Tencendur carried him straight to the villa and into the courtyard, and there removed him with a deft duck, twist, and spin.
He sat nursing his bruised tailbone while the stallion danced around him, mane and tail flying, mocking him with every toss of the head. The hooves flew well away from him, and the wind of that big body’s passage just barely kissed his cheeks. He had time to get his breath back before Tencendur stopped and wheeled and loosed a mighty peal of mirth and triumph.
The ladies came in in the wake of it, once more in their human forms. It was a procession of sorts, with the youngest first, and the eldest pacing in last and coming to a halt that completed the circle around the stallion and the bruised and winded boy.
“You are a presumptuous child,” she said.
He bowed to the truth of that. “I am also a king’s servant. And this is his horse.”
“First he was ours,” the eldest lady said.
“He was that,” said Aymery. Then he took the leap, the one he had been thinking of since last night, that might be mad and might be the death of him. But it was honorable, as far as he could reckon it.
“What if,” he said, “this stallion went back to the king who loves him, but you had one to take his place?”
“You?” Halima did not seem appalled. She was not exactly delighted, either, as far as he could tell.
He drew a breath to steady himself. “I know I’m a poor second to yonder magnificence. But I am young, and I can be taught.” He paused. “It doesn’t have to be a horse, does it? Unless I misunderstood?”
One of the younger ladies, who was closest to birthing or foaling of them all, regarded him with a kind of weary indulgence. “So, young thing. You think to find yourself a life of ease and pampering, and making of children whenever it pleases you.”
He could not deny that he had thought of that, but he said to her, “That would be dull beyond bearing, lady. I see that there’s much to do here, both on the farmstead and in the matter of defense. Are your husbands frequently stolen or appropriated or otherwise removed from their proper eminence?”
“Presumptuous,” the eldest lady murmured.
The lady who was bearing said, “That was an accident, and a singular misfortune. A mortal man happened to wander past our borders while we were distracted by matters both high and holy. Our lord was young, and it was spring, and the man was riding a mare. She was in season. What could our lord do after all but what his nature bade him? He broke the wards that we had set, and had his will of the mare—and when he came to himself again, he was bound and bridled and on his way to Narbonne.”
“He sold for a great price,” Halima said, “and the one who bought him had sorcerers at his command, who wrought such spells as we could not break without harm to ourselves or our lord.”
Aymery nodded. He had guessed as much. “So,” he said, “if I offer you all the talents that I have, and any others that you can teach, would you let my king have his horse?”
“He is no one’s possession,” the lady who was bearing said with a distinct chill in her voice.
“But the king may belong to him,” said Aymery.
“If he agrees, and you agree to serve our will in all things,” the eldest lady said, “then so may it be.”
The breath rushed out of him. He had not expected that, not yet. Maybe not at all. And what it meant…
Men gambled their lives every day. Aymery could still lose this wager—though what exactly that meant, he was not sure.
Once more he bowed to Tencendur, and spread his hands. “My lord,” he said, “it seems the choice is yours.”
And since Tencendur was a horse, and a stallion at that, Aymery had no doubt what that would be. Pasture and mares forever after—or until he was stolen or appropriated again.
If the ladies would allow it. Certainly it would take strong magic; and Carl was a most Christian king. He had no sorcerers in his following.
Tencendur rubbed an itch on his knee. If he was thinking, Aymery could not see him doing it. He nosed at the paving of the courtyard, found a bit of straw, chewed it thoroughly.
Then he turned and walked out of the circle of ladies. Toward the outer gate.
They parted before him. Aymery could not read their expressions. Even Halima was completely blank.
The stallion must be going out to pasture. He could not be leaving. He was a horse. He would not make choices as a man might.
“You had better go with him,” Halima said as Aymery stood gaping. “He’ll go where he’s determined to go, but if another traveler happens by, and the traveler is riding a mare…”
That could happen, Aymery conceded. “But,” he said. “I struck a bargain.”
“You did,” said the eldest lady. “It begins with this. Go with our lord, young lord. Be his escort where he wishes to go.”
Aymery was bound to obey—even if he had not wanted it with most of his heart. “I will come back,” he said.
“We know you will,” said the eldest lady.
Tencendur had nearly reached the gate. Aymery sprang in pursuit.
The stallion stopped. His eye rolled. Aymery was duly warned, but he was also properly commanded. He swung onto the now familiar back.
It suffered him as it had before. He was no more in command of the horse now than he had been, but that too was familiar, if not precisely comforting. “As you will,” he said to the ear that curved back toward him, “my lord.”
