head, turned my back on the filly, the man.  “I had to sell the mare, the farm.”

“She’s a good filly, Meg.”

“She’s a wonderful filly,” I agreed, tears stinging my eyes.  “But Burning Bright was a wonderful horse.  I shouldn’t have run him.  Should have kept him here, where he’d have been safe.”

Lane moved closer by inches.  “It’s racing.”

“I hate it.”

“You don’t.”

“I should, shouldn’t I?  If I love these horses, I shouldn’t be able to do this to them.  They’re the best part of the sport, try so hard, love it so much no matter what we do to them.”

“You didn’t know.”

“That doesn’t make it okay.”

“I knew.”

I snapped my head up, stared at him, but he wouldn’t look back.

“Seven years’ luck.  Seven years’ safety, of keeping this track the way it is, not quite real.  I was just an apprentice, Meg, but she gave me good rides, if only I’d stay, trade myself for the magic.”

Bay horse and chestnut racing upsides at midnight, parade of riders like a ceremonial procession.  Winning rider suddenly astride the Lady’s horses, her quiet, dull, fleet-footed horses that didn’t seem to care when they won.  Had he done the same, to win her favor, lost it when the track’s magic had begun to fade?

I wanted to believe it, that Carterhaugh could be as magic as I’d ever heard.  I wanted to believe that some deal could be made to save these creatures from themselves, from us, that they could pelt over the track on slim fragile legs, strain to every limit for the raw joy of racing–no one could make an unwilling horse run; they had to want it, had to love it, didn’t they?–and not take a bad step, not snap bone, spill blood.

Lane cleared his throat and stretched a hand sideways, tangled fingers in Cast A Spell’s dark forelock; the filly whuffled and nudged his pocket, begging.  “Not real,” he said again.  “But it’s the way it should have been, all the sport and none of the dying, and it only takes a little blood every seven years.  Sacrifice a good horse and you’ll get seven years.  For longer…” Lane shivered as if suddenly cold.

I reached out again, to touch his shoulder and hand.  He shivered again, shied away.  Stepped back after a moment into my arms.

bell

Again, darkness, alone on the cot.  I reached for my sneakers, dressed in the dark.  “Hello?” I called down the aisle, and, “Thomas?”

“Here.”  He pushed away from Tizroyal’s stall, another thorny rose in hand, fingers bright with blood.  Behind him, the grey gelding tossed his head.  Metal jingled; reins swung about his neck.  Lane reached up idly, smoothed salt-and-pepper forelock over the browband.

I stepped forward, stopped.  Ventured again, “Thomas?”

“I wanted to ride for you,” he said, softly, as if speaking to himself, “because of those projects.  Burning Bright, this fellow, all of them.  You take the horses no one else wants, take care of them, and they’re real.  Cast A Spell, how proud she was when she ran.  Tizroyal…” He combed fingers through the gelding’s mane.  “He’s marvelous, Meg.  Isn’t the horse that he couldn’t outgame.  Every time I ride him, he puts his life in my hands.”

Fear shivered my spine, chill and damp.  I moved another pace closer.

She didn’t really fire me, Meg.  I quit, backed out, was afraid–didn’t want to be part of killing a horse.  But it’s not the horse’s blood they need, to keep the place safe, keep it magic forever.  If I stay with them…” Lane shook his head, looked right at me for the first time.  “I’m sorry.”  He turned then, moved to lead Tizroyal into the aisle.  On the evening breeze, I caught the sound of bells.

I lunged forward, between Lane and Tizroyal, grabbed his shoulders.  “What are you talking about?”

“You know this isn’t just a racetrack.  You know that.  I can’t ruin it.”

“It never existed,” I protested, remembering her horses on the track, pale and dull beside the joyous filly, her people in the winner’s circle, tired, uncaring.  “It isn’t real, not the way it should be.”  Running horses, ears pricked, eyes bright.  Manes snarled in winds of their own making, running because they wanted to, not out of habit alone.  “It’s beautiful, Thomas–I wish it was, but it isn’t, it never will be, however many damned fine riders do…whatever it is you’re going to do.”  Spilled blood and dead horses, leg-shattered, wind-broken.

He shrugged.  “Just one more ride, that’s all.  And there’s nothing out there for me.”

I spoke without meaning to, tasted truth in the words.  “There’s half a good filly, if you want her.”

His head snapped around; he stared at Cast A Spell, at me.  After a moment, answered dully, “A jockey can’t own a racehorse.  Conflict of interests.”

“And you won’t get rides anywhere but here.  You’re taller than I am, Thomas, and you can’t cut weight forever.  Would you…would you want to help train?  Or gallop for me?  Just until you can find something better.  It won’t be this, but it’ll be real, every horse real.  Sometimes they’ll break down, but mostly they won’t.  Sometimes they’ll win, but mostly they won’t.  And sometimes you’ll be heartsick and hating every minute of it…but mostly you won’t.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again, and, “I wish…” and I saw that heartsick wasn’t a sometimes word, hadn’t been since Subtle Snake had died under him.  He ducked away, bolting for the track.

Tizroyal nickered and shoved his muzzle against my shoulder.  I left the stall guard hanging loose, hauled myself into the saddle.  The gelding shifted, all warmth and power beneath me, and stepped smartly off.  I leaned forward once, to satisfy myself that his bridle carried no bright ringing bells.

But no–there they were, the Lady and her entourage, and Lane galloping lazy arcs on that odd colorless horse.  He drew rein, heeled forward again, into the starting gate that slammed at his mount’s haunches.  I thought of urging Tizroyal forward, didn’t realize I already had, but the grey gelding was moving, gathering speed around the turn as he scattered her companions on their shadow horses.  For a wild moment I thought of standing up before the gate, daring them to spring it and run me down, but then the bell sounded and Lane’s horse broke in a shot and Tizroyal wheeled in a cutting horse spin, setting off after the other grey.

