Dark Horse   5 comments

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his isn’t strictly speaking a devotional piece. i guess it’s more a story that’s myth-based, but meant for a wider audience.
editorial and critical feedback most welcome.

Dark Horse

The mist-maidens coil around Kiri as she reaches the banks of the River Ladon, and the spring peepers sing like maenads in the dusk. Her bare feet sink into the silky mud, cold and smooth. She stops for a moment, wriggling her toes luxuriously, and spontaneously whispers a song of greeting to the limnaeds of the marsh whose foggy fingers are making her hair curl into Medusa tendrils.
It is a dangerous time for maidens to be out alone. The gloaming is walked by creatures without kindness toward tender things. But Kiri knows her local nymphs, and moves without fear through the woods that cluster along the river, as much at home as any fox or hawk. But she is not wandering in the chilly spring evening for pleasure. Kiri is on a quest, and she does not plan to return home without her favorite goat, and with any luck, a newborn kid. The beating she would receive from her father for losing one of the herd is less motivation than her fierce protective love for all of her charges, but for her beloved Amalthea above all. The alabaster blue-eyed doe was a gift from Kiri’s favorite uncle, and Kiri traded days of hard work trampling the olives for their oil in order to breed her to the best buck in the region. While Kiri was distracted by a pair of mating hawks late that afternoon the doe slipped away, probably looking for a private spot in which to kid. Kiri is not about to lose the foundation of her future herd to a mountain lion or wolf. Or any other being.
The western sky erupts in a final paroxysm of glory, the peepers’ music shrills to ecstatic heights. Kiri holds her breath in wonder. Even Amalthea cannot prevent her from stopping to experience the fiery descent of Helios behind the western hills, and thence to the sea beyond Elis, the fabled sea of which Kiri has heard such tales, but never seen with her own eyes. She stands riveted until the fierce flames begin to soften. A three-quarter waxing moon is already high above the treetops, gravid as Kiri’s own mother who is expecting her sixth child before spring turns to summer. Kiri kisses her hand to the Moon Goddess, murmuring a quick prayer that this child is born healthy and survives, unlike the tiny lost siblings whom Kiri has helped her mother mourn.
She moves through the deepening dusk, feet sure, eyes keen in the deceptive moonlight, ears attuned to any noises not belonging to woods, or bullfrogs, or peepers. She has herded her family’s goats her entire life, she knows the sorts of nooks and crannies a kidding doe will seek out.
Down past a crook in the river, a few miles from the upland meadow where Kiri grazes her goats, a thick copse of oak and cypress trees marks the river’s path as it winds its way to the wider grasslands which stretch to the western hills. The shadows blur in the thickening purple light, but between the trees Kiri sees a flash of white. Quick as a hare, she flits across the field and slips into the deeper shadow of the still-bare oaks, and the brooding cypress. She stands motionless, getting her breathing under control, peering into the gloom. Nothing. Where did it go?
The peepers fall silent.
Kiri freezes. She holds her breath. Her heart slams against her ribs. An unfamiliar feeling floods her. With wonder, she realizes it is terror.
Movement under the cypresses, just feet away. Whiteness looms, big, far too big to be Amalthea. Kiri staggers back a step, trying to breathe as the thing steps toward her. A branch cracks, shockingly loud in the silence. And Kiri is staring into the dark eyes of a dapple gray mare.
Kiri’s breath whooshes out of her in a great gust. The mare eyes her steadily, then shakes her head, her long forelock falling over her eyes, then thrusts out her nose and takes a suspicious sniff. Kiri stands still as a stone. She has seen the wild herds running on the river plains far below her pastures, but no one in her simple world can afford to keep a tamed horse, and she has never been near the wild ones. Their fierce swift beauty has captivated her from afar, but they have been less a part of her world than the naiads and dryads who share her daily routines.
She had no idea how large they could be.
The delicate nostrils quiver inches from Kiri’s face. Sweet, grass-scented breath blows over her, and she gasps. The mare jerks back and steps away, back under the trees, where her white and gray mottled hide nearly disappears against the dark and moonlit branches. Kiri remains motionless.
A single peeper tentatively tries out its voice. Another joins it. In seconds the chorus is in full song. If Kiri did not know where to look, she would think that she was alone in the night with the tiny frogs.
Almost without volition she sinks to her knees. The terror is still there, but has receded to the back of her brain, almost swamped by an awe as inexplicable as the fear.
Kiri does not know how long she kneels in the grass, deafened by the peeper symphony, the grey horse still as a stone under the trees. She might have remained thus until rosy-fingered Dawn brightened the east, but without warning the peepers fall silent again. The darkness under the trees seems to thicken. Kiri’s heart begins to thud loudly in her ears again. Something small and warm scurries between her feet and they both freeze, prey animal instinct.
