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Classical Horses


Judith Tarr

One of the most popular and respected fantasists of the 1980s, Judith Tarr is also a medieval scholar with a Ph.D. in medieval studies from Yale University, which background has served her well in creating the richly detailed milieus of her critically acclaimed novels. Her many books include The Isle of Glass, The Golden Horn, The Hounds of God, The Hall of the Mountain King, The Lady of Han-Gilen, A Fall of Princes, A Wind in Cairo, Ars Magica, Alamut, and The Dagger and the Cross: A Novel of the Crusades. Born in Augusta, Maine, she now lives in Tucson, Arizona.

In the brilliant story that follows, she offers us a fascinating look at a tranquil country estate where nothing is quite what it seems to be . . .

* * *


The yard was full of Lipizzans.

I'd been driving by, missing my old mare and thinking maybe it was time to find another horse, and I'd slowed because I always do, going along any row of fence with horses behind it, and there they were. Not the usual bays and chestnuts and occasional gray, but a herd of little thick white horses that weren't—but couldn't be —but were.

They weren't the Vienna School. They came from somewhere in Florida, Janna told me afterward, and they'd been doing something at the armory, and they needed a place to board for the night. I didn't know Janna then. I wouldn't have stopped, either, just gone down to a crawl and stared, except for the two horses in the paddock. It wasn't that they were wild with all the running and clattering. It was that they were quiet. A chestnut and a gray, not big, just about Morgan-sized, and maybe Morgan-built, too, but finer in the leg and shorter in the back than most I'd seen—and of course you don't see a gray Morgan. But as upheaded as any Morgan you'd want to look at, with a good arch to their necks, and ears pricked sharply forward, watching the show.

I pulled over without even thinking about it. I remember wondering that it was odd, me staring at two perfectly nice but perfectly normal horses, with all those white stallions taking turns around the yard and being walked into the barn. The gray would be white when he was older, there was that. He had a bright eye, but calm. When one of the Lipps circled past his fence, his head came up higher and he stamped. Then he lifted himself up, smooth and sweet as you please, and held for a long breathless while. He was, I couldn't help but notice, a stallion.

The chestnut watched him with what I could have sworn was amusement. His ears flicked back and then forward. His muscles bunched. He soared up, even smoother than the gray, and lashed back hard enough to take the head off anyone who might have dared to stand behind him.

Levade, capriole. Then they were quiet again, head to tail, rubbing one another's withers like any old plow horses.

I got out of the car. No one looked at me or even seemed to have noticed the demonstration in the paddock. I wandered toward the fence. The chestnut spared me a glance. The gray was too busy having his neck rubbed. I didn't try to lure them over. I leaned against the post and watched the stallions, but with a corner of an eye for the ones in the paddock.

There was an old surrey on the other side, with a tarp half draped over it, half folded back. Someone sat in the seat. She was old, how old I couldn't tell; just that she was over sixty, and probably over seventy, and maybe eighty, too. It didn't keep her from sitting perfectly straight, or from looking at me with eyes as young as her face was old, large in their big round sockets, and a quite beautiful shade of gray. She didn't smile. If she had, I might have ducked and left.

As it was, I took my time, but after a while I went over. "Hello," I said.

She nodded.

I supposed I knew who she was. I'd heard about a woman who had a farm out this way. She was ninety, people said, if she was a day, and she still drove her own horses. Had even been riding them up till a little while ago, when she broke her hip—not riding, either, but falling down in her house like any other very old lady. She had a cane beside her, with a brass horse's head.

"Nice horses," I said, cocking my head at the two in the paddock.

She nodded again. I wondered if she could talk. She didn't look as if she'd had a stroke, and no one had said anything about her being mute.

"Not often you see two stallions in a paddock together," I went on.

"They've always been together."

Her voice was quiet and a little thin, but it wasn't the old-lady voice I might have expected. She had an interesting accent. European, more or less.

"Brothers?" I asked.


I stared at them. They did look a lot alike, except for the color: bright copper chestnut, almost gold, and dapple gray, with the mane and tail already silver.

"That's rare," I said.


I stuck out a hand, a little late, and introduced myself. Her hand was thin and knobby, but she had a respectable grip. "You're Mrs. Tiffney, of course."

She laughed, which was surprising. She sounded impossibly young. "Of course! I'm the only antique human on the farm." She kept on smiling at me. "My yard is full of Lipizzans, and you notice my two ponies?"

"Big ponies," I said. "If they're that. Morgans?"

"No," she said. She didn't tell me what they were. I didn't, at that point, ask. Someone was standing behind me. Janna, I knew later. She wanted to know what to do about someone named Ragweed, who was in heat, and Florence had categorically refused to move her Warmblood for any silly circus horse, and the show manager wanted to know if he could use the shavings in the new barn, but she wasn't sure what to charge him for them, if she let him have them at all, since no one had told her if there was going to be a delivery this week.

