He might be a good baker and he might not, but no one complained. Otherwise it was as fine a feast as the night before, and the ladies were splendid company. Some of them could sing, and the eldest had a harp, which she played like wind through glass and silver.
The song was a story. It took shape from the dance of light and shadow.
In the time before time, when the world was still more than half a dream in the long sleep of Her who was before gods, three Ladies rose up out of the new-formed earth. They were still half-formed themselves, more light than substance, but as the winds blew them hither and yon and the rains fell on them and the sun now warmed and now burned them with its fire, they first marveled at and then craved the stability of a living body.
It happened one bright morning, as they rode the wind across a field of endless grass. They had been apart for long ages then, but the currents of air had brought them together. As they danced and whirled and spun in the joy of their reunion, a herd of creatures that had been grazing below began to mirror their movements.
That was not so uncommon, because the world in those days was a joyous place. But these creatures took joy and turned it into beauty and swiftness and power.
The Ladies took that beauty to themselves. They put on the swiftness and made the power theirs. They ran among the herd and danced with it, and when the dancing was over, they called the stallion to them and danced another and no less joyful dance.
From that dance came children of two worlds: the world of living things and the world of the Mother’s deeper dream. Many of those children ran and grazed and danced as living creatures only. But a few were the Ladies’ truest and strongest children.
Those were born while their mothers skimmed the air as breath and life and spirit. Air was their element, but their fathers’ substance called to them; drew them down to earth, and gave them shape, and taught them to run on ringing hooves.
And that was joy and beauty and power, and they were glad in it.
But it was not the end of their story. On another morning, when the world was not so young but still as beautiful as it had ever been, a new kind of creature came among the herds.
It was a strange creature, small and soft and weak, and it tottered upright on two legs. Instead of hooves or paws it had soft, flat feet, and its forefeet were strange and supple and weirdly dexterous.
At first it tried to kill and eat the weak or the slow among the herds, and the herds knew it for yet another predator–one that could not run as the wolf ran, or kill with the strength of the lion, but the Mother had granted it the wits to conceive of weapons that sped faster and killed more terribly than either, and the hands to make and wield them.
But not all those wits were devoted to hunting and killing and eating. These new creatures wanted. And what they wanted, among many other things, was the speed and the joy and the beauty that the Ladies also had wanted.
But these were not Ladies; they had no such power as Ladies had, to become what they yearned for. They had to get it in another way. And that way was to tame the herds, to feed and tend and foster them, to ride on their backs and harness them to carts and chariots. They became the lords of horses.
The Ladies’ children had never been many. Under human eyes and human husbandry, almost none were born at all. The Ladies were long gone, none of their children knew where; their children, though not mortal, could age and change, and in the end put flesh aside and become as their ancestors, pure air and spirit.
“Now we alone remain,” the youngest lady sang, “of all that ever were. Only we. And the world grows old, so old.”
“Not so old,” Aymery said, “and not so few. I see two more at least who will be born, and maybe three?”
His voice broke the spell of harp and sweet high voices. It was melodious enough as voices went, but it was human and it was male, and it set his own teeth on edge, a little.
He braced for anger, but the ladies regarded him with calm dark eyes. “Three,” the youngest said. “And we are glad, because we have not borne so many in many a year.”
“That I can believe,” he said. “And yet you told me—Tencendur—”
“He is mortal,” she said, “and a one-skin, but the Ladies’ blood is in him, too. And more than that…”
She did not go on. Nor did any of the others speak, or move, or aid her in any way that Aymery could see.
He tried. He said, “My king won him from the lord of Narbonne. Or he thought he did. Certainly the man was riding him, and he seemed to have submitted to it. There was no sign about him of anything otherworldly, though he was, and is, a very fine horse.”
“He is very fine,” she said, “and therefore human men persist in stealing him. Though they call it ‘claiming’ and ‘taxing’ and ‘winning in battle.’”
“They do that,” Aymery said. “So you stole him back again.”
“I fetched my sire out of captivity,” she said, “and brought him home.”
He narrowed his eyes. He had been chewing that over since she first spoke to him, out by the stallion’s paddock. He reckoned the years she seemed to have, and the years the stallion had, from the look of his teeth. “But that’s not—”
“In some things,” she said, “it’s best not to think too hard.”
He had to grant her that. Magic especially—where that was, human logic and what passed for sense meant very little.
“Wherever he came from,” Aymery said, “he’s my king’s now. Which, if you know anything about kings, doesn’t bode well for his staying here.”
“Why? Will you be stealing him, too?”
“Claiming,” Aymery said. “Or reclaiming.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
The rest of the ladies had been listening in silence. Now the eldest said, “The hour is late, and dawn comes quickly at this time of year. Best you sleep, young mortal. Morning may bring us all better counsel.”