The mare’s ears flatten.
Kiri can feel the earth vibrate beneath arrogant footfalls before she sees the massive silhouette loom against the sky. The tiny creature between her feet quivers. A snort ruptures the tense silence like a blast from a salpinx. Dread squeezes the last breath from Kiri’s lungs, and she prays her slamming heartbeats are not as audible as she fears.
A massive hoof is raised high, paws the ground. The stallion neighs, deep, brassy, shattering the night air into shards of pure hysteria.
The silence thickens around Kiri like icy mud, trapping her in place. Breathing is an act of heroism. She wants to hide her head in her arms, but she cannot move. Her eyes bulge from her head as she strains to see the motionless mare. But even the shadows are frozen.
The ground shudders again, hoofbeats like hammerblows coming nearer, coming faster. Kiri forces her eyes up, and sees a mane like shredded silk rippling against the stars, and a green gleam of eyes. The stallion pounds through the grass, coming directly for the copse.
A grunt of despair escapes the mare just before she bursts from the sheltering trees, arrowing out of the little grove, up onto the grassland, fleet as a shooting star. A high-pitched whinny floats back, shaking with fear and fury. Her slender legs reach impossibly far as she flees, her tail a bone-white blur in the moonlight. Kiri has never seen anything so fast, faster than a stooping hawk or eagle, far faster than the fleetest stag. Nothing could ever catch this wild thing. She rivals the killing winds of Boreas.
But the thing pursuing her is more than hawk, or stag, or wind, or horse. The pounding of hooves is like an ocean storm-surge against a cliff. Cracks open in the shuddering earth beneath the onslaught of those hooves.
Breath rushes painfully back into Kiri’s lungs. Quick as a snake, she swarms up the nearest oak, one of the ones that until a moment ago sheltered the dapple-grey mare. Gasping, trembling, she clutches at the trunk, staring out over the moonlit plain, riveted by the terrible pageant unfolding below.
The mare is quick as a cloud, skimming the grasses. The black bulk pursuing her seems too huge, too gross to be able to capture anything so quicksilver, so lissom in the moonlight. But the space between them closes. The powerful legs of the stallion pummel the earth like pistons, causing Gaia Herself to groan. Kiri’s eyes distend with horror as she makes out a fox, fleeing from the furious hooves, go tumbling into a crack zig-zagging across the plain, and disappear with a surprised shriek.
The race is over. With a last mighty effort, the stallion is upon the mare. Huge jaws gape open, seize her by the crest of her straining neck, and clamp down. He sits down on his massive haunches, and the mare turns a somersault in the air, landing heavily, her breath driven from her laboring lungs. The immense form looms over her, motionless except for his heaving flanks, as she gathers herself and lurches to her feet. She faces him, ears flat, trembling, and a final despairing whinny of defiance bursts from her. The stallion stretches his head, touches her muzzle with surprising delicacy, then twines his neck around hers. They stand thus for a long moment. Then he moves behind her, rears and covers her, knees gripping her flanks, huge head laid along her neck. Their silhouettes undulate against the starry sky.
The stallion dismounts. The mare’s knees buckle, she staggers, then recovers, and turns to face him, flanks pumping like bellows. He shakes the forelock from his eyes, then extends his muzzle toward her. Kiri can see the curve of his nostrils, limned in a phosphorescent green. For a long moment they stand motionless, the mare’s head low, the stallion’s nose almost touching her forehead. Then she flings her beautiful head high, ears flattened, and screams. She wheels and kicks violently, deadly hooves just missing the stallion’s startled face. He leaps sideways, snorts explosively, trots in a tight circle, legs flung high. He halts, lowers his head toward the mare again, but now his ears are back too, and his eyes flash green. With a neigh that splits the night like a bronze trumpet he spins and gallops off, hooves thundering. As he disappears over the horizon, the cracks in the plain groan, and close.
The mare watches until he is out of sight, eyes blazing in the moonlight, ears still pinned flat against her neck. When he is gone, and the ground has stopped shaking from the mighty passage, she lets out a deep sigh. Her head droops to the ground.
Kiri makes her way down the tree, slowly, wanting to go to the mare, but afraid down to the marrow of her bones. As she steps hesitantly from the copse onto the grass of the plain, the moon slips behind a cloud, and the world goes dark. Kiri peers through the gloom, trying to make out the dappled hide, but the stars do not illuminate the night enough for her to see. She hesitates, wringing her hands unconsciously as she has seen her mother do in times of stress and uncertainty. Going forward into the darkness seems unthinkable. But Kiri cannot bring herself to leave the mare, ravaged and alone, in the sea of grass.
She stumbles forward in the dark, mouth dry, breath coming in ragged, stifled gasps. The long grass tangles her feet, impeding her passage. She halts, trying to quiet her breath, to get her bearings in the grass, perhaps to find the mare by sound if not by sight. But the only sound in the night is the wind through the shivering stalks.