It went on like that. I found myself dumping feed in nervous boarders' bins and helping Janna pitch hay to the horses that had been put out to pasture for the night. There were people around—this was a big barn, and the guests had plenty of grooms of their own—but one way and another I seemed to have been adopted. Or to have adopted the place.

"Do you always take in strangers?" I asked Janna. It was late by then. We were up in the office, drinking coffee from the urn and feeling fairly comfortable. Feeding horses together can do that to people. She'd sent the kids home, and the grooms were gone to their hotel or bedded down in the barn. Even Mrs. Tiffney had gone to the house that stood on the hill behind the barns.

Janna yawned till her jaw cracked. She didn't apologize. She was comfortable people, about my age and about my size, with the no-nonsense air that stable managers either learn early or give up and become bitchy instead. "We take in strays," she said. "Plenty of cats. Too damn many dogs. Horses, as often as not. People, not that often. People are a bad lot."

"Maybe I am, too," I said.

"Mrs. Tiffney likes you," said Janna.

"Just like that?"

Janna shrugged. "She's good at judging animals."

"People-type animals, too?"

Janna didn't answer. She poured more coffee instead, first for me, then for herself. "Do you ride?" she asked.

"Not since the winter. I had a mare up at Meadow Farm; Arab. Did dressage with her. She got twisted intestine. Had to put her down." It still hurt to say that.

Janna was horse people. She understood. "Looking for another?"

"Starting to."

"None for sale here right now," she said. "But some of the boarders take leases. There's always someone wanting a horse ridden. If you want to try one of them, take a lesson. . . .

I tried one, and then another. I took a lesson. I took two. Pretty soon I was a regular, though I didn't settle on any particular horse. The ones that came up weren't quite what I was looking for, and the ones I might have been interested in weren't for sale or lease, but I had plenty of chances to ride them.

What I was mostly interested in was just being there. Someone had put up a sampler in the tackroom: "Peaceable Kingdom." Tacky and sentimental, but it fit. There were always dogs around and cats underfoot. Janna gave most of the lessons, but she had a couple of older kids to help with the beginners. I didn't do any teaching. I did enough of that every day, down in the trenches.

There were thirty horses in the two barns, minus the one-night stand of Lipizzans. The farm owned a few ponies and a couple of school horses, and Mrs. Tiffney's pair of stallions, who had a corner of the old barn to themselves. They weren't kept for stud, weren't anything registered that anyone knew of. They were just Mrs. Tiffney's horses, the red and the gray—Zan and Bali. She drove them as a team, pulling a surrey in the summer and a sleigh in the winter. Janna rode them every day if she could. Bali was a pretty decent jumper. Zan was happier as a dressage horse, though he'd jump if Janna asked; and I'd seen what he could do in the way of caprioles. Bali was the quiet one, though that wasn't saying he was gentle—he had plenty of spirit. Zan was the one you had to watch. He'd snake his head out if you walked by his stall, and get titchy if he thought you owed him a carrot or a bit of apple. Bali was more likely to charm it out of you. Zan expected it, or else.

I got friendly with most of the horses, even Florence's precious Warmblood, but those two had brought me in first, and I always had a soft spot for them. They seemed to know who I was, too, and Bali started to nicker when I came, though I thought that was more for his daily apple than for me. If Mrs. Tiffney was there, I'd help her and Janna harness them up for her to take her drive around the pastures and down the road, or sit with her while she watched Janna ride one or the other of them. The day she asked me if I'd like to ride Bali—Janna was saddling Zan then—I should have been prepared, and in a way I was, but I was surprised. I had my saddle, I was wearing my boots; I'd been riding Sam for his owner, who was jetsetting in Atlantic City. But people didn't just ride Mrs. Tiffney's horses.

I said so. She laughed at me. "No, they don't. Unless I tell them to. Go and saddle Bali. He'll be much happier to be with his brother."

He was that. I felt as if I was all over his back—first-ride nerves, I always get them in front of the owner. But he had lovely gaits, and he seemed determined to show me all of them. Fourteen. I'd counted once at Meadow Farm, when I watched the riding master. Walk: collected, working, medium, extended. Trot: ditto. Canter: ditto. And then, because Mrs. Tiffney told me to do it, and because Janna was there to set my legs where they belonged and to guide my hands, the two gaits almost no one ever gets to ride: passage, the graceful, elevated, slow-motion trot; and piaffe, "Spanish trot" that in Vienna they do between the pillars, not an inch forward, but all that power and impulsion concentrated in one place, in perfect control, to the touch of the leg and the support of the hand and the will of the rider that by then is perfectly melded with that of the horse.