As Tencendur carried him through the gate, the echo of hooves multiplied to an improbable degree. Aymery looked back startled.
The three eldest ladies stood where he had left them. The rest trotted in the stallion’s wake, even she whose belly swung, huge with foal.
Halima came up level with his knee, and made as if to nip at it. He slapped her impudence away—then paused in a kind of horror. By the bargain he had made, she was his lady now, and the ruler of his life and honor.
She did not seem terribly offended. She continued beside her sire, but more decorously now, as he cantered out of the valley of the ladies onto the plain of Narbonne.
The wind was still blowing. The king’s tent was back in its place, battened down at every point. The king’s council was still bickering over what to do, and he was in an even fouler mood than he had been when his horse was stolen.
When a messenger came running with word of a strange new riding, Carl was more than glad to abandon his council. So, as it happened, were most of the rest of his councillors. They streamed after him out of the tent, into the wind and the evening light.
It was as the messenger had said: there was the page Aymery, whom the king had missed at dinner, riding the stallion Tencendur and leading a small and very fine herd of mares. The boy rode with neither bridle nor saddle, and the mares were likewise free of all restraint.
Tencendur halted in front of the king. Carl reached out almost blindly and took the stallion’s head in his arms. It came to rest against him.
He sighed, and so did the horse. This was a homecoming, for both of them.
“I should like to meet your mother,” Halima said.
Aymery was a man of consequence now. He had a tent—minuscule but all his own—and if the manservant who came with it was a lazy lout with a mouth on him like a Tiber bargeman, still he was a servant, and Aymery was acutely conscious of the honor.
The tale had told itself. Most of it was even true: how Aymery had tracked the stallion to the farmstead where he was bred, and found him among his harem, and stolen him back for the king’s sake. No one knew about the ladies, nor was Aymery about to mention that five of them were now enjoying the admiration of every horseman in the army.
The king had been greatly moved, and would have given Aymery more than a tent and a servant and a horse and a set of Saracen armor complete with sword and bow and collection of lances, but Aymery had professed himself quite unready for the noble bride and the estate on the Saxon border. The bride’s father was visibly relieved: he had his eye on a greater eminence than a very young and rather minor lordling from Armorica.
So that was settled, and Aymery had been thinking he might manage a good night’s sleep. But when he came to his bed, he found Halima in it—fully and decorously clothed, and bubbling over with questions about the army and the camp and the court and the king.
And about his family, his sisters and his mother. “I should like to meet them all,” she said. “May we do that? Soon?”
“That depends on the king’s pleasure,” Aymery said, before he remembered; then he added, “And yours. I suppose I can get leave. If that’s your will.”
“It might be,” she said. She propped herself on her elbow, eyes dark in the lamplight. “I like your king. He’d make a fine stallion.”
Somewhat to Aymery’s surprise, his heart twisted. “I’m superseded already, then?”
“No. He has too much of the world to carry.”
“And all I have is you.”
“And your mother. And your sisters.” Her brows knit in reflection. “You know how to be what we need you to be. It’s bred in you. As if you were of our blood, almost.”
“Old blood. Though not as old as yours.”
“Nothing is as old as ours.”
He drew a breath. He had not been going to say it, but after all he had to. “Why did you let me go? Why did you go? Wouldn’t we all have been safer where we were?”
“Maybe,” she said. “And maybe it was time for us to walk in the world again. We’re much less likely to be troubled by thieves and sorcerers if we seem to belong to a king—and this king will live to a great age. Eldest Grandmother saw it, and she always sees true.”
That was a great good thing. But there was still that other question. “What I bargained for—if you’re here, and Tencendur is here, then what do you need me for?”
“I need you,” she said, “and you have much to learn, some of which my sire can teach. You can be your king’s for as long as it suits us; but you’re ours always. That, we’ll bind you to.”
Aymery let out a long sigh. “So I’m a slave of sorts. A vassal. A servant.”
“You did choose it,” she reminded him.
“I did,” he said. “I’m not sorry. Amazed, somewhat. Baffled. A little scared.”
“You should be,” said Halima. But she smiled.
He smiled back. He caught himself wondering—did he dare? Would she–?
She answered before he could say a word: she caught his face in her hands and pulled him to her, and kissed him until the whole world went away.
Then he knew he had chosen rightly. And so, he thought, looking into her eyes that were the same whether she walked as woman or mare, did she.