“Tell me, dear boy, do you hear the chirrup of birds, or the breath of wind through grass, in this still and haunted place? I do not, my apprentice, I do not.”
Etran Olrani, “The Tale of the Wanderer” from Ordish Children’s Stories
Talon had not mouthed a word, but his intent had been perfectly clear. He dropped a tin bucket, stained with grime, into Link’s hands, and shoved him toward the stable doors. Link knew the inevitable errand had been coming—they had used the last of their allotted drinking water to wash the beautiful, fire-red mare for her exhibition, since the animals’ water was likely to leave her coat dirtier than before. Link had no qualms with the decision; he could stand to drink the well water, with the translucent, gelatinous muck bobbing at the surface (it was easy enough to scrape off), he could even stand its metallic, almost moribund taste. But he could not tolerate seeing a filthy horse presented to the King.
So it was with a spirited acceptance that Link trotted across the muddy compound, bucket bouncing against his stained pants. His boots sank into the wet dirt, and he fervently hoped a well-meaning guard mage might send a few gusts of wind across the corral to dry it—Link had spent so long polishing the warhorse’s hooves he would break down if he had to see them muddied at the last minute. He made a mental note to tug at Talon’s waistcoat when he got back with the water, and let him know his concerns.
Two men guarded the paddock gates, glinting in dark armor. They let Link pass with nothing more than a bob of their helmeted heads—stableboys like him came and went freely, barely heeded. They caused no trouble for the King’s soldiers, except, occasionally, when one tried to flee the city.
Link lugged the bucket down the street, toward the well. Behind him faded the sharp smell of mud and fresh hay, the grassy breath of horses, their dusty flanks—and before him rose the familiar acrid stink of the city, the thick sourness of men and women, the softer, more palatable scent of their animals, the occasional waft of weekly washing, the fetor of waste disposal. As he descended the cobblestone slope, from the high echelon of the palace grounds down into the city proper, the smell grew more pungent.
A pair of young girls ran across his path, dark-skinned and red-haired, leaving a faint aroma of freshness in their wake. Link knew it would be a few years before the city robbed them of that smell—he himself was losing it, day by day. Even after he had sprung through pubescence, seemingly waking up taller each morning, growing broader each evening, he had maintained his own scent of bright childhood until very recently. Perhaps his constant proximity to animals provided him with the means of avoiding smelling bewilderingly human.
While the feeling and scent of his early youth was marred by the stifling aura of the city, he could still recognize and enjoy other smells and sights that seemed to be all but lost on others. He could catch a whiff of a kitten on a high windowsill, see its thin fur bristle when he looked up and gave it a smile. He could smell a storm coming, when the air thickened and the sharp sting of electricity permeated the atmosphere. He knew when to hide himself under a roof, while others seemed oblivious to the coming deluge, still wandering in the streets, unprotected from the inevitable heavy rain thickened with acid from the city’s many factories.
Whenever he was unsure of a scent, he would turn his attention to the stable hounds and watch their movements. He’d read the thin twitches of their whiskery noses, their lips curling above teeth, black fur on their necks raising slightly, tails lifting in anticipation. The hounds told him when to make himself scarce, and when it was safe for him to wander the stable and corral freely.
For everything else, he could rely on Talon. Throughout the day the man would provide Link with tasks, looks and gestures, hand him a plate of gruel when work was done, make sure he was sufficiently wrapped in his ratty blanket when he settled down in the hay amongst the hounds and horses for the night. Even when Talon left for his own quarters at the other end of the yard, his presence lingered, the soft scent of mud and sweat, the warmth he brought to the air. He would often light a candle and place it on the high shelf, beside a faded, ripped pictograph of a young girl, red hair outshining the candlelight even from its discolored frame. Talon left the candle burning all night, providing Link with enough light to watch the rise and fall of the animals’ ribs as they sank into sleep. Link always rested best on the nights when the candle flickered gently in the corner.
The evening before the warhorse’s exhibition, he had hardly slept at all. Talon had not explicitly expressed to him the mare’s rapidly approaching meeting with the King, but he didn’t need to. Link could tell by the way Talon’s hands shook slightly, almost imperceptibly, when the stable master visited him, that something was afoot. The stable master was tall, slim, thin hair pulled back into a ratty ponytail, but his presence was always commanding, and always prefigured some grand event or another: a long hunt for the King, a countryside expedition, a reception, parade, exhibition. No matter the occasion, its success invariably depended on the form and fettle of the beasts involved. Whether or not the King’s pages and guards returned smiling or grimacing hinged ultimately on the stable master, and by extension, Talon and Link.