I dropped down and hugged Bali till he snorted. I was grinning like an idiot. Janna was grinning, too. I could have sworn even Zan was, flirting his tail at his brother as he went by.

Mrs. Tiffney smiled. She looked quite as satisfied as Bali did when I pulled back to look at him, though I thought he might be laughing, too. And told myself to stop anthropomorphizing, but how often does anyone get to ride a high-school horse?


Not long after that, Mrs. Tiffney taught me to drive. I'd never learned that, had always been out riding when chances came up. It was easier than riding in some ways. Harder in others, with two horses to think of, and turning axes, and all those bits and pieces of harness.

We didn't talk much through all of this. The horses were enough. Sometimes I mentioned something that had happened at school, or said I'd have to leave early to have dinner with a friend, or mentioned that I was thinking of going back to grad school.

"In what?" she asked me.

"Classics, probably," I said. "I've got the Masters in it, but all I teach is Latin. I'd like to get my Greek back before I lose it. And teach in college. High school's a war zone, most of the time. You can't really teach. Mostly you just play policeman and hope most of your classes can read."

"Surely," she said, "if they can take Latin, they can read English?"

She sounded properly shocked. I laughed sourly. "You'd think so, wouldn't you? But we're egalitarian at Jonathan Small. Anyone who wants anything can take it. Can't be elitist, now, can we? Though I finally got them to give me a remedial Latin class—remedial reading, for kids who can't read English. It does work. And it keeps them from going nuts in a regular class."

"Democracy," said Mrs. Tiffney, "was never intended for everyone."

I couldn't help it. I laughed. I couldn't stop. When I finally did manage to suck in a breath, she was watching me patiently. She didn't look offended. She didn't say anything further, either, except to ask me to turn around and put the team into a trot.

When we'd cooled the horses and cleaned the harness—she insisted on doing it herself, no matter what anyone said—she invited me to the house. I almost refused. I'm shy about things like that, and I had classes in the morning. But maybe I had amends to make. I shouldn't have laughed at her.

From the outside it was nothing in particular. A big white farm house with pillars in front: New England Neoclassical. Janna had the upstairs rear, which I'd seen already, steep twisty staircases and rooms with interesting ceilings, dipping and swooping at the roof's whim, and a fireplace that worked.

Downstairs was much the same, but the ceilings were halfway to the sky, rimmed with ornate moldings, and there seemed to be a fireplace in every room, even the kitchen. There were books everywhere, on shelves to the ceiling, on revolving shelves beside the big comfortable chairs, between bookends on tables and mantelpieces. And in through the books there were wonderful things: a bust of a Roman senator, a medieval triptych of angels and saints around a Madonna and child, an African mask, a Greek krater, a bronze horse that must have been Greek, too, and hanging from the ceiling, so surprising that I laughed, a papier-maché pterodactyl with carefully painted-in silvery-gray fur.

Mrs. Tiffney wasn't going to let me help her with the cups and cookies, but she didn't try too hard to stop me. She did insist that I get comfortable in the living room while she waited for the water to boil. I wandered where she pointed, past the den and the library I'd already seen, to the front room with its wide windows and its Oriental carpet. It was full of books as all the other rooms were, and its fireplace was marble, cream-pale in the light from the tall windows. There was a painting over it, an odd one, perfectly round, with what must have been hundreds of figures in concentric circles.

When I came closer I saw that it wasn't a painting, precisely. More of a bas-relief, with a rim that must have been gold leaf, and inside it a rim of beautiful blue shading to green and gray and white, sea-colors, and in the center a field of stars—I picked out the gold dots of constellations, Orion and the Dipper, and the moon in silver phases—and between them more people than I could begin to count, doing more things than a glance could take in. They had a classical look, neoclassical more probably, not quite elaborate enough to be baroque, not quite off-center enough to be medieval.

I found my finger creeping up to touch, to see if it was really real. I shoved my hand in the pocket of my jacket.

A kettle shrieked in the kitchen. I almost bolted toward it. Hating to leave that wonderful thing, but glad to escape the temptation to touch it.

"Did you know," I said to Mrs. Tiffney as she filled the teapot, "that you have the shield of Achilles in your living room?"

She didn't look at me oddly. Just smiled. "Yes," she said. "I thought you'd recognize it."

I picked up the tray before she could do it, and carried it back through the rooms. The shield—yes, it was a shield, or meant to be one, clearly and, now that I noticed, rather markedly convex—glowed at me while Mrs. Tiffney poured tea and I ate cookies. I don't remember what the cookies tasted like. They were good, I suppose. I was counting circles. There was the city at peace, yes. And the city at war. The wedding and the battle. The trial, the ambush. The field and the vineyard. The cattle and the lions. The sheep and the shepherds. The dancing floor and the dancers.