After what seems an eternity of nightmare, Kiri catches sight of the mare not far ahead, motionless. An ear twitches at the sound of Kiri’s approach, and the mare swings her head around menacingly. Kiri freezes. She tries desperately to think of some way of assuring the mare of her good intentions, but she cannot conceive of a way to communicate, other than to fall to her knees, hands outstretched imploringly. Time stretches interminably. The two creatures seem carved of stone in their tableau. Eventually the moon slips out from its curtain of cloud, and Kiri gasps. The sea of grass around them silvers in the moonlight, but the mare remains dark. No light reflects back from the mane that was silvery-white, and the dark dapples have dimmed and bled together. The eyes, so limpid in the grove, now glare into Kiri’s, rimmed in red. As they stare at each other, dark flames eat their way into Kiri’s mind, and she swoons into the receiving grass.
When Kiri opens her eyes, the stars have fled, and Eos touches the eastern horizon with pearl although the plain is still swathed in darkness. She is alone in the grass. Wearily she pulls herself to her feet, and begins the long trudge back. The mare is gone, Amalthea is gone, her goats are scattered, her parents will be frantic, and she will certainly be beaten when she gets home. But all that she can think of is the terrible change in the mare, from dapple grey beauty to dark horror.
The chariot of the sun has not risen above the horizon, but the world is full of dawnlight as Kiri reaches the grove where just last night, a lifetime ago, a beautiful horse sheltered under the trees. The birds are beginning to wake and sing. Woven through the dawn chorus is the croaking of a raven. Kiri raises her tired eyes and sees a trio perched on the top branches of an oak, focused on something near the river. She follows their gaze, spies something white, and a fitful movement.
The body of Amalthea lies partially in the water, the gentle current tugging at her limp legs, giving her a ghastly appearance of life. Kiri halts, unable to process what her eyes are telling her. She remains still for so long that one of the ravens, emboldened, swoops down and lands heavily on the still-warm body. Kiri screams, runs forward waving her arms madly, and the startled raven leaps up with a cry of frustration. Kiri falls beside the still body of the white goat, and gathers the delicate head onto her lap, rocking, keening. The blood and viscera by Amalthea’s hindquarters give ample evidence of the cause of death. Flies are already gathering.
Kiri gazes down into the beloved face, the blue eyes half-lidded and milky in death, and is sure her heart will break. She ululates more loudly, sending the ravens spiraling into the sky, but the flies just buzz and cluster ever more greedily.
The sun is flooding the plain with golden light as Kiri’s howls falter and die in exhaustion. She pushes away from the stiffening body and stands, looking around for sturdy branches to make a toboggan. Her precious doe can feed her family for a week if she can get her home before decay sets in, and it is her responsibility to make sure that the little goat does not go to waste. She sees a good strong bough sticking out of a clump of reeds near the water, and trudges wearily to grasp it and begin making her sled. But as she begins to tug she hears a faint, wavering bleat. She spins round, stares at the reeds, sees them ripple ever so slightly. Her breath catches in her throat. She plunges into the reeds, and there, on the bank, curled around each other, are two tiny, perfect kids, one pure white, the other midnight black. At her intrusion they begin to cry weakly, pitifully, butting each other with tiny, desperate muzzles.
Once again Kiri finds herself on her knees, weeping, but this time with painful joy. She gathers the little warm creatures onto her lap, where they snuggle like kittens, trying frantically to nurse. Kiri has nothing to feed them, nothing but the watered wine in her skin. She dips a fold of her chiton into the skin, gives it to the babies to suck, but it quietens them only for a moment. She knows she has to get them home.
In a matter of moments she has assembled a makeshift sledge out of tree limbs bound with reeds, and Amalthea’s pitiful body is wrapped in more reeds to keep out the flies, and secured. Kiri cannot bring herself to set the babies next to their mother’s bloating corpse. She slings the white kid over her shoulders, tucks the black one under one arm, grasps the branches of her toboggan, and begins the weary hike back up to the highlands, to her home. She hopes her goats have made their way home, that her herd dog has kept them together and alive. But she cannot dwell on that, nor on what awaits her in the hut where her parents will be hard-handed in their anger and relief at seeing her. It takes every bit of hardihood she possesses to make her way along the river path to the upland meadows with her burdens. Her heart is sore at the loss of Amalthea, and she is full of fear lest she lose the babies as well, the precious, precious babies.
And underneath it all, the grief and the exhaustion and the worry and the relief, runs the memory of that night flight, the green flash of the stallion’s eyes, and the crimson darkness of the mare.