Aymery had his doubts, but he was too polite to voice them. He bowed and thanked them kindly for their hospitality. They bowed in return, as queens might; and he had known a few of those.
The youngest lady’s name, as far as she had one, was Halima. She lit a lamp to guide him to his sleeping place, and hovered when they came there.
It was not awkwardness, or lack of manners, either. She was studying him intently, as she had when she wore that other skin. Curious; taking in every part of him, with nostrils slightly flared, as if even in this shape her senses were keener than a woman’s.
He could feel the slow heat rising. He was not at all sure what he thought of it. That part of him was still new, mostly.
Maybe it was to her, too. She shied away suddenly, with a sound very like a snort, and vanished into the depths of the house.
Aymery had choices.
He could leave this place, and hope the magic let him go back where he had come from, and tell no one where he had been; and that supposed he came back to find the king still outside Narbonne, and no hundred years gone by in the two nights he had been gone. He might take a whipping for running away without the king’s leave, and he might lose his place and be sent back home. That would shame his family, and he might have to take the tonsure to make amends, which would not be a pleasant or a welcome thing.
He could stay, and hope to talk the ladies round. They might even listen. He had a quick tongue, people said, and a way with words. He might talk himself into more trouble than he had bargained for, too; that had happened before, and he had suffered for it.
He could try to work such spells as he knew, and take the stallion, and return him to the king. Though even while he thought of that, he knew there was no hope of getting past the gate of Tencendur’s pasture. He would be doing well to come out alive, if he tried that.
Or he could try one more thing. Not a particularly useful or sensible thing, and even less likely to succeed, but in the morning light, it seemed the simplest.
The ladies were gone again, and the house deserted. He saw to such things as needed seeing to, as he had the day before. This time he set a pot over the hearth and filled it with herbs and roots and bits from the garden, to simmer all day and feed them all come evening.
Then he went to the ladies’ pasture, where Tencendur was most interested in one of the elder ladies. Clearly she was not past such things; and who knew? There might be yet another of the Ladies’ descendants, come the spring.
When the stallion had done his duty and the mare had gone back to her grazing, Aymery ventured into the field. Ears swiveled; tails swished. But no one ordered him out.
The stallion was in as soft a mood as Aymery had ever seen him. Aymery approached with respect but without submission, as one should with a stallion.
Tencendur watched him quietly. That could change, he knew, in an instant.
He bowed politely. The stallion flicked a fly from his ear. “My lord,” Aymery said, “I come to ask a favor of you.”
To that he received no response. Nonetheless he persevered. “My king,” he said, “is missing you terribly. Would you consider returning with me, at least to bid him farewell?”
He felt a little foolish, addressing an animal so, but his heart knew it was right and proper.
Tencendur seemed as oblivious as any mute beast would be. The mares grazed like common horses, as if they had never worn any other shape than that.
“Of course this is a stallion’s paradise,” Aymery said, “and these ladies are such companions as any man or horse would dream of. And yet, my lord, would you forswear fame and glory? Would you turn your back on the king who loves you as a brother?”
The ripe snort came not from the stallion but from the young mare with the long dark mane. She had come up behind Aymery, silent in the grass, and blown mockery in his ear.
He ignored her as nobly as he might, though he kept a wary eye on the hoof that had planted itself beside his foot. “My lord,” he said, “sweet indeed are the temptations of love, but there are ladies in multitudes among the king’s armies, and more still in the farms and studs of Francia.”
The hoof came down with toe-crushing force. He barely evaded it. “You are his daughter,” he reminded her. “Shouldn’t you be looking to tempt another stallion?”
Her glance made him blush from crown to mercifully intact toe. He was most likely the first human male she had ever come close enough to get the measure of. So he told himself, but the slow heat was even slower to go away.
He looked from her straight into Tencendur’s broad ash-grey forehead. The stallion was as soft-footed as his daughter, and even less inclined toward mercy.
He thrust his head toward Aymery’s chest, with a twist that gave Aymery a choice: tumble to the earth under two horses’ worth of hooves, or scramble onto the stallion’s back.
It was an honest dilemma, and not even a heartbeat’s space to ponder it. His body chose the heights, and braced for the mountain to erupt.
He dug his fingers into thick ash-colored mane. Tencendur’s powerful haunches coiled; he surged past his daughter.
Aymery’s heart was thundering in his ears, but he had enough wits left to notice that he was still astride and the back beneath him was making no effort to fling him off.
That could change in an instant. Even so he let himself relax into the strong rolling gait. For all the power in it, it was smooth; the wind of it blew his hair back out of his face, and startled him into laughter.
Coming on January 21st: Part IV and last, in which Aymery must make choices, and the Ladies ask more of him than, perhaps, he can accomplish.