"Someone," I said, "made himself a masterpiece."

Mrs. Tiffney nodded. She was still smiling, sipping tea, looking sometimes at me and sometimes at the marvel over her mantel.

"People argue," I said. "Over how it really was supposed to be. Your artist went for the simplest way out—the circles." "Sometimes simplest is best," Mrs. Tiffney said.

I nodded. The cattle were gold, I noticed, with a patina that made them look like real animals, and their horns looked like tin, or something else grayish-silvery. Base metal, probably, gilded or foiled over. Whoever this artist was, whenever he worked—I was almost ready to say seventeenth century, or very good twentieth with a very large budget—he knew his Homer. Loved him, to do every detail, wrinkles of snarls on the lion's muzzles, curls of hair on the bulls' foreheads, bright red flashes of blood where the lions had struck.

"This should be in a museum," I said.

Mrs. Tiffney didn't frown, but her smile was gone. "I suppose it should. But I'm selfish. I think it's happier here, where people live, and can touch it if they want to, and it can know the air and the light."

Pure heresy, of course. A wonder like this should have the best protection money could buy, controlled climate, controlled access, everything and anything to preserve it for the ages.

But it was beautiful up there in this living room, with late daylight on it and a bit of breeze blowing through. I got up without thinking and went over to it, and touched it. The figures were cool, raised so that I could have seen them without eyes, and they wove and flowed around one another, a long undulating line that came back to where it began.

I wasn't breathing. I drew a breath in slowly. "I've never," I said, "seen a thing like this. Or anything that came close to it." "There's only one like it in the world," Mrs. Tiffney said.

She bent forward to fill my cup again. I sat back down, took another cookie.

"And you say you don't believe in democracy," I said. "If keeping this out of a museum isn't democratic, then what is?"

"This is simple sense, and giving a masterpiece the setting it loves best." She sipped delicately from the little china cup. "It's been in my family for a very long time. When it first came to us, we promised its maker that we would care for it as he asked us to do, never to hide it away and never to sell it, or to give it except as a gift to one who could love it as he loved it. It was the eldest daughter's dowry, when such things were done. Now I'm the last," she said, "and it goes to no daughter after me."

I was still wrapped up in the wonder of the thing, or I would never have said what came into my head. "Janna says you have daughters. Two of them. And granddaughters."

"Stepdaughters," she said. She didn't seem offended. "I was my husband's second wife. We had a son, but he died early, and he had no children. My husband's children were never quite sure what to make of me. Now that I'm old, you see, I'm permitted to be eccentric. But when I was younger, with children who resented their father's marrying again so soon after their mother died, I was simply too odd for words. All my antiquities, and my books, and that dreadful garish thing that I would hang in the parlor—"

"It's not garish!"

She laughed. "It's hardly in the most contemporary of taste; especially when contemporary was Art Deco. And pockets full of coins of the Caesars, and gowns out of the Très Riches Heures, and once, as a favor to a friend, a mummy in the basement: oh, I was odd. Alarmingly so. The mummy went back home with as many of her treasures as we could find. I, unfortunately, lacked the grace to do the same."

"So you are Greek," I said.

She nodded.

"The artist—he was, too?"

"Yes," she said, "very. He wouldn't sign his work. He said that it would speak for itself."

"It does," I said, looking at it again, as if I could begin to help myself. "Oh, it does."


That was in the early spring. In late spring, just after lilac time, I came to ride Bali—those days, I was riding him almost every day, or driving them both with Mrs. Tiffney—and found the place deserted except for one of the stablehands. She was new and a bit shy, just waved and kept on with the stall she was cleaning.

The stallions were both in their stalls. Usually they were out at this time of day. I wondered if they'd come up lame, or got sick. Zan didn't whip his head out the way he usually did and snap his teeth in my face. Bali didn't nicker, though he came to the door when I opened it. His eyes were clear. So was his nose. He didn't limp as I brought him out. But he wasn't himself. He didn't throw his head around on the crossties, he didn't flag his tail, he didn't grab for the back of my shirt the way he'd taken to, to see me jump. He just stood there, letting me groom him.

I looked in Zan's stall. Zan looked back at me. Nothing wrong with him, either, that I could see or feel. Except that the spirit had gone out of him. He actually looked old. So did Bali, who was still young enough to be more a dapple than a gray.

"You look as if you lost a friend," I said.

Zan's ears went flat. Bali grabbed the right crosstie in his teeth and shook it, hard.