They had made doubly sure the fire-red mare had been prepared for her presentation. Talon spent hours gathering her pale mane up into knots, and bunching her tail into the traditional tight bun used to keep it out of the path of swords and spears during battle. Link had washed her himself, sponging her muscular flank and polishing her hooves to an unmatched sheen.
In the preceding months, Link taught the warhorse all he knew about people and what they might want from her. She had been a kind, understanding creature, responsive to the flicks of his eyelids, the waves of his hands and the nudges of his heels on her sides. He had only to tug on the base of her mane, gently, in one direction or the other, to get her to turn, he merely had to lean forward to coax her into a gallop, press himself into her to make her slow. Sometimes when he slid off her back and gently bumped his forehead against hers as thanks, Talon would approach from the other end of the corral, awed, eyes wide, mouth opening and closing meaninglessly. Link hadn’t the means to explain to him the nature of his relationship with the large warhorse—it seemed to be something so natural to him and so foreign to others, that expressing to Talon how he behaved with the horses would be like trying to teach a fish to breathe air.
Link knew this horse would serve the King well. She was strong, intelligent, kind, humorous in her own way, and responded to the slightest kicks and nudges with utmost avidity and promptness. He knew he would miss the magnificent creature during those times when the guards would lead her away by the harness, out for a fox hunt or other such expedition. But, horse or otherwise, they all had to serve the King in their own ways.
Link had only seen the King once, from a distance. He had been so splendid, standing grand and absurdly tall atop the royal carriage. His entire procession had been ornamented in the winter festival’s colors, glowing with the light of modern magic. People had poured out onto the snowy street to watch him ride by, white fur draped across his shoulder, arms spread in celebration. Bits of colored paper flew from windows as he was carried down the city’s main boulevard, landing in the wet snow at the feet of his team of black horses.
Link had been small then, perched on Talon’s shoulders as the cavalcade danced by, backlit by the deep lights of the winter festival, red and green and royal blue. A team of guards followed the King’s carriage, shining tubes of brass raised to their pursed lips, marching in unison. Link did not remember much of that celebration—food and drink flowed freely, and when an older stablehands weren’t trying to force mugs of hot mulled wine down his throat, his memories were coated with the dreamlike half-mysticism of childhood. But he did remember, very clearly, the swell of love and loyalty that burst in his lungs, that made its way up his throat and watered his eyes. He had leaned forward on Talon’s shoulders, reaching out to the King so eagerly he’d tumbled right off and crashed into the spectator cheering in front of them.
It had taken the celebration days to die down. Even now, years later, as Link walked toward the well, he suspected that there was still the stray scrap of confetti from that very festival under his muddy boots, wedged between cobblestones or hiding in the gutter. He didn’t remember a winter festival so lively, so full of joy—then again, he didn’t remember another winter festival when the Great King himself had made an appearance.
Link turned a corner and departed from the main avenue. Above him a few unseasonal clouds gathered, and he felt the trembling energy of an imminent storm in the air. It was subtle, and told him he still had plenty of time to fetch the water, bring it back and witness the King’s approval of the warhorse before the first drops fell. He took a deep breath, the acidic wet air filling his lungs, and turned the last corner to the well.
Thankfully, there were few people gathered around its edge. Link trotted up to the grey masonry, laying his bucket on the side and waiting his turn. A little boy, pale and thin, stared at him with gigantic black eyes from the other side of the well, thumb stuck so far into his mouth it looked like he was trying to eat his own fist. He wore no clothes but what looked like a pillowcase wrapped around his middle, mud streaked on his pale skin.
Link tried to smile at the kid, but he continued staring him down with his uncanny, sunken eyes. Link decided that his attention was better allocated to getting his bucket tied to the lowering rope, slopping up enough water to keep him and Talon alive for the night and getting back to the palace before the action started. Link lowered his eyes to well, the heat of the little boy’s impoverished stare burning his skin. He quickly lowered the bucket, gathering a swell of black water, and pulled it back up. A stern, angry tap on the shoulder told him he’d done something wrong.