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Posted July 26, 2014 by suzmuse in Uncategorized

5 responses to “Dark Horse

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  1. Impressive. I enjoyed it…though I’m like Kiri and not understanding what she had seen.

  2. oh, thank you, melia, that’s just the sort of feedback i desperately need! may i push a little? did your not understanding what was going on make the story more or less intriguing? would you want to go and read more if this were the first in a series of short stories? or was it so obscure as to be frustrating and a turn-off?
    (and does it help or hurt if i tell you that this is based on the arkadian variant of the demeter myth- demeter’s rape by poseidon?)
    khairete
    suz

    • Well…unless one is very well based in mythology (which I am, more than many but I missed it) it can be frustrating, but it was well enough written that I’d be curious to read more. Things that jumped out at me that made me curious…did the character name her goat purposely after Zeus’ nanny goat? Is there something mystical about the ying-yang kids? Would the horse return to Kiri? What would happen then? Would I read more? Yes, but I’m a bit of a fantasy story slut. 🙂 I like the quick fix of short stories but I hate short stories because they tend to leave me with so many questions… It is the curiousity of a cat that I’m blessed/tortured with…

  3. thank you again for your honest feedback about the frustration- i’ll ponder ways to keep the ‘aha!’ bits for hellenics but not make it so obscure that it’s not fun for anyone, especially a non-hellenic (and non-pagan) audience. i’m trying to wobble along that thin line that creates anticipation without annoying the reader into tossing it aside.
    yes, amalthea is named for zeus’ nanny, and yes, there will be more about the yin-yang kids in later stories, and the mare will absolutely be an ongoing thread. and ‘kiri’ is a little nod to ‘kore.’
    i deeply appreciate you taking the time to respond.
    🙂 khairete
    suz

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