I had a little sense left. I remembered to get him back in his stall before I bolted.

Mrs. Tiffney was in the hospital. She'd had another fall, and maybe a heart attack. They weren't sure yet. I wouldn't have got that much out of anybody if Janna hadn't driven in as I came haring out of the barn. She looked as worn as the horses did, as if she hadn't slept in a week.

"Last night," she said when I'd dragged her up to the office and got coffee into her. "I was downstairs borrowing some milk, or she'd have gone on lying there till God knows when. The ambulance took forever to come. Then she wanted the paramedics to carry her up to her own bed. I thought she'd have another heart attack, fighting them when they took her out."

I gulped coffee. It was just barely warm. My throat hurt. "Is she going to be all right?"

Janna shrugged. "They don't know yet. The harpies came in this morning—her daughters, I mean. Aileen isn't so bad, but Celia . . ." She rubbed her eyes. They must have felt as if they were full of sand. "Celia has been trying for years to make her mother live somewhere, as she puts it, `appropriate.' A nursing home, she means. She's old enough for one herself, if you ask me."

"Maybe she thinks she's doing what's best," I said.

"I'm sure she is," said Janna. "What's best for Celia. She'd love to have this place. She'd sell it for a golf course, probably. Or condos. Horses are a big waste of money, she says. So's that great big house up there on the hill, with just two women living in it."

"And kids," I said, "in the summer, when you have camp."

"Not enough profit in that." Janna put down her half-empty cup. "She married a stockbroker, but Mrs. Tiffney always said Celia did the thinking for the pair of them, in and out of the office. If she'd been born forty years later, she'd have been the broker, and she probably wouldn't have married at all."

It still wouldn't have done Mrs. Tiffney any good, I thought, after I'd bullied Janna into bed and done what needed doing in the barn and driven slowly home. Mrs. Tiffney's horses didn't look any brighter when I looked in on them, just before I left, though, Bali let his nose rest in my palm for a minute. Thanking me, I imagined, for understanding. Just being a horse, actually, with a human he'd adopted into his personal herd.

Mrs. Tiffney wasn't allowed visitors, except for immediate family. In Janna's opinion, and I admit in mine, the hospital would have done better to bar the family and let in the friends. Aileen did answer Janna's calls, which was more than Celia would do; so we knew that Mrs. Tiffney hadn't broken her hip again but she had had a heart attack, and she was supposed to stay very, very quiet. She'd been asking after her horses. Janna was able to pass on some of the news, though Aileen wasn't horse people; she didn't understand half of what Janna told her, and she probably mixed up the rest.

I actually saw her with her sister, a few days after Mrs. Tiffney went to the hospital. They'd come to the house, they said, to get a few things their mother needed. I think Celia was checking out the property. They were a bit of a surprise. The slim blade of a woman in the Chanel suit turned out to be Aileen. Celia was the plump matronly lady in sensible brogues. She knew about horses and asked sharp questions about the barn's expenses. Aileen looked a little green at the dirt and the smell. She didn't touch anything, and she walked very carefully, watching where she put her feet.

I was walking Bali down after a ride. He was still a bit off, but he'd been willing enough to work. If he'd been human, I'd have said he was drowning his sorrows. I brought him out of the ring for some of the good grass along the fence, and there was Aileen, stubbing out a cigarette and looking a little alarmed at the huge animal coming toward her. Little Bali, not quite fifteen hands, kept on coming, though I did my best to encourage him with a patch of clover. He had his sights set on another one a precise foot from Aileen's right shoe. She backed away.

"I'm sorry," I said. "He's got a mind of his own."

"He always did," said Aileen. She eyed him. He flopped his ears at a fly and took another mouthful of clover. "You must be Laura—Ms. Michaels, that is. My mother has told me about you."

For some reason I wanted to cry. "Has she? She's talking, then?"

"She's very frail, but she's quite lucid. All she can talk about, most days, is her horses, and that dreadful platter of hers. You've seen it, she says. Isn't it gaudy?"

"I think it's quite beautiful," I said a bit stiffly—jerkily, too. Bali had thrown up his head on the other end of the leadrope, near knocking me off my feet, and attacked a fly on his flank. For an instant I thought he was going after Aileen. So did she: she beat a rapid retreat.

But she didn't run away completely. She seemed to come to a decision. "Mother has asked to see you. Celia said no, but I think you should go."

I stood flatfooted. Bali was cropping grass again, not a care in the world. "Why?" was all I could think to ask. "You ride her horses," said Aileen.

Mrs. Tiffney looked even frailer than Aileen had warned me she would, white face and white hair against the white sheet, and tubes and wires and machines all doing their inscrutable business while she simply tried to stay alive. I'd been not-thinking, up till then. I'd been expecting that this would go away, she'd come back, everything would be the way it was before.