But the other horse was no longer grey.  Indeed, they don’t come much darker, rare true black, long dead but now pounding the backstretch the way he must have in his Derby win.  I had only seen pictures, but sometimes pictures were enough.  Brilliant Black Gold as he must have looked in his prime, before his inexplicable return to the races, before he’d broken down, given his life to the sport.

Only for a moment, and then the horse changed again, and again.  Now a filly with intelligent eyes, one who’d tried the colts and lost no glory in the trying, but everything to a freak accident in the saddling ring.  Now a stocky sprinter with curling mane and a brave heart that failed him in what should have been his last great test.  Now a rangy bay, crooked blaze trailing off her face, ankle no match for the weight of her determination.

And now Burning Bright, blazingly fast.  The wind burned my eyes, or maybe it was tears; I balanced low over Tizroyal’s withers, knuckles pressed into powerful neck, asking for more, and more again.  The gelding gathererd himself, but he’d never been fast enough, was a stayer besides; he couldn’t keep up with Burning Bright even in the mornings.  But he did it now, strong and solid beneath me, every muscle straining, will overtaking speed.  I stretched out a hand towards Burning Bright’s flank, missed, shouted for Lane to stop and let me have my horse.  He ducked under his arm to see who chased him, seemed almost to falter, and the little red horse still plunged on.

The sixteenth pole loomed, flashed past.  Lane glanced back once more at Tizroyal’s bobbing head, the grey struggling and failing.  Tiring now, breathing labored, ducking and wobbling as he swapped leads, too leg-weary from the speed to keep pace with the star-crossed sprinter.  Burning Bright deserved to win–they all did.  He deserved to live.  He would cruise to the wire and as much as I admired the gelding I rode, I wanted to see to see him do it once more, to run hard and finish in front, to run the race as it could have been.

Should have been.

Never was, and Burning Bright had never run with that lazy stride and lop-eared boredom, that dullness in his eyes.

I didn’t know where I found the strength, nor where Tizroyal found the heart.  The game grey horse stretched and strained and clawed back to the chestnut’s side.  I reached out, grabbed a handful of Lane’s silks, hauled, threw myself sideways off Tizroyal’s back, and we hit the dirt together.

He shivered, trembled with cold and anger and fear.  “Meg.  Shouldn’t have.”

“Had to.  The horses aren’t the only ones who deserve a chance, and that wasn’t really Burning Bright.”

Tizroyal pulled himself up and circled back, shaking his mane, long lovely head nuzzling for a peppermint.  Burning Bright was gone, vanished back into some neverland dreamscape.

“They try so hard,” Lane said, very softly, and I nodded.

“But he tried his heart out, too.”

He reached to catch the big grey’s bit, fit that head against his side and held on.  Heat rolled off the gelding’s neck and sides; his nostrils flared, drinking the air.

The bells heralded the approach of the Lady and her troupe on their fine, fey steeds.  I recognized the lead horse then, an imported mare, many times a winner over the turf, once a heart-breaker in a slip and a fall.  I stared deeper into the troupe, identifying each one, great horses but not great horses, stripped of the courage that had inscribed them in the hearts of those who had known them.  Not so perfect after all: they deserved to be themselves as much as they had deserved a gentler fate.

“It’s over now,” the Lady said, stroking her dark mare’s neck, soothing, looking more calm than angry, less weary than she’d been, these last weeks.

“Good,” I said.  “They’ve done enough.  He’s done enough.”  Carterhaugh, bastion of the weight-carrying horse, heaping handicaps as well on the shoulders of its people.

“You’ll look after him, then.  He can’t stay here.”

“Will there even be a here?”

She regarded me from her lofty seat, turned her eyes on Lane.  “You’ll miss it.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat and lied.  “Can’t miss something that never was real.”  I bent to give Lane a hand up and behind my back, the bells faded away.

“Thomas,” I said.  “I’m sorry.”

He stared at me for a moment, then shook his head, reached again to rub the courageous grey.  “I’m not.”

bell

The sun rose, burned away the fog as we stood in companionable silence on the backside gone suddenly still.  Tizroyal had to be bathed, walked cool, to have his legs done up.  No trainer or groom or hot-walker appeared; their dead-eyed charges were gone from the stalls.  I wandered up to a deserted gatepost and gathered the mail: an official letter that regretfully announced the premature ending of this last meet.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked Lane, as we divvied out hay to the horses.  “Churchill?  Belmont?”

“Ambitious,” he said, and I shrugged.

“We’ve got a horse that can outrun the great ones–maybe it’s time to be a little ambitious.”

Lane frowned for a moment, then nodded, thoughtful.  I smiled and excused myself to arrange for shipping the horses out.

I paused beside the filly’s stall, studying fragile limbs and glossy coat and keen, eager eyes.  Cast A Spell had been brilliant thus far, in love with her own ability, but there was so much left to do, so much still to prove, so much luck to press.

I noticed then that I was being watched, turned to find Lane standing with a half-folded horse blanket in his hands.  He blinked at me, ventured, “Is something wrong?”

I realized that I was frowning and relaxed into a smile, shaking my head.  “No.  I was just wondering…do you think we ought to change the filly’s name?”

 

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Hannah Wolf Bowen spent a summer working at two Illinois racetracks as a hot-walker and then as a vet’s assistant.  She’s currently a Philosophy major and the owner of an ungrateful (yet adorable) horse.  Her stories have appeared in places like Strange Horizons and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and she reads slush for the Fortean BureauThis one is for Landseer and Spook Express, among others, with apologies and thanks.