Nine White Horses, Part I

Not long ago, a friend asked me to write him a story.

“Will you write about Charlemagne’s horse?”

But of course.

Herewith, part I of IV: “Nine White Horses.”

For Jonathan

The king’s grief knew no bounds. His nephew whom he loved, his Paladins, his wise and worldly Archbishop, were dead. Betrayal and treason had killed them–and the fault, in the end, was entirely his.

He had a kingdom to grow and defend, pagan Saxons raiding again in the north and east, Rome demanding that he render unto it what was God’s and a good part of what was his as well, and a pack of obstreperous nobles baying so loud he could barely hear himself think. He sat in his camp outside of Narbonne, which was not his ally nor exactly his enemy, and found in himself no desire to move. He could not even weep. He had shed all the tears that were in him.

His cooks tried to tempt him with fine meats and local delicacies. He had no appetite for any of them. His mayor of the palace brought him accounts to figure and decisions to make. He turned his face away. He was empty; a hollow king. He was not sure that he would ever be full of either life or joy again.

In the morning–it might have been the third day in that place, or the fifth; it did not matter–he thought he might shut himself in his tent and simply not come out again. But the wind was blowing off the sea, buffeting the walls; each gust smote harder than the last. Even in his state of dire accidia, he observed that the rear wall was close to slipping its moorings.

He watched as the pegs worked their way loose, dazzling him with glimpses of merciless sunlight–for the storm was all wind; the sky was bitterly, brilliantly clear. The wall tore free and boomed like a sail, with a hapless page clinging to one corner.

Other tents within the camp had given away altogether and gone flying inland, giving him a clear view all the way to the horselines. Those were in less disarray than he might expect: his master of horse was good at what he did.

Amid the tossing manes and scrambling horseboys, Carl’s eye found the one who had, one way and another, come into his heart and refused to leave. He was a big horse, a fit mount for as big a man as the king, grey as ash, with a high arched neck and a waterfall of silver-grey mane.

“Tencendur,” Carl said, and even in his grief he smiled.

He could swear the little curling ears pricked, though they could hardly have caught the sound of his voice through the howl of the wind. “Tencendur my heart,” he said.

It was no day to be out on a horse–even the best horseman might struggle to keep his seat–but Carl hated his tent suddenly, hated the chair he had been sitting in and the tent that was tearing itself apart around him. He braced himself and forayed out into the gale.

It struck the breath out of him, buffeted his body and flattened his cheeks to the skull. It was like a gate with half the defenders of a city on the other side, barricading it against him. But he was stronger, just.

He could not see where he was going; he had to navigate by memory and by occasional glances to the side, to straighten his path if it started to wander. The wind blew the smell of the horses toward him. Then he was among them, and the gale was somewhat less in the shelter of their bodies.

The wiser among them had turned tail to the wind and dropped their heads and resolved to endure. The younger and the more foolish started and skittered and deafened each other with the explosive snorts of alarm, but hours of wind had taken the edge off all but the worst.

He made his way to Tencendur’s place in the line. Someone was there with the stallion, a wild-haired boy in a rough shirt and bare feet. The feet were filthy, but something about them made Carl pause.

It was not that they were particularly small, but they were narrow, and they lacked the calluses that distinguished the habitually barefoot. These feet were accustomed to be shod, but not for a while, from the look: they were scratched and bruised as well as thick with dirt.

The boy was doing something with Tencendur’s tether: securing it, one would think. Except that, like the feet, something was not right there, either.

Just as Carl hurled himself against the wind, the boy tugged the tether free and clambered onto the stallion’s back.

And Tencendur allowed it. All too well the king knew how little tolerant he was of strangers on his back. He would not suffer to be ridden without a saddle at all, and even Carl, who was by no means an ill horseman, had eaten a fair few mouthfuls of dirt in persuading the horse to accept him.

Tencendur bore this ragged scrap of a child as if he had been the most docile of plow horses, and obeyed him without so much as the slant of an ear: sat down on his haunches, wheeled and sprang full into the gale.

oOo

The boy was a witch, there was no other explanation. By the time a party had scrambled together and mounted for pursuit, he was long gone, and the king’s best-loved charger with him.

They knew where he had gone. He had galloped straight toward Narbonne. And that, in the king’s mind, shifted the city perceptibly away from friendship and into hostility.

Carl had not survived so long in this world of strife by allowing his temper to overcome his good sense. But he was angry, and when he was angry, people walked very, very softly and hoped to keep their heads.

oOo

Aymery the page heard them talking under the somewhat diminished roar of the wind: king and commanders arguing over the taking of Narbonne. Some said it was a waste, that they should leave this place and go back to Italy, go back to Francia, go back to Germania–go anywhere but here. Others were all hot for a fight, to wipe away the shame and the folly of Roncesvalles.