Looking at her, I knew she wasn't coming back. She might go to a nursing home first, for a little while, but not for long. The life was ebbing out of her even while I stood there.

She'd been asleep, I thought, till her eyes opened. They were still the same, bigger than ever in her shrunken face. Her smile made me almost forget all the rest of it. She reached out her arms to me. I hugged her, being very careful with her tubes and wires, and her brittle bones in the midst of them.

Aileen had come in with me. When I glanced back to where she'd been, she was gone.

"Aileen was always tactful," Mrs. Tiffney said. "Brave, even, if she saw a way to get by Celia."

Her voice was an old-lady voice as it never had been before, thin and reedy. But no quaver in it.

"And how are my horses?" she asked me.

I had fifteen minutes, the nurse at the desk had told me. I spent them telling her what she most wanted to know. I babbled, maybe, to get it all in. She didn't seem to mind.

"And my ponies?" she asked. "My Xanthos and Balios?"

I'd been saving them for last. I started a little at their names. No one had told me that was what they were. Then I smiled. Of course the woman who had Achilles' shield—as genius had imagined it, long after Achilles was dead—would name her horses after Achilles' horses. She'd had a pair like them, Janna had told me, for as long as anyone had known her. Maybe it was part of the family tradition, like the shield on the wall.

"They're well," I answered her, once I remembered to stop maundering and talk. "They miss you. I had Bali out this morning; Janna and I did a pas-de-deux. We walked them past the surrey after, and they both stopped. I swear, they were asking where you were."

"You haven't told them?"

She sounded so severe, and so stem, that I stared at her.

She closed her eyes. The lids looked as thin as parchment. "No. Of course you wouldn't know. And they'd have heard people talking."

"We've been pretty quiet," I said. And when she opened her eyes and fixed them on me: "We did talk about it while we put the horses out. We'll tell them properly if you like."

"It would be a courtesy," she said, still severely. Then, with a glint: "However silly you may feel."

I didn't know about feeling silly. I talked to my cats at home. I talked to the horses when I rode them or brushed them. "I'll tell them," I said.

She shut her eyes again. I stood up. I was past my fifteen minutes. The nurse would be coming in to chase me out, unless I got myself out first. But when I started to draw back, she reached and caught my hand. I hadn't known there was so much strength in her.

"Look after my horses," she said. "Whatever happens, look after them. Promise me."

I'm not proud to admit that the first thing I thought of was how much it would cost to keep two horses. And the second was that Celia might have something to say about that. The third was something like a proper thought. "I'll do my best," I said..

"You'll do it," she said. "Promise!"

Her machines were starting to jerk and flicker. "I promise," I said, to calm her down mostly. But meaning it.

"And the shield," she said. "That, too. They go together, the horses and the shield. When I die—"

"You're not going to die."

She ignored me. "When I die, they choose to whom they go. It will be you, I think. The horses have chosen you already."


"Look to Xanthos. Balios is the sweet one, the one who loves more easily, who gives himself first and without reservation. Xanthos is as wise as he is wicked. He was silenced long ago, and never spoke again, but his wits are as sharp as they ever were."

I opened my mouth. Closed it. She'd gone out of her head. She was dreaming old dreams, taking the name for the thing, and making her very real if by no means ordinary horses into horses out of a story. I'd done it myself when I was younger: little rafter-hipped cranky-tempered Katisha was the Prophet's own chosen mare, because she was a bay with one white foot and a star. But that hadn't made her the first of the Khamsa, any more than Mrs. Tiffney's wishing made her horses Achilles' horses. Or her shield—her neoclassical masterpieceAchilles's shield.

They were treasures enough by themselves. I almost said so. But she was holding so tight, and looking so urgent, that I just nodded.

She nodded back. "The first moonlit night after I die, make sure you're at the barn. Watch the horses. Do whatever they ask you to do."

What could I do, except nod?

She let me go so suddenly that I gasped. But she was still breathing. "Remember," she said, no more than a whisper.

Then the nurse came charging in, took a look at the monitors, and ordered me out. The last I saw of Mrs. Tiffney was the nurse's white back and Mrs. Tiffney's white face, and her eyes on me, willing me to remember.


She died two days later, early in the morning of a gray and rainy day. She went in her sleep, Janna told me, and she went without pain. When I saw her laid out in the casket—and how Celia could think the shield was gaudy and reckon peach satin and mahogany with brass fittings tasteful, I would never understand—she was smiling. The funeral parlor was so full of flowers I could barely breathe, and so full of people I couldn't move, though it tended to flow toward the casket and then away into clumps on the edges. I recognized people from the barn, wide-eyed, white-faced kids with their parents, older ones alone or with friends, looking intensely uncomfortable but very determined, and the boarders in a cluster near the door. They all looked odd and half-complete in suits and dresses, without horses beside them or peering over their shoulders.