Bucket in hand, he turned to see a tall, wide woman behind him, hands on her hips, light hair drawn back into a tight bun. Her thin lips parted and twisted like two pale worms over her yellowed teeth, and an occasional bead of spit flew from her mouth. Link could tell by the way her eyebrows drew together, almost meeting in a wrinkled puff of hair in the middle of her forehead, that she was less than pleased with him. Her lips formed shapes unfamiliar to him, her sagging second chin flapping like a cock’s wattle against her neck. She gesticulated, pointing the starving little boy at the other side of the well, and Link could see her ruddy palms were worn and rough with work.
He just bowed, like he always did when in doubt. He lowered his head, quickly, sincerely, and made his escape. He grabbed the bucket of water, sloshing a bit over the side, and sidled out from between the woman and the well. Before she could stop him, he held the bucket as firmly as he could and trotted back up the street.
He did not look behind him. He ignored all sights and smells that risked enticing him to tarry, and hurried up the main boulevard. Mercifully, he reached the gates to the palace grounds, and the guard nodded at him to pass without motioning for him to put the bucket down and show his mark.
When he arrived back at the corral, he saw no one out in the yard, save for the fire-red warhorse, saddled and ready, eyes closed, back hoof bent slightly into the dirt, as it always did when she prepared for something. Link could tell she knew an important event lingered on the horizon, but she may have thought it was only the oncoming storm they both could feel brewing in the air.
Link dropped the bucket at the stable doors and sauntered over to her. He approached from her side, as she preferred, and lay his hand on her quivering flank. He brushed a few flies from her hair and lay his head against her. He could feel the pulse of her blood through her side, minuscule ripples of skin and muscle, rhythmic and deliberate. He stroked her, and she contentedly shook her head.
Link knew he should make himself scarce for the arrival of the King, especially since he could see no other stablehands about. He patted the warhorse goodbye, but when he turned to make his way back to the stable, he noticed one of her knots of mane had come undone. Link looked around for any other stablehands, and saw none.
He could not let this horse—his favorite horse, his greatest friend—go before the King looking disheveled and worn. So he retrieved his bucket and stood on it, feet balancing precariously on opposite edges, and craned his neck to survey the damage. It looked like a quick fix—he could retie her knot and get out of there well before the King arrived. He pulled out a streak of white mane and twisted it tightly, wrapping each hair with great consideration. Less than a minute later, he tightened the finished knot and let it sit atop the crest of her neck. Link stepped off the bucket, admiring his own work, and realized with an inner sigh that now his knot was the only one that struck him as decently executed.
Talon had done this job himself, but he was dreadfully inept at plaiting of all sorts. Link knew he had no choice but to redo her entire mane; there was no way the King would approve of her in this unacceptable state. So Link glanced around him furtively, and then undid all of Talon’s hard work, letting the horse’s mane hang unrestrained along her neck. He gave her an encouraging pat before slowly, carefully starting the whole process again.
He began at the top, where a puff of white forelock fell over her black eyes, and moved down along her neck, each knot perfectly spun, twisted into a beautiful point. Even constrained to tiny buns, her striking hair shone, each knob glinting like the tall lamps that lit up the city’s streets at night.
He had made his way almost to her withers, leaving a perfectly composed mane behind him, when over the elegant crest of the warhorse’s curved neck he spied Talon emerge from the stables. He ran, waistcoat wrinkling over his bulging belly, waving his hirsute arms in a panic. Link squinted at him, at his frightened, shining eyes, and realized he must’ve done something terribly wrong. He glanced back over his work—no, that wasn’t it, it was absolutely perfect, so…
He felt a presence behind him. Strong, intimidating, he could tell the shape and mien of his visitor by the tiny, pulsating waves of heat that made him stiffen slightly. Almost imperceptibly, the hair on the back of his neck shifted—breath touched his hackles, but not the familiar, calming rush of air from horse’s nose. It was slow, human.
Link’s hands fell to his side, trembling slightly. He forced himself to tear his eyes away from the infuriating, unfinished puff of mane near the horse’s shoulders, slowly stepping down from his bucket. He swallowed a lump in his throat and forced himself to turn around.
He didn’t see much, since the man behind him was so large, so close, but he saw enough. He caught a glimpse of the dark skin, the bold copper hair, the royal jewel glinting on furrowed brow. With a jolt of terror and awe, he threw himself down into the dirt, pressing his forehead into the mud desperately, prostrating himself at the feet of his King.