It was a good thing Aymery was only a page and not a general, or he would have had plenty to say to that. He had lost father and brothers and cousins in those mountains. He was all alone in this part of the world.

He had not felt anything since he walked the battlefield, turning over the bodies and naming those he knew. His father had been in six pieces. Six. He had counted. He still counted them every night in his dreams.

If they went back to Francia, he would have to face his mother and tell her what he had seen. His mother was a daughter of the old blood; she bent her knee to the new religion and said the words that were safe to say, but he knew to whom she prayed in the sanctuary of her own house. She could curse, too, with an aim as sure as a Saracen archer’s.

If she cursed him, he would bow his head and endure it. If she cursed the king…that was something he thought about often, in these long useless days outside of Narbonne.

Now the king’s horse was stolen. Horse of ash, whose name meant Strife–Carl had won him in a battle, speared his rider through the heart and hurled the body into a ford.

The horse had not taken kindly to being conquered. He had flung the king off when he tried to mount, and forced him to make do with another horse for the rest of that battle. But the king loved him, had loved him from the moment he crashed to the ground and saw those deadly hooves rise up and over him and forbear to trample him. He had forbidden his Companions to punish the horse, and commanded them to capture him and take him back to the camp.

He had persevered until the beast let him stay in the saddle. “And I’m much the better horseman for it,” he had said to Aymery, who happened to be at hand on the day he managed the whole of a ride without being pitched off.

Love was strange. Aymery did not love the horse, and he was not sure about the king. But he was doing nothing of any great use here, and he had grown up in the woods of old Armorica. He knew how to hunt. What he hunted, he always found.

It was a gift. People said he got it from his mother, along with his small stature and his nut-brown skin and his thick black hair. In Spain he had as often as not been taken for a Moor. In these parts he could pass for a child of the old Romans, or of older people still–and that was true enough in its way.

While the king and his council went on with their arguing, Aymery put on his plainest clothes and hid his knife under his tunic and slipped out into the wind. It was little more than a brisk breeze now, though still strong enough to make the banners flap and strain.

The king’s tent was a tattered remnant; he had had to set up housekeeping in a relic of one of the Spanish battles, a captured Saracen emir’s pavilion, all silks and tassels and bejeweled carpets. Aymery’s feet had grown unreasonably fond of those carpets. It was hard to forsake them for sere summer grass and bare dusty earth.

But needs must. He ducked his head and made himself invisible, which was another gift he had. As swift and silent as a shadow, he ghosted through the camp.

oOo

Everyone else said the horse had gone into the city. Aymery had a habit of ignoring what people said. He followed the tracks in the dust.

They led him toward the city, but angling gradually around it. They never went near the gates at all.

The city was locked shut. The farmsteads outside of it were deserted; the road was empty. No one in the king’s army had done anything to encourage it, but it looked and felt like a siege.

Aymery was even more careful than before to pass like a whisper of wind. Even invisible, he felt the twitch between his shoulder blades, as he caught the glint of metal atop the wall. There were archers up there, armed and ready to shoot.

He had no particular thought of stopping a war. He was curious, more than anything: to know why a vagabond child would do such a thing, and how he had managed to tame that of all horses. One would think that the horse and the boy knew each other.

Aymery was a little off his head, maybe. He had been since the battle in the pass. So many had died already; the gates of Heaven must be crowded with souls clamoring to get in.

Well then, he had better find the horse.

He passed under the walls without taking an arrow in the back or setting off the alarms. But his luck had failed in another way: the horse’s trail was gone. A flock of sheep had run across it, and what looked like a fleet of oxcarts after that.

None of them had lingered. He knelt in the road where the tracks were most tangled and confused. The horse’s hoofprints were still there, buried under all the rest; the memory of his passing was in the road still, and dissipating in the air.

The wind had died to a whisper of breeze. It stirred up the dust. When Aymery closed his eyes, he could see the horse tripping lightly past the city, with his rider perched insouciantly on his back.

He followed that memory, that sensation like a shaft of sun on his face. If he turned too far, it faded. He aimed toward the direction where it was strongest, walking with eyes shut as often as not, because it was easier that way.

In Part II, the plot thickens (and Aymery finds something unexpected).

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Nine White Horses, Part I — 12 Comments

  1. Wonderful start, though I sort of wonder why you go for Carl instead of Karolus, etc. However that time frame is not my specialty anyway.

    Can I gush in an aside how thrilling it was to be able to read a fantasy novel with a setting during the time of the Ottonen of the Holy Roman Empire, by the way?

  2. Pingback: Nine White Horses, Part II | Book View Cafe Blog

  3. Pingback: Nine White Horses, Part III | Book View Cafe Blog

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