I said a proper few words to Celia, who didn't seem to recognize me, and to Aileen, who did. Celia didn't look as triumphant as I suspected she felt. He mother had been such a trial to her for so long, and now the trial was over. She'd get the property and the estate—she'd have to share with Aileen, of course, and there'd be bequests, but she'd hardly care for that. She'd administer it all, if she had anything to say about it.

"She lived a full life," a woman said behind me in the syrupy voice some people reserve for funerals. "She died happy. Doesn't she look wonderful, Celia?"

There was a knot in my throat, so thick and so solid that I couldn't swallow. I said something to somebody—it might have been Janna, who didn't look wonderful, either—and got out of there.

The horses were real. They didn't make empty noises, or drown me in flowers. Bali stood still while I cried in his mane, and when I wrapped my arms around his neck, he wrapped his neck around me.

Finally I pulled back. He had an infection, or something in the new hay had got to him: his eyes were streaming. So, when I turned around, were Zan's. I sniffed hard and got a cloth for them and a tissue for me, and wiped us all dry. "All right," I said. "So you're crying, too. Horses don't cry. You've got an allergy. What is it, mold in the hay?"

Bali bit me. Not hard enough to do damage, but hard enough to hurt. I was so shocked that I didn't even whack his nose; just stood there. And he shouldered past me. He didn't have a halter on. I'd come in to the stall to get him, forgotten the halter on its hook, and starting bawling. I grabbed for him. He kept on going.

Zan arched his neck, oh so delicately, and bared his long yellow teeth, and slid the bar on his door. I lunged. He was out, not moving fast at all, just fast enough to stay out of my reach.

I snatched halters on the way by. Zan pirouetted in the aisle and plucked them both out of my hands, and gave me a look that said as clear as if he'd spoken, "Not those, stupid." Then he spun again and waited.

I heard Mrs. Tiffney's voice. I was imagining it, of course. Watch the horses. Do whatever they ask you to do.

They certainly weren't acting like normal stallions on the loose. Bali was waiting, up past Zan, with his most melting expression. Zan—there was no other word for it—glared. His opinion of my intelligence, never very high to begin with, was dropping fast.

And it was dark, but there was a moon, a white half-moon in a field of stars like the ones in the center of the shield. Which was resting against the barn wall, just outside the door to the yard. And where the surrey used to stand was something else. I told myself it was the moon that made the old-fashioned black carriage look like something ages older and much smaller, and not black at all. Not in the least. That was gold, glimmering in the light from the aisle. And gold on the harness that lay on the ground beside it.

"But," I said, "I don't know how to yoke up a chariot."

Zan snorted at me. Bali was kinder. He went up to the pole that rested on the ground and positioned himself just so, and cocked an ear. After a minute Zan did the same, but his ears were flat in disgust. If he was choosing me, whatever that meant, he wasn't going to make it easy.

The harness wasn't that hard to figure out, once I'd had a good look at it. Or as good as moonlight and aislelight would give me. The yoke, of course, instead of collars. The bridles were familiar enough, and the reins. I ran those the way they seemed to want to run. The horses were patient, even Zan.

When they were harnessed, I stood back. I don't know what I was thinking. Nothing, by then. Except maybe that this wasn't happening. Something in the combination of moonlight and barn light made the horses shine. Bali, of course, with his silver mane and tail and his pewter coat. But Zan, too, a light that seemed to grow the longer I stood there, not silver but gold, lambent in the dark.

"Immortal horses," I said. "Bright gifts the gods gave to Peleus, and he to his son, and his son—" I broke off. `But the gods are dead!"

Zan shook his head in the bridle, baring his teeth at me. Bali watched me quietly. His ear slanted back. Get in the chariot, he meant. And how I knew that, I didn't want to know. No more than how I knew to pick up the shield—heavy as all heaven, but lighter than I'd expected, even so—and hang it where it best seemed to fit, by the left side of the chariot. I picked up the reins. They weren't any different from driving the surrey, though I was standing up in a vehicle that seemed no heavier than an eggshell, and no better sprung than one either, for all its pretty gilding. I didn't pretend that I was telling the horses where to go. They started at a walk, maneuvering carefully out of the yard where I'd seen Lipizzans, so long ago it seemed now, though it wasn't even nine months. Hardly long enough to carry a baby to term.

They took the way I'd driven so often, down the road a bit and into the woods. The moon didn't quite reach through the new leaves, but the horses were shining, silver and red-gold, bright enough to light the woods around them. The track was clear and smooth. They stretched into a trot.

The wind was soft in my face. It was a warm night, the first after a week of damp and rain, and everything smelled green, with sweetness that was apple blossoms, growing stronger as we went on. By the time we came out into the orchard, my lungs were full of it.

The trees were all in bloom, and the moon made them shine as bright almost as Bali's coat. He was cantering now, he and his brother, and the chariot rocked and rattled. I wrapped the reins around the post that seemed made for just that, and concentrated on hanging on. If I'd had any sense at all I would have hauled the horses down to a walk, turned them around and made them go back home. But all the strangeness had caught up with me. My head was full of moon and night and apple blossoms, and old, old stories, and the shield-rim under my left hand and the chariot's side under my right, and the horses running ahead of me, the chestnut, the gray, Xanthos, Balios, who couldn't be, who couldn't begin to be, but who surely were.

And I'd inherited them. I'd had the letter this morning, in her firm clear hand, with a date on it that made me start: the day after I'd first seen the shield. The shield was mine, if the horses chose me; and they were mine, too, and the wherewithal to keep and house them. That was how she put it. Tonight, in the way the moon's light fell, I knew that Janna had an inheritance, too; that Celia would be very surprised when the will was read. Oh, she'd have a handsome sum, and she'd grow richer than she'd been to begin with, once she'd invested it. And Aileen had a sum as large, which she wouldn't manage a tenth as well, unless she handed it over to Celia. But the land was Janna's, and the barn, and the horses, and the house, and everything that went with them, except Xanthos and Balios and the shield that a god had made to protect a legend in battle.

The moon had made a seer of me. I'd wake up in the morning with a headache and a sour stomach, and maybe a little regret for the dream I'd lost in waking.

It didn't feel like a dream, for all its strangeness. The night air was real, and the branch that whipped my face as the horses turned, mounting the hill. From the top of it, over the orchard that surrounded it, you could see for miles, down to the river on one side and over the ridges on the other, rolling outward in circles, with towns in the hollows, and fields full of cows, and the Riccis' vineyard with its rows of vines on poles; and maybe, through a gap in the last ridge, a glimmer that was the ocean. Here was higher than the hill Mrs. Tiffney's house stood on: it lay just below, with the barns beyond it. In the daytime you could see the rings and the hunt course, and the riders going through their paces like a dance.

Tonight the orchard was like a field of snow, and the hills were dark with once in a while a glimmer of light, and where Mrs. Tiffney's house stood, a shadow with a light at the top of it. Janna, home where she belonged, alone in the quiet rooms.

I found I couldn't care that she might be checking the barn, and she'd find the lights on and Mrs. Tiffney's horses missing. Or maybe she wouldn't. Maybe it was all dark and quiet, the doors shut, the horses asleep, everything asleep but me, and the horses who had brought me here. I got down from the chariot and went to their heads, smoothing Bali's forelock, venturing—carefully—to stroke Zan's neck. He allowed it. I slid my hand to the poll, round the ear, down past the plate of the cheek. He didn't nip or pull away. I touched the velvet of his nose. He blew into my palm. His eyes were bright. Immortal eyes. "How do you stand it?" I asked him. "Bound to mortal flesh that withers and dies, and you never age a day? How many have you loved, and however long they lived, in the end, all too soon, they died?"

He didn't speak. He'd been able to, once. I saw it in his eyes. Dust and clamor and a terrible roil of war, the charioteer cut down, the loved one—loved more than the master, for the master owned them, but the charioteer belonged to them, Patroklos who was never strong enough to fight his prince's battle—and the bitterness after, the prince taking vengeance, and the stallion speaking, foretelling the master's death. He'd grieved for the prince, too, and the prince's son in his time, and his son's son, and how it had come to daughters instead of sons—that he wasn't telling me. It was enough that it had been.

Bali rested his nose on my shoulder. Zan nipped lightly, very lightly, at my palm. Claiming me. The wind blew over us. West wind.

I laughed, up there on the hilltop, with the wind in my hair. Little no-name no-pedigree horses: by west wind out of storm wind, or maybe she had been a Harpy, like Celia and her sister. I belonged to them now. And a gaudy great platter that owned me as much as they did.

I'd cry again in a little while. I'd lost a friend; I owed her grief. But she'd be glad that I could laugh, who'd known exactly what she was doing when she filled her yard with Lipizzans and lured me in, and snared me for her stallions.

I leaned on Xanthos' shoulder, and Balios leaned lightly on mine. They were shining still, and brighter than the moon, but they were warm to the touch, real and solid horses. We stood there, the three of us, mortal I and immortal they, and watched the moon go down.

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